Thursday, September 30, 2021

Microstory 1724: Columbarium

I am the only survivor of a crashed scout ship on an alien planet. My communications array was destroyed, not that there would be anyone to reach out to this deep in the black. If Earth doesn’t hear back from us, they will assume the worst, and make no attempt to mount a rescue mission. They cannot waste time looking for me when every ship is needed to search for a new home. Here is where I will live for the rest of my days, which will probably be long. The forward section of the ship is intact. It has good ventilation, solar power, ample medical supplies, and comfortable quarters. I must still go out in search of food, however, as our reserves all burned up. I’ll only last a year on the emergency rations that we had the good sense to store separate from the rest. I leave the protection of the vessel, and venture out into the wild. I won’t have to walk, fortunately, as a single occupancy helicopter did manage to survive the devastation. I’ll be able to hunt for resources from above, and it will go much faster. I immediately find a source of freshwater. It appears to come from a spring, and cuts through an oasis. I’m not sure if any of the plant life is edible yet, so I’m going to have to run some tests. I keep traveling over the lands, and keep finding these isolated oases, but the majority of the planet appears to be rather barren. It will be fine for me, but it would have been a poor choice to migrate our entire population. Life here would have been hard for people, so hopefully they will find something better elsewhere. I don’t see any land-dwelling animal life at all. I see some birds in the distance, but they are quite repelled by me. I don’t think I’ll be able to catch any of them for food. They appear to be too skittish.

I return to the ship knowing that I’ll have to become a vegetarian once the rations are gone, but also relieved that I’m probably going to be okay. I’m a decent engineer, there don’t seem to be any predators, and the weather array suggests a mild climate all year-round. So what am I going to do with all my time? My life is meaningless now, and I was raised in a world where meaninglessness meant uselessness, and uselessness meant a drain on resources which could be going to someone who contributes to the survival of the species. I have to find my new purpose. I first cremate the remains of my crew, and temporarily store them in bags. Bodies take up too much precious land, so we stopped burying our dead decades ago. I find some nice clay just outside the ship, so I use that to fashion a personalized urn for each and every one of my 55 fallen friends. I don’t stop there, though. Once the cremains are in the urns, they need a place to rest, so I begin building an entire structure for them, called a columbarium. It takes me a very long time to set the stones by hand, by myself, with clay and sand as my mortar, but I literally have all the time in the world now. I no longer have to worry about radiation pockets, or smog, or rioting. It’s important that these heroes be honored and respected. They deserve to be on display, not just for future travelers who might happen upon us millennia from now, but for me. It’s twice as big as it needs to be, because they deserve the wide open space too. Once it’s complete, I begin setting the urns in their niches. I stand there and admire my work, proud that I did this for them, and didn’t just focus on my own needs. As I’m making sure all of the urns are faced correctly, one of those white birds flies in, and perches in one of the empty niches. Another follows, and does the same. Then more come in. Perhaps I won’t have to become a vegetarian after all.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Microstory 1723: Pair of Compasses

Pamela. You are my compass. When you found me, I was nothing. I was going nowhere in my life. My father, may his soul rest in peace, did everything he could to point me in the right direction, but when I lost him, I lost myself. Instead of honoring his memory, I continued on a pointless path, and made nothing of myself. Then you came along; my light in the dense forest. You showed me that it wasn’t too late, and that there was still hope for me. I will forever be grateful for where we have gone together, and how far we’ve come. Now, I know that I strayed from the path a little, and for that, I will forever be ashamed. But you forgave me my transgressions, and that just proves how perfect we are as a team. You knew that, even then—even after all I did—with my ex...and her ex, and your sister...and your sister’s ex—you knew—you knew that I was still redeemable. I will never be able to make up for what I did, but I believe together, we can walk towards a beautiful future. I will no longer attempt to walk alone, or find my own way. I will surrender to your wisdom. Your needle always points North, and knowing that, we can make our way to any way that we wish. Um. I think this metaphor is getting to be a little too much. Just give me a second. Notecards, I know, but...just hold on. (Let’s see, don’t want to bring this up—I’ve rethought this whole part of the  speech—my brother said that was an inappropriate—hold for laught—oh, never mind). Okay. Pamela. Poetry aside, I would just like to promise you that I have successfully changed my ways. You changed me, and you won’t have to worry about me ever again. As long as you’re by my side, I’m certain that we can get through anything. I vow to be faithful and fearless, interesting and inspiring, mesmerizing and motivating, and successful and satisfying. I can’t wait to begin the next leg of our journey together. Thank you.

Chaz. I think you’re right, I’m a compass. But you are a compass as well. You could even say that we are a pair of compasses. I don’t mean that we’re just two mariner’s compasses. We are the drafting instrument that architects and engineers use to make their designs accurate. I don’t mean to say that we are building something great, or that our home is perfect. The truth is that nothing has been remotely perfect about our lives together. Yes, you cheated on me, and I’m not sure why we needed a rundown of your offenses. Well...I think we all know that those were only about half of your offenses, and that it only includes the ones I actually know about. Who knows how many more there are? Which children here today are yours? Do we even know? I joke, I joke. You’re right, I forgave you for what you did. And that brings us back to my metaphor. (I admit, I took a peek at your vows, which is why I’m prepared to say what I’m saying now). When I took you back, my friends pointed out what we mean to each other, and what our potential is. I didn’t listen to them, but now I know that we truly are a pair of compasses. You see, the compass drawing tool involves two legs. One is steady. It stays in place, while the other makes the drawing. You are the steady leg. You plant yourself in one spot, and I revolve around you. That is our pattern. All we do is make circles. Sure, we can make smaller circles, and sometimes even larger ones, but we can never escape the pattern. We just go ‘round, and around, and around. The only way to break the cycle is for me to break the compass, and set myself free. So I’m leaving you, Chaz. You can sleep with whomever it is you want. It’s not my problem anymore. Goodbye.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Microstory 1722: The Chameleons

I’ve always been really great at fitting in. In grade school, I would seamlessly switch from clique to clique, making people feel like I belonged, and also that there was nothing wrong with me belonging elsewhere at the same time. People noticed that I was friends with pretty much everyone, but they still couldn’t see the big picture. I didn’t even really see it. It’s not like this was a calculated strategy on my part. I just did it. Everything changed when I went to college. I met people from all over the country, and beyond. I found it harder to relate to some, and that made it harder to want to try to relate to anyone. It was disheartening. It was a small liberal arts school, far from home, so I didn’t think I would ever see anyone from high school again, but there was one. I’m not being rude by calling him an outcast, because that’s how he referred to himself, and how he liked it. He and a few others deliberately separated themselves from the herd, not because they hated people, but because they were all destined to lead lives that required that they be excellent observers. One of them became a writer, who could tell meaningful stories about unique characters. Another decided to be a private detective, specializing in the hardest cases, which others were not able to crack. She operated on referrals from those who would be her competitors. This all may sound irrelevant, but it’s not. The guy who ended up going to the same college as me didn’t know what he wanted to do with his observational skills, but he knew they were important, and he didn’t think he was good at anything else. He was better with computers than people. That was fine when he was younger, but he began to feel too isolated when he was on his own, because he no longer had a support system. That’s why he turned to me.

