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Dexamene and Alfred had arrived at their final destination. Earlier in the day they had come through customs in Seattle after a long trans-Pacific flight. Dexamene was bored and a bit weary and considered the long trip to Japan as having constituted a waste of her valuable time. She would much preferred to have left Alfred in Japan.
With one hand on his elbow, Dexamene led Alfred through a narrow corridor that channeled deplaning passengers past the airport security check point. She cringed to see a large clot of passengers waiting to have their carry-on bags searched before thy would be allowed to go out to the gates and wait for their departing flights. She was thankful that her trip was complete and she would not have to wait in any more lines.
Nervously glancing at the security equipment, Dexamene wondered if even this small airport merited deployment of one of the new nanoelectronic signature detectors. Ferace had recently been issuing warnings about more sensitive detectors being installed on Earth. The problem with nanotechnology was that it could be easily hidden from human eyes and she dared not use any of her nanite prostheses here, not when airports were notoriously popular with Observers as surveillance stations.
To a casual observer, Dexamene and Alfred would have looked like a fashionable young couple, perhaps returning from a short early season ski trip in the Canadian Rockies. Alfred might have seemed a trifle tired or confused...maybe hung over, or upon closer inspection and questioning, mentally handicapped. He seemed to follow Dexamene's lead and his shuffling gait lacked any indication of spontaneity. At customs the agents had quickly decided to ignore Alfred and addressed their questions to Dexamene, allowing her to answer for him.
One such casual observer, a young man named Thomas, had Dexamene and Alfred in his sights, but he was concerned with his own affairs and at first was only barely conscious of Dexamene. Thomas noticed that she was somewhat taller than average and had the graceful skeletal frame of an athlete or a dancer. Normally Thomas would have quickly let her slip from his thoughts and only briefly suffered a feeling of wistfulness, but there was something familiar about her. Thomas wondered: was she some semi-famous athlete or minor celebrity?
Dexamene and Alfred emerged from the narrow corridor and entered into a broader segment of the concourse where, off to the side, there were chairs and phones and a few shops selling food and magazines and trinkets. Dexamene pulled Alfred off to the side and into in a quiet nook where a few phones were arranged in small clusters for the convenience of airport patrons. She placed her hand on his cheek and a swarm of nanites went from her body into Alfred. Suddenly Alfred seemed to come out of his daze. Dexamene asked, "Feeling better?"
Alfred looked around as if he were only just then noticing where he was. He replied, "Yes, I am back." Alfred turned away from Dexamene and quickly walked towards the parking garage, now navigating his own path. Dexamene watched Alfred depart, only briefly wondering if there might be a nanoelectronic signature detector between the terminal building and the parking garage. She let such concerns slip from her thoughts: even the Observers could not watch everyone all the time.
At one of the nearby phones, Thomas was trying to call a friend who had promised him a ride back to his home from the airport. Thomas was becoming frustrated because he could not contact his friend, either at his home or by way of his cell phone number. While making the two calls and waiting for his friend to answer he had watched Dexamene and Alfred with growing interest. There was something very familiar about Dexamene, but almost like something remembered from a dream.
Thomas hung up the phone and decided that his friend was probably already at the airport and may have shut off the ringer on his cell phone. People were always doing that and forgetting to turn the ringer back on. Thomas was ready to walk out to the curb and look for his friend's car, but he had become intrigued by what he had just witnessed and what he was now experiencing. It was now as if a subtle glow surrounded the young couple he had been watching. Then the man turned and walked away, but the glow stayed with the woman. Thomas knew that this glow was what his doctor called a hallucination and Thomas had been carefully instructed to ignore such things. He knew that he could not ignore them since they were a fundamental part of his existence. Thomas quickly took a few steps over towards Dexamene and said, "I feel like I know you-" He had one hand raised up and moving towards her.
