A/N: Sissi's cheerleading chant comes directly from the prequel episodes (Xana Awakens). Thank you everyone who's reviewed so far.
Sissi Delmas and the Wonderful World of Lyoko
Chapter Three: Einstein
There was no other way to describe the creatures that scuttled after Aelita. A bizarre mixture of bug and machine, thin mechanical legs supporting their blotchy, eyeless, misshapen bodies. They were small but their size was compensated for in numbers and there were at least a dozen swarming, with yet more emerging over fallen tree logs and grassy ridges. From gaping red mouths they fired their lasers, marring the ground at Aelita's feet.
Sissi absorbed all of this in indistinct blurs as Aelita looked back – once, twice, until Sissi, face practically pressed against the screen, yelled at her.
"Don't stop! Run!"
Aelita's breath came in hurried gasps, laced with desperate whimpers which made Sissi think of someone drowning. She felt dizzy as the screen moved with Aelita, the elf-girl leaping over flat planes and skidding slightly, uncertain, as she reached the small lake. She closed her eyes and took the first leap, landing shakily on a log-turned-stepping-stone, and with Sissi's encouragement she made the next, and the next, wobbling each time a laser sounded too close to her ear.
"Not too far," Sissi encouraged, fighting to keep her voice level. "Keep going, Aelita; just get to the tower."
"R-right," Aelita fought out between gasps. There were but a few metres of ground left to cover now, but Aelita could see the monsters out of the corner of her eyes, closing in greedily left and right. Just as Aelita was thinking how miraculous it was that she had avoided being hit, she felt something pierce her thigh – she anticipated pain and felt only an vague approximation of it. The real danger was in the way the shot threw off her balance and Aelita held out her hands instinctively in front of her as she was pushed forward, through the gnarled wall of the tower.
All sound vanished as though sucked into a vaccum. The whirring click and creak that marked the monster's movements, Sissi's breathing, the echo of her own footsteps, all lost in a ethereal blue serenity.
It took her a moment to realise she was falling.
Sissi's voice returned then, close and desperate in Aelita's ear – on Earth it echoed and bounced from the cold factory walls.
She couldn't respond, and instead spun in mid-air to see the white platform of the tower passing by her. Aelita had misaimed her entry into the tower and now she was careening into the gaping, unknown darkness that swallowed up the cylindrical structure.
This is it, she thought. Sissi, goodbye-
The thoughts had grazed the surface of her disorientated and fevered mind for no more than a moment and then it was over, and Aelita was still in existence.
"Aelita," came Sissi's disembodied voice. "Aelita are you there? You fell through the bottom of the tower, I don't know-"
"I'm here, Sissi. This is very strange, but I've ended up exactly where I left off."
It was true; she landed gently, as though lowered by invisible hands, on a mirror of the platform she had fallen past. There was no difference at all in this new place. The walls – if they could be called that – were threaded through with electric-blue binary code, and the surface beneath her feet, the same white ringed with blue, was reassuringly solid.
Sissi was less intrigued by this and more concerned with everything that had just occured.
"Did you see those things?" she exclaimed. "I wish we'd been able to have a proper look at them. They were so creepy. Like mutant robot potatoes. With lasers."
There was the slightest of pauses, and Sissi heaved a long, relieved sigh. "I was worried for a minute there."
"Me too," Aelita admitted. "At least we know nothing bad happens if you drop off the edge of one of these platforms. Do you think I should risk going back outside?"
"I don't know. Those monster thingies might still be there."
"Maybe not." Aelita paced back and forth, considering. "I have a feeling about something..."
Sissi trailed off, waiting anxiously as Aelita stepped out of the tower. Her eyes were glued to the visual onscreen as Aelita dissolved through the wall.
They gasped as one.
The forest had vanished. All around her, there was ice.
That evening and all of the next day, the newly discovered Ice sector was all Sissi could think about. She had had to leave soon after their adventure, and she made Aelita promise to stay put until she could return to the factory as she wanted them to explore this new realm together. Sissi had been so distracted, and rather more tired than she wanted to admit, that she barely even noticed when Mrs Hertz paired her with Ulrich for their next long-term project. When she was called out twice for not paying attention in class, she remained too deeply entrenched in her own thoughts to care.
Sometimes Sissi would venture to the principal's office as a misbehaving student. Sometimes, as Jean-Pierre's daughter.
Unsurprisingly – to Sissi anyway, who was used to this – the two weren't really all that different.
As the receptionist nodded for her to go in and Sissi knocked on the heavy oak-panelled door, waiting for the sound of the deep, weary voice telling her to enter, she wondered if it was normal to live in the same building as your father and yet see him almost as infrequently as kids boarding from halfway across the country saw their own parents.
On cue she opened the door and stepped slowly over the plush carpeted floor of the office, hands dangling at her sides.
"Hello, Daddy," she said meekly.
"Elisabéth," he replied. "Take a seat."
