Selena City

by Miriam English


Contents

01 - Lost
02 - Background
03 - Regroup
04 - Tourists
05 - Tourists
06 - Gardens
07 - Memories
08 - Memories
09 - Chances
10 - Remember
11 - Endanger
12 - Checking
13 - Feelings
14 - Proof
15 - Lessons
16 - Invincible
17 - Hit
18 - Solution


01 - Lost

Long, dark hair, gorgeous face with full lips, soft Indian brown skin, darkening around her almost Asian eyes. She always looked like a walking dream. My heart ached when I saw her sitting there now. It had been some months since we'd shared... well, shared everything. And here she was, extensive damage to her head and body.

She looked at me without recognition. "Hello Ms..."

That breathy voice. My heart bled all over again. I sighed. "Hello Brenda. My name is Adele. I'm here from security, investigating your owner's absence."

A look of fear widened her eyes, "Absence? Craig...? Has something happened to him? What do...? When? I... I don't remember anything."

I put a comforting hand on her shoulder, when I really wanted to place comforting lips on hers. "He could be alive and well. We don't know yet what happened -- that's why I'm here. The investigation is automatically triggered by his absence of more than a couple of days."

Her lower lip quivered and she looked heartbreakingly close to tears, though of course tears were impossible. She loved him. It gnawed at me, but I know it's a requirement for androids: unconditional love... like dogs. It is the only way people can accept their presence. Anything less holds an implied threat... and is removed. I could see this hadn't occurred to her yet. If he couldn't be found then she would be destroyed. An android that fails to protect their human is by definition faulty. And considering her current damaged condition... My stomach went hollow at the prospect. But I forced my mind back to the point at hand. The best way to keep her safe was by finding out what happened here.

She asked in a hoarse voice, "What can I do to help?"

"Tell me what you remember."

She nodded, and tried to focus, "Not much... it is... fragmentary. What do you want me to tell you what you remember?"

At my look of puzzlement she looked worried again.

"Your speech centers may have been damaged."

She suddenly looked smaller and even more vulnerable, and the lower lip was wobbling again. Her voice shook a little as she spoke. "I'm sending what I have. Are you receiving it?"

"Yes." Superimposed over my vision was a gauge showing the amount of data I was receiving. It would take a few moments.

I wondered about the damage to her systems and asked her, "How are your diagnostics?"

She paused for about thirty seconds while she scanned her systems. "I'll be fine. When we're d-d-d-done I'll call maintenance."

I nodded, unable to take my eyes off her, trying to think of something helpful or comforting to say. Finally I tore my gaze away and looked around the room for somewhere comfortable to sit, to review the files.

This was Craig Mackey's workroom. It was large -- perhaps 15 meters by 15 meters -- and very well-lit. Along the wall to my right was a wide bench with various instruments and proxy arms for doing fine manipulations. Most of the other walls were stacked with rack upon rack of equipment. There was only one furniture item of comfort in here: a simple, unadorned bed in the far, left corner. Almost all the floor space was taken up with free-standing blocks of equipment, some of which towered almost to the 3 meter high ceiling. Single-person wide paths led through the maze. Even in the incredible clutter of all this stuff it looked somehow tidy. Everything was clean and polished, and all items were arranged neatly parallel. It looked like everything was organised according to some very specific rules.

I spotted a chair over near the long, wide bench and called it. It walked over to me on its eight crab-like legs and settled under me as I sat to go over Brenda's files. No time like the present. And it would get my mind off the heartbreakingly sweet synthetic woman before me.

My vision and hearing were replaced by hers from three days ago. He was last seen the day before yesterday. I've reviewed files like this many times before and was quite comfortable watching them at 4 times natural speed. Except for a couple of short excursions to the kitchenette to get food for Craig from the replicator on the first day of the record, she didn't leave the workroom.

Craig Mackey only appeared in her record during the first of the three days and was obviously working on her structure. He worked mostly at the bench, and kept returning to her, to do something to the left side of her head and her left arm.There were a lot of disturbing gaps. Her records contained little of use.

It only took a few hours to run through the entire record, so much was missing. When it finished, she was sitting before me exactly as before. She was studying my face.

Apart from the damage she looked the same as always. She sat there, elegant, poised and beautiful. She was clothed in just t-shirt and shorts. I never could understand how she could make such simple attire look regal. Others had remarked on it too. It was a trick of psychology of course. She was built to be attractive -- not for sex, but as a school teacher. Children learn best from those with whom they have a rapport. Brenda's attractiveness was not just on the surface; it was in every graceful movement, in her expressions and the way she spoke. She was a superb teacher. I've seen her working with kids.

When she saw that I was finished reviewing she asked, "You seem familiar. Have we met before?"

I nodded, but didn't want to touch that topic so instead of answering I asked, "Do you have any idea why there are so many gaps in your record?"

"I do have any idea..." she frowned slightly, and continued. "I know he was rebuilding me. I don't remember whether it was because I was damaged or he was altering me."

Craig Mackey was a specialist in android mind design. Normally it's illegal for people to tamper with androids. One of the perks of my job is a permanent mental link with the City AI -- the artificial intelligence that manages information for the City. I sent a query to see whether Mr Mackey had special permission to alter Brenda. Almost instantly the search came back empty. That just meant that nothing went through normal channels. It didn't mean anything was wrong. There could well have been a special request by him or someone else for the modifications.

I asked Brenda, "You don't have any earlier records?"

"No, not on me. He probably have s-s-stored backups to the... stored backups... backups here."

Her speech and consciousness problems were unsettling. She was so perfect before. Seeing her like this made me feel guilty that I didn't work harder to keep her with me. But that was a fruitless line of thought so I dismissed it.

"D'you remember where he kept the backups?"

"Yes. Over here." She frowned in concentration as she rose to her feet. I could tell it was difficult for her to walk, the damage to her left side was so extensive, but even so she still managed to move with some of her previous grace.

She went to place her hand on a wall panel, noticed that the damage would have made recognition impossible, and used her other hand. She must have sent an unlock code simultaneously. A drawer slid out, containing hundreds of memory needles. She indicated one end of the black velvet lined tray. "These are the most recent." She looked puzzled, tilting her head to the side, her long, shining, dark hair veiling her face. The gesture brought back a flood of fond memories. She picked up a sliver. "This is weeks old. Where are the latest...?"

She was looking worried.

I put my hand out for the needle. She dropped it into my palm and I inserted it into a port on my forearm. You can't risk inserting evidence like this into a proper brain-port because of the risk of contaminating the information. Also, you never know what is on these damn things. In my rookie days I inserted one in my brainport and directly experienced the owner of the needle getting beaten half to death. I'll never make that mistake again.

Unlike the earlier download, this was her full sensory data. I fast-forwarded through it; more difficult than with just audio visual data. He was working on repairing her, rebuilding and modifying her. This might help me understand her state of disrepair. That, in turn, might give me a clue as to what had happened to him. Pity the more recent ones were gone.

Pausing the playback, I asked her, "No idea where the more recent needles could be?"

Looking as if she would burst into tears she shook her head. "He is very organised. Either he took them with him, or... or," her voice choked, "or someone else did."

"Can anyone else open the storage?"

"No. Only him and me. The security on the wall panel is state of the art. He is obsessed with security."

I noticed her use of present tense, glad she believed he was alive. If he was dead she would mentally unravel even before she got designated for destruction. Like I said, selfless devotion. It's cruel. It's the way it is.

She continued, "It would mean either he opened it and took them, or someone else forced him to open it and then took them, or... I opened it..." She was looking very scared.

"Shhh, shhh. We don't know anything yet. We need to focus on finding him."

She looked grateful, nodded. "He doesn't monitor this room, but the rest of the apartment is recorded."

"Then we need to check that."

I started to wonder why he didn't monitor his workroom and I remembered the bed in the corner. He lived in here. Most people don't monitor their own bedrooms. Even simple-minded creatures like lizards needed to have some privacy or they just curl up and die. But a bed in your workroom? A geek. Can you imagine being that tied to your work? Oh wait -- I have no life outside my work either. I guess I can imagine it.

Brenda led me out of the workroom to the small living room. There were just the standard furniture items: a lounge, two arm chairs, a picture wall with a generic landscape (probably unchanged since installation), and a set of empty shelves that, in most apartments, would hold bric-a-brac and decorations.It was clear he had never spent much time in here. She went to the wall beside the shelves and popped open a panel, behind which was more physical security. I could see why Brenda said he was obsessed with security. Nobody puts their house monitor data behind physical locks. She unlocked it and enabled my access.

I frowned. "No help. The main apartment memory's been blanked out over the same period of a couple days ago."

Brenda turned back to the panel and did something further there. "He keeps double backups of the apartment data. Here, you should be able to access them now."

Yes, obsessive about security. Who keeps double backups of house monitors?

I connected with the data and quickly indexed into the time I was interested in. Now we were getting somewhere. He had a pair of visitors in the period that had been blanked out. I got Brenda to look at the data, but she didn't know who they were, so I sent the face/physique/mannerisms data back to the City database and they came back with an ID almost immediately. The big guy who looked like he was running things was just a bodyguard. Wow! A human bodyguard -- these guys were old-school thug... and probably more dangerous for it. An android bodyguard shouldn't be able to hurt a human, but a human bodyguard might have no such qualms. The smaller guy was Jason Farne, a physicist chasing the elusive quantum computing rainbow. What business would he have here? And why the muscular associate? Oh my... this was a nice puzzle.

I stood for a while pondering it, then I turned back to her. "Brenda?"

She looked at me questioningly.

"Brenda, if you feel uncomfortable here you don't have to stay... you know, in case the culprits return, I mean." I waited. She seemed confused so I explained, "I, uh, the City can arrange temporary accomodation until this is resolved."

She looked uncertain and still didn't say anything.

I ventured further. "Umm... you can... umm... you could stay... umm... at my apartment." I immediately felt like an idiot suggesting it. "If you want to, that is. You'd be safe, and nobody would look for you there." God, this was totally inappropriate. What was I thinking? That I could be with her again?

She smiled -- beautiful and kind. I melted. "Thank you Adele. I appreciate it, but I should probably be here if Craig returns."

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Okay. I should have expected that, fool that I am.

I nodded, staring at the floor. I couldn't look at her.

She stepped forward and kissed me on the cheek. "It's very sweet of you."

Embarrassed, I tried to make a kind of smile, mumbled something lame about checking back later, and made my way clumsily from the apartment. Outside, I steadied myself against the corridor wall for a minute while the lightness in my head cleared. Then I left to find out what had happened to Craig Mackey.



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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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03 - Regroup

Closing the door of my apartment behind me, I rested against it. Usually on my time off I would read and think more about the cases I was working on, but tonight I kept remembering her. Seeing her again, especially like that... what had happened to her... it cut deeply through me. But I don't get angry and I don't cry. You might say that something is missing from me. You might be right.

I looked around my spartan living room. With the exception of a few pictures, the apartment was exactly the same as when I moved in here. I'd been unable to stay in the apartment Brenda and I had shared, yet I kept the pictures. Does that make sense? No.

I walked over to my favorite picture and picked it up: Brenda and me on a brief holiday on Earth. I still had no idea how that had happened. I'd always presumed it was an anonymous friend in Rostering. The picture took me back. The video clip only lasted about a minute before it repeated. I slowed it and studied her face. She was so happy. For a short while she was able to pretend she was human. We were on a large sail-ferry cruising up the Inland Sea from Port Augusta. The wind was blowing in our faces and the weather was perfect. The sky was an amazing blue... and so distant! It was hard to get used to the distances in Australia after having never left Selena City before. The sea was calm with only small waves and the ferry made an irregular rushing, splashing sound as it cut through the water. Seagulls skimmed through the air above the ferry, jostling for position, watching the passengers for thrown tidbits.

I remember stroking her hair. She was so beautiful. She turned to me, her eyes alight with joy, then I remember the adoration that came over those dark, almond eyes. How could I be so lucky to be the recipient of that? How was it possible? I'd had liaisons with other androids before -- who hasn't? -- but this was different. We were perfect together. And I was in love -- saturated with it, besotted. Why? I had absolutely no idea. It had never happened to me before. All I knew was that I was in paradise. I was in love.

She put her arms on my shoulders, and leaned forward to kiss me. If I hadn't been leaning against the railing I feel sure I'd have fallen to the deck on jelly knees. She hugged me and whispered something that my dizziness and the wind snatched away. We stood there, hugging forever. I could almost have cried for joy.

Suddenly I came out of my reverie and was back here, mouth clenched shut, lump in my throat... and without her. And she... she was elsewhere, hurt and lost and confused because I hadn't been able to keep her with me and protect her.

I looked at the picture for a moment, and replaced it on the shelf. I was annoyed with myself and knew I shouldn't be doing this. Beating myself up over it accomplished nothing. I needed to distract myself.

Standing alone in the room, my head bent forward, eyes closed, I spoke softly, "Room service?"

The room's soft, feminine voice answered, as if from air around me. "Yes Ma'am."

I gulped. "Send a girl up, please."

"Right away Ma'am."

I was still wearing my slacks and stretchy sleeveless top, and drinking apple juice some ten minutes later when a knock at the door announced my visitor.

She was new, and had the appearance of someone in their late twenties, early thirties. Being an android though, she was a good deal younger physically, and decades older mentally. Her long black hair, dusky skin, and dark eyes held me. She was slimmer than Brenda, and without her subtle grace, but the simple clothes and open smile... I couldn't speak.

Entering, she introduced herself as Henna. She seemed timid and nervous. When I sighed she misread it, thinking I was dissatisfied with her, and was embarrassed, "I'm sorry, I'm new. All the girls cleaned off my makeup and dressed me in plain jeans and t-shirt. Was it a practical joke?"

With effort I found my voice and reassured her, "No, no. I like how you look. You remind me of someone, which was their intention. You don't have to worry about the girls. They're the best friends you could possibly have."

She relaxed somewhat, then started to remove her t-shirt. I gulped and pulled it back down. I suggested we talk for a while, offered her some apple juice.

We sat on the couch with our drinks of juice. I was wondering if this was such a good idea after all. The girls had meant well sending someone who looked like Brenda, but I felt I needed to forget, not be reminded of her.

Henna asked, "What was her name?"

"Who?"

She smiled and rolled her eyes.

I leaned back and rubbed my face then looked at the ceiling. She waited patiently.

"Brenda."

She leaned against my side and pulled her knees up to her chest. "Tell me about her."

I closed my eyes and saw her. The familiar pain stabbed through me. I gasped and opened my eyes again. "I'd prefer to talk about something else, actually. Lets talk about you."

She looked up at me, "I'm sorry. Okay. Well, there's not much to say, really. I'm a very recent model with a lot of nice improvements. I had thought my level of empathy was something to be really proud of, but now I'm beginning to wonder." She flashed me a smile. "I was made only a few weeks ago. My inbuilt memories are of Earth, so Selena City constantly amazes me. They didn't bother to add much about the City, which seems an odd thing to do."

I suggested, "Perhaps it's an experiment in forming unbiased memories."

She nodded. "I guess that makes sense."

"So, what have you learned about the City, and what do you like the most?"

She grinned. "What do I like the most? Oh, no contest! The Gardens. What have I learned? Not a lot. I mean, I know we're on the Moon, under the surface at the equator, and that selene is ancient Greek for Moon, but not much else."

"Do you know why the City was built?"

She put her head on my shoulder. "No. I'd never really wondered about it. It's kinda here and I just took it for granted, like it was always here, I guess. I'd never thought of it having a beginning, or a why."

"Do you know much about the early days of the Unified Earth Government?"

She shook her head.

"Well, one of the first things they did is to outlaw gambling. All the casinos, racing interests, lotteries, and many underworld groups that were allied with them were faced with their planetwide assets being seized. They'd always been able to bribe or blackmail their way out of any situation in the past, but now they were looking at losing everything. Some bright spark realised that the Moon was beyond Earth law and untaxable, both legally and practically -- no man had walked here for the best part of a century. So money was poured into building a casino here. They had more than enough funds. It took very little time to set up a base. There was no shortage of scientists wanting to work on it, since Earth had been closing down space programs for decades."

"So it was started by crooks? I had no idea."

"Well, not quite, but there was definitely an element of underworld here in the early days." I looked down at her pretty face.

"Huh." She frowned. "You'd never know it now. It is so peaceful here. In comparison Earth is a scary place. I'd hate to live there."

"Yeah. I wouldn't like to live there either, but it can be a nice place to visit."

She sat up and looked at me, her face bright. "You've been to Earth?"

I nodded, but hastily changed the subject away from my holiday there. "Did you know they originally used giant chemical rockets to lift things into space?"

"Yes! How primitive is that!? When did they build the space elevator?"

"Oh, it was begun almost immediately, but had a lot of problems before it became workable. The elevator was what really made Selena City. It made space travel so cheap the City could afford to give free travel to tourists, and then things boomed here. I mean, it had everything: glamour, open society, adventure, and free transport. No wonder it was so successful."

We sat for a while.

"Hey Adele?" She turned to look earnestly at me.

"Hmmm?"

"If Earth tried to get rid of the crooks and they all came here, why is Selena City such a nice place to live and Earth so horrible?"

"You're making the same mistake they made. Crime isn't a thing that can be moved around or deleted. It's a very human shortcoming. More than anything else, crime is about power and its misuse. Earth became obsessed with power. They thought they could control crime, but they did the reverse... which is what made it such a terrible place."

"But why didn't the same thing happen here?"

I shrugged. "Right place at the right time, I think. Selena City became a refuge for the smartest and freeest thinkers and they wanted an open society. The Moon, exposed to harsh space, is too dangerous a place to have vulnerable, centralised systems, so open, flexible, self-correcting systems were designed. And I guess the paranoia of the people who started the place ensured those principles got applied to our society as well as the City's engineering."

We sat in silence again for a while.

I laughed. "How boring am I? I have a beautiful girl with me and I talk about history."

She slapped me on the thigh. "You're not boring. And it's interesting. I hardly ever get to talk with people about these kinds of things."

At her insistence we continued to talk about the history of the City. She really was interested and wanted to learn as much as she could.

It was a nice few hours. I feel privileged to meet people like Henna. She is such a good person. On some level I knew that the conversation was largely for my sake -- to put me at ease and help me relax. I actually even forgot about Brenda for a little while. We didn't make love of course -- not out of any silly sense of "morality", but because I wanted to stop brooding about Brenda, and sex would have brought her flooding back -- all the senses, the feelings... everything. So we just talked. Henna kept my mind occupied and gave me companionship. I wasn't alone.

