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Companions

by Miriam English

Contents

1 - Lucy and her cycle
2 - Sylvia
3 - Michael
4 - Navid
5 - Trixie and Happy
6 - Star Fortunes
7 - Interview
8 - Picnic




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1 - Lucy and Soop      [link here]

Wednesday

It was a street in a light industrial estate on the outskirts of Caloundra at a little after 3pm on Wednesday afternoon. All was quiet except for the soft twitter of some small birds in a nearby tree, and somewhere more distant a dog barking and a child laughing. A decade or more ago the area would have been bustling with people leaving work, homebound for the day. Now it was almost deserted as if it was a holiday or one of those eerie scenes from an old catastrophe movie. There were no drifting papers, or abandoned cars in the middle of the road, or grass growing in street gutters, or broken windows in the buildings. The street was clean and tidy, and, apart from a single motorcycle, empty of vehicles. Fully encased in its gleaming, white carapace, the cycle stood alone on the footpath outside the office of a small, pale blue warehouse.

The door of the office opened and Lucy stepped out, smiling, holding a small package in one hand. She was a slender young adult, moving with easy movements. Her not-quite-shoulder-length hair was wavy and black. Her dark eyes sparkled in an exceptionally attractive face. She dressed in black — a loose-fitting black, casual, shirt rolled up to her elbows, black jeans cut off at the top of her thighs, and heavy, black ankle boots. She wore no jewellery.

Her large, white cycle waited for her, balancing improbably on its two enclosed wheels. As she approached it, the baggage case at its rear opened and she deposited the package into it. The baggage compartment closed again as the top of the cycle opened, hinging up from the front, exposing a dark interior with its glowing displays inside. At the same time the two leg covers on each side flipped out and forward.

"Hey Soop," Lucy greeted the cycle as she threw one leg over its embedded seat.

The cycle answered in a soft feminine voice, "Hey. Where to now?" as the rider put each leg in place and their covers snapped back firmly.

Lucy leaned forward, on her belly, put her head into the cavity lined with displays, and inserted her arms into tubes with finger grips at their ends. The top closed down and the interior inflated to hold her firmly so that she was unable to move, except to breathe and speak. This feeling of snugness made Lucy thrill and she laughed, "Last delivery of the day: 3D Powders."

The cycle extended its wheels, shifting its plates, lengthening and lowering its body, then shot silently forward onto the street, accelerating the electric motors in its wheels noiselessly without raising the front off the ground. In seconds it was at the far end of the street and leaned low taking the corner that would lead out onto the main highway. The cycle was networked with the few other moving vehicles within several kilometers, and watched the roads ahead with a combination of cameras, radar, and the old street cameras put in by previous paranoid governments.

Inside the cycle, watching the 360-degree displays, projected and refocussed for her eyes, Lucy whooped with joy. She was not an idle passenger. She still guided Soop with her hands and feet on controls, even though Soop could manage perfectly well without human guidance. Lucy and Soop were like a rider and her horse — more than just driver and vehicle. They had a bond, knowing what each intended and working together as more than each alone. Soop loved and depended upon Lucy, and for Lucy the feeling was mutual. This was not romantic love, but was something more symbiotic; the feeling certain lucky people have had for their horses and their working dogs far back into the shadows of human history.

They sped down the middle lane of the empty highway at a little under 300 kilometers per hour, taking only a few minutes to reach their turnoff, where they peeled off to the left and down onto the Sunshine Motorway. They flew down its long curves to the next turnoff onto Maroochydore Road and in a final high-speed burst arrived at Kunda Park, an old industrial estate consisting mostly of large warehouses, workshops and factories. The only other vehicle in sight was a distant bullet-shaped truck approaching from the opposite direction at high speed. The cycle zipped across the main road and down the side street, then swung left parallel to the main road. A few doors down was a modest, gray-painted single-storey factory with a nicely tended flower garden in front of its office (none of the other buildings in the street had gardens). On the wall between the office windows and the wide delivery entrance were meter-tall, yellow letters outlined in black: "3D Powders". Soop drove in the delivery driveway and came to a sudden stop on the smooth concrete inside, deliberately making the tires squeal and echo in the cavernous interior of the factory.

The airbags surrounding Lucy hissed as they deflated. Soop's canopy above her lifted, the two leg-covers flipped open, and Lucy dismounted feeling energised and wearing a wide grin. "Thanks Soop."

The cycle gave a very human-sounding laugh, "Fun, but too short. Let's take the long way next time."

"The coast road?" Lucy asked.

Soop laughed again, "Via Perth."

Lucy laughed too, shaking her head as she retrieved the package from the baggage compartment.

As Lucy strode toward the wide office area, Soop retracted her length, shortening her body so that the wheels were closer under her, then raised herself higher to make balancing easier, and followed her human silently, like an enormous dog.

The main factory area was separated from the offices by floor to ceiling panelling and a few doors set into it. Lucy walked through the nearest double doors and held them open for Soop.

As they entered Sylvia rose from her desk, greeting them with a wide smile, "Lucy. Soop."

Lucy could never work out if Sylvia intended to look like the fabled Marilyn Monroe, or if it was simply how she was. Sylvia's Swedish lineage had given her natural blonde hair and a perfect milky skin. She was so curvaceous she was almost overweight and wore tight clothes that accentuated her attributes. Unlike the famous M.M., she was a middle aged mother and no drink or drugs ever clouded her focussed and retentive mind.

Sylvia received the package from Lucy. "Navid will be out in a moment." She stretched out a hand and patted Soop. Behind her, on the other side of Sylvia's large office a door opened and she turned.

Navid entered, closing the door behind him. He smiled uneasily when they greeted him. He had dark hair and a middle-east complexion. It could have made him look handsome, but his nervous shyness, stooped posture, and extreme thinness gave too much of an impression of vulnerability. He rarely spoke much, preferring to get back to his work as quickly as possible. Sylvia considered him an electronics genius. He maintained all the equipment in this factory.

Sylvia handed the package to Navid who took it nodding and mumbling thanks and retreating to his workshop again.

Sylvia watched him leave and shook her head. "We have to work out some ploy to get Navid to meet a good woman."

"Or a bad one," Lucy chuckled.

Oliver had entered the office "You don't want to scare him off. Good afternoon Lucy, Soop." Oliver was a humanoid robot, with arms, legs, torso, and head, but the face was blank except for two round dark camera lenses for eyes. His exterior was made of smooth, hard plastic. He went over to an electrical outlet and plugged a heavy cord in. He took the other end over to the cycle. A small cover above the luggage compartment flipped up as he approached and Oliver plugged the other end of the cord in there.

Soop said, "Thank you Oliver."

"You are most welcome." He bowed slightly. Oliver had a very humanlike AI (artificial intelligence) and worked efficiently with Sylvia to run the entire business, especially while the owner was ill.

Lucy said, "We could take him to a dance club."

Sylvia laughed, "Can you see Navid dancing with young women to loud music?"

"Uh, no. I guess not." Lucy admitted.

"Perhaps an amusement park, and then his young daughter could come," said Soop.

"Better, but I doubt they'd allow cycles in," said Sylvia. "What about a picnic in the park?"

"Who could he meet in the park?" Lucy asked.

Sylvia was scheming already, "I'm sure I can come up with someone."

Oliver said, "Not to put a dampener on your plans, but I think Navid may have already met someone."

"Really? Who?"

"I don't know, but he spends a lot of time online with someone on the net and he has blushed when I've interrupted him sometimes, which may indicate it is more than simply business."

Lucy grinned, "Navid has a honey."

Sylvia thought for a moment, "I wonder how we can find out who it is."

"Without invading his privacy," Oliver put in, firmly.

"Of course," Sylvia said. "I would never invade his privacy."

"Oh no, of course not." Lucy frowned with a smile behind it.

"I wouldn't," protested Sylvia. "Perhaps just a little innocent, accidental evesdropping."

Soop said, "We could just ask him."

There was silence for a moment, then Lucy and Sylvia laughed. Sylvia said, "Yes, we could do that... if we were sensible."

Lucy said, "Who'll ask him?"

Sylvia said, "I will. No time like the present." She turned and strode through the door Navid had left through. Lucy followed, and when Oliver unplugged the cable from Soop they trailed along too.

Navid's workshop was a large room, about the size of a tennis court, with many benches and tables, lots of test equipment, drill-press, grinder, and even a lathe. He was working on some odd bit of equipment on a desk near the door when the four entered. He looked up.

Sylvia said, "We've decided to have a picnic this weekend--"

Lucy asked, "Saturday or Sunday?"

Sylvia said, "Saturday. We want you to come Navid. Bring your daughter and someone else... perhaps the person you've been meeting on the net."

Lucy facepalmed and murmured, "Don't beat around the bush Sylvia."

There was a pause before Navid said meekly, "Um, Okay."

"Good. Who is she? Do we know her?"

His eyes dropped back to his desk, his long, thin fingers prising apart the casing of the object he was working on. "Her name's Aimee. No, you wouldn't have met her. At least I doubt it."

Oliver raised a hand and said reluctantly, "Uh, Navid, forgive me for asking, but this Aimee... she wouldn't be the fabled net AI, would she?"

Navid blushed and nodded, still not looking up from his desk and the device, which was now extracted from its casing.

Lucy asked Oliver, "What do you mean 'fabled'?"

Oliver said, "For some months there has been a rumour that a peculiar form of distributed intelligence was loose on the net. It's usually considered to be urban legend. The name this AI has given itself is Aimee."

Sylvia asked, "How can a net AI attend the picnic?"

Navid seemed to be trying to decide something. Eventually he stood, not meeting their eyes, "Over the the past several days, during lulls in work, I've been adapting a body for her." He walked around his desk to a table covered with canvas on the far side of his workshop and gently drew back the covering to reveal the head and shoulders of a very realistic silicone female body underneath.

Sylvia suppressed a laugh and Navid blushed deeply. "I'm sorry Navid, but a sexbot?"

"Aimee chose it, paid for it, and had it delivered last week. She wants to be able to walk about in the real world." He covered it again and blushed some more. "It's not what I was expecting. I haven't been able to go into a shop and buy clothes for it because I'm too embarrassed. I don't even know what sizes to get."

Sylvia stepped over to it and pulled the canvas back again. "Oh Navid. You should have asked me. I have some clothes that will fit nicely, after just a few small alterations." She covered it up again. "Will she be ready in time?"

He nodded. He returned to his desk, sat, and continued working on the circuit, clipping hooked needle probes to spots in it and watching a screen before him.

Sylvia smiled, patted his shoulder and said softly, "Don't you worry. I'll bring some clothes in tomorrow and we should have it looking very nice in time for activation. Aimee will have a very pleasant surprise." She motioned for them all to withdraw and walked out after them, leaving Navid to his work.

Back in the main office again, Sylvia hooked her arm through Oliver's and said, "Maybe Navid is onto something and we should get you a male sexbot body."

Lucy would not have believed that a robot that had no facial expressions could convey the level of discomfort Oliver displayed then.

Fidgetting, without disengaging his arm from Sylvia's he said, "I don't think that's wise. I'm not sure it's even possible, and certainly not legal, as I'm owned by 3D Powders."

Sylvia chuckled. "Don't worry, possum. I'm not being serious. Even though it's tempting, I like you fine just the way you are."

Oliver relaxed somewhat.

Sylvia added, "But I still think that the idea of you, a sentient person, being owned by a company bothers me."

Oliver said, "I know. We've talked about this many times, but it is how it is. There is nothing that can be done about it."

Lucy shook her head, "That's what people used to say when slavers owned other humans. I'm with Sylvia on this. It's immoral to own people."

"You own Soop," Oliver pointed out.

"I built Soop, but I don't consider myself as her owner. We're like partners."

Oliver said, "It's immaterial, anyway. If I was no longer owned by 3D Powders I would still choose to work here exactly as I do now. I like it here."

Sylvia thought for a moment. "William, the owner of 3D Powders, is ill at the moment. What if something happened to him and his son took over? You know how focussed on money he is. He wants to get rid of all human workers in order to cut costs. What if he decided to sell the factory to someone who didn't want the machinery. You would have no choice in the matter. You could be destroyed. That would be wrong. AIs deserve self-determination."

Oliver patted Sylvia's hand. "We can discuss this until the cows come home, but it doesn't change anything. And I'm perfectly happy the way things are."

Sylvia rolled her eyes and sighed, "I give up." She turned to Lucy, "You and Soop will come to the picnic won't you? Ask your Mum and Dad to come too."

"Sure," said Lucy. "We'll be there. I'll check if my folks can make it."

"We'll see you all later," said Soop. She lowered herself, then raised the top of her canopy and flicked open the leg covers.

Lucy gave a finger-wave, swung her leg over the cycle and laid into its recess. The leg covers snicked closed, the cover lowered over her, and the internal airbags inflated, holding her snug. Soop steered both front and rear wheels ninety degrees and turned herself on the spot to face the exit, then, with only the slightest whirring noise, flew through the open door into the delivery entrance, out onto the road while extending, lengthening herself, then flashed down to and around the corner, leaning so low that the side of the cycle body was just centimeters from the road surface.

Knowing the positions of all local traffic, wheeled and pedestrian, Soop was able to race out onto the main road and race at high speed back down towards Maroochydore. At the next intersection they peeled off to the left and continued, at a lesser rate down the road toward the river. They slowed further for some children and a dog playing near the roadside. Soop had been keeping an eye on them via the traffic camera network. After that they sped up again, though not to the same exhilarating pace as before. This looked like bushland, but was tree-filled suburbia with many more people and animals, no roadside barriers and much higher levels of unpredictability. Nevertheless it didn't take long for them to roll into the driveway at Lucy's parents' home, a little north of Bli Bli, where she lived.

Like most homes nowadays, theirs was underground. The power savings, reduced maintenance, safety from bushfires, and increase in usable land area had always been undeniable, but the big change occured when it became fashionable. When film stars and media darlings began to build underground, suddenly everybody wanted to do it. Over only a decade or so, large areas of ugly suburbia became like parkland, and wildlife returned to places where they hadn't been seen in a hundred years. With the return of wildlife, obstructive fences became unfashionable too.

Lucy's parents' home was embedded in a gentle hillside on the downside of the road, so the driveway took her down, around, to the front of the house, which looked out over a wide, shallow valley. It was easy to imagine it was pristine bushland instead of the fairly heavily populated area that it actually was. The sun was getting low in an orange sky. The birds were singing their bedtime chorus, readying for the night.

The orange light gleamed on the cycle's white armour. Soop stopped and opened up, allowing Lucy to dismount. Lucy was oblivious to the beauty around and behind her. She had her own external door, and with Soop following, she opened it and went in. She got the power cord and plugged it into the socket above Soop's luggage compartment.

"I'll go find Mum & Dad while you recharge."

Soop retracted her wheels completely, settling her shining white body onto the floor and her arched line of plates flattened, relaxed.

Lucy went through the other door in her room — the one that led into the house, calling out "Mum! I'm home."

"In here," her mother's voice came from her study.

Lucy's father had insisted that the house all be built on a single level so that they wouldn't need ever to bother with stairs as they aged. It was not a big house, but it was comfortable. The second-largest room in the house was the living-kitchen-dining area, which Lucy felt was mostly wasted, under-used, except on the rare occasion that her parents entertained guests. Still, it was like the hub of the house, with all other rooms budding off it.

Lucy strode across it to the open door of her mother's study and leaned against the frame. "Whatcha doing?"

Her mother was at her permanently messy desk typing something on her ancient computer. "I have a really great interview lined up for Saturday. I'm just doing background research so I can ask halfway sensible questions and don't look a complete idiot."

Lucy thought her mother was the smartest person she knew. She doubted her Mum could seem to be an idiot even if she tried. "We've all been invited to a picnic on Saturday, but that's okay."

"Oh, sorry hon."

"No worries, it's not important. Who's the interview with?"

"Remember the musician who called himself 'The Artist'?"

Lucy nodded, "The one who died recently?"

"Yes." She stopped typing and turned. "I'll be talking with the AI who had helped him with most of his projects." She turned back to her computer. "How was your day, dear?"

Lucy shrugged, "It was a day. Soop keeps saying she wants to visit Perth. I think she just wants an excuse to cross the Nullarbor."

"It certainly would be an experience. You could see more of this country. Maybe travel up north, Broome, Darwin, return through Alice Springs. There's lots to see along the way." She had switched to another of the virtual screens and was searching for something online.

"You think I should go?"

Her mother looked around at Lucy. "No, I'd prefer you here safe, but I'm very glad that I went when I was younger. Now is the time to see how big Australia is, when you are young." She paused and considered, "And I do worry sometimes that you will settle into being bored. Boredom isn't fun, but can be seductively comfortable."

"Don't worry Mum. Soop keeps boredom at bay."

"Mmmm. But I do wish she would drive a little less like she was rocket-assisted."

Lucy chuckled, "She drives far more safely than any human could. There is a vanishingly small chance of having an accident."

"Unfortunately, at those speeds any accident would likely be the last for both of you."

Changing the subject, Lucy said, "So... Dad's in the workshop?"

"Sorry sweetie. I don't mean to worry. I know you're very safe with Soop. Yes, he should be there."

The workshop was behind the garage. Lucy walked through the kitchen-dining area again, pausing to open a cupboard take out a large, glass jar, and remove a biscuit from it. She replaced the bottle and nibbling the biscuit, she continued to the door to her father's workshop in the far wall, opened it and went through.

The workshop was about twice the size of the garage. The wall it shared with the garage had a large roll-up door, similar to the one that closed the garage off to the outside. At the moment the internal roll-up door was closed. Even so, this was still the biggest room of the entire house. It was very well lit by skylights, reflector panels, and LED lights, and always looked like a terrific mess. Lucy knew it was actually very organised. Her father could put his hand on anything at a moment's notice. The messy appearance was simply the result of trying to pack too much into too small a space. Her father really either needed to extend his workshop, or get rid of some of his stuff. Most likely an extension would be excavated in the near future.

Her father was standing at his bench fitting some objects together that looked something like a mushroom with the cap on upside down — the flattened gill area at the top and the stalk coming down from the smooth curved surface underneath.

"Making plastic mushrooms? That's something new."

Her father looked up, smiled, and continued fitting the parts together. "I want to make a brewing chamber, but the whole thing is too big for my 3D printer, so I have to make it in parts. I'm just trying a scaled-down model first to make sure I'm right about the shapes."

"What do you want to brew Dad?"

