"So how does the Observer survive? Know this: you are not alone. For each Observer, the first visit to Earth provokes fright and confusion. Training prepares you to understand what you will see and when you understand you will not fear. Start today: become what you observe and you will understand." -from the preface to State of the Planet
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Gohrlay reclined comfortably and stretched her long legs across the divan. The surface of the couch flowed like a living blanket to encapsulate her lower body and Gohrlay relaxed against the soothing vibrations it produced. Enjoyment of massaging furniture and many other similar comforts was an integral part of life on the Moon, but such ingrained habits of self-indulgence caused Gohrlay to continually be reminded of the hardships she would soon be suffering.
With her thoughts veering once more towards guilt and anxiety, Gohrlay made an extra effort to dismiss her concerns about the future. She tried to force herself to take advantage of this one last chance to enjoy the luxurious appointments of her home. Gohrlay pretended to be reading, but she was not thinking about the page of text that floated in front of her. Her thoughts were hopelessly drawn out of the here and now and towards another world.
Gohrlay had cleared the last few items from her task calendar and arrived home earlier than usual, eager to start her "vacation". Now she had finished packing and was ready to go to Earth, but it was not quite time for the departure.
Nan, who served as Gohrlay's personal attendant, having followed Gohrlay into the room, was hovering again. The entire house invisibly swarmed with nanoscopic cleaning bots, but Nan was needlessly searching for specks of dust or perhaps a stray hair that had fallen off of Gohrlay. Nan was using her cleaning routine as a diversion while waiting for orders from Gohrlay.
Nan superficially looked human and someone seeing her from a distance could possibly make the mistake of imagining that she was human. Closer inspection would quickly reveal Nan's non-human features: limbs that bent at odd angles and facial features that fell outside of the range of natural human variation. Nan's nose, rather than ending in a point, had a slightly flaring tip and her eyes were pigmented in the ghostly blur that was characteristic of robotic helpers on the Moon.
Gohrlay tried to ignore Nan's presence, but she could sense that Nan wanted to talk. Proper etiquette demanded that machines speak only when spoken to....or when acting on orders from a human. Robots would never just say what they were fretting about, but humans could tell when their robotic helpers were pensive, which was annoying. For the past several weeks Gohrlay had worried that Nan knew about her plans to return to Earth. Gohrlay was experiencing floods of anxiety over that possibility because her travel to Earth constituted a serious violation of the Rules of Observation.
Distracted by Nan's movement in her peripheral vision, Gohrlay shifted her position slightly and glanced at her aide. The robot was gliding around the periphery of the room, briefly running her hands over each item of furniture. Gohrlay knew Nan intimately, having spent her entire life studying each quirk and wink, every angle and dimension from Nan's other-human facial features to the slightly bent vocal qualities. Each little design feature of an orbho was carefully crafted so as to appear slightly nonhuman, allowing the human residents of the Moon to easily identify robots as simulated people.
It was easy to look at an orbho and be fooled into assuming that you were seeing a biological organism. However, the entire surface of an orbho's body was composed not of biological cells but, rather, of nanites. Gohrlay had carefully crafted Nan's features so that they were distinctive and conformed to Gohrlay's personal ideal of beauty and the exotic. Nan's hair constantly shimmered and twitched, sometimes simulating the impact of a gust of wind. Each hair shaft was motile and active as a hunting sea snake. Nan could at will change the temperature, texture or color of her skin, but it was Gohrlay's desire that Nan not alter her complexion.
From the day that Gohrlay's mother had become aware that she was pregnant, Nan had been watching over Gohrlay. Growing up with Nan as a constant companion, Gohrlay had soon learned to expect the machine to be nearby and ready to respond efficiently so as to satisfy Gohrlay's expressed desires. When Gohrlay had decided that she was an adult, she left her mother's home and moved across the city, claiming a vacant house as her own. Of course, Nan had come along to Gohrlay's new home and would always remain as Gohrlay's aide. Except during those times when Gohrlay slipped away to visit Earth.
Gohrlay learned from her mother to engage in the common lunar practice of "roughing it"; occasionally spending several weeks at a time outside of the city without one's robotic servant. At an early age Gohrlay knew that she could survive without Nan, but upon returning to the city Gohrlay always found it convenient to make use of Nan's help with daily chores.
Growing up as a young adult who had decided to become an Observer, Gohrlay's life had been hectic and crowded with the social obligations that were part of becoming a member of the elite Observer Corps. Nan was efficient at coordinating Gohrlay's busy social calendar with those of her friends. Through the years, Gohrlay had asked little more than that of Nan.
Normally Gohrlay found it easy to ignore Nan's presence. However, Gohrlay needed to kill another ten minutes before embarking on her journey and Nan's meticulous and superfluous and persistent cleaning was making Gohrlay's nervousness and anxiety exceed all reasonable bounds. Gohrlay tried not to blame Nan for that.
