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by Miriam English
Brenda said, "Well, I'd better get to school. Adele, honey, why don't you come too? You could use a day off."
"No, I need to get to work on this more urgently than ever."
"Nonsense," she said, taking my arm. "There are more than enough people working on it. You were tired when you got up earlier. You've been acting ummm... less than rationally. You need a few hours of rest. It might help you think better."
I was almost annoyed at that. "I've been irrational? What? You think I should have unhesitatingly trusted someone who was sent to kill, just on their own say-so?"
Both Henna and Brenda opened their mouths to answer when Hildebrand spoke. "I have to agree with Adele here. I wouldn't have trusted an assassin. Even if he proved his worth, I'd still be wary. Sounds like good judgement to me."
Brenda and Henna looked at him in surprise, and I felt a little irritated that he was backing me up.
Hildebrand turned to Brenda and said, "I wonder if I could take you up on the offer to go to your school?"
I felt a little flustered and said hurriedly, "Uh, maybe I could use some time off. I'll come after all."
Brenda and Henna looked at each other, smiled and rolled their eyes upward. I felt my face blush at being so transparently protective of Brenda. Hildebrand guilelessly examined the ceiling, evidently thinking the two girls had been actually looking at something.
Pulling me into the bedroom by my arm, Brenda said, "We'll be out in a minute, folks. Adele and I need to get dressed."
We walked to the school, Brenda's arm linked with mine, and Henna
and Mr Invincible holding hands. Henna seemed full of energy, and alive
with interest at the world around her. Hildebrand kept asking questions
and commenting on things. He listened intently to her explanations like
a child seeing everything for the first time. I had to admit it was
hard to believe he'd been trained to be a remorseless killer. Brenda
appeared to be enjoying the walk too. She would answer questions that
Henna couldn't, and sometimes add more to Henna's explanations. I was
the only one who walked without speaking and under a cloud.
The route took us through the wide corridor from my apartment, past
shops, cafés, and restaurants, into a broader plaza, populated
by people sitting at tables eating and chatting, with kids running
around and laughing among the tables and ferns. We turned off the side
of the plaza into Wattle Gardens, and walked down a paved path that cut
across the grassy slope. Further down, the path wound out of sight
among innumerable wattle trees covered in masses of glorious, golden
blossom. There were
many other trees, shrubs, and smaller plants in this Garden too, but
the wattles were certainly the most visible, and their perfume
hung heavily in the air, along with a constant hum from countless bees
and other insects gathering nectar and pollen.
The school Brenda worked at was on the other side of the Garden. We had to follow the path through the thick stands of wattle trees, into a peaceful grove of beautiful, drooping casuarinas carpeting the ground with a soft blanket of their long needles in the center of the Garden. Beyond that, we passed many more species of tree and shrub, up the other side toward the grassy slopes at the edge.
When we emerged from the trees onto the grass we could see a few
small groups scattered around the Garden. Each consisted of several
kids and a teacher. Some were wandering along the edge of the treeline,
others were playing on the grass, while some others were stretched out
on the grass listening to their teacher.
Brenda asked Hildebrand, "Marcus, why did you want to come to the school?"
He answered, "I'm very interested. My makers only gave me the knowledge they thought I needed, but I really like to learn. It was dead boring on Earth. I thought that was normal and all that I should expect until I came here and met Henna. She's already taught me all sorts of cool things."
Henna hugged him closer as they walked, which he seemed to like.
He asked me, "Hey Adele, what do you think I should work as here? Henna said the City doesn't employ any assassins. Is that because you haven't been able to get any, or because you don't have any openings for them?"
I couldn't keep the sarcasm out of my voice, "As a rule we try to keep people alive rather than dead."
Brenda jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow and frowned at me.
Hildebrand seemed not to notice it. I think sarcasm was probably lost
He asked, "What about bodyguard? I'd make a great bodyguard. You know that nickname you often call me when online -- Mr Invincible? I really like that name because it's true. It's almost impossible to stop me with force. Maybe that's what I should do." He looked down at Henna, "What do you think Babe?"
Henna answered, "I think you'd make a terrific bodyguard, but the City doesn't get a lot of call for it. Maybe we'll think of something that would suit you even better. I'd hate for you to be harmed."
I muttered, "Yeah, that'd be a real shame." Brenda jabbed me in the ribs again.
Hildebrand positively beamed and hugged Henna tighter. "See? This is why this place is so great. All these people looking out for my safety. Nobody on Earth ever said it would be a shame if I was hurt." He exhaled a long sigh of pleasure and gave me a big, open smile.