In the early morning I followed her to my front door. She opened it and paused while still in my apartment. The corridor was cool, dim, and quiet; most people hadn't risen yet. She turned to look at me. I stepped forward, gently closed the door again, and embraced her. "Thank you," I whispered in her ear, and nibbled my way down her neck to her shoulder. I gave her a soft kiss on the lips and stepped back.

Henna looked pleased. "I'll see you again?" she whispered.

I smiled. "If I have anything to do with it."

She opened the door again and left with a wave, a happy grin, and bounce in her step.

The City doesn't use psychologists, in the traditional sense. It employs companions (they used to be called prostitutes) who have extensive qualifications in psychology. All the companions are androids, in the interests of safe sex. It has long been known that people are more likely to tell their inner problems to a sympathetic android than to a human. This works well for maintaining the emotional stability and well-being of staff and visitors. And of course the fact that certain secrets can be worth a lot of money hasn't escaped the notice of the City either.


<back :: contents :: next>

04 - Tourists

Thanks to Henna I felt pretty good as I settled down on my couch to do a bit of work. A lot of map data had been compiled during the night showing video feeds that had been tampered with... at least the ones that we knew of. It would take time to find all the fake video feeds. Minds smarter at this kind of thing than mine had been trying to discern some kind of pattern, and I didn't hold out much hope that I could help, but you never know...

It looked like a pretty hopeless mess, which undoubtedly was the intention. I couldn't see anything in it, no matter how I organised it.

Only several minutes into my shift, a call came in from David at the call tree, for somebody to deal with a problem gambler. I hated handling these poor bastards, but someone had to do it. I told David I'd take it and left.

This guy was on one of the main casino floors at the poker machines. He'd been putting far too much money in and an alert had been set off when he exceeded a certain fraction of his bank balance. We try to screen out gambling addicts, but it isn't always possible.

I hurried up there through the maze of corridors. The main casino floor was in the older, central part of the City, right on the inner edge of Waratah, only a couple of levels below the surface.

Near my apartment the corridors were wide and had variety and distinctive decorations. The closer I got to the older parts the narrower and more uniform the corridors became, with plain carpet underfoot, subdued lighting overhead, featureless walls, and apartment doors indistinguishable from each other except by the number set into each.

Finally the corridors abruptly widened to a series of foyers with polished stone floors, fountains, high ceilings, and decorative plants, then through large glass doors to the constant noise and crowds of one of the main gambling floors. The light here never changed -- day, night, it was always lit the same.

Virtually one hundred percent of the gamblers in here were tourists. It held very little interest for residents. The glitter wore off quickly.

I signalled the staff here and asked them about their problem gambler.

Terry, the young attendant who'd called it in to security, came over. I liked Terry. Everybody liked Terry. He'd grown up here after being abandoned here by his Earth parents. I grinned and waved to him.

"Hey Adele! The guy is over there on the end machine. He's wearing the green shirt and white hat. See him?"

I did. "What's he like?"

"I asked him to take a rest from gambling when I could see he wasn't just having a bit of fun. He got agitated and refused to leave, so I left him alone and put the call in to you guys to come and handle him."

I thanked Terry and went to go see what was the best way to manage this guy. They're all different.

I approached him. He looked tense and was continuously feeding the machine with tokens. He was definitely not a happy camper. He threw me a suspicious, sideways glance without breaking his rhythm.

"My name is Adele and I'm from security. I'm here because you are about to reach your limit and I need you to come with me." Then I silently sent the shutdown code to his poker machine.

He was horrified. He couldn't take his eyes off the dead machine. "No! Turn it back on! I need my money back." The volume of his voice was increasing. "You can't just take my money and then switch the machine off before I get a chance to get some of it back! I need that money!"

I put on my calmest, most soothing voice. "I can't turn the machine on, but I am here to help you." I lowered my voice conspiratorially, "I can get your money back." I beckoned while looking around with what I hoped was a guilty look and whispered, "Come with me." This usually worked.

He wavered for a moment, then curiosity and desperation took hold and he followed me. I led through the mass of people to a side door. It was locked, but opened at my touch. He paused momentarily at the door, but need won and he came on. When the door closed behind him the noise level from the gambling floor blessedly dropped and we made our way down the narrow, grey corridor. I opened one of the nameless doors and entered. He was becoming uncertain and slowed at the doorway to the small, featureless room. "What's this?"

I took a seat at the table, indicating the other for him, and answered, "This is where I give you the money you lost."

He frowned, uncertain, and beginning to find this unconvincing. "Just like that? No strings?"

"Yes, just like that, but there are definitely strings attached." I adopted a casual pose, leaning back in my seat, indicated the door. "Please, close the door and have a seat. There is no pressure and you don't have to do anything you don't want. I promise you, you'll like this." I made my smile as disarming as possible, to reassure him.

When he was seated I sent a command to the table to display a document on its surface. "This is a contract. If you sign it you will get the money that you lost."

"What are the conditions?" He was very suspicious of course. I'm sure he'd seen lots of movies about crooks who get the goods on people and manoeuver them into devil's bargains.

"Just three." I held up my index finger and spoke softly, reasonably. "One. That you never tell anyone about this conversation or this contract. As far as you're concerned you never lost the money." I watched a frown grow on his face. Good. He was hooked. I raised my middle finger. "Two. You never gamble at Selena City again. You'll still be welcome here, but not to gamble." Not waiting for a reaction, I raised my ring finger. "Three. You hear me out over the next several minutes."

I waited and watched the puzzlement grow.

"I don't want to sign anything till I hear what you're going to say." He thought he'd found the catch.

I smiled with relief. "Good. At the end you're free to sign or not, as you see fit." I put my hands on the table, palms upward to convey openness. "You want to know why a gambling casino would give people's money back." I raised my eyebrows. "Well, it's simple really. We don't like problem gamblers. They're bad for business. Normally we try to screen out such people, but occasionally," I indicated him, "some slip through. It's in your and our interests to fix that."

I paused for a moment to let him digest it, then went on. "Most people come here to do a little gambling and have some fun, though how anybody could ever think gambling was any kind of fun is beyond me. Anyway, there's no shortage of people coming here for some light gambling; we don't need problem gamblers. The City relies on tourism and what's bad for the tourists is bad for the City.

"So... here's the thing I want you to understand: all gambling is rigged. The only guaranteed winner is the house." I watched his face. I hadn't got through to him yet. "It's true. The only way to win is if you gamble for a short time, have a lucky break and quit."

I dug a metal token out of my pants pocket and put it on the table. "If I flip a coin a few times it wouldn't be terribly surprising if I flipped three heads in a row, right? It's not what they call a statistically significant sample. But if I take a larger sample by flipping a thousand times then the ratio will be much closer to 50:50. In fact the longer I flip the coin then the closer it approaches 50:50."

I pressed on. "Now, the gambling machines out there don't have even chances. They have an ideal loss rate of 20%. That is, they operate 60:40 in the favour of the house. It is possible for you to make a win in the first few games, but the longer you gamble the closer you approach the ideal loss rate."

I let that sink in. "You were never going to win. Continued gambling simply guaranteed your loss."

Time to change direction. "Do you have a family?"

"Uh, yes. Janine, she's my wife, and our two kids."

"Do you love them?"

He nodded.

I leaned forward, frowned at him and hissed, "Then what the hell were you thinking? You blew more than you earn in a year! What were you going to tell them? Sorry kids, no luxuries this year because Daddy doesn't understand simple statistics!? Sorry honey, food's gonna be a bit thin for a while too. How could you do this to them!?"

I rested back in my chair again, fixing him with a disapproving stare and waited for him.

He stared at the table with the contract image on it for a while and started to shake his head. "I didn't know. I didn't think..."

This was my chance. I used a stern, but friendly voice, "Now you do know. Do you understand why nobody can win at long-term gambling? Do you see why, if I'd left you at that machine you'd have simply lost everything?"

He nodded and I nodded back to him, said in a softer voice, "Then read the contract, sign it, take your money, don't ever, ever gamble again, and treat your family with more respect."

Dazedly picking up the stylus, he read the short contract and signed it. The image winked off and I got up. "The money's back in your account. You understand that if you tell anybody about our big-heartedness we'll deny it and take the money back." It's odd how nobody ever caught the contradiction there: how could we possibly enforce a contract which we would deny?

Just then I got another call from David. He must have been listening and waiting till he could interrupt. I silently sent him a request to hold for a moment. "Look I just got another call. Please understand that you're blocked from gambling here ever again, though you're welcome to partake of the City's non-gambling pleasures. Just be careful, okay? I have to go. Can you find your way out? Just down the corridor to the end."

He nodded humbly, gratefully. "Thank you."

I smiled. "Don't thank me. Find Terry and thank him. He's the floor assistant who called it in. You were rude to him and he saved your butt." I turned and walked the other way while David told me about a problem they were having in Arrivals.


<back :: contents :: next>

05 - Tourists

The Arrivals area is where people enter Selena City from Earth. The elevator that lowers them from docking orbit down to the Moon's surface can deliver about three hundred people at a time. Normally it carried far less than that and the security staff at Arrivals had a fairly easy job, but tonight was the big rave and visitor numbers had been building for days. Now many world famous entertainers and their crews were coming in, and security had to deal not only with the extra traffic, but also crowds of adoring fans.

Arriving in Selena City was a much slower process than leaving it. The worst problem by far was the enormous number of RFID tags people from Earth carried. They are illegal in the City so each person must be scanned and all their tags be individually removed and destroyed.

Della was here. She was obviously enjoying meeting some of her favorite musicians, but wanted me to deal with one very uppity musician who was sick of waiting in line with all the other people. "How could such a musical genius be such an utter asshole?" she wondered. He was a member of the elite and he resented having to wait. I had to laugh when Della gave me his name: Boulderdash. It was apparently a pun on the name of an old, old video game, and his smoothly shaven head. Della wanted me to talk with him because, although all security staff had special training in handling aggressive people peacefully, everybody had just about had it with this obnoxious clown and didn't trust their tempers. I had a reputation for never getting angry while being able to manoeuvre difficult people.

I walked over to him. He wore ostentatiously expensive clothes, was slightly above average height, with shaved bald head, a face that would be handsome except for the surly expression.

Including the people around him, I apologised, "I'm sorry about the delay, ladies and gentlemen. Entry is proceeding much slower than normal due to the heavier traffic. Extra staff are helping, but as you probably understand it still takes time to remove all the RFID tags so unhelpfully placed on you back on Earth."

Boulderdash spoke up angrily, "I shouldn't be waiting here with these ordinary people. Do you know who I am?"

Confidentially taking him by the elbow I took him a step aside and said humbly. "I'm really unhappy about the delay, but--" I waved some of the 'ordinary people' ahead of him, and saw his eyes goggle "it is unfortunately necessary. Do you understand the problem of RFID--"

His face red, he yelled at me, "I don't want to know about RF-whatever tags you stupid woman. Do your job properly and expedite me."

I felt like expediting him alright, with the sole of my boot. Instead, I made an innocent expression as if I didn't understand and asked what he meant.

His voice boomed, "I'm of the elite. I should be given preference. I shouldn't have to wait here with all these... people."

Raising my eyebrows and nodding as if I was beginning to see, I turned to some of the other tourists and asked them what they did as I waved them past also. One answered that he was a medical researcher, another that he designed steering systems on the giant sailships, and another that she was a fruit grower.

I smiled and thanked them then turned back to Boulderdash who was livid at falling even further behind in the line. Acting puzzled, I tapped my lips with my index finger, letting him think I might be a little slow or stupid. "I'm sorry, I must be missing some important fact here. I just don't understand. A person who saves lives, another who helps design giant, ocean-going sailships, and another who feeds millions of people... all you do is make tunes." Out of the corner of my eye I saw Della wince. "How can you be more important?" I heard the fruit grower behind me titter with suppressed laughter.

When the guy started to explode again ranting about how his music sold millions and made him a billionaire, I nodded thoughtfully and frowned, looking genuinely lost. "But you have some other reason to consider yourself better than just trading tokens, right?"

He started shouting at the other staff, who looked extremely uncomfortable and avoided looking at him. They didn't want to touch this guy.

I asked him, "Ummm... you know that Selena City is not part of Earth, right?"

He made a sarcastic remark.

Bowing my head I apologised, "Sorry, I thought you must have been confused."

He landed a stream of scathing insults on me.

I shook my head in concern, tch-tch-tching and wagging my finger at him. "Did you know that insults like that are considered a form of assault? Any citizen of Selena City could have you sent back to Earth for what you just said. As it happens, you're very lucky that I'm working with you. I understand the particular mental problems that cause you to act like this..." Just then I received a call from David. I put up my hand to Balderdash, "Excuse me, I've got a call" and turned half away from him, inclining my head.

David spoke fast. It was an emergency. A child had gone missing. He told me where the parents were in Casuarina Gardens and I said I'd be right there.

I turned back to Boulderdash and said quickly, but with a soothing tone, "Okay. No time to dance around the subject anymore. I have an emergency -- a real little kid instead of a spoiled adult who acts like one. Do you know why none of the other staff want to deal with you? It's because you treat them like crap. Money and status count for very little here in the City. The security staff do this work because they like to help, not because they're forced into wage-slavery like on Earth. If you want to be performing at the rave then act like a genuine person instead of an emotional cripple and you'll be through as fast as possible. Otherwise, go back to Earth." Then I strode away from him.

Della was rolling her eyes as I passed and a number of security people and tourists were grinning. There was even a smattering of applause. I felt badly about humiliating the musician, but I couldn't think of any other way. As far as I could see, if I hadn't done so, then he would have made life hell for all the other people and androids there. I wanted to talk with someone with more experience about whether there'd been a better way to handle it, but it would have to wait till later.

I needed to get to Casuarina Gardens quickly so I hurried to the nearest transport tube. There are always plenty of pods available at the large, polished, black, stone wall opposite Arrivals. I stepped into one of the open pods, its interior softly lit with yellow light. Its door slid closed and I asked as I sat. "Casuarina Gardens please." The harness dropped over me, and the little pod shot up through its tube. They always leave upwards, even if the destination is lower. It is much more comfortable being compressed into your seat than suddenly going into freefall.

About twenty seconds later I was six kilometers north and eight levels lower, slowing to a stop near Casuarina Gardens. The door slipped open and I immediately saw the group of people gathered on the far side of the wide, high, arched esplanade. About thirty folk, mostly security staff, were assembling at the entrance to the Garden. I strode over while identifying the parents and Victor Chee the security person interviewing them. Other security staff were streaming in from various directions too.

I was glad Victor was coordinating this. He had one of those amazingly alert and retentive minds that took everything in and he never got flustered. I learned a lot of my skills from him. I made a mental note to try and get a chance to talk to him later about how I handled the Boulderdash character.

Victor looked like he'd finished interviewing the parents and he straightened. I would have still been too far from the crowd to hear what was being said, but David piped it over the security comms so I, and the other latecomers heard it in our heads.

"The parents, June and Ahmed here, were having a picnic with their five year old boy, Bobby when he wandered away. It was only a short time before they noticed his absence, so they think, and I agree, that the only place he could have gone is into the water tunnels. He has a toy gorilla with him, but unfortunately it doesn't have comms so we can't contact it for help." An image of a very cute little red-haired, befreckled boy being hugged by a toy gorilla was sent to us all.

Victor continued, "The recent disturbance with the video feeds means we can't see him, but we have identified which tunnels could be hiding him. He's probably safe, but just in case, we need to move quickly. I'm sending everybody data on the most efficient search pattern. Please choose a route for yourself and lets go."

The group disbanded immediately like ants running from a disturbance. Most headed to the nearest water tunnel. I did too.

The route I chose found me paired with Colby, an old friend of many years. He's a fairly tall, slender, good-looking guy with tidy, short brown hair who always dressed in old-style suits with polished shoes. The first impression he gave was of a happy, polite, charming person who was well spoken and moved with economical grace. It wasn't apparent until you got to know him, but he'd been born a little retarded. He was the sweetest, most genuinely nice person I'd ever met. I couldn't imagine him wishing another soul any ill will. He positively beamed when he saw me and greeted me the same way he always did. "Adele! Great to see you. Hey, I always wondered, is your name French?"

It wasn't a joke. He never remembered my answer. That's Colby. I laughed and shrugged. "C'mon, lets find this kid and be heroes."

He laughed back as we strode into the tunnel. Both of us watching our progress on a map overlaid on our vision.

The tunnels had a footpath wide enough for four people to walk shoulder to shoulder. Dividing the tunnel down its length was a meter-high stone wall. On the other side was the water. The roof was a couple of meters over our heads and the way was fairly well lit by light pipes. It was airy, dry and a comfortable temperature.

As we walked along, more and more of the other security people turned off in pairs into side tunnels. It was a maze in here. All the systems -- air, water, light, transport, electricity -- used completely decentralised grids. Nothing depended entirely on anything else.

The water tunnels were normally closed off by a series of airtight and watertight doors which would open at prescribed intervals in a pattern that allowed water to circulate, but didn't compromise the safety of the system. This was so that if anything ever went drastically wrong, damage was carefully limited. Usually it wasn't a problem if a person or an animal wandered in here. The video system alerted security and they were guided back out again, but Farne's pesky fiddling with the video feeds had meant nobody had seen little Bobby getting lost.

We chatted as we walked briskly along peering ahead for the young boy. Colby asked me how married life was with Brenda. I told him, again, we were apart now, and he offered his honest condolences just as he had last week. I've never been sure whether he's just being polite or if he really doesn't understand you can't marry an android.

I asked how he was doing in his new apartment and he laughed that he forgot the other day and turned up at his mother's place. The way he spoke, it sounded like it was just one of those days and had never happened before, but I knew it was a regular occurrence.

After walking and talking like this for the best part of half an hour, Colby making the same jokes and observations he always did, and me laughing at his innocent jests, when the announcement came over the comms that Bobby had been found. Shortly after, the parents came on and in choked, emotion-filled voices thanked us all.

Colby had tears in his eyes. He looked so happy and relieved I had to hug him. I asked if he'd like to come back to my place to celebrate with some juice and to watch It's a Wonderful Life on vid.

He looked delighted and exclaimed, "That's my favorite movie. How did you know?"

