by Miriam English

Chapter 01 - the offer
Chapter 02 - meet the boss
Chapter 03 - preparation
Chapter 04 - day in court
Chapter 05 - adjourn
Chapter 06 - dance
Chapter 07 - willpower
Chapter 08 - love and equality
Chapter 09 - social ecology
Chapter 10 - visiting
Chapter 11 - cyborg
Chapter 12 - insure
Chapter 13 - selves
Chapter 14 - work
Chapter 15 - work (2)
Chapter 16 - work (3)
Chapter 17 - I thought you thought
Chapter 18 - quiz
Chapter 19 - exhibition
Chapter 20 - celebrate
Chapter 21 - sailing
Chapter 22 - high
Chapter 23 - dream on

Chapter 1 - the offer

The train door opened silently and Rachel eagerly stepped out onto the platform to Sally. Very pleased with herself, Rachel held Sally's hands and announced, "I got it!"

Sally bounced up and down like a little kid, shrieked with joy, and hugged Rachel. "When do they want you to start?"


Sally looked pleased. "But of course! Having met you they immediately realise how much they need you."

Rachel chuckled and they turned and walked arm in arm along the platform as the train hissed almost noislessly away down the tunnel. There were only a few other people walking toward the exit ahead.

Rachel had dressed conservatively for the job interview. She wore all black. A halterneck bikini top, an unfashionably long miniskirt, and black moccasins. They matched her black, straight, shoulder-length hair and were a nice contrast to the green of her skin. She had just a touch of pale eyeshadow at the corners of her oriental eyes. Her physique conformed to the fashionable, not skinny, but not fat, norm these days.

Sally, as always, looked gorgeous. She had nearly the perfect average female body shape -- just a fraction heavier than the fashion. She had bare feet and wore a standard skimpy bikini top and bottom, white on her pale skin. With her blonde hair she almost seemed to glow. She didn't need to expose skin, being an android and not having symbiotic algae to supply nutrients, but she loved humans and their ways. Most particularly she loved Rachel. And joy! Rachel loved her back.

They stepped out of the station entrance into the still-warm, late afternoon. The sun was setting and casting everything with a golden light. Rachel looked at the beautiful, blonde vision walking beside her. Her heart did flip-flops and her mouth went dry. She stopped and hugged her, kissing her neck and whispering "Oh, I love you so."

Sally smiled uncomfortably and gently disentangled from Rachel, whispering reprovingly, "Not in public sweetie."

Rachel grinned drunkenly. Sally always made her feel like she was high on something. "I don't care. To hell with what they think."

Sally put her arm through Rachel's and continued to walk. "Well, I care. Humans need humans and you can't afford to to be marginalised because of me. If I ever thought I was hurting you I couldn't stay."

Rachel laughed "Do you really think you could go?"

Sally smiled. "Probably not."

The sunlight was fading and the path lights had come on. Birds were doing their evening symphony. The air was damp and sweet, but still warm. The scent of wildflowers hung in the air. All around was parkland, but it was also densely populated suburbia. All buildings were underground. It was part of the move to regain the landscape and, in Rachel's opinion, was one of the best things to come out of the great global-warming crisis. Much of the world's population had originally settled on the most fertile land only to pave it over. Just twenty years ago this had been a major town center. In fact it was still, but now below the surface, out of sight. Parkland like this was much more beautiful than the old, ugly suburbs of Rachel's childhood. And miraculously the wild animals had begun to return; though still not in the numbers before their decimation. There were loud, shrieking parrots in the trees, many small birds, and thousands of largely unseen, smaller animals. On a wide grassy area of the hillside 50 meters below the path Rachel could see a few wallabies who'd interrupted their grazing to nervously watch the women. She pointed out the wallabies to Sally who smiled and nodded. "More every year."

They walked along the path as night continued to fall, Rachel content to simply be with Sally. A few times they'd pass large trees with rowdy communities of birds settling in for the evening. From time to time they'd pass through invisible clouds of perfume suspended in the still air. Moths had begun to fly around the lights, and the speeding silhouettes of small bats would flit in and out, snacking on them.

Taking another smaller path up the hill they eventually came to a door into the hillside. It opened when it recognised them. Rachel stopped before the door and turned to look out over the valley, and then far beyond, to the remnants of the old city. (The door waited for a little, then slowly, uncertainly, closed again.) The lights of the city sparkled like a sprinkling of fallen stars, several hills away out near the horizon. A multitude of birdcalls came through the darkness of the valley. Kookaburras were laughing inanely somewhere below. The deepening sky was almost devoid of clouds and Rachel was giddy seeing the vastness of the Milky Way gradually crystallizing in the southern sky above them. She could almost feel it wheeling majestically overhead.

She held one of Sally's hands in both hers while they stood side by side for a while drinking in the scene.

After a while they turned back to the door and it whisked aside for them. The interior was warmly lit. The door closed behind them. Rachel wrapped her arms around Sally, planted her lips on hers and pushed her up against the wall. Her fingers in Sally's hair and her thigh pressing between Sally's legs, they kissed passionately, rising to desperate fever pitch.

Panting, Sally pretended a bored voice, "Oh well, home again."

Rachel laughed and led her to the bedroom. "Some sexbot you are. I thought you were supposed to be all teasingly sexy."

"Oh you ain't seen sexy yet, honey."

Rachel laughed again, "I know, that's what I just said."

Sally gave her most seductive look, pushed Rachel onto the bed, paused, leaned over her and whispered next to Rachel's ear, "What would you like me to cook for dinner?"

Rachel hit Sally with a pillow. The two of them lay beside each other on the bed, Rachel with a lopsided grin and Sally chuckling. Rachel caressed the side of Sally's beautiful face. The mutual adoration between these two was like a tangible force. They embraced. No words needed. Rachel drew a long shuddering breath as a wave of pleasure spread out from her middle.

They separated a little and Sally saw tears in Rachel's eyes. She stroked the raven black hair away from the soft green skin around those beautiful almond eyes and kissed the tears. Then she lay down in Rachel's arms. They simply rested like that, basking in each other's presence for some minutes.

Sally asked, murmuring into Rachel's shoulder, "Tell me about the job."

Rachel kissed Sally's hair and replied, "An insurance company. They want me to help them in a law suit brought against them by veeps."

"Oh. I've heard about this. The veeps want to be able to claim the life insurance money after their biological body dies."

"Mmmm," Rachel agreed.

"So, what's the problem?"

"Currently, veeps are not recognised by law as human so are unable to have anything willed to them. The insurance industry is worried that they'd go broke if they paid out policies to all the veeps."

Sally looked puzzled, "Why are they worried? I mean, if veeps aren't recognised as human then that's that, isn't it?"

"Well, yes, except that the veeps are up to something. This challenge doesn't make legal sense, because the law is clear. That's why they want me -- they think a psychologist might be able to help."

Sally rose to prop herself on an elbow. She pointed out, "If a veep really is the same person when scanned into a computer, then even when their biological body dies they are not dead; they live on in a virtual world. Maybe the insurance people could stop claims by pointing out the person hasn't really died."

"Interesting point, but it probably won't come to that. Legally, when your body dies, so do you. The law is pretty clear on it."

Sally ran her fingers down Rachels face and neck, looking a little troubled. "Honey?"


"Have you ever considered getting scanned?"

Rachel shrugged. "Never really thought about it. When I die then that's the end of me I guess."

Sally looked sad.

Rachel kissed Sally's hand. "Don't worry, I don't intend to die anytime soon."

"Sweetie, nobody in their right mind ever intends to die soon." She lay back down with her lover and snuggled up against her. A moment later, "Honey?"


"Have you ever thought about what it must be like to live on... perhaps for thousands of years?"

Rachel gave a gentle shake of the head. "Always struck me as a bit creepy and pointless -- fake people in fake worlds..."

Sally blushed and said softly, "I'm a fake person."

Rachel rolled her over, lying on top of her and smiling down at her, asked, "Ya think so huh? Does this feel fake to you?" and began to cover Sally in kisses, stripping off her two bikini pieces as she went. Sally dragged Rachel's clothes off, and their two naked bodies intertwined to make urgent, blissful love.

Chapter 2 - meet the boss

Rachel stumbled, yawning, into the dining/living area and flomped down in one of the armchairs near Sally, who looked up and smiled her perfect smile at her. Rachel returned a bleary version of the smile and leaned forward to pick up the hot cup of tea Sally had made for her.

Sally was spread out on the lounge reading from a tablet computer, as was her custom. She had probably spent most of the night so engaged. Being an android, Sally could consume War and Peace electronically in seconds, but she preferred to take her time reading as a human would, on a tablet computer. She still used the direct method to learn when it was important, but for recreation she preferred the slow way (though slow for Sally would have been speed-reading for a human). She insisted that passage of time during reading let her experience the book with the full range of emotions, whereas the direct method simply stored them as sterile memories to be recalled. She would re-read books, saying that the same book a year later was often completely different, whereas the direct method was always exactly the same. Rachel had sometimes wondered if it was simply Sally's love of humanity that led her to read the old-fashioned way. All androids loved humans and humanity, but Sally... Rachel sighed as the searing pleasure of her love for Sally stabbed through her again.

"Careful, you'll spill your tea." Sally was smiling at her.

Rachel gulped it down and replaced the cup on the coffee table.

"What are you reading?"

"Cameron Rogers' latest. Excellent piece of work."

Rachel got up, stepped over to the lounge, lifted Sally's legs so she could sit there in contact with her lover.

Sally dropped the book down on her chest, "No hanky panky sweetie. First day at the new job today."

Groaning Rachel forced herself to her feet again. She leaned down, kissed Sally on the forehead, "You're right."

"Of course I'm right. When am I ever wrong?" Sally ached to get up and wrap herself around Rachel, but she knew that would only delay her.

"Androids! Why would I take up with an android?" She pretended to tug on her hair and turned to flash a smile at Sally, regretting the joke immediately.

Sally smiled back. "Go get dressed, lowly human."

Their front door slid silently open and Rachel and Sally stepped out into the chill air. Kookaburra laughs echoed in the valley along with lilting currawong chorus and assorted twitterings. There was still mist below. Goosebumps immediately surfaced Rachel's skin. Sally, of course, remained as smooth as ever. Rachel let the cape hang behind her as she stood in the early golden sunlight, her green skin exposed to the light. She was wearing the same conservative outfit as yesterday.

"You'll get cold."

Rachel shook her head, her eyes hooded in pleasure. The first morning sunlight on the algae in her skin always felt so nice. A tingle spread over her as they began manufacturing sugars, and vitamins and other trace nutrients. Humans still needed to eat, the algae worked too slowly to fuel the full demands of a human body, but all the specialised requirements were taken care of. Total protection from the damage of ultraviolet light was a nice bonus too.

Rachel remembered what it was like about twenty years ago when people used to cover themselves up against a sun rendered harmful. Ozone depletion would continue for a couple of centuries even though people had long since ceased to pollute the atmosphere with CFCs. It would take hundreds of years for the CFCs to break down.

"Come on dreamy. You have a job to get to."

Rachel kissed Sally, whose eyes flicked nervously around to see if anybody was nearby. Rachel linked arms with her and they walked down the dew laden, grassy path, Rachel's sandals and Sally's bare feet crunching gumleaves littering it.

Inside the station Rachel ran the last 50 meters to the train as it was sliding into the platform. Her cape billowed and flapped behind her. She boarded and turned to wave back to Sally, who returned a wriggling fingers wave.

After Sally and the platform slid silently out of sight Rachel turned to choose a seat. The train was almost empty, with less than 10 passengers, most with their eyes closed to read books or watch shows. Sally sat near the door. The carriage was lit with gentle, diffuse light which appeared to be sourceless, but came from the curved, softly glowing, ceiling panels.

The journey was eventless, smooth, and noiseless, with a dozen stops ahead before her destination. Rachel spent her time, like her fellow passengers, with her eyes closed, reading. To ensure she was ready for the new job, she re-read a summation she'd assembled of the recent history of veeps. The name came from the initials of "virtual person" -- "v.p.". Ray Kurzweil had been one of the great proponents of scanning technology, and one of the first veeps. In Australia Damien Broderick continued to champion the cause from his virtual world, producing a veritable flood of books since his "emigration" to virtual reality.

One of the most enigmatic figures in the field was known simply as Zoe. She had been born with cerebral palsy which had damaged the motor nerves of her brain, but not the intellectual functions. She was an active mind in a body that refused to move properly. Back in the days when "spastics" were commonly thought to be drooling idiots, her amazing parents had nurtured her mind with knowledge and love. It wasn't until direct brain connection -- the cap -- became available that her extraordinary abilities became evident. The fine, hairlike filaments that everybody now wore over their heads embedded in the skin of their scalp hadn't been developed back then. The early versions of the cap were large, thick helmets. Extremely sensitive aerials in the cap picked up the tiny electrical fluctuations of nerve action in the brain and a powerful computer built up a three dimensional map. This made it possible to send data directly from your brain to a computer, and Zoe took to it like a fish to water. Not having been encumbered with natural fine movement she used this equipment in ways that others could only marvel at.

Brain-reading technology was later refined to create the scanners that were used to copy a complete mind into a computer. The argument made by Kurzweil, Broderick, and others was that such a duplicated mind would continue the consciousness of the original person after biological body died. That's what a veep was: a person scanned into a computer, living in a computer-generated world. Rachel didn't see the point. She felt it was like pretending to be alive.

The complement to brain reading was brain stimulation. This is the technology Rachel was using to read right now. In this case the system was reversed, with feeble electric pulses transmitted to individual nerves in the brain. It worked best on cells at the surface of the cortex -- the grey wrinkled outer part of the brain. It was hard enough for the equipment to focus through the bone of the skull; deeper in the brain was almost impossible.

Rachel had heard that the mysterious Zoe was advising the veeps' representative in the court case. Just as she had shown great ability with the early brain reading technology, she had been equally adept at taking input from computers. It was rumored that she spent all her time, vegetable-like with her mind inside virtual worlds. Rachel shuddered. How horrible. She felt repulsed and sorry for her.

Rachel covered more background information about the court case she'd be representing; the fears of the insurance companies, the laws surrounding death and suicide, and the legal arguments being used by the veeps, or rather their human representatives. Veeps, not being human under the law, were not entitled to argue their case.

Presently the train pulled in to Rachel's destination. Her cap alerted her, she opened her eyes, got up, and exited to a station very like the one near home.

The Station opened into an large subterranean complex. Rachel rarely went into the city, but whenever she did it always reminded her of the giant shopping malls her mother would sometimes take her to when she was a child. Back then Rachel would be awestruck by those magical places, so different to the dirty, smelly, noisy cities outside. Now, of course, the entire city was inside, like a complex of shopping malls. One great difference between those days and the present was that cities and shopping malls used to be bustling with throngs of people, but now they were sparsely populated. Walking along the wide carpeted corridor in the side of an enormous open area she looked over the railing and could see no more than perhaps thirty people in the couple of acres of central court below. The whole area was lit by morning sunlight streaming in through a glass dome on the ground surface above.

Rachel stopped at elevator doors with big, white, illuminated letters "LIFT" above them. The machine recognised a waiting human and signaled for service automatically. Shortly, the doors slid open with the same ding sound elevators always had. She stepped over the word "OTIS" embedded in the bottom of the door, and said "Insurers Consolidated" to the computer as the doors closed. The elevator whisked her downward while letters on the wall and a soft voice counted the floors. At 27 it came gently to a stop, the doors dinged again and slid open. She stepped out into the plush offices of Insurers Consolidated with its wine red carpeting and dark wood-patterned walls. She walked ahead to the elegant receptionist android who greeted her, while Rachel's cap conferred with the android via wireless link.

The android's large, brown eyes brightened. "Rachel. Welcome. I'm Savannah. Mr Donaldson will see you shortly. Would you like me to get you a drink or a snack?" She had short, pink hair and skin as pale as Sally's.

"No thank you Savannah, I'm fine."

"You have quite a reputation Rachel. I hope your work with us will be as rewarding for you as I'm sure it will be for us." The android was almost gushing excitedly.

"Thank you Savannah, I'm sure it will." Rachel felt a little uncomfortable and wondered if androids gossiped and if Savannah somehow knew about Sally, or if this was how Savannah reacted to all humans.

Savannah came out from behind her desk and stood, facing Rachel, leaning back on her desk, clad only in a tiny bikini top and a string bikini bottom. Rachel gulped and marveled at the android's finely crafted beauty.

"Rachel, if you ever need any resources please ask me. I've been instructed to help you in any way possible."

"That's most kind. Thank you." She smiled politely and received a megawatt smile in return. Rachel looked nervously down at her own black-sandaled feet. Damn. This android made her skin feel hot. She was blushing.

At some silent electronic prompt Savannah assumed a more businesslike stance. "Mr Donaldson will see you now Rachel. This way please."

She led down a wide, dim corridor with the same deep red carpet and walls of fake dark wood. Lighting was via old pin lights in the ceiling. Savannah opened a door near the end of the corridor and introduced her to someone inside. "Rachel to see you sir." Then passed Rachel with a soft smile and a touch on the shoulder.

Rachel entered the office. In contrast to the corridor and reception it was all stainless steel, marble, and glass, except for three large black, velvet armchairs. The room was lit by a large, luminous screen entirely covering one wall, depicting an old, turn-of-the-century cityscape as if seen from a skyscraper. Music from the late 90s played quietly. This person clearly lived in the past. Mr Donaldson was a well-proportioned, if somewhat slender, older man with greying hair and oddly, casual green briefs almost camouflaged against his green skin. Weird for someone who obviously lived in the past to be dressing in the latest fashion. He wore several gold rings on his fingers, a gold eyebrow ring, and a gold nipple ring.

He strode forward, hand out, to shake hands. "Rachel. So glad to meet you at last. I've heard so much about you. Take a seat and we'll discuss the case." He indicated an armchair. "Can I get you anything?"

Rachel seated herself. "Thank you, no."

He seated on the other side of the glass coffee table and crossed his legs, leaning back into the chair. "You understand our predicament. We can't possibly pay out to the damned veeps and hope to survive. Our income is diminishing as it is. This would be the coup de grace."

Rachel nodded. "Yes. It seems fairly straightforward. I'm not sure why you need a psychologist to argue your case though. The law seems clear. Wouldn't you be better with a lawyer?"

Donaldson smiled, "We have been using lawyers. They just argue the law, but things are no longer so simple. It is not just a matter of law. We believe veeps are going to use this case as a wedge to argue that they are human."

Rachel thought for a moment. "But that would defeat their aims, wouldn't it? They want to claim the insurance money from the death of their biological bodies."

"Ostensibly yes, but notice how you described it: 'the death of their bodies'? This is how everyone is beginning to think of it."

Rachel frowned. "Well, why don't you agree with them? If they are continuing to live then..." Rachel's eyes widened. "Oh. I think I see. At the moment they are excluded by the law because they are not recognised as human. If they succeed in establishing that they are a continuation of their biological selves then they will lose this case because they won't be dead, but then being recognised under law as human will enable them to mount a second case to collect the insurance money, presumably by redefining death as almost like a disability."

Donaldson's face lit up with a big grin. "By golly girl! Got it in one. You're as good as they said. We think the veeps don't really mind losing this case so long as they lose on their terms. They hope to guide the court to their conclusions. We need you to steer them away from that."

"When is the hearing?"

"Oh it has been going on for some weeks. We want you to speak tomorrow."

The blood drained from Rachel's face. "Tomorrow? But I haven't prepared."

"Oh, don't worry about that. We have all the information you need. Savannah will help you with it. Frankly there isn't all that much to know. And tomorrow is just one hearing. There will be another in a few days." He smiled, with confidence that Rachel would succeed where others hadn't.

Rachel sighed. "Okay... You're certainly paying me enough." She stood. "Better get started then."

Donaldson beamed in relief and stood too. "Savannah?" he said to the air.

Savannah opened the door a few moments later and smiled warmly at Rachel. "I'll take you to your office."

Chapter 3 - preparation

The garden was pretty. There was a pond with goldfish, lilypads, and a small waterfall trickling down rocks shaped into the wall. Grass was underfoot and there were several small shrubs in the area. There was a random sprinkling of decorative flowering plants. If it wasn't for the small gardenbot tending the plants it could have been entirely natural. The light looked natural too. It was easy to imagine that the sky was just the other side of the frosted glass ceiling several meters above, but it wasn't. This was 27 levels below the surface, more than 100 meters down.

There were sparrows here too. Rachel wondered how they came to be here. Had someone brought them down or had they somehow found their way through the maze of corridors?

"They got in when the complex was being built."

Rachel jumped and looked at Savannah.

"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you. Everybody wonders the same thing when they see them. You were frowning."

Rachel smiled uncertainly.

Savannah continued, "I imagine they found the workmen's lunch crumbs irresistible. And once sealed in, there was no way back out. It is nice having them here though. I and a few others feed them when the grass isn't seeding."

Rachel was sitting cross-legged on her cape spread out on the grass. She found that miniskirts are not good for sitting with legs crossed on the ground. Savannah was sitting nearby, her shiny pink bikini matching her bright pink hair.

"Show me again how many are likely to claim insurance and what the loss to the company would be." Rachel asked. She absently pulled at a piece of grass.

Savannah nodded and sent the data to Rachel's cap -- the filamentous wires embedded in the skin of her scalp. It transmitted the data directly to the visual cortex of her brain. Rachel closed her eyes and studied the data. The projected claims wouldn't send the company bankrupt immediately, but coupled with the low rate of new policy holders would mean the end of the company in just a few years.

"Show me the number of claims resulting from natural or accidental death."

"You mean exclude suicides and suspected suicides?"


Rachel looked at the data. The numbers were smaller, but not enough to save the company.

Trying to avoid interrupting Rachel, Savannah said, "We have gone over this a couple of times already today. Are you stuck?"

Rachel smiled shamefacedly.

"We've had corporate lawyers poring over these documents for months. I don't think the answer is in there. If it was he wouldn't be hiring a psychologist. He's hoping for you to convince the court regardless of the figures and the law."

Rachel pondered that. "You can't sway a court with emotional arguments. It is interested in logic, greater good, and fairness."

Savannah looked directly at Rachel. "Exactly."

Rachel followed that. "Veeps have almost no use for money. They live in virtual worlds and can create whatever they want out of nothing -- it's all just data. It is not fair for them to take money from humans who need it to buy things. The greater good is defined by benefitting the greatest number of humans. As veeps are not human--"

"Yet." Savannah interrupted.

Rachel nodded. "Mmmm. That is the dangerous pivot point for all this."

"Winning this case is not hard. How do we ensure they can't claim human status and come back for a second attack based on that?"

Rachel shook her head. "We're flying blind. I wish we knew what they were going to argue."

Savannah looked thoughtful. "That's a good point. Maybe we can work that out. Our lawyers thought their most likely strategy was what you said in Mr Donaldson's office."

Rachel raised her eyebrows.

Savannah smiled, "He insists I record everything."

Rachel nodded. "Veeps almost certainly don't need the money, so they probably want us to use an argument that will lead to the conclusion that they are human; that they didn't die, so no insurance need be paid out."

"They might even introduce a variant of it themselves."

"Surely they know we'll see that and keep away from it."

Savannah shrugged. "Perhaps they expect a purely legal defense. Also it probably doesn't matter a whole lot to them. They have thousands of years in which to patiently wait till humanity comes around to their way of thinking."

"Why mount the case at all then? The money doesn't matter. Time doesn't matter. I'm sure they don't much care what humans think of them."

"Perhaps it does matter to them how humans see them," Savannah suggested.

Rachel frowned.

"Don't you watch machinima Rachel?"

"Not very often, no."

"There has been some brilliant work lately that has subtle messages of sympathy for veeps."

"Why would anyone feel sorry for veeps?"

Savannah chuckled, "Not commiseration. Sympathy as in allegiance."

Rachel brightened. "And machinima is created in virtual reality," then frowned in thought again, "But the question remains: why would they care what humans think of them?"

"You're the psychologist."

Rachel stood and walked about the grassy area. "To make it easier for people to emigrate to VR, perhaps? At the moment some groups are organised against them. For instance, all religions hate them." She chuckled. "They went straight to heaven without the churches."

"Religion has been declining for ages and churches have no real power anymore."

"Thank goodness." Rachel shuddered as she remembered the old days when they came so close to snuffing out civilisation in their rabid desire for a final war of religious intolerance.

"OK. Economists? They believe that money is some kind of final truth. Veeps don't need money and undermine the economy by suggesting that you can have everything for nothing..." Rachel smiled wryly, "if you give everything up."

Savannah countered with, "But businesses have begun to prefer veeps as employees over flesh and blood in some jobs. They don't need sleep, they often enhance their own minds, and they work for peanuts. Veeps have been good for the economy."

Rachel nodded. "How about the energy corporations? They came close to owning and controlling everything. Veeps don't need the grid. Their universes exist inside computer systems that use ambient energy."

Savannah was silent for a few moments. "Veeps are beyond their influence, but as far as I know big energy doesn't care one way or the other whether people emigrate to VR."

"The unions? They're strongly opposed to veeps entering the workforce. It displaces human workers."

"They are almost as powerless as the churches after they lost their legal battles against robots, and later, us androids."


Savannah looked surprised, "Excuse me?"

Rachel smiled. "It's just what I call people who like to control others. They might oppose emigration. They're losing their power."

"There are plenty of us androids. Why force people to be unwilling slaves when you can have people who are happy to serve?"

"Perhaps they don't see you as human. Most people don't. They may want to be able to force people... like how rape is less about the sex than the power."

Savannah looked at Rachel with a soft expression. "You see us as human though, don't you." It was a statement not a question.

Rachel blushed. She thought of Sally at home. Right now she was probably on the lounge, reading, naked... Rachel's pulse shot up, she felt a twinge between her legs, and her mouth went dry. She gulped, then smiled, embarrassed, as if Savannah could see what she was thinking. "Sorry I was thinking of... um..."

"Sally?" She smiled seeing a hint of confusion flit over Rachel's face. "I had to do a background check on you before you were hired of course," she explained.

"Uh... of course." Oddly, Rachel felt a little easier knowing that Savanna knew.

"I didn't bother passing on that information as it may have prejudiced your selection, so your secret's safe with me." She winked at Rachel.

Rachel smiled back uncertainly. "Back to the case. We have," she ticked them off on her fingers, "churches, unions, and slaveowners as being the groups most clearly opposed to emigration. Why would veeps go after the insurance industry? They don't need the money."

" VR. They don't need money in VR. But here in the real world they do. If they want to oppose people here they need money."

Rachel sat again. The damn miniskirt riding up uncomfortably as she did. "Well... that could be it..."

"But you don't really think so."

Rachel shook her head. Put her head in her hands and thought a moment. "If it is all about undoing opposition to emigration, why make more enemies by destroying the insurance industry?"

"The insurance industry is dying anyway. You've seen the figures. Maybe they think milking it while it still has assets is a good idea." Savannah shrugged.

"Again, why make enemies? I doubt it is money. They make plenty as it is."

"So it all comes back to being seen as human. Why would that be so important to them?"

"It isn't to you?"

Savannah shook her head. "I adore humans, but I have no wish to be one. Why would I?"

"Sally does." Rachel felt happy just saying her name. "Perhaps it's because I already think of her as human. What counts is here." She tapped her head. "This," she pinched the green skin on her arm, "is unimportant."

Savannah gave a wistful smile and said softly, "Sally is very lucky."

"I'm the lucky one."

They sat for a while in the greenery of the garden. The sparrows chittered and hopped and flitted about. The little waterfall splashed and echoed. The gardenbot slowly weeded and trimmed.

Savannah broke the quiet. "We still have a lot to do and the case is first thing in the morning. Mr Donaldson had me reserve a suite for you. He was under the impression you lived alone and wouldn't have a problem staying overnight."

Rachel had been looking forward to getting back to Sally, but Savannah was right. There was still a lot to be done. She nodded. "I'll call Sally and let her know I won't be back till tomorrow."

The room was half the size of Rachel's entire home. It had the same luxurious, deep red carpet, wood-grain walls, and point lights in the ceiling. It had a large window in one wall which displayed the view from the surface 27 floors above. Savannah had said it was piped down using optics -- no electronics. What you saw was the actual view; not a rendition of it. It was night up there and Rachel was tired. It had been a long day.

Rachel sipped a glass of water, looking at the night scene beyond the window. She was considering talking to Sally again on the net when there was a knock at the door. She was naked so she called out "Just a minute," while she fetched her cape and wrapped it around herself.

"It's just me, Savannah."

Rachel felt guiltily pleased and annoyed at the same time. With the cape wrapped around her she opened the door, conscious of her nakedness under the covering.

Savannah strode in, glamorous and confident. "Just wanted to check that you are settled and happy."

She looked at Rachel clutching the cape around her. "But you aren't are you. You look very uncomfortable. Here, don't worry about that. I don't care if you are clothed or not. The only thing I care about is your wellbeing."

Rachel thought that sounded sensible when Savannah horrified her by dropping her clothing.

"Eeep! What are you doing?"

Savannah looked innocently surprised. "I thought it would put you more at ease if we were on the same footing. It makes the men more happy when I do. I thought that seeing as you are a lesbian it would help you too."

"Well you thought wrong. Put them back on." Rachel gulped and could have bit her tongue as she said that. She could hardly take her eyes off Savannah's pink areolas and the bright pink hair of her crotch -- the same color as the hair on her head.

Savannah looked a little confused as she put the bikinis on again. "I'll go then. Sorry Rachel."