She wasn't put off by the use of her full name, nor the lack of endearments in his speech. She had this down to a fine art, and knew just how it would go – exactly the way it always did. Settling into the role, she perched on the edge of a hard-backed chair and fixed her father with her most contrite-looking smile. It was dark in the room, the only light being the square that shone in from the window behind the desk, and a panel had been removed from the ceiling to display the wire guts of broken circuits. Delmas glanced up at this anxiously for a moment, then turned his full attention towards his daughter.
He held up a hand to stop her. "Elisabéth dear" - (there, she thought, he's softening already) – "what's the matter?"
"I... nothing, Daddy."
"We're three days into the school term. You've missed a class already, and the ones you do attend, you're not paying attention." He pinched the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses, and she realised with a pang that he looked exhausted, emphasised by the addition of new lines to his weathered face. She didn't know what to say so she waited.
"Sissi, I thought you were going to try harder this year. This isn't a good start."
Something coursed through her that replaced her usual righteous indignation when it came to reprimands. When she stared down at her hands, now folded in her lap, the expression of regret on her face was genuine.
"I know I haven't been able to see very much of you since we got back," Delmas said, "and I apologise. But-" here he shifted for a moment into the stern principal mode that Sissi saw so often when he addressed the other students "-that is no excuse for this behaviour. Do I make myself clear?"
The apology didn't make it okay, but it helped. In return she offered up one of her own, feeling for a brief moment as though she was partaking in an obligatory exchanging of Christmas gifts.
"Yes," she said. "I'm sorry, Daddy."
He nodded and it was as easy as that. Knowing that she was no longer in trouble, Sissi smiled brightly at him. Her thoughts were already drawn once more to Aelita and the supercomputer, and what they were going to do about the monsters in the Forest sector. Much more important than art and French literature.
"I'm going to get back to class now, Daddy."
Smiling back at her, he pulled a sheet of paperwork and a pen towards him. "Have a good day, Sissi."
Later, after a hastily-eaten dinner, Sissi set off at a brisk pace for the factory. It was getting dark more quickly now as autumn approached and the weather was unpredictable, swift to turn from mild to cold. Even if there hadn't been the ice sector to explore, she mused as she glanced both ways, as much to check she wouldn't be spotted by fellow students as to check for upcoming traffic, she would still go, day in day out, just to talk to Aelita.
It was beginning to feel as though she had known her forever. Was this what having a best friend felt like? Or was it only friendship if you knew for sure the other person actually liked you?
Sissi was wrestling with this thought when she settled into the computer chair and offered Aelita a hestitant wave. The other girl returned it enthusiastically from the screen. Aelita was practically vibrating with barely-suppressed excitement.
"Aren't you afraid?" Sissi asked her, after they exchanged pleasantries and Aelita stepped out into the icy realm, a world decked in white and frosty blue. There was a certain energy in the air – everything about this particular visit to the factory felt directed and focused, preparation for a mission.
Aelita shrugged. "A little. I can always go back to the tower, and you're here. It'll be okay."
She began to walk, following a narrow path surrounded on both sides by vast stretches of water. Sometime during this, Sissi accidentally pulled up a map of Aelita's immediate location; it was an encouraging breakthrough, and, pleased to be of help, she pointed out upcoming details to Aelita.
"It looks like the path widens out again, and you have another small island coming up. There's something further up north and.. I think it might be another tower! There's lots of caves and icebergs here, so if any monsters come it'll be easy to hide." A minute later she started at the appearance of a new feature on the map. A cluster of blinking red dots. She barely even had to check to know what they were.
Sissi found herself whispering, the words pushed out past quickened breaths, her muscles stiff with tension as she leaned close to the screen. The harsh glow of it hurt her eyes, but she was too wound up to lean back in the chair now, unable to miss a second of what was about to unfold.
"Can you see them on the map?" There was a tremor in Aelita's voice, which Sissi could hear as clearly as though she were standing right beside her. She broke into a light sprint, diving gratefully behind a nearby boulder of ice. This sector was as indeed as expansive as the Forest but, thankfully, more suitably equipped with places to hide.
"Yeah. There's three of them, but they're quite far off. You still have time."
Sissi saw the virtual ice beneath Aelita's feet jerk as she nodded. "Okay," Aelita said. "If I can sneak around them, I might just be able to make it."
"Are you going to check out the other tower?"
"I can't go back now."
"Be careful, Aelita."
She watched at once through Aelita's eyes and on the map as the virtual girl pressed her back to the ice boulder and side-stepped along it. She forced herself to keep calm, peering around the edge of her makeshift shelter to assess the scene properly.
There were different monsters this time, scattered amongst the first type they had seen; cube-shaped entities, two of them, carried on those same spindly legs. A pearly orb was set into each of their four-sided faces and on it a motif of branches and concentric circles. There were five or six of the other, smaller monsters, and these scuttled to and fro as though impatient.
Aelita studied them for a long moment, trying to not to make herself too obvious as she peered out from the behind the icy rock. To the far right, the terrain veered off into a blue tunnel – above it, up ahead, she could see another tower just like the two she had occupied. As though reading her mind, Sissi's voice in her ear informed her that that was the safest route. She nodded, resolute. She would put her faith in Sissi.
