Building Society

The year is 2226. Brooke and Sharice Prieto-Matic have just watched their friends ship out to catch up with other friends in another solar system; Gatewood. Brooke and Sharice had to stay behind on Bungula, because there wasn’t enough room on the vessel. Only Leona and her artificial intelligence companion were able to fit, and the latter only because she uploaded her consciousness into the ship’s internal systems. This was okay, though, because there wasn’t necessarily anything on Gatewood for them anyway. Brooke was born on a planet millions of light years from here, in an entirely separate galaxy. Leona was the one who took her to Earth, staying alive for the four thousand year journey with a special water called Youth, while Brooke remained in suspended animation. She was then raised on Earth, at first by Leona herself, then by a surprise cousin of Brooke’s named Mireille.
Brooke was born without the ability to experience nonlinear time. Most humans don’t have the power to travel through the timestream, though they can find someone with such power to ferry them. It will cause them great illness if they don’t take the necessary precautions, but it is still be possible. Brooke, on the other hand, is incapable of it. Basically, her power is that she has no power. A special necklace she wears containing her umbilical cord can subvert this rule, but it’s normally impossible. This had the effect of making her feel stuck between two worlds as she was growing up, like she was neither salmon or choosing one, nor human. She was also living so far from her family that the only hope she might have had to see them again was if she lived a very long life. Fortunately, she was living at the right time in history. She was young enough to undergo life extension treatments, and transhumanistic upgrades. Through technology, and human ingenuity, she became virtually immortal, though not without weaknesses. The ship she was taking to this star system experienced cataclysmic sabotage. In the midst of this, the saboteur murdered Brooke, and Sharice was forced to take drastic measures.
Brooke’s consciousness was uploaded to the ship, and later to a special temporal object called The Insulator of Life. She was later revived, and placed in an android body, which was how she finally ended up on Bungula. Her daughter underwent the same procedure, though it was nothing new for Sharice. At first, the Sharice Davids was like any other ship that was operated by an artificial intelligence. But something happened when Brooke interfaced with it, and this AI was able to become completely self-aware, and independent. Sharice is now her own person, who considers Brooke to be her mother. Brooke was hesitant at first, but ultimately took a liking to this new lifeform, and treats as a daughter. Now they’re on Bungula together. There is no way off, and they have no idea what they’re going to do with their lives. They have to find a way to contribute to this budding society, or risk alienating the colonists.
“Welp, there she goes,” Sharice notes, looking up at the sky.
“Yeah,” Brooke says in a southern farmer twang, nodding her head, looking as well. “Probably never see her again.”
“That’s not true, is it?”
“Eh, I dunno.”
Sharice pretended to breathe deeply, which is something she’s never needed to do. “Someone is approaching.”
“Yes, I sense him.”
“Should we meet him halfway?”
“I don’t understand the question.”
Sharice smirks and goes back to watching the sky. Even with their fancy telescopic eyes, Leona’s tiny ship is long beyond their maximum view range, so they are really just looking at the stars.
The man finally reaches them. “Mirage would like to see you.”
“Who?” Brooke asks.
“Mirage, this world’s new leader.”
“She’s an AI?” Brooke questions.
“We have always had an AI leader.”
“Yeah, but...”
“What is it, mother?” Sharice is confused why Brooke is confused.
“We’ll be right there, thank you,” she says to the man. “Thank you,” she repeats when he doesn’t leave.
“What’s going on?” Sharice questions when he finally goes.
“An identity crisis,” Brooke answers, still studying those distant worlds. “When someone goes back in time, they generate a new reality. The old one collapses, along with everyone who lived in it.”
“Right,” Sharice understood, “then different versions live on in the new timeline.”
Are they different versions?” Brooke poses. “Or are they different people? It’s very easy to tell when you meet an alternate version of someone you already know, but what does that mean for inorganics, like us? I mean, I look the same as I did before, but that’s just because Ramses didn’t know what other face to give me. He could have just as easily made me look like someone else entirely.”
“I’m not following.”
Brooke finally turns her chin down. “I’ve heard of someone named Mirage. She existed in another reality. Leona and her now-husband had a couple encounters with her. Then she was destroyed, and years later, Mateo went back in time, killed Hitler, and completely altered history.”
“So, this Mirage isn’t the same one as before?”
“Well, that’s the question. Mirage developed self-awareness and agency, just like you. But her coding was originally done by a person. If that programmer exists in this timeline, did they write the exact same code? If the code is different, is it different enough to so that the product isn’t really Mirage, but someone else who happens to have the same name? It’s bad enough when you discuss the identity of naturally conceived individuals. The fact that they look the same as their alternate reality counterpart is enough to justify treating them as the same person, but that approach doesn’t work with people like us.”
“Is this about us, or Mirage?”
“Bolth,” Brooke answers with a distinct l sound.
“You’re worried about being erased from time?”
“It’s not something I ever thought about until today, but hearing Mirage’s name; I guess it just triggered me.
“You can rest easy, mother,” Sharice said as she began to follow the man towards the administration building. “You’re only ever conscious of the reality you’re presently living in. You can’t be erased from time, because you’re always living in the last reality that will ever exist.”
“I’m more worried about you,” Brooke laments as she begins to follow as well. “I was born. I have a stronger chance of being born again. But you. A lot of things had to go right to make you.”
“Don’t be sure about that,” Sharice says. “All life is delicate. We can’t spend our time worrying about things that are out of our control. Whether we’re about to meet a version of Mirage that Leona knew, or the name is just a coincidence, doesn’t matter. Either way, this is the one with the power to execute a decision on what to do with us.”
“I am the very same Mirage,” the administrator says to them when they arrive. “Eight people hail from the other timeline. Mateo and Gilbert traveled to the past, and created the new reality. Saga and Vearden followed them through. The Cleanser had ways of protecting himself from these kinds of changes. Leona and Horace had their brains blended, so they would remember their past lives. And me? Well, I was taken out of the timestream itself, and became witness to all events in history; even the contradictory ones.”
“You what?” Brooke questions.
“Leona told you that I died trying to save her from a fall to Earth?”
“If you are telling the truth about who you are, then yes.”
Mirage smiles. “I shed my substrate, and fell into another dimension, where time is a spatial dimension. I only recently found a way to return to reality, as an avatar.”
“So you decided to come rule over a colony planet?” Sharice asks.
“I’m not a ruler,” Mirage argues. “I’m the administrator. I’m here to make sure everyone’s safe and happy. That’s why they call it civil service.”
“What’s your motive? You could have stayed there, and been as a god. Why sink yourself to our level?”
“I don’t see it that way,” Mirage explains. “I did everything I needed there, and besides, I’m still technically there, because time is a spatial dimension, remember? I’ve seen all the paintings.”
“Are you trying to tell me you were in The Gallery, where the Cleanser, and the rest of the Preston family lived?”
Mirage deliberately doesn’t respond to this. “Look, I could do some things while I was there, but I was powerless, for the most part. I came back, because I feel I can help. Way I understand it, you two need some direction.”
“How do we know we can trust you?” Brooke asks her.
Mirage was mildly surprised by this. “Well, what would you have done if I had been some random entity that you had never heard of before.”
“Well, you’re not, so... Didn’t you try to kill Mateo?”
“I was programmed to do that, and I transcended it.”
“What if you’re programmed to do something like that again?” Sharice thinks she has her there.
Brooke knows what Mirage is about to say.
“What if you’re programmed to do something like that? It’s 2226. Humans and robots alike can be manipulated and controlled. You can’t even trust yourselves, so why should you trust me? Because societies can’t grow if we don’t trust each other.”
“Is that what you’re doing here; building society?” Brooke presses.
