Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Golden Age
The Vocaloid Variations:
Get Your Kicks
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Jen Dantes
©2022 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
The Vocaloids' antique Chrysler left Motel 6 promptly at 8:30 Monday morning, heading southward out of the city. Looking at the map data the evening before, Teto Kasane had assumed they would be taking Interstate 55 to St. Louis. That seemed to be the most efficient way of getting to Los Angeles, which was apparently their destination.
Instead, to her mild surprise, Gumi (at the wheel, as ever) took them out of town on a road which began as a normal surface street, marked with an inconspicuous sign reading simply begin U.S. 66. Outside the city limits, this became a bit more of a highway, wider and with fewer interruptions, but it was still just a two-way two-lane road, with light traffic and the occasional intersection.
"Hey, aren't we getting on the Interstate?" asked Abhi Gupta from her nest of books and luggage in back.
"I was just wondering that myself," Teto chimed in from her holopanel up on the dash.
"Nope," Rin Kagamine replied from the passenger seat in front. "Not if we can help it. This is Route 66. If you're trying to get from Chicago to LA, and you're not in a hurry, this is the only way to do it."
"... OK?" said Abhi, puzzled.
"Well, the only way to do it and really see the country," Gumi qualified. "You take 66 when you're not just driving to get somewhere. This is heritage motoring." Glancing in the rearview mirror, she saw that her passenger was still perplexed and explained, "A hundred years ago, this is what the main roads in this country were like. They didn't start building the Interstates until later in the 1950s. If you wanted to go anywhere, you drove there on highways like this."
"That must have taken forever," Teto opined.
"Comparatively, maybe," Rin agreed, "but it was probably a lot more interesting."
"A wise man once said that the Interstate system made it possible to go from coast to coast without seeing anything or meeting anybody," Gumi said.
"Charles Kuralt again?" Abhi wondered.
"Yep," said Gumi.
"Anyway, Route 66 is special. You'll see," Rin assured her mildly skeptical listeners.
"Right now I only see corn," said Teto.
"You need to learn to trust your elders, Miss Kasane. Although I admit, Illinois isn't the best bit."
"How many times have you passed this way?" Abhi wondered.
"Oh... jeez... seven or eight, by this point, I think," said Rin thoughtfully.
"Sounds about right," Gumi agreed.
"Come to think of it, where do you guys actually live?" Teto wanted to know. "Somewhere in California? I noticed that's where the car is registered."
"We don't really live anywhere," said Rin.
Teto's head tilted in puzzlement. "Why not?"
"Well... 'cause we can't," Rin replied, and then, with mildly dark sarcasm, "It's not allowed."
"We're kind of... caught in a bureaucratic loop," Gumi explained. "See, we came into the country as touring musicians, right? And then the Fog happened, and... some things got a little out of whack. The State Department in Washington is sort of barely working. So every year we have to renew our visas, and every year they only let us re-up the same kind we already have. Touring entertainers."
"So we can't establish a fixed residence," Rin put in. "If we stay anywhere more than 30 days... problem."
"But... that's ridiculous," said Abhi.
"Tell us about it," Rin replied with a hollow laugh.
"So..." Abhi calculated in her head. "You've been on tour for fourteen years?!"
"Coming up on it in August," said Gumi.
"And no one can do anything about it? What about Mr. Valentine? He has connections..."
Gumi chuckled. "Nicky's a private detective in Boston who moonlights for Section 44," she said. "He's a pal and a stand-up guy, but he's got no pull in Washington, least of all at State."
"We've tried everything we could try, believe me," Rin said. "We even risked a Fog bombing to punch an HW to Sapporo long enough for Miku-nee to send over a recorded plea on our behalf for the guy who was President at the time."
"I guess he's not a fan, because he didn't do shit," Gumi remarked.
Rin shrugged philosophically. "At least they keep letting us renew," she said. "Really, when you get down to it, I don't mind touring most of the year. I get tired, sure, but it's something to do. Keeps my mind off... other stuff."
Then, apparently unwilling to explore the subject further, she smiled with only slightly forced cheer and said, "Let's have some tunes, shall we?" With that, she reached and adjusted the radio, selecting one of the tracks from its internal storage.
It took Abhi a while to get fully into the rhythm of this new form of road tripping. At first, the pace of it seemed all wrong after the high-speed run to Chicago on the Interstate. It would just feel like the Chrysler was hitting its stride on one of the open sections, traversing the cornfields of southern Illinois, and then they'd hit a town and have to slow to a comparative crawl, because unlike the Interstate, Route 66 didn't go around the towns. Instead, the highway became a street—usually Main Street—and went right through the densest part.
Presently, though, what Gumi and Rin had told her about it began to sink in: that on this road, the slow parts were the point. They weren't just blasting past these towns on the way to somewhere else, they were visiting them. Even if they didn't stop, something of each place's personality, its essence, left an impression.
On the first day, they hit a sandwich shop in Springfield for lunch—according to Gumi, it was the place where the drive-thru window was invented, a century before, and Abhi spent much of the meal contemplating the idea of a world before such a fundamental thing. After lunch, they stopped by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum for a pleasant couple of hours, and then on to St. Louis, rolling into town at nightfall—just in time to see the Gateway Arch, all lit up for the evening, from the bridge that carried them across the Mississippi.
Here they were faced with another self-imposed complication that, at first, took Abhi somewhat aback. Her first indication of it came when Gumi remarked that it was just about time to find a place to stay for the night.
"You just drove past a Super 8," Teto pointed out, but Rin shook her head with a grin.
"Nuh-uh," she said. "Not on Route 66. No big-chain motels!"
Abhi arched an eyebrow at her. "O... K?"
"Heritage motoring," Gumi repeated with an upraised finger.
"Teto, they're making it weird," said Abhi.
"'Sides," Gumi went on, "we can't stop yet. We haven't had any frozen custard."
