Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Microstory 897: Wrong Guy

Depending on how you look at it, I was either in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the right place at the right time. I’ve always been a curious fellow, and fairly observant, but not particularly brave. Mine was one of the last cities to still have payphones, and I happened to be waiting for one when a man was inside of it, having a very heated conversation. I wouldn’t have been there if my phone’s battery hadn’t died, and I didn’t need to alert my daughter that I would be late that night. The man was trying to keep his voice down, but when people are angry, they’re known for having trouble controlling themselves. I could pick out a few good sentences when his back was turned to me. Unless he was acting, or just joking around, he had just kidnapped someone, and was demanding payment for it. My assumption was that I was on some prank show, be it a new one, a revived old series, or as part of a crappy attempt at online video superstardom. It seemed too risky to just ignore the possibility, however, that it was all real, and simply go about my business. As soon as he got out of the phone booth, he started speedwalking down the street, so if I had stopped to call the police, he would have gotten away. Besides, I thought, if he really is ransoming someone, the cops probably already know about it. So, like the right fool I am, I started following him all sneaky-like. He never caught on to my pursuit, and he led me right to his secret lair, where he was keeping a young boy tied up in a chair. I didn’t see anyone else around, so when the kidnapper was in the bathroom, I raced to undo the kid’s ropes, and carried him out.

My instinct was to get as far from the area as fast as possible, even if that meant going away from a phone I could use to call for help. I was right to not stop, because the kidnapper came out soon thereafter, and started chasing us. I noticed a woman leave her car running as she went up to a building to deliver flowers, so I stole her car, and drove off. I asked the boy where he lived, and he gave me the name of a small town that was thirty miles away. Clever, taking him so far away that the cops aren’t even looking in the right place. Worried that the man would have a car of his own, I didn’t stop driving until we were safely out of the city. We stopped at a diner, and I let him out so we could borrow a phone, which was just another dumb thing I did. Had I walked in there alone, no one would have paid attention, but everyone by then had received the Amber Alert. They were just sitting there, staring at us, like a scene out of Vanilla Sky. I tried to reason with them, and claim that I was the rescuer, not the kidnapper, but no one believed me. I tried to just leave the kid there, and let those people deal with it, but he refused. He must have developed an attachment in our short time together. Anyway, we got back on the road to strategize how I could clear my name, knowing full well that my picture would soon be part of the Amber Alert too. The cops set up roadblocks, and chased after us, and honestly, I thought it would only end in my death. But then the bombs went off, and none of that mattered anymore. Amid the chaos, I finally got us back to the kid’s hometown, but his parents were nowhere to be found. We’ve been traveling the country together ever since, just trying to survive, like everybody else. So that’s our story. How did you guys meet?

Monday, July 30, 2018

Microstory 896: No Small Parts

Our only saving grace when the aliens came to take over our planet was that they severely underestimated our will to fight back. They didn’t send enough ships at first, and while they were able to enslave a good chunk of the population, they left the rest of us enough time to learn their ways, and come up with countermeasures. What we discovered was that once an individual was being controlled by one of the aliens, their minds could never be saved. Even if you killed the alien that was controlling them, they would just continue doing whatever their last order was; whether that meant walking in one direction without stopping, or shooting at other humans. We were forced to start killing our own kind, and I tell you, I do not envy the people responsible for that front. A team of brilliant scientists managed to capture some of the invaders, along with the humans they had enthralled. They spent months studying the permanent neural link between them, and could find no way of severing that connection. Then one woman showed us the way, but not because she somehow knew how to stop the aliens, but because was already a visionary before this all began. She was what one would call a transhumanist. She believed that man should shed his biological limitations, and “upgrade” to more advanced systems. While her achievements were remarkable, before the war started, they were also illegal in most jurisdictions. She had to conduct her experiments in secret, using a handful of extremely willing volunteers, as well as herself as guinea pigs. She realized that she and her people were incapable of being influenced by the alien mind control, if only to some degree. Simple math proved that the higher the number of upgrades one possessed, the easier it was for them to resist the control. That was our solution, but that doesn’t mean it would be easy, or quick.

Humans evolved to be what we are today due to a series of happy accidents, and genetic traits that mostly only passed down because they just happened to support the species’ ability to survive. All of our organs function automatically, so that we don’t have to concentrate on each process all the time. We feel pain to alert the brain that something is wrong. We form clots to patch wounds. We are simply not designed for modern medicine, which is why every major biomedical breakthrough has come after years of finding ways to trick the body into accepting aid. Just as it’s possible to transplant certain organs, under certain conditions, from one individual to the next, it’s possible to install nonbiological components. But this requires a lot of time, because the body always needs to adjust to the foreign object. It’s primed to reject it; because it could be a threat to the body’s survival, which means people can’t be upgraded all at once. The scientists began the process of upgrading as many people as they could, as fast as they could, but it was proving to not be enough. Finally I had to come out of the shadows. You see, transhumanists weren’t the only ones immune to alien control. Since I only had a sample size of myself, I had to guess, but I suspected the reason aliens couldn’t break my mind was because that mind is not what they expected. When I was in college, I was diagnosed with autism, which is a medical condition every single person I met told me was a disadvantage; something that we must try to correct. It took me a long time to get over the stigma, and to realize that I was not diseased; I was just different. Even before all this happened, if I could have flipped a switch, and stopped being autistic, I wouldn’t have, because it’s a part of me, and it’s made me the kind of person I am today. And the kind of person I am is one with the natural inclination to help and protect people. I didn’t need to replace my body with the upgrades, so I knew it was my obligation defend those who did need that. My latest assignment is to protect the princess, and she is proving to be a handful, but I’m honored to do it, because we have to win this war. We just have to.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Advancement of Leona Matic: September 13, 2190

