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Selena City

by Miriam English

08 - Memories

As I walked down the corridor toward my apartment I kept remembering things. I would see a couple of children talking with their Mum and I'd think of the way Brenda made friends of, and entertained, the kids who'd accompanied adults to the conference. She took groups of them on walks through the grounds of the resort, showed them how to make whistles out of the soft cuticle atop fresh, red, baby eucalypt leaves, how to pick up a scorpion by the stinging tip of the tail to avoid being stung. She could name all the birds and the plants in the gardens, and the ways that they depended on each other. She played psychology games with the kids, surprising them with optical and auditory illusions, and showing them that everybody has a blind spot in each eye where the bundle of nerves and blood vessels go from the inside of the eyeball to the brain. She juggled pebbles, showed them how to perform cartwheels, helped them to swim, made daisy-chains, told absurd jokes and puns, and recited tongue-twisters... she had the children captivated and they would seek her out.

I saw a couple kissing, leaning against a wall in an alcove and it made me think about the relationship Brenda and I had had. Was I wrong? I'd thought she was in love with me. Was I just projecting my own feelings onto her? Had she simply been responding to supply me with what she knew I wanted? In my mind I went over specific times when I'd been convinced she loved me romantically. After examining a few different occasions I remembered one, early in our relationship when we'd embraced in a transport pod. She'd moaned in my ear then pulled her head back to look at me in wide-eyed surprise. She had said then, in some astonishment, that she was in love with me. Nothing more was said about it. It didn't seem necessary. The actions felt like they spoke louder than words anyway. We were like giddy children. No. I wasn't wrong. She had definitely been in love with me. As truly as I was in love with her.

I couldn't help returning to her reaction when I'd suggested that perhaps Mackey would be able to return her memories. What had been on my mind was more than the memories, of course. I wanted her to feel romantic love for me again. Why had she sounded unconvinced that she could have her life back?

An awful thought struck me. Maybe she thought she had been fixed; that falling in love had been an aberration, a malfunction. Surely that couldn't be so. How could something that felt so right be wrong? Of course there must be plenty of crimes motivated by religious passion that lead their instigators to be convinced of the same thing. Could romantic love in androids be simply an error? Oh, that would be cruel.

Suddenly David came through on my comms. I gasped with relief. "Thank heavens you called. Please tell me there's an emergency somewhere."

"Huh. Well, that's the first time I ever got that reaction. Uh, no emergency, but I have a woman at arrivals who is asking for you," and he sent her image.

"Thanks David. On my way." I didn't recognise her, but I was so glad to have something else to think about I ran to the nearest tube in the long strides the Moon makes necessary. I've seen videos of people running on Earth where they look like they're all moving at high speed except they hardly get anywhere. It's downright comical.

An empty transport pod was at the tube so I got in and it took me there in seconds. I stepped out to the large, open area outside Arrivals. Flicking my eyes around over all the faces there, I searched for the woman. She was waiting at the main Security desk inside the main lounge.

She must have seen an image of me because she relaxed at my approach. She looked like she came from the Indian subcontinent, had short, dark hair, reddish skin (lighter than Brenda's), was beautiful, tall, slender, with that regal bearing that most members of Earth Elite have, but she was dressed in the common, light grey, knitted stretchies worn by the poor on Earth -- none of the intricately decorative, gold- and silver-threaded garments woven with jewels that most Elite wore.

She introduced herself as Priyanka, then looking around uncomfortably she asked, "Is there anywhere private we can talk?" Her accent had that singsong rising and falling tone.

I had already scanned the place and hadn't noticed anyone suspicious. Puzzled, I asked if she was in danger.

"Perhaps. I don't know. I feel very uncomfortable being near surveillance equipment," giving the barest nod toward the video dome in the middle of the ceiling.

"Ah. I don't think you have to worry about that. Security in Selena City is very different from what you're used to on Earth. We can either go to a Garden or we can go to a private room where we can shut off all feeds. If you want to tell me what you're worried about and why you specifically wanted me then perhaps I'll know better what's suitable."