The two of us became great friends from that point on. He helped me understand my talents, and get back to what I do best. I was making friends left and right, and I realized that doing this in college was even easier, because the individual groups never noticed each other. It was like a playground, where I honed my skills, and became the best version of me. In exchange, I helped him out of his shell. He started to make friends too. He was never Mr. Popular, but he was a lot better than he was before, and he had other gifts to bring to the table. We spent our days getting better and better at slipping into new social situations, and reading our practice targets. We practiced lying by coming up with wondrous, but believable, stories about ourselves. Some failed, but we learned from our mistakes, and we only got better once our writer friend started making the stories up for us. We didn’t know why the hell we were doing any of this—why it mattered—but it felt good to deceive others. It felt like power, knowing that people trusted us who really shouldn’t, and that we could hurt them if we chose to. But we never did. Not once. This isn’t a story about a group of conmen. It’s about three guys and one woman who want to help change the world. A few years after college, the four of us joined forces, and started working on cases together. We specialize in infiltration, with me on the frontlines. I penetrate a group, gain their trust, and solve whatever problem they’re causing. Cults, militias, other evil-doers. The detective finds the cases, the writer creates a backstory, the hacker fabricates the new identity, and I play the part. The problem is that none of us has any combat training, and some of our cases lately have been a little dangerous. We realize now that we need a skilled fighter. That’s why we’ve turned to you.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Microstory 1721: Sea Monster

The sea monster kills everything it touches
Nothing can escape its darkness
We rescue many who get too close
But some are too far gone
They perish before we reach them
It is my job to do everything I can to help as many as I can
But I want to do more
I want to stop the monster from taking more innocent lives
It has been this way for years
Though many would doubt this truth
Some are greedy, but most are simply ignorant
Those who worship the sea monster believe in its purpose
They did before, and they still do, even now
They think they have it contained
They think they had it tamed
They refuse to see how destructive the monster is
Even when it’s doing as they command
Fish are drawn to its pretty colors
Birds try to rest upon its back
It snatches them up, and spits them back out
They are never the same
The darkness is on them forever, unless someone like me comes along
Only we are compelled to help them
Only we are willing to take the time
Now the monster is on a rampage
Now it is spreading its darkness indiscriminately
Now those who would harness its power admit that something is wrong
But they are powerless to stop it, or so they say
We continue to save the creatures
But we are indeed powerless to stop it
Only they can stop the monster
Only they can put it back in its cage
I want to do more
I want to kill it, so it can do no more harm to my world
But it cannot be killed
Destroying it would do just as much damage as it is doing now
Destroying it would simply spread more darkness
The fight against the sea monster must take place on land
It takes place in the courts, and on the pages of the news
It takes place in the hearts of all who would oppose the monster
These companies believe that the monster will provide
But it is we who provide
And it is we who can starve them

