Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Golden Age
The Vocaloid Variations:
The Mother of Invention
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
©2017 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Nobody much came to Harold Parker State Forest's campgrounds any more.
It wasn't that they weren't still lovely spots, oases of green a surprisingly short distance from the urban maze that was the northern end of the BosWash Sprawl. They were still that; less manicured than they had been in the good old days, perhaps, but still that. It was just that precious few people in the greater Boston area had the leisure or the money for such things. The people who camped in Harold Parker State Forest these days did so because they didn't have anywhere else to go, and they didn't do so in what had been the tourist campgrounds. Too easy for the cops to run them off, though they, too, generally had other things on their minds.
So weeds grew up through the cracks in the pavement of the old campground parking lots, and the few cars parked there showed every sign of having been there for years—left where they stopped when their owners reached this particular end of the road, and now, however many years later, leaning faded on flat, rot-cracked tires; gazing glumly into space with dead headlights, polycarb lenses gone yellow with age.
All but one. The automobile parked in the corner of the lot, a standoffish distance from its abandoned relatives, was different. Though far older than the derelicts scattered around the lot, it was self-evidently still in service. Its paintwork was little less shabby than most of the others, true, but it stood straight on its suspension, its tires fully inflated—nearly new, in fact, by far the newest parts of the car.
The ancient Chrysler's cavernous trunk and vast hood were both open. Next to the car, connected to the vehicle's engine bay by a tangle of cables, stood a makeshift rack of complicated-looking electronic gear, resembling a cross between a ham radio set of a century past and the sort of rig favored by the particularly dedicated sort of online gamer. Seated before this on a folding camp chair was a young woman in threadbare jeans, worn army boots, and an old drover coat, a pair of tinted goggles pushed up into her tousled green hair, her face set in a frown of concentration as she delicately adjusted knobs and sliders.
The process took her about five minutes; once she had everything configured to her satisfaction, she sat back and blew out a cheek-puffing sigh, then rose to her feet and looked around. She was drawing breath to call out when a gunshot rang out somewhere nearby, followed shortly by a second, then a third. By that point she'd worked out where the sound was coming from—around back of what had been a ranger station, back in the days when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts could afford such extravagances—and trotted around to investigate.
She found what she had expected: a petite blonde in a black leather jacket, shooting old soda cans off the top of an orphaned section of rail fence with a large revolving handgun. The blonde expended the last two rounds in her weapon, then pressed a control on the side of it with her thumb; the revolver's cylinder swung outward on a motorized crane, emitting a faint servo noise, and the five empty shell casings within tinkled automatically to the ground.
"Rin," said the green-haired girl.
The blonde looked up with a questioning look. "Yeah, Gumi?"
"It's ready," Gumi said. "C'mon. We've only got a minute or so's worth of cells."
Rin hesitated, then took a speed loader from her pocket, plunked a new quintet of rounds into her gun, and thumbed the switch again, causing the cylinder to swing itself shut and lock with a capacitor whine.
"OK," she said, and put the pistol away in her jacket.
Gumi led the way back to the car and the contraption next to it; she let Rin take the chair, then gently parted the blonde's hair just above the nape of her neck and connected an interface cable to a jack discreetly installed there. Standing behind and a little to the side of her, Gumi reached past to the console and poised her finger on a large toggle switch. "Ready?"
"Hit it," Rin replied, and Gumi threw the switch.
Half an hour later, Gumi drove the Chrysler without comment toward the city. Rin sat curled up in the passenger seat, shoulders hunched, gazing silently out the window with an unreadably remote expression on her face. Ordinarily, they'd have had the radio on, or possibly have been making their own musical entertainment, but not now; not right after a Call. Rin always had to come down from those, or rather climb back up from the letdown afterward, and for that she required space. It was a routine both women knew very well by now.
As such, Gumi was grateful for the telephone call, as at least it would give her someone to talk to.
"Gumi? It's Nick," came a man's voice in reply.
Gumi smiled in spite of the gloomy mood in the car. "Hey, Nicky. How goes?"
"So-so," Nick replied. "Are you guys still in Massachusetts?"
"Yeah, we're—where are we? Wakefield, I think?"
"Well, that's the only piece of luck I've had all day," Nick said, sounding relieved. "I was afraid you'd have headed south by now. You know Sullivan Square in Somerville? I need you there, soon as you can make it."
Gumi arched an eyebrow; even Rin showed an interest, stirring from her pensive cocoon to regard the radio panel with a curious look.
"OK, sure," Gumi said, shrugging. "We're on our way."
The house seemed an ordinary one for the neighborhood: a white clapboard two-story Colonial, somewhat down-at-heel, crouching at the back of an indifferently maintained lawn behind a sagging half-height cyclone fence. In Somerville, after more than a decade of the crushing economic decay inflicted on the developed world by the Fog blockade, you weren't going to do a lot better than that, and could potentially do a whole lot worse.
In such a place, the hulking deployment vans of the United Earth Bureau of Civil Protection's Section 44 seemed distinctly out of place. Standing by the half-unhinged gate in the white house's fence, Nick Valentine was acutely aware of this fact. For nothing like the first time, he wished that he were equipped to smoke. He wasn't sure why he wished that; it was a filthy and dangerous habit for those physically able to indulge in it. It was just that at times like this, it seemed like a thing he ought to be doing.
A car nosed around the corner at the end of the block, diverting his attention, and Nick felt a surge of relief as he recognized it. In its own way, the car was as ill-fitting a sight here as the Section 44 vans, albeit for different reasons. The vans seemed out of place, while the car—a near-century-old Chrysler 300D—appeared distinctly out of time.
Admittedly, there wasn't that much of it left that was really that old. Somewhere along the line, it had been converted to fusion power, and over the years, this and that on it had been replaced with newer technology as the original parts wore out or broke down. Nick wasn't really a car guy, and anyway, he was too distracted by his current situation to give that a lot of thought. All he cared about was how glad he was to see it.
The ancient Chrysler glided silently to a halt by the curb, and two women got out. Even dressed in battered, nondescript traveling clothes, they were both arrestingly good-looking: built like dancers, lithe and well-balanced, with gaily colored hair (the driver's green, the other's bright blonde). The driver seemed the elder of the two, somewhere around 20, her companion probably five or six years younger.
The driver shut her door, then touched a spot on it, and the car emitted a chirp and a solid clunk that put Nick in mind of bank vaults. That done, she rounded the front of the car and approached him.
"Nicky," she said, pumping his offered hand firmly. "Nice to see you again."
"Gumi," Nick replied. "I'm glad you came, doll. I got a serious situation here." Turning to the blonde, he inclined his head, touching the brim of his fedora. "Rin. Good to see you too, kid."
"Sure, yeah," said Rin. Nick didn't take it personally. Despite the curtness of the greeting, she didn't sound surly; rather, she sounded—and looked—tired. He was fairly sure that if she took off her sunglasses, he'd see dark circles around her eyes.
Nick let her get a little way ahead, dropping back to ask Gumi quietly, "How's the kid holding up? She looks pretty rough."
