Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Edge: The Enclave (Part V)

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Winona checked her watch. It was time to start, but it was like she was waiting for something. Leona didn’t know what. As far as she could tell, everyone on The Shortlist was here, excepting Ramses. While she was looking to her left and right to confirm as much, Winona was scanning the crowd, and leaning back in her seat to look sidestage. Hokusai checked her watch too, and then gently placed a hand on Winona’s. That’s when Winona stood up to address the audience. “People of the main sequence, and visitors from the other—now-defunct—parallel realities, we are here to discuss the fate of our universe as it pertains to the advanced spacetime-bending technology, created by—and until further notice, regulated by—this group of eleven scientists, researchers, and engineers. You have already met them, so we shall begin soon, but first, there are some rules to go over. In order to remain in this auditorium, you must agree to all of these, or you will be gently removed. Number one, you are in the audience, and this is not an audience participation presentation. The Shortlist is here to discuss, I am here to mediate, and you are here to witness. That is all. Number two, whatever decisions the Shortlist makes are final. They are not to be questioned, argued against, or modified.
“Number three, furthermore, the decisions are meant to be taken as inherent law, and followed ad infinitum, or until a hypothetical time when they are modified by the Shortlist themselves, or control is relinquished by them, for whatever reason. As a side note, death is meaningless for the twelve members of the group. Any attempt to alter the outcome, or reverse it, will be a waste of time. They are masters of time, and they will prove it if you force them to. Number four, everything discussed here today is confidential beyond confidential, and you all signed binding nondisclosure agreements in order to protect the proceedings. Any attempt to transfer, copy, whisper, or otherwise reveal information generated or uncovered from the meeting, or auxiliary developments, to outside actors will be stopped using the full force of temporal law and might. Number five, if you cannot abide by the rules above, we ask that you depart now, however, you are still bound by the rules in relation to everything you have heard or seen thus far, and will be at risk of judgment and punishment when discovered. Notice that I said when, and not if, and also remember that this is a group of time travelers, so even the when part is not as obvious to those of you used to linear time. And finally, rule number six, members of the Shortlist themselves are not limited by these rules, and can go against them in any way, however they wish. They can also alter the rules at their whim, and you will be required to continue to follow. Is all of this clear?”
A man in one of the middle rows, in a seat right at the end, by the wall, stood up. He performed the Picard maneuver with his shirt, then walked out. Winona looked to Hokusai for guidance, who closed her eyes and nodded, clearly unperturbed by the one person who has chosen to forgo his involvement in this event. “Very well,” Winona went on. She looked sidestage again, where a figure was now standing in shadow. It appeared to be feminine in form, but it was impossible to tell for sure. “Then we’ll begin.” She sat back down, and opened the kickstand for her tablet.
Down the line, Leona saw all the girls start to hold each other’s hands under the table. It was like a rehearsed dance move that she missed. This was true, as she was not around for much of the events leading up to this whole thing. Still, she thought she could figure it out, so she accepted Sharice’s hand on her right, and took Aldona’s on her left. Aldona, in turn, took Holly Blue’s, and the chain was complete.
“Give us one moment, please,” Winona said to the audience, trying hard to sit as still as possible, and staring at her tablet without doing anything with it. Leona couldn’t see what was on it.
Suddenly, the door in the back opened so hard that they fell off their hinges. A blinding light shot into the room like a bullet. The audience looked back, shocked by the intrusion, and maybe a little afraid. Sharice tightened her grip, so Leona instinctively did the same to Aldona. It was then that she realized that the audience was no longer moving. They were completely frozen. Either they were in a bubble that slowed time, or the Shortlist was in one that sped it up. She was inclined to assume the latter. Sharice let go of Leona’s hand finally, and patted her on the knee. The other girls did the same with each other. The shadowy figure stepped into the light, revealing herself to be a young woman that she didn’t recognize. If they were in a time bubble, she would expect Missy Atterberry to be the responsible party, so who was this person?
“Thank you, Miss Thorpe,” Hokusai said. She stood up, and shook her hand. “Everyone, this is the one I was telling you about. Her name is Greer Thorpe. She ate the yellow fruit of power, and now has Missy Atterberry’s ability to create time bubbles.”