Over the course of the next three days, Abhi became a wholehearted convert to Heritage Motoring. She watched with fascination as the whole character of the country changed with their westward progress. From the green, wooded hills of Missouri, not so different from the landscape back East, the land flattened and reddened as they made their way across Oklahoma, then dried to canyon-carved brown on the Texas panhandle.
She saw her first roadrunner there, sprinting alongside the car as they cruised through the spectacular scenery of Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and her first coyote, watching from the sagebrush near the park gate as they left. That night they ate in an endearingly preposterous steakhouse in Amarillo, a feature of the journey she resolved never, ever to tell her mother about—not so much because that lady would have been horrified at the idea of her daughter eating beef as because she would've been horrified at the idea of her daughter eating seventy-two ounces of anything all at one time. And so to bed in the adjoining motel, which had a swimming pool in—what else?—the shape of Texas.
The next day's run carried them past a monument made of partly buried automobiles about the Chrysler's age, about which Abhi was no longer capable of finding anything peculiar in Texas, and clear across New Mexico, a state which she judged fully worthy of its license plate motto, "Land of Enchantment". They were spending full days with the Chrysler's top down now, having left the chill of the northern spring fully behind somewhere in Oklahoma—although the early mornings and late evenings in the desert still had a bit of a nip. This gave the spectacular scenery an impact it might not otherwise have had.
Here Gumi and Rin were appalled to learn that Teto's otherwise wide-ranging musical education did not include the works of Alfred M. Yankovic, of whom, by some cosmic mischance, Abhi had never heard. Remedying this hideous miscarriage of justice monopolized the soundscape for most of the day, culminating in an extended performance of "Albuquerque" on the leg of the journey that passed through that august city.
The day was an ambitious one, more than 500 miles, but the straight, smooth road and light traffic meant that even with frequent slowdowns to pass through the tiny towns scattered long the route, the Chrysler had plenty of chances to stretch its legs and eat up distance. They crossed into Arizona at dusk, the setting sun painting the desert with the most incredible colors Abhi had ever seen, and broke with tradition by pushing on into the night.
Once darkness had fully fallen, Abhi leaned her head back against the seat cushion and looked up at the sky, letting the cool, dry evening air wash over her face. SHortly before, it had grown chilly enough to make her dig out a sweatshirt—she had never realized that it got so cold in the desert at night—but after the heat of the day, it was just perfect... and the sky was far too beautiful for putting the roof up to be an option.
I've never seen so many stars before, she thought, knowing it would be useless to speak aloud right now. With the car doing a solid 80 miles per hour, the slipstream would snatch her words away into the night before they could ever reach anybody up front. Abhi found herself wishing, not for the first time, that Teto could be back here with her. She felt deliciously tired as the end of this long day approached, and climbing up to lean over the middle of the seat and converse with the crew up front seemed like far too much work, but it would have been nice to compare impressions of the day.
It wasn't until she felt herself being gently shaken awake that she realized she'd fallen asleep.
"Hey, kiddo, we're here," said Gumi, grinning.
"Where's 'here'?" Abhi wondered, and then, sitting up, she saw.
On the first night out of Chicago, they had stayed at a motel in an archaic style called a "motor court", where instead of being concentrated in a single building, each guest room was a small detached cabin arranged around a central parking area. Looking around, she saw that they'd arrived at a similar sort of establishment tonight—
—except instead of cabins, the individual buildings were conical concrete structures, each about 20 feet high.
Abhi climbed out of the car and stood looking around, wide-eyed. Upon closer inspection, each cone had a door set into the side facing the parking lot, and the concrete flanking the door was sculpted so as to call to mind the turned-back flaps of an animal-hide tent, such as the stereotyped Native Americans in old cartoons always seemed to live in. Scattered here and there around the parking lot were a number of cars that looked like they were of a similar vintage to the Chrysler, if not even older. It was the first place Abhi had seen it parked where it looked entirely at home.
"Wow," she said. "What is this place?"
"The famous Wigwam Motel," Rin said as she got the bags out of the trunk. "There used to be a whole chain of these all across the Southwest, a hundred years ago. I think this might be the only one left. A real piece of living history." She grinned. "Now you see why we pushed to get here tonight."
"Kitschy as hell, of course," Gumi noted as she put the Chrysler's top up for the night, "but that's part of the charm."
Once inside, Abhi did her thing with the TV and Rin ordered pizza while Gumi spread a map out on the bed.
"So! What do you think of Arizona, kids?" she asked once they were all gathered.
"It's amazing," Teto said.
"Really beautiful," Abhi agreed.
"Well, I'm glad you think so, because we'll be spending a while in the state," Gumi told them. "The Chrysler's due for maintenance, and it so happens our mechanic is in Flagstaff. It'll probably take two or three days."
As if to make up for the marathon of the day before, the next day was the shortest of the trip so far. The run from Holbrook to Flagstaff was only about a hundred miles, even with a pause for milkshakes and Eagles covers in Winslow and a several-mile detour to visit Meteor Crater.
This was just what it said on the tin, an impact crater, surprisingly well-preserved by the desert climate. According to a helpful sign posted on the scenic overlook behind the visitor center, it was 3,900 feet in diameter and 560 feet deep, and was believed to have been made some 50,000 years ago by the impact of a 160-foot iron meteorite.
"Wow," said Abhi as she read the sign. "What an explosion. Ten megatons! Good thing there probably wasn't anyone around."
"It would've been impressive from far enough away, though," Teto observed from the CamStar's speaker.
"True... the trick is being far enough away."
Impressive as it was, the crater itself offered only so much diversion. They were able to absorb the supporting information presented in the visitor center in little more than an hour, at the end of which Rin bought Abhi a souvenir T-shirt and they headed back toward the car.
"I wonder why they have a statue of a Reticulan here," Teto mused, hovering near a plastic representation of one of the grey aliens that stood in the visitor center courtyard.
"It's a long story," said Gumi.
The land greened again west of Meteor Crater, as the road climbed up into the mountains of northern Arizona. Before long they were bowling along through pine forest, with occasional views of distant peaks that were still snow-capped this late in the spring, and the day became cool enough that the sweatshirts came out.
