Extremus Volume 1

Year 1

It’s launch day. The crew has been working towards this goal for the last fourteen years. It’s only an interim goal, though. Their final destination won’t be reached for another 216 years. Captain Halan Yenant won’t be alive to realize the dream, but he still wants to do it. He wants to push forward, and find a new home on the other side of the galaxy. People often ask him why he would attempt such a thing. It’s not particularly dangerous—at least not compared to what his parents went through to flee to this universe in the first place—but the rewards are impossible to know. What’s out there? Is there a planet hospitable to human life? Is it any better than what could be discovered in the stellar neighborhood, or maybe just a little further out? A hundred and fifty-thousand light years is a hell of a trip when you don’t know what you’re looking for, and don’t much care. They’re doing it because they can, and because they couldn’t do it before. Yenant’s ancestors lived in a tiny universe, populated primarily by white monsters who would rather see the humans dead. Now that they’re here, they have room to spread out, yet they’ve not done it. Every single one of the eleven billion refugees—and all their recently born descendants—still live in the Gatewood Collective. There are no terrestrial planets here. They orbit the host star in gargantuan centrifugal cylinders. They’re great; they have everything they could ever need, but they aren’t natural, and Halan never considered his home.
When he was a boy, Halan was hanging out in his parents’ lounge when a man walked in with an interesting idea. A friend of his thought it might be cool to send a spaceship from here, to the outer edge of the outer ring of the Milky Way galaxy. Of course, there are plenty of stars beyond this imaginary border, but if they were going to do this, they ought to place the destination somewhere. The man, who named himself Omega, was a clone of an engineer. Omega was created to be responsible for a modular spacecraft destined to connect every star system in the galaxy. He had abandoned his post, but was seemingly trying to make up for it. He thought Project Extremus sounded nice, but the two people in charge of the solar system scrapped it, believing it to be too outrageous, and possibly unethical. Halan knew better, so he dedicated his life to learning everything he could about space travel, so he could one day fulfill the hypothetical mission. He never thought he would be leading it, though. He couldn’t do it on his own, and plenty of other people thought it was a nice idea too. He was chosen to be the ship’s first captain, and he is planning to honor that by being the absolute best possible.
Most of the people going on this journey with him have already been living on the ship. It’s just as comfortable and spacious as their original homes, so they figured there was no point in waiting. Some may have been worried about being left behind if they didn’t wait there for a few months. The pre-launch inspection has already been done, so right now, Halan is standing at the entrance, watching the stragglers arrive, along with the last of the cargo. Captain Kestral McBride and Lieutenant Ishida Caldwell come up last, after everyone is in. They run the entire solar system. The refugees from Ansutah have their own form of government, which runs things on a day-to-day basis, but anything that impacts a greater region than a few sections of a centrifugal cylinder has to go through the two of them. No one elected them to this position, but they were the ones who built the cylinders in the first place, and facilitated the people’s rescue from a dangerous home universe. Since the arrival, no one has questioned their right as the ultimate leadership.
The two of them had to sign off on this entire project, though going against Halan’s people’s wishes probably would have caused more problems than it was worth. They want to leave, and that should be respected. They engineered their own ship, so little should be in the way of them realizing their goal. Even so, Team Keshida, as they are collectively called, are still not extremely jazzed about this situation. They have always been rather adept at hiding it. “Do you have everyone and everything you need?”
Captain Yenant’s lieutenant, Rita Suárez comes up to his side, holding a tablet. As she can trace her family tree back to one of the original members of the group of humans who first lived on Ansutah, she’s a bit of a celebrity. She doesn’t like the notoriety, though, which is why she’s leaving. The reality is that this decision has only made things worse. She taps on her pre-launch checklist. “The last of the biomolecular synthesizer back-up parts have been loaded up.” She checks it off the list. “We should be good to go, sir.”
Captain McBride smiles. “There’s one more thing that’s not on your list.”
“There couldn’t be,” Rita protests. “I was very thorough—”
“It’s not on your list, because it wasn’t decided until this morning,” the other Lieutenant, Ishida interrupts. She taps on her wrist device. Omega suddenly appears next to them. “He’ll be going with you.”
