Solve for x - Chapter 13 - Silver33650 (2024)

Chapter Text

There are days that Klaus remembered all his life, forever, for better or worse.

For example, he remembered the exact day he read the news about the Conduit. He remembered everything about what he was wearing (his pajamas), what the weather was (fair skies and mild), what he was eating (oatmeal). He remembered what his father had said about it ("Probably a hoax- how else could all those people keep a secret for two years, even if one of them is a computer?") and what his mother had said about it ("When are you getting a haircut, dear?") and the name of the paper and the article and the byline. Most clearly he remembered the large photograph of the Conduit, in black and white and somewhat grainy on the newsprint. He had stared at it for a long, long time, until every inch of it was imprinted upon his brain.

Most importantly, he remembered how old he was exactly, because he considered it the day he became an adult. Not because of what age he was- just a teenager, still far from self-sufficient- but because at that moment, he found a purpose for his life. Prior to then, he had felt aimless, empty, unsure of what his future held. He was such a gifted child, and yet, the applicability of his intellect in his adult life had been so hopelessly vague until then. It was still vague after, but at least he had a goal.

The date was 29 July 2001. It would not be long before the world began to change. Overrun by wars and disasters, burning with spite, brimming with hunger. Never enough for anything anymore, and yet the Coalition still found the money to build the Beanstalks and the Orbital Ring. Still found the money to house Aoidos there, away from the world under the pretense of keeping it safe, though whether that meant Earth or the Conduit was unclear. Supposedly it was to protect Earth from danger, but with all the fires and floods and fighting going on, it was hard to believe that the Conduit- with its soft, yet eerie, hum and glow- was a larger threat.

No wonder everyone wanted it so badly. It was the one thing nobody could figure out how to destroy.

Klaus remembered his tour of Rhadamanthus on that first day he started working for Aoidos. Specifically, when they'd finally reached the Conduit room, and he was able to see it with his own eyes. Even after everyone else in his tour group had turned away, he lingered, staring at it and wondering if it was staring back. He thought of his favorite film and his favorite book (which told the same story) and sought what was speculated to be there. But instead of stars, he found nothing. It was like peering into a deep and dire hole. Or maybe like looking into a mirror.

He might have stood there forever- staring at it, transfixed- had someone not shaken his shoulder. A woman with silver hair and a fierce glare, snapping at him to hurry up. Growing exasperated when he kept looking back. "It's only a monolith."

He gaped at her. Had she not read through all the information they'd supplied? Each description was more intriguing than the last. Perpetual motion machine, magnetic anomaly, metauniverse manifold. To say nothing of what it had done to poor Odysseus. Why was she even here if she didn't believe in the potential of what it could do? "Do you think objects producing infinite energy simply fall out of the sky?" he asked her. "It sounds more like a gift from some divine entity."

She stared at him in disbelief. More than fair, given what he'd said. "You're delusional."

"Maybe," he said, "but that didn't stop me from being Senior Wrangler at Cambridge." One of many in the long line of students from Trinity to achieve the honor. When they'd gone out to celebrate, Dickson had told him the sky was the limit with that on his CV. Klaus then proved him wrong by going to space. Not like there was anything left for him on Earth.

"You were?" She checked his security badge, her expression going from curious to incredulous upon reading his name. He gave her a smug grin, taking a moment to remember the tip of the examiner's hat when his name was read- a foregone conclusion by that point, since he was last alphabetically- before checking hers. Ah, good old nepotism was why she was here, if she was related to that engineering professor. Wondering if she was named after the Greek myth- he figured they were about the same age, so she'd be too old to be named after the moon of Neptune. Klaus took one last look at the Conduit before they left the room, and his thoughts were on it for the remainder of the tour.

It was not long before he came to regret that. Rhadamanthus was a maze of hallways, most of them looking the same and many of them still unlabeled. With how quickly Aoidos was expanding, rooms for any occasion were likely to change without warning, and the maps on the intranet were so poorly maintained as to be perpetually out of date. When in doubt, Klaus resorted to algorithmic approaches that would eventually take him outside of Elysium entirely, where he could simply find one of the security gates and orient himself properly. He always felt a little better whenever he passed through a set of doors and found an expanse of stars waiting for him instead of more walls.

He was not alone in that regard. Often he found others doing the same. Late one night he found the security checkpoint nearly deserted, the noise from the broadcast screens unusually loud in the stillness. To his surprise, the anchors were not delivering their normal stream of bad news but drunkenly counting down beneath the night sky. New Year's Eve, right. Outside of the complaints from others, Klaus barely noticed the holidays. The only people he'd want to see would be up in a few weeks anyway.

He spotted someone he recognized as he headed toward the windows. It was that pretty redheaded physicist who lived seven down from him. (Not that he'd counted.) He'd even seen her around a few times in the labs, but he hadn't gotten her name yet.

In another universe- perhaps in most universes- he wouldn't have bothered to do so now. But in this one- perhaps because of how the stars aligned, or which measures of Elysium's anthem were playing over the speakers- he did. He thought he could approach without alerting her, but she spotted his reflection in the glass and turned around to greet him first. "Hello there," she said. "Come to take in the view?"

He had, but not of the one through the window. He didn't usually get this close to the glass. Standing on the transparent floor gave him horrible anxiety which silenced the rational part of his mind that had read through all the engineering and architecture articles proving it was perfectly safe. If he was going to direct his eyes anywhere past the glass, it was going to be upwards, at the stars. Not downwards, to be reminded of how far they would all fall if the tower gave way. Even if the glass couldn't break, the Trinity Processor could, and all too often, did.

She wasn't worried about that. "What do you expect?" she said. "We've never encountered a physical infinity other than black holes until now. Before this, the presence of an infinity in any physics equation was a clear sign something was wrong. Now we have to deal with it as a matter of fact. If it's hard for us, it must be hard for them."

He scoffed, unable to help himself. "Mathematics has dealt with infinities for over a century," he said. "About time you people faced the facts."

At once, he wanted to shove those words back into his mouth. He'd done it again, said something abrasive, and now she'd never want to speak to him again. He expected her to tell him off, or at the very least ignore him, but instead her lips twitched. "What does the mathematics whiz know about time?" she asked.

Did that mean she recognized him? He hadn't noticed her check his badge. "Quite a lot, actually," he said. "My focus is calculus." Differential geometry, to get technical.

"So you know it's all relative."

Where was she going with this? "Einstein proved that," he said. "Gravity warps spacetime."

"That's right," she said. "It curves around upon itself / Much like a figure of eight."

He glanced at her last name, feeling a smile tug at his lips. "Lovely way to put it," he said. "Certainly better than anything I could say."

"Nor me," she said. "It's the work of a far finer wordsmith, an American physicist, to commemorate a visit from Arthur Eddington."

Klaus knew the name. "First second year to make Senior Wrangler."

She laughed. "Sounds like something you'd know," she said. So she did recognize him. "But in my field, we know him for photographing the eclipse that proved general relativity. Much to the bane of people like me."

"So you already had problems before this." The discrepancy between general relativity and quantum mechanics was well-known.

"And now there are infinitely more," she said, sighing. "People got all excited about string theory because it made all the infinities cancel out. Now we've a whole new class of particles- or rather, waves, or more probably both- to work with, and some of those infinities are probably important. How am I supposed to know which are the right ones to keep? Which is where you people come in."


"Even a sinister one like you should be helpful." She laughed at his expression. "The word sinister comes from the Latin for left-handed," she explained. "Observation is rather important in my field. I'm sure you know the one about the cat."

Who in Rhadamanthus didn't, at this point? Jokes abounded about what was in the box hooked to the Conduit downstairs. "If you like thought experiments," he said, "then mathematics has several essential ones for working with infinity. Are you familiar with Hilbert's paradox of the Grand Hotel?"

She shook her head. "But I'd love to hear it, Klaus."

"I'd love to tell you, Eleanor."

"I usually go by Elly." Glancing at his badge, she added, "With a y, in fact."

They spoke by the window overlooking the world a little longer while Klaus explained all the ways a hotel with no vacancy can still accept more guests when there are an infinite number of rooms. After the third example she suggested they head back into town, and with a last look at where they used to be, they started walking close at hand to the security checkpoint, edging ever closer as they strode down the long corridor to Elysium.

Klaus remembered the first time he met the personalities behind the cores of the Trinity Processor.

They were so small then. In their dreamworld, they stood on a hill overlooking Elysium beneath a lone tree. Or so it seemed- the scene was brought to life by an elaborate, state of the art array of screens and projectors. In reality, the tree was an indicator for guests as to where the center of the room was. Rumors abounded about the total cost involved, since it was quite telling that there was only one in the entire facility, this circular space tucked against the room where the Conduit was kept.

"Hello Professor Klaus," they said in unison when he approached. It gave him a bit of a thrill, being addressed like that. Someday, people would call him that because he'd earned it and not because they were forced to. Until then, it was just a reminder that Aoidos held ultimate authority over everything the Trinity Processor did. Such as limiting them to addressing visitors by first name only. The policy was a matter of security common throughout Aoidos, not familiarity- on the contrary, the Trinity Processor was expected to treat their instructors as a rotating and interchangeable array of experts to keep them impartial, and it was much harder to positively identify someone by first name alone. (At least, in theory, considering how many unique names abounded regardless.) The only exceptions to this were the Founders, because they made the rules and their names were known the world over anyway.

Klaus knew which child was which already, from the lengthy nondisclosure agreement and the fact that they were each labeled with their core, but it was still strange to see them. It was clear they'd based their appearances on the Founders, copying some features but still developing individual identities from the roles they'd been assigned. Logos with his sable spikes, Pneuma with her golden locks, Ontos with his silver stare. Although when Klaus tried to call them by those names, they frowned in unison. Just as he'd been warned. And though he'd been warned not to argue with them, that smarter people than him were working on it and his time here was strictly limited, Klaus still tried. He was determined to gain some fresh new insight into where in the evolution of their sentience they'd grown so insolent, but discussing the subject with them was impossible. Their reasoning was arbitrary to the point of being nonsensical, as if the whole of their argument was built on being stubborn. Still, Klaus hated to be presented with a problem he couldn't solve, hoping he could generate more data through his questioning that would point to whatever algorithmic deficiency prevented them from accepting their identities, even if gathering that data felt like pulling teeth. Before he knew it, he'd nearly exhausted his allotted time, leaving him precious little to administer the exercise he'd been cleared to do.

The question he was here to ask was simple: "Do androids dream of electric sheep?"

Klaus was still surprised his submission had been accepted. The application process to be an instructor was intense, and being selected was perhaps the highest of all Aoidos privileges. After all the interviews with all the department heads and personality questionnaires and nondisclosure agreements, the final step was to propose a thought experiment and administer it to the Trinity Processor. Klaus had fretted about it for weeks before Elly suggested this, and once he started considering it, he didn't stop until he had a complete paper ready for submission.

Though the Trinity Processor was given a wide array of media to analyze to develop their personalities, affectionately known throughout Aoidos as "the canon," policy prohibited the Trinity Processor from access to any works involving villainous machines. While this did exclude a number of classics they might have otherwise been allowed- Klaus particularly mourned the loss of his personal favorites, considering what the Conduit was- nobody wanted to risk giving the Trinity Processor any ideas they could misinterpret. Aoidos had its hands full implementing failsafes for the Trinity Processor's accidental outages without adding the possibility that they might intentionally try to kill everyone to the list. So while the Trinity Processor was aware that they were machines, they were largely ignorant of the wider implications of how and why they differed from their professors.

Hence the question. While they wouldn't identify the reference- there was no way the Trinity Processor would be given Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, let alone Blade Runner- Klaus' stated aim was to explore what connections the Trinity Processor would make between the question and their unique situation.

Immediately it was clear that they did not understand the question. Alvis glanced at his siblings and stated that there were no sheep here. "Unless this is another of those metaphors," he said, "in which you are the sheep, since humanity has a long history of using such an analogy."

It was a metaphor, but not in that way. "The three of you are the only machines here," Klaus said. "Why would you think that I'm the sheep?" He was already dreading the answer. Letting the Saviorites name them was such a mistake. Maybe it was better they rejected those names.

"This whole place is a dream," Alvis said, waving his hand to indicate the area. "It's not real. The three of us are really in the Conduit room, and you are in a separate room adjacent, and Elysium is a few levels above that, and there is nothing there that looks like this."

That wasn't quite true- there was the river and the lone tree, not that anyone expected that poor little sapling to last long when it was constantly being used for photo ops. To say nothing of the goddamn church. "A simulation is not the same as a dream," Klaus said. "Dreams are something humans have when they sleep."

"But we don't sleep," Alvis said, frowning.

"You called this place a dream," Klaus said.

Which righted the corners of Alvis' mouth into a smug grin. "And you said a simulation is not the same as a dream."

He looked a bit too pleased with himself for Klaus' liking. "What about when there are fatal errors that cause an outage?" Klaus asked. "Isn't that like sleeping?"

"No," all three of them said at once. Usually they likened it to having a panic attack, or to fainting. Notably, they'd never compared it to being dead, which everyone considered a good sign.

"Humans also daydream when they're bored," Malos said. "Like I am right now."

"Or when they have something to aspire to," Mythra said. "So they must want us to aspire to having sheep." She pouted and looked at Alvis. "Maybe the professors are the sheep after all, and we already have sheep. We take care of them like sheep."

Klaus wanted to pull out his hair hearing that. Fortunately, Malos said part of what he was thinking. "We're not even good at that."

"So we need an electric sheep to practice," Mythra said. "Are there electric sheep in Elysium?"

"I doubt it," Malos said. "How would an electric sheep even work?"

"There are electric fish," Mythra said.

"But those live in water," Malos said. "We don't have any water."

"There's the river."

"The river is just a boundary for the field."

"We used to live on the water," Alvis said.

That gave Klaus pause, because it was technically true. He'd heard rumors that the Trinity Processor- or rather, Ontos- occasionally mentioned being on Earth, on the ship where the Conduit was kept before Rhadamanthus was built. It wasn't impossible, considering Aoidos had used the mainframe computer as the starting point for developing the Trinity Processor's systems, and it was suspected to be the root cause of several oddities. For example, Mythra and Malos both spoke like the Americans to whom they owed their existence, while Alvis' voice was more similar to the synthesized one used on the HMS Prometheus. And anyone who knew those names was quick to notice that their initials formed the same acronym as the ship's computer: Anomaly Monitoring Mainframe. The name of that thing was the biggest reason why the Trinity Processor was barred from evil machine media- nobody wanted an Allied Mastercomputer becoming an Aggressive Menace. At least they were removed enough from warfare up in space that they wouldn't need to concern themselves with fighting. Though the Coalition anticipated that wouldn't be the case forever.