It was at that point I felt my sourness and distrust of him begin to lift. And it was a relief, because I hadn't realised it had been affecting how I related to Brenda. After pondering this for several more steps, I looked at her, held her arm with both mine, and raised my eyebrows in silent apology. She gave me a soft smile.
Thinking more on it, I became rather surprised at myself. I could
forgive humans almost any failings, like the robber idiots that Marcie
had dealt with. We had laughed at their foolishness even though they'd
waved around what they thought were deadly weapons. Yet here was an android who had
been designed for the most wicked of purposes, but had redeemed himself
through use of pure reason. Why had I found it difficult to forgive
him? The robbers were probably able to feel empathy, but voluntarily
ignored it. Hildebrand had been deliberately built without empathy, but
had found morality despite that limitation. Of course Henna deserved a
lot of the credit, just as Marcie had in turning the bandits around,
but it seemed to me that I should be more tolerant of Hildebrand than I
I wondered if it was just that Hildebrand was different. Was I
treating him with suspicion and disdain simply because his mind was not
like others'. I could easily watch him and check up on him without the
intense dislike I'd been experiencing. Was I just like the people in
the experiments Henna talked about, who so easily became monsters, able
to torture, abuse, and hate people? Difference... was that all it took
to make me into a horrid person? Could I really be that shallow?
It occurred to me that perhaps I didn't deserve someone as wonderful
as Brenda. I thought, with a sinking feeling, that it might actually be
her if Mackey took her away from me;
that she may well be better off with him. I realised that by being
selfish and wanting affection from her I wasn't being fair to her.
Hildebrand asked, "This is the school?"
"Yes." Brenda answered. She chuckled, "The kids will be out any moment."
I looked up.
We were approaching a large, open patio which connected the school with the Garden. A child's voice squealed Brenda's name, and shortly after, about eight children raced out to us calling to her and babbling questions. Surrounded by happy, chattering kids we walked across an area paved with what looked like large, white, square stones, but which actually felt slightly rubbery. The patio was flanked to the left and right with four columns each side, supporting a trellis festooned with passionflower, jasmine, and grape vines.
I noticed Hildebrand's eyes were large and shining. He was as excited as the kids.
We entered the school's main playroom through a wide arch, spanning
about eight meters. This was an enormous room stretching across about
fifty meters. The surprisingly low ceiling, roughly three or four
meters high, was made as a series of domes held up by pillars at each
low point, and with light sources at their height.
Brenda waved to some of the other teachers and kids who were sitting
and lounging around in small goups on rugs, chairs, beanbags, and
couches. The genius in the design was that the shape of the low ceiling
meant we could easily hear conversation close by, but more distant
noises were damped.
The floor was scattered with toys, furniture, large boxes, and furry throw rugs. At various points around the room there were free-standing screens pinned with finger paintings, exotic-looking fabrics, and large charts. All along the walls there were shelves with flowers, insect casings, seedpods, twisted branches, and many more pictures, charts, and wall hangings. There were dozens of replicators. There was another arch at the far side, opening into another large room like this one and I knew there were many smaller rooms on each side of this room and that farther one, used for noisy activities that would disturb the groups in the large areas.
Hildebrand remarked, "I've seen pictures of schools for humans during my training back on Earth and they have lots more children per class. Some even have over a hundred. Don't kids have to attend school here?"
The thought of why an assassin android would be shown pictures of school children made me wince.
A little girl who was holding Brenda's hand spoke up, "School isn't compulsory, but everybody comes. It's fun."
Brenda smiled at the child. "We all have an instinct to learn. It's
called 'fun'. The challenge for teachers is that all kids are
different. It's impossible to give enough attention to each in large
Henna added, "It's been well known for a couple of centuries that humans work and learn best in small groups."
Brenda nodded, "In the early days of the City we had much larger class sizes too, but when money lost its importance here and everything was seen for its intrinsic value, rather than monetary value, teaching attracted a lot more people. Teachers were always terribly undervalued when money was used to rate them. There was a movement in the late 20th century to pay teachers based on performance, but it made things much worse. Slow or unconventional children got pushed into groups nobody wanted. It was part of what caused the awful class system on Earth."
Hildebrand said, puzzled, "We were always told that the poor were a waste of resources; that it was more cost-effective to concentrate on the ones who could make best use of it."
Brenda looked sad, "Yes, that's the myth used to excuse Earth's insane system. All stagnating, class-bound societies have used that pretext."
