Thursday, January 20, 2022

Microstory 1804: Good Opinions and Right Choices

I was raised in an extremely hostile environment. My parents were racist, hateful, and mean. When my older brother was first growing up, he tried to rebel against them. He didn’t go full liberal—because he didn’t know what that meant—but he didn’t agree with the kinds of things they would say. And they weren’t super obvious about it. They didn’t go around claiming that black people were inferior. They just used very unclever cover words like urban and hoodlum. They weren’t as inconspicuous as they thought they were, though, and my brother wanted no part of it. Unfortunately, they decided they weren’t going to give him a choice. They verbally abused him until he stopped talking all that lovey dovey nonsense. The world didn’t use terms like snowflake and libtard back then, but they would have loved it if they had been alive to learn them. Anyway, when I was old enough to start possibly making my own decisions, my brother realized how similar we were. He taught me to pretend to be like our family. I let them think that I was all about letting poor people die on the streets to save the dollar in my pocket, and not getting upset about the injustices we would see on the news. I did a really great job, blending in as the good little conservative boy that I was expected to be. I did too good of a job, actually. They were so proud of me. My brother and I had about the same grades in school, but since they were so disappointed in him, it was like I was the second coming of the messiah. I also had to pretend to believe in the messiah. I wasn’t an exceptional student, or person in general, but I could do no wrong, and my parents did what they could to give me the opportunities they felt that I deserved.

They paid my way into a preparatory school, which led me to a really great college. I hated every minute of it, but I figured I would take my free education, and do something positive with it. The problem was that I was so used to pretending to be an entitled prick that it was too hard to turn off at this point. I let them get me conscripted into a secret underground brotherhood, which was designed to foster a network of good ol’ boys who help each other go places, and get out of jams. It was so rough, being around people with such wrong opinions. I know people say that there’s no such thing as a wrong opinion, but those people’s opinions are wrong. There is a right way to think about how the world should be run, and a very bad way. It was impossible to walk away, though, and not because the only way out would have been in a bodybag, but because it was so tempting to accept their gifts. With their help, I was poised to step on a lot of heads, and make a lot of money. At that point, I didn’t really care that everyone who was helping me get there disgusted me to my core. Because maybe they didn’t. Maybe they weren’t so bad. None of my brothers were violent or outwardly intolerant either. They were great at hiding it, and some of them probably weren’t even that conservative at all. That’s obviously how the secret society formed, but we all make our own choices. I had to make a choice too. I had to do something to become my own man, and stop letting my family dictate how the world should see me. The brotherhood fed into a militia. Not everyone joined it, but it was an option. I continued to pretend, and took the path towards that anti-government group. They accepted me, and armed me, and it wasn’t long before they decided to plan an attack on the capitol. Before they could, I warned the authorities, and got the place raided. I finally made the right choice, and it was my last.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Microstory 1803: Life Can’t Be Engineered

I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I went to school for engineering. I didn’t even know what kind of engineering I was interested in. I figured it was better to at least have some kind of direction, rather than spending two years undeclared, and then having to rush to graduate on time. I ended up choosing civil engineering, and ultimately earned an architectural degree to go along with it. A lot of people do it the other way around, but like I said, I hadn’t been thinking that far ahead. I started out at a firm where the work wasn’t very exciting. We constructed a lot of facilities that were basically carbon copies of buildings that already existed. Sure, there were some modifications necessary for every new project, due to certain constraints, like geography, but for the most part, I didn’t find the work challenging or glamorous. A friend from college called me up, and said that he was starting a business on his own. It was going to be small in every sense of the word. We were going to build these newish things called tiny homes. They were meant to be as small as possible while including all the necessary amenities that a homeowner would expect to encounter in a normal-sized house or apartment. Space was key, and understanding how to work within the restrictions of a smaller space was paramount. I was looking for a challenge, and I found it. I had so much fun, engineering household objects to not be simply smaller, but more efficient. My job has proved that humans need less space to live comfortably than some may believe, as long as they have the right tools. I designed some of those tools. I had to continue my education since not all of this was civil engineering, but it wasn’t too hard, and I enjoyed every second of it.

One of my proudest accomplishments was a stackable washer/dryer that included a sink. It took up a lot less room than you might have assumed, and it even won me an industry award. The whole washer came out like a drawer, it was so cool, if I do say so myself. There were a few other minor contributions, like the actual mechanism for a bed that receded into the floor, and other collaborative efforts. I even literally built my own house using the skills I used for my job. I was proud of myself for that too, obviously, but the laundry sink was my baby, at least at the time. I hadn’t thought much about starting a family. I wasn’t against it, but every morning, when I woke up, I thought about my workday, and didn’t realize how much time I had let pass until a stranger called me a cat lady. I think he was just being a jerk, because he shouldn’t have known that I was an old maid, but something clicked in me that night, and I decided that I did want a family. Back then, there weren’t any dating apps, or even online matchmaking services at all. All I could do was keep going to bars, hoping to meet someone nice. Occasionally, a friend would set me up with someone, but it never worked out. After all that searching, and all that failure, I discovered that my future was right under my nose. It was like a romcom when I suddenly started to see my business partner as something more. We both loved what we did for a living, we had a great shorthand with each other, and the attraction had always been there. We both agreed we would have one child, I guess to keep in line with our shared minimalist approach to life. That didn’t quite work out. Our first two children were twins, and our third was an accident. We loved them so much, we decided to have just one more. The fourth and fifth were also twins, but it was long before that when we outgrew our tiny home. We were forced to upgrade. It was worth it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Microstory 1802: A Mother Doesn’t Know

The end has finally come, and I welcome the relief. The doctors have been keeping a close eye on me for years now, but they can’t stop the inevitable. I have a DNR, and nobody lives forever. I don’t remember how I ended up in this institution, but it was definitely against my will. They keep me drugged up so I can’t think straight, let alone move fast enough to get out of this place. It’s been such sorrowful torture. I would protest against them, but I just don’t have the energy anymore, and haven’t for a very long time. They know this about me. They do that on purpose. They took away my free will, because if I had a voice, people might actually listen to what I have to say. But they can’t have that. No, far be it for me to speak my mind. I’m a crazy person, who no one cares about. I had someone who cared about me, but they took him away. Not the same people, technically, mind you, but close enough. Anybody who works for the institutions of this country, and promotes the oppression of the masses, might as well just be one evil man. I can’t wait to get the hell out of here, and I am well aware that the only way that happens is in a bodybag. The time has almost come; what I’ve been yearning for. This won’t be the first time that I died. I tried to kill myself a few years ago. My son got into an awful mess, and ended up being murdered by a cop. I was foolish to have made my attempt on the day the charity organization would come to deliver meals. He was the only person who ever gave a damn about me, and now he’s gone. What do I have to live for but him? Now this cough has taken me down my final path, and I’ve been letting it happen. They can’t keep me locked up forever, no sir. Now it’s just a waiting game.

