Saturday, February 13, 2021

Exemption Act: The Constant Variable (Part VII)

Freya separated herself from Diamond Zek and Kivi, and stepped away to pace the room. The both waited for her patiently, while she figured out what she wanted to say. She didn’t want to be mean, but she had to get answers. “Who are you?”
“My name is Kivi Bristol.”
What are you?”
“I am a chosen one, having been created by an unknown chooser.”
“Why do you seem familiar, but I also get the feeling that we’ve never met?”
“I am bound by a phenomenon called spontaneous quantum reemergence. I come into existence at seemingly random points in spacetime, and disappear just as quickly. Sometimes the people around me are aware of it, and sometimes not. Sometimes I am aware of it, and sometimes I’m not. It’s unclear whether there are multiple versions of me running around the timeline, or if I am one person, being shunted throughout the timeline in a nonlinear order. Someone once called me the constant variable.”
“I have memories of you being a part of this team for two years,” Freya argued.
“Do you, though?”
“Well, yeah, because you...”
Kivi smiled. “My ability does sometimes fabricate memories, but most of the time, it just forces your brain into ignoring the fact that you don’t have memories. I actually didn’t join the team until shortly before we launched.”
“Are you good, or bad?”
“Good. That’s one thing that’s consistent about me. I’m always good.”
“How do we know?”
“Zek is immune to the psychic intrusion.” She held up the diamond a little. “But I am not immune to hers. She would know.”
“Give her to me.” Freya took Diamond Zek from Kivi. She didn’t need to hold her to have a private conversation, but this made it easier to be sure Kivi wasn’t somehow listening in. Is she telling the truth?
She is, Zek confirmed.
Would you know if she weren’t?
I believe so.
Can we trust her?
Can we trust Khuweka, and Landis? Can you trust me?
I would like to think so.
Then that settles it, Zek decided. We will trust Kivi as much as we have anyone else on the team. Do not tell the others what we know. We need to be able to work together, and as far as they are aware, they’ve been learning to do that with Kivi for the past two years. Revealing the truth would undermine the mission.
“Well, we wouldn’t want that,” Freya said out loud.
No, we would not.
Freya handed Diamond Zek back to Kivi. “Like I did, people will start to notice that you’re not capable of communing with Zek without physical contact. I suggest you speed up the psychic bond as much as possible.”
“Very well,” Kivi said graciously. “Thank you.”
Freya took a moment. “What, do you suppose, you’re here for? What are your skills?”
Kivi cleared her throat.
“Be honest,” Freya said, growing suspicious again.
“I’m a lawyer.”
“I’ve practiced law on multiple planets,” Kivi answered, worried how she would be received. “I’m not an engineer, or a fighter, or anything else you would expect to find on a battleship.”
“Have you practiced on an alternate future version of Worlon?”
“If I have, I have no memory of it,” Kivi said. “I doubt it, though. They sound pretty universally spiteful of humans.”
“Perhaps you argued against them.” Freya really was trying.
“They would have to have gone up against a pretty formidable enemy for it to lead to nonviolent legal proceedings, rather than some kind of deadly conflict.”
“I may have one trick up my sleeve, though.”
“Oh?” Freya was interested.
“I’m romantically linked to Lincoln Rutherford. I don’t have a way to contact him from where I sit, but...that’s something?”
“It certainly is,” Freya agreed. “He knows literally everything, which means he knows where you are right now, which means he could send help if we need it. You may be our backup.”
“So are we cool?” Kivi asked.
“We’re okay...for now.”

A month and a half later, they were finally approaching their destination. It was Freya’s job at this point to read off the specifications for the planet, so everyone knew what they were getting into. A project called Topdown decades ago sent giant telescopes into the intergalactic voids, so they could take measurements of the entire galaxy, but there were some details that were best left to upclose sensors. “It scores a point-nine-two-one on the Terrestrial Habitability Similarity Index, which may sound great, but ninety-five percent is the bare minimum that Operation Starseed will accept when deciding which worlds to plant life on, and which to ignore. Oxygen saturation is one-point-eight times as it is on Earth. I’m not sure if that’s why Ochivari are related to dragonflies, or what, but it certainly tracks. Surface gravity is one-point-four-gee, so we’re all fat now.”
