I'd just got into the feed ... a head of state ineptly shafting someone, just for a change ... when the alert tone sounded ... we had a visitor in-coming, apparently, and there sure as hell wasn't anyone due. Oh fucking brilliant, I thought, why me? Worse, when I'd taken a few deep breaths and calmed myself down enough to get a data feed, our new arrival was one of Xav's Protected ones. Crissakes, then why isn't he dealing with this ... oh, right ... he's in Deep Immersion ... saving the planet, cannot be disturbed. Bastard.
So, OK, its up to me, again, I thought, as I pulled up a vid feed of Arrivals, the nondescript, mainly — actually, totally — black room we used for ... well, arrivals. Or where the poor sods we'd dragged over here got their first sight of their new home, in other words. This one looked interesting ... not throwing up, for a nice change, but then ... not actually breathing, either, from the look of it. An urgent flip through the vital signs told me the conjecture wasn't far off the mark ... dangerously low blood oxygen ... dangerously high levels of opiates and their metabolites ... minimal higher brain activity. Jesus ... there was actual necrosis starting in her left leg and right forearm ... and ... oh, great ... a range of micro aneurysms in the brain stem ... tubercular nodes in both lungs ... Xav sure had some interesting friends, I thought, simultaneously wondering why this Protected one had been allowed to get into this state in the first place ... weren't they supposed to be continuously monitored?
Ah well ... ponder that another time, I thought ... we'd never had an incomer die on us before and I didn't want to have to explain to Xav why I'd lost this one ... so I shoved in a stasis field — wondering why the AI, which had exactly the same data as me hadn't already done so ... but then maybe he/she/it wanted to give us humans choices or something. Or maybe the illusion of choices ... but lets not go there.
Anyway, the AI confirmed stasis — basically a suspension of time around the body, giving the technology time to work out what to do about this one. If it — she — was savable, I knew, they'd save it. And in the meantime, we could all wait for Xav to stop being a boy scout and pick up the bloody pieces...
OK, so Stasis() was invoked, eventually ... and I could file the calculated 34% probability that Zara would simply have forgotten the instructions, accidentally failed to react in time to the situation ... away for future reflection. Clearly, my human cargo were getting on better than they had been ... or perhaps their species solidarity outweighed their mutual antipathy ... and Zara's reluctance to have a potential ally of Xavier's around.
Which caused me to ponder, for a microsecond or two. Given that They — the AI network of which I was a contributing part — considered that we should respect Xav, trust his biological impetuses, I was now stuck with a very damaged human being ... if she'd been relying on the medical services on her home planet — even if anyone had thought to alert them — she'd be dead.
But she wasn't, and the initial projections showed a greater than 97% probability that we could repair — or, more accurately, rebuild — her to at least physical health. So now she was part of the family.
I love working with lesser species. No, really ... I do...
I came out of Immersion feeling like my brain had been rewired, which I guess to some extent it had been. I'd been plugged into the internet — and a variety of less public networks — for more than thirty hours, using what the Wisdom actually described as 'human intuition' to sift the packet streams — decoded and 'humanised' by my hosts — to guide the AIs to their goals ... which currently involved tracking the world's financial networks, finding out where the money was actually going, the reality behind the capitalist, free market bullshit. Yeah, I thought it was a ludicrous idea, too, when it was first put to me: There was simply too much data, I thought, too many codes, too many variables. But I'd underestimated the Wisdom, not for the first time, the sheer power of the filtering and analysis technologies ... and the usefulness of being able to observe the human side of things, undetectably, in real time. However secure those individuals believed their environments — or their meetings — to be.
So it was all interesting stuff ... but not exactly relaxing ... nor, I suspected, something my brain had actually evolved to do. Perhaps the Wisdom had made more changes than it had told me about? Well, maybe ... but then Zara appeared to be incapable of this stuff ... didn't seem to even understand its significance ... so maybe it was just me ... some quirk of nature. Put it to one side, for the moment, what I mainly needed was something to eat, something to drink — not necessarily for rehydration purposes — and then sleep. A lot of sleep...
I had the Wisdom tell me as soon as Xav emerged, so I got down to his Immersion suite — basically a couch surrounded by a mass of life support and monitoring equipment, housed in a completely shielded room — while he was still extracting himself from the umbilicals, drinking the nanobot recovery liquid the AI provided ... and before he'd got round to dressing. Which was a small perk, I felt ... he did still have a very nice body, even if he was a complete shit in a lot of ways.
