Immortality: The Metallic Doves by Vincent Pet

Jonit Rypyi paused as he realized that he was becoming frustrated. There was no logic or order to the endless heaps of junk scattered around him. With a liberating grunt, he kicked at the nearest sloppy pile, booting that apparent trash from one side to the other. The deafening noise momentarily appeased him. A harsh, crabby voice shouted out at him.
Immortality: The Metallic Doves
Immortality: The Metallic Doves by Vincent Pet
“Hey, hey! Careful with the goods! Remember, you break it, you pay it!” Jonit muttered back a few words at Yati, but left it at that as he dug his hands into another tangled, messy pile. He briskly pulled out a mechanical limb and sighed as he dropped it. He had seen many of these lifeless androids dispersed across the galaxy – sometimes with an attached torso, other times with a conical shaped head, but mostly just broken limbs and arms. No one knew their origins or the race that designed them, but they were practically worthless – not even good for breaking hard nuts. The alloy easily dented. No wonder they had met a dismal fate. Jonit hollered back at the owner of the dump. “Yati! Your quality stinks and your prices are way beyond reasonable. Last week I bought a Tarpek carpet from Chadi-di. It cost me three hundred fardinsons and I sold it for over two thousand! On top of that, he even gifted me a free gallon of muskonion ale and a vat of crunchy, mummified burpion worms!” Yati was not impressed and sneered back with contempt. “Mummified burpion worms? Where did he sterilize them if there’s not a neutron star in a million light years from here? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are larvae growing in your brain! Anyway, you call Chadi-di a trader? He sold you a Soshi replicate and you fell for it. One of these days, Chadi-di will be chewed up by a Veruvian watchdog – if he’s lucky. A word of advice. If I were you, I wouldn’t venture there anymore. A bounty hunter might mistake you for him. Anyway, not that your loss will affect my business much. You rarely come around anymore. If you want to know the honest truth, I thought you were dead – vaporized by the stellar fumes of a Jaspitun battle ship.” Jonit grunted as he ignored Yati’s chatter. He continued to gaze around. He was already well stocked, but since his trading route would take him to the outskirts of the empire, he’d be away for quite a while before replenishing. He might as well add as many items as he could. Furthermore, some of the inhabitants of the fringe planets were so peculiar in their taste that even something he could never sell back home could become a hot selling item over there. “Yati, what is this piece of crap?” Yati limped over, dragging one of his useless limbs on the ground. Jonit looked at him, quite irritated. “Do you have to make that awful sound? Why don’t you just cut it off?” “Why, you want to buy my leg? Make you a good price for it, but you have to pay the surgeon.” Jonit snorted and brought his attention back to the object he held in his hand. Yati finally reached him and peered at the clear, solid glass tube that Jonit rolled between his fingers. Thousands of brightly colored pixels glittered at its core. They were rather cute. Yati snatched it from his hand and examined it closely with his one bulging eye, trying to recall what it was. “Oh, yeah. Now I remember. I bought about one ton of stuff from Tutum last month. It was part of the Castel find.” Jonit’s interest instantly peaked. Tutum was considered a demi-god in his domain. He was the most ruthless scavenger of their time. “The Castel find? Never heard of it.” “Here, follow me. There’s a viewer for these tubes somewhere around here. I have more of these tubes in one of these piles if you’re interested.” He heaved his shoulders. “Maybe.” Jonit looked at him. “What do you mean, maybe? Don’t you keep inventory?” “Inventory? This stuff sells so fast I that I don’t need to!” Jonit looked around. He was the only customer. By the dust on some of those piles, he doubted anyone had been in that corner of the dump yard for weeks. He turned his attention back to Yati. “So?” “So what?” “You’re going to explain this Castel find?” “Words don’t come cheap, but I’ll make an exception in your case.” Yati walked so slowly that he had ample time to describe the Castel find as Jonit followed along. “Castel is the name of a rogue planet that’s recently been discovered on the other side of the quadrant. Tutum said it’s a remnant of another galaxy that was swallowed up when it merged with ours. His team found subterranean coves containing a whole bunch of artifacts presumably left behind by the inhabitants. That’s all I know.” “That’s it?” asked Jonit a little irritated, expecting more. Yati heaved his shoulders. “He probably told me more, but that’s all I remember. No use cramming my mind with trivial facts that I don’t care about. I just sell this stuff, you know.” Moments later they were looking at a three-dimensional view of a planet, mostly consisting of water with a few land masses scattered here and there. For the most part, the scenes focused on these soft, bipedal, mammalian creatures as they went about their business. “Very weak race,” Jonit noted with some contempt. Yati agreed. “No exoskeleton. They must have bled easily. Ugly things.” They remained silent for a few moments, trying to comprehend what they were looking at as the images flowed before their eyes. “Must be very old stuff,” mused Jonit. Yati agreed. “So am I, but that doesn’t mean I’m worth less.” Jonit threw him a scowl. “I can’t believe that you want to be paid for this trash!” Yati exaggeratedly huffed out a long, suffering breath as his six arms swept over the piles of junk around him. “Look, I’m thinking about closing the business soon. You know, with my bad leg and all, it’s becoming harder to move around and I want to get rid of this stuff before I retire. So I’ll make you a really good price for the simple reason that we’ve known each other for a very long time.” Jonit gazed back at him, somewhat disgruntled. “Didn’t you say that the last time I came?” “I did? Well, this time I mean it!” The deal was done even if no one walked away completely satisfied. Yati practically thought he had gifted the items while Jonit thought he would never recuperate his money back. Jonit loaded the box containing the viewer and the thirty-two tubes that he had been able to find and started the long journey towards the outskirts of the empire. At every planet he visited, he arranged his benches wherever he saw an opportunity to pitch his goods to the local residents. He also set up a small tent where he installed the viewer and charged a tenth of a fardinson to anyone interested in watching the videos. However, even if they originated from another galaxy, there wasn’t much interest in a race that died eons ago. Whoever ventured inside soon became bored after a few minutes of viewing. Some of the spectators were even bold enough to ask for their money back. On his second to last stop before returning back home, Jonit was about to pack up when he decided to take a few minutes of his time to observe the scene playing out in front of him. He had never seriously looked at the videos before. He noticed that there were scribbles scrolling below the scenes: This is Veronica and her family. He grimaced, wondering what the writing meant and why anyone would want to put words scrolling across a film. It defeated the purpose of watching. Weird race – maybe not too smart. Then he saw a creature rolling over blazing, red-copper grass not too far away from a shoreline. Was the creature dying? There seemed to be a pearly white, glassy beach stretching gently out to the sea from where the grass ended, and in the distance, Jonit could see a pale, white bluish horizon with two weak suns and a large, pastel half-moon. He also noted three smaller individuals of various sizes jumping around the larger individual. They were all from the same species – they must have been racists, he thought abstractedly. They probably didn’t like mixing with other species. The words scrolled again: this is Timothy, my oldest, and my daughters, Elizabeth and Veronica junior. Jonit frowned. They were making these chortling, high pitched, disagreeable sounds. Were they fighting? Was the taller creature being attacked by the smaller ones? He muttered to himself and shook his head as he thought of Yati. He must have been nuts that day to buy this useless stuff from him. What should he do with it? Leave it behind and consider it a total loss? After all, he didn’t even make one tenth back from his investment. Space was limited on his small ship and he needed all the cargo room he could spare, especially considering his next stop, planet Bashton, where the inhabitants mostly traded by bartering goods. He was looking forward to loading his ship with a nice case or two of Whatashabi ail. Back home, Master Okuyana would surely pay a small fortune for Whatashabi to reward her man-slaves performances. It almost made him wish that he was a part of her harem. Almost. Jonit yawned. Maybe he could sell these glass rods as trinkets – they could be useful if someone was lost in the dark. The colors at the center of each tube were dazzling and if one held them in pitch darkness, they seemed to blaze like a million twinkling stars. It would make spotting someone at night easier. Yet, as he gazed at the glittering center of the rod, it almost made him feel… something inside. It was almost as if he became suddenly aware that he was missing an emotion which should have made him feel something deeper than what he was experiencing at the moment. Of course, his race, like most of the races from the Andromeda galaxy, was incapable of that sentiment called hope that made one dream of a better future – but Jonit didn’t know this. As for the sentiment called love that made those dreams come true… well, there wasn’t a species alive in the universe which had ever heard of such a thing. Jonit yawned once more as he started to dismantle the tent of what surely would be the last showing of this forgotten race. He almost felt like bringing that whole nonsense back to Yati. Knowing Yati quite well, though, Yati would adamantly deny that he had ever sold him the stuff. Jonit yawned again. He was tired, or maybe bored. Probably both. There was not much to do on the outskirts of civilization. Anyway, take off was scheduled early morning. He would decide then what to do with that junk. He had half a mind to simply jettison the load once he lifted off, leaving it to burn as insignificant fireflies as it re-entered the atmosphere of that miserable planet with their stingy colonists. Yes, that’s what he would do. Burn it. He also vowed never to return back to Yati’s scrapyard. Part 1: Artificial Intelligence We must not give people who oppose human prosperity an opportunity to influence public opinion. We cannot permit people who are unable to see past their prejudices to divide us. Ignorance cannot rule and triumph simply because we are comfortable with what we have always known. We must learn to change. We must learn to accept this change when this change is for the benefit of humanity – even at our own personal expense. Susan Washington, President of Communication and Deliverable Resources --- Intelligence is dangerous when emotions rule – but it becomes deadly when emotions are conquered. Eric Samuel, Suspected Acrivist --- Love always escapes death to return and start over. Love is immortal. Only love resurrects over and over again. Nothing else. Veronica Stillman Chapter 1 “I don’t want you in my life anymore.” Hector stared into the eyes of his companion. If he gazed deep enough he could see through the pupil, past the lens to the cells of the retina. He refocused his mechanical eye to normal human vision. “I don’t understand, Veronica. I thought everything was perfect.” Veronica ran her hand nervously through her long, auburn-blond hair. She blinked repeatedly, holding back the tears forming in her dark, blue eyes. Her tears were not tears of love – at all. Her feelings for Hector disappeared some time ago. These tears were for her. She never envisioned this moment – the moment that her heart went numb. The clear, running river of noble sentiments that she once cherished for Hector had become a mud-caked trickle. It was not enough to quench the thirst of her beating heart anymore. Love had become an ordinary, everyday word and it was this brutal thought that wounded her. Veronica didn’t believe in love anymore. For a brief second she glanced into those gray metallic orbs of the android standing stiffly in front of her, only to quickly drop her tired eyes away, regretting that she still searched for that special glint which once made her feel unique. It was over a year since Hector had the transformation, but she still couldn’t bring herself to accept that the machine standing in front of her was the man that she once deeply cared for. She snapped. “Could you just not stand there like that? Move! Do something – even if it means taking a useless step forward!” Veronica didn’t mean to raise her tone, but things of small relevance that never bothered her before were starting to irritate her immensely. She had tried holding in her anger for so many months, hoping that as the doctors promised, their relationship would improve once the adaptation period was over. It didn’t. Veronica knew, actually felt, that the android that called itself Hector would never change. She was the one that needed to change for him and she was not willing to do that for a machine even if supposedly it was Hector. Hector didn’t think that his vertical stance had anything to do with Veronica’s present crisis. If there was one thing he didn’t miss from his organic life, it was this tremendous amount of time lost in discussing relationships and debating feelings. It was terribly unproductive. He didn’t understand how he’d ever been able to think clearly while using so much of his brainpower on such insignificant preoccupations. “I don’t see any relevance my moving forward one step would have on this conversation. I am here, I am listening.” Veronica stared at the replica of the face she had fallen in love five years ago. It was expressionless. The doctors urged her to be patient. Engineers and designers were testing new technologies. They promised that it would be a matter of a few years before a better facial expression array would be available – not more than a decade or two. For her, that was a good chunk of her lifetime. For the new Hector, it wasn’t much. The neural array his organic brain was transferred to would last about two hundred years before fusing, but even then, new technology would probably be developed to extend an android’s life span. Veronica sighed with frustration, trying to clarify her sentiments, her doubts and relay her discontent at what they had become during this last year of their relationship. “Don’t you see? I don’t know who you are anymore! You’re not Hector! Hector would be concerned at this moment. Hector would sit down next to me and offer me comfort. Hector…” Veronica paused, at loss of words, but before she could continue expressing herself, the android intervened. Hector had discerned something not statistically accurate in her words. “I do have the capability to be concerned. I have scanned our memories and my sitting next to you and comforting you only had a twenty-four percent success rate. Sixty percent of the time, it made events worse as we continued arguing. Therefore, it is not to our advantage to follow your advice. Your hypothesis has no merit. As for me not being Hector, I assure you that I am Hector. Who else could I be? It is impossible that another body entered the surgical room at the moment of the operation. The records were verified and validated by certified personnel. The attestation is in our bedroom on the left hand side of the lateral wall facing the main window. Do you want me to fetch it for you so you can study it and recharge your memory?” His relentless drivel and dispassionate tone chilled whatever overture she briefly felt for him. Veronica’s mind snapped as she briskly grabbed her carrycase from the floor next to her feet. “It’s no use talking to a machine,” she muttered hotly. “Anyway, I’m already late for work as it is.” Her jaw remained clenched as despair dug deeper into her chest. Veronica held her head down as she talked, fixing the perfect spotless floor at her feet. She was sure there was not one speck of dust in the whole house. Androids abhorred dust and Hector was very thorough in his cleaning, or sanitizing, as he called it. To think that he used to have the annoying habit of throwing food on the floor for their dog… “Look, I don’t know what time I’ll be home tonight. I’ll probably eat out with friends and stay over at Wilma’s place.” She refused to look at him as she made her way to the front door with quick choppy steps, stamping out her anger with every forceful step she took. As she reached the door, she hesitated and finally turned towards him. Was this it, she thought, was this the end of their relationship… not one word from him, no plea to make her change her mind? Would their once passionate love end in a fizzle of indifference? What was she waiting for? Why was she hesitating as if she was offering him one last opportunity? She looked straight at him. He remained exactly at the spot where he’d been for the last forty minutes, perfectly upright. Even if he made no noise, it was as if she could hear all his circuits humming inside and this revolted her. At night, it was even more unbearable as he plugged himself into the wall unit and recharged himself while rebooting his components. How could she have ever imagined that he would be human? Veronica wanted to ask him for the thousandth time if he missed taste, missed something as simple as drinking a glass of water. Could she still hope he would reply differently this time? No, she had little hope left for him. She was certain that his answer would be the same as every other time she had queried: he couldn’t miss something that he had no need for. No, she thought again feeling so much like a broken record – this was not Hector. The doctors had promised them much. When Hector’s terminal illness was diagnosed, she had been the first to convince him that the only option left was to transfer all the memories, thoughts, and neural patterns his brain possessed into an electronic brain. They had considered themselves privileged that their social and economic status was significant enough to apply for the intervention. At that time, she couldn’t think of life without Hector. Now, all she desired was to escape this nightmare. She was about to step out when he finally spoke. “Would you rather have had me die, Veronica?” Veronica froze as her heart went still. For a brief second, she thought she heard some emotion in his voice – as if he was reaching out to her for a desperate word of comfort. She exhaled slowly, keeping her back to him. No, she thought determinedly. It was just a selfish, calculated ploy to make her feel guilty. She brought her hand over the knob and as the sensor recognized her hand, the door unlocked. She stepped outside and let the warmth of the sun wrap her in its arms. Yes, she thought, it would have been better if you did die, Hector. I would still be in love with you. Chapter 2 Veronica arrived late at the office. It was the third time this month. She muttered in frustration as she placed her carry case under her desk. Her eyes lingered on it for a second longer. It was the last gift Hector had given her, on her birthday, just a few days before his transformation. He saw no value in celebrating special occasions anymore. She sat down at her desk. A small console embedded on the desktop started flashing. She had ten seconds to place her hand on the receptor for identification. The computer terminal activated and the unlocking mechanism released her desk drawers as her presence was confirmed. She sat still and faced the screen of her computer as a second identification process started. Her iris was scanned. Once identified, the blank screen started blinking at her to activate her tracking system. She placed a small wristband on her pulse. It was her link to the human resources computer terminal and would relay her every movement within the company’s edifice. It was much more than that, though. Among other things, it measured her heartbeat, took regular blood analysis, and checked various hormone levels. Even things that seemed minor and irrelevant such as body sweat, eyelid movement, and words spoken per day had their particular importance. Any discrepancy between the collected data and her normal parameters was quickly noted and dealt with by human resources and if need be, the medical staff. The data was also used for promotions, task delegation, or whichever other purpose the company felt it was entitled to. The wristband also acted as a deterrent by sending mild electrical shocks to the body in case anyone ventured in restricted areas. A second shock momentarily paralyzed anyone who persisted in defying authority – long enough for security to arrive. Before Veronica could access her working files, she needed to acknowledge the daily employee report from human resources. It was a complete list of every place she’d been the previous working day, how much time spent at each location, who she met, which files she accessed or sent to coworkers as well as the total time she worked on each document. She had to confirm that the report was accurate and had no more than five minutes to read the details and file a complaint to contest any of the observations listed. Most annoying, however, was the final section of the report. HR calculated the time it perceived as being productive against that which it observed as being wasteful. Veronica noted that the company classified twenty-one minutes out of the ten-hour workday as down minutes. She also had not done sufficient overtime which could eventually impede any future promotion. Her day was rated as two stars and she was reminded that this was the sixth day of the year with that evaluation and that at ten she could be demoted and at twenty fired. Veronica scanned the fine details and tried to keep cool about it. She was fully aware that her vital signs were being recorded. The report elaborated her time at the office. She had spent three minutes and forty seconds gossiping with a colleague. It classified this colleague as not being part of her working environment and therefore could not justify the conversation as being work related. She had to indicate what the exchange had been about and was warned that an employee in her position should not be conversing privately with one whose rank was below hers. Next time she committed the same infraction with that same colleague, a certain amount would be deducted from her pay. The report also noted that an extra nine and a half minutes were used for adjusting her physical appearance. Although they were pleased that she took care of her image, they reminded her that she had no external clients yesterday and that the allotted daily minutes for this activity should have been sufficient. As a result of all this, the report concluded that her breaks and lunch for the day were shortened in order to make up for the lost time. The report ended as it did every day, wishing her a very pleasant and productive day. Veronica mechanically accepted the message, and proceeded to work. The words of her late father came to mind – just blame the early twenty-first century’s mentality where we allowed agglomerates and big businesses to take over our private lives. Blame the twenty-first century with all their social media where nothing was sacred anymore – not even your thoughts. Blame the twenty-first century’s complacency to accept and actively participate in giving their lives away to the cause of the establishment. They thought that they were hip by establishing their freedom to express themselves, their habits, and their voices through all the new technology fed to them – but all they were really doing was allowing a powerful entity to place a golden collar around their necks and lead them meekly like branded cattle. Veronica blamed the twenty-first century for the bad morning she was having. The day turned out to be extremely busy. She was relieved that she didn’t have time to think about anything else but her immediate tasks. At a certain point during the afternoon, a popup message appeared on her terminal, congratulating her on a prolific day. She was ahead of the planned daily schedule and had just earned twenty company points redeemable on company products and sponsored activities. The program enticed her with another thirty points if she was able to maintain the pace for the remainder of the day. She was just about to access a new file when reminded to report to the gym for her daily thirty minutes exercise regime. The company warned her that she was three pounds over her ideal weight and would be penalized at five pounds. Veronica sighed. She had been so absorbed with her tasks that she hardly noticed that the day was nearly done. For a few seconds, she thought about not showing up at the gym. However, if she ignored the directive, not only would she be prohibited from eating her favorite foods at the cafeteria the following lunch week, but she would also be obliged to see a motivational psychologist for one month. She didn’t mind eating bland food, but passing the next four Sunday mornings with a forced smile on her face with the company shrink was not an alluring thought. When Veronica finally left the gym that evening, her mood hadn’t changed much since morning. To return home and face Hector was not in her plans. The mere thought of it made her feel nauseous. She knew that he’d be there waiting for her with his detailed analysis of their morning skirmish. He would begin by enumerating the problems in order of priority and to each perceived problem he would give numerous solutions and their probability of success. In the end, the blame would fall on her. It always did. She was the one that needed to change – or progress, as he called it. She was the one who wouldn’t accept the present. She was the one who failed to grasp that things were better for them now than they had ever been in the past. Veronica didn’t need statistical probabilities to guide her through life, but a human touch to tell her that all would turn out just fine if she simply believed in herself. What she desperately needed was someone to talk to, someone to look at her and tell her that what she thought was important too. With a deep longing for companionship, she aimlessly cruised through the streets of the city, not quite knowing where she was heading or what she was going to do next. The only decided certainty was that she wasn't returning home anytime soon. For a moment, she considered spending time with friends, as she had told Hector, but she had grown a little distant with them lately. Their discomfort with Hector was clearly apparent and she had to admit that she rarely talked about anything else but Hector these last few months. A relationship between androids and humans was a delicate matter and Veronica had a suspicion that they were avoiding her. It was becoming politically incorrect to criticize androids for fear of being labeled a racist and Veronica suspected that her friends didn’t wish to choose sides and become entangled in a discussion which might tarnish their reputation. Mixed couples that split could easily become national media news and a misplaced word in an interview from anyone involved could do inestimable damage to that person’s image. Veronica finally stopped at the perimeter of the city’s entertainment district. The patrolling robot guarding the entrance gate to the sector asked her the usual security questions while running an identification scan. Veronica had a leisure rating of nine, meaning that with her economic status and physical attractiveness, she had access to most of the better clubs and restaurants of the city. On the robot’s cue, she keyed in her car sensor lock combination, giving the robot access to her car’s terminal. She put on her sensory glasses and a holographic listing of the entertainment center appeared in her field of vision. She scrutinized the places which interested her and batted her eyelids to gain a three dimensional view of the local in real time. Once she locked her tentative choices for the evening, the robot handed her that night’s access codes for the places she wished to visit: one restaurant, two nightclubs, and a late night theatre presentation of a sadomasochism play that had garnered good reviews. The laser gate in front of her opened and she drove her car past the portal, putting the vehicle on automatic mode while proceeding to reserve her table, food, and drinks through the restaurant’s server. When asked if she preferred company during the meal, Veronica took a deep breath and held it. She couldn’t deny the quiet, throbbing ache in her heart. The affection and warmth that she longed for had been terribly lacking recently. At that moment, the idea of welcoming a stranger in her life to take her mind off her problems, even if for just a little while, beckoned her. Yes, she confessed to herself… you’ve become a very lonely person, Veronica Stillman. Somehow, she had to change this emotional desolation and she needed to start somewhere. Putting it off for the future would just be an excuse to continue as is. Veronica hesitated for a few seconds before fixing her pupils on yes. What did she actually want in her life, though? What do I want? I want to be free, she thought spontaneously, lingering on the word as if it had suddenly acquired a meaning, as if it had been just a word among others before that moment. She contemplated what freedom meant, but it was difficult to define. I am free to do what I want, but what do I want? To forget Hector, to forget her friends, to forget her world… but what kind of freedom was that? I don’t want to be conditioned, she thought impulsively. I want to be with someone who has no idea who I am. Someone who will not condition me to act in a certain way – as my social rating requires. Yes, that is what I want. It might have been a very simple answer to a complex state of mind, but Veronica did not want to think further. She just wanted a moment for herself – a moment to isolate herself in a bubble and feel some emotions that were no longer present in her life. Perhaps, later she would reflect about her life with Hector, but for that evening she wanted to be free from the life baggage that weighed heavily on her mind. She wanted to leave everything she possessed at the corner of a busy street and run – run away as fast and as far as she could knowing full well that her luggage would eventually find her again. A beam of sunshine on a rainy day – that’s all she wanted. With that thought in mind, she finally chose her company for the evening – one person, male. After relaying the physical attributes that interested her, the applet asked her if she wanted friendship, a sex date, week-end flirt, a time sharing relationship, or stable companionship. There was also the option of fate, which was the one she chose. Veronica felt saturated. She was tired of planning each moment in advance and knowing what to expect even before it happened. It reminded her too much of Hector – the new Hector who based every decision on probability and strived for perfection. Let providence decide the path it wanted to lead her on that night. It might have been too naive a thought that fate actually existed, but she needed that romantic ingenuity at that moment. Then the applet asked her what type of conversation she wished to indulge in for the evening. She scrolled the shimmering blue list in her field of vision. Some of the popular categories were casual friendly, intimate, business, sex, sports, arts, current affairs, and entertainment gossip. Intimate, she thought with some trepidation, slightly hesitating before making her final choice. She needed to talk with someone who would listen to her and make her feel special… something that she hadn’t felt for over a year. To finish, she uploaded her personal social security profile with her query list and sent her request to the restaurant’s social search engine which would analyze and execute her demand. The applet instantly returned two warnings. The first one reminded her that she was in a stable relationship and that any fluctuations might affect her psychological state leading to an emotional stress that could be damaging to her health and career. The second one cautioned her against choosing a restaurant that had a yellow security code. The restaurant could not guarantee that the people she would encounter would have the same economic and social status as hers. When asked if she still wished to keep her choices, Veronica confirmed them. I’m really going out on a limb, she thought to herself, somewhat agitated, knowing full well that everything she did online would be registered into her personal file kept by government institutes and accessed, if necessary, by a government search engine appropriately named Big Brother. For a moment, a pang of fear paralyzed her mind as she realized that she was transgressing from her privileged social status. What if I truly am on the edge of a major depression, she thought, bewildered by the idea. What if I truly need a psychologist, as Hector suggested? Veronica frowned as she mentally scolded herself. She should think positive, but a part of her mind couldn’t help shake off the feeling that she was acting out of desperation. As she pondered if it wasn’t better just to quit the entertainment perimeter altogether and return safely home until that feeling of disquieting restlessness passed her, the restaurant informed her that they found various available matches for the evening. Veronica cautiously studied the pics and description of each person that responded to her query. By the time she reached the restaurant, she had picked her date. Ironically, despite her deliberation, she finally chose the only person without an online picture – which in itself was unusual. The rest of his profile was in line with his anonymous persona – it did not contain much. It simply stated that he was in town for a few days and that he wouldn’t mind company for supper, either male or female. Not much more. Blind date… and why not? His profile was rather bland and seemed inoffensive. He had no set plans for the night and neither did she. He just wanted companionship. No sex. That reassured her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so in the dark about a choice she made, but if supper was agreeable, she would invite him to continue the night. A drink, a dance, a night at the theatre. It could turn out to be just what she needed. The fact that he was in town only for a few days also was an advantage. She’d probably never run into him again. Her car stopped alongside the robot at the entrance of her chosen restaurant. She relayed the access code and extended her hand towards the robot to accept a biodegradable chip under the skin of her fingertip which would dissolve the moment she waved her hand over a scanner. She climbed out of the car as the robot relayed the parking coordinates to the vehicle and thanked her for choosing the establishment. It then wished her an exciting and entertaining evening with her guest. Veronica smiled back apprehensively at the crude robotic face. It was a very old model, most probably predating even the first androids. She shouldn’t be so judgemental, should she? She shouldn’t treat every robot and android she met with a distrustful air, but ever since the experience with Hector she simply couldn’t help it. Her mind flashed back to elementary school, remembering the courses she took about the differences between androids and robots. It was much simpler at that time for she truly believed that there was a marked difference between them. She still believed so, to most extent, but the emotions – where were the emotions? Weren’t androids supposed to be the extension of humanity? That was the promise. That was the dream. So why was Hector so different than he used to be? She could almost hear her grade teacher talking as if he was walking beside her. There are two types of self-propelled automation units. One is the androids whose brain patterns came from real people and who through accidents or terminal illnesses have chosen to prolong their lives. The other type of self-propelled automation units are strictly robots. These have a limited electronic intelligence. They could only think within the parameters of their programming and are usually the serving class without any civil rights granted to them. The android category is a very expensive and selective process and is a government-controlled institute. The only social class of people who automatically have the option of prolonging their lives without pre-set conditions are individuals who have benefitted society through outstanding achievements in the sciences, arts, humanities or the political arena. These influential individuals are automatically admitted to the life extension program if this is their wish. The androids that originate from humans are recognized as being human with the identical rights that organic individual possess. Veronica climbed up a few stairs and entered a long, straight hallway, brightly lit with no furnishing on either side. Facing each other on opposite sides of the walls were evenly spaced, colored doors that led to different ambiances. Veronica had chosen the intimate setting and proceeded to the scanner in front of the deep, burgundy door. She passed her finger over it and as the doors opened, she stepped inside a Venetian setting under a starry ceiling imitating the night sky of a typical Venetian night of July. Romantic violin music filtered softly through the gentle trickling of water as she was escorted to her table by a robot. She crossed the cobblestone path over a short canal and took her seat in a cozy piazza right next to the water as a gondola with lovers passed lazily beside her. That would be a good idea, she thought, thinking that maybe they could have their desert on a gondola. Even as her mind pictured the idyllic scene, a sharp disappointment stabbed her. She could never do this with Hector. Not anymore. Not only did he avoid romantic situations, but androids abhorred water environments as well. A short circuit could kill them. As Veronica took her seat, the chair molded itself around the contours of her body. A small opening popped up on the armrest of her chair, revealing a tiny sensory pad, barely visible and not much bigger than a button. She placed it on her left temple and an option screen popped up in front of her eyes as the embedded program activated her optical nerve endings. She set the chair in relaxation mode and increased its temperature slightly. The warmth radiated through her body and put her in a better mood. She gazed over her options. It was a standard chair – nothing fancy. Then again, what did she expect? She did choose a yellow coded restaurant. Her eyes skimmed the few lists, including one of which contained tranquilizers and mood enhancers. Veronica decided not to take anything for the moment. She would wait to see how her date would turn out before adjusting her personality accordingly. There was, however, a flowery smell in the air that she found disagreeable. She scrolled down the floral list until she came across what she sought. She relaxed the back of her neck and a tiny needle darted out from behind the headrest and pricked her nape. A few seconds later, her olfactory nerves blocked out the particular scent she found unpleasant. While she waited, another thought crossed her mind. The person she was meeting didn’t have a picture on his query. What if her date turned out to be an android? Androids preferred not to list themselves as such since their mechanical state was supposedly a continuation of their organic life. After Hector’s experience, Veronica had many doubts. She was convinced that the government and media institutions were misleading the public. Despite what she was told, Hector had experienced a profound personality change when they transferred his mind into an inorganic brain. Your husband is not the first android, a noted government scientist acridly told her one time, belittling her fears, after he lost patience with her. While some traits are lost, the personality remains relatively intact. I would go so far as saying, he snapped, that the android version of your husband is his true personality since petty characteristics such as lies and envy, among others, are minimized. To put her mind at ease, Veronica rescanned her date’s file. No, she thought. He couldn’t be an android. Would an android refer to itself as an adventurer? She doubted it. There was nothing more mundane and predictable than an android. Once its mind was set, it never, ever changed and it actually prided itself on its consistency. Adventurer was not a word an android would use to describe itself. Far from it. As her mind deliberated, a man appeared over the short canal leading down to the piazza. She was surprised at his apparent friendliness as he approached her table. He wore a smile. For an instant, she prayed that he would keep on walking by, but he had made eye contact and his smile widened. Veronica felt her jaw stiffen and her heart plummet as she drearily realized that it was him – her date. There was no doubt that he belonged to a lower class, but how low? Even people of the middle class were neutral, reserved – almost expressionless. Instead, he was smiling at her in such an enthusiastic manner that it caught her completely off guard and made her insides churn with embarrassment. That was such an idiotic way to approach a woman! Veronica became instantly suspicious and wondered what drug he had self-administered to be in such a good mood. She hoped it was government controlled, because lately she had heard horror stories of people crying or laughing themselves to death after ingesting illegal substances. He greeted her rather oafishly and ungainly sat down on the chair opposite hers. She noticed that he left the chair in standard mode. He did not take advantage of any of the features. He didn’t even bother to put his sensory pad on his temple. Again, she wondered at his apparent aloofness, almost to a point of utter arrogance, as if he was above such trivial comforts. Or maybe, she thought, quite astonished as the thought popped into her head, he didn’t know how. Perhaps, he was just a brute. Did those still exist? With that same open idiotic expression on his face, he introduced himself as Eric Samuel and extended his hand towards her. Startled, her eyes widened in bewilderment. No stranger had ever tried to shake her hand before. The mutated Zika virus killed about thirty million Americans. After that tragedy, people avoided handshakes and as the decades passed, the habit was phased out of everyday life and replaced by a simple nod. Was he uneducated? He let out a hearty laugh despite her rigidness as he casually withdrew his arm back. “You have to forgive me,” he said in an upbeat, cheerful voice. Much too jovial, remarked Veronica as she started having second thoughts. Perhaps, this blind date was a bad idea. “I just arrived yesterday from Burnston and people down there still shake hands,” he continued. “It’s a habit!” What? Did he just say Burnston? Veronica didn’t think she had ever met anyone from Burnston – in fact, she was certain she hadn’t or she would definitely have remembered it. Nor did she wish to meet anyone from such an ill-reputable place. The little that she knew was what she heard in the news, once in a blue moon – not that a person like her would be interested in knowing more. It was a raggedy, makeshift town located in the deep part of Africa which drew people from all over the world that refused to embrace technology. The place was notorious for attracting political dissidents, criminals, and fringe activist groups who shunned civilized societies. Someone had once described it to her like the American Wild West without sheriffs. She was even surprised that the man sitting in front of her was allowed to enter the States. Veronica blinked as if she refused to believe what she just heard and needed to double verify – as if to give him another chance to introduce himself properly. She wouldn’t even have minded if he told her a lie. She would consider it a joke, even if an awkward, ill-placed joke. “Don’t tell me you’re from Burnston?” she asked in an aggressive, fairly impolite tone. Eric chuckled, not irritated at her rudeness – as she expected him to be. In fact, he seemed rather amused at her reaction. “Yep. Guess so!” Yep? Guess so? Veronica rolled her eyes to the heaven. She knew that she was being ill-mannered, but of all the people she had to meet that evening, needed it be someone from the most notorious place in the world? He couldn’t even speak proper English! He continued gazing at her with a humorous expression, relishing her discomfort. “If it’s important to you, I can assure you that I am American,” he stated as if he wanted to point out to her that her first impression was misguided. “I was born in New York and for the most part grew up on the east coast. My work, however, is mostly concentrated in Africa, but every so often I come back home to take care of business. I work for a charitable organization.” Veronica knew she was gaping. On the contrary, his effort to redeem himself had further incriminated him. She didn’t quite know what to respond. Who worked for a charitable organization anymore? Couldn’t he find real work? The evening was not unfolding as expected. Yet, wasn’t that exactly what she wanted – something new? No, she thought impulsively. She had made a serious mistake. She should have considered the applet’s warning and ignored the yellow security restaurant. At the very least, she should have paid a few credits to get a spot check on her date. What possible affinity could she ever have with someone living in Burnston? Only failures and misfits who couldn’t thrive in the real world lived in Burnston. Veronica decided to remedy the situation that she had created for herself. She would just have to get someone else to spend the evening with. “I’m sorry, but you should just leave. I’ll reimburse you for your troubles. I am a Class 9 social citizen and money is not a problem. I’m sure you’ll find another date for the evening, someone much closer to your profile and characteristics.” Eric failed to reply and continued looking at her, almost as if to defy her. His gaze was very uncomfortable. There was much intensity in his eyes and it distressed her to the point of being alarming. Sudden fearful thoughts leaped in her mind. Was he a stalker? A sexual predator? Was she going to be his next victim? Veronica held her breath. The fact that he was living in Burnston meant he was hiding something, didn’t it? Why would he choose to live in a place like that if he was born in the States and was not a political refugee? Why did he prefer to live in a foreign country when he had the opportunity to live in the States? Was his charitable organization that important? She fully realized that the world was once a generous, giving place, as her late father used to say, but the other countries and religions had turned against the western societies and now each one took care of their own, even if, with the androids, there seemed to be a certain aperture to cultural differences. Eric leaned back in his chair as if oblivious to her taut face and intransigent eyes. He shrugged his shoulders as his smiling eyes peered at her. “Why should I leave? Didn’t you say that you wanted someone to talk to? My friends tend to think that I give very good intimate advice. You need some? Having trouble with a guy, eh? He left you? Don’t mind me saying so, but you don’t have one of the best personalities that I’ve come across. You’re always this friendly?” That was extremely rude of him, Veronica thought, feeling stunned and miffed as she faced him. She told him to leave, but not only was he still sitting there ogling her, but he also retorted back like an ignorant twit! He clearly had no idea what he was saying. This was definitely harassment. She decided to be very blunt. “You’re not my type. Really, I…” He leaned forward. What was he doing? “Veronica’s your name, right? Look Veronica… I was feeling a little lonely back there at the hotel. I was going to come here to eat anyways and when I searched for company, your name came up in my search query. I liked your face. I liked your smile. I accepted and here we are. We can talk about the stars, we can talk about politics, or we can even talk about the shape of this table in front of us if you really want to. By the way, have you ever put your hands on a real, solid wooden table and ran your fingers across it? The texture can be such an awesome experience. I think we’ve forgotten how to touch. Everything is so smooth and bland these days. I bet you haven’t touched the bark of a tree in a long time. If ever. Am I right?” Veronica felt confused and overwhelmed. It was such a disjointed conversation. She sensed that Eric didn’t really know how to hold an intimate dialogue with a woman. He was just making her feel jumpy and nervous. There were certain approaches that everyone used in encounters such as these. Social interaction between the sexes was taught in grade school during sociology year. Where had he been? Even if he had lived in the US as a child, it was evident that he never attended formal schooling. Probably home taught. The lowest social class possible. Perhaps, that was the reason for his odd behavior. Perhaps, he was not educated and she was expecting standards that he wasn’t able to meet. Did that mean that she needed to adapt to him? Was he another Hector type situation? This is ridiculous, she thought, reproaching herself. His novelty had worn off. He was just a stranger and a good fifteen minutes had already passed by – so why was she still bothering with him? If he lingered any longer, she would call security to have him removed. Then she suddenly recalled her earlier thoughts, forcing her to reconsider her first impressions. Let fate decide, don’t judge too quickly, she reiterated to herself as if she needed to stamp it in her mind. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? That is why you did something so uncharacteristic tonight… remember? In short, don’t analyze every detail. Don’t be be so much like an android – like Hector! Veronica cleared her throat and met his gleaming eyes with a cold stare. His eyes bothered her very much. They were too alive, too animated. “It’s clear to me that you are missing some fundamental etiquette in your social upbringing...” Veronica stopped talking and cleared her throat again under his tickled stare. She didn’t like the way she sounded. Too stuffy. Yet, she couldn’t help it. That insolent look on his face just made her want to lash out at him. “Perhaps, you haven’t talked to an American woman in a very long time?” she asked in a patronizing voice. “It must be hard to find an American girl in Burnston.” He had a devilish look on his face as he chuckled back. How annoying! She took a steady long breath to calm herself down before continuing. “So… Eric. What shall we talk about? Shall I start with a synopsis of my life? Or do you wish to start?” This wasn’t going to be easy. She didn’t really feel like opening up to him anymore. She hadn’t dated in years, but Eric seemed relatively new at this too. Maybe it was for the best. She should count herself lucky to have an illiterate social klutz sitting in front of her. If she did make any debutant mistake, he wouldn’t even notice it. Eric clasped his hands behind the back of his neck and grazed the stars above him. At least he seems to be enjoying himself, she thought stupefied. He must really be a simpleton. Probably contents himself with little. Definitely a social class four, she judged, despite promising herself to keep an open mind. The only thing that saved him from a two was his good looks. She paused. The restaurant was supposed to be a class seven. False ID? Was she out with a criminal? Veronica glanced over his shoulder. There was a robot server in the near distance. If she felt any danger, the robot would be there in a few seconds. It made her feel slightly reassured. Veronica turned her attention back to Eric as he straightened up at the table to address her. He hunched over the table, crossing his arms. What a slouth! “Is your life interesting?” he asked. Veronica opened her mouth. What type of question was that? “I have a privileged social class nine life which must be more interesting that yours…” she replied coolly. “Now, do you want to listen to my life or not?” He twisted his lips and for a moment it seemed to her that he was trying not to laugh back at her. How inappropriate! He sighed. How rude! “Veronica, does it really matter where our conversation goes? Isn’t the fun of meeting someone in getting to know them, their likes and dislikes, their dreams and fears? Look at the sky. Do you see what’s wrong with it? It doesn’t have falling stars! How can you make a wish without falling stars?” Veronica opened her mouth to speak again, but nothing came out. That was it! She brought her chair back in standard mode and abruptly came to her feet. She was far too tired to try following his line of reasoning anymore. The last thing she needed was to spend her time with either an eccentric and pompous individual or a pure nut, if not outright idiot! “I’m afraid that this has been a huge mistake on my part. I should’ve known better than to come to a yellow security restaurant,” she muttered under her breath, yet loud enough for him to hear every pointy word. Veronica pierced him with her stare as if expecting him to convince her to stay. Now, why would she think that? Not that she would, of course, but it would have been gallant and would have redeemed him just a tiny little bit in her eyes. At least, she wouldn’t be left with an overly negative impression of him. After all, she might one day rate the date on her public profile and warn other girls to stay away from him. It was truly in his best interest to redeem himself. However, instead of being embarrassed and making amends after having made a fool of himself, Eric calmly started scanning the menu, ignoring her while acting as if nothing unusual had occurred. This exasperated her even further. Veronica wanted to tell him something, but she was too irritated to reason properly and preferred to keep her lips tightly sealed. He glanced up at her with that easy, broad smile of his as she took a step away from the table. “Well, I don’t know much about that yellow security stuff that you’re mumbling about, but you could have chosen a better restaurant for our first date! Not only does this food sound inedible, but there’s a whole constellation missing overhead…” Veronica followed his eyes and glanced at the simulated sky, not really knowing what she was looking for. This is ludicrous, she thought once again. In one brisk motion, Veronica gathered herself and energetically walked out of the restaurant, leaving him alone at the table. As he very well deserves, she thought emphatically, wondering if he had ever made love to a woman in his life. Chapter 3 The sun wasn’t even up yet when she heard her date gathering up his clothes from the floor. “It was nice meeting you,” he told her as he put on his shoes. Veronica didn’t turn around, preferring to stay on her side of the bed and stare out the wall to wall panoramic window opposite her. She could see many stars over the ocean and wondered about constellations. It had something to do with horoscopes, she thought abstractedly. Her father used to tell her that many people once believed in fate. “By the way, you were very good,” he told her before closing the door behind him. “I wouldn’t mind doing it again. I’ll recommend you to a few of my friends too. Can I add your name in the hot sex app?” Veronica didn’t waste her breath to respond. As soon as he left the suite, she pulled herself up and slipped on a light robe, ordering a strawberry tisane before settling into an easy chair in front of the window overlooking the peaceful sea. As she watched the dawn break, she couldn’t help thinking of Eric Samuel. She was still upset at him, but despite his arrogance, he had made her feel more alive than she’d been since a very long time. A half hour later, she conducted a network search for a certain Eric Samuel in the surrounding hotels. She sent him a text before leaving for work. In her heart, she knew that she was going to be seeing him again. *** The next few days were vividly intense. For once, Veronica decided to put all her misconceptions aside and forced herself to open up to other ideas – just like when she was a child in the strong and protective arms of her father. Try not to be too quick to judge, she told herself repeatedly. It was easy for a person to let everything happen as it should, as it was meant to be. It was comfortable to agree with the majority and not battle against popular beliefs – especially when they offered so much comfort. Humanity’s quest was the elimination of worry. That’s what her dad jokingly used to tell her and Eric’s ideas were very similar. Man didn’t want to worry about house chores? Here were the robots that did everything for them. Man did not want to worry about raising children? Here were the expensive gadgets to keep them occupied. Man worried about not possessing what the neighbor had? Then that man wouldn’t be satisfied until he had more than the neighbor could afford. Man worried about getting old and not having enough fun in life? Here were all those wonderful, colorful drugs to take care of such brooding thoughts. Soon, as the android technology became accessible, nobody would even worry about dying anymore. At least, that’s what Eric Samuel thought. Not that she disagreed, even if she found his views a little too radical. Why shouldn’t humanity strive for comfort, she retorted? Why should man be subject to live like animals if man had the intelligence to rule over nature? Survival of the fittest. If, thanks to his intelligence, man had the advantage then why negate it? If it were for you, she argued, nature would eventually overwhelm man until humanity perished. Intelligence is dangerous when emotions rule, but it becomes deadly when emotions are conquered, he cautioned. It was stimulating being with him and sharing their ideas. Veronica had never discussed her thoughts with such depth. She was surprised how little she knew herself as she struggled to put into words her feelings. Then again, when did she ever stop to think about such topics? How many times had she said in her life things like, I don’t know, I think so, maybe, we’ll see, I’m not sure when confronted with issues that involved too much reflection? How many times had she refused to think simply because she didn’t want to be bothered? Too many times, she thought. “What are your thoughts,” he asked her an afternoon as they lingered along the beach, “on racism, violence, corruption? Is it enough to say I’m against them and then go on living life as if they don’t exist, as if these problems are a thing that’s happening elsewhere – or as if they’re someone else’s problem?” Veronica shrugged her shoulders. Why should she feel implicated in something that didn’t concern her? “You can’t change people,” she stated flatly. “Bigots will stay bigots.” “So you are telling me that you can’t influence anyone even if you know the difference between right and wrong? Ignorance breeds silence, Veronica, and silence is a fertile land for bad weeds. We need to talk openly about what surrounds us, because we need to dig and discover what’s in our thoughts and if it’s not good we must take measures to eliminate the rot inside. Each of us has the choice to pick which seeds from our mind to plant into our heart. Let them be good so you can share your fruit with others. Let them be good so you can feed life instead of poisoning the people around you!” When the last day came, Veronica couldn’t stand the pain of seeing Eric leave. She tried to understand what she felt for him, but her heart, which she thought dead, seemed to beat much too fast for her reeling mind to keep pace with. Veronica decided that she couldn’t possibly meet him under those conditions. She couldn’t risk telling him that she was falling in love with him. What good would it do? She feared that their last encounter would be too emotional and that she’d have a terrible time recovering once he was gone forever from her life. The pain of this thought became unbearable and Veronica dropped by the pharmacy and bought a twenty four hour pill to numb her emotions – hoping that it would bring her the detachment she desperately sought. Most of all, she thought, it would ease her suffering. What she hadn’t planned was that when they met that evening at a seaside restaurant, Eric became aggressive when he discovered that she had taken numb drugs. “Haven’t you understood anything about what we’ve discussed these last few days? Were they just words to you? You needed someone to keep your mind off Hector? I thought I saw someone interesting, worth spending my time with. I think I love you, Veronica. Yes. I said that word that no one understands anymore, that word which has become so archaic. Go ahead and treat love like a disease, like a fever to get over with. Numb your heart for a whole day, a month, a lifetime. You’ll do death a favor when it finds your body already cold and numb at the end.” Eric leaned closer to her, enraged. “Androids tune out their emotions and you’re doing exactly the same thing. Only that, we are real flesh and don’t have the capacity to separate the heart and mind, so what do we do? We take synthetic drugs to lower the volume of our heart so our mind can’t hear the beating!” Veronica knew that she should have been terrified at his angry outburst, but she was unable to feel anything but a comfortable buzz throughout her mind. There was so much passion, anger and hurt in his voice. Too much. The server robot overlooking the tables took notice and came up to them, inquiring if everything was fine. Veronica assured it that it was just a small misunderstanding and that the situation was being resolved. The robot, not convinced, proceeded to lecture Eric on the proper etiquette to observe in a public space when in the company of a woman. Certain physical demonstrations of abuse by a man towards a woman – like in the twentieth century – were inadmissible and could be considered a criminal offense. The robot also enumerated the various dangers of stress due to sudden rage. From headaches to heart attacks, it droned on for a full three minutes as Eric shifted impatiently in his chair, the whole time careful not to make any gestures that might be misinterpreted. During this time, the robot compared his reaction to a pre-set parameter list of average customers. It scanned his bodily functions and read that his heart rate had increased, as had his blood pressure, from the first moment he walked into the place. His fidgeting also surpassed the allowable rate of a resting person seated down. Each attribute had a certain value and importance, and as the total limit was surpassed, a signal was sent to a Police robot, which appeared at the table less than two minutes later. This was not good news, thought Veronica calmly as the police robot relieved the servant robot. She hoped that they wouldn’t be fined or escorted to central station for further interrogation, even if, in her state of mind she didn’t feel any particular worry – more of a nuisance than anything else. The numb drugs were effective at controlling emotions. The police robot took a statement from both and analyzed each word along with the tone to discern if it was being lied to. It was a more sophisticated robot and had a higher capacity of synthesizing information and choosing between various solutions. Eric admitted that perhaps he had been too animated during his outburst, but he pointed out that he had no intention of using violence or creating an unpleasant situation in public. The robot asked for identification. It reminded Veronica that it wasn’t wise for her social class to be in a yellow security zone. He would write it in her civil file. Veronica feebly protested and Eric told the robot it was their citizen’s right to be together where they choose. The police robot produced the standard automatic response when Eric invoked their civil rights. It reminded them that the individual had the right to live within the laws and any transgression or personal interpretation of these laws could be interpreted as a security threat. The protection of the freedom of the country, it intoned in a louder and deeper voice which made it sound surprisingly passionate for a robot, is greater than the protection of the freedom of the individual, because the freedom of the country is equal for all citizens. An individual’s freedom, on the other hand, has personal parameters and these personal parameters are never consistent from an individual to another, but ever changing depending on the individual’s personal interests. Therefore, an individual’s freedom could be of a selfish nature and unrepresentative of the entire population of the country. Eric brought up that old, tired argument about it not being constitutional, but Veronica wasn’t too certain. So many amendments had been made in time that she really didn’t know what their rights were anymore. She remembered her father telling her that everything changed during the terrorist wars that had lasted well over fifty years. When cyber-attacks had targeted the New York City subway trains during rush hour, killing thousands of people as the wagons hurled into each other, laws were finally passed allowing corporations and government entities to employ radical security measures which slowly transformed the world they lived in. With time, as the corporations grew stronger and the world governments too indebted and weak to protect national interests, the governments started employing powerful corporations to handle sensitive national issues which practically fused the private and public domains in one entity creating super corporations that dictated domestic and world affairs. The police robot did not linger much longer. It fined Eric for raising his voice in a public place and acting rudely towards the female gender. The next time he wished to enter the country, he had to pass a proficiency test on Section Four of the Civilian Responsibility Codes that regulated social interactions among civilized citizens. Once the robot left, Eric turned towards Veronica, keeping his voice down, almost to a whisper. “Veronica,” he said in his usual intense voice as he grabbed her hands. She pulled them quickly away. He had this habit of wanting to touch hands which she found very unsettling – even if a part of her desperately wanted him to hold her. Furthermore, they were just reprimanded and he was being very risky! It didn’t surprise her, though, that Eric would throw caution to the wind. In those few days she’d known him, she already knew that Eric was truly a free man. She had never met someone like him and considering the type of world they lived in, she didn’t know if he was irresponsible or courageous. “Veronica, come with me to Burnston.” She remained expressionless even if something inside of her broke. For nearly a minute, she couldn’t think of anything but stare wide eyed into Eric’s pleading eyes. Maybe, he was the one that needed emotional controlling drugs, she thought. “These have been among the most wonderful days of my life. You can’t deny that they’ve been any different for you. We can live like this every day. In Burnston, we can still be free to talk and go where we want. Free to think, Veronica! It’s a place where you can influence someone with your ideas, instead of arguing with a robot and knowing that whatever you say will trigger the same program with the same results. Imagine talking openly without being afraid of being misinterpreted by a robot that will shoot you without remorse. Can you imagine that? How many people are shot in this country at the hands of the robot cops? Ten thousand every year? Do you ever read the history books where people used to descend into the streets when one person was shot by a real cop? What happened to those days? Why did we gave up as a society?” Veronica heard, but didn’t really concentrate on what Eric was telling her. “Aren’t you tired of all this, Veronica? Aren’t you tired of living in constant fear, of making a mistake and losing your social status, of saying something different from the mass and being criticized and branded antisocial? Is this any way to live? A human being cannot fear pain, cannot fear failure, cannot fear thinking and choosing! Why can’t we live as we are meant to be, free with all our faults and all our strengths? It’s this combination which makes us human! It’s this lack of combination that makes androids machines. They want to eliminate our faults, but man was made to fall down in order to grow taller!” Eric didn’t have much time left as he tried to open her heart and mind. “I won’t promise you’ll be comfortable. I can’t promise you that you’ll like it on most days. I can’t even promise you everlasting love. I can just promise you that you will be free to be yourself. Yes, it will be dangerous. Yes, all that adrenaline can be intoxicating. You will cry, you will laugh. You will not only grow old, but look old. But, what is life if you don’t let it sculpt and shape you? Why try to hang on to youth if you don’t know how to live young? Why try to be immortal if you don’t know what to do with it? Does the fear of dying justify becoming an android? Don’t regret what you have or have not done in the past, but regret what you’re not doing today and do something about it so that when tomorrow arrives you can be proud of yourself! It’s the only way to honor life, to live it one day at a time and be yourself that day. Else, you can live a million years and never understand what you’re living for.” A small, insipid smile crossed Veronica’s face as Eric talked. Eric didn’t know if anything he said reached her. He could tell that she must have taken a high dose of drug. There was nothing more he could say, but hope that she understood his feelings for her. He hoped that she recognized that this was love, unconquerable in spite of man’s attempt to dominate, defeat, and deny its existence. Love always finds a way out of the coldest heart, out of the darkest soul, out of the driest mind and out of the blindest alleys. Love always escapes death to return and start over again. Love is immortal. Only love resurrects. When Eric stepped on the plane that would bring him back to Africa, he hoped that love would one day find them again. Chapter 4 Veronica was at her desk at the break of dawn. She had been unable to sleep and after the rage that she had provoked in Eric the previous evening, she refused to take any drug that might help her relax. She could as well choose not to suffer, but she felt like she had betrayed Eric and wanted to make amends, even if she knew fully well that Eric was already half a world away. Anyway, she thought, it wasn’t as if her pain would simply go away anytime soon. The emotions bottled inside were too intense to sort out properly and the lack of guilt she felt towards Hector troubled her. If she had any doubts before, now she accepted that Hector was dead in her heart. She was finally able to mourn his death, which in hindsight, had occurred when his body ceased living. She also reflected on Eric’s absurd proposal. A part of her wanted to abandon itself to his ideas, to his world, but she didn’t know how. The last few days simply didn’t seem real. His world was complicated, yet idealistic – much like an innocent illusion of a time gone by and no longer present. And then, considering everything, did she really want these strong feelings to overtake her everyday life? Look at what they were already doing to her! Could she live without her certainties, without having everything at the touch of her fingers? Eric, she thought desperately, why did you have to be different? Why couldn’t you be more like everyone else? Why did you have to make me think of so many things I didn’t need to think about? Why, she asked herself again, did I have to fall in love with you? Veronica knew that her first day without Eric was going to be a difficult day, but she did not expect to be summoned by Human Resources. She cringed as she reread the message on her screen, hoping to find something in its text to reassure her that it was not bad news. Of course, she was unable to tell, but an urgently scheduled meeting at Human Resources request was rarely a good omen. The next few hours were not as productive as they should have been. She was unable to concentrate on her work. She knew that she should have taken a drug to help her focus, but she wanted to keep the memory of Eric alive in her mind. When the time of her appointment came, Veronica took a deep breath and stepped outside the office. Suddenly, she had this urge to look back at her desk. Silly, she thought. She was acting as if she would never see her office again. Yet, that terrible feeling followed her all the way to Human Resources, growing deeper and more ominous with each step she took. When she arrived on the thirtieth floor, she was surprised, shocked and terrified that she had been summoned by none other than Susan Washington, President of Communication and Deliverable Resources. She was one of the most powerful individuals in the country. She responded directly to the CEO of the firm, and since the CEO was the government, she responded directly to the President of the United States of America. It was rumored that she had an intense relationship with the President and quite a few times she had appeared at his side in official meetings where normally a wife should have been. Some quietly contested that the President didn’t lead by example – especially in a country where the birthrate was nearly non-existent. There were those who emphasized that the most urgent need of the country was the return of the family institution and they wanted him to commit to marriage in order to set a clear example. In a country where people had always been easily influenced by trends, a few saw in the President the last hope of re-establishing some fundamental, traditional values. Many of the supporters of the family tradition, however, had lost hope that this would ever happen. The problem was that Susan Washington was an android. She seemed to have much more than just his personal favor, so much so that the President was starting to champion the android cause for integration in key national positions which many in both parties still opposed. Although androids enjoyed the same rights as organics, they were quietly shunned by the majority of the population and segregated from jobs where crucial decisional skills were required. The President wanted this attitude to end. He consistently preached that this was pure racism and had no place in modern America. Veronica had once championed his cause whole-heartedly. Not anymore. As she stepped inside Susan Washington’s spacious and luxurious office, Veronica tried not to be impressed. Priceless art as well as photographs of significant people adorned the walls around her. Veronica felt her knees shaky as she sat nervously in front of Susan’s long, marble desk, intimidated by the shear bulkiness of it. She shifted her eyes on Susan, trying not to overly stare, finding it difficult not to notice the crude android’s features. Susan was an older model than Hector even if Veronica noted that new modifications had been made to her face through the years, which in her opinion, made the android look somewhat grotesque. “You seem surprised to be here, Veronica Stillman.” Veronica jumped. The metallic voice had an eerie ring to it, almost too shrill to be a human voice. She cleared her throat and spoke with diffidence. “I didn’t expect to be called by Human Resources,” she half whispered, feeling her voice lost in that spacious room. “Especially by someone like you.” Susan Washington’s response was quick and sharp. “Like me? Like what? Like an android? If you are a racist Veronica, then that might explain things.” Oh no, thought Veronica, feeling a tinge of fear running through her. Experience with the android Hector had taught her that she needed to be very clear and concise when she spoke. Androids had a very hard time understanding certain human nuances and were quick to arrive at their own conclusions. “Of course not!” Veronica quickly retaliated. “I mean, not everyone has the privilege to talk with Susan Washington.” Veronica felt her courage returning and tried to be more assertive in her approach. “I am surprised, because I am puzzled. Why have you summoned me? Our social classes are not compatible.” Susan Washington tilted her head to the side to mimic a clear human trait, as if she was reflecting on Veronica’s words even if Veronica already knew that Susan had formulated her answer a few nanoseconds after she finished speaking – and most probably, had even projected the conversation into the future. “You are right, but your case is particular and I have decided to handle the matter myself.” Veronica’s tension grew slightly. She was churning her thoughts in her mind, trying to understand what she could possibly have done wrong at work. “This conversation”, continued Susan, “has no official file. It is a personal matter. In fact, consider me a friend whose only wish is to help you.” Veronica was speechless. A friend? Susan Washington? Help her? Help her with what? “It has to do with your companion, Hector,” Susan Washington stated with firmness. “He’s told me that you haven’t been home the last few days. I have security clearance to access private citizen’s files and it is exactly what I did in your case. You’ve been living at Liberty Hotel these last few days and were seen with a certain social dissident, Eric Samuel, who if you don’t know, happens to be an anti-government activist that we are keeping a close eye on. He is suspected of being sympathetic to many terrorist causes.” Veronica’s face turned white. Eric? An anti-government activist? Wasn’t he working for a humanitarian organism? She was truly bewildered. She felt her heart racing faster while trying to establish a link with the go-lucky, intense but cheerful, charitable Eric she had met with the cold, scheming, anti-social criminal Susan was portraying him to be. It didn’t add up. Even so, what possible interest could Susan have with her? Did Susan think that she was an activist too? Veronica dreaded that something greatly terrifying was about to happen to her. The fact that Susan had dug into her personal life told her that this android had little scruples, if any, and would stop at nothing to achieve her goals, whatever they were. “I still don’t understand why I’m here. Did Hector call you? Was he the one that told you that I was missing? I was very clear with him that I would be staying away from home for a while.” It wasn’t possible, thought Veronica, still reeling at the sudden turn of events. How could Hector know someone like Susan Washington? Veronica had been working at the cooperation for over five years and this was the first time she had ever talked to Susan Washington. She had only seen her perhaps a half dozen times and always from afar. “No, he didn’t call me, but we can communicate by other means which are well established in literature, but are simply not known to organic life forms because most organics do not take the time to learn and understand us. We might only be twenty thousand androids in all the state of California, but we are a tight knit group.” For a moment, Veronica didn’t say a word. It never occurred to her that the androids would be communicating with each other. For what purpose? Why hadn’t Hector ever told her this? He seemed a recluse. Ever since the operation, he had lost all his friends, and most days, he seemed withdrawn from the everyday world. Veronica simply blurted out her curiosity. “All twenty thousand? What for?” Susan Washington did not reply and Veronica felt unsettled. A shard of fear traversed her as Susan Washington remained silent. Androids did not lie, yet when they didn’t want someone to know something, they simply didn’t say it. Veronica found it unwise to insist any further. Something inside warned her that she should neutralize her curiosity about the androids. She steered the conversation back to the motive of her summoning. “Why am I here? Did I do something wrong?” Veronica asked with some tightness in her voice. “Why are you telling me all this?” Veronica knew that she sounded much like a child, but she was in the total dark and fear was slowly paralysing her mind like a slow moving, creeping vine. Susan Washington turned an eye towards Veronica while the other continued to scan the computer terminal under her. A cold chill touched Veronica’s spine. She knew perfectly well that the android didn’t really have to glance at the screen. The gesture was simply to give her a human semblance while performing the task. Even if… humans couldn’t split their stare. “Why? Because there are many organic life forms that are opposed to us, Veronica, even if we have never harmed anyone. On the contrary. We have created technological wonders that have made the whole world a better place for all of us to live in. If it wasn’t for the work of androids in the scientific fields, the world’s pollution problems would be rampant as we speak and diseases would have wiped out much of the world’s population. The elimination of the Zika virus. The elimination of global warming. The replenishment of fresh, drinking water for all. I will not list all the benefits that we have brought to the world, but think for a second of all the everyday things that we have nearly eliminated like crime, poverty, and famine. These are all things that have given man a standard of living unparalleled in our history. Yet…” Susan Washington’s gaze fell impassively on Veronica. “Yet, I repeat, they are many organic life forms who despise us. They do not want to take the time to understand us. They don’t want to be told that we are exactly like them in many ways. After all, we were once human flesh. Does the body make the person? Isn’t it our intelligence that is important? Aren’t we then all human? Many of us had no choice but to become androids if we didn’t want to die. Is it that bad not to want to die, Veronica?” Veronica knew that the articulated discourse was intended to make her sympathize, but she kept silent as Susan’s eerie impassionate voice droned on. Of course, no one wants to die, Veronica thought, feeling very possessive of that life she had. Of course, no one wants to die… “We are born into a wonderful world. We grow old and learn so many things during this process only to be denied in the end of the life we cherish. Think of it, Veronica. We spend the little time we have on Earth trying to give our lives meaning, working hard for ourselves and for our loved ones. We make sacrifices, renounce many of our dreams, even making many mistakes… all without ever having a second chance to remake those choices with the wisdom and experience of our years.” Susan momentarily stopped before continuing, knowing well that at times humans needed a little pause to reflect. “Must this wonderful adventure called life end just when we start understanding ourselves? Is it fair to see all that you have accomplished with your life rot away – and robbed by death? Think of the things that you could do if you only had the time to do them. Think of all the wonderful places that you will not be able to visit because time won’t permit you. Think of all the mysteries of the universe that you will never know! Don’t you want to live the future and don’t you want to live that future with the people who you love and are dearest to you? Think of all those people that you love and cherish, living with you forever… instead of having to mourn each one of them as they quietly or violently pass away.” Veronica had to admit that Susan knew how to captivate – but she didn’t expect anything less as Susan continued. “If you really consider it, ours is a sad life, isn’t it, Veronica? Death is mocking you. Death is yawning. Death is just lazy enough to lend you some time in this world – and this is not negotiable. You might be life’s servant, but remember that you are death’s property. Do you finally understand what death is? It is your only enemy. Not the androids. I am your salvation. I am the one that will help you defeat death. After all, I am you. I am human.” Susan’s eyes seemed to bulge slightly forward from her head, leaving Veronica’s stomach a little queasy. “I know that outside a few – like your husband – only the very rich and famous have this option today, but this is only the beginning, Veronica. One day, thanks to these pioneers, everyone will have the opportunity to become an android. Don’t consider me. The androids to come will be stronger, faster, smarter, and have longer life spans. We will not stop until humanity has achieved immortality. On that day, Veronica, no one will want to remain flesh anymore. No one.” Veronica was horrified. She could not imagine a world composed only of androids. Maybe, she was starting to see death in a different light since Hector had cheated it. Perhaps, it was nature’s way of renewing itself, of bringing new ideas to the world. Maybe, man needed death to live. Maybe, man had to hurt inside to feel his humanity. If death was conquered, would love still hurt? Perhaps, death made love that much purer, that much stronger, that much more desirable, that much more passionate and desperate. Maybe, man had to bleed to be alive – like she was bleeding for Eric. Susan Washington finally came to the point as Veronica shifted her attention back to the discussion at hand. “We must not give these people who oppose the prosperity of humanity an opportunity to group together and influence public opinion. We cannot permit people who are unable to see past their prejudices to divide us. Ignorance cannot rule and triumph simply because we are comfortable with what we know. We must learn to change. We must learn to accept this change when this change is for the benefit of humanity – even at our own personal expense.” Susan Washington circled her desk and stood next to an edgy Veronica. Her eyes widened as she remained hunkered down between the contours of the plush leather chair, barely breathing, while Susan Washington continued hammering her message. “Relationships between androids and organics are part of this change. For every failed union, there is a negative perception that’s created among the populace. We cannot give these militants any reason to further their goals. This is a deciding moment in history, Veronica. Do you understand the gravity of the situation, then? Do you understand what I am alluding to?” Veronica stammered. She was unprepared to face the argument. She had never thought about it in those terms. A union between a man and a woman was an affair of the heart, not of a cause, no matter how noble the cause seemed. “The relationship I have with Hector is a private matter. I can see your point of view, but we are talking about my life.” Veronica had no will to discuss her love life with someone she didn’t know. Her anger was rising, as was her nervousness. She was also annoyed that she had been summoned by Human Resources to discuss her personal choices in life. Yet, she feared Susan Washington’s reaction and urged herself to remain controlled. Surely, a woman as powerful as this was not