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by Miriam English

11 - home

Christine waited in her hut, pacing around the little livingroom, drinking from a milk fruit. She was hungry, but didn't eat anything because today's exertions had left her limbs heavy and she didn't want to be drowsy; she needed to be alert and persuasive in what she planned to say to Natka.

When Natka knocked, Christine immediately called her inside.

"What did you want to see me about?" Natka asked, stepping through the doorway.

Christine motioned for her to sit. "I've been thinking about this all the way back... flying back from the coast today. I know I've only been here a couple of days, but don't think it really suits me here — this, the real world. The giant, scary carnivores, the green skin and nakedness... it's all a bit much for a girl who lives — lived — in the safe, ordinary suburbs. I mean, there are a lot of things I do like here, and I know my suburbs weren't what they seemed to be... I'm sure I'll come back here to visit from time to time, but I don't think this is really where I want to live the rest of my life."

"This was to be expected. Few from the Dark World like it." Natka seemed to almost sing it in her musical voice.

Christine drank the last gulps of her milk fruit, then went and got a another milk fruit for herself. She held one up, raising her eyebrows to Natka in question.

"Thanks, yes. I am thirsty." Natka remained seated, apparently concentrating on something.

Christine gave it to her then went to the other side of the room and sat uneasily, took a gulp of her drink, and leaned forward, green knees pressed together and green elbows on them. "I want to return to Crossroads as soon as possible. And I want you to come with me."

Natka opened her mouth to say something, but was silenced by Christine's raised hand, "I know you feel committed to this ridiculous and wasteful idea of dying for a mistake — which you didn't even make — but hear me out." She felt too nervous to stay seated so she got to her feet and began pacing back and forth while speaking. "I want to find a way to live out there in the virtual worlds — some place that suits me — but I know almost nothing about it all. Webster has been a help, but he will be needed by the next person who is thrown out of my home world. Indigo gave me some extra knowledge, but I'll still be lost out there. You have nearly a thousand years of experience and learning. You know so much, and could be my guide. I don't have my parents anymore because they're trapped on my home world. I need someone to help me — a guardian. I know I look like an adult in this body, but you have to remember that I'm really just a kid."

Natka smiled. "We have heard your request and agree. It is too late to travel safely back to the gateway tonight, but you and I can start in the morning."

Christine was surprised. "Oh. Well... That was easier than I expected. I had all sorts of arguments ready. What did you mean 'we'?"

"We, the androids, all listened to what you had to say and made a collective decision."

"You're a hive-mind?"

Natka shook her head and smiled, seeming amused. "We are individuals. We just share information very easily when we need to."

Christine said, "You mentioned a gateway — that was the place where I got this body?"

Natka nodded, "It is the closest place with the technology to hibernate your body for the next tourist who might want it." She stood, took another gulp of her milk fruit and said, "You must be tired. If that was all you wanted, I'll let you rest." She went to the front door, paused, turned and smiled gratefully. "Thank you, Christine." Then she left.

Christine had slept well after the previous day's exertions. She awoke once again without stiffness or ache in her muscles and was excited and eager to get started. When she stepped out of her hut the sun was already well above the horizon. It was a windy day. Birdsong, though it had lost its early dawn enthusiasm, still rang among the swaying tops of the great forest trees on the hillside outside the settlement. The morning air was still cool and whipped about her. Many of the people in the village were up and about and Christine returned a few waves. She was surprised to see Natka waiting nearby, sitting crosslegged on the damp grass.

"Have you been sitting out here all night?"

Natka smiled and stood. "No, only since first light."

"Aren't you cold sitting out here in this wind on the damp grass?"

"Cold... heat... it is very much a matter of what you are used to. Experiencing the extremes widens the range of comfort. This is not cold, at least not uncomfortably so. Swimming in a mountain stream in a snowy winter is cold."

Christine laughed and shook her head. "No, swimming in a mountain creek in winter is just stupid. But I'm glad you're comfortable. I wouldn't have been happy beginning our walk earlier — and I'm not referring to temperature."

"Yes, I am glad you did not want to start too early."

Christine pulled a face and looked out at the forest. "If those horrid 'drop-bears' hunt mostly at dawn and dusk, I prefer to minimise my risks."

"Now that you are up, Liana and Esther are coming to see you off." She indicated with her head in the direction of the community hall.

Christine turned and saw that the two were walking toward her carrying the wing backpacks. She returned Liana's happy wave.

Natka said, "It was Liana's idea. She thought you might like one more real-world flight before returning to the virtual realms."

"She thought right!"

When they were close enough, Liana called out, "You up for one last flight? It's windy enough today that we can leave from inside the village."

Natka added, "The wind is unstable and gusty close to the ground, but you only need to get several meters up and it will be much easier. It is a little trickier than just jumping off a steep slope, but the wings have sufficient intelligence to deal with it."

The other android, Esther, handed a backpack to Natka, and Liana handed one to Christine. Liana helped Christine strap herself in and explained, "You'll need to use the stirrups to pump the wings' pneumatic store up to fairly high pressure first because the wings will need to gain height as quickly as possible. Once you have sufficient pressure the wings will beep. At that point it will disconnect the stirrups from the pump so that you can run into the wind as fast as possible. When the wings sense enough windspeed they will attempt liftoff. If they succeed they will re-engage the pumps and you'll need to pump as fast as you can for a little while. Prepare to raise some sweat."

Liana strapped herself in and stepped a few meters away. "Watch. First I pump up to pressure." She had the stirrups on her feet attached to the pack by its gossamer lines and she marched energetically in one spot for about a minute. There was a loud beep from the backpack. Liana stopped pumping and leaned forward. Her great yellow and orange wings unfolded with a sound like a large tablecloth being shaken out and Liana ran as fast as she could, leaning forward and the wings began to sweep up and down, as if testing the air.

Standing beside Christine, watching this, Natka said, "You will feel the wings move and if you time it right you can jump into the air just when the wings are ready." Just then Liana did that. Her wings had raised themselves a little higher, preparing for another soft downsweep, when Liana leaped into the air. The wings now, instead of the gentle sweeps they'd been doing, must have sensed the leap and gave a massive downstroke that lifted Liana a couple of meters up. They quickly bent and raised up to give another powerful downstroke. Liana was pumping rapidly with her legs. In seconds she was ten or more meters up and gaining height more rapidly. Soon, perhaps thirty or fifty meters high, she levelled out and glided back and forth across the wind above the village, lifting higher and higher.

Esther said, "I am next." She repeated Liana's performance, but with her plain white wings. A number of the villagers had gathered around and clapped and cheered when she lifted off.

"Oh, gosh. An audience. There wasn't enough pressure?" She smiled weakly at Natka.

"Don't worry. You probably won't get airborn the first time. The wings will stop you falling. Just walk back over here and try again. Take as long as you want."

