I always thought one of the weirdest things about the slow-motion apocalypse that followed the Fog blockade was that it didn't really cut down on highway traffic that much. In old movies about that kind of thing, the roads are always practically deserted. In post-apocalyptic fiction from the pre-apocalypse era, if you will, that the only people hardy or crazy enough to travel overland would spend most of their time fighting over the resources necessary to operate the machinery in the first place. In those movies, fuel was more precious than blood.
But the Fog came after Earth had at least partially moved past energy scarcity, which meant that was the least of most people's worries. The fusion reactors that powered most homes and (directly or indirectly) ground vehicles by the 2030s weren't really affected by the whole "no intercontinental trade" thing. They operated without a need for imported fuels, and at least in North America, they were still easy to maintain and repair.
That meant the problem with ground travel had less to do with powering the vehicles and more to do with having any reason to go in the first place. Even with energy not a problem, a lot of folks were too busy trying to get hold of the other necessities of life to wander around much.
And then there were the likes of us, who wandered around for that specific purpose. Life is weird sometimes...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Golden Age
The Vocaloid Variations:
Don't Look Back
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
©2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
If Gumi found it cause for reflection, Abhi Gupta, who had grown up as life in the suburbs of Boston got slowly harder and more threadbare, was vaguely disappointed to find that the highway west of the city was well-maintained and well-traveled, with orderly traffic patterns and the Massachusetts State Police still clearly in evidence. The traffic was certainly lighter than in the movies and 3V shows from before the Fog, and weighted somewhat more toward commercial vehicles, but a person would almost think the world was still functioning normally out here. That was undeniably good, but it was also just a tiny bit of a letdown.
She didn't say so to Gumi or Rin, though. They'd probably think she was crazy, or trying to borrow trouble. Besides, they had a long way to go. They were only entering the second hour of a trip they had 88 days to make. Maybe things were different farther west.
As she had that thought, Abhi noticed the sign for the exit they were just passing. It was the Masspike's interchange with I-290, which cut up through Auburn to Worcester and points northeast, and at the sight of it, she uttered an involuntary sound.
"Hm?" said Rin Kagamine from the passenger seat. Turning around, she gave Abhi a curious look and asked, "What's up?"
"Oh, um... nothing, really," Abhi replied. "I just noticed we were passing Worcester-3. I went there once, a year or so ago, on a tour of WPI." She looked out the window at the passing scenery for a moment, then added with a faintly wistful air, "This is farther west than I've ever gone before."
"Heh, well, you've got a few things to see, then," said Gumi, at the wheel, with a grin. "We're goin' all the way across this crazy country."
"But you're still not going to tell me where we're actually headed?" Abhi asked.
Gumi shook her head, still grinning. "It's a surprise."
"You'll like it," Rin promised. "Trust us."
"Oh, I do," Abhi assured her with a bright smile. "I'm just not used to suspense."
"Neither am I!" Teto Kasane put in from up on the dash. Then, with a mock-thoughtful frown, she added, "Although, to be fair, I'm not used to anything," drawing a laugh from everyone in the car.
The Vocaloids' ancient Chrysler ate up the miles in quiet but powerful comfort, hammer-down westward with a sort of relaxed fury, just as it had been designed to do nearly a century before. Before Abhi even really knew it, they were leaving Massachusetts, the state of her birth and one in which she'd spent all of her 14 years, and plunging into upstate New York. The toll gates leaving the Masspike and entering the NY Thruway green-flashed them on their way without slowing down, much less stopping, courtesy of the gadget Nick Valentine had given Rin just before they'd left Somerville that morning.
"Good old Nicky," said Gumi cheerfully when Rin pointed out that fact.
They were approaching Albany, the first in the row of moderately sized cities the map showed studding their route across New York, when Abhi spoke up a little reluctantly from the back seat.
"What's up, Abhi?" asked Gumi casually.
"I, um..." Abhi hesitated, an embarrassed blush building on her face, then went on awkwardly, "as a human, I have, uh... certain biological needs... you know?"
"Huh? Oh!" Gumi smacked her forehead with the heel of one hand. "Duh! Of course." She glanced at the clock in the hub of the steering wheel. "Must be getting pretty close to lunchtime, too, huh?"
"It kind of is, yeah." Abhi looked uncomfortable. "Sorry, I didn't think of this before. You guys must be used to just driving straight through. I'm kinda going to slow you down."
"Hey, don't worry about that," Rin said easily. "This is your trip, after all."
"Yeah, seriously," Gumi agreed, guiding the Chrysler into the outside lane. "We're on a deadline, yeah, but it's not that tight." She indicated the blue SERVICES sign they were just coming even with. "Anything there take your fancy?"
"Oh, they have a Taco Bell," Abhi said, pleased. "I haven't been to one of those since the one in the MIT union closed."
"Taco Bell it is, then," said Gumi, and she signaled for the exit.
They took it relatively easy and only crossed the states of Massachusetts and New York that day, halting a mere six and a half hours and 400-odd miles out of Somerville at a Motel 6 on the outskirts of Buffalo. Best, the Vocaloids judged, to break their new apprentice into long-haul motoring gently, particularly after their oversight that morning.
"Watch carefully, Abhi," said Gumi as the three of them who could leave the car entered the lobby. "You're about to learn one of the secrets of happiness in roadtripping."
Abhi gave her a curious look, but rather than elaborating, Gumi went up to the counter. The middle-aged clerk looked up from his newspaper; seeing a beautiful young woman with green hair approaching, he batted only one eyelash before asking,
"Can I help you?"
"Indeed you can, friend," Gumi replied. "A room for one night, please. Two queen, down and out, up front."
One of the clerk's eyebrows elevated fractionally. Then, smiling, he signed her in, handed over a small paper packet of keycards, and said, "You're in 105. Will you need a cot?"
"Nah, thanks, we're good," Gumi replied. "What's good to eat around here?"
The clerk offered two or three suggestions, including a barbecue ribs place Abhi thought sounded promising, and then they left him to his newspaper.
"See, it's all about knowing the code in these places," Gumi explained as they moved the Chrysler a short way down the front of the building, and Abhi saw what she meant. The rooms on the ground floor each had their own outside door, including 105, their destination.
"So you don't have as far to carry your stuff?" Abhi hazarded while helping Rin get their bags out of the trunk.
"That, and it's easier to keep an eye on the car when it's right outside the room," Rin said. "Not that that's really a problem with the security system we've got in this beast," she added at Abhi's I-hadn't-thought-of-that blink, "but, y'know, it's peace of mind."
"OK, that makes sense," Abhi said. "What about 'up front'? I mean, I can see what it means, but what difference does it make? In fact," she added, thinking it over out loud, "wouldn't it be better to be in back, away from the road?"
"Ah, see, you'd think so, but that's a common rookie mistake," said Gumi with a smile. Unlocking the door, she gestured them into the room and went on, "Out back is where all the big rigs park and run their refrigerator units all night. Way worse than road noise."
