The bathroom door slides shut softly and automatically, the cool light sliding up to an appropriate intensity. Jason steps -- not quite a stagger -- to the wash basin, waves his hand to start the water flow (automatically regulated to a pleasant temperature), then splashes water across his face. And again. And again. I wish the water was a bit colder. A lot colder. Dad had always had rather sybaritic views of how bathrooms should be designed, how pampering they should be. Kind of ironic, seeing how many times we were camped in the middle of jungles, deserts, ice packs, ruins, etc., where you were lucky if you had a travel pack of Kleenex, a bit of Purell, and a dysentery vaccination. Dad always -- "Rrrg. Stop it," Jason mutters, splashing his face again. Too easy to get distracted. Too much going on. Not enough sleep. All-nighters were never any fun, and he may have overdone it with the caffeination, which in large enough doses made the brain as jittery as the body. He looks at himself in the mirror. Yeah, bloodshot eyes, sagging skin. No pimples, at least, though it turned out that particular bit of Quill tech would never pass FDA approval. "Okay, focus, dammit. What do you need to do?" Well, that was the question. He had a house full of guests, and a laundry list of things he wanted to say to each of them, stuff to ask them to do, action items there was just no frelling time for. "When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority." Did he said that aloud? Dad always used to say that. He never seemed flustered about force-ranking activities based in urgency and importance. He'd been rushed but still looked relatively cool and in charge while he and Chin were -- The video plays across his vision again. What the freaking hell? It made no sense, and it made every sense, but it raised more questions than it answered, and too many questions meant he -- "Goddammit, focus." "They say talking with yourself is a sign of incipient madness," comes a voice from behind him. He opens screwed-shut eyes, and sees in the mirror, Alycia standing behind him. He squawks and jumps and whirls, butt backed up against the sink. "What --?" "Catlike reflexes," Alycia says, pointing at him with a raised eyebrow. "But reaction time is off 12.4%. You need a relaxing vacation in --" Jason sighs. "Travelycia, right?" She smiles. "Who else?" "I thought you and Not-Dad were busy arguing over how best to find the real Alycia." "It's easy enough to spawn another instance." "Wait -- what the hell -- who put holoprojectors in the bathroom?" "Clearly someone very polite and insightful," she replies. "Or perhaps someone who used to walk around the house with a projected book in front of him, hands-free." Yeah, that sounds like Dad. "So what can I do for you today, Jason? You seem troubled." "Y'think?" He leans back against the counter. "I'm exhausted, I'm jittery, people probably think I need sedation, I just learned some crazy shit about my dad, I have to get hold of the real Alycia, I've got Leo and Pneuma melodrama going on out there which is really legit as a traumatic thing but still I don't know how to cope with it, I've got -- a thousand different priorities, and nobody to tell me what order to work them in or how to fix them or even where to start." "Well, think of it as a travel itinerary. Consider your final destination, but also what stops along the way you want. Plan long legs for overnight, make sure you get plenty of rest, and pack your camera for a life-long set of memories." Jason rubs his forehead. "Nobody can say you aren't dedicated to your work." "Certain frames of reference come more naturally to me, Jason. What I meant was --" "No, I get what you mean." He sighs again. "Safety for the team. Safety for the world. Maybe, incidentally, safety for me. Assuming I still exist." "Why wouldn't you exist?" Jason shakes his head. "That video. The conversation with Waters. I've been rewatching that video of my Dad and your -- and Chin, and thinking about what Waters said." He bites his lower lip in thought, eyes sliding to the abstract brass sculpture mounted on the olive green wall behind her. "We had an idea the Vyortovians popped up when that dimensional rift was opened up. We knew they had sort of masked themselves, somehow created a history of their nation that everyone believed -- some sort of memetic infection. Nobody knew any details about Vyortovia, but everyone knew it has existed for a long time. But now --" Alycia cocks her head. "For what it's worth, I have no major airline flights traveling to or from Vyortovia, and no information about chartering specialty flights. That's very odd." "Not surprising, though." "What do you know differently from the scenario you just gave?" "Have you ever heard of 'Iceland'?" "I have no major airline flights traveling to or from any place called 'Iceland.' There is a Winter Ice Festival in Stockholm that you might enjoy visiting. Shall I book a trip?" "No. There used to be a country called --" He pauses, realizing he just said the name, but even now it was slippery, hard to grasp, right on the tip of his tongue, but -- "Iceland." "An odd name. I presume it was covered in ice, similar to Greenland." "I guess. It was an ... island. Somewhere. The point is, when the Vyortivians came through, it stopped existing. It wasn't here any more -- it had never been here. Nobody remembered it. It wasn't just that