Saturday, May 25, 2024

Orthogradient: Quino and Rosalinda (Part III)

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Quino and Rosalinda covered their ears as Treasure screamed her way into a portal, and disappeared, hopefully back home. They held their hands in place, because the plan was for her to return to this very moment. If she had listened to Quino’s pleadings, she would be a few years older, and a little more age appropriate for him. Something must have gone wrong, though, because they waited for a couple minutes, and nothing. He dropped his arms in defeat. Rosalinda smiled at him sadly, and patted him on the back. They didn’t speak. They could only hope that Treasure moved on with her life, and forgot about them, not that she had gotten hurt, or worse, and couldn’t come back. They were going to be stuck here forever, but it wasn’t going to be that bad. There weren’t any dangerous people or aliens, and the Strongbox was stocked with enough supplies to get them through the next few weeks. They both stepped forward to admire the view. They were on a grassy cliff, overlooking the beautiful scenery below, and in the distance.
“Wait!” a masculine voice shouted to them from down the hill behind them, and through the trees. “Don’t leave without me!” He came out of the forest, running as fast as he could, and struggling with it.
“It’s okay!” Quino shouted back. “Catch your breath!”
The man stopped, grateful. He rested his hands on his knees, and panted. He squinted at the sun, and held up one finger.
“We won’t leave without you,” Quino added, “...and also can’t.”
“What?” When Quino tried to explain that they were just as trapped there as him, he dismissed them. “Hold on.” He mustered a second wind, and started running again, but quickly fell into a jog.
They might have gone down to meet them halfway, but even though Quino wasn’t a real soldier, one thing he learned from the ones he worked with was that the first rule of warfare was to always maintain the higher ground. The other first rule of warfare was to force your enemy to come to you. They didn’t know if this man was an enemy, or not, but they had to assume as much for the time being.
The stranger finally made it up to them. “What did you say?”
“We can’t leave,” Rosalinda clarified.
“That thing behind you can’t do it? I guess I assumed that that’s how you got here yourselves. There’s no one else on this planet.”
“It only works with a particular pilot,” Quino said, obviously not about to mention Treasure by name, and hoping that even this wasn’t too much information.
“Well, shit.” He set his hands on his hips, and looked out at the view as he finished the last of his panting.
“How did you get here, friend?” Rosalinda asked. “We were to understand that this world was not populated by any intelligent species.”
He looked back where he had come from. “I sure hope not. I was trying to figure out how to make a campsite when I saw your ship fly overhead. I dropped the sticks, and started running right for it. Then I heard someone scream? Was that your pilot? What happened to her?”
“She had to go somewhere else,” Quino said.
“My name is Rosalinda James. This is Quino Velsteran.”
“Adalwin Tillens. Welp, if I have to live here for the rest of my life, at least I won’t be  here alone.”
“We’re not staying,” Quino assured him without offering him a way out of here, which should come eventually.
“Neither am I...hopefully.”
“How did you get here in the first place?” Rosalinda asked him.
Adalwin sighed. “There’s this group of people who can do what your friend can. They...leak portals out of their skin, and fall into them. They can bring people with them, and I was in need of escaping a dangerous situation, so I asked for help. I was with them for a little bit before I failed to get back to them in time, and they left without me.”
“They didn’t wait for you?” Rosalinda questioned.
“Yeah, there must be something wrong with you,” Quino added, thinking that he and Rosalinda were on the same page.
“I meant,” Rosalinda began, “if there is nothing dangerous on this world, what was the rush?”
“Oh, they don’t have control over it,” Adalwin clarified. “It just happens. They have to stay close to one another if they want to go to the same place. They’ve become separated from friends that way. I don’t know what it’s like when you do it, but for them, it’s like this psychedelic waterslide, which branches off into different directions, so you have to hold on and be careful. Stay with your sliding buddy, they would always say.” He sighed again. “I should have listened.” He perked up. “But you’re here now, and everything is going to be okay again...right?”
