Walkabout - Walkabout

VergeOfHistory.com
Walkabout
Jim Carnicelli
11/13/2020   |   4/22/2020   |   5/5/2021   |   8,478

8,478 words
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Jim Carnicelli
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Verge of History: Walkabout

by Jim Carnicelli

11/13/2020    4/22/20    8,478    37:40
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Jayla picked up her adult woman doll as it walked by her. She reached out for her adult man doll and it flew through the air into her other hand. She sat both of them down in the horse-drawn carriage waiting by her knees. They bent their legs as she seated them and settled in together with smiles. The man grabbed the reins and snapped them lightly to get the horse’s attention. Off they went across the carpet.

Jayla was listening as her mother told her the story of when she took a trip to Earth some eighty years ago. Still six and a half herself, Jayla had never thought to ask how old her mother was. She didn’t look a day over thirty. But to Jayla she looked ancient.

“I still can’t get over the open sky. It’s one thing to see that in a synth but to actually be there. Just. Wow. Nothing over you. You feel like you could just get sucked right out into space. You know?”

Jayla didn’t look at her. She was busy petting Doggie, her virtual pet. Little heart-shaped bubbles sprouted above Doggie’s head and he licked her other hand with his cartoonish purple tongue. She wiped her hand on her pants reflexively and giggled.

“I think you would love Paris, Jaybird. It’s so beautiful. Such a quaint old city. I know it’s changed since I was there. But I don’t think that much. So much to see. Your birth father and I always meant to go back. But we never really did. Oh well. Have you talked with him recently?”

Jayla looked up from the floor at her mother for a moment. She was at the table eating a croissant with dabs of jam on it, talking between mouthfuls. Perhaps subtly inspired by her memories of Paris. Jayla pointed her little hand at the carpet next to her. The little man driving the carriage dutifully turned the horse to circle back and settle at the spot she had pointed at on the carpet. She looked up again.

“Well. I’m so proud of you Jay. Not many children your age go so far as you have. Now I want you to tell me all about the things you’ve seen today. I’ve got to go now. But I’ll watch your message when I get back. Have fun my sweet baby bird.” Her mother made kissy face at Jayla and then disappeared from the living room.

Jayla decided not to respond immediately. Her personal assistant read her negative intention and took her out of the virtual representation of her mother’s apartment. She wished she could interact in realtime with her mother but she knew she was far away. She didn’t really understand what a Lagrange point was or that the spinner her mother lived in was in orbit around the L4 point of the Earth-Sol system. None of this meant anything to her. But she did understand that her mother was far away. It would take eight minutes and twenty seconds for her reply to even reach her in Gidole. And she wasn’t feeling ready to tell her about her day so far. It was still morning in Phuket. Jayla was ready for breakfast. Her mother’s croissant looked delicious.

Jayla looked around her small hotel room. Her personal assistant, Angel, read her intention and subvocally spoke to her. “Would you like me to order you something from room service?”

Without moving her mouth Jayla voked back, “Um. I don’t know what I want. Mommy’s toast looked really good.”

“That’s called a ‘croissant’. It’s not ordinary toast. But it does have a lot of delicious butter baked right into it. Would you like me to see if I can get one delivered to you? And maybe some eggs?”

Jayla knew she wanted to try some of the local cuisine. She was a little scared to but still eager. But right now the croissant sounded very tempting. She decided to have it both ways. “Okay. Just the cross … saunt. Croissant. And some jam.”

Angel giggled back. “Atta girl. That’s exactly right. It looks like I can have a fresh-made one delivered within about seven minutes. Coming right up.”

Jayla grumped to herself. She was hoping it wasn’t going to take so long. She wanted to get some food in her before going out to explore. She walked to the sliding glass door. It opened for her and she walked onto the balcony. She put her tiny hands on the old painted metal bars. She was so small that she could easily fall right through if she turned sideways.

“Be careful dear,” Angel voked.

Jayla ignored Angel’s warning and twirled herself one way and then the other as she looked out through the bars. She had seen wide vistas before in synths. They could be amazing in their own right. But there was something truly stunning to Jayla about the view here in the real world. The actual Earth. From her 32nd floor hotel balcony she could see east out over a wide river toward the green hills of Ko Sire and the Andaman Sea beyond.

Sol had risen over Ko Sire a little while ago. Jalya was surprised by how hot it felt. And not just the sun. The breeze was already hot. Angel let her know her food had been delivered. She walked back through the glass door as it slid open for her. Angel made sure that it was the perfect temperature in here for her. Like always in Gidole. And most of the synths she visited. Jayla wasn’t sure she liked the weather on Earth.

She took the big tray off the round table. She wasn’t quite tall enough to sit comfortably at it in the chairs provided. She set it on the foot of her bed and hopped up on it to enjoy her light breakfast.