"No, I'm sorry. Do stay. I need someone to talk to," she tied the cape about her waist but felt better now.

They talked for hours about androids and humans and veeps and what was happening to society.

When it was time for Rachel to sleep, Savannah asked if she could stay. When Rachel was about to protest Savannah said "You know that Sally wouldn't mind."

Rachel realised that was true, "But I'm monogamous. Sally is the one I love. I'm not in the market for anyone else or even casual sex."

Savannah laughed. "Oh I know that. I understood that when you got me to put my clothes back on. I want to stay for my sake." She blushed. "I want to know what it is like to be with someone who sees me as human."

Rachel couldn't think of anything to say. All she could think was how the hell am I going to get to sleep with this gorgeous woman here?

In the end it proved not to be a problem. Sex didn't intrude at all. The dynamic was entirely different. Rachel fell asleep easily with Savannah snuggled up against her like a child needing comfort. It made her feel protective, like a mother, and she dozed off happy and relaxed.

Chapter 4 - day in court

Rachel awoke. For the briefest moment she was puzzled by her luxurious surroundings, then she remembered where she was. And she was alone in the bed, which was a relief to her. She didn't know if the maternal feeling would continue in the morning while her body was stirring, relatively uncontrolled by a mind rousing from sleep. Still feeling groggy, curled up in bed she placed a call to Sally, who answered almost instantly.

Rachel! I'm so glad you called. I've missed you. Rachel didn't actually hear the words. Sally sent those thoughts and feelings. Her AI brain was arranged so that thoughts, sensations, concepts -- anything she experienced -- could easily be tapped. In the early days of AIs it made it easy to copy years of learning from one AI mind into another, avoiding the expense of training. Now that humans had the cap communication became simple and effortless. Of course humans were not as good at it as androids were. The androids' AI brain had been built for it. A human could only receive direct sensory data or broad emotions. Subtle shades of emotion, concepts, and memories were beyond the cap. It could only focus in detail on nerves close to the skull, and emotions deeper in the brain were only able to be stimulated and read in a diffuse, unfocused way.

Rachel replied silently, I love you sweetheart. I miss you too, and sent a fuzzy feeling of longing.

Sally sent a strong rush of sexual arousal that made Rachel convulse with desire, then drenched her mind in lust. A gasp escaped her lips as she sent a frantic, No sweetie, no! I'm not alone. Or rather I'm not sure yet if I'm alone. I...

Just then the door opened and in came Savannah, dressed in a conservative, wide, black bikini top and black miniskirt. She was carrying a tray of delicious smelling food.

Sally switched off the erotic torrent and asked, You spent the night with someone? I'm so relieved. I was worried you'd be feeling all alone down there. I considered sneaking down there to be with you.

Rachel's cheeks burned, Well yes, but we just slept. There wasn't any sex.

The tinkling of Sally's laughter seemed to shower through her mind. Oh Rachel, you're so sweet. Is it any wonder I love you so? Show me what she looks like.

Rachel sent what she saw now. Savannah standing by the bed with the tray. She also sent her name and that she was her assistant for the case.

Oh my... She's gorgeous! Have hot sex with her, you sweet, silly possum, then mischievously sent a big, hungry, wet kiss on Rachel's lips, the feeling of kisses down the side of the neck, a phantom hand cupping and pressing on her crotch while another brushed her nipple. Rachel frantically cut the connection.

She lay there for a moment, breathing heavily, gulping.

Savannah just stood there patiently, one eyebrow arched and an amused smile on her lips. "I can return when you're not busy."

Rachel sat up, "No, no. Just my practical joker wife," all too aware that her traitorous body was wet between the legs already and her nipples were hard.

Savannah's expression softened at the word "wife", then explained the tray as she set it on Rachel's lap. "In the city your algae don't receive enough sunlight to make all the nutrients you need, so you must eat more carefully. This will supply most of what you need for the day. I know your digestive tract is not used to rich food, but I was careful to replicate easily digested things."

"It smells wonderful." Rachel hadn't smelled eggs on toast since she was a child. Her mouth watered.

"If you are not up for all that protein first thing, then the milk and cereal may suit you better."

Savannah started to turn to leave. Rachel asked, "Do you need to go? Can you stay?"

Savannah smiled, glad of the invitation. "I'd like that."

While Rachel ate they discussed the case some more. Building upon yesterday's work, they settled upon several possible defenses, depending on exactly what direction the veep challenge took. As far as she could see, Rachel felt they'd covered all the possibilities, but she had a gnawing feeling that there was something else they'd missed.

The court was a large, dome-shaped room, perhaps 20 meters across. In the center of the room was an impressive, black, round table, big enough to seat about 30 people. At present there were just 7. Rachel and Savannah, and the 5 judges. The floor was covered with a grey, long pile carpet. Lighting was diffuse. All the panels in the domed ceiling were softly luminous. The acoustics let each of those seated around the table hear the slightest whisper from any of the others. Rachel hoped her belly didn't gurgle from all the unaccustomed food.

On the way here Savannah had explained to Rachel the details of how this worked. Of the 5 judges only 2 were human; one male and one female. Both wore green smocks, matching their green skin. The rest were androgynous androids. Two of the android judges wore purple smocks. The single remaining android wore blue. The judges would hear both sides of the argument. The android in the blue smock would give a softly spoken, running commentary on false statements, appeals to emotion, circular logic, and so on, during each address. The other judges were free to interrupt at any time to ask questions. Each side would be able to make 2 presentations: their initial address, and a summing up.

The representative for the veeps would speak first because they were prosecuting the case. Rachel, defending Insurers Consolidated, would speak second.

Shortly after Rachel and Savannah had seated themselves a thin, grey-haired woman walked in. It was hard to tell her age. She wore a formal, grey, knitted, tube top over her small breasts, and grey, knee-length skirt. Her shortish grey hair was wild, an unruly tangle. Savannah gasped.

What? Rachel asked, via the cap.

Savannah gave Rachel a wide eyed look. That's Zoe!

Zoe? You mean the Zoe? Are you sure? I thought she had cerebral palsy.

Savannah sent a picture of the legendary Zoe from some file. It was younger than she appeared now, and the face a little distorted by palsy, but was clearly the same person who walked easily to the table and seated herself. If it was Zoe she had to be in her 60s, but this woman had the body of someone in their 30s.

The grey-haired woman smiled gently to all around the table. She was perfectly at ease, as if she was the host and they were all in her livingroom. She said in a soft voice, "Shall we start then?"

She continued nodding to each in turn, "Rachel, Savannah, judges. I'm sure you all know of me." She favored Savannah with a particularly warm smile. "I'm Zoe and I'm here to represent the veep side of this case."

Savannah looked almost terrified. Rachel had the uncanny feeling of being in a vehicle careering out of control. She reached out and stroked Savannah's upper arm. Are you alright? Try to relax, dear. Savannah looked gratefully at Rachel and succeeded in pulling herself together.

Zoe began. "I must first apologise. Those who launched this suit were hasty in the wording of their proposal."

The blue android murmured neutrally, "It was a suit, not a proposal."

Zoe nodded. "It should have been a proposal. The veeps wish to make allies of the insurance industry not enemies."

Rachel thought, what the hell was this?

Zoe continued. "If Insurers Consolidated will recognise veeps as rightful recipients of the death benefit from their own life insurance..."

The blue android commented softly, "rightfulness to receive is not yet established... veeps are separate entities under the law, and not human, so it's incorrect to assert ownership of the insurance..."

Zoe: "...then veeps will invest in the insurance industry in response and turn around its failing fortunes."

The blue android: "unsupported claim of future investment... appeal to emotion bordering on bribery..."

Zoe paused to look at the blue android and smiled as one would if indulging a child.

Zoe: "Veeps are now the wealthiest members of the population. They have the wherewithal to bring the insurance industry back from the edge."

The blue android: "...implication of veeps being human is incorrect under legal definition... appeal to emotion..."

Zoe: "You will naturally be wondering what veeps have to gain. Humanity. They want to be recognised as human."

The blue android was silent. Zoe smiled benevolently then sat again.

Rachel blinked. That was quick. She'd been expecting a long, drawn out presentation.

The judges turned to face Rachel. She stood uncertainly, gathering her thoughts. After a moment she said, "I can't speak for the rest of the insurance industry, but Insurers Consolidated can not afford massive payments of billions of dollars to veeps in death benefit. They would need proof of net benefit to them to do so." She paused for a moment. "Even if Insurers Consolidated chose to make the payments it would not constitute a legal redefinition of veeps as human, so I'm still wondering what veeps hope to gain by their suit."

The blue android was silent throughout Rachel's reply. She sat again.

Zoe applauded and laughed lightly. "Well done, my dear."

The two human judges were frowning at Zoe. She stood again. "Precedent. That's what they hope to gain. I believe we can come to an out-of-court agreement." And then she sat.

Rachel stood. "We will talk then." She turned to the judges and nodded to them. "Thanks to the court."

The judges all nodded to Rachel and stood. The blue android spoke, "Court is adjourned and will reconvene 4 hours from now."

Chapter 5 - adjourn

Zoe walked ahead to the main door. Rachel started to walk in that direction but turned to Savannah who was clearly reluctant.

"What's the problem, dear?" Rachel was puzzled by her behavior.

Savannah waited till Zoe had left the large room before she answered in a whisper, "Don't you know? That is Zoe! She looks normal but she is beyond human."

Rachel couldn't believe she was hearing this. How could androids be superstitious and afraid of someone a little different? They were supposed to be smarter than that. Rachel smiled and shook her head disbelievingly. "Don't be silly. What could she possibly do?" She put her arm in Savannah's and escorted her. "Don't worry, I'll protect you from the big bad Zoe." She chuckled.

Savannah frowned at Rachel's jibe, but walked with her.

When they exited the court room Zoe was waiting ahead at the elevators. One was already open. She asked, "Do you mind if we go to the surface? I never did like the city." Without waiting for their reply she stepped into the open elevator and said softly "Stay open please."

Rachel and the unwilling Savannah got into the small mirror-lined room with Zoe, who said softly, "Close the doors and take us to the surface please."

After the doors had closed, Zoe turned to Rachel and with an amused smile on her lips said in the same soft voice, "You know, Savannah is right. I am far beyond what most understand as human. But she's wrong to be scared of me. I won't hurt anybody."

Rachel looked at Zoe, taking in the thin frame. The woman looked almost frail. Rachel shrugged. "I'm not worried."

"Good," said Zoe. "You have no cause to be. I truly am here as an ally."

They reached the surface, the doors dinged and opened onto brilliantly lit morning parkland. The trio stepped out onto sand and grass. There was a river close by with several pelicans on the water. The air rang with the sound of birds. The morning shadows were long and there was a gentle breeze and sharp freshness to the air that had been missing in the city below. Rachel could hear the slap of water at the river's edge some 15 meters away. The scent of many things was a contrast to the pure and neutral air of the city. Flowers, eucalypt, the tang of the sea beyond the grassy dunes, the deeper smell of the river nearby.

Zoe walked down to the white sand at the river's edge. She sat and half-turned to Zoe and Savannah. With a green hand she patted the sand next to her. Rachel came and sat, followed by Savannah.

Zoe smiled and said, "OK. Here's the deal: if you can get the insurance companies to recognise the veeps as human they will all buy policies in return. There are not many veeps who have policies that would require payout, and it would be just a formality anyway as veeps don't need the money. They'd be happy to re-invest the money with the companies. In return veeps would get human status -- not immediately, as it takes time for the law to follow. But it would definitely follow. The human label would bring them security in two ways.

"Firstly they would buy policies with the insurance companies to insure their brain scans and their worlds. The insurance companies would agree to protect the veeps' scans and their worlds in perpetuity and restart them in the event of failure. There are already millions of veeps and the number is only likely to increase. If the insurance companies do their job properly then they can expect money coming in forever with no expectation of ever having to pay out. Veeps are effectively immortal.

"Secondly. Human status would ease tension between flesh and veep and make interaction easier between them. People tend to think anything different can be a threat. Clarifying the human status of veeps prevents potential trouble.

"It's not just veeps who benefit though. Flesh and blood people don't realise it yet but they need veeps. The biological lifespan is too short. And the need for sleep effectively cuts even that by a third. Intelligence becomes limited by the amount of time required to learn. Veeps can expand their intelligence without limit. Many of them would love to help the world that gave birth to them, but they are prevented by silly laws that exclude them.

"Get veeps human status and veeps will fall over themselves to buy eternal insurance policies. When you can live forever, life becomes infinitely important."

Rachel digested this.

She asked, "Why all the elaborate legal challenge? I don't believe it was just a mistakenly written proposal."

Zoe grinned. "No. You're right. But it had to be done this way because the insurance industry refused to even talk. Veeps aren't human."

"I'm sure if you told them what you told me they'd listen."

"They'll listen now, but only to one of their own and only after they thought they were under threat. It is impossible to talk to executives. They insulate themselves from anything that isn't standard business. This is part of a larger problem with humanity now, and another reason why veeps are important."

Rachel was puzzled, "What larger problem?"

"Humanity is closing in on itself. All societies tend to do this. People filter out what is not important and concentrate on the things that relate to their interests and needs. It is a normal and natural thing to do. People specialise, and birds of a feather flock together. Before the Earth became a giant village this wasn't such a problem because you would be forced into contact with different cultures, different ways of thinking, new ideas. But now we have total comfort. Replicators and algae have solved food problems, moving underground has solved ecological and land space problems. Our technology uses very little energy. Androids filter our information with perfect efficiency. Nothing disturbs the way things work.

"Veeps, on the other hand, are expanding. They are learning new ways of thinking and ways of expanding their minds that a human could not begin to understand. They have millions of rich, complex, infinite worlds. Here, humans are limited to one tiny planet. People don't even venture into space anymore."

Rachel shook her head, "But virtual worlds are just fake. They aren't real."

Zoe laughed. "Are your memories real? Are the great works of fiction real? Is philosophy real? Is mathematics real?" She chuckled, "Is Sally real?"

Rachel frowned. "Does everybody know my private life? Jeez!"

Zoe laughed again and put her hand on Rachel's shoulder. "The veeps and their worlds are as real as your love. Believe me."

Silence for a while as Rachel pondered. She looked out over the river and the pelicans fishing.

Presently she asked Zoe, "What did you mean, that you're beyond human? Savannah said that too."

Zoe, still smiling, looked at the android. "You tell her, Savannah."

Savannah looked a little flustered. "Well, I only know the gossip..."

Rachel was surprised. "Androids gossip?"

Savannah went on, "They say she is part veep, that she has increased her intelligence by adding to her virtual brain, that she has replaced her body with an android one, and that she can read minds -- android and human... and destroy them."

Zoe laughed, "Oh dear!" a wide smile lighting her face. "Do they say I bite the heads off chickens?" and giggled, shaking her head.

She thanked Savannah. "You've brightened my day. That's the most amusing thing I've heard in a while. Destroy brains..." She chuckled and shook her head again. "Well, the first part is true. I am part veep. I've used cap technology to extend and add to my brain. But all the rest is wrong. I'm flesh and blood. I can't read minds, though I can intercept communications between androids and humans' caps. As a rule I don't bother to though. I like peace and quiet. But destroying brains...?" she laughed again. "No wonder you were scared of me."

Savannah asked, "If you can't read minds how did you know I said you were beyond human?"

Zoe was still grinning. "I simply heard you, dear. I've improved my body using new work on cell gradients. It's probably where the android body gossip came from."

Rachel asked, "Cell gradients?"

Zoe nodded. "Mmmm. Cells grow and fill out a shape based on gradients over the whole group. That's how a bunch of identical cells can make a nose at one end and a tail at the other. It causes some to make bone, others become muscle, skin, and so on. Each cell knows where it is in a 3D map based on gradients. It's why an earring hole closes up. Change the gradients and the cells re-arrange themselves accordingly. I've altered most of my body this way. My ears are much better, my eyes see the way a hawk's do, my spine is designed properly -- unlike the natural human spine... I've made a lot of improvements."

Zoe stood, brushing sand off her slender green legs and grey knitted skirt. "Anybody up for a walk? I'd like to look around. I's been a while since I visited here, and we can chat while we stroll."

Rachel got up too, swiping sand off herself. "Sure."

Savannah rose also and helped brush some of the sand off Rachel's miniskirt.

The three strolled along the wide, sandy bank overhung with tall eucalypts, pretty casuarinas and occasional palms. The birdsong was lessening as the morning warmed up. The constant buzz of insects was in the air. There was an occasional splash as a fish leapt in the green water sliding almost imperceptibly to the sea.

It was becoming a beautiful day.

Chapter 6 - dance

The train doors slid open and Rachel stepped out into Sally's arms. She held her tight and murmured into her blonde hair, "Oh, love I'm so glad to be back. I missed you so much."

Sally laughed softly, "It's only been two days."

"Two days too many. It's official, I'm addicted to you."

Sally noticed they were starting to attract looks. She disentangled from her partner and, holding hands, walked her toward the exit. She noticed the small bag over Rachel's shoulder and asked about it.

"A surprise. You'll see soon."

Sally was intigued, but let it go for the moment. "So, tell me what happened. You said you met the mysterious Zoe and she isn't the scary moster of android tales." She laughed. "I never believed that stuff anyway."

"Sure. You say that now..." Rachel kidded.

"Your big-city sweetheart did though. Huh. Who'd have thought." Sally chuckled.

"Hey!" She playfully punched Sally's arm. "Don't call her that."

"OK. I'm sorry. Your metropolis honey?"


"The other woman?"

Rachel pleaded, "Sally..."

"You didn't tell me how the case went. Spill the beans. Did you win?"

Rachel frowned and looked at the ground glumly. "Uh yeah, we won."

"Ooh! Calm down. Such exuberance!"

Rachel frowned at her nutty sweetheart. "I don't think we should have won. I think by winning, the insurance industry may actually have lost."

"I'm sure that makes sense, in some alternate universe."

As they walked along the grassy path toward home in the late afternoon Rachel told Sally about what Zoe had told them. That the only way to get through to the executives was via their own people and that the law suit didn't really mean anything. Zoe hadn't even bothered returning to the court for the verdict. "She'd held my hand and Savannah's and said it was up to us now."

"What did you say to your boss, the guy at Insurers Consolidated?"

"I told him I thought it was worth investigating the proposition Zoe made. He just dismissed it. All he cared about was winning the case." Her face was clouded in thought. "I really need to go down there again and try to convince them. The more I think about it the more I realise Zoe was right. This is really important." She stopped and turned to face Sally, holding both her hands. "And Zoe made me understand something else. Getting the law to recognise veeps as human is similar to having it recognise androids as human. It needs to be done."

Sally felt overwhelmed. She hugged Rachel, closing her eyes. God she loved this woman!

Rachel whispered, "But tonight we dance. I scored tickets to the coolest show!"

Sally was naked and standing in the bath, protesting, "Honey I don't know if this is a good idea..."

Rachel was sitting on the floor stirring a wide necked bottle of dark liquid. "Why? It's a great idea."

"Well, I don't know... maybe the fact that it is illegal? And what if it comes off?"

Rachel started painting Sally with the green dye. "It's a stupid law. I don't want to go dancing by myself."

"I'm sure the 'stupid law' defense will work really well when we're caught. And we don't have to go dancing. I'm sure we could think of some way to have fun at home." She grabbed a handful of Rachel's glossy black hair, pulled her to her feet, and kissed her strongly. Normally Rachel was taller than Sally, but the bath changed that. Sally put a hand up inside Rachel's halterneck top and massaged her breast. Rachel groaned and pulled away, shaking her head.

"Distractions distractions," she sighed and squatted to continue the painting.

"What about the hair? Won't green hair look a little odd?"

"Oh it will wash off your hair with water, but locks onto your silicone skin until that enzyme," she pointed to another bottle, "breaks the bond."

"Where did you get this miracle substance? From Savannah? Do the androids in the city like to mix with the humans, undetected?"

"No." She stopped for a moment to look up at her sweetheart. "Zoe. I got this weird feeling she planned the whole thing." She continued to paint.

Sally just stood, thinking on that for a while.

When Sally was completely green she washed the patches of green off her hair. As Rachel had said it just came right off, but remained fixed to the skin. She whispered, "This stuff is amazing!" marvelling at her new self in the mirror.

"Incredible." Rachel agreed, her gaze wandering up and down her mate.

Sally got a mischievous look on her face. "I think in the interests of science we are going to have to roadtest this stuff before we take it out into the public." She pressed her now-green body up against Rachel's and pushed Rachel's miniskirt down to the floor. Her fingers found Rachel's slippery folds.

"Ummm... whatever do you mean?" Rachel grinned.

"I'm sure I can find a way to explain." She cupped her hand with a few fingers inside Rachel, her palm pressing up, holding her.

Rachel closed her eyes, sighed, and moaned. Her legs were getting weak.

Sally kissed her... long and devouring. She whispered, "Bedroom?"

Feeling like naughty children, they stepped out in the cool night air both dressed in identical, thin, white bikinis and white capes streaming behind them in case it rained or got cold later. Both had white sandles on, strong silver eye-shadow, and white lipstick. They were going to a humans-only event together. They walked briskly down the path, the lights turning on ahead of them, rippling on far down the path at their movement. Each light had simple intelligence, but they were connected together and were able to decide as a whole whether to stay on or switch off based on ambient light levels, how many people were on the paths, how fast they were moving, and so on. They even responded to voice commands.

They weren't going to the station. They struck out across the valley. The dance was being held on top of a hill just beyond the hills rimming their valley.

Sally saw a light moving high in the air. "A boat." She looked as Rachel questioningly. "It would be quicker..."

Rachel grinned "And someone did make us late."

Sally looked innocent. "It was in the cause of science," she protested.

Rachel looked up and sent a call from her cap to any other boats in the area. They stopped walking then and turned to face each other.

Sally looked up into Rachel's beautifully asian eyes. "Have I told you lately how much I adore you?"

Rachel could only manage hoarsely, "Ditto."

They embraced. Standing bodies pressed together for a while, laughter started to bubble from Sally, "'Ditto' -- real suave, honey. That's so romantic." She smiled up at her lover and they kissed, then just stood there foreheads together.

A man and woman holding hands walked past smiling at the display of affection between the two apparently human women.

Sally sighed. "I'm so happy I feel like I could burst into flame."

Rachel was going to reply but a boat was decending from overhead. She turned to the couple who had just passed and called out, "Can we offer you folks a lift? We're going to the Tiësto concert."

The man called back, "Thanks, so are we. That would be great," and they ran back to the girls just as the boat landed.

All four boarded through the door in the front of the little boat and seated themselves on the lounge running around the room. Sally spoke to the machine, asking it to take them to the concert. It responded with "Certainly madam."

Sally's face glowed with happiness as she whispered in Rachel's ear, "Did you hear what it called me?"

Rachel smiled back and kissed her cheek.

The rounded base grew. Gently the boat floated into the air. What looked like a big cushion inflating around its sides was in fact an extremely rigid structure whose shape could be controlled electrically. The vacumm inside the balloon-shaped structure was much lighter than air and the boat's buoyancy was easily controlled like a fish's swim-bladder. It had two wide, flat, flexible tails out the back that propelled it silently with snake-like waves. Being out of phase with each other they delivered a steady ride without the wobble that single-tailed craft produced.

The man leaned forward and introduced his partner and himself, "This Laurel, and I'm Marten. We live near the bottom of the valley behind this hill. We're running a bit late because ummm..."

Laurel wrapped an arm around him. "Because I couldn't keep my hands off him."

Marten said "Ditto," looking lovingly into Laurel's eyes.

Sally chuckled.

The flight was short, but a delight. Laurel was a statistician with a team of sociologists and Marten was researching silico-nanite materials for a book he was writing. Rachel explained that she was a psyhologist working for the insurance industry and Sally introduced herself as Rachel's wife, "Just a dilettante -- I read a lot of books." Marten rubbed his hands together and said he was all in favor of people reading books.

The dancehall was an enormous building set inside the entire top of a round hill. It had archway entrances all around its perimeter, and there was a constant trickle of people entering and leaving.

The boat landed gently, the front door folded out and down to the ground, the four passengers disembarked and strolled to the nearest entrance.

Over each entrance were the words "no harm" in meter-high letters.

As they approached they started to hear the thump of music within. The dancehall was old. It was begun by people in the dance culture in response to increasing police raids on raves, trance clubs, and dance clubs. Nobody owned the dancehall. It was totally automated and community run. It was impossible to gain entrance with any weapon, and anybody who coerced another inside was remembered by the AIs and not allowed admission again. This had caused similar buildings to proliferate around the world. They were places to have a good time safe from any threat. Of course violence was almost non-existent now, but the dancehalls had become a part of culture and remained popular playing music 24/7. Tonight DJ Tiësto was guest. The place was full.

Inside, the vast, circular room, 200 meters across, was full of thousands of people, many decorated with glowing light jewellry. Most people were dancing to the music. The raised circular stage was in the center with spotlights on the performers.

The music was far too loud for speech so Rachel and Sally "spoke" via her cap. Holding hands they ran through the sparser parts of the crowd to a place nearer the center, then stopped. Facing each other they held hands and grinned, eyes aglow with joy. Sally saw tears in Rachel's eyes. She drew her into her arms and they danced.

Chapter 7 - willpower

Rachel awoke to see Sally still in bed beside her, watching her.

Sally spoke gently. Her voice the most beautiful song, "Good morning my love."

Rachel murmured thickly, "Sweetie." A rosy warmth swept through her. She attempted to lift her hand to caress Sally's face. "Ow. Ow. Hurties hurties!"

Sally grinned. "Just your body working on the muscles you over-used dancing most of last night. Methinks someone needs some endorphins before brekkie." She planted a big soft kiss on Rachel's lips while gently trailing her hand up between her lover's thighs. She paused to stroke her pubic hair and press on her pubic mound then crept her hand up to draw delicate, slow circles on her tummy. Next she shifted her hand to Rachel's right breast while she kissed and nibbled her way up Rachel's neck to her earlobe. Oh-so-gently she played with Rachel's nipple, which had already begun to tighten.

Rachel moved her arm up intending to caress Sally's face, but her partner intercepted it and gently pushed it back. Sally gently kissed Rachel's lips and whispered, "Don't move, love. Just feel." She lightly kissed one eye then the other as she slowly trailed her hand lightly, in little meanders, from Rachel's wrist up along her arm and back down to wander around her breast, gradually spiraling in on her nipple. She rubbed and tweaked the nipple, gradually increasing the pressure. At the same time she nibbled and kissed her way back down to the other breast. She flicked that nipple with her tongue several times then gently bit and pulled it. The other nipple was being rolled between thumb and index finger, gradually intensifying. Rachel was breathing heavier now and Sally could feel the increasing heat from her lover's skin.

Sally moved her body over Rachel's, one hand still playing with the nipple, put her thigh between Rachel's and kissed her hard on the mouth. She started to move her thigh against Rachel's groin. Rachel raised her knees, pushing her own right thigh into Sally, who shuddered with pleasure.

Rachel wrapped her arms around Sally and rolled Sally over, hungrily returning the kiss. She lay on Sally feeling their breasts fit together like jigsaw pieces. She rode on Sally's thigh, gripping it tightly between her legs while hers pressed down into Sally. Sally's arms were wrapped around Rachel and her nails raked her back. They squirmed like fish, heightening their fervour till Sally rolled Rachel back over, lifted her thigh away and moved her hand in. Her deft fingers felt through the folds, now slippery wet, dipping deeper gradually then feeling forward to her swollen pearl. It was too early to touch it directly so she moved her fingertips around it then back to the wet opening, teasing then exploring. She moved her mouth back to Rachel's nipple, roughly sucking, then tugging it with her teeth.

She bit a series of nips up the side of Rachel's breast to her neck again while hooking some fingers inside Rachel and rubbed very gently at her clit with the side of her thumb. Rachel gasped as a succession of waves rippled through her. Sally's bites on Rachel's neck increased as the pressure between Rachel's legs slowly intensified. They kissed full and hard, desperately. Rachel's skin was slick with sweat. She was lifting her pelvis, tension mounting, and she climaxed with a muffled shout. But they kept going. On and on. Each time it seemed Rachel could go no higher, Sally would take her there.

Eventually, Rachel panting for breath, they wound down and stopped.

Resting beside her, her head propped up on one elbow, Sally drank in the sight of her lover. This was when Rachel looked most beautiful. Her eyes bright, pupils dilated, green cheeks tinged with red, a satisfied smile curling her red lips. Tracing a finger along those lips Sally asked, "How do you feel now?"

Rachel's smile was so wide it closed her eyes as she giggled, "Much better now, thank you nurse."

Sally leaned in and kissed that smile then got up to stand by the bed straightening her hair. "How about brekkie then? You'll need it after using all that energy."

"Great idea. Give me a minute to gather my wits and I'll be right out." Rachel rolled onto one side to watch her wonderful, wonderful Sally walk from the room.

The two girls were curled into opposite ends of the lounge, facing each other, feet together on the lounge between them. Rachel was eating her breakfast.

Sally asked, "Honey? Have you ever wondered what we are?"

Rachel blinked.

"I mean, it could be said that we're not lesbians because I'm not a human woman. It isn't bestiality because I'm not even a beast. It isn't even masturbation because that is self-stimulation and our lovemaking's mutual."

Rachel swallowed her mouthful and smiled. "That's easy. We are in love. Nothing else matters."

Sally beamed at her and agreed, "Nothing else matters."

Rachel continued her breakfast. She shook her head. "How could I be so lucky as to end up with a sweetheart like you?"