"I prefer a private room. Somewhere that you trust." She spoke very quietly. "Rani told me to contact you. I came here to escape Earth law."

I trusted Rani. For her to recommend me, Priyanka must not be any kind of threat.

"Okay. You'd probably feel most at ease back at my place."

While we walked to the tube wall I placed a call to Rani on Earth. She answered and, conscious of the fact that all calls on Earth were monitored I made normal inquiries as to her health, made small talk that Brenda and I were no longer together, and then asked her if she knew my niece had come to stay with me for a little while. Rani knew immediately what I was asking and answered that she'd heard she was coming to visit me and that she was a dear young child. This, of course translated as Rani knowing Priyanka and that she was okay. We chatted more to make it sound like a perfectly normal social call, then we signed off.

As we got into a two-seater transport pod I told Priyanka that I'd just verified things with Rani and that she'd okayed her. Priyanka smiled and nodded. "Good," she said.

At my apartment the first thing I did was to tell the room to cease all video and audio feeds. Pryanka visibly relaxed then.

"Unfortunately I'm a total slob so I have nothing edible here to offer you but juice. We could order in some food if you're hungry."

"Thank you, but I've eaten quite well on the flight."

I motioned her to the couch. She sat at one end of it and I at the other.

She paused for a moment, gathering herself. "First I should tell you what led up to me becoming a... ummm... an outlaw." She smiled a little.

And she began. "As you have no doubt noticed I was born into the Elite class on Earth. All I knew was privilege. I had no idea about injustice or problems in the world. I wasted my life partying and being involved in fashionable time-wasting frivolities, like most people of my class.

"One night I was returning from a party and took a short-cut over the poor suburbs. My aircar developed a fault and I had to land. The comms in my car were having problems due to the fault, and my embedded comms didn't work this far out. I needed a ground line. Not even knowing enough to be wary -- I was so naive -- I simply got out of my grounded car, went up to the nearest house and knocked on the door. While I was waiting for someone to answer the door I noticed something that was to change my life. A young girl was curled up asleep in a nearby doorway. After a minute or two a woman answered the door and I asked if I could use her phone to call maintenance to get my car repaired. At the same time I asked why the child was sleeping outside. The homeowner responded angrily that they didn't have a phone and that she couldn't look after every street kid. She asked pointedly, 'Why don't you?' then slammed the door in my face. I was quite surprised as all my experience with poorer classes was of them being deferential and polite. But I didn't get much time to think about it as my car had repaired itself and contacted me on my comms, and I left.

"But I couldn't get the image of the child asleep in the doorway out of my mind. I think also that the woman's sneer about me helping had struck a nerve. I resolved to go back and help somehow. I hadn't really thought about how -- perhaps some vague idea of giving money.

"The next morning I went back and the child was gone. The area looked bad in the night, but it was appalling during the daylight. Why don't these people have any civic pride? I thought to myself. God, I was so stupid.

"Anyway, I asked a woman leaving one of the nearby houses where the child was who had been asleep in the doorway. I wasn't expecting her response. 'Which one? There're hundreds of them living on the street.' This was very unsettling and I didn't know what to do. I thanked the woman and began to leave. Maybe this was all a mistake, I was thinking. Just then one of the woman's children spoke up. He asked, 'The girl who was asleep in that doorway over there last night?' The fact that he knew of her made me happy. Maybe I could finish what I'd set out to do and get out of this forsaken place with my head held high. But his next words put paid to that. 'She died last night and was taken away just a little while ago.'

"I don't know what shocked me more; the fact that the child had died or that it happened so often that a small boy reported it as matter-of-factly as if the garbage had been taken away.

"Astonished, I demanded to know how could these people let a child die like that? But the woman snarled back that it was hard enough to feed her own family. She asked why I didn't do something. She said that my resources could probably feed, clothe, and educate thousands of children. Her snort of utter contempt made it clear that she considered help from the rich a joke.