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: February 8, 2338

In the year 2008, in one reality, day rewinder, Horace Reaver accidentally killed his best friend, Dardan Lusha. The former was only six years old, and the latter only seven. Knowing he was capable of it, Horace went back in time at the end of the day, and prevented himself from making the same mistake again. This was when he realized that other people only got one shot in their lives, and also when he knew that the two of them could no longer be friends. Dardan moved on with his life, never knowing what had happened to him. But Horace’s future daughter, Meliora knew, and she was worried that Dardan would always be in danger. She built a place called Sanctuary on a planet millions of light years from Earth. Here, normal people who were negatively impacted by time travel could live out the rest of their lives, protected and in peace. A fifteen-year-old Dardan was her first resident, but he was nowhere near its last. Even as travelers continued to change the timeline, Meliora rescued as many people as she could, always starting with Dardan Lusha. In one timeline, soon after him, she agreed to rescue a few more.
Starting with Ramses Abdulrashid, and ending with Jeremy Bearimy, seven more people were brought to the Sanctuary hotel in its very early days. There defeat Anatol Klugman. Though this enemy yet remained, the vacation was over. It was time to leave Sanctuary, and make a jump to over 300 years into the future. Mateo, Leona, and Kivi would be waiting for them to finish this once and for all. It was predetermined that when they arrived in 2338, the final battle would ensue. They could put it off as long as they wanted, but there was no avoiding it altogether. The duel had to take place, and the winner would decide both their own fate, and that of their opponent.
“That’s a beautiful story,” Anatol said in disgust. “Why don’t I remember any of it? I mean, I know how it happened. What I don’t understand is how you managed to overpower me, and let Tertius Valerius manipulate my memories.”
“We didn’t have to overpower you,” Mateo began to explain. “You agreed to forget about the challenge as long as we eventually got to it.”
“Why did I agree to forget about you friends, though?” Anatol pressed. “I still don’t remember those people.”
“We had him take a little bit more from your mind than you agreed upon. We figured you would circumvent the agreement yourself, so we at least wanted to protect them from your wrath.”
“Wait, you’re telling me you were worried I would betray you betrayed me first?”
“Exactly,” Mateo confirmed.
“I know I’m supposed to be mad, but right now, all I feel is respect for your decision,” Anatol admitted.
“Thank you,” Mateo said. “It was actually all my idea. I had to make up for years and years of being all but completely useless, and having to rely on much smarter people.”
Anatol would have done a spit take if he had been drinking. “Do you believe you have accomplished this goal?”
Mateo looked over to his wife, who was on the other side of the sandstone monolith. She was warming up for the duel, supported by their people. Mateo felt bad about The Warrior being alone, and came over to at least clarify what was happening, and why. “Not in the least.”
“Indeed,” Anatol agreed. “Even today she fights for you as champion.”
“She trained for this,” Mateo said. “I never would have made it through that training. She has a knack for learning new things.”
“Do you honestly think that she can beat me? Keep in mind that you are no longer protected by the powers that be, and that I have already demanded Uluru not let anyone else on the battlegrounds. That is the only reason you beat Zeferino Preston, and I will not let you so easily come at me through a loophole.”
“Where is Zeferino, by the way? He was with you at the theatre, and then we never saw him again,” Mateo pointed out.
“I put him back in his reality,” Anatol answered. “He wasn’t fun to work with anymore.”
“Indeed,” Mateo responded simply.
“Is there a point to you being over here?” Anatol questioned.
Mateo placed a hand on his enemy’s shoulder. “Whatever happens today, just know that I still believe in you. I still believe you can be redeemed. All you have to do is take that first step. The second one will be easier, I promise.”
Anatol rolled his shoulder away. “It’s always mind games with you. People think you’re this helpless little moron who hides behind his friends, but I know the truth. I know that you’re the most dangerous of the bunch. But what makes you dangerous isn’t your intellect, or your muscles. It’s your ability to make even the most steadfast of people feel like they’re making a mistake; like you know something that they will never quite understand, not even once the fight is over. I believe that you are an undiagnosed psychopath.”
Mateo chuckled once, like a high school student who knows the middle school student will know better someday. “Catch you on the flippity-flop.”
Unlike the duel he had with The Cleanser those many years ago, there weren’t many people in the audience. Only Leona’s friends would be there to take witness. No other family, no people from their future, no bulkverse travelers. It was a private affair, and it was much simpler, which was why it was taking place on the Uluru rock formation, and not in the Colosseum replica. Uluru, the man, approached the center of the grounds, and began his opening remarks. “This is a physical duel, with swords as exclusive weapons. All temporal powers and patterns are temporarily suspended. Death is not required to indicate defeat, but it is also not against the rules. The winner may spare the loser, but in order to be considered the winner, they must be in a position where a final blow would end the battle, and the loser must be without options. Both of you have been trained...trained under different circumstances, but trained just the same. You know the difference between winning and losing, but if there is a dispute as to who wins, I will step in and make judgment. Does everyone understand?”
The two duelers walked towards him.
“I do.”
Uluru looked from one to the other, assessing their fitness for the fight, and then he gracefully stepped back. “Have at it.”
The two of them began to clash. Anatol had been training for this sort of thing for more than his entire adult life, which was likely longer than most. They didn’t know if he was immortal, or if he just managed to pack in a whole lot of life during his prime years. He did look older than he did when this first began, but maybe Mateo was just imagining that. No matter what, he was a career fighter—which was what earned him the right to be called The Warrior in the first place—and Leona was not. She only trained for three years; by one of the most skilled fighters in two realities, but practice makes perfect, and Leona’s experience was limited. Still, Anatol was not overconfident, and he did not underestimate his opponent. He went at her with full force, and he clearly respected her. A lot of time travelers were from the past, during a time when women and minorities were considered less than. Yet nearly all of them embraced the wokeness of the future, either because they came to see it as superior, or because they never really bought into the racism and sexism of their day. Dr. Hammer posited that backwards-thinking time travelers necessarily did not exist, because if they were too tied down to the culture of their given day, they would never learn to escape it. Perhaps social responsibility was an important prerequisite. Anatol was evidently no exception, and unfortunately, that only lowered Leona’s chances of winning the duel.
Leona managed to hold her own, though. She just kept striking back, never letting him get any significant advantage over her. They swung and slashed and hit and kicked. The audience could see the fatigue setting in as the battle continued. If a scene in an action film were to go on this long, the audience would grow bored, and probably stop caring who won. They weren’t hopping off of rocks, or sweeping the legs. They were just desperately trying to cut each other with the blades, and never getting close enough. It would seem that Anatol’s advanced age, and Leona’s inexperience, made for quite an even match. Six minutes later, it was still going, which might not have sounded like a long time, but for this kind of combat, it was an eternity.
It was then that Mateo decided to break the rules, and step in. He walked right up to the duelers with his arms up, knowing that either of them could hurt him instead, whether by accident, or with malicious intent. Upon seeing him, they both dropped their weapons, and took a step back from each other. They were both grateful for the break. “Okay, okay, okay.” He smiled, not because it was humorous, but because it was absurd. “What the hell are we doing here?”
Anatol had to speak between breaths. “I made a challenge, and she accepted.”
“That was a long time ago,” Mateo pointed out, “for all of us.”
“Time ain’t nothin’ but a thang,” Anatol replied with the old adage.
Mateo didn’t know what he was going to say, so he just winged it. “The challenge was a duel, which has now taken place. There was no rule about someone needing to win, or how long it needed to go on. So let’s just say it’s done, and move on.”
“Someone needs to win,” Anatol argued, “or how will we decide what happens to the lot of you?”
“Is that really what you want, to be in control of powerless people? Is this the warrior’s way? Is this where you saw your evil plan going? There must be a reason they don’t call you The General, or The Lord High Commander.”
“I haven’t always won my fights,” Anatol began, “but I’ve never had a tie. It cannot end in a tie. This is not football.”
“No, you’re right,” Mateo agreed. “We can’t tie, because in a tie, both teams lose. I’m talking about a win-win situation. You walk away now, and the timeline will remember you as a merciful warrior, who fights with honor. You keep fighting my wife, whether you win or not, you’ll be forever known as a villain, not because she’s a hopeless girl, but because she is indisputably a good person, and everyone loves her.”
“You can’t control that,” Anatol contended. “You can’t decide how people perceive me, especially not in both directions of time.”
“We’ve done it before,” Mateo reminded him. “We restored the reputation of Nerakali Preston, Gilbert Boyce, and Horace Reaver. Hell, I’d like to think we even helped make Zeferino Preston look a little better. The jury’s still out on Arcadia; there are too many conflicting versions of her, and the noblest one doesn’t live in this universe.”
“All I have to do is walk away,” Anatol echoed.
“Might sound too easy to you, but remember where this offer is coming from,” Mateo said. “We are not known for being petty or vengeful, are we?”
“I suppose not.” Anatol considered it for a moment. He had long ago caught his breath, and was standing straight. He could go another round if he needed to, and so could Leona. Chances are, it would last another six minutes, and end just as inconclusively. “Very well.”
The three of them looked over to Uluru, who couldn’t care less about the results for this particular battle, and didn’t seem perturbed by the interruption.
Anatol picked up his sword, and jammed it into a crevice between himself and Leona. Assuming it was her turn to do the same, she followed suit. They shook hands, and then the Warrior dropped his Cassidy cuff, and disappeared. It would be the last time that anyone on the current Matic team would ever see his face.
“Well. That plan worked,” Mateo noted.
“I’m glad you rehearsed the speech,” Leona said, relieved at how well it went.
He didn’t rehearse nothin’. “What do we do now?” he asked. “We didn’t plan anything past the draw, and I imagine it’s only a matter of time before the next antagonist decides it’s their turn to torment us in what they believe to be a new and creative way.”
Leona retrieved her sword, wiped it off, and sheathed it. She picked up the primary cuff too. “Ya know what? I didn’t really like skipping from the 16th century to the 17th, to the 19th, and so on. I grew rather comfortable on the Bearimy-Matic pattern. Let’s put our cuffs on, and go back to that pattern.” She turned, and began walking towards their friends to tell them her idea.
Mateo, meanwhile, reached down and pulled Anatol’s sword out. He turned it up, and admired the craftsmanship. He wasn’t much of a swordsman—or any kind of swordsman at all—but this could come in handy one day.
“Put it down!” Leona ordered without turning back. “You’ll hurt yourself!”

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Extremus: Year 11

Eckhart Mercer stands in front of the white door, waiting to walk through it, and leave the executive infirmary. The AI system is pretty sophisticated. It will open automatically, but also knows when someone is not quite ready for it, and it will remain closed until such time that the user’s body language suggests that they’re ready, or if they open it themselves. He takes one last look in the mirror on the wall to his right, just to make sure nothing gives it away. He knows nothing on his face does. If anyone is going to recognize him as an impostor, it won’t be because of the flawless plastic surgery. It will be because he’s unfit to lead as captain, and everyone will be able to see right through his impersonation. He looks like Captain Yenant, but he still doesn’t feel like him, and he doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to pull this off. Yenant has left big shoes to fill, and even though he’s not dead yet—just in a coma—it’s looking like he’ll never recover. He’s been under for a week, and they just can’t wait any longer. The Captain is afforded the time off, but that time has passed, and people will start to get suspicious. Mercer takes a deep breath, and finally leaves the room.

