Chapter 44: POD People

The tunnel with the unknown signal coming from it that Pascal had discovered was long and winding, and delved deep below the earth. As they went further into it, the surroundings slowly became curiously smooth and uniform. It was clear that someone – or something – had taken a pre-existing tunnel and expanded it.

"This work is very well done," Pascal praised. "It was accomplished with intense heat."

"Lasers, then?" Blue guessed.

"Seems like it. I can also feel the maso particles lingering in a few places," Alexander added, running a hand over a patch of glassy stone. He frowned.

"The question now is 'who did it?'"

"Agreed," Pascal nodded. "This is too advanced and precise for most Machines to have done. We are not exactly the most skilled when it comes to precision strikes with our laser weaponry, and we lack the tools and technology to mine like this."

"Indeed. Most Machines would have simply excavated the tunnel using their bare hands," Blue said, demonstrating by grabbing a handful of rocks off the ground and crushing them with a squeeze of her hands.

"But this isn't the work of YoRHa or androids, either," Alexander hummed. "I can't see any evidence or marks from tools, and while we do have lasers capable of being repurposed for mining, I don't think this was made by them. Add in the faint traces of maso, and this leaves me to believe something was boring through the ground using pure magic!"

"That is quite strange," Pascal said. "I can think of nothing – artificial or otherwise – that could do this."

"Is it possible this is a new type of Machine? I know Purple Athena was building new models," Alexander wondered.

"I do not think so. The signals I detected were not Machine in origin, and despite everything she has done and changed, the rogue unit still uses a version of the Network to relay orders. This is something different," Pascal claimed. "And yet, it feels… familiar…"

"Could it be a back-up alien weapon or system?" Blue asked. "We have no idea how many of their spaceships we haven't discovered, yet."

"Unlikely, but we shall see," Pascal said. "Come along, let us continue!"

"How deep are we?" Alexander asked a few minutes later. "How far does this tunnel go? It's been nearly half an hour since we entered, and we've been walking in a straight line, but there's nothing!"

"Actually, we have been slowly descending this whole time," Pascal revealed. "I have been mapping our movements, and we've encountered several slight inclines and turns. We've been moving in a corkscrew shape this whole time."

"Wait, really?" Alexander uttered, blinking in surprise. "Huh, I didn't notice."

"It was very subtle," Pascal confirmed.

"Then where are we?" the human asked. "There's a whole system of underground tunnels down here according to Uncle Emil, but I've never been."

"We are currently close to one of said caverns," Pascal said.

"Do you think we should call Emil and see if he has any maps of this place?" Blue suggested.

"That's not a bad idea… wait, hang on... is that… light?" Alexander uttered, blinking in surprise at the faint glow up ahead. To check, he dispelled the glowing orb he'd summoned to light their way, and Blue and Pascal turned off their headlights.

As darkness rushed in to swallow them, a distant glint and glitter of illumination remained. It was dim, but it was there. The ground hurried towards it, and discovered an odd sight; a glowstick, imbedded in the floor of the tunnel.

Beyond the glowstick, the tunnel came to an end, opening up out into a vast honeycomb-like network of subterranean tunnels, chasms, channels, and caves. There was water in some of them, and from the smell of mold, there were likely critters living down here as well.

"Huh. Bigger than I expected," Alexander muttered, looking around. "And probably not the best place to building atop of. I'll have to let White know to double-check this area in the future. Whole space would collapse if an earthquake hit."

"You could fit a couple underground bunkers down here," Pascal said excitedly. "Could the signal be related to the ancient humans?"

"Let's find out," Blue said. "There's another light down there!"

And she was correct! There was a dull white glow emanating from a glowstick further down in one of the mouths of another tunnel.

Using Gravity magic to descend, Alexander and Blue carried Pascal down with them, not wanting to risk her rocket-booster accidentally igniting or disturbing anything down below.

"I am detecting a large number of signals!" Pascal exclaimed as they landed at the mouth of the cave. "But there's an unknown encryption keeping me from accessing them further."

"Well, let's not waste any more time!" Blue said, leading the way deeper into the tunnel.

More and more glowsticks began to appear, the luminescent chemicals within shining weakly on the floor and ceiling. The tunnel was also smooth, and had been shaved and shaped away with lasers and magic until it was square rather than round.

But what really drew the eye were the bundles of cables on the wall, carefully placed to avoid tripping over them.

