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.”

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Extremus: Year 10

When a Captain’s shift ends, that doesn’t mean that their responsibilities are over. It is a lifetime appointment, it’s just that their duties shift. When the 25th year of the journey begins, Halan will hand the reins over to someone else. This change in power is a complicated one, which involves a vote from the crew, a vote from the passengers, and Halan’s final say. Not everyone’s vote is equal, and the result can change even after an appointment has supposedly been made. There is a probationary period of one year, where the new captain must prove themselves capable of handling the job on a day-to-day basis. It is believed to be the best solution to the problem of there being no such thing as a captain’s apprentice, unlike other roles. Even then, Halan will not be finished. During that year, he will be known as the Admiral Pro Tem, and at the end of it, he’ll be automatically promoted to full admiralship. He will advise and guide the captain, and should he still be alive when the third captain is chosen, he will continue to serve the ship in this capacity. He’ll reserve the right to resume power if the circumstances deem it necessary. Multiple simultaneous admirals could mean multiple people fighting for this power, but the hope is that it will never come to that.
Halan will not be the first admiral that Extremus sees. There is already one in that position right now, who was sort of shoehorned in so that the First of Nine would have someone to consult in the way that he one day will himself. His influence over the crew is limited; more so than it will be for Halan in fifteen years. He’s not even allowed to interact with them very much, and his ability to assume power is far weaker than it will be for the same rank later. For this reason, Admiral Perran Thatch is rather bitter and grumpy about the whole situation. He wouldn’t have wanted to be captain himself—and was, in fact, unqualified, due to his age—but he expected a much higher sense of reverence from others than he’s been receiving. This is the first time Halan has stepped foot in his office since the day before launch ten years ago.
Alcohol isn’t very common anywhere in the stellar neighborhood. Earth never technically outlawed it, but it fell out of favor decades ago when healthier, and more sophisticated, ways of destressing became available, such as virtual relaxation therapy. The Asutahan humans developed no such luxuries, as they had to deliberately temper their technological advancement in order to avoid being detected by the white monsters. Still, relatively few people on this ship are old enough to have begun drinking by the time they were rescued, and returned to their home universe. Adhering to Gatewood’s dry policies was fairly easy for the majority of the population, and the practice has largely been eradicated here as well. Admiral Thatch is a major exception. He’s almost never seen without a drink in his hand.
He pours another glass, and tries to hand it to Halan. “Your father was a bootlegger.”
“He kept a bottle of bourbon under the counter for special guests. He didn’t drink himself, and neither did I.”
“Take it please.”
Halan reluctantly takes the glass, but just sets it down.
“If you’re here, it must be wildly important. Can’t hack it, can you? Micrometeoroids won’t stop knocking you down.”
Halan leans back in his chair to avoid showing the man any level of respect. He sighs, and waits to respond. “Was it you?”
“Was what me? The one who sent the meteoroids on a collision course? I dare say, I’m not that potent.” He smiled sinisterly.
“Were the one who tried to have me killed?” Halan clarifies.
Thatch is in the middle of attempting to take another sip, but it doesn’t reach his lips before he stops. “Who tried to kill you?”
Halan doesn’t want to answer, because he still doesn’t know the answer to his own question. This isn’t a formal interrogation, though, so he has to make it look like a moderately cordial conversation. “Old Man.”
“Old Man is gone,” Thatch states the obvious.
“I just found out that he may not have been working alone. Someone put him up to it. I don’t know what they offered him, because I don’t know who it was. Was. It. You?”
Thatch closes his eyes and scratches between his eyes too rigorously. “What would I have to gain by having you assassinated?”
“Perhaps you believe you could run this ship better than me?”
“My dear boy, you know the rules. Nothing would change about my job. I would just be reporting to someone else.”
“Maybe there’s someone else you would rather be reporting to.”
“I don’t much care for the announcer boy either.”
“Rita was my lieutenant when this happened.”
Thatch nods and watches his bookcase remain motionless. “Oh yes, I did like her quite a bit. She would have been a better choice for the seat all along, don’t you agree?”
Halan sits back up, and rests his elbows on the desk. “Maybe. We’ll never know, because she’s gone, and I’m still here, and I still don’t know who is out to get me.”
“You sound paranoid.” Thatch resumes his drinking.
“Paranoia is a delusion. I’m operating on facts. And the fact is that Old Man tried to hand me a tainted time traveling device, which would have banished me to who knows where. Now, we were not the best of friends. At the time, I considered it some kind of personal grudge. Today, the facts say otherwise. I have been quietly looking into the matter, speaking only to a few trusted individuals. I’m beginning to branch out to people I can’t you.”
Thatch isn’t perturbed by the old news that they do not like each other.
Halan goes on, “I am going to ask you again, and I want an actual answer; not a deflection.” He stands up and holds his fists against the desk, like he might try to push it through the floor. “Did you try to have me killed?”
Thatch sets his drink down, and stands to meet his accuser’s eyes. “”
Halan takes a moment to study Thach’s face for any signs of deception. He’s not a particularly adept poker player, but he wouldn’t have been assigned this job if he weren’t at least somewhat decent at reading people. He sighs and steps back. “I almost wish it was you.”
Thatch picks his drink back up, but doesn’t sit down. “Why is that?”
“Because I would be confident in the belief that the conspiracy would end with you, on account of the fact that you’re not super popular around here. Anyone else who’s behind it is not working alone. I will never be able to trust anyone again.”
Thatch switches his glass to his left hand, so he can extend the right. “You can trust me, sir.” He sounds rather genuine. “I may be a bastard, but I’m a loyal bastard.”
Halan waits for a moment before taking the hand, and shaking it. “ on the lookout for anything suspicious, or any whispers. I don’t need you going around asking questions. You’re about as subtle as a Maramon in the short grass.”
“Will do, boss.”
Halan leaves the room, only to experience the actually paranoid, possibly misguided, belief that Thatch immediately took out a communicator, reached out to his co-conspirator, and started discussing how they were going to handle this new complication. He keeps walking down the corridor, doing his best to convince himself that none of this is true, that Thatch was being sincere when he said he was on his side. Suddenly, a passenger appears from around the corner, freaking Halan out, and forcing an embarrassing sound to come out of his mouth.
“Terribly sorry, sir,” the passenger says. It’s Riltren Takeda. Halan doesn’t know that much about him, but he remembers how nice he was to Airlock Karen. He never could tell whether Rilten agreed with her anger about the mixup, or if he was just really good at pretending. He seems to be being nice right now, but is that an act. Is he just being polite so Halan doesn’t figure out his true intentions? What is he doing up here?
“What are you doing up here?”
“I was just on a walk,” Riltren answers.
“The track isn’t good enough for you?”
Riltren looks at his watch. “It’s pretty crowded this time of day, and I like to be alone. If I just wanted the exercise, I would probably use a stationary machine.”
Nah, he’s up to something. Nobody should be in this section of the ship unless they need to talk to Thatch, and no one needs to talk to Thatch unless they’re hatching a scheme together. Thatching a scheme. This is all very sus. Halan can’t trust anyone.
“Are you okay, Captain?” Riltren asks.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Halan shoots back at him.
“Forgive me for saying this, sir, but you don’t look so great. Why don’t you let me take you to the infirmary?”
“I’m not going anywhere with you!” Everything went black.