It started out rough, but over the last year, Mercer has grown used to pretending to be the Captain. No one seems to suspect a thing. Nothing has gone wrong, however, which is probably what’s been making it easier. He hasn’t had to make any dire decisions, or prove himself in any significant capacity. The attempted assassin has yet to reveal themselves, but Mercer is keeping an eye out. He synthesizes his food himself, and has it analyzed by a closed AI for every single meal. He hasn’t been having meals or drinks with anyone, which is a little out of the ordinary for Yenant, but it’s just too much of a risk. It’s not practical or safe for him to test for poison while people are around. The idea is to catch whoever is trying to kill the Captain, not let them succeed in killing the Lieutenant.
At the moment, he’s in the engineering room that’s designated to monitor the Frontrunners. “I hear there’s an issue with one of them,” he says.
Earlier this year, August Voll was promoted to full Second Temporal Engineer, leaving the second apprentice as the one and only primary apprentice. Vesper Yordanov’s current responsibility is to exclusively monitor the frontrunner ships that are flying ahead of Extremus to protect it from micrometeoroid strikes, and make any adjustments necessary. There were never meant to be so many people on the temporal engineering team, as the original mission parameters didn’t consider that it would become so vital to the safety of the crew and passengers. Department leadership is presently deciding whether even more people need to be trained in the discipline. It’s the most difficult one on the entire ship, and it’s pretty important that anyone selected to even make an attempt at taking that educational track be born with genius-level intellect.
It’s not one of those fields of study that anyone with enough time and patience can explore. Even the other engineers are mostly not capable of switching over, as it requires a much deeper understanding of physics. Perhaps if the general population of the stellar neighborhood were made aware that temporal manipulation was real, educational resources could be devised to increase their numbers. As of now, the only way to learn is directly from someone else, and decent teachers are rarer still. Valencia Raddle was chosen for the position in the first place because of her aptitude as a teacher. It’s unclear whether August or Vesper will be able to successfully fill her shoes in that manner. “Not a problem,” he explains. “I just need authorization to swap the apex.”
“What do you mean by swap?” Mercer asks.
Vesper appears to believe as if the captain of this vessel should already understand what’s happening here. As the lieutenant, however, Mercer’s duties often take him in so many directions that it’s difficult to keep up with everything. Captains are also chosen quite carefully; for their predisposition for leadership, but also their ability to retain massive amounts of information. A lieutenant is decidedly not next in line for the chair. Mercer’s real job is to coordinate between departments, including the executive crew. As an executive herself, Valencia enjoys a direct connection to him, and therefore requires no such liaison. Mercer is now showing the tip of his cards, and Vesper isn’t sure what to think of it. “Is this a test, sir?”
“Everything is a test,” Mercer answers, hoping to remain as stoic about it as possible. He is the captain, after all, and if this were a real test, Halan would act like this.
“Okay, I can explain. The temporal fields on the Frontrunners are just as unreliable as the teleporter field around Extremus proper. It’s not much, but it’s bad enough that some material does make it through the field, without being expelled to the future at all. This causes damage to the hull. We could probably leave them out there, and be fine, but you asked us to rotate them, and effect repairs on the one that’s out of service, replacing it entirely, if necessary.”
“Good. So it’s time to do that, right?”
Vesper is still a bit suspicious. “Right.”
“Then you have my authority.” Mercer pats him on the shoulder, and stands straighter, preparing to leave.
“Sir, I need your teleportation codes. A vacuum jump is considered too high risk to entrust to anyone but you...after the recall device fiasco of Year Three?”
“Of course. I’m quite tired, however. Could we do this tomorrow instead?
“Absolutely, sir, we’re not in any immediate danger.”
“Good.” Mercer takes a breath once he’s on the other side of the door. Things are falling apart. He has been lucky up until now, but that is all about to change. He needs to figure out how to get those codes, and so far, all attempts at reviving the Captain have failed. Dr. Holmes has been attempting some kind of neural interface to at least communicate with Halan, but those have failed as well. There’s only one person on this ship with any hope of bypassing the authorization, and his loyalty has been in question since he first stepped foot on this vessel. Mercer proceeds to Omega’s new laboratory, and prepares to explain himself to the man.
Omega takes one look at Captain Yenant’s face, and smirks. “You’ve finally run into a wall, haven’t you?”
“I’m sorry?” Mercer legitimately doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s probably a reference to a conversation he had with the real captain over a year ago.
“If I had been able to reveal the truth with anyone else, I might have bet on your failure sooner than this. I must admit I’m impressed you lasted as long as you did.” He pantomimes tipping a hat to him.
“I’m afraid that I do not understand your meaning. You see, I’m not—”
“Captain Yenant,” they say at the same time.
“You knew?” Mercer questions. “Oh right, genius. I should have guessed you would figure it out.”
Omega squints, confused. “What are you talking about? Did. Holmes not tell you?”
“Tell me what, that she outright told you who I really was?”
“My Dear Temporary Captain, she had to tell me. How exactly do you believe you look exactly like him?”
“Surgery,” Mercer answers.
“That’s invasive, dangerous, and though technically reversible, any additional surgery would have placed you in even more danger. The human body is not designed to be...jacked around that much.” He laughs, “no, it’s a hologram.” Omega takes out his handheld device, taps on it a bit, and evidently turns off the illusion.
Mercer instantly looks like himself again. He paws at his own cheeks as he’s looking at his reflection in the fridge glass, trying to gauge whether this is, in fact, the illusion. There’s really no way to tell, not with technology this good. “How could I have not known?”
“Honestly, I can’t answer that; I thought you did. We probably could have gone the surgical route, but neither Holmes nor I believed it would have to go on this long.”
“So my assistant, who’s masquerading as me?”
“If I had to hazard a guess, I suppose now I assume he also doesn’t know he’s a hologram.”
“What’s the power source?” Mercer pads clothes, and the back of his head.
“The ship itself,” Omega replies. “Wireless energy, produced by the fusion reactor. You have a new access chip in your neck, which generates the image. I’m very sorry you didn’t know about this. I feel like it would have made it easier, if you could return to your real form when necessary.”
Mercer sighs again, realizing that this epiphany changes nothing. He still doesn’t have those codes.
Omega detects that there remains a lingering issue. “Knowing this doesn’t help you with whatever problem you’re facing right now, does it?”
“The real Captain has codes, which I need in order to swap out one of the Frontrunners.”
Omega balks at this. “Why would that be necessary, what’s wrong with it?”
“Yordanov says it’s time for regular maintenance, because of all the meteoroid escapes.
As Omega is pulling something up at his workstation, he says, “it’s a highly redundant system; that’s what the Frontrunners were created for. If one of them doesn’t get the meteoroid, the others should compensate.” He pulls up a set of data that Mercer cannot understand. “There. I’m reporting no damage since they were dispatched, on any of the Frontrunners, or Extremus.”
“So...he lied? For what purpose?”
“The codes,” Omega suggests. “I don’t know what these codes are, but they would likely give him access to more than what he asked for. It’s not surprising Halan has locked everyone out of the teleporters that could potentially send someone to space, but they might do all sorts of things. Or...he’s just trying to send you to space. That was the plan all along, wasn’t it? That’s what Old Man was meant to do. Maybe they’re trying it again.”
“How would Vesper lock onto him?” Mercer questions. “Would he use his DNA, or would he just transport the man who looks like Yenant, and is standing right next to him.”
“The latter would be easier, and if he doesn’t suspect you’re an impostor, he would have no reason to do it any other way.”
Mercer begins to pace just a little. “Still, there has to be some way to shield The Captain...keep anyone from locking onto his location, just in case.”
“It’s already been done. Otherwise, anyone with the ability to request the ship locate him would uncover the ruse.”
“Yes, of course, that makes sense. So this should work.”
“So, what would work, teleporting you to outer space? I suppose it would.”
“If you have the ability to make anyone look like anyone else with a hologram, why couldn’t you do the same with, say, a robot, or even a broom?”
“What is a broom?”
“You know what I mean. It doesn’t have to be me in that room. He just has to think that it’s the Captain, and once he makes his move, we’ll know he’s in on it. He may be the ringleader, for all we know.” Only now does he see the flaw in his plan. “Oh no, but we don’t have those codes.”
“I can get you the codes,” Omega says with a shrug. I know how Yenant thinks.
“Can I trust you with this?” Mercer asks.
“You can trust me with anything. I long ago accepted how similar to my progenitor I really am.”
When the Ansutahan refugees were first brought to Salmonverse, they were elevated technologically, so they could enjoy the same amenities the galaxy had to offer at the time. They weren’t simply given such technology, however, at least not all of it. Some of it they were expected to learn themselves. The owners of Gatewood gave them the tools they would need to develop sufficient artificial intelligence, but it’s not perfect. Spawning a new lifeform has proven to be rather difficult. They have enough for the ship’s AI to make the necessary life-saving calculations for them, and for its constituent robots to effect repairs. They still don’t have lifelike androids, however; ones that are capable of passing even the most forgiving of Turing tests. The truth is they haven’t been trying very hard for this, because Extremusians won’t want to share their future home with another race. This is all irrelevant right now, though. Omega can make a bot look like Captain Halan Yenant, and Mercer can pilot it like a drone, and they should be able to maintain the lie for long enough to fool Vesper. They have to catch him in the act, or none of their interrogation tactics is going to do any good.
The next day, the bot strides into the Frontrunner monitoring room, claiming to be ready to provide the teleportation codes.
“Great. We’ve had a few more strikes since yesterday. We really should do it now.” Vesper hovers his hands over the keyboard.
“I feel more comfortable doing it myself,” Mercer says through the bot’s vocalizer.
“Very well.” Vesper seems unconcerned by this. He even walks around to the other side of the workstation so he can’t see the code.
The bot enters the override codes that Omega gave him.
Vesper smirks. “Perfect. Now we’re done with you.” He taps on a tablet, and spirits the bot away, just as they predicted he would.
Mercer steps into the room, holding a gun. “Who exactly is we?”
Vesper attempts to escape through the backdoor, but security jumps in before he can leave. He tries to teleport himself out, but teleportation has been disabled shipwide.
We? We! We are the true Extremusians, and we will not let you invade our planet! Not again!” He removes what suspiciously looks like a detonator from his pocket, and readies himself to press the button on top. “I die in service to The Oaksent, and you cannot take that from me!”
Before he can detonate, Omega transports him to the cold vacuum of space.
“What is the Oaksent?” Mercer asks no one in particular.
A sickly but awake Captain Yenant shows up in his hoverchair. “That’s the name of the fourth person who was missing after Airlock Karen activated the recall device.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Microstory 1720: Lone Resident of Cepheus

