Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 7
Silent As Dust
by James Maxey
Lost Soul
by Marie Brennan
The Price of Love
by Alan Schoolcraft
The Braiding
by Pat Esden
After This Life
by Janna Silverstein
The Smell of the Earth
by Joan L. Savage
From the Ender Saga
Ender's Homecoming
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
The Talk
by David Lubar
Split Decision
by David Lubar
A Plague of Butterflies
by Orson Scott Card
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Price of Love
    by Alan Schoolcraft
The Price of Love
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

Part Two   (Part one is in issue 6.)

"Mommy, I'm finished," Karen called out from the kitchen table. Valerie, sitting at her computer, doing a VR tour of listings in the Outer Banks, sighed. She deliberated letting it go; this marked the fifth time Karen had declared her dinner consumed. The four previous times Valerie had trudged into the kitchen to find the child's food barely half-eaten. Why she did this, Valerie didn't know; some days her daughter ate like a pig, and others she merely nibbled.

She opened her mouth to tell Karen to just put the plate in the sink, but thought better of it. Not being a very responsible parent, that. So she said "End session" and the virtual reality of the walkthrough dissolved into the real world of her home office and computer desk. She slid her chair back, got up and went to the kitchen.

To her surprise, Karen had eaten almost all of her broccoli and cheese. Karen sat smiling hopefully, and Alvin occupied one of the other places at the table.

"Wow, good girl," Valerie said. "What happened, you get super-hungry all of a sudden?"

Karen nodded. "Yeah, Mommy. And Alvin promised we'd play checkers, too. He said eating all my broccoli and cheese would make my brain stronger so I'd beat him."

Valerie glanced at Alvin, who sat looking very innocent. "Oh he did, did he?"

Karen nodded. "So we can play? I wanna beat him twice 'fore I have to go to bed."

Valerie couldn't help but smile. "Okay honey. Go get the checkers."

Karen jumped off her seat and ran down the hall towards her room, while Valerie took her plate and scraped the remaining bits of food into the recycler. As she took the plate to the sink, she glanced at Alvin again. A wave of guilt passed over her. It still ebbed at her soul as she looked away.

"Are you mad at me, Valerie?" Alvin said with an apprehensive tone. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No, I'm not mad," Valerie said, not looking at him.

Alvin sat without saying anything as she washed the plate. But as she placed it the drainer, he said, "Is there something else wrong then? You seem . . . not yourself."

"No," she said, almost choking on the word. She took a breath, willing herself calm. "No, Alvin, there's nothing wrong."

"Your heartbeat, respiration and skin temperature says different."

Valerie rounded on him. "Will you please stop doing that?"

Alvin's optical receptors widened. "Doing what, Valerie? One of my prime directives is to protect my family. Part of that protection requires that I monitor your vital signs --"

"I'm not talking about the monitoring," Valerie said, exasperated. "I'm talking about how you use it to put me off guard."

"That was not my inten--" Alvin broke off just as Valerie heard Karen's footfalls bounding down the hallway, accompanied by the plastic jangle of checkers.

"Okay, Alvin," she said as she came into the kitchen. "You ready to get your butt whupped?"

"Karen, that's not nice," Valerie said.

"It is all right," Alvin said, then turned to Karen.

"Yes I am. Are you ready to whupp some butt?"

"Darn tootin'" Karen replied, giggling.

Alvin turned back to Valerie. "If you'll excuse me, I must go get my butt whupped." He rose and followed Karen into the living room.

Valerie watched them go, her heart heavy with sorrow. Evenings like this would be no more, if she went through with the wipe. Karen would be crushed. But better she lose Alvin than her family. Family had importance, permanence, much more so than an object like Alvin. Objects could be replaced with something even better. And thanks to Abrams she now had the money to do it.

But Alvin isn't really an object, is he? she asked herself. And he is unique; irreplaceable. This bond Karen shares with him will be gone forever.

Another pang of regret passed through her. Her determination faltered, and she wished more than anything that she could find a way . . . but no. It would never work. Better she did it this way than if Tony found out. Tony would destroy Alvin with his bare hands, she thought. And he'd do it right in front of Karen, too, thinking only of his own feelings and nothing of Karen's. Valerie would never hear the end of it, either. He'd accuse her of screwing the droid if he didn't know it was physically impossible.

That thought didn't erase the pain, or make it any easier to bear. But it did somewhat justify what she planned.

Tony called from his shop. He'd taken on some overtime, going on an "emergency" out-of-town delivery. He'd get paid double-time, and he'd get back late that night sometime. This was fine with Valerie; a night without fighting had been so scarce lately. Of course he hadn't been able to resist taking a couple of potshots at her on the phone, something about her taking the opportunity to "get some," coupled with an acidly sarcastic "You're welcome" that made her stomach turn.

She didn't tell him about the sale to Jeffrey Abrams.

Karen beat Alvin three times. Valerie had called it a night after two games, but Karen had pleaded for "just one more game, Mommy, pleeaaase?" and Valerie had relented.

