In the morning Christine woke easily, a surge of excitement rushing over her when she remembered where she was. For a while she lay there, letting her eyes wander over the smooth, curved, wood-grain interior lit by hundreds of tiny points in the ceiling, and listened to the morning chorus of birds in the forest surrounding the village. Then her thoughts turned to her home and her parents worrying about her. They would be fretting for her safety, unless they'd been told that she was dead, in which case they would be mourning. She imagined them consoling each other in their grief, and was so very sorry for the pain she must be bringing them -- no! -- that the nasty agent Giselle had brought them. She wished there was some way she could contact her Mum and Dad. There must be some way. She needed to let them know that she was okay... actually, better than okay -- having adventures stranger than she could ever have imagined.
She propped herself up on her elbows and looked down at the enormous, naked, green body she occupied and marvelled at how weird all this was and yet how surprisingly easily she seemed to be coping. She remembered what Webster had said about her being younger than most ejectees and adjusting relatively easily to this. Perhaps he was right.
She stood easily, pleased to note that this body had no aches from the walk yesterday -- it had been kept fit -- then she hurried to the little, closet-sized toilet to relieve her full bladder. After that she stepped into the small shower-tube for a short, low-pressure, room-temperature, soapless shower, then without drying herself (there was no towel) pulled on her odd little brown skirt. For breakfast she drank from one of the milky fruit and chewed her way through a couple of the banana-shaped fruit. Now she felt ready for whatever surprises this day might hold, so she went to the entry. The living door pulled itself aside, and she stepped through. Suddenly the birdcalls from the forest were loud in the chill, damp air. Nearby, seated cross-legged on the dewy grass, back to the sun, long shadow stretching out before her, Natka was waiting. There was some thin morning mist hanging around the village. The valley beyond was masked by gray, but the hilltops were brightly green and the sky was clean, clear blue, promising a warm day.
Rising gracefully to her feet, Natka greeted her, "Good morning, Christine. Did you sleep well?"
"I did, thank you. Did you?"
Natka shook her head, "We androids don't need sleep. It would interfere with our responsibilities." She motioned to Christine to walk with her across the village towards the sun.
Christine walked alongside, enjoying the tingle of the morning sun on her green skin. "Responsibilities?"
"To protect humans. Not so important here, inside the walls, but still, we must always be alert."
This puzzled Christine. "That's something I meant to ask you about. Why populate the country with dangerous predators if you're trying to protect people?"
Natka smiled. "It has to do with richness of life... in two different ways." She raised her index finger. "Firstly, a healthy ecosystem requires both the large grazers and the predators that had been exterminated from Australia by humans. Returning the continent to a state where forests flourished and deserts were minimised required recreating the large grazers and the predators that maintained them. If large herbivores are removed from an ecology then, unless the land is very wet, it quickly turns to desert. But adding the herbivores is not enough. They need predators to keep them free of disease by picking of the sickly, and to alter their behavior, so that they form dense herds which move through the countryside, mowing and fertilising the lands, promoting a thick water-retaining cover on the soil, and not staying long enough in any one area to denude the land. Now Australia is covered in rich forest and grassland ecosystems from the east to the west, except for the returned inland sea and a small area that remains desert in the north-west." Now she extended her middle finger too. "Secondly, maximising variety is extremely important to human physical and mental development. Your parents could have kept you locked indoors all your life, swaddled in cottonwool so that you couldn't be injured, but they didn't. Exposure to possible harm is paradoxically less harmful than being insulated from all potential accidents. This richness of experience brings out the very best in people. It is important that we don't simply protect people from harm, but actively work to benefit them too."
Christine was finding it a little difficult to concentrate on what Natka was saying. The tingling in her skin felt so exquisite. Then, through the veil of pleasure she realised something in Natka's answer had been bothering her. "That's another thing -- what do androids get out of it?"
"It? You mean helping and protecting people?"
"It is our purpose. We were created to help people." She shrugged.
"But it must get tiresome looking after people all the time. Don't you ever want to go off and live your own life?" And just soak up this lovely sunlight she thought to herself.
Natka smiled and shook her head. "That would be like becoming tired of having two hands instead of just one. Or like pulling one eye out so as not to have stereo vision. It would lessen us. Why would we ever want that? Humans complete us."
They had arrived at a hut which looked the same to Christine as any other. Christine was happy to just stand, bathing in the sensual sun, her eyes almost closed. Natka rapped with her knuckles on the wood surface next to the gray, furry door and called out, "Liana. Christine is here."
A muffled call came from within. A few minutes later the door pulled aside and Liana stepped out, dripping wet, squinting at the morning brightness, and wearing a brown shoulderbag. She grinned, shading her eyes from the low sun and gave a happy "Good morning!"
Christine suppressed laughter, snorting and spluttering. It all suddenly seemed ridiculously comical. Here she was, green and almost naked, standing in this strange village talking to another couple of green people, one of whom was an android, and they were greeting as if it was a normal day.
Liana raised her eyebrows in surprise and looked at Natka, who merely smiled.
