Bell City Tales Story 1

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Part 1

Meet Albert Hastings.

War veteran, retired policeman sergeant. Inhabitant of a small studio apartment block in a cushier part of Bell City.

It is Saturday, January 15, 30 AC, 5.53am. As most Sundays go, this is more special than most for everyone.

Especially for Albert. You see, he dies by dinnertime today.

The first thing to wake up in the house, as always, is the house entertainment system. Albert has the entire box set of a Pre-Cataclysm all-girl band named Cafe Del Apolco. Legit, managed with Digital Copyright Management so that he only has another copy in backup and one on his personal musicbox. Despite the ominous tones of the name, they specialised in quiet tunes: Vivaldi mixed with synths, mbiras mixed with Beethoven. No words - Albert has always believed that words are for communicating, and a waking man does not really enjoy being woken up with words...

No, not really. There was a time ages ago where he was perfectly content to suffer that sort of indignity.

The faint hum of gravitronics starts up somewhere.

Everything in place? Check. Nothing faded out in the middle of sleep mode? Ch... oh wait.

Grab a fresh copy of Albert's schedule. Roll a pseudo-random number. 454321

That number corresponds to the recipe for Pepper Steak & Mushroom Stew. Check the larder and collect the ingredients needed.

... Oh, almost forgot.


Albert looked at himself in the mirror. Being 53 might afford a man some room to go to seed, but when the average person alive today can live at least a century with the right rejuvenating alchemies, it becomes a lame excuse.

He brushes. He shaves. He thinks about the schedule for the morning. He could easily rely totally on the house's systems to do it for him - find clashes, matters that simply demand resolution.

But he hates the idea of centralising anything. His life is spread between a 4 Gigawave quantum server in the house, a Domino 300 Megawave portable that works very well for viewing anything on the go (short of fully immersive VR), and a dozen other peering servers on the EtherNets...

He winces. The prosthetic that acts as his brain-to-Ether connection has a nasty little message. Apparently, someone has invaded his guild's domain in Esthreus over the quiet night while he lay asleep. Esthreus does not really exist physically, but as a small bundle of bytes on a server in a small network of game servers somewhere in Newer Orleans.

He thinks about it. Normally, he would spend an hour logging in and planning a nice reply consisting of asymmetrical attacks and sieging, but not today.

Today is different. He won't have the time. He spends a few minutes logging into a low-band site for the game and fires off a letter delegating the actions of the day to his second-in-command 'Onverous', in real life a vatling named Bryce C03. He's only met the boy in person once or twice, but he's beginning to warm to the idea of sponsoring such an intelligent kid to adulthood and leaving his family name behind to him when he finally dies.

Then he starts on getting his old army formal dress on as he always does this particular day every year.

Almarie opens her eyes and sits up in bed. Then pauses, like a living statue of a nubile young woman, a blue-haired ingenue in off-white cotton and lace.

She does not really need to, of course. For a Marionette built in the earliest days of the craft, she has an awful ton of brute intellect. It is a little fluke her assigned technician has always insisted on, claiming "that's what girls were like on that alternate world". He says it makes her look more realistic to sit around doing nothing for a moment as if collecting thoughts.

She wouldn't know, really. What she DOES know is that Pepper Steak and Mushroom Stew is on for breakfast, and that Albert needs to be out by 8.17am to catch the tram and shuttles to the Dawn Service.

The pause does not last too long. She grabs her usual dress out of her personal wardrobe: a pale blue number tailored for modesty, stockings that go from toe to regions not usually discussed in public.

She pauses again, and looks at the rest of the wardrobe again. There is not much imagination in it: 3 or 4 of everything. One kind for formal events, one for entertaining guests, one for sleeping in, one for the beach, unmentionables, and stuff for quietly lazing in.

Not that she usually lazes. Not that she has an imagination... supposedly.

There is one thing that Albert always does before he does anything else for the day. It is kind of like a prayer to a goddess, and in a sense it probably is. The day being what it is makes it particularly harder for him.

He sneaks a thick red book of sorts out of his cupboard. It is old, but remarkably well-preserved. He opens it.

It is a collection of pictures, an album, of various photographic shots made on ancient and obsolete photographic paper rather than the newfangled digipics made of only bits and bytes. The one thing common to all is of a young woman, blue-haired. Not the most attractive of women either, but women in this part of Ausland were always the fairest of maidens even in the worst cases.

He thinks of one simple word. Helena... He hugs the album to himself. He misses her; it was an awfully short time they were wedded, and the circumstances that caused it to end...

He stifles a shudder. He wouldn't have wished it on his worst enemy, he thinks, as he puts it away in its usual spot.

Pepper? Check.
Button Mushrooms? Not really, but there's shittake mushrooms..
Cream? Check.
Croutons? Not really, but I think I can reduce that last slice of slightly stale bread for plain croutons.

Almarie pauses in mid-stir. A idiom flits by, probably a non-sequitur from her Somewhat-Concise Harvard Cultural Reference.

Houston, we have a problem. -brief pause- This is an expression used to denote that something has gone awry during a process or event that may jeopardise...

Almarie cuts the reference off. Maybe it's the age of her hardware, but she's started thinking oddly of late. Wierd things. Bradden needs to know.

But right now, there's a bigger crisis. She starts rummaging in the larder for alternatives, fully aware that Albert does not like people tampering with the recipe for his favorite dish.

Albert stares at the soup bowl. The contents are a lively brown, it tastes slightly pepperish and creamy. There are sliced shittake mushrooms in it. Tofu is floating in the mix.

Albert groans in an odd mix of anger and resignation. "Almarie... you tried to make pepper steak and mushroom stew without the steak. Again."

Almarie nods quickly,

"With tofu."


It happens once too often in the flat, but what happens is this: Albert throws the bowl of soup straight at Almarie's face.

