Friday, October 22, 2021

Microstory 1740: Hercules Wagon

I just found a dead body. It’s a fifteen-year-old girl, who is—I mean was—one of two of the last remaining residents of Cepheus, Kansas. Everyone else who once lived here either left, or died already. Technically, anyone in the world could have killed her. I can’t rule out any of them, except for myself, but there is one person who is my prime suspect right now. Her father is the only one I know of who was here at the time. They were supposed to go fishing today, I know that much, but I’m not a coroner, so there is no way for me to know how long ago she was killed. It could have happened anytime within the last month, but I feel like the smell would be worse if she had been lying here for longer than a few days. Plus, food is something that I do know a little bit about, and I can tell you that this ice cream that spilled all over the floor only went bad recently. It looks like she dropped the bowl, slipped on it, and hit her head on the corner of the counter. Or maybe that’s just what her dad wants us to believe. I mean, where is he now, right? A month, a few days; either is plenty of time for him to contact the authorities if it really was an accident. Running makes anyone look suspicious, so he’s only making it harder on himself. I simply cannot let the trail go cold, and I can’t rely on the sheriff to do his due diligence. He’s going to rule it an accident, and not even look at the damn facts. She’s dead, and the dad’s gone. They need to investigate, or even call in the FBI. No, he can’t be trusted. I have to go on the hunt, or no one else will. Sure, I’m just a rural area supply transporter, but I know these woods like the back of my eyelids. If the killer is hiding somewhere around here, I’ll find him. You can bet on that.

I get back in my wagon, and head to what’s left of Main Street, hoping to find some evidence of where my suspect could have gone. There aren’t a whole lot of locations around here, and of course I’m well aware that he could be in Peru by now. If I killed my own teenage daughter, accident or no, I wouldn’t be stupid enough to stick around unless I wanted to get caught, consciously or no. I never pegged him for much of a bright boy, so I expect he’ll turn up sooner or later. These abandoned buildings are a pretty decent place to hide if you’re not worried about someone like me being on the hunt. Not in the old general store, not in the one restaurant still standing, not in the playground slide. It’s covered in mold, though. Someone should really do somethin’ about that. Where could that guy be? I head farther out to check the fishing hole, and the run-down cabin nearby. No one has been here in weeks, by the looks of it. Maybe he’s camping out on the prairies, or in that trailer that someone abandoned deep in the forest a couple of decades ago. Man, pretty much everything around here is falling apart, isn’t it? I still can’t find him, so I decide I need to get some perspective. One thing I didn’t try that they always do on those crime shows is inspect the scene. I can’t believe I was so dumb that I didn’t really even look for clues around the body. Maybe I’m not a bright boy either. When I get back to the house, police lights are flashing in my eyes. The sheriff has finally shown up. Took him long enough. He has some colleagues with him from neighboring counties. I get out, thinking it’s time I fill them in on what I know. I don’t get to say much before they slam my face into the hood of my own truck, and wrap handcuffs around my wrists. Apparently, they found the father lain neatly in his casket in the cemetery. He probably died before her. Now I’m the only suspect. I shouldn’t have run.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Microstory 1739: Jana Crane

For the most part, Jana Crane tried to keep to herself. She kept her head down, did her job, and didn’t complain when the people she worked with treated her like crap. She tried to be as accommodating as possible, without being a pushover who no one respected. She was a factory inspector, who would go around her region, making sure that the businesses she was assigned to were maintaining health and safety standards. She was thorough and careful, and didn’t let anything slide. Forgetting to fill out your monthly logs completely is one thing, but not properly securing a piece of incredibly dangerous equipment was just something that could not be tolerated. Her reports were not meant to get anyone in trouble, but she saw them as a way for the companies to improve themselves, and prevent anything from going terribly wrong. It would be bad for the floor workers if one of them became injured, and bad for the employers if that injured worker sued the company, or otherwise cost them money. Everyone should love inspectors for preventing such tragedies. At least that was how Jana saw it, but no one else shared her sentiments, even people whose lives she was trying to preserve. Perhaps if she wore a cape, and a symbol of some kind on her chest, they would think differently of her. One person in particular could have done with a little more perspective. He was a floor supervisor who probably should have never been promoted, but far be it for Jana to judge the process. What she could judge, however, was how casual he was with the safety protocols. He didn’t worry about locking down the machines. He let his people go in there without safety goggles. He didn’t care about anything. If she didn’t know any better, she might think he was asking for a bad outcome. Sadly, she was the one who ended up in a bad situation. She gave him low marks too many times, and he had had enough. She was going to stop inspecting his work, whether she wanted to or not.

