61: Intruder Alert
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May sat in my lap, both of us scarfing cookies that Mum had made while Dawn pored over the contracts, looking for anything that might fuck us over.

“I like cookies,” May stated decisively. “Especially Mum’s ones.”

“Same,” I mumbled around a mouthful.

Mum had been doting on May ever since she’d made her presence known from that pod. Now that she had a physical body though, it was like Mum’s empty nest syndrome finally had a direction to focus its energies.

So yeah, May was a spoiled kid, but then again, she kind of deserved to be spoiled. She had a lot of responsibility resting on her shoulders and not a whole lot of life experience to navigate it with. I mean shit, I was a mess as a kid and I’d had two pretty good parents for that whole time.

“Hey Tami?” Dawn asked, raising her head from the contracts and nudging my thigh with a foot. “These contracts seem pretty fair. I was a little hesitant about the penthouse they wanted to give us though, so I got them to downgrade us.”

“You downgraded us?” I exclaimed in confusion. “Why?!”

She shrugged. “We spend most of our time in VR anyway, and uh… we don’t appear to have gone to class recently, so why do we need such a big, empty, echoing house?”

“Because it would be awesome?” I asked, throwing her a grin to know I was joking. She was right, we didn’t need a big place. Plus, they’d be less likely to throw us under the bus if they were paying much less on our rent.

“Yeah, yeah,” she laughed, rolling her eyes. I saw her share a look with my mother who was just coming in with another plate of cookies.

Before I could fire back another little quip, May sat bolt upright in my lap, her little noggin bashing my nose on its way up. “Someone’s breaking into the house network.”

“Who?” Mum asked nervously, eyes wide.

She was right to be nervous too, this kind of thing was no joke. With so much relying on digital integration in our current day and age, breaking into home networks was as bad as breaking into the place physically. May’s body went completely still, every muscle frozen in place, from her eyelids remaining open and unblinking to her usually restless hands. The only movement was from her chest, rising and falling automatically to keep her lab-grown lungs from failing.

“Wait, Ceres?” she muttered, reanimating once more, a frown wrinkling her young brow.

As if summoned, a woman appeared in the center of our living room. She wore a green bedsheet… no wait, it was one of those ancient things, a um… a Toga! It was a toga. Her dark hair fell loose and messy, tumbling down until it brushed her shoulders. Piercing, commanding eyes surveyed the room, the mark of a woman who was a master at wielding power.

“May,” she said with a formal smile in the young SAI’s direction. “I see the prototype is going well.”

“Yes, but… you know it’s kinda rude to brute force your way into someone’s house network like this,” my little sister said, giving the woman a reproachful look. Weird, May sounded like… like she was the one with power. A four star general speaking to a three star.

“I know, and I apologise, but there were extraneous circumstances I am afraid,” Ceres said with a wince. “Something has the Church all bent out of shape. They’ve launched several suspected digital attacks early. Nothing we couldn’t handle, obviously, but it has created a bit of a… problem.”

May glanced about the room at the rest of us, as though she wasn’t sure if we were allowed to hear this conversation. Instead of commenting on it though, she turned back to the roman looking woman and asked, “What kind of problem?”

“They attempted to seize a rather… volatile asset,” Ceres replied, holding out her hand as though to grab something out of the air. Her regal expression cracked when nothing appeared and a hiss escaped through her teeth. “Where has that damned thing gotten to now?”

All sense of propriety went out the window as she spun in a circle, staring at stuff that we couldn’t see. Several awkward moments went by as she flailed, even going so far as to kneel down and look under the coffee table.

“Squaaaa!”

Something fast and agile leapt off a nearby light fitting, aiming directly for my head. I flinched and jerked sideways, only for it to bounce off without so much as a whisper of contact.

There, beside us on the sofa, was Ryana in holographic form, her little face all scrunched up in confusion. Sparks danced along her tail as it swished from side to side in agitation. “Squaaa?”

“Ah, there it is,” Ceres said, letting out a long, drawn out sigh while she recomposed herself. “They failed to seize it within the confines of the game, so they attempted to hack in. Obviously they were not successful. However, I do not feel that the little beast is safe while her files are housed on-site. Thus, I have brought her here.”

“Why wouldn’t she be safe on the CORA servers?” May asked, confused.

Ceres gave her a look. “Okay, so she’d technically be safe on the servers, but unless you want the church and their… supporters causing another Gienia incident… Well, I’m not sure I’m interested in dealing with the stress associated with that type of mess again.”

“Ah, yeah,” May laughed, although it was a hollow sound, a dark one. “Remove some of the temptation then. Yes, okay. That makes sense.”

“Hold on a minute May,” Mum said, cutting in sharply. “Just where are you planning to put that… thing?”

