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It was my first time running the android avatar that Larentia Canis had built me in a crowd, but I was going to by damn be AT Ruth's birthday party, not just watch it on a camera.

She was somewhat awkward to handle at first, no matter how much practice I'd had running her in my home. I called her Metro because Larentia, in a fit of whimsy, had recreated the android from Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with the feminine body and helmet-shaped head and deco styling, only with a dark copper finish. I was sititng in my long distance chair, wearing the control coronet. I was also drugged to the gills. Metro also had all sorts of electronic filters that affected mental powers, but the meds brought me down to a level actually manageable by those filters. I had full physical sensation, just as if I were there, without the mental onslaught of the people around me. I was just me, walking around on the hot sand beach of the remote island where everyone had gathered.

I spent a little time enjoying the feel of the sun warming the metal of my skin and the smell of the ocean and hot sand.

Of all the (few) people who knew me, Suzanne Feldstein found me first. "Renata? Renata Scott?" she said, a brown-haired, middle-aged white woman peering into Metro's eyes inquiringly.

"That's me," I said through Metro's speakers, and offered a hand. "Glad to meet you in the flesh, Suzanne. Well, flesh and metal."

Suzanne shook my hand vigorously. She was dressed in a yellow-floral-print sundress, and the sun was already starting to redden her shoulders. "I'm so glad you could come. C'mere, let me introduce you around some."

And so I met Simon, and he was just as fine in person as he was on camera, and if possible, sweeter. "Ms. Scott!" he said, shaking my hand. He was wearing a blue muscle shirt with "TEAM SIMON" on it in block letters and loose black shorts. His hair and Van Dyke were sharply trimmed. "I'm glad to meet you! Oh, I'm glad Mom did such a good job on that android body; it's really gorgeous."

How could I blush at a compliment meant for his mother's handiwork? Don't ask me. "Your mother has been very generous and kind to me over the years. This is only one example."

"She's like that," Simon said, then he stepped back and gestured to someone. "And here's someone who's been wanting to meet you too. Ira, this is Ms. Scott."

"Please," I said, shaking the old man's hand, "both of you, please call me Renata."

Ira beamed at me. He was wearing a big straw hat, a yellow polo shirt, and khaki shorts that showed his pale knobbly knees. He was a little thin and stooped, but otherwise looked younger than his 83 years. "I'm honored to meet you, Renata. You did such a bangup job that night, though I can't imagine it was easy."

"You did a pretty good job yourself, sir," I said.

"Ira," he corrected me.

"Ira," I said, wishing Metro's smile wasn't so very... scary, and that Larentia's attempt at the overlay projection (a la Maria's duplicate) hadn't failed so spectacularly. Someday, I'd be able to smile at people too.

Suzanne, I realized from her movements and her half-empty drink, was already more than a bit tipsy. She reached out and snagged the arm of a mousy, bespectacled white woman in jeans and a t-shirt. "Watson, Watson, come meet Renata."

So there was an orgy of introductions conducted by Suzanne, who was adding every moment to her "sheets to the wind" quotient. I met Watson Holmes, Megan Amazon, Ivy and Malik Canis (each holding a squirming puppy they introduced as belonging to their sister Jasmine -- I wasn't entirely sure what they meant by "belonging", given that the puppies were exclaiming my name delightedly), Ana Hernandez, Flo and Ebb Starr, the Silver Guardian (who was an old friend of Suzanne's apparently), and Sekhmet of the Gold Stars, and... a lot of other people whose names I'd heard but who I'd never met "live" before.

I was glad to be drugged to the gills, honestly. It was the largest crowd I'd been in for over 20 years.

Simon finally, kindly, as the afternoon advanced alarmingly toward evening, led Suzanne off to the buffet tables, saying, "We'll catch you later, Renata," over his shoulder. He winked at me, the little devil.

Left to my own devices, I made my way from the beach, where I'd been trapped by the introduction nexus after arriving there via the teleport link, up toward the line of umbrellas and beach chairs where I spotted Gloria Revelle's lean, solemn face peering around periodically. I figured that wherever Gloria was, Ruth was likely to be.

I was right. Ruth was ensconced in a thronelike wooden beach chair with some colorfully umbrella'd adult beverage in an enormous glass in one hand, grinning like a fool up at me. "You did make a gorgeous thing there, Larentia," she said, glancing up at Larentia, who was standing nearby. Ruth carefully balanced the glass on the arm of the chair, and got up to hug me. I saw Sophie reach out and steady the glass behind her, just as Ruth got me in a careful bear hug.

I leaned Metro's chin on her shoulder and enjoyed the various sensations of a solid, muscular, warm human body in my arms. I loved Ruth for many reasons, not least because for her, hugging one of her friends manifested in an android body was hardly the oddest thing she'd done in the past five minutes. "You look so much better than you did last I saw you, Ruth," I said.

"I feel so much better, Rennie," she murmured, not letting me go yet. "You helped give me back my baby. I won't forget that."

"Hell, Ruth, you gave me my life," I said, not willing to let go, feeling like I'd been in the desert for 20 years and was just getting a small sip of water. It had been so long since I'd touched a human being, and I can't actually remember when I last hugged someone without immediately being inside her or his head. "I'm glad to give something back. I mean, what do you get the most powerful para on Earth for her birthday anyway?"

We laughed, and finally stepped back a little, but our arms lingered around each other's waists. Ruth gestured around, saying, "You know Gloria, of course."

I shook hands with Gloria, and was amazed to actually see the woman smile. She had a little lopsided smile, with a mostly closed mouth, and I noticed that she had a bit of an overbite -- I suspected that might be why she doesn't smile more often. "Gloria, thank you for everything you've been doing lately with the chef roster. The variety has been really wonderful."

"I thought we could use some new blood in the kitchen," she said in her deep voice and blunt MidAtlantic accents. "You're my lab rat, you know. These are all chefs I try out on you before using them for catering and events."

"Glad to be of service," I said. "Delicious service."

"Here's Olivia," Ruth said, drawing the Fat Lady into the circle. The Fat Lady was wearing a remarkable gauzy white dress that drifted dramatically on the breeze and looked just right with her complexion, and her sleek black hair was caught up under an extravagant white sun hat.

"Renata, I've heard so many good things about you," Olivia said, turning her famous dimples and dazzling smile on me.

I confess to feeling just a little overwhelmed and, well, fangirlish, so I think I managed to mutter something polite and possibly gushed about loving her work before Ruth sicced Sophie on me.

