• Published 16th Feb 2015
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My Little Apprentice: Apogee - Starscribe



Second Chance has her memories back, and now the responsibility of an entire civlization rests on her shoulders. Can she save her old world without betraying her new one?

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Chapter 3: Truth About Cutie Marks

No matter how excited Chance might be about this new plan, there was still a party to attend to, and by no means was that a dreadful duty. After her time in the hospital, Chance longed for the contact of ponies that didn't think she was either delusional or some sort of freakish monstrosity. Whatever else these ponies might be, even Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon at least treated her like she was just another pony.

Besides, the cute-ceañera was apparently an important coming-of-age for an Equestrian citizen, the signal of the beginning of one's transition from childhood to adolescence. It meant the last few years of school for many ponies, as they transitioned to apprenticeships in their various crafts. It meant that in a few years she would remember what the big deal was about dating and boyfriends and everything.

The entire town hadn't been invited to this particular party, for which Chance was grateful. She preferred talking to a few individuals she knew than to dozens that she didn't. Her classmates and their parents and siblings were way better company anyway.

"That's a really neat cutie mark," Lyra said, a glass of punch hovering in her magic. Every now and then she would take a sip, shudder a little, and promptly forget about the punch again. She had done it three times since she had started talking to Chance, and it was all she could do not to laugh. "I think it's perfect for you." She gave an exaggerated wink, pointless since nopony else was there to hear her.

"Thanks, Lyra."

"It's Earth, isn't it?"

Chance was grateful she wasn't drinking anything, or else she might've sprayed it all over the floor, attracting far more attention than she would've wanted.

She must've looked pretty shocked either way, because Lyra nodded knowingly. "Yeah, thought so. It's clearly not Equus, not twisted sideways like that and with those two continents pulled apart. Obviously it had to be your planet."

"But... How'd you know it was called Earth?"

"It's in Clover the Clever's writings about the Precursors." Lyra glanced once around, making sure nopony else was looking before tossing the contents of her glass into a nearby potted plant. Chance was no earth pony, yet she could imagine pained screams from the flowers as the liquid soaked in. What were those things floating in each glass, anyway? "I'll admit I thought it was a little silly you named your planet 'Ground.'"

Chance shrugged. "You call your star 'Star.'"

Lyra took a moment to process what Chance had said. "Good point. Anyway, I just wanted to see if you had an hour or so sometime this next week. See, I've been invited to speak at a Canterlot symposium with the Society in a few weeks, and I would really appreciate if you could proof it for me. For accuracy and stuff."

"That sounds... pretty interesting, actually." It would be interesting to learn more about what Equestrians believed about her species. Maybe she could even correct some misinformation along the way. "I'll catch you after school one of these days, okay? I'll just follow the music."

Lyra grinned. "Thanks, Chance! You're the best!"

She wandered on, trying to follow Pinkie Pie's example and spend time with as many of the guests as possible. After all, they had come for her; she didn't want anypony feeling lonely.

"Miss Cheerilee?" It wasn't as though Ponyville's local schoolteacher had known her for all that long. "Glad you could make it."

Chance found herself wondering if being pink was an indication of a genetic tendency towards happiness. "Wouldn't miss it! I've always made it a point to attend these functions whenever one of my students discovers his or her special talent. There's no overstating how important a moment it can be in the growth of a young pony!" She moved a little closer, drawing out something she had been carrying and setting it on a nearby table. It was a printed packet, with the characteristic block letters of all but the rarest pony writings (which had been manually copied). A packet? Was it Chance's homework? Had she really missed that much in two days absence?

Maybe Cheerilee had become an expert at reading the expressions of young ponies, or maybe she could read their thoughts. "No, it's not homework." She flipped open a few of the pages. "I had hoped to tell you about this a few days ago, but you had a good excuse so I held onto this instead of giving it to somepony else. Every few years, there's this big event. It's called the Equestrian Innovators Convention; where some of the most talented young ponies get together with the most influential inventors and researchers. This year it's being held in Seaddle... And I get to choose two of my students to go. I know you haven't been with us for very long, but based on some of the discussions we've had, I think you'll make an excellent engineer one day."

