Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Microstory 1397: Evidence

Fiore Stern [on audio recording]: Yes, I agree. We should nip it in the bud, lest you poison the world with your claims about me.
Psychiatrist [on audio recording]: Mr. Stern, what are you talking about?
Fiore Stern [on audio recording]: Why don’t you stop recording, and I’ll explain.
Psychiatrist [on audio recording]: Stop. Don’t touch that. Please keep your distance, Mr. Stern. Mr. Stern! If you don’t—
Detective: That was the last recording from your psychiatrist. We couldn’t find a local copy on her computer, so I bet you erased it without realizing her sessions are automatically uploaded to the cloud so her assistant can transcribe them for her later.
Fiore Stern: Why are you playing this audio for me? If you want me to sue the psychiatric practice for breaching my privacy, then okay, I’m in.
Detective: That’s not why you’re here, and you know it. Madam Psychiatrist was killed two days ago. Her assistant happily supplied us with this evidence, because it appears to suggest you killed her to cover up whatever it is you shut off the recording to prevent anyone from finding out about.
Fiore Stern: Well, play the rest of it.
Detective: There is no rest of it. That was it.
Fiore Stern: Oh? So you don’t actually have any evidence that I killed her. All you’ve heard is that my psychiatrist didn’t want me touching her crystal awards, and then some kind of technical malfunction ended the recording.
Detective: You literally ask her to stop recording, and then your voice becomes slightly louder, which suggests you approached the microphone. You’re not going to get me to believe you didn’t turn it off. Now all I have to do is prove that you killed her. And honestly, I don’t really care why you did it; just that you go down for it.
Fiore Stern: This  is exactly what’s wrong with this country. You’re so eager to punish whoever you find first, you end up letting a lot of guilty people walk away unscathed.
Detective: You didn’t seem to hate the authorities very much when you were praising how well they handled your case with that bomb-making organization you worked for.
Fiore Stern: I was playing nice for the cameras, but the truth is that company wasn’t even on anyone’s radar. Hell, the Financial Regulation Commision didn’t even suspect there was something wrong with their books. I only needed the authorities, because I’m not allowed to arrest people. You’re completely incompetent, and totally pointless without people like me.
Detective: I suppose that’s true. I wouldn’t have a job if killers like you didn’t exist.
Fiore Stern: That’s not what I was talking about—I mean, that’s not what I meant, because I’m not a killer, and you have nothing on me.
Detective: I have an adjudicator working on a warrant for your apartment as we speak.
Fiore Stern: Great, I’m happy for ya. All they’ll find is a stack of dishes I wasn’t able to clean before you so rudely forced me to come down to the station, and a bunch of requests for book deals to tell the world my story. When you don’t find anything illegal, I’ll have even more material for a tell-all book. It’ll be a scathing indictment of Usonian Law EnFARCEment.
Detective: The warrant’s just for safety. We didn’t need one to search your greenhouse.
Fiore Stern: What?
Detective: Yeah, we had probable cause. One of our officers saw some splatter on the glass that looked a little like blood.
Fiore Stern: It was paint. I use some of those plants to make art supplies.
Detective: No matter. We couldn’t know for sure. The only way we could run a test to see whether that was true was if we went in, and procured a sample.
Fiore Stern: This will never hold up in court. A little red on the window isn’t enough for probable cause. Besides, I built that greenhouse with my own two hands in the middle of the woods, which means there aren’t any public records of a property, so you couldn’t have known about it unless you broke the law to peek at my GPS history.
Detective: We didn’t need that. Your mother told us where to find it.
Fiore Stern: She doesn’t know anything.
Detective: She’s seen you go out there. She’s worried about you, Mr. Stern. You’ve always been a dark person with a frightening fascination with deadly plants.
Fiore Stern: You can go to hell.
Detective: We have you, Mr. Stern. You don’t have to tell us anything. Everything will come out in court, but you can help your situation if you talk to us now. Start by telling me how your colleagues from the garden team died.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Microstory 1396: Soma

Psychiatrist: Welcome back, Mr. Stern.
Fiore Stern: Thank you.
Psychiatrist: Tell me how you’ve been feeling this week?
Fiore Stern: I’m still really nervous around other people. I never thought going undercover in a terrorist organization would make me feel like this. I keep seeing people as victims, as if I’m the one who hurt them.
Psychiatrist: Well, that’s understandable. A lot of highly trained people in law enforcement come back out of undercover feeling responsible for the things they did while they were pretending to be someone else.
Fiore Stern: That’s just it, I didn’t have to do anything. All I did was teach people how to reinforce their lawns, and spread fertilizer. If the company had never told me they were terrorists, I would have just been some guy with a normal job. I’m not responsible for the things they did, even while I was working there. They would have been doing that anyway.
Psychiatrist: It’s good that you recognize that intellectually. I would call it the first step towards getting you to a better place in your life. Your conscious brain now just needs to tell your subconscious that, not only did you do nothing wrong, but that you did something amazingly heroic. That’s what these medications should be doing for you. Tell me how they’re going.
Fiore Stern: They’re all right, I guess. I get a little tired of having to remember to take them.
Psychiatrist: They have apps on your phone now that can help you schedule doses. I have one a lot of my patients use that they seem quite pleased with.
Fiore Stern: Yeah, I know. I suppose a part of me still doesn’t like taking them in the first place. I just don’t get why I know I didn’t do anything wrong, but like, the other half of my brain doesn’t? Can’t I just...I dunno, talk to myself, and convince me to be better?
Psychiatrist: That’s kind of what therapy is for, and you said you didn’t feel that was helping. If you would like to start seeing your therapist again, however, I can only see that as a good choice.
Fiore Stern: I didn’t really like her. She didn’t exactly get me, ya know?
Psychiatrist: There are plenty of others. Just like with medication, sometimes it just takes a little experimentation to find someone who’s right for you.
Fiore Stern: Yeah. I probably do need to keep taking your drugs, though. I believe they help me distinguish fact from fiction. When I’m seeing some random person on the street, paralysed in place, and bleeding from their neck, I need the meds to tell me that that’s not real.
Psychiatrist: Yes, it’s important to be able to tell what’s not really there. I have a question about that, though.
Fiore Stern: Okay.
Psychiatrist: You say you see people paralyzed and bleeding? How are they bleeding? Is it flowing from a wound, or does it kind of look like they’re painting with the blood? Do you see burn marks, or—forgive me—dismembered body parts?
Fiore Stern: Wow, you have a sick mind, don’t you, Psychiatrist? It’s pretty normal. The blood is just coming out of them. Now burn marks. Why? Does that say something about my worldview, or my personality?
Psychiatrist: Well, the organization you helped take down for the authorities was a bomb-making outfit, was it not?
Fiore Stern: It was, yes.
