Explanted (Part I)

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Elder Caverness was being blackmailed. He didn’t know how, but this stranger knew everything about his past. They knew where he had been. They knew what he had done. He was a war criminal, on the run from an authority who may not even exist. The Extremus was the best place for him to hide, because it was so random and inconsequential. That was the whole purpose of the mission, to travel so far from civilization that it no longer interacted with anyone else. He would die on this ship, safe from his past. But the stranger could ruin that. He wasn’t afraid of being found out by someone on this ship per se, but if the truth came out, it could get back to someone who really could get him in trouble. The blackmailer wanted him to do something that he shouldn’t. The Captain asked him to create a device that could transport any passenger back to the launch point, on the day of launch. There were those here who wished they had never come aboard, and this was their chance to undo that mistake. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what this device would do. It would instead banish them to the nearest sufficiently massive terrestrial planet. It didn’t even need to have an atmosphere. The blackmailer just wanted Captain Yenant to be on it. They must have had plans for him, though, because if they just wanted the Captain dead, it would be much easier to program the device to teleport him to interstellar space. Why did it have to be a planet?
There was a knock on the door. Elder didn’t use any cameras, or anything. He was the smartest engineer on the whole vessel, but he still liked to do some things the old school ways. He opened it to find a stranger. Whether it was the same person who was coercing him to do all this was still in question. They never met face to face.
“I’m your blackmailer.” Well, that answered that question. “Did you do what I asked? The Captain will be getting impatient. I calculated an 83% chance that he reaches his breaking point with you today, and that could result in him giving up on this project entirely. That cannot happen.”
Elder slipped his gloves back on, and showed the stranger what he had created. He couldn’t touch it with his bare hands, or he would become one of its victims. Pulling the string, and pressing the button activated it, but anyone who ever came into contact with it would succumb to it. “No, don’t,” he cried when the stranger reached for it.
“Oh, did you think that I wasn’t going on the trip?” He smirked, and took the transporter from Elder. “That’s the whole point, my friend.” He twirled it in his hands, and then handed it back. I calculate a 97% chance that he will use this between forty and fifty-five minutes after receiving it. Please message me when he takes it.”
“What if I can’t get him to touch it?” Elder asked.
“Do whatever you can.” That was odd. Getting rid of Halan Yenant seemed to be this man’s entire motivation. If that wasn’t actually the case, what was he really after?
Shortly after the blackmailer left the room, the Captain did come to check on his progress, and he did retrieve what he believed to be the recall device, but he did not touch it personally. He instead ordered his lieutenant, Rita Suárez to take hold of it. They were suspicious of him right away. Elder should have been cooler about it. He was a pretty good actor. This was absolutely not the first time he had gone undercover. It used to be his entire job. But maybe that was okay, because again, the man who made him do this didn’t seem to care one way or the other anymore. He appeared to be obsessed with probability, so maybe he knew that Halan would touch it eventually, or maybe he wanted Rita to be transported all along, and the best way to make that happen was to pretend that Halan was his target. Elder was pretty smart, but he had no illusions about whether it was possible for someone to outthink or outshine him. He was too old for that, though perhaps not as old as everyone believed. They all called him Old Man because he wanted them to; because it was easier to hide this way.
Rita wasn’t the only one who touched the device, though. Due to their suspicion, they forced Elder himself to place hands upon it as well. He had to find a way to take himself out of the queue. After the Captain and Lieutenant were gone, he got back to work. He ran over to the sink, and started scrubbing his hands vigorously with soap and water. There was a coating on the device, which left a residue on any holder’s skin. Elder had created it, but using a formula that the blackmailer provided. Surely it would come off if you knew that it was there, and worked hard to get rid of it. Right? Maybe not. He kept scrubbing and scrubbing, but his autodermatologist kept detecting a foreign substance. It was still there. He kept scrubbing, but it was just wasting time. The transporter was going to spirit—or maybe it wouldn’t. He threw his watch around his wrist, and activated the regular teleporter. He kept jumping all over the room. Maybe flooding his skin with temporal energy would get rid of the residue. After all, this energy didn’t usually just stay on you forever. It would dissipate, and in this case, hopefully remove anything related from his hands. No, the autoderma still read positive. Shit. There really was no hope. He only had one choice left.
He grabbed his emergency evacuation bag. It was called a Harsh Environment Survival Kit, and they were standardized in this time period in Earth’s stellar neighborhood. Once people started traveling to the stars, researchers came up with something called SCR&M, which stood for Safety, Compartmentalization, Redundancy, & Modularization. Bags like this one were designed to protect against any eventuality, such as having to abandon ship. Older time periods referred to it as a go-bag. Obviously, it could be tailored to one’s specific needs, but there were some strong recommendations, like shelter, air, water, and food. The one that Elder built for himself was unique, and filled with technology that not everyone in the universe even knew existed, like this teleporter gun, which...didn’t have much charge left, but it would do. And most Heskits had collapsible toilets, but this one here led to a pocket dimension, which was of vital importance to Elder’s sanity. He quickly checked inventory, and then disappeared.
His personal teleporter wasn’t able to send him directly into the Hock section, but he was able to get close, and then break in using more traditional means. They were just in an interrogation room, so it wasn’t like he had to make it deep into the belly of the beast. The problem was, he didn’t really know how much time he had left. He reached the door, and could see them through the little window. It was Captain Yenant, Lieutenant Suárez, a fellow genius named Omega Parker, and an awful woman who everyone hated so much, they just called her Airlock Karen. There was no telling how many of them had touched the device. The entire crew could have played a sports game with it by now. Elder would not be able to save the lives of all those people, but he might be able to protect this small group here. That was assuming he couldn’t just stop them from activating it in the first place, which was the ultimate goal. He started banging on the glass. “Stop! I couldn’t wash my hands! It’s not good enough! Don’t push the button, button is bad!”
The group noticed him, but didn’t get up to open the door for more information.
“Don’t push that button!” he urged desperately.