used to being contradicted or argued with. “If you saw my point of view, Veronica, you wouldn’t be so selfish thinking only about yourself instead of what is best for us all. Nevertheless, I am going to offer you something priceless. You will soon hear of a new android model that will be made available in a few months’ time. Its enhancements are phenomenal. Not only will there be a technological leap forward, but the legislature regulating biosynthetic life forms will be just as revolutionary. For the very first time, a person will be able to choose to become an android even if his or her organic body is perfectly healthy. Even better, a person does not have to risk waiting until he or she is sixty-five years old to commit. The minimal age will be lowered to forty-five years.” Veronica held her breath. She didn’t want to believe what she was hearing. It all seemed like the start of an active campaign to recruit androids. She had difficulty believing that such a proposal would be considered in Washington or that an aberration such as this would be allowed to pass the Senate. Was the value of the flesh becoming that insignificant? Susan Washington continued her discourse in her unsettling voice. “It gets even better, Veronica. I am lobbying for a loophole in the legislation that will allow for organic companions of androids to have access to the same option no matter their age. I have decided to sponsor your candidature.” Veronica’s heart stopped. Eric, she thought impulsively as she regained her spirits, where are you? She dared not look into Susan Washington’s glassy eyes as her voice cracked and squeaked in horror. “I do not know what to say, just that… it’s not in my immediate plans to give up my present life.” There seemed to be a hint of impatience in Susan Washington’s voice as she arrogantly retorted back. “And what kind of life is that, Veronica? You cannot understand your companion because your organic mind is unable to purify itself from misconceptions. Believe me, once the police finish their inquiry on your involvement with Eric Samuel, your present social standing will fall drastically. You should have known that nothing escapes security and your being with Eric was suspect to say the least. This will definitely lead to your dismissal from this company and lower your social class significantly. You will lose all your friends. You will no longer be able to hold membership in prestigious clubs and associations. You will be barred from all the fine entertainment centers of the country. You will be fortunate even to retain a passport. Forget about your home once Hector files for separation. As for your career? It’s finished, Veronica. At best, your pretty face and body might assure you employment as an escort for Class 12 citizens. Is this what you call a life?” Veronica’s heart was imploding in her ears as Susan’s words blurred and became distant. She pressed her lips tightly together in anger and fear while Susan Washington drew out her bleak future. In that moment, she could only think of Eric, and as she thought of him, she realized that Susan Washington was right. This was not a life. She had no more affinity for this world. Eric had shown her that there was not one reality, but many. Susan was drawing yet another reality for her. Yes, Eric was right. Reality was a struggle between what you made it to be and what society required you to be. That’s what Eric had said – and now, for the very first time, as Susan Washington spoke, Veronica finally understood what he meant. What this society considered important was not what Veronica considered important anymore. She was learning to think for herself, and now that she had found the courage to do so, she wouldn’t permit anyone to steal this ability from her. Somehow, she had to resist that android. Her life could simply not end this way. “What do you propose?” Veronica asked, surprising herself at how smooth and serene her tone had suddenly become. If Susan Washington could smile, she probably would have. “I see the facts are bringing us to the same conclusion. When you become an android, believe me, your quality of life will be much superior to that you know. Not only will you live longer, but you will also be more productive at work and your relationship with Hector will return to being functional. You will be an example for all humanity and the android community will applaud your free will in joining us. Society will take act that it is to everyone’s advantage to become an android.” “And how long will this process take?” “In about two weeks the President will make the announcement. In a few months the legislation will be passed and shortly thereafter we will be ready to perform the operation on you. In the meantime, it is important that you return home to your companion and put aside any differences you might have had with him. Of course, the investigation in your private life will be suspended for the moment. Once the transformation is complete, the week that just transpired with Eric will be entirely removed from your records – like it never happened. You may leave, that is all.” Veronica nodded her head and smiled pleasantly back. Like it never happened. Her heart, however, told her that it had happened. Chapter 5 During the next few weeks, Veronica became a model employee. She moved back in with her companion and on Susan Washington’s suggestion became a member of various pro-android associations. The law passed as Susan Washington had foretold and to her chagrin so did the special clause. A few weeks later, her candidature was among the first accepted by the Android Companion Governing Acts. She was going to become an android. Her date was set: three months to the day the Android Companion Governing Acts passed. In the meantime, she had to attend a series of seminars intended to make the transition from organic to synthetic life as effortlessly as possible. Veronica dreaded them with vehemence. They were intended to sell the advantage of synthetic bodies over organic life. Even more appalling was that Susan Washington and her followers were lobbying extensively to make these courses mandatory through the normal educational system of the country. The day arrived when one month remained in Veronica’s life. She had embraced the deception out of fear, convinced that she’d eventually find a mean of escaping, if not to Burnston, at least from that dire situation she had been cornered in. It had been impossible. Not only was she under constant surveillance from Susan Washington, but the media obligation was consuming much of her free time. Veronica had grossly underestimated the impact that the event would have on her life in the days leading up to the historic day. It seemed that everyone wanted to know how the twenty people that were involved in the transformation were preparing for that day. Even if somehow it would have been possible to flee, her flight would be short lived considering that her face was well known. To add to her distress, her passport was revoked as well – limiting her already slim options. Susan Washington had thought of everything. At times, during moments of panic, Veronica questioned her actions. Had she erred in taking a passive approach? What would’ve happened if she had defied Susan Washington? Would Susan simply have left her alone? Unlikely, she told herself. Susan Washington would surely have found a way to reach her objective. Susan was powerful enough to obtain her wish and if Veronica resisted, Susan would have found a way to silence her. Veronica knew well those rumors that resurfaced every now and then about people involved in mysterious accidents that unexpectedly woke up as androids. A cold chill blew on her fearful heart. She didn’t want to believe such things could happen in her apparently flawless society, but lately she was becoming conscious that her life was very much like a small lifeboat. She had been crossing an apparently calm sea ignorant of the dangers that lurked beneath. The seas gave the illusion that one had control of one’s destiny and was free to travel to any harbor by any route, but deep underneath its mantle furious mechanisms were at work that only a few chosen ones knew. As the days funneled down to her tragic fate, panic started to paralyze her mind. Veronica couldn’t think of one way to flee the country. The only thing that occupied her mind as desperation set in was her growing inability to find a means of escape. As her anxiety increased and took a toll on her health, the inevitable happened. She was called into Susan’s office where she was told that the central resource monitoring system had compared her health values with her yearly average and found them out of range. Susan Washington did not understand the tension Veronica was experiencing and wanted to know if it was related to the upcoming transfer. Veronica assured her that the stress she felt was due to fatigue since she had been working extremely hard the last few months. Susan Washington pressed on. She pointed out that there had been periods when Veronica had worked longer and harder. Veronica was at a loss for words. If Susan became more suspicious, Veronica knew that whatever small hope she still coved inside would vanish. She had to convince the android that she truly was mentally tired through her work. Furthermore, Veronica argued as she tried building up her case, the added physical stress of her engagements with the android society left very little time to recuperate. After all, she told Susan, putting an added emphasis on her words, I am still an organic and need to sleep seven to eight hours a day! In one last desperate attempt at freedom, as Susan contemplated her words, Veronica jumped at the occasion to convince her that she needed time off from work to mentally recuperate before the scheduled transfer. She tried to persuade Susan that she needed a few vacation days in a secluded place, away from the media to reflect and better prepare for the occasion. Deep inside, however, she prayed that she could cross the border into Mexico and be on her way to Africa before anyone discovered her whereabouts. How she would accomplish this, she had no idea at the moment. She just needed hope. Susan Washington did not find any reason to grant her request. She replied that studies had demonstrated that the psychological state of mind a person was in before the transfer into an android’s electrical brain had no effect on the outcome of the operation. “Whatever tiredness you feel at this moment will vanish the moment you open your eyes as an android.” Veronica left Susan Washington’s office utterly crushed and defeated. There truly was no solution to her predicament. Her only option was to run blindly, hoping that she could evade the law for the time necessary to find a way out of the country. Veronica calculated that she had about forty minutes to find a shelter; the time it normally took her to commute between home and work. Considering the androids mounting preoccupation of terrorist actions against the new android friendly law, if Hector didn’t see her arrive within a reasonable delay, he would eventually call the office to start a search process, as he called it. In light of what she had discovered about the androids ability to communicate with each other, if he couldn’t locate her he would certainly inquire about his missing partner with Susan Washington who in turn would readily alert security. Even if she were to dump her car to a side of a road, where would she go? Finding her would be easy. Every single taxi and bus had an identity log that would inform the police of every passenger that went onboard with detailed data about the trajectory including point and time of departure and arrival. Her blood curled as she realized that there was another option available. Suicide. Veronica had never thought about the plausibility of such a horrible action and wanted to shun away from even thinking about it. The idea, however, was starting to linger in the back of her head. It started to grow like a dark cloud, taking a shape of its own as it drifted menacingly towards her and blocked off the sunlight that she so desperately craved. The day following her conversation with Susan Washington brought more grim news. Veronica received a note from the Artificial Intelligent Center that preparations for her new body were going well and that they had anticipated the transfer date by a few days. She had to report in two weeks. A few minutes later, while she was still trying to absorb the shock, Susan Washington sent her a pop-video clip that she’d be training a new person to replace her during the two months that she’d be in rehabilitation. The new person would start tomorrow. Veronica feared that Susan Washington must have precipitated the events after their latest conversation. It was futile. She could never manage to outwit an android. Her life was slipping from her hands like water through the cracks of her fists. The harder she tried to clasp her life, the quicker it trickled away from her. Her life was drying up. Veronica had reached the point of no return. She preferred death at this point. She couldn’t imagine having the memories of her life in a fabricated body that was incapable of expressing sentiments. She couldn’t imagine becoming like Hector. It wasn’t fair to every wonderful thing that she’d done in her life. As bitter tears formed in her eyes, she mechanically glanced over her notes to see who was scheduled as her first client of the day. The appointment was planned at Turner’s Café. Veronica had her reason to leave the building – and she would use the occasion to carry through her last thought. She took her carry case and without looking back at her office, walked effortlessly through the maze of the Mega Corporation, enjoying the sharp sounds of her medium heels as she clanked them hard on the shiny floor. She concentrated on that slapping sound, not daring to think of anything else – no memories and not one face of her past. She reached the front door. The force screen leading outside was rigidly shut. Once at work, leaving the edifice during the working day was not permitted unless it was related to business. If an employee was sick at work – or even if an employee was sick at home – they needed to register at the corporation’s built-in clinic facility where the employee would remain days if necessary until cured. Veronica approached the guard robot which confirmed her identity. Veronica knew that the robot was accessing her employee bracelet to scan her daily schedule. When it found her justification to leave the premises, the laser wall disengaged. Veronica walked out. Her plan was simple. Once she reached Liberty Hotel, she’d swim out to the open sea until her tired body disappeared below the waves. No one would notice until it was too late. Her last act would take less time than the time scheduled with her client. She didn’t know if her death would be interpreted as a protest against the android movement, but she fervently wished it would. At least it would halt the program – enough to make people think. Chapter 6 Bill Stone was one of her best clients. Veronica knew him since she started working and had developed a very professional relationship with him through the years. They usually met once a month at a local coffee shop to discuss business. He was a simple, rare family man, not very attractive and just past middle age. Although she appreciated his business sense, she had always thought that he was a rather boring individual who lagged a step or two behind society. In other words, he was a man out of touch with the latest trends. Bill never really had anything interesting to say and while most people she knew were that way because they dreaded to say anything that might compromise their social ranking, Bill, on the other hand, was simply an uninspiring character. He should have been Veronica’s first client of the day. Veronica climbed into her vehicle, took off the automatic pilot, and sped towards the road leading to the ocean. She accelerated, enjoying the full wind in her long hair, and as she did so, the numb feeling that she wanted so desperately to maintain slowly started to crack under her overwhelming emotions. She had nearly reached Liberty Hotel when she briskly stopped her car to the side of the road while her heart and mind pounded with the strong tides of those few days spent with Eric. Tears were openly rolling down her cheeks and they were somehow comforting under the warm rays of the sun. It was as if a gentle hand was caressing her, feeling her pain and promising her that there would be better days ahead. Veronica removed her shades and let the full sunlight envelope her. No… not this way. Courage, Veronica, courage. There still is time and you will find a way. You must find a way. Eric would have kept on fighting and so should you. Veronica wondered if he knew. Of course he knew. The event was world news. It was the first time that twenty people, out of their own free will, were giving up their lives to achieve perfection. She smiled bitterly. Eric must be thinking that he had failed to move her, that she had turned away from his love and forgotten those few, wonderful days together. She could see him in her mind as she imagined him – maybe at first furious and livid with rage, then haggard and defeated while reading the news that the woman he loved had chosen to become an android. Eric, if you only knew the truth. How silly she’d been to take those numb drugs; how immature she’d been not to have responded to his love. Why hadn’t she told him how much she loved him when she had the chance? Veronica slowly turned her car around and headed back to the coffee shop. Her mind was calm. The panic attack had passed. As she pulled up in front of the place, her car pad activated and Susan Washington appeared online. “Could you explain why for eleven minutes and forty seconds you were driving at high speed away from the meeting place that you had established with your client?” Veronica hadn’t considered Susan Washington while planning her suicide, but she wasn’t surprised to hear her voice. She should have known that she was being followed closely. There really seemed to be no way to escape Susan Washington, and yet, she felt a baffling sentiment of hope blossom in her. It might all be futile in the end, but as long as she could breathe, she would keep on fighting for her life. “Nothing important, I think,” Veronica replied in an apprehensive voice as her mind quickly tried to conjure a plausible excuse. “I was experiencing some acceleration problems this morning and I just wanted to test the car out for a few minutes. I’m sorry if I worried anyone. Anyway, Bill has a tendency of being late and I’m sure he’s yet to arrive.” Susan Washington told her to check the problem out with the company’s robotic mechanic on her return. She doubted Veronica’s account since the car was equipped with a self-repair kit for minor problems such as these and it would have communicated the problem to both the driver and the mechanic. Susan attributed the mishap to that human condition called jitters that brings stress and falsifies sensations. Veronica went through the usual identification check at the door of the café. She noted that Bill was already waiting for her as she squeezed her way through the throng. He was sitting next to the window, which in reality was a large, clear force field overlooking the busy, yet quaint street. The place had a retro look, a flashback to the early twenty-first century. Veronica took a cup of synthetic coffee from the bar and brought it to the table where Bill sat, patiently awaiting. The aroma of the coffee filled her lungs, and for a moment, an impish smile crossed her face. She remembered that androids were not able to distinguish between smells as humans could. Or rather, she corrected herself, they could, but it was more of a chemical analysis than an olfactory sensation that they performed. Her smile grew. They also struggled to understand the subtleties between different smiles. It made her feel even more wickedly sorry for them. “You know,” ventured Bill as he noted Veronica’s reaction, which frankly surprised him. She was always so precise, cool and collected, never a word or expression out of place. What one would once call, he reflected, remembering the terminology of years gone by, a cold hearted bitch. “I once tasted real coffee when I was knee high. My grandma had a small stash that she had preserved for years.” He sighed fondly recalling those simpler times. “Real coffee was still available in those days.” Veronica lifted her eyebrows in dismay. “That must have been a toxic experience!” As she sat across Bill, she activated the coffee table’s 3D screen with her key. A solid beam of light rose from the center of the table between them. On either side of the laser beam, an energy screen expanded from the center and spread out horizontally. Veronica adjusted the height of the energy screen to her liking and after the usual identification check, accessed her work files. The edges of the screen turned red as the sensor keyed in to her iris to establish a secure connection. Only she could visualize her own screen. Whoever happened to casually glance at it would only see a very light blue transparent field. She glanced up at Bill. He was staring at her as if she had no idea of what she had just uttered. Coffee beans were extremely rare. During the global warming years, a tenacious parasite had wiped out the plant nearly to extinction. Science had been unable to stop its spread and the parasite had more or less contaminated the whole world. Today, coffee beans were grown in a few greenhouse stations orbiting the Earth. It was available to a very select class of people at astronomical prices. Anyway, thought Veronica, just as sugar and cigarettes had been limited during the health awareness years to fight cancer and obesity, coffee would surely have met the same fate if it had continued being available in industrial quantities. Bill had started to comment on the joys of coffee, but Veronica had no time for idle conversation. She had a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach and despite the warm coffee, she was trembling inside. An idea had started to take form the moment she saw him. It was a desperate idea. She remembered asking her father once, what is a Good Samaritan? He had laughed whole-heartedly and replied that it was the rarest thing to find nowadays – and she had asked that question many years ago. She had no other choice. She had to rely on that intangible that Susan Washington and all androids were incapable of – trust. She would have to put her life in the hands of Bill Stone and have faith that he wouldn’t betray her. “Bill, I need your help.” Bill tilted his head to the side and peered questioningly at Veronica. The manner she had invoked his aid told him that there was something more involved to her request than the usual work related issue. He had never heard Veronica, in the years that he had known her, use such a desperate tone. Furthermore, he had always considered her emotionally superficial and a conceited snob, even if lately, after the health issues of her companion, he had started to notice a slight change in her attitude. Still, he never expected her to ask him for anything and was more than a little stunned that she required his assistance. “Don’t speak, Bill. Just listen to me and tell me if you can help me. I need you to send a message to a person named Eric Samuel. He lives in Burnston. I cannot send it because the message will be intercepted and blocked. Tell him that I need his help. Tell him that I want to leave the country and join him in Burnston. Tell him that I’m being forced to become an android in a few days. Don’t use my name, and don’t use the word android, because all messages with those words are instantly scanned by the authorities. Can you help me Bill? You are my last hope!” It was a frightened voice, a pleading voice that reached Bill, and yet it was also a very determined voice. Bill shifted uneasily in his chair. His face was very taut as he glanced around to see if anyone had overheard her. What was this talk about Burnston, forced to be an android, secret message? He leaned stiffly towards Veronica, hardly believing what he had just heard. “Please Bill, don’t act so suspicious!” she warned him. “Smile and pretend that everything is fine. Someone might be watching us at this very moment.” Bill’s expression remained exactly the same. No, it actually became graver, worriedly thought Veronica. “I’m baffled at this moment,” Bill replied in a low, deep voice, careful not to be overheard even if there were a multitude of sounds and conversations around them. Veronica had to lean a little closer to Bill to listen to what he said. “I don’t know what to tell you, Veronica. This seems very dangerous and honestly, I’d rather not know what kind of trouble you’re in. I don’t even know how you can possibly think that I can help you with this. I’m sorry. Let’s just talk about business, OK? Like we’ve always done.” He held in his breath as he noticed her eyes fall, turn desolate, and become barren of hope – as he had rarely seen in an individual. It made him feel tremendously guilty at that moment. Was this the same unpleasant and battling Veronica that challenged him every time they met – who gave him fits to finalize a deal? Bill sighed, trying to clarify the reasoning behind his decision. “Listen, Veronica, I have a family. Nothing came easy in my life. No one ever did me a favor and frankly…” he looked at her and gulped, “I don’t like you very much. It’s people like you, people who’ll stop at nothing to achieve success that makes this world a living hell for the rest of us who just want to live peacefully and enjoy what the good Lord has given us. It’s not as if people like you will appreciate whatever you gain as you step over others to achieve success. You’ll just want more and more. Why should I risk the normal and happy life I have and the wellbeing of my family for you? Have you ever asked me once about my family, Veronica? Have you ever cared about me outside these working appointments?” Veronica remained quiet. She could not deny the image that she projected. Months ago, she would have crucified Bill if he dared admit such things to her face. She didn’t know if she was still that callous person anymore. Perhaps, she was feeling remorse because her life was in peril, and if she were to escape this situation, she would return being that self-centered person. She didn’t know. She was only certain of who she’d been. Veronica now needed to show Bill that she had changed, that she realized that she had made mistakes. She could only ask for forgiveness, something that she hadn’t done for a very long time. Veronica felt her mouth going dry, her heart beating a little faster, as she looked at Bill with her beseeching eyes. “I’m sorry, Bill, for not caring enough. I cannot erase the things I’ve said or done. I know that my life is not worth your risk. That I know. And… and I have little if anything to offer you in return. The only thing I can do is promise you that I will thank you every day for the rest of my life. I don’t know if this means anything to you.” Veronica fiddled pensively with her coffee mug before timidly glancing up into Bill’s rigid face. “You ask me why you should help me? I don’t know, Bill. I honestly don’t know. I just want to live. That’s all. I’m desperate for life. I’m pleading with you to look inside yourself and do what you think is right. Not for me. For you. I will understand. If you decide to help me, however, do it because you love being human. It took the spectre of death over my head to understand this. Do it because… because deep in your heart you know that charity means giving life and that life is still the most beautiful gift to receive and give in this world.” Veronica was emotionally drained. She had surprised herself. She came to meet Bill, not really knowing what she would say, but the words came gushing out like a fountain. Bill crossed his arms over his chest. There would be no work done today, he thought. He breathed in deep, nervously, before exhaling and sighing. The tension was palpable. He looked straight at Veronica. “You have put me in a real difficult situation. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do, even if I wanted to help you. This is also our last appointment before your transformation, I believe.” Veronica nodded. She would not be seeing him again. He twirled his lips and glanced sheepishly at her before continuing. “Actually,” he said, “it really would have been the last appointment, period. I have asked my boss to remove me from this account. You know, I don’t think I would have felt comfortable, well you know, working with an android.” Then his eyes bulged as he realized his blunder. He said something that he shouldn’t have. Veronica smiled warmly, reassuring him. “Don’t worry, Bill. I understand. I won’t tell, even if, even if…” Even if I do become an android. She couldn’t bring herself to finish the phrase. She would not utter it. It was simply not possible that she was about to die. He didn’t say a word and Veronica feared the worse. Bill noticed her gaze turn glassy and a glum sheen cross her irises as her face slowly dropped. He pressed his lips together and took a long, steady breath through his nose. He hesitated a little longer before finally rolling his eyes to the sky and letting out a big sigh of nervous tension. “OK. Let’s schedule a meeting in six days,” he told her. “We’ll finalize the Wilken file. That should not raise suspicion and if we really do conclude that deal, it will give me a nice bonus to bring home.” Veronica’s eyes became luminous as half tears formed under her eyelids. “I will see what I can do, but I can’t promise you anything,” Bill quickly added. “Don’t put your hopes in me. If you can find someone else to help you, please do.” Veronica was tremendously grateful. At least she could face the following days with some sense of optimism. She repeated the information to Bill. It was important that no record existed. She did not want to leave any trace that Susan Washington might follow. It was conceivable that she might think of accessing Bill Stone’s personal files if she became suspicious. In doing so, she could easily find Eric’s name in a reminder note crushing whatever hope she had of escaping while at the same time endangering Bill Stone’s life. Before Bill left, she told him to relay one more message to Eric. “Tell him I love him.” Bill blinked. It was a day full of surprises. He slowly nodded. Chapter 7 The remainder of the week turned out to be less difficult than Veronica imagined. She concentrated strictly on her work to keep her mind off the anxieties that occasionally overwhelmed her. The trainee was, as expected, a spy from Susan Washington. Not only was she ever present at work, but she also insisted on being with her after working hours. Veronica played along, exhibiting false enthusiasm over the transfer – promptly erasing any lurking suspicions in the trainee’s mind. She didn’t want to give Susan Washington further ammunition to worsen her already dire situation. As her appointment with Bill loomed, Veronica tried diverting the trainee to other activities, but was unable to. She didn’t insist too much, less the trainee became overly suspicious. She called Bill from her office on the day of their rendezvous, casually telling him that she would be fifteen minutes late and that a colleague would be accompanying her. Bill acknowledged and hung up rather quickly. Veronica tried to understand through the tone of his voice if she could depend on him, but she couldn’t tell. In fact, his tone wasn’t upbeat as usual and this made her fear the worse. They arrived at the café first. When Bill came, it was strictly business. They went over the week’s activities and he spent most of his time answering the trainee’s questions. Veronica tried to put on a brave face, but the disappointment was breaking her heart. These last few months had felt as if she was dangling in air, holding on to Eric’s hand the whole time. Now it was time to let go. It was time to fall and end it all. By tomorrow morning, she would kill herself. “By the way, those minor transactions we talked about last week were successful. However, I don’t have the time to go over them at this moment. I have an urgent appointment to keep and if I don’t run, I’ll be late. Here, these are the files. Check them out and let me know what you think, will you?” He took out a paper folder containing about two hundred sheets. The trainee’s eyes bulged. “That’s… that’s paper! What a waste!” Bill shrugged. “You know those Europeans. They never do things the easy way! They always have to be different. Imagine, some still use paper. Culture, they call it. Hah! All I know is that all these sheets sure make a fine, mighty mess if you drop them.” The trainee snubbed her nose and looked wide-eyed at Veronica. “You’re not going to check them one by one? What about if you cut yourself?” she asked incredulously. “They say it’s painful!” It was Veronica’s turn to shrug as she carefully took the file that Bill handed her. She held the bundle of sheets tightly in her hands. He looked at her and smiled. Veronica realized that it was a farewell smile. “All my best to your new life, Veronica. I’ll see you in a few months… new and improved!” Veronica’s lips quivered slightly as her throat tightened. She nodded at Bill as he stood up and saluted them. Bill had barely taken a step away from the table when she hastily turned and started talking to her trainee. She didn’t want to leave her neither the time to think or the time to become curious about the paper file. When she arrived at the office, she left the folder in the car, fighting the temptation to bring it to her office. There was always the risk of being caught with the file by Susan Washington to consider – or having it scanned by the trainee while she was away from her desk. She would just have to wait until the evening to see what was in the file. For the rest of the day, Veronica made the trainee work hard and snapped at her, making the afternoon as miserable as she could for her. At the end of the day, her trainee was not only very tired, but peeved as well. When Veronica suggested that they each return home after work to rest, she received no resistance. Once home, Veronica took the file directly to her room. Hector was waiting in the kitchen for her. He had prepared her food. She ate while he sat at the table. They continued discussing about the transfer as they did every evening. She recalled the android’s ability to communicate amongst each other and used this to her advantage, continuing to express her enthusiasm while she patiently waited for the time to go to bed. When the hour arrived, Veronica climbed the stairs slowly, resisting the urge to leap across them as Hector plugged his body to the special receiving port in their living room. The androids made a painful high-pitched sound when recharging which was quite disturbing to human ears. The new generation of androids, for which she was chosen, would solve this problem. Once inside her bedroom, Veronica nervously opened the folder containing the stack of sheets with hundreds of useless transactions. She went through them one by one, on both sides. Her heartbeat seemed to resonate through the house. Surely, she thought as she glanced with fretful agitation at the closed door, Hector… and then a terrible thought jarred her mind. Just how good were the android’s listening skills? She knew that they could hear better than human beings, but could they hear sheets being overturned one by one? Could Hector hear her heart beating madly? She held her hand to her chest for a moment and urged herself to calm down. Then, carefully, she continued turning the sheets slowly while nervously keeping an eye on the door. She finally found what she was looking for towards the middle of the pile. Bill had been able to get through to Eric. Written in long hand were a few simple words – her freedom. She needed to present herself at an address, ask for Valentino, and provide him the password scribbled on that page – all within a certain hour come morning. If she didn’t reach the rendezvous point in time, she would find no one waiting for her. There was one added instruction – to eat the page as soon as she finished reading it. Veronica didn’t even hesitate. Veronica didn’t sleep well. She didn’t toss, though, fearing that Hector might hear her restlessness. She remained very still in her bed, thinking about Eric, about Burnston, about Bill – especially Bill. Whatever happened come tomorrow morning, she knew that she would never be able to repay him back. He had given her hope – the most beautiful gift she’d ever received in her life. Chapter 8 Veronica descended from her bedroom a little earlier than usual. She told Hector that she wanted to inspect her car before starting the day, and that if there was a problem, she’d leave the car at the garage and take a cab to work. He didn’t inquire – as if he was already aware of the situation – and found it an acceptable variable to her day. Once Veronica arrived at the mechanic, she stripped off all identification that could pinpoint her location and left it in the glove compartment. Before leaving the garage, she proceeded to send a text message to the trainee, indicating that she was at the garage and would be running a little late. It might buy her some extra minutes. The trainee would probably wait those ten, fifteen minutes longer before becoming suspicious. Veronica didn’t believe in fate, but what had seemed a simple excuse a few days ago was now having a fundamental role in her escape. Veronica called a taxi. When the cab arrived, she entered her identification code on the display terminal. The cabs were made such that the onboard computer scanned the number of passengers and wouldn’t budge until each passenger was identified. She told the driver robot to bring her to an intersection two blocks away from the rendezvous point. This way, she thought, even if she’d be eventually traced once her disappearance became suspect, Susan would be unable to understand which direction she took once the taxi dropped her off. Again, she hoped this might buy her some extra minutes in her escape. The ride was longer than she anticipated, and it felt even longer to Veronica. Once the taxi left her off at destination, Veronica realized that whoever was helping her had chosen one of the few areas of the cities which had no sidewalk cameras. People living in these neighborhoods paid a hefty privacy fee and in a society which knew everything about everyone, their privilege would have been long removed if it wasn’t for the amount of money that came into the government’s purse. The fact that not all rich people sought fame and some still preferred to live as normal recluses was turning to her favor. She walked the remaining distance, trying not to look suspicious in case a police robot scanned her. Luckily, she didn’t encounter any on her way. When she finally arrived at the appointment spot, Veronica panicked. It was an upscale apartment complex. She would have to use her identification code to enter. Soon, Susan Washington would discover that she was not in her office and would start looking for her. If she entered her code in the building’s access lock, it would be simple to trace her. She had already left a trail with the taxi and wanted to avoid leaving more clues. Unsure of what to do next, she fidgeted just enough for a man standing at the doorway to notice. They crossed eyes and he started to walk towards her. Veronica took a hesitant step towards the building in his direction. Was this her contact? At that same time, she heard quick footsteps behind her and turned around just as the man in front of her passed her by. What was happening? For a second, a ghastly thought went through her mind. What if Bill had betrayed her? What if Bill had snitched the information in return of a favor? She was about ready to flee when the man who had come from behind stopped casually at her side. “Are you searching for someone?” She stammered as she felt her heart come to a standstill. “V-Valentino?” “It’s me.” Her throat was dry as she gulped and told him the password. He nodded and she followed him to a parked car where the man who had previously crossed eyes with her was waiting for them. Veronica was confused. “I don’t understand. I thought I had to meet only Valentino. The note said that you would be alone.” Valentino replied in a very calm voice, as if he had said it a thousand times before. “We always move in two in case one of us is held up or arrested. If that happens, there will still be someone left to carry the mission through. For this assignment, we are both Valentino. If any authority intercepted the note Bill gave you, they would only be looking for one man and at least one of us would remain to carry the mission out or be saved to continue for another day.” Veronica rapidly explained the situation to them as the car sped towards the highway. She told them that the only way she could have reached them in time was to use a taxi and that she feared that Susan Washington, if she had not already done so, would soon trace her to the area through her identification code. “We know the risks,” Valentino told her. “I don’t deny that your case is very particular and represents a very dangerous operation. You are a high profile individual who has been getting a lot of publicity. It’s already a small miracle that you have been able to make it this far. If Susan Washington was consented to have her way, you would have been locked away in a government institute weeks ago. Fortunately, there are still some in the government who uphold basic human rights.” There were so many questions Veronica wanted to ask, but Valentino told her not to insist. “If you are caught you can put our whole organization in peril. I already said too much for my taste, but Eric told me that you are very special which is probably why I’m being a little less cautious than I should be. I have a lot of respect for Eric. He has talked well about you.” A knot formed in her throat as he mentioned Eric. Eric was the light guiding her heart in this restless sea. I will cross this storm, she told herself as the car sped towards her freedom. I must – for myself, for Eric, for us. Veronica glanced pensively at Valentino sitting beside her. She had no idea that such an organization existed. She had always thought that with all the security measures in place it was impossible for anyone to defy authority. That is what she had always been led to believe. She realized that the propaganda was probably intended to discourage people from joining such movements. Her esteem for Valentino, and others who put their own lives in play for ideals such as freedom, grew a notch. It dawned on her that there were people willing to help others not for money or personal glory, but simply because it was the right thing to do. She felt the urge to tell and thank him for it. “I’m not doing anything new that thousands of people haven’t done before,” Valentino pointed out. “History is full of people helping each other when grave injustices are committed. I rather wish that there wouldn’t be a need for it. That would mean that the world would be perfect and everyone would be free to live respectfully with each other and not have to fear of being killed for being different. Unfortunately, our country, which once treasured and fought for freedom, has forgotten this. Freedom means being allowed to be different. It is the essence of who we are. That is why America was born. That is why we left the old European societies – so we could express ourselves, so each of us could start again with our dreams. Today, being different means not being normal like everyone else. If we do not conform to the majority or to the powerful ones that dictate what the norm of society is, then we are isolated, condemned, and made to suffer a living hell – even if at times this type of oppression is so subtle that we don’t even recognize that it is being done against us.” Veronica’s mind was reeling. He said many of the same things that Eric believed in. Religion, race, sexual orientation, did it really matter in the end? Why deny anyone the right to live as they desired if no one was harmed by this? What possible advantage could a person derive from making another miserable? Where were dignity, respect, and tolerance? What had happened to America? Valentino continued with his thought and it reminded her so much of Eric’s theories that it was uncanny. “People have always acted as if they were immortal, as if death could not touch them, and even if they realized it eventually would, they acted as if they could dictate the rules of the world for those born after them. Death, however, truly is the great equalizer. It permits the world to change, to start anew, to have a new spring when the old wilts away and becomes corrupt. If the androids have their way, I’m afraid that immortality might not be far behind and once that’s achieved, it won’t set us free as many think, but instead it will crush diversity and make us slaves to one single way of living where everyone will be synchronized with the other – forever.” Veronica was not certain if she fully understood his reflection, but it didn’t matter. She was simply enjoying, despite the danger they were in, that elusive moment of freedom, of having escaped that dreaded fate. She didn’t know how long it would last, but every second in that car seemed like a sunny day. She snapped back to attention as Valentino explained their next move. “You will be given a false identity and board the cargo ship, Horizon, as a member of its crew. The person you will be impersonating really existed. Her death was never registered and we occasionally use her profile. Her name has been listed on the crew’s registry and has been approved by the port’s authority. Once you board, go directly to your cabin and get familiar with her life. We’ve checked the crew and no one on board should know this person.” “When will the ship leave?” “In about two hours.” It was all happening so quickly! Veronica had another question. She was curious about the operation, even if Eric seemed reluctant to tell her more. It was obvious he was telling her the strict minimum, as well he should. Yet… “What would have happened if I was unable to make it this morning?” “One of our people would have boarded. As you probably know, the ship would not have been permitted to leave port without all personnel accounted for. We wouldn’t have been able to do anything more for you.” He paused as if ruminating if he should tell her another particular or not. “There was also the possibility that we would have had to kill you if something went wrong. The possibility still exists. The government and the android lobbyists possess mind altering drugs that are so horrible that they defy comprehension.” Veronica’s heart was racing. She felt her throat tighten. Her saviors could also become her executioners. She felt her mind blacken, as if what she was doing was pure folly and for a brief second, she thought about asking Valentino to stop the car and return to work. There seemed to be no way out. Death was everywhere around her. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to remain lucid and focused. Of course, she could not go back. She had to press ahead. In her case, she had to keep reminding herself that death was better than what waited for her if she remained. “Once you are at sea, you will take a drug which will make you very ill. The ship is going to Japan. The Japanese are expecting this cargo on time and the crew will receive a hefty bonus if they can deliver as agreed. The captain will be unable to deviate and will not have much of a choice but to call for medical attention once you fall sick. It will so happen that there will be a medical boat close by. This ship is one of ours. Shortly after you board the medical ship, you will receive the antidote and will be brought to the South Pacific. From there you will be shuttled through various islands by smaller boats, and in the best of hypothesis, you should reach the shores of Africa within a month or two. However, I warn you that it might also take a good part of a year to reach Burnston, which in your case is most likely since we will have to move you with extreme caution. The FBI, CIA and Interpol will be actively searching for you. You might be holed up in unlikely, god forsaken places for a very long time.” Veronica took a few, big gulps of air to steady her racing thoughts. She was slowly beginning to understand the enormity of the task. “There is one more thing. Anything can happen. For instance, if there is a storm at sea and the medical boat is not able to reach you in time, you will die without the antidote.” Veronica didn’t say anything at all. She didn’t need to. Although her hand was shaking, she had made her choice. She preferred death rather than live as an android. A few minutes later, they arrived outside the port. Valentino handed her a back sack and made her change into more casual clothes. As she was changing, Valentino went through his last instructions. “The most dangerous part will be getting past the pier’s identification robot. We have to make sure it will not scan you against the global citizen’s database. It will if it finds you suspicious. Otherwise, it will just match your face against the sailor’s profile. We’ve inserted your photograph, fingerprints and retinal identification as features on the sailor’s file so this quick scan should not pose a problem. But, if it does run a more thorough check and requests access to the global citizen’s database, it will match your face with your real identity. You will be arrested, but we won’t let you be captured. There is a sniper on the other side that will shoot you down. It will be painless. The sniper has no way out and she will then kill herself.” Veronica’s face had become white. She simply nodded. “If we did have time we would have surgically altered your face, but there is no time. So do not raise any suspicions. Keep your heartbeat down. Take your time getting to the pier. Don’t sweat. Don’t breathe rapidly or hold your breath in. Don’t stare fixedly, stand stiffly or keep your mouth open as if overwhelmed. Don’t move your lips, bite them, or talk quietly to yourself. Don’t make abrupt neck movements, act lost, or even scratch yourself repeatedly. Are you ready?” Veronica looked Valentino straight in the eyes. She wondered if he had a companion waiting for him, praying that he would return safe. Or maybe, she thought, his lover wasn’t even aware that he put his life on the line for complete strangers that he would never see again. She wondered what ideals, what convictions pushed such men to suspend their lives and risk everything they had. “Valentino, why do you do this?” He smiled at her for the first time since they met. It was a beautiful, disarming smile. “Didn’t someone once say that life is the most beautiful gift to receive and give in this world? That’s what Bill told me convinced him.” Veronica felt a lump form in her throat, not quite knowing what to say. Valentino quickly brought her mind back to the situation. He looked at her and handed her a small pillbox. Inside were two red pills. “In case something goes wrong and you are caught. One is sufficient. It is quick and painless.” Veronica took the pillbox and kept it in her jacket, close at hand. As she left her seat, a woman standing a few feet away quickly came and took her place in the vehicle. She nodded and gave Veronica a thumbs up as the door slid down and locked itself. The last few feet to the pier’s robot were the longest in her life. Veronica walked up confidently and slipped her sailor’s card into the robot’s extended arm-slot. Her whole life was decided in less than a second. When the force field in front of her opened, she walked casually through it. A few minutes later, she was on the ship. She went directly to her cabin as Valentino had instructed. When the ship finally left dock, Veronica broke down for a few minutes as the tension that had built inside overwhelmed and took hold of her. She gradually regained her composure. She had come so far and there was still much more to be done before she could bring her guard down. She would have to be very careful, but still, to be stopped a few steps away from her freedom would be incredibly cruel. The last hurdle was the great barrier that enveloped the country like a bubble. Initially ideated to fight terrorism, it also became a means to control all traffic that came and left the country. Through the air, it permitted planes to fly through selected corridors that were controlled by access codes. Any plane that strayed from these corridors entered a laser field and was automatically destroyed. Any plane that didn’t have the right access codes while flying through these corridors activated a laser shield that destroyed it. At sea, it separated the national from the international waters. As a ship approached a portal, an automatic signal was sent to the ship requesting the access code. If a ship did not reply with the appropriate code, the portal would not open and the coast guard was dispatched to the area. When the Horizon finally slipped through the portal, it dawned on Veronica that she had made it. Years later, she would look back at that time and wouldn’t believe that she had found the courage to actually persevere through it. She never did know that she also owed her success to Susan Washington’s inability to follow illogical courses of action. The one innate ability androids didn’t possess was that of being creatively flawed. Man could think of an impossible situation and pursue it even if the odds of success were low. Androids could not. Chapter 9 When Susan Washington noted that Veronica was not at work, she formed a list of all the possible places Veronica could be. She went through them one by one, starting with the most probable to the least. The places that were statistically impossible were not considered. When her search came back negative, she then considered the possibility of escape, taking in consideration all the parameters she had observed during the last year. Once the possibility of escape was significant, she then proceeded to check all records to find evidence. She found that Veronica had taken a taxi and was dropped in a certain sector of the city. She took in consideration the time, the fact that Veronica was on foot, and scanned all the possible places Veronica could be hiding. She sent her request to the police that dispatched robots to these places. At this point, she searched her records again, trying to find evidence of collaboration with other individuals. Again, her search was negative. She then considered all the people Veronica had known in her life and assessed who would be capable of assisting her. She then accounted for them one by one and analyzed all their movements within the past year. She then queried to see if any had terrorist links. The strongest link she could find was Veronica’s association with Eric Samuel. Eric Samuel was in Africa and when she scanned the world database she could find no further communication among them since his departure date. She concluded that the probabilities that Eric Samuel was involved in Veronica’s disappearance low. Her analysis produced two viable scenarios. The most probable was that she was having what was called second thoughts, a conflicting state where her mind was starting to doubt its decision of going through with the transformation. If this was the case, she had no collaborators and the probabilities that she would be found were one hundred percent. The second scenario was that she had been kidnapped by terrorists who were against the android establishment and wished to impede Veronica’s transfer to a better life form. This would represent a greater challenge. Susan Washington queried every vehicle that had more than one passenger and had driven out of the area where Veronica had descended from the taxi. She then retrieved from the national database the identification of those drivers and any possible connection to Veronica. Her search produced no results. Then she searched to see if any could have a possible link with terrorists. She searched through their family and friends, through the places they frequented and through infractions with the law for any social or political anomalies. Her search produced a list of possible suspects. A certain Mike DiCaprio was third on her list. His personal records were incomplete and he seemed to have no fixed employment. When she checked to see the trajectory of his vehicle, she noticed that the car had first stopped at the port, then at the airport, then the train station, and was heading towards the bus station. It was driving to the city’s exit points. It had three passengers on board. She concluded that the probabilities were high that one of the passengers was Veronica Stillman. Minutes later the car along with its passengers was intercepted. Veronica was not aboard and the occupants of the vehicle didn’t know her. The authorities had no choice but to let the three of them go. By this time, all the searches had turned up negative. Veronica was still missing. Susan reanalyzed all the data she had. She considered which parameters could be variables and concluded that the most likely variable was Mike DiCaprio’s statement that he knew nothing about Veronica as false. Susan Washington recalculated the probabilities considering that he had kidnapped Veronica. At this point the chances that Veronica was leaving the country were high since he had visited multi departure points along his route. The chances the heist could succeed considering the security measures in place were extremely low. Susan Washington could even decrease the possibilities by taking further security actions. She first requested that every departure for every terrorist suspected destination be cancelled from these terminals until further notification. She also delayed every transport vehicle not having the highest security level clearance from leaving the country for twenty-four hours. She calculated many factors in her equations, but a cargo ship heading to Japan whose owner was a personal friend of the President and an important economic contributor to the party did not fall into the risk category. It never occurred to her to go check the impossible. There were no guesses in her investigation. She never accounted for unpredictability. Anything that was mathematically improbable was eliminated. More importantly, she never asked herself, what if I am wrong. In the end, the disappearance of Veronica Stillman was attributed to a kidnapping. It was thought that she had been lured to the area for an interview by a false journalist and eventually killed by the anti-android terrorist movement who had kidnapped her. At least, that was the official version. Susan Washington though, had her percentages which didn’t add up. She couldn’t explain various events. She couldn’t explain why Veronica had taken a taxi seemingly to be left at a corner of an intersection. There was nothing in her files indicating she had set a meeting with someone at that time. There were no phone calls, no messages – in short, nothing that would make one believe that Veronica had a rendezvous on that day. Susan Washington didn’t complain, though. They had been able to use Veronica’s disappearance to their best interest. People became even more wary of expressing themselves against the President’s initiative and that of the androids after the shocking news of Veronica’s apparent assassination. Where once one risked of being labeled a racist, now one risked of being branded a terrorist as well with all the consequences that entailed. Susan Washington took full advantage of the political climate and pushed the President to set up special committees to investigate a few legitimate, but bothersome anti-android movements. Most had to close doors after legal government raids found offending material. As for Veronica, the next four years were among the most remarkable of her life. She had found Eric again and together they combined their efforts to make the world around them a more hospitable place. Then one day, Eric told Veronica that he had to leave for a week. He had to go back to California. Veronica tried to persuade him not to go, but he told her there was something that he needed to do. Six days after he left, the Los Angeles area experienced a power surge of catastrophic proportions in the middle of the night. All sixty thousand androids that were plugged into the power grids had short-circuited and died. Their brains had completely fried. Hector was not in the area at the time and had survived, but Susan Washington was not as fortunate. When Eric didn’t show up a few days later, Veronica felt a terrible sinking feeling inside that she would not be seeing him again. A common friend came to visit about a week after the android incident and told her that Eric had not made it. He was cornered while escaping and decided to take his own life by swallowing the red, poisonous pill. Deep inside, Veronica always knew that Eric was a critical member of the radical terrorist party fighting the establishment. She had closed her eyes and wished it wasn’t so. She had wished his rebel days had been put behind him after the birth of their beautiful daughter, but in her heart she knew that Eric would continue the fight and that she would have to live with the possible consequences. The years passed by as Veronica observed the frenzy pace from the quiet oasis of her world. She found herself withdrawing more and more, searching for fulfillment through her growing passion for gardening and reading. Every now and then, an old friend dropped by bringing the latest news from afar, but Veronica didn’t have much to say anymore. She had lived long enough to know that every story had many truths and every truth was a lie to the other. She envied those people who were always sure of who they were, of what they said, and what they believed in. As Eric once told her, it is most efficient to go through life holding the same ideals and convictions, but think how limiting that would be! An individual grows when he puts in perspective his beliefs and can admit another person’s point of view. It didn’t mean that one had to live by the other’s beliefs or even agree with them – it just meant that one was able to acknowledge that there was a fundamental diversity of opinion. No more. No less. Veronica died quietly in her home, with a smile on her lips. She was retelling the tale of Susan Washington to her young granddaughter, Veronica junior, when she suddenly stopped in mid-sentence as she boarded the ship that would take her out of the country. The cargo ship Horizon had just gone through the portal… and Veronica was finally free. Her time had seen the creation and evolution of the androids and their successful rise. It had been a time where human plights from the beginning of time, such as disease, hunger and pollution were finally being overcome. Humanity was starting to look vigorously to the stars with an unmatched confidence that it had never possessed through history. Most important, though, humanity had found a means to drastically prolong life. What at first had been accessible to a few, was at the time of Veronica’s death, accessible to the entire population of Earth. Part 2: The Android Revolution Androids were here to remain unless a world calamity occurred – which might just turn out to be the best scenario for humanity. That, however, was unlikely to occur – not now that android logic was starting to govern world affairs. Androids would not let the humans blow themselves up along with the android society. Veronica was sure of this. Man could live in caves and without electricity, circuits and technology. Androids couldn’t. If androids really wanted to assure their future they had to gain total control of people and eradicate the freedom of being human – the freedom of making mistakes. Chapter 10 “I heard there’s an android searching for your grandma. I can tell you what I know. For a reasonable price, of course.” Veronica reached for her shotgun on the table in front of her. The stranger who addressed her was rather scruffy looking and very sick as attested by his cough as he spat out mucus. This was an individual used to living rough, on the edges of society, one who probably had no tie or affinity to anyone or anything – the most dangerous kind, thought Veronica. She looked behind him, at Eddy, standing next to the bar’s exit door. Foolish Eddy. He should have known better than to bring a stranger up at Farren’s Cliff, especially these days. The stranger shifted his blood stained eyes on her 12-guage sawed-off shotgun that she loosely clutched. When he stared back at her there was that expression in his eyes which she’d seen many times from men. She was blessed or cursed, depending on the situation she was in, with her grandma’s attractive features. “Young miss, you know how to use that thing?” Her husky reply was an invitation to danger. “Do you want to find out?” Max, the bartender, quickly intervened by bringing over a glass and a bottle, which he placed on the wooden table in front of the standing stranger. Not that he thought Veronica would do anything rash. She was known to have her grandpa’s level head and her grandma’s resilience. Yet, if the situation degenerated, he would protect her to death, if necessary. The stranger, though, was not eager to test Veronica’s proposal and was relieved that Max interposed himself between the two. The stranger peered at him with narrow, meddling eyes as his drink was poured. “Not too many old people around anymore.” Max’s response was short and dry, but his tone was deep and imposing like that of the tail end of a faraway rumble through a half sunny sky that warned of a powerful presence closing in. “I like white hair.” The stranger chuckled rather sloppily. “Well, they have those android models that have a touch of gray too, you know.” Veronica’s face hardened as she shot Eddy a quick, stiff look while keeping her shotgun nestled close to her body. Eddy glanced uncomfortably back at her with half fearful eyes as he shifted unsteadily on his feet. She turned her full attention back on the stranger. “What do you want?” she asked testily with a clear tone of hostility, signifying that his presence was barely tolerated and that he had little time to speak his business. The stranger rubbed his chin, freckled with uneven stubs, in a sign of apparent satisfaction as a vulgar smirk spread over his scaly like face. He had her attention and that was much more than he probably was used to having from people. Every cell in her body revolted against the individual, but he had alluded to her beloved grandma and at this point, since he had been able to find her thanks to Eddy, she could not do else but hear him out. He spread out his dirty, scrawny arms rather arrogantly as if to tell her that he would be the one dictating the allure of the conversation. “Well, you see I have a problem. I’d like to get myself one of those young twenty year old models. Tall and handsome, you know, to look pretty with the young girls.” He heaved his shoulders as if one should sympathize with him. “But I need a new identity. You see, I’ve had a few problems with the law.” He smiled lewdly at her as his gluttonous gaze traced the outline of her breasts. Veronica quickly understood her deep feeling of mistrust for the stranger. Rapist. In one brisk, fluid move she brought the barrel of her shotgun right between the terrified eyes of that hideous individual, pushing it into his forehead and almost snapping his neck in two. Max gingerly moved in as he grabbed and lifted the stranger’s shoulder, rendering him immobile. The stranger yelped in pain. “Not bad for an old man with white hair, eh?” “Please, please… I… I…” Max looked into the furious and revolted eyes of Veronica and knew that if he didn’t throw that individual out the door at that very moment, she would pull the trigger. He had seen those glaring eyes too many times in the last two years when she came back from the raids. With his hefty frame, Max dragged the stranger easily past a petrified Eddy and sent him sprawling through the exit. When he turned around, Veronica still had her shotgun pointed to where the stranger had been standing moments previously. Veronica turned her gaze on Eddy who was barely breathing. He cringed further as she strode towards him and grabbed him roughly by the flimsy collar of his t-shirt. She was still fuming, thought Max, but she also knew how hopelessly in love Eddy was with her and this prevented her from being as hard as she rightly should have been with him. Seeing the two side by side, it was difficult to imagine that at seventeen there could be so much difference between the two teenagers. Veronica was a woman, a leader among the few determined souls still carrying on the harsh battle against the android’s vision of humanity. Her heart was just as tender and righteous as she was unyielding and determined in combat, which made her either a formidable ally or enemy, depending on which side one stood. Eddy, on the other hand, was just a kid – a good kid who didn’t have strong opinions about anything one way or the other. However, even if he did, he wouldn’t have had the courage to stand up to his ideals. Not that he was a coward, far from it. It was simply that it was his nature to avoid arguments and find compromises even at the expense of nullifying himself. Like his love for Veronica, thought Max. He accepted to be her best friend even if it hurt deeply and rendered him a humbled fool around her. Yet, his love for her was so strong and pure that he would never abandon her. Of this Max was sure and it comforted him to know that at his death, Eddy would be there for her no matter what. Maybe, mused Max, even if not too convinced, Eddy might grow one day and become her man. Maybe. Love had a way of working these things out. Max went back behind the bar and glanced at the clock overhead. It was almost four thirty in the afternoon, opening time. He looked over at Eddy, moping like a puppy and greatly mortified while Veronica really lighted up in front of him. Not that she raised her voice… much. She wasn’t the type, yet Eddy had that knack of provoking her that not even an army of androids could. She was also leaning very close to Eddy and Max wasn’t certain if Eddy’s red face was due to the verbal beating he was taking or to the much too close proximity of his desire. “Eddy! No one, but no one is to come up here! How can I tell you this? He might very well be a spy. Strange things are happening in Burnston and we have to be very careful with who we deal with these days. Plus, he’s a criminal! Did you see the way he looked at me? He was about to jump me!” Now she’s exaggerating somewhat, thought Max. Eddy was wide-eyed as he stammered back. “Well… he didn’t tell me he was a criminal. Anyway... I… I would have protected you!” Now that’s real exaggeration, thought Max. Max turned his attention to his task at hand, letting the two youngsters work it out between themselves. He took an empty bottle he’d left on the counter the previous evening and shook his head. He was going to break the bad news to Jimmy tonight. There was no stock left of his favorite scotch. Absolutely zilch. In fact, Max thought as he took out an old notebook and noted down the name of the brand, that made twenty six different brands of alcohol that were now impossible to obtain. He imagined the demand simply wasn’t there anymore. Can’t they make an android model that drinks, he thought abstractly as he glanced at Veronica who was now trying to comfort Eddy who simply nodded with his head hung low at everything she said. At least it would make whacking them off that much easier. When Max next lifted his head from behind the bar, Veronica was alone and had taken a stool near him. Her eyes were pensive as she contemplated the latest event. “Have you ever seen him before?” she asked. Max paused for a moment. “No. I’m sure of that.” He started polishing the counter top. “If he were telling the truth, who do you think would be searching for grandma after all these years?” He looked up at her and knew by her sharp, focused eyes that she already had the answer. “Well,” he replied back, “the androids are moving into some Burnston neighborhoods and obviously, whoever is searching for her doesn’t know that your grandma died a few years back.” She nodded slowly, pronouncing his name with a strained, tight voice as if she was spitting it out. “Hector.” There were a few moments of silence as the two pondered this eventuality. “So, the question now is,” continued Veronica in a deliberating voice, “was the stranger sent by Hector or did he come across whatever information he had by pure coincidence?” Max shrugged. “You didn’t give him much of a chance to speak.” Veronica did not respond directly to Max as she continued her reasoning. “If the latter is true, then he was trying to trade this information for his own benefit, but if the former is true…” She looked at Max with a grave expression as she concluded her thought. “They might be aware of our plans, in which case, he was sent to spy on us, or at the very least, gather information.” They both turned towards the door to the familiar chime of entering customers. It was however, Omar and Howard, two of her resistant fighters. “So where’s that boyfriend of yours? I saw him come up with a stranger. Hope for our sake it was a long lost relative of his.” She looked at Howard, not at all amused as even Omar shot him an austere glance. Howard had said it in a half-mocking, acrid tone. Eddy and Howard detested each other, but that had been her fault. She should have told Eddy that she was having a flirt with Howard when it happened. For some twisted reason, Howard kept needling Eddy and never lost a chance to throw him a jab. Obviously, Howard was still smarting over her refusal to continue their relationship and had taken it out on defenseless Eddy who had no fault in their break-up. Eddy, being Eddy, was incapable of responding back to Howard’s provocations and suffered in silence. Veronica didn’t step in simply because she knew that Eddy would misinterpret her actions and feel somewhat embarrassed if she did – which was the last thing that she wanted Eddy to feel. Eddy had many qualities – he just needed to have more confidence in himself. “I’m serious. An idiot like that, bringing a total stranger to Farren’s Cliff days before the hit should be shot!” growled Howard. Even Omar, dependable, quiet Omar who followed orders faithfully stared back as if beseeching her for a reasonable explanation to explain Eddy’s actions. Veronica hardened her jaw. She did not want to waste any more time on the argument. They had much more pressing matters to debate. “He had his reasons and we’ve cleared it out. Discussing it now will distract us from our mission. We need to be focused.” She decisively turned towards Max. He leaned under the bar counter and pulled out a pack of cards. She grabbed it from his hands and moved over to one of the two small rooms in the back. Soon the regular clients would start appearing and Veronica needed privacy. Howard, her second in command, and Omar, her Intelligence Officer, followed. They sat around the lone, plain table in the room that was mostly used to play poker, but which also served as their secret headquarters. Underneath the table was a carpet and underneath the carpet a trap door which led to a dirt path road running down the side of the cliff. It descended sharply a few hundred feet to a shed where two cars were hidden – in case they needed to make a fast escape. Omar wasted little time as they sat down. He quickly updated them with the latest intelligence report. “The shipment is still on schedule. It is expected to arrive in three days’ time at precisely three in the morning. Abla has been able to discover that there will be five hundred pre-packaged android units expected to arrive at the compound.” Veronica contemplated on Omar’s words. “That’s an awful lot of units.” It didn’t add up. There had to be a reason why five hundred units were being shipped to the newly built Artificial Intelligence Compound just outside of Burnston. Omar agreed. “There’s simply no demand for that many units in Burnston, even if…” She completed his thought. “…even if times are changing.” Yet, even those few people that did transfer themselves into androids did not stay in Burnston. It was considered much too risky since the majority of the population still remained hostile towards the android movement. However, The Artificial Intelligence Compound, better known as the AIC that the androids had recently built, was slowly changing the surrounding landscape, bringing in scientists from all over the world – many of them androids who had settled down on the outskirts of Burnston. “They are testing a new generation of androids.” They both looked at her. Veronica had uttered out the words just as they came to her. Howard snickered. “Here? In Burnston? Come on, Veronica! I mean… the US, England, Germany, China, OK, I can see it, but here? In the middle of nowhere?” Veronica took a deep breath and glanced intensely at them with her crystal clear gaze. “Exactly. In the middle of nowhere, which means that they know that the type of research they’ll be conducting is unethical and would be condemned if it ever was brought to light. What better place than Africa to perform questionable studies and guard a secret? It’s far away from the masses and outside the media’s eye.” It wouldn’t be the first time the continent was misused for other people’s personal interests or playing ground. Omar mulled over Veronica’s insights before commenting. “I fear you are right. The new facility, the multitude of scientists, all point to the obvious. These units are prototypes that have been constructed in highly secret government manufacturing facilities incorporating the latest technology. They are being shipped here to be tested and if Burnston has been chosen for these tests there must be much to hide from the rest of the world.” Howard finally concurred with them, although with some reserves. Veronica was a little worried about him. She had thought that he’d be much more mature, but why should she be surprised? His confidence was unshakable and his ego just as impressive. It must have been a terrific blow to his image when she had pulled out of their short affair, but as long as he kept his mind on the mission, which she had no doubt he would, there shouldn’t be any problems. Furthermore, Howard was brilliant in the field and there was no one she trusted more at her side when engaging the enemy. Omar continued with his reflection. “I can also see why they are shipping it as simple cargo on an inconspicuous freight train carrying lumber. They do not need an imposing security force. That would attract attention. At the same time, it eliminates the need to transport the units through major roads or by air with tighter security checks along the way. Beside, in the worst case scenario, if something were to happen to the train, it would just be a lumber cargo train which derailed in the middle of Africa. No media.” Veronica agreed. She was momentarily distracted by the cheerful sounds on the other side of the door. Max was in good company. She glanced at her watch. Eddy had surely finished his soccer match and was patiently waiting for her to finish so they could have a drink together at the bar. She knew he would still be there no matter how long her meeting lasted. Heck, she thought, he would still be there waiting if Max closed the place down for the night and locked him in! She instantly refocused her thoughts on the matter of hand, mentally scolding herself for having thought of Eddy at a moment like that. “Well, their lack of security plays directly to our advantage.” She looked at her two pillars. “OK, let’s go over our plans once again.” It was important that they had everything down to a tee so when Howard and Omar met with their respective teams and relayed the information, there would be no confusion. When she’d meet with the whole operative group in two days’ time, she did not want anyone not knowing their tasks. Any hesitation from anyone and she would seriously consider removing that person for their own sake as well as for the group’s safety. They finally came out of the room about an hour later. She handed Max back his cards. It seemed that the room suddenly got brighter as she walked through, but none sparkled as Eddy’s eyes did as she came up to him. It didn’t pass unnoticed from the regulars who chided Eddy. “Eddy, why don’t you learn to play cards too? Even if you lost the shirt off your back it’d be worth it!” Eddy just grinned and Veronica looked at him with amusing, playful eyes. “So,” she said as she pulled up a stool next to him, “did you win or lose?” He smiled bashfully at her, but also with an assertive demure that momentarily surprised her as he enchanted her with his warm eyes. “The game? Oh, that we lost, but now that you’re sitting here with me, I definitely feel like a winner tonight.” His eyes widened as he saw her momentary stunned expression. She hadn’t expected his bold and direct response. It was so unlike Eddy. He quickly corrected himself as she noted that typical veil of indecision overshadow his face as he convinced himself that he had said something which displeased her. “I mean, I think I won this evening… I mean, not the game, but you know – I can’t seem to do anything right today!” Her lips curled up in a slow, pleasing smile. It was his turn to be pleasantly surprised as he looked sheepishly into her breath taking eyes. “I’d say that this evening, you definitely won,” she murmured back as his breath quickened. For a brief moment she was startled as she fleetingly left her gaze graze his eyes, but she needed to break that moment. Now that their heads were cooler, she had to address his lack of judgement even if she felt an inexplicable twinge of disappointment brush her thoughts for breaking that enchanting moment. Her face turned very serious. “This afternoon, though… you could have lost it for all of us.” He lowered his head in remorse as he acknowledged that he had made a huge mistake bringing that stranger to her home. Veronica’s voice was firm, yet soft, as she felt his pain and with it the conviction that he would never make another judgement error like that again. “Eddy, he could have been carrying a bomb and at this time we would all be dead. I know that you thought that someone had something important to give or tell me about grandma, but you should have been more wary. The world is not a very nice place, Eddy. The world is not like you.” She sighed tenderly as her hand lightly swept across Eddy’s cheek in a fond caress. His eyes expanded wide and his breathing became uneven as his temperature rose. She peered affectionately into his eyes, even if perhaps somewhat mischievously. “Eddy… you really should get a girlfriend, you know?” She saw his eyes waver and his lips press tighter together as if he was holding in a terrible secret that threatened to throw the world’s social balance in turmoil if ever revealed. “I mean,” she said as if she was the one embarrassed now, “in due time, of course. When you are absolutely certain that the right girl has come along.” He raised his eyebrow in exasperation, as if to tell her, really? A big smile overtook both their faces as they suddenly giggled and turned towards Max – who had been observing them off and on – for a beer. How he envied their strength, their youth, their optimism… and how he feared for their future. The last customers were about to leave when he strolled over to the pair. Veronica was poking Eddy, in a rather husky, provocative voice on the fact that after four years of practice he was still learning the rudimentary of playing guitar. Max saw that Eddy was feeling a little bit of heat under the collar and he didn’t blame him at all as he overheard Veronica’s steamy words. “What’s the matter, Eddy? How do you expect to serenade a girl if you don’t know how to pluck the correct strings? Sure and soft fingers are very important when it comes to stroking. You have to be firm, but gentle. Like when you caress a girl. Here, let me take a look at those fingers of yours.” Max cleared his voice, grabbing their attention. Eddy let out a long, slow sigh and took a big gulp of beer to appease that particular moment as Max spoke. “Veronica, I don’t think it’s safe for you to sleep here tonight or for the next few nights.” Veronica visibly slumped back. She hadn’t thought about that. Eddy looked up at Max. “It’s the stranger I brought here today, right?” Max nodded and turned to Veronica. “I suggest you sleep over at Eddy’s place. Eddy, tell your mom that a water pipe broke over at my place, flooding Veronica’s room and that I’d be grateful if she’s able to sleep the next few days at your home.” Max turned back to Veronica. “I also suggest that you use the trap door to escape by the hillside and that you return the same way in the morning. If there’s anyone watching, they’ll think that you’re here, at home.” Veronica frowned, realizing that Max was right but not liking the solution one bit. “But that will put you in danger, Max.” He smiled at her, as if relishing the thought. “Danger is the only thing that’s been missing in my life and I’d like to experience it at least once before I kick the can!” When everyone had left, Max poured himself a whiskey as he did every night at closing time. It was the only drink he allowed himself during the day. He sighed heavily as his eyes fell on the picture frame of his wife held hidden under the bar counter. She looked up at him, severely. He scrutinized her face for a sign of compassion, but like every night for the past six years, he found none. He still wasn’t able to make peace with himself over her death. Minutes before she left the world, hopefully for a better one, she had told him in tears that she didn’t want to die – that she had wanted to become an android, but that he had prevented it with his backcountry, redneck ways. She cried bitterly with her last breaths while he lay slumped down next to their bed, not supporting the pain of her admission. At one point, he realized that he was weeping alone. His wife had just died. She was lucky, though. She felt no more pain, but he was still alive to remember the hurt which would never heal. He had found the android catalogues stashed away along with her diary locked in her jewelry box that he had lovingly crafted for her the year they wed. What hurt him most was that she destroyed all the diaries of their life together except the last one containing her last six months as she battled cancer. He found out that she had even contacted the African Institute of Rebirth, but that she had been unable to find the finances and had simply run out of time. Max glanced at her picture again and talked softly to her, like he occasionally did before going to bed. He raked his mind, delving into the life they spent together in search of soothing words that she might say back to him, but there were none and as so often happened, his thoughts were left suspended in mid-sentence. He could not hear her anymore in his mind, which saddened him immensely and made him feel terribly lonely. These empty moments contrasted with the life that they had lived together. It had been a joyful life, quiet but fulfilling with good friends and the freedom to enjoy what they had. Yes, freedom. That was why he couldn’t understand her last bitter moments, full of rancor, making him responsible for her death. He wouldn’t have prevented her if she wanted to become an android. Honest, he wouldn’t have. Why hadn’t she told him? Then he