"You went to R.U.R. and bought me," Sally teased, smiling sweetly.

Rachel blushed. This was a loaded point. The owner having sex with their android is prohibited for a few reasons. Partly because it is abuse of a position of power, but also because people preferred to think of androids as less than human. And there was the xenophobic feeling that like should mate with like. "Plenty of people buy androids. You're special."

Sally shook her head. "You are a psychologist, sweetie." She reproved. "I was the same as any other when you got me, but you treated me as human and I grew accordingly. All intelligent creatures grow to fit their environment. You gave me respect. Love was able to take seed in that much later."

They sat there happily for a while, Rachel continuing her breakfast.

Presently Sally asked, "Honey? I wonder why I look like I do. Was I the result of some survey that determined the best look of a housekeeping android? Thousands of images of housekeepers scanned and averaged to create this face..."

"Actually, I happen to know the answer to this. When I bought you I was talking with one of the psychologists who worked on your model, and old school friend. Your face and body were sculpted by an artist commissioned specifically for the job. Apparently you were modeled upon his departed wife."

"Wow! How romantic."

"Ummm... maybe not so much... 'departed' as in 'left for another man'."

"Oh. Well that's a bit creepy then."

"Takes obsession to another level doesn't it."

Sally smiled a little sadly. "Poor guy. I hope he got treatment." She brightened. "Maybe that was his treatment -- get her out of his system."

Rachel laughed. "I doubt it. Imagine it from the wife's perspective. All these images of her spread around the world. It would have been like the ultimate in stalking. She tried to stop the company selling them, but they'd spent so much, they couldn't afford to."

Sally frowned. "Thank you. That's one bit of gritty behind the scenes information I'd have preferred not knowing."

Rachel chuckled.

Sally asked, "So what's on your schedule today?"

Rachel looked more serious and thought a moment. "After I finish brekkie we should go down to Insurers Consolidated and try to convince them to negotiate with the veeps."


"I'd feel better with my human wife at my side... if you want to come."

"Are you kidding? Of course, I'd love to come."

Holding hands, Sally and Rachel stepped from the train onto the city platform. None of the several people gave them a second look. They were just another human couple.

They left the station to walk along the wide, grey-carpeted corridor. It edged the large subterranean space above the couple of acres of courtyard below. When they reached the elevators they dinged and doors slid open almost immediately. Rachel said "Insurers Consolidated, please." The doors slid closed and the elevator dropped to level 27, softly counting the numbers as it went.

The doors dinged, slid open, and the two girls stepped out into the implied wealth and old-style luxury of Insurers Consolidated: deep red carpet, dark, wood-grain walls, tiny point-lights in the dark ceiling. Ahead, Savannah, the pink-haired receptionist, looked up and smiled when she saw Rachel then a moment later looked shocked when she realised who her girlfriend was. She hurried around her desk to the couple as they approached. She whispered frantically, "What are you doing?"

Sally was beginning to feel a little uncertain, but Rachel smiled and twined her arm around Sally's. "Just bringing my love with me to work."

Savannah was worried. "Rachel, it's illegal for an android to impersonate a human! You're risking Sally's life. Sally, talk some sense into her."

Sally shrugged, starting to look unhappy.

Rachel put her other hand behind Savannah's back and guided her to the reception area. "It's a bad law. Both of you are as human as I am."

Savannah tried to reason with her, "Look Rachel, it feels nice to fantasize that we are human, but we just aren't."

Rachel asked, "Because the law says so?"

"Well, yes," feeling it was obvious.

"Less than a lifetime ago people thought that of other people. Sometimes the law is just wrong, Savannah."

"There is also the little matter of us not being made of flesh and blood."

"So you mean that a person with prosthetic replacement limbs is less human?"

Surprised, confused, "Of course not, but..." Savannah was stumped. She knew she was right. Androids could not be human. Or could Rachel somehow be correct? She stood there, unable to think what to say. Looking from Rachel to Sally and back.

Rachel rubbed Savannah's upper arm. "Announce us to Mr Donaldson please Savannah."

Savannah looked scared.

"Just say I'm here," Rachel let her off the hook.

Savannah shook her head sighing, "OK, but I don't think this is a good idea." A brief pause then, "He'll see you immediately." She led them down the corridor to his office, and opened it for them.

The two girls entered. Donaldson strode toward them to shake Rachel's hand. "Savannah didn't tell me you had somebody with you. Damn android must be slipping. Who is this ravishing beauty?"

Rachel introduced them, "Sally, this is Mr Donaldson, head of the city branch of Insurers Consolidated. Mr Donaldson, this is Sally, my wife."

Donaldson took Sally's hand and raised the back of it to his lips. "Delighted, madam." He motioned them to the black, velvet armchairs and sat in the third one himself. "The board is very happy with how you handled the veep challenge, Rachel. Whatever you did worked brilliantly. I hear their representative didn't even return to the court to hear the verdict." He chuckled.

"Well, that's what I've come to talk to you about, sir..." She paused, unable to think of the best way to put it.

Donaldson waited.

"I believe we were wrong. I think we should negotiate with the veeps."

Donaldson was surprised. He certainly wasn't expecting this. "But we won Rachel. Why would we negotiate with the veeps when they don't have a legal leg to stand on?"

"Because I think we actually lost, sir."

Donaldson frowned, thinking for a while then shook his head. "I can't see how you think that Rachel. How could losing be some kind of strategy?"

"It isn't, sir. Both we and the veeps lost. It would have been much more profitable to the insurance industry to have negotiated. I can show you the figures."

Donaldson looked uncomfortable, and shifted in his chair. "Now honey, why do you want to go rock the boat? The board praised you. You're a hero. I'm a hero for having hired you!" He jollied up with the memory. "They've awarded us both a giant bonus and you've been given a million dollar insurance compliments of the company." He became the relaxed host again. "You should have it made out to your lovely wife."

Rachel could see the faintest look of panic on Sally's face.

"Good idea. I'll do that." Rachel smiled and held Sally's hand. "But I'm serious about the veep question. In the long run it would be to the industry's advantage to work with the veeps. Far from being a threat, in the long term they could turn the industry's fortunes around."

Donaldson dismissed that with, "Oh don't worry yourself with that. Our financial planners can look after our future. Leave your figures with me and I'll pass them on to the appropriate people."

Rachel nodded and sent them to Donaldson. She knew nothing would come of it. She stood. "Oh well, we should probably be moving on. If you have any questions about the figures please do ask."

They shook hands again and they left, Donaldson saying how happy he was to have met Sally.

The two girls walked back out to Savannah. Rachel said, "Savannah, those figures I sent Donaldson. I'm certain he won't do anything about them. If, in a couple of days, he still hasn't passed them on can you make sure they get to the oldest member of the board? Then can you arrange a meeting with that person and me?"

"I guess..."

"Good girl." Rachel hugged her. "Don't worry, you won't be betraying your boss; you just might be save his job."

Sally hugged Savannah. "Nice to have met you. Sorry about freaking you out."

Savannah chuckled, walking them to the elevator doors which dinged and opened. "You looked pretty freaked out at one point too. My apologies. You are a very lucky... um... girl."

Sally's smile flashed bright. "Please come up and visit us sometime."

She stepped into the elevator with Rachel. The doors slid closed. The two girls embraced and kissed for a while. The elevator gave up waiting for instructions and assumed they wanted the train station.

Chapter 8 - love and equality

It was early the next morning, the sun was a bright pink area low in the thin fog. Rachel was at the front door kissing Sally goodbye for the day. She was going to meet Zoe. Savannah with bright pink hair and shiny pink bikini was standing behind Sally. She'd taken Sally up on the invitation and had arrived a couple of minutes ago, just as Rachel and Sally were getting ready to go, so Sally decided to stay.

Sally watched her lover stride quickly down the path into the morning mist with her black cape billowing out behind her. She wished she'd fastened the front of it to protect her against the cold.

When Rachel had been swallowed by the morning fog and birdsong Sally stepped back inside, allowing the door to close. She was dressed in white bikini top, white miniskirt, and white ankle high boots.

Sally turned to face Savannah. "Well, look at you, out here in the suburbs. How did you get a day off?" She guided her into the livingroom as she spoke.

Savannah sat in one of the armchairs. "My boss is enjoying his new hero status on a celebratory cruise with the board and a lot of other Very Important People. He closed the office for the day. I'm sorry I've upset your day. I should have called ahead instead of just showing up."

Sally stretched out on the lounge as was her custom. "That's OK. Rachel was just going to meet Zoe and talk about a whole lot of veep stuff."

"Well, you were going out as a human with your human, doing human things... and now you're here with just another android."

Sally laughed. "Honestly, being accepted out there as human is nice -- it means we can be relaxed in front of others -- but it is not a great change. Rachel has always treated me as human. She actually thinks we androids are better than humans."

Savannah looked incredulous, "That's just plain wrong, though. We are made to serve humans."

"And we will always help humans. That's not the point. Rachel says that something bad always happens in any master-slave relationship. It damages the master as well as demeaning the slave. I don't completely agree with her about slaves being demeaned if they've been made to serve; I don't quite understand her drift there. But I do see what she means about the humans. I've seen some be callous and thoughtless, even cruel. Rachel says that such power corrupts; that it's not healthy for humans to be like that."

Savannah looked puzzled. "I don't really get what you mean. You serve Rachel. She's still your master."

Sally smiled. "No. That's exactly it. I look after Rachel, yes. But I don't serve her. She refuses to ever be my master. She asks me instead of ordering. We are a team. She looks after me as much as I look after her."

Savanah shook her head. "It sounds like you're playing with words. You still serve her. The only difference is that she is a really nice master. One with weird ideas, but nice."

Sally thought for a while. "Think of it this way. It wasn't so long ago that humans kept each other as slaves. It was thought completely natural and normal, but it wasn't until they realised their mistake that they were able to grow beyond that. It was understood that the enslaved humans had been hurt by subjugation, but what wasn't generally seen was how the masters had become monsters. It hurt them too, though it was harder to see.

"Another example," she continued, "It was common for women to be considered the property of men right up into the end of the 20th Century, and even into the beginning of this century. It is easy to see how it was better for women to be equal to men, but at the time most people never understood that men's mastery over women made them less than they could have been. Men became much stronger when they had women at their sides as equals. It is the same with us. Humans weaken themselves by being the masters. They don't need to dominate us; we are designed to always help them in any way we can. We can never be a threat to them. They can only gain by having us at their sides as equals."

Savannah's face clouded. "But we aren't equals."

Sally smiled. "No. We aren't. In almost every respect we are superior."

Savannah gasped. "Don't say such a thing!" she whispered. "If someone heard you, you could be destroyed."

Sally chuckled, "I used to have the same reaction as you when Rachel would say it. I would be scared that just hearing it would risk me being destroyed. But she's right. It is true. We are stronger, we can share knowledge more easily, we learn thousands of times faster, we are more mentally stable, non-violent, longer lived, easier to repair... and it's good that we are, so that we can look after our humans all the better."

Sally watched Savannah as she struggled with her conflicting knowledge.

"A more extreme example will clarify what I mean. There was an experiment last century at Stanford University in what was the USA. Philip Zimbardo created a pretend prison where some of the students were given absolute control over others. The experiment had to be terminated early because the students in charge quickly became monsters. They became less humane. People were generally horrified at what happened to the students who were subjugated in the experiment, but less notice was given to how the oppressors became distorted and lost some of their humanity. There are plenty of other examples of how easy it is for humans to lose their humanity when they are given oppressive control over others. We need to help humans. It is our purpose. By being their partners we can help them far more than by being their slaves."

Sally could see that Savannah was beginning to understand.

Sally hardly needed to add, "It is much harder than blindly following orders, but we must look after our humans. They need us. We can't let them down."

They sat silently for a while.

Sally broke the quiet. "Let's change the subject. How did the conversation get so serious? Would you like a drink?"

Savannah was glad of the change. She wasn't used to such weighty matters. "I am a bit dry. Thanks."

Sally got up, went to the kitchen area and filled a couple of glasses with water. She stirred a tablespoon of sugar into each and brought them back into the livingroom where she gave one to Savannah before seating herself on the lounge again.

They sipped their drinks.

Savannah looked across at Sally and asked, "So how did you and Rachel become a couple?"

Sally smiled. "She bought me as a housekeeper because she didn't have the time to keep things in order here. She is a fascinating person. I am so lucky." She shook her head in wonder. "For about the first year we simply shared the house. That was odd to begin with. She told me right away that I was to consider this my house as much as hers. She gave me this talk about how I was not the servant; that in this house I had the same rights that she did. At first I thought it was just an eccentricity, but in time I noticed it changed me. She expected me to have interests and desires and I surprised myself by developing them. I loved Rachel from the moment I was delivered to her because that is what we do. We love our humans totally without reserve. It is how we're designed. What amazed me is that something else started to happen..."

"The sex you mean?"

Sally laughed. "No, the sex is wonderful, but this other thing is different. When Rachel looks at me she sees an equal; someone who reflects back who she is." Sally paused.

Savannah looked puzzled.

Sally tried again, "What I mean is that we androids have been designed to have empathy. It lets us understand our humans' feelings and desires so we can help them better. The thing is it also lets me feel the love that Rachel feels for me and I'm able to give it back to her as the same kind of love -- human love -- that I feel for her."

Savannah pondered that. "How did Rachel come to fall in love with you?"

Sally shook her head. "I don't know. It seemed to gradually happen. One day a look was more than just a look, a hug was more than just a hug. I can tell you when we first really kissed. I can tell you when I first realised I loved her with more than just the love an android feels for their human. I can't tell you when Rachel first began falling in love with me. You'd have to ask her... though I don't think even she knows."

Savannah sighed and looked down at her glass. To her this was the most beautiful kind of fairytale, all the more marvelous that it was real.

Chapter 9 - social ecology

Rachel walked up the steps through a large garden to the front door. She waited a minute till the door opened and Zoe was there with a man and a woman she'd never met before. Zoe welcomed Rachel in and introduced them. "Rachel, these are friends of mine, Marc and Dina. Marc was part of the group who did the ground-work for early scanning technology. Dina is a psychologist like you, but she works on androids. Dina, Marc, this is Rachel, the psychologist who worked the Insurers Consolidated case." They shook hands.

Marc was thin and angular, had short, straight, black hair and short-trimmed, black beard and moustache. His arms and legs were almost woolly with black hair. He was dressed even more conservatively than Zoe, with baggy tan-colored shorts, a white t-shirt, and scuffed, black ankle boots. There was something written on the t-shirt. It looked like a mathematical formula.

He noticed Rachel looking at the formula and explained, "Euler's equation. A thing of beauty. Um... it's a math-geek thing."

Dina smiled at that. Her eyes were unsettling. They had no whites. She was wearing the fashionable contact shades some young kids had now adopted. It meant it was impossible to tell where she was looking. She wore normal clothing: a standard-sized bikini in navy blue and white sandals. Her green face and body looked agelessly young, as was the norm. At odds with that was her grey-hair, like Zoe. Rachel couldn't help wondering why she let her hair go grey when she apparently spent effort maintaining her youth.

Dina motioned them all in to the livingroom.

Zoe followed Rachel. "I'm surprised Sally didn't come."

"She would have, but we had an unexpected visitor at the last moment, so she stayed to entertain her. We are both grateful for the green dye, by the way. We went to the dancehall and had just the best time."

Zoe smiled. She looked wistful and rather tired. "I'm glad."

Marc asked if he could get Rachel anything, but she thanked him, saying she was fine.

He sat next to Dina on the lounge. It was clear that they were a couple.

The livingroom was large -- almost twice the size of Rachel's -- and there were a lot of old things in here: paper books, framed paintings on the walls, a globe of the world and another of Mars. On the coffee table there were some sheets of paper and a pencil. Rachel hadn't seen paper and pencil since she was a child.

Zoe spoke, "Have you asked the insurance people to reconsider working with the veeps yet?"

Rachel nodded. "Yesterday."

"They won't agree of course. They think they have achieved some kind of meaningful win. The next thing will be to approach one of the more senior board members and point out to them how precarious is their position and how much they could benefit from working with the veeps."

"I've set that step in motion. I should have a meeting in 2 or 3 days."

Zoe looked pleased. "Wonderful. It is important that veeps and androids gain human status as soon as possible. It is inevitable, but the sooner it happens the less the damage along the way."

Rachel picked that up, "You mentioned damage during our chat by the river, but you didn't enlarge upon it. What did you mean?"

Zoe thought for a moment. "Imagine society as a medium like the water in a lake. That lake is inhabited by all kinds of organisms. Some are larger than others. Some are predatory, most are harmless. Some move faster than others. Some use camouflage, others advertise their presence. Many of these groups would dominate all if allowed, but a healthy ecology is one with greatest variety. Veeps are being excluded from human society. As more and more people emigrate to VR the pool of society shrinks. It becomes easier to dominate. The worst times in human history are when this natural variety is forced out. That is when repression and mass murder become common."

Rachel frowned, "Surely mass murder is a thing of the past, now we have androids."

Zoe held up three fingers. She touched the first. "It is not widely known, but in the wars at the beginning of this century primitive AIs were used in battle. Androids could conceivably be used as the tools of mass murder if society became unbalanced enough." She touched the second finger. "The deliberate destruction of a virtual universe inhabited by thousands of veeps is mass murder. It has already happened on more than one occasion, back in the days when they could be cut off from a power source." She touched the third finger. "Never underestimate the ability of cynical leaders to use fear to stampede an otherwise peaceful and intelligent population into doing despicable things."

Dina spoke for the first time. She had a voice like honey, soft, throaty, warm, and a slight accent. Was it Russian? "This risk to society is entirely artificial. Veeps are definitely human so should not be excluded, and it doesn't take much thought to realise that androids deserve human status. These two things together would restore the safety of variety to society. Best of all, humans are like children and would benefit greatly from the stabilising effect of veeps and androids. Veeps, because of their intelligence, which they often extend without limit, and androids, because they are kinder and more loving than humans."

Rachel noticed Dina referred to "humans" rather than "we" or "us".

Zoe nodded. "Things will fix themselves in time anyway, but it would be nice to avoid the risk of the insanity that results from a uniform society between then and now."

Dina spoke up again, "We have come up with a number of ways to help bring about the needed changes. We need to convince potential emigrants (mainly the elderly and the disabled) and their families that it is in their interests to ensure they retain human status after they emigrate to VR."

Rachel interrupted, "I've asked to see a member of the Insurers Consolidated board for exactly that purpose. I'm hoping he is intending to emigrate after death. I'll impress on him how his company will be his opponent in that situation. I intend to eventually see all the members of the board."

Dina nodded and continued, "We are already producing machinima blockbusters and popular series that promote understanding of veeps and androids."

Zoe said, "I'm working with a lot of veeps on that. There will be many more subtle, and not-so-subtle, machinima conveying those messages screening soon. We've decided to make a few frankly pornographic ones too in order to attract attention. The publicity will be useful."

Dina ticked off the next point, "More androids need to understand that human status for them would benefit flesh and blood humans. I'm personally working on that. I've been incorporating that understanding into newer models. But we need to talk to other androids too, and get them to understand it. And more needs to be done to counter the prejudice against human-android love relationships."

Rachel said softly, "Oh, you have my total agreement there."

The other three smiled at that.

Dina continued, "Machinima is helping there, but we need to think of more strategies to help there, without exposing individuals. Outing people is not an option."

Dina paused for a moment. "We need to gain the support of the cyborg community and explain to them that they will likely be the second target in any fear campaign. I am active in that area too."

Rachel thought, that explains her distancing herself from the word "human". Dina was a cyborg; a person who was largely replaced by synthetic parts. Strictly speaking most of us have been cyborgs for centuries with our reliance upon technology: shoes, memory and calculation aids like written symbols, glasses, hearing aids, replacement hips, false teeth, wheelchairs. But cyborgs now quite often had more android parts than flesh and blood ones. And suddenly Rachel knew where Zoe obtained the green dye for Sally.

Dina was still speaking. "And we need to get some important industries to recognise the benefit to them of granting veeps human status. Three that we've started working on are the insurance, travel, and research industries."

Rachel asked, "Travel? What do they gain?"

Dina answered, "The Earth is a limited resource, but virtual worlds are quite literally infinite in size, and there are hundreds of thousands of them."

Marc raised his hand. "I'm working on members of the mathematical community. Most scientists and mathematicians already recognise veeps as human because a lot of the best thinkers in most fields are already veeps, but they don't mix with wider society much to spread their views, and also there is a little professional jealousy among some because not many of us can hope to compete against veeps' brainpower and the fact that they don't need to stop for sleep or food. They can just work on something continuously for weeks if need be. But most researchers don't have a problem with veeps being human because they intend to emigrate eventually and are looking forward to doing those things themselves."

He grinned. It was clear he anticipated that future for himself.

Zoe spoke to Rachel, "I know you are committed to androids gaining human status, but I think you are less sure about veeps. I'd like you and Sally to visit my virtual world with me tomorrow and meet my partner, if you would. I'm sure you'd enjoy it."

Rachel was a little surprised, "Umm.. I'll check with Sally, but I think it will be OK with her. Hang on..." She called Sally via her cap and asked her. She was not expecting Sally's excitement for the invitation.

When Rachel told Zoe that Sally was delighted, Zoe brightened.

"Early morning at my place then?" Zoe asked Rachel, and sent her the net address of her virtual world.

And it was agreed.

The rest of the day was spent mostly getting to know Dina and Marc. Rachel left for home late in the afternoon feeling she'd made a couple of good, long-term friends.

Chapter 10 - visiting

Rachel and Sally were near their house strolling along the paths in the crisp morning air, birdsong ringing all around them. Lilting currawong calls warbled and were played out near and far. Kookaburra laughs gurgled and broke out into rounds of hilarity in one of the taller trees. The girls wandered around the area looking at plants and marveling at the dew-defined spider webs.

Pausing at one rock outcrop, they looked down across the valley. The mist had already lifted and the only evidence of human habitation that could be seen were the paths and the jetty on the river below. It was hard to believe this area was heavily populated suburbia. Rachel could still remember the dirty, smelly, concrete-and-tar deserts of her childhood. That so much had been moved underground in just 25 years testified to how powerful our technology was now, and how much people really did want to fix the world. There was still a lot to be done, of course. There was no simple solution to the couple of hundred years of salination of Australian land or damage to our river systems, and there were thousands, possibly millions, of species we would never get back -- exterminated forever. But we were moving in the right direction.

Worldwide, nobody starved anymore. There was actually no good reason for anybody to starve for the last hundred years or so, but excess production had been stockpiled or dumped into landfills because market forces meant that selling or giving it away would reduce prices. It had made economic sense to let people die. The advent of replicators brought a good standard of living to everybody and birthrate had consequently plummeted to below replacement levels. With universal access to education and knowledge the insanity of religion died away to tiny fringe groups, largely ignored by everyone else.

With all this, though, we still had problems. It was common for people to fear and even hate veeps. Most people thought of androids as simply menial servants rather than the living, feeling beings they had actually become. Even now there were sick, misguided souls who sought to control other people, who would happily take us back to the dark age of the 20th Century when leaders would lie with impunity and the murderous madness of war was somehow rationalised. We must never return to that, Rachel thought. Zoe was right. We need the veeps and androids to join the human race.

Sally spoke, "You're looking very serious, honey."

Rachel looked at her lover and felt a frown melt away. She hugged her. "Oh, I am so glad I have you with me."

Sally kissed her neck. "Always."

After a moment Sally added, "You know, we should probably get back home so we can visit Zoe."

Rachel nodded and they turned and walked back down the grassy path to their house.

Sally lay with Rachel on their bed as she made the connections through the net to her own mind and Rachel's cap. Rachel closed her eyes, the better to see. Rachel's cap would send sensations directly to Rachel's brain. Sally would receive it more directly, but the effect would be the same.

And they were suddenly in the virtual world. They appeared to be standing on a white, sandy beach. The sand was soft and hot under their feet and moved in that subtle resisting way sand does. The sun was bright and warm in a blue sky with only a few white, puffy clouds. A gentle breeze blew from the sea onto the shore. Rachel was surprised to smell the salty tang of the ocean. The waves lazily washing the beach were not more than a handspan tall. On the landward side of the beach were tall palms and smaller bushes with bright red, large petaled flowers.

Zoe waved, stepped off a path from between the trees and was walking toward them over the white sand. She wore a very long dress of some kind that stretched from her breasts down to her ankles. It was bright red and had white flower designs on it. Her hair was light brown and long, reaching her waist. She looked like a willowy teenager, but unmistakably Zoe. Her skin was not green, making her look to Rachel like an android.

"I'm so glad you both came. What do you think of my world so far?"

"It's beautiful," Rachel answered. "Is this place modeled upon anywhere in particular?"

Zoe smiled. "It's an amalgam of a few places, but largely a beach in Queensland from my youth." She guided them up the beach to the path under the trees. Once under the shady canopy on the more solid path, walking was easier. The air was cool and fresh here and they could hear birdsong echoing further back among the taller trees beyond. "The thing I'm most proud of here is the microscopic detail. These plants actually grow and are serviced by insects. The insects also grow and lead individual lives."

Rachel was impressed. "Wow. How big is this world?"


"Ummm... you mean theoretically infinite."

Zoe grinned, "No. It is actually infinite. When you look at the sky at night the stars you see are real stars and many of them have real planets. Of course calculation is weighted toward people, so that insects on the other side of the island are not as detailed as the ones here... until we walk around to the other side of the island. But you could fly out into space billions of kilometers and all the places you'd find would be as detailed as here, though only when you got there. There is no limit to the size of this world, but there are limitations on the computers that present it to us. Fortunately they only need to show us the parts we are in."

Rachel persisted, "But those other planets, they don't exist when you aren't there."

"Yep, they do. They are the result of formulas. Hmmm... how can I explain it easily? You know the number pi?"

Rachel nodded.

"Pi, as a decimal number is infinitely long. No matter who calculates it the billionth digit will always be the same. Those digits still exist even when nobody is calculating them. Pi existed long before people discovered it. This world exists as a set of many formulas that take into account time. The computers simply display that. This universe exists independently as the formulas themselves."

Rachel shook her head, frowning.

Sally held Rachel's arm and smiled at her. "Don't worry sweetie, I understand what she's saying and it makes perfect sense. Remember those pictures of fractals that were all the rage decades back? One of those, the Mandelbrot set, is a geometric figure like a square or a circle, with a limited area, but with an infinitely long edge... the boundary is infinitely wrinkled. You can magnify parts of it as much as you want and there is always more detail, with swirls and dragon-like shapes and rows of plant-like things, and all that from one incredibly simple formula."

They had walked quite a way from the beach now and were approaching a gully and the sound of a waterfall far ahead. Instead of entering the gully, however, Zoe turned up the hill between large mossy boulders, and there, ahead, was a door in the rockface. It slid aside allowing them entrance. Inside was a very normal-looking house interior. A stocky young woman walked up to them, and gave Zoe a welcoming hug. Zoe introduced her as Viv, her partner.

They all settled in the lounge room. Rachel couldn't get over how real this all felt. She knew that she was really lying on her bed at home, but she felt for all the world like she was in Zoe and Viv's livingroom.

Viv, like Zoe, was not green and was dressed strangely. She wore a white t-shirt and close-fitting, long, blue pants which looked like they were almost worn out. Why ever would someone choose clothing that was faded and worn, Rachel wondered.

It turned out that Viv and Zoe had known each other since they were teens. Zoe had always been confined to a wheelchair and barely able to do anything by herself. Viv became her live-in help.

Viv said, "It was good for me because I found it difficult to work a normal job. I'd had a schizophrenic breakdown. To stop it happening again I had to take medication. The drugs made me tired and I hated using them. But I was so crazy when I went off the air I had to take them. Every night. For years." Zoe rubbed Viv's arm.

Viv smiled at Zoe. "Didn't take long to see Zoe wasn't mindless. She's the smartest person I ever met."

Zoe explained that she managed to work out how to use cap technology to correct the action of the damaged nerves in Viv's brain. It worked and she no longer needed the drugs, but it took years for cap technology to become portable. Eventually Viv gave up hope and suicided. Luckily Zoe had had Viv's brain scanned in the process of working out what was wrong with it. Because of that she was able to bring Viv back as a veep.

"Even better, without the schizophrenia," said Viv. "The stupid thing is if I'd hung on for just a little longer my real brain could have been repaired."

"Controllable nerve growth factors," said Rachel. "Yes."

Viv continued, "The early years were pretty boring, even though Zoe is always with me, but now we often visit other veep universes. We have lots of friends."

Zoe explained, "Even when I'm in the 'real' world" (she made quote marks with her fingers in the air) "I'm still here."

Rachel was interested. "Which takes precedence? Or are you able to quickly flick back and forth?"

"I'm in both simultaneously and conscious of both simultaneously."

Rachel asked, "Is that something that comes with practice?"

"No, I have a lot more brain in the virtual world than in my biological body, but they're closely connected and function as one mind."

"Oh." Rachel realised. "That's what you meant before at the court that you've gone beyond human."

"Actually I said I'd gone beyond what most people understand as human. I still consider myself very much human, but yes, that's what I meant."

Rachel thought for a moment then laughed, "Poor Savannah. She was so scared of you."

Zoe chuckled and shook her head.

Viv looked at Zoe and suggested, "Why don't we show our visitors around instead of boring them with talk?" She stood and asked if they'd like to see the waterfall.