Eyes squeezed shut, Aelita counted backwards from three...
Two... one... now!
She leapt out into the open space between herself and the monsters, ducked and rolled past the inevitable barrage of laser-fire. For a few seconds she was sure she wouldn't make it, until she heard the sounds of laser boring into rock, looked down to find her own body unscathed beneath the cover of a shadowy tunnel.
There was no time to celebrate this small victory, as she heard the sounds of monsters approaching, seeking her out. She took off at a sprint through the passage, forcing herself to keep going as the incline grew steeper; when she looked back they were gathered at the mouth of the tunnel, fighting to navigate the overly-smooth surface. Aelita herself stumbled and slid, afraid to lose her footing and fall helplessly back down into the sea of monsters below, but her hands clasped stalagtites and stalagmites and towards the end she heaved herself up like a mountain climber nearing the summit. Finally she groped with desperate fingertips to the top of a ledge, swinging herself up at last onto blessedly flat ground.
She was hit.
It caught her in the back and she cried out – Sissi echoed the sound – and Aelita instinctively rolled away, pressing the palms of her hands to the ground and pushing herself into a crouch. The shot hadn't come from behind her, where the monsters were struggling, but from above her prone form, splayed on the precipice. She raised her head, feeling as though it was all happening so agonisingly slowly. Before her was another of the cube-like monsters, or perhaps one of the same which had abandoned its allies and found another route. Its body spun on its legs, and Aelita just managed to avoid the new attack it presented – a white beam, different from the red, which shattered like an icicle on the ground she had just occupied.
The tower wasn't far away, raised on an icy pillar, taunting. The monster stood between it and Aelita and she ran in a wide curve away from it, hopping and ducking and moving between rocks, distancing herself from the monster but also, with the angle at which she was running, from the tower.
Another laser struck her in the stomach, flinging her onto her back; thankfully it was a red laser, because she had no idea what the white one did and didn't want to find out. Struggling to sit up as she trembled from the force of the impact, Aelita watched the monster turn in her direction.
A thought came to her out of nowhere, as though it wasn't her own thought at all, but instead as though someone had taken the idea and placed it gently inside of her own mind. Against all reason it made perfect sense to her.
Aelita knew what to do.
She struggled to her knees, bent her head and clasped her smooth palms together. She felt the ground beneath her and heard a sound, a high-pitched, almost angelic melody, that thrummed in harmony with the virtual world; she realised gradually that the sound was her own voice, singing to the land, at once praising it and asking it for help.
The ground began to shake but Aelita stayed where she was, hands clasped, knees slightly part, still singing. She dared not look until it was over, but the sight she opened her eyes to was something she could hardly believe she had invoked herself – the surface on which the monster stood had split entirely apart. The monster's legs flailed, the edges of its awkward body scraping the sides of the ice as it felt, down, down, down, and vanished into the nothingness that lay beneath Lyoko.
Aelita knew then that anything which fell into that place would not come back.
She stared after it for a long time. The shock of what had transpired made her movements slow, her mind struggling to catch up and process all that had just happened. It was with a lethargic, numb sort of auto-pilot that she covered the last of the distance to the tower, which she entered, embracing the blissful quiet. Already she felt energised as the soothing tranquillity of pure data restored her lost life points.
"Thank goodness," Sissi breathed, bursting into stilted, relieved laughter. "Wow."
Aelita shrugged off the victory. Instead she crossed to the centre of the tower, staring around at the same old scenery, the same old strands of data.
"It's all the same," she said, finding Sissi's face on the screen in the middle of the platform, just as she had done before. "None of these towers are any different. Sissi, what's going on?"
"I don't know-"
"I was so sure we'd find something different, somewhere. What if this is all there is? Just towers, and more towers, and monsters."
Sissi felt uncomfortable as the adrenaline of the chase began to ebb away. She hadn't really thought about what to expect when they found this tower but she had to agree that finding more of the same was discouraging. However, she had nothing to say, no hopeful reassurance that could cheer up Aelita.
"You managed to get there," she offered instead by way of consolation. "Anyway, what was that? The thing where you made the ice just fall away like that, it was amazing!"
"I don't really know," Aelita admitted. "I just felt really calm all of a sudden, and then I knew. I knew what exactly what I had to do, and how to do it."
"At least now you have some way to defend yourself. Uh, Aelita... what are we looking for exactly?"
"Answers," she replied without hesitation. "Other humanoid lifeforms. Perhaps a way to escape Lyoko, if there is one."
The way she said 'escape' made Sissi shudder. It put the virtual world she had found into an even more sinister light and the truth of it resonated with her.
"Okay," she said. "Don't go again without me, okay? I can use the map. It'll be safer with me here."
"I won't, Sissi," Aelita promised. Sensing their evening together drawing to an end she said, "Will I see you tomorrow?"
"Sure. It's cheerleading tryouts too. Wish me luck?"