I reflect on the decades behind me. They say that your life flashes before your eyes, but maybe that doesn’t always happen automatically. Maybe I have to force it, and expedite the process. I’ll take any advantage I can get. I did my best raising my child, but I could only do so much without his terrible father. Sure, he was the one paying for everything, so I didn’t have to work, but he should have been there. He should have helped teach our son how to be a man. I don’t know how to be a man; I’ve never done it before! Looking back, maybe there were some signs that he wasn’t well, and maybe I should have gotten him some help. But, really, how was I meant to know that his fixation on certain girls in his class was some kind of warning? It didn’t seem weird when these fixations transferred down to new girls. They kept staying the same age, while he grew older. He was very protective of others; I thought it was sweet. He didn’t ever kill any small animals, which everyone says is the behavior you’re supposed to look for. He has absolutely no trouble feeling empathy for people. I mean, when I say these signs were obvious in retrospect, it’s because hindsight is 20/20, not because I think I should have understood what the problem was back then. I couldn’t have known, I couldn’t. He did some bad things when he was older—those cages. He didn’t have to die for it, though, and they certainly shouldn’t have blamed me for it. Like I said, he didn’t ever show any violent tendencies. He truly wanted to help those women, and the situation sometimes just got out of hand. If their own parents had raised them better, perhaps they wouldn’t look so vulnerable. That’s what he was attracted to, but not in a sexual way. He wanted to help them, and I can’t help but be proud of him for that. I know he’s in heaven now, where he belongs, and I know that I’ll soon meet him last.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Microstory 1801: Jellyfish Cycle

I have been around for centuries, but I’ve not been young the entire time, or even most of the time. A few species of jellyfish are capable of something similar, through by different means. They use their genetics to be immortal. I use my soul. Before they can die, they will revert to an earlier stage of development, and begin anew. These creatures have evolved to do this, but the same can’t be said for me, because humans are not like that. The majority of us aren’t, anyway. I belong to a subspecies of humans called voldisil. We did not technically evolve out of the other either, though. You see, there are three genders. Normal people are only conceived by two, but a third can get involved, often without their knowledge. They’ll inject something else into the process. It’s a spiritual experience, which those like me would consider a gift. Back in the early second century, I was created, and unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of meeting my third parent. My mother and father died shortly after I came into the world, when you think about it, because it was only a few decades. I felt like I was able to spend a lot of time with my family back then, but I now realize how precious those moments were, and how I should not have taken them for granted. When I was 36, I contracted malaria, and I assumed that was it for me. There was no cure, no vaccine. It was pretty much a death sentence in my region in that time period. One night, I felt myself drifting away, and had to make peace with the end. I was surprised to find myself waking up the next morning as a toddler. All of my memories were intact, and I was cured. I couldn’t explain it. A new couple adopted me, thinking I was the child of a victim, and not even considering the possibility that I was the patient. They just thought of me as their little miracle.

I continued to go through this cycle lifetime after lifetime. Though, I probably shouldn’t call them lifetimes. I would be older when the transition happened every time, but I was also coming back older. The second time it happened, for instance, I looked more like an eight-year-old. By the fifth cycle, I no longer had to worry about someone trying to take care of me. I appeared to be old enough to handle myself. Each time, I would have to pack up, and move to a new land, so no one would become suspicious. I felt like I was in my early forties the last time I cycled, but that was only sixteen years ago. I’ve not known what it was like to die of age-related causes in a very long time. If I keep this up, I’ll probably only have days to live at a time, and I don’t want that. My soul’s ability to rejuvenate my body was never destined to last forever, and I always knew this about myself. What I needed to do was find some way to make my legacy last. I, of all people, understood what it looked like when someone just faded away. That’s what happens to most, in the end. Barring great fame, perhaps someone’s great great grandchildren will recall stories of their ancestors, but they won’t likely pass these on to their own descendants. I didn’t have any myself, because I didn’t know what their lives would have been like. It wasn’t worth the risk. As I lie here on my bed, prepared to go through this once more, and come back as another middle aged woman, I see now. I see that my third parent must have been in my same position all those years ago. This must be how it works; we pass the torch. I may simply be the latest in a line going back to the dawn of man. My final thoughts are of a newborn baby crying with the others two floors down, who receives my spirit ability, and has no choice but to accept the burden.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: March 19, 2377

