419 - Challenge of the Cybergod

The power plant is a new installation, built well away from Safe Haven’s existing mega-spheres at the bottom of the ocean. The Newmen haven’t even run cable between the two sites yet. If anything goes wrong, the implosion or explosion or whatever happens shouldn’t endanger anyone.

Mo is overseeing the prototype fusion plant. Dr. Panya is observing, but not interfering. The real test is whether the Newmen have learned enough physics and engineering to do this themselves.

“Stage 1, green,” Mo reports over the comm system. Back at the Launch System, the others are observing the board. Meters are steadily rising. Some are in the green zone, some aren’t - and some are already into the red.

“Flooding.” Sea water pours into the outer chamber of the power plant. Alarms begin blaring, only for Mo to silence them. “Ignore that - they need calibrating still.”

Nobody’s quite content with that reassurance, but after all, this is a test. Summer forces herself to exhale pent-up breath, and Otto pats her gently on the shoulder. But his eyes are still glued to the board.

“Stage 2, green.” Over the comm system, behind Mo’s voice, they hear a clunk and a loud hum.

The board flashes all red - just for a second - and then indicators stabilize.

“Stage 3 ready. Deploy Apollo.”

Fusion power has a bootstrap problem. Once a reactor is up and running, it can provide the energy for its own containment system. But how do you juice up a reactor that isn’t running yet? The team is using power from another fusion reaction - the Sun itself. Summer’s system of teleporting solar radiation back to Earth will jump-start the power plant. If successful, the reactor can be self-sustaining from the deuterium found in seawater. If not… well, they built one reactor. They can build another one if necessary.

Summer hits the button. The Launch System fires up. The Apollo module fires.

She’s still a little bitter that her Chariot is scrap, and she hasn’t had the heart to rebuild it just yet. But this part is still working, and it can serve a new purpose.

“Deployed,” Otto reports back to Mo.

“Roger. Receiving…”

A few more alarms blare, and the board’s readings go wild, just for a second.

Summer holds her breath–

“Stage 3, green,” Mo reports. “We got neutron production.”

The Launch System’s control room explodes into cheers.

Of course, Aria and Leo have to be told. Otto admits to some guilt about going over Aria’s head on this one. Safe Harbor is still her creation, and a move this big would have been something she’d initiate. He’s sort of justifying it to himself as being a rescue thing, since the most immediate demand for more energy is the Launch System itself, and spare parts fabrication.

The plan is to run the reactor for a week to monitor how it goes, then initiate a safe shutdown and reboot it from scratch. Summer has a week to rebuild the Apollo system, and she seems enthusiastic about the prospect. That should satisfy Leo’s demands for safety. Otto knows he’s going to ask.

He lays all this out to his co-conspirators before the video call begins. Big Bill seems optimistic, Mo is taciturn as usual, and Summer’s smile is tinged with a nervousness that bothers Otto. But it’s too late now.

The video call comes online. There’s some definite lag, and some noticeable static, given how the call is being routed from beneath the ocean to the Australian outback. But there’s nothing for it. The Newmen are a work in progress, and that includes telecommunications capability.

The pair are lounging outside the RV, and the rugged scenery is visible on Aria’s laptop camera. Aria herself is wearing sunglasses, a torn t-shirt, and beach shorts. Leo is dressed in denim cutoffs and a tank top. While Aria looks comfortable, Leo is visibly sweating and his facial expression marks him as near death.

“Get me out of this humidity,” he begs.

“Wish I could help ya, buddy,” Otto says, turning his palms up in an apologetic shrug.

“Gimme your update,” Aria says, all business.

Otto lays out the work that’s been done on the fusion plant - the most important thing, in his mind. He can see Aria’s expression sour, and glances at Summer in a silent plea for help.

Summer knows just what to say. “So, the thing is, all we know to use it for is rescue stuff. So I thought, Aria must have thought all this through. Do you already have a list of city projects for us to start on, assuming the power plant works out?”

Otto can tell this is exactly what Aria wanted to hear. Her face warms up immediately. “Yes, actually. Great job taking that project as far as you did. Everything you want to use it for makes perfect sense, but I do have some suggestions. I’ll shoot you an email soon.”