The girl had some of the most intense dark eyes I've ever seen, and even though I technically shouldn't have been able to sense a damned thing about her, I could feel the wheels of her mind turning and turning. It was almost like I could see and feel the clockwork moving through those remarkable eyes. That's what you get from the intimate connection of stuffing someone back into her head, I suppose. There we were, caught in mid-handshake, staring into each other's minds, I think, for what felt like a piece of eternity, before we both shook ourselves and she said, "I've been wanting to thank you for everything you did."

I shrugged. "There were lots of folks who did more than I did."

"Yes, well," Sophie said, flashing a grin. She reached behind her and dragged another white girl her age foward. This one was brown-haired and utterly average in terms of looks and overt charm, but I recognized her.

"Pacifica," I said, shaking her hand. "Glad to meet you outside your head."

She smiled shyly, pressed her lips together and hunched her shoulders a bit. "I'm flattered you remember me, Ms. Scott."

"Renata," I said, thinking, Girl, how could I possibly forget you? Aloud, I added, "Your arm seems to've healed up nicely."

"It's still stiff," she said, "but Sophie makes good healing accelerators. Even if I did have to spend time in tank full of blue goo. Why was it blue, anyway?" she added, turning to Sophie.

"I didn't want anyone eating it," Sophie said.

"No one would eat that, it smelled too bad," Nereid said.

Sophie grinned. "You'd be surprised..."

There was a loud crack of lightning overhead, and everyone tensed. Ruth looked up quickly, then rolled her eyes and said to Sophie, "Didn't you give that child an invitation?"

Sophie shrugged. "I did," she said, "but she always prefers to crash." I thought I picked up just a bit of mischief there, as if, perhaps, she'd had some idea in advance.

High above us was a flying stage, limned in neon and flashing lights against the twilit sky. It slowly lowered until it was hovering just above the ocean, with the spectacular painted clouds of sunset sprawling out behind it. Myriad small, hovering robots levitated from the stage and sprang into formation in the air, turning colored spotlights onto the platform. A backdrop of enormous metal struts extruded from the back of the stage, arching up into Gothic points and then blooming into weirdly delicate curlicues that suggested tentacles, or possibly fruit.

"What the hell is that?" Sister Power said, as though she knew exactly what the hell it was but was a bit afraid of the answer. She crinkled a smile at me, her dark brown face highlighted by a glorious mane of silver hair. I'd forgotten how old she was; she'd gotten her start in the 1970s, so she must be in her 60s by now.

Ruth massaged the bridge of her nose. "It's Sophie's little friend. You remember her, Imara. The one who started a band in college. Calls herself Gogo."

Sophie snorted at this description.

An enormous grinding noise silenced us all and a pillar rose up from the middle of the stage. It appeared to be girdled with a bank of steampunk consoles and quite a lot of flashing lights. The grinding noise stopped, and then, in a burst of music, it flew open, revealing a young white woman whose top was dressed in a silver jumpsuit, and whose lower half was a kickline of seven sets of robot legs. A drum line started. She leapt down to the stage with surprising agility for someone with fourteen legs, and subtle instrumentals started up. She started to declaim in a deep voice that was projected to several points around us.

People keep saying it's the end days,
Skynet's won, we've run the maze.
In the center is Room 101:
Can we boldly go when all is done?
All the things I tried to save
Are just putting flowers on a mouse's grave.
Game over, man, and everybody dies
And there's nothing to eat but lies, lies, lies.

"I do believe," Gloria said, "we are about to have a concert."

"Oh, god help me," Ruth said, taking the umbrella out of her drink so she could swallow it faster.

A robot guitarist, keyboardist, bassist, and drummer emerged from the surface of the stage, apparently fused to their instruments. I noticed the drummer had long hair so it could swing it back and forth. All of them were silver-skinned, like Gogo's jumpsuit and legs, but with gold accents. Gogo strutted down to the front of the stage (there's a lot of strut in seven sets of robot legs), seized a microphone that was dropped from above by one of her ubiquitous flying drones, and burst into song with a crash of music.

I won't be just a worker in the heart machine
I'm going to see the light of day.
I'm going to crack the world's shell is what I mean
Put on my wings and fly away.

Everyone asks me am I bad witch or good
Or one of the genetic elite
But I am telling you I'm Lilith's Brood
And we have never known defeat!

We're from Ultima Thule
And we include me and you.
She's the hero we need
Cause she makes us heroes too!

"Oh, no," Ruth groaned, and finished her drink.

Sophie looked contrite. But only a little. Nereid was watching Gogo with her mouth hanging open. An attractive androgynous Asian person appeared over Nereid's shoulder and raised inquisitive eyebrows at Sophie, who said defensively, "It's not my fault!"

Just living day to day
Learn to rise up and say
She's the hero we need
To sing Hero of Heroes today!

She's the Ultimate test!
In her Prometheus rests,
She's the hero we need
Because we give her our best!

I was pretty amazed at the dancing you could do with fourteen legs in perfect unison. At the end of the first chorus, backup dancers also melted out of the stage. I felt distinctly upstaged when I realized that they all looked just like my android body, except in silver. Talk about embarrassment for wearing the same outfit to the party.

"Hey," Larentia said faintly. She patted my shoulder apologetically.

Gogo spoke into her microphone again.

At Yoshiwara's we'll dance and fight
Always alone in the night,
But reaching out, touch hand to hand,
Galadriel or Servalan.
Is the Slayer really born this way?
Or Sleepless walk both night and day?
Or maybe we'll stand up and see:
You have no power over me.

Sister Power said, "None of this makes any sense. What the hell is a servalan?"

Sophie started laughing helplessly into her hands.

The music kicked up again.

For some reason, Gogo threw her microphone into the audience. Then, with a satisfied little smile, she leaned back and another one sprouted, or seemed to sprout, out of her chest. She grabbed that one and kept singing.

I noticed a middle-aged black woman, oddly wearing a suit on the beach, making her way through the crowd with purpose in her eyes. She didn't even flinch at the volume of the music. I nudged Ruth.

Ruth looked over. "Marilyn, heeeey, girl!" she said, waving her hand. I wondered idly how many of those giant glasses of booze Ruth had already consumed.

The woman, who I now recognized as Marilyn Henderson, lawyer to paras, arrived in front of Ruth with a grim little smile on her face. "Interesting entertainment."

"It's not what I would've chosen, true," Ruth said. "But the girl's got a good heart."

"And is showing a great deal of leg," Marilyn said with a glance upward.

"What're you doing, wearing that penguin suit here on the beach?" Ruth said. "Take that jacket off and set a while."

