Saturday, July 1, 2023

The Edge: Éminence Grises (Part III)

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Leona reluctantly returned to Lylla Hall. The audience looked back at her as she was trying to slink down the aisle. She recognized a lot of these looky-loos, but not everyone. The group sitting with Divina and General Medley were probably all from Teagarden. Coronel Zararias from the Third Rail was in his own section with part of the Mozambican Naval Fleet, which was an interesting development. As she scanned the rest, she started to get the sense that everyone was in their special section, according to reality, and then more precisely to world. They were in assigned seats. Her place was up on stage, where the rest of the Shortlist was waiting. “Sorry I’m late.”
“You’re right on time,” Hokusai Gimura explained. “The rest of us were early.”
Leona walked up the stairs and sat down between Kestral and Weaver, though there was still an empty seat between her and Weaver that was meant for Ramses.
“Welcome,” Ishida whispered over Kestral’s lap.
“Thanks,” she whispered back. She turned to eye Weaver and her alternate self, Holly Blue, who was last seen on her way to another universe to reunite with her son.
Holly Blue smiled, and pointed at the front row. Declan was there with a handful of other kids. “I found him.”
“I’m happy for you,” Leona replied.
“All right,” Hokusai projected, standing up.
“Oh, hold up.” Ellie Underhill trotted in from sidestage, and cupped her hands over Hokusai’s mouth. “Okay, there you go.” It begged the question, if everyone else could be here, why was Leona’s team not allowed to come? It was starting to feel like they were deliberately excluded, but for what reason?
“Thanks, El,” Hokusai said in a normal voice, but the sound replicated around the auditorium for all to hear perfectly. “Hello, all. My name is Hokusai Gimura. I was born in 1985, in the main sequence. I’m a scientist. I’ve made a number of breakthroughs in temporal technology, and I did so without the benefit of time powers of my own. I had to figure it out, and that was dangerous. My friends and I formed this group, not to hoard such technology, but to protect it, and to protect the general population from it, and its risks. We are standing in the year 2400, during what my people refer to as...The Edge. Its properties are hazy, this despite the fact that we’re time travelers, and our ability to know anything is a matter of finding the right moment.
“I can’t tell you how many temporal manipulators there are in the timeline, or even how many of us are not members of the subspecies, but are heavily involved in their affairs. Yes, that’s right; they’re a subspecies, but it’s really complicated. It has more to do with their neurology than their genetics. Most of you know most of this already, but none of you knows everything. None of us knows everything. That’s what this meeting is about. We’re here to get on the same page, with each other, and with you, and to decide the fate of the universe, or at least this particular reality. The meeting will not begin today. It will, in fact, be in two days. We are here in this room to meet, and to greet. Everyone up here...and a couple of others...will introduce themselves. In addition, you have been placed in groups of your own, and we’ll ask you to introduce yourselves as well. No pressure. We’ve never done it like this before; it’s going to be very informal. We all just need to, like I said, get on the same page. I’ll stop here in case anyone has any questions at this time, but only about the schedule?”
A man in the back cleared his throat. Whoever was in charge of lighting shone a spotlight on him. It was Senator Morton. “I was to understand there were eleven of you.”
“Yes, there were. One of us has been...detoured. We all have very busy lives.”
“But you’re time travelers, so that shouldn’t matter,” Morton reasoned.
Leona hung her head. This was her fault. It feels wrong, doing this without Ramses. He made the choice that she wanted to make herself, and she could never thank him enough for it. Even so, there is little reason for him to not be here. Unless his mission went bad. Oh no...the mission went bad.
Hokusai went on, “we will not be discussing any individual lifepaths here. We’re not here to talk about any salmon or choosing one’s specific rules, constraints, patterns, behaviors, choices, or missions. Ramses Abdulrashid cannot be here, and he will never be able to be here. That’s okay, because we never needed a plenum to move forward. We just would have preferred it. But fear not, because there actually are eleven of us. Our final member is simply happens, even in our line of business.” She leaned her head down and whispered something to Pribadium. Not even Leona could hear it, but Pribadium stood and left. Hokusai sighed. “Anything else?”
Someone they didn’t recognize stood up. “Yeah, hi. Captain Waldemar Kristiansen, Eighth of Eight here. I need to get back to my ship. I was told that the amount of time I’m wasting here will be the same amount of time I’ll be missing there. That is unacceptable.”
“I assure you, Captain, the Extremus will be fine without you for a few days.”