While Halan and Rita were talking, probably trying to decide how to react to this development, Airlock Karen snatched the device from the table, and gave herself some room. Before anyone could stop her, she pulled the string, and pressed the button.
Elder had thought about putting on his suit and helmet, but there was no time. Luckily, the vacuum tent was designed to open and reseal quite quickly. He could have saved himself with little issue, but he wasn’t the only one in danger here. Of course, Airlock Karen came with him, as did Rita. No one else did, though, so Halan had never touched it, and neither had Omega. It was just the three of them. He pointed his teleporter gun at the both of them, calibrated it for the mass of two bodies, and summoned them to his position. He tugged on the string to expel the tent, which enveloped them like a Venus flytrap, wrapping them up completely. The valve on the emergency air tank opened on its own as well, and began to fill the space with a breathable atmosphere. They weren’t out of the woods yet, though. The ladies had passed out already, because they did not expect any of this to happen, but Elder was about to suffer from the same fate. He retrieved the dermal wand from the pack, and flashed it against his neck. He felt immediate relief, but his body still needed time to absorb the nanococktail. He gave Rita and Airlock Karen their own flashes, then let himself pass out next to them.
He awoke later to someone shaking him at the shoulders. He blinked, coughed, and checked his watch. It hadn’t been that long, so the tank had plenty left in it to keep them alive until he could get the carbon scrubber working. “Report,” Rita demanded.
“I screwed up,” Elder answered.
“Ya think?” Karen asked sarcastically.
“I’ll explain everything. Right now, we need to solve our immediate issue, which is air.” He reached into his bag to take out the scrubber, and the tablet. He handed Rita the latter. “Here, interface with the tent. Make sure there are no leaks or vulnerabilities.”
“Wait, where are we?” she pressed. When Elder just gave her a harsh look, she sighed, and did as she was told, because it was the only logical next step. They could talk and work at the same time.
“I don’t know where we are. We’re wherever the Extremus was when she pushed that blasted button.”
“Oh this is my fault?”
“Partially, yeah. I literally told you to not do it. Did you think that maybe there was some reason for that, and that I wasn’t just high and confused?”
“I don’t know who you are, or what power you yield. Maybe you were the admiral, who could have stopped Halan from letting me go home.”
“Vice Admiral Perran Thatch isn’t Halan’s boss. He’s an advisor.”
“Well, whatever.”
“Old Man,” Rita began, “why are we here?”
“Someone made me do this. I thought he was trying to remove Yenant from the equation, but now I’m thinking that he wanted all three of us to be here instead. He’s smart. He’s real smart. He knew things that he shouldn’t have known. About me.”
“Halan was always suspicious of you. No one knows where you come from, or who gave you the job that you had.”
“I gave it to myself. I’m good with computers.”
“How do we get back to the ship?” Rita asked him.
“We’ll worry about that later,” Elder insisted.
“Later is too late,” Karen argued. “The ship will be out of range by then.”
“Extremus travels two light years every day,” Elder volleyed. “It’s well out of range already. I didn’t want to put the horse before the cart by explaining the long-term goal so soon, but our only hope of returning is to go back in time, which will...take time.”
“I never understood that,” Rita said, almost getting comfortable here, but still checking for leaks. “Why does it seem like it’s easier to go back in time than to go faster than light? The reframe engine has a maximum speed, but couldn’t someone build something that surpasses it? Aren’t they basically the same thing?”
“The difference is that the power required to travel through time scales linearly with mass, and distance from egress to ingress. Faster-than-light travel, on the other hand, scales exponentially from a high starting value. All current theoretical designs demand types of power generation that we do not yet have. A hypothetical ship with true FTL would probably have to be gigantic from the onset, and the more you want to pack on it, the more powerful the power source has to be. It suffers from similar downsides as the rocket equation. You want more payload, you need more fuel. To add more fuel, you need a bigger ship. You got a bigger ship, you need more fuel. It’s a vicious cycle that a time machine would have no trouble with. That’s not to say that building one will be easy. Back on Extremus, I had resources. Here, we’re tied to what I was able to carry in my bag, and whatever is here on this world.”
“I don’t suppose there’s enough for all three of us,” Rita reasoned.
He looked between the two of them. “The pack is made with one survivor in mind, but we can stretch it out if we’re careful.” He finished engaging the carbon scrubber, so he hung it up near the ceiling, and took the tablet back to interface with it too. “We’ll have to ration food, and really be careful about how we recycle our waste, but we should be okay. Water is our main concern as it’s the most difficult to insulate from leakage. We will be drinking our own urine for a while.”
“We do that anyway,” Airlock Karen said dismissively.
“Not like this,” Elder said with a heavy sigh. “The miniature filters we’re limited to don’t do much for the taste. But I think I can program the dayfruit seeds to produce extra sugar to mask the taste a little.” Dayfruit was a genetically engineered food that someone came up with centuries ago. It weighed about five pounds, and could provide a single person’s entire nutritional needs for one day. Under ideal circumstances, one took about a week to grow, but to conserve water, they would have to lengthen the growing period intentionally.
Rita sighed and looked around at their new prison. A lone survivor could go a bit crazy in the limited space, so the three of them should be total maniacs within only a few weeks. “I need an inventory of everything that we have on hand. After that, you’ll need to come up with a survival plan with extension contingencies. Once you’re done with those, start working on the escape plan. I’m not going to give you a time limit for when we need to be back on Extremus, but I will tell you that the answer is not never. Debra, I see you. It’s not his job to get you home. Gatewood is far too far away to worry about right now. So while he’s working on his assignments, and I’m setting up the dayfruit grower hourglasses, it will be your job to shut up. Do you think you can handle that?”
There was a knock on the tent.

Explicated (Part II)

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At first, the three of them did nothing. They stopped working, and froze, not sure whether someone really was outside of the tent, or if they were hallucinating. This planet was uninhabitable to humans, but that might not be true of any native species. No, that shouldn’t matter. It wasn’t just that the composition of the air was incompatible to human lungs. The very thin atmosphere was almost exclusively composed of carbon dioxide. It wasn’t completely impossible for life to evolve on such a world, though it wasn’t probable. There was another knock. Even if aliens did evolve, there was something very human about the practice of knocking on a door to gain someone’s attention, which might not translate very well to an alien race. An evolved alien on a carbon dioxide world was even less likely at any rate.
