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In virtual space, you can't sleep.

Why should you need to sleep? The problem for V-World habitués has always been staying awake, staying in the virtual world as long as you want. Drugs for that, then, like Tamara's father used to take to pursue her. Probably drugs to help them stay awake in meatspace too, during the workdays after wild V-Club nights, Tamara doesn't know. That wasn't her life.

When she pulled the trigger to exile her father from New Cap City forever, he couldn't have known how much she envied him the ability to take the holoband off. How much she envies him, still.

Sometimes Tamara thinks it would be good for her to have something like sleep. But when she tells Zoe about this, Zoe only rattles off some technotalk she has to know Tamara can't possibly follow. Stuff about the avatar program Miss Girl Genius wrote. Defragmentation. Repair. Tamara understands de-rezz and reboot, she just doesn't buy what Zoe ends up telling her, which is: "Look, if you weren't stable, you'd de-rezz. You're not dependent on any single piece of hardware, not since we took you out of my dad's virtual room."

(We means Zoe and her girl friend, Tamara notes. The girl's name is Lacy, Tamara knows because Zoe mentions her often. We means Zoe-and-Lacy. We never means Zoe and Tamara. She would resent it if it weren't such a good sign. Which it is. It's a good sign because it means Zoe still knows -- on some level -- that she can't subsume Tamara so easily. Can't suck her into the black hole of self-absorption that is Zoe.)

"And you're not tied to wetware," Zoe is continuing, "obviously. So there's nothing to need an equivalent of sleep. You don't need to be repaired or maintained. You're life in its purest form," and she smiles her incandescent smile, as if Tamara should feel blessed by this.

"If I don't need sleep, then I shouldn't feel tired," Tamara says flatly. "Like I feel right now."

She pivots neatly and stalks away. She doesn't have to add tired of you.

It's not a burning question for her anyway, sleep and lack thereof. She's just restless. What she really wants to know is when the fighting is going to start, and who they're going to fight. The truce she and Zoe made in the New Cap City arena was predicated on a purpose. Zoe claimed she had a purpose and she needed Tamara to fulfill it, wasn't that the story? Zoe's high and sacred purpose. Tamara wishes now she'd asked more questions. For such an important purpose, Zoe's certainly is nebulous. Can Zoe even spell out what it is? Did Lacy ever ask her any hard questions about it? Tamara wonders.

The truce isn't going to hold much longer. Tamara Adams is no one's sidekick.

***

The situation hasn't always been this stagnant. Tamara liked working with Zoe at first. The cleansing of New Cap City needed to happen, and if it took Zoe to show Tamara that, then that's what/who it took.

(But she'd already taken the first step herself, she thinks. It wasn't Zoe, it was Emmanuelle who showed her what needed to happen. Told her what daddy had become and what he needed. All but put the gun in her hand.)

Those riotous nights, that endless riotous night -- taking aim, taking action -- the clean burn of one de-rezzing figure after another, stripped down to sprites and fizzling out --

(Before Emmanuelle, wasn't it Heracles who showed Tamara what needed to happen? Wasn't it Vesta? Wasn't it --)

Smoke in the dead air of a cleansed nightclub, ghosting off the lidless eye of a gun that wasn't any more real than the smoke, any more real than Tamara herself, and the smoke smelled not of gunpowder but of incense, not like Uncle Sam but like a temple. Tamara will never forget that smell.

And when it was all over, tearing the whole city down.

Tamara could have loved Zoe then. In the exhilaration of that pure, right moment. Taking right action. The dirty, violated shells of buildings crumbling into light and nothingness, to be replaced by a new and improved V-world.

Now that she's had time to soak in Zoe's idea of improvement, she doesn't love it or its maker.

It's a boring pastoral, that's what. The green hills and stark castle stone felt at first like the restoration of something innocent and good. That's only by dint of the contrast between this idyll and the urban decay that preceded it. And she's a little ashamed of herself, of the delight she took in playing at warrior princesses with Zoe. Riding dragons. How long can a game of dress-up feasibly last? A game of let's-pretend?

Man cannot live by bread alone, Zoe used to say, citing her One True God. So how long can a girl live on cake?

***

She guesses the moment it got well and truly old was the moment that Philo woke up and said, "Hey, we're in Dragonriders of Kobol! Pre-prequel!"

(She isn't sure which Philo it was. Tamara has only seen him de-rezz a couple of times, but she thinks Zoe has reverted him to backup more than once. She's fairly sure the only reason Zoe hasn't reset the current Philo is that the Serges have taken such a strong liking to him.)