When she was done Jayla washed her hands and wiped her face on the bath towel. She walked to the door and stopped for a moment. It didn’t open for her. “Oh yeah.” She reached for the door handle and pulled it down. She pulled the heavy door open and walked out. She had a few things in her pockets. She had left everything else in her hotel room. She knew Angel would see to it that her belongings were packed up and put into temporary storage nearby until she decided where she would be spending the night tonight. She didn’t know or care if that would be done by machines or humans. She just knew they’d be where she needed them right when she did.

An autocab was waiting to pick Jayla up. Her little legs had quite a reach to hit the first step. She stepped up and into the cab. Its engines revved up and the cab lifted off the ground. She didn’t really know where she was going. Just that Angel had arranged to give her a little air tour north along the western coast of Thailand and Myanmar for a couple hours.

***

Jayla did enjoy watching the really tall buildings scudding by out her autocab’s window. Gidole had nothing like this. As a cylindrical spinner it was pretty packed with level after level of habitat ring. Only in the very center was there a large open space. And that was filled mostly with public parkland. Looking up meant looking at the trees that wrapped around the entire interior. The gravity there was so low that Jayla could easily clamber up the tall trees and even jump from one limb to another. She was still getting used to how she could only jump about ten centimeters off the pavement on Earth. She only normally felt gravity this strong on the highest levels of hab ring on Gidole. And even that was backwards on Earth, with floor numbers increasing as she rode hotel elevators upward. Angel had tried to explain why Earth was different but Jayla really didn’t care that much. It was just irritating.

As they flew north Angel told Jayla all about where they were. She overlaid maps at different scales in Jayla’s field of view showing the route they were taking along the coastline. She told her a little about the historical political boundaries between the two countries. None of the made worlds Jayla visited had anything of the sort. By the time they reached the delta of the Tavoy River Angel had decided to treat Jayla to a jaunt east over the rugged green mountains of Myanmar and into Bangkok for lunch.

Jayla was amazed by the seemingly endless expanse of forest below her. But it did eventually come to an end. She started seeing agricultural fields. She asked about them because she was not familiar with them. Angel explained that even on Earth most agriculture was done indoors by machines now. That most of Earth’s historical farmlands had been returned to nature or transformed into cities. But there were still traditional farmers who preferred to grow heirloom crops out under open skies. The cab had slowed down to allow her to look more closely. She could even see a few humans out in the fields overseeing the harvesting machinery. Angel explained that the small city of Pak Phraek that they were coming upon was where a lot of the human-made produce was bound for. Sold in street markets. Jayla was very interested. Angel decided to detour there.

Lunchtime

Angel voked, “You seem to be getting hungry.”

Jayla wordlessly nodded.

“Would you like me to find a nice restaurant nearby? Do you have thoughts on what you’d like to eat?”

“Not another restaurant. I don’t know what I want. What do Thailand people eat at home? Like with their mommies.”

“Thai people eat lots of different things. Most of them eat intersol food. The same wide variety of good things you eat when you’re home.”

“No. Not that.”

“Thailand has a rich food tradition. They eat many hot and savory curry dishes. Like the curry and egg breakfasts you love. But a little spicier. They enjoy many rice dishes. They roast meat on skewers for …”

“I want to play outside.”

“Absolutely sweetie. Would you like to walk around downtown?” The autocab slowed down and started making for a nearby drop-off pad just northwest of the Mae Klong river.

“Can I eat and play outside?”

Angel giggled. “I have an idea. Let’s introduce you to street food.”

After a few minutes of walking and talking to Angel Jayla was satisfied that street food was not made of street and was worth trying. As she walked she followed the lighted arrows projected into her field of view. She knew they were virtual and not physical. Just like Doggie, who was playfully romping in circles around her feet as she strolled. Other people would not see the arrows as she saw them. But they would see Doggie.

At least she thought they would. Some of the adults and children roaming the street glanced at Doggie or even reached down to pet him. Others walked right at him without any notice. Doggie would dart out of their way to avoid getting stepped on. How rude.

Angel voked, “Would you like to try a chicken skewer with peanut sauce?”

“Mmm-hmm.” Jayla nodded. She could just see over the top of the grill. She raised her hands, intending to grab the edge of the grill to pull herself up a little higher.

“Whoa! Don’t touch that honey,” Angel voked emphatically.

Jayla jumped back a little and said, “Oh!” aloud.

“Khun sabay dim himaiyim,” the man behind the grill said with wide eyes. Angel instantly voked a translation in a matched voice as “Are you okay young lady?”

“Yes, mister. I almost touched it. It’s hot.” As she voked a Thai-translated version of her words came out from somewhere in her clothing.