For the hundredth time that day, Gohrlay tried to allay her own qualms. She made another effort to force on herself a false sense of optimism, telling herself that she had nothing to worry about, that this trip to Earth would be as successful as the previous one. However, there was no avoiding the fact that she felt guilty about deceiving Nan and, worse, she was even planning to take advantage of Cliph's trust by sneaking behind his back in a dastardly way that could bring unwanted attention from the Overseers. Gohrlay accepted the fact that she would be punished if she were caught on Earth, but she did not want to endanger Cliph. So, try as she might, Gohrlay could not ignore her fears.
After arriving home, Gohrlay twice emptied and re-packed the contents of her backpack. Gohrlay had ordered Nan out of the house on a contrived errand. With Nan out of the house for a few minutes, Gohrlay could secretly and obsessively tested the special equipment that she was taking to Earth. Returning home, Nan had peered over Gohrlay's shoulder, taken note that Gohrlay had disrupted the mathematically precise packing job that Nan had earlier completed, and then persistently suggested more efficient strategies for arranging the contents of the backpack. Ultimately satisfied that she had forgotten to pack nothing of importance and tired of listening to Nan's flood of suggestions, Gohrlay had ordered Nan to re-pack it a third time. Of course, Nan had completed that simple task quickly. Now Nan was relentlessly following Gohrlay around the house and the machine's presence was a constant reminder of the life of dark deceptions that Gohrlay had crafted for herself. Feeling harassed by Nan and desperate to break the tension, Gohrlay decided to change the dynamic in the room and try to annoy the machine.
Taunting a robot was not something Gohrlay could do without feeling shame. Orbho taunting was a favorite sport for many lunar residents, although most people considered it an infantile hobby, best done in private as a secret perversion of the natural warm relation between people and their robotic aides. Still, something about Nan had been bothering Gohrlay, with relentlessly escalating intensity, ever since Gohrlay had traveled to Earth during her previous "vacation". Gohrlay's experiences on Earth had broadened her understanding of the human condition and caused her to become critical of the monotonous perfection of life on the Moon. Gohrlay had seen up close the age and disease ravaged faces of real people. Gohrlay now felt ashamed of her own past adoption of habits that reflected the superficiality of lunar culture. Really, did Nan's appearance have to be quite so exotic, her face quite so vacuously pretty? Following Gohrlay's visit to Earth and her shift in perspective, Nan had become a constant reminder that Gohrlay had once accepted her culture's assumption that physical beauty was a necessary social bench mark that was automatically expected to be met by all friends, colleagues and particularly one's personal aide.
Much care had been taken to make certain that the humans who lived on the Moon had only the best combinations of genes. Disfiguring diseases and environmental insults were simply not part of life on the Moon. The appearance of domestic servants like Nan could be easily sculpted and enhanced, at the whim of their human masters. It was expected that they look as handsome as the people they served. Almost. The orbho were purposefully designed with nonhuman features, particularly their eyes and their voices. A few people found the nonhuman qualities of the orbho to be unsettling and eerie, and they often insisted that their personal aides alter their appearance to make even more obvious their nonhuman nature. Thus, some orbho had skin that looked like metal foil or they wore enameled caps on their heads that crudely simulated hair.
One of the popular lunar art forms was theater and there was a subgenre of comedic skits about robots that was particularly popular with children. The classical core of such performances involved a human actor pretending to be a robot. The actor always wore a brightly colored skull cap that frequently fell off and skittered across the stage, with the mortified robot chasing after it, to comedic effect. Of course, an orbho could never actually be embarrassed. Most lunar residents accepted the constant presence of the orbho as a natural part of daily life and strove to make them look as human as possible.
Cultural assumptions, including the idea that an orbho such as Nan be pretty, were never questioned by most residents of the Moon. Such assumptions even permeated to the heart of the Observer Corps. It was well known among the Observers that most humans, those who lived on Earth, did not conform to the cultural norms of the select population that inhabited the lunar city. After seeing firsthand some of the the ugly reality of life on Earth, Gohrlay had been forced to ask herself if the Observer training regimen that she had completed was designed to purposefully mislead trainees about the hardships experienced by people living in their native environment. Gohrlay resented the rather antiseptic view of Earth that had been provided to her and she was unhappy with herself for having adopted a flawed conceptualization of human existence on Earth. The comforts of lunar life were unknown to the millions of people on Earth and Gohrlay could no longer view the pampered lives of a few thousand people living on the Moon as defining an unquestionable norm.
It was an uncomfortable question that never concerned most lunar residents: why, out of all the millions of humans, did a few thousand people exist on the Moon as a privileged group? Gohrlay frequently contemplated that mystery and with growing exasperation she wondered why most lunar residents did not care about the fate of Earthlings.
Gohrlay could not help but recognize the important role Nan had played in shaping her character and in allowing her to accept without question the ingrained elitism of those who lived on the Moon. As a consequence, Gohrlay now harbored considerable resentment directed towards Nan. It was often an irresistible convenience to blame one's personal assistant for one's troubles.
