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by Miriam English
Our conference call didn't take long. We just needed to let everybody know about the RFID tags Mackey was using and throw around a few quick ideas of back-tracking the tourists' movements to find the trail Mackey was leaving. The experts in pattern analysis would take over from here. Della and I signed off and stood looking at each other with big grins on our faces. I took an enormous breath of relief. She gave me a great big amazon hug. "Good work, kid."
"Thanks. Just lucky."
We all started walking aimlessly towards the center of the Garden.
Colby looked at Brenda and asked, "Hey...? What are RFID tags?"
Brenda looked a little nonplussed. She linked her arm through his again. "Radio Frequency Identification tags. They're used on Earth, but not here. I don't really know anything else about them."
Della skipped ahead on her long legs and turned to face Brenda and Colby while walking backwards, "Corporations and government on Earth use them to track people, their habits, what they buy, and so on. They were introduced at the beginning of the century as a security tool in shops to stop theft. Seemed like a great idea at first."
I added, "But they kept being used for more and more things -- customising the client experience, market survey, customer tracking, then surveillance."
"So, they're dangerous?" he asked me.
Della shook her head. "No. They use very low-energy radio waves, and most of them are passive anyway, needing to be energised by a transmitter up to a few meters away from the person. The tags don't do anything till they're queried by an external transmitter, then they're powered by the actual radio waves that are making the query. Ingenious really." She loved gadgets.
Colby looked even more puzzled. "I don't understand all that, but they're not dangerous?"
Della smiled. "Sorry. Yeah -- harmless." She fell into step beside us again.
As we approached the central paved area we could see lots of old-style sound equipment lying around with a few people tending to it.
Colby piped up again. "If they're harmless, then why're they illegal here?"
I said, "Terrible for society. It forms part of a pernicious surveillance system."
Colby looked blank. "Pernicious?"
Della said, "Malicious."
Brenda leaned in closer to him. "Bad."
We came to one of the lilyponds set in the grey stone paving. It was about ten meters long, several meters wide, kidney-shaped, and large goldfish swam lazily through the dark water under the lilypads. We began to walk around it.
Colby tilted his head, wondering, "But we have camera surveillance everywhere watching everyone, right?"
I answered, "Yes, but each person has control over the video feeds. We can decide to turn it off if we want. Anybody can access any feed that is left on, and the fact that they accessed it is publicly logged. It can still be misused, but there's nothing sneaky about it. We all have control and can fix things when they go wrong. RFID tags are different. People have no control."
Della pointed out, "On Earth people don't have control over video feeds. There, video forms another part of that same bad surveillance system."
Colby shrugged. "Can't people just turn RFID tags off?"
I shook my head. "That's the problem: no. They're not active until they're queried by a transmitter. There's no easy way to stop them. They're controlled by someone else, not the person they're tracking."
Colby remained confused. "I still don't get it. They're just little tags. Maybe I'm just too dumb." He gave an embarrassed grin.
I reassured him. "No. At the beginning of the century most people didn't see the problem either. Even very smart people couldn't see it."
Della stopped. "Look folks, I'd better get back to it. Stay for the show. It should be really great tonight."
Colby said. "Thanks Della, but I should be getting along to Maria's." He turned to me. "Wasn't that a terrific movie night last night? Thanks for letting me stay over." He hugged Brenda. "Wonderful to see you again, Sweetie. Make sure you keep Adele in line." I rolled my eyes, smiling. He'd already forgotten we weren't a couple anymore. He waved to us all, then turned and strode off. Della left too, heading towards a group of roadies uncoiling ancient cables.
Brenda and I were standing alone beside the lilypond. She raised her eyebrows to me. "Gotta keep you in line huh?" She gave me a sly smile and I was suddenly very hot. No doubt I was blushing like a tomato.
I gulped and asked if she'd like me to walk her home. She held out her hand to me in answer. Everything seemed to slow down as I felt her hand slide over my palm. My entire being was focussed on that sensation and it seemed to last a long time till I was jolted out by Brenda's voice.
"Calling Adele. Hello-o... Is there anybody home?"