I laughed and replied, "Could be a lucky guess." We'd watched it countless times together.

"Bet you can't guess what my second favorite movie is," he challenged, smugly.

I put my fingers to my temples and squinted as if concentrating and said after a few moments, "Harvey?" He'd always had a thing for James Stewart movies.

His look of real astonishment always tickled me. "Wow, Adele. That's amazing. It's like you read my mind."

I sent a message to Colby's Mum to let her know he was going to spend the night at my place watching old movies.


<back :: contents :: next>

06 - Gardens

In the morning I stood in my living room, sipping juice and looking down at Colby asleep on the couch. Brenda had adored Colby and we would clown around with him out in the markets and the Gardens. The three of us would go to see shows, and visit his Mum.

Maybe I needed a day off. I went to the table and sat to mull over the video feeds problem and wait for Colby to wake up.

Was there any kind of pattern? Mackey would have left some clues, if he could. I was convinced of it. After calling around various geeky friends and talking with them about pattern analysis and aspects of cryptanalysis that were way over my head I became certain we were all barking up the wrong tree. Farne was a physicist who specialised in computing and pattern analysis. He would be carefully watching Mackey as the AI expert fiddled with the video systems to cover their tracks. It seemed to me that Mackey would be leaving clues in some way that wouldn't be obvious to Farne, but which we would be able to pick up. But how? I just seemed to going around in circles. Everything led back to the video feeds because it was the only thing we had. No! It only looked that way. We were missing something that was probably sitting right in front of us.

I was still going over this when Colby yawned and sat up, rubbing his eyes. "Good morning Adele." He grinned sleepily. "Thanks for letting me stay the night. Great movies, huh? Is Brenda up yet?"

"She doesn't live here anymore Colby."

He looked suddenly concerned. "Gosh. When did this happen? Is she alright?"

I needed to change the subject away from this. "Do you want some breakfast?"

He rubbed his hands together. "Ooh. Great idea. I'm starved, but first I need to visit the umm..."

Laughing, I answered, "You know where it is." Colby was always so uncomfortable mentioning anything to do with the old taboos -- body secretions and waste, sex, and religion. It was very cute.

Presently he returned and asked, "Would you like me to make you breakfast Adele? You know, I'm really a very good cook. Everybody says so."

I held up my glass of juice and declined, thanking him anyway, then added that he was free to use anything in the kitchen.

After banging and rattling around in the kitchen for a while, Colby came back out into the living room, grabbed his coat and clapped his hands together. "There's absolutely nothing edible in there. I don't know what you live on, young lady. Let's go out to eat." He called out to the back rooms, "Brenda! We're going out for brekky. You want to come, or should we bring you something?"

Sighing and smiling, I shook my head. "She isn't here Colby."

He pretended to hit himself on the side of the head and reproved himself, "Oh yeah. I forgot." He smiled good-naturedly and said that we could pick her up on the way. Whereupon I rolled my eyes, grabbed his arm and dragged him out the door.

We strolled a block down the wide corridor to a small restaurant that had tables out in front surrounded by chest-high, jasmine covered, lattice screens. It looked like one of those sidewalk cafés you see in old-time vids. I had another juice and Colby hungrily devoured some replicated scrambled eggs and toast.

When he had dabbed at his mouth with his serviette he asked, "So, will we go pick up Brenda now?"

I opened my mouth to say no, but I couldn't think of a reason why not. She was probably repaired by now. Maybe she'd like to come out with us. I smiled at the thought. It would be like the old days. Then corrected myself: except it isn't. Well, the least I could do was call her and see.

Putting fingers to my temple the way we all unconsciously do when we're using comms, I placed a call to her.

"Adele?" she responded, voice of honey.

I went all weak. "Yes," forcing cheerfulness. "Colby and I wondered if you'd be up for a stroll in the Gardens today." Would she remember Colby?

A pause for a moment on the other end. "I think that would be lovely. Thank you Adele."

"Really? That's wonderful!" I found I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. "We'll swing by in a few minutes and pick you up. Seeya soon." I was grinning like an idiot and standing, shifting restlessly from foot to foot. "Let's go, Colby. Time's a-wastin'."

He laughed, put up a finger to wait, and went into the restaurant to thank the chef for a delicious breakfast. Colby always did that.

When we knocked on the door to Mackey's place Brenda was ready. She'd been waiting. Colby and I looped our arms through hers one on each side of her and we headed down the widening thoroughfare toward the nearest Garden.

Colby was delighted. I was walking on air. Brenda? I wasn't sure how she felt. She seemed happy, but reserved.

The three of us used to come here for picnics occasionally, but my favorite times were when it was just Brenda and me. We'd stroll and talk for hours. She would tell me about the biology of the plants and the animals and what she was teaching the kids at school. I would listen, enthralled, captured by the very sound of her voice. I loved that voice, its silky warmth, and the beautiful, brown-skinned android that it came from, her gently smiling face, her effortless grace, and the smooth curves of her body. I adored her mind and how much she knew; the easy way she could weave together threads on almost any topic. My knowledge base was wide too, it was important to my work, but my mind was apt to wander aimlessly from topic to topic. It always amazed me that Brenda could continually return to the subject during a conversation, building on it each time she added another layer of facts. She used to help me solve problems from work, our minds working together on them. I missed that as much as the togetherness and warmth of her company.

Colby pulled a pack of biscuits from the pocket of his jacket, began breaking off crumbs and throwing them to the small birds that always seemed to always be more numerous near the entrances to the Gardens. A wallaby that had been grazing about ten meters away sat up and watched. It had seen the biscuits. Colby threw half a biscuit to it and it stretched over to where it had landed, picked it up in both hands, and sat back on its haunches, munching it, and watching us for more.

Looking puzzled, Colby wondered aloud, "Why do we have wallabies? In all the Earth movies of parks and gardens they have deer, or horses, or cattle, or sheep."

Brenda smiled. "It's because all those other animals are hoofed. Their feet destroy the surface. Wallabies have padded feet and don't damage things nearly as much. Also it was found that wallabies adapted more readily to Moon gravity -- probably something to do with their way they hop. Moving on four legs is inherently stable and you don't need to have highly flexible systems for calculating movement, whereas hopping needs sophisticated brain circuitry."

"So, it's the soft feet?" Colby asked.

Brenda chuckled and nodded, Colby laughed, and I swelled with contentment. We strolled down the slight slope to the lazy creek at the bottom. A grey gravel path ran along beside the creek. Rushes lined the edges, and waterlilies nearly covered some parts of the creek. Dragonflies zipped back and forth, catching smaller insects in the air. Somewhere on the far side of the Garden a Coucal Pheasant was delivering its haunting, bubbling song.

Colby spoke up again, "You still teach school, Brenda?"

She glanced at me before answering. "Not the last several days. I haven't been well. I'll be starting again tomorrow."

He nodded. "There's been a flu been going round that I caught recently. Put me out of action for a week. Our group had to manage without me."

"How is your group, Colby?" I asked. He organised meetings of about fifty people who went on long, brisk walks through the Gardens, water tunnels, and corridors. They also swam races on some of the lakes. I'd always marvelled at how his intellectual limitations had never actually been a stumbling block for Colby. He did more than people who had twice his brain power, and he was by far the happiest person I'd ever met.

"We're good. Actually..." he pulled an old handheld computer out of his pocket -- he could never remember how to operate his embedded AI, "we have a marathon swim in the Great Lake the week after next. Want to come?"

I smiled. "As an observer, maybe. I'll see how things shape up at work."

He nodded happily. "I'll expect you there. Brenda? You too?"

She laughed. "Maybe."

"Great." He smiled, writing something in the little computer. "Can't wait to see you in swimwear again. I know Adele agrees."

I knew he made the remark without sexual overtones, but my mind's eye immediately saw her again, her white one-piece contrasting with her sleek, dark skin and long, raven hair, and the air went out of me. For a moment I couldn't take a step. I could feel my face blush. The two of them stopped and turned back to me. I covered by raising my arms and breathing deeply. "It's beautiful in here, isn't it?"

Colby agreed, looking happily around him at the Gardens, but I noticed Brenda arched an eyebrow at me and had a flicker of smile at the corners of her mouth.

Did she remember... us? I wanted to ask her, but it would have to wait till we were alone.

Brenda reached out for my hand and we resumed walking.

The path was taking us through a stand of trees. Their boughs overhead cut out much of the light from the Garden's high ceiling. It was pleasantly damp under here, and the smell of leaf litter made the air feel alive. There are some forest Gardens in the City -- mostly in older areas. They are truly dreamy places.

A message came over the comms that rain will begin in five minutes. A system of condensers takes moisture out of the air and releases it back to the Gardens through sprinklers as rain. This cleans the air, recirculates the water, and gives the plants a drink.

Colby pointed to what looked like a gap in the cliff face up the hill to our left. "We could go to Boronia Gardens."

"Beats getting drenched," I agreed.

As we turned up the hill, across the grass, Brenda asked, "Isn't Boronia one of the Gardens the rave is being held in?"

I nodded. "It won't start again till tonight though."

"Why do they always hold raves at night?" Colby asked.

Brenda and I looked at each other and shrugged. Colby looked at us in astonishment. "You guys don't know? Wow!" He licked the tip of his finger and pretended to paint a '1' in the air before his face. Brenda laughed and I pushed Colby. He sniggered.

As we approached the gap in the 'cliff' there were several other people converging on the same place. The Gardens stretched over many tens of square kilometers. The older ones were divided up into obvious, large, rectangular rooms and when you reached the edge of one there was a wall with doors through airlocks to the next room. It was part of the safety system here. In newer Gardens like this one the design was more subtle. The rooms were not square, but had unpredictable, organic shapes. The walls were no longer obvious; they were steep inclines or cliffs, or hidden behind tree thickets. When you moved between rooms you rarely saw any doors. They would sense your coming and open at your approach before you rounded a winding path in a narrowing chasm, or a cave, or a forest track. Every conceivable trick was employed to maintain the illusion of a vast, open, garden.

We walked between what seemed like large boulders, around a couple of bends, and came out into the wide, open meadow that was Boronia Garden. It was an enormous, shallow bowl with a paved area at its center, and a single giant column stretching up to the ceiling about two hundred meters above. Sunken into the paved area was a series of lilyponds. The grassy slopes around the paved area were littered with people sitting and stretched out on blankets. There would be hundreds more in a few hours when the overhead light began to dim.

"Are you coming to the rave tonight, Colby?" I inquired.

"I wouldn't mind, but Maria doesn't like trance music. She thinks it's all just boom-boom-boom and nothing else. She doesn't hear all the melodies."

My eyebrows shot up. "Maria? Alright. Out with it. Give us all the goss. You have a girlfriend?"

He blushed and stammered that they'd been out to a few shows together and that she was a really great walker.

I was beaming as I grabbed him by the shoulders. "This is great news Colby. We absolutely must meet this lucky woman."

Colby was embarrassed and pointed off to the side, behind Brenda and me. "Isn't that Della?" He was obviously relieved to be able to change the subject.

We turned and saw the tall blonde striding towards us. We all waved in greeting. "What are you mob doing here?" she called.

Colby answered, "Avoiding the rain in Lychee Gardens. Are you here for the rave?"

She grinned and nodded, then wrapped her arms around Brenda and asked softly, "How are you hon?"

Brenda smiled uneasily. I could see she didn't recognise Della.

To divert the conversation I started us walking again and asked Della, "So what's happening?" Brenda threw me a relieved look.

She laughed. "That jerk Boulderdash went back to Earth. No loss. Not much else. Another person triggered the RFID alarms while leaving the City. Go figure."

I stopped walking. Something was trying to connect in my mind.

Suddenly I yelled, "Gah!" Brenda, Colby, and Della all visibly jumped and the nearby birds flew away, disturbed. My friends were gaping at me. I never raise my voice. "I understand! I know how he's sending the clues! Craig Mackey has been sticking RFID tags on people. We should be able to use their recent movements to build up a picture of where his abductors took him. There will be more people leaving with RFID tags. And the numbers will increase after the rave ends as more people head back to Earth."

Della was skeptical, "What makes you think that?"

"Mackey had been studying the movements of bird flocks in the Gardens."

Della still looked blank.

I prompted, "How do you study wildlife? By tagging them."

I noticed Brenda was nodding.

Excitedly, I requested information from the City AI on whether Craig Mackey had got special clearance to use RFID tags. The query came back affirmative.

"I'm right. City AI confirms it." I was elated. This was what we'd been looking for.

Della and I set up a special, encrypted conference call with all the people working on analysing the patterns behind the video feed disturbances. We needed to keep this absolutely under the radar.


<back :: contents :: next>

07 - Memories

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.


<back :: contents :: next>

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 jugged 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.


<back :: contents :: next>

09 - Chances

Brenda cast her eyes down and blushed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to intrude." She started to back away.

"Wait. Brenda. You aren't intruding." I indicated the woman on my couch, uncomfortably noticing how beautiful she was and how she resembled Brenda. Undoubtedly Brenda had  too. "Priyanka is here on business. Please come in. I'm really glad to see you. And of course the offer still stands." I suddenly wished I had a pretext to send Priyanka away.

Brenda came in looking very ill-at-ease.

Priyanka stood and gracefully moved over to us. "Brenda? I have heard so much about you." She extended her hand to Brenda. "I am very glad to meet you."

Brenda looked inquiringly at me. I sent a blank look back and shrugged.

Priyanka explained, "Rani was very taken with you. In fact I suspect she harbored a bit of a crush." She chuckled. "She said that she loved to watch you work with children. While I'm here in the City I would be very much indebted to you if you could tell me about your techniques."

Brenda shook Priyanka's hand. "Thank you. Uh... I don't think I really have any techniques."

"Perhaps principles then." Priyanka smiled warmly to her.

Relaxing a little now, Brenda nodded. "Yes. I guess I use certain guiding principles, but they are probably exactly the same ones most teachers use. I try to understand what each child needs and supply that, bearing in mind that although they're mostly the same thing, what they want is not always what they need. Another important thing is that the purpose of the fun instinct to induce the mind to learn. Working with that makes life much easier for the child and the teacher."

I motioned them to the couch. "Can I get you both anything? Uh... all I have is juice." I made a mental note to stock up my kitchen a bit.

Priyanka declined, but Brenda said that would be nice so I went to the kitchen to get glasses and a jug of juice.

I heard Brenda ask, "Do you have children yourself, Priyanka?"

"No. It is one of my regrets that I do not... although, as things have turned out, perhaps that is for the best. I am being pursued by Earth law."

I brought the jug and glasses in, set them down on the coffee table, and poured two glasses and left one empty in case Priyanka should change her mind. Taking one, I sat in one of my lounge chairs.

"She was helping the poor gain some measure of equality. The Elite didn't appreciate that." I explained.

Priyanka looked uncomfortable. "Whilst that is true, I am reluctant to actually blame the Elite. Yes, they are the problem and they are actively blocking the release of the poor from what is effectively slavery, but at the same time very few of them actually intend anyone harm."

She looked from me to Brenda. "When I was a comfortable member of the Elite I wished nobody ill. I believed the myth that the poor are in that position because it was simply how it must be; that they were simply unable to rise above that.

"I always wanted to research this very topic. Alas I have never had the time, and I doubt I shall now. I have come to think that there may be some aspect of social structure that prevents us learning this lesson from the past. As individuals we can learn, but as societies we have great difficulty. We have committed the same error over and over again."

Brenda asked, "You mean making it hard for poor people to access a better lifestyle?"

Priyanka nodded. "In the current situation, yes, but we have done this to many, many groups in the past -- not just poor people. Race, femaleness, age, sexual choice, religion, mental illness, geographical location, left-handedness... if there is any point of divergence from the norm then you can guarantee it has been used to marginalise and repress people."

It puzzled me. "I can't see how someone could research it though, other than to point out it existed."

She answered, "One way would be to simply use carefully designed surveys to find out what people actually think of the marginalised group and why they allow injustices."

I couldn't see how that would help. "How would that show anything?"

"Well, I have met a lot of people throughout Elite society on Earth and here is what I think such a survey would find:

"The vast majority are so concerned with their day-to-day life that they have not really given the situation much thought. While they don't actually hate the other group, there is a vague unease where they have a feeling that if that other group does anything to threaten them then they would defend themselves with every measure available. Because the other group is seen as different then these measures tend to be quite out of proportion to the perceived threat. Nevertheless this group is generally too busy to get involved and tend to leave the actual job of repression to somebody else.

"Those involved in active repression of the group are mostly simply following orders. Even among these people I doubt many have genuine hatred of the oppressed group. They don't think a lot about it, but pass off that judgement to others. They simply believe that if they are told to do it then it must be right. I have had such people ask me, 'Where would any organisation be if everybody questioned everything all the time?' Of course I think we would have healthier organisations, but they have this feeling there is some mystical need to trust the chain of command. However most of them simply don't think that deeply about it.

"At the top of the chain of command there is the feeling that the bulk of their own group want the other group to be repressed. Some may even have personal reservations about their actions but they tend to keep them to themselves because they see it as their job to do what the people they are responsible for want them to do.

"Sprinkled through all levels of the favored group is a very small number of extremely vocal people who drive all this insanity. In the general population they have little effect, but the rare few in positions of influence in media or the chain of command inside organisations can affect the entire direction of society. Who are these people? Some are cynical sociopaths who use hate to manipulate others into giving them more power. Some are sorry, damaged individuals who have been hurt and blindly hate all those who they associate with that past hurt. Some are simply small-minded xenophobes who have been taught to think this way by parents or others of influence.

"So, in the end you can have a whole population of rational, disinterested people driven along a terrible course by a tiny number of warped people. Is it possible to change society so that this doesn't happen? That was the idea behind democracy, but it seems to always get perverted by a small number who run things off the rails." She sighed and shook her head.

Brenda smiled and put a comforting hand on Priyanka's knee. "I think we have freed ourselves of that here in Selena City. We have a very transparent and open society with no real chain of command. People are responsible for their actions and they do their jobs because they want to rather than because they have to. I don't think we have systematic injustice here."

Priyanka looked sad. "While Selena City is a great improvement on most of past human society, you still have an oppressed group."

Brenda tilted her head in question. Her long black hair slid half over her face.

Priyanka answered, "Androids. Androids are owned, sold, destroyed, at human whim. I know you don't feel marginalised, but then you are designed not to. It doesn't make it right."

