Brothers in Stars
Chapter 1: Home
“Okay, you can open your eyes now.”
The white Blumaroo lowered his hands from his eyes at the sound of the voice. When he did so, he found himself standing in the middle of a quiet village. Several Neopians were either advertising their wares or walking past the simple shops and houses without paying the Blumaroo any attention. Above them was an expanse of clear blue sky, and beneath their feet, lush green grass and worn cobblestone roads.
He gasped in awe. Then he looked down at his clothes – a green vest, a brown shirt, and trousers. The fabric felt rough, but comfortable.
“Well? What do you think? The voice belonged to another white Blumaroo, taller and with dark circles under his eyes, and wearing a cream-coloured shirt over blue trousers held up by suspenders. After stifling a yawn, he straightened up and flinched when he heard a crack from his back. “I was debugging this thing for a week, but I’d say it’s worth it.”
“I’m not surprised. There’s just…so much.” The first Blumaroo waved a hand at their surroundings, gaping as he continued to look around and started walking down the road. There was a green Draik herding a small flock of Babaas, and a blue Shoyru who seemed to be content to stand beside one of the houses, leaning on a barrel. “It’s huge, Reuben. And so lifelike. It…” His voice caught in his throat. “It reminds me of home.”
Reuben grinned as he fell in step beside him. “Hey, what did you expect? Whenever I get a big project like this, I go all out. And I was thinking of home when I coded this part of the simulation. In fact, I named this town Trestin, after our old home back in Meridell.”
His companion paused to look at a house where a yellow Lupe was peering out the window; the Draik with the Babaas had stopped in front of it. “Wait, this is supposed to be a training simulation. Aren’t there supposed to be monsters or something for us to fight?”
“You think we forgot about that?” Reuben laughed and gestured to the hills and mountains outside the town. “All of that is outside. I made Trestin one of the safe places you can flee to so you can rest, stock up on supplies, or hear what these folks here have to say. Some of them just say random stuff, but others will lend you a hand especially if it’s your first time running this simulation. Really, Captain Rohane, have some more faith in your big brother, will ya?”
“It’s not that I don’t have faith in you, Reuben!” Rohane shot back, affronted. “I just wanted to be sure everything is in place in the simulation…”
“And I’m telling you, I have it all under control. What, did you think I got carried away using my amazing coding skills just to rebuild our hometown?”
Rohane took one look at him as though unsure of how to react, before sighing, shaking his head and raising his hands in surrender. “All right, all right, you win.”
“Besides…” The older Blumaroo put an arm around him and ushered him farther down the street. “This little touch of home is actually my congratulatory present to you, for getting promoted to captain. It’s been a long while, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah…it has. Hasn’t it been years since we were there for Mo – “ Rohane’s voice trailed off and ended in a small gasp when they stopped in front of one particular house – small, yet inviting in its homely way, with a thin wisp of smoke rising from its chimney. “Reuben, is that…?”
Reuben just nodded. When he smiled, all traces of joviality were gone, replaced by wistful nostalgia as they approached the house and came to its door, knocking three times. “Come on. There’s more.”
The door was opened by a female white Blumaroo with grey hair and clad in a lilac blouse under a blue dress. When she saw the other two Blumaroos at her doorstep, her face lit up. Rohane gasped again.
“M…Mother?” His voice caught in his throat.
“Hello, dears!” she greeted them, smiling widely as she stepped aside and gestured for them to enter. As soon as they did, she embraced them briefly. Though they were aware that they were still in a simulation, there was something about the embrace that was warm and real – something that made Rohane not want to let go even though she herself finally let them go. “We’ve been waiting for you. I made tea and scones, there’s butter for the scones…oh, I hope you’ve been careful. There are many monsters and other terrible things outside the village.”
“We know, Mother,” said Reuben evenly. He looked at this brother, who had suddenly fallen silent, and nudged him toward the table in the kitchen that was all set with the tea, scones, butter, plates, and utensils. At the table was a solidly built yellow Blumaroo who was already pouring himself a cup of tea. He looked up and waved everyone over, a smile appearing on his weathered face.
