Charlie woke up and wondered if he had slept past the start of his first class. The only clock he knew of in the whole house was the one that was built into the microwave oven in the kitchen. He got out of bed and went to knock on the door of Lanora's bedroom. She heard him knocking and called up from the first floor, "I'm down here. Can I get you something to eat?"
Charlie went to the top of the stairs and called down, "What time is it?" Charlie once again wondered what it meant that the house had only one clock, no televisions and no computers.
Lanora replied, "Not quite seven."
"Ya, breakfast would be great, but I'm going to shower first." Charlie knew that Lanora could rely on the clock of her cell phone...maybe it did not occur to her that she might have a guest who did not have a phone.
Lanora looked up from the foot of the stairs. "Okay, can I join you?"
Charlie's heart skipped a beat. How easy it would be to give in and love Lanora. As he let the idea swirl in his thoughts he realized that he did love her. "I have a quiz in one hour, so please don't tempt me, Lani. I'll be down in ten minutes." Charlie luxuriated in the ultra-modern shower. When the water was shut off, jets of warm air came on and there was no need for a towel.
Charlie dressed in new clothes that Lanora had provided in the closet and then he carried his books down the stairs. He found her cooking in the kitchen. He came to her side at the stove and watched her flip pancakes. She put an arm around him and leaned her head on his shoulder. "Thanks for staying last night. Everyone else is already out running errands and getting ready for the party. This house is a bit spooky to be alone in."
Charlie put his arm around Lanora and did not feel any guilt about the fact that he was letting go of Stefi.
They sat at the table in the kitchen and ate strawberries and pancakes. Charlie commented, "Lani, did you really send your house guests out at seven in the morning to get ready for your party?"
Lanora chuckled, "Ya, I'm a real bitch. Actually, Andresklo will do anything for me." She winked at Charlie then became more serious. "Unfortunately, Ferace got called out of town and will not be here for the party. Dexamene is driving her to the airport."
Charlie felt some strange memories bubbling up and again wondered about the relationship between Dexamene and Lanora. Charlie wondered if he would ever again sleep in his dorm room. What was the point? It was so much nicer here with Lanora. Their conversation shifted to a seminar that would be held at the univeristy's hospital that evening. The seminar was being given by a world-famous NMR researcher. Lanora said, "We can catch the seminar after you are done with classes today."
Charlie agreed to meet Lanora for lunch at Perry's and then at the library after his last class. They talked about NMR during the rest of breakfast and all the way to campus.
Lanora dropped off Charlie for his morning classes...they surprised each other by sharing a quick and warm kiss before he jumped our of the car. While he hurried away from the car he looked back and they exchanged a wave and a smile. Lanora watched him disappear into the crowd of students and then drove across campus and parked near the hospital. She made sure she knew the location of the large lecture hall where the seminar on NMR would be held that afternoon. On the long walk across campus she used a nanorobotic probe to confirm the location of the Overseer's "sniffer" that would be used that afternoon to attract the Overseer's attention to Lanora. Lanora enjoyed the autumn colors and the park-like beauty of the campus...this was how she had often imagined Earth.
Lanora next familiarized herself with the library and the spot where she would meet Charlie after the end of his last class. Lanora had a fondness for books and so she spent some time handling copies of famous books that she had only previously viewed in the form of electronic copies. She checked out a book about NMR written by the seminar speaker for that afternoon.
Lanora got to Perry's much too early and so she had plenty of time to sit and watch the students, some of whom seemed to be done with their classes for the week. Lanora tried to integrate with the cheerful mood of the place. Sitting at the bar, she became the focus of a knot of new-found "friends" each of whom seemed to vie for an award in shallowness. She could not focus her thoughts on the trivia of pop culture that seemed to fascinate these people. Her thoughts were on Charlie and his sincere interest in physics and NMR and his plans for making a career in medicine.
She reflected on the fact that her assignment was to just get Charlie off of Earth, but she knew already that she would stay with him while he went through genetic modification to repair the dangerous genetic defects that assured him of a short life if he remained on Earth. At first she had felt bad about tricking Charlie with pheromones and manipulation of his memories, but now it seemed clear that Charlie was in love with her. Lanora could not avoid feeling protective towards Charlie and somewhat proud that she would be involved in rescuing him from Earth and taking him to a much better life on another world. When her nanite tracking probe that was following Charlie showed he was on his way to Perry's she left the bar and met him outside.