I said quietly, "Androids shouldn't be owned."

Brenda looked at me and there was an uncomfortable quiet for a little while. It was broken by Priyanka who asked, "I'm sorry. I have taken the conversation somewhere I shouldn't have. Time to change the subject I think. Brenda, I wonder if you could tell me more about how you teach children. It has always seemed to me that if we are ever to learn from past mistakes our children are the best way forward."

Brenda brightened. "As it happens I begin work again tomorrow. I would love for you to come along. I know the children would enjoy meeting you."

"That would be wonderful," Priyanka answered. "Thank you."

Brenda looked to me. "Would you like to come too Adele?" She paused for a moment. "I'd like it."

I felt a little giddy at that, but I tried not to make more of it than it probably was: just a polite invitation. "I'd like that too. So long as my work doesn't intrude, that is."

Thinking about that invitation made me remember her request to stay here. Was that just unease at the possible return of Mackey's abductors? Or did she want to be with me? I tried to dismiss it with the fact that her memories of me were gone, but then I recalled her mentioning how my face was familiar on that day when I began investigating Mackey's disappearance. And then it suddenly hit me: when I'd opened my door and Brenda had first seen Priyanka she'd blushed. The blush response in androids is just as involuntary as it is in humans. It was hard for me to believe that she would have blushed if she simply regarded me as a friend and had seen me with another woman here. The blush meant something more. I smiled. Was there a chance for me still?


<back :: contents :: next>

10 - Remember

The room spoke up to tell us that a cart from Arrivals was at the door to deliver Priyanka's luggage. I told Priyanka that I'd taken the liberty of getting it sent here, and that tomorrow, if she wanted, Security would arrange an anonymous apartment for her while she stayed in the City. She was grateful.

Brenda wanted to know, "Who is Rani? She knows us all?"

I said, "She met you and me when we visited the Conference on Earth. She gave a talk there too -- on her unfortunate experiences in breaking down power structures."

Priyanka nodded and added, "Rani knew and understood all this when I was still a child. She had been protesting about people having power over others for decades and had developed quite a high reputation. She believed strongly in non-violent protest and in equality of opportunity for all. Mahatma Gandhi was always her greatest inspiration."

Brenda asked me, "You said 'unfortunate'. How so? Was she harmed?"

Priyanka and I laughed.

I answered, "Only her confidence. After spending so long protesting about people having power over one another, the people elected her as leader. She was pushed into the position she hated most."

Priyanka explained, "Rani came from Sri Lanka. She made the mistake of quoting Arthur C. Clarke, a famous science fiction writer who lived near her when she was a child. He'd said that people who wanted positions of power should be automatically disqualified from them; that leaders should be selected on the basis of their ability, be dragged kicking and screaming into office, and get time off for good behavior." She chuckled.

I smiled. "And that's what they did to Rani."

Brenda's eyebrows went up. "Oh my."

Priyanka continued, "Yes. She decided that so long as she was stuck with the job she would use her time productively. To her credit she was an extremely fair and conscientious leader. However she also used the time to put her own beliefs on power into action. She gradually dismantled most of the power structures around her, till eventually there was very little left. It was what she always wanted: power was redistributed back to the people."

I laughed again. "And that was her big mistake. She used power to impose it. Instead of being grateful to her, the people hated her for it."

Priyanka was grinning. "Yes. Absurd accusations were made about her removing all the dignity and ceremony from the office, her accusers never realising that they simply loved those things the way slaves can grow to love the bonds that keep them in servitude."

"As soon as she walked away from office the people began rebuilding exactly the same structures she'd worked so hard to tear down." I shook my head. "For a long time she was quite bitter and let herself think that people deserved their oppression."

Priyanka nodded. "In time she came to understand what had happened. She used power to remove power. It won't work. Just as you can't really fight a war to gain peace -- resentment simmers and war erupts again later. You can't threaten someone into friendship. If she had shown the people how it was in their own best interests to dissolve the power structures then they would have done it happily and it may have become permanent."

"But she was young and impatient," I added.

Priyanka nodded and we three sat, thinking about that for a moment.

We talked on various other topics till almost midnight. Eventually, a stifled yawn from Priyanka made me remember my hostess status.

"Heavens. You must be tired from your journey. You take my bed. Brenda and I will be fine in here. I'm on call all hours of the night and I would just wake you if I blundered through here with you on the lounge."

"Absolutely not." Priyanka protested. "I won't hear of it. My bedroll is in my luggage and I actually prefer it instead of a bed. I fall asleep easily so being woken is no problem for me. Besides, you and Brenda should have the bed." She smiled meaningfully and Brenda's cheeks reddened somewhat.

Not requiring much convincing, I agreed, but added that I had a spare room she could use. "I'll just go move some of the containers of junk I never got around to unpacking."

Much later, in the dimness of my bedroom I lay in bed beside Brenda, propped on my elbow, looking down at her. Priyanka wasn't the only one who was tired. Somewhat to my dismay Brenda fell asleep almost as soon as her head settled onto the pillow. I marvelled that she was here with me. I could hardly believe it. Don't get used to it, I warned myself. When you find Mackey she'll have to go back to him.

Seeing her asleep made her look so human. I had a great upswelling of affection.

In the early days Androids didn't require sleep, but after some years their designers realised the sense in what evolution had stumbled upon hundreds of millions of years earlier. Dreaming sleep is a neat system that allows more efficient use of the brain. So designers imitated the structures of the human brain involved in sleep and found they could make far smarter androids much more efficiently.

Having Brenda here in bed with me made it quite difficult to fall asleep. I would never have thought that joy would be such a potent sleep inhibitor. Eventually however, I did fall asleep, blissfully snuggled up against her.

In the morning I awoke to a beautiful sight. Brenda was propped on her elbow gazing down at me. An automatic, sleepy, "Morning sweetie," escaped my lips before I remembered.

"Hi," her voice was soft, breathy, almost quiet enough to be a whisper. "This all seems very familiar to me... and nice."

I smiled, wistfully. "It was nice... though that's a little like describing the Solar System as 'big'."

Moving my hand up to her face, I stroked down her smooth, dark, cheek, along her jawbone to her chin, and she bent her head forward to press her pink lips against my fingers as her eyes half closed.

She started to say something, but stopped.

I wondered what she was thinking, how much she remembered.

Seeing her like this drenched me in memories. I remembered the particular ways she liked me to touch her, her pleasure when we were consumed in a long, slow kiss. I slowly drew a line down the side of her neck to her shoulder, pushing her heavy, long, black hair out of the way as I went. Then I trailed three fingers down the curve of her breast, pausing at the tightening areole, and gently grasped her puckering nipple. She gasped.

"Too fast?" I asked, a little worried I'd been too forward.

In answer she moved her leg over between mine and pressed her thigh against my crotch while I raised my thigh and she pushed gently against it, then laid her soft, soft belly on mine. When her breasts brushed mine I moaned, feeling like my head would explode with pleasure. She paused like that for several seconds, shifting herself subtly, focussing our attention on our nipples and between our legs, then her face drifted down to mine. Our lips touched so slightly, pulled back, noses rubbing, and then our mouths pressed strongly, moistly together. Bright electric ripples lanced through my center and I hugged her passionately to me.

I gave a long shuddering sigh. "I've missed you so much."

She pressed her cheek against mine and kissed my neck.

I raised my pelvis and she pressed her thigh against me.

Suddenly a call came on my comms and David said, "Adele, you're needed at Arrivals."

"Noooh! David, your timing is terrible. Can't it wait?"

Brenda rolled half onto her side, resting on an elbow, watching me, a faint smile at the corners of her mouth.

David replied, "Sorry, no. We have a possible dangerous android. Meg interviewed him and thinks he's been sent to assassinate someone -- we think maybe your friend, Priyanka."

"Oh, damn." Shaking my head I sat up and closed my eyes. "Okay David. I'll be there in a few minutes. Tell this guy that you're still waiting on his details from Earth. Tell him it happens all the time. Blame Earth bureaucracy." I closed the connection.

I turned to Brenda, cradled her face in my hands, softly, lingeringly kissed her, sighed and, my forehead against hers, asked her, "Raincheck?"

She laughed.

As I was hurriedly throwing some clothes on I asked, "Can you take Priyanka to your school today? Keep her out of public areas and be suspicious of any male androids. One may have been sent to kill her. I have to go handle it now. I'll keep you updated."

Fully dressed, I groaned and looked down at the beautiful dark vision before me. Her bright eyes smiled up at me as I leaned down to kiss her cheek. Then I fled the apartment before I could weaken.

Running down the corridor in long, bounding strides I placed a call to Meg, asking for a quick explanation what made her think the android had been sent to kill. She answered, "No empathy. He doesn't understand people's feelings. There's only one reason you'd want an android to be sociopathic..."

"To be able to kill a human," I finished her sentence. "Uh... what's his name?"

"Yeah, that's another thing: Marcus Hildebrand. Marcus, after the Roman god of war, and Hildebrand, Germanic for 'battle sword'. I think somebody down there fancies themself a bit of a history buff with a sense of irony. For a human to have that name would mean nothing, but to name your android that... well, it would be unlikely to be accidental."

"Thanks Meg."

Taking a tube, I called Henna, told her about the assassin android and asked if she minded keeping him entertained. I stressed that if she felt at all uncomfortable about it that I'd understand and would find someone else. When she said she was happy to help I asked her to dress in stretchy grey, to cut her hair to shoulder length and for her to meet me in a few minutes at Arrivals.

Seconds later I got out of the pod and strode over to Arrivals. A tall, calm, well-dressed, caucasian-looking man with short, curly, brown hair was standing there engaged in conversation with one of the Arrivals staff. They both turned to me as I approached, the staff member indicating me.

I tried to be as friendly as possible. "I'm Adele. I'm terribly sorry about the inconvenience. We hope you'll accept the use an apartment at no cost to youself for as long as you're here. We wish to make your stay here as pleasureable as possible. To that end we have also arranged for a guide to the City..." I looked around for Henna and spotted her coming this way, looking remarkably like Priyanka from this distance. Keeping an eye on the male android I indicated Henna. "Ah, here she comes now." I noticed him stiffen momentarily then relax again. That seemed pretty good confirmation to me. We needed something more solid than that though. I'd do a full background check on him. Earth authorities always seemed to seriously underestimate us, so I could pretty-much expect a half-hearted cover story for this guy. I'd have to brief Henna shortly too.

When Henna was close enough I introduced her to him. "Henna, this is Marcus. I want you to show him everything about the City that he wishes to see. Please help him in any way you can."

Henna gave him a dazzling smile and said, "It will be my pleasure."

I turned to Marcus. "You have comms?" At his nod I continued, "City Housing will send you codes for an apartment shortly and we'll have your luggage delivered there for you if you wish. You are welcome to partake of the City's pleasures."

I shook his hand. "I hope you have a pleasant stay with us." Then I turned to Henna and embraced her. "Thanks hon, for coming on such short notice. I'll be in touch."


<back :: contents :: next>

11 - Endanger

For a few minutes I listened in on Henna's comms while she and Marcus Hildebrand walked off down the wide corridor. I wanted to make sure she wasn't having problems. She was taking him to the main entertainment areas and was chatting to him about how wonderful life was for androids here in Selena City. She sympathised with him, that he came from Earth, and told him how lucky he was to be able to travel here. He actually seemed interested in what she was saying and appeared to be enjoying himself.

Satisfied that Henna was managing well, I ended my connection and placed a call to David. "Hey kid, I was going to work up a background on our suspicious android. Is anybody else already researching it?"

He replied, "Paul decided to look into it. Didn't need to look far. Usual sloppy work from the Earth bureaucracy. He's supposed to be from a construction company looking for potential clients here."

"Let me guess. There is no such company."

David laughed. "Don't you just love hierarchical organisations where people are promoted to maximise incompetence, and where resentment and passive-aggressive resistance taint everything?" He chuckled away.

"Thanks David. I'd better let Henna know."

"Paul's already told Henna, but there's something more she needs to know. I was just about to call her when you called me." He paused a moment. "When we scanned Mr Hildebrand for suspicious items no weapons were found, and no embedded explosives, but there was an oddity. His skeleton is titanium instead of the more usual organics, all his vitals are armored, and his muscles are way over-engineered. This guy is ummm... superman... well, except he can't fly."

"Oh great." This was somewhat alarming. "He's the weapon. Huh. Battle sword."

"Battle sword?"

"His last name -- Meg said it means 'battle sword'. I want to check on Henna anyway, so I'll tell her she's with Mr Invincible." I sighed. I didn't like that I'd sent Henna off with a super-charged killing machine. "Thanks David."

"No problem. I'll keep you posted with any further developments."

I signed off from David, re-opened my connection with Henna and waited for a break in her conversation. To my surprise she was enthusiastically telling him about the history of the City and Earth. Some of it was stuff we'd discussed that night we'd first met, but a lot of it was completely new to me. She must have been downloading lots of knowledge from the City database. I was filled with renewed respect for her. I've always had great regard for the City's companions -- their work requires that they're designed to be some of the smartest members of our society. But Henna played the part of ingenue so well it was difficult to remember that she was a highly qualified psychologist.

When I got a chance I told Henna as briefly and concisely as possible the news about the guy she was entertaining. She sent back a silent acknowledged code. I continued to listen to their conversation for a while. Henna began discussing philosophy with the guy while they strolled down the corridor. She had him involved, commenting and asking questions. He seemed to be very interested in the topic. It appeared that she was using her knowledge and training to keep his mind engaged and away from his destructive purpose. Good on her. It would give us more time to assess the situation properly.

I was still standing outside Arrivals, so I decided to go to Brenda's school where I could talk directly to Priyanka. Heading toward the tubes I made a call to Paul. He was the best person at thinking laterally that I knew.

"Hey Paul. I need to brainstorm with you on what options we have for handling this guy, Mr Invincible. Got a moment?"

"Sure. I've already been trying to make some kind of list of possibilities. Here, I'll send it."

As I got into one of the pods a text list overlaid itself on my vision:

  1. disable him
  2. destroy him
  3. convince him that Priyanka isn't here
  4. convince him Priyanka is already dead
  5. let him think he has succeeded in his mission
  6. let him stay here and keep him separated from Priyanka

Paul spoke again, "Points 1 and 2. Disabling or destroying are difficult, maybe impossible, because we probably don't have any weapons that could be guaranteed to work against him, and we definitely don't want to bungle an attack. However, like all humans and androids, he still requires energy, so would need to consume sugar... unless he's powered by something else, which is doubtful. If we could deprive him of sugar or chemically block its use in his body then that may work.

"Point 3. We could let him see a faked video feed of Priyanka leaving for Earth. Apart from the technical problems, a big flaw with that plan is that she actually does want to go back to Earth. We would be making it even more dangerous on Earth for her. Or we could do the same for her going to Barsoom City on Mars. Inflicting him on the colonists out there is a pretty bad thought, but while he's in transit he's vulnerable. We could upset the navigation so his craft misses Mars, or crash-lands...

"Point 4, make him think she's dead, is similar to point 5. Convince him that he's succeeded in killing her. This is my personal favorite. It concludes everything. She's safe, and he goes home. Everybody's happy. But the only way I can think of to do it is using a body from a recent accidental or natural death to somehow fake it. Either show him the body after the fact or let him think he's killed it. I have no idea how to accomplish either without raising his suspicions. Bear in mind that he can probably do DNA verification, which adds a whole extra level of difficulty to the problem.

"Finally 6. I have to say I'm not keen on having him stay here indefinitely. He's a wild card and I don't trust him."

I shook my head. "You came up with this since he's been here?"

He sounded uncomfortable. "Yeah, I am a little off my game. Didn't get a lot of sleep last night." He thought I was disappointed.

I laughed. "Paul you are amazing. I don't know anybody else who could come up with this number of options so quickly."

He said, "I'll keep working on it and see what else I can think of. We really need to farm out some of these points to other people too. I'll get together a team. Anybody you think should be a part of it?"

"José in comms. He has a great mind. Do you know Xouxie at Food Research? She might be able to help with blocking sugar use."

"Cool. I'd already contacted José, but I don't know Xouxie. Thanks Adele. I'll keep you in the loop."

Before he went I thought I'd just ask, "Paul, have you any ideas on how Mr Invincible would hope to find Priyanka? The City usually has close to half a million people."

He agreed. "It is a bit of a problem. It's too much area for one person to cover -- 14 regions with 16 levels -- it aggregates to a bit over three thousand square kilometers."

"All I can think is that he's hoping to link in to the City's database. We should get Priyanka an old apartment that has been in use for a long time because he'll want to check anonymous ones and apartments newly occupied. He may also have some way of checking the corridor video feeds for images of her."

"Perhaps Mackey and Farne's fiddling with video feeds can be useful to us there... not quite sure how, but I'll think on it."

"Thanks Paul. I'll get Priyanka to change her appearance just in case."

"Where are you headed now?"

"I was off to see Brenda. Priyanka is with her."

"Ummm... is that such a good idea? If this Marcus guy can tap into the video system he may be watching you. You'd lead him straight to her."

"Oh crap. I hadn't thought of that. I must be slipping."

He laughed. "You're too well adjusted -- not paranoid enough."

We closed our connection and I countermanded the destination for the pod and decided to go for a walk in the Gardens instead to think more on this. Meanwhile I ordered the last few minutes of feed from the pod to be sealed and encrypted and just hoped he hadn't been monitoring live and that my carelessness didn't bring us grief. This Marcus guy was a whole different level of problem from what we were used to dealing with. Earth hadn't sent saboteurs and assassins to the City since the old days.

Just then I got a sudden, sinking feeling. I re-opened a channel to Paul, catching him in the middle of conversation with someone else. He asked them to hold for a moment and answered me.

I asked him, "What if Farne is a saboteur? Perhaps Earth has gone back to the bad old days of sending assassins and stuff."

Quietness for a moment. "Shit, Adele. I hope not. Can you look into Farne's connections with Earth Government? I've got my hands full here. Let me know what you find." Without waiting for a reply he closed the channel.

I exitted the pod at the Great Lake and wandered down to the waterside while picking over what little info about Farne there was in the City database. I couldn't see any connection with the Unified Earth Government, in fact it tended to look like the reverse was true. UEG was trying to 'moderate' (that was their word) religious extremist groups. That generally meant pursuing them, incarcerating them, and doing whatever their pointy little heads thought were necessary. Mostly it worsened the whole problem. It didn't look like Farne had ever been caught, but he had been under observation till he slipped under their radar recently. There was a call out for reports on him. It looked like they thought he was a threat to them.