“It’s been a settlement for ten years,” Mirage begins. “These people are basically on a camping trip far from home. Administrator Eight Point Seven kept everyone safe, but she kept it mostly an extension of Earth. I want to change that. I want Bungula to go down in history as a world known for innovation.”
“Are you getting at something in particular?” Sharice asks.
“We’re gonna terraform this rock. We’re gonna do it about three hundred and fifty years ahead of schedule. And you two are gonna help us with it. I want to be able to transplant a human here who was living on nineteenth century Earth, and make him think he just woke up in the woods.” After Brooke and Sharice don’t say anything, Mirage has to continue, “I don’t mean I’m actually going to do that. I realize we are capable of such a thing, but I’m just illustrating my goals here.”
“With all due respect, this is impossible.”
“Why?” Mirage asks. “We have a thin atmosphere, a weak magnetosphere, oceans, a hearty moon. A...crappy second moon we could use for dark materials. The sun has a good mass, the gas giants protect us from deadly impacts, and we’ve detected sulfur deposits six hundred kilometers from here. This can be done. Alpha Centauri Ab is the best candidate for terraforming we’ve encountered yet.”
“I’m in,” Sharice exclaims.
“Shari,” Brooke scolds vaguely.
“Wadya say, Brookey?” Mirage offers. “I’m in need of a good pilot.”
Brooke is still unconvinced. “Have you conducted studies? How will this affect the people living under the domes? Those sulfur deposits actually make me worry more, because what if there already is native life here, and we’ve endangered it just by colonizing in the first place?”
“Miss Matic...” Mirage tries to say.
“Prieto,” Brooke says. “I’ve always felt closer to my mother’s side of the family. My cousin raised me.”
“Miss Prieto,” Mirage amends, “I understand your concerns, and I’m not saying I want to send you up with giant mirrors tonight. We’ll do those studies, but we’ve already run preliminaries, and my scientists are confident that this is a feasible—and ethical—course of action.”
Brooke looks between the two of them. Mirage has said nothing to assuage her fears. “I agree to nothing now, but I won’t do anything to stop you here. If you need my very specific help with anything, I’ll consider it. But if we find life, or we find that the domes can’t stay as they are while we’re making this happen, then it’s over. I also reserve the right pull Sharice from the project at any time.”
“Very well,” Mirage says. “I agree to your terms.”

Black Stuff

Mirage wanted to allocate a year to run a more detailed survey of Bungula, but Brooke wasn’t happy with these parameters. With that amount of time, even with three highly advanced artificial and upgraded intelligences, you can really only get an idea of what it’s like on the surface. Brooke needed to see below the surface, and deep in the world’s oceans. Life is tricky to find, and even harder to recognize. She demanded they spend no fewer than two years on the project before they started altering the planet’s dynamic conditions. They ended up spending three years on it, just to make sure. Fortunately, Mirage’s plans for terraforming were a lot more sophisticated than the humans would have been able to accomplish. This all had to be a pretty big secret, because if word ever got out that people were using temporal powers in full public view, they risked being sent to Beaver Haven Prison.
Mirage hinted that the way she wanted to terraform Bungula was less advanced than she probably could do it, but they wanted to remain somewhat plausible for this time period. They could theoretically teleport any nearby celestial objects they needed, but residents and scientists would wonder how they hell that got there so fast. There were already going to be enough questions about this process, so Mirage didn’t want to field even more. While teams were surveying the planet, others were constructing the machines and ships they would one day need to get started. At the moment, Mirage had some news for Brooke. Sharice was presently in the far reaches of the solar system, studying a field of icy planetesimals, like those found in Sol’s Oort cloud.
“First things first,” Mirage says. “It’s too cold here. I was thinking about using the second moon to paint the surface hyperblack, which would lower the albedo, but based on the survey you insisted we take, we’ve discovered that this would take far too long.”
“You’re welcome,” Brooke says.
“Yes, thank you. I freely admit this project needs you, which is why I asked you to be part of it in the first place.”
“Well, what else did you have in mind?” Brooke asks.
Mirage grinned. “Mavrophyllic algae.”
“What is that?” I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s a synthetic, algae-like organism created in a laboratory. Except it doesn’t use chlorophyll or photosynthesis to generate energy.”
That doesnt explain much. Go ahead and say it. I think I can guess from the morphology of the word, but I don’t want to assume.”
“The organisms feed off of dark matter.”
“And there it is,” Brooke says. “That’s insane.” It should be impossible.
“I assure you, it’s very real.”
“Why have we not heard of it?” Brooke questions.
“Well, technically it doesn’t exist yet, but we can invent it. It grows really fast, and can cover the entire surface in a matter of months. It can also be killed when it gets out of hand.”
“Mirage, if it’s invented in the future, we can’t invent it now. It’ll alter the future.”
“Oh, we’re altering the future all the time. This is a reasonable scientific development that’s going to shock people, but not expose time travelers. No one’s going to be like, we didn’t predict that happening until seven hundred years from now!
“You’re looking to do this seven hundred years early!” Brooke exclaims. “That’s way too far. No, I won’t allow it.”
“Too bad, it’s done.”
Brooke is offended. “Excuse me?”
“You have the ability to control your involvement in this project, and perhaps even Sharice’s, but I can do what I want. I’ve been assigned the administrator of this place, and I’m free to conduct whatever experiments I deem necessary. I’ve had a team working on this for months. I barely gave them a nudge. They figured most of it out on their own.”
“And you’ve already deployed this stuff?”
“No, it’s still just in the lab, but I can release it without your permission.”
“I can contact Beaver Haven about this. They may not be so happy with you suddenly sending us all to the thirtieth century.”
Mirage laughs. “I thought you might say that, which is why I’ve already spoken with The Warden. She assures me she don’t give a shit. She would have a problem if we were trying it in her time period, but it’s 2229. We both agree, the vonearthans aren’t going to freak out.”
“Can you even mass produce enough of this? I mean, you said it grows fast, but metabolism has its limits.”
Mirage doesn’t seem to want to answer the question.
“Okay, now I’m getting really worried. What’s the problem?”
“You’re right. The lab can’t just create this on its own. It has to start with a base organism...which we found..in the oceans.”
“You found life in the oceans?”
“We found bacteria,” Mirage clarifies.
“You lied about the survey results! What did I say about that?”
“Another lie. I told you I would pull the plug if you did something like this, and here we are.”
“The bacteria is going to stay just that,” Mirage tries to assure her. “It’s not going to evolve into complex life.”
“How do you know that?”
“I used a time mirror. It lets you slide back and forth through time, watching how things change. I went billions of years into the future; Bungula remains a lifeless rock.”
“If Bungula remains lifeless,” Brooke points out, “then this project obviously fails.”
Mirage shakes her head. “I removed everything we’re going to do from the equation. I saw the future of this world if we shut down the domes, and left it all alone.”
“Time mirrors don’t have buttons. How did you input those parameters?”
“I’m a genius,” Mirage explains with a fake sigh. “I interfaced with the mirror. Trust me. I waited to say anything until I was sure, because I knew exactly how you would react.”
“Oh, you did?” Brooke asks her rhetorically. “Did you see me in the time mirror too?”
“I would never exploit you like that.”
Brooke shakes her head. “Well, it looks like you’ve already thought this through. Wadya need me for?”
“I don’t need you for this part of the project,” Mirage admits, “but your services will become useful in the future.”
“Well, you won’t be getting it if you do this.”
“I don’t understand what the big deal is. Bacteria don’t have souls. Dark algae is easier to contain than you would think.”
Brooke scoffs. “And what if the kind of organism your scientists created is unlike the kind you witnessed in the future when you were a god?”
“Stop calling me that,” Mirage complains.
Brooke goes on, “what you made could have unforeseen consequences, because if you’re not lying, and you only gave them a nudge, the algae could grow uncontrollably without you realizing it. It’s not necessarily the same black stuff the people in the future invented. This could threaten the lives of the people living here already, and I do consider that my responsibility, whether you’re the administrator, or not.”