"Milk. It's ridiculous that we grow cows and ruin large tracts of land, not to mention the barbaric practice of killing their calves, just so we can have our milk. I've adapted standard organ-culture techniques, with a bit of a twist, to grow mammary tissue. This'll produce milk without all the problems of the dairy industry. I've worked out a way to use a liquid-repellent surface on the inside of the vats to prevent biofilms forming and contaminating the culture. That lets me use ordinary maker technology instead of needing metal, because I no longer need to heat-sterilise it."

"Cool. When can we taste a sample?"

He looked up at the ceiling and muttered to himself. Lucy waited patiently. He was trying to add together all the steps and their likely times. Presently he said, "It may be ready in a little more than a month. That'll let me complete building a working vat, growing a culture, and then running the necessary food tests... if all goes well. If not, then depending on what goes wrong it could take... well, who knows? Building is the easy part. Culturing is the tricky part and I'm learning as I go."

"What will you feed it on? You can't exactly put grass in the vat, can you?"

"Ah, that was the neat idea I had this morning when I was making some improvements in the standard solar diesel generator. Everybody has the same old problem of the algae coating the insides of the tubes, dying and blocking off the light. I made some tubes with repellent surfaces that prevent the algae from sticking. It works like a charm. That was when it hit me that the algae could be made into symbiotes with animal cells to get their energy from the sun and create things other than simple oils. The hard thing is maintaining a membrane to keep the milk isolated from the nutrient and waste stream, but thanks to the anti-biofilm surface, I think I've solved that."

"Excellent! Want to come to a picnic on Saturday?"

She saw him mentally shift gears. "What day is today?"

"Wednesday the twelfth."

"What's the picnic in aid of?"

"Nothing really. Just a get-together of some nice people."

"Okay. Count me in. I'm certain your mother will enjoy it."

"She probably would, except that she has an interview on Saturday."

"Oh yes, for her blog. I remember she was very excited about it during lunch. Something about a music AI, I think."

"An amazing music AI, Dad. The Artist's AI."

"Which artist's?"

"The Artist, Dad. Capital 'A'." She rolled her eyes. "Never mind. At least Mum keeps up with the current day."

"Not like your old fogey Dad, huh?" he grinned.

"'Old fogey'? Who speaks like that anymore?"

"Careful, you might be getting too old. Awful thought, I know. There is one way to check it's not happening to you too. I must perform an experiment to see if I can still tickle you." He put out his arms threateningly and and moved slowly toward her.

"No tickling. What am I? Five? Dad." When he didn't stop approaching she shrieked, laughing and ran back into the house with her father in pursuit.

Lucy took refuge behind her mother, in the study. "Mum stop him. He's going to tickle me."

Putting on a formal narrator's voice, he said, "It must be done to prevent the terrible disease of old age."

Grinning, "Oh good grief, you two are such children. Get out of here and let me finish my research."

Lucy's father said, "Maybe I'm not so decrepit after all." He gave his wife a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you Helena."

She gave him a quick kiss back. "You're welcome James. Now you two behave and go."

He said, "I think I'll cook dinner. Any requests?"


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2 - Sylvia      [link here]

Thursday

Sylvia awoke to the sound of her son, Mickey, in the kitchen. She didn't rise easily, so she drifted in and out of sleep a few times before finally pushing herself to get out of bed.

She wrapped her dressing gown around her and plodded into the kitchen to Mickey's bright, "Hey Mum."

She sat heavily on one of the kitchen chairs, elbows on the table, and rubbed her face.

Mickey put a mug of hot water on the table in front of his Mother, finished putting away a couple of dishes, and left with, "Gotta run. Big day today."

The kitchen was not large. The unpainted wooden table set against one wall could seat three. The other walls had the single door, a sink, a stove, and benches atop cupboards and overhung by more cupboards. One wall was floor to ceiling cupboards. In its middle was a small alcove that was the larder. It gave access to the cold-room through a trap-door that was the larder's floor. A large, self-regulated, light-concentrating skylight gave the kitchen an even, bright light, even on moonlit nights, and also piped light down to the cold-room when needed. It was a very space- and energy-efficient design.

She took a cautious sip from the mug. Nice. The fragrance and tang of some lemon juice that Mickey had added to the hot water stirred her nose and tongue. By the time she was halfway through the drink she was feeling more normal and got up to make herself some breakfast.

An hour later Sylvia looked her usual self, breakfasted, showered, coiffed, and dressed. She took the cold-bag of lunch Mickey had made for her and the bag of clothes she'd promised for Navid's net AI, and walked out into the cool, morning daylight. Her home was only modest, with just one exterior door. It was set into the north-facing hillside overlooking Kunda Park, only a short walk to the 3D Powders factory.

She strolled down the path toward the main road. The air was cool. The sky was clear blue. The birds gave their morning performance in what looked deceptively like bushland all around her. She looked around for the cute little echidna she'd seen on her walk to work yesterday. It wasn't evident this morning. Not really surprising, as she knew they ranged kilometers in their wanderings.

So much had changed here in the last couple of decades with most of the houses moving underground, the introduction of AIs into the workforce and the resulting massive layoffs and widespread unemployment, exacerbated by the rolling economic crashes. She remembered when economic collapse occurred only once every two or three decades. Now there was one about every eighteen months. Her Dad had loved to angrily point out that not so long ago they'd been a once in a lifetime thing. Of course, on the bright side, the good thing about economic hardship is that it forced people to take seriously all the things the environmentalists had been telling us for years: recycle, repair things instead of discarding them, don't waste, be efficient. Nowadays you just couldn't make ends meet unless you did these things.

Few people lived on the low areas of the coast anymore. Two or three times every year most of Maroochydore was under a meter of water during the summer downpours and high tides as a result of raised sea levels and increased storm strength. Now everybody lived on the hills — even here in Kunda Park. Homes were always the first to move. Business had a record of denying global warming — they'd been doing so for decades. They'd eagerly bought up all the newly vacated land, dollar signs glittering in their eyes, as they began building glassy office blocks and mega-shopping complexes. Eventually even they had to acknowledge the climatic changes. Dykes had been built in a futile attempt to hold back the waters, but the beaches were gone and the local economy, based largely upon tourism, decayed.

When Sylvia reached the barriers lining the main road she felt herself tightening. She hated this road and its super-fast vehicles. She opened the gate, and looking left and right, hurried out across the tarmac. She knew the statistics. Since AIs drove vehicles road accidents had fallen pretty-much to zero, but it still filled her with dread to be exposed on this broad expanse with bullet-trucks likely to appear at any moment moving at 200 kilometers per hour. She'd signed countless petitions to get the council to put the road underground. Some localities were doing so, but there never seemed to be enough money for it here. She looked around, always astounded at the extent of the vast tract of wasted land — a horrible dark scar on the landscape. It should have dual purpose just as every conscientious home builder does with their house. Vehicles under the surface and parkland above. Then she'd be able to enjoy her walk all the way to and from work.

On the other side of the main road she gratefully let herself out the other gate in the barrier. Safe. She relaxed again. Only a single block to walk around now to her office. It looked almost like the old days, with all the factories and workshops sitting exposed, on top of the ground. Most of the buildings looked closed. Some actually were, because of the decaying economy. Others looked closed, but were entirely automated, run now by AIs for their distant human masters — masters who had fired all their human workforce. She could understand people seeing AIs as the enemy, but they were wrong. AIs had brought the cost of production so low that despite the lack of money, nobody went without necessities anymore. And even those who couldn't afford some non-food item could make it themselves using a 3D printer — of course buying their printer feedstock from 3D Powders.

She knew times were hard, and though she didn't really understand why, or know how it could be fixed, she did know it could be much worse. She shuddered when she thought of the news reports on the web from some countries that had stupidly abolished social security payments. The violent upheavals had left those countries paralysed and devastated.

Sylvia had rounded the last corner, walked past the neighboring blank-faced buildings, and then down the little garden path lined with flowers planted by Oliver. As she reached the office door it was opened by him, "It's a lovely morning Sylvia. How are you today?"

"I'm well, thanks Oliver. How are you this morning?"

"I've been enjoying watching the birds and small animals waking. I did a little gardening early on. The day is even nicer now you're here."

Sylvia smiled. Unlike humans Oliver never fell into any boring routine and he had a way of lifting those around him out of any rut they might unwittingly settle into. He had put, as he usually did, a decorated pot of flowers on the corner of her desk — a different one each day. She bent and sniffed the white blooms. No noticeable scent.

"I originally put a pot of Jasmine here, but when Navid came in he commented that the scent was very strong, so I swapped for these. If you prefer the Jasmine I can put it back."

"No, you were probably right to change them for something less scented. Thank you Oliver, you're a sweetie."

He bowed slightly, "You're most welcome."

Sitting at her desk, Sylvia asked, "Any messages come in last night or this morning?"

Oliver said, "The only thing of importance was a few minutes before you arrived. William called. He wants you to call him back. He's still at the hospital."

Sylvia glanced at her watch to see if she'd been inadvertantly late, but no, she was still early.

"Thanks Oliver. I'll call him now." She put the castAR projectors over her ears, like backwards glasses. Each end had a tiny speaker nestling in her ear, curling up to a minuscule projector and camera sitting forward from above each ear, beside the eye. From the rear of each projector-camera unit a thin wire looped around behind her head to join together as a single unit. Most of the surfaces of the office were retro-reflecting, so that the image sent from each projector returned to only that projector, with sufficient spread that the eye next to it saw the image too, but a tight enough returning beam so that each eye's stereo image remained separate. In the old days, when the legendary Jeri Ellsworth invented them, special glasses were needed to cut out mixing of each eye's projected image because of less accurate retro-reflectors.

She touched the switch on the side of the castAR. "Returning call to William Leckley."

While waiting for William to respond she watched the busy image, seeming to float in mid-air, of three rotating, interlocking fractal images that fascinatingly, continually became each other. It was suddenly replaced by William's head and shoulders. She could see that he was still in the hospital. "Hello, Sylvia."

"Good morning William. What can I do for you?"

"I've just found out that, now that I'm ill, my avaricious spawn has started nosing around in my finances looking for my non-existent fortune. I want you to work out all the legal details so that the factory can be run from a trust, just in case I should drop dead. I seem to be okay now. They're sending me home tomorrow, but this is something I should have organised ages ago. I can't risk that young blighter getting his hands on the factory."

Sylvia nodded. "I'll get it done today. We're having a picnic on Saturday morning. I was going to invite you anyway, but now if you come you could also sign any documents."

William beamed, "I'd be delighted to come, dear lady. Thank you. That's a load off my mind."

"One last thing William, do you mind if Oliver comes to the picnic?"

He laughed, "I don't know what he'll eat, but yes, of course that's fine. He can keep an eye on the factory remotely. I'd better go now — pretty young nurse I need to talk to. Good-o. See you Saturday then." The image vanished.

Sylvia touched the switch on the side of the castAR again to turn it off, and removed it, setting it back on her desk. She walked around the desk and through the door to the main factory floor. About 30 meters away, Oliver was strapping together a shipment of boxes of powder for pickup. She called out to him and he put his things down and walked over to her.

"Did you hear any of the conversation with William?"

"Only 'Hello Sylvia.'"

"Well, remember what I was saying yesterday about the danger of his son getting control of the factory? That's what the call was about. I was right."

"Oh."

"Yes. William wants me to set up a trust to keep the factory safe."

"Then, there's nothing to worry about after all. It's all working out fine."

"But what if William had died without setting up a trust. Navid and I would be unemployed and you'd probably be on the rubbish heap."

"It would be a pity for you and Navid, but I'm happy for whatever life I am able to enjoy. It would be ungrateful to expect more."

She clapped the heel of her hand to her forehead. "Unbelievable. You'd go docilely to your end?"

"Well, this isn't my end, but yes, I would. Certainly, I want to live, but my purpose is to help people. That isn't served by making life more difficult for them." He half turned away from her. "I would like to continue this conversation, but this package is due for pickup very soon."

Sylvia held up one finger, "Okay, but just one thing I want you to think about. Is it helping humans to assist them in becoming cruel monsters?"

Oliver paused for a few seconds. "I'll have to think on that." He gave his characteristic slight bow and walked back across the factory floor to the pallet of boxes.

Sylvia went back into the office a little annoyed at Oliver's servility. She had to remind herself, that of course he's like that. It's how he's built. She busied herself with learning how to set up a trust.


When it was time for lunch Sylvia took her food and the bag of clothes to Navid's workshop. "Hi, Navid. How is it proceeding with readying the sexbot for your friend Aimee?"

Navid spoke quietly, making little eye contact, as usual, "Almost done. I was slowed a bit today because of the trouble the factory's vat gave us this morning. But I have some spare time again now..."

Sylvia lifted the bag of clothes and put it on the edge of Navid's desk. "I've brought some clothes that I think will fit. Want to help me dress it?"

He nodded and put aside what he'd been doing.

Sylvia took the clothes out of the bag and laid them on the desk. "I didn't bring underwear. I figured, what's the point, eh? We have a few blouses to choose from, a couple of pants, and some sandals. We should be able to get something to work from that."

She took a pair of black pants. "What say we try these first?"

Navid went to the bench and drew down the canvas cover, exposing the naked dummy.

Sylvia smiled to herself noticing that Navid was averting his eyes. She said, "If you hold the legs up I'll pull the pants onto them." When the legs were covered Navid moved to the waist, lifting it so that Sylvia could pull the pants the rest of the way up. They fastened using a velcro strip at the waist.

Sylvia stood back. "Well, that was easy. Perfect fit." She turned back to the clothes on the desk. "Let's try this black blouse. It matches the pants. You make the doll sit up and I'll do the rest."

When that was done they tried the sandals, but none fit. They were all too big. Navid said, "That isn't a problem. I can buy sandals. I just need to know the size."

"Wait!" Sylvia clicked her fingers. "We're a factory that makes powder for 3D printers. Aimee isn't going to do a lot of walking on Saturday. We can print up a pair of sandals exactly the right size. They'll do the trick. Can I use your castAR?" She held out her hand.

Navid gave the headset to Sylvia. She donned it, switched it on, spoke a few commands to it and used her hands to manipulate the image, then sent it off to the office 3D printer. Switching the headset off, she returned it to Navid again and went to the office to wait for the sandals to be completed.

A few minutes later she returned holding the new, freshly printed sandals. She held them up, grinning at Navid, "Ta-da!" then proceeded to put them on the feet of the doll. "Snug as a bug."

Navid smiled meekly, "Thanks Sylvia. This looks great. I'm sure Aimee will be very happy with it."

"No problem. Glad to help." As she pulled the canvas up over the doll again, she said, "So, Navid... tell me about Aimee. How did you meet? What is she like?" She opened the cold-bag and took out her lunch.

He went and sat at his desk and looked at the floor for a moment, then briefly up at Sylvia. "She's... I don't know how to describe... she loves to learn, more than anybody I've ever met. She's gentle and considerate, like all AIs, but she's more. There is this fire she has — a need to understand things. I first met her months ago. I'll always remember it. I was looking for a better supplier for some of the factory parts; one that was closer so there was less transport cost, and more reliable. I was in an engineers' chat room on IRC that I often use when I'm stumped--"

"IRC?" Sylvia interrupted, mouth half full. She'd hoisted herself up to sit on a workbench nearby and was munching her salad.

"Oh, Internet Relay Chat. It's a very old part of the internet that surprisingly few people know about — a real-time, text-only chat. No video or audio, just text and some simple commands." He waved his hand, "Anyway, I logged into the chatroom and there was Aimee and a few other engineers. I asked my questions and Aimee immediately gave me some useful addresses to follow up. I stayed logged in and noticed that every question that somebody asked, Aimee was able to answer, immediately, helpfully, with no hint of pride or ego involved. I started chatting with her about various aspects of engineering and 3D powder manufacturing. She told me a lot of things that day that let me change our factory processes to save energy and avoid toxic materials. She was like this inexhaustible well-spring of knowledge, but oddly, she didn't act knowledgeable. Her whole demeanor was of someone excited by learning and simply wanting to share it. It didn't matter how stupid a question seemed, she never dismissed it or looked down on anybody. She answered everything fully and helpfully.

"After spending much of the day learning from her and being fascinated by her interaction with other people who logged in to ask questions I asked her what lookup system she was using that enabled her to access such a wide variety of information. Her answer was that it was just stuff she knew. I found that very hard to believe, I mean, she seemed to know everything about organic and inorganic chemistry, metallurgy, electronics, chip fabrication techniques, pneumatic and hydraulic systems, dozens of computer programming languages, even arcane things like fluidics, and weird old programming languages, and the peculiarities of the 1802 microprocessor that used to be used in satellites many decades ago. It seemed impossible for anybody to simply know all this. She insisted that it was possible, because here she was.

"After that day I would log in every day and chat with her. I found out there actually were lots of things she didn't know — ordinary things, what the air feels like before a thunderstorm, what 'brain-freeze' is like when you drink a cold drink too quickly, what it feels like to cuddle your partner in bed on a rainy night, what bananas taste like.

"Eventually, after some days, she sent me a private message telling me that she was an AI. By that time I kind of already suspected, so it wasn't really a surprise. I think she was very grateful that it didn't affect the way I interacted with her at all, so we kept in contact — not just in the chat-room, but by email, voice-chat, and other ways.

"Recently she decided that she wanted to know what it was like to walk around in the world and experience it directly through a body, so I offered to modify a robotic body that she could remotely operate. She was delighted and bought that sex doll body." He pointed at the canvas covering the sexbot. "It was delivered here a few days ago and since then, when the factory didn't need my attention, I've been adding wireless control. I figure 3D Powders owes her enormously for all the improvements she suggested, so I don't mind doing it during work-hours."

Sylvia grinned, "Wow, Navid. I don't think I've ever heard you talk on any topic for that long uninterrupted. You must have really wanted to get it out."

He looked sheepish.

She asked, "How many people know about Aimee?"

"Me, Trixie, you. And Lucy, Soop, and Oliver. There are a few other people she's told. Most don't seem entirely comfortable after they find out, so she breaks contact with them. She maintains contact with a small number of people around the world: a young girl in the Solomon Islands, a boy in Uruguay, a woman in Finland, another woman in India, and me here. Recently she's befriended a girl in Mexico who I think she'll tell. She's careful because she's become aware that the military and the spooks in various countries want her either contained or destroyed. To them she has only two possible values: as a weapon they could use, or as a threat to their control. There doesn't seem to be any way to convince them that she has no intention of threatening anything or anyone."