Gohrlay had come to appreciate the value of uniquely imperfect people who wore signs of their struggle for life on their faces or in a limp and a deformed limb. Gohrlay sometimes felt a desire to punish Nan for robotic collaboration with the unquestioned assumptions implicit in lunar culture. Unfortunately, Nan was perfect, and it was only Gohrlay's shame-driven fantasy to imagine that a layer of rugged worldliness might suddenly be painted over the machine's surface. So then, why bother to tease Nan?
What better way was there to get through ten anxious minutes?
So, with dramatic gravity, Gohrlay said, "I want you to do something about your appearance. A total make-over."
Nan tipped her head forward in the traditional orbho gesture of acknowledgment, even though there was nothing wrong with her appearance. The robot was called "Nan" by Gohrlay, but "she" had been known by many names and had, down through the centuries, used a male body pattern and served as the personal aide for men half of the time. After Gohrlay's death, Nan would be assigned to serve as the companion of some newborn lunar resident.
After thousands of years serving humans, there was very little that a human could do to surprise Nan. Males, on average, did not as often insist on altering the appearance of their personal aides. Interestingly, Gohrlay had only once before engineered a major change in Nan's appearance. It was odd for a woman to show so little interest in playing dressing games with her aide. Nan knew Gohrlay intimately, right down to the last DNA nucleotide and the robot received constant updates on the status of Gohrlay's neural networks.
Most importantly, Nan had witnessed Gohrlay's behavior back during the time when she had become infatuated with Cliph. Gohrlay's romantic interest in Cliph has been her first (and so far only) impassioned adult infatuation with a man, providing a clear demonstration of her reproductive instincts. Thus, Nan knew there was nothing wrong with Gohrlay's instinctive predisposition to engaging in courtship displays...when appropriate. Devoted to the Observer Corps, Gohrlay had progressed through her young adulthood occupied with Observer concerns and almost always too busy to spend time thinking about Nan's appearance, or her own.
Gohrlay had always been a serious child and she had grown up to be one of those rare city residents who showed interest in Earth and who had actually progressed all the way through the rigorous training program required to become an Observer. Nan knew that Gohrlay had never allotted time in her life for the pleasant and trivial pursuits that occupied most young lunar women. Gohrlay was unusual in these and in many other ways, which provided interesting challenges for Nan.
Nan waited for some detailed instructions concerning the make-over, but Gohrlay seemed lost in thought, twirling a lock of her long reddish hair around a finger. Finally, showing no simulated emotion other than her usual chipper good spirits, Nan said, "Certainly, my dear mur Gohrlay." The machine asked, "What changes do you have in mind?"
Gohrlay shrugged her shoulders, tilted her head to one side and looked at Nan as if considering the matter for the first time. Gohrlay replied, "I don't care," and she certainly did not at that moment want to try to sort out in her own thinking the growing dissatisfaction she felt towards her own endlessly comfortable life. That was the real motivation for suggesting a change in Nan's appearance and making sense of that was not the point of this little bout of orbho taunting.
This was a simple ritual for passing the time and distracting Gohrlay from her worries. A brief game during which Gohrlay could try to fluster and confuse Nan. Through her entire life Gohrlay had occasionally engaged in such testing of Nan's responses. The orbho and their near-human behavior were a constant source of mystery in the lives of those humans who lived on the Moon.
For Gohrlay and Nan, their favorite type of play involved starting with a joke or a jibe and pretending that it was a most rational topic and worthy of careful analysis and discussion. Was this obsessive dissection of every whim the creation of Gohrlay, Nan, or the product of their frightful synergy?
Household robots were supposed to defer such decisions to their human masters, so Nan was waiting to hear more, but Gohrlay, trying to befuddle the robot, asked, "What changes would you like to make to yourself?"
Nan smiled and giggled quietly, producing a burst of strange inhuman sounds that constituted robotic laughter. Continuing her cleaning routine, Nan moved over to an armchair and needlessly adjusted its position, moving it a tiny distance closer to the wall.
Was Nan stunned into speechlessness by the question? Gohrlay enjoyed the delicious sensation of Nan's silence while the quiet lingered for a dozen heart beats.
Nan struck a contemplative pose, one hand at her chin, two fingers gently stroking her delicate jaw line. Finally, Nan jokingly picked up a glowing pillow from the armchair she was standing beside and suggested, "Maybe I could switch to golden skin, just to match your favorite color."
Gohrlay grinned at the idea and challenged the machine to run with it, "Oh, my! All these years with me dressing you conventionally and now I learn that you are a sint." Then, taking her eyes away from Nan, Gohrlay surveyed the contents of the room and wondered if the robot was making fun of her tastes. She asked herself: so what if I love gold and maroon, perhaps more than anyone else?
It was a source of joy for Gohrlay to decorate her home in just the way that she found most pleasing. Who knew if robots could even feel joy. Gohrlay, sighed deeply. She could imagine no malice in Nan. There was just no way that her annoyance with Nan could ever grow into anger. The machine knew too well how to deflect Gohrlay's mood and make her laugh. All of Gohrlay's interest in taunting Nan drained away, leaving behind her self-doubts and anxiety about her impending trip to Earth.
