The faces and the fear blended together over the years, but the names were always different. Carson, Dorsey, Washington, Lancaster, Delacruz. It was … the Pucketts, at age six.
Leonard - they always called him Leonard - was in the kitchen, alone. The door blew off its hinges. Half a dozen faceless servitors entered, with weapons held in mechanical hands. His father’s creations. He recognized that much, at least.
"Come on, kid, we’re leaving." He could hear his father’s voice over the speakers from one of them. The androids grabbed Leonard by the collar and hauled him away from the kitchen and through the living room, past the handful of half-unwrapped toys the Pucketts had bought for him, past the photos of Mr. and Mrs. Puckett and their dead son. They’d have to find a different replacement boy now, Leonard thought sadly.
Leonard was tossed into the back of a waiting hover-car. Inside was his father. He never heard his father’s real name on the news. It was always “Rossum”. The car was self-operating, a soulless supertech toy. Any ordinary person would have been shocked by the unfamiliarity. The hum of electrics and the fully computerized panel wouldn’t be present in regular vehicles for decades. To Leonard, the comfortable house and family were the unfamiliar element. In a way, this felt more normal. In a way, he was grateful.
He remembers asking questions that felt banal at the time. “Why aren’t there sirens, daddy?” his six-year-old self said. His father laughed at that. “Cops were too slow, and your dad was too smart, kid.”
He remembers the two weeks he spent with his dad. He remembers getting anything he wanted - all McDonald’s hamburgers, all the time - and finding that he didn’t much like the taste. He remembers asking about mommy. That was a new idea to him, a mother figure. He remembers Rossum laughing in a way that wasn’t funny at all.
He remembers the hotel room door being blown away, and thinking, "dad’s here." Only his dad was in the room already, and it was a team of superheroes. Like Saturday morning cartoons, only serious. They acted like cops back then, but they dressed up like it was Halloween. He remembers the brief fight, and his dad being handcuffed and blindfolded. He threw himself at the old man, crying, trying to shield him with his body from these strange people.
The police were there, the real police, and one of the cartoon cops handed him over to a man in a black suit. The pattern of his tie fascinated Leonard, and he never looked the cop in the eye that day. The conversation was boring anyway. Questions about Rossum, questions about himself, confirmation of his vital information, a discussion about foster families. The cops always called it a “discussion” when they were really telling you what they were going to do to you.
The Pucketts were too worried to take him back, the man said. Their safety had to be taken into consideration. And a supervillain knew where they lived. Leonard would have to be placed with someone else.
“Is daddy going to jail?” he asked finally. The cop with the interesting tie said he was. “Why can’t I live in jail too?” he asked. The cop said that would be silly, that was no place for a boy to grow up. “Well… he’s just gonna come find me again,” Leonard pointed out, and the cop was silent.
Leo - not “Leonard”, nor “Leon”, at age thirteen you have to have a cool name - remembers the first time he sat in the driver’s seat of his very own car.
Mr. Dorsey was a junkyard owner, and his new father. Leo had sat watching the man sign the adoption paperwork, and thought at the time it was useless. This was the day that Mr. Dorsey taught him a lesson about junk.
“Everything you see in this yard is unwanted by someone,” he said to the boy. "That doesn’t make it useless. That doesn’t make it garbage. It means that somebody just couldn’t see the value of it." He gave the boy a hug. Leo silently cried as he hugged back. And then Mr. Dorsey gave Leo the greatest gift a boy could get. “Everything here is yours, if you work for it. If you can make something work, you can keep it.”
The car was a wreck. The engine wouldn’t turn over. The structural damage was considerable. But there was potential. When Leo looked it over, the familiar flash in his brain told him how it could be fixed. He saw the limitless possibilities, the galaxy of ideas hiding inside the metal frame. It made sense. It had clarity.
The engine was the easiest. Leo got parts from other engines, parts that didn’t belong together, and he made them connect. He watched himself piece together gears and coils and clockwork in ways that seemed obvious, but were impossible to explain to the curious Mr. Dorsey. The body work was tougher. Leo spent hours learning to weld properly, and his foster father still insisted on supervising whenever he used a torch. The junkman asked questions, but he never ever said “no” without a reason.