“Signs of intelligent life?” Khuweka posed.
“None that the ship can detect,” Freya responded.
“Mr. Genovese, have you been able to locate a seed plate, or an interstellar ship?”
“Working...” Carbrey said.
“Which are we expecting?” Andraste asked.
“Once he hacks into Project Stargate, we’ll know,” Khuweka explained. “Each plate is responsible for establishing a presence in seven to twenty-eight star systems. There’s no way to know whether Worlon will get the plate, or a ship that the plate builds somewhere else. If it’s a secondary ship, it won’t be here for awhile. Arrival dates are estimates.”
Carbrey nodded his head. “I’m in the system. An automated interstellar probe is scheduled to arrive here in six years.”
“What do we do until then?” Eliana asked.
“We’re not waiting until it shows up,” Khuweka said. “We’re going to meet it head on, and destroy it. Then we’ll take it’s job, and start sending measurements back to Earth ourselves, but they’ll be false.”
“Do we really want to do that?” Diamond Zek asked. “Shouldn’t we just destroy the probe, and keep away from this planet?”
“We need to stop Operation Starseed from coming here with human DNA samples. If we don’t falsify the data, the system will eventually send those samples, whether they come from the nearest seed plate, or the next nearest. This is prime real estate. If we don’t do something to make it think this world is worthless, they’ll just keep sending backups. This whole project is destined to last tens of thousands of years. They’re patient enough to deal with failures, and fully prepared to correct them. Even if that takes thousands of years, they’re still well within their deadline.
“Furthermore, seed plates are the things they built on Gatewood, and dispatched with the gargantuan modular carrier at the start of the project. They’re powered by microfusion reactors, which are incredibly small, and only designed for short bursts of momentum, and maneuverability. A plate only exists to drop down on one orbital or satellite in one solar system. The branching network probe ships, however, are part of the inventory that this seed plate will make once it lands, using the raw material that it finds there. They can be much larger, and thusly support larger reactors. They can afford to spend power on other things, like long-range sensors, and a constant data connection with Earth and Gatewood. If we let that thing get close enough to Worlon to codify its habitability, all will be lost. We have to intercept it.”
Throughout Khuweka’s explanation, Carbrey kept working on the computer. He already understood all of this and knew that he needed to plot an intercept course. According to Freya’s education, finding something in the middle of interstellar space wasn’t as easy to do as fictional representations made it seem. On TV, they just pulled up a screen, and barring any invisibility cloak, every single object within a sufficient range would just be automatically visible. Still, it wasn’t impossible to find something either. Like Khuweka said, the probe was constantly sending data back to the stellar neighborhood, including its own location, relative to nearby celestial objects. He just needed to access that datastream. “I got it.”
“How far away is it?” Khuweka asked
“Roughly six light years. It’s going at maximum relativistic.”
Khuweka just looked over at Eliana.
“She doesn’t need to,” Freya said.
No, she doesn’t,” Diamond Zek agreed. “We’ve been working on something.” Without even touching them, she was able to teleport everyone to the booster room. They weren’t aware she could do this, but they weren’t shocked either. Her power was growing every week. She would probably reach a limit at some point, and never become a god, or anything, but the light year limit was a thing of the past. “Simulations suggest that I’m up to a parsec,” she announced proudly. “Freya?
Freya took Diamond Zek from Andraste’s arms, and took her to the back of the booster seat. There, she had engineered a special case for her to be locked in. It connected her to the platform, and kept her secure. Only the eight people in this room would be capable of removing her from her spot, but there wouldn’t likely be much reason to do so anymore. The case also integrated Zek’s consciousness with the ship’s systems, effectively making her the ship itself. Everything was working. All that needed to happen now was a consensus that she be allowed to do this, and a test of the new FTL jump limitation.
