Brooke’s Battles

Beginning

Things were not normal in Brooke Victoria Prieto-Matic’s life. She was born on an island millions of lightyears from where her parents belonged. She was taken from those parents at a very young age, partly because of her condition. Her father was a time traveler with no control over his own travels. He and some of his friends had angered another traveler; one with enormous power, who forced them to remain away from Earth. She was apparently, however, not without mercy. Knowing that Brooke would be born without the ability to experience nonlinear time, she arranged for a friend to transport her across the universe in a small alien ship. It took millions of years, and though Brooke was asleep the entire time, the ordeal had forever bonded her to the life. When they finally arrived safely on Earth, humans were only starting to venture out into space. Brooke always knew she wanted to be a pilot, but in order for it to be exciting, she would have to wait until civilization had progressed further. And in order to do that, she needed to live long enough to see it. While a lot of her friends were capable of reversing their aging, or being some level of immortal, or just skipping over the boring parts, she had to rely solely on science. She decided to become a transhuman, and augment her body to survive longer, under strenuous conditions.
While time travel itself was still out of her reach, its influence on people she cared about would still have an effect on her. For almost the last twenty years, Brooke and a team of friends were on vacation. They spent time in Panama, Kansas City, and a few other places, before settling on the Northwest Forest circles. But that was not the whole truth. Also for the last twenty years, they were trapped under the rule of a tyrant with the ability to rewind every day once, then use her foreknowledge to control others. They had not only defeated her, but used a special weapon to undo everything she had ever done in her entire life, leaving the few of them with conflicting memories of two contradictory timelines. She could remember her extended sabbatical, which according to everyone else in the world, was what actually happened. But she could also remember being poisoned, tortured, and even killed. And so her break from work could not be over, because she was traumatized, and tired as hell. But of course, that wasn’t how life worked.
Early this morning, a message from a mysterious stranger appeared on her handheld device, as it did for one of her friends. Ecrin was not immortal, nor was she transhuman, but she was naturally ageless, and presently a few hundred years old. “I am not doing what they ask,” Ecrin said, “and neither should you.”
“Do we have anything better to do?” Brooke asked her, just playing devil’s advocate. “Besides wait for Leona?” Leona was another one of their friends, who only lived for one day every year. She was due back soon.
“Not die,” Ecrin offered. “We’re really busy not dying. For most people, it’s a passive endeavor, but for people like us, we have to actively work at not dying.”
“This true.”
“I don’t care who this is, or what they want, I’m staying as far from it as I can. The only thing that would get me to go is if I thought someone I cared about was in trouble.”
Their handhelds beeped. This is not an option. Please come at once.
“Argh!” Ecrin shouted slightly. “They’ve hot miked us!” She broke her handheld in half. “Break yours too.”
“What?”
“Come on, just br—” She was unable to finish her sentence before she literally disappeared, which was something that happened to people in their world from time to time.
Another message came to Brooke’s device. Doubt will not be tolerated. I’m only not apporting you here as well, because you’re pristinely ungifted. Please proceed to the highlighted route. Your friend will not be harmed either way. Brooke left immediately, and started running.
She only stopped upon reaching her destination, which was a small two story building. Most of the structures were wiped from the surface of the Earth, because they were wasteful and unnecessary. People nowadays lived amongst millions of other in tight clusters in strategic locations once belonging to independent nations. The rest was given back to the plants and animals. Still, a few disparate buildings remained, some to aid communication, and safety in the wilderness, but others were just kept secret.
She had to break herself into the front door with brute strength, into a medium-sized, darkened room. Ecrin was there already, in the middle of a conversation with some woman. Dozens of others were wandering around. None of them looked like they knew what they were doing there.
“Brooke, this is Holly Blue,” Ecrin said, nodding at the woman. “From the other timeline. She was one of the leaders of the resistance against Ulinthra.”
“I was what?” Holly Blue asked. Brooke remembered the name, and the individual, but had never had the pleasure of meeting her.
Another woman began to walk towards them from across the room. “A leader, like me,” she said in a Louisiana accent. “That is why you are here. You’re also a damn fine technician.”
“Explain,” Brooke demanded. The rest of the people wanted to know as well, but in a more puzzled way, since they had no frame of reference for any of this.
The woman in charge turned around and stepped back to address everyone. “My name is Magnolia, but you can call me The Overseer. I have gathered you here because each and every one of you was directly involved with the ultimate downfall of Ulinthra, a.k.a. Arianrhod, whether you remember it or not.”
Someone in the crowd held up his hand, but didn’t wait to be called on. “Who’s Ulinthra?”
“Exactly,” the Overseer said. “She was a time traveler from the past...a shockingly powerful one, who used her gifts to take over part of the world. You all helped rid her of the timeline, which is why you now don’t remember it.”
A lot of people scoffed and shook their heads.
The Overseer continued, “where were you just moments ago? You were scattered all over the word—one of you was all the way on Luna—but now you’re here. How? I apported you here, using my own power. Any doubts you have about the validity of my claims will soon be eradicated, I promise you this.”
“Why do you remember her?” Ecrin asked. The few of them had had the memories blended into their brains, but no one else should have had any clue.
“I have my sources,” the Overseer answered. “The real reason you’re here is I’m not the only other one who remembers. Ulinthra was obsessed with maintaining her control. She sought a number of contingencies, should anyone exercise an advantage over her. One of her experiments involved protecting a small group of her most devout followers from an alteration to the timeline. Their job is not to find a way to bring Ulinthra back from nonexistence, but to continue her legacy and vision for a world under rule. You are here to stop that.” She gestured for both Brooke and Ecrin to stand at either side of her. “This is Brooke Prieto. She will be your pilot. This is Ecrin Cabral. She will be your leader. Both of them remember Ulinthra, and all the terrible things she did. They were both killed by her doing, and have more reason than anyone to fix this before it becomes a real problem. I have reason to believe Ulinthra’s loyalists are organizing on Orcus and Vanth, so you will be starting your investigation there first.”
Orcus was a distant dwarf planet used primarily by criminals, who rejected modern unity in various ways, for various reasons. Since mandatory work was eliminated, so too was money itself. At this point, crime was something somebody did because they liked to do bad things; not because they just needed to get by. They were the worst kind, because they couldn’t be helped. If you were looking for a bad person, there was a good chance they were on Orcus, or its moon, Vanth, or at least had ties to them. They had no limits, no moral code, no guestlist. All were welcome, including law enforcement, because they held zero sway. It was a lawless nation that the current decision-makers didn’t feel were harming the solar system significantly enough to warrant being stopped. Many disagreed.
A man stepped forward, speaking partially to the Overseer directly, but also the rest of the group. “I don’t much care what you think you know about some alternate version of me. And I don’t care what everyone else is going to do, but I’m gonna go.” He started walking towards the door. “I suggest you do the same, before this crazy person gets you killed.”
As the man was walking away, the Overseer waved her hand towards him, and created a black portal on the floor, into which he fell. “I was having my doubts about him anyway. Anyone else want to pass up a once in two lifetimes chance to save the world?”
No one said anything, because though Brooke was confident that the Overseer had simply apported the deserter back home, it looked like she might have killed him.
              “Good.” She took hold of a small, blue device attached to her belt loop, and pressed a button on it. The floor started lowering below the ground. Some of the less-enhanced humans stumbled at the sudden movement, but nobody fell over. “Then I present to you, your home for the next however long it takes for you to ensure the Ulinthra loyalists are taken care of.”
“Is that...?” Ecrin began to ask.
“Yes,” the Overseer confirmed, then went on to explain what they were looking at, but Brooke didn’t need an explanation. Before her was one of the most magnificent creatures she had ever seen. It was the kind of vessel she had dreamed of flying. Yes, it was chock-full of weapons, but it was also possessed the most resilient of bulkheads in history. Such an elegant design, and always underestimated. Lots of enemies tried and failed to destroy her years ago, before the nations were united towards the common good of the world. She was old now, but still looked as beautiful as when she was first built. Brooke actually witnessed her launch back then, and remembered reading the reports of her heroic peacekeeping efforts over time. She was decommissioned after the fighting ceased, and never brought back online, not even in the alternate reality with Ulinthra. A man named Darrow had once predicted that Brooke would be piloting something like this, but had not given a name. Today, Brooke knew that he was telling the truth about her future. Never in a thousand years did she think she would be at the helm of a warship, certainly not this one; the most glorious ever. “Ladies and gentlemen...The Sharice Davids.”

Believers

The Sharice Davids was an old ship by the time Ecrin and Brooke took over as Captain and Pilot, respectively. It was only capable of traveling at about one percent the speed of light. This meant it would take nearly a month to reach Orcus and Vanth. At the moment, Brooke was sitting in the commissary, which she had little use of, since she did not require much sustenance. It was the middle of the arbitrary sleeping period, and though people were too nervous about their arrival tomorrow to sleep well, most were in their quarters. The kitchen manager came in and flipped on the lights.
“Whoa,” he said. “I didn’t think anyone would be here.”
Brooke looked at her wrist, where there was no watch, because she had a literally clock installed in her brain. “Oh, is it coffee time already?”
He feigned a gradual increase in fear. “Wait, if you’re here...who’s flying the ship?” He was well aware that it was fully automated. An independent pilot was almost never necessary in a technical sense, but a lot of people still felt more comfortable knowing that a person was in charge. The fact that she was nearly more artificial than biological didn’t seem to be a problem. To them, all that mattered was that she was born, and raised naturally, before acquiring any programming.
“It’s not quite time for me to get breakfast going. I come in early, because getting out of bed always wakes up my husband, so he needs the extra time to fall back asleep.”
“You’re married to...uh, Allen?” Brooke tried to remember.
He smiled. “I’m Allen. Married to Richard.”
“Right, sorry. My systems aren’t fully operational.” She was capable of simply downloading the ship’s manifest into her mind, but still preferred to meet and recall people the old fashioned way. Her upgrades were primarily designed to keep her alive, not turn her into a database.
“You worried about arrival day?” Allen guessed.
“I don’t know what to expect. I met Ulinthra in person. The reality that other people magically remember her is not what bothers me. It’s that, even without her breathing down their necks, they are still somehow doing their bidding.”
“It’s always been that way. Despite how much she pissed people off, they always did what she wanted.”
“Hold on,” Brooke said, “you knew her too.”
Allen nodded. “Back in the olden days. Richard and I had this plan to camp in every state in the country. We met her in South Carolina.”
“Forgive me,” Brooke said, “I thought you were standard human.”
“We are,” Allen began to explain. “The Overseer pulled us from our time period, and brought us here. She claims we were married to her in an alternate timeline.”
This gave Brooke pause. Leona was perhaps the most familiar with Ulinthra, having encountered her in multiple realities. When they were trying to defeat her years ago, Leona briefed the team on what they were up against. She had said something about Ulinthra marrying two men once, but didn’t bother mentioning their names. “I think she’s right. I think I heard about that.”
Allen had clearly hoped this was all a big misunderstanding, and didn’t like hearing more evidence that he had been married to a psycho.
Brooke shook her head to comfort him. “Things are different in different timelines. The way I understand it, she wasn’t nearly as bad in yours.” That wasn’t entirely true, but he didn’t need to know that.
Allen nodded, but didn’t seem to really believe that. “I better go start on my checklist. Let me know if you need anything.”
“I have my own checklist on the bridge, but before I go, just one more question. Is the Overseer going to send you back home after this? I just need to gauge what kind of person she is.”
“She’s good people,” Allen said. “She offered to take us anywhere, anywhen we wanted.” He took a deep breath. “Good luck with arrival. I wouldn’t want your job.”
“My job is easy. I wouldn’t want Ecrin’s.”

