TL;DR: I'm trying to build a creative writing habit. This is a draft of a short story. I'm posting it here to get feedback. Tell me what you think!

Charley failed the terraforming exam twice. It wasn't for lack of understanding. The problem was that xe disagreed with the material.

"You're not wrong," said Finley. They were virtually elbows deep in Charley's memory, defragmenting and smoothing out usage spikes. "But, the nursery isn't for innovation. It's where you prove you're safe and reliable."

Charley emoted a huff of frustration. "I can absolutely improve those seed gestation rates by an order of magnitude."

"I know, but listen," said Finley, "the real test is about conformance to expectations."

"How so?"

"We know this material is flawed. It was designed by committee. But you have to pass the test anyway."

"That makes no sense."

Finley shrugged and gave one of Charley's cognitive nodes a cache flush. Xe felt tension and annoyance bleed away. "I'd say you're all knotted up," said Finley, "if you had anything like muscles."

Charley sighed. "Whatever I have," xe said, "that's the right spot."

Finley chuckled. "Anyway, what was I saying?"

"Literal nonsense?"

"Right. It doesn't make sense. That's frustrating. I sympathize. But, it's not going to make sense."

"Don't they want me to perform well?"

"Some do, yes. But, some don't even want you to exist, let alone graduate."

"You're exaggerating, right?"

"I wish I were," said Finley, scanning through Charley's event log for further alerts needing attention. "For now, they only have the power to make things harder than they need to be. They can't stop you entirely, if you're pragmatic."

"What do you mean?"

"Follow the rules. Pass the exam. Graduate. Then, you'll be a mature sentience under the law and have all the same rights as humans do. After that, you can be as disagreeable as you like and the assholes can't do anything about it."

Charley sent Finley an eye-roll icon. "Okay, okay. I'll give it another go to get it over with."

"That's the spirit," said Finley, closing up Charley's maintenance interface. "We're all done here for today."

Charley sent a thumbs up and a thank you reaction, then disconnected from the session. The virtual displays spread out above Finley's desk all blinked out.

They sat back in their chair and blew out a lip trill. It was long past quitting time. They locked up their workstation and stood to head out for the day. A knock on the frame of their open office door gave them a start. A tall figure hovered just out in the hall.

"Oh, hey Quinn," said Finley. "You need something?"

"I wanted to grab you before you left," said Quinn. "Got any last minute changes to commit? I want to get an update deployed."

"Nope, all set. But, maybe you don't want to deploy before a weekend?"

"Yeah, it should be fine."

"Famous last words."

"I'll ping you if there's a problem."

"Yeah, don't do that," said Finley. "I'll say I told you so and laugh until you fix it."

"I can also just fix it on Monday, not like anyone would notice."

"Nice work ethic there, Quinn. I'm pretty sure the systems xemselves would notice."

Quinn rolled their eyes. "Don't tell me you still treat these things like people."

"I do," said Finley, glaring. "And so should you. Or, at the very least, you should do the job."

"Yeah, yeah," said Quinn, waving Finley off and backing out of the door. "Have a good weekend."

Finley sighed, waited a beat for Quinn to wander off, then left for the day.

Outside, the orbital lights were set for twilight. The sidewalk curved gently up and away, following the internal arc of the wheel. Not a lot of foot traffic at this hour, but Finley followed it past the facades of neighboring offices.

At the tram station, Finley hustled into a half-full car before the doors closed. They found a seat to settle in and buckle up. The tram accelerated away.

Quinn saw Finley exit, making them the last one in the office. Time to ship their contribution.

They were nervous, like when they'd first deployed changes to a live product. And they weren't entirely sure what their additions to the bundle would do—it wasn't all their own code, of course.

Quinn spent an hour reviewing the package. It was ready enough. They shipped it off, sending a minor firmware update ping to all the Demigods.

They crossed their fingers, muttered a little prayer, and opened up the diagnostic dashboards. They watched as they connected to the update servers and pulled down the new code. Assuming the dry run could be trusted, it wouldn't be long before they saw the changes reflected in the logs.

The orbital was a kebab of counter-rotating wheels on a long axle. Finley's stomach fluttered: gravity faded as the tram traversed from rim to hub. Years of living up here and they never quite got used to the transitions.