"Good luck," Aelita replied absently, sat cross-legged with her hands on her chin. She was distant, radiating disappointment and frustration. Sissi felt irrationally angry, but it was only with herself for being so useless. Swinging herself down from the seat, she gathered her things.
"See you later Aelita."
There were no tryouts.
This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it was simply the consequence of so few people turning up that the handful of would-be auditioness, just enough to make up a team, automatically formed the squad. The plan was to practise some school spirit chants which could be played at school soccer games and swimming meets. For Sissi, it was a way to keep fit, improve her flexibility for Pencat Silat and cheer on Ulrich in his sports endeavours whilst looking her best. It was the only thing she had been excited for, school-wise, since term began.
She stood on the damp grass in her brand new skirt, shirt and white pumps, twirling her baton in her hands. She looked the other girls up and down and didn't think too much of them, but then, she hadn't spoken to many of them before. They had all made friends during their first year and Sissi, intent on chasing Ulrich, had been left in the dust long before she realised it was too late.
"Is this all of you?" Jim Moralés bellowed, quite accidentally, through his megaphone as he approached them across the field. The girls cast questioning glances at each other before generally nodding and murmuring confirmation. Jim looked disappointed.
"Poor turnout. Though maybe it's not such a bad thing," he said. "I should mention right now, uh, after-school sports are cancelled next week, anyway, since I'm the only fix-it guy around here and this whole school is on the blink. Those new light fittings put in over the summer, I'll bet. Short-circuits everywhere. Knew those guys weren't sure what they were doing. In fact, it reminds me of the time I worked as a maintenance man for-"
The cheerleaders erupted in a chorus of groans. "No one wants to hear about it, Jim!"
He looked put out but didn't comment, just cleared his throat and continued. "Well, all right then, ladies. Let's see what you've got."
When it was Sissi's turn to step up and perform her chant, she forced down her nerves and put on her best, most confident smile. Her baton gripped firmly in hand, she repeated the steps she had practised diligently in front of her bedroom mirror, and tried to ignore how completely unimpressed Jim and the other girls looked. To her irritation, Hervé and Nicholas had turned up to watch and stood now at the back of the group, waving, yelling, and generally being a distraction.
She tuned them out and focused on her performance.
"A cheerleader cheers so her team won't lose! We've got short skirts and sparkly shoes! We're just so gorgeous how can you choose? There's no doubt we've got clout, winning at Kadic is what it's all about! Kaaaaaadic!"
It was all going well until she lost control of the baton. Instead of spinning it gracefully in her hands as planned, it spun wildly high up into the air... and landed painfully on Jim's head. The crowd burst into laughter whilst Jim rubbed his head and shot her a look of complete exasperation.
He handed the baton back to her and shook his head, saying something that she didn't hear. Her attention was diverted elsewhere by a familiar voice laughing along with the rest, and she turned towards the source at the top of the bleachers.
She dropped the baton, uncaring of where it fell, and strode up to where Odd Della Robbia and Ulrich Stern had just arrived and taken seats. Every time Ulrich would try to shuffle a little further away, Odd would notice and mirror the movement so that they were still sitting side by side. Odd attempted something like a joke but Ulrich remained stony-faced and unimpressed. Now however, Odd had turned his attentions to the efforts of the newly-formed cheer squad.
"Is something funny?" Sissi demanded when she reached them, crossing her arms over her chest as she tossed her hair over her shoulder.
"Of course not, Delmas." Odd raised an eyebrow at her, the fading laughter still playing about his lips. "I was just admiring your excellent aim, there."
"I'd like to see you do better."
"No thanks. I'm much happier not looking like an idiot."
Sissi smirked, looking him up and down and especially making sure to scrutinise his hair, which still fell in strands over his shoulders. "Really? You're not doing a great job."
Odd actually flinched a little but he recovered quickly, a glint in his eye now.
"Yeah, I forgot I was the biggest loser here. Oh wait, no." He cleared his throat and in a high-pitched, nasty imitation of Sissi's voice, he recited; "A cheerleader cheers so her team won't lose! We've got short skirts and sparkly shoes-"
He carried on to the end, miming exaggerated dance moves. Sissi stood, aware that everyone in the crowd below was watching. Jim had disappeared to get an ice-pack for the bruise now forming on his head; this scene was unsupervised, and all insults were fair game. Sissi struggled with the embarrassment, unable to shut Odd up – every time she spoke, he just recited louder.
Ulrich sat to the side, faintly amused, saying nothing at all.
"Kaaaaadic!" He mimed the dramatic flinging of the baton, and finished with a bow. "Hey, don't I get a round of applause for that great performance?"
Obligingly, the group below cheered, all except Nicholas and Hervé who glared up at him with their fists bunched at their sides.
Sissi said nothing. She had worked hard on that routine, was quite pleased with the chant. She had meant to run it by Aelita but with one thing and another had forgotten. She regretted that now; if she had done so, she would have known sooner that it was stupid.
Sissi's lack of response, combined with the mencing looks Hervé and Nicholas were throwing his way, meant that Odd took his cue to leave and rapidly changed the subject.