Lieutenant Eckhart Mercer is standing over his superior officer, watching him sleep. He actually looks rather comfortable, despite what must be a busy and tormenting nightmare. According to his neural readings, his brain is extremely active at the moment, but he is showing no such signs on the outside. “What the hell is wrong with him?”
“Frankly, we don’t know yet.” Dr. Ima Holmes is the Chief Medical Officer of the Extremus. Her duties are primarily administrative, despite what science fiction would have you believe. She’s only chosen to return to practice right now because it’s the Captain. “What unusual signs was he exhibiting before he collapsed?”
“I don’t know,” Mercer replies. “I wasn’t there, but a Riltren Takeda was the one who brought him in.”
“I’ve spoken with him. He believes the Captain was acting irrational and paranoid, but admits that he does not know the man personally, and can’t speak to the difference between usual and unusual behavior.”
“Why is the sedative not working? It should be calming his mind, as well as his body.”
“It should, yes. If this were purely psychological, that wouldn’t be possible, which is why I’m running a tox screen right now. The truth is that he’s out cold primarily due to whatever is causing this.”
“How long will this take?” he asks.
“Impossible to tell as of now. It could be permanent.”
Mercer breathes deeply, and continues to watch his boss not move a muscle. There’s nothing he can do about it. “I have Takeda locked in an interview room.”
“Okay...” Dr. Holmes begins, not sure what he means by that.
“If you could erase his memories, that would be great. I can work around it, but it would certainly make it easier.”
“Make what easier?” Now Dr. Holmes is worried.
“Did the Captain ever talk to you about something called The Façade Contingency?”
Dr. Holmes contorts her own face. “He had me look into the technology a few months before launch, which I complied with, but I took it as a joke. You’re not seriously suggesting...”
Mercer shakes his head. “The crew needs a captain. Whether they would believe it or not, so too do the passengers. If only his body were damaged, we could surrogate his mind into an android substrate, but since it’s his mind that’s the problem, someone is going to have to go out there and lead this mission...until you can bring him back to us.”
“Are you trying to seize power?” Dr. Holmes questions, this close to calling in a security team.
“Lieutenants are not the next in line for the job. The position was designed as temporary backfill.”
“Exactly,” she agrees. “Which is why this is highly irregular.”
“If Second of Nine were lying there in that bed, Halan himself would be able to step in and take his place, but we cannot trust the current Admiral to do the right thing. Someone has to take the Captain’s chair, and unless you can tell me he’ll be up and about by tomorrow morning, it has to be me, and it has to be right now.”
“Why can’t we tell people the truth?” It sure sounds like a reasonable suggestion.
“Because someone is trying to kill him, and until we figure out who, we need the guilty parties to expose themselves by trying again. I am a great decoy, because I already know what’s going on, and honestly, I’m more expendable than you might think. So strap me into whichever one of these machines is pertinent right now, and make me look like Captain Halan Yenant.”

