They were sitting around an outdoor cafe table, sipping GoLyfe. It was on a sort of raised hill, offering a view of much of the surrounding countryside, curving along the inside of the cylinder to the agrigultural toruses in the distance. At one time everything would have been green and lovely, but the growing shanty town that had swallowed nearby Sunbury ruined the effect.
"I stayed on the Celtic Reservation with my guru, Merlin Stewart. He's a druid." Butterfly St Clair had just returned from her annual trip to Earth, paid for by her parents, ostensibly to get a decent spiritual education, like every true aristocrat.
"What's a druid?" Bett asked. Her parents, unusual for landed gentry, were secularists.
"A holy man, a shaman. He's teaching me the language of the trees, the runes." Butterfly tossed her perfect head back, gold and emerald hair shimmering.
"Wow," said Amanda Chen, wide-eyed and worshipful as always. From her earrings her family's company logo flashed holographic images
"I spent two standard weeks on the reservation in Caledonia. Then I spent another two weeks travelling around Earth sight-seeing."
"Far out," said Amanda.
"You should've been there guys! The whole place is so big, bigger than Clarke Habitat, ten, a hundred, a thousand times bigger!" She threw out her arms, her gold and emerald cape - mimetically matched to her hair-colour - waving gracefully. "And when you look up," she threw her head back, "there's no fields or towns, only sky."
"Freaky!" said Amanda.
"And at night you see stars! No dome, no mirrors, nothing. Real stars."
"So?" Ath said. "I went to Mars for my eighteenth, and you could see the stars direct there too. And walk around also." It was daddy's birthday present, she got to talk to Daddy - or his persona - direct, no time lag. All expenses paid, best hotels, all the best sights: Olympus Mons, the Chryse Gold Coast....
"Yeah, but on Earth," Butterfly said cattily, "you don't need a respirator."
"That's right," Amanda nodded.
"And we got to realtime with all the sights," Butterfly said. "The Great Barrier Reef of Australia, the Pyramids of Giza, the Everglades of Florida. The Everglades is the best. They've made everything like it was before, they've even got dinosaurs, not just little ones like in the zoo here."
"Gee," said Bett, easily impressed.
"And when I was there they held a public execution for a guy who chopped down a protected tree without a permit."
"With replicants?" asked Bett.
"No-ohhh! Real. And I saw Antarctica and the Louve in Paris, and, hey, how about next year I get my folks to treat all you as well. It'll be great. You can meet my guru."
"I've already got a Roshi," said Ath.
"So, you can just muck around when I'm studying. Then we'll tourist."
"That'd be great Butterfly," Bett said. "If it's no trouble."
"'Course not. That's the advantage of having live parents," she smirked.
Ath stood up suddenly, almost knocking the table over. "Daddy's not dead!"
"Well he's flatline, or tissue-culture, or whatever it is."
"Hey Ath," Bett clasped her hand, "sit down." She looked at Butterfly. "You better apologise."
"Hmmph" Butterfly said.
Ath sat down again. She glared at Butterfly. "Even though he's in the AI-core, Daddy's a conscious entity, just like anyone in a body, which means he's a person, and I got my inheritance, so there!"
"I think twenty-one's too young for such a responsibility," said Amanda seriously. "I'm not getting mine until I'm twenty-five."
"Yes I'd rather wait till I'm old enough to know what to do with it," Butterfly agreed.
"I already know what I'm going to do with it," Ath said haughtily.
"You opted for appointed Member of GenTEK?" asked Bett.
"I could've, but I chose the liquid assets in conjunction with a Jupiter He portfolio."
"Jupiter He!!!" Bett's eyes are wide. "But that's a Shaper megacorp!"
"There a window of opportunity."
Butterfly leaned forward. "See? What'd I say? If you'd have been twenty-five you wouldn't have made such a dumb decision."
Ath glared at her again.
"Sorry Ath chikkababe, just trying to suggest what's best for your future." Genuine concern. "You should go for the big amat conglomerates. Bluechip investment." She was one of those wierd people who could go from first class bitch to first class friend, then back to bitch again. Then back to friend again. Ath wondered whether she had a psychoneuropeptide imbalance or something. Too many unknown gene combinations with all the fancy new stuff the gengineering megacorps are coming out with, that includes GenTEK she thought sadly; the upper classes seemed to be suffering more and more this sort of thing. At least Daddy tweaked her for optimal neurotransmitter performance.
"Thanks Butterfly. I know what's best."
"So you're in business yourself now," Bett said.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"It was going to be a surprise, I wasn't going to tell anyone till my expert systems had finalised everything, but this tweakbitch" - under the table she kicked Butterfly half affectionately, half angrily - "made me mad."
"Ah-ah," said Butterfly wagging her forefinger in front of her, "self control, first rule of the Masters".
Ath let out her breath in a long weary sigh. "Yeah. Roshi always tells me that too. Guess I'll never be a Master. Not in this life anyway."
"Well," Bett said, "who wants to be a Master anyway?"
Amanda chips in "I can see where your athiest upbringing comes in."
Bett looked at her sharply. "Oh really?"
"Cool it," said Butterfly. "We've already upset Ath. No more arguing for today. Ath, you okay?"
"I'm okay." Ath managed a smile.
"I'm sorry I said that stuff about your Dad. Being a flatline and all."
Ath looked down at the table. "That's alright. 'S true anyway."
"Shit, look at that place." Butterfly indicated the shanty town. "It gets bigger and uglier every day."
"Can't do anything," Bett said. "They're Magellan shareholders".
"Too many common proles from Earth coming up the Well," Amanda sniffs. "Should be a law."
"What's that haze?"
"I think it's smoke," said Amanda.
"Smoke?" Butterfly laughed. "They couldn't have that many hookahs going!"
Ath looked up and over at where they were indicated. "No, it's from burning wood and rubbish and stuff."
"What, from a fire?"
Ath nodded. "I guess so." She looked at her friend, whose face had paled.
"What're Security doing, sitting on their backsides? It's illegal!"
"Haven't you heard? The Sunbury Local Shire passed a bylaw, permitted controlled open flames for purposes of cooking and burning off non-toxic rubbish."
"I never interface the newsnet. It's boring and deppressing." She tossed her head and looked into the distance.
"What's going on in the world girl."
"Don't want to input it."
"I don't like interfacing the newscasts either," said Bett. "All the stuff about social dystopia and ghettos and info-terrorism and stuff."
And the wisps of smoke curled higher, fading into the cloud swirls along the long axis of the orbital.