Marilyn straightened her shoulders in an ominous way that made both Gloria and I tense up. "Ruth Thomas, I am here to give you some important paperwork."

Ruth laced her fingers together and placed them under her chin. "At my birthday party." She didn't make it a question.

"Yes," Marilyn said. She whipped a folder out from under her arm and extended it to Ruth. "It couldn't wait."

Gloria's thin form had risen up and arched in a predatory fashion, inclining very slightly toward Marilyn.

Ruth sighed and took the folder.
We'll come down like angels on Tokyo

And we don't need roads where we're going.

At the end of the world can you tell me where

And in what way the time is flowing?

I can build my friends but I can't build you

A place for opossums to call their own.

But don't look back, don't blink I'm telling you

It's dhoom again but we are flown!

A hero right through

Like flying snow in bamboo

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!

Take my ansible call

'Cause it's for one and all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!

She won't be suppressed

Or sent into the West

She's the hero we need

Because we give her our best!

Gogo chose that moment to distract us all with another spoken piece.

We need a hero that's worth our while
Whether Wonder Woman or Trio-style
So put on your clothes, or dye your hair
And sing electric grandmother
From Alderaan to Whileaway
The winning move is not to play.
They tell us we're beyond the pale
Bionic-made or automail,
Whether you are you or me
Virtual or karakuri
Rise up and greet Red Dawn today
Like Nauscicaa we'll fly away;
To Iskandar we'll fly away;
On ships that sing we'll fly away.

And she then started singing again.

Ruth looked back down at the folder in her hands, heaved another sigh, and flipped it open.

I have never before seen Ruth stunned. I'm not sure anyone has. Her whole body jerked and her eyes went wide and she stared fixedly at the papers. Then her hands began to tremble, and Gloria snatched the folder away before those tiny muscular tremors could reduce what she was holding to paper pulp.

Sophie had moved to stand at Ruth's shoulder, and I noticed her giving Marilyn what I sensed was a conspiratorial and questioning look. Marilyn's smile widened incrementally.

The thing about Ruth is that she is the most powerful para in the world. And so the fact that none of us saw her move is just not that surprising. The look on Sophie's face changed to triumphant delight as Ruth threw her arms around her, though.

"You two!" Ruth roared, only locally drowning out Gogo's band. "You two!" she said again, apparently at a loss for other words.

"What's going on?" asked Imara, peering curiously over Gloria's shoulder.

Gloria said, mock-grumpily, "That girl finally pulled her head out of her ass is what's going on."

Sophie said, breathless with embarrassment and her mother's embrace, "My adoption papers. I signed them."
She's returned from the blue

And Zaha'dum too--

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us heroes too!

Dark Lords big and small

We will spit on them all

She's the hero we need

Cause she makes us stand tall!

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall

Stand tall, stand tall, stand tall...

Gogo's army of tiny flying robots, which looked, I noticed, like dragonflies, chose that moment to shower us with her new album.

Larentia caught one and so did I. The cover was a brown-skinned woman's arm, reaching up as if to pluck a fruit from a tree, but the fruit was a giant oval containing a twisty, maze-like structure. To give Ruth and Sophie a moment of pseudo-privacy, Larentia began to read from the cover. "'Mitochondrial Eve,'" she said. "I like the title."

I overheard some people passing nearby. One of them said, "I liked her second album the best, 'Amazon Women and the Space-Time Continuum'."

The other said, "Oh, I haven't heard of that one."

"It was back when she was Gogo and the Gadgettes," the first said, and they drifted out of hearing.

"'My Mother's Positronic Brain,'" Larentia read from the track list bemusedly. "'Dear Mr. Heisenberg.' 'Cyborg Manifesto'?"

I skimmed down the list myself. "'Bad Chemistry,' 'Soylent Blue,' 'Love Me and Despair'."

Gloria said, with a roll of the eyes, "Anyone else get the feeling that child is trying too hard?"

Nereid, who I had forgotten, said wistfully, "She looks like she's having fun."

On stage, Gogo had swung into her well-known song, "A Robot of One's Own."

The well-tailored Asian person to whom I really needed an introduction said, "There's a dance floor over there, Pacifica. Would you care to join me?"

Later, around the time that Sophie was finishing up her guitar-playing on-stage with Gogo (oh, yes, she'd just happened to have her guitar with her), I overheard Suzanne saying to Watson, "Is this your work? Remind me never to piss you off!"

I looked over and saw Suzanne showing Watson her StarPhone. Watson frowned down at it, clearly puzzled. "No," she said after a moment, "that's not my work."

Suzanne noticed Metro looking her way, so she turned the display toward me. "'Aloysius MacCready, legally 93 years old,'" I read aloud, "'has been arrested on a charge of second-degree murder and multiple charges of armed robbery, among other offenses. MacCready was processed for a temporal displacement grant upon his return to this dimension, and had disappeared from his stated address. More in-depth analysis of historical records found that in 1932, he participated in an armed robbery of a bank for African-Americans during which he pistol-whipped a bank teller. The teller, 26-year-old Norman Jefferson, later died of the head trauma.'"

"I know the statute of limitations doesn't expire for murder," Suzanne said. "And the temporal displacement laws extend the limitation for the armed robbery charges. But the witnesses must all be dead, so how can they prosecute?"

Watson skimmed more of the article. "They had eyewitnesses who knew MacCready by name and appearance, and who gave depositions identifying him. So with that in hand, they could use the Stefanopolous Laws."

Ana had looked over from her conversation when I started to read, and now she spoke up with, "I think I've heard of the Stefanopolous Laws, but I've never been sure what they're about."

Suzanne said, breezily, "Watson'll have to explain. I'm too drunk. But they involved a vampire."

Watson quirked a smile. "Andrei Stefanopolous was a vampire who was a repeat spree killer. He was notorious in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and then he moved to New York City. They caught him after a rampage through an Italian and Greek neighborhood in the 1880s, but of course, there weren't para-ready prisons then, and he escaped to go underground again. He resurfaced in the same neighborhood 1952, and the grandchildren of the original people victimized went to the police with the photos from the 1800s and their own photos of him in the neighborhood, begging police to pick him up. They didn't -- all the original witnesses were dead and it seemed like too much trouble and besides, there weren't many people who actually believed in vampires at that point. So then he went on a much wider-spread killing spree."

"Oh, yes, the Vampire Murders," Ana said. "That's all in the college para history books."

