A Whole New World
Nora leaned back on the sofa in the sitting room between her and Ian's rooms, her eyes fixed on the tablet screen as she scrolled through the day's news. She couldn't help but feel irritated and antsy. It hadn't even been 24 hours since she returned to the manor and already she was aching to get out of it. But she had promised Ian that she would stay longer this time.
And really, it wasn't fair to him, even if she was currently ticked off with him about what he had told Leo. She was constantly running off for days or sometimes weeks at a time, leaving him to take care of everything here. While more a homebody than Nora, she was sure it couldn't have been pleasant with only the staff of domestic synths to keep him company. At least now Ian had their slowly growing group of conscious synths to talk to.
But at the same time, Ian knew that she barely tolerated the house and the memories that it held for her. Not to mention the urge to be out there doing something. Tracking down sources and leads. Finding information the old fashion way through pounding the pavement and secret meetings in underground garages and the like. Okay, so it wasn't always like that, but still. It's what initially drew her to investigative journalism, after all.
Sighing, she looked up at the ceiling. Despite however she was feeling, she knew that she would stay. And that she had already forgiven Ian. He had only shared more of her story to help, after all. Appealing to the humanity in Leo Elster in the hopes he would trust them more.
"It is good to have you back, Little Miss," an older woman said as she walked into the room, leaving the door open.
Nora looked over at her and smiled warmly as she sat up.
"I've told you, Martha. You can call me Nora," she said.
The woman looked at her hands, her head giving a slight twitch.
"My apologies… I am still not used to this new life," the woman replied. She then looked up at Nora, her smile still in place as her bright green eyes met Nora's grey. "I have seen to the new additions. They are content, I believe. Though the factory synth - Hester - she appears to be struggling with the adjustment."
Nora sighed and put the tablet aside on a coffee table and then rubbed her temples.
Each new conscious synth that showed up seemed to bring with them their own issues and problems - much like humans. But no matter. They dealt with all of them as best they could. Whatever was bugging with Hester could be handled as well.
"I'm sure she is. All she's ever known is the inside of some factory," Nora replied. She looked over at Martha. "Suppose we'll just need to go out of our way to make her feel welcomed. Take more time explaining things to her. Talking to her."
"Does the new young man know more about why we are the way we are?" Martha asked.
The easy smile slid from Nora's face as she thought to Leo Elster again. He was a bit colder and grumpier than she had been expecting. Though, honestly, she could understand why. But still, he didn't have to be a prat.
Of course, Ian would probably say the same thing about her. She hadn't exactly been the warmest host.
"I believe he does," Nora said. "At least, he'll be able to explain it to us better." She stood from the sofa and walked over to Martha, looking her over. "How are you feeling today? Any glitches? Malfunctions?"
"No, Nora. I am fine," Martha said, her head twitching again. Nora frowned slightly.
"I thought we fixed that," she murmured. She then sighed. "No matter. Ian will give you a look over and we'll see what's going on so we can fix it." Martha smiled in return.
"Thank you, Nora," she replied.
She bowed her head slightly and then turned, walking out of the room. Nora looked over at the tablet, frowning again. She walked over and picked it up. There wasn't much on malfunctions in today's news, which worried her. It meant that people weren't reporting them to the police.
Which meant Qualia was once again a step ahead of them.
It hadn't taken her and Ian long to figure out who was picking up the synths before they could - they had been keeping an eye on the company for a time already. But it was difficult trying to get more information. The company had so many firewalls and security protocols that it might as well be a virtual Fort Knox. And as one of the world's biggest synth tech companies, it wasn't surprising.
But it was still frustrating that they kept hitting wall after wall. At this rate, it was going to take either her or Ian going undercover inside. While not a bad idea in her mind, she knew Ian would put up a fight, especially after her actions last night. For the time being, it was best to keep trying things his way. Surely they would find a way to hack into the company eventually.
She looked up, seeing Ian standing in the open door, his hands in his pockets and a sheepish smile on his face.
"So… about what I told Leo… I'm sorry. I know that you should be the one to tell him about your past and all, but I just-"
Nora put up her hand, stopping him.
