The Earthseed Chronicles Free to read science fiction blogfic

8Oct/120

1-9: Introspection

Arcelia was surprised to find out that the jet did not have any personnel on board at all. Ragnar was flying it, and Anthea was filling the role of stewardess. Nothing was turning out to be what she expected, but in a good way. She looked out; the sun was slowly setting behind them, throwing shadows ahead on the landscape below. A few stars were beginning to be visible in the clear, darkening sky and city lights were starting to be lit. If she let herself go now, she could easily drift off into sleep.

Anthea was sitting in the alley opposite her, her eyes closed. She looked Zen as always, something she was sure she would never achieve. She always had something nagging at her, as if her mind could not stand being idle. Right now there were so many questions she wanted, no, needed answers to that she was at a loss to prioritize them. To make matters worse, a headache was slowly brewing, so she forced herself to switch to lighter subjects. An image of Anthea kissing her came to mind, but she quickly dismissed it, blaming it on the residual connection between them since she had let her into her mind.

She instinctively looked at Anthea again, and blushed furiously when she saw that she was already watching her. She quickly looked back out her window again, more unsure than ever what to feel or think about this.

“If you wish I can help you relax,” Anthea said softly.

Arcelia’s heart raced and stopped at the same time. Bad idea. Bad, bad BAD idea. “No thanks, I just have to sort this through, I’ll manage,” she said, her voice sounding just as weak as the conviction behind the words. She changed the subject.

“So can you tell me what my ability is? Being able to feel people’s dispositions?” She asked in an attempt to avoid the subject, turning back towards Anthea.

Anthea shook her head slowly. “I do not know. Usually we discover that together, slowly testing out the intricacies. It is vital, because you could hurt people without even knowing it. Some of our abilities are somewhat… unpredictable. What exactly did you feel?”

“I could feel the hostility coming from those people. It was diffuse at first, until I realized that the hotspots of hostility I felt matched actual people. From then on I could almost pinpoint where they were. Earlier I could even feel you, but it wasn’t as clear. I only knew it was you and in which general direction you were. ”

“That is surely useful. Once your ability is fully awoken it should become more precise and easier to use. You will probably also have secondary aspects of the ability that will surface.”

“Like what?”

“I cannot say, but it is always something related to your main ability. The only way to find out is by trial and error.”

“How does awakening someone’s abilities work?”

“Meditation, introspection and practice were the only ways to do it until we realized that I could speed the process along considerably with my own abilities. I can connect with you like we did earlier, and I can guide your thoughts to help you unlock most of the dormant aspects of your abilities. Some are hidden deeper and awaken on their own when presented with the right stimuli – unfortunately there is no way to know which stimuli.”

“So I’m a surprise package.”

Anthea smiled. “Yes, you could say that. We all were, and in some cases still are. We do not have a fixed number of abilities, and sometimes we discover new ones years after the others have been awakened, when the right stimuli are present.”

“What are your abilities?”

“My main ability you have experienced yourself: I can share my thoughts and feelings with people by touching them. Depending on where I touch them, it has a slightly different effect.”

No kidding. “Like when you held my hands to filter my thoughts?”

“Yes, exactly. I can also see your thoughts and feel what you feel, so over a connection like your hands I can guide and help you sort through them. Controlling motor functions is part of this too.”

“And do you have any secondary abilities?”

“Yes, I can also choose to plant ideas, thoughts and influence decision making. It works best when the subject is asleep, though.” Arcelia shuddered. Having someone “plant” ideas while she is asleep was not a comforting thought.

“I can see what you are thinking now without even reading your mind,” Anthea said, smiling even wider now. “Fortunately for you, while we with abilities are not entirely immune to my ability, you have a high resistance to it. You would most likely detect the tampering.”

“That’s reassuring,” Arcelia said, not entirely convinced.

“Landing in Lyon in 15 minutes,” Ragnar’s voice sounded over the speakers.

“You will get to meet part of the team,” Anthea said. “They will be happy to meet you, finding a new recruit is always quite an event.”

“Will there be cookies?”

Anthea laughed. “I’m sure we can find some for you.”

Arcelia watched the descent through her window. It was almost entirely dark now, and Lyon looked like a giant web made of stands of multi-coloured lights, pulsating and flowing in every direction. The touchdown was almost a kiss, much more enjoyable than the short trip in the helicopter. Ragnar opened the hatch and was the first to get out, obviously annoyed at something.

“Where the hell is he? He was supposed to be here before touchdown,” he said as he went down the stairs. Service trucks and personnel were hurrying around the jet servicing and refuelling it. They had landed a bit away from the main commercial lines in the private area, and apart from two other jets there wasn’t much going on. A worried frown crossed Anthea’s face as she looked out.

“Let’s stay in here for now,” Anthea whispered and ushered Arcelia back inside the jet. They looked out through a window.

“What’s going on?” Arcelia asked.

“Dale was supposed to be here to drive us back to our headquarters. He is very dependable; he would have gotten word to us that he could not get here in time. Something is up.”

Something tugged at Arcelia’s mind, but she could not determine what it was. Ragnar came back up the stairs, frowning.

“I could not raise him on his cell, and the others did not hear anything either, he left there about an hour ago. That's more than plenty time to get here – something is amiss.”

“We are quite vulnerable out here, what do you want to do?” Anthea asked.

“Terrance is on the way, he should get here to pick us up soon.”

Arcelia got that nagging feeling again, but this time she tried to hold on to it. There was something on the edge of her awareness, something familiar. Thinking back to how Anthea had helped her order her thoughts, she tried to focus. It kept evading her, but then she caught a faint glimpse of what it was. Once she knew what it was, zooming in was almost easy. She sensed a diffuse source of hostility directed towards them.

“I have something,” she said. Anthea and Ragnar looked at her questioningly. “It’s still far away, but I feel hostile thoughts directed towards us. They are moving, too – getting closer.”

“From which direction?” Ragnar asked briskly.

Arcelia concentrated. It was getting closer, so it was becoming easier to pinpoint. She pointed in the direction.

“That’s the private jets hangar. Dale must be there as well. Can you feel him too?”

Arcelia strained, but could not feel anything. “No, feeling things other than hostility is a lot harder.”

“Any idea how many there are?”

“No, they are too far away and too close together. I only feel one blob.”

“Continue trying. This is good training for your skills; you will not get many occasions where you can train them live like this without being in imminent danger.”

Arcelia wondered what Ragnar would consider imminent danger. “What are you going to do?” she asked.

Ragnar looked out towards the hangar. “Have they moved any closer?”

“No they haven’t, they seem to be stationary now.”

“I am going in,” he said. Arcelia expected Anthea to hold him back, but she only nodded once.

“Close the door behind me. If some of them should manage to get over here, it will slow them long enough for me to intervene if Terrance is not here by then,” he said and ran out nimbly. Arcelia watched as he ran towards the hangar in the distance. Anthea closed the access door.

“Aren’t you worried?”

“I have long given up worrying about him. Trying to change his mind is pointless. Besides, he is very good at what he does.”

“Wait, what are his abilities?”

“He was the first of us, and apparently Gaia saw fit to give him a full array of offensive abilities. He is very strong and fast, and he is a master at taking strategic decisions in the field. He can adapt to virtually any situation in microseconds. Also, it seems that he cannot be hurt by regular bullets or blades. He’s our enforcer.”

Arcelia looked out towards the hangar. So Ragnar was a one-man war machine. Now that she knew it, it fit him like a glove. The posture, the way he walked… She did as he told her and focused on what little she could feel. She sat down and brought every bit of her concentration to bear on the blurry blob of hostility she felt.

“Let me help you,” Anthea said and gently placed two of her fingers on each of her temples. She felt Anthea’s benevolent presence, and sensed her directing her mind on the speck of hostility. Methodically Anthea helped her focus what she sensed; first by concentrating her efforts only on that little area, then by freeing more of her capacity to concentrate taken up by thoughts she had forgotten about. She knew it was a stupid comparison, but it was almost like terminating applications on a computer to free up more resources. Anthea’s presence confirmed silently that it was actually very similar.

At first the blob proved to be elusive, but slowly she found that she was able to increase the detail step by step. Colours emerged, distinct textures that enabled her to dissociate individual persons – then all of a sudden the hostility flared up and one after another the spots faded until all were gone. Ragnar must have reached and disabled them. Not killed, Arcelia knew: a dim trace of hostility was left for each. Anthea’s presence seemed satisfied as she left her.

“Impressive. Towards the end you were able to sense their hostility even as they were unconscious.”

“Thanks to you.”

“I merely guided you, the potential is already there. Gaia is definitely getting a lot better at this, you are learning a lot faster than any of your predecessors,” she said. Arcelia half expected to see at least a little jealousy, but there was none. She felt lightheaded from sharing her presence again, she felt so utterly safe, and it was as if she had known Anthea her whole life. It was quite intoxicating – and she knew that anything that could have this kind of effect was also quite dangerous. She had to be very careful not to become dependent on it, or to make more of it than it really was.

There was a polite knock on the door, and after a brief look through the window Anthea went to open it.

“I heard you need a ride?” she heard an unlikely deep rumbling voice say.

Anthea smiled broadly. “That we do” she said, and waved for Arcelia to come with her.

He was the biggest man Arcelia had ever seen. Had he been a little larger, you could have painted him green and passed him off as the real Hulk. He smiled at her with such a genuine smile that you just knew there could be no evil in him.

“Hello, Arcelia, I’m Terrance,” he said simply in his booming voice. He had an accent that could have been german, but it was difficult to say.

“Hello,” she said, unable to take her eyes off him. Through his tight fitting T-shirt she could see each and every muscle of his upper body. His torso sported larger breasts than both of hers combined, but the weird thing was that he managed to look natural despite all that. She had seen body builder competitions on TV, and it was always too much for her taste. He did not have much less muscle than a body builder, but somehow he looked as if he had been born with them.

“Where’s Ragnar?” he asked.

Anthea pointed. “Over there, by the hangar. I fear that all the action is over, however.”

“Oh, good. I wasn’t in any mood for a fight anyway.”

“Meditating?” Anthea asked. Terrance nodded.

Try as she might, Arcelia could not picture Terrance meditating - it just did not compute. They got into the snow white minivan that he had come in, and drove over to the hangar. As they approached, Ragnar stepped into view from behind a luggage car and waved them over.

“Can I keep one this time?” he asked as Anthea got out. She just rolled her eyes in reply. They both knew there was no need discussing it.

Arcelia looked around; as far as she could see they were dressed in the same military garb than the ones that had attacked them in Anthea’s mansion.

“Are these the same guys?” she asked.

“No way to say for sure, but they do dress the same.”

“Where’s Dale?” Anthea asked.

“He’s inside. They banged him up a bit – but nothing serious.”

Anthea ran off instantly to check on him. Ragnar seemed to have worked up a bit of sweat, but he did not look as if he had just dispatched eight bulky mercenary / military types.

“Any resistance worth noting?” Terrance asked casually.

Ragnar shrugged. “Amateurs.”

Terrance smiled and nodded towards the neatly stacked unconscious men. “Which one do you want to take home?”

“That one,” he said, pointing at one man a ways to the right of the main stack. “He has got some kind of insignia that the others do not, that has to mean something.” Terrance smiled at that and calmly went to pick the man up as if he weighed nothing, and put him in the back of the van. Then he began to meticulously tie him up.

“What do they want?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. However, too much of this is happening around you to be a coincidence. We have had run-ins with all sorts of people in the past, but nothing as organized and well informed as these guys. They responded to our movements a little too tightly for comfort.”

“You think they’re after Arcelia?” Terrance asked as he closed the van, leaving a neatly packed and gagged mercenary inside.

“It's possible, maybe our friend here will be able to shed some light on it.”

“We should get going,” Anthea called from further away in the hangar. There was a man walking slowly by her side, limping a bit. She could not see him too well yet, but what got her worried was that she could feel the hostility from the mercenaries flare up again slowly.

“They’re waking up,” Arcelia said quickly.

“You get to drive up front with me,” Terrance said and beckoned her over to the van. Arcelia instinctively looked at Ragnar for approval. “Oh, don’t worry. He’s got nothing to say in my car – my world, my rules,” Terrance said and laughed. Ragnar grimaced and nodded.

The drive through Lyon was anticlimactic at best. Everyone was brooding over current events, and at night every city looks the same. Except the really wild ones like Las Vegas or Dubai, maybe. Lyon however looked pretty much as bleak as any city she had known from the car’s perspective. Also, the mercenary in the back had woken and he was mixing fear and anger in a most disconcerting way for her newfound ability’s eyes.

