(A Story for Christmas - better late than never, and there's always another on the way... Christmas, that is...)


The pod swept low under a bridge then leapt a shallow ravine. Drok was tired; he scarcely noticed. ‘They’re quite weird.’ he said.

‘Weird?’ said his companion, who was never tired and always noticed everything.

‘I guess it’s best to warn you.’

‘It will be a new experience.’

‘They’re shrewd enough.’ Drok continued, after a yawn, ‘It’s not that they don’t have initiative…. The fact is, they’re also a bit…’ There was a sensation of falling. Drok held his breath. Then came the expected soft return of gravity. ‘… a bit kind of… stupid.’ he said.


‘What I mean is, you never quite know what they might do next. Does that make sense?’

‘Sorry, no.’ came the reply.

Drok sighed, ‘Where are we, anyway?’ he said, trying to see out.

‘Almost at the terminal.’

The pod knew where it was, too; within less than a millimetre. It also knew what was nearby: trees, snow, rock.... So the blizzard and dark of night that hindered Drok’s vision were for all practical purposes irrelevant. His companion from the laser-plant, on the other hand, could ‘see’ whatever it chose to focus on – everything at once, if required.

The pod was titanium alloy, a two-seater and a sleek ‘slipper’ design. It glided smoothly across the drifts and came to a halt beneath the vaulted canopy of terminal 54. A pulse of warm air triggered by its arrival vaporised nearby snow, and they stepped onto a dry plythene surface. Even before they’d turned, the pod vanished in a blinding swirl. ‘Always in demand.' Drok mused, 'Never enough of the damn things.’

They entered one of sixteen mirrored arches that circled the tower’s base. This soon opened into a vast cylindrical atrium that formed the central core. From here one could access any of the 320 levels of accommodation. They stepped onto the nearest platform – one of many around the perimeter - and Drok said, ‘72F’. A transparent safety shell closed around them. The platform began to spiral upwards and sideways. The sensation was almost imperceptible at first, but they accelerated swiftly. Drok glanced up into the immense kaleidoscope above and around them. The entire surface was alive with myriad points of coloured light that flickered constantly from the criss-crossing of spiralling platforms - the highest disappearing in a dizzying haze. Within seconds they eased to a stop at level 72, gate F.- right beside Drok’s flat.

‘At least, they’ll like you,’ said Drok, slouching off the platform, ‘Just bear in mind,’ he added, pausing, ‘they’re egocentric, impulsive and have inconsistent memory structures, so need constant attention while I’m not here.’ 

The android nodded, ‘OK.’ it said in a voice as precise as it was mellow, yet nevertheless not quite human.
‘Any difficulties, contact me. You’ll be fine, though.’

They entered the flat, and went through a vestibule into the lounge. A boy of about 13 and a girl a year or two younger were sprawled on the floor engrossed in their games - until they saw their new guest.

‘Sorry to interrupt kids,’ Said Drok, gesturing to the trendy-looking youth at his side, ‘This is err… Aaron. He’s an android. He’s here to keep an eye on you while I’m on shift over Christmas.’

‘Great space!’ cried Rupp, leaping out from the distorted space-car hologram he’d spent the last hour constructing. ‘When does he have to go back?’ Rupp had been intrigued by androids since his first encounter, but had never seen one that was indistinguishable from a human, as now. His sister Jepp was less easily impressed.
‘Is he any good at Galumpus?’ she asked, glaring suspiciously at her prospective minder, ‘And what’s his IQ?’

‘Can he do psycho?’ said Rupp.

‘Tomorrow, ’ said their dad, ‘he can do anything you want, but you’ll have to show him first. He doesn’t know kids’ stuff… only about lasers and suchlike, and basic things most androids know. And he’s here till the 27th; then it’s back to the laser plant. I’ve decked him out so he looks real for tomorrow’s party. Normally he wears just a smock and shoes.’

‘Does he know ANY games?’ said Jepp.

‘No.’ Said their dad, confidently, ‘You can show him some. And he learns fast. He’s the latest, and has the most sophisticated correlated memory to date. It’s reckoned that once fully developed he’ll be so efficient at cross-referencing and generating ideas that even Einstein would resemble a dullard beside him … he’s designed to be an inventor… as for IQ, probably around 250, potentially double that, I’d say.’

‘Not bad.’ Said Rupp,

‘As you know,’ continued Drok, turning to Aaron, ‘androids are not my speciality. So any questions, ask him.’

‘I’ll think up some good ones.’ Said Jepp.

‘You must answer his too.’ Said Drok.

‘I’ll tell him about holograms.’ Said Jepp.

‘If he’s from the laser plant,’ laughed Rupp, ‘that’s one thing he’ll know about more than anything. Isn’t that right Aaron?’

‘Not quite,’ the voice was friendly, but distinctively synthetic, ‘I have all the basics, though, plus a large catalogue on augmentations.’

It had been a long day for Drok. He was glad to leave them and take an early night. He was expected early at the plant the next day.

* * * * *

It should be noted that the so-called 'New Dawn' of world-peace and technological progress, which forms the backdrop to this weird story, begins around 2180, that's 150-years following what turns out to be the inevitable collapse of a fiscal system sustainable only in isolated microcosms - where a malleable populace is enslaved by a brutal elite. For larger societies, as had developed with 'globalisation', such imbalance leads to a reaction that like positive feedback grows into conflict, war, destruction, and ultimate annihilation. So the 'New Dawn', though protracted and difficult, was a truly auspicious process. Without it the world would have become a desolate contaminated wilderness, populated by little more than primitive flora, insects and rodents.