I looked at her in surprise. "Sorry. Lost in thought for a moment. What were you saying?"
She grinned. "Shall we go?"
"Uh... yes. Of course." We turned together and headed toward the grassy slope again and an exit from the Garden.
Brenda prompted, "I gather we were together in the recent past."
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
After a little while she asked, "How long ago was that?"
"Till three months ago."
Silence from her for a minute or two... then, "And how long were we together?"
I smiled blissfully and sighed. "Forever..." realising at the same time how absolutely cornball that sounded. Embarrassing.
She chuckled and said, "While flattering, not exactly an accurate response. Doesn't matter anyway. I shouldn't be prying."
"No, no. It isn't prying. It was your life too."
"Not anymore. I'm owned by Craig Mackey now."
I shook my head sadly and said softly, "Androids shouldn't be owned."
She looked sympathetically at me and said, "It's what we were made for. It's my reason for living. An android that doesn't serve humans can't be trusted."
I shook my head again. "What about working together? Mutual trust? A shared destiny?"
She smiled sadly. "I love humans, but honesty forces me to point out that trust is not is not one of humanity's strong points."
We'd reached the edge of the Garden and left the soft grass. Our footsteps sounded on the shiny, white, stone floor of the corridor. It was noisier here where there were people talking, and kids shrieking in laughter, and music playing, and I don't know if she heard me when I murmured "I would never own anybody."
I noticed her watching the children, her eyes alive with interest in their games. She adored children. It was one of her most endearing traits.
After some time she asked, gently, "What was it like?"
I didn't know how to reply. Anything I could say seemed too small to describe it. I struggled for the words. "We were each other's universe. You illuminated the world for me. What can I say? I fell in love with you."
She stopped walking and searched my face for a long moment, then looked down to the ground shaking her head. "How could you fall in love with me -- an android?"
"I don't know. All I know is I did... and I still do love you." We were almost the same height and were standing close. My fingers under her chin, I raised her beautiful dark features so I could look directly into those deep, deep eyes. I whispered hoarsely, "I still do. You are the most wonderful, sweet, knowledgeable person I've ever known."
Her voice was almost inaudible. "I can't love you -- not romantic love. Androids can't."
"You did..." I breathed, aching to kiss her. Her lips were lighter, pinker than the red-brown skin of her face. But I had to wait for her. I was already coming dangerously close to imposing my wishes on her. I could only be with her if she wanted it. Anything less was empty and I would hate myself for it.
With great effort I resumed walking with her. I wrapped my arm around her arm, her hand between both of mine, my fingers intertwined with hers.
I spoke very softly. "We shared an apartment. You helped me with my work and I helped you with yours. We made love with our eyes when we were in public and with every inch of our bodies in private. We visited Earth together and spent two glorious weeks at a conference on Social Change by the shore of the Inland Sea in Australia, where we were just two women in love."
She looked at me, those big dark eyes shining. "It... it sounds... enchanted." A long pause, and she whispered regretfully, "I don't remember... any of it.""Perhaps Maintenance weren't able to fully fix what Craig Mackey was doing."
No response. She was looking at the ground.
"Maybe when we find him he can repair your memories." I suggested.
"Maybe..." she said. She didn't sound hopeful. It puzzled me.
It wasn't far now to her apartment, but it seemed to take a very long time. I didn't know what to say. My mind was all mixed up and I couldn't think straight. And Brenda kept her thoughts to herself. We walked in silence.
When we came to her apartment I released her hand. I couldn't just stand here, but I couldn't move. I wanted to be anywhere else -- not here.
She opened the door and turned, standing there, looking at me.
I couldn't do anything and was terrified that I would say something stupid like 'Don't let the bedbugs bite' or 'Good luck' or something totally lame.
She stepped forward and put her arms around me, her chin on my shoulder, her body pressed against mine, and stayed like that. I felt white flame spread through my belly, up into my chest. My arms and fingers tingled with the delicious pain. It made me weak and it closed my eyelids.
I could have stayed like that indefinitely, but all too soon she took her arms from around me and stepped back. She didn't meet my eyes as she went inside and closed the door.
