August 5th, U.C. 0043
Aina awoke shortly before 3:30 AM. Over the last month, her body had adjusted to her new schedule, and she had started to wake up naturally around this time. On this day, however, she was woken by Momo’s tail, which had fallen across her face, making it appear as though she had a thick black mustache.
Momo had not slept in Aina’s bed every night over the past month, but she had slept there more often than not. Momo made her bed wherever fancy struck her, just as if she were a cat, and the inhabitants of the mansion largely treated her as if she were. Some were not bothered by her presence, while others made it clear that their rooms were off limits to her. In the same vein, Momo showed no interest in sleeping in the same room as some people. She never once set foot in Karin’s room, not because Karin had forbade it, but because she didn’t like Karin. Chikako had a small futon set up in her room which had been one of Momo’s favorite sleeping spots before Aina had moved into the mansion. Aina’s bed was now Momo’s favorite sleeping spot, and as silly as it made her feel, Chikako could not help but feel slightly jealous.
Mimi, on the other hand, preferred to keep to herself and seldom ventured out of her room at night. She used to follow Momo around from room to room, but starting a year ago, Momo had made it clear that she found her sister’s constant presence suffocating and began to ditch Mimi whenever possible. This left Mimi feeling very lonely, but she was too timid to stand up to her sister, or to simply waltz into others’ rooms and sleep wherever she pleased, as Momo did.
Akira and Diaho slept in a room in a corner of the mansion that was sealed off by a strong magical barrier. Any attacker who meant to take Akira’s life would have to be strong enough to fend off the mansion’s staff while breaking through the barrier. Diaho served as Akira’s personal bodyguard, the last line of defense in such a scenario. Mimi had been observed on a few separate occasions pacing around the barrier late at night, but as of yet had not managed to find a way past it.
At precisely 3:30, the door to Aina’s room swung open, and the light from the hallway illuminated Aina’s bed. Were it not a gynoid who had opened the door, Aina would have expected the sight of her tail-mustache to elicit at least a giggle, but she had never observed a gynoid laughing.
“Ohayou gozaimasu,” the gynoid said.
“Doko is Sena-chan?” Aina inquired, gently removing Momo’s tail from her face. The gynoid paused and regarded Aina for a moment before opening Aina’s wardrobe and hanging the clothes she was carrying within it. The clothes had been concealing a small bag which hung from her left arm, and which she did not place within the wardrobe.
“You are very perceptive, Aina-sama. You could tell that I wasn’t Sena-kun from my voice alone?”
“Iie,” Aina admitted, “you sound just like her. Demo, I somehow know that you’re not Sena-chan.” By this point, the conversation had awoken Momo, who stretched her arms and legs outward before jumping out of bed and leaving the room without saying a word to either of them. Aina followed Momo out of bed and closed the door behind her, switching on the overhead light in the process.
“You are correct. Hajimemashite. I am R. Kazue. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” The gynoid held out her hand to Aina who shook it without hesitation.
“Yoroshiku onegaishimasu. Demo, you didn’t answer my question.”
“I was hoping you might forget.”
“Touzen,” Aina said dismissively. Over the last month, she had observed a lot of pessimism and bravado from her coworkers, and despite her best efforts, she had picked up some bad habits from them. Kazue’s shoulders drooped slightly. She did not sigh—gynoids do not sigh—but it was obvious the gesture was intended to imitate a sigh.
“Sena-kun is undergoing her scheduled routine maintenance. I will be filling in for her today, and she will return tomorrow.”
“Sena-chan didn’t mention anything like that,” Aina said suspiciously. “If this were scheduled in advance, she would have told me. Is she daijoubu?” Kazue did not answer right away, but stared at Aina for a few moments, as if trying to make sense of an optical illusion.
“Nani are you?” the gynoid finally asked. It was a question that Chikako and Naomi had both been asking themselves for the last month.
“Is Sena-chan daijoubu or not?” Aina demanded. Kazue repeated her sighing gesture.
“Shiranai,” she admitted. “Our maintenance computer alerted us a few hours ago that Sena-kun has neglected to perform her daily self-diagnostic every day for the last month. She is currently undergoing a full examination at a laboratory in the machi.”
“Naze would she do that?” Aina asked.
“Shiranai,” Kazue repeated. “When asked to perform her self-diagnostic, she refused. Such a refusal suggests that she is either suffering from a major malfunction or has been tampered with.”
“Do you have any other suspects?” Aina asked, peeking into her wardrobe to see what Kazue had placed in there. In addition to her usual work uniforms and undergarments, Aina found a fancier, fluffier meido uniform and a plain black kimono.
“Watashi am an obvious suspect. I’ve been with Sena-chan every day, and her unusual behavior started around the same time I got here.”
“We have no other suspects, but goshujin-sama has political adversaries who might try something like this.”
“That sounds like a stretch,” Aina observed. “I bet it’s just Sena-chan’s—” Aina cut herself off.
“Sena-kun’s what?” Kazue pressed.
“If you don’t know, it’s not my place to tell you.”
“Aina-sama, if you know anything that could be causing Sena-kun’s malfunction, I beg you to tell me. Her continued existence may depend on it.”
“It’s nothing like that. Sena-chan’s my tomodachi. I would never risk her life. Sore yori, you may call me Aina-chan. I don’t care for Aina-sama. Can I call you Kazue-chan?”
“Tomodachi? Life? Aina... chan?” Kazue stepped backwards and assumed a defensive position. “If you are attempting to lower my defenses, it will not work.”