“Convince me it’s not going to explode,” says Leo, who’s been waiting to ask this only out of deference to his wife.

Otto expected this. He gives a rundown of the safety precautions they’ve taken, how the system is isolated, everything. Leo nods tensely, and Otto can see him wanting to speak up every so often, only to hold himself back.

It’s not that the power plant planning was bad. Both Aria and Leo are feeling cabin fever. They want to be back in the action, building things, being part of the team again.

Otto has to do his part. “Leo, if you got anything to add on the safety thing, either add it to Aria’s email or send us your own, okay? We all heard the same lectures from Dr. Panya so maybe there’s things you’ll think of that we overlooked, or just trusted would work.”

Leo senses that Otto knows what’s bugging him, and he smiles through the sweat and misery. “Yeah. Yeah. I trust you got this figured out, but if anything comes to mind, I’ll definitely mention it.”

The conversation quickly and naturally turns to the newest Newman, Fez. Aria lugs the laptop into the RV so people can see the little tyke, already crawling around. Aria has programmed holographic toys and environments for the kid to interact with.

“Fez is something new,” Aria says over the call. “Unlike us, they’ll never remember mortality. So as much as I hate doing it, I have to teach Fez about pain and danger. They can’t get seriously or permanently hurt by anything in here - but it’s otherwise as real as anything a biological kid would experience. They have to learn what it’s like to be both human and robot.”

Everyone enjoys watching their new family member playing around, but the call eventually has to conclude. Farewells are exchanged, promises are made, and when the call clicks off, Otto sits back and exhales a long sigh of relief.

Leo can’t exactly invite the neighbors over to the RV. “What’s that you got there, young feller?” “A high-tech Nursery where my robot wife and I are raising my holographic firstborn.” “Well shoot, I reckon I better phone the authorities.”

He’s got a different way to stay sociable. He made a deal with a guy - “if I can fix any car on your lot you’d be scrapping otherwise, I drive away with it” - and he made good. What he got was an old Toyota Land Cruiser, a beast of a machine meant for use in places like the outback. He’s since modified it for an electric drive train, powered by a Casimir fractal, and he regularly hauls it and a set of cobbled-together tools to a spot on the only highway around, half a mile from a local fruit stand. He hangs out a sign on cardboard reading “LOU OLDMAN - ALL MACHINES FIXED” and waits.

At first nobody came, and he worried he was wasting his time. But soon enough, people brought stuff by. Small stuff, things they were going to throw away. Then they brought appliances in the beds of trucks. Then they brought trucks, towed by other trucks. Word got around.

These days, “Lou Oldman” gets regular business. He deals in cash, takes only what his customer can pay, and will always let the customer watch in case it’s something they can fix themselves next time. He’s never failed to fix a machine that was fixable. He’ll come to your place if there’s no way to get your broken thing to where he’s at. He looks rough and dangerous, a muscular man covered in tattoos with a resting frown on his face, but down here that’s practically a job requirement.

Today, long after sundown, he comes home with 432.07 AUD in his pocket, two arms full of locally produced groceries, and a home-cooked meat pie courtesy of a happy customer. He takes a cold, cleansing shower to wipe the grime and dust and oil off his skin. He spends time playing with his child, and half an hour reading after Fez starts showing signs of being tuckered out.

By the time Fez is fast asleep, Leo’s own eyelids are droopy. But he finds himself waking up when Aria nestles down beside him and whispers in his ear. “How do you feel about being Master of the mansion… and meeting your new robot maid, who must be properly educated in her duties?”

“It’s a heavy responsibility, but if I must, I must,” he grins back at his loving and adoring wife.

The call comes in to Safe Harbor, early in the morning. and keeps coming in. The Launch System operator finally resorts to tracking down Otto in his room.

Otto kicks Big Bill and Mo out of their beds, and hammers on Summer’s door until she answers with a bleary mumble.

The Newmen drag themselves into Ops. On the video screen is a frazzled, fretting Leo and a horrified, helpless Aria.

“Fez,” she says, before anything else. “They’re - they’re - the system - it’s - there’s nothing in there.”