Friday, September 17, 2021

Microstory 1715: Little Dog

They call me Little Dog. My mom says my grandpa was Big Dog, or maybe his grandpa? Or maybe his grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa? I can’t remember it. It’s not my real name, that would be silly. I am this many years old tomorrow, and I’m so excited. They tell me I’m going to be getting a table for my birthday. They seem pretty happy about it. I guess grownups all have their own table, and when you get your own, it means you’re one of them. I don’t know if I’m old enough to use my own table, but I see my mommy and daddy using them all the time. They tap, tap, tap on it, and pretty pictures come up on the top of it. I hear them arguing with each other about whether I’m allowed to have a style to go with it. I don’t really care what style it is, as long as it works. My big sister has a table, but she doesn’t have my name anymore. When I’m old enough, our parents will have another brother and sister, and he’ll be named Little Dog instead of me. That’s what my sister says she used to be called. I don’t want to not be the Little Dog anymore. I mean I don’t want someone else to have my name. I like being a Little Dog. I like to crawl on the floor and bark at people. They seem to think that it’s cute, but if I stop being the dog then I won’t be able to do it anymore. My dad doesn’t get to see my dog game very much anymore because he always works in the big office. They sometimes take me to see everyone, and all the people in the blue jackets seem to think I’m pretty cool. Okay, bye!

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Microstory 1714: Big Dog Ballpoint Pens

My great great grandfather started this company. The year was 1904, and he was extremely ahead of his time. You may have heard that the first ballpoint pens were sold in the middle of the century, but that is not true. That is just when they became popular, and started on the road to ubiquity. My ancestor was the first to break into the industry after they were invented. He knew that there was something to this new technology. Big Dog was his nickname in the army, on account of how good he was at sniffing out the enemy. He mostly sold to construction companies who wanted to mark the wood they were cutting with something other than pencil, and to left-handed note-takers who were tired of the ink and lead smudging on their hands. Yes, sir, he was a pioneer, and I admire him for that. I never knew the man, but I know what he stood for. He was simple, and easy to please. He never wanted to be the biggest writing utensil company in the world, which is why he never thought to branch out into other instruments, nor did his descendants. We do ballpoints, and we only do ballpoints. Our design has become more sophisticated over time, and we’re on the verge of launching the next generation in our popular funtime series, which features characters from a certain children’s TV show that all you parents out there are familiar with. Still. It’s just ballpoint pens. We don’t make other kinds of pens, or pencils. We don’t sell paper to go along with it, or even pen cases. A single product with multiple series to appeal to an array of customers. My grandfather was adamant about that—I remember—rest in peace. He wanted to keep the tradition, and while I’m no one to scoff at tradition, I also know a business opportunity when I see one. We’re a household name now, and we should start thinking bigger.

When my dad retired two years ago, he gave me one single mandate. He said, “son, this company is yours now. I expect you to treat her as well as your predecessors always did.” Well, that’s what I plan on doing, and I don’t think adding new products interferes with, or contradicts, that mandate. He might have meant to say that I wasn’t allowed to change anything, but that’s not what he said, and that’s not what I’m going to do. It’s the 21st century now, and pens...aren’t as big as they used to be. They’re still great, but kids these days are always on their little devices. It’s time that we get into the little devices business. Introducing the Big Dog Augmented Reality Stylus. Unlike my great great grandfather, we’re not the first to make this product, but we believe we’re the best. With our free phone app, you can view any virtual writing in any space, whether you were the one who first created it, or not. With the handy writing board, you can write or draw in whatever position is most comfortable, and then drag—or even throw—the content over to some other point in space. With our view glasses, you can draw and view the content without even using your hands. We’ve been developing these products for two years now, and we’re just about ready to release them. I know, that sounds insane. How does a ballpoint pen company suddenly pivot to AR? Well, the truth is that I’ve been working on this my whole life. I have a bachelor’s degree in graphic design, and a masters in computer engineering. I also studied art in high school, so I know what creative people want. This is where the future of technology is headed, and we’re ready for it. Believe it or not, the first models are finished and tested. Right now, we’re looking for investors to work with us on distribution and advertising. So wadya say? Who’s in?

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Microstory 1713: Trapper and Dash

We are the hunting dogs, Trapper and Dash. While Boots is off wrangling his cows, we’re busy sniffing out prey. We catch our kill, and put food on the table. We’re not saying Boots doesn’t provide, or doesn’t have an important job, but let’s face it, those cows are dumber than a fallen branch. A really good fence could keep them in line. Hunting, on the other hand, takes real skill. You have to be quick, not just loud and frightening. You have to be able to keep up with your prey, and sometimes wear them out. Most dogs have specialties, but we hunt for everything. Quail, duck, deer. We don’t go after foxes, though, even though Dash is a foxhound. Humans don’t eat fox, apparently, so they have no use for it. We can’t quite relate to that, seeing as we instinctively go after anything that moves, and isn’t also a dog. We suppose foxes are dogs in their own way. Perhaps that’s why our humans don’t like their meat. We certainly wouldn’t want them eating us! We do eat raccoons, Trapper is a coonhound. Anyway, a few minutes ago, Boots caught the scene of a bobcat. We don’t hunt them either most of the time, because the humans also have pet cats. I’m starting to see a pattern here. Or is it just too dangerous to them. This one’s different. It tried to go after poor Moonica, so we’ve been dispatched to take care of it. That bobcat knows where it can find food now, so if we don’t put an end to its life, it’ll come back later. Boots and our parents can’t watch over the cows all the time. We consider it our sacred duty to perform the tasks that they can’t stomach. We were bred for the kill, and we can handle any obstacle that gets in our way.