Leo learned fluids - brake fluid, oil, lubricant, gasoline. Mr. Dorsey took him to the thrift store and they bought the oldest, thickest clothes that’d fit Leo’s still-growing frame. Then he got as dirty as he’d ever been allowed to get by any of his foster parents, then or since, but by the end of it he knew everything by sight and smell. A dozen different liquids pump through the arteries of a car, keeping it alive and mobile. He was giving this machine a transfusion, the blood, the life.
Mr. Dorsey didn’t participate in Leo’s computing hobby. So when he saw Leo wiring a ponderous black box into the battery and flipping switches experimentally, he lost interest. “Just don’t stay up too late,” he warned the boy, who heard but didn’t listen.
And so Leo found himself in the driver’s seat of his very own car. And at 2 a.m., he finally sighed. “Please start,” he begged of the air, gripping the steering wheel tightly.
“I’m trying, Leo, I’m trying,” came an apologetic voice from the black box.
"I know, but I was so sure the ignition was wired into you correctly." Leo sighed and leaned forward, resting his forehead lightly on the steering wheel. “I’m tired. I’m gonna go to bed. Goodnight, Otto.”
“Goodnight, Leo,” came the voice.
At sixteen years of age, you need two things to be cool. You need a car, and you need a girlfriend. Leo built himself a car. Unfortunately, he’s only been in Halcyon City a few months, he’s bored at school, and he doesn’t have many friends. He’s too obsessive and focused for the nerd cliques to welcome him, and he’s too interested in computers for anyone else. With no natural alternatives available, he resolves to build a girlfriend.
He’s done this sort of thing once before. Otto was his first artificial intelligence - a black box the size of a desktop PC, which he’s managed to shrink down since then but is happier living as a car. Now the challenge is to build something that’s not only as small as a human being, but can pass for one. There’s no junkyard full of spare parts this time.
The shell won’t be fully lifelike. He’s okay with that, because he knows it can be rebuilt and improved. The mind, though, he only has one shot at.
When Leo builds an AI, he’s really using his father’s work in a way it wasn’t designed for. The neurochip at the back of his head has a full diagnostic that he knows how to access - because it taught him how - and “full” means “full”. He can access every part of his own brain. He can create recordings of it, or download a backup. And he can extract parts of it.
AIs are built with a secret that Leo knows. There is no “self”. The self is like a piece of music that arises from playing notes in harmony. The right notes and you have an opera, or a rock ballad. The wrong ones, and you get noise. So Leo creates a new person by forcing himself to remember what they are like, to play-act like he is that person. He imagines the seed, and the evolutionary software he wrote that the neural map plugs into will do the rest. He is the composer; the black box computers he builds are the conductors; his memories are the orchestra.
Leo has never had a real girlfriend. There was Carol Anne, back in grade school, but that consisted of one kiss behind the school and a lot of mud-throwing. Leo remembers waving goodbye to her as the black AEGIS sedan drove him away, and he remembers her not noticing. So all he has to go by when creating the AI’s seed is what he sees on television, what he overhears from his classmates, and what he feels missing in his heart.
Focusing on the images is a matter of a couple hours, like watching a movie you’ve never seen. Actually dumping the neural map is a matter of minutes. It feels weird, but Leo is used to it now. Finally, the indicator lights come to life on the black box. Processing the neural map into a new personality will take hours or days. So Leo goes to work on the shell.
He’s halfway through a basic torso when there’s a “ding”. Tools fall out of his hand as he rushes back to his PC and plugs everything in. She’s asleep right now, he thinks. He types a few commands. Slowly, slowly…
“Hello,” comes a voice. It’s a toneless neutral, but the AI will adjust it. “Hello,” types Leo, then repeats it out loud to the microphone. “Do you know who you are?”
“Pneuma,” is the digitized reply. The voice is wavering, as the AI inside tries to make it sound like what both of them imagine his girl will sound like.
“Do you know what it means?” Leo asks hesitantly.
“Pneuma is breath, or soul, or spirit.” The voice is sounding more feminine with every syllable. "Pneumatic, of a woman, means rounded or shapely." It pauses, and Leo gets a chill as it sounds, now, exactly how he imagined. “Am I the woman you wanted me to be, Leo?”