Nan fluffed the pillow and released a cloud of invisible nanites that scurried to collect almost all of the dust particles that were sent flying by the fluffing. The soft fabric of the pillow was very durable and released almost no particulate fragments of its own substance; only those foreign specks that had happened to land on it were dislodged. The fluffing was unneeded since the pillow had its own active nanoscopic system for constantly maintaining optimal air content and the regular cleaning nanites would soon find and collect every settled dust particle. The mere act of fluffing usually had a soothing effect on people by making it look like a robot was being dutiful. However, Nan had noticed that for days on end Gohrlay had been unalterably anxious. Nan had been drawing upon her vast experience with humans and trying different ways to make Gohrlay either relax or begin to talk about what was troubling her. Now Nan saw Gohrlay's eyes flick again towards the front door. Nan asked, "Are you expecting someone?"
Gohrlay gave a small shake of her head and pushed away the reader she had been using. She jumped up from the couch and began pacing around the room. She replied, "I'm feeling restless." Gohrlay tried to sound uncertain, "I might start my walkabout tonight." She felt silly trying to pretend that she was having difficulty making up her mind. Nan noticed everything and would not be fooled.
Nan placed the pillow back on the chair. The machine was well programmed and had no trouble sounding surprised, "I thought we were going to Cliph's party this evening."
The impending party was a source of much uneasiness for Gohrlay and she had tried to make Nan believe that they would attend the party. That tiny lie was part of Gohrlay's plans for deceiving Nan and secretly slipping away to Earth. Gohrlay wanted to draw no attention to her relationship with Cliph, particularly their shared criminal activity. "He'll forgive me if I don't attend. Besides, it will be a mob scene with half the Observer Corps on hand. That's not the kind of wild party I need at the start of my vacation."
Nan, ever attentive to her duties, asked, "Should I send a cancellation notice to Cliph?"
Gohrlay replied, perhaps too eagerly, "Yes, I've decided. Bring me my backpack. If I leave now I can reach the city fringe before dark."
The robot quickly stepped into the spare bedroom where the backpack waited, fully loaded. Returning to the great room, Nan helped Gohrlay strap on the pack. Gohrlay kicked off her slippers and said, "About your appearance, please do surprise me with a new look. When I return I don't want to recognize you."
Sensing there were only a few seconds remaining, Nan went into accelerated mothering mode. "At least take a pair of shoes. Remember what happened last time."
Gohrlay had never told Nan the truth about the injuries sustained during her previous vacation and she was not going to start telling such secrets at that moment. As far as Nan knew, Gohrlay had previously injured her feet by walking barefoot through the service tunnels of the Moon. "I've got the first aid kit, I'll be fine. I don't mind a few well-earned scars and callouses."
Nan picked up the slippers and reflexively absorbed the skin fragments and moisture that their cleaning nanites had collected. Nan, being as assertive as her programming allowed, used a tone of voice that managed to be simultaneously annoying and wheedling, "Let me come along, just for tonight, since you will not really be getting out of the city."
Gohrlay absolutely could not allow Nan to tag along for the evening. "Who knows, mur? I might walk all night." Gohrlay gave Nan a hug, rather awkwardly with the heavy pack on her back. There was a two week supply of dehydrated food in the pack as well as other gear and Gohrlay had told Nan that she was going to hike the south tunnel all the way to the metal processing and manufacturing center.
On the way out the door Gohrlay cast one last nervous glance towards Nan, suspecting that the robot knew the truth about where she was going. After decades of sharing everything with the machine, Gohrlay sometimes imagined that it could read her mind. She'd only started lying to Nan two years previously and Gohrlay still felt guilty about keeping secrets. Then Gohrlay was out the door and striding through the brush that grew in the field between her house and the next one down the lane, relieved to be away from the robot's relentlessly searching eyes. The spires of City Center sparkled in the distance above the tree tops.
Gohrlay started out in the direction of the south tunnel, but her true destination was the space dock, where one of the shuttles was being prepared for Cliph's upcoming trip to Earth. Of course, Gohrlay could not simply walk into the docking facility and get on the shuttle. Cliph was the only passenger authorized to use the shuttle.
Rather than continue all the way to the city fringe, Gohrlay started around to the east, staying on the greenbelt trails. Soon the daytime lighting of the domed city began to fade into a simulation of night. Gohrlay's feet were already a bit sore and she kept shifting the straps on her shoulders in an effort to find a comfortable arrangement. She chastised herself for being so soft and thought of the much higher gravity she would soon be subjected to on Earth.
