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by Miriam English

9 - Earth

When Webster floated down to the sphere which was the portal for the original Earth Christine was standing outside it, thinking. She turned to him and asked, "What did Indigo mean when he said that I have to get past the lies that have been implanted in my mind? Did he put untruths in my mind?"

"No, of course not Christine. He was referring to your upbringing in the Dark World."

She tilted her head and gave him a hard look, "That's another thing. You keep saying bad things about my world, but my life there was way better than here. I love my parents. They are kind and thoughtful. And my friends..." she clenched her fists, "I miss them. I miss my life there, the joy of singing... I don't want to be here." she could hardly keep her voice from breaking. Tears threatened. "I don't like it here and I don't appreciate you saying horrid things about my home."

"I understand Christine, it must be very uncomfortable for you, but please remember that I didn't eject you from your home and am truly sorry that you are not where you want to be. I honestly wish I could transport you back to your family and friends, but I can't. My intent is to aid you in any way possible, but misleading you about the nature of things does not help you."

"I loved my life there." She threw her arms outward and shouted, "What's so wrong with that?" It annoyed her even more that the toy rabbit swinging in her grasp detracted somewhat from her angry display.

Webster waited for the moment to pass.

She turned in a huff and stepped into the portal... to emerge into a large, dim room with many star symbols painted on the floor. Each star was about a meter across. The room was otherwise empty. She looked about her, frowning in puzzlement. When Webster entered she asked, "I thought that was supposed to be the portal to the real Earth."

He nodded, "It is. Reality is different from the virtual. You need a real body to visit it. This is where you gain one. However, you first need to choose where on Earth you want to visit. Try to access the knowledge that Indigo gave you. You should already know about this."

Christine wasn't sure how to do that. She had no idea how she'd earlier managed to create the flower or know that this was the way to Earth. She tried remembering, as if it was something she'd learned normally. Abruptly she knew. She looked at the starlike markings on the floor, understanding their use. She walked over to the nearest one, stood at the center of the star diagram, and said, "Show me the religious centers."

A disembodied female voice asked, "Do you mean the archaeological sites?"

Webster explained, "There has been no religion on Earth for hundreds of years. It was already waning when your world was made."

"Cities, then." Christine said.

Around her, each lingering for only a couple of seconds, scenes appeared, fading in then out, one after another. The views were of cities, all crumbling, empty, overgrown with vegetation. It was like a slideshow, but in full 3D. After about twenty had shown Christine became impatient. "Has everybody died out?" The images ceased and she was standing in the room again.

Webster shook his head. "There are only a few millions of people on Earth, but it is not like your home world. It is, in many respects a paradise."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "If it's a paradise, why aren't you living there?"

He smiled, "In truth, it does not suit me. I prefer the virtual realm. But reality does have its attractions, and I do visit regularly. Over the centuries I've watched the air and rivers become clean again, the forests reclaim much of the land, the seas brim with life once more."

"Where are the people?"

"They are scattered in small groups all over the planet. When it was found that people operated best in fairly small groups, and after most of the population had emigrated to virtual worlds, those that remained behind returned to a kind of tribal structure."

Christine grimaced, "They've reverted to primitives?"

"No, not at all," he smiled. "What region of the Dark World did you come from?"

"The Sunshine Coast in Australia."

"I am not familiar with that area, but perhaps you should start by looking there. You may find some groups in that locality."

Christine nodded and asked the room to display it. She was suddenly surrounded by a view of the entire region as if she was flying at an incredible height, so she asked to see Maroochydore, then Nambour, Flaxton, Conondale, Kenilworth, and a few other places. Each time it showed only aerial views and Christine was becoming frustrated. Noticing this, Webster suggested she imagine flying, similarly to how she normally did. The room would understand those kind of navigation feelings.

To her great relief she was easily able to fly her view smoothly down from great height to just skimming the treetops. From time to time she found open areas where she could drop to walking height, pause to look around, then fly along paths across hillsides and valleys, through the jungle and over rivers. The ease with which she navigated reminded her very much of how she flew in her home world. It made her feel quite homesick even though this landscape appeared quite empty of people. Webster was right, it was was pristine, as if humanity had never walked this world.

After the best part of an hour of this she ceased her search, and stood, hands on hips, frowning. "Nothing. Just trees, creeks and rivers, and beaches. I can't find any people or any trace of civilisation."

Webster suggested, "Perhaps ask for the nearest settlement."

When she did this she was shown a village of primitive, domed mud huts surrounded by a tall, but crude-looking perimeter of poles woven with vegetation. No wonder she hadn't seen it earlier. It blended with its surroundings -- no white walls or angular metal or tile roofs. Suddenly, with a shock she realised she was also seeing people. They blended too -- they had green skin! All those she could see were nearly naked, their only clothes short, plain brown skirts. She felt ashamed of them. This is what humanity had degenerated to.