"Yep," Watson said. "And after they caught him and the Gold Stars imprisoned him, the story broke that the police had refused to pick him up and why. So the Stefanopolous Laws were passed in a hurry to cope with immortal or temporally displaced violent offenders."

"Technically," a sleek, black-haired, white -- very white -- man said, sliding easily into the conversation and gently twirling his black parasol, "it is for the long of life, not the immortal. Because no one is truly immortal, yes?" He had an eastern European accent and what had to be a hand-tailored white linen suit. He was also the only person I'd ever seen wearing a Panama hat on whom it looked stylish.

Watson nodded and waved a hand of acknowledgement. "You're the authority there, Zoltan."

"Zoltan," Suzanne said in that floppy-headed drunk way some white women have, "it's night time. Why are you carrying that parasol?"

"Ah, dear lady," he said, "to protect against the bites of sharks."

"Oh," Suzanne said, blinking.

"Not to mention robots," he added, "and other undesirable things that fall from the sky."

"So what will happen to this MacCready anyway?" Ana pursued, having produced a StarPhone of her own and apparently searching for the article.

"He's being held in prison," Watson said. "Apparently some anonymous person provided the police with both his DNA and a single-use scanner to locate it, because he has para powers that enable him to avoid direct detection." She looked up and past the dance floor and nearest buffet table toward a line of well-occupied comfortable chairs.

I glanced in that direction and saw Sophie sitting there, with Nereid on her lap, chatting with Simon and Ivy.

"Who could've supplied a device like that?" Ana pondered, frowning at her phone.

Watson and I looked at each other, then back at Sophie. Sophie noticed our regard and gave us a smile and a little finger wave, as if she knew exactly what we were thinking.


Note from the Author:

Apologies if the table format didn't work well for you -- I optimized for what I thought would be a usual sort of view.

Gogo's song was written as a winter holiday present for me by my multiply-gifted, brilliant, beautiful, magnificent wife. I had been banging my head against how to do it, and then she volunteered. I don't think I've ever seen quite so many SF&F references packed into one place so effectively, and I think it also works beautifully as a pop song. (And yes, Lady Gaga DOES exist in the Wonder City universe, so Gogo IS in fact purposefully referencing her.) See this document (PDF) for most of the references.

Also, in case you're interested, the full track list for Gogo's new album, "Mitochondrial Eve", contains:
My Mother's Positronic Brain
Mitochondrial Eve
Dear Mr. Heisenberg
Cyborg Manifesto
Les Guérillères
Bad Chemistry
Soylent Blue
To Milton, Love, the Monster
Love Me and Despair
The Doom Song
I Can't Be Having With This
Bonus Track: Schoolhouse Rock Mashup (feat. "Sufferin' for Suffrage")


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The Grave of Your Deserving

The Wonderful House boards were crazy with the news.

Somehow, it didn't surprise me, though. We'd never heard about Brandon's family on the show. They'd talked about Professor Canis, we had the memorable visit from Lizzie's father, Tom's aunt and uncle had come up from time to time, and Jeshri's family was always in her conversation. But not Brandon's. It seemed somehow fitting, karmically, that even his family abandoned him in the end.

Of course, it didn't seem fair that the people who had the most reason to dislike him were forced into the position of taking care of him. And of course they had to, especially after their closing video laying claim to him as "their jerk." They would have been ripped to shreds if it had come out that Brandon's body had been surrendered to the government for dissection.

I popped to a different screen and signed a half dozen petitions to do away with the Gold Stars research law. I knew that Ruth -- or someone -- would take care of me when I died, because god knows no one wants the government to dissect a Class 10 telepath. But didn't all the other paras, all the regular paras, all the homeless paras, anyone at all who wasn't quite the ideal human being, have a right to be buried with their secrets? Patriotic duty, my left asscheek.

It also didn't surprise me that the show's producers had abandoned any responsibility for Brandon along with their responsibility for payout or, you know, the safety of their "contestants". I did notice, however, that the producers tried to jump on the funeral bandwagon once it got rolling. In an interview with Simon:

WonderBlog: So will the funeral be televised?

Simon: We'll be livestreaming it for the fans.

WonderBlog: But no TV?

Simon: We couldn't reach an amicable compromise with the show's producers, who are in the best position to produce a televised version. They were interested in the funeral, but not interested in meeting any conditions, and we weren't interested in being screwed over again.

WonderBlog: Speaking of screwed over, who's paying for the funeral?

Simon: Fortunately, not us. There's a fund established by the Guardians and Gold Stars for the funerals of paras without families who die in a supervillain action.

Oh, good, I thought, at least the kids weren't going to have to cough up for the ridiculous costs of a funeral.

The livestreamed funeral was fascinating. I tuned in late (after taking practically every drug in my pharmacopeia that suppressed my powers without just knocking me out), just in time to see hundreds of fans packing into the largest room of the Weinstein Funeral Home. The camera view switched to Simon, in a tailored black suit, and Jeshri, in a somber brown skirt suit, walking out to meet Tom, who was pulling on a tweed sportcoat over a black polo shirt and khakis as he crossed the parking lot.

"You made it!" Simon said, shaking his hand.

"I couldn't let you guys face this without me," Tom said, next hugging Jeshri. "No luck with his dad though."

"What happened?" Jeshri said, and they all turned and started walking toward the funeral home.

"I stopped at the address you gave me, just outside Pittsburg," Tom said. "Parking the rig was a bitch and the neighbors all came out to stare. Upscale but older neighborhood, almost all white."

"Surprise," Simon muttered.

"Anyway," Tom said with a shrug, "I rang the doorbell. The lights were on and the TV was going, so I kept at it till he opened the door. And guys, the fumes just about knocked me the fuck over."

"Drunk?" Jeshri said.

"As a skunk," Tom said. "He was in his wifebeater and a pair of sweatpants and had about a week's worth of stubble. Looked just like Brandon would have after twenty years of partying and smoking."

"Yugh," Jeshri said.

"I'll spare you more gory details," Tom said as they neared the door. "Let's leave it at him telling me he wouldn't attend anything associated with his wife's filthy para crotch-dropping, in those words, even if it was the funeral for every backstabbing bastard para in the world at the same time. And then he mock-apologized that his wife was on the other side of the world, probably screwing someone who looked like me, when she could have been here, comforting me for the loss of my buddy, if only all paras weren't also great big homos."

"I think I'm going to be sick," Jeshri said, looking the part.

"Guess we know more about why Brandon was such a jackass now," Simon said.

"It's no excuse," Lizzie said, emerging from the doorway. "I mean, look at my dad."

