Saturday, August 26, 2023

Extremus: Year 54

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image AI software
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.

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