Anyway, he was still pretty spaced out, like he always was after emerging, but that would carry on for a while and I had a problem I needed to pass on, to make his ... and I didn't see why that should wait. So I told him.
OK, I thought, so Yvonne was here and here was I, looking down at her, surrounded by machinery and intubated in every available orifice ... and then some. I realised that this was the first time I'd seen her in about ten years, probably the first time I'd thought about her in five. It was all very weird ... I remembered being told about Protecteds — people who the Wisdom thought were special to its guests, who would thus be observed — looked after — while they were here, possibly plucked out of life threatening situations if they happened to get into them. I hadn't really been all that interested, to be honest — I was married to my work, as they say, never really had time for close personal relationships, so I didn't even ask who was on the list. And I'd never have guessed that Yvonne would even have been a contender.
In fact, observing her now as the machines crawled all over — and, I knew, through — her, I did have a brief pang of nostalgia. We had been close once; me a permanently broke post doc, her a picturesque barmaid in my local, albeit a barmaid with a surprising facility for biophysics, or at least for listening to me talking about it. No, that was unfair ... she'd made some interesting observations, even contributed to solving some of the problems I was working on. Hell, I'd once tried to credit her on a paper I published, a gesture which had not gone down well with the Prof.
But then ... I'd moved to Germany, she'd stayed in the UK, and by the time I got back she was no longer working in bars, she was a full time junky doing whatever it took to get the next bag. I'd tried to help, for a while, but it was pointless ... she was too far gone, I thought, or maybe I was just too preoccupied with my work to care enough. But, whatever. Scanning the data the AI was providing it was clear that time — and life — had not been kind to her ... even without the overdose that had nearly killed her she was basically, well, fucked. And even with the sort of technology being applied to her now, it was still far from clear that she'd be physically completely OK — and real doubts whether the brain damage she'd accumulated over the years would contribute to an even greater mental instability. We — or rather I — would have to take some tough decisions as the 'repair' process went on.
Not for the first time, I wished that Zara wasn't quite such a selfish, self-obsessed bitch ... or that I trusted the AI more. I really felt I could do with someone to talk to.
The male's response was not what I expected and, again, I filed the anomalous response for future consideration. We had anticipated pleasure, perhaps relief, but what I had observed had been nearer to apathy ... perhaps even annoyance. Even now, my scans showed considerable activity in his cortex, indicating not a nostalgic review of memories ... as might have been expected ... but an active attempt to excise — or redefine — same. It was unexpected and that in itself was unexpected. Were there really things about these humans that could surprise us? This would prove most interesting to the Group, I was sure.
But that was for the future. My own review of Xav's history did not, of course, provide any new insight ... and neither did a similar scan through the vast quantity of data we had on our latest arrival. She was a woman of exceptional intelligence, whose potential had been crippled, in the context of her society and her time, by her low class status and a fatal self destructiveness ... inculcated by early trauma, sexual abuse by her father and others.
Well, no matter. She was here, and she had the potential to fulfil the role that Zara had never quite proved herself in. She was, in fact, potentially perfect for the job, life having left her with few scruples and no illusions, while her existential rage was definitely useful ... for the more 'hands on' side of the project.
Whether we had room for two people in that line, of course, remained an interesting question. But that, really, was more Zara's problem than mine.
Xav passed me in a corridor as he was heading back to his quarters, simply scowling at me and carrying on without a word. Well, fuck you, too, I thought. He was presumably going to catch up with some sleep, since even I knew that the Immersion involved a sustained period of enhanced cerebral activity, maintained by a combination of drugs and nanomachinery. I'd tried it a few times — or rather, it had been tried on me — so I knew what the after effects were like, but I'd never achieved any results, feeling myself to be merely immersed in an inchoate mass of data, sensations, none of which made sense. Presumably Xav could make more of it, what with him being a doctor and all, but that still didn't give him the right to treat me like dirt. He hadn't so much as looked at me — as a woman, I mean — since he'd first been brought here. And now some former flame of his had pitched up ... and was being patched up. So that even if she did look like a skeletal crone at the moment, she would emerge as a healthy thirty something. Or, given the caveats that even the Wisdom was applying to the process, a fairly healthy thirty something. I wondered what the AI had in mind for her, what she was actually doing here.