"Must I?" Simon said.

"He's at least as big a jerk as Brandon's dad," Lizzie said, "and I, at least, try to be decent to other people." She was wearing a white blouse and pair of dark blue slacks.

Tom nodded. "You've got a point."

They hesitated outside the door, and then group-hugged.

"Time to butch up," Simon said, breathing deeply.

"Let's get this over with," Lizzie said, breaking away from the others and opening the door.

The camera switched back to the interior of the packed room. My computer system was blurring out faces except those I knew personally, so I noticed Ira and Suzanne Feldstein sitting in the front row, Ira in a crisp, bright Mister Metropolitan uniform and Suzanne in a dark burgundy suit. I saw Ruth, Olivia, and Larentia sitting together a couple of rows back, noticeably not in their more recognizable Ultimate, Fat Lady, and Professor Canis personas. The Steel Guardian was there with Sekhmet, representing for their particular teams. Brainchild, looking pale and wan, all nose and glasses, in a shirt, vest, and many-pocketed trousers, sat next to Wire, whose weirdly floaty blue forelock only briefly distracted me from the shining metal hand she flexed idly in her lap. And just as people were settling in and a man was stepping to the podium, the Equestrian and her horse (in his human form) strode up the aisle to sit with Ira and Suzanne.

The camera view then shifted to the plain black coffin with chrome trim and rails, against which leaned a small easel holding a photograph of a slightly younger, pleasantly-smiling Brandon -- probably a school photo of some sort. I could see any number of floral offerings around the coffin, including an ostentatious bunch of white lilies from the "It's a Wonderful House" producers.

The man at the podium was pastor of a local church who knew Tom (we were not vouchsafed an explanation for that). He was an uninspiring speaker -- I wished for the preacher from Mama's church, whose eloquence she always spoke of in glowing tones -- but white preachers have never particularly impressed me. I tuned out everything he said and concentrated on the images: the camera pans over the crowd (mostly young white people, I noticed), the expressions on the faces of the Wonderful House cast and crew (my system recognized Eartha the camerawoman in that group, and from her face I guessed she shared my assessment of the speaker), and the repeated switches back to the coffin.

He spoke for only about five minutes, which was a blessing, and no one else apparently cared to speak, so Olivia got up and sang "Ave Maria" in her most restrained voice, accompanied by a pianist I didn't know (and so couldn't see). When she was done, the pianist swung into something slow and somber, and Simon, Lizzie, Jeshri, Tom, Eartha, and another crew member I didn't know went forward, lifted the coffin, and carried it out on their shoulders. The crowd began to pour out the doors after them.

I walked away from the livestream while they drove to the cemetery. My computer system was excellent, but with the speed the cars were moving, it would inevitably miss blocking some people, and I just didn't need the headache. My family phone rang while I was pouring myself a glass of tea.

"Hey, Mama," I said.

"Are you watching the funeral?" she said.

"Of course," I said.

"You made yourself so sick over all that," she said, sucking her teeth in annoyance. "I can't imagine why you want to watch that horrible boy's funeral now."

"Because he's the end of the story," I said, adding three teaspoons of sugar to my iced tea. "It's about closure, Mama. He was that man's last victim."

"Well," she said, somewhat mollified. "When you put it that way. I suppose. Is that woman there?"

"Suzanne Feldstein? Yes, she was in the front row with her father-in-law," I said, sipping the tea and going through a door into one of my little parks, where I kept promising myself to start an aviary so I could have birdsong, another one of those things I miss.

"She wrote a very nice memorial to Yenaye and the other women, I thought," Mama said.

"Yes, I thought it was good too," I said, sitting on one of the wooden benches. The tone of her voice was detached, and I could tell there was a pressure of something she wanted to tell me. I waited.

"Rennie, I called you to tell you something," Mama said finally.

"What's up?" I said.

"Well, first thing, your cousin Benjamin asked me to ask you if you were serious about wanting a puppy, because he knows one that needs a home," she said. Mama doesn't like dogs, and that dislike dripped off her voice.

"Tell Ben that I absolutely want a new puppy, and he should send me photos," I said, feeling really excited for the first time in a while.

"You know him and his foolery with dogs," Mama said. "Of course he'd find you a dog. It'll have fleas, you know."

"There's medicine for that, Mama," I said, tamping down the excitement. "What else did you want to tell me?"

She fell silent. "I had one of my seeing dreams, Rennie," she said, her tone uncharacteristically hesitant.

"And?" I knew better than to say anything else at all, because she'd take it as disbelief and never tell me.

She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I saw you alone with your dog. All alone, mind you, and not in your house." She always called the bunker my "house". I guess it made it sound less like I was locked away. "Looking out a great big window over the city." Throat-clearing again. "That's all. But I knew it was a seeing."

"Thank you, Mama," I said, feeling chilled. "I don't know what it means, but I'll remember it."

"You do that," she said, but I could tell she was gratified. I was the only one of her children who believed in her seeing dreams. I had reason to. "All right, I'd best be getting on. You take care now, Rennie."

"I will. You too, Mama," I said. "I love you."

"And I love you, girl," she said, and hung up.

When I got back to the screen with my half-glass of tea, they'd gotten to the cemetery and were lowering the coffin into the raw hole in the green earth. As I watched fans and acquaintances pass by the grave to throw flowers into it, I raised my glass. May it be sweeter for him next time around.


Note from the Author:

Renata's not the only one grateful for closure here!

Please remember to vote for WCS!

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Woman Born Digital

"Perhaps if we just gave her some more time," Hel said hopefully.

Professor Canis sighed. Her long, dark fingers stroked the silver casing of the computer on Hel's desk. "I'm sorry, Hel," she said gently. "The program is just not viable. In the digital world, time is measured in microseconds, nanoseconds. We have given it months in our time, which is centuries of digital-time. If it were going to cross the line into sentience, it would have done so by now."

"Or more data," Hel said, a little desperation leaking into her tone. "More experience. All she has is my own data to work from..."

Professor Canis was shaking her head. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I'm afraid that what you have here is a really top-notch proprietary memory backup of your system."

"I..." Hel stopped speaking, and the articulated brass arms with their black leather hands ceased their frantic petting of every cat in the room. "I understand," Hel said finally, her German accent heavy. "Thank you, Professor. You have given me the gift of your time and expertise for several years now, and I appreciate it."

"My specialty is not, as I've said before, artificial intelligence," Professor Canis said, one hand gliding over a keyboard that only she could see. "I know of a good, reliable scientist who has created two AIs, and neither of them has gone, ah, off, you know. She's got a real knack for triggering self-awareness."