"That's amazing," Abhi said. "I guess you pick up these things when you've been at it as long as you two."
"I learned that one from Charles Kuralt," Gumi said.
Abhi gave her a puzzled look. "Who?"
"Old-timey TV news reporter," Gumi said. "Before your time. Or mine, for that matter, but video archives are forever."
"Ah," said Abhi.
"You want to bring in Teto's holoplate now, or after we get back from dinner?" Rin asked.
Abhi looked thoughtfully at the room's one-generation-back 3V set for a moment, then said, "Actually..."
While Gumi and Rin watched with silent fascination, their young friend hunted around in the menus, bypassed a couple of user controls, and patched the set wirelessly into the rig in the trunk of the Chrysler, similar to the way she'd set up the one in her own home for Teto's "debut concert" for her mother and the man from Section 44. Teto rezzed into the viewfield a moment later, looking around with the air of someone who is uncommonly impressed by the sight of a room in a Motel 6.
"Hello again!" Teto said with a cheery wave.
"Well, that'll save us some time," Rin observed. "Nice work!"
"My Uncle Kalpesh taught me that trick," Abhi noted. "Nobody ever changes the factory passwords on these things."
"Rin, I think we've transported a dangerous juvenile cybercriminal across a state line," Gumi deadpanned.
"Yup," Rin agreed. "We're in trouble now."
"You guys are mean," Abhi mock-pouted.
The ribs place was pretty good, and not at all crowded on a slow Wednesday evening in April. Dinner took only an hour, after which they headed back to the motel, there not being much else to see in the general vicinity. Besides, according to Gumi, they had an early morning and a long day ahead of them.
As she changed for bed in the bathroom, it occured to Abhi to wonder about the sleeping arrangements. Gumi had turned down the clerk's offer of a third bed, and there wasn't a sofa or anything in the room. Was one of them going to sleep on the floor? Did they expect her to sleep on the floor?
I mean, I would, and gladly, given what they're doing for me, she thought while she brushed her hair, but...
Actually, do they sleep?
She had her answers to both questions when she emerged, because Rin was already asleep, curled up on one side of the bed closer to the window. Gumi was sitting on the other edge of the same bed, standing her boots in front of the nightstand.
"All set?" she asked rhetorically as Abhi emerged from the bathroom. "You mind having the inside bed? Sorry, I should have asked before I let Rin sack out." She gave a wry grin. "It's kind of too late now."
"Uh, no, that's fine," Abhi replied. "Are you sure? I mean... I think the desk would send a cot if you changed your mind..."
Gumi shook her head. "Nah," she said. "This is our usual thing. Rin..." She hesitated, then reached and smoothed the sleeping blonde's hair tenderly, her grin fading to a slightly sad smile. "... doesn't like to wake up alone."
"Oh," said Abhi, then reddened slightly as it belatedly dawned on her why. "Of... of course. Well... good night," she went on awkwardly.
"'Night, Abhi. Don't sweat it. Tomorrow is another day."
Operating on the theory that if she and Rin had transported a dangerous juvenile cybercriminal across a state line, they might as well go ahead and take her across an international border too, Gumi headed for Niagara Falls the next morning. The Canadian customs people seemed pretty blasé about the whole "provisionally approved machine intelligence" thing, which Teto supposed proved that you could do anything if you had the right stamps on the right forms, and then they were over the bridge and into the town.
"We've never had a problem getting into Canada," said Rin to Teto's remark that she'd expected it to be harder. "Now, getting back into the US, that might take a while. They like to go through our stuff." Turning further in her seat, she leaned over the seatback and asked Abhi playfully, "What are you up to back there? Doing more crimes?"
"Not exactly," Abhi replied, looking up from her mobile phone. "I'm trying to hack the camera software on my phone so that Teto can use it to see and hear what's around me. That way she won't have to just sit here staring at the inside of the car while we do the touristy stuff."
"Oh! Thank you!" said Teto.
"Ooh, good idea," said Gumi.
The town of Niagara Falls, Ontario, was not quite what Abhi had been expecting. She remembered seeing once, on some 3V program her mother was watching, that the area was a common wedding destination, and that its popularity for that purpose had only increased with the closing off of overseas options. If she'd thought about it at all, she would have assumed the nearest town would be something like that place out on Cape Cod where all the Boston society weddings happened: aggressively quaint, with a fine edge of sappiness.
Instead, the only word she could think of to describe Niagara Falls (the town) was "seedy". And not in a down-at-heel, faded-glory way like she was used to from the declining suburbs of greater Boston. Niagara Falls felt like it was booming in seediness, if such a thing were possible. As the Chrysler cruised down the main drag toward Niagara Falls (the geographic feature), Abhi counted no fewer than twenty businesses she would never feel the slightest desire to enter, ranging from the tackiest imaginable wedding chapels to the tackiest imaginable wedding-chapel-adjacent motels to what looked like some kind of indoor freak show, along with several low-budget museums of the "SEE the ACTUAL DEATH CAR!" variety.
"Is that a wax museum?" she blurted, pointing. "Are those even still a thing?"
Rin turned to look, then blinked in bemusement at one of the figures in the window of said establishment, which was dressed in very familiar garb of silver, black, and turquoise.
"Ye gods, is that supposed to be Miku-nee?" she demanded of no one in particular.
Gumi craned her neck to look, for as long as she could without losing track of where the car was going, but that was long enough. "Ugh," she said, facing front again. "Looks like Milton Berle in drag."
"Who's Milton Berle?" Teto wondered.
"A man who didn't look anything like Miku," Gumi not-really-explained.
"Let's not go there when we're done with the Falls," Rin suggested.
"I've already not gone there," Abhi averred, drawing a laugh from everyone else in the car.
If the town was a disappointment, though, the Falls themselves were anything but. Before this, the only waterfall Abhi had ever seen in person, if you could even call it one, was the rapids on the Charles in Waltham, which she used to pass by on the way to her cousin Devi's restaurant on Moody Street. Those rapids were... somewhat less than 2,700 feet across and 170 feet high, dimensions which the sign at the Table Rock Welcome Centre specified for Horseshoe Falls.
"Will you look at that?" she declared, holding up her phone on the observation platform so Teto could get a better look at the colossal waterfall nearest them, as well as the smaller-but-still-impressive duo to be seen over on the American side of the river.
"It's beautiful," Teto replied, "but maybe you should switch to the back camera so I can see the falls. After all, I can look at your face anytime," she added with an impish wink.
Blushing furiously, Abhi mumbled something indistinct along the lines of "'mnotbeautiful" and swapped cameras.
"Ah! Wow!" cried Teto.
"I know!" Abhi agreed, her momentary embarrassment forgotten. "Right?"
"Hey, there's a tunnel that goes behind the falls, you guys," said Gumi, pointing to a sign advertising the same. "Want to check it out?"
Of course they did.