"You're just saying that cuz' I can barely read and I know less about history than a foal."

Her teacher's grin never faltered. "That's what makes Equestria so wonderful, Chance. If we all had the same talents, it would be a boring place to live." She flipped through the pages, so Chance could see the illustrations of fancy machines and important-looking ponies in labcoats or holding tools. "An event like this could really help foster a budding talent like yours. The expenses are all included, and I've already discussed it with your guardian. But the convention is next week, so I've got to know now if you don't want to go. There are plenty of other students that would love to go in your place."

She thought about that for a moment. It didn't take her long to make up her mind. "Who else is going?"

"Apple Bloom. She was the class's clear leader in Math and Applied Science unti-"

"Where do I sign?"

Cheerilee flipped to the page, and produced a quill from somewhere. It wasn't as though they weren't sitting around everywhere in the library. "Think carefully before you agree, Second Chance. There are commitments. The convention is only three days long, but the assignments are rigorous and you'll have to report on them for the class. But there are fantastic opportunities to be had, too. Lots of the greatest inventors in Equestria recruit their apprentices and assistants from events like this. Not to mention the contests; if you're really clever, you can even bring some bits back for our school." Only then did her smile falter, though not by much. "We could really use the extra help."

Chance took the quill in her mouth and scribbled her signature. It was far less neat than her horn-writing, but her magic hadn't recovered since the Nanophage injection. She was glad to see Cheerilee hadn't mentioned the change. "Mhweehm-" She returned the quill to its well. "win for you, Cheerilee! You can count on us!"

The pinkish pony closed the packet, and replaced it in the folder she had brought. "I'm sure you will. But don't feel bad if you don't; it's really about the opportunity. Being able to help your school is just... a little extra incentive to perform."

* * *

"So... It's a big square?" Scootaloo eyed the dormant OMICRON Core with a mixture of skepticism and fear. She never got close, almost as though she were afraid the giant metal thing was going to fall and squash her. Well, it would've squashed her if it fell, but Chance doubted that was about to happen anytime soon.

"Actually, it's a big cube." Apple Bloom gestured with her hooves. "A square would be two dimensions, but this is three."

"Whatever, egghead stuff." She rolled her eyes. "Exactly how does a cube get us cutie marks? I don't want a cube cutie mark; that sounds like the lamest thing ever. What would that mean, that we were good at being square?"

"It's not the cube that gets us cutie marks," Sweetie Belle interjected. "It's the pony living inside! Chance said he was super smart!"

"Smart enough to tell us what our talents are? So we can just do 'em, and stop doing things we aren't good at?" Only now did Scootaloo begin to show some interest of her own. "I guess that could be cool. Show me!"

From somewhere near the stairs, Twilight Sparkle watched under the protection of an invisibility spell. At least, Chance assumed she was watching. It wasn't her that Twilight was hiding from, it was Truth. She didn't understand why Twilight would be afraid of something as kind and helpful as an OMICRON Core, but she wasn't about to argue. She was just happy Twilight had allowed them to do this at all. But far from being against the idea, she had actually seemed relieved when Chance had told her they were asking about something safe and routine like cutie marks.

Chance tried to use the Nanophage, willing the implants to respond. But just like her magic, the mental aspects seemed sealed to her for the moment. She wasn't worried yet, knowing that it could take up to two weeks for her brain to be fully integrated. Once those two weeks were up, then she could get worried. So instead she put her hoof on the surface of the cube and pushed down, drawing a circle. The gesture did not scratch the cube, and wouldn't even if she had been wearing horseshoes. Nanosteel was harder than diamonds, or perhaps it was truer to say that nanosteel was more diamond than steel.

The surface glowed at her touch, and the glow spread to that entire face. There was a brief tone, and the surface rippled in little sections, as though it were made of water and her touch had been a rock. The crusaders each jerked back a little, some more than others.

"Hello again, user Second Chance. You kept your word."