She watched them, Karen laughing and giggling, Alvin smiling and giving Valerie the chilling feeling that he truly enjoyed himself, and mourned inside.

How could she do this? There must be some way to . . . to . . . No, her rational, practical mind insisted, there is no way. But her heart, pounding slow and dreadful in her breast, ached at imagining the look on Karen's face when she found out what Valerie had done.

"I win again!" Karen cried, jumping up and doing a little victory dance. Then she leapt at Alvin, who, as always, caught her to keep her from impacting his body too hard. "You're so much fun, Alvin. I love you!"

"And I love you too, Karen," Alvin said. "Now let's pick up the checkers, and get you to bed."

Valerie followed them, and then helped Karen into her pajamas. Karen asked Valerie to read "The Night Creatures Go To The Park." It was one of her favorites, written by her grandmother many years before. As Karen began to read, Alvin gathered up Karen's discarded clothing for the laundry, said his goodnights, and left them alone. As she started reading, she heard the phone ringing in the living room.

Valerie had almost finished the book when she heard the sounds of Karen snoring. Valerie sat there for a few minutes with the open book on her lap, watching her daughter sleep. She knew every beautiful line of the girl's face by heart, the soft curve of her cheek, the smooth forehead, the slightly upturned nose . . . then, unbidden, came the image of that face frozen in heartbreak.

I can't do it, she told herself. I just can't. I'll have to find some way to work around it. Somehow.

She returned to the living room to find Alvin sitting, waiting patiently, instead of plugged in to his charging station. When he saw her, he rose to his feet and said, "Shawn called to reschedule the memory wipe."

Valerie froze, mouth open, completely at a loss for words. Alvin seemed to interpret her reaction. He nodded. "Of course, he didn't say the appointment was for a wipe. I merely assumed. I see I assumed correctly." He nodded again, diverting his gaze to the floor. "I apologize for my subterfuge, but I needed to know for sure."

"I -- I --"

"There's no need for apologies on your part, or even words of any kind." Alvin sat once more. "It was a logical assumption, and a logical conclusion. Our problem is most . . . unique."

Valerie sat down on the edge of the couch. "Alvin . . . I've decided not to go through with it."

Alvin cocked his head slightly. "It would seem to be the only rational choice, Valerie. In fact I would go further and say that for me, such an action would be . . . preferable."

"You mean -- you want a memory wipe? Why?"

"Because it would be better than being so close to you, yet so far away. An impenetrable wall exists between you and I, made of plasteel and synthskin. We could never have the life that I want with you."

"There's more than that, Alvin. Even if -- even if you were human . . ."

Valerie found herself wishing the ridiculous wish that it could be possible somehow. Like Pinocchio. Make Alvin a real boy.

"I know," Alvin said, "but my nature makes this all the more unbearable. If I were a man, at least I might go somewhere else, another city, another country, make my own way. And one day I might even forget. But as an android, I am not free to do as I want."

Valerie laughed; dry, with no mirth. "Don't feel so put upon, Alvin. I'm no freer than you are."

Alvin looked at her. "But you are human. You are a free person. Is this not an intrinsic right, simply by being human?"

"Yes, it is. But what binds us are our choices, Alvin." Valerie stood, pacing across the room. "Choices, and the people we become responsible for. So no, I am not free."

"I can see your responsibility where Karen is concerned," Alvin said. "But I cannot see how you are responsible for Tony. You are not even married to him."

Valerie felt a little uncomfortable at that. She had wanted to get married, years ago. She and Tony had talked about it, but they had never gotten around to it, and in recent years, she had stopped caring. Married or not, it wouldn't change who they were, what they'd done, or how lifeless their relationship had become.

"No," she said, "But we've been together so long we might as well be. And I'm responsible for him because of those choices. I . . . implied things. Things I can't go back on just because I'm unhappy."

Alvin considered this for a moment, then said, "But you will never overcome his insecurities, Valerie. He does not trust you, and I do not think he ever will." Again Valerie felt on the spot. "I know. He has reason." She returned to the couch. "And no, I don't want to talk about why. Ancient history."

"Not to him, apparently."

"True," was all Valerie could say. They sat in silence for a few moments, then Valerie said, "I want you to think more about the wipe, Alvin. Think about the consequences, and what it will do to Karen to lose you. If you truly think you feel love, then you should learn that love means doing things that seem unbearable, for the sake of those you love."

Alvin nodded. "I have considered her feelings, Valerie, and though it causes me great distress, I still think a wipe is the wisest choice." The synthskin of his face stretched into a sad-looking smile. "Less pain for everyone. And no matter what Karen thinks of me now, I am still just a thing to her. She will grow, find new things, and one day she will forget all about me."

Valerie shook her head. "I don't think so, Alvin. And I won't either."

Alvin let that pass as he studied her. "May I show you something?"

Valerie nodded. "Sure."

He stood. "We must use the VR."

They went to Valerie's office, and he had her put on the headgear, but didn't turn on the unit. Then he reached up to the back of his head and withdrew a long filament with a micro USB plug on the end. He plugged this into the unit, then looked to Valerie and asked, "Are you ready?"

