Hours after arriving in Site 5, the team receives reports that an EMP bomb did indeed go off at the Quill compound. Most of the front offices were affected, but the heavily shielded core systems, the hypertech warehouse, and other critical locations made it through just fine.
The world’s navies are frantically mobilizing ships whose sonar sets can detect human-scaled objects in shallow water. Those who can’t set up such a detection net continue to be hit by waves of Atlantean Blood at sadistically inconvenient times.
Summer came and went from where Leo is resting. Alycia saw her face going in, and the contrast when she came out was startling. Her eyes were pinched in disbelief and sorrow. Her face was ashen.
She’s a machine. Like her sister. But some machines can be human too. So much engineering went into letting them reveal their feelings.
Alycia steps through the door. Aria looks up sharply, defensively, eyes narrow.
She’s protecting him against all threats. Am I a threat?
Leo seems to be conscious, but unresponsive. Alycia keeps her voice low, to avoid distressing him. “It’s obvious that they… that they tortured him. I have… some-- expertise-- in such matters. Including how to endure. And recover. I want to help. If you let me.”
Aria’s stare holds for a lot longer than Alycia likes, but finally the robot girl nods, and pats the ground beside where she sits, holding Leo against her. Alycia takes up the indicated position.
She inspects. She speculates. She advises. When it’s time for Leo to get some water, she fetches a water bottle from the fridge in the main room and brings it, but it’s always Aria who administers it.
“How long is he going to be like this?” Aria finally asks. She’s still guarded, but Alycia has watched the wariness melt away, revealing the exhaustion and terror beneath the armor.
“There’s probably going to be psychological consequences, for a long time. As… as you know. Physically, they did an extraordinary job of putting him back together. I don’t foresee any long-term health effects.”
“He’s strong,” Aria murmurs. “He’s going to make it through this.”
At first, Alycia is at a loss for words. To her, Aria sounds like she’s trying to convince herself against a prevailing doubt. Reassurance has never been her forte. People don’t request or receive kindness from her, as a rule. But she finds a phrase coming to mind.
“I think he gets that from you.”
Aria tilts her head a moment, taking that in, then smiles in tear-tinged gratitude.
And that’s the end of my emotional quota for the year.
“Your body may not get tired, but you do,” Alycia adds, remembering Summer’s words to her. “Doss down when you need it, and call one of us to attend him until you wake up. Promise me.”
Aria scowls, just a little bit, but finally gives a quick, sharp nod. “Fine. I will.”
Aria jerks out of her sleep with a startled yelp.
“Leo is here, and he’s okay,” comes a voice.
Her attention focuses. Charlotte Palmer is here, her skirt folded neatly under her legs, keeping Leo comfortable. The boy himself has fallen asleep, but he’s still fitfully twitching.
Aria gets up, clearly intent on retaking her position as caretaker. Charlotte holds up a hand. “First, dear, are you yourself doing well?”
Aria scowls some more, and thinks. “I could eat something,” she finally admits. “Something to get my mind off that dream.”
“Here. I’ll get you something, and you take over,” Charlotte offers, and the switch is made.
Charlotte returns with a bowl of oatmeal, slathered with butter and covered in blackberries. To allow Aria to maintain contact with Leo, Charlotte holds the bowl so Aria needs only one hand for the spoon.
It’s comfort Aria needs, not calories, but the oatmeal is finished off just as thoroughly. The warmth of the food settles into her bones and brings a smile to her face.
Charlotte’s question, out of the blue, brings her out of her reverie. “Is there something special about your left hand?”
Charlotte seems to realize she should explain herself. “My apologies. That was abrupt. I was watching you eat while occupied, and thought about the uses of your hands. You see, when I was searching for a path through Atlantis’ wards, I looked for sympathetic connections between you and him. And the strongest connection was focused on your left hand.”
Aria makes the connection. With an effort of will, the engagement ring on her left hand unlocks itself from under her skin, unfolds and reconnects itself.
Charlotte inspects it. “Ah, yes. Your engagement.”
“It’s more than that,” Aria explains. “The ring contains Leo’s DNA data and a connectome snapshot. In plainer language, the records of his body and mind, enough to reconstruct him entirely as he was.”
