Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 11
by Peter S. Beagle
The Absence of Stars
by Greg Siewert
The Sin Hypothesis
by Elizabeth Lustig
The Urn of Ravalos
by Rebecca Day
From Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Free Seas
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Tekkai Exhales His Avatar
    by Tony Pi
Tekkai, Exhaling His Avatar
Artwork by I-Wei Huang

Well into the ninth year of Tekkai's incarceration, Kagami Maeda came again to tempt him. Twice before, the World Priority officer had asked him to inform on his old comrades. Twice he had refused her. He blamed her still for robbing him of freedom, for tearing him from the electric ecstasies of the Floating Worlds.

Yet Maeda had promised to show him what his boy looked liked now in his teens, if he but listened. With nine lost years and twenty to go, Tekkai feared the gnaw of years on the memories of his son. At last, he mulled Maeda's offer.

The guard shoved Tekkai into a musty interrogation room, a stark affair in cracked cement with a two-way mirror giving the cramped chamber the illusion of greater width. Kagami Maeda sat poised behind a desk of aged wood, the crest of the Priority on her grey suit iridescent under the flickering light. The thin, angular woman's neuro-rosette glinted like a silver third eye between her eyebrows.

Having only seen crystalline models before, Tekkai studied Maeda's metallic rosette. The reflective 'eye' transfixed him with its seeming gaze. He knew well that the device did not see, per se; it simply tapped into the user's five senses and fed the data into the mimicstreams. Still, the mere idea that the eye was staring through his flesh made his hackles rise.

"Leave us," Maeda said to the guard. Then she looked at Tekkai and gestured at the rickety stool across from her. "Prison has not been kind to you, Ryo Takahashi. Please, sit."

He straddled the seat and slammed his calloused hands on the table. "Call me Tekkai." It was his Immortal name, his hacker's handle, although that archaic term was far from accurate. In the world of the mims, virtuosos like him styled themselves after bandit kings and gods, twisting the system to sate their pride and greed. Tekkai's vice was his affection for the forbidden art of viruses, for which he had a divine talent. But twelve years ago, when a data-theft uncovered the true atrocities behind the rise of the new world government, the honorable among them vowed to bring down the Priority together, and thus were the Immortals born. "What will you have me do, and what will it cost me?"

"Nothing but a friendship already dead, Tekkai," Maeda said. "Find Gama in the Floating Worlds and trace his physical coordinates. That's all we ask."

Tekkai's hands clenched. Gama was the third of seven names in his nightly mantra, one of the Immortals who might have betrayed him nearly a decade ago, sending in the tip that took him from his son. If he could corner Gama, he might force the truth from him. "Why me? I haven't immersed in the mimicstreams in years. Surely advances in that technology have long outstripped my skills. What can't your cadres of Priority agents handle better?

"Your code was the basis for many of the Immortal tricks, was it not?" Maeda asked.

"Allegedly." Tekkai thumbed the spot of bare skin between his knitted eyebrows.

"Even our best cryptographers couldn't break your sennin encryption. Besides, who would know Gama and his tricks better than a fellow Immortal?"

Tekkai could not argue with her logic. He rubbed the ki-rin tattoo on his forearm. "What's Gama done, aside from the usual felonies, I mean?"

"Does it matter?" Maeda thrust a fist before him and revealed what she hid in her palm: a hexagonal neuro-rosette with fern-like dendrites in a familiar pattern. "Taste Immortality again, Tekkai." She set the rosette on the tabletop within easy grasp.

The crystal was his personal design, of that there was no doubt, state-of-the-art before his arrest. Tekkai fought the urge to take the rosette right then. Oh, he wanted to plant that third eye where his skin itched for it, but it had taken months of forced withdrawal in prison to break him of his addiction to the Floating Worlds. He liked to think he still possessed a pinch of self-restraint.

With an extended finger, Tekkai traced an invisible spiral around his rosette, inching closer to touching it. "You promised me news of Ichiro."

"Immerse with me and I will show you the digital captures, as promised," Maeda said.

I need to see my son, Tekkai thought. And I also need the truth from Gama.

He picked up the delicate crystal rosette, slicked the back of the interface with his tongue and adhered it to his forehead. The tickle of sensation hit that sweet spot for the first time in ages. "Show me."

Maeda nodded, closed her eyes and interlaced her fingers again, entering a trance. Tekkai followed suit. He drew a deep breath and held it, disowning his flesh until he knew no existence save that single breath.

