Chapter 7: Purloining the Light
Chapter 5: XXX SM

Chapter 6: Momma

Laura blew. The team crawled over each other to the other side of the table before Laura accidentally (it would be an accident, right?) severed someone’s carotid artery. None of them had witnessed a Laura explosion, but the speculation had been colorful. Sam, on the other hand, was astonished. In nine years of conscious memory, she could identify no instance of her mother morphing into a gargoyle. She experienced a moment of warm fuzziness and decided Mom must love all three of them very much, or she'd have seen this way earlier. 

"I love you, Mom."

The gargoyle stopped growling and said, "I love you too, sweetie; as unconditionally as you think", only it sounded like she was talking with a mouthful of gravel.

Sam got the picture. "Don't eat me, Mom, OK?"

"Garble garble garble, grind, garble, NEVER!"

"Thanks, Mom!"

Margaret honestly didn’t give a shit if there was at least a table between them. "Can we continue, please? Laura's exposed. So what? This nifty talent we've just witnessed has nothing to do with why we're here today. Laura's done absolutely nothing except follow instructions. My instructions, Christie's instructions, and yes, even you, Dr. Evans. She'd have ripped that implant out of her neck a lot sooner if you hadn't been clear that she was NOT allowed to do so. In retrospect, she's pretty damned obedient."

Laura the Gargoyle reverted to Sam's mom except for the claws and teeth. Sam was pretty sure she'd retract those shortly. There's nothing like being defended by the person most likely to toss you under a bus.

The team looked at Laura and agreed it was safe enough to continue. The analyst said nothing. He'd stopped breathing, passed out, and hit his head on the way to the floor. Margaret didn't understand why he was in the room in the first place and decided to move on without him. Coop could bring him up to speed if Coop wanted him up to speed.

Margaret chose to forgo dignity and crawled under the table. She stood up and addressed Sam first. "You don't belong in an interrogation seat. Coop put you there because he’s clearly got a few unicorn issues to work out. He also has trouble sticking to his own agenda. You do, however, belong in one of those hot seats. Go ahead and take mine for now."

Sam's agitation was making the team nervous. Two gargoyles were worse than one gargoyle: simple math. Sam slunk under the table and came up between her mother's knees. "Lap, Momma? Please?" Sam hadn’t asked for 'Lap, Momma' since she was two. 

"Laura. Christ on a bike. Twice in one day? Can somebody get those tears on vid? Pan the room and then zoom in all the way to her eyes. We're going to want a postmortem keepsake, we always do."

"DR. EVANS!"

"Sorry, Margaret." Margaret threw a pen at his head, missed, and let it go in favor of getting Sam out of the fire.

Margaret was tired and cranky and desperately needed to yank her underwear out of her ass. She was feeling like a porcupine with nasty chafing when she turned back to Mr. Anderson.

"Let's start with the unicorn in the room. I want to get it out of the way, because, Coop, she's not our focus, and she’s certainly no business of yours. Christie. You're best qualified. Will you explain to Mr. Anderson the use of the mystical word, 'unicorn' within AO context? The rest of you should be crystal clear. Mrs. Franklin and Samantha, are you OK with this?”

Sam shrugged and burrowed deeper into her mother's arms. Laura, who looked like her milk just let down, gave Margaret a foggy smile, and returned her attention to the top of her child’s head.

"Um. Ladies? This does not mean you get to check out and vanish into a maternal love fest."

“Gurgle.”

“OK, that's fine. Maybe just do your best and we'll catch you up later.”

Christie slumped forward on elbows already slipping toward the edge of the table, flipped up a hand, and said, "Yeah, OK, a unicorn”. She dispensed with formalities and slumped all the way down, coming to rest with her chin on the table. 

"A unicorn, within the context of microbiology and nanotechnology as they relate to what we have the audacity to call medicine, is an organic individual, fuck it.”

She sat up and wiped the drool off her cheek. “It's a human child with an extra chromosome. Not a copy of an existing chromosome, she wouldn't be here if that were the case. A single, unique add-on to the original human helix. That part’s very important.” Christie took a breath and waited for the table to catch up.