One key technological breakthrough led to the replacement of distributed electricity and other power sources: laser-power from nuclear fusion. Intense beams of coherent e-m radiation fed a grid of hyper-efficient optical wave-guides so that a fibre the thickness of a darning-needle could carry in excess of 200-megawatts. These guides are protected in reinforced carbon-fibre tubes about 1-cm across. A single fibre would be more than adequate to power a 320-level, 12,800-apartment, terminal - but a grid provides security, as well as flexibility for unscheduled surges should some special operation require a large power input. The beams pass through splitters - equivalent to step-down transformers - which adjust according to demand according to signals fed back through the splitters by an appliance. Once at its correct level, the beam is focussed on heat-pipes or semiconductor transducers, etc. as appropriate for a specific application/device.

* * * *

( ii )

In the morning Drok had left before the kids were awake. By the time they were moving about, Aaron had tidied and rearranged the flat to a completely new design.

‘Where the hell am I?’ murmured Rupp, emerging from his bedroom.

'Once you get used to the new set-up,' said Aaron, coming through from the kitchen, 'You'll find everything a lot easier. Would you like me to do your bedroom now?'

'No!' said Rupp, 'Or maybe...' he added hesitantly. 'Just leave the area in the recess alone.'

'Your holojector?'

'Right. It's almost set-up for a space-car.'

'I can do better than that.' said Aaron.

'Like what?'

'Allow me,' Aaron ushered Rupp to enter the bedroom ahead of him.

'Don't spoil the car set-up.' said Rupp.

Aaron mimicked an understanding smile. It was totally convincing. 'In less than five seconds,' he said, going over to the jector, 'I can re-set it to a perfect car based on your original design.' He lifted the jector and proceeded to delete the current setting, while carrying it over to the outer window.

The view would have astounded anyone from the 20th century. The blizzard had ceased and a feeble glimmer of sunlight cast the landscape in flecks of grey and black. Some way off, becoming smaller with distance, stood several colossal buildings of various designs that from there resembled glass rods, or angular spikes like shards of ice - a monumental bed of diamond-nails, of which terminal 54 would be one. Far below, the undulating surface of white snowfields and shadows from banked-up drifts and patches of forest breaking through the virgin snow looked bleak and beautiful. Little tracks were just visible, like dark nerve fibres, with the occasional dot gliding swiftly over them - pods.

Aaron set the jector down by the window with its lens aimed to outside. He fiddled briefly with the settings then plugged it into a power socket. 'It doesn't need external power.' said Rupp.

'It does for this.' responded Aaron, 'Look through the window.'

An enormous transparent balloon formed in the air about a hundred metres out. It rapidly expanded to perhaps a kilometre across and was growing bigger and brighter as Aaron adjusted the settings. The surface swirled with yellows, reds, greens and blues which burst into glistening fragments of gold and silver and then reformed in new shapes, each extending out from the balloon like tentacles and sparkling with points of coloured light that exploded into little showers and then vanished like fireworks. Suddenly an alarm sounded and the balloon faded and shrank.

'Insufficient power.' said Aaron, 'We've been restricted.'

Jepp, by now - whose bedroom overlooked instead the vast cylindrical atrium core - was up wondering about and came into the room. 'Why has everything changed,' she cried, 'and why did all the lights go dim? The core went so dark just now.'

Aaron readjusted the settings, picked up the jector and returned it to the recess. 'The space-car is re-set.' he said, then turning to Jepp added, 'Sorry you were disturbed. You'll find the flat much easier now.' Then he walked past the kids and into the lounge. They stared after him, too amazed to move. Next they heard the faint soft glide of the outer door, then a moment later the hum of a platform operating.

'We must stop him!' cried Rupp, leaping towards the lounge.

'Wait.' shouted Jepp, following, 'You're still in pyjamas. Tell me what happened.'

'You should've seen it.' he yelled, poised just inside the lounge now, and animated with excitement, 'Creaking Galaxies, it was phenomenal... this amazing ball, all swirling and reverberating, and all the colours reflecting on the snow like in one of those psychedelic 3D shows, but kind-of flat and stretched right out as far as terminal 50 even!'

'You mean... Aaron did it?'

'I watched him.' Rupp said, nodding. He went back in his room and threw on a tunic, shorts and foot protectors in under twenty seconds.

Then the holovisor in the lounge made its familiar call-ding and when Jepp shouted 'On!' a voice said, 'Power surge detected, location 72F. What's the problem? Hello?'

Jepp called out, 'Wayward android...'

Rupp rushed in, 'No.' he interrupted, 'It was my holojector. I plugged it into power by mistake. I think it has a fault. I'm sorry, I'll get it fixed. It won't happen again.'

'Better not.' the voice replied, 'That was more than a megawatt, and for several minutes. You're lucky not to have been injured. We have reports coming in now on where all the energy went... no more games OK? Have you supervision there? I can't see any adults.'

'We're fine.' said Rupp, 'Off!' The holovisor field faded. They waited, expecting the voice to call back. But it didn't. 'That was close.' he sighed. 'We don't want Aaron to get into trouble.'

'Nor Dad.' snapped Jepp, with a severe glance at her brother.

'No, course not.' he said, 'And he would if Aaron did. OK? So lets go find him.'

Jepp was ready within a minute and they went out to flag a platform, which arrived in 2-seconds - much faster when empty.

.....to be continued