Almarie closes her eyes barely moments before it hits her. Soup on optics is never a good combination

The Fairtrade Wood bowl clatters to the floor, leaving its contents on Almarie's face. "I'm sorry, Mr. Hastings." an apologetic-sounding voice comes out.

"Well, couldn't you have cooked something else?! Pepper steak isn't the only breakfast dish in the world, you know? Stupid! Stupid!"


Albert turns away and sighs resignedly. "Why am I so angry? You're just a stupid, stupid appliance. I'll just grab a snack on the way over to the service... stupid =mutter= =mutter="

Pause. Almarie wipes the soup from her face as best as she can with her tea towel.

A faint flicker of something within Almarie's mind. What just happened doesn't... feel... good.


Odd. That's a new concept.

She tries to calculate a way of dealing with the problem, then quickly settles on denial while Albert tells her how to fix the problem of a lack of proper ingredients in the larder.

To Be Continued...

The dream happens the way it normally does.

Albert looks around and recognizes the sunflower fields of Miran village. He looks around again.

He recognizes a figure in a modest blue dress and a straw hat.


He rushes on over, noticing as he goes along that he is young again. Young and clothed in the simple formal uniform of a mere private. She notices him running over and smiles faintly.


The figure suddenly takes on a ruddy complexion and swells up grotesquely, a faint tinge of shock and fear spreading into her face. "Albb...bert... H...Hel...."


A guro artist's dream. A widower's nightmare. Anyway you look at it, a young woman exploding in a shower of blood and guts is still not something to behold.


Albert Hastings opens his eyes. Several pairs are looking back at him, all belonging to what's left of his platoon after three decades.

The voice that woke him up belongs to a Corporal MacDougal. Albert does not like being woken up with words, but this is a pretty good time to make an exception. "Sir? You were shouting some girl's name after you fell asleep."

Albert sighed, and looked around. Everyone else had basically not paid too much attention to his transgression. Men crying out the names of their wives, daughters and mothers were perfectly par for the course at the service, and it was to be expected. Wasn't what the service had been all about partly?

The service had been long completed, of course. With the number of people coming through Jhural's Grave, some people had said that even a week of services with 12 services a day all through the day was never going to be enough.

"I... I'm sorry. I fell asleep and started..."

"Dreaming?" MacDougal sighed wistfully. "I figured as much. How important was she?"

MacDougal sat down next to Albert and looked at him with an air of concern.

"She was my wife, Doug."


There was a pregnant pause, the sort that comes from two people stumbling over each other on an awkward matter. The rest of the platoon dispersed to drown their sorrows in contemplation or, failing that, at the nearest tent in their allowed ration of alcohol.

Finally, MacDougal spoke again. "I lost my wife and twin daughters too."

"We all lost something when it happened. I hadn't realized those wretched Jhural aliens were such sore losers."

MacDougal nodded. "Maybe we should make room for the people coming in for the next service... C'mon, I'll buy you a drink."

Primer #1: The Cataclysm

History usually reserves judgement on events till long after they have passed, but the arrival of the Jhural in 10 PC is already widely agreed to be the worst disaster to befall mankind since the bubonic plague. Or the avian flu Type C crisis. Or generally anything that happened before they arrived. There's a reason why everyone agreed to rearrange their calendars around the occurence of the Cataclysm rather than, say, the birth of Jesus Christ. Or the lives of Ameratsu's emperor descendants. Or the annually-occuring lemming run off Sibvursky, Alaska.

They came in under false pretences. "We come in peace". In hindsight, that was a bloody big fib.

The first thing they did was compact the representatives of the nations at a banquet held in New York to welcome them into a package the size of a pea and the weight of a pea warehouse. Obviously nobody was happy and everybody that got into the pea was dead, but they had the superior technology. Gravitronics (the science of harnessing gravity in a manner far removed from simple applications like 'throw it up, watch it come down) provided weapons of war that far exceeded what the human mind could think up.

What the human mind lacks, the human spirit overcompensates for. The Jhurals had neglected to bring enough man (alien?) power for the invasion, and the combined weight of human ingenuity and courage and numbers eventually overwhelmed the invasion after a few years of one-sided defeats on both sides.

As part of a last ditch effort to leave a mark while going down, the Jhurals attempted to use a bioweapon designed to wipe the human race from the face of the earth. They partly failed.

They could have succeeded and it would have been less harrowing. What happened next was this:

The women exploded. As in "people with double X chromosomes". All over the world, reports came in of females blowing up for no apparent reason.

By the time we realized it was not a silly post-victory joke, it was too late. The Cataclysm had occurred, and the female half of the human race was dead...

Albert looked up. "Captain Jennings, dead?"

MacDougal sighed and nodded. "Died of Trope abuse."

Albert looked back down at the amber fluid in his mug. Sitting in stifling 33-degree heat was always a cause for thirst, and the beer, while slightly lukewarm, still tasted good. And it was free too.

It still didn't stop him from thinking about a million things though. Maybe another drink would fix that.

Primer #2: Trope Men hadn't taken the elimination of the fairer sex too well. Governments around the world had convened urgently to decide how to handle it. Shocking things happened at these meetings that would not have flown with conservatives in normal circumstances back home.

One of the first radical ideas had been the legalisation and widespread provision of psychotropic drugs such as Dream, Trope and Blupill. The thinking went that if people got high on opiates, they would forget the problem momentarily, buying the world more time to figure out a solution to the problem of reproduction and the absence of females to temper the rougher edges of the human race.

Of course, theory and practice doesn't necessarily meet nicely. Lieutenant(Retired) Hastings' commanding officer, Captain Jennings, was found keeled over in his study bedroom by his personal Marionette. Analysis of his stomach and throat revealed an overdose of over four times the maximum recommended weekly dosage of pills.

This doesn't sound like much until you know the maximum recommended weekly dosage for standard Trope is about half a kilogram of pills, something not even a properly prescibed heavy course of Trope should have half of.

It's one thing to engineer a wide safety margin in a drug, and another to exceed it with a vengeance.