Lanora and Charlie fell into each other's arms then walked hand-in-hand into the restaurant. They got a table and ordered lunch and immediately started discussing the book that Lanora had brought from the library. Lanora knew that given a small alteration in Charlie's genes he would have been a good candidate for inclusion in Dexamene's technology development program...and if fate had shifted that way, she would never have met him. They were soon deep into discussing the future of NMR tools for probing the function of the brain. Lanora resisted telling him about all the nanotechnology that she had been using just hours before to probe Charlie's brain in intimate detail. She thought about the fun she would have telling him all about nanites once he was off of Earth.
All too soon Charlie was running off to his afternoon classes. Lanora called after him, "See you in the library!" She turned and strolled towards the library, reflecting on the fact that it had been years since she felt like an excited school girl. For the last few years she had been deep into advanced studies, moving into a challenging intellectual world where there were distinguished scholars, both human and robotic, with vast amounts of information to share with her. She found it refreshing to be helping lead Charlie into, what were for him, new domains of knowledge rather than struggling to keep up with the flood of concepts and information coming from her teachers.
After a short walk through the midday crowds of students, Lanora reached the library. She had lost interest in the quaint ideas in the book about NMR and exchanged it for her favorite novel by Asimov. She sat at a table near where she was to meet Charlie and luxuriated in the feel of the printed book. She spent a long time looking at the book's cover artwork, something she has never seen in an electronic version of the novel. She thought about her sister, Tess, who should be arriving soon with Andresklo, and who was the most artistic of their set of clones. Lanora shivered with horror while thinking about the fate that awaited Tess. Lanora tried to imagine what she would do if it were ever her turn to be sacrificed. What if something went wrong and she was captured by the Overseer? That had always been a question in the back of her mind, but now it was something that could easily happen within just a few hours.
She thought about all her current plans for taking Charlie off of Earth and repairing his genes and introducing him to the wonders of Genesaunt culture....what if those plans were suddenly ruined by the Overseers? She had always known that her path in life could turn out to be a road to captivity at the mercy of the Overseers. From their earliest years, Lanora and her sisters had always been trained for their role as Interventionists. For many years Lanora had competed with her sisters to be the one chosen to go to Earth. Ultimately, Dexamene had been selected and Dexamene had received the downloaded memories of their mother. Dexamene had gone into the final phase of intensive training for life on Earth and Lanora had begun her advanced academic studies.
Lanora's dreams of going to Earth had never died and she knew that someday a call would come and she would need to drop everything and go help Dexamene on Earth. Then this week had turned into a whirlwind with the discovered need to extract Charlie from Earth and the need to make a sacrifice to the relentless Overseers. But if all went as planned, in about a day, Lanora would be on her way with Charlie to another world. This might be her last day on Earth. Ever.
Lanora tried to become one with the dead trees in the pages of the Asimov novel, but she kept getting distracted by Asimov's robots. She spent a significant amount of time thinking about exactly how and when to sacrifice Alfred to the Overseer. Dexamene had some overly-complex plan for how to trick the Overseer, but Lanora had to trust Dexamene's special training in this regard. Dexamene could draw on all the experience and wisdom of their mother who had spent decades working on Earth as an Interventionist.
Still, it was upsetting that only six months into Dexamene's tour of duty on Earth one of her clone sisters already had to be sacrificed. Supposedly this disaster was due to an error in procedures that had been committed by Alfred, but ultimately Dexamene was responsible for her entire technology development project on Earth and Dexamene had selected Alfred, brought him to Earth and trained him for his work.
Her sister, Tess, the clone who had been selected to be sacrificed, would most likely be allowed to live out her life as an artist on Moon Base, but Alfred would be re-programmed....his memories stripped and studied for clues about the secret tricks used by Interventionists to illegally interfere with the development of Earth's culture. Lanora knew that Alfred would be told that his brain would be copied, but during that copying process all of his critical memories would be erased, leaving him a hollow shell that would make the Overseers mistakenly believe that they had removed Dexamene from Earth and eliminated an entire Interventionist cell.