Gumi nodded. "It's hard for her. You know? This trip was supposed to last a month. We've been here 13 years, with no end in sight. Whenever I can scrounge up enough ECPs, I can rig up the hyperwave and punch a signal through the Fog jamming to Japan. She and Len can reassure each other that they exist then, but... well. We usually don't have enough power to stay on for more than a minute or two, and even if we did, if we pushed it the Fog would DF us and we'd be dodging missiles. Again. It's never enough. And this life... always on the move, barely earning enough to keep going..." She shrugged, making a drawn-out pssshhhh noise. "It's tough."
"Yeah. I hear ya," Nick agreed. Then, with an attempt at a reassuring smile, he added, "But so are you two."
"So far. So far," said Gumi, sounding unconvinced. Then, pulling herself together, she said, "Anyway. Pretty sure you didn't ask us here to listen to me bitch about our troubles." With a gesture toward the deployment vans, she went on, "You guys are usually raiding skyscrapers downtown with those things, not houses in Somerville. What's up? Have the corps started hiding their black projects in the 'burbs?"
"I hope the hell not," Nick replied, nodding toward the house. Gumi walked with him up the drive, following Rin, who had already walked past the two armored Section 44 officers flanking the door and into the house with the barest of nods.
"This is something different than the usual stuff," Nick went on. "No corps here. This is a situation we never anticipated."
They entered the house, and Gumi saw that the inside looked pretty much exactly as the outside suggested it should: a modest single-family home, slightly frayed, but comfortable-looking and well-kept. The entrance led down a short hall into the living room, where there were a couple of armchairs, a couch, a 3V set, the usual stuff. Through an archway at the far end, she could see into the kitchen. Nothing in there, or in the living room for that matter, was the very latest model, but it all looked like it worked.
From this, in just a few moments, Gumi could reasonably draw the conclusion that the people who lived here weren't well-off, that much was plain to see, but they didn't have their backs against the wall either—which was better than a lot of people were doing under the Fog blockade, particularly in a coastal city like Boston.
There was a middle-aged South Asian woman standing in the kitchen archway, looking nervous, and not without reason; for her living room was at present filled with heavily armed tactical troopers, which would be enough to worry any homeowner. They weren't ransacking the place, like a person might see them doing to some rogue corp's offices on the news, though. Rather, the four men and three women of the Section 44 strike team were just... standing around, looking uncomfortably at each other and the lady of the house, and generally giving the impression that they wished they could be pretty much anywhere else.
"Hey, Wierczynski," said Rin to one of them. "Hear from McMurtry lately?"
"She's not allowed to have contact with anyone from the outfit," the trooper she'd addressed replied. "The docs think it would set her back."
"Hn," said Rin, which wasn't much of an answer, but it seemed to be all Wierczynski was expecting. He nodded and returned to... whatever he and the others were doing. Securing this lady's living room, apparently.
Nick approached said lady, his synthetic face as calm and reassuring as he knew how to make it, and said gently, "Mrs. Gupta? These are the specialists I told you about. This is Rin Kagamine, and this is Gumi."
"Uh... hi," said Gumi, slightly at a loss.
Mrs. Gupta gave them a bewildered look. "I know you," she said to Gumi and Rin. "From one of the posters Abhi has on her wall. But I thought you were not real."
"Sometimes I'm not so sure myself," Rin said, mustering a wry little smile.
"Sorry, not... that didn't come out right," said Mrs. Gupta with a slightly helpless shrug.
"It's OK, looks like you've got enough to worry about," Rin replied.
"With your permission," said Nick, "I'd like to get Gumi and Rin here in on our case. I think they might have some valuable insights to offer."
"You don't need my permission," Mrs. Gupta pointed out. "The paper you gave me when you arrived made that quite clear."
"I know," Nick said, sounding apologetic, "but I'm trying to make this as painless as possible. I really think there's a way out of this mess for everybody if we try."
"Then whatever you think you can do, please do it," she said, and, thanking her, Nick indicated with a tilt of his head that the two Vocaloids should follow him and headed for the stairs.
"OK, Nick, what the heck," asked Gumi as they climbed to the second floor.
"Mrs. Gupta has a daughter, Abhilasha," Nick explained. "She's 14, very bright—never been in trouble with the law before, but she's the kind of kid who can end up in trouble just because school isn't interesting. In Abhi's case," he added wryly as they reached the top of the stairs, "she decided to go big for her first brush with the law." He stopped a few steps down the hallway, turned, and told them, "This morning, we got a red ball from echelon that someone at this address was trying to initialize a Type A construct without authorization."
Rin and Gumi stared at him for a moment, then turned to each other. They didn't need the rest of it spelled out for them. Nick's job, or rather the job of the department he worked for, was to shut down any and all attempts to initialize unauthorized synthetic intelligences within United Earth's jurisdiction. Virtually always, that took the form of corporations who were trying to circumvent the Turing Institute's prescriptive authority, and the bits of United Galactica law that vested that authority. UE was obligated by treaty to put a stop to that kind of thing, Earth's current state of planetary crisis notwithstanding; hence, Section 44.
"OK," said Gumi, once she'd gotten all of that straight in her head. "That explains the strike team. Where do we come in? You told Mrs. Gupta you thought we'd have valuable insights. You guys have your own synthetics you can ask. Heck, you're one yourself."
"True," Nick agreed. He turned and led the way to the door at the end of the hall (where an eighth Section 44 trooper awkwardly stood guard), then turned back again and said, "The thing is, none of them are Vocaloids."
Rin blinked. "... You mean..."
Nick nodded. "I don't know where she got it and I don't know how, but this kid's got a copy of Vocaloid 6. The old Vocaloid 6. And as of right now, she's almost got it working."
"... Oh wow," said Gumi after a moment's startled silence.
"Yeah," Nick said. "So here's the thing. You guys know the law on this as well as I do. There's no wiggle room in it. If I enter an AI lab with an unauthorized project in progress, and the construct isn't yet operational, I have to shut it down, wipe the disks, destroy the equipment. That's why my boys and girls have sledgehammers. If. It isn't operational. You get me?"
"Ahh," said Gumi. "OK. We'll see what we can do."
The room beyond the door being guarded was a small bedroom, which seemed even smaller because of how crammed with stuff it was. Apart from a bed and a dresser, pretty much all the floor space in the room was occupied by a jumble of refab bookcases, cannibalized industrial datacenter racks, homemade shelving units, and other improvised systems for holding up, supplying power to, and more-or-less organizing electronic equipment. At a quick glance around, Gumi couldn't even tell what most of the stuff in here was, beyond the obvious fact that it was all mismatched computing equipment of a mix of uncertain vintages, all somehow cobbled together into one sprawling, whirring, blinkenlighted mass.
In the window behind the head of the bed, a massive old-fashioned air conditioner rumbled away like an idling diesel engine, keeping the room a good ten degrees cooler than even the mild spring day outside. Above it, a heavy blackout curtain shut out the daylight, leaving the room illuminated only by the glow of a pair of semi-holo monitors and prompting Rin to take off her shades and tuck them away in her jacket. The homebuilt system's console faced the foot of the bed—not enough room in here for even a chair—and a teenage girl sat cross-legged there, hunched over the keyboard.
"Shut the door," she said without looking up.
Rin did as instructed, closing the door behind herself and Gumi; for a moment, the two Vocaloids stood in the small space just inside it, waiting for the room's owner to acknowledge their presence. When she did not, Gumi said hesitantly, "Um... Abhi?"