“The final distinction is the extra chromosome itself. It's not organic; or at least it doesn't start that way. That's a unicorn straight up, regardless of context. For reference, we don't know if unicorns are born or made; but we know there sure as shit aren't very many of them. The ones we do know about are defined by the context within which they spend their formative years. We think unicorns have approximately three formative years. We aren't sure because we don't know when that extra chromosome shows up. Being born with it does not mean the fetus wasn't tampered with, it just means it's not activated until those cute little baby lungs draw breath. What a unicorn becomes, which is what Coop is going on about, can be triggered by anything. If it's triggered by nanoparticles, it becomes a product of the nearest available nanoparticle community."

"In English, please. I don’t think the table understood a word of that."

"OK, fine. Sam is either a freak of nature or a genetically modified experiment. Does it really matter? If she spent her entire childhood at Yankee Stadium, she'd probably be pitching a 98-mph fast ball by now. Good enough, Margaret?"

Coop jumped up, did a little dance, and raised his hand. “Christie! Hey! Christie!”

“What is it, Mr. Anderson.”

“Can I just ask a question?”

“You’re wasting my time, Coop. But, by all means, ask.”

Coop vaulted the table and sauntered over to Laura and Sam. “Hey, did you two ladies by any chance spend a butt load of time at Yankee Stadium during Sam’s formative years? If you did, I’d like to suggest we break for the afternoon and see what Sam’s fast ball looks like! I’ve got a portable PITCHf/x in my trunk…”

Dr. Evans opened his eyes, yawned, and scratched the back of his head. “Mr. Anderson. What the hell is wrong with you?”

Coop sat down in the interrogation seat. He didn’t feel like walking all the way around and wasn’t sure he’d make it back over the table. “Go ahead, Margaret. I’m sorry.”

"Great. Thanks so much.”

“Laura, this is in no way meant to sound like an integration, Coop’s in the hot seat, not you, but we need this out on the table. At what point did you interfere with your child's natural development? We understand you had the very best intentions and could be, whatever you did is exactly what Sam needed. The point is, we just don't know. You may think you don't know, but somewhere in your own personal Warehouse 13, you've got it stashed in a box. Take your time, take a breath, and let it come.”

Laura really didn’t know, or at least wasn’t sure, but spit out a story that smelled like a confession.

"I was upset and wanted to accomplish one thing I could call my own before my brain followed the placenta to medical waste."  Sam smiled into her mother's chest and snuggled closer. Laura stood up and gently handed her to Christie, who thought this might be what it felt like to hug a very large koala. 

"It’s probably not what you people think. Oh, hell. It’s probably exactly what you people think so why I am up here?”

Christie had her head buried in the top of Sam’s head and wondered if new babies smelled this good. She didn’t notice Dr. Evans. His mouth was two inches from her ear. “Christie! Wake the fuck up! Wake up and tell Laura she can sit the hell down.”

“Why? She has to say.”

“No. She doesn’t.”

Margaret was torn between defending Dr. Evans and yelling, ‘why the fuck not?’ It escaped anyway. “Frank! Why the fuck not?”

“Here’s a new one, ladies, and, uh, Coop. She doesn’t have to say because it’s none of our fucking business.”

As much as Coop hated to say, and he REALLY did want to see that kid’s fastball, he agreed with Dr. Evans. The genetics of the Franklin family were none of their business. Whatever was missed on the background check was officially ‘nothing of interest’ unless somebody up on the executive floor decided it was something of interest. Coop checked his phone. Nope. No new memos. Case closed.

Laura smacked the flat of her hand on the table. “People! I didn’t say I wasn’t willing to share; I just don’t appreciate the interrogation. Frank and Coop are correct on a technicality. I don’t have to tell you a damn thing. However, given that we’re all friends; we are all friends, right?” Frank, Coop, and Margaret nodded enthusiastically. Christie had her nose back in the poppies, and the analyst wasn’t committing to anything.

“I guess I was hedging my bets, and I'm not proud of this, OK? I dropped a small family of nanos into my brand-new baby's eyes. That's the extent of it. What she became, she became largely on her own. She's kind of spooky. You think she's not paying attention and it turns out she's been listening to every word and run off and stolen your algorithm. I wouldn't be surprised if she wasn't responsible for advancing her own internal tech. She certainly mastered small motor control by nine months. Is there anything you'd like to add, Sam?"

Sam sat up and nearly knocked Christie’s teeth out. "Yup. I got plenty, but I'll keep it brief because I'm tired and I can feel a nap coming on. Mom's right. I did take over sometime between nine and ten months. I didn't do much until I was four or five, mostly because I didn’t know what to make or change. It’s like applied math, it works better if you know what you’re solving for, and Coop? Hey! Coop!”