So, Alfred's mind would actually be destroyed by Dexamene before the Observers got their hands on him. The use of robots by Interventionists in dangerous situations always created ethical problems. Some robots, particularly ones fresh from the manufacturing process, were usually thought of as being mindless automatons and nobody much cared if they were lost in action. However, older robots often began to learn from their interactions with humans and take on unique personalities. Lanora did not know Alfred and did not know to what extent he had a unique mind. Did it matter? Copies of his mind would probably live on in other robots. Was that enough?
Like all Genesaunt students, Lanora had studied the canonical system of equations that defined the memory algorithms used to produce self-consciousness in robots. Lanora was no biologist, but she was vaguely aware of the fact that the robot algorithms for self-consciousness had long ago been generated as adaptations of the human brain systems that generate human consciousness. Still, it was widely accepted that a fundamental aspect of human consciousness was how it developed gradually along with the developing brain of a child. Robots had no equivalent of such a developmental process since their brains were manufactured in adult form and provided with programming that allowed them to "come off the assembly line" with a functioning human-like mind. Many robopsychologists estimated that a typical robot mind was in many ways similar to that of a human five year old child....at least, a "child" that never got bored doing repetitive tasks of the type that most humans preferred to avoid doing themselves.
Of course, robot minds did have one interesting advantage: they were essentially immortal. Within the Solar System's Genesaunt culture, self-conscious human-like robots had first been made about a quarter million years ago, so some robotic minds could trace their earliest memory streams back to a time before the origin of the first genetically modern humans. Lanora thought about Andresklo and his long service as an Interventionist. Individual humans might serve a decade or two on Earth, but Andresklo had been an Interventionist pillar for tens of thousands of years and had participated in many Interventionist projects.
Thinking of history always made Lanora marvel at the fact that her mother had worked with Andresklo nearly three thousand years previously. The biologists probably had reasons for thawing out the ovum that gave rise to Lanora and her clone sisters....they must have calculated high odds of some projected benefit from mixing their mother's genes with those a particular man. All Lanora knew about her biological father was that he had lived recently on a planet of a nearby star system. Lanora occasionally still wondered why she and her sisters had been taught the life story of their mother but had never been told anything about the life of their father. Lanora had never gotten over the time that Dexamene had suggested that their father was probably an Overseer. What if that were true? Did it matter? Tess had scoffed at the idea, insisting that all Overseers were Neanderthals, not modern humans. The argument had lingered for months since it was widely believed that while Overseers had originated as Neanderthals, the Overseers were actually a highly genetically-modified off-shoot that was not much different from modern humans, particularly if they were looked at in the context of the great diversity of various human variants that now existed within Genesaunt culture.
Using her nanite implants, Lanora was casually following reports from Alfred. The local police were totally incapable of making progress towards finding the Overseer. They had found a video image of the Overseer that had been captured by one of the dorm's video cameras when the Overseer left the dorm after her confrontation with Cathy. In the video, an unknown woman was seen dressed as a police officer. The police were puzzled how she could have quickly changed into a police uniform when the police arrived at the dorm and started searching for her. Worse, both Mary and Cathy were sure that the woman seen in the video did not look like the woman who had been searching for Dexamene.
The overseer was still trying to track down Dexamene by looking into recent examples of "big spending" in the area. Lanora was impressed by the Overseer's persistence and was thankful that the Overseers were very careful to adhere to the Rules of Observation. The overseers could have greatly accelerate their search for Dexamene by bringing more people and Robots to Earth, but they did not feel they could risk revealing an "alien" presence on Earth. Their view was that each additional Overseer on Earth was an additional chance to create a violation of the Rules. In any case, history taught that the conservative methods of the Overseers always worked...they "always got their man" as long as they were persistent. Why meddle with success?
Lanora had also been monitoring Stefi who was just now getting back to her dorm room after her last class of the week. Lanora stepped outside and while walking around the outside of the library called Stefi. "Hi, this is Lanora."
Stefi said, "Oh, hi. I don't suppose you've seen Charlie recently?"
Lanora replied, "Yes, I called so we could talk about him. Do you remember what PAlbert asked you to think about? Well now is the time to let us know what you want us to do."