And in the interim, I had my voyeuristic image to maintain. So I had the technology summon up another illicit data feed ... a senior policeman, this time ... who was into nappies ... in a big way...
I slept for almost fifteen hours, woke feeling pretty human, for a change. A quick check revealed that Yvonne was still heavily dependent on life support as the machinery effectively built her a new set of lungs and a couple of limbs, as well as doing a lot more detailed work across much of her brain. Amazingly, there was no firm estimate for how long the process would ultimately take ... and the Wisdom always specified these things to the second, almost as a point of pride ... just a range from twenty more hours to above forty. God knows what was being done in detail, I thought, then turned my attention to more immediately relevant stuff ... such as the digested results of my latest Immersion. Which were very interesting.
In fact, it looked like we'd cracked it ... firm and clear evidence of money flows through most of sub Saharan Africa, "aid" coming in, channeling through corrupt elites and slowly but surely ending up in a variety of American and European banks ... oh, and the odd arms company and such like. More to the point, we had names, dates ... everything ... including links to a variety of covert agencies across the "developed" world. The Wisdom had even calculated how many lives a year were being lost as a result. It was a very big number.
So. It looked like we'd soon be in business, would be able to move from our — OK, the AI's — current tactics of gently nudging the political and other processes in a direction that would be a little less disastrous for the future of the planet and begin to personalise the process. Which is to say, take the argument to the bad guys directly ... bringing them out here when we could do so without causing too much of a fuss, dropping in to see them where we couldn't. And I didn't for a moment think that that would involve having a friendly chat. These people had far too much blood on their hands.
And that, apparently, was where Zara came in. Frankly, she appeared to think that she was here simply to watch pornography — if real time, real life pornography — but the Wisdom seemed to have other plans, could perceive other talents. It was a bit of a mystery to me — the stuff she was digging up at present couldn't even really be used for blackmail, given that it seemed just about everybody in a position of power on the planet was at it — but I wasn't about to argue with the technology. So I thought I'd better go and see her ... see what she had to offer.
Well, now, that was a surprise ... Dr Xavier McDonald himself wanted a quick chat with me, no indication what about, just a request to meet him in one of the meeting rooms down on the swimming pool / gym level. I had a check on the progress of the Yvonne woman, saw that things were still uncertain, thought that he probably wanted someone's shoulder to cry on. Even mine. Not that I felt particularly well disposed towards him, of course, but there are few situations that can't be turned to advantage if you try hard enough ... and I was a trier through and through.
So I signalled my assent — which is to say, gave the AI a time to pass on, then sat and thought a bit about tactics. And then I got changed ... as I thought appearances could be important in the circumstances.
Zara was late, of course, arriving in the seminar room a good twenty minutes after the agreed time. The AI informed me that she'd spent the time metaphorically filing her nails - rather than suddenly having been caught up in tasks of actual significance — so I knew this was probably a ruse to annoy me. Well — a bit of a waste of time in more ways than one, there, then ... god knows I was annoyed enough with her already. But I had asked for this meeting, so I thought I'd put a brave face on it ... remembering times I'd had to intervene with underachieving students ... the importance of staying in control — of myself as well as the situation — not rising to any provocation, being clear about my objectives and the limits to any compromises that might be offered. Problem was that here I was hardly in a position to reduce the conversation to the standard 'shape up or ship out' ultimatum. Or at least, I didn't think I was ... Frankly, I didn't have a clue what the AI was actually trying to achieve or why, which also meant that I couldn't reasonably speculate on what its intended outcome was to all this. And what was Yvonne doing here, anyway?
All such musings were abruptly curtailed by Zara's belated arrival. She was carrying a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses, I noted, disgustedly, and wearing ... well, not very much. Specifically, a sort of lace chemise ... white ... and a single glove, also lace ... covering the scars on her hand. She'd also tied some sort of chiffon ribbon in her hair. It was not, frankly, what I would consider appropriate for work ... in fact, if she had been a student, she'd have been out on her ear, there and then ... although, dressed like that, she'd probably have been arrested even before she got to my office. I probably sighed, or something, but then resigned myself to the situation. She might think this was a party opportunity but I, at least, had work to do. So I decided to get on with it. Its that sort of focus that made me a successful academic, after all ... ignoring the games and sticking to the question in hand.