“I must voice my concern,” Rita continues to argue. “I was not made aware of this, and he is not on the manifest. You cannot simply add whoever you wish to be rid of. This in an internal matter—”
Ishida interrupts again, but this time with merely an authoritative wave of her hand. “We are placing him on this vessel to be rid of him, yes, but we could have just as easily dispatched him to Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida, or Teagarden. We’re sending him with you, because he went against my wishes, and told you about this idea...my idea. These are the consequences for his actions. If he thinks it’s such a good idea, then he can see it through. I don’t really care whether you have anything to say about it, or not. You can shoot him out an airlock once you take off, for all I care. I literally have a million more just like him.”
“Ain’t nobody like me,” Omega contends.
Ishida taps on her cuff some more. Omega’s eyes roll to the back of his head, and he faints, but before he hits the floor, he disappears. “I’ve hidden him somewhere on the Extremus. You can either waste your time trying to find him, or you can just stick to your schedule.”
Halan looks over at the other Captain. Kestral looks back. “Don’t expect me to argue with her. Her title may make it sound like she’s my subordinate, but she’s actually my partner. If she says Omega stays on the ship, he stays on the ship.”
“Very well,” Halan decides.
“Sir,” Rita presses.
“We will launch on time, and then we will search the ship for him. Don’t worry, Rita. I’m sure we’ll find some use for a brash and disgruntled clone of an engineer.”
Rita is not an unreasonable person. She knows when she’s been beat, and she will concede graciously. “Very well, sir. You have five minutes until you need to speak to the passengers. I’ll prep the crew.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. I’ll be up there in a minute.”
“One more thing,” Kestral says after Rita leaves. She takes out a small roundish object, and hands it to Halan ceremoniously. “This is a recall device. If you hold the string, and press the top button several times, all of this will be undone.”
“What do you mean?” Halan questions. “All of what?”
“The mission, the trip,” Ishida clarifies. “It’s a reset button. If something goes wrong, and you have no other options, this will reverse time, and put everyone back here instantaneously. It will have quite literally never happened. Once your tenure is over, you may pass it on to your successor. But I wouldn’t tell anyone else about it, If I were you.”
A confused Halan stares at them. “This is a generation ship. What if something goes wrong in a hundred years? They’ll just be erased from existence?”
“The captain won’t,” Kestral says. “Or rather, whoever pushes the button. They’ll be returned with all these people, even if they haven’t been born yet now. They alone will survive that paradox, should it come to that.”
He keeps watching them with that look. Then he drops the device on the ground, and stomps on it. “I won’t allow that. We live and die together. That’s why we’re doing this.”
“Very well, sir,” Kestral echoes Rita from earlier.
“Good luck, Captain,” Ishida says cordially.
“Thank you.”
“You better go.”
“Close it up,” Halan says as he’s walking up the ramp. The ship’s AI seals all entrances. Halan transports to the bridge, where the crew is working on prelaunch. “Everything on schedule?” he asks them.
“Yes, sir,” replies the Executive Bridge Officer.
“Keep at it. I need to address the passengers.”
“Of course, sir.”
Halan steps into his bridge quarters. He readies himself with a good glass of water, and some speech warm-ups. Finally, when it’s time, he approaches the microphone. “Passengers of the Extremus. Some say that our journey to this day began fourteen years ago, when a man came to us with an idea his superior came up with about traveling across the galaxy. Others say that it truly began once we were rescued from our home universe, and brought here, back in 2230. I wasn’t around for that, but I am grateful for it. Still, there are those who claim the journey actually began centuries ago, while our ancestors were struggling on the human continent of Ansutah. However you look at it, I’m not personally concerned with when the journey began. What matters is where we’re going, and how we get there from here. We are about to launch from the Gatewood Collective, and fly at reframe speeds, across thousands of light years. It will take us two hundred and sixteen years.