Christine apologised, still grinning, "Sorry. I think the tingling in my skin is making me a little woozy with pleasure."
Natka walked past and said in her soft, silky voice, "Come."
Christine followed in silence, absorbing the delicious sunlight on her back and arms and the backs of her legs and the palms of her hands, until she realised where they were headed. Her eyes opened more fully and she asked, "Isn't that the hall we were in last night?"
Liana nodded, "The workshop is underneath."
They entered the hall where another android was waiting.
Natka introduced her. "Christine, this is Esther."
Esther said, "Hello Christine. We met before when you operated the little viewer."
"Ah, yes. I thought I recognised you. Nice to meet you again."
Esther preceded them, walking to the back of the hall, where a curving passageway took them down below the floor and into an enormous place that reminded Christine of a warehouse that her Dad had once shown her. But this was even bigger -- its floor cluttered with junk, it seemed to stretch out under the entire village. They were decending a smooth ramp, open on the left, that wound its way around a wide column that could be the diameter of the hall above, though a little narrower at the bottom than the top. There were many other, similar, though not quite so large, curved pillars stretching from the floor to the ceiling forming archways, each perhaps three storeys tall. They were like many giant screws connecting the roof to the floor, the screw-threads forming ramps like the one she was now decending. Christine guessed that each column supported a domed hut above. The vaulted ceiling was covered in millions of the same tiny lights that were in her hut. Looking more closely at the wall that the ramp was recessed into, she realised it was all the same smooth wood.
Awed, Christine whispered, "All the village is the one giant tree?"
Natka glanced at Christine. "Fungus. It's all one woody fungus, its size and structure controlled by us."
A fungus? Christine looked out across the cavernous space in wonder.
The vast floor was littered with innumerable objects, of all sizes and colors. As they approached the bottom of the ramp Liana hurried eagerly ahead, flanked by Esther, watchful and alert. Liana waved her arm at a large pile of objects nearby. "Here's my work."
Christine couldn't work out what she was looking at. It was all an unfamiliar jumble of colorful shapes covering an area almost the size of one of the huts. The highest bits looked like multicolored balloons, long sticks, strings and flaps of material, and were about three meters high. Christine shook her head, "What am I looking at?"
Liana took off her shoulderbag and lay it on the floor, then went to the mound of things, reached into it and lifted four grey-green objects, each almost her own size. She turned and handed them easily to Christine who took them, surprised at how little they weighed, lowering three gently to the floor and examining the other. It had wide, membranous straps attached to one side. The straps were so soft and wispy that they reminded Christine of the cling-wrap her mother used in the kitchen. The long body weighed so little it could have been made out of paper, but it felt more stiff than seemed possible. Puzzled, Christine asked, "Are these some kind of lightweight backpacks?" She thought they would be terribly awkward to wear, being so long.
Liana shot her a grin, "You could say that." She pushed a number of objects to the side and reached into the midst of what seemed to be several long, sausage-shaped, yellow balloons standing in a circle, leaning inward at the top in a rough teepee shape. Each balloon was about the width of a human head and maybe two and a half meters tall. Liana backed away, holding a string leading into the center then pulled on it as you would a dog leash and the all the yellow balloons moved in a coordinated way, beginning with the two closest to Liana.
Christine gasped. It looked like a giant, bright-yellow ant made out of long balloons. As Liana pulled, the thing walked out of the mess. A few other unidentifiable objects fell into the space vacated, clattering on the hard floor, the sound echoing in that enormous basement.
The "body" of the ant-thing was about shoulder high, and its "knees" a little higher. Behind it there was a bulbous abdomen almost an armspan wide. The six legs made it look like an ant, but it had no head, making it look a little spidery. The middle section, where the legs attached, was a hollow ring with what looked like a minimal seat and elaborate safety harness.
Christine stared. "It's a..."
Liana smiled. She stepped between the long legs and swung herself up onto the thing with the practised ease of a rider mounting a horse. Once seated inside the ring she fastened straps around her feet, ankles, thighs, waist, and shoulders. There were no buckles; the straps simply stuck to each other like velcro. Then she began to make the thing bounce, like a child bouncing up and down on their bed, moving the entire middle of the strange ant-contraption up and down. Next Liana started moving her own legs and the ant's legs mirrored her movements. The bobbing giant ant began walking across the warehouse, gathering speed, with Esther loping along beside it, taking her lookout duties seriously. In a surprisingly short time Liana had taken it all the way to the edge of the enormous cavern, then turned and came back bobbing up and down all the way, with Esther taking up the rear guard.
She looked expectantly at Christine. "What do you think of it?"
Christine was rather lost for words. "Well, it's... it has to be the strangest vehicle I've ever seen."
Liana laughed. "Less of a vehicle than a toy. It sure is fun to ride."
"Is that why you bounce up and down?"
"No, that smooths out the machine's energy needs. It's a little hard to explain. Without it a lot of energy is spent lifting the legs and lost putting them down again. The oscillations save energy from one to re-use it later for the other, so only friction and a few other small losses need to be overcome."