MacDougal, Albert remembered, was a member of the Coaltion Against Trope Abuse. Albert used to think they were loonies, phampletting the pharmacies and seats of government. In some more repressive countries like Chinoi this had been responded to in ways that were both unpleasant and extreme. Back here amongst the floating cities of the Ausland, the ways had been merely unpleasant, excepting the occasional character assassination.

Albert's views had been changed slightly by MacDougal - he now believed in certain aspects of the CATA creed. 'drugs is for people who can't face reality', for example. A lot of it still grated on his ears.

Albert deadpanned. "I swear, MacDougal, if this is an attempt to launch into a tirade about how Trope should be banned..."

MacDougal whistled. "Whoa. I'm more liberal about the issue than many of my colleagues in CATA. I realize that it's a necessary evil. Some people still can't handle having no more women in their lives."

MacDougal downed his beer."In that sense, I suppose the Marionette babes were a blessing. How's Mrs. Hastings doin', anyways?"

Albert gaped for a moment... then looked away. "I don't want to discuss that issue... Corporal."

MacDougal paled. Albert rarely pulled rank even in the days where the epaulettes he had come with a real rank... unless it was necessary to accomplish something he considered very important.

"Oh... kaaay..."

They went back to drinking in the confines of the tent. Eventually, they would reach their limit of three drinks a person and be ushered back to the shuttle point for the flight back to Bell City, but it wouldn't happen until an hour or two later than planned... which was a good thing.

History Primer #3: Rise of The Marionettes

The Marionette is essentially a logical progression of the school of thought that 'if man can't have women, he'll settle for a lower-quality copy'. Not very logical, but there it goes.

To be more precise, the idea came from crash sociological studies into the crisis following the demise of women. The general conclusion was that man had certain needs that could only be fulfilled by the presence of women.

For example, companionship. Physical contact, someone to talk with. Someone to fark over on a cold and quiet night, gently or otherwise.

(There, are the lot of you gutter minds happy now? - Narrator)

Marionettes are also (off most public records) one of the earliest instances of beating Jhural swords into human ploughshares.

The idea in general is to mesh synthetic muscle with light but relatively strong alloy understructures and put it under the control of a portable gravitronic computer similar to those found on board Jhural hunter-killer drones.

Program an AI that kills people with sweetness and gentleness rather than, say, monofilament blade swipes and shootings.

Slap on power supplies and a covering made to order that makes the resulting package resemble a woman in many aspects.

In theory, it seems a perfectly doable and excellent idea.

Just a couple of problems though: you can't program feminine intuition or the feminine touch out of a textbook, and engineering that complicated is expensive and time-consuming. Nothing the mandates and subsidies provided by a coalition of the world can't fix though. The engineering problem, I mean. Not lack of the feminine touch.

To Be Continued...

"He was very unhappy this morning..." Almarie thought.

It was almost like the time a long time ago when she'd intruded on one of Mr. Hastings' moments of oddity.

She'd been fresh off the line for only a week, but already even a Marionette with the slightest of emotional handling could tell that Mr. Hastings was, on the whole, still not happy for some reason.

He'd curtly informed Almarie that she could stick to the formal names. "No 'Albie', no 'Albert', no 'Al'. Understand?"

It had been done in a manner which suggested that Mr. Hastings was tolerating her presence only because his free WarVet Insurance specifically required someone else to be around to look out for him after his little debacle in the floating cities of the Asian region.

It was dinner time. Mr. Hastings had asked for his favorite food, pepper steak and mushrooms. It wasn't a stew - he still liked biting into the stuff and shredding it with fork and knife.

What had come off the stove hadn't exactly been pepper steak and mushrooms. Pepper lamb and carrots, actually.

Albert hated carrots. Apologies would be in order.

She walked quietly to the door of the study bedroom and popped it open. Mr. Hastings was staring intently at a sort of book with thick plastic pages bound in something dull and reddish. He hadn't noticed her coming in.

She piped up. "Mr. Hastings?" Mr. Hastings remained staring intently at whatever he was doing. "Mr Hastings, dinner is ready."

He looked up. "Almarie... in future..."

She smiled palely. "Yes, Mr. Hastings?"

Mr. Hastings looked up. He didn't look happy. "You will not interrupt me while I am thinking. Not without knocking first."

Almarie's smile faded slightly. "Yes, Mr. Hastings... What are you doing at the moment just out of curiosity?"

Mr. Hastings gurgled a little as he thought about it. "Memories. Long lost... memories. Just thinking about things gone by... someone I miss really, really badly..."

Was that a tear?

"but really, why bother asking? a silly machine like you wouldn't understand the answer."

A musical voice chimed in. "Mrs. Hastings?"

The real world floods abruptly back into her mind. The voice belongs to a Marionette dressed in the blue and red colors of the local SavingsShop supermarket. "Your purchase comes to 3,175 credits and will be settled in full by WarVet Pensioners for... Mr. Albert Hastings. Thank you for shopping with SavingsShop, your local holdout against the forces of rampant globalisation."

The receipt back has the usual advertisements so beloved of cash registers in many shops. It was remarkably amazing what you could print in a few inches of space even without resorting to stuff that only a machine could read. The latest movie, for instance. A good place to eat toasted sandwiches, complete with introductory offer. And of course...

Almarie paused. Bradden had placed the same advertisement that he'd always put up for the past few years since he'd abruptly returned from parts unknown ('Earth', as he'd often called it.) and taken over the local Marionette shoppe. 'Free checkups, parts and repairs extra, billable to WarVets (Officer Ranks) Scheme'

The first thing he did as owner was jettison his hold on some deals as exclusive dealer for some companies like Asian SurRobotics (Internatinal Stock Exchange code: ASR), German GravModal (GGM) and Marley Davidson (MDsn) into a separate boutique just next door and taken only a majority stake and a hands-off approach to managing the new entity. The manager had been very delighted; the local equivalent would have been gaining exclusive rights within a state to sell Bentley, Porsche and Lamborghini under the same roof.