Vitalie admitted with no shame that she chose to print the teleporter gun in 2188, against the group’s wishes, almost as soon as they had downloaded the plans for it. She had snuck into an empty unit in another wing to use the synthesizer in secret, then she hid it in the same cabinet where she ended up stuffing Hogarth. They fought about it as much as they could after Hogarth used the gun to completely dismantle Harrison’s substrate, but they were forced to move on to more pressing matters. Harrison’s systems were still partially online, since parts of his neural network still maintained a level of cohesion. Leona and Hogarth discovered that he wasn’t transmitting any data, but also that he was supposed to. There was no telling when Ulinthra was going to send someone after him to figure out why he wasn’t checking in. They had to figure out what they were going to do with him.
They took this opportunity to hide Hogarth away permanently in this arc’s secret floor, which they found to be at the bottom of tower 4. They instructed her to do absolutely nothing with her days, except watch TV, read, and eat. She was not to invent any new machines, or study the teleporter gun, or anything. If they were going to be able to use her as a secret weapon, they needed to bide their time. That was the reasoning behind waiting on the teleporter gun in the first place, and Vitalie’s failure to recognize could be their ultimate demise. By the time Leona and Ecrin returned from dropping her off, Brooke and Vitalie were nearly finished cleaning up the mess of android body parts, and consolidating them to a pile. Leona scanned each scrap to make sure they would not be any further threat to them. Then she hacked into his central processing unit, and storage units, to erase all data entirely. Ulinthra was going to have to find out what they had done at some point, but there were details they didn’t want getting out.
They waited all day for retaliation, but nothing came. If Ulinthra and her people knew that Harrison had been destroyed, they weren’t showing it. And if they didn’t know, then why not? Brooke crawled into her stasis pod just before midnight, while the other three crawled into their respective beds. They woke up the next year to still no reaction. This was making them nervous. Perhaps Ulinthra was biding her time as well, and letting the four of them stew in their guilt, and dread their consequences. Or maybe Harrison just wasn’t as important to her as they thought. While none of them was qualified to diagnose mental disorders—certainly not from only a handful of interactions—she did show all the signs of a psychopath, and if this was true, relationships would be difficult for her. Leona had the recollection of a timeline where Ulinthra was happily married to two lovely men, though. She was violet and dangerous in that reality, but not psychopathic. Was she the same person here, or different?
Leona couldn’t eat anything for breakfast. The others were okay, especially Vitalie, who was not at all apologetic for what she had done. Leona wanted to argue with her more about it, but also not really. Harrison in this reality was not the same one she met those years ago. Hell, he didn’t even look the same, but she still felt a sense of loss at his destruction. And there was still that fear for what was going to happen to them because of it. Vitalie asked her if she wanted to go ahead and make the call, but Leona decided against it. One of the biggest flaws in their plan was that Ulinthra could eventually catch onto it. If her Round Twos were too significantly different than her Round Ones, she would start to wonder why. In order to maintain the facade, they had to occasionally act like they were as powerless as anyone else. Today was a perfect chance to do that, because Ulinthra had to hear straight from them what had happened to Harrison, even if that meant hearing it for the second time.
Leona suddenly jumped up from the table, and opened the closet door. She pulled out the hover sled that the workers had left in case they wanted to rearrange Brooke’s pod. She dragged the blanket wrapped around Harrison’s body parts onto the sled, and started to leave. “Go about your business,” she said before closing the door. “I’m doing this one alone. No pennies today.” She clipped the sled’s proximity fob to her pants, and walked out of the unit before anyone could argue.
“Let her through,” Leona could hear Ulinthra order her personal guardsmen through the radio once she had made to the lion’s den.
Leona walked in and raised the sled high enough to drop it down on Ulinthra’s desk. “Do you know what this is?”
Ulinthra stared at the blanket. “You showed it to me the first time I lived through this day.”
“So I don’t need to explain what happened to him.”
“I would like to hear it again. Let’s call it...self-corroboration.”
Leona was going to be as honest as possible, while leaving out any unnecessary information, like the fact that a genius named Hogarth Pudeyonavic had suddenly showed up in their unit through an explosion, or that she was the one who had killed Harrison. “The real Harrison would never have taken his duties to you this far. This thing on your table was an imposter, and he was a problem. I believe I did you a favor. The other Harrison would have just left, like he did before. This one would have turned on you. You dishonored the real Harrison by giving this one the same name, and it sickened me. So I killed him.”
“Non-food synthesizers are lined with a special coating on the glass that prevent external light from interfering with their sensors. This allows you to watch extraordinarily detailed objects being printed without affecting the instruments with minute changes in their environment.” This was not an entirely accurate explanation, but these high-level 3D printers were indeed built with special glass.
“Seems excessive, but okay...”
“When Fake!Harrison tried to teleport one of us to...wherever it is he would send someone, I held up a printer plate. The beam that reflected back at him was unstable, because it’s not really designed to do that. It teleported parts of him, to different places. We’re not sure where all of him is. This is just the bulk. I know we’ll be punished, but I am confident that it was worth it.” She started walking away.
“You overestimate how much he mattered to be,” Ulinthra shrugged. “He was just a toaster.”
Leona looked back over her shoulder. “You and I both know that’s not true. He was the only person in the world who knew exactly who you were, but still didn’t leave.”
“I thought you said he would eventually turn on me.”
“He would have, because everyone does. But in every reality where it’s happened, you never believe it until it happens.”
“You act like you know more about the continuum than I do. I’m the one who had her brain blended to a hundred and one percent.”
“That’s true, and it’s true that I didn’t even know that was possible. But I don’t have to know every version of you to know you. You’re gonna lose. You’re gonna lose everything.” Leona tried to leave again.
“How should I punish you? I may not have cared much for Harrison, but he was still my property.”
“I would be devastated if you killed yourself,” Leona lied unconvincingly.
This made Ulinthra grin. “I’ll think of something.”
Leona took a walk on the platform to clear her head, stopping only to grab some altitude gum. When she got back to their arcunit a couple hours later, her friends were all in the middle of naps, including Brooke. Leona was about to lie down next to her and get some depression sleep in too, but Ulinthra’s voice came on the arcwide system.
“Residents of Panama Arc Two, a few of you have decided to take it upon themselves to defy the Arianation. They have murdered a loyal supporter of mine; someone who has been with me since the beginning. But I am unable to punish them, so I have no choice but to punish you. Please direct your attention to the nearest viewscreen.”
“Everyone out of their room!” Leona ordered.
They came hustling out so they could watch together on the main screen in the living area. A drone was delivering a live stream of one of the hanging towers.
“Is that...?” Vitalie asked.
“The tower that Hogarth is in? It is, yes,” Leona confirmed.
“This is what happens when you can’t listen,” Ulinthra said through the speakers.
They watched in horror as a military drone slid into frame, and pointed its weapons at the base of the tower, which was attached to the platform. It was only a few dozen stories tall, which meant the bottom floor was still hundreds of meters up in the air. The drone fired its weapons at the base until it was enough to sever the tower’s connection to the platform. The streaming drone tilted its camera down so everyone could see thousands upon thousands of people fall hopelessly to their deaths. But then something happened. A massive portal opened on the ground below the tower, and swallowed it up. Where did they go, and who was responsible for taking them?

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Fervor: Clinica Titanica (Part IV)