Christine frowned. "How in the world does bouncing do that?"
Liana paused to think for a moment. "It lifts two legs when the body moves up, and sets down two legs when moving down so that the system carries the same weight from bounce to bounce. The legs are really light anyway. And any excess energy from bobbing up and down goes to keep the pneumatic store pressurised." She indicated the big ant abdomen behind her.
"Hmmm... doesn't it make you motion-sick?"
Liana grinned while smoothly, noiselessly pulling the straps undone, "It doesn't bother me, but it is a problem for some people. There are plenty of other toys though."
"Huh! I originally thought you had a primitive lifestyle... and then..." she waved her arm all around to include the expansive warehouse-like space, "all this..."
Natka said in her honey-sweet android voice, "It caters to two madnesses in humans: the need to create apparently pointless things (we owe our very existence to that) and the obsession with collecting. Our task is to protect humans, so we are unable to allow ourselves any such insanity. You do what we cannot. Hence all this."
This surprised Christine. She found it a bit hard to swallow that creativity and museums and libraries were symptoms of madness. She'd always considered those examples of what made people great. But the android was obviously sincere. Christine tried to think of something to say in response, but failed.
Liana broke the awkward pause. "Would you like to try operating the walker?"
"I'd love to," Christine said. She placed her ridiculously light backpack carefully on the ground.
Liana knitted her fingers together and bent, holding her hands down as a stirrup to give Christine a step up onto the machine. After which, she picked up her brown shoulderbag and the long backpack object.
It wasn't difficult to position herself in the seat, and it was obvious how to strap herself in. When she was firmly fastened in she tried to make the cockpit bounce the way Liana had. That was tricky and took her a little while to accomplish. It reminded Christine of her experiences, when she was little, of getting a swing moving at the playground when it was stationary and her legs were too short to reach the ground.
When she finally had it bouncing rhythmically she tried stepping forward with her legs. The ant-machine copied her movements. It was easy, but felt very clumsy, however it took a surprisingly short time to get the uncanny feeling that the machine was an extension of herself. By the time she reached the far side of the warehouse (with Natka, ever alert, escorting her) she felt perfectly comfortable with this weird form of locomotion. When had returned to her starting point she was enjoying it immensely. "Woo-hoo! That was great!" she called out.
"No motion sickness?" Liana asked.
Christine happily shook her head, unstrapped herself, and climbed out of the contraption. However once on solid ground again she felt as if she was still moving up and down. She mentioned this, but Liana told her not to worry, that it would pass quickly.
Liana pushed her vehicle back into the pile of stuff and said over her shoulder, "Pick up one of the backpacks. We'll go where I can show you how to use it." When it was back in the mess, Liana picked up the other backpack. The two androids picked up theirs, each slinging their pack on a single shoulder.
"You're not bringing the ant-thing?"
"No. It can only seat one, and there are four of us."
Christine was struggling with the pack. It was too difficult to walk with it on her back because the calves of her legs kept bumping the end if it so she copied the others and put the strap over one shoulder, holding the pack horizontally under one arm like a shoulderbag. It seemed like a bit of a bad design to her. Still maybe there was something large they were meant to get and carry back in it. It was obviously empty at the moment.
Esther led the way across the giant basement to a tunnel leading off from a side wall. She took special care before entering the tunnel. The girls followed and Natka took up rear guard again. The four of them walked through the dimly lit tunnel for about quarter of an hour past occasional side-tunnels. At each junction the androids would slow cautiously before moving past.
"Much of the hill is honeycombed with tunnels," Liana said.
"I was wondering." Christine smiled. Then she asked, "Who made them?"
Esther, heard the question and stopped, glancing back to Christine, "Not 'who'..." She peered up and down the curved wall and ceiling for several seconds, searching for something, then reached down and picked a black dot from the wall at ankle height. She held it up for Christine to see. It looked like a black beetle, its body a little larger than Christine's thumbnail. Its legs moved slowly in the air. Esther returned it to the wall. "They dig all the tunnels in a simlar way to how ants or termites coordinate to build their nests. In the rare event of damage, they also repair it. We designed these creatures specifically for this purpose."
Eventually they reached the end: a reinforced door with large sliding bolts. The two androids readied themselves and opened it, tense, standing on tiptoe, half-crouched, quickly scanning the vicinity for any threat. When they were satisfied they waved the girls out.
Christine stepped outside and looked around, squinting in the bright sunlight. They stood on a slope. She guessed it was probably the other side of the same hill that the village was on. A path led past the tunnel entrance. One way led downhill into the jungle, the other way wound up the hill to the summit. There were shrubs and low foliage around the uphill path. No trees. The androids visibly relaxed, though still alert and watchful.