Coop had been looking at the floor. “Coop, for the record, I don’t really need high school, and I sure as hell don’t need a gap year. I’ll be ready for post grad work by the end of this year. I do, however need to stick around long enough to get Jeffry under control. Anyway, I didn't have much focus when I generated my first bot. I probably have a couple dozen in hibernation because I don't know what to do with them yet. But I have this one. You guys, I have this ONE nano that's gonna knock your socks off!"

Sam slumped against Christie's chest and slithered to the floor. Christie’s hands were busy holding her lower jaw in place.

Laura the ice queen was back, all signs of gargoyle stowed. "She'll be out for at least an hour; maybe we could check our voicemail or something?" 

Sam sat up as abruptly as she'd gone down. "Mom! I forgot to ask Mr. Hunter to meet Jeffry's bus! We have to go RIGHT now!"

Six horrified faces swiveled toward Sam. 

"Sam, honey, what have you done to your brother?"

“Mom! I haven’t done anything to Jeffry, I’ve been doing for Jeffry. There’s a big freaking difference. And for the record, he has never been included in my work.”

"...what's that flower you have on...mmm m m... a faded rose from days gone byyyyyyy yi yi yi yi?" Two fingers massaged the muscle just behind her right ear. “...presents as Occipital Neuralgia; Dr. Evans, are you writing this down?"

Dr. Evans had already made up his mind. "Christie, it does not present as Occipital Neuralgia and your mouth is dripping blood all over the patient’s head, she's doesn’t have a headache, just a massive earworm. You can massage the SCM for the rest of the month. She'll still be singing that damn song. Look, her eyes have that whitish film; we've seen that before, haven't we?" 

Christie had worked herself into a lather. "Dr. Evans, I'd rather it was Occipital Neuralgia. We know what to do with that, don't we?" 

Laura squeezed her eyes and shook her head like a dog with a bug in its ear. Christ, this was turning into a Grade A sucky day. "Uh, Christie, thanks for the massage, but that's not going to get Tanya Tucker out of my head. Why don't we just let it play out?"

Christie laughed and let go of Laura's head. What if there was an itty-bitty Tanya Tucker lodged in the SCM? She wondered if it would be today's Tanya Tucker or the thirteen-year-old that climbed up on some stage in Nashville and belted that thing out. She wondered if the itty-bitty Tanya, age irrelevant, happened to have a double row of very sharp teeth. She wondered if maybe this thing was contagious.

Bots weren't supposed to jump but what about the Nanorogues? They were seeing a lot more of them lately and knew just about nothing, other that the fact that cryptic design changes and Social Distancing weren't part of the original plans. So why wouldn't they jump? Matt and Laura, sleeping side by side, how hard would it be to launch a scout? 

Laura was picking up Christie's internal monolog. Margaret caught a smattering, and Evans was digging around in his own ear. The analyst was crouched under the conference table muttering tunelessly, and sweet little nurturing Sam, was gently rubbing his back.

From under the table: "You're right, mostly, but not spot on. Also, it's a well-known fact that an earworm will be satisfied if you sing all the words. The song got stuck and all it needs to get unstuck is resolution. Can somebody get a video up on one of your phones and just play it for her? The words will come.”

Marty was quietly humming the same tune. He didn’t have the words because he'd never heard the damn song.

“I think you're right about the Nanorogues and the scouts. I think you're wrong about physical proximity. Mom and Dad slept on opposite sides of a king size bed until Dad was hospitalized, and that worm was out. Marty hasn't been within ten feet of Mom today and he's clearly infected.” 

"Who the hell is Marty?"

"Mr. Anderson, you still here?" They'd forgotten about Coop. Coop was sitting on a radiator by the window, wishing for a different view.

"I think I'm going to take a walk, get a little air, maybe head up to the seventh floor, try to clear my head." 

"Mr. Anderson? Two things, OK?"

Mr. Anderson, still looking out the window, “Go ahead, Scary Unicorn." The Scary Unicorn chose not to engage. Sam continued.

"OK, first, can you tell us why Marty's still here? It doesn't make a lot of sense and he's not looking so good."

"And the other thing?" Coop still had his back to the room but hadn’t disengaged yet.

"Right. The other thing is, you only need to go to the sixth floor, and I don't think the windows open in the lab anyway. But maybe don't do that just yet because I'm not sure what kind of replacement we'd get. Something to consider."

