Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Chelen City: Interlude: Pol

 Notes: My brain needed a break from plot, so you get this!

Title: Chelen City: Interlude: Pol

***

Interlude: Pol

 


This home was too quiet. Pol didn’t like it.

Home home was never this quiet. There was always someone there—one of his siblings or parents, or a vid playing somewhere, or he was out with his friends in the garden, or something. Here, it was like there was no sound at all—the walls seemed to eat it up even from one hall to the next. When Pol called for his mother, it was the house’s AI that had to let her know he wanted her, because the doors didn’t let sound out.

His feet made almost no noise against the floor, not even when he stomped extra hard. Once, just to see what would happen, Pol picked up the tab that the Man had left for him and threw it as hard as he could against the carpet. It hadn’t made any noise, but shortly after that Mama came in to ask him why he was upset.

“I’m not,” Pol replied, but he was. He was, and he knew Mama didn’t quite understand why. This was a nice place for her, with grown-ups she liked and a kitchen she could cook in and a system she could use to talk to Szusza if she wanted to. Which she didn’t yet, and Pol understood that part just fine. He didn’t want to talk to Szusza yet either, not after she left him. He missed her terribly, but he was also so, so angry at her…

Mama like it here, and so Pol tried to like it to. He tried to like it for a whole week: a week of learning school from a new teacher, of getting a new doctor’s checkup and being assigned a therapist (which he didn’t like, and neither did Kieron, even though she was Kieron’s therapist too. “What does he need therapy for?” Keiron had demanded. “He’s just got settling in to do, that’s all.” “Settling in can go a lot better when you have someone to talk to about it,” Mama had replied, agreeing with the Man, and Kieron had given in).

So he had new school and new therapy and none of the other Traktans around, which was shitty. He felt a little guilty using that word, even if only in his own mind, but it also made him feel better. He used to hear his older siblings use it when their parents weren’t around, and they always seemed so cool. Pol wanted to be cool, but he knew he wasn’t. Catie was the cool one, and Catie…well. He wasn’t sure how he felt about her yet most of all, even more than the Man.

(He knew his name was Elanus but it was hard for him to say for some reason, the “s” always came out with a bit of a lisp and Catie had told him not to say her daddy’s name if he couldn’t say it right, so he said “Fine, I won’t” and started calling him the Man instead, and then Lizzie had gotten sad and withdrawn after they began fighting, and it was so hard to have friends sometimes. There were days that Pol wished he could be a computer—not a special computer like Catie and Lizzie, just a regular AI, the kind without emotions who didn’t have to worry about feeling at all and who everything made sense to. Then he wouldn’t be so afraid of letting his mama down, or making Kieron or Lizzie sad, or making sure that the Man and Catie at least liked him enough to keep him and Mama around, and… This was usually the place where Pol started crying, too overwhelmed by his thoughts and emotions to process them anymore. His therapist had helped him with that once, and Mama had helped too, but mostly he tried to bury his head in his covers and cry until he felt better.)

Anyway, so now it had been a week and Catie and Lizzie were playing a game of hide and seek, and Pol wanted to play but he kept getting found immediately because they were hooked into the AI and that was no fun at all. In the end he sulked off to his room, but that was no fun, and Mama was on an important phone call with a per-son-el…elle…al? With a personal explo-ra-tion agent or something, and Kieron was gone—he was gone a lot recently, so Pol decided to go and visit Ryu instead. Ryu couldn’t talk to him from inside the Regen, of course, but that was okay. Pol could pretend.

As soon as he stepped into the room, though, he saw the Man. Pol froze, then tried to back away, but the Man heard him and looked over from what he was doing. “Hey.” He took in Pol’s frightened posture and sighed. “Are you okay?” Pol didn’t move. “Do I need to get Xilinn?”

“No!” That was enough of a threat to get Pol to respond. “No don’t get her, she’s busy! I’ll go!”

“Whoa, calm down!” The Man held up his hands. “I won’t get her, I just…” He sighed, then glanced at Ryu. When he wasn’t looking at Pol, it was easier to be around him. He was just so tall, it hurt his neck to look up like that. “So. You like being around Ryu?”

“He’s quiet,” Pol said after a moment.

“Yeah, being stuck in a tank of Regen will do that to you.”

Pol tentatively crept a little closer. “Why is he in there?”

“Because he’s sick,” the Man said, still not looking at Pol. He was fiddling with the interface of the tank instead. “And we’re trying to make him better.”

“Oh.” Pol came a little closer. “How?”

“A couple different ways. One is medical—we’re doing a special treatment for Ryu that’s going to regrow his skeleton.”