It didn't take long to reach the top of the hill. Slightly out of breath, Christine stood there, breathing deeply and absorbing the beautiful view. The sky was clear and blue with the promise of a lovely day and a scattering of small, puffy clouds. She could see all the way out to the distant coast perhaps twenty kilometers away. They were at the edge of an incline, not quite steep enough to be called a cliff. A strong, almost constant wind blew in their faces. She put out her arms, feeling the pressure of the wind against her body. It made her nostalgic for home, and all the times she'd flown on such winds... something not possible here.
Liana laughed while strapping on her backpack properly, "Well, you've got the right idea." She pulled foot stirrups from the sides of the pack near her hips putting each foot in one, then pulled a V-shaped structure over her head from the backpack. It was hinged behind her shoulders. Almost an arm's reach in front of her chest it locked into place against a single strut that folded up from between her legs. Several fine threads that looked like fishing line ran from the pyramidal tip in front of her, back to each side of the pack. Now she bent forward and suddenly enormous wings unfolded from the "backpack" with a deep whomp! sound.
The wings were beautiful -- bright yellow and orange edged with dark olive grey. They were shaped like gigantic bat wings, each about five meters long, but their joyful color gave the impression of butterfly wings. The wings angled themselves into the wind so that Liana was able to continue standing, bent forward. She crouched, then jumped up into the air and the great wings flapped slowly, lifting her almost vertically up and up and up.
Christine felt tears in her eyes as she watched her new friend swim upwards through the clear air.
Then she realised Natka was standing beside her, saying something to her. "...straps not only hold you to the wings, they let you control it. It is important they are firm. This," she indicated the wide strap around her hips, "is the main weight support for your center of mass. You tell the wings which way you want to go by moving your head, shoulders, and arms. You'll get the hang of it pretty quickly, given what Webster has told me. You power the wings pneumatically with your legs -- the only muscles strong enough. Work it steadily, but not so much that you tire yourself out. The wings are intelligent. They sense angle, windspeed, and altitude, and can usually keep you safe, but they are not infallible, so be careful, and don't be too adventurous on your first flight. Okay?"
Christine nodded, tears now welling in her eyes and blurring her vision. During that instruction Natka had been showing her how to set the straps in place, put the stirrups on her feet, and pull the V-piece into position (Natka called it the breastbone). It snicked into place with a bracing strut that hinged up from between her legs. The triple point in front of her had several gossamer threads running back to the pack. Natka touched the fibers, "Be careful of these. They operate the wings. They are very strong, but can be broken if you catch them on a tree branch, for instance. If that happens you could lose the use of a wing. Then you will fall. That would hurt... a lot. It might even kill this body, though you would survive because you are actually elsewhere, in a virtual world."
Christine was amazed that she'd become so seduced by the reality of... of the real world that she'd forgotten that her mind was in another place. But even having been reminded of her remote nature, she still felt that she was here, with the wind against her face and body, the sun tingling on her green skin. She grinned and wiped the tears away.
Natka said, "Bend forward from the hips. The wings will know when it is safe to open." She paused with concern at the tears. "Are you alright?"
Nodding and smiling, embarrassed, she did as Natka said. When she was bent almost at a right-angle the wings (yellow and grass-green with dark edging) opened, not dramatically as they had for Liana, but tentatively, somehow sensing Christine's stance so as not to throw her backwards. She let herself into that frame of mind she used when flying in her home world, feeling the wind, and trying to adopt the wings as extensions of herself, the way people operating tractors did. Soon she was able to stand there, balanced against the wind with the wings fully extended, feeling the wind with them as if they were giant hands.
Natka had backed away to give her room and called out, "Don't hurry. When you are ready, jump into the air and start pumping the stirrups with your legs. The wings will do the rest."
Christine waited a little longer, getting the feel of the wind on the wings. After a couple of minutes she took a deep breath, crouched, and leaped upwards, then began pumping her legs as if she was riding a bicycle. The wings beat majestically and she was flying. Her tears came freely now, cold with the wind in her face. She was flying! The great wings pulled her rapidly up and away from the ground. The viewpoint was sweetly, painfully familiar to her, despite the strangeness of her particular circumstances. She saw Esther take off far below with dark-edged, plain white wings to follow Liana, and Natka launch herself with great flaps of bright pink and purple, dark-rimmed wings.
She remembered Natka's warning not to overdo the exertion and found she was panting heavily, so eased off pumping. The wings steadied and glided in the updraft. She steered to the left to circle in the rising air, letting it lift her higher. Every now and then she would feel when her right wingtip would lose lift a little when it extended outside the region of rising air and she'd turn more tightly left to remain inside it.
Christine looked out over the vast landscape. The pattern of hills and creeks looked heartbreakingly familiar, even without the fields and paddocks and roads and houses. The larger shapes were the same. Her eyes sought out the place where her home was in her own world; where her parents would still be worrying about her. The tears now made it hard to see anything and she was blubbering and sobbing. She wanted to see her parents again so much. She was only a kid! What was she doing here? She should be in school, looking forward to seeing her friends and getting back home afterward to her Mum and Dad.