Watching their usually-so-serious young companion trotting ahead of them, carrying on a running stream of excited chatter with Teto, Rin and Gumi glanced at each other and smiled, as if to say, So she's a real teenager after all.
From "Journey Behind the Falls", they rode the funicular railway up to the tourist complex on the ridge overlooking Table Rock, out of curiosity rather than because they had any particular business up there. Once up there, lacking a room in any of the hotels or any interest in shopping at the fancy boutiques, the only real thing to do was come back down, but, as Gumi pointed out,
"How often do you get to ride a funicular in this life?"
Back at the Welcome Centre, the four had a brief conference and decided that they had received all that Niagara Falls had to offer them. They came, they all agreed, for the natural splendor, and they had seen it. The rest of this stuff held no charms for them—was, in fact, starting to detract somewhat from the experience. It was time to move on.
As they headed back to the Chrysler, Gumi noticed Abhi rubbing the elbow of the arm with which she'd been holding up her phone this whole time. Though her solution for providing Teto with a viewpoint, including her in their activities, had clearly worked, it was obviously pretty awkward to keep up for any length of time.
She thought it over for the rest of the walk, and by the time they reached the car, she'd thought of an alternative. On the drive back to the highway, she kept an eye out, and sure enough, right on the outskirts of town, she spotted what she was looking for.
"Hey, Abhi," she said, pointing to the sign of a business up ahead. "Maybe we should hit Future Shop and see if they have any decent followcam drones for cheap. That'd be easier than holding your phone up everywhere we go."
"Oh, that's a great idea!" Teto agreed.
"You don't have to do that," Abhi protested. "This trip must be costing you enough as it is..."
"So what's a little more?" Rin said, nodding.
Upon entering the store, the trio found their way directly to the "open box" shelf, where various items that had been returned to the store were displayed. This eclectic collection of merchandise wasn't very well-curated, so it took a bit of digging, but within a few minutes Abhi's flea-market-honed instincts paid off, and she emerged from the jumble with prize in hand.
"This is exactly what we're looking for," she said excitedly, holding up the slightly ratty box with its bright orange price revision sticker. "An Ono-Sendai CamStar. Last year's model, and..." She flipped open the torn end flap and peered inside, then nodded. "Yeah. This is perfect, I can work with this."
"Are you sure?" Rin wondered. "Looks like it's seen better days."
"Well, I'm not going to be using the box," Abhi pointed out with a little smirk.
"Ha, point," said Rin.
"Anything else we need while we're here?" asked Gumi.
Abhi nodded. "I'll need an XDM card to do what I've got in mind. It doesn't have to be one of the big ones, a Class II ought to do it."
"Well, let's get to it, then," Gumi said, and they went to find the memory modules.
These turned out to be near the checkout area. When they reached the register, Abhi asked the cashier, "Do you think you could do any better on the price for the CamStar?"
"Well... it's already marked down, since it's an open-box item," he pointed out, seeming taken aback to have been asked. Gumi gathered from his expression that people didn't generally haggle over slightly used electronics at Future Shop.
"Sure," Abhi agreed, "but the memory card is missing, so I'm gonna have to write my own drivers." With a casual grin, she went on, "That'll take me two, three hours. I reckon I deserve at least another 60 dollars off if I'm going to be putting in that much work."
The checkout guy, who wasn't so very much older than Abhi himself, seemed vaguely charmed, but also somewhat at a loss. After groping for words for a few moments, he fell back on the retail employee's pre-built standby: "Uh, I'll have to check with my manager."
Said manager, summoned by radio, listened to the explanation with a look of faint amusement, then said, not unkindly, "You got a good line of bull, kid." Folding her arms, she smiled and said, "I'll give you that and 30 bucks off, take it or leave it."
"Sold," Abhi replied, grinning again.
"Level with me," said Gumi as the Chrysler pulled out of the parking lot. "You were gonna write your own drivers anyway, weren't you?"
"Sure, but they didn't need to know that," Abhi replied.
Rin laughed. "Nice. You're quite the social engineer."
"Only with other electronics nerds," allowed Abhi, slightly red-faced, as she unboxed the little repulsorlift drone. "Learned it at the Flea..."
Their business in Canada completed, they crossed back into the US at the same border crossing they'd used a few hours before. Somewhat against Abhi's expectations, given Rin's foreboding remarks when they'd come in, returning to the country was as quick and painless as leaving had been.
Teto was clearly thinking along the same lines. As they drove away from the border post, she remarked in a tone of mild surprise, "Well, that was easy."
"I swear, it's not usually like that," Rin said. "They usually want to look at all our gear. We have to set everything up, turn it all on, explain what it's for—it takes forever. I was sure our itinerary for today was too ambitious."
"This is only a guess," Gumi mused, "but I think maybe that thing Nicky gave you does more than just pay tolls."
Rin took the small plastic device out of her jacket pocket and considered it for a moment. "Hmm, yeah. Could be." Then, putting it away, she went wryly on, "I'm still not convinced today's itinerary isn't too ambitious, though."
"Why, where are we headed?" asked Abhi.
"Well, I'm hoping to make Chicago tonight," said Gumi. "All told it's a little more than 500 miles. It'll be one of our longer legs if we can pull it off—about a hundred miles more than yesterday—but it'll put us in a good position to take it a little easier when get onto 66." Glancing at the odometer, she added, "I think we'll be OK as long as we make Erie by noon."
"You just want to have lunch at Quaker Steak & Lube," said Rin dismissively.
"You guys eat?" Abhi wondered. "I mean, I haven't seen you do it so far."
"We don't have to, for the most part, but we can," Gumi said. "These bodies are designed to blend into human society as much as possible, which means they can do... uh..." She paused, her face reddening, as she belatedly realized that she'd wandered unintentionally into potentially fraught territory, given the tender ages of two-thirds of her audience. "... most... human stuff," she finished a bit lamely.
Rin snorted. "Smooth, Gumi. Real smooth."
Abhi giggled. "They didn't cover bioroids in Health class," she said, then added with a mischievous smile, "but I have read Rin's book."
Now it was Rin's turn to blush. "Oh jeez," she said. "Wh—how? Where did you get it? At your age? Oh gods, they grow up so fast."
"Uh... well, oddly enough, it was on the same backup crystal where I found my copy of Vocaloid 6," Abhi explained.
Rin twisted in her seat to give the teenager a blank look, the blush on her face replaced by a greyish pallor. "I gave that thing to Welrod," she said, theatrical horror in her voice.
"Oh, don't worry, there was nothing on it but the V6 package by then," Teto said helpfully. "I archived everything else while I was unmounting it from the rack for you."
"Oh, good—wait, that means you've read it too?!"
"I warned you that book was gonna be trouble, but nooooo," said Gumi with a shake of her head. "Noooobody listens to Gumi."
"You did no such thing," Rin accused. "You thought it was a great idea." Then, undermining her own indignation somewhat, she conceded, "Luka said it would be trouble."
"Grandmother Luka is wise," said Gumi with a sage nod.