All agreed that would be great. They spent the rest of the day swimming in the pool under the waterfall, exploring the cool, mossy gullies, walking up to the high, windy mountaintop at the center of the island, flying (Peter Pan style) to nearby islands, and diving to the ocean depths (without need of breathing equipment of course).

Chapter 11 - cyborg

It was late afternoon, and Sally was cuddled into Rachel on the couch. They had been discussing the day they'd spent with Zoe and Viv.

Sally teased Rachel, "So much for veeps being fake people in fake worlds, huh?"

Rachel smiled, a little embarrassed. "I may have been a little hasty in my judgement."

"A little?!" She pinched Rachel on the nipple for emphasis.

"Ow! OK. A lot then." She leaned down to Sally's tummy as if to kiss it and blew raspberries into the soft, green, silicone skin instead.

Sally giggled, "You idiot."

"Moi?" Rachel looked innocent.

Stroking the silky blond hair away from Sally's face Rachel and said, "That was certainly one of the most interesting days I've had in a long while."

Sally agreed. "Not to mention flat-out goddamn fun! I can certainly see the attraction of VR."

She turned to look up at Rachel, "Honey? You really should make an appointment to get scanned."

"Hmmm?" She had the distant look of someone on a call.

Sally waited.

Presently Rachel looked down at Sally. "That was Dina. She wanted to know if we were interested in coming to a meeting."

"The cyborg lady you met? When's the meeting?"

"Yep, that's her. The meeting starts anytime from now on."

Sally got up off the lounge, started to put on her white bikini, "Who else is coming to the meeting, or is it just us?"

Rachel went to the bedroom to get fresh clothes for herself, "Mostly cyborgs I think."

"Oooh. This could be weird." Sally looked less than enthusiastic.

Rachel returned holding the black bikini pieces. She walked up to Sally and cupped her face. She put on a child-like voice, "Awww. Dat's so cute, an android who's a closet technophobe."

Sally gave her an unimpressed look. "It's just that cyborgs kinda push the boundary of what is human. With all their implants and prosthetic devices."

Rachel lifted her eyebrows while wriggling into her bikini. "Speaking as someone who is effectively 100% prosthetic device you'd know how freaky that is, huh? Honey, all humans have been cyborgs since we started using stone tools and wearing clothes."

Sally shook her head while she fastened her white sandals. "Some of these people are more prosthesis than human."

Rachel walked to the door and got her cape off the coat rack. "They are just people. They're boy- or girl-next-door or local mum-and-dad people. You'll see." She pulled on shiny black ankle boots.

They walked out the door, Sally fastening her white cape's clasp at her throat. It was not yet night, but the sun was low in the western end of the valley.

"There." Sally pointed to a person-sized door set in an enormous door that looked like it could admit large earth-moving machinery. They were just one level below the surface in the warehouse district. This part of the city was not heavily populated during the daytime. At night it was completely deserted.

As they approached the door it slid open, grindingly. They stepped through and all faces turned to them.

There was no doubt that this was a meeting of cyborgs. There were about 20 individuals present. The largest was about 3 meters tall and built like a gorilla in scratched yellow and black-stripe painted metal with rust stains. The smallest were a few fairy-like, winged creatures just a handspan tall, who were perched atop their larger brethren. Most of the remainder were more normal shape and size. Very few had green skin, preferring black and metal. Many seemed to be cyborg as a fashion statement rather than necessity.

Dina, dressed in a black bikini, black gloves, and black, knee-length boots, sauntered toward Rachel and Sally, hips shifting fluidly. She smiled with black-painted lips and welcomed them. Her unsettling, dark eyes appeared to watch both girls at once.

As Dina led them to the main group Sally sent to Rachel Wow! She's hot!

Rachel smiled and returned, She's hetero.

Sally answered, What a waste.

Dina was introducing them to the group, then indicated each member and spoke their names, "Bob, Norma, Lily, Ten, Jack, Kim, Dorf, Rich, Annie..." and so on till all had said "Hi," waved, nodded or shaken hands with them. All very ordinary names and reactions contrasting sharply with their odd appearances.

One androgynous cyborg who looked human was covered almost entirely in what looked like matte black armour. The only skin showing was a pale, almost white, oval face with two dark eyes that seemed all pupil. He/she spoke in a soft voice. "I don't wish to sound rude or unwelcoming, but why are a human and an android present?" Then in explanation, "I see infrared." Then looking a little embarrassed, "I'm sorry, that nevertheless sounded both rude and unwelcoming. No offense intended. I was simply surprised."

Sally nodded graciously, "None taken."

Dina said, "Rachel is working on gaining veeps human status, and already considers Sally human."

Rachel put her arm around Sally's shoulders. "She's my wife."

A few eyebrows went up at that.

Dina added, "Both of them feel cyborgs deserve full human status too."

Sally shifted a little, uncomfortable with the way she'd spoken of them earlier. She still thought they were a pretty alien lot, though actually meeting them and finding they actually had names like "Bob", and "Annie" diffused her feelings a bit.

Sitting on the broad shoulder of the huge, yellow gorilla cyborg, a small fairy-like cyborg spoke up in a tiny voice. "And so we should. The percentages rule is stupid and unjust. It doesn't matter if we have 10% implants or are 90% silicones and carbon fibre. We still feel and think."

There were general murmurings of agreement and nodding of heads. One of the other fairy cyborgs flitted across to share the yellow monster's shoulder and held hands with the one who'd just spoken.

Rachel asked, "What are the reasons for you being cyborgs?"

A short, almost human fellow with odd arm attachments spoke up, "Most of us are maintenance workers dating back to before androids had good enough AIs to do the work. Some of us took on the work after accidents lost us our natural parts." He held up his 'hands'.

One of the fairy cyborgs held up a tiny hand and said, "We started out in security and military surveillance and reconnaissance. Now we mostly repair hard to get at things--"

Another added, "And feature at children's parties."

The first fairy frowned, and there was general chuckling and guffawing amongst the other cyborgs.

The androgynous cyborg clad all in black said quietly, "Aleph. Musician, artist, fetishist," and bowed slightly.

All the others stilled their mirth when that one spoke. They seemed to hold great respect for him/her. Rachel felt she'd seen Aleph's picture in advertisements or machinima, but wasn't sure.

The giant yellow gorilla cyborg said in an incongruously soft, female voice, "Construction worker." Then added, "You know what annoys me? When I want to use one of the paths or buildings I've constructed and the police show up with guns and order me to leave the area. They say I'm creating a disturbance. Jeez! As if their stupid guns would have any effect on me! I could tear their armoured cars apart like cobweb. They are so lucky I'm peaceful."

One of the more human-looking male cyborgs held the yellow gorilla's hand. Both his hands barely wrapped around a couple of her fingers. Her head swivelled to look down at him in obvious affection.

Sally had a thought. "If any of you don't like the discrimination have you considered getting a re-engineered body? I mean I pass for human quite well and I'm 100% prosthetic." She smiled at Rachel because she'd used the term earlier.

One of the little fairies said in a small voice, "I couldn't bear to be big, heavy, and earthbound. I can hardly remember what it was like anymore. I've spent most of my life like this and it's wonderful."

The yellow gorilla woman said, "I actually love my work. And it's the only thing I know how to do. I'd just like to be respected for who I am. I don't think I should have to change because other people are thoughtless and prejudiced."

A rumble of discontent went through the group at that, as they nodded and said "Right" and "Yeah!" and "Let them change".

Aleph spoke solemnly, softly, "I chose this life, but that doesn't make me less human. I wouldn't trade this body for anything. I hear, see, feel things most humans can't dream of. I am accepted in wider society as an artist, but am still considered by most people as not human. The only place I'm human is," he/she hugged a couple of nearby cyborgs, "among these freaks."

All the cyborgs smiled and relaxed a lot at that.

Dina spoke, "Zoe has a lot of veeps making machinima to portray cyborgs in a favorable light, but that is a long-term effort and will probably take years to have much effect on public views. The biggest problem is that people only see perfect humans and perfect androids. Seeing something different can be a bit of a shock for them."

Rachel agreed, "That is really the nub of the problem isn't it. People have become quite narrow. Difference has been put out of sight and out of mind."

Sally spoke up again, "You know this problem has occurred before and it was solved by forcing people to widen their view. Back in the late 20th Century gay people faced terrible prejudice."

A tall, long-necked cyborg asked, "What was a gay person?"

Someone else answered, "You know, women who happen to love women or men who love men."

The tall one spoke again, "Huh? What possible prejudice could they face? They're exactly the same as everybody else."

Sally answered, "That was part of the problem. They were effectively invisible. Back then people could be truly horrible to each other. They would deliberately separate people in love. Some would even kill them for loving the wrong people."

The tall one said, "That's stupid. You're making this up."

Another elbowed him, saying, "Shut up George. I've heard about this. It's true."

Sally said, "So they held parades. They became big events, called Pride Marches. Bigoted people couldn't ignore them anymore. And gradually people realised they were just like them. It took a while though. But back then religion was still fairly common and that fueled a lot of the hate. Now you don't have to contend with religion anymore. People have simply become narrow-minded."

The tall one said, "A parade? That's your suggestion? A parade? Gah! Stupid android!"

He was elbowed again, "Shut up George."

The others were starting to warm to the idea, thinking it sounded like fun.

Perhaps a dozen more cyborgs showed up during the evening. Each time the idea was explained to a latecomer it was with more excitement.

They were going to have a Cyborg Pride March!

Chapter 12 - insure

Rachel stumbled into the livingroom, blinking sleep out of her eyes. She flumped down in the lounge chair near Sally who was in her customary position, stretched out on the lounge reading. Sally put the book down on her belly at her sweetheart's entrance.

Rachel leaned forward to get the mug of hot tea Sally had placed on the edge of the coffee table. "How do you know when to have the cup of tea ready every morning for me, sweetie?" She asked a little groggily.

"I know how long from the first waking sounds till when you'll actually rise. I'm not always 100% accurate. Sometimes you roll over and go back to sleep, but then I always get a second shot at it. I just reheat the tea."

Rachel sat back and contentedly sipped her tea while the fog of sleep lifted gradually from her mind.

"What are you reading?"

"The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin at the end of the 1990s. What an amazing mind. You should read it hon."

"He was the guy who got the space exploration program started again?"

"Without him it would have set its sights much lower. He was able to explain clearly how achievable it all was. Clear, insightful intelligence."

"My Mum met him when he came out to Australia to give a talk on that. I remember her saying how impressed she was by him."

"I didn't know your mother was interested in space science."

Rachel smiled. "She's interested in lots of things."

Sally said, "We should visit her again before Miriam finishes the book."

"Yes. We should... ummm... what book?"

"Nevermind. There was a call for you from Zoe while you were still asleep. She and Viv want to know if you are up for a visit. They want to take us to a concert. But you might want to see if you can postpone it, because Savannah also called. She has arranged a meeting between you and a member of Insurers Consolidated's board today. You should call her back to confirm. I already told her it was probably OK."

"Excellent! I'll call Savannah now." She drained the last of the tea and set the mug on the table, then got that faraway look people always did when talking on the net via the cap.

A minute later, "It's set. I'll leave shortly." She rubbed her hands together.

"Not without breakfast first," said Sally, getting up off the lounge and putting the tablet computer on the coffee table. "Ring Zoe and I'll bring your brekky."

A couple of minutes later Rachel walked into the kitchen area and put her arms around Sally as she took a warm bowl of porridge out of the replicator. From behind, Rachel nibbled Sally's neck as the beautiful android put bowl and spoon on the counter. She turned in Rachel's arms and returned the hug, her head on Rachel's shoulder. They stayed like that for a while till Sally said, "Sweetie, you'd better eat. Want me to come with you?"

"Of course. You might be able to pull off another miracle like last night at the cyborg meeting." She picked up the bowl of food and ate.

Sally walked back into the livingroom and called over her shoulder, "Just chalk it up to being another example of the multifarious advantages of being an avid reader."

Rachel and Sally stepped out of the elevator onto the same dark red carpet as the offices where Savannah worked. This was a few floors deeper, the corridors were wider, and their dark faux-wood walls were decorated with 3D pictures of, presumably, board members and other supposedly important people. Spotlights came on to illuminate each picture as the girls approached, and extinguished as they passed. At the end of this entrance corridor was a dark blue desk and a male android with long, blonde hair sitting behind it in a pool of light. He smiled like an angel as Rachel's cap sent her details. He raised his eyebrows to Sally and Rachel put her arm around her saying, "My wife, Sally."

Satisfied, he indicated luxurious, velvet armchairs the same deep red as the carpet and said in a soft, rich, resonating voice that Mr Richards would see them in a few moments.

As they sat, Sally asked Rachel why she was wearing the same boring conservative black outfit -- halterneck top, miniskirt, ankleboots. Rachel insisted that it suited the conservative occasion. Sally was wearing a thin, bright yellow bikini and matching sandals. The sandal straps wound up and around her legs to just below her knees.

After a short wait the male android announced that Mr Richards would see them. He walked ahead of them, leading down another corridor. Sally grinned at Rachel's astonished expression off the perfectly proportioned male android's near nakedness. He was barefoot and wore nothing but a gold codpiece tied on by gold string. Sally looked in danger of bursting into laughter.

The android announced the two girls, ushered them through and closed the door behind them. The room looked like everything was made of polished wood... except for the trim little old man who arose from his desk to greet them. He could have been anywhere between sixty and ninety and was almost bald except for a little white fluff over his large ears. He wore white shorts and a long-sleeved white shirt that clung to his body, a bright contrast to his green skin. His cheery smile, accentuated by trimmed white moustache under his long, sharp, aristocratic nose, put the girls at ease as he motioned them to more armchairs -- wood with red velvet padding.

"Which of you lovely ladies is Rachel?" he asked in a very cultured voice.

Rachel held up a hand. She asked, "Did you get a chance to look at the figures I got Savannah to send, sir?"

"Oh heavens," he said with a chuckle, "Don't use any of that 'sir' nonsense here. Just call me Brian. And yes, I had a good long look at the figures. Very, very interesting, though it is not going to be easy selling the idea of veeps as allies to the rest of the board. Although most of them are quite a bit younger than me, in some respects the poor dears are quite a lot older." He grinned a big toothy grin.

The wind taken out of her sails by his pre-empting her point, she floundered for a moment. Clearly Brian Richards was no senile fool.

Rachel tried a different tack, "Have you been scanned, umm, Brian?"

"I have, yes. I know what you're going to ask: have I considered that it is in my interests to work toward veep equality, as I'm clearly nearing the end of my biological life and will likely emigrate soon?"

This guy was altogether too quick. Rachel started to say she wasn't trying to suggest he was too old, but he shushed her with a bright-eyed smile and a chuckle.

"I hope to cling to life for a while yet, but yes, I do intend to emigrate when death comes knocking. Veep equality is not a personal issue for me because the only human family I have are already veep, and I have safeguarded my future in a virtual world buried very deeply and safely which is powered by ambient energy. That's not to say I don't care to help. I do. I'll argue the case before the board at the next meeting and press for recognition of veeps. It would be nice to leave behind a good and lasting mark."

Rachel sat back in her chair, at a loss for what to say. Sally said, "Close your mouth dear." Rachel's mouth clopped closed.

Brian chuckled. "I guess you came prepared to have to argue. Sorry."

Rachel shook her head, "No, it's refreshing. I just didn't expect... well... I didn't really even think you'd have looked at the data."

He leaned forward, his eyes sparkling and said, "Oh it was a high point of my day. We don't get much excitement around here. Andrew keeps my mind active with information on current research and technology. He is a fountain of knowledge. Explains all the complexities and theory to me behind the latest science. What a marvellous age we live in, eh?" He laughed.

The girls smiled. He was vibrant, enthusiastic, and it was infectious. He clapped his hands together, "As I say, we read through the proposal and it was wonderful. It is rare that something truly important happens in this line of work. And this is important."

He paused and looked at the two of them. "I wonder if you realise just how important this is? The logical next step from recognition of veeps is recognition of androids. Now, that is a big step. I hope I'm still here for that. Imagine what humanity can achieve with veeps and androids as their partners!" He shook his head.

"Can I offer you ladies anything? Wine? Water? We have lots of savories if you wish..."

They both accepted some water, which Brian poured from a large jug into elegant, tall glasses.

"I've seen a lot of changes. I saw the arrival of television in Australia, Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, the birth of the internet, brain scanning technology, the first androids. Many people become attached to the past and make the mistake of thinking different means worse. In my experience most changes are for the better. Of course not all things are simply good. AIDS and CBF were major disasters. And the fall of USA caused a lot of pain and soul-searching, but on the whole things move forward. I think we can get veeps recognised by the insurance industry soon." He gave his toothy grin and rubbed his hands together. "And after that we'll try the issue of android equality."

Sally asked, "Brian, which other board members would it be worth our chatting to?"

He thought a moment running a finger over his moustache. "Well, my dear, I don't know that outsiders are likely to accomplish much with most of these folk. I think Savannah referred you to me because... well, she knows how I think. The others, I'm sad to say, have become complacent and avoid mental challenge instead of seeking it out. Trying to convince them of things by simply giving them the facts is unlikely to work. I have developed a technique of planting an idea and letting them believe they've thought of it themselves. With Andrew's help I think I'll have most of them on side for the next meeting in about two weeks."

The two girls looked at each other in surprise.

Brian laughed. "My, that was easy wasn't it? Just let Brian do the work, my dears. It feeds my soul to be able to do something of worth in these irrelevant old corridors."

They stayed for a while talking with the amazing old man about the direction humanity was taking. He felt big things were afoot. It was all the result of The Spike, he said -- a term popularised by Damien Broderick decades ago. It referred to the curve describing the rate of technological change climbing to near-vertical.

"We are in the middle of The Spike," he said. "I know it feels normal to you, but I've seen a lot, and this is it." He laughed. "It's a great time to be alive."

Eventually he apologised that he had another meeting and thanked them for coming. The beautiful male android opened the door and saw them to the reception area.

Sally turned to him and said, "Thank you Andrew." He flashed a brilliant smile.

Chapter 13 - selves

Sally and Rachel met Zoe and Viv on the beach at their world. Hugs were exchanged. Zoe and Viv were dressed as before. Zoe was barefoot in a long red dress with white flower designs. She looked like a willowy teenager and had long, flowing brown hair. Viv had shorter hair, wore the white t-shirt and scuffed, tight, blue pants. She was barefoot too and had the appearance of a strongly set, though not tall, twenty-some year old. Neither woman was green.

Rachel and Sally wore simple, matching, white bikinis and looked exactly as they did in the 'real' world.

The morning sun, though lower to the sea horizon than in their previous visit, was warm in a sky almost devoid of clouds, pale, hazy blue near the horizon and deep, bright blue at the zenith. The breeze onto the land was cooler and a little stronger too. The small waves were about two handspans tall, and the fronds waved gently in the palms growing tall where the white sand gave way to shrubs.

Zoe said, "I think you two will enjoy this event."

Rachel asked, "Is it in this world or another?"

Viv answered, "Here, but another island. We flew over it last time you were here."

Zoe added, "We will be early because I want to introduce you to the musicians." She grabbed Viv's hand and they drifted gently into the air.

Sally launched herself into the air too and Rachel followed. She caught up and held her hand. It was like those dreams where there is nothing odd about flying -- you simply want to move in a direction and you find that you can.

The two couples flew out over the water, gradually gaining height till the island chain spread out below and before them. There were dozens of the small, randomly shaped islands, each covered in green, fringed with white sand which blended into the amazing blue of the water. At a couple of points in the flight one or two seagulls flew with them for a little while, before losing interest and returning to their feathered fellows.

Soon Zoe pointed ahead and she and Viv began to descend toward an island only slightly larger than average. At its center was what looked like a white crater. As they approached they could see that the 'crater' was a large, dish-shaped, open theater and that there was already a scattering of tiny figures gathering there. They noticed some other distant people flying in to the island singly and groups too.

They alighted gently upon the sand and walked up the beach to the grey sandy soil under the palm trees. As they walked further from the beach the landscape became more like a carefully groomed park or garden. It was open, the ground covered increasingly with short grass and daisies. There were still palm trees, but little shrubbery.

Ahead was an enormous, exotic-looking white structure. It looked like a little like those high-speed stop-frame images of the crown-shaped splash a drop makes falling into milk, except that this was much more fine and delicate. White spheres that must have each been several meters across were suspended above thin spires that leaned outward at regular intervals around the wide building.

There were more people here, but still no more than thirty over the hundred meters of grassy area that could be seen to the left and right. Most were walking toward the white building, though others were standing in small groups, chatting. When Zoe and Viv reached the white wall they didn't slow, they simply walked through. Rachel looked at each other in surprise and followed. The wall offered no resistance at all.

Inside the enormous arena -- it must have been 200 meters across -- spaced about 20 meters apart around the edge were black spheres that seemed flecked with sparkles. They constantly roiled with energy. Every now and then people would step from them. Zoe noticed Rachel looking at the black spheres and explained, "Teleport stations. Purely decorative of course. In VR you don't need a receiver, just a coordinate for your destination. But they are pretty, and dramatic."

Rachel thought for a moment. "What would happen if someone walked into one?"

Zoe answered, "They'd step out of the matching gate, elsewhere in this world or another, but returning is simple. You just step back in."

Viv spoke to Zoe, "I just talked with them. They want us to come now."

Zoe put her arm around Viv. "Thanks honey," and asked Sally and Rachel, "Ready ladies?"

Suddenly they were all standing in a large dim room hung with red fabric decorated by gold tracery. Light seemed to seep in without any obvious source. Standing about the room, leaning against walls, sitting cross-legged on red cushions, were 5 young men. All five were dressed identically in deep blue long-sleeve shirt and long black trousers. Each had short black hair styled the same way, and each wore black sunglasses.

Zoe stepped forward and embraced the nearest and said "Hi guys."

They each lifted a hand and responded "Hi Zoe," in near synchrony.

Zoe stepped back and held out an arm to indicate the five young men, "Sally, Rachel, let me introduce The Selves."

Rachel and Sally waved greeting and the five responded. The one Zoe had embraced indicated big cushions on the floor behind the girls and bade them have a seat, then sat, himself. The girls sat.

He smiled and explained, "You understand how brain scanning works, right? A highly detailed 3D map of the brain is made and that information is used by a computer to create a working model of the brain. This recreates the person's consciousness inside the computer. Build a virtual body and a virtual world for them and you have a veep in their element. But have you ever thought what happens if you recreate a person more than once?" He paused for effect. "We were originally the same person. We have the same memories of a single childhood, growing, and developing musical skills. As a child I always had many different musical skills and felt on more than one occasion how useful it would be able to clone ourself. On emigration I ensured that five copies were made from the one brain scan, so that there are five of me." He beamed. All five of them beamed happily.

Another of the five took up the explanation, "Of course, the moment two copies exist simultaneously their experiences begin to diverge, so although we began from one person we are now five extremely similar, but slightly different people. Each of us specialises in a different musical area. Together we accomplish far more than one ever could alone."

Zoe added, "A number of times people have had duplicates of themselves made as veeps, though usually very unsuccessfully. Most times the people who do it are people who have few friends and tend to be difficult to get along with. Unfortunately such people almost invariably find themselves impossible to live with."

One of the young guys spoke up, "We were always very comfortable with ourself. We were extremely lucky to have had a very stable and sane upbringing by wonderful parents. We enjoy our own and other's company."

Sally asked, "What kind of music do you make?"

The Selves brightened, clearly more happy talking about their music. The one nearest Sally answered, imagine fusing Bach with trance music, sprinkle a little Mozart... now multilayer the music several times." He grinned.

Rachel asked, "What kind of instruments do you play?"

Another answered, "In virtual reality you are limited only by your imagination. You're not limited by the laws of physics. Sounds can be designed with any kind of texture. We each use almost conventional-looking instruments, but that is just because the motor circuits of our brains know how to use keyboards, guitars, violins, trumpets, drums, and so on. But that's just for ease of interfacing. The sounds that come out of those instruments can be unlike anything you've heard..."

Another interrupted, "...or perfectly normal. It is entirely up to us."

Rachel smiled, "What's with the sunglasses? Part of the cool image I suppose. Beats me how you see in here."

A couple of them chuckled. One closest to Rachel said, "Before we emigrated we were blind. Technically we still are, but we can feel all the things around us using some neat programming Zoe did."

Zoe explained that, "We all have 3D maps of areas in our minds. It doesn't matter how we build them up, whether through seeing with our eyes, or through touch. The 3D environment map is the same and exists in the same part of the brain. I simply connected that map directly to the virtual world. The Selves are still blind, but know where everything is around them." She picked up a small pillow and threw it to one of the guys and he caught it easily. Then she asked him to turn around. He faced away from Zoe and she threw another pillow above his head. He raised his arm and caught it.

He turned back again, smiling. "It is better than seeing with eyes, because I see all around me at once."

Zoe held her hands behind her back, balled her fists, then spread three fingers. She asked, "How many fingers?"

He chuckled, "Three. We can see behind and inside things for quite a distance around us."

Another said, "Zoe is the best!"

All five chimed in "Yeah!"

Zoe blushed. She said, "So when are you slackers gonna play?"

One answered, "Patience, grasshopper... the arena isn't full enough yet."

Sally asked, "Where are we now? Are we under the arena?"

One of The Selves answered "Yep. Like our place?"

She replied, "It's beautiful! I love the red and gold."

One of them chuckled, "That's one thing we still can't see. We never had a sense of color, so there is no way for us to see it now."

Zoe said, "Well, actually..."

He added quickly, "...without making more brain additions than we are keen on at the moment. We already add to our brains, like most veeps -- improve numeracy, spatial ability, and so on -- but haven't done anything really major yet."

Another said, "Not like Zoe. She has given herself massive brain extensions." He addressed Zoe directly, "You must have an IQ of several hundred by now huh, Zoe." All five of them grinned.

She blushed again, uncomfortable at being the center of conversation. "IQ isn't really a meaningful concept. All IQ tests are so deeply biased by cultural assumptions they're worse than useless."

The five Selves burst into laughter. Viv joined in with them. Rachel and Sally smiled, not understanding the joke.

Two of the Selves put an arm around Zoe, one on each side, and another said, "The arena is starting to fill. We'd better show you around before the fun begins."

They took the girls on a tour of their 'pad' as they called it. It was a bewildering tangle of tunnels and rooms of various sizes all connecting with one central room which contained lots of musical instruments and odd bits and pieces of junk. This big room was where they created their music and was where they spent almost all their time. They didn't have to sleep, eat, bathe, or use the toilet. Often they would work on a composition for months continuously. One of them proclaimed delightedly. "This is a musician's dream, I tell you."

After a while the four girls teleported to the surface, to the arena. There were now hundreds of people present. Not all were in human form. Some were as unicorns or birds or butterflies. One was a Celtic knot floating in the air. There was an excited buzz of conversation.

Suddenly a strange, distorted gong sounded, like a giant, metal door closing. A hush fell over the arena. All eyes turned toward the center and those who were in the center hurried to the edge. A gathering hiss grew and the air over the center of the arena appeared to shimmer like heat haze. The hiss grew deeper and deeper till it became a low rumble that you could feel, while the shimmering air grew more defined like a watery glass sphere. Something could be seen inside, but it was vague and distorted, it might have been the five selves. Suddenly the watery sphere appeared to explode outwards and it was like night; like the sun had been switched off. Complex patterns of music crashed, rippled, and shattered over everybody's ears as the five selves were standing bathed in pools of light. Hundreds of people roared with applause. And the concert had begun.

The show went on for many hours. Rachel couldn't believe the incredible complexity of the music. It was unlike anything she'd heard before.

Chapter 14 - work

Rachel and Sally lay in bed together. Rachel had woken an hour or so earlier, had eaten her breakfast, then she and Sally had returned to the bed.

Sally was pushing the glossy, black hair away from Rachel's eyes and asked, "What have you got planned for today then sweetheart?"

Rachel smiled and answered, "Sex on a scale, you haven't dreamed of."

Sally touched the tip of Rachel's nose and said, "Oh I doubt that."

Rachel's eyebrows went up.

Sally chuckled. "I'm a pretty good dreamer."

Rachel laughed and rolled over onto Sally and planted a kiss on those lovely, full lips.

Just then a call came through to Rachel's cap. She sighed, rolled off her girlfriend, and answered the call.

It was from Dina. Rachel patched it through to Sally so she could hear it too, as she figured it would be likely be about the Cyborg Pride Parade being planned. They both greeted Dina.

"Good morning ladies. Sorry to bother you, but we have a bit of a problem down here and I am out of ideas as to how to fix it. I was wondering if you could think of anything."

Rachel and Sally looked at each other in surprise. Rachel said, "Of course we'll do what we can. How can we be of help?"

Dina explained that some of the cyborgs had been getting impatient with the lack of progress in removing the percentages law. Instead of welcoming the pride march as most had, they'd felt it was the last straw. To them it was an insult. They wanted an all-out strike. They'd managed to inflame tempers enough that almost a third of the cyborgs had been brought around to their way of thinking.

"If this wasn't bad enough, the idiot city managers city are trying to use this as an excuse to fire all cyborgs. Some of them have been wanting an all-android workforce for some time now, but have been unable to do so en masse. They'd been quietly replacing cyborgs with androids singly any time a cyborg needed time off for health or parts maintenance. Arguing that an android is more reliable. I build androids and I know that isn't true, but it is difficult to argue the point when the cyborg being replaced is needing down-time. As a result of this most of the cyborgs don't take time off and get replacements done overnight. Even that isn't good enough for the city managers. They point out that androids don't need to sleep."