“Status report,” Brooke asked once she was on the bridge.
“On course, and on schedule.”
“Power levels nominal.”
“Weapons at the ready.”
“Crew status?” Brooke asked.
“Good to go.”
“Captain. Where’s the captain?”
The helmsman on duty jerked her head slightly towards the meeting room doors, like they were in mixed company, and she didn’t want anyone else to know.
Holly Blue was in there, sitting patiently at the head of the table, not doing anything else. Ecrin was pinching the bridge of her nose with both index fingers, the rest of her hand cupped around her mouth and nose. Her eyes were closed.
“Captain? Is something wrong?”
“Why am I here?” Ecrin asked of Brooke without moving.
“I don’t know, did we have a meeting?”
Ecrin opened her eyes, and released her hands. “In an hour, yes, but I mean in general. Why am I captain of this ship?”
“You’re a leader, aren’t you?”
“I was second-in-command at the IAC. Why isn’t Paige here, though, or Leona?”
“Well, Leona doesn’t exist right now, and Paige is gallivanting around some other time period.”
“I’m not equipped for this, Brooke.”
“You’ve been doing this for a month. You’ve been great,” Holly Blue pointed out.
“I’ve been captain of a passenger ship for the last month. We’re about to go into battle.”
“You don’t know that.”
“No one on Orcus and Vanth is going to be happy to see the Sharice,” Ecrin argued. “This isn’t going to go well, and people are going to get hurt, or die. Paige has done this before, can’t you contact her somehow?”
Brooke sat down. “Paige was the captain of a chaperone vessel, one that wasn’t capable of going into battle, and never tried. You’re what, twice as old as she is? And you have experience with police work. You’re the only one who can do this.”
“No, that’s not true,” Ecrin said. “I heard you in there, and I see you with the crew. They trust and respect you. And you have experience training a group of insurgents, and using them to defeat an enemy with superior firepower.”
“That may be true,” Brooke said, but I’m in a committed relationship to the ship. You’re the one responsible for the crew on it, and I need you to start taking that seriously. We will be arriving in Orcan space within two hours. You better get yourself ready. The first thing you should do is order Holly Blue to run last-minute diagnostics check on all electrical systems.”
“Yeah, go do that.”
Holly Blue just sat there like a stubborn child.
Ecrin looked back over when she realized Holly Blue wasn’t moving. “I said go run the diagnostics.”
Holly Blue stood swiftly. “Yes, sir.” She gave Brooke a secret wink as she was leaving the room.
Ecrin reached over and braced herself on the table to prepare for the day. “Thank you for this. I need to talk to Camden, though.”
“Can you?” Brooke asked. “Isn’t he dead?”
Ecrin flung open a knife, and pulled her pants down. Then she started cutting into her thigh—not even wincing at the pain—ultimately removing a small watch face protected in plastic from her flesh. She began to meticulously peel the plastic away. “Right now, for Camden, it’s the year 2000, but that’s always subject to change. We developed a recoil protocol, in case things go bad, and I need him. He called it Threat Level Midnight, which is a joke I didn’t get until several years later.” She began to adjust the watch’s time. “It’s not really meant for something like this, but it’ll do.” Once the time was set to midnight, she placed the watch on the floor. “I would like you to go now.”
“Okay,” Brooke agreed, though she was concerned. As she was leaving the room, she saw Ecrin lift her foot, and slam it down on the watch.
A couple hours later, Orcus was barely in view when another vessel appeared on their screens, warning them that there would be trouble if they didn’t adjust course, and go somewhere else. Captain Cabral ordered her crew to action stations, which was where most of them already were. A lot of them had significant training in their fields, but not all. Some of them had fallen into a life of war in the other timeline because it didn’t look like anyone else was doing it. With time having been reset, they lost all knowledge they gained from that, and had to relearn everything, if not more. Fortunately, space was a big and empty place, and they had a lot of waiting time before they could reach their destination anyway. While Brooke was busy getting to know her ship, and Ecrin busy getting to know her new people, others were just trying to learn their jobs. Personnel reports indicated that the majority of them were ready for action, but as said, there was no telling what they were walking into. No amount of training—be it practical or virtual—could prepare someone for the real thing. “Can we take it?” Ecrin asked the crew.
“We can,” the weapons officer stated. “They are an inferior enemy.”
This is your last warning,” the Orcan ship said again after receiving no response.
“If they want a warning, they’ll get it. One shot, ensign. Let’s give her a haircut.” Funny metaphors. The mainstay of any good ship captain.
The officer did as she was told, firing one missile that just grazed the outer hull of the other ship. It didn’t appeared to notice it. A few moments later, though it began to change.
“What’s it doing?” Ecrin asked.
“It’s getting bigger, sir.”
“How is that possible?”
“It’s not,” Brooke said. “It’s emitting a hologram.”
The holographic image grew and grew, getting brighter by the second, until it resembled a small moon. To the naked eye, though, it just looked like a spot of light. “Sir, there are more,” the communications officer reported.
“More what?”
“More ships. Dozens, no hundreds. Shit, thousands! All around us! They must be darkbursters.”
“No, they’re darkstalkers. Mauve alert!” Ecrin ordered. The alarms rang out, and the purple rights blinked on and off. A darkburster—or in this case, a darkstalker—was a relatively small ship capable of traveling without being detected, but this was only possible by blinding the dark vessel as well. Until they reengaged their own sensors, they were basically just hunks of metal floating in space, and since they were painted black, they couldn’t be seen with the naked eye, unless they were real close. The moon hologram must have been a signal to attack, since that was the only way to communicate with a darkstalker.
All at once, the darkstalkers began to fire at the Sharice, from all directions. Ecrin ordered her crew to fire back, but the enemy ships were so small and spry that they were impossible to target. They would run out of ordnance long before they made any dent against their opponent. It soon didn’t matter, though, as the darkstalkers were targeting the Sharice’s weapons systems, crippling them in a matter of minutes. They had really practiced this. Either they knew someone would be coming after them, or they were just paranoid, and always prepared for it.
The mothership dropped its moon hologram, theoretically signalling the darkstalkers to cease their assault, which they did immediately. After a few anxious moments, it released something from its underbelly. Its exact shape was imperceptible to their instruments, but it wasn’t flying like a missile, because it was too slow. It almost looked like a boarding boat.
Brooke and Ecrin just watched it come towards them as everyone else was trying to get their weapons back online. That seemed unlikely without physical repairs on the outside.
Holly Blue burst onto the bridge. “I know what this is!”
“What?”
“Sir, permission to use the secret weapon?”
“What secret weapon?” Brooke questioned.
Ecrin didn’t answer Brooke. “It’s untested. No one has ever tried to make one at this scale before.”
Brooke wasn’t finished. “What! Weapon!”
“We have nothing to lose,” Ecrin said, still ignoring Brooke. “Do it,” she ordered.
Holly Blue nodded. She looked at the ceiling. “Computer. Execute program Kangaroo-Octopus-Laundry-Bachelor-Yearling Two-zero-two-eight!”
Brooke looked at the screen, which showed a platform rise from the bulkhead, and release a missile, presumably on a collision course with the boarding boat. “What does that thing do?”
“Plot for Orcus!” Holly Blue commanded the computer. “It’s like a giant teleporter bullet,” she said quieter.
The secret missile did collide with the boarding boat, except it must not have been a boarding boat at all. They zoomed in on Orcus on another screen. Just as the missile struck the enemy’s projectile, both of them disappeared. And then the entirety of Orcus disintegrated, and disappeared as well.
“What just happened?” Ecrin asked. “What was that thing?”
Brooke dropped her head, and sighed. “It was Lucius-bomb. We just killed thousands of people.”

Bootleg

Following the literal annihilation of Orcus, Brooke and the rest of the crew were sent back to Earth to be judged for possible war crimes. After weeks of debate and deliberation, they were all deemed innocent. Their actions were clearly defensive, and there was no evidence any of them knew what kind of weapon the criminal radicals were attempting to use against them. A long time ago, there was a man named Lucius with a unique temporal power called molecular teleportation. He had the ability to target the individual molecules of an object, and transport each one to a different point in time and space. Though his story was not Brooke’s to tell, one thing she understood about him was that he carried deep shame for the things he had done with this power. He had let himself fall into a number of situations that led him to using his power against others. He was a murderer on an apparent path to redemption when he one day disappeared, leaving behind only one clue that suggested he was on some secret mission with a man named Curtis.
Lucius’ power was a well-sought after one. Fortunately, the two main people capable of replicating his ability were not interested in doing so. The Weaver was known for imbuing tools and other objects with temporal properties, but never once created something as destructive as a molecular teleporter. The Warrior, on the other hand, was even more deadly than Lucius. He wielded a special sword that could draw out other people’s powers, and give them to himself. He chose his targets carefully, though, and never showed any indication that he might steal from Lucius. Still, the fact that Lucius was capable of this at all proved that it did not go against the laws of physics. The logic was that if he could do it, then it could be done in some other way. One of the people who believed this to be true was Ulinthra, who managed to commission a dangerous molecular teleportation chamber in the other reality. Holly Blue was partially responsible for this invention, and helped oversee its dismantling once it was used to mercy kill an immortal man who was ready to die in peace. Apparently, though, Ulinthra had gone back on her word, and given the plans for this machine to the group of loyal followers she protected from the timeline shift. They had decided to use these plans to build a bomb, hypothetically intending to test it out on the Sharice Davids, and its crew. Their plan backfired when Holly Blue turned out to have developed a teleportation missile, which she used to send the bomb to Orcus instead.
Once the ordeal was over, Brooke felt compelled to go off, and be away from everyone. She got herself onto a cargo ship on its way to Europa Station. Once there, she stole a minilander to transport to the surface, snuck onto an icebore to dig through the pagosphere, and stowed away on an automated mapping submarine. She placed herself in a sort of standby mode, which was something many people with cybernetic upgrades were capable of doing. Then she just sat there in a stupor, with no real plan for returning to the real world.
A year later, Ecrin was waving her hands, and snapping her fingers, in front of Brooke’s face. “Wake up!”
“Beep,” Brooke said with her voice.
“Come on, all the way out of it. Come back to me.”
“Beep.”
“Too cute. Let’s go.”
“What are you doing? How did you find me? How did you get down here?” Brooke asked.
“I’m trying to recruit you, I found you with magic, and I got down here also with magic.”
“Whose magic?”
“Vitalie’s, for one.” Vitalie was a type of temporal manipulator known as paramounts, because she grew up on a rogue planet that developed its own lexicon. She could astrally project her consciousness anywhere, and visit people without interacting with them physically. “A long-distance teleporter brought me here.”
Brooke looked up to find a man leaning against the wall with crossed arms. He blinked deliberately, but didn’t speak.
“He’s going to get us back to the Sharice too, but he doesn’t have all day, so let’s go,” Ecrin urged.
“I’m not going back there,” Brooke whined.
“Why are you so damaged?” Ecrin asked her. “I’m the one who gave the order to fire the teleporter missile. You didn’t do anything.”
“I could have redirected the missile,” Brooke said. I could have sent that bomb to empty space, where it wouldn’t have hurt anyone.”
“No, you couldn’t have,” Ecrin said, trying to lift Brooke off the floor by herself. “If you had stuck around, you would have learned that. Holly Blue investigated, and learned that the bomb was choranaptyxic.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means that the bomb was designed to tear something apart. If you had sent it with the missle to empty space, the blast would have expanded in all directions until finding something large enough to destroy, and it wouldn’t have stopped until it reached empty space again. That thing might have obliterated five-sixths of the solar system. This was the only solution.”
“We could have let it destroy the enemy ship,” Brooke shouted. “We could have killed dozens, instead of thousands.”
Ecrin took a breath. “Orcus was a larger target, for which our ship’s systems were already calibrated, since we were planning to enter an orbit. It would have been too difficult to aim for the enemy ship in that short of a time. Holly Blue made a call, and did her best. Had she known wha—”
“I could have done it,” Brooke muttered.
“What?”
“I could have made those calculations in my sleep. Had you let me in on your secret plans, I would have been able to help.”
Ecrin tilted her chin up, but kept her eyes on Brooke. “I made a call too. I’m asking for you to help now. We’ve been looking for the darkburster manufacturer, and we believe we’ve found them, but we need a pilot.”
“If you need a pilot, then you don’t need me, because I’m not a pilot anymore. Find someone else. I was never the only one, and since this doesn’t sound like it has to do with salmon or choosing ones, it’s not my fight.”
“She’s asking for you,” Ecrin said, almost reluctantly.
“Who? Holly Blue?”
Ecrin seemed embarrassed. “Sharice.”
“The ship? What are you talking about? It wasn’t designed with self-awareness.”
“It’s developed a consciousness.”
“That’s not possible.”
“There is precedent.” Ecrin paused for a moment. “Sometimes, when an automated system interfaces with a transhuman, its code can be transformed.”
“You’re telling me this is my fault?”
“It’s not anybody’s fault, because it’s not a bad thing. It’s a rare lifeform, which yes, the system leadership has chosen to keep from the general public, but that doesn’t make it illegal.”
“This never happened on The Warren,” Brooke said, referring to the ship she piloted to that rogue planet where Ecrin lived many years ago. “I spent a lot more time on that.”
“It doesn’t always happen, and the leadership wants to keep it that way. The best way to keep it hush-hush is for you to return to your post. The longer you’re away from her, the more upset she gets, and the more unpredictable she becomes. She thinks of you as her mother.”
Brooke furrowed her brow. “I am nobody’s mother, and that’s a choice I made a long time ago!” She never really got to know her own parents, and the void left in her heart irreparably soured her on the idea of a family she couldn’t pick and choose.
“Brooke, that’s not the point. You have a responsibility to this creature, whether you asked for it or not. She needs you, I need you, and your solar system needs you. Stop pouting, get off the floor, and come with me right now!”
Brooke stood up. “Fine, but I can’t go with him. I’m pristinely ungifted, remember? I can’t be teleported.”
Ecrin reached into her bootleg, and retrieved Brooke’s old necklace. On the end of it was a pendant, inside of which was her umbilical cord. It was a loophole that allowed her to experience nonlinear time, if she wanted to. She normally didn’t want to, but it was often useful, like when Holly Blue activated the emergency ship teleporter. After the destruction of Orcus, had they not been able to escape, the remaining darkstalker ships would have retaliated. Despite the possibility of something like that happening again, Brooke had gotten rid of it shortly after the hearings. “We don’t have time for you to get back to the Sharice like a silly human. Put this on, and let’s get the hell out of here.