I’m in a small town in Central Kansas called Cepheus. It’s Northwest of Hays, and Southeast of Great Bend. When I was born, there were only eleven people here. Now that my father has died, I’m all that’s left. I know that I’m supposed to contact someone about this. The county sheriff knows our situation, and is aware that I have no family elsewhere, as far as I’ve ever been told. I’m fifteen years old, though, and after some careful thought, I decide that I can take care of myself. What would it accomplish, being around other people? I only ever cared about my family, and the one other family we knew, who are all gone too. I bury father in the cemetery, for which we were already permitted to do so. For practical reasons, though he was young and in fairly decent health when it happened suddenly, we were prepared for the eventuality. He even already picked his casket. It was in the barn waiting for him when his time came. Once I’m done with the ceremony, I return to our home, make what was his favorite dinner, and go to bed. The next day, after breakfast, I return to my studies. Just because my teacher isn’t here anymore, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t continue to get an education. He gave me the tools I would need to go on without him, including ultrafast satellite internet. All my friends are on here, I have access to infinite entertainment, and I see no reason why my lifestyle should change. He won’t be able to go fishing with me this weekend, but I can still go by myself. I’ll even take a case of beer to sit between our seats. I never touch the stuff, but I’m sure I’ll find it comforting. It reminds me, as I’m making sure a case is still in the fridge, that I’m going to run low on certain supplies soon. The last remaining residents of Cepheus stayed for a reason, because we didn’t want to interact with the world anyway. Still, we couldn’t ever produce everything ourselves, like shaving cream, and medicine. For that, we waited for the Hercules wagon.

The next wagon won’t arrive for another few days, but I’m not sure if it’ll ever come now. We receive regular resupplies of certain items, which we use up monthly, but we send for special requests as well. I failed to do that yesterday since I was so busy taking care of my father’s final resting place. We always have special requests, and if we don’t, it usually means we’re on a long camping trip. That’s okay, I have plenty of produce from our little garden, homemade dairy from our goat, Mr. Milks, and enough nonperishables to survive in a doomsday bunker for five years. It’s going to be the little candies that I’ll miss the most. It’s never on our list, but the driver always comes with them anyway, free of charge. I shrug off the worrying about the wagon, and get back to my book, A Tale of Two Cities for my classics assignment. In fact, it’s the last assignment my father gave me, which means I’ll have to begin testing myself once I complete the report. I can always call the driver later if I do decide I want him to come after all. When I’m finished with the chapter, I head for the kitchen to treat myself to a bowl of Mr. Milks’ ice cream. It’s not the easiest thing to make, so we don’t do it often. It makes more sense to stick to the milk, cheese, and butter. Like an idiot, I drop the bowl on the floor, and worse, I don’t notice that one piece of porcelain slid far from the spill. I slip on it, and bash my head against the corner of the counter. Unable to move, I watch the blood from my head wound mix with the dessert, and now I realize why father told me to leave town when he was gone, and join society. The driver doesn’t find my body for four days.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Microstory 1719: The Centaurs

My people have been cursed to wander the continent forever. We may stop to rest for the night, and gather resources, but then we must continue. Legend says that anyone who spends too long in one place will be turned to stone. This is not entirely true, but it is not completely false either. A body cannot transform into stone, but it can become stone-like. Their skin will harden, and their feet will root into the ground. The enemy who cursed us decided that we would have a choice, and treated this choice as a great gift. We can either keep moving, or we can never move again. Of course, that is no choice at all. Some say the stonemen are kept alive where they are forever, but there is no way for us to know that. If we ever see someone become stonelike, the only course of action is to get moving again, and we are always long gone before the stonemen can die... or not, if that is the case. No one here was alive when the curse fell upon us. We were all born into this way of living, and most of us accept that there is nothing we can do about it. I am not so sure. I know that there is a way out of this, and it’s all because of something I once saw when I separated myself from the group for a brief period of time. Going off is a fine thing to do. In fact, our tribe has been split a few times over the decades. Some groups would prefer to go another direction, while a few individuals have determined that they would survive better on their own. Many of us just like to walk alone for a while, but then we rejoin later. One day, when alone, I encountered something I had never seen before. We have come across many other tribes, but we try to steer clear, worried that the curse will befall them as well if they spend too much time with us. We would wish this on no one. The few individuals I saw that day were different. They were sitting upon great beasts, which evidently walked for them. They called these creatures horses, and referred to themselves as The Centaurs. I was in awe, and hopeful that there was some way for my tribe to rest and walk at the same time.