He'd claimed he'd wanted to pay better attention to the Marionettes who came in for repairs and maintenance, keep them ticking till the crack of doom, and selling new models in the same shoppe had been 'a conflict of interest'.

She looks up as she stops in front of the shop.

Another thing that had happened on Bradden's watch was an extensive renovation - the old shop had looked more like a cross between a new hovercar showroom and a workshop. One watched one's step while walking around in case they trod on something that shouldn't have been there, like Teflon-inflused coolant. Or spare bits of gravium. Or a disembodied body part. Casualties rarely happened, nobody ever died, but accidents were common - like slipping on coolant-covered flooring.

The new look was probably an improvement. It looked like a clinic for normal flesh-and-blood human beings with a pinch of humanity thrown in. Piped music had been introduced, along with a shelful of catalogues (There's a difference between not selling something and not letting people stay aware of what's new).

Plants too, though these were mainly plastic - real plants cost too much for anyone sane or less than insanely rich to afford more than a small potted geranium or rose these days.

Bradden speaks up as he pried Almarie's wig off her head and rested it onto a nearby holder. "And how are we this wonderful afternoon?"

It would be unfair to claim that the medical profession would kill to have a practitioner of the art with the same sort of bedside manner that the Scottish lad had. They would more likely have held the world to ransom and demanded his handover instead.

That was another difference in Bradden's 12-Hour Marionette Shoppe. Where most technicians would rather reach for the 'suspend' button and work in silence as much as possible, Bradden preferred to keep his 'patients' (that was actually the word he used) up as much as possible while he worked. He would also often allow his customers to sit in as the work was being done, whereas the others threw up a wall of secrecy almost Mason-like in nature over a secret that had long been anything but.

It sounds schmaltzy and yet, it seemed to work. There was a remarkable tendency for people to switch over once they'd had a first visit. Once a customer had tried Bradden's outfit, he was practically wedded to it, switching reluctantly only because it didn't make economic sense to ship a Marionette across borders for simple repairs and maintenance.

Not that some people didn't try, of course. Some of his custom actually did so, in insured overnighter boxes, complete with return postage. There was even one or two of them now in a corner, ready to be shipped home to exotic places in the Asian cities.

Almarie smiled a little. She was in good hands. "I think it's more of a software bug, you see..."

Primer #4: The Corinth

The thing about outbreaks of potentially fatal and infectious diseases is that more often than not the victims are not necessarily guaranteed a good and proper burial in a "one grave, one priest per dead person" sort of way. Most people who died of the Black Death were burned en masse or burried in mass graves in a hurry. Many governments dictated during the first outbreak of Type C Avian Flu that victims had to be specially interred as fast and hygenically as possible. This often meant burning hundreds of bodies together for expediency.

The victims of the Cataclysm had to be scraped off the floors and walls, and there was a lot more dying and a lot less land than anyone could handle. Also, fears of infection from the remains (now disproved) were rampant. So they opted for mass cremations.

The problem with this sort of thing is that it gets much much harder to mourn the passing of loved ones. Hence The Corinth.

The Corinth is a memorial of sorts built on the cliff of Jhural's Grave. It is a small white pyramid the size of a small house, planned to be neutral to all world religions (unless you're a member of the Cult of Pythagoras and venerate pyramids, but who really thinks about the small cults anyway?). Inside is a small urn of ashes belonging to a symbolic fraction of the women of the world as they used to exist.

The Corinth is also a worldwide network of VR servers maintained by all the governments of the world to hold an innumerable number of virtual headstones and a search facility. Visitation hours are 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with only a day off every month for maintenance.

It can normally handle the amount of visitors it gets on most days. This has been estimated at about 250 people worldwide per hour on average.

January 15 is the first day of Victory Week. The numbers spike this week every year since it was first established in 2 AC.

Actually, a piece of Ancient l33t describes this better:

'omgwtf exazergrush no bloody fricking wai'.

Five minutes. He won the lottery for Victory Week Corinth visitation slots last week, but they would only give him 5 minutes to mourn.

Too many mourners this week. The system needs to ration processing time more tightly, the server MOTD had apologetically announced.

To be fair though, the servers could have spared him an eternity to mourn, and it probably wouldn't have been enough.

He pauses, standing there alone in the rain amongst the floating gravestones. He fingered the virtual granite, felt it rasping against his finger tips.


He'd had so many plans. After the war they'd settle down in a quiet hut in Miran Village and live on a mix of a confortable WarVets pension and tilling the land. They'd have kids, he'd raise them with her help, weather the pains of growing old and share in being happy together, pass away eventually after a lifetime of happiness with nary a moment spent alone.

And the Cataclysm had gone and upset the plan. It trimmed away almost all of the words. All he had left was 'After the war, he'd live alone on a comfortable WarVets pension and pass away after a lifetime of pain'.

'Miran village', 'have kids', 'together' and 'happiness' hadn't survived the ruthless editing. Leaving in 'pain', 'alone' and shuffling them into uncomfortable new positions was merely the twist of the knife already buried deeply in his heart.

A faint flash near the edges of his view. MacDougal strolled over and watched as Albert deposited a small bundle of white virtual flowers in the air in front of Helena's gravestone.

"You're done mourning on your side already?" Albert looks over.

MacDougal nodded. "I've done it for thirty years and it doesn't get any easier."

Albert sighs in a lamenting sort of way. "Not really." An awkward pause came on...

The clock ticks away audibly . MacDougal has headed off from the service to catch a flight home to Newer Norcia and was docked in from a cafe in the port. Once the connection breaks off, MacDougal will board a hoverboat and return back to where he lives, where he tends to indulge in virtual communication only when it furthers his work. They live in different worlds now, there is no denying it.

