June 9 2069
Approximately 16 km above the Philippines

"Are you a robot?" A child's voice.

Adriana gave a mental sigh, keyed a bookmark into her media pad, and set the device beside her on the seat; given her size, even a shuttle seat was roomy enough. The seat beside her was empty as well, as were all the seats nearby - and not simply because the Sunday-night shuttle was only half full. She'd expected to spend the flight in accustomed solitude. Only fourteen minutes after takeoff, she thought. This could be a long flight.

She looked up and examined her inquisitor: female, eight or nine years old, and taller than Adriana. Caucasian with a hint of Pacific Rim, maybe Filipino; nothing unusual on a shuttle from Hong Kong to San Francisco. She'd heard the girl approach, of course; if her acuity hadn't been turned down to almost-bio levels, she'd have heard every heartbeat on the shuttle. But her seat was between the girl's and the bathroom, and she'd thought the approaching feet were headed there. "That's one name for us, but it's not a nice one. Most people I know call us cybers. Who do you know who calls us robots?"

She looked a little uncomfortable, both in visible light and infrared. "Mama. And some guy she watches on vid."

"I see. Not that I'm trying to hide, but a lot of people don't recognize us. How did you know?"

"Well, you look like one. And you were reading way too fast."

She felt her brows gather. "Surely some bios read this fast, else why do they make the readers run at this speed?"

"It's for scrolling down the page to the spot you want. Nobody uses it for more than a couple seconds."

"Oh. Learn something new every day. What's your name?"

"Ina. Ina Castavetes."

She gave the girl a broad smile. "What a coincidence. I have a sister named Ina." She offered her hand. "I'm Adriana."

The girl's hand moved towards hers, but she didn't clasp it. "What's your last name?"

"I don't have one. Most of us don't."

"Why not?"

"There aren't very many of us. We haven't run out of first names yet."

"But some do?"

"A few."


"When you grow up, you'll probably get married. Will you take your husband's name?"


"So do we."

A crease appeared between her eyebrows. "I thought you were all girls."

"We are. We marry men like your dad. Bios."

"Oh." She thought about it. "Do you have kids, then?"

"Only if we adopt. Cybers can't have babies. Where's your mom, Ina?" She kept her hand raised, and the girl finally reached for it.

"She's in back, sleeping." Her eyes widened. "It feels real."

"It is real," she said, still smiling. "Just not made of the same stuff. Have a seat?"

The girl glanced back towards the rear of the shuttle. "Mom wouldn't like it. She doesn't like robots. Cybers, I mean. Dad either."

"I don't want you to get in trouble."

"You seem nice. Do you really want to take over?"

Oh, Creator, I accept with both hands the burden you offer me; but it would be nice to know if I'm ever going to get to lay it down. "Take over what?"

The girl moved her arms in a vague gesture that seemed to encompass the universe. "Everything."

Adriana looked away. "People are just afraid of us, Ina. Have you ever heard of Frankenstein?"

"You don't look like that. You're pretty."

"Thank you. But I am like that story. I was made in a factory, not a womb. I can do things ordinary humans can't. And it's hard for people to believe we have any allegiance to humanity, even educated people; our early history is dark and cruel." She looked back up at the child. "But that's history, Ina. Every cyber in the world wants to be part of human society, and we want to all be happy together. Tell me something. Has your mom ever met one of us?"

"No way." She looked back down the aisle again. "If she'd been awake when you boarded, she might not have changed shuttles, cuz she's tired all the time right now and she'd hate getting up out of her seat. But if she came on board and you were already here, I think she'd switch flights."

"What about this 'guy on vid'? Have you ever seen him with a cyber?"

"No. He has guests on his show, but they're never like you. Do you really all look alike?"

"Pretty much, except for the color of our hair and eyes and skin. Everybody's got opinions, Ina. They don't have to be informed ones, not even on vid. As far as I can see, your opinion about cybers is as good as anybody's." She smiled. "And better than most, since you've actually met one." She decided on a change of subject. "What are you doing on the shuttle?"