“Gah, how do you turn this off?” She asked after trying in vain to stop using her ability.

“It did not stop again on its own?” Anthea asked, visibly surprised.

“No, it didn’t – and our guest’s mood swings are driving me crazy,” she said, closing her eyes. It only made things worse. She thought she could almost hear what the man was thinking as the man’s fear spiked, temporarily drowning his hostility.

“That means your ability has already partially awoken. It is quite unusual for it to happen so fast, but it seems you are meant to be unique in many ways,” Anthea said cryptically.

“Once awoken, your abilities will not have an off switch anymore. You will have to learn to filter through them or consciously lessen their effect,” Terrance interjected. That was not what she wanted to hear, but it explained a lot more than Anthea’s statement.

“How do you filter this?” She asked,wondering how she could filter something as strong as what she was feeling.

She felt Anthea reaching from behind her, her hands closing on each side of her head. Knowing what would come, she let herself sink deep into Anthea’s presence. I think that is close enough, she gently but firmly chided her and pushed her back a little bit. Still, in that brief instant, she had been able to take measure of the love she had for Ragnar as well as the others with abilities. She saw all 8 of them as family. She felt a bit ashamed at having sprung this little trap on her, but she needed every confirmation she could get that these people were what they were advertising. Anthea did not let her linger on these thoughts however, and brought her to focus on her ability.

“What you need to do is to symbolically compartmentalize your ability. Your brain likes categorizing things; it helps to keep track of everything as well as to find it faster when you need it again. Imagine a filing cabinet for example, or a chest, or whatever else you feel comfortable with. You will have to do this with each of your abilities as you discover them.”

Arcelia imagined her brain being a server with lots of memory slots. The picture came to her naturally, so she zoomed in on a cluster of memory slots that she coloured sky blue and creatively labelled “Abilities”. It was right next to a cluster of memories that she labelled “Childhood”, and she was going to label them all right then hadn’t Anthea put her back on track.

“Very good, I see your computer background made you a natural for this methodology. “

“If only tidying up was as easy in real life.”

Anthea’s presence was amused as this instinctively brought up images of her apartment, which had often been a total mess. Arcelia felt herself blush furiously.

“You have no reason to be ashamed; I have not always been a tidy person either.”

“Somehow that is very hard to believe.”

“Try to take hold of everything encompassing your ability, and put it into one of those memory slots you have chosen. You have to feel that it really fits in there for it to work.”

Arcelia tried to visualize the edges of her ability, but it was becoming too conceptual for her. She was losing track of where the boundaries between reality and her thoughts were, wondering suddenly how she was supposed to make the difference. Then she understood that while Anthea was helping her, she was also bringing her own concepts along, her own visualization and categorization of thoughts.

"I think I need to do this on my own." She gently told her in her thoughts.

Anthea's presence agreed and slowly receded from her thoughts, and she had to fight off a feeling of panic at suddenly being all alone within herself. Realizing how ludicrous that sounded, she managed a virtual giggle and visualized the memory slots again. She had a theme going here, one she was comfortable with – but simply having some memory slots floating in the void was not going to cut it. She would have to put it all together now, or it would not make any sense.

As fast as she could, she began to categorize everything methodically by adding more high-tech components. She slowly added to the server mainframe, from memory slots holding actual memories to hardware add-ons representing things she could do. To represent her ability she chose a shiny water cooled rendering station, with cabling big enough to draw the power such an appliance would require. She had initially put it in a memory slot, but that was hardly fitting.

When she was finished, everything had a meaningful place and was neatly filed. It was a work of art. Her ability was humming nicely next to the server core; the rack of memory slots was filled with everything from her childhood memories to a special slot for everything she knew about the team. She even had a hidden drive holding the few secrets she kept. She floated further out to behold the complete new visual representation she had built of her mind.

She had expected the whole to be one formless heap of electronic junk, but as the construct shrank she saw that there was order there – order she had not consciously shaped. When she was far enough to see the whole construct, she gaped open-mouthed. It was… a mecha? She had unconsciously transformed her mind into a robot? Somehow that was incredibly awesome and frightening at the same time.

She called out to Anthea's presence, and as she felt her beside her she felt her surprise.

"I have never seen anything like it. What is it?”

“I wish I knew. I gave it this shape unconsciously.”

Anthea studied the construct from all sides. “You knew what you were doing however, it all fits together perfectly. Its balance is optimal; it looks as if it could actually walk out of here.”

She did not have anything to say to that, so she simply studied the mech herself. She had trouble coming to grips with the fact that this was actually a virtual, graphical representation of her own mind. It could not be complete, since there were obviously parts of her mind that were unreachable by her conscious self – but still, it felt like quite an achievement.

Only days ago, she would have laughed at the idea. Now however, seeing her ability running smoothly in its case, its effects effectively contained within, she knew there were tangible real world applications.

“Yes, and seeing what you did here I get the feeling we have just been scratching the surface so far”, Anthea added.

“You don’t have similar representations of your minds in the group?”

“No, nothing even comes close to the complexity of what you built. Most did not feel the need. Ragnar has a garage to house his arsenal with a map table in the centre for laying out his strategies. He never needed anything beyond that.”

“What do you have?”

She felt Anthea’s embarrassment clearly, and it took her a moment to answer.

“A magical shroud.”

Arcelia nearly laughed, but managed to control herself. Somehow reducing Anthea’s mind to a simple shroud, even a magical one, was hilarious. How could she represent her mind with something as simple?

“Would you show it to me?”

“Come.”

She let Anthea guide her, and as her own mind receded she could already see a bright source of light in the distance. As they got closer, she saw that the light was bursting with colours, pulsating and undulating in a completely disconcerting way. As they approached the centre, she finally saw the shroud – and had to revise her earlier thoughts. What she was seeing was every bit as complex as Anthea herself, possibly even more complex.

The colours emanated from the shroud itself, which was in perpetual movement; twisting, flowing, folding. It was ethereal and interchangeably liquid or cloth. Looking at it was mesmerizing, and could easily be turned into a trap to lure people with.

“I have never seen anything as beautiful.”

“It chose me, I think. Over time I added to it, but the core has always been there.”

“How do you control your abilities then? I don’t see any way to access them.”

“I thought it would be obvious. I do not have to – it is a magical shroud after all. I just ask for an ability, and it is there.”

This time Arcelia had to laugh. “I would have trouble trusting something that works without me knowing how it works.”

“Oh, I did have some communication problems at first, but I worked those out.“

“I will have to work out some things as well, I think.”

Anthea gave her a wink as she took her hands off her head, and she felt the last bits of her mind swiftly recede into nothingness. She focused back on the van as well. Earlier when she was building her mecha, she had used so much concentration that the real world had been almost entirely blotted out, but otherwise her surroundings were always present so it was merely a matter of what to focus on. These introspections were not at all separate from reality as she had thought earlier, they were extensions of it. Her conscious mind was merely multitasking.

Multitasking like a champ, too – according to her wristwatch, not more than ten minutes could have passed. She looked up; Terrance was looking at her questioningly. She grinned.

“Ah, I assume you found a way to filter your ability?”

“She did a lot more than just that,” Anthea said. “She built a full interpretation of her mind and shaped the whole thing into a robot.”

“A mecha,” Arcelia added quickly.

Terrance’s eyebrows went up further than she had expected them to go, and even Ragnar gave an appreciative whistle. She did not know exactly in which way what she had done was impressive, but it already made her feel a little less out of place. She had never been someone special, yet to these amazing people she already was something special. It felt good, it felt right somehow.

Ragnar leaned forward. “Is it weaponizeable?” he asked.

“Let me check,” she said and had a look at the mech again. Since the grand design had come from her unconscious, who knew what manner of capabilities she had built into it… She studied the usual places: the chest, arms and back. There was nothing obvious there, but she had a gut feeling. That was all the confirmation she needed.

“Looks like there might be some options open.”

Ragnar grinned back at her. That was exactly the kind of thing he reveled in. Terrance however, was frowning.

“Why did you need to check?”

“My subconscious has the blueprints; I just built the thing without knowing what I was building.”

“That’s interesting.”

“Quite,” Anthea added.

Terrance laughed. “Says the lady with the shroud!”

“We girls like to be mysterious,” Anthea replied with a smirk.

“And we like you just the way you are,” Terrance answered with a smirk as well.

Filed under: Chapter 1 No Comments
22Jul/120

1-8: First Encounter

What Anthea had so nonchalantly called "her place" turned out to be a full-fledged mansion. Arcelia had been so deep in thought during the drive that getting there was a blur. Now she stood in the room that Anthea and Ragnar had shown her to for the night, and her awareness snapped back to the present. She could hear their subdued voices from beyond a large window showing an inner garden. She looked around; the room was luxurious. Not overly ostentatious, tasteful and functional. The bed itself was almost as large as the living room back in her apartment, and she had never felt anything quite like the texture of the bed sheets.

She should have felt Feeling slightly lost roaming these alien surroundings, but in truth she felt reassured. Despite the luxury the room had a cosy feel to it, and the one thing she needed most at that very moment was right there in front of her: a bathtub. It had been years since she had last taken a real bath – her apartment only had a shower. She looked out the window; Anthea and Ragnar had left, so she toyed with the idea for a bit and finally decided for a quick rinse. She turned on the water, undressed, threw her clothes carelessly into a heap on the floor and glided into the tub. The water was hot, but that was exactly what she wanted. It was decadent – outside temperatures were reaching 34°C, and she was taking a hot bath in the air conditioned interior.

Letting the heat soak her bones, she noted that she had forgotten how powerful a bath could be to relax. A shower never came close enough, not even if she tried to do it hollywood style by leaning her head and hands against the shower’s wall and letting the water run down over her head. Then again, usually people got murdered right after those scenes. She steered her thoughts away from the hectic happenings of the last days and discovered that her neck was still sore from the time she had spent upside down in her dresser. The hot water dulled it down, but it was going to be a bother for days to come. She wondered who had put her in there – possibly Frank. It was possibly to put her out of harm’s way, and she was thankful even if she did not entirely agree with how it was done.

The fact that someone hid her meant that there was more than one party involved – or there were different opinions within the group that was after the medical information on Anthea and the other “immortals”. Countless books and movies seemed to have robbed the word of its meaning. Immortality was still eluding the medical world, and immortal beings were still the stuff of legend - unless she dared believe what she had learnt from Anthea so far. Try as she might, she could not wrap her mind around it, much less being one herself. There was no way she could come to terms with a future that was frighteningly close to Highlander – seeing your friends grow old and die while you lived on (minus the kilt of course)? She had to laugh aloud, but it sounded hollow. No, it was crazy. These people had to be delusional.

“Arcelia?” It was Anthea. She hadn’t heard her come in. Had she even knocked?

“Uh, yes?” she said, her line of thought evaporating.

“We have sent some people to your apartment to retrieve your things, but I thought you might want to change before then. I chose some clothes for you; I will put them here on the bed.”

“Thanks”. That was a nice thought indeed.

“Take your time; come join us in the garden later if you wish.”

“Okay,” she said, then thought of something. “Uh, Anthea?”

“Yes?” She heard Anthea’s light footsteps approach, and she appeared in the archway. She smiled questioningly. She did not seem to be disturbed by any intimacy boundaries. Arcelia let herself slide a bit further into the hot water, hoping that her blush would be hidden by her already hot face.

There was no point in trying subtlety to approach the subject. “Are you really immortal?”

“No, I do not think so. I like to think of myself as being long-lived.”

“But you don’t age.”

“We usually stop ageing at around 35 years. Each of us aged slightly differently, but no one aged beyond 37 years. At that point the metabolism changes and cellular regeneration goes into overdrive. We still do not know exactly what triggers the change and how it all works.”

“When did you stop ageing?”

“In 1891. I was 34 years old. I remember the date because I met Nikola Tesla that year when he moved to New York. I felt the change in my body, but understood it only much later.”

Arcelia’s mind reeled. “Tesla… as in Tesla Coil?”

“Yes. He was a brilliant man. Driven, like all great minds are, but charming and a real gentleman.”

She frowned. If this was true, she would stop ageing in approximately eight years. Anthea’s gaze lingered on her, and she became even more self-conscious. She let herself slide deeper into the water until her chin dipped into the surface. She thought she saw a flicker of a smirk mixing into Anthea’s smile as she turned back around towards the garden.

“I am going back to see Ragnar,” she said.

“I’ll come over as soon as I’m done here.”

Anthea nodded, and went out.

