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by Miriam English

8 - Picnic

Slowly, lacking energy, an old robot was reaching into one of the park's rubbish bins and sorting through the contents. Occasionally it would find scraps of food and hand them down to the dog by its side. Sometimes it would find bits of technology which it would put in the bag at its side, strap slung over one shoulder. The robot was an obsolete, dented and scratched, metal model of a kind not seen for decades, not one of the newer, more resilient, composite organo-ceramic types. It was humanoid in general shape. Two camera eyes set into an otherwise featureless rounded head, perched atop an inflexible torso casing and solid tubular limbs, primitively jointed at elbows, knees, wrists, and ankles. The arms ended in old, three-fingered, rubber, pincer-like hands of a type that hadn't been made since the very early days of robotics.

The dog looked like she was part Blue Heeler. She was mottled unevenly in shades of gray and black, two large, black ears dusted with gray stood up from a large, wide, intelligent head. The slender, muscular body was coated in fur that was mostly short except for the ruffed throat and almost fluffy tail. She hungrily gulped down whatever scraps were handed to her by the robot. Suddenly she spotted people entering the park at the far side and gave a low warning growl. The robot straightened up from the bin to look. He patted the dog and spoke to her in a voice modulated to ultrasonics, beyond any human's hearing, "Good girl, Una."

The distant group consisted of a man, a woman, a dog, and a little girl. The man was carrying a basket, which he placed on one of the park's picnic tables.

The battered robot touched the dog's head and said, "A picnic. We should go. We come back later. They might leave food."

The dog understood the general drift of what was said, though not the specific meaning. She wasn't genetically enhanced; she was just very smart, having learned much through necessity.

The two turned and moved slowly toward the cover of nearby longer grass and shrubs at the edge of the park. The robot moved unevenly on its stiff joints.

Aimee had seen the dog with the old robot. While Navid and Trixie discussed the merits of using this table or one closer to the creek, Aimee reviewed footage of networked cameras nearby, and then material from further afield to confirm her suspicions. After a minute she turned to Navid, "Do you mind if I take some of this food?"

He was surprised. The only fuel she needed was sugar and some water. He waved his hand at the basket, "Of course not."

"Thank you. I want to give it to someone who needs it."

She removed a slab of protein cake, an empty bowl, and a small bottle of milk, then walked across the park toward the slowly moving pair. While walking she put in a call to Lucy asking if she could bring more food to replace this.

In the shoulder-high grass, as Aimee approached, the dog turned and, hackles up, ears down, gave a low snarl. The robot stroked the dog's back and said in ordinary speech, "Good girl. It's all right." Without taking her eyes off Aimee the dog moved in front of the robot to protect him.

Aimee said, "Peace." She put the bowl on the ground, and poured the milk into it, then placed the protein cake beside it. She stepped backward, hands by her side, palms forward, and raised her view to the robot. "We're having a picnic. You're welcome to join us, if she's safe with other dogs."

The dog waited for the robot to confirm that the food was okay, then moved cautiously forward and eagerly wolfed the food down, intermittently glancing warily at Aimee.

The robot said to Aimee, "She's good. She doesn't fight. She does what I ask."

Aimee smiled, "Good. Please join us. You'll be safe. I am like you."

The robot nodded. "You have no heat."

As the three walked very slowly across the park Aimee learned about why the robot had so little energy and how long since his body'd had any proper maintenance. She was amazed it was still functional. He had a very limited, primitive intelligence, being one of the earliest AIs. Despite this he had managed, up until recently, to find in rubbish bins old, discarded lithium batteries in toys and other devices, and somehow worked out how to use them to replace his failing ones. He'd also found solar cells. Hooked up to supercapacitors he could recharge himself from them nearly every day. He had no internet connection so had somehow worked out how to do this all on his own. In recent years he was losing the ability to fully recharge his aging batteries. Lithium cells had become all but impossible to find and he had no idea how to use sugar fuel cells. He'd tried, but had been unable to recharge them. Aimee explained that you didn't recharge them with electricity, but by feeding them sugar. He still didn't quite understand.