“We do not possess the kind of longevity technology the rest of the stellar neighborhood does. We live day to day, and we do that for about a hundred and twenty years. Not one of us will be alive to see our new home. This is your last chance to avoid the truth that you will die in space, far from any star. We’ll be taking off in eleven minutes. That should be enough time to make it to the nearest airlock. Anyone inside of one of these will be teleported out of the ship with no questions. I hope none of you do, but that is your choice, and I will understand. Our numbers are great now. We started out with a few hundred hopefuls, but have since grown to the thousands. I find that impressive. Like I said, none of you will see the planet we are destined to name Extremus, and that is the bravest thing I’ve seen anyone do.” Halan clears his throat. “If you are a member of the crew, please take action stations. If you are a passenger, and you haven’t already, make yourself at home, and enjoy the ride.”
Minutes later, they’re gone.

Year 2

Captain Yenant pulls a chair over, and sits down in front of Omega. He closes his eyes, and massages the bridge of his nose. He’s been through this before, and he’s sick of it. He’s in charge of the crew and the ship itself, and not so much the passengers; they have their own leaders. Omega is more of  a stowaway, though, and that kind of falls under Halan’s jurisdiction. “Why am I still dealing with you? It’s been eight months.”
“I was just trying to boost our speed,” Omega answers with a shrug.
“We’re going at maximum reframe. It doesn’t get faster than that. Technically, we’re not exceeding the speed of light. It’s more like we’re going back in time while moving forward.”
“Yes, but if we go back in time faster then we’ll get to our destination earlier.”
Halan gets this close to putting his face in his palm. “We’ll get there earlier, so what? That’s not faster. It will take us 216 years, whether that’s 216 years from the day we left, or 216 years before we left. That doesn’t help anything.”
“The faster I get you to your precious planet, the faster I can get back to my life on Gatewood, and I would like to reappear the second after I last left, so I’m actually trying to send us back more than twice as fast as we are now.”
“I won’t allow that.”
“I’ll do it anyway,” Omega contends.
“You are not entitled to persistent longevity treatments. You’ll die here, like everyone else. I’ll see to it.”
“I don’t need those treatments anymore,” Omega claims. “I make my own.”
“Not in the hock, you don’t.”
“You can’t keep me in hock for the whole journey.”
Halan stands up, and carefully places his chair back where he found it, randomly towards the back corner. “Watch me.” He walks towards the door, but addresses the guard first. “Do it.”
“No!” Omega cries. “You can’t do this! I’ll stop, just don’t lock me away!” He’s probably expecting the Captain to stop, and prove that his words were only an interrogation tactic, but Halan doesn’t need anything from him. He might as well be in hock, at least he can’t cause any more trouble. He’ll leave him in there for a year, and then reassess.
Halan walks down the hallway, and back onto the bridge. He finds Rita by the viewscreen. “Is he ready?”
Halan checks his watch. “He’ll have to be.”
“You could always just do it yourself, like you have been,” Rita suggests.
“The passengers have to see that this is not a one-man show. We’re all in this together. He’ll do it several more times before his shift ends. He might as well start now.”
“He’s still practicing, even all this time. That does not suggest a lot of self-confidence.”
“All right, well I’ll get him to that point. I’ll go in alone, so he’s not intimidated.”
“Are you calling me intimidating?” Rita questions, offended.
“I just mean he’s better one-one-one. But if you wanna be the one to coach him through it...”
“No, no, no. That’s fine.”
Rita walks the other direction, while Halan steps into the PA room. A young technician stands up quickly, like he was bitten by a toilet snake. “Good evening, sir.”
“As you were, Tech.”
“Thank you, sir.” He does not look well.
“Breathe with me.” Halan sits down, and begins to breathe deeply and deliberately. “In. Out. In. Out. Make sure you get oxygen to your brain.”
“Thank you, sir,” the boy repeats.
“You can do this. You’ve done it a million times by now, I’m sure.”
“Not when people could hear me.”
“Just pretend they can’t. There are no hecklers here. There’s no feedback. As far as you can tell, when you push that button, it does absolutely nothing. Then just...say your lines, like you have been all day.”
“Is it really that easy?”
“It can be.” Halan checks his watch again. “It’s time.”