I sat down on the grass under a large, broad-leafed tree with big yellow flowers. The air was thick with perfume and buzzing with thousands of bees servicing the blooms.

The Christian Puritans were extremists, but didn't have a terribly violent past. They'd destroyed factories and research labs involved in production of androids and AIs -- things that made it difficult to maintain the old puritanical work ethic, but they tended to stop at directly hurting people. These idiots were basically opposed to pleasure and anything that improves life. They felt that life was meant to be hard and was like a magical penance that unlocked heaven for your afterlife. Weird stuff.

They were absolutely opposed to Selena City. To them it was the embodiment of decadent lifestyle. We had been concentrating on where he was and had glossed over why he was here. The common thought was that he'd come to steal Mackey, and perhaps something or someone else. It had been assumed that it would become clear when we found him. But if his purpose was to sabotage the City then we needed to find him fast.

Sabotage the City... how could such a thing be done? I couldn't even imagine it. The entire place was a complex network of interlocking safety systems. There was no center to anything. Nothing depended entirely on anything else. In a worst case, large portions of the City could fail and the remainder would still be safe.

I mentally went through some of the safety systems. Air recycling, water, food, disease quarantine -- everything was separated by systems of airlocks and doors. There didn't seem to be any way to breach the City.

I lay back on the grass, looking up through the leaves and the busy insects. The simulated sky was high overhead. It was nice and sleepy laying here in the mild sunlight streaming down through the leaves. My eyes closed as I relaxed.

A strange thing often happens to me when I lay down with my eyes closed. My mind seems to shed its normal limitations and flits over things, peeking at and connecting up things that normally don't get considered. This what happened to me now. And quietly something unfolded in my mind, complete, with no feeling of having built it. I had a hunch I knew what Farne was going to do, why he was doing it, and how he intended to pull it off.

Putting a call through to David I asked him to fan out an announcement to the people involved in the Farne/Mackey case, and I transmitted to them all, "I have a feeling Farne is going to strike at the system of light pipes that illuminate the City. His intention won't be to put us in darkness, but to decompress the entire City by destroying the relatively small number of surface collectors for light pipes in use at any one time. We have thousands of light pipes going up to the surface, but only a couple of hundred are ever funneling light at any one time. Anybody who breaks the surface collectors will bleed air out of the system of pipes all over the City in one go. There are airlocks in the pipes, but if you have an AI expert who can disable them then a bare few hundred vulnerable points can destroy the entire City.

"His motivation is probably a mystical belief that by destroying the decadent Selena City his god will, in return, release Earth from the purgatory the current, corrupt government is keeping it in. If anybody has leads on the RFID tags that point to Farne and Mackey's movements near the light tube service systems then we need to work out which of the thousands of topside collectors might get blown.

"Most importantly, if anybody has any reason to contradict my thoughts on any of this I would love to be proven wrong." I waited for a moment. Silence.

"I understand that most of you are in the middle of stuff. How many of you feel comfortable about working with me on this?"

David put up a standard volunteer list on everybody's vision. After I had about a dozen people highlight their names, I thanked everybody and asked again about possible connections with the RFID tags and the light pipes. Alison, one of the mathematicians, spoke up. She had a vague association. She put a diagram up of the pipes for day 3 and gave a pretty good match for some RFID tag data.

Because a Lunar day was 27 Earth days long we had a system of thousands of light pipes reaching halfway around the Moon. Each 24 hours a different set of several hundred pipes were opened to admit light. This let the City maintain an Earthlike night and day cycle. Today was the 21st day of the 27-day cycle. If Farne was planning on blowing the light pipes for day 3 then we had about 9 days to fix this. That was the first good news so far.


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12 - Checking

By the time I got home to my apartment that evening I was exhausted. We'd gone over all the movements of the most recent people leaving the City who'd triggered the RFID alarms. Now that the rave had ended, the numbers of people we had to interview were steadily growing. A pattern was definitely emerging, and day 3 light pipes were looking more and more like they were part of that, though nothing was certain yet. The other aspects of the pattern would hopefully lead us to where Farne was hiding.

We sent some maintenance bots out onto the Moon surface to examine the solar concentrators at the ends of the light pipes for day 3 to see if any had been tampered with. It took us hours, but after carefully going over every single one we came up with a blank. Well, at least that meant he hadn't rigged the outside. Or that he hadn't yet. Nobody considered it very likely that he'd choose that route anyway. Otherwise why bother with all the rigamarole inside the City?

It would take a lot longer checking the insides of the pipes and we only were able to inspect a few before we called it a night.

I kept thinking there had to be a simpler way. What was needed was some info on how Farne intended to open the pipes to the airless surface... if that was indeed what he was intending. It bothered me that my idea could be completely wrong and we could be wasting our time on a wild goose chase.

Opening my door, I was so preoccupied that I was unprepared for the sight of Brenda there on my couch. I mean, on some level I had known she would be there. My mind had just been so full of this dangerous puzzle with Farne that it had excluded all else. Well, now that was blown away. My dark mood evaporated.

As I closed the door behind me, Brenda smiled, rose from the couch and moved to me, graceful, feline. Her arms went around me in a hug while she nibbled my neck. My knees almost gave way. Her voice whispered in my ear, "I've been wanting to do this all day since we were interrupted this morning."

We stood there in embrace for... I don't know how long. Being with her, I felt like I was home.

As I relaxed in her arms my exhaustion swept over me again. "Oh... I need to get off my feet. I've had a long day."

We moved to the bedroom. She asked, "Are you hungry?"

"I had dinner at work."

She lifted her eyebrows. "What makes you think I was asking about food?"

I laughed and had to close my eyes for a moment.

Her voice was suddenly full of concern. "You're tired. I'm sorry. Here I was, just thinking of myself."

And I fell asleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke for a short time to find she'd undressed me and was asleep, snuggled up against me. In the dimness I moved some strands of hair away from her face, and gazed at her, a beautiful, glistening shadow in the shadows. I was feeling more at peace than I had for a long time.

In the morning I awoke alone. Brenda's voice was coming from the living room. I got up, put on a dressing gown, and went in there to see her. She was seated alone on the couch talking on her comms. She smiled and finger-waved at me.

"Okay, I'll talk later. Adele is awake. Bye." She added in my direction, "That was Priyanka. Yesterday I asked Joseph, one of the other teachers, to put her up at his place. It occurred to me that it might not be safe for her here or in a new apartment."

"Great idea. Thanks Brenda. With the new developments on the Farne case Priyanka had slipped my mind."

Her smile dropped and she looked hopeful. "New developments? Does that mean you might be able find Craig?"

I gulped. Every step I took in that direction brought me closer to losing her again. "Sort of. We have better leads so we may be able to pinpoint their movements soon. We have a lot of work to do in the meantime. Spent most of yesterday remoting bots to a few hundred solar concentrators up on the surface. Today I expect to spend all day checking light pipes."

She looked dismayed. "Oh my god. There are thousands of them. How could you possibly check all of those?"

"It looks like we only need to worry about the pipes for day 3. That reduces the number to just a few hundred. We figure we probably have... uh... nine days to find something."

"What are you looking for?"

I shook my head. "I don't know. Some way of destroying the end seal on the light pipes up at the surface. It seems likely that Farne wants to decompress the entire City -- kill everybody and everything. He might be going to use explosives perhaps, or some mechanism, maybe? We haven't seen anything yet, but maybe we've only checked the pipes he hasn't tampered with yet."

She patted the couch beside her and I came over and sat. She held my hand. "Would he be able to get explosives through Arrivals?"

I frowned. "I doubt it. And I can't imagine where he'd get them in the City. That leaves the possibility that he intends to make them himself. We have a few chemists checking out all the combinations of substances able to do the most damage."

"Wow. Some of those materials are really common... ordinary old aluminium for instance."

Nodding, I said, "We really need to find him so we can learn what we're looking for."

"Any idea why Farne wants to destroy the City? That might give some clues."

"Yeah. He's a Christian Puritan."

She looked shocked. "I doubt you'll find out anything from him. Religion!" She shuddered. "It replaces reality with an unshakeable certainty that rationalises anything. If he's willing to kill many hundreds of thousands of City inhabitants it's unlikely that anything you do or say will convince him to tell you something useful."

"We still don't truly know that he's planning to sabotage the City. It's just the only thing we've come up with so far that comes close to fitting what we know. It's conceivable that we've missed something else entirely." I looked down at my hand in hers. "We desperately need more information."

"Maybe you'll find a clue in the light pipes," she suggested.

"Maybe," I agreed. Even to my ears I sounded unconvinced. "But I can't help thinking we're overlooking something."

She smiled. "Perhaps that's why you're good at what you do. Where others are satisfied and confident, you probably keep doubting and questioning."

I sighed. "It's really not looking good though: nine days to save half a million lives and we still have next to no idea what we're even searching for." Looking at her, I cupped her cheek in my other hand. "Thank you for being here and talking with me about this. It means a lot to me."

She leaned in and placed her lips on mine in the softest of kisses, and lingered there for a moment. "I must have been very happy before, to be with someone like you." She hugged me.

After about a minute she held me at arms length and looked in my eyes. "I bite my tongue to say this, but you should go to work so you and your friends can save the City. If you don't leave soon I'm going to have great difficulty preventing myself from tearing your dressing gown off and having my way with you." She smiled and fluttered her eyes at me.

"Uuuunh," I moaned. "Why isn't life ever easy?" I raised the back of her hand to my lips, nuzzled it for a moment, then stood and returned to the bedroom to dress for work... kicking myself all the way.

On my way to the nearest Maintenance area I made a call to Henna and apologised for not checking in with her for so long.

She sounded as happy as a lark. "Oh, don't worry about me. I'm having a wonderful time. We've been doing the big tourist thing. Yesterday, after briefly visiting a Garden, we spent the rest of the day in the Casino entertainment complexes, until quite late, and then we went back to his apartment..." She paused for a moment. "That was Marcus. He asked me to thank you for arranging the apartment for him. Anyway, we had a fantastic time -- and not just great sex either -- we talk about all sorts of things. I'm so glad you asked me to be his guide. I'm really enjoying his company."

A little surprised by her gushing enthusiasm, I told her I was happy she was having a good time, and that she was now the primary contact person for the problem of Marcus Hildebrand because I'd be spending all day in the light pipes investigating what Jason Farne was up to.

She answered, "I'm going to have fun with Marcus in the Gardens today. We're already at the Great Lake and about to take a two-person sailboat out. You ever tried that?"

"No. I don't like the wind. Those high pressure fans just feel wrong -- blowing all the leaves and your hair every which way, getting things in your eyes... Give me calm, still air any day."

"Oh, I love it. And Marcus says it reminds him of windy days on Earth."

I told her that I hoped she had a good time, but to be careful.

She laughed and said, "No problem at all. Hope your day yields good results."

We disconnected, and for a while I pondered what she had said. There didn't seem to be anything suspicious in it. She really appeared to be enjoying herself.

Presently I arrived at Maintenance and met up with some of my group. Greetings were exchanged while I donned a gecko suit. We would randomly pair off with whoever was ready. When I was set to enter the tubes so was Marcie, so we partnered. Marcie and I had a bit of history together. Before Brenda we used to spend a lot of time together. I hadn't been in love with her, but we were more than pals. I never quite understood how Marcie felt. She was tall, pale, very, very skinny, with short, scrappy hair -- not physically attractive at all, but she was kind and helpful, and painfully polite. She was brilliant in bed -- at total odds to her public manner, which was all awkward and standoffish. Forget about public displays of affection like hugs or, heaven forbid, kisses, but she never made any demands on anyone, and you just knew she was one of those people who was a friend for life, no matter what.

We padded our way on clingy hands and knees up the smooth, vertical, mirror surface of the light tube. It always felt a little like magic, being able to scale smooth surfaces the way that those little gecko lizards do. Maintenance have the coolest toys.

As we climbed, we chatted. She was still single. I told her about the recent re-entry of Brenda into my life.

She asked, "What will you do when Mackey is found?"

I shrugged. "What can I do? She'll go back to him of course."

Throwing a glance at me, she commented, "That sucks."

I nodded but couldn't say anything.

Obviously changing the subject to something less emotional, she said, "Did you hear about the hold-up recently?"

"Vaguely. Were you part of the response to it?"

She laughed. "Yes. It was rather funny actually. These tourists," she said the word like an insult, "had brought guns in in their luggage. The Arrivals crew had removed the firing pins from the weapons and notified us. We followed their movements and knew what they were up to when they started casing one of the Casino cashiers. I substituted for the cashier on the day they made their move, and had a lot of fun with them."

"Fun?" I was puzzled. "How do you have fun with people waving guns at you?"

We reached a side access tunnel, and I shone my light down it, examining it as far as I could see, then we moved on again, up the main tube.

She continued, "I was very polite to them, telling them they didn't need the guns. All they needed to do was ask. The shorter one of the two was rather nervous and angrily ordered me to fill their bags with money, pointing from me to the bags with his gun. I crossed my arms and stood back a little. I told him that I would, but not till he put his gun away and stopped being so rude." She laughed, remembering. "His eyes bugged and he spluttered. His taller partner pulled him aside and calmed him down. The tall one made a great show of putting their guns away and he apologised for his partner, then he asked me to fill the bags with loot."Marcie laughed again. "He actually said 'loot'. I think they'd watched too many old-time gangster movies. Anyway, I cheerfully asked him how much he wanted and in what denomination. He was quite tongue-tied for a moment, then seemed to come to the conclusion that I was a few lights short of a chandelier... or, what do they say on the gaming floor?"

"Not playing with a full deck?"

She laughed again, "Yes. The aggressive one looked stunned when I started loading up the bags with money. I hummed a nice little tune to add to the atmosphere."Marcie chuckled and I laughed, imagining her playing the part.

"Then when I'd filled the bags..." We reached another access tunnel, and she shone her light down this one, pausing for a while to inspect it carefully. "...when I'd filled the bags I sent the command for a form to be displayed on the counter. I thanked the taller guy and said for him to just sign the form and the money was his. He didn't know what to do. He asked what was this? I acted innocent and told him that he could take as much money as he wanted, but he had to sign for it or else the City would think I took the money. I couldn't resist adding 'and that wouldn't be honest.'"

Marcie and I laughed. She loved pretending to be clueless in such situations.

"The tall one said that he wouldn't want to be dishonest, and signed the form. It blinked off momentarily then back on again, as I knew it would. I acted puzzled and asked him if he was sure he'd signed properly. I told him that it would only let me give him the money if he used his real name. The shorter one started to get angry again and said 'Listen you ditzy broad--' but his pal settled him down again and turned back to me. He apologised, saying that he was used to signing his pen name. It was all I could do to stop myself from laughing. He signed his real name and the form vanished. I acted disappointed, noting that they're from Earth, and no wonder they acted strangely about money. I apologised and told them that I could only give money to citizens of the City. The short guy started to get angry again, but his partner stopped him and asked me how he could become a citizen."

Marcie continued with her story while I stopped to shine my light down another access tunnel. "He was obviously intrigued by a place where money was to be had for the asking. I told him it was easy. I turned the booth over to one of the real cashiers and beckoned the would-be thieves to come with me. The short guy was getting spooked and said that I was taking them to the cops. Pretending surprise, I said that we don't have police -- that I'd said I was going to show them how to become citizens and that's what I was doing. I took the tall one's hand and started off in the direction of immigration. It was important, of course, to find out what they liked before we got there, otherwise they'd get all frustrated so I asked them a few leading questions and it turned out that the tall one had always liked working with intellectually and physically disabled kids. He had an older sister on Earth who was severely disabled and he looked after her. That explained his skill at soothing his more stupid and aggressive partner. It also showed why he was so patient with my dumb chick routine."

Marcie inspected another side tunnel.

I asked, "What about the other guy?"

She shook her head. "Oh, he was much more difficult. What is it Jessica Alba says in that show? He's so stupid, the word special comes to mind."

We laughed. We both loved that series from way back at the turn of the century. Dark Angel. Jessica Alba was sooo hot!

"Anyway it turned out that, despite his intellectual deficiencies, he was a very good gardener."

I asked, "So what happened?"

"Well, I spent the rest of the day with them at immigration, helping them understand how the City works; that money here isn't really valuable. It took a while for the tall guy to catch on, but eventually it was like a revelation for him. It was a beautiful thing to see. He'd never imagined that money could be anything other than a central necessity of life, like it is on Earth. When he saw that it was almost optional here, and little more than just a way of keeping track of resources, he was rapt. He could hardly believe that the City gave all its citizens money every day, simply for being citizens. I'm not sure he ever got all the ramifications, but he's happy enough now. We got his sister moved here and he helps at the New Moon apartments with the disabled people there. He's really good at it."

Another side tunnel, and I checked it.

"The other guy is a gardener at Bunya Gardens. I've spoken to him a couple of times since and he's like a totally different person. No sign of aggression anymore now he doesn't have any frustrations in his life. He's shy and works with the plants, feeding the birds and the animals." She sighed.

I shook my head. "Amazing, isn't it? Earth would have thrown them in jail, calling it punishment, and simply conditioned them to be more antisocial. Here they become useful members of society, just by letting them do what they want."

We were almost at the end of the pipe at this point, and we didn't speak for a while, just crawling upward. We checked around the seal, where the concentrator fed into the pipe, looking for any signs of tampering, and finding none. Then we slid back down the pipe, braking our descent by dragging our gecko suit fingers and toes on the walls. It was great fun.

All day we did this -- chatting and checking light pipes. By the time evening came, I felt like every part of my body was worn out. But worse was how demoralised I felt. We had found nothing. I staggered home to Brenda who cooed over me, and I fell asleep in her arms.


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13 - Feelings

On waking, the first thing I saw was Brenda walking into the bedroom. Bright, almond eyes gleaming in her dusky face, framed by her long, straight, raven hair. She sauntered, unconsciously sexy, her curvy, dark form naked, backlit from the morning light in the living room. I could seriously get used to this.

She stopped. "Oops. Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."

I stretched. My muscles felt tender all over. "It's alright. You didn't. I need to get up anyway. We have more tubes to search."