Stefi had been suspecting that Lanora had some kind of connection to PAlbert. She had not really been surprised that Charlie had stopped calling and crossing her path on campus, but what exactly had PAlbert meant by: "do not take too long thinking about it"? The nanites inside Stefi's brain were keeping her from worrying too much about the "police force" that worked in opposition to PAlbert, but it was not clear which "side" Lanora was on. Stefi asked, "What do you mean by 'we'?"
Lanora said, "I am a good friend of PAlbert. If you approve of the idea, I will take Charlie off of Earth after the party tomorrow. His genes will be repaired and he will lead a long and happy life. Do you agree?"
Stefi replied, "Yes, that is for the best, but what about his parents?"
Lanora explained, "The will suffer some pain at his loss, but we will also take action to ease their pain. And PAlbert recently arranged for a large life insurance policy for Charlie. It will appear that he dies in an accident. His parents will collect a large sum of money...enough to erase his father's medical debts and keep his mother comfortable for the rest of her life. See you at the party."
Stefi wiped a tear from her eye. "See you."
Lanora also got a report from Andresklo when he arrived back on Earth with Tess. For Lanora, it was tempting to go and spend each available moment with her sister Tess. After about 24 more hours Lanaora would be forever cut off from her sister. Well, unless Lanora was also sacrificed to the Overseers some day. But Lanora had duties to perform and Charlie was on his way to the library. Lanora placed the Asimov novel on a book return cart and wondered if she would ever hold a paper book in her hands again.
Charlie arrived at the library and she pretended to be reading a copy of the university's student-produced newspaper. Charlie nearly swept her off of her feet and she gave a brief half-shriek and half-laugh. Heads turned and they quietly left the library. Charlie said, "Sorry I got delayed, I got into an argument in physics class....as usual."
They stepped outside and she took his hand. Lanora said, "I do not mind that you were delayed." Particularly since it had given her a chance to speak with Stefi. "I was enjoying a chance to read one of my favorite Novels." They were now walking quickly towards the medical center- as quickly as was possible in the thick streams of students now leaving the core of the campus.
Charlie suspected that she had very broad interests, indeed. "I want to hear all about that, but first...do we still have time to grab quick bite before the seminar?"
Lanora was impressed by Charlie's capacity to consume food. She had learned that he was almost never at rest. He was always on the go and pushing ahead towards his imagined future. Lanora could not help wondering just how Charlie would react when he found himself exiled from Earth and on his way to a new life on another planet. She pulled his hand to her lips and nibbled on his finger, "I'm always ready for a quick 'bite', Charlie, but right here, in the middle of campus?"
Charlie laughed. He had daydreamed much of the way through his classes thinking about the exciting inevitability of a physical relationship with Lanora. What a week it had been! On Monday he had made plans with Stefi to go on their first real date in nearly a year, then within a few hours he had been naked in a hot tub with Lani and it had all been tracking this way since then. Until that morning, Charlie had expected to wake up from a dream and discover that Lani was just a creation of his imagination, but now all his doubts and inhibitions were gone. Still, the collapse of his relationship with Stefi might make for an uncomfortable time at the party on Saturday.
Charlie was lost in the fun of making puns with Lani about what they each wanted to eat at that moment when they walked past the location of the Overseer's nanite-equipped DNA sniffer. Lanora saw Alfred standing off at a safe distance ready to guide the nanite probe that would deliver a carefully calculated bit of Lanora's hair to the sniffer. Lanora made a careful check to assure that all her nanites were pulled back in protected mode, but they still easily detected the arrival of the tracker probe that was launched by the sniffer. As soon as the tracker probe was locked on her, she relaxed and turned her full attention to Charlie. Everything else was now out of her hands.
Charlie had to content himself with grabbing a snack from a vending machine, then they found seats in the rapidly filling lecture hall. During the talk about NMR, Charlie sat with full attention on the speaker, but Lanora was bored by the topic; what was, from her perspective, hopelessly silly and primitive technology. Her thoughts kept returning to Tess, Charlie and Alfred and the fates that awaited them. By now, Andresklo and Dexamene had doubtlessly fully informed Tess about the details of how she would be handed over to the Overseer. Alfred was probably already having his memories stripped clean of any information that could inform the Overseers of the true nature of Dexemene's operations on Earth. Charlie remained the only innocent, now locked at the center of a web of deceit...all just because of his bad luck in genes...and jeans.
