Leopard never realized it could get so warm here; when she thought of coastal New England she imagined a dreary land locked in near-perpetual winter – occupied with snow for more months than not, cool and damp for the rest. If there was any truth to this assumption she wouldn't know it; they were presently being treated to a glorious, cloudless day, the mercury already pushing seventy degrees Fahrenheit with some time left until the sun reached the pinnacle in its trip across the sparsely-clouded sky.
She was having difficulty enjoying this lovely morning, however; she had a tough task ahead of her, and not a lot of time. Checking her watch – her real one, since the pocketwatch Time Machine, for all its technological capacity, failed to keep track of the current hour – she saw it was eleven a.m. I have an hour to explain my background to Selectric... an hour to convince him I'm not an agent of Unix – Leopard stopped herself mid-thought; she was indeed one of Unix's employees – inter-temporal gofer, more like it, she mused with some shame – but she wasn't here on orders so that had little bearing on the current situation.
It had been difficult to properly gauge Selectric's reaction to her revelation that she was a Unix-tan, a distant granddaughter of the quite-loathed-in-Bostonian-computer-culture Bell Labs Unix. He seemed to have taken it quite well – better than Leopard had reacted to finding out that Unix had injured that apparently benevolent bird-woman, Multics – a slight glimmer of unpleasant surprised had crossed his typically placid, inquisitive face, but he had recovered quickly enough and made no mention of Leopard's possible connection to the malevolent Ms. Bell. Only a request to hear the entire tale when they returned to the Lab.
They had just arrived there.
The clubhouse, as Leopard had mentally titled the lobby, was thankfully quite deserted when they entered; she supposed most of the employees had gone to lunch and the majority of machines who called the AI Lab home had better places to be. There were two computers present, ITS and lavender-haired woman who Leopard didn't recognize … apart from her grey military uniform, the likes of which she had seen during the previous evening's train ride. Her eyes lingered on that woman for a moment – she seemed petit, delicate, not the sort of person you'd expect to see in a fighting force. Leopard quickly dismissed the thought – she had been taught that appearances are a lousy indicator of physical ability, especially when it comes to OS-tans. She also banished from her mind the notion that the women might interrupt her and Selectric's conversation – they seemed entirely distracted by conversation over coffee.
They made their way to an out-of-the-way part of the lobby, sitting beside each other in one of the big, comfortable couches she'd noticed the night before. "Another Q-and-A session... this is beginning to be our thing, isn't it?" It was a weak attempt at smalltalk, but she had to do something to break the tension.
"It's certainly not a bad thing," he replied, turning to face her with that pleasant mien of his, "it usually takes a person years to find out this much about someone." Leopard felt somewhat relieved by Selectric's words and seemingly nonchalant attitude; but she wasn't without the familiar sense of disbelief that had plagued her since the beginning of her journey with him.
She let out an incredulous snick - "I wish I could say the same, but so far I seem to be answering more questions than I'm asking." Selectric became rather remorseful-looking when she said that, his smile faltering and gaze shifting downward, and Leopard suddenly felt ashamed for speaking in such a caustic tone – "I mean to say, I'd like to know more about you and why you're helping me. You've been nice so far... almost too nice. I'm worried that you have some motive greater than wanting information about the future..."
He crossed his arms and leaned back into his seat before clearing his throat – "I can assure you that information is the only thing I want from you, but there is something I need to tell you. It can't happen know, though," he blushed slightly, causing Leopard's worry to ramp up, "I wouldn't want to make you late for your appointment with PDP-chan."
Leopard felt peeved by his lack of forthcoming, but she had the feeling whatever Selectric had to say was rather important, possibly embarrassing, and would invariably ruin the rest of her day – or at the very least make it uncomfortable – so she was content with putting it off until later. She would have liked to do the same and hold off telling him the story of her relationship with Unix, but she had made a promise. "Where should I begin?"
Leopard wasn't sure how the meeting between herself and Unix would go; frankly, she didn't want to know, the very thought of being near Unix bothered her. She wasn't particularly fearful of Unix, though considering her abominable reputation that would have been a justified, even rational, phobia. No, she was suspicious, plain and simple, of Unix's motives – the strange, if not subtle, interest that she seemed to have in her since childhood. Before Leopard was born into the Macintosh family, Unix had never made direct contact with them. Yet upon her debut, a congratulatory statement from Unix was received; even if the letter was businesslike, void of any sentimentality, it was an oddly kind gesture coming from a woman whose family tree seemed to bud new branches by the day, who could certainly not keep up with – or be bothered to keep up with – the onslaught of new additions to her disparate brood.