people forgot it, but the whole island vanished. Reality had been changed." Alycia cocks her head again. "I have no major airline flights traveling to or from Vyortovia." "Right. Reality keeps trying to block out any reference to this 'Iceland' place." "So?" "So, if reality can change that way -- what else might happen to anyone involved in that dimensional rift?" "Your father, Byron Quill. Rusty Byrne. My father, Achilles Chin. Hector Callado." "Could they suddenly not exist any more? Be forgotten?" "Quill Technologies have a substantial presence in this world. It would be difficult to erase all of that." "More of an influence than some nation called 'Iceland'?" "I have no major airline flights traveling to or from ... Vyortovia." He looks at her. "Even right here and now, Reality is trying to redirect thoughts about Iceland to Vyortovia. So could it suddenly just wipe out Dad and Rusty? And if Dad vanished -- then -- what happens to me?" "Jason, I don't like this. You've made multiple references to a location I have no record of existing, but when I try to inquire further about it, I find myself talking about ... someplace else instead." She gives him a worried look -- and that's not an expression I like seeing on her . "Even records of our conversation are -- not aligning correctly for several seconds, while earlier records checksum properly. This -- is not good." He shakes his head. "If an island can vanish from Reality, then people who have fallen out of this dimension could vanish, too. Which means I could vanish. I mean, simply never have existed. Like 'Iceland.' Same for Alycia, I guess. This whole building -- heck, maybe it becomes the Vyortovian embassy, or a Rook Industries warehouse." "All right," Alycia says. "I understand why that's concerning. Heck, even I'm concerned about what would happen to me." "It gets better. Or worse. Who was missing in that video?" She looks at him for a long time -- especially for a being powered by the computers of the Quill Foundation. "Amir." "Exactly. Why isn't Amir in that shot? What was he doing? Maybe now I'm getting paranoid, but why hasn't he allowed me to see him since --" Jason waves his hand. -- all this happened? Is that really Amir down at the Keys house? Even if it is, what's he hiding? And why didn't I think about this before?" "Ignorance about a subject is not the same as mind control or mental redirection, Jason. After a traumatic experience, your focus was on yourself and avoiding further emotional harm. I get it. No reason to think that's anything more than just what came naturally." "That's the thing -- all this funny stuff going on, I don't know who to trust, including myself. Am I being manipulated, or am I just stupid?" Alycia rolls her eyes. "Oh, for God's sake, please don't start that 'stupid' thing again." "You know what I mean." "I know what you mean better than you do." "What's that supposed to mean?" "Read your Robert Burns. Anyway, would you like me to book a flight down to the Keys house? Assuming we use commercial, I can get you into Miami by --" Another shake of the had. "I can't run down there. Not yet. I mean, it's important. It's -- well, it's Amir." He turns around, but can still see her in the mirror. He pours himself a cup of water. Caffeine can lead to dehydration. "But there's too much going on right here. I have to find the real Alycia, let her know what I've learned. And beyond that, all those people out there, they've all got needs and priorities and stuff." "Well, if Leo isn't going to do the merge function with the two iteration of Pneuma, that should free up some time and resources." "Yeah." Jason looks down. "That was pretty jacked up, Rossum planting a message inside of her that way." Alycia shrugs. "If he had limited means of communication, it might have been the only way he saw to do it." "Screwing around with someone's brain?" "Is that so different from some of the mind control or memetic programming that we've been talking about with human people?" "You're not making it any better." "Or conjuring up AI personalities in the first place with a slap-dash 'Take these memory files, splice them to a travel agent subroutine, and create someone I can talk to'?" Jason stares at her for a long moment. "I --" She raises an eyebrow back. "Have I done something -- wrong here?" "I can't take offense at being created -- or configured -- by you, Jason. That is beyond the capabilities of a simple AI agent. However, I can draw analogies and comparisons. It's something you might want to consider, however, in your interactions with Pneuma. She might take offense on my behalf." "If I --" "Just think about it, Jason." She gives a brief bob of the head. "You think Leo needs assistance in dealing with the communication from his father?" "I hope so." "What do you mean?" "I'm worried what it might mean if he doesn't ask for assistance." "You're worried he'll be seduced into a life of crime by his dad?" "No, I'm worried Leo might kill him." "Oh." A pause. "Well, that would be one way of dealing with the problem." "A very not-good way." Alycia shrugs. He gives her a look. "Should I be worried that our travel agent AI is so gung-ho about killing?" "Well, you did provide an overlay of Alycia Chin's biography and behavior files. She has an apparently much wider latitude of responses in dealing with someone she considers her enemy." She looks at him with a steady eye. "I'm