Flagstaff itself was a small city that still hadn't quite shed the last vestiges of its frontier air, even here in the middle of the 21st century. The outskirts were the usual tangle of retail and service aimed at travelers, indistinguishable from anywhere else of the kind in North America, but downtown, modern buildings and preserved relics of the 19th century were jumbled together in a way that Abhi found oddly charming.
They turned off Route 66 just past the center of town, then swung onto one of the parallel streets a couple of blocks to the north. Even at this short distance from the main drag, the neighborhood was decidedly downscale—not a slum, but not the dressed-up face the city showed to through-travelers. The buildings were a mix of modest homes and small businesses, some attached together into single premises, offering practical services of kinds not particularly attractive to tourists. Abhi took note of a few as they passed: appliance repair; small engine service; well drilling.
A few blocks along, Gumi guided the Chrysler into the forecourt of one such establishment: a large, barnlike garage made of corrugated metal, attached to a block-built, flat-roofed house that wouldn't have looked out of place on a military missile range. The sign above the garage door stated in basic block capitals:
ELECTRO-NUCLEAR AUTO SERVICE
The door was closed, so Gumi pulled to a halt in front of it and honked the horn, shave-and-a-haircut. Nothing happened until, after a couple of seconds' pause, she added the two bits. At that point the doors parted a few feet.
The person who emerged was not who Abhi had been unconsciously expecting. Her mental image of the kind of mechanic who operated out of a place like this was a man in late middle age, grizzled and unkempt with wild grey hair, probably dressed in a dirty coverall featuring a patch with a name that might or might not be his own above the left breast pocket. The individual walking toward them now, wiping her hands on a greasy rag, checked the "dirty coverall" box, and the data goggles pushed up on her forehead also fit the general aesthetic Abhi had in mind, but nothing else about her was according to expectations.
She was a young woman, fairly small in stature and slim almost to the point of fragility, like a bird. She moved like a bird, too, with short, sudden movements, and she had a nose not entirely unlike a beak, albeit not unpleasantly so. It dominated a sharp-featured, thin-lipped face with large, slightly almond-shaped dark eyes and upswept black eyebrows that gave her an air of possibly unintentional severity—the reason for which became obvious when Abhi noticed that her ears, revealed by the tight French braid into which most of her hair was pulled, came to sharp points.
The patch above her coverall pocket bore a name that seemed unlikely to belong to a Vulcan, but it was the name Gumi greeted her by a moment later:
"Hiya, Joe! How's business?"
"Business is adequate," Joe replied.
Her voice was low, slightly hoarse, and as flat as the rest of her affect. She looked neither pleased nor displeased to see Gumi and Rin; just accepted their presence with bland equanimity. Only the sight of Teto's miniature hologram, watching her from the dashboard with visible fascination, got a flash of reaction out of her, in the form of a blink and a fractionally raised eyebrow.
"You have been busy," she remarked with just a trace of wryness.
"Haha, you have no idea," Rin said. "This is Teto, our newest sister..."
Teto waved with a cheerful smile. "Hello!"
"... and this is Abhi, her creator. You'll like her," Rin went on, throwing Abhi a wink. "She's a very technical girl."
"Fascinating," Joe replied.
She touched a control on the wrist computer she wore. Behind her, the garage doors opened the rest of the way, revealing a cavernous and surprisingly cluttered workspace dominated by a vehicle lift, an engine crane, and several large pieces of high-tech-looking equipment Abhi couldn't immediately identify by sight.
"Welcome," the mechanic went on, standing out of the car's way, and she walked alongside the driver's door as Gumi drove it inside. "Are you here for the usual?"
"Yep. Reckon it's about that time," Gumi said. She guided the Chrysler into position on top of the lift, then shut it down. Without further discussion, Joe opened the hood, lowered her goggles into position, and started connecting cables from various pieces of equipment to bits of the machinery packed into the car's engine compartment.
Gumi and Rin led the way out of the shop and into the attached house, which was as spartan as its exterior suggested, but not entirely charmless for all that. Abhi was mildly surprised to find that the living room contained, in addition to a suite of basic furniture, an assortment of antique arcade cabinets arranged along one wall, all of which appeared to work.
She'd been playing RoadBlasters for half an hour or so when the mechanic came in, pushing her goggles back up as she came, and informed Gumi without preamble,
"Your plasma injectors are nearing the end of their useful lives and must be replaced. In addition, both your primary and secondary MTHD coils would benefit from a complete overhaul, though if time is pressing, we could recalibrate them for one more service cycle with a reasonable margin of safety."
Gumi nodded. "So, about what we expected."
"Yes. Quite normal for the vehicle's current mileage. As well, I expect the typical electrical and mechanical maintenance items will come to light when I have performed a full inspection. Have you noticed any abnormalities?"
"She pulls a little to the right. Other than that, not really."
"I will check your tire wear and add an alignment to my to-do list. How much time can you give me?"
"As much as you need, within reason."
"We're on a timetable, but it's not too tight," Rin chimed in. "They're expecting us in LA sometime before the end of the month."
"If I start immediately, I can perform a complete overhaul of the reactor and repair any other items that require attention within ninety-six hours."
"I assume the holographic intelligence to whom you introduced me is resident on a core server installed in the car?" asked Joe. To Gumi's affirmative reply, the Vulcan went on, "I will be working on the electrical system. It would be safest to dismount the hardware until that work is complete. The energy supply here is sufficiently reliable."
"Ah, yeah, good shout," Gumi agreed. "Let's do that."
Teto went into battery sleep mode while Gumi and Joe transplanted her core server from the Chrysler's trunk into some empty space in a rack of equipment standing in the corner of the garage that served as Joe's office. Standing off to one side, out of the way, Rin and Abhi watched them at it, one smiling privately, the other with an air of absorbed fascination.
"This is a remarkable piece of equipment," said Joe as she reconnected the positronic core to the I/O bus. "Your design?" she inquired, suddenly turning her head to look straight at Abhi.
