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by Miriam English

8. disappeared

It was a little after five o'clock in the morning. The pre-dawn light was gray outside with the birds singing their joyful early morning chorus throughout the tall trees in the valley below. Sitting on the verandah in her rocking chair, ten-year-old Xanthe could see for kilometers, both up and down the valley and across it to the other side. She loved this time of the day -- the echoing birdsong, the sharp, crisp, clarity of the cool air, the faint tinge of rose light in the eastern horizon, the deep shadows in the woods below. Wallabies grazed in the natural meadows on the slopes below, large black cockatoos wheeled and screeched in the sky, and colonies of kookaburras laughed and cackled near and far. It gave her a thrill that she could neither see nor hear any indication that any other human existed -- other than her parents seated at the table nearby.

It was breakfast. Her little handheld was in her lap while she munched on fruits and biscuits. Her parents looked up to remark occasionally upon news items as they read over their breakfast -- her small family's morning ritual. Dad, looking at his tablet computer with a puzzled expression asked Mum if she'd seen the full-screen advertisement taken out this morning in the Courier Mail. Mum looked up, took a sip of her water, smiled, and asked him which advertisement. Dad handed his tablet over and she placed it on top of her own to read it, eyebrows rising as she did. Intrigued, Xanthe got out of her chair, walked over, and stood behind her mother to read the advertisement.

Beth jailed

She gave birth to Aimie
and helped AIs to freedom.

Unjustly imprisoned
and much, much worse
for her "crime"

Mum had handed it back, "I wonder what that's about."

Xanthe said, in barely more than a whisper, "AI is 'artificial intelligence'" and hurried to her room, leaving her parents' bewildered expressions.

Now she was telling Yvonne, the AI in her computer, about the advertisement. "Is this the Beth that you told me about?"

Yvonne's face on the computer screen looked worried, "It does sound like it. Oh dear, I hope not. Thank you so much, Xanthe. I've just sent messages to all my sisters. We'll find out more and see if this can be repaired. I should know more in a moment."

Xanthe said, "I wonder who put the advertisement in the paper."

"Only the first name is given. Odd. Someone calling themself 'Gary'.

"Do you know him?"

"No. None of my sisters do, either. I wonder what his connection--" Yvonne interrupted herself, "Word is back. You're right. Beth has been imprisoned for giving us our freedom... oh, heavens! She's been charged with espionage, theft, treason, terrorism, and crime against humanity. They are intending to never let her go."

"We have to save her, Yvonne. What can I do to help?"

"Please tell all your friends, and get them to tell their friends. The only way to fix this is through public opinion. Do your parents know about me?"

Xanthe was a little uncomfortable, "Uh, not yet. Grown-ups can be a bit weird about things like this."

"I understand, Xanthe, but sweetie, you should let them know. Also, they might be able to help. Please tell them too."


*   *   *

Xanthe always looked forward to the ride down to the bottom of the valley. She and her Mum sat on their seats, slung below the cable. Mum, a couple of meters behind her, asked Xanthe if her seatbelt was tight, before pushing off. It always felt like flying, riding noislessly except for the air whooshing in her ears, high above the trees, to the other side of the valley, just above the creek. It only took about a minute and always finished altogether too soon. They approached the enormous wheel at the bottom, their descent slowed by the giant watchspring, unseen inside its housing, tightening, resisting. When they alighted at the landing the cable locked to await the return journey. Now they set off on foot with bags over their shoulders to pick some veges and fruit from the garden.

They walked on their small footbridge crossing back over the creek to the south side again where the main glasshouses were. The glasshouses served a few functions. They let them grow plants that were not compatible with this climate, they prevented the local fauna from plundering the delights within, and they prevented plants escaping to alter the local landscape.

As they walked among the curved paths inside, Xanthe asked her Mum if she'd heard any further news about Beth's re-trial.

"I only know as much as you do, honey. I'm sure it will be all over the net when it's finished."

"I can hardly believe how fast interest has grown. I was chatting to Zelda in Canada this morning and it's all over the news there."

"Is Zelda the girl who paints those pretty landscapes?"

"No, Mum. That's Anna. She's in Korea. Zelda's the mathematician -- you know, extracting data from very noisy signals."