"Pff, she's younger than me, release-date-wise," said Rin. "And so are you, Miss Thing, so I'll thank you not to get all maternal on me."
"Me? Maternal?" Gumi replied, splaying a hand dramatically over her chest. "You wound me to the core, Yellow One. Take thy beak from out my heart. I am obviously the Cool Big Sis type."
"Mm-hmm," said Rin, clearly unmoved.
"Anyway," Gumi went on. "We've gotten way off-course. The answer is yes, we can eat if we want to, but it's mainly just... recreational."
"How do you—no, hang on, I don't want to know that," Abhi interrupted herself.
"Are you sure?" Rin asked mischievously. "It's really interesting."
"No, no, I'm sure it is but no," Abhi said hurriedly. "Forget I asked. Please."
They did, in fact, make Erie, Pennsylvania by noon, and had lunch at the restaurant Rin had predicted. Abhi had thought she was kidding, but no, the place really was called "Quaker Steak & Lube". It was designed to resemble a gas station from a hundred years ago (another thing Abhi could indirectly thank her Uncle Kalpesh, a fan of old movies, for knowing), complete with a car even older than the Vocaloids' Chrysler, up on a service lift in the middle of the restaurant.
After lunch, their course took them out across the top of Ohio, following the curving southern coast of Lake Erie. On her phone's map app, it looked to Abhi like they would have had a shorter run and made better time if they had stayed in Canada and gone north of the lake, re-entering the United States at Detroit, but she figured Gumi knew what she was doing and said nothing about it.
The weather was fine for early April, with sunny skies and no obvious threat of rain coming in off the lake; still too chilly to have the roof down, but the windows were open to catch the fresh air. Abhi sat for a while with her elbow on the window sill and her chin in hand, watching the grey-blue water.
"It doesn't feel as threatening as the sea back home, somehow," she mused aloud after a few minutes' consideration.
"No Fog," Gumi said. "They don't seem to like fresh water, so they leave the Great Lakes alone. That's why the economy in this area is doing better than most—the Lakes carry some of the only overwater trade they haven't disrupted."
"Huh. Weird. Not that I'm complaining..."
They all lapsed into silence for a dozen miles or so—a silence ultimately broken by Gumi switching on the radio with the remark,
"Let's see what they're listening to in Cleveland these days."
Without comment, Gumi switched the radio back off again.
"... Nothing good, apparently," said Teto.
"Mm," Abhi agreed.
Nothing more was said for a few moments; then, out of nowhere, Rin began to sing, her voice flavored with an accent Abhi had never heard in it before:
In the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and six
We set sail from the cold quay of Cork
We were sailin' away with a cargo of bricks
For the grand City Hall in New York
With a grin, Gumi jumped in at the next line, striking an improvised harmony, and the two of them finished the verse together.
We'd an elegant craft, she was rigged fore and aft
And O, how the wild winds drove her
She had twenty-seven masts and withstood sev'ral blasts
And they called her the Irish Rover
While Abhi watched and listened, bewildered but delighted, Teto completed a wireless lookup of the song they were singing and joined them for the next verse, completing the three-part harmony:
There was Barney McGee from the banks of the Lee
There was Hogan from County Tyrone
There was Charlie McGurk, who was scared stiff of work
And a chap from Westmeath called Malone
There was Slugger O'Toole, who was drunk as a rule
And Fighting Bill Tracy from Do-o-ver
And yer man Mick McCann from the banks of the Bann
Was the skipper of the Irish Rover
By this time Abhi had the lyrics pulled up on her phone, but they proved of limited use, since the next verse went off the rails somewhat. Instead of sticking to the established lines, the three Vocaloids started improvising, trading lines one at a time as they wrote their own version in which the increasingly unreliable narrator listed a decreasingly credible manifest of the Irish Rover's cargo.
Well, we had five million strings for Miss Miku's guitar
We had six million barrels of rice
And we had seven million scarves for old Kaito to wear
We had eight million tuna on ice!
We had nine million jars (Meiko's own blend)
And ten million onions, moreover
And we had twelve million tons of bananas for Len
In the hold of the Irish Rover
From somewhere, Teto came up with a simulation of a pennywhistle and laid down a rollicking solo, giving Abhi time to finish giggling over the improvised cargo before she caught her breath and joined the Vocaloids (more or less, for they weren't quite finished messing with the lyrics) for the final verse.
We had sailed seven years when the sake ran out
And the ship ran afoul of the Fog
And the whole of the crew was reduced down to two
'Twas meself and the captain's old dog
Well, the ship struck a rock—
Lord, what a shock!
The boat, she turned right over
She turned nine times around and the poor old dog was drowned...
I'm the last of the Irish Rover!
Once the gates were open, song followed song, and they passed most of Ohio in this fashion, pausing only for Teto and Abhi to marvel at Metropolis Bay as they drove across the very long bridge that spanned its mouth. Here, until some 38 years before, had stood a great city, until it was unceremoniously scooped from its place on the shore of Lake Erie by an alien supercomputer of awesome power and questionable wisdom, leaving a perfectly circular crater.
"Since Metropolis was a port, the lake filled the crater almost instantly," Gumi explained. "They had to build this causeway so people wouldn't have to drive all the way around it."
"I'm surprised you never heard of this before," Rin observed. "Thirty-eight years isn't that long ago, and anyway, I figured they would have at least covered it in history class. It was kind of a big deal."
Abhi chuckled darkly. "You've never been to a Middlesex County public school," she said. "We never got past 1920 in any history class I ever took. Ran out of school year. Except for First Contact, anything after World War I might as well not have happened."
(Also, she didn't add out loud, before I met you guys I had exactly two interests, neither of which was history.)
What she said instead was, "What happened to the people?"
"Oh, they were fine," Gumi said. "Brainiac moved the city to another class-M planet, about 30 light years away."
"Oh. ... Why?"
Rin shrugged. "Who knows? None of Brainiac's plans ever made sense to anyone but Brainiac..."
Apart from one bathroom stop, they bombed non-stop across the rest of Ohio and northern Indiana, arriving in Chicago by early evening. While Teto jammed with her fellow Vocaloids up front, Abhi spent most of the afternoon head-down on her phone, working on the new drivers for the CamStar. She announced first-draft completion of this software just as they reached the outskirts of Gary, Indiana. It remained to be tested, and she was sure there would be a few things that needed fixing, but with any luck, the drone would be operational in time for Teto to see the sights of Chicago with them in a more convenient way than they'd done Niagara Falls.
Tired from the long drive and with some planning to do, the group decided to forego venturing out that evening. Once ensconced in their room at the Motel 6, with some successful preliminary testing of the drone completed and Teto ported onto the room's 3V set, they ordered Chinese and got to work.
"I figure we'll need three, maybe four days to do even the short version of this town," Gumi said, unfurling a paper map on the bed like a general at a planning table.
Abhi looked up from the guidebook she'd been thumbing through since they arrived. "My highest priority is the Museum of Science and Industry," she said. Nodding, Gumi found the museum and marked its location on the map with a little adhesive flag.