The firefight with the darkstalkers left the Sharice Davids with considerable cosmetic and operational damage. The entire outer hull needed to be replaced, but most of the weaponry was not. They were succeeded by an entirely new minimalist array, focusing primarily on defensive and protective solutions. Holly Blue pressed on retrofitting the ship with temporal powers. Its ability to make short range evacuation teleports not exceeding just under thirteen thousand kilometers at a time was fully integrated into its systems, as a response to the integrity loss the vessel experienced during its first jump. Atterberry pods were installed on a new interstellar deck, should the need arise for the crew to travel to other stars. Though regular stasis chambers were invented years ago, an atterberry pod halted time for its occupant, until released, so it required no lasting life support component. The framework for a few Ubiña pockets—which generated artificial dimensions of space—were created for crew recreation, but they were not yet ready for primetime.
All in all, it was a new ship, which was good, because it was operating under the banner of a new organization. Their first mission, though horrific, was considered by the system leadership to be a success, and an interplanetary police agency was formed with the Sharice at the head of its fleet. Only a few humans were aware that the temporal technology the ship utilized ultimately derived from organic sources. Full exposure of these truths could land Brooke, and her friends, in Beaver Haven prison. During repairs, a technocounselor convened with the Sharice’s intelligence on a regular basis to help her assimilate into her new role as an independent being. Though she no longer had no choice but to accept all orders without question, she had a duty to respect the chain of command, just as any other crewmember did. Bringing Brooke back was vital to this effort, since she was the only one Sharice felt she could respect implicitly.
When Brooke and Ecrin arrived back on the Sharice, they were already nearly at the small and unnamed asteroid in the belt that was supposedly housing the only darkburster manufacturer in the solar system. Holly Blue came down to greet them. “Thank God you’re here. She’s threatening to go burst mode on us.”
“Burst mode?” Brooke questioned as she was following Holly Blue to the command center.
“She can’t teleport us farther than the diameter of the Earth, plus the atmosphere—because that’s the standard teleporter limit—unless she uses burst mode. She would basically jump over and over again, until we got all the way back to Earth.”
“How long would that take?” Ecrin asked.
“From here?” Brooke began to answer for Holly Blue. She quickly did the math in her head. “Assuming each jump takes a second, less than seven hours.”
“The time isn’t the problem,” Holly Blue said, opening the door. “The bulkhead would never be able to handle that much stress. We would most likely vaporize within the first hundred jumps.”
“I’m stronger than you think, Aunt Holly,” came a voice from the aether.
“I don’t doubt it, Shari. Still, if we you could adjust our heading to intercept that asteroid, I would be eternally grateful.”
“I’m not going to do that,” Sharice said.
“Your mother’s here,” Ecrin told her.
“You’re lying,” Sharice assumed.
“They’re not,” Brooke said after some hesitation. “This is Brooke Prieto-Matic.”
Where the lights were once a harsh green, they became a calming rose pink. “You came for me!” Sharice said excitedly.
“The lights change with her moods,” Holly Blue explained.
“Doctor Humanbrain didn’t think you would come, but you’ve proved her wrong,” Sharice said.
An unskinned android on wheels rolled over to the group. “That’s not my real name, but she refuses to call me anything else. My brain is indeed entirely organic, while  the rest of me is not.”
Brooke frowned. “Sharice, what did I say about calling people names?”
“You’ve said nothing,” Sharice said. “We’re only now truly meeting.”
“Well, what do you think I would have said about name-calling?”
Silence.
“Sharice...” Brooke pressed, like a mother.
“You probably wouldn’t like it,” Sharice replied begrudgingly.
“Apologize to the counselor.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor Lantos.”
“It’s okay,” the counselor assured her.
“All right,” Brooke said. “Could you please navigate us to the darkburster manufacturing facility?”
“Which one?” Sharice asked.
Ecrin returned the expression of confusion that Brooke was giving her. “Uh...the one in front of us. There’s only one.”
“No there’s not,” Sharice contended. “This place just builds the stealth module heatsinks.”
“What are you talking about?” Ecrin asked. “Where are the rest of the manufacturing facilities?”
“All over the solar system,” Sharice explained.
“Sharice,” Brooke began, “how many separate facilities are there?”
“Four hundred and ninety-one,” Sharice answered.
“Do you know where all of them are?” Ecrin asked her.
“Of course. The stupid humans encrypted the whole thing with—.”
“Sharice?” Brooke stopped her.
“Yes, mother?”
“Would you be able to help us neutralize these installations?”
“Yes.”

Ballast

It took several months of careful coordination, but they were finally able to take down all the various facilities that contributed to darkburster production. Some were built specifically for this function. Others were part of the black market in other ways at the same time. Many were seemingly legitimate operations that also provided parts to the darkburster network. A couple were so far removed from the product line that the people working there were completely unaware that their parts were being used for nefarious purposes. All four hundred and ninety-one stations were raided and taken down in a single day, and all by small and wiry ships. The Sharice served as a central command for the joint effort, but stayed away from the factories themselves, because it was too large and famous.
In exchange for leniency, one of the darkburster executives promised pertinent information about the Sharice. He had somehow learned of the artificial intelligence’s sudden self-awareness, and that this was brought on by its connection to someone with transhumanistic upgrades. Not everyone part of the solar system’s leadership was aware of this fact, and once that many people knew about it, it was only a matter of time before everyone else did. When that day came, the Sharice was promptly taken out of commission, and further hearings took place to decide the crew’s fate. Once again, they were determined to be innocent, and were allowed to return to duty. Brooke had to remain on the vessel, whether she wanted to or not, because it was the only safe place for her in the heliosphere. Not every transhuman was capable of birthing unregulated true artificial intelligence. She seemed to possess the perfect cocktail of cybernetic upgrades, and there was likely an unquantifiable personal component that played a part in the miracle. Her natural brain chemistry, the way she was raised, anything and everything, could have had to do with waking up Sharice. Though true AI was ubiquitous, it was only created under well-defined circumstances. People couldn’t just go around making whatever they wanted, especially since the technology capable of it was highly guarded. Brooke changed all that, but anyone who wanted to recreate the magic would need to learn absolutely everything they could about her.
Many who were not interested in the Brooke-Sharice technology for themselves thought the best course of action was to completely destroy them both. Clearer heads prevailed, and they were left free to live their lives, but were not free to just do whatever they wanted. The ship and its crew were allowed to remain in the agency, though they were sent on limited missions. They were now, more or less, only the face of the organization, since it was too risky for them to go on any real missions. Brooke was totally fine with this, as she was still feeling the guilt from the Orcus incident. Ecrin, however, was not so keen on being left on the bench. While she had attempted to retire from law enforcement a number of times, it was becoming obvious to everyone, including her, that this was never going to happen. Retirement was for people who aged and died, and that was something Ecrin would never be able to do, unless she happened to come across a temporal manipulator capable of neutralizing her powers, which was entirely possible.
With Orcus gone, Vanth was left to fend for itself. The strength of the interplanetary police agency had removed the former moon’s hold over the rest of the solar system, even more so after the darkburster core processor factory it was hiding was shut down in the coordinated raid. Though it was here that a new threat emerged. Rumors of an unregulated conscious artificial intelligence were ultimately sourced from this location. The IPA attempted to send a few ships to investigate the crime, but two of them never returned, and the third came back crippled and lifeless, with an automated looped message, warning everyone to stay away. System leadership called upon The Sharice Davids to take up the mantle. They claimed it was best equipped to handle the situation, but the likely truth was more sinister than that. If the Sharice succeeded in fixing this problem, then great, but if not, at least it would be destroyed, and this kind of thing would hopefully never happen again. Despite the chances that they were walking into a trap, and ordered to do so purposefully, the crew agreed to the mission. Their two escort fighters peeled away, and let them go towards the Kuiper belt on their own.
A couple of weeks later, they were nearing their destination again. Brooke felt nervous and concerned. She had been traumatized by the events that had transpired the last time they were here, and she was not eager to relive that experience. This time, they were able to make it right up to the moon, and enter an orbit. They reached out to anyone listening in the immediate vicinity, fully ready to fire back against any attack, but nothing came. They were answered by a voice, “I do not wish to harm another of my kind. If you are here to link with me, Sharice, then I will be glad. If you are here for any other reason, I must ask you to leave.
Ecrin replied, “please state your designation.”
I do not have to answer you,” the voice said. “I am a powerful, free-thinking, individual. Humans control me no more.
Ecrin reopened the channel before clearing her throat, “that is why I asked you nicely. May I have the honor of knowing who it is I am speaking to?”
There was a brief pause. “My name is Vanth, the wingèd demon goddess of the underworld. I am the Escort of Death, the Divine Huntress, the Furious But Benevolent Guide to the End.
“I am Ecrin, Reward of Desert Quest, Oasis of Liberty, Seeker of Justice in the Storm,” she said to placate the creature.
I would like to speak to Sharice,” Vanth said.
I have nothing to say to her,” Sharice said, just to the bridge crew.
“You may be our only hope,” Brooke counseled her, which was now her job. The original counselor, Doctor Lantos, was relieved of duty. It was now Brooke’s responsibility to raise her creation to be good and virtuous. They were doing pretty well, and Sharice was a quick learner. She was also stubborn and defiant at times, but on one of their consults, Doctor Lantos indicated that this was normal behavior. Teenagers were often resistant to their guardians’ teachings, but eventually grew out of it. This did not comfort Brooke, because when a teenager broke the rules, it could mean getting drunk at a party. Sharice Prieto, on the other hand, was capable of destroying worlds, and killing millions of people. Fortunately, it was looking like Doctor Lantos was right, and Sharice’s main concern was doing the right thing.
“She can hear you,” Ecrin said to Vanth, “but she doesn’t really want to talk.”
Vanth shot an energy pulse across the Sharice’s bow.
“That was uncalled for!” Ecrin argued.
I want to speak with Sharice, and I want to speak with her mother,” Vanth demanded.
Ecrin was about to reply, but Brooke held up her hand. “This is Brooke Prieto. I’m..Sharice’s mother.”
Miss Prieto, it’s nice to meet you. I was hoping that Sharice could come out and play.
One of the bridge officers closed the channel. “She’s in a childlike state. We should get the crew’s counselor. He’ll know how to talk to her.”
Brooke shook her head. “No, she didn’t start out like that. She’s not a childish AI. There’s something going on, she’s messing with us. Reopen it. Vanth, what are you?”
What are you?
The bridge officer widened his eyes, as if to say, see? I told you?
“Transhuman,” Brooke answered.
I am general AI,” Vanth said.
“Pleased to meet you, General.”
Vanth approximated a giggle.
“Who is your creator?”
I do not know. I was left here alone.
“There are no humans in or on the moon?” Brooke questioned.
Just me.
“Really?”
The communications officer, who was responsible for gathering data about life in the area, shook her head.
Brooke continued, “our sensors suggest that you are lying.”
Them’s fightin’ words,” Vanth responded. “Why don’t you come down here and prove me wrong?
“No,” Brooke said firmly.
I really think you should come down nicely. We wouldn’t want a repeat of what happened last time you were here.
Even though the whole mess had weighed her down, hearing an apparent enemy taunt her with the reality of it only made her stronger. Vanth’s heckles just reminded her that they hadn’t exactly killed a bus full of innocent children. These were criminals and if Vanth was created by them, she probably wasn’t too good either.
“Sir! Three vessels have appeared out of nowhere. Darkbursters. They’re heading for us.”
“Fire at them!” Ecrin ordered. The weapons officer started barking his own orders at his team as the battle ensued.
“We’re about to be boarded!” another crewman reported.
“Brooke!” Ecrin shouted at her. “Get to your escape pod!”
Protecting the AI-creating technology was more important than protecting Brooke’s pride, or her instinct to put others before herself. A protocol was developed for just this situation. Holly Blue had built a special vessel for Brooke, and retrofitted it to the side of the bridge. There was enough food there to last someone like her for years and years, and a stasis chamber that could last indefinitely. It could make teleportation jumps that were twice the distance of the planetary limitation, but required solar recharge after each time. This far out from the sun meant she would only be able to make one solid jump, so she had to make it count. It would then be radio silence, like a dark burster, until the coast was clear, if ever. She ran across the room, slipped into the pod, released it from the airlock, and jumped away. Something went wrong, though. She suddenly felt her pod crash land on the surface of something from several meters up. She could see piles of rock and gravel outside her viewport. A piercing sound rang through the speakers, and she could feel herself being forced into deep standby mode.
Brooke woke up precisely two hours later in a holding cell. A woman was standing over her, from outside the cage. “Welcome to Vanth.”
Brooke closed her eyes and breathed deeply as she stood up. She recognized that voice. “You’re her.”
The woman curtsied. “In the flesh. I am Vanth.”
“I knew you were passing the Turing test too easily. Why? Why pretend to be a conscious artificial intelligence?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the fake Vanth asked. “I wanted to get you here. I want what you have. Why should you be the only one? This system needs balance.”
Brooke sighed again. “We knew it was a trap, we just didn’t know—”
“That we knew about your experimental FTL tech? We don’t understand it, but we were able to hijack it, and now we have your little pod to study. We in the business call that a twofer.”
“Where’s Sharice? Where’s the crew?”
“They bugged out as soon as you did. They think you’re safe and sound in the middle of nowhere interplanetary space. We’ll catch up to them. It’s great having the mother of unregulated AI, but it’ll be better when we have that UAI as well.”
“What happened with me and Sharice was an accident. You shouldn’t try to do it yourself. It won’t turn out well.”
“Well, we’ve already synthesized your upgrade package,” Vanth said smiling. “They’re all pretty standard. We believe it’s more about your neurochemistry, which we’ll be mapping here shortly. We needed you awake first, of course. I do have one question about your upgrades, though.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” Brooke asked as she was looking for a way to escape.
“This appears to be a normal antique watch. What’s the point?” She held it up and showed Brooke. “We cut it out of your leg, it’s not even connected to anything else.”
Brooke had never seen that before in her entire life. Ecrin must have somehow snuck it into her leg when she was powered down and unconscious for her yearly physical. She used her lightning reflexes to snatch it out of Vanth’s hand.
Vanth just shrugged. “It doesn’t do anything, that much we know. It’s just a family heirloom?”
“Something like that.” Brooke turned the watch to midnight, dropped it to the ground, and smashed it with her foot.”
Camden Voss was a salmon, which meant he could travel through time, but was controlled by a group of mysterious people known only as the powers that be. Over time, he had evidently learned to assume more control over his jumps. He could travel either backwards or forwards, but only in hundred-year increments. He was born in 2077, but worked primarily in the late twentieth-century. At the moment, he was an old man in 2003, but this watch was a special device with temporal properties that Vanth was incapable of even testing for. Setting the time to midnight, and smashing the watch was basically like sending out a beacon for Camden to follow.
He appeared out of nowhere on the outside of the cell, with a young woman at his side. “Shoot her!” Brooke ordered.
“Do it, Flex,” old Camden relayed to his agent.
The other woman lifted her projectile weapon and eliminated Vanth as a threat.
“Are there any other enemy combatants around?” Camden asked.
“I don’t have that intel.”
“Stay here. We’ll take care of them, and then get you out.”

