Saturday, February 10, 2024

Starstruck: Back to the Future (Part VI)

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Mirage swam over to Lilac, who was scared and nervous, but not panicking yet. She hitched a ride when Niobe used the homestone to go from somewhere in the Goldilocks Corridor, back to her home on Verdemus. This couldn’t be Verdemus, because there were too many people, and too many houses by the shore, and also, Niobe was nowhere to be found. “Lilac. My name is Mirage. I’m going to explain everything, but first, you should know that both Niobe and your son, Aristotle are perfectly safe. They’re fine, and I’m going to get you back to them, okay?”
“Okay. Where are we?”
“Topeka, Kansas, 2036.”
“Niobe has never been to Topeka, Kansas, 2036.”
“I know. This is my homestone destination. For some reason, you were unable to exit the stone, so I activated it myself, hoping to get you out with a new trip. Think of it like rebooting a computer to clear out the memory.”
“Hey, are you two all right?” A dude in a tank top was standing on the edge of his boat, holding a paddle, apparently ready to pull them in if need be. It was April, so not a great time for swimming, but the day was rather warm.
“We’re cool, dawg!” Mirage replied.
He winced, but respected their personal bubbles.
“So, that could have deleted my file?” Lilac assumed. “It could have killed me?”
“Yes, I took a risk. It was probably fifty-fifty, but know this too, there is already a Lilac on Verdemus in 2341. She’s taking care of the kids. She either has not left to ultimately become you in her future, or she never will, because we’re in a new timeline.”
“Right. I don’t know much about how this stuff works, but I tried not to think about Past!Lilac. I just wanted to see my son again.”
“You will. It will take us 300 years to get there, but I will return you to him.”
“We should start by getting out of the water. I suppose it’s a coincidence, and that Maqsud Al-Amin isn’t here too?”
“No, sorry, it’s a coincidence.” Maqsud Al-Amin, also known as The Trotter, was capable of traveling profoundly vast distances from planet to planet. He found it easier to accomplish the task by starting in a sufficiently voluminous body of water. Sherwood Lake would do. Mirage didn’t know whether Lilac simply knew this about him, or if she had some other reason to suspect that he might be involved. She chose not to push it.
Lilac started to breaststroke towards the shore. “He’s Aristotle’s father.”
Oh, interesting. How come Mirage didn’t know this? She was losing her edge. Too much of the timeline must have changed since she left the Gallery Dimension to become a real girl. She would have to make peace with that.
They climbed out of the lake, and shook off a little. Some other people tried to hand them towels, but they were just going to air dry. They walked with each other up the road until they were hidden enough from view for Mirage to teleport them both away from here.
They landed in the middle of the concourse of the Salmon Civic Center, which was a secret hidden section of a building that only time travelers had access to. There was a bank, a post office, and even a weekend club, among other things. If you were a time traveler in need of help in the 21st century or later, and The Constant was inaccessible, for whatever reason, the SCC was the place to go. It existed on a secret subterranean floor underneath a strip mall on The Plaza. A man power walked up to them. “Good morning. My name is Konstantin Orlov. Do you require any immediate medical attention?”
Mirage looked over at Lilac, who replied with, “I’m fine.”
When Kostantin switched his gaze to Mirage, she replied, “I’m an android.”
“I see. Well, I’m here to help you navigate the Center, or try to help you with anything else you may need. Right now, it’s 11:24 Central Standard Time on April 13, 2036, in Kansas City, Missouri, United States of America, Earth. Have you ever been to the 2030s before?”
Mirage pointed. “I have, she hasn’t.”
“Do you have any questions about the current level of technology or cultural dynamics?”
“I’ve studied the history,” Lilac said dismissively.
“Great!” Kostantin exclaimed. “What is the specific nature of your visit today?”
“We need to get to the future,” Mirage began to explain. “Do you have any available time travelers, or access to stasis pods?”
He tilted his head to the side. “We do have a few pods, but they are currently in use. Unfortunately, we have been limited to only those few by, uhh...certain powerful forces. We are working on securing authorization for more, but I couldn’t tell you when that may happen. In the meantime, have you tried The Constant?”
“I would rather not involve The Concierge in this.” The Constant was like the Salmon Civic Center, but it was highly exclusive, and a hell of a lot older. Anyone who knew the SCC was here could get in, unless specifically banned. Even if you had once enjoyed the amenities and security of The Constant, you were not necessarily allowed to return. The rules were impossible to know. You just had to try, and hope for the best, but Mirage didn’t want to even try unless they had no other choice.
“I understand.” He had this polite customer service representative thing down. “In that case, you might want to speak with the Travel Agents. They will take down your information, and try to connect you with someone who might be able to jump you into the future. I must warn you, not everyone is met with a favorable transaction. Payment is often cost-prohibitive for people.” In the world of time travelers, cost was a far more complicated concept. They almost never dealt in such petty trivialities as fiat currency, or even precious gems or metals. It was sometimes a favor that the provider couldn’t do for themselves, and sometimes a sacrifice that didn’t technically need to be done, but the point was for the customer to lose something. For instance, if you loved your beautiful long hair, they may ask you to cut it all off. They didn’t need your hair, but if you really wanted their help, you had to be willing to part with it. Others just gave away their services for free, but when the Travel Agents were in play, there could be a middleman fee anyway.
“Thank you very much for your help, Kostya.” Mirage turned and led Lilac to the back corner. The Travel Agency was empty, except for an old man who was either sleeping or dead on the bench against the wall. Lilac rang the bell. A thirtysomething man in a blue sweater vest came up from the back with a Stepford smile. “Hello. I’m Romeo. My wife, Honey is finishing up something in the back. How can I help you?”