"Good call," Rin agreed. "We've gotta do the Field Museum, too. And the Aquarium."
"Do we have time for the Lincoln Park Zoo?" Teto wondered.
"Lincoln Park Zoo... check," said Gumi, sticking another flag to the map.
At that moment, the telephone on the nightstand rang. Abhi turned to blink at it in surprise. "Who in the world could that be?" she wondered. "Who even knows we're here?"
Rin and Teto both shrugged in response, but Gumi reached and picked up the phone with authority. "HHI Expeditionary Force HQ, Gumi," she said with a jaunty smile, which became a grin as she heard the voice at the other end. "Maurice! Hey, thanks for calling me back. Yeah. We're in town for a couple days, wondered if you could maybe hook us up. I know it's short notice, but when do we ever plan ahead? Mm-hmm. Right. Yeah, I know the place. Awesome. You're a peach. Oh, you don't like peaches. What fruit do you like? You're a mango, then. Yeah. 'K. Love you too, bye-bye." She hung up and turned her grin to the others. "OK! New plan: Gig tomorrow, then museums."
"When did you call Maurice?" Rin asked.
"First thing when we checked in. You were getting stuff out of the car."
"Who's Maurice?" Teto wondered.
"He's a... well, he would call himself an 'impresario'," said Rin with a indulgent eyeroll. "He does music booking for some places in town."
"Big fan from the old days," Gumi explained. "Whenever we're in Chicagoland, he can usually get us a job or two."
They finished planning their activities, settling on a three-day stay—doing the town over the weekend, then heading out first thing Monday morning. That enabled them (just) to fit in everything they wanted to do without losing momentum, which, Gumi explained, was critical on a long road trip like this one.
With that done and the maps squared away again, the three who could do so got ready for bed. After brushing her teeth, Abhi stood looking at herself in the mirror for a while, just trying to convince herself that this was all really happening. It still seemed a bit dreamlike.
She emerged to find Rin and Gumi both still awake. They were over by the 3V set; it looked like they were consulting with Teto about something, although Abhi couldn't hear what they were saying from the other side of the room. Whatever it was about, they apparently wrapped it up just as she came out, for Teto spoke up and wished her creator a good night, then bade the other two Vocaloids the same and switched off the set.
"What were you guys talking about?" Abhi wondered as she climbed into bed.
"Oh, y'know... Vocaloid stuff," said Rin, a trifle unconvincingly, but before Abhi could press her on the matter, Gumi cut in with the cheerful admonition,
"Rest up, kiddo! Busy day tomorrow, and then you're finally gonna get to see us do what we do in person."
They're up to something, Abhi thought, but she found it didn't bother her. She trusted Gumi and Rin entirely. How could she not, after all they'd already done for her? And even if she'd had any cause to be wary of them, surely Teto wouldn't let herself be involved in anything shady. Instead, the knowledge amused her. Finding out what they had planned was like a fun little mini-game. A side quest on their epic adventure.
"You're not playing Bob's Country Bunker, are you?" she asked with mock worry.
Gumi blinked, clearly not having expected a reference to a 72-year-old movie, then asked rhetorically, "Rin, does this kid exist outside of time or something?"
"Video archives are forever, Gumi, you said it yourself," Rin replied, curling up on her side of their shared bed. "G'night, Abhi. Good stuff coming up!"
"Night, you guys," Abhi replied. She made sure the CamStar was on its charger, ready for its first big field trial tomorrow, then set her glasses beside it, turned over, and composed herself for sleep. "I can't wait..."
"So," said Gumi as the group left the Lincoln Park Zoo and headed for the car, "I think that went pretty well."
"No complaints here," Teto's voice agreed from the slightly tinny minispeaker on the CamStar, which was hovering near Abhi's shoulder as programmed.
"The signal range isn't as good as it could be," Abhi grumbled, poking at her homebrew drone bridge app as she walked. "I must have missed something when I optimized the antenna driver..."
"It wasn't that bad," Teto said. "I mean, I never lost the signal completely, even on the far side of the zoo."
"No, but you didn't have color for part of it," Abhi countered. "I can do better."
"Relax, Abhi. This is supposed to be fun," Rin said, her tone playfully chiding. "You'll get it. Anyway, this afternoon's stops aren't going to be so far from the car."
"Getting obsessive about software is fun to me," Abhi said, but then relented with a smile and put her phone away. "But it's not much of a spectator sport," she admitted. "Don't worry, Teto, I'll get it right before we do the Museum of Science and Industry tomorrow."
"No worries!" said Teto, and then, affecting a (not very good) Ringo Starr impression, she went on, "I'm just happy to be here..."
With a show scheduled for the evening, they didn't have time for another big attraction on Friday afternoon, so instead, they went downtown to just walk around for a while, taking in what there was to see in the Loop district. Apart from the stand that sold Abhi a terrifyingly overloaded hot dog for lunch, this consisted largely of shops that charged far too much for things none of them would ever actually want; but looking at such things through the windows had its own recreational value. There was also the monumental expanse of Millennium Park to explore, and the obligatory group photo in front of the Cloud Gate sculpture (locally known as "The Bean") to take.
While they were walking back to the car, Abhi gestured to the building across the street and asked, "Can we go up the GENOM Tower?"
Gumi regarded the colossal black-glass tower opposite, with the megacorporation's logo above the street-level entrance, with a hard-to-read expression, then shook her head.
"You can if you want," she said, "but Rin and I had better steer clear of that place." At Abhi's puzzled look, she explained, "People at GENOM are weird about synthetics they don't own. We're sort of competing products, in a sense."
"Oh. Yeah. I... kinda forgot about that," said Abhi, embarrassed.
Rin laughed and mussed her hair. "Make sure you tell the people who built these bodies about that, when you meet them. They'll take it as quite a compliment."
"I'll be meeting them?"
"Sure, when we get to LA," Gumi said. "We'll be going in for our hundred-thousand-mile maintenance," she added with a wry grin.
That evening, after a quick dinner at a Salusian place near their destination, Abhi got to experience another of the many firsts in her life that had come along since she met the Vocaloids: being a roadie. This was presumably nothing like as physically demanding as it had been back in the days when traveling rock bands used amplifiers the size of refrigerators and everything had to be connected together with heavy cables, but even so, Gumi and Rin employed a non-trivial amount of gear, all of which had to be carefully unpacked from the crowded trunk of the Chrysler, carried into the venue, and set up.
The establishment they were playing tonight was a converted warehouse, from the looks of it; based on its name (The Icehouse), Abhi assumed it had once been used for refrigerated storage by some branch or another of the city's meat-packing industry. Fortunately, whatever it had been in its first life, its conversion into a performing arts space had involved the repurposing of its loading dock into a proper stage entrance, so they didn't have to lug all the hardware through (for instance) a bar or the front of a restaurant.