Hearing a voice close behind her, Dexamene turned quickly and seemed startled by the strange man's sudden approach. She looked at his none-too-clean hair and stubbly beard and instinctively took a step backwards. Thomas continued moving forward, backed her against the wall and put his hand on her face, imitating what the woman had done, moments ago, to her travel companion. Thomas asked, "What did you do to that guy? It looked like something came out of your hand and woke him out of a trance."
Dexamene brushed his hand away and briefly wondered if she had been sloppy about the transfer of nanites into Alfred's brain. It had been important to alter his brain's electromagnetic signature during the flight and the easiest way to do that was to just drain out most of the nanites from his nanotronic brain. There should have been no way for an Earth human to see the nanites while they transferred in microscopically, no, nanoscopically narrow threads from her body into Alfred's brain. Dexamene quickly invented an excuse, "He always uses hypnosis when flying to calm his nerves. I just used a small magic trick to bring him out of his trance. Good day, sir."
Dexamene walked away from Thomas and headed towards the baggage claim area, leaving the young man looking at his hand. His hand now seemed to tingle and then his whole mind came alive with what seemed like the static-laden noise of a thousand un-tuned radios. Thomas started slapping his hands together and did not pay any attention to where he was walking until he bumped into the plexiglass partition that separated him from the passengers who were in line and waiting to go through security screening. He looked up foolishly into their startled faces then looked down again at his hand. Now, as quickly as it had come, the tingle and static faded away. Within the context of his life, which had been full of hallucinations, seizures and cognitive challenges, these transient sounds and sensations did not greatly surprise Thomas.
Thomas shrugged, re-oriented himself and went back to use the phone again. Now he was quickly connected to his friend's cell phone. His friend explained that he was now waiting at the curb outside the terminal. The young man hung up the phone, picked up his small travel bag and walked towards the exit, wondering where he had seen that woman before.
End of teaser.
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Stefiz al-Arabid was recovering from a great weekend spent staying up through the nights while working with her friends on their software projects. Stefiz had only managed to grab three hours of sleep during the past 24 hours, but she was young and strong and knew from past experience that she would get by. If she had to, she would just take a nap that afternoon.
In fact, she was about a year younger than most college sophomores. She had completed her high school graduation requirements early and had seen no reason to delay going to college. She had always found mathematics and science to come easily and her academic performance had won her full scholarship support, which was useful since her parents, both immigrants, had no money to speak of. Stefiz had a plan for her life and a career which centered on being the first college graduate in her family and making a place for herself in the computer software industry. She expected to start her own software company before she was thirty.
The main task at hand was completing a neglected homework assignment due at her 8:00 Science, Society and Technology class. She typed on her keyboard, "Wiki technology creates virtual communities where alternative social structures can be explored. While this new technology may seem alien to some, even conventional segments of society such as the medical research community are starting to explore the advantages of the types of information exchanges made possible by hypertext pages that the entire world can edit. In this paper, I have attempted to map possible courses of development for wiki technology. I have centered my speculations on the cellular nature of existing wikis and the need to"
Stefiz had the odd sensation that typing "cellular" had caused her cell phone to ring. The ring sound (a fragment of Charlie Monroe singing "Who's Calling You Sweetheart?") indicated that the caller's phone number was not in her list of friends. She almost ignored the call, but out of the corner of her eye she could see her cell phone and the displayed number of the caller indicated that it was a long distance call. She scooped up her phone and puzzled briefly at the area code....it was not one she recognized. "Hello, who is calling?" Desperate to complete her assignment, she plugged a hands-free headset into the phone and continued typing on her keyboard.
There was a pause at the other end of the phone connection and a set of barely audibly tones. Then a man's voice said, "This is P. Albert."
Stefiz got as far as, "I have centered my speculations on the cellular nature of existing wikis and the need to find ways to link all wiki communities into a coherent online representation of the human thought-space." She pulled her hands back from the keyboard and tried to place the name "P. Albert". She did not recognize the man’s voice, but he seemed to expect Stefiz to recognize the name. Something like recognition began to reach the edge of her conscious mind and she lamely muttered, "Uh..."