If Anthea was delusional, she did not act like it at all – at least not in the way that Arcelia imagined a delusional person would. She was suddenly eager to finish bathing to get some more answers. She blushed furiously again when she got out of the tub and saw her sorry heap of clothes on the floor. Being messy at home alone was one thing, having a two centuries old lady see your mess was another altogether. She picked up the heap and put it on the bed; only marginally better, but still an improvement. The clothes Anthea had prepared for her were a little bit too large, especially the cleavage. She did not have enough to fill all that, but luckily the top had buttons.

The bathroom cabinet had a wide selection of makeup, with possibly more lipstick, eyeliner and blush than she had ever owned in her life. It was terribly tempting, but she had never been comfortable wearing makeup to begin with. She stared at the cabinet for a full minute, and decided to at least put on some lipstick. The colour was called “Pink Wink”, whatever that was supposed to represent. It was matte light pink, which someone had once told her complemented her eyes. She had always thought that the lips she was born with ought to complement her eyes just fine. She checked herself in the mirror, and wasn’t quite happy nor unhappy with the result as usual.

Her room had a sliding glass door that led into the inner garden, so she went looking for Anthea and Ragnar. The garden was much larger than she had thought at first, and the vegetation was tropical. It was a full-fledged botanical garden, complete with glass dome overhead. She shuddered to think of much this must cost to maintain, especially water-wise since prices were quite high in the city. She followed a small paved path all the way to the opposite end of the garden, but there was no sign of Anthea or Ragnar. She had crossed a fountain with benches on the way over, and as far as she could see it was the only spot where you could sit – maybe they were in the house? She decided to go back to the fountain.

Just as she started walking, a commotion ahead stopped her in her tracks. It had sounded like glass breaking, but as the vegetation muffled everything there was no way to be sure. Usually she would have dismissed it as someone dropping something on the floor, but instead her instincts made her jump into the undergrowth. It was strange, it was as if she could sense hostility coming from the direction she heard the sound, as well as from several other directions. She had never felt anything like it, and it scared the hell out of her. It was almost as if she could feel sources of hostile feelings move around her. It was when a man in military garb came into view on the path that she realized that he was one of the sources of hostility that she felt. She could feel him come closer, and she shrank back further into her hiding place. She dared not breathe as the man stealthily made his way past her on the path. She could not see him any more, but she could feel his hostility move just as the other hostility sources slowly converged on her. The garden was eerily silent, which only fuelled her fear. She thought that if she could be even more scared, she would faint.

Now that she knew what it was she felt, she could almost pinpoint exactly where the soldiers were. There was also a sort of colour to the hostility of each of them, and the strength of what she could only refer to as a kind of signal was continuously pulsating, the very structure of it changing continuously. It was mesmerizing, but she forced herself to think of something else. This was not the time to experiment, especially not with something so alien. For all she knew she could be telling these guys where she was. A small spider hurried up her sleeve, but she let it go wherever it pleased; it was not the time to go swatting spiders either. Besides, she was so cramped up with fear that she wasn’t even sure she could move at all.

Suddenly everything around her seemed to go out of focus, bending as if put through a distortion filter, and after a disconcerting flash of absolute nothingness, she was sitting in a featureless white room.

“Welcome back, Arcelia. You are now logged in,” Ion intoned cheerfully.

“What the-“ she was able to say, and realized that she was back in the basement of the Thorvalds Technologies subsidiary where she had first met Ragnar.

“Sorry for the confusion, we had to teleport you out,” Ragnar said from somewhere on her right.

The relief that flowed through her was ecstatic. She let herself slump on the floor, breathing deeply. She absently thought of captain Kirk being “beamed” out of a tight spot, and how he would have felt if it had been real. A few hours ago she did not know teleportation was a reality, and now it had already saved her life.

“No worries,” she said and saw the spider from earlier race away from her to try and find a better refuge. Was it the first spider ever to be teleported? Somehow the thought made her giggle uncontrollably. She heard Ragnar and Anthea talking animatedly, but she could not focus on what they were saying. She closed her eyes and thanked creation that she was alive.

“Arcelia, are you all right?” Anthea asked softly.

“Thanks a bundle for saving me,” she said, keeping her eyes closed. To her surprise, she realized that she could sense some of Anthea’s benevolence, just like she had felt the hostility of the men chasing them. She opened her eyes, and looked at Anthea, who was kneeling beside her.

“I could feel them. Feel their hostility” she said, some of the fear creeping back into her voice.

“You did? That’s... surprising” she said, visibly surprised. She exchanged a glance with Ragnar, who seemed to be almost as surprised. Arcelia looked at her questioningly.

“I think it means that your abilities are starting to awaken without outside help. It is a safeguard; usually one of us has to help you awaken them. Only the eldest among us were able to awaken our abilities on our own, and it was not a seamless process.”

“Why do mine awaken on their own then?”

“We do not know, but it does not bode well,” Ragnar said cryptically. A flicker of annoyance passed over Anthea’s face – possibly a topic they were not in sync on.

“What we were meaning to explain is that we are in a race. Not only us, but the entire human race – except that only we know about it so far. The fact that your abilities are awakening on their own could mean that the race is accelerating. It is a matter of debate within the team, but so far no one knows for sure.”

“A race to what, where?”

“Survival. Something is coming to earth from the depths of our universe, something bad. We do not know what it is, but the earth itself chose to create us to help humanity prepare for whatever is to come.”

Arcelia listened, but could not make much sense of what she heard. Possibly sensing her distress, Anthea placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Come, we must not stay here. We cannot teleport back to Lyon because our energy reserves are depleted, but the helicopter should be here any moment to take us to the airport. From there we will take the jet back to our headquarters.”

Arcelia nodded, and followed them back out of the basement. “Who were these guys?”

“We do not know yet.”

“Nor are we likely to, since we did not even capture one,” Ragnar said sullenly.

Anthea smiled at him. “Do not worry, something tells me they are not about to give up. You will get another chance.”

“I don’t understand. What do you mean by the earth created us?”

“It’s difficult to explain in words. You will understand it on your own once your abilities have fully awoken. I will try to explain the basics however: our planet has an awareness, and it sensed a threat coming from deep space. To defend against this threat, this awareness started experimenting with life on earth and eventually created us,” Anthea said as they emerged outside on the helipad. The helicopter was already there, the engine running.

Arcelia half shouted to cover the noise, “What are we supposed to do?”

“So far, we have been striving to achieve world peace and to stimulate technological advancement. We are trying to make the human race evolve faster, if you will – so that we have the means to defend ourselves whenever the threat hits us,” Anthea said as they sat down in the rear cabin of the helicopter. With the doors closed, the noise level decreased to a bearable level.

“What is the threat? When will it get here?” Arcelia asked as the Helicopter took off, moving her bowels in directions she felt were not entirely natural.

“We do not know. Gaia, as we have come to call earth’s awareness, does not know either. It does not think; it merely reacts instinctively.”

“This is crazy, how can an instinct create something as complex as people with abilities?”

“We do not know for sure, but we think that it has to do with the nature of Gaia itself. Its awareness does not come from the earth as you imagine it, but from the combined minds of all life living on it. This means that its intelligence is limited by the combined intelligence of all life forms. ”

“Meaning us.”

“Mostly, yes. But not only – we found proof of evolutionary experiments that predate homo erectus. Gaia might even have been the spark in man’s evolution. Anyway, as man evolved and became more intelligent, Gaia’s relative intelligence grew. This shows in the complexity of the experiments we were able to find and document. Even within our group and the small timeframe in which we were created, you can see big improvements.”

“Wow, okay. I’m not overly religious, but the word God comes to mind.”

Ragnar laughed. “Gaia is God, and we are its superhero angels.”

Anthea gave Ragnar a cold glare, but his laugh only changed into a smirk. “We have discussed Gaia’s role in human history at some length, but we can neither prove nor disprove that it influenced the creation of any religions,” she went on. “We all have a connection to Gaia once our abilities are fully awake, which enables us in a very abstract way to see what Gaia sees. I think it is not impossible that some other people in history were able to sense this as well without having any special abilities – and it would make for a very inspiring experience.”

“The fact is, after all these years we are still completely in the dark,” Ragnar interjected. “We do not have an inkling of a clue as to what kind of threat we are facing, or if there even is one. Gaia is not infallible – it made a lot of mistakes on the way. In a way, you can compare us to religious fanatics, living solely on blind faith.”

Anthea smiled wryly. “Ragnar is right. We have very little information all things considered, but we have learned a lot in the past few years. Every new member on the team helped us fill in some blanks, and I hope you will be able to do that as well.”

“How?” Arcelia managed to croak as her stomach seemingly turning upside down as the helicopter lurched sideways in a bout of turbulence.

“As I said, every one of us can, in a very limited way, see what Gaia sees. But we do not all see the same things; combining what everyone sees helps us get a better idea of what we are facing. I am hoping that you, being the latest generation, will be able to see more clearly than we do.”

“Ooookay. No pressure,” Arcelia said, not sure that the renewed feeling of sickness was coming entirely from the flight.

Ragnar laughed. “Not to worry, seeing what Gaia sees will come to you naturally – and Anthea can help you make sense of it.”

Arcelia nodded and leaned back, it was a bit too much to process in such a short time. Her cheeks were heating up, and she had come to trust that signal to know she had to rest a bit. It was just like the exhaustion she felt sometimes when she concentrated on a screen for too long. Anthea looked at her and nodded her understanding.

“We will get to the airport in a few minutes; you will be able to rest in the jet.”

Arcelia nodded back. She could see the lights of the airport in the distance, and focused on them. It was surreal… she had taken to the skies for the first time - which was supposed to be a big deal - but it was overshadowed to the point of insignificance by the fact that she was possibly immortal, and destined to play a role in mankind’s survival no less. She was going to think, “Why me?” but she had read way too many reluctant hero stories to fall into the cliché. Still, she did not know how to come to grips with it all. She would have to give it time, but she had a feeling she would not get much of that.

The jet that waited for them was one of those she had come to know from movies: small, but luxurious - the kind that mobsters or high government officials generally use. It did not have any markings beyond the usual identification number, which may or may not have been intentional to keep it nondescript. As they got on board and settled down in their seats, she could not help but wonder what the hell she was doing, and where it would take her. One thing was for certain however: her life was starting to resemble a blockbuster movie.

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4May/120

1-7: Revelations

"Welcome back Ragnar, you are now logged in," Ion intoned cheerfully.

Besides the shock of having someone appear out of thin air, Arcelia was ill prepared to meet Ragnar Thorvalds. Not because of her apprehension to meet someone his age, which had been her main concern up until his appearance – no, she just wasn't ready to meet a man of his stature. He was not particularly handsome, yet he had the kind of raw beauty that you would expect from someone born in his age. He had a presence that seemed to fill the room. Everything about him, from the way he held himself to the perfection to which his beard was trimmed hinted at a mastery of life in general that was beyond Arcelia's imagination. She had met a number of men in her life, but he dwarfed them all by a long shot. She suddenly felt small and out of place. When he saw her, his expression changed from a pensive frown to a welcoming smile.

"Miss Zoya, it is a pleasure to meet you," he said with a voice that went right through her skin and into her bones. He had a deep voice that matched his raw look, with a hint of an accent that she could not quite place.

"Ragnar," she said, and realized with shock that she had used his first name. She felt herself blush even more, enough so to illuminate a small room she thought – at least her cheeks felt like they could. If he was offended, he hid it behind his charming smile. She managed to gather what was left of her composure, and got up to shake his hand. It was colder than she had expected, but he had a firm grip.

"How did you...?" She croaked, trying to distract her mind from him and waving her arms around in the direction of where he had appeared.

"In short, teleportation. It is an incredibly wasteful technology, which is why we only use it for emergencies. This seemed to qualify," he said, and looked at Anthea, who was bringing up several more of the decrypted documents on screen.

"You undoubtedly have many questions. Do you think you could bear to wait a while longer? I would like to have a look at these documents Anthea mentioned."

"Of course," she said, more than a little dumbfounded by the encounter.

He smiled at her, and went to embrace Anthea in a way that woke a peculiar kind of longing in her. No one had ever held her that way - so tight that you would think their aim was to meld into each other. It touched her so deeply that all her jumbled emotions welled up all at once, stemming from a lifetime of failed romances. It took all the self-control she could muster not to break into tears. She even forgot about the fact that she had just witnessed teleportation - a small miracle that would have nerds all over the planet wet their pants. She let herself glide back down onto the couch, trying very hard not to think.

"You are right, they are all there," Ragnar said softly. "Someone went to a lot of trouble to smuggle these files out, and it is surprising that they did not take something more damning. They cannot possibly try to go public with this; no one will accept even an impressive collection such as this as proof of our existence."