Famous female explorer, Ida Reyer, shaken from having thought she was gonna lose her precious Compass of Disturbance—which I had a feeling was more powerful than we could imagine—left the apartment, looking for an exit portal to somewhere quiet where she could make sure it was okay. Hogarth offered to take a look at it for her, convinced that what happened to her before was not going to happen again, but Ida was not so confident. She wasn’t really a part of this, and she felt she needed to get away from all of us as soon as possible. That’s understandable. Meanwhile, Hogarth was busy with her own situation anyway. She needed to have a good long conversation with Hilde, away from everyone else. I could hear them raise their voices every once in awhile from the other room, but it never seemed to get too heated. From what I gathered, Hogarth had just spent some time in the future, and in fact multiple points in time. Whatever the compass had done to her, it continued to have an impact on her relationship with the timestream, forcing her to jump around aimlessly. Since this involved Hilde, and people Hilde knew, Hogarth couldn’t say too much about what was going to happen to them, which must have been frustrating.
I asked Leona how she felt about all this, since she too could be seen on the other side of the portal that FarFuture!Hogarth opened. Leona just shrugged, revealing that it wasn’t the first time she’d encountered something like that. “Avoid alternate versions of herself,” she said. “Rule number four.” I also learned from her that she had created a whole list of time traveling etiquette, which were apparently in use amongst people like her throughout time and space. She typed up a copy of the list for me so I could keep it for reference. We spent our time last night looking through the Book of Hogarth. I’m no scientist, so I was having trouble understanding it, but she is, so she should have at least had some semblance of what it all meant. She admitted to being lost with it, though.  We worked on it for hours, looking for any clue as to how to decipher it, but anything she could interpret as meaningful was also somehow over her head. There was some pretty high level multidimensional math going on in there, whatever that was. As Slipstream was ordering me to go to bed, since I’m still a little baby, Leona appeared to be experiencing some revelation about the book that I was not given the opportunity to hear until the morning.
“Time,” Leona says simply over breakfast.
“Yes, it’s weirder than we thought,” Slipstream responds. “What about it?”
“That’s exactly right,” Leona continues. “Time isn’t linear. Make a mistake? Go back and fix it. Want to see what your great grandparents looked like when they were children? Easy. Need more time? Well,  that can be done too. But there’s one thing about time that can’t be manipulated, despite the fact that time and thought seem to enjoy a particularly close relationship.”
“What’s that?” Hogarth asks as the one person there who could truly follow Leona’s logic.
“Learning,” Leona says. “Learning still takes time. You have to practice, and reinforce, and you have to be patient.” She holds up the book. “This thing doesn’t just give you secrets. You have to earn the right to understand them, and that takes real time. It changes. Not before your eyes, but I’ve looked at a page, flipped to the next one, and then flipped back, to find it different. I still don’t understand it, but it’s changed. It’s adapting to my level as a reader, and scholar.”
“So only smart people have any hope of figuring that thing out completely?” Hilde supposes. “I guess I’m out.”
“No, it doesn’t take intelligence. It takes time. Yes, Hogarth and I may need less time, but that goes for anything.”
“How much time do you need to identify what we’re meant to do with the book in the first place?”
“That’s impossible to say,” Leona tells her while preparing to take a drink from her juice, “as I’m sure you surmised before I even answered that question.”
“All right,” Slipstream says. “I’m still not sure what we’re here to accomplish at all, so I guess take the time you need. My main job is to take care of Paige until her fathers come back.”
“No, it’s not,” I argue calmly. “Mireille was my babysitter. You just stumbled upon this.”
“No, that woman said I was placed here to be on the team, or whatever. And...”
“And what?”
“And she wasn’t the only one. Someone I trust implicitly encouraged me to help with this,” Slipstream says vaguely.
“What exactly did they tell you?”
Slipstream looks between me and the book. “He said to turn to the next page in the book of my life. I didn’t emphasize those words; he did. It was a clue.”
“That could mean anything,” Hogarth points out.
“It means this,” Slipstream begins. “We’ve all been asked here to stop some virus. We were asked to do this by the future version of the woman who is apparently responsible for it, in this weird 12 Monkeys sort of situation. I don’t know what this book can do for us, but I know I have to help. Not all of you know who I am, of what I’ve done. But I hesitated when I was asked to help rid this city of gun violence. I didn’t see the vision right away, and I actually charged for my services. I regret every roadblock I put up that stunted the effort, because I think Kansas City is better for having achieved what it did. My experiences over the last several years have taught me that when something needs to be done, you have to assume that no one else is going to do it. We’ve been putting one thing off throughout this whole thing, and I think that’s a mistake.”
“What have we been putting off?” I ask.
“We need to find out who the present day Jesimoo—uhh, help me out here.”
“Jesimula Utkin,” Hogarth says.
“Right, her. We need to do recon on her. Who is she? Where is she now? Is she already in the process of releasing this virus? Has she already released it?”
By the time she finishes her sentence, I’ve already pulled out my phone and run a simple Google search. “Jesimula Utkin,” I start. “Founder of CEO of J.U. Mithra Labs. It’s a small pharmaceutical research outfit, based in Independence, Missouri.”
“Oh, God,” Hilde says. “Not Independence.”
“What’s wrong with Independence?” I ask, not having grown up around here.
“Don’t worry about it,” Slipstream says, shaking her head.
“Well, either way it’s about a half hour away,” I say, having mapped it.
“Okay.” Slipstream stands up. “I’m leaving in thirty minutes. Anyone can come help...except for Paige.”
“Ha,” I scoff. “Your friend told you to turn the page. I’m the Paige Turner. He never said anything about leaving me behind.”
“You’re a child.”
“I’m sixty-six years old.”
“Paige,” Slipstream scolds me.
“Fine, I’m fourteen, but—”
“She’s coming,” Leona said, inexplicably my advocate. “I’ve been doing this a long time. If someone as powerful as Jesimula Utkin wants her to be involved, she’ll be involved. Things get worse when you resist. If you leave her here, she’ll end up somewhere we don’t want. So keep her close.”
Slipstream continues to doubt, but is on her way to changing. “It’s just recon,” I remind her.
“I guess you wouldn’t be the first VIP I’ve been charged to protect. Twenty-nine minutes.”
We pull into town an hour later with no plan. We park in a grocery store lot next to J.U. Mithra Labs, and sit there. When I ask what we’re waiting for, Slipstream reminds me that we’re just doing recon. I think we should go in and check it out, but Leona is hard at work, studying the history of the company. While they do conduct clinical trials, they don’t just take anyone off the street. You have to apply online, and that’s only after first being approached by one of their representatives, usually at a career fair. It’s all very secretive. If one of us walks in there, they will not be doing so with very good reason, and will immediately come off as suspicious. I get antsy after hours of waiting, though, so if no one is going to actually do anything, then I guess I have to. That’s what Slipstream just taught us with her big speech in which she came this close to acknowledging the title the newspaper gave her: Champion of Kansas City.
I’m sitting in the middle seat, so I can’t just slip out, but I can lie about having to go to the bathroom in the store again. I try to sneak out the back exit as soon as I get in there, but then I start thinking about how people like me in movies always use the bathroom excuse, yet rarely do those same people ever actually have to pee. They spend the rest of the film running around in their adventure, but never do they have to stop for real. It’s an innocuous thought that should have been fleeting, but it manages to make me have to pee, so I turn around and take care of that first.
Hilde is waiting for me when I finally do make it to through the door. “I saw what you were going to do,” she says with a smirk. “I realized I had to go soon after you left, so I wasn’t stalking you, or anything.”
I look around. “Why didn’t you call the others?”
She looks around too. “Why would I do that? Five people walk into a clinic and ask for directions, and the receptionist finds it strange that half of them didn’t just stay in the car, so they get arrested. Two people walk in asking for directions, and it seems normal.”
“You’re helping me?”
“I’m the next youngest one here. I know what it’s like. Let’s go, before they close.”
We cautiously cross the void between the store, and the laboratory. I think about rolling on the ground like a secret agent, but it’s not necessary, and I know I’ll regret it later.
We walk into the building just as the receptionist is leaving. “Uh, can I help you?” he asks us in a fake chipper voice.
“We were just looking for the interstate.”
“I can tell you how to get there. We should go, though.”
A voice comes on the intercom, “this is your final warning. All nonessential personnel, please exit the building.
“We really do need to leave,” the receptionist says. “They’ll be locking the doors.”
Departure imminent,” the voice says.
The receptionist suddenly stiffens up, and his eyes glaze over. “I must go,” he says in an even more robotic voice. He does an about-face turn, and leaves, as do a couple other people who appear to be in their own trances. We hear the doors click locked behind them.”
Departure in thirty seconds,” the voice announces.
“What does that mean?” I ask Hilde, but of course she doesn’t know.
“Get me in this building!” Slipstream shouts at Leona and Hogarth from outside. They either saw us come in here, or started getting worried. The two geniuses have opened up the security console, and are trying to unlock the doors. Sparks fly out of it, and knock them back.
Initiating memory field,” the voice announces. Light radiates from the walls of the building itself, and spreads out. As it covers my three friends, they act drunk and confused, and stagger towards the parking lot.
Prepare for departure,” the voice says finally. The space outside the building warps as my friends instinctively stumble back away from it. But then they start walking towards it again, quickly going right back to where they were. Then they suddenly leave, walking backwards. The few workers who just left come back in, also rapidly walking backwards, but they’re not really inside. They’re just briefly occupying the same space as we are. We’re not going back in time so much as time is reversing, and it’s doing so faster and faster. We watch traffic moving backwards, days being unlived, and buildings being unbuilt. Weeks become months, become years, become decades, become centuries. The city disappears, and we’re left in the middle of nowhere.
Reintegration imminent,” the voice informs us.
We stop, at some point in the past, before the area was settled.
“Titan,” I whisper, because soon after I was transported from my original time period of 1971 to 2023, I started immersing myself in as much time travel fiction as I could find.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Microstory 895: Three Speed, Part 2