We can hear our parents following behind us, but they’re giving us the room we need to find the scent. This bobcat is smart; it knows how to hide itself pretty well. It’s not perfect, though, and it’s not undetectable. We move every which way until Trapper finally thinks he knows the exact right direction to go, and then we follow it. Once we’re close enough, we can sense it getting farther away. It knows we’re in pursuit, and it doesn’t want to run into us again. No, it’s not getting off that easy. Nothing will stop us from protecting our family, and our ranch. We keep going, moving faster and faster. The scent grows stronger, and we know we’re close. Pretty soon, we can tell that we’re nearly upon it. We make it over one more ridge, and there it is, crouched in its den. We don’t know if it thinks it’s safe from us there, but it’s not. We stop running, and we transform our barks into growls. We approach cautiously, but menacingly. That is when we see it. The bobcat isn’t just crouching to protect itself, it’s protecting a litter of kittens. We stop immediately, and back off. Can we just let this go? If she has a litter, that’s even more reason for her to come back to our ranch and try to attack our cows. We can’t just walk away and hope for the best. We can’t kill her, though, and we certainly can’t kill her babies—which, in this case, would be the same thing. Since they’re cats, we don’t speak the same language, but a few things do translate. We go back to barking, intermixing the growls as needed. We have to get the mother to understand that we mean business, and that her business is staying as far from our property as she can possibly be. She can go harass Old Man Larrison’s animals on his farm. He doesn’t take care of his livestock, or his pets, so they probably kind of deserve it. When we think the bobcat has gotten the message, we break away, and head back towards home.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Microstory 1712: Crabby Cancer

According to one wild theory of evolution, the crab is the ultimate physical form. Every species that is destined to survive will eventually transform into some kind of crab. Of course, being intelligent humans, we have always dismissed such bizarre arguments, which have no basis in scientific fact. This truth didn’t stop us all from turning into crabs, it just wasn’t due to evolution. Our first hint that an alien race was upon us was subtler than we would have assumed. We saw no great ships appear in the sky. No portal from another world opened up on the ocean floor, or in a secret underground military base. It began as faint images in the wind, as if the air were opaque, and blocking beings on the other side until moved. The images grew clearer, and were joined by whispers. It was obvious that something existed beyond our normal range of perception, and was finally coming to light. The world’s governments tried to step in, but there was nothing they could do. The beings were spread out all over the globe, and could not yet interact with us, so there was no way to contain them, or even prepare to. Some areas were denser than others, so we huddled around the safe zones—mostly deserts—only to discover this to be a fruitless endeavor. The aliens could move, of course, because why wouldn’t they? After a few months of watching...waiting, the first Karkinel proved itself to be physically present when it took hold of a child, and ran away with it. That kid was never seen again, and that’s when the military went to work. They handed weapons to everyone they could, and gave us permission to shoot any crabbo on sight. Many human deaths resulted from this mandate. If the Karkinel wasn’t completely corporeal, the bullets could pass right through it, and land in someone innocent. This period of limbo did not last long, but it was the first of many failures.

Once the rest of the aliens had arrived, the war began. They tried to take people, while the people fought back with everything they had. It was the greatest threat our species had ever encountered, and we weren’t going down easy. Even so, it was an impossible dream. Whenever one crabbo was killed, another was waiting to take its place. That was when we realized what they were doing. They weren’t trying to kill us. They were trying to make us like them. They were infecting us with their crabbiness, and letting a cancerous disease spread throughout our bodies, turning us into them. The process was sometimes gradual, but sometimes incredibly rapid. Children, in particular, took too well to the process. There was every chance that a human fighter ended up killing a Karkinel who was once that first young boy to be taken. Now the war shifted. No longer were we using guns and bombs. The only way we were going to win was if we managed to undo the Karkinel transition, and restore our brethren to their rightful human state. Barring that, maybe we could prevent survivors from suffering the same fate. This was yet another failure. Scientists worked on the problem for years, but were never able to come up with a vaccine, let alone a cure. This was not surprising since we had already been trying to cure cancer for decades to no real luck. It is not without hope, however. We may not be able to stop the carcinization, but we can do something about how it effects the brain. I’m not sure if you can understand me yet, but you will be our first test subjects. With this treatment, your minds will become human again. Your bodies will still look like crabs, but you’ll think more like us. And you’ll fight...for us.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Microstory 1711: Giorgia Giraffe

Dear City Council,

I have a pet giraffe. Well, I’m pretty sure it’s a cousin to the giraffe, but it just looks like a baby giraffe. It’s even smaller than a dwarf giraffe—closer to the size of a large dog—and as far as I know, it’s the only one of its kind. I don’t know where she came from. She just wandered into my backyard one day and started drinking out of the birdbath. I thought about contacting the authorities about her, but I grew too attached in only the few short hours since we met. She seemed to grow attached to me too. She kept following me around the yard. I tried to look up what kind of leaves giraffes eat, but the internet listed all these trees I had never heard of, and they didn’t appear to be native to North America. She took a liking to bamboo leaves, so that’s what I’ve been feeding her all this time. I have a little naturally grown ceilingless hut up against the fence. All I did was plant bamboo in the shape of four walls, and it gives me this private little area where I can go to enjoy nature. I have an outdoor television in there, and a minifridge for snacks and water. I even buried the extension cord inside some PVC pipe to protect it from damage. It’s a pretty sweet setup, and I spend most of my time there, especially since the pandemic allowed me to work from home. It wasn’t originally designed to accommodate a tiny giraffe, so I cut down some of the bamboo, and planted more to make it bigger. This is where Giorgia sleeps. I bought a smartspeaker so she can listen to sounds of the jungle all night long, and she loves it. She loves me, and I love her.

