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Solstice of Doubt

By Annette Kupke All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi

Solstice of Doubt

It was her annual review and it had come too early. That is, it had arrived precisely on time, on the morning of the 21st of June like every year, but it was too early for Aurisse because the device wasn't ready. She had twenty-four hours before she would have to return the file to the heavily armed and completely incorruptible delivery robot and without the device she had no chance of keeping her secret to herself. Twenty-four hours would not suffice to finish the fine-tuning.

After the robot had left her with the questionnaire file, she plugged into her Neurorec facility to clear her mind. A brief unconsciousness enveloped her while her neuronal pathways were cleansed of recent debris. She emerged with her brain refreshed but still no idea how to approach the problem. Somehow she had hoped she would be ready in time and even when it became evident that she wouldn't, she had clung to the thought that something, somehow, would turn up. This was, obviously, very irrational, but she had been no stranger to irrationality this past half year - an unexpected side-effect. But she could no longer afford irrationality. In twenty-four hours, the robot would collect the file and perform a neuronal check to ensure she had answered truthfully. She hadn't even considered building a device that would override the robot's functions, since there was no possibility to test it in advance. Instead, her device was designed to override and replace her own neuronal signals in a way that was undetectable to the robot.  She knew she had the principle right, but her latest tests had shown that there were still minuscule leakages. She couldn't risk using it on the robot.

She picked up the file and scanned the questions. No surprises, they were the same as the previous year as far as she could see.

Are the leisure facilities in your cluster adequate? Which of them have you used this year?

How often, on average, do you visit the cluster centre?

Is the medical provision in your cluster adequate?

How often, on average, have you changed your pod's location?

Have you suffered from any ill health this year? If so, list complaints below.

Which contributions have you made this year to the development of your cluster?

Would you say that you are fulfilling your potential?

Are your interpersonal relationships varied and satisfactory?

Do you have suggestions for the improvement of the production facilities?

And in that vein it went on and on. Six hundred and fifty-seven questions. Most of them were harmless enough and Aurisse had no difficulty believing that they truly served the purpose of helping the government to provide the best possible service to the people. But there were other questions, questions like spring traps, and she recognised them now.

Have you had contact with any persons outside your cluster? If so, list below.

Is your Fertiblok implant intact and working effectively? Is the control reading consistently between 2.35ζ and 2.65ζ?

This year she knew what she hadn't known a year ago: that there was more to this question than just the need to keep a tab on unlicensed reproduction. To answer no to this question meant a brief visit from a medical robot to adjust the faulty Fertiblok. There would be no accusation, no assumption of tampering, only this, the guarantee that Fertiblok  would be reinstalled effectively. To answer yes when it wasn't true – had anyone ever tried it?

Aurisse considered her options. She could invest the twenty-four hours into frantic work on the device, but if  –  and this was almost certain – she would not be ready at the end, she would face the robot without a plan. She could answer yes, let them fix her Fertiblok and deactivate it again later, but what if they also did a medical check on that occasion? She could try and reactivate it herself, just for a day, so that she could truthfully say the reading was within the prescribed range, rather than 0.00. This would probably work. However, it would mean a sudden release of large amounts of hormones, and she was sure this would be harmful if not fatal. Manipulating only the reading, without having Fertiblok actually work, wasn't possible – she had tried this first, months ago, before she had decided to go for the device.

She felt a need to talk to someone face to face, so she checked mindnet to see where her friends' pods were parked. Hanx stood in his favourite spot on the far side of the lake, seven miles away. Gorian and Jaiyoo's pod was currently on the move, heading northwards and away from her. Vaccu had not published her location, which meant that she wanted to be left alone.  Liri and Barum were closest, only a mile and a half away on a meadow by the chestnut woods, but Aurisse avoided them since they'd had the baby – she was worried that Liri in particular might look at her and know.

So, nobody was really available at short notice. Besides, she acknowledged with a sigh, there was no point in talking to any of them right now, other than making herself feel comfortable. None of her friends should be burdened with the knowledge of what she had done, and to feel comfortable at this time was perilous. She needed to keep herself on edge.

She glanced around the pod for inspiration and saw nothing but the need to clean up.  Dust lay on the ancestral unit. The hygiene station was grimy and clutter from the workshop encroached on the leisure area. She had been working too frantically on the device for the last month to give any thought to housekeeping. There was no time for it now either. The pod couldn't help. She needed fresh air to think.