She inclined her head towards a small boy building some kind of
complicated structure almost as tall as himself. "Albie's parents came
from a very poor background on Earth and risked everything to bring him
here. He has an extraordinary mind. At eight he's already beyond most
of us teachers. We bring in scientists to help teach him now. The thing
is, talent is everywhere that there are brains. Intelligence is the
most valuable resource in the world. By throwing away most of its
resources Earth is being unbelieveably wasteful. It actually costs very
little to develop a human mind to its full potential, and it returns
far beyond the investment."
I pointed out, "There'll always be a small number of exceptional people, but the real advance here in the City is how well everybody else does."
Brenda smiled at me, "Exactly. Our greatest gain is in helping everybody find their strengths, and extend them."
A little boy asked, "Can you tell us more about the ants Brenda?"
A few other kids chimed in, "Yeah!", "Please?", "Ants! Cool!"
Brenda laughed. "Great idea. Which ants?"
A little girl hugging a doll that watched the proceedings with big round eyes spoke. "Brenda, can we see the white ants? They're my favorites."
Another little girl put her hand on the arm of the girl with the doll and said, "Termites aren't ants, Lily."
Lily answered the other girl. "I forgot. They're social cockroaches aren't they. They're still my favorites though."
Her doll giggled and said "Termites," in a tiny, high voice.
Brenda said, "We can do both if you want, but we have to hurry. On my way here I think I saw some ants approaching a termite mound."
A few of the kids breathed, "Oooh! A war."
Lily looked worried. "Can we help the termites? I don't want them killed."
Brenda nodded. "I think that's a good idea. The ants here have plenty of food without attacking the termites. And there aren't many left in here. Let's go see if we can save them."
"Yay!" All the kids yelled and ran toward the exit.
Most of the rest of the day was spent in the Garden among the trees, where Brenda talked about many things. She started with termites and how they used bacteria to digest wood for them, just like we use bacteria to help us digest food. We saw a rabbit at one point and Brenda told the kids that rabbits have to eat their own poo. This produced lots of laughter and strangled vomit sounds from the kids. Brenda explained that rabbits need to eat it to get some nutrients that the bacteria make. If they can't eat it they get sick and die.
She showed the kids how the ants cultivated other insects that sucked the sap of trees. The insects produced drops of honeydew which the ants ate. In return the ants protected the insects and moved them to fresh plants.
We looked at the results of an experiment set up by the kids some days ago, where different colored light filters were set up above a patch of grass. The grass under the green filter was pale and not doing well, while that under other colors was doing better to greater or lesser degree. Brenda asked the kids why that was.
One little boy said innocently, as if it was obvious to him, "Green's the color the plants don't use." He pointed to all the greenery around. "See? They all throw it away. That's why we see it."
The day seemed to meander around aimlessly, but near the end Brenda asked the children what the theme was today. A few jumped up and down and called out, "Food!"
She was very pleased, and asked them all if they could come tomorrow with some interesting information about food. Some of the kids ran back to the school to wait for their parents to pick them up, others walked back with us. Henna and Hildebrand had a few kids holding hands with them. He had made a great hit with the kids earlier when he showed he could lift several children high above our heads, each holding onto a single finger of his big hands. They all wanted a turn, squealing with delight.
When all the kids had gone home with their parents. Brenda waved the other teachers goodnight and the four of us walked back through the Garden, to the plaza where we seated around a table and had dinner.
I took the opportunity to apologise to the ex-assassin. "Uh, ummm...
Marcus? I think I misjudged you. I'm glad we had today together. It's
caused me to revise my opinion of you. You're a good person. I think
you'd make a good citizen... uh... if you can keep from killing
anybody." I gave a lopsided smile, and he laughed heartily.
After dinner we parted ways at my apartment. Henna and Marcus went on to her place while Brenda and I went in to mine.
Inside, I told her, "I love to watch you working with the kids."
She chuckled, "They are such a great bunch of sweeties, aren't they?"
I went to the couch and sat forward, my forearms resting on my knees. I looked up to Brenda and frowned. "You know, I realised something about myself today."
She gave me a questioning look and sat beside me.
"My attitude to Marcus... I'm disappointed in myself. Remember the people in the old experiments Henna was talking about, where normal people could be easily turned into monstrous racists and torturers? I think that was what happened with me today. I think I saw him as different and I became a horrible person, despising him for his difference."
She put her hand on my arm and said softly, "I don't think so dear. Colby is different and you don't hate him."