Webster could see her disappointment. "Do not judge them merely by appearance. Talk to them. Indigo has given you the ability to understand their speech, a decendant of English and Chinese."

Christine was not sure what he meant. She had occasionally come across the term "Chinese" in her reading but had never entirely understood its significance. She'd thought it was something to do with some vague aspect of people's family. The idea that it could have anything to do with speech seemed improbable to her. And why ever would he think that she'd be unable to understand what they said?

She dismissed this puzzle and flew her viewpoint past the settlement to a small, sunny meadow on the hillside nearby, where she'd noticed that two green-skinned women and a dog with pups were sitting in the sun, chatting. The dark-haired woman patted the dog and played with the puppies. The other, a silver-blonde, seemed to be more watchful of her surroundings. The green skin made it difficult to guess their ages, but Christine thought they might both still be in their late teens or early twenties, judging by their small breasts. (She blushed involuntarily at their nakedness.) Both were slender and fit, but sleek and without obvious muscle.

As Christine moved the viewpoint closer the more alert woman noticed and nudged the other, and the dog pricked up its ears. Up til that point it hadn't occurred to Christine that the viewpoint would have a physical manifestation. Not knowing if the people would hear her, she said, "Hello."

The vigilant blonde had lost interest in Christine's appearance now, and the dog relaxed. The pups continued to play. The brunette smiled and said, "Hello. We don't get many virtual visitors here. How may I help you?"

Now Christine understood what Webster had meant about their speech. Some of it sounded quite weird. The woman was using words that Christine had never heard before, yet she was amazingly able to understand. She was grudgingly grateful to Indigo.

"I'm thinking of coming here to live. I grew up in... um..." Cristine suddenly realised she didn't have a way to explain it. "Where I grew up is just like this... uh, in some ways. Well, the physics is. But people are not green and we wear clothes, and we have buildings and roads and cars."

The woman looked very interested. "You come from the Dark World?"

Christine was surprised. "Uh, yes. How did you know that?"

Laughter lit up the woman's face, "I didn't, but your description fitted what I know of it. It's fairly common knowledge that most people who leave the Dark World come to reality, for a short time, at least, though you are the first one I've had the pleasure of encountering. My name is Liana and I'm very happy to meet you."

This was surprising. She certainly didn't sound like a primitive savage to Christine. "Thank you. I'm Christine. In my world I grew up near here." She was overcome by a wave of nostalgia and longing to be home again and was unable to speak for a little while.

Liana said, "It certainly is beautiful here, but I grew up on the other side of the range. I love it over there and will probably return there in a few months."

Christine regained control of herself. "That's where I spent my childhood too. Would you mind if I visit you some time?"

She clapped, delighted. "That would be wonderful! I'll look forward to it."

"Thank you." Christine felt quite uncomfortable standing here talking to a nearly naked woman and was unable to think of something more to say. "I'll go now."

"I'll hopefully see you later then, Christine." Liana waved.

"Yes, 'bye."

Christine stepped away from the star symbol on the floor and the view out into the real world disappeared from around her. Absently she wondered what happened to the device that she'd been looking through. Did it fall to the ground? Probably not. More likely it flew back up high, to await the next user. What did it look like? Was it some small, insect-like machine, an eye with wings?

Webster said, "You have yet to choose a body in which to visit."

She walked around the large dim room restlessly. "I don't know... would I have to be almost naked like them? I don't think I can do that. And green too! What's with the green, anyway? Is it painted on for camouflage?"

Webster laughed. "No. It was developed during the great crash, when many people were starving. Special strains of algae were developed that could live symbiotically in the skin. They receive water and carbon dioxide, along with small amounts of minerals, through the person's bloodstream, and in return they supply most of the vitamins, and some oils and amino acids, as well as a small amount of sugars, while protecting the skin from sunburn. In order for the algae to do their work they need light, so maximising skin exposure became important -- hence the nakedness. The way it works is similar to how lichens are a symbiotic partnership between fungi and algae; the fungus provides the support and protection, and the alga turns light, water, and carbon dioxide into food for them both."

Christine was surprised, "So these people don't need to eat?"

"Oh, the algae don't produce enough for that. They simply eliminated most of the deficiency diseases. People still need to consume enough protein, carbohydrates and minerals to survive, but they don't need to worry about vitamins and essential amino acids and oils. Indigo didn't give you this information?"

She shook her head. "I don't think so. It doesn't sound familiar." She paced back and forth. "I would like to visit, but I, uh..." She glancd at Webster, "I don't think I could walk around so... exposed. It would feel wrong. Immoral. I could hardly even talk to that woman, Liana."

