Thursday, August 31, 2023

Microstory 1964: Assignment

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image AI software
Sergeant Hyram Sachs: [...] So while I may look old—and I may be old—it’s only because I have twenty-seven years of experience in the army, and nearly as much as a sniper. I’m still lively and wiry, and I know what I’m doing. If you’re sitting next to me, I’ll do everything I can to keep you alive. If you’re on the other end of scope...I can’t promise you’ll see the next sun rise. Anyway, I appreciate you letting me join you a little early, even though I’ve technically not yet completed the specialized training. I know that this is a pretty tight-knit group, so I’ll remember to respect that, and be humble, and a good team-player. I’ll ask you to be patient with me while I find my place here.
Reese: This isn’t a tight-knit group. Besides me and Leonard, no one here has known anyone else for more than a few days. And even then, he and I measure our friendship in weeks. *exhales* We’re all starting something new today. Sergeant, you actually have an advantage, because only one of us has been on a tactical team before.
Anaïs: Oh, me? I’ve never been on a seven-star. I mostly work alone. I’ve been on teams, of course, but never like this. No, this is all you. We’ll follow you’re lead.
Reese: Okay. Well, like I was saying, this is new. I’ve spoken to each of you individually, but now we all need re-reintroductions, because no one mentioned their new role. I’m the leader, which makes sense. While I’m in the field, Myka Tennison will be running the facility. You probably won’t need to know that, but if we call in, it might be important. Leonard is my lieutenant out there. If I’m ever indisposed, or dead, you do what he says. Next in line is Agent Altimari. She’s the tactician. She has the heaviest background in hand-to-hand combat, and strategy. Hopefully we won’t need it, because a tactician is usually responsible for generating maneuvers for the whole team, but most of us aren’t properly trained in such tactics, and we certainly haven’t built a rapport. Obviously Sergeant Sachs is our sniper.
Hyram Sachs: Oh, that reminds me. Everyone just calls me Sachs. Especially here, I don’t think my army rank matters much.
Reese: All right, Sachs it is. Your spotter is Sasho Dreyer. Sasho, I’ve told you what that is, but for everyone else, a spotter usually works close with the sniper, and helps him find his targets. Of course, you don’t know how to do that, so for now, we’ll just kind of need you to be available to help the team in a more general sense. If you would like to continue in this role, you’ll need some of that specialized training that Sachs was talking about. For now, he was the only one who the boss felt was ready to go to field. Anyway, our engineer is Micro. She’ll handle the tech. Ophelia knows her way around a logic board too, so she’ll assist as the technician. Any questions so far?
Anaïs: Yeah. What exactly is this mission? What are we doing?
Reese: I meant about the team. We’re about to have the mission briefing, but I wanted to go over this first, so everybody understands the group dynamics. [...] Okay, then let’s go right on into it. We’ll be heading to Mississippi—
Group: *groans*
Leonard: Wait, what? What’s wrong with Mississippi?
Reese: I’ll explain later.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Microstory 1963: Activated

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image AI software
Reese: Myka, could you step into my office, please?
Myka: Yeah, I’ll be there in a second.
Reese: The Director wants to speak with all of us, so it’s gotta be right now.
Myka: Oh, right. Sorry. Stopping now.
Reese: *walks down the hall* Leonard, could you—
Leonard: I see her. Coming.
Reese: Oh, and grab one of your chairs. I only have three.
Leonard: Okay.
Reese: Madam Director, you can sit in my chair. It’s nicer than my guest chairs.
Director Washington: This one is fine, thank you.
Reese: All right. *sitting down*
Director Washington: As you’ll recall, yours was not the only team we sent to Wyoming to investigate the Ochivari intrusion. We dispatched a shadow team to follow you. In addition to this, you discovered friends and allies who followed you as well. They are now working in these offices in various capacities. What you may not remember is that there was yet another interested third party in the area. An extra set of footprints was spotted that could not be matched to the fifteen people and aliens we know to have been out there. Obviously, despite the fact that the aliens we have in custody do not seem to wear shoes, we were most worried that there was a fourth one running around out there somewhere. As it turns out, that may not be our greatest threat. To be honest, the aliens have been very well-behaved and cooperative. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean we’re going to start trusting them, and release them into the wild, but they’re presently in pocket. The entity I’m here to talk with you about not.
Reese: Entity?
Director Washington: Clarification: unknown subject. It has become evident, after the investigative team completed their...investigation, that we have some competition, folks. Ours is not the only agency that is aware of these aliens. We do not know who they are, or how much they know. It could be more, it could be less. It could be another department within our own government, or a foreign actor. We have yet to exorcize enough information from our prisoner.
Reese: You have someone in custody? How did you find them if we don’t know who they may or may not work for?
Director Washington: We found text messages between this individual, and someone else. It’s the scientist who helped us find the aliens in the first place. He first discovered the arrivals incidentally, and we thought that he was working for us, but apparently not.
Reese: Yes, I met him. He seemed a bit sketchy, but not a traitor. What do you want us to do? No one here is any better trained for interrogation than whoever is doing it now.
Director Washington: *shakes her head* That’s not what we need. His whereabouts at the time of the Wyoming trip have been confirmed. The mysterious footprints could not have possibly been his. We’re sending you to find his contact.
Reese: Why us? We’re neither trained, nor ready for this at all?
Director Washington: You and yours are the only people that I can trust right now.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Microstory 1962: Arrival