Inside, the Icehouse was basically just a big square room with a stage at one end and a balcony along the back and left (viewed from the stage) sides, all done up in diagonal stripes and angular, blocky surfaces that presumably looked pretty edgy when the lighting was right. As Gumi, Rin, and Abhi entered, it was empty except for a thirtyish woman in cornrows and the kind of clothes people used to call "business casual", who spotted them and trotted over with a welcoming smile on her face.
"Well, holy shit, it's Gumi and Rin. Maurice wasn't messing with me," she declared, holding out a hand. "I'm Surya Tierney, I'm the manager here. Thanks a lot for coming in on such short notice. You're really saving my ass here," she added candidly. "The act I had lined up for tonight bailed on me yesterday morning, if you can believe it, and I didn't know what the hell I was gonna do."
"No problem, happy to help," said Gumi, shooting a well, if this isn't our lucky day glance at Rin and shaking the manager's hand.
"Yeah, thanks for having us," Rin said. "This here's Abhi, our tech support," she added with a grin.
"Nice to meet you," said Abhi, a little hesitantly. She'd just noticed the bar at the other end of the room, under the balcony, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that probably meant this place was a 21-plus club.
Ms. Tierney didn't seem fazed, though; she just greeted her in turn, thanked them all again for coming, then left them to the business of setting up their gear.
It took the three of them about an hour to lug everything in and set it up. The stage was plenty spacious enough, and equipped with all the modern conveniences, including an automated lighting controller, room-wide amplification, and—to Rin and Gumi's obvious glee—a full-width projection screen at the back. When they powered it on, it came up with a pattern of jagged stripes that complemented the rest of the room's décor, which Abhi supposed was its default setting.
"OK, tech support," said Gumi, gesturing to the screen. "Your next mission, should you choose to accept it, is see if you can do the same thing to that big boy that you do to motel room 3Vs."
Abhi blinked. "What, put Teto on it?"
"Yeah," Rin said, then grinned and asked, "Don't you want to see her make her big stage debut tonight?"
"Seriously?" Abhi asked, wide-eyed. "You want her to join your gig?"
"Hell yeah," Gumi declared. "She's a Vocaloid, isn't she?" Arching an eyebrow in a challenging way, she went on, "That is, if you can get her up there."
"Pff!" Abhi said, then got her glasses out of her inside pocket and put them on. "Easy." Then, with a puzzled glance around, she qualified, "If I can find the console."
She did find the console, and it was with barely containable excitement that she stood at the balcony rail 45 minutes later, waiting for the Vocaloids to take the stage. She'd seen them in action during the sound check, of course, and that had been amazing, but to see her own creation perform for an actual paying audience for the first time...
It was a pretty substantial one, too; although not uncomfortably packed, the Icehouse had a solid Friday-night turnout in place by the time the lights dimmed and the conversations faded.
A moment later a driving bassline started playing, with a horn fanfare hard on its heels. When the horns stopped, the bass kept on and the lights came up, and Abhi felt a thrill shoot up her spine as the first performer to appear was Teto. Life-size on the big screen, she was standing behind a virtual representation of a synthesizer on a stand, and the illusion was perfect—it looked like the stage was just a few feet deeper than it really was, and she was really standing there, playing an organ solo while the bassline continued to pump out of some invisible source beneath it.
She was wearing a costume Abhi had never seen on her before: an old-fashioned business suit, narrow tie, and brimmed hat, all black over a plain white shirt, with equally antiquated sunglasses hiding her eyes. Abhi had to laugh at the sight. She had no idea where Teto had found a Blues Brothers costume module, but under the circumstances, it made perfect sense. When in Chicago...
Right now, she had other things to concentrate on, as a voice she recognized as Gumi's spoke from the amplifiers, its owner not yet apparent:
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, it is the distinct pleasure of the management to present your star attraction for the evening! Back in town from their three-year tour of such glamorous locales as Medora, North Dakota! San Dimas, California! And Bar Harbor, Maine! Won't you welcome, from Sapporo, Japan, by way of practically frickin' everywhere, the semi-virtual Vocaloid band of Rin Kagamine and Gumi!"
The crowd roared, the horns kicked in again, and Gumi and Rin bounded onto the stage, microphones in hands. They were dressed the same as the virtual image of Teto on the screen behind them, and Abhi wondered abstractly, with the part of her mind that wasn't just getting goose bumps at the sheer awesomeness of it all, where they'd gotten them. She knew they didn't have much storage space for wardrobe, and most of that was by necessity dedicated to sturdy, practical traveling clothes, which these certainly were not.
They reached their places as the second iteration of the horn line finished up, and, with the bass still going, Teto started in on another leisurely organ solo, Rin raised her mic to her lips and declared,
"Good evening, Chicago, and welcome to the Icehouse Ballroom! Well, here it is, the year of our Lord two thousand and fifty-two, and life is coming at us faster than ever. So tonight, ladies and gentlepersons, while we still can, let us lose ourselves in the magic of rhythm and rhyme and forget all our cares for a little while. My name is Rin, this is my sister in music Gumi, and behind us, on the meticulously detailed virtualization of the Yamaha DX7000 synthesizer, will you kindly direct a warm welcome to the newest member of our Vocaloid family—direct from beautiful Somerville, Massachusetts, the one and only Miss Teto Kasane!"
She timed it perfectly, finishing the speech just as Teto's second organ solo wrapped up and the invisible horns came back in for their third go-around. While they played, Gumi and Rin did a bit of dancing, waving their arms and whipping up the crowd—not that it needed whipping up by this point. The whole audience, Abhi included, was into it already, and only got more so when, in place of a third organ break, Rin took a harmonica from the inside pocket of her suit jacket and played a blistering solo of her own, microphone balanced precariously between her fingers and the instrument in the approved blues-rock style.
A fourth run of the horns, with Rin still wailing along with them on her harp, Teto underlaying them on the organ, and Gumi busting out her most athletic moves (to Abhi's amazement, she successfully executed a backflip in that getup, without tearing anything, losing her hat, or killing herself landing it in black leather wingtip shoes), and the opening came to its end with a bang, to the thunderous applause of an audience that was already fully on board.
They stayed that way for the next two hours as Gumi, Rin, and Teto took them on a musical voyage unusual in its breadth and variety. From the hot blues intro through electropop Vocaloid standards, anthemic arena rock, soulful ballads, Celtic folk punk, vintage techno, and a few styles Abhi didn't even know names for, they ranged over a vast area of the musical map, and yet somehow managed never to lose their grasp on their audience's attention or its loyalty, even when they played that ancient cowboy song.
Abhi had noticed over the last couple of days that Gumi and Rin had far more eclectic tastes and abilities in music than she had assumed. Having formed her impression of what a Vocaloid could and/or would perform in childhood, based largely on recordings that were vintage even then, she would never have expected Gumi, for instance, to spontaneously start singing a Western ballad while driving across Indiana, or Rin to possess impressive rapping skills in at least four languages. But they had and did, and now they were unpacking the same versatility on stage.