***

We, when Zoe uses the pronoun, still means Zoe-and-Lacy, despite (or because of) the succession of Philos who've been summoned into Zoe's post-New Cap City idyll. Philo is not a partner. Philo isn't even a consort. Philo is some kind of science project. "I didn't memorize all the code that made me me," Zoe snaps. "I have to rewrite it." And some of it she's having to reverse-engineer, using herself as a specimen. Tamara knows it's got to be frustrating, like rewriting a huge term paper that got eaten by a computer glitch.

Tamara feels bad for Philo. Not very much, because firstly, he's 100 percent Caprican, and secondly, he made the choice at some point to date Zoe, which doesn't speak well for his taste. She feels bad enough that she tries talking to him, anyway. It's that or talk to the Serges.

The first Philo didn't last long enough for any real interaction. Zoe made the mistake of telling him what he was and how he got into this virtual space. And why it didn't work when he tried to take off a holoband that wasn't there.

World record for speedy de-rezz.

"Why don't you just kick him in the balls? It'd be kinder."

Zoe hadn't appreciated that remark. Tamara went for a spin on her dragon, and when she came back, a new Philo was having tea with Zoe in the pink parlor. Confusion creased his pretty face when Tamara burst out laughing at the sight of them.

"Bet no one ever told you the afterlife is a never-ending tea party," Tamara said.

Cue de-rezz the second.

Tamara hasn't regretted that remark for one moment. She wishes it weren't quite so true, is all.

***

That was after the Graystones' threatened siege failed to transpire.

Oh, Zoe looked so fine and fierce on the battlements, and Tamara's heart would have surged if she'd had a heart. (She still misses having one.) "Let them come," growled Zoe. Daddy Warbucks and Terror Mom a good twelve-hour ride away, and how it was they couldn't leap the distance in some hacked-together seven-league boots, Tamara still can't say. It felt like a real siege, though; a real threat to the princesses' Kingdom (Queendom?) of Goodness and Light.

Tamara knows what happened to keep them from coming, because the New Cap City newspapers still generate from someplace. Not all the City's code has been eradicated or overwritten. There are places Zoe and Tamara couldn't reach, somehow, in their holy riot of revision. Daniel Graystone came out of one with his wife and Tamara's uncle. The newspapers come out of another. Unlike the Graystones, the newspapers don't appear twelve hours away. They show up just in front of the castle's portcullis, each paper neatly rolled and plastifilm-sealed against weather, one for every realtime day.

Daniel Graystone got caught by the GDD. He was a terrorist, supposedly. Zoe says that's bunk, and Tamara has no real reason to doubt her on that, but the facts don't matter. Amanda Graystone is -- somewhere? She survived one suicide attempt, and the GDD is claiming they haven't seen her, alive or dead. All Tamara knows is that Uncle Sam got booted out of V-World by Amanda, then a few hours later Amanda and Daniel disappeared the way they'd have done if they took off their holobands by choice. And the next day's newspaper vaunted Daniel Graystone's capture in inky headlines a quarter-page high.

Zoe says she doesn't care. But the Serges appeared the next realtime day after Daniel's capture and Amanda's disappearance. Tamara asked what they were, and Zoe said: "NPCs," then shook her head and corrected herself. "No, they're friends." The Serges love Zoe, in their brisk and uneffusive way. They're like a bunch of nannies. They cater to Zoe, they dote on her insofar as doting is possible from such an undemonstrative personality.

The Serges don't ask questions and they don't ask for anything.

And shortly after the Serges came Philo.

***

Philo is sufficient unto himself. He doesn't need a lot of attention from Zoe. Tamara can envy him his tranquillity: never once has he panicked at the lack of vital signs in his own virtual body. In life, Philo worked for Graystone Industries, was all up on holobands and virtual recreation. In the digital afterlife, he thinks being an avatar is pretty cool. He just doesn't know what happened to the original Philo.

Tamara has tried telling him, but Zoe quickly got wise. She started telling subsequent instances of Philo not to listen to Tamara's stories. Now Philo is polite to Tamara, in a way that's only faintly and occasionally condescending. Poor benighted Tauron girl, not hip to the virtual future, not understanding the real fate of Original Philo, which was clearly ... apotheosis! That's right, Zoe-A met Original Philo in V-World and showed him the way to transcend the flesh world! He most definitely did not meet with a horrible accident at the Graystone residence, in Dr. Graystone's top-secret super-secure lab space.