Outside, she was greeted by a fine, filmy rain. Her pod stood close to the lake shore among a group of willows and haroon trees. Both species sported equally elegant, drooping branches of elongated leaves, and the green of the willows was a pleasant contrast to the rusty red of the haroons. The foliage was mirrored in the pod's flexiglas shell. Since the day was overcast, Aurisse switched off the reflector function to allow the pod to soak up the daylight. The glass became transparent and she could see her abandoned device sitting on the workshop counter. She shrugged and turned her back on the pod.

As she approached the reed belt of the lake, ducks, coots and kennets fled into the open water. The grass felt cool and soft underfoot, but a herd of wild sheep – descendants of the domesticated animals of the Barbarian Ages - must have come through earlier and left their droppings behind. Aurisse returned to the pod to put on shoes. When she came back out, she heard laughter and splashing. The Garnuck's pod had arrived some fifty yards down the lake shore and the whole family was frolicking in the shallow waters. Kiri Garnuck saw her and raised her hand. Aurisse waved back. She decided to walk up to the viewpoint, since she would have no quiet in the vicinity of this happy bunch. A footpath led up the slope through a thicket of rhododendrons. At this time of year, most of the shrubs had begun to shed their wilting flowers and the path was carpeted with pink and purple petals, some still crisp, others bruised and mushy. The seed heads on the shrubs looked like alien bugs, multi-legged, ready to pounce, in fact they reminded Aurisse of the poly-limbed creatures from Delta Pavonis with whom there had been radio contact in recent centuries. They had sent pictures of themselves, at least that was how humankind had interpreted the signals. Maybe they were something else, though, diagrams for machines, religious symbols, elaborate insults, who knew. Without language, communication was fairly futile, however sophisticated the radio equipment, and with forty years turn-around time for messages, it was hard to maintain enthusiasm in the conversation. The last message had arrived when Aurisse was still a child; it had contained information about the star, its size, age and luminosity, nothing that terrestrial science hadn't already found out. Humankind could look forward to another similar disappointment within the next few years.

She shrugged. There were no aliens here and now, only withered rhododendrons. One species, though, still stood in full bloom, a cream-coloured variety with burgundy veins. This breed was one of her great-great-grandfather Turmon's and it gave Aurisse a moment's warm glow to think that her ancestor should have created such a particularly attractive flower. She would tell him later, back at the pod, how well his shrubs had come on. 

The path eventually led to an open ledge that overlooked the lake. The rhododendron grove continued to rise behind the semicircle of carved benches until it gave way to the grassy summit of the hill. Aurisse checked the benches for a dry spot and sat down. The rain had faded and a tentative sun peeked out between the clouds, bringing out the frosted-green colour of the lake. On the far shore rose the ridge of wildflower-clad hills that formed the border of her cluster. Solar collectors lined the southern slopes.

Aurisse knew she had to focus all her powers on finding a solution for her problem, but instead her mind drifted off to the events that had led to the current dilemma. It was up here at the viewpoint, not quite a year ago, that she had first met Pavan Carulinom. He had come down from the hill and taken a seat beside her as if he knew her, as if he wasn't a complete stranger, the first stranger she had ever seen. She had shrunk back from his odd attire, his untidy hair and beard, and most importantly from his unfamiliar smell, but he had smiled and started to talk in that gently fluting voice of his so that she was no longer afraid.

But no, that was not really the beginning. Long before she ever met Pavan face to face, she had heard about him on mindnet, where rumours surrounded his name like a swarm of midges. He had abandoned his pod so as not to be traceable. He was roaming the planet at will, turning up at random clusters, making friends swiftly and leaving as suddenly as he came. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Barbarian Ages way beyond what was available on mindnet, and he shared it readily. Some even said he had no Fertiblok.

Aurisse wasn't sure how much of this to believe.  He wasn't the first ever to leave his pod and his cluster. It did happen, every couple of generations or so in a cluster, that someone lost their mind and rebelled. Those poor souls were usually caught pretty soon trying to steal Nutrilic from a farm or factory and they weren't seen again. Pavan Carulinom, however, didn't get caught. He also managed to stay connected to mindnet, where his wanderings were as unpredictable as those of his body. Aurisse had tried to contact him a couple of times, but he had not replied. This disappointed her, but not because of the man. As so often those days, her mind circled round thoughts of the Barbarian Ages.