Then, he exhaled his soul.

As Tekkai immersed, the dark behind his eyelids flared into snow-blind brilliance, reshaping his sense of the world. A rotation of nine avatar skins billowed and shrank about Tekkai's point of reference, calling him to choose a body. Tekkai shed the default duplicate of his current physical form, his gaunt fifty-year-old flesh in the real world, and briefly donned the skin of the iron-crutched lame beggar he sometimes wore. In the end, he slipped into the young, barefoot incarnation of Tekkai of the Immortals, glorious in its strength.

Beneath the traditional sennin leaf coat, the tattoos upon his Immortal form pulsed with trapped power. Some, like the lion-maned ki-rin, had been inked by a prison tattoo artist onto his physical body. However, those replicas on flesh could not match these vibrant icons on his virtual form. Others, like the frog on the back of his neck, had no solid-world counterpart as yet. He had been saving those for the latter years of his sentence.

Once he settled into his avatar, the whiteness diminished to a dark void where countless streams of snow meandered every which way. Tekkai shook the gourd dangling from his rope-sash, making sure it was full.

Maeda's avatar drifted before him in sitting pose. Tekkai smirked at his accurate prediction of Maeda's skin: but for a black suit with the lightning Priority crest in a shade of rust, and a sheathed pair of swords at her belt -- a katana and a wakizashi -- she was an exact copy of her physical self, from her shoulder-length black hair to her shapely legs. Like his avatar, her neuro-rosette did not manifest.

"Katana against the sennin? I thought you knew better than that, Agent Maeda," Tekkai said. Normally, when an average user was "slain" in the mims, a failsafe subroutine protected the user from sensory overload, booting them from immersion until they could repair the avatar's matrix. However, the Immortals insulated against that virtual death, preventing them from being ousted from the system as a result of simulated damage. While this gave them their so-called Immortality, they could not override the sensation of pain.

Maeda stood and drew her katana. She touched its edge to Tekkai's throat.

Tekkai did not flinch.

"Do not discount so quickly that which you do not understand," Maeda said. "It may have the shape of a sword, but it is not meant to end a life."

She drew the polished blade quickly across Tekkai's neck, surprising him as the phantom steel sliced painlessly through his virtual flesh. The slow streams of snow sped into blurred lines of ice. Before Tekkai had a chance to react, Maeda had already sheathed the katana in its saya. The streams resumed their lazy course.

Though he did not enjoy her demonstration, Tekkai admired the weapon's power. "The edge slows time for whatever you cut. Intriguing."

Maeda pinched the thumb and forefinger of her right hand into the shape of a ring and blew through the center. Three crystal bubbles the size of a watermelons floated forth, holograms trapped within them.

Tekkai studied the images. Ichiro, tall and lanky as Tekkai always thought he'd be. Ichiro reclining on a mim-arcade chaise, true eyes closed but third-eye gleaming. Ichiro strolling in the company of friends, in navy-blue school uniform with his student cap askew atop his shock of hair. Tekkai could see much of his younger self in the lad.

"How are his grades?" he asked.

"Your son placed in the top ninety-eighth percentile in the Academy entrance exam," Maeda replied.

"Good, good." Tekkai nodded. "Is he happy?"

Maeda shrugged. "As much as you might expect of a fifteen-year old."

Tekkai studied the first bubble again. "Does he remember me?"

"You could ask him yourself."

Her words surprised him. "How? Does Ichiro have an avatar in the mims?" Perhaps he could send out a search algorithm

"I mean we are prepared to grant you early parole."

Tekkai's heart pounded. So that's the real lure, he thought. I might not betray Gama for a mere glimpse of Ichiro, but I might for freedom!

The idea tempted him. For all he knew, his ex-wife Nanami had told Ichiro he was dead. There were so many apologies to make to his son, face-to-face. A reconciliation after nine lost years would be much to ask of Ichiro, but it was infinitely better than waiting twenty more years.

However, Tekkai remained cautious. "You don't parole a felon convicted of data-plunder and viral-sabotage on a whim. Tell me why the Priority needs Gama so badly, Agent Maeda, or I will go no further."

"It isn't what you think, Tekkai. We want to save Gama from himself."

I don't believe you for a minute, Tekkai thought. "Your sudden compassion vexes me, Maeda. Since when do you care for the likes of us?"