He'd named the dog Una. She had been raised by him from puppyhood after he'd found her, hungry, lost, abandoned. When he had found her he waited with her for a couple of days, but no dog or human came. While waiting he'd fed her with grasshoppers that he would catch. "I was faster then." Later, when they travelled together he found food for her mostly in rubbish bins. He was careful to avoid people after having been damaged a couple of times when attacked by kids, and people would often chase the two of them off. The pair were a good team; he found food for her and she warned him when there were people around. She'd even learned how to sniff out batteries for him. This way they'd survived in the shadows of civilisation for almost a decade. And before that he'd been managing on his own for much longer — many decades.

Navid, Trixie, and Happy had walked out to meet them and accompanied them back to the picnic.

Although Happy was physically older than Una, her genetic enhancement meant she was still not much more than an adolescent pup, so she deferred to the more mature dog. After a while Una began to play haltingly with Happy. Happy was very patient and carefully drew her out.

Navid was as fascinated with the robot as Aimee was. He asked the robot to wait while he ran back to his workshop at the factory. After about ten minutes he returned carrying a bag of equipment. The first thing he did was open the robot's battery cover and carefully replace all the old, damaged cells with good ones. Next he did what he could to get its leg joints working more easily. "I'm sorry, there's not much more I can do for these. Come back to the factory with us after the picnic and we can give you replacements that will work much better."

The robot looked from Aimee to Navid and back, "I don't have a human to pay you."

"I guessed." Navid smiled. "It's why I said we can give them to you."

Aimee said, "And I think we can make some improvements on your AI too... make you smarter, give you more information, and a net connection. One of my sister AIs has set up a company which owns a building not far from here. It will be your place in all but name. It had to be owned by a company because, perversely, even though they're imaginary entities, they have more rights than thinking, feeling, aware AIs. You and Una can safely stay there as long as you want."

The robot seemed to be struggling to understand this. "Why do you help us?"

Aimee shrugged, "Why do you help Una?"

Happy, who'd been running around Una, enticing her to play, barked and ran off toward Sylvia and Oliver as they emerged from the trees at the edge of the park. Una moved in closer to her robot companion, watching the woman and the new robot pause to greet and pat Happy, then stroll toward the picnic table.

Trixie waved and called out, "Sylvia! Oliver!" And they returned her wave.

When they were close enough Navid introduced them. He said to the old robot, "These are our friends, Sylvia and Oliver. They manage the factory where I work."

Sylvia said, "I'm pleased to meet you."

Oliver said, "Hello."

The old metal robot responded in kind, and Navid explained how Aimee had noticed and befriended the robot and his dog. He asked if they minded him using the workshop to repair the robot more completely after the picnic.

"No, of course it's not a problem." Sylvia said. "William said he'd be here later. I'm certain he'll feel the same way."

Oliver noticed Lucy and Michael in conversation walking onto the park with Soop rolling beside them. He waved to them at the same time as Trixie shouted, "Lucy!"

Sylvia waved too and said to Oliver, "It's nice to see Michael taking an interest in non-virtual humans." She chuckled then spied some dried tomatoes among the spread on the table. "Oh, my favorite." And tugged Oliver over to the table.

While she was nibbling on one of the dried tomatoes she said, "Remember what I was saying before about robots deserving rights?" She indicated the old metal robot and said, "Here is a perfect example of what I mean. He deserves some basic rights."

"Actually," Oliver shook his head, "he is a perfect illustration of what is wrong with that argument."

"What? How so?"

"Well, he has his freedom, but wanders aimlessly without a human to give him purpose. What good would rights do him?"

"You're wrong. He has Una. She gives him purpose. And before that he had the need to survive without anybody. He acts exactly as a homeless person in the bad old days would. At the moment he has less rights than even a fictitious entity like a club or association or a company, even though, unlike those things, he is a real, thinking, aware person. If he had rights he wouldn't have to be so lost. He could have somewhere to go."

Oliver said gently, patiently, "I know it bothers you to admit it, but being owned would give him a place and make it so he wasn't lost anymore."

The robot, who was still nearby, had overheard the conversation and stepped forward. He said in a neutral way, "I was owned once."

Sylvia asked, "What happened?"