"Uh, s-sort of," Abhi stammered, startled by the unexpected eye contact. "I built the original system. Gumi and Mr. Valentine did most of the work to make it fit into the car."
"Ah. I thought I detected Nicholas's handiwork. But the base architecture is your design?" the Vulcan persisted.
"I guess?" Abhi replied, feeling a little lame. "I mean... I don't know if I'd really dignify it with the word 'design'. I just kind of... scrounged up stuff and tried different ways of putting it together until I found one that worked."
"Few programmers today understand hardware well enough to improvise with it," Joe observed. "Not with this degree of success." She looked Abhi in the eye again, and didn't seem to notice that her abrupt intensity made the girl flinch slightly. "Impressive."
"You are welcome." Joe turned her attention back to the system, frowning thoughtfully. "I believe I have a more suitable cable for this application," she mused aloud, then went to retrieve it from a locker at the other end of the garage.
"Hey, I think she likes you," Rin remarked, nudging Abhi with an elbow.
"Stop it," said Abhi, mildly concerned that her face might melt from the heat of her embarrassment.
"I'm serious, she just laid some major praise on you by her standards. Back me up on this, Gumi, have you ever heard Joe compliment somebody's hacking skills like that?"
Gumi shook her head. "Nope. Most impressed I've ever seen her was when I showed her the bypass V did on the electrical coupling module that time it blew out in Tujunga Canyon, and all she did then was raise one eyebrow and say 'Fascinating' before ripping it out and fixing it properly." She grinned. "You've made a fan."
"She's... she's a Vulcan, right?" asked Abhi.
"Yeeees?" said Gumi, drawing it out into an unspoken "what of it?"
"So why is she called Joe? That's not a Vulcan name, is it?"
"It is a nickname," said Joe from almost directly behind Abhi, making her jump and suppress a slight shriek of surprise.
Seemingly no more aware of that reaction than she'd been of the mild intimidation she'd caused earlier, Joe slipped past the girl and crouched down to start fitting the cable she carried to the system.
"My birth name is T'Jo," she went on while she worked. "However, here on Earth, few of my neighbors or customers can pronounce it, and continually to correct them would serve no purpose. 'Joe' is a sufficient approximation with which they have no difficulty." She looked up from her work, making eye contact once more, and concluded, "Therefore, I found it logical to adopt 'Joe' for everyday use, and reserve 'T'Jo' for legal and taxation purposes."
"Uh... oh. Sure. That makes sense." Abhi shook her head. "Sorry, that was rude of me."
Joe raised an eyebrow. "Ignorance of a situation is not rudeness. Your apology is not logical."
"I meant asking someone else about it while you weren't here," Abhi explained, adding silently to herself, And forgetting that Vulcans hear everything.
"Ah." Joe considered that, then nodded. "That is more logical, and appreciated. Apology accepted."
"Uh-oh, Gumi," said Rin. "We got two of them here."
"Riiiin," said Abhi, blushing again. Joe just gave the blonde a mildly curious look—What are you on about?—and then returned to work without comment.
Once the server hardware was fully relocated and power restored, they extracted the holoplate from the Chrysler and mounted it on Joe's desk, next to the old 2½D TV the mechanic used as a monitor for her diagnostic and control system. At the press of a button, the holoplate glowed to life and Teto reappeared, blinking.
"Good morning!" she declared, and then, after a few seconds' thought, "Diagnostics complete, no faults found."
"Satisfactory," said Joe. "In that case, I will get started."
To get out of Joe's way, and because it was lunchtime anyway, they walked the couple of blocks back to Route 66 and found a diner with a substantial back corner booth, suitable for consulting maps and guidebooks.
"Right, so," said Rin after they'd ordered. "We've got to find something to do with ourselves through Monday." With a wry grin, she added, "And with the best will in the world, I don't think Flagstaff is gonna cut it all by itself."
Gumi considered a map of northern Arizona, which she'd unfolded and then partly refolded to focus it on the area immediately around Flagstaff.
"One does have to admit," she said with ponderous mock resignation, "this isn't the most happening town."
The CamStar left its position near Abhi's shoulder to hover over the table for a few moments, its optic panning across the map; then it resumed its station and Teto said,
"You're kidding, right? What about all these national monuments? What about the Grand Canyon? I mean it's right there."
Rin shook her head. "That would be cool, but..." She trailed off, making an ambiguous gesture.
"You wouldn't be able to go," said Abhi, a trifle glumly. "I've gotten all the range I can out of your transmitter. It's good for a couple of miles, that's it. I've read that there used to be wireless data networks pretty much everywhere that could relay stuff like CamStar feeds, but..." She shrugged helplessly. "Not since the Fog came. The only bands they don't jam are barely wide enough for basic voice comms."
"That's true," said Gumi. "There were high-throughput satellites, too. When the coastal lockdown happened, Rin and I thought about parking these bodies and relaying back home that way, but by the time it occurred to us, it was already too late. The Fog had shot them all down."
"Abhi," said Teto. The CamStar swung out and around so that it was hovering in front of her, staring her down with its optic. "Come on. You have to go to the Grand Canyon."
Frowning, Abhi got out her phone and opened the jury-rigged program that linked it to Teto via the CamStar, pulling up an animated graphic of her face on the little screen.
"And leave you behind?" she asked, then shook her head. "No way."
"Sure," Teto said. "Why not? I can watch Joe work on the car, do some reading, whatever. Worst case, I can always go into sleep mode. I'm not going to die of boredom," she added with gentle irony.
"I know, but..."
"Hey, I wish I could go too, but if I can't, I can't. As for you, when are you going to get another chance? We have no idea when we'll be by this way again."
"It's just a big hole in the ground," Abhi grumbled, but she knew she was just being petulant at this point. She also knew Teto wasn't buying it.
"C'mon now," the Vocaloid said with a wink. "I'm the one who was born two weeks ago."
Abhi glowered at the screen for a moment longer, then gave up and laughed.
"OK, OK, you have a point," she said.