Twenty-three thousand years after the Collapse, humankind still hung on to the records of those vanished times, but to most people it was a mere history lesson that they learned, stored and never thought of again.  Aurisse, though, found her imagination inflamed by the echoes of this distant past. It both excited and repulsed her. The insanity of it all, eleven billion people at the time of the Collapse, over a thousand times as many as Earth's current human population. Nothing was as it was now, simple, sensible, civilised. People lived crazy lives back then, driven by greed and jealously, crowded together in those noisy, restless cities. Everything was so complicated. There was no single government that assessed and provided for the needs of the people, but hundreds of different governments in different regions of the planet, some cooperating, some competing, and none taking proper charge of things. People had to acquire the necessities of life through an unregulated method of exchanging labour for tokens and tokens for goods, with the exchange rate arbitrary and fluctuating. This fickle system granted excess possessions to some and exposed others, millions, to a premature death. There were shocking accounts of the third and second pre-collapse millennia, blighted by wars, brutality and exploitation of both people and nature. Thousands, tens of thousands might perish within days through starvation or diseases or be wiped out by savage weapons. Then followed the last millennium, when voluntary intoxication reached such soaring levels in some regions that their economies floundered for lack of a sober workforce, while other regions were overtaken by anarchy and destitution.

The Collapse was inevitable. What puzzled Aurisse, though, what fascinated her, was that they had held out for so long. They had, in a twisted way, been rather successful. They had populated every corner of the Earth, climbed the highest mountains, crossed the polar ice caps, driven through deserts, gone to places nobody ever went these days.  They had sent people to the moon because they didn't have proper robots! They had, in their chaotic and random striving, laid down the foundations for the science and technology of the New Era.

Most intriguingly, though, they had been incredibly creative. Mindnet stored what had been saved from the Collapse, images, words and sounds, and while nothing that had survived could match contemporary culture in subtlety and sophistication, Aurisse felt drawn to the pictures and even more to the music with a persistent, nagging force. And she kept wondering how they did it all. How they could achieve anything in such short lifespans. The life expectancy, even at its highpoint, never exceeded a hundred years. By this reckoning, Aurisse would have already used up nearly half of her lifetime with nothing much to show for it yet than a few gadgets she had developed. How then did the primitive humans in their limited time build skyscrapers, write novels, launch space rockets?

Aurisse wasn't quite sure for how long she had been plagued by this curiosity about the Barbarian Ages, but it had begun in late childhood and intensified over the years. Perhaps it was her inquisitive nature that had led to her being denied a reproduction licence. They hadn't told her why, but since she was mentally and physically healthy, the reason had to be a personality trait identified in her genetic profile. In any case, the decision had come before she'd ever heard about Pavan Carulinom, so she was pretty sure it had nothing to do with him.

Someone was coming down the hill now. She heard the footsteps on the gritty path. It would be too much to hope for to see Pavan so unexpectedly, but then he was always unexpected and she couldn't help hoping. The hope didn't last long, though. When she turned her head, she saw that the approaching figure was Lunima Barot, the cluster supervisor.

Lunima was a tall woman in her mid-eighties, known for her fairness and her eidetic memory. Though Aurisse couldn't fault her on anything, she didn't like her much. She felt uncomfortable in the woman's presence.

“Good morning, Aurisse. Taking a bit of air before the chore, or are you finished already?”

Lunima sat down beside Aurisse, a little too close, but Aurisse didn't want to shift aside, it would have looked odd.

“I've not started,” she replied. “Got all day.”

“I always do mine overnight. I can focus better in the dark. Six-hundred and fifty-seven questions this year! I can remember when it was just about three hundred and took only a couple of hours.”

“That must have been before I was born.”

“It was, it was.” Lunima leaned back, obviously settling for a bit of chit-chat. “So, how is the environmental monitoring going?”

Lunima really didn't have a clue about Aurisse's job of telemonitoring radiation levels in a number of ancient nuclear waste disposal sites, but she seemed to think that asking brisk and cheerful questions made up for a lack of understanding. Aurisse shrugged.

“It's been fairly quiet. Just the Karachay site is giving trouble, as usual. We may have to extend the exclusion zone. There is a cluster about five hundred miles from it, which had better be moved.”

