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  1. 1. Chapter One Noel was falling. Again. An armless figure appeared before him, pleading for death; its empty shoulder socket rotating with an horrendo grinding sound. Noel could only tell him that he was already dead, but the figure with the burned-out eyes replied that they were all imm they had been created that way by mistake. Noel was not so much falling as sliding down, and it was a very slow motion; he was leaving behind his body. The grinding sound seem come from somewhere else now as the armless one wandered off disconsolately; in the dream Noel was not himself but a grim prophet, a was raining. Then the colours came back, and the feeling of death and loss, and the sky was filled with fire and explosion, and still it rained. The old fear was there and the bitter wailing loss ate him away, and yet it was his own creation: an idle prophecy that careless thought had turned irredeemable fact. In a hazy building with no windows one of his own kind burned to death; no it was not a burning but an eruption; from its bowels and a sockets and neck and feet poured the lava, and the metal and silicon viscera sublimed to form a crusty layer on the blackened concrete ce while the sea poured into its body, slowly; but in a blinding flash it turned out that the mechanical man had sought suicide in an explosio ripped at him from the inside out, and in the end it destroyed all but the armless seeker of death. Noel woke slowly, druggedly, from the dream, with the familiar pain of fear in his chest. Hardly breathing, he tried to grasp at the fadi adumbrations of his sleep-life; again and again he had tried to wrest their meaning from his numbed and transition-fogged mind. Once ag he was no closer; with a mental shrug of his shoulders he brought himself round to the task of preparing for the day's work. Noel worked a 16-hour shift assembling automotive components in the nuclear engines section of a local factory. He enjoyed the work; was programmed that way. It was hot and noisy but he sensed this in a neutral fashion and was not bothered by it. He performed identica actions many thousands of times a day, with a short break every two hours in which he would sit with his companions and chat aimlessly "There's something a bit wrong with my brain," he remarked one morning. "You're getting more human every day," returned number Forty-Nine, one of his colleagues. Noel smiled. "Seriously," he said. "Part of my memory has been blacked out. I used to store all kinds of useful things in it, for example the registratio number of my car. I actually had to walk round the back of the car and learn it all over again." "What do you expect," said his companion. "I always said that you came from batch 270." Batch 270 was one of the first series of production runs made of androids after the Civil War. This batch was known for the number of 'reversions' it had later produced. "Don't forget what happened to your design team," retorted Noel. They all laughed. Noel was implying that his friend was involved in c the design team that he referred to had gone to jail. Noel laughed at his own joke along with the others, but inside he was worried by his friend's remark. He had seen himself as a perfectly stable android up to quite recently, and shared the popular feelings about reversions. why was he reluctant to see the medics about his memory lapses and strange dreams? Surely he had nothing to fear, he thought to himsel resolved to do something about it. Noel returned to his work in the engine bay. After the Civil War a formula had been agreed on for android construction and capability: remnants of the Government had been forced to yield on every point concerning android superiority except radiation immunity. At that t had seemed a trivial difference, and the ability of androids to work in 'hot' conditions seemed to be of use to the community. Noel contin with his meticulous assembly work, the repetitive actions calming him. That night Noel stepped out from the factory gates as usual and walked along the dimly-lit alley towards the car park. He was tired afte day's work and was thinking of the evening meal at the droid hostel. It was usually a sociable gathering with good-humoured chatter and telling of the day's events, or maybe a discussion of Continental news. His car was at the far end of the gravel-strewn lot and as Noel rea in the very last light of the summer evening he was suddenly seized from behind. Noel did not resist, despite the strong arm pressing into windpipe, causing him pain. His right arm was twisted up behind him and he was held like this for a while in silence. He could only hear heavy breathing of his assailant. "Well Number Eight, afraid, are you, you metal bastard?" his attacker said to him at last. Noel recognized the voice of one of the overs he was deliberately using the formal mode of address. The man wrenched Noel's arm higher, causing Noel to gasp in pain. "Hurts does it, Tin Can?" Noel said nothing, but stared with wide-open eyes at the ground. He had heard of attacks on droids from friends, and read of them in th papers, they had become more common in recent years. "Say something, you creep," hissed the man into Noel's ear, but Noel did not respond. He was given a violent push and staggered forwa falling onto the gravel. His attacker followed him and stood on one of his hands, crushing it into the ground. Noel, grimacing in pain, tw his head to look at his assailant, who bent over him; Noel experienced an almost debilitating sense of fear. "No guts. No balls," the man said with a sneer, keeping the pressure on Noel's hand. "Its just as well for you. Even the smallest sign of resistance and I would have you in court so fast you wouldn't believe it. I saw you, yo know. Opening that door." Noel now understood what had brought about the attack. The overseer was usually an even-tempered man, but must have seen Noel's st performance a few days ago in a deserted part of the warehouse. His memory lapses had been accompanied by odd mental states, and he been absently staring at an automatic door. Sitting on a crate he had directed his mind to the control box situated above the door. Withou intending to, he instructed the door to open, which it did with a loud clattering. Shocked out of his vacant state by the noise, he somehow ordered it to close and the door rattled shut. Looking round in fear lest he had been seen, Noel had quickly left the building. Obviously th overseer had been watching him. Noel looked at him, afraid of what the outcome would be. "This is a warning, do you understand?" said the man frowning.