Christine nodded and began marching in one spot, pumping pressure into the wings' pneumatic store. When the backpack beeped she leaned over and Natka backed away to give room for the wings to open. As they did last time, her yellow-green wings opened gently, noiselessly above her. Christine ran as fast as she could. Natka was right; she could feel what the wings were doing. Somehow she knew the right time to jump and she was in the air. She felt the pumps engage with the stirrups again and she pumped til she was gasping for breath. It took remarkably little time to gain enough height that she could stop pumping and glide while she caught her breath.

Below her, Natka's pink-purple wings were flapping their way up too and the green villagers were cheering, faces uplifted.

Christine felt the wind against the wings, angled her body and gave several more strong pumps to assist in holding her position. Realising what she was doing she laughed aloud. She was flying again! It was difficult and wing-assisted, but flying nevertheless. She felt in her element. This was what she loved. She was grinning as she felt the wings subtly shifting and moving, balancing against the wind. This was wonderful. Even so, she was looking forward to making unaided flights again. Her fingers were tingling with the combination of joy and anticipation.

Natka rose, with several long, slow flaps to glide near Christine, their wingtips only meters apart. Natka indicated north. Christine knew she was pointing to where old Nambour was and the gateway where she would leave this body and return to the virtual worlds. Christine nodded and leaned in her harness letting the wings know the direction she wanted to move.

The group skimmed at an angle to their direction of travel, surfing the wind. It would have been a fairly long walk, but through the air it wasn't far at all. Soon they had started the descent, when abruptly Natka peeled off eastwards. Puzzled, Christine followed. Natka had seen something far ahead in a grassy clearing. When they were close enough Christine could see that it was a gigantic bird, far more stocky than an emu and much taller. It was tearing apart some other dog-sized animal — ripping off great chunks of flesh and gulping them down. It ignored them.

Natka and Christine circled the gruesome spectacle once then flew back towards the gateway.

Liana and Esther were waiting for them when they landed on the rubble-strewn slope at the foot of the cliff near the entrance to the gateway.

While unstrapping herself from her backpack Christine asked Natka, "What was that? Some kind of monstrous emu?"

"No, it is not related to them. It is a form of giant waterfowl. Paleontologists used to jokingly call it the 'Demon Duck of Doom'. Truly."

Frowning and shaking her head, Christine said, "What on Earth possessed you to reintroduce these nightmare animals?" She handed her backpack to Liana. "It's been interesting and I'm glad to have met you folks, but I have to say, I'll be really glad to get back to the virtual worlds."

The four of them said their goodbyes. Liana said, "Please do come back and visit us again."

Christine gave her a brief hug, "I will. It has been very different from anything I could have imagined... I especially loved your wonderful machines."

"Oh, they're nothing. You should see what some other people have managed to do. I'll show you on your next visit."

Christine and Natka entered the gateway and lay, each in a coffin-like cavity in the floor.

Suddenly Christine was standing in the room with the star symbols on the floor and was still holding the fluffy rabbit doll in one hand. It felt very comforting to be her smaller self and fully clothed again.

Natka was standing nearby. She had changed her virtual self's appearance to look like a teenager of Christine's age, without the green skin, but still with the silvery hair and now dressed in white shirt and knee-length dark green skirt, cardigan, sandals and long socks, like Christine. When she spoke, it was with a normal voice, rather than the musical one she had in the real world, though still with a pleasantly exotic, lilting accent.

Webster smiled and waved, "Natka let me know you were returning. I must say, I think this is a very good idea for you to have an android guide. Come, you'll be wanting to get back to Crossroads so that you can find a suitable world."

The three of them left the room through its portal to the vast plain of Crossroads with countless green-haloed, dark gray spheres scattered about them on the flat, light-gray floor and many more floating high in the cloudless, blue sky. As before, many, distant, bizarrely-dressed people drifted sedately from portal to portal.

Over several weeks Natka showed Christine hundreds of worlds, picking mostly worlds that had some similarity to the Dark World. They began by visiting nostalgia worlds on all kinds of themes. There were small worlds that consisted only of historically famous cities, such as Brasilia, Paris, Mexico City, Sydney, Beijing, London, Stockholm, most of which were set in eras before or after the the period Christine found most comfortable. The city worlds were interesting, but Christine had never liked cities, having spent much of her childhood in the country. Cities had always seemed to her sterile, dead, grimy. There were worlds that remembered many of the great parks, before they were destroyed by poaching and climate change. Places such as Kruger National Park on the Serengeti Plains, New Zealand's Fiordland National Park, Costa Rica's Manuel Antonio National Park, Yosemite before the eruption, and hundreds more. Australia's Kakadu was the closest fit with her past, though still not right. Anyway, the park worlds let people visit, but didn't allow them to build homes there.

They explored hundreds of Australian worlds, some almost cartoonlike in their simplicity, others extraordinarily detailed and realistic.

One day they were standing in a very flat, dry and scrubby world modelled on the inland New South Wales bush. Christine sighed. "This is the best so far, but is still not really what I want. It's too far west of the coast. The vegetation is much richer nearer to the coast. This would just make me even more homesick by being close, but not quite there."

Natka said, "I've made enquiries and it seems the person who built the world has locked it, preserving it as a likeness of the place of their childhood. They're not interested in extensions to it. I'm sorry."

Christine was disheartened. "It's hard to believe that nobody preserved a copy of the Sunshine Coast area. It's such a beautiful place."

"There may well be some modelled on it, but there are billions of worlds, many of which are private and not recorded in Crossroads."

Christine sighed wearily, "Well that leaves us with just one option."

Natka raised her eyebrows in question.

Christine was glum. "I have to build my own world... except, I have no idea how to do that."

Uncharacteristically, Natka grinned and rubbed her hands together. "It is a lot easier than you think. And it can be good fun... uh, depending on your definition of fun. It is very time-consuming though."

"Well, time is something I have plenty of, now."

"The easiest way is to first find out if there are any abandoned worlds built on similar rules to the ones you want, and use them as a starting point, rather than starting from scratch. Then once you have a world, we can clone features of other worlds that you like, copying them into yours, fine-tuning as we go."

"Who do we ask about discarded worlds?"

Natka smiled, "I just now checked with the AIs that operate Crossroads and they've turned over a disused world to you that will probably suit your purposes."

They returned to Crossroads and flew up very high — some kilometers — so that Christine could see clearly the complex, non-repeating pattern inscribed into the plain. Then they took off at high speed, watching the vast plain move under them. Swirling patterns merged into spiky then angular patterns, and eventually into another region of fern-like curved patterns. Natka pointed out an enormously long snaking section with another slightly different pattern beside it. Between them were small, curling, lopsided spirals, with branching sections that budded off them like the arms of snowflakes, but each had a different number of arms. Natka pointed to one that had seven arms. Then, counting from the smallest arm to the third, Natka said, "There, on the outermost edge of the third arm."