The boy breathes a few more times. “Okay.” He tries to convince himself that it is indeed okay. “Okay. I’m ready.”
Halan nudges the microphone a millimeter closer. “You have the floor.”
He clears his throat, and begins. “Uhh...attention all passengers. The bridge crew of the transgalactic generational colony ship Extremus would like to thank you for another lovely day. We are eight months, two weeks, and one days—I mean, day—from launch.” He sighs. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, just keep going,” Halan assures him, not sure whether his own words make it into the microphone.
“Today marks a special occasion. We are now five hundred light years from Gatewood, an amazing feat by all accounts. The Captain wishes to extend his gratitude towards all of you for agreeing to join him on this unprecedented adventure. This would be neither possible, nor meaningful, without each and every one of you. His door, as always, is open to all. Here’s to another two!” This motto refers to the number of light years Extremus is able to cover in the span of about a day.
Halan pats him on the back. “Great job.”
“I messed up.”
“That’s all right. We do this every single day. No one’s gonna remember this one time, and you’ll get better. It won’t be as scary next time, I promise.”
“Thank you, sir.”
An alert from Rita comes up on Halan’s wrist device. “I gotta go try to fix a crisis. You can still handle the calls?”
“Yeah, I can field the one-on-ones. That I have no problem with.”
“Wonderful.” The phone begins to ring just as Halan is leaving the room. He goes all the way to the other side of the ship, where his lieutenant is waiting for him.
“It’s not terrible, but it’s not great.”
“What does she need now?” Halan asked.
“She’s demanding we make it bigger.”
“Bigger? The airlock?”
“That is a service airlock. It’s just meant for robot EVAs. We can’t make it bigger. The robots are being serviced on either side!”
“Well, actually they’re not. That whole section has been essentially shut down for her. I mean, it would be tough, but I spoke with some engineers yesterday, and they said it’s technically possible to break down one of the walls, but only the one.”
Just before launch, Halan made an announcement that said everyone who had second thoughts, and wanted to leave the ship, could do so simply by entering an airlock. Captain McBride then teleported them out of there, and back into the main Gatewood cylinder, where they could do whatever they wanted with their lives without having anything to do with the mission. One woman thought the service airlock counted, but only the ones near the passenger sections were being monitored for this courtesy. She shouldn’t have been anywhere near this area. Halan partially blames himself for not being one hundred percent clear, but mostly blames her for having wandered off to a restricted section. Well, it was never technically restricted, but everyone else knows where they don’t have any business being. The five other people who chose to jump ship at the last minute certainly knew.
“I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with her tonight, so...”
“I’ll take care of it,” Rita says, “again.”
“Get a second opinion on that wall,” Halan says as he’s walking away. “And remind her that she may return to her quarters whenever she wants. Psychotic break or no, staying in the airlock permanently is not going to help her get home. That was a one time offer!”
“I’ll say it just like that, sir!”
“Thanks! I’m gonna go check in with the Old Man!”
Halan makes his way back to the other side, then down towards the stern. He finds the oldest engineer this vessel has to offer in his lab, tinkering away at his little contraptions. “Ahh, you’re here. Good. Could you place your finger right here?”
“I don’t have time for this.”
“Please,” Old Man begs.
“Are you gonna shock me again.”
“Probably not.”
Halan scoffs, but does as he’s been asked. With the one piece of metal firmly in place, Old Man can now line it up with a second piece of metal. He drips nanosolder between them, and announces that Halan can let go. Halan looks around. “Where is it?”
“It’s over on that table there.”
Halan glances over. “It looks finished.”
“Oh yes,” Old Man agrees. “It’s been repaired.”
“So, it works.”
Old Man lifts up his lenses. “It can do what it was designed to do.”
“That’s not what I asked of you,” Halan reminds him. “I want you to make it do something else.”
“It’s not that easy. The device is tethered to a moment in time. Everything that existed in that moment has to go back where it was. You, me, some rando on Teagarden. Everything just reverts to that moment. It’s a reset button, not a teleporter.”