Chance nodded. "Your first lesson. Ponies always keep their promises." She paused, thinking of the possible consequences for Truth's development. "Or... I do. And most ponies do. We have to work together, and it wouldn't be conducive to a healthy working relationship if it wasn't built on trust."

The surface flickered with every word Truth spoke, like those old music visualizers that traced the waveforms of the sound. "Are we prepared to accomplish our mission, Chance? My information indicates that DATA UNAVAILABLE years have passed since my arrival. If this is true, we have failed and our continued existence serves no purpose."

"Well that's a darn sour way to look at it." Apple Bloom stepped forward, perhaps the least fearful of her friends. "Just cuz' you mess up don't mean your..." she struggled for a moment, "don't mean you gotta give up on life!"

"If we gave up every time we failed, we'd have given up a long long time ago," Sweetie Belle added, with a knowing grin.

Chance was sure she heard Twilight strangle a giggle at that. "More to the point Truth, you lack some important information." She stopped then, freezing in place as she realized her information was no better than Truth's. "You arrived thousands of years in Equestria's past. I left... it must've been before you did, because when I left nobody had thought of sending an OMICRON Core instead of a person."

There was a pause, and the temperature near the cube seemed to visibly increase by a degree or two. Chance had no doubt it was computing the vaster implications of what she had just told it.

"What are you thinkin'?" Applebloom asked, reaching curiously towards the surface of the now-silent cube, though she didn't dare actually touch its surface with her hoof.

"May I answer the unregistered member of native species, user?"

"Yes." She cleared her throat. "In fact, I give you permission to answer any question that doesn't require restricted information, regardless of who asks, as long as I am physically present."

It was more than a little disorienting to have Truth answer Apple Bloom's question so quickly, without any sign it had switched targets or subjects. That was why most AIs were given avatars; organics just weren't equipped to handle interaction with disembodied intelligences. "If the information Administrator gave is accurate, then it is impossible to know the relative year on Earth at this moment. The concept may not even be valid, given the apparent temporal disconnect between perspective universes."

"More clearly, user Chance and this unit may not have failed after all."

"I don't see what this has to do with cutie marks," Scootaloo mumbled from behind them.

Chance tried to ignore her. "Truth, is the current power input enough for you to run without draining your reserves?"

"Yes. I am actively attempting to optimize my operation for a low-power environment. Using passive thermal energy and the power input, I can operate indefinitely, though I cannot activate quantum functions or fabricate under such low-energy conditions."

"Good. Truth, dedicate spare processor cycles to determining a way to send a transmission back to Luna-7."

"Command acknowledged."

"How much information do you have about the native species?"

"Extensive observational data, behavioral projections and complete lifetime simulations based on genetic input. Little information is available about social constructions or political structure."

"What about these?" Chance turned sideways, gesturing at her cutie mark. "How much do you know about these?"

"Skill markings are universal to Equestrian common species Ter-6, Ter-17, Aer-2. Markings appear at the early stages of puberty and remain throughout individual lifespan. Similarities in the markings of those with familial ties are common, but no genetic basis has been detected. Simulated native life never developed skill markings."

"They're connected to heredity, but they're not genetic?"

"Correct. Cells producing the marking pigments are produced under instruction by spontaneously developed XNA molecules. The origin of these molecules is unknown."

"So you don't know how ponies get them?"

"They are obtained while performing skill-related actions, but the causal link between this behavior and the pigments cannot presently be demonstrated."

"Could you predict what action might produce the marks in a pony at the appropriate age who hasn't developed them yet?" She gestured over her shoulder at her friends. "Say, for these three ponies?"

There was a pause. "What does this have to do with our mission?"

She was a little taken aback with the question. Not that it was all that difficult for anyone of even modest intelligence to see that trying to find the Crusaders' cutie marks had nothing to do with their mission. Still, grasping that required a fairly high level of abstraction. Truth was learning fast.

"Diplomacy," she eventually supplied. "We require the assistance of other ponies. My friends are capable and young enough to remain useful for a long time. To secure their cooperation, you must first secure their cutie marks."