Distracted by her worries, Gohrlay walked past the downhatch that she had planned to use and she had to backtrack, feeling rather foolish when she passed an evening stroller who looked with amazement at her large backpack. They both recognized each other, which was common in the city. There were just enough residents that nobody could know everyone, but after a few decades it was normal to at least recognize most people by sight. They passed with a nod then Gohrlay looked over her shoulder before stepping off the glowing trail. After searching briefly through the shadows she found and popped open the hatch. Gohrlay rode the descentor down to the service level below the city, the domain of machines. Gohrlay hoped to reach the dock by this route without being confronted by any of the robotic devices that worked in the underlevel efficiently performing the maintenance tasks that keep the city functioning.
The underlevel was not lit for human eyes, but her backpack automatically provided a visual prosthetic that supplied Gohrlay with an amplified infrared view. After walking a short distance down a corridor Gohrlay came to the facility where cargoes for the shuttles were assembled and loaded into modular containers. Gohrlay found everything as expected, with enough space in the port side lower rear module for both her and the backpack. It seemed that all would be as smooth and easy as it had been the first time she stowed away in a shuttle and left the city. And why not? Gohrlay had checked the records and found that it had been almost 150 years since anyone had been caught violating the Rules of Observation. Nobody bothered to stand guard in anticipation of stowaways.
Most of the cargo compartment was occupied by a prefabricated observation post, now neatly folded and ready for loading into the shuttle. Gohrlay opened a drawer of the prefab and appropriated the spare gene analyzer, finding it exactly where Cliph has promised it would be. Now fully equipped for her mission, she sat down, folded her legs into the available space and leaned against her backpack. The door slid shut and Gohrlay tried to sleep, not even bothering to fish a lightring out of her pack.
Almost an hour later she was still awake and nervously imagining everything that might complicate or even derail her mission. The exact nature of that mission was something of a muddle. She was still confused about the genetic data that Cliph wanted her to collect since it seemed to have nothing to do with the problem of microbial disease resistance. Why couldn't Cliph understand the importance of disease-causing microbes for evolution? It had been Gohrlay's discovery of the importance of microbes that had first attracted Cliph's attention, but all he ever wanted was for her to apply her gene flow analysis methods to types of genes that had nothing to do with disease resistance. He would not accept the facts: the genes that he was interested in simply evolved too slowly for Gohrlay's analysis techniques to be useful. In short, Cliph was expecting Gohrlay to collect a wealth of useless data. Disgusted with Cliph's stubbornness, Gohrlay had secretly devised her own mission objectives. She had no doubt that if Cliph had any idea what she was planning to do on Earth then he would refuse to sneak her off the Moon.
For a moment Gohrlay imagine Cliph at his going away party and she was relieved that she had been unable to attend. There was no way she would have been able to blend in with the crowd and merrily celebrate Cliph's upcoming mission to Earth.
Finally, with an alarming amount of bumping and shaking, a transport drone grappled her compartment and hauled it to the dock. The drones were efficient and soon all of the cargo modules were loaded aboard the spaceship. Their work complete, the drones departed and silence came to the shuttle.
Now safely inside the ship, Gohrlay hardly worried about fact that she was only hours away from the commission of her second crime. She had convinced herself that she would not be caught if she made it safely aboard the shuttle. Neatly stowed away in the cargo bay, her thoughts were now on the details of her mission and what she would do when on Earth. Her anxieties started to ebb and Gohrlay was exhilarated by the idea that she would soon actually do something outside of the carefully crafted confines of official Observer duties. Her sanctioned role in the Observer Corps constituted a stifling existence that she had come to despise. In her way of thinking, it would be morally unacceptable to not violate the Rules of Observation.
Gohrlay's last thoughts concerned one critical detail of her mission, the one particular primitive human that was her target, then a swarm of nanoscopic infiltrators from the backpack activated their programs, entered her brain and switched off her consciousness.
Gohrlay awoke to the gentle rocking of the shuttle as it dropped downplanet and tore through atmosphere. It was not long before Cliph gave the all clear signal, a soft tap on the container module. Gohrlay opened the hatch and pushed her backpack out, not a trivial task in the higher gravity of Earth. She waddled down the cargo ramp, the backpack hanging from one arm.
Emerging from the sterile spaceship, Gohrlay's senses were struck by the moist odors of life. She slowly inhaled a deep breath through her nose while pausing long enough to properly put on her backpack. From within the shadow being cast by the spaceship she could only see the green of forest, from which the sounds of birds emanated. With her first step into sunlight Gohrlay saw Cliph helping to unload supplies for Observer Camp T'Fal. The local on-Earth Observer was busy and facing the other direction, but he was clearly visible, standing beside a cargo module. If he turned around he would surely see the stowaway, Gohrlay. Cliph did notice Gohrlay and he nodded briefly in her direction. Having been exposed for only a second, she stepped quickly back into shadow, her heart beating hard. What would happen if she was caught?
Gohrlay made her way around to the other side of the spaceship, noting that it was hanging unusually high off the ground in order to avoid a large rock outcrop that was in the clearing. Gohrlay wondered if her legs could be seen from the other side of the ship. She tried to imagine how best to position the high point of the rocks between herself and the other two Observers, then she moved away from the spaceship towards the forest.
