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Saturday, January 13, 2024

Starstruck: When Antistars Align (Part II)

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image Duet AI software
They couldn’t see anything, but they could feel it. The inertial dampeners could only do so much to protect them from the shaking ship. Mirage ran over to release an emergency crash cocoon for Belahkay, since he was in the most danger from all this mayhem. It wasn’t long before it was all over, though. The Iman Vellani’s EM shield managed to protect them from the massive matter-antimatter annihilation that was supposedly going on all around them. Maybe they overestimated how bad it was going to be. It would certainly explain how it was at all possible for them to survive. They were drifting through space aimlessly, but apparently safe now, so they raised the viewport shutters to get a look at what had happened.
Belahkay tried to say something, but was muffled by his cocoon.
Mirage lifted her palm in front his his face. She tapped her index finger and thumb together. Then she tapped her middle and index fingers together. She continued down the line to show him how to escape from the bubble. He mirrored the steps, successfully deflating the bubble. “What were you trying to say?” she asked.
How do I get out of this thing?
Mirage smiled, and went back to the console. “Preliminary readings coming in. We’re definitely not in Toliman space anymore. The stars are all wrong.”
“Could we be in the wrong time period?” Sharice asked. She looked over at her mother to see if she was wearing her umbilical cord necklace, which she would need if she wanted to travel through time.
Brooke guessed at her inquiry. She slipped her thumb underneath the chain, and pulled out the pendant to show her that time travel was a possible explanation.
“Impossible,” Mirage said. “The stars are too wrong for even that. They’re too far away. I mean, we could still be in the wrong period, but we’re nowhere near the stellar neighborhood anymore, that’s for sure.” She stopped, and looked up for answers on the ceiling. “Topdown.” Project Topdown is a special endeavor that Earth created in order to map and understand this local region of the universe. Two arrays of eleven telescopes each were sent off into the voids on either side of the Milky Way. They each had their own mandates, but combined, they should be able to tell the entire story of the galaxy, and beyond. It was launched from the Gatewood Collective about ten years ago. The data wasn’t accessible by most people yet, especially since there wouldn’t be much information to pick from at this time, but the relevant time travelers were given VIP early access. She shook her head. “We’re farther than even they can see.” She sighed. “Let me try to find Sagittarius A-star.” She kept fiddling with the instruments.
“Hey, guys?” Belahkay was looking through a side viewport, trying to get a better angle on what he was seeing.
Sharice was the only one to take notice. “What is it?”
“Hell. If I. Know.” He stepped back to let her see.
“Holy crap that thing is big.”
“Yeah, I see it now. Or rather them.” Mirage had gotten control of attitude for the most part, but they were still drifting. The profoundly gargantuan megastructure was now visible through the forward ports as well. “I’m scanning it too. Three nested rings. We’re on a trajectory to crash into one of them in the next couple of days, assuming they don’t start moving, which I believe they are supposed to. They look like an aerotrim.”
“What are they?” Brooke asked.
“A threat.” Mirage turned away from the controls. “I found our black hole. I know where we are. We’re around seventeen thousand light years from Toliman, on the top edge of the galaxy, looking down at the spirals from the void.” She waved her hand towards the floor, and made it disappear behind a hologram. There it was, the galaxy from a short distance. “This shouldn’t be here. We’re in trouble.”
“What makes this a threat, knowing where we are?” Belahkay asked.
“We’re too far from civilization to be seeing signs of civilization,” Mirage began to explain, “especially of this magnitude. I don’t know the purpose of these rings, but they’re designed to generate a massive electromagnetic field, and there’s something very familiar about the data from my scans.”
Sharice stepped over to the console to look over the data herself. After a few minutes, she figured something out. “Antimatter. It’s a giant antimatter containment field. And by giant, I mean the size of a star.”
“Oh my God,” Mirage said. “It was a star. It was an antistar.”
“I thought those were just a myth,” Belahkay said.
“We never really knew. From the outside, they look like regular stars, or we assumed they would. Even these days, scientists haven’t figured out how to tell for sure that they’re looking at an antistar, and it’s not particularly an area of interest for me. I can tell you that, due to their very nature, they would have to be like this, distant from anything else. So not only did someone come all the way out here long before they ought to be, they found the first confirmed antistar in the universe, and engineered a way to contain it. I sure would like to determine who the hell they are.”
“What was its connection to Toliman?” Sharice questioned. “That’s obviously why it’s been destroyed, because there was some kind of link, which became unstable, and led to their mutual annihilation.”