“Ramses, dark mode!” Leona ordered.
The ship became a darklurker. All nonessential systems were powered down to make themselves as undetectable as possible. Mateo decided to climb up to the upper level, which was the only place with regular viewports. They were the only means of seeing what was going on outside. There was another ship out there. It was much smaller than The Investigator, which had taken them to the stellar engine. At the moment, it wasn’t doing anything. Perhaps it never noticed them, and its presence was a mere coincidence. Probably not, but they could hope.
“Battery level,” Leona whispered. She didn’t need to, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
“Twenty-four percent,” Angela reported.
“Hull integrity.”
Ramses popped his head up from the lower level.
“Propulsion,” Leona prompted.
“There is nothing out here close enough for us to get to it without the battery, and this maneuver took a lot more out of us than I hoped it would. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” Leona promised. “Mateo—where’s Mateo?”
“He went upstairs,” Olimpia said.
“I’m getting a bad feeling,” Leona said, standing up. “Ramses, use a tablet, and run some simulations. I want options for getting us out of this mess.”
“Sir,” Ramses replied.
Meanwhile, Leona went up to see what her husband was doing. He was in the airlock, hatch closed, finishing up fitting himself with one of the vacuum suits. “What are you doing?” she asked through the intercom
“I’m gonna board that thing,” he answered.
“The hell you are.”
“Stop wasting power on the intercom,” Mateo argued.
Leona rapidly pressed the charging button on the console. Something as simple as this did not require much power, and could be recharged quite easily. “There, now it’s back up to four bars. You are not going out there.”
“We need fuel, that thing has fuel,” he contended.
“I’m sure it does. It has antimatter pods, and hydropellets, but the former won’t be compatible with our system, and you don’t know what you’re looking for.”
“I know what I’m looking for,” he said. “I’m not as dumb as you think. I don’t know how antimatter works, but I’ve seen you people replace lots of parts on this thing while I was sitting around with nothing to do. I can retrieve them for you, and the two of you can adapt the alien technology. If nothing else, the deuterium and tritium can be used with the regular fusion drive, correct?”
She sighed. “They can. It’ll be slow, but yes.”
“Slow for us is maybe a few weeks,” Mateo pointed out as he was placing the helmet over his head.
“I’ll go with you,” Leona offered. “There are eleven other suits.”
“But there’s only one jetpack, and I need all the power I can get.”
“Let me do this. Let me do something.”
“You promise you know what you’re looking for?”
“I do. You know our code words. If something goes wrong, and I tell you to through the cuff, then you darkburst the hell out of here, and don’t look back.”
“Mateo...” she repeated.
“I’ll be fine, I promise.” He couldn’t promise that, but he had to do something. They needed those power sources. Being stuck in an intergalactic void was just not a sustainable living arrangement. Better him than someone else. Out of everyone on the team, he was the most expendable. He double checked his vacuum suit, then turned around, and jacked himself into the jetpack on the wall. In the olden days, one or two people had to help an astronaut into a suit like this. This was a lot better, especially if Leona had chosen to be less agreeable about the whole thing.
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Leona was still so worried.
Mateo separated himself from the wall, and struggled to stay vertical from the weight of the jetpack. “Were I you.”
“Were I you.” She switched off the artificial gravity for him, so he didn’t have to stand. Then she pressed the button to open the outer doors, and watched him go.
According to the heads up display, the mysterious nonresponsive ship was floating about a kilometer away from the AOC. It had yet to make any move against them, or any move at all, for that matter. Ramses was reading heat waste coming off from it, so it didn’t appear to be abandoned, unless it was, and it happened pretty recently. The AOC remained in dark mode, staying in communication with Mateo using a carefully tuned laser. This would stop working once he boarded the vessel, but at that point, he should be able to take off part of the suit, and begin using the highly secure Cassidy cuff.
Using data relayed from Mateo’s sensors, Ramses was able to pinpoint a good place for ingress in what was probably an infrequently used airlock for automated external hull repair. It was too small for his jetpack to fit, so he removed it, and magnetically held it against the hull to retrieve later. He opened the airlock using the manual override they found, and slipped in. Still no response from anyone on the ship, suggesting that they had no idea he was there, or even that the AOC was. This could prove to be the hard part, figuring out how to repressurize the airlock without the team’s help. He reached over, just hoping there wasn’t an authorization code to block him, but before he could touch anything, the room started to make noise. It was repressurizing on its own, theoretically in reaction to his presence. The inner doors opened on their own too. Mateo removed his helmet, set it on the floor, and carefully exited.
He looked one way. Coast was clear. He looked the other way. Not clear. A man was standing there with a weapon of some kind trained on him. “Weapons on the floor.”
“I don’t have any,” Mateo told him honestly. They had never thought to store them on the AOC. It wasn’t a warship, after all.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Why did you let me in if you thought I was a threat?” That airlock didn’t pressurize itself. This guy was surely in control.
“I wanted to know who you are, and what you’re doing here.”
“We need fuel,” Mateo answered. “Our own ship, it’’s not gonna get far.”
“You mean that lifeboat down there?”
“You noticed us.”
“I’m not an idiot. Weapons, now.”
Mateo began to take off the rest of his suit, proving that he didn’t have anything up his sleeve.
“What is this thing?” the man questioned, holding Mateo’s wrist up, and indicating the Cassidy cuff.
“Comms and basic sensors.” He didn’t need to know about the sync teleporter, or the temporal pattern link.
He seemed satisfied with this answer. That was exactly what it looked like. More importantly, it didn’t look like a weapon. “That way,” he ordered with a jerk of his gun. He continued to direct Mateo from behind. This was a nice ship; kept clean and well-lit. There didn’t appear to be anyone else here, but it was pretty large. They could have been busy in other sections without Mateo ever knowing. “What fuel do you need, isotopes?”
“That, and antimatter pods. I know it’s a big ask, but if you’ll just speak with my Captain, I’m sure we can work something out. There’s no need for things to get—”
“We’re here.”
They were entering a big storage room. The roar of the engine was louder now, coming from a door on the other side. It did not look like a hock cell.
“How much do you need?” the man asked.
“Um.” That was an interesting question. He was just planning on stealing as much as he could carry. “Whatever you can spare. Our propulsion drive can handle six pods simultaneously, but our engineers will have to transfer what you have to—” He stopped himself to look down at the case the man had just opened. Inside were six pods. They looked nearly identical to the ones the AOC used. “Is that some kind of standard design?”
“I have no idea.” He shut the case, and pulled another one from the shelf. You carry them, I’ll carry the isotopes.
“Not that I’m not appreciative, but...why are you doing this?”
“I want you out of my business,” the man answered, “and I don’t care what it takes. This is my territory now, and I don’t need you hanging around any longer than necessary.”
It kind of sounded like he was doing something illegal. Mateo didn’t really care, though. This wasn’t his reality, and he didn’t know anything about the culture. He couldn’t even say that Salufi, or the others on the matrioshka brain, were bad people. Their reaction to the team’s arrival was not outrageous. They just couldn’t have it, and needed to leave. “I understand.”
“Thanks, let’s go.”
They started to walk back towards the service airlock, this time without the gun. “I’m sure you don’t want questions, but does this have anything to do with the matrioshka brain that was parked somewhere around here last year?”
The man stopped him at the shoulder. “You know it was here. Did you see it?”
“I was on it. We barely escaped.” Again, he couldn’t be sure whose side this guy was on, but against the matrioshka brain was a pretty fair bet at this point.
“Do you know its exact coordinates?” he pressed.
“Uhh, I don’t, I’m just the delivery boy. My Captain probably knows, or will do everything she can to help you find it.”
He set the isotopes down, and took one of the antimatter cases from Mateo. “Contact your ship. I will give you twice as much as this if you can get me to where they were.”
“This was exactly a year ago,” Mateo warned him. “We can probably find where it was then, but if it moved after that...”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I just need its flight path, so I can predict where it will be next.”
“What are you going to do with this information?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Mateo weighed his options in his head. He didn’t have much to go on, but one side imprisoned the team, and the other gave them presents. Dance with the one that brought you, he figured. He tapped on his cuff. “Leona.”
Finally! Yes—my God—where have you been?
“In a meeting,” he mused.
Are you okay?” she asked.
“Perfectly fine,” he answered. “Jump to these coordinates. I’ve made a business arrangement with a new associate.”
Powering up now.
“Hey, I don’t know how long this is gonna take,” Mateo started to say to the man, “but in case we make quick work of this, we should formalize it. My name is Mateo Matic. My wife, Leona is the Captain. We have an engineer, and two other crew members on board.”
“Xerian Oyana.”
Mateo pulled up his own info on his cuff. “This is my personal quantum sequence. If you ever need anything else, call me, and we’ll try to help if we’re in the neighborhood. Time lag might be a factor.”
Xerian pulled out his handheld device, and accepted the data, exchanging it with his own. After Leona teleported to their location, they all three went up to the bridge, stopping briefly at the storage room to double their payment. Once at the controls, Leona retraced the AOC’s steps, and found the region of space where the matrioshka brain was last year. Xerian knew it was somewhere around here, but he needed to be as accurate as possible. He added it to the points he had already plotted on a map, and connected them with a new line. “Ah, they’re tricky, but I see a pattern.”
“Me too,” Leona said.
Mateo didn’t see it. It just looked like a random mess to him.
“Well, I appreciate your help,” Xerian said.
“We appreciate yours. This should last us quite a while.”
“I must be off. I think I can finally get ahead of them.”
“We’ll leave, but do you know where we can go? Is there some kind of haven for people who don’t have identities, and don’t have a great relationship with that matrioshka brain?
“Andromeda is your only hope,” Xerian explained. “But since I imagine you don’t have a lightyear drive, it will take you too long to get there.”
“You don’t have instant transporters?” Leona pressed.
“We do, but that’s what I mean,” Xerian went on. “The closest Nexus that won’t ask questions is nearly 1400 light years away.”
Mateo looked over to Leona, who closed her eyes and nodded. That will be fine. Xerian didn’t know about the reframe engine, or their salmon pattern. “Thanks again,” she said.
Xerian found the coordinates to both the Nexus, and a supposedly safe place in the Andromeda galaxy, and beamed them to her cuff.
After the two of them teleported back to the AOC, Mateo realized there could be another way. “Maybe we should just ask if we can stay with him.”
“That is not our business,” Leona contended. “We just need to get somewhere safe.”
“I think I trust him,” Mateo decided.
“That’s great!” Leona said with false enthusiasm. “We’re still gonna go do our own thing. Ramses.” She held out one of the cases of antimatter, and one of the tritium. “Load these up while I plot our course. We’ll be there in two years.”
“We’ll be where?” Mateo pointed out.
“We’ll see,” she said simply.
They weren’t necessarily headed towards safety. They still didn’t know what the hell was going on in this reality.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Extremus: Year 27

