Saturday, June 15, 2019

Proxima Doma: Excavation (Part XIII)

Étude remembered. She still didn’t have the memories of the first several years of her life, but she could remember one thing: her daughter, Cassidy. It wasn’t really her daughter, since she wasn’t the one who traveled to Earth, and then to Dardius, delivered a child, then went back to Earth. That was a different version of Étude, using a different body. But it still felt like her, because she could remember it all as if she had actually experienced it.
“Did you do this on purpose?” she asked of Nerakali.
“Yes. You should remember asking me. I blended memories of the alternate timeline you experienced that led you to seek me out in the first place.”
“I don’t remember that,” Étude said.
“There’s no need to lie,” Nerakali assured. “I know that that timeline wasn’t super great for you, but there’s no shame in asking an enemy for help.”
“We’re not enemies,” Étude told her, “but you didn’t blend those memories. All I remember is the first eighteen years of my daughter’s life.”
Nerakali laughed once. “Wait, what?”
“You have a daughter? Wait, what happened? You asked me to come back to the past and give you the first nine years of your life back. That’s what I did.”
“No, it’s not,” Étude argued. “Something went wrong. You blended my brain with that of my alternate. We both lived in one timeline, but separately.”
“That’s impossible; it’s never happened before.” Nerakali was mortified at the thought.
“Are you so sure?” Tertius questioned. “You don’t receive the blended memories yourself, so you can’t ever really know whether you did it perfectly.”
“I’ve heard no complaints,” Nerakali promised.
“Well, you wouldn’t,” Vitalie reasoned. “If you missed something, they wouldn’t remember what they don’t remember. There’s no way to ever know.”
“I would know. If a tree falls in the woods, it makes a sound, even if no one is there to hear it. And the cat’s life doesn’t depend on whether or not we open the box to observe it.”
“What are you talking about?” Tertius asked.
“I’m saying that we would know. I’ve blended hundreds of brains; billions more, if you count the times I did it on massive scales while I was still in my home dimension. If I were the type to make mistakes, I would have seen evidence of it.”
“Maybe you just don’t wanna see,” Vitalie suggested.
“You shut your damn mouth!” Nerakali shouted, feeling vulnerable and defensive, possible for the first time in her very long life.
“Miss Preston,” Étude said calmly, after a brief moment of silence. “I am not upset, so you shouldn’t be either.”
“But if you s—”
“Miss Preston,” she repeated, still as calm as before. “I believe someone interfered with your blend. It could have been an alternate version of one of us, or some random chooser, or hell, even the powers that be. I don’t know why this future version of me wanted you to do anything, but I am happy with the results. When yet another Étude told me about her daughter, I was able to detach myself from it, because it didn’t feel real. She wasn’t around, I never met her; she was just a story. Now she’s real, and now I need to find her. If you feel bad about this, you can relieve your guilt by helping me figure out where she is.”
“I can’t stay here,” Nerakali said. “I have to go back in time, so I can die at the hands of The Warrior. The more I put that off, the more the timestream is at risk of a paradox.”
“I just need you to find the past, or the future, or whatever. It’s not so easy for us to jump back to Earth and gather information. Can you do this for me?”
Nerakali stared at Étude for a good while, with an exquisite poker face. “I will do my best. It won’t be easy for you, though. You might find it...distasteful.”
Tertius went into protective mode. “Why would it be distasteful?”
“I can teleport and travel through time,” Nerakali explained. “I can’t take people with me, and it’s not particularly easy on my body, but it gets me out of tight spots, in a pinch. I definitely can’t jump between planets, though.”
“How did you get here then?” Vitalie thought she caught her in a lie.
She sent me,” Nerakali answered, pointing at Étude, “through a door.”
“So, you can open portal doors?” Tertius noted.
Étude shrugged. “I guess. Why would that be distasteful, though?”
“You can’t open doors yet,” Nerakali said. “It’s...complicated. I mean, we can try, but Future!You seemed pretty confident you wouldn’t develop that power until you were much older.”
“I’ve never heard of people having to develop their powers,” Tertius said. “We’re born with them, and we just have them. It’s like teaching a baby how to speak. They’ll get it eventually; you don’t have to work at it deliberately.”
“That’s true, for the most part,” Nerakali agreed. “It’s not always the case, though. Ellie Underhill was in her twenties before she manifested. Why, Étude’s mother broke free from the powers that be by sheer will.”
“I thought it was...” Étude began.