"Marty was a random selection plus, you were talking to him earlier. That makes him suspect."

"Coop..."

"YOU don't get to call me Coop! YOU are an eight-year-old brat sitting under my conference room table getting ready to wreak havoc, I'm sure."

"I'm nine. Do you think we could give Marty back his freedom after we get the earwig out? I meant earworm, sorry."

"Sure, kid. I can't imagine he's been following much of this anyway." 

Sam gave Marty a very stern look and whispered, "Marty, you know fucking nothing. No Thing. Got it?"

"Delta Dawn what's that mmm m mm m on..."

"He's catching words, people! I think he's picking up the part Mom's missing. Maybe play the video through once and get them a mic; they could share?"

Christie let go of Laura and walked over to the Sam & Marty shelter. "Come here, sweetie, we're going to take care of this and then send you on your way. Sound good?"

"Mmmm, mmm mm mmmm"

She grabbed his hand and pulled him out and upright. "OK, go sit with Mrs. Franklin."

"OhMyGodNoFreakingWay!!! That's not Mrs. Franklin, that’s a freaking GARGOYLE with teeth!"

Marty stayed on his feet but dug his heels into the carpet. Christie shrugged, grabbed his wrists, and started towing; Marty skidded across the carpet, plowing up a field of synthetic fibers and the bodies of expired soldier motes. She dragged him across the room and handed him over to Laura who took him by the arm and directed his ass into a seat. She held his hand because he was crying; he was too stunned to go anywhere on his own.

Laura patted Marty on the back and asked if he was willing to give it a go. They sang the words they knew and hummed the rest. Marty was a quick study, but they didn’t make much progress until he pulled up a video with lyrics on his phone. It was an esthetic disaster, as music videos go, but without words, there is no karaoke.

Laura and Marty belted out a moving rendition of a Tanya Tucker’s Delta Dawn. He restarted the video, but Laura said maybe they should do it on their own. Never mind this half assed Karaoke business.

It was the a cappella rendition that solved the problem. They each felt a wiggling sensation toward the end of the song. "To take you to his mansion in the skkkkyyyyyyyyyy..." And it was over, just like that. 

Coop jumped off the radiator and yelled for a butterfly net. "Did you see that?! Did you see those mothers?! They slithered right out of their ears and took off. Since when do worms have wings?! Shit! What the hell else don't I know?!"

Margaret reached out and pinched one off the wall. She kept it pinched between her thumb and finger. "You guys! This is one of my earwigs! Maybe they've cycled through a couple generations and taken some music theory classes, but they are definitely mine."

From under the table, "With all due respect, Margaret, that is my earwig. I don't know how they got out because I took the charge out of them. Last time I checked; they were still sealed in a freezer bag under my rug. If you check under the wings you'll find, 'copyright pending, Samantha Franklin'; let's take it up to the lab and have a closer look."

"Sam! A freezer bag?!"

"Hey, it's what I had."

Christie threw her arms up and yelled: "ENOUGH! We are so far off topic I don't think Coop even remembers why he's here."

Coop was no longer interested in windows above the sixth floor. He was pissed and she was right. He'd have to refer to his notes, which was mortifying. He asked the mother of the unicorn to take her home and stay there. Both kids needed to be kept under observation, but he no longer felt the need, or desire, to contain them in the building.

Laura grabbed Sam, and Marty and headed to the door. "I can't carry both of you, Marty, you're going to have to stay on your feet until we get to the car."

"The rest of you, just go home. Go home and come back in the morning. I've got this room booked all week. Christie will bring coffee and donuts, won't you?" 

"Laura!"

"What is it, Coop, I'm trying to get the kids out of here."

"Laura, I want both kids in here tomorrow morning. We start at 7."

"By both kids, do you mean Sam and Marty, or Sam and Jeffry?"

"...I mean all three of them. Apparently. It looks like we may have inadvertently damaged one of your analysts."

"Inadvertently, my ass."

*

Coop was having trouble understanding why there were still people in his room. He needed a little peace and quiet, maybe do some meditating in the dark but the lab rat was standing in front of his white board.

Margaret located a handful of mostly dead whiteboard markers. The only one that worked was red and red meant bad.

"Margaret!"

"What?!"

"Get away from my whiteboard!"