“I hate them,” said Lunima.

“Pardon?”

“I hate them, those Barbarians who left us this mess. I'm not a woman of strong feelings, Aurisse, but this, this makes me so angry. We will have to deal with this for as long as the planet exists, and all because of a couple of generations fuelling their wasteful and decadent lifestyle in this irresponsible manner.”

“I'm not sure if they were aware -”

“Oh, they knew, they knew very well. They were just short-sighted and selfish.”

So it was going to be ranting rather than chit-chat. Aurisse didn't feel up to either. Her mind began to drift while Lunima launched into a litany of all that was wrong with the Barbarian Ages. Aurisse cast her thoughts back to her first encounter with Pavan here on this very bench. 

Perhaps she had already known that he was Pavan Carulinom when he sat down beside her, because really, who else could he be? And perhaps she had known then as well that her life had reached a critical point and that if she listened to this stranger and harboured him in her pod and didn't report him to the cluster supervisor as she should have – if she did all these things which she could already feel she was going to do soon, she would not be able later just to carry on as she always had. And true enough, within hours he planted seeds of doubt in her mind that took root and flourished and gifted her with a discontent she had not known before. The first, she remembered, had been about going places. Pavan said it was a dreadful shame that people weren't going to different places, that they weren't seeing the world.

“Why, though?” Aurisse asked. “All clusters are located in pleasant and varied environments. Nobody would have a need to go anywhere else.”

“You haven't seen the sea.”

“And those whose clusters are by the sea haven't seen the mountains, and the Southern clusters don't see snow, but they get flowers we can't grow. It all evens out. You want to see everything? That is selfish.”

“What about meeting new people? Must be dull to be stuck with the same folk in your cluster.”

“I can meet anyone in the world on mindnet.”

“Yes. On mindnet.”

The way he said it suggested that he thought something was essentially lacking, not only in the circumstances of her life, but in her attitude towards it. And she could see how he was right, because having him sit beside her gave her a peculiar sensation of novelty and thrill which no mindnet acquaintance had ever evoked in her.  The smell of him, which had made her recoil at first not because it was unpleasant but because it was so entirely new, now began to attract her. She wanted to have him stay. She hid him in her pod and poured all her questions over him. They talked and talked, every conversation bringing strange new ideas.

“Without Neurorec, how do you manage?”

“The old-fashioned way. I sleep.”

“Like the ancients?” Aurisse couldn't help laughing. “What a waste of time!”

“Yes and no. It opens up a whole new world of experiences. Not that dreams are always enjoyable, or even often enjoyable. But they are intriguing.”

And so that night she had watched while he slept, curled up in her comfy corner with a rolled-up towel under his head and a coat pulled round his shoulders. She had marvelled at this phenomenon, how he lay there right beside her and yet completely removed from her presence. He had moved in his sleep and sighed and groaned, all in response to an alien cosmos that lay hidden from her in his head. When he awoke in the morning, suddenly restored to her world with the blink of an eye, she questioned him further.

“How can you survive? If you don't belong to a cluster, you don't get Nutrilic. Or do you...steal? From the factories?”

“No. I eat what I find. You'd be surprised how much is out there. Beechnuts, berries, mushrooms, wild onions. And I've learned to set traps, so I get the occasional rabbit or -”

“You kill animals and eat them? Like the Barbarians?”

“Don't look so shocked. Do you really believe all the protein in Nutrilic comes from plant sources? There aren't many clusters who manage that. I'm sure yours has a chicken farm tucked away somewhere or something like that.”

Aurisse didn't want to believe that and so she didn't. She had not nourished her body with liquidised dead birds. She moved on swiftly.

“What is it like to eat? Is it not disgusting? I tried some blackberries once, when I was a child, just out of curiosity. But they made me feel dreadfully sick.”

“Yes, that's another endearing feature of Fertiblok. Just making sure that people don't get into the habit of eating again. Because, you know, it is rather enjoyable, way beyond the need for nutrition.”

“How so?”

“Oh, flavour, texture, smell, the very sensation of getting your teeth into something. It's hard to describe, you'd have to try it out for yourself. But of course you wouldn't like it, courtesy of Fertiblok.

“So it's true you don't have it?”

“Yes.”

“How come?”

“It's not something I talk about.”

So Aurisse cast about for something else to say.

“Do you ever go back to your pod?”