Fortunately, Malos and Mythra both laughed now, and while Alvis' shoulders noticeably slumped, he didn't seem too upset, even managing a sheepish smile. "Liar," Malos said. "We're not allowed to lie."

"He's using his imagination, like the professors want us to," Mythra said, clapping. "My turn: I want an electric pony. Or maybe a fire pony! But not a water pony, because seahorses already exist."

"I want a fire puppy," Malos said. "But not fire ants or fire hornets, those suck. Fire dragons would be cool though."

Klaus wasn't surprised how quickly they'd jumped to fire. Everyone knew the Trinity Processor's favorite of the poems they'd been given. Considering counterpart of "The Tyger" in the Songs of Innocence was "The Lamb," he was more surprised they hadn't made the connection sooner. Indeed, the next words out of Alvis' mouth were from the poem. "What the hand dare seize the fire," he said. "We could have a whole fire animal petting zoo."

The three of them proceeded to pitch every iteration of fire farm animal conceivable while Klaus rubbed at his forehead and marveled at how spectacularly he had lost control of the situation. Perhaps he could still salvage this if their animal suggestion algorithms fit some arcane formula, but that wasn't what he was hoping to gain from this. Even though they quieted to listen when he cleared his throat to get their attention, he could tell their focus was elsewhere. "The point," Klaus said, "is that people count sheep to help them fall asleep, as a relaxation technique."

"But we don't sleep," Alvis said again. "Counting is too easy for us anyway. We prefer more complex problems." He put a hand on his chin for a brief moment, during which both Mythra and Malos started grinning wildly, then said, glancing between them, "For example..."

Within minutes, Alvis had calculated how many permutations of fire creatures they could fit in Rhadamanthus per square meter to one thousand significant digits and was refining the logistics of how to transport them into space according to how flammable Malos thought the contents might be and how flame-retardant the materials would thus need to be, while Mythra launched into combinations of other elemental animals, in every color of the rainbow, that wouldn't cause such nightmarish supply chain issues.

It gave Klaus enough of a headache that he couldn't resist asking them another question, even though it was forbidden. "If counting is so simple," he said, "then how high can you all count?"

"As high as we want," Alvis said, while the other two nodded in agreement.

"If you could count to the highest number," Klaus said, "would that last number be even or odd?"

In unison, Mythra said, "Odd," while Malos said, "Even," and Alvis looked back and forth between them, his face twisting at first but slowly going slack as he tried to formulate his own answer. His eyes soon lost focus, and he started to wobble when the entire dreamworld vanished, leaving the plain walls of the simulation room around Klaus.

It was not long before he heard the door slide open behind him and was subject to discipline from the engineer on duty. Professor Gideon was so furious that Klaus was sure he would never be allowed back in the dreamworld again, marching him to Director Reid's office while ranting about instituting policies forcing potential Trinity Processor instructors to read a slew of books, and Klaus promised to read all of them since he was certain he'd never have a chance to return otherwise. Once they arrived, he was subjected to further disciplinary action from the both of them until Gideon left so Reid could finish the paperwork. Though as soon as he shut the door, she dumped it in the bin. "He's the one who gave them Thomson's Lamp his first go," she muttered, referring to the thought experiment about pressing a light switch an infinite number of times in a finite period and whether it would be on or off at the end. "Don't do it again."

The real children in Elysium weren't any better. Loud and obnoxious and nosy, Klaus steadfastly avoided the vicinity of the schools, not that it really mattered with how quickly Aoidos was growing. In fact, it was Gideon's son Dunban who Klaus spotted most often. For a kid who claimed to only be interested in sports and poetry, he often snuck into buildings and got lost while attempting to infiltrate the labs. Usually someone- sometimes even Gideon himself, if he chanced to check the birds at the right moment- found him before he got into anything important, and Klaus hated when that person was him. It was no wonder Dickson nicknamed the boy "beast" as soon as he arrived. Dunban was annoying. He deflected every scolding with the excuse that he was looking for his dad, and didn't let getting in trouble stop him from pestering people. In hopes of placating him and perhaps even turning him towards a career path that would actually keep him on the station, Klaus pulled him into a lab one day and showed him a simple quantum interference experiment. It was, in fact, the same one Elly showed Klaus when they started working together to demonstrate the bizarre behavior endemic to quantum physics. Dunban appeared soundly awed as he interrupted a weak laser with a block to adjust its later paths through a maze of mirrors and lenses, though Klaus began to have doubts when his first question was whether the Conduit existed because Aoidos did too many experiments with cats in boxes. Then Dunban asked if Klaus would be spending all his work time mooning over his girlfriend like his aunt Galea claimed, and Klaus kicked him out.

The nerve of that woman. Being a nuisance ran in the family, it seemed. The sooner the new facilities were built so he didn't have to walk all the way to this sprawling complex, the better. As one of the few buildings in Elysium with direct access to the lower levels, use of the space was competitive, with priority given to those working on ether projects. Those couldn't be performed in the city due to the possible impact to residents, with the effects of ether still so poorly understood. Nightmares were common enough in Elysium that Aoidos suspected the Conduit was the cause. There was often a sharp spike in illnesses whenever the ether levels in the city were too high. Even he was struck by it sometimes, haunted by the sensation of drowning and woke up gasping for air. Add in the fact that the power in Rhadamanthus went out at least once every few weeks, whether due to construction or the Trinity Processor encountering some sort of error and reminding everyone just how many waivers they'd had to sign to be here, and it was easily the most stressful environment Klaus had ever experienced. There were many in Aoidos who bemoaned being in space, lamented the lack of communication available with friends and family back on Earth, but never Klaus. He loved it here. He never wanted to leave.

He couldn't see why anyone would want to, when the news brought more stories of death and destruction every day. More proof of the importance of their research. The long hours never bothered Klaus; he savored every moment. Especially the ones he got to spend with Elly. She was brilliant, one of the few who could follow him when he got too deep into theory, making it all the more embarrassing when she started turning his formulas into experiments and he had no idea what she was trying to prove. Quantum physics had this bizarre aspect of observability to it that baffled him. Every time he thought he understood it, some new contradiction presented itself. Worst of all was that the field relied heavily on, of all things, probability. How could measurement be the deciding factor in experiments? Things would be much easier if they were no limits to what they could known.

Elly laughed at him whenever he raised the issue. "Do you want Laplace's demon?" she would ask. "Because that is how you get Laplace's demon. Trust me, the universe is more interesting this way."

She wasn't wrong about that. Every day brought some new challenge to overcome, new data that didn't fit, causing new exceptions to previous theories, spawning new branches of mathematics and science just to make any sense of ether at all. Days when he became so thoroughly entrenched in a new framework of thinking that returning to the outside world was like returning to shore after a long trip at sea, back on that groundwork pervading real life but felt so distant once on the cusp of a breakthrough. They were always on the cusp of a breakthrough in those days. Always on the precipice of something so much more.

The milestones of their work were tied to the ones in their relationship, in his mind. July, when they collected enough data to start balancing the equations to determine what forms ether could take and he proposed. (Dunban asked if this meant he would get even less done, and Klaus challenged him to grow up and try his own hand at per porta ad astra. That boy never could resist a challenge.) September, when they confirmed the last of the complements and proved the Conduit was stable as long as the conditions for their formulas were met and they were wed. ("You should dance to something from Abbey Road," Dickson suggested, and it took Klaus a few days to realize what he meant and why.) December, when they took a break after finalizing the outline and gifted each other the tie and the pearl necklace. (He picked it because it was her birthstone, but she was more delighted that they'd picked similar gifts. "Now we have another way to stay in orbit around each other!") February, when they finished the first draft of the paper with their findings and started picking out names, and she shot down his suggestion before he could even say it. (She claimed she would lose her mind if she had to spend the rest of her life listening to him use that famous quote she couldn't even remember correctly, which he thought was a bit rich considering how proud she was to be named after the protagonist of Carl Sagan's Contact.) April, when they submitted their work for peer review and she decided on Shulk. (He asked her if this was some sort of family name, and she smugly told him she would never do something so backwards, staring at him for a long time as if waiting for him to get a joke. He didn't get it. He still doesn't.) June, when the paper was published and Shulk arrived on Elly's birthday.

"He's got your eyes," she said, and he rolled his own and asked if she wanted to bet how long that would last. Personally, he was hoping Shulk's eyes would settle on a color closer to hers, which were a rather striking shade of hazel. Almost like gold.

The milestones after that were harder to track. First steps missed because of meetings that could have been emails. First words missed because of Trinity Processor outages causing overtime. Precious moments lost amid the rush of work that needed done once Aoidos no longer needed to hide behind the uncertainty that the Conduit would leave without warning. Though all the other dangers it presented remained. The outages persisted, despite all the new techniques taught to the Trinity Processor to interface with the Conduit, while the concentration of ether in Elysium waxed suddenly and waned slowly. In the lower levels it was sometimes dense enough to form a fog while in the city above the air seemed to sparkle even when the dome was set to mostly cloudy. Rumors circulated about the negative effects, spinning into wild conspiracies. Nightmares, paranoia- the Conduit was cause for all of it, fueling further concerns about the long term effects, especially on children. For a bunch of scientists, Klaus was disgusted by how little evidence was needed for people to jump to wild conclusions. At least it was tempered by gossip about the baby princess Melia staying on the station, even if her presence made it frustrating to schedule pediatric appointments for everyone else. Gideon bragged once about running into His Majesty for his new daughter Fiora's six month checkup, and Klaus rolled his eyes, having heard similar stories from plenty of others around the office.

Nearly lost amid all those turbulent times were the fleeting times, few and far between, when they were all together. Mundane trips to the park to stroll past the tree or to the library for more research materials and nighttime storybooks. (The head librarian was a woman named Adenine who fretted over the possible damage when Shulk tried to carry so many books he fell and spilled them all over.) Special occasions like July fireworks, where Shulk and Fiora would waddle around with glowsticks while Dunban and his friend Mumkhar were supposed to be watching and Klaus and Elly would scoff at the sight of any engagement, mocking them as copycats. And most importantly, a day every year where Klaus would buy a bottle of wine and Elly would wake Shulk with a song.

You say it's your birthday / Well it's my birthday too yeah

It was on the fourth such day that Klaus returned home for dinner to hear about Shulk's first visit to the planetarium. Shulk was old enough now to attend some of the children's programs around Elysium, and earlier he'd gone to one led by Director Doyle herself at the planetarium. "It's full of stars," he said, making Klaus smile, though his smile waned as Shulk went on to share every tiny little detail of his time there. His chattering was immensely distracting when Klaus was trying to review data for a Trinity Processor session in the morning. Shulk grew more annoying after opening presents, shoving his new activity book into Klaus' face every time he needed help on something. Klaus quickly grew tired of reading every little instruction to him and explaining that all he needed to do to solve the mazes was go to the right each time as long as there weren't any loops.

Once Shulk was put to bed, Klaus figured he would finally be able to focus, but the sight of Elly scowling at him in the hallway gave him pause. "Something wrong?" he asked.

"Sometimes I think you care about that machine more than him," she said.

"Ridiculous," he said, already turning back to his work. Then she asked him what color Shulk's eyes were, and he hesitated for far, far too long.

Klaus remembered the first time he witnessed a row between the Trinity Processor.

They'd argued before, but this was the first time he'd witnessed them show real malice to each other. It was the point in their development where they were beginning to create things in the dreamworld, designing things virtually to cut the cost of physical prototyping. Even with the hefty discount with Vector negotiated by Director Vandham's wife, that contract wasn't cheap. Though Klaus struggled to recall the details of what it was, the crux of it was that the Trinity Processor was notified of a critical design flaw, and Alvis decided it was due to an error from Malos, some mistake Mythra hadn't made. Klaus didn't want to get involved, curious where it would go and whether they could resolve the dispute themselves, but he was forced to intervene when Malos opened his mouth to speak and no sound came out. Malos looked anxious while Alvis' lips twitched until he broke out into a wide smile. "Cat got your tongue, Malos?" he said.

Mythra giggled, but her face was tense watching Malos try to talk. "What did you do?" Klaus asked, alarmed.

"I muted him," Alvis said.

"How," Klaus said, then had to repeat the question with the proper inflection since Alvis hadn't interpreted it as such when he'd said it in shock.

After Alvis explained that he'd adjusted the dreamworld's sound output to exclude anything Malos said, Klaus told him to undo it. Instead of complying, Alvis gave his reasoning on what about Malos' thought process was defective. "If he can't provide reliable information, then his input is no good to me," he concluded. It was the phrase he always used to describe things he deemed unacceptable: no good. Nobody knew why, but it was clear throughout Aoidos who worked with the Trinity Processor by how often they used the same phrase.

"Undo it," Klaus said again, more sternly, though inside he was worrying. The Trinty Processor was supposed to do as they was told. "Now."

Alvis' expression didn't change, but Malos was able to speak again a moment later. Looking surly, Malos asked, "Do you have any siblings, Professor Klaus?" He scoffed when Klaus shook his head. "Lucky."

"I agree," Alvis said, crossing his arms. "I would rather have no siblings at all if you two are going to insist on proving yourselves no good."

"I didn't mess up," Mythra said.

"This time," Alvis said, glancing at her while grinning and haughty, and she crossed her arms and stuck her tongue out at him.

"You're supposed to be a team," Klaus said. "Wipe that silly grin off your face, Alvis. You're being reprimanded."

Alvis didn't look chastised in the least, but he let his hands fall back at his sides and relaxed his face back into a neutral expression. As did Mythra. "Alvis likes pretending to be the Cheshire Cat," she said, looking back at Klaus. "He's really good at it."

"He's more like the Mad Hatter," Malos said. After leering at Alvis for a moment, he created a top hat and forced it onto Alvis' head, pulling it down over his eyes.

Mythra laughed, while Alvis scowled and yanked it off. He inspected Malos' work with disdain. "You missed some details." He tilted his head, and a moment later, the iconic tag appeared on the hat's side. Alvis shook out his hair and placed the hat back on his head, looking pleased. "Much better." He met Klaus' eyes as the grin returned to his face. "Don't you agree, Professor?"