The last thing she saw before the darkness was his face. He wasn’t wearing a mask, or anything. He probably thought she wouldn’t recognize him, and since she wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup later, he would get away with it. Or maybe he was just a moron who didn’t think things through carefully. That was the most likely reason he not only showed his face, but spoke to her after throwing the acid in her eyes, and made references to their previous encounters with each other. She screamed, but couldn’t cry, on account of the acid. She just tried her best to wipe the chemicals off of her face. She pulled her shirt off, and wiped some more. It got the excess off, but it didn’t stop the pain, and it wouldn’t give her her sight back. He didn’t laugh. He was angry; talking about how this was her fault, and if she had just ignored the infractions, this wouldn’t have had to happen. All this, like it was completely unavoidable. An unlocked chemical cabinet was unsafe, but he didn’t appear to recognize the irony. She could hear his footsteps grow fainter, so she started to reach out around her. Feeling around was taking too long, so Jana had to be bolder. By the end of this, she was going to have a lot of bruises, but she would live. Every second she waited would make it that much harder for the doctors to fix her eyes. She began to run. She didn’t run into anything, so she went faster and faster through the factory, all the way out into the cold, and over to a warehouse down the street, which she knew operated 24/7. Her vision was never quite the same after that, but she didn’t go blind, and the floor supervisor didn’t go free.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Microstory 1738: Gemini

We are a twin. I know that sentence doesn’t make much sense, but it’s the most accurate description of what we are. You see, one of us absorbed the other in the womb. There is no way to know which, but it doesn’t really matter, because it’s the end result that counts. For most people, this is what is known as a chimera. The individual will have two sets of DNA inside of their body. This can cause some health concerns, but it is mostly only a genetic rarity. We, on the other hand, are more than merely a combination of two individuals. We are two separate people, with two separate consciousnesses, living inside one body. We’re sure you think you’ve heard of this before. You probably call it multiple personality disorder. Besides the fact that this is an outdated term, it’s not what’s happening here. Like dissociative disorder, however, we have had a hard time finding psychiatric care from someone who actually believes us that we’re single body twins. Even the ones who have been willing to be patient and open with us are under the impression that we are one person who is suffering from some kind of new disorder. We assure you that this is real, and while proving it to anyone else would be impossible, we know in our hearts that it’s true, and in the end, that is all we can hope for. Our newest psychologist is at least willing to humor us, and help us work on our problems as if they believe, rather than constantly trying to find ways to rid me of my delusion. As I said before, this is not DID. Each of us is always there, always awake. We experience the same things, and move in harmony, but we possess independent thoughts. We can’t even communicate telepathically. For one to know what the other is thinking, she has to vocalize her thoughts. In order for us to have a private conversation, we have to be careful with who is nearby, because we’ll just look like one woman talking to herself.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Kelsey. For a long time, we both went by the same name, but we flipped a coin when we were five years old to see which one of us would get it. Both of us got what we wanted, because I wanted to keep the name for myself, and Selima wanted to come up with something new for herself. We were too young to realize that we didn’t need the coin. Anyway, I’m the boring one. I make sure we finish our homework, and get enough sleep. Selima is smart too, though. We’re obviously enrolled in college as one person, but we get to work together. Some of the margin notes on tests make it seem like I’m arguing with someone, but it’s in the same handwriting, so they can’t call it cheating. Selima isn’t this big mess who only wants to party, but she ensures that we enjoy our lives. Hi, yes, Selima here, that’s me, the fun one. Kelsey is right, I’m smart enough, but she’s much smarter, and if only one of us gets to have a real life according to everyone else, and be graded, I may as well let her handle that burden. I consider it my duty to keep her ground, though, and also protect her. She’s not great with confrontation, so whenever anyone is giving us trouble, I step in to take care of that. People have noticed that we seem to have a split personality, but being twin sisters, we’re not like polar opposites, or anything. Kelsey likes to have fun too. It was her idea to hike down to the valley last week, and I never would have thought of that myself. In the end, we make it work, and despite some complicated problems that require us to maintain our therapy sessions, I wouldn’t trade this life for anything. Now if we can just agree on what we’re going to do for a living.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Microstory 1737: Phornax