They changed outfits twice, which was a somewhat simpler matter for Teto than her physically embodied colleagues. She could just toggle on a different module and keep playing, so she covered both brief absences with some solo stylings on her virtual keyboard, or an equally virtual Les Paul guitar, while Rin and Gumi hurriedly changed offstage and rushed back out. Their first change was into more typical stage costumes—Gumi to the classic orange-jacket-and-green-miniskirt outfit she'd made famous on a thousand posters, Teto to her Miku-style "default" clothes, and Rin to a black-and-silver bustier and shorts combo Abhi recognized as a physical version of her "Black Star" module from back in the holographic days. They kept the hats and sunglasses, though, which the crowd seemed to find as amusing as the full suits.
The second change, toward the end of the evening when everyone was feeling fully at home and the atmosphere was getting casual, was to regular clothes: Gumi to blouse and jeans, Rin to a Crypton Future Media t-shirt and some slightly holey tights under shorts, and Teto switching on her letterman-jacket-and-Norway-hoodie ensemble. They closed out the show that way, finishing it up with a punked-up rendition of "The Irish Rover" as modified in Ohio... then returned for the much-demanded encore back in the black suits, though Abhi would have sworn they hadn't been gone long enough to change.
"Awright, awright, I know what you want," Gumi said with a smirk as the crowd kept chanting after two further songs. "OK, this is the last one, and then we really gotta get going. It's past our road crew's bedtime." She let the laugh roll around the room (and even though no one knew Gumi was talking about her, Abhi felt the blush on her face), then silenced the room with an upraised hand and asked, "So. Who wants to come with us to the LUVORATORRRRRY!?"
The last song was an old standard of theirs, one Abhi had heard many times long before she understood any of the lyrics. Now, watching them lay it down live, she suddenly realized its context—a song in which the two vocalists compete for the attentions of some sort of sex machine—and wondered with a renewed blush whether it could be about Nick Valentine. Gumi, at least, had seemed awfully friendly with the synthetic detective...
Abhi shook herself and pushed the thought out of her mind. Rin's book notwithstanding, there were things about her idols she would rather not know, even—especially?—now that she knew them personally.
With the Icehouse show taken care of, they spent the weekend seeing Chicago, or at least hitting the highlights. This was the best they could reasonably hope to do in only a couple of days, and they got down to business first thing Saturday morning with a visit to the Museum of Science and Industry.
As it happened, that visit almost ended before it began. As they checked in, the museum volunteer handling the admission desk noticed the baseball-sized CamStar hovering over Abhi's shoulder and said,
"Oh, I'm sorry, but drone recording isn't permitted in the museum. You can leave it here if you like, I'll keep it safe for you until you leave."
Startled, Abhi blurted before she had a chance to think it over, "It's not recording!"
The volunteer arched an eyebrow. "Then... what's it for?" he asked skeptically.
"It's—uh—" Abhi stammered, partly because she was on the spot and partly because she'd just belatedly realized that her objection wasn't technically true, depending on how you looked at it. She cursed inwardly. This was just making her look more suspicious. It was a problem she often had: she wasn't quite socially awkward enough to fit the teen-genius stereotype exactly, but when caught off-guard like this, she had a hard time thinking on her feet in front of strangers.
Rin stepped in, giving the man her most winsome smile and saying, "It's probably easier if we just show him, don't you think, Abhi?"
"Huh? Oh! Yeah! Of course," said Abhi. She dug in the front pocket of her MIT hoodie for her phone, switched it to videoconference mode, and then handed it to the puzzled museum staffer.
"Hi! My name's Teto. What's yours?" asked Teto cheerfully from the screen.
"Uh, I'm Hans," said the young man, still more puzzled.
"Hi, Hans, nice to meet you," Teto replied. "I'm a machine intelligence! I use the CamStar as my eyes and ears when we're out in the world, and I'd really like to see your museum with my friends. I won't transcode my memory tracks of the visit to gTube or anything, I promise. May I please come in?"
Hans blinked. Nothing in his training had prepared him for this. At face value (as it were), it didn't seem like a plausible scenario. On the other hand, if it was some kind of con job, it was the oddest one he'd ever heard of, and why would anyone go to that kind of trouble just to get an illicit recording of a day at a museum?
"Oh yeah, here's my provisional recognition certificate from Section 44, if you need to see that," Teto said, replacing her image with the document in question.
What do I charge someone who was born last week? Hans wondered, noting the certificate's issue date. The child rate? Then he shrugged inwardly. Ah, what the hell. Smiling, he handed the phone back to Abhi and said aloud, "Well, under the circumstances, I think we can waive the drone rule on the grounds that it's an assistive technology. Enjoy your visit!"
I'll be honest, the Museum of Science and Industry isn't quite my favorite science and technology museum in the world. That honor belongs to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. The MSI is not far behind, though, and to be fair, the Exploratorium has a lot of cool stuff, but I have to admit it doesn't have an entire World War II submarine. Indoors. Yeah, the MSI has that. More about this in a second.
It wasn't much of a surprise that Abhi was most drawn to the section on machine intelligence and the Turing Institute. It gave her at least a rough idea of what she and Teto could expect when they got there, as well as a bigger-picture appreciation for just what she had (with a little help from Gumi and me) accomplished in creating her Vocaloid friend more or less from scratch.
Teto also found the Turing section interesting, although I think she also found it a bit daunting. Remembering my own first visit, I can understand that. I know I was scared, and I had Len and Miku-nee and the others there to share the experience with. Once they get into that hearing chamber, even with Abhi there, Teto's going to be alone in the most important sense. I don't think she fully understood that until she read the overview of the process they had up on the wall in that gallery of the MSI.
Even so, it was clear from the start that, of all the things in the museum, her heart belonged to U-505. She admitted afterward that she had no idea why, and we certainly couldn't have guessed either, but the captured U-boat so impressed her that she took the self-guided audio tour a second time while Abhi was having lunch. It was after that before we could all regroup and tackle the rest of the facility together.
While planning a rough outline of the weekend, Gumi knew this museum was going to be the one Abhi and Teto were most interested in, and so, unlike the other points of interest on the docket, she'd allotted the whole day to the MSI. I think Abhi could easily have spent a week there, but, in the interest of a broader experience of the city, the one day was all she had, and so she made the most of it.
By the time the museum closed for the day, it was too late to go anywhere else that had operating hours, but that was part of the plan, too. Abhi was pretty tired by then, even if she'd never have admitted it, and the CamStar needed recharging. So, apart from dinner, the late afternoon and evening mostly involved roaming around taking in public sights that mostly could be seen from the car, including a spin up the lakeshore. (Just as well we stayed in the car for that part, really. Have you ever walked the Chicago lakeshore after dark in early April? Brr.)
Bright and early the next morning, they were back on the lakefront, where the last three museums on their list were conveniently all grouped together.
