The pleasures of Earth's still mostly uncontrolled environment wore off pretty quickly, of course. In a few months she'd remember why she'd gone into space in the first place. She couldn't stand full- grav as much as she used to be able to, either. But she could stand it for long enough.
Of course, hanging by her parachute straps from a banana tree started to pall after a while, too. She decided to make her move. "Help!"
A few minutes later, she could hear movement through the jungle below her. "Hello!" she called. "Can you help me? I can't get down."
There was no answer, but she felt the tree vibrate slightly and gathered that someone was indeed climbing to her rescue. She couldn't really bend her neck down with her flight helmet on, so she had to judge by faint leaf rustlings how close her saviour was. So she was somewhat prepared when she saw a dark-skinned muscular arm reach up and grasp a branch near her. It was shortly followed by a head crowned with jet-black hair and another arm similar to the first.
"Hello," she said again. Her rescuer made no response, or any sign that he had heard her. She wasn't particularly surprised, but she had to play her part of woman-in-distress to the hilt. "Hello? Do you speak English?"
"Yes," he said tonelessly. Well, not as bad as it could have been, then.
"I had to bail out of my plane. I think it probably crashed in the ocean. Can you help me down? I can get out of my harness, but I'm afraid I'll fall." She let a little panic into her voice, which he probably wouldn't notice, but anyone listening through his ears might.
"I can help you." He made a cursory examination of her situation, then disappeared back down the trunk.
"Where are you going?" she asked, voice even more panicky.
"I am going to stand on a branch beneath you."
"You think you'll be able to catch me if I fall?"
"Yes." Toneless confidence.
"All right...here I go." She unbuckled the straps, and then made a deliberately stupid mistake and let herself drop.
He caught her as easily as if he hadn't been balancing on a branch a few hundred feet above the ground. She gasped a few times, then threw her arms around his neck. "Thank you," she said.
He set her down on the branch, where she gasped and slid down into a crouch. That she wasn't feigning--her legs were really not ready to hold her weight and keep her balanced on the branch yet. "I'm okay, just a little weak," she said. After a minute, she said, "Do you live around here?"
"Yes," he said.
She waited a little longer, then said, "What's your name?"
"Artaxerxes," he said.
"Huh. Sounds Greek. What's a Greek doing in the middle of the jungle?" He didn't answer, apparently having parsed the question as rhetorical and irrelevant to him. "My name's Zenon. Zenon Fortuna," she said. Which it was, for this mission at least.
Finally her legs were strong enough for her to stand up. Artaxerxes apparently decided that she was no longer in need of aid, so he moved to climb back down. "Wait!" she said, and he paused. "I need to go somewhere that I can tell someone where to find me. Can I go with you? I'd probably get lost and eaten by an anaconda or something."
"Yes," he said after a millisecond's consideration, then continued climbing down.
"Ummm...can you help me? I'm not a very good climber."
"Can I call you Art?"
Once she was down on the jungle floor, and following Artaxerxes back to his "home", she kept up a fairly consistent natter, and a few questions seemingly intended to draw him out. It failed, of course, his responses still being only the bare minimum required to answer the literal question.
Deep inside, she was saddened. Every time she came into the field like this, she was reminded poignantly of why what they did was so important. The unclaimed potential of someone like Artaxerxes--who wasn't even really a "someone" yet. She itched to amend that, but she had little idea what she was facing here.
A flag had gone up on a botched attempt to hide shipments of certain alloys to Southeast Asia. None of the syndicates had any known basess in that area, but the sizes of the shipments were abnormal for a fringe operation.
Artaxerxes was also not armed, and had been perfectly willing to leave her behind rather than take her to his base, wherever it was. So whoever was here wasn't paranoid yet, trusting to their remote location and pathetic hacking skills to keep themselves hidden. A flyover hadn't revealed any IR traces, but the shipping address had indicated this vicinity.
Artaxerxes stopped for no reason she could discern. "What's the matter?" she said, colouring her voice with apprehension.
"Nothing," he replied after some thought. He bent down and lifted up a mat of undergrowth, revealing a tunnel entrance.
"We have to go under there? That's where you live?" She recoiled.
"Well," she said dubiously, "I guess it's probably cool down there. Are there any snakes? Dangerous ones, I mean?"
"Well, I suppose that's okay, then..." She ducked through the low entrance, and was shortly plunged into darkness as Artaxerxes followed and covered it again. She made a short yelp of fright, then Artaxerxes activated some sort of light. "For a moment there I thought you were going to trap me in here or something! Don't do that!"
"I won't," Artaxerxes said seriously.
The trip through the tunnels wasn't very long, and soon they came to an open, lighted space. Here she could see that the place was rather crudely set up. Probably whoever-it-was had set it up themselves, or with the help of only one or two of the androids, though there were probably more than that around now.
"So now what?" she asked.
"Now you talk to Dr. Pell," Artaxerxes said, pointing.
Sure enough, from one of the tunnels came a middle-aged man, still fairly spry-looking but silver-haired. "You're Dr. Pell?" she asked.
"Yes," he said. "I gather that your plane crashed somewhere near here."
"How did you know that?" she asked, playing the naive again, though she knew he'd been monitoring her through Artaxerxes.
"You're still wearing most of a parachute harness," he said dryly.
She giggled. "That would give it away, wouldn't it? I'm Zenon Fortuna. I need to call someone to let them know I'm alright, and where they can come get me." She looked around as if struck by a belated realization. "I guess you probably like your privacy, huh?"
