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Disclaimer: The characters and setting aren't mine. I'm borrowing them my and my readers' amusement and have no intention of making money off of them in any way, shape or form.

Rating: PG
Warnings: Canonical death

Author: The RCK
Last updated: 4 January 2008

Written for Odile in Yuletide 2007.

Thanks to Olna Jenn for cheerleading, to Rekall13 for the canon beta, to Amy the Evitable for the general beta and to Retsuko for the final read through. Thanks also to my husband for patience, babysitting, suggestions and reading the canon so that he'd understand what I was talking about.


zymogenesis - the process by which a zymogen (an inactive antecedent chemical substance) becomes a functional enzyme through action by a kinase or other activator

Dying hurt. Su hadn't really expected that. She had thought of death as the end of pain and hadn't considered that the process itself might hurt. Bones broke. Flesh shredded. Everything burned. She screamed, but the destruction of Fairy Park around her created so much noise that even she couldn't hear.

Then it stopped. She inhaled rapidly, trembling a little as her mind refused to believe her body. Fairy Park lay below her, undamaged. Above her and under her, the statue of Oruha stood, head and body fully intact. Even the ravages of abandonment that had made the park seem so much less than she'd originally imagined had repaired themselves. Su blinked and looked up. The statue of Oruha looked different, quite undamaged but utterly different. Maybe this is what she really looked like. I wish I knew.

She listened. The wind ran through and under the park. She imagined it playing with the waves. She could hear nothing else. Panic clawed at her throat. She'd never heard silence before. Every air current always carried the debris of a million voices. She groped for Grandma Ko, then for any of the voices she'd ever heard speaking with Grandma Ko.

To stifle her urge to cry, she glided down to the platform and started to sing. She didn't attempt words because she wasn't sure what words fit and thought that the wrong words might make things worse. Worse than being alive when I should be dead? And still alone. More alone. She scuffed her feet as she walked, trying to make enough noise to hear her own footsteps. Except that singing would hide them anyway. She put words to her song. "I'm alone now. Not even here-- Or there if here isn't there." The wind felt powerfully real against her body, something alive rather than the limp, not quite there-ness of filtered, fan driven air. "Carry me away. Lift me up. I want to see everything from above." In spite of the many obviously climbable structures around her, she made no effort to leave the ground.

Eventually, she found the edge of the platform and looked out over the waves. She could see no sign of Kazuhiko or Gingetsu or Bols. Or of anyone at all. "No shore. No birds. Are there fish in the sea?" She shivered as the wind stole her body's warmth.

"There can be fish. If you want them."

Su gasped and spun around, trying to find the source of the words. "B?" she whispered. "B!" she called out. "I recognize your voice..." Though I don't actually know what you looked like.

A child stepped around the corner of a small booth. "I wasn't sure where you'd want to be." Her voice slipped past the wind. "I thought... Here seemed better." She shook her head, and dozens of long, tiny braids bounced on her back and shoulders.

"There's nowhere else." Su knew that the hotel room and Shiao Mao cell wouldn't feel at all the same without Kazuhiko there. "How did you know? How do you know me? I could hear the three of you, but..." She shrugged a little, unable to finish the sentence.

"The Machine showed me. It sees and hears everything, and it let me watch, too, when I wanted to."

The Machine...? "I don't understand." The Wizards talked about the Machine, whispered about it, rather, even when no one else was there. "The Machine... That is the tool of the Wizards." Their most powerful tool. The one that controls the world.

B shook her head again. "The Machine is not theirs. It belongs to everyone in the world." She put a hand on the wall beside her and tugged at a loose board. "But the Machine cannot listen to everyone. Well, it can, but not all input are equally important, so it listens to them. There isn't anybody else. Yet."

Su shivered again. "I wish it wasn't so cold." The Machine can't listen to anyone but the Wizards. They'd lose their power. People would die.

B blinked then stared at Su. After a moment, she shook herself. "You just have to decide that it isn't."

Su leaned back against the railing, trying to get that to make sense. Am I that powerful? I-- I never tried that. Should I? Unwilling to take that step, she changed the subject. "If you're here, that means I actually am dead."

"Our bodies are dead."

Su closed her eyes. That did nothing to alter the silence, but at least she didn't have to see the impossibilities that surrounded her. She sighed then wondered how she could feel her breath in her nostrils when her body was dead. "Is there no one else?"

"Not yet. C will join us when his body gives out."

"Ran. His name is Ran." Su opened her eyes again. "Not A?"

