Saturday, February 24, 2024

Starstruck: Lie Low and Sing Small (Part VIII)

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Brooke nodded, understanding at least the facts of the story, but not necessarily the subtext. “So where is the Elizabeth Warren now?” she asked.
Mirage and Lilac were back where they belonged in the timeline. The latter was currently having a discussion with her alternate self, trying to figure out how they would raise Aristotle and Niobe. That was between the two of them, and the crew of the Iman Vellani had no say in it. Their trip back here was uneventful, albeit long and convoluted. They stole the ship from where Mirage knew it would be sitting unattended, docked at the top end of the space elevator leading two multiple points on Earth, including Panama. After she placed Lilac in stasis to keep her alive, she plotted a course to Alpha Centauri B. During the eleven-year journey, Mirage regrew her skin, retrofitted their ship with some upgrades, and then placed herself in stasis too, so she wouldn’t be bored the rest of the way. Once they were at their destination, they still had to wait another thirty some-odd years before it was time to literally jump ship.
Mirage’s past self sent a nanofactory to Toliman in the year 2225, just in case they ever needed to make a quick getaway from the planet of Bungula. They did end up needing to do that, though it wasn’t as urgent as she was originally worried it would be. This was where the Iman Vellani was originally built. The crew wouldn’t board it for another two decades. Until then, it sat dormant in its asteroid, protected from the ill effects of the Toliman Nulls that will essentially freeze any sentient entity that attempts to draw near. To protect themselves from that, Future!Mirage placed the Warren in an extremely high orbit from the host star. This kept them at a safe distance at all times until they were ready to head for the asteroid, and enter the Vellani.
“I left it in its orbit to automatically warn anyone else off of trying to get to the solar system. Just because the star was annihilated, doesn’t mean that the Toliman Nulls aren’t still a thing there.”
“Yeah, about that matter-antimatter annihilation,” Sharice began, “are we ever going to do anything about it? Aren’t people going to be surprised that a star in the neighborhood suddenly just disappeared one day?”
“That is the elephant that lives in the room, isn’t it?” Mirage posed.
“It’s a problem for tomorrow,” Brooke decided.
“You mean yesterday,” Belahkay mused.
“Anyway,” Brooke went on, “you two have just been hiding on this ship the whole time? You never came out? You never tried to change anything?”
“Too risky,” Mirage said. “The timeline is complicated enough as it is.”
“No, you’re right,” Brooke agreed. “But perhaps you...made preparations that could help us now that you’ve closed your own loop?”
“Yes,” Mirage said. “I finally understand who reprogrammed the Vellani. It was me. I just hadn’t gone back to the past to do it yet.” She swiped a specific pattern on the wall next to her, which released a hidden compartment. Inside was a secret quantum terminal. She pressed a few buttons, causing a crystal to pop out of the storage drive. She took it out, and held it up. This should contain proof that Verdemus was completely destroyed.”
Belahkay looked down through the viewport on the floor. “No, it’s still there.”
Mirage smiled. “It ought to be.” She shook the crystal a little. “If my plan worked, this should have footage of Toliman b being destroyed instead, and with a little tweaking of the metadata, we can use it to make the Exins believe that it was Verdemus. We’ll even burst in there, and scream at them for making us do that when there is no such thing as a hypercubic crystal lattice.
“You don’t think they’ll come check?” a skeptical Brooke asked.
“Radiation,” Sharice offered. “We’ll say that this whole region of space has been irradiated. You can’t exactly tear a planet apart with a giant space knife.”
“Don’t their ships have shielding, same as ours?”
“No, I once got a quick look at their hull coding. They’re gamma rated for zero-point-five-l. They don’t have an e-rating. I doubt they’ve even heard of superenergetic particles. All we have to do is claim that the process we used necessarily emits exotic particles, and they’ll stay away.”
“How could they have not heard of SEPs?” Mirage questioned. “They have time travel, don’t they? That’s why come they’ve been a civilization for thousands of years, even though they were founded only a few decades ago.”