"Mom's going to see a doctor. She's having another baby."

"Really? How many kids in your family?"

"Just one sister, fourteen. Dad's hoping for a boy."

Why not select for it, then? It's easy enough. "What about you? What do you want?"

Wistfully, she said, "A big brother would have been nice. Just a year older maybe, so I could meet all his friends. Instead, I've got a keeper. Mom makes Corinne take me with her all the time, and we both hate it. So I don't think I want a little sister." She made a face. "I've heard stories about little brothers, though. I guess I'll take what I get."

She grinned. "I have an older sister who bosses me around. She's usually right, though, so it's hard to be mad at her."

"Oh? How old is she?"

She paused, uncertain. Then a familiar voice spoke inside her head.

[She's just a child, sister. She doesn't know any better than to ask. Why not? We'll never meet.]

"Fifty-seven, next birthday."

Ina's eyes opened wide. "How old are you?"

Of course she'd ask. See it through, Adriana. "Nine." She looked at the girl solemnly. "You can't tell our ages by looking at us. Like you said, we all look alike."

The girl still looked amazed. "You're nine, and you get to ride a shuttle by yourself? Bugs." She finally sat.

Great. If nothing else, the next generation of bios is learning to cuss like us. I suppose that's progress.

Twelve minutes later, an older girl appeared at their seats, looking annoyed and a little scared; by her facial structure and apparent age, Adriana deduced this was Ina's sister. "Ina! What are you doing?" She reached for the younger girl's arm without looking at her companion.

Quickly, Adriana said, "Corinne, don't take her away on my account. I'm enjoying the company." Her use of the older girl's name startled her into making eye contact. Pressing her advantage, she said, "Your little sister's a rip. You two must have fun doing things together."

"I'll be an only child if Mom sees you together. Come on, Ina." Almost as an afterthought, the girl said, "Sorry."

Adriana turned up her hearing, tracking the girls and their conversation as they headed down the aisle. "Are you buggy? If Mom and Dad weren't snoring on each other's shoulders, we'd both be grounded for the weekend. And prob'ly have to spend it watching Graham Shane on vid. What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking, for all the talk about them, I never saw one before. And I wanted to talk to her. Guess what? She's nice."

"If she's so nice, how come nobody's sitting closer than two rows away? Leave her alone. You need to go to the bathroom, you go with me."

Adriana glanced out the window, but there was nothing to see but indigo sky and sunlit clouds far below. She returned to her book. A few minutes later, she heard a heavy tread approaching. Male, maybe one-eighty, eighty-five kilos. The father, come to threaten me for molesting his kid?

"Is this seat taken?"

His voice was deep and rich as an actor's. She looked up. He was mostly African, with traces of something else that narrowed his features somewhat. His skin was medium dark, with dark brown hair and brown eyes; rather handsome. "No." She swung up the armrest between the seats. "Neither is all of this one; I don't exactly fill a seat. Get comfortable."

"Thanks." He sat and offered a hand. "David Wells."

African-American, or Liberian, perhaps. Her hand nearly disappeared in his. "Adriana."

"You're single, then."

He knows something of us. "I am, the way you mean it." She arched an eyebrow. "Although I could have a boyfriend."

He smiled. "Do you?"

"Not presently. Are you applying for the position?"

His eyebrows rose. "That's... a very direct question."

"You got up from wherever you were sitting and picked the seat next to mine in a half full shuttle. To me, that seems very direct."

"Okay. What did you mean, 'the way I mean it?'"

"To us, a 'single' cyber is one who doesn't have any gestalt links, no cyber girlfriends she gossips with realtime. Very few of us would go single by choice. I share input with two sisters."

"Right now?"

"All the time, just about."

"Everything you see and hear?"