“We did this,” Brooke noted. “We destabilized the link. I don’t know why it was there in the first place, but we set off a few of our own antimatter bombs, and these are the consequences.”
“We don’t have enough information yet,” Mirage said to her dismissively. “The connection to Toliman might somehow be natural, in which case, sorry, our bad. If it was created by the builders of this megastructure, on the other hand, it would be their bad. What did they need with a random orange dwarf thousands of light years away, so close to Earth, and what gave them the right to it?”
Belahkay shrugged. “Let’s ask.”
“Ask who?” Brooke asked.
He pointed. “Them.”
A capital ship was heading right for them from the direction of the nearest containment ring. As it approached, a swarm of smaller ships broke off, and fell into an envelope formation. Mirage zoomed in to get a better look at them. They looked like flying police cruisers, complete with the red and blue flashing lights on the roof. All four of them looked at each other incredulously.
Mirage opened a drawer in the back of the bridge, and pulled out a stylish harness vest. “Take off your top.” Once Belahkay complied, she fitted the vest over his head. “Let me know if you ever want to upgrade your substrate. Until then, this vest mimics some of our most important features, like increased strength, durability, and a little speed. It also has limited teleportation capabilities.”
Belahkay intuitively pulled on the chest straps to tighten them up, and tight they became. He screeched in pain as a surge of energy rippled through his body. It only lasted for a few seconds, though, and he felt all right again.
“Oh, yeah, it’s gonna hurt a little bit,” Mirage added.
Belahkay rolled his eyes, and struggled to put his shirt back on. “Thanks.”
Sharice helped him secure his clothes over his new superhero suit, and then started to gently massage his shoulders.
The flying police held their position around the Vellani. Once the main ship was closer, a call came in on an open channel. “Unidentified foreign vessel. Please respond.
Mirage snapped her fingers. “This is Captain Mirage Matic of the Stateless Private Vessel Iman Vellani, go ahead.”
Please prepare to be boarded. You may make it easier on yourselves by extending an airlock, but it is not wholly necessary.
“Boarding us will not be necessary either,” Mirage replied to the voice. “I know where we can talk.” She started to do some finger tuts that no one else in the room understood. The last movement featured her fingers tightly pressed against their respective thumbs, and slowly drawn away from their opposites like ripping a piece of paper in half. A section of the Vellani separated itself from the rest of the ship simultaneously, and started to float away. “Teleport into it,” she said to the crew only.
“Better not test your new power in the vacuum of space,” Sharice said to Belahkay after Mirage and Brooke were gone. She took him by the hand, and transported him.
Once they were all on the separated section, Mirage did some more finger tuts. The rest of the Vellani disappeared.
“Is it invisible, or did you teleport it away?”
“Both,” Mirage answered. She snapped her fingers again. “You may dock with my Ambassador Detachment,” she explained. “If you’ll send us your boarding specifications first, I can modify my airlock to accommodate for its unfamiliar dimensions.”
The voice waited to respond. “Very well, but we are not happy about it. We are starting these discussions on a bad egg. You will not be retaining the advantage.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Mirage closed the channel. “What do eggs have to do with anything?”
“Since when were you a Matic?” Brooke asked Mirage accusatorily.
“It felt like I needed a surname, and his was the first I came up with. Mateo and I were very close once. Like, real close.” A long time ago, in an old timeline, Mirage was created with the directive to kill a man by the name of Mateo Matic. He managed to stop her, and she managed to stop herself. She transcended her programming, and they became friends. In a desperate play to save her life shortly thereafter, he literally swallowed some of her composite nanites. It obviously worked, which was how she was still alive today. Brooke and Sharice were not cognizant of this particular story, and Belahkay didn’t know who they were talking about.
“Gross,” Brooke said. She was partially raised by Mateo’s future wife, Leona, and still thought of her as a mother figure.
The visitors docked with the Vellani Ambassador, and came in hot with a police contingency. A man stood amongst them who was clearly in charge. He was one of only two people with a face. The other looked like his lackey. Everyone else was wearing an opaque helmet. “To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?” Mirage asked.
“I am Ex-10. Are you the ones who destroyed the Red Heart of Exis?”
Mirage looked over through the nearest viewport. “Probably.”
“Why?”
“We didn’t do it on purpose. Have you ever heard of Alpha Centauri B?”
The leader guy’s lackey tapped on a tablet. “Origin plus 4.”