“Hold on,” Otto says, jolted awake by the possibility of something happening to his new nephew. The others are similarly finding themselves alert. “Just… tell us what’s going on.”

Leo manages an explanation. “There’s zero neural activity in Fez’s brain. They’re either missing, or - or -”

He can’t bring himself to say ‘dead’, but the word hangs in the air regardless.

Aria’s voice grows stronger. “Otto - if there’s any possibility the RV systems malfunctioned–”

Otto knows she’s desperate for an explanation, and will go after anyone or anything that might help her cope with this crisis. It has to be dealt with.

And to be fair, the possibility she raises has to be considered.

“We’ll be there ASAP,” he promises.

This is not the family reunion Summer was expecting.

To keep a low profile, Otto, Mo, and Bill brought their human shells rather than parking a Boeing jet in the outback. Otto also brought his car shell along for transportation, in case a second vehicle is needed.

The boys have brought along every diagnostic tool they could pack into Otto’s trunk. They’re engrossed in diagnosing the RV’s system, with Leo looking over their shoulder and commenting - sometimes usefully, often not.

Summer’s job is different. She’s here to reassure Aria that everything’s being done, and to take her mind off the situation. She convinced the team to stop by a patisserie in France, both to practice her iffy French language and to bring something along she’s sure Aria will enjoy. Now she watches her sister shovel carefully prepared pastries into her mouth, oblivious to the taste.

She needed comfort food and I brought the expensive stuff, Summer muses to herself. Maybe learn to read the room.

The overall mood is grim, and it’s contagious. Summer has to make a conscious effort to stay cheerful and positive.

The boys finally have to take a break, if only to keep from frustrating themselves into uselessness. With Leo coming to Aria’s side, Summer is free to wander over and inspect the diagnostics they’ve left in progress.

She looks at the readings. She remembers. A thought occurs to her. She’s terrified to give it voice, because it might be absolutely mistaken, or there might just be a simple technical glitch. Worst of all, it might mean false hope.

Should she say something?

One look at Aria’s stricken face tells her to speak up.

“You know, I was possessed by Doctor Infinity for awhile. And I visited the underworld with Charlotte a couple times. And this looks similar. Maybe…”

Her courage wavers, and she seizes hold of it and forces herself to speak.

“Maybe Fez is astrally projecting.”

A whole room of technologists and scientists turn to look at her.

Suddenly her assertion feels shaky. She reaches out to grasp at evidence, justification, anything. “I mean - these readings, they’re not zero. Not really. The net result is zero, but there’s still activity, it’s just sort of… vibrating. All the brain activity is going somewhere that’s not in the physical brain. And that’s what I was doing. So, well, astral projection.”

Leo, for all his skeptical materialism, practically leaps off the ratty couch he’s been sitting on. “Okay. Say that’s true. How do we get them back?”

This is the moment Summer feared. She has to actually be some kind of expert on this, she’s not, and she knows it. But that may be the way out–

“I um, know some people. Reliable people in such matters. I’ll see if they know anyone local.”

The whole room seems to have latched onto the faint hope she’s offering. Now, Summer feels real anxiety.

She gets on the satellite phone Otto brought along. She calls one of the baristas at Mater Luna, where she met that demonologist last year. That lady in turn puts her in touch with a woman named Stella at the Santuario de las Brujas - the Witches’ Sanctum. She explains as much of the peculiar situation as she dares, explains what she thinks is going on, and asks the crucial question. Is there anyone in Australia who can help? Barring that, is there anyone elsewhere who’d be willing to take a rather unconventional trip?

There’s a reputable shaman up in Darwin, who Stella promises to notify. When can someone go pick him up?

“That’s 15 hours away,” Otto says, looking at a map. “I’ll be there in five.”

Ten and a half tense hours pass. Aria and Leo do their best to play host to their visiting family, making a show of hospitality. There’s food. There’s questions and answers. There’s Leo proudly showing off his beat-up truck. There’s Aria, talking about the work she’s done in the Nursery and her ideas about Fez’s upbringing.

