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Selena City

by Miriam English

02 - Background

I'm not special. I'm not tall or short, not fat or thin. I'm on the unattractive side of ordinary, though not so much that I'd stand out in a crowd. In fact nothing about my appearance is noticeable. I just look average.

What is unusual about me is that I have authority. I don't mean my job. I mean that there's something about the tone of my voice, the way I speak, my body language; people listen. When I comfort them they relax. When I tell them something they believe me. In emergencies when I tell them what to do they tend to do it. It's not that I'm strong or stern. I never raise my voice, and I think it has a pleasant, warm softness to it, but somehow there is more too. It resonates with many people. There's nothing mysterious about it. A specialist in group psychology once explained to me how it works, but I don't like it. It's a dangerous thing. It scares me that I could accidentally get someone to do the wrong thing because of something I said. I'm not a leader or a follower. All I want is to do my job to the best of my ability, help people, and avoid a high profile.

I'm not especially happy or unhappy, satisfied or dissatisfied. My work gives me pleasure. I like to solve puzzles, and working in security provides plenty of those.

Mostly I work in the Waratah area -- one of the fourteen regions of Selena City. Waratah covers roughly 4 km by 4km and runs 16 levels deep. Being on the security staff here is a great job. We all work together without the kind of hierarchy you'd find on Earth. Co-operative structures are far more efficient and adaptable than hierarchical ones. This is something that came out of the Open Source movement at the beginning of the century. We all want the same thing so we all work together in various flexible ways to achieve it. There is no bureaucracy to impede our efforts. Everything we do is logged and is reviewable by anybody in the City. Suggestions, criticisms, and help can be offered. This keeps our work open and transparent at all times. It lets the people of the City understand exactly what we do, and because of that they become our best asset. We still have problems with the tourists from Earth, but that's to be expected. They're used to the secretive, authoritarian police and spook organisations there. It's entirely understandable. But here, among the citizens of the City, we are ordinary members of the community, like maintenance workers, ecologists, geneticists, engineers, entertainers, and anybody else. It is a wonderful feeling. I've been to Earth and seen how guarded people are when talking to police there. That rarely happens here.

Being able to have the help of the folk on the floor was very useful in this case because Jason Farne and his muscular associate had blocked the video feeds from their apartments (which anybody can do) and somehow had faked the video from the corridors around (which nobody should be able to do). Their apartments were empty of course. So I spent a few hours going door to door, asking neighbors if they knew of or had met either of the two, or seen Mr Mackey. Farne could black out and alter video feeds, but he couldn't affect the memories of all the interested and helpful people around him.

Canvassing neighborhoods is one of the best parts about this work. I never cease to be amazed at the diversity of people, their intelligence, and the breadth and depth their interests. The most difficult thing is avoiding being roped into detailed conversations about their work and mine. It is a real skill to be able to politely keep an interview on topic.

Out here in the newer parts of the City it is a joy to walk about and take in the sights. Whereas the older areas have fairly uniform corridors, great effort is taken in the design of new parts to vary the color, size, and shape of walkways and plazas, and to add special features like waterfalls and ponds, flowers and trees. Great use is made of natural light, piped down from the surface so that the illumination constantly shifts and changes throughout the day.

In recent years AI toys have become very popular and are everywhere throughout the City. During my canvassing I encountered children with dolls that walk and curtsie and giggle, teddy bears that walk with and hug their humans, clocks that wink at you, toy flying dragons that actually fly, and one lucky young boy riding a small artificial zebra. Often the toys were able to add useful information to that from their young humans.

Farne and his bodyguard had spent only a single day in their apartments. They'd not spoken to anyone except perfunctorily and they'd left again the next day -- the same day Craig Mackey had disappeared. Nobody had seen Mackey. That meant they'd gone elsewhere in the City. Other security staff had checked people working at the departure gates and the three had definitely not left the City.

So, it looked like we needed to pursue other avenues of investigation.

Two other members of the security staff had been interviewing people too. Paul had been working the level above and Della had covered the level below. We conferred via our comms and decided to meet up in a beautiful plaza on Della's level so that we could discuss options. Sometimes face-to-face discussion can produce insights and a kind of synergism that using comms can't, no matter how effective your equipment is.

I have a small, embedded AI connected with my brain that overlays video information on my vision, connects me with other people and the City's AI. It also reminds me of things, watching and listening to what I do and providing useful prompts when I might need them. It is entirely private and can't be accessed by anyone else. I can switch it off if I ever want, though in practice I never do. Most people never think of it this way, but all of us already have built-in subsystems helping us manage complex tasks without distracting our consciousness. They let us walk and talk at the same time, and enable us to solve the so-called cocktail party problem -- how we can follow a single conversation in a hubbub of other conversations. My little AI lets me deal with abstract data and communications in a similar way. The one I have is quite a bit more sophisticated than the standard models. It lets me keep my office in my head. Very useful, but sometimes not enough.