Webster tilted his head. "This is something that I find fascinating about people from the Dark World -- the strange conviction that nudity is wrong. It seems somehow bound up with religion, but I've never been able to understand how."

Christine frowned, trying to recall her scriptural instruction. "I think it came out of Genesis."

He shook his head, "No. All Genesis says about nakedness is that when they gained knowledge they became ashamed and covered themselves. There is no prohibition -- no rule."

"All the same though. I'd be embarrassed walking around wearing nothing but a short skirt."

"Yes." He nodded. "However you will be surprised at how quickly it will come to feel normal and unremarkable. Also, try to think of it this way: it will not be your body that you'll be revealing. Your mind will still be here, your body unseen."

Doubtfully, she thought on it for a while, then asked, "Why do they wear those tiny skirts?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I'm not advocating it, but why aren't they completely nude?"

"Yes, I too have wondered about that. I have to admit that I don't know the answer."

Christine stood there for a little while, gnawing on her lip, trying to raise the courage to do this. Now that she'd come here it seemed silly to walk away. And where else could she go? Also, as Webster had pointed out, it wouldn't really be her body. She would still be here, in this room.

"If I go there, how will I know if Betty turns up in Crossroads?"

"Indigo has arranged it so that you will feel it. Don't worry, I'll get there as quickly as possible to meet her. You'll be able to talk with me. I'll take to her Indigo then to you."

She nodded, then gathering her courage took a deep breath, turned around, stepped back onto the star and said, "Bodies, please."

Superimposed over the room she saw a sequence of twelve different nude people drift by, mostly quite repulsive in their variety, and all of them green of course. Very few came even close to conforming to the norms of her world. She had never realised just how beautiful everybody was at home; she'd taken it completely for granted. All the images displayed in this... catalogue... were too thin, or too muscular, or too wide, or had noses too large or too small, eyes of alarming shapes and color, and the hair! Only one had a proper shade of brown hair. The rest were improbable shades from black to sand-colored, and most outlandishly, one with orange-colored hair. All this was too bizarre and defied the natural order of things.

"These are awful. Who would want to look like this? I want a normal shape."

She could see Webster shake his head, ghostly in this superimposed vision. "Diversity is normal everywhere except in the Dark World. But if you want a body like your own, you can have that. Ask the system. You know how."

Uncertainly, she addressed the room, "Ummm... Restrict the display to brown hair, and eyes shaped like mine. Female only." There were only three. One was considerably older than Christine's own mother, with gray hair and lined face. Another was a very young child, perhaps five years old. The other was an unappealing woman who looked almost her mother's age. The cheekbones were too high and the hair fell in improbable waves instead of straight.

"How can there only be three?" Christine was appalled.

The room's voice replied dispassionately, but politely, "There are only three unused matching bodies available in the locality selected. Do you wish to widen the search area or change the search parameters?"

"Restrict to female, teenaged."

The voice said, "There is no match." The view of the two women and the child remained.

She exhaled angrily. "Can't you make a body like mine?"

The voice said, "It will take several weeks to make a body for your use."

Christine's face fell. Several weeks! How could she wait that long? Reluctantly she said, "No. I'll settle for this ugly one." She pointed at the younger adult. "Am I right that I'll be able to change it later when my body becomes available?"

"That is correct," the room's voice said. The superimposed images faded away.

Webster said, "Christine, perhaps you should wait before ordering a special body to be made. Many outcasts from the Dark World have visited the real world. They had similar hopes of finding an alternative home, but few find it suitable. Most leave after only a matter of days. It is wasteful of resources to create a body that you may not need." He spoke in a gentle voice, "Give yourself a few days. See what reality is like before you decide to have a body grown for you."

She didn't look at him for several seconds, annoyed that he seemed to be blocking her from what she wanted. However, turning it over in her mind, she had to admit to herself that he wasn't actually preventing her from doing anything, and that his suggestion did make sense.

She nodded stiffly and flicked a sidelong glance at him. He seemed unperturbed. She sighed and addressed the room again, "Okay, I'm ready to use the body I chose."

It happened instantly. There was no dramatic shift; no whoosh; no bright light. She simply was elsewhere, lying on her back with her eyes closed.

Christine opened her eyes to find that she lay in a coffin-like box, the glass door above her sliding aside. She sat up. This felt weird. Her body was altogether too large and felt odd. Her vision was strange too, in some way she couldn't identify. She looked down at herself. Except for a tiny, tan-colored skirt she was naked and green. Uneasy, she wrapped her arms around her breasts to cover them. They felt much larger than they looked in the room's display.