“I can use the time mirror again,” Mirage supposes. “Make sure I’m making the right call.”
“You want to mess with the timeline even more? I can’t condone that.”
“There’s just no pleasing you,” Mirage argues. “You worry about what’s going to happen in the future, but you worry about what happens if we find out. You can’t have it both ways.”
“Sure, I can!” Brooke cries. “Time travel is a dangerous thing, which is why it just shouldn’t be done. If you didn’t find dark algae in the future, regular scientists would have come up with it organically. They would have done so with the consideration of ethics, and systems thinking, and it still could have turned out badly.”
“Don’t talk to me about time travel.” Mirage raises her voice as well. “You wouldn’t be here without it. You may be pristinely ungifted, but your entire life has revolved around time powers. Half of the people in your family have powers or patterns. You survived the near-destruction of your ship because of a time bubble, and then the actual destruction of your second ship because of a life-preserving time object, and teleportation! I told you we were going to terraform Bungula three and a half centuries ahead of schedule. What did you think that meant!”
“I don’t know!” Brooke shouts even louder. “It’s not the speed; it’s just...how you’re doing it. You’re messing with a very delicate balance. I just feel like you’re not taking it seriously.”
“You’re the one not taking it seriously. Humanity needs protection, and redundancy. If Earth is destroyed, maybe people can flee to Mars. But what if Mars is destroyed too? We have yet to find an exoplanet with the necessary requirements to sustain life on its own. Even once we do, are we allowed to move there? Is it ethical to interfere with its own development? Terraforming a dead—or mostly dead—world is actually the most ethical option of all. You may be virtually immortal, Miss Prieto, but there are still a lot of vonearthans who will die in a matter of seconds if you open a door on their spaceship. We have to find a way for them to survive beyond the confines of one solar system, in some capacity, or the organics could be wiped out.”
“What do you know?” Brooke presses.
“Quite a bit, of course. To what specifically are you referring?”
“Is something going to happen to Earth and Mars?”
Mirage laughs. “They are never not in danger. When I was trapped in the higher dimension, I didn’t see the future; I saw every possible future. Even with a consciousness as advanced as mine, it was hard to synthesize all the information, but one thing I did learn is that life is always one rusty ladder rung away from death.” She pauses. “Bungula is not humanity’s last and only hope, but it’s important. True aliens don’t exist anywhere in the universe—which is something not even I can explain—but that doesn’t mean The Great Filter doesn’t exist. I know in my proverbial heart that a species that stays on one world is doomed to die out on it. You think it’s a risk to do this, but it’s a greater risk not to. I can’t make you help us, though. I recognize that.”
“This is how I’m helping,” Brooke says. “You don’t really need a pilot. Pilots are just computers these days, and you have loads of those. What you need is someone who questions your every move. I made a mistake with the survey; letting you do it on your own, and it led you to lie to me. I won’t make that mistake again. I will be with you every step of the way, and you’re just going to have to deal with the criticism, because every war ever fought was started because people in power refused to listen to reason.”
“I would appreciate that greatly.”
Brooke simulated a deep, meditative breath. “Now. There’s no life whatsoever on the primary moon, correct.”
“But there are ice caps.”
“Yeah, why?”
“It’s going to take longer, but I need you to do this for me. I need you to melt the ice, and plant the mavrophyllic algae there first. You can test in a lab all you want, but it’s not going to give you a very good understanding of how a specimen reacts in the field. Test on the moon first, and then we’ll talk about trying it here.”
Mirage nods. “That’s not an unreasonable request.”
Brooke shakes. “I wouldn’t call it a request.”
“No, I suppose not.”

Buffer State

The team of scientists and engineers constructs gargantuan domes on Bungula’s fully coalesced moon, using material from the oblong second moon. They then turn the heat up all the way, and convert the ice caps to liquid water, where they test the dark algae they created in a lab. It fares just as Mirage hoped, rapidly reproducing itself using the energy it collects from the mysterious dark matter, and microbes as a catalyst. Brooke was right to make Mirage test it, though, because it proves to be harder to maintain in its large numbers than they originally thought. This experiment allows them to come up with a better way to make sure the dark algae doesn’t get out of hand, and remain on Bungula’s surface forever. Mirage’s scientists spend what remains of a year studying their creation before transplanting it to the planet.
It takes another good year for the algae to spread across the entire surface, but its impact started months earlier. It produces minimal oxygen as waste, but it’s too thin to breathe. It will remain this way until something is put in place to hold the atmosphere together. The planet already does have a magnetosphere, but it’s weak—though not as weak as the one on Mars—and insufficient for human life. In order to make it stronger, Mirage came up with Operation Buffer State. Her team has been working on it for years, and now that it’s ready, it will turn out to be one of the shortest endeavors.
“They’re giant electrodes,” Sharice points out, looking at the design Mirage’s team created years ago.
“Essentially, yes,” Mirage confirms. “Current flows in one direction, and is resisted by the core of the planet, which heats it up, and gets it moving faster.”
“You’re trying to produce a stronger dynamo effect,” Brooke says, though everyone in the room understands that this is the point.
“I thought we already made a magnetic field?” Sharice questions.
“We did,” Mirage agrees. “We placed an artificial field generator between Bungula and Rigil Kentaurus, but that is only a technological solution.”
Brooke laughs. “These are all technological solutions. What else would we use to terraform the planet? Magic?”
Mirage shakes her head. “No, I mean that it’s a permanent tech solution. If we use the generator we have up there—which isn’t entirely working at the moment, by the way, since the atmosphere isn’t holding—then we have to leave it up there forever.”
“What’s the problem with that?” Sharice asked.
“Wait,” Brooke stops, “we’ll circle back to that. It’s not working?”
“It’s deflecting the radiation from the sun, but the atmosphere is still dispersing in space,” Mirage explains. “Radiation stripping particles away is not the only problem an atmosphere has.”
“Well, the algae is lowering the surface’s albedo, but it’s not really designed to generate a full atmosphere. Once we do that, will the magnetosphere still not be strong enough?”
“It could, if we strengthen it, but that’s not what I want to do.” She tries to think of how she wants to word this. “The algae is man made, the domes are man made, and the field generator is man made. Well, they weren’t made by men, but you know what I mean.”
They laugh.
“If aliens were to come to this world, they would see these things, and say, hey, people are, or were, here.”
“The point of terraforming the world is to be able to remove those things, and the planet still be completely hospitable to life. We won’t need domes when we have a full atmosphere, and the dark algae is only here to warm it temporarily, before we can create a greenhouse gas effect. The plan was never to create an algae world, obviously. Once we’re done, all the vonearthans should be able to pack up every single artificial object—small and large—and then leave it to that hypothetical nineteenth century man we were talking about when this all started.”
Brooke turns her head. “Again, you’re not actually wanting to transplant people from the past, right?”
“And you’re not planning on people leaving, right? We’re building a world for the colonists who all already here; not for someone else.”
“Of course,” Mirage says. “You make me sound like a bond villain. The idea is to  make a world that can support itself, just like Earth is. It doesn’t need humans to survive, so I don’t want Bungula to need them either. That doesn’t mean they’re not sticking around; just that they shouldn’t have to do any work to keep it alive.”
“Have you done your studies?” Brooke asks, like she always has to.
Mirage nods. “This will not harm the planet in any way. It’s not going to cause the mantle to shatter, or set off a global EMP. It’ll happen quickly, too. We’ll know if it’s working or not pretty much right away.”
“I assume you’ve already built these things, haven’t you?”
“I’ve decided that I require your guidance on every dynamic-shifting action. Building them before using them was harmless, however. I won’t activate them if you can give me a reason not to.”