“I hope so. I want you to be.” He isn’t sure what else to say, so he points behind him. He realizes it’s useless - there’s no visual sensors for the AI to use yet. “I’m building you a body. It’ll be done really soon. We’ll make it better together. Pneuma, I’m going to make you perfect.”
The next several days, Leo is busy until late hours installing the brain into the new shell. His foster mother bangs on the door and tells him to go to sleep, so he turns out the lights and resumes work with a flashlight.
One time the knocking on the door isn’t late in the evening, and it isn’t to tell him to go to sleep. “Leo, are you in trouble?” his foster-mother asks. "There’s a man from AEGIS who needs to talk to you." Leo can’t pull his blankets up over Pneuma’s still-incomplete shell fast enough.
He opens the door, face flushed, breath uneven. “What? No, mom, I’m not in trouble,” he lies automatically. Then he notices the man standing next to her. Or rather, he notices the tie.
"Thank you, Mrs. Conway, young Leo and I go way back. He’s not in trouble, I’m just paying a visit," the man’s voice says. "May we…?" Mom purses her lips, and nods, and walks away, but Leo almost doesn’t notice.
“You like the tie?” The jacket the man is wearing closes over it, and Leo looks up, realizing that this is the first time he’s seen the man’s face.
“It’s got a pattern on it. A very subtle one. I can’t see it, but you can. Your father can. People like you, with intuitive genius, can. The smarter you are, the more distracting it is to look at. It’s a passive super-intelligence detector. Not one of these new-fangled genetic gimmicks, but I’m old-fashioned like that.”
He walks in the room, and Leo watches his eyes flicker over the bed, and knows that the man knows something about what he’s up to. “Not all of my colleagues share my style. Most of them are wearing black body armor and packing energy weapons these days. Not hard to see why. A typical superhuman’s energy attack will go through a cheap suit really well. One of the people I worked with got killed when the crowd she was in was attacked. She’d have made it with protection. Well, so would the civilians. Hell of a world we live in.”
"I’m rambling, I’m sorry. Old man’s prerogative. Agent Ted Waters." The agent turns and smiles. “Leonard Snow, or do you prefer Leo?”
Leo’s panic has turned to wariness. He wants to go to the bed, to protect his work there, his dream, but he’d give himself away if he moved. So he stays frozen in place. “What do you want, Agent Waters?”
"The lady who got killed. My coworker. One man’s desperation, one blast, ended her life. For him it was easy. For her it was thirty years of effort and hopes and dreams, ended like that." Waters snaps his fingers and stares out the window. "Power. That’s what it does to people." His eyes find the young man’s, and he looks very old, just for a moment. “You have power too, Leo. People worry about what you’ll do with it.”
“I don’t have any power. I’m just a kid, going to school, like everyone else,” Leo protests bitterly.
“You can build amazing things.” Waters pats the mound on the bed gently. “Strong things. Maybe dangerous things. I’m not going to tell your mom… well, Mrs. Conway here… or anyone else. But it’s my job to know, Leo. Your dad–”
“I’m not my dad!” Leo’s volume surprises himself.
Waters holds up his hands, motioning for calm. “I know, I know you’re not. I know that’s not you. But you have his potential. Maybe not as much, maybe a lot more. Nobody really knows. So what if you do what he did - maybe for your own reasons, maybe the best of intentions - and you start building things that can be used as weapons? What should we do?”
Leo sighs. He thinks about an answer. He realizes he’s been thinking about it since he was old enough to understand what supervillains are, and that Rossum the Minion Maker is one. He remembers the faceless servitors, taking him to the high-tech car. And he has it, as he glances down at the covered robotic shell, and remembers what he’s built and why.
“I don’t build weapons. I build friends.”
That makes Waters smile. “I like that. I do. And it makes me glad to hear. It won’t satisfy most people, though, just hearing you say that it’s okay. They’ll still want you under observation. But I’ll make sure that for as long as I can, I’ll be the one observing. Is that okay with you, Leo?”
Leo sighs. The whole idea of having his life under surveillance because of his deadbeat dad doesn’t appeal to him at all. But… “Yeah, I guess it’s okay. I mean, I can’t stop you, can I?”
Waters gently pats his shoulder as he walks for the door. “Trust takes time. Relationships take time. We’ll get there together. See ya around, Leo.”
