The voice came as if from far away. It was a pleasant, deep female voice, saying over and over, "Flora, wake up. Flora Fielding, wake up, Flora?" on and on.
†††'I'm awake', Flora tried to say, but her mouth, her lungs wouldn't obey. Her eyelids felt too heavy to lift. And she was cold. Her body was ice. If she moved, surely she'd snap like an icicle -- if she could move at all. Her skin hurt everywhere from the bitter, malevolent cold. Her bones ached, all over.
†††The voice stopped its endless chant and said, "I detect that you are conscious. Don't struggle. The machine is slowly bringing you back. You'll be OK."
†††'So it worked. It must have worked', Flora thought, and a feeling of triumph lent her energy enough to force her eyelids open. The research she'd funded must have found a cure, and now they were resuscitating her.
†††At first everything was a liquid blur, then she was gazing at the sight she'd seen before going into suspended animation, before she'd been frozen. A network of plastic pipes descended from a pastel yellow ceiling. They were filled with fluids of different colors: red blood, creamy yellow food, a blue one, another with clear liquid.
†††"Move your fingers," the voice commanded. Flora tried, and after several attempts felt them twitch, then bunch up. The cold was now less excruciating. She took a breath that made her chest rise. "What year's it?" she managed to mumble.
†††The voice answered, "Thirteen hundred and twelve".
†††This was meaningless. 'I couldn't have gone back in time!' Flora thought in panic, but then the voice explained, "You have been in cryogenic storage for 1433 years. We now have a new system of dates, from the establishment of Control."
†††A feeling of unreality, of complete disbelief swamped Flora: 'It can't be true. It just can't!' "I? I expected to be asleep for maybe ten," she said, her still-weak voice quivering. One-and-a-half thousand years! She turned her head slightly, looking for the source of the voice. She saw no-one.
†††As if reading her mind, the voice said, "I'm Artif. I've been directed to resuscitate you."
†††"In your terms, I'm a computer, sort of."
†††This was encouraging. If their technology was this advanced, then surely they had cancer beaten.
†††A new, masculine voice spoke, a deep, musical baritone. "Welcome, Flora Fielding. Tony Califeri had records of several of your movies, and I've seen them all. You were marvelous."
†††The female voice cut in, chidingly, "Abel, Flora knows nothing of Tony. She has no more knowledge of our history than a newborn baby."
†††"Just the same," the man's amusedly unrepentant voice answered, "I've seen the movies, and Flora was wonderful."
†††"Thank you," Flora spoke, a little more strongly now, and became intensely conscious of being naked. Her fifty-two-year-old body was not for a man to see. Or fourteen-hundred-and-eighty-something year-old body, if it was true.
†††To her surprise, the man said, "Flora, I'm not in the room with you, but on the other side of the earth, in the Arafura Sea. And don't worry, there are no visuals on. Judging from the records, we guessed that you wouldn't want to be seen."
†††She could only say "thank you" again, but then asked, "Are you a doctor? Have you got a cure?"
†††The deep voice sounded a melodious laugh. "We leave doctoring to Artif, it's more efficient. What do you want cured?"
†††"Cancer," she said in surprise. Wasn't that why they'd revived her now?
†††There was a silence. Then he said, "My translator is looking."
†††The female voice spoke, "Abel, that's a condition where uncontrolled growth of rogue cells occurs. I've met four cases this year."
†††By now, Flora's body felt almost normal. She raised herself on an elbow. Black spots swam before her eyes then cleared. She asked, "Er, Madam, what do I call you?"
†††There was a smile in the wonderful voice. "Whatever you like. Naturally, I'm not female. I'm the support system for the planet, the executive arm of humanity."
†††Abel said, "She's Artif. I believe that derives from your language. At least? was your language spoken in a place called Canada?"
†††"Yes," Flora answered. She became aware of a tingling sensation in the tips of her fingers.
†††Artif commanded, "Flora, move your legs and arms."