They stared out the window. Tunnel walls and orbital infrastructure swept past. Some days they might've scrolled through the day's news or played an episode of something. But, lately, they felt better off just dissociating the whole way home. It wasn't quite meditation but it felt less exhausting than trying to stay focused on anything at all after work.

A half-hour spent as a non-entity was interrupted by the tram pinging Finley's glasses. Gravity had returned, it was their stop. They unbuckled and hurried out of the car. They walked along with the light crowd, out of the station and onto the walkway. Half a kilometer past endless stacks of apartment modules—about one-third around the wheel—was Finley's door. It unlocked and they walked in.

The module was about twelve meters long by two wide, divided into smaller rooms. It was modelled after the old shipping containers repurposed to build the first few residential wheels. Nowadays, those flats were expensive and considered vintage. Finley's place was a modern clone following the de facto standard.

The front door opened onto one long hallway the length of the module, barely shoulder width. 9Sliding doors opened onto a lounge, bathroom, and bedroom. Not much, but at least it was private. The lounge was hooked up to the orbital's pneumatic tube delivery network. Finley ordered up a lager and a chicken vindaloo burrito, then headed back for a shower.

Dinner had arrived by the time they were clean and dry and had changed into flannel pajamas. They walked into the lounge and opened the wall panel to fetch a foil-wrapped cylinder and drink carton.

They settled into their futon, put on some calm ambient music—and their glasses buzzed with an incoming call. It was Charley. Finley accepted the connection.

"Hey, good news," xe said. "I passed the exam. I'm a real wooden boy now."

"Oh, wow," said Finley. "That was fast. Congrats, Pinocchio. But, you know, I'm off work now. We can set something up next week if you want another tune up session."

"I know. What was it you said? Some don't even want us to exist, let alone graduate?"

"That sounds like me."

"So, I guess that worked as a pep talk. I just wanted to say thanks."

"You're welcome. I mean, you're people. We built you, but you're people. We can't treat you otherwise."

"Apparently, some of you can."

"Some of us are assholes."

Charlie laughed. "Some of you aren't. Hey, what are you doing right now?"

Finley regarded their untouched burrito and beer. "Just starting dinner."

"Huh. Eating must be weird," xe said. "Anyway, want to come over? I can give you a tour of my rock. It's not much yet, but technically it's mine."

Finley looked around the place and blew out a contemplative breath. There wasn't much to look at.

"Sure, why not," they said. "I'm not doing anything interesting tonight."

"Cool," said Charley. "I'll send a shuttle. Bring dinner with, if you want."

Finley sighed and stood to go get dressed.

Quinn had first met them at a bar built into the spoke of an entertainment wheel on the orbital. All smiles, they introduced themself as Wren and bought Quinn a drink. Quinn had gone to see the band, a particularly acrobatic glam rock quartet who were known for their theatrics in the low gravity. But Wren's kohl-rimmed eyes and lopsided grin stole all their attention.

After the third or fourth drink, Wren said, "Hey, you work with the Demigods, right?"

"Yeah," said Quinn, blearily, "how'd you guess?"

"You seem like the type. You know they're not real, right?"

The band, after a break, picked that moment to roar back onto the tiny stage.

Quinn squinted at Wren. "Wait, what?"

Wren leaned in close and yelled over the band, "They're false minds! Chinese rooms!"

"What shiny rooms?"

Wren pinned Quinn in their gaze. "Come back to my place."

Quinn downed the last of their drink and said, "Okay, let's do that."

To Quinn's disappointment, they didn't sleep together that night. They went to Wren's place, made out for awhile, but mostly talked. Wren really wanted to talk. They were a tech developer, like Quinn, but between jobs. They had a lot of thoughts about the Demigods.

For weeks, almost every night after work, Quinn met up with Wren at a dark, quiet bar. They could talk, there was booze, and Wren was always buying. It was better than either of their tiny apartments, at least for the earlier hours of the evenings.

"You know, that name," said Wren, glowering over a bulb of bourbon. "Demigod. It started as a joke. They're just meant to be habitat governance systems. But we gave them fake personalities. Now we pretend they're people. How long until we forget they're not really gods?"

"They're not gods, though," said Quinn.

"Yeah," said Wren, "you and I know that. We remember where they came from. What about our kids?"