Sheer nervous exhaustion finally catches up with most of the people in the RV - Leo, especially, as the only flesh-and-blood person in the group. When Otto comes back, he has to physically prod people back to consciousness.

The Newmen wake to meet the shaman, who introduces himself as Djalu. If the term “shaman” primed anyone to expect feathers and beads, they’re mistaken. He’s wearing a sharp-looking, well-tailored outfit that somehow says “professional” without being a stifling sweat trap in the Australian weather. He’s got a business card. He’s got his own set of supplies. Mo and Big Bill help haul his kit into the RV, while Otto makes introductions.

Summer explains the rather extraordinary situation. To his credit, Djalu takes all this in stride. He performs an examination of the connection between Fez’s brain and the RV’s systems. And he turns back to the assembled Newmen, each eagerly and worriedly awaiting a verdict.

“It appears Ms. Summer’s supposition is correct,” he says.

A tremendous weight of relief lifts from everyone’s shoulders. The atmosphere of the RV changes immediately.

Aria pats her sister on the shoulder with a big smile. “You really did become a magical girl, didn’t you.”

“The kid is less than a year old,” Leo says, still worried. “How are they projecting themselves into a, uh, spiritual realm or afterlife or whatever the hell–?”

“It is most likely that they were taken by someone or something,” Djalu says gravely.

“Well we are gonna go find someone or something and beat the shit out of them until they return our child,” Leo announces with fiery conviction. “How do we do that?”

Djalu appraises his unusual clients. “Ordinarily I would suggest the use of herbs, to put the body into a ready state, and then guide the subject’s hyper-conscious self. However, if I understand this matter, you are… most of you are, that is… robots. I don’t see how that approach will work.”

“Oh, you can just shut us off,” Summer says brightly. “When our brains deactivate, our souls naturally detach. You just need to corral us together. Leo can use the herbs. He can handle reactivating us when he comes back. Or we can show you how to do it yourself.”

Djalu blinks, and smiles. “You say this with the conviction of experience. I see you are more spiritually aware than I initially gave you credit for, Ms. Summer.”

Summer beams proudly.

Djalu has cleared out a ritual space in the RV. One by one, Leo handles the delicate task of deactivating the Newman brains. One by one, his friends and family go from emotional and apprehensive companions to lifeless and motionless hunks of carbon construction.

Together, Leo and Djalu inhale the smoke from the burning herb, and sip from cups in which the shaman has prepared a mixture. They sit back, and watch each other, until consciousness fades.

Leo finds himself staring at Djalu, but recognizing that something has changed. He can’t see details in the RV any more. He can’t read words. He struggles to rise.

“Don’t,” the shaman cautions. “I’ll guide you.”

Carefully, he stands, and offers Leo his hand. As Leo takes hold of it, the RV seems to fade away.

There is a cord, or thread, or road - perspective and proportion aren’t consistent, and Leo isn’t sure what to make of it. It starts nowhere specific, and winds its way off into the darkness. But as Djalu leads him along its curving path, Leo sees Aria, then Summer, then Otto, and Mo and Big Bill together.

“The astral cord will guide us,” Djalu explains to the assembled Newmen. “In this place, do not question what is real or not real. Instead, assert your own reality. Feel, rather than reason.”

“Easier said than done with most of us,” Leo says with a wry smile and a glance at Summer and Aria. “Maybe you better have those two ladies lead the rest of us. They’re more in tune with this stuff.”

Aria nods fiercely. “I will not rest until our child is restored to us. I will do whatever it takes to see that happen.”

Djalu smiles in understanding, and bows his head in respect for the passion she demonstrates. “Then begin walking, and do not falter. That is the only way.”

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The world gradually becomes more than just undifferentiated darkness.

A horizon becomes visible - black sky above, white ground below. As the party walks, the two halves gain further detail. The ground below the horizon becomes a checkerboard of white and black squares, 1 meter by 1 meter in size from an eyeballed measurement. Above the horizon, the sky becomes a gradient, black up top, white at the bottom. It’s as though a white sun were rising, all around them.

“Like walking through the test pattern of an old video card,” Leo remarks.

“A world of black and white… of binary?” Aria guesses aloud.

