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Exemption Act

The Needs of the Many

Confusingly named Saga!Three was sitting at the top of the stairs, waiting for her new partner, Zektene to get out of the bathroom. Zektene was from another universe, and came here after a trip to the past changed enough about history to stop her from ever existing. That was no longer her world, so she made this her new home.
“I’ve been thinking about your name!” Zek called out through the door.
“You don’t have to yell!” Saga!Three shouted back.
You’re yelling!”
“I’m just trying to match your energy!
Zektene laughed.
“What about my name?”
“We need some way to distinguish you from your alternate self.”
Saga!Three was also a time traveler, and was created when a different version of her named Saga!Two went back to help kill Adolf Hitler early. To avoid ambiguity, others began to address them by the number that was arbitrarily assigned to their reality. There were an infinite number of past realities, however, and this was in no way only the third, but the name was good enough. “That’s what the number is for.”
“It’s too impersonal!” Zek argued. “Who was that one gal you mentioned, who met her alternate self? She goes by her real name, while the other goes by their nickname?”
“Holly Blue and Weaver, yes. The former just never started using the nickname. You wanna start calling me Doorwalker?”
“No, that’s dumb. That’s why I wanna talk about it, so we can figure something else out.”
“I’m all ears.”
Zek came out of the bathroom. “How about Freya?”
“You have already thought about this.”
“Just a little. During my research, I learned that your name, Saga is associated with a goddess named Frigg. I don’t know what it means to be associated with a different person, but I don’t much care for Frigg. I do, however, like Freya, which is somehow associated with Frigg. I don’t know what that means for its relationship with Saga, but I think it suits you either way.”
“Fine with me. Freya it is,” the newly reborn Freya affirmed.
“Now, is that Freyja with a j, or just a y-a?” asked some stranger in their hotel room.
“Whoa! I’m sorry, but who are you?”
The stranger looked confused. “I...I’m Nadia.”
Freya continued to look confused and disturbed with her eyes, and widened her mouth like a smile to offer this Nadia person more time to elaborate.
“You may have heard of The Historian...?”
“Oh. That’s you?” Freya asked. That’s Freya, with a y-a.
“Okay, I got it, Superintendent,” Nadia said with a roll of her eyes. Don’t you roll your eyes at me. “Oh, forgive me, Your Grace.” You are forgiven.
“Are you...speaking with The Superintendent right now?” Freya asked.
Nadia was writing in her book. “F-R-E-Y-A. What was that? Oh, yes, he’s being a di—uhhhhh...lightful supreme being. He’s being..great.”
“Why do you need her new name?” Zek asked, changing the subject back. “I mean, it’s cool you know, but for what specific purpose?”
“Um, she can’t just change her name, and expect everyone to start using it all of the sudden. When the Shapers go to a new time period, I have to manipulate reality to account for their new identities. When Lowell Benton changed Jeremy’s name from J.B., I had to update our records. Otherwise, he would have to start correcting people one-by-one, and that is so tedious. It’s much easier if I just send out a psychic blast. From now on, most of the people you run into who already knew you should now start using the new name. There may be a few glitches.”
“Well...” Freya began. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” Nadia replied. “I’m also here for another reason. This belongs to you.” She handed Zek a business card. There was no writing on it, but it was covered in colors.
“What is this?” Zek asked.
“Rendezvous card,” Nadia said cryptically. “It’s up to you to figure out how to use it. Be at that location, and someone you’re supposed to meet will arrive as well.”
“Sounds like you’re not going to tell us who it is,” Freya presumed.
“I don’t know who it is. I just found it as a bookmark on your title page, and I know what it does. I couldn’t tell you if it’s a mission, or someone you’ve been looking for, or what, but someone has decided to put you two together, so go on and find out.”
“Thank you again,” Zek echoed.
Nadia softened her smile, and raised her hands in front of her stomach, pinkies together, palms up. She ceremoniously closed them together, as if shutting an invisible book, which served to fold her own body into a two-dimensional object, and make her disappear.
“This is a distraction,” Freya told Zek.
“We don’t know that.”
“We’re supposed to be looking for something called The Transit. That’s what Vearden said. That’s going to help us end this once and for all.”
“Have faith in the process, Freya. Now, I think I know how to work this thing. Hold onto my shoulder.”
“Okay,” Freya conceded.
Zek activated the rendezvous card by flicking it out of her hand, which transported them to some unknown location in the middle of the forest. They were alone, but not for long. Pretty soon, several spots before them started warping with technicolors. People emerged from these warp spots, and each one of them dropped their own rendezvous card into a pile in the middle of the circle. The last one was not human, but a large and imposing creature with ashy white skin. Freya knew this to be a Maramon.
This Maramon was the only one who didn’t look at least a bit bewildered. She scanned the group. “Thank you all for coming. I know you have no clue why you’re here, but I appreciate it greatly, and so does your universe.”
“What are you?” one of the others asked.
“I am a Maramon, from a dwarf universe called Ansutah. Please, ask no further questions while I explain myself. I will be answering the most important ones without prompting. My name is Khuweka Kadrioza, and even though I’m from Ansutah, I’ve been living in bladapodoverse for the last several years. It’s only there that I encountered humans who accepted my form. The fun was not destined to last, unfortunately, as a great danger came upon us; an enemy that threatens the very survival of everyone in the multiverse.”
“The Ochivari,” Freya blurted out. “Oh, sorry.”
“That’s right,” Khuweka confirmed, unperturbed by the interruption. “Saga is already fully aware of them, because this enemy originates from her universe.”
“Her name is Freya now,” Zektene corrected.
Khuweka tilted her head in thought. “Huh, you’re right. Apologies, Freya. Anyway, the Ochivari are an odd bunch. They were born with a limited ability to travel the multiverse. At first, they used this to build their empire at home, siphoning large amounts of resources from uninhabited worlds with barely a thought. Eventually, however, a sort of religion formed. They wouldn’t use that word for it, but it’s the best way to describe it, because it’s twisted and pervasive, like a cancer. Not everyone believes in the same thing, but they all serve the interests of Worlon, their home planet. Their basic tenet is that all evolved life must be destroyed. They’re antinatalists, which is ironic, because they propagate their own species to insane numbers. Normally, this would be terrible, but people like you wouldn’t get involved, because this is not your universe. But remember what I said, they travel to other universes, which is why you are all in danger, as are your people.
“Now, we could fight a war. We could build giant ships, and attack them. We could conscript the various machines and people who travel the bulkverse, but why do that when we can end it before it starts? I propose we go back to before the Ochivari are seeded on Worlon, and destroy them before they have the chance to do anything.”
The others had been listening intently, careful not to make any assumptions, or dismiss Khuweka’s concerns. They also seemed a lot more comfortable being around her than Freya would have guessed. Perhaps, though they had clearly never seen her kind before, they were used to the concept of other. A well-dressed middle aged woman took a quarter step forward. “Have you considered the ethics of this undertaking? When accounting for time travel, what you’re talking about could still be considered genocide.”
“No, I’ve not considered it much,” Khuweka responded. “That is your job, Professor. I will say, however, that this serves the greater good.”
A disheveled man raised his hand.
“Yes, Limerick?”
“Do I still get to punch somebody?” He assessed the group. “I can’t believe I’m here for any other reason than I’m good at punching people.”
Khuweka sighed and massaged her forehead. “You remember you’re in another universe, right?”
“Yeah, you said that,” Limerick replied.
“I don’t have the ability to do that myself. I got all these people here, because of you. You brought them here, so that’s what you bring to the table. You’re a bulkverse traveler, just like the Ochivari.”
He squinted at her, like the two of them were just trying to figure out which actor was in a particular movie, and even though she was obviously right, he couldn’t help but not believe her. “I don’t remember that.”
“Yes, I know,” an exasperated Khuweka said. “That’s what happens when totally shitfaced is your resting state. I need you to sober up, and get with the program. It’s time to be a big boy, and do something productive for a change.”
Limerick mockingly straightened up, and bounced his head all hoity-toity like. “We’ll see.”
“Well,” Khuweka continued, “you all now know Limerick Hawthorne. He’s right, if someone does need punching during this mission, he’ll be able to help with that as well. You also met Freya Einarsson, who is here because she is familiar with this universe, and the progression of the timelines. Her friend, Zektene Cormanu is a teleporter from the Composite Universe, which will come in handy, no doubt. Doctor Andraste Spellmeyer will act as our resident ethicist, because as she pointed out, what we’re doing here isn’t exactly the Middle Way. She is from Universe Prime, and she has never met an alien, or a time traveler, or anything before. Round of applause for how graceful and patient she’s being with us.”
They clap.
“Moving on, Carbrey Genovese is our engineer. He’s from Flipverse, and he’s going to build us a spaceship, and pilot it. Don’t worry, I’ll get you the specs for the reframe engine.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Carbrey said.
“Essentially faster-than-light travel, Freya filled him in.
“Oh, okay. Well, no promises, I’ve never built a spaceship before.”
“Wait,” Limerick jumped in. “You said he’s from Flipverse, and other people are from other places. Where am I from? What would you call it?”
“Most universes don’t get their own names,” Khuweka tried to explain delicately. “Yours is one of the many. You can call it Limerickverse, if you want.”
“I want.”
“If there are no further interruptions, I can introduce our last crew member.” Khuweka looked over at the humbly quiet man who had actually separated himself from the group by nearly a meter. “Do you want to step back into the circle?”
The man hesitated, but approached. “Hi, my name is Landis Tipton, and I’m from a universe called Voldisilaverse. I am a kenvoldisil, which means I was not born voldisil, but turned into one later when a group of them died, and transferred their abilities unto me.” He took a step back, apparently believing that was enough of an explanation.
Khuweka was trying to be patient with him. “Do you wanna tell us what abilities you have?”
Not really, but Landis didn’t care much for confrontation. “I can see your regrets, smell your health, hear your desires, feel your pain, and taste your lies.”
Limerick suddenly turned into a decent and put-together human being. “Right on, man.”
Khuweka smiled at Landis. “He can also reverse his abilities, using them primarily to cure people by breathing on them. He saved millions of lives one by one, and billions once they figured out how to replicate his healing ability.”
“I once knew people who could cure others by breathing on them,” Zektene said.
“Yes, by using organic nanotechnology. This is different. Voldisilaverse is unlike any I’ve ever heard of. My people are ruthless and unfeeling. They’ve never met a human they didn’t want to kill, except for the few they revere as gods. But when they discovered Landis’ version of Earth, something turned them away; not out of fear, but...respect, and maybe even empathy? Something made them not want to hurt his people.”
“We’re not all good,” Landis revealed, then slunk back away, immediately regretting having volunteered to speak.
“Well, at least two of you are,” Khuweka acknowledged. “Another voldisil is the one who contacted me. She can see things that are happening in other universes, and it was she who told me who belongs on this team. Now it’s up to all of us to prove her right.”