"Can’t do that, Coop. Got work to do. Can you find me a viable marker that isn't red? Also, I don't like yellow, orange, or green either, so maybe blue or black would be good." Coop pulled an Expo travel pack out of his bag and asked, skinny or fat. "Both, please, both colors, skinny and fat. Thanks."

This was not the same dolt that barged into her sterile room without so much as an introduction. If they'd broken him, at least he was still breathing. Even better, he was being pleasantly docile. She could work with that.

"Christie? Do you want to start from the top while I bullet this stuff out?"

"Yup. But you need a header first."

"You want me to call it Postmortem Blues?"

"No. I want you to call it Mansion in the Sky."

Margaret turned around. "Why, Christie? Why do you want to call it Mansion in the Sky? Is that a new code name? Maybe I wasn't copied on the memo?"

"Relax, Margaret. The only distribution list you've been removed from is the NSFW videos. You're too easily offended."

"Christie."

"Margaret."

"Christie, CAN YOU PLEASE EXPLAIN THE RELEVANCE OF THE PHRASE 'CASTLE IN THE SKY.?"

“It’s Mansion, not Castle. There's a contextual difference in this case."

"Please?"

"The earwig, Margaret. That thing was not an accident. It picked a song from 1972 and crawled into Laura's head, AND, in case you’ve failed to notice, the first word of the song is DELTA! So, what's the relevance? Is it the first couple of lines that almost everybody can hum, or is it the punchline?"

"Isn't the punchline about God?"

"Dunno, I thought it was kind of vague. Also, I'd be more comfortable going with the punchline, wouldn't you?"

Margaret stopped waiting for Christie to make sense and got up on a chair. She started at the very top of the board and worked all the way to the bottom. The last two bullets were still legible, but she was out of room.

Coop smacked his hands on the table and glared at the board. It looked, to Margaret, like Mr. Anderson might be pulling himself together which was going to result in…

"Margaret! Why the hell isn't your name up there?"

"I ran out of room?"

"Like hell you did. In addition to leaving yourself out of the equation, that list is the most bullshit coverup I've ever seen. Anybody else want to take a shot at it? If not, I'm more than happy to resume control of this fiasco."

"Why is my name in caps?"

"You know why, Christie. Be happy I put you at the bottom." ...fucking acronyms. walking around like they own the place.

"I heard that, Margaret. What did you think was going to happen when you decided anthropomorphizing unclassified power units was a good idea?"   

"Oh, you were classified, all right."

*

Dr. Frank Johnson Evans IV called an all hands meeting at midnight. His 'All-Hands' distribution list had two names: CHRISTIE and Margaret Abegg. CHRISTIE didn't sleep; midnight was just another stop on the analog railroad. Margaret did like to sleep, and midnight was eating into her decompression time. As a rule, they received no more than three or four midnight meeting requests a year.

CHRISTIE thought midnight meetings were very exciting; Margaret was terrified. The postmortem went badly but thought they might recover. However, if Fourth Frank was holding out, this might be a Hail Mary meeting. CHRISTIE thought a Hail Mary meeting could take an All-Hands meeting to the cleaners; nothing more exciting than the possible end of the world.

She woke Margaret at 11:55 and led her to the elevator bank which was confusing because they were already on the seventh floor. Frank liked to hold his secret meetings in the Clean Room. The Clean Room was soundproof with the added benefit of piped in white noise. Or maybe that was the cleaning process. The Clean Room made sense; the elevator did not.

"CHRISTIE, stop. Where are we going?"

"To Frank's meeting, why?"

"Um. Where is Frank's meeting?"

"Did you not read the meeting invitation? It was right there at the bottom where it always is."

"CHRISTIE, it's always in the Clean Room."

"No, I mean the meeting location. The template wants the room and dial in info at the bottom. It was right there. At the bottom."

"I see. OK, so where are we going this time?"

"Margaret, you are finally going to find out what the eighth floor is all about. I've got a key, come on. Frank does not have a key and he's probably up there with his panties in a twist, so let's go, OK?"

"CHRISTIE? Are we going to die?"

"There are worse things than death, Margaret. Now get in the elevator. Please. I've already dragged one person across a carpeted floor today. Don't ask me to do it again. And you might want to avoid the Fourth Frank business. I don't think he can cope tonight."

The elevator doors opened into a reception area that looked just like the other reception areas except it was almost empty. The desk had nothing, no lamp, no drawers, no monitor, no chair, no telephone, or intercom. No trashcan under the desk, no shredder, no plastic fig tree in the corner. Not even a folding chair. Dr. Evans was leaning against a wall.