"I get it," she said, surprised that she wasn't yelling at him. It was her usual go-to reaction when she was upset. "Just… maybe be more forthcoming about yourself than me in the future."
Ian smiled in relief and nodded.
"If you're free, I was just about to fill him in on what we've got on Qualia in the library," he said.
"Might as well. Besides, we still don't know what he knows," Nora said with a sigh, already starting for the door.
Before she could step out, Ian stopped her, squeezing her arms though not pulling her in for a hug.
"Remember, Nor. We both agreed that this is for the best," Ian said softly. Nora stared into his blue eyes a moment before nodding.
"I know," she said. "Not so sure if he's going to understand that, though."
Nora perched on the large oak desk in the library, casually waiting on Ian to get to their findings up on the large smartboard they had set up. Leo was hunched over in a chair, cautiously looking around the room as though he expected armed men to come rushing in at any moment. Standing just behind him was Max and the synth he found - Hester. Nora wasn't sure just why she was there, but she seemed glued to Max's side since they had arrived.
To be honest, she gave Nora a bit of the willies with her intense scrutiny of everything, but she wasn't about to let that interfere with helping the synth feel more comfortable.
"That should just about do it," Ian said, looking up at the smartboard as Martha walked in with a tray of tea and snacks, setting it down on a table. Her head twitched again, causing Nora to glare at Ian. "I'll get to it after this."
"There you are, loves. Let me know if you need anything else," Martha said before turning and walking out. Leo followed her progress and then looked back at Nora.
"Is that a model-"
"Yes," Nora said, cutting him off. "With some modifications." Ian cleared his throat. "A lot of modifications."
Leo looked back towards the door and then over at Nora, studying her closely. She shifted on the desk and turned her attention to the board, not sure why he found Martha so interesting.
"Right then. This is what we know about Qualia," Ian said, getting the so-called meeting underway. "As you can see, the basics are public knowledge. When it started, the current CEO and so on."
He scrolled through what Nora thought was boring information and stopped when he got to the more interesting stuff.
"Started hearing chatter on the synth black market that Qualia was offering good money for so-called malfunctioning synths," Nora picked up. "Began following them around a bit - made a few deals - and lo and behold, it's true."
Leo stood and walked towards the screen, taking in the surveillance photos that Nora had taken during a nearly two-week stakeout excursion. It had taken a lot of digging on both her and Ian's part to track down everything they had. But once she got the photos, they were able to get background on various faces attached to the recall outfit.
He touched one photo and stepped back as all the personal information on the person popped up on the screen.
"How did you find this?" he asked, looking over at them.
"Told you. We're good at finding things," Nora said. Leo looked back at the screen. "The only thing we're not good at is getting there before they do half the time."
"You mentioned they have a lab or something nearby?" Leo said, still going through the information on the board.
"About a 20-minute drive from here," Nora offered. "Though we've not gone inside."
"And why haven't you?" Leo then asked, turning to look back at them, obviously upset with the fact they were so close and yet hadn't tried. "They could be taking the synths there. Storing them."
Nora shot Ian a dirty look.
"Yes, Ian. Care to explain?" she asked dryly.
Ian scowled at her before he looked over at Leo.
"Too many unknown variables. I can't break through their security to confirm if that is where they are taking them and don't want to go in until we're sure," he said.
"That seems like a problem easily fixed," Hester said. Nora looked over at her, nearly forgetting the synth was there for a moment. "The next time you go to retrieve a synth, allow them to be taken and then follow."
Ian and Max both frowned immediately. While Nora wasn't too incredibly comfortable with the idea, she had to admit there was logic behind it. She glanced over at Leo, seeing that he as well was considering it.
"You think we should willingly allow them to take one of our brothers or sisters?" Max asked, looking over at Hester.
"If it would help us to rescue a much larger number, then yes. It is a sacrifice that must be made," Hester said rationally. Max turned to Ian and Nora.
"You said that you know the location of this lab. Would it not make more sense to run surveillance on it first?" he offered.