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OSI Director Lotte Washington: Hello, I’m OSI Director—
Henley: Lotte Washington. You’re early. Agent Flynn was meant to escort you from the parking garage.
Director Washington: Yes, my schedule changed. I have too much to do this afternoon, so I decided to come before lunch. I hope that’s okay.
Henley: That’s quite all right. My name is Henley Grahame; receptionist. We would normally print out a badge for you, but we don’t have a machine yet. I have created this check-in list, though, so we’ll be able to keep track of who comes in and out. I don’t want you to worry about our security.
Director Washington: It’s fine. Just point me in the direction of Agent Parsons. We have some urgent business to take care of.
Henley: Yes, of course. Right away. Uhh... *fumbling with the phone* No, that’s not it. Let’s, zero—no, wait. First it’s star, then page.
Director Washington: You don’t have to make an announcement. I’ve taken a cursory glance at the floor plans. I’ll just go up to his office.
Henley: No, wait. That’s not part of our procedures. I swear we’ve come up with them, I just need to find the binder I’ve started. Anaïs! Your name is Anaïs, right?
Anaïs Altimari: *sees Director Washington* Oh, it’s Agent Altimari, Miss Grahame.
Henley: Right. Of course. Would you please take the Director to Agent Parsons’ office?
Anaïs: Certainly. Right this way, sir.
Director Washington: I really can find him myself. But very well, lead the way.
Anaïs: *runs into Timotei* Oh, pardon. Mr. Barber, this is OSI Director Washington.
Timotei: *shaking her hand* Nice to meet you. Timotei Barber, formerly incarcerated, now Head of Procurement. Let me know if you need anything.
Anaïs: *scowling at him* Thank you. You can get back to work now.
Timotei: I’m on lunch. I just can’t take it in the break room, because Navin is sleeping in the other room, and I like to watch my stories while I eat my beans.
Anaïs: *horrified* Oh, he—
Director Washington: ...has anemia. Yes, I’m aware. It’s quite all right. I just need to speak with Agent Parsons. It’s becoming rather urgent.
Timotei: Aren’t you here to take a look at the building? I could show you around. There’s a stall in the restroom that doesn’t quite close.
Anaïs: That’s not why she’s here, Mr. Barber. We’re looking for Parsons.
Timotei: Perfect! I just saw him in the bathroom.
Reese: I’m here, I’m here! Director Washington, welcome to the Department for Exogenic Affairs Headquarters. I trust that everything has gone okay so far?
Director Washington: It’s been fine. You appear to have a good team. You’ll need that soon. Is there somewhere you and I can talk, with Miss Tennison and Mr. Miazga?
Reese: Yes, of course. Please follow me to my office. Thank you Agent Altimari, and Mr. Barber. You can get back to work.
Timotei: I’m on lunch!
Reese: *dismissively* Okay, bye!

Monday, August 28, 2023

Microstory 1961: Alignment

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image AI software
Reese: Is that everyone? Let’s see; one, two, three... Okay, we’re good. I understand that we all have a lot of work to do, but I think it’ll be worth it to take a few minutes for an alignment meeting to talk about what’s happening tomorrow. Some of you may have already heard that Director for the Office of Special Investigations, Lotte Washington is coming tomorrow for an inspection. I don’t want to scare you, but this is kind of a big deal. I’ve been told that she is here to inspect the remodel of our office space, and that it has nothing to do with us, but I think we all know that it’s not that simple, even if that really is the prime motivation. We will all be under a microscope tomorrow.
Yanna: Even you?
Reese: Especially me, as well as the other two main leaders here. Your behavior will reflect on us. Now, I’m not saying that any of you are behaving badly, but I do want to make sure that you’re extra careful in the hours leading up to her arrival, and obviously, while she’s here. Navin, I know that your naps have been cleared by medical, but is there any way that you could avoid them while she’s in the building?
Navin: If I can get a good idea of when she’ll come, I can be awake and alert for a sufficient amount of time. If there’s a lead team coming before her, that may be an issue.
Reese: There should be no lead team. She does not travel with a security contingency.
Celandine Robles: She may for this, though. Right or wrong, she may be uncomfortable around the freepersons, and feel compelled to take extra precautions.
Reese: That may be the case, but if it is, they’ll come with her, rather than ahead of time. Navin, we’ll make sure you get your rest, and take your medication, so you can be presentable with the time comes. That goes for all of you, you need to be presentable. We’ve been lax on the dress code, because I personally do not care, but when we have guests, you’ll need to be wearing nice clothes. Myka has agreed to visit your homes to take a look at your respective wardrobes. If need be, we’ll purchase one set of business casual for you. But only if you need it, and it will be a one time thing. Paychecks will start rolling in, and you should be good to go from then on out. Any other questions?
Henley Grahame: *raising her hand* Yes, I’ve been assigned to reception and switchboard, but we haven’t nailed down the procedures yet. I assume that mine will be the first face the Director sees tomorrow. I mean, I know how to greet people politely, but I’m worried there is some nuance that I’m going to miss, since it’ll be my first time.
Inge Flynn: Yours will not be the first face she sees. I’ve just been assigned internal security, and will be working with you at the front, at least for now. When Director Washington gets here, I’ll greet her in the parking garage, and escort her in. I’ll introduce you, but you won’t have to sign her in, or anything. If there’s blowback for us not having a badge printer yet, or really anything of that nature, I’ll take the heat.
Henley: Okay, I appreciate it.
Reese: Good questions, good answers. Anything else? [...] No? Cool. Like I said, this is a big deal. For most of you, there should be no reason to speak unless she or I ask you to. If she does indicate that you need to interact with her, of course do so respectfully, but don’t talk her ear off. Hopefully it will be quick and painless, and over quickly, and she’ll be pleased with what she sees. Until then, go on home early. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: April 19, 2410