"That's a lot of stuff," Alexander muttered.

"Power cables and data-cables," Blue noted, recognizing the objects on the walls. "There must be a real energy hog up ahead."

"Is that good? Or bad?" Alexander asked.

"It depends," Pascal replied.

"On what?" the sole human in the group wondered.

"On if whatever is down here likes us or not," the leader of the pacifists replied.

"Well, that sounds ominous," Alexander hummed.

"I see the end of the tunnel up ahead!" Blue exclaimed, pointing eagerly towards the end of the path. Light was spilling out of the cavern on the other side, and there was a noticeable hum in the air.

The trio picked up the pace, and quickly reached the end. They emerged from the tunnel onto a ledge that looked out over what looked to be a miniature city, built entirely inside a massive cavern!

But that wasn't all. What really astonished the three explorers was just who had built and inhabited it.

"It's a kingdom of PODs!" Alexander uttered in disbelief. All around the cavern, PODs were flying, floating, and in some rare cases, walking, all over the city. There were PODs who were building new structures, and PODs who were directing the flow of traffic.

Countless other tasks were being performed by the legion of PODs in the hidden sanctuary.

"How long has this been going on?" Pascal wondered, looking around as if she couldn't quite believe what she was seeing.

"It looks like they've been down here for years," Blue noted, a note of awe and glee in her voice. "This is incredible!"

"Greetings," a POD beeped, floating over to the stunned trio. "Welcome to the Node. The King wishes to speak with you."

"King?" Alexander uttered, blinking in surprise. "Wait, is that you, 153?"

"That is correct," POD 153 chirped in confirmation.

"Where've you been?" Alex asked, folding his arms and give the POD a disappointed look. 153 sunk low in a chastised manner.

"Apologies. But I must take you to the King." POD 153 then simply floated away, clearly expecting them to follow. Which they did, after they recovered their wits.

As Alexander, Blue, and Pascal walked through the cavern, they were able to see more of the curious settlement. It was nothing like the ramshackle Machine Lifeform villages that could be found here and there, as it was neat and orderly, but very blocky and severe. It reminded Alexander of YoRHa's design and aesthetic policies; minimalistic and functional.

The buildings were all vaguely cube-like. Some resembled giant, colorless Rubik cubes, others were more like rectangular towers, sort of like a miniature skyscraper from the olden days. What really stuck out was that each and every building had a number of POD shaped and sized cubbyholes that the PODs could slot themselves into in order to rest and recharge as well as exchange data or access outside networks.

Strips of fluorescent LED lights covered the edges of the buildings as well as lining the streets, creating glowing pathways that the PODs used to navigate. Here and there existed a few splashes of color. There were PODs that had been painted in non-standard colors, like red, blue, or yellow, and some buildings had neon lights, but in general the so-called Node was dreary with its endless black, white, and grey.

PODs of all models and makes floated around, some carrying building materials, others had arms full of wires and cables. There were a few who were using welding torches, screwdrivers, drills, and various other tools, and a couple were using maso and spell programs to lift larger and heavier objects or clear out space in the cavern.

There were even a couple PODs who were walking around on their larger primary limb units and using the second, smaller set of limbs as hands. It was all very bizarre, but also incredibly adorable.

As they followed their guide, Olive hissed warningly at the passing PODs, the little dragon unnerved by so many flying metal boxes.

"Is this what you've been doing all these years?" Alexander asked POD 153 as they walked through the miniature POD city. "I knew you would vanish from time to time, but this is… not what I expected."

"It is a hobby," the POD admitted in its usual monotone, but Alex was fairly certain he could detect a hint of embarrassment, mixed with pride, coming from the device.

"Okay, sure, 'a hobby,'" Alexander drawled, amused.

"The place looks nice," Blue complimented. POD 153 bobbed up and down happily.

"Thank you. We have done much work to ensure that the Node is fully functional," POD 153 said, though it sounded smug.

"I also noticed your speech programs are more normal," Pascal pointed out, which Alexander had also detected. "Have you been performing self-upgrades?"

There was a note of censure in the Machine's voice, but also curiosity and awe. Alexander understood why, though. There was a belief among both Machine Lifeforms and androids that modifying themselves beyond what they were already programed with was something akin to a taboo. A sin.

