Masks 22.5 - Pneuma and City Hall [Cutscene]

This seems like the ideal time for this particular bit, actually. There’s a part two to this, which will go up pretty soon.

City Hall is a grim gray edifice of stone and glass. It lacks the high-tech refinements of modern Halcyon skyscrapers, or the classic grace of Halcyon’s heritage buildings. It doesn’t merely stand, it seems to defy people to enter.

This is technically Pneuma’s first time here. She was created before Leo ever came here, and only has his stories to go by. Leo offered to come with her this time, as moral support. Of course he did. He’s sweet like that. Pneuma decided this was something she had to do herself. AEGIS, the HHL, Rook… adults, adults everywhere, doing more than just telling you what to do or who do to be. Adults literally changing the world on you, just for their own comfort, their own status. The interview with Hecate is still fresh.

I need protection from the adults. I’m going to other adults for it. This is lunacy.

She expects a forbidding bureaucracy of pencil-pushers, uncaring and uninformative. First impressions reinforce that fear. “You want Suite 417, upstairs,” says a bored-looking girl at the front desk, who pops bubblegum and only takes one earbud out of her ears to listen. At 417, a middle-aged man with aggressive crow’s feet and sad-looking jowls insists she wants 427, and mumbles something unkind about young people as she leaves. Pneuma realizes belatedly that he means the girl downstairs, not herself.

She passes lines of people, hears them talking to each other in a language she doesn’t recognize. Icelanders. Is City Hall going to start serving their needs now? Is anyone?

The harried-looking woman at Suite 427, staring through thick glasses at Pneuma, listens patiently enough. “I’m … not sure I understand which department to send you to,” she says, with a refreshingly honest puzzlement. “Listen, wait here, I’m gonna get my section manager. My name is Lucy. If you don’t see me for awhile, ask one of the other girls here to page me, okay?”

She returns with a long-bearded gentleman whose fashion sense is sixty years out of date. He introduces himself as Harrison, the section chief. He listens to Lucy repeat Pneuma’s story for a few moments, then shakes his head. “I should probably hear this myself,” he says, managing to sound fatherly rather than dismissive. Lucy gratefully returns to her work.

As she relates her story, Pneuma catches occasional glimpses of Lucy in the office beyond, running from place to place, having strained conversations with a tall grinning coworker, having her hair ruffled by another girl. She’s being teased by her coworkers. She’s tired. She’s excited. She likes this job. These people aren’t bureaucratic bots. These are real people.

Like me.

Harrison, despite his age, seems to follow Pneuma’s somewhat technical recital of her origin. “I understand, young lady,” he declares at the end. “There’s a department of Civil Rights, which protects against discrimination in housing or employment situations, and you may or may not be in a protected class. There’s Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, which handles new arrivals, just perhaps not quite like yours. Part of what you need is handled by the NC Health & Human Services department of vital records. That’s state level, not us. We also set up a special office for processing the people that are being called gleymt - I’m told that’s Icelandic for ‘forgotten’ or ‘overlooked’. Lucy thought you might be one of those at first.”

“Before the Hayden Act, special cases like yours would have been impossible to process, because so many departments had to be involved. We are going to put you in touch with the Hayden auditing team and they will handle this for you, start to finish.”

Pneuma’s eyes narrow. It sounds like it’s going to be taken care of pretty easily. That automatically makes her suspicious. Her thoughts sound logical at first, but worry her more and more. If it’s so easy, why didn’t AEGIS do it? Why didn’t Leo?

“There’s one more thing.” Harrison catches her gaze, looks steadily at her in a way that’s hard to ignore. “This process won’t give you human rights, young lady. Rights are things you have by virtue of who and what you are. What this process will do is certify those rights in a way that the United States, the state, the city, and other authorities will acknowledge. If you go to court and your personhood is in question, your Hayden Act paperwork will be entered as evidence. You will be issued a birth certificate and all other relevant identification paperwork. It sounds like things have been difficult for you. We’re going to do everything in our power to help you.”

Words aren’t coming. Pneuma can only nod, and hug herself to see if she’s dreaming.

Harrison opens a manila folder and hands over a two-sided official form. “Fill this out, leave it with Lucy, and that’ll begin the process.” He stands up and waves goodbye, leaving Pneuma to stare at the form. At least it’s something she can focus on.

