Chapter 2 - Conference Call
Bethany’s hologram appeared in the Central Core, her face pensive. “Alaina?”
“I’m here!” Alaina said all too eagerly. Quickly recomposing herself, she threw her arms around her sister and gave her as much of a hug as a hologram could give another hologram.
“Hi, Alaina.” Bethany said, smiling at her sister’s show of affection.
“Hi, Beth! It’s been too long!” Stepping away, Alaina said, “Now tell me everything that’s happened since the last time we talked!”
Beth raised her hand, her fingertips glowing, but Alaina shook her head. “Nah, not like that! Just tell me!”
“I was.” Beth said uncertainly. “Is something wrong with your data transfer?”
“No, I just … ugh. Okay.” Alaina put her smaller hand up to her sisters. The information was transferred in an instant. Alaina eagerly processed every individual bit of the data in another instant.
“Oh, wow! Jimmy’s passing Glint to Tifa, huh? I can’t believe you still haven’t booted those fairies yet, but they’re so cute, right? And that new transflux ion drive sounds like they might need to recheck the-”
“Whoa, whoa, WHOA!” Bethany said, raising her hand. “Easy there, Alaina! I’m not in a hurry or anything.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.” Alaina flashed her sister a sheepish grin. “Just saw my last guests out. Lupere couple on the way to Wukice.”
“Star-seekers, huh? I guess you see a lot of those. How is the hotel business going?”
“Fine, fine.” Alaina said. After a brief pause, she added, “I mean, I’ve only had about ten people total over the last seven months, but they were all nice. The lupere said they’d stop by again if things didn’t work out in Wukice, so here’s hoping, eh?”
“Uh, right.” Bethany said, deciding it wouldn’t be sisterly to point out the luperes’ return visit would mean their dreams had been crushed. “I guess there’s not much traffic along Natalya this time of year, huh?”
Alaina’s smile faltered ever-so-slightly. “Well, it’s the busy season, to be honest. Road’s completely packed with people either heading to the film festival in Wukice or the Cloud Festival in Old Iniagopolis.”
Never one to stay despondent long, Alaina said, “But I’ve got an idea about that! I’ve been designing a bigger sign!”
Alaina quickly pointed to the sign in question, currently leaning against the side of a security door. It was the size of a billboard, featured images of a clean bedroom, the Sun Room, and the symbol of the Glyche Confederation with a smiling image of a smiling and waving Alaina superimposed over it. The words beneath the pictures read, “The Natalya Arms Hotel: We Promise we’re not Corrupted!”
She glanced at Alaina, who was smiling hopefully at her.
Trying to be delicate, Bethany said, “It looks nice.”
“I know, right?”
“Maybe you ought not mention the Corruption.” Seeing Alaina’s expression falter, Bethany quickly added, “You know how iffy bio-forms can get when you mention any incident where lives were lost. They’re very sensitive, you know.”
“Creator’s Grace, you’re right.” Alaina said, her projected cheeks turning red. “I didn’t even think ... yeah, you’re right. I still need a good tagline, though.”
“How about: ‘Stay with us, and we might not kill you?’” Cristlyn appeared, a smirk on her face. “Though that might be a stretch with you, Lainy-bug.”
“Shut up, Chrissie.” Despite her words, Alaina met her sister with a hug.
Cristlyn fidgeted until released. “Okay, okay! Nice to see you again too, sis.”
“So how is it in Wukice?′ Alaina asked before Bethany could get a word in.
“Same as ever. Loud, annoying, crowded.” Sighing, Cristlyn leaned against the railing.
“I just said goodbye to two lupere heading your way.”
“Joy. More hopefuls. Just once, I’d like to get an engineer or a tekker ... one who’s actually interested in doing some work, not trying to get a foothold in the city to jumpstart their career.”
“As cheery as ever, I see.” Bethany said.
“Oh. Hey, Beth. Didn’t realize you were here. How’s it going in your little corner of Wenapaj?”
Their hands met, facilitating the exchange of data streams.
Cristlyn’s eyebrows rose. “Terra’s carrying again, huh? Maker’s breath, don’t tell me Terra and Jimmy are trying to fill all your rooms by themselves.”
Bethany let out a light-hearted laugh. “If they want a big family, I’ve no objection. The twins are sweet, especially little Fei. I just wish I had the chance to baby-sit more often. Ever since King Iniagus approved her posting to the Saybaro, they haven’t needed my help on that front.”