†††Flora tried, and to her relief was able to move almost naturally. She sat up and looked around.
†††Her cocoon for a millennium and a half seemed to have remained unchanged since that time, subjectively an instant ago, when she'd last closed her eyes. Cool pastel blue walls were glowing with indirect lighting. She knew that almost all the wall space consisted of doors hiding the equipment that had kept her alive without deterioration all this time: mechanical and electrical muscle stimulators, hygiene maintenance devices and the like. She had been fuzzy about the details even when Dr Martin had insisted on explaining them to her.
†††There were no windows, only the closed, airtight sliding door that was almost indistinguishable from the rest of the wall. Her elevated bed was in the middle, with the tubing descending from the low cream-colored ceiling.
†††The only addition was a hovering ball that rose to be level with her eyes as she sat up. It was the size of a very large watermelon, Flora thought, only it was translucent, and filled with something resembling swirling white clouds.
†††A woman's voice came from the ball, not Artif's voice but a lighter, higher one. "Greetings, Flora Fielding," she said, "I'm Mirabelle Karlsen. I'll be your Advocate when you face Control."
†††Artif spoke, her voice also coming from the ball. "Flora, what you're looking at is something like a television set of your times. I've studied the records. Only, everything but sound has been turned off. Just tell me when you are willing to be seen and I'll give you vision as well."
†††'Control' sounded ominous. And something was very obviously not quite right. Ignoring Artif for the moment, Flora answered, "Mirabelle, what is Control? And why do I need an Advocate?" This ball thing confirmed it, she must indeed be in the far distant future.
†††"'Control' is the governing body of humanity. The name originally came because Brad wanted to ensure that Artif would always be controlled by people, not the other way around. Anyway, about the need for an Advocate, if I had my way, you wouldn't need one. You wouldn't have been disturbed except for Abel. Ask him." Her voice had a sharp edge to it.
†††"Now, now, Mirrie," Abel's voice was also located in the hovering globe, and carried the same lazy amusement as before, "you know we all agreed in the end?"
†††"Don't call me Mirrie! And yes, I agreed in the end, but?"
†††"But nothing. Agreed is agreed."
†††"You may not realize," Artif spoke over their bickering," but these two are the most powerful people on the planet. Abel is President of Control, and Mirabelle is Deputy President."
†††'That's all I need', Flora thought, 'to be caught in the middle of a power struggle.' The thing was to sidestep the issue for now, until she could gather more information. That had always worked in the past. So, she said, "I? I am honored by your welcome." She was pleased that her voice once more held its usual resonance. "Er, Artif, these tubes? how can I?"
†††One flexible tube entered her abdomen, one each her two lower arms. One, with blue liquid, joined into her misshapen right breast. And tubes also emerged from her lower orifices, removing wastes.
†††"Perhaps the two of you would leave us for a few clicklets," Artif said, command in her voice. Abel said, "Certainly," at the same time as Mirabelle's, "Of course."
†††"Lie down, Flora."
†††She did so.
†††"I have adjusted the chemicals going into you. You'll return to sleep. When you wake up, you'll be free of the resuscitation equipment, and free of pain."
Abel T'Dwuna rarely did just one thing. Right now he was doing three: fishing, supervising his twelve year old son, and participating in the awakening of the Fielding woman - the proof of his continued ascendancy at Control. Of course it was the right course of action, never mind Mirabelle and her shrill-voiced faction.
†††The sea undulated to a slow, oily swell. The waves broke with a white spray on the distant shores of the coral atoll he could see every time his boat rose to a crest. Just visible in the corner of his eye to the left, his house dutifully kept station on him, at a set distance of two hundred meters. Her multicolored sails were half furled.
†††The early morning sun behind him rapidly ascended into the tropical sky. As so often at this spot, Abel admired the change of colors. When he was riding high on a wave the sea around him was a deep blue, and then the slow wave rolled out from under him, and the water turned turquoise green.