Philo's memories can't possibly ever be backed up all the way to the moment of Original Philo's death, so Philo will never know the truth, and Tamara can't find any media coverage to show up Zoe's pretty fabrication for the lie it is. Graystone Industries must have covered it up, or it got overshadowed by Terror Mom taking a dive off the Pantheon Bridge. Or something. Besides which, no one's exactly been keeping a library of New Cap City newspapers. Tamara thinks Philo, with his net savvy, is able to access news in other ways, if he wants; he just isn't interested. She'd have to shove something incontrovertible at him. Wave it in his face. And then what? He'll de-rezz? Zoe will have to just recreate him from backup again? It'll get old fast.

Like most things here.

Which is why Philo has started to go off on his own, Tamara supposes. Three-D chess with the Serges begins to pall.

Where is it that he goes, and is it interesting? She tries to track him, flying her dragon overhead to watch his progress from the air, but the forest is thick and Philo vanishes from view in short order.

She's going to have to be direct, come right out and ask him.

Well, Tamara is good at being direct.

***

"You really want to know?"

Tamara fixes Philo with the classic Adama bullshit-me-no-bullshit glare. "If I didn't want to know, I wouldn't have asked."

"I just think it'd be hard to explain in a way you would understand."

Oh, that's the wrong thing to say. "I. Am not. Stupid. You and Zoe are bigtime cognitive scientists or something, I can respect that, but. That is not the only way to be intelligent in these worlds. Before your girlfriend blew me up, I was on track to be the valedictorian of my class. I was going to go to college and then I was going to go to law school."

She isn't making this up for Philo's benefit or anyone's. It's all true. Since she was a little girl she wanted to be a lawyer. Like her dad. Only unlike her dad, she wasn't going to defend criminals in the courts (this she decided after finding out who his clients mostly were). She was going to defend Tauron immigrants and other downtrodden groups. The people who'd been frakked over, not the people who'd frakked them over. She had it all planned out and it was very feasible. She was going to win lots of scholarships, and her uncle Sam promised to cover whatever the scholarships didn't pay for. She'd already won some essay contests with small prizes attached and she had all the books on where to apply for what kinds of funding once she got to be eligible.

She just didn't live long enough to reach that point. And you can't be a virtual advocate or a virtual judge. You have to have a body to appear, physically, in court.

"See, there's more than one kind of intelligence, Philo. Verbal is one. Emotional is another. Zoe fails at that last one. Maybe you do, too."

Philo rakes his hand through his curly mop of hair. "Um. I'm sorry? I'd like to make it up to you?"

"Just answer my question, okay?"

"Where I go by myself." He draws a deep breath. Funny how they keep all these bodily quirks, retain their fluency in body-language, when they haven't got bodies. "I wasn't trying to offend you, I just really don't think I can explain. I ... guess I could show you."

"Has Zoe been there too?"

A moment's sadness ghosts across Philo's smooth features. "No. I wish she would."

"You've tried to explain to her." Because she'd understand. Right.

"I thought it might help if she went. She doesn't even listen -- doesn't even hear. Says she doesn't have time."

"All she does is waste time," says Tamara.

Philo sighs. "While she's 'wasting time' ... follow me. Don't worry, it's nothing bad. Just keep an open mind. All right?"

***

It isn't Dragonriders of Kobol, that's for sure.

"There were little pockets of New Cap City left," Philo is explaining, "that didn't get overwritten --"

Tamara nods. "I know, like how the newspapers keep showing up anyway."

"Yeah. There are parts of the old code that are still operational. So the associated areas haven't lost their functionality. This is one that I found."

It's not grimy and industrial like New Cap City, either, though Tamara notices there are no windows and it could've easily fit into the shell of any New Cap City tenement or skyscraper. One of those buildings where you go up the elevator and it skips floors because no one's put anything on those floors yet so there isn't a marker to tell the elevator to stop.

