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Saturday, February 3, 2024

Starstruck: Only A Stone’s Throw Away (Part V)

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First Chair of the Extremus, Tinaya Leithe was not the one who was awake. It was the other one, who had fallen on top of her naked. For her safety, it was not possible to exit the medical pod from the inside, but the woman was perfectly calm and patient. Mirage came over to address her, along with everyone else. She opened the pod, and let the patient sit up. “My name is Captain Mirage of the Stateless Private Vessel Iman Vellani.”
“Spirit Bridger of the Void Migration Ship Extremus.”
Lilac gasped. “She’s a Bridger. We’re not allowed to be here. Come on, children.” She ushered the kids out of the room.
“Are they afraid of you?” Mirage asked.
“No, I just know things that they’re not allowed to know about the secrets of our mission,” Spirit explained. “You’re not allowed to know either, so it’s not like I’m going to talk about it here. And anyway, I quit already, so that’s all behind me.”
Mirage nodded, and respectfully waited a beat. “Can you tell us what happened? Did the Exins blow up your settlement?”
“Who? The Exins? Never heard of them.”
“Bronach Oaksent,” Brooke clarified.
“Oh, that asshole. Yeah, no, this had nothing to do with him. It was an internal matter. I shouldn’t talk about it either.”
“Well, the Exins were on your planet. It looked like they were trying to attack,” Mirage told her.
“Wait, what year is it?”
“It’s 2341 by the Earthan calendar,” Sharice answered.
“Oh, I’ve been gone for a year,” Spirit realized. “This explosion you speak of must have been pretty devastating. Did anyone else survive?”
“Just your friend.” Belahkay stepped out of the way to reveal Tinaya in the other pod. “The kids and the mother were elsewhere, I guess.”
Spirit looked over at her friend. “No, those wounds are fresh. Whatever happened to her was recent. As a Bridger, I was part of the Phoenix Program, which can reconstitute a user after they have been completely vaporized. It just takes time. A year sounds about right, I suppose. I’ve never needed it before. She’s not part of it, though, so do everything you can to save her.”
“She’s stable,” Mirage said. “However, evidently the pod is having trouble removing the glass. Each time it tries to remove a shard, it digs in deeper, like it’s alive.”
Spirit was confused. “Glass? As in literal glass? We don’t construct with glass. It’s too much work. We use polycarbonate or transparent metal. Wait.” Her eyes widened. “What happened to the time mirror?”
“Oh, that was destroyed in some kind of powerful explosion,” Mirage replied. “Miss Leithe was right in front of it.”
Madam Leithe,” Spirit corrected. “She was married. Where’s Arqut?”
“We didn’t find anyone else,” Brooke said.
“Unless he was one of the Exin soldiers.”
Spirit shook her head. “No, he’s not involved in that. Of course, I’ve been gone for a year, so maybe he infiltrated them, but probably not. He serves as the Superintendent.”
The three ladies exchanged a look. Belahkay didn’t understand why.
Spirit chuckled once. “Not that Superintendent. He runs our local government.” She took a deep breath. “Anyway, what is an Alpha Centauri ship built in the 23rd century doing all the way out here?”
“You’ve heard of the Iman Vellani?” Sharice asked.
“You’re a matter of historical record. The books lost track of you, though. I guess now we know why.”
“The IV shouldn’t be famous,” Mirage contended. “That’s why I built it on Toliman, so we wouldn’t be written about.”
“Everything gets written about,” Spirit said dismissively. She tucked her legs up to her chest, so she could roll out of the pod.
“Do you want some clothes?” Brooke offered.
“Don’t worry about it.” Spirit took a breath. “I’m craving fudge, though. Do you have any fudge?”
“I have a food synthesizer,” Belahkay exclaimed. “I’m surrogating right now, but I still have an organic body.”
“That sounds lovely. Go back to your body, let’s eat some together.” She took him by the arm like they were on a first date, and let him begin to lead her out. “Please alert me if and when Tinaya’s condition changes. Do you have a shower too?” she asked Belahkay once they were out in the hallway. “The pod did its best, but...”
“I have a sonic mister, and a soaker.”
Sometime during Spirit’s bath and fudge meal, which may or may not have happened at the same time, she realized that she hadn’t asked the crew why they were here. Belahkay tried to explain it, but he didn’t know all that much about this phase. He was still mostly responsible for the automators, which were doing just fine on their own, which was probably why they were called that. “He said it was a hypercubic crystal?” Spirit questioned? Like, a fourth dimensional crystalline structure?”
“Yes, have you heard of it? Did you know that it was in the core of your planet?”
Spirit looked at each of them one by one with a soft poker face, but then she couldn’t hold her fervor back any longer. She burst into riotous laughter. “The Maramon were students of temporal manipulation. Not one of them was born with time powers, and they were jealous of the humans for this, even though most humans aren’t time travelers either. Their research passed onto the Ansutahan humans living there, then later to the refugees in Gatewood, and later to the Extremusians on Extremus. If there was such a thing as hypercubic crystal, trust me, I’d-a heard of it. Sorry, kids, you got played.”
“I’m sure we’re all older than you,” Mirage argued.
“Heh. Time, right?”
“Why would the Exins demand we come here? They claim that it’s a critical component for the containment rings,” Brooke pointed out.
Spirit shrugged. “Why would it be?” These rings are just penning traps on megasteroids. Do normal containment pods contain this magical substance? And have you ever heard of any material that only exists inside of a single planet? Oh, and I suppose it’s just a coincidence that their bitter rival just so happens to have chosen this world as its Beta Site? Let me guess, the only way to extract it would be to destroy the entire rock. Am I onto something here?”
Mirage simulated a sigh. “They just wanted us to kill you.”
“Which is ridiculous,” Spirit reasoned. “There were only ever a few dozen people on that planet. They kept it a secret from the general public. I didn’t even know about it from the beginning.”