  2. 2. Noel nodded weakly. Coolly staring at Noel, he increased the pressure on his hand still more, until one of the delicate steel tendons of t middle digit snapped. Hearing the faint sound, the overseer released his hand, but continued to stare fixedly at the prostrate droid. "Watch it," he said finally, and strode off back to the factory. Noel picked himself up and leaned shaking against his car. He examined his hand and saw that it would need attention. Carefully he un the car and sank into the driving seat. The turbine whispered into life. Despite the pain, Noel managed to drive slowly to the medic unit his hand was swiftly and efficiently repaired with no questions asked. Noel's earlier resolve to seek help about his mental states was forg Noel returned to the droid hostel in a very sober mood that night. He made some excuse for being later than usual, and ate a meal which been left for him. Afterwards he joined the other droids who were watching the Continental News. There was more unrest in the cities, a old ideas of expansion and colonisation were being resurrected and discussed by opposition parties and extremists. This was a recent development; no one had talked seriously of this for hundreds of years. The Government reiterated its policy on this: the Continent must resolve its own conflicts first. The prime minister made some earnest comparisons with sick and healthy bodies, meaning that the Contin should not export its problems. In reality the diminishing human population meant that there was little impetus for colonisation. Noel was thoughtful and withdrawn, but this did not draw comment as he had not been his usual self for some time. A comedy show fo the News, and after a while even Noel started to laugh with the rest. One of the most unnerving developments for people had been the emergence of the droid sense of humour. After the Civil War, android with their now limited capabilities, became more or less universally accepted. An agreement had been reached between the labour union the Government concerning droid deployment, while further development in 'self-thinking' mobiles (that is androids) had been frozen. Mobiles, or robots, with sub-human intelligence existed in great variety, while intelligence development was restricted to immobile and passive devices. Androids filled the gap between these types of development in a form more or less acceptable to the people. The resultin equilibrium lasted several hundred years. In the middle of this period a cyberneticist and philosopher called Xalatrius had published an obscure paper on the droid mentality. Usi vast simulations of their mental structure and processes, he had claimed to have discovered an inherent instability in their mental format He predicted a gradual slide from the stolid precision of thinking that characterised the intelligence of post-Agreement droids into a mor and human mentality. Also his calculations had shown him an exponential increase in their life-span. Mainly because of this last claim, w would confer near-immortality to the droids, his paper was dismissed as preposterous, and he remained in obscurity. Many years later, as droids began to develop certain human-like qualities, his ideas were taken a little more seriously. The development of new qualities about a hundred years after the Civil War Agreement were apparently not the symptoms of 'reversion in many people caused much greater unease. Cases of straightforward reversion had appeared soon after the Agreement; these were droid for some strange reason would start to exhibit characteristics of the fully evolved pre-war droids. Greater mental powers, greater strength speed and agility, and even a kind of machine-to-machine 'telepathy' were amongst the characteristics that had previously brought huma antagonism to the point of Civil War. Reversions - or reverts in popular parlance - came either from batches of pre-war droids that had b modified to conform with the specifications of the Agreement, or from new batches made after the war. Batch 270 was unusual amongst post-war production runs in that it had produced a higher number of reverts than in most of the others, and had become part of the folk-lo handed down from that period. Some suspected that the faults were intentional, but it was never proved. With the next batch however, a of designers had conspired to produce droids that could be 'triggered' into a pre-war mode, by the use of certain key-words. After a spect series of robberies, master-minded by the designers and carried out by the droids, the reverts had all been destroyed. After a long trial the creators had been given life sentences, possibly reflecting the degree of public anxiety over the super-droids. On the whole reverts were successfully fixed, or destroyed, however. About thirty years after the Agreement, cases of reversion had become rare. The new qualities that the droids began to exhibit - about a hundred years after the Agreement - were more subtle than those of a revert Under the Agreement, droids were designed to be compliant, gentle, and self-effacing. In many households they were used as child-mind for example. What alarmed people to start with was not any change in the droids' subservience, but the gradual development of a self- deprecating sense of humour: there was a subtle shift from the passive servitude of an automaton to the good-natured willingness of a humanoid. As the change was very gradual it was hard to say exactly when the public consciousness again started to be polarised over th droids. Certainly one event went down in the history books as a turning point for the Continent in the post-Agreement era. An android ch minder and its charge were found by the child's parents one day to be in a fit of giggles. Droids were expected to laugh politely and discr at a joke made by humans if the situation demanded it. However the child, in all innocence, told his parents that the droid itself had told funny story. On seeing that his parents were disturbed and angry about this the child refused to say more. Rather than force the child, the parents demanded that the droid recount the story word for word to them, and the droid, despite its reluctance to do so, was obliged to re the story. It concerned an imaginary family of droids where a human was acting as a child minder to a baby droid. To the child this role- reversal, with some humorous embellishments thrown in, had seemed hilarious. Particularly amusing to the child was the minder's accou baby droid; even a child knew that droids, apart from a brief 'schooling' period, were manufactured in their fully developed form. To the parents however, the whole story was vaguely insulting, and at the same time frightening: the humour seemed to be far too human. So, in of seeing the funny side of it, the parents brought about a court action that made legal history: they brought a reversion charge against th droid on the grounds that its intelligence exceeded the Civil War Agreement. The case attracted considerable public interest. The whole droid issue was reopened, and the attitudes of the rebel unions from a hundred years before began to re-emerge. The Govern as the technical owners of the droids, put up a very well researched and complicated defence of the accused droid. The position of the Government had not really changed since the Civil War, in that it still perceived the economic stability of the Continent as depending on droids. It was true that the pre-war tensions over the droids had never completely disappeared and there would always be pressures from groups for a return to a pre-droid way of life, but the alternative, an economy without them, was now unthinkable. Not only were the dro doing all the menial and dangerous work that people would not even consider any more, but they worked in some technically crucial are industry. These were mainly in the nuclear power industry and to a lesser extent in the nuclear engine divisions of the transport sector. T
  3. 3. Government would not publish figures, but it was widely suspected that the generation of fusion power would not be possible on the pres scale, or even at all, without the droids. The division over the trial did not quite take the lines that it had in Civil War times. This time the intellectual and educated sector seem be in agreement with the Government, in contrast to the days of the Civil War, about one hundred and fifty years before the trial. At that industrialists and technocrats were pursuing the development of the droids in a kind of technological dream that paid little attention to th ordinary people of the Continent. Liberal-minded writers of reputation had started to publish works against the Government and its prim minister, and against the developments that they were pursuing. The more militant elements incited the working people to revolt, and the Continent eventually headed towards the Civil War that finally checked, even put back, the development of the droids. In the times of the trial of the child-minder the same cultured and liberal-thinking elements whose counterparts in pre-war days had fou droids intolerable, were now beginning to cultivate them. The liberal view on the case of the child-minder was firstly that to destroy a m on the grounds that it had developed a sense of humour was ridiculous, and secondly that the precedent set could result in wiping out mo the droid population. In the end the reversion case was rejected on a rather technical ground. In the fine print of the Civil War agreement it had simply stated criteria for judgement was to be that any attributes possessed by a droid should not be present in a greater extent to those possessed by a human. (The only exception agreed on was the resistance to radiation.) The prosecution could not make a convincing case that a sense o humour indicated an intelligence greater than a machine should possess, and as nothing had been stated about a sense of humour this wa misinterpreting the sense of the Agreement. No similar case was brought again, but the resulting public debate brought about a clamour for a new Agreement. The Government disc new legislation for a long time, and committees and sub-committees produced endless papers on the subject. Change only came about m later however. In the meantime droids were being examined in a new light. That they had a sense of humour gradually became accepted and was even eventually referred to as 'Tin Can' humour or T.C. humour for short; T.C. humour was rather simple and child-like. Certainly no cases ca light of insubordinations or even insolence from a droid, showing that the people in the case of the child-minder had really over-reacted droid's display of humour. The comedy show that Noel and his companions were watching that evening on the C-vid kept them laughing, in particular, a clever sk of people imitating T.C. humour had them rolling around in their seats and slapping each other on the backs. Even Noel gradually forgot events of the day and went to bed with a grin on his face. After being attacked in the car park Noel made no further mention of his memory problems, and hid as much as he could the strange m that would grip him. The fact that the overseer at the factory suspected him of reversion was enough to make him realise that any display unusual tendencies would bring a hostile reaction. The mood of the Continent was too tense. Inside though, he worried about the episode the automatic doors. Noel was unaware that telepathic communication with machinery was part of the pre-Agreement droid's abilities, o the qualities of the so-called super-droids which had been under development before the war. However, even without asking anybody, he suspected that it could be a sign of reversion. To the average droid, programmed, trained, and schooled to serve its masters in the correct fashion, reverts were a disgrace and a threat. Not long after the attack in the car park, Noel discovered that he was to be transferred to the Capital. An increase in violence in the citi a growing feeling of public disquiet had boosted the circulation of most news media, and workers were needed in the industry. Droids w quite used to being transferred from job to job as the need required, so Noel made no fuss about it. Because the new appointment require to work more closely with people, he would have to take time off before starting there. This was for the residual radiation that his body h absorbed in the factory to die away, and meant that Noel would have an unexpected break from his usual work-filled day. On his last day at the factory Noel was given a little send-off party. In the last break of the shift, his fellow-droids gathered together an played some music. They had brought a few instruments in with them that day and sang songs that were simple, mostly humorous. Noel in the singing. Their rhythms were strong and their timing perfect; one or two danced a little shuffle which raised amused laughter from rest. They were thus absorbed for a while until one by one they noticed the figure of the foreman in the door of their simple little mess-ro The singing and playing stopped, and in the silence that followed they each turned to look at the scowling features of their overseer. "Who said you could play music in here?" he demanded angrily. "No one said we couldn't," replied Forty-Seven courteously. "None of your bloody cheek!" the overseer shouted at him. There was an awkward silence. "I warned you, number Eight," he said pointing at Noel. He walked over to Noel in a threatening manner. As he reached Noel he spotted one of the instruments which was made from metal scr and steel strings, and picked it up. "This is made from factory property," he said. "Do you realize that amounts to theft?" "The pieces of metal are only refuse," said the first droid. "Don't get smart with me," said the overseer, getting angrier and angrier. He threw the instrument on the floor. It made a clattering ring sound but did not break. One of the droids chuckled. The overseer swung round in a fury and stared at the offending droid. "Come here!" he shouted. Thirty-Nine approached. "Break it." The droid hesitated, looking round at his companions. "Break it!" "Of course Sir."
