Saturday, July 10, 2021

Sic Transit...Ingenuitas (Part VIII)

Saying that the penthouse was the best was apparently not saying much. Treasure hadn’t seen a lot of this world when she first arrived, but the word she used to describe it in her headcanon was dumpy. The people here weren’t just careless with the environment, but actively destructive of it. No one deserved to be wiped out by the Ochivari, but she had to pick one universe, she certainly couldn’t pick somewhere else over this one, right? That wouldn’t be fair. Still, the individuals she met were very kind and accommodating. They seemed to love and revere her quite a bit. She was a legend before her time. She wasn’t really excited to get to the part of her future where people knew her name, and she understood specifically why. Again, she was still so young, so she hadn’t thought much about her future. She only knew that she was born with this power, and it would be irresponsible not to use it, since as far as she knew, it wasn’t something she could bequest to someone else.
Bequest isn’t a verb,” Quino instructed her. “I’ve been studying English. It’s a noun. Perhaps you mean bequeath.”
Bequest is also a verb in my universe,” Treasure explained.
“My own personal universal bubble that I live in that’s only large enough to fit me and my tiara.”
“I can’t join you?” he asked. They had grown closer over the last few months. They weren’t actively pursuing a relationship with each other, but they also weren’t working very hard to prevent it. Though as he said, Quino was now completely fluent in English, their preferred shared language was Flirtish.
“Okay. I just need to absorb enough bulk energy to make it larger.”
He took an eighth of a step towards her. “Ya know, if I were to stand closer, you wouldn’t have to expend so much energy to make your universe big enough for the both of us.”
“That’s true,” she agreed as she was taking a quarter step. “How close were you thinking, though?”
Quino skipped the half-step, and just jumped right to a pretty wide full step. Their shoulders were touching each other, and maybe a few atoms could flow between the left side of his chest, and her breast. She could feel his breath on her forehead. “How much energy would it take to accommodate me now?”
She was surprised by this. They had never come this close before, and until this moment, the way they flirted could have always been dismissed as nothing more than innocent, or maybe even platonic. She was glad he was making the first move, though. It was so unlike him, which showed that he felt comfortable being relaxed around her. She felt the same, so she kept going. “Still too much.” She pulled him right up against her, and held him in place with her arms. “This I think I can handle.” She rested her head on his neck, and they just held each other tightly for the rest of time.
Without releasing completely, Quino reached into his back pocket, and showed her some little metal thing that she didn’t recognize. “Happy birthday.”
“Is it my birthday?” Treasure asked genuinely. “How can you tell?”
“You told me how long ago your sixteenth was before you decided to show your parents what you could do. Based on the amount of time we were in Hyperion, and all these other universes, I think I can reasonably surmise that today is the day you turn seventeen. I’ve been keeping track, because honestly, while seventeen Standard Vertean years does not equal seventeen Earthan years, it is pretty close, and it’s when my people consider someone to be an adult.”
Treasure smiled and nodded. “How clever of you. But I must say, I do not know what that thing is.”
“Me neither,” Quino admitted. “All I know is that it’s the last part that your special ship needs to be complete. Once they insert this doo-da-bob under the whatever-ma-thingy, we’ll be ready to go.”
“That’s sweet,” she said.
He pulled away a little more, and looked confused, as if someone else had said something that made him wonder what was going on. “Is it? I’m now realizing that my giving this to you is basically like giving you permission to do something you’re already entitled to do. I have no right to give this to you. It’s not mine. It’s always been yours.”
“Don’t overthink it,” Treasure said, taking the doo-da-bob from him. “Let’s go tell everyone else.”
“Everyone knows. They’re waiting for you to give a go-ahead on the manifest.”
“Why would I need to give the go-ahead?”
“Like I said, it’s yours. This is a gift. The engineers expect nothing in return. They were happy to be doing something. Apparently, being a robot is boring. Anyway, it’s your ship, so you get to decide who gets on it.”
“All the humans, I guess. I mean, if there’s room for any androids who want to go somewhere else, I’m happy to oblige them as well.”
“No androids want to come,” Quino said, “not even Kickstand and Apple. There is a complication, though. Word got out about you, specifically to the island of organics who chose not to upload their minds to mechanical bodies. There were thousands of them in the beginning, but the majority of them were old, and have since died out. Over two hundred of them are still around, though, and they would like to find a new home.”
“Aren’t they sick?” Treasure asked. When the Ochivari travel to a new universe, they destroy all intelligent life with a virus that sterilizes the entire population. It takes  decades to complete, but it can’t be stopped once it’s begun.
“Yes, they are presently in quarantine, to protect us, and the other refugees. The  virus is airborne, but it can only survive for an extended period of time in a living host, so this whole area is virus-free. That’s why we didn’t immediately contract it upon arrival. Bringing them onboard is risky, and there’s still no cure.”
“Then what’s the point? Where do they want me to take them?” Treasure asked. “We can’t let them try to integrate into some other civilization.”
“Yeah, but this world is polluted, even where they are. The atmosphere is becoming toxic, and will kill them all before old age can.”
Treasure sat a moment with this information. Her parents and Miss Collins, and pretty much every adult she ever met, taught her to help others. That was everything to them; helping people. It was their reason for being, and they instilled this value in her. Her instinct was to help, but that word was more complicated than it sounded. If you were to try to help someone in their quest to become president of a company, you might be hurting the person who already was the president. So the very idea of helping others was a lot more nuanced than just seeing someone in need, and providing them with that need. She had to think about whether helping them could cause harm to others, and the answer was yes. Yes, it would hurt others. If there were a cure to the sterility virus, or even if there was a way to stop them from being contagious, that would be a different story. They could live out their lives, happy and healthy, and not worry about infecting others. But that was not the bulkverse they were living in. In reality, taking these people to safety meant risking destroying all life, in every universe. Not even the Ochivari wanted that.
