“Will you marry me?”
 
Ellen jumped out of bed, pulling the sheet with her, and tore out of her room. “Izzy! What the hell did you do to my robot?”

Izzy blinked up at her from the breakfast table and her book. “I installed an etiquette drive. Why? Is it malfunctioning?”

“It asked me to marry it. Obvious malfunction!” Ellen plopped down on the other chair and snagged half of Izzy’s bagel. 

Frowning, Izzy put down her book and dragged some of her notes from the huge pile on the counter. “That’s not right.”

“Gee, really?” Ellen’s eyebrows hiked towards her hairline. “It’s supposed to pick up after us. What on earth does it even need an etiquette drive for?”

“I wanted it to be able to answer the door and stuff, so it needed to be able to handle social situations. An etiquette drive seemed easier than an adaptable AI.” Izzy shrugged, comfortable in her long and over-involved processes for avoiding simple social interaction.

Ellen rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “D’you have the paper?”

Izzy gestured vaguely towards the living area, piled as always with assorted notes and papers and books and some of their cleaner half-completed projects. “It brought it in before it went to wake you up.”

Ellen picked her way over the piles to the pile of papers topped by the most recent newspaper, snagged it, and sat in the carved dark armchair that was one of the only points of the room reliably left uncovered by papers. “More rioting on the mainland. Lamp oil prices have risen again. Makes that godawful internship at Public Lighting seem almost worth it, doesn’t it?”

Izzy snorted. “For you, maybe. You get to run around in a harness outside. I spend most of my time watching pressure gauges. You know I’d have preferred the desalination plant – the micro-scrubbers that keep mineral buildup down are far more computationally complex than the stupid gauges at Lighting.” She scribbled marginalia on a page of calculations, double checking them. It went unmentioned that they’d both applied for Public Lighting because it was one of the few university-sponsored internship locations where they could work together.

Ellen quietly read the paper and Izzy checked her calculations until the clock ticked over the hour, sending a coyote chasing a bird around the platform nine times. “Oh, bugger.” Ellen sighed. They put down their papers and started the ritual necessary for travel between the university sector and Old Town. Both donned hats and polarized goggles. Izzy added a trench coat with deep and diverse pockets and an absurdly high collar. Ellen added a scaled metal bolero that shone dully brass; her corset was reinforced leather, and much more resilient than Izzy’s brocade vest, so she didn’t need the fuller coverage. Then they both loaded on their generator packs, stunners, and gas masks. Ellen adjusted the straps for the heavy pack and complained, “We’re all of half an hour from a Navy base. You’d think they could get the rebels under control faster.”

Izzy just shrugged; she’d moved from Montreal, which degenerated to a paranoid enclave around le Vieux-Port after one of the many parasites their water board didn’t manage to filter out of the St Lawrence gave several citizens an unusual and cannibalistic form of pica. The bites turned out to carry the contagion, and bitten scalps quickly turned septic before their owners were overwhelmed by the strange craving. When Izzy came to Victoria (by passing herself as a boy for safety and getting passage as a rigger on an airship), she’d been quarantined a full month before it was determined that she did indeed not carry the parasite. The rebels who did nothing but beat you to death for your access card to the city were a slim danger compared to out East.

Outside, the clear pipes that ran along every street carrying the false phosphorescence created by Public Lighting glowed eerie through the morning fog. It lit the way perfectly adequately despite the fog until they reached the gate. The Mounties nodded politely, and the younger of the pair opened the gate for them. “Nada spotted close this morning, but be vigilant.”

Ellen smiled at him automatically before peering out the gate. “Yes, thanks.”

High above the path twin light pipes ran from Old Town – well, one to, one from, for flow. With the fog, they didn’t cast more than an eerie sort of glow; a miserable way to start a morning. They made it the kilometer to Old Town unmolested and showed their access cards at the spyholes on the Old Town gate. They were allowed in by the bored Mounties on this end of gate duty. A short walk to the main drag later and they hopped on a trolley up to the end of town with Public Lighting. Classes were only during the week, but Public Lighting was open seven days, as it had to be, and their internship ran the weekend. It cut into their partying time considerably. 