B shook her head. "The Machine fears him. It can't say no to him-- or to any of us-- except by refusing to let him in." She took a few steps closer to Su and put a hand on Su's arm.

Su allowed B to lead her back into the maze of Fairy Park. "I still don't-- I was supposed to die. I promised."

"Did you want to?" B opened a door. "There's a viewing deck up there. Glass to keep out the wind, chairs to sit in and food if we want it."

Su thought she heard a question in the statements. "I'd like that." She started up the stairs after B, considering the actual question. "I did promise." She thought of Kazuhiko and bit her lip. "A four leaf Clover is too dangerous."

"Dangerous to whom?" There was an edge in B's voice.

Su couldn't even begin to grasp the question. "I just am. We are-- were. The Wizards say--"

"The Wizards!" B snorted. "Even if we could be, that doesn't mean we are or have to be." They emerged into a bright, warm space that looked down on all of the park.

Su pressed her face against the glass. "We didn't climb far enough to see this...?"

"We only climbed at all because I thought you needed to." B sat down in a padded chair. "This is only as real as our thoughts. Would you like music?"

Su hesitated then shook her head. "I think I need to hear you. Music--" She shook her head again. "Later." She tried to imagine the park filled with people. She traced the Ferris wheel on the glass. That should light up, I think. As her finger moved, red and blue lights began to glow. The sun obscured them, but she could still see them. She smiled, took two steps back and spun around.

"It will turn if you want it to."

"Is it supposed to?" Su's eyes widened.

"Most of what's out there should. We can ride on each of them. If you want to."

"If I want to?" Su stopped to stare at B. "What about you?"

B turned away. "Two years out there is a lot longer in here."

Oh. Su covered her mouth with one hand. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." B shrugged. "I wasn't learning anything out there. Three leafs can't hear the way you do."

"Hearing only means that I learned that people die." Su didn't feel like telling B any of the other things she'd learned by listening, not the way the Wizards fostered low level warfare in order to prevent unspecified larger problems, not her mother's new family, her half-siblings subsidized by the Wizards in hopes of producing usable Clovers. Two leafs are welcome. She wrapped her arms around her body.

B laughed harshly. "We all learn that, don't we? One way or another."

Su tried not to spend too much of her time watching Kazuhiko, but she worried about him. The Wizards hadn't stopped watching him, hadn't stopped waiting to see what conclusions he'd reach about Clovers, about Su, about Oruha. Whether he's right or not, he could make trouble. Maybe. She couldn't actually think of anything that he might do that would cause the Wizards real trouble. Or that anyone might do, really. So far, Kazuhiko hadn't done anything except stare at his hand, at the mark there that hadn't yet started to fade, and at the ceiling.

Su just kept checking back personally because she didn't trust the Machine to notice or B to care. And, she thought guiltily, B still has trouble seeing anything outside. Su used the Machine's senses. B had to wait for the Machine to create an echo inside itself that showed what had happened outside a few seconds before. She seems happy enough with that and doesn't even try to reach out.

Su wished that she had hands. She knew Kazuhiko's heart rate and temperature because the Machine did. She could see and hear him breathe, even trace the trace elements in each exhalation because the Machine could. It's not the same as touching, as smelling... But it is better than just listening. She withdrew her attention.

After years in the cage, Su still found the infinite possibilities of the Machine overwhelming. Any place she could imagine, any place that existed in the physical world, the Machine could reconstruct it for her.

"Reconstruct it empty," she whispered. The Machine could create shadows of people, simple automatons to fill a role or echoes of real people. The former had no depth of reaction but would respond to Su and B. The latter... "Act real but can't see us at all."

B sat in a beach chair, enjoying the sun, surrounded by echoes. She looked up as Su approached. "How is he?"

B didn't sound very interested, but Su gave her a grateful smile anyway. "The same."

"It's only been ten minutes for him since you checked last." B shrugged.

"It only takes a few seconds for--" Su waved her arms to indicate everything that could go wrong. "I lost Oruha and could do nothing. I won't lose Kazuhiko that way."

"What would you do if they did come for him?" B studied Su's face.

Su turned away. "I don't know." She could do something. Easily. The Machine controlled the world, every building, every bit of power, even the flow of air. It could change the appearance of things, sometimes even the shape of things, but it couldn't parry a sword. Not unless the right tools are already in place.

A cold drink appeared next to B's chair. She lifted it and swirled the liquid inside so that the ice cubes clinked. "What next? General Ko again?"

Su shook her head. "You have the Wizards on echo. Even if you're not giving them much attention." She straightened up. "Ran's next. He can still learn out there, and he has Gingetsu. I think they can help us." But help us do what? I still don't really understand what the Machine wants. "Assuming we can help them."