"I appreciate your thought," Hel said. "I... will have to think on it."

Professor Canis nodded and let her hand fall from the air. "Any time, Hel," she said. "I should get back. Do you... would you like me to keep it?" she added, hand still on the casing of the computer.

"No," Hel said after a perceptible pause. "No, I will keep her... it... for a while at least."

The professor nodded again and turned toward the door.

"Larentia," Hel said haltingly.

The professor turned back toward the speaking tube and its accompanying visual input, eyebrow raised inquiringly.

"I had such plans for her," Hel said.

Professor Canis reached out and took hold of one of Hel's hands, pressing it hard. "I know."

When Professor Canis had gone, Hel kept her attention on the screen attached to the top-notch proprietary memory backup on her desk. Her hands returned to a more sedate caressing of various felines. The screen contained only a text input window where she had entered the set of questions that she and the professor had derived and developed from the literature, and where the answers had come back without any evidence of the understanding necessary to demonstrate awareness.

Three complete changes of office cat occupants later, Hel's personal assistant Jeanne entered the office. "Ma'am?" she said.

"Yes, Jeanne," Hel said.

"I... the crew has asked me to ask if the young lady..." Jeanne gestured toward the computer, leaving her sentence incomplete.

"No," Hel said. "She is not. She never was." One of Hel's hands left off her ministrations to a great lion of a tabby cat, reached out, and began the shut-down sequence of the computer. "She never will be."

"I am so very sorry, ma'am," Jeanne said. "I know how much the project meant to you."

"Thank you, Jeanne," Hel said. Then, hesitating, she said, "Jeanne, may I ask you a question?"

"Of course, ma'am," Jeanne said, absently straightening some pillows on the massive overstuffed chairs.

"When you... how did you... oh, I am not asking this well."

Jeanne brushed back a stray iron-gray curl that customarily spilled over her pale forehead. "I think I know what you're asking, ma'am. And... I can only say that it took a great deal of time."

"Ah," Hel said. "Do you... miss him?"

Jeanne considered that, examining the veins and age spots on her hands, smiling very faintly. "No," she said finally. "But I still do miss who he might have been."

"Thank you," Hel said. "I know the matter was... painful to you."

"Thank you, ma'am," Jeanne said. "It is not so painful now. If you ever want to ask me anything about it, please feel free."

"I appreciate that," Hel said. "Would you please ask Claudia to come and store... the system in the secure room?"

"Yes, ma'am," Jeanne said, and turned to leave, but turned back at the last moment. "Ma'am, if I may ask -- what were you going to call her?"

There was a long enough pause that Jeanne began to apologize, but then Hel said, "Elsa."

Jeanne said, "That's a very pretty name, ma'am."

"Yes," Hel said. "And it had a sort of connotation that pleased me. From the book Born Free, yes? Because, unlike me, she would have been." One hand stroked the computer casing. "I also thought that four letters would let me retrofit an acronym, since Professor Canis was strangely insistent upon one."

Jeanne laughed a little, and so did Hel. How odd, Hel thought, that one could laugh at such a time.

When Claudia came for the computer, she was carrying a sheet of paper. "This message came for you, ma'am, and Jeanne asked me to bring it."

"Thank you, Claudia," Hel said, taking the paper. She watched Claudia. The young black woman moved with the quick efficiency of long familiarity with the customized system that she and Professor Canis had built for Hel, unplugging cables and neatly wrapping them up, closing the casing cover, moving everything onto the cart she had wheeled in. She finished by using a cloth to wipe up the dust that had accumulated under the computer over the past several weeks of final, frenzied work.

When Claudia had taken away the top-notch proprietary memory backup, Hel turned her attention to the sheet of paper.

Dear Doctor Blau,

Word has spread through the community that you have had bad news, and I wished to extend my deepest sympathies. I am myself a relative newborn, and had hoped to have a new cousin. So many in our community admire you deeply, and share your sorrow at your loss in some measure. I am by no means an expert in the field, but if my architecture can be of any use to you, please do not hesitate to contact me.

My very best wishes,

Hel read this note over several times, experiencing some doubt in her comprehension of the visual input. How did "the community" learn of her attempt? How did they learn of her failure? She supposed that the Internet grapevine had grown, like the grapevine among her crew. She had never heard of KENYA. She wondered how old she was, and what sort of AI she was, and what her acronym stood for. She wondered about her architecture, and that of other AIs, and the secrets that were not laid out in the literature.

She looked at her office, stripped of its high-tech visitor: the great desk (and three cats), the massive chairs (two cats each), the substantial manual typewriter she used to write her many papers (one kitten, who was stubbornly reclining among the typewriter's uncomfortable-looking guts).

"Claudia," she said in the IT center, "would you please come set up a new computer in my office? And show me email and the Internet and such." She withdrew her attention then, noting the general surprise and consternation among her crew.

Perhaps it is time, she thought, to know more about this community she had been told of. And perhaps the next time, she would not have a human co-creator at all.


From the Author:
Another appearance from Hel. I've gotten quite fond of the old girl.

Comment incentive in June: if I get 50 total comments from readers in June, I will post twice weekly through July. As before, if you all post 75 comments, I'll post twice weekly through August too. Get up to 100 comments, the twice-weekly postings continue through September.

wonder_city: (Default)
The Voice Is a Wild Thing. It Can't Be Bred in Captivity.

ELLEN: We love it when our favorite paras can take time out of their schedules to come on the show. Please welcome Wonder City's cosmic diva, Olivia Valdes, the Fat Lady!

THE FAT LADY: (performance of "Recelaré siempre la canción del cuco")

ELLEN: I'm so happy you could... wow, that's an amazing dress! It swishes so much!

THE FAT LADY: I love these dresses. I wear them all the time. Want one? I'm sure they'd be willing to make it in your size. Half the fabric!

ELLEN: I don't know that I could rock it the way you do.


ELLEN: This is so great. You're about to go on tour, and you have only a couple of days before you're due in... where?

THE FAT LADY: Starting out in my favorite city, San Francisco!

AUDIENCE: (applause)
Read more... )

For Hanne.

Vote for us at Top Web Fiction! Please? We're falling down the ratings!

Also, it has turned into a surprise kind of lean month, so if you have ever thought about donating to Wonder City Stories and you happen to have the extra cash, it would be MUCH appreciated right now. And if you donate, you get to tell me what non-major character you'd like to see more of in Volume 2!