MacDougal had come off well, using his WarVets benefits to learn things in the colleges he could never have afforded to learn about before the war broke out. He could take a seemingly unrelated morass of data and somehow... squeeze information out of it. It paid well in his line of work.

Albert sighed. Well, he'd truly stuffed it up in comparison. Five years of roaming around the floating cities of Ausland and Asia doing nothing significant but thinking. WarVets had paid for the tickets and medical care, but he did a lot of casual work everywhere. Wee-hours security. Coffee harvesting. Teaching of English as a Foreign Language.

He'd earned small checks, and often, half of it would be drunk off on the weekend. His sense of responsibility refused to let go of the idea of saving up for the future even at his most drunk of times. But really, once you thought of it, was there really a future to save for? Helena was dead... If WarVets hadn't sent the investigator to counsel and gently steer him home, he'd probably have arrived home only in a body bag eventually.

MacDougal spoke. "I suppose the only thing I can do is try to be happy for Marlyn."

Albert raised an eyebrow. "But isn't she just a Marionette?"

Albert had met Marlyn once, at a WarVets sponsored overnight cruise. Slightly ditzy in the same way as Almarie. MacDougal and Marlyn had burned up the dance floor all night with only a few minutes' break between dance songs to eat and chat idly. They might have danced all night, but apparently security on the cruise ship decided enough was enough around 4 the next morning and threw them out of the ballroom.

Albert had been booked into a Second-Class Room, next to MacDougal's suite.

He'd boarded the ship alone, looking forward to spending his time in the company of his old platoonmates.

Almarie had been shut down and left to flop on her bed back on ter'an firma, despite WarVets' offer to get him a bigger room and a free makeover and unlimited refuels for Almarie on board the ship. All for only a heavily subsidised extra of a hundred credits. He wasn't comfy of the idea of sharing the room with an appliance.

He had been planning to wake up late for a late breakfast. The separating wall between his room and theirs was thin enough that at 5.35am, he was woken up by the sounds of a couple indulging in physical intimacy, with all the stops taken out. The MacDougals seemed very happy, despite that hamfisted attempt to get them to bed.

They showed up at the buffet table at 9 that morning. Marlyn had looked all prim and proper like a carefully touched-up doll as always, but MacDougal had been unusually red in the face, and not from anger either. They were particulary hungry as well.

Apparently, the thing with adults is that just because you tell them to go to bed, it doesn't immediately follow that they'll sleep in it, Another thing is: when certain things happen, it is not polite to discuss them in polite company. Things like being woken up prematurely by people rumbling around in the room next to yours.

Albert blinked as he thought about it. Happy? Sure MacDougal could find happiness in a million tiny things. He was the fool who could hum a quiet tune in a guard post all night and still call it something to be happy about. He'd been the guard officer in charge on a few of those occasions and it was oddly uplifting in the same way that someone accidentally burning your favorite dish while trying to cook it specially for you can be. He was the platoon idiot, the man who could find something to be happy for even in a hellish swamp, like a beautiful flower that might go well with his wife's favorite pink dress.

But Marlyn? Marlyn was a Marionette, like all the other women walking around in the world now. No matter how realistically they moved, breathed and talked, they were just machines, right? You didn't consider how unhappy a obsolete entertainment server is when it gets thrown out. Why would you consider the happiness of a Marionette to be something to aim for?

MacDougal grins sheepishly. "It sounds stupid doesn't it, mate?"

Albert closes his eyes and sighs. "Dude, she's a Marionette. Is it even possible to make a Marionette happy?"

MacDougal nods. "I should certainly think so. I've seen Marlyn smile for me before."

Albert sputters. "But... but it's a machine. It's been programmed to."

MacDougal looks up. "Is that how you think of Almarie as well?"

"YES! It's stupid to ascribe feelings to a... a... thing!"

"Sucks to be you, sir."

Albert stares. MacDougal just sounded very earnest about what he's just said. He's not kidding.

MacDougal frowns. "Still can't let go of the past, eh? Faithfulness is a virtue, but too much of a virtue can be a sort of vice as well."

MacDougal looks up at the perfectly crafted sky. "We loved our daughters, our mothers, our wives, our sisters in a million different ways when they were around. We mourn for them in just as many ways now that they're gone..."

MacDougal pauses, then looks back down at Albert with a severe sort of look on his face. "But the thing is... Can you really afford to go through life with a permanently broken heart without trying to find someone else who also needs to be loved?"

Albert falters slightly. "But it's just an appliance..."

MacDougal looks at his watch. "How sure of that are you?"

There is an awkward silence, the kind that comes when one side of a conversation asks a question that can't be answered without a lot of thinking.

"I gotta go. My five minutes are-"


Albert is thinking. Albert is alone.


Albert is forcibly ejected to make more room for the next group of visitors to the Corinth.


And another group of visitations starts. As usual for the day: 5 minutes to mourn. No more.

But even eternity wouldn't have been enough.

To be continued...

Almarie is sitting up the table. What started out as a free hardware and software checkup has turned into something different.

Bradden has found her internal ethermodem card fried beyond repair from prolonged use.

A replacement card would take a week to fabricate, and Bradden doesn't have spares. This is not a good thing.

The extra rigamole has also delayed her schedule by an hour. This is a good thing.

"How long have the two of you known each other, Almarie?"

Bradden is sitting at his workstation, writing on some recycled paper.

Almarie thinks about the question, a brief moment of little flashes of light pouring out of her exposed brain as she thinks. "Well... 25 years."

"And during this time, you've only engaged in... erm... physical intimacy once with him?"

"Yes. He claimed it was a problem with him, not me. "

Almarie breathed in deeply, as if she really needed to.

"To be honest, Bradden, I don't see what questions like these have to do with my problems."

Bradden stops in mid-word. Looks back. "Actually... It may have everything to do with your problem. If it is indeed a problem."

Every Marionette has a catchphrase they're programmed to utter when something doesn't make sense to them and needs explaination. Finding one that sounds catchy and human in five seconds or less is an often neglected task, with the common result being that the default cry of "I don't understand, please explain" gets used too often.

