helen 1: 2240
"Come on then; see if you can spot which ones are the true botanicals."
Sunlight dappled Helen as she raised her eyebrows in challenge to Kevin. Amongst the warm green life of the woodland glade, her tanned brown limbs and flower-plaited blond hair gave her the appearance of a nymph. She looked good, and she knew it. Kevin knew it too; she could tell. He rubbed his chin in an exaggerated fashion as he looked around the arboretum, his eyes lingering on her for a little longer than was necessary.
"Hmm, can I touch?" His voice was a delicious gravelly rumble. He waggled his eyebrows at her. "The plants, I mean."
"If you like." Helen smiled.
She leaned back against the bark of a lime tree and watched Kevin kneel down to feel the leaves of a McCusker's Miracle. She felt a little glow somewhere inside. The defined V of his shoulders and upper body, the gentle way he rubbed a grey-green leaf between his fingers: it made her wonder what it would be like if he were to fold her up in his arms. Maybe just to kiss her.
He straightened up, rubbing the leaf's metallic residue from his fingers, and caught sight of a nearby hawthorn, ragged green leaves dancing in the fresh breeze.
"No way is this one natural," he said. Helen was impressed that he was tall enough to reach up and catch hold of the end of a branch.
"Ouch!" He winced. "It has spikes! Look at that twisting effect on the trunk as well. This one is definitely a venumb."
He came back towards Helen, his dark eyes running up and down her body. For the twentieth time that day, she silently thanked the set of circumstances that had led to her drawing Kevin for the arboretum tour; thanked Lucy for asking her to swap shifts at the last moment; thanked Marek for pointing out the man who had just stepped from the Lite train.
She'd been tidying up the winged seeds display, placing natural sycamore seeds and ash keys next to the AI-designed VNM carriers used on Iota Cancri 4. Marek had raised his eyebrows at her, then deliberately turned to look in the direction of the tall handsome man who had just walked into the airy glass structure of the visitors' center. He had quickly pressed an ash key into one of her hands and the strange double-fluted IC4 carrier into the other, and then pushed her gently in the man's direction.
"Hello there," Helen had said, holding them out to the gorgeous stranger and smiling brightly. "Can you guess which was built and which evolved?"
Her console, wrapped about her waist like a belt, was busy releasing a cloud of the maximum permissible dose of pheromones. The way the man smiled at her gave the impression that maybe chemicals weren't that necessary. Marek certainly got the hint and jumped Helen two places in the roster, allowing her to escort the man from the queue out into the warm summer of the arboretum proper.
And here he was now, gently sucking his pricked thumb, a tender gesture in such a big man. Helen silently thanked the Watcher for realizing that she was ready for another relationship by sending this gorgeous giant along. He was walking towards her now in a slow prowl, and she wondered if he was finally going to kiss her . . . push her against the dark tree trunk and kiss her firmly on the lips. He was reaching towards her, closer, an arrogant smile on his face . . . but at the last moment he bent down to touch the sprays and shoots emerging from near the base of the tree she was leaning against. He was teasing her. She liked that.
"This doesn't look right either." He looked up at her. "Another venumb. I'd say the little one over there is the only true botanical."
"Wrong!" Helen said triumphantly. "Both trees are natural. The first plant you looked at is the venumb. McCusker's Miracle. It was designed to extract aluminum from the soil. You got some of the metal residue on your fingers when you felt its leaves."
Kevin laughed as he straightened up, his big body filling her vision, and he leaned a little closer so that he was almost touching her. He smelled very clean, just a hint of cologne.
"Ah well, can't be right all of the time."
He touched Helen on the cheek; she felt a tiny flutter where his fingers brushed against her skin. He gazed at her for a moment, and she smiled . . . then ducked under his arm and walked over to the center of the clearing. The noon sun lanced down onto the mossy grass, and she spun slowly round in its glow, showing off her body. The light flickered as silver space-bound ships slowly ascended from the port that bordered the arboretum. A sprinkling of butterflies rose into the air and flitted away, back towards the nearby coppice.
"You'll find the best examples of the hybrid venumbs that way," said Helen, deliberately facing away from Kevin towards an area where the trees looked more mechanical. "That section most resembles the modern world," she said. "Or, if you want to see more traditional woodland, we can head in the opposite direction, towards the coppice. There's fine display of butterflies and deer there, too."