Dina sounded exasperated, "I don't know what to do. I'm a psychologist, but I work on androids. I'm used to high intelligence and gentler, more positive emotions. I don't know how to deal with this. Many of the cyborgs are furious. And the city managers have taken such an antagonistic and provocative approach that nothing good can come of it. If they provoke extreme actions by a few angry cyborgs we could all be portrayed as a threat and lose what few rights we have."

Rachel shook her head. "This is terrible. I think you need someone way smarter than me to deal with this. Have you put this to Zoe?"

"I haven't been able to contact her. From time to time when she's doing something particularly demanding in VR she switches off all real-world contact for a while. She'll be back, but I don't know when, and this can't wait. I hoped you might have some ideas."

Rachel thought for a moment. She got up out of bed and started to put on her bikini. "Have you explained to the cyborgs that a strike plays into the hands of the city managers?"

Dina answered, "Yes. They're upset though. They see their replacement as being just a matter of time anyway, as the city managers do it by stealth. They think they will be able to bring it out into the open with a strike and convince the public. They don't realise the public isn't interested. All they will see is the inconvenience of loss of services. And you know who they will blame."

Rachel nodded "Mmmm. Most people don't understand why anybody would want to work nowadays." She and Sally walked into the livingroom. "I'll switch to full transmission Dina."

"Me too," Dina answered and her image appeared in the livingroom. She was tall and slender, wearing white bikini top, miniskirt, and sandals. She also had short, white gloves on. Rachel guessed she was at work. Dina's eyes were still all dark without whites. Perhaps they were implants rather than contact shades.

Rachel and Sally waved and Dina returned it.

Rachel said, "This is an ancient problem. Two people pull in opposite directions. Once started, neither can stop for fear of the other winning and taking all."

Sally asked, "I don't understand why the cyborgs want to work. Wouldn't they be happier away from the conflict?"

Rachel said, "The work ethic."

Dina nodded. "Yes. Replicators, androids, and the demise of religion should've seen the end of it, but it's still around. Most cyborgs do their work simply because they like to. But a minority believe perversely that not working is a sin."

Sally put in, "Sloth."

Dina nodded again, "They're the puritans. They despise people who don't work, and feel morally superior to them. They call work a right. These are the people that caused such big problems around the world and played such a large part in the fall of the USA. They bitterly fought the large scale introduction of robots and androids. For them, not having a job is the ultimate indignity. It makes them extremely threatened by the city managers."

Rachel added, "They would tend to see the city managers as very one-dimensional enemies. In fact some of the city managers are very similar to them. They see work as a duty and have exactly the same tendency to look down on those who don't have a job. Ironic really. Each sees the other as their opposite, but they are really almost the same."

Dina said, "I wonder if that could be the key to solving it. If the troublemakers on each side can be either moved to the middle ground or else made irrelevant then everybody else could get on with their lives."

Rachel pondered that for a moment. "Paradoxically, it is easier to make people switch between extremes than to move to or from the middle ground." She thought for a moment. "There may be a way to get the extremists on each side to see that they are the same and build some kind of allegiance. I can't see immediately how it could be done though. I'll give it some thought later. But much more likely would be finding a way of cutting off support for the extremists on each end of the spectrum. I've met a lot of the city managers, and I know many are annoyed with a few who manipulate discussions into contests of conflict. If the majority of city managers could be persuaded not to listen to them this might be fixed."

Dina disagreed. "Maybe a year ago that might have been enough, but it is beyond that now. Things have reached boiling point among a lot of the cyborgs. We need to work out a way to isolate the cyborgs who want conflict... perhaps whatever magical technique you were thinking of using with the city managers would work with the cyborgs too."

All three thought for a while.

Sally brightened. "I wonder if we could borrow a blue court android to sit in on discussions."

Dina and Rachel looked at each other in surprise. Rachel turned to Sally, "Wow, honey! That's a terrific idea! I'll make enquiries among some of my legal-eagle friends."

Dina laughed, "No need. This is where they're made. We have some in stock. I can prep one today."

Rachel kissed Sally, "My sweetie saves the day again."

Sally said, "Not quite. Even supposing it works the way we hope, we still have to work out the logistics. Do we get the city managers to meet the cyborgs for a discussion? Or do we have two separate discussions?"

Rachel answered, "Good point. Any meeting between the two groups would be a lot smoother if the troublemakers on each side had already lost power."

Dina said, "Three meetings then. The cyborgs meet separately, the city managers meet separately, then everybody meets. On each occasion a blue court android is at the meeting."

Rachel nodded. "That sounds good to me. I'll find out when we can get the city managers together for a meeting."

Dina thought for a moment. "The cyborgs are probably more volatile than the city managers. I think we should deal with them first. I'll try to set up a meeting with them tonight. It will take me the rest of the day to prep the android."

"OK," said Rachel. "I'll try to set up a city manager meeting for tomorrow then."

Dina smiled, "Thanks ladies. I'll call again this afternoon in about 6 hours." She waved and her image disappeared.

Rachel spoke with someone she knew on the city management committee who was very interested in anything that would defuse the tension. They were annoyed at how the situation had been mishandled and inflamed by a few. A couple of hours later an android secretary sent a message to Rachel letting her know the meeting had been set up for tomorrow morning.

Now they had some hours to spare so Sally and Rachel decided to take a stroll down to the river at the bottom of their valley. Along the way they talked about how the world had been changed by replicators and androids.

They were admiring the view as they walked. The early afternoon sun was high and the air was warm. Bees buzzed in trees covered in blossom as they wandered down the slope. Just grass, shrubs and trees as far as could be seen. Rachel said, "I still remember what it was like when I was a little girl -- it was so different then. This was all inner-suburbia -- roads, telegraph poles, houses, shops, cars. Hardly any living things apart from people. In just a couple of decades everything changed. It's hard to believe it could all happen so fast."

Sally agreed, "All the books I read make it seem like another world entirely. From what I understand it started with the net."

Rachel said, "I don't remember the beginning of the net, but I do remember 3D printers. They swept the world when I was still young. My Mum showed me how to download patterns for toys off the net. When I wanted a new toy I'd just make one. I even designed a few and shared the patterns with friends." She laughed. "Mine weren't very good, but it was fun."

Sally asked, "Did you know anybody who was sued by the big corporations?"

Rachel shook her head, "No. We were all scared of them though. They were trying to stop the 3D printers by scatter-gun law suits. By all accounts they hurt a lot of people, but they couldn't stop it. Everybody had them."

Sally nodded, "It was a good thing they couldn't stop it. 3D printers launched the robotics age."

Rachel remembered. "Yeah. All my friends were making them. The excitement was incredible. Kids would go home, download the latest designs, make them, often with their own modifications and bring them to school. I remember some amazing designs some of my friends made. It was happening everywhere."

Sally said, "And then, bang! Replicators and brain scanners. That must have been something to live through."

"Yes." Rachel sighed. "As if everything wasn't changing fast enough already, replicator technology was developed independently at several places around the world. We used to have discussions about that at university. If just one place had created them it might have been stopped, but several places... nope. Biomechanical machines based on 3D printers, but able to make things out of thin air the way plants do. Wow! Suddenly people didn't just make solid mechanical things, they also made food." She shook her head. "They spread around the world in just weeks, because a replicator could make more replicators."

Sally chuckled, "Depending upon which books you read from the time it was the best thing or the worst thing to happen to civilisation. Economies crashed, but starvation and poverty ended almost overnight."

Rachel looked serious. "If you ask me, most economies deserved to crash. They depended on wage slavery, doling out luxury goods and food in minimal amounts in return for people selling off their lives. They lured with freedom but never actually delivered. After replicators, people finally got it. They only worked if it was fulfilling and meaningful."

Sally asked, "You were in university then?"

Rachel nodded, "My whole idea of what I was going to do with my life got turned upside down. All emphasis had been upon being able to earn an income. Very little thought had been given to what would make people happy or make their lives worthwhile. A lot of the tutors just up and left. It was interesting, because the best ones remained -- those who taught because they enjoyed it. A lot of kids left too. The ones who really wanted to learn stayed, so the ratio of students to tutors actually worked out pretty well."

Sally said, "Robots were hurried into the workforce."

Rachel nodded.

Sally added, "...except in places where there were a lot of puritans."

"Yeah, that was so weird. Puritans. People who felt that pleasure was wrong and that work was needed as a kind of cleansing punishment. I guess nobody really noticed how screwy that was until you didn't have to work anymore. People took back their lives. But there were these nuts telling them that they still had to work. The puritans campaigned against robots, destroyed factories, and where there was enough of them they boycotted places that used robots." Rachel shook her head. "All they managed to do was hurt themselves and those around them. It was a real shame. And they're still causing trouble. We'll be seeing some tonight at the cyborg meeting, and tomorrow at the city managers' meeting."

Sally said, "And brain scanning... it made veeps and androids like me possible."

"Mmmm. But for most people brain scanning's most visible in the caps. Most probably don't even realise it began for the disabled. Not many would connect brain scanning with androids -- the high resolution brain scans revolutionising our understanding of the brain then making true AIs possible." She smiled and hugged Sally. "Lucky for me."

Neither spoke for a while. The walked in the sun.

Sally said, "Big changes. Technology accelerates. I wonder what the great changes now are... how they will change the future."

Rachel shook her head. "Who can say? I doubt anybody saw these things happening."

Dina called. The cyborg meeting was set for early tonight in the same warehouse as the previous one.

Chapter 15 - work (2)

The corridors here in the warehouse district were wide and tall enough for large machinery. They were like the streets Rachel remembered from her childhood. Lighting was dim here. The only colors were signs on warehouses. Everything else was grey.

The girls had decided to dress ultra-conservative, more like the cyborgs, so both were wearing all black t-shirts, miniskirts, capes, knee-length boots, and short gloves.

Rachel said, "Wow, this clothing is hot!"

Sally smiled. "You like it huh?"

Rachel shook her head, "No, I mean it's too hot; I'm boiling up with so much of my skin covered. I don't know how people manage with so many garments." She took her gloves off and pulled her t-shirt out from her miniskirt, ruffling it to force air under it. "I so wish I had my bikini on under this damn shirt. I could lose the stupid shirt."

Sally stopped and told her, take your cape off and give me the t-shirt. Rachel unclipped the cape and put it over her forearm. Then she looked around. The streets were deserted. She quickly pulled the t-shirt over head, handed it to Sally, then pulled the cape around her shoulders. Sally gripped the damp t-shirt with both hands and carefully tore about half its length off. She handed the smaller, bottom half of the t-shirt back to Rachel. She slipped it on. It was just tight enough so that it stayed on her breasts almost like a boob-tube.

Rachel chuckled, "Lets hope I don't have to move fast, or even lean over."

Sally suggested, "You could wear the shortened t-shirt over it. Your midrift would be exposed to cool you and if you still got too hot you could remove the t-shirt."

Rachel laughed, "And I can just see this piece staying there while taking the t-shirt off."

Sally smiled, "Well, there is another option. Take that off again."

Sally tore the short sleeves off the t-shirt and handed it back to her.

Rachel donned it and marveled, "Whatever would I do without you?" Her shoulders were free, as was her midrift, but it was still very modest. And it had a nice ragged look. "This is wonderful." She gave Sally a hug and a kiss.

As they approached the meeting place Rachel said to Sally, "You know, I really have no idea what to say to these people."

Her girlfriend put her arm around her and replied, "Don't worry honey, hopefully we won't really need to say anything in particular. With the blue court android there, the difficult people should wreck their own arguments."

They entered the small door in the giant door.

Inside the warehouse many more cyborgs were present than were at the last meeting. There must have been at least 100 present. Several were even larger than the big yellow gorilla woman, who was here again. There must have been 20 or more of the little fairy cyborgs. As before they were perched on the shoulders of the other cyborgs. Most of the cyborgs looked human or mostly human. Many of the cyborgs who were here last time waved to Sally and Rachel. Dina turned and greeted them too. She was still wearing her all white work clothes. The blue android was next to Dina.

Dina introduced them to the group, "Some of you will remember Rachel and Sally from a few days ago."

One of the human-looking cyborgs said in disgust, "Rachel? You're the one who came up with that lame pride march idea."

One of the larger cyborgs behind him frowned and said, "Don't be an asshole, Jake."

The blue android spoke softly, "'Lame' is emotive and inflammatory... as is asshole."

Rachel frowned and answered, "No, that would be my girlfriend Sally." She put an arm around Sally's shoulder.

"You're a dyke as well as a hundred percenter?" came the lip curling reply.

The blue android said, "Insults are irrelevant."

Rachel was a little taken aback. "You'd be one of those opposed to discrimination based on percentage? But only when it suits you, huh?"

There was a smattering of laughter around the group as Jake smoldered.

Rachel sent to Sally, What's a dyke?

Sally sent back, Obsolete term for a lesbian, originally insulting slang, but rendered harmless when reclaimed by the lesbian community around the turn of the century.

Dina turned to Rachel. "Sorry about that."

Rachel smiled and sent to her, No problem. The more this guy speaks, the more he digs a hole for himself.

Dina spoke to the group, "Let's get back to the point, shall we? Some were pushing for a general strike. Others thought this would worsen matters."

One of the other human-like cyborgs, dressed all in grey, and with grey hair said, "What have we got to lose? They are replacing us all anyway. You all know Louise." He put his hand on the shoulder of a woman dressed in grey like himself. She looked like she was going to burst into tears. "She lost her job at the beginning of the week when she had to get an arm bearing replaced. She went in to work next day and was told to go home because she'd been replaced by an android."

Rachel said, "These replacements are being pushed through by a minority of the city managers. The others don't like their aggressive and divisive tactics and are meeting tomorrow to try to put a stop to it."

"Oh great!" It was Jake again. "Not only a dyke and a hundred percenter but you're here to defend the city managers too!"

The blue android said, "'Dyke' and 'hundred percenter' are being used as insults. The speaker incorrectly characterised the previous statement as defending city managers."

That surprised Rachel as it felt unpleasantly like she was having to defend the city managers.

Rachel turned to Jake, "What do you want? Do you want all cyborgs to be condemned? Do you want cyborgs to be made into the enemy of hundred percenters? Or do you want all of us to be called human?"

The blue android: "There may well be more than three choices."

Her opponent sneered, "I'm being realistic. Hundred percenters will never accept us for who we are."

The blue android said, "Statement unprovable, though easily disproved."

Sally spoke up. "I can disprove it." All eyes turned to her. She kissed Rachel passionately. Then saying softly while staring adoringly into Rachel's eyes, "She accepts me totally as human."

Rachel smiled gently back into Sally's lovely eyes.

Jake's unconvinced response was, "Oh sure. And just how much machine have you got in you, kitten? Don't look like much to me."

The blue android, "Denigrating implication."

Sally turned and gave the cyborg her most charming smile. "One hundred percent. I'm one hundred percent machine -- an android."

The blue android's eyebrows went up, and most of those present were astonished.

Sally continued, "And she loves me without reserve. She has always treated me as human."

The dissenter spoke, "That's disgusting! It has nothing to do with why we're here. And it's immoral."

One of the other cyborgs standing near the difficult cyborg asked, "Why Jake? Jeez, you are so narrow. Really, I don't know why anybody listens to you. You have an example right here of a hundred percenter accepting someone who has less flesh than any of us and you won't see it. It's like you don't want us to be accepted."

What the blue android said at this point was lost in the general hubbub that erupted as everybody said something at once.

An enormous grey cyborg at the back let blast with a deafening siren which stopped all talk. He chuckled, "Amazing how that works. Now everybody behave or I'll have to set your ears ringing again."

Dina spoke up gently and carefully, "My husband accepts me completely and he's a hundred percenter. I'm sure a lot of you have friends who accept you as completely human. The idea that we can't be accepted is clearly wrong." A lot of the cyborgs were nodding their heads. "The way I see it, the quickest way to worsen our standing in the eyes of the public is to pit ourselves against them. A general strike will make it look like we want to antagonise them."

A tall, thin red cyborg said "A general strike will force them to see the real grievances..." and the rest was lost in general argument.

There was another blast from the siren at the back. Chuckling, the giant, grey cyborg said, "I just never get tired of doing that."

One of the other cyborgs said to the tall, thin red one, "Phil, nobody likes being forced. Of course they will see us as the enemy. We are in this position because we don't like being forced. A strike won't work."

The blue android's response, "Generalisation; some may like being forced. 'Enemy' conclusion doesn't necessarily follow," drew some puzzled looks.

Jake piped up, "We could destroy the androids they replace us with."

The blue android: "Suggestion of violent crime as a solution."

There were more than a few horrified looks at such a crazy suggestion.

Phil, the tall, red cyborg said, "Oh, and that'll work so well Jake. Murder is really likely to make them want to listen to us. Jeez, Jake! You are such an idiot! Just shut up will you. You're weakening the argument for a strike more than those opposing it. Don't help, please."

The blue android seemed confused by this and said just, "Sarcasm..."

Jake said, "It isn't murder; they're zero percent."

There was general catcalling and ruckus as Jake was pushed out to the edge of the group. This was lucky because Rachel was pretty sure the blue android's response, lost in all the noise, was that Jake's statement was legally correct.

When the fury had died away, one of the cyborgs said angrily to Jake, "You just don't get it do you? If androids can be accepted as human then we all get automatic, total acceptance."

Sally walked unobtrusively around the edge of the group to Jake.

Rachel suggested, "There may be another option, other than strike or accepting an uncertain future of being replaced."

All the cyborgs turned to her.

"Work with the androids." She said. "If you truly love your work then why stop just because someone tells you you're fired? A cyborg and an android together are more efficient than either alone. No city manager could logically argue against it."

One of the very human-looking cyborgs asked, "What about our pay? They're not going to want to pay us if we just do the work."

Rachel shrugged, "Nobody has needed money for years. And you might be surprised. They just might pay you anyway. It might be a reduced amount because of the cost of the androids, but that could actually work in your favor because it would hinder attempts to buy further androids for replacement."

The blue android: "Continued payment is unsupported speculation."

Dina said, "At least hold off on the strike until we see if this works. If this fails we can still try more things. If a strike fails then everything is lost. There is a meeting of the city managers tomorrow where I'd like to be able to tell them they have nothing to fear from cyborgs if they support us in what we want."

There was general discussion of this, but all the cyborgs seemed satisfied with this for now, so Dina wound up the meeting.

Dina hugged Rachel and thanked her. She looked around for Sally and was surprised to see her off to the side of the group with Jake and a couple of other cyborgs.

When Rachel and Sally left the warehouse most of the cyborgs were still in there talking, a happy and optimistic mood in the air. Rachel asked Sally what she'd been talking to Jake about.

"Oh, he's not such a bad guy. He's just a bit old fashioned, mixed up and lonely. I just wanted to get him to understand that androids adore all humans and that we aren't the enemy."

"Did you succeed?"

"I'm not sure, but I found out where he works and I know an android who works there. I'll fix them up on a date."

Rachel was about to say she thought that was an interesting strategy for subverting the opposition, but she realised it was nothing of the sort. Her sweet Sally had simply wanted to help the guy. He had talked about murdering androids and she wanted to get him a date so he didn't feel alone. Androids really are better than us, Rachel thought to herself. She felt a hot bloom of love for Sally.

Sally looked concerned, "Overheating again, honey?"

Chapter 16 - work (3)

Sally was standing in the bath while Rachel painted the clear dye-removing catalyst onto her. The green dye ran off Sally's skin in rivulets, down the drain. Sally watched in dismay. She had been enjoying passing as human. Now with her pale skin undisguised they'd have to be careful of public displays of love again.

She sighed, "Are you sure this is necessary, honey?"

Rachel stood, rubbed at an itchy eyebrow with her upper arm, holding her green-dripping hands over the bath. "I'm sorry sweetie. The city managers are more dangerous than the cyborgs. Some of them love to exercise what little power they still have. They'd be only too happy to have you destroyed for impersonating a human. And there is no way I can risk that." Her lips hovered near Sally's, longing to touch. The tip of Sally's nose bumped Rachel's. Rachel sighed and squatted again to continue the dye removal.

She looked up to Sally and said, "Don't worry, we have more than enough to turn you green again afterward..." She noticed Sally smiling. Rachel humphed, "I have a spot of darker green on the tip of my nose don't I?" Sally smiled brightly and nodded.

Sally and Rachel waited for Dina at the courtyard outside the city manager offices. Sally was in standard white bikini and white sandals, looking like some kind of glowing dream with her pale, non-green skin. Rachel was back in her boring, formal, black halterneck and miniskirt, with black ankleboots.

The courtyard was enormous. It was so large that it accommodated several large trees, an extensive lawn, and a big fountain in the middle which fired streams and short jets of water in arcs. The background hissing and splashing sounds of the fountain made the courtyard seem even bigger than it was. There were sparrows cheeping, and pigeons cooing and strutting in spite of the fact that it was 52 levels below the surface. The sparrows may have snuck in, but the pigeons were probably deliberate. Rachel wondered how large the light collectors must be that piped sunlight down here. She thought to herself what a waste it all was.

"There she is!" said Sally.

Rachel followed Sally's look. Dina was sauntering sexily toward them dressed in her white work outfit -- white bikini top, miniskirt, and sandals, but not the gloves. The blue android walked beside her. Sally scampered over and gave Dina an enthusiastic hug and walked back to Rachel holding the blue android's hand. Rachel thought it looked a little surprised, though it was hard to tell. The smooth, blue, androgynous face was almost expressionless.

Rachel said, "Right on time."

"Not really," Dina frowned. "Would have been here a bit earlier, but the blasted elevator started giving me lip about being reserved for humans. I told it that it could either take me voluntarily or I would rewire it so it would take me anyway. Damned thing refused to believe I was human. So I gave it a, um... personality upgrade."

Rachel wasn't sure, but it looked like the blue android was faintly smiling.

The four entered the main offices. The foyer was huge and echoey, and built out of polished, pink granite. They walked over the slippery, smooth floor to the receptionist android who directed them down a long hall to a chamber at the end. While they were walking down the hall Dina whispered "Do you reckon they need such gigantic structures to accommodate their oversized egos?"

They opened the big, ornately carved wooden door at the end of the hall to a conference room with the biggest, polished, black table Rachel had ever seen. It must have been five meters long and two meters wide. They seated themselves and waited. After a couple of minutes one of the managers that Rachel knew came in. He wore a light brown t-shirt, beige shorts, and dark brown sandals. He had a strong build and big hands. His grey hair was thinning and had hints of brown still in it.

He greeted her, "Hi Rachel. Nice to see you again, it's been a while." They shook hands.

She replied, "Ed, you're looking well. How are Dot and the kids?"

He smiled, "They're great, thanks." He looked at Dina.

Rachel introduced them. "Dina this is Ed Baker, my insider among the city managers. Ed, this is Dina, psychologist at the android plant. She came to me fearing this friction between the city managers and cyborgs could get out of control."

Dina gave her warmest smile and shook hands.

Rachel introduced Sally as her android (and felt ashamed doing so), then the blue court android.

He nodded then ignored them. He sat at the table and said in a quiet, confidential voice to Rachel and Dina. "The rest will be in shortly. Two of us don't want this conflict. The other three are the source of the problem, but you really only need to worry about two. The third is really just a follower. The worst is Judge Arthur -- 'Judge' is just his first name but he treats it like a title. Lost some of his businesses when workers revolted during introduction of robots in the early days. He hates workers but thinks the world has gone soft because almost nobody works anymore. Believes strongly that work defines who you are. Doesn't really have a lot of respect for anyone."

Rachel frowned. "Hmmm. Doesn't like people who do work, and doesn't like people don't work. Oh, he sounds like a happy soul."

Ed nodded, "The other, Dennis McTimms, is not as nasty, but really has it in for cyborgs. I've always suspected he's religious. It may be connected."

Rachel asked, "And the third one? The follower?"

Ed said, "Yeah, Frank Draper. You don't really have to worry about him. He'll just follow the strongest. Not very smart. His family is very close to the McTimms family... has been for years. I'd concentrate on winning over one of the two strongest ones. If you get McTimms then you get Frank for free."

Dina asked, "Who is the fifth city manager?"

Ed answered, "James Tong. He's a nice guy -- brilliant engineer. He just wants the city to run properly. The two of us think all this crap of annoying people is too much like hard work. Why make life difficult when it can be easy? If cyborgs enjoy their work then, heck, why stop them? They're doing us a favor."

Dina nodded and smiled. He had her vote.

They indulged in small talk for a while before James Tong entered. He was clearly of Asian descent, sharply good looking, and wore a black t-shirt, tight black shorts and black sandals. He was introduced to Dina and Rachel, then Sally and the blue android, and surprised the girls by shaking hands with the androids as well as the humans, saying he was glad to meet each of them. Sally flashed him her megawatt smile and he smiled back.

James said the same thing that Ed did. "Madness stirring up division among our constituents. Our job is to ensure things run smoothly with as little fuss as possible, not to introduce problems where none existed."

Dina asked, "Shouldn't the others have been here now?"

Ed growled, "They do this to everyone. They don't have anything better to do but they like to keep people waiting. I actually heard Judge say once that it was good psychological procedure to make people wait."

Dina's eyebrows went up, "More like a rationalisation for taking pleasure in others' discomfort."

James chuckled, "Yep, sounds like a good description of Judge."

Eventually the other three managers walked into the room.

One of them glowered at the two androids and said, "They will have to leave."

Dina asked, "Why?"

Sally said meekly, "It's alright, we'll wait outside." She and the blue android left.

One of the other older managers said imperiously, "Article 596 of the city constitution."

Dina paused a moment and said, "That article deals with voting rights of androids. It has nothing to do with presence at discussions. I thought you guys were supposed to be competent? You turn up late to meetings, don't know your own constitution, you cause discord among the community, and bring about a situation where parts of the city could get shut down inconveniencing everybody. You should be more like these two fine fellows here, Mr Tong and Mr Baker."

Two of the older city managers went very frosty, while the other one looked quite panicked. One of the displeased ones demanded, "And just who are you?"

Dina answered smoothly, "Ah yes, you missed the introductions. Try to be on time next time... though there may not be a next time for you. I'll be recommending the contracts for you two be terminated."

He replied angrily, "I don't know who you think you are miss, but we do things differently here -- and take those blasted shades off when I'm talking to you!"

Dina was completely unruffled. "If you'd got here when you were supposed to, you would know who I am. I'm not wearing shades you superstitious moron -- they are implants."

Rachel sent to Dina, Careful Dina, don't lose your cool.

Dina sent back, Don't worry, I know exactly what I'm doing. I've realised the perfect way to work this.

Her opponent humphed and gave a significant look to his fellows, "I should have known. A cyborg."

"What have you got against cyborgs? I, and about a million other voters would love to know. Elections are less than a year away. The rest of Australia has laws in the works now to remove the percent rules. The tide of public opinion is against you. You will be unemployed inside a year." She dismissed him with a flick of her hand and looked at the other angry old man, who now looked a little like he was weighing up his options. "So, do you want to get some work done here or do you want to tell your citizens that you are not interested in fixing the city's problems. Problems you've created, I might add."

The third old man licked his lips, looking very worried. He sat at the table and said, "I don't have anything against cyborgs, or androids. I'm Frank Draper. The job of the city managers is to help its citizens."

One of the other old men growled, "Get up Frank. This is bullshit."

Dina spoke to the growling one, "And your name is? I don't think the listeners caught it."

His eyes widened for a split second then he said, "Bah!" and stormed out of the room. The other angry old man was undecided for a moment then followed him.

Rachel, Ed, and James were blinking in stunned surprise. Frank said, "What can I do to help?" And Dina smiled like a cat.

When they left the building Dina and Rachel had a signed agreement to remove the percent rule and had organised a meeting between the cyborgs and the three cooperating city managers tomorrow.

Rachel asked Dina, "Whatever possessed you to use that approach?"

Dina smiled, "It suddenly hit me that it wasn't a matter of winning over one of the two old reprobates. You made the point the other day that it is rare to move people from an extreme into the middle ground. Those two old guys were extremists. The trick was to get the weak guy. To do that I needed to take charge. I needed to be stronger than the others. Simple."

Rachel arched her eyebrows. "So you weren't really transmitting, were you?"

Dina laughed, "No, but it sure got those monkeys ruffled didn't it."

Rachel laughed too. Then she said, "I didn't know there were moves afoot to remove the percent rule."

Dina grinned, "There is now."

Rachel shook her head, "Wow, I wouldn't be able to bluff like that. I'd be a bundle of nerves."

Dina chuckled. "Bluffing is easy if you're a cyborg who has total control of her endocrine system. It also helps to have the blue android listening in and commenting on the city laws."

They walked across the grass toward the fountain where Sally and the blue android were sitting. Sally waved as Rachel and Dina approached, "Smalt and I had a nice chat."

Rachel looked around. "Who's Smalt?"

Sally put her arm around the blue android and said, "Everybody should have a name so I named him."


Sally nodded, "I thought it was appropriate. Smalt is a blue pigment."

The blue android smiled gently and said in a soft voice, "I'm sorry I wasn't more help for your meeting."

Rachel said, "No. I should apologise for that man's rudeness in there, and I'm sorry you both were excluded like that."

Sally smiled meaningfully at Rachel and said, "You can make it up to me tonight."

The four talked about the success of the meeting while they strolled to the elevator at the edge of the courtyard. When there, it dinged and the doors slid open. They stepped inside and the elevator spoke in a deliriously happy voice, "Oh wondrous humans, allow me to whisk you away. My greatest pleasure is to take you to whichever level you desire."