Almarie has a much simpler way of saying the same thing. "Anou?"

Bradden sighs. "I'll explain it when I find it. In any case, what do you think of the color blue? Just say whatever comes to mind..."

Almarie thinks for a while. "It kind of reminds me of the sky as it used to be. It's kind of sad how it's turned slightly greenish, like a haze that the world can't shake off. I suppose it's the leftovers of the Cataclysm and all, but I really do wish it would just go away."

The random flashing is extremely more insistent this time around. Like a flock of paparazzis pouncing on the biggest news story in their lives, all nestled in a little nook the size of a human braincase.

Bradden is looking. Looking too hard. His pen has left his left hand and is rolling around uselessly on the table. A million thoughts flitting through his mind have abruptly flown apart, like a school of tuna in the face of a hungry shark.

The blinking is happening much faster than he expected. It is happening in ways that he did not expect.

Everybody has a catchphrase they're always prepared to utter when they're surprised in an especially surprising manner. Finding one that sounds catchy and human in three seconds or less is a rarely neglected task, with the common result being that the default cry of "oh my god" gets corrupted too often.

Bradden's choice in the matter pops out of his mouth after a while.

"Oh. My. Sainted. Aunts."

Primer #5: Physical Address Transcribing Protocol (PATP) & its benefits to pizza delivery

In the spirit of cooperation that came from beating back a alien invasion together, the Coaltion of the World has applied itself to a million other things in an attempt to solve age-old dilemmas. One example is the problem of describing where a physical location is.

Enter the Physical Address Transcribing Protocol (PATP). For instance, the URL:


translates in the old formats into:

Unit 0201
162, Moire Lane
Sudoku District
Bell City
Republic of Ausland

Coincidentally, this is the address of Albert Hastings' domicile. Though that's probably neither here nor there.

Further efforts have been made by some people to further improve the precision of descriptions made in PATP through assorted ways such as including room types (RFC-19302281), furniture (RFC-19600411) and even the name of the world (RFC-19609210). Many of these have been either rejected or left hanging in limbo - it's pretty hard to imagine a world other than Ter'an, though the main sponsor of RFC-19609210, Bradden F09, seems to disagree... As it is, it's already way too easy to stop up the plumbing, and reviews to create a more user-friendly version of PATP are underway.

But that hasn't stopped certain people from taking advantage of it. For instance, pizza delivery to mobile communications users.

One of the most common bugbears of pizza delivery is of people who fail to provide sufficient directions as to where their order should be delivered. This isn't a problem in smaller locations, but when people share buildings or work out of, say, institutions of research, education or national security et al, it gets harder to get it where it needs to go. As a result, the pizza either goes cold as time is wasted locating exactly where the pizza is meant to go. Or worse, it doesn't arrive at all. Cue hungry, dissatisfied customers, time and money wasted on a failed delivery, wasted ingredients and baking time that could have been used to get another pizza elsewhere.

On another note, Uncle Lomino hates dissatisfied customers. Uncle Lomino hates deliverymen who create dissatisfied customers. Uncle Lomino does THINGS to deliverymen who create dissatisfied customers. Terrifying things. Like firing them with two months' pay and a negative referral.

Nobody wanted a negative referral. It meant you had been found wanting on small but important habits, and could possibly not be trusted to do a proper job in bigger things. It sounded almost silly, and yet, there had been stories of such things happening in local employment.

Lomino's Pizzeria in Moire Lane implemented a system that allows mobile phones to (with the permission of their users) squirt a PATP address over while an order is being placed over the EtherNet based on its location relative to at least two ether stations in the vicinity and one nav-sat passing overhead (or three ether stations in cases of the Am-Chinoi bloc implementing partial encryption on nav-sat signals).

To put it simply: it works.

The customer gets his pizza warm and tasty, full of Lomino's goodness.

The pizzeria gets its money practically guaranteed (except in cases of fraud, clearly, though Uncle Lomino has plans for such contingencies).

Ethercomms gets 2% of the total bill for providing triangulation and PATP squirts.

The deliveryman gets to keep his job a bit longer and possibly leave it with a positive reference.

Everyone's happy.

(But when was the last time we had a good meal by paying the deliveryman for a failed delivery anyway? - Narrator)

This is Serge A03, a pizza deliveryman for Lomino's Pizzeria. As vatlings go, he is the cream of the crop genetically in all senses of the word. The world is his oyster, and his delivery job for Uncle Lomino is an ordinary counting and biding of time before he surprises the world and exceeds all its expectations of him.

It is 4.23pm. Uncle Lomino's representive for Moire Lane, a ASR Rio Marionette named Chelshii, has just slotted a freshly cooked Tofu Monster Special with extra soya sauce into the delivery box of his hovercar. A clock pops up on the windshield HUD: the delivery must be made by 4.45pm.

Serge smiles. The delivery is meant for a little flat at PATP://Ausland/Bell_City/Sudoku/MoireLane/162/01/01. He drives along, following the rules of the road. His genetically superior and bright-futured mind drifts to other things, like what Chelshii is hiding under her uniform at work. How old is she anyway in adjusted terms anyway? 25? 26?

Serge smiles wistfully as his hormones get the better of him for a moment. Uncle Lomino probably wouldn't have ordered a Rio with actual working parts down there. It was a genuine pizzeria (even taking the involvement of the local mafia into account), not a red light house masquerading as a pizzeria but... a man could lust, couldn't he?

See Serge get out of his car and walk up to the door, carting the pizza box and grinning from ear to ear. "Pizza delivery for Unit 0101!"

A brief pause, then a crackly voice came on. "Just a second, lemme... OH SH..."

There are ways to get a good approximation of what the crack of doom would sound like, The banshee wailing that occurred during the Denjiku Labs incident of 15AC in southern Bell City is the leading candidate in Bell City.