"Clearly we have to find out what the motive was, but for now I am more interested in who was behind all this. The fact that they chose to use Arcelia to get to the files is equally troubling. One could even think it was meant to mock us – using one of our own to get to us."

They were silent for a while, but Arcelia could virtually hear them think. Holding hands like two teenagers freshly in love, they were staring somewhere beyond the screen. They looked as if made for each other: they were the same height, and bore the same aura of confidence about them. Somehow the fact that a relationship like this could survive centuries – assuming they had known each other that long – was immensely reassuring. It was Anthea who finally broke the silence.

"We have no way to know for sure."

"Agreed," Ragnar answered. "We have to take precautions from here on, but otherwise this should not change anything, especially since whoever did this is most likely not aware that we know what they were after thanks to miss Zoya's initiative."

"I don't understand, there has to be a way to find out who tampered with those files. Ciphered files have access logs," Arcelia added on an impulse, and instantly regretted intruding into their conversation.

If either of them was annoyed by her interruption, they did not show it. "Yes they have, but nothing those logs tell us will be reliable. For all we know, one of the aims of the theft is to make us distrust each other. We cannot know for sure who copied the files, even with the logs. Impersonating someone by stealing his login is way too easy," Ragnar explained.

Arcelia blushed furiously. She knew this of course, and cursed herself for speaking too soon yet again. It was one of her failings; she would have to work on that. Way to go for a first impression, she thought and cursed herself silently once more.

"We will not let this make us paranoid, the trust we have between all members of the team was earned. It shall not waver until we find more tangible proof," Anthea added.

Somehow the mention of this team she had never even met suddenly made her painfully aware of the situation she was in, how quickly she had been uprooted out of her life in a matter of hours. ANd she had no idea what it was all about, nor who all these people were. A spark of anger managed to push through her jumbled feelings, with a tinge of fear. To hell with thinking things through, she decided.

"I'm sorry, but this is all a bit much to take in. You treat me as if you already knew me for a long time. The truth is, you are total strangers to me, and I don't even know what I am doing here - or why I agreed to come along in the first place," she said, suddenly wanting only to go home.

Ragnar looked at Anthea questioningly. She nodded, and turned to face Arcelia.

"You are right, I am sorry," Anthea said. "Usually we take all the time we need to ease new members into the team; we did not have that luxury with you. I think you know at least that we mean you no harm."

"All we ask is that you let us show you that we can be trusted," Ragnar added.

Anthea had shown her nothing but kindness, and if what she had shared with her earlier was in any way genuine, she knew she could trust her implicitly. She knew herself to be way too trusting though, so she was at a loss to decide how to proceed. Go ahead with Anthea and Ragnar and their team of 'immortal' world saviors or try to salvage her life on her own? Something told her that now that Anthea had slipped into her life, she was there to stay – regardless of what she herself wanted. She might actually be an immortal herself, and if there was any truth to it she would need help from her own kind to understand the implications. Staying with them meant heading into the unknown, but somehow that was more appealing now than going back to her regular job at the tax office, or to her wrecked apartment where bad people were possibly still lurking. Anthea and Ragnar were looking at her expectantly. She had to take a decision, and a part of her knew she had already reached one.

"Okay, but I will need a few things from home," she said. Then she realized she had no idea what she was supposed to do, where she would stay... her thoughts trailed off into the unknown. Anthea seemed to sense her distress, walked over and gently but firmly took both her hands in hers. It was so unexpected that Arcelia did not resist, and merely looked curiously at Anthea's hands holding hers. She felt that tingly sensation again, as she relaxed and her thoughts went agreeably numb.

"We will send someone over to fetch whatever you need. It is not safe anymore for you there, so for now you can stay at my place until we find a more permanent solution. We will have enough time to talk tonight," she said gently.

Arcelia nodded, focusing on the warm touch of Anthea's hands. It reminded her of their "kiss" earlier, and how it had felt to be in her thoughts. She understood that this was the same type of connection, except a lot more subdued compared to their previous exchange. Nevertheless, it felt good, her worries were still there but they were strangely abstracted. She could grasp them without actually feeling worry.

"This is strange. What are you doing?" She asked, her voice a lot softer than she had intended.

"I am filtering your emotions to take off their edge. I could not even start to explain how it works, because I do not fully understand it myself. I have gotten steadily better at it, however. How do you feel?"

She struggled to find a word that could qualify how she felt. "Serene. Floating."

"That's good," she said and smiled. "When I let go of your hands, your feelings will gradually become fully your own again. It will give you time to make sense of things at your own pace. Ragnar will drive us to my house; there we will have time to answer all your questions. What do you think?"

She thought that sounded just fine, so she told her so. As Anthea had said, when she let go of her hands, she felt her emotions grow stronger again, but for the moment she still had control. She could almost touch that small bubble of anger that still lived inside her, and somehow she knew she could choose to make it burst and let it infuse her again.

"Do you always feel this way?" She asked as they started to make their way out of Ion's room and back up in the elevator, Ragnar trailing behind them.

"No, but I can descend in that frame of mind when needed. It is a great tool to have; I started using it when I was little. It helped a lot to overcome the grief of losing my father – as well as help my mother overcome hers. At the time I did it unknowingly, it was only much later that I realized that not everyone can do this."

"It must be tempting to stay in it indefinitely," she said, trying to steer the conversation away from those old memories which seemed to be ever present in Anthea.

"Yes, I would lie if I said otherwise. It has a lot of advantages, the biggest one being able to coolly analyze situations and take decisions based more on thought than feelings. But some things you have to feel to their full extent to live," she said and furtively glanced over to Ragnar. He was smiling.

"You said that you descend into that frame of mind. What makes you say that it is a descent? For me it felt like a thick veil wrapping around everything, there was no movement involved," she said.

"That's a good question, I never thought about it. I think it is not really a movement; it is more a change in color. Everything becomes darker, like going down into a basement. I suppose that's why I instinctively associate it with a descent."

Arcelia marveled at the possibilities of being able to transcend feelings to take decisions with almost pure logic. She also understood one of the caveats: feelings shape all our decisions. Taking them out of the equation would make us less human. It reminded her of those hashed and rehashed science fiction topics revolving around ethics and artificial Intelligence. It gave her a new perspective on those ages old debates, making them sound a little less silly.

She barely noticed how Anthea led them to the car and how they slowly made their way through the heavy Madrid evening traffic to the other side of the city. Anthea and Ragnar were talking, but she did not focus on what they were saying. She was going over everything that had happened over the last 18 hours, from her meeting with Frank to Ragnar's teleportation. There were marvels beyond counting condensed into those few hours, and she was glad to be able to analyze them like this. Her feelings were growing stronger, but they did not interfere with her thoughts at all. Dismissing all the details for now, she studied the big picture. She saw clearly that the life she had known was over. This was a new chapter, and it was chock full of possibilities and adventure. It seemed that even her purely analytical mind was not above indulging in some romanticized fondness for danger and mystery.

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10Sep/112

1-6: Mainframe

Anthea seemed to be in a very good mood since they had "shared information". Arcelia assumed that she was relieved to have recruited her into their elect group. But had she, really? Arcelia was not quite sure to have taken any final decision on that yet. She had only caught a glimpse of the other people she would have to work with, and even if she knew she would likely get along well with Anthea, she could not say about the others. Then there was Ragnar, the first to have been "created" for this epic mission she knew nothing about - except that it was real and that it was the single most important endeavor in human history. She had no idea how to even approach someone like that, with her social skills she was likely to botch the whole thing outright. She knew that people often found her offensive, and could relate to it at least in part - she knew she was blunt, which could easily be misunderstood. She was really apprehensive of meeting Ragnar, even if this was turning out to be a fantastic adventure.

"Tell me about Ragnar. Is he really as old as you have shown me?"

"Yes. He was born in 1506, in a small village near Trondheim in Norway. He turned 573 this spring if I recall correctly."

She tried to remember anything from her history lessons that would put a year like that into perspective, but apart from world war I and II she was ashamed to admit that she remembered absolutely nothing.

"1506 is the year Christopher Columbus died, does that help to place it?" Anthea said, sensing her distress.

She gaped at her. "The discovery of the new world and all that?"

"Well, technically the vikings discovered america first. But more or less, yes. Michelangelo completed his statue of David in 1504, and Leonardo da Vinci finished the Mona Lisa in 1506 as well."

"I'll be damned. I mean, I'm used to reading books or watching movies with immortals in them, but to know that someone who has lived for five centuries really exists... For all I know he could have inspired the Highlander movies!"

Anthea nearly choked on her piece of apple pie. "I do not think so, no."

"Right, he's norwegian, that doesn't exactly fit," she said, still thinking of ways to make it fit. She noticed that there was a touch screen embedded in the table not far from her, so she slid over and activated it.

"What is he like? I mean, how can I even talk with someone who lived that long?"

"You need not worry about that. He has seen many things, that is certain - but it does not mean he is that different from you or me. You forget a lot of things with age: when you turn thirty you have already forgotten most of what you did in that time. Except the events that stood out of course, and for him it is no different. He has forgotten whole decades of his past, which in his words is more a blessing than a curse."

While that was a bit reassuring, Arcelia wondered anyway how she would fit in with her sweet twenty-six. She would have to keep her mouth shut and try to think a bit more before talking, she thought that would be a good start.

"How old are the others?"

"I am the oldest after Ragnar. I was born in 1857 in the United States. All the others were born this century, with the youngest being fifty-three," she said. Golly, the youngest of them was just about thirty years older than her.

"Where were you born in the US?"

"I was born in Hollywood. It was founded in 1857, my parents were farmers who lived in the area. It was not called Hollywood back then though, the name only became official when I was older."

"Wow, and Hollywood does not even know about its biggest star," she said and tried to imagine Hollywood as a small farmer's village. She was convinced that the images that popped up in her mind were nothing like the real thing.

"It were sad times to live in, believe me. Slavery was rampant, and when I was 4 years old the American Civil War started. My father died fighting for slave rights."

"Oh, sorry to hear that."

"It is true that time heals all wounds, sometimes it is even a bit too thorough for my taste. Today I can mention my father's death without any feelings welling up. It is so far away that it has lost its reality," she said and emptied her glass of wine.

Arcelia felt strangely humbled, and even more apprehensive of being around people that had seen much more of what life offered from close up than she could ever imagine. She had not lost any relatives, suffered no particular torments, and even work was so impersonal that she could not call upon much human experience at all. Anthea got up, came over to her and put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"You will feel a bit out of your depth at times, but do not let that worry you. It is good for us elders to be brought down from our high horses once in a while, so do not go out of your way to spare us. Always speak your heart and be ready to defend it, then you will be fine," she said and went around the table to fill up her glass again.

The screen in front of Arcelia blinked with the results of her search. She grinned.

"It says here that Connor Mc Leod realizes he cannot die in 1536 when he is fatally wounded in a battle. Ragnar would have been around 30 at the time, so he had plenty of time to travel to Scotland."

Anthea laughed. "I think I will have to watch out for cheesy tag lines like 'There can be only one' from now on."

Arcelia was starting to have her normal feelings back she noted - Anthea's laugh no longer had that sensual quality to it that it had earlier. It was still a charming laugh, but it was quite possible that it simply was charming. At least it did not bother her any more, but it made her think back on the experience.

"When I was in your thoughts, I..." she groped for words to explain just how she had been given the information. She settled for the simplest. "You told me that you, - we - have been 'created'. Can you tell me more about it?"

"That's for Ragnar to tell you. He will be able to show you better than I can what it means. The term is not quite accurate, either. We all have normal mothers and fathers, no one created us in a lab or something along those lines - just in case you were wondering."

She had indeed been wondering, but even without that knowledge she was quite sure that her parents weren't a sham. Not that it would have been relevant otherwise, being convinced of something was seldom proof of anything.

"Are we all immortal then?" she asked, noticing that she had already subconsciously used 'we'.

"As far as I know, yes - but not in the way that you seem to imply. We will not die of old age, but we can still die. Some of us died in accidents, even though we tend to heal a lot faster and better than the average person. Nothing like instant healing, mind you - just substantially faster."

Arcelia remembered her teacher marvel at how fast the scrapings on her knees healed, and how proud she was to be better at something than the other kids - even if it was something that trivial. Later on, being very solitary, she had not had any real occasions to compare the speed at which her wounds healed with anyone. She was curious to see how slowly normal people healed. She absently took another piece of apple pie and gulped it down rather unceremoniously.