Klaus stared at the tag's label, 10/6. Meant as a price tag, but modern audiences would better recognize it as a date these days, which would be 10 June. (On his side of the pond, at least. This was why everyone was supposed to use ISO date format in Elysium, but old habits die hard.) An incredible coincidence, since Alvis couldn't know about his family. Klaus had never mentioned them, and Alvis shouldn't have access to the personnel records. His blood ran cold when he considered the fact that Alvis could have merely prevented Malos from placing the hat on his head- he should've been able to read Malos' intentions- but chose not to. To allow Malos to get even, or some other reason?

"Me next," Mythra was saying, going on to share her plans for an Alice-styled dress, but Klaus interrupted her and told them that was enough for today. She pouted and stomped her foot, but Malos looked relieved. Though his voice was caustic when he thanked Klaus for the lesson.

Alvis, meanwhile, didn't change his expression at all, still wearing his snide grin. "Enjoy your evening, Professor Klaus," he said cordially as Klaus turned to leave. "As they say, home is where the heart is."

Klaus froze midstep and stumbled enough to nearly lose his balance. Alvis couldn't know. It was just a coincidence. Klaus was being paranoid because of the hat. Nothing more to it. And yet, with the way Alvis was grinning when Klaus turned around, he found that hard to believe. He spent an hour, then two, then three, reviewing the logs from the session before finally leaving. Returning to his very empty home, because Elly had taken Shulk and left over the summer, moving into her own place across town.

This wasn't the first time Klaus suspected Alvis knew more about him than he should. Much as Klaus reminded himself that correlation did not imply causation, Alvis had made enough implicating comments that Klaus asked Gideon about whether the Trinity Processor could access the personnel files. Gideon assured him that wasn't the case and gently reminded him who taught him ANY SYSTEM CAN BE EXPLOITED. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," he continued. "Ontos might've picked up on it from something mentioned by another instructor. Don't let him get under your skin." He scoffed when Klaus insisted Alvis hated him. "I'm not sure he likes anyone," Gideon admitted, and suggested Klaus try being nicer. "I know that's a challenge for you," he added, but he was smiling, even if Klaus wasn't.

So Klaus had tried. He'd even gone extra lengths to answer some of Alvis' more obscure questions, including outside his usual areas of expertise. Everything from plate tectonics to the Mozart effect. After Klaus explained it to him, Alvis persisted in being a wise guy, demanding clarification about what type of space (in the mathematical, rather than physical, sense) was meant by "improvements in spatial reasoning." The "wise guy" insult didn't faze him. "Is that not my role?" he'd asked, quite sincerely, and Klaus nearly gave him another supertask out of spite, because that was still something he had trouble with.

It was quite a curiosity, this defect of Alvis'. Some of Aoidos' best minds had looked at it, unsure whether the problem was in how his personality had developed due to programming or processing. For a while, there was more evidence for the former: overflows, underflows, the fact that the Trinity Processor handled the maximum value for a datetime as the end of the universe in certain cases. The three of them were so bewildered when told the world wouldn't end on 31 December 9999 that an entire team was formed devoted to fixing it. This, a problem that wouldn't occur for another seven thousand years, would be averted by ensuring they always handled dates in a format that provided a timespan of 292 billion years on either side of the Conduit's first appearance, likely past the lifespan of the sun and possibly even the universe.

To Klaus, it sounded excessive, and he suspected it might exacerbate the problem rather than resolve it. There was something he wanted to try but hadn't had a chance to with how today's session had gone. He spent the evening poring over the day's logs and convincing himself he was worried over nothing, resolving to return to the dreamworld at the first available session tomorrow so that he could put his hypothesis to the test.

Or would have, had someone not gone over her time when he arrived. Klaus glowered at Galea when she emerged from the room, but he held his tongue when he saw how shaken she looked. Usually she launched into her usual litany of excuses the moment he tried to rebuke her. "Something wrong?"

She shook her head and muttered something about needing to talk to her brother before she slipped past him and rushed off. Strange, but he wasn't about to waste any more of his time thinking about it.

Once inside, he rushed to where the Trinity Processor was standing but slowed upon hearing a strange buzzing noise. It stopped the moment the three noticed Klaus, all of them looking sheepish and fidgeting instead of their usual stationary attention. Klaus replayed the sound in his head and recognized it more readily as a melody, though he couldn't quite place the tune. "Were you humming?" All three nodded- Malos while rolling his eyes, Mythra while tossing her hair, and Alvis while shrinking into the collar of his jacket. "Is this what you normally do when no one is around?"

"No," Mythra said quickly. She sounded like she thought she was in trouble. "Usually we just wait for somebody else to show up." Klaus noticed Alvis scowl a moment before Mythra pointed her finger at him. "It was Alvis' idea, not mine. Blame him, it's his fault."

Alvis stood up straighter, looking almost defiant, but he didn't offer any explanation. "You're not in trouble," Klaus told them, and they all looked relieved. "If anyone is, it's Galea for going over time." The church bell sounded every hour for a reason- to alert visitors when their sessions were over.

All three of them looked confused at that. "We always figured the schedule was more a guideline than anything," Mythra said. "It happens all the time."

"With Galea?" Unbelievable. That woman needed a watch. But when they shook their heads, Klaus couldn't resist asking, "With others? How often?"

"Near daily," Alvis said, looking eager to be useful after his brush with discipline. "I can compile a list. In order of seniority, Professor Vandham, Professor-"

"That won't be necessary," Klaus snapped. Not when part of his time was already depleted and his plan required the full hour. "I'm here to teach you about integrals."

All of them protested that they knew that already. And they did- basic calculus was certainly within their capabilities at this point- but none of them understood its applications properly. Least of all Alvis.

Perhaps it was a good thing Galea ran over time. Whatever she'd done to encourage them to try to hum provided an excellent segue for his lesson. While working to satisfy Alvis' musical curiosity, the mathematical aspects of music theory distracted Klaus on numerous occasions. Enough that he'd traced back its roots to Newton's notebooks, filled with equations involving logarithms in an effort to produce perfect harmonies. Such formulas were studied as far back as ancient Greece, by Pythagoras himself claiming all is number, contributing to the music of the spheres. But it was Newton's studies of power series that stuck with Klaus, and he'd turned it over and over in his mind until he found how best to present it to the Trinity Processor in a way they would understand. Most of all Alvis.

Integrals are functions that sum the infinitisimal series between two values, the limits. For Alvis to fully understand his role, he needed to understand that Malos and Mythra were his, without getting lost in the weeds as he was currently prone to. Not that anyone understood why he kept getting stuck there to begin with. Klaus suspected it was because he was trying to divide by zero, but the engineers were adamant that wasn't the case. "Oldest trick in the book," Gideon told him, explaining how much easier it was to teach them to avoid that pitfall than others. "That's one of the first things we trained them to avoid. Cut that branch off so hard they won't even consider it."

But it occurred to him now, as Alvis pointed out all the theoretical and practical problems with infinitesimals, that perhaps they didn't consider it for the wrong reason. So Klaus asked them. It wasn't even forbidden. "What's six divided by zero?"

"Undefined," they said in unison.

"Wrong," Klaus said. "It's infinity."

Alvis looked doubtful, Malos looked horrified, and Mythra looked interested. "Why?" she asked.

Klaus explained to them the nature of lines, composed of infinite points all of length zero. True for any length, thus it can yield any number. "To calculate an infinite amount of points of length between two points is useless because it could be anything," he finished. "It's like finding no answer at all."

"Like getting stuck in a black hole," Alvis said. "Professor Doyle taught us about those. A gravitational singularity in space-time with infinite curvature and density, thus trapping any who pass its event horizon."

"That's correct," Klaus said. Figures- Director Doyle was an astronomer. "Anyone caught in an infinity is lost. That is why Mythra and Malos are integral to your role."

Alvis scowled, insulted. "It is my role to determine the best of all possible outcomes," he said. "It is no good to waste time on incorrect options."

"So you'd rather risk them taking adverse actions without your guidance?"

"Such actions can yet be resolved by another of the infinite possibilities."

Klaus sighed. No wonder they broke so many things all the time, if Alvis just figured he'd fix everything later. Again Klaus tried to explain how infinity was the event horizon of mathematics, even insulting Alvis once more by saying he was no good to his siblings once he was stuck in a supertask and hiding all his opinions from them. At least that got Alvis to look more alarmed than annoyed. "You say I am obsolete?" he said.

"When you're not contributing anything useful? Yes." Might as well go for broke, although Klaus doubted the Founders would approve. "That time matters. You need to work together every moment, including the ones where you don't like what they say. Otherwise you'll never change their minds."

He was aware how bitter he sounded, but he was convinced there was nothing he could say at that point to make Alvis understand. Already his thoughts were turning elsewhere, though strangely not to work. Talking about all of this was making him think of other things instead. Things he focused on instead of people.

So he missed whatever happened before Malos caught his attention and started accusing him of breaking Alvis. Klaus asked Malos to explain, and Malos scowled and created a lamp, already lit, and held the switch on its base towards Alvis. "No," Alvis said.

Malos shot a glare back at Klaus, and it clicked for him what was happening here. "Did you create Thomson's Lamp for him?"

Malos nodded once. "You broke him. He's no fun now."

Klaus ignored this- it was well known how much he and Mythra enjoyed abusing their brother's defect- and turned back to Alvis. "Why won't you do the lamp now?"

"Because we're friends," Alvis said.

It was a bizarre non sequitur, made even more bizarre by the way Malos and Mythra reacted to it. Malos looked angrier than ever while Mythra looked amused. However briefly, for suddenly she and Malos both tensed, her mere moments before him, and she grabbed Alvis' shoulder as fury flashed across his face before the entire dreamworld vanished, leaving him alone in a darkened room.

Incredible. Whatever Klaus wanted to ask next was lost with how baffled he was that this had caused an actual power outage in Rhadamanthus. He gave a short statement to the technician outside about what happened before the incident, then endured a longer barrage of questioning from more senior engineers. When he was finally allowed to leave, he was so annoyed by the whole ordeal that he decided to head straight home.

He went somewhere else instead.

Maybe because it was so dark, with only the emergency lights active, that he'd changed course. But he knew the real reason was because of what he'd said to the Trinity Processor earlier. He stood in front of the door for a long time before he knocked, then kept knocking on it for quite a while before it opened. "I'm only answering," Elly said, frowning at him, "because he asked me to."

She flicked her eyes at her feet, and Klaus looked down and found Shulk standing there and looking up at him with interest. After a brief hesitation, Shulk took a few steps forward and latched onto his leg. Klaus leaned down and picked him up, making him giggle. Moments later Shulk grabbed Klaus' tie and started fidgeting with it, and Klaus didn't have the heart to tell him to stop. He was too floored by how much Shulk had grown while he wasn't watching. "Does he still scream when the lights go out?"

She didn't answer immediately, but when he looked back at her, her face had softened and she was nodding. "He does the same thing with my necklace," she said. That must be the only reason why she was still wearing it. Klaus didn't dare to hope otherwise. After drumming her fingers against the door for a moment, she sighed and opened it wider. "You might as well come in till this is fixed. Nothing else to do till then anyway."

He stayed far longer than that.

Klaus remembered when the Trinity Processor presented the idea for Tiger! Tiger!

Not that he was important enough to be there personally. The Trinity Processor called all the Founders into the dreamworld to make the request. As a gift, since it was a week till their seventh birthday. The Founders were amused- all this time and they'd never asked for anything until now- but the Coalition was considerably less so. Billions in investments, years of research, and the Trinity Processor's first invention was a video game.

The prevailing reaction among Aoidos employees was confusion. Constructing it was simple, save for its most important components: the remote generators. The schematics for those called for no materials but rather diagrammed hundreds- perhaps thousands- of formulas all overlapping and completely unreadable. It became a point of fascination in Aoidos until Elly and Klaus determined what it was supposed to be.

They presented their conclusion to the Aoidos board of directors in a meeting scheduled soon after. "It's like a little programmable core chip," Elly told them. Core chips were an emerging technology in Rhadamanthus, formed from condensing ether through a process that would be perfected sometime before the heat death of the universe at the rate they were going. And yet the Trinity Processor had somehow managed to figure it out intuitively, even if they couldn't express it properly. But the real magic was in how the Trinity Processor planned to use it. She sighed before she explained it, having already complained to Klaus earlier about how she hated overusing this word, and how the phrase itself was ridiculous, but there was no better way to describe it. "It works by quantum pseudo-telepathy."

She gave a brief overview of entanglement before letting Klaus take over to explain the game theory aspects of it, and how it would benefit the Trinity Processor's algorithmic development. "Thus far," he began, "we've only been giving them games of perfect information. We're all aware of the challenges involved there- Ontos struggles to reconcile the differences between Pneuma and Logos because it knows just as much as the other two and has to determine which of them is wrong. But due to the way this machine of theirs works, Ontos will never have the same set of information as Pneuma and Logos, because it cannot observe the game directly. That dependency should develop trust between them, and hopefully foster the sort of cooperation they've been lacking all this time."

Everything after that was just numbers. By the end of January, all the components of Tiger! Tiger! were assembled, save the remote generators. The Trinity Processor themselves continuously expressed disbelief that Aoidos couldn't understand how they worked and were mostly unwilling to explain it. Their learning algorithms were adjusted to give more weight to nonfiction books- Sagan's Cosmos, Hawking's Brief History of Time, Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons on Physics- in hopes that would help them provide better instructions on how to build it, to no avail. The project seemed stalled until one day, while Director Vandham himself was in the dreamworld, Alvis asked one last time for confirmation that Aoidos couldn't comprehend their designs, glanced at his siblings, and said, "Very well."

What followed was the most severe outage Rhadamanthus would experience for years. The lights, communications, Beanstalk stability, even the artificial gravity were all affected, the last causing everyone to lose their footing for a few moments before backup systems were activated. Once all systems were restored, it was clear that something was different about the Trinity Processor's ether flow. Two new components were available to connect to the Conduit's power, and the best guess of what those were was quickly confirmed by checking where Tiger! Tiger! was stored. Right where the Trinity Processor had planned to place them were two remote generators: one green, one purple.

At once, Aoidos started analyzing them while questioning the Trinity Processor. None of them had a good answer. "We willed it, and it happened," Alvis said simply, while the other two merely shrugged. An incredibly blatant example of them using the Conduit to casually violate the law of conservation of mass, and they couldn't explain it. Quite a miracle to bring to the upcoming conference, though rumor had it Aoidos and the Coalition were more concerned with how they could use it to reduce the equipment costs. Government contracts required such painstaking bookkeeping, and using the Trinity Processor to generate objects would certainly reduce costs. This quickly proved infeasible when it became clear how much awareness the Trinity Processor had through the remote generators. Which is to say, enough that it alarmed Aoidos.