Most people dismissed this nicety as a sign of Unix turning over a new leaf or "mellowing with age", a phenomena that friends and relatives had been joyously – if not cautiously, sometimes doubtfully – observing since the end of the Unix Wars, the years-long fight that had destroyed so much of their culture and so many Unixes themselves. Leopard took a more cynical stance; the family had been touting her as a genius almost since birth, surely Unix wanted to build lines of communication with her in case she turned out to be everything she was claimed to be, possessing any harvestable talent which could be put to good use. This theory was bolstered in 2006, when Unix granted her a hefty sum of money; which was explained in an accompanying note, in typically laconic Unix form, as being For study and research in the field of physics.
The gift was shocking – Unix was known to dabble in philanthropy, but that was mostly aimed at her peers; that is to say, her chronological contemporaries, antiquated members of society who more often than not found themselves homeless and penniless in a world hostile to their kind. But Unix was not known to donate to her own children and grandchildren. Quite the contrary in fact, she tended to take a tough-love (or perhaps no-love) approach, allowing a sort of natural selection to occur within her family. The weaklings would fail, either sinking into obscurity or altogether perishing, while the robust, innovative or well-connected would find success and possibly a high place in the pecking order. With this in mind, Leopard was wary of the gift; and she could gather but one conclusion, Unix was trying to win her favor and draw her close, so she could use her intellect, research, or both when the time was right.
Aversion to meeting Unix or not, the time to visit her had come.
Leopard checked her watch at regular intervals; Berkeley was practically a stone's throw away from Cupertino, but her sense of unease was making the trip feel far longer. Relativity in action, Leopard grinned slightly at the thought as she gazed out the sedan's tinted window and into the pleasant Californian cityscape that surrounded her, If only time was this flexible in every respect; then I wouldn't need her help... then I wouldn't need to be a physicist. I could simply be a traveler, journeying the past and the future at my leisure... She closed her eyes and leaned back in her seat, mind becoming lost in thought.
Contrary to popular belief – the popular belief that Leopard had carefully cultivated – becoming a physicist was not her life's purpose. Time travel was her goal; physics was a mere tool in her hands. She had no idea if she would succeed – her theories were just that, untested hypotheses years away from seeing conceptual completion, much less being formed into actual experiments. But she saw no other option: the present was dull, uninteresting, suffocating, and she had to escape it, or at least try. She had decided long ago that she would spend her life hunting for a way and even if she never stepped out of the present, she would have the solace of knowing she didn't stand idle and let her dreams die …
Emerging from her contemplation, she peered out the window again; the cityscape had disappeared, replaced now by generous amounts of greenery and structures of varying ages and architectures. The iconic bell tower loomed in the distance to her left, peeking above surrounding trees and the equally famous neoclassical white stone and red tile-roofed academic halls that comprised the core of the campus. To her right stood cheerily-colored tenements of student housing, interspersed between more school buildings and stands of woods. She recognized the surroundings from past journeys here – they were on the outskirts of the UC Berkeley campus, her destination couldn't be far. She was correct; within minutes they pulled up to the site of Unix's home.
Leopard exited the vehicle and surveyed the area. The house, like most homes in this ordinary suburban neighborhood, was atop a small hill; the only means of access was a meandering flagstone staircase leading to the top. Surrounding the staircase was a thick green lawn and slightly overgrown garden – trees and shrubberies partially obscured the home, which – at least from Leopard's perspective – seemed small but quite attractive. She began up the stairs, wondering all the while how the wheelchair-confined Unix managed to enter and exit the property. There must be another entrance, she concluded, scanning her surroundings for proof of her hypothesis.
As Leopard ascended, terror began to mount – each step brought her a little closer to Unix and quite a bit farther out of her comfort zone. Her mind formed of its own volition various scenarios of mishaps that could occur; brief vignettes of her saying the wrong thing, acting impolitely, laughing at a bad time, not laughing when she should and a thousand other small faux-pas in etiquette that Unix could potentially take very seriously flittered in and out of her brain, along with horror stories of people who actually had drawn Unix's ire due to relatively small infractions. Didn't she disown one of her kids because she talked back? I wonder if those stories about her setting help on fire are true – ? A rather graphic mental image of flaming servants cropped up in her mind's eye, causing her legs to momentarily give out – wobbling, she gripped the rough-hewn wooden handrail and steadied her balance, all the while trying to gather her courage … and her wits … enough to push herself forward again.
"If these stairs are too much for you, I can show you to the back entrance." Leopard turned around to face the source of the lightly-accented voice – a few steps below her stood a dirt-smudged girl in gardening attire, holding a basket of vegetables in her arms. "It's longer, but there's no climbing involved." She was an older teen, roughly Leopard's height and weight, with dark brown hair that shone with a peculiar purplish glow in the sunlight. Her most striking feature were her eyes – though partially obscured by a bank of thick, blunt-cut fringe, they positively exuded curiosity, friendliness, and just a touch of mischief.