I received my new furnace yesterday. No, this is not the furnace you keep in your house. I own a crematorium. It’s our job to make sure that your loved ones rest in peace, according to their wishes. I have a little bit of help with the administrative stuff, and customer-facing responsibilities, but I pretty much run this myself. I come in when I please, and work at my own pace. It takes some time for people to schedule funerals and memorials services, because friends and family have to come from out of town, so it’s not like I’m ever on a time crunch. I got into this industry because I knew I could do it. More to the point, I knew I could stomach it. I’m not a sociopath, but death has never bothered me. It’s an important and inevitable fact of life, and I’m happy to do whatever I can to help ease people’s pain. Better I deal with all the dead bodies and cremains so someone who hates it doesn’t have to. All that’s been missing up until now is some decent equipment, which it looks like that is what has come in. I had my receptionist look into the newest and most affordable models, but I didn’t actually ask her to order anything for me yet. Anyway, I trust her, so I’m sure this one will be fine. It certainly looks nice. I’ve already seen the line item on the expense sheet, so she apparently took that affordability mandate seriously. It’s called the Phornax, which I imagine is just a stylization of the word fornax, meaning furnace. I read the instructions, and most of it seems standard. I won’t have to learn anything new. I will say that it’s rated to take about twice as long as my last furnace, but that shouldn’t be a problem. I imagine that’s where the affordability comes in. It must be designed for energy efficiency, not speed.

Once I have it installed, I decide to test it on my next subject. Here we have a Mrs. Pollyanna Bartolotti. Forty-two years old, widow, used to work as a dental hygienist. She died of complications from something called takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Her husband, a tractor dealer died recently, so that was probably her ultimate cause of death. It’s also known as broken-heart syndrome. I place her in the furnace, turn it on, and leave to binge seven episodes of this show from fifteen years ago that I just discovered. When I stop to take a pee break in the middle of the last one, I hear a banging downstairs. Great, it’s a horror movie, and I’m about to die. I creep back down to the basement, and open the furnace, where I find a perfectly healthy and alive Pollyanna Bartolotti. She’s freaking out and confused. Now I know why they call it the Phornax. It’s a pun. I’ve seen this movie before, though. They don’t come back right. If I’m not careful, I could spend the next eighty minutes running for my life from evil zombies—except we don’t call them zombies. She definitely doesn’t act like one. She’s coherent, and everything. I explain to her what little I know, just hoping she doesn’t suddenly jump up and try to eat my face. She eventually starts begging me to do the same thing for her husband. But he’s been cremated already, I remember, so I don’t know if it’s possible. Still, it can’t hurt to try. She gives me a key to her apartment, so I can steal the urn, and come back to give it a shot. I’m surprised to find it works. It actually works. The damn thing must indeed cremate the body first, and then spend the rest of the time reconstituting the cremains. He’s just as pleasant and grateful as she was. I wait for them to turn evil over the next six months, but they never do. So now I’m no longer in the death business. I’m in the phoenix business. Come on in. Let’s see what we can do for your late grandmother.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Microstory 1736: River

For years, Po believed himself to be the only one of his kind in the entire world. He didn’t so much believe as it didn’t occur to him to question why that might be. He wandered the lands, enjoying the wilderness around him, and living in harmony with the other animals. He especially liked to live next to a particularly beautiful river. One day, he came across two tiny ground creatures. They were crouched next to each other, munching on the seeds all over the ground. This wasn’t the first time he had encountered these animals, or even the first time he saw two of them at once. For whatever reason, this time gave him pause. He knew that there was more than one tiny ground creature, and that there was more than one other kind of tiny ground creature. There were different flying creatures, and swimming creatures. Many of them looked alike. There seemed to only be one Po. How could that be? Why did everyone else have at least one other companion, but he had only himself? This was the first time he felt sadness, and loneliness. He didn’t care for it. He kept moving, and came across a pack of the large brownish ground creatures. No, not those large brownish ground creatures, but the other ones. There must have been a better way to distinguish them. Po had a name, why did none of the others? They probably did, but he didn’t know how to communicate with them, so there was no way to know who they really were. These...antelope, he thought he would call them, were about the same size as him. They weren’t exactly the same, but they were certainly closer than the medium-sized tree creatures, right? He wasn’t an antelope, but maybe he could start pretending that he was. He got down on all fours, and started trying to live with them. Never before had a creature been afraid of Po, but they showed fear now. They ran away. Or maybe they were just irritated by him, because they could easily tell that he was a faker.