Necessary Evil

The new team continued talking, asking questions, and arguing. Freya was used to being conscripted for missions, and fighting for causes she didn’t know anything about. It was just part of her life, so even though she wasn’t sure she wanted to do this, it was no longer in her nature to try to get out of it. These other people had no such experiences. They were polite and careful, but didn’t just agree to this blindly. If there was one thing Freya learned about the Maramon, it was that they weren’t very cunning, and they did not play the long game. If one of them approached you, and asked for your help, they were probably—honestly—one of the good ones, and knew that you were good too. Good Maramon like Khuweka were rare, and seemed to only become that way after spending time with decent human beings, but they were not raised as such. They developed in a universe that was literally smaller than most, and suffered a lack of resources beyond most people’s conceptions. They were angry and spiteful, and they only ever showed potential for change on the individual level, when they were removed from society, and their people’s bizarre worldview.
As one might expect, the ethicist, Professor Spellmeyer was the hardest to convince, while Limerick was the easiest. He didn’t know anything about the Ochivari, but he deliberately chose to think of them as insects, rather than insectoids, which would make wiping them out less like genocide, and more like large scale pest control. The Ochivari were somehow dragonfly-based, but they were not dragonflies, and did not evolve from them. According to what little data people were able to gather on them, their skin looked like that of a bug’s, but it was not an exoskeleton, and they were shaped like humans, complete with arms, legs, fingers, and toes. Their wings were not useless, but they did not allow them to fly. They used them in battle, to blow gusts of winds at their opponent, or to dodge attacks. They were very fragile, however, and even though damaging one didn’t cause too terribly much pain for the victim, they weren’t likely to heal, and doing so did lessen any advantage they had.
Freya called all this the source variant, which was a term one of her friends coined to refer to a subspecies that developed on an alien planet. They originally came from human DNA, which was shipped across the galaxy, and seeded on other habitable worlds. So they came from humans, but each unique environment shaped each unique population in unique ways. By being exposed to a different atmospheric composition, being fed different foods, and possibly by interstellar radiation, their genetic make-up was transformed into something different; probably always humanoid, but rarely—if ever—passably human. Freya and Zektene spent time on a planet with two of these source variants. The Orothsew were human-based, and the Gondilak Maramon-based. It was kind of a coincidence that both parent species chose to seed life on the same planet, except it wasn’t that far-fetched, because there were a finite number of hospitable worlds available, and humans wanted to live everywhere they possibly could.
The Ochivari were presumably created in the same way as the Orothsew, but on a second planet that they called Worlon. One of them came to Orolak once, intending to bring death and destruction to all inhabitants. When Freya and Zek left, the people they left behind were working on defending Orolak from this threat. The two of them made it their responsibility to go on the offense, so while they weren’t happy about the temporal genocide, it would accomplish what they set out to do, and bonus, they weren’t going to have to do it alone.
The engineer, Carbrey was either massaging his eyes, or trying to pluck them out with his fingers. He was not being gentle, because this was stressing him out so much. “Let me get this straight. You want me to build a spaceship from scratch that can travel at superluminal speeds. We don’t have that on my Earth.” He was more concerned with the logistics than the ethics, which was fine because they probably needed a break from the intense debate.
“Well, you won’t have to build it from nothing,” Khuweka clarified. “The humans in this time period have interstellar ship technology today. They’re just lacking our speed requirements, which I will procure from The Shortlist. I just don’t want to take a preexisting ship, because we would have to steal it.”
“What is the Shortlist?” Limerick asked, interested in it because it sounded ominous and cool. Freya didn’t know either.
“The Shortlist is a group of incredibly bright and busy women who are responsible for time travel technology in this universe,” Khuweka explained. “Most of the galaxy is not allowed to have their technology, because it would screw things up. If we want the specifications of the reframe engine, we will have to put in a request to them. Or at least, we might. I’ll contact the inventor first. She may be able to sign off on it without a full council meeting.”
“Okay,” Zek said, “who is this inventor, and how do we get in touch with her?”
“Her name is Hokusai Gimura,” Khuweka revealed.
“Oh, we know her,” Freya realized. “She’s the one trying to protect Orolak from the Ochivari.”
“Yes,” Khuweka began. “While that won’t happen for another two thousand some odd years, I believe the Hokusai living on the Earth at the moment has already experienced that in her personal timeline. I’m not sure, though, so careful what you say.”
“She’s on Earth right now?” Zek asked.
“Yes,” Khuweka began, “living alone on the beach in a place formerly known as Dounreay, United Kingdom.”
“She’s alone?” Freya pressed. “Does she want visitors?”
“If she wants us to leave, we’ll leave, and if we have to do that, we’ll try to reach the Shortlist, and perhaps a younger Madam Gimura will be more agreeable. For now, Miss Cormanu, could you please teleport us to that location?”
“I can only take two by two,” Zek explained.
“That’s fine.
They made the trip halfway across the globe, and ended up on the shore of the North Atlantic Ocean. A little hut had been erected several meters away, really just large enough for one person; two, if they were fine being close to each other. Someone was lounging back in a chair on the approximation of a front porch. They approached, and found her to be Hokusai Gimura, but a much, much older version of her.
“Madam Gimura,” Khuweka greeted her. “My name is Khuweka Kadrioza. You may also call me Keynote, if you’d like.”
“Just set it over there,” the old Hokusai said, haphazardly pointing to the ground beside her.
“Set what over here?”
Hokusai finally turned to look at who she was talking to, tipping her sunglasses down to get a better view. “Oh, I thought you were a...never mind. What can I help you with?”
“We were hoping to procure the plans for the reframe engine. I’m sure you have reserva—” Khuweka interrupted herself when she noticed Hokusai tapping on her wristband. “Umm...”
A flashcard popped out of the wristband. Hokusai sighed as she removed the card from its slot, and dropped it into Khuweka’s hand. “There ya go.”
“You don’t wanna know what we’re gonna use it for? I have this whole speech about necessary evil.”
“I don’t give a shit anymore. I’m tired.”
“We’re sorry to have bothered you,” Freya jumped in.
Now Hokusai perked up. “Madam Einarsson?”
“Miss,” Freya corrected. “Never married.”
“Oh, you’re the other one, that’s right. Anywho, I have a very busy day of not engineering any inventions. You may stay if it strikes your fancy, but when the sunglasses go on, the mouth goes off, ya dig?”
Khuweka carefully dropped the flashcard into Carbrey’s hand, like it was radioactive. “Maybe someday. You take care of yourself, Madam Gimura.”
Hokusai just nodded her head. She must have been through a lot since Freya last saw her. Time travel will do that to you, and who knew who she lost along the way? Her wife, Loa was conspicuously missing.
“We’ll be on this planet for the next two years or so,” Freya told her after the rest of the group had started walking back down the beach, even though they could teleport from anywhere. “I don’t have a phone number or anything, though...”
“I won’t need anything,” Hokusai promised. “Thanks for the sentiment.”
Freya just kept watching her with a sad panda face, even as Zektene started transporting the team back to home base.
“Really, I’m fine. Don’t you worry about me. Just kill those dragonfly mother fuckers. Kill them all.” So she already knew.
Zek offered to leave Freya there, so she could have a deeper conversation with Hokusai, but they all knew that wasn’t what Hokusai wanted. They just went back to where they were, an underground facility in what was once called Kansas.
They watched as Carbrey inserted the flashcard into the reader, and opened up the files. It took him a moment to get used to the system. Different universe, different way to use computers. He picked it up pretty quickly, and started looking over the data that Hokusai had given them. “Hmm.”
“What?” Khuweka asked.
“No, it’s’s an interesting way to look at faster-than-light travel. I mean it’s just warp speed, but the math works out a lot easier this way. Anyone with a second-level higher degree would be able to decipher this, except...”
“Except what?” Limerick asked.
“I don’t know what this thing is.” Carbrey pointed at the screen.
“Oh, that’s the cylicone,” Khuweka started to explain. “Vital to any time tech. It’s what makes it work, and why a post-grad has no chance of stumbling upon the secret.”
“People aren’t allowed to know about this?” Carbrey questioned.
“Time travelers only,” Freya answered.
“For now,” Khuweka added cryptically. “Can you do it? This world has nanotechnology and ninety-nine automation. All you need to do is make sure everything runs smoothly. Two years should be no problem, but if we don’t make that goal, we really will have to go back in time. I don’t want that seed plate landing on Worlon, and so much as starting to create the Ochivari.”
Carbrey took in a breath, and looked back at the data. “I don’t know how your tech works, so there will be a learning curve. I can’t promise two years just because of that. I’ll go as fast as I can, though.”
“I think you can do it,” Khuweka said confidently. “Like I said, it’s all automated. Spaceships aren’t run by pilots, or even astronauts. They’re run by AI, regulated by engineers, like yourself.”
“All right,” Carbrey said. He went back to the computer.
“What are we going to do for the next two years?” Limerick asked as the group was stepping away to give their engineer some space.
“Hopefully we’ll be discussing this matter further,” Andraste recommended. “It’s fine he starts working on that thing, but we are nowhere near done yet.”
Khuweka was trying very hard not to roll her eyes. “Very well, Professor Spellmeyer. Let’s do an exercise called Devil’s Advocate. Professor, since you’re so adamantly opposed to this idea—”
“That’s not what I’m doing here,” Andraste argued.
“How do you mean?”
“I’m not opposed to the idea,” Andraste continued. “I just want to make sure you’ve considered the ramifications of your choices. Ethicists don’t take sides. We provide facts, or provide ways of determining facts.”
“Well, is anyone actually opposed?” Khuweka opened up the floor. “The Devil’s Advocate exercise only works when someone wants to do it, and someone doesn’t, so they can switch places, and argue each other’s position.” She waited for someone to say something, but everything they had heard about the Ochivari, and what they had done, had seemed to erase any true reservations they had. Andraste would probably always be wary—as would peaceable healer, Landis—even after the mission was over, but that didn’t mean they weren’t going to go through with it. “Okay,” Khuweka said with an air of finality. “We will continue to refine our methods, and contemplate the ethics, but I think it’s time we agree that this is happening, in one form or another. For now, let me introduce you to this fun little game I found out about called RPS-1o1 Plus.”