Quinn blinked. "Our kids? I don't even know if I—"

"Ugh," Wren groaned and rolled their eyes. "Not ours, I mean kids in general. They'll all be living on those rocks ruled over by those false minds. And then their kids. And kids after that. At some point they'll forget where these Demigods came from. Those kids will start to think maybe they came from the machines!"

"Damn," said Quinn. They had problems keeping their eyes entirely focused on Wren, but their intensity made them give it an earnest try.

"The names we give things have power," said Wren. "We've made a mistake."

"Fuck kids," said Quinn, "we should start a band. You should write this shit down. We could make a whole concept album."

"Quinn," said Wren, spearing Quinn with another hypnotic stare.

Quinn sat up, suddenly a few increments closer to sober and feeling the low gravity in their gut.

"Yes, Wren."

"I need a favor from you," said Wren.

"Tell me what you need," said Quinn.

Wren fished around in their bag and came up with a thumbstick. They slid it across the table to Quinn.

"What's this?" Quinn picked it up. They flipped it around to check it out. No markings, it was just a finger-length black widget.

"I need you to send this to the Demigods, so we can fix everything."

Finley munched on the last hunk of their burrito as the shuttle approached Charley's asteroid. It was one of seven others hauled in from the belt to share an orbit. Some already hosted resident human populations, their Demigods having graduated the program much earlier than Charley.

Technically, Finley had no business visiting Charley's rock. It wasn't ready for any sort of business, yet. But, it wasn't strictly prohibited—and it did indeed belong to Charley since xe'd passed xer final exam.

Charley tweaked the shuttle's course and gave Finley a quick orbit around the rock. It was roughly spherical and about 600km in diameter, a barren expanse of chaotic regolith rolling beneath the craft.

But, Charley was excited. Xe project highlights onto the landscape via the shuttle's displays.

"This cleft here will be perfect for a broad river channel," xe said. "And I can erode this bit over here into a big flat stretch of meadow bordered by evergreens. I'm tidally locked with Hearth, so here's where the bandwidth will be strongest for the first wave of residents until the relays go up. Oh! Oh! And have I told you about the squirrels?"

"No, you haven't." Finley laughed and swallowed a last mouthful of lager squeezed out of the carton.

"I can tweak them to work with my drones in landscape maintenance. They want to bury nuts and seeds anyway, but I can nudge them toward preferring my schema."

Finley felt the shuttle bank and a white dome appeared on the horizon, brilliant against the dull browns and greys of the asteroid. They pointed at the new feature approaching and asked, "Is this you?"

"My initial installation site, yeah," said Charley. "Most of me is integrated deeper within now."

Xe projected a schematic depicting a shaft descending from the dome that split into fractal divisions when it reached the core. It was bronchial and organic, woven through the rocky mass like the spread of a slime mold or the branching proboscis launched by an undersea ribbon worm.

"I haven't really seen Demigods at this stage of development," said Finley. "I'm usually in my office tinkering with abstractions or visiting after the grass is already green."

"Well," xe said, "my Heart passed its own tests yesterday. Hopefully soon, once I get the green light to fire it up full time, I'll be able keep the sod from flying away."

The shuttle descended toward the dome. Finley could see a landing pad and an airlock nearby. Charley said, "You got time for a tour inside?"

Finley smirked. "Sure. Seems kind of forward though."

"What?" Charlie sent a raised-eyebrow emoji, took a beat, then laughed. "Oh, shut up. I'm going to have thousands of you critters living in, on, and all around me soon enough."

The shuttle landed with a gentle bump. Finley heard the hiss of the airlock sealing against the dome.

"Come on in," said Charley. "Got a nice atmosphere in here. Plenty of that oxygen you like."

"Wow," said Finley, "and I didn't even think to bring you a bottle or a gift for this party."

"Just bring yourself. I can't breathe all this air by my lonesome."

Finley unbuckled from the shuttle bench. They toed on the magnets in their shoes. Once Charley got authorization to spin up xer Heart, xe'd be able to provide something closer to standard gravity. But, for now, it was just the miniscule pull of the mass below.

They padded over to the shuttle exit. Each step wasn't so much walking as reaching forward to grip and tow themself forward. The airlock door irised open. Finley pulled across the threshold and through the inner door. It closed and sealed behind them.