It was also prudent to consider the victims. As individuals, they may have all been lovely people, but they were living in a dead world, because their ancestors—and frankly, maybe even they—made it that way. They caused the pollution, and by all accounts, it was worse here than any planet Treasure studied in school. Perhaps they didn’t deserve to be sterilized. And once she was ready, Treasure planned to do everything she could to thwart the Ochivari’s plans. This was all true. The problem was that saying the locals deserved this would be an overstatement, but saying they didn’t deserve it didn’t sound right either. She could not justify rescuing these people at the expense of the truly innocent, which yeah, included herself. She breathed in deep, but didn’t say anything.
Quino understood. “I’ll take care of it, and I’ll leave you out of it.”
“No,” Treasure said. “Tell them it was my call. It’s what my mother would do. Well, actually, she would be brave enough to confront them herself.”
“That’s why you have me,” Quino assured her. “We’re a team now.” He started to walk backwards. “You, me, and Rosalinda. Hey, get your stuff together. We leave whenever you want.”
Unlike how it was in Hypnopediaverse, the bridge collapse refugees here were all from the same place. They were attending a concert in the park, and just so happened to be in the same vicinity as each other in the parking lot afterwards. That was going to make dropping them off that much easier. The engineers were brilliant. They included a cosmic frequency detector, which would allow her to navigate to any user’s universe of origin, or if calibrated correctly, back to a universe they had been to before. Navigating the bulkverse was difficult for anyone to do. Most of the technology the Transit employed was dedicated exclusively towards making these calculations. Treasure was supposed to be able to do it psychically, but given where they were now, she was obviously not so great at that. Fortunately, the cosmic frequency workaround was almost foolproof, and a fairly easy component to add. In the future, they would try to link this little lifeboat up to the Transit’s database, to gather the necessary coordinate data.
It was very easy to pilot the little ship. An AI did most of the heavy lifting for her. All Treasure had to do was tell it what she wanted, and it would figure it out. Once all the refugees were back where they belonged—having aged, but not having missed anything from their lives—Treasure navigated them to what Miss Collins referred to as an uncivilized universe. This may have sounded bad and dangerous, but all it really meant was that life evolved on planets with the right conditions, but did not progress enough to have any sort of sufficiently advanced intelligence. They were actually some of the safest worlds to be, because other travelers had no use for them, and there was no one around for the Ochivari to sterilize. Here, she stepped out of the ship, and prepared to return home on her own. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Where are you going?” Rosalinda asked.
“I have to go deal with my parents,” Treasure said. “I just need to explain to them what’s happened, and that my life is out here now. They won’t like it, but they’ll accept it, and they won’t be able to stop me.”
“Don’t do that,” Quino strongly suggested.
“Why not?” Treasure questioned.
“I want you to be back here soon, but from your perspective, it should be longer.”
“How much longer?”
He hesitated a bit. “Three years.”
“Three years!” she exclaimed. “Why do you want me gone that long?”
“In three years, you won’t be that much younger than me. That’s important, but there’s a reason age discrepancies are so frowned upon. You have not experienced enough of your life. You have not figured out who you are, and what you want to do. You’ve not explored your options. You need to finish basic higher education before you start doing all this.”
“This is easy for you to say,” Treasure argued. “It won’t be but seconds for you, no big deal. You expect me to wait years for you, just so I can get a degree that I don’t care about, and won’t use?”
“You’ll use the education you receive; you just probably won’t use it to get a job,” he reasoned.
“What if I meet someone new? What then? You know what you’re risking.”
“If you meet someone new, then you will belong with that person, and I will be happy for you. You still need to come back here to pilot The Strongbox, though. I don’t want to live in this universe forever.”
“The what-box?”
“The Strongbox,” Quino repeated. “That’s what this could be called, because it holds treasure?”
They kept arguing about it, but Treasure decided to agree in the end. Fighting wasn’t helping anything, and she could come back whenever she wanted, regardless of what he thought was prudent. She wouldn’t even have to tell him. So they said their goodbyes, and then she screamed her way back home. In those few seconds while she was waiting for the shatter portal to break open, she had an idea. If she navigated precisely to the moment she first left, her mother would never even know she had gone. She wasn’t in the room when it happened, so she didn’t actually see it happen. This was fate. She knew she had heard a different scream when she left. She thought it was some kind of echo, but no, it must have been Future!Her.
Her mom burst into the room. “What did you do?”
“See?” Treasure began, feigning innocence. She spoke with her real voice. “I can scream and not travel the bulkverse. I don’t need my collar anymore, I can control it. I can choose whether my scream is more than just a loud sound.”
Freya regarded her, unimpressed. “Treasure.”
“Yes, mom?” She was still trying to act like a good girl.
“You’re wearing different clothes, and there’s something on your head. Did you become the queen of another world, or something?”
“Uhhhhhhhh...quick-change trick. Mom, I want to become a magician.”
Freya sighed, obviously not believing the really bad lie. “Where did you go, and how long were you there?”
“Wait, I can explain. Just—” Before she could finish her thought, an obnoxious horn sounded outside. Treasure smiled gleefully. It was The Transit. Azura was here.

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