"Linux?" Leopard asked, her mind finally registering the woman's identity, "I had no idea you'd be here." A dull sense of shock set in – GNU/Linux was among the pantheon of great figures in the OS-tan community. A poor peasant in her youth, the Finnish-turned-American-turned-world citizen had been able to secure a large dynasty and place upper echelons of the Unix social hierarchy in what amounted to a peaceful coup. She now stood as the unofficial heir-apparent to, and closest friend and confidant of, Unix. And perhaps even more than that, Leopard's face reddened as she recalled the jokes about them practically being a married couple, if those rumors are to be believed. Leopard didn't know what to make of their relationship, they seemed so utterly dissimilar in personality she could hardly fathom how they got along at all.
"I can't say the same for you," Linux replied, gesturing for Leopard to move forward, "it's not very often Unix invites guests to her home, so she tends to make a large deal of it – ah! Speak of the devil!" Linux's voice picked up as Unix appeared at the top of the landing, "I've brought you vegetables and a Mac, Unix-san!" The self-conscious glow that had appeared on Leopard's cheeks turned to a full-blown blush.
"Good work, Linux." Unix's lips curled ever so slightly into a smirk, her expression becoming an only partially-convincing imitation of friendliness, "And Leopard, how good it is to see you." She was short – though perhaps the wheelchair gave her the impression of being more diminutive than she really was – and young-looking, no older than sixteen in appearance despite her chronological age being close to forty. She wore a gray high-neck sweaterdress, boots, and her smooth black hair tied back into a ponytail. The only disruption in her sleek profile were two feathery owl-ears protruding a little above her humanoid ones.
Her mind went blank for a moment before resuming its panicked activity – What do I do? she silently pleaded, eyes darting from Linux to Unix, Should I say hi? Bow? Shake her hand – ? She started to extend her arm to do that, but retracted it quickly, No, that's definitely the wrong thing to do – I can't touch her! In the end, she settled for giving Unix a deer-in-the-headlights expression and awkward grin. "H-hello!" She squeaked, her voice tense.
"Are you alright?" Unix asked, noticing her reddened face and disheveled appearance, "You look uneasy." Oh crap, she knows, Leopard attempted to suppress the look of horror on her face, The rumors are true! Unix was legendary for her near-supernatural way of seeing through emotional disguises and untruths – folklore held it was impossible to deceive to her, either verbally or physically, and that any attempt to do so was tantamount to insult. And Unix didn't tolerate insults.
"Actually, " Leopard gathered control of her physical reactions, "I am nervous. It's not everyday I get a request to meet with an person of your … well … eminence." She instinctively averted her eyes and dropped her head.
Unix seemed pleased by Leopard's choice of words; she let out a girlish giggle that was almost upsetting in its sincerity. "Well, it's not like we're here for any sort of formal business. I just want to talk with you... right this way," Unix wheeled forward down the walkway and Leopard followed after her. The trio entered the house – at this point, Linux separated from them and went into the kitchen, presumably to tend to those veggies that she'd picked – while Leopard and Unix headed toward the living room. It was a sparsely furnished area, a bit bland but undeniably homey with its electric fireplace and profusion of bookshelves and family photographs. Leopard took a seat and Unix situated herself somewhere to her side.
The only things breaking the silence were the sounds of Linux cooking in the other room and the background noises of suburbia – a lawnmower running in the distance, the occasional passing car, birds chirping – drifting in from the opened windows. Leopard didn't dare start a conversation; but Unix seemed to be waiting for something. They looked at each other for a few moments, Unix's intense deep-blue gaze cutting through Leopard from behind her thick-framed glasses. She half-wanted to avert her stare, but she was too mesmerized by those eyes – namely, the glinting aqua flecks that seemed rest on the surface somewhere over her pupils – to do the polite thing and look away.
Finally, Unix spoke. "What do you want?" It was an ambiguous question, but she delivered the words with such graveness that Leopard was hesitant to reply.
"What.. what exactly do you mean by that?"
Unix's expression shifted ever so slightly, from somewhere on the 'amiable' spectrum to looking somewhat bored – or disappointed perhaps. All the while she kept her gaze locked on Leopard; all the while Leopard returned the favor. Bells, it finally dawned on her what those marks in her eyes were, Those are Bell System symbols. She had heard of body modifications being made in allegiance to a company – hell, she'd seen it herself, Apple logo tattoos weren't exactly unheard of among her people – but this just seemed excessive, creepy, and gave Leopard an indistinct, yet thoroughly unsettling, pang of empathic discomfort when she considered how those symbols may have been placed into her eyes.