Almost immediately she felt a sharp twig claw at her foot and she remembered that she had again violated one of Cliph's rules. "Never go anywhere without your armor." During her first mission on Earth she had tried swimming without the body armor and had learned about leeches and parasitic worms. Upon returning home, she had been embarrassed by her naive expectation of being able to merrily merge into "nature" and she had never admitted to Nan all of the foolish risks she had taken. However, Gohrlay was still proud of her scars and had refused tissue regeneration treatments that could have restored perfection to her epidermis.
When safely concealed in the brush at the edge of the clearing, Gohrlay paused to activate her armor. She opened her backpack and found the armor dispenser: it was disguised to look like a packet of raisins. She ripped it open with the coded six-finger motion that was used by on-planet Observers to activate their tools. In field tests, no native had ever been clever enough to discover and use the gesture. The armor flowed invisibly over her skin, forming a defensive barrier composed of a network of nanoscopic components.
Gohrlay was thirsty, hungry and needed to empty her bladder, but first she wanted to put some distance between herself and Camp T'Fal. Almost immediately her cold feet began to be warmed by the equitherm function of the body armor and that at least provided some comfort.
Her muscles soon began to adapt to the high gravity and she reached a more open part of the forest where she could achieve a reasonably fast pace. Her destination was Observation Outpost v17D244 and if all went well she would reach it before nightfall.
After attaining a safe distance from the landing site, she paused and gave the coded signal to her backpack that initiated the feeding routine. For five minutes Gohrlay stood still and allowed herself to be subjected to the emergency rehydration protocol and with a small amount of feedback she quickly got into the habit of keeping her mouth slightly open. As annoying as that was, she hated being fed nasally, so this was her preferred option. For feeding, the backpack decided to go directly for Gohrlay's neck and she felt a gentle prodding there as a tunnel was opened into her circulatory system.
Cliph had programmed her backpack to sedate Gohrlay and make sure that she slept during the flight. He'd offered her the option to be fed and kept hydrated during the trip, but that would have also required that her bladder be emptied by the backpack. Gohrlay was more than a little nervous about the powers of the backpack and the other equipment that was used by on-planet Observers. Cliph had not been able to explain the inner workings of any of the devices that Observers routinely used to help them do their work secretly and undisturbed by the natives. He had shrugged and said, "Do you question how your clothes closet cleans your clothing? No. You put in something soiled and when you grab it the next day, it is clean and smells nice." Gohrlay was able to unquestioningly accept and use most of the technological wonders that supported daily life in the lunar city and the work of the Observer corps, but Gohrlay had drawn the line at letting a mysterious device drain her bladder. She did not allow herself to examine too closely the question of why she was willing to use the emergency rehydration feature of the backpack but not the waste removal features.
Without the rustling noises made by her own movements and with her respiration rate now slowed, Gohrlay noticed that the forest was quiet enough so that the sound of insect droppings hitting the leaf litter could be heard. There seemed to be no wind in the canopy above and the only other sounds were a few distant birds and what sounded like a squirrel traveling along branches high above. Without tipping her head, she let her eyes roll down so she could see her clothing. Her tunic was flawlessly performing its two functions: assisting the body armor to regulate body heat loss and providing camouflage. In the forest shadows the clothing was creating a darkly mottled pattern that hid her perfectly. She remembered from her previous trip downplanet the first time when she had set down her backpack and wandered away. That was when she learned, the hard way, the trick of always paying attention to exactly where she was. Even from a distance of three feet away from the backpack she had not been able to see it. The camouflage function of Observer equipment could not be inactivated while on planet, and particularly when stationary, the backpack's self-generated camouflage was excellent.
Standing there alone in the forest, some of Gohrlay's self-confidence began to ebb along with the first rush of exhilaration from being on Earth. Her first on-planet mission had only been an orientation tour during which she had stayed close to Cliph. Now she was moving off into the wild by herself and there was nobody who would be nearby to rescue her if she got into trouble. Observers who were officially assigned to on-planet tours of duty received years of intensive training. Gohrlay had only received some rather casual instruction from Cliph in how to make use of the basic tools of the Observer. Upon hearing her express doubts about the adequacy of her preparation, he had laughed loudly and said, "Most of the training that you lack concerns what not to do." Since Gohrlay was purposefully avoiding Overseer oversight, none of their rules mattered. But Gohrlay could not ignore the fact that some Overseer rules and regulations were designed to ensure Observer safety.
The biomonitor signaled that the rehydration was complete and the backpack retracted its probe from her neck. Some nutrients had been inserted directly into her blood, but the slower feeding program was still continuing and she kept her lips apart so that the semi-solid feed could continue to be trickled down her throat.
She touched a finger to the spot on her neck where seconds before a hole had existed that allowed fluid to be pumped into her blood stream. Now there was only a hard nodule there to mark where her tissues were being repaired. Gohrlay had grown up under the constant attention of Nan: any scrape or wound was immediately treated by medical nanites, efficiently programmed healing nanorobots, and Gohrlay took such miracles for granted. Nanites now hid and plugged the hole in her neck, but she had qualms about allowing her body to be cut open. For Gohrlay, using nanotechnology to repair a wound carried a different emotional flavor than purposefully cutting open her body, even if it was done for a good reason.