They flew down toward that place and and it soon became clear that the arm-design drawn onto the plain was another uneven shape like a vine with larger "leaves" at its base and smaller ones near its curling tip.

Natka said, "The second largest leaf-shape is the one we want."

Approaching still further, the leaf shapes divided into more patterns. Nothing was symmetrical, yet it was all surprisingly beautiful. It was almost like the kind of intricate doodles that Christine used to draw while talking to a friend on the phone. She hastily banished the memory lest she become overwhelmed with regret at the loss of her homeworld, as had happened often recently in her tour of hundreds of nostalgia worlds.

They were low enough to be able to make out the gray portal spheres dotting the design. Most were on the surface in this region; very few were floating at any height. Christine remembered that spheres in a single column were portals to different places within the same world. Natka pointed to a sphere near the curling tip of the leaf-like shape. It was on the plain near decorations that looked almost like eyelashes curved away from it. Other spheres' positions were marked by quite different decorations.

When they'd landed near it, Natka held out an arm toward the sphere and said to Christine, "Behold, the gateway to Christine's world."

Christine smiled.

They entered the sphere and stepped out into a world that was clearly unfinished. Someone appeared to have lost interest part-way through building it. The sky was blank pale blue except for the single light source, a warm sun, and the floor looked the way uncrumpled paper would look to ants. Large, white, angular facets, each only a meter or two across, made an uneven surface, which averaged over distance, was flat to the horizon.

Christine said, "You know, what I don't understand is, where is all this?"

Natka wasn't sure what Christine wanted to know.

"I mean, I know it is inside some computer somewhere, but where is the computer?"

"Oh. All the worlds are in countless computers all networked together. Mostly deep within the Earth's crust." Natka looked like she was working out how best to describe it. "About a thousand years ago computers were built from carefully grown crystals of silicon."

"You mean sand?"

"No, sand is silica — silicon dioxide. The old computers used silicon refined from silica by removing the oxygen from it. It was difficult to do and very energy-intensive. They grew large crystals of pure, metallic-looking silicon, then sliced it up. Into each thin wafer they etched fine patterns of circuits and tainted the silicon using chemicals that let the non-conducting silicon carry a current. It was all very complicated and precise. A very fast clock usually operated this ingenious system of cascading electronic switches, though some people did perfect clockless computers. The clock, incidentally, was a bit of quartz crystal — silicon dioxide. Anyway, all this was very fragile, and although such circuits could last for a long time they still deteriorated over centuries."

Christine knew some of this, but she'd thought solid-state electronics was eternal. "How could it die? It has no moving parts."

"The charges gradually moved atoms, and materials slowly diffused across junctions, changing the properties of the circuits. What was needed was a kind of electronics that repaired itself.

"Shortly before the crash, biologists found that the bulk of life on Earth is not on the surface, but under it, in the ground — bacteria. It was a puzzle for a while just how they metabolised, down there, away from sunlight and oxygen. It turned out that they form vast electrical networks with their fellows deeper in the ground. All of them benefit from these networks. We found ways to use these networks for our own purposes, modifying the bacteria so that they can be controlled by the currents that they pass on, allowing computation to be performed. To cut a long story short, the result is massively parallel computation that exists in the crust of the whole planet and which constantly repairs and maintains itself."

Christine was flabbergasted at this revelation. "We're underground? Using bacteria?"

Natka nodded. "So far only a tiny fraction of the potential capabilities have been used. And since bacteria were found inside Mars and even deep inside the Moon, further networks have been built there too."

"Wait, if the worlds are self-repairing why is my homeworld developing flaws?"

"Ah, yes. The real Earth is not in stasis — continents move, earthquakes occur, weather at the surface affects deep water, even the bacteria that support our networks alter the rocks by feeding upon them. Natural damage to the bacterial networks degrades the data held in there — even their growth and repair alters it. The Dark World was one of the very earliest virtual worlds. They used an old, centralised way of building their world as a single construct and the people exist inside that, similar to the way flesh-and-blood people inhabit the real world. Later, after the Dark World had isolated itself, a more reliable way of building worlds was developed which keeps copies of worlds in many places letting redundancy cancel out errors. For instance this world now exists in your mind and mine as well as in some world archives and in the minds of whoever visited it before. An error in one of those copies is corrected by being outvoted by the other copies. The more copies of a world, the more resilient it is. The Dark World can't do that. There is only the one version. Errors can only be fixed deliberately by the people living inside it."

Christine frowned and waved her arm around at the simple, incomplete world around them. "I don't understand. What do you mean? We're obviously standing inside this world; not it inside us."

"Yes, I know that is how it appears, but in actuality, when you stepped through the portal this world was copied to your mind. Think of it this way. When you close your eyes and remember somewhere you've been and visualise being there again, you are surrounded by the world as you remember it, but that world doesn't really exist outside your mind. This works in a similar way. This is a shared world that exists inside my mind and inside your mind."

"My mind?" Cristine felt a flicker of hope. "If I'm a construct then does that mean I'm still housed in my homeworld's computer system?"

"No. Your data — your identity — was moved from the Dark World's system to the wider network. Previously you were a part of the Dark World's computing system. When you were moved, your design was altered slightly to accomodate the difference outside. Instead of simply inhabiting a world, as you did with the Dark World, you now keep a copy of each world you visit within you."

Christine interrupted, "Is that why I was in darkness for a little while when I was pushed out of my home world? Moving through all the other portals has been instant."

"Yes. Your data was being translated to a form that can use the wider worlds properly."

Christine thought about this for a little while. "Can't my homeworld be converted to the same, more reliable system?"

"It could, but that is not likely to happen for a long time."

"Why not?"

"The Dark world is a closed world. They forbid entry and meddling with their world."

Christine frowned, "But that world is gradually breaking down."

Natka nodded, "Yes, but do not worry. The Watchers will swoop in when it becomes dangerous and convert it to protect everybody inside it."

"Why don't they do it now?"

"They have a strict policy of abiding by people's desires for self determination."

Cristine shook her head, "But 'self determination' implies people have made a choice. Almost nobody there knows they are trapped inside a virtual world. They think it's the real world and that death and illness are unavoidable. There is no self determination there."

Natka sighed. "I understand, but this is a human decision, made by the people who control the Dark World. No matter how we dislike it, we must respect it."

"Well, I'm from there and I say otherwise. I don't respect it. The people there are captives who don't even know there's anything to choose."

"Cristine, if you gave them the choice, do you seriously think they would choose to know that their world was made by humans, not a god? How do you think they would feel knowing that their religion is a lie? You lived there. You know religion is the very foundation for that society."

