Saturday, March 23, 2024

Fluence: Magnolia (Part IV)

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Neither Harrison nor Madam Sriav were where the four of them expected them to be. It was still raining when they went back to England centuries ago, but the area was empty. They figured that Harrison took Briar’s mother, Irene to safety somewhere, but when they looked around, they couldn’t find anyone. “Will he hurt her?” Briar asked.
“I really don’t think so,” Weaver answered. “He knew Mateo and Leona back in the day, and helped them with some of their earlier exploits. He wasn’t programmed for violence, nor does he have any reason to cause harm to her.”
They kept searching, but still couldn’t find either of them. Whatever cave was supposed to magically transport them to Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida was presumably pretty well hidden, which would explain why the local villagers didn’t constantly go missing, only to reappear in the timestream a thousand years later. Briar didn’t know much about time travel, so he reasoned that his mother must have survived all of this, or he wouldn’t exist right now. Of course, the other three knew that the cosmos was full of new timelines, sprouting up every time someone went back in time to change history. It was entirely possible that Briar was wildly different in this current version of reality. Just because he was still standing here didn’t mean that everything that happened in the past was identical to what happened where he was from. No one told him all of this, partially because it was a complex and hard-to-teach concept, but also because they were better off not meddling in this time period any further than they already had. If he understood that there was no such thing as fate, they would never be able to get him to leave. He would die of old age in the attempt to locate her again.
They huddled together, and thought of the island of Lorania on Dardius. Here, the weather was a lot less exceptional, which made it difficult to be sure that they had returned to the right moment. Madam Sriav was also nowhere to be found, but Eight Point Seven was pretty sure that little time had passed since they last left. When Madam Sriav was frustrated with having been taken from her home, she kicked flowers, and at one point, sat down to pull pedals apart. Some of this debris was still where she had left it, or nearby. It had not yet been blown away by the wind, or decomposed to the ravages of time. Eight Point Seven estimated that at most, only several minutes could have passed. They were less certain in this case that anyone involved would be safe. They had no frame of reference for predicted events here, nor any clue whether Madam Sriav was destined to do something particular in the future. If she was taken by someone, or otherwise lost, it could be catastrophic, and they would be hopeless to stop it. They didn’t have enough information about it.
“At least we’re navigating pretty well,” Goswin acknowledged. “If we keep this up, we shouldn’t have to worry about ending up in outer space, or anywhere else too dangerous, or even just wrong.”
“That’s still a danger,” Weaver determined. “If there’s no way to put a stop to this, we’ll probably find ourselves trying to use it towards some end. Good luck to us, figuring out what that objective should be, and how to go about achieving it.”
“Are you talking about me?” Briar questioned, offended. “She looked at me when she said that.”
“I was looking at everyone,” Weaver insisted.
“No, you were looking right at me,” Briar volleyed. “I get it, I’m the problem child. You’re all saints, but I’m the no-good dirty murderer.”
“She was looking at you,” Eight Point Seven confirmed.
“Thank you!” Briar shouted. “At least you’re honest.”
“She was looking at you, not because you’re a problem,” Eight Point Seven went on, “but because your motivations are distant from ours. In fact, I’m not sure what they are. What do you want?”
“What do you want?” he asked. “Are you quite certain that the three of your motivations are as aligned as you think?”
Eight Point Seven tilted her head, having been programmed to simulate inquisitive dispositions to better blend in with human cultural communication. “They may not be, but these other two can listen to reason, and they can agree to a decision without necessarily liking it. You were raised alone, in a world of two people. You lack social skills, and I need you to remember, Briar, that that is not your fault.”
Briar blinked excessively, waffling on whether to let the tears welling in his eyes fall to the ground, or somehow suck them back into their ducts. “You’re right,” he realized. He glared at Goswin. “It’s his.” 
“What? What do you mean?”
“We could have saved her,” Briar explained. “We could have kept my mother out of that cave, and away from Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida. I could have grown up on Earth, around normal people.”
“I didn’t do that,” Goswin defended.
“Yes, you did. You took us away from there during your little experiment to see who was causing this. By the time we got back, she was gone, having no other option but to seek shelter in that cave. This is all you! You’re why I grew up alone. You’re why I killed Mateo Matic! But I didn’t, did I? You did. You killed him!”
“Briar, that’s not how it works. The timeline has been changed,” Weaver said. “Harrison would not have left her alone to go travel the English countryside. He’s with her on Bida.”
“No, he wasn’t,” Briar argued. “I was there, remember? I never knew the guy.”
“Exactly,” Weaver agreed. “That’s why I said the timeline changed. Our memory of events is different than what happened in this reality. Harrison was probably there the whole time, but none of us recalls that, because we’re the ones who changed it. We originated in a different timeline, and we’re all duplicates now. Our alternate selves are currently somewhere else, having done different things with their lives, if only slightly.”
“So, there’s another me out there, one who didn’t kill Mateo at all?” Briar asked her. “He’s happy?”
Eight Point Seven took a half step forward to indicate that she would field this one. She shook her head. “What you did cannot be undone. They already tried to change it, but you were wearing the hundemarke. That’s why the timeline is likely only slightly different. What happened happened, and couldn’t have happened any other way.”
He frowned and hung his head low. “Oh, yeah. I remember that.”
They all tensed up, waiting for Briar to decide that they should go back to save his mother, and maybe himself, in some other way, but he just stood there. With disaster somehow averted by the truth, they participated in an impromptu moment of silence, each of them lost in their own minds. Goswin stared at the broken flowers on the ground as the wind picked up, and did begin to scatter them down the hill. He ultimately took a breath, and looked up at the others. “Now that we know this about ourselves—that we share some sort of...power—we have to decide what to do with it. What’s our next step? Where and when do we go? This was always a vaguely mandated mission, but I feel like...we can’t just waste this on a beach resort.”