  4. 4. Picking up the instrument with care Thirty-Nine examined it for a moment and then brought it down over his knee, snapping its neck. T strings broke with a metallic twang. "Here you are Sir. This will never play again." The overseer stared at the droid, who offered him the broken instrument. He snatched it away and dashed it to the ground. "Damn your sort," the overseer said bitterly and left them. There was silence for a while. They sat down looking at each other. "Things are getting worse. There's no avoiding it," said Seventeen. No one commented and they sat, staring at the ground. After a while of them got up, his head and arms dangling. "I'm broken, Sir. I'll never play again." He staggered around repeating this phrase. They started to laugh at him. Another got up. "Please Sir, allow me to break myself. I know just the right place to hit myself." He pretended to try to break himself by hitting himself on the chest. The others roared with laughter; Noel smiled. Nobody offered any further comments about their general situation. It was time to return to work and each of Noel's companions shook his hand and wished h good luck. They did not refer to the overseer's warning to Noel. For the following weeks Noel had to report every other day for radiation screening. As soon as he was cleared, he would move to the C and start his new work, but meanwhile Noel spent the time mainly in reading. Not much material was available in local bookshops and h enquiries brought raised eyebrows from the booksellers; they were used to androids confining themselves to the reference manuals that enabled them to use and service the huge range of machinery that they worked with. Noel lived in a provincial town and in such places, from the big cities, people were old-fashioned in their attitudes to droids. With free time on his hands Noel felt strangely at a loss. The a on him at the factory had somehow changed his attitudes - instead of feeling that he would be able to get himself sorted out with the righ of help, he now felt that he was really on his own. A sombreness would overcome him sometimes, often as a prelude to one of his strang dreams. One night he dreamed he was sliding down some height, leaving behind all that was precious to him, and in the morning he was with a sense of loss and a feeling of something of importance hovering just beyond his grasp. Sometimes the dreams would leave him fo with an undercurrent of fear; he would feel this in his chest almost as a physical sensation. One evening during this period of waiting he took a walk to get away from the hostel where he was currently spending so much time. T compound, located on the edge of the small town where he worked, was shoddily built compared to private human dwellings, or even compared to state-provided human accommodation. Noel had never questioned this, or the proximity of the hostel to the refuse tips and treatment plants. He walked up a small lane between the high fences of the utility plants, and along the edge of an abandoned canal; its l broken and the stretches between them reduced to muddy pools. None of this struck him as ugly, neither did he see the weeds and wild f as a compensating grace, or even as being out of place. He was aware that he was finding it hard to think about anything in particular: a that often preceded a black-out, and often accompanied by irrational fears. He crossed a footbridge over the canal and wandered up the s hill overlooking the municipal tips, the sun setting behind him. He stopped and sat down on the wreck of an old car and turned to look at horizon, feeling unusually relaxed. His usual anxiety and fearfulness was gone. Instead, he felt a quite foreign sense of joy, perhaps indu the beauty of the setting sun and the play of light on the clouds. Only after several minutes did it occur to him that he was not thinking a and that it seemed a great effort to do so. This scared him, and suddenly the tension returned. He shook his head, got up, and returned ho deeply confused about his experience. It had been very brief, the sense of peace, but its contrast to the now-returned state of stress that h normally lived with had illuminated the memory. However much he tried over the following weeks, he failed to re-capture the intense se joy that he had briefly experienced, and eventually forgot about it. In the years that followed the case of the droid child-minder, public opinion had gradually become more divided over the droids. The Government of the time became increasingly reluctant to give information about the number of droids in existence, and the nature of the they did, which fuelled people's suspicions. Generally it was the manual and lower-paid workers that became more hostile to the droids a had taken many dangerous and dirty jobs in mining, industry, and agriculture. From very early on the labour movements had fought for a obtained an agreement that allowed a human to displace a droid in any job. In practice, however people found it hard to work alongside in the same kind of occupation. The Government's view was that people found the work demeaning and beneath them. However there w widespread suspicion that it was made deliberately difficult for people to work with droids, for example by establishing long shifts. At some time in this period the Anti-Droid League was founded. Elements of the Anti-Droid League were drawn from groups that cam called the Primitivists or Survivalists. Bored youths from the rural areas were attracted to the League by its philosophy of violence towar droids. The lingering fears of droid superiority could be dispelled for these people by their vicious and senseless attacks on them. The Le maintained that the quality of life on the Continent was being undermined by the droids. They held very traditional views on the roles of and women and despised the what they called the soft and decadent life that droid-won prosperity had brought. In the cities it had becom fashionable in recent years for some of the young to dress like droids and display a rather indiscriminate and reckless sexuality. Worse st far as the League was concerned were reports of 'sexual' relations between people and droids. For a long time however the League was n outlawed, and the number of prosecutions against its members remained small. As the Anti-Droid League (or A.D. League, or ADL as it came to be known) grew in strength, so also did an opposing tendency. This w gradual dawning of a view that the droids were more than machines. Possibly the work of Xalatrius was an influence; cyberneticians pic on his neglected paper and began to work on his ideas. These ideas and their developments became fashionable in certain intellectual cir but gained no official acceptance. Research into droid mentality started to receive limited funding, but it was another phenomenon that r advanced the cause of the droids. This was the interest taken in their music and their abilities as entertainers, which had developed stead since the time of the trial of the child-minder. Some enterprising club proprietors had obtained licenses to hire droids for heavy work dur the day, and persuaded them to play and sing at night. Strictly speaking this was illegal, but the police turned a blind eye to it; cynics lat rumoured that this was on Government orders, as it certainly improved the popularity of the droids. Noel in his reading, was trying to piece together droid history from this period. In particular he was interested in how the Civil War Agreement became amended and finally brought about the establishment of the New Constitution and the emancipation of the droids. W