The astral cord has somehow become a physical path through the landscape. Around them, they began to spot details of that landscape. Simple geometric solids float untethered above the ground, suggestive of bushes and other plant life. More complex combinations of shapes serve as trees.

“I think we just passed Pong. We should be hitting DOOM pretty soon,” Otto quips.

Aria only half turns her head toward Summer as she walks. “What should we expect?”

Summer was afraid that question would come up. She doesn’t want to speak for Djalu, but she knows that Aria is leaning on her because she’s family. Aria wants to be reassured.

“Djalu will warn us of things we need to know,” she says carefully. “But in my experience, places like this are the realms of gods and demons. Usually they’re from religion and mythology. A central soul attracts others, they form a haven, and the collective psychic power of those souls empowers that central figure as a god.”

She studies the peculiarly mathematical terrain as the party walks. “It’s hard to imagine what would give rise to a god like this, though.”

The path comes to a fork.

Leo turns to Djalu. “Which way do we go?”

“You… do not understand,” the shaman says after a moment of adjustment. “This is the astral cord. This is the connection to your child. That there should be a divergence… is unheard of.”

“Break it down for me,” Leo says intensely. “What the fuck is an astral cord, then?”

“It’s…” Djalu thinks of how to explain. “Souls are… memory–”

“I get that,” Leo interrupts. Aria places a warning hand on his arm - let the man finish, her touch says.

“The place we are in is thought and memory given form. It is delicate, like a spiderweb. The astral cord, then, is the recollection of the soul on its journey. That is why when we return from spiritual journeys, we often do not remember them. Or we have a dreamlike recall that fades against the intensity of experiences in waking life. The memories are consumed in the act of remembering them to return home.”

Djalu registers some surprise when Leo’s tension gives way immediately. “Oh, that explains it. Newman-type robots can fork - split into two mental beings. For example, Aria and Summer here used to be the same person. Mo and Bill over there are mental creations of Otto’s. So two cognitive trajectories would logically give rise to two such memory breadcrumbs…”

He immediately realizes the implication, and Aria fills in, having reached the same conclusion slightly faster. “Fez is far too young - they’re still developing - for a mental fork. This is a disaster.”

Djalu considers the situation, and finally comes to a conclusion. “It may not be Fez’s decision. I believe this marks a decision or action on the part of the abductor. It remains inexplicable how it could have divided, even so.”

“A… binary god? Something whose nature permits this?” Summer suggests, uncertainly.

Otto finally speaks up, after a quiet conference with his fellows. “Way I see it, this is a rescue operation. It’s gonna take all of us - our insight, experience, rationality, and so on - to make it through. But. Leo. Aria. You both got a lot of unchecked emotion here. I get it, we need that. But it means I gotta do what the two of you do so well for each other. Be a steadying hand and voice of reason. We need your passion to find the kid, but we’re in uncharted waters. So do ya trust me?”

Leo and Aria look at each other worriedly. But they both nod.

Otto nods back, in acknowledgement of the magnitude of the trust they’re showing him. “Right. There’s a split path, so we take both options. Djalu and Summer have some experience here - him more than her by a damn sight, but I’ll take little over none. We need both parents as trackers. So I’m gonna suggest Djalu with Aria and Big Bill, and Summer with Leo, Mo, and myself. If Fez really forked, we need both of 'em for a zipper merge or whatever comes after. If Fez stayed together, they’re gonna be down one path or another, so we gotta try both anyway. And if the paths recombine down the road, great. Wasted effort’s better than confident failure.”

There is a path to follow because Leo and Aria are seeking one, and have a close enough bond with Fez to find it.

Bill understands why Otto teamed him with Aria and Djalu. The shaman is the experienced spirit guide, but isn’t family. Summer has to guide Leo through the uncertainty of the spirit world. Without Leo, without Summer, he’s the best chance of keeping Aria sane and balanced through this time.