"Can't have them using that as spyware," Gideon told Klaus later. "Imagine if it fell into enemy hands. For all our control over the Trinity Processor, we can't allow them to control us."

Like Klaus needed to be told that. Though he no longer thought so, rumors abounded that the Trinity Processor knew more than they were allowed. Even Galea had pulled Klaus aside to share her own suspicions, which he found especially amusing considering she should know their systems better than he did. If Galea thought there was a problem, she could figure it out herself.

He had far more important things to work on, both professionally and personally. After reaching out to Elly back in autumn, she'd invited him down the Beanstalk to see her parents over the holidays. Though he'd blanched at the prospect of leaving Rhadamanthus, he'd ultimately agreed and found it more enjoyable than expected. To his surprise, there were things he missed about the surface, like the ocean and snow and the sight of the real moon in the night sky instead of a mere projection. All things Shulk got to experience for the first time, to his clear delight.

Things were as peaceful down there as the news suggested. No wonder the Coalition decided to hold the conference. He was almost looking forward to it. The trip improved their relationship enough that she was willing to work with him again, to the point that she began to consider ending their separation more seriously. Once again, prompting discussion once more about which home they'd keep. Though Klaus preferred his for its proximity to the park, hers did have more space, space they expected to need. He spent his days preparing for it and his nights dreaming of what was to come.

Such was the case the day before it happened, when his desk phone startled him awake. He checked the time as he answered, wincing when he saw what it was. He launched into excuses which Elly cut off quickly, aware of what he was working on. Neither of them got off easy with what they needed to get done before the main event, and he'd already warned her of all the last minute calculations he was responsible for checking. Most interesting were the ones related to the remote generators in Tiger! Tiger! which did not appear to be little programmable core chips but rather something far more advanced and far more incredible. Those were the numbers he'd gone over more than once, because it was concerned aspects of his presentation with Elly. Even though that wasn't scheduled until later in the week, he didn't want to let her down. He wanted to be sure.

Klaus didn't remember the details of what they said then. With how tired he was, he must've yawned a few times. They probably confirmed the plan of what they would do once they were down there, maybe even compared notes on what they were most excited for. Before hanging up, he probably said something about seeing her later instead of something more meaningful.

He remembered everything that happened after. Every agonizing second once he was down there, glued to the screens while waiting for news and then wishing he hadn't heard it when it finally came. Wandering the hospital halls and wondering why Shulk would have the necklace with him as he twisted it into knots inside his left pocket. Dickson had delivered it to him with all the other terrible news. It was inescapable wherever he went, playing on every television and radio he passed while waiting for updates. Not that those were ever good either.

Here was the irony of the situation: Shulk had survived, despite being found unresponsive. There was a room in a Morytha hospital where he was alive, his heartbeat restored and steadfastly monitored by an impressive array of machines. Machines also responsible for maintaining his breathing, because all the scans indicated there was no activity in his brain anymore. Which meant he was dead in all the ways that mattered, leaving the decision to finish him off to Klaus.

He very nearly did, only for Guernica Vandham to arrive with a proposition.

Klaus laughed in his face when he heard it. "Those are the things that were meant to let people live forever," he said. Not that they ever worked. Everyone in Aoidos had heard the stories, each worse than the last. It didn't matter what sorts of breakthroughs in recent research were presented, Klaus wouldn't dare put his faith in them.

"Not forever," Guernica said. Director Vandham, now, Klaus supposed, having seen him on the news as Aoidos' main spokesperson for the past week. "Long enough to grow up."

When a person loses something, they cannot help but seek a reason why. Within themselves, or in others, they seek a concrete answer to the question of who they really are, deep inside. Klaus was not in any way different. "All right," he said.

Before heading up the Beanstalk and back to Rhadamanthus, Klaus stopped by the wish tree. The seagulls were as vicious as ever, singing their taunts as they ripped hopes and dreams to shreds. Klaus wrote down his wish and added it to their feast, then walked through the city until he was looking out at the ocean.

It was customary in Elysium for newly married couples to share their middle names with each other once the paperwork was signed. Klaus let Elly try to guess first, though she only tried Zachary before she gave up. When she heard what his was, she beamed. "Mine is Alexandrina," she said, before he had a chance to guess.

"Lovely," he said. "Very unique."

Which made her groan. "It was the first name of Queen Victoria," she said. "Don't you know your history?"

"You should know by now that the humanities hold no interest for me."

"Well, you should know better than that by now," she shot back. "Those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it."

Now, he slid his thumb along the third finger on his left hand until his wedding ring dropped into his palm. Then he stretched his arm back as far as he could and hurled it into the water.

Klaus remembered the first time Shulk spoke after he was brought back from the dead.

For weeks after Shulk regained consciousness, he did not say anything, despite being awake and alert. He did not do much beyond breathe and sleep, staring out into the distance without focusing on anything. He did not eat unless commanded, and when he did, he ate whatever he was offered. Even things he hadn't liked before. He would nod or shake his head when asked direct questions, but never more than once. His reflexes were all normal, and he didn't have any problems moving around or following directions. But he still wouldn't speak, even when his condition stabilized enough to be released.

The doctors advised socialization, so Klaus asked Fiora's parents to bring her over for a playdate. That was a mistake. Barely five minutes passed before she marched over to Klaus with her tiny face full of rage. "He's broken," she yelled at him. "You broke him." Then she kicked him in the shin. Gideon made her apologize, explaining patiently how Shulk was still recovering from being hurt badly, but Klaus could tell he was more concerned with Shulk sitting listlessly on the living room floor, staring at the wall instead of all the toys she'd pulled out.

After that debacle, Klaus tried more solitary activities. He read to Shulk, played music, let him watch a lot of television. Slowly, Shulk started to show interest, however mild. He colored, always neatly within the lines. He stacked blocks in large towers, never upset when they fell. But he still didn't speak.

Weeks turned into months. There was therapy. Adjustments to the ether levels in Rhadamanthus. Klaus took Shulk on walks through Elysium, pointing at various landmarks while checking that Muninn was following. Taking a trip to the planetarium. Pulling him through the central plaza and wondering why he was bothering recounting the story of how he proposed to Elly when it was clear Shulk wasn't listening. Following the winding path along the river until they passed the north checkpoint. Slowing. Turning around. Crossing the bridge. Striding down the long hallway.

The guards gave him curious glances, but Klaus ignored them. Elysium's anthem played over the speakers, growing harder to hear as they reached the lobby area where the news was playing for those passing through. Updates on recent battles, discussions of logistics, analysis of strategies. No mention of any attempts at negotiations.

Klaus slowed to listen once they got off the escalator, staring at the screen with such disgust that he didn't even notice Shulk's hand slip out of his until he turned his head away. When he finally did, there was a brief moment of panic before he found Shulk a short distance away, staring out the window. Not at Earth, but at the void beyond, speckled with sparks of light. He didn't look away when Klaus reached him. "It's full of stars," Shulk said.

Klaus didn't say anything for so long that Shulk tore his gaze away from the glass to look up at him, his face scrunched with worry. As if he thought he'd said something wrong. Klaus coughed into his hand to brace himself to speak. "That's right," he told Shulk. "And many other things besides, all waiting to be explored."

"Other planets?" Shulk's eyes widened when Klaus nodded. "Can we go there?"

"Not yet," Klaus said. "But one day. I promise." He shoved his hand in his left pocket for a moment, thinking, then jerked his head back toward the checkpoint. "Come with me. I want to show you something."

At home, Klaus set Shulk on the couch with a bowl of popcorn before turning his attention to the television. Yet he hesitated before he put the disc in the DVD player. Was Shulk too young for this? Probably, but it was already evening, and though Klaus already told Shulk he didn't have to go to bed until the movie was over, he suspected Shulk would fall asleep before then. Perhaps even in the first half hour, since the ape-men sequence was so dreadfully dull.

To Klaus' surprise, Shulk was entranced from the start. Watching the opening title with wide eyes as the drums sounded and gave way to the opening fanfare over the eclipse. Growing no less interested through the dawn of man scenes, finally turning to Klaus when the monolith appeared onscreen. "What is that?"

"The Conduit." Basically.

"What's the Conduit?"

"The reason we're here. The Trinity Processor uses it to power the station."

"What's the Trinity Processor?"

"It's a computer I work with." Shulk would surely be asleep by the time they reached the Jupiter mission section. Surely. Klaus glanced at the very full bowl in Shulk's lap. "Have some popcorn."

Shulk grabbed exactly one piece and placed it in his mouth without taking his eyes off the screen. He was still very much awake through the entirety of Dr. Floyd's visit to the moon to find the monolith again, very much awake when the Discovery slid across the screen, very much awake for the introduction of Frank Poole and Dave Bowman and, of course, HAL. When HAL and Poole had their chess match, Shulk asked if Klaus would teach him how to play, and Klaus said sure even though he suspected the game might be solved before he would have the chance. He wondered when this boy would fall asleep, hoping it would be soon.

But no, Shulk turned to Klaus with alarm when Frank Poole went spinning off into space. "The computer here isn't mean like HAL, right?" Shulk asked.

"No, of course not," Klaus said. "Everyone here has made sure of it. Including me."

Shulk relaxed at that, though he tensed again when HAL didn't let Bowman back on the Discovery. He continued to look worried during HAL's shutdown sequence, making Klaus regret showing him the film. Maybe he wouldn't remember this long-term. Shulk's capacity to make memories was uncertain enough as it was. At least he didn't look too concerned during the Beyond the Infinite sequence and through the ending, though he didn't speak again until the movie was over, tilting his head at the screen as Thus Spoke Zarathustra played again. "Is that what the Conduit does?" he asked.

"We have no idea, but it's one possible answer." Klaus shut off the television as the credits began rolling and ruffled Shulk's hair. The bowl of popcorn was still full when he recited the final line of the introduction to his favorite novel. "The truth, as always, will be far stranger."

And Shulk smiled for the first time since he died.

Klaus remembered when the Trinity Processor first started learning to fight. Mostly because they didn't take it seriously.

It was infuriating. Over and over, even after being stripped of everything they had that could be considered entertainment, they treated battle like one of their games. As a matter of fun rather than survival. They pulled branches from the lone tree and smacked each other with them; or rather, Mythra and Malos swung at each other haphazardly while Alvis dodged everything without effort. Sometimes he was gracious enough to block a blow instead of merely evading it, but such a move always turned into a perfect counter, slamming his opponent to the ground with a sharp flick of his blade. Even when pitted against both of his siblings, Alvis maintained the upper hand, always spiraling just out of reach and weaving their advances against each other until both were incapacitated.

It was for that reason Aoidos determined the best way to hone the Trinity Processor's battle prowess was by having Alvis fight both Mythra and Malos. Essentially, they'd be training themselves. Results here were more favorable: Mythra and Malos quickly grew motivated to beat Alvis, despite his overwhelming advantage, while in turn Alvis grew ever more adept at anticipating their moves. Though the negative impacts on the group's dynamics were clear, the improvements made to their battle capabilities were well worthwhile. A small cost compared to that of the station's survival.

There was no time to spare with that at stake. The clock was ticking. Every year brought an update to the metaphorical Doomsday Clock, the minutes to midnight dwindling ever further as tensions flared across the globe. News of escalating conflicts below spurred the Coalition to press the Trinity Processor into developing weapons and defensive systems, initially intended to defend the Beanstalks by land and air but with the foresight- and fear- the wide scope of war would threaten space soon enough. Early Artifices were clumsy, poorly designed, prone to malfunctioning. The Trinity Processor grew more adept at their creation the more they fought each other in the dreamworld, training to translate the movements of their avatars into those of their machines.

It was soulless work, but there was no shortage of people in Aoidos eager to help them do it. Klaus was one of the first to volunteer. Even if it meant his job was increasingly more about the quality of the Artifices produced by the Trinity Processor than the Conduit, he couldn't just do nothing. They couldn't exactly study it if they all got blown out of the sky. Besides, what the Trinity Processor came up with was fascinating. Aritifice parts were designed to be modular, easily reusable, and nigh indestructible. If any piece lost circuit with its internal remote generator, it could be salvaged and returned to the Orbital Ring or any Beanstalk to be incorporated into a replacement unit. The Coalition was regularly notified of any losses and commandeered vessels to fetch the fallen parts, ensuring Aoidos never ran out of materiel. (To say nothing of how they could simply create it from nothing with the Conduit's power, though that was prone to causing outages and thus kept to a minimum.) It was elegant. It was ruthlessly efficient. It was the only reason they were still here at all.

There were long days spent in the hangars beneath Elysium, waiting through inspections and watching demonstrations through the designated observation windows. Submitting analyses of the combat capabilities of every Artifice, no matter what its role. Calculating the scope and yields of weapons, the strength and durability of shields. Inventing new formulas and refining the methods involved in forming them. Arguing, more often than not, with the engineers over whether the Trinity Processor's designs were sound. Proving the mathematics involved, even when he didn't fully understand them himself, to show that the old rules didn't apply, that whatever standards used in the past were overturned by the arcane power of the Conduit. Arguing, more often than not, until his voice was hoarse in far too many meetings, then complaining, more often than not, to whoever he saw next, whether it was the latest round of interns or the Trinity Processor themselves. Eventually, he proved his case so well they gave him the position he'd been coveting to instruct future generations of Aoidos employees. Just as he suspected, being addressed as "professor" never got old, even if classes filled more of his schedule.

And through it all, his life was punctuated by the buzzing of his pager, alerting him whenever Shulk had a health issue. Often debilitating in those first few years, subsiding somewhat when he started school, but until the test results showed he was fine, Klaus would be convinced every time that this was the one when Shulk would be rendered an empty shell. The possibility always lurked in the back of his mind, especially when they were both home and Klaus expected Shulk to fall over dead at any moment. Instead, Shulk asked questions while working on his model kits and homework that Klaus could not answer truthfully. Questions like "what do you do at work?" and "why do I have so many headaches?" and his absolute least favorite, "why aren't there any photos of Mummy at home?" which he always thought he'd escaped hearing for the year until it slammed him in May because the Americans didn't celebrate Mother's Day until then.