The Ends Justify the Means

Carbrey spent about a month studying this universe’s technology, so he would understand how it worked before he even thought about engineering something real. He picked it up pretty quickly seeing as the tech wasn’t too dissimilar to what he was used to, but he said he would rather be safe than sorry. The laws of physics, he claimed, were exactly the same, so that was nice. The facility they were staying in was mostly a gigantic underground hangar, with a few other rooms attached to it. They each had their own place to sleep, but it was nothing fancy. This place was obviously not designed for boarding. Freya wondered what they once kept in here, and why it was abandoned. While they were relatively close to the nearest population center in Kansas City, Khuweka assured them that no regular human would show up. A few temporal manipulators were aware of it, but none had much reason to use it in this particular time period. There appeared to be at least one, though. They were eating lunch together in the middle of the hangar when a ceiling suddenly appeared above their heads, starting from a single point, and then extending outwards. Of course, there already was a ceiling, but it was many stories above them. This one was only a few stories up, and while that was more than enough room to clear their heads, the force of its abrupt arrival knocked them all to the floor.
“What the hell just happened?” Limerick asked as he was sitting up and massaging his head.
“I don’t know,” Khuweka said honestly. She had been thrown down as well, but Maramon were physically superior to humans, so she wasn’t hurt at all.
Andraste, on the other hand, was very hurt. Blood was seeping out of the back of her head, and spreading out on the floor. Her eyes were closed, and she wasn’t moving. When Landis saw this, he started crawling towards her. His wing appeared to be hurt as well, perhaps broken, but he knew that Andraste was priority. He took a deep breath, and exhaled over Andraste’s body. “Injuries heal faster than terminal diseases,” he explained, “but it will still be a few minutes.”
“What if she’s dead already?” Zektene asked. “I don’t mean to be negative, but can you cure death?”
“Death is a process,” Landis answered. “It doesn’t happen in one moment. I can’t go digging up graves, but if she died, it was quite recent, so it should be fine. She will not have even experienced permanent brain damage, which is the one thing I cannot repair.”
“Khuweka,” Carbrey began, “what is that thing?”
“I think it’s a ship,” Limerick assumed right.
“Zek,” Khuweka said, “could you take Mister Genovese to investigate? Jump back here at the first sign of trouble.”
“Okay,” Zek replied. She took Carbrey by the hand, and teleported away.
A minute later, Andraste sat up, and checked the back of her head, not out of pain, but because it was still wet with her blood. “What happened?”
They told her.
“Do you feel okay?” Freya asked.
“I feel great,” she answered. She started opening and closing her hands. “I think my arthritis is gone.”
“Yes,” Landis said. “I’m a holistic healer. I couldn’t cure only one disease or injury if I wanted. It’s all or nothing.”
“We should all get treated,” Limerick suggested excitedly. “I know my liver could use a little TLC. You guys know what that acronym means?”
“Yes,” they replied in unison.
Five minutes later, Zek and Carbrey reappeared before them. “It’s an interplanetary warship called The Sharice Davids.”
They all looked to Freya. “I’ve never heard of it. Sorry.”
“Is there anyone in it?” Khuweka asked.
“Totally empty,” Zek said.
“Based on what little of the system I saw,” Carbrey started to say, “an emergency escape maneuver recently completed its sequence. It was traveling all throughout time and space, spending only seconds at any one point, evidently so no one would have time to board it. It had to stop eventually, though. This last jump depleted it of all its power, except for what little was able to eke out in order for me to get this information, but then it died completely.”
Limerick was staring up at the bottom of the vessel admiringly. “We should keep it.”
“It isn’t ours,” Khuweka argued.
“Why did you choose this hangar?”
“Because no one else was using it.”
“No one else is using this ship either.”
“You don’t know when they’ll be coming back,” she contended. She turned to face Freya. “It is your job on this team to know these things, or find out. Please make some inquiries for us. Meanwhile, Carbrey, power up some of the internal systems, just to gather more information. We’ll only refuel if we all decide we’re allowed to.”
“How do I...?” Freya began to ask, but thought better of it. She was right, this was her job. She had to figure this out herself, or she should just quit. Out of everyone here, she was the most dedicated to the cause. Not even Zek totally wanted to be here. She mostly joined the mission in the first place because she didn’t want Freya to be alone. “I’ll take care of it.”
“I’ll go with you,” Zek offered for the upteenth time.
“Good, because I need a ride to Giza.”
They teleported to the benbenet of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was invisible to all who did not know it was still there. A man was standing before them. “Stargazer,” Freya began, “you once told me that you owed me a favor, even though I had done nothing for you.”
“Not you, per se,” Stargazer corrected. “I consider alternates to be equals. Another version of Saga helped, and I honor that.”
“But if you do me a favor, am I not taking it from her?”
“You are not. What can I help you with?”
“We need to find someone familiar with advanced temporal technology, specifically in regards to a spaceship,” Zek said.
“This is my friend, Zektene Cormanu,” Freya explained. Stargazer was polite and accommodating, but wary of strangers. “She’s cool.”
He nodded with his eyes closed, then turned to Zek. “What time period?”
“This one, I think,” Zek answered. “It’s called The Sharice Davids.”
Stargazer was taken aback. “That should not be here in this moment. You must take it away. It is too dangerous. The future depends on no one else ever finding out it survived. I didn’t even know, and must now have my memories erased once you leave to protect it.”
“We’re sorry,” Freya said with a frown.
“No, it’s quite all right. It’s good that you came to me, since I know what to do with this information.”
“It’s only an interplanetary ship,” Zek pointed out. “Where could we possibly hide it?”
He shook his head. “It was designed to protect against external threats to the solar system, but it eventually became outdated, and time travelers later retrofitted it with interstellar capabilities. It was destroyed before reaching its first exoplanet, so if it was put back together, it means some very powerful people came back to reclaim it for themselves. You cannot let that happen, so you cannot trust anyone.”
Freya looked for answers in the layer of sand on the floor. “There might be a way to get rid of it.”
“Tell me nothing,” Stargazer warned before she could continue. “I’m happy to erase my memories, but the less I ever knew, the safer the information will be.”
“Understood,” Zek said. “But just to be clear, there is no one in this timeline who deserves this? Does it not belong to someone else?”
“It does,” Stargazer confirmed, “but it is best that they also believe it was destroyed. The knowledge should not go further than you two.”
They winced.
“You’re not the only two, are you?”
Freya straightened up, and put on her poker face. “I will tell you nothing. No comment.”
He smiled. “Good. Carry on.”
They returned to the hangar, but no one was there. A hatch was open on the bottom of the Sharice, suggesting that everyone made their way into it while they were gone. Zek transported Freya up to the bridge, and then began sweeping the corridors using a series of rapid jumps. A minute later, she returned to ferry Freya to the group. They were in an auxiliary control room, which Carbrey said was where the emergency temporal displacement drive was housed. Based on its remoteness and lack of signage, he guessed that very few people were made aware that this TDD existed. Freya and Zek relayed what they had learned from Stargazer, and it seemed to mesh well with what Carbrey was able to learn from the computers.
“So, not only can we take it, but we actually should?” Limerick was happy to hear this.
“I’m not sure that’s true,” Khuweka disagreed. “Stargazer wants us to get this thing out of the timeline, and the safest way to do that is by sending it to some other universe. That’s not something we can do, and even if we could, we need a ship to get to Worlon first, and this can’t do that if it’s supposed to remain a secret.”
“Aren’t we going to Worlon before anyone else arrives?” Andraste reminded her. “We should be able to keep it secret until the mission is over. Perhaps this is fate. It certainly came at the opportune time. Mr. Genovese was just about to start building us a new one, and now he doesn’t have to.”
“It’s not that simple,” Carbrey said, pulling himself away from the screen. “I was working on a minimalist design. It would incorporate the reframe engine, but it was otherwise only large enough to accommodate the seven of us. This thing is far more than we need, and I don’t think it has a reframe engine.”
“We don’t need it if we can travel through time,” Limerick noted.
Carbrey shook his head. “The TDD is gone. It was only ever meant to be activated once, and as it was sending the ship to this last location, it evidently self-destructed somewhere else in time. The logs called it a...” he squirted at the screen, and rediscovered what he read before, “Lucius last resort. Whatever that means.”
Something was distracting Freya from the conversation. “Landis, are you still hurt? Can’t you heal yourself.”
“I can’t,” Landis answered. “I cannot heal myself. After I got my foundation going, my security detail was composed of hundreds of people.”
“Anyway. I think we’re destined to use it.” Limerick was so sure of himself. “Build the reframe engine thing, put it in here, and let’s get on with it. I know it’s not easy, but you still have two years.”
“That doesn’t help us with the real problem,” Khuweka reminded him. “Once we destroy the Ochivari, someone would have to take the ship to the Triangulum galaxy, or something. I’m not sure anywhere is safe, not when considering time travelers.”
“I thought you said I could travel to other universes,” Limerick said.
“Yeah, you can, and other people can follow you through. You can’t create a shatter portal large enough for a spaceship, and even if you could, you can’t breathe in outer space. You would have to be outside the ship to make it happen. Look, the Sharice came back here for a reason. It believes this is the safest place for it. I say Carbrey builds us what he was going to all along, and we just leave it alone.”
“I can’t accept that,” Limerick fought. This is a warship, and we’re in a war. And who knows, maybe our mission will change enough about the future to stop these evil future people from even existing? I say the ends justify the means.”
“I agree with him,” Freya finally said. They looked at her, a little shocked, but not completely surprised. They knew she was all gung ho about killing the Ochivari, but she was also quite protective of her universe, and if keeping this ship around put it in danger, was that worth the risk? As they were arguing, she was working through that conundrum in her head, and ultimately decided that yes, it was. “We don’t know what we’re going to encounter out there, and this is our best shot at surviving. If we don’t succeed, we can use this in the war, and we’ll always keep it far enough away from whoever is trying to steal it. I don’t know how we’ll actually get the damn thing to another universe, but that’s not our problem at the moment. Let’s stop the Ochivari, then worry about that later. Hell, we might even find a solution on Worlon. We still don’t know how it is they were born with the ability to bulkverse travel. Perhaps it has something to do with their home planet. We can take whatever that is for ourselves.”
“I think it’s too dangerous,” Khuweka said, shaking her head slowly. “But I am nothing if not a fair leader. I will concede to whatever the group decides.”
They continued discussing, letting Andraste moderate the debate. In the end, they decided to use the Sharice Davids towards their own goals. At least if they always had it with them, they could control other people’s cognizance of it. They figured it was better than just leaving it here, and hoping that no one happened to show up.

