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Critically Damaged

by Miriam English

1 - prologue

My ex- had always warned me that I should never pick up hitchhikers, but I was really glad I stopped for this one.

It was a long, lonely stretch of highway, miles from anywhere. The early morning cool was beginning to give way to the simmering heat that characterises the flat, dry expanses of New South Wales west of the range in summer. Low, grey-green trees and dry, scrappy scrub bordered the black road which stretched straight ahead to the horizon. Soon it would be hellishly uncomfortable to be walking near the heat radiated from that tarred surface in the breathless air. When I was a kid I'd spent some time hitchhiking up and down the east of Australia, so I stopped my little car to give the woman a lift.

I turned the music down, moved the water bottle and my bag from the passenger seat to the back seat, and in the rear view mirror I watched her run to my car. She looked about a decade younger than me (I'm in my mid-fifties). A tangled mop of unruly, snowy white hair almost hid her shoulders making me think of those Japanese anime superheroes. She carried a battered grey backpack over one shoulder, and wore old jeans, scuffed boots, and a drab green jacket over a white t-shirt. Her clothes hung over a body even skinnier than mine. My first thought was that she was starving. When she opened the door her face lit up in a bright smile. "Thanks. It was starting to get a bit hot out there." A Russian accent -- the sexiest in all the world.

"No worries," I smiled back. The idiot in me wanted to get her to say 'moose and squirrel'. Instead I asked, "Where are you headed?"

She shrugged. Did I see a tiny flicker of sadness? Or was it tiredness? "North... as far as is convenient for you."

"I might be able to take you a few hundred kilometers." Actually, I was going much further, but could always extend the lift if there was no clash of personalities.

Her name was Lidia. Over the course of the next hour or so we chatted, starting with small talk, and gradually moving on to more interesting things. The span and depth of her knowledge was breathtaking. I'd always known I had a much better than average grasp of science and philosophy, but I felt positively clueless next to her. Occasionally she'd pause and unclip a small device from her hip to check some point being discussed. A mobile phone, I thought; perhaps verifying things on the net.

Presently we stopped at a small town for a short snack and to stretch our legs in the town park. Strolling on the crackling dry grass in the shade of the trees while eating our salad sandwiches, she consulted the little device from her hip again. Noticing my interest, she showed it to me. I'd never seen anything like it. I have a small handheld computer, but this made mine look primitive. The buttons were set on the edge exactly where your fingers like to hold it. The screen used an optical trick to look much bigger than it actually was. When I first saw her use it I'd supposed she was near-sighted, but that was simply how the device was meant to be used. You didn't look at the screen, you held it 20 or 30 centimeters in front of your face and looked through it, so that the screen appeared to be a normal-sized computer screen hanging in the air about a meter away.

She told me to look at the icon labeled "write" and briefly press the top button with my index finger. A blank page opened on the screen with a conventional flashing cursor and standard wordprocessing icons along the top.

"Tap the second button with your middle finger and quietly say 'the quick brown fox'. Don't speak it too loudly."

When I did as suggested, the text typed itself out across the page.

I wowed and marvelled at the machine, and commented that it must have cost a lot. She smiled and asked me to look at the close gadget in the top right of the window and press the top button again. This action closed the window, which astounded me. Then I realised, "It's tracking my eyes? How...?"

She pointed to two pinholes at the top left and right corners of the machine. "She has eyes so she can work out where you're looking."

I raised my eyebrows, "She?"

"Sorry. I'm anthropomorphising. Bad habit." she grinned and shrugged. Turning away to look at the pretty little park with its large trees and duck pond, she asked if we had time for a wander through the park while we ate.

"Sure Lidia. That'd be nice. I'm in no hurry."

So we walked and talked about the plants and birds in the gardens for about half an hour. When we were heading back to the car I noticed her frowning and asked her if something was wrong.

"You Australians live in a place that is unlike anywhere else, yet..." she paused to frame her words delicately. "In all this garden none of the plants is native, except a couple of the trees -- a wattle and a lemon scented gum. And only the wattle is local to this region. Why would people live out here if they hate it so?"

This surprised me. "Well, I... I don't think they hate the place. They just undervalue its wildlife."

"But what is Australian country? It is not English or European plants. It is not European buildings or Japanese cars. Australians have learned to see the native plants as ugly. I don't visit Amazon rainforest to sit in Starbucks cafe. I go to see that unique part of the world."

I thought I spotted her mistake. "But these people live here. They aren't tourists, seeing the sights."

She tilted her head. "The first ones coming here were travellers. They saw their surroundings and did not like it. They wiped out the life and did what they could to replace it with Europe, while wishing they were on the other side of the planet. Then they passed on that same dislike to their children who simply accepted it... they think what they are told to think without question." She looked sad.

"Not all people." I tried to be encouraging. "There're lots of people who love this landscape nowadays. I grew up in the bush and for me it's paradise."

She looked embarrassed. "I am sorry. What must you think of me? It is a beautiful day and I have pleasant company, yet I am being a bore."

I laughed at that. "No. Definitely not a bore."

When we got back into the car she checked another grey machine the size of a laptop which she'd left on the dash of the car. She poured a liberal amount of water from her drink bottle into a hole in the top of the machine, and returned both bottle and machine to her backpack. Good thing I'd parked the car in the shade, otherwise the machine would have been too hot to handle. As soon as she was comfortable in the seat, car door closed, she unclipped the little handheld wonder from her side and handed it to me, "Thank you for breakfast. She is yours now if you want her."

"No, no, I couldn't! It must cost a small fortune. You can't swap it for a salad sandwich." I was feeling a little panicked that she would offer such a gorgeous machine to me, and I was horrified that refusing it was making me want to bite my tongue. I'm a hopeless geek and love gadgets.

"It cost me nothing. I made it. And--" she reached into her backpack and pulled out a second handheld like the first, "I have another."

Dazedly, uncertainly, guiltily, I accepted the cool little device.

After we'd left that town behind and we'd settled down to highway speeds again, she asked if I'd like to hear a story.

"Sure," I answered. "Stories are a great way to pass a long drive."

I have probably forgotten some parts, and there were sections I didn't understand properly, so any errors and vagueness are my fault, but what follows, as best I remember it, is the tale she related:

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