It was a crisp fall morning — bright and clear, the rocky slopes ablaze with turning leaves, and far too beautiful to suit Pamela Cunningham's aching and still-bewildered heart — when the phone call came, disturbing the quiet of her mountain home's kitchen with a soft but piercing warble. She briefly considered not answering it at all, especially when she saw the name and source that came up on call display, but when it had rung ten times she at last conceded the point and rose from the breakfast nook, abandoning her cup of black coffee to cross the gleaming white-tiled floor and answer it.
"Hello?" It took every ounce of self-control she had to be pleasant rather than ripping the head off of —
"Hello, Pam?" It was indeed Asheed Amroliwallah, Public Relations Division Head at Cybertronics Manhattan. "Thank goodness you're home! I hope I'm not calling at a bad time?"
The man I love just left me for a preening, strutting conglomeration of wires and gears, she nearly snapped, how do you think I'm feeling? Instead she spoke quietly and evenly: after all, she still wanted to be able to tap this particular source for insider information in the future. "Not at all, Asheed. I was just having a cup of coffee and reading the morning paper. What can I do for you?"
Asheed was one of the most glib and garrulous men Pamela had ever had the pleasure of meeting, never at a loss for a quip or a smooth turn of phrase — but now, anomalously, he hesitated. "Actually, it's not what you can do for me — it's…" A surprising little cough. "We've got a problem here, and frankly I'm not sure who else to turn to."
Pamela shifted her gaze from the middle distance to the stunning mountainous vista outside the wrap-around windows of her kitchen, her frown deepening to one of annoyance. "Is this about that article I wrote for the National Sentinel three months ago? Because I thought I was perfectly clear about the potential ramifications of —"
"The article?" For an instant he sounded perplexed; then he laughed, a strange little bark of sound. "God, no! I only wish it was! Pam… it's about Allen Hobby."
Her heart sank and soared in the same impulsive leap of feeling, creating a highly unpleasant disorienting moment of emotional whiplash. She kept her tone neutral. "Allen? I haven't seen him or spoken to him in eight days."
"I know you haven't." He still sounded uncomfortable, but the easy flow of words was back in action. "And I know why, I think — or at least, I know what people are saying about it. But that's neither here nor there. Pam, something's gone wrong. Badly wrong. And I don't just mean between you and Allen."
The surge of grief those words provoked managed to catch her by surprise. She closed her eyes and rubbed at a sudden throbbing ache in the middle of her forehead, dimly amazed that she wasn't used to it yet, this pain of separation that was over a week old. "Asheed, get to the point. Please?"
Another hesitation on the line. "I think you need to come to Cybertonics Manhattan."
That made her drop her hand and stare again, as if the small dark neatly-groomed younger man was standing right in front of her. "What?"
"He needs you," Asheed insisted in a rush. "I know — things are over between you, aren't they?"
"Yes." She felt the old fury, mixed with a healthy dose of helpless perplexity, stiffen her spine. "He made that perfectly clear to me."
"Well, he needs you as a friend right now. Pam… he's a real mess. He's not eating, he's not sleeping, he's barely talking to anybody except his grad students, holed up in his workshop, working night and day without —"
The picture that was forming in her mind of the man she had always known as perfectly poised and supremely dignified was so distressing that it prompted her to interrupt yet again: "What's going on? Is he — is he ill?"
"It's Joe." Now he sounded weary. "Something's happened to Joe, and Allen's coming unglued. He looks right through me when I try to talk to him about it, but I thought maybe you could reach him… if you'll come here, because I have about as much chance of convincing him to leave that mecha's side right now as I do of flying to the moon under my own power."
She realized that her hand was wrapped white-knuckled around the receiver, but the awareness of her own loss of control was dim and distant. "What happened?"
"I don't know," Asheed said almost despairingly, "because I can't understand half of the explanation he — or rather, one of his students — gave me. Something about interrupt prompts not being serviced… does that mean anything to you?"
A cube malfunction. "Actually, it does. When did this happen?"
"Just before he came back from visiting you. It seems that Joe ran away into the woods while they were en route to Boulder, and got bogged down in a quicksand pit or something. And shot, but I don't think that's part of the current problem."
Pamela's heart clenched reflexively, once again in response to two completely different emotions: a mean-spirited gladness that the wretched machine had finally done something that clearly revealed how twisted its behavioural matrix was, and sympathy for what Allen, with his deep and unhealthy attachment to it, must be going through. She didn't want to feel sorry for him, not after the choice he'd made and what he'd done to her, and yet…
"We've got a copter on standby to bring you in from Boulder," Asheed was saying, "and we can have it there in four hours, or whenever you'd be ready to fly out." It was a powerful statement that someone much higher up the chain of command than he had taken an interest in this matter, but Pamela decided that nothing would be gained by pointing out the obvious. "Like I said, I don't know who else he'd listen to right now, if not you."
She drew a slow deep breath and forced her hand to relax, at least enough that her knuckles were no longer white. "And what, exactly, do you expect me to do once I get there?"
"Talk to him, Pam." Now he was wheedling, and she didn't miss the motivational trick he was employing by repeating her name so frequently. "It's like he's on another planet right now, and we need you to bring him back down to earth."
An expectant pause. Pamela closed her eyes again as her mind replayed, in fast-forward, her final encounter with Allen Hobby: the recriminations, the angrily rendered points and counterpoints, the shouting, culminating in her attempt to destroy the brain of the machine he adored so helplessly that he hadn't been able to bear separation from it for more than a few hours. She had failed, but it seemed that some other aspect of Fate had caught up with Joe instead.
Remembering the devastated expression on Allen's face as he'd fallen to his knees on the hearth, groping after Joe's cube, she knew that she was perfectly right to be enraged at his perversity — but that she also still loved him enough that she couldn't leave him to suffer whatever torment he was going through alone.
"I can be in Boulder in five hours," she said, giving herself enough time to pack both her own things and the personal effects that Allen had left behind when he'd hustled Joe away.
"Excellent!" Asheed's tone shifted instantly from grim and gloomy to positively cheerful. "That's brilliant! Thank you, Pam — you have no idea how much this means to me. To us. You know we're one big family here at Cybertronics, and —"
At last a burst of annoyance cracked her carefully maintained facade. "Just tell me what to look for when I get to the airport," she said sharply, and reached for pen and paper as Asheed began relating a set of detailed instructions. She jotted them down in shorthand, but only half her mind was thus engaged: the rest of her, in fact the better part of her, was imagining what it must have taken to reduce Allen Hobby to the state that Asheed had described, and was already starting to prepare herself for what she might find when she arrived at the lost city whose shattered towers rose above a cold and distant sea.