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Saturday, January 27, 2024

Starstruck: Crystal Clear (Part IV)

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image Duet AI software
Over a half century into Phase Two of the project, Ex-10 messaged the crew of the Iman Vellani with the additional plans for the antistar containment rings. When Mirage asked him why the plans were changed, he told her that they weren’t. He just chose not to divulge everything all at once. She asked whether there was anything else that he wasn’t telling them yet, but he refused to respond. What a dick. Hopefully, any further changes wouldn’t disrupt their progress, or force them to alter course. Fortunately, they had not yet begun Phase Three, which involved actually building the structures using the materials that they were procuring from the nearby star systems. Even if they had, it would have probably been okay. The new plans called for an extra layer of material on the inside of the rings.
“Hypercubic crystal lattice?” Belahkay asked. “Forgive me for my ignorance, but what the hell is that?”
“No,” Mirage assured him, “you’re not the only ignorant one. I’ve never heard of it either. I know what a hypercube is, and I know what a crystal lattice is, but a hypercubic crystal lattice? Sharice, what does it say?”
“It’s a special material. Incredibly rare. They’ve only found it in two planets.”
In two planets?” Brooke echoed.
“It’s evidently only located deep in the core,” Sharice replied. “It doesn’t form naturally anywhere else. We’ll have to rip the whole thing apart to get to it.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard. What exactly is it?”
“It doesn’t say,” Sharice explained, “but if it’s what it sounds like, my guess is that it manipulates time in some way? Maybe it protects it from future or past tampering? Damn, I don’t know. There’s barely anything in this document.”
“Well, how far away is the nearest world that has this stuff?”
“Uhh, 707 light years,” Sharice answered.
“It will take us exactly one year to get there with the reframe engine. How convenient. Belahkay, how are the automators?”
It was his job to manage all of the machines that were spread throughout this sector of the galaxy. He synthesized error reports, and coordinated arrangements to get the project back on track. “It’s been four months since the last issue, and that one wasn’t that big of a deal, we just lost a chunk of one planet. It wouldn’t have slowed down the project.”
“You can keep an eye on the progress on the ride. We’ll all go to this magical fourth-dimensional planet, and see what we see.”