The box was actually set into the floor. She stood and stepped up out of it and saw that the room was fairly long, and featureless except for several other glass panels set in the floor, beneath which she knew there were other bodies waiting for occupants. Startled, she suddenly realised that she knew where she was. Fresh "memories" seemed to have been added. This place was an entrypoint for visitors near what was once the town of Nambour. Her memory now held the layout of about eight such facilities scattered around the greater Sunshine Coast area, and a few in the hinterland on the other side of the mountain range.

A silver-haired green woman wearing only small brown skirt entered the room and padded smoothly and silently over to Christine. There was something odd about her appearance. Her hips were not wide and her legs seemed a little too long. Her face was very similar to the one who'd been sitting with Liana, and there was that unusual silver hair too. With her new knowledge, Christine understood that this was not really a woman at all. She was an android, a soft machine, an A.I., related to the computers that operated the virtual worlds. On her forearms were thin tubes that could fire small darts carrying a potent neurotoxin. The poison wouldn't kill, but overwhelmed with sleep in seconds. Christine was surprised by all this information bubbling up from within her mind.

The android said in a breathtakingly beautiful voice, "Hello Christine. I'm your guide during your visit. My name is Natka. Also, Webster wants me to let you know that he is still in contact with you through me." Her speech was warm and musical -- smooth and sweet as honey.

Christine indicated the tubes that were part of Natka's forearms, ending at each wrist. "Why do you have weapons?"

Natka looked down at her arms briefly. "Earth's ecology has been repaired and the large predators that preceded human arrival prowl here once more. I will keep you safe without endangering them."

"Large predators?" Christine was confused.

"Yes, also many other, less dangerous, previously extinct animals and plants that you would not be familiar with, having come from the Dark World."

"I don't understand."

"When humans first arrived in Australia nearly sixty thousand years ago they did what humans did everywhere -- they began a wave of extermination. All the large predators and grazers were lost, along with the fragile forests of the inland. We have recreated them and reforested Australia. Regrettably that means it is not safe to be without a bodyguard." She indicated herself with both hands, "Me." Then smiled and bowed, perfectly poised, like a dancer, "At your service."

Christine was still puzzled. "But how could you bring back extinct species? You have time travel?"

Natka gave a soft little laugh. "No, travel to the past is impossible." She indicated for Christine to walk with her, and they crossed the room toward the door. "We didn't bring them back. We recreated them. We have the bones and some fragments of DNA, and related species still live. We understand how genes function as program and data and how that relates to form. We can genetically design animals to take the same form as the vanished ones, then using what DNA fragments remained in skin and bone, and guided by the genetics of their closest living relatives, we fitted the puzzle together almost perfectly. They are not exact genetic replicas of the extinct animals and plants, but they don't need to be."

"You keep saying 'we'."

Natka smiled. "Humans and androids. We work together. Have done for hundreds of years. I'm sorry that there is so much new information for you to absorb, especially coming from such a stable world as you do. We could have given all this knowledge as premade, but each person has different questions and interests, so to avoid clutter we supply only the basics that everybody would want -- mostly to do with navigation."

She pushed the door aside and walked through. Christine followed, noticing that Natka's demeanour changed completely as soon as she stepped outside. She was completely alert, looking all about her, and walking on her toes, but continuing to speak in the same soft, lovely voice. "For instance you know how to get to the village where you met Liana."

It was true! Christine could see in her mind's eye the path she would walk from this unobtrusive hole at the base of a small cliff, around a gentle hill, diagonally across a broad, shallow valley and winding around another couple of hills to the hillside where she'd met Liana. It would take just a couple of hours to get there, walking through tall forest and crossing a shallow creek. It was the strangest thing. She felt like she'd walked that track hundreds of times before, and could even picture its landmarks, like a giant fig tree that the path curves around, and the fork in the trail where she could veer right to climb towards the mountains, or left to Liana's village.

When Christine emerged into the daylight she was suddenly dumbstruck by all the things she could see and hear. Even though this was what must be a comparatively bare, rubble-strewn area at the base of a cliff, it was quite overwhelming. It seemed like everything was moving and making rustles, twitters, chirps... and underneath it all a soft hiss of the breeze on leaves. There were innumerable small insects in the air, and ants and small lizards on the ground. And looking at the ground, rocks, and tiny plants -- she could see every grain of sand, every leaflet and sporepod of moss. Even the clouds above were full of countless wind-blown whisps and trails. The air around her moved the innumerable little hairs on her skin and she felt each and every one. The vastness reverberated with thousands of birdcalls and insect noises, some quite near, most echoing afar. Under it all she could smell the rich aroma of damp forest along with individual lemony scents of some nearby trees and traces of some sweet blooms somewhere. It was all quite overpowering.

Natka noticed Christine's awe and said, "Reality is quite a bit more detailed than the most complex virtual worlds, eh? Even 3D video doesn't convey it all."