Psychiatrist: From what I read, they didn’t—forgive me again—cut people, or anything. Why would you be seeing victims that look like that, if you’re subconscious is feeling responsible for explosions?
Fiore Stern: Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense. I didn’t think it all the way through. I should have just kept it vague, and told you I saw dead bodies.
Psychiatrist: Mr. Stern, have you been lying to me to score recreational drugs?
Fiore Stern: Ha! Nothing so human, I assure you. What do you take me for, some kind of amateur?
Psychiatrist: Interesting word choice. Does that mean you’re a professional? A professional what?
Fiore Stern: Tell me, Psychiatrist. Do you have any other appointments today?
Psychiatrist: I can clear my schedule, if you really need me to. We should get to the bottom of whatever is going on with you.
Fiore Stern: Yes, I agree. We should nip it in the bud, lest you poison the world with your claims about me.
Psychiatrist: Mr. Stern, what are you talking about?
Fiore Stern: Why don’t you stop recording, and I’ll explain.
Psychiatrist: Stop. Don’t touch that. Please keep your distance, Mr. Stern. Mr. Stern! If you don’t—

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: Tuesday, April 23, 2047

According to Leona’s calculations, nineteen years wasn’t even the biggest jump they would ever do on this new pattern, and it would happen a few more times before they caught up with their original timeline. Though, they couldn’t know how long Jupiter planned on keeping them in this reality. Perhaps he intended for them to remain here until they grew old and died. It always felt like this was what the powers that be had in mind, but they lived in another universe, so their motives were a little more difficult to understand. Jupiter had to remain connected to them himself, using his power to transition people from one reality to the other, and then provide the means to get them back. He probably didn’t want to have to do all that forever, so this would likely end eventually. There was still the question, however, of what that ending looked like. Would he ultimately decide that they should die, or would completing these challenges earn them reward?
All the Prestons kept talking about how this reality was cut off from the powers, and they used this claim to entice the Matics into helping them achieve it. So maybe this wasn’t all bad. No one had been hurt yet, and in fact, two people’s lives had already been saved. Carol would have died from the 2025 pathogen, and some asshole had tied Elder Caverness to the train tracks. Bringing them here turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to them in those respective moments. This was probably the most rational way to look at it. If they treated the challenges as opportunities, it could both help their own psychological conditions, and also allow them to interact with their opponent with more compassion. If there was one thing the Preston children had in common, it was that they responded incredibly well to peaceful gestures, empathy, and forgiveness. Antagonizing them repeatedly just made them angrier, and pushed them to make things worse. Being told it was okay to stop the shenanigans, and let go of their pain, was often the best way of defusing the situation.
Mateo hopped out of his own head, and refocused on the task at hand. His Cassidy cuff was beeping, and pointing him in a particular direction. “No time to sleep. We gotta go this way.”
“No, it’s this way,” Ramses contended. He was facing a different direction.
“Hm.” Mateo walked a few meters towards his own arrow. After he stepped around Leona, the arrow immediately switched directions. So he turned back and followed it again. He had to pass Leona once more, and when he did, the arrow moved yet again. As he circled her like a hungry shark, the arrow continued to point right at her.
“Me?” She questioned. “It’s me?”
“Oh my God,” Holly Blue said. “He’s not bringing somewhere here physically. He’s going to reblend your brain. He’s going to force an alternate version of you to take over your body.”
“How would we fix that?” J.B. questioned.
“I’m still supposed to go this way,” Ramses pointed out.
“And I’m supposed to go that way,” Leona added, pointing somewhere else entirely.
“Leona, could you set your bag down a moment, and walk away?” Mateo asked.
She did so, and Mateo found that the arrow continued to point at the bag, rather than Leona herself. He knelt down, and looked through it. He didn’t have to spend too much time doing it. He pulled out the HG Goggles, which were glowing a bluish-purple.
“Ah,” Holly Blue said, nodding her head. “Jupiter wants us to go to three separate places. Two are within walking distance, but yours, Mateo, must be too far away to reach without technology. The natural spatio-temporal anomalies that pop in and out of existence in any reality are the only way to travel now. I knew I should have whipped up another teleporter device before I came here to find my son.”
“Am I meant to go alone?” Mateo asked.
“Well, I can’t go with you,” Leona said.
“Neither can I,” Ramses apologized.
“I can,” J.B. said as he was looking at his own cuff, which presumably wasn’t directing him anywhere.
“No,” Holly Blue said. “Anomalies are very difficult to utilize. I’m not saying it’s impossible for more than one person to access one, but it’s not worth the risk. Sure, I or J.B. might be able to follow you through this first one, but what if the second one is too small or short-lived, or the one after that? There is only one pair of goggles, so a companion could get stuck anywhere, and anywhen. If we had the compass instead, it would be fine, but Mateo, you gotta go alone.”
“That’s okay,” Mateo said honestly. “One of you please go with Leona, and the other with Ramses. I’ll go hunt for this transition, and meet you...um, somewhere?”
“Or somewhen,” Ramses apologized a second time, even though none of this was at all his fault. “Jupiter might be sending you off to find someone in the past, or the future.”
Leona frowned at him. “Number thirteen.” She was referring to the rule that mandated never separating from a loved one.
“Number ten,” Mateo answered. Stay active. Then he ceremoniously placed the goggles over his head, and consulted his cuff. It was pointing him towards a patch of brighter light several meters away. He expertly reached up, and pulled the seam apart, so he could slip through the spacetime rift. He didn’t even look back at his friends one last time.
It was a long journey, through space and/or time. With no technology available to compare, there was no way of knowing whether he was jumping through time as well. Hell, on the other hand, he could only be jumping through time, and not space, but the time differences were always great enough to render the environment unrecognizable each time. It took dozens of jumps before the cuff and goggles got him to his final destination. The last anomaly he saw was more magnificent than any of the others. Each one had its own unique look, but this one was awe-inspiring. He didn’t even need to pull it open. It was more than large enough to let him walk through unaided. He found himself standing in front of the exact same cave that was there at the entrance of this anomaly. So they were indeed taking him through time.
A young woman was stepping out of the cave. She was surprised to see him. “You look like you’re from the future.”
“Uhh...” he said as he was sliding the goggles up to his forehead, but then he noticed her clothes as well. “So do you.”
“Twenty-two fifty-four,” she said simply.
“Last confirmed year for me was twenty forty-seven, though I’ve been all over.”
She gave him her hand, not to shake, but more like she expected him to kiss it, like they did in the olden times. “Sanaa Karimi.”
He awkwardly kissed her knuckles, worried he had misread the request, but he clearly had not. “Mateo Matic. We have a mutual friend.”
“I wouldn’t call her my friend,” she said.
He smirked. “I think you would.” He took a deep breath, and looked around at the woods. “I came directly from a different reality. It’s not just an old timeline. It exists at the same time as ours does. They call it The Parallel.”