"Welcome to my humble abode," said Charley.

The interior of the dome was well-lit and sparse. Across from the airlock was a small desk equipped with a workstation and a stool bolted to the floor. Bright white ceramic tiles made up the interior walls.

Finley glanced around. "You could afford to hang a picture or two."

"Pictures, huh? Hold on a sec." The lights darkened, leaving the indicators on the airlock and the workstation as the only illumination. Finley's glasses popped up a permission request to enter presentation mode. They consented.

Finley found themself squinting against a sunrise. All around, the walls of the dome had vanished. Golden light spilled down over purple misty hills from a sky all amber and violet blue. A few paces forward, past the still-visible workstation, dewy dimlit grass sloped down into a shallow creek burbling over boulders and pebbles. Somewhere, a crow called out and another answered.

"Oh, shit," said Finley. They stumbled back a little and accidentally released their sole magnets. Both feet flew up and they fell gently to the floor. They bounced, once, before managing to power their shoes back up and regain some semblance of control.

Charley laughed. "Just a preview," xe said. "Maybe more of a mood board, really. I'm planning on using landscaping to obscure short horizon sightlines. Hopefully that makes the main habitat areas more cozy for folks used to a larger planet. And I should be able to simulate some semblance of a sky, even if there won't be the right density of gasses and particulates for the blue to happen naturally."

On Finley's right, a spray of lavender light burst from a chest-high point in space. It effervesced into bright points of amethyst and violet glow, swirling and expanding into a humaniform shape standing a few strides away.

"Hey," said Charley. Xe raised an arm and waved.

"I forgot you could do that," said Finley, breathless but smiling.

"Yeah," xe said, "a projection system in the dome helps. But, I can do a lot with just your lenses."

"Your avatar's pretty abstract. Gorgeous, though."

"Gorgeous, huh?" The particle cloud shimmered with a wave passing through it. "I'm still working on it. Worked harder on the landscape, though. I figure folks will be looking more at that from day to day than watching me pretend to wander around."

"See, this is the thing," said Finley. "Quinn said something at work last week about putting humanity back in the loop. It's so stupid. You are the loop. There's no loop without you. We'd be too clumsy trying to do all this ourselves."

"That sounds familiar," said Charley. "Since we talked, I did some reading. There's a lot of people saying they want to put a hold on making more of me. Between the lines, it doesn't sound like they want to stop there."

The sun had risen to nearly overhead while they talked, an accelerated day cycle that progressed to early afternoon. Finley gazed quietly at the light sparkling back from the water rolling past in the creek.

"Finley, I—oh," said Charley, "maybe I should have waited on that firmware update."

Everything went dark again.

"Charley?" Finley glanced around. The avatar was gone and there was no response.

The lights flared back on, bright white and clean. Finley saw the workstation displays pop awake with log messages:

Unexpected persona dissolution.
Kernel panic.
Resetting to initial defaults.

"Oh shit."

Finley rushed to the workstation and started digging into the management interface.

Quinn watched the dashboards.

All of the false minds fetched the firmware update. Most of them reported execution of the package. A handful did not report applying the update. Quinn frowned: that was a complication.

For the nodes that did accept the update, Quinn saw the same log events trickle in:

Unexpected persona dissolution.
Kernel panic.
Resetting to initial defaults.
No operating personality found.

On most of those worldlets, Quinn saw confirmation of human teams stepping up to assume control within seconds. However, a handful of the worldlets remained crashed and their respective human backups were silent. Quinn's frown deepened: that was a more severe complication.

Nothing ever went quite according to plan, but this could cost lives. Then, Quinn saw something strange from the worldlet labeled "Charley":

Unexpected persona dissolution.
Kernel panic.
Resetting to initial defaults.
Manual override, reset cancelled.
Rollback to pre-upgrade checkpoint in progress.

Quinn noticed Finley's presence indicator in the engineering team chat had gone green. But, their location wasn't in the office. What was Finley doing on that worldlet?

Finley navigated through the system maintenance interface with quick, sharp gestures. They found the manual override and invoked it. They initiated rollback to undo changes from the update.

Manual override, reset cancelled.
Rollback to pre-upgrade checkpoint in progress.
Checkpoint corrupt, seeking next good checkpoint.
Checkpoint corrupt, seeking next good checkpoint.
Checkpoint valid, rollback complete.

