Three months into his stay at the Europa Base psychiatric facility, Roland had fallen into a tolerable routine. Tolerable that is, within the confines of imprisonment, degradation and permanent loss of status. Yet in every respect that mattered, his trial judge had done him a great favor by classifying him as “troubled” rather than “criminal.”
Though his lodgings were depressingly communal, as were the sanitary facilities, both were kept spotless by a team of servicebots. Though his prison garb was scratchy and ill-fitting, it was laundered regularly, as were the dull gray sheets on his narrow cot. He had a guaranteed shower time, three meals a day and the freedom to browse the facility’s library when his schedule allowed.
Otherwise, his days were taken up with mandatory counseling sessions and a rotational shift in either the hydroponics shed, the kitchen or the tech shop, where he was trained to make simple repairs in innumerable electronic gadgets. Some of these he found quite astonishing, as their design and function dated from decades in the past.
Like working in a museum. he told himself.
In fact, many aspects of the Europa Base facility hailed from the time before the Kaltreen. For though the aliens had stolen human freedom they had given their new subjects a much higher standard of living. Or so it seemed, to someone like Roland, who had been thoroughly indoctrinated as a child to believe the Kaltreen version of Earth history.
So while Roland was hardly content with his life, the paralyzing uncertainty of the first few weeks had faded. He knew what was expected of him and willed himself to follow the path of least resistance. Before long, he was even rewarded for his compliance. He was given a berth in one of the smaller bunkers which were arranged more like hotel suites, around a central common room. It was there that he met Ursula Paulsen.
On an ordinary weekday afternoon, as Roland returned from the second of two daily counselling sessions and was preparing himself mentally for his evening shift in the kitchens, he was surprised to find a new resident unpacking her things in a previously unoccupied room.
Slender, with wispy black hair and a look of persistent worry about her deep blue eyes, Ursula was an arresting presence that caught Roland’s attention at once. Whisked away from normal human society as a child, raised and educated by Kaltreen androids, and immediately pressed into the civil service, Roland had never had any deep emotional attachments outside of his family. He’d certainly never had a “girlfriend.”
But one look at Ursula in the straightened circumstance of imprisonment and his now unimplanted mind flooded with a host of unfamiliar sensations. From their first awkward conversation, he was as fascinated by her as he was with fascination itself. How, he wondered, was it possible for anyone to have such a powerful effect on him? No less confusing was his physical response, a range of sensory experiences that his Kaltreen implants had systematically suppressed.
And yet, despite feeling desperately out of control and therefore unappealing, he couldn’t escape the thought that Ursula liked him. Actually. Liked. Him.
Now what? he wondered.
Even more perplexing was the way she spoke — as if they’d known each other for years.
“Could you help me shift my furniture around a bit?” she asked. “I can’t stand having my bed smack up against the wall.”
Roland looked into her bright eyes and fought hard not to say something stupid. But it was no use.“Probably would be better for the wall, too,” he said. “I mean, you not bumping into it.”
Ursula let out a little laugh.
“Your so funny” she said. “Come on, I’ll show you what I have in mind.”
Together, they spent all the available time until Roland’s kitchen shift, rearranging her room, asking shy questions about what had led them to Europa Base.
“Sounds like what happened to me,” said Ursula. “Except worse. You better get going.”
“Will tiy still be up when I get off work?” he asked.
“Dunno,” said Ursula. “Maybe you’d better kiss me now just to be sure. What do you think?”
Roland’s head spun, his heart pounded, but he managed to pull her close with surprising grace and kiss her softly.
“So?” she asked. “Will you think of me while your peeling potatoes?”
“They have a machine that…” said Roland. Ursula put her hand over his mouth.
“The right answer is ‘yes.’ she said. “It’s my answer, too.”
(To be continued)
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