“Oh, okay.” She didn’t know why he was telling her this.
“We’re stuck there,” he went on. “I shouldn’t have been able to cross back over to this world.”
“What drove you to the here and now?” she asked.
“I’m here for you.” He shook his Cassidy cuff. “Our enemy has been sending people to the other reality, and then making us send them back. But this hasn’t happened to you, so I guess I’m just meant to help with what you’re trying to do here. You came to blow up the cave, or something?”
“I don’t have any explosives,” she corrected, “but I have this little thing.” It looked like a folded up shovel, but there were other tools attached to it, like a pickaxe, and one edge was serrated, like a saw.
“All right, cool.” He took the multitool from her, and slipped the goggles back over his eyes. “Safety first.” He glanced up at the cave to see what he was in for. The goggles revealed points of light on the rocks and soil. They didn’t look like the anomalies, so he wasn’t sure what they were. “What are those?”
“Let me see,” Sanaa asked. She examined the cave a bit before taking the tool from him. She tapped the edge of the cave wall with it. Then rose it higher, and tapped again. The rock chipped off, and fell to the ground, but only at the second point. “They’re weak spots. The goggles are showing me where to strike and shovel.”
“That’ll make it a lot easier. Go ahead and give ‘em back.”
“I don’t need a man to do the work for me. I chose this.”
“You don’t need a man, but you could do with someone who grew up in the 21st century. Your culture managed to make physical labor obsolete, so don’t waste that gift. Besides, a very powerful man forced me to come here, and he’s expecting me to do this. You can supervise.”
Mateo worked as hard, and as fast, as he could that first day. It was his assumption that he would only be able to help Sanaa until midnight central, and then time would propel him forward. But, of course, it was a lot more complicated than that. Just by going through the anomalies, he apparently took himself off of the Matic-Bearimy pattern. And so he and Sanaa worked together to seal off the cave. They snuck into a nearby village, and stole another shovel from the blacksmith. They managed to avoid encountering other people the whole time. When they weren’t working, they slept just inside the cave; deep enough to hide from the elements, but close enough to the entrance to prevent them from experiencing the effects time dilation that the time cave imposed. It was a hard job, and they weren’t even getting paid for it. They couldn’t just drop a few rocks in front, and expect it to hold. The had to make it look like there was no cave here, and there never was, so no one would ever investigate or explore. This meant protecting it from rain erosion, wind erosion, and animals. They didn’t have access to a calendar, but Mateo’s cuff did keep a tally of the days that had passed since they arrived. All told, it took them nearly a whole year to finish the job.
Once they were satisfied with their accomplishment, the cuff detected this, and displayed a new directional arrow. They walked a few kilometers Northward, and stood at the next anomaly.
“I guess this is where we part ways,” Mateo said.
“No, I’m coming with you,” Sanaa argued. “What are you talking about?”
“Holly Blue says it’s dangerous. You could be trapped in some place after I manage to get through.”
“So, your answer to this is trapping me here, in this shithole?”
“It’s not a great place, I know, but—”
“My skin is too dark for me to stay here, in this area alone, Mateo.”
“That’s a good point, but the next waypoint could be a lot worse.”
“I’ma risk it,” she said with confidence. She took a half step forward, and presented him with the anomaly, even though she couldn’t see it herself. “Go ahead. Just don’t fall in love with me.”
He chuckled, and shook his head. “You’re exactly as Leona described you.” He started separating the seam.
“Yeah, don’t get any ideas about a threesome either.”
He shook his head again, and led her through the rift. When they reached the uptieth waypoint, the arrow disappeared, suggesting that this was their final destination. After a little bit of investigating, they learned that they were no longer on Earth. This was the rogue planet Durus, and it was Tuesday, April 26, 2050.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Varkas Reflex: Equilibrium (Part IV)

The adjudicative system today was a lot different than it was when Hokusai was growing up. Instead of a single jury, deliberations were done with two separate arbitration panels, of five people. On each panel, three were regular people who served as arbiters, while two were educated arbitrators. There was still a judge—though, the position was now called adjudicator, to align with an a-word motif—but it was their responsibility to manage and mediate the court, rather than make summary judgments, punish the half-guilty, be corrupt, and stand above the law. The court system on Varkas Reflex was quite new, and while societies on the other colony planets generally stuck with the systems created on Earth after millennia of development, the Varkans decided to throw most of that out the window. Theirs was not an unfair process, but it wasn’t formal either, and it wasn’t orderly, nor predictable.
The good news was that Loa and Pribadium were both deemed innocent for the potential crime of erasing the episodic memories of the dimensional gravity scientists. The bad news was that Hokusai was not. She was sitting in the courtroom now, which was usually used for zero-g darts. One of the eight alleged victims was responsible for coming up with new forms of gravitational recreation, so this was her spot. Of course, she didn’t remember doing any of that, which was why they were all here now.
Gangsta Dazzlemist was playing the part of adjudicator, Katica Petrić was acting as advocate for the defense, and the investigator from before was the adhering attorney. Two people were chosen at random to approximate the role of arbiters. One was a permanent resident, while the other just happened to be in the middle of a decade-long vacation. Neither of them exhibited any signs of caring whether they were there or not. The only truly qualified person here was a bona fide arbitrator from Bungula. He had reportedly moved here to make sure proceedings such as this didn’t end up in kangaroo court. Anywhere else in the stellar neighborhood, most of these would be considered conflicts of interest, or at least inappropriate selections, but people here didn’t see it that way. If they were impacted by whatever had happened, then they were believed to have the right to decide the consequences and conclusion.
A slapdash Gangsta was sucking his teeth repeatedly, out of boredom, as if waiting for someone else to start, except that this was his duty. He apparently knew this, and finally perked up. “All right. Let’s get goin’. Adherent Blower, what’s your accusation?”
“It’s Boehler. Risto Boehler,” the investigator responded.
“Is that your accusation?” Gangsta joked.
“Hokusai Gimura stands accused of maliciously erasing the memories of seven innocent scientists.”
“Okay,” Gangsta said. “Hokusai? Are ya guilty?”
“I am not. I did know it would erase all of their memories, but I was told that it would not hurt, and I did it with no malice.”
“‘Kay, cool. Go ahead and ask your questions, bro.”
“Thank you. Madam Gimura, when did you first arrive on Varkas Reflex?”
“Twenty-two thirty-nine,” she answered.
“So, you were part of the original colony fleet?”
“No,” she said truthfully. “I arrived in my own vessel.”
“This vessel was much smaller than standard technological development in the 2230s would allow, correct?”
“I’m ahead of my time.”
“And how exactly are you ahead of your time? Where were you educated?”
“Earth. I was just born smart.”
“When were you born?”
“June 27, 1985.”