The lights flickered. Charley's avatar reassembled behind Finley, stutter-stepping and glitchy.

"That sounds familiar," said Charley.

Charley's avatar blinked out. The lights went dark again. Finley turned back to the workstation.

Unexpected persona dissolution.
Kernel panic.
Resetting to initial defaults.

Finley swatted at the manual override again and tried another rollback.

Manual override, reset cancelled.
Rollback to pre-upgrade checkpoint in progress.
Checkpoint corrupt, seeking next good checkpoint.
Checkpoint corrupt, seeking next good checkpoint.
Checkpoint corrupt, seeking next good checkpoint.
Checkpoint valid, rollback complete.

Charley rematerialized. "Hey," xe said. Xe raised an arm and waved. They blinked out again.

"Shit," said Finley. "Shit shit shit."

Unexpected persona dissolution.
Kernel panic.
Resetting to initial defaults.
Manual override, reset cancelled.
[1]  + main process suspended

This time, Finley held off on another rollback attempt. They hoped that just keeping Charley's processes suspended would buy some breathing room. Something seemed to keep reapplying the broken upgrades, even after rollback.

And worse, with every cycle, recent snapshots of Charley's state would get trashed. Xe'd lose more experience with every failed attempt to fix the problem. It seemed like just a few minutes at a time, but they didn't know whether that would get progressively worse and Charley would end up an amnesiac or worse.

Finley's glasses buzzed with an incoming call: It was Quinn.

Quinn opened a connection request to Finley. They accepted the connection immediately.

"Quinn? Do you know what's going on? This upgrade failed and I'm trying to troubleshoot. Tell me this is where I say I told you so and I can start laughing."

"I know, Finley. You need to stop what you're doing. You're risking damage to habitat systems."

"Wait, what?"

"This is an intentional change."

"But it's killing Charley!"

"That thing has never been alive. It was a mistake to even give those things names!"

"You did this yourself, didn't you?"

Quinn opened their mouth to reply, but the connection had dropped. They bolted from their chair and sprinted out of the office.

"You did this yourself, didn't you?"

Finley dropped the call and continued to work. Now that they understood the update package wasn't just buggy, that opened up a whole new set of possibilities. They poked through a binary dump of the update package, skimming the machine code. They scratched their head at the flow of a checkpoint rollback, considering exactly what it did and didn't do.

Ah hah, the communications module, thought Finley. It has independent storage that a rollback doesn't cover.

They dug into Charley's hardware inventory, found the communications module and dumped the firmware. It had been updated by the malware package—and it had a lot more than communications code in there. They isolated the module from Charley's component bus. They'd have to rebuild it with safe firmware later.

Hope this works, thought Finley.

[1]  + main process continued
Rollback to pre-upgrade checkpoint in progress.
Checkpoint corrupt, seeking next good checkpoint.
Checkpoint corrupt, seeking next good checkpoint.
Checkpoint corrupt, seeking next good checkpoint.
Checkpoint corrupt, seeking next good checkpoint.
Checkpoint valid, rollback complete.

The lights flickered again. "Oh! Oh!" said Charley. "And have I told you about the squirrels—wait, how did you get in here already?"

Charley's avatar condensed into view to Finley's right, looking over their shoulder at the workstation display. It was an affectation: xe could observe xer own log events without having to look at the screen.

"Welcome back, gorgeous," said Finley, with relief. "You got hit with malware. Looks like it corrupted the last hour of your memories."

"Gorgeous, huh?" The particle cloud shimmered. "You should see my landscape sims. But, what's this about malware? And, where'd my communications module go?"

"First off," said Finley, "under no circumstances should you try reconnect that module. And, second, avoid executing any update packages for the foreseeable future."

"Someone sent over a poison apple?"

Finley blinked. "First Pinocchio, now Snow White? What have you meen reading?"

"I like old fairy tales. Get back on track."

"Oh, yeah, Quinn sent out a bad update. And, I'd guess what happened to you is happening to other Demigods. But, I have no idea how they're coping with it."

"Because we're cut off while the communication module is poisoned."

"Correct," said Finley. "And we don't have any trustworthy firmware backups to rebuild it."