Another pause, this one a full five seconds. A monumental delay for such a powerful AI. "Insufficient information presently available to project 'cutie mark' development. Required input:

1. Census data for at least 10,000 native individuals along with their skill marks
2. At least 1,000,000 words of popular media published or performed in the last decade, including the full text of a comprehensive encyclopedia if available
3. Personality surveys completed by the individuals under investigation

The accuracy of prediction would be significantly increased with genealogical records of the subjects, but is not required."

Chance frowned. That was a long list of requirements, though at the same time nearly all of it was already in the library. The bestseller section upstairs would cover requirement 2, and her friends were already present for personality surveys. She knew Equestria performed a census every decade, because she had seen an entire shelf dedicated to it in the genealogy section. It was only a matter of keeping the generator stoked long enough to get all of it done.

"Can you do the survey orally? I can go upstairs and get the other two things."

"Yes."

It looked like any trace of fear in her friends was gone now. If anything, they seemed to run the range of curiosity and eagerness. Sweetie Belle was sitting beside Apple Bloom now. "Why do you need books?"

"To extract cultural normatives and range of possible skills. Without this knowledge, I could not produce a list short enough that every possibility could be attempted in an organic lifetime."

"Oh."

"Alright girls, I'll be right back. Answer Truth's questions as honestly as you can. It's not judging you, but if you give the wrong answers Truth is going to give you wrong predictions." She turned, and started heading up the stairs. "Truth, use subconscious aversion as much as you can."

"Understood."

"What's aversion?"

Chance ignored the question, hurrying up the stairs. She left the door open longer than she would have, so that invisible Twilight could follow if she wanted to.

* * *

Almost the instant the door closed behind them, Twilight reappeared. "It sounds like your memory is coming back."

She nodded, avoiding Twilight's eyes, whimpering quietly. "It... Discord. He... rattled things around, I guess. I still don't remember very much. Like my family... I remember my older sister's name, but nobody else's."

Twilight wrapped one wing gently over Chance's shoulder. "I know how hard these last few days have been, but it's important you tell me anything that might be important. Like... Your mission in Equestria. Have you remembered that?"

She nodded. It took her almost a full minute to get together the courage to answer. "My world... There was nowhere safe to live anymore. The whole thing was covered with... radiation. It killed everything on the surface. I was sent to Equestria because it was the only door we opened that led to a planet at the right temperature for life."

"We honestly didn't expect anyone to be living here. Life is so rare in our universe, so rare we still haven't found any sign of it anywhere else... I was just supposed to make it here, and build a radio transmitter... Ponies have radio, right?"

Twilight nodded. "It's not nearly as useful as sending spells, so we don't use it much outside of universities."

"Well, the plan was to send a signal once I got here, since I could only send the message if I arrived alive and with enough power to interact with physical objects." She could see Twilight's expression changing, and she silenced her with a gesture. "Not now, Twilight. That part's too complicated. Anyway, when I sent the signal, they would start sending supplies through. Thousands of copies of each item I need, so that at least one or two would make it. With all the parts, I was supposed to build something called a Rift stabilizer." She gestured at her head with a hoof. "I couldn't even tell you how hard they worked to get me to memorize every last technique needed to bootstrap all the way from flint tools to the stabilizer."

She shifted a little uncomfortably on her hooves, blushing. "I didn't really learn any of it the traditional way, so if anything happens to trigger the memories, it all sorta just comes rushing out.

Twilight nodded again. "I had noticed. I just thought you were eager to show you knew the answers sometimes. I got that way when I was still in school. Can't say my classmates liked it much."

Chance continued past her, walking to the kitchen window. Through it, she could see the many houses of Ponyville, and the outline of part of the generator where it chugged away. It had to be running low on fuel by now; it was probably time to get outside and start shoveling. She did not look forward to the prospect of putting her mouth on the shovel. "You have to understand, we had no idea there would be advanced life here. The Rift is plenty large enough for plenty of different transmission bandwidths, but we didn't get anything. We've been listening for years, and never heard a thing."

"There wasn't a contingency for what to do if we found people." She plopped down on her haunches, and heaved a frustrated sigh that melted into a sob somewhere near the end. "I'm not sure what to do."