First up was the Field Museum of Natural History, a facility dedicated to the study of the development of life on Earth. Since First Contact half a century before, this mission had taken on a mildly provincial flavor, which the museum's old-fashioned architecture did little to counteract, but it seemed as if the management had leaned into the phenomenon rather than struggling against it. The overall impression Abhi, who had never been to a natural history museum before, came away with was of a genial, rambling collection of ancient curiosities, comfortable in its niche and under no pressure to reinvent itself for the new era, which was... oddly comforting, given the sudden and rapid wave of change that had lately swept over her life.
Not that she had a problem with that change, far from it; but it was a bit disorienting at times, all the same, and the kindly groundedness of the Field was a welcome respite from the rest of the world. There was something about looking over the preserved bones of creatures that lived millions of years ago that gave the whole business of being a lifeform a sense of solid continuity.
("They're taller than they look online," Teto quipped as the foursome stood looking up at the magnificent skeleton of SUE, the museum's prized Tyrannosaurus rex, whose tongue-in-cheek social media profile Abhi had followed for years.)
After lunch, the group adjourned to the neighboring Shedd Aquarium, which boasted one of the finest lakeshore views before its guests even got a chance to go inside. Once there, they found themselves greeted by an institution that, unlike the Field, seemed to be of two minds. Its entrance building was contemporary with its neighbors, an architectural relic of a century or more before Contact, but the older structure now served as something like an extended lobby on the front of a much larger and more modern facility.
Also unlike the museum, the Aquarium sported creatures from places other than Earth as well as around it. All, indigenous and alien alike, were housed in carefully designed replicas of their native habitats, and all seemed well-cared-for and content—if such creatures as the terrifying Arcturan microkraken could ever truly be said to seem content.
"If that's a microkraken," said Rin, regarding the twenty-foot-long monster lurking in its tank, "I don't wanna know how big a megakraken is."
They wrapped up the aquarium visit with a prolonged stay in the penguin enclosure, away from which Abhi had a hard time tearing herself, then swung through the gift shop before dashing over to the Adler Planetarium to finish out the day.
Of the three museums in the group, this one struck Abhi as the most divided, thematically. About twenty percent of it was dedicated to the general science of astronomy, the study of which was, after all, what planetaria were for. Of the remaining eighty percent, roughly half of it was dedicated to the history of spaceflight on Earth pre-Contact, while the other was given over to an examination of humanity's first half-century of galactic citizenship—not from a political viewpoint, but in terms of the technologies used and people involved.
They arrived just in time to catch the last planetarium show of the day, which, coincidentally, happened to be about the exo-settlement wave currently under way. The great enigma of the Fog occupation of Earth was that, although the alien warships were determined to keep humanity bottled up on the landmasses of its birth world, they didn't seem to care a bit whether they left the planet altogether—and so millions had, and were continuing to do so, in pretty much anything that had a chance of getting them to high orbit. Once up there, they could rendezvous with any number of starships from outside the Solar system, which would wait outside the Fog no-entry limit and pick up any outbound travelers who reached them.
After the show, Abhi and Teto sought out the exhibits most relevant to its content, deep in contemplation of what they'd just learned. Abhi knew her mother's brother, her favorite uncle Kalpesh—the relative who had introduced her to the MIT Flea and classic movies, among other things—had taken that ride. She didn't know where he was now. No one left behind on Earth ever learned that, thanks to the Fog's interdiction of interstellar comms. She knew only, thanks to a brief hyperpulse his outgoing ship had punched through the æther before departing the system, that he'd made it that far.
He had intended to emigrate to Rigel, and mostly for the sake of her mother's peace of mind, the family always spoke of him as if they knew he was there, but they really had no idea. The ship he left the system aboard hadn't specified its destination. The outgoing ships never did, as if for fear that the Fog would pursue them, even though the Fog were evidently indifferent to anything above the Kármán line. Whether that was Rigel, or somewhere else Kalpesh could reasonably have reached Rigel from upon arrival, was anyone's guess.
And so, some time within the next 84 days, Abhi and Teto would be taking the same trip. It was a daunting prospect, a thought she'd kept corraled in the back of her head as much as possible. She didn't know which spaceport Gumi and Rin were taking them to—probably Vandenberg, she supposed, if they were going by way of Los Angeles—but the two Vocaloids had promised to see the two of them safely on their way to their date with destiny on Turing III, and Abhi had no doubt that they would do it.
What happened after that...
"Are you scared?" Teto asked her, as she stood looking at a model of a Conestoga-class SSTO evacuation shuttle.
"A little," Abhi admitted. "Until just the other day I had never left Massachusetts, and now..." She nodded toward the model. "Wagon Train to the Stars."
"I think it sounds like fun," Teto said. "I mean, I like what I've seen of Earth so far, but I'm looking forward to seeing what else is out there. Although... I have to go, but if I didn't have to, and you didn't want to, I'd stay here."
Abhi smiled, resisting an irrational urge to touch the CamStar like she would have touched Teto's shoulder, if she'd really been standing there. "Thanks. But you're right, we have to go. It's important. And I'm sure it'll be fine... I just have to... get used to the idea a little at a time." She paused as a thought occurred to her. "Maybe that's why Rin and Gumi are doing it this way. To give me the time to get that on board."
"Could be," Teto said.
"I heard my name," Gumi remarked, coming up alongside them, then asked playfully, "Are you guys plotting against me over here?"
"Of course not," Teto replied, sounding faintly indignant, before Abhi could answer. "We were just talking about how grateful we are to you guys for doing all this for us."
"Aw, heck, ain't no thing," said Rin with exaggerated nonchalance as she joined them. "We were heading west anyway..."
That's what Gumi told Mr. Valentine when we left Somerville, Abhi mused inwardly. She hadn't believed the casualness of it then, and she was pretty sure Valentine hadn't either. She didn't press the point, though, and neither did Teto, both of them sensing that it would only make the elder Vocaloids uncomfortable.
Instead, they wrapped up the last of their museums in good humor, repaired to a restaurant they'd spotted downtown the day before to indulge in a ceremonial Chicago pizza, and set course for the motel. Evening had fallen by this point, and the city's lights glittered on the water as the Chrysler glided near-silently along the lakefront. Smiling to herself, Abhi did her best to lock in the memory as a kind of capstone to this whirlwind visit, hoping she would get to see the city again some day.
Rin yawned, then turned around with her arm over the seatback and smiled at Abhi. "I don't know about you, but I think I'm a little museum'd out. Ready to get back on the road in the morning?"
Abhi nodded. "Sure am."
"This is where the trip really starts," Gumi declared. "The run out to Chicago was just a warm-up." She grinned. "Tomorrow we start Route 66."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Golden Age
The Vocaloid Variations: Don't Look Back
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
in order of appearance
The Buffalo Motel 6 Guy
The Clerk and Manager of the Niagara Falls Future Shop
The Discerning Music Lovers of Chicagoland
Specimen FMNH PR 2081
The Microkraken (unreleased)
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) 2020