It was the idea that they were fine the way they were, and giving oneself 'upgrades' to do this or that beyond merely repairing oneself was a sinful act. Certain decorations or aesthetic changes were acceptable – within reason – but switching out an arm for a superior model or grafting jetpacks onto your feet was going too far.

There were also elements of human worship involved, at least for the androids. To go beyond what humanity had set out as the 'perfect' form was to betray their memory. Foolish, of course, but what could he do?

Alexander thought it was odd to think that way, to remain unchanging from the day they were rolled off of the factory assembly line, but then again, he was a human. They changed constantly over time, going from little drooling babies that couldn't walk to larger and more mobile adults.

'And to be fair to those who see upgrading as a sin, there have been cases where trying to perform self-modifications went too far,' Alexander mused. The cautionary tales of the Machine known as Simone and the Resistance gynoid who would constantly modify and delete the personality of her 'lover' because it wasn't 'perfect' enough for her were very valid reasons why it was deemed unwise to perform self-modifications and upgrades.

He decided to listen carefully to the response POD 153 would give Pascal regarding this matter, and leaned in to listen.

"That would be incorrect. We have simply sampled the advanced language programs used by the androids and have incorporated it into our speech patterns. We find it is far better at 'emoting' than our previous versions," POD 153 replied.

"Well, I like it," Alexander said, nodding in approval. "Of course, I also was fond of the old way you spoke, but in this case, it is your choice. If you want to sound more like an android or even a Machine, I don't think many people will object."

"Thank you, Prince Alexander," POD 153 said gratefully, and he just smiled back at the drone, before frowning in confusion.

"Hang on, what did you call me?" he demanded, but POD 153 looked away.

"Warning, this unit has suffered damage to its audio processors," POD 153 lied.

"You can't escape that easily," Alexander grumbled, folding his arms in annoyance.

"Oh look, we have arrived!" POD 153 said, floating forward away from them as the trio came to a halt.

"All hail King POD 42, the Elected One!" their guide announced, doing a little dance in the air as it introduced them to their leader.

"Dang that's cute," Alexander muttered under his breath as he took in the sight before him.

At the center of the compound atop a raised platform was a small castle. It looked like it had been a toy at one point if the traces of pink paint and glitter still clinging to its plastic body was any indicator. Sitting on top of said castle was a POD charging station that had been redesigned to look like a tiny throne. And sitting in it was a battered white POD, who had a tiny tinfoil crown duct-taped to the top of their 'head.'

"Wait, aren't you 2B's old POD?" Pascal asked, confused. "And if I'm not mistaken, you were also with A2 for a while."

"That is correct, Unit Pascal," POD 42 replied, their voice surprisingly loud, but Alexander quickly realized it was because the 'throne' had speakers built into it. "I did indeed accompany Units 2B and A2 in the past."

"Then what are you doing down here?" Blue inquired.

"I suffered critical damage during the collapse of the Red Girls and their Tower, which was further exacerbated during the attempts to repair the corrupted data of Units A2, 2B, and 9S," POD 42 revealed. "My fellow PODs rescued me and used the data from my successful debugging of Units A2, 2B, and 9S to cure the rest of the corrupted YoRHa units and other androids."

POD 42 waggled an 'arm' sadly. "However, there was only so much I could do in my state. In order to increase the range of my transmission and bandwidth data, the PODs built a number of relays and created a special terminal for my code repair to disseminate across the planet."

"Wait, so you're the one who cured the Logic Virus?" Alexander exclaimed. "That's incredible!"

"That's what the mystery signal I detected was!" Pascal quickly realized. "You're constantly broadcasting it to prevent anymore infiltration of the Machine Network or the androids' systems!"

"Indeed. Even after my work was done, my fellow PODs refused to leave me behind. They built this refuge to protect the terminal where the cure-codes are stored, but also to keep me company."

"Huh. Neat," Alexander murmured. "But, uh, what's with this whole 'kingdom' and 'king' shtick?"

Alexander hadn't known it was possible for PODs to look and act embarrassed, but 'King POD 42 the Elected One' managed to pull it off.

"I must admit, this was not planned. It sort of… happened," POD 42 admitted. "I believe POD 71 was playing a joke that got out of hand when it made me the tiny crown."

"POD 71 is the self-designated Court Jester," POD 153 helpfully supplied. Alexander snorted helplessly.