“Some people in the audience can still see us,” Greer said. “I don’t know that there’s anything I can do about that.”
“We planned for this,” Hokusai explained. “Mr. Thompson? Are you here?”
Thor stepped in from the other side of the stage. “Thorpe and Thor, teaming up for the first time ever.”
Hokusai smiled. “Please go handle the eyelids.”
“Right away, sir.” Thor hopped off the stage, and started to lower the eyelids of anyone who hadn’t become distracted enough by the commotion in the back, and would be able to notice something weird about the people on stage. By the time the bubble is taken down, only a second or two will have passed for everyone else, but that would be enough to raise suspicion for anyone seeing hours pass in the literal blink of an eye.
“For those of us who weren’t exactly...around for the last few days, would someone be able to explain what’s happening?” Leona requests.
“Subterfuge,” Hogarth began. “We would have read you into the secret plan, but you ever since you arrived, you’ve been...”
“Unreliable?” Leona finished for her. “Unruly? Uncooperative? Yeah, sorry about that. I’m just very protective of my people.”
“We all are,” Weaver agreed. “So we understand where you were coming from, and we don’t blame you. We hope that you can understand why we’re doing this the way we’re doing it.”
“Maybe if I knew a little bit more about why,” Leona requested.
“We don’t want to be tyrannical,” Hokusai answered, “but after talking about all of this stuff, and the then-upcoming meeting, with the individual groups you see in the audience, we started to realize that they were never going to appreciate the gravity of the situation.”
“They don’t see how dangerous it is,” Kestral added. “They just want the technology, and since they’ve done so well with the tech they created themselves, they will never admit that there are some things that man should just not have access to.”
“There are inventions that even I won’t use,” Weaver continued, “because I trust myself to be restrained. We can’t say the same for anyone else. That’s why the Shortlist was created, and our mandate has not changed, even though we’re finally on The Edge.”
“So we’re not gonna give them anything?” Leona asked. “What’s the point of this elaborate ruse at all?”
“The ruse is because we didn’t want to erase everyone’s memories,” Pribadium told her, “especially since your interactions with the people of Teagarden are vital to the safety of the future. Undoing it would have caused more damage. There are other variables forcing the meeting to be inevitable. The path to this moment has already been paved. All we can do now is try to mitigate the results.”
“We’re not going to give them nothing,” Hokusai said. “We’re still having the meeting, but it won’t be witnessed by these people. When we’re done figuring out what we’re going to do, we’ll rehearse the fake but visible meeting, then pop the bubble, and put on a little show.”
Leona wasn’t sure what to think. She was looking towards the door.
“Ethical issues?” Brooke asked her.
Not really. “Who is that?” Leona asked. The face of the individual who just literally burst the doors open was obscured, overwhelmed by the wall of light coming from behind him, which was still shining into the room, though the photons were traveling slowly, relative to their perspective.
“Why don’t you go and look?” Ishida suggested.
Leona looked over to their resident bubble-maker, who nodded. “It’s fine. I can fine tune it to wrap around anyone who was in it when it was created. Go wherever you like. Just stay in this wing of the building.”
Leona hopped off the stage where Thor had, though more carefully than him. He was still making his way through the audience, making sure that no one would see enough of the creation of the bubble to think that something was wrong. She walked up the aisle, and approached the mysterious figure. Even up this close, she couldn’t make out who it was, but it looked like a man. Oh, the watch that Mario gave her had a tiny flashlight feature on it. She activated it, and held it up. “Rambo.” She looked back at the Shortlist. “Did you know he would be here?”
“Not when he stepped through the portal!” Pribadium shouted to her. “Thor was meant to be the distraction! We asked him to do it instead when he came back!”
“So he’s okay,” Leona said, though too quietly for any of them to hear. “Can we pull him into the bubble?” she asked.
“He has to stay the distraction!” Hokusai informed her. “He signed up for it! You can talk to him when the meeting is over!”