“My pod was repossessed by the government.”

“And all your records?” 

“Deleted, I assume.”

“Even your parents? That was heartless of you, to abandon them like that.”

“I'm not living my life for dead people. Anyway, if I had died, the same would have happened. It will happen to your records as well if you don't produce a child to inherit your pod.”

This Aurisse knew but too well and it was the -

“Aurisse? Are you listening?”

Lunima's voice cut through Aurisse's memories. Aurisse started and turned her head to look at the supervisor.

“I'm sorry, Lunima, I'm a little distracted. I suppose it's the questionnaire. Lots of stuff to fill in. What were you saying?”

“Oh, just how despicable it all was, using huge amounts of resources to make people covet things they didn't need. Well, that's all in the past, thank goodness. If only we didn't still feel the consequences! Anyway, I'd better let you go and start on that questionnaire. I can see you won't have any peace until you've done it.”

“I suppose not.” Aurisse rose, glad to escape from Lunima. “I'll go back to my pod then. See you around.”

On the way down the hill, Aurisse considered Lunima's aversion to the Barbarian Ages. It seemed somewhat odd. True, the Barbarian Ages were generally seen in a bad light, but they lay in such a distant past that most people didn't care to form any kind of opinion about them. Lunima, however, had spoken of the sins of the Barbarians in a way that bordered on obsession. And she had a point. People rarely thought about it, being so used to the system of clusters and a tightly controlled population, but the Earth used to be a more hospitable place that supported a much bigger population and the Barbarians had rendered large regions of it uninhabitable.  It wasn't just the radioactive pollution. Deserts stretched across huge expanses of land that hadn't been there before the Barbarians had plundered the planet's resources for their short-lived luxuries, and all following generations had to pay the price.

Still, the Barbarian Ages were not all bad. A time when people could sing and paint like that couldn't have been all bad. If nobody else agreed with her, Pavan did.

He had come back, about a month after he had left, and this time, to Aurisse's delight, they talked about the Barbarian Ages. Her pod stood on a hillside back then, overlooking the lake, and they discussed the relative merits of contemporary and ancient landscape paintings they found on mindnet.

“See here, this is very pretty and very elegant, wonderful detail on the flowers, but it is, how shall I put it, it's somehow tame and lame. The ancient one, look, the way the light falls on the water, and it evokes all the feelings that go with the scene, the time of day and the smells, the tiredness after a long day outdoors, the first chill of evening moving in and the afterglow of the sunshine on the skin, everything the real scene would have contained, but then it also has this feeling of unease, a certain darkness even though all the colours are bright, as if the painter has incorporated something that wasn't really out there, something from inside...”

“I know what you mean,” said Pavan. “They had a genius we don't have. And it wasn't even rare! Remember that we only see the pinnacle of their achievements, and still there is so much of it. They reckon less than one percent of all their music, Art and literature survived. And that is only the quality stuff. There was more, quite a lot more, of shallow entertainment which the government deleted.”

“Deleted?”

“Yes, so as not to congest the system, they said. One may speculate about other reasons.”

“So most of what they created is gone?”

“Yes. And yet such wealth and variety! In a few short millennia they created more and better works than we did in twenty thousand years. They had something you don't possess anymore.”

“What?”

”Passion. The ability to soar with great feelings. The drive to rise above the mediocre and create something truly outstanding.”

“Why don't we have it? We're still the same species.”

“Don't be so blooming naïve, Aurisse. Our species survived the Collapse. But that came at a price. Fertiblok was invented by a group of people who were wise in the context of their time. It doesn't just control your fertility and your appetite. It shackles what caused the Collapse, the greed, the aggression, but it can't do that without castrating other feelings as well. All your emotions are dampened, Aurisse. All of the passion, the drive that is naturally human, is tuned down by Fertiblok to a socially acceptable level. So here we are, twenty-thousand-odd years on, tame and lame.”

“How do you know all this?”

“It's on mindnet, if you know where to look.”

“And you believe everything you find on mindnet?”

“I do if the evidence supports it.”

“What is the evidence?”

“You have Fertiblok, I don't. I have passion, you don't.”

Aurisse paused. She would have liked to claim that she had some sort of passionate feelings, just to contradict his smug self-satisfaction, but she had to admit that all her attachments, to her home, her work, her friends, her cluster, were best described as tepid. She looked at Pavan and tried to fathom what it was about him that gave him reason to call himself passionate, but all she could discern was a certain intensity of his gaze. It seemed dangerous.