After a long pause, the man provided another hint, "Well, maybe I have the wrong number. I've been reviewing your article at the Academia wiki. You are CrystalCarbon, right?"
Stefiz was surprised, but now the name made sense. "Oh, you're PAlbert! Wow! How did you find my phone number?" Stefiz had, a few weeks previously, been involved in an intense online argument with the Wikia user PAlbert. Unwelcome thoughts of being stalked by some internet lunatic flashed through her mind.
The man apologized for intruding on Stefiz from the depths of cyberspace. He lamely tried to explain how he had obtained her phone number, "Well, I assumed you were publishing under your real name and I could guess that you are a college student. It was not that hard to find your name on some webpages for a student organization at your college. I called your campus operator and got this number for you."
Stefiz was irked. How would a campus operator know her phone number? She was sure that she had never given the college permission to release her personal information to the world. She opened a browser window and searched the internet for her name. She easily found the webpages for the Computing Club that had her name on them. She remembered having made those webpages herself about a half year earlier. She asked, "So what's your real name?"
The man responded with a chuckle. "You know, I could make up a name that might satisfy you, but to be honest, I do not want to tell you my real name."
Stefiz was now fully in defense mode. "Then I think this conversation is over, and do not call again."
"Wait! Let me explain! Don't hang up! Listen to me..." He sounded seriously panicked at the idea that she would break the connection.
Stefiz cut him off, "No, you listen to me. If you really want to talk to me, send me an email with your real name and explain what you want to talk about. If I decide I want to talk to you, I'll call you back." She broke the connection and suspecting he might call again, she shut off her phone. She just had to get her homework assignment done.
With a few more minutes work she completed the assignment and emailed it to her professor, just three minutes before the deadline. Then she was out of her dorm and running to class. It was not until later that afternoon that she had time to check her email.
At lunch, Stefiz switched on her cell phone and noted that the mysterious PAlbert had not tried to call a second time. After having been in classes all morning, this was the first chance she had to think about her early morning phone call. She tried to reconstruct in her mind the intellectual argument she had engaged in with PAlbert. She had spent about a month working on a wiki article about ways to upgrade a wiki user interface to include features such as live audio and video feeds from multiple editors. She had incorporated into the article much of what she had learned the previous semester in her Computer Programming course and the appendix of the article even included a coded audio-visual extension for MediaWiki.
Even before she had completed work on the article, she had started getting talk page comments from PAlbert. He complained that there was no point in turning MediaWiki software into some sort of chat interface- his argument was that it would only distract people from getting on with the task of writing and editing wiki articles. For about a week they had traded their arguments back and forth with Stefiz defending the utility of allowing multiple editors to speak together about a wiki article that they were all editing.
PAlbert had argued that in cases where editors wanted to talk, they could use other software that was specialized for that purpose. Sticking audio and video capability into MediaWiki would do more harm than good. Stefiz had argued that the mature audio-visual interface for a wiki would be fully integrated and provide an interactive workspace where multiple editors could click and drag sections of articles around while discussing them. Audio or video comments and suggestions could be tacked onto specific parts of wiki articles in real time rather than being shunted off to talk pages. PAlbert had called such proposed features "pollution" and "abominations" and eventually the argument died out. Stefiz had been well on her way to forgetting the whole affair when the phone call came. All of this flashed through her mind in the time it took to walk across the dining common to an empty table by a window.
She let her over-full backpack slide off of her shoulder into a chair and set her tray of food on the table. As she put the phone into the backpack and began to turn her full attention to lunch, her friend Charlie appeared and asked, "Do you mind if I join you?"