"I think the mainframe should be online by now, shall we?"

"Yes please, maybe we can make some sense out of this together." Arcelia picked up the last piece of apple pie and followed Anthea out.

"Is this about those files you tried to decrypt?"

"Yes, and the decryption might even have been successful - I managed to salvage a drive I had hidden away, and my system was set to save a copy of the decrypted files on it. I need the mainframe to be able to access it."

"How come they did not find or destroy it?"

"It's designed to be hidden - and it's even illegal to own one, as the encryption on them is higher than military specs."

"I have absolutely no clue how all that works, but I can see how the authorities would not want devices like that in the general public. How did you come by it?"

"A hacker friend gave it to me in exchange for my help on a project of his," she said remembering the first of her forays into illegality.

"'Project' sounds... like a diplomatic choice of words," Anthea said with an eyebrow raised.

"I made some mistakes back then, and I don't want to dig them out now," she answered curtly. She knew from what she learned about Anthea during their information exchange that her intentions were honorable and that she could probably be trusted, but Arcelia also knew of herself that she trusted too easily. The fiasco with Frank was enough proof of that, and she blamed it on her lack of experience working with people. She was already immersed up to her ears in something that would likely put her into whole new levels of trouble, so limiting revelations about her shady past sounded like a sensible idea.

"I understand," Anthea said seriously. "I take it the people who contacted you were not aware you had such a drive?"

"Judging by the way they ransacked my machine, I think they at least had doubts. I worked from a thumb drive, and yet they extracted my regular drives and thrashed the rest. Which was a very stupid move."

"How so?"

"If I ever find out who they are, I'll arrange for their network infrastructure to go up in smoke," she said with conviction. She would hack into their systems, and take her sweet time. She would hide sniffers everywhere to extract every last piece of data she could find, as well as to create a mapping of all their external connections. Then she would bring it all down in one stroke, and post the best bits online.

"Ah," Anthea simply said beside her with a hint of a smile. She realized she had stopped walking, one fist balled and knuckles nearly white. She grinned foolishly and unwound her fist.

"Sorry about that, I got carried away there for a second," she said and walked on. Anthea simply smiled at her with the benevolent smile of someone had seen your thoughts as if they were printed on paper, and approved of them.

They did not meet anyone on the way down. According to the lift they took, they descended two floors below ground. A well-lit bright white but otherwise unfurnished and undecorated corridor led them into a heavily cooled room. Arcelia could smell the typical fragrance of heavy duty computer systems, and knew the mainframe must be nearby. The room itself was oval-shaped, and featureless bright white save for a wide sitting area in front of a big screen integrated into the wall.

"The memory and processor arrays are in a sealed room behind that side of the room, there," Anthea said and pointed to the far right. "We can access the system from the screen there, and there is a panel with series of interfaces you can use. I hope we have an interface for that drive of yours." They went over to the screen, and Anthea made the panel glide open. Arcelia inspected the available interfaces.

"Usually I operate the drive over a directional, short distance wireless connection. That won't work here, so we'll use that optical connector there," she thought out loud for Anthea's benefit, and extracted the drive from its hidden pocket. Anthea watched her curiously but did not comment. She plugged in the drive, and sat down on the couch.

"Errrrm, where do you hide the command interface?" she asked, looking around puzzled.

"This is an experimental facility, the system is voice controlled. Let me clear you for access," Anthea said, and turned her head towards the screen.

"Ion, start listening."

"I am listening, Anthea," an ethereal voice answered. Arcelia was used to computerized voices, but even though they had made tremendous progress in the last ten years, you could still recognize it as a computerized voice within a few instants. This voice however, despite being broadcast over invisible loudspeakers in the room, had a richness to it that she found unsettling.

"Ion, please add a new user with administrator privileges. Name: Arcelia. User is currently pyhsically present in the room."

"User record added. Arcelia, please repeat the following phrase for my vocal recognition banks: 'If it doesn't matter who wins, why do we keep score?'" The phrase was replicated in textual form on the screen in front of her. She looked over at Anthea, bemused.

"It is one of nine sentences that are phonetically rich enough to recognize your voice accurately enough initially until the system is trained," Anthea explained.

"If it doesn't matter who wins, why do we keep score?" she said, taking care to speak clearly.

"Thank you, Arcelia. I have logged you on as administrator."

She was still more than a little disturbed by Ion's voice. If this was indeed a true dynamically generated voice, it was revolutionary. She had not heard much so far, but even the pronunciation of her name was correct and inflection changed based on context.

"This is really impressive. Is Ion's voice entirely dynamic?"

"As far as I know it is. The whole system was conceived and engineered by one of us, Gordon Wainsworth. He is in Lyon with Ragnar, so you will meet him there. You can try to ask Ion though, Gordon always want us to treat the system like a human being so it can learn to handle our requests."

"Ion, is your voice entirely dynamically generated?"

"Yes Arcelia, it is. Shall I elaborate?"

"Yes please," she said but no answer came.

"You always have to address it by its name, even if you are answering a question," Anthea interjected.

"Uh? But I didn't do that with the passphrase either?"

"Yes, that's an exception it seems."

"Ion, yes please."

"My voice is derived of an extensive sampling of the voice of my creator, Gordon Wainsworth. It is based on an adaptive phonetic analysis and generation engine. It allows me to analyze recorded or spoken conversations and learn the correct intonations and inflections from them. Shall I elaborate on technical data?"

"Ion, that won't be necessary," she said, and turned to Anthea. "This is all very nice, but is there a manual interface as well?"

"Yes, just tell Ion that you would like a keyboard."

"Ion, I need a keyboard."

A slight noise coming from the ceiling made her look up, and she noticed that there was a sort of rail inset into the ceiling just above the couch, arcing over the whole length of the sitting area and disappearing into the wall. A previously invisible sliding panel in the wall had just opened, and what looked like a suspended keyboard rushed out of the dark space that had been revealed by the panel. It came to a halt above her, and the keyboard itself slowly descended, leveled itself right before her, and lit up. She stared at it in disbelief.

"Why the hell couldn't you just have put a couple fixed consoles here? No offense, but this is just as silly as it cool."

Anthea laughed. "I tend to agree. Gordon designed the whole system. He is a brilliant engineer, but he has a fetish to add bits like this purely for show and effect."

Arcelia grunted and looked at the keyboard. It had a nice large gliding surface for the mouse, and the mouse itself - which had descended separately in another show of surprise - had a good weight and feel to it. The whole contraption was suspended by thin cables and was surprisingly stable when she typed. The UI was familiar, so she managed to start up her software and files well faster than she had anticipated.

"Arcelia, I have detected an unsafe device connected to interface 5. Disabling it automatically in 10 seconds."

"Ion, override that, I need the device active."

"Arcelia, may I sandbox the device instead?" Ion asked. She considered it, and it was not a bad idea. Unnecessary, but she understood Ion's security concerns.

"Ion, yes please," she said and watched as her drive was deactivated and brought back online in a sandbox. She then browsed through its contents, and found the files.

"It's all here!" She half shouted excitedly.

"What kind of files are they?"

She decompressed the archive to a separate folder and had a look.

"It's a collection of text documents. Let's see," she said an opened one of them. It seemed to be a scan of some kind of medical report. Anthea gasped, she was staring at the document, unbelieving.

"What is it?" Arcelia asked, alarmed.

"Can you please open another?" she asked, and Arcelia did not dare ask what this was about yet. She opened another document, and another after that. Anthea seemed ever more distressed.

"You recognize these documents."

"Yes, I do. They are our medical histories."

"Medical histories?"

"Yes, when you live as long as we do you have to try and keep track of all your health issues because they may become relevant later on when you need treatment for something. Leaking these is not dangerous per se, although I am sure that in the right hands they can do some damage. What concerns me is that they were leaked in the first place."

"Oh," was all she could say. Her mind raced. Was it a coincidence that they chose her to decrypt the files? Highly unlikely - but what was the endgame? What was she getting into now? Anthea was standing in front of the screen, talking over her earpiece. What the hell could Frank want to do with these files? He had a copy of them, that was now certain as the decryption had worked. But why go to all the trouble he certainly went to to steal a bunch of medical histories? They must have been after more than just details on the age and health of the members of Anthea's special family.

All of a sudden the air in the room seemed to thicken, and her hair tingled. Alarmed, she looked around. Anthea was looking towards the room's entrance expectantly, so she quickly turned around. What she saw was difficult to grasp; The air was shimmering with a greenish tint, and a low rumbling sound reached her ears. The sound and tingling sensation began to be overwhelming, so she put her hands over her ears. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, then shimmering air contracted and a man appeared.

"What the...!" she said, staring in disbelief.

"Arcelia, meet my husband, Ragnar Thorvalds," Anthea said simply.

Filed under: Chapter 1 2 Comments
24Aug/110

1-5: Awakening

She had no other words for it. The universe was exploding around her. In a crushing wave, emotions and thoughts not her own invaded every last bit of her being. her eyes saw abstract shapes and colors wildly dancing around, she smelled and tasted a million different things. Then, slowly, the chaos began to take shape and bits here and there slowly began to make sense. A gentle presence joined her, and helped guide her thoughts. Soon she recognized the presence; it was Anthea. Anthea opened her thoughts for her, and showed her the group of people she wanted her to join. There were seven of them, each with his and her own abilities. They had been united for a common cause that transcended humanity, a mission that they had been created for. Arcelia wanted to know more, but Anthea was already taking her somewhere else - through time and over continents. She showed her what Ragnar- the first of them to be created - had done for mankind, a mission carried on today by their small group. Anthea then gave Arcelia free reins to sift through her feelings and memories, and there she saw a trust in her so complete that she felt hot tears flowing down her cheeks. Seeing through Anthea's eyes, she learned that she as well had been created to join them in their mission.

Anthea's voice came to her as if slightly out of focus, saying "in time, you will be able to feel the purpose for which you have been created, for it is very much alive within each of us. I will take you back now. You have already seen more than you should have."

"Okay," she simply answered. She was overwhelmed, but a profound joy filled her.

Anthea's presence slowly faded out of her mind, and suddenly she was back in the office, Anthea's lips still tightly sealed on hers. Then Anthea's eyes slowly opened, and she withdrew her lips, her face serious but with a hint of a smile.

"I admit, it is a little awkward. My gift only works by touch. For a strong link like the one I needed to show you, the taste buds of the tongue was the best option. It is one of the rare spots of the human body that offers a scarcely protected, almost direct line to the brain."

Arcelia was still dizzy, but overall it had been an enjoyable if not disconcerting experience. "I can imagine worse ways of sharing information."

"I wouldn't do this with just anyone nonetheless. Somehow people tend to get all sorts of wrong ideas," she said with a grin.

"Thanks," she answered simply, still smelling her fragrance as well as a part of Anthea's mind that lingered on, fading ever so slowly. Her tongue tickled a bit as well, and she realized that the rest of what she felt was simply arousal. She had no interest in girls at all, but what this had made her feel was quite a kick in that direction.

As if sensing her thoughts, Anthea softly said, "Don't worry, the side effects are harmless and will dissipate over the next few hours. It always takes longest the first time."

"I think you could easily make a girl rethink her sexual orientation with this trick."

She laughed with that rich, sensual laugh. "I know, it never fails to confuse me either. Don't worry though - even if you did rethink yours, sexual orientation is not a selection criteria in our group," she said with a wink.

"Good to know," she said and grinned back, not really knowing what to make of that statement. She watched Anthea walk over to Eduardo's small desk fridge, and quickly looked at the floor as a number of considerations flooded her, pertaining mostly, but not exclusively, to the voluptuous curves of Anthea's robe. Her eyes went over to the giant desk then, and the two steaming plates of food parked there.

"Errrm, those weren't there when you... errrm, you know."

"No, they were brought in in the meantime."

"You mean they saw us?" She asked, and paled visibly.

"I am quite certain they did. But don't worry, they are very discreet. Shall we grab a bite?"

Arcelia nodded. To hell with everything, her belly was nearly screaming, and food was a welcome distraction from her thoughts. Anthea ate as well, with an appetite at least equalling her own, except she managed to look good even while eating. Arcelia herself was, she had to admit to herself, not very lady-like. Pig-like came closer, but right now she had other things on her mind. She gulped down another baked potato with sour cream. If Anthea did not approve of her eating habits, she did not show it.

"I am sure you have many questions, but Ragnar will want to answer those. If you like, we can make the trip to Lyon tomorrow and try to make some sense of what happened to your apartment in the meantime."

"That sounds like a plan. Do you, by any chance, have a mainframe here that can be taken off-grid?"