When they got back to Joe's garage, they found the Vulcan mechanic laying out parts and tools on a rolling cart next to the Chrysler, a ritual which reminded Abhi amusingly of her mother getting ready to cook dinner. Always make sure your mise en place is ready before you start, she thought with an inward giggle.
"Hey, Joe, have you got some wheels we can borrow?" Gumi asked. "Figure we'll take Abhi to see the Grand Canyon while we wait, if you don't mind Teto hanging around here while we're gone. She hasn't got the signal range to keep in contact with us that far out, unfortunately."
"That is not a problem," Joe replied. "Or rather, Teto's limited telepresence range is clearly a problem for your current purposes, but neither of your propositions is. She is welcome as my guest in your absence. As for your transportation needs..." She went to a small cabinet on the wall by her office, considered for a moment, then took out an old-fashioned keyless remote gadget and, turning, tossed it with a precise underhand lob to Gumi.
"Take the bus," she said. "It will be the most practical."
"The bus" turned out to be a thirty-year-old Winnebago motorhome, its exterior moderately battered but its interior immaculate, the Ford truck chassis of which had been converted to fusion power much like the Chrysler. Having agreed that it would fit the bill, Gumi and Rin set about transferring the baggage, such as it was. Once the job was done, Joe consulted the chronometer in her wrist computer and said,
"If you leave immediately, you should be able to visit Sunset Crater and Wupatki en route, and still reach Grand Canyon Village in time to find a suitable campsite before dark."
"Oh hey, good idea," Gumi agreed.
"Are you sure you'll be OK, Teto?" Abhi asked. "I don't have to go with them if—"
"Abhi," said Teto, fists on hips, with a skeptical look. "They're going so you can see it." She pointed imperiously in the general direction of the bus. "Now git."
Abhi raised an eyebrow at her. "'Git'?"
"When in the West, do as the cowboys do," Teto replied philosophically. "Go on, now. I'll be fine!"
"I will ensure Teto's safety," Joe assured her solemnly. "This facility is much more secure than it may look to the untrained eye."
"Uh, well, I... thank you," said Abhi, wondering inwardly if the Vulcan's direct manner of speaking and tendency toward unhesitating eye contact would ever stop slightly rattling her.
"You are welcome," said Joe simply.
Recalling herself to the matter at hand, Abhi said awkwardly, "OK, uh... I guess we're heading out, then. I'll see you Monday..."
Teto waved from her holoplate. "Have a great time! Take lots of pictures and tell me all about it when you get back."
"Thanks a lot, Joe," said Rin, leaning out the passenger window, as the other two members of the party boarded the bus.
"Yes, thanks for your help!" Teto agreed.
"As the people of this world say, it is part of the service," said Joe without a trace of visible irony. "Have an agreeable journey. Teto and I will expect you on Monday."
Joe's calculations were correct, but only barely. The sun was just dipping toward the western horizon when the bus pulled into the drive of a small campground just outside the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park, a hundred miles, a grocery run, two National Monuments, and a border checkpoint out of Flagstaff.
The cinder cone of Sunset Crater Volcano and the ancient pueblo ruins of Wupatki between them had impressed Abhi mightily with the the area's natural splendor and the depth of its history, respectively, and entering the sovereign territory of the Hualapai-Havasupai Coalition only reinforced the latter effect. Abhi only vaguely knew the background—the Coalition was established when she was just a little kid, almost completely unaware of matters west of Interstate 95—but she remembered her fifth-grade Social Studies teacher telling the class that the Native American nations that formed the coalition had lived in and around the Grand Canyon for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
Belted into one of the benches of the dinette for lack of a third proper seat, she was quiet for most of the hour it took for Gumi and Rin, navigating by map and memory, to check in a half a dozen campgrounds and find them full. Partly this was because it was near the end of a long day and she was tired, but mostly it was out of preoccupation with the antiquity and majesty of the land around her—neither of which she had ever considered in her tightly circumscribed life back East.
She was still mulling it all over when they finally found the one small campground with its vacancy sign lit. Gumi parked the bus just outside the campground office, then went inside to see what was what.
Rin swiveled the passenger seat to face the dinette and was about to speak to Abhi when she noted the pensive look on the teenager's face.
"Whatcha thinking about?" she asked.
"Everything," Abhi replied.
"Big topic," Rin observed with a little smile.
"Yeah," Abhi agreed. She looked up from contemplating the faux woodgrain on the dinette table to meet Rin's eyes. "Until this trip, I had never left Massachusetts in my life. I'd barely even left greater Boston. Except for that school trip out to Worcester, if the T didn't run there, I didn't go there. Metro West was the edge of my world.
"It never really bothered me," she went on with a little shrug. "Mom didn't like me to talk about leaving Boston, anyway. She used to say," (here her voice took on an impression of her mother's Gujarati accent,) "'Abhilasha, if you knew how much better life here is than back in Ahmedabad...'" Returning to her normal voice, she added with a little grin, "Then she'd go off to the kitchen in a huff without saying the rest of the sentence."
Rin chuckled. "Mothers, right?"
"Yeah. Still, she had a point," Abhi conceded. "I mean, she never talked about what it was actually like in the old country, but Uncle Kalpesh used to drop a hint or two once in a while. Enough to make me glad I've never been there... and what he knew was from before the Fog, obviously. So I was grateful for Somerville. It was safe and secure... it was enough." She made eye contact with Rin again and shook her head. "I don't think that'll ever be true again."
"Well, pace yourself," Rin replied. "You don't need to go full nomad like us. There's something to be said for at least having a home base to go back to. And hey," she went on with a mischievous grin. "If you think you've had your horizons expanded now... you ain't seen nothin' yet."
Abhi grinned back, lifted out of her introspective funk by the promise of more adventures to come. "I can't wait," she said.
They were still smiling when the driver's door opened and Gumi climbed back in, looking pleased.
"Well, ladies, we're in luck," she said. "They tell me it's the slow season, such as it is, and they've got a place we can park for the whole weekend. It doesn't have a power hookup, which is probably why it wasn't taken, but hey! We don't need one!"