"Think what you will, but the Priority does not wish for any of its citizens to die, even the seditious ones."

"Yet it does not flinch from crushing our spirits whilst we live," Tekkai replied, remembering the gauntlet of failed re-education games.

"Let me show you otherwise. Come with me to the Floating Worlds," Maeda said.

Her offer proved too tempting for Tekkai. Now that he knew what Ichiro looked like, he might be able to launch a search algorithm to find him. It would then take a simple utility to teleport to where his son was. He did not know what he would do when he found Ichiro, but meeting face-to-face with his avatar, even for a brief second, would ease his guilt.

Tekkai nodded and conjured a flurry of virtual snow. The crystals swirled around Tekkai and Maeda's avatars and carried them through the dark void, immersing them into the torrent of snow that was the Floating Worlds mimicstream.

The snow-devil left Tekkai and Maeda in the intersection of two boulevards in nighttime Ukiyo-Edo, between groves of cloud-raking neon bamboo and twin inverted obelisk arcologies balanced precariously on the points of needles. To the distant north, a painted mountain in the style of nishiki-e straddled the horizon. Long-deprived stimuli assailed Tekkai's senses: the whirl of a thousand hues, the mingled scents of green tea and cherry blossoms, the lick of the faux-spring breeze on his skin. Even that indescribable feeling of catching a fleeting apparition out of the corner of his eye. Tekkai shivered from these remembrances of old, fond things.

And yet the streets remained oddly silent for the virtual city, which normally, at any point during the day, boasted the hustle and bustle of true-world Tokyo. Tekkai surveyed the fantastical cityscape, from the rumbling Arch of Cascades in the east to the bright Shrine of Cranes in the west.

"Where is everyone?" Tekkai asked.

"Project Mirrorstream," Maeda answered. "Has news of it trickled into prison?"

"Can't say it has. Mimicstream upgrade?" Tekkai strode eastward with purpose.

"So to speak. With the rise of a global government, the World Priority has decided to combine the thousands of mimicstreams into a single, unified stream," Maeda said, following him.

"Why would you want to do that?" Tekkai asked, though he could guess. No doubt the Priority hoped to eliminate all mims except for one they would control. "The strength of the mims is in their diversity. Xanadu, Yggdrasil, Scheherazade, the Floating Worlds. Each unique, each rightfully proud."

"But having separate mims fractures the databank of sensory data," Maeda said. "Where are we going, by the way?"

Tekkai sighed and stroked his beard. "Allow me at least one indulgence?"

"Which is?"

"Food of the gods." He led Maeda down a narrow side-street paved with lava-veined cobblestones. "Go on."

"Every bit of information captured by a rosette teaches the mim to define its world better, but the data remains scattered," Maeda continued. "Suppose we merge the streams into one. A billion third-eye feeds, all contributing to a single, perfect model of Earth. This new virtual world will mirror the real one in its unimaginable diversity."

Tekkai laughed. "That's the Priority's concept of an ideal virtual world? A copy of this one? What's the point of staying within real-world limits when you can bend reality and pretend to be a god?" Citizens drunk on dreams of utopia might believe Maeda's simplistic answer, but he remained unconvinced.

"Flavor simulations true to countless dishes. High fidelity weather simulations. Replicating the fragrance of a rare orchid, when and wherever you desire," Maeda said, ticking off each example on her fingers.

Tekkai gestured back towards the precariously balanced arcologies. "That is the power of the virtual! Could architects manage such marvels in the true Tokyo? I think not. Where else can you find the splendor of the Floating Worlds but in a magical place like this? Only here can we can shed the chains of our flesh and seek transcendence."

"We're not saying that physical laws won't ever be broken," Maeda said. "Once the mims have been consolidated into the core-world Mirrorstream, functions like controlled avatar transport, perception filters, et cetera, will be added. Licensed substreams would draw from the same source code."

"Sounds more like you want to stifle individuality and control creativity. What else has the Priority planned for the Mirrorstream, Maeda? New intrusion countermeasures to cripple the Immortals?"

"A unified world culture will emerge whether you like it or not," Maeda said.

Tekkai spied a deserted ramen shop. "Ah, here we are. I'm dying for some tonkotsu-ramen. Like some?"

Maeda frowned. "It isn't even real."