When I got to the plaza Della and Paul were already there, seated at a table, throwing crumbs to the wrens and sipping juice. Della was a tall, blonde amazon, an appearance she liked to accentuate. Her long straight hair and strong, Nordic features gave a Viking warrior look. Paul had short, dark, curly hair, was average size, and seemed to be a melting pot of all racial types. He had a slow, friendly drawl that hid a fast, sharp mind.

The paved part of the plaza was scattered with about a dozen tables and was at the edge of a Garden. It was a lovely place for an eatery -- one of my favorites. The large white flagstones gave way to a grassy slope that fell away gently to a stream bordered by flowering shrubs and overhanging trees. A lot of light was piped in here to give the feeling of a sunny meadow. Butterflies played lazy chase over the flowers. Wallabies grazed near the stream while birdsong echoed in the trees. The farthest trees blended in the summery haze a few hundred meters away. There were many such gardens in the City and they never failed to produce a warm feeling of peace in me.

Paul and Della looked up as I reached their table and seated myself. They looked happy and relaxed. Della asked, "What now then?"

Paul pushed a glass of juice to me and shrugged, "Only thing I can think of is seeing if the faked video feeds make any kind of pattern that we can use to track them."

I nodded. "I don't hold out a lot of hope though. It looks to me like Craig Mackey was abducted to fiddle with the City AI's records so they could cover their tracks. Designing and modifying AIs is his specialty."

"What makes you think he's not a willing participant?" Della was skeptical. Della was always skeptical. It was a useful talent to have. She could overturn assumptions nobody else would think to examine.

I sipped my drink and answered, "The second backups of room video data at his apartment -- it's difficult to believe he would simply overlook them when he erased the first set."

"Why?" she persisted.

Paul pointed out, "The guy is borderline nuts. He's brilliant, obsessive-compulsive, almost autistic. There is no way he'd forget that. It has to be deliberate, left for us."

Della nodded, satisfied with that. "He came up looking pretty clean in my backgrounder too. He spends a lot of time following the movements of social birds in the Gardens, particularly parrots. Some kind of emergent intelligence stuff he's writing about. Doesn't really sound like y' usual bad-guy. Of course, they're the worst kind."

The three of us sat for a while in silence, thinking.

Paul asked, "Anything else been happening?" It sounded like he was changing the subject, but we all knew each other too well. Paul had a nice way of thinking sideways, connecting things you wouldn't normally think of as related.

"Some big-name trance musos fly in tonight for the rave tomorrow." Della loved trance music and wanted to be on security there if we could spare her. "And some lady set off RFID alarms about an hour ago."

I joked, "Oh that's big news."

She raised her eyebrows, "She was leaving, not arriving."

Huh. How'd an RFID tag slip past the scanners when she arrived? I guessed there was a first time for everything.

Della added, "Small outbreak of food poisoning near Hera Theatre."

Paul shrugged. "I'll check that out. Probably nothing." It was always happening there. We all wondered when Cleaning was going to give that place a proper going over.

I asked, "What do we know about this guy Jason Farne ...apart from the fact that he's some big-wig physicist?"

Paul said, "Only that he's a Christian Puritan."

Della and I sat up. This was troubling news.

Della said, "Oh great! We have a brilliant moron to track." She was obviously worried about her chances of making it to the rave. We all knew about the problems the Puritans were making on Earth at the moment.

Paul added, "I took the liberty of getting more humans posted at the departure gates. If Farne is here to take Mackey back to Earth I want as many tamperproof humans on the gates as possible." Della and I both nodded in agreement.

We sat with our thoughts for a while and attempted to make some small talk.

Eventually I drank the last of my juice and stood. "Let me know if you guys come up with anything more. I'm going home."

Della grinned at me. "You can come to my place if you want."

I gave her a lopsided smile and patted Paul's shoulder, "Seeya tomorrow kiddies."

As soon as I started back towards my apartment I regretted it. There was nothing for me there. Seeing Brenda today sharpened that even more.

Reluctant to be alone in my apartment I wandered in the City for a while, taking a circuitous route home. Eventually I ended up at my door. I stood outside, pathetically torturing myself with imaginings of Brenda waiting for me inside, like she used to.

Finally, I shook my head, opened the door and entered my empty apartment.

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