“Oh, gross!” That was so cool! Pol looked into the tank, where Ryu was almost invisible in the thick blue liquid. “What else are you doing?”

“Well, Kieron is going to do some investigating and see if he can help find a cure, but to do that I’m making him a special shield to protect him from digital eyes.” The Man didn’t quite look at Pol, but he tilted his head in Pol’s direction. “You know…it might work for hide and seek, too. Or at least make it tougher for the girls to find you, if you want to help me beta test the shield.”

A special shield that hid him from computers? That was so amazing! “Can I?”

“I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t mean it.”

In Pol’s experience, adults offered all sorts of things that they didn’t mean to and ended up taking back. It had happened all the time at the refugee center. But…the Man might be too tall and kind of scary and a little grumpy, but maybe he could be trusted with this. “Okay. How do I wear it?”

The Man grinned, getting into it now. “There are a couple of ways. We can insert an algorithm right into your implant that project the shield in a variable radius, but that takes a few little surgeries to get the extended batteries and transmitter in place, so…” The Man shrugged. “How about a special hat?”

“Okay!”

He stepped away from the tank and rubbed his hands together. “Great, come to the lab and let me measure your head.”

Pol followed him, free from the paralyzing fear that had overtaken him a few minutes ago. The lab was pretty great, with real-time prototyping that he even got to pick the color for! It only took half an hour to make the hat, and the Man chatted to him the whole time about different projects and stuff he was working on and how the shield functioned, and Pol didn’t understand most of it, but it was so cool anyway.

Even cooler was sneaking up on Catie in her docking bay half an hour after that and making her scream when he shouted “Boo!”

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Chelen City: Chapter Seventeen, Part One

 Notes: I'm genuinely amazed I got a holiday week post up at all. Go me! Enjoy the quiet before the storm.

Title: Chelen City: Chapter Seventeen, Part One

***

Chapter Seventeen Part One

 


There were two problems at hand. One of them was a problem roughly the size of Gania’s moon and growing larger all the time—the issue of what to do about Restaria. It was a problem with layers, a problem where it was hard to settle on the core of it—did xe choose who was to be infected? Did xe do it xirself? Did xe have a cure, and simply not make use of it so as to throw people off the scent? How many other people knew what was going on? How deep did the rot go?

That was a problem that was, quite frankly, too big to tackle right now. Elanus set his computers to identifying every case of Elfshot Disease for the past five years, analyzing the who, where, when, how—anything that looked like useful or interesting data. It would have gone a lot faster with Catie and Lizzie’s help, but they were in the process of forging a very fragile three-way alliance with Pol, who was careening between outgoing one hour and introspective the next.

Solving complex equations was easy for an AI, even one that wasn’t sentient. Solving the issue of socializing with a terrorized little boy and his mother was quite another kind of muddle, and one he was more than happy to let the girls puzzle through on their own. Not that he wouldn’t have helped if he was needed—or thought he knew how—but it was about then that Ryu had a setback…

Thus leading to the issue of problem two—fixing Ryu.

“His spinal column is starting to collapse in on itself,” Kieron said after carrying Ryu in to the recently-renovated medical room in the house. It was perfectly sterile, had the most cutting-edge surgical machines in Chelen City housed in it, and was just about adequate for Elanus to feel like he could handle said surgery on his own, rather than going back to a hospital that may or may not be full of people trying to kill Ryu.

“Yeah, I can tell,” Ryu said sarcastically from where he lay on the bed. He was on oxygen, and pale as a ghost, but if he was still capable of being this salty Elanus held out hope for a good recovery. “What with the hideous pain and inability to move my fucking legs over the past fifteen minutes.”

“You could have come here sooner,” Elanus said, not about to put up with Ryu insulting Kieron—his fiancĂ©, ha!—for any reason. “You knew this was going to be coming to a head.”

“And you promised me a solution,” Ryu said. He looked blearily but with determination at Elanus. “So what are you going to do for me?”

“Your version of the disease generates from the bone, like mine,” Elanus said. “So, we’re going to grow you a new skeleton.”

Ryu rolled his eyes. “That doesn’t work. There’s too much of the disease secreted in other parts of the body for a new skeleton to fix the issue. I’ve had two already. That’s why Deysan thought a mechanical one would be the way to go, give me more time to get clear of the disease before finally installing a new bone skeleton.”

“That’s very horrifying of him,” Elanus said. “I’ve got a different plan in mind. Seed cells.”

“Seed…” Ryu’s forehead creased. “You mean stem cells?”