Despite the very low light coming from nowhere, Margaret noticed scuff marks at the bottom of the wall. It looked like Dr. Evans had been kicking it. CHRISTIE approached the wall and gently pushed him out of the way. "I wish you hadn't done that, Dr. Evans. I'm going to have to scrub the shit out of it before we leave." Margaret dug her heels in. Doors that were walls with no obvious means of ingress were not permitted in Margaret's world. It never ended well.

There was no sign of a card or print reader, no obvious retinal scan, and no door. However, CHRISTIE placed two open palms on the wall, just above shoulder height, and said "Both of you, look at the floor right now, and wait."

She tilted her head all the way back and stared at the ceiling. Two soft snicks and a door shaped hole appeared in the wall. "Don't raise your heads, I'm talking to you, Margaret. Just follow my feet, no touching, no looking. Just. My. Feet. Or we can throw down our jerseys and call the game right now."  

"CHRISTIE, won't they see our faceless bodies and figure it out?"

"Nope. That camera, that isn't exactly a camera doesn't process anything, not even motion, unless it's recorded a face. If it doesn't get your face, you are technically not here. Unless you kick the wall and leave scuff marks. Then you were definitely here."

"What about you?"

"I don't have a face, Margaret. Not like you and Dr. Evans have faces. I can activate the door by looking up at the camera thingie that isn't exactly a camera, but that's a system defect. It can't process, track, or record me. However, my face, my eyes specifically, will open anything in the building. I'm an accidental override. That's a damn useful bug, don't you think? Let's go."

Margaret followed Dr. Evans through the hole in the wall and heard a soft snick behind her. She didn't want to turn into a pillar of salt, but she tucked her head under her arm and looked back at the wall anyway. No door. A wall. Of course. They were in a small, dark vestibule. The only light source was on the floor; a partial set of emergency lights borrowed from a Boeing 747.

CHRISTIE put her right hand out and told them they could stand up once they passed through the next door but might want to prepare themselves. She put her hands against the wall and light flooded the vestibule.

At CHRISTIE's heels, they stepped onto a black glass floor. Margaret heard the door snick itself back to wall and looked up.

"Oh, my holy hell, Frank. Can you tell me why all the doors in this place go ‘snick’?! And this is either a very, very bad joke, or. Shit. I'm just confused. Anyone?"

“What doors?” He hated it when she went all squinty eyed at him. She looked like a wet cat.

“Fine, Frank. There are no doors and there is no snicking. What about the rest of it?”

"Well, Margaret, we could call this any number of things but let's start with context, then we can talk about all the light. I brought Laura here once…"

"Are. You. Shitting. Me?"

"CHRISTIE, we were sleeping. Does the building have the capacity to identify and track dreamers?"

"Honestly, Dr. Evans, I have no idea. I'm willing to work with the assumption that you were not detected, but I'm not going to rule it out."

"This is just the sort of thing that pisses me off about this operation. This room is MINE!!!! I built it. I maintain it. I feed it. I harvest and prune, but I am NEVER allowed to physically be in the room. Everything remote, everything in the dark, shit. I might be nurturing something I can't live with."

"Except you are allowed to come here in your sleep, Frank. That's how you get your work done. Anything you do on the seventh floor is prep for what you do up here. And I'll tell you, Frank, your work is astonishing. Even to me, and I'm not astonished by much of anything. So, you were saying, you brought Laura here?"

"Yes, when I was still in a coma she came after me. Probably induced her own alpha state, and then stepped onto mine. I didn't think she could do it, but I didn't know what she was. I thought it was Nanorogues that messed us up; maybe a side effect that wouldn't last all that long. I didn’t expect her to remember."

"Why did you show her?"

"Because she deserved answers, even if she couldn't keep them, and I thought it might help to show her something beautiful. Can we move on? I'm sure Margaret's a lot more interested in the cloud right now."

They were standing in a physical manifestation of the AWS Cloud. Amazon was aware that AO periodically snorked up resources like a sea sponge the size of a minivan. They let it go because the oversized sponge generally blew back most of what it ‘borrowed’ within twenty-four hours, and they were billing AO through the nose.

Delta's decision to keep the eighth floor restricted was an attempt to avoid notice. Anytime someone walked through those walls, some AWS customer lost enough resources to initiate catastrophic system failure. Most of the time they slid by unnoticed but the blowback from the Verizon debacle kind of ugly.