When Aurisse reached her pod, she saw that the Garnuck children were now playing a game of chasing each other up and down the trees that grew along the shore. There was no sign of the parents; presumably they had withdrawn into their pod. Aurisse decided to move her own pod a little further up the hill so as to give the family some privacy. With the gently swaying motion of the walking pod soothing her, she leaned back in her seat and began to fill in the questionnaire file. Perhaps once it was completed, she'd better be able to think of a solution.

Are you Aurisse Espanse, aged 43? - Yes.

Have you resided during the year to date in cluster C245? - Yes.

What is your occupation? - Telemonitoring of radiation levels in North-East sector B.

She worked her way swiftly through this first section of simple factual questions. This was followed by a set of general evaluative questions, a kind of attitude test the point of which she had never quite understood.

Do you think the world is ultimately good or bad? - Neither.

Would you describe your life as pleasant? - Yes.

Would anybody not? Even people with health problems could be made comfortable enough. Life was pleasant and easy, with the robots doing most of the physical work while people dedicated their time to enjoying and improving their environments. Compared to this life of leisure, the non-stop efforts of the Barbarian Ages seemed incredible, inhuman. Long working hours and the need to sleep for a third of the day – how did people ever find time to do anything worthwhile? Yes, life in the current era was pleasant enough. People were, Aurisse thought with a crooked smile, well controlled and well contented. They had Nutrilic and mindnet. Panem et circensis. Pavan had told her about that as well.

“The ancient Romans,” he said, with his hand resting on the nape of her neck, a place where it fitted snugly as if it had been designed for no other purpose, “had this policy to prevent revolts. They understood that people who are well fed and suitably entertained are seldom inclined to rise up against their superiors. Much of the Western world prior to the Collapse functioned on this principle.”

Aurisse leaned her head against his shoulder and inhaled the unsettling scent of his skin which, she believed, was a side effect of eating.

“Why don't we teach any of this stuff to our children?” she asked.

Pavan smiled to himself and looked aside.

“I guess we might,” he said eventually and Aurisse breathed a little faster when she picked up the undertone of how he said “we.”

This was on his third visit, at a time she had already decided what she wanted to do and had thought of a way to deactivate the Fertiblok implant. That afternoon they made love for the first time in the late autumn sunshine among the rusty golden bracken and she thought, Next time... And when next time came, she was ready. She had switched off her Fertiblok. How she had managed to focus on that task she was still not sure, what with all the disturbing thoughts swirling round her mind. Pavan challenged everything, everything.

“Does it strike you as right that robots are allowed weapons while we aren't?”

“They represent the government. In ancient times, they had police, now we have robots. Someone's got to keep order, I suppose.”

“How do you know that there even is a government; that we're not just controlled by the robots? Do you know any real person in government?”

“Ani Harbester went to work in government.”

“And have you ever seen her again?”

“I see her on mindnet. Her government work is classified, of course.”

“Of course.”

He would corner her like that, leave her hanging with the suggestion that none of her ideas could stand up to scrutiny, and then move on to the next point. While she still reeled at the thought that armed robots were actually in charge of the planet, he launched the next attack on her world view by calling the current era a dead end of history.

“What on earth do you mean? We are the most advanced civilization this planet has ever seen.”

“Perhaps, but we are nowhere near as advanced as we could be.”

“In what way?” 

“In almost every way. Think of Delta Pavonis for example. How much effort have we really put into communication with them? They are an alien civilization, and here we sit, contented to have a cryptic signal from them every forty years.”

“Well, that's how long it takes.”

“Aurisse! We could send a message to them every day, and they could send one back, we could send round the clock, and while the delay would still be just as long, the volume of information would be so much greater! We could probably understand their language by now. But see, none of our lethargic astrodiplomats have thought of that.”

“And neither have any of theirs.”

“Perhaps they're in a similar rut, who knows.”

“Perhaps. But what's the point anyway? There's nothing to be gained from that exchange. We can never get there, and neither can they get here. I thought we were done with that naïve delusion of the ancients.”

“Oh, was it a naïve delusion? What if we are the deluded ones, sitting around with our hands in our laps telling ourselves that nothing can be achieved? Perhaps if we had been striving more, we would have found a way to make space travel feasible. But we're lazy lumps who have contributed nothing to humankind's advancement in twenty thousand years.”