With the emergency rehydration completed she was free to empty her bladder, but still she hesitated. Gohrlay was reluctant to urinate here, but she had to trust her equipment to efficiently convert her molecular markers into those of a deer. This close to Camp T'Fal there was a chance that their mobile intrusion monitors would find her body fluids. It would be safest to let the backpack remove and process her bodily wastes, but she just was not comfortable with that kind of bodily invasion. Cliph had merrily chided her for being willing to accept mechanized feeding but not waste removal. Feeling energized by the go juice that had been pumped into her blood, Gohrlay again hit her stride and quickly moved off through the forest.
After walking a short distance, her kidney function was again in full swing and the need to urinate was urgent. She collected her urine in the empty body armor packet and kept it there for five minutes of chemical processing by the nanites, then poured it into a small stream. Confident that she had left behind no detectable chemical signature, she set off again towards post v17D244, feeling rather foolish about her squeamishness. The backpack had replenished its water supply from the stream, but the water from her processed urine could just have easily been kept for that purpose. Cliph had mercilessly hounded Gohrlay for her silliness during her first on-planet mission: "In the city you daily drink water that has passed through the bodies of countless people and was recycled for your use. And you won't drink the water extracted from your own urine?" Gohrlay still could not explain why it made a difference for her to know the sources of things entering her body. In the city she did not have to think about where a drink of water came from, but knowing that her own waste had been processed through the backpack and then returned to her was something that she was just not comfortable with. She could not rationally say what was wrong with water molecules that had passed through her own body. Rationally, she knew the answer was, "nothing", but her qualms about bodily functions and body waste did not originate from a rational level of her mind, anymore than did her desire to help the natives of Earth. For a moment she began to think about the mystery of why she was different from other people, then her thoughts shifted again and remained centered on finding the best path through the forest.
By noon Gohrlay was outside of the carefully monitored scanner perimeter of Camp T'Fal and the backpack finally allowed her to start using her electromagnetic equipment. Her infrared and sonic scanning prosthetics came online and she was now properly equipped to assume the task of taking personal responsible for avoiding contact with the natives. Of course, Gohrlay had come to Earth in order to interact with the natives and she did not want to totally avoid contact, but she wanted all contact to be on her terms.
It already seemed like another lifetime, but it was only only the day before: Gohrlay had accessed the Observer Database and monitored the data streams from Camp T'Fal and the dozen other on planet Observation centers. She had looking for any unexpected movements of natives near Camp T'Fal and she had found no indication of such movements. Sure, the natives could move even quicker than she could, but it would be an amazing coincidence if they chose today for a move towards v17D244. She was more concerned about large carnivores than humans.
The camouflage function of Gohrlay's clothing included an invisible net that processed her exhaled breath, capturing most of the water vapor and preventing distinctively mammalian odorant molecules from leaking into the environment. As long as her sensors and clothing were functioning correctly, there should be no problem with bears or tigers.
Late in the day, Gohrlay reached v17D244 and she was trying to make herself comfortable inside the hut by the time night fell. She'd already sent a swarm of scouting probes off towards the nearby native village. Reports from the probes started coming back. The fertile female who was the intended target of her mission was quickly located in the village. Gohrlay thought about how best to carry out the genetic tests that she had planned with Cliph. Of course, the probes were equipped to perform such tests and the genoplot of every member of this particular tribe was already on record. However, Cliph had previously discovered cases where the genoplots were inaccurate. Gohrlay and Cliph had decided that if they were going to perform a criminal intervention and artificially inseminate this female, then they should be absolutely certain of her genetic pattern.
Gohrlay thought about the gene analyzer that was in her backpack and the other equipment that she would carry with her in the morning when she approached the native village. She intended to personally obtain a genetic sample that could be compared to the one retrieved by automated probe. She resisted the impulse to take out the analyzer and test it on herself. She had a lightring on her finger and, thinking she heard a rodent, Gohrlay briefly used it to illuminate the inside of the hut. Seeing nothing alarming, she told herself that she could trust her equipment to keep the hut free of pests. She switched off the lightring and was again plunged into darkness.
Soon Gohrlay's probes completed their work and all of the villagers had been accounted for, even those who were away from the village in a hunting party. Gohrlay took off the datareader she had been wearing and stashed it in the backpack. Now confident that her mission was going smoothly she tried to get comfortable on the floor of the hut. Gohrlay took the time to open a few food packets and while eating she thought about the natural beauty of the forest and all that she had seen that day on her trek. It had been a glorious warm day with only an occasional gust of breeze. When she had reached v17D244, a thin streak of fire smoke had been visible on the horizon, making the location of the native village.