"Yes we do. I can have it brought on-line for after desert if you like."

"That would be great, and desert sounds awesome right now."

"I thought it might."

Filed under: Chapter 1 No Comments
22Aug/112

1-4: Aftermath

When she woke, her head was in a haze. Her body ached all over, and for a while she struggled with the concept of up and down. She could not move her right arm, and somehow there was not enough space for her to stretch her legs. She tried to get up, but couldn't even get her head up. Thanks to the fog in her head she did not panic outright, but tried to get her eyes to focus on something.

It took a few moments before she realized she was upside down, her left cheek bathing in a puddle of her own drool. It was quite dark, but she recognized her favorite shoes stuck below her side, and understood that she was in her closet. The anger that flared then managed to clear the fog away in a flash. Someone had stuffed her in her own shoe cabinet? She stifled an impulse to shout - this was no time for heroics. Whatever was going on, it needed to be analyzed properly. Her left shoulder was so numb she could not move her arm at all. She only had a tiny bit of space to move around in, so she struggled some agonizing moments to turn around and get a peek through the slit between the closet's doors.

She forced herself to observe and listen for what seemed like an eternity before she decided it was safe to crawl out of her hiding place. She would be sore for days, and her neck was already killing her. Her anger flared again, but the adrenaline pumping through her managed to subdue it. She had to clear her thoughts to avoid doing something stupid... "Think, Arcelia, think!" she murmured to herself and cautiously took a peek into all the rooms of her apartment. It was a total mess, it looked as if there had been a fight here that had raged from one end to the other. Her computer had been taken apart, gutted like a pig. When she saw that they had not found her hidden drive she managed a smirk. If the cypher had been cracked, there was a good chance the cracked files would be on there - even if she was unsure if and how that could help her.

She went back into the kitchen and greedily gulped down a glass of tap water, followed by a piece of bread she was able to salvage from the floor and a few canned sausages. To her horror, she discovered some blood spatter on the kitchen wall. It had not just been about thrashing her place, there had been fighting as well. The last thing she recalled was getting to bed, so whoever put her in the closet must have drugged her to be able to put her in there. Regardless of who it was and why they did it, it most likely kept her safe. She was quite sure that staying would be dangerous, as the people who did this may not have gotten what they wanted and would in all likelihood be back. She had to get out of here, and try to make sense of it all.

She went back into the bedroom, which was a mess as well. Her safe was untouched though, which was a relief. She opened it, and took out all the money she had stored as well as her military issue stun gun. These things were illegal to own and even much less to use, but in her predicament it could come in handy. She had just slipped into her utility pants - with enough pockets for everything she needed to carry - when she heard a polite knock on her door. She froze.

"Miss Zoya, are you there?"

It was a woman's voice, and an unfamiliar one. She decided to wait it out, and a few knocks later she heard the woman leave. Curious about this visitor but still quite relieved that she left, she finished packing all her stuff. She carefully crawled over to the ruins of her computer so she would not be seen through one of the windows and extracted her drive from a miniature trapdoor concealed in the wooden floor. She had sown a pocket on the inside of her pants especially for it, so she stashed it away and made ready to go. There was no way to leave the building without being seen if anyone was watching it however, so she decided to wait until dark. She had better chances of slipping out unseen in the dark - even if staying seemed equally dangerous.

She spent the next two hours in her bedroom, making an inventory of her possessions and planning the next few days - who she might contact and how, where to go, where to get supplies, and so on. She was busy looking at a map of France when she heard a noise coming from the kitchen. It had sounded as if someone had stepped onto some of the glass debris on the tiled kitchen floor. She carefully took out the stun gun, and peeked past the door frame. She could see a shadow on the kitchen floor, there was definitely someone there. Her heart started racing, and she gripped the stun gun as if it was her last hope. She cursed herself for staying, and part of her mind reflected on the fact that cursing oneself is really rather counter-productive. She listened, as the stranger suddenly started talking.

"..., secure the building. Her apartment has been ransacked, and I found blood in the kitchen," she said. Arcelia could not see anyone else, so she assumed this was a phone conversation. It was the same voice than earlier, the woman that had knocked on her door. Apparently knocking was not enough anymore.

"No, that won't be necessary. If she is still here, I think it is better if I try to talk to her alone," she said just loud enough for Arcelia to overhear.

"Miss Zoya? My name is Anthea Thorvalds, I am here to help you. If you are still here, please show yourself. I am unarmed," she said, and from her hiding place Arcelia could indeed see no obvious weapons on her. She looked quite out of place even, in her fancy dress.

"My instincts tell me you are here, please tell me I am not talking to shadows."

Arcelia knew she was crazy to even consider it, but at least this strange visitor did not make her neck hair rise like Frank did.

"I do not know what happened here, I assure you my presence is unrelated. Even so it is obvious you need help. I can protect you, but we need to leave soon."

Arcelia stepped into the door frame. "My trust reserves are pretty low right now. What are you offering?"

If anything, the woman seemed genuinely relieved to see her. She did not make any sudden movements and just stood there, which was a plus in Arcelia's eyes.

"Oh good, you are here." Her expression showed genuine relief. "I was worried you might have been harmed. Are you okay?"

"Yes, just a bit sore here and there. Why are you here?"

"I was sent to recruit you to work for my company. I never travel anywhere without a security detail, so I can offer you safe transportation to our headquarters here in Madrid. From there, we would like to offer any further assistance you might require."

Never without her security detail, huh? She marveled at how fast things could go south and get thoroughly weird.

"Please, miss Zoya - I would very much prefer not to linger here for much longer. We have to get you out of here."

It was strange, she seemed so sincere that it disconcerted her. "Okay, lead the way," she said, giving up. She knew this was not the smartest move, but for once her bullshit detector was silent - and even though she seldom listened to it, it was almost always right.

"Do you recruit all your employees this way?"

"If you mean in person, yes. We try not to wreck the apartments of potential candidates though, it only confuses things," she said and turned her head, smiling. "When did this happen?"

Arcelia could scarcely believe it. Moments ago she was fearing for her life, and now she had to use all her social skills to try and interpret this unknown woman's witty talk. She sighed. "Sometime this night."

They had reached the main entrance of the building. Her guide motioned for her to stop.

"Dimitri, we're ready to come out. Is everything clear?" she said, and Arcelia assumed she had an earpiece to keep in contact with her so-called security team like she had done earlier in her apartment.

"Ok, eveything is clear it seems. Follow me."

As they went through the door, a pearl black limousine stopped right in front of them and the woman opened one of the back doors for her. Arcelia looked around, but there was no one around. She wondered where that security detail was hiding.

"After you."

Arcelia got in, and half expected there to be a thug inside with a gun like in the movies. It was comfortingly empty however, save for the driver in front. The woman got in after her and sat down across from her. The car drove off, into what Arcelia pictured as a somewhat muddy future.

"I know it's easy to say, but you can relax, you are in good hands I assure you."

"Listen, you seem nice and all, but I think I'll decide in what kind of hands I am by myself."

"Fair enough. I really hope we will be able to convince you of our goodwill."

"So I am to believe that you had nothing to do with the people that destroyed my apartment?"

"Yes. It was a very unfortunate coincidence, but I agree that it is troubling."

"For argument's sake, let's assume I believe you. You said you wished to recruit me, what for exactly?"

"I think I will let our CEO explain this to you in detail. All I can say is that we are very interested in your mathematical and software development skillsets. We have been searching for someone with your talents for a long time."

"I'm flattered I guess, but you make it sound like I am some kind of genius. Believe me, I'm not."

"Miss Zoya, I -"

"Please don't call me that, Arcelia is fine."

She smiled, and held out her hand. "I'm Anthea. Pleased to meet you."

"Uh, likewise. You're not a typical corporate headhunter."

Anthea laughed. "No. I am the CEO's wife. He knows that he is bad at human relations, so he likes to send me around. I don't mind."

The whole situation was getting more ludicrous by the minute. Who the hell were these people? The CEO's wife driving around with a goddamned security detail, recruiting her personally for her alleged genius-like skills? She realized she was staring at the woman, so she stared out the window instead.

"What does your company do?"

"That's actually not an easy question to answer, I think I'll let my husband tell you as well. To the public we usually tell that we are a 'technology consulting' agency which is vague enough to impress most people."

Something gnawed at her thoughts right then, like an idea slowly forming and waiting to break through and illuminate her from within. She was missing a piece of a puzzle that her subconscious had started to put together, but as frustrating as it was she could not find it.

"I'm sorry Anthea, you told me your name in my apartment, but I can't recall it."

Anthea smiled, as if she anticipated something to happen. "It's Anthea Thorvalds."

Arcelia gaped at her. Thorvalds, as in Thorvalds Technologies. The company that owned half the planet as she had discovered lately. She slowly closed her mouth again. She had now officially been catapulted into another dimension altogether. Anthea was still smiling, obviously waiting for her to say something.

"Finding me was not a coincidence."

"No. We were aware of your inquiries, and were curious to see what you were going to do with your findings. Then we realized we could use someone with your talents. We really did have nothing to do with your apartment ending up in its current state."

"I did not know Thorvalds Technologies had an office here in Madrid."

"Thortech itself has not, it is owned by one of our subsidiaries."

"I see. And your husband, Ragnar, is here as well?"

"No. I was hoping you would agree to come with me to Lyon in France to meet him."

Her instincts made her wary again at the mention of the city. Lyon was also where France's moon customs office was located; where Frank allegedly stole the personnel files he wanted her to crack. The coincidences were piling up at an alarming rate.

"Lyon, eh?" She said. Anthea eyed her curiously, probably sensing the change.

"Yes, our headquarters are in Paris but the Lyon office is where all the real work gets done. This seems to bother you - might I ask why?"

"I can only tell you that the reason my apartment ended up that way was because of something that had to do with Lyon. That's a lot of coincidences for a day."

Anthea frowned. "I'll agree that's suspicious - but you have to believe me, whoever did this does not work for us. We have competitors... no, let's call them enemies, that's a more fitting description of them. It is quite possible that they tried to use you to get to us."

"I'm sorry, I truly wish I could believe you."

"No need to apologize, I understand your position. Would you at least agree to let us do some research into the matter together? If your predicament is indeed tied to us, we need to know about it as much as you do."

"And if I refuse?"

"I really wish you would not. Still, we will not stand in your way."

It was frustrating. She had no clue who to trust, and yet going with Anthea meant that she was at least safe for a short while from Frank and his friends. Or was she?

"I don't understand what makes me so special that you try so desperately to win me over. It makes no sense! I'm nobody!" She looked out the window again. She needed time to think about this - time alone.

Anthea was silent for a while.

"We will be at our office in a few minutes. May I invite you to dinner?"

"That... actually, that would be really nice. Thank you."

Anthea smiled again, a smile so sincere that made Arcelia want to trust her. There were too many unknowns to let herself give her trust to anyone just yet however. The car stopped, and she followed Anthea out. Only now did she notice the second car that had been following right behind them: a group of eight people in dark grey uniforms got out, with markings identifying them as private security. They looked competent enough, but then what did she know? Anthea led her into the luxurious building, which was obviously made to impress. Not only by the tasteful interior design, but also by its daring architecture. They went up a large flight of stairs that wound up in a semi-circle and which led to a massive conference room on the left, and what seemed to be the CEO's office on the right. Anthea took her into the office, not even bothering to knock. There was no one there however.

"Doesn't this company have its own CEO?"

"Yes, Eduardo Di Castillo. He's a very good man, fortunately he's on a business trip for four days so we get to use his office. Mine is a lot less impressive," she said, smiling. "Please, have a seat anywhere you like, I'll order something nice from the kitchen," she said and went back out again.

The office's entire right side was one giant bay window from which you could survey part of the harbor. A very nice place to work, much nicer than her booth back at the tax bureau offices. She wondered for a second what it would be like to work in a place like this, but her other thoughts overwhelmed the idea. She decided she would take a new approach, instead of trying to figure out what she most likely could not with the information she had, she would try to just go with the flow and let her instincts guide her. Until she could find a way to get more information, that is. She turned as the door opened.

"They will bring our dinner right over. What would you like to drink?"

"Something fresh would be great, no alcohol."

"Eduardo should have something in his fridge."