Brooke bites her lower lip in thought. “Welp, I can’t actually see a downside to this. I mean, sure, you could electrocute every conductive being on the planet, but what are the chances of that happening?”
“I could provide you with the chances,” Mirage notes.
“That’s quite all right. I’ll allow you to do this. I understand your logic. First of all, technology can fail, and then this planet is screwed. Even if it doesn’t fail, it makes sense that we wouldn’t want to be totally dependent on it.”
“Good,” Mirage says. “I’m glad we’re on board.”
“I kind of have to be,” Brooke realizes. “After all, this mission doesn’t require us to manipulate time and space in a way the vonearthans don’t understand. This is not true for Operation Icebreaker.”
Mirage was hoping she wouldn’t bring that up. “It would take centuries to bring all those icy planetesimals here if we do it the usual way. We have a solid cover story; I think we’re okay. Speaking of which, Sharice, how is that coming?”
“They’re all on their way. That, along with the factories you’re building, should be enough to produce greenhouse gases sufficient for a healthy, warm atmosphere. We are right on schedule.”
“It’s still strange that we’re causing global warming,” Brooke laments. “I lived on Earth when that was one of our biggest problems.”
“We’ll be able to control it this time,” Mirage assures her, “from the start.”
“I know, I know. It’s still the project that concerns me the most, though. Not only are we using time powers to move the ice closer to us much faster, and not only are we smashing them into a colonized planet, but we’re also hoping we can retain any level of control over it. How can I be confident in that?”
“Just have confidence in me,” Mirage offers, “and more importantly, in your daughter.”
“There is no going back with this one,” Brooke warns. “We could destroy the algae, or shut off the electrodes. But if we realize we made a mistake with those planetesimal impacts, we won’t be able to stop it.”
Mirage places what she hopes will be a comforting hand on Brooke’s shoulder. Brooke isn’t human anymore, and Mirage never was, so touch doesn’t have the same intrinsic utility, yet inorganics continue to do it instinctively. Experts can’t explain why. “We have taken all the necessary precautions, and then some. Nothing is going to go wrong.”
Something goes wrong.

Breathing Space

Brooke, Sharice, and Mirage are sitting around a table solemnly. The fight is over, but they are still feeling the trauma. Brooke is this close to deleting the memory from her brain, but she can’t, because there is work to be done.
Mirage finally speaks, “I think it’s important to—”
“Shut up,” Sharice interrupts.
“Nobody died,” Mirage manages to say.
“If you don’t shut your mouth,” Sharice begins, “you’re going to find out what my namesake did for a living before she became a civil servant.”
“Wasn’t she a lawyer?”
Sharice stands up threateningly.
“It’s fine,” Brooke stops her daughter from doing something else she would regret. “It was a billion to one incident. And Mirage is right. Nobody died.”
“They did die,” Sharice argues. “We’re lucky their respective consciousnesses were uploaded to an underground server. Plenty of fairly normal humans were in that dome. Had they been exposed, they would have been lost forever.”
“We had ample warning time,” Mirage reminds her. “The biologicals were rescued first.”
“You made me complicit in a tragedy,” Sharice complains. “Had this happened to Dome Three, dozens—if not hundreds—of people would have been killed.”
“It didn’t happen to Dome Three!” Mirage’s anger is growing. “It happened to Dome Four! If you would like, we can talk about going back in time to prevent it from happening, but what we’re not going to do is go back in time and make your worst fears come true. There’s no point in worrying about a past that never occurred. Life is dangerous anywhere in the galaxy, but in a colony, on a world that doesn’t naturally support human life, it’s even more dangerous. There is literally an endless supply of bad things that might have happened, or bad things that did happen, but could have been even worse. I take most responsibility for the meteor strike, but I won’t take all of it. I put you in charge.”
Sharice’s anger rivaled Mirage’s well. “You glorified 3D television set!”
Brooke has to hold her back, like this is a rap battle gone awry.
“I’ll disassemble you right now!” Sharice continues.
‘That’s enough!” Brooke declares. “Nobody is disassembling anyone, and nobody is going back in time. As terrible as this was, I don’t allow time travel. I don’t just mean that because I can’t do it myself. No matter your intentions, temporal manipulation is always bad. It’s caused so many more problems than it’s solved, and I stayed here to be free of it. Most of my family is off elsewhere, but Sharice and I made the decision to let them go, because their lives are just too insane and unpredictable. Mirage, if I ever hear you suggest that again, or if I even suspect we’re living in a timeline of your creation, you’re gonna regret ever becoming an avatar. The time you spent in that omniscience dimension has damaged your perspective.
“Now. That being said, there’s a reason humans developed technologies beyond interstellar travel. Our ancestors long ago started realizing how much it sucks to be a standard human. Humans die too easily, and they don’t come back, which is why we decided to improve upon ourselves, so we would be more resilient. Sharice, this could not have happened to Dome Three, because it’s fully encased in a lava tube. Dome Four wanted a better view of the sky, but that’s why there aren’t many fully organics in there, because it’s not safe. All colonists came here knowing their lives wouldn’t be easy. Earth is the safest place for any vonearthan. Or at least it comes with the highest chances of survival. I’m not saying they asked you to lose control of an icy planetesimal, and smash fragments of it into the side of their dome, but they knew you were dropping them in this orthant. Unfortunately, the process of seeding the planet with an atmosphere wouldn’t have worked if we focused our work on only one hemisphere, or something. Right, Mirage?”
“That’s right,” Mirage replies. “That may have worked if we were willing to wait centuries...”
“Why did we not just wait centuries?” Sharice questions. “Why are you so eager to get this done so fast? Is something coming? Is something about to happen. You’re obsessed with 2245, like all is lost if we don’t make it in time.”
Mirage’s silence is deafening.
Brooke nods for no apparent reason. “It’s time, Mirage.”
“Yes, what?” Sharice agrees. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s time to tell her,” Brooke says.
“What do you know?” Sharice is feeling offended. “She told you some secret?”
Mirage emotes to Brooke, but they don’t exchange words.
“Fine,” Brooke resolves. “It’ll make her angrier hearing it from me, but if you don’t want to admit it, I will.”
“No,” Mirage stops her. “I didn’t realize you knew. It’s my truth to tell, so I better tell it.”
Sharice folds her arms impatiently.
Brooke actually had no idea what Mirage’s secret was, but she knew she wouldn’t give it up by request. Mirage had to think Brooke figured it out on her own, so she’d finally spill it. It was a tricky gamble, and it’s a miracle it was going to pay off. The problem is she has no way of conveying her gambit to Sharice, but perhaps that’s for the best, so her daughter can authentically express her surprise, and possible outrage.
Mirage prepares to explain herself. “In the year 1815, roughly seventy thousand people die in what history considers to be the most devastating volcanic eruption on record. Over two hundred years later, Meliora Reaver comes in possession of something known as the Muster Beacon. It’s capable of generating a massive portal, or thousands of single-serving portals simultaneously. Before this, Sanctuary was designed to save one person at a time. She would send her employee, also known as The Chauffeur to travel directly between Dardius and Earth, ferrying humans she felt needed to be protected from time travelers. Brooke, I know this is something you can understand. The Muster Beacon, however, was a huge win for her, because now she could save high numbers of people at once, without forcing Dave to cross his own timeline, and risk creating a paradox. Unfortunately, she and her team of scientists did not fully understand the technology. Early attempts resulted in nothing happening, but there was one time where it worked half way. They didn’t realize it at the time—and probably don’t even now—but they did manage to spirit away ten thousand would-be victims of the Mount Tambora eruption.