I Did What I Had To

The problem with keeping The Sharice Davids—and this would be true of any ship, though there would be less at stake—was that they needed to get the vessel off the ground, and onto a vector without anyone outside the team noticing. There were ships that were capable of doing this, but they had to be quite small, and there was about a fifty-fifty chance of death. It was called darkbursting, and the downside to being invisible was that everything else was invisible to those in the ship as well. Even if the Sharice was capable of darkbursting, Carbrey would have to very carefully plot a path through interplanetary space without hitting anything, but also without being able to course correct. Again, though, it was impossible for an object of this mass anyway because it wasn’t small enough to be mistaken for space debris. Small objects did not appear on any but the finest of sensors, but while The Sharice was no interstellar colony ship, it was hard to miss.
“If I could still turn this thing invisible, I would,” Khuweka lamented.
“You used to be able to do that?” Limerick asked.
“I used to be able to do a lot of things,” Khuweka answered. “I could teleport anywhere in the world, I could diagnose any medical condition, lots of stuff. Then it all got taken away by a base modification in bladapodoverse.”
“What the hell is that?” Limerick pressed.
“On that version of Earth, there are these little creatures called bladapods. They release this sort of gas, which gets into everything, and changes it in unpredictable ways. I once met a woman with literal eyes in the back of her head. She had a son who could only speak in a sarcastic tone. And they lived in a house with constantly changing paint color. Sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s good, and other times it’s whatever. For me, it was bittersweet. My powers made me really popular, but that came with the same downsides that any celebrity experiences.”
“So, that’s all it did?” Zektene asked. “They removed your other powers?”
“Well, they made it so that I bleed out of my fingers every few months until I’m pretty much dry. Obviously it replenishes, but the more it happens, the weaker my abilities get. I can technically still do it.” She looked around until spotting a bottle of water on the table. She concentrated on it for a few moments until it disappeared. Then she picked up, and drank from it, showing that it was still there, just hidden.
“If you’re still capable of it, then I might be able to help,” Zek offered. “My abilities were created in a lab, and passed down the generations until evolving into something stable and usable. The scientists weren’t just working on teleportation, though. I remember one experiment they designed to enhance other people’s abilities. I never met this person in my reality, but they may exist in the reality that supplanted it. I think it’s worth a shot if Limerick here really is capable of traveling the bulkverse.”
“I am!” Limerick protested. “I think. I am, right? That’s what you said.”
“You are, yes,” Khuweka confirmed. “You ever try to punch someone, but you miss, and hit a wall, except there is no wall, it was just air?”
“I know I’m a drunk.”
“No, that’s what you’re doing,” Khuweka tried to explain. “When you punch at seemingly nothing, at the right spot, you can start weakening a point we sometimes like to call a thinny. If you continue to strike at it, this thinny will break, and you can cross over. Others can follow if the portal is large enough to stay open before spacetime heals itself.”
“Wait,” Limerick began, “do I have the ability to punch these so-called thinnies because I’m a bastard brawler, or am I bastard brawler because I can punch thinnies?”
“That I do not know,” Khuweka answered sincerely. “I have never heard of anyone who was born with this ability. Meliora learned it after spending centuries in a persistent meditative state. Zoey has to use a knife. Joseph has his coat. Every other form of bulkverse travel ultimately came from a single people’s ultimate invention, and they spent literal aeons working on it. It is an incredibly rare gift, even more so when you can grasp how unfathomably large the bulkverse really is. You are unique among undecillions upon undecillions of people, and I have no clue where you get it.”
Limerick acted like he had never heard anyone say anything nice about him before. He didn’t cry, or even tear up,but he did have to straighten himself out, and act like he had been there before. “Okay. So I just need to punch hard enough for everyone to get through? Doesn’t sound so hard.”
“Not everyone needs to get through,” Khuweka clarified. “It’s my problem, I’ll go alone.”
“That’s stupid,” Zek argued. “I’m the one familiar with that universe, so I will go escort you.”
“We’ll all go,” Andraste corrected. “If we’re going to be a team, then let’s be a team. I hear tell her universe is parked right next to mine. I should quite like to see that.”
“You won’t recognize it,” Khuweka warned Zek.
“Didn’t think I would.”
“It may be dangerous,” Khwueka continued.
Freya placed her hand on Khuweka’s shoulder, though it was highly uncomfortable, because of how tall she was. “We’re going. Limerick, do whatcha gotta do.”
Limerick took a breath. “Nobody help me. I wanna see if I can figure it out on my own.” He tried to punch the air, and honestly, it looked a little pathetic. “Forget you saw that. I’ve never swung this arm sober before, it don’t feel right.” He prepared himself, and tried again. His had better form this time, but still nothing happened.
“You have to find a thinny,” Khuweka reminded him. “It’s the difference between hitting a concrete wall, or solid wood. They’re both difficult, but the first one is nearly impossible. It might not be pleasant if you’re not inebriated. It might hurt.”
“No, I wanna do this clean. You were right, I haven’t felt this good since I was eight years old. Maybe you can teach me how to find a thinny, though?”

Khuweka walked him through the process of locating the weak spots in the spacetime continuum. They were all over the place, but ephemeral. And it wasn’t something a normal person could exploit for their own purposes. In fact, they were largely undetectable. Machines like The Crossover were so large that they could punch through that proverbial concrete wall at any spot, so no technology existed that could find them. That was just one more way that he was one of a kind. He did have his limitations, though. Not all universes were open to him. They had to be part of a network of bridges created by others, and these bridges could only be accessed at certain points in spacetime. Other bulkverse travelers had more freedom, but his gift was still impressive.
Limerick found his point of entry, and got to punching. It took him about a half hour to get all the way through, but Khuweka assured him that he would get better over time. He did have to keep going through all of it, however, because like an antlion’s pit-trap, the thinny would always start repairing itself as soon as he let go. Once he was finished, Landis and Carbrey helped him through the portal he had just created, following Khuweka on the frontline. Andraste went through next, followed by Freya and Zektene.
Limerick was instructed how to find a good egress location, using a psychic connection he evidently enjoyed with the bulkverse itself. They didn’t want to come out in the middle of a highway, or something, and Khuweka in particular needed to keep a low profile. Unfortunately, as this was Limerick’s first sober shatter portal, he didn’t get it quite right, and instead of the middle of the woods, they ended up in a park. By the time Freya got all the way through, the children and their parents had already stopped the fun they were having, and were staring at Khuweka’s unfamiliar appearance. They didn’t seem frightened, and no one tried to rush their kids away, but they were exuding optimistic caution.
A woman in a construction outfit was the only one brave enough to approach the team. “Where did you come from?” She was asking in order to obtain the information, not because she had never seen anything like it before.
“Let’s just say...another world,” Khuweka answered, using her own caution.
The construction worker nodded. “You probably ought to check in with Bellevue.”
“Is that a city, or...” Andraste began.
“It’s a city, and an agency,” the woman replied. “I believe they have a field office downtown, but Bellevue Proper is thousands of naykos away.”
No one seemed to have heard of that form of measurement before, but it sounded like miles or kilometers. She surely wouldn’t be talking about feet. “If you show us where it is on a map, we can get there on our own,” Zek told her.
“A teleporter, okay.” She pulled up her phone, and found Bellevue on the map.
Zek began to ferry the team there two at a time, saving Freya for last, who was able to see how indifferent the crowd was to seeing someone teleport. She couldn’t help but notice how different it looked. Normally, Zek would just disappear, but here she turned a shade of purple, and visible strands of energy flowed around her body. Before Freya too left, the children had already returned to their fun and games, having seen this sort of thing before.
They walked into the lobby of what, honestly, looked more like a hotel than some kind of government agency headquarters. The receptionist smiled at them, took down their info, and relayed it to the appropriate representative. Then she asked them to sit in the waiting room. No one else there was the least bit concerned about Khuweka’s form. This seemed like a nice world.
Five minutes later, a man came down from the hallway, and started shaking everyone’s hand. “Hello, my name is Luka Drake, Head of Base Security. Come with me to Conference Room C, if you will?” He led them down another hallway, and into the room. “Where are you all from?”
“Can we be perfectly candid?” Khuweka asked.
“I wish you would,” Luka confirmed.
“We are from a parallel universe. Actually, multiple universes. Now, you may have heard of alternate realities.”
He waved off the rest of her explanation. “We are aware of the bulkverse. We try to stick to the Composite Universe and Universe Prime, in order to avoid any temporal confusion. And we don’t crossover often.”
“Unfortunately, we do not have this luxury,” Khuweka continued. “You see, we are at war. At war with a race known as the Ochivari.”
He nodded. “I have never heard of them. Perhaps we simply use different words. Our historical records speak of a multiversal threat called the Maramon.”
“That is my race,” Khuweka revealed. “They are truly a threat as well, however a team is already working on that problem. I have assigned myself the Ochivari threat. We are attempting to quash them before they can even evolve. We were hoping to encounter an anomaly who can enhance my associate’s teleporting abilities. Our world is unaware of the threat, and we would like to launch from the surface without their knowledge, to protect them from the truth.”
“You betrayed your own race to help humans?”
“I did what I had to,” Khuweka said. “Still do.”
“Understood. So you’re looking for an anomaly who can enhance your abilities,” Luka echoed. “I have not seen Ambrose Richardson in quite some time, and we are not presently cognizant of his whereabouts. There are two options after that, but you will need Savitri’s permission for the first, and the agency’s permission for the second. The second is a permanent solution, albeit a bit less stable.”
“You know Savitri?” Khuweka asked, surprised.
“Not personally, but it was through studying her that our scientists were able to come up with a technological adaptation. We’re working on a drug, but it is not yet ready. We’ve had some bad history with ability-enhancement, and besides, that would only work on an anomaly.”
“I’m an anomaly,” Zek told him.
He was shocked. “You are?”
“I’m from an alternate timeline. I went back in time, and erased myself from the future. That’s how I ultimately ended up on this team, and how you ended up existing. Bellevue’s not a thing where I’m from.”
“Hmm...” Luka contemplated this new information. “As an anomaly, you are entitled to join the drug trial, if you would like. I can get you in quick for the price of an account of this alternate reality you come from.”
Zek looked to Khuweka for any hint that she should say no. Khuweka gave none. “Well, okay. I don’t see why not.”
Luka smiled. “I could probably throw in a booster platform if you also tell us what you know about these Ochivari. It enhances your power as long as you’re using it, and it’s designed to work with anyone, not just anomalies. Success not guaranteed, however; not with either of them. Only Savitri herself can guarantee results.”
“We’ll take it,” Limerick exclaimed. “Madam Kadrioza, tell the man what you know.”
“Hold on,” Andraste stopped them. “Let’s make sure we all know the details, and what’s at stake. I want to know more about this drug, and how far along you are in your research and development process. We are time travelers, let us not rush this.”