"There's no potential threat from Colby. Maybe it's motivated by fear. It's a pretty ugly thing, anyway."
She stroked my arm and said, "I think you were just tired and stressed. Also it's the job of the security people to protect the city. You were being careful."
"It's more than that though. I could be careful and keep an eye on him without thinking ill of him. He didn't choose to be made the way he is..."
"Nobody does, dear," Brenda chuckled.
"Yeah, I know, but with Henna's help he's tried to overcome his limitations. That makes him pretty remarkable. Why would I feel badly toward him?"
"Oh, yeah. You've turned into a terrible monster. You delivered a
few sarcastic remarks and have been feeling awful about it ever since.
Appalling. Yes, you should definitely be banished from the City." She
was grinning at me.
I shook my head. "I can't help thinking that I'm not good enough for
you; that it might be a good thing for you when you go back to Mackey."
"Oh." She sat back. "That's what this is about. I thought you changed pedals this morning after you said we had to talk."
"You noticed that?" I gulped.
"I've been thinking a lot about this too. Have you stopped to ask yourself why I came here?"
"Because you were worried about Mackey's abductors returning?"
"No. I wanted to find out more about us. I knew we might only have a short time, but I wanted to know. So far I've liked all I've learned about our history, and I've enjoyed the pleasure it has created in you... and in me. I'm sorry that it may end soon, but it could also be ended by Farne destroying the City, or an asteroid hitting the Moon, or just some dumb, everyday accident. Think about it: if we don't pursue happiness now when we have the chance, then what do we have to show for the fact that we've even been alive?"
I took a deep breath and sighed with admiration. "I love you so, so much."
Standing, she held my hands and pulled me to my feet. I looked into those beautiful eyes and melted. She leaned into me, nipped my lower lip then kissed me softly. I returned it more strongly. We swayed, giddy.
Feeling shakey I realised that this was more difficult than I'd thought it would be. I was skewered between remembering all our times together and knowing that as far as her memories were concerned, this was her first time.
I jumped as I felt her fingernails scratching the fabric of my stretchy top over my nipple, sending impulses like electric shocks through me. Gasping, struggling to keep my legs straight, and my eyes open, I pulled her to me harder and kissed her feverishly.
I whispered, "How are we ever going to make it to the bed?"
She nibbled on my neck and pushed her hand down the front of my
pants. "It's only just in the other room..." Her fingertips tantalising
curled slightly, just dipping into the wetness between my legs.
Oh, too late. My knees went and we fell slowly to the floor. I had a flash of memory of our bruises when we fell like this on Earth. Brenda shifted so we lay beside each other. She undid my slacks, then moved over on me and kissed again while I wrapped my arms around her, and her long, black hair fell in a curtain around my face.
She pressed gently with her hand and moved her fingers a little further into the wet, making me moan. The hunger was beginning to devour me. I lifted her t-shirt above her breasts.
She rolled me over onto her and started moving her fingers slowly,
turning me to jelly. I was panting and couldn't keep still. My fingers
found her tight nipples and gently twisted and pulled at them, and I
buried my face in her neck, nipping and nibbling from her shoulder up
to her ear and back down. My body arched as she increased her pressure
between my legs and pushed her fingers further in. Bright light flared
behind my clenched eyelids as I gasped. Already? Again and again I
convulsed as she increased her pace. When I felt it had the be the
plateau my mind exploded again, and yet again. Eventually I had to
grasp her hand and stop her while I was still sane, panting, "Too much,
I kissed her and we lay together for a few minutes while the shattered fragments of my mind reassembled themselves. Then I sat up, unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans and removed them along with her panties. She pulled her t-shirt off and lay back -- dark, shining, glorious naked curves -- and a moan escaped me again just to see her. Every muscle, every dimple familiar. I leaned down to so lightly kiss first one eyelid then the other, while moving my hand down her soft tummy. I drew lines on her inner thighs and around the thatch between. Then I shifted myself lower, pushed her legs apart. I lay on my belly between her legs. With my fingertips I pulled her folds apart to reveal the swollen pearl and the velvety wet softness below. She angled her hips up, and I moved my arms under her legs, around and grasped her waist. Then I began a slow dance with my tongue around the small sensitive bulb, careful not to touch directly yet, and flicking around the mouth of her vagina, and then back. Gradually increasing pace and strength while listening to her body, her moans, her twists, and gasps, I waltzed with her to starry delights where we dallied then danced again, and more... for most of the night.
Eventually, wrapped in bliss and each others arms, we fell asleep.
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