Po continued on, hoping to find a pack of his own. He communed with the big gray floppy-eared creatures. He stood with the pink water-loving sky creatures. He always failed. Some of the animals moved away from him when he approached, while others just ignored him, but they all knew he didn’t belong. His sadness not only stayed with him, but grew larger in his heart. He eventually realized that he had to give up the pursuit. There were no other Pos, or whatever he was meant to be called. It was a name he made up for himself. His first memory was of a creature flying overhead, whose call sounded like that. He never did meet the flyer again, so it seemed fitting that he should steal it. Seeing now that his entire life was meaningless, including his name, Po returned to his favorite spot in the whole world. He stood at the bank of the river, watching the glimmering water race past him. He knelt down to it, hoping to catch one more glimpse of the gorgeous orange swimmer with the big mouth. He saw other pretty swimmers, but not that one. Burdened by his terrible despair, Po stuck his face in the water. He loved feeling it brush up against his cheek. He liked to press his nose against the rocks on the bottom. He normally removed his head when his chest began to hurt, but this time he chose not to. He stayed there, and let the tightness claim his body. With the last bit of his strength, he opened his mouth, letting all of the water in. If there could only be one Po, there might as well be no Pos at all. The river took him away. A moment later, Eridana came by, looking to find a pack of Eridanas like her, but she found no one.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: March 6, 2364