“Yeah, but see, you’re not starting the meeting for two days. I don’t understand—”
“Thank you, Captain Kristiansen,” Hokusai said quite dismissively.
He continued to try to speak out, but no one seemed to be able to hear him. That must be Ellie’s doing.
Hokusai went on. “Ah, here we go.” She was looking sidestage.
Pribadium had just come back, and was trying to urge someone else to come forward who was still shrouded in shadow. “Come on. Come on,” she insisted.
Finally, Aldona Calligaris stepped forth, and approached the table. “What am I doing here?” she questioned through gritted teeth.
“You have been invited,” Hokusai said to her, not using Ellie’s projection ability.
“I respectfully decline,” Aldona said.
“Not possible. You’ve proven yourself worthy, so you’re here.”
“All of my work was done in the future in the Sixth Key. It is not relevant—”
“It’s relevant to us. Sit down, please. Ramses’ seat is right there.”
Aldona sighed and plopped down with attitude. Leona took her hand, and squeezed. “Let’s stick together.”
“Okay,” Aldona agreed.
“If there is nothing else, we’ll bring out our guest of honor; our mediator. This is something that the majority of you probably don’t know, our mediator is never a member of the group. We do this intentionally, in order to keep the proceedings fair, and as unbiased as possible, as well as provide us with some insight we may not be able to find in this group of mostly like-minded scientists and researchers. Friends and allies, please welcome this meeting’s mediator, Winona Honeycutt of the Third Rail.”
The audience clapped as Winona came from backstage, and approached her seat in the center of the table. She stood and watched the audience, not smiling, but not frowning, waiting patiently for them to finish paying their respects. “Thank you, Madam Gimura, for the opportunity. And thank you, esteemed guests, for the warm welcome. I am a relative newcomer to the underground. A little bit about me, My father is a lifelong civil servant, who is still in my reality of origin, dealing with our many crises. I’ve worked in the federal government for most of my adult life as well. To be specific, I run—I mean, I ran—a covert operations joint task force that brings together the six major branches of law enforcement for my version of the United States. When temporal manipulation was discovered, I found myself as a...handler of sorts, liaising the time travelers with our corner of the government. I think that’s all I’ll say. Who’s next?”
“I’ll go next,” Hogarth volunteered.
Winona nodded at her, and started to sit down as Hogarth was standing. She then nodded at Leona. She was told that she was an important contributor to the grand mission of the Six Keys and their Keyholders to pull every world in every reality into a new universe, and save them from some mysterious force that would see them destroyed. As it turned out, Winona and the others were merely decoys, so any dissenters would not know the true plan, which was still so secretive, not even Leona knew the truth about it. Apparently, the main sequence was free from having to worry about the Reconvergence, though, which was why this meeting will go on as planned.
The rest of the members of the Shortlist introduced themselves in their own way. Brooke Prieto explained that her temporal specialty was not being able to be manipulated by temporal manipulation. Sharice Prieto talked about her origins as an Unregulated Artificial Intelligence, and Brooke’s daughter. They then continued down the line, letting everyone speak before Leona. It was like they knew that she would not want to say anything, and would rather make it brief. This way, they could argue that they were low on time, and needed to move past introductions anyway once her turn came around, so it wouldn’t be Leona’s fault. At least that was how she reasoned it, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than it being because of her spite and anger. Though her anger should really have been focused on Pribadium alone, or honestly probably not even exist at all. She was being irrational and emotional.
No, she wasn’t last. That honor would go to Aldona. Leona stood up, and swallowed nervously. Ellie stepped over, and gave her the sonic projection ability. It only took a second, but the audience didn’t know how it worked. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Go on. It’s okay.”
Ellie nodded, and walked back out of the limelight.
Leona scanned the audience again, not for any particular reason, but because she couldn’t think of anything to say. She wanted to participate, as Pribadium had asked. This was her duty. She was a member of this group, and she needed to help figure this all out. But she didn’t want to. Not anymore. She just didn’t care. They could claim all day that they weren’t elitist; that they were necessary...vital, even. But in the end, they were technology hoarders, and she didn’t want to be a part of it anymore, even if that was supposedly ending. “My name is Leona Matic, and I’m outta here.” She grabbed Aldona’s hand again, and pulled her up. Together, they walked off stage.

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