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Team Matic were not the first people to try to find the second Earth Nexus. It was reportedly somewhere in the South Pacific ocean, but despite having literally all the time in the world, no one had ever uncovered it. If people from the future were never able to, there wasn’t much chance of them locating it either. Their best course of action was to ask for help, and their best hope for finding that help was not in this reality. It wasn’t even in the same universe anymore. Instead of spending time trying to build something that could detect Nexa somehow, Leona, Ramses, and Constance focused their efforts on creating a new kind of interdimensional communicator. This would hopefully allow them to reach out to someone in the Sixth Key.
It was now after midnight central, and the smarter people in the group were still working. Even Angela and Marie found ways to contribute, leaving Mateo and Olimpia to occupy their time with games and old media. They were in the middle of the fourth Meg movie when Marie entered their pocket dimension to retrieve them. He paused it just as it was getting to the good part. “Did you get a hold of somebody?”
“We’re about to try,” Marie answered.
The three of them exited the pocket, closed the hatch, then entered the code for Ramses’ lab. He was still tinkering with the presumed new communication device. “Who are we going to try to contact?” Mateo asked. “Surely they would need something like this on their end.”
“They do,” Ramses explained. “I already know someone who messes with stuff like this. She’s the one who helped me get to all of you after Dalton split us up. Well, except for you, Olimpia. That was different.”
“Oh, you’re talking about Shantel,” Mateo realized.
“That’s right. It’s hard to explain how this thing works to a layman,” Ramses went on, “but it doesn’t work by dialing a phone number. It’s more like GPS...except obviously we’re not on the same G, so not that.”
“You don’t have to explain it,” Olimpia said. “Just...dial.”
Constance reached over and started tapping on the screen. The special phone trilled for a little bit before Shantel actually answered. She appeared on the screen. “Why is this thing beeping? Hello? Who is this?
“This is Ramses Abdulrashid. I believe we’ve met. Do you remember?”
Of course I remember you,” Shantel replied. “Why are we talking?
“We need help; help which can only come from your people. I’m not sure if you’re the person to ask, but I was hoping that you could connect us with the right party.”
What do I look like to you, an operator?
Ramses held back whatever quip his brain came up with. “Please.”
Shantel sighed, realizing that it was probably not too big of an ask. She was immortal, and this would likely take all of two minutes. “What do you need?”
“The Antarctica Nexus is missing. Someone stole it. We were trying to find the other one that supposedly exists, and if it was installed in the same place on our Earth as it was on yours, then—”
There.” A text message appeared on the screen that looked like coordinates.
“That’s where it is?”
That’s where it was,” Shantel replied. “I can’t guarantee your version will still be there, but the location is common knowledge. I gotta go. Please wait one day to reach out to this device again. I will be handing it off to someone else, so whatever you need in the future, it will be their problem from now on.
“Very well, Shantel. I appreciate your help.”
She hung up.
“That was easy,” Leona noted. “Too easy.”
“The answer is, don’t think about it,” Mateo decided. Maybe the Parallelers weren’t as bad as Cheyenne said they were. Or maybe they had changed things. It was never completely clear whether their actions had altered the timeline, or if everything they had done to prepare for the Sixth Key was just fate. It was possible that they had managed to subvert the Reality Wars entirely. Wouldn’t that be nice?
“I’ll try,” Leona said. “Dante? Please convert these coordinates to standard spatial reference, and jump with the cloak on.”
Already done. Jumping now.” The ship teleported.
“Simplistic.exploration.boast,” Olimpia read on the screen.
“That’s where we are?” Mateo questioned. “That sounds familiar.”
“You may have been here before,” Leona pointed out. “We’re not in the middle of the ocean.” She reached over, and pinched the screen to zoom out. “We’re in Topeka.”
“Not just anywhere in Topeka,” Mateo realized. “This is the little graveyard where I used to go to be alone. That is, it’s where I found the graveyard. It was a little rest stop where The Gravedigger, Mr. Halifax buried all the dead time travelers, and I guess it wasn’t in our dimension?”
Marie was looking at the exterior camera feeds. “There’s no cemetery here.”
“How did you find this place?” Leona asked Mateo. “It’s not that close to where you used to live.”
Mateo shook his head. “I was drawn here. As soon as I got my license, I felt compelled to come to this spot. I finally gave into it, and found my little grassy clearing sanctuary. Surrounded by trees, one way in, one way out. No one ever comes here, and now I’m sure they definitely don’t. The weird thing is...” He opened the hatch to the outside, and breathed in the fresh air. “The trees all look the same. It’s been nearly 400 years since I set foot here, and nothing has changed.” He turned back towards the group. “Doesn’t that seem odd to you?” He stepped onto the grass, and knelt down to run his fingers through the blades.
Leona stepped out of the Dante too, and deeper into the clearing. “The answer is, don’t think about it,” she joked. “Hey, Opsocor. Are you there?”
I’m here,” Venus replied. Her voice was coming out of the aether; from everywhere and nowhere.
Leona smiled, and looked back at the group. “We need to get to Dardius. Is that something you can help us with?”
Come on down. I’m only two kilometers below the surface.
“Is there a way to take our shuttle with us?” Can we link them up?”
I’m afraid not.
“I’ll take care of it,” Ramses said as he was closing the hatch. “You two go on down. We’ll meet you soon.”
Leona sidled over to Mateo, and reached down.
“This doesn’t feel right,” he noted with a slight shiver.
“It seems fitting to me,” Leona mused. “This is where it all began for you. You were drawn here because you always knew it was a special place. You just didn’t know how special.” She jazzed her fingers at him. “Come on.”
He took her hand and stood up. Together, they jumped down two kilometers, expecting to find themselves in the Nexus building. They were immediately aware that that was not what this was. “It’s a trap.” Now he was really feeling bad.
“Jump back up.” Leona shut her eyes, and tried to teleport again, but was unable to. They were locked in. The trap was either set for them, or people like them. Whoever did this knew about Venus Opsocor, what she sounded like, and how she would talk to Leona, even from two kilometers away from where she was supposed to be in a Nexus.
“What do we do?”
“We can’t let the others come down here.” Leona lifted up her watch, but before she could try to talk into it, she saw that it was off. She tapped on the screen several times, but nothing happened. “It’s not operational. We can’t get them a message.”
“But we can send them a feeling.” Their shared empathic bond was even stronger than it was with their old new substrates. Mateo took a breath, and said, “claustrophobia,” as he was exhaling the air.
“Claustrophobia,” Leona echoed with her own breath.
They both continued to think as hard as they could about feeling trapped, but not in a way that suggested they needed their friends’ help; in a way to suggest that they stay away. Love and concern is what the others returned to them, so Mateo and Leona replied with patience and wisdom. They still couldn’t express anything complex, but it seemed to be working. Or maybe it wasn’t. Olimpia suddenly appeared in front of them.
“We were trying to get you to stay away,” Leona argued.
“We understood, and the others are leaving to prepare the next move,” Olimpia told her. “I volunteered to come down.”
“Why?” Mateo asked her.
“So you two wouldn’t be alone.”
“Aww, that’s so sweet,” came a voice in the darkness. His silhouette approached, and grew sharper with each step, until he was fully in the light. It was, of course, that dude from the Fifth Division who could not let go of his grudge against them.
“Did you build this place all for us? Did you lure us here with that outpost manager from Dardius?” Leona questioned.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the Fifth Divisioner replied. “You called a patriot who did her duty, and reported it to us. We didn’t expect you to fall into our trap so soon. We’re not really ready for you, but...” He looked around at the ceiling and walls. “The power suppressors appear to be working, and that’s what matters.”
“My God,” Mateo said, shaking his head. “Can’t you just let this go? So much has happened since we killed your friend. I’m so sorry,” he mocked.
“Oh, it’s not about that,” he said with a heavy laugh. “You’re wanted. You’re all wanted. Some very powerful people in the Sixth Key would like to talk to you. I joined them because I don’t think they’ll have very nice things to say.” He started to pretend to be polite. “Anyway, sit tight, and once your cells are ready, we’ll get you fully settled.” He checked his watch. “Should take less than a year. In the meantime, you think about how you’re gonna get the rest of your team to fall into our trap too. You don’t want us finding them first. Trust me on that.”