“She said that if someone who hasn’t been born yet pushes that button, they will return too. They won’t revert to their non-existence, and they’ll retain their memories.”
“Yes, and I don’t know how that works. That is what I am trying to figure out now. It will take time. We can’t mess this up. There is no way to test it. If I do something wrong, that could be the end of everything. It could send us back to the stone age, for all I know. I’m not a time travel mechanical engineer. Now, if you would let me build a new device that’s only been inspired by the original design...”
“No. There is a reason I chose you for this project. I don’t want this technology left on my ship. I want two people to go back to Gatewood, and only those two people, and I want them to take the only device that can do it with them.”
“Yes, and I will soon be dead, unlike someone better suited for this research, so the secret dies with me, I get it.”
Halan knocks on the table twice. “I hope you do get it, because I need this done. I cannot take another day with a self-obsessed narcissist who thinks he’s entitled to modify this ship as he pleases, and a deranged Karen, who thinks she’s entitled to have a team of crew members wait on her hand and foot.”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about, sir, I just work here.”
Halan’s watch alerts him to the next issue. He starts to back out of the room. “I have to go put out another fire. Finish whatever that thing is, and then get back to my recall device.” He opens the door to exit.
“Certainly, sir. It’s a consciousness uploader.”
Halan turns back around. “What?”
Old Man has returned to work, and acts like he’s barely noticed that Halan is still there. “Oh, this will upload someone’s consciousness into a reserve, where they can witness the arrival on Extremus, even if they die before we get there.”
“Who asked you to do that?” Halan questions.
He takes off his lens gear, sets it on the table, and interlocks his hands next to it. “You will.”
“I will?”
“No one wants to die, and certainly not the people on this ship.”
“We agreed it would be generational. That was decided a long time ago, before they even made me Captain. Do you know something about the future that I don’t?”
“Goodnight, sir.”
Halans wants to argue, but he’s too tired. He still apparently has to speak to someone about a possible radiation leak on the observation deck. He can tell by Old Man’s progress that this mind uploader is nowhere near finished, so there will be plenty of time to argue about it another day. “Get back to the recall device. Now.”
“Very well.” He knows how important he is, at least until the device is complete. He might be worried about what happens to him after that, though, which is why he’s really building the uploader. In all honesty, Halan can’t be sure the man shouldn’t be worried. It is not off the table to tie up all loose ends.

Year 3

The original idea was to have the captain of the Extremus make the evening announcements every day, as a way for the crew to stay connected to the passengers. After months of this, Halan decided to change this by having a different crew member do it every day. They created a randomized schedule, which wasn’t periodic, but was still designed to be even, so that no one member was doing it too often. The young tech who was first assigned this responsibility was nervous about the prospect. It wasn’t what he signed up for, and it wasn’t in his wheelhouse, so to speak. He didn’t feel the same way forever, though. The more that Eckhart Mercer did the announcements, the more he fell in love with it, and the more the people fell in love with him. He was charismatic, funny, and entertaining. They became a larger affair, about more than just reporting the general status of the ship. People started thinking about what they could do to end up on the speakers, by inventing a new game, or coming up with a fabulous recipe. Eckhart Mercer became a celebrity, and in the end, the general consensus was that they would be better off with him as their permanent announcer. It was more than that, though. He was responsible for keeping up to date on the goingson of the ship, and knowing what news was important. The Captain was happy to adapt the schedule to accommodate this shift in popularity. The rest of the crew seemed fine with it too.
True to his word, Halan left Omega in hock for an entire year. He approved all necessary organic longevity treatments, however, because he kind of had to. Omega is a different subspecies of human; one that was originally designed to last for tens of thousands of years. Ethical conventions are pretty clear that, when in doubt, the standard procedure when dealing with a socially disruptive entity, is to maintain life expectancy. In other words, he deserves to live indefinitely, because anywhere else, he would. And anything short of that is tantamount to capital punishment, which is illegal. There was a debate amongst the executive crew, as well as the security team, whether they ought to place him in stasis. That was, after all, part of the intentions of Omega’s genetic engineer, Saxon. In the end, they determined that this too would be unethical, as Omega deliberately broke free from his nature to lead a different life. The feelings of the individual in question can’t dictate their fate, but they have to be taken into account no matter what. They cannot just be ignored. So he has remained in there with all the luxury of a normal cabin, but none of the luxuries of public spaces. He can’t even hear the announcements from down there.