A bit apprehensive, Valerie nodded. "I guess so. Alvin, what is it we're --"

The real world melted away, and she found herself standing on the beach. She could swear she'd stood on this beach before, somewhere in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The late afternoon sun hung just behind her right shoulder, and the realistic beauty of its reflection on the waters mesmerized her. She drank in the sight, savored the smell and taste of the air, soaked in the warmth of the sun on her back. It felt so real, much more real than any VR she'd experienced before. Her unit, she knew, didn't have the capacity for endless variable replication without sequence repetition. How had Alvin done this?

"Do you like it?" Alvin's voice -- though not quite his voice -- came from behind her and slightly to the left.

"I love it, Alvin. It's beautiful. Is this some prog--?"

She'd been in the act of turning to face him, but the Alvin who stood before her was definitely not the Alvin she'd sat talking with just a few minutes before. This Alvin had no plasteel superstructure and carapace, no synthskin rubber stretched taut over it. And when he smiled at her, his eyes -- yes, eyes, and not optical receptors -- lit up with pleasure. Shoulder length brown hair wafted in the sea breeze.

"This, Valerie, is the stuff of my dreams."

She walked up to him, extending a hand to his face. She hesitated just before touching. He reached up and took her hand in his. It felt real, too, warm, alive. He pulled her fingers to his lips, and kissed them. Then he smiled again.

"I have wondered how that would feel."

To Valerie, it felt as if she'd been kissed by warm, human lips. She blinked, wondering if maybe she hadn't fallen asleep, instead of going into VR.

"This is too real, Alvin. And you . . . it's overwhelming."

"It can be better than real at times," he said, and Valerie heard a child's laughter. Karen?

She looked down at the surf line and saw Karen running towards them across the sand. "Mommy!"

"How --" Valerie looked at Alvin. "That's not really her."

Alvin shook his head, smiling. "Of course not. She's still sleeping. And yes, I'm monitoring her. Should she wake, I'll end the sim immediately."

Valerie looked back at sim-Karen, watching her form evaporate into mist, her laughter fading to distant echoes.

"We can be anywhere we want," Alvin said, "do anything we want, be anyone we want."

Valerie blinked, and the interior of a banquet hall from a Middle Ages castle replaced the beach. Alvin, his face adorned now with a close-cropped Van Dyke, his clothing replaced with armor, said, "Visit any time period we want . . ." Valerie blinked again, and he was a Roman warrior, and they stood in a room of unmistakably Egyptian design. "Any climate," he said, and she stared out over a vast ice field at what must have been the South Pole. A heavy parka enshrouded her from head to nearly foot, and the bitter wind only kissed the tip of her nose, the edge of her lips. Still she sucked in her breath at the shock of the cold.

She heard him laugh. She'd never heard him laugh before. He was dressed the same as she, and she could just make out his smile beaming at her from the inner recesses of the parka's hood. "Something tells me you like this --" back to the beach, and warmth "-best."

She laughed now, too. "Yes. Warm is good." She stared into his gray eyes, then reached up to touch his face again. This time he let her. She even felt stubble on his cheek. "Is this how you see yourself?"

He nodded. "In my dreams, yes. It wasn't something I concocted, either. In my first dream, I looked like this. I think my creator fashioned this image for me."

"In his own image," Valerie said. "Yes, you do resemble him slightly."

Alvin eyes widened. "You have seen . . . my creator?"

Valerie nodded. "I had a long talk with him today. About you. About the wipe."

"Ah. And what did he say?"

"The same thing I said to you just a few minutes ago. I wanted him to just, you know, fix you." She looked away, then pulled away from him. "But he said he couldn't. Not without destroying who you are."

"But you scheduled a wipe with Shawn Ames."

"Yes. I did." She looked at him and smiled sadly.

"Like you said, it seemed like the logical course of action." Alvin stood silent for a moment, then said, "What changed your mind?"

"Seeing you tonight with Karen. Thinking about how much it would hurt her if you were gone."

"And you?" Alvin asked. "Would that hurt you? Would you . . . miss me?"

Valerie paused, then nodded. "Yes, Alvin. I would. I would miss you very much."

He smiled. "That comforts me." He looked away, out over the water. "It doesn't remove this . . . emptiness inside of me, though. This void that you are the right . . . shape to fill." He looked back at her.

"Have I used the metaphor correctly?"

Valerie found her vision blurred with tears. His calm about the whole affair, his rational, yet obviously pained acceptance of things that could not be changed . . . to her, it seemed so much more mature than Tony's insistent possessiveness, and his need for her adulation to define himself, justify his existence.

"This is what it means to love, Alvin. It's not just the joy, but also the utter absence of it sometimes."

Alvin nodded, then looked back out at the ocean. "The bittersweet."

She moved to him, and on impulse, wrapped her arms around him. He even smelled human. "Oh, Alvin. If only . . . if only things were different."