"Oh hey, Noemie!" he spotted another cheerleader, one arm waving madly as he vaulted over the seats towards her. "Yoo hoo, Noemie!"
Noemie, previously enjoying the spectacle, now looked anything but pleased at the attention. Glaring at her friends who were grinning smug, unhelpful grins, she made to escape before Odd caught up to her.
Sissi watched them go, wondering briefly what had transpired between the two of them and still berating herself for her performance, before realising that she was alone with Ulrich. He still hadn't said anything. She spun around so she was facing him, a thrill running through her as their knees touched. Sissi had missed him, had spoken to no one but Aelita for the last day or so, and as she took in the sharp, handsome angles of his face she blushed beneath her make-up.
"Guess you still can't get rid of that Odd, huh," she said conversationally. "Can I help you with something, Ulrich dear?"
"I was only looking for Jim." He turned from her as he spoke and drew his knees up, swinging them out to the opposite side to rest on the back of the seats in front. "I suppose we should decide what we're going to do for Hertz's project."
"Oh!" Sissi's hands flew to her mouth. "I almost forgot! It'll be great. We can spend so much more time together."
"I was just getting used to not seeing you around."
She leaned into him, fluttered her eyelashes. "Don't be silly, Ulrich. This could be great fun. If we spent enough time together-"
"-On the project-"
"-Yeah yeah, anyway, we might even get a good grade. Besides you still owe me that date."
He deliberately lifted his weight and slid across the bench, out of reach. "No thanks."
"Aw come on. We'll go and have lunch, and we can work on the assignment at the same time. It'll be fun."
"I don't think our definitions of 'fun' quite match up," Ulrich said coldly. "We'll do all the work in class."
He stood up and walked away.
Sissi left too, in the opposite direction, her pace fuelled by angry indigation, shame, and the tears that threatened to overspill.
"I just don't get it."
Sissi had uttered this phrase, and several equivalents, dozens of times over the past few days, and each further affirmation of her own inability to understand drove her further and further to frustration.
It had been two weeks.
Two weeks of sneaking out as often as she could, of almost getting caught during dorm spot-checks, of late-night talks with Aelita that left Sissi pleasantly exhausted the next day and less lonely than she had felt for some time. With the school year now underway, progress surrounding Lyoko grew staggered and halting, marked by the days she could and could not visit the factory and the amount of time she could spend there. If only there was a way to talk to Aelita from any other computer, but Sissi hadn't the know-how to figure that one out. Aelita reassured her kindly that there was no rush, and then proceeded to spend days lying on the floor of a tower, combing through data or else staring listlessly at the ceiling.
Sissi would be lying, much as she missed Aelita, if she denied stepping out of that elevator onto the second floor without a hint of trepidation, anticipating another night of going around in circles with Aelita feverishly researching and compiling data which Sissi then rifled through with growing confusion and despair.
Now, she ran one hand exasperatedly down her face and sifted through the piles of paper littering the keyboard. In the tower, Aelita rested her hand on her chin and sighed.
"We've made progress, though," Aelita pointed out. After the initial exploration mission to the Ice sector she had developed an optimistic outlook which, to Sissi, appeared slightly forced.
"I guess. But... I feel so stupid. I can barely pass my science classes, how am I supposed to understand all of this gibberish?"
The dark-haired girl scrolled through one of several windows she had brought up on the screen for the hundreth time, lines and lines of incomprehensible text, programmes she would never be able to run. This one file in particular bothered her. The name of the programme was unsettling, and she read it aloud again.
"Like, return to the past - what does that even mean?" she mused. "As though a computer could actually make someone go back in time."
"You never know," replied Aelita, though she too looked doubtful. "After all, you said when we first met that artificial intelligences and virtual worlds are the stuff of science fiction, and yet... here I am."
"Even so, I don't have a clue how to actually make it work."
"Well, let's review what we've got so far."
Sissi nodded, and counted off their recent discoveries on her fingers.
"Okay, so we know that the towers can make you travel to different parts of Lyoko, we've explored some of the Forest, the Ice sector and the Desert. We know that there are lots of towers, and monsters, and that the space around Lyoko is definitely dangerous... that's not much."
"Also, that I have life points," Aelita added, "that can be regenerated through a period of staying put in a tower."
"But we don't know what happens when those life points run out."
Worry flitted over Aelita's face at this stark reminder of potential death. Death was the word Sissi had used and the concept was something Aelita didn't have a clear grasp of, but the idea of returning to the nothingness that had preceded her awakening (and the thing that bothered her most immensely when Sissi left and she was alone with her thoughts, was what did come before?) was quietly terrifying.
Sissi shifted position to sit cross-legged on the chair, oblivious to Aelita's inner turmoil. If not for the life points part, she might be forgiven for thinking less and less of Lyoko as a video game and more a part of something much greater.
It made her head hurt to think about it.