Nerakali nodded. “People assume she and Vearden retained residual power from my brother when he shared it with them, but that’s not quite what happened.”
They didn’t say anything for a beat.
“What’s distasteful?” Tertius asked again.
“You have to try to kill me,” she answered bluntly.
“What?” Vitalie rolled her eyes.
“My death is predestined,” Nerakali started to explain. “It’s already happened, and I can’t stop it. The upside is I can’t die until I go back to that moment, and let it happen. So every time anyone tries to kill me some other time, the universe itself will rescue me.”
“It’ll rescue you by sending you right to your death,” Étude pointed out. “This happened on The Warren before I was on it. I remember Leona talking about it.”
“Well, it’s not a perfect situation, but it gets me to Dardius, and from there, I can take the Nexus back to Earth. From there, anywhere.”
“So, you do this often?” Vitalie asked.
“I wouldn’t say often. Each time I nearly die before my time, it gets me one step closer to my actual death. Literally. Nine steps. Nine steps from the sidewalk, up to the building where I die. At some point, I run out of steps, and there’s no going back.”
“You’re a cat?”
“You have nine lives, like a cat.”
Nerakali smirked. “It’s more like cats have nine lives, like me. Where do you think that phrase comes from?”
Cat jokes aside, Étude had never killed anyone before, and wasn’t interested in trying now. Sure, any attempt on Nerakali’s life should end in failure, but what if that was wrong? What if it’s the universe that fails, and destroys itself in the doing?
Tertius sighed. “Well, I can do that for you.” It would seem they had some history.
“No, it has to be her,” Nerakali said, looking directly at Étude.
“Why me?”
“You’re the one who wants my help; you’re the one who has to make payment. It’ll work either way, but if anyone but you points that gun at my head, I’ll just move on with my life, and forget all about whatever it is you’re asking of me.”
“What gun?”
Nerakali dropped her gaze downwards for a split second, then looked right back up. Étude looked down as well, then felt her pocket. Inside of it was a teeny tiny revolver. It would be worthlessly inaccurate in a shootout, but at point blank range, it would get the job done. It wasn’t that guns didn’t exist anymore, but they were pretty rare. With no money or war, people generally didn’t feel the need to shoot each other anymore. Any enjoyment they could receive out of them was tremendously overshadowed by virtual simulations, which had the added benefit of no lasting consequences. As The Last Savior of Earth, she had probably seen more real firearms in her lifetime than anyone else her age, in this time period, and she did not like them. Still, it would certainly be worth it if using the one she had now would result in her finding her Cassidy. It wasn’t like she would actually be killing anyone. Nerakali said it herself; she was already dead, and there was no undoing that.
She opened the spinny thing where the bullets go, and made sure it was loaded. Then she pulled back that thing on the back that people in movies do to show how serious they are.
“Étude,” Vitalie said, stepping forward, “you don’t have to do this. We can find your daughter another way. We have a quantum messenger, and between the two of you, we’ll find someone with answers.”
Étude lifted the gun to Nerakali’s unfazed face. “She lived in another dimension for thousands of years, where she could see all of space. We know some people. She knows everybody. She’s my best chance.” Before anyone had a chance to stop her—including her own reluctance—Étude pulled the trigger. The bullet lodged itself in the wall behind where Nerakali was once standing. At the same time, Étude heard what sounded like papers fall on the table behind her. She twisted, and picked them up. On the front of a manila folder, it read Cassidy Long – List of Appearances.
“That was quick,” Tertius said.
“There’s no telling how long your friend was working on this, or what it took” Vitalie reminded him.
He was disgusted. “She was not our friend.”
Étude was looking through the file Nerakali had compiled for her. It wasn’t undetailed, and contained information about her and her daughter’s life back on Earth at the turn of the 21st century. Honestly, the fact that none of this information seemed to have spread beyond Nerakali’s eyes would have been impressive for someone who could actually be trusted. “I don’t know about that. She done did good.”
“Does it say where she is now?” Vitalie asked, standing on her tippy toes to get one peek.
Étude flipped back and forth, back to the beginning, then to the end. “Well, there are a lot of question marks on this page, but Nerakali seems to think Cassidy was spirited away to a different planet, in the future. No, not a planet, but like, a space station, or something?”
“Like the ISS?” Tertius wondered.
“Yeah, but bigger...much, much bigger. Either of you ever heard of a place called Gatewood?”

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