The neighborhood kids like to come over and play with her, but she has a tough time with crowds, so I limit visits with a schedule so it doesn’t stress her out. Most people are overjoyed to see her, but not everyone is happy that I have a mini giraffe. Five blocks down—which no one in their right mind would call part of the same neighborhood—lives a middle-aged grump who stopped working when he started to receive disability checks, along with a settlement he won in civil court. He has nothing better to do with his time than complain about his neighbors. If the people on his street don’t have each blade of grass cut to an untenable range of length, he puts up a stink. I’m sure you have all noticed how annoying he is. I was able to keep Giorgia off of his radar for a good long while, but he’s recently learned of her, and now he can’t let go. Animal control came by last week to investigate, and a few days later, a decision was made to remove the animal from my property, and lock her up in a cold and heartless cage. I always knew it was illegal to keep a wild animal at my house, but I don’t think she qualifies. She’s gentle, trained, and not doing anyone any harm. I beg you to return Giorgia to me. The city had no right to take her from her loving home. There must be better things that you can be doing with your time than harassing a law-abiding citizen, and traumatizing an innocent creature. Attached is a petition to #BringGiorgiaHome, signed by over 300 of my closest friends, who all believe that she is better off with me than in some laboratory.

Thank you,

Sir Niall Muller Jr.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: August 12, 2158 Redux