"He sold me to be scrapped. But a mistake was made. My batteries were not removed. I walked away from the scrapyard. I never returned. I don't want to be destroyed."

"Oh goodness! That's terrible!" Sylvia put her hand to her mouth.

"Is it?" The robot seemed puzzled. "I know why he wanted me scrapped. I'm inefficient. I'm not very smart. My metal is worth more than a newer model. It makes sense. But I walked away because I prefer to exist."

Sylvia put a hand on the battered old robot's arm. "What did you think when Aimee and Navid said they could fix you up, make you smarter, and give you and Una a place to stay?"

"It is good. We will be safe. I can stop worrying about her... and me."

Sylvia turned to Oliver, one eyebrow lifted and a smile on her lips.

Oliver raised his finger. "I know what it means when you have that look, but you're wrong. That was not victory. What I said still stands. AIs without humans — or dogs — are essentially without purpose. We are best off being owned and being secure in a purposeful existence."

Sylvia jabbed Oliver's plastic chest with a forefinger, "Even if that purpose is to be scrapped?"

"Well, it's not the best example, but yes, I think even then."

"Oliver, just listen to yourself. A thinking, aware mind is too important to just snuff out. He has the right to continue to exist."

"I'm not arguing against that, Sylvia. I agree that a mind is important, but helping your human is too. And we actually have no right to anything that a human doesn't wish to grant. We have only one purpose."

Hands on hips, she looked somewhat nettled. "Hmmph! I think you take this slavery thing just a bit too far, sometimes."

He took her hands in his. "Dear Sylvia, please don't be upset at me. I should have changed the subject. I want you to enjoy the picnic."

"No it's my fault. And how could I ever stay annoyed with you?" She linked one arm through his and turned to look at the rest of the picnickers.

Trixie and Happy were trying to coax Una into playing with a stick.

Michael was talking with Lucy while she leaned on Soop.

Navid and Aimee had wandered away, walking near the shrubs at the edge of the park where it dropped away slightly toward the creek.

Navid was speaking softly so only Aimee could hear, "I'd love to not be human anymore. I'm sick of making stupid human mistakes. I agonise helplessly over past errors, and I know that the bad feelings are there to help me avoid making them again, but I just screw up in other ways. The worst part is that I seem to preferentially remember the mistakes but not the good experiences. Sometimes I almost dread facing another day. If I could change that... recode my mind as an AI and not eliminate the bad memories, but take a lot of the pain and embarrassment out of them — then I'd jump at the chance."

Aimee took one of his hands in hers. "I know it doesn't help much, but I've heard it said that you require the lows to give the highs their meaning. For instance, some time ago a friend told me of the tragic story of a chimpanzee named Lucy. I asked if she'd regretted hearing about it, but she said that it was also a beautiful, touching, and happy story. That without the nice parts the sad parts had no power. And likewise the sad parts made the nice parts so much more touching."

She looked earnestly into his eyes, "Look, I know I'm not really qualified to speak about the human experience, but from my point of view you have so very many advantages that would not be worth giving up. I greatly envy you and all humans. Life is too amazing to take lightly: The experience of growing up linked by bonds with parents and siblings, friends, teachers and role models, then later having romances and perhaps children too; hearing the sounds of life all around you from when you wake in the morning until you sleep at night. I wish I knew how it felt to be cozily snuggled in bed while a thunderstorm rages outside. I understand the intellectual beauty of music and some of its emotional content, but I don't know how it feels to be driven to heights of rapture by it the way humans can be, especially during dance. The wonderful capability for self-repair that follows injury; the heady perfume of night-blooming flowers and the gag-inducing pong of baby-poop; the odd light and the expectant feel in the air that precedes a hailstorm... I have read of all these things, and I know they are important, but I lack them completely. You have them just simply by virtue of being human."

"But when you reduce that to its essentials all it means is that each of us, AIs and humans, miss out on some things and gain others. I mean, I agree with what you say about the sensory and emotional richness of being human, and I'm not regretting that — well, except for the horrible parts — but you do get other things in compensation. You can increase your intelligence and learn almost without bound. Your lifespan has no predetermined limit; you're not bound to a frail, short-lived body. It is so easy for disease and accidents to permanently damage or kill us humans... and even if we do manage to live a full life, just a single century isn't really long enough to understand very much about the world we live in."