“Oh, come now. We've made progress. What about Nutrilic, what about Neurorec? Just think how much time and resources people used to waste on eating and sleeping. Think of how limited things were before mindnet and how people thought they had to physically go everywhere. All the problems of mass transportation. And ancestral storage, too, was a great leap forward. Back in the Barbarian Ages, people just died and that was it.”

“Yes, yes, these were great inventions, but apart from ancestral storage, they all date back to the first few centuries after the Collapse. What have we done since? Aurisse, our civilisation has been stagnant for the last twenty thousand years. We dawdle away our time with philosophy and brain teasers and designs for pretty flowers. What do we achieve? Our technology may be very sophisticated, but compared to what the Barbarians accomplished in a few centuries, we haven't got very far. Our greatest triumph of the last hundred years was the olfactory component of mindnet, a mere flippant whim. In science, too – from first discovering the quark to formulating the Unified Theory of Physics took a hundred and thirty-two years. And here are we, pondering the problem of inverted photon stability for the last two millennia. It took us twelve hundred years to solve the Harigon Paradox. We are slack, Aurisse, where they were driven, striving – compared to them, we just potter about. They had desires and ambitions which humankind still has, but which Fertiblok suppresses.”

“And you would unleash all that again? You know where it led.”

“It wouldn't have to lead there again. We have grown in wisdom. We could continue to control reproduction, we have learned how to manage our resources, and since we can provide a pleasant life for everyone with the help of robots, I don't see why greed should take root again. But with passion, Aurisse, with passion we could do so much more...”

Passion. She knew what he meant now. People talked about love and thought they knew what it meant; she had thought she knew what it meant, but what she had called love all her life was merely a pleasant feeling of benevolence towards someone, and an enjoyment of heir company. Fertiblok saw to it that hearts didn't soar too high. She could never have guessed or imagined the way her love for Pavan had hit her once the effects of Fertiblok wore off. It was like a sudden storm, it shook her and made her tremble. In the early days, she could barely stand upright, she struggled to speak or look at him. Even now it was a constant ache.

There was this one ancient song, one she had long liked so much for its haunting tune that she'd got the translation, and then she had just found it confusing. Why dream of gardens in the desert when there were enough places on Earth that were lush and verdant?  And sweet intoxication – what could be sweet about it? She knew that the ancients used to intoxicate themselves, because they didn't have the escapist possibilities mindnet offered. But these intoxications were anything but sweet, weren't they, they ruined people's health and social standing. These days, however, she was beginning to understand. The desire, the desire for something impossible, her body's yearning for – well, for what?

She craved food. Real food, not Nutrilic, which left her dissatisfied these days. Instead of the neutral perception of the liquid going down her throat, she sensed displeasure at the blandness on her tongue. And her teeth were on edge with a desire to bite.

And there she was biting her finger. It was no use. It was well past noon and she had not even filled in a quarter of the questionnaire. Pavan had been wrong on that count at least. She would have achieved more with the focus of her former dispassionate self. Had she not been distracted by constant thoughts of Pavan – where he was, whether he was safe, when he would come back – the device might have been ready. But it wasn't ready, it wouldn't be ready, the robot would arrive and check her file and she wasn't willing to take any risks. Which left only one option.

She couldn't leave the cluster with her pod. She knew this because she had tried. A few years ago on a crisp, blustery spring day, she had brought her pod right up to the summit of the hill and looked down into the broad valley where the cluster's farming unit lay on the far side of a placid river. At first she was too startled by such a treeless expanse to take in much, but then she began to survey the scene. Clumps of boisterous clouds raced across the deep blue sky, mirrored as fast moving shadows on the plain. Aurisse strained her eyes to identify the shapes of the plants in this shifting pattern of darker and lighter patches; plants she had never seen before but knew by name: soya, squash, kale, legumes, various berries. Now they were in front of her, in the leaf, so to speak, she couldn't tell which was which. An alien array of vague green huddles spread out before her and she felt ashamed that she was so clueless about the source of her food. She could see some of the robots moving about in the fields, sunlight glinting off their metal bodies. The even rectangles in which the crops were set out filled her with unease; the landscape, she thought, should not be mathematical. Beyond the fields she could make out the factory where Nutrilic was manufactured from the crops. From there the pale blue bottleswere transported via a subterranean tube to the distribution points in the cluster. Terraces of solar collectors and wind turbines powered the whole unit. Aurisse knew all this from school, but was surprised by the scale of it all, miles and miles. Just over three thousand people lived in her cluster, did they really need all this merely to sustain life? Or did their farming unit merge with the food plantation of the neighbouring cluster, beyond that ridge of hills? This was, after all, a densely populated area with no less than five clusters within a radius of two hundred miles.