Hock Watcher may sound like a funny position, but Caldr Giordana is responsible for the rehabilitation department of the entire ship. Here, rehabilitation is being used in its loosest definition. It’s a pretty simple concept. You break a law, you go in hock. If a ruling needs to be made beyond that, you go to trial, and either go free, or stay in hock to serve out a sentence. When you’re done, you go free. There’s no real rehabilitation, and there is no program for reintegration into society. It’s never been needed. Most crimes have been straightforward, committed by people who clearly made a mistake, but which can’t be categorized as menaces. Three of the men presently in hock are different, and more complicated, and Olindse Belo feels that something needs to be done to reform the system. She is not capable of doing this without the approval and aid of others.
The hock is a special department, which acts as an unlikely spot to bridge the gap between passengers and crew. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a civilian or a civil servant, if you commit a crime, you go to the same place as everyone. Hock Watcher is one of the most complicated roles to fill, and equally illustrates that bridge. First, the government nominates the most promising candidates. Then the passengers vote to narrow the pool further. The crew then votes for the winner, but the Captain is free to veto any decision, and restart at least part of the process. If that were to happen, there would be even more deliberation to decide how far back in that process the cycle has to restart. To get where he is today, Caldr had to really want it, and now that he’s here, it would be all but impossible to get rid of him unless he wanted to leave. He wields a lot more power than one might expect.
When Consul Vatal was discovered to be a True Extremist spy—or rather, outed himself to a spy—his job needed to be backfilled. He had his own sort of apprentice, who was prepared enough to take over, but the nature of his departure made that more complicated. For more than two years, the new Consul tried his best to carry out his duties, but everyone who required his services hesitated to reach out to him. The consul is not a lawyer. They are primarily an ethicist who understands the law down to the very last punctuation mark. By being untruthful about where he came from, and where his loyalties lay, Dvronen was quite ironically proving himself to be unethical at the highest order. If he’s the one who trained the apprentice, could that apprentice have good ethics himself? Well, probably, since he went through his own education, and had his own ideals, but we’re dealing with humans here, and humans are complicated. The crew, especially the Captain, found it difficult to trust him with their ethical needs. It essentially made it impossible for him to do his job, and he just couldn’t take the stress. He stepped down, and while quitting the crew is usually a complex process, Captain Leithe made an exception, and simply let him go. Any other member of the crew could have contested this ruling, but no one did, so it went through.
Renga Mas was fresh out of school, and didn’t think she was ready to take the job, but she was pretty much the only option. Others studied law, but they were predominantly on the other two of three tracks. One track focuses on civilian law, and that’s the route most students take. The other concerns itself with destination law. Such students are intended to become teachers, so they can pass their knowledge down to further generations. There are a lot of skills that people living on the ship won’t, or might not, ever use, but which their descendants will find critical. It would be irresponsible of them to let this knowledge disappear before the mission can be realized two centuries from now. If you want to take the third track, which prepares you to possibly become Consul, you have to complete an independent study program, and while Renga isn’t the only one who has done that, she’s the only one with sufficient competency. She likely would have apprenticed for Dvronen’s apprentice, and ultimately secured the job anyway, but the timetable had to be moved up. Today is her first major project.
“Okay, so,” Renga fumbles with the tablet before she realizes it isn’t even hers, so it isn’t signed into her account. That’s why her passcode didn’t work. “All right, I don’t think I need it. Is this being recorded? Are we recording?”
“We are,” First Lieutenant Corinna Seelen replies. Captain Leithe doesn’t need to be part of the decision-making process in this case, so Corinna is in charge. “Go on.”
Renga is responsible for running the meeting itself. “Great. Uh, that’s great.” She clears her throat. “Okay. This is the...hearing?”
“Proposal meeting,” Corinna corrects.
“Right, proposal meeting for the question of whether to accept Olindse’s—”
“Admiral Belo,” Corinna corrects her again.
“Admiral Belo’s prisoner reintegration plan. Thanks.” Renga nods sharply, proud of herself for managing to get through that, and forgetting for just one second that it’s literally only the beginning.
Corinna urges her on with her eyes, but no words. She may have to take over.
Renga continues, “Olin—Admiral Belo.” Olindse took Renga under her wing at school. They were studying completely different things, but they became friends, and the latter often mined the former for advice. It’s proven difficult to remember that she should not be so informal with this. “Please, begin your presentation.”
“Thank you,” Olindse says. “I’ve already given you my written proposal, so I won’t go into detail, but I’ll sum it up. I believe that our justice system leaves something to be desired. It’s far too simple. If you’re guilty, you go in hock. Maybe you’re given limited computer privileges, but for the most part, the severity of your crime dictates how long you’re there. Prisoners are not provided resources to help them rehabilitate, or later return to society. When and if they’re released, they’re just thrown back into the general population, where they have to move on on their own. Many will have been changed by the trauma, and their lives will be more difficult than necessary. I believe that this is unfair and unjust.”
Corinna holds up a hand, and closes her eyes, like it’s a performing arts audition, and Olindse’s minute is up. “Currently, the only prisoners in hock are...” She checks her tablet, but only to find the file for the least infamous prisoner. “A spy, a mutineer, a disgraced former officer, and a saboteur.”
“It was a prank,” Olindse argues, “not sabotage.”
“Tell that to the eighteen people who drank the contaminated water, and suffered from heavy diarrhea for the next three to four days.”
“No civilian charges were filed,” Olindse reminds her. “That’s not my point. I’m not here to argue if any of them deserve to be in hock, or not. I’m here to argue that we should be helping them learn from their mistakes. Egregious, or forgivable,” she adds before Corinna can debate the definition of a mistake, or contend that two of them did not simply make a mistake.
My point,” Corinna goes on, “is that only the...prankster will be getting out of hock outside of a body bag. The other three are enemies of the state, and will have to make their respective cells their homes for the next however many decades are left of their lives.”
“That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect and compassion,” Olindse says.
“I’m not saying that,” Corinna claims. “Though, I don’t have any personal respect or compassion for two of them in there, and I don’t much care about the fourth. I shouldn’t have to name names.” She doesn’t. Everyone still loves Halan Yenant, and no one likes Dvronen or Ovan. “I’m asking why we should divert time and resources to helping people we know will never be able to reenter society. You even call this the reintegration program.”
“That’s a catchall term, but it doesn’t just address actually placing prisoners back in the general population. There are many ways to reintegrate,” Olindse explains. “Besides, as you saw in my proposal, I also discuss counseling for those who have been given life sentences. And as a side note, Admiral Yenant has not technically received a definite sentence. His potential for parole is always there.”
“Don’t call him that,” Corinna demands. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but we legally can’t call him an admiral. Right, Consul?”
“Right,” Renga answers uncomfortably.
“Who do you suppose will provide these counseling services for the prisoners?”
“Nearly every job on this ship has a surplus labor pool. It won’t be hard to find someone to fill this void,” Olindse figures.
Renga realizes she needs to speak up more, since this is supposed to be her show. “I didn’t see this in the proposal—even though I read it...” She eyes the Lieutenant.
“I’m busy, I skimmed it,” Corinna defends.
Renga goes on, “I didn’t see anywhere that dictates whether this new counselor will be a member of the civilian workforce, or the crew.”
Olindse nods and points, having predicted this would come up. “It’s not in there, because I wasn’t sure about that. I hoped we could work together to figure that out. My first thought is to make it a joint effort, like the Hock Watcher, but still appointed, rather than voted upon.”
“That is a tall order,” Corinna says. “We would have to all vote in order to make this new flavor of job even a thing. What say you, Hock Watcher Giordana?”
Caldr had been listening intently and respectfully to all sides of this argument. “To be honest, I wouldn’t mind having one or two other people on the team. It can get lonely down there. Also to be honest, I sometimes chat with Mr. Yenant because of it.”
“That’s not illegal,” Renga assures him. They actually did consider fraternizing with the prisoners completely illegal, because it could theoretically lead to a conflict of interest, and even possibly a prison break. They had to decide against such harsh rules, because it was more unethical to restrict who a resident of the ship could be friends with. They made it so hard to become Hock Watcher in the first place in order to lower this risk. Caldr bleeds integrity.
“Okay,” Corinna begins, “let me read the proposal in full. I’ll assign some duties to my Second LT to make the time. We will reconvene in two weeks to discuss this further, and hopefully come to some conclusion. Vice Admiral, create a list of candidates for this counseling job, and determine whether you want anyone else on this expanded hock team. Consul Mas, you can tentatively approve them. Does this sound fair?”
“Yes,” they all agreed.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Microstory 1800: A Life Well-Earned