  5. 5. New Constitution androids had been finally officially been recognised as people, and were allowed to vote and given the same legal righ the rest of the population. During the brief period between jobs his increased leisure time also allowed Noel to reflect more upon himself. The greater time he now for introspection caused his dreams and odd memory lapses to intensify. Noel was concerned about the dreams he had. It was well know androids dreamed; early work with intelligent machines showed that some parallel to the human facility for dreaming greatly improved t performance. What bothered Noel was the content of some of his dreams; there was undoubtedly a growing violence in them. After the incident with the musical instrument at the factory and the attack in the car park Noel dreamed several times about the supervisor. In the dreams Noel was resisting his attacker .... After a few weeks Noel was cleared of residual radiation and he prepared himself for his move to the Capital. The car he had used wou with the hostel; he said goodbye to it and his droid friends as they left for work as usual. Noel walked with his bag to the SkyTrain termi from where the overhead express system would take him to his destination. Air and sea travel had been outlawed for centuries now, but people's fantasy of flying still appeared in various forms; the name of the official rail system was one. Noel boarded the train and sat dow an almost empty compartment. One thing that he had gathered in reading about the period before the New Constitution was that droids in days had to travel in separate compartments to people, a sort of 3rd class fare. After a journey of several hours, through the varied countryside of the middle Continent, the train approached the Capital. At the outsk several stops before Noel's destination, a group of youths boarded the train, a little way down the articulated section from Noel. They sho and sang coarse songs, and kicked empty cans and bottles around. Gradually they came up the carriage to where Noel was sitting. When spotted him they came over and sat in a group around him. "What's your number then?" asked one, accenting the word 'number' in a contemptuous fashion. "Number Eight," replied Noel. "Rhymes with hate, don't it?" said another. "Ha, ha, ha," they all laughed. Talking over Noel's head one said to another: "I've heard that droids are very obedient," "Yeah, so have I." Affecting a mock-polite tone the first said: "Please Mr. Droid, would you mind standing up a moment?" Taken unawares by the change in tone, Noel stood up. "You can sit down now," said the other. Noel sat down, puzzled. "Naah, I said stand up." Noel stood up again. "Sit down." Noel sat. "Stand up." Noel hesitated and then refused, shaking his head. They all burst out laughing. "Aah, dear, our droid friend has got bored of our game. Ain't that a shame." The speaker kicked a bottle down the corridor. It clattered along the scuffed metal surfaces. There was an awkward silence, then anothe the youths said: "Please number Hate, would you open the window?" Ignoring the insult, Noel shrugged his shoulders and did as requested. The wind roared past, punctuated by the sound of the support col whooshing as they went by. "Oh look over there," said one. "Oh yeah." "Fancy that." Turning to Noel again, one of them said: "Look at that." He pointed to a tall chimney in the distance. "What is it?" said Noel leaning forward for a better view. "Its a droid crematorium!" they all shouted, and pushed Noel violently from behind. He only just managed to prevent himself from bein thrown out of the moving train, but as he struggled one of the support columns approached him at breathtaking speed. At that moment an alarm sounded, and his persecutors were distracted. Noel pulled himself back in again just in time to prevent himself from being decapit all happened so quickly; he could just see a young woman holding on to the alarm cord, white-faced. His attackers, seeing that the woman was spoiling their fun, forgot about Noel and advanced on her in a menacing fashion. In a daze No realised that the train was slowing down; he could hear the footsteps of the guards running down the corridor. They reached the woman j before the youths did, and they drifted away from her, swaggering and whistling tunelessly. The young woman told the guards what had happened, she pointed to Noel. "I'm fed up of clearing up bits of twitching droid remnants after you lot have been mucking around!" shouted one of the guards angrily youths. They found this highly amusing. "Twitching droid remnants!" they screamed with laughter. "I'm going to call my dog that!" shouted one of them, and they doubled up. "Be an insult to your dog though," said another. "Yeah, I suppose so," agreed the first.
  6. 6. "For God's sake," muttered the guard and pushed them aside. He came up to Noel. "No damage then?" "No." "You won't be making any charges I suppose?" Noel was too confused to think. He just shook his head mechanically. "I thought not." By this time the train had pulled into the next terminal and the youths disappeared. The guards stomped off down the corridors leaving alone. The young woman came over to him. Hurriedly she handed him a piece of paper and said: "You are obviously new in town. Why don't you come and look us up? I belong to a group that has been set up to encourage a better understanding between people and androids." Without waiting for a reply she turned and got off the train. Noel sat and tried to gather his wits together; he absent-mindedly pushed th paper into his pocket. A few stops later, Noel had to get out himself, and as he became occupied with finding his new hostel, he calmed and pushed the incident out of his mind. The next day Noel rose early and sought out his new place of work, the newspaper office. He met his overseer, a man named George. George was a journalist in his forties and wore a drooping moustache and a slightly world-weary air. He introduced Noel to the office an his new work. Noel's job was to take audio recordings from George and the other journalists on the staff, and turn them into first draft tex their electronic machines. Noel had learned the techniques of electronic word-manipulation a long time ago in droid school so he did not long to adapt to the new systems, and soon became skilful in his new job. He was in a unique position now, for he received stories from the Continent, many of which were never published. Noel gradually built up a picture of the current situation, which he had hardly been of as a droid worker in a provincial factory. Noel's new overseer was quite different to the previous one. George had a very broad knowledge of current affairs, and also an interest history of the Continent. In commenting on current affairs he would often place recent incidents in the context of the attitudes prevalent the Civil War. Noel was anxious to ask him questions about droid history, but after the events at the factory he was reluctant to demonstr any interests that could be viewed with suspicion. Noel knew that the gradual change in his attitudes were dangerous for him. In his new surrounding in the Capital, and without the company of droid friends he had long known, his dreams began occasionally to t into nightmares. He would wake from these with a sense of fear that would hover around him for days. Recurring scenes in his dreams su sliding down a hill made Noel anxious to pursue them in his sleep, to find some hidden meaning or message. He began to draw a quiet satisfaction from having his own sense of purpose, however unclear it was. For centuries he had been content to serve his masters withou question; he now felt that he was a child that was beginning to grow up. As much as possible he would try and hide the changes of mood the dreams would bring about, however, and he discussed them with nobody. George, on his part, was quietly observing Noel. It had been quite a coup for him to secure a droid to work in the office alongside so m people. The rapid expansion of his news department had been George's excuse for seeking an android; it was harder to find people at suc short notice. George had something of the instinct of a social scientist, a trained observer. He had been an early supporter of the New Constitution, but had a fiercely independent mind and found the current fashion for adopting and patronising the droids a superficial and uncritical trend. He saw it as a reaction, produced from some kind of guilt over droid exploitation, to which the brutalities of the A.D. Le contributed. So did the unacknowledged fear of society's dependence on the droids, he thought. George tried to keep an open mind about droid's growing stature as sentient beings. The question fascinated him intellectually, and partly for this reason he had manoeuvered for a to work with him. In some ways, though, George didn't care whether droids were people or not; he had a cynical streak. For some months Noel worked in his new job, finding the people in the office with their varying attitudes of faint hostility or patronisin curiosity rather distant. George occasionally tried to sound out Noel's attitudes to current events, but Noel maintained his guard and just responded with stereotypical remarks. His front was becoming harder to maintain however as his dreams were becoming more vivid and disturbing, and their content much more real. Noel could remember the dreams from his post-production years as being symbolic, surrea without much emotional content. They were now much closer to his daily life in imagery, but with a sombre and often terrifying feeling. in the morning he would find it hard to remember just where he was, or what he was supposed to be doing. Sometimes he was left with t feeling of impending disaster. One day he came into the office at his usual time, well before the other staff. He was supposed to catch up with any reports that had bee in during the night. He sat down at the machine and stared at the screen, but wave of dizziness overcame him, and he just sat there for so time feeling very light-headed. For some reason an image of the sea came to him, he could almost see waves spreading out around him i directions to the horizon. Absently he stared at the screen in front of him. Without being aware of it he had typed in the