†††Abel thought a command at his lure, through the implant. It stopped its clockwise circling and started a lazy figure of eight. He didn't particularly care if he caught anything, but there was no point in doing a job inefficiently.
†††He now felt the heat on his back. "A bit of sunscreen," he commanded without needing to speak aloud, and a white globe rose from the locker, hovered over him, then sprayed his naked, almost black body with a fine mist.
†††He noted that Flora Fielding had awakened, and spoke a greeting. Artif relayed it, using a communication globe, since, of course, the woman didn't have an implant. Abel shuddered at the thought of the bleak existence that must mean. But then he looked up from the currently green depths, and as always his boat gave him a jolt of pleasure. It had been a major work of art, oh, more than forty years ago now, before he was on Control. It was such a wonderful design that over three hundred people had asked for copies, and he became the father of three of his children because of the fame the boat had brought him.
†††Well, they were all adults now, but young Tamís still needed care. Abel could feel the boy's fear as a background, and kept up a continuous, wordless mental hum of reassurance.
†††"Dad," Tamís said, "I need to do a wee."
†††"I know, mate." Being in a one-way merge with the boy, Abel had been aware of his need for a while and had been expecting the complaint. Even while taking part in the conversation in America, he said to Tamís, "Check if there is anyone under you." Of course, Abel could see that there wasn't, but children do need training in politeness.
†††"No Dad, no-one within fifty K of the Tree."
†††Abel laughed, making sure it sounded both friendly and confident. "Then it's simple. Hang on with one hand, unfasten with the other, and see how far you can piss."
†††In the far-away Swedish Isles, Tamís took a deep breath. Shifting handholds, he slowly turned so he wasn't facing the immense trunk, but outwards. The red ball of the late night sun was actually below him, almost ready to set. His left hand welded itself around a branchlet the thickness of his wrist as he released his hold with the right.
†††"Hey, hey, boy, relax," Abel said to him. "You use too much energy this way. You're in no more danger of falling than if you were a meter off the ground." At the same time, Abel continued fencing with Mirabelle who was trying to trick him into a premature disclosure to Flora, and watched a large, striped fish swim into view. He commanded the lure to flee, and the odlero flicked her tail and turned to follow. Abel found it necessary to exert considerable control to keep all knowledge of Tamís's escapade from Mirabelle, who'd be furious if she knew he was three quarters of the way up the Tree. She cosseted the boy too much. Twelve going on thirteen, and still treated like a child. No son of his could be allowed to become a soft no-hoper!
She wore nothing but a flaring skirt that was draped over her knees, in her favorite deep blue. She was in her study, sitting cross-legged on a soft bearskin she'd tanned herself, after stalking the bear for a week and killing him with a single arrow. Her eyes were closed -- she most definitely needed to concentrate on just one thing at a time, and presently that was Flora Fielding. Poor bloody woman. Mirabelle was furious every time she thought of the job ahead of her. At least, it would be up to bloody Abel to tell her the bad news. 'I mean', she thought for the thousandth time, 'how do you tell somebody she was awakened only to have to argue for her life?' As she'd said over and over, it would have been far kinder just to turn her off and be done with it. But no! That would be murder! Instead, you awaken somebody into an utterly foreign world, so she can die slowly from some ancient disease, because you want her to speak for a hundred and twenty two strangers. Bloody Abel and his noble ideas.
†††Flora was awake now, and Mirabelle gave Abel a chance to greet her. After all, it was all his idea, wasn't it? But when he stayed all lovey and honey-voiced with not a hint of troubles to come, she had to enter the conversation. 'Just the right note of warning,' she thought as the woman took in the implications. And, as intended, she'd managed to bait Abel into climbing out from behind his all so friendly mask.
†††Artif asked for some privacy, and so Mirabelle withdrew and opened her eyes. Her house was in the brittle red light of the sun, a great rust-colored ball underneath her, as it reluctantly set at last. Way below, scattered cirrus clouds had turned a dirty red. A storm swirled far off to the south, but she was too high to be affected by any turbulence. In fact, one of the topstores was almost directly above her, looking enormous from here.