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Extremus: Year 54

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It’s been two years. To the few who live on the Bridger Ship, it’s 2324, but to those who still live on Extremus proper, it’s only 2323. Why the portal works this way is still a little hazy, but what the Bridger leaders don’t say is how much they use their foreknowledge to influence events in the past. They don’t seem to be doing a very good job at it, but then again, maybe there is only so much they can do, and things would actually be a lot worse if they didn’t exist. That’s the problem with surrendering to a group of people with this much power. It’s impossible to ever fully grasp whether they’re doing right by the people, or if they have nefarious intentions. Tinaya thought that she had a backdoor into their systems—and she does—but it’s not as helpful as she hoped it would be. It has granted her access to classified files for Extremus itself, but little data for the Bridger section. For now, it shall remain a mystery.
She and Lataran have been good students over the last eight terms. They’ve learned all the new skills and knowledge, which consists primarily of spycraft, but also regular things, like math and history. When the former returns to normal college tomorrow, she’ll be two years behind, but have an advantage on her new current class. It’s unclear how Avelino plans to reintroduce them to society. Where does everyone think they’ve been this whole time? Were they worried? Did it spark an investigation?
“You were in a study abroad program,” Avelino answers.
“Study abroad, like in another country?” Tinaya questions. They don’t have those here. The Bridger Ship is the closest thing to it, and the whole point is that most people aren’t even aware that it is its own vessel.
“Like with Omega Saxon and Valencia Raddle,” Avelino goes on. “You were reportedly studying on the Perran Thatch.” The Thatch used to be the command bridge for the Extremus, before it was commandeered, replaced, and eventually transformed into a time ship for temporal excursions. Its missions are as secretive as one would expect, but its existence is common knowledge. “This has redeemed your reputation, Future Captain Leithe, Fifth of Ten. You didn’t get into college, but you studied somewhere almost no one else does. You’re welcome.”
“So Omega and Valencia are aware of this. Of us?” Lataran assumes. Valencia was the Extremus’ first temporal engineer, and she should be old by now, if not dead. Extreme life extension is outlawed, but they made an exception for her, kind of because temporal engineers inherently get special treatment. All of her successors have opted to take the same path towards nigh immortality, but the rule is that they have to do it for themselves, which isn’t hard, since understanding the science is their whole thing. It’s the hardest job to get, and probably the most coveted, because of the perks.
“That’s what you’re doing today. You have to meet them, so when someone sees you together on the main ship, they don’t detect that you’ve never met.”
“We’re meant to have known them for two years,” Tinaya points out, “but it will only be a few hours.”
“You’ll get a crash course on each other,” Avelino explains, “and it hasn’t been two years. You were only reportedly on the Thatch for two terms.”
“So the reality that we jumped forward in time will actually be told as the truth, except it won’t be the real truth, because the duration will be off,” Lataran reasons.
“Correct,” Avelino confirms. “When you’re in mixed company, just tell people that you last saw them half a year ago. Don’t think about what year it was for you, or anything like that.”
“Thanks, Avi,” Tinaya says. “We just spent two years learning how to lie and compartmentalize, but please...remind us.”
Avelino clears his throat, and doesn’t respond to that. He just points to a door. “They should be through there. My time with you is up. We may or may not see each other ever again. You’ll be assigned handlers, or one handler for the both of you. I don’t know who it will be, but it won’t be me, and it won’t be Omega or Valencia.”
“Okay. Thanks, Bridger,” Lataran says to him sincerely.
He bows his head, and walks the other way.
“He’s all right,” Tinaya decides as she’s turning to ring the doorbell. Instead of the bell, the door just opens for them.
As promised, Omega and Valencia are on the other side of it. They’re focused on a smartwall in the middle of the room. It’s only displaying equations, and other symbols, so they can see pretty well through it. Still, the engineers do not notice the two students who have entered their lab.
Now Tinaya clears her throat, hoping to get their supposed teachers’ attention.
“Ah, they’re here.”
“What?” Omega asks.
“The Captain and Lieutenant,” Valencia tells her husband. “They’ve come.”
Omega finally looks up. “Ah, they’re here,” he echoes as if he were the first to notice. As he’s stepping around the glass, he crumples up the code as if it were physical paper, and tosses the ball into an encrypted virtual safe. “What are your names again?”
“Tinaya Leithe.” She shakes his hand, and then Valencia’s.
“Lataran Keen.” She does the same, but in reverse.
Valencia looks around the room. “Where is our assistant?”
“Gofer! Gofer!”
“Don’t call him that,” Valencia scolds.
Another door slides open, and a young man steps through. It’s not just any gofer. It’s Rodari Stenger. He was on the captain’s track at one point, but Tinaya lost track of him while she was dealing with her own crap. He runs up to the four of them, and stands at attention like a soldier. He stares straight ahead, and doesn’t make eye contact with anyone.
“At ease, soldier,” Valencia orders. She rolls her eyes and looks at the girls. “We never asked him to do that.”
“I respect my superiors, sir,” Rodari clarifies.
Omega nods. “And don’t you forget it.” It sounds like a joke, but they don’t know him well enough to detect his sense of humor. “Are the hats ready?”
“Almost, sir. That’s what I was doing in there.”
“We’ll finish up,” Valencia says. “Go to your office and finish your coursework.”
“Thank you, sir.” Rodari hops away, and exits through a third door.
“He’s your assistant, but he’s still studying?” Tinaya asks.
“That’s not the question,” Lataran argues. “We know everyone at the Bridger school, and he is not one of them. Where has he been all this time”
“He was in the college,” Valencia begins. “He finished just as you were coming in. He’s been our assistant since then. The coursework he’s doing is for some continuing education that I’m sure you’ll hear about later.”
“In the meantime...” Omega says, showing them the way to the door that Rodari came out of. “Let’s go try on some hats.”
Tinaya and Lataran exchange a look. Hats?
They’re not really hats, but more like helmets, and it’s clear that their purpose is not to make a fashion statement. They perform a function, though what that function is is uncomfortably unclear at this point. There are four of them.
“Pick any one; doesn’t matter which. We’re all going to the same place.”
“Place?” Tinaya asks. “Oh, it’s VR?” She chooses one of the helmets.
Omega is fussing with the equipment, presumably finishing Rodari’s preparatory work. “Not really. Kinda. Not really.”
“We need to pack two terms of memories of each other into the short time we’ll actually spend together. Once we activate the helmets, the system well help you select the data points that you would like to share with the group. It will help you filter out secrets and other private information that you don’t want us to know, plus things that are so trivial and random that they would never have come up if we got to know each other naturally. Then, when we’re all ready, we’ll upload each other’s data packets.”
“Is all this necessary?” Lataran questions. “I mean, can’t you just tell us your middle names, and what your favorite foods are, and call it a day?”
Valencia shakes her head. “The cover story is that you two spent six months on a tiny time ship with us. No one else was there, and there was no escape. Yeah, we need to pretend like we’ve been through something. It wasn’t harrowing, but it was prolonged.”
“Plus, I don’t have a middle name,” Omega adds. “Don’t worry. You’ll learn everything there is to know about me soon.” He plugs one more thing into another thing, and makes a nod of accomplishment.
“Don’t be afraid,” Valencia says comfortingly. “Like I said, the system will filter for secrets. We’re not here to make profound imprints. This is just the quickest solution to what only sounds like a small problem. Trust me, it’ll come up. No one’s going to quiz you on us later, but they will notice if you can’t believably joke about how bad my hair looks in the morning.”
“You always look lovely, honey.” He steps over and gives her a kiss. Then he dips her into the seat, and places her helmet on her head. He sits down in the seat next to her, and nods encouragingly at the girls. “Go on. This is perfectly safe. I promise.”
It wasn’t safe. Something broke down in the filter, and messed them all up. It transformed each of them in a different way. Omega lost everything. He could remember how to blink and swallow, but nothing about himself, or the world around him. Lataran’s entire consciousness was copied over to Valencia’s substrate. Valencia’s complete memories, meanwhile, were transferred to Lataran’s brain, but Lataran retained her own personality, so there were kind of two of her now. Tinaya probably got off easy. She absorbed all of the semantic knowledge from everyone, plus seemingly people who were not even part of the group. She’s a genius now, and probably could have helped them fix this issue, but the opportunity to try was stolen. Rodari returned with wheelchairs while they were all still so disoriented, and took them to the portal. He forced them back to 2323 on the Extremus, and locked them out, possibly forever.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Microstory 1960: Checking In