“There you two are. Has Reuben finished giving you the tour?”
Reuben gave him a thumbs-up. “Just did, Dad.” He hid another yawn behind his clenched fist. “Do we have any coffee?”
“Reuben,” Rohane began, finding his voice again and inclining his head toward where the female Blumaroo was opening and closing cupboards over the kitchen sink. He blinked several times. “You…but that’s…” He blinked when the image of the Blumaroo flickered slightly.
“Part of the simulation, yeah,” said Reuben. “This house – our house – will be the starting point. You can rest and regain energy here with Mother.” He dropped his voice. “I’ll, uh, go over her code again later. What do you think?”
“It’s…” Rohane took a deep breath, speaking softly and almost reverently. “It really does look like Mother. I…” He stopped when Reuben reached out to grip his hand tightly.
“Thanks. Yeah, I had no idea it was possible.”
“I’m impressed too,” the yellow Blumaroo put in, raising the teapot before pouring himself a cup of tea. He sniffed. “She easily passes for Melissa. It’s…a fitting memorial.”
“I tried to get as close as I could,” Reuben pointed out quickly, letting go of Rohane’s hand. “We had pictures of her, our memories, the things she liked to say the most…then I rigged the AI so she would recognize us and carry on a simple conversation. Of course, she won’t know anything about the outside world, or the space station, or our real work. That’s a whole new level of coding that I can only do with more than four cups of coffee in my system and a free month.”
Reynold shook his head. “As one of our squad’s best information technicians, the higher-ups aren’t likely to give you a free month.”
“Maybe you and Rohane can put in a good word – “
“Here’s the sugar and the cream,” said Melissa – or rather, the simulation of Melissa. She beamed as she placed the bowl and the little pitcher on the table before taking her seat with everyone else.
“Do we have coffee?” Reuben asked again.
“I’m sorry, dear, I don’t have any coffee.”
Reuben frowned and whispered to Rohane, “I should’ve programmed this house to have an infinite supply of coffee.”
“Can you do that?” Rohane asked incredulously, his ears perking up as he accepted the teapot from their father. He looked closely at the tea he poured into his cup before glancing at Reynold, who was already taking a sip from his own cup.
“Actually, no.” The technician laughed. “It was already a lot of work coming up with virtual food that came pretty close to the original and that could sustain you as long as you were in the simulation.”
“I offered him a few tips,” said Reynold, buttering a scone. “It’s nice that he listened to me.”
“Yeah, because what are the odds of that happening – ouch! Reuben, seriously?”
Melissa hid a laugh behind her hand as Rohane rubbed his sore arm and glared at his older brother. “Now, now, you two. No roughhousing at the table.”
* * *
The (virtual) tea and scones soon vanished with three hungry male Blumaroos at the spread. Although Rohane had offered to help Melissa clear the table and wash the dishes, she shook her head and waved him away with a sweet smile that seemed to tighten around his heart. Swallowing, he returned to his seat.
“Probably not a good idea to mess around with the virtual dishes,” said Reuben, leaning back in his chair with his arms behind his head. “If you break one, you can’t just paste the pieces back. I will have to recode them to normal.”
“Are you saying I’m clumsy?”
“Well, there was that one time you had your nose in the training manual and bumped into the telescope I was repairing…”
“That was only one time!”
Reynold chuckled. “This really is like old times.” His smile faded as he gazed fondly at Melissa working at the sink, resting his elbow on the table. “She would be so proud of how far you two have come.”
“She would be proud of you too, Dad,” said Reuben, lowering his head and sighing softly. “I’m glad the simulation turned out well. If I couldn’t get this right, I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself. I…” The taller white Blumaroo caught Melissa’s eye; she gave him a little wave before turning back to washing the saucers. He bit his lip and rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes before adding, “I’m okay.”
Reynold and Rohane both reached out, each placing a hand on Reuben’s shoulders.