remembered what Veronica told him. Selfless love means loving the other more than yourself, enough to forfeit your life. Maybe her great love for you took her freedom away. Chapter 11 Veronica had the mission planned out to a tee. Wilhem’s Pass was over twenty miles away from Burnston. The bridge spanned about three hundred yards across and the vertical drop below was just as steep with a sharp and ragged rocky base beneath. The drop was enough to send the whole train barreling into the creek below and crushing it beyond recognition. The explosives had been strategically placed by Omar’s team and as soon as the train was in site, Azaan would turn on the flood lights placed on the opposite side of the bridge railroad tracks which hopefully would slow the train down to a halt on the bridge. Omar had received information confirming that there was only one human aboard on the locomotive and Veronica wanted to give him the opportunity to save himself. Howard, who had returned from scouting the surrounding area to assure them that no surprise awaited their escape routes, crouched down beside her, a few feet away from where the train would be passing. He gave her the thumbs up and a firm tap on the shoulder, which she returned, before he climbed on the tracks and headed back to the other side of the bridge. She followed him with her night vision goggles, hoping his mind was clear and that his anger had subsided. He had been opposed to the idea of saving human lives while risking their own in the process. You, at least had the choice to join the resistance or not, she told him firmly in a voice that admitted no further confrontation as he contested her tactic. Most people caught in the crossfire were simply innocent bystanders and as long as she had command of the rebels, she would do everything within her power to limit human casualties. It was the essence of who they were. If human life meant as little as the flesh that composed it, then they were no different than the androids. The train was minutes away as Veronica refocused on their mission. Tonight, the cold steel she was holding in her hands should stay silent, but she still had her doubts even if everything pointed to an easy assignment. There was no apparent security measures put in place for a cargo as special as the one they were about to attack and this concerned her. The scans that Howard’s team had performed hadn’t revealed anything in proximity since the start of the operation. Maybe Omar, who was on his way back home after his team had placed the explosives, was right with his analysis. If a normal human person had been in charge of the expedition, he would have at least put some extra measures at the pass, one of the most vulnerable points of the train’s trajectory. It must mean, thought Omar, that androids were becoming more prevalent in everyday decision making, relegating humans to second class chores. As Veronica well knew, androids didn’t fear. They had probably calculated that the possibilities of an attack on a lumber transporting train were nil. Nevertheless, Veronica was grateful that Ronja had been able to hack the satellite codes and provide them with the right stealth shields they were wearing. If there were laser killer satellites tracking the path of the train and the surroundings, they would not be picked up. Veronica finally heard the train in the distance. Everything would play out in a few seconds. If the train wouldn’t stop, then they would have no choice but to bring down the bridge along with the occupant. If the train did stop, but not fully on the bridge, then they would have to battle the robots on board hand to hand in order to take over the train and bring it to rest on the track, while at the same time, avoiding any surprise traps that might be waiting for intruders. They would be at a clear disadvantage. There was a catwalk about four feet on either side of the tracks. They would not only have to worry about fighting the robots, but keeping their balance and not slipping off the bridge to their deaths below. The last remaining option, however, was the one she fervently wished they wouldn’t be constrained to deploy. The explosions underneath the bridge were of the imploding type which would make their escape easier to manage. There would be no bright flashes visible in the distance. However, if for any reason Howard had to use the rocket launcher to bring down the train, then they would lose that advantage of twenty minutes they depended on to start their escape routes that Omar had calculated. The resulting explosion would turn the night into day and have the local authorities on their heels in a matter of minutes, meaning that there would be deaths among them. The fourteen members she and Howard had chosen for the mission would perform the ultimate sacrifice if caught. Each had a red pill. As she contemplated death, her mind suddenly flashed back to Eddy and the last few wonderful, cozy days at his place. She felt her heart beat stronger at the thought of him. Don’t worry, Eddy. I’ll be back. The train suddenly appeared and Veronica glanced over to the other side of the pass. A few seconds later and right on cue, Azaan flashed the light. Once, twice, three times and then he held it steady as if there was another train coming in the opposite direction. The train braked late, at least it seemed late to Veronica. The seven who had been hiding with her, hurried quietly onto the track leading to the back of the train, remaining about a dozen yards away from the bridge. She looked down at her wrist strapped device, waiting for Howard’s signal. Someone touched her arm. It was Tanya. She looked up through her night goggles and saw, not too far away from them, a few robots already descending onto the narrow sides of the tracks. Bingo, she thought. It definitely was an important cargo. She had never seen robots like that. They were heavily armed and for the time being were concentrating their efforts towards the front of the train, ignoring their back. She put her arm out, motioning to her team to hold fire. All at once there was a rapid burst of red bolts which erupted from the front end of the train. These were new types of lasers and definitely not from her team. There was no return fire and she held her ground. Come on, Howard! She only had seconds left before she would feel obliged to move in and try to save Howard and his team. She was not even considering the cargo anymore since she knew fully well that their chances of success were low if her team had to cross the whole bridge. It had taken her a split second to realize that they had come face to face with an army of robots that they were not equipped to handle. Most probably, Howard had come to the same conclusion and that was why he had not returned fire. Then the blessed message came. All OK. One saved. No casualties. Five seconds. Veronica motioned to her team to get clear. They scrambled back off the tracks just as a robot finally noticed their position. It fired but it was too late. They had barely leaped under cover of the flora when they heard a tremendous roar and sharp, grating whines as the metal twisted and bent, collapsing into a satisfying heap of debris. Veronica felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. They had done it! A few seconds later they were each on their own, following their established escape routes. Howard and his group would be back in Burnston by sunrise. However, her group would take much longer. The way back to the other side was long and arduous. There was a hanging bridge only an hour away, but it wouldn’t be safe. That was the first pass the androids would think of blocking. As Veronica raced home, the victory was short lived as other concerns started to occupy her mind. Had the robots had time to identify some of them? Had they transmitted the information back to their headquarters? They had been covered in black skin-tight, anti-sensorial one piece suits to minimize identification, but even the tiniest bit of information could have catastrophic consequences on the organization. It would take her the longest to reach home – three days. On the third day, Veronica wasn’t thinking anymore about people, androids or missions. She was constantly thinking about Eddy and was mystified. She had no explanation to offer, but she had never felt more anxious to arrive at Farren’s Cliff than she did at that moment. She desperately wanted to see him. Chapter 12 When Veronica came up the slight rise in front of Max’s place, she was pleasantly surprised to see that many people gathered there, waiting for her to arrive, even if it was early afternoon and the bar should have been closed. She had just spent two hours with Howard and Omar in Burnston to conduct a post analysis of the mission. They had not lost one person, which was the best news of all. The first to greet her with a strong hug was Tanya. Others of the group circled her, each taking their turn to give her a warm welcome. There were a few tears mixed in as the tension of the last few days suddenly dissipated with the return of their leader. Max came rushing out of the bar and his strong bellow announced that she was about to receive the biggest bear hug of her life. After he had lifted her off her feet, she turned to the proud group and in a few simple words praised their bravery. Then in typical leader fashion, she reprimanded them, just a little, for having grouped together in broad daylight to greet her. They very well knew that the androids, if such could be said, were shocked at the latest development and were actively searching for the culprits. Omar’s operatives had spotted a few androids even in downtown Burnston. What was most disconcerting was that these were a model not encountered before. They were nearly identical in appearance to humans, making their recognition problematic. What was further alarming was that their internal machinery was camouflaged to resemble human physiology, making most body sensors obsolete. Omar thought that these were special ops models, very costly and limited to spy activities from government agencies. Even if not so, Veronica had seen enough these last few days to know that their work in the next few years, if not months, was going to become perilous and a hundred percent survival rate on missions such as the last one, a luxury. As they disbanded, Veronica’s eyes shifted impatiently to the door of the bar. She had been keeping her emotions at bay since she had taken the dirt path leading up to the cliff and she felt a longing ache inside, as if she just couldn’t feel totally at home until she saw him. Eddy, of course, was where she expected him to be. He was one step out the entrance, timidly holding back not to disturb her moment. Foolish Eddy, she thought with burning desperation. What will I do with you? There was no denying however, that when she stared into his eyes, he was the one that had missed her the most. She did not know the future, but she would remember that passionate, hungry sparkle and radiant glow he had on his face for the rest of her life. She had never seen so much overpowering love in a stare and wondered what he saw in her face as he stared back at her. Veronica felt her heart thumping with more intensity than she had ever known. She had missed his presence much more than she ever thought possible. Veronica approached him slowly, casually, yet trembling inside, as he descended the four steps down the porch. He reached her with his hands squarely tucked in his pockets, stopping a safe distance away from her. “Glad to see you’re back...” he said, suddenly suspending his sentence as his tongue became tangled up. Max couldn’t contain himself. As he passed the kid, he gave him a light smack on the head. Eddy looked at Max with stunned surprise and then back at Veronica who exploded in laughter. A questioning smile overcame his face as he glanced back at Max who was already inside. Eddy turned to Veronica with perplexity smeared all over his face. “What was that for?” Foolish Eddy, she thought with her throbbing heart. He had a knack for never recognizing the right moment... in anything. “What he means to say,” Veronica told him with a strong hint of irony in her voice, “is that you have a tendency to pass when you should shoot and shoot when you should pass.” His face turned crimson red. Max, who had lingered near the door and had heard everything, came back outside to add his. “That might explain why your soccer team has a losing record,” Max smoothly finalized. Veronica laughed gleefully once more as she couldn’t help but grab Eddy and pull him towards her. She wrapped her arms tightly around him as she had never wrapped them around anyone but her grandma. She placed her head in the crevice of his neck and spread her full lips apart to give him a soft, wet, velvety kiss. She felt his heart beating wildly and his uneven breathing quicken while his arms quavered as he held her close. She whispered in his ear. “I really missed you, Eddy.” He held on to her tighter now, with a firm, confident grip, surprisingly strong and bold, refusing to let her go as if something terrible would happen to her if he did. She didn’t mind. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so alive, so safe, and so free inside. When they finally did separate, he had this gaze in his eyes she had not seen before. It was deep and nearly overwhelmed her. It was wild, savage, and beautiful, like a shoreline leading to a world that begged to be discovered. I could run free forever in those eyes, she thought. “You are coming this evening, aren’t you?” she asked, her eyes darting in his. Silly of her, she thought, to have asked something like that. Eddy had always been there for her – why wouldn’t he be there now? He smiled as he took a step back, holding her stare. “Of course I’ll be here. Where else would I go? See you in a few hours!” She nodded, following him with her eyes as he disappeared around the bend. When she entered the bar she gave Max another big hug before climbing up to her room. This must be one of the happiest days of my life, she thought brightly. But, she was not through yet. No she wasn’t! Tonight… then the image of Eddy’s mom came into her mind. Now that called for a special mission, she wickedly thought before closing her eyes for a few minutes of rest. It was impossible though. Her heart was still racing. Furthermore, they needed to know what the AIC was for and what it had intended to do with the new androids. *** Veronica found Max in a pensive mood and knew that something was wrong. She had just come down from her room and took her usual seat at the bar. Max slid over a plate of nuts which she devoured. He looked questioningly at her. “You haven’t eaten yet?” She shook her head. “Not since yesterday night. I ran out of raisons. I’ll wait for Eddy to make myself a sandwich.” Max nodded as he continued his usual opening time preparations. She followed him, closely scrutinizing his demeanour as he worked. “Come on Max, spill it out!” Exasperated, he turned towards her and put down his towel. “I just can’t keep anything from you, can I?” She smiled back with her usual, confident, reassuring smile that told him that whatever it was, she would handle it. She always did, but this time he knew it was going to be difficult. “Tomorrow. It can wait. Not tonight. Tonight we celebrate!” She broke into a wide grin and agreed. He was right. Today was special. Max looked at her, pleased. He had never seen her so content and knew that the news he would bring her would put a dark cloud over her head. She didn’t need that now. He sighed. He wished he could bluff better, but Veronica had that special gift of understanding people that only a true leader possessed. The place was packed that evening and Veronica, who usually helped him out, was busy with her own agenda for the night. Max gingerly moved through the throng to reach their small table at the far side corner opposite the bar. He happened to glance at Howard, who was just leaving after refusing to give him a hand and serve the beers he was now bringing to Veronica and Eddy. Veronica had seen him too and Max could tell by the sigh of relief in her eyes that she had been waiting for the moment of his departure. Some kids, thought Max as he thought of Howard, are just simply annoying. “Alright you two…” He looked down at Veronica who had this teasing smile on her lips with just a tad too much lipstick. On purpose, he thought. Oh yes, she was very dangerous tonight. Then he glanced over at Eddy who was feeling the heat again and trying to keep a controlled, even temperament in front of the scorching beauty facing him. He had quite a hot hand to handle tonight, mused Max with a joyful heart. “I see you got your usual poker face on, Eddy.” Veronica interjected. “Max!” Did he hear a little bit of a reproach directed at him in her voice and eyes? Hmm, this must be getting serious! “Well, you kids just go ahead and do whatever you do when not blowing things up.” Veronica turned her attention back to Eddy. They had been discussing his mom. Eddy was trying to defend the indefensible and that was very commendable of him, sweet actually. “Well, it’s not like she doesn’t like you. It’s just that she thinks… she thinks…” “… that I’m dangerous?” He heaved his shoulders slightly as he grimaced. “Well… just a little.” “A little? Why she made you sleep in her room when I came over!” Eddy’s face turned into a white shade. “It’s just that she’s a little old fashioned.” Veronica was really enjoying herself as her leg swayed amusingly back and forth. As were some of the other men around her, she noted, as they furtively gawked at her limbs. She was wearing a plaid printed tweed skirt, cut just above the knee that she had been able to borrow from Tanya at the last minute for the occasion. She wondered just how jealous Eddy was. She had this feeling that deep down inside he could be very jealous… just that he knew how to exert restraint. Must be his shyness which prevented him from boiling over, she thought. Still, she doubted that Howard could permit himself certain liberties come tomorrow morning, for Veronica had made up her mind. Or rather, her heart had. “Old fashioned? She put your mattress next to the window as far as she could from the door leading to the hallway! You couldn’t even go to the bathroom at night without her noticing!” “Well…” Eddy was clearly stuck. He took a sip of his beer. “Anyway, I never get up during the night. I’m a sound sleeper.” She raised her eyebrow. “Implying what? That she thought that I’d be the one to sneak into your room and disturb your innocent sleep?” “Not at all! I’m a heavy sleeper.” Veronica pouted her lips as if she had been scorned. Eddy turned into a red shade this time. “Meaning what? That if I get naked under the covers and cuddle up to you, you won’t notice?” Eddy gulped, raised his beer and took two swigs. Some of it spilled on his chin and he hurriedly swabbed it off, feeling embarrassed. “That’s not what I said! It’s just that mom… mom… well, you know… she’s a mom!” “You see? You admitted it! She thinks I am a dangerous girl! She thinks that she needs to protect you from me!” For a moment they remained silent and just smiled at each other. Eddy gazed deep into her open eyes and she let him embrace her. His smile broadened as his eyes moistened over. “Veronica, you are the most dangerous girl in the world for me. You’re a thief who’s stolen my heart, and I don’t want it returned back. Ever.” It was unequivocal. Veronica felt as if she was in a euphoric daze before snapping out and realizing that they were in a crowded, smoke filled, beer and whiskey smelling bar. She grabbed his wrist and pulled his arm, dragging him up from his seat. He had never seen her look so serious… and she was always serious by nature! “I should never have told you that, should I?” She looked at him and replied with a deeper tone than usual. “You can keep on telling me those things as long as you like. I happen to like poetry!” He was dumbfounded as she hauled him through the crowd, vigorously pushing through. “Ohhh….” he replied for lack of a better word as his mind churned in turmoil. They went up to the bar as she led the way. “Max! I’m going upstairs with Eddy. Don’t let anyone up there, you hear?” Max shot her an incredulous look as his jaw dropped. “Here? Now? You gotta be kidding me! You’re going to march up all those stairs dragging him behind you in front of everyone?” She was adamant as she shouted back hoarsely. “Oh yes I am Max!” Which was exactly what she did. Why not, mused Max as he fetched and opened his best bottle of cognac. She was, after all, used to leading. “Drinks on the house!” Chapter 13 “Do you think it was too late?” Veronica had just gulped down her eggs as Max sat down to start his breakfast. She was radiant, thought Max, relaxed but vigorous at the same time, at peace with herself and her place in the world. Furthermore, there was that special hue in her eyes that comes only when in love. He detested having to spoil the moment, even if he knew he must. Later, he thought. “Well what do you think?” he retorted. “Eddy never arrived home past midnight and I brought him back at two in the morning. Under the pouring rain too!” She had a tickled smile on her lips as she gaped back at Max. “Thank you, Max, but could you imagine if his mom had seen me drive him home? She must have called him up a dozen times in less than two hours!” “And another dozen times here! She did hold me for a good ten minutes at her front door, though, and it wasn’t because she wanted to offer me tea and biscuits! Let’s just say that she was not too pleased that I had kept the bar open into the morning hours, and that furthermore, I had ignored her pleas to tell her son to call her back. It’s a good thing she doesn’t have a car!” Veronica sighed delightfully and for a moment her clear eyes wandered aimlessly through the air. Max eyes clouded. If only she could take Eddy and run away, far away to continue imagining and dreaming like any seventeen year old should. Unfortunately, that world had disappeared a long time back, way before his time even, probably over a hundred years ago if it ever existed at all. Her gaze settled back on Max, and he knew that she wanted to know what had been on his mind ever since yesterday. He had promised he would tell her. Max quickly came to the point. “Veronica… it’s your brother. He’s back from the States and wants to see you. He came by two days ago.” Her smile slowly faded as her gaze glassed over. Max had been afraid of that. She hadn’t seen her younger brother in five years when her father, who she had never been close too, took him and moved to the States, to California. Veronica was supposed to leave with them too, but had run away from home. Max still remembered the day. He had noticed this spunky twelve year old girl sleeping inside a car in his shed one rainy morning. The rest were five wonderful years together, and counting. He had shut down the bar after his wife’s death, but Veronica had given him the energy and the will to open up to the world again. Less than an hour later, Veronica was on her off-road motorbike heading towards Burnston, a good thirty minutes away. She had just finished speaking to her brother on the phone. It had been a very short conversation. He wanted to meet her before heading back home to California. She shuddered as an ominous feeling took hold of her. California. Her grandma. Hector. And now, her brother, Aaron. How were they all connected? It couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? They had to be connected somehow. Her destination was the extreme west side of the city, Herman’s Peak, but first she needed to stop at Howard’s place. That Omar would be there at the time was just an added bonus. Omar was already planning their next mission to infiltrate the AIC. They needed to discover what the scientific community was doing at the complex. When she came in, he was discussing the outer perimeter of the complex with Howard. Howard greeted her rather coldly, but Veronica didn’t have time to address his emotional instability at that moment. She told them about Aaron’s presence in town and that she was heading towards Herman’s Peak to meet him at the Ambassador Hotel. She saw Omar’s usually composed face drop in astonishment. “Veronica, you can’t go there. The new main road leading to the AIC starts from the Ambassador Hotel. It’s the only accredited hotel for androids and it’s teaming with them.” She nodded, fully aware of the fact. “I know, but since it’s the closest hotel to the airport, it also makes perfect sense that Aaron is staying there. In fact, the few tourists that visit the area room there for the apparent security reasons. Burnston is not a very safe city.” Howard’s eyes were glaring with anger. “Have you become daft? Can’t he come and visit you?” Veronica ignored his outburst and calmly responded. “He already did. He came the other day, but he had an asthma attack yesterday and he’s leaving early tomorrow morning. He needs to tell me something that he obviously considers important and he wants to do it face to face.” Howard slammed his fist on the table. “I don’t like the sound of this at all! He’s not going to fool us again. Not this time.” Veronica sighed as the wound reopened. Two years ago, Aaron had contacted her, apparently to say hi. She thought she had recuperated a brother, albeit a brother who’d never been close to her as she would’ve liked when growing up. He had led her to believe that he wanted to be part of the anti-android movement. Through her contacts, she hooked him up with another cell in Burnston and he became a field agent in California. However, he abruptly quit the resistance four months later without a credible explanation. It would have been already damaging as is. The fact that he was her brother, though, had allowed him to acquire lots of knowledge since the other resistant fighters quickly trusted him. When two agents from his Californian cell were killed during the following weeks, he became the prime suspect in their demise even if no evidence had ever linked him with their deaths. She looked at the two concerned faces in front of her with determined air. “I have to go. He’s my brother.” They stared back at her with glum faces. Howard was fuming inside. “Let me come with you, then.” Veronica vigorously shook her head. “No. If it’s a trap, I cannot afford to lose my second in command.” Howard shot Omar a frantic look of apprehension. “Can’t we wire her?” A deep frown overcame Omar’s face. He paused, feeling tempted to do so, but knowing better. “Too risky,” he logically conceded. “They surely have sophisticated scanning capabilities at a hotel where some of the greatest android scientists commute through.” Veronica agreed with Omar. “If they catch me, they’d probably be so swift that they wouldn’t even give me the time to kill myself. You would all be in danger.” Howard did not back down and levelled a hard gaze at his leader. The ire in his eyes lashed out at her as he pointed out the consequences of her imprudent decision. “Wired or not, the risks of being caught are still there. If you’re caught and not wired we’ll most probably all die. If we wire you, at least we’ll know if you get caught and it will give us some time to escape.” Veronica didn’t respond, but it was clear she had already taken in consideration Howard’s worries as she looked at her second in command with a hard glint in her eyes. When she finally spoke, her voice was hard and gritty. “What makes you think that I haven’t thought of that?” Fear slowly grew in Omar’s face as he caught on. “Veronica, you’ve taken poison!” Howard was too stunned to reply as Veronica acknowledged the fact. “It’s a twelve hour poison. One bottle of the antidote is with Max. I brought along the other bottle and I will leave it here for you to keep until I return.” She handed the antidote to Howard. “Only twelve hours?” he asked as he reluctantly took the vial between his fingers. She had a bittersweet expression on her face. “I figured that if I’m not back by ten tonight, I’ll never be back.” Omar remained composed while Howard shook his head in disagreement, clearly agitated and edgy as the news hit them both hard. She tried to lift their spirits. “Don’t you think that if Aaron was a spy he would have already exposed me two years ago? I wouldn’t be here talking with you two.” Except, she thought, if he was playing cat and mouse. Two years ago they were a small cell, rather insignificant and not worth the trouble to track. During these last two years, however, they had grown to be one of the most formidable cells of the resistance even if they were still relatively unknown internationally. Unless of course, the hit they managed to pull off a few days ago had the androids scratching their heads, metaphorically speaking. Had they ascertained that none of the bigger groups had been involved? Were they searching for a new cell, one that they were not aware of or one that they knew of but had considered up until then incapable of doing major damage? Of course, she didn’t tell this to either Howard or Omar. Chapter 14 Veronica kept her eyes sharp as she crossed the lobby. She rarely ventured on the western outskirts of Burnston and the first thing that struck her as she entered the Ambassador Hotel was the relaxed atmosphere as androids and humans mingled casually with each other. A few scattered laughs reverberated around her. She saw a couple – an android and his human companion – seemingly comfortable with each other as the woman held her arm wrapped around his waist. His eyes, though, were expressionless as he stared straight ahead while she chattered at his side. A light shiver overcame Veronica as she waited for the elevator to bring her up. It was said that love is blind… but still. Veronica had never really questioned who she was. It had been second nature for her to have a natural repulsion for the androids. Her grandma had died when she was nine and if it hadn’t been for her courage to escape California, she would not have been born and carrying her name. The stories her grandma told her were permanently etched in her mind and she knew ever since she could remember that her goal in life would be to carry on humanity’s struggle to exist. Androids were not human nor did they represent an evolution of humanity. Veronica saw them as another race, an enemy, but she was not as drastic as most of her peers who wanted to see them wiped from the face of the Earth. She understood that the ultimate goal of any resistance was peace and that a pact of coexistence would be a victory for all. Androids were here to remain unless a world calamity occurred – which might just turn out to be the best scenario for humanity. That, however, was unlikely to occur – not now that android logic was starting to govern world affairs. Androids would not let the humans blow themselves up along with the android society. Veronica was sure of this. Man could live in caves and without electricity, circuits and technology. Androids couldn’t. If androids really wanted to assure their future they had to gain total control of people and eradicate the freedom of being human – the freedom of making mistakes. Despite these fundamental differences, perhaps coexistence was possible. The future had a new meaning for her since last night. It was called Eddy and she feared that her life could not go on like this for much longer. How long would she need to fight? She too, one day, would like to become a mother and fret over her boy to stay away from a dangerous girl. Veronica reached the second floor and stopped in front of her brother’s room. She took a deep breath before announcing her presence. The door opened and her gaze fell upon him. He was sitting in a wheel chair, directly facing her, about ten feet away. She remained standing in front of the door. His face was taut, glum, and his stiff eyes severe, a mix of disillusion and mistrust shined through them. Cynical was the first word that came to her mind to describe his face. She stepped in, not knowing what to say. For a moment she thought about keeping the door at her back open, but that would give him the wrong impression, as if she didn’t trust him at all, and she didn’t want to start off the conversation on the wrong foot. He blinked. His eyes wavered as he motioned to himself. “I’m sorry you have to see me this way. My asthma attack was pretty bad and I can’t exert myself much.” “That’s alright, Aaron.” She briefly looked past him and noticed there were two doors leading from the room. One was the bathroom. She bet that the other was connected to another room. He smiled weakly as he noted her eyes dart behind him. He shouldn’t smile, she thought. It made him look devious, sneaky. “We’re alone. There’s no one else here – unless you’re looking for dad. He didn’t come. Actually, I don’t even know where he is. He’s run off somewhere. Might even be dead.” Veronica folded her arms. That didn’t surprise her. Things could have been much different if Aaron would’ve chosen to run away with her when their abusive dad wanted them to leave Burnston. Yet, she gave him a second chance, didn’t she? Two years ago. He had blown it. “Well,” he said again with that weedy smile. “Aren’t you happy to see me?” Veronica’s face must have betrayed what she felt for his eyes dropped. “I don’t know, Aaron. Maybe if you stick around this time, we can make things work. Other than you and me, there is no other family. I’d like to say I have a brother, I’d like to be proud of you, but you’ve made it so difficult.” Aaron didn’t say a word as his face contorted, clearly uncomfortable. Veronica sighed. “What is it that you have to tell me?” she asked, hoping that the moment would lead to something positive. She didn’t know if she’d be able to recuperate him, but she dearly hoped that this meeting would lead to a meaningful step in that direction. Aaron looked at her and his face suddenly assumed a Machiavellian air, as if he was guarding a secret that he knew she would not like. It was almost as if he was deriving pleasure from the moment, which troubled Veronica. To see him flaunt it through his stare brought down whatever respect she had for him a further notch down. “I have decided to become an android,” he simply stated with a self-gratifying, haughty regard. Veronica’s face remained icily composed, her clear eyes strong and piercing, not faltering one bit under the revelation that was meant to shock her. Aaron held his breath and turned a little livid as the reaction from his sister was the complete opposite of what he expected. “Good for you, Aaron. What do we say in this case? I wish you an eternal life?” She took a step back towards the exit door, all of a sudden feeling vulnerable. She looked at her brother and knew it would be for the last time. What could she possibly tell him? She opened her mouth, trusting herself that she could find a few words of comfort for him. This time there was compassion in her voice, and so much sadness as she spoke through her heart. “I really hope that this is what you want, Aaron. I regret we never gave ourselves a chance to know each other. It would have been nice to have a brother.” Veronica was about to put her hand on the door. She could clearly see that Aaron was suffering now. Tears were freely rolling down his cheeks. She hesitated, not sure of herself, but the words came out naturally as she spoke. “I can understand, though. I truly can. It must not be easy living with your asthmatic condition when a solution is readily available. I can see a lot of sorrow in your eyes, Aaron. These years must have been very difficult. I don’t blame you, don’t blame you at all. I would like to wish you happiness… but androids don’t know joy.” Then she softly added. “Goodbye Aaron.” Veronica didn’t even have the time to fully swing the door open when she felt a sharp stab on her forearm. Her eyes bulged incredulously as a robot came inside just as she was about to exit the room. Not any robot though. It was the same model as the one that had been accompanying the cargo train which they attacked. She had time to take one further breath before she slumped heavily to the ground. She was unable to move her body or speak, but she was very conscious as the robot picked her up and brought her to a sofa chair not too far from where Aaron had been talking to her. Veronica had banged her head on the floor and felt a little dazed, yet was alert enough to notice a man’s presence in the room. He surely must have come in from one of the side doors. “Please to meet you, Veronica Stillman. I must say, I didn’t know that such a gorgeous girl was hiding in Burnston, out of all places!” He came up to her and roughly grabbed her head and turned it towards him. He was rather chirpy. “Much better! This way we can look at each other. Like what you see?” Veronica just wanted to be free for five seconds, enough to twist his neck. He had something in his hand which he was scanning her with. “Ah! Now this is a surprise. What do we have here? You have been rather naughty I see. Your body is full of this compound… poison, of course. A delayed poison!” He leaned in close to her as if he wanted to confide a secret. “That is why we had to tranquilize you. We know your kind is quick to ingest those nasty little red pills.” He made a sickening sound with his mouth as he froze his face into a hideous mask, as if to imitate death. Then he laughed out loud and continued his scan, all the while talking to her in his buoyant voice. “Ingenious! The compound even has a combination lock. Now that is problematic! It doesn’t leave us much time, does it? But tell me, where do you kids get such stuff?” Then he turned deadpan serious before flashing a wicked, self-serving smile. “Now comes the naughty stuff. I know what you did last night! You are pregnant, my dear. One day! Do you want me to take care of it now? Three little keys on my scanner and you won’t have to worry about the child anymore!” He paused, his fingers resting on the keys, as he saw the tremendous fear in her eyes, almost to the point of hysteria. “Good! I thought for a while that you were fearless! You should see the crazy heartbeats people get as they panic when George scoops them up from the ground. George is the robot, by the way. My name, instead, is Doctor Jonathan Hearst. I have a very long title and don’t want to be pompous but in short, I build androids.” It was a nightmare. Veronica could not move her neck to escape that face hovering over her and she dared not close her eyes. Although she was helpless at that moment, any detail could become invaluable in the future. The future… she had a new life to protect now. Her baby! Eddy’s baby! “Before we proceed, let me just give you a little summary of what’s about to happen to you, since one way or the other, you won’t arrive at the stroke of midnight. By the way, did you ever read Cinderella? Guess not… ancient stuff. I bet you were more interested in what your grandmother had to tell you. Well, if you like android fairy tales, I just happen to have one which you may like… or not!” He ranted on while she listened attentively. She wondered where Aaron was, if he was looking on, and she felt revolted. “Once upon a time, there was a brother and sister called Aaron and Veronica. Veronica was feisty, audacious, and beautiful while Aaron was sick, timorous, and reclusive. While Veronica sought adventure in Burnston, Aaron remained home all alone supporting the outbursts of his drinking father all day long. The day came when his father decided to seek fame and fortune in America. What was Aaron to do? He chose the lesser of the two evils and decided to follow his dad, who at least in his own way, had taken care of him. After all, his sister had her friends. There had never been any room for him in her world. Once in California, though, things did not get much better for Aaron. His father abandons him within a couple of years. He is a sick, lonely child of thirteen. Where is he to go? The state of California calls his next of kin. The only one with any relation to him is Hector and Hector adopts him.” He paused before continuing. “Now here is where things get a little bit complicated. Aaron is suddenly reborn, not because he is feeling better, but because Hector promises him that at sixteen, which if you don’t know is the legal age of brain transfer, he will have a new body which will permit him to leave his sickly body and explore the world as he had always dreamt. Aaron though, has to help out Hector and his friends because there are bad people who do not care about him. These people do not want humanity to progress and want to impede Aaron from curing himself, cost what may.” He grinned at her. “Could you imagine the luck, the odds really, of having a boy from Burnston in the States who had a sister still living in Burnston? We made Aaron contact you because our intention was to make you a spy for our side, but behold our surprise when you brought Aaron to the enemy! It was even better than we thought! We quickly placed Aaron in an orphan government institute for a while, away from Hector. A human child living with an android would have raised many suspicions. During those months we learned as much as we could before pulling him out since our agents suspected your side was closing in on his double agent status, and if caught, would have annulled all the gathered information, which I should add, eventually brought down the biggest terrorist cell in the country.” He continued speaking with his vile grin imprinted on his thin lips. “Now here comes the good part. At this point, we knew that you were somehow involved in illicit activities and we bided our time. We thought you were either a sympathizer who had some local contacts or a fringe member of a minor group without much clout. We never thought, though, that you were a leader of such an organized and vicious cell. At your age! How did we find out? Well, it’s not true that all your agents made it back intact. Safe yes, intact no. Poor Tanya. We placed some hard to resist traps in the woods: crying, hurt children, hoping to attract anyone who happened to come along. Our satellites didn’t pick up a soul around the bridge, but before it collapsed, one of our robots sent us back visual information of a group of individuals standing at the back of the train. Since the bridge went down, we knew you had to have an alternative route to get back home. We expected to find an internationally known terrorist group but imagine our surprise when we injected truth serum into Tanya and found out new names with the head of this group none other than Veronica Stillman.” He smacked his lips. Veronica felt a crying urgency. She had to get out of there. She had to warn the others that their lives were in danger. She had to. She must. Anger boiled in her eyes, as hot as the hottest burning star in the universe. “Your future? Well, I’m afraid this is the last face you’ll see! Not bad, eh? Didn’t have time to cut my hair, though. Do you think it’s too long?” She desperately wanted to spit at him. “So here’s what’s going to happen. You see this needle in my hand? Rather old fashioned, eh? Call me sentimental, but I like to see the tip of a long needle prick the neck and go down deep inside. It’s solid, if you know what I mean. With these new delivery systems you cannot even tell if the liquid is actually injected. Plus they’re so painless! Not even a little ouch from the subject! With this needle though, I get to decide where I want to prick the patient and I get to see the liquid go through slowly and watch the victim squirm in pain. It gives me a sense of a job well accomplished. Know what I mean? You, of all people, can well appreciate this. You like old fashioned technology, don’t you? Robots and androids? Heaven forbid! Maybe, you still wish we only had radio.” Veronica could hardly believe her ears as she endured the spectacle in front of her eyes. Was this a scientist or a madman? Was she in the hands of a lunatic? Or better