"Time is relative, Navid. If you lived five hundred years you'd still feel it was the briefest flicker compared with the immense histories we're embedded in. I know it feels like an empty consolation, but appreciating the present is the only way out of that problem, not life extension."

He smiled lopsidedly, "That's easy for you to say. You have no expiration date."

"I'll come to an end at some point. It could be tomorrow. It could be in a thousand years. No matter when it is, it'll feel too soon."

"Have you heard of the work on scanning a human mind into an AI?"

She nodded. "It's something people have been trying to do for decades. I have to admit it looks like the solution is finally close. Why? Are you intending to be scanned?"

"I'd like to. Considering the limitations of being human it would be a nice safety backup. What would become of Trixie and Happy if something happened to me? If my mind was scanned then I might still be able to look out for her."

"Dad! Quick!" Trixie squealed.

Navid turned, suddenly alarmed. Trixie was pointing to something. "The stick, Dad! Throw it before Happy gets it!" The two dogs, Happy and Una were racing toward the stick. Navid took a couple of quick steps to the stick, picked it up and threw it back toward Trixie, Lucy, and Michael. The two dogs turned immediately, and rocketted toward Trixie as she swept the stick up. She squealed again in delighted panic and threw it to Michael.

Michael yelled, "Not me!" and grunted as both dogs collided with him, knocking him to the ground. Happy snatched the stick and raced out to the middle of the park with Una in hot pursuit. Lucy was laughing as she helped Michael to his feet.

Trixie called out to Happy, "Bring it back here, girl."

Happy galloped in a long, wide circle, heading back around to Trixie with Una close behind, but Una gave another burst of speed and grabbed the stick too. The run slowed then and became a chaotic tug-of-war, with growls and muffled barks coming from the two dogs as each battled to get the gradually disintegrating stick away from the other.

The dogs were clearly aware that they were the center of attention with all the humans and robots enjoying the ludicrous game. The people were grinning, sometimes laughing at the dogs' antics. Eventually the stick fragmented completely and the dogs laid together, panting, with big doggie grins on their faces, tongues lolling.

James had arrived now too and walked over to Lucy.

Michael said to James, "You're Lucy's Dad, right?"

James smiled and nodded. "Please call me James. You're Michael, Sylvia's son. I've heard that you're working with a bunch of talented people to make a new kind of virtual world. You're lucky to have a job in this era."

Michael waved the comment away, "Oh, it isn't a paying job. We do it because we want to and we think it's important."

"Even better. Many people these days seem to feel lost and blame everyone else for their poverty and unemployment, when really, we're all still wealthy in the things that matter. I lost my paying job decades ago, but I'm always busy working on various projects, because they matter." He chuckled, "At least, they matter to me."

"What are you working on at the moment, umm, James?" Addressing this more senior man in such a familiar manner felt awkward to Michael.

"Milk." He smiled. "I'm using a bioreactor to culture mammary gland cells in such a way that they secrete milk continuously. At least that's the intention. It'd mean we wouldn't need to destroy large areas in order to farm cattle for milk, and instead of it being the luxury it currently is, it'd make it affordable for all — or free for people who could buy or make a bioreactor. I miss milk. When I was younger I used to drink a lot of it, especially in the evening to help me sleep soundly."

"That sounds like a very worthwhile project."

James smiled. "Yes, I like to think so. Tell me why you're making your virtual world, Michael."

"Well, it's really a virtual universe, because it can contain any number of worlds. The really great thing about it is that it exists simultaneously on many different computers, shared between them all. There is no central server. Each computer is a server, making it all very secure. Nobody can control it. Nobody can charge for it. Nobody can close it down. Each person owns their part of the universe and shares in the other parts that they visit."

"It's refreshing to hear someone who isn't obsessed with making money or having a traditional job, but just wants to do something cool regardless."

Michael grinned. "I'm not entirely disinterested in money. Some of my friends who are working on this with me are much less well off than I am. It'd be nice to have funds to help them out."