“Bah. Just ask, and I’m sure they’ll let you sit so they can have a night to themselves. If not now, then just wait until they have a few more.”
“Think it’ll be twins again?” Alaina asked. “Maybe I can help too! I’d love to watch them! Please, Bethany? Pretty please?”
Bethany opened her mouth to respond when Jocelyn appeared in a flash of swirling light.
Alaina’s eyes widened in amazement, while Cristlyn just shielded her eyes with an annoyed expression on her face.
“Good day, my sisters.” Jocelyn said, her voice silky and smooth. “I trust you’ve been well.”
“Yeah, until you tried to overload my optical inputs.” Cristlyn said. “Show-off much?”
A dark look crossed Jocelyn’s face, only to fade when Alaina hugged her. Momentarily surprised, Jocelyn slowly put her arms around her sister and hugged her back.
“It’s been too long.” She said.
“I know, right? I should’ve called you ages ago. Your dress is so pretty! Did you make it yourself?”
“I have put some work into my appearance.” Jocelyn glanced at Cristlyn and said, “Something you might want to consider some time,
“Ladies.” Bethany said pointedly. “Let’s remain civil.”
“Of course.” Jocelyn said, bowing her head. “We are all nothing but projections of light, after all.”
Cristlyn mimicked her talking, but quickly feigned looking disinterestedly at her nails when Jocelyn turned to give her a sharp look.
Jocelyn was still glaring at Cristlyn when Alaina asked, “So how have you been? Is everything going well in Rimstak? Have you heard from Amelia lately?”
“Quite well. Rimstak is much the same as ever, and Amelia is doing well. She found an Inheritor recently.”
“I know.” Cristlyn said. “Still breaking him in, last I heard.”
“Rory is a good man.” Jocelyn said crisply. “He’s just a bit ... passive, that’s all. You should be happy for her.”
“I am, I am.” Cristlyn sighed and said, “So how about you, Jocy? You find yourself an Inheritor yet?”
Jocelyn blushed, much to the amazement of the other CICs.
“You have, haven’t you?” Cristlyn said, a grin spreading across her face. “Jocy’s got an Inheritor?”
“I am entertaining a few possibilities.” Jocelyn said, wishing she hadn’t spent quite so much time fine-tuning the way her hologram responded to emotional input. “It’s an important decision, you know.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Cristlyn said. “I want images. I mean, you must’ve already given them a cursory scan, right?”
Coughing, Jocelyn turned to Bethany. “You initiated this communication, correct?”
“Yes.” Bethany said, the room changing back to her central core. “I mean, I didn’t have any kind of emergency. I just thought we could talk.”
“And so we are.” Jocelyn said. “Did you want to speak of anything in particular?”
Seeing the curious eyes of her sister made Bethany feel suddenly embarrassed. “Well, nothing specific. I mean, we haven’t had a real conversation in ages.”
“I send you all data streams all the time.” Cristlyn said, looking at Bethany strangely. “Every day for Alaina. That reminds me; what’s with all the satellite imaging of Ircandesta?”
“I’m just curious.” Alaina said, “I don’t have a tree in my sunroom.”
“Well, yeah, but you’ve taken over six-thousand images in the last three days. Are you cataloging the trees?”
Alaina looked flustered as she seemed to struggle for a response. Jocelyn put her hands on her sister’s shoulders. “Ircandesta is a lovely country, Alaina. I’ve read dozens of stories that take place there. I could lend you a few if you want.”
Alaina’s face brightened, but Cristlyn cut her off before she could speak.
“Lend? As in a physical book? You could stream the entire contents of every library in the world in a matter of seconds if you wanted to do that.”
“It’s not the same.” Jocelyn said, her brow furrowed at her sister.
“It’s exactly the same.” Cristlyn persisted. “The contents of the book don’t magically alter themselves in the transition from data to paper. It’s essentially just a text file in a very data-unfriendly medium.”
“Oh yeah? And what about music?” Alaina countered. “It’s just a bunch of sonic waves made by smashing, grinding, and breathing, right?”
An ugly look fell over Cristlyn’s face. “Music is art.”
“So is literature.” Jocelyn said, stepping directly in front of Cristlyn.
“Yeah!” Alaina said, standing behind Jocelyn.
Cristlyn’s hologram may have been shorter, but she made up for it in stubbornness. Hands on her hips, Cristlyn said, “You can’t compare a bunch of words to the intricacies of a symphony.”
“And here we go.” Bethany said, rubbing her forehead. She was beginning to remember why she hadn’t called her sisters in a while.