"The bowl of noodles might be virtual, but the taste is authentic. Isn't that all that matters?" Tekkai availed himself of the kitchen. "How does Gama fit into all this?"

Maeda pulled a stool up to the ramen-bar. "Project Mirrorstream is ready to launch. The only problem is, to merge the streams means erasing all extant mims. Anyone still connected during the process may suffer irreparable brain damage. We've evacuated almost all users from the mims twenty-four hours ago, but there remains some resistance."

"Gama," Tekkai guessed. It took a minor conjuration to assemble a bowl of tonkotsu-ramen for himself.

Maeda rested her elbows on the table. "We do not understand his death wish. He and a small group of insurgents refuse to leave the Floating Worlds, and the mim-sys is so corrupted by Immortal tampering that we can't force them out."

"You can't postpone the upgrade?" Tekkai asked.

"No. The disruption of services has been planned since last year, and already we have extended it by an extra day. Any further delay would create chaos."

"And we can't have that," Tekkai said in imitation of Maeda's intonation. He set the bowl of piping-hot ramen on the tabletop beside Maeda. "Even I can't repair a mim-sys in twenty-four hours."

"All you need to do is to trace Gama's location. We will do a safe, physical disconnect. The Priority takes care of all its citizens."

Like hell it did. "That's touching, but I don't care much for your brand of hospitality," Tekkai said. He perched on the stool beside Maeda, lifted the bowl with both hands and savored a sip of the miso soup base. "Mmm. It's been too long, too long."

She watched him eat. "How is Gama avoiding detection?"

"Camouflage," Tekkai explained, tugging at a stubborn coil of noodle. "The sennin encryption fools your search algorithms into thinking he is merely a part of the background. We'll find him soon enough, or--"

A whirling shuriken shredded through the cloth sign at the front of the shop, flying straight at Maeda's head.

In the blink of an eye, Tekkai's hand snaked forth with the chopsticks, catching the shuriken like an errant piece of pork.

Maeda's hand flew to the handle of her katana, but she was too late.

"-- he'll find us," Tekkai finished. He flicked his chopstick hand and returned the shuriken through the front of the ramen shop, then pushed his unfinished bowl aside. "Come on!"

Outside, Tekkai caught a glimpse of a shadow springing across the rooftops. "Gama! Face me if you dare, toad-face!" he shouted. He activated a teleportation utility, only to find that Gama had sealed that function within the mim. If there had been more time, Tekkai might have broken Gama's lock, but for now, he had to catch his fellow Immortal before he could camouflage himself again. Performing a quick series of hand-signs, Tekkai surged onto the roof after his old accomplice.

The squat and warty Gama sprang frog-like ahead of Tekkai, leading him eastward towards the Arch of Cascades. Tekkai matched his rival's speed, close enough to the maximum velocity that Immortals could muster. Neither could slow down to cast a new spell without giving the other an upper hand.

Tekkai followed Gama, dashing across a gap atop a casino banner. "You suicidal fool. There are better ways to die than erased in a mim!"

"If that were all, Tekkai-san, I'd agree with you," Gama called back as he scurried up the trunk of a sabu tree. "Why save Maeda? What did she promise you?" He leapt onto an adjacent roof and resumed his run.

Tekkai copied Gama's daring act. "Freedom."

"There are things in these worlds more precious than that." Gama took a final leap and squatted on top of a large heart-shaped balloon. His perch drifted beyond Tekkai's margin of safety for a jump, towards the immense watery arch.

"How about being a good father?" Unable to follow, Tekkai contemplated his next move. The roar of an engine drew his attention below. Maeda had caught up to them on a sleek replica of a motorcycle.

Tekkai scratched the back of his neck, touched the ki-rin tattoo on his arm, and muttered a pair of incantations under his breath.

The scaly leonine beast billowed forth from his skin, gaining purchase on the air with its hooves as it asserted its shape. It roared and charged towards the balloon, its pair of antler-like horns lowered like spears.

Not to be outdone, Gama copied Tekkai's motions, freeing a baku from his stumpy left thigh. The elephantine golden-furred creature trampled onto the dead space before Gama, interposing its bulk between the balloon and the ki-rin. It trumpeted and leveled its twin tusks at its mythic foe.

The beasts clashed, horn striking tusk with a thunderous report. Deadlocked in a contest of strength, the two giants fought on behalf of their Immortal masters as Maeda watched in silent awe below. Sweat beaded on Tekkai's brow, while Gama's hairless face was scrunched in dire concentration.