Stefiz looked up in surprise at the sound of Charlie's voice. She glanced at his near-military precision in posture as he stood waiting for her to reply to his question. He was the only friend she had who would even think of asking for permission to sit at her table. Briefly, she wondered if he ever even thought about his habit of politely asking before approaching her. It seemed as integral to his being as was knowing how to put one foot in front of the other while walking. But she thought she knew well his reasons for being so formal and she approved. She experienced a warm flutter of excitement at his presence and slight amusement at his seriousness- he actually looked like he expected that she might say, "No". She replied, "Hey, there. Sit down. Don't you have a class now?" She knew Charlies class schedule as well as she knew her own.
Charlie carefully pulled a chair away from the table and used a paper napkin to wipe it off, and then he carefully wiped off most of the table that was not already occupied by Stefiz. While he cleaned (needlessly) he said, "I'm blowing off class," and he looked at Stefiz and he winked. The corners of his mouth were just slightly turned up, as if he had an amusing story to tell. Finally, he sat down and folded his hands on the table.
Stefiz tried not to let her jaw drop. Charlie was certainly not the kind of person she would expect to skip class. And what did he think he was doing with his sly winking and grinning? And now he was sitting there looking cute, knowing damn well what he was doing to her emotions. When they had met in Freshman English it had been like a volcanic eruption. She had come to college intent on getting an education and not being distracted by men, and then in the first week she found herself unable to keep her mind off of Charlie. He had made it clear that he was equally smitten, but it was his impeccable manners and formal 1920's courting rituals that had given Stefiz a chance to catch her breath and get over the first rush of infatuation.
Charlie came to her dorm's Halloween party dressed as a turkey and invited her to "have me for Thanksgiving". Stefi had sternly laid down her rules. "Charlie, up until now you have been an impossibly perfect gentleman, and I think you know how much I appreciate that. But now I see that it is not fair for me to take advantage of you. So goodbye and I won't be seeing you again."
He had laughed and ignored her and they had a wonderful night at the party and the next day they had gone for a long bike ride through the hills up behind the campus. She was thinking about what she must say, had been thinking about it with increasing intensity for the past month and with near panic all that day as they rode down narrow roads through the hills. When they sat on a rocky knob looking out over the valley, she finally gathered all her career-first will power and repeated the rules they would have to live by. Having "laid down the law", again, she looked off into the distance, but she was very much aware that he was watching her. Charlie's silence dragged on, accented by a gentle wind moving through the nearly bare tree limbs above, and she slowly shifted from basking in his constant gaze to feeling uneasy at the obvious power of the hold that she held on him. She turned towards him and said, "Charlie Parker, first of all, stop that right now."
He had laughed at her, knowing perfectly well what she meant. "Aw, Stefi, can a flower help but gaze upon the sun?"
She had rehearsed it all in her mind, how she would be serious and quick and brutal, but she had known all the while that it would not work out that way. She was no puppy beater. "I'm serious, Charlie, this has been wonderful the past two months, getting to know you, but here I am enjoying myself when I should be in the library working on my papers and projects. You are too much of a distraction. And I am not going to let you do this to me."
At that point he stood up, then knelt down on one knee and took hold of her hand, "Then it is sad leaving we must share and end this thing now while it still fills us with wonder and before it sours....withers....and generally ends up worthy of the Broken Heart Hall of Fame." He pressed his lips against the back of her hand, stood up, took a few quick strides to the edge of the cliff and jumped over the edge. In a second Stefiz was at the edge of the precipice looking down at Charlie about 10 feet below, standing on a ledge and grinning up at her.
While he climbed back up to her level, she lectured him, "That was not funny, you jackass. Don't think you can distract me with your pranks or make me feel sorrier for you than I already feel for myself."
He came up over the last four feet of the drop-off like an Olympic swimmer coming out of the pool after winning a gold medal. He brushed a few specks of dirt off of his preppy clothes. It occurred to Stefiz that Charlie's hair was not even mussed and he showed no sign of having been bothered by the potential danger of his jump to a narrow ledge. She had evolved a mantra, always repeated to herself at such moments, "He is just so perfect."
He still wore his grin, "Well, I think it was just a little bit funny, but then I was the one that got to see your face when you looked over the edge, expecting to see my corpse somewhere down below."