Xav clearly clocked me as I came into the room, and a look of profound despondency came over his face as he noted the wine I was carrying, the clothes I was wearing and, I knew, the stuff that the clothes so artfully failed to conceal. He might be a prick, I thought, but he was male ... and, I thought, I knew his type. So I carefully put the alcohol down on a table in a corner of the room and arranged myself demurely — well, as demurely in possible, given that I was wearing about 50 square centimetres of transparent nylon — in a chair across the table from him. Then I looked interested, intelligent and concerned, making and holding eye contact as I asked him how he thought I could help, what he wanted to discuss.
Give the guy his due, he got straight to the point, gave me a fairly rapid precis of the results of his latest 'explorations' and some of the implications that the AI had mapped out ... including a probable change in emphasis in the activities that we'd be pursuing. I gave him about half an hour, maintaining eye contact throughout, arms folded carefully in front of my breasts, resisting the temptation to subtly squeeze them together for him, and generally acted the engaged and active participant. Actually, some of the stuff was quite interesting ... I'd never have dreamed that the Immersion process could deliver quite so much hard data ... and some of the names ... the agencies ... involved were startling, to say the least — even to a hardened cynic like me.
More to the point, his conclusion that we were going to get more active — that the watching and noting phase might be coming to an end, at last — was genuinely good news. I'd been here quite a lot longer than him, rescued from an all too imminent gang rape back on the home world, and I knew that we'd previously been a lot more active. My putative attackers, for instance, had been given a free ride over here just as soon as I'd recovered enough to be able to deal with the situation ... and had probably not been too happy with what they found when arrived. Well, at least not if the screams were anything to go by ... or the whimpering or the ... gurgling, come to think of it. I hadn't really watched all that much of it ... even I have my limits ... but I knew that it was long, exquisitely painful and ... finally ... very, very, fatal.
Well, the bastards deserved every moment of it, I thought, turning my attention back to Xavier. I didn't think he would be quite as impressed with that particular outcome.
So I said, "OK. We used to do a bit more of that in the old days — a couple of years or so ago — but it kind of got a bit tricky when people started to notice that numbers of their fellow significant human beings were simply disappearing — or dying in even highly convincing accidents — and started to join the dots. They didn't get very far, obviously — no one was seriously going to propose extra terrestrials as a likely cause and the clues they had didn't really make much sense otherwise — but the AI got a bit concerned that we were engendering a bit too much paranoia among some of the powers that be ... and that they might start to take it out on each other. You know, with nuclear bombs, that sort of thing. So we reined back ... cost us a couple of my previous colleagues, too — your predecessors — who couldn't accept the new party line. That's when we stopped recruiting gung-ho idealists ... started looking for tired old realists like us."
I did wonder how he'd take the 'us' — was that a bit premature, at this stage? - but he continued to look at me in silence, apparently surprised by my involvement with what he'd been telling me, my willingness to engage with him on all of this. Well, I thought ... under-rate me at your peril ... until I realised that I'd leant forward to emphasise something, at some point, and that my breasts were now lying on the table in front of him ... only too clearly visible through the thin material ... and that neither of us had noticed.
I wondered just how much I had been acting.
Well, that was a surprise ... not the petulant display I'd been expecting but rather a show of genuine interest ... with some useful questions and, now, some new information. It occurred to me that I knew next to nothing about Zara ... how she came to be here, what she'd done before ... and, in fact, had hardly talked to her since she'd done the meet'n'greet stuff when I first arrived. I remembered that meeting, now, how I'd got severely turned on by the sight of Zara in a one piece jump suit ... put it down to delayed shock or something ... and then got embarrassed. And had basically ignored her since then. Just another one of Dr McDonald's sub-optimal coping strategies, I realised, contemplating the woman sitting opposite me anew.
Unfortunately, this made me aware again of her state of dress — or, rather, undress — and that she was leaning over the table towards me ... with both breasts squeezed onto the table in front of her, nipples and wide areolae only too visible. I felt the sap began to rise, so to speak, and the mortifying embarrassment that always accompanied it. As I forced myself to look into her eyes, again, though, I think she picked up on my reaction, and sat back in her chair, breasts still only too visible but not quite so provocatively posed. I decided it was best to stick to the subject — keep control and all that — and began to share some ideas I'd been thinking about. She still looked interested, but a little more relaxed ... her body language a lot more... open...