Current identity? Pneuma. She doesn’t have a last name, and this is the first time she’s really thought about that. Leo had almost a dozen, and doesn’t seem to care anymore. The one he has now isn’t even a real family name, it’s just a reference to the AEGIS special operation. Maybe that’s why she’s similarly casual about it. And taking Leo’s last name isn’t right, not until-- Right, moving on!

Desired legal name? Aria Newman. She thought long and hard about that one, even before coming here. “Pneuma” to “Newman” was easy, and the significance of “new man” was evident. “Aria” sounded pretty, but also means a self-contained piece of music for one voice. Very appropriate for an independent AI. It also references Leo’s theory of mind as music. All in all, she’s very proud of it. Better than ‘Otto’. God. I love Otto to death, but what a kid Leo was for picking that. The thought brings a grin to her face.

Height… Weight… The numbers she puts down would look like bragging to other girls, but that’s how it is when you wear a carbon-allotrope hypertech shell. The rest of the physical traits section is basically an essay question. Gender, sex, and so on are equally freeform. The Hayden Act has made few assumptions about the physical nature of applicants. That’s a nice touch.

Religion. Pneuma pauses, a little surprised. The options are dizzying. Agnostic, Muslim, Quaker, Wiccan, Shinto, Christian (Orthodox)… She taps the pen against her lips for a few moments in thought, hovers briefly over “None”, then delicately fills in the circle next to “Don’t Know/Unsure”. Are there really going to be this many aliens, dimensional travelers, and robots who found religion?

If I have a soul, does Numina share it, or does she have her own? Or do I share Leo’s? If there was another fork…

Lucy comes back at that moment with extra forms for Numina and Otto. “Are these people, um, related to you?” she asks.

Pneuma smiles. “Yes, Numina is, she’s….” Who are we to each other anyway? Leo broke new ground with us. New definitions aren’t ready yet. What makes the most sense right now? “She’s my baby twin sister, if that makes any sense. Otto’s kind of like a big brother, I guess.”

By the time Pneuma is ready to sign and date the completed forms, Lucy has finished her other work and come by with a mug of hot coffee. “How do you have a twin baby sister, anyway?” the office lady asks.

“Well, she’s sort of a… Fork? Offshoot? Clone? Of me. We share almost all of our memories, with um, some key differences. She can’t be here today.” She’s flying first class with my creator’s rival to ask his adopted brother about an extra-dimensional memory curse. The other one is a giant robot car that won’t even fit in your atrium, can’t use the lift, and can’t take the stairs. No matter how hard we try to be normal…. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

She gets a grainy Xerox copy of her application paperwork. “It shouldn’t be more than a week from now,” Lucy says confidently. “Mr. Harrison says they just have to prep their testing facility, and that you three should be cake.”

Pneuma rises and walks to the elevator, and walks out the front door, and finally dashes with barely-contained joy through the sunlight of a beautiful afternoon.

author: Bill G.

First thought just a few lines: it’s interesting that Pneuma doesn’t classify herself as an “adult”. That’s in part, I’m sure, because of her identity with Leo, and hanging with him and others, but it’s still interesting, since “age” and “maturity” for techpeople is a more fluid concept.

author: *** Dave H.

Overall… Very cool tale. If there are problems…let Jason know.

author: *** Dave H.

The Hayden Act testing facility is a warehouse that’s been partitioned into a series of cubicles, hallways, and reception areas. Pneuma is guided inside by a young government intern and is asked to sit down in a featureless white room. The chair is a cheap folding metal affair, easy to store, transport, and deploy. There’s another one across from her, with a foldable table between the two.

The intern has her sign a non-disclosure agreement not to disclose private details of the test. There was something about “consent to non-invasive examination by apparatus or individual”, but that was maddeningly vague, which was perhaps the point. With that done, Pneuma takes a seat, folds her hands in her lap, and waits. She’s not sure what else to expect.

Time passes. Pneuma fidgets. She checks the time, toys with her cell phone, distracts herself with Candy Crush Saga, starts writing a text to Leo, deletes it. She doesn’t hear anything outside. Finally she rises, and tries the door. The intern is on the other side as she opens it, looking scared, angry, and confused. “You can’t come out!” they insist. “If you leave, you’ll fail the test.” Pneuma slams the door shut and falls back into her chair, terrified.

More time passes. Pneuma sees her phone signal degrade to nothing. There’s no free wifi, or any wifi for that matter. Patience must be part of the test. Okay, she can do this.

