FROM CHAPTER FOUR
High above the surface of Earth, Masumichi Shikoba headed back toward the two-level suite, now in the final stages of being fitted out, that would be his personal quarters in the three-miles-long, six- miles-around orbiting Aurora. His first premonition that something was amiss came when he emerged from an elevator into the gallery running through the complex of residential units and saw the scattering of twigs and leaves forming a trail along a side corridor to end at his front door. He turned his face toward the lens in the panel alongside, opened the door with a voiced command, entered warily . . . and stopped, stunned.
To facilitate free expression and cater to individual preferences, the Aurora's design made extensive use of modular constructions that could be configured into whatever style of space the occupants desired. Masumichi had specified a simple layout of sleeping and living space above and a personal working area for his robotics research below, with a spiral stairway connecting the two. Instead, a circular opening eight feet or so across had appeared in the ceiling, making way for the trunk and branches of what, from the leaves that he could see above, appeared to be a young sycamore tree. Its base was encased in some kind of temporary structure covered by plastic sheeting. The two robots that he was developing as general-purpose prototypes and assigning various construction tasks as test projects regarded him dutifully. They had universally pivoting heads with wide-angle and narrow focus lenses for all-round viewing, and bulky torsos sprouting slender, bi-tubular limbs with bulbous joints, giving them somewhat the appearance of metallic stick men with mantis heads. Masumichi had left them with a decorating job, evidenced by their generous splattering of paint.
"What's this?" he inquired, gesturing at the tree.
"That's the tree," GPP-1/B informed him.
"You told us to paint a tree in the lower level. There wasn't a tree there, so we got one from the Bot and Ag Conservatory. What color do you want it?"
The robot seemed to register the sinking feeling that Masumichi was trying not to show. "Er, we weren't sure about going through to upstairs. It didn't seem right to cut it and just use half. . . . We could get a shorter one if you like."
"Bot and Ag people very cooperative," GPP-1/A put in. "Like having plant things grow anywhere possible."
Masumichi could see his mistake. "I meant a picture of one--a mural, after you'd done the walls," he said resignedly.
1/B and 1/A looked at each other with what could have passed as mutual recrimination, but Masumichi dismissed the impression as subjective. Whatever electronic exchanges might have flowed between them were lost on him. While he was still grappling in befuddlement with how best to handle things, voices sounded in the open doorway behind.
"Ah yes, he's back."
"Masumichi, what's all the mess on the floor out here? Are you planting a forest?"
It was Helmut Goben, whose work lay in mapping biological molecular machinery, and his partner, Sonja Taag, a teacher. With them was a slim, fair-haired girl in her twenties that Masumichi didn't know. Before he could stop them or say anything, they had come on in.
"We stopped by earlier, but you were out," Helmut went on. "We're looking for some ideas on . . ." His voice trailed off as they stopped, staring in astonishment. Masumichi, too embarrassed to speak, showed his teeth in a parody of a smile. The two robot geniuses stood motionless.
Sonja walked slowly around the base of the tree, turned to assess the proportions of the space that it was standing in, then looked up at the terrace that the upper floor had become, encircling the upper parts. Hemut moved to the bottom of the spiral stairs to contemplate the effect from there.
"It's brilliant!" Sonja breathed wonderingly. "The harmonizing of life's natural rhythms with personal growth and spiritual space. Oh, Helmut, we must do something like this!"
"You, ah . . . like it?" Masumichi checked uncertainly.
"I take it that the living area will be above, embracing the leafage from all sides as an integral part of the mood," Helmut observed. "While the trunk down here in the lab area symbolizes the constant thrust and direction of our work toward higher things and a richer understanding of life. Truly inspired, Masumichi. However did you think of it?"
"Ah, hum, as you say, just an inspiration, I guess," was all that Masumichi could muster by way of return just at that instant. To one side, GPP-1/B shuffled its feet in a way that could have meant anything.
"And the way it brings together the two extremes of . . ." Helmut checked himself and glanced at the fair-haired girl, who had followed them in. "But we're forgetting our manners. Masumichi, we'd like you to meet Fave, who only came up in the last few days. She's from the Breeton islands." They were located to the west of the main northern land mass, which still went by its old-word name of "Asia." The western fringe was a region where significant amounts of old-world learning and technological abilities were beginning to reappear.
"Our privilege to have you with us," Masumichi said, giving the normal form of welcome to a newcomer aboard.
"Mine entirely," Fave responded.
"So will Fave be working with you?" Masumichi asked Helmut.
"Oh no. We just met her by chance at the game yesterday."
Masumichi interrogated Fave with his eyes for a moment. "Something medical," he pronounced. "Herbs and plant remedies, or pharmaceuticals."
She shook her head and laughed. "Nothing like that. Singing and dance."
Well, that was a good thing too, Masumichi thought to himself. He had been involved with the Aurora program since the early days and had always favored a population made up from as wide a variety of knowledge, talents, and points of view as possible. He thought that many of the scheme's architects tended to focus too narrowly on recruiting individuals from backgrounds offering immediate material benefit to the enterprise, which he feared would result in a society that was overly pragmatic and utilitarian, losing much of the richness of what it meant to be human. Creative originality couldn't be commanded by planning committees. Fortunately, those who shared this view had prevailed.
"So you are the one who works with robots," Fave went on. "Helmut tells me you designed the lattice-crawlers and manipulator pods that assembled the ship."
"Well, I was one of the people involved," Masumichi agreed.
"And those are yours too?" Fave indicated the two GPPs looking on silently.
"In the experimental stage at present," Masumichi told her. "The aim is general-purpose helpers that can be directed via natural language. They're fitting out and decorating the suite, as you can no doubt tell."
"How about ones that can dance?" Fave suggested.
"Now there's a thought," Masumichi said. "But the dynamics involved are a lot more complicated than you probably think."
"But even young children can do it."
Masumichi smiled. "Many of the most complex things in life give an illusion of being simple because they are done unconsciously. But it's precisely because we do them unconsciously that makes it so difficult to understand how we do them. Decoding natural language is another example."
"If you let him get started on this, we'll be here all day," Helmut warned Fave.
"But I'm interested," Fave said.
"We have years ahead of us," Sonja reminded her.
A tone sounded from Masumichi's phone. He pulled it from his jacket pocket and answered. The caller was Iver, an operator in an observation section in the Surface Operations branch of the Aurora's Command Directorate, which was where Masumichi had just returned from. Surface Operations was responsible for communications and liaison with the ground bases, and maintained a network of control rooms and facilities through the ship.
"The identification that you were looking for just came in," Iver informed Masumichi. "Location confirmed and situation appears stable. Shall I send through the details?"
Masumichi thought for several seconds. "I'd rather come back there and see for myself," he said finally. "Just a moment, Iver." He turned to the others, who were watching. "Something's come up that I've been waiting for. I really need to go and check. Would you excuse me? As Sonja says, we've got years to talk about robots."
"Not at all," Helmut said. "We're the ones who showed up unannounced."
"You can stay on and look around some more if you wish," Masumichi offered." "I'd love to," Sonja said. "We might pick up some more ideas. You're sure you wouldn't mind?"
Masumichi waved an arm around in the way of a host giving them free run of the place. "Go ahead. It's not as if I've moved in yet. These are GPP-1/A and 1/B. They can help with any questions. It will be a good test for their language processors too." And then, into the phone, "I'm on my way back. See you in a few minutes."
"Check," Iver acknowledged, and hung up.