Airlock Karen continues to be a headache for everyone. They manage to avoid tearing down a wall for her sake, and eventually get her out of there completely. She was more than willing to relocate back to her cabin once Halan gave up, and threatened to throw her in the hock too. Now that she’s in the general population, it’s become clear just how delusional she is. She is completely convinced that the crew is out to get her, and the passengers are generally on her side. The reality is that no one likes her, and they always try to stay away from her. She’ll latch onto a large group when it forms, and outwardly fantasize about being the center of it. People ignore her as best they can, but she is obviously getting on their nerves, and Halan knows he has to be rid of her soon.
“It’s ready,” Old Man says, “but like I’ve been saying, “there is no way to test this. Even if we give it to your two...victims...?”
“Let’s just call them Gatewood-bounders,” Halan corrects.
“Very well.” Old Man goes on, “even if we give it to your two Gatewood-bounders, and they press the button, we’ll have no way of knowing whether it worked.”
“We’re operating at maximum reframe, which means it’s near-equivalent to realtime. I can send a message back to Gatewood to see if it worked,” Halan points out.
“True. In fact, you could send that message right now, because if it will work, they’ve already been there for three years.”
“Let’s not screw with causality just yet. You’re sure you’ve done everything you can to adapt it, right? Pushing that button will send them, and only them, back to 2170?”
“Again, not sure, but there’s no point in me trying to improve it. It either works, or it doesn’t.”
“Give it to me. I need to discuss it with them.”
“You’re going to ask them for permission?”
“No, but I don’t want to just spring it on them last minute, or worse, not tell them anything at all. They have a right to prepare themselves emotionally. Karen has been begging us to send her back this whole time, but she doesn’t know about the button. It’s entirely possible she just wants to be difficult. When I show her that there’s hope for her actually getting what she wants, she may realize she doesn’t really want that. The more I pass by that service airlock, the harder it is for me to believe she went in there for any reason but to draw attention to herself.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying.” It’s Rita, having come into the lab at some point.
“Good, you’re here. Please have security escort her to the lower deck. Quietly,” Halan requests.
“She’ll be suspicious,” Rita volleys. “We don’t want her causing a scene.”
“Good point. I’ll...invite her to dinner,” Halan decides. “You can take the device down to the interrogation room. Have Omega sent there too, of course.”
“Uh, I think I would feel more comfortable if the Captain handled this by himself.” Old Man lifts the device with two hands, and tries to hand it to Halan.
“Why are you wearing gloves?” he questions.
“Scientists wear gloves,” Old Man replies with a casual shrug.
“So Rita doesn’t need to wear gloves herself?” Halan tries to confirm.
“I really would rather you take it instead. It’s very delicate, and we only have one.” Old Man is insistent.
“Take off your gloves, Old Man,” Halan orders.
“Sir, it’s just...”
“Take off your goddamn gloves,” Halan repeats.
Old Man sighs. He sets the device down, removes his gloves, then picks it back up. He again tries to hand it to Halan.
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Halan says to Rita.
“My pleasure, sir,” Rita replies. She’s confused too, but everything has worked out. She takes the device, and heads down to the lower deck.
Halan, meanwhile, goes up to the passenger section, where Airlock Karen is trying to yet again regale her tale of woe to the random people who have accidentally found themselves within her blast radius. He’s going to need to be as charming as possible. “Would you please join me for dinner tonight, Madam.”
The crowd is noticeably uncomfortable, but Airlock Karen is ecstatic. She tries to hide it. “How can I deny my Captain? I will be there in two hours.”
Halan clears his throat suggestively, and makes his eyes wander, almost like he’s looking for someone else to invite instead.
“I suppose I could eat a tad bit early,” she says. “Give me ten minutes to freshen up?”