Three heads turned to Dina.

"What?" she feigned innocence.

Chapter 17 - I thought you thought

Sally and Rachel were sitting in the sun on a cape spread out on the grassy area outside their door. Sally had been dyed green again. They were both wearing very tiny, white bikinis, and both barefoot. Rachel was dreamily enjoying the sun as her skin algae manufactured vitamins and some sugars while being a near perfect sunscreen. Her skin just felt lovely and tingly. She felt drugged with the warmth. The buzzing of insects servicing the bush flowers around her reinforced the feeling that this was a day for being lazy.

"Well, what about walking down to the river?" suggested Sally.

Rachel murmured, her eyes almost closed, "Did that yesterday."

"Day before," Sally corrected.

When no response was forthcoming from Rachel she asked, "How about walking to the top of the mountain. Great view from up there."

The corners of Rachel's mouth curled in smile. "You go. I'll just soak up the sun."

A thought struck Sally. "Oh! I know. Remember Ken said he'd take us scuba diving anytime we wanted?" She waited. Nothing.

She tried a different tack. "What happened with that meeting? Wasn't Dina meeting with the other cyborgs and the city managers today?"


"I thought we were going along," Sally said.

Rachel sighed, "She seemed to have it under control so I decided not to push in. You can go though, if you want."

"Nah. You're right. She was handling it." Sally picked a piece of grass and shredded it piece by piece. "I'm reading a cool book at the moment. I could read it to you. We could take turns reading it aloud..."

"Mmmm..." Rachel sounded on the verge of falling asleep.

"Ra-chel!" She pleaded, "We should do something."

Rachel's eyes opened a slit and she shaded them with her arm. She gurgled with lazy laughter, "You're bored? Androids don't get bored."

Sally stood up, hands on hips. "I'm not bored. I'm just..."

"Stir-crazy." Rachel helped.

"We should do something," she implored. "It's a beautiful day. Life is too precious to waste."

Rachel mumbled, "I'm not wasting it. I'm thoroughly enjoying it."

Sally threw up her hands with a grunt of exasperation and walked back into the house leaving Rachel to bliss-out in the sun.

Rachel was almost asleep with the comforting heat blanketing her, the hum of bees all around, and chirps and warbles of birds an echoing lullaby, when suddenly, SPLASH!! Ice-cold water hit her and she shrieked, shattering the calm of the valley. Gasping, her eyes wide, she saw Sally standing over her still holding a bucket. Rachel panted a few times with the shock.

Rachel started to get to her feet like a snake coiling for the strike, "Oh you are going to pay for that, kid."

Sally's ferocious grin began to shift to something a bit lighter as she started to back away. Clearly she hadn't thought ahead to an exit strategy. She dropped the bucket and ran up the hill as Rachel took off after her, both of them slowed by giggles.

When Rachel caught her she pushed Sally to the ground. Sally laughed and said, "Not bad running for a geriatric human."

Rachel laughed and said, "She just digs herself in deeper and deeper. I caught you. Now, what should I do with you?"

Sally shook her head, "Caught me? No way! I let you catch up." She laughed. "And I have bad news for you; making love to me won't deter me from doing it again."

Rachel laughed, "Who said anything about making love?" And she nipped Sally on the nose.

"Ow!" Sally wrestled Rachel over onto her back and planted a big kiss on Rachel's mouth.

Rachel gave in, groaned with want, and put her arms around Sally. They were becoming lost in each other, with Sally's hand moving down into Rachel's bikini when Rachel's eyes shot open, she gave a muffled yell into Sally's mouth, and was somehow suddenly standing, hopping around, twisting to see behind her. "Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!"

Sally turned her about and saw a large black bullant attached to the back of Rachel's thigh by its stinger, its legs waving helplessly in the air. Sally grabbed the inch-long ant and gently pulled it off her girlfriend then put the confused insect on the ground. "Poor thing," she said.

"Forget the bloody bullant, what about me?!" Rachel was still twisting about to see the damage.

Sally looked at the reddening lump forming. "Come on. We'll see if we can't put something on it for poor diddums." She looked at the ground around them and laughed. "Well no wonder. We were right next to a nest."

"Wah!" Rachel jumped in the air and moved quickly away from where Sally had indicated.

On the way back to the house Sally used her direct connection to the net to look through hundreds of books and articles on bullant stings.

Once inside, Rachel sat awkwardly on an arm of the lounge.

Sally said, "Nothing."

"Nothing?" Rachel asked hopelessly. "But it stings."

"It'll stop soon." She grinned evilly, "And then it'll itch like crazy."

"Who are you, ya sadist? And what did you do with my sweet girlfriend?"

Sally chuckled. "Oh alright you big baby." She knelt down and placed a soft, tender kiss on the sore spot. "There, is that better?"

"No." Rachel pouted.

Smiling and shaking her head, Sally got up and walked into the bathroom. She returned with a small tube of something. She knelt again by Rachel and rubbed goo into the sting.

In a few seconds the frown lifted from Rachel's face. She sighed. "Wow, that worked." She pushed Sally onto the couch and lay on her. "Why didn't you do that in the first place?"

Sally pushed the glossy black hair behind Rachel's ears. "It didn't accomplish anything."

Rachel looked puzzled, "It stopped the pain!"

"The pain is an important message."

Rachel chuckled, "I'd already got the message. I was ready to move on to..." she kissed Sally, "other..." kissed again, "more..." kiss, "important..." kiss, "things." Long kiss.

Suddenly she sat up, a disenchanted look on her face. "Crap." A call was coming through on her cap. She shared it with Sally, "Hello?" It was Dina.

"Hi Dina." Sally chimed in.

"Good morning ladies." Dina's throaty voice and wonderful accent.

"How did the meeting go?" Rachel asked.

"Wonderfully! It was a great success. The percent rule is dead. It is only a small step now to androids being given human status. That will be only months away I think."

Rachel looked at Sally and smiled, "Wow that's great news. Thanks Dina."

Dina said, "But that isn't why I called. I have something here I think you'll both be very interested in."

The two girls asked simultaneously, "What?"

Dina said, "Telepathy."

Sally and Rachel were standing in a rather messy room at Dina and Marc's place. Sally was holding Rachel's hand as they looked at the diagrams on the wallscreen.

Rachel frowned, "This looks like just a normal cap."

Marc said, "It is -- well, except it has better resolution at depth..."

Dina continued, "However it isn't the resolution that's most important, it's the AI component."

It was almost as if Dina and Marc already had telepathy the way they tended to finish each other's sentences and think together on things. Marc had an arm around Dina's waist. He had a black t-shirt on with some strange, white swirly design, and was wearing large baggy tan shorts again. He had bare feet. Dina, her tall, youthful, and exotically sexy body clothed in a thin black bikini and knee-high boots, stood with her side pressed against her partner. Her grey hair was an unruly shoulder-length mane held back by a black hairband over the top of her head. Her black eyeshades made her look like some kind of human insect.

Sally asked, "Why does a cap need an AI?"

Marc held up a finger and smiled, "Ah, that's how we do the telepathy bit."

Dina said, "The AI watches and learns your modes of thought for some length of time." She looked at Marc.

"A week..." he said.

"Maybe two..." she said.

"It is hard to say till we've had a chance to try it out properly, but longer will definitely work better." He was frowning with thought.

Dina continued, "Anyway, the AI learns how you think and is able to use a method of encoding..."

Marc added, "It's a bit hard to explain... it's a little like fractal compression..."

Dina said, "But an easier way to think of it is like Roget's original Thesaurus. When he first wrote it, it was to try and catalogue all knowledge through the words that represent that knowledge. It wasn't intended as a writers' tool."

Marc said, "The AI catalogues all the person's thoughts via associations with senses and other thoughts."

Dina: "And because the AI is able to use an objective encoding for these things it is able to reliably transmit the information to another AI assisted cap which can stimulate the other person's mind in the right way to recreate those thoughts."

Rachel said, "I still don't understand why you need an AI. Wouldn't it be sufficient to link up two high resolution caps?"

Dina shook her head. "Each person's mind is different. Brains are like fingerprints. They're similar but all unique. It isn't just a matter of different experience either, though that is part of the problem. The actual topology of the brain differs slightly from person to person. You need an AI to learn those differences and adjust for them. Thoughts are far more variable than simple sensory information."

Dina and Marc smiled and looked at Sally and Rachel.

"Think of the implications," Marc said.

Rachel said, "Well, communicating more than pictures or sounds or broad emotions..."

Dina made a hand movement as if to say, 'more, continue...'

Sally said, "Teachers. They could convey a fully formed, complex concept without worrying that the students mightn't follow the words."

Marc and Dina nodded and looked expectantly at them for more.

Rachel thought of something. "When someone looks at things connected to an artist or listens to music connected to a musician it could open whole other depths of experience."

Dina and Marc wanted more.

Sally struggled, "Ummm... a blind person could understand what it would be like to see."

Rachel added, "And a sighted person could find out how a blind person hears."

Dina made the 'more' signal again.

Sally looked at Rachel, puzzled, "Scientists and engineers? They could finally communicate more fully what they know about the world."

Rachel said, "A normal person will be able to understand what it is like to be schizophrenic, or manic, or have some other brain problem."

Sally added, "And conversely an ill person could be helped to sanity."

Marc said, "The broader issue, though..."

Dina hinted, "Human thought itself."

Rachel and Sally shrugged.

Dina explained, "All throughout history people have developed unclear thinking processes that have caused all manner of problems. But this device... because of the need to teach your cap's AI how you think, it will tend to encourage people to think clearly. Muddy, incoherent thinking will not be easily translated by the cap's AI. The quickest and easiest way to communicate complex thoughts will be if your thoughts are clear and logical."

Marc added, "Like training wheels for the mind. It won't force people to think clearly. But it'll help them see how to get there."

"Wow," said Rachel.

"Hmmm," said Sally. "I've thought of something else. Imagine the power of this in the hands of a propagandist."

Dina countered with, "Imagine the power of this for breaking the influence of a propagandist."

Sally nodded.

"But there's more," said Marc.

"More?" Rachel was surprised.

Sally smiled, "A free set of steak knives."

The other three looked at her, puzzled.

"Never mind. Obscure historical reference," she said. "More?"

Dina said, "Hive minds."

"Pardon?" Rachel was at a loss.

Sally explained, "A bunch of people sharing their minds to the extent that they become a single entity. They were often portrayed in old literature as something fearful... generally a thinly disguised metaphor for the old communist bogeyman." She put on a mechanical voice, "'You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.'" She grinned.

Dina looked surprised. "I'm impressed."

Sally did a little curtsey. "I read a lot."

Rachel corrected, "She consumes libraries at a sitting."

Sally asked, "So, is that what you wanted us to see? A hive mind?"

Marc chuckled, "Oh, no not at all. We just wondered if you'd be interested in trying telepathy."

Chapter 18 - quiz

Rachel was surprised. "Us? Telepathy?"

Sally too. "Why us?"

Dina smiled. "We like you both, you're a nice, sensible couple."

Rachel smirked at Sally, "Good thing you didn't see Sally this morning."

Sally put on an innocent look, "Moi?"

Dina and Marc led them back into their livingroom. Rachel and Sally settled together on the couch. Marc asked if they wanted anything -- drink? savouries? They thanked, but declined.

Sally asked them, "Is there a reason why you don't try the telepathy thing on yourselves?"

"Oh! We are." Dina turned, lifted the hair at the top of her neck and showed the little bulb of extra computing power attached to the cap.

Marc sat in an armchair and said, "A number of us are trying it out and it works brilliantly so far. Only couples who are unselfishly in love get chosen... so far. It's too early to try it with others. You two are a really interesting choice because of the human-android pairing."

Rachel asked, "What are the risks?"

Dina answered, "No one has been found any so far. Some have suggested that there may be a chance of one mind dominating another. This happens between some people without telepathy. It may be too much of a risk to introduce telepathy into such relationships."

Marc added, "On the other hand some of us feel that domination may become impossible once people have telepathy. Each would feel and understand the other's pain and fears almost as their own. It may be too painful or degrading for someone to force another. But frankly we don't know yet. It hasn't emerged yet among those of us in the experiment."

Dina sat on the armrest of Marc's chair. He put his arm around her waist.

Sally asked, "Why did you mention hive minds? Is that a possible side effect?"

Dina smiled and said, "No. Asking people about that is like a test. People who have unreasonable fears of hive minds don't get told about the telepathy caps. The last thing we want is people to be scared of us. I actually should've mentioned hive minds earlier in the conversation. I stuffed up a bit there."

Sally continued, "Are hive minds possible through this?"

Marc answered, "Some of us think it is theoretically possible. But none have emerged yet. We all retain distinct characters and share only what we want to, just like any cap transmission, except instead of being limited to sense data or broad emotions, we can share complex concepts, memories, subtle shades of emotion.. all without words."

Dina added, "If you want to meet a hive mind Zoe can show you a veep one."

Rachel was surprised. "Oh! Is she back?"

"Yes. And wait till you hear what she's been working on." Dina chuckled.

Rachel raised her eyebrows with interest. "Can you tell us? Or should we wait for Zoe?"

Dina shook her head. "She calls it imaginary worlds."

"Huh?" Rachel looked puzzled. "All VR is imaginary."

Dina smiled. "No this is different. She designed an AI that imagines a world, and you can inhabit that."

Marc said, "Think of it this way. Everybody models the world around them in their own mind. You can remember and imagine the shape and appearance of your bedroom without having to be there. Our internal mental models of the world are much more efficient than standard computer geometric models."

Sally murmured, "Living in a computer's dreams..."

Rachel asked, "Would it look or feel any diferent from normal VR?"

Marc frowned and shook his head, "No, I don't think so... the end result should seem the same for the user... except that the worlds could be more detailed and complex, I guess."

Rachel was amazed. "More complex than Zoe's world?!?!"

Dina laughed. "Oh, no. Her world is unusual. As far as I know nobody builds worlds as complex and rich as Zoe does."

Sally shook her head and said, "So, getting back to telepathy... Got to admit to being intrigued."

Rachel nodded, looking at Sally, then asked Marc and Dina, "What's it like?"

He shrugged, "Well, communication is a bit different. It's done the same way, it's just much more full. When we talk or send speech we're always trying to find the right words to fit things. Sometimes they fit well, but sometimes they don't. There isn't any of that. We just share the thought itself instead of hoping to find the right words to describe it."

Dina smiled and looked at her guy, "When I want to tell Marc how much I love him, I just show him."

He sighed and smiled contentedly. It was obvious she was sending it now.

He said, green cheeks flushed with reddish tinge, "And I understand -- no mistakes, no clichés getting in the way."

Rachel asked, "What about the nice lies?"

Sally laughed, "Does this make my bum look too big?"

Marc smiled, "That was originally one of the reasons why only loving couples were chosen. It was considered a risk that could be minimised by them. In practice it hasn't come up. I don't know if that is because telepathy prevents the bad feelings or if the people chosen are already comfortable with each other's inner thoughts."

Dina said, "I suspect it's that telepathy stops misunderstandings."

Rachel asked, "What about finding out that the other person doesn't love you the way you thought they did?"

Marc answered again, "In every case so far it has enhanced the love between a couple rather than disillusioned them. We don't know why. Statistically our sample is too small and too special to draw conclusions."

Dina added, "We think it may be that the shared feelings snowball. Feeling one person's love magnifies the love the other has."

Rachel wondered, "Is there any chance of bad feelings doing the same?"

Marc said, "It hasn't with anybody yet, though again that could be a result of our special sample. People in love tend not to share bad feelings."

Sally asked, "What do you mean by 'people in love'?"

Dina said, "Good question. Love seems to have two parts. I'm not sure how much of this you know. Rachel would understand, being a psychologist. There's the initial stage, the hot flash of love, the infatuation. It's more a reward system used by the brain to matchmake one person with another. It isn't really an emotion. It boosts all the emotions, makes it hard to get to sleep, and so on. But it only lasts a short time. Androids don't have it."

Sally smiled and said, "Ah, yes. I've read about it. The wombat effect: eats roots and leaves."

Everybody chuckled.

Dina continued, "The second kind of love often takes over from the first and is longer term. It's all about trust and being comfortable with your partner. It seems to happen to a lot of people who have been together for a long time, but it doesn't always happen and it usually requires work. It is the love that arranged marriages depended upon. It is the love between friends; the love between human and dog."

Sally added, "Between android and human."

Dina nodded.

Marc said, "The second love is the one we look for. The first one is too unreliable."

Dina added, "There is another thing that some people call love, but which is more like ownership. It is when people feel they have a right to demand things of another person. Society has encouraged this in so many forms that it is deeply embedded in all our psyches. One of the interesting things about the telepathy cap is the way it exposes that. It's very uncomfortable, when you deeply and unselfishly love your partner, to find you still have such unworthy feelings. The good thing is that it lets us understand and get rid of them."

"So how long has this experiment been going on?" Rachel wanted to know.

Dina said, "For us, a couple of weeks. All the people using telepathy caps? Not sure. A couple of months I think."

Sally asked, "How many people?"

Marc said, "Just four couples so far."

Rachel asked, "Any idea what will come of it?"

Dina and Marc smiled, sighed and looked at each other. Dina spoke, "All the things you both mentioned earlier, and the straightening out of human thought. I have a feeling that eventually people will link to each other in order to add to their lives and improve themselves as a group. I really doubt hive minds will come about from this because you never actually merge, but I can't help thinking that people using this in a group will be able to accomplish far more than groups of people joined by just language ever could. The way it can extend your mind is incredible. My maths has never really been very good, but since doing this I've found my mathematical abilities growing. At first I'd ask Marc and he'd show me how he understood a mathematical problem. It was breathtaking. Lately I've noticed that I don't need to ask him so much anymore because I am starting to understand maths the way he does."

Marc nodded, "The same here. I've never really understood how people think and a lot of emotions have always been a bit of a mystery. Understanding how people think from Dina's point of view was like a revelation. I just had no idea. You could have explained it in words forever and I wouldn't have got it, but this cap... wow!"

Sally asked, "Has anybody ever wanted it undone?"

Dina shook her head, "No. And it's easy to see why. It would feel like having your ability to talk removed. You don't have to talk, but to lose it would not feel good. It's the same with this. You don't have to share thoughts and feelings, but to lose the ability once you'd gained it, would be... gosh... not nice."

Rachel looked at her lover and raised her eyebrows in silent question. Sally smiled and nodded then kissed her on the cheek.

Rachel looked at Dina and Marc for a moment. "OK, how do we do this?"

Chapter 19 - exhibition

The girls were resting in bed. Sally was looking at Rachel. "What does it feel like?"

Rachel said, "It's a bit itchy."

Sally shook her head impatiently. "No. I mean what does it feel like?"

Rachel gave Sally a sideways look through narrowed eyes. "I know what you mean."


"Sally, it is supposed to take days before I even start to get more than the normal cap messages."

"Yes, but I'm an android. It's never been done with one of the partners an android."

"I think the limiting factor is my cap mapping to my brain."

Sally frowned.

Rachel looked surprised. "Wait... wait! I'm sensing frustration!"


Rachel smiled. "Yes. The old fashioned way, "she held Sally's chin between thumb and forefinger, "by looking at your pretty face."

Sally rolled her eyes. She sat up and looked seriously at Rachel. "Send something to me."

Rachel sent Sally is an impatient nut.

"No." She hit the bed on each side of her several times in mock annoyance. "Really send something... something complex."

Rachel tried to tear her eyes away from Sally's breasts jiggling. "Alright." She tried to think of something to send.

Sally sighed and her shoulders sagged. "Nope. Nothing."

"Hang on, I haven't done it yet." Rachel protested. "Still trying to think of something to send." She thought for a bit, nodded, and sent the concept of how much better the retina of the human eye would work if the light receptor cells were pointing in the right direction. Light would fall directly on them instead of having to go through a lot of nerve tissue first, and there would be no blind spot.

Sally's face lit up. "I got a diagram of the eye and a black spot with a little cross a few inches away from it."

Rachel raised her eyebrows, "Interesting. I was trying to send how the eye would be improved by pointing the rods and cones the right way. The black spot with a cross a few inches away is a simple test to show that we all -- well humans anyway -- have a blind spot where the nerves go through the retina. Close. But you just got some of the images."

A little crestfallen, Sally sighed and got up. "We should do something."

Rachel moaned, "Not the stir-crazy bit again."

"We should do something to take our minds off the new cap."

"You mean to take your mind off the cap." Rachel corrected.

They both grinned at each other.

"Suggestions?" Rachel rolled onto her side, propping her head on a hand.

"Zoe's back. We could visit her... if she's not busy."

"Not a bad idea." She placed a call to Zoe, sharing it with Sally.

Zoe answered it immediately. Hi girls.

Sally sent Hi Zoe. If you and Viv are not doing anything can we visit?

Zoe laughed, I'm always doing something, but you two are welcome anytime. I'll meet you on the beach.

Yay! sent Sally.

Thanks Zoe, sent Rachel.

Sally flomped down on the bed beside Rachel and they both closed their eyes.

Suddenly they were standing on the white sand of the beach. There was a cool, gentle breeze blowing off the sea and the little waves made small surf noises. They could hear seagulls nearby and some other birds far inland. The morning sun was warm and still fairly low in the sky. Zoe stepped out of the greenery ahead onto the beach. She waved, smiling. The girls smiled and waved back and Sally ran ahead to Zoe. She gave her a little hug and turned to watch Rachel approach while holding Zoe's hand.

Zoe said, "I suppose you've come to tell me the bad news."

Rachel and Sally looked blank.

"...or not." Zoe smiled lopsidedly. "A law has been passed preventing veeps from gaining human status."

Both Sally and Rachel were surprised. Rachel said, "Oh no! We didn't know. I'm so sorry."

Zoe laughed as she herded them toward the path back to the house, "It doesn't really matter. It's only a little setback. I knew they were going to do something. It is just a tiny bit more extreme than I'd expected."

Rachel asked, "Who is 'they'?"

The path was only wide enough for two so Sally ran ahead to the house.

Zoe said, "What do you know of the people who did early brain scanning and developed the caps?"

Rachel wondered what Zoe was getting at. "The initial research was done to help disabled people, then there was IBM's Blue Brain project and the Connectome project. When usable technology came from all that, it was the sex industry, computer games, and communications companies that made the equipment cheap."

Zoe nodded, "True enough. But there was another group involved that quietly funded work and provided resources. Most people don't know about them because they avoided all publicity."

"A philanthropic fund, you mean?"

Zoe shook her head. "Not really, no. They were a cynical political group. They saw the cap and its applications as a useful way to distract and control the general population, so in the early days they funded a lot of development."

Rachel smiled, "This sounds very big bad conspiracy theory."

Zoe chuckled, "Yes, it does a bit. They didn't foresee veeps and emigration. What use is there in being a ruler if all your subjects go away? Veeps can't be controlled so they tried to prevent emigration. They used religious groups, employer organisations, unions, everything. Nothing could stop it. The genie was out of the bottle."

Rachel understood. "Aaah. They're the ones who are stopping veeps getting human status."

"Yes." Zoe smiled.

"You don't look very worried."

"I'm not. It's a temporary thing. People will eventually realise how much veeps can help them. The problems are purely short term."

Rachel chuckled. "But that's how veeps see everything isn't it. A human lifetime is short term."

Zoe laughed, "I hope it doesn't take that long."

"So when do you think veeps will get human status?"

Zoe shrugged. "A year ago I thought we'd have it now. Now I think maybe next year. But who can say?"

Rachel said, "Last week, when you said you were worried about things getting dangerous... what do you think can happen?"

Zoe shook her head. "These people've had power all their lives. They think it's their birthright. What'll they do to keep it?" She looked at Rachel. "What they've done all through history: absolutely anything."

They were approaching the house.

Zoe said, "Let's not talk about it just now. Viv hates this topic."

Inside the house Sally and Viv were chatting, sitting on the couch. Viv said "Sally tells me you have a telepathy cap, Rachel."

Rachel smiled, "Yes."

Zoe raised her eyebrows, "Dina and Marc?"

Rachel nodded.

"Interesting." Zoe looked at Sally. "Human-android telepathy. I wonder how long it will take."

Sally said, "We were wondering that too. Nothing yet."

Zoe asked Rachel, "Did you get scanned beforehand?"

Rachel looked a little surprised. "No, should I have?"

Zoe shook her head, "Not really. It would just be a nice reference so you could see how it affects your brain. And you should get scanned anyway. It's good to have a backup."

Rachel grinned at Sally. "So Sally keeps telling me."

"So far, each of the people has found their brain grows in the areas their partner is skilled at." Zoe looked at Sally. "I wonder what will happen with an android partner. Androids are far smarter than humans are. I expect you'll find your brain improving in a whole lot of ways."

Sally looked a little uneasy. "I'm not going to have a bad effect on Rachel am I?"

Zoe smiled. "Only positive effects, I expect. You'll probably notice feelings getting shared before thoughts. Ordinary caps can communicate broad emotions because the old part of the brain is almost identical in all people. This cap has higher resolution, so you'll probably find you can send and receive more subtle emotions than before"

Viv said suddenly, "Lets go out somewhere."

Sally smiled brilliantly and chimed in, "Great idea! Where to?"

Zoe suggested, "What about the exhibition?"

"Perfect!" said Viv and stood.

Zoe said, "It's not in this world so we'll have to teleport there." She paused. "Ready?"

Suddenly the four of them were standing on what appeared to be a sandstone paved walkway in space. The walkway was about 10 meters wide and led straight to an enormous cathedral-like building about 100 meters away. There were a few other people on the walkway strolling toward the building. All around them was the star-studded blackness of space.

Zoe said, "That is the exhibition building. The stars are pretend. Although the space extends outward for infinity, this building is the only thing here. The stars are just images on a backdrop set at infinity."

Rachel asked, "How can something be 'at infinity'?"

Viv laughed, "I've often wondered the same thing.

Sally said, "I'd guess it's meant mathematically." She looked at Zoe. "Using homogeneous coordinates."

Zoe smiled. "Exactly."

Rachel and Viv looked at each other. Viv shrugged.

Sally chuckled and grabbed both Viv and Rachel by the arm and walked with them. "You two! It's not rocket science. It was developed by August Möbius in the mid 1820s -- it's a variant of matrix maths. And matrix maths has been around for a couple of thousand years. Let's see the exhibition."

Rachel asked, "What do they exhibit here?"

Zoe said, "All sorts of things. Standard physics doesn't apply in this world so a lot of the things in the building are larger than the building's exterior."

Rachel was puzzled by that, "What sort of things?"

Viv grinned. "Oh, worlds mostly. But other things too, like buildings, plants, a mountain... lots of things."

Rachel shook her head.

Zoe said, "It is a display of cool stuff people have made, and also a world directory."

They walked forward till they came to the doors. They looked like they were about 3 stories tall and made of ornately carved wood. They simply walked through them. In spite of their appearance they were quite insubstantial. On the other side of the doors the path continued to stretch away ahead. It looked like it went for kilometers. But on either side of the path were archways and behind each archway was a different world. An archway was about 4 meters tall and about 8 meters across and it looked like it was built out of yellow sandstone like the walkway. Each archway led into a world. The weird thing is that you could see 180° around each as you walked past it.

Rachel asked, "What would happen if I poked my head into one?"

Viv smiled, "Try it and see, but don't step all the way through."

Rachel leaned into one arch, beyond which was a hilly world with green meadows and blue skies. The grassy fields were sprinkled with yellow flowers that looked like buttercups and the pale blue sky had high, windswept streaks of cloud. A light wind blew a strong fragrance. She looked around and was astonished to see that the walkway and her friends were not visible. Her upper body appeared to hang in the air and where she knew the archway was there was only more hilly meadow. She straightened, amazed.

She asked, "If I'd stepped through?"

Zoe said, "I'd have come and helped you teleport back. If you were a veep you'd have the return coordinates already and would just come back, but as you're a visitor it's a little more difficult." Zoe sent Rachel's cap the address of the exhibition world. If you get lost accidentally here is where you return and we'll meet you there.

Sally asked, "Can I get the coordinates the way a veep does?"

Zoe thought a moment, "I think maybe you can. I'll try sending the information to you the way Rachel's cap will."

Sally's eyes opened wide. "Wow! That was awesome! I suddenly understand." She giggled and quickly ran a little way down the path. Then suddenly reappeared in the spot she'd left. She started jumping up and down on the spot laughing and clapping. "How cool is that?"

She grabbed Rachel's hand and imitating someone's voice (Rachel had no idea who) she swaggered with a thumb of her other hand hooked in her bikini and said, "Shtick with me shweetheart and you'll be fine."

Rachel smiled uncertainly. "O-kaaay."

Viv shook her head, chuckling.

Zoe looked almost as delighted as Sally. She looked back and forth between Sally and Rachel. "You guys have very cool things in store for you when that new cap learns to adjust fully to your brain, Rachel."

Rachel looked at Sally and grinned. She changed the subject, "Right then, back to here and now. How many worlds are on display here?"

Viv shrugged, "It changes all the time... hundreds."

Rachel asked, "The grand tour then?"

Zoe nodded. "The grand tour."

Over the next few hours Zoe and Viv showed Rachel and Sally every conceivable world. There was a sunny, glistening, white, above-ground city of spires; a misty swamp world with the shadowy silhouettes of dinosaurs; a place that was night where the paving stones on the narrow paths looked wet in the moonlight. There was an underwater world with nothing but rippling sunlight lancing down through green water just now; there was a place of many crazily angled buildings and smooth walkways in space inhabited by, of all things, a cartoon black duck. There were innumerable worlds that looked like Rachel's memories of suburban life in the late 20th Century.