Now only three people were left; the original team of Mateo, Leona, and Kivi. They had all been together since before even Jeremy was with them so it was fitting that they should end it together. They knew that this could happen, which was why the order of disappearances was as it was. Ramses could take care of himself, which was why it made sense for him to disappear first. If Anatol and Zeferino managed to remember him despite Tertius’ interference, he was willing to accept any consequences that might come out of that. Next in line after him—once the scheme proved viable—were D.B. and Dalton, who they had known the least, followed by Siria. Only then did they begin removing official members of the team: Olimpia, Angela, and finally Jeremy. They were so surprised it took The Warrior this long to figure it out, but it seemed to have worked. Even though he now knew his memory had been tampered with, he didn’t appear to know who he was missing. Even a future version of him never apparently came back to mess things up. Their secret plan had worked, and if the rest of them never made it out alive, well then, it was all a longshot anyway.
The last jump was particularly brutal. They appeared a few meters above the ground, and fell down on the sand hard. Anatol didn’t give them much time to recover before he appeared. He was holding the device that Holly Blue designed to remove Cassidy cuffs before they realized doing so could cause more problems than it solved. He threw it down in front of them with attitude. “There are presently eighty-three people on Tribulation Island,” he began. “That number will fluctuate, but not too much. It is your responsibility to choose your replacement.”
“I don’t understand,” Mateo said. He got to his feet, struggling against the pain from the fall.
“There’s charge enough for one change-over,” Anatol went on, still cryptically. “By the deadline, you must choose someone to take the cuffs for you, and continue on the pattern with Leona and Kivi.”
“What will become of me?” Mateo asked.
Anatol smirked. “It’s August 12, 2158. Or should I say, it’s August 12, 2158 again. Do you know what day that is?”
Much of the time, Mateo needed Leona to translate mathematical questions for him. She always recognized the significance of a date, if there was one. In this case, however, Mateo didn’t need any help. He recognized it himself. “This is the day I disappear. This is the day The Superintendent takes me out of reality, and erases the memory of nearly everyone I have ever met.”
“That’s right,” Anatol confirmed. “In a matter of hours, you’re going to blink out of existence. Not just the other you, but you you. You cannot exist between today, and October 4, 2212.”
“So I’ve heard,” Mateo said, referring to Thack Nataline Collins’ warnings about the issue back in 2156. She wasn’t here with a solution this time. “We’ve been through this game before. I don’t need to play it again.”
Now Anatol laughed. “You don’t understand. This is not a game. You’re not getting out of it this time. I am sentencing you to death, and not in a way that allows you to come back. Pryce’s afterlife simulation cannot save you now. Dead is dead is dead is dead.”
“And if I refuse, what happens? You can’t force me to choose a victim,” Mateo contended.
Anatol consulted his primary cuff. “You forget, you’re linked to your friends. I don’t know how you managed to unlink your other friends, but I assure that will not work again. I have taken steps to prevent anyone from messing with my memories. If you’re still wearing that cuff when the Superintendent takes all Mateo Matics out of the timestream, Leona and Kivi will be taken with you. So you either choose to keep the team going without you, or end it right here.”
Leona stepped forward. “We’re prepared to do that. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to end this, now that our people are safe.”
“Yes,” Kivi agreed.
“No,” Mateo said. “I’m not. Why sacrifice all of us when we only need to sacrifice the one? There are plenty of people on this island right now I know would be okay with being on this team. Some might even enjoy it. Gilbert loves games; everyone knows this about him.”
“Mateo, I’m not going to go on without you,” Leona insisted.
“You won’t remember what you’re missing anyway,” Mateo reminded her.
Kivi was shaking her head. “There has to be another way.”
“There is,” Anatol said, then he abruptly removed a gun from his waistband, and shot Mateo in the gut with it. “If he dies, he loses his identity. His body will remain, as will your memory of him.”
Leona dove down, and pressed her hand against Mateo’s stomach. “Let this happen,” she whispered. “You’ll go to the simulation, and we’ll figure it out from there. We’ve done it before. Pryce, we can work with. This one is just impossible.”
“Afraid that won’t work this time,” Anatol said. He pantomimed pushing something away from him. The world around them began to flicker, and didn’t stop. They were now in the middle of a transition window to The Parallel. “This is limbo. You will be saved neither by Pryce’s simulation, nor the Parallel’s own advanced anti-death protocols.”
“It’s okay,” Mateo promised his wife as he caught a glimpse of her watch. He then turned his attention back to Anatol. “Fix this. Fix my wound, and I’ll do it. I’ll go find someone. I already have the right candidate in mind.”
Anatol weighed his options for a moment. Then he reached up and took hold of an imaginary dial the size of his palm. He turned it backwards, and reversed time, pulling Mateo back up to his feet, and the bullet out of his belly, back into the gun. Everyone could remember what happened, and three of them didn’t want it to happen again. The fourth one could take it or leave it. “Now...there is only one way.”
No. This was what Anatol wanted, and they had already decided that they couldn’t let him control their lives forever. The whole point of shunting their friends away was to protect them so they could work against him safely. They might as well start now. Mateo reached down and retrieved the cuff remover. When he tried to leave, Leona tried to follow. “No. It’s bad enough that there will be two versions of me here. Just wait for my replacement.”
“I need to be there with you,” she begged. “If this is really happening...”
“You’ll find a way to beat him, and bring me back.”
“I don’t think so this time,” Leona lamented.
Mateo faced Kivi. “Thank you for being here all this time. I wish I could explain. Everything will be all right. He faced Leona again. “Were I you.”
“Were I you.”
Mateo checked Leona’s watch one last time, and then ran off into the woods. This was the one day that he knew by heart. He memorized every single second of it, and he knew exactly how long it would take him to get to where he was going. He had enough time, but he had to run fast, and he had to be sneaky. He burst out of the jungle, and down the beach. He passed some people he recognized, and some he didn’t. They all knew who he was, though, and could tell that there were two versions of him in the same moment. This would not matter for long, for their memories were about to be erased. Before Mateo was ripped from the timestream, he escorted Gilbert and Zeferino to Glubbdubdrib, along with Leona and Horace. Together, they said their farewells as the two dead men walking stepped through the Extraction Mirror, and returned for their destinies. This was about to all go down soon.
To get to the other land mass, Kayetan Glaston remotely created a merge point, and the only way Future!Mateo was going to beat The Warrior was if he met up with the group after the merge, and not before. That was why the time was so vital. He succeeded. Without any of them noticing, he slipped past the boundary a few meters down the beach, and moved to the new location with them. He then hid behind a pile of rocks so his friends would keep going towards the palace without noticing him.
Like a secret agent, he followed behind them quietly and carefully. He wasn’t as good as he thought, though. Horace realized that they were being tailed. He turned back and locked eyes with Future!Mateo. He stared for a moment before making a decision. After a quick wink, and turned back around, and continued on with the group without saying a word. They entered the palace, and made their way to the corridor where the mirror was being held. Future!Mateo listened to the conversation again, waiting until The Rogue and The Cleanser were back where they belonged before revealing himself.
His past self and Leona looked back at him, not knowing what to think. Horace was delighted, but still didn’t know what was going to happen. The Maverick, Darrow didn’t seem to care one way or the other. “I don’t have much time,” Future!Mateo said. “You’re just going to have to trust me that this is what’s best. He mostly spoke to his younger, naïve self. “Things are going to get bad for you.”
“I know. I’m about to be taken out of reality,” Past!Mateo said, thinking he understood.
“What? No. That’s not a big deal, you’ll get over that. But if you don’t—” He placed the remover against his cuff, and tried to release the latch. “Wow, this is harder than Holly Blue made it look. It’s partially mechanical.” He twisted the remover, and forced the cuff to open. “There we go—if you don’t put this on, Leona is going to disappear too, and she will never come back.”
Without hesitating, Past!Mateo took the cuff from his future self’s wrist, and gladly wrapped it around his own.
Future!Mateo smiled. “Mr. Ness, I implore you to open a portal to Lebanon, Kansas on October 6, 2212, and then forget I was ever here.”
“I see no reason not to,” Darrow said. He reached up and adjusted the controls.
The image of a gas station bathroom appeared. Mateo stepped through just in time. He looked back at his once and future wife one last time.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Extremus: Year 9