“No. Seed cells are something different, technology from another part of the Alliance. Thing of them like a climbing vine. They aren’t going to replace your skeleton so much as…colonize it, I guess.”

“How very Alliance of them,” Kieron said dryly.

“Ha ha,” Elanus groused. “The point is, the seed cells can be attuned to your DNA while excluding all foreign bodies, which we now know Elfshot is. It’s not endemic, it’s injected, and I’ve run enough tests on our blood to see the markers that correspond to it. Seed cells will renew you while excluding the Elfshot, but it’s a slow process.”

Ryu sighed. “How slow?”

“Like, I’ll have to stick you in a tank of Regen and leave you there for a month while they work, slow,” Elanus said. “And even then, it fixes the acute issue but leaves the problem of the disease hiding in your body. We can’t just use seed cells on every part of you at once—you wouldn’t emerge from the tank still you. That’s the problem we’ve faced over and over with regrowth, and while seed cells will extend your liveliness and take away the pain for probably a long time, they won’t stop you from having Elfshot.”

Ryu made a face. “So you want to stick me in a tank and regrow my entire skeletal structure just so we can do it all over again in a few more years.”

“Or decades.” Elanus shrugged. “I don’t know what form the cure to Elfshot is eventually going to take, to be honest, but we need to buy time. You’re almost out.” He reached over and laid a hand on Ryu’s arm. “You deserve better than this,” he said frankly. “You deserve a real life, the kind of life you can live without always wondering if the next step is going to be the one that breaks your ankle of gives you a clot that lodges in your brain. Regen’s not doing it for you, seed cells will help, and eventually I will have a cure. A real one. I promise you that, but I need you to work with me right now.”

“I…” Ryu glanced between them. “That means you’ll have to take on Restaria without me.”

“We’ll be all right,” Kieron assured him.

“I don’t want you to have to do that. I wanted to be a part of it.”

“I promise to leave some of xir for you to piss on once you’re done healing up,” Elanus promised. “But we have to move fast on all fronts, with you and with xir. What we’re doing here…it’s going to have consequences.” He glanced at Kieron. “And I don’t know what those are going to be yet. If they’re positive and result in a real cure coming to light, great, but if they’re not…we might have to run. And you need to be in shape to do that if we do.”

Ryu seemed to melt a little bit. “You would take me with you?”

Elanus kind of wanted to slap himself for bringing it up at all, but also had to acknowledge the truth. “Yeah,” he said with a sigh. “I don’t know how it happened, don’t ask me, but the girls think you’re great. And you have useful skills. And Kieron likes you.”

“I like beating you,” Kieron cut in, but he was smiling.

“Yeah, enjoy it while you can, I’ll be back to full strength soon,” Ryu said, then firmed his jaw. “All right. Fuck me up. Let’s get it done.”

“Good man.” Once he was under repair, Elanus would be able to focus on Problem Number One.

It was going to be a battle for the ages.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Chelen City: Chapter Sixteen, Part Two

 Notes: Some more "getting to know you" time.

Title: Chelen City: Chapter Sixteen, Part Two

***

Chapter Sixteen, Part Two

 


The rooms were deemed acceptable. Pol honestly didn’t seem to think much of his one way or the other; perhaps he’d care once it was customized. He was far more invested in knowing that his mother would be right next door. “Can I sleep in your room?” he begged more than once, to a “We’ll see” from Xilinn. He also asked where Kieron slept, which—all Elanus could hope was that the kid didn’t try and get into their room at night, not because he’d be able to since locks were a thing, but because he got the feeling that explaining his relationship to Kieron wasn’t something that Pol had patience for right now. The little boy seemed on the edge, not happy like Elanus had hoped.

His mother seemed to key into that as well. “I think we ought to spend a little time relaxing,” she said, wrapping an arm around her son’s shoulders and pulling him in close. “Do you mind if I make something for us to eat in our rooms?”

“Not at all.” Kieron stepped in to show them the way to the kitchen, while Elanus decided now was the best time for him to step back. He let them go ahead, only to be surprised when Xilinn doubled back around the corner once Kieron and Pol were out of sight.

“I didn’t get a chance to thank you personally for this,” she said. “I know Kieron arranged most of it, but I’m truly grateful to you for letting us into your home.”

“Is Pol okay with it?” Elanus asked. He knew there were a hundred good reasons for the pair to be with them right now, but if the kid genuinely wasn’t going to be happy here he could make something else happen.