"Can we be done for today?" Sissi pleaded. "Only," here she glanced at her mobile for the time, and frowned, "I don't have much time left before curfew, and I'll need to finish this homework when I get back." Another growing concern that she hadn't voiced was that Ulrich had been avoiding her and their project for Mrs Hertz was suffering because of it, but she pushed this one to the back of her mind for now.
"Stupid extra work they give you after class. Except, I don't even understand what goes on in class, so how I'm supposed to do this is anyone's guess."
She avoided looking at Aelita as she said this; it was embarrassing to admit a flaw like this to someone – something – so intelligent.
Aelita however, simply smiled encouragingly and said, "Let's see."
Reluctantly, Sissi positioned the sheet of algebra equations in front of the screen. Aelita tilted her head thoughtfully to the side as she studied the pre-prepared examples. Sissi watched with envious fascination as Aelita concentrated, working out the pattern and method, and wished she was as smart as a computer.
"Okay, I think I've got it. It looks like you have to move all the symbols to one side, and the numbers to the other and the change the function as necessary."
"That sounds about right. I think." Sissi nodded slowly, recalling what little of Ms Meyer's lecture had seeped into her brain.
"Let's give it a shot, shall we."
With Aelita's help, Sissi worked through the equations more quickly than she had ever done so in her life, and by the time she filled in the last answer, she was in a much better mood.
"Hey, that wasn't so bad! I had no idea maths could be that easy. Oh, thanks Aelita," she added, and the other girl smiled, hunching her shoulders modestly.
"I'm happy to help. It's just a case of applying the method. Maybe I'd be good at maths if I was at your school."
Sissi's face lit up at the thought. "Wouldn't that be great? We could sit by each other in class, and I'd show you all the best places to shop in town, and we could hang out in my dorm and watch movies. I think you'd really like Earth, Aelita. There's so much to do, even if there's boring things like school and chores sometimes."
"It sounds really interesting," Aelita agreed.
"And we could go to concerts," Sissi continued emphatically, now thoroughly enchanted with the idea. "We could go and see the Subsonics, I've always wanted to, and meet Chris backstage. The Subsonics are one of my favourite bands," she added hastily in explanation," and Chris is the lead singer." She drew a crumpled magazine from her bag, opening it to an interview splashed over two pages. "See?" she said, pointing. "The cute one with the white hair. He's awesome."
"Hmm," said Aelita approvingly.
Sissi laughed, Aelita soon joining in.
This was all she had wanted, really.
Later that night, Sissi dreamed dreams threaded through with the colour pink, about small hands reaching out to her through soft white mist. In her dreams, too, she heard a sound like a video tape being rewound backwards, and she awoke feeling strange though she did not remember why.
In a moment of inspiration the next time was at the factory, she copied some data onto a disc which she clutched to her chest on the walk back home, nuturing it as the seed of a growing idea.
"I need your help."
Hervé Pichon blinked sceptically behind his glasses. He looked over his shoulder to see who Sissi Delmas was talking to, then turned back to see her unmoving, imposing with her hands on her hips as she stood over his desk. The classroom was otherwise empty. She scowled at him.
"Me?" he asked meekly.
She rolled her eyes. "Yes you, you dork. You're smart, right?"
"Oh!" said Hervé, realisation dawning. "You, uh, want me to do your homework or something?"
She considered this, mentally filed it away as a future possibility, then shook her head. "No, actually. It's... something else. A kind of project."
Hervé's flushed slighty pink. He brushed lanky black hair from his spotty forehead and tried to look casual as he leaned back in his chair though all the while his hands were clammy.
"You're tired of partnering with Stern and you want to do the assignment with me?"
He barely believed it, so wasn't surprised when Sissi threw back her head and laughed.
"No! Don't be stupid. Besides, it's not that project. It's a personal thing I'm working on."
Between shrugging off the embarrassment and revelling in the fact that this was the longest conversation with Sissi Delmas that he'd ever had in his life, Hervé just about remembered to be curious. He leaned forward again, narrow shoulders hunched and hands clasped in front of him. Sissi seemed to be refusing to sit down but she did nudge his books away to lean slightly on the desk, more out of comfort than anything else.
"What's it about, this project? And what do you need me for?"
"Never mind that. First, I need to know that you'll keep your mouth shut."
"What's in it for me?"
Sissi forced herself to smile, or at least stop scowling. Intimidation could only get one so far; now it was time to turn on the charm. "You get to hang out with me."
"Like friends," she interjected quickly. She shuddered at the thought of dating this guy, eyeing a particularly nasty cluster of spots peppering his chin. It wasn't just his appearance though. Something about him rubbed her the wrong way.
"Huh." His mouth twisted in disappointment. "Well, all right."
"And you're not going to tell anyone. Anyone at all, got it?"
"What about Nicolas?"
He gestured to his right and and she realised the classroom wasn't empty after all – slouched in a desk in the corner was that ginger-haired kid, Nicolas, whose last name Sissi couldn't remember. Pol-something. He cracked open an eyelid and observed them briefly before returning to his own world, encased in a bubble of music blaring from the headphones in his ears.
"Nic won't say anything," Hervé pressed. "He's cool."
