Saturday, April 10, 2021

Big Papa: Welcome to Welcome (Part VII)

Cautiously but curiously, we all follow Pryce down the path. It really is a beautiful marvel. It doesn’t even feel like we’re in some kind of space habitat. This structure is certainly large enough to fit millions upon millions of fully formed planets comfortably, so maybe this is exactly that. It’s impossible to tell from this perspective. It could be another simulation, for all I truly know. I can’t trust my senses ever again. They’re sensing a lot of pleasant things now, though. The rustle of the fallen leaves in the wind, the smell of petrichor, the feeling of a warm—but not too warm—sun. The taste of air that’s completely free from pollution. This world is paradise, and I know I’ve only seen a fraction of a fraction of an unfathomably small fraction that Hogarth and the world-builders have created. If this is just the bridge that leads to the other universe, I can’t imagine what’s waiting on the other side, which is where I assume we’re going.
The path splits into a fork, one leading alongside the pond that we’ve come across, and the other leading directly into it. Stone steps go right down to the edgewater, suggesting that we’re meant to enter here. Hogarth isn’t surprised or concerned, so this isn’t something that belongs to him, but to her. Pryce steps one foot in, and keeps the other up on the last dry step. He reaches towards me with his hand. “You can trust me.”
I step down, and take his hand. “That will never be true.”
We all walk into the water, and find it to be the perfect temperature. Once it gets deep enough, we drop our chests down, and begin to swim towards the middle. I keep my eye on Hogarth, because if she starts to detect trouble, I’ll know that it’s real. “Just float on your back and relax,” she instructs. “This is the prototype of the transitional prebiotic lake that people from the afterlife simulation will be using. I designed this to be a joyful and calming experience. Bulkverse travel is always either so technical and mechanical, or jarring. I want people to slip over to other worlds peacefully, which is why I call this a drift portal.
Despite tasting no salt, we’re incredibly buoyant. Floating was always something I struggled with when I was learning to swim as a kid, but this takes no effort at all. I do feel wet, yes, but it’s almost as if I’m hovering in the air on a cloud. It’s simulation physics made real. I intended the afterlife to be a place where the dead could live on, but I failed to predict some of the more creative real world applications, such as this. We lie there quietly, and enjoy the sounds of nature around us. We occasionally drift close to each other, but never collide. I start coming up with explanations for this, like maybe Hogarth programmed the area to prevent collisions with a force field, but then I just let it go, and stay in the present. At some point, I realize that the sky has changed from the familiar blue to a lovely violet color. We transitioned, and I didn’t even notice.
I hear splashing as the others begin to swim towards the new shore. When I start to follow, Aldona is still on her back, and we don’t try to summon her. If this is where she wants to be, here is where she’ll stay. She seems content, as am I. I am as relaxed as Hogarth wanted me to be, and have relinquished all hostility I felt coming into the mission to remove Pryce from power. I do not forgive him for anything that he’s done, but it no longer consumes me. Who can be mad under a purple sky?
“Welcome, all...” Hogarth begins, “to Violkomin” She smiles proudly at her own pun. “All who come to this universe shall pass through here.” She walks around a bit, and admires nothing in particular. “The membrane is fifty thousand times thicker than any other universe. Not even The Crossover could penetrate. If someone wants to come, they’ll be bottlenecked. This is the safest place in the multiverse.”
“No,” Nerakali contends. “The universe as a whole may be, but this world is on the frontlines. One way way out; no escape. Might want to consider building a backdoor.”
“Is this what you wanted to show us?” Lowell asks Pryce.
“No, he responds. We’re about four hundred light years from that.”
“Where’s the nearest Nexus?” Gilbert asks.
“Now that we’re in my domain,” Hogarth says, “we don’t need Nexa.” She reaches out towards Pryce. “Navigator.”
He takes her hand to better send a psychic message containing the coordinates to their destination. We all transport to another planet, one that’s just as beautiful and wondrous as the last. “Ellie?” comes a voice behind me.
I turn around to find Paige Turner. There are eleven versions of her that I know of, though, so there’s no telling which, or if it’s a new model that I’m not familiar with. I glance over at Pryce. This may not be any version of Paige, but a clone inhabited by some other personality. If this is meant to be a gift from him, it’s an unreliable one. “How do I know you’re who you seem to be?”
Paige sets down the little bear-looking creature she was carrying at her side like a dolphin in a sealab. She tilts her head much in the same way Pryce did when he was contemplating a philosophical question. “You can’t ever know who you’re seeing, or who you’re talking to, can you?” she poses. “I mean, ignoring quantum duplicates, time travel, clones, android substrates, dreams, hallucinations, and holograms, identity is something we can’t ever truly know about anyone but ourselves, and maybe not even then. Perhaps when we met, Ellie, I was an individual, and the next day, a different individual woke up in the same body. I believed I was the original Trinity, but how would I really know that? Perhaps it’s all just a lie, and if I can’t truly ever know whether I’m the same person as Past!Me, then I certainly can’t expect you to have a clue.”
“That was unhelpful,” I tell her. “I hoped your response would prove it one way, or the other.
“I think her point is that—” Nerakali tried to explain.
“I get her point,” I snap. I compose myself, and apologize with a remorseful facial expression. “If you had your powers, would you know whether this was the real Trinity?”