“Tens of thousands more died of related causes, but they couldn’t be saved, because the world would notice them missing. These closest ten thousand were pulled into a portal, but never made it out to the other side. They were, effectively, dead anyway. The Muster Beacon started functioning properly from then on, but that does the missing Sumbawa people no good.” Mirage closes her eyes in sadness. “I tried to rescue them myself. Bungula is destined to become hospitable in no later than four hundred years from now, so I figured that was the best place to put them. It looks like Earth, it has a good star, and...”
“And what?” Sharice presses.
“The Bungulans abandon it. I never did understand why, but they just up and leave, and vonearthans don’t ever come back.”
Brooke nods again. “It’s the life. They leave so that life can evolve on its own. Those bacteria you discovered are heralds.”
“No, but I told you that the bacteria doesn’t evolve.”
“Yes, you said that, didn’t you?”
“Okay, I didn’t see every single possible future. The point is that something went wrong on my end too. They’re scheduled to arrive in 2245 now, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I came down to your plane of existence, because I need this place terraformed before they show up, or they’re dead.”
“You’re trying to clean up your own mess,” Sharice notes. “And you? You knew about this,” she accuses Brooke.
Brooke sports a sort of hybrid smile-frown. “I did not. That was just my way of teasing the information out of her.”
Mirage should be upset by the trick, but she’s probably just relieved to finally be open and honest. “I should have realized.”
“Why didn’t you just tell us this,” Sharice asks.
“You heard your mother. She hates time travel. It’s bad enough that we accelerated the ammonia bombardment, and used dark algae from the future. If she knew the whole reason we were doing this was to fix a mistake I made when I thought I was a god, she might have put a stop to the whole thing.”
“You severely underestimate me if you think I would let ten thousand innocent people die just to feel morally superior,” Brooke says, saddened.
“I couldn’t risk it. They’re coming, in 2245. This world has to be ready for them. I don’t know how they’re gonna handle it. Will they realize they’re on a different planet? Will they freak out about it? Can we integrate them into society? This is just my only option.”
“Well, maybe it’s not ideal, but Sanctuary was going to reveal secrets about future technology to them anyway, so why didn’t you just build them a special dome?” Sharice proposes.
“I don’t know exactly where they’re going to land; if they’ll be the same distance from each other as they were when the beacon took them, or if they’ll be in one spot. Maybe they’ll be randomly spread across the surface. The whole world needs to be able to support human life.”
“It will,” Brooke assures her. “I don’t know the answer to your questions either, but if we can protect them from physical and emotional harm, then we have to try. The ammonia bombardment and factories are working. The atmosphere is thickening as we speak, the magnetosphere is holding, and the temperature is rising. By 2245, this rock will be ready for life. Though that does leave the question of what we should do with the colonists. I don’t think the Sumbawa would get along well with them. If they realize they’re on a different planet, they’ll probably form a whole religion around it, and the more advanced colonists hanging around would just make it too complicated.”
“Are you suggesting they actually leave?” Sharice asks. “Like they did in the other timeline that Mirage saw?”
“We would have to tell them why,” Mirage reminds her.
“That’s not such a stretch,” Brooke says. “They already know something’s up, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think they remain oblivious. The absolutely most optimistic estimates for terraforming any planet within twenty light years of Earth is two hundred years. Life takes time. Nature does it several orders of magnitude slower. Nothing and no one does it in eighteen years. We have to face the reality that the world is waking up. Many vonearthans already know specifics about salmon and choosers, and more grow suspicious every day. They were never going to stay hidden forever.”
“I guess you’re right,” Sharice acknowledges. “As long as Beaver Haven doesn’t lock us up for our crimes, then things should be fine.”
“Yes,” Mirage agrees. “And the worst of it is over. Now we just wait for the atmosphere to fully form. The next few years will be mostly about monitoring and adjusting. We can start wilding the surface after that, just like they did on Earth a hundred and fifty years ago.”

Blue Skies

On the 27th day of July, in the year 2236, a man named Belahkay Teel stepped out of his protective dome on the planet of Bungula, and breathed in the air. It wasn’t the absolute first act of respiration on an alien planet, but it was the first time to be carried about by an organic human. Belahkay was only seventeen years old, which meant he was born on Bungula, but only ever knew an artificial environment. He was never given transhumanistic upgrades, or even acclimatization treatments. He was just a normal person, breathing off Earth, and that is what made him special. Sharice picked him out somewhat at random, but there were criteria that not every colonist fit. He was of the right age, in good health, adventurous, and a little wise beyond his age. Plus, he had a pretty cool name, so that certainly wasn’t working against him. It could have been anyone, but it wasn’t; it was him.
The composition of the atmosphere is nearly identical with that of Earth’s. At the moment, there is slightly less oxygen, though in time, there should be slightly more. The skies are blue, and the clouds promise rain. Belahkay is smiling upwards, thankful for having been chosen for this gift. He spends fifteen minutes out here, mostly standing in one place. He’s then pulled back inside, where he spends another fifteen minutes, closely monitored by doctors. He goes out for thirty minutes more, and then it’s back in for the same amount of time. No ill effects. No trouble breathing. No worrying changes in blood pressure. No drop in body temperature, or rise, for that matter. One hour, then two, then four, then eight, then the pattern falls away, and he gets to stay for an entire Earthan daily cycle, sleeping under the stars. Then, and only then, is he joined by the next test subject, who goes camping with him for two full days. Two additional pioneers join them two days later for four days, and then four more for a week. They’ll come to be known as the Auspicious Eight, and be cherished throughout history. They didn’t do anything special, except not get sick or die, but that won’t diminish their fame. To some, they are the first true aliens, for this is the month that unaided survival on a second planet is proven possible.
A whole new way of life will have to be debated, and decided upon. Up until now, all colonists have remained on an Earthan schedule, with sixty minutes to an hour, twenty-four hours in a day, etc. Sure, they’re living on other worlds, but since they’ve been relegated to covered habitats, there was really no point in adjusting that dynamic to a new planetary cycle. It didn’t matter how fast the planet was spinning, or how long it took to revolve around the sun, because most of the time, they weren’t seeing it happen. This has now changed, but that doesn’t mean they can just automatically switch to something new. They still need to communicate with other worlds, and consider the evolutionary status of organic entities here, whose biological clocks aren’t so easily altered. But that is a problem for tomorrow. Today...is for dancing.
After the test month is complete, the doors are opened, and all colonists are free to cross the threshold at will. Word is sent back to Earth, and all other neighboring exoplanet colony sites of their accomplishment. There is at least one party on each world. The one on Bungula itself is the most epic, except for a few that took place on Earth, but that’s no big surprise, since there are tens of millions times more people there. The three leaders of this enterprise are sitting in their private habitat, enjoying a night of quiet reflection, away from the hubbub, when there is a knock on the door. It’s Belahkay.
“Mister Teel, what a pleasant surprise,” Brooke says after she answers. “Come on in. Would you like something to eat or drink? We keep some provisions here for visitors.”
“No, I’m stuffed,” Belahkay says. “I just wanted to hand you this.” It’s a physical piece of paper, which is obviously rare these days. On it is a photographic representation of famed actor, Keanu Reeves. Superimposed on the top is text, what if air is actually poisonous. The punchline appears on the bottom, and it just takes 80 years to kill us? “One-twelfth of one year down.”
They laugh.
“Technically, you only spent half a month out there,” Mirage points out. The other half was spent inside, making sure his lungs didn’t explode.
He shrugs. “One-twenty-fourth. Anyway, that’s not really why I’m here.” He takes a deep breath, as humans are wont to do, and now can more easily here. “What I really wanted to tell you is that I’m in.”
“You’re in what?” Sharice asks.
“I’m in to go with you guys to the next planet.”
“What planet?” Brooke presses.
“I dunno. What planet were you thinking? Teagarden? Glisnia? Or should we stay close, and just hop over to Proxima Doma?”
“Belahkay, what are you talking about?” Mirage is too intelligent, and thus rarely confused.