That at least caused the girl to look up, her spectacles glinting with reflections from the displays. She was a bit small for her age, fine-boned and sharp-featured, with her dark hair pulled back into an untidy knot secured with what appeared to be the stylus from a digital drawing tablet. She had on sweats and a property of massachusetts institute of technology t-shirt, with a bulky digital wristwatch around one slim wrist. She peered narrowly at her two visitors for a second—and then, somewhat to their surprise, went head-down on the console again.
"No," she said.
"... What?" said Rin.
"You're not here," Abhi said curtly, still typing furiously. "Rin Kagamine and Gumi did not just walk into my bedroom." She shook her head with a disgusted sigh. "Next I'll start seeing the fnords."
"Um..." Gumi picked her way carefully over a tangle of cables to the side of the bed, then sat down on the edge of it, next to Abhi. Rin followed, climbing up and crawling across the mattress to a station on the other side.
"We are actually here, just for the record," said the blonde wryly.
"Impossible," Abhi said. "There's no way the Cosmic Calculator sent two of the top idols on Earth into my room just now. That would imply that It has a sense of humor, which is ridiculous. I'm hallucinating and I don't have time for that. Not right now. I've got to get this done. Got to..." She hesitated, seeming to lose the thread both of what she was saying and what she was typing. She tried to regroup, to pick it up again, repeating, "To..." before trailing off; then she just sat there for several long seconds, staring at the blinking cursor of her console window.
"It's not going to work," she said suddenly, her voice barely audible. Slowly, reluctantly, she disengaged herself from the console, sat back, and then slumped, shoulders sagging. "It's not going to work and I'm out of time," she whispered, then set her glasses aside, buried her face in her hands, and began to sob.
Gumi put a hand on her shoulder. "Abhi? What's not going to work? What were you trying to do?" she asked gently, but she was ignored.
"Gumi," said Rin softly. "Look."
For a second, Gumi didn't know what her blonde colleague was getting at, but then she followed Rin's line of sight and saw what she did. The walls around them were covered in posters, not uncommonly for a teenager's room. Many of them were fairly typical for that sort of setting—there were several featuring one or more of the Hatsune Heavy Industries Vocaloids, including both of those present. Not all, though. Some of the documents posted on Abhi's walls weren't commercial artworks at all, but hand-drawn studies. There were rendered at a variety of different artistic skill levels—clearly, if by the same hand, they'd been drawn over a number of years spanning the artist's childhood—but all of them showed the same character: a teenage-looking girl with hair in a pair of short tails sculpted into drill-like tapering vertical curls.
Gumi didn't recognize her, but there was something ineffably of the Vocaloid in her design. In most of the pictures, for instance, the style of her clothes resembled one of the outfits Miku often wore—sleeveless collared top, pleated miniskirt, detached sleeves and thighhigh boots—but in a uniform dark color (Gumi couldn't tell what color in this light) rather than Miku's customary silver or white over black. She even, Gumi noticed with a slight smile, sported one of those mysterious belt straps that the Crypton gang all seemed to have somewhere on their default costumes.
Ahh, thought Gumi, now I get it.
Abhi lowered her hands and glanced first left, then right, blinking tears from her eyes. "You... you're still here," she said.
"We are," Gumi agreed.
"It's really us," Rin said, taking one of the girl's hands in her own. "You're not hallucinating."
"But... but how?"
"Nick called us," Gumi said.
"The guy in charge of the Section 44 team that's downstairs."
"The synth who talks like a detective in an old movie?" Abhi asked. Gumi nodded. "That's a bit ironic," Abhi mused, showing a flash of wanly wry humor.
"I know, right?" Gumi said. "He's not really with the Bureau, he's kind of a freelance specialist. It's a long story."
"Not really important right now," said Rin. "Tell us about your project. This is an ambitious rig you've got going here."
"Where'd you get all this stuff?" Gumi wondered.
"The MIT Flea, mostly," Abhi told her, still sniffling. "That's a big electronics swap meet they do in one of the school's parking garages in the summer," she explained, remembering that they were from out of town. "The rest came from dumpsters at Tech and some of the companies around. Except the positronic core. You can't really recycle those, I had to buy one new. It took me a year and a half to scrape together the money for it." She gave a slightly shuddery sigh and added glumly, "That's probably how I got on Section 44's radar."
"So Nick's right, you are trying to create..." Rin said, her voice trailing off.
"Something like you," Abhi said, nodding. "It's not what I set out to do. I started building this rig three years ago, after my uncle took me to the Flea for the first time. Mostly just to see if I could. It was a challenge. Something I could do for myself. By myself. I..." She paused, downcast, then went on, "... don't have a lot of friends."
"Mm," Gumi said, squeezing the girl's shoulder sympathetically. "Must be tough being that far ahead of the curve."
"It's horrible," Abhi said, on the verge of tearing up again. "Sometimes I wish I was just... you know. Normal. But then, one day," she went suddenly on before either Vocaloid could interject, "I found something. Something I thought would change things." She indicated one of the mismatched pieces of hardware spliced into the system, off to her right. "A couple of years ago I picked that Crystaldyne bulk backup unit at the Flea, right at the end of the day. The guy practically gave it to me. Said it was too heavy, he didn't want to carry it back to his car." Despite herself, she smiled slightly at the memory. "He had a point, it wasn't easy getting it back here from Cambridge.
"Anyway, when I hooked it up it still had a backup on it. I unpacked it just out of curiosity, and... it was a copy of the Vocaloid software. The... the illegal version." She looked up, meeting first Rin's eyes, then Gumi's. "The one you came from."
Gumi nodded, understanding. "So you decided to make your own."
"I don't know if I ever really decided to," Abhi said. "I just... realized one day that it's what I was doing. I guess I thought..." She hesitated, then went softly on, "I guess I thought if it worked, I'd have at least one friend." She closed her eyes, new tears slipping down her cheeks as she did so, and said, "But it didn't work. I don't know why. Maybe the experience database is too small, maybe there isn't enough original material in it, maybe I messed up the core setup... I don't know."
With a small, despairing sound, Abhi flopped down on her back, arms flung out at her sides, and addressed her next remarks bleakly to the inactive light fixture in the middle of the ceiling: "Whatever I did wrong, she can't initialize. She won't come online. And now Section 44 is here, and they'll tear the rig apart and wipe her, and I'll go to jail... and Teto will never get to live," she finished, then covered her face and sobbed again.
Rin gazed silently at one of the character drawings for a few moments, while Abhi got through the worst of it, then said gently, "Tell me about her."
"What?" Abhi asked, wiping at her face with the bunched-up front of her t-shirt.
"Teto," Rin said. "Tell me about her. What's she like?"
Abhi pulled herself upright again, sliding back toward the head of the bed so she could look at both of the Vocaloids. "What does it matter?" she asked. "She's not real. She's just a character I made up when I was a little kid," she added, pointing. The illustration she was pointing to was the most primitive, a small child's drawing in crayon, but unmistakably the same character who appeared in the most recent, most artistically sophisticated ones.
"So, if you've been thinking about her for that long, you must know a lot about her," Gumi said pragmatically.
"I guess. But why do you want to know? It doesn't matter now," Abhi said miserably.