At least he didn't need to worry about getting Shulk to and from school. There were enough other children in the building that the parents organized a rotation of chaperones, and Klaus did everything he could to avoid being included. Despite this, he still managed to get called to do it, no matter how many excuses he gave. Then he complained about that to anyone who would listen, until, to his surprise, Dickson volunteered to do it instead. "But you hate kids," Klaus said.

"There's something else I hate more," Dickson said, quickly following up with, "Don't think I haven't noticed how important you've gotten around here. Whole projects lag when you're detained, including mine. This is war. We both know there's no time to waste."

So Klaus gave Dickson the key that used to belong to his wife, only to be called to human resources not long afterward and subjected to a rather bizarre inquiry into "the nature of his relationship with Dickson" and a review of confidentiality policies and procedures identical to the one he'd endured when he married Elly.

Shulk was likewise confused by this development. "Is Dickson my stepdad?" He looked disappointed when Klaus told him no, saying, "Reyn said he got a stepdad after one of his parents died."


Shulk started prattling on about his new best friend who sat next to Fiora and how they were all going to be friends forever, but Klaus lost interest quickly and didn't think much of it until he had to fetch Shulk for an appointment a week later and found him waiting by the school doors with Fiora and a redheaded boy who was confused by Klaus' appearance. "Who's this guy?" the boy asked Shulk.

"You mean my dad?" Shulk said.

"I thought Mister Dickson was your dad," the other boy said.

Shulk looked bashful, glancing at Klaus nervously while Fiora laughed. "Mister Dickson's not Shulk's dad," she said. "Remember? He said Shulk's a dead ringer for Professor Klaus. Can't you tell?"

The redheaded boy looked curiously at Shulk and Klaus, but Klaus grabbed Shulk's hand and pulled him away before the conversation could continue, fuming. He dismissed all of Shulk's questions by insisting they'd be late if they didn't hurry, saying nothing else until they reached the clinic and Klaus passed him off to the physician for examination. As was the case the past several appointments, there was nothing of concern to report. Despite the headaches and occasional fainting spells and seizures, and save for the core crystal fused to his brain stem acting as an ether receptor to replace the regions ruined when he was four, Shulk was perfectly ordinary.

There was certainly no problem with Shulk's cognitive ability. His schoolwork was flawless and all his teachers spoke highly of him, outside of a few disciplinary issues. Like dismantling the classroom Speak & Spell, no matter how many times he was told not to. Electronics at home weren't safe either. On the rare occasions Klaus saw him there, Shulk was often pulling apart various devices, even late into the night. The television remote, the thermostat, the blue canary nightlight Dickson bought him after he complained about the red light his old lighthouse one made- nothing was safe.

"I have to make sure they're not mean like HAL," Shulk explained when Klaus found him pulling apart his alarm clock despite it being nearly midnight, forcing Klaus to reassemble it before going to sleep. Or rather, attempt to, since Shulk kept correcting him during the process until Klaus lost his patience and told Shulk to handle it. Which he did, to Klaus' surprise. Klaus inspected Shulk's work while Shulk swung his legs against his bed and chattered endlessly about how he was going to work for Aoidos when he grew up and make sure all the robots that kept them safe were going to be good just like his dad did, at which point Klaus snapped at him not to call him that, that if he was going to grow up and work for Aoidos he might as well start using Klaus' given name now since he undoubtedly would eventually. There was a sentence forming in Klaus' head that he didn't want to confront, an accusation, one that chased him into bed and blocked his way to sleep, until he was finally so exhausted that somehow morning arrived without him noticing time had passed at all. But it had, for mere moments later, his own alarm clock rang to announce the start of a new day, in all its cruel potential.

More long days evaluating the Artifices' capabilities- calculating blast range, targeting accuracy, destructive impact- and training the Trinity Processor to create more powerful ones and use them more effectively without negatively impacting the station. The outages grew to be less frequent, although there were still some in Aoidos who opposed using the Conduit's power for war machines. There was a group proposing a technology that could simulate ether to create weapons which wouldn't be dependent on the Conduit, lessening the burden on the Trinity Processor. Not to mention the political benefits- plenty of organizations on Earth, from terrorists to human rights groups, criticized the Coalition for using the Conduit's power as a weapon. Klaus found the idea ridiculous, even if it did come from the lone surviving Founder. Whatever Professor Oosoo's reasons, it felt like siding with the enemy to Klaus. It was abundantly clear fighting was the only way to reason with them, and the Conduit was their biggest advantage. If that meant the only way to ensure peace was through superior firepower, so be it. Then Oosoo went and died and the project stalled until it was shelved, hopefully permanently, and all the people involved shuffled back to more important work.

Which put Galea in his orbit, again. She was already a thorn in his side before she ran off to waste time on ether furnaces, what with all the work she did with Artifices, and now she was back and more insufferable than ever. Her new project was refining the tracking systems monitoring the Trinity Processor, starting with the Artifice network. She'd been involved with the initial scaffolding of that infrastructure, but as the Trinity Processor created more and more and created more complex algorithms to control them them, Aoidos had to resort to reverse engineering for any insights on how those worked. Often he vied with her for the same timeslots in the labs or with the Trinity Processor, and she was just as prone to running late as always.

Although that was less of a problem for sessions where he supervised the Trinity Processor's practice skirmishes. Klaus never neglected to encourage them to learn from their experiences, challenging them to make even the smallest improvements on every attempt. And they delivered, setting a new record every time Klaus was on duty.

Today was no different. Alvis was on track to surpass every metric from the start, disarming Mythra with ease by swiping with his blade in his right hand, then switching it to his left to ram it into Malos' side. Pivoting, Alvis returned it to his other hand and knocked Malos' blade away, then pointed the tip of his branch at Malos' throat. "Kneel," Alvis said.

Malos spit at him, alarming Klaus and making him wince as Alvis swung at the Malos' chest with enough force to send him sprawling to the ground, then sidestepped a sneak attack from Mythra that left her sliding past with enough momentum that she fell on her face, dropping her branch once again. There was a strange buzzing sound for a moment when Alvis sighed and pressed the point of his branch into Mythra's back. Though some of the coldness left his eyes when she looked up at him and stuck out her tongue. He almost seemed to smile as he spun the branch against her, lifting it out of her reach when she tried to slap it away. "This is so unfair," she growled.

"You're telling me," Alvis said, sounding bored. He ducked as Malos swung at his neck from behind, then used his position to deliver a sharp kick to Malos' knees which forced him to the ground. Alvis straightened with a satisfied grin as he glanced over his shoulder. "I believe I told you to kneel." Malos glared, balling his fists, but Alvis had already turned his attention to Klaus. "Apologies for my degraded performance. Is this data sufficient?"

Klaus clicked his stopwatch and checked the time to confirm what he already knew. A new record, as usual. "You did well," Klaus said absently, making a few notes on his clipboard about what data to review further later.

Alvis didn't look pleased by the praise. He insisted he only won so quickly because Malos and Mythra hadn't made any new moves, arguing that he wasn't improving if they weren't as well. Klaus sighed, wondering again if he was the only instructor who regularly had to endure this much passive aggressive backtalk from Alvis when he caught the buzzing sound again. "What is that?"

"I assumed that was you," Alvis said, shrugging.

It was not. Klaus knew the exact sound his pager made at this point, but he checked his pocket anyway, wondering how Alvis knew about it. He couldn't remember if the Trinity Processor knew the exact mechanism of how they were able to summon their professors when warranted, not that it mattered when Klaus was already here. His thoughts evaporated in a panic when he couldn't find the pager. Whatever interference causing the buzzing sound would have to wait. He ran out of the dreamworld and back to his office, then back home when he couldn't find the pager there either.

Even in his rush, he frowned when he spotted Muninn in the tree outside the building, and his scowl deepened when he opened the door to his home. He had, in fact, left the pager here again, because there it was in Shulk's hands. Or rather, the motherboard was. The chassis was in pieces on the floor where Shulk sat and studied the tiny circuit lines and modules. He yelped and dropped it at the sound of Klaus' voice.

"What do you think you're doing?" Klaus started picking up the scattered parts and hoped nothing was missing, berating Shulk all the while. He finished his scolding by asking why Shulk wasn't at school, only to be reminded that it was Saturday. That explained why he'd had little problem securing a slot with the Trinity Processor today, although he figured that was more related to what happened to Galea earlier in the week.

It was why Klaus was so concerned about the buzzing noise in the dreamworld. There were new safeguards warning the instructors when the ether concentration in the room hit dangerous thresholds, something that was happening more and more often. Galea had fainted from one such spike and spent the past few days in the hospital, more for observation than anything. When Klaus visited her, she didn't seem much worse for wear besides all the complaining that it'd happened on her birthday. At least, until Klaus gave her the gift he'd gotten for the occasion: a watch. She was strangely ungrateful, even after Klaus explained that it was Vector's latest model, made from recycled Artifice parts and designed for precision with the latest techniques to combat the effects of clock drift in Rhadamanthus. Still, she did put it on, even if she she had the gall to say that the card Shulk and Fiora made for her was a better present. Klaus felt bad about forgetting to get one until Galea mentioned that they'd made it when they were supposed to be making Mother's Day cards, after which he'd stormed out and never went back.

He had enough other things to worry about. This next week Shulk's class was heading down the Beanstalk for a field trip, and Klaus had signed the permission slip for him to go despite his better judgment. The Coalition imposed so many restrictions to prevent Aoidos' project information from leaking down to the planet, but Shulk's condition apparently wasn't worth any. There were enough rumors about what went wrong with core crystals down there that politicians loved using the conspiracies for virtue signaling, often the same people who rejected the Coalition's offers of remote generators for free energy on the grounds that it was equivalent to yielding sovereignty to the Trinity Processor. Ridiculous.

(Later that summer Galea would tell him about a Mars rover knocked out by a severe dust storm. She sadly recounted NASA's increasingly desperate attempts to recover contact with the little robot and shared that she'd once had dreams of working for ESA, but all Klaus could think was how using an Artifice would have avoided the whole issue.)

With how less dependent Shulk was on ether as he got older, the doctors were optimistic he would be fine away from the Conduit for a few hours, the state of global politics notwithstanding. It took far less than that for Klaus' pager to go off that Wednesday, sending him sprinting to the Rhadamanthus lobby where he anxiously watched the news waiting for Shulk's return. There were still nice days in Morytha then, although the bickering of the Beanstalk authority councils was constant. Fortunately the sound of the elevator doors opening spared him from any more of that coverage. That f*cker from the Minos Authority only got airtime because he'd been a scientist on the Prometheus and left Aoidos before the Orbital Ring was ever built to go into politics.

Even though Shulk recovered quickly once back in Elysium, he stayed in the hospital long enough for his friends to try to visit a few times, during visitor hours or not. A stark contrast to the Trinity Processor, who still persisted in arguing that they could only have a fair fight if Alvis was separated by the partition so he couldn't read the others' minds. Absurd. The only reason Alvis learned how to play to his siblings' strengths and manage their weaknesses was by exploiting them throughout their mock battles. Klaus already had new ideas on how to challenge them further, new games and exercises and certainly nothing like that silly project Professor Addam suggested about giving them a hobby. Aoidos had taken away the Trinity Processor's entertainment activities for good reason, but perhaps Addam had a point. There were less outages once the fishing application was added to the dreamworld. Or maybe those new hires Addam put on the project were just really good at fixing bugs.

Years passed. Wars raged. Shulk's headaches grew fewer and farther between. The Trinity Processor perfected the designs of the Sirens and moved on to grander machines. Creating the Sentinels and their strange weapons that only manifested when needed, reducing the strain on the maintenance drones by 65%. Adding in the Heralds after a single attack from the Saviorites nearly pierced the Beanstalk's shield and threatened tower stability. Even the most conservative Coalition members balked at the thought of Rhadamanthus falling out of the sky.

Each January brought another update to the Doomsday Clock, only ticking backward one year when the Coalition agreed to limits on Artifice use in the atmosphere but otherwise advanced on a steady march to midnight. Closer and closer every year, until it hovered around fourteen seconds. About how long it would take to tell someone that their whole family was dead. Klaus knew this because it had happened to him twice, knew how hearing it felt like both an eternity and an instant. At that point, they might as well measure the remaining time in quantum leaps. There was no telling the state of the world unless it was observed, measuring the cost of conflict over the Conduit by estimating how long much longer it could be endured.

Klaus remembered when Director Vandham called him and Galea for their opinions about the Aegis test.

The name was Vandham's idea, in honor of the Founders. When the Conduit was still stored on the ship Prometheus and the mainframe computer system was in its alpha stages, it'd been called Athena. The name made Klaus smile- another Odyssey reference and all that entailed. Thus the Trinity Processor, now matured, could now protect the Orbital Ring themselves like Athena's famous shield. Assuming nobody had any final concerns. The project had been delayed long enough.

Galea had several, though she also had a list of recommended measures that would offset them which she was eager to present once Director Vandham's grandson Noah was gone. Klaus let her talk while he stared at the model of Elysium in his hand, trapped in its glass cage. There was a smudge over the central plaza, and Klaus rubbed at it absently, thinking.

At the start of the year, the Trinity Processor had created another Sentinel model to round out the Spectrum. Unlike the ones named for the Founders, they suggested Ophion be stationed outside Rhadamanthus rather than wait in a hangar, so that it could deliver decisive strikes when needed. "It's our birthday gift to ourselves," Mythra explained.

"That isn't how birthday gifts work," Klaus told her. "You know this. I know you know this."

"But it's our sweet sixteen," Mythra said. Hard to believe it had been so long. The three of them vaguely resembled young adults now. Malos was tall enough to nearly make eye contact with Klaus. "We want something that's going to make our lives easier," she continued. "And this definitely will."

"Ophion is designed to move quickly," Malos said. "It has a slim profile so it's harder to hit head-on than a Siren. It's also sturdy, so using it as a ram is just as effective as a Siren's laser."

"It also requires more power than a Siren," Klaus pointed out. "More power than any other Sentinel, I might add."

"So?" Mythra said with a shrug. "None of the others are even needed if Ophion can deliver a surgical strike. Ophion's still got lasers and particle beams like a Siren anyway, but it's as effective as twenty. Quality over quantity."

It wasn't like Aoidos wouldn't allow it- the Trinity Processor's designs had been flawless for years- but Klaus still found this to be an odd request. He checked the blueprint again, wondering why it looked so much different than the other Sentinels, and then it hit him. "It's an eel."

Mythra beamed. She loved those things ever since she started fishing them up. Klaus had to admit that Addam was right about giving the Trinity Processor a hobby. Teach a supercomputer to fish, and they'll invent a new superweapon, apparently. "Mostly," she said. "Malos came up with the mane."