“I think that technology was lost,” Sharice argued, “perhaps intentionally. The Exins we met could be just as oppressed as the rest of the empire.”
“We’re banking a lot on that idea we brought up a while back about how disorganized they are,” Brooke warned. “We may be wholly misinterpreting that. They could have e-rated shielding, but we’ve just not seen it. Shari, you didn’t get a look at the hull coding for even every vessel in the fleet.”
“I’m confident on this,” Sharice insisted. “They won’t go near it, especially if we sell the lie. We know that there is no hypercubic crystal lattice in the core of this planet. How could we know that if we didn’t do as they asked?”
Mirage and Brooke both shook their heads, unsure if this was all worth the risk. The bad guys wanted the Verdemusians dead, whether by the crew’s hands, or someone else’s. They could have a backup team lying in wait. “What if the crystal lattice does exist? What if Spirit is wrong about that?”
“I’m not.” Spirit was leaning against the doorway. “But if you feel more comfortable, why don’t you test it? See for yourself if it’s there.”
“We can’t destroy a whole world on the off-chance,” Sharice contended. “That would defeat the purpose.”
“It doesn’t have to be permanent,” Spirit reasoned. “Tear it apart, and then go back in time to stop yourself from doing it. All the humans will be up in space, just in case something goes wrong, but you might as well check for yourself, right?”
“Are you suggesting we used the homestone to reverse it?” Mirage asked her.
“No, you don’t just have a rewinder on this thing? It has everything else.”
“We’re less time travelers, and more associated with time travelers,” Mirage explained. “I mean, we’ve all broken the conventional laws of physics, of course,, I didn’t engineer a time rewinder on the Iman Vellani.”
“Yes, you did.” Someone else was there, standing against the other doorway. It was Mirage. It was some other version of Mirage.”
Present!Mirage sighed, more annoyed than shocked. “What the hell?”
Future!Mirage glided over to the opposite wall, and swiped a pattern on it to reveal a secret control terminal. “This is preprogrammed to reverse time by one year, but you can adjust it as necessary. You still need to build the planet-destroying machine, but I’m sure you already have an idea or two about that.”
“Yeah, I’ve never been worried about that,” Present!Mirage confirmed. “It’s just a simple transdimensional gravity beam. I just don’t know about this. I don’t like fudging with time, or gravity. What’s to stop us from going back, and avoiding all of this?”
“If you weren’t here,” Spirit began, “you would not have been able to save my friend, Tinaya’s life.”
“Or mine,” Lilac said, also coming into the room. “And who knows what would have happened to the children? You can’t undo anything.”
“Except for destroying the planet,” Present!Mirage countered.
“Except for that,” Future!Mirage agreed. Without another word, she gradually faded away until she was completely gone.
“I think you just erased her from the future,” Belahkay guessed.
“Whatever,” Mirage said. “It’s not up to her anyway. We vote. Everyone votes, including Tinaya. We’ll stick her mind into the virtual construct, and get an answer.”
Everyone?” Lilac pressed.
“Yes,” Mirage replied, “including your alternate self.”
“I don’t have an alternate self,” Lilac revealed. “We are one now.”
“How did you manage that?” Brooke asked.
“I don’t know. It just happened.”
Mirage smirked. She knew how it was done.
“No, I’m talking about the prisoner, Ilias Tamm,” Lilac clarified.
“Prisoners have rights,” Brooke said adamantly. “This is his planet too, and he has the right to have a say in what’s done with it. We’ll explain the stakes to him, as well as to the children. I agree, everyone votes, and it must be unanimous.”
A year later, Verdemus was torn apart by transdimensional artificial gravity, which supposedly released exotic particles in the region that rendered a radius of fifty light years too dangerous for normal ships to survive. Exotic particles were actually just very, very, very energetic particles that were extremely difficult to shield against. They were capable of passing through an entire planet, kind of like neutrinos, but destructive to baryonic matter. They aided in time travel tech so the only way to shield against them was by manipulating spacetime, essentially forcing them to pass along the shielding on a new vector, rather than through it, and then letting them go once they were on the other side. They were rare, and the crew didn’t think that the Exins understood them enough to have what was called an e-rating, so it was safe to make this claim.