Critical Existence Failure

The team spent over a standard month in the Composite Universe, which was closer to six weeks in Earthan terms. The natives measured time differently. They learned a lot of things from these people while they were there, eventually figuring out that a nayko was equal to 2.442 kilometers. There was no Earth in this universe, but there were plenty of humans. Nearly all of them spoke English—though they did not call it that—and while they were genetically incompatible with people from other universes, they were indistinguishable in most cases. In a more taboo sense, men did not have scrota, so there were ways to tell the difference without a DNA test.
The information they gave Bellevue was invaluable to them, so much so that they agreed to give the team anything they wanted. Khuweka possessed a lot of knowledge about the Maramon, and their tactics, and Landis regaled them with fascinating tales of the voldisil. They even found Andraste’s input incredibly useful. People from her Earth were well known to the people in this universe, and they were decidedly off-limits. It was like the Prime Directive, except it only applied to this one planet. The chance to speak with one was a great honor to them, and they did not take it for granted. Earthan input was highly coveted on its own merits, as they had a completely different perspective, especially when it came to philosophy and psychology. Drug addiction was practically non-existent here, but not completely. Understanding how to help the few addicts they did have was something they had been struggling with for millennia.
Freya felt pretty useless here, as she had little to contribute. Her entire reason for being on the team was to help them navigate her universe. Not only was that probably not all that necessary at all, but it certainly didn’t help here. Faster-than-light travel was ubiquitous in the galaxy, except for the planet they were on right now, and even they were nearing these technological capabilities as well. Freya was able to give her insights about the Maramon, having spent time studying their descendants, the Gondilak, but that wasn’t much. Hopefully it was still useful information, however, because it illustrated an emphasis on nurture against nature, and suggested Maramon were the way they were by how they were raised; not by some inherent evil that was impossible to be rid of. Bellevue didn’t seem too bothered by how little Freya helped, but she did what she could, including a lot of grunt work when it came to hauling the retrofits back to salmonverse.
Bellevue gave them more than the power-enhancement platform, and the promises Zektene’s oncoming drug experiment. They retrofitted The Sharice Davids with its very own Nexus, which they could use to transport themselves to anywhere in the network. They also installed something called an astral collimator, which would allow them to enter their version of FTL known as the orange plex dimension. It would probably do nothing for them in salmonverse—or any other universe, for that matter—but it was nice to know it was there. They enhanced the Sharice’s capabilities with gravity transfunctioners, smaller transport ships with their own collimators, and they finally got the pocket dimension generators working, which were already there, but not yet in working order. It would seem Bellevue was even more advanced than they let on. They were ready to explore the galaxy, they simply hadn’t done much of it yet.
They had to travel back and forth from this universe to theirs a few times to transport everything through, so Limerick managed to get a lot of punching practice in. He was exhausted by the time it was over, but also a pro now. There was only one thing left to do. While all of this was happening, Zek was undergoing a battery of tests, first to prove she really was an anomaly, and then so they could tailor the ability-enhancing drug called Aukan to her physiology. They warned her of the risks, including unforeseen side effects, and she agreed to take the drug anyway. It was for a good cause, and she decided it was worth it.
They gathered in the infirmary, at Zek’s request, and watched as the doctor injected her with the substance. He explained it while it was still working her way through her system. “We have been working on this compound for decades. It comes from an old drug program a rogue group of scientists came up with that was dangerous and volatile. We’ve managed to correct their mistakes since then, and Savitri has helped us immensely.” Evidently, Khuweka and Savitri were part of a group of people who had lost their time powers while they were just trying to help other people who wanted to be rid of theirs. They went off on a quest to try to get them back, but the process was interrupted, and they all ended up just sharing each other’s powers. Soon thereafter, they were stranded in separate universes, and some, like Savitri, lived there without the others for centuries.
Zek reported a deep but dull pain throughout her entire body. While a nurse for a time traveling doctor named Sarka, Freya once got hurt herself, and was given narcotics. She recalled feeling heavy and stiff, and believed she could detect the blood moving throughout her body. This was what it looked like for Zek. It was surreal and uncomfortable, but at least not excruciating. Then it got excruciating. She started writhing and screaming, and the medical team had to hold her down. Landis tried to help, but they fiercely rejected his interference. There was no telling what would happen if their completely different kinds of powers interacted with each other. Zek turned blue, and not lack of oxygen blue, but a bright and glowing blue. Electricity surged around her skin, which was what her version of teleportation looked like, but only when she was in her home universe. It wasn’t supposed to last this long, or be painful. She just kept tossing and turning, and glowing brighter.
The blue light escaped from her body, and lit up the whole room. Then the room disappeared. It didn’t blink out of existence, but slid away rapidly, like they were on an extremely fast people mover at an airport. They were outside the hotel headquarters, and then they were across town, and then the state, and then the country. They flew across the ocean, through all the lands on the other side. More ocean, more lands, more ocean, more lands. They just kept circling the globe, randomly changing directions, sometimes going straight through the planet, and back out the other side. They appeared to be on the moon at one point too. They were falling and flying and being shot out of a cannon. Finally they stopped being able to see the world altogether, and were immersed in a sea of electric blue. It was hard to tell if they were still moving, or static. Zektene finally stopped thrashing about, though she appeared to still be in a little pain.
“Where the hell are we?” Freya demanded to know.
“This is an astral plane; the blue one,” the doctor explained.
“This is how she teleports in her universe,” Khuweka clarified. “She doesn’t just jump from one point to another. She falls through a simplex dimension.” No sooner did she say that did the lights turned from blue to a purplish blue.
“Okay, that’s weird,” the doctor noted. “Now we’re in the indigo astral plane.”
“One step lower than blue,” Khuweka added. “You can’t travel as far.”
The colors changed again, to full on purple.
“Okay, that’s bad,” the doctor said. “But we’ll be fine as long as it doesn’t turn black.”
Everything turned black; a hopeless void of busy nothingness. No one was talking anymore, but Freya still knew what they were thinking, like they were all communicating telepathically now. Zek started screaming again, but tapered off, not out of relief, but a lack of air. They sounded like the life was being choked out of her, and she couldn’t move. Freya couldn’t move either. She didn’t have a body anymore, just a noncorporeal mind. She couldn’t help. She couldn’t save Zek. All she could do was listen to her friend’s last thoughts as the space around her crushed her into a single point. Ten seconds later, the lights turned on, and they were back in the infirmary. Zek was gone, replaced by the largest diamond Freya had ever seen. You would need two arms to lift it up, even for a really strong person. You just couldn’t wrap your fingers around it with one hand.
“What happened to her?” Andraste wasn’t used to being so angry.
The doctor and her team looked ashamed and scared. She took off her stethoscope, and placed it on the diamond.
“What the hell are you doing?” Limerick questioned.
The doctor placed her palm on the diamond now. A few seconds later, she released. “It’s her.”
“What do you mean, it’s her?” Even Khuweka was lost.
The doctor sighed, distraught. She was trying to work through the problem. “This is like the virus, but they cured that years ago.” She stopped a moment, but didn’t wait long enough for anyone to press her for more information. “The drug this was based off of, it worked. It worked fine. It enhanced the anomaly abilities, sometimes even giving them related, but new, abilities. It had side effects, though, eventually causing the anomaly’s abilities to turn on them. Milo could no longer control magnets, but became helplessly magnetic. Diane, who once controlled fire, exploded. A few people experienced something called critical existence failure, which is worse than it probably even sounds. This was all before my time, I’ve just read the reports. They fixed that. They promised me they fixed it. This wasn’t supposed to happen. They used Aukan-6, this is Aukan-11.”
“Answer her question. Clarify what you meant when you said it’s her,” Freya demanded.
“Put your hand on the diamond.” The doctor took Freya by the wrist, and gently placed her hand on one face of the diamond.
Freya?” came Zek’s voice. It wasn’t coming from outside, but inside Freya’s head. This was a psychic connection.
“You’re alive?” Freya questioned, both grateful for it, but horrified that her friend was now somehow trapped inside a gemstone.
My consciousness has survived. As for whether I’m alive, I could not answer that question.
“She’s in the diamond?” Freya asked the doctor.
“She has been turned into the diamond,” the doctor corrected. “Forced that way by the incalculable pressure from the black astral plane. It’s like being a one-dimensional object, I’m surprised the rest of us survived. We must have enjoyed a persistent connection with the higher dimensions.”
“I’m not enjoying this,” Limerick contended.
“Can it be reversed?” Carbrey suggested.
“It cannot,” the doctor apologized. “I am...” she trailed off.
“Landis,” Andraste prompted.
Landis had been waiting for someone to ask him to do his thing. “I’m obviously going to try. You cannot, however, get your hopes up. What’s happened to her is nothing like I’ve seen before, but it is not unlike being cremated. People have asked me to repair their cremated loved ones before, and I haven’t had any bit of luck. I don’t bring people back to life. I just heal them. At some point, they’re beyond my gifts. I would say being transformed into a diamond goes far beyond that point of no return.”
Freya presented him with the Zek-diamond. He stepped forward, and placed his hand on her so they could have some private conversation. Then he leaned over, and breathed upon the stone. Nothing happened, nothing changed. It didn’t even sort of almost begin to work, or even moderately illustrate that he had any kind of supernatural gift at all. The rock just sat there. Zek wasn’t gone, but she would never be the same.

Well-Intentioned Extremists

After debrief, Freya and the rest of the team went back to their universe. Well, it wasn’t all of their universe, but this one certainly wasn’t home for any of them. Not anymore. Had they stayed, the leadership at Bellevue would have wanted to keep apologizing every five minutes until heat death destroyed everything trillions of years later, and that wasn’t helping anything. Zek could not be saved but for time travel, and that was against policy on their world. Sure, Limerick could ultimately punch a portal, and deliver them back to Zek’s universe in a moment before the first time they showed up, but all that would do was create a copy of everyone. This version of Zek would still be a diamond, and that would still be irreversible. The remaining team members were silent and aimless when they returned to the hangar underneath their newly retrofitted Sharice Davids. There was a suggestion that they change the name, and everything else about its appearance, in order to prevent anyone from ever realizing what ship it truly was, but they hadn’t gotten around to that yet.
It took them a hot minute before they realized a stranger stood among them. She was just standing there patiently, waiting to be addressed. “Um...who are you?” Freya questioned.
“My name is Eliana Prime,” the stranger replied.
“Is that your real last name?” Limerick asked, fully aware that wasn’t really the most pressing question here.
“It is a surname blend,” Eliana answered. “My parents were...complicated. I didn't want to take either name, but also didn’t want to make up something random.”
“What are you doing here?” Freya was in no mood to be polite.
“Now, hold on,” Khuweka warned. “She could very well have every right to be here. We too are squatters.”
“I have no right to be here.” Eliana was quiet, even-tempered, and presumably quite understanding. She seemed like the type of person who was always open and honest, but never volunteered information, instead generally only speaking when spoken to.
“Then why are you here?” Landis asked.
“Bellevue sent me as operational replacement for your original teleporter, Zektene Cormanu. The keyword here is operational. I shall make no attempt to instantiate myself into the social role she filled within the group. I am only here to transport you where you need to go, and will do everything I can to ease any thoughts you might have that I might have the expectation to be accepted, or treated as one of you.”
Limerick stared at her blankly, nearly drooling on the floor as he did so. “Did anyone else follow that? Because I did, I know what she said. I just wanna make sure you’re all on our level.”
Khuweka sighed. “She wants to be our teleporter, but she understands she cannot replace Zek as our friend.”
“How did you even get to this universe?” Carbrey asked her. “I went through the portal last, and it closed right behind me. I would have seen you.”
“I can teleport through portals,” Eliana explained. “It’s a little like jumping out of a train on a bridge, and landing on a plane as it’s taking off below, but it can be done. Bellevue disapproved of the secrecy, but I decided it would be best if we had this conversation here, rather than there. If you would prefer to send me back, I will not argue, or try to convince you otherwise. But now that I’m already here anyway, it might be easier for you to justify my recruitment to your respective selves.”
“Again. Totally understand what you said,” Limerick claimed, fooling no one.
“Better to ask for forgiveness later than for permission now, and be told no,” Andraste translated.
“Oh,” Limerick realized. “That’s my excuse for everything I do.”
“I don’t think we need to vote,” Khuweka determined. “If you reject her nomination, then just speak up. I will say this, we need a teleporter. That booster platform doesn’t work on me, but it def will on her.”
Landis handed the Zek-diamond to Carbrey. “Zek greatly appreciates that she’s here, and challenges anyone to come up with a good reason not to accept every capacity as a member of this team.” He stepped forward, and offered Eliana his hand. “Can you jump blind?”
“I can,” Eliana replied. “I can even let a passenger be navigator through a mild and temporary psychic link.”
“Then let us go up to The Sharice, and find you some quarters.”
Eliana looked to the rest of the group, still waiting for anyone to speak now, or forever hold their peace. Once she was made rightly confident by the silence, the two of them disappeared together.
“Now that that’s done,” Khuweka began, “we should run mission simulations.”
“We need to come up with a new name for the ship first,” Carbrey said. “My simulations will rely upon this. Or rather, they might falter to the ambiguity or uncertainty.”
Freya stepped over and took Zek from his arms. “It already has a new name.” She started to walk away with her friend. “It’s The Cormanu.”