When she regained herself after the initial shock, Christine realised that her skin was tingling. She mentioned this to Natka and was told that it was because the algae were delivering nutrients from the sunlight. It heightened the sensitivity of the nerve endings in the skin. Natka added, "It might take weeks or months to grow used to the intense beauty of the scenery, but you will always feel the pleasure of sunlight on your skin's algae. Oh, and by the way, don't worry about the--"

"Ow!" Christine slapped at her leg. "Something bit me."


"Mosquitoes? You recreated mosquitoes?"

"No, they were never exterminated. For all its much vaunted accuracy the Dark World eliminated one of the biggest food sources for birds and other creatures. It must have played hell with the ecologies there."

Christine had read about mosquitoes and the dangerous parasites they had carried in the far past. "But the diseases..."

"Yes, that's why I was saying not to worry about them. Not all mosquito species carried disease. We found out why and bred disease resistant forms of the species that had carried parasites. Without the extra load, these usually outcompeted the parasite-burdened ones and, in the few cases where they didn't, we modified the parasites to cause problems for the mosquitoes, ensuring the parasite-free ones did better. So you don't have to worry about catching diseases from them now, but they still bite, and their bites still itch. If we keep moving they have a more difficult time settling on you, which is good because we need to leave now. It is best to avoid walking in the twilight, which is only a few hours away."

Christine nodded to Natka, and moved her enormous, bare, green legs forward.

They travelled down a path that wound down the side of a gently inclined rocky slope, from which she could look out over the treetops of the lush valley to other hills. She'd always wondered what this countryside would look like without all the roads and houses and artificially-maintained grassy fields and here it was.

Looking out at this complex, gorgeous world, her mind buzzed with the knowledge that she was embarking on a journey that she could never have imagined. Back in her world, her very tame world, she used to sometimes walk a few kilometers out into the bush and imagine she was the only person on Earth, that all around her was unoccupied wilderness. It was an exhilarating feeling while she had her home, her parents, and a nice warm meal to get back to. But now, here, she was in the real world, which was not so tame, where the nearest human settlement was more than ten kilometers away and it was unsafe to be alone because of monstrous wildlife. She would now attempt to cross that distance with an android protector. It seemed absurd, and for a moment she doubted it all. Flying dreams were how all this had begun. She wondered if it was all still just a dream and that she'd simply never woken.

But then, drinking in the sensory delights around her, she realised that this could not possibly be a dream. She could see and hear and feel and smell so much more than she ever could in her home world. Her past life there was, by comparison, the pale dream. For the first time she thought that she could really grow to enjoy this.

The path took them down through a hole in the tangle of shrubs, and small trees, and into the tall, cool forest. This was exciting. Life surrounded her in minute, moist detail. The heady perfume of rainforest filled her nostrils. In here it was like a great and sacred hall, ambiently lit from a sky muted by a high canopy held aloft on countless, tall columns -- the trunks of trees. She'd always been amazed by the amount of open space inside a rainforest. The floor was carpeted with soft, damp leaf-litter, and much of the sound from outside was muffled here. The forest had its own sounds, much nearer, mostly birds, but also some insects and frogs, and the rustling hissing background of the leaves far above. Christine was surprised that she came alive like never before. She felt like dancing. She wanted to sing! Everything was beautiful and so intense. Her nerves positively thrummed. Her heart was thumping in her chest.

Natka glanced back to her and raised her eyebrows. "Good. It is a relief that you are enjoying this. Most who come here from the Dark world find this terrifying. You might actually suit it. I really hope you enjoy it here."

Christine said, "It's wonderful! How could anybody dislike this? I feel like singing."

Natka laughed heartily, "The birds are singing their hearts out, I don't see why you shouldn't. Feel free to sing at the top of your lungs."

And she did. At first she had some difficulty with the unfamiliar throat and vocal cords. Also, instead of her normal girl's voice this was a woman's and sounded to her like Mrs Marder's singing at morning prayer, though richer, deeper. This body was taller than the Nun's. However it didn't take her very long to gain control, and the bliss that bloomed inside her, wielding this voice in song, astounded her. At times she thought her mind could explode in sheer exuberance. What she'd thought was ecstasy when singing at morning prayer was a mere shadow compared to this. Her heightened senses combined with the deluge of experience and the fire coursing through her veins to lift her heart to heights she'd never dreamed possible. She sang and sang.

The kilometers dissolved away. At one point they slowed and she stopped singing as they approached one large tree covered with big scratches up its trunk. Natka was especially wary and pointed up into its branches saying tensely, "Marsupial lion." Curious, Christine peered up into the tree, but couldn't see anything. The android suggested that she keep singing. "It's making the lion uncertain. Interesting. Who would have suspected that song might be a better defense than my darts?" Christine happily renewed her singing, even louder than before, and Natka laughed, shaking her head.