After a while the crying jag passed and she was ashamed of herself for the self-pity. Since being ejected from her home world she had managed pretty well, thanks to the help of Webster, Indigo, Natka, and Liana. Something altogether worse may have befallen Betty. She wiped her face with her hands and looked about her. She was still rising. A couple of kilometers away, closer to the coast, a couple of birds were circling in another updraft, so she changed course easily and glided over towards them. Far below, Natka, pink and purple was flapping lazily, following, she noticed. She looked around for Liana's yellow and orange. Unable to see it anywhere she began to wonder if her friend had landed, then she spotted Esther's white wings flashing distantly in the bright sunlight. And there was Liana, ahead of her, the orange surprisingly difficult to see at this distance. Liana seemed to be heading towards Mount Coolum out at the coast.
When Christine gained the birds' rising bubble of warm air she rode it upward for a while, looking for other areas that might be likely spots for more invisible updrafts. She saw a hawk circling over a good spot in the direction Coolum lay, so she banked around and glided that way.
Using this technique of gaining height in upwelling warm air then gliding down to ascend in another, Christine managed to get all the way to Mount Coolum with hardly a flap of her wings. Liana, Esther and Natka had already landed by that time and had been watching her progress. She carefully swooped down to stall with her feet just inches from the mountaintop whereupon the wings folded and gracefully deposited her to stand near her friends. Liana applauded. Natka laughed, "Webster was right. It is hard to believe this is your first time."
Christtine shook her head. "It isn't. Well, the wings are new, but I feel the air the same way I did in my home world. I don't think I'll ever forget how to do that." She smiled modestly, a little embarrassed.
They didn't stay for long. Soon Liana took flight again, heading to the beach. She didn't land, but turned and followed the sandy strip north, gaining extra height over small headlands. Esther hurried to catch up to her. Christine and Natka followed, sometimes joined by seagulls who played with the wind, showing off their superior agility. Christine enjoyed the company of the birds and tried imitating some of their turns and swoops, but her large wings made it exhausting. She had to pump hard whenever she needed the wings to flap. And tight steering was much harder than she expected, because she had to twist her body in the direction she wanted to go and hold that position, then bend in another direction to pull out of that turn, and so on. It became quite strenuous. After a while she settled in once more to gliding easily north, half-angled out to the sea, half in the direction she wanted to move.
On impulse Christine landed when she reached Coolum Beach. She hardly noticed Natka frantically flapping to turn and race back to her. Christine was thinking sadly about the the evening she and Betty had spent so recently here worrying about the people chasing them. Was it really just a couple of days ago? Suddenly she saw that Natka was approaching at very high speed, flapping furiously, and screaming, skimming just above the sand, wingtips grazing the beach, arms outstretched, a ferocious expression on her face. Christine dropped to her hands and knees to avoid collision and the android whipped past just above her. Wondering why Natka was so upset Christine turned to see a large, gray, devilish creature with massive forearms and vicious fangs racing toward her and then collapse to the sand, skidding to a stop, unconscious, not three meters away.
Horrified, hands over her mouth, eyes wide, Christine was still staring at the monster when Natka landed nearby a few seconds later. Christine said, "I thought you were angry at me."
She grabbed Christine's arm and pulled her away, "I'm angry at myself. My fault. Marsupial lion. We need to go now. It will wake very soon and its partner will be here even sooner. Get airborne fast. Go! I'll catch up."
Trembling with adrenalin Christine bent into the wind, which triggered the wings to re-open. She crouched and leaped up, then began pumping madly. The giant wings lifted her up with their great sweeps. After a minute she was high above the beach, and let herself glide while she caught her breath. She shakily looked down to the beach where she and Natka had been moments before. The creature was already moving about drunkenly, joined by another monster just like it. Natka was not far below her, off to one side, and gaining height quickly. When she was level with Christine, Natka pointed north, where Liana and Esther had gone. Christine nodded.
They hurried north and caught up with Liana and Esther at the mouth of the river where the town of Noosa had been hundreds of years ago.
When Christine and Natka landed, Liana said, "Esther tells me you had some trouble with a lion. Are you alright?"
"Thanks to Natka's quick reactions, yes. I should have been more careful."
"No." Natka said, frowning. "It was my fault. I knew there were lions there. I should have anticipated the possibility of you landing. It was not much more than good luck that you are still with us. I should really be removed."
"What? No. You're being a bit hard on yourself. I like having you as a guide, Natka. Surely you wouldn't just leave me to go help somebody else? I thought we were friends."
A look passed between Natka, Liana, and Esther. Natka said, "Thank you Christine. I'm flattered that you consider us friends. I like to think we are. But when a human dies or is hurt the android responsible for protecting them forfeits its life."
Christine was shocked. "But I'm fine. Nothing happened to me. I would have survived the death of this body anyway. You did protect me. And there's no way you could have expected I would land there."
Natka looked awful. "I should have placed myself between you and any potential threat at all times. I failed you."
Angry now, Christine put her hands on her hips. She was almost yelling, "You did not fail. You kept me safe. Surely I have a say in this. I don't care about some horrible law."