"And lots more, usually. But they don't have to accept everything I send; it's not like the old days. The input's filterable." She blinked, listening to the voices in her head, and smiled. "Ina thinks you're cute. Natalia's telling me you're probably some crud who's heard stories about what cybers are like in bed."

"Gad." The flush was noticeable even in bio-visible light; in infrared, it lit up the whole row.

"Well, are you?" She added very softly, "Don't lie."

He took a breath. "I've heard other stories too. I've never met one of you; I was just curious. I'm sorry." He started to slide sideways toward the aisle.

She put a hand on his arm. "Don't be. I think curiosity is a fascinating trait."

He stopped. "Oh?"

"Yes. I'm a teacher."

"Really. Kids?" He settled back into the seat, a few centimeters closer.

She nodded. "Math and physics, ages eight through ten; it's an aptitude-advancement system."

"Ever get anyone older?" He locked eyes; the question wasn't casual.

"Not in my class. Especially not boys. The school board doesn't want any trouble." She looked at the back of the seat in front of her. "Maybe in a couple years, they'll let me teach a history class, something where there can be more than one right answer to a question. But I don't suppose I'll ever teach in a classroom with pubescent boys, and I know I'll never be tapped for the Sex Ed class."

"Adriana, even if you weren't a cyber, putting you in a classroom with a bunch of teenage boys would be begging for trouble. And if half the stories going around were true…" His voice trailed off, and he flushed again, though not so hard this time.

"I can't say. I've never heard any of them." She smiled faintly. "Although I have overheard a few jokes." She smiled wider as he chuckled, the tension broken. "I'll bet everything in those stories is baseless or inferred. I doubt you've ever talked to anyone who was intimate with a cyber. There aren't that many of us, for one thing. And we don't all participate in sex, either. And those who do never date men who kiss and tell. We can spot them fifty meters away - literally."

"Really." he said again. "One of the stories I heard is that cybers can't be lied to."

"Not one you've talked to for a minute or two. Bios have more gauges and indicators than the control panel on this shuttle, I swear: voice stress patterns, pupil dilation and movement, skin changes... right now, your face is a kaleidoscope in infrared. If you've known a bio long enough, you can tell him what he's feeling when he doesn't know himself. And sometimes, I can tell if a stranger's about to lie to me before he opens his mouth." She took a bottle of water from the pocket on the seat back in front of her, uncapped it, and raised it to her lips. "That's how I know your name's not David Wells." She listened to his heart and breathing as she took a sip: surprise, no fear.

"Sorry. I suppose you're upset."

"No." She capped the bottle and stowed it. "I'd like to know your reason for doing it. If you sat down here looking for a one night stand with a cyber, I'm going to be awfully disappointed."

"No. Actually, I thought you might recognize my name, and it might… make conversation difficult."

"Only if it's Graham Shane."

He laughed. The shuttle's interior was so quiet, even in suborbital flight, that the sound carried all through the cabin. Two people in seats forward turned to look at them briefly. "Sorry. I just imagined you two sharing a row on a shuttle, and I couldn't help myself."

"You know him?"

"Slightly. A colleague, I suppose you could say." He offered her his hand again. "Start over? Jack Selig."

{Ooh. Addy, you're going to get his code, at least. Aren't you?}

(Hush. I'm thinking.) She took his hand. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Mabel."

He snorted. "I had that coming."

"How do you know it's not? I might have been having you on before."

"Your names all end in 'a'. You never heard of me." He didn't sound disappointed.

"Truth, I never heard of Graham Shane either, until thirty minutes ago. I take it he's got a problem with cybers?"

"He thinks you're abominations and the greatest threat to mankind since the Ice Age. Aside from that, you're okay."

"Ouch. I hope he hasn't got a big following."

"He has a regular viewership of about twenty million. He claims twice that many supporters, but who knows?"

She set her pad in her lap and tucked one leg under her as she turned sideways in the seat to face him. His glance downward was quick, but of course she caught it.