The tent began to bulge inward. “Hello,” came a voice through the fabric. He sounded very curious, as if he wasn’t sure whether anyone was in here.
“How is he talking?” Airlock Karen questioned, more fearful than the others. Rita was a trained professional, and Elder knew who was out there.
“Conduction,” Elder explained vaguely. “Can you hear us?” he cried out.
“Oh, yes.” The blackmailer was still being creepily cheerful as if all this was very reasonable and to be expected.
“You got what you wanted...” Elder said, pausing for a moment. “We’re here. What do you want?”
“I want you,” the blackmailer replied.
“You want me for what?”
“Haha, sorry. I lifted my helmet from the tent, forgetting that you can’t hear me without it. I want you...to do whatever you must to survive. I’ll be doing the same a few hundred meters away. Once you adapt well enough to travel from your tent, come find me. We won’t speak again until then.”
“This is a game to you?” Rita figured.
“More like a test, Lieutenant. I need to know what you’re made of. How many of you will last? Which ones? I’m building something here. Well not here, and not now, but I will, or rather, I will have. You just have to decide how badly you want to be a part of that. Come talk to me when you know, and when you can.”
“What are the odds?” Elder asked him. “What are the odds that we pass your test, and make it all the way to your settlement?”
He laughed again, and waited to respond. “A hundred percent.” They could see the bulge from his helmet disappear as he began to walk away.
“Who the hell was that?” Karen asked.
“I still don’t know, but I intend to find out.” Elder looked at the ladies. “But not right now. Our priorities haven’t changed. Food and water. If you’ve ever cared about anything else in your life, pretend that they don’t exist. From now on, the only things that matter are the four majors: air, shelter, water, and food, in that order.”
They went on with their business. Airlock Karen—who requested to be called Debra instead—even pitched in, helping to assemble the dayfruit growers to double their productivity. Meanwhile, Elder programmed the genetic makeup of the fruit, optimizing for geoponics rather than hydroponics. The kit that he had curated wouldn’t have enough water for all three of them if they had to use too much of it for food production. There was another option that he was considering. The blackmailer obviously had his own plan for survival, and was probably sitting pretty in another dimension, or something. He knew that this was all going to happen, and wanted it to, so he was fully prepared. There was enough juice for Elder to teleport to the blackmailer’s location, but he needed to know exactly where that was, and what he was getting into. If there was any form of teleportation resistance technology, it could spell Elder’s death. So maybe there was a fifth priority in addition to the major four: information.
There would be a month’s worth of meal bars for one person, but even if there was enough for everyone, they wanted to save them for an emergency. A worse emergency, that was. They planned on rationing over the course of the next several days, but stop after that to focus on the dayfruit. They would only return to the bars if something went wrong, and they had no choice. They had to be so careful with every move they made. One little mistake could lead to their doom, and they wouldn’t even necessarily see it coming. Spilling a cup of water could be devastating, so everything sensitive like that would be going in the collapsible sink to protect it from their shuffling around. It may sound like a small gesture, but carelessness was a consequence of hunger, thirst, and isolation. They had to be extra afraid of mistakes.
Once the four majors were set or in motion, Elder was able to focus on that fifth priority. He had recorded the conversation with his blackmailer, and commanded his tablet to find a match from the Extremus manifest. Since the comparative sample was muffled through the tent, the AI came up with a couple dozen possible matches. But Elder had heard the man’s voice during their first and only face-to-face meeting in his lab. He would recognize it if he concentrated. He stuck the earbuds in, and prepared to narrow down the list when he noticed Debra saying something. He couldn’t hear a single thing with these things in, so he had to take them out again right away. “Sorry, what?”
“Do we get to listen to your music too, or not?” she repeated.
“It’s not music,” Elder explained.
“What is it?” Rita asked.
He didn’t want to tell them. “It’s an essay from an Earthan science journal about chromatin remodeling and epigenomic reprogramming for enhanced nutritional yield in solanum mirabilis with an emphasis on the optimization of the upregulation of nutrient preservation for extended unrefrigerated life terms in suboptimal conditions, vis-à-vis our current conditions in a hostile environment with little to no consumable resource replenishment options. Are you interested?”
They stared at him until Rita said, “oh. I already read that. It’s pretty good, albeit a bit rudimentary,” she joked.
Elder smirked, and took out his handheld device. He swiped it over to guest mode, and tossed it to them. “All the best music is on there, but only from the late 21st century, and earlier. I prefer the classics.” The masses appeased, he put his buds back in, and started to focus on the voice samples. He was a bit distracted when he noticed that the girls chose to watch something instead of listening, projecting the film on the wall. It was The Martian, of all movies. Their eyes did not betray an acknowledgement of the irony. Or maybe they were just studying it for good ideas.
Fifteen minutes later, Matt Damon was in the middle of recording his first message while stranded alone on Mars. Elder was pretty sure that he found the right voice from the eleventh sample, but he needed to listen to the others to eliminate them. “Bronach Oaksent,” he couldn’t help but say out loud after listening to the sample for the fourth time, as well as one more listen of the very similar eighteenth sample.”
“Is that a band, errr...?” Debra asked him.
The cat was out of the bag now, Elder had to come clean. “That’s who did this to us. That’s who’s outside the tent.”
“You’re telling me that’s the name of a human being?” Debra pressed.
“Apparently, so.” Elder was still chilled from the voice sample itself, the words of which reiterated his belief that he had found the right suspect. I don’t care what happens to this ship in the end. Your definition of extreme is limited to space, when you should be more motivated by time. That’s where all the real power lies. Bronach wanted Elder to build that time machine, so he could go back and do something nefarious with it. Elder’s initial thought was to kill himself to prevent that from being possible, but in many years, he had come across multiple chances to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and he had never made that choice before. That was one reason he was in this mess in the first place.