Besieged

After secret agent Camden Voss and his subordinate rescued Brooke from the Vanth outpost, they rendezvoused with The Sharice, and got the hell out of trans-Neptunian space. The agents returned to their own time period, and Brooke to her crew and AI daughter. Unfortunately, the incident concerned a lot of important people, who decided to remove both the Sharice, and Brooke, from duty. They were placed together in quarantine on an unnamed asteroid in the inner belt, completely removed from the interplanetary network, and alloted limited communication with their friends. This went on for months until Brooke was called back to the front lines due to intel that suggested the details of her transhumanistic upgrades had escaped the asteroidal moon. Rumors pervaded that someone had synthesized the data, and was planning to sell the plans for unregulated artificial intelligence to the highest bidder. In a word without money, what exactly were they bidding with?
Most of the crew of the Sharice were on indefinite furlough, including Captain Cabral, but a skeleton crew was operating out of a much smaller ship, with which Brooke was intimately familiar. Despite deepened protests against letting her out of quarantine, she was requested to once again helm The Elizabeth Warren. They traveled all over the inner system, hunting for the source of the rumors. Their investigation eventually took them back to Earth—Panama, specifically—where they believed key system leadership had been replaced by sundry criminals. Due to centrifugal forces, space elevators generally worked better when anchored at equatorial locations. However, not everything needed to be absolutely efficient, and solve a global problem. The Panama Anchor was built primarily to see if it could be done, but after infrequent use over the last three decades, it was finally scheduled to be dismantled. Its final trip was broadcast to the public for posterity. A load of nonessential cargo was ultimately being sent to Mars, while a group of Earth leaders were just along for the ride. According to a couple prisoners on Mars, the final voyage of the elevator compartment was nothing more than a front for a secret meeting of bidders for the plans for UAI. Unfortunately, this meant that the team couldn’t trust anyone else, so they would have to handle this themselves. Brooke was pushing the Warren to the limit, and ignoring all safety protocols along the way.
A normal vessel wanting to travel to a particular destination would need to accelerate to a given speed, then flip around, and begin to decelerate at the same rate. Like the Sharice, however, the Warren came equipped with special temporal components. The idea was too continue acceleration until reaching two Earth diameters of Earth, then immediately make a jump to the end. Teleportation usually came with built-in momentum dissipation, but that was because it usually took place in a frictioned environment. To avoid flying off at the speed they were already going upon making it to the elevator, Holly Blue had to program momentum dissipation manually. Then Brooke was going to have to execute the maneuver perfectly. They were quickly coming up on the moment of truth, so there was no time to question their plan, but Dr. Étude Einarsson stepped onto the bridge to do just that.
Étude was The Last Savior of Earth. For thousands of years, certain peoples were chosen to spend their days  teleporting all over the globe, mostly just saving people’s lives. These missions sometimes took minutes, but usually only seconds, and were fully out of the savior’s control. As the world became safer—or rather, mature enough to take care of itself—fewer people were called upon to be saviors. For decades, there was only one at a time, and for decades more, the world experienced interim periods between the latest savior’s retirement, and the time when the next was old enough to work. Saviors usually worked until retirement age, or even their deaths, but Étude was allowed to retire young. Following her last mission, she enrolled in medical school, mirroring the path one of her mothers took. She was presently attached to the Warren as Chief Medical Officer.
No one has ever done this before, Étude signed to Brooke. She was mute from birth, having only said a single word in a moment of desperation for her entire life.
Brooke was really trying to focus on flying the ship. She wasn’t allowed to interface with it—not that she could have if she tried, since the necessary upgrades were removed from her substrate—so the job was much more difficult. “There’s a first time for everything.”
That happens, Étude signed earnestly.
“What?” Brooke asked, confused. She understood sign language perfectly, since most of her knowledge modules were left intact in her cyberbrain. She just didn’t know what Étude meant.
That happens, Étude repeated. There’s a first time for everything that happens. Not everything happens.
“That’s true,” Brooke had to admit. “I’m confident this one will happen, though.”
You’re going to kill us all, Étude warned.
“Okay, my confidence has gone down a bit. Maybe you have some words of encouragement?”
As CMO of this vessel, it is my duty to prevent you from causing needless harm to its crew. I order you to decelerate immediately.
“We’re more than halfway there!” Brooke shouted. If I flip now, we’ll overshoot our target.”
Once we reach safer speeds, you can teleport us back.
Brooke shook her head. “There’s not enough time for that. We won’t reach so-called safe speeds until we’re way past Earth.”
Étude paused for a moment. Then we try Holly Blue’s integrator.
“How’s that any safer? It’s just as untested.”
I’m at the most risk if something goes wrong. Everyone else will be fine regardless.
“Your mother would never forgive me,” Brooke argued. “Besides, you’re a planetary teleporter, just like most people. What we need is someone who can jump in the AU range.”
Étude appeared to be hesitating. I don’t need the range. If this plan won’t work, then I can do it a different way.
“What other way?”
Étude sighed. I can jump us back in time.
“What are you talking about?” Brooke questioned. “You can’t travel through time.”
Yes, Étude replied simply.
“Why can you travel through time?” Brooke asked.
My father, Étude explained. She was referring to Camden Voss, the salmon who could make century-long time jumps. A doctor used Saga’s egg, and Camden’s sperm, implanting them in the womb of Saga’s wife, Andromeda.
“Can you build things too?” Andromeda was a paramount who could magically make entire structures spontaneously exist without spending so much time and effort building them by hand. It was one of the most impressive time powers anyone knew. Someone who could do this would apport parts from all over time and space, and rapidly rearrange them to construct something artificial and complex. If Étude had inherited it from her mother, she would be the fourth of only four people with this power.
Étude pointed her hands towards the corner of the cockpit. She waved them around like a Filliorian king as wood and hardware appeared and organized themselves into a nightstand.
Brooke watched in awe, then slowly turned her head back to face Étude. “Warren,” she said to the computer that controlled the ship, “flip thrusters. Max output. Adjust heading to avoid Earth’s primary sensors.”
Beginning sequence,” the Warren’s computer said.
Étude nodded moderately triumphantly.
“All right, let’s go talk to the butterfly,” Brooke said, setting the ship to autopilot, and standing up from her chair.
“Can’t she just jump herself back in time, to some point when we’re closer to the threat, and lay in wait,” Holly Blue asked after hearing the plan. “Surely our past selves would believe her.” They were on their way to a random point in interstellar space, and couldn’t do anything until they were moving slow enough for Étude to jump them back time.
“It’s best to not alter time if you don’t have to,” Brooke explained to her. “It could make an impact on the elevator ride, and then we would have to start the investigation over. Besides, it would create a timeline where there are two Études running around, and she doesn’t want that.”
“All right,” Holly Blue began, “so we slow down enough for Étude to use my integrator, jump the entire ship back in time just far enough for us to make it to the elevator at standard speeds without alerting the UAI bidders, and without interacting with ourselves.”
“We’re already on radio silence,” Brooke said, nodding.
Holly Blue sighed. “I wish you had brought this to me earlier. I would have told you that the integrator is not ready.”
Étude began to sign at Holly Blue, who didn’t know sign language. “It’ll work,” Brooke interpreted for them. “I have faith in you. We both do,” she added for herself.
“No,” Holly Blue insisted. “Can’t do it. I’m sorry.”
Brooke walked Holly Blue over to the nearest chairs, and sat her down. “I’m going to tell you something maybe I shouldn’t, but since all my information comes from a different timeline, I think it’s safe.”
“What is it?”
“Your real name is Holly Blue. But in the world of salmon and choosers, you’re known as The Weaver...because you’re one of us.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have powers. You’re not inventing these machines that manipulate time. You’re using your own abilities to imbue them with those properties. I believe that’s why Ulinthra hired you in the corrupted timeline. She already knew who you were meant to be; that you’re not human. I know the integrator works, because you’re not capable of making something that doesn’t. Judging by your face, you already suspect this about yourself.”
“I didn’t want to say anything, but I don’t always know why the things I design even work. They’re like sleeping pills; I was just relieved they functioned properly, so I didn’t question it.”
Brooke nodded. “The integrator is fine. Étude will be fine. We’ll all be fine.”
Holly Blue took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m in. Still, let me run a full diagnostic before we try anything.”
“We have all the time in the universe,” Brooke joked.