“You mean...what are you going to do with me?” Briar asked.
Goswin took a deep, rejuvenating breath. He got right into Briar’s face, but in a comforting way, rather than a threatening one. “You killed a man. You did it with malice and intent, and you expressed no remorse for it. What I need to know is are you going to do that again, to anyone, for any reason?”
Briar took a long time to respond. He was thinking on it carefully. “I know what you wanna hear, but the truth is that I don’t know. I don’t want to promise you something that I can’t necessarily follow through on.” He looked amongst them. “You three seem to have some idea of what’s going to happen in the universe. You have to understand that I don’t. I imagine that it’s quite easy for you to tell others what you’re gonna do, because you know what you’re gonna be up against. It’s not fair, really, being around such confident people, and being so...ignorant. So small.”
Goswin closed his eyes and shook his head mildly. He could actually relate to this sentiment, having to compare his knowledge of the universe to these other two, especially Weaver, who conceivably knew that all of this would happen, and how it would turn out.
Briar continued, “I can tell you that I don’t want to kill anyone in this moment, and that I have no plans to do it again. And I can tell you that I do feel remorse. I just don’t know how to show it. I think my mother was a little too...patient with me. She did her best to teach me how to feel, but not to make sure that what I felt was clear to others. I’m sorry that Mateo is dead, and that he died by my hands. I really do wish that I could undo it. Now, no matter how many other duplicates of me there are, they’ll always be just as miserable as the real me.”
“Don’t think of it like that,” Goswin told him. “You had good times in your life, I know it. Otherwise, you would be a wild animal. You wouldn’t wish to undo anything, except maybe to make things worse.”
“Maybe,” Briar admitted.
They all looked up to find that they had moved again. They were in a jungle that looked not unlike the one on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida where they tried to experiment with their new joint ability. “Where did we go this time?” Eight Point Seven asked.
Weaver started to work on her handheld device.
“Don’t bother,” Briar said to her. “I know where we are. This is my home. This is where I grew up. I was feeling nostalgic, I guess.” He walked straight for a large tree that had been marked up by tons of hashes. “This is tree eight. It’s my favorite one, because it’s when my mother started letting me mark the calendar unsupervised. I was eleven at the time.” He looked down the line at the other trees with hash marks, which supposedly represented their own years. He appeared to be doing some mental math. “It’s too late. Mom’s dead, and so is Mateo. We can’t change anything now.”
“We should still leave,” Weaver warned. “We don’t want to step back into our timeline. People live here, maybe not in this area, but still.”
Briar nodded, still admiring the eighth calendar tree. “I know, I’m sorry.”
“We all did this,” Eight Point Seven reminded him. “That’s how this works.”
“Yeah.” He nodded again, and managed to tear his gaze away, only to find himself distracted by something else. It was a different tree. This one had no hash marks on it, but there was something very different about it. The branches spread wide despite its currently short stature. The flowers were a stunning shade of blue. It was one of a kind, at least in the immediate area. “What the hell is this?”
“What? What’s wrong with it?” Goswin asked him.
“This shouldn’t be here. I memorized every blade of grass in this area. That tree was never here.”
“As I said,” Weaver began, “we’ve changed things. As we suspected, Harrison was here. He must have planted it a long time ago. Briar, he probably helped raise the other you. I don’t know how you feel about that.”
“I don’t either,” Briar said.
Eight Point Seven stepped towards the tree, and began to examine it closely.
“What is it?” Goswin asked her.
Eight Point Seven leaned forward and licked the bark to absorb some of the mysterious tree’s DNA, which she took a moment to analyze. “Magnolia arthurii. This species was introduced to England by mysterious travelers in the early 12th century, and disappeared from the records shortly thereafter. This is from Earth.” She turned to face the group. “Harrison didn’t just plant it, he brought it here. He might have done it on purpose, or the seed got stuck in his boot.”
“It’s beautiful,” Briar said in wonder. He slowly walked up to it, and reached out. He placed a hand upon its truck, and suddenly froze. The flowers buzzed as if carrying an electric current. Ripples in spacetime emanated from the bark, and into Briar’s face. With each wave, his head jerked back a little from the force, but he never let go of the tree. By the time any of them thought to maybe stop whatever was happening from happening, the ripples ceased, as did the buzzing. Briar fell towards his back, but Eight Point Seven managed to catch him before he crashed.
Is he okay?” Goswin asked.
“I’m okay,” Briar answered for himself. He gently pulled himself away from Eight Point Seven’s grip. He stumbled a bit from dizziness, but he never fell again. “I remember everything now. I remember my life with Harrison. He was my father. That didn’t happen before, but I remember it now. I remember both timelines.”
Weaver walked up to the special magnolia now. “This somehow stores memory, and he activated it for upload.” She turned to face Briar. “Do you have anyone else’s memories, or just those of your alternate self?”
Briar stopped to think about it for a moment. “Just mine, I think. I don’t feel like I’m anyone else.”
“Psychic and at least moderately sentient. This thing is very interesting. Either all magnolias of this particular species could do this, or it changed when it passed through the time cave.”
“Should we...all touch it?” Goswin posed.
“Absolutely not,” Weaver urged. “Don’t go around touching things. That could be one of Leona’s Rules for Time Travel.”
“You wanna stay here, don’t you?” Goswin presumed. “You wanna study it.”
“We could always leave later,” Weaver said out of hope. I don’t think any of the colonizers made it all the way out here. But it’s up to you, Captain.”
Briar seemed to want to stay as well, which made some sense. Eight Point Seven couldn’t care less. “Okay,” Goswin agreed. “We still don’t know exactly what year it is, though, so we can’t be certain how far the colonizers are. Stay vigilant.”

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