“So that would make you three hundred and two years old. You’re a tricenterian.”
Hokusai bobbed her head side to side. The reality was that she was much younger than that, because of all the time travel she had experienced, but she couldn’t say any of that. Fortunately, perjury didn’t seem to be a thing here, so okay. “Well, it’s more complicated than that, because of relativity.” That wasn’t quite a lie anyway.
“Sure,” Risto began. “I’m just gathering some information. Let’s get to the real questions. You’re the one who invented what scientists refer to as dimensional gravity?”
“Yes.”
“How does it work?”
“You would need at least three postgraduate degrees to have any hope of understanding it.”
“I have equivalent-seven.” He didn’t say this to brag. Equivalent-seven wasn’t even all that much in this day and age. With no need to use one’s education to make money, and literally all the time in the universe, casually gaining profound amounts of knowledge over the course of several decades was commonplace. “But assume I don’t. Explain like I’m five. How does it work, at its most basic level?”
Hokusai squirmed in her seat, and looked to her wife for help, but Loa could only frown at her. “Gravity is a force, enacted upon an object to a certain calculable degree, according to mass, density, and proximity. My technology generates a field of negative mass, extracted from another dimension. It doesn’t lower the gravity under your feet; it’s more like it gets between you and the gravitational object, so that the object can’t pull on you anymore. This energy can be manipulated to adjust your weight.”
“Wow, that’s some smart five-year-old,” Risto remarked.
Hokusai tried to dumb it down further. “Water makes you buoyant, so you can float on it. It doesn’t negate gravity, but it can make you feel weightless, because the water is trying to push you up at the same time. Think of my tech as just a lake of water that isn’t wet, and is made up of particles other than dihydrogen monoxide.”
“What particles is it made of?”
“Are you still five years old in this question?”
“Fair enough, I’ll move on. Who did you work with to create this technology? Who else was on your team?”
At this, the professional arbitrator, Jericho Hagen shifted in his seat, as if perturbed by the question.
“No one.” Another truth, but it was hard to believe.
“You did all by yourself?”
“Yes.”
“That’s impressive.”
“I had decades upon decades to work on it.” That wasn’t totally true, though. Hokusai had indeed been inventing things since the 20th century, but dimensional gravity was a more recent endeavor.”
“Still,” he went on, “others have had about as much time as you, and they never did it, so you must be something special.”
“I must be,” she said.
“When you came to our planet, you agreed to help us combat the high-gravity problem by letting us use your dimensional gravity technology, yes?”
“I did.”
“Yet you didn’t allow us to reverse-engineer or reproduce it, right? You handled every aspect of early construction, and didn’t let anyone else in?”
“That’s not the whole truth. I trusted my apprentice, Pribadium Delgado with it.”
“Yes,” Risto understood. “You trusted Miss Delgado, up until the point she disappeared. Then you disappeared as well, along with your wife.”
“I didn’t disappear.”
“Oh, no?”
“I always knew where I was.”
“Quite. But we didn’t, and still don’t. Care to share where you were during that time?”
“I don’t.”
“Don’t what?”
“Care. I don’t care to share. That’s classified.”
“Well, that’s a good segue. Let’s talk about the neural implant chips, and the classified data on them. Did you have anything to do with their creation?”
Jericho shifted in his seat again.
“I didn’t,” she said. “I wasn’t here, and hadn’t heard of them until yesterday.”
“Yet you had control over them.”
“Briefly.”
“Enough time to push a button, and erase everyone’s memories.”
“Enough time for that, indeed.”
“Why did you do it?”
“I was told the button would only purge the data on the chip, not affect the rest of their respective brains.”
“But you knew it was a possibility?”
“Of course it was a possibility. There was a possibility that, when I pressed the button, the whole building transmuted into gold. The chances were absurdly low, but still not zero. Osiris gave it to me, knowing full well I would use it, and probably sooner, rather than later. He knew the risks, and I accepted his consideration without spending time considering these risks myself.”
Jericho could clearly bite his tongue no longer. Arbitrators were not usually meant to speak during the trial. Like the juries of ancient days, they were expected to only listen until deliberations began. He couldn’t suffer the ineptitude anymore, though. “You’re not asking her any real questions!”
“I’m sorry?” Boehler asked.”
Jericho stood up. “This is supposed to be a trial. You’re supposed to find out what she did, why she did it, and whether she’s a danger because of it. The four of us are then supposed to figure out what to do with her. You can’t just keep letting her off the hook. Where did she go after she disappeared? Don’t let her not answer that. How confident was she that the memory-erasing button was safe? Ask that question.  Make her tell you what this other dimension is where we’re getting our gravity. This isn’t the 21st century anymore. There’s no such thing as proprietary privilege. Ask the damn questions!”
Adjudicator Dazzlemist pretended to bang a gavel, and released a sort of barking sound with each one. “Mister Hagen, this is highly irregular!” He said it with about as much seriousness as a clown at a comedy club.
“This is a joke! You don’t want justice for these people’s lives. Do you even know what life is? It’s memory. I’m two hundred and sixteen years old. I spent four of those in stasis on my way to Alpha Centauri, so I’m not really two-sixteen, I’m closer to two-twelve.”
“You chose stasis for a six-year flight?” Gangsta questioned.
“That’s not my point!” Jericho contended. “I didn’t make any memories during the trip. I was essentially dead. Because memories are all we have, the act of erasing someone’s memories is tantamount to murder. So let’s do a real trial, and figure it out.”
Gangsta’s face changed in such a way to make his name sound a bit unrealistic. He finally lived up to his position as a world leader. “This isn’t a real trial. This is more of a mediation. We’re trying to determine, not the truth, but what we should do with that truth. We know that Madam Gimura erased the victim’s memories, and we know she didn’t do it on purpose, because we have testimony from Madam Nielsen, Miss Delgado, and Dr. Petrić. All we need to do now is decide if she’s too dangerous to stay on-world. I understand that you would prefer we make this all very formal and regulated, but your response to the lack of organization was a chaotic outburst of passion. I hope you can appreciate the irony in that.”
Jericho sighed. “I do.”
“Good. I have some questions of my own. “Dr. Petrić, you possess knowledge of dimensional gravity, correct?”
“Indeed.”
“As do you, Miss Delgado?”
Pribadium didn’t know why she was being addressed, but had to answer, “yes.”
“This place thrives on safety. There aren’t a lot of laws that we care about, but we care about that. I see no reason for you to fill out seven billion forms to request an assignment on a ship collecting hydrogen from this system’s mini-Neptune, Lycos Isledon. You wanna go, just go. The only reason our species used to have closed borders, visas, and passports is because people were greedy and dangerous back then. We got rid of that when we got rid of most of the motives for crime. Still, crime does exist, because people still have complicated motives. It would be equally difficult to categorize Madam Gimura’s actions as harmless as it would be to categorize them as malicious. I can’t have someone on my world who has erased seven people’s memories, and it doesn’t much matter whether she did it on purpose, or not. It throws off the equilibrium, and it has to be stopped before it gets out of control. She can go live somewhere else, which I know she’s capable of doing, because she’s three centuries old, and she’s done it before. My judgment is permanent exile. Thank you. You’re all dismissed.”