“Oh yeah!” I exclaimed, turning to her with a grin. “Meet your grandchild!”

I went to pick Ryana up, but sadly she was holographic here and my hands passed through. Damn, that kinda sucked. Maybe we needed a small dragon body made too. That was probably a little harder than a human one though, considering that dragons didn’t actually exist here.

“Tami,” Mum said slowly, clearly both alarmed and confused.

Launching into an explanation of what and who Ryana was, I managed to calm Mum down. From there we worked on convincing her to let Ryana keep her files on the home server until Dawn and I got our new place.

“Fine, you can keep it,” she sighed. Her gaze turned pointed as she said, “But no more strays, I mean it.”

“Thanks Mum!” I grinned, knowing full well that she’d never say no to another person or animal if it really came down to it. Her heart was too caring to do that.

****

The day carried on at a delightfully slow and lazy pace, with Dawn quietly working away while May and I chatted and played with Ryana. Eventually though, May had to lay down and sleep. The poor girl wasn’t used to having a body that existed outside of virtual reality. Real reality was taking its toll on her.

With my youngest and newest little sister out cold, I went in search of my father. Now, when my parents had bought this house, Dad had made sure to get a sea-level garage in the bargain. This meant that I needed to head for a FARL that would take us down there. FARL of course standing for Fast Access Residential Lift.

When I stepped out of the little carriage, it was into a space about the size of a tennis court. Contrary to what many thought of UNC, there was actually quite a lot of space to go around, assuming you had enough cash.

The place had undergone massive changes since I’d last been in here. Where it had once been dominated by rows of skimmers in various states of undress, it now housed some truly wacky looking tech.

Huge vats of liquid were stacked in rows along one wall, their frosted glass exteriors only hinting at what might lay beneath. In another area, a fabrication engine the size of a large SUV dwarfed my Dad’s old toolmech. All of Dad’s skimmers were now stacked against one wall, each one missing its grav-pulse drives.

Far more startling than all of these changes though, were the autonomous toolmechs that were carefully working away at various stations and machines. One such toolmech saw me as I exited the FARL and gave me a wave. Alright, okay. I lived in the age of giant mechanical beings with eccentric personalities. This was chill. Definitely chill.

“Sup,” I said, wandering over to see what the toolmech was doing.

It was a pretty gnarly looking toolmech too, its chunky body and mechanicals open to the elements. Six feet of humanoid steel frame, motors, pistons, wires, computing units, and much more, and it was moving and grooving like a person. Which meant that it probably was a person, or rather was being inhabited by one right now.

“Tami, it’s been a while!” the mech said, using Siyeapia’s voice. Oh snap, I guess the swaggering amazon bot had gotten a new job.

I flashed a smile at the sensor cluster that sat between her shoulders and turned my attention to the table she was working at. “What’cha making? Looks complicated.”

“Oh it is,” she said, a grin in her mechanical voice.

Delicately, she was using a set of large tweezers from her swiss-army-forearms to lift a small and intricately faceted black gem into place within an alarmingly familiar structure. It looked like how a brain would look if you turned on wireframe view mode. A framework that you’d then fill out with all the pink squishy stuff.

“Is that… are you making an SAI brain?” I asked tentatively, squatting down to get a side-on view. “Damn that’s cool.”

“I am indeed,” she said proudly. “This little black gem I’m putting in is the FTLN node in its most raw form. Honestly, we don’t even know what this black stuff is, only that it allows us to send information really really really fast. No wait, that’s a lie. It’s instant. Anyway, we build the brain around it so that even though we’re housing an SAI within this thing, they have an escape route if it gets damaged.”

“Good to know, I have to say I was a little worried about that,” I told her with a relieved smile. “Means my little sister is safe.”

“I made sure of that,” a deep, rumbling voice said from behind me.

Large and muscular arms descended, trapping me within an embrace of iron. A moment later and I was being lifted into the air, squealing the whole way. “Ah! Dad!” I laughed, wriggling and squirming in a mostly feigned attempt to get away.

“Kiddo!” he said, big chest rumbling with his voice. Damn, to think I used to be built somewhat like him! I mean, I still had a pretty good chest, but it was different now.

“What brings you to my humble abode?” he asked, turning me in his arms until his scruffy beard scratched at my forehead.

“Put me down and I’ll tell you,” I said, failing to get the grumble I wanted and giggling instead.

“Alright, alright,” he acquiesced, allowing my feet to gingerly feel the concrete once more. “You come to work on your skimmer? You promised me you know?”

“Maybe,” I grinned, heart full. He never used to treat me like this. Only Taylor. I guess now that we both knew I was a girl… ah whatever. I was happy right now. Why over analyse it?

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