“Certainly,” Halan says. He points to the nearest security officer. “She’ll escort you when you’re ready.” He turns to leave.
“Thank you,” Airlock Karen says. “I have some great ideas about how to run this place that I think you’ll really respond to.”
He doesn’t turn back, but he retches a little in his mouth. “I’m always happy to listen to my passengers.” He walks away, and heads for the interrogation room. The security guard knows what they’re doing, and what to do with Airlock Karen, even though he didn’t specifically assign her this task.
It was always bound to take longer than ten minutes for her to show up, so the three of them sit in awkward silence while they wait.
“So, how about that local sports team, eh?” Omega asks, evidently trying to break the ice.
“The what?” Halan doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
“It’s an Earthan thing that people say.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“You finally figured it out, didn’t you?” Omega guesses.
“You figured out how to send me back.”
How does he know about that? “Who’s been feeding you information?”
“No one,” Omega replies, seemingly honestly. “You run a tight ship. I figured out what you were doing, because I’m a genius.”
“I never wanted you here, and neither do you,” Halan reminds him.
“I dunno,” Omega says, looking around. “It’s nice being outside the hock. Maybe I could be useful. I’m not the same man who went in there a year ago. I promise to be better. You have to understand that I grew up in a sea of other versions of me. We were expendable. Many of us died, I don’t think you wanna hear the statistics. I had no control over my life until I took it. I suppose it’s just been hard for me to take orders since then...it’s never done me any good before.”
Halan leans over the table. “If you can follow orders now, then follow this one. Go back to Gatewood. If I only send the one person back, it will look personal. It will look like I attacked her. If you go with her, I think it will smooth over any disagreements that might arise when this gets out.”
Omega smiles. “Yes, sir.” If he’s trying to find an angle, Halan can’t tell what it is.
Rita shows up with Airlock Karen, who doesn’t understand what’s happening, but she’s become suspicious. Dinner should not be all the way down here by the hock, she presumes. This doesn’t make any sense. “Why don’t you have a seat?” Rita offers.
“I’m not sitting next to him,” Airlock Karen declares. “What is this?”
“I’ll explain, but if you don’t sit down right now,” Halan begins to warn, “you’re going into the cell with him.”
She sits down right quick.
“Now,” Halan starts his speech. “Neither of you want to be here.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” Omega interrupts.
“I’ve not,” Halan says. “I still don’t want you here...either of you.” He nods to Rita, who removes the device from her bag, and sets in on the table in front of him. “This will send you back to Gatewood at the exact moment that we left. You will watch from the observation deck with all the others who chose to leave. You don’t have to push it right now. I’ll give you a day to prepare yourselves.”
“Why didn’t you give me this before?” Airlock Karen scolds.
“It hadn’t been invented yet,” Halan answers. She doesn’t need to know the whole history about it being adapted from the undo button. “I don’t need Omega off my ship as much as I need you gone. With him, we would have figured something out, he’s at least useful. I had my best engineer working on the problem...for you. So instead of being nasty, for once in your life, could you just be grateful that anyone worked as hard as we have to get you what you asked for. Keep in mind that, in this case, just shutting the hell up is a good way to show that you’re grateful.”
She clears her throat submissively.
Halan goes on, “all you have to do is pull the string, and press the button. You’ll be doing it together, though, as we only get one shot at this. Like I said, you’ll have a day. We’ll retrieve you tomorrow for departure. Omega, you’ll be released until then.”
Just then, they hear banging on the door behind them. They look back to see Old Man through the window, desperately trying to get into the locked room. “I couldn’t wash my hands! It’s not good enough! Don’t push the button!” it sounds like he shouts through the door, but it’s a little muffled.
“What is he talking about?” Halan questions.
“I have no idea,” Rita notes.
“Don’t push the button!” Old Man repeats.
“Screw that,” Airlock Karen decides. She stands up, grabs the device from the table, and takes several steps back.
“Wait,” Halan tries to reason with her. “I think something’s wrong.”
“I don’t care!” Airlock Karen screams. She pulls on the string. “I’m getting the hell out of here!” She presses the button, and promptly disappears.
So does Old Man.