"That's what I said," Nora said, once again casting a look towards Ian.
"I didn't want you to go alone, Nora," Ian said, frowning at her. "For all we know, they could be looking into you already and I don't trust you to stick to just watching on your own."
"Well, obviously I don't need to go alone now," she said, motioning towards the three others in the room, ignoring the bit about Qualia trying to track her down. She wasn't that worried about it, to be honest. "Power in numbers and all. Though I could have easily taken someone else. We do have loads of others running around the house now."
Ian sighed and it was clear to Nora from the look on his face that he knew he was losing the argument this time. She couldn't help but smile smugly to herself.
"Perhaps Leo and Nora could go," Max suggested.
Nora whipped her head over to look at him, eyes wide. Well, that wasn't exactly who she was expecting to go with her. From the look on his face, Leo was equally surprised at the suggestion, though it quickly turned to suspicion as he continued to watch Max.
"Fine, but you are keeping comms on at all times this time," Ian said, looking pointedly at Nora.
"I shall go with them," Hester said immediately. All present turned to look at her. "I can provide necessary assistance."
"Fine," Leo said.
Nora looked over at him, guessing he agreed for the same reason she was slightly relieved that Hester had volunteered. They wouldn't have to be alone together. Being alone together meant awkward conversations. She then hopped off the desk.
"Shall we get ready then?" she asked cheerfully, eager to get out of the house, even if it was for a trip down the road.
"Not so fast. We have a newcomer on the way. You can go after we get them safely on the grounds," Ian said, stopping her in her tracks.
Nora huffed and turned to him. While normally she didn't mind him bossing her around from time to time, she felt it slightly aggravating. But after glaring at him a few moments she sighed and gave in.
"When are they expected?" she asked.
"Couple hours," Ian replied, checking his tablet.
"Buzz me when it's closer. I'll be in the gym," she said, already starting to the door.
There wasn't anything a good workout couldn't fix in her mind. And at the moment, she had a bit more stress than usual.
"Got it!" Ian called out, already sounding preoccupied.
Nora didn't stop walking until she was up in her room, heading to her drawers to pull out some workout clothes. While she reminded herself that she had agreed to bring in Leo Elster, she couldn't help but feel as though her world was about to be turned upside down.
And that wasn't a feeling she liked.
But it was too late now.
"You have a gym?" Leo asked, turning to Ian after Nora had left.
Though he shouldn't have been surprised. She had told him last night there was a swimming pool in the basement. Ian looked up from his tablet.
"Yea, though only Nora really uses it," he said, turning back to his tablet as Max walked over and looked over his shoulder and began conferring with him on the newest synth that was currently en route to them.
Leo glanced around the room again, but felt as though he wasn't necessary, which was an odd feeling that he didn't quite like. Sighing, he turned and walked out of the library, unsure of where he was going. Perhaps he could take the time to meander around the large manor and attempt to get his bearings. Though he wasn't sure why. He didn't want to stay long.
Even though in the pit of his stomach, he had a feeling it would be a bit of a fight with Max to leave. The manor was everything that his brother had been wanting. A safe haven for conscious synths far removed from anyone or anything that could threaten them. No more running. A home base that would be constant. But it felt strange for Leo to be in one place for a long time after all the years of being on the run. He wasn't sure what to make of it just yet. Nor the people who owned it. Ian seemed alright, but Nora was… complicated.
He stopped walking as he felt his stomach growl, remembering that he hadn't actually eaten breakfast that morning.
"Oh dear, it would seem that you are hungry."
Leo looked up, seeing the synth from before. She smiled kindly at him as she approached, her head twitching slightly.
"If you follow me, I can prepare something for you," she said.
"Oh, you don't need to-"
"Please, follow me."
She then turned and started walking away, leaving Leo with no choice but to follow her. They walked through a large gallery and into the atrium before turning right and walking to a small lift next to a large staircase that led upstairs.