She became aware that Kevin was now standing just behind her.
"What's that?" He pointed to the edge of the coppiced area. The corner of a silver-grey cube rose above the tops of the trees.
"That?" Helen smiled. "Oh, that's the Secret Garden."
"The Secret Garden? That sounds intriguing."
Kevin had moved around in front of her now, gazing at the tilted, sunken cube, half seen through the trees. About twenty meters along each side, the straight edges and clean lines of its polished surfaces were in marked contrast to the rounded organic shapes of the surrounding wood. The top of the cube glinted oddly in the sunlight where it emerged from the foliage. Helen took him by the elbow and led him forward.
"Come on, let's go look."
They set off towards the cube. Helen put on her lilting guide's voice.
"The Secret Garden is a first-generation Von Neumann Machine from around the end of the twenty-first century. Unlike contemporary VNMs, these first-generation machines were built without the use of AI library code. It seems hard to believe nowadays, but humans actually worked out the replication routines themselves–"she gave a little laugh; it was part of the script, "–and more often than not, they got them wrong."
"Humans worked out the code? I thought all that sort of thing could only be done by artificial intelligences."
Helen smiled knowingly. "That may be the case nowadays, but back in those days the first AIs hadn't evolved properly. That VNM almost predates AIs."
They reached the cube and stood in the shadow cast by one out-sloping side of the huge VNM. Kevin reached out and ran his hand across its surface. His big, powerful, gentle hand.
"It feels odd, almost frictionless. It's sort of ugly, too." He frowned at Helen. "I'm surprised they left it here in the arboretum. It's hardly natural, is it?"
Helen frowned. "Kevin, people have resigned over that point! The consensus is that this cube is just as natural as any of the hybrid venumbs found in here. As much a living thing as the McCusker's Miracle you were just looking at. This cube replicates itself, just like the beeches and the willows do. The EA therefore counts it as a life form."
"Really?" said Kevin, sounding surprised. "Do you mean that thing is still replicating?"
"Oh, yes. The original unit was seeded about three kilometers down and one kilometer west of here. Some organization wanted a complex of rooms beneath the ground, all to be protected by stealth technology. That's what gives the cube its silver sheen and frictionless feel. Industrial espionage was rife back then, so a secure location was essential. All appeared fine at first, but someone got the telomeric procedures wrong and the VNMs just kept replicating themselves. Rooms kept being built onto previous rooms. Go inside this cube and you're at the top of a four-kilometer-high tower that has burrowed right up from beneath the earth."
Kevin looked at the cube in fascination.
"How did it go on reproducing for so long? Why didn't they stop it?"
Helen laughed. "They didn't know it was happening! It was a stealth construction, remember? They didn't detect any activity!"
She laughed again, and the console around her waist emitted another puff of pheromones. Helen looked delightful when she laughed; she had been told as much many times. Kevin's console must have caught the spray; to be sent a puff of pheromones was a flattering invitation, but at the moment he seemed utterly fascinated by the construct.
"Can we go inside?" he asked. He suddenly switched his attention back to her and, caught by the force of his all too apparent intention, she felt her stomach flip over.
"Oh yes," she said, looking up coyly from beneath her lashes. "There is a door around the other side."
Heart pounding, she led the way along one side of the cube. Sunlight, flickering its way through the green leaves above, formed jigsaw patterns on the ground. Grass and moss grew right up to the VNM's very edge but no further, unable to get a grip on its stealthy surface.
"It's got no roof," said Kevin as they reached the other side. The tilt of the cube allowed them to see the unformed top surface of the VNM.
"Ah," began Helen, "the EA slowed the replication process right down. The thing is still growing, but now at about one billionth of its original rate. The EA does the same with a lot of the hybrid venumbs here in this park. They're technically alive, but with restricted ability to absorb any more of the arboretum's capacity."
Kevin glanced at the entrance to the cube. It had been surrounded with thick, clear plastic that formed a collar around the door-shaped hatch.
He stood back and held out an arm, using an anachronistic gesture that still had the power to charm.
"Oh thank you," Helen simpered, and stepped through the hatch. She felt a cold breeze as she did so, and a sudden stab of fear that came from nowhere.