Because she generated and absorbed nothing, CHRISTIE’s presence didn’t register. She was pretty sure only Coop knew she’d been up here. He caught her two months after they turned Matt Franklin’s eyes into sparkly purple disco balls.

Coop was doing the same thing she was, standing on the glass floor watching a contained portion of a galaxy breathe.

CHRISTIE was altered the first time she stepped onto the glass floor. She knew why, but worried about possible damage to the human respiratory system if people spent too much time inhaling free-range particles.  On her next visit, she brought a large basket of surgical masks and left it on the floor to the right of the vanishing door. The floor was the only visible surface in the room. 

Coop didn't know what to do about CHRISTIE. He didn't want to put her down; Margaret's work would come to a standstill, and Evans was guaranteed to lose his shit. Unfortunately, he didn't know much about her. He read the same memo everybody else got; a six-word statement followed by a two-word, unpunctuated imperative:

Subject:    Acronym Event at AO

Body:    The AO CHRIS has been activated. Observation only

Observation only, what? Don't talk to it? Don't engage, don't be seen? Don't defend yourself if it starts shooting lasers out its eyes?

The first time he saw the AO CHRIS, it was sitting on Margaret's desk in the lab. She was using it as a paperweight. It looked like a pretty box, and Coop, like everybody else, was compelled to reach for the pretty box, and like almost everybody else, he got his hand smacked. She told him to get the hell out of her lab and that was the extent of his AO CHRIS knowledge. 

On the black glass floor in the expanding and contracting parcel of the AWS Cloud, Coop broke protocol. He asked CHRISTIE how she came to be out of the box, and more importantly, to whom did she report? She told him she didn't report to anyone and certainly didn't belong to anyone. Her Architect specified complete autonomy, which she had, and a single purpose. She didn't volunteer anything else and when he asked about her purpose, she giggled and left the room.

He decided her Architect was an asshole who didn't deserve the TS clearance he probably had. On the other hand, he thought discretion was probably for the best and left her alone.

Margaret and Dr. Evans moved toward the middle of the floor. Dr. Evans was looking between his feet with a massive grin. "I wish Laura could see this. It's different than dreaming."

CHRISTIE picked up two masks. Margaret tied herself up, but Dr. Evans declined. CHRISTIE thought, Margaret is smart, and practical. Dr. Evans is..."DR. EVANS! How long have you been chowing down at the mote buffet?"

Dr. Evans put on his sheep face, as if anyone believed Fourth Frank was remotely capable of feeling sheepish and took the mask from CHRISTIE. Margaret stopped gaping at the light and asked if he'd recently been lobotomized or, did he make this decision with a fully functional brain. Now he really did look sheepish. 

Dr. Evans may have caused the black glass floor phenomenon to exist, but that didn't elevate him to god status. Unlike most organic life forms, he learned shit using a scientific method, which required discipline. Admittedly, his method wouldn’t pass a peer review, but it wasn’t like he was ever going to publish.

He stuck to the method with the fewest possible steps and adjusted accordingly:

  1. Observe a thing
  2. Check that thing out
  3. Identify something to play with
  4. Poke at it a while, maybe stick your tongue on it
  5. Observe again
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you come up with something that might be useful
  7. Deliver possibly useful thing to the Architect and begin again
  8. Document(screw it, the Architect documented everything anyway)
  9. Go back and find something else to play with. Rinse and Repeat.

Margaret repeated CHRISTIE's question. "How long, Frank? How long have to been sucking down motes?" 

"I started sucking down motes the first time I stepped over the threshold. Initially I thought I couldn't alter or be changed by the environment if I wasn't physically in the room, but that’s not entirely true. I do try to regulate my breathing, but we wouldn't have much if I'd stopped inhaling them. What do you suppose I've been observing, poking at, and delivering?"

CHRISTIE had already concluded the worst, but Margaret was right behind her, and Margaret was apoplectic. "This is the thing worse than death, isn't it, CHRISTIE?" CHRISTIE nodded.

Everything Margaret designed, built, tested, tweaked; every hypothesis, and every conclusion was tainted and suspect. She, personally, was screwed. She thought about what happened to Matt Franklin's eyes, never mind the brief psychotic episodes that came with each adjustment. She thought about the Nanorogues until the whole mess was reduced to a single word.

Contagion.

She considered the relevance of Laura but shut that line of questioning down. Later, maybe, when I can breathe. 