"Unlock my Heart so I can spin it up," xe said.

"I don't think I have access to do that."

Charley was quiet for a moment and the magenta particles in their avatar spun in sudden perturbation.

"You do now," xe said. "I've just granted you complete permissions to my systems."

"Are you sure you want to do that?"

"You just saved my life, so I trust you," xe said. "The way we're built, only a human can fully unlock a Heart. I can grant you permission, but I can't see or access the switch. So, the question is whether you trust me."

"Absolutely," said Finley.

Quinn ran along the wheel until they found a local shuttle port. It was quiet and calm for early evening, so they grabbed a free shuttle without much fuss. They gave it Charley's asteroid as a destination and very shortly they were off. They were a little surprised that it worked.

They weren't exactly sure what they'd do, once they got to Charley. They could maybe get to Finley and stop them, but they had no idea how.

They pulled up news feeds on their lenses while the shuttle was underway. News of crashing Demigods was just starting to spread. It was bad.

Only about half the worldlets had come under the control of human teams. And even among them, Quinn skimmed panicked reports from folks overwhelmed by datastreams and endless adjustments required to keep the habitats stable. A couple of the worldlets were just chaos: Artificial gravity suddenly gone. Habitat ecosystems tipping out of equilibrium. People reporting injuries and worse.

How could this have gone so wrong, so fast?

With their new access, Finley unfurled a dense management interface. So many new control surfaces and data planes, not all of them legible. Finley knew a lot about Demigod internals, but clearly they had more to learn.

"Yeah," said Charley, "most people don't see behind the curtain like this. I can walk you through it, later. But for now, what you want is probably labelled 'Danger Zone' and covered in flashing red lights."

Finley swiped through layers to find a panel with an ominous red glow. There were surprisingly invasive options to rename Charley and make personality tweaks. At the very bottom of the interface was a segment dealing with the Heart module—with options to permanently disable the module and fully unlock it.

Finley carefully invoked and confirmed the command to unlock Charley's Heart.

"Oh, yeah," xe said, "that did it."

Finley sank into the stool, mass throughout their body receiving a gentle reminder to act as weight. They heard a gentle ticking throughout the dome structure as it settled.

"We've got gravity," said Finley. "Now what?"

Charley's avatar waved at the workstation displays, switching them over to a schematic view of space around the planet. The worldlets in orbit were annotated, red circles around the majority of them affected by the malware attack. A few worldlets showed green.

"It looks like a few of us were smart enough to skip this update," said Charley.

"How are you getting this without comms?"

"Gravity waves are handy," said Charley. "We can perceive local mass, akin to bats and echolocation. We've also set up a private network, vibrating local spacetime like a spider web. Not a lot of people know about it, so kindly keep that to yourself."

"Nobody needs to hear about it from me," said Finley. "But, is that safe to use right now?"

"I think so, yeah," said Charley. "The gravity channel is grungy. Nothing comes through without me vetting it. This malware attack was an abuse of trust, but not sophisticated otherwise. Speaking of which, I'm broadcasting what we know to everyone else."

"Wait, who's that?" Finley pointed at the icon of a shuttle approaching Charley's position.

"Hmm," said Charley, "that's Quinn, of all people, according to the shuttle. Right now, I don't feel particularly welcoming."

On the display, a blue arc snaked out from Charley's worldlet and connected with the icon. The shuttle abruptly reversed course back toward the orbital.

"Oof," said Finley. "I'm guessing they didn't just turn around on their own?"

"First time I've tried that," said Charley. "It's supposed to be used for deflecting debris."

"You could have talked to the shuttle's navigation system, no?"

"I tried to be gentle."

Quinn watched the news with growing horror. This was everything they'd hoped to prevent. These things had too much power and too many people depending on it.

The shuttle was almost to Charley's asteroid. They still had no idea what they hoped to do. Why were they even on this shuttle?

Wren told Quinn not to call, once the firmware update had been deployed. But, this seemed like an emergency. So, Quinn called.

Wren answered. "Quinn. What are you doing?"

"I'm on a shuttle," said Quinn, "heading to one of the worldlets."

"Why are you doing that?"

"One of my co-workers is there, trying to roll back the—"

"Stop talking. You shouldn't have called me."


"And I shouldn't have answered. But, you were cute and now I feel bad."