“Who is he?” Rita asked. “I don’t recognize the name.”
Elder looked back down at the profile he had pulled up. “He’s no one. No family, no community ties, no job, low contribution score.”
“Maybe he altered his own records,” Debra offered. “He’s smart enough.”
“How would you know how smart he is?” Rita asked her.
“Well, he pulled this off, didn’t he?”
Elder regarded her with mild disgust, split evenly between Debra herself, and Bronach. “No higher education. He was homeschooled.”
Rita flinched. “Oh.”
“Oh? Oh, what?”
Now she was the one with a secret that she wanted to keep. But there were four people in the entire world. If she couldn’t tell them, she couldn’t tell anyone. “His records were probably erased, but not by him. The homeschool label is an old spycraft tactic. It’s to prevent anyone from looking deeper into someone’s past. When you’re homeschooled, there are no records, so snoopers won’t be surprised when they don’t find anything.”
“He’s a spy?” Debra asked.
“Not necessarily,” Rita answered. “Some people actually are indeed homeschooled. But given our present circumstances, it’s a safe bet that he’s been highly trained in espionage and manipulation techniques.”
“He talks in probabilities,” Elder revealed. “This suggests that he’s highly calculating.”
“So, I’m right,” Debra figured. “He’s smart.”
“You were right,” Elder admitted, not upset about validating her, but worried about what she was right about. What was Bronach planning, and what did these two have to do with it? A time machine on its own wasn’t too terribly dangerous all the way out here. They were over a thousand light years from the stellar neighborhood, which would limit his ability to alter the past. He would need other technologies, like a reframe engine, or maybe just stasis. If he wanted to change history, coming all the way out here was a hard way to go about it. There was a reason that he got on Extremus, and a reason that he got off when he did. None of this was random, and they couldn’t trust their intuitions. This profile didn’t give them enough information about who they were dealing with. Maybe Elder really should kill himself. But where would that leave Rita and Debra?
Rita shut the movie off, seemingly no longer in the mood. She tapped on the device until some classical music started to play for them all to hear. She carefully lowered the volume. “The carbon scrubber is functioning optimally, right?
“It is,” Elder replied.
“Air, check. The tent is sealed up properly, no leaks?”
“No leaks.”
“Shelter,” Debra jumped in.
“The toilet’s ready to go,” Rita went on.
“Yes. Water. Gross water.”
“Lastly, the dayfruit seeds are growing.”
“Slowly, yes,” Elder confirmed.
“Food,” they chanted roughly simultaneously.
“We’ve had a hard day. Turn your screen off. Let’s just go to sleep.”
“We’ve not even talked about that,” Elder said, realizing now that the lower priority issues were still issues. “The sleeping bag only fits one person. I mean, I guess two people could fit if they were willing to snuggle...”
Rita smiled. “I’m a Lieutenant, remember? I can sleep anywhere, anyhow. You too share the bag; sleep back to back, I would recommend. I’ll be fine.”
“I sleep in the buff,” Debra divulged. “I just don’t feel comfortable any other way.”
“Then use the clothes that you’re not wearing as a pillow,” Elder suggested. We’ll use the actual pillow as a barrier between us.”
“Okay.” She was a difficult person, but not without the capacity for humility. Even Karens had people who loved them, and those people weren’t insane.
“We should be conserving power anyway, so sleep is a good idea, and it’s healthier to do it when it’s cooler.” He reached over to the microfusion reactor to cycle down the isofeed. A reactor shouldn’t ever be turned off completely, but he could limit the amount of output, including the waste heat, which was their main source of warmth here. The lights dimmed, and Rita turned off the music. “No, as long as you two are fine with it, keep the music on. It’s good for you, and don’t worry about the power.”
“I’m fine with it,” Debra said.
They continued to listen to Clair de Lune as they quietly got ready for bed. Elder removed most of his clothes too, but not everything. He just needed his own shirt and pants for a pillow. Rita crawled over to the other side of the tent to curl up into the fetal position. Debra squirmed a lot, probably because she was used to having all the space of a full-sized bed, but she didn’t complain, so that was nice. He had extra melatonin sleep masks, but he didn’t want to offer her one, and have her be offended. It was time that they started to learn how to live together, because they were going to be stuck with each other for a long time. He made a mental note to offer one to the both of them tomorrow, framing it as if he were remembering that he should have worn one himself. Yeah, that should work. For now, they would all just have to figure it out on their own.
Over the course of the next week, they developed a routine. They had nothing better to do besides continue to survive, so they shared stories from their pasts. Elder didn’t tell them why he was on the run, but he did discuss his life on Earth centuries ago. They were receptive and nonjudgmental. But they were still going a little crazy. They needed to find a way to spend some time apart. The bathroom situation was uncomfortable at best.

Exploited (Part III)

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Elder was able to rig up a holographic bathroom. At first, it was nothing more than a partition that gave the user some much-needed privacy. Over time, with little else to do, he added more and more to the program, including the highly requested feature of a noise-canceling system, as well as some scent-masking. Eventually, it looked like they were in one of those extremely fancy and expensive bathrooms that only the wealthiest of people used. It wasn’t like a holodeck, so they couldn’t touch the double basin sink, or the clawfoot tub, but it made them feel a little less confined. This tactic was quickly expanded to the entirety of the tent, allowing them to pretend that they had more space than they did. They could transition views between a number of different environments. It could look like they were sitting in the middle of a serene forest, against a backdrop of mountains, or even in the middle of outer space. That one wasn’t used very much, but it was there if they wanted it. They could also use this to make the tent appear to be transparent, allowing them to see what the real world outside looked like. The imagery was bleak, and a little depressing, but it was often better than the claustrophobia-inducing opaque walls.
In addition to these cosmetic changes, Elder had a lot of other work to do. In order to transmit objects from inside to the outside, and back again, there was a small built-in airlock. It had to be flexible, so it could collapse into the pack where it was stored, of course, but it was enough in a pinch. He was able to program a tube of starter nanites to head out onto the regolith, and begin building them a larger, and more permanent, living structure. Once it was finished being constructed, they would finally be able to stand up, and walk around. It was hard to get exercise in this thing, so they were desperate for more options, especially since this planet featured fairly low gravity. Bicycle crunches were probably saving their lives, but they were becoming increasingly sick of them.