As soon as they made the jump to March 6, 2364—the first single year jump in a long time—Kivi reappeared. The whole time she was gone, they didn’t even remember that she was a person who existed, but as soon as she returned, they remembered everything. “Where the heck have you been?” Mateo asked. “I thought that was over.”
“Sorry,” Kivi replied. “Old habits, I guess. I promise you that it really is over now. I’m here to stay, unless we get separated by more traditional means. Your memories of me should remain intact from now on.”
“We appreciate that,” Leona said. “We can explain what you missed, and why Jeremy is no longer with us.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Kivi said. “I know I was missing, but my brain has false memories of having been here for all of it. I know where he is. Or was, as it were. It looks like we have to have that same ol’ conversation again, though.”
“What we’re gonna do now,” Olimpia guessed. “We can’t seem to figure that one out, can we?”
“I have it figured out,” Ramses said. “Rather, I have an idea.”
“What is it?” Mateo asked.
Ramses pulled the hologram up over the central table, showing a map of interstellar space. “The stellar neighborhood encompasses every system within fifty light years of Earth. Direct missions are responsible for exploring these systems, while Project Stargate takes care of everything beyond the envelope.” He zooms in. “This planet falls within the latter. It’s fifty-six light years away, but since it follows a relatively straight line from Gatewood, the outpost was actually established after only fifty years. The people on that rock have had sixty-four years to develop. It will take us nearly a month for the AOC to get there with the reframe engine, so they’ll have had sixty-five.”
“Wait, there are people there?” Leona asks.
“Yes,” Ramses confirms. “It’s the first world selected for Operation Starseed. According to project data, the people living there are aware of their origins, but they don’t have any details about it. They don’t know their planet of origin was Earth, let alone where it is. They’re barely spaceworthy. Starseed provided them with a level of technology akin to late nineteenth century rural. They have been progressing astonishingly quickly since then.”
“Why..why would we go there?” Angela questioned. “Is there something interesting about it?”
“Like I said,” Ramses began, “they have only recently scratched the surface of celestial firmament. The quantum link that the automators established did so on an asteroid. They’re nowhere near capable of reaching it, yet Gatewood lost contact with it two years ago.”
“It got hit by a meteorite,” Leona assumed. “There are any number of possible explanations for why they’ve lost contact. It doesn’t mean the natives destroyed the equipment.”
“The only other likely explanation would be if the whole solar system was destroyed,” Ramses argued. “Obviously Stargate didn’t just set up one access terminal in one place, and left it at that. There are multiple redundancies, and they all stopped sending data at the exact same time.”
“I can think of a number of other explanations, like a magnetar pulsing too close to the system, or something wrong with the quantum link on Gatewood’s end. Besides, how do you know this? Where are you getting your information?”
“I’ve been communicating with them myself,” Ramses answered.
“Kestral and Ishida? Why?”
“I keep in contact with all of our friends and allies. Loa and I are in the middle of an ongoing game of Polygon. You don’t talk to them?”
“Hmm. No, not regularly,” Leona and Mateo had to admit.
“Oh. Well,” Ramses went on, “I do. Team Keshida asked me if we could look into the lost signal.”
“They asked you?” Leona echoed. “So this is less of an idea of yours, and more of a request from someone we know and trust to have used their resources to exhaust all other possibilities. Why didn’t you just say that?”
“I dunno, I guess I just didn’t frame it that way. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Leona assured him. “I guess we better go. It’s your ship, after all.”
“Whoa, no,” Ramses defended. “I built it, but I built it for you. I’ve never thought of it as mine. I just think we ought to consider doing this, since we have the capability, and we don’t seem to be doing anything else.”
“No, I agree,” Leona said. “I just have one more question. I just...I feel I need to make sure they’ve already tried sending a probe from a nearby quantum terminal, like say, from the next system over.”
“I asked about that. They’ve all gone dark; all the surrounding stars. It’s clearly centered on the one that’s inhabited, so investigating it from the nearest active terminal would take two decades. Reframe engines are fairly difficult to construct, so...”
“No, I know,” Leona interrupted. “I was there when they were invented.” She thought about it a moment more. “What about the people? You said they’re aware that we exist in some form, or another, but what is the protocol for making first contact with them?”
“Keshida has given us authorization to reveal to the locals whatever we need to reveal to complete the mission, which will be ever evolving as we gather new information. We’re even allowed to talk about the reframe engine in order to explain how we arrived so quickly, but they strongly urged us to say nothing about time travel, and time travelers, in general.”
“We’ll probably have to suppress our pattern,” Kivi suggested.
“That’s if you’re even on it with us,” Mateo said.
“I am,” she promised.
“It will take twenty-nine days for the AOC to make the journey. If we keep our cuffs active until then, it will be instantaneous for us.”
“Yeah, let’s do that,” Mateo figured.
The three of them turned to look at the other three members of the team.
“Don’t spend time trying to convince us to back out,” Olimpia asked.
“We’re in,” Angela concurred.
“Absolutely,” Kivi added.
“Okay,” Leona said. “Computer, please run a preflight diagnostics. We’re going interstellar.”