In the imposing block of steel and concrete – the 1950s aesthetic completely at odds with the 1830s aesthetic of most of Old Town but at enough of a remove so as to be inoffensive – they shucked their packs and outerwear, then went to check in with their respective supervisors. Instead they were stopped at the desk by their supervisors’ boss and two men in somber black uniforms. Ellen and Izzy glanced at each other. Ellen was perkily casual as she said, “Hey, Ms Williams. What’s up?”

“You and Tinder are reassigned for your internships, if you agree to it.”

“What would be the new position, ma’am?” Ellen made an act of will to keep her eyebrows from crawling to her hairline. Ellen worked on, studied, and specialized in great big hulking things, mostly for manual labor. Izzy did delicate computer systems. Considering mass robotic production had been halted after the unfortunate mad mechanical army incident a couple decades ago, there weren’t that many opportunities for them to work together. 

One of the somber-suited men stepped forward. “Classified, Miss Young. I can summarize that you would be aiding in the design of mobile heavy armor suits for the Navy.”

The two girls didn’t even have to look at each other. “We’ll do it,” they chorused. 

Ellen asked, “That won’t effect our credit hours, will it, Ms. Williams?”

The Navy man answered for her. “Your credit hours will remain intact, Miss Young.”

“Let’s do this, then. When do we start?”

“Now, if you’d be willing to come with us.”

Ellen couldn’t keep her face from falling. “Of course. Let us just go get our packs back on.”

The hitherto silent Navy man chuckled. “You’re traveling with Navy escort, Miss. You won’t need one.”

Izzy grinned. “Fantastic.”

There was a trolley at the Navy gate, an open-aired thing for the sailors accompanying them to aim twin railguns out – one on either side. In relative comfort they came to the walled base, where there was a much more rigorous identification-checking process. Then they were in, and everything was smooth concrete and discipline. They were escorted to one of five hangars all in a neat row. The hangar housed a machine shop, a messy sort of office space in a loft, and a professor who’d been on leave the last two months. The professor nodded at them, pleased. “Good to see you two. Now, just go sign their silly confidentiality papers and we can get started.”

The girls were puzzled but game. Their unspoken code was to act unsurprised and figure out what the hell was going on as you went. Plus, with the brief overview they’d gotten, this seemed like fun. They went through a fairly heavy-handed briefing about the importance of secrecy, during which they gathered that their professor had recommended them, and then were turned loose in the hangar again. The professor called from the office loft, “Tinder! Up here. I need you making an interface. Young! Crawl in the suit of armor down there and see if you can move it. When you can’t, add some guns.”

Ellen grinned at Izzy, then proceeded to investigate the ‘suit of armor,’ as the professor had called it. It bore significantly less resemblance to an old suit of armor than to a tank, person-shaped. Absent-mindedly she grabbed an oil can and lubed the joints as she investigated how it moved. No wonder this was top secret; it would be able to literally stomp out rebels. Well, assuming it didn’t run out of coal. She frowned. “We should switch this to compressed air, Professor! Less waste, more independent system. We can rig it so it recompresses at an end-cycle, maybe.”

The professor shouted down, “How long would it last before needing recompression?”

Contemplating the problem, Ellen kicked the coal-burner on the back. “Depends how solid we can get the welding. Probably eighteen hours?”

“Do it, then.”

Several weeks, ideas, shouted discussions, and hours welding later, they had the suit bigger, powered by compressed air, and easy to move in. It was the newest, best way to control the rebels, since it would be able to navigate into ambush situations with negligible probability of injury. It was career-making. In the heat of the project, Ellen and Izzy had missed both classes and sleep. The professor had excused them from class. 

Ellen wiped her hands on a rag already greasy enough that it did little more than spread it around, noticed, threw it in a pile, and grabbed a clean rag from a different pile. “So, who gets to field test this baby?”

“Well, it is Navy property,” the professor hedged. Both girls looked faintly mutinous. “But the higher-ups think it’s not quite safe, and sailors are more expensive to replace than you, considering that it’s Navy money paying for their training. So we get to.”

“Sweet,” said Izzy. “I call first!”

“Shotgun,” Ellen retorted. One of the guns mounted on the arm joined up such that it was possible to perch behind it if the arm wasn’t moving too quickly. 

They mounted up, making sure the suit closed securely around Izzy and that her short frame could reach all the controls, and then the professor opened the hangar doors, releasing them into the world.
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