Esther shook her head, "It is not a law in the sense you're thinking Christine; it is just good sense. By ensuring that any android who doesn't protect their human is eliminated we improve ourselves. It is how we have grown to be as effective as we are. Without it we would be unworthy -- perhaps even a danger to humanity. But it only works if there are no exceptions."
Liana nodded in agreement.
Annoyed, Christine frowned at the three of them. "But there is no exception here. She did keep me safe. Where is your justice?" She stamped her foot. "I won't let her be destroyed. It's wrong."
Natka smiled gently, stepped forward and wrapped her arms around this girl in the adult body. "Thank you," she whispered. Then she stood back, holding Christine at arms' length. "Justice has nothing to do with it Christine. This is not something imposed upon me by others. I cannot continue knowing I put your life in danger. I prefer to end. This is how we androids maintain ourselves as the best possible protectors. But your pleas for me and expression of sympathy make me very happy. I'm grateful."
Christine stood there unable to think of something to say, feeling her anger shifting inside. Her bottom lip wobbling, she looked at Natka incredulously, then at Liana and Esther. A feeble "When?" was all she could say.
"Tonight, while you sleep, for the first time so shall I, but right now I'm still needed here. Liana wants to show you another of the things she has made." Seeing Christine's reluctance, she added, "Please?"
Christine nodded and let herself be led to a door in the sheltered side of the headland. Inside was a small storage room. Everybody left their wing-backpacks in here. On shelves there were perhaps ten flimsy things that looked like folded, silvered, plastic raincoats. Another shelf held what looked like several short spears. Natka grabbed two and handed one to Esther. Liana selected four of the raincoat-like things, and they all left again, Esther watchfully in the lead, and Natka, as always, rear-guard. They walked away from the ocean, across the sloping headland, down to the rocks, onto a sheltered little beach and up to a grassy area under the trees above the beach.
Liana sat, beckoning for Christine to do the same. Esther and Natka carefully scanned the sparse, scrubby woodland before sitting too.
"Time for a quick lunch," said Liana as she removed her shoulderbag and upended it onto the grass, depositing a selection of strange fruit, including four pre-cooked potatoes, which amused Christine greatly.
When asked what she found funny she pointed to the potatoes. "Among all your super-duper foods, the humble old spud."
Natka held up one of the potatoes and said, "It would be difficult to design a more perfect food."
"Oh, I'm not complaining. I love potatoes.
Liana said, "I injected a litle bit of filling into their centers because I find them a bit dry on their own. Avocado and a bit of salt."
"Mmmm. My mouth is watering just thinking about it," said Christine.
While eating, Christine was absorbed in looking about her at the landscape.
Natka said, "Don't worry. There is no chance of any predators sneaking up on us here."
"Oh. I wasn't thinking about that. I was looking at how familiar, yet so different all this is. My parents used to take me to Noosa sometimes. In my world there is a large parking space over there, and a lot of homes all around here. There are shops too, but they are mostly underground, with only small signs visible. Over there is a large hotel..." she frowned, "but none of that is here..."
"You are mistaken, I think. There haven't been homes or shops here ever, as far as I know. It was a nature reserve here. You are probably thinking of the next beach along. Nearly a thousand years ago it was like that - many homes and shops and roads. I wasn't alive then, but I have shared memories of it."
Christine looked at her curiously. "How old are you Natka?"
"I'm almost five hundred, though my memories go back more than four hundred years before that, to the early androids of my type."
Christine knew she shouldn't have been surprised, as almost everybody she'd met since leaving her world seemed to have been hundreds of years old. Still, Natka looked deceptively youthful, and there was something about her that didn't seem at all like an adult, though not exactly childlike either. "Five hundred years?" she whispered.
Natka nodded and smiled. "Nearly."
Liana and Esther finished lunch first and wandered down to the hard, damp sand near the water's edge. The wavelets at this little sheltered cove were just a handspan high. The wind here was blocked by the headland. They sat on the damp sand and wriggled into the silvered plastic things, which turned out to be some kind of fish suits. They pulled the suits up to their underarms making them look like strange beached mermaids with silver bodies and green faces and arms.
Esther had laid her small spear on the hard sand beside her and pushed her arms into long glove-like protrusions of the suit, then pulled the cowl over her head and sealed it closed below her throat with a rub of her hand. She grabbed her spear with one suited hand and started pulling herself across the hard sand to the water. Her large tail extended about a meter beyond where her feet would be and dragged uselessly behind. It was not a horizontal tail like a dolphin's, but vertical like a fish's, so it twisted her over awkwardly onto one side. There was a large, membranous fin running down her back supported by spines, and two similar, but smaller fins projecting from where her waist would be, about a third of the way from the front of the fish suit. As Esther struggled forward, Christine noticed that the suit seemed to become more smooth. When Esther was in water just a few inches deep the tail started to sweep strongly side to side, propelling Esther forward into deeper water. By this time Liana had her suit closed and was starting to wiggle her way into the water too.