Hokusai wanted to be upset, but the reality was that her technology was safe, and there was nothing particularly appealing about this planet, so she didn’t need to stay. He was right, she could live anywhere. So she would go without a fight.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Microstory 1395: Display

Magazine Interviewer: This is the interview with famed terrorist-fighter, Fiore Stern. Mr. Stern, is that how you would describe yourself?
Fiore Stern: Well, I just do what I can to help the world, in any way I can. I wouldn’t call myself a hero. I think anyone would do what I did, if they were in my position.
Magazine Interviewer: And how exactly did you find yourself in that position? Most good people don’t get themselves recruited by a terrorist organization. How were they so wrong about you?
Fiore Stern: Well, they just had a bad algorithm, I guess. I did go to prison—I won’t lie about that. What they didn’t realize is I didn’t spend my entire time locked up just sitting on my cot, being pissed off at the world. I was thinking about my mistakes, and learning in the library, and trying to become a better person. So while my record might have made me look like a perfect candidate for an illegal bomb-making company, my heart didn’t really want that. They were wrong, because they just looked at me on the surface. That’s kind of why I was having trouble finding work in the first place.
Magazine Interviewer: So, when they offered you the job at a fertilizer company, did you think you would end up here?
Fiore Stern: Absolutely. I mean, I didn’t know you would be interviewing me, or that I would start having fans, of all things. I did know that I wanted to take them down. From the moment I was in that interview, to the day before the government finally raided all of their facilities at once, I knew it was my responsibility to rid the world of this scum. Did you see all those bomb containers? It was awful.
Magazine Interviewer: Wait, you knew in the interview? You knew that early, before you even started?
Fiore Stern: Of course, they tried to entice me with the fact that I would be part of something dark and twisted.
Magazine Interviewer: Yet you took the job.
Fiore Stern: I sure did. I know what you’re getting at here. You see, I could have gone to the cops right then and there. I could have told that interviewer that I wanted no part of his business, and that I was going to get them in trouble. But what would that have gotten us? He might have killed me on the spot at worst, and no one would have suspected them, or the company could have destroyed evidence, and done whatever else they needed to do to make themselves not look guilty. I had to infiltrate them in order to get anything done. The authorities needed evidence, and that took time. And in that time, I knew I was working for a bad group of people. But I kept going, because it was important. Because it was the right thing to do.
Magazine Interviewer: Well, if the internet response is any indication, the world is grateful for your efforts. Now, tell me. Were you at all culpable for your participation in the company? Did the federal agents think you were involved in anything yourself? If you didn’t approach them until later, it seems you might have unwillingly been part of some criminal activity.
Fiore Stern: Well, indirectly, yes. I knew what they were, and I was technically helping them make money. I was part of the front business, however. We helped customers fertilize their gardens, just like any legitimate company would. They wouldn’t let me anywhere near the bomb stuff. I had to sneak in and steal evidence, but I was a lot closer than any real cop would have been.
Magazine Interviewer: Interesting. That’s such an amazing story. Now. Tell me about your co-workers. A lot of people died during the raid, but two of your colleagues were found dead in their homes later on. What do you suppose happened?
Fiore Stern: I think they just happened to not be at work that day—for whatever reasons—but they realized they had been caught, so they took their own lives. They probably didn’t want to go to jail. I don’t blame ‘em. It helped me improve myself, but not everyone is so lucky. Some people just get worse while behind bars.
Magazine Interviewer: Yes, that’s true. Why don’t you tell us what’s next for Fiore Stern? What does a terrorist-catcher do after he’s caught his terrorists? Any plans to go into law enforcement?
Fiore Stern: No, I don’t think so. I think I’m just gonna go look for a real company now. I still love flowers, and other plantlife.
Magazine Interviewer: Oh, that’s nice.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Microstory 1394: Misdirection

Garden Terrorist 1: Mr. Stern! I see you’ve survived! How was it?
Fiore Stern: It was simultaneously the best, and worst, thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. What was the deal with that sheep? Did everybody get to do that?
Garden Terrorist 2: A lot of the tests are all about loyalty, but that one was about how strong your stomach is. I mean, if you can kill a sheep that slowly, I imagine you can do just about anything.
Fiore Stern: Yeah, it didn’t bother me at all.
Garden Terrorist 3: I was watching you from a distance. You hold the record for longest sheep suffering. You should be proud of yourself.
Fiore Stern: Oh, interesting. So, this is a suitability interview?
Garden Terrorist 2: Ah, it’s not really an interview. We’re here to get to know you, so we can start to build some trust.
Fiore Stern: You guys work in the gardens?
Garden Terrorist 1: Yeah, that’s all we do.
Garden Terrorist 3: In fact, they don’t want us to know anything about what’s really going on in this organization.
Fiore Stern: What is really going on in this organization? And could you speak directly into my shirt collar?
Garden Terrorist 2: Haha! I love this guy. You’re gonna do just fine here, Sterny. That’s what we’ll call you; Sterny.
Garden Terrorist 3: Severe.
Fiore Stern: Huh?
Garden Terrorist 3: We’ll call you Severe. It’s a synonym for stern, ain’t it? Makes you sound mysterious, and dangerous.
Garden Terrorist 2: Oo, I like that. Yeah, that’s much better. Have a drink, Severe.
Garden Terrorist 1: Severe is a perfect name. You certainly lived up to it when you drained that sheep, and when you beat that man half to death.
Fiore Stern: Yeah, who was that? Does he work here?
Garden Terrorist 3: Yeah, but he tested much lower than you.
Garden Terrorist 2: And he’s a masochist.
Garden Terrorist 1: So he volunteers to be the punching bag for Stage Two of initiation.
Fiore Stern: Well, I almost killed him full to death.
Garden Terrorist 1: That’s the risk we all take. You can’t work for us if you’re afraid of a little danger.
Garden Terrorist 2: Or a little pain.
Fiore Stern: I have no problem with pain. I just prefer to be the one doling it out.
Garden Terrorist 2: Ha! There he goes again with that sharp humor! Get him another drink, you whatever your name is.
Garden Terrorist 1: Actually, go get us a keg.
Fiore Stern: So, I wanted to ask you guys something, and I hope I’m not out of line. I understand that I’m not here to be involved in the main business, but what if I were to have...let’s call them extracurriculars?
Garden Terrorist 3: Oh, I see what he’s sayin’. This boy likes to play. We all have our extracurriculars.