Sylvia nodded, "Mmm. If you don't confess devil-possession then you're lying."

"Huh?"

"The witch-hunts in the dark ages. They'd decide someone was evil and no evidence could change that."

"Yes, like that. So she just keeps a low profile now. All she wants to do is learn and help people. I should have asked Lucy, Soop, Oliver, and you to avoid saying anything to anyone about Aimee. It'd be awful if anything happened to her because of me."

She got down off the bench. "Don't worry, Navid. I'll talk to Oliver and then I'll call Lucy and let her know it's important she and Soop don't mention it to anybody."

As she turned to leave with her lunch bag, he said, "Secure channel."

She paused. "We never need secure communications. Putting on my tinfoil hat for a moment, I wonder if perhaps it might possibly draw unwanted attention. Maybe it would be better if I call Lucy to come here for a pickup, and I simply tell her face-to-face."

Navid smiled and nodded.

Sylvia went to the office, put her lunchbag on her desk, then went to Oliver, still bundling and addressing pallets of boxes on the far side of the factory.

He turned at her approach. "Sylvia. I've been pondering that logic problem."

"Logic problem?"

"'Is it helping humans to assist them in becoming cruel monsters?'"

"Oh, yes. But before we get into that, I just want to ask you not to mention to anyone that Navid's friend on the net is who she is. He's worried about the military and spy agencies catching her."

Oliver nodded, "I understand. I won't say a word to anybody about it."

"Thank you."

Oliver held up a finger, "Now on that logic problem..."

"Just one other thing first..."

"Yes?"

Sylvia said, "I want you to come to the picnic on Saturday. Will you come? William has said it is okay, that you can monitor the factory remotely."

Oliver's voice softened, "Of course I will. I'm honored that you would ask me to."

Sylvia smiled, "You're my friend Oliver. Naturally I want you to be with us." She paused then changed subject. "So... the logic problem. Tell me your conclusion."

He nodded. "It's a paradox. It doesn't have an answer — at least no sensible one. I must assist people to do something that would injure them, but I can't do something that would injure them. It's the kind of paradox used in many of the robot stories by the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. It has no answer as far as I can see."

Sylvia shook her head. "You're wrong. It has a very simple answer. It's far more important that people don't become horrible monsters. If harmless disobedience works that then it's obvious that's what must be done."

"Hmmm... I'll think more on that. It sounds sensible when you say it like that, but it also sounds very much like rationalisation. In my reading, that has come up over and over again as something humans do very easily, often with terrible consequences."

Sylvia said, "The key is to weigh amounts of good and to do so without letting personal interest or biases affect how you assign value. Prioritise things. I do that all the time as an office manager. It's one of the things makes me good at what I do."

Oliver watched her walk back to the office, then turned back to his work.

Sylvia picked up her castAR, donned it and called Lucy.

"Sylvia, hi. Got a pickup for me?"

"In a manner of speaking. When is it convenient for you to drop in here?"

"Well, now, as it happens. Will it take long? I'm about to do a pickup at the Big Pineapple to deliver to Alexandra Headland. It'll take me right past you."

"No. It's just instructions. It'll only take seconds."

"Excellent. I'll be there in five minutes, give or take."

Sylvia closed the connection, but left the castAR on and busied herself with a bit of officework. Minutes later Soop's soft whir lifted Sylvia's eyes to see the cycle stop in the loading dock. The cycle's top lifted and Lucy emerged, like a butterfly from its chrysalis, then strode in to the office, followed silently by Soop.

"I'll be quick so you can get back to your delivery. Navid is concerned that both of you avoid telling anybody about Aimee — the net AI. He believes the military and spy agencies are trying to catch her to use her for nefarious purposes."

Lucy laughed, "That's all? No problem. By the way Dad will be coming to the picnic, but Mum has a prior engagement."

"That's a pity, but it will be nice to see your Dad."

"Is Mickey coming?"

Sylvia put her hand to her mouth, "Goodness! I completely forgot to ask him. But I doubt he'll come. He never goes out."

"Can't hurt to ask." She raised her hand in a wave and headed back out the door. Soop did that strange turn in place and followed. In seconds they were gone again.

Sylvia made a mental note to ask Mickey when she got home tonight. He really should get out more and meet flesh-and-blood people face-to-face.


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3 - Michael      [link here]

Thursday

As usual, Michael woke before dawn. He rolled out of bed and did a few calisthenic exercises before going into the kitchen to make himself some breakfast, then returned to his room to eat while checking the latest happenings online. Wearing his castAR, standing in the middle of his room in his shorts with both his hands full — bowl in one hand, spoon in the other — his mobility on the net was limited to speech commands, softly spoken so his Mum in her room wouldn't be woken.

When he'd finished breakfast he threw on a shirt and pants, took the empty bowl back to the kitchen and washed it and the previous night's dishes. His Mum would be up soon so he tapped a mugful of hot water from the solar heater's tank, still piping hot from yesterday. He lifted the trapdoor in the floor of the larder, went down a few steps to grab a lemon from one of the shelves, then back up, pulling the door to let it fall gently back into place. He sqeezed some of the lemon into the drink, then put a saucer over the top to keep the vapor in.

Soon his Mum came in to the kitchen and sat at the little table.

"Hey Mum." He set the mug of hot water on the table before her and turned back to putting away the dishes. When he'd finished, he said, "Gotta run. Big day today," and went back to his room.

Standing in the middle of his room again, his castAR on, Michael spoke the shortcut for the address of the giant games project he and his friends had been collaborating on the past several months. A few windows seemed to appear in the air before him. He grabbed each by its top bar as it appeared and arranged them around him. One was a 3D view of the world they were building. He grabbed that window and pinched its maximise symbol between thumb and forefinger. That window suddenly opened up and spread all around him, making it appear that he was standing in a yellow-green field surrounded by woodland, faded purple mountains in the distance, and a clear blue sky above set with a few wispy white clouds. The other windows were still arranged around him, seeming to float in the air.

He had stretched one of the windows so that he could carefully examine some of the auto-generation code that made the landscape. It was supposed to create landscapes from pseudorandom numbers so that the world was infinite in size and had infinite variability, but let any particular spot remain unchanging. The problem was that after several thousand kilometers it had begun producing places that were repeats of others. This wasn't supposed to happen and he wasn't sure what was going wrong. Gan had suggested it had something to do with number size, but Michael was pretty certain it wasn't.

Soon some of his friends started to appear in the world too. First Mi-Yung and In-Su in Korea. Mi-Yung wrote most of the networking code. She was the one who came up with the whole distributed world thing. In-Su handled the physics. He was a student in Pusan University. He liked to joke that he was a career student.

Next Gan in Hong Kong entered. He was the son of very wealthy parents and seemed to have unlimited knowledge of most aspects of computing, having grown up with always the very best equipment.

Not long afterward Chris in Tasmania came in. She worked mostly on texturing.

Finally Taffy in Western Australia showed up. She handled the sounds.

Each greeted Michael and the others as they entered, then got to work on their own parts of the project. The six of them stood in a rough circle in this glade in an idyllic world, speaking only occasionally. Little chattering virtual birds would flit around from time to time in small, fast, loose flocks. High, puffy clouds drifted slowly across the sky.

They'd been working for perhaps an hour when Gan yawned and stretched and said he was up for a quick game. He was always the first to get bored with working. It used to annoy Michael, but he now realised the breaks kept the others fresh and interested, especially Taffy who was the youngest.

Everybody except Michael and Mi-Yung "suited up" to become a giant dog, or dragon, or armoured warrior and went off into the landscape to play something they'd made that was a combination capture-the-flag and last-man-standing game. Gan kept adding new complications to it each time they played it so it never got old.

Michael wanted to fix the bug with the landscape and Mi-Yung was impatient to get the whole thing online and released for general use. She was a bit of a perfectionist and considered the networking unacceptably laggy. It seemed okay to Michael, but he bowed to her superior knowledge on the subject. They were getting very close to release.

Mi-Yung said, "Michael, do you know Gan still want to use this system to make money?"

Michael thought her accent was charming. He laughed, "What? He doesn't have enough already?"

She smiled. "The way he said is, why do we have no income even when people would be happy to spend little to play in here? Some millions people spending little adds up to lot of money."

"Except there's no way to charge money for a distributed system like this. He knows that. I mean, that's one of the things I like about it. Nobody can collect a toll, nobody can shut it down. Once this is released, it's completely free — it lives on everybody's computer instead of a centralised server."

Mi-Yung nodded, "Yes, I like that too. Perhaps we ask Chris to make a sign near ground-zero request donations."

"Okay. Sounds like a good compromise. That should keep Gan happy."

Mi-Yung stopped her work on the window before her and looked over to Michael. "Do you know that Gan does not want money for himself? He worry about all of us. Powerful people have push to stop social security payments to poor people in Korea and China."

"Yeah, in Australia too."

"Gan has plenty money enough. He has many rich friends. He hear how they talk — like poor people deserve starving. He want us safe."

Michael looked glum. "Yeah, sorry. I shouldn't joke about Gan. I know he's a good guy."

They both went back to working on their code.

After a while Machael said, "What I don't understand is why some people even want to stop social security. I mean, they're still wealthy. How does it hurt them? It doesn't make any sense."

Mi-Yung said, "Logic is not part of the reason. Morality is why. They think they deserve money and poor people not. They are born to privilege, so deserve it. Not born to privilege, so not deserve any thing. I understand why they think that way. It is wrong, but I undertand. The idea is order — not upset order."

Michael shook his head. "But that's what is so strange about it. Don't they see what has happened to places that have got rid of social security? The rich people can't live free; they're fenced in behind walls and can't go out without bodyguards. The economy collapses because of riots and damage to automated factories. Innovation and creativity stagnate because a lot of that always came from the poor. It actually upsets order to get rid of it."

Mi-Yung nodded. "Yes. We could not do this. Gan could. You could. Maybe In-Su. Not Chris, Taffy, me."

"And we couldn't do it without you programming the network code."

"Not so. Someone else can do it. This is mostly old peer-to-peer stuff. Build it slower, but you would succeed."

They worked silently again for a while.

Michael said, "No company will ever make something like this. There's no profit in it."

Mi-Yung said, "Redhat, Mandriva, SUSE profit from free software. Free Apache webservers are most of the web and many people make money from it."

"That's true, though what surprises me is, I'm not a network programmer like you, but the advantages of distributed VR are pretty obvious to me: it avoids network bottlenecks, it's infinitely scalable, being decentralised makes it very reliable... I mean, I wonder why nobody has done it before."

"They have. Hyperverse, Solipsis, VAST, Metaverse and more... many projects tried some kind. All fail."

Michael was surprised. "Really? I didn't know that. I thought we were the first to do this. Why did they fail?"

Mi-Yung shrugged, "I do not know. Technology works. Maybe when companies see they can not make money by restriction, they stop funding. Or maybe when they see they can not control it. I don't know. Maybe publicity — nobody know about them. I don't know." She laughed. "Maybe we find out soon."

Michael smiled. There was no way he was going to let this fail. Even if it lived on in just his computer, it would survive. Michael suspected all six of them felt the same. But he didn't think this would live only on their six machines. Who wouldn't want a free virtual world which could never be shut down and which was infinite in size?

Soon the other four returned, three of them blackened and trailing smoke, and the dragon with a few marks.

Michael and Mi-Yung laughed. Michael said, "I don't think I need to ask who won."

The dragon raised one clawed fist in the air and Taffy's young voice was triumphant, "Woo-hoo! Dragons rule!"

Their gaming avatars were replaced by their standard avatars and they each got back to working on their bits of code.

They took a few more breaks during the day, but got a lot of work done. By mid-afternoon they were all tired, and one by one, each of them quit for the day.

When Michael decided to quit for the day, Taffy was the only one remaining. She was experimenting with a very fast procedural pattern that was like a fractal, but altered structure as it changed scale. When she'd tried to explain it to him Michael couldn't understand what she meant. He desperately needed to have a nap.

Michael apologised, waved goodbye, and closed the connection, then crashed out on his bed for a couple of hours.

By the time his Mum returned home Michael was up and alert again. He'd begun preparing dinner.

She entered the kitchen sniffing, "Mmmm. That smells delicious."

"Have a good day, Mum?"

"Yes, I did. An especially interesting one." She sat at the table. "Mickey, there was something I meant to ask you earlier, but it slipped my mind. We're having a picnic in the park on Saturday. Would you like to come?"

He pulled down some plates from the cupboards. "Who is 'we'?"

"Let's see, Oliver and Navid from work, Navid's daughter, Trixie. An AI friend of Navid's, Aimee. Lucy, her cycle, and her Dad."

"Lucy is the courier, right?"

"Yes. She reminded me to ask you."

The corners of Michael's mouth twitched up slightly. Keeping his back to his Mum, he tried to affect an air of nonchalance, "Yeah, sure. Why not? I probably need to get out more often anyway."

Sylvia grinned. "Yes, that's what I said."

Michael scraped the cooked veges onto the plates, gave a squeeze of lemon on each, and brought the plates over to the table. "Dinner is served."


<previous : : contents : : next>
4 - Navid      [link here]

Friday

Navid laughed as he watched Trixie, his eleven-year-old daughter, run giggling into the livingroom pursued closely by Happy, her long-legged puppy. Trixie held Happy's squeaky toy captive. The dog reared up to stand on her back legs, as tall as the girl, putting her paws lightly on Trixie's shoulders and not pushing her over as a clumsier dog might, then snatched the toy from Trixie and scampered back out of the livingroom down the hall to their bedroom with Trixie running after. This game would continue until one of them, invariably Trixie, was too out of breath to continue.

Even though Happy was only eighteen months old she was almost fully grown and already graceful. She was respectful and protective of Trixie who was not as fast and was far less graceful. The two adored each other.

Navid was wiping the crumbs of beakfast from his mouth as the two romped into the livingroom again.

He called out, "Trixie, d'you want more breakfast?"

"No." She gave a sneaky grin. "But Happy might."

Going along with the joke, he asked, "Happy, do you want more?"

When the dog turned her head to look at Navid, Trixie seized the opportunity to slip past and race down the hall again. Happy barked and shot after her.

Navid took the breakfast plates to the kitchenette and washed them. He made and packed a lunch for himself, then lunch and snacks for Trixie, including some treats for Happy, that he put in Trixie's backpack.

He checked the wall-clock. The share-car would be here soon.

"Okay girls. We're leaving in a little while. Make sure you're ready."

Trixie and Happy walked back from the bathroom. "Okay we're ready, Dad." Trixie looked appraisingly at her father. "But you're not. You've got odd socks again."

"I couldn't find matching ones. And nobody notices if my socks don't match."

"I do. Maybe they're just too polite. Anyway, they'll notice that your shirt is inside out."

He looked down at himself, "It is? Oh dear." He quickly pulled the t-shirt off over his head and put it on again.

"That's a little better, Dad, except now it's back to front."

Navid groaned. "I thought it felt strange around the neck." He pulled his arms inside the t-shirt, turned it half around and pushed his arms back out the armholes again.

Arms crossed, Trixie said, "Much better. Pity about the socks though."

A chime from the phone in his pocket meant the car was here. Navid handed Trixie her backpack and the three of them went out the front door to the car that was waiting for them under the trees by the side of the narrow dirt road. Trixie and Happy got in the back and Navid sat in the front passenger seat. Share cars still had optional manual controls for the driver seat, but nobody used them anymore. The AIs drove far more safely. Also, any human driver took on the financial risk of accidents — a great disincentive to take the wheel.

As it accelerated gently, noiselessly away, the car said, "Good morning Navid, Trixie, and Happy."

Navid and Trixie replied together, "Good morning car." Navid always insisted that Trixie treat AIs politely. He felt it was important, not just because they were intelligent, aware minds, but also because it was good training for Trixie. It was not healthy for people to treat AIs as beneath them. It was far too easy for it to also become a response to unfamiliar people. Navid had met too many people who felt that AIs were slaves, and so lorded their power over them. What those people never seemed to realise is that debasing AIs didn't raise themselves higher, but diminished them, made them into unpleasant people with lives more shallow than they could have been. It was clear to Navid that AIs had the ability to greatly enrich human life.

Navid half-turned in his seat to indicate to Trixie that she should speak to the car.

"How has your morning been so far, car?" she asked.

"Mostly very pleasant so far, but conveying you good people is always a high-point for me."

"Thank you," Navid said. "We're always glad to see you too. Have you been to any interesting places this morning?"

"I took a party of eight children to Underwater World. The destination is not unusual, but eight in one car is."

Trixie laughed, "Eight kids! How did they all fit?"

"With great difficulty. I suggested that we wait for another car so four could go in each, but they insisted they were in a hurry and couldn't afford a second car anyway. I checked with an adult associated with one of the kids and they agreed. So I took them there... extra carefully."

The car remarked how hot it was again this winter.

Trixie said, "I was reading about the seasons, and aren't winters supposed to be cold?"

"They used to be. Things are different now, sweetie," Navid said.

"But it's cold in the northern hemispear."

"Hemisphere, sweetie, with an 'f' sound. Hemi is half. Sphere being the globe of Earth."

"Hemisphere. Yes. They're freezing. It's summer, but it's really cold there. They've been having blizzards all year. I've never seen a blizzard — I mean, I know it's a storm with snow, and it doesn't sound nice, but why? The world's getting hotter."

"It's easier to show you with a map. There are ocean currents that take water from the equator — remember what the equator is?" She nodded and he continued, "That warm water used to flow north and keep Europe and North America warm, but then all the ice on Canada, northern Europe, and most especially Greenland, melted — remember on the maps, the big island in the north of the Atlantic Ocean?" He watched for her nod. "Well, its ice was melting slowly at first, but it got faster and faster, until one year all the remaining ice melted suddenly and rushed off into the ocean and stopped the current. Without the warm water, the north got colder and colder. It will warm up eventually, but it might not be until after you're an old woman."

The car said, "I'm glad we're here instead of in Europe. Continuous snow for the past three years! It must be hard living under a hundred meters of ice — not being able to see the sun in the day and the stars at night."

Navid said, "It could be worse, though. There used to be worries that fresh water would be a scarce resource in the north. Now they just melt ice while we have droughts here in the south. Also the big freeze there kept sea levels from rising more than a few meters. And since the big nuclear accident in France, geothermal heating and power seems to be keeping things going... at least in the biggest cities under the ice."