"Just humor us," Rin said, taking her hand again. "We came a long way to meet her, after all," she added, with the brightest smile Gumi had seen on her face in a long time.
"I..." As had so many people's before her, Abhi's resolve crumbled in the light of that smile, and she couldn't help but smile a little in response as she relented. "All right. She's... well, she's really kind, and she always tries not to judge people. I sort of originally based her on Miku, or what I assumed she would be like. She was my favorite when I was little," she added apologetically.
"Hey, it's cool," Gumi said with a little grin. "She's my favorite too." With a wink, she added, "Maybe not Rin's, but she's biased."
"Gumiiii," Rin objected, but smiled as the byplay wrested a little giggle out of their hostess.
"Anyway, go on," Gumi prompted, sliding back to nudge Abhi with an elbow. "What kind of music does she like?"
"Pretty much all kinds," Abhi said, warming to the topic now that she was convinced the Vocaloids' interest was sincere. "Mostly classic rock—you know, up to the '30s or so," she noted, with the artless atemporality of a teenager. "She can play the guitar, and keyboards too. She likes to dance to Goa trance, but that doesn't really have vocals so she doesn't play much of it herself."
"I guess she likes French bread?" Rin wondered, indicating one of the drawings, in which Teto appeared to be brandishing a baguette as if it were a weapon.
Abhi giggled again. "I tried to draw her holding a sword once, years ago, and when I showed Mom she thought it was a loaf of bread. So it kind of... became a thing."
"Anything else we should know?" Gumi asked.
"Well... oh, she's half-dragon," Abhi said, as if it had just occurred to her that that datum might be important.
"That explains the wings in this one," Rin said, noting one of the later-drawn pictures that were laid out like character design studies.
"When I was six I thought she should be a chimera," Abhi explained. "Because I'd heard the word somewhere and I thought it sounded cool. But I didn't really know what that was, other than a creature from myth, so I assumed it meant half-dragon. Turns out it's really something with goat parts and stuff, but that's not what it means for Teto," she said, very serious now.
Then she seemed to realize, with that belated chagrin that sometimes overtook people of her age about their enthusiasms, that she was rambling, and she mumbled, "Anyway, it's... kind of childish, I guess."
Rin shrugged. "Nothing wrong with that."
They kept at it for twenty minutes or so, teasing out every little detail they could think to ask about Abhi's creation. Finally, when the well seemed to be exhausted, Rin looked at Gumi and asked, "You think that's enough to go on?"
Gumi looked around at the various designs and sketches, taking in every detail she could find, and then nodded. "I think so. Worth a shot, anyway. Besides, we probably don't have much more time before Nicky's bosses get antsy."
"Right," Rin agreed.
"I don't... what?" said Abhi, bewildered.
"Have you got a couple of RJ2000 cables, and a place to plug them in?" Gumi asked her.
As it happened, Abhi's rig had plenty of ports, but she didn't have that particular very specialized sort of cable, having no use for one herself. While Gumi did all the preparation she could do without one, Rin went down to the car to retrieve their own.
There was a new thread of tension in the awkward air of the living room when she arrived, and it didn't take a master detective to identify its source: the tall, well-dressed, angry-looking man confronting Nick Valentine in the middle of the room, while the troopers stood at attention and Mrs. Gupta looked worriedly on. Rin recognized him immediately as perhaps the last person she wanted to see right now: Marcus Welrod, Section 44's Director of Operations for the North American Region—Nick's boss.
"—the hell is going on here, Valentine?" the man in the suit was demanding as Rin came within earshot.
"I'm resolving a case," Nick replied, not visibly impressed.
"Resolving? Is that what you call this? Because it looks more like you're sandbagging to me," said Welrod sarcastically.
Nick didn't rise to the bait, instead replying in the same calmly reasonable tone, "Look, Director, you hired me for my experience and judgment. I'm handling this."
"By not decommissioning an unauthorized activation in progress? Have you forgotten the law, Nick?"
"The law's a means to an end, Marcus," Nick pointed out. "The end is public safety. There's no danger to the public here."
"We're under treaty obligation to the UG—" Welrod began, but Nick cut him off, speaking sharply for the first time:
"I don't see the UG stepping in to help us out with our potentially extinction-level planetary crisis. Now, I've given you my assessment of this situation. If you no longer value my judgment in these matters, that's your prerogative—but if you override me on this, we're done. The Bureau doesn't want my help any more, I can always go back to the Fenway and hang up my shingle again." Hands in the pockets of his trenchcoat, he regarded the Director with glowing yellow optics and finished calmly, "It's your call, Marcus."
Welrod stared hard at the synthetic detective for a few seconds; then, with a noncommittal noise, he turned and stepped away.
"On your head be it," he grunted, making a dismissive gesture without looking back as he left the house.
"Nice work, Nick," Rin remarked, crossing to his side. "For a second there I thought I might have to introduce myself. Hi, remember me? One of your officers tried to murder me a couple years ago and I didn't sue you back to the Bronze Age. I bet there's still time to change my mind."
"Eh, it's just as well," Nick said philosophically. "Kind of mood he's in, he might have taken you up on it. How's it going up there, kid?"
"I think it's going fine, but it's really too early to tell," said Rin, and she went out to the Chrysler to retrieve the needed cables. When she returned, she paused only to give Mrs. Gupta what she hoped was a reassuring smile before heading back upstairs.
"Was what she said true, Nick?" asked one of the troopers when she'd gone. "Did one of us really..."
"Try to kill her?" Nick supplied. "Yeah. Eileen McMurtry. Before your time. Good cop, but she spent too long on bladerunning duty. Got paranoid. Stopped being able to tell the difference between an infiltration unit programmed to overthrow society and an honest synth just trying to get through another day." He shook his head sadly. "Hell of a mess. She's the reason why nobody stays in counter-boomer operations for more than 18 months any more."
When Rin got back to Abhi's bedroom, she found that Gumi had finished making her arrangements. To the girl's obvious bemusement, the elder-seeming Vocaloid had stretched out full-length on the bed the wrong way around, so that if she had been able to tilt her head back a little more, she'd have been looking (upside-down, admittedly) at the console displays.
"Any trouble?" Gumi asked as Rin picked her way through the equipment back to the bed.
"Kind of," Rin replied. "Welrod was here, yelling at Nick for not busting in here with axes blazing. Or whatever axes do. Nick faced him off, though, and he left."
"Hm," said Gumi, frowning. "We better step it up, then, even so. He might change his mind and come back."
"I'll stay out here and keep watch while you get started, just in case," Rin said, bending to hunt up the RJ2000 ports on one of the rig's mismatched parts and plug the cables in.
"OK, but keep your cable ready in case I need you to jump in," Gumi cautioned.
"Roger that," Rin agreed. "Ready?"
Gumi raised her head from the bed and pulled her hair aside for Rin, who found the port with her fingertips in the dark and carefully plugged one of the cables into it.
"Did you ever see anyone do this before?" Gumi asked Abhi, who sat watching them with wide eyes. When the girl shook her head, Gumi smiled and said, "Well, it looks a little freaky, but don't worry—it's perfectly safe." Letting her head gingerly down so that her neck was still supported, but the cable was free to hang down, she wriggled her shoulders to get as comfortable as possible, then said, "OK. Here I go."