†††Mirabelle smoothly stood, uncoiling her long limbs. "A cup of chocken," she ordered without speech, through the implant, and the kitchen made a whirring sound. A globe emerged from it and floated to Mirabelle's hand. She slightly squeezed the cup and then sucked the hot, delicious fluid through the thin hollow tube that emerged in response.
†††"Tamís?" she called.
†††"Sorry, Mirabelle," Artif answered, "he's not available right now."
†††"What? But I'm his mother!"
†††"Of course. But he's with Abel at the moment, and they've asked for privacy."
†††Mirabelle made a hissing sound, blowing air out through her nostrils. She thought up an image of herself with flames shooting out of her nose, wide mouth agape with huge pointed teeth, black wings stretched to each side, and sent it to Abel.
†††Annoyingly, he laughed in response. He stood in front of her, dark and naked, then transformed his image into a hammerhead shark. "Two can play that game," he said. His mouth didn't move, he spoke in Swahil, but she heard his voice in Swedish.
†††Mirabelle dismissed the dragon image and stood in his boat, his admittedly lovely boat. "What're you doing with my son?" she demanded.
†††"Our son," he answered, scuffing his bare left foot on the bearskin in her balloon, high above the Swedish Isles. "You know, I was thinking how limiting it must be, to be like the Fielding woman, without an implant."
†††"You're trying to change the topic. Where's Tamís?"
†††"Mirabelle, Tamís is a boy on the verge of manhood. He needs to train himself in acts of daring. You cosset him too much."
†††"I thought so. You've got him in some place where he's out of his depth." She easily adjusted her image to the movement of the boat.
†††Abel laughed, admiring the swirling of the faraway storm seen through the balloon's transparent wall. "Far from it! 'Out of his depth' is the worst possible description!"
†††"I see. The Tree. I'm going down."
†††"He's all right. Mirabelle, he's all right. I'm in a one-way merge with him, every clicklet. And it's not as if you'd never done anything daring."
†††"I wasn't twelve years old, with an old fool egging me on."
†††"And you didn't have an old fool holding you back either."
†††They glared at each other. Then Mirabelle broke contact and ordered her house to descend. Oh, she loved Tamís, more than life itself, but for Tony's sake, why did she have to choose Abel as the father? Way back then, she had pushed and cajoled and argued, but somehow, now she could no longer quite fathom why.
'It's not fair, why couldn't I have been born a girl?' he thought, and not for the first time. There were blisters on both his hands now, despite the thin protective gloves, and his fingers were aching. He'd scraped skin off both knees, through the thick trousers. His underclothes were clammy with old sweat.
†††'At least, Mother is too busy to bother me,' he thought. He knew she found it hard to be in more than one place at a time, and that she was doing something with some Sleeper. Butting heads with Dad as usual.
†††He stopped a moment, studying the next few meters of ascent. He'd have to work his way over to the right, to that lateral there. He stretched, managed to grasp a handhold, swung on one hand for an instant then got the other one anchored. Leaning away from the Tree, he scrabbled with his feet against the rough bark of the trunk and then had the branch under his chest. 'Girls don't need to do stuff like this,' he again thought resentfully, then, 'Artif, don't let Dad hear!'
†††"Don't worry, Tamís, you know I always maintain privacy," she answered instantly, and the boy was soothed by her voice, much more so than by Dad's constant reassurance. That was merely annoying.
†††He squirmed onto the branch, got his knees under him and stood, one hand steadying him against the trunk. He grabbed a thin, all too flexible branch at the new chest height. Dad said, "See the fork? You can sit down and have a rest there."
†††"Good idea." For the zillionth time on this climb, Tamís flexed his knees until he was almost squatting. He sprung straight up, grabbed a branch, swung, did a desperate chin-up, then squirmed like a snake until he was secure again. The nice, flat-bedded fork was now an easy step away. Tamís told his pack to move from the back to the front, and thankfully sat. He leaned his back against the trunk and looked around.