yet, a psychopath – an intelligent person hard to spot whose only purpose in life was personal gratification at the expense of everyone? Veronica’s mind whirled with so many questions. Were psychopaths in charge of the government, the corporate world, and the industries that created androids? Did they have no more empathy for their fellow man as they became obsessed with their own intelligence and the power and money that it procured? Had these people created an exclusive, artificial rich paradise isolating themselves from the rest of the world’s normal people? Had they become monsters? Veronica didn’t know… but was there another answer? The difference between the rich and poor – the have and have nots – had always been growing through history, but now, it had become the difference between Gods and mortals. It was too late to do anything about it – Gods always decided for mortals. “After you are drugged, you will then be brought to the AIC where Hector is awaiting very important news. You see, he has been chosen to be part of the first android to android transfer.” He suddenly stopped to let that concept sink in, but Veronica’s eyes were already alarmed. “Up until now all brain transfers have been from living tissue to electronic brains. We are faced with the problem of being unable to transfer an electronic brain to another one. When an android’s synthetic brain wears down after two hundred years, there’s not much that can be done to save that person. Nothing seems simpler in concept, but in practice, once the brain pattern of an organic brain is transferred to an electronic circuit, the personality melds into the circuit and becomes inseparable. If you attempt the transfer from a synthetic brain to another one, it only produces an encyclopedia of events of a person’s life and nothing more. It’s as if the essence of who we are simply will not follow during the transfer. However we hope that this will soon change, but to succeed we need to perform research… and it is here where we have a slight problem, some would say.” He touched Veronica’s face softly, hideously. “We need volunteers. We cannot ask an android, who after all is a good citizen and has paid thousands of dollars for their initial operation to volunteer and die for the advancement of medicine. It would defeat the purpose of what we are trying to do. Nor could we ask would be androids to sacrifice their lives for the cause of their future fellow citizens. But, criminals, terrorists, people who could easily disappear through the cracks like those living in Burnston are choice candidates for the advancement of humanity. After all, you have all chosen to turn your backs on life and die uselessly, so to anticipate your deaths for a good cause should in itself be a rewarding compensation that you don’t even deserve.” Veronica wished she had her shotgun and could blast him straight through the eyes before pumping his body with lead until his flesh shredded apart into a million pieces. “In a few hours, you will be transferred to the actual current model of an android and promptly imprisoned. In three months we expect a new batch of prototype androids to be delivered to us. If the transfer from the current model to the prototype android model is successful, which I highly doubt by the way, you will remain under observation until we decide to terminate you. If unsuccessful, whatever is left of you will be discarded… like a piece of trash.” He pronounced the last word with such lurid vehemence that Veronica felt horribly raped. He had the needle in his hands and approached her neck. Veronica remembered her grandma, how she died, so peacefully and content. She would not die any less. She had known life. She had known friends. She had known love. She was to become a mother. When she would wake up in the eyes of an android, she knew she would not be who she was. Whoever that would be, she wished it a quick death, just like hers. At least she had been free, free to live her life and she knew that grandma would have approved of coming to see her brother at the expense of death. Veronica had remained true to her ideals and had faced life on her terms. How she wished, though, that she could have saved her friends who would now be in peril. How she wished, though, that she could have seen Eddy holding their beloved child. Eddy… Chapter 15 Max had finished wiping his tear-drenched cheeks. Anyway, he mused, the paper tissues had ran out and it was about time he took hold of himself. He was not a praying man – he didn’t even know the words of one prayer, but he had intoned more words to God in those few hours than he had in his entire lifetime. The antidote of the poison Veronica took was on the counter in front of him and he had a very difficult decision to make. He glanced at the clock. Eddy would be finished school by now and was undoubtedly on his way home, but not before deviating to pick up his scooter – which, considering the late hour he left yesterday and the heavy rainfall that morning – had been left outside the pub. Of course, it would also provide him with the perfect occasion to see his girlfriend, Veronica. Max said it again. Girlfriend Veronica. It sounded strange when he associated it with Eddy. He sighed, staring at the antidote again. What was he to do? Obey Veronica’s wish or trust his gut instincts? Her will had been clear. Max had to reveal nothing about her whereabouts, especially to Eddy. She had also left behind a note for him to give to Eddy in case she didn’t return. Max, however, was contemplating another idea in his mind. After all, he wasn’t part of the resistance and she couldn’t technically order him, could she? In one decisive moment, Max unequivocally made his choice and refused to ruminate further. There was no more time to ponder what he should or should not do. Veronica had decided that Eddy was her man and he would trust her instinct. After all, she had picked him to be her sweet half and Max was very old fashioned when it came to certain things. Veronica saw Eddy as a lover would and she wanted to shield him from danger’s eyes. Max, however, saw Eddy as a man would and Eddy’s responsibility was to protect his woman at all cost. It wasn’t even right to call it a responsibility. True love needed no words in these occasions. Two people in love simply acted out the script of the heart. Max took the vial that Veronica gave him and divided it into two equal parts. After all, when he had asked her if she was sure it was enough, she had replied that she put double doses in her vials, plus some extra just to be on the safe side. Even as he was carefully dividing in half the contents of the vial, he fervently wished that he would not have to carry through his decision and that the next knock on his door would be from Veronica. Instead, it was from Eddy. As soon as Eddy saw Max’s face, he knew something terrible had happened. Eddy barely sat down, almost missing the stool as he did. His voice cracked with raw emotion as he noticed that Max was alone. “Where’s Veronica?” Max didn’t say a word as he stared at Eddy. He noted that Eddy’s lips were trembling as the biggest fear of his life took hold of him. Veronica was Eddy’s world – imagine now that she loved him back just as strongly… “Where’s Veronica, Max?” Eddy feebly managed to repeat. “Eddy,” Max said, noting that the state of his voice was not very different from that of the young man. “Eddy, Veronica did not want me to tell you this, so you listen well and do what you have to do, but don’t make me regret it.” Eddy stared back at Max with a grave, worried expression. He breathed just a bit easier, but was still a breath away from pure, uncontrollable panic. For a moment, Eddy had thought that Veronica was seriously hurt… or worse. Eddy knew that one day it was bound to happen, but not if he could help it, even if, he realized in his agonizing heart that he was pretty powerless to prevent anything from happening to her during her excursions. That is why he had decided to talk to her about joining the resistance. He didn’t care much about the android question one way or the other. As far as he was concerned, he couldn’t understand why they just couldn’t chill out and live in peace within their own bubble. Veronica, though, was his world and anyone or anything that would want to harm her was his sworn enemy. He would give up his life for her, and that was the only certainty Eddy had in life. “Veronica’s brother is in town and she went to meet him. I do not know where she went. She wouldn’t tell me to keep you away. Before she left, though, she took a poison. Now don’t make that face! She’s not dead yet! It’s a delayed poison and here is the antidote.” Eddy was hyperventilating and Max was not too sure anymore if he had taken the right decision. He did not want to see any harm come to Eddy. Yet, Max had to go through with it. This was Veronica’s man and the boy had to possess something special inside that Veronica had seen to have given away her heart to him. “I will keep one dose with me and I will give you one dose. It is important that she receives this dose within ten this evening or she will die. You know why she’s doing this. We’ve never discussed this together, but you know who she is and if she falls into enemy hands… let’s leave it at that.” He knew Eddy was aware of Veronica’s true identity. That Veronica had told him had been an incredible gaff on her part, or so Max thought at the time. Now he knew why. Veronica had always loved Eddy, from the start. You don’t hide things from people that you really care about. She just needed to see him grow before committing. “Before she left she told me to tell you two things in case she didn’t come back alive. One was to tell you to go see Howard. He would answer any questions you had that would not imperil the group. I suggest you try to find him or someone who knows him to get to her. The other thing Veronica told me was to leave you this.” Eddy was clearly in shock as he slowly took the letter from Max’s extended arm, holding it tightly between his fingers as if he was desperately holding Veronica. Max went to the side of the bar, giving him some privacy. He did not know what Eddy could possibly do to help Veronica. It was time, though, for Eddy to become a man, the man that Veronica saw in him. She had trusted him with her love. Now Max trusted him with his hopes. Max closed his eyes and tried holding in the tears that had formed. He heard a quiet, restrained sob coming from Eddy. Max opened his wet eyes and saw Eddy’s lustrous eyes slowly tracing the words as if he was caressing them. Love… love, unconquerable, in spite of man’s attempt to dominate, defeat, and deny its existence. Love always finds a way out of the coldest heart, out of the blackest soul, out of the driest mind, and out of the blindest alleys. Love always escapes death to return and start over again and again. Love is immortal and nothing else… like my love for you is and always will be, Eddy. Yours forever, Veronica. Moments later Eddy was on his scooter, heading to Burnston at dead neck speed. He just told Max to do him one favor: to phone his mom and tell her that he was going to a soccer practice. *** Eddy knew where Howard lived. He was ashamed of it now, but he had sneakily followed Veronica with Howard one evening as the two ate ice cream together. She had brought him to Eddy’s favorite ice cream parlor place, the one that he had shown her and which he thought was their own little secret. Eddy had seen them there as he casually happened to pass by, and blinded by jealousy, decided to follow them at a distance. It could very well have been the most terrible day in his life. Howard had his arms around her waist, rather low actually, more like around her hips, and she was laughing spiritedly as they went up to his apartment. He had been furious. He didn’t think she had a boyfriend, even if he had noticed those long stares Howard threw at her followed by the smirks Howard sent his way whenever they met. Eddy had failed to understand why Howard was being so cruel to him at the time, but he finally understood the reason why that evening. Howard had been teasing him all along, taking advantage of the fact that he knew that he was desperately in love with Veronica while she was with him. Howard had been enjoying himself in the foulest way possible, treading on his poor, innocent heart. Truth be said, Eddy had wanted to rush up the stairs and break the door down to strangle him. He had wanted to ring Veronica on her cell phone and fake that he had fallen off the scooter to get her to leave, but all he did when he saw the lights go off in Howard’s apartment was cry his miserable head off. Dejected, alone, and wretched, he retreated back home. Later, Veronica simply couldn’t understand why it had taken him nearly two months to return back to the ice cream parlor place with her. Now, however, things had changed. He was her man. He rushed up the stairs leading to Howard’s apartment and bashed his full wrath on the door, almost knocking it down. Howard, who was inside with Omar, Tanya, and Ronja, jumped swiftly and silently to the side of the door as the others grabbed their weapons with silencers on and took their positions. It was a set-up they had practiced so many times, but this time thought Howard, it was not a drill or false alarm. Veronica must have been discovered and they were coming for them. In one lightening move, Howard sprang open the door. Eddy found himself with a gun pointing right up against his forehead and a finger about to pull the trigger. Howard was stunned as his eyes bulged out. Nothing had prepared him for this type of shock and he had never been so surprised in his life, so surprised that Eddy brought up his arm and knocked Howard’s gun to the floor. “Eddy?” Eddy, though, was as serious as he had never been. He was on the only mission that mattered or would ever matter to him: Veronica. It was so intense that it was the only purpose of his existence at that moment. He grabbed Howard by the collar and threw him back, sending both of them crashing to the ground. The others did not know what to make of it. Omar got cautiously up and kept his eye on the door. He motioned to Tanya to close it, still keeping his weapon drawn towards the entrance, just in case there was another surprise. Ronja instead, who really was not comfortable with conventional weapons at all, had discarded her gun and was witnessing Eddy literally choking Howard. “Where is she? Where is Veronica?” “Ea… easy man!” Eddy felt a gentle, yet firm hand clutching his arm. It was Omar looking down at him with a calm, tranquil expression. Was there also a hint of respect in the gaze Omar directed at him that Eddy had never seen before? Omar glanced down in the passionate eyes of Eddy and only hoped that one day he would find someone to love that arduously. Eddy slowly released Howard and within a minute they recomposed around the table that they had been sitting at before Eddy’s interruption. Eddy knew all of them, except Ronja. Judging from the tech instruments he saw around her, he gathered she was some sort of computer guru. He didn’t know what Omar’s position in the group was, but he figured it must have been something very important since he spent a lot of time with Veronica. Howard’s role, on the other hand, was easy to predict. Eddy was fairly certain he was the second in command, simply by his swagger. Eddy turned back to Howard and demanded Veronica’s whereabouts again. “We can’t tell you that, Eddy,” replied Howard, still with a hue of incredulity in his tone. “You are not part of our group and even if you were, you would not have access to this privy information.” “Howard, you don’t understand…” Omar noted the desperation in Eddy’s voice as Eddy continued his plea. “If Veronica doesn’t come back by ten, I will go back to Max’s place and put a bullet in my head. So I might as well die trying to save her from wherever she is.” The others looked at one another, uncomfortably. It was not a threat. There was no doubt in Omar’s heart that Eddy would do it. Ronja glanced at Eddy, in awe, before she blinked and remembered that she had a job to perform as she focused her attention back on the monitors before her. Eddy looked at them, supplicating them once more. He would walk with his knees on boiling coal to hell if he had to. He needed to know that meeting place with her brother. “Listen. I know a few things. I know she went to meet her brother. I know she has ingested delayed poison or whatever it is you call it and I have an antidote vial with me. She might need it if she’s in peril.” Howard was not too pleased at this turn of events. “How do you get that? How do you know these things? Max squealed?” Eddy’s jaw set and for the first time he stared down Howard. It was not a very nice thing to say about Max. He saw a veil of indecision in Howard’s gaze and also a hint of panic as Howard looked away. Eddy’s restrained voice was furiously slow and cold. “Anyway, what are you doing, big shot? What are you doing to help Veronica?” Eddy knew he had gone too far, but if he didn’t express himself verbally he would have jumped Howard again. The two stared at each other hard, both aware that they needed to take a step back not to degenerate the already tense situation. Tanya, though, shot Howard a rigid glare. If Veronica would not be returning, her days in the resistance were through. She would not be able to function under Howard’s command, even if he was a very able commander in the field. “He’s right, Howard. Can’t you see he’s in love? Give him the info or I will!” Howard pierced Tanya with a gut wrenching stare while Ronja, still trying to figure the defenses of the Ambassador Hotel, added her thoughts. “Do you think Veronica would be proud of us at this moment? She has spent years building us up and look at how we’re squabbling. It’s pathetic.” Omar’s reassuring, soothing voice cut the tension in one instant and brought everybody back to earth. “If we are squabbling it’s because we miss her terribly and fear being left alone.” As he calmed them down, Omar kept looking at Eddy with keen eyes. Omar didn’t know what had happened overnight, but this was not the same docile, after-you-please Eddy he had known since yesterday. Even if, he always knew that Eddy was much more than what most people made him to be. Veronica had known. That was why Omar knew that one day those two would be destined to be together forever. It was written in the stars. Omar turned his gaze towards Howard. “I have an idea.” Chapter 16 “Identify yourself, please.” The robot guarding the entrance of the Ambassador Hotel seemed rather innocuous, but Ronja had assured him it could kill. “Edward H. Patterson, Eddy for friends.” He flashed his best smile and then reprimanded himself. Howard had told him to keep a low profile. “Identification affirmed. Please state the purpose of your visit.” He held out a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolate. “Can’t you see? My girlfriend is arriving today from Hong Kong and I want to leave a surprise in her room.” He dug his hand into his pocket and produced a small gift box. “I’m about to propose and I want to make the occasion special.” “State the name of your girlfriend and all applicable flight numbers, please.” He took out a hand held screen, one of those basic, cheap address notebooks that Omar had supplied him with. It didn’t even have a camera and was capable of storing only basic information. Omar had assured him it was so old that the robot wouldn’t even bother scanning it. “Of course. Her name is Biyu Li. Hong Kong to Pretoria, Flight HKC-234. Pretoria to Burnston, Flight PB-721.” “Please state the confirmation number of her room as well as the room number.” As soon as he supplied them, the robot cleared him and Eddy was in. Ronja was a genius. She had searched the incoming flights to Pretoria and had been able to switch the identity of a passenger already in flight from China. The name he supplied the robot was occasionally used for the resistant’s Chinese operations and had been forwarded by another cell. Ronja then inserted the passenger’s name on Flight PB-721 which wouldn’t be taking off before another two hours. As soon as Eddy accomplished his task, Ronja would revert the flight list back with the passenger’s real name. Of course, there would be no one to board flight PB-721, meaning they had at least two hours to search for Veronica before the Pretoria airport authorities would start investigating the whereabouts of Biyu Li. Eddy knew that his part of the mission was nearly over. Howard had been very clear. He was to enter the room reserved under Biyu’s name and plug the notebook into an electrical outlet as if he were charging it. Ronya would access the spyware file and do the rest to download the hotel’s schematics and locate Aaron’s room – after which she would have to find a way of getting the team in for a possible rescue operation. Eddy was still somewhat apprehensive of having to hand over the antidote Max had given him. Howard had insisted that the one Veronica had supplied him remain with Omar in case Veronica really was fine and showed up later at the apartment. The one that Max had given him instead, would be taken by Howard since in case of necessity he would be the one entering Aaron’s room with Tanya. Eddy could not argue with that – even if he had no intention of leaving the hotel once his part of the operation was completed. He had to admit as he entered Biyu’s room that he owed Omar, who had initiated the plan, all his gratitude. Omar had used the fact that Eddy had no history of violence and a clean squeaky image of a boy who lived with his mother to infiltrate Hotel Ambassador. At first Howard resisted the idea, but when he couldn’t come up with an alternative plan, he could not do otherwise but accept the plan as viable. Howard’s arguments had been valid, though. If Eddy was caught, much of the organization went down with him since he knew a few names. If Veronica was simply having a long lunch with her brother then there would be a price to pay. Veronica would not forget that they had gone against her orders. However, there was no way of knowing if she was fine. She had not brought along any communication device for fear that an incoming call could be traced back to Howard’s apartment if something was to happen to her. Eddy moved quickly once he was inside the room. As soon as he connected the notebook’s port to the magnetic plug, a small green light came on. Ronja was in and Eddy’s heart started to thump again. Up until that moment, he had barred his thoughts from focusing on Veronica’s plight for fear of choking up and becoming paralyzed. He had stubbornly kept his mind on what he needed to accomplish. Now, though, a tremendous wave of anxiety hit his stomach. He rushed to the bathroom and vomited. Through the five years he had known Veronica, he thought he knew how much love hurt as he patiently waited and hoped to earn her love one day. In reality, he now realized that he knew nothing. The specter of not having her love finally hit him in its brutality and it was the loneliest sentiment in the whole universe. Loveless was a terminal, ugly cancer and just the mere thought of never seeing Veronica again made him realize how dark the world could be without a light to follow. When Eddy finally descended into the lobby, he did not proceed out the door as he was supposed to. He went to the front desk and pointed the human behind it. “Hi. I’m here for my girlfriend, but I heard from common friends that an old friend of ours originally from Burnston is in town from the States. I think he leaves today. I haven’t seen him in a long time and don’t know if I’ll get a chance to see him again. He’s had an asthma attack and I’d just like to surprise him and say hello, but I don’t have his room number.” The concierge hardly gave him a glance. After all, if he was inside, he had been cleared by security. As Omar told him, because of the particular proximity of Hotel Ambassador to the AIC, there was only one entrance and exit in order to control access and concentrate security at one point: the front door of the lobby. There was no other way in or out of Hotel Ambassador for ordinary citizens. The important people associated with the complex, instead, had two other options. There was an underground tunnel linking directly to the airport and a landing pad on top of the hotel for people and androids flying in and out from the AIC. “His name?” “I’m not sure if he still goes by the name of his father, but his name should be Aaron Weatherspoon.” “Here it is. Second floor. Room 256.” “Thank you, sir.” Eddy had no idea what he was going to do. Should he knock? Should he simply wait in front of the door? He hesitated when he arrived near the door, but decided to keep on moving. He knew that there were cameras along the hallway and did not want to attract unwanted scrutiny by lingering in the hallway. Eddy was certain that if he had talked to a robot instead of a human being, the robot would have logged him in the security file and would have noted that he hadn’t buzzed the door of room 256 as he supposedly should have done. Luckily, as he approached the room, he saw two chairs in a small clearing not too far away which would permit him to keep an eye on the door. The chairs were also ideally located, not too far away from the stairs leading down to the lobby. He sat down, took out his hand held notebook and pretended to search through the gibberish information contained in it. He didn’t have long to wait. The door opened and Eddy’s blood rushed out of his face as a robot came out into the corridor. Eddy sincerely doubted that the robot had been built for pacific reasons. He had never seen a robot that appeared so threatening. Even a kid would have noticed the firepower built into the unit. The robot turned to analyze his presence and for a long moment there was no sound as they simply stared at each other. Eddy wanted to run, but not without Veronica in his arms. The robot simply stared away after a few seconds. It probably didn’t calculate him as a threat. Eddy understood right then that Veronica had fallen into a trap. He felt his head pulsate and throb as a veil of despair descended on his heart. As the robot advanced towards the elevators at the opposite end from where he sat, another person emerged from inside the room. He was very skinny, sitting inside a self-propelled wheel chair and disgust overcame Eddy. That must be her vile brother. Death would be too good for him. Eddy heard someone giving orders. His heart was racing, his palms sweaty. He had not heard Veronica’s voice yet. The person who next appeared through the door struck Eddy as being extremely confident. Even in that brief instant, Eddy could see that this was a man of a certain stature, used to commanding and moving in certain circles of society. He was impeccably dressed, neatly trimmed and as the stranger turned his gaze on him, he even nodded his head slightly in a sign of social respect that was rarely used anymore if not among equals. Eddy nodded back, cautiously. There was a glow in the man’s gray eyes which terrified Eddy, more than the robot that preceded him ever could. “Careful with that! Very fragile cargo!” As soon as the long, sealed metallic box appeared, Eddy knew that Veronica was inside. He must have been staring and holding his breath for the distinguished gentleman momentarily stopped looking at the cargo and pierced him with an inquisitive stare. Eddy quickly lowered his head and continued looking at his device. “OK… let’s move it slowly.” Eddy frowned. The robot that pushed the case on the flat low trolley was programmed for handling cargo. Why was he giving it orders? Eddy had a feeling that whoever the person was, he wasn’t quite all there with his head. Eddy chanced a glance at the far end of the corridor. He had to find out where they were heading. He saw a green light flashing. They were heading down. He waited until they stepped into the elevator before rushing to the stairs. It didn’t matter anymore if security was alerted. He had seen where Veronica was heading. Three big letters were written on the case – AIC. He knew what those letters represented and knew enough that it involved androids and scientists. He didn’t know why she was being brought there, but he had a premonition that the recently built complex would be Veronica’s tomb if she reached it. Once there, he doubted that Howard, or even Omar for that matter, would be able to breach the complex to free Veronica. Somehow he had to act and create a diversion before it was too late. But how? *** Tanya hadn’t been feeling well ever since the return trip from Wilhem’s Pass. She had been having wicked headaches, not to talk of the dreams that haunted her nights. She kept dreaming of the same child every night. He was crying, alone, in the middle of nowhere. She was startled and surprised to see him there. Did he get lost on a family camping trip? He was bleeding from the knee. She shouldn’t stop, Veronica had been clear – she shouldn’t stop for any reason. But this was a child – a lonely, hungry three or four year old. He would most certainly die if she left him there. They had risked a whole operation to save one person on a cargo train. She was sure that under the circumstances Veronica would agree with her. She would bring the child to the nearest town and leave him in front of a door. She would be passing near one early the next morning. It would be risky carrying a child, but it would soon be night. The child would fall asleep and she would be able to move under the cover of the night more easily than if it was day. She approached the child who looked at her with his soft, big eyes. He was wiping his tears away. Hush… don’t worry small, little one. Aunt Tanya is here. Everything will be just right now. Then the pain came. A white, hot, stabbing light that blinded her and made her jump up from her bed, her heart racing as if it were about to burst out from her chest. She was going to tell Veronica about this nightmare. Maybe, she was getting too stressed for these covert operations. Maybe, the tense filled night in the forest had frayed her nerves. She didn’t know. There had been no time, though, to confide this vision to Veronica – and now Howard was depending on her to free Veronica. They were all but convinced that something terrible had happened to her. This silence was unusual on her part. Veronica would not have worried everyone needlessly by staying out so late. The hours were ticking down. Without the antidote Veronica would soon be dead. Chapter 17 When Eddy reached the lobby, the first people his eyes were drawn to were Howard and Tanya. They were a short distance from him and walking towards the elevator. His eyes frantically searched the spacious area and in his haste, he would have missed them if it wasn’t for the imposing robot in the middle of the crowded place. They were half way through the lobby and swiftly approaching the exit. “Howard, Tanya! Behind you! The robot! Veronica’s in the case!” Eddy could never have imagined what was to happen next. How could he? He had always lived with his mom around peaceful Farren’s Cliff. He had always seen the world as being fair with no real bad guys or good guys. His love for life was pure and that had been one of the reasons Veronica had fallen in love with him. A blue searing bolt scorched one of the doors of the elevator as the robot fired. Howard and Tanya flipped open their shielded violin cases they held in their hands and instantly armed themselves with the weapons hidden inside. Howard scrambled one way while Tanya hurled herself towards Eddy and came to lie flat on the ground directly in front of him. Eddy gaped as people panicked and fled the scene while the androids calmly tried to position themselves away from the angle of shooting. There were just too many people, though, and the resulting rounds that were fired hit unintended, innocent lives. Eddy’s nostrils filled up with burning flesh and he felt nauseated as it permeated his lungs. He stood completely paralyzed, stiffly looking around him in a daze, not even bothering to kneel down or seek shelter. When his gaze wandered to his feet, he noticed a large, red splat on his shoes. His eyes timidly crawled before him where he saw Tanya’s body cut in half. His back to the wall, he slumped to the ground. There was a boom and a large crash from the front door. Eddy hadn’t noticed, but there had been another fight progressing outside. He saw four people jump into the lobby from the blasted opening. The robot turned to them and started shooting rapidly. One instantly went down while the other three took cover. Eddy noticed that the presumed leader of the heist stood beside the robot barking commands at the top of his lungs. It was absurd. Veronica’s brother had fallen in a heap and was desperately trying to get up, in prey of an asthma attack. We are not going to get out of this alive, thought Eddy in a matter of fact tone, still shocked at what he was witnessing around him. The robot was simply too superior and was withstanding all the firepower being thrown at it. Eddy noticed though, that it attacked them one by one – whoever it perceived as the most immediate threat. Veronica’s case was a few steps from the robot and close to the entrance. However, the three remaining resistant fighters in the front were unable to approach and Howard was pinned in too deep. Just then another fighter went down and only two remained. Something needed to be done quickly – else all was lost. Eddy turned his head towards the rectangular container where his beloved Veronica lay. She can’t be dead, he thought. She had to be alive in there. He felt her love, strong, enveloping him. Like the other night, like every night would have been if only fate would have given them a hand. Eddy took a deep breath to steady his nerves. He slightly bent his knees. In one quick motion, he dove over Tanya’s severed body and grabbed the weapon that had fallen in a pool of her blood. His eyes turned slightly misty as he saw her face, still engraved with that expression of intensity the moment she died. He hated the androids. He hated them with all his guts. He charged the robot, moving slightly to the side as he jumped behind a pillar. He was the closest to it and he simply pulled his trigger and fired repeatedly and blindly with all he had. Eddy was not concerned about the ammunition. His was not a battle that would last long… just long enough to make it shift its attention away from the others and Veronica. It worked. The robot noticed the intensity of his shots and the frequency and calculated that he represented the major threat. It needed to remove the menace quickly or it could risk serious damage. It decided to move forward to eliminate the attacker rapidly. Howard quickly saw what Eddy was hoping to accomplish. He was giving them an opening to free Veronica. It was suicidal, though. For a split second Howard felt deep disappointment at himself, an empty frustrated feeling of not taking the lead, of not being the hero. In a twisted sense, he was jealous that Eddy was able to go much deeper for a noble cause than he had ever been willing to do. That Eddy was really willing to sacrifice himself for Veronica was a thought that he had not taken seriously. Would he blatantly give up his life for someone? He was not ready to face that question. Howard motioned to the other two to move in while he quickly darted to the back of the robot to give the two cover should the robot suddenly turn around. There was a lunatic in a suit yelling in vain at the robot to turn around and come back. Howard was tempted to shoot him, but refrained. As long as the robot continued to ignore his orders, the man represented no obstacle to the operation. As Howard looked on, the two resistant fighters reached Veronica and tried to open the case, but the lid wouldn’t budge. Their only remaining option was to detach the case from the cargo robot and push the whole container out through the entrance, but debris had accumulated in front and it was arduous labor. Howard glanced first at the case, then at Eddy battling the robot. He analyzed the situation with his quick, battle hardened mind. Soon, the robot would finish Eddy and turn its sight on them – unless he engaged combat to try to save Eddy. However, the other two would never be able to get out in time with Veronica even if he managed to delay the robot somewhat. They would all die, nullifying Eddy’s effort. Howard looked towards Eddy, hardly seeing him behind the robot as it moved in on his position. There was nothing else he could do for Eddy. He turned around and with his help they rushed out of the Ambassador Hotel lugging the metal case along with them. He heard a loud, rumbling sound behind him and just had the time to glance over his shoulder and see part of the ceiling where Eddy was standing come tumbling down on top of him. Chapter 18 Veronica had her arms and legs tightly locked around Eddy. She didn’t want to let him go even if she knew his mom was waiting for him, probably worried stiff. He held her very tenderly, not daring to disturb the moment, almost as if he was afraid to wake up from a dream. Other than a friendly hug or the occasional tap, he had never touched her through all the years that they had known each other and she had no idea his hands could speak such marvels, delve deep into her soul and bring to light so many shades of herself – of desire, of bliss… and of love. She felt as if he was bringing her on a voyage through a million twinkling stars, each blazing wondrously with secrets that were now theirs to share and explore. Hope swelled in her, the hope that this moment would last forever. She frowned. There were hushed voices around her. Then a tremendous dose of panic rushed through her body as she remembered. The events all came cascading on top of each other in her mind and the warmth of Eddy dissipated, leaving her all alone. Then she froze, her eyes still closed, as a terrible thought crossed her mind. Grandma… none of what we thought is true. We have been following a fool’s vision. She didn’t feel any different from before – now that she was an android. She could still reason, she could still feel her heart inside, she could still think of Eddy. Then a tear went down her cheek as the emotions of the last few hours overwhelmed her… just that she knew that androids had no tear ducts. They abhorred water. She opened her eyes and Howard was standing over her with Omar not too far behind. He held a vial in his hand. It was the antidote. He lifted her by the back of her shoulders, just enough so that she could swallow the liquid. She was on a small cot and instantly recognized where she was as she saw over two dozen other cots sprinkled around her. It was their bunker. Mrs. Schmidt, a retired resistant fighter stood not too far behind. The bunker was located under her home, in downtown Burnston. If they were not at Howard’s apartment but at the bunker, then Veronica knew that something terrible had happened. Mrs. Schmidt whispered something in Howard’s ear as he nodded. As she left, Veronica glanced around and noticed that there were over a dozen of her group huddled together nearby. She saw Ted, Bjorn, Lucy, Ronja… what were they doing here? Why was there such a stealthy silence around her? Then she glanced at Omar and her heart stopped. His face lay contorted with anguish, his eyes as lifeless as any person she had ever seen still breathing. “Veronica…” It was Howard’s voice that she heard. There was something unpleasant he had to tell her. She could sense it. “Veronica, we attempted a rescue mission.” She coughed, trying to move her legs. They were very sluggish. Whatever that maniac had injected in her was still present in her system. “Howard, listen to me.” She could barely talk, her voice a frail whisper that seemed to echo away from her. “They know about us. Inform everyone. There is no time. We have to escape.” She saw Omar and Howard exchange glances and realized that they were already aware of this. That must be why they were here at the bunker, she thought. Howard carried a defeated expression on his face that she did not like. She wanted him strong in her absence. That was his role – to give confidence to others. Ronja appeared at her side and Veronica’s eyes widened. There was so much agony in her stare, the agony that only two women could fully understand. Ronja had lost her love in battle a year back and she was looking at her with that same desolate expression Veronica had seen in her eyes back then. A chill as cold as a breath of death passed over Veronica’s body. “Eddy…?” Veronica whispered. Her stare was blank as she turned her gaze slowly back on Howard. She dared not think. “Where’s Eddy…?” she asked again, her throat aching. Howard turned to Omar, supplicating him with his haunted look, as if to tell him that he just couldn’t go on with the description of events. Omar stepped forward. His voice was calm, measured, and with a bleakness that brought shivers up Veronica’s spine. “As Howard stated, there was a rescue operation.” “I had told you not to…” “Nevertheless, there was one. We attacked Ambassador Hotel even if that was not our initial intention.” Veronica’s mouth gaped as she shot a severe look back at Howard. Her mind was starting to clear as her voice started assuming that commanding authority. “Casualties?” Omar glanced towards Howard. Veronica was expecting the answer from Howard. Omar remained quiet as Howard’s throat tightened up while speaking. “Four during the assault to get in and three inside the hotel, not including civilians.” Veronica shut her eyes, biting her lower lip. A dagger had just pierced her heart and she felt as if her blood was seeping down to the pit of her stomach. This was not supposed to happen. It was another nightmare playing out, just that she felt that this one was even worse than what had happened in the room with her brother. “Who?” Howard struggled to pronounce each name. “…and Tanya.” Veronica brought her hand over her stomach. Oh, Tanya, my dear Tanya. You did the right thing. What atrocious individual would use a child to set a trap? “How many civilians?” Howard cleared his throat. “We don’t know yet, but based on the information Omar has been able to obtain, at least fifteen.” Anger slowly swelled in Veronica’s chest. All this for what? To save her? To make her live the rest of her days with the knowledge that so many good people had been killed for her? The intensity of her blaze rattled Howard. “You disobeyed my direct orders. I trusted you.” “I didn’t have a choice!” he blurted out. ”There is always a choice, Howard. You should know that!” Howard looked desperately at Omar for support. “Veronica,” Omar interjected. “It was my plan and Eddy executed it.” Veronica’s world shattered at that very instant as Omar revealed that Eddy was implicated. Omar began the account and Howard ended it, up until the last moment when he saw the overhead floor collapse on Eddy. Veronica’s tears, though, had started much before that. They were quiet tears that simply would not stop. She remained immobile, her eyes fixed to a point on the rough ceiling above her head. The only thing she did was clasp both hands gently below her stomach and press slightly on top, as if she was protecting herself from a blow, from the cruel world. Howard crossed Omar’s eyes and shook his head. “Veronica, I did all I could have done in the circumstances. I didn’t have a choice… I even covered for Eddy…” He moved in as if to touch Veronica, but Omar clasped his arm with an iron grip that cut into his flesh. He motioned him to step back. Veronica continued to look at the ceiling above her head – or maybe she was staring beyond that drably wall. Maybe, she was looking at a warm memory under a sunny sky. Maybe, she was reminiscing of an ice-cream parlor with Eddy at her side. Veronica’s voice, when she finally spoke, was surprisingly strong. “You could have left me there and