A year later, the Vellani was in orbit over the planet, which they discovered to be inhabited. Ubiquitous plant life was visible with the naked eye. There were billions of bodies of water, and evidence of seasonal shifts. The surface gravity was decently suitable for human life. Oh yeah, and there was human life there. A small settlement was found, and a closer look proved that people were currently living there. Something had happened somewhat recently, though. Most of the buildings had been severely damaged in an explosion. A few of the structures, which had been built farther from the apparent epicenter, managed to stay whole, including a perimeter fence. There was also one more thing that they saw when they zoomed in.
“It’s a time mirror,” Mirage noted.
“People are coming out of it, one by one,” Belahkay noticed.
“They’re armed,” Brooke pointed out. “They’re either about to attack the settlement, or protect it from someone else’s attack.”
“Can they see us? Do they think that we’re a threat?” Sharice asked, worried.
“I see no sign of space observation technology. We’re shielded by the daylight.”
Belahkay pointed at the screen. “Oh, look at that.”
A figure was running out of the ruins of the bombed out settlement. It ran straight through the gate of the fence, and towards the mirror. Just before it could make it through, the mirror exploded. “Whoa!” they all shouted in unison. The explosion sent everyone flying in all directions, no one farther from it than the person who had been running towards it. They were thrown all the way across the field, over the fence, across the interior field, and then back into the ruins of the settlement. There was no way that person survived that.
“Oh my God, what did we just witness?” Sharice asked, horrified.
Determined, Mirage stepped over to the corner, opened a secret compartment, and revealed a cache of weapons.
“Those have been here the whole time?” Brooke scolded.
“Yes, mom. Here’s yours.” She tried to hand her one of the rifles.
“No. Never again.”
Mirage tried to hand it to Sharice, who also refused, as did Belahkay. She growled. “If you don’t arm up, you’re not going down to the surface.”
“Stop us,” Brooke goaded. Then she disappeared.
Sharice looked at Mirage awkwardly, and then followed her mother. Belahkay stepped over and reached into the cache. He took out a handgun, and hid it inside his vest. “I got your back.”
They teleported down together, meeting the other two in the crowd of bodies near where the mirror once stood. They fanned out, and approached a body each. “Ex-088-GL0821,” Mirage called out.
“Ex-088-GL0403,” Sharice returned.
“Where I’m from,” Belahkay said, “this patch would be for the wearer’s name.”
“Yeah. I think it’s the same for them. These people belong to the Exin Empire, almost surely some kind of military force.”
“Ex-10 must be pretty important if he’s as low a number as he is, and these guys are named in nine figures,” Sharice decided.
“I imagine it’s far more complicated than just one through a billion,” Brooke guessed.
“I don’t have your fancy sensors. Are they all dead?” Belahkay asked.
“Yeah, they are,” Mirage confirmed. “No human lifesigns. So unless one of them is an alien, we should go into the ruins, and see if anyone there is still alive.”
They teleported away to find four people. The woman from the mirror explosion was lying on her back on the ground, just as they saw her. They thought that she had landed on the other side of a statue, but it was gone, and another woman was lying face down on top of her. She was completely naked. They were both breathing, but cut up from the glass that they shared, embedded in their skin. Two children were huddled together nearby.
“Sharice, take the wounded up to the infirmary, and place them each in a medical pod. Then you can come back. I’ll keep an eye on them from here.”
Of all of them, Brooke was the softest. She cautiously went over to the children. “Hey. It’s okay. We’re not gonna hurt you. Are these your parents?”
The kids were six, maybe seven years old, but they didn’t seem too terribly scared. The boy shook his head. He gently elbowed the girl in the arm. She pulled something out of her pocket, and held it up. It was a rock.
“You want me to have this?” Brooke asked. She carefully stepped forward, and took it from the girl.
“My mom’s in there,” the boy said.
Brooke moved it around in her hand, and then reached back to hand it to Mirage.
“It’s a homestone.” Mirage bent over, and looked the boy in the eyes. “Did you use this to get here, or were you going to use it to go somewhere else?”
She used it to get here,” the boy explained. He took a rock out of his own pocket. “I used this one. I came alone. She came with my mom.”
“Don’t mix them up,” Mirage advised. “Homestones are identical. We’re not even sure that it’s not just the same stone at different points in spacetime. If one of them contains his mom, we have to work with the right one.”
“It could contain his mom?” Brooke questioned. “How’s that?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never heard of it, but I believe him. If he says that the girl and her mother came together, then something must have happened to the mom.”
“She’s not her mother,” the boy corrected. “She’s my mother, but we’re not siblings. It’s just that we both first traveled through time at the same time.”
“I see,” Mirage said. “You sound older than you look.”
“It’s been several years for me,” the boy—or rather, the young man—explained. “She’s older than she looks too, but even when she was older, she looked young.
Mirage nodded, and turned to the other three. “The homestone takes you back to where you were when you first experienced nonlinear time. It reyoungifies you to the age that you were, but it doesn’t undo history. It potentially gives you a second chance at life, but whatever originally happened after that moment still took place in the timeline.” She sighed, and looked over the girl’s stone. “You can take passengers with you, but it’s not the safest way to travel. Again, I’ve never heard of someone getting stuck, but I can’t rule it out.” She turned back to the young man. “Can I take this to test it?”
He nodded.
“What are your names?” Brooke asked.
“I’m Aristotle. This is Niobe Schur.”
Niobe cupped her hands over Aristotle’s ear.
“She can talk,” he told the crew. “She just doesn’t like to meet new people. When she gets to know you, she’ll warm up to you.”
“Well, what did she say?” Belahkay asked him.
“She doesn’t go by a name anymore. She goes by a number. I’m trying to fix that.”
“So this planet is in the Exin Empire,” Mirage reasoned.
Aristotle’s eyes narrowed. “No. This belongs to the Extremusians. The Exins are just the ones who kidnapped us, and forced us to live in the Goldilocks Corridor.”
“My mistake,” Mirage said apologetically.
“The women you took up to your ship,” Aristotle went on. “One of them is First Chair Tinaya Leithe. She’s very important. I don’t know who the naked one is.”
“Aristotle! Niobe!” A third adult woman was running towards them from a path that went through the forest behind the settlement. “Oh my God!”
The crew stepped back instinctually to make themselves look less like a threat.
The woman hugged the children, and frowned at the crew, trying to stop crying. “I saw the patches. You’re Oaksent’s people.”
Mirage shook her head. “We’re not part of them. Well, to be fair, we work for them, but we had no idea they came here. We were not told that this was a populated planet. They asked us to procure a rare component for something we’re building for them due to a debt that must be paid.”
“Another weapon of theirs, no doubt,” the woman spit.
Mirage sighed. “It’s possible. It’s possible in the way that a car can be used as a weapon if the driver chooses that.”
“We mean you no harm,” Brooke added. “Your friends are healing on our ship.”
The woman wiped tears from her eyes, and looked at the young man. “I thought that they had taken you. I couldn’t find you. No more hide-and-seek. It’s too dangerous.”
“We were taken, mom,” Aristotle said to her sadly. “The Captain rescued us, but when she tried to take us back through the mirror, we didn’t end up on the Extremus.” He paused. “We’re from the future. He handed her his homestone.”
“You’re his mother?” Mirage asked.
“She’s my Past!Mother,” Aristotle explained. “My Future!Mother, from the other timeline, she is indeed in that stone. I can feel her.”
The mother stood up straight, and composed herself. “My name is Lilac. Can you get my alternate self out of there?”
“I can try,” Mirage answered. “ I promise nothing, but I have cloning tech in the Vellani. Your DNA would do us a lot of good in that department if your alt has lost her original substrate.”
Lilac pulled her sleeves up. “Take however much blood you need.”
They all teleported up to the ship in orbit. While Belahkay monitored the other women’s progress in the medical pods, Mirage started to take readings from the homestone. They needed to find out if a consciousness really was trapped in there, and whether it was intact. Sharice took her own mother aside for a private conversation. “It’s clear to me that we can’t take this hypercubic lattice stuff out of the core of this world. The only way to extract it is to destroy the whole thing.”
“I know,” Brooke agreed. “I just accessed the updated records. The Extremus launched from Gatewood, and is moving at maximum reframe. It’s literally impossible for us to ever catch up to it. I think they had a time mirror on board, and were using that to travel back and forth through a portal. If these people don’t want to leave with us, they’ll have to stay here. This is their world, we have no right to it. More to the point, the Exins don’t have any right.”
“What do we do?”
“We protect them, at all costs. If Mirage’s explanation of how the homestones work is right, those military guys connected to this mirror from a different point in time. That’s probably what blew it up; they got the wires crossed. If we can stop them from ever attempting to override the original connection—”
“We can prevent the attack on the settlement,” Sharice guessed.
“That woman,” Brooke began, “the...First Chair. She knows something. She was running for that mirror for a reason. We need to talk to her when she wakes up.”
“She’s awake,” Belahkay announced.

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