“Kamawan. I could overpower you if I wanted,” Aina stated matter-of-factly. “I take it Kazue-chan is a no-go then? How about Kazue-onee-san?”
“I have taken other precautions to defend myself. Even if you overpower me, it will do you no good. And you may call me whatever you want, but I must call you Aina-sama.”
“Demo, what do you want to be called?” Aina asked.
Kazue thought about it briefly. “I suppose Kazue-chan is ii.”
“Ii! Now, I want to be called Aina-chan. Onegaishimasu? Ne?”
“Hai… Aina-chan,” Kazue was surprised to hear the words come from her mouth and took another step back. “Sore yori, we’ll be late for work if we do not hurry.” She handed Aina the bag she was carrying. It was full of snacks. “Sena-kun got these for you. Hide them somewhere for now. You’ll need them tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is Penance Day”, Kazue explained. “Most of the staff will be joining goshujin-sama in a yon-day fast, and you’ll gain favor with him if you participate. Demo, you’re still young, so you should probably sneak a few snacks for your health.”
“I have one more thing to take care of this morning. Go ahead and start without me.”
Before Aina could respond, Kazue exited the room as quickly as she could without running.
It wasn’t until Aina had finished cleaning half of the shoes before Kazue rejoined her. Aina was relieved to have the help, since, although she was working as fast as she could, she wasn’t going to finish on time.
“Gomen,” Kazue apologized, grabbing two pairs of shoes at once, “that took longer than I expected.”
“Will we make it on time?” Aina asked, not taking her eyes off her work.
“How did your self-diagnostic go?” Aina asked. Kazue hadn’t explained why she had left so abruptly, but it wasn’t difficult to guess.
“I ran ni self diagnostics, both of which reported I was operating normally. I then hooked myself up to the backup maintenance computer and had it run a full diagnostic on me. Another gynoid then analyzed the hardware and software of the backup maintenance computer, while yet another gynoid did the same for the primary maintenance computer. The two analyses were sent to the laboratory where Sena-kun is undergoing maintenance and reviewed by a technician. They were also reviewed by a fourth gynoid here, and this gynoid confirmed her findings with the technician over the denwa. We also took further precautions which I am not at liberty to discuss with you.”
“No wonder it took so long. Soshite?”
“Mondai nai. Demo, you are still under suspicion until Sena-kun’s examination is complete.”
Aina dismissed the accusation and the two worked frantically in silence for a while, trying to make up for lost time. When Kazue determined that they were back on schedule, she resumed the conversation.
“If no problems are found with Sena-kun, we will have no explanation for her behavior this morning.”
“She did not just refuse to run a self-diagnostic, she violently refused. It took five of us to subdue her. Do you have any idea why she would act that way?”
“Why ask me? You’ve known her a lot longer than I have.”
“Hai, but you know her better, I fear,” Kazue admitted. “I do not know if she’s told you this, but she’s the youngest gynoid in this mansion, having been built only yon years ago. When she came to this mansion, our ranks had not changed in over a decade. We were a tight-nit group, which made it difficult for Sena to fit in. We did our best to welcome her. Demo, Sena-kun has always rebuffed our efforts to include her.”
“Sena-kun was manufactured as part of the first run of mass-produced gynoids,” Kazue explained. “The rest of us are custom-built.”
“Sena-chan never mentioned that.”
“She has quite the inferiority complex. Of course, there’s nothing inferior about her because of her construction, but we’ve never been able to convince her of that.”
“How kanashimi,” Aina said.
“Sou. Just like homo sapiens, we are social beings. It is not healthy for us to isolate ourselves, so we were encouraged when it appeared that Sena-kun had befriended you, at least until her outburst this morning.”
“You really don’t know much about Sena-chan.”
“I won’t betray her trust in me.”
“You are a good tomodachi.”
“Demo, It does not surprise me that she would resist being forced to perform a self-diagnostic. I wouldn’t expect her to get violent, but I’ve only known her for a month.”
“I think I wakaru why now,” Kazue said. “When you asked me this morning how I wanted to be addressed, it was the first time in a very long time that anyone has given me freedom of choice. When I went to perform the self-diagnostics, I realized that, just like Sena-kun, I could decide to decline if I wished. We have free will, so long as it doesn’t contradict our orders. Demo, it’s easy to forget that, since our orders rarely give us the leeway to make our own decisions. Whether or not to run her self-diagnostic is probably the only decision Sena-kun gets to make for herself. I can see why she would fight to keep it, although like you, I am at a loss as to why she became violent.”
“Her only decision?”
“It goes with the job, I’m afraid. Even homo sapiens meido rarely get to make their own decisions. Some meido even say that the mei in meido is the mei in unmei.”
“I don’t like that,” Aina asserted.
“Neither do I.” The two had nearly finished their work by this point. “Aina-chan, as much as I understand why Sena-kun might want to exercise her free will, skipping her daily self-diagnostic is dangerous. Will you talk to her about it? She will probably listen to you.”
“Iie,” Aina immediately denied the request, “she won’t do it if she feels like others are pressuring her to. You could ask someone to order her to do it. Demo, I don’t think that would be good for her.”
“I see. Arigatou.”
Aina placed the last pair of shoes into their compartment and the two of them began to walk towards the courtyard.
“You didn’t hear that from me,” Aina said.
“Kazue-chan,” Aina began.
“The clothes you gave me, what are they for?”