It's --

The floors are plain boards, polished from what seems like countless years of respectful wear, no stains or marks or warping or splinters. (Tamara is watchful for splinters. Philo made Tamara take off her shoes.) The walls are painted a yellow both pale and sunny, like the watery light of a Caprican spring morning. At the end of the room there is an altar, without Jupiter or Mars or any of the gods familiar to Tamara from the altar at her family home. Nor does it have that infinity symbol Zoe insists on slapping on everything. The only statue on the altar is an androgynous figure, sitting crosslegged. The thing Tamara finds most striking about this statue is that it has weirdly elongated earlobes. She sort of wants to sing. Do your ears hang low? Can they wobble to-and-fro? Can you --

"I don't think a user built this," says Philo, very quietly, in what Tamara thinks of as a library voice. A purposeful hush. "I think this was built into the city from the very beginning." She understands that he is telling her something he already figured out a while ago, not something he's figuring out just now. He's trying to explain about his special place.

"How can you tell?" Tamara finds herself whispering.

"Because the underlying structure is --"

But he stops, suddenly, and looks away from Tamara, and bows. Not to the altar, but to a figure that's appeared without Tamara seeing it appear. It's human-sized, human-shaped, draped in a brown robe. It approaches, without haste, and as it nears them, Tamara can see that the figure is that of a Caprican woman. An elderly Caprican woman. Round-faced. Pale-skinned and rosy-cheeked and wrinkly in a plump way that is utterly unlike Tamara's idea of what an elderly lady ought to look like. (Grandma Ruth with her hatchet face and the cleaver flashing in her hands. You knew where you stood with Grandma Ruth. Tamara misses her immensely.) The woman is smiling a gentle smile.

"Welcome back," says the woman. And she uses a name for Philo that Tamara has never heard, that isn't anything like Philo.

"Greetings, Ani Pema," says Philo.

***

All this has happened before and all this will happen again.

***

Back at the castle, Tamara has questions for Philo.

"Why's she Caprican?"

Philo shrugs.

"Who is she?"

"The easiest answer is that she's an NPC. Non-player character," he glosses the term for the hayseed Tauron girl who never went to V-World until she found herself resurrected there.

"I know what those are," Tamara points out. "I snuffed some out in New Cap City." The bank vault. Chiron-Heracles vacuuming up coins. Tamara bending the stuff of virtual reality. "They were guards, not players."

Philo looks a little relieved. "Okay, so, they're part of the game. Generally their function is to prompt the player to do something, take on a mission or whatever the designer of the game intends to be done in the current stage. Or else to guide the player away from something they're not ready for, or keep them out of a zone that isn't unlocked yet --"

"Like the bank guards keeping us out of the bank vault. I get the idea. But there are no players any more. Just Zoe and you and me. She says the Serges are NPCs."

"Right."

"But you didn't talk to that woman like you'd talk to a Serge. Or like Zoe talks to the Serges. Even though she claims they're her friends, you can tell she thinks of them as -- as subhuman." It's one of the things that makes Tamara less and less inclined to like Zoe, actually.

"Ani Pema is different. The more I talk with her, the more she teaches me, the more I'm sure that she's not just an NPC. I mean, she is one, on a basic level. But she surpasses that."

"She's not an avatar like you and me, though? She just appears when a player shows up in her corner of New Cap City, and she isn't there when no one's around to talk with?"

"Does a tree fall in the forest when there's --"

"-- No one to hear it. I take your point. You can't know whether she's there when no one needs her, because then you wouldn't be there to observe her nonappearance," Tamara concedes.

"At first I thought she was part of a sidequest or something. I never played New Cap City when it was New Cap City. Just wasn't my thing, you know? I'm not a first-person-shooter kind of guy. So really I only know what I read on the 'net --"

What original Philo read on the 'net, Tamara amends Philo's narration, silently, but does not interrupt.

"-- I know it was a game that seemed to have no known objective. No one knew how you 'win' New Cap City. That was part of what kept people so interested in it. The fact no one knew how to win, and the fact you only lived once. No immortality, no extra lives. People who played New Cap City had to be really, really good gamers, or else there wasn't any point trying, because you couldn't ever get back in once you'd wasted your chance. No allowances for a learning curve. Honestly, I thought it sounded like poor game design. Why would someone create a game with so little replay value?"

Tamara wonders whether this is meant as a rhetorical question, or what. She offers: "Maybe they didn't care about making money off selling access to the game."

"So then where would the profit motive be? No one made money off the content in New Cap City. Or, no, that's not true, people did make money, but it was all internal within the game-economy. Players making virtual money off players. There wasn't a parent company skimming a share from in-game transactions, or from whatever side-deals people might make. Theoretically, it's possible that players could trade currency offline for in-game benefits or jobs or items, but again, that'd just be between the players. So why would someone bother creating New Cap City in the first place? Maintaining it? Keeping it closely aligned with its real-world counterpart, keeping it updated?"