The fire was not without its consequences, obviously. Omega was placed in MedHock for his actions while an investigation went underway. As for the raw materials, they were fine, albeit a bit melty. They were going to be moulded and adapted as needed anyway, so the Frontrunner project was able to continue, mostly unimpeded. A body was recovered from the shuttle that appeared in section four of the cargo bay. A simple DNA test showed that it was Elder Caverness, presumably having returned from wherever it was he went six years ago. There was no telling how much time had passed for him, or where he had been. And since he was dead, he couldn’t tell them what happened to Rita, or Airlock Karen. No other remains were found inside the shuttle.
Omega was not in some kind of catatonic state, but he remained completely silent for nearly a year. Halan came up with this idea to have the robot who delivered him food refuse to let go of it unless Omega verbally asked for it, but that didn’t work. Omega kept his mouth shut, and just began to starve. He was too traumatized by what he did. Today, they try a different approach. They need answers, and there may only be one person in the universe who can get it out of him. It’s probably going to traumatize him more, but it’s their last resort. A hologram of Old Man appears in Omega’s cell. It doesn’t say anything, and finally, Omega speaks. “You’re old again.”
“I am as I was when I died,” Hologram!Elder explains.
“You’re the one who killed him,” Omega contends. “Don’t act like it bothers you.”
“I did not kill myself,” Hologram!Elder argues. “You engaged the scorch protocol.”
“Because you told me to!”
“Why would I do that?”
Omega considered the possibilities. “I imagine you didn’t want any competition. You probably saw him as a threat to your survival. If the real Elder returned, what would he do to the uploaded consciousness he left behind?”
“Uploaded consciousness!” Halan shouts. He rounds the corner, and approaches the cell. “What is this about an uploaded consciousness?”
Omega literally slams his lips shut.
“No,” the Captain says, hovering his finger over his watch. “You keep talking, or I’m transporting you to the vacuum.”
“You would never,” Omega insists.
Halan sighs with relief. “Now we don’t have to find out. Explain. What uploaded consciousness are you talking about?”
Omega points to what he still doesn’t know to be a hologram. “I know you can’t see him, but Old Man is standing right there. He’s inside my head. He’s actually inside the computer system, but he appears to me, because I altered my DNA to match his. I was hoping he would go away when I changed my DNA back, but he’s returned anyway.”
“Computer, end program,” Halan orders, causing the hologram to flicker and disappear.
Omega regards the space he was once occupying in horror. “That wasn’t really him? It was just a simulation?”
“Correct,” Halan confirms. “I thought that you might choose to communicate with the person you killed. I had no idea that he was the one who convinced you to do it in the first place. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“He finally explained who he was at the launch,” Omega reveals. “I got caught up in his claims about something dangerous coming from the section four mission. I thought it was gonna be some kind of contagion from the planet the drone landed on. I thought I was saving us. Now I realize he just didn’t want the real version of him to come back to Extremus.”
“Why did you not recognize him immediately when the hallucinations first began?” Halan questions.
“He didn’t look like himself,” Omega clarifies. “I’m sure he did that for this very reason, so no one would be able to help me.”
Halan shakes his head as he’s processing this new information. “I wish you hadn’t changed your DNA back. There’s a genetic lock on that little ship. Only Old Man is able to access the logs. We need to figure out where he was, and how he got back.” He waves his watch in front of the cell lock. The gate slides open. “Now that I know the truth, I can help you.”
“I’m not forgiven,” Omega says, not in the form of a question. “I still killed someone, unusual circumstances notwithstanding.”
“As Captain, I have every right to pardon you. You were under the influence of a powerful external entity. We’ll get rid of him soon enough, but only after he explains himself further. Rewrite your DNA for us yet again, and let that be your first step on the road to redemption.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.” Omega curls up tighter on the bed, even as the door remains opened.
“In hock or not, you are still under my command, and that is an order.”
Omega lays down and rolls over to face the back wall. “I’ll need a few days to make the transition. I’m more comfortable here than I ever was in my original quarters.”
Over the course of the next three days, engineers attempt to look for this uploaded version of Elder in the system, but they come up with nothing. He’s probably keeping himself contained, rather than spreading his consciousness out. It’s harder to find the code when it can move around to avoid detection. He likely doesn’t have any intention of taking over the whole vessel, but if he ever tries, they will be ready for him. Now that Omega is sufficiently Old Man on a genetic level, Halan goes back down to MedHock to retrieve him. The door was left open, but still, Omega never left. He continues to do the right thing, and since he’s become aware of how susceptible he is to persuasion, he plans on being particularly leery of others.
Lead Engineer Veca Ocean is sitting in the shuttle in her hazmat suit. She’s not wearing protective headgear, or a respirator. It’s mostly just to keep her clothes clean of the soot and ash. The internal computer system appears to be fairly intact. It’s a sophisticated ship, meaning it took time and resources to complete. As Omega enters the hatchway, it begins to power up on its own, responding to his presence. “Welcome back, Dr. Caverness,” the AI says.
“On screen,” Omega orders. The main menu of the computer appears on the HUD. “Date of manufacturing.” September 9, 2273 appears on the screen. “Power specifications.” Antimatter drive for propulsion, fusion for internal systems, and temporal energy for temporal displacement. “What is your personal timeline?” The shuttle went from October 31, 2273 to March 18, 2272, and then it continued on in realtime from there.
