Saturday, July 3, 2021

Sic Transit...Intima (Part VII)

This was only the fourth time Treasure had traveled the bulk using her own powers directly, and only the second time that she could remember. She didn’t know where it had taken them, but she knew it was far. She had the highest reserves of bulk energy ever, having absorbed a great deal of it once the Transit was fully operational, and transconducting on its own. The way it was explained to her, she should have only been able to cross over into the nearest branes to where she was. Some branes were touching each other, and while she could probably connect to a chain, there were other universes that were just isolated, off in the bulk, not linked to any other. The three major machines were capable of reaching these places, because they could survive in the outer bulkverse. All signs pointed to the fact that she could not. She was just a human, not wearing a spacesuit, or anything. How could she survive something as dangerous as what scientists apparently decided to call an equilibrium, in order to distinguish it from its more commonly understood counterpart, the vacuum. However she did it, she did it. She survived, and so did her friends. They were floating through the bulk, watching time knives and swirling colors pass them by, protected by some kind of bubble, and hopelessly lost.
Treasure tried to direct them towards the nearest brane she could see, because the farther they got from where they were, the less likely they would be able to get back. She had no form of propulsion, though. She couldn’t control anything at this point. As best they could tell, they were following some kind of hyperdimensional current, and traveling in a fairly straight line. The only way they were going to be able to stop at this point was to manage to run into a brane by chance. It was difficult to keep track of time in the bubble. Their watches weren’t working, and obviously there weren’t any celestial movements. They just floated there, enjoying the show, but hoping it stopped soon. They could talk, but the sound was this weird echoey muffle. Their voices were louder, but hardly intelligible, and quite frankly, annoying. Plus, they didn’t know where they were getting all this air they were breathing, so it was best to keep silent, and conserve as much as possible. There they waited for at least a day, maybe more, until they came upon a time knife, and flew into its sharp edge.
The odds that they would land on a planet with good surface gravity, and a breathable atmosphere were negligible in this situation. There was just so much more nothingness than there was nitrogen and oxygen in the right ratio, but it happened anyway. Perhaps Treasure’s power would always take her to a place where she could breathe. It was all about survival instinct, and she couldn’t survive in space. Or maybe she could. Who knows now? The rules went out the window yesterday.
“Okay, so I couldn’t really say this before, but...I’m sorry.” It wasn’t very hospitable where they landed. It was a very dry desert, and the air felt a little toxic; not enough to kill them right away, but enough to decrease their lifespans in the long-run. They started walking forward, aimlessly.
Quiet Quino was as cool as ever, and might have even been relieved to be free of his superior officers. Rosalinda didn’t seem too terribly perturbed either. “Fascinating. The chance to study, and learn from, a society that rose up in a completely different universe.”
“We don’t know that yet,” Treasure pointed out. “This could be an uninhabited universe, or maybe just an uninhabited world in a vast universe. When you add it all up, life is unfathomably rare. Civilization is even rarer.”
“That looks pretty civilized to me,” Quino mused, pointing to the distance. They were standing near what kind of looked like an ice highway. It was definitely not ice, but it was smooth, metallic, and reflective like water. Coming down it was a hovercraft of some kind. It was just minding its own business as it passed by, but then struggled to stop, and backed up. The window rolled down, revealing two hard top androids, regarding them cautiously but curiously. “Humans,” the one closest to them presumed.
“Yes,” Treasure replied. She spoke with her tiara, though, and that seemed to confuse them more.
“How did you survive the transition?” He looked behind him, just in case there was some kind of human reservation around here. “Better yet, how do you survive the pollution?”
“We’re not from around here,” Treasure answered.
“Get in,” he offered. “It’s not safe out here for organics.”
They hesitated.
“We ain’t gonna hurt ya,” he claimed. “We’re just going to contact The Transit Army, so they can come pick you up.”
“You can’t do that,” Treasure contended. “It’s a, uhh...”
“Paradox?” the passenger suggested.
“Yes,” Treasure confirmed.
The driver smiled. “So that’s how you’ve survived, not here at all. Either way, we have to get you to a human sanctuary. They’re the only ones with clean oxygen.”
Having lost all her bulk energy reserves, and not knowing how to navigate the bulkverse anyway, Treasure agreed to get in the car, as did Quino and Rosalinda.