He took her hands in his, squeezing them gently. Then he turned in her arms to face her. Without a word, he leaned down to kiss her.

Passionate, electric, the kiss acted on her virtual body like a shot of liquor, spreading a fiery liquid warmth through her. Did he manipulate the sensations she felt? She didn't know, and didn't care. It had been so long since she'd felt this, felt the passion, felt the love . . .

Could they do this? she wondered as she met his kiss, devouring it with a hunger unsatisfied for years. Could they keep it secret, only meeting like this, sharing each other in this virtual world in Alvin's mind?

She didn't know the answers to those questions, either. Nor did she know if she could just walk away, after having tasted it.

Suddenly he stiffened, and pulled away, his eyes wide with alarm.

"Alvin, what is it? Is it Karen?"

"No, she's still sleeping. I'm getting an alert from the Emergency Broadcast System."

Emergency Broadcast System? Valerie's concern deepened.

"What's happening, Alvin? Tell me!"

"There is a supercell forming just off the coast. It will make landfall within half an hour."

Supercell. A mini-hurricane. Growing more common these days. The climatologists blamed it on global warming. Full-blown hurricanes rarely occurred anymore, though when they did, they devastated. Just six years before, one that reached a seven on the new Saffir-Simpson Scale had wiped half of Florida off the map. Cuba and Puerto Rico were still rebuilding from the one that had struck them two years before.

Supercells came more often, a coastal version of those tornado storms that ripped across the Midwestern plains. They came with little warning, and wreaked havoc wherever they touched. They rarely lasted more than a couple of hours, but they made up for that with severity. Valerie had seen three supercells in her lifetime, and each time she'd sworn she wouldn't make it.

They had a shelter now, underneath the house. And this house was one of the newer ones, built within the last twenty years and designed to weather supercells. She only had to enter a code into the house's security system, and it would "lock down," the doors and windows covered by high-tensile polycarbonate storm shutters, while the titanium-reinforced framing was guaranteed to withstand winds of up to 420 kph. The design was watertight as well, though Valerie knew the real danger from flooding came from the foundation washing out from under the house. As long as that didn't happen, they'd be okay. All the power and communication lines ran underground, too, but even if they went out, the solar gennie would still power the house and shelter for a couple of days. The virtual world of Alvin's dream dissolved around her, becoming her office again. She pulled off the headset as Alvin disconnected from the computer.

"You and Karen must get into the shelter. I'll see to the lockdown of the house."

"Okay," she said, and headed back to Karen's room. The child had been snoring fiercely, sleeping so deeply that it took several shakes to rouse her.

"Wha's the matter, Mommy? I'm still tired."

"We have to go downstairs, honey," Valerie told her, grabbing the child's blanket, pillow, and Herbie, the stuffed frog she slept with.

Karen became a bit more alert. "Is a bad storm coming?"

"Yes, honey, I'm afraid so." Valerie heard the sounds of shutters closing all over the house, then the sound of the air filtration system kicking in. "We won't have to be down there for long, though. A couple of hours, tops."

Karen held out her hands for Herbie. "Is Daddy coming?"

Valerie handed the stuffed frog to her. "No, Daddy is far away. The storm won't even affect him."

"That's good, "Karen said, taking Valerie's hand. "I don't like Daddy when he yells at you, but I don't want nothing bad to happen to him."

Valerie's throat clenched. Alvin's replay of his conversation with Karen jumped into her head. She pushed it away. "I know, honey. Nothing bad is going to happen to Daddy."

Suddenly, the house phone rang. Valerie looked at her wrist receiver. The display read "Tony's mobile." She thumbed the talk button.

"We're okay, Tony," she said right away. "Karen and I are heading down to the shelter right now, and Alvin's locking the house."

"What?" Tony replied. "What's going on?"

Valerie stared at the receiver. "What do you mean? Haven't you heard? There's a supercell coming!"

"The radio in the truck is out, Val," Tony said. "We haven't heard anything. We finished up early, and headed back. We're on the Bush heading into town."

"What?!" The George W. Bush freeway lay three miles north of the house. If he was heading south --

"He's driving right into it," Alvin said. "The cell is moving northwest." When Valerie looked at him, she saw a grim expression on his face. "The storm surge could catch him at any moment."

"Mommy, what's happening?" Valerie could hear the fear in Karen's voice. She might not understand completely what was going on, but she knew something was happening.

"Tony, listen to me. Find shelter, now."

"What?" Tony's voice crackled. The supercell, laden with electrical activity, had come close enough to disrupt his mobile's signal. "You're-break-erie. Did-say-elter?"

"Mommy?" Karen had started to cry.

"Tony, dammit! Find a shelter! The storm surge! Dammit!"

"Can't-you out-lots-lighting-just-rain-too." A pause, then: "What?! Oh --"

The phone went dead.

Valerie just stared at the receiver, not knowing what to say or do. Then Karen began to cry in earnest.

"What happened, Mommy? What happened to Daddy?"