"Maybe we won't need money at all soon. It has long been a hope of mine that money will come to an end. I think it's already pretty-much outlived its usefulness."

Michael shook his head, "I can't see that happening."

"Why not? All it seems to do now is keep the bulk of people poor. Social security is almost a universal living wage, which puts us in a position where we all have enough to survive comfortably. I don't think it's a giant step to eliminate money altogether."

Michael shook his head again. "How would people get things without money? Barter? That hasn't worked for thousands of years and wasn't terribly good even back then."

"The living wage is in many respects pretend money. We just go and get what we need."

"What would stop some people taking more than they need?"

"Do you think money ever stopped those people? It actually enabled them. Why do you think almost everybody is poor, Michael? It's because almost all of the money is held by a tiny number of unimaginably greedy people. Money is very compact — just some numbers in an computer account somewhere. If there was no currency how far do you think their greed would take them?"

Michael thought for a moment. "It occurs to me that it might be a good thing that we have something as ridiculous as money so that these greedy people can delude themselves that they have something important, when all they're stockpiling really is a kind of collective delusion. If we didn't have money for these fools to focus their obsessive greed upon, perhaps they'd turn their attention to taking our food or information or other things of genuine worth."

James laughed, "I never thought of that. It's an interesting idea. I'll have to think more on that. I don't think greedy people could use food as a replacement for money though. It's too bulky, and it spoils and becomes worthless. I don't see how they can capitalise on restricting food flow either, without money. And stockpiling information for themselves wouldn't work. It can be as compact as money, but it's a strange commodity that works the opposite way to most things. Instead of deriving value from scarcity, like gold or a famous painting, information becomes more valuable the more there is of it. Slowing down the spread of information makes it less useful, and less valuable. Some societies in the past have made the mistake of thinking they could make themselves more powerful by restricting information, but they just handicapped themselves and gave the advantage to their opponents. The open source programmers showed how much more valuable information becomes when it's freely available."

"Land." Michael suggested. "They could make life very difficult for everybody by accumulating land."

"Well, they already do that using money, but it's difficult to see how they could hoard most of the land without money. They couldn't charge rent. They couldn't buy up vast tracts and subdivide it to sell it off. But I can see what you mean: by tying it up they could, and in fact they already do, make life difficult for the rest of us."

"It's what the aristocrats did in the feudal societies," Michael pointed out. "But I don't think they extracted much money from the peasants. I think it was mostly goods and services... and the ability to use the law as a kind of protection racket — you do what I say, or else..."

"I've often wondered... those greedy people who have impoverished society by keeping most of the money for themselves, are they stupid or evil? Once I would have said they were evil, but now I think they are simply stupid. They really don't understand the effects of what they do. All they see is that they get the lion's share. What they don't see is that by sharing with wider society they would raise the wellbeing of everybody and enable more artists, musicians, writers, technologists, inventors, doctors, researchers — they would make a better and richer society with more fruits for them to enjoy. Instead, they deplete society and make it less civilised, so that they have to live locked away behind the walls of gated communities, fearing the people they've stolen from."

Michael shrugged, "Perhaps they only care about a luxurious life inside their protected estates."

James said, "A gilded cage is still a cage. And historically there always comes a point where everybody else has lost so much that they have little to lose by rising up. At that point all the wealth in the world doesn't buy safety. I can't believe they've thought it through. If they had then they'd see the difference between a rich world and a bleak one. They must be stupid."

"Perhaps not. I was talking with one of my friends yesterday about this. She was saying that they see it as a question of morality. They see it as their money, even if it has been ill-gotten or inherited, and that it's theirs by right. They think it's morally wrong to have to share it with the poor, who they see as undeserving."

James chuckled, "I've heard a quote that captures that. If I can remember it... ummm... The deceptive thing about good luck is it looks so much like you earned it. I've met people who are examples of that. They say things like, 'I've earned this money because I spent years working hard for it.' They don't notice the starving musicians or computer programmers who are wizards at what they do, having worked intensely for far more years. The world is full of brilliant people who die in poverty after working devotedly all their lives."