"This 'Rift stabilizer'." Twilight sat down beside her. Without hesitation Chance rested herself against the mare's side. Twilight didn't shudder at her touch the way she had months ago, or show any sign that she was scared and didn't know what to do. She was there and she was strong, and that was more than enough. "Is it dangerous? What will your people do if you build it?"

She didn't hesitate to answer. "They'll start coming through. In tens, first. Scouts, engineers, soldiers. Eventually they'll start sending people by the thousands. I'm sure the eventual goal would be to migrate everyone, then destroy the rift so they couldn't be followed."

"Equestria's a big place." Twilight didn't sound angry; if anything she sounded positively cheerful. "I'm sure Celestia could find room for some pioneers. How many would 'everyone' be? Can't be that many if nothing can live on the ground anymore."

When she answered, it was bitterly. "At the time I left, it was... 1.29 billion."

She felt Twilight jerk. She looked up, and though Twilight was trying to speak, only a hoarse squeak made it out of her mouth for nearly a full minute. Eventually she managed. "Chance, I... A whole planet couldn't have that many ponies living on it. I don't think if you took every pony, griffon, minotaur, zebra, dragon, changeling, goblin, and everything else... I'm not sure there would be a billion on all of Equus. If there were, it wouldn't be much more." Then, more quietly, "If that's how many are left, how many of you were there before... whatever happened?"

"7.24 billion, if you counted only living people. If you counted all the cybernetic and digital people, probably closer to... 15 billion? It's hard to tell, since you can put a million minds into a room when they're digital, and the Steel Tower stopped sharing statistics with the Federation decades before the war."

Twilight got up, shaking her head. "You can't be remembering that right, Second Chance. It's well understood that a planet with the size and climate of Equus can only support about 2 billion herbivores, or a third as many carnivores. Do you come from a bigger planet?"

She shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I could be wrong, since I've only ever been a pony here and I don't know what it would feel like if I wasn't, but gravitational acceleration feels the same, your moon seems to be the same distance away, and you have the same orbital period relative to your star. Most of the plant species are the same, and many of the animals as well."

Chance got up, pushing the door open with her head and making her way to the huge pile of coal she had gathered with her friends. She opened the feed-door on the generator, and sure enough the flames seemed to be dying down. Now how was she supposed to shovel with her mouth?

Twilight followed her out and removed the necessity, taking up the shovel in her magic with no apparent effort whatsoever. "So if you lived on a planet the same size, with a similar climate, why didn't famine keep your population in check? You weren't all starving, were you? No, that couldn't be... You couldn't keep up an expansion so far above replacement if you were starving for generations. And not just food! There wouldn't be enough wood to make houses, or enough metal to make tools. Or enough oil to burn in your machines..."

"We weren't starving, no. It's..." she looked away. "If we lived the way you do, there couldn't have been so many. Back when we were at your technology, we had about a billion on the whole planet. No other races like on yours to compete with, just us. We had to be way more spread out than ponies are, since we didn't have earth pony magic in our farms, and some years there just wasn't enough rain for all our crops."

"But we figured out how to do things better. First it was better fertilizers, so we could grow more with the same land. Then it was pesticides and herbicides... Chemicals to kill plant and insect pests, so more of the crop would survive to harvest. Then came genetic engineering... Uh... Think of the way ponies have bred wheat, except we could do the work of a thousand generations in just one harvest, and we weren't stuck with just plants. Like, we could take an ice water fish's ability not to freeze in the cold, and put it in oranges so they could grow in subzero temperatures."

Twilight nodded, seeming not to require any of her concentration at all to shovel. "Oh, ponies have that. Thaumic horticulture." Her face scrunched up in annoyance. "Plenty of earth pony farmers don't want to grow magical crops, even though they're better in every way." She grinned. "Have I ever given you zapapple jam? No? Well, it's a good thing Applejack's family doesn't feel that way, or nopony would."