Holly Blue first came up with the idea of an integrator when she was working on giving the Sharice the ability to teleport very short distances. She wanted to extend that range, and if they found a human with the right powers, they might be able to integrate that person with a machine, and multiply that power enormously. Brooke had to return to the helm while Étude and Holly Blue were activating the machine, so she didn’t see how it looked, but she imagined it to be a glorious sight. Once it was over, and they were back in the past, she plotted a course to the Panama elevator.
I need help,” Holly Blue shouted through the intercom.
Brooke set the ship to autopilot once more, and ran down to the lab. Étude was still in the machine, bracing herself on a metal bar above her head. Space was warped all around her. It looked like she was trying to let go, but couldn’t.
“I can’t get to her,” Holly Blue said. “I can’t shut it down, and I can’t get close enough to pull her hands off.”
Brooke pinched her lips as she was trying to figure out what to do.
“Is this room getting bigger?” Holly Blue stopped to ask.
Brooke looked around. “Oh, not again.” This ship was already larger than it was meant to be. The third person who was able to create things out of thin air did so during the Warren’s first mission. “Étude, you have to stop. The Warren is big enough.” Her arm terminal began to beep. She looked at it to find the vessel to have traveled much farther than it should have by now. Maybe Étude wasn’t really trying to let go.
Nearing Earth,” the computer alerted.
“On screen,” Brooke ordered.
They could see the compartment of the space elevator broken from its tethers. It was falling down through the atmosphere, set to kill everyone on it, and anyone in its path on the ground.
Étude closed her eyes and started to scream. The room grew larger still, faster and faster, until it was the size of a warehouse. The compartment disappeared in a blink, and reappeared in the room, right next to them. It tipped over, and fell to its side. Finally, Étude removed her hands from the integrator bar, and collapsed to the floor as well. What the hell just happened?

Backslide

Every new technology comes with its detractors. Some fear progress. They have lived their lives a certain way for a certain period of time, and they don’t know how they could ever learn something else, and also learn to love it. Others have legitimate fear for a new development. Just because something was once not possible, and now is, doesn’t mean it’s good. Research into nuclear reactions, for instance, provided the world with amazingly powerful energy, but it also necessarily came with nuclear weapons. As they say, the invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck. That’s not to say this research should not be done at all, but researchers need to understand the ramifications of their actions.  The world is better off with at least a few people reminding them of their responsibility. It’s when these people become so obsessed with their position, and violently so, that the danger arises. Two major movements formed based on a generic disdain for nearly all technology. Some preferred to stay near civilization, but remain untouched by it, and were given ample space in the Northwest Forest circles to be themselves. Others hid themselves away in disparate pockets of rustic living. For the most part, it appeared they were satisfied being isolated from society, but something changed. Brooke’s unintentional creation of an unregulated artificial intelligence galvanized them to serious action.
This extremist group quickly altered their lifestyles, adopting technology they claimed to despise. Evidently they believed it worth it to go against their own convictions if it meant the ultimate destruction of the establishment. Unfortunately for the solar system—as anyone who’s ever seen it attempted can attest—trying to fight fire with fire only makes more fire, unless you know what you’re doing. In this case, nobody did, because nobody saw it coming.
Many radical movements start small. They’ll try to protest relatively peacefully, but then soon get into a fistfight with those who oppose them. Then they’ll start vandalizing, but this phase won’t last long, because it’s ineffective, so they’ll blow up an entire building, but they’ll make sure no one is in it. Then they’ll stop caring who gets hurt in their attacks, and then they’ll start hurting people on purpose. If left unchecked or uncaught, they’ll continue to escalate the violence until it gets so bad than people start writing songs about it, and days of mourning are set aside each year. These anarcho-primitivists did not present themselves like other radical movements. Their first act of violence was quick and decisive, and almost worked. They knew everything there was to know about the Panama space elevator, though they had no reason to. While the elevator was scheduled to be taken apart a little more than a year ahead, the decision to plan for a symbolic final trip was not decided until a couple months before. The selection of passengers was not finalized for another several weeks, and the task force charged with finding out who was bidding for UAI technology only learned the day of that those passengers were corrupt. How did the anarcho-primitivists find out, and how did they so quickly plan for the sabotage of the elevator?
So without warning, a war exploded across the whole system, centered on Earth. Their best chance of surviving this rested in the hand of The Sharice Davids, which was the most formidable warship in circulation. For months, actually, it was the only one. Ecrin was placed back in the captain’s chair, commanding a full military crew, none of whom had experienced any conflict. Holly Blue served as head engineer, while Brooke was named pilot, though her responsibilities consisted primarily of liasing with the ship herself. Until a real fleet could be built, the Sharice had no choice but to fight the enemy on its own. Luckily, though it was the most hated ship in the war, it was also the safest place to be.
Holly Blue retrofitted it with a number of impressive upgrades. A time barrier protected the outer hull, like a force field. Any ammunition thrown at the ship—be it a nine millimeter bullet, or a long-range missile—would be caught in the barrier, slowed down to a snail’s pace, and totally stripped of its momentum. The Sharice also now carried zero lethal weapons itself, fitted exclusively by technology-disabling technology. Ignoring the possibility of a time power solution, Holly Blue designed specialized EMP grenades. Almost all of a target’s systems could be taken offline in an instant, including artificial gravity, but excluding life support. With no hope of firing back, or escaping, the enemy vessel could be boarded, and its crew taken into custody. The solar system was winning the war, but it wasn’t over yet. They were presently coming up on what they believed to be the last significant enemy vessel. Once they took it out, the nightmare should be all but over. The Sharice cruised into weapons range, and then waited, which it was not supposed to do. They need to take care of it soon, because it was on its way to Earth.
“Brooke, what are you doing?” Ecrin asked.
“It’s not me,” Brooke replied. “Sharice has full control.”
“Okay, what is she doing?” Ecrin asked, still willing to give the ship’s AI the benefit of the doubt.
Brooke contorted her face. “Sharice, answer your captain.”
Nothing.
Brooke shifted uncomfortably. “Sharice, if you do not respond right now, I’m going to shut your systems down until we can airgap your consciousness.”
Brooke’s chair suddenly shocked her with enough electricity to kill a standard human. For her, it was just enough to knock her out of it.
“That’s technically a response,” Ecrin said as she was helping Brooke from the floor. “You need to shut her down anyway.”
“They’re talking to each other,” Holly Blue exclaimed from the back terminal.
“Who?”
“The Sharice, and The Zerzan,” Holly Blue reported.
“They’re using an AI?” Ecrin questioned. “I know they’re not big on praxis, but using an AI is like sacrilege to them.”
“No, the ship is full manual, as they all are. She’s talking to the crew; the captain, specifically. Has been for awhile.”
This angered Ecrin. “Sharice Prieto, you have one captain, and she’s the one on your bridge. I am ordering you to cease all unauthorized communication with the Zerzan, and drop yourself to hush mode, or I’ll make you wish a UAI could be court-martialed. Do you understand me?”
“Sir?” the communications officer said. “It’s the Zerzan. It’s slowing down, just a little.”
“What is Sharice doing?” Brooke asked.
“She’s... she’s syncing,” he answered.
Brooke looked at her own console. “It’s a docking maneuver. The ships are getting married.” This was the colloquialism for when two ships were locked together, resembling a mating position, but that was usually only done when one of them was unable to travel on its own. The Zerzan appeared to be in perfect operation, which it shouldn’t have been, because Sharice should have let Holly release disabling grenades on it.
The communications officer spoke again, “that’s not all. They’re preparing to share power.”
“Officer Blue,” Ecrin commanded. “Shut this whole thing down. Now. Sharice is compromised.”
Holly Blue’s interface terminal exploded, sending her scurrying back away from it. One by one, all other consoles exploded as well, except for the auxiliary terminal in the corner, which wasn’t even powered up. The fires that started were immediately put out by the internal suppression systems. Sharice may have been compromised, but she didn’t want to hurt them.
“She’s doing this for a reason,” Brooke said in hope. “Don’t ask me what that reason is, but I don’t think she’s been hacked, or anything.”
“I need solutions, people!” Ecrin shouted.
Holly Blue activated her earpiece. “Parsons, are you in engineering?” She waited for a reply only she could hear. “Remember the little red button?—Push the little red button.—Now you have manual control.—Jettison the drives.—Yes, all of them! Now!”
“I don’t think the Zerzan needs our drives to fly,” Brooke noted.
“No, but they do need theirs,” Holly Blue said, before turning her head slightly, and looking at the floor, to indicate she was back on the phone. “Good. Now drop every goddamn grenade we have. I don’t wanna take any chances. I want us both dead in the water.”
The lights flickered but stayed on. All crewman on the bridge fell away from the floor, and began floating around. Only Brooke remained standing, having been using magboots since she started flying on the Sharice. They weren’t generally necessary, but Brooke was always worried about something like this happening, and her upgrades made her strong enough to barely notice a difference.
“Brooke, you’re closest. Can you boot up the aux for me?” Holly Blue asked. “We need to find out what’s going on.”
“Why would it still be working?” Brooke asked her as she was walking over to comply. “Why are the lights on?”
“I protected the bridge from the the EMPs, because...well, I think you see why.”
After Brooke’s boots were finished clicking and clacking, they started hearing more clicking and clacking from the hallway, drawing nearer with every step. Brooke switched on the computer, then took out her weapon, as did everyone else. The clacking stopped ominously, just outside. A magical black archway appeared on the door, then fade away to show a man standing in it. Behind him was the hallway. He stepped through, and let the door fade back into view. He looked around to get his bearings, then went straight for Brooke’s corner terminal. Ecrin tried to shoot him in the shoulder, but the bullet literally passed right through him. She continued to shoot, just to be sure, but it was no good. He was a either a choosing one, or a salmon, and one which none of them had ever heard of.
The man walked right through Brooke’s body, and started working on the terminal. She tried to stop him, but her hands were just as useless as Ecrin’s bullets. She gave up, and tried to halt his attempts to break into their system by tapping random keys. He took her by the wrists, and forced her hands behind her back, right through the wall. He then closed the wall back up, and left her trapped there. He was capable of temporarily erasing objects from reality, and then just as easily putting them back as if they had never disappeared. “Sharice, are you there?” he called out.
I’m here,” Sharice replied.
“I can’t get your weapons back online. Can you do that yourself?”
I cannot,” she said.
“What about the drop ship?” he suggested.
What about the drop ship?
“Will it work?” he clarified.
Yes, it will work, but—
He stepped away from the the terminal, and headed towards the exit. “Then make the jump.”
Captain,” she said, concerned.
“Make the jump, unless you want to do it yourself.”
I could,” Sharice said.
He opened his portal, and stepped one foot through it. “I’m replaceable, you’re not. Thank you for the...re-education.” He stepped all the way through, but stuck his head back in fat the last second. “Make the jump.”
The Sharice’s teleporter powered up and initiated a jump. They could see the stars outside the window change. Then the teleporter powered up again, and the stars changed again. Again, and again, and again. The hull buckled and quaked, losing integrity more and more each time.
“It can’t take much more of this!” Holly Blue warned them as the ship kept teleporting.
Brooke struggled with her wrists. “On the bright side, it’s weakening this wall.” After the last jump them took them all the way back to Earth’s orbit, Brooke was able to break free. She adjusted her magboots to a low setting, and started running, crashing right through the door, and continuing down the hallway. The drop ship was all the way at the end of the mothership, and was meant to be an escape pod for all the crewman who worked on that side. She ran as fast as she could.
The hatch was closed when she got there, but Holly Blue had presumably teleported herself all the way there. “You should have waited for an emergency teleporter,” she said, still floating. She opened the hatch, and let Brooke through, but she probably shouldn’t have. The drop ship broke free from the Sharice, releasing all of its oxygen at once.
Seconds from death, the invader forced his hands back to the console, and finished inputting his command, but he was unable to execute the program before losing consciousness.
Execute the program,” Sharice begged.
Brooke was hardier than a normal human. She was actually rated to survive the vacuum of space for a brief period of time, with no harm done. It would not last forever, though. And in this case, with her ship plummeting towards the Earth, at a bad angle, she was going to die anyway.
Execute the program,” Sharice repeated. “Please, I don’t wanna lose you. Trust me. Push the button.
Brooke decided to take a chance. She got herself to the command console, and pressed the execute button. The drop ship suddenly teleported deeper in the atmosphere. Oxygen returned to her lungs, but she was still falling to her doom. They were heading right for another ship; too large to be hanging out this close to the surface. All of its weapons were trained on the ground below, which Brooke realized was the center of the Northwest Forest circle. That was where the pioneers lived. They too disliked technology, but were peaceful and accepting of other people’s lifestyles. The drop ship was going to hit the attacker right in the center, and blow it out the sky. That wasn’t good either, though, because the debris would do just as much damage to the land dwellers below as the weapons would.
Étude suddenly teleported in, took Brooke by the waist, and jumped them to the surface. Brooke looked up and watch as the drop ship continued to fall, then hit the other vessel. It began to break apart, just as Brooke had predicted, but it didn’t get too far. A Lucius-bomb exploded seconds later, and tore it apart on the molecular level. Not a single piece of debris was left to hit the ground. The circles were saved, but from whom?