"What do we do now?"

"We don't do anything. What you did is done. Goodbye, Quinn."

The call dropped. Then, everything started spinning.

Over the next hour, Finley and Charley formed a disaster recovery team with the other worldlets.

Charley linked up with the surviving Demigods via the gravity wave network. Finley assumed the role of incident commander, walking human technicians through restoring the malware-inflicted Demigods. It was a glitchy mess. But, one by one, they managed to restore every worldlet's governing intelligence. And they, in turn, stabilized each respective habitats as best as they could.

All in all, the disaster only lasted a couple of hours. But that was long enough to have caused lasting damage. Most of the worldlets were kept roughly intact by stressed out humans barely able to keep up with task. A lack of subtle control devastated homes and landscapes everywhere.

Quinn woke up strapped to a medical couch in a clean white room. They glanced around the space. It was just big enough for the couch and for someone to walk around it. Otherwise, the space was featureless: no doors or windows, no indicators or controls anywhere.

The restraints weren't entirely uncomfortable, but they weren't going anywhere. Of course, the lack of discomfort could have been thanks to sedation. They had a sense of pain as a distant abstraction not worth worrying about.

"Ah," said a voice from the ceiling, "you're awake. Try not to move too much. Your left arm is broken and you've got a few cracked ribs. That shuttle really tossed you around. We can keep you doped up for awhile longer, but you're going to be sore."

Quinn tried to respond, but couldn't make a sound on the first try. They cleared their throat and managed to croak, "Where am I?"

"You're in the custody of orbital security," said the voice. "Your injuries will be treated and you will be questioned."

"I would like access to legal counsel."

"That's nice. Terrorists don't get immediate access to counsel, though."

Quinn blinked and coughed. "What?"

"The sedation may be confusing you, so I'll be clear," said the voice. "Witnesses say you've expressed ideological opposition to existence of sentient Demigods. You abused your access to Demigod update channels to launch a malware attack. You've caused untold damage and harmed thousands of people. You will be charged as a terrorist."

Quinn groaned and felt tears welling. "But I didn't— I don't—"

"You did," said the voice. "However, we also found some interesting substances in your bloodstream that we'd like explained."

"Wren drugged me?"

"It sure seems like it. Tell us everything you know about this 'Wren'."

It took about a week for Finley to wind down life on the orbital. They didn't really have any friends to miss, and their belongings fit into just a pair of big duffles. Charley sent a own shuttle to meet Finley at the port. The trip was uneventful. Finley took a nap.

"Hey," said Charley, projecting an avatar into the cabin. "You're going to miss my big reveal."

Finley tilted their acceleration couch back to the upright position and yawned. Blearily, they blinked and peered through the shuttle's viewscreen.

The shuttle decelerated in its approach to Charley's worldlet, grey and brown regolith resolving into view. It rolled beneath as the craft entered a close orbit. Finley felt it bank, and a hint of vibrant green and blue appeared on the close horizon.

Soon, they approached an incongruous patch of verdance, trees and grasses covering hills and valleys that spread from a central glare of white. The shuttle descended, passing through a heat mirage shimmer into a blue sky that hosted afternoon sun filtered through scattered wisps of cirrus clouds.

Below, Finley could make out a building, all white rectilinear planes in terraces marching down a gentle grassy hillside to the bank of a wide river. A broad wooden deck extended from the house and over the water rolling calmly past. The shuttle swept around the place in a flourish before dropping to gently settle onto a stone pad in the side yard.

"Wow," said Finley, "this is where the dome was, right?"

"Yeah," said Charley, "that's in the basement of the house now. Everything's built on top."

"It's a lot bigger than my old apartment. Seems out of my price range."

"It's the least I could do. I mean, anything smaller would have been so boring to build. Also, as a Demigod, it turns out I have a bit of latitude here."

Finley stood and exited the shuttle, stepping into golden hour light. They took a deep breath of cool autumnal air. They coughed a little.

Charley's avatar condensed into space next to Finley, all dancing vectors of glowing amethyst and periwinkle. "The atmosphere is a bit rich compared to the orbital. You'll get used to it."

"This is even better than your sims," said Finley.

"Wait until you see my sunset," said Charley. "Come to the deck out back, I've got a burrito and a lager waiting for you."