"At first I was furious. I had come here to help, and this was the treatment I received? But gradually I realised that the woman had been right. I'd always known that there were these tragically poor people, but it never occurred to me to do anything about it. Even at that point I had no clear idea of what could be done to help. To my shame I had been about to leave when I heard of the child's death. If the little boy had not spoken up I would probably have left and never looked back. I would probably be partying still.

"How could such injustice exist that would cause an innocent child to die alone in a doorway? I was angry at myself and the world for allowing this to be.

"When I returned home I spoke of this to my father and asked his advice, but he insisted that the poor make their own misfortune. He gave the standard answer that everybody always did -- that they are lazy and stupid and choose to be poor. I'd heard it a thousand times before, but for the first time now I really heard it, and it rang false. How could a child deserve to starve to death? And the woman I'd spoken to didn't seem stupid.

"I resolved to find out more.

"Gradually I uncovered the sorry truth. The poor are kept that way by terrible laws. We have AI and robots and replicators, but they are all strictly controlled to maintain social privilege and to keep prices high. I remember clearly the day that I realised that we had the resources to ensure nobody starves and no child is without education, but our insanely structured society prevented that. We could have had a utopia, but we threw it away so that the likes of me could fritter away our lives in stupid, wasteful parties.

"The more I looked into it the more disgusted I became. I'd initially thought it was a recent abuse, but it turned out that there has been no reason for poverty since way back in the 20th century. At the beginning of the 21st century just half an hour's money from what the world spent every year on weapons would have fed, clothed, housed, and educated every starving person on the planet. Half an hour out of an entire year! The old USA was responsible half that murderous budget so it would have taken just one hour out of their year's weaponry expenditure to end starvation. It was utterly inhuman.

"I tried to help. At first I still considered myself better than the poor, but over time, as I came to know them I realised that they are exactly the same as me and my privileged friends, with exactly the same good and bad features. When I tried to distribute unencrypted ebooks I got in trouble with the authorities. I was let off with a stern warning because of my 'good' background, while some of my poor friends were thrown into jail. I was incensed at their casual ill-treatment and continued distributing ebooks, gradually becoming accepted into poor society. It was then that I found out that Project Gutenberg never ended. It was banned and disappeared from view, but it continued underground.

"The turning point came a few years later when I managed to get information on how a replicator can be prevented from 'phoning home'. This is what controls replicator use and would definitely get me sent to prison. Open, unregulated replicator use would unravel the power structure of society. Anybody could make anything from air and sunlight. There would be no production bottleneck, no power structure, no poor. Everybody could be rich. I probably should have been scared, but this sounded like exactly what I wanted.

"Something went wrong though. I don't know how the police found out about it. I've since wondered if there is a backup alarm system in replicators that we didn't know about. Most of us barely got away. Some were apprehended and are now in prison. A few were killed. I was too well known and have been trying to evade capture for the last several months, but they were getting closer. I've known Rani for some time and she got a mutual friend to smuggle me to Selena City."

Priyanka leaned elegantly back on the couch. She took a deep breath, "And here I am."

"Wow," was all I could say.

We sat for a while. I was thinking that it was no wonder she was paranoid about surveillance.

I said, "It's a good thing Rani sent you here. I don't think the authorities on Earth will simply want to put you in jail. I know how they think. I'd say you are high on their hit-list. They wouldn't want to risk you ever getting free again. At least you should be safe here."

She shook her head vigorously at that. "Oh. No. You don't understand. I don't desire to stay here. I wish to return to Earth. My work there is unfinished."

"What?" I was surprised. "Are you suicidal? They'll track you down and kill you. You can be certain of it."

There was a knock at my door. I got up to answer it while Priyanka said, "Rani told me you could get me a new Earth ID that would keep me safe."

I opened the door and you could have knocked me over with a feather. Brenda was standing there. A note of hope in her voice she said, "I was thinking on what you said the other day about me staying here for a while. Can I still take you up on that?"

Then she saw Priyanka on my couch.

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