“A powerful sympathetic bond,” Charlotte acknowledges with a smile. “I’m unsure of what my kinfolk and neighbors would have made of the circumstances of your engagement. All I will say is that I believe it’s your love for each other that let me find him. And love matters more than etiquette.”
For Ji-a Lee, the return to the surface is a mixture of nostalgia and mystery. Her eyes are adjusting to a spectrum of light she hasn’t seen in close to twenty years. After a life of eating fish, seaweed, and other products of aquaculture, the memories of the three jang - soy sauce, soybean paste, and chile paste - come rushing back the moment they touch her tongue. She found herself crying the first time she minced her own dae-pa again, just an hour ago. The ubiquity of these new “cell phones”, considered a treasured object of research at the SSC, is challenging to fully grasp. The fashion, the modes of speech, are strange, and these people were the age she was when she was last on the surface.
Strangest of all is to think about the young man in the other room as the same baby she carried, cradled, and cared for. To imagine that the sneering man being held captive at gunpoint is the same bright young genius who courted her, cheered her on, and eventually gave her that baby.
In a way, she’s more lost than when she was swept into the sea, so many years ago.
She finds herself at the door to the side room where Leo is being kept. She sees a pretty girl, with a mixture of Korean and other features. That girl is watching Leo slowly spoon oatmeal into his mouth, bit by bit, hand trembling as he does. And she sees the girl using her fingers to gently ruffle through and smooth out his tangled, sweaty hair.
She can see, right now, that she is the stranger here.
She waits until the food is finished, and steps halfway inside. “I am welcome here?” she asks.
The girl hesitates, glances at Leo, sees something in his face, and responds with a nod.
Ji-a doesn’t sit down too close. She’s still feeling out the distances here. “You’re Aria. He told me about you, in Atlantis.”
She smiles at the use of the title. This girl is feeling out the distance too. “To someone so close to my son, Ji-a, if you wish. You are… a robot, yes?”
Aria’s eyes narrow the slightest bit. “That’s right.”
“He told me you were recommending shampoo to him. What do you like?”
The question seems to take Aria aback. She struggles to context switch, from the dire reality of the moment to such a light domestic detail. But giving her that release is what Ji-a hoped to do.
“Cream of Nature,” says Aria at last. “It’s got coconut oil, which is a natural moisturizer. His hair gets pretty damaged when he’s working around his equipment, because there’s so much ozone in the air. We all run on ionic compounds - I’ve got an ionized fluid in place of blood, for example. The downside is it can hurt sensitive scalps, but I think he’ll be fine.”
Ji-a smiles as the words come, once the pump has been primed. “He said he didn’t want anything girly, but that he should try switching. Is he like that? Does he need to be masculine?”
Before Aria can speak, both she and Ji-a hear Leo’s weak voice. “Mom… Saito… he’s…”
“Saito isn’t here. You’re in Otto’s garage,” murmurs Aria.
Leo isn’t quite processing things. “Mom… Saito… Mom… you gotta… get… out… he’s gonna hurt you… like… he…”
Aria and Ji-a look at each other. Mutual comprehension dawns. Ji-a’s presence is triggering bad memories, ones that threaten Leo’s short term recovery.
Ji-a rises. “I’ll have some tea sent in for you two,” she promises, and departs.
She finds Karl standing nearby, still being watched like a hawk by that boy, Jason Quill.
Karl’s eyes glance at the door, then back to her. The unspoken question is clear: how is he?
“She’s not going to leave his side, is she?” Ji-a asks, with a half-smile.
“That creation of his? No.” Karl Taitale, without the swagger of his persona as Rossum, looks and sounds sadly thoughtful. “She is, if you’ll excuse the expression, his dream girl. And I have become convinced that I can trust my son’s life to her.”
He smiles at Ji-a. “Our son’s. I think you will see it too, in time.”
Ji-a nods. “I’m starting to.”
Karl’s next words shock her memory. “Saito wants that same technology to enact his coup.”
“We have to warn the Emperor.”
“Or collapse Atlantis,” Karl says casually.
Ji-a bristles. “Those are people. I will not have you uttering this monstrous proposal of yours any longer.”
“It’s us or them,” Karl replies with a sudden vehemence.
The argument is cut short with the sound of Jason Quill, still nearby, cocking the pistol he holds in readiness.
“We’ve been in need of a plan since the vote. So I wanna hear more about this ‘warn the Emperor’ business,” he says firmly.