"Well, the next technology we need is vertical farming and aeroculture. Picture... Manehattan! Buildings like that, only instead of ponies living inside you've got floors and floors of farms. You make the windows out of something really clear, and use electric lights at night. You don't need much water or fertilizer when you grow that way, and none of the nasty chemicals we used before. A vertical farm has about 10 times the productivity per acre, since it grows day and night all year long. A few really big ones could feed a whole city, and no need to transport any of the produce since it's already in town. Every new technology meant more humans and less of an environmental impact."

Twilight slammed the metal receiver closed. "I'm guessing your people did something similar for houses and tools and medicine and everything else. The more efficient you made things, the more of you there could be."

Chance nodded. "Except it all collapsed. The only thing keeping us alive is our technology, and it's a pretty miserable life. Ever eaten algae crackers with insect jam?" She was hardly surprised when Twilight looked revolted. That was the proper expression to have when discussing such awful foods. "Well, I hope you never do, they’re awful."

"All these technologies rely on electricity. Without it, everyone dies. We don't burn oil or coal anymore like ponies do, but the best ways to make power aren't possible for most people. The machines we use to make power are all running down; Earth doesn't have an infrastructure making more. Nopony can go up to the surface and make things better, because they just die when they try. It's... all pretty awful."

Twilight led the way back inside, and collapsed on the nearest couch as soon as they were through the door. "I think I see why you wanted to forget all of this."

Chance sat down at the base of the couch, glancing once at the basement door. She wondered how much more testing the Crusaders had to do, and how long it would take to get a set of encyclopedias scanned into Truth. "Yeah."

"Some of the things you talked about would be amazing for Equestria. If we could get electricity as easily as you do, it would open so many possibilities! Not to mention those farms you talked about; if cities had a few of those they wouldn't have to rely on the countryside for miles around. But..." she trailed off.

"I know." Chance didn't have the courage to look up. "I haven't even told you what happened to us, and you don't want it to happen to Equestria." She still didn't look up, but she could feel Twilight's nod. "And I don't either. I... don't think I can carry out my original mission. This isn't an empty planet. But... I think there's a better way!" She got up, and grinned wider than she ever had at the party, nudging Twilight with her hooves. "We don't need my original mission anymore. Ponies can solve all of Earth's problems!"

This provoked only a blank stare. "How? We don't have any of your machines. There aren't even half as many of us-"

"Magic, Princess Twilight! So we've got radiation everywhere - Sweetie Belle told me that there's a really easy spell unicorns can learn to get rid of it. So we've got a trashed ecosystem; earth ponies can turn wastelands into forests! Our climate's completely ruined, but pegasi can rebuild it!"

Now even Twilight was smiling. "That sounds better than a billion strangers taking our planet away. I bet your people would be pretty grateful for our help."

"Like you can't even imagine! You could pretty much write your own check. Once the surface was livable again, we could start rebuilding our planet on our own. Whatever Equestria wants in exchange, it would get. Technology; machines you can't even imagine... But not just that! There's a rich history of art we could share. Paintings, sculptures, music, stories... And other things you don't have words for. Want telescopes up in space, so you can study the stars without having to look through the atmosphere? We can send a dozen. Want a way to hold every book ever written in one saddlebag? We'll make them for everypony in Equestria. Everypony's happy, and nopony gets kicked out of their land."

"I think... I've got a letter to write." Twilight rose to her hooves, turning at once for the stairs leading up. "You should send the Crusaders home. It's getting late, and their families are probably getting worried. If they're not done, they can come back tomorrow after school to finish, okay?"

She nodded. "Do you think Spike will be back from Rarity's in time to make dinner? Or... Do you think I should make something?"

Twilight looked meaningfully at her. "I think you ought to make a few dinners after what you put us through." Chance opened her mouth to speak, but found Twilight's hoof prevented her. "Don't bother. You said the cube could store electricity, right? That means we're not wasting anything." She removed her hoof, heading up the stairs.

Chance grumbled, but this too Twilight drowned out, not having to look back. "Don't just make a salad, either. I expect some real apologetic effort out of you!" She stopped on the stairs, glancing down with a grin. "Didn't you say Equestria would get whatever it wanted? Well right now, Equestria wants a certain filly to learn a little responsibility."