I started to sit up, but she pushed me back down, and sat beside me, shaking her head. "I called David while you were asleep. You were such a mess last night I thought you should rest fully, so I asked him to notify me of anything rather than waking you. They've finished searching the light tubes and have found nothing, which has everybody very puzzled. More people triggered RFID alarms last night while leaving and when their movements were added to the data already gathered, it makes it pretty certain that you were right. The correlation with day 3 light tubes is now strong."

"Damn." I rubbed my face with my hands.

Grabbing the empty glass from the bedside table, she got to her feet and asked on her way to the door of the bedroom, "What would you like for brekky?"

"Apple juice. It's alright, I'll get it." I sat up and swung my feet over the side of the bed.

She turned and frowned at me, one hand on her hip. "You lay back down there immediately, missy."

I had to grin at Brenda trying to be bossy. "Uh, you can get the drink, but I need to pee."

She smiled and left.

I had a quick shower as well, and got out of the stall to find Brenda there, watching me. When she handed me the drink I quickly drained it, then looked in astonishment at the empty glass. "Wow. I must have been thirsty."

"Evidently." She took the glass and asked, "Another?"

"That'd be nice. Thanks sweetie." As soon as I said 'sweetie' I felt suddenly awkward. An internal dialog began. What the hell am I doing? Letting myself in for another world of hurt, of course. Do I have a choice? I'll take any time with Brenda that I can get. What about when Mackey is found (presuming Farne doesn't kill us all first)? Maybe I could ask him to free her. Maybe he'd feel grateful enough. Yeah, right. Dream on.

She was back. Sniffing the refilled glass, she asked, "Is the drink okay? Bad taste?"

"No. It's yummy. I was just thinking, sorry."

"Don't worry. You, or one of the team will solve it. You still have eight days, and you're getting closer and closer to finding them."

I nodded, feeling a little guilty that I let her believe I'd been worrying about work, and feeling ashamed that I could be feeling selfish at a time like this. I should be grateful that I have any time with her at all.

Putting the glass on the the benchtop beside the washbasin, I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her to me. Feeling her bare front pressed against mine... her hands moving across my back...was delicious. I pushed her hair away from her neck and laid a line of kisses up the side of her neck, then nibbled and tugged on her earlobe. Her head bent forward in pleasure and her hair fell over her neck and shoulder. I closed my eyes pushing my face into her heavy, black mane and sighed. Neither of us spoke for a while.

Finally I whispered, "We need to talk."

She nodded and answered, "Let's go to the lounge or bedroom. Your muscles must still be sore."

"Yeah. I never realised before how fit those Maintenance people are. Those gecko suits are great fun, but boy, they sure give a workout to muscles you never knew you had."

She laughed, "Imagine how hard it must be to move on Earth with six times the gravity."

She didn't remember our time on Earth. It stabbed at me again that she'd lost some of our most wonderful memories.

She paused by the lounge, and sat, saying, "Probably best here. If we go to the bed I somehow doubt we'll get much actual talking done."

I struggled to broach the subject of our relationship. I wasn't even sure I should. What would it achieve? Would it simply make things uncomfortable between us? Oh god, I couldn't bear that. I settled on the couch.

"Oh dear," she said looking at my expression. "Something's really bothering you, isn't it."

I chickened out. Our time together was too precious. I'd discuss work instead. "Uh, I need to resolve this problem with the assassin android targeting Priyanka, and I have to try and get some kind of lead on what Farne intends to do."

"Well, I'm not sure how much help I can be on either of those things."

"Maybe you can help me sort them through. You know a lot of things that I don't, and you see things from a different perspective. I'm stuck."

She held my hand. "Okay. Let's see then." She thought for a moment. "It seems to me that the person you should be discussing the killer android with is Henna. She has the psychological training and has spent the last day or two with him."

That sounded sensible. "Good point. Though I have to say I've been getting a little worried at Henna's enthusiasm for this guy. It seems a bit above and beyond..."

Brenda looked skeptical. "What...? You think she could fall in love with him? Come on. Androids don't fall--" She stopped when she saw my arched brow. She rethought and put her fingertips below her throat. "Okay, present company excluded... maybe. I don't actually remember. In any case I think you should call her up and talk to her. Remember that she is the person on the ground. She has more knowledge about Mr Invincible than anyone else. Get her advice."

I nodded, lifted Brenda's hand, unfolded her fingers and kissed her palm. "You're right. I'll call her now."

Henna answered immediately, and I asked her, "Can tell me what your plans are for today, then after we disconnect make an excuse to go out so we can talk about Marcus Hildebrand without him overhearing?"

"Sure, but I can't speak for long. I have to go out and pick up some things for our visit to the forest Gardens today. Marcus never got to see proper forests on Earth. Most died off with global warming, and the only ones remaining are reserved for the Elite. Androids not allowed. Oh, and yesterday we had the best time at the Great Lake Garden. We managed to overturn our sailboat twice. The second time we had trouble righting it and clambering back in because we were laughing so much. They must have turned up the compressors and fans for the wind generators almost to gale force." She chuckled. "Anyway, look, I'm sorry I can't talk. I really need to go now, or Marcus and I won't have enough time to do the walk. We'll have to catch up later, okay? Bye."

We disconnected and I waited for her to call back. In the meantime I explained to Brenda my surprise at how neatly Henna had handled the call. Brenda was probably right; I may have been underestimating Henna's abilities. I leaned into Brenda nuzzling her cheek. She put an arm around my shoulders and murmured, "This is getting dangerously not like talking."

Nipping her jawline, I whispered, "Just innocently passing the time, waiting for Henna to get back to me."

Brenda chuckled, then asked, "Is she coming here or using comms?"

I stopped. It hadn't occurred to me that she might come here. "I'd assumed comms..." I tried to remember what we'd said. "I guess we'd better put some clothes on just in case."

Starting to rise from the couch, a call came in from Henna. I breathed a sigh of relief and settled back down, pulling Brenda down beside me. "It's okay. She's on comms."

I opened the channel and said, "Hi Henna. So, let's talk."

She replied, "Yep. Let me in first though. I'm at your door."

"Oh crap!" I blurted out and leapt up from the couch.

Laughter from her comms. "Oh come on, it doesn't bother me that you're naked and getting busy with Brenda. What line of work do you think I'm in?"

"How did you know...? Hey! We weren't getting 'busy'..."

More laughter. "Don't be silly. Just let me in. I'm a psychologist Adele, but it doesn't take any training to realise what 'Oh crap!' usually means when you show up at a friend's door."

Wrapping my dressing gown around me I hurried to the door. Before opening it I looked back to Brenda who had donned a nightshirt. She nodded and I opened the door.

Henna stood there with a big, wide, open smile. "Oh you guys... It's not like it's the 20th century or anything you know."

Henna's megawatt smile dimmed to its more normal intensity. "Anyway, to business. Marcus has told me why he was sent here: to kill Priyanka."

I was shocked and seated myself on the couch again. I indicated for Henna to sit too, while Brenda snuggled in on my other side.

"He's told me all about how he's been built, and it is truly remarkable. You know how some of the staff refer to him as Mr Invincible? Well it's very close to true."

"Well, that's bad news," Brenda remarked.

"Not necessarily," Henna said. "He told me because he wants to stay here."

I shook my head. "No way. He poses an unacceptable risk."

"Actually, I disagree. I trust him." Henna looked seriously at the two of us.

"What??? Your closeness to him is affecting your judgement Henna. He was built to be a psychopath -- a killer without conscience. We can't trust him."

Henna sighed and stood again. She started to pace back and forth across the living room floor, then spoke. "There is a problem with names here. The term 'psychopath' has become badly tainted. I'd prefer to reserve it for people who lack empathy and show strongly antisocial behavior."

Brenda pointed out gently, "Henna, he was built to assassinate people. Wouldn't you class that as antisocial behavior?"

She countered patiently, reasonably, "Androids don't automatically become what they are designed to be. We are intelligent, conscious beings."

"But how can we possibly trust someone who has no empathy?"

"Trustworthiness and empathy are completely unrelated. Just because Marcus lacks empathy doesn't mean he has to be bad. There is simply a gap in his mind where that faculty normally exists. In humans it is not as rare a condition as you might think. There are many such people who live quite comfortably within society, because they've learned the good sense of a simple moral code: I do well by others and they will do well by me. They get on with others perfectly well and live unremarkable lives. If brought up badly then it's easy for them to get on the wrong path because they don't have the instincts -- the inbuilt programming -- for feeling others' feelings. They have to get there through logic. But once they get that, they can be absolutely model citizens because they're driven by good sense."

She stopped pacing and looked steadily at us. "I don't know if you noticed that I've been discussing philosophy and logic with him, as well as the history of Earth and Selena City. (Thank you for triggering my interest in that, Adele.) Well, Marcus has become very interested in the logic behind Open Society and the philosophy of Natural Morality. He is a very fast learner. He can see the sense in being part of such a society. And he really likes the undeniable logic of Natural Morality."

I was very skeptical. "An intellectual interest in something doesn't necessarily lead to someone embracing it."

Henna crossed her arms and tilted her head to the side. "Give me a little credit, Adele. I am extremely good at what I do. I can tell when someone is not being genuine. It is particularly easy with people who lack empathy because they find it difficult to adjust their responses to take account of others' emotions."

She continued, "People are scared of difference, and are fearful of people who don't empathise, but really, far more scary is someone who can feel others' emotions and uses that understanding to manipulate and play people's emotions. That kind of person is infinitely more dangerous. Empathy isn't the great safety device that people normally assume it is. People can very easily shield it or redirect it. This is how ordinary people routinely do horrible things to others. Do you think the slaveowners who inflicted terrible whippings and beatings upon their charges were exceptional? No. They were loving, caring, family people whose empathy functioned perfectly normally. What about all the good christians and moslems who imprisoned, humiliated, and killed gay people? Their empathy circuits worked fine. Experiments way back in the 20th century by Philip Zimbardo, Stanley Milgram, Jane Elliott, and others showed that almost any ordinary human can very easily become a torturer, an abuser, and a racist. It takes remarkably little to turn good people into monsters. As far as I know nobody's repeated the experiments with androids. I know some of our designers specifically tried to avoid those failings. I wonder if they succeeded. But that's beside the point..."

At that point I got a call. It was from Priyanka. I asked Henna to wait, apologising that I'd better take the call.

Priyanka said, "Hi Adele. I have someone with me here who wanted me to introduce them to you. They say they have very important information for you. I'll switch you over now..."

A deep, male voice came online, "Hello Adele. This is Marcus Hildebrand."


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14 - Proof

I stood suddenly and hissed, "What the hell are you doing there?"

He said, "Relax. I have no intention of hurting her. It's just that if I'd simply said I wasn't going to harm her you wouldn't have believed me. I had to actually come here to prove it."

I glared at Henna, who took a step back in surprise.

"How did you find her?" I demanded.

I could hear the smile in his voice. "Oh, I knew from my first day here where she was. At first I was just biding my time with Henna, but then I came to really enjoy being with her. She's a lotta fun, and one helluva smart cookie. She showed me what I was missing out on, and how Earth had short-changed me. She taught me about Natural Morality. It makes a lot more sense than living a short, brutal life following orders from the nasty pinheads on Earth."

I grunted.

Hildebrand continued, "I figured you wanted to meet up with Henna, right? She doesn't know about me coming here. She would've tried to talk me out of it. She's pretty persuasive too. Amazing kid. Anyway, I had to wait till she left before coming to meet Priyanka. I couldn't see any other way to prove it to you. I want to stay here in Selena City, but it's kinda futile without the City's okay. I mean, you probably can't kill me, but I want to enjoy myself, not constantly look out for people trying to hurt me."

I didn't know what to say. This had turned everything upside down. I growled through clenched teeth, "I'll switch you over to Henna. You switch me back to Priyanka."

"No problem."

Then, still frowning at Henna I told her that Marcus Hildebrand was on the line to talk to her. Her face fell and went white. As she stammered a response to Hildebrand I spoke to Priyanka. "Are you alright? Has he hurt or threatened you?"

Pryanka answered, "No. Not at all. He has been a perfect gentleman. Why? Am I in danger?"

"I'm not sure. He's the assassin sent to kill you. He could have easily done so by now if he intended to, but it's probably best to put distance between yourself and him anyway, just in case."

She said, "Uh, no need. He's already left."

"Okay, tell me where you are Priyanka." When she'd told me I said, "I'll have some people there shortly to look after you. Keep your comm line open to me, please. I'll get back to you in a moment with more details." I contacted David and got him to send several armed people to guard her, then I spoke to Priyanka again to tell her that guards were on the way to keep her safe and for her to tell me if anything happened that she felt uncomfortable about.

I closed the connection and turned to face Henna, who gulped.

A soft voice behind me said, "Adele, honey. Sit." Brenda pulled me backwards to the couch and I sat.

Henna put up her hands in front of her, "I had no idea he was going to do that. But you must admit he makes sense. If he wanted to kill Priyanka he had ample time. It was logically the best way to prove his intentions beyond doubt."

"Beyond doubt??" I still spoke quietly, but my voice sounded murderous, even to me. "His actions haven't left the realm of highly suspicious, let alone venturing beyond doubt. How can you possibly say such a thing? He sneaks away to his target and taunts me about how he's known all the time how to get to her. What if he's throwing suspicion off himself so he can come back later and do it."

Brenda held my hand. "Calm down, dear. Listen to what Henna's saying."

Henna put her hands on her hips. "And what would be the use in him doing that?"

"I don't know. I have no idea what his motive could be. That's the problem."

"Exactly. That is the problem" Henna said, bristling. "You don't know what his motivation is. But I do."

There was a knock at the door. Brenda went to answer it. Hildebrand was there. I was suddenly standing again, my fists clenched in alarm.

Hildebrand did a little finger-wiggle wave and smiled. "Hi everybody. What's new?" He looked at Henna, who was still frowning. "Sorry Babe. Hope you're not pissed at me. Ummm. That's a frown, right? Oh. You're pissed at me. Oops." His smile fell.

It was weird to see Henna gather herself, force the frown to dissolve from her face, then quickly walk over to Hildebrand to correct him as if he'd made a tiny error in etiquette. It was like watching an octopus change color and shape. She took his hand in both hers and said soothingly, "No, it's alright, Marcus, but in future please let me know beforehand when you want to do something important like that. I can understand how people will react, whereas you know you have that little blind spot."

He nodded meekly, "Yeah, I wanted to tell you, but I didn't want you to talk me out of it and I didn't want to implicate you. It seemed the logical thing to do. It gave me a chance to prove I didn't want to kill Priyanka, which I couldn't do if I didn't go there to meet her. And I couldn't do it with anybody's knowledge, because that'd just complicate matters. They'd have her scared and running away, and people with weapons, and yelling, and all sorts of messy stuff."

Henna turned to me and raised her eyebrows at me, then looked back to Hildebrand and patted his hand. "While I think you were right in this particular case, it is better to risk getting me in trouble in future. Please always run things by me first."

He nodded. It was odd. Although he was considerably taller and more heavily built than her, he looked like a little kid next to Henna.

I was still trying to think what to say, but the surprises hadn't stopped coming yet. Hildebrand looked at me and said, "I thought of another way to prove that I want to stay here and be a part of the City. As part of my, uh, previous job as assassin I had to monitor your security comms and I've been following, with great interest, your problem with Farne. I believe I've figured out how he intends to destroy the City."

We all looked at him in astonishment.

"He'll disable the pressure sensors, then rupture the light tubes for day 3 by pumping them up with highly pressurised air. But he'll do it before the date, while the airlocks are all sealed. Then when the solar concentrators up at the surface have their seals broken he'll either open all the airlocks, or simply wait for day 3 when they'll open naturally. I'm betting on the second choice, because it'll give him a chance to escape the City before decompression."

I thought on it for a moment. It seemed feasible. And it meant we had less time than we thought.

Henna hugged him. He added, "It hit me while we were sailing yesterday. The power of those wind compressors is more than enough to pop the seals on the concentrators. The trick, and what is probably taking him so long, is routing the air into the light pipes. My guess is that he'll use the highest set of access tunnels somehow."

It would explain why we found no tampering in the light pipes. We needed to check into this possibility more thoroughly. I put a call in to David, got him to link up everybody working on the Farne/Mackey case, and I broadcast to them all what Hildebrand had just told us. There was quite a hubbub of discussion, but the consensus was that this felt good. If we could work out how he was engineering the link up between the compressors and the light pipes it might even lead us to Farne himself.


<back :: contents :: next>

15 - Lessons

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 on him.

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 have.

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 best for 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 classes."

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, 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.


<back :: contents :: next>

16 - Invincible

I was yanked out of sleep by David's urgent voice on my comms. "Adele! We have an emergency. Another assassin has showed up at Arrivals."

I sat up and croaked. "I'm on my way. Delay him."

Looking around, I was surprised to see Brenda and I were on the bed. When had we managed to get in here from the living room floor? Brenda was still asleep -- like I should be. Happiness charged me when I looked at her and I felt an almost overwhelming need to caress her gorgeous face. It would be wrong to wake her though. Let her sleep.

I gently distentangled our legs, eased off the bed, and padded to the bathroom. My body tried to distract me, still tingling with memories of last night.

I hopped into the shower and put a quick call through to Meg to ask her about the new android. She answered, "Even more armored than the last, incredibly powerful, lots of built-in guns and blades, small brain, and, get this, his name is Mort. I expect it's meant as a pun on morte -- death -- instead of the normal human name Mortimer. What juvenile sociopath designs and names these things?" I thanked her and disconnected.

After the minimal shower, feeling fresher and more alert, I threw on some clothes, ran out of my apartment, and down the corridor toward the tubes in long, loping strides.

I called David on comms, but before I could say anything he said, "Adele, we tried to get him to wait, but he completely ignored us and left. We're tracking him on the video feeds. Sending it to you now."

A small, stylised map and red dot overlaid on a corner of my vision and video feed from the corridor was put in another corner. It showed a wide, thickset, hulk of an android, like a caricature of a person. He plodded down the corridor from Arrivals.

I asked David, "Do we have any idea where he's headed?"

"Directly to Priyanka's location. I have no clue how he knows where she is."

"Thanks David." I kicked myself that I didn't do my job properly when I had the chance to ask Marcus what he meant when he said he knew from day one where Priyanka was. I'd assumed that he'd simply listened to all the security comms and got the location from them.