“He will be.” Xilinn sounded pretty sure about that. “He’s just…been through a lot of upheaval lately. Ever since we had to leave Trakta, he’s gone from one impermanent situation to another, with very few things staying the same in his life. First he had Kieron but not me; then he had me but not Kieron.” She sighed. “Plus he misses the rest of the family. Yesterday was Szusza’s birthday back home.” Fine lines of tension deepened around her mouth. “I was surprised he remembered it, honestly, but…he asked if we were going to talk to her, sing her the birthday song and do the dance, and I had to say no. That…well, it put things onto a poor trajectory for now.”

Szusza, Xilinn’s other child with Zak. There were two other parents in the traditional Traktan foursome who had children with each other, but according to Kieron they’d all been a big, happy, poly family…while Zak was alive, at any rate. Things had been different ever since his death, to the point that Xilinn’s other spouses hadn’t been willing to go to bat to keep her from being deported and sentenced to a slow death in space as a political prisoner.

And Szusza had refused to come with Kieron when he’d tried to get both her and Pol off planet.

That…sucked. Elanus wondered how Kieron felt about not being able to convince Szusza to come with them. Knowing him, he’d taken the perceived failure and tucked it into the back of his mind where it could continue to shred his psyche in a dozen tiny different ways.

What’s the old Earth saying? Pot, meet kettle?

“Do you want me to get you a communication channel with her?” Elanus asked. “Because I could do it. I’m pretty sure I could hone in directly on her implant, if you wanted me to.”

Xilinn looked startled for a second, then shook her head. “Mm, no, I think that would be a breach of her privacy.”

She was…maybe right about that, but Elanus also wouldn’t have cared. “But you wouldn’t know if she wanted to reach out to you under the circumstances, would you?”

“No…”

“I could probably open a channel of communication, but in a way that gives her the option of responding. So it would be her choice as to whether to talk to you or not.”

Xilinn seemed to waver. “If she reported something like that…”

“I can do it in a way that won’t let anyone else find out,” Elanus assured her. “Or, if you don’t want your kid to doubt her own sanity if she tries to confess and then doesn’t see anything—” The look that crossed Xilinn’s face was clear evidence that she didn’t want that, made sense. “Then we can make it something another person could see, but not be able to affect or double back along. We could get rid of it with no harm done at that point, but she’d at least know that you tried to contact her.”

Xilinn’s hands were folded calmly in front of her body, but she was using one of her thumbnails to worry the edge of another. “I think…that might be a good thing. Let me consider it a little more. I’d hate for Pol to get excited about it and then be sad all over again if Szusza decided she didn’t want to talk to us. Maybe…we could start just by sending her a happy birthday message. Do you think that’s possible?”

“With the girls, anything is possible,” Elanus assured her.

Xilinn beamed suddenly. “Oh, Lizzie is a delight,” she said. “I appreciate her friendship with Pol so much. Is your other daughter doing well? I think I remember hearing she’d been through some trouble lately.”

Elanus had to hand it to this woman—she was rolling with a concept that some of the greatest minds in Alliance history had difficulties comprehending, much less accepting. “Catie is recovering from a…” attack that could have unraveled her mind completely “…rough spot, but she’s much better now. Thank you for asking.”

“Of course.” She actually reached out and patted his arm. “It’s hard to worry about them so much, isn’t it? I think that’s been the hardest part of exile for me. I miss Trakta,” she continued, her eyes gone distant. “I miss my home and my work, and talking to my parents every Third-day. I miss being there with Zak—Kieron just brought him back, and then we had to leave him. I’ll never be able to enter the family crypt now, and neither will Pol, and I’m sad about that. I especially miss Szusza, and Filip and Ophred. But…” She sighed. “I don’t miss my other spouses the way I should. We had been drawing apart for years. And I don’t miss the politics, or the hatred, or the constant worry.

“Not that I’m not worrying now,” she said with a little shrug. “But it’s easier, in a way, to worry when I’m someplace so removed from my traditional responsibilities. Kieron is working on our behalf, and I trust in him completely. I hope,” she added, “that we’ll be able to trust each other like that again soon.”

Elanus swallowed. “Wait, you’re not looking for another…”

“Spouse? Oh, hell no.” She covered her mouth briefly. “I mean…not that you’re not very kind, and Kieron is a wonderful man, but…no. Absolutely not.”

Thank fuck.

“Mommy?” They turned to glance down the hallway at Pol, who was standing with a plate in his hands and Kieron at his shoulder. “Can we go see Lizzie now?”

“Yes, darling.” She went to join them, and when prompted by Kieron’s raised eyebrow, Elanus gave him a little smile. It had gone well enough. He wasn’t a miracle worker, but he hoped the pair would be happy here with them.

Something that was much likelier once he got a handle on all the threats facing them.

Time to get back to work.