“If I still had my powers,” Nerakali begins, “I would be the worst person to determine which version of Paige this is. All duplicates are the same to me. Identity doesn’t exist in my world.”
The apparent Trinity walks forward, her loyal ursine creature following closely by her ankles. “I remember everything that Trinity experienced before she died, and I remember everything back when I was just a young girl from the early 1970s named Paige, before I split off to start my own life on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida.” She takes both my hands in hers. “And I remember how I feel about you. I hope that can be enough.”
“It wasn’t enough for you,” I remind her. “Pryce masqueraded as me on Lorania, and when you found out it was actually him, you never talked to the real me again.”
Trinity frowns. “It’s my biggest regret.”
I hug her, also hoping the possibility that this is really her will be enough for me. “How did you survive past your death?” I ask when we release. “Avatar!Pryce said you were a hopeless case.”
She nods towards the physical embodiment of Pryce.
“I went back in time, and utilized a special type of mind siphon,” he explains. “Don’t blame my avatar, he doesn’t know I did it. It was much harder than for people with brain disease. I had to write an algorithm that predicted which neuron would be overtaken by Past!Me’s consciousness next. It had a point-zero-six percent fail rate, so I had to loop back multiple times until those errors were corrected.”
“So you see?” Trinity asks. “I am from an alternate reality. But aren’t we all?” It’s true, everyone here originated from a different timeline, and none of us belongs in this one. Well, I’m not sure about Aldona, I just don’t know enough about her, but she’s still back on Violkomin.”
Oh, thank God,” Aldona’s voice suddenly shouts in my ear. “Please come help me! There’s a fire in the sky, and it’s heading right for me!
“Aldona?” I cry. “Say that again, so everyone can hear.”
Aldona repeats herself after I alter the teleporting sound waves to a wider area. Hogarth transports us back to Violkomin, where we indeed see a fireball hurling through the sky, threatening to crash into us. The ground is shaking, and it’s incredibly hot. Hogarth transports us again, scooping up Aldona in the process. We don’t go back to Trinity’s world, though. We’re inside a glass geodesic dome, the sky is black, but we can see the sun, so this must be a moon with no atmosphere. We watch the fiery object crash onto the surface of Violkomin, and utterly destroy it.
“Are we safe at this distance?” Lowell questions.
“We’ll have fair warning,” Hogarth assured him. This moon is orbiting the next planet over in the system, but it’s still pretty far away. If debris heads towards us, I’ll get us out in time. But I wanted to see what this whas. What the hell happened?”
“Something crashed into your planet,” Gilbert answers with a little attitude.
“Where did it come from?” Hogarth asks, knowing that no one here will know the answer.
“What’s that?” Lowell asks. Something is flying through the sky, towards the moon. It doesn’t appear to be coming from the debris, but perhaps from where the crashing object came from. It changes direction, so it’s not a comet.
Hogarth wants to keep watching her precious world fall apart, but she has to stay level-headed, and in charge. “Give me a vacuum suit.” As she walks towards an airlock, machines appear around her, and wrap clothes around her body. First, she steps into a pair of pants, and then a pair of shoes with the next step. She lifts her arms to let a top slip over her. Finally, a helmet comes down, and secures itself over her head. It’s like Iron Man, but with fewer moving parts, because that’s more conducive to a space environment.
Not sure whether it’s even possible or not, I ask for my own suit, and literally follow in her footsteps. I’m not as graceful, but it works for me as well. Within one minute, I’m ready for a spacewalk. Lowell and Nerakali do the same, but Gilbert and Aldona choose to stay in the safety of the habitat. Pryce ignores the suit assembly line, and steps into the airlock seemingly unprotected. He’s always had an obsession with finding the perfect body to live in, so the one he’s using now must allow him to survive outer space.
We let the hatch close behind us, and wait for the outer door to rise out of our way. I’ve actually been on a spacewalk before, and not how you would think. I normally transported to other worlds via The Trotter, or Trinity. I’ve traveled in a few spaceships, but always stayed inside. No, actually, I was the only female crewmember of Apollo 18. I was pretty famous, and it was an exhilarating experience, but then I went back in time to my younger body, and ended up in a timeline where the mission didn’t even take place. That’s kind of what I do, live a crazy lifetime, gain all this experience and knowledge, and then take it away so no one knows I ever did those things. That was a very long time ago from my perspective, and it’s not exactly like riding a bike. Only Hogarth and Pryce are true masters of the moonwalk. Even Trinity struggles and stumbles a bit as we make our way to the downed spacecraft.
Hogarth uses an AI in her helmet to determine the best point of entry for us, one which won’t harm whatever inhabitants are inside. It has its own air lock, which the AI hacks into for us. The atmosphere is perfectly breathable once we’ve repressurized. “Stay together,” she orders. Which makes sense, because we’re not some kind of highly trained recon team. We may all respectively have the skills to protect ourselves, but we don’t know how to work together, and we don’t have a shorthand with each other.
A small group of large white aliens are sitting in what looks like a mess hall. They look frazzled and depressed, and there’s a hint of fear when they notice we’ve walked in, but they instinctively hide it defensively. The apparent leader stands up, and symbolically gets herself in between us and her crew. “My name is Ukodenva Unedisalk. We are but cadets in the Loyal Interspace Arm of the Maramon Lower Class Military Branch. We possess little training, and no means of defending ourselves. Please do not harm my people. If you require a hostage, I alone will suffice.”
This should be interesting.

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