I was born into a very wealthy family, which only got wealthier with each generation. None of us was allowed to rest on our laurels, and relax. We had a system in place. Parents were expected to take care of their children, and give them just about anything they wanted (within reason). Once they turned 18, their college would be paid for, and everything that goes with that, like food and lodging. Any purchases they wanted beyond that had to be approved, and were always contingent upon extremely good grades. No one was expected to join the family business, but they had to do something with their lives. They had to live up to our name, whether that meant doing as they were told by their betters, or striking out on their own. A well-rounded education was vital to this. You were cut off once you turned 26, regardless of how prepared you were. The idea was to give everyone enough time to finish their undergraduate studies, plus their graduate studies—if they so chose to continue their education—and also begin pulling in their own income. There was no trust, there were no allowances. Everybody had to make their own way, at least after spending a quarter of their lives learning how to do that. I know, I know, this all sounds very ridiculous to normal people, but what would you have us do, reject our family money as soon as we could speak? That wouldn’t have done anyone any good, would it? For my part, actually, I didn’t even let my family do this much for me. I let them pay for tuition, books, and other educational expenses, but I paid for food, and my own place to live. I had a job while I was there, which was smarter than my siblings and cousins, because I learned a lot more about the labor force than they did from their ivory towers. I wouldn’t say that I struggled, but I certainly worked harder than the rest of them. I was at least closer to seeing what real life was like for most people.

Rich people have problems too, and I don’t mean to sound like we don’t, but I always tried to be careful with my perspective. The fact is that I had an easy life, and people like me have a responsibility to use our privilege to help others as possible. What better way to support those people than to provide them with jobs? No one wants to be a charity case. They don’t want you to just hand them stuff. They want to feel like they earned it. No, strike that from the record; they want to know that they undeniably earned it. Ya know, receiving free stuff activates the same part of the brain as incurring debt does. I mean...I don’t actually know that for sure, but it sounds right, so it probably is. People hate to feel like what they have isn’t really theirs, and I chose to do my part to alleviate that for them. I paid my employees fair wages, and I treated them fairly. Sure, if you read the statistics, it sounds like workers were generally unhappy in their positions, but that data is always skewed. Only the loudest and angriest of people are going to fill out those surveys. Content people tend to be too happy to bother telling other people about why. And sure, my company technically pays most jobs on the left side of that bell curve, but that doesn’t matter. That isn’t what my organization is about. What I found—and this is another one of those things that my relatives never understood—is that an employee would much rather be validated by their superiors than just be given more money. Money doesn’t make you smile. Money can’t buy you monthly division birthday parties, and great online coupons. Well, I guess it does, but family doesn’t need that from each other. That’s what we are at the company; a family. I couldn’t die prouder.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Microstory 1799: Adventurous Spirit

There’s not much to say about my life, so I’ll just tell you about my death, with a little bit of background. My father once told me that I had an adventurous spirit. I liked to learn about other places, and read about people’s harrowing ordeals. I didn’t actually do anything, though. I kept thinking that I would grow up to be a boat captain, or a pilot, or I dunno...just something that would show me the world. I was always watching Indiana Jones movies, so I thought becoming a college professor would help me. I ended up at the community college five miles from my childhood home, and I rarely stepped beyond my comfort zone. I was certainly not having any adventures. I woke up one day—it wasn’t a random day, but a few weeks before my birthday, which is around the time I start planning my party, which fewer and fewer attend each year. I was about to turn forty, and I had nothing to show for it. That was not acceptable. I had always considered that to be the age when you start getting old. It’s at the top of the hill. You spend half your life climbing up to it, and the other half falling down from it. Obviously I could make new memories in the second half, but I knew it would haunt me if I couldn’t say I did anything by then. I had to start before. I had to start now. I didn’t have any money, or more than a few vacation days saved up, but that was okay, because I was too scared to go too crazy anyway. There was a lake twenty miles out of town that I figured would be the perfect place for me to literally test the waters. If I could survive a baby adventure there, then I would know I was ready for something more, and then maybe more after that. I was never gonna end up in space, but I thought I would go further than this.