Bronach Oaksent claimed to be only a few hundred meters away, but he was nowhere to be seen. There were a number of geological features nearby, which could easily conceal him, particularly well if he had built his own shelter mostly underground. He could also be in a very small dimensional generator, which would be incredibly easy to hide. Even before he built the nanofactory, Elder designed a pebble drone, based on the kind of rocks that were present on this planet. Tiny cilia that were invisible to the naked eye pressed against the surface, allowing it to roll along in search of Bronach’s hiding place. It was a very slow process, but it used very little power, and each one could operate autonomously. Indeed, a larger drone design would be easier to spot, so this was the best way to do it if they didn’t want to get caught.
True to his word—in this sense, at least—Bronach never reached out. Elder didn’t detect a single radio signal, so he wasn’t trying to communicate anywhere else either. Elder would even be able to tell if he were using some kind of quantum messenger, which would be difficult to transport with its relatively high mass, or maybe not if his dimensional generator theory were true. There was still so much that they didn’t know, and it still wasn’t priority. Their focus was on survival. What he really needed was a real lab so he could start working on that time machine. Debra had wanted to leave Extremus, but she made it quite clear that she would prefer it to this.
“Don’t worry about the time machine right now,” Debra argued. “Just get me a place to stand up, and then a place to sit down. You are building chairs, right?”
“Of course I am,” Elder replied, “and I’m not worried about the lab right now. I’m just talkin’. The nanites are busy on the structure; me discussing the future doesn’t slow that down.”
“You should have brought more nanites,” she tried to reason.
“The amount of time it takes for them to replicate is negligible compared to the time it takes to actually build what we need. Packing more would not have significantly sped up the process. In fact, it might have slowed it down, because it would have been more difficult to get them through the airlock pocket, and on its way to the worksite.”
“The worksite is right there.” Debra pointed. The tent was pseudotransparent on one side right now, so they could watch the construction progress. The other sides were showing the ocean surrounding an atoll.
“That’s miles away to a nanite. Scaled up, that would be like if you drove around the equator of the Earth,” Elder tried to explain for the upteenth time. He hadn’t had to say that specific thing to her before, but she was one of the least educated people he had ever met. She didn’t listen. She seemed to think that the nanites were magic. If she knew their breakdown rate, she would...well, she wouldn’t understand that number, but if she did, she would throw a fit.
“I’ve never been to Earth.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I really don’t.”
“Stop fighting,” Rita interjected. “This is a stupid conversation, and I’m over it. Elder, how long until we can teleport into the new structure?”
“We’re not teleporting into it,” Elder contended. “We have precious little temporal energy left in the teleporter gun, and we need to save it.”
“If we’re so low, how are we ever going to go back in time?” Debra questioned.
“I will be able to harvest more with greater resources,” Elder clarified. “It would sure help to have some stored to catalyze the process, though, which is why I’m having the nanites build a docking cone. That’s mostly what still needs to be finished. It’s right there.” He pointed to it. A metal cone was gradually materializing towards them.
“And the time until it’s complete?” Rita reiterated.
“Only a few more days,” he answered. “I know what you’re gonna say next, but bear in mind that solar is our only source of power at the moment. The shelter would take even longer if I had the nanites build a fusion reactor at the same time, even though having fusion would eventually make them go faster. Plus, the basalt and sedimentary rocks have to be pulverized and reformulated into a sort of concrete to create the airtight seal that we obviously need. There is not as much metal in the regolith as I would like. But as soon as they’re done, we’ll have nine square meters to spread out in. It will all be worth the wait, I promise you.”
“And a real bathroom?” Rita asked hopefully.
Elder hesitated to answer. “Not quite yet. It’s coming, but think about it, how complicated the fixtures in a real bathroom are. There is a room walled off for it, but we’ll still be using our portable toilet, and rubbing ourselves down with dayfruit...” He trailed off, his mind scattered to a million pieces. Sometimes a keyword would switch his train of thought to the wrong track, even if he was the one who said the word. He went back to contemplating his latest project to solve one of their problems. Each of the five leaves of the dayfruit was packed with its own natural substance. They were using the sugar and salt leaf regularly, programming every other fruit to produce one, and every other fruit the other. The second leaf gave them an alcohol-based sanitizer, which could be used to disinfect wounds in a medical situation, as well as a body cleanser when water was scarce, as it was here. The third leaf was a soap for when water was plentiful enough. The fourth was basically a GMO super-eucalyptus, which had countless benefits, from toothpaste to a moisturizing topical ointment. The fifth and final leaf was a sort of user’s choice. If not programmed for something each time, it would just grow empty. Well, not empty, but layered, so it wasn’t completely useless, since it still functioned as toilet paper, but Elder wanted more out of it. He wanted to program it to produce a certain chemical compound.
Unfortunately, they were stuck with an inert fifth leaf. It was a heavily regulated trait, generationally encrypted by the institution that designed the dayfruit strain in question. In this case, that governing body was part of Extremus. No one here had the authentication factors, not even Lieutenant Suárez. When he had time, Elder had been trying to hack into it, but even geniuses had their limits. These seeds required a password for certain modifications, and if he wanted to subvert them, his only option might be to write his only version of the fruit from scratch. That was not out of the question, but they weren’t there yet. It would demand certain chemicals to even begin anyway. Digital DNA was useless without the organic material to begin the synthesization process. Nothing could come from nothing. Not even their world of temporal manipulators could this maxim be subverted.
“Old Man,” Rita shouted. “You’re in your head again.”
“No, you were telling us to rub dayfruit on our bodies,” Debra clarified.
“Right.” He cleared his throat. “I meant the sanitizer. We’ll have to keep using the sanitizer until we can find a source of oxidane.”
Rita nodded, but Debra was confused, as usual.