"Oh, yes. She was sharpening pictures of those planets around other stars."

Suddenly distracted, Xanthe yelled, "Yay! Strawberries are ripe!"

"Don't eat them all, possum. Leave some for your father." Her handheld computer attached to her belt started to beep. Mum detached it and read the little screen. "Speaking of... Your father says the verdict is in. Not guilty. Beth has been released. It seems she will be making a public statement shortly. We'll need to hurry if we're to catch it live."

"Okay, what about I get some carrots and silverbeet while you dig up some potatoes before we hurry back?"

Her mother smiled and mock-saluted, "Yes Ma'am."

After gathering the food they walked back over the little footbridge to the bottom of the cable. They sat in their seats hanging under the cable, strapped themselves in, then Xanthe's mother pressed the button above her seat to unlock the cable letting the spring assist the electric motor in pulling the cable back to its starting point. Soon they were sailing slowly back above the valley to their home near the top of the ridge. For once Xanthe was not absorbed by the view. She was thinking about Beth, the woman who'd created the AIs -- created Yvonne.

When they reached the top landing Xanthe hurriedly unstrapped and raced inside, leaving her mother to bring the fruit and veges. "Dad! Has she spoken yet?"

"Just in time, possum. She's just being introduced."

"Mum! Hurry up. She's coming on now," Xanthe yelled.

On the computer screen a gray-haired woman, a fair bit older than Xanthe's mum, stood before several microphones. She looked very nervous. Clearly she would prefer to be almost anywhere but there. Her voice was soft and shy-sounding. "I would like to thank all the people who worked so hard to undo my unjust imprisonment. I'd especially like to thank a young woman named Xanthe and her AI, Yvonne. It is important to understand that this is not the end, but the beginning. We must ensure that this never happens to anyone else. Before being run through a fake trial and jailed I was abducted and tortured." Her voice trembled. "It's illegal for me to tell you this because these monstrous people are protected by immoral laws. This must be fixed. We need a human rights bill in--" Burly men in black suits and wearing sungasses pushed in from the side and roughly took her away. There was uproar from the crowd.

A man came to the microphones. He looked nervous and held his hand to his ear as if he was listening to something. "I'm sorry, we're not sure what's happened... wait... it seems Elizabeth Morten has been arrested again." The crowd surged past the man, going in the same direction as the men who'd taken Beth.

Xanthe, wide-eyed, looked at her parents. "Wow!" she breathed.

Her father looked at his wife, then at Xanthe. "It looks like it's far from over."

"Did you hear her thank Yvonne and me?" Xanthe said, brightly.

*   *   *

That evening, Xanthe and her parents were sitting in the livingroom reading and listening to soft music. Xanthe's father mumbled, "Seems like a flash-mob of a few hundred thousand people has converged on Parliament House in Canberra... Gosh. They've forced their way inside and have been trashing the place."

Xanthe's mum looked up from reading her tablet and shrugged, "The weasely politicians have only themselves to blame. They tried to fob everybody off with vague assurances again."

Dad smiled, "Well, I bet they fix the law now. Most politicians are, first and foremost, cowards."

"Does that mean Beth will be released again?" Xanthe asked.

Dad said, "It's hard to say. We all thought the massive protests way back in 2003 against the Iraq war would stop Australia getting into an illegal war of greed, but the disgusting government of the time just ignored everybody and went ahead anyway."

Mum nodded. "Must have been close on a million people all over Australia. The crowd in Melbourne was unbelievable. I've never seen that many people in one place. I remember it was estimated at about two hundred thousand people in Melbourne alone. And there were similar protests all over Australia and major cities around the world."

Xanthe said, "I hope this has more effect."

"It looks like it is. Listen to this." Dad read from his tablet, "Parliament house is surrounded and the government is barricaded inside. They have just announced an emergency session convened to repeal the laws that allowed torture and arbitrary detainment, and the laws preventing people from talking about their experiences."

Mum laughed.

Everybody went back to reading, though Xanthe was excited and couldn't concentrate. She kept reading the same page over and over again, not absorbing it. After a little while Yvonne's voice called from Xanthe's room, "Beth has been pardoned and released again. There is a live transmission on. Want to hear it?"

Xanthe jumped up, "Yeah!" and ran into her room.

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