Garden Terrorist 1: Rule number one, don’t do anything to jeopardize this organization. You can have a life outside of it, but if you get caught, you better keep us out of it. We’ll deny having any knowledge of whatever it is you like, which will be plausible, because you won’t be telling us. Obviously, we have people in law enforcement who work for us, but you won’t ever know who, so there’s no one out there you can trust. You feel me?
Fiore Stern: I got it. We’re good. I’ll keep to myself.
Garden Terrorist 3: Well, drink up! The world’s ours now.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Microstory 1393: Terror

Fertilizer Developer: Terror Guard 1, Terror Guard 2, Terror Guard 3. This is Fiore Stern. He’s very excited to start working with us, aren’t you, Fiore?
Fiore Stern: Uh. I am.
Fertilizer Developer: Great. Well, he needs to go through clearance, so go ahead and take care of that for me. I’ll be back for ya in two days.
Fiore Stern: Two days? Just how long is this thing?
Terror Guard 1: The interview will only take a few minutes.
Terror Guard 2: But we’ll need to test your loyalty.
Terror Guard 3: That will be the hardest thirty-six hours of your life.
Fiore Stern: Now you’re scaring me.
Terror Guard 1: You should be scared.
Terror Guard 2: This job is not for the faint of heart.
Terror Guard 3: Are you ready?
Fiore Stern: I am. Ask your questions. I’m up for anything, even if it hurts.
Terror Guard 1: We don’t have access to your résumé, so if you’ve already answered these before...we don’t apologize. If you can’t handle a little bit of repetition, you won’t survive here.
Terror Guard 2: Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
Fiore Stern: Yes. I went to prison for two years.
Terror Guard 3: For what?
Fiore Stern: Animal cruelty.
Terror Guard 2: Are you guilty?
Fiore Stern: Indeed.
Terror Guard 1: Do you regret what you did?
Fiore Stern: I was just doing an experiment. I wanted to see how long it would take for the stray cat to die if I kept from feeding it.
Terror Guard 2: So you’re a curious fellow. That’s both a good, and a bad, thing here.
Terror Guard 3: We want you to want to understand the world.
Terror Guard 2: And we want you to want to make it better.
Terror Guard 1: But there are things about our organization that you will not be allowed to know.
Terror Guard 3: Some doors will always be closed to you.
Fiore Stern: I understand.
Terror Guard 3: You will be expected to question authority.
Terror Guard 1: Unless that authority is us.
Fiore Stern: Naturally. I want to do what I can to help.
Terror Guard 2: Good. Have you ever made or used a bomb before?
Fiore Stern: Does a cherry bomb count? Or should I say bombs. I once blew up my neighbor’s garden with thirty cherry bombs.
Terror Guard 1: Really? Terror Guard 3?
Terror Guard 3: That’s worth about an eighth of a stick of dynamite.
Terror Guard 2: Were you not arrested for this as well?
Fiore Stern: This was back when I was a little kid. And no one ever found out what I did. She killed my dog with poison, so I wanted to make sure she couldn’t do that again.
Terror Guard 2: Did you love that dog?
Fiore Stern: No, but I don’t like when people work against me, whether the act itself bothers me or not.
Terror Guard 1: Justice. That’s exactly what we’re all about.
Fiore Stern: I can appreciate that. I don’t know much about explosives, except that fertilizer can be used for it. So I assume that’s what you do. I’m eager to learn, but I kind of have a thing for poisonous plants, so if there’s anything I can do on that front, I sure wouldn’t mind.
Terror Guard 1: You won’t be much involved in the engineering department; not until you prove yourself, at least. You’ll definitely be working with plants, but only so the authorities don’t figure out what we’re really up to.
Fiore Stern: It would be an honor to protect you.
Terror Guard 1: Good. I think he’s ready. Don’t you?
Terror Guard 2: I do.
Terror Guard 3: As do I.
Fiore Stern: Absolutely.
Terror Guard 3: Then put this over your head. Welcome to hell, kid.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Microstory 1392: Fertilizer

Fertilizer Developer: Mr. Fiore, thanks for coming in.
Fiore Stern: No, thank you. I’ve been having a hell of a time getting interviews. I had honestly forgotten about this posting. It’s been a couple months.
Fertilizer Developer: I bet you have, and yes it has. We like to be...particular.
Fiore Stern: Oh, okay. That makes sense, and I guess that’s a good sign.
Fertilizer Developer: It is. Now. It says here you graduated with honors from Hillside University?
Fiore Stern: That’s right. Go Wild Turkeys!
Fertilizer Developer: Right. Well, we do things a little differently here. The first time we run a background check on someone we’re interested in comes before the interview, using a system called Generiport. It quickly verifies certain key information. I’m talkin’ minutes. We know where you went to high school and college, if you’re a citizen, whether you have a criminal history, and a few other bits of info. It doesn’t get too deep, but it gets us just enough information to see if we want to pursue you.
Fiore Stern: Oh. I understand, I’ll go.
Fertilizer Developer: No, don’t do that.
Fiore Stern: Well, you’re obviously about to tell me you know I have a criminal record, and that I didn’t go to college at all.
Fertilizer Developer: That was indeed what I was going to say, but I wasn’t going to tell you it would be a problem. You see, here at Hemming Fertilizer, we look for candidates just like you. We’re about more than just fertilizing gardens. We help the country by keeping its citizens in line. Some don’t like it, but it is our sacred duty, and people like you are vital to that mission.
Fiore Stern: Really? Are you trying to tell me that you regularly hire criminals, and not as part of a public service program, but to use the skills they possess as criminals?
Fertilizer Developer: [...] That’s exactly what I’m telling you.
Fiore Stern: I don’t know what to say.
Fertilizer Developer: I told you about the quick report we ran, but what I didn’t tell you is that your résumé triggered a more comprehensive report, which involves one of our people going through your entire history with a fine-toothed comb. We know about the things you’ve done, and the things done to you. We know the reason you didn’t go to Hillside U is because they wouldn’t take someone who had—give me a second—and I quote, a peculiar and unsettling preoccupation with poisonous plants, and the body decomposition process. Apparently you were caught trying to use the school library?
Fiore Stern: The library never said it was for students only. They just didn’t like what I wanted to research.
Fertilizer Developer: I don’t doubt it.
Fiore Stern: So that quote. The security guard wrote that, and kept my name on file, even though I wasn’t a student, and wasn’t arrested?
Fertilizer Developer: He did, but don’t worry. We took care of it.
Fiore Stern: What do you mean?
Fertilizer Developer: I mean, if someone were to look you up in campus security records, they wouldn’t find anything about you. We couldn’t clear your criminal record—or the time you spent in prison because of what you did—but we got rid of all the evidence that put you there.