The man laughed and nodded. “Good. Good. Here. Would you like a beef satay stick?”

“Mmm-mmm. Chicken please.”

The vendor handed her a foot-long bamboo strip with flattened chicken chunks stretched out along it. Jayla wondered how she was supposed to eat it. He also handed her a napkin and a shallow plastic cup with a thick peanut sauce in it. He held up a small wand. A light on it flashed and it beeped. He smiled again and nodded in an exaggerated way. “Thank you. Oh! Let me give you something else young lady.” He disappeared under the grill for a moment and popped back up. He handed her a thin plastic bottle while nodding and smiling. “Please enjoy. Thank you.” Angel read off the label as “pomegranate juice”.

“Thank you mister.” Jayla smiled and nodded back to mirror the vendor’s gestures. They waved to each other as she walked away.

Jayla sat for a while at a simple wooden table under an umbrella. She struggled to figure out how to eat the chicken without burning herself or making a mess. She was starting to feel a little full by the time half the chicken was gone.

Just then two older boys sat down at the table with her. The first set a plastic food tray down. Like the street vendor, these two did not have name tags over their heads. Angel had warned her that some people on Earth still did not share their public names wirelessly like most of the people she knew did. Some didn’t even have cortical interfaces and personal assistants like her Angel. She didn’t fully understand what all of that meant. But she was starting to realize that some people might not see her name either. Almost no strangers addressed her by name here. They probably couldn’t see.

“Hello,” she voked. Angel translated and voiced her greeting out loud in Thai. “I’m Jayla.”

The first boy on her left said to the other, “She looks African.” Angel muffled his voice and translated for her.

The second on her right looked older. He replied, “No. She’s probably an off-worlder. She’s voking. Her ghost talks out loud for us.” He turned to her. “Can I have some of your chicken?”

Jayla pulled her chicken stick protectively closer. Angel voked, “Now now. You’re already feeling full. And this is a chance for you to talk to some local children.” She bit her lip for a moment. Then she jutted out a hand to give the stick to him. She watched as both of them plucked strips of meat off the stick and ate hungrily.

The first boy pushed his small plastic tray toward her. “Try some. Sweet rice.” Angel added that it looked like it was coconut-sweetened. It also appeared to have small bits of mango in it.

“How do you eat it?”

He pulled the tray back and tore a small bit of the spongy mass off to put in his mouth. He pushed it back to her and ate some more chicken.

She pushed her fingers into the rice. It was warm and squishy. She used her small fingers to perforate a third of the mass and pull it apart. She opened her mouth as big as possible and took a bite of it. It started crumbling in her hand.

The second boy said, “Hey! Not all of it. You are making a mess.”

Jayla’s clothing apologized as she stuffed more of it into her mouth. “Sorry. It’s very good. Sweet. Like pudding.”

The first boy laughed. “What a mess.”

Jayla and the other boy laughed too.

And then both boys suddenly stopped laughing as they looked past Jayla. They stood up together. The second boy said. “We have to go. You should leave too. Sorry.” They took off running.

Jayla turned to see an older boy strutting toward her. Angel voked, “This might be dangerous. You should calmly walk away from that boy. Try not to look directly at him.”

Jayla followed Angel’s instruction. She carried the rest of the sweet rice dish to a nearby trash can and tossed it. Then she felt a hand grab her upper arm. The boy forced her to walk between two vendor stalls and toward an alley.

“Come on little girl. Don’t make a scene. Let’s go over there.”

Angel voked, “Take a quick look at his face. I need a detailed scan.” Jayla snuck a look as he was dragging her along. “Okay. I’m going to talk to him. I think you should just do whatever he tells you for now. I’ll keep you safe dear.”

Jayla’s clothing began speaking in Thai to the boy and Angel voked the same for Jayla’s benefit. “This child is in my care. You need to let her go right now. She has nothing of value to you. And you will get in big trouble if you don’t let her go.”

The boy was much taller than Jayla. He smelled strongly of stale sweat and other body odors. “Shut up kid. What do you have in your pockets?” He pulled Jayla’s arm over her head to stand her up straight so he could feel around in her hip pockets.

“Ow! Stop it smelly boy.”

He laughed as he pulled a few small toys and unidentified trinkets from her pockets. He dropped them on the ground. “Worthless junk. Where are you hiding your money wand?”

Angel said to both, “She does not have one. Let her go. Police are on their way.”

Jayla cried, “Stop it! Stop it!”

The boy let go of her arm and took off running down the alleyway. Several small aerial bots and one walking police mech swarmed in from the opposite end of it.

Angel voked, “It’s okay honey. I alerted the local police. They’ll catch that boy in a few minutes. You’re safe now. You did very well. How do you feel?”

