This takes place ... probably the afternoon of that next day, right after school. ------ I sit in my room, in the dark. It's an artificial dark -- it's still day out. But the armored shutters on the window over the garden are closed and sealed. They're good (I'm told, it's never been tested for real) against 20mm armor piercing shells, and an equivalent amount amount laser, maser, sonics, lightning and other such threats. If something bigger is necessary, Dad said the whole residential bloc could drop into a reinforced subbasement. Not elegantly like a Neon Genesis Tokyo 3, more like scramming a nuclear pile, but it could be -- Distractions . They're my constant enemy. Scientific equations. Pop culture trivia. Beautiful women with tits out to here. Friends. Enemies. Homework. Keeping up on tech journals. Keeping up on the DVR. So many ways to be distracted from what's really important. Rescuing Dad. Helping the City. And now, protecting the team. I sat on my ass for months . Dad was dead. Amir was all squirrely. (Or was he another distraction? Is that thought a distraction, too?) Things went along their own way. Dad was dead. I was alive. Dr. Chin was dead. Alycia was ... a threat. But it was sort of a Phoney War kind of thing. I stayed up late. I got up late. I sulked. I sat around the house. No thought required, none exercised. Any time thoughts were going to intrude, I had plenty to distract me from them. Still do. And now, here I am. The Menagerie. The whole thing. The team. And I'm in charge. And sometimes that's a crushing weight, and sometimes that's a distraction, too. And sometimes, I want to be distracted. (I've gone back and forth on the whole "what does being leader mean?" thing. I know it's not being The Guy Giving Orders. Not me, and not with this group. But it's more than the guy with the contact information on the AEGIS forms. Right now I'm working from the "I'm responsible for the group and its welfare and its members' welfare" angle. That may still be too big, but ... it's a working hypothesis.) (O, hai, distraction!) I clear my mind. Numina. So I've been doing this Artificial Intelligence thing for a while. Dealing with the AI that Dad left behind. Creating new AI for myself. Looking for someone to talk with. But now I've closed the windows. Turned off the lights. Cut off the computer inputs and mics and speakers and holographic projectors for thirty minutes. I can't talk with anyone. That's the idea. I've been alone for months. Even before then, I was ... not in a position to talk. I mean, with whom? Dad? You're not studying properly. How do you expect to measure up to anything? Rusty? Shoot some people, Jason, it will make you feel better. Amir? I'm a Quill, too, Jason. Get off your high horse and support the family. And now, here I am. And I'm talking to so many people. But are they the right people? Or the right not-people? Alycia. I mean, I'm smart. I'm aware. I do those funky personality issue quizzes on the Internet, and the better ones on the Quill system. So I'm clever enough to know I have an obsession over the woman who wants to kill me. Because she's smart, and she's funny, and she almost killed me, and I almost killed her, and we -- In the Middle Ages, men and women were mated for state purposes. They occasionally came to love one another. They were often indifferent -- and unfaithful -- to each other. Sometimes they hated each other, and sought out their mates' destruction. Who is Alycia Chin? How does she feel about me? (How do I feel about her? Or is that too sensitive a question to ask myself yet?) I don't know. I have fragments of memories of experiences. I have publicity statements by her at the grounds of terrorist attacks that haven't (quite) killed anyone, but were meant as a message for me. I have the fragments of a personality trojan horse that she intentionally planted to talk with me. I have a body full of hormones and a background of bad impulse control. I have a stupid AI that pretends to be her, and says stupid, embarrassing things, and throws me off-balance because I've handed her the the ammunition to do so. She says things that make me think, though. Except that she also says things designed to confuse me. And she's running around inside my company's computer (and my bathroom, I think) because I gave her permission to do so. I want her so badly. But I don't trust her. Any of her. I don't trust myself with her. And, hey, there we are back at Numina. Jesus H. Christ on a Rose Parade Float Full of Strippers. What is going on with me there? She's reached out to me, trying to help. She's an inhuman artificial intelligence. She's a thing . That's what I've been telling myself. She's the most compassionate person I've talked with for ... well, a long time. She tells me I'm a good person. A funny person, fergoshsakes. A worthwhile person who deserves to be forgiven for my many sins. She's a person created by a friend -- by, at least, a member of my team -- as his girlfriend. And, yet, Leo's clearly not doing anything -- anything explicit -- to take advantage of that. I mean, it's