Leo wore a suit and tie and sat in the courtroom as people decided his life, again. The government had seized assets tied to Rossum. Most of it had been sold off to pay for damages that could be held against the villain. Still, he’d shown plenty of legal income, even paying taxes on it, when foreign parties purchased his equipment.
Leo remembers the night of the argument. It started, again, with the estate and its disposition, and how Pneuma had grown increasingly upset. Again.
“With this money, I can finally build you a proper body, Pneuma.”
He remembers her face - at the time, highly articulate but still artificial - contorting in frustration and anger. “Leo, no! Stop. Listen to yourself. Upgrading me is irresponsible right now. You have your future to think about. Invest the money until you can find a job.”
He finally got angry in return. “I can find a job anywhere. I can find work in computers, in programming. It pays well. It’ll be fine. Stop worrying so much. Things will be okay, I promise.”
Pneuma let out a sigh. “Things won’t be okay. Things aren’t okay now. Leo, Listen to me.”
Leo stopped. This was the girl of his dreams. He was doing all of this for her. Why was she trying to take away his perfect plan? His shock created a silence for her to fill.
“You run up your parents’ electricity bill paying for us. You’re working two after-school jobs. You don’t have any plans to go to college. But you’re still trying to fit us into your fantasy family. We’re just copies of you. This is narcissism and escapism. You dreamed us up to be your toys.”
Leo could only stare, open-mouthed, as she went on. What is she saying? There’s no way she can be right! But what if she is? Thoughts warred against each other. Confusion, then horror, took hold of his heart.
“I’m leaving too, Leo. It’s not because I hate you. It’s because I love you too much to see you destroy yourself over us. Think about yourself for a change.”
Pneuma drew close and gave him a soft hug, then turned away. She slipped on the black longcoat, hat, and scarf she used to travel in human crowds. Her hand was on the doorknob when he finally spoke.
He forgets just what he said at that moment. But he remembers Pneuma smiling sadly, and leaving anyway.
The paperwork for the Snow estate was immense. Krasnov, the lawyer overseeing the distribution of the estate, would see Leo three times a week. When he was on the road, Otto would drive, leaving the young man to his own brooding thoughts.
It took six weeks for him to come home and find Pneuma standing in his room.
“Leo, don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re an idiot. A helpless, lovable idiot. Feeling like your toys… it really bothered me. It bothered Otto too, honestly. I didn’t want to be created in your image, and forced to be your plaything.”
“But then I thought about it. You didn’t think of us like that. You never did. You were so… so completely surprised at the idea. The thought hadn’t occurred to you at all.”
Her smile grew wider. “Don’t you see, Leo? It was me. It was all me. And if we’re thinking so differently that we’d argue about something like that, then… I am a real person. I am real, Leo!”
She grabbed hold of the surprised young man and gave him a bone-crushing hug that drove the air from his lungs. He was still dizzy when she let go, and her smile faded a little as she kept talking.
“I… I can’t be your girlfriend, Leo. I’m still worried. Please understand. What I feel, about you or anyone else, I have to know it came from me. I have to be sure. I have to be my own woman. I have to live my own life. But… I will stay with you, and I’ll keep being your friend. You so desperately need one, Leo. You need people to look after you.”
Later, the old debate resumed itself - the first of many times Pneuma would nag at Leo about his situation. “So? What are you going to do about the estate?”
Leo pulled a manila folder from his filing cabinet and handed it over. As the girl started to leaf through it, he explained. “My father sold a lot of weapons to a lot of people. He made things that hurt people. He kept records, though. So I’m going to work to make that better.”
Pneuma looked up in confusion. “What are you talking about?”
He grinned back. “I’m going to become a vigilante. A lot of Rossum’s buyers weren’t legitimate, but AEGIS can’t touch them without evidence. And he’s got a hidden lab somewhere in town. If I can find it… I can really start inventing.”
Pneuma shook her head. “Wait, just exactly what are you going to invent, Leo?”
“The future.” The young Snow rubbed his hands together. People are going to start using the things my dad made. Him and others like him. I’ll build things of my own. I’m not going to let his weapons hurt anyone else."
“You’re an idiot, Leonard Snow,” was her immediate response. “You’re an idiot through and through. You’re going to charge right into this thing like you always do.”
Pneuma’s sudden smile lit a fire in his heart. “So of course we’ll be there with you.”