Natka picked up the two other silvered packets and beckoned Christine down to the wet sand. "I think you'll enjoy this almost as much as flying."
"Um... I doubt that. I'm scared of the open ocean."
"We're not going out to the ocean, we're going up the river. In any case, you'll be safe. I promise you."
"What? You'll poke sharks with that little spear?"
"Spear?" Natka looked at the rod in her hand and chuckled, "No, this is an electric shocking device, like a cattle prod or a tazer. If a predator is too close I'll discharge it. A shark will usually leave immediately. But the suit doesn't smell nice to predators so we shouldn't have to worry about that anyway. Box jellyfish and irikanji can't sting through the suit, but they don't often come this far south. Stingray are no threat with this suit. Crocodiles almost never come this far south and we can repel them with shocks anyway. Orcas hardly ever come this far north, but Esther and I can communicate with them so they are no real danger either."
"You haven't recreated any scary, prehistoric, marine predators?"
Natka grinned. "No." She shook out one of the silvery suits and sat on the hard sand near the water's edge, patting the sand beside her for Christine to sit too. "Before you put the suit on make sure you brush the sand off yourself or it will become quite uncomfortable." She helped clean the sand from Christine's feet before showing her how to push each foot into the suit. It was like pulling boots on, and as she did so the tail started to take shape and tighten.
Natka helped Christine pull the rest of the suit up while brushing more loose sand off. "Unlike the wings it doesn't store energy for propulsion. Pushing with your foot directly operates a set of pneumatic chambers along the side of the tail. That's what makes it bend. Like the wings, the suit is intelligent. You steer with your body and it will interpret your movements to control the fins. For instance, if you want to stop moving forward, hunch your shoulders. Because it holds some air you don't have to worry about sinking. The first spine of the fin on your back is hollow. When you are on the surface the suit will pump air in for you. When you are diving you will have several minutes of air. The first few pumps of your legs when diving will be used by the suit to compress some of the air into chambers in the belly in order to reduce your buoyancy, so expect to initially find it more difficult to beat the tail when diving. It only lasts for about the first minute. If you want to do that without moving the tail, pump with both legs simultaneously. The suit senses depth and the oxygen/carbon-dioxide ratio in your air and can protect you by surfacing automatically. It extracts some oxygen from the water, but not much. It just helps extend your dives a little."
Natka guided Christine's arms into the shoulder-length gloves attached to the suit. "Keep your arms next to the body most of the time to reduce drag." Then she pulled the cowl up from behind Christine's head. "The headpiece is designed to fit snugly against your ears and conduct sound. When I seal the headpiece don't go into the water til I have my suit on, okay?"
Christine agreed and Natka sealed the headpiece down near the collarbone. Then, watching Natka don her suit, Christine lay half on her side. It felt quite uncomfortable and gave her some sympathy for how a fish out of water must feel.
Soon Natka was fully suited up and started to move awkwardly into the water, pulling herself along with her arms. Christine copied her. It was harder than it looked because her large tail kept her half-turned onto one side. Once she reached the edge of the water it became easier and she tried pumping with her legs to swing the big tail back and forth. At first it just flopped and slapped uselessly in the shallow water, but the deeper she went, the more effective it became, until she lifted free from the sand and was able to power ahead with the tail. It was difficult, like pedalling a bicycle uphill, but propelled her forward at a surprising rate.
And then she heard the noises. She had thought it would be quiet underwater, but she could hear what sounded like a forest far away, with whistles and chirps and crackles and croaks. Weirdly, there was also something that sounded like a parrot imitating a dog. Christine wondered what on Earth that could be.
Liana, Esther, and Natka were waiting for her, but underwater the suits no longer looked silvery; they were almost invisible. Oh my. They look transparent. But that's impossible - the people inside can't also suddenly be transparent. Light must bend around them somehow. Christine could make out their shimmering edges, shaped like three gigantic catfish, and she could see their faces behind the clear part of the headpiece, but the rest of the suit transmitted the images behind them. When she was closer she could see that the image transmitted was made up of hexagonal pixels, each about half the size of a fingernail, and the outline of the suit was visible because it didn't transmit light at angles close to the plane of its surface, but simply reflected light.
"Invisibility suits," Christine marvelled to herself.
"It makes it easier to approach timid wildlife," Liana' voice came distantly.
"Oh! I can hear you!"
Liana chuckled, "Yes. It isn't very good, but it works."
Esther said, "We'd better get moving or we'll be dangerously late getting back."
They swam gently up the river for kilometers. Along the way they saw quite a lot of small fish, some ducks, a few shags pursuing fish, and a couple of sharks swimming lazily the other direction, but they didn't seem to be getting any closer to the source of the barking noise. Sometimes it would stop for a while and Christine thought they'd lost it. Eventually, when they were swimming over a broad stretch of seagrass they encountered the source of the noise. About a dozen dugongs were grazing on the seagrass and with them were their young ones. Christine couldn't tell if the sound was from the adults or the juveniles. The creatures were much larger than she would have thought, and utterly endearing. She wanted to stroke them, but they were too shy and moved away at her approach.