Lanora pulled Charlie's hand close and she thought about the glimpse into his mind that she had that morning during his memetic surgery. It had, of course, been required that she and Dexamene lay bare the fact of Charlie's love for Lanora. It had been a trivial exercise in activating his cortex to bring alive his conscious thoughts about both Stefi and Lani and confirm that the subconscious emotional linkages had been successfully shifted from Stefi to Lani. It had been accomplished in a rushed and heavy-handed way, but effectively. Now it was trivial for Lani to monitor the nanites in Charlie's brain that were putting the final touches on all the new thought patterns in his brain. This exercise was beautifully confirming for Lanora the reality of mind control methods she had been taught in theoretical terms but never previously put into practice.
In her studies she had learned that it was widely recognized that exercising thought control on a fellow human was not without risks. The human brain had evolved to make empathy a central element of human social interactions. Normally two people were separated by barriers and each person had to use uncertain clues as a basis for formulating a model of another person's thoughts, beliefs and emotions. Lanora now found herself in possession of Charlie's innermost thoughts and that was, as predicted in theory, setting up powerful resonances in Lanora's own thought processes.
Lanora had never reached the point of seriously thinking about being a mother and the responsibilities that came with caring for children. Lanora was just too young for that. In her culture, the first six, seven or eight decades of life were almost always devoted to exploring and learning. Having children was generally considered appropriate only for mature individuals in their middle decades, but now Lanora was feeling the full force of protectiveness towards Charlie, no doubt focused by additional anxieties about the fast-approaching climax of this Interventionist mission on Earth. Lanora now felt the full force of the fast-approaching future: when she took Charlie off of Earth, she would be his only remaining connection to the reality of his whole life. She marveled at the facts...just a few days previously, when first told about Charlie, she had heartlessly imagined just taking him to a new world, leaving him there and quickly returning to her own studies. Lanora was now realizing that it was not just a matter of three lives being shattered. Yes, within 24 hours Tess, Charlie and Alfred would be enslaved, exiled and erased, but her own life would also be thrown into a completely new orbit.
Lanora watched Charlie watching the speaker and tried to imagine how he would react when he was suddenly tossed into Genesaunt culture where every technological advanced he had imagined was already a reality...and in most cases a quaint footnote in history. Seemingly feeling the intensity of her gaze upon him, he turned and looked into her eyes. She squeezed his hand reassuringly and looked at the large screen at the front of the lecture hall showing the speaker's presentation slides. Charlie turned his attention back to the seminar and the moment passed, but Lanora could not dismiss from her mind the conclusion that she could not dismiss Charlie from her mind. Just four days earlier, Dexamene had created the "Lanora" character as a tool to "subtract Charlie from the Stefi equation" but some law of transformational mechanics had required that the "Lani equation be added to the Charlie equation". How had Andresklo put it...without a trace of hesitation or equivocation? "From now on you are Lanora."
After the seminar Charlie and Lanora went to her car. Charlie did not not stop talking about NMR all the way to the restaurant and right through dinner. Charlie was fully animated by his plans to invent and develop new and improved NMR technologies for medical applications. Lanora occasionally pitched in to say, for the benefit of the Overseer's tracking probe, that she would do everything she could to support his dreams and efforts. It must be made clear to the Overseers that Lanora was trying to intervene in the development of technology on Earth by giving support to Charlie. However, for the most part, her thoughts were stuck on the fact that all of Charlie's dreams would collapse within a short time that could now be measured in hours. Lanora wondered if she would be able to help him build a new life.
Again, Charlie indulged himself by eating vast quantities of food and Lanora mostly contented herself by sampling another of Earth's wines. Before coming to Earth she had been told not to miss the opportunity to try Earth food, but she had discovered a squeamishness about trusting the origins of food coming from what appeared to her nanites probes to be, by Genesaunt standards, not-so-clean kitchens.
After dinner they returned to Lanora's house. Lanora said, "I have a surprise for you." She led Charlie to the basement and showed him the recreation room. "Andresklo has worked hard to get this place ready for the party." She pretended to just then notice Andresklo, who was working behind one of the newly delivered pinball machines.
Andresklo said, "Hello, Charlie." He gestured to the equipment in the room. "What do you think?"
There was a bar at either end of the room and Charlie was over behind one of the bars, pulling open the refrigerator. He could see no alcoholic beverages. "Hi, Andresklo. I'm impressed. This is like some kind of night club, but there is no alcohol."