As someone who was so inexperienced, I didn’t know how to prepare. Was I going camping? Hiking? Water skiing? No, not water skiing, that’s insane. And no hiking either, I don’t like to walk. How about I just rent a little row boat, and go out onto the water? Yeah, the weather wasn’t too bad that day, so it should have been calm. I assumed that was what the weather report meant. Little wind, little waves. Anyway, twenty-five miles an hour sounded like a low number to me. I still didn’t know what to buy, so I just went to the watersports section of the sporting goods store, and pretty much grabbed one of everything. I knew I wouldn’t need a water trampoline, or a giant canoe, but every small thing seemed like a good idea, because it’s better to be safe than sorry. I gathered everything up, and drove to the lake, where there was indeed a little place to rent rowboats. God, I wish there hadn’t been. I wish it was out of season, or the guy had warned me that the weather was worse than I realized. I don’t know how the boat sank, or why it waited until I was in the middle of the water, but screaming for help did me no good. No one was around to hear, especially since that motorboat was being so loud. A life vest. That was the one thing I forgot to pack. I felt like such an idiot, loading up all this unnecessary gear, but leaving out the one thing that could save my life. I wouldn’t have needed it to keep from drowning, though. That’s not how I died. I didn’t stick around the boat, assuming it was best to swim towards the shore. That turned out to be my downfall. Had I stayed with all that floating crap, the motorboat people might have been able to spot me. Instead, breaststroking my way through the wavy waters, under the darkening sky, in my grayish sort of lake water-colored swimsuit, was the last mistake I made before the propellers came over to say hello.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Microstory 1798: Flawed

Ever since I was a child, I was really good at detecting what other people were doing wrong, and I had absolutely no trouble informing them of this at every opportunity. I perhaps developed a little more tact as I grew up, but not a whole lot. I was still a master at pissing people off, and pushing them away. It’s, what’s the point of living your life if you’re not going to improve, ya know? Like when women lie about their age. They go the wrong way with it. I can see what you look like; giving me a surprising number is not going to change that. If you say that you’re 20 years old, but you’re 30, and you look 30, then not only am I not impressed, but I’m probably going to assume that you smoke, or something. Now, if you say that you’re 40, and you’re 30, and you look 30, then I’m going to assume you take good care of yourself. The idea is to appear younger, not to make everyone just think you’re younger. Some people were really appreciative of my advice. Just kidding, they always hated it, every single time. On the night I planned on proposing to my girlfriend, we went out to see a musical together. I actually like musicals, and I’m willing to suspend my disbelief that these people would suddenly break into choreographed song. That’s the medium, and I’m fine with it. My problem had to do with the particular show we saw. It was great on the whole, but one lyric sort of ruined the whole thing for me. One of the characters sang, not counting the homeless, how many tickets weren’t comped. Well, unless he’s suggesting that regular people were given free tickets, and homeless people had to pay, this line doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t matter whether you include the homeless people in the math, or not, the number of people whose tickets weren’t comped should not change. Needless to say, she broke up with me, and I had to take the ring back to the store for a refund. The people who worked there all gave me this sad look. But I decided that if she wasn’t happy with my logic, she couldn’t be happy with me at all, so it actually worked out.

Anyway, her father was my boss at the time, and he didn’t like the way I treated her. I think she made some stuff up to make me look even worse than I was. He fired me, and I had to go on the hunt for something new. My friends all suggested that I translate my ability to see and point out flaws into something productive, like maybe being a film critic. I chose to be a house inspector, because the pay was better, and the work was steadier. I never really enjoyed it. I had a boss, and she pretty much left me alone, so I felt like an entrepreneur, but the work was still boring and monotonous. I kept thinking that there would be someone. Someone had to like what I had to say. But it never happened. Every first date was bad. Every party was awkward. I finally gave up, and just figured there was nothing I could do about it. Therapist after therapist tried to turn me into a better person, but they all failed. Well, that’s unfair. I’m the one who failed, and I would be a huge hypocrite if I wasn’t willing to admit that about myself. In the end, it’s probably for the best, anyone hypothetically interested in someone like me probably just didn’t understand what they were getting into, and it would eventually turn sour anyway. I wouldn’t want to subject someone to that. I made lots of money because I didn’t have any responsibilities, and I was destined to die with it, because I didn’t have any heirs. Like many in my position—or even outside of it—I decided to donate my savings to charity. Hopefully someone who actually needs it can get some use out of it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Microstory 1797: Dying Alone

I had a pretty rough life, full of death and despair. My father died in the war before I was born. My mother never said much about him. I couldn’t get the sense of whether he was a hero, or a jerk. I think the problem was that she didn’t really love him anyway. She died of cancer when I was eight, leaving me to be raised by my grandparents, who were both so old that they died within a year of each other by the time I turned sixteen. The state awarded me emancipation, so I just took care of myself from then on. I met a great girl at her college. I wasn’t in college, I just worked maintenance there, but she didn’t make me feel bad about myself. We were in love, but she died trying to give birth to our third child, who also died. I had to raise our boy and girl on my own, and we managed to get through it, even with all this heartache; that is, until my son got himself killed in a car accident when he was 28. My one remaining child actually managed to make it to her forties before she succumbed to lung cancer, just like the grandmother she never knew. In the latter’s case, it was surely the cigarettes. In my daughter’s case, it was just because life is unfair, and there is no good left in the world. So there I was, a sixtysomething guy with no family left, and no more drive to do anything with myself. Everything around me reminded me of someone I cared about—who God took from me too soon. I had to get away from it. I had to get away from everything. There weren’t a whole lot of places left to hide away in modern times. Used to be, people we called mountain men owned whatever territory they claimed, and no one gave them any trouble. Now the government has all these rules,  and even publicly available pieces of land are heavily regulated. To live a new remote life, I was going to need some help.

I didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t buy up a bit of land myself. I may have been able to afford a single acre if I had stayed in the workforce for a few more years, but no one wants to sell that little unless maybe it’s on the edge of their property. The edge of any property is usually too close to another property to satisfy my needs. I remember knocking on the door, and I remember talking to the farmer and his daughter, but I don’t recall how I convinced them to let me live on their back forty. I’m sure I told them the God’s honest truth about why I wanted to live in the wilderness, and that I didn’t want to cause any trouble. I don’t remember if he hesitated either, but it obviously ended up working out, because he showed me a patch of land that he didn’t need for other purposes, and it was great. I was planning to live with the bare essentials, but he gave me more than I needed. He chose a spot right next to a creek of clean water. He let me have some pots and other tools that were just taking up space in his attic after he upgraded. I had my own tent, but it wasn’t rated for winter. He donated a brand new one that his daughter asked to buy for me instead of her Christmas gifts. I later carved her a nice birdhouse as a thank-you. She invited me over for family get-togethers a few times, but she grew up to understand that the point of this was to live alone, and not get attached to people, since I felt cursed, and didn’t want to go through that again. She ended up taking over the farm, and continued to fight off the authorities when they came to complain about me living there every few years. I never got over my depression, but I figured out how to live fairly comfortably for the rest of my life until I died, hoping to finally see my loved ones again.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Microstory 1796: Rounded

