Saturday, December 30, 2023

Extremus: Year 72

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image Duet AI software
There are really only two outcomes when a dead man’s switch for explosives is in play. Either the explosives go off, or they don’t. If the person holding the trigger ultimately wants the bomb to explode, then fine. How Ilias handled the situation was perfectly reasonable. He was waiting for someone to trigger it, and Tinaya did, so mission accomplished. If he didn’t want it to go off, though, then he should have freaking said something! It doesn’t work as a deterrent unless people are aware that it exists. The tactical team that Tinaya and Spirit went with never said anything about it. Lataran never said anything about it. Apparently no one knew that it was there. It’s impossible to say for sure, however. Everyone in that mess hall may have been privy to the severity of the situation, but they can’t attest to that, because they’re all dead now. Spirit is dead, the tactical team is dead. Nearly everyone who was on the planet of Verdemus at the time is gone now; notable exceptions being Ilias himself, and Tinaya. He’s locked up somewhere probably, and her? She’s locked up too, but she’s not in hock. She’s under house arrest. They have to keep up appearances.
Most people on Extremus aren’t allowed to know that the crew has maintained access via mirror portal to the habitable planet that they discovered. Ilias committed an unambiguous crime, and he’s not in the public eye, so they can punish him however they please. Tinaya, on the other hand, can’t just disappear from the ship without arousing suspicion. Arqut won the election for superintendent, though there were only two choices. The passengers and crew could have either voted for or against. If they had decided upon the latter, they would have had to wait until someone else asked for the job, and then run a revote. No one else seemed to want to do it at the moment, which is understandable, given the position’s unfortunate past. It was the lowest voter turnout in ship history, but it wasn’t even close. Just about everyone who bothered to vote voted yes. Superintendent Grieves is now working to facilitate a smooth transition from the old government to the new.
Tinaya has been ordered to remain in her stateroom unless requested for a public appearance with her husband. She feels so shitty about what went down, even though she knows that it was Ilias’ fault for not explaining the stakes to them. She doesn’t really want to leave her stateroom, and in fact probably never will. It reminds her of how she felt when she was totally lost, with no hope for a better future, and no idea for a purpose in life. But this is worse, because she isn’t just failing to succeed. She actually caused harm. She got people killed. Again, she recognizes that Ilias should have warned them that that would happen if they attempted to rescue the hostages, but she feels no less responsible for those deaths. She doesn’t even know who they are. The list can’t be made public. People who go on such secretive missions are generally chosen for their lack of family and friends. It’s not like on a planet, where you can join the military, and tell the people you care about that you can’t tell them what you’re really doing. On Extremus, there’s nowhere to go, so if you walk out the door, and never come back, people are going to wonder how that could possibly be. At most, you should be several hundred meters away at all times.
Lataran has distanced herself from Tinaya for obvious reasons, and Tinaya does not blame her for that. She has to protect her reputation. It is bad enough that Verdemus is being kept secret from the people. If anyone finds out what actually happened there, she could go down in history as one of the bad captains. They could see her as worse than Tamm, which would be worse than anything. The question is, why is Lataran standing in Tinaya’s doorway right now. “We need your help.”
“My help with what?” Tinaya asks her solemnly.
“You have to go back to Verdemus,” Lataran replies.
“I’m not doing that.”
“You’re the only one who can.”
“It didn’t exactly turn out great the last time you said that to me.”
“This time, it’s no less true,” Lataran begins to explain. “We would ask Ilias, but we try not to talk to him if we don’t have to. We don’t believe he’s part of some movement, or insurgency. He was a crazy asshole with a bomb. All he should be doing right now is stewing in hock, and regretting every single one of his life choices. Besides, he may not have the information we need anyway. We don’t know what he saw, or what he noticed, from his vantage point. We’re pretty sure you’ll know.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The explosives were...comprehensive. One of the gatewatchers was blown off of his post, and the other suffered minor burns. Anyone anywhere near the epicenter was vaporized. We know who was there, but we don’t know specifically where anyone was standing in space when it happened.”
“If you needed to know this, why didn’t you ask me before? It’s been months.”
“We didn’t need to know before. Like I said, we have a manifest. We didn’t need the details until today, because something has changed.”
“What? What has changed?”
“I would rather just show you. Don’t you want to get out of here, if only for a moment?”
Tinaya crosses her arms self-protectively, but not too tensely. “I’m fine.”
“Miss Leithe...this is not a request.”
Tinaya stands up. “That’s all you had to say.”
They cross back over through the mirror portal together. The leader of a three-person tack team tries to hand Tinaya a pair of sunglasses again, but she refuses. It feels like she doesn’t deserve it. Lataran sighs. “I told you I need to show you something, which means you need to be able to see. Put them on please.”
“Okay.” Tinaya accepts the glasses, and begins to adjust to the harsh natural light. They walk down the path, and towards where the offworld base used to be standing, leaving one tack team member to guard the mirror. The base has been flattened, with only a few of the strongest parts of the infrastructure still standing as ruins. They lead her through the now fully open gate, and towards where she was when she was trying to negotiate with the hostage-taker. Lataran was right. This is something that needs to be seen. Ashes have begun to cling together over a spot on the ground, like ferromagnetic dust to a telescoping groundsweeper. They have coalesced themselves into the vague shape of a human being. It doesn’t look like anyone in particular right now, but more ash is jumping up into place by the second. Eventually, the entity could be made whole once more.