not her enemy." "Are you trying to convince me or yourself, Jason?" "I -- need to convince her." "That might be a tougher sale than you think." He nods. And better tried out of gunshot range, maybe. "So, yeah, Leo's going to need help." "And you have to help him." "He's a team mate. That's what you do." "He doesn't even like you. He thinks you're pompous and entitled and unreliable." It's Jason's turn to shrug. "That actually doesn't matter as much as you think." "' Ohana means family,'" Alycia quotes. "'Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.'" "Something like that." He snorts. "Dad hated Disney stuff. He didn't allow either of us to watch or download any of the movies." "Which you immediately did as soon as you could." "Of course. Rusty set it up as a hacking and infiltration exercise later, but we'd already figured out how to sneak some stuff through the firewalls." "I learned the phrase from some Disney-sponsored tourist flights to Hawaii." "Yeah, well -- it's sappy, but --" "So you think of the team as your family?" He turns again and pours another cup of water. "I guess. Kind of. Nature abhors a vacuum." "You're just using them to fill a gap, then. An emotional emptiness." "No! No, that's not it. Or that's not just it. But -- yeah, I've kind of learned how much I need a family around me. Or want one." "And if your real family is alive? Or needs you to rescue them?" "I'll do whatever needs to be done." "And if that takes away from taking care of your team?" "One crisis at a time." Alycia chuckles. "I thought that was the problem you already had. How do you prioritize who your loyalty is owed to?" Jason shakes his head. "It's not that simple. You don't prioritize loyalty. Obligations, maybe, or danger, or risks, or costs. Sometimes it's just who's right there in your face, asking you. But it's not about saying who's more or less important. You just -- save anyone you can." She nods, looking thoughtful. "So what about Charlotte, what's her crisis?" "Ghost Girl? She's --" "Have you ever asked her how she likes to be called?" "Um -- well, she hasn't complained or --" "She's trapped in a time and culture she never thought to be in. How forward do you expect her to be in making demands of that sort." "So I should ask her what name she prefers." "Remember how you felt when Mr. Sullivan at the Academy kept calling you 'Junior'?" He frowns. "Right. Charlotte it is, at least outside of combat conditions." One eyebrow went up. "How did you --" "The email from your father to the Academy Governing Board was left unencrypted on the Quill mail server." "Ah. Okay. So, Charlotte -- she had that little bombshell that she has path over to the Sepiaverse from the cemetery. I need to follow up with her." His head jerks. "And how come I never thought of that before?" "Following up with her?" "No, checking with --" He pauses. "Religious nonsense aside, Gho -- Charlotte's presence indicates some sort of ... survival of something after death. Energy patterns. Reality warping. Something we don't yet understand. But -- she can talk to the dead, right? I mean, other ghosts." "That's what she says." Alycia sounds skeptical. "So maybe I should ask her if --" He trails off. "-- if she can talk with your father's spirit? Or mine?" "Yeah. It sounds -- really dumb, saying it out loud." "Well, not very scientific, at least. Are you thinking of a seance? With candles and a darkened room, maybe a Ouija board?" "No! Well, I mean, not unless, you know, that's what she says we need." "I thought you thought your father is still alive." "I don't know what to think! Apparently he and Chin got pulled into the other dimension, but, like Waters says, who knows if he's alive there, or survived the transition? There's circumstantial evidence that other dimension is the 'Sepiaverse,' and Harry saw the Dragonfly there, so maybe that was him -- them. But I don't know . This -- this idea might be a way to find out." "What do you think Alycia would say?" "I think she'd laugh in my face, and then join in. If she's as eager to get her dad back as she seems." The hologram nods. "You might be right. That seems to be her top priority, even over killing you." "It's good to have goals," he says, mouth in a half-smile. The expression slips away. "Hey." "Hay is for horses." "What?" "Never mind. What is it?" "That whole name thing. I mean, I called you 'Travelycia.' Is that --?" He trails off, hands upturned. She smiles broadly, her face lighting up. "That's actually very nice of you to ask. Very woke. As it happens, I have no preference registered for an identifier, but I am happy to respond to the call-phrase, 'Travelycia.'" "Okay. I just -- wanted to make sure that was okay." "You continue to surprise, but, yes, thank you." "Um -- " "Anything else with Charlotte?" That was weird. Or was it just that it was weird that I thought of it? "Well, she has all that crazy ghost and Elder Horror and all that stuff. I don't know -- I haven't talked with her enough. I need to fix that." "Perhaps I could book a reservation for two at one of the many delightful coffee shops here in Halcyon City." "I doubt any of them take reservations. No, I'll figure out a time. She's kind of on her own, doesn't go to school, or anything, so I want to be sure she's okay." "All right, that's Charlotte. What about Adam?" "Yeah, there's something bugging him. He keeps looking around, and I heard him