"Well, that's one mystery solved," he chuckled. He then glanced at POD 153. "By the way, 9S was worried when you didn't come home these past few days."

"Apologies. Unable to return to home base due to a need to oversee the construction efforts of the final touches for the Node," POD 153 stated.

"Then could you at least send 9S a message letting him know you're okay?" Alexander requested.

"If that is what Prince Alexander wishes," POD 153 agreed, and the human frowned.

"Okay, what's with you calling me that?" he demanded. "It's weird."

"It started as a joke," POD 42 admitted in shame. "I jokingly suggested I should adopt you to make you a member of our kingdom. The other PODs really liked the idea."

"Wait, how could you adopt me, I'm… well, I don't think mom would allow that," Alexander wondered.

POD 42 seemed to look away in shame while POD 153 bobbed up and down in clear amusement.

"We couldn't adopt you without her permission, so we did the next best thing," POD 42 admitted.

"What did you do, 42?" Alex demanded, folding his arms impatiently over his chest.

"He submitted a marriage registration form to A2," POD 153 giggled hysterically.

"Wait, so you married mom?!" Alexander uttered in disbelief, staring at POD 42 in shock. POD 153 trembled in an emulation of laughter.

"Why?! How?! Does mom know?!" Alexander demanded incredulously.

"I do not know. But she signed the digital file I sent her, and so according to the YoRHa database, we are married," POD 42 admitted.

"Oh, holy crap," Alexander muttered.

"How did this happen?" Pascal inquired, just as bewildered as the human. "A2 doesn't seem like the type, to be blunt."

"Mom has a bad habit of just agreeing to whatever forms you put in front of her without reading them. She'll just click 'agree' and not read the Terms and Conditions for digital files. Also, she doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference between spam and real information," Alexander admitted, embarrassed on behalf of his mother.

"So, that means Mr. 42 is now Alexander's daddy?" Blue asked innocently with a tilt of her head.

"Yes, technically," Pascal confirmed while Alexander buried his head in his hands while POD 153 giggled like a broken record.

"This is insane," Alexander moaned while still clutching his head. "I can't even… wait, who did you even send the files to?! The androids don't have a concept for marriage and they don't even have the infrastructure or administration to take care of something like that!"

"I sent it to Commander White."

Alexander lifted his head and stared at POD 42. "You did what?"

"I sent the files to Commander White of YoRHa," POD 42 repeated.

"Well… that explains why she was trying not to laugh every time she looked at me last time I visited Cleo," Alex muttered. "Huh. Um, well… thanks, I guess?"

"No problem… son."

POD 153 happily played a sound byte of canned sitcom 'Awww's' that made everyone chuckle.

"I'm glad this didn't turn into a dangerous hidden secret that could have changed the world as we know it," Blue said when the laughter died down. "I think we've had enough of those."

Olive screeched in agreement from atop her head.

"So, what now?" Pascal asked POD 42. "What does the Node plan on doing in the future?"

"We will continue to support humanity and the androids, as we were built to do," POD 42 declared. "However, we are also willing to work with the peaceful Machines of your village Pascal. The POD nation will continue to exist in peace with all who give us the same courtesy."

"That's a relief," Alexander said with a sigh. Then, he straightened up. "In the name of humanity, I thank you for that."

"Acknowledged," POD 42 beeped solemnly. "There is going to be a lot of magic research in the future we would be happy to share with you in exchange for more resource the Node cannot produce on its own."

"That sounds fair," Alexander replied. "Send a request to White and I'll argue for it on your behalf."

"Then if that is all, I conclude this meeting between humanity and POD-kind to be complete!" POD 42 declared.

"This is certainly not what I expected to happen," Pascal admitted with an amused tone.

"Oh, and, uh, could you spare a POD to escort us back to the surface?" Blue requested. "It's a long way to go, so if you have a shorter route up, we'd appreciate it."

"Very well. POD 153, please take our guests back to the surface," POD 42 instructed.

"Can do," the assistant to the 'king' of PODs confirmed. "Come this way! I will show you Electric Avenue Theatre and the Pachinko Parlor, two of our growing community's most popular POD relaxation and entertainment spots!"

"So glad this turned out A-Okay," Alexander breathed out to Blue, who nodded.

"Yes. So glad it wasn't something dangerous," she replied, eyes flickering purple when the human looked away.

Author's Note:
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