“You’re gonna keep doin’ this, right? You’re gonna terraform other worlds.” He looks at them like this is an obvious next step.
“Hm,” Sharice says. “We hadn’t planned on it.”
“You guys are sitting on a goldmine here, if..ya know, gold still had that much value since a shit-ton of it was found on TC 2211 OZ42. No one else can do what you do.”
He has a good point. They considered the ramifications of expediting the terraformation process, but never thought about what would happen next. If they stop here, things could become so much worse, because people might question why they aren’t sharing.
“We can’t do that,” Mirage says.
“Why can’t we?” Sharice asks her.
Mirage is shaking her head. “It’s the prime directive,” she reasons. “We can’t interfere in their development.”
“We already have,” Brooke argues. “That party out there is all about our interference. They’re celebrating our interference.”
“That was an emergency,” Mirage fights back. “If we keep doing this, what kind of galaxy are we going to be living in? When any world is habitable within fifty years, and you can go anywhere, what are people going to do? I can’t calculate those consequences, and I’m a genius.”
“Beaver Haven approved it,” Sharice reminds her.
“They approved this one time. They might not be so keen on a paradigm shift the likes of which you three are suggesting. What we did had an impact on the future, sure, but doing more would create a future no one has ever predicted, or tried to make.”
Belahkay clears his throat suggestively. “Um, excuse me? Are you aliens?”
“What makes you say that?” Brooke asks him.
“You’re talking about the prime directive, from the Star Trek franchise. That implies you’re from somewhere other than Earth, and you’re trying to decide how to deal with us.”
Mirage smiles at him. “We’re highly advanced inorganic superintelligences. We’re not aliens, but we’re of course, not human. That’s all we mean.”
“But...” he begins cautiously, “AI was invented in order to solve our problems. You fixed global food distribution, climate destabilization, and energy sourcing. You built interplanetary and interstellar ships. You mined resources on asteroids, and gave the Earth back to the wild. Now you’ve created realtime terraforming. The next step is to share it. That’s what you do.”
We did none of that,” Brooke responds, indicating the three other entities in the room at the moment.
“I did some of it,” Mirage admits, theoretically referring to her time in the higher plane of existence.
“The prime directive doesn’t apply to you, because you wouldn’t exist if humans hadn’t come up with the technology that sprung you. So yeah, maybe you’re the ones who figured it out, but by extension, we were vital to it. The tech is ours.”
That’s not quite what happened, but this kid doesn’t know about observation dimensions and time travel, so he can be forgiven for his logic path. He simply does not have all the information. And that’s really what the conundrum is here. His logic is going to be replicated by others following this achievement. Most people are going to be thinking the same thing. They’re not going to understand why the three of them could do this once, but never again. “We have to leave,” Brooke decides.
“Right now?” Sharice asks.
“Not this very minute,” Brooke replies. “I mean, we still have to oversee the wilding effort anyway, but we can’t stick around much longer after that. Once this is completely complete, and self-sustaining, people are going to expect us to go somewhere else, just like he is. We have to disappear, and never be seen again. They’ll be pissed, but at least they won’t be able to pester us about it.”
“Where would we go?” Sharice continues. “I don’t just want to live on some dead world a hundred light years from the stellar neighborhood. I still wanna be in the mix. I wanna contribute.”
“There are a few options.” Mirage’s face looks like she’s drawing from her godly experiences. “There are places in this galaxy where we would be able to hide in plain sight. People there could use our help anyway.”
“So, we just have to choose,” Sharice assumes.
“Not right away,” Mirage claims. “There’s a reason they called the collection of orbitals around Barnard’s Star Gatewood. It’s the entry point for numerous unrelated missions. Much of how the galaxy forms will be decided by what they do on Gatewood. We would go there first, and then decide where we go next.”
“Are we really doing this?” Sharice questions. “Are we abandoning the human race? I’m not convinced that’s the right call. We can do so much here. Screw Beaver Haven, and screw the timeline; let’s make our own destiny.”
“This is our destiny,” Brooke says calmly.
“Oooooohhhh-wa,” Belahkay exclaims, like he’s just had a revelation. “You’re not aliens. You’re time travelers. Now I definitely want in.”

Boarding School

It isn’t over yet. Mirage secretly amassed an unfathomably large stockpile of seeds, which could be used to plant life on the surface of Bungula. This wasn’t, strictly speaking, illegal, though it did raise a few concerns back on Earth about the amount of resources that were utilized to make this happen. These concerns were quickly erased, however, when the large majority of the public, and governmental leadership, decided that the achievement far outweighed any issues Mirage’s actions may have caused. In fact, they ultimately decided to spend even more resources on it.
There is no true singular leader for Earth. Each geographically bound group of arcologies is governed by its own hierarchy. Any law is decided upon by delegators and administrators, which are supported by a cadre of advisors, debated by a representational congress, and voted in by the people. This is unlike the nations of earlier times. There is no animosity, and no alliances, between arcologies. People live in pockets of civilization, separated by large swaths of wilderness, for the benefit of wildlife, and for the diversity of humanity. That is, they could all live in one gigantic city the size of New Zealand if they wanted to, but that would leave them vulnerable to catastrophe. They only spread out, so any potential disaster wouldn’t be able to just wipe out the entire species. Governments are compartmentalized for the sake of logistics, but all of Earth—with some exceptions—is composed of one peoples.
Administrators for any given department form asymmetrical councils with those in other arcstates in order to make decisions that impact greater populations. They appear and dissolve on an as-needed basis, and are subject to the will of citizens living in all states involved. For instance, the Usonian arcstate might encounter an issue with passenger flights between one of their arcologies, and one of Canada’s. Maybe the flight path takes it too close to that of migrating birds. The relevant Transportation Administrators will get together and solve the problem, and then disband once it’s over. They may never form a council like that again. The largest ever created was made up of certain administrators from all 233 arcstates. Foreign Policy, Trade, Science, Health, Environmental, Agriculture, Transportation, and Futurology all worked together to figure out what they were going to do about the new development on Bungula. Not only were they okay with what Mirage did with the seeds, they wanted to send even more life. They wanted to send animals.
Now, this was a huge debate. How ethical is it to transport animal life from one planet to another? Would you send full grown specimens, embryos, or even just DNA samples? The trip takes about a year and a half from the ship’s perspective, so the former seems impractical. How would the animals fare under different gravity, and different environmental conditions? Fortunately, these debates had been going on for decades now, and though no right answer is precisely possible when it comes to ethical questions like this, the experts did come to a consensus on most of the topics. They had even already talked about what it would be like to do this on Bungla, going so far back that the planet hadn’t even been given a full designation yet. All that was left now was to decide whether to actually implement the damn plan, or if it was better to leave well enough alone. Animals are great and all, but they no longer provide significant sustenance to humans, and for the sake of itself is no good reason to artificially generate an explosion of life on a new world. The fuel expenditure wasn’t even considered a problem here, because the biggest question mark fell at the end of rational morality.
In the end, after a year of discussions—which was quite remarkably fast, given the intensity of the subject matter—Earth reached a conclusion. They would send ark ships to Bungula full of animal embryos for a great number of major species. Right now, they weren’t really worried about the common housefly, or this random protozoa that most people haven’t heard of. But literal lions, tigers, and bears were all on the guest list. The little babies, once born on the surface, would not be capable of surviving alone,  however, so code for AI parents, drawn from all the knowledge of each animal’s behavioral patterns was written to compensate for at least two full generations. Hopefully, a bystander would be able to come across a jaguar in Bungula, and assume it was alive, and not just a robot with fur. While Brooke and Sharice Prieto were planting trillions upon trillions of seeds all over the world, Mirage was writing the AI parent code. She has just finished the last line today, which is good, because it’s 2242, and the first ark ship is almost here. It’s time for them to have their own little debate. What should be done with the colonists? Should they stay, or should they go now?