“Go slow,” the passenger warned her friend. “Vehicles don’t come with seatbelts anymore.”
He nodded, and went pretty fast.
“So,” Rosalinda asked while they were on their way. “Humans appear to be rare on your world. Tell me about that. What happened?”
“First,” Treasure interjected, “what are your names?”
“I’m Apple, this is Kickstand,” the passenger said. “In case you’re wondering, that’s my real name, but he won’t tell me his.”
“Original name’s dead, baby,” Kickstand said. “And to answer your question, it died when my organic self did. The Ochivari came and sterilized the whole population. They didn’t like that we were destroying our planet, so they decided to wipe us all out...slowly. Well, our fearless leaders didn’t like that, but it couldn’t be reversed, so they decided to just say, screw you guys, we’re gonna become robots. So that’s what we are, robots.
Robot means slave,” Apple reminded him. “We’re not slaves.”
Aren’t we, though?” Kickstand put forth. “I didn’t ask for this. I wanted to have kids. My first wife embraced this new dynamic, but ya see, I actually care about the environment, and I always did. I only agreed to it, because the point of life is to leave a legacy. If I can’t have children, I can’t leave a legacy, so my only hope was to live forever.”
“I’m sorry this has happened to you,” Rosalinda said sincerely. “Is there hope now? Are you fixing the environment? I don’t mean you, personally...”
“Nah, we’re not doin’ that. This was the solution, and the easy way out. This is just how we’ll live; on a dying planet. Sure, the rich people can go off to colonize new worlds, and just fuck all, but the rest of us are stuck here in the shit. That’s why we’re headed South, lookin’ for work. Maybe we can save enough money to secure passage off this tombstone.”
“Easy, Kickstand,” Apple said, trying to calm him down. “I doubt these fine organics need a lecture from you. Their worlds are safe from the Ochivari, because their people made the right choices.”
“Actually, my galaxy is doomed,” Quino said.
“Wait, what?” Treasure questioned.
“Azura told me about it,” he explained. “The Ochivari invade a few years after we left. We’re not going back home, because it would be pointless. The rest of the crew intends to stay on board in a permanent fashion.”
“I...I didn’t realize.” Treasure was heartbroken. She looked over to Rosalinda, whose world could still have been destroyed as well. They still didn’t know how getting caught at Mizakh’s house impacted the timeline. “I ruin everything. I should have just stayed home. I shouldn’t have screamed.”
Kickstand slammed on the brakes, and came to a complete stop. “Wait, are you Treasure Hawthorne?”
She didn’t answer.
“You are. Oh my God, you’re a bona fide hero.”
“You can’t talk about this,” Quino said to him. “She’s not yet done anything that you already know about her.”
“I can’t believe The Treasure of Star Mountain is in my car. That must make you Quino Hawthorne, and...let’s see, if you’re not Azura...Rosalinda Schreier?”
“I’m not a Hawthorne,” Quino said.
Kickstand chuckled. “Oh, ho, ho, not yet, I guess.”
Quino turned red, and closed his eyes in embarrassment. Now things were really awkward. What little info Kickstand disclosed wasn’t proof, because time travel, but there was really good evidence now that he and Treasure were destined to end up together. It wasn’t the craziest idea. She had feelings for him that she never denied to her conscious self, and he obviously felt something too. When they were standing in a group, he always either positioned himself right next to her, or across from her, so she would be in his line-of-sight. If she had to go do something in another train car, he would come up with a—sometimes terrible—reason to need to go that direction as well. These were all things they didn’t ignore about each other, but they didn’t talk about them either. She was sixteen by the revolution of Earth, but equating that with Quino’s own interpretation of timekeeping was difficult. It wasn’t impossible, but trying to figure it out would require openly admitting why they wanted to know such a thing. Regardless, he was at least a little older than her, and some people weren’t jazzed about that sort of thing.
They drove into the garage, and entered the building. They weren’t the only humans there, but there weren’t many others. According to Kickstand’s continued rant—which Treasure only half-listened to, because she was stuck in her own head—almost the entire population transferred their minds to android bodies. Human survivors were living out the last of their days on an island somewhere, the farthest they could be from pollution, but they could all be dead by now too.