...And now the conclusion

While I don’t have any flight training, since the plane I’m stealing is already running, I manage to figure out the basics before anyone has a chance to stop me. Despite the shouts of anger from what must be the pilot, I get it going down the runway, and up into the air. Using the plane’s radio, I also figure out how to get ahold of my mechanic coworker, who says she know a perfect place in the mountains to let the bomb wrapped around my neck go off, and that she’ll meet me there. As I’m flying to my potential salvation, though, I start doubting this whole plan. The guy I put on the hitlist is an outlier, and the only one of his kind. I can’t damn anyone else to this; not when I have a choice. Like I’ve said, my life doesn’t mean anything, so maybe it’s best if I end it now. I decide to find a nice safe spot away from people to fly in a holding pattern, and let the clock run out, satisfied with my decision, but the next two hours comes up, and nothing happens. Was the guy lying, or am I out of range all the way up here? Maybe he never expected me to find an aircraft. I might survive this yet. I circle the place where my friend wants me to land, and take some time to read through the flight manual. The landing procedures sound intuitive, but this isn’t something I can just try out; not when there’s now a chance to get out of this pickle. By the time I land—in fine fashion, if I do say so myself—yet another two hours comes and goes, and still no explosion.

Not willing to taking more of a risk than I have to, I keep jogging, all the way into what looks like a gold mine, or something. My mechanic is already waiting for me there with her tools. She takes some time to inspect the device around my neck before agreeing that we really are out of range, and the terrorist who did this must have intended to stay close enough to me, because he hadn’t programmed a distance failsafe. He had, however, installed an anti-tampering feature, which meant it would explode as soon as she got if off. She determines that she can freeze it, and give us a buffer of up to three seconds. That doesn’t sound like enough time to me, but she promises that her plan will work. She takes out a can of dusting air, and sprays it onto the choker, then she quickly breaks the clasp, and tosses the bomb into another room. She isn’t able to close the blast doors all the way, but it’s enough to protect us. It was over, or so I thought. A man suddenly appears out of nowhere and snaps a different choker around my friend’s neck. “Congratulations on being the only one who managed to get this thing removed.” He hands me a gun, a choker bomb, and a detonator. “Now it’s your turn. I tell you the same thing I tell everyone. You have one day to find the man you put on the hitlist. Put the bomb around his neck, and give him the same instructions you were first given. If he dies, she lives, and so do you. Or you can kill him right away, along with yourself, and end the cycle of violence forever. You choose.” I don’t hesitate to shoot the man in the head. Then I grab the can of air and tell my friend to walk me through how to get her choker off.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Microstory 894: Three Speed, Part 1

Something about me must have just screamed easy target, because I can’t understand why I would have otherwise been chosen. I keep a pretty low profile, so I couldn’t have any enemies. My first thought is that it’s a case of mistaken identity, but the guy clearly knows exactly who I am, which means it just doesn’t make any sense. I’m not an important person, and I’m not white, so it’s not like the news was gonna cover my story. Sorry, not sorry, I didn’t make the world the way it is. I’m just some random guy who works at the county recycling center. I don’t even own a car, which is why he found me riding my wee little three-speed bike along the old highway. He pulls up next to me in a cargo van, and it looks like he’s alone. He immediately points a gun at my chest, but says he doesn’t want my money when I offer him a tenner. He just orders me to put this weird-looking choker necklace around my neck. It’s not really my style, but I can’t think of much of a reason to not comply. As soon as it’s fully clasped, he relaxes and smiles with relief. After a moment, he catches his breath, and shows me this little remote, saying that it’s a detonator set to trigger the bomb around my neck if I don’t do what he says. Apparently having seen an overrated action film franchise from the 1990s, he says that the bomb will go off if I don’t keep moving, or if I don’t add the name of another one of my friends to his hitlist every two minutes. When I point out how absurd that is; that I couldn’t conceivably keep up with that kind of timeline, he clears his throat and contends that he said hours, not minutes. That’s doable, not because I’m willing to send one of my friends to their death, but because I’m confident I’ll be able to get this thing off before that will matter. He gives me a minute to retie my shoes, and stretch a little, before he activates the timer. He then hands me a PDA where I’m meant to list my doomed friends. I get back on my bike, and turn around to head for the recycling center.

One of my coworkers is a mechanic by trade with an engineer for a mother, so surely she can help. I try to call her on my phone, but I can’t get a signal, even as I’m riding directly underneath what I know for a fact to be a fully operational cell tower. The choker necklace must have its only blocker. Only later do I realize why the guy who’s doing this to me looked so familiar. I met him at a party once. He was my neighbor’s friend, and seemed totally normal. What the hell is going on? I pedal faster as my two hours approaches, but hit a pothole, and bust open both of my tires. There’s no way I’m making it back to work now. I know someone who everyone thinks is my friend, but I secretly hate. If I have to choose anyone to die, and if it means I and everyone else survives, then it might as well be him. It’s a terrible thought, but I would rather it be him than my dentist, or something. I try to jog to get as close to my destination as possible, but it’s pointless. I slow down just enough that I can type out his name without a bunch of spelling mistakes, and beg the flying spaghetti monster for forgiveness. Just when I’m thinking about how I can’t keep this up for much longer, I see the little airstrip I always pass on my way to work. I detour in that direction, and find it surprisingly easy to steal a plane. There is some hope left in the world. I think I can get it to taxi, but takeoff is going to be another issue.