I lingered for a moment, then turned uncertainly away. Suddenly I became aware of several people in this wide section of corridor, meandering and chatting some meters away, of the children, running and squealing with delight, playing chasings, and a meter-high, toy unicorn galloping with them. People were seated on the edge of the raised fern plantings. A young couple were standing, arms around each other, staring into a shop window. The splashing of the fountain further down the corridor blended with unidentifiable, tinkling music.
I headed toward home, to my apartment, though I was in no hurry to get there. I could still feel her in my arms, head on my shoulder, breath touching the hair behind my ear. It magnified the memories of before, when we would embrace exactly like that and just stand together for long moments, content. I remembered how she would cast a luminous smile to me if I arrived at her work to walk her home. Or how uplifted I would be if she turned up where I was working to stroll home with me.
Oh I so could not do this. I found a seat near some broad leafed, decorative plants at the side of the corridor, and I sat. Elbows on my knees I stared at the floor then put my head in my hands. It came flooding back. Vivid. The feeling of joy when I was told that we'd been booked to go to that conference together on Earth. When I'd told Brenda her face had lit up and she'd exclaimed excitedly that it would be like a honeymoon. And it had been. She'd forgone her more usual clothing of jeans and t-shirts, wearing instead pale dresses, in keeping with the fashion on Earth at the time. I wore what I always did: stretchy tops, loose slacks, and boots. I never saw the sense in fashion -- wearing what others did because they did the same. It seemed pointless. But I have to say Brenda made me swell with pleasure and pride. I would drink her in with my eyes -- the light-colored, knee-length dresses that from a distance would make her like a living silhouette animating them. Her eyes and teeth were like shafts of light. It would almost hurt my eyes to look at her. On a couple of occasions she wore a black, velvet dress that made her look like glowing honey. I think that was my favorite.
In the lead-up period of a couple of weeks before the journey to Earth Brenda and I had to spend increasing amounts of time in the giant centrifuge in Moon orbital station. It allowed us to gradually adjust our reflexes and strength to Earth gravity. We, and dozens of other tourists would walk and talk and do various light exercises. Some would play games like volleyball. Others would dance their way through kalisthenics. It was fun and exciting.
When the date of departure came a few of my friends from Security came to see me off. A dozen teachers and about fifty children came to farewell Brenda. Children hugged her, some crying, others overjoyed for her.
The elevator had taken us up to the Moon orbital station and we'd boarded the yot, walking under the large sign "Inter-Orbital Taxi". It takes less than a day to fly from the Moon to Earth because the yot accelerates almost all the way, using atmospheric braking at Earth to slow to a speed that matches one of the geosynchronous Earth orbital stations. Our destination was Singapore elevator. Unlike the Moon, Earth's elevators don't connect with the ground. They end a couple of kilometers above the surface, a legacy of old attempts to block access to Selena City.
On the way down the elevator we'd watched in awe as the beautiful vista of Earth grew under us and the star-speckled black above gradually turned blue. At the end of the elevator Brenda and I, along with nearly a hundred others, had boarded a flight to Australia. Most of our fellow passengers had stayed for a later flight to Bangalore.
The unpowered, gliding flight from the elevator to Broken Hill in Australia had been the most time-consuming portion of the journey. On the way, Brenda had told me how global warming had flooded most of the major cities around the world and almost all the major airports. Some of the center of Australia had actually been below sealevel before the 21st century. After most of the ice on Antarctica and Greenland melted, the waters had cut through and recreated the great inland sea that had been there when the first humans invaded about fifty thousand years ago. Broken Hill turned from a bare mining city in the desert into a flourishing tourist destination and the new metropolitan center for Australia. Most of the world was traumatised by global warming, but the inland sea brought rains and life to Broken Hill. And that was where the conference had been held: in a giant, gleaming white resort on the shores of the Inland Sea.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and a soft voice croak, "Dear, are you alright?" Brought out of my reminiscence, I looked up. An old man was leaning over me in concern. "Is there anything I can do?"
I smiled sadly, shaking my head, and thanked him. I stood, and after a deep breath I started back to my apartment.
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