“That was our counterstar,” Ex-10 said cryptically.
Mirage emulated clearing her throat. “It wasn’t your anything. It belonged to the stellar neighborhood.”
“We are vonearthans, same as you. We had ever right to channel baryonic particles through the portal at will.”
“You are not vonearthans,” Mirage argued. “You couldn’t be. How did you come to be this far out?”
“Human ingenuity, and the visionary leadership of our Emperor, the Great Bronach Oaksent.” He stood there proudly, clearly under the impression that the crew of the Vellani should bow in fright at the sound of his magnificent name.
“Who?” Mirage questioned jokingly, doing her best impression of Djimon Hounsou’s Korath.
Ex-10 came this close to growling at her.
“I suppose you’ll want to kill us now,” Sharice guessed.
“Don’t give them any ideas,” Brooke warned.
“Oh, as if they needed my help getting there.”
“Silence!” Ex-10 ordered. “You cannot die yet. You must replace what you broke.”
“I’m sorry to tell you, Toliman collided with your antistar through the portal that you created. Those there stars are gone. Destroyed. Kaput. Annihilated.”
“We are aware of how matter-antimatter reactions work. My father’s father’s father’s father was responsible for building the Hearth Rings.” He looked up at the rings in reverence. “We found a suitable replacement. It was going to be our backup Heart, but thanks to you, our plans must be expedited. You will serve the Exin Empire in that capacity until the job is done. If your lifetimes are too short for the job, accommodations will be made to extend your lives.”
“How long did these take to be built?”
“Roughly four hundred years,” he answered.
“Pshaw,” Mirage laughed. “I can do it in two hundred. Hell, hundo-fitty.”
Ex-10 narrowed his eyes at her ominously. “I will hold you to that. But you might want to think about the fact that it will take us roughly 33 years just to get there.” He jerked his head to signal to his men that they could file back out of the room. “We will send you the details, including the coordinates to the new antistar that needs to be protected. Any attempt to diverge from the path will be met with excruciating pain, but not death. You will not be allowed to die until we’re done with you.”
Mirage nodded like that was nothing more than a word of caution, instead of what it really was, which was a major threat.
They waited for the boarders to leave before speaking again. “We’re going to surrender to their demands?” Brooke questioned.
“Just look at them,” Sharice reasoned. “If the way they look and act doesn’t scream bad guys, I don’t know what does. That man had a number, not a name.”
“They’re right,” Mirage explained. “We’re responsible for what happened to their antistar. Besides, I’m a follower of Leona’s Rules for Time Travel. Rule Number Fifteen, don’t antagonize the antagonist.
“I don’t want to be stuck here for a hundred and fifty years,” Belahkay admitted.
“Don’t worry,” Sharice assured him. “She pulled that number out of her ass.”
Mirage looked over her shoulder at her own ass as if Sharice meant her comment literally. “I don’t know who these people are, or how they came to be here, but there are things I know about the future which no one can escape. When the time comes, the antistar containment rings we build will change hands swiftly anyway. Besides, I like a challenge. As for you, Belahkay, we won’t be doing anything by hand anyway. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, because the robots are the ones who will be doing the actual heavy lifting. You won’t have to do a single thing yourself.”
A nearby console beeped. Brooke stepped over to look at it. “Directions to the new antistar. It’s about 23,000 light years away, deeper into the void.”
Mirage nodded. “Yeah, that’ll take around 33 years with a reframe engine at maximum speed. These people must have access to such tech as well. I find that concerning considering that it was just invented recently. They didn’t even offer us a ride, which means they either know we have one as well, or they presume we do. Either one is bad. I don’t like them being able to scan my ship, and I don’t like the possible ubiquity of the technology.”
“So, what do we do?” Belahkay asked. “What can I do? I’ll be an old man in 33 years. I wanted to have an adventure, not sit on a ship for most of the rest of my life.”
“There’s plenty to do,” Mirage explained. “Don’t worry about aging. We can place your body in stasis, and your mind in a surrogate substrate. Or you can just be in stasis. We can all go dormant for stretches of downtime. We’ll play it by ear.”
“Hold on,” Brooke jumped in. “We’ve not even decided if we should really be doing this. The Vellani can turn invisible and teleport. There must be a way to escape without any hope of them pursuing us.”
“Again,” Mirage began, “we don’t know what kind of technology they have. How about we try to gather more information first? We have a few decades to change our minds. Let’s reconnect the detachment, and start heading that way. Sound fair?”

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