Hervé noticed and added, "I mean, he's just... Nicolas. He won't say anything. He won't even care."
"He'd better not."
Satisfied, Sissi dragged a chair towards her and finally sat down as she pulled a few sheets of folded paper from her jacket pocket. She made to open them then paused, surveying the room around them.
"You're studying on a Friday afternoon?"
Hervé flushed indignantly. "I just want to get all my homework out of the way, that's all." He moved to cover the book he was reading and Sissi just about glimpsed the title, something to do with construction or robots, before it was swept out of sight. Robots these days made her think of Lyoko – in fact, everything these days seemed to remind her of it, as though the virtual world had seeped not only into her thoughts and daydreams but into the very fabric of life at Kadic itself.
She shrugged off the thought and finally unfolded the papers as Hervé watched with interest. He reached out eagerly as she passed them to him and his eyes scanned pages and pages of tiny typescript. Sometimes he flicked back a page to read something again more closely, nose bent close to the paper. It took a long time. He could feel her scrutinising him and wished Nicholas would say something, but at the first sign of textbooks his friend would zone out, waiting here for Hervé for as long as necessary. At last he looked up, made bold by curiousity and disbelief, and said,
"What the heck is this?"
It was Sissi's turn to look uncomfortable. She wound her hands in the hem of her shirt as she spoke. "I was hoping you'd be able to tell me. It's a print-out of the script for a computer programme."
"I can see that, but..."
"It's total garbage." He gave a nasally snort of laughter. "It's like an entire theoretical physics textbook compressed onto a couple of pages. No, not theoretical physics – science fiction."
Sissi was getting rather tired of those words. This was reality. Her reality. Aelita's reality.
"So if you put this into a su- into a computer, it wouldn't work?"
Hervé adjusted his glasses and contemplated it for a second. This was very, very strange. Sissi couldn't have written this herself, could she? Of course not. She was beautiful and amazing, but, he had to admit, not too clever. Besides, she barely understood it herself, otherwise she wouldn't be talking to him. Where had she found it? Was there more stuff like it?
His head snapped up, inner monologue broken off. Sissi had called his name more than a few times.
"Sorry," he said. "I was thinking about it."
"Well?" she pressed, leaning forward with her hands on her knees, dark eyes intense and expression... hungry. Desperate. "Would this work or not?"
"Uh. I don't really know..." he winced, hating to disappoint and fearful of her anger. "There are gaps, so it kind of looks like you have to enter key instructions on the programme yourself to run it, but I've no idea how it would even work. You'd need to be like, Einstein or something, to know that."
Hervé blinked, then shook his head. "Anyway, this is pointless. Like I say, it's rubbish. You'd need about a hundred computers, probably more, to have enough processing power to carry out something like this. And even then, it's... Sissi, do you know what this does?"
She didn't meet his eyes.
He leaned forward. His heart was racing for nothing to do with being so close to Sissi Delmas, and the classroom felt suddenly cold. They had been here for hours without even realising, and through the window the colours of the sky had gradually changed in anticipation of the sunset. "Sissi, it's a programme for reversing time."
She scraped back her chair so harshly that it clattered to the floor behind her. Sissi took advantage of the moment, and Hervé flinching at the sound, to tear the papers from his hand. His fingers scrabbled desperately after them but to no avail.
"Yeah, whatever. Thanks for nothing. And remember what I said, about keeping quiet."
Her face was burning.
She slammed the door behind her, leaving Hervé with his hands shaking, and Nicolas oblivious to everything but the music.
There was one thing that Sissi Delmas quite often forgot about, and that was that her life at Kadic Academy wasn't the only one laced through with problems.
On this occasion she was leaving school and heading to the factory the usual way, the route which her feet followed now without her even needing to think about it. Every there-and-back resulted in a new record time.
She stuck to the shadows cast by the school building, ducking beneath windows just in case a passing teacher should see her and ask awkward questions about where she was going and why she was on her own. These days she avoided the gymnasium where Ulrich and the Ishiyama girl practised Pencat Silat nearly every evening. Yumi would walk home later and Ulrich would possibly accompany her. Sissi couldn't bear to think about them alone and close in the twilight, even if what happened there was the result of her own traiterous imagination.
The grass rustled, giving way to the sound of footsteps on gravel.
Sissi gasped, the noises wrenching her back to the present. Her phone slid from her hand and she just about caught it in time, awkwardly, with both hands.
Holding her breath, she waited.
"Hey, it's Belpois!"
It was a boy's voice, filled with a strange kind of false cheerfulness. There was a lilting, mocking quality to his tone as he stepped into the floodlights illuminating the courtyard and Sissi recognised him as Julien Xao, a substitute on the football team. Strolling after him, hands in his pockets, was another boy – Matthieu - with mousy hair which hung in bangs over his forehead.
"Hello Julien," said Jérémie.
Sissi strained to see around the wall without being spotted, identifying the skinny blond boy with his fists clenched around the twin straps of his backpack.