Two years later, they were ready for mission launch. Whether she meant to or not, Eliana was able to integrate nicely into the team. She became fast friends with Zek, and even coached her through her new life as a gemstone. Making physical contact with Zek was only necessary at first to start forming a psychic bond. As time went on, these bonds grew stronger, until they discovered that she was capable of maintaining a persistent connection to her crew all the way on the other side of the planet. She was still just as much part of the team as she was before, and continued to participate in their training. They had to learn how to work together, and how to overcome obstacles and complications.
They fell into job roles that went beyond the responsibilities for which they were originally recruited. Andraste was a great cook, and Landis adopted the responsibility of overseeing the general maintenance of the vessel. His life as a healer had been so dull. To maximize his abilities, he sat in a chair for literally half the day as the terminally ill stood in line, and came up to him one by one. He couldn’t watch TV, or read, or learn something new. He lost all sense of wonder, and was not used to being around people who didn’t worship him. He was happy to be busy now. It helped him find himself again, and enjoy the company. Limerick was an entertainer at heart, which helped keep the team from getting lost in the mission, and not taking time out for themselves. Two years was a long time to do nothing but work. Khuweka taught them all the Maramon language, which wasn’t probably ever going to come up, but it was nice to have a way to communicate with each other that most others wouldn’t be able to decipher. They had their psychic connections with Zek to take care of that in most cases, but you never know.
Carbrey was pretty much only the engineer, and that was absolutely enough. His was the most important job, and they banded together to alleviate the burden as much as possible. They all learned some basic mechanics, so it wouldn’t just be on him. Freya took this the most seriously. The others watched some tutorials, and hung around while Carbrey did his work. Freya actually transported to the Kansas City Arcology, and entered an accelerated engineering education program. It wasn’t enough to make her an expert in the time allotted—and she still didn’t feel comfortable calling herself an engineer—but it made her competent in the field, and perfectly suited to serve as Carbrey’s assistant. It reminded her of working as a nurse with Dr. Sarka. Neither was a profession she ever intended to be part of, but both opportunities were important when they arrived, and she ultimately found them to be very rewarding.
On launch day, Eliana strapped herself into the chair on the booster platform, and used it to interface with the rest of the ship. Carbrey was in charge of running the whole ship, so it became Freya’s duty to make sure Eliana was both effective, and safe. They ran a final systems check, crossed their fingers, and jumped away.
There was a bit of confusion as the teleportation interlocker of The Cormanu started to power down to high idle. The navigation systems were evidently not perfectly calibrated for the jump, which meant it was going to take a minute to figure out exactly where they were. And that was a literal measure of time. It was only going to take around sixty seconds, and then they would be fine, but Carbrey was freaking out, because it felt like an eternity to him. As Freya was confirming Eliana’s vital signs, she could hear him on the shipwide comms, barking orders at people, trying to expedite this process. He didn’t have zero reason to be worried, as the whole purpose of this exercise was to clear present-day Earthan detection space, so that no one would know they existed. Still, there was no way to get the computer to make the necessary calculations faster, and panicking wasn’t helping anything.
A minute later, the computer confirmed their highest of hopes. One light year. They were exactly one light year from Earth. “Is that possible?” Carbrey asked. “I was to understand we would barely pass the plutinos.
Different universe, different interpretation of the physical laws,” Khuweka guessed. “Bellevue’s prediction of our maximum jump distance was based on their understanding of these laws, not ours.
“What does this mean,” Landis asked, “in practical terms?” He was leaning against the wall of the booster compartment, ready to heal Eliana, should she need it. It was looking like she wouldn’t. She reported feeling as good as she ever did after a jump.
It means we can go a lot faster, right?” Limerick figured. “A jump takes about a second. Eighty-seven light years equals eighty-seven seconds. That’s under two minutes on my world.
“She’s not going to do that,” Freya said as she was needlessly dabbing Eliana’s forehead with a warm washcloth.
She won’t have to,” Khuweka promised. “We wouldn’t do this through burst mode, even if there weren’t a biological consideration. It will take us forty-five days to get to Worlon at maximum reframe. I want us to get there in forty-five days. Not forty-six, not forty-four. This is the schedule, and we’re sticking to it. Miss Prime did her job, and now it’s done.
Freya curved her index finger and thumb towards each other, and twisted them once, gesturing to Landis that he should mute his comm badge. They were very sensitive, and while the humans would not have been able to hear her talking from across the room, the ship’s sensors would pick it up, and log it. “You want to say something, Eliana. What is it?”
“It wasn’t just me,” Eliana told her quietly. “I didn’t jump us this far out alone.”
“Who else could have done this?” Freya asked, the answer came to her quickly. “Zektene.”
Eliana nodded. “She still has her anomaly ability. She may even be stronger now. You never needed me.”
Freya ran her fingers through Eliana’s hair. “I’m glad you’re here anyway.”
While their end of the comms was muted, they could still hear outgoing messages. “Boot up the reframe engine, Mr. Genovese,” Khuweka ordered. “Let’s take this show on the road.
The doors to the booster compartment opened, and Kivi walked in, holding Diamond Zek in her arms. It didn’t look comfortable for her. Landis held out his own arms, not to commandeer the diamond, but be passively available, should Kivi want to have a rest.
“We should put her on a cart, or something,” Freya suggested. “I can rig something up quite nice. I’ll make it look like a throne.”
“We’ve been talking privately,” Kivi said. “Zek is not sure if she wants to inform the rest of the crew about what happened.”
“She added a second boost to the jump?” Freya asked. “We already know.”
“No, not that,” Kivi said. “We’ll tell everyone about that. No, she saw something on the way. Or, I guess it was more of a feeling?” She hesitated.
“What is it, Kivi?”
“She believes we are being followed.”
Landis stepped forward. “Who would have such capabilities?”
Freya shook her head, not to answer in the negative, but because there was no answer. “You have to understand something about my universe. Time travel is all but ubiquitous. It’s not that everyone has it, but anyone may have it. If something exists at any point, it exists in all points. Everyone is dead, everyone is alive. Almost nothing can’t be undone. Who else can shadow the fastest ship in the stellar neighborhood? Someone from the future, or one that’s piloted by a man named The Trotter...or maybe his son, I don’t know. They would have to interface with their vessel in some way, but that’s not too difficult when you have all of time and space to figure it out. If you want to know who specifically possesses comparable speeds, I’ve never heard of it, but that in no way means this person or persons don’t exist.”
Kivi finally handed Diamond Zek to Landis. “Due to this uncertainty, I feel it is best we inform the crew, so that we may prepare for any eventuality. I do not want to use the weapons systems, but we may have no other choice.” She turned to walk away.
Freya stopped her. “Wait. Do you know who our shadow could be? You’re from this universe too.”
Kivi chuckled once. “I was literally born yesterday. Don’t you remember?”
On that bizarre note, Kivi left, and Eliana took this opportunity to get herself out of the booster seat before Freya could stop her. “I don’t need rest, I’m fine.” She demanded that Freya give her some space, so she could move about the cabin upon her own agency. As she passed Landis, she patted Diamond Zek like she was a loyal dog. “Thanks for the assist, cuz.” They weren’t really cousins, but seeing as they were both descended from the original Composite Universe astral teleporter—a man by the name of Nur—they were technically related, albeit across two timelines.
As they were discussing the possibilities, and their options, as a group later, Freya noticed that Kivi insisted on holding Diamond Zek in her lap, which was weird. That was no longer necessary, as they should have all been fully capable of communicating with Zek through a permanent psychic connection.
Andraste interrupted her thought process as she was questioning Kivi’s very existence. “What do you think? Do we prepare for war?”
“I’m sorry?” Freya hadn’t really been paying attention.
“As per usual,” Andraste started over, “Khuweka, Limerick, and Carbrey are ready to fight. They’ve all done it before. Landis and I disagree, as does Zek. Kivi is abstaining from voting.”
“She is, is she?” Freya questioned, still suspicious of the ninth crewmember. “I mean...okay. Wait, am I the tie-breaker?” She started checking people off.
“No,” Andraste said, “there are eight voters. Both you and Eliana have yet to respond.”
Freya couldn’t help but continue to leer at Kivi, who seemed unsurprised by this. She broke herself out of the trance so she could address the crowd. “I think we’re all on our way to commit time genocide.” She stood up from the table. “Having scruples about a hypothetical space battle with an invisible enemy is a bit like washing down your entire large pizza with a diet cola. We may be well-intentioned, but we are still extremists. Everybody needs to find a way to embrace their dark side, and get on board, because it’s too late to get off.” She walked down the table, and placed her hand on Diamond Zek, but looked into Kivi’s eyes. “We need to talk.” All three of them teleported to the other side of the ship.