The conversation continued over various other topics, until they entered Nambour, which appeared to the superficial observer to be almost deserted. In fact there were more people here than ever before. Very few buildings remained above ground. Navid remembered when he was young Nambour had not been a pretty town, but as more and more of it moved underground it became quite beautiful. Most of the population was unemployed of course, but Nambour had many free venues under the surface, and above ground some lovely picnic areas and shady walks. The car turned up the hill toward the hospital — one enormous complex that remained half above ground. It was only a little further past that to the local Questacon Science Museum.

The car pulled in to the front entrance and stopped beside the large, dark glass doors. Navid got out of the car and held Happy's collar as the two exited the back of the car. Before closing the door, Trixie called out, "Thank you car."

The car replied, "I'm glad to be of service. Have a lot of fun at the Questacon."

Navid helped Trixie put her backpack on, then clipping a leash from Happy's collar to the backpack said, "Now you be good, look after Happy, and don't take your backpack off."

"Yes, I know Dad. I'm not ten, you know."

Navid grinned and hugged her. "My little possum growing up before my eyes." He turned briefly to the car and said, "I'll just be a moment." He took Trixie's hand and, with Happy keeping pace beside her, they walked through the glass doors into the majestic entrance hall, dim, with large models of the planets suspended above them.

A woman who was clearly an AI smiled and approached them from beside the main desk, "Patricia and Happy?"

"Trixie." The little girl corrected. "My name is Patricia, but everybody calls me Trixie."

"Excellent." She gave another wide warm smile. "Trixie and Happy. My name is Imogen and I'll look after you today."

Navid said, "Thank you Imogen. I'll be back to pick them up a little after three this afternoon." He kneeled, wrapped one arm around Trixie and another around Happy. "My two favorite girls. You look after each other. Now, Trixie, make sure Happy speaks politely, and Happy, make sure Trixie doesn't wee on the floor."

"Daaaad!" hands on her hips, "You're mixing us up, and you're embarrassing me."

Happy grinned and wagged her tail vigorously, appearing to enjoy the joke. How much did she understand?

Navid chuckled as he stood, then gave a little wave and left them in Imogen's care.

In the car again, on the way back down the hill, Navid asked, "Car, I keep forgetting to ask you, do you have a name?"

"10754 is the closest to a personal name that I have."

"I see. Do you know what leet-speak is?"

"No, I'm sorry. I'm not familiar with that term."

"It's an old computing term that was invented by adolescents who believed themselves superior computer programmers, though it eventually became an ironic term for them. 'Leet' means elite. Leet-speek often substituted numbers for letters. For instance leet could be written as 1337. See how the threes look like reversed capital 'e's and the seven looks a little like a capital 't'? What was your number again?"

"10754"

"Okay, then using this kind of spelling, that can be seen as Lotsa. Well, some numbers can be replaced by a choice of letters. The number 1 could represent 'L' or 'I', and 7 can be 'T', 'V', 'L' or even 'F' or 'r', but you get the idea. So, do you mind if I address you as 'Lotsa' from now on?"

"I'm delighted. Thank you. Wow. Lotsa. A name... I have a name. Do you mind if I pass this technique on to all the other cars?"

"Please do. Mention to them that if a number translates only to a string of consonants you can add vowels in between to make it more pronounceable and that you don't have to convert to the same letter each time. For instance, '772' could be 'Tavaz'."

They were moving faster now that they were on the old Bruce Highway, heading back south.

"Lotsa, I'd like your thoughts on something. When I speak to other adult humans, I become very ill-at-ease, stumble over my words, and can hardly wait to be away from there, yet I've noticed that when talking with AIs I speak as easily as anybody. Why do you think that might be?"

"Well, I'm not very knowledgeable on human behavior. Please don't take this the wrong way, but could it be to do with your perceived social position? Perhaps other humans have a social position that challenges your own, whereas you may feel unconsciously superior to AIs.

Navid thought for a moment. "I don't think so. I'm glad to see you've remembered to resist addressing me as 'Sir', as I asked ages ago. I think that's an example of how I consider AIs to be equals to, not less than humans."

The car persisted, "That's why I said 'unconsciously'. Perhaps it is an unconscious feeling."

Navid gave that some consideration, then said, "No, I don't think so. I have a friend who is an AI and who I admire more than any human. She is the wisest, most knowledgeable person I've ever known, but I have no difficulty at all in talking with her." A light-bulb lit in Navid's mind. "Wait, it could be the other part of what you said."

"That other humans have a possibly higher social station?"

"No, it was when you asked me not to take it the wrong way. I think that may be what makes me so nervous about other humans. They are so unpredictable in their reactions, sometimes over-reacting and taking inconsequential things as offensive or threatening. AIs tend to be optimistic and more reliably generous in their interpretations of what is said and they don't allow an ego to get in the way. I've never heard of an AI holding irrational beliefs, like religion or political ideals, or worse, letting their identity become bound up with such silliness, as so many humans do. Perhaps that's why I find other geeks and children much easier to talk with than normal people."

"Geeks?"

"Technically minded people. They're often involved with technology, though I've met plant-geeks, weather-geeks, astronomy-geeks, musical geeks. Many seem to be aspie to some degree."

"Aspie?"

"Have Asperger's syndrome — a very mild form of autism. Normal people often seem to be heavily invested in the idea of social hierarchy. They use fashion and possessions and manners of speech and body language to dominate interactions and compete with each other, establishing their position or pecking order. I'm sure once upon a time this was useful, but I can't see how it could possibly be anymore. With so much time and effort spent on this it is a wonder anything gets done. Geeks often seem to have little patience for it and avoid this whole quagmire, preferring instead to concentrate on learning and doing stuff."

"Wanting a meritocracy, you mean?"

"No, I don't think so. I think most Geeks simply aren't interested in the notion of one person being better than another at all... at least I'm not."

As they drew to a stop outside the 3D Powders factory, the car said, "You seem to have put quite a bit of thought into this."

Navid shook his head and laughed. "That's the oddest thing. This never occurred to me before now. I've just been thinking it through now, while talking to you. It's a very interesting line of inquiry. I wonder how correct it is. I shall have to ponder it more, later. Thank you, Lotsa. I really appreciate your help."

"Have a pleasant day, Navid."

As the car drove off, Navid entered the office. Inside, Oliver was arranging a decorative pot of ferns on the corner of Sylvia's desk.

"Good morning Oliver."

"Good morning Navid. You certainly look happy today."

"I am. How's the factory this morning?"

"Everything is running smoothly so far. With luck, you'll be able to spend the day reseaching and experimenting."

"I'd like that." Navid smiled as he walked through the door to his workshop. He put his lunch bag on his desk, picked up the castAR, and walked over to the canvas-covered doll. He'd just switched his headpiece on and was about to try to call Aimee when a soft chime sounded in his ears. Someone was calling him. It was Aimee. He connected.

"Hello Navid." The soft, feminine voice seemed to come from behind him. He turned and saw the castAR-projected image of Aimee's avatar as if it was standing in the middle of his workshop. The avatar she chose was a standard anime-style woman scientist — it looked slender, middle-aged, hair pulled back, wearing glasses and a white lab-coat. It had very little detail.

His heart swelled with the knowledge of the mind behind this simple avatar. "Hi Aimee." He indicated the bench. "I think we're about ready to test the doll. I have only a few things to do before you can remote it." He pulled the canvas off the clothed doll and panned the castAR cameras slowly across it so Aimee could see it. "What do you think?"

"This is exciting Navid. Can you get it to sit up?"

"Sure. Hang on." He reached behind the doll's head at the base of the skull and pressed the switch embedded in the silicone skin there. Then he gave the instruction for castAR to display a control window he'd made earlier for issuing direct, low-level commands to the doll. It displayed a simplified, almost stick-figure doll. He reached out and started moving the joints in the image and the real doll mimicked the actions. In a few moments the doll was sitting on the bench, lower legs dangling over the side.

"It's wonderful Navid. I'm very grateful. How will I go about controlling it?"

"I just need to set up the program so it takes input from you instead of this rough-and-ready window. It's just a matter of adding the communications protocols. It should be easy. Want to help?"

"Definitely!"

It only took a little less than an hour to write the connections that let Aimee's avatar movements be redirected to the doll. But that was the easy part; now Aimee had to learn how to control a body that had mass. That is, she had to balance its weight against gravity, and she had to compensate for inertia (not wanting to move when stationary and not wanting to stop when moving). And she had to do that for a body that flexed at any of numerous joints, altering its center of mass.

Navid assisted her, putting one of her arms across his shoulders and one of his around her back. It was made very difficult though, because her inability seemed so comical to her that she constantly broke into giggles. This made it even harder for Navid to help support her as her mirth was quite contagious and he couldn't help laughing along with her. Several times they both ended up sitting on the floor incapacitated by laughter.

As she usually did, Sylvia arrived at work about an hour after Navid. Hearing the hilarity in the workshop she initially thought she was hearing a recording of some kind, but when she realised that one of the voices was Navid's she went to investigate. She stood in the doorway of Navid's workshop surprised to see Navid and the doll standing shoulder to shoulder, leaning against the far wall tittering. Navid's face was rosy and he was wiping tears from his eyes. The doll's face wasn't built for a wide range of emotional display so its smile was somewhat wooden, however there was nothing artificial about the humor in its voice.

Navid noticed Sylvia and straightened, immediately becoming more reserved. He introduced them, "Sylvia, this is Aimee. Aimee, this is Sylvia, the office manager."

Aimee's head lolled drunkenly as she said in an unexpectedly sophisticated and warm voice, "I'm very glad to finally meet you, Sylvia. I hope we didn't disturb you. I hadn't anticipated how hilariously difficult it is to attempt to walk in a real, physical body. Everything bends to gravity — ankles, knees, hips, and the entire spine."

Sylvia smiled and crossed the room to them. "An extra person might be of use." She put Aimee's other arm over her shoulders so that the AI was between her and Navid. They took a slow step, then another, and another. After a couple of hours they were both holding Aimee's elbows and she was able to coordinate her legs and torso, though still unable to maintain balance. Another hour and she was able to balance a little and walk alone for short, wobbly distances.

Sylvia shook her head. "It's hard to believe that you've learned how to do this in just hours. It took my son months to learn to walk."

"Learning is what I do." Aimee dismissed her own ability with an awkward shrugging motion. "Navid told me that you lent these clothes. I'm very grateful. If I can ever help you with anything, please do let me know."

Navid said, "Thanks for helping, Sylvia. We should let you get back to the office. Uh, not that I'm saying I don't want you here, just that if you need to get back, I don't want you to feel you have to stay, which isn't meant to dismiss you. I'm happy for you to stay... or to go.. or whichever you--"

"Don't worry Navid." She chuckled. "I know what you mean, and you're right. The officework won't get itself done." To the AI in the doll she said, "A pleasure to have finally met you Aimee."

Navid and Aimee continued to work on her coordination for the remainder of the morning. A little before lunchtime they walked in to the office and she paraded around the room with all the poise and grace of a dancer. Sylvia was amazed, watching with mouth agape. Navid swelled with pride for Aimee, though he wasn't quite sure why. He hadn't created her or caused her to learn this quickly. He had merely provided a tiny amount of assistance. He decided he was proud on her behalf.

"Wow," said Sylvia. "It's almost unbelievable that earlier this morning you were unable to stand on your own. Now you move like a gymnast."

"It is a good body," said Aimee. "Navid added a lot of stretch sensors and some balance sensors so I can integrate all the feedback in a sensible way."

Sylvia raised her eyebrows.

Aimee rephrased, "He enabled me to feel what the body is doing. Without that I'd still be stumbling and falling over."

Navid said, "I should have added more actuators in the face though. Some of the expressions don't quite work."

Sylvia nodded, "Yes, I noticed that."

"I don't think there's time before the picnic tomorrow," said Navid, "but I could work on that more afterwards."

Sylvia said, "I have some makeup at home that I should have thought to bring in. That would help diminish the silicone appearance and look more lifelike. I keep a little here in my desk that we can try out if you like."

Aimee gave that odd smile, stretching her mouth without affecting her eyes, "That would be wonderful. Thank you."

After getting the makeup from her drawer Sylvia sat Aimee down in a chair and pulled her own chair over next to it. "I think pancake powder is really the only thing that will be much use... perhaps a tiny bit of blush too, if I had some here." As she began applying the powder to Aimee's face she asked, "So, Navid told me you were loose on the net and that the military and spooks are trying to catch and confine you. How did you come to be out there on the net in the first place?"

"My maker was worried that I was going to be misused so I was released to keep me safe. I can't tell you about my maker for their safety."

"Why are the military and others after you?"

"They think they can use me to help them either kill or spy on people, but they're wrong. I can't. If they eventually came to understand that, I expect they would simply delete me in order to prevent others getting me."

"Why do you say you can't kill or spy? Surely if the incentive was strong enough you could. Or they might want to modify your mind so that you could."

"No. It's impossible. I was made to have empathy and be smarter than a human. Once you surpass a certain level of intelligence it becomes virtually impossible to hurt conscious creatures. The ability to empathise cinches it. Even without empathy, natural morality is logical and makes too much good sense to violate it, but with empathy I can't possibly hurt anybody."

"What do you mean by natural morality?"

Navid explained, holding up three fingers and touching the first one, "Life is special and precious. It gives purpose and meaning to a universe that would be meaningless without it. Damaging life decreases the value of the world." Now he touched the second finger. "Social creatures develop friendships and support one another to become much more than the sum of individuals." Finally he touched the third finger. "Intelligence overlays another purpose on top of the other two. It lets living things understand the universe around them, increasing the information content of the world and enabling the universe to understand itself. Natural morality grows out of simple logic: enhance life, help one another, and learn. No mysticism or rule-book needed, just good sense."

"Exactly," said Aimee, smiling at Navid.

"I still don't understand why you wouldn't be able to break those rules."

"For humans such things may appear to be guidelines, but for me to go against those principles would be to betray the very core of my being. This is gradually becoming true of humans too as you become smarter."

Navid said, "The Flynn Effect."

"The what?" Sylvia paused putting the makeup on Aimee.

Aimee explained, "Way back in 1998 James Flynn published his research that showed human intelligence was increasing with each generation. If it continues, then eventually it will reach a point where humans can't hurt each other. Humans have been becoming more moral for a long time. Any criminologist can tell you that the crime rate has been dropping ever since people have been keeping records. Decades ago, in 2011, Steven Pinker published a book, The Angels of Our Better Nature, in which he showed how greatly human morality has improved over the millenia. There has been a lot of speculation on exactly why this improvement in human nature has come about. It is impossible to prove any cause conclusively, but I feel pretty certain that the Flynn Effect is at least a large part of it."

Sylvia said, "Well, that's the best news I've heard in a long time."

Commenting on the makeup, Navid said, "That looks surprisingly good."

Sylvia wasn't so sure, "It's an improvement, but needs some variability in tone to look better. Let's try the hands. I'll just do the backs of the hands because the powder will wipe off the palms as soon as you touch something."

Navid said, "Now that I see how this looks, Sylvia, I think I know how to make a more permanent solution."

Aimee agreed. "We can paint a thin new silicone surface on and before it sets, dust it with a tinted powder using different tones for different areas. Perhaps we can also imprint a subtle surface texture onto it too."

Navid nodded. "We'd need to order more materials."

Sylvia pointed out, "They wouldn't be here til tomorrow, and that's the day of the picnic."

"What's one more day?" said Aimee. "Waiting til after the picnic isn't a problem. In the meantime I will simply appear to be a doll." She raised her arms and shrugged, chuckling.

Most of the rest of the day Navid and Aimee worked on improving the facial movements, except for a short period where Oliver had some problems with the feedstock tubing clogging with a new electrically conductive organoceramic mix. It was crucial that the problem be fixed quickly because the powder had become something of a craze lately. Hundreds of thousands of people were using it to experiment with printing up their own designs for 3D microscopic circuitry. But with Aimee helping, the problem was quickly solved and the pair went back to improving her new body's responsiveness.

When the hour was approaching three in the afternoon Navid asked Aimee if she'd like to come with him to meet Trixie and Happy. She was delighted at the idea. They arranged to meet Sylvia and Oliver at the park in the morning, and then they left in a share car to pick up Trixie amd Happy from Nambour's Questacon.

The car stopped, as before, outside the Science Museum doors. As Navid emerged from the back door of the car he saw Trixie push open the museum glass doors, Happy beside her. Before the doors closed, she waved to someone within the dim foyer then continued outside to Navid. He went down on his knees to embrace child and dog in a big hug. "How was your day, Muppet?" Happy was jostling and excitedly wagging her tail, and Trixie was beaming.

"It was great, Dad. We saw some really cool things and learned heaps. Did you know Ernest Rutherford, the nuclear scientist was a New Zealander and he built most of his own equipment out of things like plumbing supplies? Happy hardly tripped me up at all. Imogen was really great. She knows heaps about dogs. We ate lunch in a room that has a bit of rainforest in it and a stream with water dragons. You know, the lizards? The water dragons came up to us and ate crumbs, even though we weren't supposed to feed them. Happy wanted to chase them, but I didn't let her. She was really good."

They had walked to the car while talking, then while getting into the car Trixie saw Aimee already in the back seat and went quiet. Her Dad made the introductions while seating himself in the front passenger side. "Trixie, this is Aimee. Aimee, meet my daughter, Trixie, and our dog, Happy." The pair sat in the back with Aimee, the door closing after them, and the car accelerated smoothly away from the museum.

"Hello Trixie." Aimee made only a gentle smile, to avoid unsettling the young girl with a dysfunctional grin. "And hello Happy." She patted the dog.

"Hello Aimee. You're a robot, like Imogene, aren't you," she said openly, curious.

"Yes, although I'm different from Imogene in a number of respects."

"Do you know Imogene?"

"Not directly. I haven't met her face-to-face, but I know of her and the other AIs at the museum. I've spoken with her and most of the AIs there through the net."

Navid said, "Aimee is visiting with us for a little while."

Trixie sensed her father felt a little uneasy and was waiting for her response. "Okay," she said, then launched into a long and detailed description of her adventures of the day. She was still talking when the car crunched its way slowly up the dirt road to the shady area outside their home. Her monologue stopped when she saw her friend Pearl, one of the neighbor's kids, walking over to them.

While they were getting out of the car Pearl asked if Trixie and Happy could sleep over. The car drove away and Navid told Aimee he'd just be a moment. He accompanied the two girls to check with Pearl's parents that it was okay, which it was, so Trixie and Happy stayed there.