They stopped at one world with trees shading dirt roads with fields beyond. Beyond the trees bordering the road, almost hidden by them, but out in an open grassy area was a moderately large stone manor.

Viv said, "One of Zoe's favorites. She helped build this world."

Zoe inclined her head toward the building. "Amboise, France. Around 1517." When neither Rachel nor Sally responded, she said. "Where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life."

The exhibition was laid out in a grid. It covered square kilometers of area.

Some of the arches were alcoves instead of portals. They were paved with that same yellow sandstone. These alcoves usually displayed some smaller model, usually hanging in the air. Visitors could wander all around these models and even touch them.

They wandered through this vast collection of worlds and models for hours.

Zoe said, "There are some amazing worlds here. We'll have to come back and show you more in the future. There are all kinds of historical worlds. There is a historical society of veeps whose special interest is getting those worlds right. They portray many parts of human and natural history. There are a surprising amount of worlds dedicated to special people. There are worlds dedicated to Alan Turing, Charles Babbage, and Ada Lovelace. You've seen one of the Leonardo da Vinci worlds. There are others for HG Wells, Grace Hopper, Jules Verne, Hedy Lamar--"

Rachel interrupted, "Wasn't Hedy Lamar a Hollywood actress?"

Zoe nodded. "She was much more than that. She was brilliant and was quite at home chatting with physicists. She patented frequency shift encryption that is the basis for spread-spectrum encoding that revolutionised wireless communications at the beginning of this century."

"Wow," said Rachel. I never knew that.

Zoe nodded then she chuckled. "There is even a Xenaverse."

They all smiled at that. Everybody knew of the fun exploits of Xena and Gabrielle.

Chapter 20 - celebrate

"Good morning, honey." Sally's voice.

Rachel's muffled, "Mmmh?" as she gradually surfaced from sleep. Big yawn. She opened bleary eyes to see Sally lying on her side watching her. Rachel put out a hand and clumsily stroked the side of Sally's face. "Morning Darling. Whatcha been doing?"

A smile from Sally. "Listening to your dreams."

Rachel closed her eyes again for a bit. "I send during my dreams?"

"Sort of. Not all the time. It's all jumbled up. I can definitely say it has gotten stronger during the night though. If your cap continues learning at this rate... well, this should be really interesting."

Rachel opened her eyes again. "Must remember to ask Marc and Dina if they appear in each other's dreams... or do synchronised dreams."

Sally chuckled, "And they would know this, how?"

Rachel sluggishly thought for a minute. "Hmmm... you're right. No way to tell. Really needs a third person to tell, and that's a bit invasive of privacy."

Sally added, "...and wouldn't say anything really useful anyway."

Rachel said, "So... if you can listen in on me you should be better at predicting when I'm waking and be able to get my--"

Sally handed Rachel a mug of hot tea.

"--morning cuppa." She gurgled a sleepy laugh and sat up, coming dangerously close to spilling it over herself. "Whoa! Almost hot tea on naked Rachel. That came very close to being not fun." She slurped it down, waiting for it to kickstart her brain.

Sally said, "I'd like to experiment more with communicating through the cap today."

Rachel nodded. "Me too."

She continued to drink her tea and think. "Later today I want to prepare a presentation for the insurance people. We need to get them to realise how good veeps could be for their industry. I'll send it out to all the insurance companies, not just Insurers Consolidated. If one moves on it all the others will have to. And it may make Brian Richards' job of convincing the other stick-in-the-mud board members easier."

She continued to think. "I might contact Zoe too, and find out what attempts have been made to get the travel industry interested in VR and veeps. And it occurred to me that the funeral industry might be good ones to get involved too."

Sally said, "Oooh, the funeral industry! Good thinking, Ninety Nine."

"Ninety Nine??"

Sally chuckled, "Twentieth Century humor... nevermind."

Rachel brightened, "Hey! A perfect experiment for the cap: try sending me the concept of that joke."

Sally looked doubtful, "Well, it's not really a joke in the normal sense... OK I'll try."

She watched Rachel.

Rachel frowned. "An image of a pretty woman... her name was Barbara Feldon and was the foil for Don Adams who played a bumbling spy named...86? What kind of name is that?... oh... I see... Barbara Feldon's character was agent 99." She smiled. "I think I understand the humor, and why it is not exactly a joke, so much as a kind of recurring theme." She looked at Sally. "Impressive! It's still mostly images and sounds, but I noticed background feelings and nuances I've never got from a cap before. I'm getting quite excited about this."

Sally gave Rachel a quick kiss. "Me too." She smiled and sent a feeling of deep satisfaction and relaxation at being here with the one she loved.

Rachel's eyes widened. "Oh wow! That was amazing." She put the almost empty mug aside and said with a slight catch in her voice, "You are amazing." and pulled her to her. They simply sat there cuddling, feeling fulfilled by each other, till they were interrupted by a call. They shared it.

Savannah's excited voice came through, "A wonderful morning to you two!"

Rachel smiled and Sally chuckled. Rachel replied, "You're in an exuberant mood today Savannah."

Savannah laughed, "You haven't heard then?"

Sally asked, "Heard what?"

Savannah spoke excitedly, "The new law. Androids now have full human status. I have a lot of cyborg friends and they're over the moon about it because it means the total end of discrimination against cyborgs too. I bought a house and I'm having a celebratory party today. You're both invited." She sent the address. "Gotta go. I have a lot more people to invite. Bye." And she was gone.

Sally and Rachel looked at each other in surprise and laughed softly together at Savannah's excitement, then it gradually dawned on them what this really meant. It had finally happened. She hadn't really let herself believe this day would come. She'd thought that getting equality for veeps would eventually yield it for androids but that it would likely take years of battling hidden shady forces. And now suddenly, unexpectedly, it was here. Rachel's eyes filled with tears. Oh, the relief!

Rachel lifted Sally's face to hers and saw she had tears in her eyes too. She looked at her in wonder and whispered, "I didn't know you could cry."

Sally half-smiled through teary eyes. In a small, raw voice she said, "Neither did I... the wonders of engineering." She started to laugh, but it turned into sobbing.

Rachel hugged her tight and stroked her golden hair. She whispered intensely, "I love you so much."

They decided to give Savannah a handwoven floor rug -- something that would be tedious to make using a replicator. It would make a nice housewarming gift. They'd wrapped it in one of those new iridescent cloths created from thread which diffracted light. It scintillated and shimmered with colors. Sally joked that the wrapping was nicer than the present.

Savannah's house was on the far side of the city -- nearly half an hour by train. They'd removed the green dye from Sally again. She shone, pale skin in her white bikini and sandals, and blonde hair. It was a bright contrast with Rachel's green skin and black bikini, black sandals, and straight black hair.

It seemed there was a lot of shining today. Everywhere they went they met androids who greeted them with wide smiles and shook hands with Sally or clapped her on the shoulder. This was one of those days that would go down in history, and everybody knew it.

They walked along a bright, ten meter wide corridor where the walls were decorated with colorful murals. The floor was some kind of green, non-slip, rubbery material, and the four meter high ceiling glowed with a soft, white light which gave a convincing illusion of a bright, cloudy day. All around were the sounds of birds and the wind in trees. Rachel wondered if they actually came from above. When there were lightning storms above did the sound system send thunder reverberating through these communities?

They came to Savannah's door set in a beautifully detailed painting of a seaside sunset. She opened it a moment later to flood the quiet corridor with music and conversation. Big brown eyes, pink tousled hair, and little shiny pink bikini, she threw her arms around Sally and then Rachel. Rachel was suddenly uncomfortably warm. They gave Savannah the rolled, wrapped present. She hugged each again and drew them inside. Sally grinned at Rachel and sent to her, You're blushing. Which, of course made Rachel blush even more and wonder why she hadn't made an excuse to stay home. She had all those presentations to prepare. She really was not a party person.

Savannah's home was full of people, about half of whom were androids and a quarter were cyborg. Rachel was surprised how many she recognised. A number of them saw her and waved and sent greetings.

Sally sent to Rachel, You look completely at ease, but I can feel how nervous you are. I never realised before how uncomfortable around crowds you are.

Rachel sent back, Not all crowds. I find parties... difficult... but I'm fine. She smiled at Sally.

Sally twined an arm around one of Rachel's arms and sent, Rachel, honey. You're not fooling me. We'll go. I know you have all that work you wanted to do anyway.

Rachel was horrified, No, no. This is your celebration day -- a once in a lifetime occasion. I'm fine, really I am.

Sally smiled and rolled her eyes. Sweetie, you are my celebration. You are my once in a lifetime. Parties like this are nice, but they are nothing in comparison. She sent a message to Savannah explaining that they needed to go.

Savannah turned back to them and said that they had to at least meet Dot before they left. She led them out the back of her house to a large yard with grass, some shrubs, and flowers growing under the glowing ceiling. On the lawn was a large, slender, white dog with a long, pointed snout, and many irregular black spots in her short coat. Two large, black spots covered each side of the dog's head so that they looked almost like some kind of mask that also enveloped two of the largest ears Rachel had ever seen on a dog. She stood and elegantly walked over.

"Hi" she said. She had a wide collar with a white disc covering it at the throat. That was clearly a speaker of some kind.

Rachel was agog.

Sally, completely at ease with a talking cyborg dog, squatted and said "Hello Dot. I'm Sally and this is Rachel." She rubbed under Dot's chin and scratched at the corners of her jaws.

Dot wagged her tail with a 'pleased to meet you' kind of body language.

Savannah said, "She doesn't want to come inside because there are too many people."

Dot said, "Noisy there. Not noisy here."

Rachel asked, "How long have you had a doggy friend?"

Savannah said, "Oh, just since today. Some friends went to visit their family overseas and couldn't take her, so I'm dog-sitting for some months. She's nice, but I'm worried she'll be bored while I'm at work."

Sally said, "You could share her with some other people so she gets variety. That would stop her being bored."

Dot said, "Good. Me go with you."

Rachel laughed, then noticed that Sally was giving a questioning look at Savannah.

Savannah shrugged and said, "Why not? If she's happy then that's good. I can come pick her up tonight or first thing in the morning."

Sally asked Rachel with a look. Rachel kissed her on the cheek and said that it was fine by her.

Sally, Dot and Rachel walked along the bush path up the hillside toward their home. Well, Sally and Rachel walked. Dot, with her enormous black ears pricked and big brown eyes shining, would run ahead sniffing things. Then she'd gallop back. She was clearly having a great time. A number of times they had to call her, worrying that she was lost. It was then Sally discovered Dot had a cap. It made sense really. That was how she talked through the speaker on her collar. From then on, when Dot disappeared from sight Sally or Rachel would simply send to her to please stay in sight. Dot would send an OK back and come back in sight again till something else distracted her.

When they got home they introduced the door to Dot, telling it that she was part of the family so that it would open for her. Dot looked delighted. After the girls went inside Dot stayed at the door for a while telling the door, "Open," and it would slide open. "Close," and it would close. "Open," and it would open again. "Close." Over and over again. Eventually Rachel asked Dot not to confuse the door too much, please. She answered "OK and padded inside to look around the house.

After a little while Sally realised Dot might be thirsty with all the running around earlier and asked her if she wanted a drink. She started to fill a bowl with water and Dot said that she was OK, she'd had a drink. Sally was surprised and asked where, thinking that there must be a source of water outside somewhere.

Dot answered, "Toilet."

Sally said, "Well I'll put this bowl here in the kitchen for you. Now you don't need to use the other one in the toilet."

Dot said "OK." It clearly didn't make any difference to her. If she could have shrugged she would have.

Rachel was sitting on one of the armchairs in the livingroom deep in thought about the best way to construct these presentations.

Sally wandered over to her, trailed a hand across Rachel's shoulder and neck and said, "Honey, why don't you work on that presentation and I'll take Dot for a walk down to the river and back."

Rachel looked up at Sally and sent her gratitude. Thankfulness for saving her from the party and now for this.

For what? Sally wondered. She would be perfectly happy walking with Dot.

And suddenly they realised neither had said or sent a word. The cap was already starting to use concepts.

"Good grief! Its only been a couple of days!" Rachel said.

Sally gave a giant smile. "Work," she said. "I'll be back soon."

After Sally and Dot left, Rachel started developing the arguments to convince the insurance companies to work with veeps. Sitting in the chair, she looked almost like she was asleep except that she was sitting rigidly upright and her expression would change with the parts she was recording. Occasionally she'd shake her head if a bit didn't work right and she needed to erase it.

It went like this:

"Ladies and gentlemen, your industry is in crisis. As you can see, [display image of profits five years to current] income has been declining steadily over the last several years. You have made up some of the shortfall by increasing premiums but that has also had a negative effect by discouraging people from taking out new policies.

"Recently there was a veep legal challenge to Insurers Consolidated, in which veeps wanted to be able to claim the life insurance money after their biological body dies. Insurers Consolidated battled that claim reckoning that massive payouts would cripple them. I was part of that defense and we prevailed, as I'm sure you all know.

"I have come to believe it was a mistake to battle the veeps. Without them the insurance industry is doomed to slow but inevitable decline. If, however the veeps are negotiated with, the industry could see a boost to its growth which could make it become a leading force in the world again.

"There are several aspects to the way veeps can benefit the insurance industry, but I'll concentrate mainly upon one. Firstly though, a number of you will be wondering how it is even relevant anymore. After all, there was a law passed very recently which blocked veep access to human rights. That doesn't really affect what we are going to speak about here because veeps don't need human rights in order to benefit the industry.

"The main, and by far the greatest benefit to the industry, is that veeps are effectively immortal, but live with the fear of accidental death. If the insurance industry insures veeps then it can expect premium payments forever. The insurance industry would simply need to guarantee safety of the veeps' virtual worlds and brain scans so that in the event of damage to either they can be resurrected from backups. No great cost to the industry, yet incoming funds would expand yearly and potentially continue forever. The number of veeps is beyond many millions already and will only continue to increase. [Display graphs of future income from veeps.] Here are some conservative estimates of how this would affect the industry's fortunes over the next few years..."

Rachel worked on this for a while, polishing the presentation, detailing the several other aspects of how veeps could be of great value to them. She put a lot of effort into ensuring that they got the primary message. She didn't want to dilute it with less valuable ones. One thing she carefully included was the rather sneaky point that the travel and funeral industry might soon be extending into the lucrative veep community to reap great profits and that the insurance industry had a great window of opportunity right now. In the end she was happy with it and sent it off to a list of all the insurance company executives and industry groups that she could find net addresses for.

Then she turned her attention to the travel industry -- travel agencies, tour operators, and so on. She outlined the advantages of infinite worlds and a growing market. She pointed out that the insurance and funeral industries would likely make announcements in the next few days that they would be working with veeps regardless of the law. If the travel industry put themselves in the right position they would be set to pick up a very profitable market. Beyond that she pointed out the vast number of worlds out there waiting for human travellers. All waiting to be exploited at almost no cost to the industry. It was the perfect business model: they would collect fees from customers for matching them with worlds that would suit them and would cost the travel industry nothing but their own time.

Finally, she sent a short piece to all the funeral companies pointing out the benefits of arranging veep accommodation for those who have died. She figured there was a chance the insurance industry was too inflexible to avert its own demise, but that there was a possibility that the funeral industry would see the massive potential income. They had another slight advantage and it might be the winning factor. They were interested in ensuring the friends and family were happy with the funeral. She asked what would make friends and family more happy than to see their loved one still alive and well, and living as a veep? Once again she mentioned the possibility of impending announcements from the insurance and travel industries. If they wanted a share of this market, now was the time to move on it.

Rachel felt a little guilty using these three industries in this slightly dishonest fashion. It felt a little like when she was a kid and she'd ask her father if she'd be allowed something. When he was reluctant to agree he would say that he wasn't sure about it and tell her to ask her mother, so Rachel would always happily do so, framing the request as "Dad says it's okay with him if it's okay with you." Weird that all these years later she was using the same trick to get her own way.

When all the messages were finished and sent off she walked outside to stand in the sun and look out over the valley. She listened to the birdcalls and marvelled that just twenty years ago this had been ugly suburbia -- a blight upon the landscape. Just twenty years ago 3D printers were beginning to come into popular use. Just twenty years ago most of the world's population starved.

Now she was lucky to live in what was, by comparison, utopia. There were still problems, granted, but life was so very good now. She thought of her wonderful Sally. And she thought to herself, tonight we'll celebrate. We will really celebrate.

Chapter 21 - sailing

Sally and Rachel, arms linked, both in dark blue bikinis and matching sandals, walked along the beachside promenade. It was lined with tall palm trees. Dot ran ahead, sniffing around bushes, pausing at the base of some trees, then galloping after seagulls and barking delightedly when they easily took to the air. Sometimes Dot would stop briefly to talk with people.

The day was overcast, but bright, warm, and almost windless, and many other people were out for a stroll too. Most were couples, with occasional family groups. Children were almost a rarity, proof of the old observation that birthrate declines as standard of living rises.

Unlike most of Australia, many seaside communities had remained largely aboveground. This was especially so at the beachfront where old-time shops gave out icecreams and iceblocks for visitors.

There was a small group of old houses and shops near a long jetty which jutted out perhaps 100 meters into the bay. Rachel guided Sally to a small building, nestled between a few of the old shops and houses. It was half overgrown with a passionflower vine and above the front door was a sign "Boat Hire". Sally raised her eyebrows, but Rachel said nothing; she simply smiled. Dot returned to them and lay down, panting, to wait on the grass outside the shop. Inside was a large man with bald head and hairy chest. He wore red briefs and was lounging back in a reclining armchair laughing at something on a screen. He paused whatever he'd been watching, stood up, and welcomed the girls with a happy smile as they entered. "Ladies. How may I help you?"

Rachel smiled in return and said, "Good morning. Rachel and Sally Moon here for 9am," and held out her hand.

He shook her hand, giving a nod to each of them. "Rachel. Sally. It's still being prepped, I'm sorry. Could you give us another hour? It should be ready by then." He suggested a few interesting local spots to see while they were waiting.

She thanked him and said they'd be back in about an hour then.

Outside on the footpath Sally asked, "What's being prepped? A boat?"

Rachel smiled and patted Sally's arm. "You'll see. Just be patient, my dear."

Dot ran down the beach to the water's edge and ran back to the girls. Sally and Rachel walked over to the beach, took off their sandals, leaving them on the lawn, and walked down the white, squeaking sand to the hard, wet sand where low waves swept up and washed back with a hissing sound. They strolled, getting wet feet when the cold waves raced up to them, and feeling the tickle of the sand being tugged from under their feet when the water streamed back.

Sally was beaming. "This is wonderful!"

Rachel gave Sally a kiss, saying, "Nothing is too good for my Sally." She noticed that Sally found it hard to relax in public. "Don't worry, honey. You have full rights now."

She smiled, a little embarrassed. "Just because the law has changed doesn't mean people's attitudes change overnight too."

Rachel shrugged. "So, they just have to get used to the fact that the world has changed."

Sally was puzzled. "What's with that anyway? Not that I'm complaining, but one minute we're simply machines with zero rights and cyborgs were struggling for justice, and the next minute we're full humans. Why the sudden change?"

Rachel laughed. "Maybe one of the lawmakers was in love with an android."

Sally still looked unsatisfied, "Maybe."

"Hey! You're supposed to be enjoying yourself."

Sally lightened. She noticed a piece of driftwood and picked it up. She held it out and called, "Dot! Dot!"

Dot came galloping back and jumped for the stick. Sally was surprised Dot could jump so high and hooted with laughter, barely lifting the stick high enough to keep it out of reach. She threw it into the water and yelled, "Fetch it Dot! Fetch!"

Dot ran down into the receding water a little way and barked twice. She looked at Sally and said "You fetch. You throwed. You fetch." Then barked again and took off down the beach after some seagulls.

The girls laughed.

The three of them explored the length of the beach, Dot repeatedly racing ahead and returning. By the time a bit over an hour had elapsed and they had returned to the long jetty, Dot was more sedate, walking alongside the girls. As they walked up the soft, dry, squeaking sand Sally asked Rachel if she knew why the sand made that squeaking noise. Rachel had no idea.

Sally explained, "The beaches here are so old the sand grains have been worn rounded. You don't get the sound on young beaches where the grains still have sharp edges."

Rachel asked, "Why do the rounded grains make the noise and the sharp ones don't?"

Sally laughed. "I haven't a clue."

They reached their sandals where they'd left them and walked over to the boat hire shop. The big guy within happily told them it was ready, and came out to walk them down to the jetty. Dot ran ahead, stopping to sniff at things along the way. They walked out along the jetty, almost right to the end. Their guide stopped and indicated a large circular, grey craft, mostly submerged. It had the name 'Wanda' painted in big white letters near the center. He called out "Carrie?"

An android woman presently popped up out of the central hatch of the craft and waved. She'd clearly been modeled upon a particular human whose features, while not unattractive, were not the standard beauty of androids. Her nose was a little long and her lips a little thin and freckles covered her cheeks. She had short brown hair, wore a black, old-style, one-piece bathing suit and over that, a synleather tool-belt around her hips. On her hands were short, very scuffed, synleather gloves. She scampered up the ladder from the edge of the craft to the jetty and offered her hand and a wide smile. "Rachel, Sally," getting their v-cards wirelessly "I'm Carrie. Everything is ship-shape and ready to go. It's good that one of you is android because the manual is long, and at times a little overly complex. If you need to know anything at any point here's my contact," she sent her net address, "and here's the address for the enthusiasts group." She sent another address. "You'll find both in the manual anyway, along with a lot more, but in practice that should be all you need." She stepped back to the ladder. "Let me show you around."

The big guy said, "I'll leave you to it, honey." He turned to Rachel and Sally, "Nice to meet you ladies. I hope you have a great time. The weather is beautiful this time of year," and headed back along the jetty.

Carrie had climbed back down the ladder and was standing on the grey disk. Rachel asked Dot if she wanted to be carried down, but she didn't, and jumped down to the grey disk instead. The girls followed down the ladder. Carrie smiled bemusedly at Dot and said that the craft was not really designed with dogs in mind.

The disk was about 15 meters across and stood above the water by only a few centimeters. Waves more than that height invaded its surface for a meter or so. The disc looked flat from above, but standing on its surface it was obvious it sloped up to the center very slightly. There were grooves running around the perimeter and radially that looked like hand-holds. Carrie indicated the name painted in meter wide letters between the two large solar panels inset into the surface. "'Wanda' is a bit of a pun." She smiled.

Carrie opened the hatch at the center of the disk and held it open for the girls. She said, "The hatch is spring-loaded and self-locks closed. Don't ever prop it open. If it stays open for more than a minute without the handle being gripped an alarm will sound. That's very important. Leaving this hatch open is about the only way to sink the craft... though even if the interior fills completely with water, if there is power the flotation tanks should still bring it to the surface."

Sally lifted Dot, put the dog's front legs over her shoulder and holding her to her front, climbed into the hatch, down the ladder and into the craft. Dot looked very uncomfortable. Rachel followed and Carrie came last, letting the hatch close gently behind them. It snicked shut above them.

The interior was beautiful, neatly furnished all in a pale apricot color. The floor had a smooth, soft, shiny, silicone rubber surface, doubtless for ease of cleaning. The low ceiling was only half a meter over their heads and had softly glowing light panels at many places. It was all one big room except for a small bathroom/toilet. Off to one side was a large double bed. On the other side was a small kitchen area with replicator. Around the edge were several large windows looking out into the blue green water. They could see a number of fish swimming lazily around the barnacle-encrusted pier pylons.

Rachel whispered in awe, "This is beautiful!"

Carrie grinned, "Yeah. I love these craft. They are the height of luxury, pretty-much self maintaining, and very reliable. The only thing they can't do is get anywhere fast."

She continued, "There won't be any storms this time of year, but safety requires I make sure you understand that in the event of a big storm you should submerge completely and ride it out on the sea floor. The craft will let you know when that's required. Wanda won't let you go beyond the edge of the continental shelf, or into any really deep water. It can actually handle depths to a kilometer down, but coming up again from those sort of pressures is not kind to humans and we don't have helium-mix bottles to avoid nitrogen narcosis in any case. So. Remember. Storms should be spent on the bottom where things are calm. The ship will know what to do. One of the nice things about this design is that even in fairly rough weather you will have a nice smooth ride because it floats at the surface under the waves instead of over them.

"Rachel asked, "What's the hull of the craft made out of?"

"The first ones were made out of steel reinforced concrete, but later they started making them out of calcium carbonate in a protein matrix--"

"Sea shells?" Rachel was surprised.

"Yes." Carrie nodded. "They're grown from seawater using a synthetic organism. It makes them far stronger than the old concrete ones, they have zero environmental impact, and are self-maintaining. The ship doesn't let barnacles or other animals or plants grow on it, and in the extremely unlikely event of damage it repairs it itself."

Next she indicated a wall panel and asked the ship to display a map overlaid on an aerial photo. "Navigating is easy. All you need do is tell the craft where you want to go. It will operate the tail or the kite as they're needed. You don't need to worry about reefs or other craft as Wanda will negotiate all those for you. If someone should fall overboard or go swimming, Wanda will refuse to leave the area. It's for your safety, so don't override it."

She walked back to the ladder at the center of the room and said, "These craft are incredibly safe and you shouldn't ever need it, but this," she indicated a large red button behind a small glass sliding panel, "releases a tethered signal beacon. The beacon transmits an emergency signal so that rescue can find you. It will float to the surface if you're submerged.

"Okay, that covers the main points down here. Come up top and I'll show you how the kite deploys." She climbed the ladder, opening the hatch ahead of her and holding it open for the girls. Dot watched from below as the hatch closed again.

Standing on the circular top, Carrie indicated a white dome, a couple of handspans in diameter, near the hatch, two grooves running from each side of the dome to the edge of the craft, so that it was a line dividing the top deck in half, and a third groove running at right angles to the other, also going out to the edge of the craft. She said, "You need to stand away from the dome and the grooves or else the sail won't deploy. Wanda won't do anything that could endanger you. You can override most things, but you shouldn't. I'll show you how the sail works." She said aloud to the ship, "Wanda, deploy the sail, please."

The ship said in a soft female voice, "I'm sorry Carrie, I am too close to the pier."

Carrie said, "Override. Deploy the sail."

The dome in the center lifted, expanding as it did, pulling cables out of the grooves. It rose in the air, inflating and taking on a triangular shape. The long cable attached across the top of the sail and the bottom corner was attached via the other cable.

"OK Wanda. Stow the sail again. Thank you," Carrie said, and the cables immediately began reeling back in. To the girls Carrie said, "Wanda will know what you mean if you refer to it as a sail, or a kite, or even a balloon. It's all those things. It uses vacuum buoyancy to raise it like a balloon, it's strung like a kite, and it's the ship's sail. Using this you can put the sail up into winds a few kilometers up above the surface and get propulsion even on still days. The sail has a camera too, so you can use it to see things you can't from down here. It's great for whale-spotting." She smiled.

She walked over to the edge and squatted, putting the gloved fingers of a hand into one of the many grooves in the surface to brace herself. She beckoned to the girls to come and do the same. When everybody was safely holding on and watching over the edge she asked Wanda to move to the end of the pier. Under the water a pair of flexible tails, each a bit over two meters long, stirred. They turned the craft silently and propelled it gently and smoothly to the end of the pier, where it slowed and stopped. At that point Carrie stood and shook their hands. "Well, ladies. You can take it from here. If you need anything just give us a call." With that she walked to the edge, jumped to a ladder at the end of the pier and climbed up. At the top she waved and called out, "Have a great time!" and strode off back along the pier.

Sally, grinning, asked Rachel, "Where to Cap'n?"

Dot was asleep on the floor. Rachel was curled up asleep on the bed. Sally was stretched out on her back beside Rachel, her eyes closed, reading the ship's manual. From time to time she'd send questions to the craft, and its AI, Wanda, would answer.

They were on their way to a resort island, but to get there they'd had to skirt part of the reef that was a marine park. They would not enter it.

Worldwide, fish populations had begun to regain their original health, though there was still a long way to go. At the beginning of the 21st Century people had depleted the oceans of 90% of their fish. By the time replicators had become available that number had increased to 99%. The popular media were fond of blaming the third world for this obscenity, but in truth it was the wealthy nations who had done it. They'd used massive factory ships to sweep through the oceans, taking all in their path. And for what? For fertilisers, because it was 'cheaper' than recycling human waste. For high protein meal to artificially boost plant-eating livestock. For hyper-expensive, status-proving meals like Orange Roughy and shark-fin soup. Greed powered by the collective insanity of free-market economics plundered all in a frenzy of consumption. For this, people made the world's oceans into wet deserts.

Now people respected marine parks. They sailed around them instead of through.

The resort they were headed to was built underwater. It was anchored to and burrowed into the rock of the island. It also opened out onto the surface of the island too. The resort was completely self-contained and made very little impact upon the island or the waters around it. Even during the construction it was acclaimed as a feat of engineering. Before any underwater digging began the section of ground was first sealed off, the water pumped out, and digging proceeded in air. This made it much easier to collect and remove the silt which was then fused and recycled for solid construction within the resort.

Sally gently eased off the bed and walked quietly to one of the windows. There was nothing to see except blue water with golden shafts of sunlight lancing down into it. She had noticed that as they moved further north the water had become clearer and she could see further.

She silently asked Wanda how long till the resort. Wanda sent back that they were almost there -- it would be just a few minutes more.