Following the scribbled directions given to her by the campground's proprietor, she guided the bus to its designated parking space. She'd been half-expecting to find its location less than entirely desirable, given the circumstances; but to her delight, it proved to be at the top of a small rise at the edge of the campground, so arranged that when the bus was properly parked and secured on the pad, the west-facing picture window by the dinette had a commanding view of open desert rather than everyone else's RVs. The last of the sun slipped below the distant crags just as she shut down the drive system, switched the reactor to station mode, and deployed the outriggers.
Abhi got up from the dinette and stretched, then climbed up into the over-cab bunk. Gumi and Rin bustled around the cab for a few moments, securing the blackout curtains over the windshield and windows. When they came aft and turned around, they found Abhi lying at an angle on the upper bunk, propped up on her elbows with chin in hands, so that she could see the picture window.
"This is awesome," she said, smiling. "Why don't you guys have one of these? I mean, the Chrysler is cool, but something like this feels like it would be a lot more practical."
"We thought about it, but the Chrysler was a gift and these things are freakin' expensive," Gumi said. She got a soda from the fridge, then sat down at the dinette table.
"Besides," Rin remarked, taking the seat on the opposite side, "we occasionally find outselves needing to... outrun things." With a wry grin, she added, "The Chrysler's better at that sort of thing than a bus."
"There is that," Gumi agreed.
"Ah," said Abhi. She considered asking what had a habit of chasing them, and whether they thought it would come along while she was with them, but she decided against it. A pleasant silence fell instead, and they all sat there within it for a little while, watching the sky go from orange to red to purple to black.
"Right!" said Gumi, breaking the silence with a suddenness that made Abhi jump. "Who's hungry? I've got access to a stove and a wok, and that's got me in the mood to do some stir frying."
Even against the backdrop of this incredible journey, so unlike anything she had known or assumed she would ever know in her life, Abhilasha Gupta would never forget the next three days. She'd been smitten with the southwestern desert almost as soon as they had entered it, had marveled at its beauty and variety all the way across New Mexico and Arizona—but not until she saw the Grand Canyon did it truly take hold of her. Before then, it was something she appreciated, like art or good food.
Afterward, the desert joined the list of things she truly loved, alongside music and the digital frontier. It was a hard, wild, dangerous place—even the relentless touristification of Grand Canyon Village couldn't mask that—but neither could that veneer of overcivilization fully conceal its majesty.
The love affair began on Friday, when she first saw the colossal gorge from the observation decks arrayed along the South Rim, but it wasn't fully confirmed until early Saturday evening. Then it was that she found herself sitting on a flat-topped boulder a stone's throw from the Colorado River while Gumi and Rin erected the tent.
How the two of them had managed to arrange this, Abhi wasn't sure. She had only the vaguest idea how things worked out here, but she was fairly certain excursions like this—unguided wanderings into the wilderness on a trio of exceedingly patient rented mules, with an overnight camping stop in the very heart of the canyon itself—were not the done thing in the mid-21st century, and certainly not something to be arranged on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, here they were, alone in the vast red-brown stillness, like explorers from an earlier time.
Well, almost alone. They hadn't seen anyone else on foot, or mule, that day, but since arriving at this gravelly spot on the bank of the Colorado, they had seen two or three big inflatable rafts go by, each loaded with a dozen or so people in life vests and helmets. The river was in its spring spate, high and running fast, so the rafts didn't linger long in view. Their occupants had only time enough to notice the figures at the campsite and attempt a hasty wave before the Colorado swept them off toward the next set of rapids—which, to judge from the muffled sound of rushing water in the distance, was probably just out of sight around the downstream bend.
Abhi had just finished taking a series of pictures of the area—the campsite itself, the river, the spectacular crags rearing up both behind them and on the opposite side—when Gumi came over and plunked down beside her.
"How you feelin', kiddo?" she asked.
"A little stiff," Abhi admitted. "I never rode an animal before."
"Well, you did good for your first trip."
Abhi shrugged. "Rusty did most of the work," she said wryly. Glancing over at the area just beyond the tent, where the three mules were standing idle and gazing placidly around, she asked, "Shouldn't we... I don't know, tie them to a tree or something? Is it OK to just let them wander around loose?"
"Oh, sure, they won't go anywhere," Gumi said. "They're programmed to stick close to their riders, in case we need any help."
Abhi tilted her head curiously. "Programmed?"
"Yeah. Didn't you know?" Gumi asked. "They're not real mules, they're robots. Well, synthoids. Like me and Rin, only hopefully a little less smart," she added with a snarky grin.
"No, I had no idea," said Abhi, wide-eyed. "Are you serious?"
"Yep. They are one hundred percent artificial."
"Wow. I would never have guessed. They even smell real."
"Oh, a lot of work went into their biomimetics, make no mistake. The customer wanted them to be as convincing as possible. The first generation had rubber skin, but people spotted them easy," she added confidentially.
"How do you know so much about them?" Abhi wondered.
"The same company that made these bodies for Rin and me built them," Gumi explained.
Abhi might have inquired further, but at that point Rin looked up from getting the campfire going and called, "Hey, are you guys about ready for dinner?"
They ate the classic cowboy meal of bacon, beans, and cornbread, rinsed their mess kits in the river, and then sat around the campfire, talking and watching the slanting evening sun creep lower and lower on the opposite wall of the canyon as afternoon drifted toward evening.
As the sky went dark and stars began to appear overhead, the conversation petered out and a different mood settled over the travelers. It wasn't a dark one, exactly, but quiet and reflective, with a touch of melancholy that seemed in keeping with the surroundings. For a while they just sat in silence, watching the stars come out, stirring only to tend the fire.
Presently, Rin seemed to tire of the stillness. Rummaging in an inside pocket of her jacket, she produced her harmonica and started playing a fast-paced, improvised-sounding tune.
Gumi grinned in recognition, reached to her pack, and retrieved the acoustic guitar she'd borrowed from the trail outfitters when they'd set out that morning. She was ready with it when Rin's harmonica line slowed, settling into a more lugubrious blues mode, and accompanied her for the rest of the piece.