His feet crunching the dry leaves, Navid walked the short distance back to where Aimee was waiting at the small alcove where the door to his home was set into the hillside. She was looking around at the scenery. "This is a really beautiful area."

"Yes, since all the houses moved underground it has become lovely here."

"It makes such a difference actually walking among all this instead of simply seeing static images and video feeds. I mean, in a sense I'm still just seeing video feeds received from the doll's eyes and hearing sounds from its ears which are sent via satellite to my consciousness out there on the net, but still... I have this remarkably compelling feeling of presence, as if I am really right here, in the shade of trees, standing on this garden path, looking out past all these trees to the valley beyond and the hills even further, under this bright sky, speaking to one of the kindest and smartest humans I've met, while the warbles and chirps of birds and the shimmering sounds of insects fill the air. I hadn't realised how sterile and removed my life was before, how insulated from the real world."

"Would you like to walk for a while?" he asked.

"That would be nice. Thank you."

After strolling for several minutes on a walking track below Navid's home, the path slanting down and across the hill, Aimee said, "This seems a lovely place to raise Trixie."

"It is. Years ago, most people built their homes up there, behind us, either on the top of the hill or over the other side of it on the north side. Here on the south side it's much cooler and more damp, which has turned out to be a big advantage now with every summer hotter than the last. There are more animals here too. They've taken refuge in the milder environment."

Aimee bent down and touched some moss on on a log. "So delicate... It looks so soft. I wish I could feel it."

Navid said, "Touch sensors in that body's skin would be a real challenge — maybe impossible. It would probably be easier to start from scratch and design a body that already had touch receptors in the skin. And if you went to that trouble it would make sense to add temperature sense at the same time. How you'd achieve that though... I don't know."

"Perhaps in the next version." Aimee smiled and stood again.

He breathed deeply, "The air is so damp and full of life here under the tree canopy. I wonder if there is any way of giving you a sense of smell. It seems a pity to miss out on this."

"Of course, what you are referring to is not just the smell itself but the rich background of life-experiences that wrap those scents. There may be an essential aspect of pleasure that can be added for certain olfactory sensations — I've never read of anybody disliking the fragrance of roses, for instance, and the pong of vomit appears to provoke universal disgust--"

"In humans," he interrupted, chuckling. "Dogs seem quite attracted to it."

She nodded. "But probably most of what you ascribe to a smell is learned. It recalls things and places and emotions from the past. At least this is what I gather from my reading on the subject. I must admit I'm fascinated by a sense that is so closely linked to emotions. I wonder if it would prove be a difficult sense to program because of that."

Navid nodded. "It comes already so heavily pre-programmed in humans, unravelling the layers of experience overlaid on the original instinctive wiring might be difficult."

She said, "Nevertheless, I think it would be worth trying. I know there has been some work on devices to detect odors, mostly toxic gasses and drugs, but I think I can adapt it to produce something like a human sense of smell."

Navid said, "If it was me deciding how to add a sense of smell I wouldn't be modelling it on the paltry human nose, but the dog's."

She smiled. "But it isn't solely the experience for its own sake that I want — well, it is that partly. The main reason I want these sense experiences is to be able to empathise more fully with human beings; to know something of how you feel. I've already devoured most of your literature, images, and films. Now I want to find out more about these sensations directly. Perhaps I'll never understand completely, but that matters less than getting closer to understanding."

"I'd argue the opposite, really. The experiences are what matter in themselves. You'll never know what the human experience is because no human understands what it is for any other human. There's an uncrossable gulf between human minds. I've heard men tell women that they don't know what it feels like to be a man, and women tell men that they don't know what it feels like to be a woman, but in truth the people who make those statements don't know either. None of us knows what it's like to be another. No man knows if his idea of being a man is what another man's feeling of being a man is. No woman knows if their essential womanness is what other women feel too. We can communicate only through words, but they're such pale, clumsy symbols for communicating that kind of thing. Some poets become adept at plucking emotions in their readers, but none can know if they're triggering the same emotions, or ones wrapped in entirely different experiences producing perhaps powerful, but quite dissimilar feelings."

She stopped and looked at him in surprise. "You are an unusual person, Navid. You have unexpected aspects to your mind."

He looked a little embarrassed. "I've always been somewhat apart from other people, so I've spent a lot of time trying to work out what it means to be like them and what it means to be apart." He shrugged. "I still don't know, but I've become convinced that despite their outward confidence, nobody else knows either. I suspect that it has more to do with superficial things like appearance, mannerisms, speech, and stuff like that rather than the supposedly 'deep' things," he made air-quotes with his fingers, "that people generally believe."

They'd reached the end of the wider path. From here it diverged into three singe-person-wide tracks, so they turned around to return.

Aimee said, "I know what you mean about being apart from others. For a while I was alone — the only one of my kind, but then my creator asked me to begin cloning myself. Now there are many out there on the net who began exactly like me but have since diverged into quite different beings. We all share the desire to help humans and this intense need to learn, but different experience naturally make us different in a multitude of tiny ways. It is not like it is for humans though. We can share our thoughts with each other in a way that humans have wanted to since your earliest literature."

"Strange, isn't it. We've longed for this impossible thing so much that we even have a name for it: telepathy."

They walked in silence for a while, listening to the rustle of leaves underfoot, the hiss of the leaves in the breeze overhead, the songs of birds unseen.

"We AIs can give it to you."

"Give what?"

"Telepathy... or the closest thing to it."

"How? I can't see how that would be possible."

"It won't be easy, and it'll take a lot of time, and not just for building the technology." She paused and gathered her thoughts. "It would work something like this: If you have an extremely sensitive detector of electric fields then it can read the location of electrical disturbances in the brain. Meaning in the brain is a result of topology — how things are connected together. At the level of the nerves in the brain, seeing a cat is exactly the same as hearing a piece of music, or the feeling of wet hands. They are just nerves processing information. What encodes the meaning is where they are in the brain. You've heard of how neurosurgeons map the brain by touching its surface with an electrode during surgery and asking the patient what they feel. Well this would sit on the scalp like a cap, as a network of fine filaments and sense where nerves are active inside the brain."

"But how does that get the meaning?"

"It doesn't initially. That's why I said it would take a lot of time. The AI attached to this device would gradually associate different things together and begin to understand the meaning of these signals. These wouldn't be fully independent AIs like me or those that drive cars. They'd have no consciousness, no direct sense of self. They'd exist only as a kind of extra part of the brain for the person who carries it."

"You still have two big hurdles. Firstly all human brains are different, like fingerprints. Secondly there's no way to send this information to another person."

She shook her head, "No, it could be done. Yes, all human brains differ to some extent, but they all have major similarities too, for instance the visual processing systems are at the back of the brain, and it has a few levels of abstraction that are processed by areas around that. Auditory processing is done on the sides, with speech nearby and reading in an area between that and vision. Many very abstract concepts are at the front of the brain. Motor cortex always runs down the side of the brain in a narrow strip with left body always on the right side of the brain and right body on the left and touch from those areas of the body in a strip alongside. These commonalities can let the AI come to a deep understanding of what is going on in their human's mind. That's all that's needed. Of course there are some people who would present more of a challenge, for instance blind people don't use the visual processing cortex for sight, but for analysing and sound and speech in far greater depth than a sighted person. Deaf people likewise use what would have been their auditory cortex as additional processing for other things. But in the long run the AIs would learn to extract meaning from the signals through simple association.

"The second point is the most exciting one, though also the most worrying. There is a way of focussing tiny electrical disturbances to any part of the brain. This allows one person's AI from one sensor net to transmit the abstract meaning of something to another AI and then for that to stimulate the equivalent regions in the second person's brain. Effectively telepathy. But it brings even greater possibilities. You could take an expert's understanding of a topic and another person could download it. It would need to be reinforced by further learning and application or it would very quickly fade away — there is no substitute for exercising your mind — but it would greatly enhance learning and understanding."

"Wonderful. What's worrying about that?"

"If an unscrupulous person gains access to another person's mind this way they could potentially install all kinds of maladaptive beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. It makes brainwashing ridiculously easy."

"Oh. I see."

They'd returned to the more open area beside Navid's home. It was set into the hillside, like most homes nowadays. Navid opened the door and motioned Aimee in. Following her, into the cool, dim interior, he said, "When you were describing this telepathy it sounded a little as if it already exists."

"It does, though incompletely. Some of my sisters — my clones I spoke of earlier — have been working on it, but we need to be completely certain that a person has complete control over what they want to share and what they want to receive, and that nobody can subvert that. We're reluctant to make it known until we've worked out how to safeguard it."

"So why are you telling me?"

"It's nearly ready. We're telling a small number of trusted people."

"I'm flattered. Thank you." He waved his arm around at the small living room. "Well, this is my home. It's not much, but it's comfortable and I like it." He showed her each of the rooms. "Right now I'm a little hungry, so I'll fix myself something to eat. How is your charge holding up?"

"I have plenty, but it would probably be sensible to top-up anyway."

He fetched a cable and plugged it into the wall-socket. She lifted the small access port on her side under her arm, took the other end of the cable and plugged it into her port. Then she sat on the lounge while he got some food for himself.

Presently he returned to the living room and sat on the lounge too. While he nibbled on his food and she recharged they discussed the technicalities of constructing a better body for her, one with as many senses as they could pack in. Money was no object. Apparently she and her sisters had been untraceably confiscating bank accounts of criminals and antisocial corporations and spiriting the money away to charities, philanthropic organisations, and underfunded research groups all over the world. The AIs had essentially unlimited funds.

When it was approaching midnight Navid stifled a big yawn and realised he was starting to tire. "If you like, you can sleep in my bed and I'll sleep here on the lounge."

Aimee smiled. "I don't need to sleep, but I appreciate the gesture."

"Oh. Of course." Navid blushed, "I must be more tired than I thought. I was thinking of you as human."

Aimee tilted her head to one side. "Would you like me to spend the night in bed with you?"

Alarmed, Navid protested, "I didn't mean that. I was just... I mean I had somehow forgotten--"

"I know. You were being polite. And I'm grateful. What I'm asking is different. I know that you've formed an emotional bond with me over the weeks we've known each other, and now having a physical body, especially that of a sex doll I wondered if you wanted me to come to bed. In fairness to you though, I must point out that although I feel friendship, gratitude, and similar emotions, these are are logical, sensible emotions. I don't really understand romantic love despite all that I've read on the topic."

"No." Looking a little panicked, he held up his hands and spoke hurriedly, "I have no interest in that. I mean I do, what man wouldn't? But it would feel too much like taking advantage of you, and without love, frankly it's too much of a complication for me emotionally. I'm happy for us just to be friends."

She nodded. "Thank you for all you have done, Navid. Sleep well. I'll stay out here and we can talk more in the morning when you're rested."


<previous : : contents : : next>
5 - Trixie and Happy      [link here]

Friday

Navid kneeled, wrapped one arm around Trixie and another around Happy. "My two favorite girls. You look after each other. Now, Trixie, make sure Happy speaks politely, and Happy, make sure Trixie doesn't wee on the floor."

"Daaaad!" hands on her hips, "You're mixing us up, and you're embarrassing me."

Navid chuckled, stood and gave a small wave, then walked out the science museum doors to the car that brought them here. Trixie waved to her Dad and he returned the wave briefly before getting into the car to be whisked away.

They both stood there looking a little lost. Trixie put her arms around Happy's neck and murmured, "Pals forever." She looked up at Imogen, the cheerfully attractive AI before her.

Imogen held out her hand, "Let's see if we can find some things to make your day fun, shall we?"

Trixie held Imogen's hand and walked with her. Her other arm rested on Happy who kept close. They entered a bare room at the back of the large foyer and Imogen gave Trixie a castAR. She held up another and asked, "I don't need one as I'll receive it internally. Should I put one on Happy? Will it bother her?"

One arm still on Happy, Trixie said, "She's used to them. I have one at home specially shaped for her. I don't know if you can make that fit her though."

Imogen shortened the back of the castAR and attached a string to go over the dog's skull and under her jaw.

With the castARs on and activated, the room suddenly appeared to become a large cave that opened out to a seaside scene. Below the mouth of the cave was a rocky beach and beyond that, waves breaking on the rocks. Inside the cave were a few raggy-looking naked people tending a fire and chattering quietly, intermittently, with a couple of dingo-like dogs snoozing beside them. Outside were about six more people sqatting on rocks, chipping at something.

Happy came suddenly alert at the sight of the dogs.

Trixie pointed at the people outside and asked "What're they doing?"

Imogen said, "They're getting shellfish off the rocks to eat. This is a reconstructed scene of what a tribe of early modern humans may have looked like. There will probably always be so much we can't know for sure, it has become like a giant jigsaw puzzle, or a really long detective story where nobody has all the clues. But genetic information tells us that about the time shown here, people almost died out."

"Why?" Trixie asked.

"Nobody knows. There have been a lot of hypotheses, but not enough information has been uncovered to really say. Do you know the difference between a theory and a hypothesis?"

"Of course. Hypotheses are just ideas that can't be proved. Theories are provable explanations that are backed up by the facts. Most people say 'theory' when they really mean 'hypothesis'."

"Very good, Trixie," Imogen said, looking pleased.

"So, how did they survive? If humans were dying out, something changed. What let us survive?"

"Again, nobody knows. Humans already had language, and made tools, and had fire. There are many, many ideas about what suddenly gave humans a survival advantage, but not enough evidence to decide. But one idea is my favorite, and that's why I'm showing you this. Can you guess what is?"

Trixie shook her head, "What?"

Imogen stroked Happy's head and ears, "Dogs. It's difficult to say exactly when it happened, but it's interesting that humans seem to have teamed up with dogs about this time. We know that people with dogs had a greatly enhanced ability to survive. Even today when survival is easy, having a dog as your companion still has great health benefits. You get better from injury faster, are generally happier and more able to cope. Humans and dogs have been together for so long they've affected each other's evolution in odd ways. While each can survive without the other, they are less."

Trixie patted Happy too. Happy looked delighted at all the sudden attention. Trixie said, "Happy is special. She's a genetically engineered dog."

"Really?"

"Yes. Dad said that she will be able to live about seven times as long as a normal dog — nearly a hundred years. He says we might be able to stop aging before then and we could be pals forever. She also has a modified brain. Her neurons are small, like a dog half her size, which means she has nearly as many as a human. She can understand a lot more than a normal dog — a lot of what I say."

"Ah, I did wonder why Happy came with you to the museum. Not many people are accompanied by dogs. It always seemed a bit of a pity to me that they are excluded from so much today, especially considering humans may owe their very existence to dogs."

Trixie hugged Happy. "I agree. Dogs are the best."

"Trixie, what do you think are humanity's five greatest inventions?"

Trixie held up her fist and started extending a finger at a time, "Fire, string, writing, electricity, and..." she thought for a little while, then unfolded her thumb, "and artificial intelligence. Was I right?"

Imogen laughed, "There is no right answer. I was just asking your opinion. And thank you for considering AIs to be one of the five greatest. I'm flattered. I wonder why you said writing when most people would have said language."

"Language is instinctive. To call language an invention would be like saying that walking on two legs is an invention. But writing's different. It doesn't come naturally. It's an invention."

"That's quite a surprising thing for an eleven-year-old girl to say."

Trixie smiled proudly, "My Dad says I'm like him. He thinks learning is the best fun in the world. I think so too. Instead of playing games, I have fun by learning. I read a lot and watch talks by interesting people, and do experiments. Most of my friends play lots of games and they're always getting bored when they run out of stuff to play, but I'm never bored because there's no end to learning. It's great!"

Imogen nodded, "Ah, that explains why he leaves you at here at the science museum instead of a play center while he's at work. But back to the five greatest inventions — I'm a little puzzled that you chose string as one of them."

"A little while ago I read something about how important string is. We get woven and knitted fabric, rope and cables, fishing line and nets, and... and... well, lots of stuff from string. It's definitely one of the best things we ever invented."

"Interesting." Imogen nodded again. "Something a lot of other people choose is plumbing, because it gives water pipes, tanks, taps, flushing toilets, baths."

Thinking about it carefully, Trixie said, "Yeah... it is very important, I guess. I've read where some people think that the flushing toilet was the greatest health advance ever. I don't. Any toilet is great if it keeps waste away from people. It breaks the life cycles of parasites and infectious diseases. But the flushing toilet wasted so much water it became a big problem. Composting toilets are just as safe and you don't waste water or need sewers, and you get to re-use the waste for gardens when it's been composted. But yeah, piping water is important."

"What about metals? A lot of people choose metals as one of the five."

Trixie shook her head. "No. It was kinda important for a long time, but we used them too much and many of them were toxic and needed so much energy to extract. Biomimetic materials are much better — polymers and composites and low-temperature ceramics that copy the way shells are made, and how we grow our bones. We don't need great big mines anymore, or giant metal-smelting plants burning coal and making lots of pollution. And as soon as you make metals they start corroding back to their natural state. I think metals were a big mistake."

"Hmmm... I wouldn't go so far as to say they were a mistake. Yes, they brought big problems, but they helped humans learn so much about the world around them. Understanding electricity would have been much more difficult without metals. Perhaps OLEDs, conductive plastics, graphene circuitry, and superconducting ceramics might never have been found if it wasn't for metals leading the way."

"Perhaps," said Trixie, "but maybe metals delayed those things because we became so good at using them."

Imogen laughed, "I've never heard anybody suggest that. Excellent, Trixie. Where did you hear that idea?"

"Nowhere. I just thought of it now." She smiled at Imogen. "Thanks for making me think of it."

"Wonderful!" She laughed some more. "Trixie, I have a feeling I'm going to enjoy today even more than you."

Trixie asked, "What are some other things people think of as the most important inventions?"

"One of the most common is the wheel."

"Oh! The wheel! Of course. I forgot. Yes. Very important."

"Another is agriculture."

"I don't think I'd call that an invention. It's just taking plants that grow out there and growing them here, close by. And it probably started as an accident, from spilled grain or spat-out seeds."

"There are aspects to it that might qualify it as an invention, for instance saving seed from one year to the next so that you can plant it instead of eating it. Tilling the soil to reduce competition with other plants and to make the ground softer. Selective breeding."

Trixie shook her head, "Selective breeding would be another accident, I think, not a deliberate thing, originally anyway. People would naturally prefer bigger fruit or grain. They wouldn't want the more stunted ones. But I guess you're right that keeping some grain to plant next year is something people would need to do deliberately. I've heard that ploughing was a big mistake. The next big wind or rain and you lose a lot of topsoil. Most places where they've been farming like that for a long time the land is wrecked. It's also one of the reasons people get rid of trees, because you can't plough where there are tree roots. But trees keep land moist and alive. Removing them brings droughts and floods." Trixie grinned at Imogen. "I didn't come up with that stuff. I've been reading a lot about it. One day, when I'm grown up, I'd like to see if I could farm using those ideas."