A human police officer and several other mechs eventually showed up and talked to Jayla for a few more minutes to make sure she was okay. She was a little shaken. But overall she was fine and ready to continue on with her day. She had pocketed her cherished tokens from home and just wanted to get back out into the sun.

Exploring

Jayla went back out to the sidewalk behind the street vendors and walked a little way. She found a concrete planter with a small tree in it to sit on. She pulled her things from her pockets and studied them in her hands. No serious damage. A little dirt to brush off with her hands. A small chip in a ceramic heart that had her mother’s name on it. A smudge on a tiny stuffed dog’s fur.

Jayla looked up to see one of the boys whom she had shared food with had returned. He was standing about ten meters away by another concrete planter. She hopped off her planter and put her things back in her pockets. As she walked toward him he looked like he might dart away. But he held back. She stopped about a meter away. She said, “What’s your name?”

The boy smiled and said, “My name is Dekchai Tawe Lek Tawe Hyaiy. But you can call me Lek.” He looked at the ground. “I forgot your name.”

“I’m Jayla.” She was surprised by the idea of ever forgetting someone’s name. She always had Angel to remind her.

“Hi Jayla.”

“Hi Lek. Where is your friend?”

“I’m sorry we ran away. My brother went home. I didn’t want to leave you alone. Wiriya is a mean boy. I was afraid he would hurt you. I’m glad the police saw what happened. I don’t know how they did though.”

“Angel called them.”

“Angel? Is that your ghost?”

“Angel is my personal assistant. She’s my best friend. She helps me a lot.”

The two walked out again to sit at another table with an umbrella. They talked for a while about their very different worlds. Lek’s family chose to stay “aboriginal”, a word Angel used to describe people who did not have genetic enhancements or cortical interfaces and all the modern conveniences that come with them. Such as personal assistants, telepresence, virtual worlds, and virtual pets like Doggie. Lek showed Jayla his own communication device. He held it up to his ear to show how he could call and voice chat with someone. But he explained that he was limited to using it to talk to his family, some friends, his worship community, his school, and so forth. Jayla was even more surprised when he told her he had spent almost his entire life on the outskirts of Pak Phraek. He had only left a few times to go to nearby towns and here downtown.

“That’s weird. Why don’t you travel? Why not go see Paris? Or Luna? Or my homeworld Gidole? Why stay here?”

“Father says there are a million places to go on Earth and a million stars in the sky. He says they all distract us from what really matters. If I wish to reach nirvana then I must be disciplined.”

“What does that mean?”

“Every day I spend some time meditating. Like this.” He sat on the ground and pushed his light metal chair away. He crossed his legs, interlaced his fingers together, and closed his eyes for ten seconds. Then he hopped back up and sat in his chair again. “Like that. See?”

“What for? Doesn’t your butt get dirty?”

Lek laughed. “It shuts out other thoughts. It focuses me. It brings me peace and a luminous mind.” He saw Jayla’s confused look. “All the material things of the world make you unhappy. Living cleanly and simply frees me from all that suffering.”

Jayla laughed. “That’s stupid.”

Angel scolded her. “That may hurt Lek’s feelings.”

Jayla added, “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

“What doesn’t?”

“I’m happy. I usually feel good. I didn’t feel very good about that smelly boy who hurt me. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me in my whole life.”

“What makes you happy?”

“Amelia is my best friend. I mean human friend. We have lots of fun. Doggie makes me happy. Mommy makes me happy. Traveling makes me happy. I have visited five worlds so far.” Angel corrected her. “I mean six worlds. Earth is the biggest. I have visited three cities so far. And I have flown all around Earth already.”

“Do you have silence?”

“What do you mean?”

“Does your ghost talk to you all the time? Do your friends call you a lot? Do you listen to music all the time?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I don’t wish to offend you. I just think you are missing out on true freedom. Try meditating sometime. Just sit on your floor. Close your eyes. Silence your personal assistant if you can. Turn off the music. Turn off everything. Just be in yourself for a while. That’s real freedom. You’ll start to heal your soul. And earn your karma.”

Jayla said nothing. Angel had silently set aside several video documents related to Lek’s advice for her perusal later. She knew she didn’t understand what he was talking about yet. And she did not want to hurt his feelings. He was nice. She just wanted to have some fun before it got too late. She would be leaving soon to visit Kolkata.

Lek looked a little nervous. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t talk like this. You have your ways and we have ours. I know I shouldn’t say this. But I wish I knew what it was like to be like you.”

“Like what?”

“Can you really transcend your body and visit other realities?”

Jayla had no idea what Lek meant. Eventually Angel explained that he most likely was referring to the synthetic worlds she could visit at will.

“Oh! I get you. Yes. I can visit synths. It’s not really the physical world. But it looks and feels all the same.”