To be continued...

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Microstory 893: Letters to the Shredder

Are you lonely? Separated from your loved ones? Frustrated with your life, but you don’t know how to release your emotions in a healthy manner, with no consequences? Well, introducing Letters to the Shredder. Many studies have shown that the act of writing your feelings down on paper can be cathartic on its own. You don’t even have to send it, and sometimes...you shouldn’t. Tell that special someone how much it disgusts you when they chew with their mouths open, or how ugly you think their favorite outfit is. Or what about that jerk of a boss who makes you clock out, but stay late and help him with a “personal favor”? But don’t send it to them, because that could ruin your relationships. Instead, send it to us, and we’ll destroy it for you. Sure, you could try to throw it away yourself, but who wants that risk in their lives? You’ve seen the sitcoms. Someone inevitably finds something they were never meant to see, and hilarity ensues. But reading someone else’s mail is a federal offense. So go ahead and write down how you really feel, and we’ll take care of it for you. All of our highly trained shredding professionals are legally blind, and couldn’t read your letters, even if they wanted to. We promise to not even open the envelope. Each letter is collected by a team of specialists, and goes straight from the mail tub to our locked barrels, where they are quickly dumped by a second team in our state of the art shredding equipment. Seriously, we destroy literally all our mail. We’ve still not decided how to handle mail we’re not meant to shred, like our own electric bills, and general correspondence. I’m pretty sure my daughter’s high school diploma is a pile of confetti right now. Most shredding companies turn your sensitive documents into strips of paper that can be easily reassembled by anyone with an IQ over 210. We turn ours into a fine dust that would be impossible to decipher, so you can be rest assured your angry rants will never see the light of day once you send it to us. So what are you waiting for? Say what you would like to say to someone else, but know you can’t. We’ll make sure your private thoughts both have an escape, but also can’t come back to haunt you.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Microstory 892: And Twins

All through high school, I was in love with two girls at the same time. I now think that I was probably more interested in one over the other, but they were literally never apart from each other, so it was sometimes hard to see them as individuals. For this reason, people started calling them Romy and Michele; nicknames which they never disputed. Eventually, even the teachers started calling them that, and everyone just sort of forgot what their real names were. After I graduated, I didn’t see either of them again. I think they both went to college on the other side of the country, while I pursued a medical career closer to home. While it wasn’t even on my radar when I was in pre-med, I ended up working for one of those companies that analyzes people’s DNA, and gives them reports on their family history, and health profiles. Just out of sheer coincidence, both of their names came across my desk one day. I didn’t recognize their names at first, because like I said, we all called them something different, but then I remembered them. I took note of how random it was that I would be the one to run their saliva samples, then I moved on and completed the tests. One service we provide is giving customers the ability to meet other people that they are related to, however distantly. Usually this is a second cousin, or something, but there have been human interest stories written about estranged immediate family members finding each other through us. This was one such of these cases. I discovered that Romy and Michele were not only related, but sororal twins. I also noticed some strange genetic markers that I didn’t understand, and which didn’t make any sense. I brought over colleagues to look over the data, and they came to the same conclusion; that they didn’t know what the hell this all meant.

Completely outside of company protocol, I contacted the two subjects personally, so we could discuss their situation. Needless to say, they were positively thrilled to learn that they were sisters, but confused about how it was possible. Their parents had never said anything about it. One’s died when she was very young, the other’s mother died a couple years ago, while her father cut ties with her shortly thereafter. The twins decided to hire a private investigator to get to the bottom of this, and they kept me in the loop, but as a friend, rather than their DNA Analyzer, which I presently was not anyway, because I was on unpaid suspension for my breach of confidential information. I’m still waiting to find out if I’ve been let go completely, or what. As it turns out, they were part of some bizarre social experiment. They were clones, yes, and separated at birth, just like that television show, but the mad scientist in charge wasn’t pursuing biomedical knowledge. No, he was looking at the social aspect of twins and siblings. He wanted to find a way to quantify the delicate balance between nature and nurture. Apparently he had done this with hundreds of unwitting mothers. He monitored each one of his subjects, using a vast network of spies to keep track of their movements and behavior. Romy and Michele were the only two who accidentally found each other later. The investigator got her hands on the scientist’s list of subjects, and discovered something that I found even more interesting. I was on it, as was a brother.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Microstory 891: Trinity

You never really know how you’re going to react to a shocking situation until you’re actually faced with it. I’ve always thought of myself as a scaredy cat. I often wake up sharply from bed, already in fight or flight mode, having but a vague memory of hearing some random and innocuous sound outside. I’m afraid of spiders, heights, tight spaces, crowded rooms, flashing lights, and loud noises. Yet when I turned around and found a stranger in my house, having suddenly arrived through no apparent means, I was completely calm. She was smiling at me with her lips closed, as if I were an old friend she hadn’t seen in ten years, but we just ran into each other again at a different location of the same grocery store franchise where we first met as poor college students. I immediately felt comfortable with her too, like I knew she wasn’t there to hurt me. I simply asked if I could help her, but she said that she was there to help me. She told me that we weren’t meant to meet for another two hundred years. I asked her how it was possible we were still alive that far in the future, but she just said everyone is practically immortal by then. That didn’t surprise me at all, since I’m a science fiction writer, and I’ve been studying futurology as part of my research. She claimed that Future!Me had sent her back to change the course of history. Apparently he felt that things had not progressed fast enough, especially not on a personal level. That I did not believe. I write about time travel all the time, which means I’ve gone over dozens of thought experiments. And the conclusion from all of them is that time travel is too dangerous to even try. Anyone who discovers how it works has a moral responsibility to destroy all of their research, and keep it to themselves. Anyway, she told me that a lot had changed in the last two thousand years, and Future!Me felt it was necessary. She was obviously hiding something about it, but I chose not to press it at the time. One thing that was clear to me was that at no point did we engage in any sort of romantic relationship. Our friendship was purely platonic, but she refused to divulge any information about the future of my love life, which was probably the right call.