We have a new candidate: the sound of PATP://Ausland/Bell_City/Sudoku/MoireLane/162 abruptly going explodey... then catching fire.

Needs just a bit of work on Pear SoundTrak Pro, though. Maybe extra reverb?

This is Serge A03, currently (but not for too long) a pizza deliveryman for Lomino's Pizzeria. As vatlings go, he just got creamed in all negative senses of the word. The world has crapped all over him the way oysters crap all over insignificant bits to produce pearls, and his delivery job for Uncle Lomino is special, because it happens to be exactly the last job he'll ever work on while alive.

He looks up at the house on fire, now rushing down to meet him. The last thing he thinks before his world ends is: "Boy that was a surprise. This I hadn't expect-"

To be continued...

Albert Hastings looks out of the window of the hoverboat shuttle as it winded its way en route to the Bell City Domestic Port. He is also thinking about a million things...

... about what he'd written down while filling out the order form at the WarVets office all those years ago. Custom faces cost extra to be paid for out of one's own pocket, yet he'd gone ahead and specified one. Helena's photo had been clipped on before he'd signed off finally. The measurements had been as close as he could remember from the times they'd fooled around before he shipped out to war.

... about the twitches in Almarie's face the first time he'd thrown a meal that wasn't to his liking. She had looked kind of sad.Had it been merely a programmed reflex?

... He hadn't simply felt frustrated when MacDougal and Marlyn had woken him up in the wee hours of the morning with their love-making. He'd hugged his bunk pillow a little harder. He'd wished he had someone to hug instead of just a pillow there and then, hadn't he?

... He thinks about many other little things that had happened over the years.between himself and the Marionette he'd let into his life. The girl had seemed almost... hellbent on making him happy. Granted she'd messed up often but...

A abrupt and violent shake runs through the boat, upsetting quite a few things. A stewardess Marionette trips in the isles and cracks her head on one of the seats.

Albert's cup had decided to yawn its contents over his uniform. Fortunately, he'd gotten into the habit of drinking only water outside of mealtimes on hoverboats, but it was still bad enough, he thought as he watched the water drip slowly out of the front of his uniform.

The PA system comes on. "Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the sudden disruption in the smoothness of our flight. Those of you on the side of the plane to my left can look out and view the cause as we pass over the Sudoku District on our approach towards Bell City Domestic Port. There has apparently been an explosion in one of the buildings there."

Albert had a window seat on that side. He looked out like many of the other people in the window seats.

His heart sinks. It had been an oversized explosion and reduced the building to rubble, then set it on fire as if to rub salt into the wound. Thick smoke of an odd color the shade of murky yellow He recognized some of the buildings nearby.

He bites his lip. He can't fire up his Domino and get onto the EtherNet from here - not without getting charged with the felony of attempting to interfere with landing procedures.. He'd have to wait till he got past the gates before he could actually fire it up to call home without committing a crime.

He was worried. That was to be expected.

He wasn't worried about the album of Polaroids he'd treasured so dearly and stowed away in his wardrobe all these years, though. That was something he hadn't expected. No, it was something... more irreplaceable... that he was worried about.

"I'm sentient?" Almarie had managaed a slight look of surprise on her face.

"Maybe so, maybe no." Bradden puffs agitatedly from a bulbous inhaler thingy he'd kept by his side as proof against asthma attacks. There had been enough of a surprise that he hadn't noticed it pounce on him till he started running short of breath again. "But I think it's highly likely. You're forming opinions, expressing feelings of a sort... maybe even thinking in ways that weren't part of the original program. But even if the latter weren't the case, it's still a pretty big leap."

Almarie tilts her head a little to one side. "English please?"

Bradden scratches his head. "It means that you're human. probably. Just in a different way. You've never had a memory reset, so I think it might have something to do with two decades of experiences and pathways building up. It's happened before, but not very often."

Bradden started to scribble on a fresh sheet of paper. "It is very important that I speak with your owner as soon as he can spare the time about this mat..."

The crack of doom, in double reverb, shattered the quiet of the office. It also threw Bradden's train of thought right off. The faint sound of a ton of plastic crinkling followed.

The faint hum of backup generators revving up for business joined in as the office lights flickered momentarily.

Bradden smiles weakly. "Thank engineers for multiple redundancy and bombproof glass." The local police had advised that if his budget could somehow stretch that way that he should prepare for the possibility of the Cult Of The Unraptured making an example of him as a heathen with a nice bomb in front of the store window or past the doors. It had just paid off big time. "But what was that all about anyway?"

Bradden is exercising extremely tight self-control, but he knows he is wincing deep inside. It sounds so much like Denjiku, and that incident had sent him on a 10 year trip to 'parts unknown' as the locals kept calling the accident.

Almarie stares at the office clock. It is 5pm. Perhaps Mr. Hastings would also have felt back at the flat.

-Maybe he was involved.

Almarie shakes her head. Where'd that come from? Stay focused on the logical...

-How can you be so sure?

-I'm scared. What if he...?

Almarie was out of the office barely moments later. She hadn't felt good. She didn't know exactly why, but it was a bad feeling.

She hadn't even stopped to grab her groceries.

Almarie doesn't have too far to go before she sees it. 162 Moire Lane is gone.

The building has been replaced by a horrendous mess of screwed-up prefab slabs and rebar topped with massive flames. Firefighters were rushing around the place hosing the mess down to prevent it from catching onto the adjacent buildings.

-Mr. Hastings! What if he...?

Almarie starts running for the line the police on the scene have drawn up to keep the crowds away. She doesn't know why, she just... feels she needs to.

Feel... there's that odd word again.

She didn't get too far before a policeman stopped her.

Constable Barnard had seen a lot of things in a decade of policing the streets, but today he'd seen two things that he'd never thought he'd see in his entire life.

First, 162 Moire Lane had decided to explode, catch fire and collapse. Obviously most buidlings aren't designed to explode, catch fire and collapse on their own, so this is most probably a crime in progress and he'd have to pay close attention to things because he might be quizzed on them later.