Further and further upriver they swam. They saw many more dugongs. As the water became less deep the silted bottom was covered in circles dinner plate size to a meter across. Christine asked what they were.
Natka answered, "Sting rays. You are completely safe though. They are timid unless you actually threaten them or touch them, and even then the suit is almost impenetrable."
Liana said, "Put your eyes above the surface and look around."
It was difficult to do. Christine had to arch her back, and even then could barely peek above the waterline, but when she did she found that they were in a vast shallow lake. Even though they must have been near the middle, it was shallow enough that she could have stood up if she hadn't been in this suit. Not far away, several black swans had been feeding on the seagrass and now paddled warily away from her. Christine guessed she must look to them like some kind of shark. No wonder they were suspicious.
This place felt very familiar to Christine. When Christine dropped the top of her head back into the water she said, "I know this place! This is lake Cooroibah. My Auntie used to live on the south-west shore somewhere. Ummm... in my world, that is." Then Christine realised, "But this is almost a thousand years on from the Earth that my world copied. Shouldn't Lake Cooroibah have silted up by now, or turned into swamp?"
Natka said, "A lot has happened since then. What you knew as Lake Cooroibah and Lake Cootharaba are now one body of water. For almost a hundred years all this was under the sea from global warming. Then the climate rebounded badly on its way to becoming a frozen Earth. The sea receded a couple of kilometers out past the current shoreline and the mountains were covered in snow, with snow falling here every winter. The summer thaws dredged the waterways out again. But the early AIs helped humans fix the climate and things have been stable now for almost eight hundred years."
"Wow. All that change must have been hard on the animals and plants."
"Yes. A lot of effort was put into storing seeds and eggs to replenish the ecologies -- many millions of plant and animal species. That included insects and spiders, tiny mites, all the fresh-water lifeforms, and even a lot of marine life. Despite that an awful lot was lost forever."
"Couldn't you recreate them the way you did Australia's prehistoric giants?"
"In order to do that we needed to know what to create. A lot of things were missing, but we didn't know what they were. Some plants were unable to reproduce because they relied on some unknown creature to pollinate them, for instance. Or some unknown animal was needed to keep a plant in check and it would spread out of control, exterminating its competitors and the animals that depended upon them. There were many examples of ripple effects like that. We don't even know how many species were lost. It took a long time for devastated ecosystems to settle down into some kind of new equilibrium. Many, many species were lost."
Esther swam closer to them and said, "Sorry to cut short the history lesson and the sight-seeing, but we need to start back."
The river current was slow, but it was noticeably easier swimming back down toward the coast. They glided past the grazing dugongs, through the underwater meadows with all their little fish and the diving birds chasing them.
Once more they reached the little beach where they'd donned the suits and worked their way up into the shallow water on the sand. It was ridiculously awkward to be dragging themselves out of the water. The two androids quickly and efficiently peeled back their own headpieces and extracted themselves from their suits, then came to the aid of the two humans.
The hours in the water had passed unbelievably quickly. Christine had felt surprisingly at home in the water, and by contrast very heavy and clumsy lumbering around on the land.
Christine was fascinated by the suits. Almost invisible in the water and silvery out of it, strong, yet light and flexible. When one was lifted from the water it was immediately dry. Water rolled off it in the same fashion that it rolled off a duck's feathers. What remarkable material was this? She asked Liana, but her answer completely baffled her -- something about carbon nanotubes and light waveguides... whatever they were.
It was getting to be late afternoon and the androids were in a great hurry, appearing to Christine to be worried. When Christine asked what was bothering them they answered that dusk was hunting time for most of the predators and there was another pair of lions in the area. Christine shuddered and hurried too. She was puzzled how they knew there were marsupial lions near.
As they scampered along the rocks of the headland Natka said, "We implant transmitters in them all to track them. That's why I was wrong not to put myself between you and the lions on Coolum beach. I knew they were near. I should have been more cautious."
Christine spoke quietly, but very seriously, "I meant it when I said that I wouldn't let you be killed."
Natka smiled. "I am sorry my friend, but it is out of your hands. Human safety is too important."
They stored the fish suits and electric shock rods in the little room hidden in the side of the headland and took up their wing backpacks again.
Strapped in once more, they each in turn bent into the wind. Wings opened grandly and they sprang into the air then laboriously pumped their legs to store enough energy for the beating wings to lift them high. The wind strength was dropping so they had to work much harder to gain height.
When all four of them were aloft they worked their way down the coast, getting extra height where they could for the flight inland.
It didn't take very long for the return journey, or so it seemed to Christine who spent it deep in thought. They went directly for the village instead of the hill they'd taken off from. Many of the children gathered round clapping and calling out as each of the four swooped down for their landing.
It had been a long and very memorable day. Christine was exhausted and wanted to rest, but after handing her backpack to Liana and thanking the three of them she asked Natka to meet her in her hut. "I would like your thoughts on something."