The door opens, and Leo comes in. He has a confused look on his face, but he brightens immediately when he sees her. “Leo!” she cries, and rises to meet him. Her face betrays the dozens of questions she has. Leo shakes his head with a quick glance around him - I can’t tell you what’s going on, I’m so sorry - but he does give her a tight, warm hug. Then he turns and is gone, closing the door behind him. Pneuma collapses back into her seat. What the hell?

The door opens again. An elderly black woman comes through, pushing a wheeled cart precariously loaded with stuff. She starts transferring stuff to the table: manila file folders, a laptop, a cell phone, even three picture frames. “Have you been waiting long, dear?” she asks pleasantly.

“No, it’s okay,” Pneuma replies, politely pushing away her fears and doubts. City Hall gave her some hope, but she’s still not sure whether to expect anything good from this process. Then again, it’s all she has. If the HHL is a group of compromised heroes with questionable morals, they’re still the hero team you turn to. I don’t like it, but what can I do?

The old woman blinks. “They said you was a robot,” she says in surprise.

“I am a robot,” Pneuma explains. “Why do you ask?”

“You don’t look like a robot.” The woman puts on a pair of spectacles, and peers down her nose at them. “You made of metal? That doesn’t look like metal.”

“I’m made of carbon allotropes. I look human. But yes, my body is artificial.” Pneuma is suspicious. Is this part of the test? Leo’s appearance was totally random, but he was authentically Leo, or the best illusion she’s ever seen. That must have been deliberate. This must be as well. “I’m sorry to be rude, but are you part of the examination?”

“Oh yes!” The old woman beams, and gestures at the cart. “I bring in all this stuff for the audit. I like talkin’ to the person bein’ audited as well, since they give me plenty of time in here. Y’got any questions, just tell me, okay?”

“Just… please tell me what’s going on,” Pneuma manages.

The woman straightens up and beams. “Sure I can do that. My name’s Edith. Pleasure to meet you. Now, what’s happening here is that they’re gonna make you wait. They’re gonna see if you can be patient, but also if you can be impatient, if you take my meaning. They poke you and prod you with stuff, tryin’ to make you feel something, react somehow. Surprise, fear, joy…”

Pneuma isn’t at all surprised when Edith takes her position in the other seat, opposite the table. “… They got a telepath who will read it all. Feeling ain’t a requirement for personhood. Just something that’ll be part of the paperwork. I’m Edith Warburton, dear. They used to call me Switchboard.”

She takes one of the photo frames and presents it to Pneuma for inspection. It’s a black and white photo from an earlier time in Halcyon City’s history - the Gold Generation. The skyline is partially recognizable in the background. Half a dozen people are clustered together for the photo. One of them is a young, pretty girl, recognizable immediately thanks to her older self sitting behind the table. Pneuma is surprised, because one of the big men standing behind her is the spitting image of AEGIS director Craig Costigan. There’s someone else in the back row, a tall, pale humanoid, who reminds Pneuma of actor Ted Cassidy from “the Addams Family”, “Star Trek”, and “Halcyon Hour” if he had visible gills and glowing eyes.

“Those were the old days.” Edith has a wistful smile. Pneuma watches her wrinkled fingers stroke the picture frame unconsciously.

“Switchboard was male…” Pneuma hears herself, then corrects her own mistake immediately. “Switchboard was thought to be male. Why?”

Edith picks up a clipboard and pencil from the table, and starts scanning down the length of it. “Probably for the same reason you ain’t metal. To fit in. Make people comfortable.”

Pneuma remembers her life, her earliest authentic memories with Leo, and can’t help but understand.

Edith perks up. “That right there. Are you willin’ to tell me about that experience?”

Pneuma’s cheeks turn red. "I… " Why not? “Yes, I suppose I can. It’s not part of the test?”

“Just curiosity. If you say nothing, it won’t change a thing.”

“Well… you brought Leo here, so you clearly know about him… and me…”

Edith nods along. “So… this boy you like… are you two…” She wiggles her index finger left to right.

Pneuma tries to interpret the gesture, starting with the warmly romantic memories of their first kiss. She blushes furiously when other possibilities suggest themselves, then realizes she’s not quite sure what it’s actually supposed to mean. “Yes… No!.. Maybe…?”

Edith peers, hums, and dutifully pencils something onto her clipboard. Pneuma cranes her head forward in a vain attempt to get a glimpse of the outcome.

“What are you…? Well, fine. I was remembering my first date.”

The woman looks at her expectantly. Pneuma takes the plunge.