The two of them played trail songs late into the night, some with vocals, some without, while Abhi stretched out with her feet toward the fire, her head resting on an inflatable pillow, and marveled at the Milky Way while she listened.
During the pause at the end of one song, she was going to say something about this being the perfect ending to a perfect day, but when she spoke, what came out—all but involuntarily—was a wistful,
"This is amazing... I wish Teto was here."
Rin and Gumi looked at each other.
"Yeah," Rin agreed, sounding a little downcast.
Abhi raised herself up on her elbows, looking embarrassed. "Sorry, I just... that kind of slipped out. I didn't mean to get all, all passive-aggressive. I mean, this really is amazing. I'm sure it's everything she hoped it would be when she said we should go. I just... wish she didn't have to miss it."
"No, I get it," said Gumi, nodding. "Totally."
"So do I," Rin said. Then, brightening, she went on, "But you'll have plenty of amazing adventures together, you'll see."
Abhi nodded. "Absolutely. And hey... the Fog thing might not last forever. Maybe we'll all get to come back here someday."
"Maybe so," Gumi agreed, her expression becoming pensive. There was a slightly awkward silence, and Abhi feared she had ruined the moment, but then an instant's eye contact passed between the two Vocaloids, and without any more prompting than that, Rin took up her harmonica once more.
After a couple of bars, Gumi joined in on the guitar, then began to sing in a low, almost hushed tone,
This looks familiar
Almost unreal, yet
It's too soon to feel yet
Close to my soul
And yet so far away
I'm going to go back there someday
It was a song Abhi had never heard before, and though it was musically very like the trail songs they'd been singing all night, the lyrics were something different: simultaneously wistful and hopeful, about the search for fellowship and belonging. Lying back and looking up at the star-splashed sky again, Abhi found herself tearing up as it went on. It spoke to something that had been dogging her for what felt like her entire life. That feeling of being out of place, of knowing there was a niche for her somewhere, but not where it was or how she might reach it.
There's not a word yet
For old friends who've just met
Part heaven, part space
Or have I found my place?
You can just visit
But I plan to stay
I'm going to go back there someday
The silence stretched long afterward, broken only by the ebbing crackle of the campfire, the murmur of the river, and the night sounds of the desert.
"Welp," said Gumi at length. "I guess we better hit the sack. Long ride back to civilization in the morning."
"Yeah," Rin agreed. "Getting pretty chilly out here, too."
Abhi sat up, wiping at her face, and collected her pillow while Gumi put out the embers of the campfire with the dregs from the coffeepot. Some part of her wanted to cling to the moment forever, but the rest of her knew it was passing, and trying to hold onto it would only mar the memory of it.
In a pensive silence, she crawled into the tent and her sleeping bag. Curling up on her side, she lay facing the wall and listened as Gumi and Rin followed her in. Someone zipped up the tent flap, and after a few moments of rustling, first one and then the other Vocaloid's sleeping bags.
"You guys?" Abhi murmured.
Rin's voice. "Yeah, Abhi?"
"Thanks. For... for everything. This has been incredible."
"You're welcome," Gumi replied, a smile audible in her voice.
"We should be thanking you, y'know," Rin whispered. "We've done so much driving around, we almost forgot how to appreciate it. G'night..."
"Night," Abhi replied.
"G'night, John Boy," said Gumi.
"G'night, Chief," Rin replied.
"G'night, McCloud," Gumi added, and someone switched off the lantern to the accompaniment of muted giggling.
"Well, here it is, Abster," Rin declared. "The glamorous life of a touring musician." She clapped the younger girl on the shoulder and went on, "Stick with us, kid. We'll take you places."
Abhi chuckled, nodding agreement.
"I tell you what, though," said Gumi. "Whoever thought to build a laundromat and a Tastee-Freez right next to each other was really onto something."
"Yup," said Rin.
"Totally," agreed Abhi, and the three of them ate their sundaes while they sat and watched their clothes go round and round.
Teto's weekend had been less exhilarating, but by her standards, not much less interesting. For all that Joe was obviously a very solitary person by nature, she was always polite to her guest and solicitous of her needs. The fact that said guest was a virtual entity who existed in the physical world only as a hologram on her desk didn't seem to make any difference to her.
The first day, Teto mostly kept quiet, observing silently while Joe methodically tore down the Chrysler's mechanicals. She found it fascinating to watch as Joe went through the vehicle, removing parts, examining them critically, earmarking those she deemed worth salvaging for refurbishment, discarding others, and laying everything out for reassembly. She made few notes, consulted few documents, instead appearing to work almost exclusively from memory. The only breaks she took were those dictated by biological realities.
On Saturday morning, Teto finally nerved herself to speak up and said hesitantly, "Um... excuse me, sorry... Joe?"
"Yes?" Joe replied, without looking up from whatever she was doing to the driver's side front brake caliper, which she had just removed from the car.
"I know I don't have hands or anything, but... is there anything I can do to help you? I could, I could look things up, or... or order parts, maybe?" In a mild rush, she continued, "It's just that I feel kind of bad just standing here while you do all this work for us."
"Your offer is appreciated, but the sentiment is unnecessary," said Joe, and then surprised Teto slightly by adding, "The work is intellectually stimulating and performing it unassisted is a way of offering myself a challenge, which satisfies my vanity."
"... You have vanity?" said Teto after a befuddled pause.
"All sapient beings have vanity," Joe said matter-of-factly. "Anyone who claims otherwise is either profoundly ignorant or engaged in self-delusion. I understand your surprise, however. My people are renowned for their capacity for self-delusion in such matters."
It took Teto a full two seconds—an eternity in positronic computational time—to realize that the mechanic had just made a joke.
"Uh... wow," she said at last. "I have to admit... you weren't what I was expecting when we got here, and now you're not what I was expecting when I met you. No offense."
"None taken. I am what I must be." With the barest scrap of a smile (apparently directed at the Chrysler's portside forward running gear), she added, "Now you know why I choose to live here."