I begged these Centaurs to follow me, so I could show my people what they have discovered, but they were worried. To begin, they did not want to incur the wrath of the demons who cursed us in the first place. I have never seen one of these demons myself, but I have seen stonemen, so I know that someone must have done this to us, and that it is not some kind of elaborate lie to control us. Still, the demons could be watching us in secret, and if so, would be capable of punishing us further for attempting to find a way out of our predicament. The Centaurs were also worried that we would steal their horses for ourselves. We are noble and just, and would never do such a thing, but I understand the concern. All I want to know is where they found their animals, and whether we could find more for ourselves. In the end, they did not agree, and I was forced to return to the group with only my word. Many believed what I told them of the Centaurs, but not everyone, and of those who did, some did not believe it would be a good option. As far as I knew, only eleven horses existed in the entire world. That would not be enough to sustain our entire population. I urged them to reconsider, assuming there to be greater number of the animals somewhere, but also pointed out that eleven would be enough for us to take turns. It did not matter, they believed. We didn’t know where any of these horses were, and there was every chance we would happen upon them as we continued to wander. Looking for them on purpose would not increase the odds. It would, I explained, if we spread out more, but still, they refused to hear me. Frustrated with their skepticism, I have now separated myself once more, and I am not sure if I will ever rejoin. I keep walking in a lateral direction, always hoping to randomly come across more Centaurs, or better yet, unused horses. Instead, I have found something else. It is a massive object that I can barely describe. It’s yellow, but covered in black rectangles. There are four black circles on the bottom near each corner, which rest upon the ground. I step inside to find dozens of seats that would make quite comfortable beds, but one looks special. It’s in the front, and there are tons of objects along with it, like little dots, and another black circle. I see something shiny underneath it, and feel a compulsion not to take it out, but to turn it. The yellow object roars and shakes, and for a moment, I’m worried that it’s going to eat me. I cannot let it, so I sit down in the seat, and start tinkering with everything I find that moves. A couple of things are at my feet. When I step on one, the entire thing lurches just a little bit. I keep moving things around, trying to figure out how this thing works, and eventually realize that the entire yellow object is some kind of motion machine. After some trial and error, I manage to make it go for an extended period of time, all the way back to the group. I am the Centaur now.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Microstory 1718: The Cassiopeia Pivot

In the United States, the prohibition of alcoholic beverages began in 1920, and ended in 1933. During this period, a number of bootleggers sprang up in order to both satisfy the country’s desire for alcoholic drinks, and also capitalize on the scarcity of this commodity. One such of these opportunists was a man named Dawson de Felice. He and his family started their new business in 1930, after The Great Depression devastated their farm’s produce sales. It became public knowledge in 1934, and grew into one of the largest liquor and beer companies in the world. For decades, the de Felice name was synonymous with high quality, low-cost beer and spirits. They were also known for fighting hard against anti-drug movements. They did not specifically deny the consequences of drinking, or underage drinking, but they did suggest that all those issues were the responsibility of their customers. Either the drinker was old enough to drink responsibly, or they were young enough to have a guardian who should have better controlled their alcoholic intake. They lobbied against laws that would raise their taxes, or otherwise limit their customer base, and they regularly dismissed any suggestion that they ought to help curb drunk driving, and other risks. Many pointed out that they actually would have saved money by producing an ad about responsible drinking, rather than spending it on a defamation campaign against their socio-political opponents. Despite these detractors, sales numbers continued to rise, along with their once affordable prices. Their method of rejecting all responsibility seemed to be working in their favor, and no one had any reason to believe that they needed to do anything differently. To them, the idea of recommending anyone ever not drink was irrational, and out of the question. Sure, dead people can’t buy beer, but if they died from the beer they bought from De Felice, then they probably spent a lot while they were alive. That was the unspoken reasoning anyway.

In the 21st century, a woman named Cassiopeia De Felice became majority owner of De Felice Beer and Spirits. She decided to take the company in a radically different direction, and there were good and bad consequences to her actions. She was a recovering alcoholic, and never would have wanted to take over in the first place if she had not gotten the idea to change its business model completely. They would continue to sell alcohol, but no longer for human consumption. They were going to sell rubbing alcohol now, as well as hand sanitizer, and even fuel. She figured there was plenty of room in these industries, they already had the infrastructure set up to accomplish this, and she didn’t want to endanger people’s lives anymore. Customers were bewildered. Shareholders were outraged. Everyone was stunned. Never before had a company attempted to pivot so drastically. It would prove to be their downfall, but also the beginning of a new trend. The world would thank them later. Perhaps her plan would have worked if she had started them out slowly, introducing themselves to the new products gradually, and eventually letting go of their beverage division. Instead, she tried to make one big move, and no one knew what to do with it. The failure would come to be known as The Cassiopeia Pivot, and while it began as a derogatory term, the term itself would pivot to become a point of pride. Other companies made similar moves, hoping to better the world, and the lives of their customers. Oil companies switched to renewables. Weapons manufacturers switched to plumbing. Even a ballpoint company began to focus on augmented reality devices. Though, that last one was less abrupt. The other examples happened quickly, but were just as successful. The world was ultimately better for De Felice’s sacrifice. It didn’t become a utopia, but they helped a little, and not much more could be asked of an alcohol company that just wanted to do the right thing.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Microstory 1717: Carina

Carina Silver awoke face up on a diving board. She had grown so used to sleepwalking that she no longer freaked out about it. Regularly, she returned to the world of the living in awkward, or even dangerous, positions. It was best to remain as still as possible until she could assess the situation. She saw a waterslide in the middle distance, but it was still difficult to tell how far up she was. She had to move to figure that out. She sat up slowly, and braced herself on the edges. Swinging her legs down to straddle the board, she now realized she was on the high dive, and also that the pool was empty. It wasn’t covered, or anything. Judging by the leaves and trash below her, it was abandoned long ago. Falling from this height could be fatal, and even if she survived impact, it could potentially be years before anyone else came round here. The two ladders still remaining appeared to be in bad shape, as was the board. The more she moved, the more she could hear it slide against the bolts that once held onto it tight. It was a wonder she hadn’t fallen to her head while she was still asleep. Obviously the more she approached the steps to safety, the more stable the surface would become, but getting far enough away from the far end was going to be hard. It might be impossible. She made one move towards the steps, and the entire thing came up like a seesaw, tipping her over towards an early death. Carina exhaled as it teetered, hoping the release of air made her light enough to keep from going over. She didn’t know if that had anything to do with it, but the board did end up tottering back, and returning to its rightful place. Moving was not an option. She had to keep it in balance, so if she was ever going to get off this thing, it was going to take a miracle, or maybe just some assistance.