“I couldn’t pass as a human girl then, and I didn’t eat, so fancy dinner wasn’t an option. Back then, Leo’s allowance wouldn’t cover more than a few skillets at Denny’s anyway. And neither of us had any idea, then, of what else a ‘date’ was supposed to be, other than dinner or movies. So we snuck into a movie theater.”

“There was a dollar theater near where we lived. The people who ran it were pretty lax. They’d put the movie on the projector and then go smoke weed, and they didn’t have enough people to watch the doors. The plan was, Leo would get a ticket, get inside the theater, then open the side door and sneak me in under a blanket. We’d climb up into the back seats, way out of the way, and hide out there. The floor sloped up, and they stored broken chairs in the corner of the theater, so there was this one spot where the usher couldn’t see you, if you were willing to squint through a tiny gap in the chairs to see the screen. It was awful, and I loved it. We saw ‘Year On Pluto’, ‘Inside Out’, and ‘Tomorrowland’ that way. The first time, we were watching ‘Jurassic World’.”

“I still wasn’t sure just what I liked. I was freshly minted. The whole world was out there, waiting for me. I wanted to see it all, experience everything, let it wash over me and see what parts stayed with me. So here we were, two kids in a crappy theater watching CGI dinosaurs, him gnawing on Twizzler’s, me rubbing the texture of the blanket between my fingertips just to feel what it felt like. At one point he asked me, ‘Are you warm enough?’ I shook my head. So he pulled me in, close as can be, and wrapped us both up tight in that blanket. We couldn’t see the movie anymore. I didn’t care.”

“My tactile sensations were so blunt back then, I could barely feel anything. I didn’t have good thermal sensors at all. I got my wisdom teeth out when I was 13, and the dentist gave me this purple stuff that knocked me out for hours and left me fuzzy the rest of the time. The whole world felt that kind of fuzzy, all the time, even if it didn’t interfere with moving around and doing stuff. So, really, what he did shouldn’t have had any effect.”

“The thing was, it did work. The moment we cuddled up, I did feel warm. And that was the best sensation in the world. I knew, then, that he could make me feel good and help me be happy, and I loved him for that. We’ve been through a lot since then, and it’s been difficult, but I’ll always cherish that memory.”

Edith’s face grows more and more open and ecstatic with the telling. Pneuma supposes she’s experiencing the memories and emotions. But there’s something else, a wistful yearning or nostalgia, that she can read from the other woman that has no source in her own story.

“That is really something,” Edith concludes with a sigh. “And it does take me back.”

She taps the photo, her finger going to where the tall humanoid stands, without needing to see the photo. “That’s Jeff Hayden. Or Dox’yp, originally. His people were a right peculiar sort. He was a menacing fella to look at. But then he’d turn them big bright eyes at you, and a girl would just melt, ‘cause you could just feel that big ol’ heart of his comin’ through.”

“He and I… well, our team had plenty of secrets, we could keep one more. Jeff didn’t see me the way humans saw me. He saw right through their excuses with his big eyes, an’ then he’d turn and look at me an’ say…” Edith clears her throat, and attempts a deeply masculine voice. “Edith, I could bring a war fleet and conquer this planet if you wish.” She laughs. “I never knew quite how serious he was, but I always tell him no, one of you’s enough for a girl.”

“Jeff Hayden is why we have the Act, in case you wondered, an’ I’m pretty sure you did. We always kept what we had on the down low, never asked the world to acknowledge it. When he… when he passed on, there was talk on the team of survivor’s benefits, a pension, somethin’. Jeff was on the team, but he wasn’t human. There was no precedent back then. Craig fought so hard. I told him no, I didn’t want nothin’, but he figured it out anyway. There was somethin’, I just was too chicken to come clean. So he goes to Congress, an’ he puts on a suit an’ lobbies an’ lobbies. The result was the Hayden Act.” Edith laughs. “Then he gets to likin’ the suit, an’ tells us all he’s changin’ careers. How do you like that?”

Pneuma says nothing, but her smile is enough. Then the connection happens in her mind. She can see Edith pick up on it as well. The telepath is kind enough to let her voice her own thoughts. “AEGIS helped Leo, Otto, and I. I thought… Well, we thought this sort of thing would be… Um, handled.”

“Ask what you mean to ask,” Edith prompts gently.