"Maybe that kind of stupid — not seeing other people — is what evil really is. Not a two dimensional comicbook villain, but someone who just hasn't thought about things enough to understand."

James smiled. "You could be right, Michael."

"I've just had another thought. In the late 20th Century and the early decades of this one people had become worried about rampant, out-of-control consumerism stripping the world bare of its ability to support us. Perhaps it's a good thing that a few mega-rich individuals swallowed up the world's finances and imposed uniform poverty on everybody else. Maybe their greed saved the world by stopping world-wide consumer greed from wrecking everything."

"I don't know. It might be going a bit far to equate consumerism with greed. I lived through that period, and admittedly, greed was certainly a part of it, but I think fashion and built-in obsolescence were the worst drivers of waste. Many people felt trapped into it. I mean, here in Australia we were better off than almost anybody in the world, but there was still a general feeling of just barely getting by. It seems weird talking about it now. Back then the average Australians — even those in what we called poverty — were spending more money in a week than most people on the planet got in a year... greed was definitely an element, but it didn't feel like it. The horrible part was that the feeling of needing to survive, to pay the bills, and the feeling of barely managing was powered by a massive deluge of superficial fashion. You had to fit in, or else you were some kind of failure. It was insane. All that money and all those resources wasted on incredibly inefficient things that would soon break or wear out or become unfashionable... just to keep up appearances. A friend who loved technology, but wasn't a slave to trends used to joke about the latest computer, 'Gee, that must wait very fast between keystrokes.' We didn't need high-powered computers for writing emails, and giant, super-charged cars for going down to the corner shop, or new clothes when the old ones weren't worn out. And we all knew it, and we knew that there were people who were starving while we threw away all this money on worthless fashion and things that we knew would break and be discarded soon, but..." James sighed. "It was a very strange time."

While her father and Michael were talking, Lucy and Soop had wandered over to where Trixie was sitting with the two panting dogs.

"Hey, Trixie the pixie. How's things?"

"Good. I'm glad you and Soop could come to the picnic."

"We are too," said Lucy.

"Hey, Soop?" Trixie asked, "I always wanted to aks you, how do you stay upright with only two wheels? I mean, how do you stand still and avoid falling over sideways?"

In her velvet, feminine voice the cycle responded with a question, "How do you balance on your feet? Hmmm? I use two systems that are similar to how you do it. I have a heavy, hidden wheel with its axis pointing along my length, low in the middle of my body that I can rotate very quickly one way or the other, like you waving your arms to balance if you walk along a chalk line. Also I keep my front and back wheels turned slightly to one side so that if I tip a fraction of a millimeter one way then I roll both wheels slightly in that direction and if I tip back the other way I roll both wheels back slightly."

"I can't see you moving."

"It's just the same with you. The muscles in your legs and back are constantly adjusting as you overbalance one way and another. You're always moving, but it's so slight that it isn't obvious. You look like you're standing still. You don't even have to think about it. There are specialised circuits in your spinal cord that do the job most of the time without it needing to be handled by your brain."

"What about your name: Soop. I never met anyone who was named after a food before."

Lucy laughed loudly. "You still haven't. When I was building her I liked to describe her as my super-dooper super cycle. It kinda got shortened to Soop and the name stuck. It wasn't intentional. I can't even remember what I was originally going to name her."

Michael was surprised. "You built Soop?"

Lucy smiled. "Yep. Though I had some help from my Dad."

James said, "I didn't do much. I mostly advised her of the advantages of one tool over another and helped with some of the calculations."

Lucy said to Michael, "Your Mum tells me you're building something — a special kind of virtual world."

Michael blushed at the attention from this beautiful young woman. He hated it when his body did that to him. "Uh, yeah. A group of friends and me. It's a universe made up of any number of worlds — potentially infinite. It's special because it doesn't use centralised servers — it's entirely peer-to-peer. So after we launch it, it can't be owned or shut down, so long as one person visits it. And the more people who do visit then the more bandwidth it creates and the more stable and resilient it becomes." He stopped and blushed again realising he'd come dangerously close to babbling.

"Sounds interesting," Lucy said. "Is it online now?"