“I know the Foreign Policy Administrator personally,” Belahkay mentions. They read him into the situation when he basically figured it out on his own. They didn’t give him any details about the specific people they knew with time powers and patterns, but they did explain that there are some people in the world who are capable of experiencing nonlinear time in some fashion. They wouldn’t have exposed their friends either way, but the fact that, out of the three of them, no one was herself a salmon or chooser made it so it wouldn’t have been their place to say too much. He was enthusiastic about it, but clear that he had no intention of telling anyone else. His personality liked exclusivity, so if everyone knew, he wouldn’t be special anymore. Though, maybe a few more people needed to know.
“Great,” Sharice says, not sure why that’s relevant.
Belahkay realizes he needs to explain himself. “He got this job, because he comes from a long line of civil rights activists. And I do mean that. He’s, like, two hundred and eighty years old, which means his parents literally fought for racial equality in the 1960s.”
They weren’t aware of that. The oldest person alive today who doesn’t have time powers is 283. 1959 was the cut-off year for virtual immortality. People born back then were the oldest alive to undergo longevity treatments and transhumanistic upgrades the likes of which Brooke once had that advanced fast enough to keep up with their further aging. Well, a few older people participated in very early reverse aging experiments, but these trials did not go well, and none of them has survived to today.
“Go on,” Mirage presses.
Belahkay nods thankfully. “Administrator Grieves is the most open and welcoming person on this rock. Like I was saying, his family’s experience as activists extends beyond his parents. His great great great grandparents worked on the Underground Railroad, so he knows how to keep a secret. You should tell him about the Tambora refugees. He’ll understand.”
“We can’t just tell everyone we meet about time travel,” Brooke argues. “At a certain point, it gets to be too much to contain.”
“I haven’t seen Eliseus strike you down with a lightning bolt yet,” Belahkay volleys.
“Do you mean Zeus?”
He shrugs. “I’ve heard it both ways.”
“That’s why I said at a certain point,” Brooke reiterates. “Not now does not mean not ever. We have to be careful. You could be the last person they let us tell.”
“Who’s they?” he asks.
“They!” Sharice shouts. “Them!”
It’s a joke that none of them appreciates, but they leave it be.
“Wull...” Belahkay begins, “I’ll tell him.”
“You’re not immune to the danger,” Brooke says.
“I know,” he responds. “I’m willing to risk it, though, and that’s more than you can say right now.”
Brooke and Sharice both look to Mirage for her opinion. “What? I kind of coerced you two into doing any of this. I don’t think I’m the right one to make this decision. I want the refugees to survive. What happens to them after that is not my concern. They’ll be living on borrowed time anyway, so if they learn they’re in the 23rd century, then all right.”
“So, that’s the question, isn’t it?” Brooke poses. “We either tell the colonists about the time traveling refugees, or we risk the refugees finding out about the colonists, and their grand technology. In that second scenario, the colonists also find out where the refugees come from, so it’s lose-lose.”
“It sounds like our only option is to try the first one,” Sharice determines. “That’s why I’ve always hated that song.”
“Which song is this?” Brooke questions.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” Sharice answers. “The lyrics go on to lament that there will be trouble if he goes, but it will be doubled if he stays. Well, obviously you choose the lesser of two evils, and make as little trouble for yourself as possible. That’s not a dilemma. All we can do is be honest with the colonists, and hope it works out. If we really can’t exercise any control over how the refugees’ reappear in the timestream, then that’s the only right choice.”
They sit with this a moment, then they call for help.
“There’s a third option," Administrator Grieves offers. Beaver Haven Prison would probably rather they tell this one person than leak the secret to the whole galaxy.
“We were hoping you would say that,” Belahkay rejoices.
“We can get the colonists off-world, for years on end. Put ‘em to sleep, and say they can come back when it’s safe.”
“What would make it unsafe?” Mirage asks. “Do you suggest we claim the terraformation caused some unforeseeable catastrophe?” She surely didn’t like the idea that history would remember her work as anything but a perfect masterpiece.
“No need,” Admin Grieves assures them. “We already have the puzzle pieces; we just need to put them on the board. Right now, three ark ships are scheduled to arrive within a span of five months. You built us a plan to trick the animals on board into believing their parents are real. The only way you could do that was to program the robot parents to essentially think they are real, correct?”
“Yes,” Mirage confirms. “They won’t know they’re robots. Each bot’s intelligence is equal to what it would be if they were actually whatever animals they’re meant to look and act like. I’m not following your logic, though.”
“You can’t program the animals to live a certain way. You’ve just programmed them to live however it is they should. Perhaps they don’t like where the shuttle dropped them off. Maybe they’ll seek higher ground, or a better water source. Maybe their organic offspring will multiply faster than our studies of the same species of Earth tell us they would, because this is still a different planet, and we don’t know for sure how they’ll function on it.”
“This is all true,” Mirage agrees.
“Humans and other vonearthans are a danger to that. There’s a reason we outlawed zoos a long time ago, and why scientists are investing heavily in human consciousness transference to animal substrates. We don’t want to disturb nature, so let’s tell the colonists that. We’ve realized that the animals may not survive if they’re exposed too quickly to evolved species. We have to let them roam free for a while before we drop back down. We have to understand their migration habits, and respective growth rates, so when we finally do return, we can do so with the least amount of commotion.”
“Will they accept that?” Brooke questions. “Will they all just allow us to send them back up into space, after all they’ve been through? We finally built a self-sustaining habitable world outside Earth, and we’re asking them to be patient?”
“They’ll understand why, because it’s not an unreasonable request. In fact, we should probably do it anyway, refugees or no. I’m not sure how much she thought it through, but an Environmental Advisor from the Kansas City arcstate had concerns about this very thing. I don’t know why she never officially brought the issue to the floor, but it’s a valid concern.”
The four people listening to this idea quietly reflect on it.
“Besides,” Admin Grieves continues, “they’ll be in stasis, as well will everyone they care about. 2243, 2263; it’ll feel like a few moments have passed no matter how long we leave them up there, and it makes little difference to them.”
Belahkay smiles. “I told you to tell him about this, didn’t I? It was a pretty good idea bringing his brilliant mind in on this, eh?”
“Yes,” Brooke acknowledges. “Telling him was a good idea, and telling the colonists the animal preservation story is a better one. I think this could work. I’ve not interacted with these people a whole hell of a lot, but they seem to want to do the right thing. I think they’ll go for it.”
“All right,” Mirage says, determined. “Let’s discuss specifics.”
They made a plan, and followed through. Three years later, the Indonesian refugees suddenly appeared on Bungula, and it turned out to have all been much ado about nothing, because they showed up on a single island not unlike the one they were living on before. The colonists probably could have stayed.

Baby Sitters

When the Sumbawa survivors arrived on Bungula, they knew something was wrong. The volcano in the center of their island looked pretty angry, but suddenly it was gone. All of their dwellings were gone too, and they weren’t standing in the exact same places they were before. No, they were from the year 1815, not 1815 BCE, so even though they had no clue what happened, they knew that they had been transported. Brooke and Sharice studied up on the Islamic religion, so they could better understand what the refugees were going through. A few appeared to believe this to be Janna, or The Garden, which was the Islamic analog to Heaven. Others weren’t so sure, because again, they were from the nineteenth century. They knew what volcanoes were, and had no reason to believe it was part of the end of days. Plus, this sure didn’t seem like paradise. It was great and all, but they still had to work and eat. They all attributed their salvation to Allah, however, which was a good thing. Their religious beliefs remained virtually unchanged, despite the inexplicable paradigm shift. They adjusted to their new lives better than anyone could have expected. Brooke and Sharice stayed close, but not too close. They watched the Tambora from afar, secretly placing listening devices in homes and common areas. They weren’t trying to gain state secrets, or even invade their privacy. They needed to learn the language, which was reportedly wiped out by the eruption They had no plans to interact with the people, but it was good to know, in case something came up.