She shrugged her shoulders. She was being ridiculous.Level Zero
A rich pool of green grass lapped the walls of the cube's interior. It was as if someone had filled a tilted square bottle with green water. The process had not yet begun that would flush the cube's inside clean and start the construction of floors and internal walls. A second plastic collar, set in the grass near the far wall, enclosed a set of steps leading down to the fully formed cube that lay immediately below ground, the first of a descending sequence of stealth rooms that extended obliquely deep into the earth.
Kevin followed her into the cube's interior, face now serious, and Helen felt a squiggle of danger inside her.
She was alone with a man she had only met two hours ago. Alone in an area where her console would not work; the stealth circuitry in the half-formed walls was functioning well enough to block any incoming or outgoing signals.
Still, Social Care would know where she was. Their AIs would have seen her enter the cube; they would wait for her to exit.
Kevin walked towards her, his expression odd. Helen took a step back.
"What's the matter, Kevin?" She heard the tremble in her own voice. He reached into his pocket and pulled something out.
"Helen, do you know what a Strangler Fig is?"Helen suddenly felt very small and alone
. Though his tone was just the same as before, the warmth seemed to have completely drained from it.
"I know what a Strangler Fig is," said Helen, her attempt at a casual tone tight and forced. She was suddenly very aware of the distance to the visitors' center, of her nonfunctioning console.
Kevin held out his hand, a little white object on the palm.
"This is a seed from a hybrid venumb based on the Strangler Fig," said Kevin. "I want you to swallow it."
"Wh . . . why?"
"Because all self-replicating objects are valid forms of life and have a right to exist. You said as much yourself. This seed was built by the Sterkarm Company back in the mid-twenty-second century, just when the EA was bringing war to an end. This seed never had the chance to realize its potential. Here in the arboretum is the very place for it to finally do so."Helen kept backing away from Kevin. His big powerful body that had previously looked so sexy now seemed sinister and dangerous.
He was standing right between her and the door. If she could just dodge around him, she could make a run for it; if she could just make it to the outside, she could send a distress call. She played for time.
"But if I swallow the seed it will kill
me. Isn't Social Care bothered about what happens to me?" She began to cautiously circle around him, ready to make a break for it.
He gave her a withering look. "There are many humans, Helen, but there is only one seed. Now, stand still. I'm hardly going to let you slip around me so you can get to the door, am I?"
Helen felt sick to her stomach. That was when she noticed movement in the corner of the cube. Someone was climbing up out of the stairs that led from the level below. With a huge wave of relief she saw who it was.
"Dr. Soames! Dr. Wu! Larry! Thank the Watcher!"
She ran towards them, oblivious to Kevin for the moment. Then she slowed to a halt as she saw their expressions. They were looking at her not as a person but as an object. A piece of meat. Food for the seed.
One strong hand grabbed her around the waist from behind, another moved across her face. She felt something being pushed into her mouth, a little sting of pain, and then she was released. She tumbled to the soft earth, damp grass staining her hands and knees.
"Five minutes," said Dr. Wu, gazing down at her impassively. "Go watch the exit, Kevin." Kevin nodded and withdrew.
Helen felt her jaw going numb. A sharp, shooting pain ran across her left shoulder. Desperation promoted inspiration. She began running across the grass to where the upper rim of the wall was lowest, pulling her console from around her waist and feeling along it, hand over hand, searching for the panic button.
She squeezed it hard, morphing the memory plastic of the console into the shape of a flat disc.
Kevin realized what she was doing and sped after her. Too late. She skimmed the console upwards like a frisbee towards the wall. Watched as it rose higher and higher, then started to dip. Would it make it? A sudden, knifing pain ran down her left arm, locking it in position. She could no longer move it. Dr. Soames was already at her side, taking that arm, feeling it. She pulled away from him and started across the grass again. Then her legs went numb, too, and she fell over. The three doctors strolled across to where she lay. She tried to crawl away, and now she felt the same shooting pain in her right arm as the Strangler Fig seed sent tendrils down inside it, following her veins and arteries, dipping its little suckers into them to feed on her blood. She screamed and rolled onto her back as more tendrils ran down her spine, hardening as they descended, pulling her into a new shape.
Excerpted from Capacity by Tony Ballantyne. Copyright © 2006 by Tony Ballantyne. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.