phrase: "The only way out is up." Noel felt a jolt as he took in the little message. It meant nothing, yet at the same time it seemed terribly significant. He read it again an time he experienced a jolt that went through his body and practically shook him out of his seat. Frightened, Noel wiped out the screen. "Too late," came a voice from behind him. Noel turned round to see George, who had come in early for once. "Reversion is often accompanied by mental lapses, forgetfulness, and loss of control over the motor reflexes," George said, trying to pr Noel. George sat down and lit a cigarette. Noel said nothing, trying to recover his composure. George raised his eyebrows at him. "There is a theory you know that reversion was not restricted to the early post-war period, but that every droid has an inherent tendency reversion. If it didn't show up early on, it would appear much later but in more subtle forms." George was referring to Xalatrius's ideas. Cases of reversion had by the time of the New Constitution become rare, and new aspects in t behaviour of the droids were generally accepted under their emancipation. The emancipation of the droids, formalised under the New Constitution, had been brought about by an unusual alliance of vested interests and liberal opinion. The A.D. League had in a way prove own worst enemy in that period. It had not only stepped up random violence against the droids, but had also begun a campaign against th
  7. 7. liberal human supporters. This culminated in the assassination of a leading intellectual, whose death outraged the liberal community. Gro revulsion for the A.D. League was one driving force for emancipation. The Government, on the other hand, though unwilling to adopt th growing body of opinion that saw droids as people, saw that emancipation was the only way of securing the future of the droids, and the economic stability that the Government needed for popular support. Noel still said nothing. George leaned forward. "Look, I don't give a shit. You do your job pretty well, or I wouldn't have kept you. I've just had this feeling all along that there was mo you than meets the eye. In any case, as I say, it doesn't bother me what goes on inside your head. I'm a pretty basic type. People to me ar either makeable, competition, or irrelevant, if you'll excuse the corny old expression." Noel felt relieved. He didn't miss George's use of the term 'people'; it was a gesture of friendship and acceptance. Noel, recovering quic from the unexpected turn of events, smiled mischievously. "So, which am I, makeable or competition?" he asked. George was taken aback. He stared at Noel and then burst out laughing. "Damn you, that really takes the biscuit. You know perfectly well that I was going to say irrelevant." George chuckled. "I don't know though," he said thoughtfully, squinting at Noel. "I've had worse-looking secretaries in my time." It was Noel's turn to laugh. "By the way, if you don't mind my asking, what did that little phrase mean?" "I really don't know," replied Noel, shrugging his shoulders. George accepted this with a nod and said nothing more about it. That night Noel reflected on the incident; he was glad to have broken the ice with George. The little phrase that he had typed on the ma stayed in his mind as he drifted into sleep, and over the next months he found himself absently repeating it in the texts he was working o Luckily he was always able to erase it again, but the recurrence of the phrase in his subconscious troubled him. The incident marked the beginning of a friendship between the android and his supervisor. George learned to appreciate Noel, not just f sense of humour and easy-going and hard-working nature, but also as a companion. Noel gradually told George about his own past, and to trust him enough to confide in George some of his disturbing feelings and dreams. Noel also learned from George more of the recent h of the Continent, though George's views seemed tinged with a slight cynicism. George was particularly critical of successive Governmen their motives for supporting droid emancipation. He told Noel how, long before emancipation, some people had started to enjoy the com of androids and supposedly had 'sexual' relations with them. They had been persecuted and laws had been brought in prohibiting such relations. Noel told George that he had never heard of these laws. "That's the point I'm getting at. When emancipation finally came through all the old laws were of course forgotten. The interesting thin that the Government of the time nearly got away without introducing the New Constitution as we know it. They repealed the Androids (Immorality) Act, as it was then called, and made a few other concessions to liberal opinion, and for a time this acted as a sop to the emancipation movement. However, as we know, they eventually had to formulate the New Constitution to protect their own interests." George later described some of the consequences of emancipation, as he saw them. Private companies or individual households could n longer 'lease' droids from the Government any more; droids were theoretically free agents. However, with few exceptions, they showed n inclination to make undertakings of their own, and after a time the Government-controlled droid deployment agencies were making use o them just as before. There was more paper-work now, for example the droids had to sign to indicate that they were taking jobs of their o volition. This was just a formality, nobody knew of a droid refusing to sign. George also told Noel about movements springing up within the Continent that were not reported at all. Several groups had grown up a Survivalist doctrines. These groups trained themselves in a military fashion and prepared themselves for some kind of apocalypse to com According to George there were rumours that some groups in the sparsely populated regions of the North were building boats in preparat leave the Continent. Noel was beginning to feel that the premonition of an impending disaster was not unique to himself. The proliferatio small quasi-religious groups and the steady increase in violence in the cities throughout the Continent bore witness to this. Despite the New Constitution, which gave androids most of the rights and freedoms of the human populace, it was still hard for droids people to meet on equal terms. George created quite a scandal in the office when he started taking Noel with him to the local cafes for lu Although from a distance a droid was indistinguishable from a person, close up one could easily spot the smooth artificial skin of an and face, and with the older droids a tell-tale reddening of the whites of the eyes. Androids also tended to be a little larger than the average h The local cafe proprietors were not exactly used to serving droids, but as they all knew George from way back they did not protest. Most they liked to humour George, and those with A.D. sympathies hid their feelings. George may have been tied as an editor to a certain viewpoint, but within that he could still print a lot of trouble for an A.D. sympathiser. However, this tolerance of the droids was only fou the cities, and even then only in certain parts. One day, while at lunch, George told Noel of a trip he was proposing to make. George had a few weeks holiday owing to him, and he w planning to travel North to find out about some of the Survivalist groups. He would not be there in his official capacity as a journalist, fo could not publish stories about them. It was purely to satisfy his own curiosity. George wanted to know whether Noel would like to trave him. "It would be impossible for you to travel as a droid with me in those regions," he told Noel. "We would have to disguise you as a perso "What makes you think that it can be done?" "I've been around a bit you know. With the right kind of makeup and clothes there would be no problem. If we were caught there would plenty of trouble, but I'm willing to take the risk myself. How about you?" Noel thought about it. George's offer was far more than could be expected from the admittedly cordial relationship between android and overseer. Noel wanted to jump at the chance; the idea of passing himself off as a human also appealed to him, and it would be interesting see the more remote regions of the Continent. Because of some of his recent experiences Noel began to feel anxiety and guilt about the i