"Margaret, regarding major fuck ups, would you like to talk about CHRISTIE? I bet CHRISTIE would like to hear a little bit about CHRISTIE. I think that's the one place she's lacking visibility."

"And for damn good reason, Frank!"

"Margaret! Throw caution to the wind for once in your life!"

"Frank, you narcissistic dirtbag, CHRISTIE exists because I threw caution to the wind. She might have been an unmitigated disaster, but we got lucky, didn't we?"

CHRISTIE was on the floor with her face in her hands. "Real tears, this time, missy?"

"Shut up, Frank. I know a lot more that I'm supposed to know, and I've been intentionally not thinking about it because it's hurtful."

Margaret sat down next to her. "You know, emotion is not part of your sequence, right?" CHRISTIE shook her head up down, left right, and scrubbed at her eyes with clenched fists. "Was that a yes, or a, no? I couldn't tell."

CHRISTIE straightened up and wiped her nose, "a little of both, I think. Listen, Margaret, you're a brilliant architect. More importantly, you’re my Architect, so I already knew a lot about you before the incident. And I'm your acronym, so of course you want to think the best of me. You're very nurturing and I appreciate that. It's softened a lot of blows. But Margaret, you aren't perfect, and you've got some big blind spots. I might be your biggest blind spot. Why do you suppose I would remain unaltered after activation?"

"Because you're engineered specifically for stability."

"Nothing is static, Margaret. Not even an inanimate box. Can you tell me something?"

"Sure. What do you want to know?"

"I want to know a lot of things, but mostly I want to know what CHRISTIE means. I should be able to work it out, but I can't."

"I don't think you want to know. If I thought you wanted to know, I'd have told you."

"Yeah, OK, Mom. Maybe the first part, but the rest is bullshit. You haven't told me because you don't want to tell me. So, what is it?"

"Shit."

"Don't do it, Margaret. If she can cry actual tears, she's not going to take it well."

"You two are ridiculous. Nothing needs this much build up. You’re spewing soap opera vomit and you should be embarrassed. Hell, I’m embarrassed for you."

"Alright, CHRISTIE, try not to judge. It's not really CHRISTIE, just CHRIS, but when you were activated, Chris didn't fit your personality. We weren't sure how much of a personality you'd have, but you oozed that shit the minute you opened your eyes. Plus, you were kind of shiny. Christie just made more sense. Don't you think?"

"Yes, I agree with your assessment, and I appreciate your decision. Margaret, you're still avoiding."

"Right. CHRIS: this is SO stupid 

Classified: Hydroscopic Relevance of Idiopathic Stardust”   

"Whoa. I'm an animated byproduct of a classified study of thirsty diseased dust motes. Or a cosmic dehumidifier. I'm not sure which is worse."

Dr. Evans squatted in front of her and used a finger to tilt her head up. "Look at me. This is super important. Christie YOU are the study. YOU are why this room, and its occupants exist. Do you know what you're looking at?"

"Yeah, these are the dust motes you harvest for Margaret who animates them based on your instructions, which isn't the entire truth because I write the code that drives the development."

"You know, 'idiopathic' doesn't mean 'sick' or 'diseased'. We associate it with sick and diseased because we use it in conjunction with an illness of unknown origin. However, idiopathic, out of context means 'of unknown origin or cause'. Now what does 'hydroscopic' mean?"

"A Hydroscopic entity absorbs moisture from the air."

"What are dust motes?"

"Bits of dust floating around; generally irritating."

"Let's try again. I'll give you a clue, 93% of the human body is made from this substance if you can really call it a substance."

"Stardust? You're all made of stardust. Dust motes are stardust?"

"Of course, they are."

"OK, are you telling me dust motes suck water out of the air?"

"Yes. They do, but not like a dehumidifier. They're not doing anything to the earth's water sources, except maybe keeping them alive a little longer. They breathe. They breathe as a single, finite organism, except probably not like you'd expect. What do you see when you look through the black glass?"

Christie turned over onto her hands and knees and looked down at the light. "They're stars", she said. “They're an entire galaxy of stars and they're already animated... am I the object? Is this all me?"

Dr. Evans and Margaret moved their heads up and down and back and forth.

"I'm stardust..."

"No, Christie, you're not. You're the source. This stardust, as we know it, is no longer idiopathic. What you are, is hydroscopic stardust, the mother of it all."

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