When they both had their drinks served, Arcelia let herself slump onto the left end of the big sofa looking out on the harbor. Anthea walked over to the window and looked out. For the first time since they had met, Arcelia allowed herself to watch her more closely. She held herself upright in a manner that radiated power while at the same time inviting trust. Her light skin indicated she was seldom exposed to direct sunlight, and from what she could glean through those short moments her loose fitting robe brushed a little closer to her body, she was more muscular than one would expect. Her proportions were pretty much perfect, and to crown it all she was strikingly beautiful, with long golden hair. She was sure to drive spanish men crazy with that mix. The funny thing was that she managed to make you forget this with her jovial presence. She managed to make her beauty secondary, which was no small feat - although Arcelia suspected that she could charm just about anyone with her looks if she needed to.

"Where do you come from, originally? Your spanish is flawless, but your skin tone tells otherwise."

"I was born in America."

"Did you plan on owning half the planet?"

She laughed. "No, I did not plan on that. Actually I did not know it was even possible until I met my husband. It's overrated though, it has its perks but it's not as fun as one would think. Besides, we hardly own half the planet as you say."

"That much power should not be in the hands of so few."

"If I did not have the knowledge I have now, I would agree with you. There is much more beyond our regular lives than we can imagine however, and not all of it is good. Sytek was born out of necessity, not greed or lust for power. We do not exert our power directly, we merely steer things to keep everyone on the right track."

"You say it with so much conviction, yet it is gibberish to me. No offense, but you sound like a crazy egomaniac trying to justify her actions with doing good for the world. I don't buy it. If anything, it makes you less credible."

"It is like many of the things in life that you cannot believe as long as you have not felt them for yourself."

"Oh please spare me, I liked you a lot better before you started spilling clichés."

"Don't be so eager to dismiss everything I have to say on behalf of Sytek. It's easy to assume an organization such as ours can only be evil. What if we really did good?"

"Power breeds greed. You don't get where you are with flower power."

"You are too stubborn for mere words to convince you." She put her glass down, and came to kneel on the floor right before Arcelia. Arcelia shrank back a little further into the sofa.

"Uh, that's close enough -" Arcelia said as Anthea's nose practically touched hers. She gently took her hands in hers, and a tingly sensation went up Arcelia's arms. She tried to jerk her hands away, but could not move them an inch. It was not that Anthea held them too tight, they simply would not respond. She wanted to panic, but instead she felt herself relax in a way she had never been able to. Anthea looked straight at her, with incredibly blue eyes. She took her face in her hands and kissed her, found her tongue.

And then the universe exploded.

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22Aug/110

1-3: The Cypher

The night brought more questions and scores of ifs. She needed more information to work on, so she decided to go to work early. No stroll through the dew-heavy park, this time she took a shuttle straight to the office. Retrieving the information she sought would not be too easy, as they were only allowed access to files pertaining to their registered cases. Her colleagues did not know about her youth as a hacker though, so she had a whole other set of tools to get what she needed.

Careful not to trigger any of the monitoring bots that would register log entries if she tried to access information she was not privy to, she dived into the archives and opened a link to the customs office in Lyon. It had only been connected to the global European government intranet net a few years ago, but it supported all the modern protocols. She ran a search of the public records and found the missing shipment. As Frank had told her, it was registered as dispatched on the ground, but it had never gotten to the New Paris terminal. A flag marked it as missing, but as long as no one claimed it, no investigation was going to be launched.

To double-check the information, she hacked into the humanitarian aid organization's server and used it as a gateway into their mainframe. She sifted through the shipping manifests which might just as well have been public, as they were not even protected by a low-level cypher. Then again, humanitarian aid should not have to hide anything to begin with so that was fine by her books. It certainly made her work a bit easier and most of all faster. Her search bot found the shipment, and after cross-checking with Lyon's customs data everything checked out just fine. The shipment was more valuable than she had expected; it was mostly high-tech water extraction gear destined for moon installations. She could understand why they needed it back - and a shipment this valuable getting lost would definitely be very bad publicity.

Still, it felt wrong somehow that a humanitarian organization would resort to hiring a professional thief. Even more worrying was the fact that someone in the organization had connections to that world. If word of this got out, it could potentially do more damage than a lost shipment. She realized that she was rambling, and terminated all her open connections. Colleagues were starting to come in, so she opened her current project files and took a few minutes to think. What should she do? The operation seemed legit, even if the way it was being handled made her bullshit detector run wild. Chasing after Thorvalds Technologies was a long-term project, in this action and adventure were right around the corner. It tickled her hacker personality in all the right places, so she decided to go ahead and do it. It was just breaking a cypher after all.

She sent Frank a text message, saying "Okay to go ahead with the project. Meet when and where?"

Frank's message came about an hour later, saying "Your place tonight at 19:00". She shuddered. The prospect of him hovering over her while she worked her magic was not an enjoyable one. Her mind kept wandering that evening, so she did not get anything productive done. Not that it mattered much, there was no one to really keep her accountable for work done. She knew that she was the most productive in her team, and that her project manager valued her work. He would not comment on it, he very seldom did with her lazier colleagues. Still, to keep her conscience clear she took the time to launch a few automated search bots on one of the new projects she had been assigned and then headed home early.

She gulped down a sandwich she had hastily whipped together, and started setting up her workplace. She would need all the available system cores, so she fired them up and ran a quick diagnostic. If one of the cores should prove faulty during the cracking process, she would lose precious time. She also fired up the inactive memory banks and linked them into the mainframe. Tonight her energy bill would take a massive hit, but Frank's payment would cover all her expenses. For her everyday use of her computer system, she usually deactivated everything she did not need, as the power requirements were quite heavy. To crack a cypher though, she needed every last bit of power her system could muster. Most tasks were done in the cloud these days, but for this it was important to be able to run autonomously offline. Cloud computing was typically more efficient, but cracking a cypher in the cloud would be like calling the police yourself to tell them what you are doing and where you are. There were ways to stay anonymous online, but why take more chances than necessary?

All cores and memory were in the green, so she dug out all the programs and bots she would use from her hidden software well. Custom hardware tied into her system made it possible to access these programs as well as sensitive data which were located on a  special drive. She could destroy this drive in several ways, from voice control to a manual kill switch on the casing. That way she could make sure it would not fall into the wrong hands or be used against her. As the last step in her preparations she disconnected all the internet access wiring. Probably unnecessary, but again a potential source of problems that was easy to take out of the equation. No need to disconnect any wireless networks, she never used them. Most people she knew called her paranoid because of this, even though they all had come to her at some point to fix their computers because their wireless networks had been breached.

She heard a polite knock on her door.

"Come in, it's open"

She watched him enter warily, look back into the corridor behind him and softly close the door. His clothing caught most of her attention; she had trouble following his movements. Her eyes constantly seemed to glide off him, and she imagined that he would be almost unnoticeable in a crowd.

"Nice outfit, how does it work?"

"I couldn't say."

"Couldn't or wouldn't?"

"I can't give out my secrets that easily."

"I've got some really nice home-made polvorones, what about a trade?"

"Are you trying to trade cookies for thief secrets?"

"You haven't tasted them, they are mind-blowing."

He laughed. "If you add a cold beer to the mix I'll consider your offer."

"Beer, huh? And I thought you had taste."

"Sorry, I'm german - and I have yet to find a spanish beverage that could match a good cool beer."

"I think your tastebuds need recalibrating then."

He laughed again. "That may be so, but those are my terms."

"Fine," she said and fetched a tray with some cookies. She did not drink beer, but as chance would have it there were some leftovers from a recent party. She put the can on the tray, and quite deliberately did not take a glass - she had no incentive to be a good host. She went back into the living room, and put the tray down on the low table. He was standing by her computer, apparently inspecting her installation.

"Don't touch anything."

"I wasn't going to, trust me. Computers don't like me very much, and the feeling is mutual. Still, I can recognize an impressive setup when I see one. Antonio was right, you may be the right person for the job after all."

She took a cookie for herself. "After all?"

"Let's just say my first impression was less than positive, no offense."

She wanted to hit him. Preferably with something heavy and pointy. His first impression, huh? Bloody bastard. "Alright, let's cut the niceties and get down to business."

He seemed to notice the change in her tone, and turned around. "I'm sorry I ambushed you in your home, but it is better if we are never seen together."

"Ok, so let's talk payment before we start."

"By all means, let's."

"Let me have a look at the cypher so I can check what it'll take to crack it, then I'll be able to give you a price."

He handed her a small storage stick, and she plugged it in. She set up a virtual sandbox environment to access it to keep her system safe should the drive contain a virus of some sort, and had a look at the files he wanted her to crack.

"It's those three files, there," he said and pointed at the top three files in the list.

She nodded, and had her file sniffer scan them. She whistled when she saw the results.

"A level 7 cypher? Isn't that a bit heavy for regular shipping manifests?"

"As far as I know moon customs upgraded their cyphers after the terrorist attacks last year."

"Bullshit. Level 4 would have been more than enough for their needs. No, this is something else and I don't like it."

He grunted and rolled his eyes slightly. "Fine, I get it - it'll cost more."

"I'm not trying to drive up a price I haven't even given you yet! I'm saying a level 7 cypher on shipping manifests is beyond suspicious. I doubt these are even shipping manifests," she said. The moment she said it, a cold fear settled on her. It was quite possible he had staged the whole thing just to get her to crack that cypher, and that he would get rid of her right after. She cursed herself silently.

"So you won't help me?"

"You're not defending the fact that these are simple shipping manifests."

He smiled. "You're way too clever for your own good." He paused. "You're right, they are not shipping manifests. Those I managed to crack myself, they only had a level 1 cypher on them."

"What are these then?"

"Personnel files from the customs office. The shipping manifests only had employee identification numbers in them, no names - so I need the personnel files to track down the people who handled the shipment."

A level 7 cypher on personnel files made sense, there probably was quite a bit of sensitive information in there. "You make it hard to trust you. Why should I believe anything you're telling me?"

"You shouldn't. I'm a thief, remember?"

"Oh come on, you stole that line out of some crappy low-budget movie. You will have to do better."

He sighed, and let himself slump into her sofa, picked up a cookie and took a bite.

"You were right, these are really very good."

She looked at him pointedly.

"Look, you know more than enough already. I don't want to involve you any further. Just tell me how much you want to crack this cypher and let's leave it at that."

"I'll do it for 50.000 euro."

He raised one eyebrow first, then nodded. "Fine." He took off the rucksack he was carrying, opened a zipper and made a neat pile of 500 euro bills on the table. Part of her was ecstatic at the sight, but the other was terrified. Cracking this cypher was worth at most 10.000 euro, the fact that he was willing to put that much on the table meant this was definitely more than it seemed. She should call the whole thing off right now, but she knew she was going to do it anyway. For the thrill? For the money? She was unsure of the reason, but she grabbed the pile of bills and put them in a small bag that she would put in her safe.

"I expected you to argue on the price at least a little."

"Nah, you are way too fond of arguing. Besides, you deserve it and I wanted to make it up to you for scaring you."

"Thanks, I guess."

"How long will it take you?"

"For all three files, about six hours I think. Do you want to come back in the morning?"

"If you don't mind, I'll sleep on the couch."

She did mind, but she knew there was no point in arguing over this. "Okay, I'll start."

"Thanks," he said. It sounded sincere.

She made copies of each file and started a separate process on each to crack them. On a hunch, she hooked a hidden command into the processes that would put a copy of the cracked files into her secure drive. She did not know how much he really knew about computers, but he would need to be really good to find these commands.

"Make sure you don't keep any of those files on your system," he said. She nearly jumped out of her seat, but managed to control herself.

"I'm not that stupid, Frank. I'm working directly on your drive, and I have set up a dedicated sandbox," she lied - hopefully convincingly.

"Can't hurt to make sure."

"What about my feelings then?"

"Feelings heal."

"You are obnoxious, has anyone told you that?"

"It's one of my strong points."

She had to laugh at that. "No kidding."

She made sure everything was running smoothly, and tried to extrapolate how long the cracking process would take. Her program gave an estimate of around two hours for each file, but as the cypher's protection layers were increasing in difficulty that early estimate was almost always wrong. Especially on a cypher this strong, so it would probably take much longer. Her initial estimate of six hours was probably optimistic. It was 21:00 by now, so she set her alarm clock to 03:00 in the morning to check on the process. She also added a silent alarm to be sent to her phone if anyone tampered with her computer.

"I'm going to get some sleep, around three in the morning I'll check on the progress."

"Okay, see you then."

"Don't touch anything."

"Don't worry, I'm not going to go near your system. I don't want to jeopardize the operation now."

"Good. Can't hurt to make sure," she said with a smirk. "There are some blankets in the cabinet over there, help yourself to one if needed."

"Thanks."

She closed the bedroom door, and put the small bag with the money into her safe. It felt weird to have a stranger sleep on her couch next door. She knew she would probably not sleep much, and for some reason she was reluctant to undress. She hopped into her bed with all clothes on, and put her phone under the pillow.