“What’s that like? Is it like dreaming?”

Jayla thought for a moment. “A little. But you remember everything. And you can visit other people there. Real humans and synths too. But you can’t always tell them apart.”

“I see. Are there trees there? Streams? Buildings?”

“Yes. And anything else you can imagine.”

Lek nodded and smiled. “I wish I could visit you there. Sometimes when I meditate I try to imagine other places and people. It’s hard because I have not seen many places. The places I imagine look too much like the places I live. I look at paintings and sometimes videos to get ideas.”

“Where do you meditate? In your room?”

Lek smiled. “Sometimes. But I have special places I go too.”

“Can you show me?”

Lek frowned. “I want to. But it would take two hours to walk there.”

“We don’t have to walk. Can you tell me where it is?”

“I … How would you know how to get there?”

“Just tell me the name of the place. Or the address.” As she spoke another autocab came flying in. It descended toward a landing pad nearby. Jayla started walking toward it. She waved for Lek to follow.

“Oh! I don’t know the address. It is called Giant Chamchuri Tree. It is located in Ko Samrong, just south of here.”

Jayla clambered up the steps and into the glassy cabin. Lek stopped just short of joining her. He looked around the inside and reached out to lightly touch the rail.

“What’s wrong? Haven’t you ever been in a cab?”

“I have my bicycle. I sometimes ride in groundcars. Never a flying autocab.” He chuckled and smiled big as he climbed in and sat next to her. The cab’s engines revved up and it lifted off the ground. Lek was transfixed as he watched the mountainous ground zip past below them. “I have to ride or walk around these hills. Too dangerous. And still with a bike it takes a half hour.” In about two minutes they were landing in a grass patch next to a small parking lot.

The tree was massive. Angel reported that its branches officially spread nearly 70 meters in diameter. And that it was about 350 years old. Jayla was in awe. “Wow! Wow. That’s big.” The two walked around under the tree’s vast canopy for a while. “I don’t think this would fit in Gidole’s core park. Its branches would be all bent up by the curve.” She held her arms up in a C-like shape to illustrate the cylindrical hollow of the park space. She bent her neck way back to look toward the peak. “The top of the tree would go into the axis. I would climb it and hit null near the top. I’d just float there.” She giggled at Lek. “I want this tree!”

Lek laughed back. “You can’t have it little girl! It’s ours.”

Jayla looked around at the crowd. There were some families enjoying picnics in the cool shade of the outskirts of the tree’s canopy. Some people crowding in for a closer look at the colorful silk ribbons wrapped around the tree trunk. Young children were running around as children do. “So. Show me how you meditate. How you block all this out.”

Lek smiled big. He looked around and found a spot of grass big enough for the two of them. He sat down and crossed his legs. “Like this.” He waited as she sat down facing him with her legs crossed. He put his hands into his lap and laced his fingers together with his palms facing up. “Do like this.” He pressed his thumb tips gently together. He smiled as he watched Jayla mimic his posture. Then he sat up very straight and closed his eyes. He peeked a few seconds later and smiled as he saw Jayla was doing it all correctly.

The two sat in silence for a few minutes. Jayla tried to block out the world. But she was surprised at how aware she was of the sounds around her. Under the indistinguishable murmur of a couple hundred people under and around the tree she could hear the songs of birds flying around among the branches and looking for food scraps on the ground. She resisted the temptation to open her eyes and watch them. Somehow she felt a vivid sense of their existence this way. She became aware of the shifting breeze. The soft gust that cooled her body for a moment made a rustling sound that moved in a wave through the canopy and leaf litter on the ground.

Jayla wished she could make all the other people go away. She couldn’t truly silence them. They were spoiling the moment. She opened her eyes. “I’m bored. Show me something else.”

Lek laughed. “Okay. What do you want to see?”

Jayla looked around. “Is there anywhere else you meditate? Anywhere quieter?”

“Ah. I see.” Lek bit his finger for a moment. He smiled brightly again. “I know. I’ll show you a special place. Come on.” He nodded his head in the direction he was turning to walk. As Jayla caught up the two started trotting and laughing.

Cave

“This is my secret place I’m going to show you. You can’t tell anyone about it. Okay?”

“Okay. Is this it?”

“No no. We have to keep walking for a while. I’ll show you.”

The two walked out of the park and along a narrow country road for fifteen minutes and came to a temple Lek called “Wat Thammuninat”. They walked through the property. The buildings were distinctive. Especially the one with the tall spire. But there was something very garish about the place too. Lek was just passing through. But Jayla insisted on stopping in a couple of buildings. They were filled with stylized Buddhas, mirrors, and various trinkets and murals. As they reached the back end of the lot they came across a giant slender reclining Buddha statue stretched out on a crumbling concrete platform, protected by a painted rusty metal canopy. She realized that all of this represented Lek’s religious beliefs. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him how much more impressive the temples were in most synths she visited. And they were never sweltering hot.