“Why wasn’t I recognized as a person before? It could have saved me – saved me some trouble at the airport…”

The older woman digs through her manila folders, hums, frowns, stares through her spectacles, puts a folder away, pulls out another one. “Ah! Here we go…” She withdraws a set of papers and scans them. Pneuma waits, fidgeting.

“Alright. An ‘Agent Ted Waters’ - you know him I suppose? - Good, you do. Turns out he was in a pickle. He was movin’ your young man from family to family, says here, an’ if you’d been a proper person, you’d been treated like another foster sibling, but not from the same family.” Edith peers down her glasses again. “I reckon you don’t think of yourselves as brother and sister, heh heh…”

Pneuma’s face is beet red. All she can do is rapidly shake her head.

“Well there you go. You ain’t blood, so you ain’t gonna be kept together by the state, who has no truck with all this robot alien mutant nonsense Halcyon keeps springin’ on 'em…” Edith scans the document further. “Looks like Waters thought the best way to ensure you’d always be with your Mister… is it Mister Carson? Mister Conway? It’s all of them? Don’t that beat all. Says here he can’t have you apply for Hayden Act protections without exposing you to Leo’s father… I gather from this that he’s a bad sort…? Yes? Well, alright. The only way for you an’ Leo to be together, an’ still stay out of sight, is if you’re part of his personal possessions. So that’s what this Waters fella did.”

Pneuma slumps back in her chair. That wasn’t what she expected at all. Bureaucratic incompetence, AEGIS’ unwillingness to go to bat for the son of a supervillain, anything else would have had a certain internal logic. But to be treated like luggage for her own protection is a new and difficult wrinkle.

“The telepathic examination is nearly done,” Edith says gently. “Anything else you want to know, sweetie?”

Pneuma thinks. “Just… why… Why do you do this?”

The woman turns that over in her head for a second, nodding, staring at nothing but memories. “My heroin’ days are long over. Reading the minds of evil men took a hard toll on me. My doctor’s pretty sure if I do it again, I’m gonna have some kinda complication, deep vein trombone… thing?”


“Hah! That’s the one.” Edith grins briefly, but her face resumes its journey through nostalgia. “But I can do this, here, a nice relaxin’ scan of applicants. This is what I really wanted, an’ Craig helped me get it. Mostly I do it to meet new and amazing people, like you dear. I don’t know when my time will come, but I will surely face my Lord and maker with pride. An’ maybe I’ll get to see Jeff there when I do.”

Edith signs the clipboard and starts packing her things away. “Well that was the test, an’ I’m happy to report that you passed, Miss Aria Newman. You’ll receive a non-availability certificate that’ll serve as your birth certificate, an ITIN card in three to six weeks - that’s for payin’ taxes, please be a good citizen an’ file your 1040 when it comes due - an’ supportin’ evidence that you can present if you need a passport, or need to get a job. Oh, if that ITIN card don’t come by April, you can request a filing extension, don’t fret about that.”

Pneuma starts to cry. Edith immediately abandons her cleanup and comes round the table, picking her up and cradling her in surprisingly strong arms. “Shh, child, shh, you deserved this since you was born, stop thinkin’ this nonsense you didn’t.”

Pneuma squeezes her tightly, nodding, and finally pulls back. Edith presents her with a handkerchief, and she wipes her eyes.

“Now I’m sure you’ve got a busy day, an’ I do too. It’s time for me to meet a talkin’ car. I take it that’s your friend, Otto.”

“It is,” Pneuma says happily, through the tears. “My sister is coming too. Please take good care of her.”

“I will,” Edith whispers. “You take good care of yourself, now, go get yourself some ice cream like you’re wantin’. Say! Why not go see a movie with your young man? We still need him for a bit, but after that…”

“I’ll do that,” Pneuma promises. She wants to hug and hug and hug this woman, and that means it’s time to leave before she embarrasses herself further. “Thank you for everything, Edith.”

“Thank you, Pneuma,” Edith says, looking directly at her with gratitude bright as the sun.

author: Bill G.

What a fine, fine way to be greeted in the morning. Great addition to the world, Bill; ours and theirs.

author: Doyce T.

Very, very nice.

author: *** Dave H.

And bonus credits for references to Ted Cassidy and the subject-germane Ruk the Android.

author: *** Dave H.

Man, no love for Jeff “Starman” Bridges who romances Karen “Jenny Hayden” Allen?

author: Bill G.

Was never into “Starman,” though I now recognize the reference. :slight_smile:

author: *** Dave H.