He leaned toward her. "You're the most disciplined, grounded person I know, Claire. I've never seen anyone hit the ground running the way you did. Nothing rattles you. If you had a psycher mind, you would be something else on the bionet."
She could tel him. He wouldn't betray her. She could "I feel at ease with you," he said. "Your mind is so calm.
Every day I deal with people whose minds are a source of constant noise. When we work together, I can final y relax."
She almost screamed in frustration.
"You understand the way I think. I want you to know that I value that greatly. I promise, I won't put you into a harm's way again. It took courage to handle it the way you've done.
You stood by me. Not many employees would in your place.
I won't ever forget that."
Employee... That's what she was, an employee. She shouldn't have deluded herself.
"Did I say something unpleasant?" he asked.
"Not at all. I just realized it's late. I should be getting home." He would never see her anything else. She was Claire with a quiet mind. That was her value to him. She had mistaken his friendliness and concern for something deeper.
"I'll walk you to the ground floor."
She rose. "It's alright. I know the way."
Ven got up. "Let me walk you down."
She turned and looked at him, keeping her voice flat.
"It's not necessary. Thank you for the meal."
Claire turned and walked away.
"One blue pepper, cut into strips," the Artificial Intel igence announced.
Claire surveyed the smal heap of ingredients on her kitchen island. "Define blue pepper."
"Blue pepper: pungent fruit of a Moloccy species rich in lycopene and Vitamin C. Flavor: sweet, slightly bitter.
Appearance: dark blue, cylindrical shape tapering toward the tip."
The picture of a blue pepper ignited on the kitchen's digital screen. Claire plucked the pepper from the bunch and placed it on her cutting board. "Demonstrate."
The AI opened a frame showing a woman deftly chopping the pepper into five mil imeter wide rings.
Claire watched it for a few seconds, picked up the knife, and chopped the pepper.
It was Saturday morning and she had woken up with a sudden need to prove to herself that she could cook.
Immigration had ful y stocked her refrigerator with raw ingredients, so she set them out on the counter and had the AI run a comprehensive analysis finding a combination that would result in a beginner-level recipe.
"One peeled compa, cut into strips."
"Compa: fleshy fruit of Karlovskaya species, rich in Vitamin A. Flavor: sour, with sweet aftertaste. Appearance: red tetrahedron with rounded corners."
Claire picked out a rough pyramid-looking red fruit.
The woman on the screen scraped the compa with some sort of implement that did not look like a knife. Claire pul ed open the kitchen drawers, rummaging through until she found a similar looking tool.
A soft chime rang through her apartment.
"You have visitors," the AI announced dutiful y.
Venturo. Her heart hammered. Her mouth went dry.
"Visual," she said.
The screen ignited. Claire's heart sank. Tonya stood at the door, accompanied by an old man and another that looked in his early forties.
She clenched her teeth, furious with herself. This obsession with Ven had to end. It was turning her into an nervous wreck, catapulting her from one emotional extreme to the next. Enough was enough. Claire exhaled, finding calm.
"Open," she said.
The door swung open, and Tonya and the man in his forties bowed, letting the older one through the door first.
Claire wiped her hands on the kitchen towel and walked up to greet them.
The older man examined her, taking her measure. Age whitened his hair, and he walked leaning on a cane, by the eyes that looked at her from under the thick eyebrows remained sharp. He was carrying a satchel. The other man hovered protectively over him. She didn't recognize either of them.
Tonya approached. "Retainer Shannon, we are sorry to cal on you so early in the morning, but our need is great.
This is Doreem Nagi, our Building Elder, and Charles Monn."
Claire inclined her head, touching her forehead in a sign of respect. "Thank you for looking after my mother."
Doreem nodded to her.
"We seek your help," Tonya said.
"Please sit down." Claire led them to the couches.
Everyone took a seat.
Charles reached into his shirt and pul ed out a smal tablet. On it an image of a blond teenage boy glowed. The boy's face wore the familiar Uley expression: a flat mask, betraying nothing.
"This is Edu," Charles said. "He's fourteen."
The image slid, turning into a portrait of a teenage girl.
Another image, another child. "Karim."
"They are children from our building, refugees like us,"
"They got into a fight at school," Charles said. "With some local kids. One of the local boys involved claimed that his dagger was stolen in the commotion. The dagger was found on the boy's desk the next day with a broken blade.
The dagger is a family heirloom. The school is will ing to overlook the fight, but the child's family is upset."
"The security forces took the dagger," Tonya added.
"For trace testing."
"The children were questioned," Charles said. "None of the three is admitting to theft and neither are they denying it. They aren't speaking to authorities."
It was a familiar tactic: when in trouble, say nothing. "I see."
"If traces of their DNA are found on the dagger, they will be charged with theft and destruction of property. The charge violates their probation. The children will be taken from their families and deported," Charles said.
"Did they steal the dagger?" Claire asked.
"Yes," Doreem said. "Edu took it to punish the other child. Edu is my grandson. Karim and Lada helped."
"We've offered to make reparation to the boy's family,"
Charles said. "In exchange for dropping the inquest. They declined."
"We ask you to..." Tonya fell silent and glanced at Charles. They looked at their hands, uncomfortable.
"We need your help," he said. "The results of the testing must be negative."
"You want me to log into the bionet and alter the trace analysis?"
"Yes." Tonya exhaled.