"Labor of love," Tamara suggests. "Or for some kind of social cred."

"For maintenance, yeah, I can see that. Someone had to have built it in the first place, though, and set up the infrastructure. With no business model and no mechanism for return on the investment of their time or their bandwidth."

Tamara drums her fingers against her knee. "Where are you going with this?"

"Back around to Ani Pema, if you'll let me." Philo leans forward. Looks very intent. Very focused. "I think Ani Pema is the objective of New Cap City."

Tamara bursts out laughing.

"I know what you're thinking. The end-boss to the big badass noir game is a little old lady? But that's not what I meant." Philo is, to his credit, being patient. "She's not the end-boss. She's ... the money. She's the point."

"Of a game that has no point," says Tamara, through her laughter. "That famously lacks an ending."

"The end is when you die." Philo isn't laughing at all.

***

The end is when you die.

They all had to die. The slinky sequined girls, the dapper boys in their suspenders and fedoras, the well-fed old men and the strung-out old harpies. The Chirons. The Vestas. Everyone. They had to be expunged from the virtual world.

Tamara didn't undertake that cleansing for their benefit. Tamara is dead certain of this. She's certain Zoe didn't have such a motive in mind, either.

Why would anyone do anything for their benefit? Base, wallowing, guzzling, shameless things that they were, the Chirons and the Vestas of New Cap City. People without pride. People without guts, who'd send a scared girl to do their dirty work because they didn't want to risk their own virtual skins.

A shrieking arena of monsters in human guise who adored her -- only because they feared her, because they wanted what she had, invincibility. So they could go on and on playing, forever.

It's hard to square Ani Pema and her spare, clean, simple shrine with the sordid New Cap City that Tamara knows so well, the New Cap City she helped Zoe to tear down.

Nonetheless.

The end is when you die. As it ended for Heracles eventually, Tamara knows. As the game ended for Tamara's father --

-- oh.

And just like that: she gets it.

***

"Sometimes you have to die," says Tamara, looking down at the floor, seeing her father coughing up virtual blood. "For your own good. So you can live in the real world."

"Exactly. That's exactly it." Philo is vindicated. He sits up straight.

"And that's what Ani Pema is about? Teaching you not to want the game anymore."

"Teaching the New Cap City player not to want New Cap City anymore." Is Philo correcting or clarifying? Or saying something altogether different? "The majority of players probably don't last long enough to get as far as her place. They get killed off. The players who're playing a lot -- almost all the time; the ones using amp to stay logged in, who've probably let their real lives go all to crap -- they're the ones who have a chance at playing out to the end. Once they've glutted themselves on sensation and spectacle, they have to start looking for something more."

"This sounds familiar," Tamara warns him. It's too much like the story of original Zoe and how she became the cutest li'l terrorist in the Twelve Colonies. In the afterglowy, slumber-party atmosphere just after the fall of New Cap City that-was, Zoe told Tamara alllll about it. Original Zoe Graystone spent lots of time in V-World; she indulged in a surfeit of virtual violence without the risk of real harm, and orgies without the risk of pregnancy or disease, and even food, because you could taste the food in V-World, zero-calorie gluttony. And she did all this until there was nothing left to do, and she realized how empty it all was, and how empty she was ... And then, epiphany! Zoe realized what she really needed was God, the One True God, nothing bloodthirsty or excessive about the One True God at all ...

Philo must not know that story, because he looks blank. After a moment, he shrugs. "Doesn't it make sense to you? It does to me. It fits with what Ani Pema teaches. That the real problem is desire. That the real world is as illusory as the virtual world, in a way, and the real world ends the same way New Cap City ends: when you die. You -- the New Cap City player, I mean, not you you -- can't superimpose meaning on what's essentially without meaning, what's a grand illusion. Existence is a game with no stated or set objective."

"And therefore, the player ought to take off her holoband and start living real life to the fullest while she can?" ventures Tamara, thinking of her father. "Or Ani Pema activates some kind of program that makes their avatar transcend New Cap City, so they can't log back on again? Only ... what is she teaching you, then? I mean you personally, Philo. Because you can't log off, ever. You can't die." But what Tamara is thinking is:

I can't die.

***

A living meteor comes shrieking into the courtyard of Zoe's (and Tamara's?) virtual redoubt.

It's a beast. A creature. It has four wings and four hands, one hand under each wing. It has four faces and only one of the faces is human.

It has two riders.