One of her probes returned to the hut with a fresh cell sample from the female who Gohrlay planned to impregnate. After a few minutes the gene analyzer began to signal that new data were available. Gohrlay pulled the analyzer out of her backpack and reviewed the newly forming genoplot. She asked for a comparison of the archived genoplot against these newly collected data. That search for differences identified two blocks of genetic alteration and the differences in the gene pattern were of the type that she had learned to expect because of her training from Cliph. He had frequently seen this type of modified genoplot and he was trying to determine if it resulted from actual genetic change or falsification of entries in the genoplot database that was used by Observers. Gohrlay shook her head in wonder and looked around the interior of the hut, now dimly lit by the glowing readout of the gene analyzer. She had never really taken seriously Cliph's little research project. Her goal was to help the natives, while Cliph seemed more interested in exploring the intellectual mystery of the genetic differences he had discovered. Now that Gohrlay had personal experience with identification of these discrepancies between actual genetic data and the genoplot entries in the Observer database, the puzzle seemed more real and potentially relevant to her own mission.
One of Cliph's ideas was that there was a secret Overseer project that was causing the genoplot database discrepancies. Fearing that possibility, Cliph had not yet told many Observers about his findings. Gohrlay and Cliph had discussed the idea that that those natives who showed evidence of genetic modification might be more carefully monitored by the Overseers. Gohrlay desperately wanted no Overseer attention for her project which was clearly aimed at illegal modification on native gene flow. Now Gohrlay began debating with herself if it might be wise to terminate her intervention mission. If this particular female was already of special interest to Overseers then did she want to risk using this individual as a target for her own attempt to help boost disease resistance and fitness of the natives?
Irked by this unwelcome discovery, Gohrlay switched off the gene analyzer and placed it back inside her backpack. She tried to get comfortable and drift into sleep, but her newly amplified doubts and concerns did not let her mind grow calm. Finally she firmly told herself to let go of the problem so that she could sleep on it. However, sleep still would not come and the aches in her legs and back seemed to intensify. Each time she closed her eyes against the darkness of the hut she had the sensation of moving through the green and brown forest while obsessively scanning her surroundings for predators.
Gohrlay thought about how thinly life was scattered on this world, particularly human life. This particular clan that she was scheming to genetically modify was in danger of being erased from existence. A vicious bacterial pathogen was slowly spreading across the planet and this tribe of humans had no resistance. However, Gohrlay carried with her sperm samples that would confer immunity to the plague. Gohrlay knew well that Cliph and she were breaking the law by trying to protect descendants of these humans from a natural disease agent, but why not provide a little help to these pathetic beings?
As if in answer to that questioning thought, a glow of light entered the hut from outside, followed by a voice, "Observer Gohrlay, please come out. And being all of your equipment."
Gohrlay's heart began to pound. For an instant she thought of escape, but then she told herself that it was futile to imagine evading the Overseers. All of her altruistic dreams of helping the natives dissolved in the glow of that light that flooded the hut. She crawled out of the hut, dragging the backpack behind her. A shuttle was hovering above, with only a spotlight and an ascensor tube extending down to the ground. The voice sounded again, seemingly close by, "Use the tube. Your illegal visit is over."
Gohrlay slung the pack over one shoulder and stepped into the ascensor which whisked up into the spaceship. She found herself the recipient of the disapproving glare of an Overseer's cold dark eyes. The Overseer performed a formal introduction complete with a bow, "I'm Overseer Doltun. Please verify that you left nothing behind, down there."
Gohrlay let her pack slide to the floor. "Everything is here." She asked, "How did you find me?"
Doltun seemed surprised that she should ask such a thing. "Did you really think you were being crafty and might escape notice? Your backpack contains a signaling device that allowed me to track you. There was never any need to 'find' you since I've known your every move."
Gohrlay felt her face grow hot. It was humiliating how easily her great plans had been thwarted. Somehow she had always felt that it had been too easy to travel to Earth, but she had assumed that under conditions where nobody even contemplated criminal activity the police would grow lazy. She now could sense that she had been trapped into thinking that she could illegally travel to Earth without being caught in the act. All of Gohrlay's heart-felt desire to help the people of Earth now began to shift its mighty energy towards dislike of Overseers, particularly Doltun.
Doltun's robotic aide came from the control room and said, "We'll be back on the Moon in four hours."
Doltun turned to his aide and ordered, "Thanks, Anagro. Go ahead and shift us back to regular gravity."
Anagro acknowledged the command, "Very well," and the robot briefly held Gohrlay in his gaze before turning and returning to the control room.
Taking an instant dislike to Doltun's aide, Gohrlay reflected on the subtle facial features that distinguished the robotic companions of Overseers from those of Observers. The Overseers generally kept to their quarter of the city, although occasionally they could be seen out and about with their aides, but Gohrlay had never previously interacted with them. Gohrlay did not like the way that Doltun's aide had looked at her. Robots were supposed to follow orders and not stare at people. Gohrlay was puzzled by the odd chill she had felt the moment Anagro had looked at her, but then her thoughts shifted towards contemplation of how she would be punished for her crimes.