Christine didn't sing all the way. At times she was struck mute by the splendor of the scenery. At other times she needed her breath for walking up hills. But during the couple of hours of that journey she gave voice to more music than at any time before in her life, and it made her heart soar to unimagined heights.

It seemed to her that they'd only just left a little time before when they arrived at the hillside settlement. The sun was getting low, painting everything with golden hints and the birds were making an unbelievably loud noise in the forest trees, getting ready for the night. Several androids, a similar number of people, and a few dogs came out across the untreed, grassy area surrounding the settlement to greet their approach. Among them was Liana. Christine was glad to see a familiar face, even if the basis of that familiarity was only a very brief chat.

Christine asked her, "Did the androids tell you we were coming?"

Liana laughed. "We could hear your singing from a couple of kilometers away," then added, "but yes, Natka was in communication too."

And then Christine realised Webster was right. She found she was struggling to think of things she could talk to these people about, but that they could all have been dressed in their best formal clothes. It didn't matter that she was green and almost naked, surrounded by others in a similar state of undress. It really didn't matter at all. Understanding that was such a relief. She turned back to Natka who was following, ever watchful, and put out her hand to the android. "Natka, can you tell Webster that he was right? Thank him for me?"

Natka smiled, "Webster says that he's glad, and that you are very welcome. Oh, and he thinks you sing beautifully."

They all walked with Christine up the gentle slope toward the tall fence, the alert androids, at the outer edge of the group. People asked her if she was tired, where she'd learned to sing, what the Dark World was like, and many more questions. They were surprised to learn that she was much younger than this body -- just in her mid-teens. Some of the kids wanted to know what that was like, being in a bigger body.

As they approached the fence Christine saw that it was a much bigger and more ingenious structure than she'd thought -- not primitive at all. It was woven, as she'd seen, but it was alive and perhaps seven meters tall -- a little higher than a two storey house. The vines and supporting trees had been planted in a circle about five hundred meters in diameter and encouraged into this tight-knit structure as they grew. Such forethought! She wondered how long this would take to grow to useful size, and the answer rose unbidden in her mind: about five years. This settlement had been planned five years or more before people moved here. And she knew that was nearly a century ago.

Christine asked one of the men walking beside her, "The trees that are the supports for the wall, what are they? The leaves look like those of stinging trees, but they're not tall enough for something that has grown for a hundred years."

The man answered, "They are stinging trees, but our own design. They can't grow anywhere but in our perimeters and they grow only to this size and shape, unlike their ancestors in the forest. The calamus vine is also designed, specifically for its large thorns."

Thorns! thought Cristine. That's a mild word for it. These awful vines bristled with daggers!

When they came close enough the wall parted -- the vines in that section pulled aside from within somehow, at a seam that had not been woven across. They walked in single file through the three meter thick perimeter wall and emerged from it inside the settlement. She noticed there were no stinging leaves or wicked calamus spikes on the inner wall. Many dome-shaped huts appearing to have been constructed of dried mud were scattered around the settlement, most of them about half the size of an ordinary suburban house in Christine's home world. Behind the wall was a pleasant, parklike environment, with grassed areas, shrubs, and trees. There were more people here, some old, and some children. They all waved to Christine. She smiled uncertainly and waved back. One small green boy who looked to be no more than five years old ran up to Christine and walked alongside her, holding her hand and beaming up at her with his brilliant white teeth. Seeing this it occurred to her that all the adults had yellow teeth.

The group guided Christine on a meandering path between huts and trees to a large dome, two or three times the diameter of the others. They walked toward a large doorway sealed by a shaggy pelt. At their approach it pulled aside. The wall was less than half a meter thick and she stepped through into a lovely interior. She didn't quite know what she'd been expecting, but certainly not this. It was a single very large room, a kind of community hall. The walls and floor were polished wood. Outside, the atmosphere was very warm and a little more humid than she liked, but in here it was cool, dry, and very comfortable. Studding the wide, high, curved ceiling were thousands of tiny lights that gave a soft, ambient illumination. Couches and benches shaped from the walls, were draped with colorful rugs and blankets.

Christine stepped to the side to examine the wall near the doorway she'd entered through. She felt its perfectly smooth, wooden surface with her fingertips. Impossibly, it all -- wall, floor, ceiling, and even the couches -- looked to be in one piece, without any apparent joins.

Natka anticipated her question. "Have you ever seen the round growths on twigs and branches produced by gall wasps? Their eggs and larvae secrete substances that manipulate the growth of the wood for their own ends. We have learned their trick and persuade these to grow for us."

Christine shook her head in wonder. "This so much more attractive than the dried mud exterior led me to think."