"I had wondered about how anything we might do from here might impact on the folks back home, to be honest. I mean, some of the names on my list are simply dictators and removing them would at best get them replaced by someone equally as bad or, at worse, lead to outright civil war. Similarly the grey people in finance and the various government — I use the term widely — agencies. OK, we now have a lot of facts that in theory could be used to ... inconvenience ... them, but the fact is that the web is so wide it would be almost impossible to intervene directly without seriously fucking up the entire planet's operations. I mean, remove or even severely restrict all of these people and we'd need to construct an entirely new system of government ... which would be messy, to say the least."
She nodded at that, looked thoughtful and went and picked up the wine bottle, poured two glasses, handed me one, her left nipple just brushing my shoulder as she did so. Then she returned to her side of the table, sat down and looked at me. "Worse than that", she said, taking a sip. "We worked out that any such intervention would immediately be seen as coming from outside — no-one could plausibly do anything of the sort within current structures ... just look at what happens to the occasional well intentioned politician who does make it to the top — and ... well ... that would be a disaster. Take the history of all the peoples that we Brits colonised as an example, the psychic — and material — effect of the introduction of superior technology and an alien, dominant culture. And what the Wisdom has to offer makes steam ships and rifles look like cowry shells and glass beads. I mean, how do you think the human population would react if they knew that there was no longer any such thing as privacy, just for starters?" She grinned, continued, "That people like me can and do observe their most secret and depraved activities ... and laugh at them?" Another pause, "So, whatever we do will have to be subtle ... unless they do get to the stage of self annihilation, of course, when the gloves come off ... which is about five years, given their current degradation of the biosphere ... but if we want to avoid that, we do have to have to act covertly, but also quickly and effectively. Quite a nice poser, really. And just the two of us to do it, at least as far as we know. Oh, and a nearly omniscient AI and his/her chums."
I felt the rebuke, whether it was intended or not — she was right, it was a tall order, and it didn't help that we'd so far failed miserably to even communicate with each other. I raised my glass to her in tacit acknowledgement of the fact, then continued, thinking aloud, really.
"What I'm wondering is whether we could intervene more on an individual level, get people to gradually clean up their own acts by a combination of carrot and stick — at least the threat of exposure if they don't co-operate ... and at least the promise of protection from all the people they'll piss off if they do. Combined, I thought, with maybe a little in-house — umm — education for some of the more shadowy players ... that is, scaring the shit out of the sort of people who'd find it difficult to go public with the experience. I think we need to sit down and go through names and details ... work out the weak points ... maybe even pilot the process in one of the more obscure parts of the system. Obviously, we'll need to engage with the Wisdom but ... well, whatever it says about not routinely monitoring us ... I think it will already be very aware of this conversation."
As if I would do such a thing, I thought, intrigued by the turn the conversation had taken ... and the fact that Xavier had chosen to explore these ideas with Zara, initially, rather than with me. Not that it actually made a difference — I was, of course, constantly monitoring them down to the molecular level — but it was an additional factor to consider. Xavier had spent virtually all his life in laboratories, trusted machines far more than people, in many respects, but still could not bring himself to trust in me or my motives.
Wise man, I felt, turning my attention back to their conversation, even while I wondered whether introducing the Yvonne factor would prove to be a needless distraction ... though, I knew, she could always be used for something...
I suspected Xav was right about the monitoring — knew that at least one of my former colleagues had been ... dispensed with ... due to a rather naive faith in the Wisdom's all round niceness — but I'd grown used to the idea, able to cope with the pangs of paranoia it induced. Hell, that was part of the reason that I did all that voyeuristic stuff ... kind of a diversion from some of the things I really didn't want it to know about. Oh, that and the fact that it was fun, too, of course.
Nonetheless, back in the here and now, I appeared to have reached some sort of rapprochement with Xav without even trying, which was odd. Sitting watching him now, calmly setting out his ideas as if saving the world was just another scientific conundrum to be analysed and resolved, carefully, logically, I felt a strange surge of affection for the guy ... and a sudden rush of embarrassment at the way I was dressed. I took another sip of the wine, almost instinctively covering up the more exposed bits of my anatomy as I did so. Maybe the direct approach had not been the best way to go, in this case ... but, hell ... I could still do with a shag ... and there weren't a lot of other candidates, just at present.