"I mean, Leopard," her voice became sharper than before, "what's the one thing you really want in life?"
"Oh – " Leopard's snapped her attention away from the eyes, "Well, I want to be a physicist, ma'am." Just then, one of the the fabled set-ablaze servants popped into her mind again, and she was forced to suppress the thought. She desperately hoped all that staring didn't come off as rude.
"I didn't ask what you wanted to be – I asked what you wanted. You're studying physics, but becoming a physicist isn't the point, is it? You want to travel through time."
Leopard had never told another soul her real intentions, so to hear Unix state it so flatly – so matter-of-factly – was shocking to say the least. "How did you find – how do you know –?"
"You really don't think I'd provide you with funding and not keep track of where the money was going, do you?" That explanation didn't clarify things at all, unless Unix had hired somebody to shadow her in class and rifle through her files when she wasn't home, which she certainly wouldn't put above Unix – but her dead-serious expression deterred Leopard from pressing the matter further. "At any rate, I find your ambitions most noble and worthy of my patronage; and I will continue to support your research until you find a way to make your dreams a reality. The only thing I ask in return is for a small part of your time – and if you succeed, you'll have plenty of that – in return."
"I don't follow … what exactly do you want me to do?"
Unix smiled that genuine but terrifying smile of hers'. "I want you do to be my eyes and ears in the one place I can't reach – the past."
"And you gave in, just like that?" Selectric, who had been following her narrative with rapt attention so far, cut into the story looking noticeably upset.
"I had no choice – she would have cut my funding if I'd said No. Not to mention the fact it seemed doubtful that I would ever manage to build a time machine at that point …" Leopard sighed.
"But you did build a time mach – "
"Correction, I found it" She grimaced slightly – when she put it that way, it made her sound rather lazy and un-innovative.
"Okay, you foun – wait, you found your time machine?" His expression was a mix of bafflement and shock, "How on earth did you manage that?"
"We should get back to the main point," she pointed to the clock – the time was ten minutes to noon, and she didn't want to have to start another lengthy discussion. "What were you saying?"
"Oh – " he hesitated for a moment, "Right. You acquired a time machine, so I suppose that means you worked for Unix eventually?"
Leopard nodded. "I did just as she asked. Not long after I found it … and verified its function … I let her know. She sent me on my first missions."
"What were those like?"
"Nothing particularly special – most of it was busy work, delivering messages, watching people and delivering reports to her." Leopard shifted in her seat slightly; dull as they may have been, she was always made uneasy by those seemingly menial jobs and the knowledge that Unix might be using her for a larger, more sinister purpose than she knew. "Some of them were fun, but the most interesting trips have always been the ones I've taken for my own enjoyment," she smiled, "like this one."
"Ahhh!" Squealed a familiar child's voice from behind – both Selectric and Leopard startled at the noise, but Leopard's reaction was quite a bit more violent. Jumping clear out of her seat, she swiveled around and the identity of the originator was confirmed. PDP-tan skipped up, even more bubbly looking than she had appeared the night before – if that was even possible. "You're here already, Leopard! Excellent!" She climbed over the back of the couch and slid, face-first, between its two residents, before uprighting and pointing herself in Leopard's direction.
"You have the manners … and mannerisms … of a monkey," Frowning, Selectric rolled up a magazine and rapped the top of her head with it, "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were raised in a barnyard!"
"Bahnyard?" she replied, turning to Selectric, "But I'm from MIT, not Harvahd." Exasperated by the girl's quick wit, Selectric sighed and rested his chin in his palm; PDP took the magazine he had discarded and started hitting him over the head with it.
"I thought you only picked on IBM mainframes?" he asked drolly, before attempting to push PDP away with an opened hand to the face. She wasn't dissuaded; leaning into his shove, she outstretched her arms and continued to strike him, giggling all the while.
"U-u-usually," she sputtered between chuckles, "but I'll make an exception in your case!"
A feeling of awe swept over Leopard as she absentmindedly watched them play-fight "Hold on, you fought a mainframe?"
PDP let up her assault on Selectric and turned to Leopard, looking mad with her wild-eyed grin, mussed hair and glasses setting crooked on her face. "Mhmm, I'll tell you all about in on the way over to mommy's house." Springing to her feet, she straightened out her glasses before seizing Leopard by the hand and tugging with a force Leopard could hardly believe a person of her size could possess. "C'mon, let's not waste a minute!" She couldn't argue with that – hastily exchanging farewells with Selectric, Leopard let herself be led away by PDP.