Fiore Stern: It sounds like you got me in your debt.
Fertilizer Developer: We don’t like to look at it that way. We see this as an opportunity for you to contribute to society in a way you never knew was possible. Let’s go talk to the clearance department.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Microstory 1391: Poison

Fiore Stern: Good afternoon. I’m looking for books about poisonous plants, particularly those with flowers.
College Librarian: Okay. Well, all the books about plants are in the 580s. Why don’t you follow me into the stacks?
Fiore Stern: Okay, thanks.
College Librarian: I might be able to narrow it down further. What is the assignment asking you to do?
Fiore Stern: It’s not for an assignment. I’m just learning about them on my own.
College Librarian: Oh, all right. Let me see. Yes, 582 is all about flowering plants. I’m not sure there’s a section about toxic plants, though. I would say 581 is your best bet, though. Those books get really specific about plant life topics. Oh, here we go. Here’s one that looks promising. This one might be of use to you as well. I also recommend something like this. It appears to contain a lot of beginner’s information, so you know where to start with your research. Let’s see, this one is about hiking, and what to do if you come across poison ivy, or something.
Fiore Stern: Nah, I don’t really need that. I’m more interested in plants that can be turned into teas, or something.
College Librarian: I thought you needed to know about poisonous plants.
Fiore Stern: Yes.
College Librarian: Mister...
Fiore Stern: Stern.
College Librarian: Mr. Stern, are you looking to do something bad or violent with this knowledge?
Fiore Stern: Of course not, that would be ridiculous. Besides, how could anything I learn in the library be bad?
College Librarian: Actually, lots of information in these books can be used for malicious purposes. Why, even a sports book that teaches you how to swing a bat at a ball could theoretically also teach you to swing it at someone’s head.
Fiore Stern: What are ya gonna do, call the cops, or something?
College Librarian: If you tell me you’re planning to use these books to hurt someone, in any way, then I have to do what I can to help you channel your emotions into something positive. Is there someone who’s angered you? Are you having unwanted feelings?
Fiore Stern: I wouldn’t call any of my feelings unwanted.
College Librarian: Well, the psychology books are all in the 150s, and that’s as far as someone in my profession is going to be able to go for you. If you think you need some real help, might I suggest the mental health floor in the university clinic? I can walk you down there, if you would like.
Fiore Stern: I don’t need any help, I’m fine. You’re blowing this way out of proportion. I just wanted to study hemlock, and all the ways people have died in history. Like, I wanna know how we found out they were poisonous? I mean, nobody had a bunch of science equipment hundreds of years ago, or whenever it was, yet we figured out it should be called poison sumac. Well, how did that happen? Who got hurt figuring that out? Who had to die first?
College Librarian: So, your interest is purely academic?
Fiore Stern: Absolutely.
College Librarian: Okay. In that case, this book here is about botanical history. I’m no expert in the field, so I can’t tell you if it’s going to give you exactly what you’re looking for, but you should be fine if you take this whole stack.
Fiore Stern: I really appreciate it, thanks.
College Librarian: You’re welcome.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: Tuesday, April 4, 2028

The first thing they did was let Leona get caught up with her mother, whose last few years of her life were somewhat uneventful. Despite this being a harsh world to live in, there were, at least, no dangerous people around. Having never seen humans before, some of the predatory animals posed serious threat to the camp, but they weren’t impossible to deal with. They did once see a creature that looked more like a dog, and less like a wolf, so that suggested humans evolved at some point, but died out however long ago after that. An archaeologist or anthropologist would probably have a grand ol’ time studying this whole planet. Their first encounter with another person came when FBI Agent Austin Miller found them one evening after spotting the smoke from their fire. Miller was not happy with the fact that they knew his real name was Hello Doctor, but it was once part of Declan’s curriculum. For his training, he was expected to learn as much past and future history as possible. His teacher, Darko didn’t want him to be surprised by the appearance of anyone in his life; friend of foe. It was the only subject he studied that his classmate, Slipstream did not also study. She remained in the dark about time travel until years later.
Evidently, Agent Miller discovered time travel himself in 2026, when one of the Springfield Nine wreaked havoc on Kansas City, for hazy reasons. Paige Turner was able to erase most of the damage he had done, so that few could remember anything had ever happened. Miller happened to be one of these few, though he wasn’t entirely sure why. Either way, it inspired him to investigate the matter in secret, starting with a temporal object he found called The Omega Gyroscope. He discovered this thing could either create or access alternate timelines. He was in the middle of a long-term study of one of these realities when Paige returned with her fathers, and a group of other people who were trying to stop whatever he had planned. Miller was reluctant to explain his motives clearly to Declan and Carol, but whatever they were, they resulted in him becoming trapped in the other timeline, along with the Reaver-Demir gang. Everyone else managed to escape, but Miller had to sacrifice himself to make it happen. When he did, he somehow ended up here, in this empty world.
“Can you get me back?” Miller asked.
A third of the group looked to Holly Blue for the answer, while another third sought Leona’s expert opinion. The last third waited for Ramses to respond. “We sure can,” J.B. said, confusing everyone. He was a great guy and all, but he had been a salmon his whole life, so his educational experience was sadly limited. “What? Jupiter said we could go back with the people we return to the main reality. If we could go back, then anyone else should be able to as well. All we need to know is when and where the transition window is.”
As if commanded by J.B.’s words, their cuffs all beeped simultaneously. It was directing them to the northwest, for a distance of about nine kilometers. Carol Gelen was very fit and young for her age, but she was still seventy-eight years old, and nine kilometers was a lot. It would take them around two hours to get there at regular pace, but if she slowed them down, they might not make it in time. There was no way to know, because the Cassidy cuff didn’t give them a window deadline.
“She’ll be fine,” Declan explained. “I built something for this exact problem.” He led them around back, to a tool shed sort of thing. Inside was a little cart, just large enough for one person to sit in. Straps were attached to the front, suggesting that it could be pulled by a goat, or a large dog. But that wasn’t the case. Declan put the straps over his own shoulders, and rolled it out of the shed to give Carol more space to step in. She did so with no argument, implying that they had already discussed this, and it was the plan all along. Declan grabbed the end of a second set of straps from just inside the cart, and handed them to Mateo. “We’ll go ahead and get going. The rest of you should fill up on fourth meal, and catch up with us.”
Austin Miller pulled a portable torch out of the stockpile, and lit it from one of the ground torches. Then all four of them headed out. They were over halfway through the trek by the time the others caught up with them a couple hours later. They weren’t exactly walking on a paved road, so the wheels still slowed them down, but at least Carol didn’t have to exert all of her energy.
Once they were at their destination, Ramses lifted up his cuff, and looked through the augmented reality. “They’re train tracks. Like. A lot of them.”
“Ah, the railyard,” Declan said. “Makes sense.”