"Oh, that isn't mud, at least not as you imagine. Each hut is enclosed within a termite nest. The spongelike outer part of the wood encourages them to build their air-conditioned homes around us. Thanks to them it remains the same temperature in here regardless of external weather. Also we collect their waste gasses as fuel."

Termites?! The thought repulsed her. "They'll eat all this eventually, then, a pity."

Natka shook her head. "The inner layers are unpalatable to them. In any case they feed mostly on leaf litter. We help them and they help us."

The several others accompanying her were inside now and the fur skin covering the entry had closed again so tightly that no light was admitted from outside. The noisy racket from the multitude of birds in the trees diminished sharply and the hall was peaceful.

An old woman strolled to the center of the hall. She was healthy and erect, not bowed and fragile, but she looked like she could be perhaps ninety years old. She said in a clear, soft voice, "Please make welcome Christine, a visitor from the Dark World. It has been a long time since we had a visitor from there and we want to ensure that her stay is enjoyable, however long she wishes it to be." Then the old woman walked over to Christine, reached out and held her hand, and said, "Feel free to remain here in the hall for the performance a little more than an hour from now, or Natka can show you to your hut if you're hungry or tired -- whichever you please. I must go, as I have things to do, but I'm sure we'll chat later. Goodnight dear." She smiled and patted Christine's hand clasped in her own, then released it. She walked unhurriedly to the exit, the skin opening at her approach and closing behind her again.

Christine looked around her. Natka was standing at her side and the others were nearby chatting. Natka asked what she wanted to do, but Christine was unsure. "Perhaps I should stay for the performance. They might be offended if I don't."

"No. They will definitely not be offended. There is little or no protocol here. Lucy meant what she said, that you are welcome to stay for the performance or go to your hut. Nobody will think ill of you."

"Lucy is the old woman? Is she the tribal leader?"

"No, there are no leaders. She is a kind of informal spokesperson."

"She's well for someone of her age. She must be ninety years old."

"Yes, she is very healthy, though she has many more years in her yet. She is two hundred and seventy three years old."

Christine's jaw dropped open.

Natka smiled, "Roughly four hundred years is the current biological maximum, though I expect we will eventually be able to increase it without limit. The difficulty is that aging is not just a single thing, but thousands, and they all affect many other things. It is frustratingly complicated." She gave Christine a questioning look, "So, do you want to retire for the evening, or stay?"

After a moment's thought Christine replied that she would go to her hut. "I'm not tired, but I am getting a little hungry and thirsty."

Liana, who was close, asked, "Can I come? I'd like to talk with you more... if you don't mind, that is."

"Sure," Christine smiled. She was actually rather relieved.

Liana and Christine waved to the others, then, with Natka, they exited the hall. Outside, Natka asked Liana to show Christine to the hut as she had other business to attend to for a little while. To Christine she said, "I'll be along within the hour. If you need me earlier, all you need do is ask. I'll hear and come." Then she strode off into the dusk.

Twilight was deepening and little points of light were sprinkled randomly on the ground all around the compound. Christine squatted to look more closely and saw that they were small lilies with little trumpet flowers half the size of her fingernail. Each flower glowed with soft light. Small moths circled the flowers, landing on them and extending their long drinking straw tongues into them to sip their nectar. After a little while of watching, enthralled, she also noticed dark speeding shapes zipping past in erratic flight. Tiny bats, smaller than mice, were snatching the moths out of the air. She shook her head in wonderment and stood again to resume walking between the huts. Christine asked Liana what Natka had meant about asking, and that she would hear.

Liana said, "Unlike the rest of us, you are still in the virtual worlds, even though you are using a real body here. You are linked in to the network and the androids. They can hear you."

"Oh. How strange."

They were a little beyond the center of the settlement when Liana indicated a hut that appeared indistinguishable from all the rest. "This is yours."

Looking around at the other huts, each separated by ten or twenty meters from each other, Christine asked, "How do you know this is the one? How will I know which one to return to?"

"During the day you'll be able to see that each hut has a distinctive position. The layout intentionally avoids symmetry and regularity. During the night," Liana pointed to the little glowing flowers. "You can use these as a guide. They tend to cluster near the doors and along the edge of commonly walked paths. The colors are different all over the settlement -- something to do with trace minerals, I think."

Christine saw that those at this hut were mostly white and yellow with a small patch of bright red ones off to one side. Liana was right. This would be easy to recognise. "What about when the plants finish flowering?"

"Oh, they're designed to flower all year."

"Ah. Designed. Yes. I didn't think any flowers produced light naturally."

"Plenty of other things do, but flowering plants? For some reason, no. Perhaps scent is cheaper for them to make." Liana waved Christine forward and the shaggy skin at the door opened expectantly for her. "It doesn't matter if you go to the wrong hut anyway. Everybody will be happy to help you. We so rarely have visitors."