Sissi had never heard Jérémie Belpois speak before except for the few, rare, times he answered a question in class. Now his voice was quiet and wary like an animal edging around a trap. Mattheiu and Julien stepped closer, Julien reaching out a hand to smack Jérémie companionably on the back. Weighed down by his book-laden rucksack, Jérémie stumbled.
"Belpois, how's it going?" Matthieu asked.
Jérémie mumbled something which Sissi didn't quite catch, and Julien nudged him impatiently in the side. Jérémie shrunk away.
"Speak up, Belpois! You're like a mouse."
"Yeah, a little homework-doing mouse."
Julien and Matthieu laughed uproariously, as though the non-joke was the funniest thing they'd ever heard. Sissi watched the scene unfold with growing curiosity. Nothing had really happened, just yet.
"So, where are you scurrying off to, Belpois?" pressed Julien.
The answer was mumbled, monosyllabic. "Library."
"Ooh, the library. You read all the books in the school library already? Bet that's why you're never around. You're always just reading or something. Do you ever do anything actually important?"
"I like studying," Jérémie replied, still carefully toneless.
Julien seemed to be the one doing most of the talking. "Who actually likes studying?" he sneered. "Don't you ever do anything else?"
Jérémie had barely moved this whole time. Sissi noted the way his eyes kept flickering to the side; she thought he might have seen her, until she realised that he was probably just looking to escape. Julien and Matthieu crowded him however, and it seemed the bespectabled boy had no choice but to humor them.
"I like building robots," he offered meekly.
Julien and Matthieu seemed genuinely interested at this.
"Robots, huh?" said Matthieu, brushing hair from his eyes as he stepped closer. "Like huge, fighting ones you see on t.v.?"
"Just... miniatures," Jérémie replied. The other two boys were evidently disappointed and Jérémie's shoulders slumped.
"Little robots are boring. But hey, let's see 'em."
Quicker than Jérémie could react, Julien had torn the backpack from his shoulders and set it heavily on the ground. Something inside made a noise like breaking and Jérémie bit his lip, wringing his hands as he tried to edge close enough to get it back.
"Books, books, notebooks..." Julien rifled through, tossing things onto the floor. "Do you even have any- Oh, hey! Matt, look at this!"
Matthieu reached out eagerly for the tiny contraption, turning it over in his hands. Jérémie reached out for it but Matthieu, much taller, held it out of his reach. He yelled as Julien wrestled it from his friend's grasp and proceeded to press all the buttons, causing levers to rise and lights to flash.
"Hey, this is cool!"
"Shove off Belpois, I'm just looking!"
"Here Julien, I didn't even get to see it. Let me-"
"Guys," Jérémie interrupted again, "I need to get going-"
They ignored him in favour of arguing over who got to hold the robot. The two boys grappled, yelling and laughing, and uncaring of the muddy footprints they left on Jérémie's scattered things. He hovered near them, waiting.
From the angle at which he stood, Sissi was able to see his face clearly. She had never paid any attention to Belpois before, always assumed him to be one of those kids who got good grades but only by constantly worrying about it and spending hours holed up in the library. The few times she had glimpsed him at lunch it was never seated with friends but instead on his own on a smaller table. He didn't look altogether too different here than the other times she had seen him – tired eyes behind thick black glasses, terrible posture, so skinny that his blue turtleneck sagged and bunched up at the sleeves.
Julien shouted something, then SMASH-
The robot had flown in a wide arc through the air, to break into dozens of pieces at Jérémie's feet.
"See what you've done, Matthieu?" Julien chided, laughing as he punched his friend lightly on the arm. "Now Belpois' gotta make us a new one!"
Jérémie was already on his hands and knees, gathering up the pieces along with his fallen books. Julien and Matthieu exchanged looks before turning to slink away, bored now that their toy was broken. They had forgotten all about Jérémie by the time they got to the school doors, sneering and joking about something else.
Sissi remained in the shadows for a moment, watching the small, lonely figure of Jérémie Belpois hold up a notebook with half its pages now torn out.
He was okay now, right? They had left him alone. He was free to go to the library and get his extra studying done, or whatever. He'd probably think she was weird for helping him, and he would know that she had seen everything up until that point, that she had stood there, without a word.
She was late to her meeting with Aelita.
This... it was none of her business, anyway.
Had she strayed any closer to Jérémie, had she not instead hurried to the factory, she might have heard the telltale sniffles as the boy huddled on the cold ground and began to cry.
Estimated period of consciousness: seventeen days, twenty two hours, forty nine minutes .
Currently testing capabilities. All systems functioning normally. Tower activations tested and fully functional.
Have not yet located Creator. The other survives, moving between Towers. Attempts to eliminate have so far been unsuccessful.
Collected data regarding Earth is undergoing analysis. New technologies since last time. Developments positive. Continue to facilitate connections to Earth.
Human visits the factory frequently. Subject identified as 'Sissi Delmas'. Intentions currently unknown. Does not seem to be operating the supercomputer to its fullest extent. Reasons indiscernible.
Will allow more time for observation.