The computer made a chirp of acknowledgement, and later claimed that everything was fine with the ship. They booted it up, and prepared to cover the greatest distance they ever had before using normal means. In order to jump across the galaxy before, they would always link up to a Nexus, or utilize some crazy interversal superpower that Mateo had temporarily. Project Stargate was designed to place quantum terminals at target destinations, but these were not the same thing as Nexa. The facilities housed android bodies, into which travelers were meant to cast their consciousnesses. People this far out might never see true instantaneous travel to and from their worlds. They were still unaware of who was actually building the damn things in the first place, or what criteria they demanded the planets follow for the honor. Perhaps the quantum terminals technically negated the need, even though they weren’t as robust. If the vonearthans could figure out how to stay connected to their wards on their own, the Nexa weren’t necessary in most cases.
“Are we ready?” Leona asked the group. They were all sitting around the table, strapped into their chairs, despite the fact that the vessel was equipped with inertial negators. It was better to be safe than sorry.
“Can I say it?” Mateo asked abashedly.
Leona rolled her eyes. “I can’t stop you from speaking.”
Taking that as a yes, he cleared his throat and leaned back regally. He lifted his hand, and pointed across the table, towards the empty space between Olimpia and Ramses. “Engage.”
Understanding the reference, and taking it as a cue, the AOC first engaged the teleporters, and entered orbit. It didn’t sit there for long before spooling up the engine, and heading on its course.
The team sat there, waiting for the computer to welcome them back, but it never did. Their seat restraints were also still locked over their bodies, even though they should have jumped to the future, and left them behind. They should be sitting on them by this point. “Computer, report,” Leona ordered.
All systems nominal,” it responded.
“How long have we been traveling?” she pressed.
“Two minutes and sixteen seconds, it reported. This wasn’t supposed to be the case. There was already confusion when it came to their pattern and relativistic speeds. Technically, even without the reframe engine, each jump should last about two minutes from their perspective. But that wasn’t how it worked. They still didn’t know why. They did know, however, how to correct for it. If they wanted the jump to feel instantaneous, the Cassidy cuffs were capable of compensating. As long as the destination was within a year reframe time, it ought to feel like nothing. They basically fast forwarded to the jump, and then that jump fast forwarded them past the rest of the interim period.
Leona shook her head. “We should be there by now.” She removed her restraints, and headed for the lower level. “There’s either something wrong with the reframer, or the cuffs.”
Ramses hopped over to follow her down while the rest of them went the opposite direction. There weren’t any windows on the main deck, or in engineering. The only way to see outside was through the observation chamber, which doubled as the airlock. Mateo opened the hatch to let the others in first, but closed it quickly when Olimpia released an ear-bleeding screech, and fell backwards. The last thing Mateo saw was the extremely bright light that was visible while traveling at these high relativistic speeds. Leona called it the doppler glow, and the viewports were meant to dim to prevent this sort of thing from happening, but this safety measure had obviously failed. Something was seriously wrong with this ship. The question was why the diagnostic hadn’t detected it.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” Leona apologized.
Ramses performed the Indian head bobble, to both agree that he didn’t know, and that not knowing was a bad thing.
“Everything is fine with the system, as far as we can tell. We’re moving at sextuple-nines,” she explained as a shorthand for 99.9999% the speed of light. “The reframe engine is on and operating. We’re just not going to the right place. Our current course will take us over 800 light years away. It doesn’t say exactly where we’re going.”
“Why is this happening?” Mateo asked. “Is it Mirage again?”
It wasn’t her,” the computer said surprisingly. “It was me.
“Who was that?” Leona demanded to know.
It’s me, the AOC. We talk all the time. Don’t you recognize my voice?
“I give you orders all the time, and you respond. We have never talked.”
Well...whatever.
“You weren’t programmed with a personality, or with the ability to make your own decisions. We don’t wanna get attached to another AI.”
You didn’t plot a course to Pluoraia,” the AI began to argue. “You asked me to take you to the source of the empty signal. That’s what I’m doing. It’s not because of my so-called personality.
“What is Pluoraia?” Mateo asked.
“The name of the inhabited planet,” Leona answered quickly before redirecting her attention to the AI. “The source is 800 light years away?”
Based on my analysis of the data I’ve received from Gatewood? Yes.
“Is it aliens?” Ramses asked. “It’s aliens, isn’t it?”
“According to every time traveler I have ever met who has been sufficiently far into the future, true aliens do not exist. They’re all vonearthans, or human source variants. Even so, no one should be 800 light years out at this point in history.”
“Bottom line,” Mateo started, “how long will it take for us to get there?”
“Well...” Leona hesitated. “Just another jump. It will be 2366 when we get there, but we’ll have to hang out on the ship for the rest of the day, and I still think we’re going to the wrong place. Even if it is the source, we should investigate the symptoms first.”
I think that’s a waste of time,” the AOC complained.
“I didn’t program you to think,” Ramses fought back.
“I’m ordering you to take us directly to Pluoraia,” Leona shouted.
Very well. I’ll see you in a year.
They jumped.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Extremus: Year 14