They all looked to Khuweka, who looked back at them. “Her superconscious crystalline carbonaceous substrate, her choice.”
Limerick watched as Freya locked Diamond Zek into her new home. “On my world, we have these things called wedding rings. They look like that.”
“Hmm,” Freya noted. “The ring here exists to concentrate Zek’s temporal energy. It does kind of look like a giant wedding ring, though, doesn’t it?”
“Mr. Genovese,” Khuweka said simply, once Zek was fully in place.
Carbrey started tapping on his tablet. “Plotting a lateral course. We’ll still be six light years from the probe, but a parsec from Worlon.”
The engines started up, made their connection with Diamond Zek, and jumped away. Carbrey was notably less panicky than he was the last time. He patiently waited for his tablet to calculate their location. They were exactly where they wanted to be.
Diamond Zek was quite pleased with herself. “I could have gone farther. I probably could have gone twice as far.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Khuweka told her. “For now, a parsec will suffice.” She looked at Freya and Carbrey. “The three of you need to work out how we’re going to do this. I know you already have a plan in mind?”
“Yes.” Freya nodded. “With a precision jump, we can essentially surround the probe, and match its speed. If all goes well, it should be hovering inside a quantum Faraday cage, where it can no longer send a signal back to Earth.”
“Well, actually,” Carbrey began to correct, “it will send its signal, but will do so about five million years in the past. With no quantum receiver on the other end, it will just...disappear.”
“Very well,” Khuweka said. “If you’re sure this will work, make the necessary preparations, thank you.”
Freya and Carbrey did make the necessary preparations, while the other six members of the crew went off to do their own thing. They started building the quantum Faraday cage when they arrived in the Worlon system, but before it could be used, they needed to make sure it was completely ready. There was no room for error here. To that end, they also needed to work out the calculations. The probe ship was traveling towards Worlon at 0.999999c, which was the fastest possible without time powers. The Cormanu was fully capable of reaching this velocity, and in fact would need to already be there when they made their jump. The probe ship would basically suddenly appear inside the Cormanu, and once it did, they would be able to disable it manually, but getting to that point would take a lot of finesse. And extremely high level math.
Within the day, they felt they were ready, and prepared for any eventuality, so it was time to just go for it. Zek first made a jump to about 50,000 astronomical units away from the probe, just to make the final jump easier on her. That was well outside of the probe’s known sensor range for an object of the Cormanu’s mass. They accelerated themselves to max relativistic speed. Early vessels needed time to accelerate, and just as much time to decelerate, but even the humans managed to conceive a workaround that allowed them to reach target velocities almost instantly without turning passengers into mush against the back wall.
The two of them chose to stand just outside the cage when it happened, so they could watch it. They built it a lot larger than they needed to, so there should be no danger from this distance. When Carbrey had just activated the final step for the jump, Limerick walked into the shuttle bay, wanting to see it as well.
“Lim, get over here! It’s dangerous on that side.”
Freya ran over to retrieve him. Their calculations were right, but there was always a chance they were off by a meter or two. The probe could theoretically end up on the wrong side of the cage. The signal would still be blocked for long enough to allow them to fix the error, but you wouldn’t want to be standing there when it happened.
“Jumping away,” Zek announced.
Something turned out to be massively wrong with their calculations, or something. Freya didn’t have time to form a hypothesis. She and Limerick were being pressed up against the cage. The probe was nowhere to be seen, and the fence was threatening to buckle under the pressure. They couldn’t get off, but perhaps that was the only thing keeping them from being sucked out into the interstellar void. The fence gave way, and sent them hurtling towards the back. The fence on the other side held for a moment, but it too would lose hold.
She fell forward, and landed on her face. On the ground. She was on land. Somehow. In a breathable atmosphere. Limerick was next to her, recovering from his own tumble. What the hell just happened?

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