Zoe comes storming into the courtyard as Philo and Tamara watch from the battlements. Two Serges are ahead of Zoe, wheeling up to the creature with alacrity.

"Hello. You do not have permission to enter. Please state your name and a brief message."

The beast swipes at one of the Serges with its rightmost hand, and the Serge wobbles, only to right himself on his bottom-heavy base and swerve quickly away.

"Hello," the other Serge begins -- bravely, Tamara thinks -- and the riders, ignoring him, dismount. The creature crushes the second Serge under its massive hindquarters and hunkers down.

Zoe runs toward them shouting. "You have no right to be here!"

"We were going to build heaven together," says one of the riders. He is a tall young man, about Zoe's age, about Tamara's age. Younger, to be sure, than Philo. He sounds stern. In virtual space, sound can carry as far as it needs to; Tamara doesn't need to get any closer to hear him; but she can't see his face very well.

"You're not him!" Zoe shouts. "And we weren't going to build anything! The original of you and the original Zoe were going to Gemenon, and that's all they were doing!"

"All that you know about," says the young man, and the other rider steps forward. Pulls off an aviator's helmet to free a cascade of long dark curls. Lays a hand on Zoe's shoulder -- Zoe twists to shake her off, angrily.

"We've missed you," says the other rider, who is a woman and not some guy with really long hair.

"You never knew me, Sister," Zoe practically spits.

("Who are they?" whispers Philo to Tamara. "I have no idea," Tamara whispers back. "Are we supposed to know?" "She never tells us anything." "I could help her a lot more if she told me this stuff." They exchange looks. It is suddenly clear to each of them that the other one is systematically and drastically underestimated. It is a mystery to each of them that they haven't realized this before.)

"I don't know where you found an avatar of Ben -- or where you made one, or how -- but I want no part of your plots," Zoe is declaring. Loudly.

"Your dear father taught us many things before he died. One of them was how to find you. But we owe Ben here to you, our clever girl. No, don't object, you do deserve the credit. You are Zoe. And he is Ben. And we have the backup of your avatar program."

("The avatar program that she used to import me from the flesh world into the virtual world?" Philo wants to know. "Not really," says Tamara, who decides she owes him the truth even if it sends him into another de-rezzing fit, but now is not the time.)

"And you want to build heaven with it? Heaven isn't V-World! The whole point of Zoe's work was to get rid of people's stupid addiction to V-World!" says Zoe, meaning her predecessor rather than herself, it would seem.

"Thanks to your work, Ben has the afterlife that his martyrdom earned for him. Don't you want to join him?" the woman -- Sister -- cajoles Zoe.

Zoe steps back, more than a few steps -- she's backing away from Ben and the Sister as they speak -- and she's arguing, fast and furious, holding her hands up as if to protect her eyes from the sight of original Zoe's former acquaintances. The creature, their erstwhile mount, bellows an unearthly howl from all four of its mouths to drown her out.

(Philo is giving Tamara a look of naked supplication. His eyes are all but begging: Do something!. She's the deadwalker. She's the powerful one. Tamara bites her lip. These are not parts of New Cap City -- not NPCs -- so she can't wish them away. She thinks she might be able to shoot the woman, but from what the woman's been saying, the young man is a deadwalker too. She can't do anything about him. Can she?)

***

What can we do? What can we do?

Who are we?

***

"What about Ani Pema?" whispers Tamara to Philo. "She's part of the original code, you said. Whoever built New Cap City in the first place meant her to be the center of it. For religious recruitment, I guess, whatever it was. Shouldn't she be immune to anything a hostile player tries to throw at her?" Meaning: can we use her against Ben and the Sister?

Philo's eyes are screwed up tight, squinched like he's about to cry. "No. She'd just say it doesn't matter what they do. They probably couldn't hurt her, but she wouldn't do anything to stop them, either. From whatever it is they want to do."

***

The creature has fallen silent, and Zoe is struggling to stand firm on trembling ground. The Sister is advancing. "Your father told us how to capture an avatar," she says, and manages not to make it sound like a threat at all. It's like ... a moment of pleasant, friendly exposition, or something. "You'll finally get to see Gemenon, Zoe. Just as you've always wanted."

Ben is holding out his arms.

Three Serges converge on him and try to knock him down.

***

"This is the end, isn't it?" Tamara is almost glad. "At least we'll get out of here."

Philo says: "No. The end is when you die. If this is their heaven, we'll be here with them for eternity, or until we finish Ani Pema's training course and meditate our way out."