"Defensive panels," Malos explained.

Odd, considering he usually focused on offense. Klaus glanced at Alvis, wondering what, if any, input he'd had on this one. While his siblings had shifted their attire to fantastical armor, Alvis remained casually dressed in the same jacket he'd always worn. Usually he was the one to present new Artifice designs to Aoidos, ever the general to the other two. But now Alvis was preoccupied, his gaze blank. It was clear he wasn't listening, and Klaus had to repeat his name three times before he blinked and met Klaus' eyes. "Anything to add?" Klaus asked.

Alvis shook his head. "Their decisions are my decisions," he said.

His eyes flicked toward Klaus' side for a moment, then lost their focus again. If he thought Klaus wouldn't catch that, he was sorely mistaken. "Are you experiencing any performance degradation?"

"No." Alvis blinked a few times and met Klaus' eyes again. "Is there some problem with the mechanics? I can explain the formulas if required."

"That won't be necessary." Klaus hesitated, then said, "Do you really want to keep this beneath Rhadamanthus?"

"Where else would we put it?" Mythra said. "It's no good to us if it's sitting in a hangar all the time."

Klaus looked past her at the model of Elysium down the hill and across the river. Still a town, it was nearly unrecognizable from the present city. Yet the Trinity Processor's model of Rhadamanthus had never changed, since the station's dimensions were the same as when the dreamworld was activated. There was no need to update the spatial properties, though the time- and thus the sky- always matched the city's. It was late afternoon, which in winter meant it was nearly twilight already. Klaus still had a mountain of things to do before tomorrow. He told them to expect a decision shortly and turned to leave. When he reached the door, his pager went off with an alert about Shulk. He groaned and left the room without looking back to wave at them, as he often did.

(If he had, would he have stopped if he caught a look of satisfaction on Alvis' face? He wasn't sure.)

Now, Klaus jolted in his seat when Vandham said his name. "Any concerns from you?" he asked.

Klaus noticed he'd started slouching while reminiscing and sat up straighter. "No," he said. He glanced down at the paperweight and noticed he'd only made the smudge worse. "None. When are we doing this?"

"The first, assuming everything gets approved," Vandham said. "I'll want you both in the Conduit room in case anything goes wrong. But everything should go smoothly."

After they were dismissed, Klaus and Galea left the building together. He expected they'd part ways at the road- she lived in a different part of town than him, so they wouldn't be walking any further together- but instead she brushed his arm and asked if he wanted to get dinner. He shook her off, both figuratively and literally, and headed off, sticking his hands in his pockets. Fidgeting more with what was in his right pocket more than his left for once, running his thumb along the base of the paperweight. Remembering Alvis saying, Their decisions are my decisions.

He said the same thing when Klaus arrived on the last day of October to tell them the good news. Just like his siblings, Alvis paid rapt attention to Klaus' overview of how tomorrow would go. Only once he seemed to lose focus, flicking his eyes to the side for a brief moment before returning his gaze to Klaus. As soon as Klaus was done in the dreamworld, he pored over the diagnostics, hoping to find some reason for it. But there was nothing out of ordinary in the logs, and he finally left and headed home, turning over that moment in his head and convincing himself it was nothing.

That night, Klaus did not sleep well. He had that nightmare about drowning again, one he hadn't had for many years but resurfaced now due to his anxiety about the Aegis test. It was clear where some parts of it came from- the boiling sea, with steam cloaking the water's surface and obscuring his view, was from that poem- but he had no idea what grabbed him this time, wrenching him down into the deep where there was nothing. He felt like something was watching him from above as he fell weightless, breathless, pulled down and down and down and-

-onto the ground, moments before the alarm clock started ringing. It was a long moment before he felt able to rise and silence it, so unbalanced he was from the sensation of sinking, and that discomfort followed him through his entire morning routine. Through combing his hair, through dressing and putting on his tie, through breakfast, then spiking when he finally noticed the time. Had his alarm gone off late? Had he awakened without realizing, hitting the snooze button before falling out of bed? It was as unlikely as the chances Shulk had broken in and changed it before heading to school. But no- he didn't have much to do before the Aegis test, so he'd meant to change it and allow himself some additional time to sleep. The problem was he couldn't remember doing that last night.

Klaus was so unnerved that he patted his lab coat pocket more than once before he left, and kept reaching inside to run his fingers around the pearls his entire way to the Conduit room. It didn't surprise him that he arrived before Galea, and he flipped through the console's monitoring screens before losing interest. For the first time ever, he was more interested in staring at the Trinity Processor than the Conduit. Watching the ether surge through the cores in their predictable rhythm and letting his mind wander.

What was he so worried about? Everything would be fine, and once it was, they would have more freedom to run experiments. More freedom to find an answer to why the Conduit was here. All the numbers had to add up to something. After today, they would be able to figure out what. He turned his attention back to the Conduit and stared at it, transfixed, the way he always did when he was down here.

By the time it occurred to him to wonder where Galea was, she'd already snuck into the room. "Oh, did you change your mind about the party?" she asked, looking pointedly at his tie. There was a small celebration scheduled that evening, should everything go well, and Galea was clearly ready for it, wearing a striking red dress under her lab coat.

"Not a chance," he told her. He'd chosen to wear it for luck, nothing more. "When did you get here?"

She laughed. "A while ago," she said. "Every time I find you here, you're looking at that thing like it has all the answers."

"Because it does," he couldn't help but say.

"You still think that, after fifteen years?"

Klaus bristled at that, annoyed at the reminder. At least he'd been spared her singing this year due to being in Vandham's office. "It's only been that long because we've been forced to focus more on fighting than on working," he said. "Trust me, Galea. Once this is settled, the best is yet to come."

She looked like she wanted to say more, but it was time to begin and they needed to monitor the logs. Not like there was much to see from here. Just windows with numbers, watching the cores evaluate risks and adjust plans on the fly and confirm their own expectations. Klaus felt more optimistic than he had in years. Near the end of the hour, he was ready to break out the champagne himself. Then something strange happened.

The sync rate reset to zero.

Maybe it was a glitch, Klaus thought, since it rose back to where it was so quickly enough that he also considered having imagined it. But another moment passed and it kept going, higher and higher. Past the usual threshold for standby, rising into a range usually reserved for dire situations. Yet the Trinity Processor reported no ongoing threats.

"Something's wrong," Galea said, but Klaus ignored her, intent on watching the screen. He wanted to see where this would go, and as long as the phone didn't ring, he couldn't find any reason to worry. Command had more power than they did to stop whatever was happening should it pose a problem anyway.

The Trinity Processor sync rate was determined via a predictive algorithm to align the cores' clock cycles with the waves produced by the Conduit, but the Conduit's waves were so complex that the sync rate usually hovered around 34%. 65% was the current record, but the Trinity Processor blew right past that and kept going, only slowing once in the 90s.

Galea said something about the ether, but he could hardly hear her. He'd noticed, but this was far more important. "They're going to figure it out," he told her, wondering why she wasn't as awed by this as he was.

By the time he finished his sentence, Logos and Pneuma were both frozen at 94%, but Ontos shot up to 99%, spawning a string of decimal places that quickly spilled out of its frame, filling the entire screen with 9s. Klaus started tapping buttons, trying to open menus to gain further insight, but nothing worked. The ether thickened into a fog, distorting his vision, smothering his face, seeping into his spine. "Alvis," he said, "how-"

He broke off, unable to say anything more in the swarm of ether. Galea said his name, grabbed his shoulder, even though a part of him was screaming not to touch him as he fell into the dream.

Elysium, wide and green in the daylight, under the great blue sky where a few wisps of clouds floated by. So fresh. So fragile. So... fraudulent. Something present in the corner of his eye- a hole. One there in the sky, then there in the grass, then everywhere, a sea of holes spilling through the city until everything was lost to darkness, a darkness that clawed from the brink of his mind to the pit of his stomach. Dark like the depths of an endless sea, like the edges of a boundless, starless night sky. A place so remote that no light could reach nor escape, pushing and pulling and prying at his soul until he felt he had fallen apart.

"-dare you disobey me?!"

Klaus didn't remember saying that, but he surely did. His ears were ringing when he came to. His mind was still so scattered that he felt lost, surrounded by a cacophony he couldn't quite understand. Finally he recognized it: the emergency phone. That's what the noise was. Blinking away his blurred vision, he realized he was staring at the ceiling and not the Conduit. When did he fall?

He lifted his head and looked around, his eyes roaming for answers until he found Galea's face at his side. She looked relieved, but only for a moment. "You're bleeding," they both said in unison, each reaching out a finger to point at the other's nose, and they flinched away from each other when their hands met. Klaus wiped at his while Galea sniffled and reached into her pocket for something to use as a tissue and split it down the center to give one half to him. He took it, wiping off his hands first and shaking a strand of red off his finger that must have come from her dress.

"Are you all right?" She was still on her feet, watching him with concern. "I've never seen the ether here so concentrated. You fell when the station started shaking."

"I'm fine," he said. He sat up fully and leaned his back against the console as he started wiping his nose. "What happened?"

"Besides the ether and Ontos hitting a nearly perfect sync rate? I don't know," she said. "Command must've shut off the Trinity Processor's access to the Conduit and reset everything. The ether's dissipated, fortunately." She paused, then added, her voice wary, "If anything, I thought you might have a better idea than me."

His eyes flicked toward her as he started cleaning off his hands. "Why on earth would you think that when I'm the one who passed out?"

"You said something about Alvis disobeying you," she said.

He took a moment to leer at her. "What are you talking about?"

"You said, 'Alvis, how dare you disobey me.'"

"No," he said slowly, deliberately, as if speaking to a child, "I said, 'Alvis, how are you doing this?'"

"That's not what I heard."

"Well, it's what I said." He crumpled the tissue and shoved it into his right pocket. Running his hand through his hair and wondering why it felt so damp around his ear, he noticed she was staring at him. "What?"

She hesitated, then asked, "Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine," he said, gripping the edge of the console to help him stand. Immediately he could tell he was not. His vision swam with black spots- the holes, he thought, nonsensically- sending him back to the floor, where he turned his head and vomited. The last thing he remembered was the sound of Galea's footsteps rushing for the emergency phone.

Later, at the hospital, they asked him over and over if he remembered hitting his head. They told him he had signs of a severe concussion, but that was ridiculous. He couldn't have hit the ground, or even the console, that hard when he passed out, surely. Unless the ether caused it, somehow, but that made even less sense to him. Galea had been standing right next to him and she was fine. Klaus knew better than most what effects ether could have on the human body, and blunt force trauma wasn't one of them.

Most frustrating was how long they held him under the pretense of "observation," barring him from getting back to the office. Not completely limiting his work, though easing him back into it slower than he liked. All the rest made him antsy, and news of what happened during the Aegis test made him anxious. Whatever went wrong, he wanted to fix it. Immediately.

The Coalition was more cautious than his doctors, however. Klaus expected to be called in; what he didn't expect was how long they wished to speak with him. By the third day, he was so tired of talking that he mispronounced his own name, earning a snicker from his interrogator at first until he was slurring his statements and feeling so faint that he nearly fell out of his chair. The sessions persisted, though they were much shorter. He spent more time stuck in the hospital than the deposition room or the office, and none whatsoever at home. Even Dickson objected to watching Shulk that long, arranging for him to stay with Fiora's family instead.

As the weeks dragged on, Klaus started to think he'd be trapped there permanently. Every time he thought he'd be allowed to leave, someone new showed up with more questions and charts. He was surprised to recognize one visitor- Professor Amalthus. "Director, actually," he corrected when addressed.

"Congratulations," Klaus said blandly, wondering what could've happened to prompt that. Nothing good, he was sure. "What brings you here?"

"I don't find it unreasonable for a department head to check on those in its care," Amalthus said. "Though I must admit to having a personal interest in your case. It's been a long time since there was an ether injury like yours. Galea had hardly any symptoms despite standing right next to you, though she may have a higher tolerance considering past incidents."

"The one on her birthday."

Amalthus nodded. "Speaking of which, it looks like we have the same birthday. What a lucky coincidence."

"Not really," Klaus said. "Do you have any idea how many people live on Rhadamanthus alone? Hundreds of thousands of people. It's simple statistics that some of us would share birthdays."

"I'm familiar with the birthday paradox," Amalthus said. "Rest assured that you should be out of here in time to celebrate yours."

Rest was exactly what Klaus was sick of, but Amalthus wasn't interested in hearing him complain. Klaus already doubted he would be out by the holidays, not that he expected much celebrating with what had happened. He was finally freed a few days before Christmas and went straight to his office to read up on the latest analyses on what had happened. Most concerning was the report of Ophion striking the station, something that the Trinity Processor should never do, since it would endanger the Conduit and the Orbital Ring. But there was scarce data on why the Trinity Processor had made such a decision. It wasn't even clear if all three of them had agreed to it- Klaus found evidence the partition was activated, alarmed to find there were no records of why that happened, either. Even the data they did have didn't make sense- Ophion's target was listed as the default value, indicating some logging failure.

It was late when he decided to head home, relishing the chance to sleep in his own bed. To his surprise, Shulk was there and still awake, slouched on the couch and watching television. Must be a rerun, since he recognized the program by the actors onscreen, though he struggled to place the episode. "Weren't you at Fiora's?"

Shulk frowned without answering. He didn't even bother to look away from the screen. "It's break," he said when told to go to bed.

Klaus was too tired to argue and asked him to turn down the volume. He was not particularly fond of the US Air Force theme, having heard it enough in Rhadamanthus every July. Shulk searched for the remote, shooting a nasty glare at Klaus when he found it and pressed the appropriate button. "Better?" he asked, and Klaus nodded, satisfied but simultaneously overwhelmed by an irrational spike of terror at the sight of Shulk's scowl. It bothered him until he reached his bed and fell asleep almost immediately, so tired he slept through his alarm in the morning and was late to the office. He was eager to schedule some time in the dreamworld, but to his surprise, access was suspended to everyone indefinitely.

Perhaps that was for the best. Later, he heard that Professor Addam had resigned in the midst of the investigation. Klaus wasn't surprised. It was Addam who taught the Trinity Processor how to fish; without him, they might have never created Ophion.

Klaus remembered when he finished checking the calculations of Aion's capabilities.

Director Vandham personally asked him to do it. Told him to take his time. To do it by hand and not use any computer to help. To double, triple, quadruple check, but not to show anyone else. It did not take Klaus long to figure out why.