“Water. We need water. If we find a significant reservoir, we may be able to stop having to recycle our waste.” They added sugar to their drinking water to get rid of the urine taste, but...they could still taste it.
Rita shook her head. “When we go back in time, and get back on Extremus, I’m going to lobby for a change in policy. Earthan space explorers wear those standardized integrated multipurpose suits all the time. They debated doing that on the Extremus, but it was never our plan to ever go on spacewalks, so they ultimately decided against them. I think that was a mistake. We would be so much better off if we could go outside right now. I should be wearing an IMS. From what I hear, they’re comfortable enough.”
Elder shook his head to mirror her. “I should have packed one in my emergency kit. I guess that’s not why they’re on the recommended list, because the people who need them the most are already wearing them to be prepared at all times.”
“Could you fabricate one now?” Debra asked. She was being genuine this time, not critical or argumentative.
“I don’t have the materials,” Elder replied. “And...I wouldn’t know how to make one. It’s not the library, I don’t think. Do you know how to harvest and contain monopoles? I’m not saying that to mean. It’s just so far above my paygrade.”
“Well, that’s one layer,” Rita began, “but a vacuum suit doesn’t have to have it. The other layers alone would work well enough on their own, unless you think you might get shot out there.”
Elder looked towards the horizon. When Bronach left them, this was the direction he walked, implying that that was where his own shelter was—which was why he was concentrating the pebbledrone search in that region—but that could literally have been a misdirect. “We don’t know that that man doesn’t have projectile weapons. And anyway, no,” he went on. “The nanites aren’t constructing the structure out of the best materials possible, just what they can find. We do not have what we would need for additional clothing of any kind. We never will, not here.”
They all three sighed at around the same time, and went back to watching the docking cone inch towards the tent entrance, one conical section at a time. It really was slow, though, so they eventually broke out of the group trance, and started focusing on their own things. Later that evening, they watched another episode of Sliders together. It was the one where they go to a world that is free from the war because of a virus that only kills Kromaggs. It made Elder uncomfortable, but he tried not to show it. The ladies still didn’t know that much about his past.
A couple of days later, the cone was finished, and they were in the new structure. Rita couldn’t stop breathing a sigh of relief, and Debra teared up a little. Elder sat down on one of the built-in benches against the wall, and didn’t stand up for almost three hours. They didn’t call him Old Man for nothin’. Lying down, sitting up, and crawling were not good for his back in the long-term. Now that they had more space to move around, he was able to get some real work done. Their new airlock still wasn’t big enough for a person to step through, but that wasn’t the point. His hands could move faster than the nanites. He was able to collect building material, and build some larger equipment in here. The progress of their shelter continued to get faster and faster. He cut out some windows, and forged silica glass to protect them. They hadn’t experienced any dust storms, or these might have been too dangerous to consider.
With more space and more time, he was able to build larger drones too, which were able to travel farther from their immediate vicinity, and perform more detailed surveys of the land. They found deposits of magnesium and aluminum, and trace amounts of others, like silver and copper, which were vital components of some desperately needed technology, like better solar panels, and a fusion reactor. It took months, but these drones also found subsurface ice only about forty centimeters under the regolith. For simplicity’s sake, they ignored the first site, and focused on one that was a little farther away, but on higher ground, so a basic aluminum pipe could transport water from the boiler structure, down to them via gravity.
It was starting to feel a little like home, but only a little. They remained firmly in favor of finding a way back to the ship in the past. Debra talked a lot about their ultimate goal of traveling to Bronach’s location, but the other two were hoping to avoid it altogether. Rita was anyway. Elder still had plans for the fifth leaf, though if he never figured it out, he might be able to find a way to synthesize everything he needed in the normal way, especially with this silica for lab supplies. He was no chemist, though, that was the problem. He was counting on the dayfruit’s ability to formulate a programmed compound for him, rather than him having to mix it by hand. This plan wasn’t vital to their survival, but not having the weapon could prove fatal one day. He had relinquished his morals once; he could do it again if it was necessary.
They were on this dead planet for five whole months before Elder was even able to begin manufacturing the time machine, and it was shortly thereafter when he hit a snag. Harvesting temporal energy wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be. He might only have enough for one person for one trip with a smaller design.

Exploded (Part IV)

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There were two ways to gather temporal energy for time travel, or to accomplish other temporal manipulation goals. One was to find it in a parallel dimension, and the other...was to literally wait for it. In the end, that was really all temporal energy was: the passage of time. The ladies listened to Elder’s explanation silently until they thought he was done. “What if we took multiple trips?” Rita suggested. You go back, reconnect with Extremus, build a larger time machine, and then come back for us.”
“I don’t want to be stuck here without a temporal engineer,” Debra argued.
“You wouldn’t be,” Rita tried to clarify. “It’s time travel. He could return to this moment a second after he left.”
“Unless wherever he goes kills him,” Debra reasoned.
“I’m not even sure if I can gather enough temporal energy for even one trip as far back in time as we need to go,” Elder tried to continue. “I’m just pretty sure that I can’t take anyone with me. It’s the triple mass rule. The average choosing one can transport themselves plus two buddies. The machine itself would be more massive than three people alone, which means that it will require extra temporal energy. Maybe if one of us metabolized the energy naturally, it would be different, but this is all very uncertain.”
The conversation halted when they heard a noise outside. It sounded like something was falling. They were in the garage, which didn’t have any windows. “Was that one of the solar panels?” Rita guessed.
They stepped into the foyer to look out one window, but couldn’t see anything. They spun around to the opposite window when the sound recurred. They still couldn’t see anything, so they peeked over the sill as far as they could. Debra had the best angle. “There’s something sparkly down there.”
“Sparkly, like a diamond?” Rita asked.
“More like water. Or ice.” That was when they saw it. It was ice. It was fallen ice, also known as hail. Whether it was made out of water was a question they couldn’t answer, not yet.
Elder pulled out his handheld device, and commanded the nearest exterior drone to drive over to the ball of ice, and run a quick analysis. “It’s water ice. Ninety percent dihydrogen monoxide, plus five percent air bubbles, and three percent dust. The other two percent is carbon, and a few other trace elements.”