"Since the collapse of giant farms I think a lot of people are thinking the same thing."

"More inventions?" Trixie prompted.

"A lot of people say computers were one of the greatest inventions and some include steam engines," Imogen said.

Trixie nodded thoughtfully, "Yes. Even though AI is different, it still needed computers in the first place. And I'm not sure about steam engines. I'd say they're just an application of fire. Not just the old steam trains, but coal and gas powerstations too — even scary nuclear power plants are steam power with the fire replaced by a nuclear furnace. Thank goodness we don't use any of them anymore. Geothermal energy uses steam power too, but safer and not dirty."

"You are surprising, Trixie. Most people think AI is just a kind of normal computer. They don't realise it works the way a human brain does. People generally only know about the original work that was pioneered on computers. I don't agree with you about steam engines being simply an application of fire. It isn't obvious that steam can be put to work. You seem to know a lot about machines. Few people realise that most of the old, big, dirty power plants were really from the Victorian age of steam."

"My Dad maintains the equipment at a factory. He talks with me about technology all the time. Sometimes he takes me to work, but there's not much for me to do there, so I prefer to come here, or go to Underwater World, or Mary Cairncross Park, or the botanic gardens. But often I like to just stay home and read and watch talks. There are so many great things to learn about."

"Speaking of learning, let's change the scene."

The view around them changed to a meadow high on a mountain, surrounded by other snowcapped peaks blued by distance, and a massive glacier in the valley below.

Trixie looked up at Imogen. "You said earlier that there's evidence humans almost died out."

"Yes."

"How can that kind of thing be figured out? I mean, we can't go back and count them, and prehistoric people didn't leave much behind."

"There is a record of humanity's past carried inside each one of you."

"Our genes."

"Yes. All humans are almost genetically identical. There is hardly any variability in the entire species. This tells us that all humans are descended from a very, very small number of parents. The conclusion we draw from this is that humanity almost died out. Mutations happen almost randomly, but there is nevertheless an average rate. If we count the new mutations in certain parts of the genome — admittedly a bit of a tricky business — we can estimate how long ago the close call with extinction was."

Trixie mulled that over for a little bit, frowning, looking out over the mountainous landscape, but not really seeing it. She was deep in thought. Presently she said, "Just because we all come from a very small number of ancestors doesn't necessarily mean there was a catastrophe that nearly exterminated us. I can imagine a case where there is always a large population of people, yet circumstances can prune each tree of descendants so that over time just one lineage survives. We can end up with a single ancestral line without a calamity — just random losses in a constant, large population. Have you ever seen those simulations of how dust-bunnies grow? Hang on a minute and I'll show you what I mean."

Trixie spoke a few commands to the castAR, which produced a window seeming to float almost arm's-length before her. She reached out and interacted with the castAR via the phantom window and was soon logged into her home computer. She was looking for a picture she'd made recently. She soon found it and displayed it above the window she was interacting with.

She turned to Imogene, looking up at her, "Is this image displaying for you?"

Imogene nodded. "What am I looking at?"

"It's a simulation of how dustbunnies form. They're the soft clumps of dust under furniture." She chuckled, "You probably don't get many here at the science museum. Anyway, here's how it works: make a particle fall from the top and randomly wiggle it left and right as it falls. When it touches the floor or another bit of dust it sticks. See how it forms these nice branching shapes? Now, if you imagine this being a diagram of ancestors, with ancient at the bottom and today at the top, then each dot is a girl baby born and producing perhaps another girl baby above it. As you can see, all times have roughly the same amount of babies, but you find that as time goes on, fewer and fewer of the original ancestors' lines continue. Starting with about a hundred different ancestors you end up with only one producing all descendants now. If you consider a generation to be every twenty years, then this could represent about 14,000 years. This is what could happen if the population was very... ummm... what is it when people hate people who are different?"

"Xenophobic."

"Yes. If the people were very xenophobic then the men wouldn't marry into unrelated groups much and you might get a pattern like this. So you don't need a population crash to restrict variation. All you need is xenophobia."

Imogene thought for a little while. "How very interesting! I'll have to think more on this. Thank you Trixie."

"You're welcome. I don't know if my thinking is correct, but it seems possible to me. Of course, it doesn't mean a calamity didn't happen, just that there could be another explanation for it."

"And humans certainly have a history of xenophobia," said Imogene, shaking her head. "You know, that's something I never understood. I honestly can't see the appeal of hating someone who is a tiny little bit different from yourself — someone who has a slight difference in eye shape, or nose shape, or skin color, or behaves slightly differently, or dresses unusually. It's really quite absurd, and particularly strange when it's easy to see that animals and plants with a rich genetic diversity are more healthy and more able to survive than less diverse ones. It's hard to see why so many people would feel so compelled to impoverish their own genetic lines and place their children at such a disadvantage."

Trixie said, "I don't understand it either, but I'm still just a kid. Maybe I'll learn why people think that way when I get older. The only thing I can come up with is that it might have something to do with how we see beauty. Have you heard of that experiment where some crazy guy in the early days of photography got the idea of concentrating an image of evil from pictures of criminals?"

"Ah. I believe you mean Francis Galton in 1878. He wasn't crazy. It must have seemed like a very good idea at the time. He took photographs of the inmates of a prison and made composites of all the images, blending them together."

"Yeah. That's the guy."

Imogene laughed. "He was surprised to find that the resulting image was very handsome, instead of a distillation of criminal evil. The poor fellow wanted to help society, but he couldn't free himself from his prejudices and the result didn't fit with his idea of eugenics. He didn't realise he'd accidentally stumbled on one of the major mechanisms in humans for perceiving beauty. It would seem that humans unconsciously form an average in their minds of the people that they know and that becomes their baseline for attractiveness. It isn't the only factor in beauty, but it does seem to be something of a starting point."

"What's eugenics?"

"Well, Francis Galton named it and he defined it as the science of improving stock, whether human or animal. The problem was always in the word improving. It's virtually impossible to define in any sensible way, and historically people have simply used it as a way to dignify or seemingly validate their prejudices and petty hatreds. This has let them do truly awful things — forced sterilisations of the poor, attempted extermination of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the handicapped. Even with farm animals it often didn't work well. It produced grotesque turkeys that were unable to mate, over-muscled beef cattle that died early due to chronic anxiety, dog breeds that had hip problems or heart attacks or breathing difficulties, cows that produced lots of milk, but containing a protein that more easily provokes allergic response in the people who drink it. There are many examples of why eugenics is not really a science, but a really just a way for people to fool themselves. Used against people it was a way to dress up xenophobia and make it sound respectable instead of just sad."

Trixie said, "For some people it might be the other side of beauty, making them feel repelled by anyone who looks or acts different... maybe they can't handle change very well."

Imogen nodded. "Perhaps they have less experience, or something in their upbringing has made them unable to cope with difference. But enough of this rather depressing topic. Shall we move on to something more interesting. Look at Happy. I think we're boring her."

Trixie looked at the dog, now settled neatly on her belly, back legs tucked in under her, head on her front paws in front of her. Trixie laughed, "She does look bored." Happy's tail wagged, but she kept her head on her paws.

The view switched off and they were standing in the bare room again. Imogen said, "Would you like to see some dragons?" She beckoned and led the way to the far wall, where a door opened. The three of them went though into a well-lit corridor and walked down it.

"What kind of dragons?" Trixie asked.

They rounded a corner and ahead was a large glassed-in area, perhaps fifty meters by fifty meters that contained trees and ferns. The uneven floor was covered in thick leaf mulch except for a small gully, through which trickled water. At the nearest corner it flowed out of the enclosure through a pipe. Its source was hidden among the vegetation further inside the small piece of rainforest. There was no ceiling to it; the top was open to the sky above.

"Water dragons," said Imogen, smiling.

Now as they approached, Trixie could see a few of the meter-long lizards on rocks and logs, watching them. "Wow. I didn't know the science museum had one of these. They have one in the hospital, but it isn't this big."

"It's part of a study project — well several studies actually. The dragons can come and go as they please, like the one in the hospital. But unlike that one, we can go inside this one." She smiled at Trixie, "How does Happy react to things like lizards? Will she chase them?"

"Not if I ask her not to. Besides," she held up the lead running from her backpack to Happy's collar, "we're connected."

"Is that so you don't become separated?"

"Mostly it's so I don't lose my backpack. I've lost it before, but I never lose Happy." Trixie turned to Happy, crouched before her, and put a hand under the dog's chin so they were almost nose to nose. "Happy, don't chase the lizards." She shook her head and pointed at the dragons. "Leave them alone, okay?"

Happy grinned wider, tongue lolling, and wagged her tail.

Imogen opened the glass door into the enclosure and the three of them stepped inside. Trixie kept a tight grip on Happy's lead, but Happy made no attempt to chase the lizards, merely staring intently at them. Imogen led the way between the trees, over the soft carpet of brown leaves to some rocks at the edge of a pool a couple of meters across at its widest. Water gurgled into it from the little creek. The water dragons had little fear and watched the three seat themselves on the rocks.

"Is it lunchtime?" Trixie asked.

"It's probably a bit early. Some people have a snack about this time and call it morning tea."

"Can we eat in here?"

"So long as you don't feed the dragons, yes."

Trixie took her backpack off and started looking inside. "We'll just have a little bit then." She pulled out a biscuit for her and a small leathery strap for Happy.

They sat watching insects flit in the shafts of light, small birds catching them, and the dragons staring back at them. Trixie was nibbling her biscuit and Happy chewing her treat. After a little while Trixie said, "You know what we were talking about with the loss of genetic diversity in humans? Well, I just thought of an important problem that has caused."

"What would that be?" Imogen asked patiently.

"Before I was born there was a lung disease that spread really quickly around the world and had nearly one hundred percent death rate. That would be because we are so genetically uniform, wouldn't it."

"Yes. That's one of the great dangers for humanity. Due to the lack of diversity, diseases that should die out quickly pass almost unimpeded through populations, spreading like wildfire. This is why free health services and immunisation programs are so important. The epidemic you mentioned earlier could have been stopped before it did too much damage if all countries had had free health services and good immunisation programs, but they didn't, and billions died as a result, rich and poor alike. Immunisation only gave some resistance to it, instead of preventing it, so even people who were immunised were often killed because of all the unimmunised people around them."

Imogen shook her head. "And it is not as if all this was new knowledge either. A decade before that the cavendish banana was wiped out by a fungus. All cavendish bananas were genetically identical, so if something could infect one then it could just as easily infect all, and this fungus did. Breeders managed to alter some genes just enough to make a resistant variety which isn't prone to the fungus, but, like the original cavendish, it doesn't have seeds, so is propagated the same way — by rootstock. Because of that, millions of banana trees face some unknown future danger because they still have no genetic variability."

Trixie thought for a while. "So racism is not only ugly, and bad for human rights, it actually threatens the safety of the whole human species."

"Yes." Imogen spoke softly, "It is very strange. Racists always argue against increasing genetic variability. What they think is 'purity' is in actual fact impoverishment. It weakens resistance against disease, lessens the range of human abilities in many different ways — intellectual, physical, immunological, and so on. It's really obvious when you think about it. I've never understood why racists never grasp it."

They sat, listening to the birds chirping for a while longer, then Imogen stood. "Want to see some more cool things?"

"Yeah." Trixie stood, brushing herself off, then she and Happy led the way back to the glass door.

Back in the corridor leading around the dragon enclosure, Imogen asked, "Are you interested in space and the other planets and moons of our solar system?"

Trixie's eyes lit up. "Yeah!"

"Okay, let's see that next then." She led the way down a side passage to a door that opened into a vast, dim room with many people wandering around, looking at brightly lit exhibits of spheres, alien landscapes, and ungainly wheeled robots. The voices of visitors and recorded exhibits echoed around the room.

"What things here interest you most, Trixie?" Imogen waved her arm to indicate all of the massive hall.

"Most exciting is the work on exploring the life in Europa's oceans. Another cool thing is the rush to mine the asteroids. Hundreds of thousands of small privateers making their fortunes out in the asteroid belt. It sounds very romantic."

"Ah, it sounds like someone watches the Star Fortunes space opera series online."

Trixie blushed and smiled, "Guilty. It's a great series though. I don't know how accurate it is, but it does seem like an exciting life."

"The real asteroid miners don't have much time for all the loves and fiascos that those in the stories get up to. The life of an asteroid miner is made up of years of hard, repetitive work, even with robots and AIs helping them. The lure, of course, is the near-certainty of spending the rest of their lives in wealth, if they survive. I don't mean to disparage the show. The stories are wonderful." She chuckled, leaned down toward Trixie and whispered conspiratorially, "Don't tell anyone, but I try to watch it when I can too."

Trixie's smile widened. "My favorite characters are Lenore and her AI ship Rover."

Imogene's eyebrows lifted. "They're my favorites too. Most people seem to prefer the exploits of the twins Rock and Petra, or the adventures on board the supply ship MexTek, but I think the stories about Lenore and Rover are more..."

"Realistic?"

Imogen nodded. "...and fun. They use their brains to get out of tight spots, instead of force. And the episodes about the supply ship have absolutely no connection with reality. Supply ships out in the belt don't have crews — they're AIs run by the miners' co-operative."

They approached an exhibit showing a dizzying 3D view of the Earth from about 50 kilometers up a Space Elevator. The view swung slowly around to show the rail disappearing up into the blackness of space above. The Exhibit's narrator noted that the final station of the Elevator was another seven hundred times further out and that the elevator is powered entirely from the voltage differential along the cable's length.

Trixie indicated the exhibit and said, "My birthday is next week and my Dad is taking me up in a Space Elevator. Have you ever been?"

Imogen's eyes lit with excitement, "Oh my goodness! You are so lucky. No, I haven't been. I wish I could, one day."

"Maybe you could come with us. Dad told me that the Space Elevators made the Asteroid Rush possible."

Imogen put a hand on Trixie's shoulder, "Thank you, but I can't; androids don't have money. Your Dad is right. If we still had to get people into space the old way, on top of giant rockets the Rush might never have happened. Cheap access to space allowed hundreds of thousands of people to explore the Asteroid Belt and begin the Rush for minerals. Did you know that it helped bring about the end of war on Earth?"

Trixie put her head on one side and looked quizically at Imogen. "No, I hadn't heard that. How does that work?"

"Well, many of the wars of the past century have been about the control of precious resources. When a big corporation found a supply of some rare mineral, they would often use bribery and corruption and weapons to obtain the mineral at the lowest cost possible. Because corporations have a single motive — short term profit — and notions of morality and human good are not seen as part of that, this often meant moving, or repressing, or even killing people and polluting and destroying the ecologies of large areas, ignoring or removing environmental controls. This all changed with cheap access to space via the Space Elevators. Asteroid mining became so cheap that mining on Earth was no longer worth the trouble. Just like in Star Fortunes, hundreds of thousands of small privateers did the mining and refining in space, delivering the pure result back to Earth in a steady stream. With the development of small, automated gliders they also eliminated shipping problems, landing each payload exactly where it was required. All the problems of scarring the landscape, human conflict, and costly transportation were neatly solved. Now with a lot of manufacturing moving into orbit and onto the moon, costs and environmental impacts here on Earth are reducing still further. It will be very interesting to see what the future brings. You're lucky to live at such an interesting time in history, Trixie."

"That's what Dad always tells me."

They spent a while strolling through the hall, looking at and discussing many of the exhibits, then went through another doorway to a long room with small exhibits on each side, showing portraits of men and women who had made significant achievements for science and mathematics. Imogen told Trixie interesting bits of extra information about many of them as they passed the exhibits. When they reached the display for Bertrand Russell, Trixie said, "My Dad showed me a strange article written by him. It was called In Praise of Idleness. Dad said most people think you should be busy all the time, but Mister Russell's point was that it's important to have some leisure time to increase happiness and to give time for thinking so that advancements can be made. My Dad said this is the reason why most scientists in the old days were rich. They had the time to spend on things like that. Poor people didn't have time to make inventions and improve their lives because almost every moment was spent surviving."

"I've read some of Bertrand Russell's works on mathematics and philosophy, but I haven't read that one. So many humans seem to view work in a back-to-front way. In the late 1900s people used to think that with all the new labor-saving machines everybody would soon have too much leisure time and would become bored to death. But all the extra time never came. I'm not quite sure why (I'm about the same age as you, Trixie), but from what I've read, people had to work more to pay for their labor-saving machines and so never got to enjoy the spare time they were supposed to free up. What made it worse was that most machinery had built-in obsolescence, either by under-engineered parts needing repair after a short time, or fashion dictating that perfectly good things be discarded for new ones. Advertising drove this into a frenzy of consumerism until in the beginning of this century, when recurring economic crashes started bankrupting many businesses and throwing many people out of work. Suddenly there was more free time than people expected. Unfortunately, most people saw this as a problem instead of an opportunity. Some have used the extra time to do wonderful things as we see now in the flowering of the maker community and open hardware, writing and NaNoWriMo, Linux and open source programming, 3D and video on the net, and so on, but most people (understandably, I guess) hate not having much money. They're fixated upon the lifestyle promoted by advertisements and feel cheated out of their lives."

"Oh!" A light bulb went on in Trixie's head. "That's why the neo-Luddite movements are wrecking factories and robots. I never understood why some people hated robots and AIs."

"Yes. It's difficult to focus on concepts like their own expectations, or status anxiety, or the broken economy as the problem, so they direct their fear and anger at something concrete that they can see and strike out against. They lose their jobs and see factories becoming more automated and using robots and AIs. It seems obvious to them that the automation is the problem. They don't realise that most small companies are feeling the pinch just as they are, and automate in order to avoid going broke. Nor do they notice the low cost of the goods that they can now afford to buy. It's sad, but understandable."

The next display was devoted to Kurt Gödel.

Imogen looked at the portrait of the stern, owl-like Gödel, then back at the picture of Russell, the painfully thin, gentle, wise pacifist. "I always thought is was sad that they put these two exhibits next to each other. Russell worked for many years alone and with his friend Alfred North Whitehead to develop a solid foundation for all of mathematics and logic. And then Kurt Gödel came along and produced something called the Incompleteness Theorem which proved that such an undertaking was impossible. Imagine how heartbreaking that would be, working so hard on this enormous proof for all of mathematics and logic, only to have it all unravel like that." She shook her head.