I love round numbers. Truthfully, I probably only held out this long so I could reach my hundredth year. Tomorrow is my birthday, and when that clock strikes zero, I plan to die. Where I live, the new year begins in the middle of the day, so my family is here to celebrate with me. They didn’t have to do that for me, squeeze into my nursing home room. I’m sure the younger ones would rather be at a party, and the older ones are too exhausted to spend this much time out of the house. I appreciate it, but I worry about how awkward it’s going to be when I pass. Only my youngest grandson knows what’s going to happen. He’s only six, but he’s so smart. He doesn’t think I’ll be able to pull it off, so I bet him a hundred dollars. He pointed out that he won’t be able to pay me if I end up being right, but it wouldn’t matter anyway. I don’t need money where I’m going, and I’m going soon, whether it’s at exactly 0:00, or not. He’s going to get a hundred bucks out of this, and it will teach him to focus his attention on safe bets. That’s the kind of lesson I’ve always tried to teach my kids. You don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen in the future if you rig it in your favor. Don’t play it safe, or you won’t get anywhere, but have an ace up your sleeve at all times. Don’t let others stack the deck against you. I’ve been unresponsive for a few hours now, but what my family doesn’t know is that I can still hear everything they’re saying. They’re talking about me, of course, and not even watching the clock. The elders are sharing stories with the youngsters. Man, I had a fun life, and I die here with no regrets. My son is talking about how I taught him how to get the job he wanted by basically not taking no for an answer. He snorts as he laughs. That’s not how it works anymore. Employers don’t like pushy people. Anyway, it worked for him in the 1960s, and he’s where he is now because of it.

They don’t notice when I pass at precisely when I meant to. My grandson positioned himself next to my vitals machine. I told you he was smart. So alarms don’t go off, he sneakily switches the little device on my finger to his own. It just keeps measuring, thinking that he’s me. He places his finger against my neck, waiting for a pulse that never comes. Still he tells no one. He lets them tell their stories, blissfully unaware that I’m gone. His parents think it’s so sweet that he’s holding my hand, but he’s really only doing it to maintain the lie. I taught him well, I tell you. They continue to tell stories for another thirty minutes until the nurse comes back in to confirm what she suspected. Grandson doesn’t apologize. He says he wanted the family to enjoy the beginning of the new year, at least for a little bit. The nurse leaves to begin the process. Meanwhile, my family decides that he’s right, or maybe they don’t want to argue about it. I was old and it was my time. There are some tears, even from those I wouldn’t have thought would produce them on this occasion, or didn’t think they would themselves. They keep going with the stories, though, trying to keep it light for the younglings. They know what’s going on, and the adults want them to feel comfortable with death, rather than being afraid of it. It takes a long time to get my body out of the room. My son’s wife is relieved. This kind of behavior would not have been tolerated on her side of the family. Death is something to be feared and ignored. She felt it was disrespectful for them to stay in here with a dead body. She tried to stay quiet, but everyone felt her disappointment. Me, I’m happy. I’m so happy that they stayed with me after I was gone. I felt so loved in the end.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: March 18, 2376