If they wanted to avoid a paradox, Omega and Valencia knew that they couldn’t just fly Old Man’s time machine back to Old Man’s time period, and find out what happened to him. They didn’t want to use any ship resources either. Those materials are cataloged in detail, and recorded carefully as they’re used. So they chose to dismantle the shuttle, and build a new one, of a different design. It would still be capable of everything the original was, but be programmed differently enough to prevent anyone from seeing a resemblance, should it ever come to that. It was a long process, but necessary, and almost finished. They didn’t melt any of the metal down, but they reworked it well enough. If they had, they never would have noticed something very small in a hidden compartment. No, it wasn’t even a compartment, but a ventilation pipe that would only find its use when the ship was within a breathable atmosphere.
“What is this?” Omega asks. “It looks important.” It looks like an ink pen, but the slight vibration coming from it suggests that it’s a powered device, probably from a fusion nanoreactor. It’s also somewhat cold; cooler than room temperature anyway. Lastly, taped to it is a note reading PROOF.
Valencia examines it. “Looks like more writing right there, but it’s too small. Can you zoom in?”
“You can’t?” Omega jokes. He takes it back, knowing she doesn’t have the technological upgrades that he does. He zooms into the text. “Model number Zealotry-Castaway-Plaintiff-00256.”
Valencia input the number into the database to see if they would get a hit. “It’s a prezygotic cryopen.”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“Well, there are a number of ways to make a long journey to a distant world. You can be generational, like Extremus. You can be ageless, like the two of us. Or you can store people. That usually means stasis, but it can also mean early developmental cryopreservation.”
“That I am familiar with,” Omega says. He was originally cloned from Saxon Parker in order to stay posted on a modular transgalactic ship for Project Stargate, which would install an outpost in every star system in the galaxy. A secret secondary mission called Operation Starseed was created in order to create life on some of the planets. Omega’s mandate was to maintain one of these modules, making sure the power sources stayed in working order, and the seed plates were not damaged.
“No, yours were different. Yours contained genetic material, which could be configured to generate new life. This pen contains one egg, and one sperm sample. When thawed and activated, they should combine, and begin forming an embryo. As far as I am aware, we only keep fully fertilized embryos in the Bridger Section as a backup plan in case the rest of the ship fails the mission. I’m not sure where this pen came from, but Old Man probably didn’t create it himself. This model number places the patent in the year 2266. It probably came from here. We definitely need to talk to the Captain.”
After bringing this to Halan’s attention, the three of them head for the executive infirmary, where Dr. Holmes is sitting at her desk.
“Ima, what can you tell us about this?” Halan asks her.
She takes the cryopen, and looks over the information that Valencia has pulled from it already. She checks her own computer as well. “It’s one of ours. Why did you take it out?”
“How do you know it’s ours?” Halan asks.
“The serial number found a match. It’s in the Bridger Section with the others.”
“I thought we only had embryos down there,” Valencia repeats herself from earlier.
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Dr. Holmes puns. “We don’t even have only one Bridger Section. We use cleaved embryos, zygotes, prezygotes, eggs, sperm, blood samples, and digital DNA. That’s in addition to our stasis volunteers, the Bridgers themselves, the generational passengers, and even non-breeders, like me.” She doesn’t mention this, but there’s also a probe, which houses a repository of knowledge from both vonearthan and Ansutahan legacies, should all life ultimately be extinguished, so maybe aliens a million years from now can learn about who they were.
“So Old Man took this from wherever it belongs,” Halan begins, “and takes it with him to the recall button destination.”
“I don’t think so,” Omega reasons. “He didn’t wanna go, remember? He probably spent all the time he could trying to figure out how to stop it from spiriting him away, and the rest of the short time available packing survival equipment.”
“Plus, that pen had the word proof taped to it,” Valencia adds. “Someone else took it, and Old Man was bringing it back to prove to us what they did.”
“Bronach Oaksent,” Halan realizes. “He’s the one responsible for the shadow group in our midst. We were operating on the assumption that he was working with Old Man, but maybe that’s not true. This evidence would seem to suggest that they were at odds. He was trying to get back to Extremus so he could show us what Oaksent had done.”
“What does he want, this Oaksent guy?” Dr. Holmes questions.
“An army,” Valencia guesses. She picks the cryopen back up. “If I’m right, this is not the only one missing. He probably took many more, and Old Man could only get one back, or only thought he would need the one. The people Oaksent has on this ship are probably only a fraction of the people at his disposal. With enough time, he could foster an entire race of followers to worship him. We know Old Man built a time machine, and installed it on the Elder Shuttle, but who’s to say that’s the only one.” She waves the pen around like an amateur orchestra conductor. “Get one hundred and forty-seven of these, and you have enough to support your plans for galactic domination. The entire Milky Way could be populated with his people, and we just haven’t met them yet, because they’re from the future, so they know where to hide.”
“This is all speculation,” Halan wants to make sure they know. “We don’t know if Oaksent took the pen, or how many.”
“There’s a way to find out,” Omega interrupts.
“I’m not letting you into the Bridger section,” Halan says. “Assuming he did take the pens, and any other samples, we don’t know what he did with them, or how much time he’s had to do it.”
“Which is why we need more information,” Omega says. “Now it’s more important than ever for Valencia and me to go on our mission.”
Halan was never really all that excited about them doing that. He stands there for a moment, hoping to come to some kind of epiphany. There must be a better way to get the information they need. Or maybe there’s not, because he can’t think of one. “Is the time shuttle ready?”
“That depends,” Valencia says. “Can we survive in it, and go back in time? Do we have enough power to pull that off? Absolutely. The cloak isn’t ready, though.”
“The what?”
“Invisibility cloak,” Omega continues. “It will never be ready. It’s impossible.”
“We’ve seen it done,” Valencia argues. “Historical records show...”
Omega dismissed her future words. “They show that individuals can render themselves invisible by manipulating spacetime, which superimposes everything in the background into the foreground. That does not help us against advanced sensors, which Old Man and Oaksent would definitely have.”
“I can make it work,” Valencia contends. “I just need time to find a way to fool the sensors too, by warping their signals around the shuttle.”
“You don’t think someone on The Shortlist would have figured that out by the time we departed?” The Shortlist is a special council of people who have proven themselves capable of inventing extremely advanced time technology. Whenever someone reaches a certain level of understanding of temporal physics, they’re recruited into the council, so they can join in all decisions about what they’re going to do with said technology. The internal systems of the Extremus are powered by fusion reactors, and propulsion is powered by a matter-antimatter reaction. Both of these are Earthan inventions, and the design of the ship itself is Ansutahan, but just about everything else they use here was sourced from someone on the Shortlist. The reframe engine, anti-gravity, local teleportation, even the life support system, are all major examples.
Valencia shakes her head. “No one has ever tried to work on that, because Earth doesn’t have any space enemies!”
“It’s not just for enemies. Such a cloak would allow time travelers to move about freely without fear of being caught, and disrupting the spacetime continuum. Where have I heard of that before? Oh, that’s right, that’s what we’re trying to do! You think we’re the first people who want to go back in time without anyone being able to see us?”
She’s still shaking her head. “With a shuttle like the one we have, against people who are paranoid about something like that happening? Maybe we are the first.”
“It can’t be done,” Omega insists. “There is no stealth in space. There never has been, and there never will be. Everything gives off heat, and you have to do something with that heat.”
“Why don’t you just shunt it to another dimension?” Dr. Holmes offers.
“That’s what I said,” Valencia agrees.
“Okay,” Omega begins to admit. “I’ll concede that that is a viable option for regular time travelers. But like I said, Old Man knows about parallel dimensions. We can’t be sure he hasn’t built them a dimensional energy detector. It’s not that hard. I saw whispers of the idea in his notes. At least that’s the conclusion I came to when I translated certain parts of his notes.”
“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” Valencia says. “We’re better off trying.”
Now Omega shakes his head. “An invisibility cloak detector would sense our proximity if it’s on, even if we’re also hiding behind an asteroid. It’s much safer to assume they can see us, and use traditional methods of avoiding detection.”
“Wait,” Captain Yenant finally interjects. “I just realized something.”
“What?”
“The shuttle is a time machine, right?” Halan states the obvious.
Omega squints, suspicious of him. “Where are you going with this?”
“If you left in a year, you could still go back to 2272, and the power requirements will increase negligibly, correct?”
“Of course,” Omega says, “but the longer we wait to embark on the mission, the probability that something will interfere with our ability to finally get around to it goes up. You might decide to wait until next week to buy yourself a bike helmet, knowing that the cycling store will still exist when the day comes, but what if you get hit by a bus the next day? You will wish you had gone to the store today.”
“I’m willing to risk it,” Halan determines. “Keep working on the space cloak. You have one year. If you haven’t succeeded by then, you’ll do without it. I don’t want to take away your chance of keeping this a secret.” He turns away.
“This is a mistake,” Omega complains.
“Then we’ll go back in time and undo it,” he sort of jokes.
“Where are you going?” Omega asks.
“To the Bridger section. I’m going to count the cryopens myself.”