Evidently her main concern now was that I never got a chance to write as many of the stories as I should have, and the ones I did end up writing weren’t as good as they should have been. That’s all really important to me right now, but I can’t imagine a centuries old version of me maintains the same priorities. Her arrival actually put some things in perspective, and I was considering quitting being a writer altogether. She wouldn’t let me do it, though. Instead, she used cloning technology to create three new bodies for me. One was supposed to go out and travel the world, gaining new experiences, and meeting new people, while the other could stay home and write. I had complete control over both bodies at the same time, which took some getting used to, but eventually became natural. As boring as I may seem, I’m deep down an adventurous person, and the only thing that was keeping me from traveling this much before was my lack of money. She solved that problem by using my third clone as a worker bee. He had my basic personality traits, and many of my memories, but lacked the natural drive I have to be lazy and just not give a crap about what happens to the company. He also never gets tired, so he works two part time jobs in addition to my original full time position. Things were perfect, because now I only ever had to do what I wanted, and I had a lot more money lying around. We had to destroy my old body, because it was fragile and absurd now that the ones I was using were so technologically and biologically advanced, but I didn’t regret it. Not until yesterday. I started noticing that I was seeing her less and less as time went on. She was spending most of her time in a secret lab she only took me to blindfolded a couple times. One day, I decided to follow her, and snuck into the lab. I found it to hold a vast farm of clones, just like I was, but which looked like her. Thousands of them were sleeping—or rather inactive—in pods. She didn’t seem perturbed that I had found what she casually revealed was her personal army. When I questioned why she had to involve me at all, when she could have done this all on her own, she gave me that same gentle smile. “Your daughter was the one who stopped me from trying this before. Now that you’re sterile, I don’t have to worry about her. This planet will finally be mine.”

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Advancement of Leona Matic: September 12, 2189

Paranoid about being caught with the plans for the teleporter gun from Harrison’s hand, the gang decided they would sit on it for at least a couple days. They didn’t even want to print it out in the synthesizer, for fear of it being discovered. They all agreed that it was best to move the files to an external drive, hide it in the recess of one of the bedroom pocket doors, and pretend that nothing had changed. If Ulinthra and Harrison started to suspect what they had done, they needed the evidence of their offense to be as modest as possible.
When they all woke up the next year, their unit was empty of enemy combatants, so they had theoretically gotten away with it, but they couldn’t know for sure. “Brooke, how are we doin’ on bugs?” Leona asked over breakfast.
“We’re secure. I don’t think Ulinthra wants it to be that easy.”
“Or she’s playing the long game,” Ecrin suggested. “Maybe she knows all about the coin, and the gun.”
“Maybe,” Vitalie said. “Maybe not.”
They ate a little more in silence.
Once Leona was finished, she wiped her mouth with her napkin, and set it to the side. “You guys ready for the call?”
“What are you gonna ask her about?” Ecrin stopped Vitalie from interrupting her. “I know it doesn’t matter on a quantum level, but it does on a psychological one. You have to have a good reason to contact her. Otherwise she’s going to start getting suspicious you keep randomly calling her to talk about...I dunno, the Raiders.”
“I’m open to ideas,” Leona said.
“We could use a vacation.” Brooke offered. “Ask her for some time off. I’ve always wanted to check out the West mountains, or even Costa Rica.”
“Any objections?” Leona looked around the table, like the chairman of the board. “Vacation it is.” She called Ulinthra, and tried her hand at a pleasant receptionist’s voice. “Hi, this is Leona Matic. My colleagues and I were wondering if we could, maybe, have a quick break.—Well, we were thinking a Boquete waterfall, or Costa Rica, if you’ll allow it?—Then how about you let us out of the arcology? It’s pretty stifled in here. Since we’re not allowed to enter the virtual worlds, we feel pretty trapped. These units are great for living in the 22nd century, but only when you ha—Right.—That’s true, but—Uhuh.—Yeah, we get it, but aren’t you busy with taking over the world anyway?—I understand.—I understand.—I understand.—Okay, I appreciate your support. Thanks, byeeee.” She hung up. “Flip that penny!” she ordered, trying to keep it light.
Vitalie flipped the penny into the air, but before it could land, a powerful force propelled it towards the side wall, along with everyone else. When Leona recovered from the explosion, she saw a woman crouched on the floor, trying to recover as well.
“Holy hell!” Brooke shouted.
“Are you okay?” Vitalie offered the woman her hand.
The woman accepted it. “I’m okay. I don’t understand why it always has to come with an explosion, though. Just once, I’d like to jump through time and space, and land on my feet.”
“Hogarth?” Ecrin asked.
“Do you know me?” the woman asked back.
“We go way back.” Ecrin started working it out in her head. “This is where you went, when you touched the compass. They told me about that.”
“What’s going on?”
“Leona?” Hogarth squinted. “Is that you?”
“Do you know me?” Leona echoed.
“Yeah, in 2025. You were with a, uhh. Sorry, I’m disoriented. You were with a little girl. I’m a genius, but I can’t remember her name.”
“Was it Brooke?” Brooke guessed.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Hogarth confirmed.
“That already happened,” Brooke reminded Leona. “Why don’t we remember her?”
“Eh, time, right?” Hogarth repeated the company slogan.
“Nah, she’s right,” Leona said. “If you saw Baby Brooke, it’s already happened to us. I remember going back to 2025, but I don’t remember you.”
“There’s a reason for that,” Ecrin said cryptically. “There’s a reason you don’t remember me from that time either. You’re the one who came up with the rules of etiquette for time travel, so I implore you to call upon them now, and not discuss the past.”
Leona could do that. “I can do that.”
“As can I,” Hogarth agreed. “But what year is it?”
“2189,” Brooke answered.
Vitalie was looking at something on the floor. “The year of the tail.”
“It landed on tails,” Vitalie clarified. “We do nothing today.”
“That works, because we’ll need to figure out how this newcomer fits into all of this.” Leona directed her attention back to Hogarth. “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”
“Yes,” Hogarth answered simply.
“Have you ever heard of Ulinthra, or Arianrhod?”
“Arya Toad? I’ve never heard of her. I haven’t heard of the first one either. Is that a band?”
Leona laughed. “No. Ecrin, you vouch for her?”
“Oh, definitely. She’s good people.”
“Then we have to protect her,” Leona declared. “In fact, we have to get her to Kansas City. She’s the only one who can do it, if Ulinthra doesn’t know about her.”