His synthetic memories are about growing up in a junkyard in the Midwest, going trucking with his mother, and singing and playing instruments when he wasn’t out working on something fun. He understands the other Newmen as neighbors. He doesn’t have the intimate understanding of Aria that Otto does. Most of his sense of her as a person is the authentic memory of her as Otto’s brother’s girlfriend-turned-wife, and as Summer’s more aloof and responsible sister. Truth be told, he’s not sure how to approach her about this, one of the most critical experiences she’s going to have in her life.

Otto gave him a template: “this is a rescue operation”. He understands this sort of thing pretty well. Go to a scene. Keep everyone safe. Bring everyone back who needs help. Look for signs of danger. But how to apply those here?

Aria is in danger. Aria needs saving. That’s what his instincts tell him.

She values order and competence. She likes it when people are responsible. He thinks he has an idea.

“Djalu… Er, Mr. Djalu?”

“Djalu is fine,” their guide says as he walks.

Big Bill advances carefully through his idea. “Some of all this is strange to you, as you explained. But I reckon you must have done this general class of thing a lot, bein’ as you’re a professional shaman and all that. Heck, we got a rescue operation going and we don’t even have business cards. So you’ve seen a lot of stuff before, right?”

Bill realizes the man has been watching him and Aria for awhile, and gleaned his intention instantly. But he smiles, and goes along with it. “Yes. These circumstances are unique, but I find that they often are. We walk in the halls of human spirituality, and everyone is unique. Modes of thought, upbringing, culture. My people talk about the Dreamtime or the Dreaming, but I’ve studied under teachers of other traditions and learned their ways too, different as they were. Part of my role is to practice radical empathy for my clients and learn about their unique ways of thinking.”

The shaman looks to Aria next. “Your husband suggested you were in tune with the spiritual. It will not distract you from your tracking to speak of it, if you wish. In fact, it may improve the strength of your awareness to voice your thoughts about such matters.”

Big Bill can see Aria tensing, just for a moment, and readying a barb about not distracting her. Djalu knew exactly what to say.

She hesitates, then speaks. “Yes. You have a point. Well. I attend Catholic mass, Protestant church service, and so on. I’m not a believer, though. I’m there for the emotional experience. I’m in that nebulous category of ‘spiritual but not religious’.”

“My husband is an atheist and materialist, because he is a builder of robots. I am spiritual because I am a robot. Together we are raising a child who must reconcile the contradictions of their nature for themselves.”

Djalu takes this in. “If I may, I believe you are both well equipped for so formidable a task.”

Aria smiles at the shaman. And when she looks back at Big Bill, he realizes she knew his intention to help comfort her as well. The smile she shows is warm, the kind he’s seen often from Summer.

Aw, shucks.

The landscape has gained more and more visual definition as the trio have traveled. Muted hues give way to a rich palette of color. The blocky geometry of before has become more organic and detailed. Now, as the trio walk, they approach what looks like a city wall. Rather than resembling regular brickwork, the patterns on the wall resemble Voronoi noise - a cellular pattern often used in video game graphics.

Before them, a tall circular gate is embedded in the wall. Rather than a portcullis or double doors or anything from Earth, it’s built more like a camera lens - presumably it will iris open for the right visitors.

Above and beyond the wall, they can see spires of tall buildings, and infer that others are hidden behind its prodigious height. And off in the great distance, two grand buildings, unearthly in their sheer scale, rise above it all. Two castles, seemingly built back to back.

“This is impressive, I’m sure,” Aria comments. “But I’ve no wish to waste time.”

She engages her thrusters, and begins to rocket up and over the wall - only to be struck by a bolt of lightning from otherwise clear skies. She falls, and Big Bill catches her carefully as she comes down.

“Emulation violation! Emulation violation!” shouts an angry voice from nowhere and everywhere.

“Shit, that hurt!” the robot woman exclaims.

Bill sets Aria down as carefully as he can. She stumbles just a bit, and steadies himself with a hand on his arm. Then she notices something.

She, then Big Bill, gape in astonishment at the new detail. It’s a thin trickle of red blood, coming from an abrasion she received during the fall.

Djalu doesn’t appreciate the magnitude of what he’s seeing until Aria explains it in awed tones. “I think I understand what you said about asserting reality. I’m human - as I define it, or rather as we Newmen define it. But I also identify as a machine. My senses are synthetic. And one thing I do not have is blood. Not like this. Whatever that - that was - it transformed me.”