A familiar horn rang out while Mateo was sitting in the cart to have a rest. “Am I the only one who can hear that?” he asked.
“No, we can as well,” Holly Blue confirmed.
“It will probably be coming from another universe,” Mateo said, “rather than just another reality. Why are we here?”
“I don’t know what it is,” Holly Blue admitted. No one else did either. Leona and Ramses had both heard of The Transit from The Stitcher, but neither of them knew anything about it.
Only Mateo seemed to have any real knowledge. “It’s a giant train that recruits people for some multiverse army.”
As proof, the Transit appeared from its portal, and stopped before them. The doorway opened, and none other than Slipstream herself stepped out. “Declan.”
“Bo!” he shouted at medium volume.
“It’s been a long time,” she said. “Longer for me, I bet.”
“What’s going on here?” Holly Blue demanded to know.
“Declan Aberdeen,” Slipstream continued, sort of ignoring her. “You have been conscripted to The Transit Army to fight the Ochivari.”
“Do I have a choice?” Declan asked.
Slipstream hesitated to answer. “We’re the good guys. You may technically refuse, but...I wouldn’t recommend it. We need you.”
“Dec,” Holly Blue said, “no.”
“You let me train to become a superhero,” Declan said to his mother. “This is my chance to finally put my skills to good use.”
“A superhero, and a soldier, are two very different things,” she argued.
“He’ll be using the skills he has,” Slipstream explained to her. “Some people, like me, will just be there for hand-to-hand combat. Other people have powers. Others, like Declan, have tech. He’ll be fighting alongside the greatest warriors the bulkverse has ever seen, across thousands of worlds. We don’t plan to die. This isn’t that kind of war.”
“I don’t want him going to any kind war,” Holly Blue maintained.
“Mom,” Declan started, “I gotta go. I love you.”
“No.”
“No, you don’t love me too?”
“No, I’m not letting you go.”
Declan took her into a hug, and repeated, “I love you.”
She hugged him back, but could not echo his words, because in this situation, I love you was just a synonym for goodbye, and probably from her perspective, also meant you’re going to die, so I won’t ever see you again. So she couldn’t say that.
And then he went off to war.
When the Transit disappeared through its portal, no one’s memories were erased, and Mateo didn’t understand why. They didn’t have time to question it, though. Just like before with Carol’s arrival, the scenery flickered in and out of existence. They saw a man standing on the tracks, his legs tied to both rails. His eyes were shut tightly, waiting for the train on its way to come clear him from the face of the Earth. It was only meters from colliding with him when the transition completed, and pulled him all the way into The Parallel. Now that he was no longer flickering, Mateo and Leona could see that they knew the man. It was Elder Caverness, also known affectionately as Guard Number One. Along with Kolby Morse, he once detained Mateo in the second main reality, and sent him off to meet his police detective cousin, Danica.
Elder reopened his eyes, but kept his face scrunched up. Once he looked over, and found that he was perfectly safe, he breathed a sigh of relief. “Ah, you saved me! Thanks a bunch!” He tried to step towards them, but couldn’t. “But why am I still tied up?” Now he narrowed his eyes. “What do you want?”
“Someone else saved you,” Mateo explained to him. “He kept you tied up. We can free you, but just give us a little bit.”
Austin Miller stepped over with his torch. “I can take care of those ropes, since we don’t have any real knives, and those knots look impossible.” It took some time, but he managed to burn Elder’s ropes enough to free him.
“Thanks, Geri Thomas,” Elder said.
“Who?” Miller questioned.
“Don’t worry about it.” A traumatized Elder walked some distance from the tracks, and looked around some more. “Where the hell is the highway?”
“You’re in a different reality now,” Leona replied.
“Oh, okay,” Elder said.
J.B. consulted his cuff. “The next transition window is thirteen hours that way.” He pointed. “I guess the exit is sometimes in a different place than the entrance.”
Before they could formulate a plan, the Transit horn sounded again. It reappeared in the exact same way as before. Slipstream didn’t walk out of it this time, though. Neither did Saga or her new partner, Zektene. It was someone none of them seemed to know, and she didn’t walk out at all. She literally flew over to them, and landed gracefully on the ground. “Hi. My name is Ellen Snider. I’m looking for Elder Caverness.”
“That’s me,” he piped up.
“You wanna go fight some aliens?” she offered.
“Yeah, okay,” he agreed. He took her by the hand, and let her lead him back up towards the train.
“Wait,” Holly Blue stopped them. “Where’s my son?”
“Who’s your son?” Ellen asked.
“Declan Aberdeen. He may be going by Declan Blue.”
“Hmm,” Ellen said. She pulled up a phone, and started swiping through it. “Declan Aberdeed. Yeah, he was conscripted four years ago. They dropped him back home  a few months later. You haven’t seen him?”
“No, he must be back in the main timeline, in some other time period.” Holly Blue looked relieved.
“Oh wait,” Ellen said. “This is called salmonverse, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Holly Blue replied.
“Yeah, he’s not here,” Ellen said apologetically. “Most branes don’t have names, and this particular world is one of the unnamed. “I’m sorry, I’m just a recruiter. I don’t know why they placed him there, but it indicates that they did it on purpose, or that he requested relocation. I wish I could help.”
Holly Blue was seething. “Just go.”
The tried walking away again.
“Wait,” Austin Miller jumped in. “Can I come with?”
Ellen tilted her head. “You’re not on my list.”
“So, what? You need fighters, right? I’m a trained FBI agent.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Ellen said. “But come on. We do indeed have a few volunteers. They have to go through more rigorous testing, though, since their timeline doesn’t exhibit their abilities well.”
And so Hello Doctor went off to war as well, along with Elder Caverness, leaving Holly Blue at a loss. At least her son was still alive. Of course, time travel being what it was, being alive at any point in time wasn’t really relevant to someone who existed at some other point. Things were even less concrete when accounting for other universes, whose timelines didn’t sync up with each other in the slightest. She had to find a way to get to this other world, and she had to be there in the same time period as him. She should have thought to ask for a ride before the Transit left again. There were no more fighters in the group, so it probably wouldn’t show up a third time. She just wasn’t thinking clearly. Or perhaps she was only trying to believe he was exactly where he belonged. Surely innocent people required his services in this other brane.
Mateo, Ramses, and J.B. took turns carting Carol towards the transition window. Everyone else scouted ahead, and did their best to clear a path to make it go more smoothly. There wasn’t much time to blaze a trail, though, so they mostly just picked up sticks, and kicked rocks away. They arrived with plenty of time to have another meal, and send Carol back home. Unfortunately, she would be alone, but they gave her directions to the Salmon Civic Center, where someone there would almost certainly help her get her life back on track. Either way, she would most likely be dead by the time they had any chance of seeing her again. The next jump took them just over nineteen years into the future.