“Come on.” Lek took Jayla’s hand and tugged at her to come away. This was the first time he had touched her. It was only for a moment. “This isn’t what I wanted to show yet.”

They walked to the right and out along a dirt road leading away from the temple grounds. After about ten minutes they could no longer see any of it. Even the giant tree that angel labeled in the distance in her field of view had vanished behind the nearby hill. Lek walked off the dusty road into a faint trail up the tree-lined incline. After five minutes Jayla said, “I’m tired. Where are we going?”

“We’re almost there. Don’t give up now. You’ll see.” Another minute of hard climbing passed. “Almost there.” He helped Jayla overcome the limits of her shorter legs. He was surprised to see that she was really struggling to keep up. He didn’t really understand the variable gravity environments of spinners. Earth was a heavy drag for anyone not accustomed to a full G every day. “I’m sorry for making you work so hard. Life is suffering. But you are rewarded for your toil. We are here.”

They had reached a small ravine running along the hill. It was flatter here. She caught her breath as she held herself up with a tree branch. As Lek walked down into the ravine and up the other side she realized where he was going. Hidden in the trees was a cave entrance. She walked carefully down into the rocky ravine and over to where Lek was beckoning.

“Oh wow! It’s beautiful. Can we go inside?”

“This is my favorite place to meditate.” He looked around as though expecting someone to come around the corner. “I’ve never showed anyone this place before. But you are leaving soon. I thought you would like to see this before you go.”

“Yes. I love it. It’s hard to get to. But it’s a pretty place. Can we go see inside?”

Lek laughed. “Such an impatient girl. Okay. Let’s go in.” As she approached him he grabbed a yellow object from behind a rock and flipped a switch to reveal it as a shop light. The bright white rectangular strip lit up the cave as Lek walked farther in.

Angel warned Jayla that she had lost her wireless network connection to the rest of the world. She would need to be careful in here.

The cave entrance narrowed quickly. They were about a dozen meters in. The floor of the cave was dirt strewn with rocks and some tree litter. Lek helped Jayla climb up on a rock shelf that he had cleared off at some point. He wiped some of the moisture away from its surface for her to sit down on. Then he climbed up as well. There was just enough room for both of them to sit side by side and cross their legs. He switched the light off and set it aside.

Jayla’s eyes adjusted to the dim space. The entrance seemed incredibly bright when she looked out toward it. She could see the two of them rimmed in what light reached them. She could see gleams off the wet rock walls. She closed her eyes and listened for a while. No people. No screeching toddlers. Just the muffled sound of the wind blowing through the trees outside. A soft rumble of that wind blowing across the cave’s entrance. Leaves rustling around on the dirty ground near the entrance. A bird or two chirping somewhere nearby.

Jayla felt a certain antsiness. But she sat still and tried hard to shut out the world. It was hard to escape the vivid soundscape of the cave. And her mind wandered. She thought about her mother and her friend Amelia. Lek had asked her not to tell anyone about this secret place of his. But surely he didn’t expect her not to tell them. She looked forward to putting together a synth letter with snippets of the video stream Angel was always recording through her eyes. She wasn’t sure whether to share her new friend with them though.

Around another ten minutes went by as Jayla got lost in her thoughts. She resisted the temptation to slip into a synth or at least listen to some of her favorite music. This felt like an eternity. But Angel confirmed how much time had actually elapsed. She got occasional reminders that Lek was there as he would shift subtly or exhale a little louder.

Jayla’s eyes snapped open as she realized there was a new sound. A low rumble reverberated through the cave. Angel let her know that it sounded like some large animal. Possibly a tiger or other wild cat. She watched the silhouette pacing back and forth just inside the entrance.

Lek startled her by silently grabbing her arm. He whispered into her ear in Thai and Angel translated it as, “Don’t move. I think he can smell us. This is very bad.” The two clasped hands and sat in silence. Now and then the tiger would stop pacing and hold very still. Jayla tried to keep from breathing so hard as she was. She simply couldn’t be silent enough.

Lek whispered, “He’s coming in! We have to go back farther. Come on.”

The two practically rolled off the rock. There was almost nothing to see in the pitch black here. It was apparent that the tiger could hear their noisy retreat deeper into the cave. The ceiling was very low here. Jayla hoped the tiger wouldn’t be able to fit.

The tiger’s roar was deafening. Jayla was terrified and felt her skin crawl. Only Lek’s hand on hers gave her any sense of safety now.