Christine was shocked. "Religion is a lie?"

"Of course." Natka looked suddenly uncertain. She said softly, "I thought you realised that once you left your world. Isn't it obvious?"

"There's no God?" She was pale and looked like she had a bad taste in her mouth.

"Well, not as believed by any religion, no. There is the very remote possibility that some entity may have made this universe, though no evidence has ever been found. Reality could be a construct like our virtual worlds, but in a thousand years researchers have have failed to come up with any way to even test the proposition."

"What about faith?"

Natka shook her head. "The ability to disregard truth? What does that gain anyone?"

"Faith can be a good thing."


Christine shrugged, "Faith in human nature?"

Natka put her hand gently on Christine's shoulder and said softly, "Just like all androids I love humanity and have a very good understanding of human potential and its frailties — perhaps better than any human has. How could ignoring any of that in favor of some nebulous bias be a good thing?"

Christine shrugged again, looking a little embarrassed.

Natka grinned lopsidedly, "Great though it may be, my understanding is obviously still flawed." She chuckled, eliciting a weak smile from Christine. "I am sorry I pulled the rug out from under you so suddenly."

Christine shrugged. "I guess I should've known. So much there was untrue." She sighed. "But it felt so right."

"The most convincing illusions always do."

They both stood there for a while in the midst of the empty, part-formed world. Natka waited patiently. Christine looked down at her feet, thinking, then walked in a big circle. When she returned to Natka she looked up and said, "Can you show me how to build a landscape very similar to my home world?"

Natka smiled widely with relief, "Absolutely! How big do you want your world to be? I know it seems odd, but it is actually simpler to build a whole Earth than just a part of it, because maintaining edge conditions can be very complicated, whereas a self-contained system, where the weather and ecosystems run themselves, is much simpler to set up."

"A whole Earth? That would be great. I'd thought we would be limited to just the area around where I lived."

"You still have a copy of the Dark World that was duplicated by the portal program when you were ejected. All we have to do is access it and impose its structure on this world. Reseeding it with plants and animals is slightly more complicated, but fairly straightforward too. People are not part of the standard world-file. Only in the actual Dark World are people part of the world."

Natka showed Christine how to access the information on world geometry and physical data for the Dark World. She taught her how to set up the rules for growing plants; how they sprang out of simple physical laws, and that seeds are actually tiny sets of instructions for how a plant's cells should respond to their neighboring cells, and to light, gravity, moisture, and so on. Animal egg cells worked on the same principal, but with more complexity because of their mobility.

Creating all the living things everything fully formed was impractical. Much easier was to seed the landscape roughly the way it was when she lived there and fast-forward the growth. It took just a few days to set the data up in a manner that generated her familiar landscape filled with much of the life she remembered — trees and birds and butterflies and mosses. It was a little different because she'd started everything growing at the same time, but they had different lifespans. By the time the trees had grown to the stage she wanted, all the smaller vegetation had gone through many generations. The result was quite different from how she remembered it.

It was more complicated to reconstruct the house where she'd lived with her parents. Creating the walls, floors, doors, windows, furnishings, and so on was fairly easy, but fitting them together correctly was not simple. She'd never taken much notice of the actual construction of a house and some of the sizes of parts looked subtly wrong in ways that were elusive. Interior decorations were a little easier, though Christine found her memory for a lot of things she saw every day wasn't what she thought it would be. Outside the house she'd reformed the gardens, as much as she could remember. She was elated. This was amazing! She now had a whole world that looked like where she used to live! ...Except, not quite. She was suddenly swept with a feeling of loneliness. "It's a beautful world, Natka. Thank you. But without people it's like a ghost world. I don't think I can live like Indigo — as a hermit."

"Don't worry, Christine. People will come. And each person will make your world stronger and more resilient."

"Is there any way to find other people who've been thrown out of... my um... the uh... the Dark World?" Christine stumbled over the name, realising she'd never called it that before, but now that she had a truly safe place for herself she could no longer use the word 'home' for the world that had cast her out.

"They might want to come here? Good idea." Natka concentrated for a few moments. "I have asked some of the AIs at Crossroads and they are contacting a few hundred of them right now."

"Wow! That many?"

"There are more, but some isolated themselves from the wider worlds. The AIs can't contact them without violating human orders."

"Maybe if I contacted them personally they might feel like coming here."

Natka nodded, uncertainly, "Being human you are able to ignore 'keep out' notices."

Christine laughed, "It makes you uncomfortable. Don't worry. I'll only give them the offer. If they don't want it then they can stay locked away, but I can't help thinking they cut themselves off because they miss their old home. Maybe we can give it back to them." She raised her arms to indicate the world around them."

Natka still looked uneasy, "Perhaps, but I think that most will not be happy with a world in which people can fly and build with their minds. That is likely what they are hiding from: a world that does not make sense to them."

"You could be right, but I have to try."

"I understand." Natka raised her finger, "However, before people begin visiting your world you must decide where you want them to appear, and I need to show you how the portal spheres work."

The logic of the portals greatly interested Christine, so she carefully listened as her friend explained. A rather daring plan was starting to unfold in her mind.

The spheres were not needed at all. They were just decorative markers. The actual teleporting effect came from a program that rewrote the coordinates of any object that entered the region marked by the sphere. That is, the program gave the object a new position within one of the worlds.

Christine thought about that for a moment. "This is a little like what we do when we fly, isn't it? We change our coordinates under conscious control."

"Well, yes and no. There are a few ways to fly. One is, as you say, consciously altering the values defining your coordinates, another is to alter the way gravity affects you..."

"Oh. Yes. That's how I fly." She remembered Betty had deduced that. She bit her lip, hoping her friend was alright.

"Yes. There are other ways, but those are the two most common."

Christine wanted to know, "How do I fly by altering my coordinates? I can't find it..." She was frowning in concentration.

"Indigo will have given you access to a lot of the variables that control many aspects of your self. Relax and let the memories he added come to you. When you are searching for a word that eludes you, often it comes when you stop straining so hard for it."

"Oh, wait... I found it." Grinning, she started to rise in the air.

Natka patiently waited while Christine practiced over and over moving in different directions at various speeds, gradually mastering this new ability. After perhaps half an hour of this she swooped down to stand before Natka, who was smiling almost as broadly as Christine.

Natka said, "You are very adaptable. Webster was right."

Christine laughed, "I've just realised something else." And she suddenly disappeared, reappearing at the same instant about 20 meters away. A second later she returned just as suddenly to her position before Natka.

Natka shook her head, still smiling. "Astoundingly adaptable."

"Instead of nudging the coordinates to change gradually, I simply set new coordinates in one go, the way a portal does." Christine looked away from Natka and her expression gradually shifted to something darker, more serious as she thought something through.