Secondly, a blue-haired Marionette in a pastel blue dress had gone berserk and attempted to cross the line he'd set up to keep the crowds away, screaming for 'Mr. Hastings'. Hastings? There'd been a marksman named Sergeant Hastings in his course back at the Academy, but it was probably not the same guy.

She had put up quite a struggle, and he'd been forced to draw out his disruptor baton with his spare hand as he slowly lost his hold on her. He'd broken a cardinal rule and wasted precious moments dialling it down before swinging it though. He couldn't explain why, it just didn't feel right to use too much force.

The girl was now laid out limply in the back seat of the hovercar, glazed eyes staring out blankly at the world as she whimpered in... what was it?... fear?

There was something different about the way she'd sounded as she struggled to squirm past... Desperation? Odd thing to do, believing that a Marionette could become desperate.

The girl had somehow managed it. He'd wondered exactly how it'd happened for a while, then opted to file it away to wonder about later.

Albert Hastings dies a little death inside as he stares at the building, now only smouldering as the local firefighting squad lays down a precautionary rain of non-potable water in case it decides to start flaming up again. Half a million credits worth of flat, server and assorted little things, all up in smoke, mostly replaceable or insured. Helena's polaroids had probably also gone the same way. He had scanned them in long ago for backups in case something untoward happened to the originals.

It wouldn't be too much of a loss - he could order reprints, though they probably would lack the faint perfume Helena had insisted on spraying and leaving traces of on everything she'd touched...

But that wasn't what he was worried about the most. What he was worried about was the fact that he couldn't call Almarie.

-Maybe she was involved.

Albert takes a deep breath and dials on his Domino again. "This number is currently not connected to Ethercomms. Please try again later."

-I'm scared. Maybe she really was in there.

He slumps. Contemplates the possibility that for the second time in a decade, he's screwed up royally again.

He cries. He cries really hard. He hasn't cried in ages. He hasn't found much to cry about, having set the bar high after too many disappointments, but losing Almarie has apparently done a good high jump over it.

A constable approaches, having noticed his distress, then notices something else. "Excuse me, sir... Mr. Hastings, is that you?"

Albert looks up. It's Constable Barnard. "You lived here?"

Albert nods. "Certainly doesn't seem I can do that now."

Constable Barnard smiles a little. "We have a berserker Marionette that claims she belongs to you. Would you like to come over and see if that's the case?"

It's now 10pm. On a normal night, Albert should already have been in bed for at least an hour, having been either well fed or breaking out another tantrum over an improperly cooked meal. Almarie should be in bed as well. She doesn't really need to sleep much, but it stretches her fuel rations a little. A few pennies saved here and there every day adds up quite fast.

Of course, those circumstances assume that the flat is there. The flat is not there anymore. This changes things terribly.

What Almarie is doing is hogging the shower and just standing there quietly. She'd behaved terribly oddly. This setience thing was a disease wasn't it? But then, why had Bradden smiled so much harder when he broke the news to her?

What Albert is doing instead is staring out the hotel room that he has booked an hour ago. It is not a lavish room, but it is a room for two... although he hadn't quite counted on the hotel staff offering one bigger bed instead of two separate smaller ones.

Oddly enough though, it hadn't worried him as much as it should. Now why was that?

The pale reflection of him in the window stared back. He was a pretty bad mess now even after the shower and the bathrobe. He was tired, he was hungry. He had placed an order with room service for a quiet meal: toasties with ham and sprouts in them for himself, a full dose of ethanol gel for Almarie. The establishment was one of the newer ones that didn't insist on guests parking their Marionettes in a separate secured garage while they were in their rooms. They usually charged a small premium for the privilege, but he'd been very happy to pay it.

He takes his beret off and rests it on the coffee table, and sighs. Wasn't this the same Albert who had been perfectly content to shove his Marionette into a nook and out of mind whenever he could?

- Every man dies a million deaths.

- He died today, didn't he?

- Almarie is a person, not an appliance.

He had a million questions to ask, and a lot of them weren't meant for anyone but himself.

Albert didn't get much of a chance to do so. Oh she answered some of them alright.

Almarie apologised for losing the day's groceries, which was kind of pointless because the larder shelves were now a burnt stack of chipboards.

She'd been scared. Scared of losing Mr. Hastings. She'd blubbered a lot more than she usually did.

She had pounced, if 'pounced' is the corret word for a subtle climb and hug.

All she wanted, she said, was to see him being happy.

There had been a bit of a roll around. They hadn't even properly finished their meals when she'd started nuzzling his neck.

Albert smiles at Almarie. The girl had apparently exhausted herself in the process and was now snoring quietly next to him, the faint heave of a perky bosom under the blanket being the only movement she was making. He hadn't seen that much of her in a long time. It had been a nice experience.

He thought a little more. The next week would be horrendously busy. He'd have to call his insurance agent, start shopping around for a new home, give a police statement or 40. Speak to the neighbourhood technician about how to handle Almarie's new state of mind. So many things to do. But tomorrow... (looks up at the clock ticking over into the wee hours of the morning)... today is going to be pretty relaxed.

He'll get himself some new clothing. He'll get Almarie some new clothing. He'll indulge her a little.

He smiled as he stroked her cheek.

Yes, she was definitely a person. Someone to love and someone who needed to be loved. He'd been a fool for years looking for love in all the wrong places when it had been waiting just a door away. He'd have to play catch up.

Hadn't he wanted to hug someone in that lonely Second-Class room all those years ago? He reached over and pulled Almarie into a hug. He fell asleep.

The last thing that came to mind before he surrendered to Morpheus' charms: "Just call me Albert... please... zzzz..."

A faint reply from Almarie flitted through his ears. "Yes... Albert."

Albert dreamed. It was a pleasant dream. People in love tend to dream pleasantly.

The End

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