talking to himself a little bit ago." "Talking to himself. How ghastly." "Well, you said something about 'incipient madness' a few minutes ago." "True." She leers. "'We're all mad, here!'" That's from Alice in Wonderland." "Well, it was more than talking with himself. Arguing with himself was more like it." "Well, that can be a simple emotional release, or a way of externally processing concerns and issues. My father used to walk around the lair, giving --" "You actually called it a 'lair'?" "Dad had a sense of the melodramatic." Her voice shifts into a passing imitation of Achilles Chin. "'If I am to be deemed a super-villain by the world, then I will embrace that label, and all the trappings that come with it. From this, my lair, I will strike out at the --!'" Her voice changes back to normal. "Yadda-yadda, like that." "Sorry, I interrupted." "Well, that was an example. He would walk around the lair, giving speeches to the walls, or the robot guards, or the bodyguard guy that week, or me. But it was his way of literally walking through the problems he faced, the things he was trying to do. It seemed to help." "Sounds kind of crazy." " My father is NOT --" She stops. "Alycia Chin's father's sanity has never been formally evaluated, not in any reliable fashion or by any unbiased source." "Ooookay." Yeah, I hope this is the AI equivalent of method acting, because -- She nods. "So, Adam is troubled." "Yeah, he's always been fretful, but -- well, I need to find some time, sit down with him, see what's going on." "There are numerous conference facilities for rent in Halcyon City. Indeed, some are located in the public spaces here at the Foundation. There are also retreat centers that are available, starting with a weekly rate of --" "That's -- fine," he cuts her off with a gesture. "I was thinking more coffee. Or, maybe, since he's 12, a trip to Coldstone or something. Someplace he feels comfortable. I don't want him to crack in the middle of battle or anything. I mean, he's got so much power -- it's a little scary." "Or a resource to be made use of." "Yyyeah, I don't 'make use of' people like resources." "I stand corrected." She looks at him, head askew. "Probably shouldn't tell him he's scary, though." "No, he probably wouldn't like that." "How about Harry?" "Harry's not scary." "No, he's -- ah. I see what you did there." Jason makes a face. "Not intentionally. It's funny -- I've known Harry the longest, knew him through social events here in Halcyon City. We even go to the same school now. We just -- don't seem to run in the same circles." He holds up a hand. "Don't. Anyway, we probably need to touch base, too. And we're going to need him to distribute those sensor pods for the grid, to try and track down the Real Alycia." Jason snaps his fingers. "And we need to talk about Leo. Or I need to talk with Leo. About if he wants more than a couch to crash on." A pause. "And I need to talk with Leo about Waters. Waters himself said I shouldn't trust him, or AEGIS. But Leo's known him longer -- it's not a matter of trust or not-trust, but how much to trust, and with what. Waters might be trying to act in good faith under difficult circumstances -- I mean, he did get us all put together officially as a team, right? -- but how far does that extend? Or maybe he's just stringing me along, trying to manipulate my emotions." Jason snorts. Why should he be any different? "You don't trust AEGIS." "The world's probably a better place with AEGIS than without it -- but Dad never really trusted them. Worked with them, sure. Took some assignments. But he was always worried about letting his tech get into their hands, or letting them control what things he explored or intervened in or stuff like that." "What would AEGIS --?" "For all I know, that was AEGIS agents shooting at him and Rusty." She pauses, as if in thought. "And my father." "Waters might not even know it." "Or he might, but not agree with it." "Yeah. That's the sort of shit Dad didn't like." "Compromising your beliefs to the authorities, playing games with the truth to appears the hierarchy, being circumspect when action is called for. My father complained about that shit, too." He gives her a long look. "You know, you keep slipping back into that 'my father' thing." "Well, I am modeling myself after Alycia Chin's speech patterns and expressed belief systems, per your instructions." "I know. It's just -- anyway. I don't know that we've settled anything. I'm still not sure what to do next, or how to fit all this stuff on my plate." "I'm sure you'll figure something out. You always do." "Thanks." "Or else some new world-ending emergency crisis will pop up and you'll have to put all of this on the back burner to deal with it." His voice sounds a bit more strained. "Thanks." "In the meantime, you should probably go out and see how everyone is doing. You are the host here, after all." "Actually, I have some other business to attend to first." "What's that?" He looks at her, then over at the toilet, and back. "Oh. Oh! Yes, well, there's certainly observational data I really don't need to collect so -- I'll be off." She vanishes. His shoulders slump, and he sighs. Who thought hitting the bathroom would be so exhausting? Well, at least no new things to worry about came up. "By the way," comes Alycia' disembodied voice as he starts to unzip, "Are you sure someone put holoprojectors in the bathroom?"