  8. 8. but was determined to go on despite this. George turned up one day and furtively showed Noel a small case marked 'contact lenses', whic inside it two small pouches, two small bottles of cleaning fluid, and a mirror. "Try these on, but be careful." Noel took them to the hostel with him and with his back to the surveillance unit, tried the lenses on. They were much bigger than conta lenses in fact, and, once in place, they hid the redness in the whites of Noel's eyes. He was impressed by the chances George was taking him, and made up his mind to go. A few weeks later found them staying in a small hotel in a provincial northern town. After much discussion and laughter they had decid that Noel should dress as a woman. For a start, the heavy makeup needed to disguise his android skin would attract less attention in a wo and also in the provincial areas it would be accepted for George, as the man, to do most of the talking. A droid could disguise its voice sufficiently to pass as a human, but the less Noel talked the better. They would pass as a holiday couple. Luckily George was taller than so Noel's height would not arouse suspicion, and George had taken considerable pains over Noel's appearance. He did not like to admit i Noel's innocent and youthful features, now given the blushes, tints, and shadows of a woman's face, looked quite attractive. Noel found himself warming to the part. He turned the natural good-humour of a droid into a kind of frolicking coquettishness. He/she astonished George in his/her performance one day as they strolled through a little village near the Sea. (The seas had names in centuries by, but now the ocean surrounding the Continent was simply and collectively referred to as the 'Sea'.) George had been asking questions local man. Noel joined in by asking some questions of his/her own in a husky voice, quite unlike his/her usual. Mischievously, he/she as how young couples went about their courtship in the country, making eyes at the villager, and holding onto George's arm. The man smile said jokingly that it was the women who made all the advances. "Ooh, I don't believe that for a minute," said Noel, pretending to shelter behind George. Noel peered over George's shoulder and flutter her long stuck-on eyelashes at him. The country man blushed. "I'll say this," he laughed, "you city girls have a sense of fun. I hope he keeps a careful eye on you." They took their leave of him and returned towards their accommodation. "Damn you," George muttered, later in the hotel. "You really had that fellow fooled." "It's a strange thing," said Noel. "I find that I know what a woman is. It is not through observation though. Somehow I just know." Noel looked up at George. She thought she could see some passing pain in George's eyes. Noel was in fine spirits though, and she did n want anything to spoil the fun they were having, so she dropped the subject. After a few days of discrete enquiries George had made contact with a Survivalist group based near the hotel. One of them came regula into the hotel, took a liking to George and Noel, and invited them to visit the encampment in a few days time. There was nothing directly illegal about operations like this encampment, as long as they did not try to attract publicity to themselves. The Government's main conc was the growing strength of the A.D. League, and oddball or fringe groups could safely be ignored, provided they kept clear of the Leag the media. Noel enjoyed the countryside, and she and George went for long walks, often taking a little picnic with them. The moors with their litt rivers pleased Noel immensely. She had become quite absorbed in her role as a woman, though she took care not to be too outrageous. G would tell her long stories drawn from his fund of historical knowledge, to which Noel would listen in rapt attention. At times they woul for long periods in silence, and Noel found herself absorbed in the simple act of walking: she would observe the way her feet, as they ma contact with the ground, would 'read' the irregular terrain and make a firm contact as one leg took the weight from the other. She wonder the complexity and accuracy of this act, something she had always taken for granted, and found herself glancing at George's feet and leg aware that they functioned in the same way. Dwelling for a while on the mechanical delicacy of her body, she started to remember Droid School, and memories came back to her that she had long forgotten. Both found the countryside and the distance between them and the busy news office refreshing and relaxing. George would look at Noe sometimes and shake his head. He had justified Noel's presence as an opportunity to really get to know an android at close quarters, but h beginning to find that his expostulation to Noel that he didn't care what she was, was closer to the truth than he had imagined. Sometime felt he had initiated an experiment that he was no longer in control of, that his masculine, human prerogative for leadership and control w being undermined in a way that should frighten him. Somehow it didn't matter though; Noel's good humour was infectious, and George w coming to like the physical presence of the android's body close to him, despite it's alien composition. After all it was warm, more or les and although George hated to admit it to himself, it was decidedly feminine. One day while walking, Noel asked: "Tell me George, is there such a thing as a droid crematorium?" "Not that I know of. There would be no point, androids just don't seem to die." George broke off. Broad-minded as he was, he found it discuss the matter of androids' supposed immortality. It was one of those topics that was always avoided, despite there being hundreds of thousands of androids, like Noel, who were many hundreds of years old. "Why do you ask anyway?" Noel told him about being nearly thrown off the Skytrain carriage. George scowled. "That really makes me angry. Its one thing to read reports of such things, but to hear it from an android I know makes me mad." George was silent for a while. "That girl took quite a risk for you, you know. Did you look her up afterwards?" Noel shook her head. "I lost the bit of paper that she gave me I am afraid. I didn't think of it for a while, what with getting accustomed to the new job, and wh did remember I couldn't find her address or any mention of her organisation. I thought it might be dangerous to make enquiries." George was quiet again for a while and then broke into a smile. "If I was a new man in town there's no way I would have lost her address."
  9. 9. Noel smiled at the remark and George looked at her, briefly catching her eye. "Sorry, I keep forgetting," lied George grinning. Later, Noel brought up a subject that she had been dwelling on for a while. "George?" "Yes?" "Do you find that all the droids you meet are different, like all the people you meet are different?" "I suppose so, though I haven't met as many droids. You are different for sure!" Noel smiled. "We all came out of a factory though." George winced. "Heuristics." "Pardon?" "Heuristics. It means the ability of a, er, mechanism to learn from their experiences. Droids of your age at least will have vastly differen experiences, and so your personalities will be quite different." "Hmm." Noel was quiet for a moment. "I remembered an odd thing the other day. In Droid School we had to go out marching in squadrons over rough terrain, a bit like our w the moors, to show up any mechanical problems with balance and walking I suppose. We had a couple of human overseers, and I remem now one of them saying that he thought that no two droids were alike, and the other one agreeing with him. A bit like midwives talking a babies." "What nonsense you talk Noel." Noel looked at George, puzzled for a moment, and then looked away and smiled. George was being the typical chauvinist male, dismis her remarks like that, and it amused her. Noel didn't care; she had lived as a domestic droid in countless households, and had seen the wa talked to women, and it had always amused her. After a few days one of the Survivalists came to fetch them. Noel and George were shown into a large cavern, a natural space formed b action of the sea, which was fitted out with generators and a workshop. With some pride they were shown a boat under construction. Its were half covered and a slipway had been prepared leading down into the dark waters. Noel let George do the talking, she was oddly hap and did not take much notice of the people or their boat, partly as she couldn't share their enthusiasm for leaving the Continent. Standing by an electronic machine similar to those in the office, she absent-mindedly typed in the phrase: "The only way out is up." Noel quickly erased it when she saw the message. It changed her mood however; she was brought down to earth again. Luckily no one noticed her or her message, but Noel felt that the playfulness of the last few days had left her. On the way home Noel told George about little message. "I wish I knew what it meant," said Noel. "If I'm not concentrating in the office I find myself sometimes typing it. It fills me with a kin dread, or premonition of something terrible to come." "You'll land up as the first droid prophet at this rate," joked George, sorry that Noel's mood had changed. Noel smiled, but later as she l awake in their room she mulled over the comment. Why not? she thought. Why shouldn't her strange dreams and feelings be a portent of future? That night Noel dreamed again vividly of the sea. In her dream