She struggled against sleep for a while, then drifted off into a light slumber.

 

 

 

 

 

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19Aug/110

1-2: The Thief

"Explaining this will take some time - would you mind if we got something to eat?" He asked with a smirk.

"Yes, I damn well mind. Sum it up, I don't need an entire bloody screenplay," she grunted. The nerve of this guy!

"Very well. I am a professional thief. I take contracts for all kinds of missions, from industrial espionage to domestic affairs." She raised an eyebrow at the latter, but did not comment. "As you would say, 'Shady Business'. Once in a while, to sate my sore conscience, I take on a contract for a good cause for free. The cypher I need you to decrypt is for one such mission - to be precise, I have to locate and retrieve a lost shipment of supplies for a humanitarian aid organization. It was bound for New Paris on the moon, but somehow it went missing."

"What does the cypher protect?"

"The shipment manifest from the moon customs center in the french city of Lyon. I am hoping to find out who took possession of the shipment."

"Okay, let me order some takeout." She was hooked, she knew it. She would have to verify this before she did anything, but if was indeed for a good cause... He was smiling again, that defiant little prick's smile. For some reason, it really irritated her.

"Stop smiling like you've already won me over."

"Haven't I?"

"Don't flatter yourself. I'm considering it - but I'm not going to take a decision in a rush. I want to verify your information through my own channels first. If this is indeed about a lost shipment of humanitarian aid supplies, I am willing to help. For a price."

"I see."

"Do you now?"

He ignored that. "I trust your inquiries will be discreet? My client does not wish for this to be widely known - otherwise they would not need my services."

"Yes, and that in itself makes me wary. What if that shipment of yours is not made of humanitarian supplies, but drugs, guns or something worse?"

"Remember, I'm doing this for free. I know my trade - I would not have taken on this mission if I had not made sure the contract is legit."

"Conmen have been known to be conned."

He sighed, and let himself slump back into the sofa. "That may be so. I have not seen the shipment, so I do not have any guarantee beyond all the official paperwork that it is indeed what they say. My main guarantee is that I made it perfectly clear to them that I do not like to be, as you say, 'conned'."

"Ah." She said, and looked deep into her tea cup. Deep down she was slapping herself over and over for even considering it, but that adventure-seeking part of her that had been awakened earlier during the discovery of Thorvalds Technologies was bursting at the seams. In the end it all hinged on making sure she wasn't being mislead. She promised herself that she would back out at the first sign of inconsistencies. It had been a while since she had broken a cypher, it was going to be fun dabbling in those forbidden arts again.

"When can I expect an answer?"

"Right now you can't expect anything. We're going to have dinner together, then we will part ways and I will sleep over it. If by tomorrow morning I haven't come to my senses and call this whole thing off, you can assume I'm on board and will verify what you told me."

He smiled, and gave her a polite nod of the head. "Much obliged, m'lady."

"Don't m'lady me, I'm no lady."

"I had noticed." There was the prick's smile again. She had rarely met someone that irked her as much as this fellow. The doorbell rang, probably their dinner.

"Oh, shut up and get the door. Your treat."

He did not object; he merely went to the door and paid the courier. When she smelled the food, she realized she was ravenous. He only picked at his dish, and was obviously disgusted by her eating habits. Screw him, she had no incentive to put up her social restraints with this guy.

"Are you finishing that?" she said, greedily eyeing his noodle pot.

"Uhhh, no." He said, and she had trouble restraining herself from laughing out loud at his expression. He was genuinely shocked. He was a thief and possibly even a  contract killer, but he could not stand to see her eat.  In a weird way that even made sense.

"So how does one become a professional thief anyway?"

"You don't choose to become one - at least I didn't. I just kind of... eased into it. From one job to another, I started hanging out with a certain crowd and my skills fit the profile. I did not envision my life's work to be this, but it's a well paying job." He shrugged. There was evidently more to it, or he would not try to hard to shrug it off. She did not press on - this was turning into an awkward social visit and she needed to be alone to think now.

"I will need a way to contact you."

He handed her a card with just a number on it, apparently eager to finish the conversation as well.

"I'll call you tomorrow if I'm not going ahead. Otherwise wait for me to gather some info, I'll call you to set up a meeting for the cypher."

"Fine." he said, and an awkward silence filled the room. She held out her hand.

"Bye." she prompted, and he shook her hand, then quickly went out through the door.

"At least he knows how to use doors," she murmured.

 

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19Aug/110

1-1: The Hidden Mogul

Her head was throbbing, but she was way too excited about her findings to let it deter her. She had spent over a year now sifting through the financials of several multinational companies in a quest for tax fraud signs or other financial irregularities. She had found a few minor issues, but that was not what held her interest. It had only been a hunch at first, but a year of research, of tracking down account holders and subsidiaries had begun to materialize a pattern: all of the top ten worldwide companies were indirectly owned by a single company based in France called Thorvalds Technologies. Its CEO was a Ragnar Thorvalds, and from what little information she could glean it had no more than 8 employees.

She suspected that the company's net of ownership was more extensive, but she had only been given access to the books of these ten companies. The thought of a mogul controlling earth's industry was slightly terrifying, but it also seemed quite impossible to pull this off without it being publicized at all. If you have such power, you will want to exert it - and that never goes by unnoticed. She was thrilled, and loved the feeling. She loved numbers, otherwise she would not do this job - but this?  There was a huge monster lurking in the numbers, and it smelled of sweet mystery. The big question was what she was going to do about it. There was no crime here so far, just a very clever chain of ownership. There was no valid reason to stir up that pot, and would she even want to?

She knew there was no rush, it had taken her a year to find the "monster" in the accounts and it was not likely to disappear overnight. She forwarded the few irregularities she had uncovered for review to her project manager, but she already knew they would not take action with them - they were literally not worth the trouble. She kept her discovery of the monster to herself and headed home.

Madrid was as lively a city as ever, she never regretted moving here six years ago. She caught the next shuttle and made a detour by Retiro Park to grab a bite and finally head home on foot. Her apartment was right next to the botanical garden, and the walk always helped her sort out her thoughts. Besides, in the evening the park was chock-full of interesting people. Sitting on a bench just watching the endless flow of people was pure entertainment. Her mind was on other things though this time - she knew she would not be able to let this go, she had to learn more about Thorvalds Technologies and its owner.

She did not meet anyone in the staircase, and on entering her living room routinely dropped her things in a heap on the sofa.

"Hello, lady Zoya," a rich male voice said out of the doorway to her kitchen.

Shocked out of her wits, she stumbled back and grabbed the first thing she could lay her hands on and shook it threateningly in the man's direction.

"Who the hell are you?" She half shouted.

"No need for that, m'lady," he said pointing a finger at her improvised weapon. "Your window was open, so I let myself in. I'm here to ask for your help," he said very calmly.

"You want my help? I'll help you - get out of here and if you're fast maybe I won't call the policía." Her voice sounded even less confident than she felt. No matter how threateningly you shake a toilet brush, the effect is usually not the intended one. She clumsily put the brush back, keeping her eyes fixed on the stranger. She felt her face heat up, she had bought that brush about a week ago as replacement for her old one, and it was still sitting here on the cupboard. Undeterred, she grabbed the heavy iron candle holder next to it and kept it leveled between her and the intruder. Its weight was a lot more comforting. He watched her calmly with the hint of a smirk, apparently amused by the whole situation.

"Please, let me at least introduce myself. Maybe we can discuss this over a cup of tea?" He sounded confident and rather reasonable for a burglar/rapist. She turned on the lights and allowed herself to study him more closely. He was a lot taller than her with a rather athletic build judging from what his casual attire revealed. He was unusually pale for this latitude, and he spoke spanish with an accent she could not quite place. He was also distractingly handsome, which somehow just managed to infuriate her even more.

"Pardon me if I don't feel like inviting you to my table just yet."

He smiled. "I understand. My name is Frank Halderberg, your friend Antonio told me to come to you." With that name, he was probably from a Germanic country. She frowned.

"Anotonio, huh? So far I have not heard anything that would give me a reason to trust you, although I have to admit I'm intrigued. What do you need me for?"

"I need your mathematical skills to break down a cypher."

She whistled. "Ooookay. And now tell me why I shouldn't just have your sorry ass dragged into prison? "

He sighed. "Because it is for a good cause? I'm sorry, I can't tell you more as long as you stay so stubborn."

"Me, stubborn? You've got some nerve!" She glared at him, but he seemed impervious to glaring. She sighed.

"I think I'll have that tea you mentioned earlier now. I suppose that if you had come here to harm me, you would already have done so?"

"Yes," he answered matter-of-factly.

"Charming," she murmured, put the candle holder back on the cupboard, and brushed past him into the kitchen. He watched her silently as she took out her favorite tea bags and heated up some water. She could feel his gaze on her neck, and it robbed her of her wits.

"Stop watching me, go sit in the couch or something so I can salvage a semblance of composure before we continue this conversation," she snapped. He simply nodded and disappeared into the living room. She absently put the tea bags into the Kettle and took out the sugar pot and two spoons. She didn't know what to think - Antonio was a friend, but quite unreliable and she had always suspected him of being involved in somewhat shady activities. He was a great entertainer at parties and could cook like a god, but she did not really know him. Her certainly was not one of her inner circle of friends.

On top of that, she could not simply toss aside the fact that this guy just broke into her home. Just thinking of it sent shivers down her spine. What madness was this, drinking tea with your burglar? She put two cups and the rest on a floating tray, and sent it ahead of her into the living room.

"Alright, start talking. What the hell is wrong with, you know, knocking like normal people do?"

He helped himself to a cup of tea, and waited until she was sitting on the chair opposite to him, the tray between them on the low table.

"I needed someplace to hide while I waited for you. Your place was a convenient solution."

She rubbed her eyes in disbelief. "You're really not making it easy to trust you. Why should I let myself be dragged into your shady affairs?"

"It is for a good cause-"

"Oh, cut the bloody crap. My sympathy for you is hanging by a thread right now, and you need something from me. Either you start talking earnest, or I start screaming."  He fixed her for a while, then he visibly relaxed and smiled.

"Fair enough."

 

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18Aug/110

1-0: Preface

As foreseen by economists worldwide, after 2015 the global economy plummeted to new lows - propelling poor and developed countries alike in what would later be called the modern dark ages, giving lots of people the occasion to say "I told you so." Class differences were exacerbated, and a global famine caused massive planetwide casualties. Countries struggled to rise just to fall back down again, carried away by their neighbor's economies.

It was in 2042 that mankind pulled itself back out of the proverbial mud, and following the modern dark ages came what is now to be known as the eco-technological revolution. Simultaneous advances worldwide in the fields of ecology and technology in general provided the means to take care of all basic needs at costs smaller than ever before; until 2050 world hunger was virtually non-existent and water shortages were a thing of the past. So fast was this evolution from a true dystopia to what can only be seen as an utopia that many had trouble adjusting to and trusting the new world they lived in. In the years that followed however, a global cultural revolution managed to convince the last sceptics that it would probably last a while.

At the time of writing, it is the year 2079 and the eco-technological revolution is at its peak. We are now fully fossil fuel independent, and relying purely on renewable energies, the sun being our biggest benefactor. There are still minor wars over valuable resources and quabbles over territory, but otherwise one can say that mankind has never before seen such peace and enlightenment. Every woman, child and man has a roof over their heads, and while the upper class is still as rich as before, the lower classes now live very comfortably.

World population is an ongoing issue, but global birth control measures manage to keep growth in check. The moon colonies are still far away capacity-wise from being able to unburden the planet-side population count, but with nearly half a billion people living there permanently, chances are infrastructure will grow enough to make a difference. Off-world colonies have so far been a big disappointment, as only the moon has proven viable economically and ecologically. Dreams of Mars becoming mankind's new home puffed up into smoke when reliable surveying information confirmed that there was not enough usable water sources to sustain life. Mad plans involved synthesizing water in Jupiter's orbit and ferrying it over to Mars, but they were abandoned for being too wasteful energy-wise.

Plans to go beyond our solar system exist, but even with our level of technology we have so far been unable to go around the time-related drawbacks of space travel. Some very interesting planet candidates have been found that should be able to sustain life, but the probes that were sent there will not be able to send back data before 2095 (16 years from now). Many believe this to be a good thing; not being able to reach out to the stars has forced us to improve our life on earth first. We certainly have not reached the pinnacle of evolution yet, but we are working towards it.

This concludes this brief analysis.

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