“Sorry, I just miss her. Programming her simulation was a bit of a distraction, even for a while…”
“I miss her every day,” said the yellow Blumaroo quietly.
“Me too,” the new captain put in. “But…it’s nice to see her here. Even if she’s just part of the simulation. It’s like it’s easier to visit her now.”
“Congratulations again on your promotion, little brother.” Reuben tried to grin. “I knew you’d make captain real soon. You’re gaining on Dad.”
“Dad is a general and the chief of the defence and weaponry committee,” said Rohane. “I’ve got a long way to go before I get there. But thanks.”
“But you’re on the way, and that’s what matters,” Reynold answered. “Congratulations.” He caught a glimpse of his watch. “Speaking of which, it should be time soon for your promotion ceremony, and time for Reuben to formally unveil this simulation. Let’s go.”
The three of them began to stand up from their seats. As they did so, Melissa hurried over to them. “Are you leaving? Will you be headed out of the village?”
“Yes, we are,” said Reynold. “But we’ll stop by again, all right? The scones and tea were wonderful.” He winked at Reuben.
“Stop by as many times as you want. How can I turn away my husband and children? But do be careful out there, the area outside the village is so full of monsters these days…and I just get so worried.” She frowned and extended a hand, which the yellow Blumaroo gripped tightly in his. The two of them hugged each other before she extended an arm for Reuben and Rohane to join them.
Their sons traded one look and approached them so Reynold and Melissa could embrace them both.
“Thanks, Mother,” said Rohane, his voice faint as he felt a lump in his throat again.
“We’ll see you soon, Mother,” Reuben responded. “We’ll be fine. We always were.”
And as they stayed where they were, time seemed to stop, just for them to revel in this moment.
* * *
Since he had to prepare for his ceremony, Rohane left first, leaving Reuben and Reynold standing at the doorway of their house, still lingering in the simulation. Reynold gripped Reuben’s arm after watching Melissa longingly through the window already busying herself in the kitchen.
“Wait.” The older male Blumaroo glanced around, his eyes lingering for a few seconds on the Draik herdsman and the Babaas.
“What is it?”
“The plans for the Stellar Ray of Precision. Did you encrypt them in this simulation like I asked?”
Reuben nodded. “They’re in an area that’s inaccessible by anyone within the simulation. The only way to reach them is to hack into this thing, and I’ve made sure it’s airtight.” He raised a hand to gesture to their surroundings and grinned triumphantly. “Of course, the other way is by inputting the code that I’ve inserted into a little drive I’ll give you as soon as we’re out.”
“All right, good,” said Reynold.
“Before you ask, I meant for the drive to look like a sword. Just so we skip the part where you’re surprised and tell me I’ve got mad tech skills and cut straight to the part where you keep the drive without another word.”
The yellow Blumaroo chuckled. “I assume the drive is password-locked.”
“The password is Mother’s birthday and her middle name.”
“There’s one other thing.” Reynold raised his hands. A screen with graphs and numbers materialized in front of them, and with a flick of his hand, he began scrolling through the numbers. “Here is the failsafe program I told you about before we entered the simulation.” He frowned, suddenly looking ten years older and more tired, and let out a breath.
“Dad?” Reuben asked, a note of concern in his voice.
Reynold looked at his older son. “In case anything happens in this simulation…input this code.”
“’Father’s Sword.exe’?” the white Blumaroo read tentatively as he used a finger to also scroll through the information. “What do you mean if anything happens in the simulation? I made sure it was impossible to – “
“You never know. You never know what could happen, Reuben. There are folks after the Stellar Ray plans, and I’m not taking any chances. Especially while any of us are in the simulation.”
Reuben was silent. It was his turn to frown, and the frown deepened at Reynold’s next words.
“Promise me, especially if anything happens to me, you’ll protect your brother.”
“You know I’d protect him with my life. I promised him that as he rises through the ranks, I’ll be behind him every step of the way.”
“Good. Let’s leave; I’ll give you the code for your drive.”