“Universe of origin,” the intake nurse prompted. It would seem bulk travel was a tiny bit more ubiquitous than Miss Collins led her students to believe.
“Universum Originalis,” Quino answered.
“Mine has no name that I know of,” Rosalinda said.
“Wait for me at that table over there, so we can run a cosmic frequency test.” The nurse looked to Treasure while Rosalinda was walking over. “And you?”
“Does origin mean birth, or where I grew up?”
“Where were you when you had your first poo? I don’t care about where you immigrated to.”
“I didn’t have my first—that wasn’t until I traveled to Voldisilaverse, but I was born in Salmonverse.”
Kickstand managed to walk over having been eavesdropping. “She’s the Treasure of Star Mountain.”
The nurse was as surprised by this as Kickstand was when he first found out. “Oh. Then why am I filling out refugee forms? You can just leave whenever you want.”
“We can’t leave until I absorb more bulk energy,” Treasure explained.
“How long will that take?” she questioned.
“You know, I don’t know,” she said. It would be a good idea to figure out how to gauge and predict all that. “I just have to wait until it feels like I have enough to transport three people.”
“It would be nice if we could wait until you can take a few more than that,” the nurse said. “The Transit hasn’t been responding to our calls. I think they’ve abandoned us.”
“The Transit is not responsible for human refugees,” Quino argued. “How did the humans get here anyway? Are they your people?”
“Two major bridge collapses happened on our planet,” the nurse explained.
Miss Collins taught the class about that. When Azura and her people were sent off to neutralize their enemies, they did it by hacking into a bridge that was only designed to connect Ansutah to Treasure’s mother’s brane, Salmonverse. This hack had terrible consequences for the whole local bulk group. Bridges started opening and closing at random, expelling objects and people from their homes, to foreign worlds. Some universes seemed to have more egresses, while others had more ingresses, like magnets. Flipverse, Hypnopediaverse, and apparently this universe were three examples known to receive a lot of people and things that didn’t belong there.
The nurse went on, “the Transit came for the first, and agreed to deliver the people back to their homes. Then another bridge dropped more people off, and they’ve not returned.”
“Where was the bridge?” Treasure asked.
“Which one?” the nurse asked.
“Closest one,” Treasure figured, but thought better of it. “No, not the closest one. Most recent one.”
The nurse found a map on her tablet, and projected a hologram. “The closest one is here.”
“That’s where we found you,” Kickstand pointed out.
“We came through a bridge without even knowing it,” Quino realized. “It wasn’t so random.”
“That’s why I need the most recent one,” Treasure said. “There aren’t any bridges in Voldisilaverse, so my teacher hasn’t been able to study them, but she has this theory that they’re all still there, even though they’ve collapsed. If you get me to the other one, it could have a higher concentration of bulk energy, which could plus up my reserves much faster. I don’t know how many human refugees you have, though, and I don’t know if I can transport that many people. I’ve only ever taken two others at the same time. It could be like diving in the ocean naked when what you really need is a boat. That’s why the Transit is as large as it is, and airtight.”
“I understand now,” the nurse declared. “The Transit isn’t responding to us, because they know the refugees have already been saved. You save them, using this concentration of bulk energy, and a vessel that our people are going to build for you. It won’t be as large as the Transit, but it will be large enough for everyone to fit. I know someone who will be quite excited to do this for you.”
Treasure was hesitant, and not because she didn’t want to put anyone out, or make them do a bunch of work for her, but because she wasn’t sure she even wanted it. Another machine? The Crossover, The Transit, and The Prototype. These were the three bulk traveling machines. This other thing has never been on that list, and when it comes to time travel, if something ever exists, then it has always existed. Then again, Azura once noted that Treasure herself wasn’t on the list either, and she had already proven herself capable of harnessing her power, even if she couldn’t quite control it. It was also entirely possible that, knowing what would become of Treasure, people intentionally kept her own story from her, in order to avoid any paradoxes. The nurse did say she knew someone who would want to do this, and if it could help a lot of people, then it wasn’t really Treasure’s right to put a stop to it. “Okay. If someone builds that ship, I will provide power to it.”
“Great. Until then, let’s get you set up in the penthouse of the refugee building. Someone like you deserves to have the best.”
“Hell yeah, you do,” Kickstand agreed.

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