Natka's smile changed to look a little sad, "To your next question, no. I don't think it is a good idea."

Christine's mouth opened, but she closed it again for a moment, then asked, "Did you just read my thoughts?"

"No, not in the way you imagine. I have no access to your mind. I simply understand how humans think. You are not like most humans, but it is nevertheless easy to see what your next intention was going to be."

"Are you going to try to stop me from going to... uh, the Dark World?" It was still difficult for her to call it that.

"No, of course not. My role must always be guide and helper, not to obstruct you."

"Will you come with me?"

Natka looked uncomfortable, "To do so violates rules set by other people, but I can not allow harm to befall you or others. So, yes. I will accompany you." She sighed. "I do not believe I can argue you out of this. You are thinking about your parents and friends. Am I correct?"

Christine nodded tensely, eagerly.

Natka said, "We need first to decide where in the Dark World we should teleport to. We can use this world as a guide to the coordinates, but we have to be careful of plants as they will have grown differently there. Also it would be helpful if we didn't scare any people by suddenly appearing in front of them."

Christine brightened. "I have a few favorite places in the bush. Some are large, flat rocks, several meters broad. They're not far away."

"That sounds perfect."

They lifted into the air and flew the short distance to the nearest of the rocks. It was on the side of the hill and surrounded on three edges by scrubby vegetation a little taller than they were. It was actually two great slabs of rock, side by side, almost level. They overlooked the valley and stood higher than the shrubs, but were shaded by a few trees, under whose canopies they had a mostly unobstructed view stretching for kilometers.

Natka sighed appreciatively when they'd landed. "I can see why this is one of your favorite places. This is beautiful."

Christine grinned, having the uncanny feeling that she was back home and that her parents were waiting not far from here, back along the ridge at their house. "I love — loved coming here. I would bring a bottle of water, some fruit, cushions, a blanket, and a book reader." She indicated a gently sloping section of rock where she used to lounge as if it was a couch. "The trees are a little different, but you can see how they shade it most of the day so it never gets too hot. I'd often come out here for a few hours after school, or spend most of the day on weekends here alone, reading and listening to the birds and the wind in the trees. Bliss."

Natka nodded. "This is where we will enter the Dark World then." She held up her index finger. "There is something I need to say first. I understand that you feel wronged, and I agree with you, but things have changed now. Those wrongs are no longer important. Humans are amazing, but almost all of you have one spectacularly glaring flaw: given power, you are almost guaranteed to misuse it. The meekest and mildest among you easily become bullies when you have the opportunity. What those who did wrong by you are guilty of is simply being human. But things are different now. When we visit the Dark World nobody will have any power over you because although we will be sharing that world with its occupants, unlike them, our minds will be outside. I ask you to act with restraint. Do not allow your emotions to rule you. Do not hurt anybody. This is extremely important. Be a better human."

Christine nodded.

Natka waited for a little while to let her words sink in fully, then said, "I suppose we should go then. You understand the Dark World's coordinates?"

"Yes." She looked at her friend the android who appeared to be a silver-haired girl, then frowned. "Wait, will the other androids do anything to you for letting me do this?"

Natka smiled, cocking her head, "No, I don't believe so. If I wasn't here I think you would have eventually realised how to do this by yourself. I am doing my best to protect you and others from harm, but if I allow you to bring havoc on others then I will be judged accordingly."

Soberly, Christine nodded again, "Understood. I'll be careful."

Natka bowed slightly. "Thank you." Then she asked, "Shall we go?"

Christine fixed the coordinates of the Dark World in her mind and joined them to the local coordinates of her current position in this, her own world. Suddenly the positions of all the trees and shrubs jumped and the hissing of the breeze in the trees abruptly changed in quality. Her fingers tingled in anticipation, and a smile widened on her face. She gave a questioning look to Natka who looked very serious and nodded, "Welcome back to the Dark World."

Christine led the way using her familiar, but faint path through the shrubbery — not so much a track as a way that was less heavily tangled. Natka, following behind, marvelled at how Christine was able to navigate through the fairly thick undergrowth with ease and economy, ducking under and around obstructions, only pushing branches out of the way if she absolutely needed, and then she would replace them gently behind her instead of letting them whack backwards. She moved almost silently through the bush with only the occasional crunch of her feet on dry leaves to betray her movement. When Natka mentioned this to her, Christine stopped, looking a little surprised and shrugged. "Maybe I got into the habit when sneaking up on birds and other animals to watch them. I don't know. I never thought about it. It certainly feels easier than blundering through."

After about fifteen minutes of walking they came within sight of the house. They stopped and Natka asked, "Have you thought of what you will say to your parents?"

Christine bit her lip and shook her head.

"You can't simply tell them about this world — that it is not what it appears to be."

"Why not?" Christine challenged.

Natka said gently, patiently, "The Holy Spiritual Council will get rid of anybody who threatens their... illusion."

"Maybe they'd be better off outside this world anyway."

Natka didn't answer, but simply raised an eyebrow.

Christine huffed, a little annoyed. "Maybe not," grudgingly.

"They are much older than you Christine, and not as adaptable."

"You're almost a thousand years old. What's age got to do with it?"

"I'm not human. And my mind never ages. In this world people grow past youth and become set in their ways. Change becomes increasingly difficult for them. Their world would be shattered. They'd lose all their friends. Would you do that to them?"

Christine narrowed her eyes, "Have them continue to live a lie, you mean?"

"If a person lives only inside this world then is it a lie? It is the only reality they know. And if they are adapted to it then it is a comfortable reality."

"But they aren't in just this world. I'm here and I'm living proof that there is more — much more."

Natka sighed and looked at her human friend sadly.

Christine scowled at her feet for a while, then looked back up at Natka, "I owe it to them to at least give them a choice."

Natka nodded, "I understand."

Christine turned back to the house, but didn't take a step for a while. Natka remained silent. Finally Christine strode quickly over the remaining distance through the outer shrubs and the garden, over the small grassy patch and the patio, to the living room's glass doors, then opened them and stepped inside, looking around. She called out "Mum? Dad? I'm back!"

There was the thud of something dropping in another room and Christine's mother appeared suddenly in a doorway, her hand covering her mouth and a stricken expression on her face, then rushed to Christine, wrapping her arms around her, lifting her off the ground. Eyes tightly shut, voice almost at a whisper, "We thought we'd lost you. Where were you?" Then, putting her down and holding her daughter's shoulders at arm's length, she asked more strongly, though not harshly, "Where were you? You've been gone a week."

"Only a week? It feels much longer — so much has happened. It... uh... it's a bit hard to explain." Christine turned a little and raised an arm toward Natka who had entered the room behind her. "This is my friend Natka. She helped me."

Christine's mother looked a little shocked at Natka's appearance. "What happened to your hair?"