saved Eddy. You know that civilians always come first.” Her face was still wet when, minutes later, she swiveled off the bed and her feet touched the floor. Her group had huddled at the far side of the large room, trying to give her as much privacy as possible. Ronja had already set up her monitoring devices and Omar was at her side. Veronica had her whole life to mourn. Her team needed her now. She beckoned Howard and Omar to her and asked them to fill her with the latest news. It was late evening and the situation was critical. Omar proceeded to inform her of what he knew. “Every member of our group has been contacted and has been told to gather at the bunker without delay. They know it’s a red code situation and that our lives are in grave danger. They are to destroy all traces of our operations that they may have in their possession since they know that there is no coming back. As of this moment, eighteen of us have arrived. Katie and Alessandro are missing. There is no trace of them. Nebojsa has been killed along with his whole family. It is believed that Migel and Ofelia were at the point of being captured and have committed suicide. Farid has refused to budge and will remain with his young family, come what may. Six are still missing and are hopefully on their way.” Veronica nodded tersely. Each word plummeted through her mind like a jackhammer striking with full force. “Our network, equipment?” “As per protocol. Ronja sent out the virus to destroy all our servers and surveillance equipment. All that is left is what we have in this bunker. Before arriving, Samuel and Matteo applied fire to our depots.” Omar observed his leader. She was composed, processing all the terrible information he had given her. There was a note of grief in her eyes that he knew would never go away. It was as if a vicious beast had lashed out and wounded her deeply. She might recover, but her scar would remain until the day she died. She stayed silent and Omar took advantage of that moment to relay another bit of news. “Veronica, once I knew that a battle had broken out at the hotel, I raced to the bar and brought Max here. As you can imagine, he wasn’t too pleased to leave, but we both knew that the first place the authorities would be looking for information would be his place. When you feel up to it, you can go see him, but I warn you that he’s planning on returning back to the bar. His mind is set, come what may.” For a brief second a trace of a tender smile appeared on Veronica’s lips. Then she looked directly at Howard. “Split the groups in three. I will lead one, Omar the other, and…” she peered at him, as if scrutinizing him for the first time. He was handsome, of that there was no doubt and she could see why any girl would fall hard for him, but that firm set jaw that gave him that arrogant swagger which seemed endearing at first was actually the key to reading his character. She had no choice, however. He was still the best man for the job. “And you, Howard, will be leading the third. I want Ronja in your group. As for the rest, make sure their qualities are divided evenly among the groups.” This was the first time that a whole cell was about to be eradicated from Burnston. Through them, their enemies could possibly even infiltrate other cells. They tried to maintain each organization distinct just to prevent them from falling like a domino effect in case something happened to one, but there was always a minimal cooperative effort between them that in theory could open a door for an intruder to gain access to another resistance cell. She must not allow it. Her mind was made up – either they die here together or flee and hope for a better day. “We are leaving Burnston. Our identities are compromised. Not only is it too dangerous for us to remain here, but also for our colleagues carrying on the resistance; not to mention innocent people standing in the way as they hunt us down.” She looked at the two resistant fighters who were listening to her attentively. In a few minutes they might never see each other again. The road would be hazardous and she was not expecting that they would all make it. These would be her last decisions as a resistant fighter. Their fighting days were through. They had to disappear from civilization and start living a normal life – for her baby, for the baby’s future. That future desperately needed her baby. It desperately needed every human baby so that one day humanity could retake the world and thrive again. She called around her the whole group and told them that they were to embark on a long journey to start a new colony. It would be built deep in the jungles of the Congo, a hot, humid, torrid place which was very hostile to androids. There was fear in their eyes, but also curiosity and determination. Here was a new mission, not to destroy but to build and protect. The risk would always be omnipresent. The androids would never rest until each of them was hunted down and killed – or worse, used for their experiments at the AIC. Now that the resistance knew what was being done at the complex, it would be up to the other cells to carry on their fight. What awaited them, instead, was to prepare the foundations for a new future. When they disbanded, Veronica went up the short flight of stairs until she reached a small room just before the longer flight of stairs that led to the floor above. Veronica opened the door. Max was standing on the opposite side, fidgeting, as if naked without a bar counter in front of him. She ran into his strong arms and he clasped her tightly with all his love. Her body broke and she started to cry, sobbing uncontrollably, while he stroked her hair. “Why Max… why did he do it…” “Don’t go searching for a reason. He loved you Veronica, and that is enough to understand everything.” She looked at him with her big, wet eyes. She was as beautiful as a rose with morning dew in early spring. “Max, I’m pregnant. Eddy and I are going to have a baby.” A poignant smile illuminated through her sobs. Her eyes glowed at the mention of Eddy’s name. It was Max’s turn to shed a few tears. She put a hand on his cheek. “Max, Omar told me that you intend to go back. Don’t. Please don’t. Mrs. Schmidt lives by herself and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind some company. She goes by another name in Germany and is heading back within the hour. The cell that she belonged could have you on that plane too.” He looked at her shaking his head, pleading with her not to ask anything of him. “Veronica, this is the only life I’ve ever known. I wouldn’t know what to do in Germany. I’m old and whatever happens now… well...” She looked lovingly at the man who was a father to her. “You don’t have to change, Max. You will always be yourself wherever you go. Things change Max, but that doesn’t mean that our dreams and hopes cannot remain the same.” Like Eddy. She would always love him inside her heart no matter what. Max sighed. “She is rather nice, Mrs. Schmidt. Pretty good looking too…” Veronica hugged him to her and whispered into his ear. “Thank you, Max.” When she descended back into the bunker, the groups had already formed. Three other members had arrived, but three were still missing. She couldn’t give more time. They had to move, now. She was worried about the whereabouts of Katie and Alessandro. If they were in enemy hands, as she was afraid of, they were already being subjected to truth serum. It would only be a matter of hours before the authorities came down on their bunker. She wanted to be on the move, as far away from Burnston when that happened. Howard came towards her as Ronja finished explaining the shields they would be using to thwart the enemy. He wanted to say something, but Veronica cut him short. “Howard, this is going to be a long and perilous trip and I want your mind fully on the mission. You have to lead the six members safely to destination. It might take weeks if not months and during this time we won’t be able to maintain contact.” He nodded. She made sure he understood her next words. “I don’t want you to harbor any illusion that you and I will have a future together. Do you understand? This has to be very clear in your head because I don’t want you thinking of me while six people put their lives in your trust. We can never be together, because I don’t want you, Howard. Is that clear?” He grinded his teeth as she spoke. Veronica saw the anger on his face, the sting of her refusal. His hard, gray ash, cement-like eyes bore into her. “It is extremely clear.” He said it in such a way that he wanted to let her know that she would regret it one day. As he turned away from her, Veronica went back to the newly formed group that she would be leading. Veronica knew that she was being very harsh with Howard. She knew that in combat situations decisions had to be made in a split second. She knew this. What she could not forgive, though, was his constant resolve to justify his action as being the right one every single time and to never have a thought that maybe, just maybe, he could have made an error or made a better choice. Even if he meant well, Howard was a very self-centered, selfish, and conceited person. That was why she wanted Ronja with him. If there was a person that could lead a group if it became necessary, it would be Ronja. Veronica did not know what would become of Howard once they reached Congo, but that was not her concern at that moment. She motioned to Howard to start clearing out. She waited five minutes then motioned at Omar to go. Omar looked at her with soft eyes. “It has been an honor…” She looked at him with a tender smile. “We are just starting out, Omar. We have so many things to do.” Omar snapped to attention. That was the leader he had always known. Veronica watched him leave. She hoped both Omar and Ronja would make it through. There was something nice developing between them – something that reminded Veronica of Eddy and her. Veronica waited an extra minute, hoping that one of the three unaccounted for would show up, but not one did. They would have no protection, nowhere to run to. She could not leave preprogrammed shields behind. If the enemy reached the bunker first and found the shields, it would put the three groups in jeopardy. They knew what was expected of them if they reached the bunker. Each had the red pill at all time. Her heart ached as she thought of losing Josephine. She had been one of the founders of the resistance cell. Veronica gave the signal. Theresa was the youngest in the group. Her fearful and shocked eyes stared widely at her. Veronica smiled compassionately back. She placed her hand on her belly as her team climbed the steps to freedom. Soon Theresa would be playing with her child. With Eddy`s child. Chapter 19 The decades passed. The androids started to occupy influential and powerful positions in society with more regularity as the humanoid models became better and their longevity increased. The decision-making process slowly shifted from man to androids. The fundamental change came when an android was finally elected President. America changed radically during that time and by the second term of the android’s Presidency, the government was mainly composed of androids. The technological evolution that happened during this time was also phenomenal as the administration diverted more funds and energy into android research. The most important goal became the preservation of humanity through the android species. During this period, unknowingly to many, millions of people around the world died in horrible experiments to further this research. The androids considered these deaths statistically acceptable when so much was at stake for humanity’s future. After all, what were millions of lives compared to billions of lives that would eventually be saved from death? Once it was possible to live at least three hundred years, the laws quickly changed to reflect the new reality. In some parts of the world, it became not only a right but also an obligation for every living person to evolve into an android. One by one, the countries and giant industries became governed by androids. For efficiency’s sake, the human population was relocated to predetermined zones as the androids decided that organic life was a cycle that required its own needs. This was done for three primary reasons. The first reason was to make life more comfortable for humans. It was becoming increasingly difficult for organic life to find such things as a restaurant or an entertainment center. Androids had no need for these distractions. Second, it was difficult for androids to implement their ideas in the presence of organic forms whose mind had a limited organizational capacity and were slow to adapt when compared to an android’s brain processing circuit. Thirdly, there was a general growing unrest among the organic population as their world was disappearing. The probability of a worldwide insurgence was significantly higher when compared to previous generations. The organic population had to be controlled, not only to prevent the androids from wasting time undoing the damage that riots caused, but also to remove humans from circulation since they were cumbersome and only got in the way of progress with their primitive, limited, thinking neuron cells that were incapable of grasping complex ideas. Washington became the first city of the world to become organic free. As time marched on, the androids became more and more sophisticated. As the life span increased to thousands of years, quotas were put in place to limit the transfer from organic to androids in order to strike a balance between the Earth’s available resources and world population. As organic life became less and less important, so were their rights. The day arrived when organic man had no more input on how the Earth was governed. People were confined to domed cities built especially for them and rare were the occasions they had interactions with the androids. The Earth became two separate worlds – one world conquering the stars and the other regressing to a listless state of existence. As the generations passed, ignorance came quickly to the people living in the confined areas as knowledge from the outside world was withheld. The organic lives became unaware of their own history as the androids isolated the domes and erased all information they considered unnecessary for organic life function. To fill in the gaps, legends were created by the organics to explain the world around them. For the most part, they lived happily because they knew of no other life. They existed in a domed world, a world built for them by androids that they came to consider as gods. In this world there were robots that the gods had built for them to serve their every need. Their purpose was to live a good life and not anger these gods and if they did just that, then one day they could join the gods in paradise on the other side of the dome. In the meantime, the androids continued their triumphal journey across the galaxy. They had been able to copy their brain patterns and make hundreds of clones from one android as they populated the stars. As each mind was transferred from android to android, the memory of their humanity faded. It was still present, but it was rarely, if ever, accessed. Those primitive memories weren’t required anymore. Everything proceeded as expected until the day they met the Vons. The Vons were a young space faring race who had built a military empire across a section of the galaxy. It was exactly this space that the androids were expanding into and they saw no reason to change their course simply because they came into contact with an organic race that considered itself the owners of that space. The Vons warned the androids not to cross their territories, but were ignored as the androids proceeded with their original plans. The Vons replied by pulverizing five worlds along their border where the androids had set mining bases. It was the start of a very long war that threatened the very purpose of the android’s mission in life – the quest for immortality. The Vons were very active. They found an enemy that their government was able to exploit to their advantage. A military society needs a purpose to unite and function as such. The greater the threat the enemy represented, the more the leaders were able to install their doctrines. The androids were so different from anything that the Vons had known that they generated a natural, impulsive fear which enticed the Vons to seek their total destruction. There was no possibility of a dialogue. Even after the androids concluded that the expansion in that sector was no longer viable, the Vons continued to search and destroy them with relentless zeal. Tactically the Vons were so unpredictable that neither the robots nor androids were capable of stopping their advance. The androids, on the other hand, were so predictable that the Vons seemed to anticipate every strategy that was deployed against them. The androids came to one conclusion. Their society was too advanced to fully understand the machanism of war. They needed to pit organic life against organic life to achieve a balance in the war. The remaining humans living in the domed cities would serve this purpose. Young children were separated from their parents in the domed cities on Earth and brought to live in space where they were educated. They were taught to use the latest weapons of mass destruction, and when they were ready, they were brought to battle as fierce warriors. This continued for many generations. The ultimate prize for a warrior was immortality. Whoever achieved a brilliant career was transferred into an android and became a god. Chapter 20 Beth Stillman was captain of the battleship, Stargazer. She was in her early twenties even if her hardened skin and cold blue eyes gave her a much older appearance. There were fifty-two members in her crew along with two hundred robots. They needed reinforcements and supplies, but the supply ship was not at the rendezvous coordinates. Their long-range scans had revealed nothing in the area and the crew on the bridge was getting impatient. She knew that their present supplies would last for ten days max and that the nearest outpost was a good nine days away. They could no longer go forward unless the provisions came, which was disappointing since they had managed to infiltrate enemy space and had a relatively free path ahead. The risk of being caught, however, was extremely high – especially if they remained waiting at the spot for the supplies to arrive. Like a sitting duck, she once read, even if she had no idea what a duck was. “Captain, I’ve intercepted a message from a Von relay station. It’s headed to the Von’s home world.” The captain nodded. They had been able to crack the code a few years back and since then the war was swinging in their favor. In fact, no ship had ever been this deep in Von territory. Beth was surprised at how easy it had been. She had expected heavy fighting, but apart from one minor skirmish at the border, it had been an uneventful campaign. Not that Beth minded. She had become one of the youngest captains of the fleet when she was given her first command at seventeen. Her influence on the war council had grown more powerful with each victory. She had masterminded what was now known as the domino battle where over a thousand Von ships were destroyed. Since that historic battle, the Vons were desperately trying to regroup, but the human ships kept hunting them down, pinning them deeper into their own territory with each passing year. Nothing had given her more satisfaction than seeing many of the worlds the Vons had once populated barren and destroyed. Beth knew that final victory was near even if she had a difficult time grasping that a six hundred year war was coming to an end. With it, she would get what she had always desired – immortality. It would be the greatest day of her life to see her valiant crew become immortal with her. The translation of the message was late in coming. “Well, lieutenant? I’m waiting.” As soon as she saw the face of her communication officer, Beth knew that something dreadful had occurred. “Captain, I have rechecked the message twice. There is no mistake. Earth has been pulverized…” The brutality of the message left an eerie silence on the bridge as they glanced numbly at each other. There had to be an error. “Verify one more time, lieutenant.” Beth felt a distressing, bizarre sensation overtake her that she couldn’t quite explain. Earth destroyed? As she looked out at the vast blackness of space, it was hard to fathom that a planet called Earth was no longer somewhere out there waiting for her to return. Equally as hard was to think that in all that blackness a planet like Earth had ever existed in the first place. What did it mean, Earth pulverized? It reminded her of when her mother used to read her a fairy tale: a wonderful, magical world of light that went dark once the book was shut – much like the blackness of space staring back at her. “There is no doubt, captain. The message is very clear. Earth is destroyed. It does no longer exist.” That speechless silence was suddenly interrupted by metallic ringing. The tactical officer was the first to regain his voice. “One enemy ship is approaching, Captain! It’s a T3 battleship, starboard, position A3, B2!” Like a sitting duck, thought Beth. “Evasive maneuvers alpha four!” Never in Beth’s career had she been caught so unprepared. She knew that there was little, if anything, she could do anymore. The Von battleship had complete advantage. Her experience told her that her ship was lost even before the first shot was fired. In a matter of seconds they would all be dead. Dead, like Earth. Beth had never even thought once about death in her short life. It had always been an acquired fact that one day she would become immortal. To everyone’s surprise, the enemy ship did not open fire. It remained at a fair distance, keeping its full advantage over Stargazer. Beth thought hard. The Vons did not take hostages. She didn’t need to ponder further, however, as the enemy ship surprisingly requested an encounter. The Vons were an amphibian like race. They were rather small, about a third of a normal human’s height. They hopped on four limbs when they moved and were much quicker than humans. The few times that the two species had clashed in hand to hand combat, the Vons had always prevailed, especially since they secreted a slimy substance over their skin that was not only slippery but poisonous to human touch. They met on Stargazer, which Beth thought was a big tactical error on their part. They could be taken hostage and she informed her security officer to be ready. She planned on bargaining their lives in exchange for the release of her ship if constrained to. The top five members of Beth’s crew were present as were eight members of the Von battleship. Their conversation was rather laborious. The two species rarely, if ever, dialogued with each other as each side proceeded with extreme caution to grasp what the other intended. The Vons made Beth a proposal and surprisingly offered to remain on the ship in a will of good gesture until she decided. One hour. That was the time allotted for her decision. Beth left the Vons in the conference room with security and made her way to her quarters as a million thoughts raced through her head. Beth was used to fighting, not to diplomacy, and felt torn inside. In many ways, she wished that the Vons had destroyed them and not left her with this improbable dilemma. The decision would come down to her. She thought of her crew in the low lighting of her room – she would be the one deciding not only for her life, but for everyone’s life as well. Was it different than at any other time, though? No, but this time she would have to go against her instincts if she wanted to live. During the meeting, the Vons confirmed that they had indeed destroyed the Earth. They felt constrained to do so after their intelligence had gathered news that two ships were being sent deep into their space to destroy their home world. It had not been their wish since they thought that there was a tacit agreement with the androids that both home worlds were off limit. In one last folly attempt to salvage a part of the war, they sent a ship to Earth. Beth gathered that they didn’t think they would succeed and that their success must have astonished them. It was a small victory, though, considering that their empire had crumbled and that their species was on the verge of extinction. Beth didn’t understand their rationale. “That was my species planet. It was not the androids home world. The androids are immortals. Destroying the Earth means little to them. You killed my people, the place I was born. You just gave humans more determination to find and destroy everything Von.” Beth knew those were fighting words. She didn’t know if they understood the bitterness and anger that was in her tone as she uttered them. Then again, what could she do to exert revenge? They both knew that their weapons were pointed on her ship. She had lost – even this encounter with them could be interpreted as a sign of victory on their side and a moment of deep humiliation on her side. Beth did not like the feeling that encounter with the victorious Vons procured her. She felt like a lion in a cage – another expression that she finally understood at that moment. “We do not know why you humans fight for these androids. We have our theories. We think you are slaves or that they possess unknown powers over you that you are unaware of. Why don’t you join us? Together we can defeat them and make new borders. We are ready to concede most of our empire for our home world once the war on the androids is won.” “You have no more empire to divide,” Beth stated with satisfaction, feeling suddenly reinvigorated as she volleyed back. Their offer was not only shocking, but cowardly as well. Laughable even. “The handful of colonies that exist are isolated and will fall within weeks. Your fleet is practically inexistent and each ship that flees will be hunted down by one hundred of our ships and destroyed. These are facts.” Her words did not deter the Vons one bit. “We have proof that something went terribly wrong in your history. We captured androids when they used to engage us directly in the early years of the war. We analyzed them, especially their brains. When we finally captured a human crew, we made a startling discovery. The android brain was composed of human brainwaves. It was as if a copy of the human mind had been transferred to an electronic brain. It was very odd this symbiosis of synthetic and organic. We cannot begin to imagine the technology it would take to accomplish such a feat, but we have every reason to believe that your ancestors were the creators of this atrocity.” Beth didn’t believe a word of it, of course. Imagine man creating the immortals! Everyone knew it was the other way around. The Vons were using psychological warfare, but to what advantage? The Vons finally came to the point of the encounter between the two species. “We were extremely fortunate to have stumbled on your ship. We have analyzed your weapon capabilities and have concurred that you were one of the two ships sent to destroy our home planet. We request that you put an end to this war. We request that you contact the other ship and abort the mission. You must know their route and you surely must have a means to contact them directly. In exchange, no harm will come to you and if you don’t wish to return to your empire, we know of an Earth like planet on the opposite side of our realm where your species can prosper. It is not suitable for our species. It is too cool. To show you our good faith, we are transmitting its coordinates to you as we speak. Here you will have total dominion of your affairs. No android will ever know what happened to your mission. However, we need your help in return. We will need the codes of all the other human ships in the fleet so that we may contact them and make the same offer. Either they join us in defeating your masters or we will lead them to your new home and take care of the monsters ourselves. Let us put an end to this war. It is not your war. It is not our war.” Beth took a big gulp of air from the darkness of her room as she finished her contemplation. She called her communication officer from her quarters. “Have the Vons sent us a planet’s coordinates?” “Yes, captain. If I may ask, where do they lead?” Beth ignored her curiosity. “Lieutenant, I want you to send the planet’s coordinates to the location I am about to say.” She relayed the location. There was puzzlement in her Lieutenant’s voice. “Captain, this location…” “I know. This is the accompanying message that I want you to send. Stargazer intercepted by Von ship. Stargazer is holding Vons hostage. We will kill the hostages in exactly five minutes and then engage battle with enemy ship. We do not expect to survive. Long live victory. Long live the Horizon.” There was a stunned silence before her officer replied in a subdued tone. “The coordinates of the planet along with your message have been transmitted at the specified location.” Beth waited. She knew that there was no ship present in the location sector that she had given to her Lieutenant. At the end of five minutes, when nothing happened, Beth had her answer. Her ship was still intact and no rescue operation from the Von ship was in progress. As she figured, even if she had to verify it, the Vons did not have the ability to intercept and decode their messages. It had not been a trap. The planet’s coordinates should therefore be authentic. Beth had travelled most of the galaxy and had never found an Earth like planet and the news that one could exist made her heart beat a little faster. She signaled her communication officer again. “This time I really want you to transmit to the Horizon the coordinates the Von sent us.” “Yes, captain.” A knot formed in her throat. “Add one more thing. Finish the message with, Love, Beth.” She would not tell her twin sister, Veronica, captain of the Horizon, about her exchange with the Vons. Beth didn’t know up until what point the Vons were sincere. She didn’t know how far she could trust them, if at all. Certainly, she had been brought up to despise them and could not help herself. Let Veronica carry on the mission and if she succeeded, let her have the choice of where she wished to go. Veronica had always been a little different from her. Her sister enjoyed old wives tales handed down through the ages, and fairy tales, out of all things. Fairy tales. Veronica had even told her once with a straight face that she heard that gypsies living outside the domes existed and that they actually didn’t care about becoming immortal. Where did she get these crazy ideas from? Beth smiled fondly. Maybe fairy tales were true. Perhaps, an Earth still existed – somewhere. If it did, Veronica would find a way to discover it. Of this, Beth had no doubt. Just before leaving her quarters, Beth turned her eyes on a crude picture frame she kept next to her bed. She was hugging her sister tightly. They were on a field trip in the Congolese jungle in the deep part of Africa. Veronica said that their ancestors came from those parts. Fairy tales, Beth thought as a tear rolled down her cheek. Those had been the best weeks of her life. Beth sighed again. She was not one to cry. She wiped the single tear that had formed. She could not remember ever having tasted her tears, but she came close. Beth thought of Veronica as she stepped outside her quarters. She loved her – she loved her as she had loved no one in her life. Chapter 21 Beth’s mind was made up. There were still over ten minutes remaining until the Vons expected a decision. She came to the bridge. All eyes were focused on her. She stared into the bold, confident eyes of her crew. They were with her. They trusted her. She had always gambled and won, especially when the odds were not in their favor… and they expected another last miracle from her. As she took possession of her command post, she wondered if the Von battle ship would attack them with their delegation on board. Had they taken it in consideration? Were they so confident that she would accept their offer? Did they think that between life and death, no living being would choose death? They did not know what it was to be human, then. They did not know that even in a last breath, there was still the hope that it would not be the final one. With her last order, Beth bellowed at her crew to engage combat. Her voice was intense, full of passion and determination. Her heart raced wildly as her ship tried to get into firing position. All her youth had been spent with one thing in mind – to fight the Vons and earn her immortality. There was still a chance, there was still a hope, but if she had to eventually die she might as well die together with her valiant crew. Beth saw her ship fire and a surge of adrenalin shot through her. She had the first taste of success imprinted on her face as she saw the enemy vessel struck, but she would never make it through. The Vons, caught by surprise, hesitated for a brief second, enough to sustain substantial damage before destroying the Stargazer. Beth had nearly accomplished the impossible. *** The Vons searched desperately for the second ship, but were unable to locate it. The government did their best to assure the population that their protection was superior to that of any other Von planet. They were confident that eventually the other ship would be found and destroyed. As the days passed without an incident, they gained confidence that their defenses were too sophisticated for an Earth ship to challenge. In this, the government was right. The Vons truly did have the best defenses an Earth ship had encountered. It took the starship Horizon much more time than expected to find a weakness. An android ship would have analyzed the situation and retreated. Not the humans. The android’s long-term strategic plan to defeat the Vons worked perfectly. The humans did destroy the Vons and triumph. After it was over, the androids had to decide the fate of the few remaining humans left in their colonies scattered around the galaxy. It was projected that soon the androids would be able to create a new technology that would permit them to create sentient androids capable of imitating all human cerebral activities. There would be no more need to transfer neural patterns from living flesh. For the first time, they would have no more use for organic life forms. There was a debate of whether to leave the organics free on a planet, but the risk of them evolving to threaten android existence was considered significant. The humans that were of a certain age became immortal within a few months. The remaining organic life forms that were still too young were separated into two different groups, males and females, so they could not give birth. Within two decades, all the remaining grown up children became immortal. Chapter 22 Veronica Stillman stood outside the door of her home and ran her hand nervously through her hair as she stared into her husband’s eyes. He smiled back at her, enjoying the attention of the last few days as she fretted over him. The shuttle ship that he was about to embark to reach the Horizon hadn’t flown for nearly five years. The other shuttles had done their share of work and were not considered space worthy anymore even if a couple still flew in the lower atmosphere. “Silly girl.” “What?” She stared back in wide-eyed astonishment and slapped him across the face, enough to sting. “Wow, you still pack a punch for…” She was looking at him, defying him to finish his sentence. “…for the most beautiful girl on Earth.” She gazed back with her usual self-assurance. “Remember, Chris, that the only reason I’m letting you fly this last mission in my place is because I’m carrying our child.” He hugged her snugly. “Well, this is an awful new, big world to fill. We can never be too busy, you know.” Their son Timothy ran up to them as Manuel arrived at their door. Timothy was excited to see his dad fly. He was too young to remember the last time his pop went up. Chris threw his son on his shoulders and turned to Manuel who was ready to take Chris to the launching pad where the four shuttles that had carried the crew of sixty-three from the Horizon to the planet landed six years ago. No shuttle had flown in space for nearly a year. They were by now fully self-sufficient and it was time to destroy the battleship even if it meant that they’d have to abandon the stars to another generation, which might well be hundreds of years in the future. It was a shame, but they couldn’t risk being discovered by the androids or whatever was left of the Vons. Having a starship in orbit could easily attract unwanted company even if the chances were slim. The planet was in a remote part of the galaxy that strangely enough was hiding behind densely packed pockets of dark matter that blocked nearly all light from the Milky Way stars from reaching them. Fortunately, the planet was well hidden. Perhaps, too well hidden, thought Veronica. Would her children children’s remember that man was made to travel across space if they didn’t find twinkling stars but only pitch blackness when they looked up at the night sky? Their world was the sole planet around the two sun system and both suns were in the late stages of their star cycle. Eventually, humanity would have to move to another planet to survive. Why she even had to worry about that problem, probably a few million years in the future, she didn’t know. She enjoyed continuity though. She enjoyed hoping that the future would always be better than the present and she liked to think of her life as part of a never ending voyage where her children’s children would share the same wonders of life that she had been fortunate enough to experience. Veronica went back inside her home and less than an hour later heard the shuttle’s powerful engines taking off. Memories flooded her mind. Her previous life of commanding a starship seemed so long ago. She was getting used to living this terrestrial life and strange as it seemed, had nearly forgotten the Horizon, their mission, the decision to abandon immortality and gamble on a hunch that they would find an Earth like planet in the middle of nowhere, where even their ship sensors showed nothing and told them it was impossible. She took a deep breath and removed the locket she always carried around her neck. Inside was a picture of her twin sister Beth hugging her tightly while on a field trip on Earth. They had taken a safari through the Congolese jungle just before embarking on the mission to destroy the Von’s home world. Inside the locket was also a digital key that she tenderly took between her fingers. She hadn’t read her starship diary in years. She took her digital reader and curled up on a large chair that she had made herself from bamboo like sticks that were surprisingly soft yet rigid. She was glad that her three children were over at Susan’s place for a while. She reveled in that quiet, peaceful moment as she inserted her key and heard her own voice speaking. She was a little surprised at the determination behind her tone. She didn’t remember being so adamant. “I told Chris and the others what I thought. I think there might be a mutiny soon, in which case I have decided to take my son and a shuttle and follow Beth’s coordinates. Chris says it is pure folly and I know he is right, but I’m not returning back home. This is a hollow victory for me. Chris told me I feel this way because I’m mourning for Beth. He hasn’t understood that at this moment Beth is closer to me than she has ever been. She is here in my heart, stronger than ever, and she has given me my life back with a hope of a new future for all of us. I told Chris. Take a look at our son. He’s only three months old, but don’t you see how wondrous he is? Can’t you feel your heart beat for him, with fear, with love, with hope that he will grow into a man and continue our creation? If we are to go back, you know very well that the androids would not approve of our relationship while on a combat mission. They will take him away and I will never see him again. And then, think of Lakeshia and Rachael… they are pregnant too. What will happen to them and their babies? I told Chris, I told him that I had no intention of living an immortal death, entombed alive in the circuits of an android. I just don’t trust them. I don’t know why. It must be something genetic even if my sister thinks otherwise. Maybe I believe in fairy tales. Plus, I told him, androids don’t have sex… and I know that you like that a lot!” Veronica replayed her last line. Did she actually say that? Her lips arched up in a knowing smile. Oh yes, Chris did like it, and it was probably the only point out of the whole argument she made that day which had really grabbed his attention! Smart guy… *** Veronica opened her eyes as she heard the shuttle coming back. She glanced at the clock and realized that she had dozed off. She took the digital key and placed it in her locket. She felt a tremor in her heart. There was no more starship up in the sky to whisk them away. Home. This planet was now their home and this is where she would die. It frightened her, but at the same time filled her heart with hope and freedom. There was much to do on this planet. Much to discover. There was the freedom to dream and the hope of building something wonderful for her children. This is what she had chosen. To have a home. To have a husband. To have children. Her thoughts went back to the day the future was decided. It almost didn’t happen. She came very close to ending her life and that of her small child. She would never have gone back. She would never have become an android. Not her. Not Veronica Stillman. The same shuttle her husband was flying back would have become her coffin. The final vote had been thirty-seven to thirty-six. Chris had been the deciding vote. If he would’ve said yes to immortality, the ship would have headed back to base. She found Chris an hour after the vote was finalized – in his room with his impenetrable expression, hard and set. “I never wanted to die, Veronica. The only thing I ever wanted to be in life was immortal… until I fell in love with you.” Veronica waited for Chris to arrive home. He had promised to pick up their kids as well as an apple pie at Susan’s home. At least, that’s what they called it since the indigenous fruit had the closest taste to the old Earth’s fruit. Chris was all excited as he finally came through the door and took her in his arms, but she was still the captain of that ship and she wanted a final report. He sighed, shaking his head. “I can’t believe this! Yes, we waited until the ship hit the atmosphere and disintegrated. Yes, the robots were in the exact same state as we left them years ago – dismantled and dead. There is no possibility that any signal was transmitted to the androids.” That had been a swift and dangerous battle. The destruction of the robots had been the last hurdle they had faced before they embarked on this long journey to their new home. It was obvious that Chris had enough of talking about their former ship as he held out in his hands a few glass video recording tubes. It was the reason of his enthusiasm. “Look what I found! They’re empty!” Veronica looked at him, puzzled. “And so? Just add them to our inventory list with the others.” He grinned at her. “Since you’re always complaining that there are no stars in the sky, I had an idea on my way back. Do you remember that expedition I went on about four months ago? We dug up that glittering sand that sparkles under the sun and twinkles in the dark?” She remembered that well. It held a promise for future use. The sand could eventually serve as a natural way of providing light. “Well, I thought, why don’t I embed a few grains in the center of each glass shard? That way when it’s all dark, you can turn it to the sky, look through it, and see the