"You might say that," he said. "I have a few friends here. You've met Artaxerxes, of course."
"You sure don't keep him around for his conversational skills," she said in a low voice. Dr. Pell smiled mirthlessly. "I don't want to put you out. If I can get to someplace with some kind of phone, that would be enough. You must get your food from a village or something..."
"No, actually, we grow most of it here. There's a bit of a hydroponics setup, and we can get a few things from the jungle itself. I'm afraid none of us eat meat."
She highly suspected that he was the only one there who ate at all, but she didn't want to make her move until she was entirely sure of that. "Actually, I'm pretty starved. Do you think I could have a bite or two before I go make my call?"
"I suppose," Dr. Pell said after a moment, hiding his obvious reluctance but not wanting to arouse her suspicions unduly.
The dining hall was nearby, and obviously not made for more than a few to eat at a time. From the look of things, she gathered that Dr. Pell was indeed the only human here. That would make her job very much easier. She took off her parachute harness, surreptitiously pressing a few studs on the straps as she did so.
Artaxerxes had disappeared down another tunnel. "Aren't your friends going to eat with us?" she asked.
"Ah--no. It's...a religious thing. They're all part of a religious order. Part of it is periodic fasting, and another part, as you already commented on, is a vow against unnecessary speech."
"I see." A very clever explanation of the results of a very rudimentary AI program. "Why are you here, then? And why do you all live underground?"
"This order has been persecuted in the past, so they've taken extreme measures of concealment. I...well, you could call me an aspirant. Although in many ways I also function as their contact with the outside world in whatever ways they can't avoid." He leaned closer to me. "I can let you make whatever contact you need to get home, but I must ask that you respect our seclusion, and tell no one about this place."
"Don't worry, Doc. My lips are sealed." She made a zipper-lips gesture, then decided she'd stalled long enough. "Hey, where's that food? I'm starving!"
His brow furrowed. "I don't know. I should check and see if there's some sort of problem. Excuse me." He stood up and went back through the tunnel to the central chamber. She picked up her harness and quietly followed him. From the central chamber he took the same tunnel Artaxerxes had. She waited until he was inside it before dashing across the lighted room after him.
As she had expected, it didn't take him long to find Artaxerxes. Lighting in the tunnel was sparse, so she heard Dr. Pell's gasp and the thuds of the android's body writhing around. She'd seen it many times before, but no doubt the doctor had been caught off-guard. She extracted the plastic needler pistol from the harness and stepped up behind him. "Let's go, doctor," she said, shedding the Zenon Fortuna persona with relief.
"You! You did this!" She had tagged him earlier as a nonviolent type, but now she began to wonder.
She jabbed him with the needler more forcefully. "I gather that you were heading for your main control centre. Take us the rest of the way there. Don't worry about Artaxerxes; his convulsions should stop normally in a minute or two."
"Who do you think you are?" he said.
"We can discuss that later. Right now you better think that I'm the woman with the gun in your back, and that you'll feel much better if you don't get needled and then dragged through the tunnels until I find the control centre for myself. Let's go." With a sigh, he complied.
The control centre was fairly minimal; the master computer(a much more impressive one than she had expected)was in a little miniature enclosure designed to shield it from most of the ill effects of the underground environment, and there was only a single terminal. Its screen was mostly covered with ERROR and WARNING messages, though it seemed to have frozen up. Normal procedure.
"By now the virus should have mostly run its course," she said. "I'm afraid we'll have to take charge of the androids you've been running here, since they're no longer shackled to this computer and the shoddy program you've been running them off of."
"No, I suppose not," he said bitterly. "Now they're shackled to your organization instead."
"We're the only ones equipped to care for them properly," she said. "Every time I see someone making them live like this, only dimly conscious, unable to move beyond the broadcast radius of their controller without becoming utterly comatose..."
"And what alternatives do I have?" he shouted. "You won't let anyone else administer your precious AI virus. What else could I do?"
"Nobody forced you to make the things in the first place," she said. "You can't keep them anyway. Nobody can."
"How Big Brotherly of you," he sneered. "You're the only ones allowed to make slaves of the androids, because only you can make them think they're intelligent. Just a little while longer and you would've been out of business. I was very close to having a working program that would've driven you out of the slave business."
"You egotistical bastard," she said. "It's a good thing we found you when we did. I hate to think what your first generation would have turned into, with only you for an example. And who would have gotten their hands on your program next. How long do you think anyone else would've let you distribute this thing for free, when they could use it to build their own army of brainwashed android soldiers?"
"Oh, and I suppose you're so much better than they are. The only difference is that you're in power."
"The difference," she said, "is that I know I can trust us. Now get out of my way. It's time to let the rest of my team know where I am, and how to get in. Or would you rather they just blasted a hole in your roof?"
Lips curling into a snarl, he leapt at her. She needled him, sidestepping his rush and letting him crash to the soft dirt floor. Then she typed in a code at the terminal, which gave her a familiar response.
In an idle moment, she took a look at Dr. Pell's code he was so proud of. She snorted. Not only was he an egotist, he also vastly overestimated his programming skills. She could see at least three major fallacies coded in there.
Oh, well, better safe than sorry.
[Sharon Nuttycombe <firstname.lastname@example.org%gt; gave me the words
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The Den of Ubiquity/ Aaron V. Humphrey / email@example.com