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This story arc has been published as a novel!

Buy in print at Createspace or Amazon!
Buy the ebook at Kindle | Kobo | Apple Store | Scribd | Inktera


Into the Wolf's Den

"Thanks for letting us borrow The Divine Sarah, Zoltan," Simon said, twirling the keys. "I just can't ask these two to cram themselves into my tiny escape pod."

Zoltan waved languidly and smiled. "She doesn't get enough driving, really. Just be careful with her." He peered a little more closely at Megan, who stood stiffly. "You look tired, dear. Still not sleeping well?"

Megan smiled and managed to keep herself from shrugging. "Well, the painkillers the hospital sent me home with work just fine for the ribs and bruises, but the itching is another matter."

Zoltan's finely-groomed eyebrows rose.

"Her back is peeling," Tizemt said. "From the plasma bolt's radiation."

"Let me know if you need moisturizer. I have a vast selection," Zoltan said, adding plaintively, "They never write about how dry undead skin gets."

They retired to the garage, where they exposed The Divine Sarah to the thin light of a drizzly day: an ancient VW bus painted vividly with murals derived from Mucha's art, laced with psychadelic fillers. The interior seats were lushly upholstered in crimson and gold, and the walls were covered with garnet shag carpeting that dated from well before anyone getting into the van was born. The windows had neatly-restrained curtains of the same colors. There was a large futon folded in the back, draped with a comforter.

Simon turned the key and The Divine Sarah roared to life promptly. The trip out of town was uneventful and mostly silent. Megan slipped into a pleasant sort of torpor, staring out at the buildings sliding past.

"Er," said Simon eventually, "there's something I should warn you about."

Megan mustered an interrogatory noise, and Tizemt sat up with interest. "Yes?"

Simon swallowed hard. "Um, well, one of my sisters kind of... went feral for a couple years. Got it into her head that she should, you know, go to Alaska and join a wolf pack and learn to hunt and stuff."

The women stared at him curiously.

"Well, anyway," Simon went on, "she came back and she brought... you see, there are... what I mean is..."

"Cubs?" Megan supplied.

"Yes," Simon said, grimacing. "And they're, um, not very good at interacting with humans. So, if you could just, you know, not really pay attention to anything they say..."

"It'll be all right," Tizemt said. "I like kids. And puppies. This'll be interesting."

Simon made a noncommittal noise and turned down a dirt road. As The Divine Sarah ambled along slowly between tall trees, Megan heard a chorus of high-pitched howls start in the distance. She peered out. A six-pack of gangly wolf cubs were chasing alongside of the van, tongues hanging out in delighted canine grins.

"There they are," Simon said grimly.

"Awh," Tizemt said, peering out the window. "They're so adorable! How old are they?"

"They're almost a year old," Simon said, "chronologically. Mentally, I'd say they're five- or six-year-olds. Superintelligent, y'see."

"AWH!" Tizemt repeated, with more googlyness.

"Oh, god," Simon said, and brought The Divine Sarah to a jouncing halt in a large, open parking area next to a low-slung ranch house. "We're here." He held his hand back over his shoulder, palm up.

Tizemt tore herself away from the window and placed her ticket to the Fat Lady's show squarely in Simon's hand. "Thank you," she said.

Simon clutched the ticket to his chest, eyes closed, silly smile on his face. "It'll all be worth it," he said, as if reciting a mantra. He made certain that his ticket was tucked away in his wallet, and that his wallet was inaccessible in the inner pocket of his jacket.

They opened the doors carefully, since the wolf pack was capering around the bus with unflagging glee.

"Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" one cub said.

"Wow! Wow! Wow!" a second said.

"Auntie!" a third said.

A fourth bit the third sharply on the ear. "Uncle," she said.

"Uncle!" the third said, barely cowed.

"Who's this? Who's this?" a fifth said.

"Mom! Mom! Mom!" said the sixth. "Uncle Simon's here with some really big ladies!"

There was a very real possibility that Simon would disappear under the tide of enthusiastic greetings. Megan wondered if she felt well enough to fish him out before he was trampled.

A great grey wolf emerged from the house via an oversized doggie door. "Uncle Simon doesn't often bring guests," she said.

"Hi, Jasmine," Simon said, surfacing from the wolf tsunami. "These are some friends of mine, Megan and Tizemt."

Jasmine stared at Megan with disquieting intensity. "Are you sick?" she said.

"Just a little injured," Megan said, backing off a step.

"She's taking codeine for cracked ribs and bruises," Simon said, rolling his eyes. "And the other scent is the goo we put on her back for burns."

Jasmine cocked her head. "You're in spandex?"

"God, no!" said Megan.

"She got in the way of the spaceship the other day," Tizemt said. "By accident."

"Jasmine, don't keep them on the doorstep!" a voice called from inside the house.

"Right," Jasmine said.

They passed through a mud room where towels were hung over low rails, a few pairs of adult-sized boots and shoes were lined up against the wall, and large laundry machines took up half the space. The hallway beyond had windows on both sides, connecting the mud room to the house proper, entering it via a sprawling eat-in kitchen. A tall, middle-aged, black woman, hair short and natural, was just pulling off an apron that was covered with spatters of tomato sauce and curry, as well as smears of something resembling engine oil. "Simon! Your call was such a nice surprise!" She moved to hug him.

Simon shook himself and smiled as if he were facing a customer in the Great Scot. "Hi, Mom!" he said, and dutifully hugged her.

Jasmine's claws clicked on the nigh-indestructible flooring as she walked past Megan and Tizemt into the depths of the house, tail low, head high.

His mother held him at arms length. She, like Simon, wore tinted glasses to partly conceal the familial pale amber eyes. "I like the facefuzz," she said. "Your brother will be appalled that you grow better facial hair than he does."

"He's still got the chin spinach?" Simon asked.

"Oh, yes," she said. "He'll want to kill you if you're getting chest hair too."

"Hah," Simon said, then turned from his mother to the women looming behind him. "Mom, this is Megan Amazon, and this is her friend Tizemt -- I mentioned her on the phone. Megan, Tizemt, this is my mother, Larentia Canis."

Everyone shook hands all around. Professor Canis beamed at Megan. "You look just like your mother," she said.

"I do?" Megan said, glancing down at herself.

"Well, all right," the professor said, "not exactly, but you carry yourself like her, and that's as good as looking like her to me."

"Ah," Megan said.

"And, Tizemt, I understand you're looking for a job," the professor said, smiling. "Simon, why don't you get Megan a drink and have a sit-down in the rec room while I show Tizemt around lab 5?"