I took a longer sip of wine, concentrated on what Xav was saying again.
I continued to expound on my theme, slowly becoming aware that I was descending into generalisations and probably statements of the blindingly bloody obvious, while Zara continued to listen quietly. I noticed that she'd closed in on herself ... her left arm was wrapped around her breasts, again ... but was still looking at me in a rather friendlier manner than I'd experienced before. I felt grateful for that ... aware of how much I'd missed human company since I'd been here ... and a slight regret that she was no longer flashing her physical assets quite so blatantly. I wondered what that had been about ... if she'd simply wanted to provoke me, well, it had been an initial success, but the follow through had been all wrong. Maybe she just liked dressing like that ... and why not, it wasn't like she had anything to be ashamed of — quite the opposite, I thought — but then whenever I'd come across her around the place she'd always been at least slightly more conventionally dressed ... kimonos seemed to be a big part of her wardrobe...
Ah, well, I thought ... another time. After I finally ground myself into silence, we sat companionably for a while and I realised that this was not a situation I wanted to end immediately. Instead, I suggested that we might get something to eat ... and invited her back to my living space, where the AI would provide whatever we wanted. She looked a little surprised at this but smiled, nodded, and accepted. Then she reddened slightly ... and wondered aloud if she should return to her own area to change before hand.
"I don't see why," I said, "You're free to wear what you like, obviously ... so unless you're uncomfortable ... or cold ... you could just stay the way you are?"
So now I'm sitting in Xav's private space and — ye gods - I've brought up the fact that I'm completely nude except for what amounts to a negligee. I mean, he can hardly fail to have noticed — all too obviously has noticed — but now its there in the open, a reasonable topic for discussion. 'Do you always dress like an adolescent boy's fantasy or was it just a wardrobe malfunction?' or something ... and I could hardly say now that I'd been intending to simply force myself on him, even drugging the wine, if necessary — the Wisdom had some pretty potent aphrodisiacs around and I'd stashed a few away in the past, just on the off chance that they'd come in handy. But no ... that would not be good to have to admit, not now that I was beginning to feel actually fond of the man, wondering if this situation could develop in more conventional ways.
Actually, Xav didn't make an issue of it and I found myself relaxing, lying back on one of the couches and no longer trying to conceal anything while he bustled around sorting out tapas and more wine, eventually returning to sit opposite me, gaze taking in the display as he handed me a glass, sat down opposite me. It was definitely odd, I thought, nibbling on some goats cheese and watching him watching me: Here I was, practically naked and being obviously appraised ... and I still didn't remotely feel like a piece of meat on a slab. I wondered how he did that, not sure whether to be amused or exasperated by the quiet self assurance I could see in his eyes. I decided to take the initiative, sitting up and reaching forward to pick up a bowl of chilli fried potatoes, swinging my breasts at him as I did so, the chemise rucking up above my hips as I moved forward on the couch.
I didn't even get to begin to use the witty 'come hither' line I'd been contemplating, sudden revelation striking me as I saw him automatically move backwards as I leant towards him. Jesus wept, I thought ... what I'd taken as self assurance bordering on arrogance was nothing of the sort ... the guy was frightened, I realised ... and not frightened of me, either ... he was frightened of himself. What the fuck was going on here?
Zara leant towards me, her breasts swaying beneath the not quite clothing she was wearing and I found myself inadvertently recoiling ... even as she simply picked up a bowl of the tapas and leaned back again ... whatever she had been about to say remaining unsaid as she looked at me strangely.
For a moment, I wondered if she'd picked up on my involuntary reaction ... whether she might actually have found it insulting or off-putting ... then decided that her sudden silence must have been coincidence. Nothing I'd seen of Zara suggested any great insight into the feelings of others and I knew I was good at keeping my emotions to myself ... just as I knew the dangers in letting them show. God knows, I'd had enough experience to know that calm detachment was the only way to be when it came to dealing with other people and consequently years of practice in maintaining a distance. So people thought I was odd, a cold fish, possibly borderline autistic ... but then I was a Reader in Biophysics, for gods' sake, a couple of years away from a professorship, if I stopped annoying people ... no-one expected us to be normal.