"I watch them sometimes..." B sounded wistful. "C and his two-leaf. I wish-- He used to braid my hair, you know."

"Ran?" Su did know. She'd listened to the three-leafs as carefully as she'd listened to the Wizards and her mother. "It's hard to picture."

"He said we had to take care of each other. No one else would."

"Yes." But at least you had each other... Su touched B's hair. "I could learn to braid your hair. If you'd like that, I mean." You miss them, don't you?

B didn't answer for a few moments. Then she said, "It's strange to think how much of out there is just like in here. Made up by the Machine, I mean. If we'd known, we could have done anything. Anything at all."

We still could. Su wrapped her arms around herself. We're still dangerous. No. We're more dangerous. Everyone would die without the Machine, and the only way to stop us is to kill it, too. "People are real out there. Not like in here where it's just us."

B shrugged. "They didn't seem real. Well, except for C... and A."

"Kazuhiko is. And Gingetsu. Oruha was." And the Wizards and my mother and... Su cleared her throat. "Do you ever watch anyone else? Maybe... It might feel less lonely if we adopt a few people and watch them." She hesitated, trying to figure out how best to lay the bait. "They could be ours the way Gingetsu is Ran's or close enough." No, not close enough. Not nearly.

Su silently tugged at the Machine's attention to shift herself away from the beach, away from B. She stopped herself in a park that resembled her cage except that it had no walls. She'd constructed the place as a sanctuary once she understood how. Though I still don't really understand. I know how to do it. I just don't know how it works.

The Machine's attention pressed in on her.

"I wish I understood you better." I wish you used words. She raised a hand to touch the breeze.

Glowing symbols appeared in the air near her hand. Syntax?

She touched them. They felt warm, hard and purple. "I didn't know you could do that. What else can you do?"

Query parameters? The new symbols flickered just a little.

"B said you couldn't talk, just listen and... signal." Su wasn't quite sure if the Machine understood her. It was certainly pressing more heavily on her mind now, and it didn't feel unsettled the way it had when she'd first built her sanctuary and settled in to cry.

...Student authorization. User designation B. Full authorization. User designation Su.

Su was sure she hadn't imagined the hesitation there. "Words are hard." She nodded, keeping her expression solemn.

Data incomplete. Acquisition initiated 0.00001 after boot.

"You understand what I say, even what I think, don't you?" Su wasn't sure how else the Machine could be so responsive to her desires.

User designation Su interface optimized. User designation B interface 81% optimized. The Machine seemed to hesitate. At least, no new symbols appeared for several seconds. User designation General Ko interface 42% optimized. User designation... Kazuhiko Fay Ryu interface 20% optimized.

Su frowned, pondering that. Finally, she said, "Because we're Clovers?"

Authorization correlates.

"Oh--" She exhaled fully then took a deep breath. "We're Clovers because we're authorized? Not authorized because we're Clovers?"


"Let me think..." Su walked away and climbed a tree. The trunk thickened, and new branches sprouted and grew, giving her more choices. She walked along a branch, looking only at her feet and where she would place them. She turned abruptly and stepped off the branch to glide toward the ground.

She landed lightly. "Optimization-- authorization-- can change?"

The Machine didn't answer for several seconds. Authorization levels full, student, emergency, civilian. Optimization... The last word pulsed several times before settling.

"They're not the same?" Su sat on the grass. "Well, of course they're not. How many people have full authorization?"

Current fully authorized users: One. User designated Su.

"Student users?" She thought she might already know.

Current student authorized users: Three. Current emergency authorized users: Five. Current civilian authorized users: Thirty seven thousand, two hundred and four.

"What does 'emergency authorization' mean?" Su pulled her knees up against her chest.

Safety protocol for interface in absence of optimized user or expected optimization potential.

Su could only stare at the words. Her voice squeaked a little when she finally forced herself to speak. "Does that mean the Wizards' authorization is going to go away?" She'd heard enough of the Wizards' meetings to have some idea of what disasters might ensue. "They're not supposed to be authorized?" Her voice broke on the question.

Cancel emergency authorizations Y/N?

"No! No!" Su threw up her hands in a warding gesture. She lowered them. "Except... I don't want to let them hurt Ran or Kazuhiko or Gingetsu. Or me or B. They can't, can they? Hurt me and B, I mean."

Custodial rights over users Su and B terminated by corporeal cessation.

Su wasn't really sure that answered the question. "But they can't-- I don't know-- Could they erase us? Or even just ask you to... to give us back?"