Christine said, "Oh, yes. I forgot about that. White won't go down well. Everybody has exactly the same shade of brown hair here."

Natka touched her mane of silver-white hair. "My mistake. Sorry. I should have thought of it."

Christine made an urging movement with her hand. Natka asked uncertainly, "Now?" glancing at Christine's mother.

Christine nodded, and Natka, looking a little worried, changed her hair color to brown.

Christine's mother's mouth fell open.

"It's alright, Mum. It's difficult to explain, and I don't know how to say it, so I'll just try, okay?" She watched her mother. "Before I disappeared, I found I could fly. At first I thought I was just dreaming, but eventually I had to admit to myself it was real and I was actually flying."

Her mother said gently, "People can't fly, Honey. It's imposss..." trailing off as Christine rose into the air about a meter and stayed there for a second before settling gently to the floor again. After a moment of silence, her mother said softly, "Well... isn't that interesting."

Natka chuckled and shook her head, "I think I understand where you get your adaptability from."

Christine said to her mother. "I can fly, but my friend Betty had a different ability, and I've met more people who can do other things."

Her mother said, "Betty visited a couple of days after you'd disappeared. She was upset that you were gone and seemed to feel responsible."

Christine glanced at Natka, then back to her Mum. "It wan't her fault. There are people who run the world... that sounds conspiratorial... they don't run it exactly, they kind of repair it, but they maintain a lie about reality. When I found out, they wanted me to join them, but I wasn't happy about it and they somehow knew and didn't trust me, so they kicked me out of this world." Her voice dropped to an intense, excited whisper, "Mum, there are billions of worlds."

Natka spoke, "Unfortunately, in telling you this Christine has put you at risk of being ejected from this world too, so it is very important that you do not tell anyone of this."

"Except Dad," Christine added.

Her mother sighed. "I don't know what your Father will make of all this."

Christine held her hand, "Mum, I know this all sounds crazy... and there's lots more that's really weird, but I just wanted to let you know that I'm alright and that I didn't want to go away. This was my first chance to return... and I... I don't really know what I'm going to do. I haven't thought it through yet." She remembered Betty's anger at her indecisiveness. How do people make big decisions without much to go on, anyway?

And then she realised... if Betty was working with those people then she was key to gaining some control of this situation. She turned to Natka, "I think we need to visit Betty."

Her mother said, "It's almost 2pm. She'd still be in school."

So over the the next couple of hours they sat in comfortable cane chairs around the low table in the sunroom, sipping milk and nibbling biscuits while they explained what had happened since Christine found she could fly. At various points Mum made softly voiced interjections, "What an awful man," at Mr Arrogant, "Outrageous," at Agent Giselle's expulsion of Christine.

"I don't understand why you didn't tell your father and me at the time."

Christine looked embarrassed. "I wanted to, but I was scared that it simply put you in danger, and I was right, but I do wish I'd been able to let you know. I don't seem to be very good at making decisions and I felt kind of lost. I'm still worried that I'm putting you in danger by telling you, but I think I might be able to protect you now... especially with Natka's help."

Natka said, "I think that Christine is correct. She can not be hurt by those here who might wish her harm, and I shall do all in my power to safeguard not only her, but you as well. My purpose is to protect all humans."

"Natka isn't human, Mum. She is a five hundred year old android. There are lots of androids and they are guardians of the remaining humans on Earth — the real Earth."

"What do you mean, the real Earth?"

Natka described the history of the past thousand years: catastrophic climate change, the development of virtual worlds as refuges and the emigration of almost all people to them, the Dark World sealing itself off from the rest of the virtual worlds, and how the massive damage to the real Earth had been repaired over many centuries. Christine's mother listened intently.

Christine resumed her narrative, telling about Crossroads and Webster, strange Indigo and his ability to instill knowledge, and at length, her adventures on the real Earth, meeting Natka and Liana, the wonderful machines Liana built, and the beautiful, tall forests inhabited by wondrous and frightening creatures. Finally she told of her decision to return to the virtual realm, where, building her own world under Natka's guidance, she realised how to transport herself back here.

Eventually Christine realised Betty would probably be home by now, gave her Mum a hug and told her they'd return later.

"Please be careful. It would be awful for you to disappear again... or worse."

"We will, Mum." Christine turned to Natka, "Walking there would take a couple of hours and I don't want other people to see me just yet. Flying there in broad daylight might not be wise. There is one way to get there quickly and safely, but we need to jump back to my world first." She gave a little wave to her Mum, "We won't be more than a few hours." Then she disappeared, followed by Natka.

Back in her own world in her copy of her family's house, Christine looked around, realising her attempt to replicate the home's interior, while largely successful, had missed a number of things. She was surprised that she'd forgotten the large, warm, dark painting of the trees inside a rainforest that hung on the livingroom wall behind the couch. She loved that painting. How could that have slipped her mind? She noticed other things too. The pattern of the rug was different in a subtle way, there had been small decorations on the windowsill beside the dining table that she'd somehow missed even though she'd seen them almost every day of her life, and the shelves were too far across the wall at the far end of the livingroom. She shook her head and said to Natka, "I am much less observant than I thought."

Natka nodded, "Forgetting is an important part of learning complex new concepts."

Christine looked quizzically at the android for a moment, then said, "We can fly to a cave in the bush not far from where Betty's home would be, jump back to the other world, and walk up the hill to Betty's place."

Flying above the area where the small township would have been Christine noticed how different it all looked. There were many more trees and far fewer flowering shrubs. Several times she saw wallabies, only one or two at a time, grazing in grassy glades where houses would have been. She'd rarely seen them in the Dark World, with people and dogs and cars to frighten the timid creatures away.

They flew down the hillside to the cave Betty had showed her, only a week ago — it seemed far longer. Alighting inside the cave Christine looked around her. The log she'd so laboriously lifted was not there, of course, but the cave looked otherwise just as she remembered it.

She said to Natka, "I wonder what Betty will say when she opens her front door and I'm there."

Natka said, "Perhaps another member of her family will open the door."

"Perhaps, but I hope it's Betty."

They jumped to the Dark World and were met by a shriek.

Betty had been reading, sitting on a blanket on the floor, her back against the rock wall, when the pair abruptly appeared in the middle of the cave. She was suddenly on her feet before she realised who one of the apparitions was. "Christine! You gave me a shock! Where have you been? They told me you were gone."

"I was. They exiled me from the world." She turned to Natka and introduced her to Betty. "She's my friend and helped me."

Betty asked, "Did it happen to you too?"

"No, I'm from the real Earth. I'm here to help and protect Christine."

Betty frowned at them. "The 'real earth'? And what does that even mean, 'exiled from the world'?"

Christine sighed and shook her head. "There is so much that has been kept from us about the nature of the world. I'll explain, but this will take a while."