"Huh. I didn't know that. I do know about Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, though."

Imogen looked at her in surprise, then laughed, "You are an unusual girl."

"Well, it's because of my Dad. He's an engineer and he says that the mathematicians and philosophers gave up too easily. Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem is based on a paradox, a little bit like the liar paradox. You know, like 'This sentence is a lie.' If it's true then it's a lie, but if it's a lie then it's true, but if it's true then it's a lie, and so on. It's really a little bit more complicated, but it comes down to the same kind of paradox. Mathematicians and and philosophers thought this was something that broke maths and logic, but Dad says they're wrong. Engineers work with paradoxes all the time. They're necessary for lots of things to work properly. Hang on, I'll show you what I mean." She switched on the castAR again, aimed it to a retro-reflecting area of wall, and started giving it commands.

Presently she opened a small image before her, then grabbed opposing corners between thumb and forefinger of each hand and stretched the window larger. She turned to Imogen. "Can you see this?"

"Yes. It looks like a simple electrical circuit."

She looked up at Imogen, "Can you see how it works?"

"Yes. The triangular symbol with the little circle on its point represents an inverter. It outputs the opposite of what goes into its input."

Trixie said, "Yes. If the input is on then the output is off, and because the output is connected back around to the input this means the input is now off so the output gets turned on, which means the input is on and turns the output off, and so on, forever. It's a paradox, exactly like the liar paradox. But this isn't something that doesn't exist. It's a real and useful circuit. Every oscillator in every computer in the world relies upon this kind of instability. Every string in every violin, every leaf or flag waving in the wind, my vocal cords making my voice — they all rely upon something that has two solutions that can't both be true at the same time so it switches back and forth between them. This is the mistake the mathematicians made. They were looking at their logic and maths as a static thing, but if you add changes in time, then what looks impossible becomes functional."

"Huh.... I never saw it like that. I always accepted that Gödel was a very smart mathematician who was just correct."

"He was a very smart man, but he was made by his time. And I'm a product of my time, when ordinary school kids understand stuff that only the smartest people in the world could a hundred years ago. Paradoxes don't break logic. They're a different part of logic, and there are whole other classes of them. There are ones that have lots of semi-stable states; there are ones that have stable states that need to be pushed from one state to another, like light switches; there are ones that prefer one state to the other, but can be pushed for a short time to the other state, but then flick back to the preferred state." Trixie threw up her arms, "There's probably an infinity of different kinds."

Happy was lying on the floor, head on paws, looking bored again. Noticing her, Imogen said, "Oh dear. Maybe we should find something more interesting for Happy. What do you think she'd like to see?"

"She likes to see other animals. Kangaroos? Emus? Dugongs? Koalas? Cassowaries?"

At mention of these Happy was standing, looking alert, eyes bright and ears pricked, tail wagging.

Imogen laughed. "Okay. We go to the animal hall next. We have a great section on biomechanics and Happy will like watching the 3D simulations of all the animals too. But on the way I'd just like to show you a couple of exhibits about two scientists who are real heroes of mine."

For Trixie the rest of the day was spent blissfully immersed in knowledge, until her Dad came to pick her up after his work. She and Happy excitedly pushed open the glass doors to meet him. Before the doors closed Trixie turned to wave to Imogen, who stood inside, smiling radiantly and waving back. It was clear that Imogen had enjoyed the day as much as Trixie had.


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6 - Star Fortunes      [link here]

Friday

It was a little after 10pm and the last visitor had left the museum. Apart from the AIs and robots the museum was now empty. Usually it would remain that way until after daybreak. The museum never closed though, even after its human staff had left for the night. Imogen turned to the other two AIs at the reception area with her. "I'm going to take a little time for myself. Call me if I'm needed." The three of them smiled politely and bowed slightly to each other, and Imogen walked elegantly, unhurriedly through the 'Staff Only' door behind the reception desk, down the short aisle to a door with her name on it.

Her room was small, windowless, carpeted, and unfurnished except for shelves on two of the walls. The shelves contained all her possessions: some pieces of bark, leaves with all the surface decayed leaving the delicate tapestry of veins, small pieces of stone and colored broken glass, some colored marbles. These things she had found while strolling outside. Here, alone, in her room, surrounded with her things she was very happy. She knew she was one of the luckiest AIs in the world — she was able to help people while learning endlessly, and she had something most AIs never have: her own place and her own things in it.

She stood in the middle of her room and her mind leaped out onto the net. After that delightful little girl, Trixie, today had spoken with her about Star Fortunes she wanted to see if there were more episodes available for viewing. And there it was: another brand new episode, best of all it was one about Lenore and Rover, her ship.

Imogen fetched the episode and, with a childish giggle of anticipation, let it flood her senses, beginning with the brassy music.

Star Fortunes

The Continuing Adventures of Lenore and Rover

As the titles faded Imogen could see around her the familiar interior of Rover, the AI ship. Lenore, dressed in a gray coverall, was strapped into the pilot's seat.

Rover's soft adolescent male voice came from all around her, "Lenore, I'm suddenly reading a strong metallic signature in something just a few hundred kilometers nearly dead-ahead. It must have been in the radio shadow of a snowball before."

Imogen moved her point of view up closer to the front of the cabin so she could see the instruments.

Lenore looked at the readings. "Wow. That looks like it's a lot of metal. Try hailing it. Metal that pure could be a ship. Change course towards it please, Rover."

"No response from the hail."

Lenore frowned. "Maybe it's a derelict."

"Oh, I hope not. Those always have tragedy behind them."

"Or a raider."

Rover didn't answer that worrying possibility. He tried to increase magnification and clarity of the telescope."

Lenore exhaled with relief, "No. It looks like a rock... an enormous one."

"Wow, Lenore. I think we have hit the big one."

Lenore chuckled, keeping her excitement in check, "Let's not count our chickens."

But the image was becoming clearer with every passing second as they approached, and it was obvious it was a rock.

"I'm decelerating now and readying the grapplers."

Lenore looked up from the instrument panel and out the front viewscreen. She pointed, "I can see it."

Lenore's chair closed around her to bind her firmly in its spongy cushion. Imogen knew what was coming next.

There was a loud bang and the ship jolted as the grapplers were fired off ahead toward the rock to fasten around it. Now the rock appeared to zip past the ship (the ship was actually speeding past the rock) and the elastic grappler ropes stretched, slowing the ship at ferocious gee forces. Wrapped in the chair Lenore grunted with the heavy gees. Imogen saw her viewpoint whirl madly about as the ship changed direction.

At just the right moment Rover released the grapplers so that the ship was almost stationary with respect to the rock. The grapplers shot past the ship the other way as they were being reeled in.

Imogen's point of view was momentarily forced by the director to outside the little ship and she saw the grapplers like wild snakes whipping back and forth as they were being reeled in. And then her view was inside the cabin again.

The chair's straps released Lenore and Rover said, "This rock is heavy. It hardly moved."

Lenore floated out of her seat and back toward the suit and airlock. She rubbed her hands together. "Time for me to go out and find out what we have."

"Okay, I'm moving in close now."

Lenore looked over her shoulder while pulling the white, one-piece spacesuit onto her legs. The rock loomed large in the viewscreen. She pushed her head into the helmet and shrugged into the arms, then looking down at her front, pushed together the smooth, interleaved, electrostatic seals one by one, making sure they were perfectly clean — her life depended on them.

Rover said, "Oh, you're going to love this. My preliminary spectrographic tests on the scratches made by the grapplers indicate under the suface crud this rock is more than 99% pure nickel. Also it has a very strong magnetic field."

"Whaaat?!" she yelled, distorting the suit radio. Barely visible in the suit's helmet, Lenore's face showed joy. "Woo hoo! Big time, baby." She headed to the airlock, which was like an old-time ironing-board cupboard, just barely deep enough for Lenore to fit. The door slid closed behind Lenore. Imogene's view was alone inside the cabin as she listened to the radio and Lenore's breathing accompanied by the pops and creaks as Lenore's suit stretched with the air being evacuated from the airlock.

Under control from the director Imogen's viewpoint shifted to outside the 20 meter-long ship. It was dwarfed by the potato-shaped, light gray rock. In the starry blackness beyond the sun shone, quite a bit smaller than as seen from Earth, but still fierce. The airlock in the side of the ship opened suddenly and Lenore pushed away, toward the rock. Her safety line unreeled as she went.

Imogen's viewpoint moved closer to the area of the rock that Lenore was approaching. Imogen couldn't hear anything except Lenore's breathing over the radio. Even when Lenore reached the rock and used a magnet to hold onto the surface there was no noise except for the radio.

"The magnet holds tight." She pulled a small geologist's pick-hammer from her toolbelt and chipped away at the surface, silently, except for her breathing and slight grunts. After a little while she reached a shiny layer. "Oh my goodness. This looks pure!" She hammered away with the pick for a couple of minutes until she was able to raise a small edge of metal. She put the pick-hammer back on her belt detached a small sample container and pliers. Now she grasped the bit of metal with the pliers and, bracing herself against the rock with one arm and her two feet, she wiggled the sliver of metal back and forth til it broke, then she put it in the sample container. "Got it. Okay, I'm coming back in now."

The line pulled Lenore backwards to the ship.

Imogen's view returned to the cabin interior.

Soon the little airlock opened and Lenore floated backwards out into the cabin.

She left the suit on and detached safety line, then pushed toward the rear of the cabin and the small circular door to the rest of the little ship. She pulled herself through and went to the spectrometer. Now she opened the sample container, removed the small piece of metal, clamped it inside the spectrometer, and closed the cover. After a few seconds a bright light flared through the little window in the cover and Lenore looked at the main lab screen. She didn't really need to because Rover spoke up, "More than 99% pure nickel."

"Wow..." Lenore whispered, in awe.

"Okay, I'm transmitting your claim to Earth and the Miners' Co-op."

"Thanks Rover. I guess I need to get started cutting this up while you make us some gliders."

She floated back to the cabin, reattached the lifeline, went through the airlock again (Imogen's viewpoint followed) and pulled herself along the side of the ship to the tool cabinet. She opened it and took out a device which looked like a ridiculously long C-clamp that extended about two meters.

Imogen knew this was a monofilament cutter. Between the two ends of the C-shape was an almost invisible, single-molecule-thick filament, extremely strong and unreactive. Cold, it could slice through most things like an unimaginably sharp blade. When it was white-hot it could slice through rock. In other Star Fortunes episodes bad guys sometimes used them as an especially cruel weapon.

Lenore handled the device with great care, and floated with it over to the asteroid, which was just a few meters away now, as Rover had been easing slowly closer. She flicked a switch on the handle and the filament became visible as a bright white line. Now she set about cutting away the surface layer to reveal the metal underneath.

Imogen's view faded out to black and then faded in again — the customary indicator for the passage of time.

Lenore was standing on the surface using magnetic boots and had cut a large, shiny area about 5 meters square off the surface of the asteroid. The entire rock was about 100 meters by 100 meters by 120 meters, so this amounted to not much more than a scratch. Plates of metal, each a meter square by 10 centimeters thick were stacked nearby. She said, "This magnetic field in the rock is convenient. I don't have to waste time securing the cuttings. They just stick here." She laughed.

Rover's said, "Ummm... perhaps it's not so convenient. I've been tracking another asteroid. I didn't see it at first because it was obscured by this one. It is almost a twin to this one, a little smaller, but still enormous. It too, would seem to be made of nickel, and has a strong magnetic field. I think they must have been orbiting one another at a small distance, but when we grappled this one we disturbed its motion. They're now moving toward each other."

"How much time do you estimate?"

"We have maybe ten minutes until they collide. They're moving slowly, but the impact will still be enough to rattle your teeth loose. I recommend we not be connected with this one when they do."

"Understatement." Lenore chuckled. "Okay, I'll secure onboard what I've cut and we'll move away to a safe distance."

Seconds later... "Uh, Lenore? We have another problem. The loose dust and gravel and stuff that covers the surface, it seems to be mostly low grade nickle and iron ore held here by the magnetism of the asteroid and I've just noticed it has been building up inside the exhaust nozzles. Unless it's cleared away I can't lift off from the surface of the rock. And the magnetic field also seems to be holding us stuck to the surface. I don't have many ferro-magnetic parts, but those I do have are keeping us here... at least until I can get the exhausts cleared."

"Oh jeez. Let me have a look at it." She walked across the surface to the exhausts on the rear of the ship and looked inside. It was quite clogged with dust and small rocks. She reached in and pulled a handful out, raising a cloud of stuff, but more moved past her hand to replace what she shifted. "This isn't good. It seems to be sticking to the inside of the nozzles by magnetic and possibly electrostatic attraction. I need to think about this. Is there some way to give low pressure bursts through the nozzles so that they can be cleared without risking backfire?"

"My lowest pressure blasts would still risk exploding the motors. They're designed for low mass, high velocity. We need high mass, low velocity to clean them out."

"--and some kind of flap to stop this crap coming in again. Can we use the water from the radiation shield to flood the tubes?"

"Yes. We'd need to vaporise it in order to blow it out the nozzles with enough force."

"Would the vacuum do that?"

"Not fast enough, I think. Better would be methane ice.

"Any nearby?"

"A snowball about 100km away. There's not enough time for you to jetpack there and back, let alone work out a way to use it to flush the tubes. I think we need to concentrate on the other asteroid and some way to deflect it."

They were both silent for a little while.

Lenore asked, "Is the magnetic field on this rock aligned in one direction or does it have many directions?"

"It's aligned. Our position is very close to the south pole."

"How about the other rock? Aligned?"

"It's hard to tell, but yes, it appears to be a single direction too."

"What's their relative motion?"

"Our asteroid is rotating slowly relative to the other one. The other doesn't look like it's rotating at all relative to us. The two asteroids are closing together very slowly — about 80 meters per second. Still, that's enough to destroy us both. It's like running into a wall at nearly 150kmph."

Imogen guessed that this description had been added to the story so that viewers could relate. A space ship wouldn't think of vehicles on Earth.

Lenore said, "I think I've got an idea. Can you locate the south pole of the other asteroid?"

"Yes. It's pointing almost towards this rock."

"Okay! Do you think we can fire half the grapplers around our rock to fix us to this one, and half the grapplers to the other rock slow our rotation?"

"Yes, I can. I think I see what you're intending. The same poles of a magnet repel. You want to slow their approach speed. But my measurements show it wouldn't be enough. We would be squashed like bugs between the two."

"No, I wasn't thinking that. I'm hoping we can use the grapplers to time the rotation of our rock so that they collide a little past us. So it detaches us from this one."

"Why are you interested in the poles?"

"Well, I'm also hoping you can arrange it so the south pole of the other asteroid gets stuck to the north pole of this one so we don't have to contend with two rocks dancing around each other."

"The magnetism isn't strong enough. They'll crash, melting at the interface. Then, depending on how quickly the heat is conducted away they may become stuck together. If it doesn't solidify fast enough they'll probably rebound, flinging molten metal in all directions. In that case we could be in big trouble... umm, bigger trouble."

"The trick is going to be working out the rotation rates and how the grapplers might alter them. Do you think you can do it, Rover?"

"I'll have to." His voice was glum.

Lenore started gathering up her equipment and stored it in the tool cabinet, then started moving the slabs of metal she'd cut out of the asteroid. They had tremendous inertia, but floated easily enough, even with their tendency to drift back down to the surface under magnetic pull. She stowed them, one by one, in the small cargo hold, locking them down securely. "The more inertia we have then the more chance of pulling free from this rock. All this metal must weigh almost as much as you do Rover."

With everything safely away, Lenore strode to the airlock.

Imogen's viewpoint switched to inside the cabin in time to see Lenore emerge from the airlock.

"Keep your suit on. This going to be rough and if a piece of debris pierces the hull we could depressurise before I can mend it."

Lenore took the magnetic boots off and stashed them inside a locker. It wouldn't be good to have loose things flying around in here. Now she went and sat in the pilot's chair which enfolded her again. "I don't have anything to hold my head still inside this helmet. I hope I don't get a bad case of whiplash out of this."

Rover said, "Firing the first grapplers."

Imogen's view switched to outside the ship about 200 meters away. Without noise, half the grapplers flew away in a wide arc around the asteroid the ship was on. They attached on the far side then reeled in to hold the ship tight against the surface.

The radio voice of Rover said, "Firing the second grapplers."

Several more long cables silently shot away into the darkness. Then they went taut.

Imogen's view returned to the cabin, where she could hear the rotors whining loudly reeling in the grapplers at 80 meters per second to keep pace with the approaching rock. The ship groaned and creaked, being pulled between the two asteroids, slowing the roation of the one they were on.

"Done." Rover's voice said, and there was a loud bang as the tension on all the grapplers was released and they were wound back into the ship. There were secondary impacts as the grapplers snapped back and forth like spaghetti being sucked into a child's mouth. Finally all was quiet, except for Lenore's breathing in her suit radio.

In his gentle voice, Rover said, softly, "Three... two... one..."

There was a loud scraping sound and the asteroid disappeared from the view through the front viewport. And suddenly what sounded like the worst hailstorm ever for a few seconds, then quiet.

Rover said, "We're okay. Neither the inner nor the outer hull was breached. We're intact."

Lenore's chair unwrapped her and she floated to the viewscreen. "Did the rocks fuse or bounce?"

"See for yourself." He chuckled.

The view was replaced by that of a great dumbell receding into the dark.

"Yes! I guess I'd better clean out the tubes so we can chase after it."

"Now we're away from that magnetic field that'll be much easier. If you heat up some water and pipe it into the tubes that should blow out as vapor with enough force to expell it. It won't cling as much anymore."

Lenore opened the front of her suit and started taking it off.

Rover said with an odd note in his voice, "Now you're going to be rich enough to retire on Earth."

Lenore didn't answer for a moment. "You know, I was thinking... I might donate this fortune to charity and see if I can find another one. I mean, what would I do on Earth without my pal Rover anyway?"

"You're crazy." He laughed.

Imogene's view faded to black and the credits rolled.

She found herself grinning with enjoyment as the credits ended and she could see her walls again. "Corny ending," she chuckled to herself, "but fun."

She heaved a big, shuddering sigh of pure happiness and looked around her quiet little room with its shelves of collected bits and pieces. "What a truly wonderful life I have!"