“It’s not hard to escape Panama because Ulinthra knows who we are,” Brooke pointed out. “It’s hard because she’s halted all interarc travel for everyone.”
“We could use the teleporter gun,” Vitalie brought up.
“We’re still not sure if that will work,” Leona argued. “There could be components to that thing that don’t exist in our dimension. Maybe the synthesizer didn’t even pick up on everything.”
“Besides,” Ecrin added, “we agreed to leave that alone for a few days.”
“Right,” Vitalie said.
“A few days for us is a few years to her,” Vitalie reminded them. “What, is she just gonna hide out here all that time, hoping Ulinthra’s people don’t come in to make sure Brooke’s pod is still functioning?”
“If we’re brave enough to use the teleporter gun on her,” Brooke began, “why don’t we just use it on you three as well?”
“Because that would leave you alone,” Leona noted.
“So we’re not leaving you behind. The teleporter gun is so we can banish her somewhere, not so we can escape.”
“I can take care of myself,” Brooke said. “You’re not my surrogate mother anymore.”
“Everyone can die, and Ulinthra likely will kill you. It doesn’t matter whether I’m your surrogate mother, your real mother, or just a friend, I’m. Not. Leaving. You. And like I said, the teleporter gun is dangerous, and we don’t understand it. If something goes wrong, I sure as hell would rather test it on her than anyone in this room.”
“Sorry to interrupt,” Hogarth jumped in. “I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I was a genius. If you need me to take a look at this teleportational technology, I could probably get it working in perfect condition. But why is a year for me shorter for you than it is for me?”
They explained to her what Leona’s pattern was, and how the other three were now, if only essentially, trapped in the same boat.
“That’s not how it was in 2025,” Hogarth said.
“I was given a break so I could take care of Baby Brooke.”
“I’ve always hated that term,” Brooke mumbled.
“You love it.”
“So wadya say?” Hogarth asked. “Why don’t you show me that gun?”
“We just the plans for the gun,” Leona said, “that we can reupload to a synthesizer created by humans who don’t know anything about time travel.”
“That’s why you got me.” Hogarth smiled. “I’m not a chooser, or a salmon. I’m where I am today because I built a transdimensional portal from scratch, based on a brief glimpse of a natural spacetime rift. And I transported an entire town of thirteen hundred people to another planet before they were erased by time.”
Leona walked over to the door, pulled the drive out, and handed it to Hogarth. “Okay. If you do this, you’ll have to go somewhere else. Vitalie is right. We can be fairly certain they’re not listening in on us, but if they come in while we’re gone, and they find you, none of what you do matters. You’ll be locked up, put on my pattern, or killed.”
“I understand,” Hogarth said, taking the drive. “So where should I go?”
“She can live in the 329th floor,” Ecrin said.
“There are only 328.”
Ecrin shook her head. “Not exactly. Each arc was built with one secret floor, in one of the hanging towers, that the original designer could stay in without being disturbed whenever he wanted. I mean, all the towers have something underneath the bottom floor, otherwise you would be able to measure which one was longer than all the others, but they others are used for storage and maintenance. Only one of them has a finished and habitable section that’s about a hundred and seventy square meters.”
“And do you know which one that is?”
“I met him when he was young, and he told me how to read the code he was planning to hide in every arc. But I’ll need to see one of the official wall maps.”
“Wait, he hadn’t even designed them yet? They were just an idea?”
“He’d sketched them out, but no, he was just some high school kid I met when I was undercover for the IAC. I’m from the future, so I knew who he was. I’m confident the room exists. Guy liked to be the smartest man in the room, and thought he was inventing the future for everyone.”
“All right, I guess it can’t hurt to walk down the hall and check one of the maps. Just make it look like you’re looking for a good froyo place, or something.”
“While she’s doing that, Hogarth, would you like to print some new clothes. I can teach you how to use it.”
As Leona was showing Hogarth the machine, Ecrin opened the door to the hallway. Harrison’s voice came from it. “There was a report of an explosion,” he said.
“Really? That’s weird,” Ecrin replied coolly.
Leona silently gestured for Hogarth to stay completely silent.
“I need to come in and take a look,” Harrison urged.
“I don’t think you need to do that.”
Leona mouthed the f-word, and then the word hide. Vitalie stuffed her into the cabinet.
“I really must insist,” Harrison continued as Hogarth was hiding.
Even though Hogarth couldn’t be seen, Harrison’s sensors were too, well...sensitive. Leona needed a good distraction. For much of her life as a scientist, Leona often found herself boring to sleep by reading technical specifications, and searching for interesting hacks. It would seem this model of synthesizer was designed with a catastrophic flaw. The programmers sent out a patch over the air years ago that prevented it from being a further problem, but it was still possible to exploit the error, if one knew what they were doing. Leona had removed the general safeguards two days ago, in order to have the option to build unauthorized objects, like firearms. She hadn’t used it for that yet, but the safety protocols were still down, so the dangerous feedback loop could be triggered manually. She used all of her strength to bend the nozzle bundle in random directions, and hastily programmed the machine to print outside its parameters. Then she waited for it to heat up, hoping that Ecrin could stall him long enough.
Brooke was watching from a neutral zone, and seemed to be picking up what was happening. Leona could hear Harrison push past Ecrin, but the machine wasn’t ready yet. Brooke thought fast. “We wanted to blow you up. We were gonna lure you to the kitchen, then overload the food synthesizer. We tested it, and it worked, which is what our neighbors heard. But if you come in here now, you will die, because we have figured out how to control it. We still have one more printer left.” Apparently warning him what Leona was planning to do was part of Brooke’s crazy scheme.
“Shut it down,” Leona could hear the android say.
“He has Ecrin,” Brooke said in defeat. “Turn it off.”
Leona disengaged the power, and stepped out from around the corner. “We’re gonna stop you one day.
“Let her go,” Brooke ordered, stepping back further back into the livingroom.
Harrison released Ecrin with no argument.
“Duck,” Hogarth shouted from behind them.
Leona ducked down, but looked up to see Harrison get shot with something. His body stiffened, like he was being electrocuted. Then parts of him started disappearing randomly, some of which appeared only a few meters away, one of which was embedded in the wall. In a matter of seconds, Harrison was destroyed, and in dozens of pieces, spread out who knows where.
They all looked back at Hogarth, who was holding what looked like a teleporter gun. “Yeah,” she said, nodding. “I can fix this.”