The three of them sat on the blanket and Christine proceeded to explain to Betty what had happened after Betty had stormed off in Coolum — the meeting with the agents; how, when she'd been ejected from the world she'd momentarily thought she'd been killed, but found herself in Crossroads; Webster and Indigo; her time on the real Earth with Liana and Natka; the decision to return to the virtual worlds with Natka; building her own world, leading finally to the realisation that she could return here.

At the end of the explanation Betty could only say softly, "Wow." She got to her feet and walked to the edge of the cave. "Why did you come to see me?"

"To see if you are okay and to show you I'm alive... and to try to fix this. What happened to you after Coolum?"

"Not much. I woke up after a concussion after finding Mister Arrogant. The idiot knocked me out with that power he has and the end of the broom handle I was holding in his chest exploded when I lost consciousness and released it. The other agents took me to some ward they have and looked after me until I woke a few days later. They told me you were gone — I assumed dead — and asked me if I'd work with them to protect the world. Of course I agreed. I didn't want to die, and the way it was explained to me, I could do some real good working with people who accept my abilities because they have powers of their own. I haven't been called on yet; probably won't until I'm older." She shrugged. "That's all. It's only been a week."

Betty turned back to the view through the tops of the trees beyond the mouth of the cave. "You said you are going to fix this. What do intend to do?"

Christine laughed. "I really have no idea. I have no plan. I was going to find out if you knew how to see Agent Giselle."

Betty asked, "Why?"

"To get her to stop ejecting people, of course. Let people know the truth."

Betty shook her head, "They'll never agree to that. You are one schoolgirl and they have a worldwide organisation. Who do you think will come off worse?"

"I'm not going to fight them, but they'll have to listen to me because they can't hurt me now."

Natka explained, "When she was removed from this world she became an independent part of the wider worlds. Nobody can damage her."

Christine said, "I can't let them banish my parents, or you... or anybody else."

Betty sighed, "They're not going to listen to you, you know. How could you possibly convince them to relinquish their power?"

"I have to try," she insisted. "Maybe if I told them that any person they eject from now on, I'll bring back to the Dark World, where they will be immortal and immune from harm."

Betty asked, "What's the Dark World got to do with anything?"

"This is the Dark World. It's what people in all the other worlds call this world."

"Oh." Betty frowned. "Well... I guess that might work."

After a moment Christine said to Natka, "It might not. It just occurs to me, didn't you tell me that they used to simply kill inconvenient people? They began exiling them under pressure from the Council of Worlds, or whatever the group is called."

Natka nodded. "I doubt they would start executing people again, however I see your point. They could imprison them, or even mind-wipe them if they know how."

Betty was horrified, "They can mind-wipe people?"

"Do not be unduly alarmed. Circumstances would suggest they do not know that it can be done."

Christine asked, "I can't be mind-wiped, right?"

"No. You are protected by your independence from this world."

Betty looked thoughtful, "So, if you took me out of this world and brought me back would I be safe too?"

Natka nodded, "Yes."

Betty's face lit up, "Then that's the solution. Take me out of the world then return me, and do the same for your parents. Then we'll be safe."

Christine shook her head. "Well, it's only a partial solution because it would protect just a few people, but it is a start." She turned to Natka, "How do we do this?"

"It is very simple. One or both of us keep her close or hold onto her when we jump to your world so that she is brought with us. Then when we bring her back, or she returns by herself, they will no longer be able to hurt her."

Betty rubbed her hands together, "Then let's do it."

Natka spoke again, "There is, however, a point of ethics to consider. You must not use your immunity to hurt others — even if you feel it is warranted. There will be far reaching consequences, not only for you but for others too. You must be extremely careful of the ramifications of your actions."

Christine gave Betty a meaningful look.

Betty rolled her eyes and said, "Okay. Less impulse, more thought, got it."

Christine sighed. Clearly she didn't believe Betty was taking this seriously, but she reached out and took Betty's hand. "We'll go to my world first."

The scenery jumped. The rocks in the cave remained almost the same, but the trees outside were different. It took about a second for Betty to fully make the transition. To Christine, Betty appeared slightly blurred and seemed to come into focus. When she was completely clear Betty moved suddenly and gasped. "Well, that was unpleasant."

"Don't worry," Christine told her. "That time is the only time it will feel like that. From now on jumping will feel instant."

Natka said, "It took time for your mind and body to be remade out here in the wider worlds."

Betty looked around, "You made this world?"

"Yes, though not how you're thinking." Christine started flying out the mouth of the cave and called back, "You can fly here Betty."

Natka reached out for Betty's hand, "You do not know how to yet, but you will learn."

The three of them flew out of the cave and high over the wild, lightly forested landscape, the wind whistling in their ears.

"There are no houses or roads," Betty shouted.

"We're the only people in this world, so far," Christine called back. Then, bringing them down toward the replica of her parents' house, "There is one house." They landed near the front door.

Betty looked inside, while Christine pointed out how many things she'd not remembered correctly.

At a lull in the inspection Christine said to Natka, "Let's show her Crossroads." She grabbed Betty's free hand and jumped to the vast plain of Crossroads on the ground near the entry globe for her world.

Betty looked all around her. "Wow," she whispered in awe.

"All these spheres," Christine pointed and swept her arm about, "are portals, entry points to different worlds. There are billions of them. And see the people moving between them?"

Betty's mouth was wide. "Billions?"

Christine laughed and nodded. She was surprised to realise she felt proud of this place.

Natka said, "There is much more time to explain this later. You promised your mother you would not be long."

Christine nodded, and without needing to touch anybody, she jumped the three of them back to the cave in the Dark world. "Gee, I'm getting pretty good at this."

Natka's smiled approvingly.

Betty said, "I suppose you want to see Agent Giselle now. I don't actually know where she is, but I know a really nice lady who does. She lives a bit closer to the coast." She pulled out her thumb-sized phone. "I could call her to meet us at her place."

Christine nodded and Betty made the call. "Hi, Betty here. Can I come over to your place? There's something important I need to see you about... thanks... a few minutes?... bye." She pocketed the phone again and said, "I'll make us invisible to fly there."

Christine thought for a moment. "Perhaps not. We are going to change this world. It might be for the best if we fly there for all to see. If people know that unaided flight is possible then it might make the change easier. What do you think, Natka?"

"It is difficult for me to judge. I am wary of directly affecting this world and all the humans in it, however considering your greater intention is to alter this world irreversibly, there is some merit in your logic."

Betty rolled her eyes, "A simple 'Okay' would have been easier." She held out her hand to Christine, "I'll point the way, right?"

Christine grasped Betty's hand and the three of them floated out the mouth of the cave, then up above the treetops. Betty pointed toward the coast.