Rosalinda was hoping that Quino would agree, since she was obviously on board with helping this man. “Right,” she said herself, giving up. “We’ll get you out of here, one way or another. Come on, Qui-qui, let’s see if we can figure out whether this thing stores bulk energy, or what.”
“Yeah, come on, Qui-qui,” Adalwin encouraged jovially.
“You don’t call me that,” Quino warned as they were walking up to the Strongbox.
They stepped inside, and started looking through the computer. There actually was a little bit of bulk energy in the reserves, but none of them knew enough about how this stuff worked to know whether it was enough. Besides, Treasure wasn’t only essential to the operation of the machine because she could power it, but she also navigated it. According to Treasure’s teacher back in her homeworld, Thack Natalie Collins, traveling the bulk either required extremely precise mathematical calculations and-or foreknowledge, or psychic capacity. Anyone could figure out how to go where they wanted, as long as they had the right tools at their disposal, but people like Treasure had this gift naturally as an extension of their ability to utilize bulk energy. Quino and Rosalinda were not practiced enough to be comfortable navigating on their own, even if they could figure out how to get this thing running. Or maybe it wasn’t practice at all, but mental zen, or whatever. See? They didn’t even know.
“I’ve done it a few times myself,” Adalwin said. “Perhaps I can be your navigator.”
“Navigate us where?” Quino pressed. “Back home, or to one of the worlds you were on before? We’re not trying to go to any of those places. We’re trying to go to...” Quino trailed off before he said something too specific about Treasure.
“Salmonverse,” Rosalinda said. “That’s where we should go. Only there will we find someone who can help. They have all sorts of time travelers there. Someone will know something. If we try to go where...our friend is...” She gave him a look.
Quino understood. She wasn’t an idiot. This man was a stranger, and he couldn’t be trusted. Voldisilaverse was vulnerable to attack. Treasure’s mother’s home brane, however, was equipped with people who could combat a threat, including an unknown one. “Yeah, you’re right.” He kind of kicked at the console, but not angrily. “We still have no way to get this moving, though, if there’s even enough of that stuff.”
“I may have some on hand,” Adalwin volunteered.
“Bulk energy?” Rosalinda questioned. “Why would you have any of that?”
“As I said, we’re watersliders,” Adalwin started to explain. “And water is sticky. It stays with you. That’s why the originals can’t stop falling into their portals, because their bodies just keep producing it against their will. They think they could be free if they drained themselves of literally all water, and replaced their blood from donors, but I don’t think that’s medically possible. Anyway, I’m not like them, but just by accompanying them a few times, I have some liquid bulk on my body. It’s not enough to turn me into a full slider, but it may be enough to add to what you already have.”
“How would you go about doing that?” Quino asked, even more suspicious of him. “You gonna pee into the engine?”
Adalwin laughed. “No, it’s nothing crazy like that.” He kept laughing for a moment before dropping into his serious face. “No, I would bleed into it.”
“We’re not going to let you do that,” Rosalinda contended. “Neither of us is a doctor, and I’m sure that Tr—our friend is on their way.”
“It’s okay.” Adalwin slipped a knife out of his pocket, flung it open with a flick of his wrist, and chuckled when they tensed up into defensive positions. “It will all leak from one cut. All I’ll need is a bandage. Surely this Strongbox has a medkit.”
Quino tensed up even more. “I never told you what this was called.”
“What?” Adalwin asked.
“The Strongbox. I literally just named it. I only told two people.”
Adalwin dismissed it as a concern. “Heh. Time, right? I’ve heard of it before.”
“Funny, five minutes ago, you were just guessing that it was a means of escape,” Rosalinda pointed out. “Which is it, you’ve heard of it before, or you were only hoping that it would save you?”
Adalwin dropped the act, and tossed the knife from one hand to the other.
Quino took out his sidearm, and trained it at Adalwin.