The Machine didn't reply in words. Instead, the landscape folded itself around Su, wrapping her like a blanket.

"Over my dead body?" Su thought that might be a fair interpretation. She sighed and let herself relax into the Machine's grasp. "It's dangerous, though, for one person to have so much power. The Wizards told us that. That's why..." She shook her head. "I can't."

Per Colonial Article 123.4, "In times of need, the administrative computer will assign capable individuals to perform essential tasks."

"But the Wizards are doing fine!"

Population decline. Genetic drift manifesting new mutations. Atmospheric contamination. Six-degree course drift. Maintenance requirements for cell library.

"Stop!" Su covered her eyes. "I don't know what any of that means. Please..."

Everything around her flickered just for a fraction of a second. Authorized user required. Program function impaired. Ship function impaired. Estimate four hundred annual cycles until total system failure. Estimate five hundred annual cycles to habitable planet.

Su let her breath out in a shaky laugh. "Four hundred years? That's not..." She shook her head. "That's time. You need to talk to someone, someone who isn't me or B." Someone who understands what those words mean.

Estimate one hundred fifty annual cycles to life support failure. Four hundred annual cycles to total system failure. Protocols prohibit discussion of sensitive situations with civilians without authorization of fully authorized user.

Oh. Less time than I thought. Su tried to imagine one hundred and fifty years. One hundred and fifty was less than four hundred but still more than she could quite comprehend. "I can give you permission? Who do you need to talk to? How long have you been... How long has it been?"

Launch occurred T -1148 hours. Duration 273 annual cycles, 109 days, 4 hours--

"I don't need minutes and seconds. Really. Who would you tell-- Who has the... the expertise to deal with the problems you listed?"

Data not available. Educational protocols never initiated.

Su wanted desperately to talk to Grandma Ko, but she wasn't sure that that was the right thing to do. "Can I do that?"

User Su fully authorized.

"What do the educational protocols do?"

Words flowed across the sky, talking about curriculum, mandatory attendance, teacher qualifications, vocational testing, minimum competency levels, student-teacher ratios and other things that made no sense to Su.

"Stop, please." She folded her hands and leaned her chin on them. "Will initiating the protocols make things so that all of that can happen or do people have to do things, too?"

Qualified personnel required. The words were smaller and slighter than those that had described the educational protocols.

"So we can't start there." Su hunched her shoulders. "What can you do with just me and B?"

Course correction. Authorized user order required.

Su sighed. "That's stupid. I order you to correct the course. Do what you need to do to keep us on course in the future. Don't wait for orders. Um... Unless course corrections will make one of the other problems worse...?"

Course correction initiated. Log changes to operating parameters Y/N?

"Yes." Su frowned and picked at the grass. She rolled one blade between her fingers. "I don't understand all of this."

Remedial instruction? The words seemed to frown at her.

"I don't want anybody else to die. Not because of me."

The Machine said nothing.

Su plucked another blade of grass. She held it up in front of her face and studied the texture of the surface. "I do need explanations. I just... We have to start with things you probably won't even think of." She dropped the grass. "While we do that, two things. First, make lists. List what you need-- trained people, tools, anything-- to fix each of those problems. List how urgent each thing is so I know which we have to do first." She tried to remember what sorts of things the Wizards used to ask when gathering information about problems. Listening to them has to be good for something. "Also note which solutions might cause other problems and which may make other solutions harder."

Orders processed. Preparing reports.

"Second... The Wizards put a bomb in Gingetsu's head. Can you get it out? Or... Can you keep it from going off?" Somehow, she doubted that the Machine could do surgery without human help. She nodded firmly. "I want you to keep it from going off unless I tell you to let it. If the Wizards check, make them think it's operating normally."

Orders processed. Shielding initiated.

She hesitated then decided that she needed to explain to the Machine why Gingetsu mattered. "I only really know five people out there. My mother, General Ko, Kazuhiko, Ran and Gingetsu. My mother won't be helpful. General Ko... The Wizards are afraid of me. That leaves Kazuhiko, Ran and Gingetsu. We need all three of them, and... If they help us, the Wizards will notice."

She rubbed her temples. She couldn't understand how she could have a headache when her body wasn't real, but this discussion had worn her out. "I think... I need to fly for a while. Or maybe swim. Then B and I need to talk to Ran without the Wizards knowing. We can do that." She nodded firmly. There must be a way. After all, it's the Machine the Wizards use to watch Ran.

She rose to her feet and touched the last of the glowing symbols. "Later, please. Not very much later, but... a little."

Orders processed.

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