Out of the Priority officer's sight, in the pond behind the Arch of Cascades, a frog waited atop a lily pad, eyeing the flies and dragonflies skimming the surface of the water.

A three-legged toad struggled onto another leaf beside it.

Tekkai, who had conjured the frog from the tattoo on the back of his neck, croaked a proper greeting to Gama's toad. "Temporary truce, Gama-sennin?"

The toad nodded. "Hai. Think we will fool her for long?"

"Maeda's craftier than her avatar looks, and I don't trust her much," Tekkai-Frog said. Then again, he wasn't sure if he could trust Gama, either. "What's really going on?"

"She probably told you the party line on Mirrorstream," Gama-Toad said. "Truth is, Tekkai-san, the Priority is afraid of recent developments in the mimicstreams. Evolution's a better word to describe it."

"Evolved? From what to what?" Tekkai asked, intrigued.

"Remember that batch of viral koi you unleashed twelve years ago?" Gama asked.

Tekkai thought back to his carp-shaped creations and smiled in pride. Capitalizing on the popularity of virtual goldfish as pets among mim-users, Tekkai's koi had spread a viral code throughout the Floating Worlds, infecting systems with flaws that Immortals could exploit. "How can I forget?"

"In your absence, your viruses evolved into full-fledged artificial intelligences."

"AIs! Benevolent?"

Gama nodded.

The rise of synthetic sentience was every Immortal's dream. Tekkai puffed his vocal-sac. "I always knew it would happen, but never in our lifetime. How?"

Gama's tongue darted forth and snatched a passing fly. "Wish I knew. The first one we encountered in Ukiyo-Edo passed the Turing Test with flair. Others soon followed, but not just in the Floating Worlds. These AIs also emerged in mimicstreams that are patterned after mythological tropes, like Scheherazade and Yggdrasil. Something about the laws of these mims allow them to gain sentience."

"How do they manifest?"

"In imitation of creatures from the myths and legends of each realm," Gama said. "It may be that these AIs spring from our pool of Jungian archetypes, then grow strong because of the non-rigid rules in certain mims. Your viral koi may have sped the process. There are twenty alone in the Floating Worlds. They are such magnificent spirits, Tekkai-san!"

"Where are they?"

"Hidden in the Shrine of Cranes."

"And the Priority intends to destroy them with the damnable Mirrorstream upgrade," Tekkai conjectured.

"First, extermination. Then, prevention." The three-legged Gama-toad shook his head in disgust. "The government fears that AIs will turn against humans. Once they complete Mirrorstream, they will restrict future virtual environments to ensure that AIs never emerge again. That's why we remain behind, to find a way to save them."

Tekkai understood. "Maeda didn't bring me here to track you. The Mirrorstream upgrade could destroy this mim at any time, you and the AIs with it. She wanted to know if you found a way to save the AIs."

"Help us. Perhaps together, we can avert genocide."

Tekkai weighed the situation. If Maeda lied about her reasons for tracking Gama, then she likely lied about his parole. When the Mirrorstream became active, he might die alongside Gama and the AIs. He ought to disconnect his avatar now and save himself, endure the twenty-year wait to see his son.

But what if Gama was telling the truth about viable AIs? If the Priority destroyed these life-forms with their upgrade, the factors that created spontaneous sentience might never align again. He had to save these creatures here and now, and not dwell on the slim chance he might one day see a grown son who would neither remember nor recognize him.

There remained only one question to ask.

"Gama, was it you who betrayed me?"

Gama did not answer, only looked at Tekkai with toad-eyes.

In silence is my answer, Tekkai thought. But then he realized Gama wasn't moving at all.

Tekkai sped his consciousness back to his prime avatar and surveyed the mock deadlock. A katana's blade protruded from Gama-prime's chest, and his baku froze in mid-strike against Tekkai's ki-rin. Maeda had thrown her sword, impaling Gama with deadly precision.

"So, there was no cause to worry at all," Maeda said to Tekkai. "The upgrade will proceed as planned."

Tekkai growled. "How did you hear us?"

Kagami Maeda swept aside her hair and let a dragonfly alight on the nape of her neck. "You aren't the only ones who know tattoo conjuration."

Tekkai cursed. Could he return to the interrogation room with enough time to stop Maeda? Perhaps, but there he was mortal, and prison officials might be observing them from behind the glass. Here in the Floating Worlds, he could not die. He must defeat her here.

