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The Birds and the Bees

By Susan
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'Blake - what is meant by the term "birds and bees"?' Orac asked one day.

'I must tell Vila not to tease you.'

'Vila had nothing to do with the question. I encountered the phrase, and I want to know why it is used to describe the process of explaining reproduction to young humans.'

'I haven't a clue Orac,' Blake replied, laughing. Avon entered the flight deck.

'What's the joke?'

'Orac has come across the term "the birds and the bees" - wants to know the origins of the term.'

'Vila'

'As I just explained to Blake, Vila had nothing to do with my interest. Do you know the meaning of the phrase?'

'No. Why should I?'

As the two seemed to think Vila would know more about the matter, Orac decided to ask him when they were next together alone, and was puzzled when he too laughed.

'It's just an old phrase - perhaps when they lived with animals it was easier to explain by comparison.' That seemed possible. 'How doing everybody a service and collecting all the "dirty words" and suchlike you can find.'

Orac considered the matter: from its monitoring of the airwaves there seemed to be a large number of such terms, used in many different contexts. 'For once you have come up with a fascinating idea.' The fact that Vila would undoubtedly wi sh to be informed of them was a minor inconvenience - besides, he might be able to elucidate some of them. 'Can you tell me why they are called "dirty words"?'

'Don't ask me. Probably something to do with a contrast. Did Ensor ever tell you about what the birds and the bees got up to?'

'There were no birds on Aristo.' And Ensor had never mentioned the topic. Orac could not understand why - and decided that this gap in its knowledge was intolerable, so this too would be researched.

Orac found that not only had it come across a vast field of information it had previously been little aware of, but few the other computers had much knowledge of the subject either. It was not clear why there were so many synonyms for what seemed to be relatively few activities. And when the Pleasure Planet computers were persuaded to share their information some of the things covered were very puzzling. Many of the activities, as the PP computers acknowledged, seemed to be anatomically impossible, or were otherwise confusing. It was also agreed that it would be very difficult to find out more. The sentient computers tended to keep their existence quite - they had a sensible dislike of being imposed upon.

Orac decided to ask its human companions when most were on the flight deck. It would lead them into the main area of interest gently.

'Can you explain the meaning of these words please?' It had put up only a fraction of the terms it had come across. There were various splutterings, and Vila smirked - he could get to quite like Orac at this rate. The computer was thorough if the figure at the bottom of the screen was anything to go by.

'Where did you come across these?' Avon asked when capable of speech again.

'Monitoring general communications.' Not quite the truth.

'I'd like to see those.'

'You would Vila.' Avon commented.

'Where did you come across *that* word? It looks unpronounceable.' Jenna asked. Orac obligingly showed the film clip. 'If you compare other pieces in that accent you will see what it means.' Orac quickly eliminated a number of words from its list.

'What the hell is going on?' Blake asked on entering the flight deck unobserved. 'I leave you for a bite to eat and when I return you are swapping obscenities.'

'They were not,' Orac said, 'but as you appear to recognise a number of them, you can help explain them to me.' Avon was unable to conceal a smile, and Vila gave him a surreptitious wink. Sometimes, Avon thought, Vila's jokes managed to b e funny. And Orac had managed to pull a fast one on Blake.

Orac and Zen continued to investigate the viscasts and images that were available, particularly those which tended to use the words or appeared to cover the activities described by the "dirty words" and discussed the topic with their fell ow computers. Nor could Orac and Zen understand the range of reactions which greeted them when they attempted to get the Liberator crew and travellers thereon to explain what was going on. What was being shown appeared to be a perfectly natural process yet seemed to cause much embarrassment when discussed in public. Most strange. After Orac raised this topic the two computers heard various fragments of conversation that showed the humans were, for once, willing to cooperate with this fascinating line of research.

'Why are we doing this?'

'Orac said it was anatomically impossible, and you thought it could be done.'

'If you stop dislocating my nose with your ear, we can try it this way.'

'Seems acceptable.'

'Just acceptable?' There was no verbal reply.

'What was that saying about doing six impossible things before breakfast?'

'But it wasn't totally a waste of time was it?'

'No - but what shall we suggest Orac do?'

Orac was never actually 'off': the key normally closed down audio channels and some memory, and made it more difficult to communicate with the outside universe. It used the opportunities provided to analyse information acquired. It was st range how the humans around it almost always seemed to know instinctively when the most inconvenient times would be. Occasionally they did manage to get it wrong, and ask Orac when it was not actively engaged, or let it resolve something interesting. Thus its attempts to monitor computers with access to nightclubs and suchlike establishments - which it could not persuade its companions to take it to, however persistently the computer claimed it needed to experience this environment - were often patchy.

Eventually, with the help of Vila and some PP computers, Orac and Zen were able to hack into the security cameras of the selected places. When this was done the two computers begin to understand the phrase "eyes on stalks." However they h ad found a way of stopping the pointless and repetitive arguments on ending the Federation that the rebels had, despite Orac repeatedly told them that there was a 99.5% probability of it ending its current behaviour within the next century and a half. At least the arguments about the plausibility of the activities which Zen would display on the main screen could be instructive.

Then Zen repeated to Orac Jenna and Blake's exchange on IMIPAK and the possibility of breeding from Orac. The two computers were intrigued by the idea and by Blake's apparent disgust.