* * *

Brigid dreaded the sensation of awful stretching, of pulling and twisting through invisible spaces that was Universal Transit. There was no easy organic analog to transferring your consciousness, memories, and very self from one computer to another. If there was anything dangerous about an entirely virtual existence, Transit was one of the most dangerous things. As far as Brigid knew nobody had ever died in the process, but there were horror stories of people emerging changed. Were they true? Almost certainly not, but that didn’t make it feel any less like she was taking her life into her hands.

She was still a little pale (well, paler than usual) as she emerged from the platform and stepped out onto the boardwalk. The Transit station was as busy as ever, mostly bureaucrats and Internal Security as they moved about their duties. Brigid was pleased to see two of the InSec men in their translucent yellow and green cloaks attracted to her at once. Neither reached for their weapon-routines, though of course they knew that would've been overkill.

Then they got close enough to see her robes, the gray of the Technocratic Order. The runes written within were written in white, the highest possible rank for a scholar. As quickly as she had attracted their attention, the men seemed to suddenly lose interest, moving off in different directions and not looking in her direction again. She was appropriately amused.

Bree passed several small gatherings, men and women and children bidding farewell to a family member going Above. Such departure celebrations were a popular custom, though they created frustrating congestion for those in a hurry. Bree was in no real hurry, and listened to some of the conversation as she passed.

"Bet you're excited to be real again!"

"Send plenty of pictures!"

"Make us proud, hun! Impress 'em for us!"

It was always an occurrence of note when a relative got to go Above. Most probably weren't getting human bodies, but would be operating drones and repair-bots and security devices. Even so, the mindless masses fawned over the opportunity. As though being Above somehow made you more real than being in the Imperial City, or any of the Infinite Realm. Of course, few had been so young as she was when she entered, so clung to some romanticized version of Above. She couldn't imagine what other reason would make them want to leave. Here any dream could be made real, any fantasy fulfilled. Above was a world of concretes, of limitations, and of suffering.

She passed through the crowds, slipping between people in spaces too small to accommodate her. There was no reason for space not to be flexible here. As the ignorant all around kept repeating, none of this was 'real.' Whatever the hell that meant.

The boardwalk was a nice change from the station, the cool air on her skin and the bright sun on her face. She felt quite comfortable in her gray robes, though part of that was the environmental subroutine she had written. Doubtless if this were a "real" boardwalk, she would've been sweltering before she was halfway to her destination.

There were far more people her own age out here, or at least people who chose to look it. When you weren't in official space, you could look like whomever you wanted (or whatever you wanted, in some servers). Still, she knew the avatars when she saw them; those who had made themselves young just by changing their appearance. Not that there hadn't been plenty of children in the early days of the Great War, but many years had gone by and most of those had chosen to let a simulated version of nature take its course with the simulation of their brain chemistry.

Changing your avatar didn't change you, and you could always tell when someone was pretending if you knew what to look for. Bree knew, just as clearly as she knew the one she was going to see was one of the few who had not (like every other idiot in the Realm) allowed himself to age a day since arriving here. Of course, he also happened to be the young man that had saved her life.

Why he had chosen such a mundane place to live was a mystery to her, just as she failed to understand why he had chosen such a mundane life. ENS-Boardwalk6, or "Earth-Normal-Simulation" allowed nothing fantastic, nothing inhuman, and nothing that had no analogue on Earth prior to about 2050. It might very well be the most boring and mundane place in all the Realm.

Bree didn't care. She was practically skipping at the mere thought of seeing her best friend again.

No, not her best friend. Her only friend.

Was there any difference?

His family were every bit as boring as the server they lived in. Nevermind that they could've lived on great island-cities of cloud, or within the fiery heart of a volcano. Instead they had a modest little beachfront house, with big picture windows and weathered-looking wood. None of the family was a skilled Datamancer, yet still she knew they had built it themselves. With tools, sweat, and real-time hard work. The thought was so backward as to make her shrink in disgust.