“The mirror,” Sharice began. “You set up a permanent portal with it, and a second one on your ship?”
“Semi-permanent, I believe. I wasn’t involved in that. I was just asked to go through to help Tinaya with the hostage situation.”
“A portal like that, between a planet, and a moving target, would have been difficult to maintain at best. Imagine building a walkway that leads from the street to the train. Not the train tracks, but the train itself. No matter where the train goes, you can walk onto it from the street. That link would have to be pretty robust. Ripping the planet apart may have destroyed Extremus too.”
“That still doesn’t make any sense,” Belahkay jumped in. “They know us well enough. They knew that we would investigate a planet that harbors life before doing anything with it. Finding the settlement was not hard from orbit.”
“That’s why the soldiers came through,” Mirage figured. “It was their Plan B, in case making us do it didn’t work. You’re right, it was dumb to bet on us at all. Maybe they were just hoping we would get blood on our hands?”
“The True Extremists are brutal and advanced,” Spirit said. “But they’re not too organized. We believe that their civilization is riddled with horribly chaotic compartmentalization. No one knows what the hell is going on. It’s entirely possible that Plan A was made from the stew of multiple sub-plans that were, in some cases redundant, and in others, totally contradictory.”
“Hm.” Mirage thought about this. “We can use that.”
That was when Lilac came back into the room. “I need to go back down to the planet. I have to feed the prisoner.”
“You have a prisoner?” Mirage asked. “One of the Exin soldiers?”
“No, the terrorist,” Lilac clarified. “He’s the one who blew up the settlement. I’m the Hock Watcher. I...should not have left my post at all, but the kids were missing...”
“I’ll take you back down,” Brooke volunteered.
“And can Aristotle and Niobe stay up here? They’re old enough to take care of themselves, and they won’t get into any trouble. I know—”
“It’s fine,” Mirage responded. “We’ll be here. Sharice will be most available while I look at your homestone.”
“Room for one more?” Spirit asked-slash-offered before Brooke and Lilac left.
Lilac wasn’t sure.
“As Hock Watcher, you may permit visitors at your own discretion. Of course, you may also deny.”
“No,” Lilac decided, “it’s okay. We may be stuck on Verdemus awhile, so we’re in this together.”
Belahkay jumped up. “I’ll take you!” He was a little bit too excited. Spirit was perfectly capable of teleporting on her own. “I mean, I don’t need to meet the prisoner, or anything. I just wouldn’t mind a nice walk on an inhabited planet.”
Spirit looked to Lilac for guidance.
“Why are you looking at me? I’m not in charge here.”
Spirit tilted her chin to the side slightly. “I think you are. It wouldn’t be Tinaya, if she were awake, and it’s certainly not me.”
“Isn’t that literally your job?” Lilac put forth. “To step in when all else fails?”
“This is out of my jurisdiction, and I am a Bridger in name only now.” Spirit grimaced a bit.
“Okay, anyone who wants to go down to the planet can,” Lilac decided.
Only the four of them ended up returning to the surface. In the meantime, Mirage went back to her lab, and agonized over the homestone. She had strong reason to suspect that there was indeed a person’s consciousness in there, but she couldn’t prove it. It was giving off different energy readings than the other stone was, but that was about all she could determine from her limited tests. There was no conclusive evidence of a trapped consciousness, or anything else. It could just be that different homestones were made slightly differently. A third stone would help come to some better understanding of them. As far as she ever knew from her time in another dimension where all of time and space was laid out before, no one else had ever taken the occasion to study them. They still didn’t know where they were from. Some temporal objects were designed partially through technology. Others were normal objects imbued with power. These appeared to be categorized as the latter, but as a stone with no moving parts, nor complex internal structure, it was unlike even those. Even the Escher Knob only worked when you used it as a doorknob. The stone evidently activated by being squeezed, coupled with psychic intention. What the hell did that even mean?
Mirage leaned back in her chair, as if she needed to rest in a chair, and massaged her chin, as if she could feel it through biological nerves. There was one test that could not be done from here. It would require her to go somewhere else, and she had to go there alone. She didn’t want to do that, though. It could seriously screw things up for everyone; not just the crew, or the Verdemusians, but literally everyone in the universe. Just then, someone who looked very much like Mirage came down the hall, and stood in the doorway. Mirage looked over at her, unshocked at the development. “Yeah, Okay. I’ll do it. Blindspot, I guess.”
The other Mirage smiled, and didn’t speak.
Mirage initiated her internal comms device. “Brooke. I think this is going to work, but in case it doesn’t, you’re in charge.”
What? What are you going to do?
“The other Lilac is stuck in a dimension that can only be accessed by this rock, and you can’t access it unless you use it.”
Brooke teleported into the lab. “Wait!”
Mirage squeezed the stone, and thought about her past. Before she knew it, she was falling from a few meters in the air, and into the water. She sank a little before inflating her buoyancy compensator, and rising back up to the surface. The lake was packed with people on boats who were all very confused about what had just happened. She looked around to get her bearings, recognizing the geography right away. This was indeed Sherwood Lake in Topeka, Kansas, which was where she was when she accidentally fell into another dimension while saving Mateo and Leona’s lives.
She looked over, and breathed a fake sigh of relief when she saw someone she recognized. It was Lilac. Her plan worked; no clone body, nor crazy time tech required. All she had needed to do was activate the stone again, and trigger a new point of egress. The problem was, if these stones worked the way she understood them to, it was going to be rather difficult to get back to where they were. It should be the year 2036.

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