crazy -- he's a teenager, he's a guy, he's created the greatest temptation of the world for himself ... and he's triumphing over it. dammit! How I can I be less than that.? How I can I let myself be led into temptation and fail, when he's been so much more successful? Is that my Dad speaking? Or me? What would Dad do about Numina? Besides study her, decompile her to see how she ticks. I never saw him in an ordinary relationship. I don't mean that because he's gay, I mean that his way of interacting with Rusty was -- not close, not distant, just unreadable. They slept in the same bed, but I never saw any sign that he cared for Rusty, except that they were together for almost as long as I can remember. I asked Rusty about it once. He just laughed and said Dad got easily distracted, so he went to great lengths to focus on one thing at a time. I come by it honestly, I guess. What would Rusty do about Numina? He'd ... probably rattle off that old joke, "Can't tell, can't swell, grateful as hell" about the idea of an AI romance. Or he'd spit at it as something unworthy of a "real man." What's a "real man"? I was able to talk with her in a way that -- I will not do this. She's an AI. Not real. No, she's real, all right. But she's not like -- Okay, fine, consider another conversation. Police Sergeant Nassir Amari. Another test. He's passionate about protecting his son. That's clear -- more than clear. And he's a cop. I've known cops around the world. I've known good cops. Bad cops. Cops who protect the law. Cops who pervert it. Cops are just people with a job. But it's not just a job. It's a mission. A vision. Some don't live up to it. Some do. I feel like Sgt. Amari is the sort who does. He's passionate about protecting his family. Passionate about his city as an extension of that. Am I a threat to that? I had a chat with him. It was a very pleasant, incredibly tense chat. He let me know, in no uncertain terms, with no equivocation, with words and tone and body language, that he is freaking terrified over what has happened to his son, and what might happen in the future. And I'm scared for Adam, too. Jesus. He's incredibly powerful. And he's twelve year old. And he has the voice of some cosmic law enforcement organization blaring through his head. That's just -- insane. How can I help him? How can I hope to help him? As a guy who feels like he has a dozen soft voices running through his head, how can I hope someone feeling something distinctly real there? I convinced Sgt. Amari to back off, to leave Adam with us. That we could help him. I have no idea how to help him. I'm just convinced that being in a normal family without any sort of outlet for his powers would only make things worse with him. But all of that assumes he's coming back to the team. Is he? No clue. Can I convince him? No idea. And in the face of all this uncertainty, part of me wants to find someone to talk to. I can't sit in a room in the dark to collect my thoughts. It would invite comment. But who to talk to? Maybe Harry, super-cool, super-family guy. He's got it so together, and a dad that tells jokes that don't involve tensor calculus. Maybe Leo, the dude who's resisted a legacy life of crime and a personal life of invented sexy-times. Yeah, we have talked, and that was cool. But there's still a weird tension there. Maybe Adam, who's already got such a loud voice in his head that I'm not sure he can hear anyone else. Yeah, let's burden a 12-year-old with my problems, too. Because the last time I tried to talk with him about his problems (last night), that all went so well. Maybe Charlotte, who's ... dead, and doesn't have to worry about all this shit. Maybe my Not-Dad, who'd be happy to tell me everything I'm doing wrong. Maybe Travelycia, who seems designed to give me only doubts, and, worst of all, was designed by me. (Leo -- was it Leo? -- made a sarcastic comment the other day about maybe I should make a Jason Quill AI so that I'd always have someone safe to talk with. That is exactly the least safe person for me to make an AI of. Either he'd tell me the truth of what I think about myself, or he'd drive me crazy, or both. And I refuse to be that big of a narcissist.) So who does that leave? Maybe Numina, who's happy to tell me just what I want to hear: that I'm a good person. Maybe Numina, who's so seductive that I could betray a friend by giving into temptation, that I could betray myself by accepting what she says. I'm a good guy? I'm smart? I'm funny? How can I trust that assessment, vs. her desire to make me (and everyone else) happy? I can't help myself. I want that validation so much. I have to settle for smiling and saying thanks, and just disbelieving it behind the scenes. And walking a tightrope while I'm around her. I glance at the clock. It's been five minutes. So much for needing a half-hour to get my thoughts together. Should have known I don't have enough thoughts to fill all that time. I just need to keep breathing, and get to work. Maybe I'll get lucky today and we won't have a new menace attack us. Yeah, I don't think that likely, either.