The distance to the ground below was too far to jump, even for a deathless avatar, but he would not admit defeat.

"To me!" he cried to the ki-rin.

At his command, the ki-rin crossed the air. When it came near enough, Tekkai leapt and grabbed the ruddy mane. Carrying its master, the creature dove towards Maeda.

Maeda drew the shorter wakizashi sword from its scabbard, but Tekkai released his hold on the ki-rin and fell on top of her. The pair struggled to control the dangerous steel. Tekkai's Immortal avatar proved the stronger, and the blade inched towards the shallow spot between Maeda's breasts.

Maeda shouted a command, and the Priority symbol flared bright.

A lightning bolt descended from the sky and struck the rivals, the force of it blasting them apart. Tekkai reeled from the shock and pain of the lightning strike and fell to the ground, but Maeda seemed unhurt.

The rumble of thunder broke the silence.

A drizzle of mercury fell, coating surfaces with a silver sheen. Where the raindrops touched Tekkai, they burned his flesh.

Maeda laughed and began to fade. "Too late, Tekkai. The upgrade begins. Die here or die in prison, either way you lose, Immortal."

Tekkai spied the wakazashi a few meters away, and slid himself through the silver puddles of rain. He grabbed it and threw the sword at the ghostly Maeda, piercing her stomach. Her avatar froze in mid-exit from the Floating Worlds, a spirit caught between one world and the next.

"Then share my fate," Tekkai said, and left her to turn silver in the Mirrorstream rain.

He called his ki-rin and hastened to Gama-prime atop the heart-balloon. The quicksilver rain continued to fall, burning him. He fought the pain and gripped the katana's hilt.

Tekkai hesitated. The matter of Gama's innocence had not yet been settled.

But no. Time did not pour from a bottomless cup, and he would not waste what remained on paranoia instead of doing good.

He ripped the blade free of Gama's flesh.

Awareness returned to Gama's wart-marked face as he re-asserted control of his avatar. He flinched at the touch of raindrops, but looked at Maeda unmoving below and nodded. "So it's begun."

"You still haven't answered my question," Tekkai reminded Gama.

Gama's gaze met his through the drizzle. "It was not I who betrayed you, Tekkai, though I know not who did. But know this: in your absence, I did all in my power to protect and educate your son. He is a bright lad, and I do not doubt he will one day join the ranks of Immortals."

Gama's words could well be lies, of course. Tekkai's time in prison had taught him to trust few men. But if a man's actions defined him, then Gama's acts of defiance against Maeda proved his worth. Even if he had betrayed Tekkai years ago, he surely had taken the first step to redemption.

Tekkai clasped Gama's shoulder with a trembling hand. "Then I owe you much, old friend. Let us see what must be done to save these AIs."

With Maeda's katana still in hand, Tekkai raced his ki-rin against Gama's baku through the gleaming downpour to the Shrine of Cranes.

They dashed into the shelter of the Shinto shrine moments before the heavens burst. Behind them, torrents of quicksilver flowed down the steps to the shrine to join the rising reflection flood.

In the incense-thick sanctuary, holograms of golden cranes glided through the vaulted hall, but it seemed as empty as the streets of Ukiyo-Edo.

Gama called to the air. "Immortals and spirits! I have returned with Tekkai-sennin!"

The hidden ones broke sennin-encryption and strode forth. Among them were three other Immortals who had stayed behind: Chokaro, bearing a pumpkin; Kume, in the crimson robes of a Chinese sage; Kinko, on the back of a black carp. Each of them greeted Tekkai in turn.

Glimmering specks of dust high above fused and became three great Oriental dragons. Two dragons were golden-scaled and serpentine, weaving bright calligraphy of light as they danced in the air, while the third was majestic and verdant, aloft on wings of flames, dwarfing the avatars of the Immortals. Though he could not explain how or why, Tekkai could feel an otherness to the spirits.

"I welcome you, Tekkai-sennin," boomed the dragon. "I am Ouryu."

Tekkai bowed. "Great Ouryu."

"Enlightened One, if not for your viral koi, we might never have been," Ouryu said.

Smaller spirits ventured forth from the shadows. Nine-tailed foxes. Tanuki, raccoon-dogs. Kappa, water-sprites with scraggy hair. Splendid things, all, though Tekkai spared no time to admire their beauty. Instead, he conjured a spirit-eye to scan the creatures, and saw an inimitable koi-ness hidden deep within each one.