†††Level with his eyes, a small, fluffy pink cloud was motionless, no, very slowly swirling within. It must have been well after the seventeenth period, for the summer sun was setting at last. Above, a long way above, was the shiny little ellipse of a topstore. It looked about twice the size as from the ground. The boy tried to look down without moving any more than necessary, but his view was obscured by the network of green needles on brown branches. He deliberately relaxed his body and closed his eyes.
†††"Have a drink," Dad offered.
†††Tamís opened his eyes, feasting on the early morning tropical sunshine. His body gently swayed to the movement of Dad's boat, and the salty breeze felt wonderful on his sweaty face. His climbing clothes actually started to steam a little, but Tamís welcomed the blessed heat after the cool air up the Tree. Dad's dark face was split by a white grin as he passed Tamís a cup. There was blood on his hand, and he held the gutting knife in the other. The big odlero on the board in front of him was about half gutted.
†††Tamís accepted the globe, squeezed it and sucked. It was entirely normal that, at the same time, he was aware of his body back on the Tree, drinking from an identical cup.
†††Having sucked the cup dry, he returned it, saying, "I'd rather be doing this than climbing!"
†††Abel laughed. "You've got to earn the right first."
†††"I know." 'And it's not fair. Girls don't,' he thought.
†††Something must have showed on his face. Abel said, "I was scared too, son."
†††"I can't imagine you, scared."
†††"Well, I don't have much to be scared of, nowadays? except for your mother of course." They grinned at each other. "But, when I was almost fifteen, I walked across the lava in the caldera of Mount Hokkent. And OK, you have the protective suit, but the problem is that if you rest your foot for longer than a couple of clicklets it starts sinking in. Leave it long enough, and you are anchored. Forever. And halfway across, I got a cramp in my left calf."
†††Tamís shuddered. 'I don't want to do anything like that, that's for sure!' he thought. "But what's the point?" he asked querulously. "So, you could have died, or had your feet cooked for life."
†††"Because a man needs to prove himself. Oh, there are pitiful sods who are too afraid to, but no woman will ever choose them."
†††'Yeah, that's the problem. The girls have it all their way, and it's not fair.'
†††Abel said, "Tamís, you'd better keep going or you'll get too stiff."
†††Tamís opened his eyes, way up in the Tree. He groaned as, one hand against the trunk, he stood. He casually looked up. A silver speck was rapidly growing, coming closer. At first, he thought in surprise that the topstore was coming down, then he recognized his mother's house. 'Now I'm in trouble!' he thought.
†††There was no point, climbing further. Half thankfully, half-resentfully he waited.
†††Mirabelle said, "Tamís, don't move. I can't do a job without you getting into trouble."
†††"I'm not in trouble." How dare she treat him like a child?
†††"No? You reckon you could climb another seventy meters, and then down again, in the dark? Down is actually harder than up."
†††"I've got a rope. I was planning to go down in drops."
†††"Well, Tony be thanked you have a little bit of sense. Even then."
†††The house was now level with him. It stopped its descent, hovering about fifty meters away, clear of the wide spread of the lateral branches. "Come on, son. A hot bath and a massage for you." A circular hole opened in the balloon's glistening side, and a silver bridge extended towards the boy. When it reached him, he stepped onto it, and was instantly enfolded in a translucent silver web. The bridge retracted, and he could look down the immense distance to the ground during the swift ride home. 'I climbed all that way!' he thought with pride.
†††When the door closed behind him, he looked up at his mother's furious face, and almost shouted, in the Swedish that was so expressive when used in anger, "I wish you'd just let me be like any other boy!"
†††"You're only twelve."
†††"I was all right. I was going well. Just let me be!"
†††Her eyes flashed blue lightning, and he knew when to stop. Besides, Artif was unhappy with him. He stalked off towards the waiting bathroom.