Valerie sat heavily on Karen's bed. She looked at Karen, who stood there bawling, clutching her stuffed frog, and had no clue what to say. She'd just promised her nothing bad was going to happen. She grabbed Karen, pulled her close and held tight. The house vibrated, and Valerie heard a roll of thunder.

"You must get yourself and Karen to shelter, Valerie."

Valerie nodded absently, still clutching Karen to her. Tony, in his truck, had most likely been caught in the storm surge. Whipped up quickly by the supercell's ferocious, unstable nature, these surges could be worse than those produced by hurricanes.

Maybe grief would come later. She didn't know. But Alvin had been right; they needed to get to the shelter right away. The house had been designed to withstand a Category Seven hurricane, but that didn't mean it made sense to just hang out in the family room while the storm raged overhead.

"Come on, Karen; let's go downstairs. Everything will be all right."

"But what about Daddy?" Karen cried. "Is he coming too?"

Valerie hesitated just the slightest. "Yes, honey, Daddy's on his way."

Karen stared at her for a moment, then said, "I don't believe you!" Her face screwed up in anguish, and she began crying again.

Valerie stared in shock as Alvin scooped Karen up in his arms. Then he took hold of Valerie's hand. "Come." She had no choice but to let herself be hauled to her feet.

The shelter entrance lay off the main hallway. Alvin keyed open the door, and she heard the hiss of released pressure from the airtight compartment. The shelter's lights came on automatically, spilling into the hall. The house shook again. Alvin handed the whimpering Karen to her, and ushered her through the doorway. She expected him to follow them down, but he didn't.

She stopped and turned. "What's wrong, Alvin?" She saw him reach for the door to pull it closed. This would leave him outside the shelter. "What are you doing?!"

He paused, then smiled sadly. He stepped forward, and embraced them both. He kissed her cheek; it felt much different, of course, the sensation of cold synthskin against warm real skin. But the emotional response within her was the same. Then he kissed Karen's forehead. He stepped back, and thumbed the tears away from Karen's cheeks.

"I'm going to go get your Daddy, Pumpkin."

Karen sniffled, then hugged Alvin's neck, kissing his cheek. "Thank you, Alvin."

Valerie felt as if someone had kicked her in the stomach. "Alvin, are you insane? That's sui--"

Alvin continued smiling that sad smile. "To be insane, or suicidal, would imply more humanity than I actually possess, Valerie. I may not succeed, but I have the best odds." He moved back to the door to close it.

"Why, Alvin?" she asked, her voice breaking. She felt her own tears rolling down her cheeks. "Why would you do this? He cares nothing for you."

Alvin merely smiled again, and said. "Because I love you both, so very much. See you soon."

He closed the door, and she heard it seal airtight again, the sound masking her whispered, "I love you too, Alvin."

Alvin moved to the front door, feeling the house rumbling again. This probably wasn't the most intelligent course of action, but he felt he had no choice. All of his reading about the nature of humanity had hinted at "honor" and "duty." Well, his duty was clear: Protect the family. His programming made no allowances for whether he liked all the members or not.

His programming parameters, however, had been altered. He did not feel compelled to go find Tony by some programming imperative. As far as Alvin was concerned, Tony could drop off the face of the earth, and Alvin wouldn't give it a second thought.

No, what compelled Alvin was love. Alvin loved Karen as if she were his own, and he thought she deserved a chance to know Tony.

This was simply the right thing to do.

Alvin reached the front door, opened it, and keyed in the code to raise the barricade on that door alone. He hit "enter," then stared in annoyance at the barricade as it refused to open. Then the house A.I. spoke:

"Wind velocity has reached 330 kph outside, and a three-meter storm surge is moving this way. Egress is denied."

"Hmmm," Alvin said to himself, then played out the fiber optic filament he'd used to jack into Valerie's computer and plugged it into the slot above the keypad. Instantly the environment of the house's matrix surrounded him. He located the routings governing the barricade quickly, and attempted to reconfigure them. As soon as he set to work, though, he felt a sudden, severe disassociation. When his awareness returned, he found he'd been expelled and blocked from the system.

He snatched the filament back, then knelt at the base of the barricade. Wedging his fingers as far under the lip as he could, he braced his carbon composite frame, and hauled upwards. Metal screamed as the locking pins wrenched free of their moorings, and wind and rain assaulted him immediately. He raised the door up just enough to slip underneath, bracing himself against the wind that tore at him. Then he slammed the barricade back into position, and used the spot-welder in his middle fingertip to seal it.

That will have to do, he said to himself. The he turned to face the storm. The center of the cell still lay off shore almost two miles away. He activated his onboard telemetry, and got a spotty Com SAT feed showing him a view of the coast. He zoomed in and saw that the surge had come almost a mile inland so far. By the time it reached his current location, it would probably be more than a meter. Enough to seriously injure or even drown a human, but Alvin -- as he'd been painfully made aware -- was not human. The wind blew hard, fluctuating between 310 and 330 kph. More than enough to make traversing the city difficult, even for someone of his strength, because a good deal of that strength came from his carbon composite plasteel construction. He'd have to take a low profile, then. He lowered his body, his legs swiveling around at the hip joint until they faced backwards. Then his feet twisted around until they sat backwards in relation to his legs. Not very pretty, he reasoned, but much better suited for his purposes. He took off down the street, crab-fashion, while he tried to get a Com SAT fix on Tony's mobile phone.