Christine pointed to the door, "How do these work?"

"They have eyes on the outside and inside. They are alive."

"But that's terrible. The poor thing."

"How so? It is not conscious and has no inner life -- not like you or me, or a dog or a bird or an ant. It is designed purely to be a living door. If it was somehow removed from its doorway it would die."

"How do you know it is not conscious?"

"People need privacy, so the doors were carefully designed not to have any kind of consciousness. The nerve circuitry of consciousness has been understood for hundreds of years."

Christine still couldn't help feeling sad for it. She reached out and stroked the soft fur. It was warm. She sighed and stepped through the doorway. The interior was a similar combination of smooth, polished wood and colorful rugs as the hall, but much cosier, and with a few additional rooms. "This is very nice, thank you."

Liana sat on one of the curved, rug-covered benches formed out of the wall and waved her hand in dismissal, "Pssh. I didn't do anything. It was mostly the androids." She paused for a moment, then, "May I ask you some questions? There is so much I want to know."

"Of course," said Christine, and went to the other side of the comfy little livingroom to sit on the other curved lounge. She licked her lips and looked around the room.

"Oh! I'm sorry." Liana sprang up from her seat. "I was supposed to show you around your hut and here I am thinking only of myself. You are thirsty. And probably hungry too."

"Mostly thirsty." Christine smiled and stood too.

Liana beckoned and stepped to the back wall of the room, which Christine guessed must be at about the center of the hut. Numerous globes hung inside a roughly person-sized indent in the wall which Christine had taken to be some kind of decoration. The globes were like grapefruit-sized berries. Many of them were smaller and green, but larger ones were black. Liana said over her shoulder, "Only use the black ones." She pulled two black globes by their stems and handed one to Christine, then went back to the bench where she'd been sitting. Holding it before her for Christine's benefit, she twisted off the stem protruding from the top, saying, "Twist gently, but firmly. Don't hold the body too hard."

Christine copied her and the stem came away easily. The globe contained white liquid.

Liana held hers up in salute, "Enjoy!" and drank from it.

Christine cautiously did the same, then laughed. "It tastes almost like coconut milk!" She happily gulped hers down. Delicious! Then went and got another. "Do you want more?"

Liana declined. She was still sipping hers. "When you want, I'll show you the food."

"Thank you. This is fine for now." Christine sat again and drank more evenly now. "You had questions?"

Liana leaned forward, "Yes. All I know of the Dark World is from the Androids. Although they are much smarter than us I can't help feeling that they don't know what it is to be human. They can give me plenty of facts and figures, but you grew up there. Can you tell me what it is really like?"

This was unexpected. Christine thought everybody dismissed her world as backward and a big mistake. For a moment she was wary. "Why do you want to know?"

"I'm an artist. I try to experience things and understand people and use that knowledge to help make things."

"What kind of art do you create?"

"Moving sculpture, but it's difficult to explain... would you like me to show you tomorrow?"

Christine brightened, "Yes, very much."

"Good. So, tell me about the world you grew up in."

Over the next hour or more Christine told Liana as much as she could think of about her home world. Liana was a very attentive listener, and would interrupt occasionally for clarification of some points. Christine found it very gratifying to be able to pour out to someone all the things she loved about her home.

When Natka arrived she apologised for intruding on the conversation and asked them to continue. She went into one of the small rooms, out of sight of the livingroom, returning some minutes later with handfuls of what looked like fat, brown bananas. She handed them to the girls, all but a couple which she kept for herself then sat.

Christine copied Natka and Liana as they peeled their fruit, then she cautiously sampled it. The taste was a little bland, somewhat nutty, a little like avocado and with that richness, but the texture was smooth and chewy, almost like toffee, but without the stickiness. It gave the impression of being very nourishing. The more Christine ate of it the more she liked it.

She was about to ask Natka why an android bothered eating, when she suddenly realised she knew the answer. Whether the memory came from Indigo or was one implanted when she donned this body, she couldn't tell. The androids were not mechanical; they had biological bodies. They used food as fuel just as other animals do. Evolution long ago finely tuned extremely efficient biological metabolic systems -- able to extract sufficient energy from a handful of starch to walk all day. It made sense for them to use this rather than wasteful mechanisms. It surprised Christine that this information was available to her. It did give her a whole different view of the androids though. Perhaps that was the intention.

Liana stayed for a little while longer, then left with thanks to Christine for all the information, and promising to show the things she built tomorrow.

Natka showed Christine around the rest of the little house, explaining its functions. When she, too, left, Christine lay back on her bed, thinking that she was much too excited to sleep. But she was more tired than she knew and the curtain of slumber fell quickly.

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