The Constant Variable

Freya separated herself from Diamond Zek and Kivi, and stepped away to pace the room. The both waited for her patiently, while she figured out what she wanted to say. She didn’t want to be mean, but she had to get answers. “Who are you?”
“My name is Kivi Bristol.”
What are you?”
“I am a chosen one, having been created by an unknown chooser.”
“Why do you seem familiar, but I also get the feeling that we’ve never met?”
“I am bound by a phenomenon called spontaneous quantum reemergence. I come into existence at seemingly random points in spacetime, and disappear just as quickly. Sometimes the people around me are aware of it, and sometimes not. Sometimes I am aware of it, and sometimes I’m not. It’s unclear whether there are multiple versions of me running around the timeline, or if I am one person, being shunted throughout the timeline in a nonlinear order. Someone once called me the constant variable.”
“I have memories of you being a part of this team for two years,” Freya argued.
“Do you, though?”
“Well, yeah, because you...”
Kivi smiled. “My ability does sometimes fabricate memories, but most of the time, it just forces your brain into ignoring the fact that you don’t have memories. I actually didn’t join the team until shortly before we launched.”
“Are you good, or bad?”
“Good. That’s one thing that’s consistent about me. I’m always good.”
“How do we know?”
“Zek is immune to the psychic intrusion.” She held up the diamond a little. “But I am not immune to hers. She would know.”
“Give her to me.” Freya took Diamond Zek from Kivi. She didn’t need to hold her to have a private conversation, but this made it easier to be sure Kivi wasn’t somehow listening in. Is she telling the truth?
She is, Zek confirmed.
Would you know if she weren’t?
I believe so.
Can we trust her?
Can we trust Khuweka, and Landis? Can you trust me?
I would like to think so.
Then that settles it, Zek decided. We will trust Kivi as much as we have anyone else on the team. Do not tell the others what we know. We need to be able to work together, and as far as they are aware, they’ve been learning to do that with Kivi for the past two years. Revealing the truth would undermine the mission.
“Well, we wouldn’t want that,” Freya said out loud.
No, we would not.
Freya handed Diamond Zek back to Kivi. “Like I did, people will start to notice that you’re not capable of communing with Zek without physical contact. I suggest you speed up the psychic bond as much as possible.”
“Very well,” Kivi said graciously. “Thank you.”
Freya took a moment. “What, do you suppose, you’re here for? What are your skills?”
Kivi cleared her throat.
“Be honest,” Freya said, growing suspicious again.
“I’m a lawyer.”
“I’ve practiced law on multiple planets,” Kivi answered, worried how she would be received. “I’m not an engineer, or a fighter, or anything else you would expect to find on a battleship.”
“Have you practiced on an alternate future version of Worlon?”
“If I have, I have no memory of it,” Kivi said. “I doubt it, though. They sound pretty universally spiteful of humans.”
“Perhaps you argued against them.” Freya really was trying.
“They would have to have gone up against a pretty formidable enemy for it to lead to nonviolent legal proceedings, rather than some kind of deadly conflict.”
“I may have one trick up my sleeve, though.”
“Oh?” Freya was interested.
“I’m romantically linked to Lincoln Rutherford. I don’t have a way to contact him from where I sit, but...that’s something?”
“It certainly is,” Freya agreed. “He knows literally everything, which means he knows where you are right now, which means he could send help if we need it. You may be our backup.”
“So are we cool?” Kivi asked.
“We’re okay...for now.”

A month and a half later, they were finally approaching their destination. It was Freya’s job at this point to read off the specifications for the planet, so everyone knew what they were getting into. A project called Topdown decades ago sent giant telescopes into the intergalactic voids, so they could take measurements of the entire galaxy, but there were some details that were best left to upclose sensors. “It scores a point-nine-two-one on the Terrestrial Habitability Similarity Index, which may sound great, but ninety-five percent is the bare minimum that Operation Starseed will accept when deciding which worlds to plant life on, and which to ignore. Oxygen saturation is one-point-eight times as it is on Earth. I’m not sure if that’s why Ochivari are related to dragonflies, or what, but it certainly tracks. Surface gravity is one-point-four-gee, so we’re all fat now.”
“Signs of intelligent life?” Khuweka posed.
“None that the ship can detect,” Freya responded.
“Mr. Genovese, have you been able to locate a seed plate, or an interstellar ship?”
“Working...” Carbrey said.
“Which are we expecting?” Andraste asked.
“Once he hacks into Project Stargate, we’ll know,” Khuweka explained. “Each plate is responsible for establishing a presence in seven to twenty-eight star systems. There’s no way to know whether Worlon will get the plate, or a ship that the plate builds somewhere else. If it’s a secondary ship, it won’t be here for awhile. Arrival dates are estimates.”
Carbrey nodded his head. “I’m in the system. An automated interstellar probe is scheduled to arrive here in six years.”
“What do we do until then?” Eliana asked.
“We’re not waiting until it shows up,” Khuweka said. “We’re going to meet it head on, and destroy it. Then we’ll take it’s job, and start sending measurements back to Earth ourselves, but they’ll be false.”
“Do we really want to do that?” Diamond Zek asked. “Shouldn’t we just destroy the probe, and keep away from this planet?”
“We need to stop Operation Starseed from coming here with human DNA samples. If we don’t falsify the data, the system will eventually send those samples, whether they come from the nearest seed plate, or the next nearest. This is prime real estate. If we don’t do something to make it think this world is worthless, they’ll just keep sending backups. This whole project is destined to last tens of thousands of years. They’re patient enough to deal with failures, and fully prepared to correct them. Even if that takes thousands of years, they’re still well within their deadline.
“Furthermore, seed plates are the things they built on Gatewood, and dispatched with the gargantuan modular carrier at the start of the project. They’re powered by microfusion reactors, which are incredibly small, and only designed for short bursts of momentum, and maneuverability. A plate only exists to drop down on one orbital or satellite in one solar system. The branching network probe ships, however, are part of the inventory that this seed plate will make once it lands, using the raw material that it finds there. They can be much larger, and thusly support larger reactors. They can afford to spend power on other things, like long-range sensors, and a constant data connection with Earth and Gatewood. If we let that thing get close enough to Worlon to codify its habitability, all will be lost. We have to intercept it.”
Throughout Khuweka’s explanation, Carbrey kept working on the computer. He already understood all of this and knew that he needed to plot an intercept course. According to Freya’s education, finding something in the middle of interstellar space wasn’t as easy to do as fictional representations made it seem. On TV, they just pulled up a screen, and barring any invisibility cloak, every single object within a sufficient range would just be automatically visible. Still, it wasn’t impossible to find something either. Like Khuweka said, the probe was constantly sending data back to the stellar neighborhood, including its own location, relative to nearby celestial objects. He just needed to access that datastream. “I got it.”
“How far away is it?” Khuweka asked
“Roughly six light years. It’s going at maximum relativistic.”
Khuweka just looked over at Eliana.
“She doesn’t need to,” Freya said.
No, she doesn’t,” Diamond Zek agreed. “We’ve been working on something.” Without even touching them, she was able to teleport everyone to the booster room. They weren’t aware she could do this, but they weren’t shocked either. Her power was growing every week. She would probably reach a limit at some point, and never become a god, or anything, but the light year limit was a thing of the past. “Simulations suggest that I’m up to a parsec,” she announced proudly. “Freya?
Freya took Diamond Zek from Andraste’s arms, and took her to the back of the booster seat. There, she had engineered a special case for her to be locked in. It connected her to the platform, and kept her secure. Only the eight people in this room would be capable of removing her from her spot, but there wouldn’t likely be much reason to do so anymore. The case also integrated Zek’s consciousness with the ship’s systems, effectively making her the ship itself. Everything was working. All that needed to happen now was a consensus that she be allowed to do this, and a test of the new FTL jump limitation.
They all looked to Khuweka, who looked back at them. “Her superconscious crystalline carbonaceous substrate, her choice.”
Limerick watched as Freya locked Diamond Zek into her new home. “On my world, we have these things called wedding rings. They look like that.”
“Hmm,” Freya noted. “The ring here exists to concentrate Zek’s temporal energy. It does kind of look like a giant wedding ring, though, doesn’t it?”
“Mr. Genovese,” Khuweka said simply, once Zek was fully in place.
Carbrey started tapping on his tablet. “Plotting a lateral course. We’ll still be six light years from the probe, but a parsec from Worlon.”
The engines started up, made their connection with Diamond Zek, and jumped away. Carbrey was notably less panicky than he was the last time. He patiently waited for his tablet to calculate their location. They were exactly where they wanted to be.
Diamond Zek was quite pleased with herself. “I could have gone farther. I probably could have gone twice as far.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Khuweka told her. “For now, a parsec will suffice.” She looked at Freya and Carbrey. “The three of you need to work out how we’re going to do this. I know you already have a plan in mind?”
“Yes.” Freya nodded. “With a precision jump, we can essentially surround the probe, and match its speed. If all goes well, it should be hovering inside a quantum Faraday cage, where it can no longer send a signal back to Earth.”
“Well, actually,” Carbrey began to correct, “it will send its signal, but will do so about five million years in the past. With no quantum receiver on the other end, it will just...disappear.”
“Very well,” Khuweka said. “If you’re sure this will work, make the necessary preparations, thank you.”
Freya and Carbrey did make the necessary preparations, while the other six members of the crew went off to do their own thing. They started building the quantum Faraday cage when they arrived in the Worlon system, but before it could be used, they needed to make sure it was completely ready. There was no room for error here. To that end, they also needed to work out the calculations. The probe ship was traveling towards Worlon at 0.999999c, which was the fastest possible without time powers. The Cormanu was fully capable of reaching this velocity, and in fact would need to already be there when they made their jump. The probe ship would basically suddenly appear inside the Cormanu, and once it did, they would be able to disable it manually, but getting to that point would take a lot of finesse. And extremely high level math.
Within the day, they felt they were ready, and prepared for any eventuality, so it was time to just go for it. Zek first made a jump to about 50,000 astronomical units away from the probe, just to make the final jump easier on her. That was well outside of the probe’s known sensor range for an object of the Cormanu’s mass. They accelerated themselves to max relativistic speed. Early vessels needed time to accelerate, and just as much time to decelerate, but even the humans managed to conceive a workaround that allowed them to reach target velocities almost instantly without turning passengers into mush against the back wall.
The two of them chose to stand just outside the cage when it happened, so they could watch it. They built it a lot larger than they needed to, so there should be no danger from this distance. When Carbrey had just activated the final step for the jump, Limerick walked into the shuttle bay, wanting to see it as well.
“Lim, get over here! It’s dangerous on that side.”
Freya ran over to retrieve him. Their calculations were right, but there was always a chance they were off by a meter or two. The probe could theoretically end up on the wrong side of the cage. The signal would still be blocked for long enough to allow them to fix the error, but you wouldn’t want to be standing there when it happened.
“Jumping away,” Zek announced.
Something turned out to be massively wrong with their calculations, or something. Freya didn’t have time to form a hypothesis. She and Limerick were being pressed up against the cage. The probe was nowhere to be seen, and the fence was threatening to buckle under the pressure. They couldn’t get off, but perhaps that was the only thing keeping them from being sucked out into the interstellar void. The fence gave way, and sent them hurtling towards the back. The fence on the other side held for a moment, but it too would lose hold.
She fell forward, and landed on her face. On the ground. She was on land. Somehow. In a breathable atmosphere. Limerick was next to her, recovering from his own tumble. What the hell just happened?