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Reese: Good, you’re both here. Just checking in. We didn’t talk at all yesterday after everyone split up with their respective teams. Did everything go okay?
Myka: Yeah, no problems. Nothing to report.
Leonard: I have something to report.
Reese: What is it?
Leonard: The hacker is from another universe; evidently came here the same way I did, and it wasn’t her first time either. She’s been on this planet longer than any of us. I don’t know if the government knows this, or not. If they don’t, I think we shouldn’t tell them.
Reese: That’ interesting development. No, we should definitely not tell them. Out of everyone they hired for this new department, they were most worried about her. I would ask you to keep an eye on her, but I’m not going to talk to her about it for now.
Leonard: Understood.
Myka: You came in here already with a nervous look on your face, Reese. What’s up?
Reese: The OSI Director wants to speak with me. I don’t know what it could be about.
Myka: Well, I’m sure it’s about this, right? You just started a new department. We’ve not really done anything yet, but she probably wants to take your temperature on it. That’s what you’re doing with the two of us right now, yeah?
Reese: I’m hoping to get the three of us on the same page, in case something’s wrong. Leonard, what you told me about our hacker, that’s good. Is there anything else I should know? No matter how insignificant it may sound, we should share it.
Myka: Well, Navin really does take naps. He wasn’t joking about that.
Reese: Yeah, it’s a medical condition. He cleared that before he took the job.
Myka: Then I can’t think of anything else.
Leonard: You should talk to SI Eliot first. Take his temperature, if I’m using that idiom correctly. I’ve never heard it before.
Myka: That was right.
Reese: That’s a good idea. *dials Myka’s phone*
SI Eliot: *through the speakerphone* This is Eliot.
Reese: Hey, Hisham; it’s Reese. You got Myka and Leonard on the line too.
SI Eliot: What’s up?
Reese: We just wanted to touch base with you regarding this conference call that the Director requested for tomorrow. Do you know anything about that, and is there something I should know before that happens?
SI Eliot: Oh, it’s not a conference call. She’ll be coming down.
Reese: Okay, well, see, that worries me. We’re not really ready for prime time. Like, does she know about Misra’s naps? And Woodloch’s computer isn’t working right...
SI Eliot: This isn’t about you, Reese. She wants to see how the building turned out. If anyone gets in trouble, it’ll be the contractors we hired for the remodel.
Reese: Are you sure?
SI Eliot: I’m sure. Hey, I gotta jump on another call, but you’ll be fine. *hangs up*
Reese: Okay, now I’m really worried.
Leonard: Yeah. He’s lying.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Microstory 1959: My Funny Valentine