When they were approaching Kunda Park, Betty indicated the hill on the right-hand side of Maroochydore Road. They descended, following Betty's direction and landed on the footpath outside a small light-blue house with thousands of flowers, mostly white and gold, in the unfenced front garden. It was humming happily with bees. Betty led the way to the front door and knocked on it.

The door opened to reveal Agent Flora, the woman who had met Christine at Nambour Station and teleported her to Agent Giselle's office. She smiled at Betty, then looked startled to see her companions. "Christine! They told me you were gone. I assumed— Oh, I'm so glad you're alright. Please, come in. Who is your friend, and what can I do for you all?"

Warmed somewhat by this reception Christine said, "This is my friend, Natka. Natka, This is Agent Flora."

"Oh please, just call me Flora. No formalities."

Christine came straight to the point, "We need to see Agent Giselle. Can you take us there?"

"I guess so. I would need to check with her first though. Can I ask what this is about?"

"I want her to stop ejecting people from the world. It is hurtful and it is part of why the world is decaying."

Flora looked a little nonplussed, "'Ejecting people from the world'? 'The world is decaying'? I have no idea what you mean. Are you alright Christine."

Natka said to Christine, "She does not know."

Betty said excitedly, "Flora, this is not the only world — there are billions of them."

Christine said, "Our abilities are the result of flaws in this world. They are getting worse. Agent Giselle thinks she can control the problem by exiling anybody from this world who doesn't agree with her. But she's wrong. I need to explain to her what I've learned. It's very important."

Flora smiled uncertainly, "You realise how crazy this sounds, right?"

"More crazy than people being able to fly, walk through walls, or teleport?"

"Ah. Point taken. Alright, I'll call Agent Giselle." She took her little phone from her pocket and after a few moments spoke into it of the girls having shown up and wanting to talk. Still on the phone she asked Natka if she had some ability. Christine answered for her that she could fly too. Flora ended with, "Yes, Agent." She returned the tiny phone to her pocket. "Agent Giselle said she would see you."

Natka asked Christine, "Why did you not say?"

"I wanted to reassure her that there is no threat."

Flora became concerned. "Say what? What threat?"

"Natka isn't human. She isn't from our world, but she's no danger to anybody."

Natka said, "I can fly, but my principal reason for being here is to protect people from harm — Christine in particular, but also Betty, yourself, even Agent Giselle. I can not hurt any person."

Betty spoke up, "I'm the most dangerous person here, and I'm not going to hurt anybody, so why don't we go?"

After a few moments, Flora nodded and held out her hands to them. They touched her and all four were suddenly, noiselessly in Agent Giselle's softly lit office.

There were another few people present, looking ominously like guards, flanking Giselle, standing to each side of her heavy desk. A couple more were in the shadows of the room, watching.

Christine thought to herself that the powerful agent must be a little scared of her. She was probably the only person who had ever returned to the Dark World after being cast out. It made her smile.

Agent Giselle frowned for a moment as if puzzled by something then gave a guarded smile and motioned them to comfortable chairs. As she sat, Christine abruptly realised, "You can't hear my thoughts." She chuckled. "Don't worry, you don't need to. I'm not here to deceive you or fight with you. I really do want to talk."

Natka said softly, musically, "You can let her hear your thoughts if you wish, just as you let Flora bring you here."

Christine glanced at Natka, then back to Giselle. "Alright, I'm not sure how to do this but I'll try to let you see my thoughts. I have nothing to hide." She tried to relax for a moment. "I want you to stop ejecting people from this world and I want you to open the world up to all the other worlds." She saw Giselle stiffen. It made her wonder how many of those present knew the truth about this world.

Giselle waved to all her guards except two, "I'm convinced she's harmlessly deluded and presents no risk. You may all leave now."

Christine quickly said, "I'd prefer they stay. This concerns them all."

Nobody had moved. Giselle said in a firm tone, "Leave!" and they trickled out the door, closing it behind them.

Christine noticed that Flora disobeyed and stayed.

After a short silence, Giselle said, "You can't possibly believe you can force me to do those things."

"Of course not. Can't you see my intent? I guess I'm not doing a very good job of opening my mind to you. I'm asking you to do this for the sake of this world. It is deteriorating. That's what our abilities are — our minds accidentally learn how to use faults in the world. The only way to protect this world from degrading further is to open it up to the wider worlds, moving it to a shared system. But even if you don't do that you owe it to the people living here to dispell the lie they live. This isn't the true Earth and it isn't the only reality. It's a construct, made not by a god, but by humans. And nobody needs to get sick or die — they're just added features of this world. Cruel features, as I see it."

Giselle leaned back in her chair and shook her head, "You think you understand, but you can't because you're only a child. We're controlling the problems in this world, repairing them as we go. We have been doing so for hundreds of years. We know what we're doing. As for death, you're mistaken in seeing it as the enemy. Without death, life is meaningless. Without death, our world couldn't have children without becoming hopelessly overpopulated. If it was not for this you would not have been born. Ask your smug android friend how many children are born in the wider worlds where people are immortal. Ask her if the immortals have any meaning in their lives. Actually, no, don't bother. She doesn't understand what a meaningful life could be. Being born, having a childhood, maturing, growing old, then making way for more generations. This confers real meaning on human life. Those dilettantes in the wider worlds are lost, frittering their useless lives away in eternal waste, futilely trying to fill the emptiness and never knowing why."

Natka spoke gently, "You are wrong. There is love and honour and dedication. There is joy in the pursuit of knowledge and countless artforms. People create their own meaning. Do not underestimate Christine. She is a child, but she undertands far more than you credit."

Giselle angrily accused Natka, "You godless androids! You've been trying to do this all along. To break up our world has been your agenda for hundreds of years, and now you've found a way: hiding behind a schoolgirl, like the cowards you are."

Natka calmly said, "We androids have no agenda beyond helping and protecting humans. It is no secret that we are not pleased about the damage caused by the Dark World, but we have no desire go against human decisions and deliberately open this world. Christine's wish to open the world was not planned by us; it is hers alone. We do not manipulate people. What would be the point?"

"To get your way!" Giselle spat.

"We have no way, no ambitions. Those are human attributes."

Christine said, "People have a right to decide for themselves. It's wrong for a secret group of people to decide for them, keeping the truth from them and forcing them to unsuspectingly live a lie."

"We protect them from the ugly and repellent immortals outside and give them utopia."

Christine said to Natka, "I think we're wasting our time." Then she turned back to glare at Giselle, "If you eject anybody ever again I will return them to this world with the power to resist you. And don't even think of imprisoning or executing them."

Christine stood, "I'm going to visit my parents before I leave this world, but I promise you that I'll return soon to open this world, letting everybody make their own choice." She reached out to Natka and Betty and the three of them disappeared.


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