[What did I tell you? Why are you encouraging him like that?] Natalia was walking on the surface of the Moon, inspecting a mass driver preparing to fling house-sized loads of Lunar soil towards orbital rendezvous with Endeavour, the next Portal ship under construction. [He already admitted he's there to satisfy his curiosity. You're not thinking about it, are you?]

(I hardly know him. But he hasn't disqualified himself yet.)

{Sister, you know if it was you sitting next to a hunk like that, you'd have his code already.} Ina was chopping vegetables in the open air, a pot of water heating on the camping stove beside her.

(Your turn to cook?)

{No, but Brad's late back from the site. He'll be too tired to eat if I don't push him.}

(Building up his strength for later?)

{You know we aren't doing that, at least not yet. I haven't even been inside his tent. I'm just indulging my nurturing subroutines.}

[Best keep your attention on the wolf at your side, Adriana. Find out what else he wants.]

"What are you watching?" His eyes dropped again, to the pad in her lap.

"It's a book, actually. New World Order."

"Good God. The one by Schurseld?"

"Yes. You've read it?"

"No. I've heard about it. He rants about the world becoming a meritocracy, with the Gens and cybers at the apex. A caste society. Surely you don't like his stuff."

"Perhaps you should read it. It's quite interesting. My impression is that he's a very thoughtful man with genuine concerns, not a demagogue. He makes some good points, and he's got me thinking. To me, his words seem more… cautionary than condemnatory. Gens do have a disproportionate presence in art and science and public affairs. So do cybers, though not in the same roles. Especially not in politics; we never take government positions. Naturally, each group excels in their chosen fields. And the friendship between Gens and cybers is still strong. I think there's a real danger that we will end up making all the decisions, without meaning to."

He smiled. "Well, what would you do about it?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe Professor Schurseld has an answer in the next chapter." She locked eyes with him. "So… do you have twenty million viewers?"

He smiled. "About a million for my own show, is all; it's still pretty new. But I'm also the head writer for The Defenders." He studied her face. "You've never heard of it. What do you do for entertainment?"

"Visit friends and relatives, mostly. The Defenders is a vid show, I take it?"

He nodded. "A big one. Six hundred million viewers a week, on average. Action adventure."

"Is that why you didn't want to give me your real name? Because you're famous?" She arched an eyebrow. "I promise I won't ask for your autograph."

He huffed. "I thought you might want one signed in blood. We've caught some heat for our portrayal of cybers in the past. Truth is, none of the writers has ever met one; the cybers on the show are kind of… formulaic."

"Stereotypes, you mean?" She leaned forward. "So, tell me: on vid, what's a stereotypical cyber like?"

"Well… there are different types. Most of them are… stiff, mechanical. They talk a lot about programs and circuits. 'My sensors detect this and that.'"

"Robots." She gave the word all the emphasis it deserved. "And the others?"

"The villains all look down on humanity, and they want to replace human society with one of their own by enslaving or exterminating the flesh-and-bloods. They're renegades to cyber society," he added, "but in the vid universe, cyber society has a lot of renegades."

"Uh huh." She leaned back until her shoulders touched the wall, and folded her arms. "Why do I get the feeling you've saved the best for last?"

He flushed. "Ah, the… there are the ones who've developed an appetite for sex."

She snorted and covered her mouth. "Oh, I knew this would be good. Do these nympho-droids talk about programs and circuits?"

"Ah, no. They're quite seductive and… predatory. Only the manliest of men can resist them." Seeing her good humor, he smiled.

She gestured at herself: one-fifty-five and forty-five, her figure hardly more full than that of the nine-year-old Ina. "Oh, men just take one look at me and fall at my feet."

He gave her a look that might have made her blush if she'd been capable of it. "I can imagine a man doing that. If you wanted him to."

"It's the hair." Suddenly nervous, she reached behind her neck and threw a good portion of it over her shoulder, covering one side of her body to the waist in wavy gold tresses. "Guys love chicks with long hair."

"Is that why most of you wear it five times longer than the average girl would bother with?"