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Leonard Miazga: *lowered voice* Hey, can I talk to you for a minute? In private?
Valentine Duval: Sure, what’s up, dude?
Leonard: Here, over here. So, Reese introduced me earlier, but I should reintroduce myself. I’m Leonard Miazga, but you can just call me Leonard. Do you go by Valentine? Or do you have, like, a hacker name that you prefer?
Valentine: It’s Micro, but Val is fine IRL.
Leonard: Okay, Val. I just wanted to ask—and I don’t wanna be presumptuous. I mean, I don’t know what you were going for. Maybe it was random. Maybe it wasn’t anything. I don’t know. Maybe I just completely misread what you did, and actually nothing happened at all. So I’ll sound like an idiot when I finally get this out. Though I suppose, since it’s taken me so long to get through it, I already do sound like an idiot.
Val: Is this about the wink?
Leonard: Yes, it is. You winked at me, right? I wasn’t imagining that.
Val: You weren’t imagining it. Where I’m from, winking is a way to convey emotional information without words, and—if done correctly—without others knowing that any information is being shared in the first place, let alone what it is.
Leonard: Okay, but...why would we be sharing information? We couldn’t possibly have met before today. Let’s just say that I’m...
Val: A traveler? Yeah, Leonard, I know where you’re from.
Leonard: Because you’re a hacker.
Val: Yes, but there are other signs. You sort of...smell a certain way.
Leonard: Oh.
Val: Not a literal smell. The way you hold yourself, and the way you walk. I knew that you were from another universe. I realized that you were cognizant of this fact after observing you myself for all of five seconds. You act like a stranger in a strange place.
Leonard: So you were just winking because you know my secret. Though, it’s not really a secret. It just hasn’t come up yet. I suppose we’ll have to tell the others sometime.
Val: Yeah. And also I’m like you. I thought you realized that.
Leonard: What? You are? Are you from my world?
Val: *shaking her head* No, I’m from Salmonverse.
Leonard: Oh, I’ve heard of that. I can only specifically recall hearing about two universes, and that’s one of them. How long have you been here?
Val: I got here a couple years ago.
Leonard: How? Did you always know you were on the wrong Earth?
Val: Westfall, just like you. I’m aware of it because I already knew about time travel and stuff, so my mind couldn’t be rewired to account for the strange differences, of which there are many. Did you know they don’t even have a word for toads?
Leonard: *doesn’t care* Huh?
Val: They call them creepfrogs. That’s so stupid. They’re a different species!
Leonard: Val, I don’t care about any of that. I want to know about you. You seem very unsurprised by any of this, and I have a million questions, starting with—
Val: How to get home? You can’t. This is your life now. Y’all best get used to it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Microstory 1958: No Offense

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Myka Tennison: You’re Navin, right? That’s how you pronounce it?
Navin Misra: Navin Misra, sir.
Myka: You don’t have to call me sir.
Navin: You’re my boss, right?
Myka: Yes, but I prefer Myka.
Navin: I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir. I’m sorry, it’s just the way that I grew up.
Myka: Okay, I can accept that. So, I just wanted to talk to you. The brass didn’t tell me what experience you have. You’re an expert in maintenance, is it? Or was it cleaning?
Navin: Maintenance and repair, yes. I used to work in an office building. It wasn’t just offices. They had a pool, and a gym, and even a dance studio. To be honest, I never understood what they did. Well, there were multiple companies, but I think they were kind of related. Anyway, I picked up a lot of skills there. I’ve had no formal training. One time a dancer accidentally kicked a hole in the drywall, so I had to figure out how to fix it. That was back before VidChapp, so trial and error was the name of the game. As for cleaning, that’s what I did in prison. So yeah, I suppose you could call me an expert in that too, but it’s really not that hard.
Myka: Okay, great. I’ll really be leaning on your for that, because I don’t have much experience fixing things. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no stranger to manual labor, but always after someone teaches me how to do it. If you’re good at learning on the job, and improvising, that could really help us around here.
Navin: You’ve done labor? No offense, but how, as a volunteer?
Myka: I’ve held down a few jobs in my day. I didn’t make all my money from stealing. In fact, I never did it enough to pay for much. No bank heists for me.
Navin: Wait, stealing? You’re a thief?
Myka: I was. I’m reformed. I’ve gone legit.
Navin: Why would the government hire someone with a—no offense—checkered past?
Myka: *shrugs* Why did they hire you?
Navin: Because I found out about aliens, and they figured that the best way to keep me quiet was to pay me.
Myka: Yeah, same here.
Navin: I thought you were the boss.
Myka: The boss? No. A boss—your boss, yeah. But I don’t intend to abuse my power. We’ll work together; I won’t just tell you to do everything while I sit in my office all day.
Navin: No, I mean...they put an ex-con in charge of an entire department? No offense.
Myka: This whole place is a department. We’re in Facilities, which is known as its own section. There’s also a field agent section, and a finance section...
Navin: I understand that, I’m just surprised. Does anyone who already worked for the government work here?
Myka: Reese was a Fugitive agent, and Leonard was a parole officer in another life. Other than that, no. The majority of us have what you would call checkered pasts.
Navin: This place is wild. I think I’m gonna need a nap to wrap my head around it.
Myka: Cool. I’ll show you the Chambre de Sieste that I made behind the break room.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Microstory 1957: Keys to Success