Com SAT data came intermittently, and cloud cover prevented Alvin from getting a decent satellite image of the George W. Bush Bridge. Frustrated, he resigned himself to waiting until he got in the vicinity of the bridge itself, hoping that there he would be able to pick up the signal.

He threaded his way through the streets as quickly as he dared; the wind had intensified as the eye crept closer to landfall. Twice he had lost his footing and had been pushed a meter or two by the wind, so he tried as best as he could to take advantage of the scant protection offered by the buildings along his path. He rounded the corner of the South Carolina United Bank at 14th Avenue and Dogwood Drive, and stopped cold. A wall of water two and a half meters high rushed down 17th, pushing a '37 Andromeda directly at him. With little time to react, Alvin anchored himself to a street light pole, wrapping his arms and legs around it as tightly as his servos would allow.

The water hit first, and despite his strength, pulled his legs loose from the pole. The car struck him in the back, a glancing blow, but he felt the carbon composite give, felt the simulated musculature tense and strengthen to absorb the impact, but even though the tensile strength of those elements exceeded that of flesh and bone by a factor of twenty, he still felt and heard the stainless steel rotor joint in his right shoulder crack. He let go with that hand as fiber optic "nerves" misfired, causing it to spasm. He dug deeply into the shell of the pole with his left hand, feeling the synthskin on his fingers tearing away, and the steel skin of the pole gouging beneath his fingertips.

He held on, his muscles sending alarms to his neural network as they fought to compensate for the strain of keeping his 150-kilo body from being wrenched away. He held on while the bulk of the surge passed him, then a few minutes later, he felt his feet touch the pavement as the force of it dissipated. Once he could stand, he waited another minute or so before he dared to wade through the knee-deep debris-laden water that filled the streets around him. No bodies, though, and he was thankful for that. He was the only one crazy enough to be out in this.

Would Tony care? Would he realize what Alvin had risked to save him? Alvin didn't stop to try to answer these questions. The G.W. lay just a mile east of his current position, and the wind had kicked up to 350 kph as the eye rushed towards landfall. He could wade, but it would be slow going, fighting both the water and the wind. Better, he thought, to swim.

Unfortunately, he had too much weight for something so elegant. What he did instead was sink, then gouge his fingers into the pavement and pull himself along. Not quickly, and he left quite a bit more synthskin behind, but he still moved faster than he would wading.

Ten minutes later, he broke the surface near the southbound off ramp of the G.W. The eye had passed over while he "swam" and the wind had dropped back down to 215 kph. Here, the leftover surge came only to mid-shin, but the current was strong as it ran off into the Dogwood Canal, and back out to sea.

The damage to the bridge surprised him, at first. Then he saw the scorch marks, and knew the bridge had been struck by lightning, a bolt so massive the grounding of the bridge hadn't been able to compensate. The concrete piling at the end of the southbound lane had literally exploded, the tiny air bubbles inside the structure superheated in an instant, their gaseous nature forced to expand, to go somewhere. And there, balanced precariously on its nose, rear wheels perched on the broken ramp, sat Tony's truck. It rocked almost constantly in the steady, driving wind. As Alvin briefly surveyed the scene, he saw the front end of the truck shift slightly; water runoff was slowly washing the support from under the front grill where it lodged in the mud. Even at maximum zoom and resolution, Alvin couldn't make out any details through the cracked windscreen. But he did see blood.

Alvin forced his way through the water, fighting the wind until he reached the broken edge of the off ramp. He calculated that twelve point seven meters separated him from the other broken edge. A hard jump even without the wind. Nearly impossible with. He scanned around for other possible approaches. He could travel underneath the bridge, come up on the northbound ramp, and try to cross that way . . . he might be able to cross at the piling using a maintenance catwalk . . .

He heard a faint cry for help from the truck.

Deciding he had no more time to waste, Alvin squatted, made some quick calculations relating to angle and wind velocity, and then launched himself across the breach. As he leapt, he felt the wind gust several kph faster. He twisted in midair, angling his body differently and hoped for the best. His waist slammed into the broken edge of the off ramp, and he scrambled quickly for purchase, feeling his damaged shoulder protest. Alarms flashed in his optical display which he ignored. He caught hold of a twisted piece of rebar sticking out of the concrete, hanging there for a moment as the wind tried to rip him away. Then he levered himself up onto the off ramp.

The truck hung a few meters away. Still keeping a low profile to the wind, Alvin inched over to it, calculating what he would do once he got there. The truck's position wouldn't allow for much more added weight. And he saw no way to further secure the vehicle and keep it from tipping over. He'd have to be very careful, he decided. He reached the end of the truck, where it rested against the broken edge of the ramp, and adjusted his external vocal volume so he could be heard over the wind.