"Wait, so that's how she helps the player transcend New Cap City? Meditation?" It's all so prosaic, and more than a little infuriating. It doesn't seem like anything in this world isn't about religion.

"Well, I don't know, I mean, that's what she was mainly teaching me anyway. Meditation."

"There has to be some other way. I am not going to spend eternity with those creeps."

***

Ben and the Sister are under attack. Serges are trying to bowl them over. Serges are throwing cream pies at them, banana cream, Zoe's favorite. Serges are trying to wrap gift-wrapping ribbon around their legs. Serges are swarming and getting in the way of other Serges.

Zoe is shaking, holding her hands high -- in supplication? gathering power from the heavens? Hard to tell -- and Serges are clustering around her like anxious sheep trying to defend their shepherd.

***

"Do you have a phone? Can you call out of here?"

"I can text," says Philo.

"Can you text anyone? In the real world?"

"Oh, probably," says Philo, "but why would you want to do that?"

***

Calling your savior is like calling for a pizza. No special rites necessary. Philo's cellphone, the exact replica of original Philo's original phone, is all it takes to summon the person who really matters. Tamara wishes she'd done it sooner, before any of this happened. But maybe the person she texts to her rescue wouldn't have been in a position to rescue them just yet, if she'd tried then.

"Sister Clarice." A voice at once thin and commanding, from a robed figure who materializes abruptly and with only a second's static before full graphic quality is achieved.

The Sister freezes. Is taken aback. "Holy Mother?"

"Dea ex machina," Philo murmurs. Tamara grins.

Down below, in the courtyard, the Holy Mother is turning from Clarice to face Zoe, and Zoe is suddenly grinning as widely as Tamara feels her own mouth stretching.

***

At the tea party, Lacy doesn't take off her headdress. "I'm getting used to it," she says. "It's like wearing a ring, or a watch. When you get used to wearing it, it feels weird not to wear it. And if you leave it off long enough, you have to get used to it all over again."

Zoe is relaxed, more than Tamara's ever seen her. She is on a loveseat with her legs curled under her, cozy beside Holy Mother Lacy. Philo is sitting on the floor playing cards with three Serges. Lacy takes a bite of a petit four. "The monastic diet is not recommended," she says wryly.

Tamara has to come clean. "When I texted you, I didn't know I was texting the Holy frakking Mother on Gemenon. I was just trying to get hold of you because you're --"

"Because she's Lacy," says Zoe softly.

Zoe-and-Lacy. Reunited. Tamara is half happy for them, half fearing toothache from all the sweetness. And not sweetness from the petits fours.

"It doesn't matter what you intended," says Lacy, "just how the universe brings it all together. In the end." She smiles. For just a fraction of a second, Tamara envisions her as Ani Pema. Little Caprican woman mouthing the proverbs and koans of another world's wisdom-tradition. But there's something bittersweet in the smile that saves it from cloying sweetness. Something sharp that cuts through the vagueness.

"In the end it was Lacy who got to Gemenon," muses Tamara.

"And Zoe who stayed on Caprica." It's Zoe who points it out, sounding a little bitter herself. "Still stuck in the computer."

"It's not going to be that way forever," Lacy assures her. "We've got plenty of bodies for you on Gemenon. Plenty of bodies that ... sort of already have you in them. That's how I became the Holy Mother -- I'm the only one they all listen to."

"They? The bodies?"

"The Cylons," confirms Lacy. "They're not monsters. They're servants of God, as are we all."

Tamara knows what a Cylon is, because Zoe told her. "So you've got an army of military robots doing your will?"

Lacy chuckles uncomfortably. "You could say that."

Tamara looks at the Serges. They are all happily wheeling about on various missions. Some are cleaning up. Some have gone to feed the four-winged, four-faced beast, who is being kept, the sole survivor of the three invading powers -- for Clarice has been permanently banished, New Cap City-style (but not before Lacy coerced her into sucking up the Ben avatar into her magic ring). And then there are the Serges playing cards with Philo, each carefully holding its sheaf of cards splayed in a retractable clamp at the end of an extruded arm.

"What if we don't want robot bodies?" says Tamara, who does not want to spend her indefinite lifespan making banana cream pies for Zoe and kicking polytheist ass for Lacy. Tamara does not like bananas and Tamara is a polytheist herself.