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image AI software
Sasho Dreyer: Oh, wow. This place is a lot bigger than I realized, Agent Parsons.
Reese Parsons: Yeah, everybody says that.
Sasho: I just called you Agent. Are you an agent? What is your full title?
Reese: Department for Exogenic Affairs Special Agent-in-Charge is my full title. But you can just call me Reese. I’m not saying that to be polite. I really would prefer it.
Sasho: Very well, Reese. Who installed these cells down here?
Reese: I finally learned what this place was. It was originally designed as a special courthouse and prison for internal crimes. If I had broken the law a few years ago, I would have ended up in a place like this, instead of a regular facility.
Sasho: Why did they abandon it?
Reese: Elections happened; laws changed. Now it doesn’t matter who you are, or what your crime was. Everyone ends up in the same place. This building wasn’t zoned for standard prison housing, so they couldn’t use it for that anymore. Fortunately, it works just fine for us, because no one has passed any laws regarding aliens.
Sasho: *inspecting the nearest cell* I’m not so sure that these are perfect..
Reese: What do you mean?
Sasho: How many specimens do you have at the moment?
Reese: Four. The three you were around for, and one who came in before. We can’t be sure if more are coming. Hell, there could be thousands hidden in the Amazon rainforest, and we wouldn’t know it. That’s why we need every cell up to code, and ready. The inspections have already happened; I just wanted you to see where you’ll be working. Don’t worry, you won’t be alone down here; but you will be the man in charge.
Sasho: *nodding* That’s not my concern. Nor is in the integrity of the cells themselves. *removes his shoes, and starts hitting the wall with it* Do you think the guy on the other side of the wall would be able to hear that?
Reese: Absolutely. These aren’t soundproof.
Sasho: They ought to be. *slips his shoe back on* I’ve guarded at a lot of different places. I was around for two major escape attempts, and obviously, one successful escape. I’ll tell you this, the second attempt almost went all the way through. I’m actually the one who put a stop to it. I was so proud of myself; that is, until the prisoners were all found murdered two days later. The official story is that they turned on each other after their failure, but we all know that other guards did it to protect their reputations. That’s why I downshifted to a regular law station jail, and also why I let that group escape. One of the dead prisoners was innocent. He was totally innocent, and I could have let him go free. I didn’t want that to happen again.
Reese: I’m sorry to hear that; it’s a tragic story. Thank you for telling me.
Sasho: I didn’t really need to; it’s not relevant. My point is that they got so close to getting out because they worked together, and they were able to do it secretly, because...
Reese: Because their cells were close together, and not soundproof.
Sasho: Yeah. I know it would be an extra expense—
Reese: No, you’re not wrong. We’ll keep these first four really far apart from each other, but then I’ll look into some upgrades. I’ll expect your continued input.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Microstory 1956: Introduction Circle

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image AI software
Reese: Thank you all for being here on time. We’re wading through uncharted territory here, and I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I’ll admit to being rather nervous. I’ve never started a new department in the government before, and most people here have never worked for the government at all. The first thing I want to do is go around the room for introductions. Behind me are the other leaders, Leonard and Myka.
Leonard: Hey, I’m Leonard Miazga. I used to be a parole officer, but now I’m an alien.
Myka: Myka Tennison, we’re just creating welcome baskets for all of you right now, which we should have thought to do before. Don’t mind us.
Reese: Perfect. Now we’ll just go around the circle. Let’s all be honest; you don’t have to be embarrassed. I don’t care who starts first; either the person to my right, or my left.
Freewoman 4: I guess I’ll go first. My name is Henley Grahame. I’m an ex-con, and I’m not embarrassed about it. They call us freewomen, but I’ve never cared about that term. I am not easily offended. And just call me Hen.
Shadow Team Leader: Hello, Hen. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Celandine Robles. I was an agent with the Office of Special Investigations. Most recently, I was the leader of a shadow team, which is what put me on the path to ending up here. I’ll be continuing to run a team from the field, while still reporting to Agent Miazga at the home office.
Leonard: Not an agent.
Freewoman 3: Yanna Strøm. Also a criminal. Don’t ask me what I did to end up in prison. I’ll never tell.
Shadow Team Member 2: Uh. Okay, I’m not one for public speaking. I’ll just say I’m Inge Flynn, and I’m an agent too.
Freewoman 2: Ophelia Woodloch. Freewoman. Mother of two. Stepmother of two. Wife of non. Ready to kick some alien ass. At least inasmuch as I’m allowed to, based on whatever authority I’m granted. But not you, Leonard. You seem pretty chill.
Escapee 4: Navin Misra, I’m a man of few words. I was told that I would be allowed to take naps throughout the day, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my work. Don’t ever wake me up, and we’ll be cool. Oh, and I have been to prison, but I’ve seen the error of my ways, and I’m ready to make up for my past sins, and begin to make a positive contribution to the betterment of society. I guess I’m not a man of so few words.
Shadow Team Member 1: Anaïs Altimari, shadow team member; specializing in infiltration and deep undercover. I imagine I’ll keep doing that kind of thing here.
Escapee 1: I’m a smuggler. I can get you whatever you want. I’ll be working with Miss Myka here for procurement, but I promise not to steal.
Reese: Your name?
Escapee 1: Oh, sorry. Timotei Barber.
Former Jail Guard: I am Sasho Dreyer, disgraced former jail guard for the KC Central Law Station. I’m a criminal, because I technically let several detainees escape on my watch, but I was never formally charged. I too would like to kick some alien ass.
Hacker: Valentine Avalon Duval, hacker extraordinaire. Let’s see, how would I describe myself? Let’s just say that I’m outta this world. *winks at Leonard*