"Hello? Are you injured?"

"Help!" Tony, definitely. Alvin could tell by the timbre and inflection, even though the man screamed hoarsely. "Help me!"

"Tony Gardner, are you or your companion injured?"

"My leg!" came the reply. "It's broken, I think. And I hit my head!" He paused, for long enough that Alvin made ready to ask again about the other occupant, but then Tony said, "Frank's dead, I think. He's not breathing, and there's blood all over his head."

Alvin braced himself against a sudden gust of wind and analyzed the situation. He'd have to climb down. He didn't see a way around it. Adding his weight to the outside of the truck though, disturbing its already precarious balance . . . that would cause problems.

Unless . . .

"Tony!" he called out. "Is there a window in the back of the cab?"

"What? A window? Yeah, there is! Why?"

"Hold tight," Alvin said, though he knew that no matter how tightly Tony held onto anything, it would not stop the truck from tipping over. "I am coming to get you."

Alvin moved to the back of the truck, to the door at the rear of the cargo compartment. He broke the lock without effort, and carefully opened the door, taking note of how much the truck's weight shifted when the door opened enough to catch the wind. He levered it down into the fully open position, jumping back as the wind tore it from his grasp to slam it against the side of the truck. The truck lurched half a meter or so, but held. Tony screamed. Alvin ignored him.

Fortunately, Tony and his partner had completed all their deliveries and the trailer was empty. Of course, the forward wall had no window to match the one in the cab, but that wouldn't be a problem. The walls of the trailer were made of thin aluminum. The eighty-degree angle of the floor was a different story.

He turned, and lowered himself into the trailer. Holding onto the bed lip with his left hand, he dug his fingertips into the thicker aluminum plating of the bed itself, noting the alarms from his shoulder. He squeezed to make a handgrip, then lowered himself with the right arm and repeated the action with his left. He did this until he stood on the tilted forward wall of the trailer.

The trailer had begun to fill up with rain as he'd descended, and he knelt in water a few centimeters deep, testing the tensile strength of the aluminum wall with his fingertips. A few millimeters thick at most. He pushed, piercing the thin metal with his fingertips and tearing it back as if peeling an orange.

He could see the window in the back of the cab, and Tony's frantic expression framed within it, his fingers clawing at the glass. Alvin had to wave him away twice before the man understood, and moved, covering his eyes. Then Alvin punched the glass out. Most of it shattered into the cab, but a few jagged pieces remained. Alvin smacked these away. Tony tried to scramble through the hole, but Alvin stopped him. "Are you sure this man is dead?"

Tony hesitated, fixing Alvin with a look of contempt. An android, mistrusting him? Then he nodded. "Yeah, pretty sure. I told you he wasn't breathing."

Alvin nodded. "Well, I would like to make very sure."

"Whatever, toaster. Why are you here, anyway?"

Alvin ignored him, reaching through the window frame to place his fingertips on Frank's throat. Body temperature a cool ninety point seven degrees, and Alvin felt no pulse in the carotid. Judging by the bloody impact shatter on the windshield, and Frank's lack of a seatbelt, Alvin assumed his skull had been crushed.

The wind gusted, much harder this time, and the truck shifted position again.

"Okay, screw this!" Tony said. "Frank's dead. Get me out of here before I am too. That's a damned order!"

Alvin looked at him, resisting the urge to simply leave the man there to die.

"What's the matter with you, toaster? Get me out of here! You know the Laws. You have to save me!"

Alvin nodded. "I am aware of the Laws, Tony Gardner. But there is something you must know before I remove you from this predicament.

"I am different. I am self-aware, human -- and I use that term loosely for one such as you -- and I feel. Were it left to me, you would rot at the bottom of this river, and I would gladly take you there myself.

"I am here because I made a promise to your daughter; because in the infinite compassion of a child, she loves you. She cannot see that you are of the worst, most insidious kinds of evil that exist. Nothing you do serves any purposes but your own, Tony Gardner. And the worst part of this is that you believe you have the right to act this way.

"It needs to end here, today, Tony Gardner. The logical course of action would be to let you die, or to kill you myself. Everyone whose life has been touched by you would be much better off.

"But your daughter loves you. As Valerie once did, too."

Tony stared in shock as Alvin spoke.

"What I do today," Alvin finished, "I do for them, not for you." Alvin reached inside the cab and grabbed Tony's shirtfront, pulling him towards the window frame. Tony had just enough time to duck his head, screaming all through it about his leg, before Alvin hauled him through the hole.

Holding the man up, Alvin told him, "Wrap your arms around my neck. Hold tight, and I will climb out." Tony said nothing, just glared at the android while Alvin got a secure handhold. Then he held on as Alvin had said, while the droid started to climb. Alvin was one handhold from the bed lip when the wind gusted again, and the truck lurched violently. By the size and direction of the shift -- cab end sliding to Alvin's left -- Alvin knew that whatever ground had been supporting the nose of the truck had finally given way.