Stable Time Loop

The two of them struggled to stand up as they rubbed their various wounds. Freya felt heavier than before, and was quite off balance. It wasn’t impossible to get upright, but not easy. They were in the middle of a forest. Limerick breathed deeply through his nose. “Wow. Is it easier to breathe?”
Freya took a breath as well. “It’s much easier. Perhaps...almost twice as easy?” She bounced her knees a little. “Surface gravity higher, oxygen level higher. Trees look a little short. This is Worlon.”
“We jumped back to the planet? I thought we weren’t ever going to the surface.”
“Maybe some kind of emergency teleport. Zek should have brought us all together, though, if the ship was destroyed.”
“What destroyed it?” Limerick asked.
Freya started pacing, not so it would help her think, but so that she could get used to the new gravity.  She did need some time to think, though. “Backwards. We were backwards.”
“How’s that?”
“I don’t know how. That’s just what happened, it’s the only explanation.”
“I haven’t heard an explanation yet.”
Freya got back down on her knees, and found some visual aids; a leaf, and a pebble. She tore a hole in the middle of the leaf that was large enough to fit the pebble. “This is what we were supposed to do.” She slowly swung each object in front of her, parallel to each other. After a few seconds, she quickly pulled the leaf in closer to her, so it was encapsulating the pebble, just like they did up in space with The Cormanu, and the probe. “But this is what I think happened.” She started out just as before, with the objects flying parallel, but this time, when she teleported the leaf over to the pebble, she turned it around, and pulled it in the opposite direction, serving to tear the leaf all the way open. “The probe kept going forwards, but since it was facing the wrong direction, it shot right through the back of the ship, and back into space, where it either continued on its journey, or was damaged enough to start drifting. We were almost sucked into that hull breach, except we ended up here.” She looked around some more. Then she reached into her back pocket, and removed two sticks of gum, one of which she handed to Limerick. “This is gravity gum. It will help your body acclimate to your increased weight. If it’s just us, and we stay on schedule, the pack will be enough for us to adapt, and not need it anymore.”
“And if it’s not just us? Where are they?”
“Zek? Zek?” Freya spoke out loud, but was really just trying to send a psychic signal.
“Could she have transported all of us, but not herself.”
“She could have done that, yes, but why would she have? We could have gone back to the ship later, if that’s all she wanted to do; save it.”
“Well, you said it was going the wrong direction. It would have eventually flown out of her teleportation range, right?”
“I guess.” Freya took out her device. “But I don’t see anyone else.”
“Is that a tricorder? Does it show life signs?”
“No, that’s stupid. It can ping other devices, though. I know Carbrey had his, and Khuweka would too. I would say about half of the others would happen to have kept it on their respective persons.” She kept pinging the others, waving her hand around, looking for a good signal. Nothing.
“Maybe she just saved us, because we were the only ones in danger.”
“So was Carbrey, and she should have just transported us to a safe section of the Cormanu.”
“He might have flown out of range, through that hole.”
Freya dropped her arm in sadness. Then she decided to try one more thing. She switched to a different menu item, and held the device back up towards the sky to measure stellar drift. Preliminary data came through pretty quickly. “Oh, no.”
“What is it? What do you see?”
“It’s still calculating a date, but...”
Limerick figured out where she was headed. “We didn’t just teleported, we traveled through time.”
“The past.” She kept watching the screen. “The deep, deep...deep, deep, deep-deep past. It’s still going.” She dropped her arm back down. “It’s slowing down, and it won’t be exactly accurate, because it requires more data, but millions of years. A few million, at least.”
Limerick smiled, and cracked his neck. “That doesn’t matter to us, though, does it? When I shatter this portal, we can go to any time period we want, in any universe.”
“In any universe touching ours. That limits you. You see, in the outer bulkverse, time is not a temporal dimension, but a spatial dimension.” She held up her fists as more visual aids. She placed her right index knuckle against her left pinky knuckle. “They have to be touching at the right point, which for us, is a moment in time. Now in the future, it’s constant. All the universes you could ever need to get to, are touching each other. I think someone did that on purpose, they call them bridges. Back in this time period, though...I don’t know. Do you detect any thinnies? Do you sense any nearby universes? Or are they all too far away?”
He held up his hand, and searched for a place he could make a portal. He stopped moving and closed his eyes to focus his senses. “I can feel one, but you’re right, I think it’s too thick. Or too far away, or whatever.”
“I don’t suppose you have an ETA on when that gets closer, if ever. It could be drifting away from us.”
“No, it’s getting closer. It hums a certain way, but I can’t predict the time table. We’ll just have to wait and hope, I guess.”
Freya shrugged her shoulders and sighed.
“Wait.” He seemed excited. “Can’t you get a message to them?”
“No, not from the past. That’s just impossible.”
“But why did we end up here, in this moment? You said, millions of years, but you’re not sure exactly when? Aren’t you, though? The probe was supposed to start sending its data to the past. That room is designed to send time messages.”
“Oh, you’re right. That’s why we ended up here. I mean, it doesn’t explain why we were able to make a physical jump, but it must be the exact same time period that we chose. Oh, but no, we’re not on Earth. The message is going to prehistoric Earth, not Worlon. It doesn’t matter that we’re closer, it’s quantum communication. It’s actually really weird we’re on Worlon. It doesn’t make much sense.”
He placed his hand back up to the invisible barrier. “Then we’ll just wait and see.”
The two of them grew closer over the three years that they were alone together. They continued to look for others, but there was no sign that anyone else came with them. This had something to do with the quantum Faraday cage, rather than Zek, and they were the only ones within its boundaries at the time. The other universe continued to draw nearer, according to Limerick’s beliefs, but it was hard to tell because of how faint the connection was, and how slow it moved, if it was doing so at all. He just kept measuring it as best he could, waiting until it was close enough for it to be useful to them. They made a life for themselves here, and as the only two people on the planet, of course, they had sex regularly. They had no birth control, but they were extra careful about it, because they didn’t want to raise a child in this environment.
It wasn’t the worst possible place to live, but it wasn’t civilized either. They built a latrine in the ground, and wiped themselves with leaves, and no matter how intricate they made their Crusoe dwelling, the toilet situation wouldn’t ever get better. There was plenty of food to eat, and infinite fresh water, and none of the animals gave them any significant trouble. They chose not to eat them, partially because they couldn’t effectively estimate any given creature’s intelligence level, but mostly because they didn’t need to. Their vegetarian diet was doing them well. What passed for insects were larger here due to the greater oxygen content, so that was a lot of fun; not creepy at all. Today, everything changed. Like cicadas did on Earth, Freya and Limerick woke up to find giant flying bugs crawling up out of the ground. There was no telling how long they had been there beyond the three years they had never seen them before. They looked a lot like dragonflies. Shit. This was it. This was where their enemies came from. Five million years in the future, these little fuckers would somehow transmit their DNA into the developing human scions that Operation Starseed planted here, and create a source variant species capable of raining hell down on countless other worlds.
They were witnessing the early evolution of evil, and there was nothing they could do to stop it. The bugs ignored the humans at first, or perhaps didn’t see them. But one took notice, and then they all did. They started flying towards their prey, forcing the couple to seek refuge in their hut. They were able to keep the mega dragonflies out for a few minutes, but the walls were buckling, so they had to fall back to the little panic room they built. It was stronger than the rest of the place, though not fit for anything but this kind of situation.
“We should have run. They’re gonna get in here eventually,” Freya lamented as the creatures bashed themselves against the walls.
“They would have caught up with us. We live longer in here. Maybe they have a really short memory. Best to keep ourselves out of sight for as long as possible.”
The wood started cracking. “Not long enough.”
Limerick regarded her. She felt like such a pathetic little nothing, sitting there so frightened and hopeless. He apparently had an idea. He grabbed her wrist, and held it up to his mouth. “Hey, Thistle...where’s my hex phone?”
Pinging hex phone,” the watch announced.
The bashing stopped, and they could hear the little song Freya’s device was playing on the nightstand. The sound of wings flapping grew fainter.
“Stay here,” Limerick told her.
“No. We do this together.”
“Better they get one of us than both. If you find an opening, then run. Otherwise, please stay here.” He took a beat. “Please.”
“What are you going to do?”
He literally rolled up his sleeves. The Maramon promised me I would get to punch someone. Here’s my chance.”
Freya connected her watch’s hologram to the camera on her device outside, which allowed her to see what Limerick was doing. He really was punching them, like some kind of The One in a sea of well-dressed agents. They kept flying at him, and he kept knocking them away. He always knew which one was the most pressing target, and exactly where it would be. It was a magnificent show, but Freya knew that it couldn’t last forever, because he would grow tired, and there would always be more, waiting in the wings, so to speak. But then something happened.
He punched one of the cicada-dragonflies, and it disappeared, almost as if it had been sucked out of an airlock. He punched another, it did the same. The more he tried, the clearer things became. He was creating small fractures in the universal membrane, sending them out into the void, where nothing could survive. They were not yet close enough to another universe, so they were just...lost. The survivors started taking notice, and even though they obviously weren’t as intelligent as their descendants would become, they were able to take the hint. They rose up from underground to breed, and this fight was both a distraction from that goal, and not doing them any good. They flew off before they could kill Limerick.
Freya came out of the panic room, and dove down to help him.
“I’m all right. I just need to rest. Water?”
“Of course.” She retrieved some water from the barrel, and handed him the drinking gourd.
He took his drink, and caught his breath. “Whoo! That was amazing. You have no idea how good it feels to fight an enemy you’re allowed to destroy. I’ve been in a lot of brawls, but I’ve never actually wanted to kill any of my opponents. They were human. I know I’m not supposed to think this, but so far, it’s been the best day of my life.”
She smiled. “It’s okay to feel that. It’s your truth.” She stood up to look out the window, where the evil dragonflies were starting to perform their mating rituals in the distance. “We’re both alive, and that’s what matters.”
Out of nowhere, a flash of darkness overwhelmed Freya’s eyes, and grappled onto her face, knocking her to the floor. She was being attacked, presumably by a cicada-dragonfly that didn’t want to give up. She reached up to get the facehugger off of her, but it wouldn’t budge. It just wrapped its whatevers around her tighter. Freya could taste some kind of disgusting fluid forcing itself down her throat. It didn’t last forever. Limerick managed to stab it with his walking stick, and tear the corpse off of her. Together, they wiped the viscera away as much as possible.
Without warning, he jammed two fingers into her mouth, and pulled out as much retch as he could. “You swallowed something. In thirty minutes, we’ll do that again.”
“That’s not science,” Freya argued.
“We don’t have medicine, so inducing vomit is the best option available.”
Freya drank a lot of water, and then a half hour later, retched it all up again, hoping that cleared whatever it was the cicada-dragonfly put in her. Like they had both said, this was not necessarily going to solve their problem, but without any means treating a disease, or even diagnosing one, this was all they had. They spent the rest of the day building a ring of torches around their entire hut, hoping the fire scared the creatures enough to keep them at bay. Tomorrow, they would try to break a thinny one last time, and then move out somewhere else. Perhaps there were places where the cicada-dragonflies didn’t thrive.
Until then, Limerick wanted to have sex, as they did every night.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“I thought you were feeling better.”
“Oh, I’m totally fine. I could be infected with something, though.”
“I’m not worried about that.”
“Better it gets one of us than both,” she echoed him from earlier.
“If you give me a space STD, then so be it. If you die, what am I gonna do without you anyway? We might as well get in the same boat. If you’re not up for it, that’s fine, but I am, and I’m not afraid.”
She was into it too, and the risks seemed worth it, what with this world looking more and more like the place where they would die regardless of when that ended up happening. “All right, let’s go to bed.”
Seven months later, literally about a thousand baby cicada-dragonflies flew out of her vagina, and off into the world. No, this was it. This was where her enemies came from. The Ochivari never had anything to do with Operation Starseed, but were spawned by Freya herself. She was the mother of evil.

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