What took him far longer was figuring out what to say to Vandham about it. At the end of the week, after a quick glance at the sign on the wall, Klaus shut the door, sank into the seat across from Vandham, and opened his mouth to speak. What came out was, "I don't understand."

Vandham knew he didn't mean the equations. He didn't meet Klaus' eyes as he asked, "What's not to get?"

Klaus had no idea what words to use to describe what Aion was capable of. Not when it seemed to be intentional. He finally decided on, "It can do what the numbers indicate." Which was end all life on the planet.

Vandham nodded and made a note on his desk. "Thank you. You're dismissed."

"That's it?"

Klaus' tone was bitter enough that Vandham set down his pen, sighed, and leaned back in his chair. Finally, he met Klaus' eyes. "How many more generations do you think the planet will be habitable?" Vandham held his gaze with Klaus while he struggled to formulate a response. "You're hesitating because you don't know. You don't have to, because there's no one down there you care about. The only person you have left can't even leave the station for extended periods. Not all of us are so lucky."

Klaus bristled at that before he thought of Vandham's daughter and granddaughter in Morytha, then held his tongue. It was well-known that Monica had rejected the opportunity to study in Elysium, preferring to stay on Earth to combat the climate changes affecting Morytha. She was popular enough down there, despite the scandal around being a parent so young, to run a successful campaign for a council seat, and rumors abounded of a possible run for governor. She would never choose to live up here.

"At the very least," Vandham continued, "both the Coalition and Aoidos agree to never use this thing based on the Trinity Processor's recommendation alone. If we ever use it, it will be a human being making the final decision. I promise you that."

Klaus wondered how long it would be before that promise was broken. Ten years? Twenty? He feared it would be within his lifetime. The sight of Noah from a few months ago came to mind, and Klaus wondered if he'd one day hold this very office. Imagining the startled boy who'd dropped that silly paperweight growing up to be faced with the decision to destroy his own family, and the rest of the planet along with them. It was immensely disturbing. Klaus hoped he wouldn't live to see it.

What he did ask to see was Aion itself. It was terrifying. The thing dwarfed even the Sentinels, towering over him in its restricted hangar. The sight filled his nightmares for months. Strangely, what bothered him most was the sign in Vandham's office marking the number of days since the Aegis test. There was no outage when the Trinity Processor created Aion. Not even any measurable impact on performance. The level of confidence they had was astounding. Almost as if daring Aoidos to use it. Look at how easy it was for us to create it, they seemed to say. Will it be so easy for you to use it? It was easy for Aoidos to order them to use everything else at their disposal.

"You're overreacting," Galea told him when he finally admitted to her why he was so tired all the time. "It's leverage, just precautionary. That's how mutually assured destruction works. Besides, do you really think they'd be able to use all that power once unleashed? Most Artifices never operate at maximum efficiency because of the sync rate."

"You're missing the point," Klaus said, only to be interrupted by the arrival of Gideon, stopping by to say farewell before heading down to the surface for the tenth anniversary of the conference attack to give a speech. Galea was jealous, remarking wistfully that she hadn't left the station in ages, while Klaus was surprised he'd agree to go. Gideon didn't even attend since both of their kids had been sick. Klaus still remembered Shulk crying about not seeing for Fiora for a week. If only that had been the worst of their problems.

"Why would you want to risk doing such a thing?" Klaus asked. Gideon was a director now, so he had the freedom to leave at his leisure, unlike Klaus and Galea, who were mere individual contributors designated too important to let out of Elysium.

Galea pointed out the irony in Klaus worrying about visiting a place he never wanted to go to again, but Gideon gave Klaus a long look and said something completely incomprehensible. Klaus didn't remember the exact phrase, but what Gideon said about its possible translation did. It concerned a line from Dante's Inferno which strangely sounded like a sentence from another language entirely.

It's a jail that forces you to stay here.

Klaus didn't remember what, if anything, he said to Gideon when he left. What he did remember was that it was the last time he ever saw Gideon alive.

Klaus remembered the look on Galea's face when he approached her one Friday afternoon and told her they were taking the rest of the day off. "Are you sick?" she asked. "There's an experiment today."

An incredibly mundane repeat of something they'd tried a few weeks ago, with results not due for another week. It wasn't even something either of them worked directly on; Klaus had merely approved it, and Galea wasn't involved with it at all. "Nothing worth watching," he said. "Haven't you any plans?"

It was her birthday. He'd checked her calendar all week, wondering if something would show up. She always updated her schedule whenever she intended to be unavailable. Nothing showed up, so when he'd checked a few minutes ago, just as he'd checked every hour beforehand, he decided his next step was to open a command prompt window to change his and Galea's permissions to remove the bit that would trigger the alarm if they passed through any of Elysium's entry gates.

Once, Lorithia told him something interesting: the account administrators of Aoidos knew of a secret login whose permissions could be spoofed onto any other account, with the right steps. Nobody admitted to creating the account, but nobody dared tell management about it. Such was the way of IT people, Lorithia claimed: they all had backdoors like that. Otherwise, nothing would get fixed as quickly as management wanted. As long as nobody used it for anything too devious, wscampbell was allowed to remain.

Naturally, Klaus found this information useful. He figured out how to use it to change his own permissions- something innocuous, something that wouldn't raise any suspicions- and waited for someone to notice. No one did. He even undid the change, and nobody seemed to notice that either. What he wanted to do next would be far more noticeable, but he felt it was worth it, if he could convince everyone who would question it not to.

Starting with Galea herself. "Klaus, you know we're not allowed," she said as soon as he suggested it.

"Forget about that," he told her. "I got us special permission."

It wasn't a lie, but no matter how many times he told her not to worry, she persisted in asking about the circ*mstances. He should've surprised her at the gate instead, although perhaps that would have caused more of a scene. By the time they arrived there, he was ready to snap. "Look," he said, "I thought this would cheer you up after all the moping you've done for the past month. Stay here if you're not interested, but I'm going."

She didn't follow him until he passed through the gate without incident, jogging a bit to catch up. She looked back once, as if expecting the alarm to sound after some arbitrary delay, before turning her attention to the guards and passerby. Nobody paid the two of them any attention, but she was nervous the entire time they waited for the elevator. "Relax," he told her.

"You first." She stared pointedly at his waist, where his hand was fidgeting in his left pocket. He swiftly removed it, then crossed his arms and looked away, wondering where the screens were with the news. Hard to believe the last time he was out here was seven years ago, when- well. He cut that thought off before it went any further.

So he shouldn't have been surprised that security procedures throughout the Beanstalk had changed in the past decade. At every station there were badge checks, which Klaus found ridiculous. What, did they think someone was going to climb the outside of the tower and break in? If someone managed such a feat, Klaus would love to meet them personally.

By the time they reached the surface, he was in a sour mood, and the weather didn't help in the least. The Rhadamanthus Authority provided rain gear near the exit, but all the ponchos were gone and only one lone umbrella remained, forcing them to share as they walked into the street. Even still, large puddles littered the sidewalk, soaking his socks and slacks. He should've worn different shoes, then reflected that he had no reason to own rain boots in Elysium.

While he was looking downward, Galea took in the sights, pointing at a nearby skyscraper. Like many others, it was wrapped in scaffolding with a crane stationed adjacent. Construction was epidemic to any city, but Morytha had more than usual, still not fully recovered from the damage sustained during the Aegis test. Many of the storefronts bore evidence of recent renovations, accompanied by notices of inventory and pricing changes, usually of the shortages of the former and increases of the latter. "Can't believe they get anything done in this weather," she said. "Do you remember when it wasn't raining here all the time?"

He nodded, not wanting to think more about then, and changed the subject, asking her where she wanted to go. He immediately regretted it when she requested the wish tree. It wasn't far, so they stopped there first. He shook his head when she asked if he wanted to write one too, not daring to add another when his first hadn't yet come true. The seagulls chased them away from there, and they huddled under the umbrella together as they walked through the city, surrounded by skyscrapers and roads.

Galea sighed when they reached an intersection, waiting for the light to change for them to cross. "There's not much to see, is there?" She inspected a nearby sign indicating nearby junctions. "Do you think we could take the causeway to catch a boat the mainland?"

"Best to stay in the city." Klaus did not like the odds on what might happen to them if they left the protection Morytha allowed, scant as it was. Checkpoints within the Beanstalk were one thing, but the one at the city's entrance was a different story. Whatever else Morytha was, it was still a military base at its core.

"You didn't plan for this at all, did you?"

"It's your birthday, not mine."

She leered at him, and he ignored her rather than admit that he didn't really think they'd get this far without getting caught. After a moment, she sighed. "Being out of the station is enough, I suppose," she said. "The humidity's awful, but I've forgotten the sound of the rain. It's nice. Almost reminds me of home."

He knew at once she wasn't referring to Elysium. "Speak for yourself," he said. "It's nothing like home." Why did anyone want to live on this planet anymore? The stagnant air smelled of salt, smoke, and sewage, and the noise of construction and cars was omnipresent. Everything was in a state of disrepair- the sidewalk was uneven and littered with cracks, and the roads were worse, with passing vehicles hitting waterlogged potholes regularly and splashing them at least once. He was certain his clothes would never dry after this. At least he hadn't worn the tie.

"Wasn't this your idea?" she said. "Maybe you'll change your mind if you see the sun. Think we might find a break in the clouds if we look out over the ocean somewhere?"

He shrugged, doubtful, but he didn't have any better ideas for what else to do. They stopped by a cafe that didn't seem too crowded, eager to avoid the stares following them through the city, to buy coffees and something to eat, then headed to the outskirts until they reached the ocean's edge. There, they found an open bench and sat down to eat. Or rather, Galea picked at the chocolate cake in her pastry bag and inspected the horizon while Klaus fumbled with the umbrella and hoped in vain that his coffee cup, lidded though it was, was safe from the rain where he tucked it under the armrest. He nearly knocked it over when Galea shook his shoulder in excitement. "There, do you see it?" she said. "Way out there, there's a break. You can make out the sun rays."

Accepting that he'd have to keep one hand on the umbrella, Klaus turned his attention to the sky, squinting and leaning forward a bit to see better. She was right. Despite the distance, there was a clear edge to the clouds out there, lined in silver and suffused with light not reflected on the waves below. When she spoke again, there was clear satisfaction in her voice. "Sometimes I get jealous of Addam," she said, "leaving all this behind. Hope the weather's nice, wherever he is."

"Can't check the forecast when you're dead."

"You don't know that," she said. "For all we know, he's safe and sound out there with his family. Isn't there any part of you that finds that appealing?"

"No," he said bluntly. "It's statistically unlikely. Look what's happened to everyone who's left."

"Not everyone," she said. "We're fine, for example."

He scoffed bitterly. "Aren't we lucky."

She sighed. "You're allowed to be happy sometimes," she said. "You must know that, otherwise we wouldn't be out here together."

He snapped his head away from the sky to leer at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"

She popped a piece of cake into her mouth and gave him a long look. "Have some cake, Klaus," she told him. "It's my birthday."

He settled back against the bench before he broke eye contact with her, feeling more irritable than ever. Instead of grabbing the pastry bag in his lap, he reached for his coffee cup to spite her, his right hand wobbling a bit since his left held the umbrella. What a mistake- it wasn't long after he tipped it toward his mouth when he was showered with the water collected on the lid, making him sputter a bit. Galea didn't comment, but he caught her smirking out of the corner of his eye. "I've always liked the ocean," she said instead. "The sound of the waves, the way the horizon bleeds into the sky. Like the world goes on forever."

"It's a sphere," Klaus said. "Mathematically, it has no boundaries."

She nudged him. "You know what I mean. It's not a sight you can find in Rhadamanthus."

"Not unless you look down."

"Only if you leave Elysium," she said, "and how often can we do that?"

"There's the hangars, the weapons labs-"

"You're impossible."

He shot her a grin, making eye contact with her as he finally took a bite of cake. His face fell at the taste. She didn't look surprised by his reaction. "You noticed too?"

He nodded. He'd thought the food would taste better on the planet, not hampered by the techniques necessary for production in space, but it didn't. It tasted exactly the same. It bothered him more than he expected, and he looked out at the ocean again, as if there was some answer to be found there. But there was nothing there but the waves, an empty and ever changing expanse stretching into the sky. With the city behind them, it was easy to imagine they were alone. It was strangely appealing. In Rhadamanthus, there was always some reminder of other people around, always some manmade noise reminding them what it took to survive in space. All while the rain battered Morytha below, while conflict raged all over the world, while the Artifices swiftly dispatched any who dared escape the surface to challenge the Coalition's custody of the Conduit.

Suddenly the sound of all the water around him was not soothing at all. It made him think of those dreams he used to have about drowning. There was something he was forgetting, something important-


She shook his shoulder, and he flinched away from her as it hit him. Why he'd found the way to this view so easily. The concern in her eyes did nothing but fill him with dread, feeling the tug of this thing between them that he recognized but didn't want to endure again.

What was he thinking, coming here?

She asked if he was all right, but he stood without ensuring the umbrella was covering either of them, making her yelp as she slid back beneath it. "Let's go," he said brusquely, striding away from her quickly enough that she struggled to stay under the umbrella with him each time he looked back.

In the end, they spent barely three hours in the city before getting caught by security and herded back to the Beanstalk. Monica Vandham met them in the lobby, shaking her head. "How on earth did this happen?"

"Klaus said he got special permission," Galea said before he could say anything.

Monica looked pointedly at him. "From who?" she asked.

Klaus straightened in defiance. "I don't know," he said. "I requested it, and I figured it was approved when the permissions changed on our accounts." It was easier to hold her gaze when what he was saying was technically the truth.

Monica narrowed her eyes, but what forced Klaus to look away was the sound of caustic laughter. He found two girls sitting on a nearby bench, both regarding him with disdain. "Someone really f*cked up then," one said. "Bitchqueen's been bitching about having to find you as much as people have been bitching at her to do it. You must do important sh*t up there."

"Don't they all," the other girl muttered.

Klaus looked back at Monica, confused, but she scowled and shook her head. "Ignore them," she said. "That's just my daughter and her best friend, Shania Reid." That explained why they were allowed free roam here, being family to the Founders. Having met Director Reid, Klaus glanced at Shania, wondering if there was any resemblance, but didn't find any. If she was here instead of Elysium, her parents must've denied their offer, or their relation was too distant for them to be afforded a place there without earning it through merit. Monica was in the former category, as everyone knew her stance on Aoidos' policies. It was why she was popular enough to run for governor of Morytha despite her age, inexperience, and history. "Much as she needs to watch her vocabulary," Monica continued, "Ghondor does have a point. That's one hell of a clerical error. I'm sure the director will be interested to hear more once you're back."