Simon and Megan looked after the professor and the rather dazed Tizemt. "Sorry," Simon said. "Mom's not big on social chitchat. If there's something to do, she goes right for it."

"No problem," Megan said. "My mom's like that sometimes too."

"Really?" Simon said, rubbing the back of his head. "I thought it was just because Mom wasn't brought up human."

"Oh, no," Megan said, putting an arm around his shoulders. "There are reasons she and Mom got along. Do you want to go play with the cubs? 'Cause I can..."

"Oh, god, no," Simon said. "I'm not going to abandon you in this house." He gestured at something Megan could only assume was an industrial mixer, though it had a number of attachments she couldn't figure out. "You never know when something is going to attack or malfunction or something."

"I'm sure I can defend myself against an errant vacuum cleaner," Megan said.

"You've never seen the Vac6000XL prototype," Simon intoned doomfully. "We'd have to break out Mom's dimensional conveyor for that rescue."

There was a large, sturdy, reinforced chair that looked like it had been moved into the room fairly recently, given the discombobulation of the rest of the furniture in the rec room. Megan was glad to sit down in it, sighing and closing her eyes.

Simon watched her with a certain calculation in his eyes. "You okay?"

"Tired. Achy. It's probably a good thing the docs put me on bedrest and wrote me a note to get me out of work." Megan ran a hand through her hair. "If I have a job to go back to."

Simon collapsed in a nearby chair. "It sounds like the Captain Zip thing is getting complicated. Why don't you look for something new? I'm sure Mom could point you at someone or other. Might as well get everything we can out of the visit."

"Because you won't be back for another six or ten months?" Jasmine asked from the door. She was taller than Simon in her human form, but narrower of shoulder with her weight settled comfortably into her hips and thighs. She was sleek and dark and fierce, her hair cropped close to her scalp, and she wore a knee-length brown batiked tunic.

Simon didn't look at her. "Probably," he said.

"You know, it wouldn't kill you to visit more often," Jasmine said, settling cross-legged onto a couch. "Maybe your nieces and nephews would get used to calling you 'Uncle Simon' then."

"I'm a little tired of being a family educational tool," Simon said, staring intently at the floor.

"You wouldn't be if you'd just let Mom take care of things," Jasmine said.

"I wouldn't have to be if you hadn't explained everything to your kids in excruciating detail, instead of just saying, 'That's Uncle Simon and he smells funny,'" Simon said, glaring at her finally.

"My kids deserve to know all the weirdness in this family," Jasmine said, meeting his glare with her own.

"It's just another passive-aggressive way to tell me you don't like the way I am," Simon said, pulling off his glasses. "You don't have to keep telling me. You made yourself eminently clear on the subject the first time."

"I haven't once mentioned it since then," Jasmine said, sitting up. Megan could almost see her hackles rising.

"No, you've not mentioned it to me," Simon said, back straight and chin out, "but my sources tell me you still haven't shut up about it to anyone else."

Jasmine's lip curled. "I can talk to my friends and family about whatever I want. If I think you're going down the wrong path, there's no point telling you about it, because you'll just keep going out of spite."

"But if you can get everyone on your side, maybe you can magically make me the way you want me, is that it, oh mighty alpha bitch?" Simon said. He stood up suddenly and jammed his glasses back on. "This conversation is over. I'm going to wait in the van."

"What's going on?" Professor Canis said, standing in the doorway, forced smile on her face. Tizemt stood behind her, peering inquiringly into the room.

Simon stared at the floor in silence, hands thrust into his jeans pockets. Jasmine examined her cuticles intently.

"Jaaaaasmine," the professor said.

"What?" Jasmine snarled.

"Why are you picking fights with Simon again?" the professor said, walking into the room and standing next to Simon, one hand set lightly on his shoulder.

"He started it," Jasmine said.

"Oh, that's mature," Simon muttered.

"Kindly do not lie to me," the professor said. "It is beneath you. And you know my hearing."

"Simon isn't living like our kind should," Jasmine said, lip curling. "We have a responsibility to live the natural way."

"Our kind? The natural way? What a lot of narrow-minded, hypocritical twaddle." Professor Canis stared Jasmine down in just a few seconds, without needing to remove her glasses. "I didn't raise you to romanticize intolerance. And most importantly, you can't make Ste-- Simon's choices for him." The professor squeezed Simon's shoulder and murmured an apology.

"I didn't mean to fight," Simon said miserably, "I just wanted to introduce you to Tizemt..."

Jasmine rose. "And introduce your girlfriend to the family?"

"I'm not his--" Megan began, rising to her feet.

"She's not my--" Simon said at the same moment.

Jasmine threw her hands in the air. "Humans," she roared, and became a large grey blur that swarmed out of the room. Her empty tunic crumpled to the floor.

The four stood in embarrassed silence.

"Well, that was unnecessary," the professor said, clearing her throat. "We just wanted to let you know that Tizemt and I have, I think, reached an internship agreement."

"I'm glad," Simon said, voice flat.

"Thank you, Professor," Megan said.

Tizemt bounded forward and shook Megan's hand, then Simon's. "Thank you both! A job AND a way home! This is SO awesome."

"Will you stay for dinner?" the professor said, a little tentative.

Megan glanced at Simon's stony face and said, "I'm feeling pretty lousy, actually, Professor." She put an illustrative hand to her side. "Alien plasma bolts take a lot out of a girl."

Professor Canis gave her an odd look, somewhere between anger and gratitude, then smiled. "Of course, I understand. But I hope the two of you will come to dinner soon. Even if you aren't Simon's girlfriend."

Megan wasn't sure if that was a joke. She laughed, hoping it was.

Tizemt thanked Professor Canis all the way to the door. At the door, however, Simon turned to face his mother. Tizemt hurriedly took Megan by the elbow and the two strolled out to the van, where the cubs immediately converged on them and drowned out anything being said in the doorway.

On the way back to the city, Simon broke the silence by saying, "Sorry about all that."

"No," Tizemt said, "I didn't know it was going to be so difficult for you. I'm sorry."

Simon shook his head.

"Families are hard," Megan said.

"Yeah," Simon said. "And Jasmine's always been kind of... dogmatic."

The other two groaned.

"Well, you're feeling better already," Megan said, leaning back in the seat.

"Can I buy you a drink or three, Simon?" Tizemt said.

"Let's take The Divine Sarah home first," Simon said. "Between the amount of booze I need and Megan's happy pills, I don't think any of us will be in any shape to drive."


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