Andresklo nodded. "This is going to be a party for science and engineering nerds." He looked at Lanora's rosy cheeks. "If you want alcohol you should have followed Lanora's lead and drank at the restaurant."
Lanora explained, "Charlie does not drink. He's just commenting on the available drink selection. If you can think of anything else your friends from the physics department might want, just say so. We can make a shopping run in the morning."
Charlie shrugged. "This selection looks impressive. Andresklo seems to know what he is doing."
Andresklo closed the service panel on the pinball machine and pushed it against the wall. "If I know what I'm doing, then why do the control circuits in this thing seem so baffling?" He plugged it in and the machine came to life. Lanora and Charlie came over and watched him play a game. With great expertise Andresklo worked the machine and kept driving up the score. After five minutes on one ball he seemed satisfied with the machine's performance and turned to Charlie. "Want a turn?"
Charlie shrugged, "I've seen movies with pinball machines, but I've never played one. Most arcades these days just have video game machines."
Andresklo waved his hand. "These are now thought of as "classic" pinball machines from the early 1990s. However, you are right, I was able to get them cheap from a surplus warehouse. Almost nobody cares about pinball anymore. You can call me old fashioned and nostalgic, but we also have the latest video games."
Charlie could not help feeling impressed by the obvious wealth of Lanora. The new giant flat panel TV screens must have cost ten thousand dollars. Did she plan on making it a regular thing to hold parties here? Charlie had heard horror stories of off-campus parties going out of control when word spread around campus. Maybe the no alcohol approach would keep a lid on that problem.
Andresklo opened up the other pinball machine and started tinkering with its insides. Lanora said, "Well, I just wanted to show this off to Charlie. Good night, Andy."
Andresklo nodded and shot a laser-like glance at Lanora. He then said to Charlie, "I assume you are staying the night. Don't let Lanora intimidate you. Feel free to stay down here and help me test all the fancy electronics."
Lanora laughed, "Well, Charlie, which do you prefer? Games in the basement with Andresklo or games up stairs with Lani?"
Charlie commented, "Some of my friends count themselves as great video game players. After Andresklo's demonstration on the pinball machine, I suspect there isn't an electronic game he can't beat. I'm looking forward to seeing him put my friends to shame tomorrow, but right now I'm tired. Good night, Andresklo."
Charlie and Lanora headed for the stairs and Andresklo turned his attention to the pinball machine. Only Lanora, with her nanite-assisted hearing hear Andresklo mutter to Charlie, "You'd get more rest if you stayed down here tonight."
Lanora was late getting up, but left Charlie still snoring into his pillow. She went and found Alfred who had completed the process of transferring his memories into the new Robot that Andresklo had brought back from the Moon. Lanora said, "How do you feel, Alfred?"
Alfred's nanotronic brain was now very close to that of a factory-fresh robot. Everyone seemed to be asking him that same question. He continued to reply according to his programming. "I feel just fine, thank you."
Lanora recognized the stock reply and realized that Alfred no longer existed. The new robot who was now a "copy of Alfred" had taken over his duties. All that the original Alfred had to do now was keep out of sight and wait to be handed over to the Overseer, but he no longer had any memory of his impending fate.
Lanora found her sister Tess sitting by the big circular fireplace. There had been a frost that night and the fire now felt nice in the slightly too cold house. They hugged and caught up on news and were still chatting when Charlie came down, just in time for lunch. Tess was now pretending to be Dexamene and would continue to play that role until she was sacrificed to the Overseer later in the day. Dexamene said to Charlie, "My, you are a late riser."
Charlie blushed and Lanora said, "Don't tease him. He's feeling bad enough that he let me take advantage of him last night."
Dexamene shrugged, "Somehow I'm not sure that "he let me" correctly describes what happened, but ignore me...I'm sure it is just my annoyance at having missed out on all the important preparations for today's party."
Lanora said, "We each must play our designate role. If you are feeling left out or neglected then talk to Andresklo...I'm sure he can find a way to keep you busy until the party guests arrive."
Dexamene complained, "Lani, stop trying to push me off on Andy. That's not how I plan to spend my last day."
Charlie asked, "Last day?"