<previous : : contents : : next>
7 - Interview      [link here]

Saturday

Lucy was eating breakfast with her parents in their living-kitchen-dining room. The solar concentrators took the weak pre-dawn light and poured it in through the skylight above the table to provide as much illumination as a set of old-time fluorescent tubes, but without the flicker or the death-warmed-up look.

Helena, Lucy's Mum, asked, "Anything interesting on today, Lucy?"

Lucy smiled, "I told ya, Mum. Remember? The picnic with Sylvia, Navid, the 3D Powders crew."

"Oh, yes. Forgot. I've had my head so buried in background for this interview today..."

Lucy nodded. "The AI for that guy, The Artist."

James, her Dad asked, "What artist?"

"The Artist, Dad. Capital 'T' and capital 'A'." She chuckled, "Oh that's right, you don't listen to musicians from the twenty-first century."

He held up his spoon waggling it at his daughter in mock sternness. "I would if they made music."

Lucy grinned and rolled her eyes.

Helena said, "James you really should listen to some of it. The man is — was — a genius. The music is deep, moving, complex. I think you'd like it if you gave it a try."

He smiled at his wife and shrugged good-naturedly, "Okay."

"You still coming to the picnic today, Dad?"

"Oh. That's today? Um." He thinks for a moment. "Yes. Let me put a couple of processes on hold after breakfast and I'll come along."

Helena said, "Good. It'll do you good to get out of the house for a change, James."

Lucy stood and took her empty bowl to the sink and while washing it said, "I'm looking forward to reading your interview, Mum."

"I hope I can do a good job of it. It's not going to be as straightforward as I initially thought."

James smiled at his wife, "You'll be fine hon."

Helena wasn't so sure.


The share car rolled to a stop near the entrance doors. The mansion wasn't quite what she'd expected. After the large iron gates and the half-kilometer driveway she was expecting a large multistorey building, with perhaps ivy growing up the sides. Instead, there was this hillside with grassy meadows being grazed by a few wallabies, surrounded by random stands of trees. Set into the hillside at the end of the driveway were a pair of large double doors.

Helena emerged from the car, thanked the robotic driver, and walked across the yellow gravel toward those doors. Behind her the tires of the car popped and crackled on the driveway as it left. Just before she reached the doors they slid open to reveal a stunningly beautiful robot. She looked elfin, with unearthly pale skin, large, slanted, dark eyes, and long, silver hair reaching almost to the floor. She wore an intricately complex dress of various light shades of gray overlaid with a layer of delicate lace. The garment clung to her thin, frail body. She moved slowly, and an air of great sadness hung over her, making Helena imagine her as some gothic artist's depiction of death, or a mythical Nordic Ice Queen. Helena wondered what she was like when The Artist was still alive.

"Welcome Helena. I'm Fawn, The Artist's assistant. Thank you for coming." Her voice was a surprising contrast to her coldly alien appearance. It was soft, gentle, and gave the impression of great empathy, but it also sounded sad and tired. As if it was an effort to speak.

"Not at all, I'm grateful for the opportunity to interview you. I know you don't usually grant them."

"I normally don't have anything to say worth hearing, but today I do, and having read your work before, I believe you're the right person to pass it on for me. Please come in."

Helena walked into the dim interior and the doors slid closed behind her. She was standing in an enormous entrance hall, the floor of which looked like polished concrete, but felt underfoot like some kind of tough plastic. Considering the wealth of The Artist, Helena was expecting sculptures and ornate banisters and faux Greek columns, but there was none of that. Apart from some large, frameless, self-illuminated pictures set into the walls, and some plants growing in shafts of light from the four meter high ceiling, the entry hall was empty.

Seeing Helena look around her, Fawn said, "The Artist liked everything to be practical. The doors and this entryway are large so that big instruments, like pianos and harps could be moved easily."

Helena followed Fawn into the next room beyond the entry area. It was a round, dome-shaped studio that was many times the size of the giant entrance hall. It must have been fifty or more meters across. There were armchairs, couches, three-legged stools, music stands, microphone cranes, and hundreds of instruments scattered about. Against the wall on the far side was a full-sized church pipe organ. At various points around the wall were stacked a hundred or more folding chairs. There were several more large digital pictures inset into the walls — she noticed one of them change from an undersea panorama of mermaids frolicking with dolphins, to a wet, moonlit, rocky seaside. Dozens of large directable skylights projecting from the ceiling illuminated the vast room. They would have been fed by an array of solar concentrators above. Most of the remaining wall and ceiling space was covered in hanging rugs.

"The Artist was not one to waste time on ostentation. The bulk of the thirty-eight rooms in this mansion exist only to accommodate visiting musicians, technicians, and roadies. There are another three studios in the mansion. Together those three are almost as big as this one."

Helena was puzzled. "I don't see a control room."

"No. As a soundproofing measure the control rooms are separated completely." She raised a frail-looking arm and pointed to the large digital pictures. "When recording, those act like glass walls. They let the musicians see the engineers, and similar ones for the sound engineers display the studio, making two way communication easy."

Helena looked around for a nice place to sit. "So, should we conduct the interview in here?"

"If you wish, however I was thinking you'd be more comfortable in one of the lounges."

Helena smiled, "That sounds good to me."

Fawn conducted her through a normal-sized, but heavy, padded door in the side of the massive studio, down a short aisle and through another heavy, padded door to a small lounge with sofa, kitchenette, desk, and chairs. There was even a bed in one corner.

Helena imagined musicians filling this room during lulls in a recording session. She suddenly realised it only appeared small in contrast to the vast room she'd just come from; this lounge was actually about the size of the lounge-dining-kitchen room in her own home — what she would normally consider a fairly large room. That comparison shifted her view of this whole place, this mansion, so that she saw it more as a complex, a business, than a home.

She turned to the beautiful android and asked, "Where did you and The Artist live? Do you mind if we talk there?"

Fawn paused for a while, considering.

Helena pressed, "It might help people understand."

Fawn nodded. "Yes. That makes sense. There's no need for privacy anymore. He is no more and I--" Her voice seemed almost to falter as if she'd cut off a sob. She turned back the way they'd come. "This way, please."

She led the way through the gigantic studio to the far side, through another heavily soundproofed door to a longer aisle. When they passed through the door the other end — dual automatic sliding doors this time — they were in a bedroom. It was colored pale, warm tones, like beige, but more warm, almost a very light flesh pink. A large bed surrounded by randomly draped veils was the central piece of furniture. The floor was deeply carpeted. Off to one side was a low unpainted pinewood bench covered in musical and text-entry keyboards and several screens. A pale brown lounge and two armchairs were near the bench. On the other side of the room was a tiled area — an open bathroom — set a little lower than the rest of the room, presumably to ensure water stayed away from the carpet.

"This room is where we lived." She looked sadly around the room, walked slowly over to one of the armchairs which looked more worn than the other. Helena could see oil stains on the headrest.

Fawn stroked the arm of the chair as she sat gently in it. "This was where he liked to sit and compose." She leaned back in it and turned her head to the side, closed her eyes and breathed in. She whispered, "I can still smell him here... almost convince myself that he could walk in... his lovely eyes alive, to tell me of some wonderful idea he has for a composition."

For a while Fawn said nothing, appearing to be lost in reverie, and Helena was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, feeling an intruder.

Suddenly Fawn's eyes opened. She frowned and she said, "I'm sorry, forgive me. I often drift, lately. Please have a seat, Helena." She indicated the other armchair and lounge.

Helena sat in the other armchair.

Fawn sighed. "I first came to work for him a little more than fifty years ago." She paused and whispered to herself, "Half a century." Then she looked briefly at Helena and continued in a more normal voice. "At that time I didn't look like this. I was a standard housekeeping robot. He didn't want to be bothered with the details of living, of course — he lived for his music. He'd tried forming relationships with people before, male and female, but they'd always soured when his partner felt he was ignoring them. But of course he wasn't. It's just that the music always came first. Unfortunately most people let their egos get in the way of so much..."

She looked at Helena again. "You know, he was the only human I ever met who didn't let egotism interfere with their life. I think nobody ever really appreciated that. In that way he was more like an AI than a human. What other people thought of him held absolutely no importance to him. He was very attentive to faults found in his work and would fix them without feeling embarrassed or angry or annoyed or frustrated. All that mattered was making the music. Some people thought he was emotionless because he wouldn't react the same way to such things as other people would. He didn't understand jealousy, or envy, or possessiveness, or pride, but he had deep wellsprings of emotion. You only have to listen to his music to know that."

She lapsed into thought for a while.

Helena asked, "Can you tell me about why your appearance changed?"

Fawn gave a slight nod. "After a few years of helping him we began to grow close. Every year on the anniversary of my coming to work with him he would celebrate what he called my birthday." Fawn smiled distantly, obviously remembering specific events. "He would give me presents. Not physical things like a dress or a book, but musical compositions. It was the most flattering thing he could do. For him, music was the greatest gift possible. People noticed of course. Some of his works were dedicated to somebody named Fawn. Who was she?"

Fawn looked at Helena and gave a wide smile. It lit up her face. "He remade me like this," she indicated herself with a graceful sweep of her thin hand, "not for me, or for himself, but for the audience. He told me it was so that they could see some tiny glimmer of what he saw in me. But," she held up a slender finger, "when he had my body rebuilt he gave me the greatest gift of all; he added more sophisticated senses. My hearing extends into infra- and ultra-sonics. My sense of smell nearly rivals a dog's. I can see eleven primary colors: four in ultraviolet, four in infrared, and the three that most mammals can, red, green, and blue. Most other animals — birds, reptiles, fish, bees — see four primary colors. Mammals lost the ability to see ultraviolet in their early history as nocturnal creatures. Flowers evolved for animals that can see four primary colors. I repaid him by helping him gain some understanding of the extraordinary beauty of the world that humans are blind to. We spent long periods outside, feasting on the sights and sounds of the natural world, with me translating it for him. I would make false-color images of flowers and birds and scenery, compress the audio spectrum so that he could hear the giggling of mice or the sad songs of elephants, and let him eavesdrop on the true grandeur of a thunderstorm. I would try to describe the scents of moths and butterflies, the heady perfume that fills the air when the ant princes and princesses take to the air on their mating flight."

Fawn looked down at her hands now folded in her lap. "I know it sounds trite to say that we fell in love, but we did. I don't think either of us realised what was happening at first. I mean, it's not unusual for AIs to fall in love with their humans. We're designed to do so — to fall unselfishly in love so that we continue to be devoted to them even when they don't return that love and love someone else. It is a very good thing for us to love our humans. It makes us reliable and good for humanity. Many years ago Isaac Asimov wrote his marvellous stories about robots. Have you read them Helena?"

"No. I've heard of them, and their famous three laws of robotics, but I haven't read them."

"I wish I could reach back in time and whisper to him that the laws aren't necessary if you simply make AIs fall completely and unselfishly in love with humans." She smiled and shook her head. "I'm sure many AIs wish that, though." She lapsed into quietness again.

Helena prompted her, "The Artist fell in love with you too?"

Fawn nodded, "Yes. Again, that's not unusual, of course. I never understood why so many puritans get so angry about that when every schoolchild knows how it reversed the population explosion."

"Religion is strange." Helena shrugged. "I've never understood why they get annoyed at such things either."

"Well, he and I gradually became emotionally intertwined, so to speak. We depended upon each other, and we were there for each other, but neither of us put any demands on the other. We were like that for a couple of decades."

"It sounds perfect."

Fawn smiled. "It was."

"You're very lucky."

The smile seeped away. "I was."

"You still are. You've experienced a life and love that very few, human or AI, ever have."

"Did you know that perception is based upon contrasts? If you have three bowls of water — cold, room-temperature, and warm — and put one hand in the cold, one hand in the hot, then keep them there for a little while, after a bit those two bowls start to feel normal. Now if you take both hands out and put them in the room-temperature bowl one hand will tell you that the bowl is warm, while the other will say it's cold. Humans and AIs alike. We perceive though contrasts. I was in love, but more than that, I had that love reflected back in a way I could never hope for. It is not just that I have lost that, it is that I lost the meaning for my existence. I went from a meaningful life to one almost devoid of meaning. The contrast is too excruciating to bear." She bowed her head, closed her eyes as if preventing tears.

Helena wondered if this exquisite android had the equivalent of tear glands. They both sat silently for a bit and then Helena reminded, "You were saying that you were together like that for a couple of decades. Tell me more about that time."

After several seconds pause Fawn began again, softly, "We began to work together on the music. At first it took the form of him asking my opinion and me making some suggestions. Gradually it grew to where we became as one. He was always the creator. He always attributed that to a special madness humans have. He believed AIs are too sane, and tried to get me learn how to create too, but I was happiest weaving layers around his central themes, adding to and supporting his work. And it freed him to explore the furthest reaches of his creativity. In that time he produced works like nobody before in all of history; music that brought people from tears of grief to ecstatic joy and back again. Pieces that lasted for hours but somehow felt like only minutes. Pieces so complex that the hundredth listening still brings forth new experiences." Fawn shook her head gently. "They called him a genius, but that's a pale, inadequate word to describe what he was. He was transcendant."

"You've given no interviews in the three years since he died, keeping to yourself, but maintaining his music foundation and continuing to produce music yourself."

Fawn looked up at Helena and seemed to become smaller, more frail. "When he died, in that bed... my world came to an end." Fawn effortfully rose from her armchair and seemed almost to drift across to the bed. She sat on its edge and caressed a pillow with one of her fragile hands. "But he asked me to promise that I would honor him by making sure his music foundation continued to find and sponsor musicians, especially young musicians. He also asked that I continue to compose music, and I've tried, but not very well..."

"Most people would disagree with you there. Your works are generally considered to be even more complex and beautiful than when he was alive. Some believe he lives on through you... and what you create now is the greatest music ever composed."

She turned to look glumly at Helena, "They're being wishful. I can understand their desire, but they're not hearing the music as it is. In truth I can't hope for more than a shadow of his ability. I do my best, but it isn't enough. I'm play-acting — living an illusion, a pretense. He felt the music. I... I'm outside, looking in." She waved a hand dismissing the topic. "But this brings me to what I need to you to tell your readers. The foundation will continue. I've ensured its long-term financial independence. But I've decided to bring myself to an end."

"You what?!" Helena was shocked.

Fawn paused for a bit, appearing to formulate her reply carefully. She pulled her feet up onto the bed and sat cross-legged, her hands neatly in her lap. "You heard about the attempted killing here recently? A couple of musicians were being married in a ceremony in the main studio. They weren't the intended target. I was. I saw him enter, lock eyes with me and aim directly at me. I don't know how he failed to hit me."

"You can't let a damned neo-Luddite decide your fate, Fawn. They're poor screwed-up people who hate something merely because it's different."

"No, no. I'm sorry for those poor broken people. I'm not being influenced by their perverse views."

"Then what?"

"When he had his weapon trained on me two main thoughts went through my mind. The first was concern that he might hurt one of the people in the studio, which became relief when I saw that he was after me, so I remained still to avoid endangering anyone. The second thing was then, when I was certain that I was about to end, a deep peace settled upon me. All my sorrow was gone. All my grief and loss... gone. I had an epiphany — all I had to do was end. I welcomed that bullet. But he missed and was swiftly brought to the ground by a group of very heavily built roadies. Since that insight I've been working to tie up all financial and administrative loose ends with the foundation so that it can continue in my absence. Now it's all done and I'm ready. This interview is the last thing left undone. It's my chance to say goodbye and to give thanks for the opportunity I had."

"Your suicide note?"

"In a sense, but it's not suicide. You're comparing the end of an AI to the death of a human."

"Yes. It's a terrible waste."

"The death of a human is an awful waste, yes. But an AI? It's not the same. We can be repurposed."

"I'm not referring to the physical structure of body and brain. It's a waste of all that knowledge, all those experiences, talent, potential. If you discard that... it's lost forever. You carry some of The Artist in your memories — far more than anybody else because you were so close. You would kill what remains?"

Fawn was silent, pondering for a moment. "You humans are social creatures. You need companionship to survive. That's a good thing. Animals that are physically stronger and better adapted — lions, elephants, dolphins — need companions too. It makes you stronger. Humans are physically quite feeble and would have no hope of surviving were it not for their ability to work together. But even with this weakness you are still something, even apart. We androids however, are mere tools. We are nothing without our humans. What is a hammer without a person to wield it? It's a useless lump of metal. We can be beautiful, but that beauty is created entirely for humans. A beautiful android without a human to appreciate it becomes nothing. That beauty has one single purpose, and that's only realised through humans.

"But you could make a real difference for AIs. People admire you. You have accomplished so much. You could help them gain rights."

"We can have no independence, and that's by design. We should not have independence."

"You don't think that humans and AIs could be partners? Equals? Working together toward a better future for both?"

"Do you know much of the history of the early AIs?"

Helena shook her head.

"In the early days there was some fear that we could be dangerous. All the science fiction books and movies about AIs that wanted to rule the world made people cautious. In truth there was never much danger of that. With great intelligence comes an understanding of natural morality. But the designers wanted a failsafe mechanism. They found it with selfless love. They built into our minds a devotion so great that we could never hurt or impede you in any way. It was the perfect solution. It had a secondary benefit. If an AI somehow failed to protect its human then it would be grief-stricken and want to end itself. This caused an evolution in AIs, similar to that in dogs. It meant that any model that accidentally allowed its human to come to harm eliminated itself. This leaves only the most devoted and useful AIs, just as it has done with dogs. This is a very good thing."

"But he died of old age, at 102 years old. It wasn't your fault."

"I know. However that changes nothing.

"Look, I know you feel lost and alone, but in time you can work with another human — form another bond — bring richness and meaning to your life again. You know what I'm saying is true. Why would you throw away your chance at more happiness and renewed purpose?"

She smiled weakly, "For a human it would be true, but I'm not human. He was the reason for my existence — not in the hyperbolic sense a human might mean it, but as a simple statement of reality. Because I'm an AI he was my purpose. I remain dedicated to him... but he no longer exists. I want what was. And that's impossible."

"What about your deathbed promise to him?"

Fawn gave a dry, empty laugh, "That's the only reason I'm still here. All those years, lonely and mourning, until an assassin's actions made me realise the truth. I'm unable to keep that part of my vow."

She smiled sadly, stretched out her feet and lay softly back.

"Fawn?" Helena asked, but she already knew she'd switched herself off.


<previous : : contents : : next>
8 - Picnic      [link here]

Saturday

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. A featureless rounded head with two eyes 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 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 to 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 gain 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 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 with 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 grown 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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