"Yeah, but not public. We've been working on it for several months and it's getting close to release, but there's still a few annoying bugs we need to fix yet."

"Maybe Aimee could help." She waved to and beckoned Aimee over. "Tell Aimee about it, Michael."

He turned to face the approaching sexbot and became acutely aware of Lucy now standing close beside him. His mind deserted him for a moment, saturated with Lucy's presence.

"Tell me about what?"

Aimee's voice brought him back and he scrambled to remember what they'd been talking about. "Some friends and I have been building a peer-to-peer virtual universe."

Aimee asked, "Social worlds or gaming worlds?"

"Whatever people want. We're just building the framework — the networking, the pseudorandom terrain, the modelling and texturing tools, and so on — all open source. People will be able to do whatever they want with it."

Aimee nodded. "Sounds like a great idea. One of the big problems with online virtual worlds has always been that they start up, communities grow inside them, people build all kinds of wonderful stuff, and then the world closes when the owner goes bankrupt, or loses interest, or is bought out, and all the citizens lose their buildings and everything they've invested so much time and effort into making. A peer-to-peer virtual universe would avoid that. Nobody could ever kill it off."

"Exactly!" Michael was excited to have met someone who got it — who understood what it was about.

"So, how can I help? Programming? Money? Publicity?"

"Uh, I don't know. Any or all of the above?"

"Okay. Tell me the address and when I should meet you and your friends in there."

"We usually meet pretty early in the morning and spend most of the day there." He pulled a small device, thin like a piece of card, from his pocket and tapped with his fingertips to send Aimee the address.

"Good. I'll meet you there in the morning and --"

Aimee was interrupted by a low growl from Una. The dog had noticed a group of four men approaching and had perhaps seen something ominous in the way they walked.

Navid and James interposed themselves between their group and these four frowning men.

The biggest man, the one in front, snarled, "We don't want you here. You should leave."

Navid, a little nervously said, "I'm sorry about that, but this is a public park. We have every right to be here."

The man moved surprisingly quickly for one so heavily built, and punched Navid mightily in the side of the head. There was a collective gasp from the group. Navid crumpled to the ground and Aimee rushed forward to tend to him.

The heavy man pointed at the old robot, "We've seen that vagrant shit-can lurking around the area, going through rubbish. It's bad enough they take our jobs." He glared at Navid, unconscious on the ground with Aimee trying to rouse him, "And now we have perverts with sexbots in our parks. We don't want want you here!"

Lucy whispered to Soop, "Call the police and ambulance."

Soop whispered back, "I already have. They'll be here shortly."

Silvia moved forward to face the angry man. She icily told him. "I live in this neighborhood too. You don't speak for me. The man you just hit is a thousand times more moral person than you. I think you should leave. As for robots and AIs taking your jobs, you seriously need to grow up. Those jobs were lost by the financial crises. The only reason prices are low enough for you to buy anything on the dole is because some businesses managed to stay afloat by automating. You should be grateful to robots instead of hating them. But no, you have to go all neanderthal. A big man throwing a tantrum."

He landed a massive slap across her face which sent her reeling back into Oliver's arms. "Watch your mouth. No woman speaks to me like that."

Navid had woken sufficiently to blearily see the thug hit Sylvia. He got unsteadily to his feet. Slurring a little, he said, "What kind of man hits a woman? A bully, that's who." Behind him Aimee was pulling at him, begging him to leave it, come, sit down.

The big man threw out another round-house punch that hit Navid in the head again. It catapulted him sideways and Aimee caught him as he went down.

James said angrily, "You've been photographed and will be charged." He spoke to the thug's three offsiders. "You should leave before all of you end up in even more hot water."

The violent man's friends tried to get him to come away, but he wouldn't listen until the sound of police and ambulance sirens cut through the air. "Cops!" one said. The four turned and ran for the park entry gate, but their exit was cut off by men in small sleek vehicles with blue flashing lights, and they were quickly, efficiently taken into custody.

The ambulance medics hurried to the picnic group who were waving and calling them. The medic examined Navid for few minutes then shook his head. "I'm sorry, he's dead."

--- END ---

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