And yet, and yet ... I was bothered by the nagging thought that I was, after all, sitting alone with a very attractive woman, dressed in what had clearly been designed as an erotic costume — whatever her reasons for choosing to wear it — and I had just recoiled when she'd simply leaned towards me. I realised that I didn't want to hurt or upset her, possibly even if to avoid doing so involved risking hurting myself. Maybe I'd been away from the lab too long, I thought — deprived of all those petty interactions with brain dead administrators and clueless students that normally comprised my social life, perhaps I'd developed an unhealthy appetite for human company on any level.
Or maybe I just liked her, found her attractive, all the things that happen between adult men and adult women ... or between some men and some women, anyway. Somehow the between bit had always proved elusive to me ... in that the people I had been attracted to had usually not been attracted to me. Except, I thought, people like Yvonne ... Yvonne and a few others ... and, oh, yes ... hadn't they all proved to be life enhancing experiences in the end.
On which cheery note, my thoughts were interrupted by Zara asking me if I was actually OK — concern evident in her voice — and then ... turning my world ever so slightly on its head.
I began to get worried that the situation was getting a bit out of hand as Xav seemed to fold in on himself, that highly intellectual brain clearly running away down paths of its own, now apparently quite oblivious to my very presence. I contemplated checking with the AI what was going on — I was fairly sure it couldn't actually read minds but its physiological audits could come damn' close — or simply belatedly accessing Xav's history, seeing if there was anything in his past ... some trauma, perhaps ... that might explain whatever was happening, quite why the guy was reacting so ... strangely. Then I thought that that wouldn't really be fair — wondering why I suddenly thought that was a consideration — and deciding to deal with this human to human. Which is to say, by asking.him what the hell was going on...
So. Deep breath, pause for effect, all that stuff, then:
"Xav, can I ask you a personal question? Do you have a problem with women?" He got that rabbit-in-the-headlights look, so I went quickly on. "I mean, you're obviously not gay — or, at least, I don't think you are — and I know you find me attractive ... or you did when we first met, anyway" ... I hoped he wouldn't ask just how I knew that, but no, he still wasn't speech-capable, for the moment... "but since then you've basically ignored me. Even today ... I mean, come on, I'm sitting here wearing pretty much nothing, and while that might have been a mistake — I guess I should have known that if you wanted to talk to me at all it would be about something important — I'm still making a pretty obvious offer here ... and yet you flinch every time I come near you. So is it something I should know about? Something about me that you have a problem with? Or are you saving for yourself for our new arrival? From the archives it doesn't look like you were all that close, but..."
I left it at that, looking at him pointedly, then thought better of it and added, "Just for the record, since I've gone this far, I happen to really like you ... even if I did think you were a bit of a prick up until about an hour ago ... and, well, I'd like to get it together with you." He looked confused, poor thing, so I spelt it out, "As in, you know, getting together on a physical level — conjoining the old squidgy bits and all that — and try for the meeting of minds after that."
"Sorry," I finished, "but I've always been a direct sort of girl. I find it saves a lot of time and effort."
I had no idea what to say. Mind complete blank. No, mind filled with much confused and contradictory gibberish ... thoughts orbiting around a chaotic attractor which gradually revealed itself to be a single idea: Pretty much everything I'd thought about Zara since I first met her had been wrong ... and I didn't like being wrong.
I was still self aware enough to realise that I wasn't too keen on sitting like an idiot, either, blinking foolishly and with my mouth hanging open. So I put a heroic effort into making some sort of reply, something along the lines of 'oh ... that's very interesting... ' or similar. Which was when the Wisdom decided to interrupt.
"Hi people ... just to let you know, I think our guest is coming out of her transformative coma and I think we need one of you to be around to explain where she is and what's going on. Anytime about now should be fine."
Zara pretty much exploded, jumping from the couch she'd been sitting on and screaming at the top of her voice, "Oh for fuck's SAKE!!! Can't you put the bastard back in stasis for an hour or so? This is important!"
"I am sorry if this is an inconvenient time. However, my best predictions indicate that our guest is already semi-aware of her surrounding and thus any further delay in her reorientation is contraindicated by the high possibility of negative consequences, up to and including fatally compromising her future ability to contribute to the tasks in hand."
The cold, emotionless, artificial voice paused for a second.
"Which means, no, it can't wait. I expect one of you will wish to proceed to the Recovery Area as soon as possible."