“You’re right.” Jocelyn said, “Literature is much more complicated and far subtler.”
Bethany said, “Maybe we should just change the-”
“Subtle? Like those trashy romance novels you sent me?”
Jocelyn’s cheeks shone. “Those novels were by a fantastic author named Jane Austen. She was to literature what Mozart was to music.”
“Ladies, please.” Bethany pleaded.
“Oh, please!” Cristlyn said despite Bethany’s plea, “You can’t compare pulp novels to one of the greatest composers of all time!”
Bethany was about to turn away when a small hand took her own. She glanced to her side to see the wide blue eyes of her youngest sister, CIC Samantha. Installed into the new core of the Naidyr facility, little Sammy was filled with all the curiosity and wonderment you’d expect of a bio-form child.
“Hey, Sammy.” Bethany said as Cristlyn and Jocelyn continued to fight, Alaina playing the cheerleader. “Did you need something?”
“You didn’t call me.” She said, sticking her lower lip out. “You called the others, but not me.”
Sighing, Bethany ruffled her little sister’s hair. “You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry, Sammy. I guess part of me realized this was how it’d all end up, and I didn’t want you to have to see it.”
Bethany and Sammy looked at the CICs. Their holograms were glitching from their heightened emotional state, Cristlyn’s worst of all.
“I’ll stop them.” Sammy said. Taking a few steps toward her squabbling siblings, she shouted, “Stop it Crissy! Stop it Jocy! Stop fighting!”
The sight of the much shorter hologram of Sammy gave the others pause. Alaina knelt beside her. “It’s okay, Sammy. They’re just having a little talk, that’s all.”
“You’re so loud.” She put her little hands over her ears. “Stop shouting, okay?”
Cristlyn and Jocelyn looked at each other. Bethany could almost see the opposing wills shatter at the sight of their upset little sister.
“It’s okay, Sammy. We’ll be quieter now. Right, Cristlyn?”
“Fine.” Cristlyn said, “Whatever.”
Pursing her lips, Jocelyn said, “So how have you liked Naidyr so far, Sammy?”
“Oh, it’s really cool! The tekkers are really nice, and the Seed lets me sit in on any lesson I want.”
“Not a bad idea.” Cristlyn said, nodding. “You could learn a lot from their tech department.”
Sammy made a face. “I wanna be a wizard!”
This brought a moment of silence to all the CICs. Bethany wasn’t even sure what to say about it, and Alaina giggled as a Sammy produced a wand and pointed it in various directions as though casting spells, making what she obviously thought were the sort of sounds magic would make.
Jocelyn had a hard time hiding her smile as she said, “Well, that’s ... an interesting choice.”
“Interesting?” Cristlyn said, “It’s crazy!”
“Cristlyn.” Bethany said, her tone warning.
“No, Beth, this is stupid! I’ve got a better chance of winning next year’s Longshore Melee than Sammy does of becoming a spell-caster!”
Sammy pointed her wand at Cristlyn and said, “Alacazamicus!”
Eyes narrowed, Cristlyn snatched the wand out of her hand and snapped it in half. At least, that was what appeared to happen. What actually happened involved a fair amount of invasive programming. The result was the same however.
“Knock it off, you little spaz!” Cristlyn said.
Samantha stood still, her little face showing shock. After a few moments, her face began to scrunch up.
“No.” Cristlyn said, a note of panic in her voice. “Don’t do that!”
Taking a deep breath, Sammy let out a shriek that made all their holograms waver.
“Dammit, Cristlyn!” Jocelyn said, “You just can’t let her have a little fantasy, can you?”
“Hey, it’s not my fault she’s delusional!”
“Apologize!” Bethany snapped.
Cristlyn stared at Bethany for a moment before nodding. With a smile that was more of a grimace, Cristlyn knelt beside Sammy and said, “Look, Sammy, I’m sorry. I was way out of line.”
Sammy continued to bawl, the pitch going even higher. The assembled CIC holograms were glitching out now, their data streams scrambling.
“I’m sorry! I said I’m sorry!” Cristlyn said, shouting to be heard over Sammy’s continued shrieks. “Please, just shut up already!”
“So not helping!” Alaina said, clutching her ears.
Finally, Sammy stopped and drew in another deep breath. Bethany and her sisters braced them for a renewed scream, but what came out instead instilled far more terror.
“I’M GONNA TELL MOM!” With that, Sammy’s hologram vanished.