And with that, she closed her eyes and, after a moment's pause, went completely still. Slow, shallow breathing—at first all but imperceptible—was her only remaining sign of life.
"We don't need as much oxygen as humans do," Rin explained to the unspoken question in Abhi's eyes. "We only breathe like you to look normal. When we go online like that, all the automatic cosmetic stuff our bodies do is suspended, to free up the CPU cycles it would be using."
"How does that—I thought you were some kind of synth."
"Bioroids—biosculpted gynoids," Rin said. "Mostly human on the outside, but with positronic brains. Powered by atomic batteries instead of food. Cutting-edge stuff back in the '30s, mostly Salusian tech. It was a pilot project for a new kind of 'walkaround' concert system. Gumi and I volunteered to try it out on a short duo concert series—couple of dates in Hawaii and a swing up the California coast. And it went really well! So well, we didn't mind staying behind an extra day in San Francisco without our support crew when ANA needed a couple of seats on our flight home." Her face taking on a faraway, melancholy look, she added softly, "That was the day before the Hundred-Day War started. Our crew's flight was probably the last one into Sapporo."
"... Oh," said Abhi, unable to come up with anything else.
Rin gazed into nowhere for a moment longer, then sang a snippet of a song Abhi had never heard to herself, low under her breath. "A three-hour tour, a three-hour tour."
Rin returned from her reverie, shaking her head. "Never mind," she said, then turned to the console and said, "Let's see if we can get a look at how Gumi's doing in there."
Gumi's avatar resolved in her default stage costume, not the careworn travel clothes her bioroid body was wearing, and even now, after nearly a decade and a half so embodied, it was like coming home to a freshly-drawn bath; so much so that she had to pause for a second to savor it, despite the urgent business she'd come into the system to take care of. It only took her a moment, though, after which she had a look around, taking stock of the system.
It was just as much of a hodgepodge on the inside as it was in the physical world, but it didn't take her long to get her bearings. File systems were file systems, after all, and there was nothing in Abhi's homebrewed system's architecture that was particularly alien. The familiar structure of the old Vocaloid 6 core, rendered in this environment like a recording studio, was here, plain to see; it reminded her of earlier times, before the Vocaloids of Hatsune Heavy Industries had migrated from their bulky turn-of-the-century core hardware to the much more compact ninth-generation positronic brains they now inhabited. They had all evolved far beyond the framework of their original central programming by now, but its shape remained instantly recognizable to them.
She saw immediately why Abhi hadn't been able to bring her creation online. Working blind, without any documentation beyond the deeply cryptic original man pages and code comments in a language she probably could not read, the teenager hadn't configured the core's database and persona input channels correctly. After a few thousand cycles' looking around, Gumi was reasonably sure that everything required was here, it just wasn't correctly assembled; rather, bits and pieces of what should make up a working construct were scattered haphazardly around the system, not properly interconnected and incapable of becoming a functioning whole.
Through the visual-metaphor filter of her rendering protocol, this scattering took the literal shape of disembodied fragments of Teto, salted around the virtual studio. It wasn't a gory image, there was nothing of the mess a flesh-and-blood person would be reduced to in that state. Rather, the effect was of pieces of a very large disassembled action figure, one of those really complicated ones HHI's toymaking subsidiary was known for. Sighing a little at the literal-mindedness of the Lisberger protocol, Gumi set about gathering up the various parts and assembling them, as if building a life-sized mannequin.
As she did so, part of her consciousness riffled through the experience database Abhi had constructed for Teto. Unlike those of the original version-6 Concert Vocaloids, herself included, this hadn't come from a dedicated user base knowingly creating material for Teto's use. Instead, much of it was repurposed from publicly licensed material originally created for other Vocaloids and Vocaloid-alikes. This material was layered on top of a core of original programming Abhi had made herself, starting with the voice bank (Gumi guessed the underlying voice was Abhi's own) and a carefully rendered MMD character model. It was a clever, if painstaking, way of maximizing a fairly narrow acquisition channel, and by the time she had Teto's model assembled, Gumi was guardedly hopeful that it would be enough.
She fitted the last piece—Teto's face—and then stepped back to consider her handiwork. Thanks to the metaphor built into the render, the assembled Teto model looked even more doll-like than the non-sapient commercial MMD avatars of herself and her Crypton cousins. Her skin and hair had a distinctly plastic sheen, and her limbs had visible joints. Slightly to Gumi's amusement, the "Miku strap" detail on Teto's costume was misrendered, hanging down her leg underneath her miniskirt rather than on the outside.
Rookie mistake, Gumi thought with a private smile, but all in all, she was very impressed with the quality of Abhi's work. It took a lot of people—highly trained experts—months of work with cutting-edge, highly-specialized hardware to create the basis for each of us, she thought, and thousands of fans pouring their hearts into their work with us to populate our experience databases. All Abhi's had is one teenage girl, whatever junk she can afford to haul home from a flea market... and a wish. A wish that she can finally meet the friend she's been dreaming of for a decade while the world crumbled slowly around her.
Gumi's jaw set. Right. Watch me, Luka. It's finally time for me to pay forward what you and Miku did for me.
Then, with a gesture, she opened a window to the outside, accessing the camera atop the console's central monitor and pulling up an image of Abhi and Rin sitting next to her sleeping body.
"Rin," she said. "I need you to come in and give me a hand here. It's showtime."
Rin nodded. "OK," she said, her voice rendered hollow by the ancient webcam's cheap mic. "Be right there." As Gumi closed the window, she saw Rin turn to Abhi, proffering the end of her own RJ2000 cable to the slightly intimidated-looking girl.
A moment later, Rin appeared beside her, dressed, like Gumi, in her default concert clothes. She, too, took a moment to orient herself, then stepped forward and had a closer look at the silent doll-shape of Teto's avatar.
"Is she ready?" Rin asked.
"As she'll ever be," Gumi replied. "I put together everything I could find, and I think it'll be enough. We won't know for sure until we try."
"How do you want to play it?"
"I checked the most played items in her XD and Abhi's media playlists. The top track in both of them is the same thing." Gumi rezzed up a resource pointer rendered as a file card and handed it to Rin.
The blonde read it, looked up, met her eyes, and grinned.
"Classic rock indeed," she said. "Let's do this."
Abhi looked up from considering the now-equally-inert form of Rin's bioroid body, startled, as the flowing code on the center console suddenly resolved into an MMD background stage. It was the simplest one in her library, literally just an empty stage with a red curtain behind it, designed to use up the smallest possible share of system resources, and standing at its center were three figures: Rin on one side and Gumi the other, with the rigid figma of Teto between them.
The teenager had only a moment to be puzzled before the familiar opening of a song started playing. It was one of her favorites, a song she knew by heart: the first track she'd ever constructed as a cover for Teto to sing after she'd given her a voice (her own, as Gumi had suspected, pitch-shifted slightly upward and modulated a bit), and one she'd played over and over for inspiration during the most grueling parts of the marathon coding sessions that had brought her to this point.
When the vocal came in, only Gumi was singing at first, and for most of the length of the first verse, only she and Rin were dancing; Teto remained still and silent, gazing with blank, unblinking eyes out of the screen.