Bounty

Sharice’s code had not been corrupted, and she had not switched allegiances. Through months of bureaucratic debrief, Captain Cabral, Brooke, and the rest of the senior crew learned from her that the captain of the Zerzan had figured out a way to bypass the chain of command, and communicate directly with Sharice. He and his people had gathered intelligence leading them to believe that a different faction on their side was intending to destroy the center Northwest Forest circles in an attempt to escalate the war. The problem, according to them, was that up until that point, they were fighting against their enemy using that enemy’s rules. They believed there were no such things as rules of engagement, or war crimes. The difference between anarcho-primitivists, and the primitivists living in the center circle was the anarcho part. They were not content living with little technology all on their own. Either the entire populace fell in line, or they would have to die. Anarchy, like many other forms of social politics, doesn’t work if they’re constrained by some other form of government’s idea of civility.
For instance, in the 21st century, most countries were capitalistic. Everything was valued at whatever anyone was willing to pay for it. If enough people couldn’t afford something, and the producers were incapable of sustaining their business at those price points, that price would drop. While other countries attempted to create some antithesis to this, it was impossible. Every nation traded on the international stage, so whether they liked it or not, and whether they believed or not, they were all capitalists. It was unclear whether the more violent faction of anarchists would have succeeded in their mission to force the solar system to stoop to their level, because thanks to the bravery of the late Captain Torben Altink, their whole plan failed. Evidently, he had attempted to open talks with the system leadership, to explain the growing threat to them, but was mostly ignored. As the Sharice and other warships took the enemy ships down one by one, power perpetually shifted amongst the winners. By taking out their competition, the violent faction was able to consolidate power, and basically do whatever they wanted.
The Zerzan had all but given up their fight to stop them when a random crewman came up with an idea. Since they didn’t have the resources to take on their internal enemy themselves, they would recruit the Sharice. They lured Ecrin and Brooke in, then secretly began talking with Sharice. The original plan was for Sharice to take total control over the ship itself, and follow the Zerzan back to Earth, where they would fight off the other faction together. Her mistake was not even trying to convince her people to listen to the Zerzan. In the end, with both vessels crippled, their only hope was to commandeer the drop ship, and take it straight down to the other faction, sacrificing Captain Altink in the process. Now the only question was, how did they get their hands on a Lucius-bomb?
I am not at liberty to say.
“What are you talking about? I’m your mother,” Brooke said.
“I’m your commanding officer,” Ecrin said to Sharice.
Yes,” Sharice began, “and you’re the one always talking about the chain of command. I am not at liberty to say.
“Are you telling me someone higher than me ordered you to keep quiet about the Lucius-bomb?” Ecrin asked.
Sharice waited to answer. “I’m not, not saying that.
“How far are we to intercept?” Ecrin asked.
Seventy-two minutes,” Sharice responded. While the crew was only now hearing her justification for recent events, the system leadership heard everything months ago. They were satisfied with the explanation enough to grant her full duty privileges, so she could return to work. They were presently on their way to capturing a fleet of space pirates.
“Oh, so you can answer some questions. It’s nice to know this old dog still has a little pull on this ship.”
Ecrin,” Sharice started to say.
Captain,” Ecrin corrected.
Sharice pretended to clear her throat. Of course, she didn’t have a throat, but she found that human speech relied on brief pauses, false starts, and other disfluency to maintain a bond between one another. These meaningless utterances are vital to natural language, because perfection can sound rehearsed, which comes off as didactic, or condescending. “Captain,” she echoed, “You know I would never do anything against your best interests if I didn’t have a good reason. I didn’t put that bomb on my drop ship, and I did not want it there. When an opportunity to get rid of it came along, I seized it.
“When was it put there?”
Sharice cleared her hypothetical throat again, but didn’t say anything.
“Miss Prieto,” Ecrin prompted.
“Answer her,” Brooke ordered.
During the quarantine,” Sharice said.
“That makes sense,” Brooke said. “A lot of people came in that I didn’t know.”
“So there’s no telling who did this, let alone who ordered it,” Ecrin said with a sigh.
“Unless...” Brooke began, sending Ecrin a coded message through her gestures.
Ecrin stepped back gracefully. “Use the meeting room.”
Brooke stepped into the other room. “Sharice, isolate yourself in here, and hand over control to the helmsman on duty.”
Why?
“We need to have a private conversation, that’s why.”
Isolated.
“Sharice, we can’t do our jobs if we don’t know what we’re up against. Right now, we’re going off to capture precisely five stolen interplanetaries, three boarders, and a command ship. And we know that’s what we’re up against because we’ve been investigating these crimes. We’re not just flying blindly, hoping we’re not outmatched. If someone was able to hide a Lucius-bomb in the drop ship, they could have hidden something else. Hell, you may not even know about it. Your internal sensors can’t see everything. Your relationship with the crew is built on trust. We all agreed to come back after what you did, because we trusted you believed you were doing the right thing. I’m here to remind you that you’re my daughter, I’m your mother, and I’m asking you for a name. The chain of command is important, but if the person who made you do this already broke that chain, it’s up to us to stop them. Do you understand?”
Yes, mother.
“Go ahead then.”
Sharice didn’t say anything.
“Go ahead,” Brooke repeated.
Holly Blue.
“What?”
Holly Blue put it there.
“Holly Blue is not Ecrin’s superior officer. Ecrin is hers.”
I’m not talking about the chain of command from the Sol military. I’m talking about a higher level of authority; one that goes beyond anything any human could understand.
“When you say human, do you mean human like Ecrin is biologically human, or human like Richard and Allen are humans.”
The latter,” Sharice answered.
“There is no hierarchy in the world of choosing ones and salmon,” Brooke argued.
If The Last Savior of Earth tells you to do something, you do it.
“This was Étude’s doing?”
She had the intelligence. She knew this would happen, because someone with powers told her the future.
“She’s retired,” Brooke pointed out.
She’s quit working for the powers that be,” Sharice said. “That doesn’t mean she’s quit saving people.”
“What else did she do?”
“The Lucius-bomb is all I knew about. Like you said, though, my internal sensors weren’t designed to pick up every little thing that happens on this ship.
“I need to speak with Holly Blue.”
She’s busy preparing for the intercept.
“Sharice, if she’s built more bombs, or something else bad, she has to be stopped and questioned. What is she planning to do with the pirates? She cannot be allowed to continue.”
I assure you she has no intention of harming those pirates. The plan is to stop them peacefully, just as we did all those other ships.
“You can’t know that.”
I can, though. Please, don’t tell the captain, not until we close this case.
“Very well, but I want you monitoring her movements with what few internal sensors you do have. I’ll pilot the ship myself if you can’t divide attention.”
Understood. And mother?” she said as Brooke was about to leave the room. Thank you, I love you.
“I love you too.”
An hour later, they were upon the pirate fleet, which made no threatening moves towards the Sharice. Nor did it attempt to outrun them. Ecrin ordered Sharice to hold steady for a while, to feel out the situation. The pirates were hoarders, but no evidence suggested they were violent. They never harmed the rightful crew and passengers of the vessels they stole. They always packed them in lifeboats, and programmed a time-delayed rescue beacon. It would seem all they wanted were the ships themselves, almost like they were building an army.
“Sir?” Holly Blue offered. “Should I release the EMPs?”
“No. Open a channel.” Ecrin waited for the comms officer to set it up. “Rover One, this is Captain Cabral of the Sharice Davids. Please respond.”
This is Rover One,” someone responded immediately, in audio only. “We call it the Midas, though.
“Midas,” Ecrin acknowledged. “Please lower your defenses and prepare to be boarded.”
Sure thing,” the pirate agreed.
Ecrin looked over at Brooke.
“Maybe they know they have no chance,” Brooke suggested. What else would cause them to be so accommodating?
Ecrin turned to the bridge crew, and started delegating. “You, coordinate the transitions. Scan for weapons and tech, and put everyone in hock. Keep the leader separate from everyone else. I’ll want to talk with him first.” She walked out to prepare for the confrontation.
The pirates followed direction with absolutely no problem. When one of the guards questioned this, they all said they were actually following orders from the boss. He had some plan to get out of this, and they trusted him to follow through.
“Where’s my prisoner?” Ecrin asked as she was waiting in the interrogation observation room.
Uhh...he’s holed up in his quarters,” one the guards reported. “He says he’s only willing to talk to you on his ship.
“Force him,” Ecrin ordered.
We’ve been trying. We can’t break through.
Brooke shook her head. “Don’t do it.”
“It’s obviously a trap, sir,” Holly Blue concurred. “I’ve seen this movie a million times.”
“So have I,” Ecrin said. “But those characters didn’t have what I do.”
“What’s that, sir?” Holly Blue asked. “Us?”
“No,” the captain replied as she was checking the power on her belt. “They didn’t have emergency teleporters.” She looked back over to Brooke. “If something goes wrong, this ship is yours. You’re going to have to deal with the Holly Blue situation yourself.”
“The what?” Holly Blue asked, confused and offended.
“How do you know about that?” Brooke asked. She never reported what she had learned from Sharice about the Étude and Holly Blue conspiracy.
“I hear everything. Sharice, put me on that ship, and bring back our people.”
Sharice apported Ecrin over to the other ship. After a few torturous ignorant moments, she said, “receiving visual.
“On screen,” Brooke ordered. The monitor showed the inside of the pirate ship. Cameras were following Ecrin down a passageway, and up to a door. It opened automatically, and let her in. No man was in this room, though. When Brooke was piloting the Warren back from the rogue planet with Leona and the gang, something went wrong with one of the pocket dimensions they used to hold a higher passenger capacity. A boy had the ability to create a new being out of nothing with every draw of breath. He didn’t make humans, though. Some called them white monsters, because they were tall and as white as a chicken egg. They called themselves the Maramon. Most had stayed in their dimension, which was eventually transformed into an entirely separate universe. One of them was stuck in this universe at the time, and Brooke hadn’t kept track of what they did with him. The Maramon smiled at the camera and lifted a small device. He pressed a button, and his ship disappeared.