Honey and Romeo. Wow, okay. “I’m Mirage and Lilac. We came here from 2341 Verdemus. We need to return there to the exact same moment.”
“Okay, was that your first time traveling through time?” Romeo asked. “Perhaps you could find a homestone.”
“A homestone is how we got here,” Lilac answered before Mirage could stop her.
Romeo smirked. “Get out here, please, Honey!”
“What did I do?” Lilac whispered to Mirage.
“It’ll be okay. You just started the negotiation too high.”
A woman who just looked like the feminine version of Romeo came around the corner. “What is it, dear? Oh, customers. I should have put my face on.”
“It’s fine,” Mirage assured her.
“Honey...” Romeo began, building anticipation. “They have a homestone.”
“Oh my, isn’t that wonderful? We just so happened to be in the market for one of those. Do you happen to have more than one?”
“Only the one,” Mirage replied a bit too hastily, which wasn’t necessary, since it was the truth.
“I’m afraid our rates are too high for only one stone. If you had another, we could talk about sending you where you need to go. Which would be where?”
“Verdemus in 2341,” Mirage repeated.
“I’ve never heard of a Verdemus. Is that a musical artist?” A common joke for this crowd, though not in so many words.
“Ya know what, don’t worry about it. Just get us to anytime on Earth in the 22nd century, and we’ll make our way to our final destination on our own.” That far in the future, they will have no problem finding stasis pods, or a ship. Hell, she could engineer her own ship and pod using the technology available in that time period.
“I’m afraid that that doesn’t change our rates. We’ll need one homestone per traveler. Two travelers, two—”
“We get it.” Mirage emulated a sigh. “One stone, one traveler. Get my friend here to this exact spot on November 22, 2260. I’ll go the long way ‘round, and meet up with her. Deal?”
The couple exchanged looks. They really wanted more than one homestone, but the only way for Mirage to procure a second one would be if the Travel Agents found them a time traveler, which would render the quest stupid and pointless, and they knew it. They nodded at each other simultaneously, then Romeo went on. “Give us a few hours to find the right traveler for your needs. You may wait over there, or go explore the Center.” He handed Lilac a buzz coaster while Honey started flipping through a rolling index of contacts. “Richard and Allen’s restaurant is open as well. I especially recommend the hadrosaurus burgers. I know what you’re thinking, but all dinosaur meat is lab-grown, and ethically sourced from still-living specimens in the appropriate prehistoric period.”
“Thanks.” Mirage didn’t eat, and Lilac wasn’t going to eat that.
“It’s Sunday, so the Salmonday Club is still open, though the portal to the Facsimile is closed.
“Thank you very much.”
“Oh, wait. Payment first.”
“No,” Mirage insisted. “Find us a ride first. If they charge for their services as well, we may need to reassess.”
“Very well.” They weren’t happy about this either, but they wanted the business.
The two of them left, and went over to the restaurant. Lilac was indeed hungry. This place was open all day and all night. It was actually technically two restaurants. A public-facing version was located on the other side of the barrier, and up a flight of stairs, between the Civic Center and the rest of the world. Regular people ate there all the time, and had no idea that they could be just meters away from a bunch of time travelers eating the same food. Or maybe they were eating different foods. The regular side served the standard fare. This side served literally anything, from anywhere in time and space, including apparently lab-grown dinosaurs.
“Mirage and Lilac?” a man behind them asked as they were sitting at their table, having finished eating a long time ago.
“Can we help you?”
“Garen Ashlock. A seer sent me here to find the Oasis and the Flower.”
Mirage was surprised, and she wasn’t easily surprised. “And you riddled that out to our real names?”
“I know who you are,” he clarified. “Do you need my help getting somewhen?”
Mirage looked behind him at the Travel Agency. “They didn’t call you?”
Ashlock looked over his shoulder. “Those creepos? No, they’re way overpriced.”
“We made a deal,” Lilac pointed out. “If we go with him instead, is that gonna cause us problems?”
Mirage scoffed. “I would like to see them make good on any consequences. Mister Ashlock, if you would be willing to get us both to at least 2260, we would be grateful.” That was the year humanity figured out how to travel at maximum relativistic speeds. The reframe engine was invented nearly fifteen years earlier, but the majority of civilization did not so much as know about it, so it was better to be safe than sorry. Lilac only had so much time in her life.
“Ooo. Unfortch, that’s too far,” Ashlock lamented. “My seer didn’t say anything about that. Why would they imply I needed to help you when I’m unable?”
“What’s your limit?
He grimaced. “It’s complicated. I don’t have a limit in terms of a solid number. It’s this complex algorithm involving my current state of health, including my age, how much I slept last night, how much I drank last night...”
“Give us a ballpark,” Mirage interrupted.
“Today feels like a gross day. That’s 144.”
“That will be far enough,” Mirage decided. “At that point, We’ll have everything we’ll need available to take us the rest of the way,” she explained to Lilac. “I could eventually make a stasis pod these days too, but closer is better, for safety and security. It would take me longer to procure the materials.”
Mirage and Lilac stood next to each other while Ashlock stood before them. He waved his hands around each other like an airbender, and then pushed his temporal energy forwards. Lilac’s body shrank to an infinitesimal point as it was thrown backwards. “Okay,” Mirage said. “Me next.”
“Uhh...that was supposed to be for the both of you,” he said quite nervously. “I don’t know why you’re still here.”
Honey walked over in her clackity high heels, sporting her eerie smile, and speaking with her fake politeness. “You entered into a verbal contract. You’re staying here until I get my homestone. Then you’ll go where I say you go...and by whose hand.”

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