Carina was a quiet person, both literally and socially. She spoke in low volumes, and said unprovocative things. She didn’t like to disturb people, and even now, when calling out for help could save her life, she struggled to speak beyond a whisper. She kept trying to raise her voice, so others would know she was in trouble, but she just couldn’t do it. Part of it was fear that her voice alone could tip her back towards the concrete below, but most of it was because of how unnatural and unfamiliar it felt. Before too long, she gave up, and lay back down on the board to watch the stars. She could not see them well when the tears welled in her eyes, and rolled down her temples. She fell back asleep, knowing that she could end up falling over because of it, but also calculating there to be a remote chance that her sleepwalking self would figure out the problem for her. When she awoke yet again, the stars were gone, and the sun was blinding her eyes. The sound of joyful cries and laughter overwhelmed her ears. A few drops of water made it all the way up to her, and danced upon her shoulders. She sat up and looked around. Yes, she was still above the pool, but it was no longer abandoned. It was full of patrons, mostly children, and also water. They were jumping off the two lower boards, and chasing each other around, and swimming laps in the lanes. Had she traveled through time, or filled the pool with her own tears, or had she simply imagined the state of the place last night, and it was actually all fine all along? They were having all sorts of fun, and appeared to be unperturbed by her presence. A child was standing at the top of the steps, waiting to take his turn on the high dive. Below them, Carina could see a line of others. They weren’t complaining, or yelling at her. They were just waiting patiently, and letting her take all the time she needed. Even so, she didn’t want to keep them waiting, so Carina smiled and waved at everyone. Then she rolled over, and dove into the water.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Microstory 1716: Sea Goat

I’ve done it, I’ve cracked it! I have finally figured out how to genetically engineer the sea goat. No, this is not like the mythological Capricornus creature thing that’s half-goat, half-fish. This is an aquatic goat, which still looks mostly like a goat, but which has features that allow it to swim below the surface. Most goats can already swim, but they don’t really like it, and they certainly can’t breathe underwater. The sea goat is different. I designed fin flaps on his legs, so when he’s in the water, he’ll curl his hooves inward, and let the fins do the paddling. His hair is more like otter or beaver fur, capable of keeping him warm in frigid waters. The gills on his neck can process both saltwater and freshwater equally well, allowing him to stay under indefinitely. He has a set of transparent eyelids underneath the opaque ones, which allow him to see through the water. You may be asking why I would do this. Why create an amphibious goat? The truth is that not once during the process did I ask myself that question. It seemed like such a natural objective that I never considered there needed to be any sort of reason. Now, you’ll notice that I keep referring to the animal as a he, but the truth is that its genderless. I just use the term for the sake of ease, but he is no more male than he is female. When he’s ready to reproduce, he will do so asexually. That doesn’t mean he carries both reproductive organs, but that he doesn’t need different organs. When it’s time to propagate the species, he’ll develop the eggs. He won’t have to fertilize them, but he also won’t be making an exact copy. Enzymes in his reproductive system will attach themselves to the eggs randomly. Once enough of these enzymes are attached, they’ll operate uniquely, and in concert, altering each egg’s DNA in unpredictable ways. This allows for the offspring to be born genetically diverse, whilst still only requiring the one parent. The species will evolve as normal, but will have no need to find suitable mates.

The only thing I’m having trouble with now is figuring out how to prompt the reproductive process in the first place. If I were to engineer a sexual species, two members of that species would undoubtedly experience the instinct to mate with each other, which would continue the bloodline. Without such environmental factors, I’m not sure why the sea goat would do this. Most species evolve the biological imperative to pass on their genetic information, by whatever means they have available to them. This is because any individual who doesn’t have this drive, won’t pass on their genetic information, and will die out long before we ever have a chance to study them. They just don’t exist—in random defective organisms, yes, but not in an entire species, because it wouldn’t make any sense. But evolution didn’t take too much part in what I have created. It’s impossible to tell whether the fundamental biological imperative is strong enough in the sea goat, or is even there at all. If all goes according to plan, he’ll lay about a dozen eggs, and maybe half of them will survive through the early developmental process. That is if anything happens at all. I don’t really want to try to trigger the propagation myself, because I want to see if he will do it on his own. That day may never come, but I have no choice but to be patient. The sea goat’s life span is presently about as long as a human’s, which is a gift I deliberately added to his genes. I may die before seeing the second generation come to fruition, so that is why you’re here. If you accept the position, you’ll be responsible for carrying on my legacy. You won’t be my assistant, you’ll be more like my heir. Now that you know a little bit about what we do here, how about you tell me more about yourself? Why do you want to study and raise sea goats?

Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: October 2212

Mateo was able to see his past self unceremoniously disappear while the mirror portal was still active. Leona and Horace moved on like nothing had happened, because to them, it hadn’t. The portal closed, revealing a normal door. Someone opened it up, and looked perturbed. “I believe this is the ladies room. I don’t care how you identify,” she said with airquotes, “but anyone who has ever had a penis..does not belong in here.”
“Thanks for the tip, Karen.”
“Um, it’s Jan.”
Mateo rolled his eyes, and passed her. “Sure, Jan. It’s 2212, by the way. Get with the times. Transphobia is so 20th century.”
“It’s only two thousand twelve, McFly.”
Mateo looked over his shoulder at her. Then he surveyed the scene. Cases of plastic water, cash registers on the counter, gasoline-powered cars through the window. This was 2012, wasn’t it? “Shit.” He jogged over the the clerk. “Is this Lebanon, Kansas?”
“It sure is,” he answered.
“Can you direct me to the center of the country, please?”
He pointed to the front corner of the store. When Mateo tried to leave, the clerk said, “hey. Bathrooms are for customers only.”
Mateo took an ancient hundred-dollar bill out of his quantum duplicating wallet, and slapped it on the counter. “I would like to pay for the next however many customers it takes to drain my tab.” When the clerk tried to take the money, he held onto it. “If this just ends up in your pocket, I will know.” He eyed the security camera that was pointing at the register. “My Field Supervisor will know.” Yes, it was illegal to impersonate a law enforcement agent, but he had to do something to make sure this money went to good use.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” the clerk replied.
Mateo released the money, put on a sweet pair of sunglasses, and left the store. Then he walked about a mile and a half, all the way to US Center Chapel, where his cousin lived. He expected to walk in, and then maybe—maybe—be lowered down to The Constant, but the door opened right into the foyer underground, as if Danica was expecting him. She very well might have been.
She greeted him with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “You’re a bit off target.”
“By 200 hundred years, yes,” Mateo said. “Is there anything you can do to help? I have to skip over some time. I can’t just wait.”
“Yeah, now that you’re free and patternless, I can send you wherever you want.”
“Do you have a machine, errr...?”
Danica laughed. “No, it’s done.”
“How do you mean?”
“I just jumped you 200 hundred years, before you even asked your question about the machine. I’ve been waiting for you this whole time. Made sure to where the same clothes I was when we were talking, and everything. You blinked, and you missed it.”
Mateo smiled. “Thank you. Why do you think Darrow sent me to the wrong time period?”
Danica smiled too, but for a different reason. “It wasn’t the wrong time period, it just wasn’t the one you were expecting. Eleven people went into the convenience store after you who benefited from the money you donated to their purchases. Most of them just wanted a sports drink or a bag of chips, and most of those people moved on without much thought. A few actually subconsciously changed their lives because of the kind gesture; not by a whole lot, but you moved the needle. One teenager in particular was inspired by you. He gave the clerk sixty bucks of his own, which ultimately went to a woman who was desperately trying to get away from her ex-fiancé in Santa Fe. She was out of money, and 2012 suffered from the highest gas prices in the history of the country, not accounting for inflation. That paid for her whole tank, which was enough to get her nearly all the way to Chicago, where she was able to start a new life. You did that. You did it, and you didn’t even know it. You just wanted the clerk off your ass about the bathroom.”
“Well, it wasn’t really my money. I have this wallet, see?”
“Yes,” Danica said dismissively. “Your wallet literally copies the money you need, from any time period, from several select regions. The teenager didn’t know that, and neither did anyone else. The result remains. That woman is still alive today. In another timeline, she isn’t.”
He nodded, and waited an appropriate amount of time before segueing. “Leona’s not alive, nor is one version of Kivi. Rather, neither of them exists at the moment—not the ones I need anyway.”
She nodded. “Right. Well, Past!Leona activated the weird temporal object contraption yesterday. Unfortunately, it’s missing a component.”
“Yes,” he understood, “the Insulator of Life. I’m hoping to actually use it before her, as she won’t make it to the base on Proxima Doma until next year.”
“I don’t think that would be wise,” Danica decided. “Best not to cross paths with any of your past selves at all, or hers, or butterfly affect their futures.”
“I need that insulator,” Mateo argued. “I don’t know why The Superintendent brings us back dead, but as far as I know, this is the only way to fix it.”
“I’m not saying you can’t use it. You just can’t use it today. You would have to go to Proxima Doma, so getting back to Earth would be this whole thing. Plus, the timeline is going to change, and I don’t think it should. I think it’s best for everyone if you find the Insulator  in 2338. I know where it will be.”
“Twenty-three thirty-eight? But that’s...”
“Yes.” Danica knew everything. “It’s time to finish this.”
“No, it’s too early. She’s not ready.”
Danica placed a hand on his shoulder. “She’s been ready for a long time. She’s just been waiting for you to accept it.”
“So you want me to bring them back to reality using the contraption that you built for Past!Leona, and then jump all three of us to finally retrieve the Insulator of Life? Then you want us to go through with the challenge?”
“That sounds like a decent plan,” Danica said.
“You’re telling me this because you already know that it happens,” he figured.
Danica opened her mouth to explain, but had to think about it for a moment. “I know everything that has happened up to this moment right now, as long as it pertains to my job as The Concierge. I don’t know the name of some rando eating a turkey wrap in Toronto, or my old neighbor’s porn site password. I know some things about the future, but again, only when knowing it is necessary for me to help my clients. I know enough to urge you to go to 2338. I’ve had to guess as to why, based on evidence from the past. Make sense?”
“Actually,” Mateo began, “yes. I’m just so worried about her. Coming back to life and then having to jump into the battle right away. It’s not fair.”
“I promise you, it will be all right. Now sit. Let’s have a meal together.”
“I would really rather get Leona back right away,” Mateo requested.
“Oh, you can’t do it today.”
“Why not?”
“Let me show you.” Danica led him into the other room where the reintegration contraption was still up on a table. The LIR map was taped to the opposite wall, but there was something wrong with it. A hole was burned in the center.
“Can it be fixed?” Mateo questioned.
“It’s fixing itself. Or should I say, it’s healing. It’s taking its own sweet time, but it’ll get there eventually.”
“How long, do you suppose?”
“At this rate, I’ve calculated...three weeks?”
“Is that a question?”
“It’s barely started, so it’s pretty hard to measure, but that’s my current estimate, based on one day of observation.”
“Danica, that’s not going to work. I have to save two people. If it only brings back one at a time, Leona will start to decay by the time I’m ready to retrieve Kivi.”
“I can jump you both a month into the future,” she explains. “Hell, I could jump you to the end of this month right now, if you would prefer not to wait.”
“When you think about it, you and I don’t know each other very well. If you’re confident that your wards will keep out any nefarious characters, like the Warrior, then I don’t see why we can’t just wait until the LIR map is finished healing. But then I will want to skip to the end of November to get Kivi back.”
“Sounds like yet another decent plan.”

Two weeks later, the map was fully healed. They couldn’t tell that it was ever damaged. Even so, they decided to wait one more day just to make sure every atom was back where it was meant to be. Danica rechecked the instructions on the page from the Book of Hogarth, and verified that the contraption was set up correctly. According to what she saw at the beginning of the month, Past!Leona didn’t do anything to make it work except spin the Incorruptible Astrolabe. She presumably sent it some kind of psychic message, which let it know who she was trying to bring back from nonexistence. That would probably not be so hard for Mateo to replicate, since she and Kivi were the only people he knew who had been taken out of reality. If there was anyone else, then he probably wouldn’t remember them. He concentrated on what he wanted to happen, and spun the astrolabe.
It happened just as Leona had described it. The astrolabe turned the Rothko torch, which sent a beam of light towards the Jayde Spyglass, and then the Cosmic Sextant, which split the beam in two, which each passed through the HG Goggles, which recombined the light into a laser, which passed through the Muster Lighter. This burned another hole into the map, large enough to attach the Escher Knob. When Mateo pulled on it, however, it did not open a morgue drawer. An entire door broke from the wall, and out of it came Leona. She was followed by Kivi. And Kivi, and Kivi, and Kivi, and Kivi, and Kivi. They just kept coming through, one after the other, after the other. All told, likely over a hundred different versions of her appeared. The last two people were none other than Kallias Bran, and Aeolia Sarai. The truth was that Mateo knew a lot more people who had been taken out of reality than he realized.
Surprisingly, the Constant was large enough to accommodate everyone. They proceeded to the recreational area, where a football pitch and basketball court had been constructed. The five non-Kivis stood before the Kivis, who were sitting in the bleachers. “Which one of you is ours?” Mateo asked.
A couple dozen of them raised their hands.
“Which one of you was last with us on August 12, 2338?” Mateo amended.
All of them lowered their hands, except for two.”
“Uhhhh...” was all he could say at this point.
“Which one was dealing with Anatol Klugman, a.k.a. The Warrior?” Leona clarified for him.
Both of the remaining Kivis lowered their hands, but one of them stood up and joined the group.
“Thank you,” Mateo said. “I’m sure you’re all very great Kivis. I think we’re just going to...uh, stick with...who we know...for now.”
None of the others seemed the least bit offended.
“What is going to happen to them?” Kivi!Current asked Danica.
Danica was watching the crowd, and reacted fairly slowly to the question. “I don’t know. I can certainly...keep them all here. Or they could go to the Sanctuary, or to different time periods. There aren’t any rules about this sort of thing.”
Mateo couldn’t help but interject and change the subject. “Hey, man, did we just cure you?”
“I think you did,” Kallias replied.
“What happened to that homicidal madman, and his homicidal alternate self?”
“Let’s not talk about that,” Aeolia warned.
Danica chuckled. “It looks like you five need to regroup and strategize. When you’re ready, take the elevator back up to the surface. It will be 2338 when you get up there.”
“What of my alternates?” Kivi!Current asked again.
“We’ll discuss it, and reach some kind of consensus,” Danica promised. “You belong with your friends...for now.”
They found a room and got the other two up to speed with what had happened since they were gone. Leona confirmed that she was ready to finish this thing once and for all, and Mateo had to be okay with that. As they were walking to the elevator, Kivi!Current suddenly disappeared on them. They could still remember she was once there, unlike other times when their memories had been erased along with her.
Shockingly, but also fittingly, one of the Kivis was waiting for them at the entrance to the chapel. “Which one are you?” Leona asked.
Kivi smiled. “I’m all of them.”