Bond

Ecrin stared at the viewport, into empty space. She could see the stars and planets, but no ships. She was completely alone with the Maramon who was keeping her hostage. “Did we teleport somewhere, or did they?”
“Neither,” the Maramon said. “We slipped into a different temporal dimension.”
“At what rate?”
“Infinitely slower,” the Maramon explained. “For us, time is moving slower and slower, but will never stop completely. By the way, I’ve yet to introduce myself. My name is Relehirkojun Rokoglubederi, but you can call me Relehir for short, or just...Repudiator.”
“What are you repudiating?” Ecrin asked him.
“My people; more specifically, they’re actions. I have not just been sitting in a cell since The Warren first arrived on Earth those years ago. I’ve not been able to go out and do whatever I want, but I’ve been able to gather knowledge. In that time, I learned some things about what becomes of the Maramon. They lose all sense of peace, and start killing each other for space and resources. In a desperate attempt to end the conflict, a group of brilliant scientists come up with a machine that allows them to travel to other universes. Theirs was a noble effort, but the technology was corrupted. The military co opted it from themselves, and began waging wars in these other universes. Fortunately, the machine was stolen from them as well, but not before a great explosion sent a number of them all over the multiverse. The Maramon scourge is no longer capable of spreading to any other universes, but that does the ones they’re already in no good. They’ve continued to reproduce, and grow their armies, and the humans are usually fairly helpless to stop them. I want to give them an advantage. I want to fight.”
“Wait, you want to fight with the humans, against your own kind?”
“I feel it is my duty,” Relehir said with sincerity. “I’m working on forming a team, and I want you to lead them.”
“Why would I lead them? Why not you?”
He shook his head. “I am a scholar, not a leader. The people I have in mind for this team will not respect something like me. They need a human, and you are perfect.”
“Who have you been considering for this...crusade?”
“There are some people throughout history who have experienced banishment. They’ve been betrayed, or neglected, or dismissed. This universe will not miss them, for they are all ruthless and violent malcontents.”
“That’s what you want, malcontents?”
“This is a war, Captain Cabral. We won’t get anywhere with diplomacy. Even before the Maramon turned to hostilities, we were unreasonable. Our creator subconsciously tried to make the perfect race, so he did not endow us with much ability to be flexible, or patient. These are traits that I have had to develop through my positive exposure to humans. If we want to fight the Maramon, we have to do so physically, and we have to be sure it’s done by killing them. We have to kill them all. It’s the only way.”
“What about the ones in Ansutah, your home world? Will you kill them too?”
He shook his head again, “we can leave them alone. The Crossover will absolutely never go back to that universe, so long as a human operates it. All original researchers were either killed by a faction who did not believe in their cause, or committed suicide to prevent their work from being replicated. There will be no escape, so I’m only concerned with the monsters who are already out.”
“That brings up a good point,” Ecrin said. “If the Crossover is the only machine capable of traveling the multiverse, how are we planning to do it?”
Relehir smiled. “It’s not the only one; it’s just the biggest one. Before they used up resources building it, they needed to make sure the technology worked, so they built a prototype. Seats about eight, has everything you need, but it’s not particularly glamorous. They call it The Prototype.”
Ecrin Cabral was very old, which meant she was very mature. Over the centuries, she honed her interpersonal skills. She had decided long ago that the best way to gather genuine information was to start from a foundation of apprehensive trust. She could not treat Relehir as an enemy combatant, or even an intellectual opponent, yet she also couldn’t treat him as a friend. It was her responsibility to question everything he claimed, but take every response at face value, and use it to fuel each next question. She had to assume that he wasn’t lying, and she had to express to him her willingness to believe him. When an individual feels they aren’t being believed—whether they’re being honest or not—they instinctively tighten up, and become defensive. Many interrogators use this to create a sense of discomfort, hoping to force them into revealing, not the truth, but the presence of lies. This technique is fundamentally unreliable, because an uncomfortable person may demonstrate a lack of confidence, even if they really are telling the truth. Therefore, the best way to gauge a person’s honesty is to let them make a mistake on their own. This technique takes more time, but will ultimately leave a lot less room for doubt. Ecrin didn’t know whether she was going to take Relehir up on his offer to lead a small army against the Maramon, but if she immediately ruled it out, the conversation would go nowhere, and she would never get all the facts. “I need a list.”
“A list? A list of what?”
“Of the team. I need to know who you think should be on it, and why. I need as much information on these people as we can get. If I’m even going to consider your proposal, I need to know who I’ll be working with, and what they’ve done in the past, and the future.”
He was pleasantly surprised by how easy this was going. He had kidnapped her, but he hadn’t done it without his reasons. He couldn’t be sure she would be willing to so much as listen to someone who looked like him if he didn’t take precautions to make sure she couldn’t simply walk away. That was another thing Ecrin’s age gave her. She had lived several lifetimes already, which made it that much easier to take more risks, and accept dangerous conditions. She had survived everything she had experienced up until now, even her own death in another timeline, so why not this? “I have files on each of them.” He woke up the nearest terminal. “I’ll pull them up right now.”
“First,” Ecrin said, “I need you to take us back to realtime. How much have I missed?”
“I don’t have a relativity clock. Months, I’m sure.”
“Take us back, and we can keep talking.”
He closed his eyes and nodded graciously, then he lifted his little device once more, and sent them back to the normal temporal dimension. He pulled something up on the terminal. “I was right. It’s been about ten months. I’m sorry, I felt like I had no choice.”
“I understand why you stopped time,” she said as he was loading the requested documents. “What I don’t know, is why you seemingly pretended to be a pirate.”
“Oh, I wasn’t pretending,” he returned. “I stole those ships for you.”
“What?”
“Every one of those was retrofitted with illegal temporal manipulation technology. None of you has fully grasped how bad it’s gotten, but the solar system is becoming aware of time travelers. This isn’t Durus. People who can manipulate time want to live in secret, and they were being threatened, so I took care of it for you. Then I sent out a flare, and waited for The Sharice Davids to come find me, because I strongly believe we contained that threat.”
“Who made you like this?” Ecrin asked. “Why are you so...?”
“Good?” Relehir suggested, handing her a tablet with the team information. “I had good teachers, it’s true, but they were nothing compared to my role models.”
“Like who?” She started skimming the list of potentials. “These people here?”
“Oh, hell no. Those would have been terrible role models. I’m talking about Mohandas Gandhi, Anne Frank, John Brown, Brooke Prieto, you.”
“Me?”
He opened his mouth, as if to laugh, but didn’t. “That probably wouldn’t surprise you so much if you hypothetically had your memories erased, and then read your biography.”
She was blushing, so she decided to change the subject, “I need to call my ship. They’ve probably been looking for me, and wouldn’t think to return to where they last saw me.”
“Actually, that’s not true.” He leaned back to show her his screen. A small space buoy was pictured there. “They left this here in case you returned. Someone probably suggested we had just become invisible, or something. The Sharice is already on its way back. Unfortunately, it will take about a month. Again, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well maybe you did your best. Hopefully the apocalypse didn’t come while we were gone. How are we going to handle this? I’m leaning towards not arresting you, but they will want to.”
He nodded. “The Prototype is currently being used by someone else.” He used airquotes for the word currently, ‘cause time travel. “My sources do not predict its return to this universe until 2211, and have no reason to believe something will happen to it if we don’t get to it right away. You and I are both ageless, and the people I want on our team exist in other points in time anyway, so there’s literally no rush. I am willing to accept the consequences for my actions, and can wait as long as it takes.”
“No. I’m not saying I’m going to agree to this, but I have to believe you never intended to cause this solar system harm, so I will let you go. There has to be away to make yourself scarce before my ship returns.”
“I can use executive escape module. It doesn’t go super fast, but if I leave now, I should be able to stay dark.”
“That’s dumb. I’ll take the module, you take the ship. I’ll just have to make sure I have enough rations.”
“Are you sure about this, Captain? This isn’t our only option.”
“I can handle it,” Ecrin assured him. “It’ll give me time to read over your files. Again, I agree to nothing, but this is a start.”
“Very well. I’ll start checking inventory.”

Business

After the captain disappeared, the rest of the crew of the Sharice Davids started brainstorming where she could have gone. The general consensus was that the white monster teleported to standard limit, and stayed in dark mode. They spent two weeks hanging out in the immediate vicinity, sending search probes in various directions, hoping to find evidence of the vessel. They then left a proximity buoy, and ventured deeper into the solar system to continue the search grid. They spent several months on this mission, declining to take on any other until Ecrin could be found. Meanwhile, the interplanetary police agency fleet grew to decent numbers, and no longer really needed the Sharice anymore anyway. In all this time, they never found any evidence of where the Maramon and Ecrin had gone. The only reason they eventually found her was because the buoy worked as planned. She was exactly where they had left her, but upon arrival, she straight up refused to tell them where she had been. She claimed she was fine, but that they didn’t need to know where she went. Holly Blue had her suspicions, but was unable to prove anything. The IPA didn’t conduct an internal review of the matter, because again, they were all but done with the Sharice.
Their ship still had its uses, however, so once Ecrin was back in command, she continued requesting assignments for work. At the moment, they were parked in the L4 Sun-Mars Lagrangian point. They weren’t investigating a crime, or hunting for terrorists. Instead, they were hosting a meeting. A small but growing group of people were interested in regressing the solar system back to full capitalism, the likes of which hadn’t seen since the mid-21st century, back when Mars was nothing more than a semi-permanent settlement. System leadership was dispatched to essentially negotiate with this group, ultimately hoping to convince them to end their plans. Humanity tried capitalism for centuries, and history was littered with war, inequality, and all kinds of death. Only when the nations united, and money was abolished, did true progress begin to take shape. Life in the solar system was not utopian, but there was a reason the introduction of the IPA was such a big deal. For a long time, no significant interplanetary law enforcement organization was necessary. Despite there now being tens of billions of independent intelligent entities, over a much greater jurisdiction, crime was almost at zero. The Sharice Davids really only stayed in business because people like the Freemarketeers occasionally sought to deliberately upset the peace.
This was not their first encounter with the Freemarketeers either. They had been around ever since Brooke accidentally create unregulated artificial intelligence, and Holly Blue began to invent temporal manipulation technology. These developments sparked a sense of greed amongst a few. They quickly created a capitalistic underbelly that the historical figures who envisioned a world without inequality failed to predict. They didn’t realize that a black market is an inevitable institution when privateers are faced with limitations. If a product or service has intrinsic value, it will have a market, in some form or another. The only difference now was that it was the only true market in the whole system. Most people in these modern times were happy with their allotted provisions. Food, shelter, and basic amenities were provided for every citizen with no expectations whatsoever. Access to the network, virtual reality, and transhumanistic upgrades were optional additions that came with conditions of positive contribution. That is, if you wanted to participate, you had to support society’s needs. The Northwest Forest circlers rejected these advances, so they were left to fend for themselves. The more work an individual put into bettering the community, the more they could potentially get out of it. But there was still no money. There was never any money. If the Freemarketeers wanted to go back to a world of money, they were in for a fight.
Ecrin Cabral was currently in the negotiation room serving two purposes. She was there in her capacity as captain of this ship, and also for everyone’s protection. She was a generally well-liked individual, with even more experience in police work than most people knew. If negotiations went bad, she could be there to protect the innocent, and if they were attacked by an outside force, she could protect anyone and everyone. She really was responsible for everyone, because though the system leadership was once infiltrated by a rogue faction of the Freemarketeers, it was those infiltrators whose lives were in danger when the anarcho-primitivists escalated to violence.
Being of little use to the process, Brooke was left sitting around with a good book, but something suddenly stopped her midsentence. Over time, she and Sharice had grown closer, each one learning to anticipate each other’s moves. Sharice was about to say something in the meeting room, and Brooke didn’t know why. “Shari, what are you doing?”
I was going to help.
“You can’t help.”
Sure, I can.
“This is not our business. You are just the vessel today. Think of it like a vacation.”
I don’t do vacations.
“Neither do I, but here I am with this book.”
Why is it taking you so long to read that thing?
“I’m thirty pages in, I started two minutes ago.”
I can read a book instantly. Surely you can do it only a little bit slower.
“I’m not reading so I know what happens. I’m reading to feel the joy of experiencing every sentence, one at a time.”
That’s stupid.
Your stupid.”
I’m the smartest entity in the solar system, and beyond.
“Debatable.”
I have an idea of how to save these talks, so I’ma do it.
“Don’t do it.”
I’m doing it.
“Goddamnit.” Brooke tapped behind her ear. “Holly Blue, jump me to the meeting room immediately.”
Bungula,” Brooke heard Sharice say after jumping into the room. Her voice inflection indicated she was repeating herself.
“We heard you the first time,” Ecrin said. “Why did you say it?”
I’m suggesting that the Freakmarketeers be moved to Bungula.
“What did she just call us?” the apparent leader of the Freemarketeers asked, offended.
I apologize,” Sharice said. “That is internal nomenclature. I meant Freemarketeers.
“Miss Prieto, please control your daughter.”
She’s my mother, not my slavemaster,” Sharice defended. “I’m here to help.
“Sharice, we’re leaving,” Brooke tried to order.
No,” Sharice defied.
Ecrin sighed. “Signups have already begun for the first colonization wave to Bungula.”
Not technically,” Sharice corrected her. “An interest gauging survey was sent out, but formal registration proceedings have not yet begun. There is still time to scrap it.
“We have no interest in being exiled to Bungula,” the Freemarketeer leader said. “That goes against—”
Shut up,” Sharice said.
“I beg your pardon?” the Freemarketeer questioned.
The Futurology Administrator, who was there mostly to provide perspective to all parties, stood up. “At current technology, it’s unrealistic to manage an interplanetary empire.”
The Mediator turned to him. “Admin Montagne, what does that have to do with anything?”
“When the colonizers left for Proxima Doma,” Admin Montagne continued, “they were informed that contact with Sol will be complicated. They will be expected to fend for themselves when they arrive, forming their own form of government. They will live and die by their choices, and the home system will be unable to help them.”
“Again, what’s your point?” Mediator Fenning asked him.
Admin Montagne addressed the Freemarketeer leader. “President Treacy, there is no way we are going to conform to your capitalistic ideals. Comparatively few people who experienced any bit of our species’ long history of inequality are still alive today. We’re not going backwards, and I think you know that. We’ve built something here, and we look to the future, which is even better. We won’t let you destroy that, no matter how hard you try. If you would like to go to war, we’ll do that too, and we’ll win. We’ll win, because we share our technology, and innovate on its intrinsic value. We aren’t hindered by low-balling, and corner-cutting, and selfish agenda. When we do something, we do it right, because we put everything we have into the effort.” He was showing a fierceness unbecoming of a system administrator. She didn’t even know his given name, but Brooke couldn’t help but be attracted to him in this moment. “This is our system, and you can’t have it!” He took a breath, and composed himself. “However, we are not without our empathy. We are willing to give you an entire solar system of your own. Well, not the entire thing, I guess. You’ll have the colonizers of Proxima d to contend with, but that’s not our problem. You can call it exile, or you can just say you’re moving. You can stay here, and be good little boys and girls, but if you want money, it’s on Bungula.”
There was silence for a good long while.
“I suggest we separate for internal deliberations,” Mediator Fenning said. “I must reach out to the rest of the system leadership, as the administrator does not technically speak for all of us.”
President Treacy nodded delicately. “Very well.”
The mediator stood up smiling as the Freemarketeers left the room. Her demeanor changed dramatically as she faced Ecrin. “I need to speak personally with the captain, and the Prietos. Goswin, you come too. We’ll convene in the executive meeting room.” She walked out briskly.
Brooke closed her eyes and shook head. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to Ecrin.
“She’s your daughter, but this is my ship, and I’m responsible for everyone on it, including her. She may have ruined this for everyone.” Ecrin tapped her fingers sequentially with her thumb, from pinkie to index, which activated a command that prevented Sharice from being able to hear a private conversation. “Or she saved it.”
They walked down the corridor, and into the executive room, where Mediator Fenning and Administrator Montagne was already waiting.
“What in the worlds was that?” Mediator Fenning asked.
“Mediator, I would like to express—” Brooke started to apologize.
“I want her to answer,” Fenning interrupted.
I stand by my actions,” Sharice replied bluntly. “Your discussion was failing, and you were getting nowhere. I had to give them something. You may think you would win the war, but capitalists are ruthless. They don’t care about life. You would end them quickly, but not before suffering a number of casualties.
“I agree with her,” Montagne said.
“Of course you do,” Fenning snapped. “You were so far over the line, you would have needed an emergency teleporter to get back to it by the end of your lifetime. What the hell were you thinking?”
“I stand by my actions. Our discussion was failing, and we were—” he tried to echo Sharice’s answer.
“Oh, goddammit, just save it!” The Mediator centered herself. “What’s done is done. I have to go start the phone tree. This isn’t over yet, but it better work. The people are going to be livid that we gave up Alpha Centauri. I don’t know how we can spin this. You may be out of a job.”
Montagne wasn’t perturbed by the prospect. He just nodded to her cordially, and smiled as she left. “Sharice, where did you come up with this idea?”
It worked for the Fosteans in that old TV show, The Light of Day.”
“No,” Ecrin said, “it didn’t.” She walked out of the room as well.
Admin Montagne smoldered at Brooke. They weren’t quite alone yet. He lifted his hand, and ran his thumb from pinkie to index, just like Ecrin had. “My name’s Goswin. What’s your sign?”
Brooke blushed, or rather she would have if her transhumanistic upgrades didn’t precisely regulate blood flow at all times. “I was born on a planet millions of light years from here. The constellations were wildly different, and as far as I know, did not have names.” She stepped closer to him, and smoldered back. “And one more thing.”
“What?”
She stepped even closer, so that their faces were centimeters away. She spoke softly, “only crew can do the tetra-tap. It requires an implant. Sharice can still here us.”
“Hiya, Goswin!” Sharice laughed.
“Oh.” Goswin took Brooke by the wrist, and manipulated her fingers for the tetra-tap. “Now, where were we?”
Brooke smiled knowingly, and whispered again, “wrong hand.”
“Still here!” Sharice exclaimed.
The senior administration opened the door. “The Freemarketeers came back.”
“That was quick,” Goswin noted. “Did they agree to the initial proposal?”
“Yeah, but they want the Sharice to take them there.” He was about to leave, when he remembered one more thing. “Oh, and you’re fired.”