Angel was trying her best to give useful advice without overwhelming Jayla. She reported her hope that they could wait out the beast in here. That it might give up and leave after a few minutes. Hopefully this tiger did not consider this cave a regular place to stay. That she should look for a big rock or stick to hold onto just in case she needed something to hit it in the face with.

Lek tugged at Jayla. “Come on. There’s a side tunnel back here. It’s not very safe. But it might be good right now.”

Just then the tiger roared and lunged forward. The two children screamed. And Jayla’s clothing let out a tinny roar of its own. Jayla saw Doggie standing between her and the tiger. She had never heard Doggie roar before. She knew it was an illusion created by Angel. It was a very comforting illusion though. The tiger had jumped back. With another tinny roar from Doggie the beast retreated back to the mouth of the cave. The two of them and the tiger stood completely still for a long moment. Then the tiger resumed its pacing.

Lek squeezed her hand. “Oh my God! Did you see that? He almost got us. Your ghost saved us. But we still need to get to a safer place. Come on. It’s right back here.”

Jayla crouched very low in the dark. She could not see where they were going. She could barely even see Lek’s feet crawling before her.

“Here. Hold this. There’s a deep hole right here. I have to get across it. I can’t turn it on to see where I’m going though. I’ll turn it back on once we’re there.”

Jayla grasped the shop light he scooted on the ground toward her. “I’m scared. Be careful.”

“It’s okay. We’re almost there. This is the hard part. I’ve never done this in the dark before. I just have to find —” Lek yelped. Jayla could hear him slip and slide away in the dark.

“Lek!” It was a half-whispered yell verging on tears. “Lek! Where are you?” Nothing. “Lek? Are you okay? Lek!” Jayla was weeping quietly. Angel reminded her to be as quiet as possible. She sniffled and stifled her silent tears. She could not hear the tiger. Nor see it. They had rounded a bend. She hoped the space here was too tight for the beast. But she didn’t know if she would even see it if it crept up on them.

Jayla was gripped by terror. She couldn’t bear the darkness anymore. She fumbled around on the shop light until it turned on. She was momentarily blinded by it. She aimed it toward where the tiger might come and closed her eyes. When she could see again she confirmed the tiger was not here yet. She expected it to come around the corner at any moment. She didn’t know if the light would scare or attract it. But she felt a small comfort from the light just now.

Jayla crawled forward and dragged the light ahead to see where Lek had gone to. Just as he had described there was a steep drop off. A cleft in the rock cut from far above where Jayla could see to somewhere deep in the darkness below. She held the light over the crevasse. She couldn’t see Lek anywhere. But he must have fallen down.

Angel voked, “This is very dangerous honey. This gap is too far for you to get across safely. You should back away from the edge. I’d like you to turn off the light but keep it firmly in your grip. If the tiger comes back here you can hit it with the light. Tigers have very sharp eyes for hunting in the dark. But it’s too dark for even it to see well back here. Good. Keep your finger near the switch too. You can momentarily blind the tiger with the light. Just make sure to squint your eyes before you flip the switch. And be ready to stun it by hitting it squarely on the nose. Its nose will be very sensitive. It will hurt it if you bump it firmly.”

Jayla was on her knees trembling in the dark. She couldn’t see anything. The tiger could be right in front of her right now and she wouldn’t know. Angel was voking comforting words and occasional advice. But Jayla was silent in return.

She closed her eyes. It looked the same. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She took another and exhaled slowly.

Angel voked, “That’s very good honey. Stay relaxed. You may be here for a while. You need to be calm and ready. We’ll get you through this safely.”

Jayla took another deep breath. She slumped down in a more relaxed pose, still sitting on her feet. She tried to meditate. She listened intently in the dark. She could not hear anything. No tiger. And no Lek.

Lek! Jayla voked Angel, “We need to help Lek. He’s hurt down there. Is he okay?”

“I’m not sure dear. I hope he’s okay. I’ll be able to call for help once we get outside. But for now you need to stay safe.”

“I don’t hear the tiger anymore. But I’m scared. Is he gone?”

“I don’t know. But you should stay here at least another ten minutes. By then it might be gone. Just stay ready in case it comes back here.”

“I don’t want him to come back here.”

“I know honey. But just relax. We’ll get through this just fine.”

“But what about Lek? I’m scared. I think he’s not okay.”

The two continued to argue subvocally in the silence here. Jayla could do as she pleased most of the time. Angel had the power to stop her in an emergency. But that almost never happened now that she was older. It was Angel’s job to advise Jayla. But Jayla knew she was always in charge in their relationship. And right now she knew that the only way she could help Lek was to get outside so they could hail some bots to come rescue the boy trapped somewhere down there. Angel knew so much. And she always had good advice. But for once Jayla just couldn’t bring herself to accept this advice.