“The blade really is for me,” Adalwin insisted. He turned the tip downwards, and sliced his own forearm open. It was small, as he promised, but that wasn’t the point.
It was not worth the risk. Quino would rather die here than put Treasure in danger. This man lied about who he was, and that alone was enough to make Quino wary of him, even though they would never learn the truth. He had to protect his love, whether she would want him to or not. She may never look at him the same again, but she’ll be alive. He would always shield her from danger. He squeezed the trigger, and let the bullet strike right into Adalwin’s lying throat.
Adalwin—or whatever his real name was—reached up and tried to push the blood back into his body as he was choking on it. A lot of it spilled out anyway, and dropped to the floor, as did the blood from the cut on his arm. The lighting in the Strongbox intensified slightly, and the engine revved up. He was right about one thing, his body had some bulk energy in it. And apparently this machine was designed to absorb it no matter where it came from, or where it landed. Adalwin backed himself against the wall, and slouched down towards the floor before he died.
Quino breathed heavily through his nose. “I’m sorry.”
“I can’t blame you,” Rosalinda replied. “I couldn’t have done it myself, but—but, hey.” She turned his chin towards her when he tried to look away in shame. “But I wanted to. Like he said, time has little meaning for our lives anymore. We’ve already met people who knew who we and Treasure were before we showed up. He could have done the same thing, but he played dumb. He was hiding something, and something tells me it wasn’t that he once called his neighbor a dirty word. He was hiding something big. Big and bad.”
Quino nodded, but still wouldn’t look her in the eye. “I’ll bury the body and clean up the mess.”
“You can bury the body,” Rosalinda agreed, “but I’ll clean up. We’re in this together.” She eyed the bulk reserves, which had gone up slightly. “Actually, you go ahead and go out to dig the grave. I have to do something first.”
“Okay.” He didn’t see what she was looking at, or guess what she was thinking. He grabbed a power shovel from the storage locker, grateful that someone thought to pack tools. He probably wouldn’t have thought of it since he had never once set foot on real soil until he met Treasure. He was going to dig a shallow grave to make it easier, but this dirt was soft, and not too difficult to cut through, so he decided that it was better to go the normal depth. The shovel’s motor did a lot of the work. When he was finished, he went back to drag the body down the hill. It was waiting for him outside the Strongbox, propped up against the exterior hull. It was a lot lighter than he expected. There was something unusual about the skin, and as he inspected it, Quino realized that the hole in the neck was bigger than it should have been. “What did you do?”
Rosalinda was still scrubbing the blood from the floor, and she didn’t stop. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“His blood. It’s been drained. It’s all gone.”
Rosalinda stopped scrubbing, but still didn’t look up. “I did what I had to to get us out of here. Treasure is a time traveler. If she were ever coming back, she would have done so already. It doesn’t matter how long she spent out there, she would be here now. I’m sorry, but we both know that.”
He looked up at the bulk reserves, which were now full. “We still don’t know how to navigate this thing.”
She went back to her work. “We’ll figure it out. I don’t care where we go, but we’re not staying here.”
Quino stepped back through the hatch, but stopped for a second. “There are worse worlds than this. If we do manage to leave, I’m sure we’ll become acutely aware of that.” He left again, and carried Adalwin’s body to the grave. He gently placed it down on the bottom, and then climbed back up to fill it up. He scattered the excess around, so no one would suspect that anything was here, and even planted a few grass seeds to cover up the evidence eventually. He didn’t say a few words, and Rosalinda never came down to visit the unmarked grave. Once they were both showered, they quietly went back to the controls to see if they could do something productive with them.
They found Treasure Hawthorne standing at the entrance. “I’m back. Sorry if you were waiting and worried. Thack told me to return eight hours late. She wouldn’t say why.” She smiled as she was taking a trinket out of her pocket, then extended her arms towards Quino. “Here. I made you something.”

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