Leona sighed, and dropped her gaze. Everyone outside of the bubble was moving at an incredibly slow pace. They couldn’t be totally frozen in time, or the universe may be destroyed, but at this differential, their movements were imperceptible to a normal human’s eyes. Ramses, on the other hand, seemed a little different. Then she saw it. His fist squeezed tighter around the metal beads that he was holding onto. She looked back up to his face to see him wink at her. When she turned back to look at the Shortlist, she found them talking amongst themselves, preparing to start the real meeting. None of them had seen the wink, and probably couldn’t have detected it at this distance anyway. She smiled, and popped up to her tippy-toes to give him a kiss on the cheek. “I love you.”
He didn’t respond. However he was combatting the time bubble, vocalizing his thoughts was just asking too much. That was okay. This will be over by the end of the day, and then the both of them will be able to return to their team.
“Leona!” Sharice called up to her. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah, on my way!” She jogged back down the aisle, and climbed on stage.
The meeting began. Over the course of it, the one thing they settled on pretty quickly was that the general public would be provided with plans for the reframe engine, which would allow them to traverse the galaxy in a matter of centuries. This was akin to traveling at warp factor seven in the Star Trek canon. This little trick had been proven safe by a number of vessels since Hokusai invented it back in the mid-23rd century. To make things fair, these plans would be accessible by anyone, so the technology could not be hoarded, and provide a certain party a dangerous advantage. Teagarden was probably not going to like that, and not because they wanted to have all the power, but because it would be harder to manage the colonies if travelers could jump between them in a matter of days, instead of years. In the end, though, it will make it easier to maintain a cohesive galactic civilization, rather than a smattering of isolated, deviating worlds.
Other technologies required a lot more discussion, debate, and in some cases, outright arguments. Teleportation was a big one. It would make it easier for people to jump from orbit to the surface of a planet, or between ships, or even from different habitats around the world. Another thing it would do was allow anyone to trespass on anyone else’s private property. Though no one these days owned anything anymore, people were entitled to privacy, and safe spaces to be alone, or only with those they trusted. Time travelers had access to technology that could prevent unauthorized access, even through teleportation, but such protections would take a lot of time and effort to implement for everyone else. Every single room in every single building would have to be retrofitted with such spatial locks. They would have to do it before a single new individual was allowed to teleport even once. How would they coordinate such a monumental effort, and how long would it be before someone discovered a loophole. Certain teleporters existed who could circumvent timelocks, but that was generally okay, because this only endangered a small population. The rest of the galaxy was also in danger from regular teleporters, and that remained a difficult problem to solve. Perhaps they shouldn’t give that power out freely.
Sharice conceived of a workaround for that in the form of a point-to-point teleportation network. One could not jump from wherever they wanted, to wherever they wanted. They would have to first make their way to a designated machine, which would dispatch them to another machine, and only if the destination accepted their arrival. The appropriate members of the Shortlist would hold their own meetings to work out the design for this new device, including all of the safeguards that would need to be put in place.
They continued to go down the list, generated in random order, of temporal technologies. Some were more dangerous than others. Some were completely banned, while others were so super banned that they weren’t even going to hint at the possibility of their existence. They planned to agree to provide the public with the means to reproduce the Shortlist’s list of approved inventions, but in a few cases, they were just going to say that such a thing was possible, and it would be up to researchers to figure it out for themselves. Obviously, standard backwards time travel was a no-go, as was anything specifically designed as a weapon, or weapon-like, such as temporal guns. They were there for two days, sleeping in their respective quarters in between, the rest of the universe having not moved an inch. Once they were ready, they popped the bubble, and started back up again. The fake meeting was more formal. Some were better actors than others, but they seemed to pull it off.
Everyone in the auditorium left disappointed. Such was the nature of negotiation, but this was even worse for the people on the other side of the table. The Shortlist dictated their terms, and the beneficiaries just had to accept what was given to them. This was the easy part. It was just the beginning. The had come to The Edge, and had now fallen off. From this day forward, according to linear time, it will be up to the Shortlist to police the developments of the vonearthans until the twelve of them feel that they’re ready to stand on their own, or they have no choice. That was not Leona’s problem right now, though. She was never really one of these people. She had her own family who needed her. It was time for her to make her way back home.

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