Sunday, August 20, 2023

The Advancement of Mateo Matic: April 18, 2409

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No one came for them. Constance detected an unusual energy draw that came from the Dante, to their mysterious captors, which occurred at exactly midnight central, but other than that, nothing happened. They didn’t even lose much power as a result of whatever that was. Perhaps it was just a strange way of scanning them, because a few minutes later, the cargo hold opened up again, and spit them out unharmed. The ship accelerated to higher speeds, and then disappeared with a reframe engine.
“What the hell was that?” Olimpia questioned.
“No idea,” Leona answered, “but it’s April 18 2409.” She took a pause. “Constance, run a level three diagnostic on all systems.”
“There’s no such thing as a level three diagnostic,” Constance replied. “You made that up.”
“Actually, I can’t take credit.”
“Right away, sir,” Constance said with a slight smile. She went off to complete the task as requested. No sooner was she finished with it, having turned up nothing of interest or concern, did another ship appear out of nowhere. This one was much smaller—and less foreboding—and it responded to their calls.
“Hello, this is the Dardieti Outpost Boyce Shuttle One. Do I have a Mateo Matic on the line?”
“This is Mateo. Go ahead.”
“I’ve been rerouted to find you. It’s taken me a long time, but we received the message you sent out last year. Your presence has been requested on Dardius proper.”
“For what purpose?” Leona asked.
“It has something to do with the future, and your family, or the future of your family,” Boyce One replied. “That’s all I know. I’ve given the message, and confirmed that you’ve received it. Now I really must return to my work. This has been a really...” He mumbled and trailed off a little before remembering to switch off the mic.
“Thank you, Boyce One. If it is required of you, you can let them know that we are on our way, and that we’ll be there as soon as possible. We’re on our pattern.”
He didn’t say anything further, but he surely heard the last message. His little ship flew off in the same direction as the other one, though not at reframe speeds. Dardieti Outpost. How many of those were there, and where? All the way out here, they were nearly three million light years from home. This meant that that was how far Team Matic was going to have to travel to reach it themselves. The Dante wasn’t any more capable of crossing that distance in any reasonable span of time than the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was. With only the reframe engine, it would take them four thousand years. They either needed to reach out to their friends with true faster-than-light capabilities, or a Nexus. Though, the Dante could not fit inside of a Nexus transport cavity, so if they used that method, it would have to be jury-rigged, and they only ever got that to work in the Parallel.
“Does anyone live near the Nexus in Antarctica?” Angela asked.
“No, they abandoned the continent entirely,” Leona explained. “There was a time when people were able to live there because climate breakdown made it more hospitable to humans, but then they started to solve those problems, and made it colder again. They could still survive there if they wanted to, of course, but the population eventually dwindled into nothing. Either way, they weren’t in that region, no.”
“He asked about me,” Mateo pointed out. “Not the rest of you. He didn’t say anything about the rest of the team. I can go alone.”
“We’re not headed to enemy territory, Matty,” Ramses said with a laugh. “We can go. Might as well. I hear it sports some nice vacation spots. I was too busy to partake when I was living there before. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and we won’t be there to solve some kind of crisis.”
“It clearly took years for us to get the message,” Leona reasoned, “and could take us years of real time to arrive. I detected no sense of urgency in the messenger’s voice.”
“Maybe that had more to do with the messenger himself,” Marie reasoned right back. “Just because he wasn’t in a hurry doesn’t mean there is no hurry.”
“True. Dante?” Leona started tapping on the main console. “Teleport to these coordinates please.”
“Teleporting now.”
The darkness of space they could see through the viewscreens was replaced by the brightness of the snow. They opened the hatch, and let in the cold. It was a surreal feeling, knowing that it was profoundly frigid out here, but being basically unfazed by it. Ramses’ 3.0 model substrates were working well for them, and they were already clearly better than the previous model. “Hey, Dante, what’s the exact temperature?”
“It’s negative forty degrees,” Dante responded.
“Is that Fahrenheit or Celsius?” Olimpia asked.
Leona and Constance laughed. “Yes.”
“Why is that so funny?” Mateo questioned.
“They’re the same,” Leona explained.
The two of them stared at her.
“They’re the same at that degree,” Constance clarified. “They converge.”
“Got it. Thanks. Now it’s funny.” Not really.
“It’s underground, right?” Marie moves on from the subject. “How do we find it?”
“Hey, Opsocor!” Leona shouted into the wind aimlessly.
They heard the sound of metal against metal behind the Dante. They turned the corner to find a hidden trap door opening for them several meters away. They walked over to it and hopped inside.
“Opsocor, please teleport us to the main floor.”
Nothing happened.
“Wait, we can’t just teleport ourselves?” Angela asked.
“Can you?” Leona asked. “We’re not authorized to do so. The system is quite sophisticated.”
“Maybe it will work for you since you’re the one who got this giant hatch open,” Mateo suggested. “Leona, Queen of the Nexus.”
“That’s not the real problem. If Opsocor can’t do it, maybe she can’t do anything.” Still, she jumped herself away. Ten minutes later, she was knocking on the next hidden trapdoor, which they had to open from this side. They  jumped down to the second level, and then did it again to get to the control room below that.
“Is everything okay?” Ramses asked.
“No,” Leona answered with a sigh. “She’s not responding to me. I don’t know why not. But nothing is turning on either, except for this emergency lighting.”
“I wanted to wait until everyone was here,” Opsocor’s voice came in through the speakers. “I am a prerecorded facsimile of the one you know as Venus Opsocor. I have access control over the system, which allows me to let in anyone for safety concerns, or in your case, to explain what’s happened. This Nexus building has been taken offline. It has been too significantly altered, and therefore automatically removed from the network. It is incapable of transporting anyone anywhere. Do not attempt to—no. Yes, sorry. Shifting response path. You are indeed authorized to make attempts at repair. I am unable to run diagnostic tests, or provide you with any technical specifications, or troubleshooting assistance. Again, this is a prerecorded facsimile with limited response paths. I was not made aware of what has been broken within the system. I am here as a result of whatever those changes were, which you will have to correct yourself if you want to bring the station back to operational standards. Do not attempt to converse with me. I will not respond to any calls. This message will not be repeated. Thank you, and have a nice rest of your life.”
“So essentially,” Marie began, “it’s broken, but the AI doesn’t know how it’s broken, because that message was recorded just in case something like this happened.”
“It’s not an AI, it’s a real person,” Ramses corrected.
“Yeah,” Leona agreed. She got on her hands and knees, and started to get to work on the main computer.
Meanwhile, Mateo was shining his watch light through the observation window, and trying to use his arms to block ambient light from his eyes. “I think I know what’s wrong with it,” he declares.
Leona gets up. “You do?”
“Don’t look so surprised. Can you get the lights on in the Nexus chamber? The drum is missing.”
“The drum?” Leona asked, confused.
“I don’t know what it’s called. It’s the giant thing that hangs over the cavity.”
“Uhh...I don’t know how to get the lights on manually.” She opened the door from the control room, and walked down the steps as everyone else followed. She used her light illusion ability to conjure a nano-sun on the ceiling, which illuminated the whole chamber. Mateo was right, it was totally missing. “That’s not a drum, Mateo. That is the Nexus. Everything else is either just the interface to it, or lets you control the rest of the building, like the lights. It’s really the only thing you need, and somebody took it. They took the whole thing out. What’s left doesn’t even look damaged.”
“What should we do?” Constance asked. “I don’t have the data on this thing; I wasn’t allowed, but I’m still smart, so I could help.”
“There’s no way to fix it. It’s like a car without an engine, or a boat without water. There’s nothing to repair. We would have to get it back, or replace it. I wouldn’t know how to build one. She told us that we won’t be able to read the manual, and I’ve seen the guts inside before, but not enough to recreate it from nothing. At this point, our only hope is to call the Jameela Jamil.”
“Okay, we’ll do that,” Mateo decided.
“There’s another option, if we don’t want to bother Team Keshida with this,” Ramses said.
“What would that be?”
“We could try to find the second Nexus on Earth.”