Lanora explained, "Dexamene has to leave us after the party, but it was nice that she could be here today."
Charlie nodded, "It should be fun, particularly if Andresklo can show all the young whippersnapper that he is the pinball wizard."
Andresklo called them to lunch in the dining room. During the meal Dexamene and Lanora talked in a rather subdued way about old times and old memories of their shared past. After Andresklo cleared away the plates, Charlie asked what they should do for the hours remaining before the party. Lanora's plan was to start making dinner in mid-afternoon.
Dexamene commented, "Andresklo already gave me a job. I'm in charge of security for the party."
Charlie was surprised and asked, "Security?"
Dexamene shrugged, "Only invited guests will be let in. Andresklo hired some guards to keep out gate-crashers."
After initially inviting Stefi and his friends from the physics department, Charlie had not given much thought to who would be at the party. "How many guests are you expecting?"
Lanora replied, "Six for dinner and then forty three for the party."
Charlie sputtered, "Forty three?"
Lanora nodded, "You sent an email to 23 in the physics club and Jenny invited 34 from the computing club. Since you have provided no feedback I'm assuming all 23 physics students might show up. Jenny has been keeping me posted and I'm expecting about 20 from the computing club. Of course, another major unknown comes from the fact that everyone who was invited was told to feel free to bring a friend."
The door bell rang. Dexamene jumped up, "I suspect the hired security guards are here."
Lanora asked, "Already?"
Dexamene explained. "They had to be paid for a full shift anyhow and Andresklo wants them to get familiar with the house and the grounds." She went off to the front door and let in the guards; two off-duty police officers working for a private security company.
Lanora called after Dexamene, "I need a few last minute items at the store. We'll be back soon." Lanora and Charlie went out through the kitchen and got into her car.
Charlie commented, "Sorry to put you through all this. The whole point of the party was so Stefi could get to know you."
Lanora patted his leg, "Relax Charlie. I spoke to Stefi on the phone yesterday. She is still looking forward to the party. Really, the two of you were in an unstable and crazy relationship. I think she's relieved that things have now fallen into a more sustainable configuration."
Charlie continued to feel amazed by all that had happened in the past few days. "Well, the last time I spoke to her she did seem to be making adjustments, but I doubt if she's ready to adjust to what happened last night."
Lanora chuckled, "No need to rub her nose in it. My advice is that you give her space. She needs to get out and make new friends. This party might be just what she needs to start thinking past you."
When Lanora and Charlie arrived back and the house with the last-minute food items, Lanora launched into cooking dinner. Soon she had both Andresklo and Alfred at work and Charlie marveled at their coordinated burst of activity. Lanora tried to explain the details of all six of the courses they were preparing, including the crabs that were still scrambling around in a bag next to the oven. Charlie kept offering to help but Lanora said, "Just relax, consider this our anniversary dinner."
Charlie asked, "What anniversary?"
Lanora took a moment to go over to Charlie and nibble on his ear lobe, "Our zeroeth anniversary, silly."
Andresklo muttered, "Have Charlie clean the crabs, it will make him fully appreciate the dining experience."
Lanora gave Andresklo a hug and kissed him on the cheek. "Don't be grouchy. Soon enough the party will be over and you can get back to your routine and boring existence." She turned to Charlie, "Ignore Andy. He hates entertaining, but he is an expert at cleaning crabs."
Andresklo proceeded to prove that he was an expert crab cleaner. Soon enough he was headed for the door to pick up the dinner guests. Lanora insisted, "Charlie, go along with Andresklo. I need my full attention on the food now. You distract me."
When Andresklo and Charlie returned with Stefi and Jenny they went right to the dining room where Dexamene and Lanora were waiting for them. During the meal, Alfred functioned as a waiter, shuttling plates for each course to and from the kitchen. Lanora, Dexamene and Andresklo carried on a spirited discussion of food during the meal, spiced with several hair-raising tales of stomach-turning dishes that had been obliged to eat at various exotic locations. Charlie, Stefi and Jenny were greatly amused and entertained -and only occasionally made queezy- by their stories.
Charlie was relieved that Stefi seemed totally relaxed and the conversation never turned towards their relationship or Charlie's relationship with Lanora.
Soon it was seven and the other guests started to arrive.
- Continue to Chapter 13 - Sister Tess
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!).