She put her fists on her hips and pretended that she had not panicked when he jumped. "Really, it was not that much of a surprise. I saw you look over the edge when we first got here; you knew that ledge was down there. When you jumped you looked like you were aiming for a target close to the edge and I could hear you land on that ledge after you went out of sight."
He stepped close to her and took hold of her shoulders. "You are very good at providing rationalizations after the fact. But I saw your face."
Stefiz turned away and broke his gentle grip. "The point is, I'm going to be very busy the rest of the semester and so are you. We have indulged ourselves and we do have something special and it is something we can put high up on shelf and keep for a long time. Try to keep. You know as well as I do that it may just fade away. In a few years, if we have not drifted apart, we can re-evaluate. But for now we have to stop spending so much time together."
He shook his head and said quietly, "We don't have to stop."
She gathered all of her strength and agreed. "True. But we are going to stop. It is a choice I have made."
Then he said something that she did not understand. "There are no choices." Then he went over to his bike, got on it and they rode back to the campus.
Now, a year later, a year during which Charlie had treated her like a sister, Stefiz sat watching him ogle her the way he had when they first met and they were on fire with their emotions. She demanded, "What is it Charlie?"
He rolled his eyes and gushed, "I'm in love!"
For a second, her heart sank and it seemed like her fear of losing him would be realized, but she knew him well enough to know that this was Charlie the prankster. Stefi guessed that he wanted her to play along, so she asked, "What's her name? Do I know her?"
Charlie nodded, "Yes, you do. It's Dr. Wedden, my Linear Algebra prof. She told me that if we were going to keep seeing each other, I'd have to drop her class, so I did."
Stefiz could no longer play the straight man and she laughed. "So what does Mr. Wedden think of all this?"
Charlie put his hands behind his head and leaned back in satisfaction, "Oh, he's quite accommodated himself to the new state of affairs. If you're interested I'll have him call you, he could probably use a quick little fling to lift his spirits." Then he stopped his role playing and asked seriously, "Dr. Wedden is married?"
Stefiz shrugged. "Probably. How would I know?"
Charlie nodded, "Ya, you're probably right, she's too hot not to be married. Don't you think she's sexy?"
Stefiz wrinkled her nose, "She always wears blue jeans and I don't think she knows what makeup is. She's a nerd."
Charlie looked under the table at the blue jeans Stefiz was wearing. "All true, but there's nothing sexier than a tight pair of pants on the woman you love. And besides, I've never seen you wearing makeup either."
Stefiz still wondered what had gotten into Charlie. He had not behaved like this for the past year. "That's not true. I showed you my prom picture."
"But I've never seen you wearing makeup, in person." He pulled two tickets out of his shirt pocket and handed them to Stefiz. "I got two tickets to the ballet and I want you to get all dressed up fancy and go with me."
Stefiz read the tickets, "A Midsummer Night's Dream. Charlie, you want to take me on a date? How romantic."
He read her face and reply and could tell she was pleased. "I'm glad you like the idea. I was worried that this might be against the rules."
She patted his hand reassuringly, "Don't be absurd. You can spend large amounts of money on me any time you like. By the way, how are we going to get to the show?"
Charlie shrugged, "I haven't thought that far ahead. I just got the tickets in the mail from my mother. She won them in some raffle and with dad back in the hospital they are not able to use the tickets."
Stefiz had not heard that Charlie's father was back in the hospital. He launched into a detailed description of his father's medical condition and added on a long discourse on the latest research on ACE inhibitors. Stefiz wondered how much of Charlie’s drive to become a physician came from wanting to help his own father. Finally, Stefiz realized that the dining hall was nearly empty and she had missed the start of her afternoon class. She pulled her phone out of her backpack and looked at the time. She accused Charlie, "You did that on purpose."
Charlie asked innocently, "Did you miss a class?"