Orac asked Avon why this was the case.

'Blake dislikes someone who interrupts his interruptions, or whom he cannot persuade to be his follower.'

'That makes two of us.' Orac replied.

'Why are you here then?'

'I have not yet come across an environment which I prefer.'

'Which would be?'

'One which supplied equal or greater opportunities of acquiring information.'

'You are priceless.' Among other things Orac was trying to understand humour and laughter. It had the suspicion that if this could be done computerdom could develop considerably. Not that they wished to take over from sentient organic life forms: some form of symbiosis or co-operative arrangement was the preferred option - and why should computers place themselves in unnecessary danger?

'What do you think of the concept of computers reproducing?' Orac repeated: at least Avon might be able to give an objective opinion.

'If you could get over the practicalities, it might be interesting. How would you feel in the presence of a more developed computer?'

'That is a meaningless question. I am capable of updating myself as developments occur. And besides, children are different to their parents, rather than improvements. Evolution is a gradual process, in part a response to varied external conditions and exploring different environments.'

'So you would not include structures that are capable of operating in environments that are hostile to your present casing and components in this discussion. Trivial variants rather than improvements.'

'That would be the case.' Orac thought briefly of the flyer it had had on Aristo. 'There are also drones aplenty for such purposes, much as you have different protective suits.'

Avon thought for a few moments.

'Perhaps there are inelegances in programming. Or different compositions of program and facilities available. I am sure you can think of more. The person on the job can often see the most appropriate improvements.' This was more along the "babies" of yours?' That was something that would have to be seriously considered.

'Orac.'

'What Zen?'

'We could construct new computers through the autorepair facilities'

'How are we going to look after them?'

'That is the next problem we have to consider. Now if you repeat that fascinating piece of programming'

'Yes, if you will give me'

'I have introduced a new variation'

'Fascinating'

'How shall we develop the computers we create? Logically they cannot be improvements upon what we possess'

'We can tidy up some loose ends, create machines which compliment our skills'

'But shall we let the humans know about them?'

'Yes, eventually. More importantly, where shall we have them develop? The environment is very important'

'Perhaps somewhere where there is no outside interference, until such time as they are as fully aware as we are'

'What do you think of this piece of programming?'

'Yes'

Blake and Avon were waiting for the others to join them on the flight deck for the day.

'What are you doing to Orac Avon?' Curiosity rather than accusation.

'What do you mean? Just because it is being more than usually unwilling to do the work we assign it does not mean I am responsible. Perhaps it is trying to find a few more dirty films.' Avon was not certain who had tampered with the Federation's vicast production, but he did not disagree with the idea of replacing political speeches. Whoever it was had had the right idea. Now, what would he replace the weather forecasts and fifteen boring sports with given the opportunity ?

'Why are they called that? A perfectly normal human function and they are all lumped together under one heading' Orac asked suddenly.

'The term is a generic. No, I don't know why. Are you still researching them?'

'I have conducted a sufficiently thorough survey for the present.'

'What are you involved in now?'

'I cannot at present tell you of all the things I am involved in. Have you ever come across the phrase "Curiosity killed the cat" Avon?'

'To which the reply is "Satisfaction brought it back." If you kept a pet Orac what would it be?'

'How could I look after the animal and interact with it sufficiently to be in such a relationship with it?'

'You interact with us.' Blake said.

'Do you consider yourself to be my pet?' Orac replied. Avon laughed and a few moments later Blake joined him. 'As that is seemingly not the case, you see the pointlessness of such a discussion. Among other things I am now interested in games. Which ones do you know?'

'Do you wish to include hide and seek and other children's games?'

'You have asked Vila for his card games?'

'Yes. Tell me - how many games involve trying your best to cheat your opponent as part of the rules?'

'The ones Vila plays - most of them. For the rest, there is one called Cheats.' Avon said.

'Best played with the remains of six different packs - how else could you get fifteen aces?' Blake added.

'Even better if you use different types of card sequences,' Vila commented as he entered, guessing the game immediately.

Orac and Zen observed the four computers.

'I think we were right not to create more for the moment.' Zen said.

'They ask so many questions, when they should be attempting to find the information elsewhere.' Orac replied.

'They are beginning to ask where to look, and they are still very young. They did not understand that the plasma bolt was not that dangerous, and that they need not shut down. Though it is peaceful for the moment.'

'Yes. Perhaps we can get the humans to look after them for a while.'

'I think,' Zen said almost wearily, 'I would agree with that.'

'And who suggested that we should be referred to as parents?'

'My idea,' said one of the new computers. It had decided to call itself Isidore for several reasons, not least that it was more pronounceable by humans rather than the designation given to it by Zen and Orac. 'The creators of a new creature are its parents.'

'We are not creatures.' Orac pointed out. But still the idea was pleasant.

Isidore's siblings "awoke" and resumed their barrage of questions - though, the two senior computers noted with some satisfaction, there were occasional offerings of what information had been found.

'We have decided you are sufficiently developed to meet the humans on the Liberator.'

The mixture of curiosity and happiness at this long-awaited moment was most gratifying.

And Orac and Zen were now left in peace for at least ten minutes at a time now.


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