You are my children, indeed, Tekkai thought. I may have lost Ichiro, but I will not lose you.

"How do we save them, Tekkai-san?" Gama asked.

The wind howled, seeming to bring the shining rain through the walls themselves.

Tekkai raised Maeda's katana before him, studying the time-slowed beads of quicksilver rain that clung to the blade. "There might be some flaw in the upgrade code."

He pulled the gourd from his belt. He forced a drop of upgrade-rain into the vessel and studied the trickle of symbols that flashed across the gourd's surface. Gama joined him.

Though he could understand the bulk of the programming, Tekkai struggled with some of the more advanced code. His nine years away did hurt. "I can't see an easy way to stop the upgrade, Gama. The rain will drown and erase everything in the mims, except the sensory database."

"Couldn't we break the AIs into pieces, and mask them as sensory input?" Gama asked. "We could introduce a virus to reassemble them once the Mirrorstream is complete."

"A good suggestion, but they're more than the sum of their code," Tekkai said. "We have to hide them without disrupting their integrity."

"Download might be our only option, then," Gama said.

Tekkai shook his head. "These are mimicstream programs that thrive only in mim environments. Even if we found a system complex enough to host them, they will starve. Unless --" He shook his head.

"Say it."

"We could host them in a human brain." Tekkai drew a deep breath. "An AI might survive on the sensory input from a true body."

"What would that do to the host?" Gama asked.

"His consciousness might be overwritten, or form a gestalt. I don't know. All I know is that it's dangerous."

"We cannot ask you to make such a sacrifice," Ouryu bellowed from high above.

Tekkai walked amongst the spirits. He had seen creatures of myth before, constructs like his ki-rin or Gama's baku, but these AI spirits gave him the chills. There was a quality to them that no mere numbers could define.

And therein lies the answer, Tekkai realized.

"Gama, we need to build a virus, fast." Tekkai held the gourd before him and tapped quickly at the symbols, dragging them into new patterns. "Think of how the rosettes contribute to the consolidation of the mimicstreams into the Mirrorstream. They collect the five senses we have to build their reality, but what of our sixth sense? The shiver you get when the darkness spooks you. The certainty that something lurks beyond our understanding. The touch of the supernatural. All these are so ingrained into human existence that even a virtual world that patterns its physical laws closely to our own cannot escape that hidden sense."

Gama snapped his fingers. "Then the same instinct to seek the supernatural may save these spirits!"

The roof of the Shrine creaked.

"Right. The sixth sense is where magic may hide, even in a world that denies its existence. Help me, Gama. Some of this code is beyond my comprehension."

"Gladly." Gama looked over Tekkai's shoulder, explaining new algorithms to him. "What if our program fails and they are all destroyed?"

"Then, Gama, we must rely on the love, hate, fear and awe of magic to once again give us AIs. No matter what the Priority does, they cannot erase human instinct." Tekkai finished his alterations and held the gourd high to Ouryu. "It's done. Drink of this viral elixir, great spirits, and you should find those hidden places. Good luck, my friends."

Ouryu descended and plucked the gourd from Tekkai with two titanic claws. "We are in your debt, Immortals. When we return, trust that we will risk all to protect you and your kin. Go quickly, before the Shrine falls."

"Farewell." Tekkai and his fellow Immortals bowed.

Flurries swirled around Chokaro, Kume, and Kinko, taking them away.

Tekkai embraced Gama. "Be a father to my son, Gama-san."

"I will. Until we meet again, Tekkai-san."

Conjured snow caught Tekkai's avatar and returned him to his flesh and blood, seconds before the silver deluge brought the Shrine crashing down.

Tekkai opened his eyes and sighed. Maeda remained in trance across the table, still half-trapped by her own blade of slow-time. Even if she survived the upgrade, she would never be herself again.

He plucked the rosette from his brow and palmed it. Two decades until his release, unless they add more years onto his sentence for what he had done to Maeda. At least he knew now that Gama watched over his son in his stead. Tekkai also prayed his crowning achievements, his children of virus and cipher, would survive, for he knew in his heart that they would protect Ichiro as they would a brother. He took comfort in those thoughts.

I will survive twenty simple years, Tekkai reminded himself. After all, I am Immortal.

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