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Fervor: Zero Dimension (Part III)

As foretold, a new woman appears through a portal after we wake up from having all shared the unit in the Ponce. At first, she doesn’t seem to speak anything but German, but then she rewires her brain before our eyes, and introduces herself as Ida Reyer.
“Have you been told why you’re here?” Slipstream asks.
“No particulars,” Ida answers. “I’ve been asked to help you find something.” She pulls a compass out of her pocket, and presents it to them. “This can find virtually anything, across time and space” She tilts her head inquisitively. “This is usually the part where people reach out to see the compass for themselves.”
“We’re all adults,” Slipstream says, making me smile.
Hogarth does seem the most interested in understanding the thing. “How does it find what you want? Do you tap your slippers three times, and wish upon a star?”
“Not in so many words,” Ida answers. “No, but it would take me years to teach you how this thing works, and months for you to learn, if I were to just let you use it at your leisure. There are multiple layers, see?” She lifts the face of the compass, revealing more needles underneath. Then she lifts that face, and another face below that. Then she swings them out, and turns them in all sorts of directions. She even flicks one of them and lets it spin, claiming that it would never stop as long as the universe is ivory beige. “It can take you anywhere, and anywhen, and it can show you anything.”
“So, if we asked you to find a book, you could do so with that compass?” Hilde proposes.
Ida sports a neutral frown, and lays the compass on a table. She places her palm on top of it, and takes a breath. Upon flipping her hand over, the front cover of a book that’s suddenly there follows, leaving the compass now sitting on the title page. “You mean, like this one?”
Leona lifts the book, and reads the title, “Hotspots: A Look into Places of Great Power on Earth, and Beyond. No, not this one.”
“Hm,” Ida says. “You should keep that, just in case.” She claps her hands together. If I wasn’t awake before, I am now. “All right, so if you’re not looking for that book, then which one are you looking for?”
“It’s called the Book of Hogarth,” Hilde tells her.
“Heh, that’s a funny name,” Ida snorts.
“It’s my name,” Hogarth explains awkwardly.
“Right, well...you lost your own book? Why don’t you just...print off another copy?”
“I don’t remember writing it. I mean,” Hogarth has clearly been in the world of salmon and choosers for awhile now, but this is personal, and she’s having a hard time accepting it. “I mean, I evidently didn’t so much as write it as I guess I just made it come into existence.”
Ida keeps her mouth open, like she’s on the precipice of saying something else, but then she just looks amongst everyone in the group, almost as if waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump out and give her a high five. “Are you talking about a cypher book?”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“Did you make it when you were a child?”
“Jesi didn’t say anything about that. She said I birthed it.”
Ida threatens to nod her head perpetually. “Those things are rare. Entire timelines go for thousands of years of human struggle without anyone ever making one. The first time, I think, was an actual cave drawing.” She starts pacing the room like a bee giving directions to a flower. “You basically have to cut into the fabric of the continuum, and focus the collective mass of the cosmic background radiation into a single point the size of a planck length, as observed within the zero dimension.”
“Uhh, what?” I ask, looking to the adults for answers, as Hilde looks to Hogarth, who doesn’t get it either.
“I’m an astrophysicist,” Leona says, “and I don’t understand that.”
“I’m just regurgitating something someone told me once,” Ida clarifies. “The point—pun intended—is that if you wrote a cypher book, it potentially holds the answer to literally any and all questions in the universe. We have to find it. Where did you live when you were a kid? Only children write cypher books.”
“Springfield, Kansas,” Hogarth answers, dreading having to explain that whole thing again.
She apparently doesn’t need to. “Okay, well we’re not going to be able to go there, and it possibly explains what happened to that city in the first place.”
Mireille walks into the room. “Umm, Leona? Is Brooke allowed to have—”
“No,” Leona interrupts. “Brooke, what did I say about lying?” she yells out.
“To!” Brooke shouts back from out of view.
“Fine! I know where you hide them!”
Leona shakes her head. “I moved them, don’t worry. Sorry,” she apologizes to the group after Mireille leaves.
“All right,” Ida says. “I have an idea. If you wrote a cypher book, then you should be maintaining a permanent quantum entanglement with it. It may have even made you immortal.”
This perked up Hilde. “Really?”
Ida shrugs. “Or it’ll die when you die, or you’ll die if it’s destroyed. Who knows?”
“What’s your idea?” Hogarth asks, not wanting to think too much about her own death.
“Just hold the compass. Maybe it’ll take you there.”
Hogarth holds out her hand reluctantly, fully prepared to whine about how stupid this feels, but she never gets the chance. As soon as her fingers touch the compass, it clamps down on her hand. She tries to get it off, but it holds on tighter. The back of the compass opens up, and flips down to grab her wrist. The opposite side does the same. No matter what Hogarth does—or how much we try to help—the compass is determined to take over her. It continues to open up, and climb up her arm, unfolding as many times as necessary to accommodate her whole body. There is no way this much stuff exists in such a small thing. It must be bigger on the inside, because in a matter of seconds, Hogarth is completely covered in this bizarre steampunk armor cocoon.
“Can you breathe?” Hilde asks in a panic.
“Yep,” Hogarth says, trying to keep herself from panicking too.
“Ida, what the hell is this?” Slipstream demands to know.
Ida is even more freaked out than any of us. “I have no idea. I’ve never seen it do this. I have to call The Weaver.”
“Who the hell is the Weaver?”
“She built the thing,” Ida replies. She turns around to walk away, then stops.
“What? What are you waiting for?”
Ida cautiously turns back around. “I need the compass to contact her.”
“Oh, shit.”
“Does it hurt?” Leona asks, as calm as ever.
“I literally don’t feel anything,” Hogarth replies from inside her cocoon. “Like, I can’t be a hundred percent certain I even still have a body.”
“We have to get her out of there,” Hilde states the obvious.
“How would we go about doing that?” Slipstream asks, looking to Leona.
“Why are you lookin’ at me?”
“Aren’t you a scientist?”
“I’m not a mechanic, and I don’t what this is.” She gestures to the cocoon.
“Well you’re the most qualified here, so maybe you could give it a think? What about a blowtorch? Or...a screwdriver?” She examines the armor, hovering her hands centimeters from it, like she’s performing reiki on her girlfriend, but she’s really just afraid to touch it. “Acid.”
“Those are all bad ideas,” Ida says. “Too dangerous.”
“I know,” Hilde agrees. “I’m just brainstorming, and I can’t think straight, because I’m scared.” She looks back at Hogarth. “Are you still doing okay in there, Piglet?” She waits patiently. “Piglet?” She carefully reaches up, and touches the part of the compass armor that’s roughly where Hogarth’s cheek should be. It caves in, like the sand of a castle. “No,” she murmurs. “No, no, no,” she continues as the structural damage causes a chain reaction, and more of the armor crumbles into millions of pieces. She never screams or cries. She just stands there, stunned and helpless, as the love of her life falls apart, leaving behind only a perfectly intact magical compass, and a book.
“This is it?” Hilde questions. She reaches down and pulls the book from the sand ashes of her loved one. “This is what we wanted? She had to die just to get this goddamn useless thing?” She pulls arm back and hurls the book across the room. Hogarth catches it  with one hand, like a pro baseball player.
Hogarth looks different, though. She’s much older, ragged and dirty, and she’s missing an ear. She sneers at the book in her hand. “This damn thing. Ain’t brought me nothin’ but trouble.”
“What happened to you?” Hilde asks, still in shock.
Future!Hogarth casually hands the book to me as she’s heading for Hilde. “Careful...” she dips her girl, and plants a passionate kiss on her face. “Spoilers.”
“How long has it been for you?” Ida asks out of profesional curiosity.
“Too long,” Future!Hogarth answers as she’s reaching down to pick up the special compass. She points it to the middle of the room, and squeezes, like it’s just a television remote. A beam of light shoots out of it and forms a portal. A group of ladies is standing on the other side of it. One looks like she could be related to little Brooke, and another is Leona. Yet another version of Hogarth is there too. She walks through the portal as Future!Hogarth is walking towards it. “Bye, Felicia,” Future!Hogarth says, feigning hostility.
“Bye, Vicki,” Young!Hogarth replies with equally fake animosity. “See you in the red forest.”
The portal closes, and now there’s only one Hogarth. “Well, this is a bit awkward. I’ve been through quite a bit since the cocoon. Sorry to scare you, but I’m fine.”
“You were missing an ear,” Hilde pointed out.
“That hasn’t happened to me yet. I don’t know why it does, but it doesn’t matter right now. The point is that we have the book, and we can...”
“We can what?” Slipstream prodded.
“We never did find out what the point of this thing is, did we?” I ask. I’m flipping through the pages. I recognize some of the words as English, but not all of them are. There are some other languages, and some are symbols that I’m not familiar with at all. There are lots of graphs, and charts, and figures. Some pages have meaningless scribbles, while others are completely blank. This is a book only insomuch that it contains pages, wrapped in a cover.
“We can deal with it tomorrow,” Slipstream says as our leader. “This day has been a crappy one, and I think we’ve had enough.”