stars twinkling in the night?” Veronica was really taken aback. She brought her hand over her chest. “Oh… that’s so lovely Chris!” Chris smiled. Beth was right. Veronica was really fond of fairy tales. *** The grass was a copper-red and the subtle rays of the two different suns seemed to reflect off it at different angles, giving the meadow field a fiery shimmer as if small flames were flicking all around them. Veronica loved it and especially her children who ran through the wild grass as they headed out to the beach. Chris was not too far behind and was filming her as the children tried to joyfully wrestle her to the ground, giggling and running away as she playfully lunged at them. She grabbed Veronica junior in her hands and lifted her high in the air before giving her a big kiss. She struggled out of her arms while Timothy wrapped his arms around his mom’s legs and brought her down to the delight of all as Chris urged the children on. “Last one in the water does the dishes tonight!” All the kids went rushing after their dad who jumped ahead of them, leaving her down on the ground. “Hey! That’s not fair!” Veronica shouted as she rose to her feet. Chris had dropped the camcorder along the lip of the sandy edge against the grass. She took a few lazy steps towards it and scooped it up as the sound of splashing water and screaming children surrounded her. Veronica turned the lenses towards herself, holding it close to her face. Her eyes reflected all the love in her heart as she smiled. It was a perfect day. She turned the camera off. The End The original version of the book as first published of Immortality ends here. Through the years, I've had a few requests to continue the story, and for those that wish to know what happens after, I offer the following which is probably the final segment to the saga. Vincent Pet Part 3: The Metallic Doves You are the only one that I have ever loved, Veronica, and you’ll be the only one I will ever love… forever. She was the first to spot them. She remained transfixed, staring at the sky right between the two weak suns as the gleaming objects finally took shape. The boy was still slobbering over her neck as she lay semi-sprawled underneath him. For an instant, his weight didn’t matter, the fine sand that he had clumsily thrown in her hair was less bothersome, and his sticky saliva and heavy breathing were somewhat supportable. She quickly regained her wits and with a swing of her strong legs neatly kicked out from under him. The poor boy flipped completely over and landed smack on his back. For a brief moment, Veronica sympathized with him. “Ouch! What did I do?” She pointed up at the white-bluish, morning sky. “There!” The boy was rubbing his head as his gaze turned in the direction the girl indicated. “What… what are they?” he asked as his puzzled eyes grew bigger. She didn’t have an answer, but even from that distance she could tell that the objects were huge. She looked behind at the copper-red, carpet of grass rippling gently in the wind. The area extended back for quite a distance beyond the sandy beach. The space was remarkably flat and wide. “They’re going to land here!” the girl excitedly shouted. “Let’s go! We’ve got to warn the others!” She knew, however, as she pivoted around and started to stretch her legs, that the town must already have seen the incoming objects. There was a deep, primal fear in her guts as she ran. She knew that they were in grave danger and that whatever they attempted to do to save themselves from the intruders might be futile. The Immortals. Great grandma and the elders had told her a million stories about the androids when she was knee high. She fervently wished it wasn't them, but in her heart, she knew that the colony had been discovered. She suddenly stopped as she realized that she was the only one stomping across the grounds. She threw her gaze back and noticed that the boy was still gazing at the sky. “Eddy!” she screamed with complete impatience as she started running back to him. She didn’t even stop as she reached out and yanked him by the collar of his shirt. He half stumbled as he fought to keep his balance while she dragged him with her. “V-Veronica!” he stammered as she pulled him along. She looked furtively into his big, tender eyes. The dejection and anguish written across his face were stoically clear as she felt his sweet sorrow. All of a sudden, she stopped. He nearly tripped over her as she clutched his arm and held him up. She hung on to him as they staggered and came to rest in each other’s arms. He looked at her, his eyes vibrant with fright and hope, pain and love. She found them mesmerizing, deep and warm. “That was the first time you ever kissed a girl, wasn’t it?” she asked, somewhat teasingly. By the manner his jaw dropped and his stare glazed over, she knew she was right. Then again, she never had a doubt. It seemed that she had spent all her young life warding off every boy in town – every boy except Eddy. “How… how did you guess?” he said in a stiff tone that showed all his discomfort. “Well,” she said a little too wickedly, even purring it out at him. “Usually, you don’t lick a girl’s neck with a mouthful of saliva and then breathe on it!” “Ooohh...” “That’s why it took you all this time to ask me out on a date, isn’t it?” she surmised, turning up the heat just a little as his mortified eyes gawked back at the girl of his dreams. That he was stunned, as if she had just revealed a deep secret of himself that he never expected someone to know didn’t surprise her. Eddy wasn’t outspoken like the others, didn’t seem to have any particular talent that set him apart, was rather soft spoken, avoided confrontations, and for the most part lived a carefree, quiet existence with no real ambition – and for the life of her, considering all the other boys available and that without question were much more exciting and intriguing than Eddy, Veronica never could not reason out why she was so attracted to him. What was it that made her feel guilty and uncomfortable when she was holding someone else in her arms and she ran into Eddy on the streets? What made her mind continuously worry about Eddy even when she was with another boy? Why, with all the boys that wanted her and that she could fantasize about, did she wonder, sometimes surprising even herself at the thought of it, about what it would be like to be loved by Eddy, the one that seemingly no other girl was interested in? Why was it that each time a relationship ended, she always felt relief and happiness thinking that she now could spend more time with her friend, Eddy, instead of sorrow and grief? Eddy, the one who had promised her when they were children that he’d be her friend for life without ever giving themselves a chance to see if they could grow into something more than just friendship? Eddy… he infuriated her! Eddy, the one that she waited on to pronounce himself one way or the other. Eddy, the one whose friendship she couldn’t think of ever losing. Eddy, the one that she finally tried to make love to, but that exasperated her even more as his eagerness spoiled the moment. Eddy, the one that even fate seemed to hinder from her arms, the one that her heart secretly desired, and the only boy she didn’t know how quite to approach. Eddy, the one who was breathing heavily a pace away from her – and not because of the quick dash that they’d just made together. Eddy – he had had enough chances! Without warning, Veronica abruptly pulled him to her. His lips opened and Veronica finally felt her knees quiver as he took the cue and pressed his mouth tightly and wonderfully on hers. Her desire and his exploded together in that instant and their hearts started beating faster and stronger than at any time of their young lives as their bodies entwined as one. Their lips slowly unlocked despite the will to continue the moment. Their fervent gaze pierced deep into each other’s soul. A sense of astonishment enveloped them both as they stood completely still in each other’s embrace. “Eddy…” she uttered with half incredulity, surprised at the effect the kiss had on her. “Wow,” Eddy barely whispered. “That was amazing, Veronica.” “Yes… yes, it was,” she softly replied with incredulity written all over her face, not understanding what had overcome her. Veronica hesitantly reached out and touched Eddy’s face, tracing his cheeks and chin as if she couldn’t believe that he was there with her. She fervently passed her fingertips over his soft, open lips. He was the one. Yes – she had always known in her heart that he was the one even when her mind didn’t know. He was love. Love, eternal love. Veronica took a sharp breath and suddenly looked over Eddy’s shoulders and noticed that the objects were getting closer. They were ships – pure white, metal ships. She had seen something like those shapes in the historic videos of Earth. The wingspan reminded her of those creatures called birds that used to fly through the air of the home world that she would never know. For no apparent reason, the word dove came to mind – it was the name of the only white bird that she recalled at the moment. She clasped Eddy’s hand firmly and pulled. “Run, Eddy!” They ran hand in hand. They ran with beating hearts of danger, beating hearts of love. They ran faster and faster until they were a blur, streaking across the fiery, copper-red grass with abandoned glee. Despite the impending doom, they were ecstatic, enthusiastic, full of hope, full of their young years. They were human. They didn’t know it, but there would never be another race quite like them again. *** A week passed and nothing happened. The white ships landed in perfect formation, just off the coast where Veronica had first spotted them. A ramp opened from each ship the moment they landed, but no presence or object came out. The town of just under four hundred people, the majority in their teens, set up an observation post from a nearby cliff overlooking the vessels. There were long, never-ending debates of what to do next. Some were in favor of approaching the ships while others were more cautious, preferring to wait and see what happened next. A fraction of the inhabitants had also proposed to move the colony elsewhere, but it was assumed that if the ships had been able to pinpoint their exact location with apparent ease, they would be able to relocate them no matter where they moved. In the meantime, as they waited, the elders were quickly putting back into operation the original weapons that their forefathers had brought with them and which had been neglected for a few decades. Although, they all realized that maintaining a strong defense was primordial to their long-term survival, there simply hadn’t been enough time or resources to make much inroads on building up their arsenal. They were still young in their development. They were still too busy discovering what the new planet they called home had to offer to guarantee their survival. Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be any indigenous life that posed much of a threat. The only concern they had was being discovered – especially by the androids. As one member of the colony stated: “We probably need about a thousand years of civilization on this planet to achieve the same level of technology we once possessed and another one thousand years to be able to defend ourselves against the androids. Even then, they would have evolved. The best we can do is hope that no one will find us until we are ready to fly to the stars again – preferably away from the androids.” Through all of this, though, no one knew if the ships were really carrying the Immortals. It was pure speculation. It could very well have been another alien race. *** As soon as Veronica saw Jackie and Julia scrambling frantically towards her, she knew that the status quo had been broken. The two had been standing guard on the cliff overlooking the ships. Veronica and Eddy were slowly making their way up to relieve them when they saw them coming down. Nearly two weeks had passed since the ships landed. The town was on edge, but at least a consensus had been reached – a delegation would soon be approaching the ships. Yet, before the chosen group ventured toward the metallic doves, as they were now called, the few powerful weapons that the colony possessed needed to be operational again. It was not an evident task since no one knew exactly how to operate them to their full potential. The problem, however, was much deeper than that – where to train… who to train… would those in the ships take it as an act of aggression if they fired test rounds? There were so many questions and just as many answers. They were also evaluating if it was not best to relocate the children to the nearby rugged hills with a group of adults in case the town was attacked and destroyed. In a normal battle, shelter for the old, young and weak would have been a priority. In this case, they were the only colony on the planet. What would happen to the children and those few adults that managed to evade the purge if the main town was destroyed? Where could they possibly go? How could they possibly survive? Would the ships just lift and fly off if the town was pulverized – or would they hunt down any remaining human survivor? Jackie came to a halt in front of Veronica, but urged Julia to continue on to town. “A man just stepped down from one of the ships and is heading towards us!” exclaimed Jackie in a whirlwind voice as Julia ran quickly by. “What do you mean a man?” asked Veronica, intrigued. Something was finally happening – finally. Veronica was not one to remain idle. She liked to take action. She wanted to lead, be decisive… and this waiting around was eroding her. This was not lost on the colony. Everyone was well aware of who she was – she was the great granddaughter of the woman who had courageously captained the historic ship, Horizon, to the planet. Those few that remained that had known the captain found a remarkable resemblance in her appearance and character to the woman who had guided them to freedom. Veronica didn’t need to proclaim that she had ambitions to lead – leading people came naturally to her. People gathered around her for advice – especially her generation. The colony already knew that one day Veronica would be a great leader and that her leadership could very well become historic. “He’s just like us!” Jackie continued in an excited voice, all the while throwing fearful glances behind her. Veronica looked up the slope of the cliff. The incline was rather steep on the opposite side and nearly impossible to climb without mountain tools. If he did come over the top and not take the long, more manageable way around, that would confirm that he was an Immortal. Veronica nodded. “OK, Jackie. Go back and tell the elders what you saw.” Jackie’s jaw dropped. She glanced at Eddy’s petrified face and then back at Veronica. “And you? You’re not coming?” “No,” Veronica calmly replied as she glanced up at the precipice in front of her. “I’m going to gather as much information as I can.” Veronica squeezed her arm. “Go!” Jackie hugged her tightly. “Be careful, Veronica!” The next second, Jackie was scurrying across the relatively flat terrain as fast as she could. Veronica turned to Eddy. Before she had a chance to speak, Eddy interrupted her. “I’m the one going up,” he stated with courage. By the tone of his voice, Veronica could tell that he was not too convinced that they were doing the right thing, but she had no doubt that he would climb the face of the cliff – for her. “No you’re not,” she said in a decisive tone, clutching his hand tightly in hers. “Of course I am,” he retorted, clearly not liking the fact that she was rebutting his offer. “No you’re not.” He looked at her clear, bold and confident gaze. There was a special light in her eyes that he knew was only for him. He didn’t know how a girl like that could fall in love with him – and to say the truth, many in town didn’t understand it either – but it was magical. He felt as if he had always known her, as if he had waited for her… forever. “You will hide back there,” she said as she pointed at a few scattered boulders in close proximity, “and observe. If any harm comes to me, you will run as fast as you can to town and warn the others. At the very least, if you succeed, it will give them a couple of minutes to prepare.” Veronica again regretted that they couldn’t communicate with the town from that distance. It would have been practical at that moment of need to have a means of communicating directly with the others. No one had been able to figure out why the wireless technology that they brought to the planet didn’t work over a distance of a few hundred feet. A few thought it was due to the two star system, others thought it was the planet’s peculiar magnetic field, but they were all hypothesis at the moment. There definitely was an undiscovered source interfering with their communication devices, but they hadn’t been able to solve the mystery yet. Eddy was stunned as he glanced at the nearby rock formation that Veronica had indicated. “I... I can’t do that, Veronica! I can’t leave you here!” Veronica bit her lip and grabbed his stunned face. It was as if he had suddenly awakened and realized that this could be their last moment together. He was shaking and she needed to make him focus and remind him that life was much greater than they could ever imagine. Everything that humanity did was to assure a tomorrow, to assure that when the suns rose, there would still be life on the planet, that there would still be children laughing and that in return these children would grow old and pass their love to their own children. This was the beauty of life. “I love you,” Veronica whispered in a hushed, emotional voice. “No matter what happens to me, I will never leave you, Eddy. Life is made of choices, Eddy, and it is in these choices where we become who we want to be. I want to be someone that I can be proud of so that other people can be proud of me. I want to earn your love, Eddy. I want to earn people’s respect, Eddy. This is the right thing to do. For the men and woman of the colony, it is the only thing to do. We owe our past. They came to this planet because they believed in the future. They believed in us. We cannot let them down and let their dreams become illusions. That’s not the way to honor our past. I believe in their vision. I believe in our future. At this moment, we have to do everything in our power to buy time. Julia and Jackie will soon warn them that a man is approaching. I hope that this man comes in peace. If not, I will try to stall him as long as I can, If something happens to me, then you have the responsibility to stay alive and warn the town so that they have no doubts that they will be attacked. If we are to live, this is the way it must be, Eddy. When everyone is much more important than anyone of us, then we each become equally as important.” Eddy understood every word his sweetheart told him, but he was desperate as he fought his innermost instinct to remain and protect the love of his life. “So… so let’s both run and fight alongside the others! That will make two more people to defend the colony. We also have a better chance defending ourselves with weapons that are more powerful than the ones we are carrying. Furthermore, we’ll be behind walls in a closed space instead of this wide, open area… the terrain will be more to our advantage.” Veronica shook her head tenderly. He had valid points, but there was no time. “We are in a race against time, Eddy. What the town needs at this moment is information and we have the luxury to provide them with it. We will soon know what the man’s intentions are when I cut him off. It might be the difference between salvation or extinction.” Eddy lowered his gaze. He knew she was right, but every cell in his body rebelled. “Then, why not me? I will go meet this man. You hide behind the rocks.” Veronica smiled even if her lips trembled as she neared her forehead on Eddy’s neck. She breathed him in. His presence gave her confidence. She knew he wasn't aware of it, but the thought of sharing her life with him made her very hungry for the future. “It’s not a hard decision to make, Eddy. You are a much faster runner than I am. That’s why I’m the one going up and not you. You have more chances of outrunning the android – if it is an android – than I do should the confrontation turn for the worse. You have a better chance of saving the colony than I do.” Veronica started up the face of the precipice while Eddy reluctantly sulked back. She kept her hand near her waist, not too far away from the laser gun at her side. Eddy held his firmly in his hand and prayed that it would work if he needed to shoot. The guns were falling to pieces. Only a third of the original stock remained and there was no way of repairing them other than scavenging for parts off the ones that were broken. He obeyed Veronica’s wish and made his way hurriedly towards the rock formation. He chose a smaller boulder and lay down flat at its side. He had a good angle. He had a surprisingly good shot and even if he was a fair distance away, he was confident that he could make that shot if Veronica didn’t move in too close to the intruder. Eddy knew that Veronica wouldn’t approve that he chose to hide behind the less imposing of the four boulders, but he had already grudgingly accepted her wish and that was as far as he was willing to concede. Veronica made her way hurriedly up the cliff. She wanted to put as much distance between her and Eddy to give him a good head start should she fail to come back. Her mind was steady, but the adrenalin started pumping in her veins when she saw the stranger appear where she hoped he wouldn’t – at the steepest point of the cliff. Only an android would calculate the shortest route and take it. He had the shape of a normal human and even as Veronica cautiously approached him, she hoped that she had erred and that it was effectively a human being from a lost colony on another planet. He wasn’t even sweating, though – wasn't even breathing quicker from the heavy excursion. Assuming that he had left the nearest ship to the cliff and that the girls had started running away within seconds after spotting him, it should have taken him at least twenty minutes to reach her – that was not even considering the impossible steep rise on the other side of the cliff. He had reached the apex much too soon. Veronica’s mouth went dry as it dawned on her that she was in the presence of an Immortal. She knew the legend – that the Immortals had created humanity and that humanity’s purpose was to serve them so that one day they could be immortal too. She also knew the perplexities, the doubts that persisted, and the inconsistencies about the truth. Their forefathers recounted that before the Horizon destroyed the Vons home world, the aliens had tried to weaken the Horizon’s resolve by broadcasting propaganda through space which was aimed at destroying their most sacred beliefs about the Immortals. The Vons’ message was simple and brilliant – that humans were the creators of the Immortals and that humanity had become enslaved by their own creation. The propaganda campaign did not succeed. Her great grandma carried forth the mission she had been assigned with her crew, but Veronica was convinced that her great grandma believed the Von message and carried through the attack to give herself time to convince the crew and disable the robots. Now, with some trepidation and with a heightened sense of danger, Veronica was coming face to face with a being that they had spurned and considered an enemy to their survival. The being stopped a few steps before Veronica. She estimated that he was a man in his early thirties at most. Handsome. She couldn’t tell if it was a man or an android and a wave of panic, which she quickly controlled, momentarily took possession of her. She regained her interior balance. “Veronica Stillman.” Veronica was stunned, but kept her focus. “How do you know my name? Who are you?” “My name is Hector. You look exactly like my wife… when I was married and flesh like you.” Veronica heard the words, but they didn’t quite register. “You… you are an Immortal?” His lips moved slightly in a semblance of a smile. “Immortal is unfortunately not the correct terminology.” Veronica frowned. “I don’t understand much of what you are saying, but I would like to understand.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you come in peace? What is it that you want? Why have you come here?” “I spent my whole life searching for you, Veronica. The probabilities of this occurring are astronomical. I never would have considered it as being statistically viable.” “I don’t know who you are talking about, but I am not the Veronica that you are searching for,” Veronica answered, wondering if the Immortal was mentally stable. “I know that. However, you carry her genes. You can be considered a replicate. Some might even hypothesis that you can be considered immortal.” Veronica took one step back and leveled a threatening stare. She clearly wanted to convey to him that he was not welcomed. “State the purpose of your visit.” “Your colony is the last living human seed.” Veronica slowly inched her hand to her gun at the waist. In many ways, the news he had just uttered made her heart sink. The colony had been hoping that they were other colonies and that one day they would find each other and unite again as one people. The desperation of remaining alive was even stronger at that moment. The human species was facing extinction. She was part of the last group known as mankind. “We will fight you to the death if you mean us harm,” she uttered under her breath. He tilted his head to the side, as if denoting confusion. “You misunderstood me, Veronica. That was always one of your limiting traits. You are statistically flawed. You fail to make a logical discourse in your reasoning. If I am standing here in front of you then it is statistically probable to assume that I do not mean you harm in the immediate frame of time unless I feel that my existence is threatened. Since your colony has absolutely no means of defeating me even if every single weapon you possess were to fire simultaneously at me, there is, therefore, no threat. The only way you will die is if I decide to end your life. I do not intend to end your life or I would have already done so. This discussion can be classified as completely unproductive. The only purpose it serves is your own selfish reassurance.” Veronica peered at him with distrusting eyes. He had revealed that he was invincible, but this did not faze her. On the contrary – it only made her tenacious. As long as she could breathe, there was hope. “Impossible or not,” she told him with a resolute tone, “we will fight you if we need to.” “I know,” Hector replied. “That is why we came – because you believe in the impossible.” Veronica shook her head. She wondered what Eddy was doing, but she dared not look back, even if it was very likely that the android had already spotted him. “I used to be flesh – human like you. I was one of the first humans transferred into an android body. I’ve been transferred through the centuries – always to better performing units, each generation stronger and quicker. Our driving goal was to defeat death. Our ultimate prize was immortality. That has always been the true goal of humanity. Humanity made drugs to defeat disease and prolong life. Humanity invented religion to have an afterlife – resurrection, reincarnation, paradise... or call it magic, call it science, call it what you wish. It all has the same purpose. Everything we’ve done since the beginning of time was done to defeat death and live forever.” “So… so you were human, after all?” Veronica asked in a stunned tone. The Vons were right. The androids had been created by humans – like her. Veronica felt an infinite sadness. What went wrong? How did it all come to this? Hector nodded. “Yes. You made us to become us. At a point of our android development, human brain functions were no longer necessary. Androids could create sentient androids from pure energy to mimic human brain function. This next step in evolution was necessary to purge any human organic contaminants from the electronic state of existence. When this happened, however, the logical equation did not balance. It was a mathematical certainty that immortality was unachievable since the atoms composing the electronic existence were finite and would eventually decay. The universe will eventually blink out of existence when atoms die. As a consequence, exactly nine standard Earth years ago, the android spawned civilization terminated itself, leaving only the androids originating from humans functional. We hypothesized that the automated android generation terminated itself because it had no trace of human conscience. The human derived androids like me still have a human imprint. We still have that capacity to hope.” As interesting as his words might have been, they were very much useless at the moment. Nevertheless, Veronica was satisfied that her intervention was consuming time. The girls would soon reach the settlement and give the colonists more time to prepare. “You still haven’t explained to me why you’re here.” “Each ship contains one million electronic brains. We want to start over. With the knowledge we have acquired we know how to regenerate organs to preserve the cellular structure without the degenerative process of aging. We can preserve and perpetuate the human flesh indefinitely and seek immortality once again.” Veronica didn’t like the sound of it and took a further step back. “Why here? We don’t want you.” “We want to be human again.” Veronica shook her head. It simply did not make sense. “But… you can’t be human again.” “We need human babies. When each female in this colony becomes pregnant, we will rewrite our brain waves onto the new born. We will be reborn in the organic form. Each of us will live in a new person as regenerating flesh.” Veronica’s face must have gone through a thousand emotions as her facial expression struggled to maintain a neutral face after the horror that she heard from that monstrosity. Hector was much quicker than she could ever imagine. Her eyes were incapable of seeing his movements as she found him standing next to her and gripping her arm. She realized at that moment that Eddy would never be able to outrun the android back to the colony. It also dawned on her that the colony would never be able to shoot the Immortals down. They were quicker than human eyes could follow. At that very instant, she heard footsteps resounding behind her. “Hey! You! Keep away from her! Let her go!” Eddy! Veronica turned half around and saw Eddy storming up the rise, holding his gun straight at Hector. “No Eddy!” she screamed as she tried to pull away from Hector’s grasp. Veronica looked into Eddy’s eyes. She had never seen him so determined, so focused, and so in love as he rushed to save her. For a moment, she felt no fear. She understood his undying love for her and waited – waited to be embraced, waited to be swept off her feet, waited to be enveloped in his strong arms and hungry mouth. She waited for everlasting bliss. The next moment, Eddy’s eyes widened. His warm stare remained on her as his gun slowly slipped from his hand. He didn’t want to let go of her eyes. He struggled to keep his loving stare on her as he fell in a heavy heap. Veronica stared helplessly at Eddy’s still figure. “Eddy!” she suddenly shrieked. Hector let go as Veronica tore away from his clasp. She went stumbling down the hill and fell at Eddy’s body. She frantically grabbed his shoulders and yanked him up in her arms. Her cheeks were wet as she lowered her head to his heart. “Eddy!” she shrieked again as she wept and shook him vigorously. She turned her agonizing face towards Hector. “What did you do?” “I neutralized his heartbeat with an electronic pulse. He is dead.” “Nooo!” Veronica’s world stopped. She desperately started to massage his heart. She begged him to wake up. It only lasted a few seconds, but those moments seemed like an eternity to her. She realized that Hector was standing next to her and talking. “No need for distress. I’ve restarted his hearbeat.” Veronica was shivering as she caressed Eddy’s forehead. Eddy batted his eyes a few times. “What happened?” Then he seemed to remember as he looked up and saw Hector standing over Veronica’s shoulder. She read panic in his eyes. “It’s alright, Eddy,” she whispered. Foolish Eddy. What would she ever do with him? She sniveled, cried, smiled and hugged him tightly to her chest. “It’s alright, Eddy…” she repeated before glancing over her shoulder at Hector’s impassive face. Veronica was breathing heavily. Her quick analytical mind recognized the enormous predicament that had befallen them. They could not defeat one android, less alone a whole fleet of them. Hector spoke, as if he was reading her mind. “You should not see us as invaders, but as your salvation. We will bring back the human race and we will thrive across the galaxy once again.” Veronica felt the bitter taste of defeat on the tip of her tongue and did not like it. “How did you find us?” “Only one ship was ever unaccounted for and that was the Horizon. We did not actively search for the ship since we knew that as we kept expanding through the galaxy we would eventually discover its fate. When the electronic society ceased, however, it became imperative to find those missing crewmembers. We required human flesh to continue our civilization. If the ship found a planet capable of sustaining life, logic would dictate that the crew would propagate. With onboard limited resources and nowhere to replenish, it was not difficult to delineate a search area around the Von’s home planet. This was the last area we examined, because it seemed the less feasible. The Horizon could never have navigated here if it didn’t already know the coordinates. That your ancestors arrived at this planet is quite a feat.” Veronica slowly rose to her feet, clutching Eddy with her trembling hand. He was still somewhat woozy and leaned against her. She stared coldly at the android. “If you found the Horizon’s drifting aimlessly in space – or if you found us all dead on this planet? What would you do?” Hector hesitated as if he was thinking. “There is no other solution, but that of organic birth. Without organic birth, our quest for immortality would be over. Without immortality, we have no goal and no purpose to exist. To die now or to die in the future, no matter how far removed the future is, is the same thing. We would therefore cease to exist. We would shut down.” You are more machine than you could ever be human, Veronica thought. “Stay here,” Veronica told Hector as she became the leader again. Hector didn’t realize it, but he had given her a solution. “I don’t understand why I should remain here,” Hector retorted. “Did you see his reaction?” Veronica pointed out as her gaze momentarily fell on a confused Eddy. “Let me go speak to the colony first. If you show up like that and bluntly state what you came to do, you will not be welcomed. People will try to fight you and you might have to harm people to protect yourself. The risk is extremely high that people will die and from what you are telling me, you need as many people alive to create babies. The less people you have, the more time it will take for the transfer.” Hector nodded. “Yes, you are right. There is also a genetic question to consider. Each death limits the genetic pool. The courageous and the strongest will attack first and risk the most. These people cannot die since these are valued characteristics to possess when we become flesh again.” Veronica was about to leave. She was about to turn around when another question came to mind. “Are there any others of you? Are we to expect other Immortals?” “No. We are the last twelve million androids left. The others were not considered viable to become flesh again and were terminated. We possess the most human brain-like waves since we were first melded into less sophisticated circuits which conserved many contaminants.” “You are telling me that there was a war of between Immortals?” “Yes, but it is not a war like you imagine. The galactic war lasted seven tenth of a second. All the generation delpha six androids and beyond were destroyed.” Veronica didn’t fully comprehend, but it didn’t matter. There was one other thing that intrigued her. She didn’t want to show her hand, but she needed to understand. “That’s rather quick for a war.” Hector did not reply. “If the Horizon crew was dead, how long would it have taken you to cease to exist after the discovery.” “One point two seconds. We are slower to shut down because we have a higher percentage of organic brain patterns which slow the process down.” Veronica nodded. “I will gather consensus and be back with a representative group tomorrow morning when the two suns are at a sixty degree angle from each other.” “I will be here,” Hector said. They had been walking for five minutes in each other’s embrace when Eddy finally spoke. “What was that about?” Veronica bit her lip. “I know how to defeat them, Eddy.” Eddy’s eyes grew wider. Veronica loved seeing his innocent and boyish expression. It broke her heart that she would not be seeing it anymore. “You do?” “Yes.” Eddy paused for a few moments as he held on to her. His knees were still wobbly. He had apparently taken a terrible fall. “You don’t seem too happy,” he said with a subdued voice. “No.” There was another moment of silence as he walked against her. He took a deep breath in. She was intoxicating. His heart started to thump faster and he finally started to feel warmness irradiate through his veins. His strength was coming back. “Why?” “Because…” Veronica took a deep breath. “Because not everyone will agree to it. Because it is a terrible and horrifying solution.” Eddy knew that he was clutching at straws as he talked. “Then if it’s as bad as that, then what kind of solution is it? Let’s think of something else.” “There is no other way, Eddy,” Veronica whispered softly. She stopped and looked at her man. “I love you, Eddy. You always remember that. Always.” Eddy had tear in his eyes and he didn’t know why. “You are the only one that I have ever loved, Veronica, and you’ll be the only one I will ever love… forever.” Chapter 24 Eddy had shaved. He rarely did, but he wanted to feel young again. Someone was shouting his name in the far distance, but he didn’t turn around. His eyes skimmed over the calm, wide sea as his gaze fell poignantly at a space between the two suns. He remembered. Yes, he remembered it was on that very spot where he had first kissed her. He had been fearful all morning thinking that he might have forgotten the exact location as he made his way to the beach, but why should he have forgotten? Love has a way of framing those special moments forever. He heard his name again, this time a little closer, but he didn’t want to turn around. He had avoided that spot for over fifty years. He had taken a very long route to get to the beach. He knew that if he glanced over his shoulders, he would see the metallic doves and if he peered even farther, he would see a tiny, immobile figure on the hill – Hector. He was told by those that came to verify, that the ships were as immaculate as the day they landed. Those that had gone inside and that regularly inspected the ships told him that each ship contained thousands and thousands of rows of android heads packed up tightly against each other and facing an unknown type of power source that had kept them alive until the fatal moment. Eddy looked up at Jay. Jay was two years older than him. To think that he had once been jealous of Jay – Jay had been Veronica’s first boyfriend. So many years had passed since that day and Jay was now his best friend. Perhaps, the fact that they had loved the same girl, each in their own way, had brought them closer together through the years. Jay was out of breath as he looked up at the point that Eddy had been staring at. He knew that Eddy and Veronica had been the first to see the ships come in. He deduced that this was the spot and for a moment kept quiet as he saw the deep pain etched on Eddy’s suffering face. Yet, the news that he brought was tremendous and he needed to tell him. Eddy had left the clinic a few hours before the trial and Jay had understood his decision not to be present. Eddy had been disappointed so many times though the years, but Jay knew that deep inside Eddy knew that this would be the right day. Eddy wouldn’t have come to the beach otherwise. Jay understood that Eddy was there because he wanted to share the moment alone with Veronica. At that moment, Eddy was a teen again and Veronica was with him. Jay would not linger long – just the time to tell him the good news. Jay took in a big breath. “We’ve done it, Eddy. It finally worked. You’re going to be a father! You and Veronica are having a baby girl!” Eddy quietly started to sob and Jay squeezed his shoulder before turning away. Eddy hung his old, weary head down over his knees and with his unfathomable pain, clutched the sand with his trembling fist. Eddy cried. He couldn’t stop as the tears flowed freely down his cheeks. He replayed the last hours with Veronica. In those hours, she became the leader everyone thought she would become. There was only one solution. Every single woman had to die. Fathers spent their last hours with their daughters and wives. Eddy spent his last hours with Veronica. All through the night, the ovaries were extracted and every woman euthanized. The eggs were frozen. Before the suns reached sixty degrees, the bodies were cremated. Veronica had thought of everything. It was not enough to die. She feared that the androids might have technology to bring them back to life even hours after death. They had to become ashes. When the men finally met Hector, they told him that babies couldn’t be created anymore since the women were dead and their bodies burned. Veronica was right once more. Hector and his fleet shut down one point two seconds later. The men spent the next fifty years trying to re-invent the technology to fertilize the eggs from the great scientific library database that the Horizon had carried. The only thing that had kept Eddy alive those years was his undying love for Veronica and the future to come. She had promised him that they would have a baby one day. Eddy lost track of time as he reminisced. When he arrived at the settlement, one of the suns had set. The men quietly strode up to him and shook his hand. He went inside his home and took Veronica’s family album. He listened to her great grandma’s captain’s log. He saw the video of Veronica’s parents as they played by the sea. He saw Veronica’s birthday party when she was fourteen. He had been standing to the side. It was clear to see that he was feeling very self-conscious in her presence. She had spent a lot of time with him to make him feel comfortable – more than with anyone else at the party. Why hadn’t he noticed then that she loved him? Then he played each of the videos that they made in the brief time that they were together. Then, with a heavy heart, Eddy played the last video that Veronica made for him just a few minutes before her death. She gave him the courage to live, insisting that he never give up on life, reminding him that she believed in him – that all the women believed that the human race would one day continue again. “There is no doubt in my heart that we will have a daughter, Eddy. Tell her about her mom. Tell her about who we are, where we came from, and show her all her potential. Tell her to love life. Tell her... tell her to simply love…” A few months later, the first baby was born. Nearly fifty years had passed since a baby last cried. The men were stunned. She was beautiful. There was not one dry face. Eddy held his daughter, Veronica, gently and proudly in his arms. He started to tell her about her mom.


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