Reaching the tubes, I got into a pod and called Henna. "Henna, we have an emergency. I need to talk to Marcus, but can't connect to him directly. Can you get him to call me? We may need him for that bodyguard job he talked about."

"He's not here. He left in a hurry a few minutes ago." Henna sounded worried.

"Get him to contact me as soon as you can. Thanks."

The pod whisked me to the Arrivals station and I leapt out and hit the floor running in the direction of the new assassin. However, before I could see him, the video feed showed Marcus walking up to him. The new assassin slowed and stopped. Instead of challenging him Marcus shook hands and was talking with him. I couldn't make out what was being said against all the other morning noises of conversations, laughter, music, and clink of cups and cutlery from a café. Marcus put his arm around Mort and they continued together toward Priyanka's location.

Connecting with David, I asked, "David, can you send that AV feed to someone to clean up? I couldn't work out what Marcus and Mort were saying."

"Already sent. It should be back shortly. Luckily we had two feeds from different points and should be able to use it to separate out -- Ah! It's back," and he sent it to me.

Marcus said, "Mort. Good to see you. What are you doing off Earth?"

Mort answered in a flat voice, "Marcus. They sent me to finish your job."

"They lied to us Mort. It's really sweet here and the City will let you stay if you don't kill the girl."

Mort immediately, unemotionally, replied, "Must follow orders."

"Oh man! You'll screw everything up if you do that. I don't want to go back to Earth. I've got an amazing girlfriend and everything."

"Must follow orders. If not, they'll send someone to destroy us too."

Marcus had groaned. "Orders don't apply here. This isn't Earth. If we help the City they'll help protect us. This place is really great.You don't have to kill people here."

"But I like to kill. It's fun."

Marcus sighed, "Oh yeah. I forgot the creeps on Earth wired you up that way. Top of the class on sadism. Never saw the point myself. Do a clean kill, get out quick, is what I always thought. Sticking around to do more slaughter always seemed like it seriously compromised your position."

Marcus put his arm around Mort's shoulders and they continued down the corridor. "Listen, I have an idea how we can both get what we want. Have you heard of Barsoom City on Mars? If you don't kill this girl then I can get the City to let us leave for Mars. Earth won't chase us that far out."

"No. I want to kill her. Been a long time since I had some fun."

"I know what you mean, but think about it. You kill her and go back to Earth, what happens then? They let you kill someone, maybe six times a year, if you're lucky. Where's the fun in that?"

Mort frowned, looked like he was pondering it.

Marcus continued, "But if you don't kill this girl--"

"I want to kill her!"

"I know, I know, but hear me out. If you don't kill her, then the City will let us leave, and on Mars there's about a hundred thousand colonists. That means you can kill a person every day for the next two hundred and seventy years. Actually, more than that because they breed. You would never run out of fun."

Mort stopped walking and turned to look at Marcus. The wheels in his head seemed to turn awfully slowly. Then, gradually, the scariest smile crept over his face. It looked like a normal, pleasant smile. What made it creepy was the thought that was forming behind those eyes.

Marcus sighed with relief, "Good. Wait here. Don't hurt anybody and I'll organise our trip to Mars. Whatever you do, don't hurt anybody. If you do we'll have to go back to Earth and no fun for either of us." Then Marcus turned and strode down the corridor towards Arrivals, towards me.

I could see him now. He was approaching rapidly. When close enough, he nodded to me and asked, "Can you get everybody quietly cleared from this corridor Adele? No running or noise. I don't want any accidents with my low-impulse-control friend." Then he continued on past.

David had been listening and passed the message on to all the security staff in the area. We went door to door, getting everybody to evacuate with as little fuss as possible, as fast as we could.

Mort stood, impassive, in the middle of the corridor watching, only his eyes moving. Up close he looked even more powerful. Heaven knew what he was capable of.

What kind of warped mind creates a person like him? Oh yeah. The same kind of mind that drops nuclear weapons on two cities full of men, women, and children. The same kind of mind that develops mustard gas. The same kind of mind that makes small bomblets that blow glass beads out laterally at the average Vietnamese head height -- glass because it's hard for surgeons to remove. The same kind of mind that convinces a child to be a suicide bomber. The same kind of mind that lays land mines that kill and maim women and children for decades to come. The same kind of mind that exterminates or imprisons people because of their race or their sexuality.

I shook my head. It was also the same kind of mind that created the delightful film Amelie, that composes sweet music, that paints beautiful pictures, that cares for little children, that built this City.

I hurried to where I expected Marcus had gone: Departures.

I found him organising passage on a small ferry to Mars. The woman at the counter had just brought up a form image on the desktop and asked him to sign it. As I approached, he said, without looking up, "Hello Adele." He was obviously linked into the video feed and had been watching my progress.

My security training let me notice that he had positioned himself so the video feed couldn't see the document image. When I was close enough he wrote on the document,

comm silence!
sabotage ship
fall into sun
delete this doc

I said, "Marcus, you've signed in the wrong spot." I looked at the woman behind the counter. "Could you refresh the form please?"

The scribbled words disappeared from the document image, he signed it properly, and the desktop was blank again. I had noticed that the document had stated that the ferry would be ready to leave in about an hour.

Marcus turned to me. "Tell Henna she's the best thing to ever happen to me. I wasn't alive till I met her. Send my best to Brenda, and..." he smiled and shook hands with me, "thank you Adele."

A lump formed in my throat. I nodded. "Why don't you stay? You make a great bodyguard."

Marcus got a slightly panicked look and shook his head. "I have to go. It's the only way." After a moment's pause he said, "I'll go get Mort."

I asked the woman if she could pass on the message to all the other staff to evacuate the Departures area, then I called David and got several security staff to cordon off the area. Only Marcus and Mort were to be allowed in.

While this was being done I brought up the latest map of areas where Farne had got Mackey to fake the video feeds. There was a corridor several minutes run from here so I took off at full run and sent a call to Henna, Paul, and several more security staff and tech geeks to meet me in that address. Racing down the corridor I had to concentrate well ahead to avoid people. Changing direction when you're moving fast is tricky. I remembered on our visit to Earth when I needed to run to a meeting, how strange it had felt, having the traction to easily avoid obstacles at a fair speed. It was like being glued to the floor.

On the way I had to jump over a few people, narrowly avoided colliding with an old couple as they came out of a door, and had to push off some fern beds to jump sideways and bounce off the wall in order to miss a child who ran into the corridor playing chase with his toy ostrich.

Eventually, panting, I got there without mishap, and beckoned a shop owner out into the corridor, safe from the shop's video feed. Between gasps for breath, I asked him if he chanced to have some paper and a pencil. It was to be expected that he didn't, they're not often used these days, so I got him to quickly replicate a few small sheets and a pencil for me and to not charge them please. I didn't want a traceable record in the City database; a life may depend upon it. He obviously thought that was an odd request, but was happy to help.

The other people I'd called for started to get here, and presently the shop owner returned with paper and pencil. I thanked him gratefully and he returned to his shop.

When Henna arrived I hugged her, looked around the group, and decided there were enough of us here to begin.

"Firstly, maintain comms silence from now on please. I've chosen this spot because the video feed here doesn't work, so we can't be monitored. A second assassin android has been sent to the City and is probably monitoring all the comm channels, particularly ours. This android has severely limited intelligence and has been designed to enjoy inflicting pain and death. It would appear that he can't be turned around. He is far more powerful than Marcus Hildebrand and much better armored. Marcus has convinced this other android to go with him to Mars, and managed to get a message to me that he wanted the ship to be sabotaged so that it would fall into the sun."

Henna gasped and put both her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide.

I looked around at the group and said, "I've asked you all here for three purposes. Firstly, I want someone to sabotage the ship's navigation system. Secondly, I want us to work out a way for Marcus to escape the ship while in flight that won't tip off the other android. Thirdly," I looked at Henna, "I want Henna to give a message about his escape route to Marcus in a way that only she could."

She tilted her head to the side in puzzlement. I smiled, held up the paper. "You'll pass a note to him in your goodbye kiss."

Looking around the group again I told them the ship was due to leave in an hour so we needed to get cracking.

Paul arrived soon after and I explained the situation to him. He had some ideas about disabling the ship. He said, "Making the ship fall into the sun is easy. All we have to do is slow it down and the sun's gravity will do the rest. Best way to slow it is to turn the ship around so that it is travelling backwards, and use the main thrusters to counter forward movement. If we time it right we can use that second burn to deplete the fuel, so that even if this android somehow fixes the navigation controls there is no way to move."

He looked at me and said, "It would be even easier to crash it on Mars. Is there some reason why that isn't an option?"

I answered, "This android is incredibly well armored. He is so dangerous that even a slight chance of him surviving is unacceptable."

Henna shook her head, "This is so weird. We are deliberately planning the death of someone."

I had been thinking the same thing, but had pushed it to the back of my mind. It unsettled me that it reminded me of what people have been able to do all through history to rationalise murder. "This someone is looking forward to being able to kill people every day for the next couple of hundred years. He takes great pleasure in causing death and pain. From what I can see we are trading one death to save hundreds or thousands. I know it doesn't make it right, but unless anybody has another way..."

I looked around. Henna looked unhappy and Paul and most of the others were absorbed in thought. "Okay, next point is Marcus' escape route. Any ideas? The ferry is sized below the legal limit for lifeboats, so I thought we'd ensure a Marcus-sized spacesuit was inside the ship for him. He uses it to leave the ferry, and someone picks him up in a second ship."

Paul pondered this. "Do we know what weaponry this android has?"

"Meg said he has lots of guns and blades built into him." I replied.

Rubbing his forehead, Paul said, "It might be too dangerous for someone to come in close to the ferry to pick up Marcus. We need to get him away from the ship to a good distance, fast."

Someone else suggested, "Rocket pack?"

One of the techs shook his head. "Their name makes them sound fast, but they're strictly low power."

Paul asked, "Could a small runabout be tethered to the side?"

One of the other techs answered, "Sure. We have to adjust for weight being off center in the ferry's navigation, but I don't see a problem with that. We need navigation to be accurate because we don't want to send the ferry in a big circle to crash back onto the Moon."

Another tech answered, "We have cargo webbing that would do the trick. It's a thick net with latches for fastening goods down inside ship cargo holds. It's easily strong enough to hold a runabout. And the latches are made to undo quickly and easily."

I nodded.

Henna looked at me. "I want to be in the pick-up ship. I know it can be remotely operated, but that involves small time lags that make things more difficult. It's too dangerous for a human, and I want to be the one to see him safe. "

I smiled at Henna then turned to the group, "Now, who can fix the ferry's navigation."

Two of the techs volunteered.

"Thanks, guys. Now the runabout and tethering it to the ferry?"

Paul added, "And the spacesuit."

I volunteered, "I can get the Marcus-sized spacesuit."

One of the security guys said he'd get the runabout and one of the techs knew how to organise the cargo webbing. I thanked them and the rest of the group. Before we went our ways I reminded everyone, "Remember, comm silence is imperative, and don't speak of this to anyone. This android can probably tap into all the video feeds. Everybody, go to it."

Everything was ready by launch time. Henna and I met Marcus and Mort in the Departure lounge. Marcus introduced her as his girlfriend. Mort gave no reaction other than for his eyes to look Henna up and down, which made me terribly uneasy.

I shook Marcus' hand. "All the best, Mr Invincible."

He grinned at that.

Henna hugged him and pulled him down for a kiss. He showed no indication of having received the note, smiled gently at Henna, and walked toward the exit with the impassive Mort.

Just at that point, a call came through on the security comm that Farne had been pinpointed. Marcus paused with the doors open, looked back, and said to us, "Well that was bloody bad timing. I wanted to be here for this." He stood there for a few moments before sighing and saying, "Oh well, I'm sure you folks can handle it." And he left.


<back :: contents :: next>

17 - Hit

Now that the two assassin androids had left to board the ferry, Henna and I were the only ones remaining here in the Departures lounge. She put her hand on my shoulder for a moment and gave me a tired look, then left to go to the pickup craft to save Marcus.

I put a call through to David, but he didn't answer. I guessed he was busy linking info and and comms for the security group closing in on Farne. Next I sent a general message out to the Departures staff that the area was safe for their return.

I stood there, looking around the empty Departures lounge. This felt weird. There were dangerous moves afoot and I had nothing to do and nowhere to go. All I could do was wait.

Now that I was idle my mind returned to what we had just arranged: a murder. There was no way to put a nicer name on it.

Self defence? No. There must have been some other way to disable Mort. We have some remarkable android designers in the City, so I'm sure some way could have been found to undo the wickedness wrought on his brain. Someone once said that the greatest victory is to make a friend of your enemy.

I winced at the magnitude of my error, then sat in a nearby seat in the empty waiting area and sighed heavily, looking at my feet.

But we'd had to solve the problem quickly, I argued to myself. Marcus' quick thinking had saved Priyanka's life, and once he'd put his plan into action there was no way to stop it. It would end in either Mort's death, or perhaps many others. What destruction could Mort unleash, loose in the City? The conversation between Marcus and Mort indicated he liked to hang around for a bit of splatter after his main kill was accomplished. If we'd kept Priyanka out of his reach, assuming such a thing was possible, would he have become frustrated and begun to kill bystanders willy-nilly?

We'll never know. It felt like we were destroying the evidence of my incompetence, I thought guiltily. I should have tried harder to find a peaceful way to stop Mort. I didn't really even try! And when Henna gently tried to apply the brakes to the decision to kill him I put it on her to come up with an alternative, when I should have taken the time to consider other possibilities. I could have let Marcus' plan proceed and worked in parallel on a solution that didn't involve murder. Maybe I wouldn't have found anything workable in time, but at least I would have tried. Instead, I simply acquiesced to the plan of death without really trying to think of any other possibilities.

And then it occurred to me: It wasn't actually over yet. Maybe a way could still be found. I'd felt like the ferry would be doomed as soon as its fuel was exhausted and it was set on a trajectory for the sun, but it would actually take months for Mort's craft to fall to the sun. When Henna and Marcus returned we needed to spend some solid time with a group of people thinking up ways to save him.

I didn't feel any better about myself -- I'd still failed -- but at least I might be able to repair the situation and a death might yet be avoided.

People began to return to the Departures area. Taking a deep breath, I stood and began walking toward the transport pods. On the way I broadcast on the security comms for this, the central area, "Adele here. Does anybody need any assistance before I head back to Waratah zone?"

Nobody replied. The others involved in tracking down Farne must be maintaining comms silence, and it seems that everything was peaceful today here in the central zone... except for sending an assassin android to his death, that is.

Instead of getting into a pod at the transport wall, I stopped and looked around me. The Departures area and surrounding wide corridors had begun filling with people again. The crowds were not vast and thick, like on Earth. They were individuals strolling, couples chatting, groups straggling, laughing, embracing, pointing at things of interest. It was beautiful. All these people lived peacefully, happily together, largely without rules in a city without any centralised authority. I decided to walk home. It was only about 4 kilometers and down a few levels, so I turned and headed off down the corridor.

Naturally, here near the departures area the shops were mostly related to travel. There were also apartments and restaurants, but mostly the buildings were large and open, without many walls, so you could walk in almost any direction, through a maze of large arches with hundreds of widely spaced columns supporting the high ceiling. Recently many of the columns had been decorated with beautiful sculptures formed about them so that tall, marble-like Grecian heroes seemed to hold up the ceiling while gazing blindly down, or sculpted deer and kangaroos peeked from around stone trees whose boughs became the arching ceiling. As I walked in the broad corridor I looked to the side into the shops and vast galleries, then peered up to the hanging flower gardens draped from the high corridor arch and cascading down its walls, and saw ahead, past people, ferneries, and flower beds to the corridor's end two hundred meters away.

It had always amazed me that the early designers of the City built this entry area in the open fashion so similar to the style preferred by later generations of citizens in the outer zones. When I first saw pictures of Earth's giant shopping malls I realised where the design came from. It must have given a comfortable feeling of familiarity to the early colonists and countered the feeling of being isolated within the rock of a dead and airless world. All around, the exuberant design and decorations spoke of the joy of life.

The wide section ended in a circular cul de sac with a pool shaded by ferns and flowering shrubs. Tables and chairs let people relax here in this quiet space. The wall around it was set with many glass doors decorated with gilt designs and script. They led away to other things via smaller corridors, just 4 meters high and wide. I chose the one that led most directly to Waratah zone.

Lighting in these smaller corridors was more muted, there were few plants or decorations, and the floor was an organic, self-regenerating carpet. This is what most of the older parts of the City looked like. I never liked these areas much, though I guess they do have a kind of warm, cozy feel to them. They look like the foyers of luxury hotels in old movies. Not many people walked in these corridors, and with the lack of places for children to play and the sound deadening carpet it was very quiet. I found my mind going over recent events while I walked.

I would apologise to Henna when she returned. I should have listened more to her. Such capability in someone who was still a baby android! Imagine what she would be capable of years from now! Some possibilities had already occurred to me on how to save Mort so that we might repair his warped programming. It would be great to talk them over with Henna and get her help. She might be able to convince him to consent to being reprogrammed, and accompanying Priyanka back to Earth as a bodyguard for her. He certainly had the physical requirements for the job. Could Mort be persuaded? If anybody could do it, it would be Henna.

My thoughts then turned to Farne. It was taking a long time to catch someone whose whereabouts were known. I hoped the take-down was proceeding okay, though I didn't like this prolonged comms silence. I itched to know what was happening. Would Mackey be rescued?

I stopped and put out an arm to lean against the corridor wall as I realised this could my last time with Brenda. She'd have to return to Mackey. All energy seemed to drain out of me and my legs became heavy. I gulped as it hit me that he'd probably remove her memories of me again. He'd already done it once before. It was likely he'd do it again. All that would remain would be my own recollections. The injustice of it ate at me. It was utterly wrong to treat a thinking, conscious being that way. But what could I do? Androids were property and would stay that way for the forseeable future. I stood there, eyes closed, and let the feelings of regret and uselessness creep through me. I'd lose her all over again, and once again I couldn't do anything to protect her.

And then I realised how stupid I was being. I should be grateful for the times I've had with Brenda. It was a waste of time moping, feeling sorry for myself, and regretting something I had no control over. Much more sensible would be to make best use of the time remaining -- ask Brenda out for a romantic evening. We should celebrate our time together. Even if she later forgot it, at least I would have something to hang on to. Yeah, to hurt myself with. I stamped my foot, suddenly annoyed with myself. No! No couple knows how much time they have together. We have a simple choice -- our time together can be good... or bad. I chose good.