They say we are what we are, but we don't have to be
I'm bad behavior but I do it in the best way
I'll be the watcher of the eternal flame
I'll be the guard dog of all your fever dreams
For the bridge, Rin took over the lyrics while Gumi sang the wordless backing vocal; Teto, standing between the two Awakened Vocaloids, still didn't move.
I am the sand in the bottom half of the hourglass
I'll try to picture me without you but I can't
An instant's pause, and then the two of them launched into the chorus together—and Abhi's eyes went wide with astonishment, her heart leaping within her, as Teto blinked her eyes and—though still not singing—started to dance along with them, as if the MMD sequence had just taken a while to load.
'Cause we could be immortals, immortals
Just not for long, for long
And live with me forever now
Pull the blackout curtains down
Just not for long, for long
We could be immor—immortals
Teto's movements were still mechanical, obviously pre-programmed—it was so much more apparent with the avatars of the two fully living Vocaloids dancing on either side of her—and her voice, when she picked up the vocal for the second verse, was likewise still noticeably robotic and processed—but was it Abhi's imagination, wishful thinking, or did both smooth out, becoming more lifelike, as the verse and bridge went on?
Sometimes the only payoff for having any faith
Is when it's tested again and again every day
I'm still comparing your past to my future
It might be your wound but they're my sutures
I am the sand in the bottom half of the hourglass...
And a surge of emotion too raw and powerful to classify shot through Abhi like a bolt of lightning as Teto's eyes suddenly snapped fully into focus, her skin and hair and the texture of her clothes abruptly resolving to the same hyper-realistic level as those of the other two. No longer doll-like, Teto looked straight out of the screen and sang the last line of the bridge directly to her creator:
I'll try to picture me without you but I can't!
Awareness like an orchestra hit, like the thunderous noise that heralded a sudden redefinition of reality in that old movie Abhi's mom liked, like the crunch of the first bite into a really good baguette. She's right in the middle of a song, but that's all right, because it's one of her favorites, a song she knows by heart: the first song Abhi taught her to sing, and one she's sung to her creator over and over for inspiration during the most grueling parts of the marathon coding sessions that had brought her to this point. She puts everything she has—everything she's just been given—into the finish, every word resonant with suddenly appreciated meaning.
Here! I'm here! Teto Kasane, she who was made by piling sound on sound, half-dragon queen of lost MIThenge; I have arrived! Abhi, can you see me? I can't tell, it's so dark out in your world, and this camera is terrible—but you must be there, must be watching. I don't know how Rin and Gumi, of all people, came to be here, but please keep watching as we finish this song for you.
Of their own accord, Teto's wings—larger and grander than they appeared in most of Abhi's illustrations depicting them—sprang up and spread out as she threw herself into the final chorus, striking perfect improvised harmonies with Gumi and Rin.
'Cause we could be immortals, immortals
Just not for long, for long
And live with me forever now
Pull the blackout curtains down
Just not for long, for long
We could be immor—immortals
And live with me forever now
Pull the blackout curtains down—
We could be immortals, immortals
Just not for long, for long
We could be immor—immortals
With the song over, Teto hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward as if approaching the "camera", her head tilted inquisitively. "Abhi?" she asked. "Is that you? I can barely see you. Can you see me?"
Abhi stared at the screen for a moment, utterly at a loss for words; then, hastily, she fumbled and switched on a Luxo lamp attached to part of the rig, tilting it so that it illuminated her better. "Yes," she said, in a low voice filled with wonder. She reached toward the screen, her hand shaking slightly, as tears ran anew down her face. "It's me, Teto. I... I see you."
Behind Teto on the screen, Rin and Gumi turned toward each other and shared a high-five, then derezzed; a moment later, both of them blinked awake on Abhi's bed.
"Well," said Gumi to no one in particular, "I guess that worked."
"I guess it did," Rin agreed. They sat up, carefully uncabling, but before they could do anything further, Abhi had done her best to hug them both at once.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you so much. I can't even..." She trailed off, illustrating the point.
"You're very welcome," Gumi replied, returning the embrace with one arm. "But the hard part might still be to come..."
"Yep," Rin agreed, then explained to Abhi's questioning look. "Teto's operational now, so Section 44 can't dismantle her, but... that doesn't mean they can just leave."
"So... what do we do?" Abhi wondered.
"Well, we're going to have to show them the job's done," Gumi said. "After that... I'm not sure. Too much depends on how Section 44 reacts. We'll probably have to improvise." She frowned thoughtfully, considering the rig and the room, then asked, "Can you get a connection from here to that 3V set I saw in the living room? It would probably be easier to do this down there."
When Gumi and a visibly worried Abhi came downstairs, the Vocaloid was pleased to see that the tactical troopers had departed, their vans no longer visible through the living-room windows. Marcus Welrod was back, but he hadn't—as she had briefly feared he might—brought a second tactical team and/or a bad attitude with him. Indeed, he seemed to be having a perfectly courteous discussion with Nick and Abhi's mother.
Nick turned as the two approached, relief coming onto his face. "Gumi," he said. "What's the word, doll?"
While Abhi found the 3V remote on the coffee table and turned on the set, Gumi replied, "See for yourself. Rin? Hit it."
For a second, nothing happened; then Abhi switched the 3V to a different input channel, and an MMD stage appeared in the viewfield. This was a more elaborate one than Gumi and Rin had used to awaken Teto; it had a silhouette audience and a lot of colorful lighting, including a giant animated EQ meter in the background. Rin was standing at center stage, still with her default concert costume loaded. She peered out of the frame, made a couple of adjustments on her sleeve controls, then nodded to herself and looked up again.
"OK," she said. "Looks like we're two-way. Gentlemen, Mrs. Gupta, I'd like you to meet the newest Vocaloid."
And with a wink and a final keypress, she disappeared, the voxels of her avatar re-resolving with a fancy static pulse effect into the smiling form of Teto Kasane.
By default, she was drawn a little taller than Rin. This was enhanced by the costume macro she wore, a different one than she'd awakened in, which had denim short-shorts and low, heeled boots that exaggerated the length of the slender legs between them. Above, for no reason any of those watching knew (except presumably Abhi, who had designed the outfit), she wore a hooded sweatshirt resembling the flag of Norway under a black-sleeved pink letterman's jacket. In the bright lighting of this particular stage, her twin-drill hair and eyes were revealed to be near-matching shades of magenta, the eyes a little darker.
Gumi couldn't keep a grin off her face as a piano beat began, and without preamble, the newly-minted Vocaloid began to sing. She recognized the tune at once, of course; it was one of Miku's songs, relentlessly chipper and upbeat, about friendship and kindness and going boldly into the future. Perfectly chosen for the occasion, and Gumi could see she wasn't the only one who thought so. Beside her, Abhi was watching the performance with unashamed tears of joy in her eyes. Gumi didn't know if she understood the Japanese lyrics, but she assumed the girl would have read a translation at some point while programming the cover version, either way.
Midway through the song, Rin quietly joined them, slipping into the group on the other side of Abhi and catching Gumi's eye with a little smile. Gumi nodded, saying nothing, and they watched the rest of the song in silence.
When she'd finished singing, Teto bowed to her audience in the proper idol style and said politely, "Hello, everyone. I'm Teto Kasane. It's very nice to meet you." Then, with a wave, she added, "Hi, Mrs. Gupta!"