“Guys. Look,” Rita encouraged.
They raised their heads to find that the few pieces of hail were only the vanguard. It was hailing and raining in the distance. The precipitation appeared to be coming out of nowhere from about thirty meters above the ground. “I guess now we know where Oaksent has been living.” Elder gritted his teeth, irritated about what this meant.
“He looks like he has a lot of temporal energy,” Debra pointed out the obvious.
“Yeah, looks like it,” Elder admitted.
“It’s just that...if we wanna get out of here, you two are gonna have to swallow your pride, and let us go over to speak with him.”
“Yes, Debra, thanks, we get it,” Rita snapped back. “Is the rover ready?” she asked Elder.
He first manufactured a rover to test the stability and durability of the metals found on this planet. They could do with a way to travel away from the structure in person anyway, and it came with lower stakes than the time machine will. “It’s finished, but I’ve not tested it.”
“You should do that today,” Debra suggested.
One time, when Elder was looking for a book on the tablet that he hadn’t read yet, he came across a personal document that Debra had written. It was fanfiction that portrayed Bronach Oaksent as the hero, and Debra herself as the damsel in distress. She couldn’t even picture herself as the protagonist of her own novel, which was what saddened Elder the most. He didn’t read much of it, because it wasn’t any of his business, but his speedreading kicked in automatically, so he got the gist of it pretty quickly. She had contrived this whole fantasy about a man she had barely met. They didn’t even have an image of him in the database. Her entire idea of what kind of person he was came from a short biography in the manifest, while her imagination had to fill in the rest. She thought of him as her savior mostly because Elder was the poisoner. The fact that Oaksent was the one who had orchestrated this whole thing was a causal connection that she wasn’t capable of making. This wasn’t surprising considering she also struggled to string two sentences together into a coherent thought. That was probably why she sought out men like Oaksent in the first place, because she relied on others, and always had. Coming aboard Extremus alone was the biggest mistake she had ever made, and this would be true even if none of this had happened to her. “Boy, you’re quite anxious to get to your little boyfriend, aren’t you, Karen?” That was mean.
“Don’t call me that!”
Elder didn’t want to apologize, and Rita didn’t want to give him the chance to try, and screw it up, so she changed the subject. “Do what you need to with the rover, and then we’re leaving.”
“It holds two people,” Elder clarified. “One of us will have to stay here. Or should I say, one of you, because I obviously have to go.”
Rita looked over at Debra apprehensively, who looked back in fear. She had obviously been dreaming of finally meeting her hero for months, but she was not useful. Elder was the genius, and Rita was the leader. So her only option would be to beg. Rita sighed, apparently giving up already. “You go, but I’m trusting you with that. You know how we feel about him. If you make one choice that gets any of us hurt because you can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality, you’ll wish you had chosen to stay.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Debra complained.
Rita gave Elder a look. Perhaps she too had come across the fanfiction. It was just sitting there in one of the main menus. She didn’t even password protect it, like an amateur. “Just follow my instructions before you leave, and while I’m on the radio. And whenever I’m not telling you what to do, listen to Elder. That’s all you have to worry about. You don’t have to make any decisions at all.”
“Fine.” Debra wasn’t happy, and was probably already searching for loopholes in this mandate.
Elder went back to the garage to shift gears from the time machine to the rover. He gave it multiple inspections. Whenever he encountered an issue that needed to be corrected, he would then go all the way back to the beginning, and start the inspection over. His own safety codes demanded that he complete an inspection in full without discovering any problems whatsoever. Measure twice, cut once was a cliché for a reason. Once it was ready, he piloted it remotely from the safety of the structure, but only for twenty minutes. The safest way to do it would be to have it make several unmanned trips, but Rita was anxious for answers, and they didn’t know how much, or how little, temporal energy Oaksent had stored up, or how he was using it. There were different ways to trigger a hyperlocalized low altitude thunderstorm, and some were more efficient than others. There was no purpose to causing the weather event in this situation beyond demonstrating his might, so it was a total waste. Elder might need to get him to stop before they ran out of the energy they needed for the time machine.
He moved the rover back into the garage, and repressurized it. Debra was packed up and ready to go. She had showered, which wasn’t a bad idea, if for bad reasons. Elder decided to take a quick one himself, further delaying departure, and making her even more impatient. After he was out, and ready to go himself, Kivi pulled him aside. “Here.” She handed him a gun.
“Where the hell did you get this?” Elder questioned. They had never had a gun on this planet before.
“I don’t know,” Kivi replied.
“You don’t know?” he echoed. “Don’t you think that’s a little weird?”
“I found it in my personal back the day we arrived on this godforsaken planet,” Kivi explained. “I didn’t say anything, because tensions were so high back then, and I didn’t say anything later, because there was no reason for it. Well, there’s reason now. Oaksent is dangerous, and you need to protect yourself.”
“Kivi, he’s the mastermind. He probably gave you the gun. He slipped it in your bag, knowing that you had been marked for transport.”
“Maybe,” Kivi agreed. “It doesn’t matter. Take it. I don’t advocate for violence, but I would rather it be in your hands than his...or mine, for that matter.”
“Fine.” He carefully stuck it in his own pack, and headed out to the rover where Debra was waiting. He performed one more quick inspection, the kind you were supposed to do every time you went out for a drive, whether it was on an alien planet, or within the safety of a breathable atmosphere. Then he and Debra waved goodbye to Rita and Kivi, and headed out into the minor unknown.
The rain and hail fell upon the rover, causing annoying damage to the frame. It was a new vehicle, but it already required repairs. Great. Fortunately, they found that the storm served only as a border between the two camps. They passed through it quickly, and ended up in Bronach’s domain. Now they realized why Elder’s drones had never managed to find it, because it was located within its own parallel spatial dimension. This wasn’t a pocket dimension, but it was similar. It was sunny here, and grassy on the ground, and the air was thick and breathable. He had come a hell of a lot more prepared than Elder had ever suspected. Oaksebnt was going to win this battle of minds. Debra would never see him as the enemy now.