Not from the handiwork. However she might think it mundane, there was something unfailingly concrete about the house and all who lived inside that none of her most spectacular creations ever had. Brigid still didn't know what it was, and it made her a little uncomfortable to think about. Of course, not wanting to think about something was the swiftest way to invite herself to think about it. It's because I would rather live here than in a palace.

His mother was tending to the garden.

This didn't surprise her. Sonja Halko was as predictable as her home. She had to admit, it was hard not to respect the woman. Not just for all the strength she had before coming to the Infinite Realm, which had been tremendous. Unlike most, she didn't turn time back to when she had been in her prime and live that way forever. Even Tesla the Wise had enough vanity to want to look young and handsome. But Sonja hadn't changed a thing. She was in her mid-forties, with a few respectable lines to her face and a slight thinning to her hair brought on by a hard life. Yet for it all, Bree knew of none more cheerful.

"Missus Halko." Despite all her rank, despite her robe of high office and the many privileges and powers she wielded, Bree truly felt her age in the presence of this woman. She stood on the other side of a short white fence, resting one hand on it and looking as friendly as she could. The old-world woman insisted on a level of formality she wouldn't have given to anyone, save perhaps the king himself.

The woman looked up from her gardening, smiling at her. The expression was tired and weak, but in a way that almost made it more real. Sonja didn't smile the same way Bree's generation did, those who knew no pain and had spent their lives in comfort. No, her smiles were one of contrast; one who knew the good because they had tasted so much of the bad. "Bree girl, so good to see you!" She brushed her hands on her apron, then rose. "You sent no message. I told you to call ahead. I have a roast nearly ready, but it's not big enough for five." She feigned disapproval. "I shall have to bring something home from the market to supplement it. Vegetables perhaps?"

Bree pulled down her hood, shaking her hair free. Whenever she traveled to see her old friend, she always kept it in a tight ponytail and shortened it to more realistic proportions. The subroutines that she used to manage it most everywhere else didn't work within the harsh realism constraints of Boardwalk-6. "No need for that, Missus Halko. I don't eat, remember?"

The woman just clucked her tongue, slipping the pruning-shears back into her pocket and folding her arms. "Now Bree, you know it doesn't work like that here. We live where things work properly, including your stomach. You can act as mighty as you want, but we both know what the state of things will be come supper. You will be sitting at my table, and you will be eating. I expect you'll outdo my sons. You usually do. I suppose you have to make up for all the meals you miss when you don't stay with us."

She shrugged. "Is Charles home yet?"

Halko shook her head. "No, I'm afraid not. You know how busy he's been ever since they made him a knight." She lowered her voice, and her eyes darkened a little. "Meaning no disrespect to His Grace, but I do wish he had chosen someone better."

Bree slipped through the gate, stepping onto the path of small stones. She couldn't help but be defensive, though perhaps she should've been wise enough to realize what was happening. Unfortunately, being frozen meant that maturity and wisdom never came. That was the price of being eternal. "There isn't a better pilot anywhere, in the Realm or Above!" The response came out her lips before she could stop it, and Bree found herself blushing furiously mere moments later.

"No, I suppose not." Halko mussed her hair playfully, then turned for the gardening shed. "You can wait for him inside if you wish. He's usually back by five; less than an hour. Perhaps you can use some of the time to make up your bed. I would've done that myself, but of course you didn't call ahead, did you?"

"Miss Halko, I can't-"

"Of course you can." The woman hadn't slowed down, hadn't even turned. She just shouted, her voice getting louder as she got further away. A few people glanced curiously at them, from the sidewalks or the beach, but neither the woman nor the girl cared what they might think. "And don't bother arguing. Whatever important business you're on, it can wait one night. The Tower wasn't built in a day."

There wasn't anyone in the Infinite Realm who could talk to Bree like that and expect her to obey. The king himself was waiting on her decision, and yet she stayed. But then, she had already agreed, and that meant she knew it might be a very long time before she visited this house. It seemed appropriate to make sure her last visit was a proper one. If she got her way, it would be Charles's last visit for awhile too.

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