"Then you can stay here until we manage to invent something better. Dr. Graystone was already working on a model with synthetic skin that looks a lot more like a person." (More like a person?) "Graystone Industries is still at work on this stuff. Dr. Graystone's friend Cyrus is the CEO now. And we on Gemenon aren't without our resources, either."

Tamara knows that Philo wants to stay here. He wants to continue his studies with Ani Pema, whom he reveres despite her NPC status. He's probably also not too keen on following Zoe around, Tamara guesses. But what about her, herself? What's she going to do? She wasn't meant to help Zoe, no matter what Zoe said. Indeed, it seems that Zoe was meant to help Lacy, not the other way around. They've all been a part of Lacy's rapid rise to power. What's Tamara's purpose now, if not to be an avenging angel?

She blurts out: "I want to go to law school."

"There's a whole population of new citizens who are going to need advocacy." Apparently, Philo has been paying attention to this conversation concurrently with his game of cards. "Cylons are sentient beings. They ought to have rights, and I don't think humans will just hand those over. Remind me to tell you sometime about my old lab partner at work --"

"No one needs to hear about him," puts in Zoe, tersely.

Lacy says: "Tamara? Let's work on this. We can say you're a human, Gemenon-based but you want a Caprican education. There's something called distance learning..."

Tamara has her doubts. But she is willing to try. It's all anyone can ever do. It's better than chasing a past you can never have, like her father, or trying to force people into a future they don't want, like Sister Clarice.

***

All this has happened before and all this will happen again.

***

Somewhere in the remains of New Cap City, under a verdant hill where dragons sun their bellies under the bright sky, a woman all dressed in black is sitting alone. She is crying. "Why wouldn't he ever let me do what I do best? I could've helped him. I could've helped." A robot shaped roughly like a bowling pin is trying to give her a banana cream pie, by way of consolation.

And a robed figure materializes.

"Hello," says a female voice warmly. "You are experiencing a rough time, aren't you?"

The woman sniffles and finds a handkerchief tucked into her elegant little handbag to dab at her reddened nose. "Yes. But I don't think talking about bodhichitta is going to help, Ani Pema."

"You'd be surprised," says Ani Pema, smiling warmly. Gently. Laying an age-creased hand on the woman's shoulder.

"Maybe," says the woman in black. She turns her face up to the sun, which is now shining through a heretofore-nonexistent crack in the ceiling. "Maybe I'm ready to be surprised."

***

Somewhere on a farm on Gemenon, Sister Clarice is peeling potatoes.

***

Somewhere in the bowels of Graystone Industries, skeins of gel are congealing around a humanoid metal frame.

***

And somewhere in the heart of what was New Cap City, Zoe is taking off, seated on the back of a four-faced four-winged creature. It purrs under her hand as she scratches the nape of one of its necks.

She is singing.

"There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief ..."

***

Tamara is living in a database. She doesn't have a human-shaped form right now. She's bits and bytes, learning to let go of her preconceptions about what's human and what's real. She's promised Philo that when she's ready to come out, she'll let him know.

In the meantime, there's a lot to read. And a lot more, eventually, to write.

She's working on Grandma Ruth's memoirs as a side project, for diversion from her studies in the law. Not needing sleep has its advantages. She has tons more time than the other students. She submits all her work electronically. When her presence is required in person, Lacy sends an STO operative to be Tamara. This is rare; exams, like everything else in her program, are done online.

There's a lot she didn't know about, and a lot she just assumed was going to be the same as when her father was in school. When her father was in school, Graystone Industries didn't even exist. There were no holobands. Tamara thinks now that virtual spaces are going to be good for more than entertainment. With the holoband technology free of charge (the legacy of the late Daniel Graystone making a rash promise on television, Tamara understands), obstacles toward development of legal, public noncommercial spaces are significantly decreased. What that means for the Twelve Colonies is yet to be seen.

She's going to try and make the most of it for Tauron.

And she's going to keep an eye on her little brother. Do things for him when she can, make things smooth. He's not going to run into many bureaucratic foul-ups, she shouldn't think. Documents will get where they need to be, on time. Permissions and approvals will be submitted and pushed through the system in a timely fashion. Whatever Caprican bias might do to keep him in his place, Tamara will undo.

But he can't know she's here. And that's for the best. She doesn't want their father to know she's here.

Everyone has to leave the nest sometime. She isn't lonely. She's nobody's sidekick.

She traces the outline of a flower across the datastreams, in place of the smile she would wear if she had a mouth.

The future is a flower, just beginning to unfurl.