she kept seeing the ribs of the boat they had visited that day, and inextr linked with the images of the sea and the boat was the phrase that kept coming back to her: "The only way out is up." In her dream a bright haze hung over the grey-blue waves. A sense of desolation and loss accompanied the rocking motion she perceive though on a boat tossed by the waves in the midst of an endless expanse of sea. Noel woke again with the feeling of being on the verge o discovery, yet she could not piece together the fragments. The frustration of her partial foresight was sharpened by the sense of fear and she felt in her chest; the grey dawn, familiar walls, and the sleeping figure of George were rather an empty comfort. Noel said nothing of her dreams to George the next day, and although she tried to maintain her previous good humour, she was a little withdrawn. George was intent on discovering more about the way the 'Escapists' as he referred to them, operated, and did not seem to no They made several more trips to the cavern. Apparently there were many such groups around the Continent in the coastal areas, though n the vicinity of the larger cities. George was asked to help them. With his freedom of travel as a journalist, and his access to libraries, he both pass on messages between groups and make some discrete research into the history of marine technology. The maritime and expans traditions of the early epochs of the Continent's history had long since given way to an inward-looking and isolationist view. George, lik many others, felt that this was in part due to the internal conflict that the Continent had created for itself with the emergence of the droid droids made their life possible, free of drudgery, but also challenged society in a way that it could not come to terms with. George looked at Noel in the evening at the hotel. Noel seemed to have changed over the last few weeks. The disguise of a young wom quickly become Noel's second nature; it suited her so well. Why did he think of Noel as a him? thought George. Or more worryingly wa not actually thinking of Noel as a her? Noel was everything that a young woman could be: innocent, flirtatious, good-natured, willing, te Even in the more sombre mood of the last few days Noel seemed to express her preoccupation in a feminine way. George had to admit th was enjoying Noel's company. Yet Noel was nearly six hundred years old, had never known infancy and childhood, and was a mechanic fabrication. A comment in the writings of an eccentric from the pre-war days came back to George. The author had suggested that the droids or rath so-called super-droids were the next step on the evolutionary ladder after man. Perhaps he was right, and perhaps this was the source of
  10. 10. people's hostility towards them. Noel, by way of an example, seemed rather more than human, not less. George and Noel returned to work after spending about two weeks in the North. George had made many friends and had promised to do he could to help; the clandestine nature of the assignments appealed to his anti-authoritarian frame of mind. Noel returned to her droid ro and her droid hostel. Both had a genuine feeling of regret that they would have to resume their conventional roles: George especially had strange feeling that he had lost somebody as Noel gradually reverted to her/his normal androgyny. It was strange to watch. For the first f days, despite her/his lack of makeup, and despite resuming the traditional droid clothing, Noel kept the feminine air about her/him. In th company of her/his droid workmates at the hostel this gradually disappeared. George could not help but become cooler in his relationshi Noel for a while; in an illogical way George resented Noel's return to androgyny. Once back in the Capital, Noel's dreams became more nightmarish, and most mornings he woke struggling to escape the terrifying imag and feelings that accompanied his dreams. The rooms in his hostel had red morning-alarm lights over the door, just next to the standard surveillance cameras, and several times dreams of burning skies and terrifying explosions would coalesce into the flashing alarm light an accompanying bleeping. It would be some hours into the day before Noel would recover his natural good-humour, before the dreams fad completely and the waking day took over. George noticed this and asked him about it. Noel gave him a roundabout reply: "In a way it is your fault. The New Constitution gave us most of the rights that people have and I have always accepted our role in soci But after that holiday we spent together I feel that something is missing. I go home to the hostel in the evenings and there are no people children there, only droids like myself. Only now I don't feel part of them like I used to. Why should we have to live in hostels, apart fro everybody?" Noel shook his head. George nodded, as if to say he understood and was silent for a moment. "Have you ever heard of the Poets Quarter?" he asked. "No." "It's part of the Capital near the power stations. It is a lawless part of the city, I used to go there about ten years ago. There are bars and kinds of nightlife you just don't see here any more, but it got too dangerous for me. Now you need money to afford the protection that is needed. A lot of rich people go there for a good time, gambling and once every year for the Games. Anyway the point is that a lot of the way-out liberals, dissatisfied with the flimsiness of the New Constitution, moved there about fifty years ago. They like droids. Its a tough place, but you wouldn't find the barriers that you find here. I still know a few people there. And a droid called Xavier. You'd learn a lot f him." They did not discuss it further at that point, but Noel was left with a feeling of curiosity about the Poets Quarter. He asked his droid frie the hostel about it but they just told him he would be mad to go there. There were stories of droids being drugged and living in worse conditions than before the New Constitution. However George said this was just propaganda, spread about to stop droids drifting into the Quarter. After some months Noel became determined to visit the area. One day he told George about his resolve. George nodded: "I don't want to lose you, but I wouldn't have told you about it if I didn't think you should go. The Games are going to be held there soo that would be a good time for you to go. They are used to a large number of strangers in the Quarter at that time of year." George had another short holiday coming up, and arranged for Noel to be free at the same time. George was not prepared to go with No but gave him a map of the Poets Quarter and marked on it a cafe where he thought Noel might be able to find the droid Xavier. This tim decided that Noel should disguise himself as a man rather than a woman. On the day that they had chosen for Noel to go, Noel came before dawn and unnoticed to George's apartment. George had found a wig, clothes and makeup for Noel, and, with the lenses to mask the red eyes, the transformation was completed in the space of a few hours. "All you need now ," said George, "is to look tough." Noel grimaced comically, making George laugh. "Seriously, now. Clench your jaw like so. Now compress your lips. Imagine someone about to attack you. Your eyes have to tell them t you are not to be messed around with." Noel with his characteristic ability for play-acting soon got the hang of it. Between bouts of laughter he really did manage to project so kind of masculine toughness. "Its still not quite right though. Walk down the room." Noel walked with his usual relaxed droid-gait. "No, no," said George. "You look about as ready for a fight as an advert for laxatives. Imagine that anyone could come up behind you a an arm round your neck. Like so." George showed him what he meant. Noel shuddered, as it reminded him of the overseer in the car park. "Its a frame of mind. You've got to project the air of someone who isn't in some kind of day-dream, thinking about supper or their next whatever. Your whole body has to say that you are ready for trouble." Noel, using all his powers of imagination, managed to walk in the way that George was suggesting. "Nearly. The only trouble now is that you look too tense. As though you didn't believe that you could cope with an attack. Try again." Noel saw the point, and tried again. After a while George was satisfied. "There's not much more we can do, play-acting. I'm afraid you'll learn the rest from experience." George stood back and looked at Noel. Noel pretended to look extra tough. George laughed and shook his head. "You're the first person I have ever met who at different times has managed to be ..." "Makeable, competition, and irrelevant," said Noel, completing the sentence for him. "No way," said George, frowning. "You've never managed to be..." Noel raised his eyebrows. "Irrelevant," George finished. This was his way of saying that he had got over Noel's return to androgyny.