With purpose now, I hurried, almost running down the passage toward Waratah region and my apartment. Along the way I placed a call to Brenda and asked if she'd go out with me tonight. Her soft, warm voice melted me, and her answer, that she'd love to, suffused me with pleasure. I did a little skip and broke into a run, grinning like a fool.

Being eager to get home I hardly noticed the journey through the remaining old section corridors to the broader, better-lit ways in Waratah. Tumbling through my mind were various possible romantic destinations. EnTrance was a dance club Della introduced Brenda and me to. More subdued than most, it tended to have very complex, ethereal music with less bass beat and at lower volumes. It was dark and intimate, and beyond the dance floor were enormous cushions and couches on which people, mostly couples, lounged. Alternatively we could visit the Fairy Gardens, so named because of the large numbers of fireflies there. It was a magical place at twilight. The high walkway up among the treetops in Deep Forest gardens was a beautiful place too. Late afternoon and early evening filled it with birdcalls. The butterfly garden at the edge of Deep Forest would be the perfect place to start. Brenda had been enchanted when I'd taken her there, the first time. I could still see her delight as brilliant, iridescent butterflies fluttered about her. It was like a dream. Yes. The butterfly garden and then the treetop walkway. Perfect.

I was excited when I reached my apartment. Now I needed to choose something to wear. Not that I had much, other than my usual plain clothes, and there was no chance that I would don something like a dress and feel like a fish out of water, but I wanted to look special for Brenda. The most unusual thing I had was a pair of white jeans. I pulled off my slacks and slipped into the jeans. Not owning any long-sleeve white shirts, I found a white t-shirt. and swapped my stretchy for it. Looking at myself through the room's video feed I turned about. A bit disappointing, but okay I guess. The moccassins were too dark, but I didn't own any light-colored footwear. I removed them and decided to go for barefoot. Looking again via the video feed I nodded. Not too bad. Nothing to be done about the hair, but that's as it is.

Breathless with excitement I was about to call Brenda when I got an incoming call from a name I didn't recognise. Bronwyn Emory was one of the so-called "janitors" for Selena City. It was a low profile volunteer position. The janitors helped the city manage long-term priorities, like resource allocation and so on. Boring stuff. Puzzled as to why a janitor would be calling me I answered.

"Hello Adele. Can you meet me in a conference room in Kurrajong region as soon as possible?"

Feeling a little flustered because tonight would likely be the last Brenda and I had to ourselves, I asked, "Can it wait till tomorrow? I was on my way out shortly."

Her tone softened further and sounded faintly apologetic as she answered, "Craig Mackey was just rescued from his captors and he asked specifically for you."

I was deflated and confused. Numbly, I stood there for a moment, then consented. She thanked me, sent me the address, and logged off.

Well, there went my night with Brenda. Resigned, I didn't bother getting changed back into my more usual clothes. I simply left, making my way in the direction of the nearest pods. On the way I called Brenda and told her Mackey had been found and that we would probably have to cancel tonight's plans.

She sounded subdued. "Yes I heard just now. I'm on my way to Kurrajong too. Perhaps we can spend time together another day." Her voice lacked conviction. As did mine, I suspect, when I tried to cheerfully agree.

No time to dwell on lost opportunities now. I'd moan and indulge myself later. I needed to focus on Mackey and why he would be wanting to talk to me. Only three possibilities occurred to me. He knew that I'd been part of the effort to free him, or he was aware somehow that Brenda and I had been meeting in his absence, or that he knew of Brenda's previous association with me. The first would mean he wanted to fill me in on further details of Farne's plot and perhaps thank me. The second was a little worrying, though from what little I knew of Mackey I doubted he'd be the jealous type. The third was just plain puzzling.

I reached the pod station and, as I was getting in, received a call from David. I answered with, "Yep. Heard already David. Mackey's been rescued."

His voice was serious. "That's not what what I'm calling about. The assassin android Mort fired on Marcus and Henna during the pick up. Mort's retreated into the ferry, which is drifting sunward. There's no chance Henna or Marcus could have survived. Their ship was shredded. We've sent out a ship to retrieve them anyhow."

I put my face in my hands, groaned, and curled up in the little pod.

David waited a few moments and prompted, "Adele?"

Trying to pull myself together, I asked David to get a group together. I wanted AI designers and microbot designers to look into the possibility of saving Mort and reprogramming him.

David yelled in astonishment, "Whaat?! Saving him?? He just killed Henna! I reckon let him die."

Tired, I answered, "The plan to kill Mort was an expensive mistake. It was my fault and I should never have considered it. It's already cost two lives. I don't want it to be three. There's a way Mort can be a useful citizen, but we need to disable him, then get his consent to be reprogrammed."

David sighed deeply. "If you say so, Adele. I'll call you back when I have the group."

I mumbled my thanks. I was still curled up in the pod, my forehead on my arms, which were on my knees.

The pod asked, tentatively, "Adele? Do you have a destination?"

Wearily, I sat up, letting the harness pull over me. "Yes. Sorry. Kurrajong region." I sent the precise address to the pod's AI and let the little machine whisk me away.


<back :: contents :: next>

18 - Solution

When the pod arrived at the station near the Kurrajong conference center its door slipped up to reveal Henna standing there wearing an anxious smile.

For a moment I was stunned, then I leaped out, squealing like an excited child and hopping from foot to foot, unable to take my eyes from her. She was echoing my squeal and doing little jumps in place too. I grabbed her and pulled her into a bear-hug.

"Omigod Henna. David said you were dead."

"I was," she said. "David put out the call just now for a team to rescue Mort. You should have heard David's reaction when I answered. He was going to call you back, but I was already at the conference rooms so I said I'd meet you."

"You're a backup? When? How much time did you lose?" I asked her, the relief at her survival now fully sinking in to me.

She nodded. "Just lost what happened after I passed the note to Marcus in the kiss."

I was amazed. "How? Backups take days."

"Not for my model. We do incremental backups daily. Each one takes a minute or two."

I grinned at her. "The new, improved model. Thank heavens for technology."

"When did you realise? How did you know?"

"When we hugged. I noticed your hair. It's long again."

"Ah, yes. I'd cut my hair for your cunning test to see if Marcus had been sent to kill Priyanka. This body has the standard-length hair." She turned and linked arms with me, walking me towards the conference rooms. She sighed. "Poor Marcus. I'm going to miss him."

I nodded. "Listen, I have had an idea about how to disable Mort. Being so strong and heavily armored, he can't be restrained by brute force. I was thinking a swarm of microbots could be used to get in through his moving parts and disconnect his weapons systems from inside. Once he's rendered safe we could get his consent to be reprogrammed. We then send out some teleoperated tools to do the job."

"Great! That's better than anything I'd come up with yet."

"I've also been thinking about Priyanka's wish to return to Earth. If you can convince Mort then he would make one heck of a bodyguard for her."

"Wow! Neat. That makes great sense."

A grey haired woman wearing a plain, ankle-length light brown dress was walking towards us from the rooms. I was guessing she was Bronwyn -- the janitor who'd called me earlier. Henna had noticed too and said, "You go to your meeting and I'll get back to saving Mort and I'll see you later." We hugged and she left.

The grey-haired woman held out her hand. "Hello Adele. I'm Bronwyn. We'll talk later. Right now you need to see Craig Mackey." She led me back to the room she'd come from and opened the door, ushering me in and closing it behind me.

Mackey was sitting at the light grey table inside the bare, well-lit room. He was the only one here apart from myself.

"Mr Mackey." I inclined my head to him.

"Hello." He spoke very formally, without looking at me, as if communicating with others was difficult for him. He was watching his hands which were very precisely, primly on the table before him. "You will have read through my file," he said. "You know I'm verging on autistic. I have Aspergers Syndrome, like many engineers do, but it's very strong with me. The only thing that lets me operate on anything like a normal level is that I understand more about the mind and my own deficiencies and abilities than other people can intuit."

"And how smart do you think you are?"

"It isn't measurable." Apart from his eyes flicking from hand to hand he hadn't moved.

"Too high?" Skepticism crept into my voice.

"You misunderstand. Measuring intelligence is irrelevant and impossible. Cultural biases and conflicting effects render gross measurements useless and misleading. Also, there are as many different kinds of intelligence as there are people. There is no way to meaningfully describe it all without getting caught up in a wasteful, recursive, description that effectively becomes the thing itself which--"

"So tell me why I'm here." I interrupted. It sounded like that train of thought could carry on for a long time. "Is it about your abduction by Farne?"

He sat for a moment with his mouth open as if he was mentally shifting context. Finally he answered, "No. About Brenda."

Warily, I looked at him. "Okay. Tell me about Brenda." I wasn't really sure I wanted to hear this.

Remaining motionless he said in a voice that sounded somehow empty, "I have needs, like anyone else, but I find it very hard to be with other humans. I wanted her to love me." He forestalled my response. "I know. Androids already love humans unconditionally. It's built in. Yes." He paused for a moment. "But I wanted her to love me... to fall in love with me." He looked directly at me. "You know what I'm talking about, of course."

Was he talking about Brenda loving me? Could he know I had fallen in love with Brenda? He couldn't. Did he think I was human? I looked at him for a while.

His eyes went back to his hands. "You haven't figured it out yet. I designed your mind. We wanted an android who was able to love humanity but was able to take action against individual humans in an emergency. You needed to be far smarter than any normal android, and more so than most humans. How else could you do your job effectively? The problem with love is that it isn't just one emotion. While I was designing your mind I realised how people fall in love. I don't mean bonding -- the kind of selfless devotion that we learned from dogs and is built into all androids. The kind of love I mean is the romantic rush of emotion that people experience when they first fall in love -- what poets have written about for millennia. In humans it normally passes after a while and transforms to a more muted desire and dependable bond. In some lucky individuals it gets re-triggered from time to time by their partner during exceptional occasions, but in most it seems to fade. Some people search for that romantic high over and over again all their lives. It powers some drug addictions, and religious fanaticism, and it breaks up a lot of relationships as people are unwilling to settle for what they perceive as a lesser emotion after the first flash often wears off. They're wrong of course. Keeping that high just isn't part of the human design -- well, for most humans anyway. There may be good evolutionary reasons why. I don't know..." He stopped. He looked like he'd distracted himself from what he wanted to say and was finding his place again. He restarted abruptly, "I wanted her to fall in love with me. So I was altering her."

I didn't know what to say. Several thoughts crowded into my mind at once. Among them was the impression that he had been reciting something he'd memorised, something that had been scripted for him.

He mistook my frowning silence as disapproval. "You think that forcing her to love me is wrong. How wrong is it for all androids to love humans devotedly? Is that wrong too? It's saved a lot of trouble. But anyway, I agree with you. I didn't want to force her to love me. I wanted her to fall in love of her own accord."

My mind swirled in emotional turmoil, making it hard for me to think. "Was this... When did..."

His eyes flicked briefly to me. "It was about a month before you both visited Earth."

I looked incredulously at my hands. They were trembling!

He had noticed too and said awkwardly, "It must have caused you a lot of pain to lose Brenda after falling in love with her."

My thoughts foundered for a moment and then the memory of her shone through. I sighed and the confusion left me. "I wouldn't give up the experience for the world."

I noticed he didn't say he was sorry. I got the impression he was unable to empathise except on an intellectual level. Funny. I actually felt sorry for him.

We sat in the small room in silence for a little while before a thought occurred to me. "Why was she so damaged when you disappeared?"

"Oh that. Yes." He gave his head a little dismissive shake. "Nothing important. I just wanted her to feel warm to the touch."

"Metabolism?"

"Oh, no, nothing like that. Just a tiny, efficient heat pump -- took heat from the air and pumped it out her skin. Stupid idea really. I was removing it again. It did make her body warm, but her breath cold." He stood. "If you will excuse me now... I have things to do." And he left the room.

I was dumbfounded. I didn't quite know what to make of that conversation.

There was a knock at the door and Bronwyn looked in. "How are you, dear? You probably have even more questions than you did a few minutes ago." She paused for a moment, thinking, then beckoned. "Come, let's walk in the garden. I don't really like these rooms."

We strolled to the nearby entrance to Kurrajong's enormous forest gardens. Entering the tall forest was like stepping into another universe. It was dim at the foot of these straight trunks even though twilight was still some time away. Birdsong echoed among the trees, and somewhere distant I could hear water falling on rocks.

Bronwyn breathed deeply. "There is something about air heavy with the scent of leaf litter. Rich. Uplifting. The smell of life."

I looked at her. "So tell me why a janitor wants to talk to me."

She pulled a leaf from a shrub and folded it, holding it to her nose, inhaling with pleasure.

We started down the gently sloping, dirt path. "Human psychology is wonderfully complex and capable of superb things, but it has some glaring weak points. We are ridiculously easy to manipulate emotionally. The desire for power coupled with the need to follow exposes us to terrible dangers. Crowds of individuals are often far smarter than any of the individuals in those crowds. But introduce conformity, or any notion of group membership, and groups far too easily go ballistically insane. It's amazing that we've lasted so long. Psychologically, we are getting better slowly, but technologically we are becoming like gods. We can no longer afford the slow movement to becoming a good, peaceful, and moral species. That's why we designed you."

"We?"

"A loose collaboration of a few hundred people. The janitors started the project before I joined. It was seen as a way to ensure long-term viability for the City and avoid the same path to stagnation that Earth has taken.

"You, and the others like you, are smarter than any human, yet constitutionally modest. Your respect for life is deep and, we hope, absolutely incorruptible. You love humanity, but unlike most androids, your love for us is not slavish. We've tried to make you open to all the best emotions, and at the same time to understand the worst of human psychology, while remaining resistant to it. We need people like you to help humanity through a dangerous period. You are needed, not as rulers or orchestrating things from behind the scenes -- we humans would never put up with that -- but as partners, in full sight, as ordinary members of society, always a good example for us and helping us rein in our worst tendencies."

"How many like me have you made?"

"Only about thirty so far. You're the first with some extra enhancements --"

"Love."

"Yes. Craig came up with that while he was working on other aspects of your emotional makeup. I think it's a good improvement. Giving you all the ability to fall in love, beyond the standard devotional love lets you understand humans even better, and gives your life more value. Also we're hoping that it can be used to help elicit greater alliance from humans." She turned and indicated the way we'd come. "We'd better get back."

I nodded. I needed to talk further with Henna. "What about androids? I mean other androids -- standard androids."

She smiled. "Yes. I've noticed you don't consider yourself an android. That's good. It's another thing we want to retro-fit to the rest and incorporate into future ones."

"How many eventually?"

She shrugged. "How long is a piece of string?"

I stopped walking. "You intend to quietly infiltrate my kind into Earth."

She paused for a few moments looking at her hands. "It'll take a long time, but we're not expecting instant solutions. Humanity is badly broken. We simply want it to mend. It's mostly the next generation of children we'll be targeting. We need them to grow up smarter, more tolerant, and more sane, with less of a tendency to follow orders and group-thought."

She walked a few more steps, then stopped again. She looked to me then down to her feet. "This will be extremely dangerous. If it's ever exposed..." she sighed, "it could trigger a paranoid witchhunt which will make all previous ones look like practice-runs." She was frowning. Obviously she was deeply worried. "I need to ask you, do you think it will work?"

I thought for a while and we continued walking. "Perhaps. I'll need to think more about it. I'm not convinced a secret kind of android is the right approach. As you say, the risk of backlash from humanity makes it dangerous. But I think androids themselves are fairly safe. The fact that a fairly simple android like Marcus could develop morality from pure logic is very encouraging. You need to be careful about our emotional makeup of course..."

"Yes, we've been testing you."

Lifting a large ferntree frond out of my way I asked, "Regarding that, was Craig Mackey reciting a prepared statement?"

She chuckled. "Craig is one of the smartest people I've ever met, but he'll never win any acting awards. Most of what he said was completely true, but presented in a manner designed to prompt undesirable responses from you... if you were capable of giving them. We needed to see if you were as safe as we thought."

I digested that for a moment.

She added, "It's also why we subjected you to our unfortunate test with Brenda. Sorry about that, by the way."

I frowned. "Tell me you didn't engineer that abduction and Brenda's injuries."

She raised her eyebrows and challenged, "What if we did?"

I sighed. "It would have been a very dangerous way to prove a point. The threat to the city was real."

She smiled, clearly relieved. "See? This is why you're so good at what you were designed for. There's no obvious anger about being manipulated or the damage to the one you love. Your first thought is humanitarian."

I thought about that for a while as we emerged from the garden into the bright light of the corridor. She was right. I felt no righteous indignation, no angry defence of Brenda. I was annoyed that I'd been misled and that Brenda had suffered, but my major worry was for the people of the city.

She shook her head and put a hand on my arm. "No. We didn't stage the abduction and Brenda's damage. You were supposed to meet her again when she was completely repaired and in love with Craig. But the best laid plans..."

I nodded. I could see the sense of that test. If I'd reacted jealously then they would have had to rethink some of their design work.

We had reached the conference rooms again. She paused with her hand at a door and turned to me. "Speaking of which, we have a pleasant surprise for you. When we re-engineered Brenda we kept all the old memories and patterns. Craig has restored them."

She opened the door revealing a room where Brenda sat at a table. She'd been talking with someone else seated opposite her. I entered the room while Brenda got to her feet, eyes on me.

It hurt to see her, but it was a delicious pain. "Brenda..." I glanced briefly at Bronwyn and back to Brenda again. Breathlessly, hopefully, "You remember now?"

She nodded and a gentle warmth spread across her face. "Everything." She placed her hand over where her heart would be if she was human. "Everything."

Bronwyn said, "We've completed the enhancements to Brenda's mind. Mostly we discourage your new kind of androids from associating. It's the safest way to avoid being noticed. We deeply regret the pain our experiments caused to you both. No matter what greater good is pursued, no matter what purpose it serves, pain is never intrinsically a good thing. Everything we're doing here is founded on compassion. It's extremely important that you both be happy."

I pulled my eyes from Brenda and looked back to Bronwyn, wondering how to phrase my question.

Bronwyn raised her hand, palm up, "She is her own person -- free to be with you or not as she --"

Brenda interrupted softly, "We were made for each other." Her voice was little more than a whisper, her face inches from mine.


End

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