“Do you know who was standing here?” Lataran questions. “I know it’s hard to get your bearings—”
“It’s Spirit.”
“Are you sure?”
Tinaya steps around, and gestures towards the ash being. See, she’s holding some sort of shovel thing. It’s what she used to sever the shockwire that Ilias had hooked up to the woman he used to speak through, so he wouldn’t place himself in the line of fire. Spirit Bridger, and resurrecting herself.”
“That was our guess as to what was going on,” Lataran agrees. “It would make some level of sense that she would be the one to possess such power. Though—and I don’t know about you—but I’ve never heard of this sort of thing before.”
Tinaya shakes her head. “Neither have I. Some kind of phoenix power, that’s crazy. Have you asked Omega about it? He would know.”
“He’s on the frontlines of the Three Bears War right now.”
“Of course he is, because as always, I know what that is,” Tinaya says sarcastically. “All right. I’ll be going now.”
“That’s it?” Lataran asks. “You’re just gonna go back to your stateroom?”
“Well, what the hell else should I do?” Tinaya snaps back. “I’m still a danger to society, aren’t I? Or is this my new prison? Should I stay instead? Yeah, that makes sense. Is this even real?” She reaches up towards Spirit’s supposedly recoalescing body.
“Don’t. Touch that. Yes, it’s real,” Lataran begins, then falters, “I think. I just thought you might want to take a second to...” She trails off, and shakes her head before continuing, “....breathe the fresh air.”
Tinaya realizes her error. “This was meant to be a gift.”
“I still love you, Tinaya, and I don’t personally blame you for what happened. I just...I couldn’t be seen with you. It’s a very complicated and delicate situation.”
“I know.”
The tack team member pivots a quarter turn away. “Go ahead.” She tenses up as she’s listening through her comm, then she faces Lataran. “Sir, we have to go. There’s something wrong with the portal.”
“You two run up ahead,” Lataran orders. “We’ll teleport back right away. I just need to talk to her for one more minute.” It’s unclear why they wouldn’t be able to teleport themselves, but they literally run off. She senses Tinaya’s confusion. “Teleporters don’t work on this planet anymore. Ilias’ bombs destroyed the local relays. We haven’t bothered to replace them. We’re not sure what we’re gonna do here anymore.”
“Why would you be able to teleport then?”
She lifts up her shirt to reveal an emergency teleporter strapped to her chest. “Mine has a much longer range. I’m still linked to the ship, through the portal, of course. Look, I just want to—” She stops when she hears a rustling in the brush that has already begun to grow amidst the destruction.
“You heard that too?”
“Yeah,” Lataran whispers. She slowly creeps in that direction.
“Are there wild animals here?” Tinaya asks.
“A few. One species is particularly dangerous, and particularly valuable.”
“You’re not a wrangler. We should go.”
“No, just give me a second.”
Lataran continues the search, forcing Tinaya to follow. Neither one of them excelled at hand-to-hand combat in school, but the latter was always a little better at it. Though, to be fair, she didn’t go to college, so maybe the leaderboard has shifted. They approach the overgrowth, but don’t find anything, so they keep going until they hear more sounds behind more brush. They carefully pull it to the side to reveal two small children. They’re dirty, and barely wearing any clothes. They’re probably hungry, tired, and scared. “Hey, it’s okay,” Tinaya says to them gently. “We won’t hurt you. Do you understand me?”
Lataran looks away slightly. “We have to go. There’s something seriously wrong in the Mirror Room.”
“You go,” Tinaya demands. “Take them, and then you can come back for me. I’ll be on my way.”
“I might only have enough juice for one jump. We’ve walked really far away now.”
“Then don’t waste it! Save the children! Obviously!”
Lataran grabs the kids by the hands, and disappears.
Tinaya has also never enjoyed running, but she’ll do it today. She races back into the ruins of the base, then towards the gate, and then up the path to the mirror. The place is swarming with people in military uniforms, but they’re nothing like the kind she recognizes. They do not belong to any branch of the Extremus security or military force. She doesn’t stop running, though. It doesn’t seem to bother them that she’s running for her life. If this is some kind of coup, they don’t consider her a threat. She doesn’t make it all the way to the mirror, anyway. It explodes right towards her, but not in a fiery storm. It’s concussive, and maybe even spatial warping. She’s thrown high into the air, back towards the base. All she can think as she’s flailing about is that there is no way she survives this. Even if what’s injuring her weren’t the portal that will no longer be able to take her back to help on Extremus, the damage will be too severe.
Only when she crashes onto the ground does she feel the sting of the glass shards in her skin. They are all over her body. She’s still alive, but hanging on by a thread. She’s fallen right on the other side of Spirit, whose recovery has been sped up exponentially somehow. Tinaya watches the wind blow the majority of the ash away to reveal human skin. It’s definitely her.
Spirit blinks, and starts to reorient herself. She looks down to find Tinaya gasping for breath, and then gurgling on her own blood. “I guess my plan didn’t work.” Her eyes lose focus, and she starts to look like she’s nodding off. Finally, she passes out, and lands right on top of Tinaya’s body. Tinaya reaches up and tries to pull the secret signal mirror from her inside pocket, but remembers that she no longer has access to it. It’s still tucked away safely in the pocket dimension, but the only way to unlock it is with her watch, or something else that can generate the right shade of green to reveal the zipper. That was taken away from her after last year’s debacle. She’ll never see her love, Arqut again, and he will never know what happened to her.
Before Tinaya loses consciousness, she sees two figures hovering over her. They look like the children from before. Damn. They didn’t make it through either.

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