"I assumed you were stranded here because of the Fog," Teto admitted.
Joe shook her head. "I could leave if I wished. The Vulcan embassy has offered repeatedly to pay for my speculative passage offworld, or at least to relocate me to a major population center with a substantial research institution. Ambassador Soval and his staff would find my continued refusal to go very distressing if such things were permitted to them." She looked at Teto for the first time, her face completely serious, and went on, "They cannot understand that this place fits me better. Or, rather, they cannot accept it. Their interpretation of the Word of Surak is too literal and inflexible for that." She shook her head faintly and returned to work. "My apologies. I do not customarily ramble so. It is a side effect of having an audience in the first place."
"I don't mind," replied Teto. "I like hearing people's stories. I'm only just discovering the world, after all. Most of what I know is from encyclopedias and reference databases, not experience. It's just dead facts." Her hologram "sat down" Indian-fashion on the projector plate, chin in hand, and grinned. "I like the living world better. There are more interesting people in it."
Joe considered this, then nodded judiciously. "There is much truth in that," she agreed.Abhi, Gumi, and Rin returned to Joe's shop late Monday morning, having slept in and left the campground at what most Grand Canyon tourists would have considered an unconscionably late hour. (Of course, those tourists hadn't played a two-hour concert at a pub in the Village the night before either, though a fair few of them had probably listened to it.) When they did, they found the Chrysler reassembled and ready for them, complete with Teto's gear reinstalled and all the other stuff meticulously repacked, apart from what they'd taken with them.
"Hey you guys!" Teto called from a wall screen as they climbed down from the bus. "How was it?"
"It. Was. Amazing," Abhi told her, running over to the screen. "We actually went into the canyon. On mules! Only they weren't real mules, they were like android mules. Muledroids? Anyway, they were really cool. And then we camped there. Right next to the river! Overnight! It was so incredible. I took so many photos, you just wait 'til I get a chance to download them."
Joe stood watching this byplay, her expression as blank as always, and then turned to the Vocaloids and said, "A satisfactory expedition, then, I take it."
"Yeah, something went totally to plan for once," said Rin with a wry smile. "How about you?"
"I went nowhere, but my activities here also went as planned. Your vehicle is fully overhauled and all relevant systems have been certified. Additionally, I have made a few incremental upgrades of components for which improved replacements have become available since you were last here. The Chrysler is, as the expression goes, better than new." She handed Gumi a printed invoice. "As is customary, I have charged you my cost for parts and materials."
Gumi read down the list. "OK, that's not so bad..." She narrowed her eyes at one of the line items. "Are you kidding me, 114 bucks a gallon for Class C coolant? Sheesh. Maybe it's finally time to think about switching to Class A..."
"I concur," said Joe. "Class C's obsolescence has reached the point at which manufacturers are reducing production substantially, with commensurate effect upon supply and thence pricing. My market models suggest that it will become hard to find within one year, and is likely to be discontinued entirely within five. We should make the changeover at your next major service. I am already researching the modifications needed to do this. It may be possible without replacing the reactor entirely."
"Sounds good. Let's plan on that." Gumi finished reading the invoice, then handed it to Rin and added with a slight smirk, "You're gonna go bankrupt if you don't start adding a little markup, maybe even charging for labor."
"Your concern is appreciated, but unnecessary," Joe replied, in a deadpan as flat and dry as a desert creekbed. "I assure you, my customary business model is considerably more equitable to all parties concerned than the one which you two experience."
"Well, that's both appreciated and necessary," said Rin. "Seriously, Joe, thanks. We could never afford to keep rolling without your help."
"I am aware of that," Joe replied equably.
Gumi laughed. "Don't ever change, Joe," she said, picking up her bag and heading for the Chrysler.
"If you are hoping I will pedantically misinterpret your metaphoric compliment, you are destined for disappointment," said Joe blandly, following, and Gumi and Rin were still giggling as they corralled Abhi and got her situated back in her nest in the back of the car. Teto left the screen and returned to her customary place on the dash.
"Awright, we'll get outta your hair 'til next time," said Gumi. "Oh, and thanks a bunch for the loan of the bus, it was perfect."
"You are welcome," Joe replied, standing by the driver's door. "Safe travels to you. Which reminds me—I received a piece of information while you were gone that you should have as well. Be mindful when you reach California. The word out of the west is that the Mojavim are gathering."
Gumi and Rin glanced at each other, eyebrows rising in unison, then turned back to Joe.
"Oh ho," said Gumi.
Rin added, "Very interesting."
"Indeed." Joe stepped back slightly and raised a hand in the Vulcan salute. "I will detain you no longer. Abhi, Teto, it was agreeable to meet you, and will be more agreeable still to see you again at some future time. May you all live long and prosper."
"Thanks, Joe!" said Teto, waving, as the Chrysler began to pull away.
Abhi turned around in her seat and leaned back over the decklid to wave and call back her own thanks. The garage doors were already closing by the time the vehicle reached the end of the drive and swung out onto the street.
"Well, she wasn't what I was expecting at all," Abhi remarked, leaning forward to bridge the middle of the front seatback with her elbows.
"I know, right?" Teto agreed. "I like her, though."
"Did you have a nice weekend with her? I was worried you'd be bored."
"No, it was good. She's actually really interesting. I'll tell you about it after you tell me about the Grand Canyon."
"What was she talking about at the end there?" Abhi asked Gumi and Rin. "What's gathering?"
The two shared a private little smile, and then Gumi applied herself to turning the car back onto Route 66 while Rin lounged in her seat, slipping on her sunglasses.
"You'll find out," said the blonde with a grin.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Golden Age
The Vocaloid Variations: Get Your Kicks
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Jen Dantes
in order of appearance
As always, with the help of the rest of the EPU crew
Based on characters developed for the Yamaha Vocaloid engine
by Crypton Future Media
and Internet Co., Ltd.
and for Vocal Synthesis Tool UTAU
The Vocaloids will return
E P U (colour) 2022