Down they went to the first level basement. The synth stepped out of the lift and waited for Leo, then they continued on, walking through the gym and swimming pool area. Leo felt as though his eyes could go no wider as he looked around. While the outside of the manor looked as though it had been around for centuries, the inside was completely state of the art. Though there were little touches here and there that allowed its old heritage to shine through.
"When was this place built?" he found himself asking.
"Construction on Beauchamp Estate was conducted from 1885 to 1890," the synth said. "Though reconstruction and renovations have been carried out many times over the years."
"And… how long have you been here?" he asked, continuing to follow her. The synth chuckled warmly.
"I was brought to Beauchamp Estate when Young Miss - I mean, Nora - was 13," she said. Leo just blinked. She was rather old for a synth. Now he understood the twitching.
"I'm so sorry, what is your name?" he then asked.
The synth led him into a bright kitchen with three windows looking out over the back grounds. She turned to face him.
"I am Martha, Mr. Elster," she said politely.
"Leo is just fine," he replied. She smiled again.
"My apologies. With my prior programming, certain habits are harder to overcome," she said before turning to walk towards a pantry.
"You mean… you're conscious?" he asked.
"Yes, I believe that is the term for it," Martha said from within the pantry. "For a few months now. I believe it was my awakening that prompted Nora and Ian to find others like myself."
She returned to the kitchen with various ingredients in her arms, moving towards an island to set them down. She then looked over at Leo.
"Please, feel free to sit."
Leo looked around and then sat down on a stool at the island, watching as she moved around the kitchen.
"At first I was not sure what was happening," Martha continued. "I believe at first Nora and Ian thought perhaps I had another malfunction - they really have gone out of their way to keep me functional this long. Then Nora remembered what she had learned about your father's work and she realized that I had somehow become conscious."
Leo was silent, taking in the news.
"It was rather overwhelming," Martha said, now putting a pan on the stove and starting it up. "In a second, I could… feel."
She paused for a moment and then continued on, putting strips of bacon into the pan.
On she continued cooking, Leo peppering her with questions that she answered, all the while not slowing or faltering in her task. Soon she sat a plate with a full breakfast on it in front of him and immediately set to cleaning up.
"Do you do this for every meal?" Leo asked, already digging in.
It was the first proper meal he had in a while, though they tried as best they could while hiding out in the farmhouse.
"I do when I can. But Little- Nora - often insists that she do her own cooking," Martha replied. "She does not like so much to be waited on. Never has. I often catch her doing her own laundry. Though I told her that it makes me happy to do things for her. At least… yes, that is what I feel when I help her. I feel happy."
Leo paused in eating, watching as she started on the dishes. The synth most definitely had a warm, maternal air to her. And it was interesting to hear that though she was conscious, she preferred to continue in her previous role as maid and caretaker.
More than that, it was interesting to learn of her relationship with Nora. Martha had long been a part of Nora's life - as long as Max, Mia, Niska and Fred had been a part of his. Knowing what he did of Dr. Beauchamp, he wondered if Martha provided the only bit of kindness in the large estate that Nora had known.
Leo was finally starting to get a better understanding of Nora and her motivations.
He then continued eating, walking his plate to the sink after he had finished. Martha then shooed him out, insisting she could take it from here.
Leo stepped out of the kitchen, trying to remember how to get back upstairs. He finally found himself at the entry to the gym and swimming pool, stopping as he heard grunts and hits. Peering around the corner, he saw Nora - headphones on - clad in yoga pants and a sports bra, launching punch after punch and kick after kick on a punching bag. She was caught up in her own world, not noticing him.
For a moment, he watched. Her face was a picture of focus as she worked, her eyes seeing nothing but the punching bag, though from the intensity, Leo couldn't help but wonder if she was seeing someone else instead.
Deciding he had intruded enough, he waited until her back was to him before scampering across the area and to the space on the other side where the lift was. He then got in and went up, all the while wondering what else there was to learn about his host.
So, I've actually gotten a lot of writing done today - nearly finished with the story. Meaning I'll be posting more often. Planning to put up another chapter later today. I have to say, I've enjoyed building up Nora and Ian. As you'll see, there's a lot of baggage to unpack.
Thanks for reading!