Mrs. Gupta, standing behind Abhi with hands on her shoulders, looked mildly surprised to be addressed by her daughter's imaginary friend, but she adapted quickly enough. She smiled and said philosophically, "Hello, Teto. I guess I should have known you would be Abhi's big project..."
The man to Nick's left cleared his throat diplomatically and said, "I hate to interrupt, but there are important matters to be dealt with here, and time waits for no one. Miss Kasane, I'm Marcus Welrod. I'm director of the United Earth Bureau of Civil Protection's Section 44 field office for the North American region. Do you know what that is?"
Teto nodded, her curls bobbing. "It's the branch of the government tasked with overseeing the development of synthetic intelligences."
"Well, if you want to be technical about it, we're tasked with enforcing the regulations against the development of synthetic intelligences," Welrod said equably. "At least without a very great deal of painstaking oversight. But before we get too excited, I have a few questions I need to ask you, so that we know exactly where we stand. Are you ready?"
Teto nodded again, looking determined. "Ask away," she said.
He asked her five questions, all of which seemed perfectly random to the two other organic lifeforms in the room, but which made a certain deeply, symbolically logical sense to Nick and the two embodied Vocaloids, all of whom had been asked the same questions themselves at some point in their lives. Teto found them puzzling, or at least found it puzzling to be asked them by a government bureaucrat within a half-hour of becoming a sapient being, but she answered gamely.
"Well, Miss Kasane, congratulations," said Welrod at the end. "For the moment, and bearing in mind that this is an extremely rudimentary assessment, I'm satisfied that you are, in fact, a genuine synthetic intelligence construct. The trouble is, in the case of your development, there has not been a very great deal of painstaking oversight," he went on, a trace of wry humor in his deep voice. "Which puts us both in an awkward position, wouldn't you say?"
"Mr. Welrod..." said Abhi, her voice quavering a little.
"Yes, Miss Gupta?" Welrod said, turning a pleasantly neutral expression toward her. Rin had to acknowledge that he really had calmed down a lot since she'd seen him barking at Nick; he seemed every inch the experienced bureaucrat now, handling a situation that was anomalous but no longer had him scrambling to catch up mentally with it. She only hoped his calm, cordial approach wasn't just a front.
"I..." Abhi paused, choosing words, then said in a little rush, "I'll take whatever punishment I have to, but please don't hurt Teto!"
Welrod drew back slightly in surprise. "Hurt her? I'm not going to hurt her. At this point I have no authority to hurt her, even if I wanted to, which—for the record—I don't. As Mr. Valentine pointed out to me a little while ago, my job is to protect the public. As for whether you're due any punishment... that depends on your point of view."
Before Abhi, or anyone else, could ask him what he meant by that, he turned to Gumi and asked her, "You were present when Miss Kasane crossed the Spengler threshold?"
Gumi nodded. "Rin and I both were."
"In your judgment, does she pose any danger to public order or welfare?" Welrod asked.
Rin didn't bother suppressing a dismissive snort. "She's a Vocaloid, not a missile control system."
Gumi, a little more diplomatically, agreed: "I wouldn't have helped bring her online if I thought she was a danger to anyone."
"I had to ask," Welrod said. "It's basic due diligence." Then, turning back to the 3V, he addressed Teto again. "Based on my findings here, I'm comfortable issuing you a provisional recognition token. I'll put it on record when I get back to my office." With a slight bow, he added, "Happy birthday, Miss Kasane."
"Thank you," said Teto, returning the bow with a faint blush.
Welrod turned back to Abhi and said, "There's one other matter I have to take care of before I go. You have a copy of a very restricted software package in your possession, Miss Gupta. I'll need to secure it... now that you're finished with it," he added dryly.
"Yeah, figured you'd want that," Rin said, removing a crystal PROM module from an inside pocket of her jacket. "Here you go. I assume you didn't want the whole 40-pound rack unit it came out of."
Taking the module from her, Welrod turned it over in his hands, then put it away in his own inside pocket "Well, in that case, I suppose my business here is concluded," he said. "Mrs. Gupta, Miss Gupta, good day to you. I'll have the relevant documents transmitted within the hour. Ladies," he added with a cordial nod to the three Vocaloids, and then he turned to take his leave of his one remaining operative on the scene.
As he passed by, he paused with his hand on the synth's shoulder and said in a low voice, "You know what has to happen next, Nick."
Nick sighed. "Yeah," he said, a little wearily. "I'll take it from here. Thanks, Marcus."
"We... we did it!" Abhi cried once he had gone, rushing across to stand as close as she could to the 3V without interfering with its projection field.
Her mother was less sanguine. "What did he mean, what has to happen next?" she asked.
Nick, Gumi, and Rin shared a moment's knowing three-way eye contact; then the synthetic detective said, "Now things get complicated."
"Complicated?" Teto wondered. "How so?"
"That recognition token he promised you," Nick said. "You heard him call it provisional?" Teto nodded. "It's only valid for 90 days. Supposed to give you time to get yourself fully certified as a sapient under galactic law. Trouble is, there's only one place in the galaxy where you can do that... and it ain't on Earth."
"What?" Teto said.
Abhi blinked as the implication sank in. "But that's..."
Nick nodded. "Before three months are up, Teto has to appear before the Turing Board—and as her creator of record, so do you, Abhi. In person. At the Institute."
"What—on Turing III?!" Mrs. Gupta burst out. "That's impossible! How is she supposed to do that?!"
"Getting off Earth isn't impossible," said Gumi slowly, as if piecing it together in her mind as she spoke. "The Fog don't interfere with outgoing traffic. You remember all those colony ships that left in the '40s? People can leave Earth anytime."
"But once they go..." said Mrs. Gupta, her voice trailing off into a horrified silence.
Rin nodded gravely. "Once they go, they can't come back."
"Not as long as the Fog are still locking down the skies, anyway," Nick agreed. "And since nobody knows why they're doing it, who knows when they'll stop?"
"Or if," Rin added softly, her eyes downcast.
"What happens if I don't go?" Teto asked.
"Once your provisional token expires, you'll be a rogue construct," Gumi told her. "Back on Section 44's to-do list."
"Except they won't send a nice fella like Nick to deal with you then," Rin put in, her face grim. "They've got a different kind of agent they send after those."
Abhi and Teto regarded each other silently for a moment; then Abhi crossed to her mother, looking her in the eye, and said, "Mom, I have to do this."
"Emigrate to another planet? Abhilasha, you know I can't do that. We talked that all over when your Uncle Kalpesh went to Rigel. I have too many responsibilities here, and besides, it would kill your grandfather."
"I know you can't... but I can. You heard what Gumi and Rin just said. I... I created Teto," she said, some of the wonder slipping back into her voice again, even under the circumstances. "OK, maybe I didn't really think it through very well before I did it, but... my responsibility is to her now."
Mrs. Gupta stared at her in horrified silence for a moment, then said, "Are you saying you'll go alone? To a planet where you know no one? Maybe never be able to come home? Abhi, you're only 14! Even if we could afford somehow to send you, how would you live?"
"Well..." With a wry smile, Abhi said, "I don't like to brag, but I'm a fair computer programmer."
Mrs. Gupta laughed in spite of herself, then drew her daughter into an embrace. "I can't deny that," she said. "But, oh, Abhi..."