A message popped up on the table hologram, showing a series of symbols that Mateo did not recognize, as well as diagrams and graphs. Leona and Ramses squinted their eyes and studied them for a moment. Angela and Olimpia tried to do the same, but they couldn’t interpret it any better than Mateo, so they eventually gave up too. “It’s a math problem,” Leona decided. “Really simple too, just not in Arabic script.”
“L-O-L, it’s pi,” Ramses said. “Reply in pi, use Arabic.”
“Yeah,” Leona agreed. She quickly typed out the answer. “Fifteen digits should be more than enough to satisfy this little test.”
“Are we sure we want to respond to these people?” Olimpia asked as the voice of reason.
“If they’re the type to fire upon a helpless six-person ship for giving the right answer, they’re surely the type to fire upon us for not answering, or giving the wrong one, for that matter,” Leona reasoned. She did wait a moment before pressing enter, in case there were any further objections.
A few seconds passed before the hologram changed into the image of a human being. “Greetings from The SWD Investigator. We do not recognize your vessel. Where do you come from?” the little guy asked.
“Greetings to you too,” Leona replied. “This is Captain Leona Matic of the stateless private vessel known as the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. We hail from Earth, but the ship was constructed on Proxima Doma, Proxima Centauri.”
The hologram looked confused. “Earth, you say?”
“Indeed. There may be a time discrepancy.”
“Quite,” the hologram agreed. “It is the standard year 22,376.”
“Hmm,” Angela noted. “Twenty-two thousand years exactly into the future.”
“We don’t know that,” Ramses pointed out. “We were scheduled to restart the calendar in two centuries. Who knows how many times they do something like that?”
The man had been listening to them politely as they spoke amongst each other. “Is your ship capable of light year burst mode?”
“It is not,” Leona responded. They were too far advanced for her to lie and risk ending up on their bad side. “We operate at a maximum speed of seven-oh-seven-c.”
“Interesting. You may dock with us, and we will transport you to the Wanderer.” He closed the transmission, leaving the hologram with an image of the space above them, where his ship was opening up to accept them.
“That must be the W in SWD,” Olimpia figured.
“Do we run?” Mateo asked. “Serious question.”
“We don’t,” Leona answered. “Trust, but verify.” Leona activated the teleporter for a single jump into the belly of the beast.
No one came to the docks to speak with them, so they just waited until the hatch opened up again, and a clearly automated voice instructed them to, “please exit the Investigator, and follow the highlighted route.
The presently personality-less AI of the AOC accepted the coordinates, and transported them to the surface of an even larger vessel, which Leona and Ramses explained was probably an understatement. They couldn’t quite tell how massive it was, but it appeared to be larger than a star.
Now a woman was waiting for them when they exited their ship, and climbed down the steps. “Please follow me to the Office of the Director of Alien Affairs. She will be...extremely pleased to meet you. If you are telling the truth that you are stateless, you’ll be the first true alien we’ve ever met. We would be interested to know why you look so human.”
“So would we,” Mateo said. He had a pretty good idea why, though.
They entered a teleportation closest, and transported down to the deepest, darkest, section of the whole facility. Of course, they didn’t really know that was what it was, but it sure felt like it. It was dark anyway. “There ya go,” she said with what looked like a slight shiver. She reentered the closet before they could ask any more questions.
They walked down the rest of the corridor, and knocked on the only door they saw. A hairy animal that resembled an ape of some kind opened the door, and looked them over. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“We’re, uhh...” Leona began, “aliens.”
“How do you know?” the ape questioned.
“We’re from Earth,” Leona added.
“This is Earth,” the ape contended. “What’s become of it at least.”
“We’re from the original Earth,” Leona clarified. “When it was a planet?”
The ape sighed deeply. “Come on in, I’ll run some tests.” She began to mutter under her breath. “Can’t possibly be aliens. Time travelers, sure, but I don’t know how they got past The Barricade.” She squeezed them all onto a couch that would not have been fit for three adults. She tried to scan them with a device before realizing she was pointing in the wrong direction, and had actually been scanning herself.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Ramses asked.
“And I suppose you do?” the ape spat back.
He scoffed lightly. “I’m the engineer, Ramses Abdulrashid. This is our Captain, Leona Matic, First Officer Mateo Matic, and Crewmen Angela Walton and Olimpia Sangster.”
“Titles and ranks TBD,” Mateo said. Not once had anyone ever referred to him as the First Officer.
“Whatever,” the ape said dismissively. “I am Salufi.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Salufi,” Ramses said politely.
She closed her scanner, and carelessly tossed it onto a chair. “This damn thing can’t tell what you are, but what makes you think you’re an alien? Earth hasn’t been a planet for tens of thousands of years, but you’re still one of us. You’re an ancestor, I guess.”
All this time, Leona had been staring at something on the wall, chin resting in a palm attached by an arm to an elbow resting on Mateo’s knee. “I keep seeing that symbol. What does it mean?” It was a fairly simple graphic. A large arch was on the outside, followed by a second arch inside of it, which would be identical to the first, except it was broken down the middle. Inside of that was an arch broken into three parts, and then four, and then five.
Salufi looked over at it like it wasn’t important. “It’s The Fifth Division. That’s how our culture got started.” She scoffed harshly. “That symbol has existed long before you would have been born. If you have your own ship, and know how to use it—”
“We didn’t tell you we had a ship,” Angela argued.
“I knew you were coming,” Salufi explained. “You think I didn’t know? We’re not idiots around here. Do you wanna know about the symbol, or not?”
“Go on,” Leona urged.
“In the beginning, there was unity. One peoples, on Earth. Then a small group of them decided that they wanted to go back in time to—I guess—rule the world, or something. They call this The First Division. Well, about half of them wanted to go back only a little bit, while the other half wanted to go back thousands of years. They call it The Second Division. We don’t know what happened to the less ambitious half; their existence was probably negated by the people who went back further. Those people stayed there for a little bit, grew their numbers, and then decided to go to another dimension. Some of them—very few of them—chose to stay. They call it The Third Division. We don’t know what happened to those who stayed, they probably just lived their lives, and died pointlessly. In that other dimension, the people I think did rule over all of reality, making changes. Or no, wait, they were undoing changes that other travelers were making. Yeah, that was it. Well, apparently they got bored, so nearly all of them left; went back down to Earth. The Fourth Division. Finally, some of them chose to stay there, and do whatever. The rest, well, they went back in time again, but more than twice as far back as the first travelers, which just negated everything that had ever happened to them and their ancestors. It was they who developed the civilization you see before you. We call them...The Fifth Division. That’s their symbol.”
“Easter Island,” Leona said cryptically. “She’s talking about The Gallery.”
“The Gallery, yeah, yeah,” Salufi realized. “The other dimension was called the Gallery.”
“That’s where the Prestons lived,” Leona explained to the group when it was clear they didn’t know or recall what she was talking about. “A bunch of people used to work there, but when they left, Athanaric Fury had to keep things running with a skeleton crew composed of the couple, their three...clay children, and himself.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” Mateo said. “We met the Prestons. They weren’t erased from the future by these Fifth Division travelers.”
“No, they wouldn’t have been able to,” Leona said, getting excited. “The creation of the Gallery dimension was a fixed moment in time. It could not be undone. If they wanted to create a timeline where it didn’t exist, it would have to be concurrent with the main sequence. We’re in an alternate reality; just like The Parallel. We probably didn’t even jump forward in time. This is probably still 2376, except as Ramses assumed, it’s a different calendar, because an advanced peoples created one long before the one we used could have been standardized.”
“We are aliens,” Ramses declared. “Being from an alternate reality counts.”
Leona nodded in agreement. The rest of them weren’t so pleased. What fresh hell awaited them here?
“Okay,” Salufi said, slapping her knees. She stood up, and lifted the Fifth Division symbol they were all talking about from the plaque on the wall. This revealed a big red button. She pressed it, sounding a terrible alarm throughout the room.
“I am not going back to jail,” Angela said definitively.
“I’m tired of being locked up too,” Leona agreed.
“Sync up and jump,” Ramses said as he literally took a stand.
Leona synced their cuffs, and tried to jump them back to the AOC. They could see it before them, but it didn’t stay where it was meant to be. It quickly disappeared, only to be replaced by the wall in Salufi’s office. Then it returned. They just kept flickering back and forth between the dock and the office, dozens of times before Salufi engaged some special temporal device, and permanently pulled them back into the office.
“You think you can just teleport wherever you want?” she asked rhetorically. “Time powers are heavily regulated in this reality. You’re gonna stay here until the authorities come to scoop you up. My department handles aliens who evolved somewhere else in the universe, of which we have so far found none. Soon, you won’t be my problem anymore, and I’ll go back to my nice life of not doing a damn thing all day, which is why I pursued this career in the first place. Until then, sit your hairless asses back down on the couch!”

The authorities did come to scoop up the team. They didn’t lock them up in a cell, though. They just quarantined them in their ship until they could figure out whether they were a threat. They wrongfully figured they would have at least one day to wait.
“We have one shot at this,” Leona said. “Can you do it?”
“Yes,” Ramses said. “We can attach ourselves to any object. Usually, we don’t want to do that, because we want to stay on the celestial object we’re already on, but just because we’re inside this matrioshka brain doesn’t mean we have to stay here.”
“Still,” Leona continued, “I want to be as unpredictable as possible. “Olimpia, you remember how to set the ship to burst mode?”
“Yes,” Olimpia replied. “Six bursts, six AU.” Hull integrity was predicted to degrade past that.
“Angela, time battery?”
“Fifty-six percent,” Angela answered.
“Ramses?” Leona asked simply.
“We won’t be stuck in one place when we’re done, but we still won’t have a power source to replenish our reserves.”
“I wish we had asked for them before they knew what we were,” Leona lamented. “Okay, we’ll build that bridge when we get to it. Mateo.”
“Yes, boss?” he said, hoping to contribute in some way.
“Were I you,” she said.
“Were I you,” he echoed.
“Okay,” Leona decided. “Timing is everything. We’re coming up on midnight. The stellar engine is operational. They should be far from this location by the time we come back a year from now. If all goes according to plan, they will assume we found a way to escape, not that we jumped to the future.”
A few minutes later, everyone was ready at their action stations. Angela was monitoring communications and ship systems, ready to report if the natives realized what they were up to. Olimpia was hovering her hand over the button, ready to activate the teleporter for six fairly short jumps. Ramses was down in the engineering section, ready to do whatever. Leona was there to coordinate. Mateo was making tea. “They should have never underestimated you people,” he pointed out. He sure got lucky, falling in with this good lot of people. His life could have ended up a lot worse.
Leona began to count them down by the second. “Six, five, four, three, two, one, mark!” They jumped into the future, as did the AOC. Olimpia sent them six AU away, just to be safe. The matrioshka brain was gone, but that didn’t mean they were alone.