  11. 11. Laughing, they hugged each other. "Good luck," said George. "I'll be seeing you," said Noel. Noel left George's apartment just before dawn the following morning, and strode off in the direction of Poets Quarter. There was a dim from the street lights, though muted by an early morning mist. A red glow hung over the horizon in the direction of the power stations, g Noel his direction. The events of the last months revolved in Noel's mind as he walked rhythmically on. His mental map of himself was buckling under the disturbing fragments of his visions and dreams. Were they vision? Revelations? Simply the results of a malfunction? inner 'feel' for statistics and mathematical probability told him that no malfunction could produce such coherent and powerful mental im and dreams. Yet he knew that they were not complete somehow, and Noel almost dreaded the time when he would come to know what t meant. He also knew that the images and feelings did not belong in the mind of an android. Noel still mainly held on to the conventional attitude to reverts; they were dangerous freaks. Androids which were nowadays convicted of reversion of course lost their constitutional and were liable to be 'reprogrammed'. That was if they were lucky. If a revert was discovered in the more remote regional areas a crowd often just batter it to death: Noel had learned this from George. However he could not see himself as a revert, with the connotations of malfunction and threat to society. His odd mental states, though sometimes frightening and disturbing, had a feeling to them of such righ almost of power and strength, which lived alongside the fear, anxiety and guilt about his actions. In another small town, similar to the one the Noel had left some months ago, a doctor called Zebulun March saw his last patient out, re to his desk and checked his next appointment. It was to be with the new Regional Health Inspector, an informal getting-to-know session, which Zebulun was due home to one of his wife's tedious dinner parties. His inexpressive features almost registered the distaste with wh viewed the prospect, but he controlled himself with familiar ease as his secretary came in. He had surrounded himself with dour and unintelligent people in his provincial practice, the base from which his professional travels would attract as little interest as they would. many ways she was typical of this generation of the Continent's offspring, he thought: their untaxing working week only there to fill in th between the awful tedium of their technologically-saturated family lives, and their equally dull but frequent holidays. She wished him a pleasant evening and left for home. To an equal, Zebulun's middle-aged face might give away his intelligence, but he had years of practice in the art of hiding his sense of purpose amongst those who had never had one, and was equally good at hiding his contempt for the pitiful weakness that he saw in the g mass of his contemporaries. On the few occasions when he had to treat, or testify on behalf of, a criminal psychopath, he would observe interest the rare capacity of a man who had sufficient aggression to actually destroy something, though of course, as the destructive energ unfocused, nothing was achieved by it. Under his desk he gripped his hands together in an unusual display of pent-up energy, and almost jumped as the bell rang. He pressed the entryvid button, glanced impatiently at the suited and bearded figure so typical of Health System administrators, and grunted: "Come on up: its the second door on the left." Zebulun calmed himself down by re-arranging the papers on his desk. There was a knock on the door, and the new man entered. "Hello there, my name is Dan Amalek. What a pleasant office, what a pleasant office. Pleased to meet you," said the Regional Health Inspector. Inwardly cringing at the forced bonhomie of his visitor, Zebulun rose and grasped the proffered hand, but was forced into an immediate double-take, as he felt the Sign of the Brotherhood on his knuckle. Outwardly with no trace of a reaction other than the tiniest of polite s that he used when absolutely necessary with those in his office, Zubulun re-calculated his next moves. They would have to leave the offi if preferring to talk in a cafe or restaurant. This would be doubly odd as it would be more usual to at least give the RHI a quick look at th clinic, and he had his dinner appointment marked in the office diary. Zebulun's well-disciplined memory suddenly rescued him: "Dan Amalek? The Dan Amalek who pioneered the early flower therapies? "Indeed. I am flattered that you would have heard of me." "I am fond of flowers myself. If you like we could chat while strolling through the park, where there are some interesting orchids there they have been breeding." "That would be very nice. We can leave a look at the facilities for my first formal inspection." "I will just ring my wife to say that I will be walking home and a little late as a result." Zebulun's mind was racing ahead: thank God he had remembered Dr Amalek's ridiculous therapy papers from way back, but what a sho find that he was one of the Brothers. Just Althea to deal with. As he waited for her to answer the phone he felt the usual twinge of apprehension about her. After an interval, she answered gaily, but was noticeably cooler as he told her of the delay. Nothing for it, he tol himself as he ushered his visitor out, this was out of the blue, and dear God, his soul longed for some news. With a mastery born of a lifetime of dissimulation the two men exchanged Health System small-talk as they walked to the park, the one reacting with a just visible weariness to the other's cheerful explanation of new administrative procedures being proposed in the Regiona Health Forum. Once they reached the busy road near the park where the noise of traffic was at its greatest Dan wasted no time in telling Zebulun his news: "The Prototype was nearly successful. It crashed at the last moment." Zebulun almost trembled with the effort at concealing his elation, and did not say anything for a moment. As they crossed the road he n a Nu2 motorcycle with a young rider dressed in an old and probably real SynthiLeth suit. The nearly spherical engine pod, donut wheels antennae made the vehicle look like a large insect. Typically, the rider had brought it to a halt just beyond the white line, between two ro cars, and Zebulun, his mind trained to notice even the smallest details, observed that it could still bring about his usual cold irritation. W couldn't they respect the line like everyone else? "The, er, driver was killed?"
  12. 12. "Unfortunately. And even worse, he has taken birth in a Quarter." Zebulun grimaced: he regretted the inconvenience, but could not refrain his spirits from soaring. Dan continued: "We are quite sure of the design now, and know what last corrections to make. Your serum could be improved a little, but as you know workable, and the Elders have made their decision." Zebulun had felt this coming, and his eyes hardened. "They have initiated the Last Phase." Zebulun nodded and as they entered the park he pointed out some of the orchids in various stages of bloom. They discussed the lack of acceptance of the Flower Treatment, and other professional matters as they made a circuit of the park, conscious of the ever-present risk electronic surveillance. On re-crossing the busy road Zebulun was informed that he would soon be moved from his current practice to th Capital where he would be needed in the new phase. Zebulun escorted his guest to the SkyTrain where they consulted diaries and made a appointment for an inspection of the clinic in a few weeks time. As he walked across town to his apartment Zebulun hardly noticed his familiar surroundings, being entirely absorbed in contemplating the news he had received. We shall fly, was the thought that went round round in his mind. When Zebulun reached home his wife looked at him blankly for a moment. "You forgot then." "Damn, yes. I'll go back for it." She just pursed her already thin lips together and sighed as he went back out of the house. He cursed himself inwardly: he must not betr developments that were going to bring his whole life's work to a climax; he must continue with his perfect charade. Returning - now muc later than arranged - with the wine she had asked him to buy that morning, he saw that some of their guests had arrived. Most were Heal System workers, as his wife held that these social events were important to his career, others were her friends. Zebulun entered into the unappealing task of engaging them in small talk with all the discipline of his training that he could muster. An extra irritation was the pr of their droid domestic, serving the guests with food and drink: Zebulun didn't normally have to deal with it. To Zebulun the droids were absolute dregs; nothing made him wish more for the Last Phase to be brought to its conclusion than contemplating the millions of droids lived alongside. He couldn't even have the pitiable satisfaction of joining the ADL, as the Brotherhood forbad it. He almost snarled when domestic asked him with genuine respect and politeness whether his wine was acceptable. "Of course it is, damn it, I just went out and bought it!" The droid bowed slightly and stammered his apologies. Later in the evening Althea introduced him to a young woman who he had not met before. She inexplicably attached herself to him, an proceeded to get a little drunk. The girl insisted on talking to him about new theories in psychotherapy, to which he answered knowledge but to his annoyance this only encouraged her chatter. She wore a low-cut dress, and seemed to be deliberately giving him a good view o cleavage as she became more animated in their discussions. Her advances were so persistent that in the end Zebulun took her aside and h at her: "I won't tolerate this!" He was so on edge with the news that he had received earlier that he misjudged himself and gave the young woman a look of such cold and ferocity that she started back. She stared at him with the laughter draining out of her face and her expression eventually turning to fe and ran. After all their guests had gone home, and their android domestic had cleaned up the worst mess and also gone back to his hostel Althea tackled him about the young woman: "What on earth did you say to her?" "Who?" "My friend Jane. I thought you would like her, she's rather lively, but one minute she's chatting gaily to you and the next she's in the kit being sick: I had to send her home in a taxi." "I'm sorry darling, but she was coming on a little too strong." "I could see that," said Althea giggling, "but what did you say to her?" Zebulun's mind raced. He knew that he had unleashed only a fraction of his powers at the girl, but even that had been a slip due to the s he was under: he had been given no time in which to deal with probably the most significant event in his life, and the thought again clou his judgement. "I told her that I only liked sex with androids." "Oh, come on! You couldn't have said that." "Seriously," Zebulun said, grasping Althea round the waist. "I'm not going to believe such nonsense," she said giggling, and drew Zebulun towards her. Sensing that he could change the direction conversation, he kissed her, and for the first time in years felt the urge to take his wife. Slightly drunk herself, Althea made no objection before long Zebulun found himself making love to her with a long-forgotten vigour.