"Uh, no. Our hair doesn't grow; what we start out with is all we have, unless we replace it. Any change in hairstyle is shorter than the one before. So we start long, and work our way up."

"So a cyber with short hair is usually a senior one."

Sidestep. "Unless she decides early that she likes it short. Or else she's been gifted."


She combed her fingers through the thick mop. "This is artificial. The first few cybers had transplanted human hair. These days, human hair is a sort of status symbol among us. But we'll only wear it if it's offered as a gift, from the hands of the woman who grew it. A token of affection from a bio female's own body, the longer the better. You see?"


She met his eyes. "Bet that'd be hard to work into a script."

He looked down. "I'd like to say it's because of censorship, but it's not, really. It's ratings. People are fascinated by cybers, but they like them predictable."

"What's all the interest, I'd like to know." A low conversation between two twenty-something girls four rows back, just loud enough to trip her attention. "They're all built like boys."

"The interest is in what's below the waist, or hadn't you heard?"

"You hear plenty. So they really are sluts?"

"Every one of them. They're programmed for it. They're built for it." The girl said, lowering her voice further, "They vibrate."

A moment of shocked silence, then: "Do you think they hum? Overheat?" Chuckles. "Or maybe short out?"

"As far as I'm concerned, any guy who'd touch one deserves to get it burned off."

"Adriana?" She realized her attention towards Jack had lapsed. "Are you all right?"

"Yes. It's just that sometimes, when I'm right in the middle of congratulating myself on how far we've come, I get my nose rubbed in how far we still have to go." On impulse, she rose on one knee in the seat and leaned towards him. His eyes widened as she placed an arm on his seat back, grasped his chin gently with the other hand, and turned his head away until his ear faced her lips. She heard a sharp intake of breath from the audience behind them. "Let me tell you a little secret about cybers and men. Just a little one. Can you keep it to yourself?"

He nodded, a little jerkily. She could hear his heart and respiration speed up slightly.

She leaned closer, and her hair fell across his shoulder. Her voice was almost a whisper, "It's your name. Any cyber you'll ever meet thinks that 'Jack' is a perfect name for a boyfriend or a husband." She let go of his chin and leaned back, smiling. "From the moment you introduce yourself to one of us, she'll be speculating."

"If that becomes public knowledge," he said slowly, "a million men will change their names the next day. Do you include yourself in that analysis?"

"We're still being direct, I see."

"Ladies and gentlemen," the public-address system broke in. "We're about to begin our descent to Frisco Terminal. Please fasten your seat belts until the vehicle has landed."

"Why do they do that?" Jack reached for his belt as she faced forward to buckle in. "You wouldn't know you'd landed unless someone told you or you looked out the window. And if we have a drive failure, a seat belt's not going to save anyone. These things don't even have wings."

"Keeps you in your seat and out of the way of the crew while they're busy."

"Ah." He looked at her. "I'd like to talk with you some more."

She raised an eyebrow. "An interview for your show?"

"For a start." He produced a small rectangle of plastic and offered it to her.

"A business card? How quaint." A hologram was imprinted on the front as a background for the text: busts of a man and a short woman dressed in charcoal-gray outfits that covered them to the chin and fit like gloves. The woman's resemblance to a cyber was unmistakable. The Defenders, it read, with a directory of the show's staff underneath. Four names down, she read Head Writer…Jack Selig, followed by a web address. On the plain white back was written a com code. "Yours?"

He smiled. "Your choice. If you're uncomfortable calling me, you can come to the studio for a tour. That card's your pass inside. Just tell them you're looking for me."

"Or perhaps we'll meet on the shuttle," she said offhandedly. "I take the one from Frisco to Hong Kong the first Friday of every month, and this one the Sunday after. If you want to talk."

"Adriana, you're being less than truthful with me."


"You said your people stay out of politics. You're talking like a politician right now."

She smiled. "I suppose. In that sense, every cyber's a politician."