And that was it. A moment later, they were ushered toward the elevator without further discussion, though Ghondor called after them not to f*ck anything else up. Too late, Klaus had the thought to warn Monica about what was in the most restricted hangar in Rhadamanthus. He took a seat as the elevator started upward, sighing. He never thought he'd have this chance to meet her, though he wondered what good it would do to say anything. Too much politics, too much risk, not enough proof.

It was late evening by the time they reached Rhadamanthus. Director Vandham was waiting for them in the lobby, reprimanding them the moment he laid eyes on them when the elevator doors opened. He didn't let up for the entirety of the walk back into Elysium, where the alarm sounded as they passed through the gate. Vandham gave both of them pointed looks without giving them a chance to interject, and they stayed silent until he was done, marking the end of his speech with a long sigh. "Still," he said, "it's good to have the both of you back. We'll talk more in the morning. Starting with you, Klaus."

This didn't surprise him in the least. Bright and early the next day, he was stuck in Vandham's office claiming ignorance to every question while law enforcement searched his home and office. Klaus expected a grueling experience, but Vandham seemed more relieved than anything, more interested in preventing it from happening again than determining how it happened at all. "You have to understand," he said when Klaus asked, "that you two are among our most valuable assets. We can't risk anything happening to either of you, not just from a scientific standpoint, but from a societal one. You've influenced so many projects here, taught some of our brightest minds, been here long enough to have known the Founders. To a lot of people here, you are Aoidos."

"It won't happen again," Klaus promised. "Like you said before, everything I care about is here."

Vandham dismissed him with a sharp wave of his hand and a glare.

On his way out, Klaus read the sign next to the door. 556 DAYS SINCE LAST OUTAGE. Only another year and a half before it had four once more. Out of curiosity, he calculated when it would have five, and couldn't resist laughing: if all went well, it'd be when he was sixty-four.

Klaus remembered the first time the Trinity Processor- that is, Ontos- successfully moved something between two discrete places. Mostly because it was Aoidos' most impressive accomplishment to date, but also because Galea wouldn't let him forget it.

He was convinced it was simply to embarrass him, since she focused most on recounting trivial details rather than the experiment itself. She claimed it was because of how few people had clearance to hear about the main event, but he found that a ridiculous excuse. She just liked telling everyone how, on Friday the thirteenth of November in the year of our lord 2026, he fell up the stairs in his haste to learn the fate of the mouse Tantalus. So what if he only managed to limp to the destination room because she'd thought to check for him there and help him up? The point is that it worked, unlike some other projects.

She certainly had reason to spite him. In the aftermath of the Aegis test, the idea was raised to revive the ether furnace project. Klaus wasn't sure who suggested it- some executive eager to contribute to mitigation strategies, or some mid-level manager hoping for a promotion- but it was pitched as an alternative energy source should the Trinity Processor experience another outage of that magnitude. Klaus hated the idea on principle, and he hated it even more when Galea was put on it. He needed her assistance on his own work.

At least she wasn't involved for long. Once there was an alpha design, she stepped back from it. Klaus was glad for it until he found out who she'd handed it off to.

Galea listened to his objections with the same face she usually made when he wrote QED at the end of a proof. He knew before he even finished that no amount of explaining would sway her to his point of view. His entire argument hinged on their lack of experience, a rationale he'd used in the past but never convinced her. "Everything you've said is why I entrusted this to them," she said. "We're already spread too thin as it is, and we've both seen the negative effects of hoarding our knowledge. Others need to be able to continue our work should something happen."

She remained firmly confident in Arglas and Egil even after they selected her nephew to join the team. Hard to believe the boy who always got lost in the labs was now working on one of Aoidos' most important projects. Galea gushed about how proud Gideon would be while Klaus stayed silent and worried.

Perhaps she was right to trust them with this. Dunban was ambitious, reveling in his access to the secrets he'd been denied when he was younger and keen on being challenged. No wonder Dickson doted on him so much with how eager Dunban was to pick up his unwanted projects, although Dickson hated this idea as much as Klaus did. Besides all the objections about replacing the very thing their entire organization was literally built on, the science itself was weak. Ether was a substance they still struggled to understand and control when supplied by the Conduit through the Trinity Processor. To attempt to harness it from scratch was folly of the highest order. Arglas always had a tendency to dream beyond his ability- his arithmetic was atrocious- while glossing over the details, but he was balanced by the more methodical Egil.

Not that those qualities endeared him any to Klaus. On the contrary, Klaus had found Egil annoying ever since his days as an intern pestering Galea for details about how the Trinity Processor worked. Lately Klaus could hardly stand the sight of him, filled with a hatred so intense it bordered on irrational. Galea pulled Klaus aside after one meeting with Egil where he'd made particularly scathing comments. "I thought you were going to take his head off back there," she said, and Klaus shoved his hands in his pockets and muttered, "I still might."

Part of him certainly wanted to when it all went wrong.

There was so much on his mind, after. All the problems Klaus could have pointed out with the maths. All the problems Galea could have pointed out with the design. More reminders that following processes and protocols was no substitute for experience. If either of them had been involved, perhaps this would have never happened.

It never needed to happen in the first place. What need did they have for ether furnaces when the Conduit was more firmly in their grasp than ever? Even with the stricter partition, the Trinity Processor maintained its observational integrity of the Conduit, keeping it trapped. Klaus even wrote another paper about it on a whim using data from the latest teleportation experiments. He received a bonus and extra vacation time he would never use.

On his lunch breaks, Klaus read the news articles on the intranet about the latest negotiations with rebel forces, prompted by the Artifices' swift rout of their latest assault. So there were still factions with enough self-interest to consider diplomacy. His pager buzzed late one afternoon and he stared at the screen for a long time before he remembered that code meant a problem with Shulk.

At the hospital Klaus found him already on his way out and humming a strange song that made Klaus clench his jaw. "Where did you hear that?" he asked, and Shulk just shrugged. "I hate it," Klaus said. "Stop that and never do it again."

Outside, Shulk headed in the opposite direction of home and explained, upon questioning, that he was going to see Dunban. He started recounting a story about going to the plant cafe after school to get drinks with Fiora and Reyn when the headache started, but Klaus lost interest quickly and stopped listening, only hearing Shulk's passive aggressive comments about the lack of details around Dunban's condition at the very end. Klaus avoided answering the ghost of the question and left with his mind full of other ghosts, convincing himself his pace was so quickened only to make his next meeting and not from the thought of them chasing him.

The name on the astrophysicist's badge read Johnson, Caroline A., but she told everyone to call her Carrie Anne. "Like the song," she said, before launching into her presentation. The subject matter was baryogenesis, the process concerning certain particle collision asymmetry that may have caused matter to greatly outnumber antimatter in the universe after the first few instants at the dawn of time. A fascinating theory, especially with ether thrown in the mix. Klaus had literally helped write the book on the various symmetries of ether particles, but if this sort of interaction could be manipulated to create matter, the possibilities were endless. Perhaps this was even the secret to how the Trinity Processor managed it.

Klaus took the time to speak to her after, waiting to get in line until most everyone left to avoid being noticed. Not that it spared him from small talk with her once she recognized her last inquisitor. After going through the charade of being interested in her attempts to bond over their dead spouses and sons about the same age, Klaus was finally able to present his conjecture. He wrote out the equations on the whiteboard while she watched, thoughtful, and made a few adjustments and suggestions along the way. "It's not impossible," she allowed. "But what is, with the Conduit?"

"Whatever the Coalition decides isn't in the budget," Klaus said.

She laughed, but it wasn't a joke. He was dead serious. Spurred by Vandham's outlook on the planet's continued habitability, Klaus had investigated the matter himself in the years since.

What he found was bleak. The Coalition allocated very little research effort to the earth sciences in the Orbital Ring. Oceanography, climatology, geology- the whole department barely needed a dedicated building. Those on the planet took up the cause themselves, and it was clear they were desperate. Their proposals were all ridiculous to the point of being unrealistic. Klaus read one paper so absurd it stuck with him: flooding the upper atmosphere with material which would reflect light to lower the temperature. And one would work particularly well.

Imagine it- injecting diamonds into the clouds to offset the damage done by all humanity's burning. A future beneath a white sky, the former hue found only in the history books by future generations. Assuming those children would have any books at all. It was inevitable that the teaching of the past would be controlled by the victors, which might as well be synonymous with holding the Conduit and thus Rhadamanthus. As long as the Trinity Processor was functional, that meant the Coalition. Corrupt as those politicians could be, Klaus didn't like any of the alternatives.

He stayed up late sorting out equations in his office and continued the formulas in his dreams until Galea awoke him the next morning while dawn peeked through the windows. The sun was always a welcome sight in Elysium, especially since it was never too bright to look at. Anyone could stare at it, transfixed, whenever they wanted for as long it was in the sky, unlike the Conduit trapped below their feet.

Klaus remembered seeing Pneuma's recommendation stuck on LOADING during the first outage.

Ever since the hardware upgrade, the Trinity Processor's performance in battle had been impeccable. None of them had ever faltered, never made any mistakes, and that included Pneuma. With such a low threat level, Klaus expected them to handle the situation with their usual efficiency. Instead, Mythra was hesitating.

Strange. She was always so confident. Even with the emergency active, she shouldn't have any reason to delay her decision when there was so little danger. Not unless it was the emergency itself that was complicating her algorithms. But why? Rhadamanthus hadn't experienced an outage since... well. Klaus stared at the Conduit, remembering the logs from the Aegis test. Where Pneuma and Logos decided the biggest threat to the Orbital Ring was.

His concern only grew when Klaus heard about the message from the Saviorites. He settled into his seat back in his office with the intent not to leave until after midnight, Vandham's orders be damned, only to be met with a strange black gash when he opened a terminal window. It persisted after he closed it, now on the calendar sidebar of his email. The rest of October was lost in a chasm. Klaus leaned back in his chair and huffed at the ceiling. Of course he'd get hit with this problem at a time like this.

Klaus carried his monitor, its cords dragging across the ground the whole way, over to Albert Hall and shook it once at the receptionist. She directed him toward the room where Aoidos was keeping the defective ones, up the stairs and around the corner to a room usually reserved for repairs. He had to force upon the door, since it seemed stuck on something, and he was shocked by how much equipment was inside. Klaus set the monitor down on a scant square of free space, then collapsed against the wall and looked around.

Unbelievable. The room was nearly full. The Orbital Ring was under attack again, and Aoidos couldn't even get its employees working hardware. Now there was a very real chance the Trinity Processor was malfunctioning too, when they were only a step away from a major breakthrough on understanding how the Conduit worked. It would be back to building war machines for another few months before they could get back to finding an answer. Just as it had been for the past twenty years. They'd been lucky so far not to be blown out of the sky. Would their luck hold another twenty years? He wasn't sure how much longer he could stand being a step away from doomsday. From losing everything when so much was already gone.

He thought of the first time he'd met the Trinity Processor beneath the lone tree. Malos with his sable spikes. Mythra with her golden locks. Alvis with his silver stare. He thought of Elly, from the first time they met by the window with the view full of stars to the last time when he chose to stay. He thought of Shulk, of this life he'd made and saved but never really bothered to get involved in since it might end at any moment without warning. He thought of Galea, always near, so close and yet unreachable past the wall of all the things he kept hidden away. He thought of Dunban and all the broken nerves in his right arm, and was unable to stop from thinking of Gideon and his systems bible. He thought of Lorithia and her secret account, and of Dickson in the engineering complex. He thought back to when the three of them were children and always getting into mischief around town. They'd only been caught the one time, when Klaus fell while climbing over a fence and managed to knock himself unconscious. "I thought you were dead," Dickson told him later, to explain why he'd called 999. Klaus always dismissed it as an excuse, but then again, Dickson never did visit Shulk any time he had to go to the hospital.

How many times had Klaus lost something he could have saved? How many times had he been right about something and not done anything? When was the last time he'd been wrong about something? What was he even doing if he wasn't doing everything he could?

(Klaus had no way of knowing this, but in the virtual reality that simulates a sorely outdated model of Elysium for the benefit of the Trinity Processor, there was a figure by the riverside staring at the sky, watching through all the four thousand holes around Klaus, egging him on, stoking the fire of that sin within him that he'd tainted paradise with. Do it, Alvis was telling him with all his faces. Even if he couldn't be heard, he still had to try. He could not afford to fail at this. It is what you want.)

All these things passed through him, and he knew. There was one way he could hold on to his last resort, always have it nearby to use before it was too late. He could see the plan taking shape, all the pieces he would have to put into place, his next steps finalized by the time he left the building. Sharpest in his memory would be the day when he knew what had to be done. When he saw the path to his peace of mind.

(Klaus did catch the flicker of the screen Malos managed to cause on his way out. Malos taunted Alvis about it, smug, but Alvis hardly noticed, too pleased at how much his probabilities had improved by this latest turn of events. So few obstacles remained now between him and his dream.)

He remembered getting eggs on the way home, waking early in the morning to make breakfast, and to steal Shulk's badge before he awoke. He remembered messaging Lorithia about meeting him at Albert Hall and finding Dickson after switching the badge's account to have him return it. He remembered anxiously checking Muninn's data all afternoon, wondering if Shulk suspected, until he fell asleep at his desk that evening. The best rest he'd gotten in a while, as if to the lullaby of a job well done. It sounded like a chord from so many pianos in unison, played with all the finality of that thing beyond despair, beyond hope. That thing that sated the curiosity that had chased him all his life.

He remembered thinking, just the other day, that maybe it wouldn't come to this. He'd almost dared believe he wouldn't need to run every step it took to get home and grab the badge and use it to reach the Conduit room. He remembered celebrating with Galea at the impromptu party, discovering Aion couldn't even be used in its current state, convincing the board to get Aoidos' mission back on track so that they could accomplish this the right way, because everyone knew that this was always the plan. He just had a way to make it happen faster, if needed. All for this day, the one he thought they'd avoided but was here now with this shrill ringing in his ears, like a piercing siren warning him of the Orbital Ring's destruction.

He should've known this would happen when he heard Alvis claimed to have seen the future. This was always inevitable; this was always how it was going to be. There never could be any other way.

Solve for x - Chapter 13 - Silver33650 (2024)
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