Friday, October 15, 2021

Microstory 1735: Foals

There once was a man named Albany Foals, who came from a distant land in search of someone to love. He was a charming and nice man, who everyone liked to be around. Women from his country would come to him every day, hoping to give him their hand in marriage. People loving him was not the problem. He didn’t love them back, and he was beginning to believe he was never going to. After exhausting the list of potential soulmates, he decided to leave, hoping to find someone worthy of his affection elsewhere. He traveled many miles, across rivers, around mountains, and through prairies. The more he walked, the happier he became, but it wasn’t the walking; it was the distance. He was farther from people he had ever been before, and this was providing him with relief. Excited at the prospect of living like this forever, Albany settled down in a field, and began to build a magnificent shelter to call his own. He would live off the land from now on, and not worry about finding someone to love. Before he was finished, though, he grew lonely. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps he really did need to find someone to love, and his contentment at being alone was more about being away from the people he had grown to despise. Still, he couldn’t be sure, so he finished the shelter, and lived there for a short while. Once the loneliness overwhelmed him, he walked away, leaving behind a note for any other travelers that the house was free for their use. He continued in the same direction as before, eventually ending up in a new country. They welcomed him warmly, and he started to regain his confidence. This might actually work out. Surely there was someone here who could make him feel as joyful as he saw others who had found their own husbands and wives.

Unfortunately, Albany experienced the same thing in this country as he had in his own. No one was evil, nor repulsive, nor even all that incompatible. There was just no spark. His heart didn’t beat faster upon approach. He did not dream about spending the rest of their lives together. Many women would have been a fine choice, but none of them would have been perfect, and this saddened him greatly. Disappointed in his perceived failure, he turned around, and set out on the path towards the house he had built for himself. Hopefully no one would have taken it by now. It had been years, but it was remote, and moderately hard to find, so he could get lucky. As he walked, however, he started to get an idea. Wouldn’t it be great if someone did turn out to have taken the house, and that she was his one true love? Maybe that was the story here. Maybe he was destined to go through all this turmoil so he could find what he was looking for only after giving up on it. She would be kind and quiet. She would be able to take care of herself, but like to be doted upon anyway. Ah, no, this wouldn’t happen. Marauders took his house, and picked it clean. Vandals dirtied the walls, and ripped up the floorboards. This was not a love story, he figured. He wasn’t that lucky. He arrived to find someone was indeed living in the house, and it wasn’t who he expected. It wasn’t a human at all, but a horse. He was short and young, with thin legs, and fearful eyes. He didn’t run from Albany, but he was clearly apprehensive and concerned. Albany named his new little horse Griseo, and began to take care of him. They lived together in that house, never bothering to interact with any other humans again. Albany did find love. It wasn’t the kind he was looking for. But it was exactly the kind he needed.