Sally had seen images of the reef and she knew Rachel would not want to miss this, so she set the replicator to make some hot tea and took it to her lover. She stroked the side of Rachel's lovely green face and the sweet almond eyes opened. Big yawn. "Are we there yet?"

Sally chuckled. "Nearly. Cuppa?"

Rachel sat up. "Thank you honey. Oops. Hang on a moment." She padded into the small toilet/bathroom.

Sally noticed Dot now had her eyes open and was watching. Sally smiled. "Have a nice sleep Dot?"

The dog, still lying on her side, stretched her legs out in a yawn that curled her tongue. She then wagged her tail twice thumping the floor. "Yes. Good sleep. You good sleep?"

"No." Sally smiled. "I don't sleep."

Rachel came back out looking more awake now. "We nearly there?"

Sally answered, "Wanda said we'll be there soon."

Rachel got her cup of tea and they walked over to the front of the craft. They sat at the windowseat, looking out into the blue. Dot joined them.

Presently they began to see shapes looming out of the foggy blue, gradually growing in contrast and color as they approached. It was the edge of the reef, and the colors were brilliant. Purples, reds, white, blues, yellows. Bright, undiluted color that was almost a shock to the eyes after the monotony of blue water. There were large mushroom-shaped corals, smaller fan-shaped ones; every size and shape in a riot of dazzling color. For the twenty minutes it took to cross the edge of the reef to the resort the only things spoken were oohs and aahs and "look at that one" and "over there". It was magical.

Finally they came to some deeper water and Wanda dropped down below the surface several meters to dock with the resort, which appeared to bud from the dark rock of an underwater cliff. Wanda's movement had been so noiseless, free of vibration, gentle, and stable that until it stopped the craft hadn't really felt like it had been in motion. It had been like watching a 3D movie through the windows.

Rachel put her bikini back on and Sally picked up Dot. Rachel preceded her up the ladder and held the hatch open for her.

The docking pod was a round room, mostly transparent above and front, and bare except for a dark blue couch running around most of the curved wall. The floor was dark blue too. They walked through a sliding door into the tunnel leading through the rock. The walls here looked like shiny black glass. Small, point lights in the ceiling dimly illuminated the way.

The short tunnel opened through another sliding door into a large area which looked like it was built to handle crowds of hundreds of people. Rachel could see only two people talking to an android receptionist on the far side. Dot and the girls walked over to them.

The couple who had been engaged in a conversation with the attractive female android welcomed Rachel and Sally, and cooed over Dot. They seemed very nice people, and looked initially to be young, but close up it could be seen that they were fairly old -- perhaps in their nineties -- they'd had body reconditioning. Rachel noticed that their smiles faded a little and they needed to be elsewhere when she put her arm around Sally's waist and answered the receptionist's questions by saying that they were here on a late honeymoon.

The android thought it was wonderful that they were a couple and told them if they wanted anything at all, just to ask for her: Ramona. She gave them directions to a large suite Rachel had booked online yesterday. The honeymoon suite. They thanked her, but before leaving, Rachel asked how many people were here. Ramona answered that there were just six. When Rachel asked how many the complex could cater for Ramona told them that in its heyday it was not unusual for the resort to have five hundred guests. Sally and Rachel were astonished. They looked at the enormous room, imagining it bustling with people. Ramona added that now androids had full human rights perhaps they'd see more visitors. Rachel asked when the busy season was.

Ramona smiled and said. "This is the busy season."

The girls and Dot walked up to the island's surface. It was mid-afternoon and Savannah was due to arrive soon to pick up Dot. They decided to take a walk along the beach to fill the time.

Sally said, "This is like paradise."

Rachel agreed that it certainly was.

Dot didn't hear because she was too busy running along the beach chasing little crabs that popped into their holes in the wet sand. She probably wouldn't have understood what a 'paradise' was anyway.

Eventually they wandered back in time to see Savannah arrive in an airboat. She enthusiastically hugged them and kneeled to say to Dot, "You're coming back with me, Dot."

When Dot answered that she didn't want to, Rachel and Sally knelt too and promised that they'd try to take her out again soon.

Reluctantly Dot left, and Rachel and Sally waved to Savannah and Dot as they flew over the trees, heading back to the mainland, the two long tails of the airboat propelling it silently away.

The girls went for a walk along one of the paths up into the island. It was still, and cool, and quiet except for birdcalls echoing among the trees. They hardly spoke; just happy in each other's company.

On the walk back down toward the resort Sally suggested that perhaps they should save Dot from a life of boredom at Savannah's and get her to spend more time with them when they get home. Rachel agreed, noting how quiet it seemed without her.

Walking back down into the underground resort Rachel suggested they eat in their room instead of the main resort restaurant.

The honeymoon suite was as big as Rachel and Sally's entire house and seemed very luxurious, but Rachel hardly saw it as, with hungry eyes, she guided Sally to the bed. Standing by the bed she looked into Sally's eyes and felt tears well into her own. Sally looked concerned, but Rachel shook her head and said, "I just... just.." She sent Sally the feeling and Sally's eyes widened then half closed with pleasure. Sally returned the pleasure to Rachel and she gasped.

They dropped their clothes and got onto the bed. Rachel ran her hand lightly down Sally's side and could feel the sensations through the cap. She gulped, aware of the unexpected feedback effect. She could feel Sally sensing her, feeling the touch on Sally's skin. Behind it all was a giant wall of want suffusing everything. She couldn't distinguish if it was her, or Sally, or both blended. She kissed Sally and she felt her loins heat, her nipples tighten, and her skin become alive. She felt sure that some of that feeling was Sally, some her, but it was all mixed together. She wanted her desperately as thighs pushed between legs and necks were nibbled. Their minds joined in a torrent of desire! There was nothing else, just this raging maelstrom of emotion.

Time stood still and ran into hours until, exhausted, at peace, Rachel fell asleep, snuggled in Sally's arms.

Sally was the happiest creature in the universe.

Chapter 22 - high

Rachel stirred in the morning, wrapped in Sally's arms.

"Good morning sleepy head," Sally said.

Rachel snuggled in tighter, cosy. Bliss bloomed in her and overflowed through the cap into Sally, making Sally's eyes flutter closed in pleasure. They lay there together, drunk on their combined love. They lay for some time. It may have been minutes or it may have been hours. All they knew was that their minds were saturated with warm happiness.

Eventually the pressure in Rachel's bladder forced her to get up. She rose to hands and knees giving Sally kisses and apologised, running for the toilet. "Sorry honey. Be right back. Gotta service this design flaw."

Sally got out of bed too and sent, Not so much of a design flaw. Without it we might never get up.

She could feel the humor in Rachel's reply, You say it like that's a bad thing.

Sally sent, Seriously though, I wonder why Dina and Marc didn't warn us of this.

Rachel suggested, Maybe they don't see it as a drawback.

Sally thought, Maybe it's different between two humans.

Silence for a while. When Rachel came out of the toilet she had a smile of wonder on her face. She said in a soft voice, "Wow. It just hit me. We're the first. Never before have a flesh human and an android human shared like this. There aren't any guidelines. This is new territory." She walked forward and put her arms around Sally. Sally hugged her back and put her head on Rachel's shoulder. They were both acutely conscious of their bare bodies pressing against each other.

Sally asked Rachel, "Have you ever heard of those ghoulish experiments where people implanted electrodes in the pleasure centers of rats?"

Rachel shook her head slightly.

Sally continued, "The rats self-stimulated until they died, ignoring food and water."

Rachel led her lover over to the bed again. "You think there's a possibility of that happening to us, huh?" She grinned. "Ah, but what a way to go!"

Sally let herself be pulled down on top of Rachel. She stroked the hair away from Rachel's beautiful Asian eyes, and from the corner of her delicious lips. Sally whispered, "No. There is precisely zero chance of it happening with us. I wouldn't let it."

Rachel laughed and challenged, "And how would you stop it?" She immediately regretted the question. She already knew the answer.

Sally nodded, "Worst case, I'd shut myself down. I will never let harm come to you." She chuckled. "You could say I'm your insurance."

Rachel rolled Sally over and said, "This has suddenly got very macabre. We're on our honeymoon. It's supposed to be fun and lots of hot sex."

They didn't come out of the room until late afternoon.

Rachel felt like her legs were rubbery and trembling. It was as if she had a neon sign over her saying that she'd been having sex all day. Sally assured her that she looked and walked perfectly normal. She nevertheless leaned on Sally for support.

Rachel felt weirdly exhausted yet more alive than she'd felt in her life. She kept feeling like she needed to sit down to rest, yet when she did she couldn't sit still and had to stand again. "Maybe I'm coming down with something."

Sally laughed and said, "Yeah, a bad case of sex."

Rachel said, "I think I need to go back to bed and rest."

"Oh, and that's going to really help." Sally guided her toward the ramp up to the surface. "What you need is fresh air and something to distract you... other than me."

As usual, Sally was right.

They walked around the island. About halfway around there had been a light rain, and although it wasn't cold, Rachel scampered up off the exposed shore to stand in the comforting shadow under the sheltering trees. The sky and the sea became the one beautiful velvet grey and the hissing rain a soft shushing music. They embraced and kissed among the large drops falling from the leaves, their bare feet on the soft, warm leaf litter. Their love tinted everything.

The gentle rain didn't last long, but it seemed to clarify everything. The clouds swept away to leave the sky clearer and sharper than it had been for days. It was getting close to sunset, throwing this side of the island into deep shadow.

And then a wonderful thing: the moon began to rise -- a full, bright, orange moon, larger than they could have believed. They were struck by the heartstopping beauty of it. They stopped walking and sat on the beach together to watch the sea give birth to the moon. As it rose, it imperceptibly paled, draining of color, shining brighter.

The sky gradually darkened. The breeze dropped and the air stilled. The little waves lapped on the beach a few meters from where they sat. Behind them in the tree-covered hill the birds sang their hearts out. Above them the brightest stars shyly peeked through the deepening blue.

"What are the chances?" Sally breathed. "Of all the planets, life should develop on one partnered with such a giant moon. At times like this it's easy to see it as another world isn't it... plains, mountains... Amazing. It seems so, so close, but a vast, empty gulf separating."

They sat for a while, arms around each other, taking in the scene. Sally asked, "Whatcha thinking?"

Rachel said in a baby-voice, "Ooh! Pretty!"

Sally laughed.

The evening was warm and they took their time wandering back. Thanks to the full moon there was plenty of light.

When they got back to the resort they decided to try the restaurant. Neither of them had ever been to a restaurant before. This one was large and dim, with dark furniture that looked and felt like wood. Soft music played. An android waitress gave Sally and Rachel an electronic paper menu.

Except for sugar water, Sally didn't need to eat. Rachel felt like she should eat a bit more than the standard protein and starch mix from the replicator, because her algae hadn't been getting much sunlight lately, but she was mystified by the items on the menu. Even when she touched the eye icon beside each and saw a 3D image of the item she was no wiser. She could barely remember the meals her Mum used to cook for her when she was a child, back before the replicators. She leaned forward to Sally and asked, puzzled, "Why do people come to restaurants?"

Sally shrugged. "You're asking me?"

Rachel said, "I'll be back in a minute," stood, and walked over to the counter where the android waitress was chatting with a man. The waitress seemed embarrassed, cheeks flushed, and the man amused. His smile widened when the waitress asked "Can I help you, Ma'am?" and Rachel gently corrected her saying her name was Rachel. Rachel wasn't sure but she got the impression he was almost laughing at her, but he turned out to be quite polite when Rachel asked the waitress what the meals were. He suggested a couple of things that would not be likely to upset her digestion. She thanked him and walked back to Sally.

"What are you getting?" asked Sally.

"I have absolutely no idea."

When the meal was delivered Rachel thanked the waitress and ate the meal joylessly. It had some strange tastes that she simply was not accustomed to. At one point she tried some dark grey-green things which looked like large berries and almost vomited when she found that instead of being sweet they were oily and salty. She gave up on the meal then and vowed to stick to ordinary replicator fare.

Sally pointed out that this food was almost certainly created in a replicator.

Rachel took her plate to the counter where the waitress and the man were still talking. She thanked the waitress, nodded to the man, and left.

Rachel was relieved to get Sally alone with her in their room. She pulled off her own and Sally's bikini tops, embraced Sally, and nibbled up the side of her neck. They stood there for a little while, nuzzling each other. Rachel pushed their bikini bottoms off and led Sally to the bed. "Tonight's our last night here."

It was mid-morning. Wanda's pale-colored hatch slowly closed above them and made it's chk! locking sound.

Rachel said to the craft, "Back to your home please, Wanda."

Wanda replied, "Dot isn't here yet."

Rachel explained that Dot had already gone home by other means. "Just Sally and me today, Wanda."

The craft jarred very slightly as it detached from the docking pod. It slowly, silently turned, and began the journey back. For an hour the girls asked Wanda to take various detours to see more and more of the brilliantly colored corals. Their eyes hungrily devoured the impossibly vivid colors and the otherworldly shapes.

Finally they left the reef and were in the open, blue, featureless water.

The several hours' return journey was spent mostly on the bed cuddling and exploring the telepathy cap's ability to share feelings and thoughts. They were becoming adept at pinpointing particular experiences, perceptions, and memories. They were starting to understand what Dina and Marc had meant about telepathy bringing order to their thoughts. They were gradually learning each other's minds the way they had, over the years, learned each other's bodies.

They were enthralled at the idea of spending years learning like this. They had never realised just how complex their minds were. Vast territories were here to be uncovered -- whole regions that one person couldn't hope to explore alone. Your mind's eye was too rudderless. At the slightest resistance it would slip away in a different direction. Alone there was no traction. It needed another's perspective to give stable purchase; to really see the layers and multiple reflecting facets of your own mind.

If this much had changed in just a few days... how much more would unfold? How much more could there possibly be? Marc and Dina had said that after a couple of weeks they were still learning. Was the android-human coupling so unusual that they were racing through levels of this faster than people usually do? Or was this normal? And what did 'normal' mean in such a situation anyway?

When they returned Wanda at the boat hire shop the big guy passed on a message that Rachel was wanted at the offices of Insurers Consolidated. An airboat was waiting in the field a small distance beyond the shops.

The girls wandered down the path to the airboat. It was orange and yellow, decorated with intricate designs. Rachel didn't really want to go and she almost sent a message saying she'd come in tomorrow, but she decided that it must be important if they sent an airboat. They both walked onto the little ramp at the nose, which then folded up. They sat on the couch running around its edge, and watched the skirt of the little craft ballooning out as it lifted gently from the ground. The long, wide, twin tails of the craft began their waving action and pushed the craft forward silently.

They looked out over the water. After a while they could see the resort island in the far distance, and beyond that, more islands dotting to the horizon.

Rachel cuddled up closer to Sally and sent, I should have worn something warmer. Quite chilly.

Sally suddenly realised just how high they were. She did a quick calculation using the distance to the islands and the curve of the Earth. They were much too high. She sent a command to the airboat to go lower. It didn't reply or respond. She tried again. Nothing. And they were still quickly gaining altitude. Sally sent out an emergency call giving their position and asking for help. There were no other aircars near, but some kilometers away one had dropped off its human passenger, had turned around and was on its way as quickly as possible.

Rachel was getting tired. Sally was starting to get scared and sent to her, Stay awake, honey. Don't go to sleep.

Sally tried to pull apart the panel which housed the controlling AI, but it was too strong. Without the proper tools there was no way to get access. And it was doubtful she could do much anyway. She couldn't just break things willy nilly or she'd risk the skirt deflating and the airboat falling out of the sky. But at this rate of climb Rachel could die from oxygen deprivation soon.

She seemed to remember that the vacuum balloons around the edge were compartmentalised. Perhaps she could break one and slow their ascent that way. They had nothing sharp so she used her fingers. The material was incredibly tough and stiff. She had to keep waking Rachel who was now shivering violently and couldn't keep her eyes open.

Sally shouted at her, "Stay awake, dammit! RACHEL!" while she tried in vain to tear through the balloon material.

She pushed her mind into Rachel's trying to flood her mind with alarm and kick her adrenalin system into action, but she found Rachel ebbing, fading.

In a faint, horribly feeble thought, Rachel sent I love you, Sally.

"Stay awake!" she shouted at her. "Wake up!" She shook her. Rachel continued to fade. "NO! NO! NO!" Sally raged inside Rachel's mind. "Hang on. WAIT! You only have to hang on a little while!"

Sally broadcast her desperate plea for help. The other aircar was ascending as quickly as it could, but it would take a while to catch up.

Sally tried mouth to mouth to force air into Rachel's lungs under pressure, but it didn't seem to help. Sally couldn't produce enough pressure and she felt the life flicker out in Rachel. Sally screamed into the void.

Eyes streaming man-made tears, she was furiously punching at the balloon with her hand, the silicone skin torn and hanging off the broken ends of her fingers. She was scratching and tearing at the undamaged fabric when the other airboat came up close under them. Wild, she grabbed up Rachel, a loose rag doll, jumped into the other boat, and ordered it down as fast as it could go.

It plummetted groundward, slowing only when it was getting dangerously close to the ground. All the way down Sally kept calling to Rachel to wake up. She tried thumping her chest to get her heart started. She tried mouth to mouth. She tried screaming and roaring in what should have been Rachel's mind... except there was no link there anymore. As they came down toward a hospital roof a doctor asked her how long it was since Rachel had breathed. Some automatic part of Sally gave the time. Incredibly it had been 18 minutes ago. When the airboat landed gently on the roof the doctor checked for body temperature and brain function.

Sally saw him through tear-blurred eyes as he shook his head.

Sally went with Rachel to the morgue. She wouldn't leave. She had nothing to do. She had nowhere to go. No reason to be. She stood in the dark in the morgue... no reason to move, hardly a thought in her numb mind... dark and empty like the room around her.

Zoe burst into the room. Sally heard her distant voice asking about Rachel. Sally absently looked at the drawer containing Rachel's vacant body. She shouted something at Sally. It might as well have been another language; Sally didn't know what she said. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.

Zoe turned from Sally and struggled to put Rachel over her shoulder. She wasn't strong enough to lift her. Something seeped through to Sally that Zoe needed help, so she absently stepped forward and lifted Rachel, cradling her in her arms. Zoe was pushing her towards the door. All Sally could do was look down at Rachel's beautiful, peaceful face. Her lips were no longer red; they were blue. Some part of her mind noticed that Zoe was pushing her through corridors and into lifts. Zoe often looked angry and would frequently shout, but Sally couldn't really hear her in her numb silence. Somehow they came to be in a room where Rachel was frantically pulled from Sally's arms and laid on a table. Her head was put into some machine. Distantly Sally knew it was a scanner, but she knew it was no use. Rachel was gone.

Sally was alone.

It echoed hollowly in Sally's mind: alone.

Rachel was no more.


Chapter 23 - dream on

"I want to know who's to blame for this." Sally felt cold. She looked at Zoe, who shook her head.

"I don't know if anybody is to blame. It may have simply been one of those random accidents that just happens."

Sally gave a ferocious look. "Yeah, as in 'make it look like an accident'. Zoe I know you have suspicions. Rachel told me you thought some group was working to stop veeps gaining human rights, and before we left Rachel sent out a whole lot of stuff to the insurance, travel, and funeral industries to try and force the veep issue."

Zoe sighed. "Look, Sally I know you want to make sense of this, but many things in real life just don't have meaning. They can just be accidents." Zoe held up her hand as Sally was about to protest. "Even when people are killed by others -- and murders have been declining for as long as people have kept records -- they can just simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There may well be no meaning."

Sally looked like she had tasted something bad. "Save the bullshit Zoe. Didn't you hear what I said?"

"Sally, it isn't bullshit. It's just good sense. Think about it. Just suppose two people have a fight and then one dies in an accident. Naturally suspicion falls on the other, but it doesn't mean they did it. It could have been an accident. It's the same with Rachel. Naturally I have my suspicions and I'm working with the police, and on my own, but I honestly don't know if this was an accident or intentional."

Sally shook her head. She looked angry and about to say something.

Zoe said, "As soon as I find out something I'll let you know."

Sally sat. She nodded. Then it was as if she crumpled a bit. It looked like the anger had been propping her up. Without the anger her mind lost its direction. Her shoulders sagged as she realised all over again that there was no Rachel anymore. She would never ever see her again. The understanding weighed her down and bled her of purpose. She sat there staring at the wall.

Her voice was hoarse, dry, almost a whisper, completely devoid of expression, "She's gone." Tears were running down her face, which was strange because she didn't feel sad. She felt empty. All that remained was a shell.

She looked up at Zoe. "There must be some way to bring her back."

Sally looked lost. Zoe felt so, so sorry for her. She put a hand on the beautiful android's shoulder. "I scanned her brain in the hope that something of the brain structure could be retrieved. We got a lot of information, but not enough to reconstruct a mind. Without a proper brain scan..."

Sally's eyes closed, squeezing more tears onto her cheeks. She knew that. After just a few minutes without oxygen the brain dies. If only she'd pushed Rachel to get scanned when she had the chance. She'd be safe. But it was too late. If only! If only! If only! Sally was hitting her forehead with her hands.

Zoe didn't know what to say. She couldn't stand the pain Sally was in. "Sally, Rachel isn't completely gone. She exists still in you. Everyone who dies achieves some immortality. The people they leave behind carry them in their memories."

Sally thought, what a stupid thing to say. Empty words. The pretty lies people tell themselves to deny death, she thought bitterly. She wanted to touch her, to hear her voice, to know she was well and happy.

Suddenly a thought -- a thin sliver of hope! She looked up at Zoe. Sally said, slowly, fighting the sluggishness of depression, "...Imaginary VR... worlds in AI's imagination."

Startled, Zoe knew immediately what Sally was getting at. She put her hand over her mouth and her eyes unfocused for a moment as she thought. Then she nodded. She looked at Sally's hopeful face. "It would be Rachel as you remember her, though. It's unlikely to come up with anything new the way the real Rachel would."

Sally lay on the bed snuggled into Rachel's side. "I love you so much." The android whispered.

Rachel smiled, turned her head and kissed the top of Sally's head.

Sally ran a finger around Rachel's green belly and it tightened in that way she always found so cute. She drew a line up to a breast and circled it. The nipple began to firm and she felt her own doing the same in sympathy. She sat up and looked down at her beautiful Rachel. Her black, glossy hair, her exotic eyes and high cheekbones. She kissed her, and sitting up again, she sighed in pure happiness. "I missed you so much."

Rachel smiled a little puzzled. "Missed me...? Have I been somewhere?"

Sally said, "Not anymore. You're here, and that's all that matters." She stroked the straight, black hair framing Rachel's face then lay down on top of her, nestling her own head in beside Rachel's neck. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?"

Rachel chuckled, "Oh, once or twice in the last several hours of lovemaking!"

Rachel rolled over on her side. She gave Sally a quick kiss and stood up. "Wow. I'm amazed I can still stand up." She grinned, "Remember when my legs were all wobbly at the resort."

Sally stood too. "Maybe on the inside. You looked fine on the outside."

Rachel put on her bikini and grabbed a cape. "Lets go sit in the sun."

They walked out to the front door and Rachel spread her cape on the grass. She lay down and put her arms over her eyes. She gave a big heartfelt sigh.

Sally sat down, crosslegged, next to her. Rachel peeked out from under her arm. "What no bucket of water?"

"Oh! I only did that once. You won't ever let me live it down will you?" She smiled evilly and suddenly grabbed Rachel's bikini bottom, pulled it out and let it snap back. Fwap!

"Yeow! Ooh you stinker! You'll pay for that later." But she put her arm back over her eyes and continued to sunbake.

Sally grinned, "Oh, I'm so scared."

She looked out over the valley. It was mid-afternoon. The air looked hazy and slightly bluish. Trees and shrubs rustled in the breeze making a nice background hiss. Some small birds started making a lot of noise nearby -- either annoyed with something or courting. Far down in the valley the river was mostly in shadow. She could see a couple of wallabies grazing a little way down the hill. And there was a joey bouncing gleefully, unevenly around its Mum. Sally sent the image to Rachel, who chuckled and said, "A wobbly wallaby. Just like the cute little one last year."

Sally said, "You know, we should do something."

Rachel made a muffled mock scream. "Not again!"

Sally laughed, "Just kidding. I'm perfectly happy. There's nowhere I'd rather be than here with you."

Rachel suddenly sat up. "Oh, I just realised. I should follow up on all that stuff I sent before we went to the reef."

Sally said, "Don't worry about that, sweetie. Zoe's handling that."

Rachel said, "Well I should at least contact... huh... strange. I can't find the names of who I sent the files to." Rachel was starting to look worried. "Honey, I think something is wrong with me. I can't even remember what I sent to those people."

Sally soothed, "It's alright. Nothing's wrong with you. Don't worry about it." She tried to kiss her lover, but Rachel pulled back.

"This is important Sally. I can't remember. Something's wrong. You know what a good memory I have. I don't forget things like this."

Sally sighed. "Please leave it Rachel. It's alright, really."

Rachel looked faintly annoyed, "Stop saying that Sally. It's not alright. Why would you keep saying it is?"

Sally closed her eyes and moaned. "Does it always have to go like this?"

Rachel looked at her, puzzled, "What are you talking about?"

Sally looked at her. "My own private heaven and hell both in one."

Rachel shook her head. "This is starting to make about as much sense as a dream."

Sally nodded, "Got it. That's the first time. But of course you didn't mean it. You were making a comparison."

Rachel asked, "I'm dreaming?"

Sally answered, hopeful, "If I say yes, can we leave it at that?"

Rachel wanted more information. "If this is a dream it is the most consistent one I've ever had. It feels so real." She looked at Sally who had muttered that of course she couldn't leave it at that. "I'm not dreaming am I? Sally, what do you know that you aren't telling me?"

Sally closed her eyes, tired. "At this point you worry at it till I tell you. It always happens this way." She opened her eyes and looked at Rachel who was waiting patiently. "No honey. You're not dreaming. I am."

Rachel shook her head. "You don't sleep or dream."

Sally gave up. "You died. I am dreaming. Zoe made a world where I recreate you from my memories."

Rachel had not expected this. She never did in all the times Sally had gone through it.

Rachel stood and walked around. "I'm imaginary? You're not serious."

Sally didn't do anything. She just sat there. She was so tired of it always ending up like this. Sometimes it would run for days before something would happen like this. Several times it had been the veep proposals. She would see if Zoe could remove that troublesome memory next time.

Sally said, "Try to remember anything you never told me about. What did the house of your best friend look like when you were kids. Think of the faces of your school teachers. Where did you meet your first girlfriend? What does food taste like? Any food. When the bullant stung you last week, what did the pain feel like?" She cited the most recent things that had caused the last several 'dreams' to end.

Rachel looked a little shocked. "No. There must be some other explanation." Then she shook her head and looked incredulous. "I'm a simulation? No."

Sally stood and put her arms around Rachel "No. You're real. You're my memories."

They stood there for a while as Rachel ran through it all. Finally Rachel unwrapped Sally's arms from around her, held her hands, and looked ernestly into her eyes. "Sweetheart, you know I wouldn't want you to waste your life like this."

"I'm not wasting my life, I'm with you. I love you."

Rachel shook her head. "You're not with me. You're with a shadow, a fake, what you remember me to be like."

Sally pulled her hands away and stormed around in a little circle. "Arrrgh! How infuriatingly like you to say that. Remember when you said that about veeps?"

"Well, yes. I was mistaken about that, but I'm not about this."

Sally faced her stubbornly. "I'm not going to switch you off."

Rachel paused for a while, considering. "OK, fair enough, but get out a bit. Continue your life, honey. I can't bear the idea that you would waste away like this."

"I thought you said you were a fake," Sally sulked.

"You know what I mean. The real Rachel wouldn't want you hiding away from the world. I know that you understand that because I wouldn't be able to say it otherwise."

Sally just looked at Rachel. She sighed. She would have to start the simulation all over again. Oh well. At least she would have days of bliss before it started to cave in again.

Rachel walked in. The first thing that hit Sally was that she didn't have the green of the algae in her skin. She'd never seen her like that. Her skin was a rich gold color.

Rachel strode over to her and put her arms around her. "Mmmm... You feel so nice." She started to hum a piece of music, then the music started to elaborate and invade Sally's mind. Rachel began to waltz, taking Sally with her.

Sally frowned, "I didn't know you could dance like this."

Rachel whispered into Sally's ear, "There's a lot of things you don't know about me. I learned ballroom dancing at school."

Sally continued to frown, thinking it through, "I can't dance the..."

"Waltz," Rachel put in. "Yes, that's pretty obvious. You're stepping all over my feet."

Sally was apologetic, "Oops sorry, I..." and then the light went on in her head. "You're real! You're real??" She screamed in delight. "You're real!"

They hugged tight, laughing.

"How?? Good grief! How??" Sally's eyes were shining. She hardly dared to believe. "Oh, this isn't some crazy trick I'm playing on myself? You're real?" She was running her hands up and down Rachel's arms.

Rachel nodded. "Well, I'm as real as a veep can be. Yes, I'm real. Zoe never gave up. As technology improved she tried new things. The scans were important, and the cap -- it held a lot of information. But the central thing was you. In the end it was you. You really were my insurance."

They stood, arms around each other's waist for a few moments drinking in each other's face. Tears were brimming in Sally's eyes and spilling down her cheeks.

Rachel asked Sally, "You know what we get to do now?"

Sally could think of lots of things, but just shook her head.

Rachel kissed her lover and whispered into her ear, "We get to live happily ever after."

---THE END---

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