Stefiz was perturbed and briefly thought about running to catch the rest of the class. It was just a discussion session with a Teaching Assistant, and today was to be a review session for the up-coming test in her physics class. She admitted to herself that she was not disappointed to miss a review session where a few desperate students would be trying to learn material they had neglected to study. She studied Charlie's face and decided that he had honestly been caught up in his own concerns over his father's health and had not purposefully made Stefi miss her class. "It’s just an optional review session. Now it’s your job to answer my questions about paramagnetism."
He looked towards her open backpack, "Oh, Kittel, ya, he does not go into much detail about paramagnetism."
Stefiz shook her head in wonder at Charlie. Most pre-meds wanted to take physics for poets, but Charlie's dream was to build a personal NMR scanner that you would wear in your pocket so it could detect the slightest defect in your coronary arteries. In his spare time, he was going to make a nanorobotic repair crew that would leap into action at the first sign of blood clot formation and repair the damaged artery from inside the blood stream. His father was an experimental physicist and Charlie had grown up reading physics texts from his father's book shelves. In 20 minutes he straitened out Stefiz's thinking about the orbitals of molecules and then they left the dinning common.
It was the middle of a glorious Indian Summer afternoon and Stefiz stood in the sunshine trying to decide if she should go to the library or back to the computer in her room. Looking up slope, she could see that students were clustered and crusted around the dorms, enjoying what might be the last chance to sun bathe that year.
Stedi also felt Charlie's gaze and sensed that he was watching her the way he used to, like he was helplessly transfixed and could not pull his gaze away. No, she corrected herself, it was the way he had always watched her. It was just that for the past year he always gave her space when they were with others, and their time alone in those 12 months could probably be measured in hours countable on the fingers of one hand. So few hours. For Stefiz there had been no fading of her feelings for Charlie and it was only by keeping insanely busy with her studies and projects that she found a way to avoid dwelling on her emotional desires. She put a hand up under his chin and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Thanks for inviting me to the Ballet. Let me know the final arrangements and let me pay for my half of the trip." And with that she headed for the library. She knew that his father's previous stay in the hospital had exhausted his family's wealth. Her own family had never had any money to speak of, but she would find a way to pay for this trip to the ballet with Charlie.
She could hear him following along and she glanced back over her shoulder. He said, "I think I'll see if the library has any new physics books." She lengthened her stride as they moved down the slight slope towards the center of campus. She knew he was there, just a step behind, watching her tight jeans and she wondered if in fifty years they might still be together.
When they got into the library, Stefiz ran into her friend Jenny from the Computing Club. Charlie melted into the stacks and after a moment Jenny had Stefiz talking about Charlie and describing their plans to attend the ballet. Jenny said mischievously, "Hey, it sounds like an overnight trip to me. Are you finally going to surrender to the inevitable?"
Stefiz knew that Jenny had been married while still in high school then had two children and a divorce before reaching the age of 25. Now Jenny's mother was raising her kids while she tried to loop back and build a career around computers. Stefiz had only briefly wondered about sleeping arrangements on the trip to go see the ballet. In that flash of speculation she'd only pictured a seat on a bus. What would she do if Charlie suggested they stay in the city for a night? "I'm sure Charlie will be his usual trustworthy self."
Jenny sighed and shrugged. "I'm so sorry to hear that."
Continue to Chapter 2 - Find out who called Stefiz.
Here is a map of the chapters:
_> Mary –––––––––––––––––––––> Lincoln / \ / \__> Amelia PAlbert ––––––––––––––––––––> Andresklo / \ \---->Ferace ------> Yasas / \ __----------> Cathy / / \ / \ / / \ / \__________>Tess CC –––> Charlie ––-----–> Stefi \ \ ----------------> Lani \ / \ \ _______---> Jenny –––> Thomas \______> Dexamene
Sunday ----> time flow --> one week in the Fall --> ---------> Saturday
Useful pages for the reader: List of characters and the Glossary. Readers can discuss the story at Talk:Cellular Civilization.
If you want to help write the story, see the meta page (warning: spoilers!).