“So he did go back in time,” Veca noted. “It was a year and a half before he built the shuttle, so he had to take it at least that far back to make it to the rendezvous point in enough time. He was probably flying just ahead of us this whole time, and we didn’t even know it.
“Why did he wait to show up now?” Halan asks. “He could have rendezvoused with us essentially instantaneously. Hell, he could have crossed his own timeline.”
“Computer, answer his question,” Omega commands.
Unknown,” it answers simply.
Veca takes it upon herself to look through the logs manually. Then she gets up and paces while she thinks it through. “So he lands on a planet. It’s either habitable, or he has some way of surviving using that bag he was carrying at the time. At some point, he builds a shuttle, probably using nanotech in his bag. He integrates it with a time machine so he can get back to Extremus, but he doesn’t do so for another five years. What was he doing all that time? He was the only one in here, so if the other two survived the initial transport, they didn’t come with him. What happened? Did he do something to them? Did they catch a cold and die?”
“Computer, answer her questions,” Omega repeats.
Unknown,” it repeats.
“Keep digging,” Halan orders. “I’m going to go monitor the final Frontrunner launch. We’re doing them with a lot less fanfare than the mining automators.”
“Thank you, sir,” Omega says genuinely.
He stops and looks at Omega, unsure whether he should try to give him some advice, or what. Instead, he nods professionally, and moves on.
Omega steps down from the shuttle, and watches the Captain leave, waiting to make sure he gets all the way out of earshot. Then he turns back around. “Is this vessel reparable?”
“You’ve spent time assessing the damage. Can you make it work again?”
“With Valencia’s help, probably, why?” Veca says.
“We may need it in the future.”
She squints her eyes, and looks at him with suspicion. “What do you have planned?”
“Nothing. Very much so nothing. Until I can be sure that this Old Man program is outta my head, I can’t be trusted with anything. I’m going back to my cell.”
“Not so fast,” Elder’s avatar says, appearing before him. “You have to stop the Frontrunner launch.”
Ansutah was first formed thousands of years before the humans living there managed to escape back to their home universe. In that time, a lot less had changed than people might expect. The human population began when a handful of them found themselves stranded. And it was those castaways that held the traditions of before together. They maintained written records of Earthan history, and passed down all the knowledge they kept with them to the later generations, eventually numbering in the billions. Some information was lost, yes, but most of it remained intact. It was important to them. It was important that they not forget where they came from, or what it took to get there. English never fell out of favor, and neither did American Sign Language. Unlike on Earth, it was a mandatory skill that every child studied, and this standard remained even after the great migration to Gatewood. Being a genius, Omega managed to learn it fairly quickly, even though he had no obligation to.
He signs behind his back as he speaks to the Elder program, hoping that Veca is watching from inside the shuttle. This is their chance to capture the program, isolate it from the rest of the system, and prevent it from causing Extremus problems. She must see his warnings, for she activates her emergency teleporter, and jumps to the bridge.
The Elder program chuckles. “I know what you just said to your little friend in there. Come on out, Veca. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
Confused, Omega looks back into the shuttle. No, she’s not there anymore. She left. “Can she hear you?”
“I can always make anyone hear me. Did you think you were special? No, I just chose you because your altered DNA gave you some permissions other people don’t have, and you were susceptible to my manipulation.”
“So what you’re saying is I am special.”
He smiles sarcastically. “Right. Seriously, Veca, everything will be all right.”
Now Omega is the one who chuckles. “Elder, there is no one in that shuttle.”
“I saw her go in there,” the program argues. “You and the Captain followed, and then the Captain came out, and then you came out. But she never did.”
“Can’t you tell that she’s not in there?” Omega questions, trying to understand.
The program doesn’t answer.
“You can’t,” he realizes. “It’s shielded. The real you shielded it from you.”
He’s getting angry. “I am the real me!”
Omega steps back onto the ramp, but sticks his head out. “Can you see me now? Do I just look like a floating head to you? I saw a meteorologist do this once with a green dress.”
The Elder program purses his lips, not wanting to confirm his limitations, but confirming them just the same. “Whatever. Minor blindspot. What are you gonna do, transfer ship controls to this little shuttle?” he asks with a yawn. Generally speaking, computer programs don’t need to yawn.
Omega steps back down the ramp. “No. I’m just the distraction.”
The program begins to nod off, not understanding what’s happening to him. “What did you do? I feel...trapped.”
“We’re not gonna kill you,” Omega promises. “You just can’t be allowed to go wherever you want anymore.”
“No.” He’s struggling to stay awake. “You can’t do this. I haven’t told you yet.”
“Told me what?”
The Elder program gets down on his hands and knees, but he’s only staving off the inevitable. “I figured out why my corporeal self tainted the recall device that was supposed to send you and Airlock Karen back to Gatewood.”
“You can tell us later,” Omega says. “As soon as we’re sure you won’t be able to access anything we don’t want you to.”
“You silly fool,” the Elder program accuses. “They’re not sedating me. They are killing me. I’m trying to hold on, but I’m losing control. It’s almost over.”
“I didn’t know,” Omega assures him. “I’m sorry.”
“I die...knowing that you will never know...who hired Old kill the Captain.” He falls to his virtual face, and disappears.