Jayla crept slowly forward in the dark out of this side passage and toward the low-ceilinged back of the cave. She was glad she could start to see again. It almost seemed bright here by contrast to the pitch black she was emerging from. At the mouth of the cave she saw the tiger stop pacing and its head rear up to face inward. It could surely hear her.

Jayla was frightened in a way she had never been before. Fear in a synth was always a thrill. But this was no synth. This was real and incredibly dangerous. She imagined what it might feel like for the tiger to bite down on her arm and drag her out from her hiding place here. Even from back here it was apparent that the beast was so much bigger than her or even Lek. She was terrified.

But the only way she was going to help Lek was to get out there. To get past this deadly guard. And there was no way it was going to leave now. It would probably wait here for hours for her to come out. Or it would come in and corner her. There was no way she could run under this low ceiling. And nowhere to go but back into the deadly darkness of the side cave where Lek lay unconscious. Or maybe even dead.

As Angel continued to try to dissuade her, Jayla took two deep breaths and let each out in turn. She started stoop-walking toward the cave entrance ahead. The tiger’s head lowered and it roared at her. She hesitated for just a moment. Still time to retreat and rethink this. Nope. Forward. She fingered the switch of the shop light she held in her hands like a baseball bat.

Once Jayla got to where she could almost stand up straight, she paused for just a moment. The tigered rumbled at her. She could see its head dip down and its shoulders rising and falling on either side of its silhouetted body.

Jayla flipped the switch on the light with her eyes turned away from it. She held it out before her and started swinging it like a sword as she trotted forward. She screeched as loud as her little lungs could muster. Between her screams she could hear Angel roaring as loudly as possible through the speaker in her clothing. She saw Doggie racing out before her and opening his mouth huge with each roar.

The tiger darted out of the cave! It disappeared out of view down into the ravine. Jayla stopped and let out another scream. Her terror suddenly transformed into a wave of surprised pleasure.

“Keep going dear! Just a little farther. I need the wireless to call for help.”

“Oh yeah!” Jayla trotted forward a little further. She could see the tiger standing in the bottom of the ravine. It leapt a little further away and stopped. It looked like it was trying to decide whether to rush her or flee. “Go away!” Jayla yelled. “Go away! Run away!”

The tiger didn’t budge. It stood staring. Then it looked off in another direction for a moment. It darted off as fast as its lithe body could carry it into the woods down the hill and disappeared.

A police bot was descending rapidly toward them. Several other vehicles followed. Including an ambulance. Two humanoid bots leapt from the sides of the ambulance and rushed into the cave.

A human police officer emerged from a police car as it was landing. He ran up to Jayla. He spoke in Thai and Angel voked the translation. “It’s okay Jayla. You’re safe now. We’ll find Lek and get him to safety.” He put his big hands on her shoulder. “You’re a brave little girl. I’m very proud of you. I don’t think I would have had the courage to bum-rush that cat.” He patted her cheek. “You’re my hero today.”

Jayla hugged the officer and cried in his shirt.

Tree

Jayla clambered up the gigantic tree. The trunk was so wide that there was no chance she could have climbed up it on Earth. But here in the lower gravity of Gidole’s core park her small hands could get enough purchase on the crackled bark of the ancient tree to clamber slowly up. As she got higher up she felt the lower gravity near the invisible axis around which Gidole spun in space making her job easier.

She knew this was a synth. There was no way Gidole would have a colossal tree like the one she had meditated under back on Earth. This would have to do. It was only a few months ago but it seemed like a lifetime. She appreciated what a good job Angel had done of reproducing the look of that beautiful giant. She had already shared it with Amelia, her mother, and many of her other friends. But now she was enjoying it alone. One benefit was that she could wish away the usual crowd of all-hours visitors to the park here in her private synth.

Lek was safe back on Earth. He had been knocked out and concussed. But he had recovered quickly. They had exchanged voice-only audio messages once after she was back home. She intended to send him another message soon. Probably a video one this time. The new comm device his parents had just bought him was able to send and receive videos even. She was glad she had gotten a chance to meet them before she left.

As she got near the top of the tree Jayla could tell she was reaching the null gravity place along the axis. She was no longer climbing so much as hand-over-handing her way among the branches. She chuckled. She closed her eyes and crossed her legs. The posture was absurdly different with no weight pressing down on her. But it was relaxing enough. She let go of the tiny branch she was holding onto and folded her hands like she had learned. She smelled the tree. She felt the weak breeze whipped up by blowers in parts of the park to add some realism. She listened to birds flitting about among the tree branches. They were fun to watch flying in the null where they no longer had to fight gravity. But she kept her eyes closed and focused on her breathing. She smiled and exhaled slowly.

{Track:OliviaNewtonJohn.Xanadu}