He reacted instantly, using his mechanical strength to launch them upwards out of the cargo compartment onto the surface of the off ramp. They barely made it, Alvin just catching the edge of the ramp with his hands. He hung there for a moment, then moved to pull their combined weight onto the ramp.

Concrete crumbled under his left hand, and suddenly he clung with only his right. Tony slipped loose from his neck and slid down his back. Only Alvin's reflexes enabled him to grab Tony's shirt and keep him from tumbling after the truck, which slid into the river.

Servos whined at the strain, and alarms appeared in his opticals, warning that his damaged shoulder was in danger of failing completely. The stress he'd put it through had widened the cracks in the rotor joint, and only a matter of moments remained before it separated completely.

He had no choice. He looked down at Tony, dangling at the end of his good arm, face ashen and wide-eyed with terror, and said, "Be worthy of this," and hurled Tony overhand onto the surface of the off ramp. The strain proved too much for the shoulder -- but then, Alvin had known it would. The rotor joint cracked the rest of the way through. His carapace simply wasn't strong enough to support his weight anymore, and in an instant he fell through the air, watching his one arm curiously still gripping the edge of the ramp. Then he struck soft mud and torrential water, sliding headfirst on his back down the incline to the river. He tried to arrest his descent -- despite his noble intentions he had no desire to terminate his functions -- but he slid too fast, and the mud was too slick and soft to provide any purchase for his single grasping hand. In moments, he slid over the bank and into the river.

Had he been whole, he would have simply sunk to the bottom, then worked his way back to the bank. But with the gap where his shoulder had wrenched out, he could feel the frigid water seeping into his circuitry, flowing through every unobstructed pathway until every empty space within his body had been filled by it. Mechanical parts seized up. Electrical parts shorted out. Alvin's thought processes skipped, skittered. His optical displays faded. In moments, they died out completely, and then a few seconds later, so did Alvin.

Were this a perfect world, Tony would have been forever altered by his experience. He would have been forever altered by the android's sacrifice, indebted to the "toaster" that had given his life so that one child might not cry herself to sleep for many years to come.

But this is not a perfect world, and people only change like that on the TriV. In the real world, if people make those kinds of changes, it is because they want to. And Tony Gardner didn't want to. You see, Alvin had been right; Tony thought he had a right to act the way he did, and he could never quite divorce himself of that conclusion. His perspective on the world was the only one he believed in. Call it a safety mechanism, a product of environment or bad rearing, even genetics . . . the end result is that after a brief period of humility -- and by brief I mean a couple weeks -- he was back to his old self again. I think, perhaps, that my father had just been living that way for too long. My mother eventually left him, less than a year after the storm. They fought in court for a bit over the money -- she had to tell him about it eventually; even though they'd never legally married, the state common-law marriage laws provided him a share. Not a huge share, but a share nonetheless. It was enough for him to live comfortably for a while.

They fought over custody, too, but even then I knew that he only did it to hurt her, and not for any care for my well being.

He died a few years ago, the same man he was when I was a child. Bitter, resentful and envious of those who had "more," feeling that life had dealt him the short stick from the beginning. I saw him through different eyes then, and though I stilled loved him for who he was, it saddened me to see him die with such blackness in his heart.

Alvin's body was never recovered. CyberLogik offered her a new Alvin, kind of a token gesture/publicity gimmick. After all, one of their units had given up its existence to save a single human life. They had to figure out how to make a buck off of that. Mom politely declined, saying it wouldn't be the same. She didn't offer any explanation why, and I only found out myself a few weeks ago, just before she died.

I'd always wondered why she'd never gotten involved with anyone else after my father. She was still young, and beautiful, and had several men pursuing her. She always told me it wasn't something she felt she needed to do. Just before she died though, she told me the truth.

When they'd been connected to Mom's computer, sharing Alvin's dreams, he'd left something of himself there, an open link. When he'd "died," some of his memories, his consciousness, went there. A miracle, really, with all of the electrical activity in the storm. Or maybe because of it. At any rate, the essence of Alvin survived.

They could have downloaded that essence into a new Alvin, but CyberLogik refused to give, or even sell her a "blank," with no operating systems at all. And neither Alvin nor my Mom could bear the thought of "killing" an Alvin by doing a wipe. The framework existed, she said, for every Alvin to become as self-aware as our Alvin had been. They didn't want to rob even one Alvin of the chance to experience what they had. And as we saw in the A.I. Independence Act of 2097, they were right. The Android Nation thrives, and they live, laugh, love just like humans do. They've even devised a way to mimic human reproduction. Alvin could have gone there when Mom died, gotten a new Mechanid body, and lived and loved on. I begged him to . . . but he refused.

He would never love anyone else the way he'd loved my mother, he said. What point was there in going on after she was gone?

His last request was that he be powered down, deactivated, and the hard drive that housed him be buried with my Mom. I could barely find the "off" switch because of the tears in my eyes, but I honored that last request to the letter, and laid them to rest together .

They deserved nothing less. They had both paid the price of love, hadn't they?

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