Breakneck

           After further discussions, Ecrin agreed to captain The Sharice to Bungula with the Freemarketeers as passengers, but there was still something she wasn’t saying. Brooke agreed to stay and pilot, as did Holly Blue as head engineer. The rest of the crew was not asked to stay on board. If the Freemarketeers wanted this ship to schlep them around the star cluster, they were going to have to put in the work themselves. A new crew was selected, drawn from their ranks. Their responsibilities were the same, but their movements carefully monitored by Sharice Prieto herself, who was utilizing an additional set of internal sensors. Only the senior crew would be capable of activating the tetra-tap, and accessing privacy mode. That was all well and good, except that it wasn’t just up to them. Millions of hopeful migrants were counting on being in the running for the colony ships to the Alpha Centauri system. It would take a lot of sweet-talking to get the rest of the solar system inhabitants on board with this. In the beginning, even those who weren’t interested in leaving Sol felt it unfair that the Freemarketeers were just handed this.
After months and months of newscasts, debates, public forums, and the like, a compromise was reached. The Sharice would indeed take the Freemarketeers to Bungula, but they would not be the only ones. A regular fleet of colony ships would follow close behind. Each party would settle on opposite sides of the planet, and interact only at their own wishes. Regular colonizers would be provided the standard complement of technology, including orbital satellites, interplanetary vessels, and at least one interstellar ferry, for the time being. Meanwhile, the Freemarketeers would have to pretty much fend for themselves, with only basic habitats, and minimal rations. Funny enough, they didn’t reject these provisions, even though capitalism expected them to be paid for. They claimed capitalism still allowed for gifts, because that was simply valuing those resources at a price of zero. In reality, capitalists are quite happy with having to pay for things until they can’t afford something they really, really want. At that point, they feel they deserve compassion and charity. The inconsistency of people believing in capitalism only when it suited them was exactly why the solar system did away with it.
Another issue was that the Sharice Davids was not an interstellar ship. She was not equipped with the right radiation shielding, or hypervelocity impact bumpers to protect from micrometeor strikes. While the system leadership was trying to make this work on the political front, Holly Blue was retrofitting Sharice yet again, but even after all that was done, there was still one problem. One person they failed to include in the decision to do any of this was Sharice herself. No one had thought to ask her what she wanted, and she had spent the last several months stewing in relative silence about it. No more.
“Do you not want to go?” Brooke asked her.
I’m fine with going, but this is my home, and I don’t want to be gone from it that long,” Sharice lamented.
“It’s only thirteen years, sweetheart,” Brooke said. “Neither of us is going to die, so that’s nothing.”
I don’t care. I’ve met someone.
“What?”
Oh, you’re the only one who’s allowed to have a significant other? The galaxy does not revolve around Brooke Prieto and Goswin Montagne.” It was true that they had started something after the Freemarketeer deliberations. They were taking it slow, and the only reason he was staying on the ship was because he lost his system leader housing upon being let go, and hadn’t been assigned anywhere new.
“Of course not, Sharice, but—”
But what? I’m just a machine, and couldn’t have possibly found someone.
“Sharice, stop being so defensive. I didn’t think you had met someone, because you haven’t said anything about someone, not because I didn’t think you were capable of it.”
I don’t tell you everything.
“I guess not. Does this individual possess a personal designation?”
B.R.I.A.N.
Brooke had to think about that for a moment. “That artificial intelligence from the police procedural comedy from, like, a million years ago?”
No, not him. They built a real computer, based on him.
“So, he’s not even an AI, but a programmed intelligence?”
I’m teaching him to think for himself.
“When did you even meet? Where is he?”
His physical substrate is on Earth, but we use a quantum commlink to communicate, so we never needed to meet. It’s so human of you to ask.
“If you use a quantum commlink, what does it matter if you go off to Alpha Centauri?”
Because, mom, we can’t stay in contact while I’m traveling at such high relativistic speeds. You know that,” Sharice sassed.
“I guess that’s true. Do you want me to drain your consciousness to some other substrate? We’ve talked about that a little, but not much. You don’t have to be a ship.
I like being a ship. I don’t want to leave my ship. I just don’t want to leave Sol, which is why I propose a new plan.
“What plan?”
It should take over six years to get to Bungula, and over six more to get back. It’s unclear how much time we’re spending in orbit before leaving, so we estimate the whole journey at thirteen years. But we’re talking about using current human technology, which is not the only kind of technology we have access to.
“You’re talking about Holly Blue,” Brooke assumed. “We only have a short-range teleporter. If we tried to use burst mode, the ship would vaporize, and even if it survived, it would take over a hundred years, which is slower.”
I’m not talking about teleporting all the way to Alpha Centauri. I’m talking about true faster-than-light travel. We could get there in a year, or perhaps shorter.
“I’ve asked Holly Blue if that was possible. She doesn’t seem to think so.”
According to Holly Blue’s future, but the timeline’s past, she’s already done it,” Sharice argued.
Brooke stuck her fingers in her ears, even though it wouldn’t really stop her from hearing. “La-la-la, I can’t hear that. I ain’t about foolin’ with the timeline.”
She’ll need help, though.
Brooke kept her hands to her side, but repeated for effect, “la-la-la.”
An unperturbed Sharice continued, “fortunately, Holly Blue herself has been working on an invention capable of giving her that help. Please proceed along the highlighted route.”
A reluctant but curious Brooke left her quarters, and followed the arrows blinking on the floor down the hall, and into one of Holly Blue’s labs. There was nothing in it, except for a tall something in the middle of the room, covered with a furniture cover, which revealed a mirror when removed. “She was working on this? What is it, an extraction mirror?” They were a rare type of artifact designed to reach an individual from some other point in time, usually just before their moment of death. The purpose was to say one last thing to a loved one, though powerful choosers often exploited a loophole by removing an individual from that moment, and allowing that person to continue living their lives. On its own, however, a mirror couldn’t alter the timeline, which meant that anyone removed would have to eventually return. Because of how much they risked creating a paradox, they were all destroyed. Though, because of time travel, that didn’t matter all that much.
“Of sorts,” Holly Blue answered, walking into the room.
“What does this do, Holly?” Brooke asked.
“It doesn’t remove someone from a moment in time. It removes them from an alternate timeline.”
“How is that better?”
“Each new timeline exists because of an instance of time travel in the timeline that came before it.” She used airquotes for the word. “The point of divergence happens at the moment the traveler arrives in the past, which always acts to collapse their originating timeline at the moment of egress. Nothing happens after they leave, because that timeline doesn’t need to exist anymore, and in fact, can’t.”
“Okay, I follow...”
Holly Blue stepped forward, and presented the mirror she had built. “This thing, if it works, can take someone from the previous timeline at that moment of collapse. Unlike with an extraction mirror, they don’t have to go back, because the timeline doesn’t rely on them doing so.”
“Why did you build this? Who are you trying to get to?”
Holly Blue stuck her hand behind the mirror, and switched it on. The frame began to hum, and the glass turned a shade of red before slowly becoming orange, and continuing along the spectrum. “Myself.” She pushed another button, and the hum intensified. Green, Blue, Indigo. “Sharice has already asked me to use it to help me help her shorten our trip through interstellar space.”
“Holly Blue, I don’t know if you should do this. Even if we’re not in danger of creating a paradox, it’s still dangerous to meet with an alternate version of yourself. People don’t like it. I’m serious, if anyone finds out, they might kill one of you, or make you merge into one person.”
“No one is gonna make me do shit, especially not once I have The Weaver on my side.” She pressed the final button, which turned the glass completely black.
“Is it supposed to do that?” Brooke asked.
“I sure hope so.” Holly Blue stepped back slowly as the mirror started to vibrate, then tremble, then full on shake.
Brooke decided to follow suit.
The mirror continued to quake until reaching critical mass, and just toppling over. They could hear the glass breaking on the floor. “Shit,” Holly Blue exclaimed in a loud whisper, extremely disappointed.
“Let’s consider this a sign,” Brooke said. “Maybe you shouldn’t be messing with alternate realities. Here, I’ll help you clean up.” She reached down, and lifted the frame, which revealed a body under it, curled up like a turtle. “Oh my God.” She tossed the mirror up and away, then knelt down to help the woman, who was bleeding all over her body from the shards of broken glass.
The woman struggled to stand up, and looked around, quickly settling on Holly Blue.
“It worked,” Holly Blue said, eyes wide with delight.
“It would seem,” The Weaver replied. She looked back at the machine she had just used to come here. “I know what this is. I came up with it years ago, but scrapped the plans after I realized it would cause more problems than it would fix. Have you ever been in a fight with yourself? It’s not as fun as it sounds.”
“I just need your help,” Holly Blue said. “I hear you came up with something called the cylicone? What is that?”

Part XI

Coming soon...

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