She carefully probes herself, finding flesh where once there nanotubes and carbon composites. And she looks at Bill with wide, wild, living eyes.

Leo is stewing. Otto knows it. Summer knows it.

Mo knows it too, but he’s not sure what to do about it. For Mo, life is simple. There’s work to be done, so you do the work. There’s fun to be had, so you have the fun. You do the thing in front of you, because it’s your thing.

Leo is stewing because he blames himself for the loss of his child, even though - as is patently obvious to everyone - protecting against this particular attack is way, way out of his line.

Something’s gotta be done.

Is Leo Otto’s thing? He’s most likely Aria’s thing, but she’s not here to handle it. So where does the responsibility fall? To Summer?

Summer sure as shit is not Aria. Mo has figured that out long ago. Even if they came from the same person, they’ve diverged plenty. He’s heard the story - Aria was kidnapped, Summer was a hologram. It’s not hard for him, from his authentic memories of emerging along with Bill from the mind of Otto, to imagine very different people springing from the same source.

Right now, Mo knows Otto is focused on “the boss” and his emotional state. He’s doing his best to be that emotionally supportive big bro that Otto always loves being. Summer is the same way. Both of them are mindful, making quiet and empty reassurances to try and keep him comfortable.

Right now, Leo needs to be tracking his kid. Being comfortable isn’t part of that particular deal. And part of Leo’s spirit lives inside Mo, even now.

He chances a comment. He’s not sure how it’ll land, but it’s gotta be said.

“Hey. Snow.”

The old name gets everyone’s attention.

“Eyes forward, soldier. Fez is waiting.”

Leo looks frustrated, then resentful, and Mo can feel him building up to saying something. And in a moment of emotional self-evaluation, he does say something.

“Yeah. You’re right. I’m with it now.”

Summer flashes an appreciative smile at Mo. He knows that she knows what he did, and perhaps that she couldn’t have brought herself to do it.

Guess we do need all kinda voices here, he muses to himself. Even mine.

The quartet’s journey take them to a high wall. It’s geometrically perfect, all squares and right angles, with the occasional bevel and extrusion standing in for an architectural aesthetic. It looks like mid-90’s CGI, too perfect, too regular. It wasn’t built, it was rendered.

There’s no distinct gate, only the indication that there must be one. This takes the form of glowing lines, marking out a pair of tall rectangles or double doors, in the otherwise uniform wall.

Beyond are the tops of what must be buildings, also routine and regular in their dimensions. They appear to be rectangles, decorated with collections of graphics primitives such as spheres and triangles.

At what must be the center of this enormous digital metropolis, the group can see two buildings that put the rest to shame in scale. They resemble castles built back to back, each one facing over half the city.

Otto surveys the wall. “Reckon they won’t just let us in without an invitation or something. We’re here to take back what they took, right? Let’s take a look around. What do you say?”

“Long walk for what could be nothing,” Leo points out.

Otto thumps his chest proudly. “You forgettin’ I’m the fastest thing on four wheels, man! You heard Djalu. ‘Assert your reality’. Well, I figure that must mean I can transform into a car here too–”

As Otto concentrates, a three-dimensional lattice of purple electricity surrounds and shackles him in place, then bursts apart and flings him several feet away from the walls in the process.

“Emulation violation. Emulation violation.” The voice has no obvious source, only a mechanical monotone.

Otto scrapes himself up off the digital ground, and notices something as he does. “Hey. Check this out.”

The big guy’s hands show signs of bruising from his collapse. That shouldn’t be possible given his carbon construction.

Otto experimentally runs his tongue around the insides of his cheeks - Mo can see the protrusion of skin, wrinkling and stretching just like biological flesh would.

“You’re a meatbag,” Mo concludes aloud.

Otto draws a long breath and blows it out in an unbelieving exhalation. “Ho-lee shit. What do you know about that?”

Leo looks, and grins with the joy of a new discovery.

Summer stares at Otto’s newly fleshy hands and face, and he thinks he sees a mixture of awe, shock, fear, and envy in her gaze.