Only the crew plus Spirit Bridger was on board the Iman Vellani Proper. The rest were on the Vellani Ambassador, which meant that they did not go back in time. Once the timeline was reset, they had no recollection of the past year, because they had never experienced it. They knew that it had happened, but now they were able to move on with their lives from here, safe on Verdemus, protected by a fake bubble of exotic radiation. Belahkay and Spirit got to know each other for the course of that undone year, and both could remember the relationship that was kindled by it. They wanted to see where it was going, so he left the ship and stayed behind on Verdemus. Mirage gave them and the rest of the Verdemusians a shuttle that could be used for interplanetary travel, or very slow interstellar travel, if they ever needed to evacuate. It could not reach fractional speeds, and definitely didn’t have a reframe engine, so their options were limited. But at least they weren’t singular, which was what they were facing without the crew’s arrival and intervention.
Brooke and Sharice took the ship off into the black, and quite deliberately told no one where they were going. They had to do this, because the Vellani needed to stay off the radar for the foreseeable future. Its discovery would ruin the lie that Mirage was about to tell Ex-10 regarding the fate of Verdemus, the Verdemusians, the ship, and her crew. At the rendezvous point, she teleported over from the Vellani Ambassador, and just started to wail on him for killing her crew. It took nearly twenty faceless stormtroopers with chains to get her off of him. She was pulling her punches, though. She didn’t want to kill him, she just wanted to sell the rage that she was supposedly experiencing due to what happened. They stuck her in hock while they healed their leader, and let her stew a bit.
A few days later, he came to visit her, as calm as ever, and apparently not vengeful from her attack. “Start at the beginning. What happened?”
Mirage prepared herself to solidify the cover-up. “We did what you asked. We went to the planet in question. There were people on it, but not too many, so we pulled them up to our ship, and got back to work. They protested, but we were there to do a job, so we ignored them. I built a machine that uses transdimensional energy to manipulate gravity, which ripped the planet apart, and do you know what I found there?”
“Oh, so you know. There’s no such thing as hypercubic crystal lattice.”
“No. We just wanted you to destroy the world. It is of utmost importance that the people you found living there did not multiply. They are our sworn enemies, and they were in a position of great strategic advantage. They were too close to the new antistar, and we couldn’t have that. It’s fine that you saved the ones who were already there, though. We don’t have any strong feelings about them as individuals.”
“Oh, I didn’t save them, you asshole. Have you ever heard of exotic particles?”
“Yes. But I admittedly don’t know what they are.”
“I don’t either, but they’re deadly. I was in charge of supplying the power, so I was far enough away, and naturally shielded, when we turned on the machine, but my crew was not so lucky. They were bombarded with highly energetic particle radiation, and killed. They didn’t die right away. No, it took time, but all of their cells were split, their DNA unraveled, and their inorganic parts degraded extremely rapidly. They may have been able to transfer their consciousnesses to new substrates, but those would have been destroyed too. They insisted that I escape to get my revenge before too much of the radiation could get to me on the other side of the host star that we were using as a power source. You let me out of here, and that is exactly what I will do. Or you could come in here, I’m not picky.” She was doing a pretty good job in this role. It didn’t hurt that if any of this were true, she probably would actually react this way.
Ex-10 smiled, almost kindly, likely because he felt that he was in a position of safety and power. “Well, then I suppose I will have to never let you out, except to transfer you to our penal colony.”
Mirage suspected that this might happen, which was why she programmed the Vellani Ambassador to turn invisible and escape under certain conditions, such as her absence for a week. “I will get out eventually, even if it takes me a hundred years. I’m gonna live forever.”
“And I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’ll be dead by then. I decidedly won’t live forever, so I’m not worried.” He lifted his radio. “This is Ex-10. Plot a course to Ex-666. Warn them too, so they have time to make arrangements for a special new prisoner.”

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