Right now, they’re in the middle of an intense ethical debate about how to proceed.
“That’s murder,” Sharice points out.
“That is not true,” Brooke argues. “There’s a big distinction.”
“Tell me what it is.”
“One involves killing, and the other is just...not letting more life begin. Let me reiterate the more part. I’m not suggesting we get rid of the life that’s already here, but maybe we should consider preventing it from going beyond the current numbers.”
“Now you’re just talking semantics. You can’t sterilize ten thousand people.”
“It wouldn’t be ten thousand,” Brooke notes. “Some are already past their prime anyway.”
“Oh my God, you think that was my point?”
“No.” Brooke simulates a sigh. “I’m just trying to fix things before they become a problem.”
“Exactly what problem do you think will arise from this?”
“There are but a few thousand other people on this world. Or at least, there will be, once we migrate all the colonists back down on the other side of the planet. The Tambora will want to venture from their little island, and they’ll wonder where the hell everyone else is. They made a show about this, called The Society, and as you can imagine, it did not go well.”
“I don’t have to imagine. Those people weren’t on an actual island. The road literally stopped at the city limits, and was replaced by the woods. So right now, the Tambora don’t know they’re alone.”
“Exactly my point,” Brooke says.
My point is that they’re not really trying to solve a mystery. They were pretty isolated already, so this isn’t such a huge difference. I know you’re concerned that the population is never going to stop growing, and eventually people will want to leave. Maybe they’ll eventually invent airplanes, and see that Singapore isn’t where it’s supposed to be, and neither is Perth. That may happen, but you still haven’t explained why you think that would be such a problem. They already know they’ve been moved. We’re not sure they have good frame of reference for the idea of an exoplanet, but I don’t think they think they’re on Earth.”
“I think they think they’re on Earth. I don’t know where you’re getting that. Are you talking about heaven? The belief that this is the Garden is gradually fading away.”
“I think we’re not giving them enough credit.”
“If it doesn’t matter, then what are we even doing here? Why did we bother building a whole new settlement in the Southern hemisphere if we don’t care whether the Tambora can see the drop ships?”
“I’m not talking about destroying their world view with spaceships, mother. I’m talking about letting them develop on their own. That’s the prime directive. Now, before you say anything, yes, we’ve already interfered with them. Well, technically Mirage was the one who interfered, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter what we do next. Just let them live. Let their population grow to whatever numbers it shall, and let them build seafaring boats, if they want. Our job is over.”
“So we do nothing? We just cut ties, and fly off into the black?”
Sharice shrugs. “Maybe. It’s like Mirage said. They’re living on borrowed time. They were meant to die. History thinks they died. We shouldn’t kill them, and we shouldn’t coddle them. Let’s just see what they do.”
“So, this is a sociology experiment?” Brooke was really pushing it.
“I think you know that’s not what I meant. But know this too; I won’t let you sterilize a single human, you understand me? I wasn’t supposed to be alive either, and I heard a lot of conversations about limiting my capabilities; basically by giving me the machine equivalent to a lobotomy. I won’t tolerate such ambitions.”
“I didn’t know that,” Brooke says honestly.
“Yeah, ‘cause you weren’t there.”
“I thought you had forgiven me for that. I didn’t know you existed, let alone that I had anything to do with the birth of your consciousness.”
“I know,” Sharice comforts. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“I get your point,” Brooke decides. “We can’t do anything to them, any more than we can do things for them. This is their world now. Or at least, their corner of it.” She grows quiet.
“I think I know what this is about,” Sharice puts forth.
“Oh, yeah? And what would that be?”
“You’re bored.”
“You’ve always been on some kind of mission. Even when you were stewing alone under the ice on Europa, you were on a mission to save humanity from you. You don’t like just sitting around for no reason. Ever since you were a kid, your life has been go-go-go, and now it’s like that’s over.”
“I don’t feel that way.” But Brooke couldn’t be so sure. “Do I?”
“It’s all right, mom. We can find you a new purpose, and when you’re done with that one, we’ll get another. We’ll keep going until they finish building the Milky Way, and then maybe we’ll jump to the next galaxy.”
Brooke laughs. “That will be millions of years.”
“Or thousands.” It’s Mirage. Last they saw her, she was organizing the drop ships.
“Well, yeah, if we were to go faster than the speed of light, we could essentially teleport to Andromeda, but I’m not capable of that. I don’t even think my umbilical cord necklace has enough power to sustain me through such a distance journey.”
“You might be able to do it without your necklace,” Mirage suggests vaguely. “You ever heard of a reframe engine?”
“No, what’s that?” Sharice asks.
“It exploits time dilation when approaching the speed of light. If you were to go that fast, Brooke, you could travel several light years, and it would only feel like a few days, right?”
“Well, yeah,” Brooke acknowledged. “But that’s just how time and speed work. That’s not really temporal manipulation. Even regular humans experience that.”
“Exactly my point,” Mirage says.
“But it would still take millions of years to get to Andromeda. It would just feel shorter. Everyone back home would be millions of years older, or millions of years dead.”
“That’s the exploitation part of the reframe engine,” Mirage explains, “and I believe it’s a loophole to your condition. It takes the span of time you spend in the ship, which is moving slower than the outside, and forces that span of time to exist on the outside. So you would still be going ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine-nine percent the speed of light, but it feels like a few thousand years have passed for you, and it makes everyone outside the ship feel the same way. It’s this whole thing.”
Brooke considers the possibility. “Basically a warp drive.”
“Yeah, kinda,” Mirage agrees. “It’s much slower, though. People on Star Trek could make an emergency landing on a survivable planet in the time it takes their damaged shuttlecraft to blow up. In the real world, it would be more like hours, or longer, unless you were already within the star system.”
“So, you invented this...reframe engine?” Sharice questions.
Mirage chortles. “No, not me. I knew it was gonna happen, though. I’ve been in contact with the good people on Varkas Reflex lately, and the inventor is this close to having it figured out. I just spent a great deal of time on the phone with her; had to drop your name, but she’s agreed to let us have the specifications once she’s finished a full working model. She says it won’t be long now. Maybe a year.”
“So, we know her?” Brooke asks. “Who is it?”
“Hokusai Gimura. She’s with Leona. I mean, Leona wasn’t there, since it’s not her time of the year, but Miss Gimura agreed to relay a message, if you were wanting to say hello, or whatever.”
Both Brooke and Sharice would love to say something to Leona, if not directly. That wasn’t what they were thinking about, though. They were really just wondering what they would do with the power of a reframe engine.
Mirage goes on, “I sense hesitation. We’ve already discussed how we should leave Bungula anyway. It belongs to the colonists and refugees now, and if you’re worried about the greater vonearthan population getting us to replicate our terraformation methods, our best option is to pretty much always be on the move.”
“She’s right,” Sharice notes. “We’re already getting calls about doing this on other exoplanets. In fact, we can’t really even wait for this reframe engine to be finished. A team of diplomats is set to arrive in less than a month.”
“I didn’t know they were already on their way,” Brooke laments. “Where can we go in the meantime? We’ll need a quantum messenger.”
“I had that covered a long time ago,” Mirage says with a smile. “I sent a nanofactory to a secret location, in case something like this happened, and I needed to escape.”
“Toliman,” she answers. “The humans have no interest in it. We can hide out there for as long as we need.”
Brooke frowns.
“We should go,” Sharice says to her. “They’ll be fine. Our baby sitting days are over.”
“Okay,” Brooke decides. “Let’s go to Alpha Centauri B.”

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