Aurisse opened a window and leaned out, but the view remained much the same, so she moved the pod forwards, driven by an indistinct desire to descend that slope and take a closer look. The pod had taken four or five steps, wobbling slightly due to the steep bank, when the alarm sounded.  A red light began to flash on the control panel. CAUTION, read the display, YOU HAVE REACHED YOUR CLUSTER BOUNDARY. RESET YOUR COURSE. Aurisse ignored the warning and maintained her direction. The pod swayed. CAUTION. CAUTION. YOU HAVE ENTERED UNLICENSED TERRITORY. RESET YOUR COURSE OR YOUR POD WILL BE DEACTIVATED. Aurisse continued forward. After two further steps, the pod came to a halt. All assaults on the controls were in vain. YOUR POD, declared the display, HAS BEEN DEACTIVATED. PLEASE CONTACT YOUR CLUSTER SUPERVISOR.

“Blast!” Aurisse hit the control panel with her fist.

The river was too wide for her to cross without the pod. Nevertheless she slid out and peered down the slope.  She could make out a faint hum that seemed to be created by the robots' efforts in the valley. Beside her, the pod was eerily silent. All its lights had gone off and she could see that one leg stood frozen in mid-air. She laid a hand against the metal frame and felt the cool smoothness. It was in no way reassuring.

That episode had cost her a lot of time and paperwork and extended sessions with Lunima Barot, who hadn't bought her explanation of simple curiosity. Nevertheless, it turned out to her advantage now, because otherwise she might have attempted to take the pod with her and under the current circumstances, this would have been worse by a factor of thousands. Without the pod then. Aurisse clenched her fists to drown out the fear this prospect caused. There was no time to be lost. In the morning, when the robot returned, she had to be well out of reach.

It was four days before distribution day, so she had sixteen portions of Nutrilic, which she dropped into the bottom of her bag. A change of clothes, a raincoat, a comb and toothbrush, a portable mindnet receiver – she glanced around, but there wasn't anything else that made sense taking. She closed the bag and leaned it against the door.

The ancestral storage unit still needed dusting and wouldn't get dusted now. She called up her mother.

How are things going, dear? It's review day today, isn't it?

Yes. I'll do my questionnaire later.

I always liked to get it out of the way as soon as possible.

Yes, you did. Mother, I need to tell you something. I am in a spot of trouble and I will have to be away from the pod for a while.

On review day? Well, don't stay away too long, or you'll not have time to do your file.

No, Mother, I mean for more than just the day.

I don't understand you, Aurisse. How can you be away from the pod for more than a day? You need your Neurorec and -

I'll just have to manage without. In fact, I don't know when I'll be back.

Aurisse, what nonsense is this? You look after your pod and your pod looks after you.

I can't look after the pod any more. I have more urgent responsibilities.

What bigger responsibility is there than looking after your pod and your ancestral unit? You are not abandoning us, Aurisse? You mustn't! The supervisor will delete us! The pod will be recycled! You mustn't -

Aurisse flicked the switch and her mother's thought died in mid-sentence. Pavan was right about this much, you cannot live your life for dead people. Still, the tears were flowing now, flowing. She was tempted to switch the unit on again, at least to say farewell to her father. But if she did, he would try to persuade her otherwise. So she would have to leave without a word to him. And all the others, including great-great-grandfather Turmon, he wouldn't hear now how well his rhododendrons had turned out. What a heartless traitor she was.

A twitch in her abdomen reminded her just in time of what was at stake. Swiftly, she placed a message with Hanx asking him to keep an eye on her pod – it wouldn't do for long, but at least for a while – and called in absent for work. Then she grabbed the bag and opened the door.

She knew her chances of finding Pavan were small, but it was possible. So many things seemed possible as the door of her pod closed behind her. She stepped out onto the path.

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