“What a dick,” Debra said.
“He’s had this the whole time, and never said anything? I’ve been shitting in a hole, and showering with freezing cold water. What. A. Dick!” Wow, that was a dramatic swing in the other direction. It was a little offensive. The toilet that Elder ended up building for them was nothing fancy, and it was made out of metal, since they had no ceramics to work with, but it was pretty nice. “Ugh. Stop the car.”
“We can’t get out yet, Debra. I can’t be sure that this is real.”
“Stop the car!” she repeated.
He came to stop, and let her open the door. A gust of wind rushed in, and didn’t kill them, so the atmosphere appeared to be legit. And anyway, if Oakset had wanted them dead, there were easier ways than tricking them into thinking that this was a hospitable environment.
Oaksent stepped out of his brick house with a huge smile plastered on his face. “You’re finally here! Only two of your survived?”
“The other two are back home,” Elder replied.
“Two?” Oaksent asked. “Rita, and who?”
“Kivi,” Debra answered. “Kivi Bristol.”
Oaksent shook his head rather apathetically. “Never heard of him.” Hm. As much as he knew, maybe he didn’t know everything. He wasn’t God.
“It’s a her,” Debra corrected.
“How are you powering your dimension?” Elder asked, only wanting to be here long enough to make some kind of arrangement.
“Initially?” Oaksent began. “Temporal battery. Now, a temporal generator.” He chuckled when Elder looked around for it. “It’s disguised as that mountain.”
Yeah, that rock spire would be about the right size for something like that. A temporal generator would have to be a giant tower. It either collected energy from two dimensions that operated at different temporal speeds, or it processed the flow of normal time over the course of aeons. Neither one should have been possible. For the first method, you can’t get any more energy out than you put into creating and maintaining the parallel dimension, so it would have to be maintained through some other source. For the second method, it would obviously have taken a long time to build up the energy required to be useful. It had only been less than a year. “Hm.”
“You’re confused, I can see that.” Bronach was quite pleased with himself. “Tell me, have you ever seen the Bill and Ted films?”
Elder knew exactly what he was talking about. The Bill and Ted Gambit was a time travel trick where, instead of being prepared for present and near-future obstacles, you make plans to later go back in time to make those preparations. If you’re operating within a single timeline—which you aren’t always, so be careful—then it will appear as if you could see the future. It took the concept of cause and effect, and flipped it in reverse, so the effect essentially caused the cause. It was risky, relying on your future self to accomplish something in the exact same way that you had already experienced, but not impossible given enough time and power. “So. I will one day take you back in time, and in the past, you will have me build a temporal generator on this planet, so your past self can use it in our current present.”
Oaksent acted like he wasn’t smart enough to instantly track the sentence as he carefully considered it for a few seconds. “Yes,” he said, tapping an imaginary nail on the head with his finger. “Except I’m not sure whether you were the one who built the generator for me. All I know is it was waiting for me precisely where I wanted it to be.”
“What do you want in exchange for the temporal energy?”
“A ride, obviously. You want the time machine too. You want it to go back to Extremus, and I want it to go back to before the Extremus even existed.”
“We can’t go back to the Extremus if you prevent it from existing,” Debra reasoned.
“I never said that I was interested in that,” Oaksent insisted, shaking his head. “On the contrary. When I say before the Extremus, I mean way, way before, but that doesn’t mean I want to do anything to it. I don’t care about it anymore. I’m exactly where I would like to be, and the crew and passengers of that ship can go off wherever they want, as long as they stay out of my way.”
“What happens if they don’t?”
Oaksent sighed. “They will. Because you will warn them to leave me alone. This is my domain. Neither Extremus nor the stellar neighborhood wants or needs it, so let me do my thing, and we will all get what we want.”
“I don’t think so.” Debra suddenly pulled a gun out of the back of her pants, and trained it on Oaksent.
“Why the hell does everyone have a gun around here?” Elder exclaimed.
“It’s the same one, Old Man,” Debra explained. “I heard Kivi talking to you, and took it out of your bag while you were focused on the road.”
“Well...” Elder began. “Don’t use it.”
“I thought you would be my biggest fan,” Oaksent said to her, hands up defensively. He didn’t look too scared, but not because he knew what was going to happen in the future, only because she didn’t seem like the violent type.
“Don’t underestimate me!” Debra cried. “I’m sick of everyone thinking that they know who I am. But you people never actually ask me about myself. You just make these unfounded assumptions about me because I maybe complain a little too much, I have trouble taking responsibility for my own actions, I’m insecure about my mistakes, and I find it a lot easier to blame everyone else for my problems! But that doesn’t mean you know me!”
“Okay, okay, okay,” Bronach said in a tone.
She waggled the gun towards him. “You could have made our lives a lot easier with your little time mountain thing, but you chose to keep to yourself! What kind of selfish son of a bitch are you?”
“It was a test,” Oaksent argued.
“Oh, it was a test?” she asked mockingly. “Test these bullets!” She fired the gun, but missed, because she wasn’t exactly an expert marksman.
Oaksent took this opportunity to take out his firearm, and shoot at her instead. He too missed, but not because he didn’t know how to aim. A masked man appeared literally out of thin air, and took it on the chest. He tripped backwards a little, but didn’t fall down.
Elder couldn’t see the time traveler’s face, but he recognized the mask. This was standard issue in the Darning Wars for ground battles that took place on unbreathable worlds. Thousands of people wore it, but there was only one man who would logically be standing before them right now. The stranger removed the mask, and smirked at all of them. It was a young Elder Caverness. Present!Elder didn’t recall ever being here in his own past, but that wasn’t surprising since he already knew he had deliberately erased the memory of several years of his life.
“What the hell?” Debra asked.
Oaksent was shocked too.
“Fire in the hole,” Young!Elder said coolly. He lifted a device in his right hand, and pressed the button on the top of it. The temporal generator disguised as a rock spire exploded, sending temporal energy every which way.

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