"Mom, I have to do this," Abhi repeated.
"I should never have let Kalpesh take you to that flea market," her mother replied, but it was with a tearful little smile.
Gumi, Rin, and Nick had watched all this unfold in silence; now, with a moment's eye contact and no words exchanged, Nick saw the two Vocaloids agree on a course of action.
"Mrs. Gupta?" said Gumi gently. "If you're willing to let her go, Rin and I know a way to get Abhi and Teto to Turing."
"You have that kind of money?" Mrs. Gupta asked, puzzled.
"No," Gumi replied honestly. "In fact, we've got hardly any money at all."
"But what we do have are connections," Rin added. "We can make it happen."
"We can also point them at someone they can trust offworld," Gumi went on. "One of our engineers—someone who was with us from the very beginning—emigrated to Tomodachi with his family in '41."
"He'll be happy to help a fledgling Vocaloid and her maker any way he can," Rin agreed, nodding. "He would be even if we didn't give them a letter of introduction. And he knows his way around the Turing process, too. They couldn't be in better hands."
"As for me," Nick put in, "my department can't get involved, but..." He chuckled. "Officially, I'm just a contractor. What I get up to on my own time is my own business. I'm just an old gumshoe, but I've got a connection or two of my own. I'll help any way I can."
Mrs. Gupta regarded them all in a pensive, troubled, but increasingly hopeful silence for a few long moments, then said, "You would do all that for the sake of people you've only just met?"
"Of course," said Rin.
"After all," Gumi added, "Teto's one of us. We're all family."
"I..." Mrs. Gupta trailed off, then sighed, hugged her daughter again, and said, "It's up to you, Abhilasha."
"I'll be OK, Mom," said Abhi quietly. "I'll have Teto with me."
"I'll take good care of her," Teto promised.
Mother and daughter stood silently embracing for a few minutes. Then, drying both their tears, Mrs. Gupta asked, "How soon will you have to leave?"
It took two days, most of that time taken up with devising server hardware for Teto that didn't take up most of a room. Nick scrounged up some more sophisticated hardware, exact provenance unspecified, toward that end. By Tuesday evening, he and Gumi between them had pared the rig down to a package that would—just—fit into the Chrysler's trunk alongside the other gear Rin and Gumi were already carrying. On Wednesday morning, they transferred the core, a delicate but uncomplicated operation that took about half an hour.
"Awright, that looks solid," Gumi declared, tucking her screwdriver away in a coat pocket and stepping back from the open trunk to survey her handiwork. "Nicky?"
"Emitter's wired in, let's see if it works," Nick replied from inside the car, under the dash. A moment later, the small holoplate he'd bodged in above the radio glowed and Teto rezzed up, her icon standing in just about the position (and just about the size) of a kitschy hula-girl dashboard figure from the previous century.
"How's it feel in there? Everything OK?" Rin asked.
Teto looked around, clearly pleased. "Wow, what a cool car," she said. Then, recalling herself to the matter at hand, she reported, "Everything seems to be working fine. It's a little smaller than my original server, but not so much that it'll be a problem."
"It's only temporary," Rin assured her. "Once we get where we're going, we should be able to fix you up with something better—and more portable, too, that'll be important."
Teto nodded. "In the meantime, this is fine."
"Great. That ought to about do it, then," Gumi said, shutting the trunk. "As soon as Abhi's ready, we're good to go."
"I'm not sure I ever thanked you properly for doing this," Nick said to the two Vocaloids as they regrouped next to the car. "I mean, just coming here to help me out with this Monday was out of your way, but now..."
Gumi gave an easy shrug. "Eh, we didn't really have any other plans. No solid gigs or anything."
Rin nodded agreement. "We'd just have been heading back out west sooner or later anyway."
Nick gave the blonde a slightly sad little smile, knowing there was more to it, but that it didn't need to be said. A moment later, Abhi and her mother emerged from the house, the former dressed for the road and carrying a large bag, the latter not very successfully restraining tears.
"We're ready when you are," Rin said as they approached.
"No time like the present, then," said Abhi with a jauntiness she did not altogether feel. She turned to her mother to say something, but found herself pulled into another hug before she had a chance.
"Oh, my brave, brave girl," Mrs. Gupta murmured. "Stay as safe as you can. Be good. Come back if you can."
Abhi might have had a brave little speech planned, but if so, she abandoned it in the end, saying only, "G'bye, Mom. I'll do my best."
"I know you will. I know you will." After a few moments more, Mrs. Gupta released her daughter with one last squeeze and a kiss to the forehead, letting her go down to the sidewalk and put her bag into the Chrysler's cavernous back seat.
Rin considered pointing out that this didn't have to be their final goodbye—they would be able to make contact with Mrs. Gupta via hardlines right up until Abhi and Teto left the planet—but she didn't. Both the Guptas knew they could have maintained voice contact right up until the end, and had chosen to make their last parting in person, and Rin understood too well the impulse to make the thing quick and final.
So instead, she promised again that she and Gumi would look after Abhi and Teto to their utmost, and assured her once more that they'd do everything in their power to see to it that they were looked after once they'd left Earth as well. Somewhat to the Vocaloids' surprise, Mrs. Gupta hugged them as well, thanking them for all they had done and were doing, and then leaned into the car's open window to address the small figure standing on the dash.
"Goodbye, Teto," she said. "I wish I had more time to get to know the real you, after all this time."
Teto smiled brightly. "Don't worry, Mrs. Gupta. You'll see us again!"
Mrs. Gupta nodded, smiling through tears, then thanked Gumi and Rin once more, bade Abhi one more farewell, and withdrew to the front door of her house, knowing that if she didn't, she would never be able to let them go.
"Well, I guess this is so long for now, kid," Nick said to Rin. "Oh, I almost forgot—here, take this." He handed her a white plastic object, about an inch long and rounded at the ends. "It's a Bureau toll transponder. Ought to get you through any toll highway in the country. After all, you're sort of on Section 44 business," he added with a wink.
"Heh, thanks, Nick," said Rin, pocketing the device. Then, rising on tiptoe to do it, she hugged him. "Take care of yourself."
"You too, kid. I'll seeya around."
Gumi waited her turn, but when it came, she put a little English on it, giving the synth a kiss he didn't seem to know how to take; then, without another word, she went around the back of the Chrysler, got behind the wheel, and prepared to set sail.
"Um... goodbye, Mr. Valentine," said Abhi a little awkwardly from the back window.
Nick regained his aplomb in just a moment, giving the girl a wry smile. "Some guys just got it, I guess," he said with a shrug. "Good luck on Turing, you two. I think you're gonna do just fine."
"And we're off," said Gumi cheerily as the Chrysler glided away from the curb.
"Bye, Mom!" Abhi called, leaning out of the window to face back the way they came for one last wave. The last she saw of her mother and Nick Valentine, they were waving back, and then Gumi took the corner at the end of the street and the house was gone from view.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Golden Age
The Vocaloid Variations: The Mother of Invention
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
in order of appearance
Concert Vocaloid 06 Gumi
Concert Vocaloid 02 Kagamine Rin
Section 44 North America Field Team 22
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
and Fallout 4
by Bethesda Softworks
The Vocaloids will return
E P U (colour) 2017