So does Rita.

Year 4

The reigning theory is that Old Man was attempting to send Captain Yenant to his death when he modified the recall device to transport two people off the ship, instead of the ship as a whole. Halan made contact with Team Keshida on Gatewood to find out if the three people who ended up taking the device had shown up at any point in time, but it was a negative. Best guess is that Halan was meant to be sent to somewhere in the vacuum of space, while Omega and Airlock Karen were just going to be collateral damage. The reason Old Man and Rita were sent instead was because both of them touched the device with their bare skin prior to activation. Since the former was screaming about not being able to wash his hands well enough, the device probably gave off some kind of residue, which adhered to their hands, and linked them to it. When the button was finally pushed, it took them all away.
The Captain ordered a full head count of the entire ship; crew and passengers, to find out whether anyone else was missing. One other young man was, but the other passengers couldn’t place him, so it’s unclear whether he had touched the device as well, or if something else had happened to him before that. He may have never been on the ship at all. This was a terrible oversight that Halan knew he needed to rectify. Nothing like that could ever happen again. Even without a transportation device of some kind, better safeguards need to be put in place. If someone gets lost in the lower deck engineering section, for instance, there needs to be some way to know that they’re missing in the first place. This was an eye-opening experience.
Eckhart Mercer continued to prove himself an invaluable member of the team. His popularity with the passengers made him the obvious choice to replace Rita Suárez as the Lieutenant. They would miss him on evening announcements, but Mercer was already training someone to fill in for him, and she was more than prepared to take the baton. She too has a fun personality, and her own interesting spin on things.
Despite the tragic mystery that would likely never be solved, things went pretty smoothly over the course of the next year. Omega was released from hock, and joined the engineering team. His claim that he had learned his lesson was more than just an excuse to be free. He was being positive, helpful, and obedient. With Airlock Karen out of the way, the general population felt a lot more at ease. With Old Man out of the way, Halan personally felt more at ease. It was a fitting end to a potentially disastrous situation. As useful as he could be, he was the kind of guy who would ultimately do more harm than good.
Right now, Halan is sitting at his desk, looking over the micrometeoroid report. They’ve been getting worse every day, and while the teleporter field has been able to dismiss every object thus far, the experts still don’t know why the numbers are increasing. Mercer walks in. “It’s happened. It’s finally happened.”
Halan smiles. “You’ve all finally decided to stop celebrating my birthday? What a relief.”
“Actually, that may be true. It might be best if we cancel it for the sake of morale, and optics. What I mean is that the first death has happened.”
Halan falls into a frown. “I see. Report.”
Mercer consults his tablet. “A Kaiora Sambra. She was seventy-three years old, terminal. She refused advanced treatment, and boarded Extremus in order to spend her last few years with her family. She evidently died peacefully in her bed, monitored by hospice, and after some long goodbyes. Word is already spreading. Still, I think you should make an announcement.”
“Of course,” Halan agrees. “Please have Andara write something up for me. I’ll be doing the evening announcements in her stead today. Until then, I would like to speak with the family, if they’re up for it.”
“I’ll ask the counselor to coordinate.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant.”
Halan quietly walks down the hallway, and gently knocks on Dr. Itri Meziani’s door. Though this is the first death on the ship, it’s not like the grief counselor has had no work until now. Many left loved ones behind on Gatewood, and will almost certainly never see them again, which is a form of grief, so she’s had plenty of patients. One of them could be in there with her right now. She opens quickly, and Halan can see that she’s alone.
“Come in, Captain. I think it’s a nice idea for you to meet with the family of the deceased, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”
“How do you mean?” Halan asks.
“Have a seat,” she offers. She sits down as well, and smiles with her lips closed. “There are thousands of people on this ship, which is why I’m training—not just a replacement—but extra help. People are going to start dying. You will one day die. Setting this precedent could have dangerous consequences for the safety of this vessel, and all those still living on it. It might seem fine to do it this once, but what happens when the second person dies? Will people expect you to go speak with them as well? What about the third, or fourth?”
“I can count, Doctor.”
“Quite. The point is that my job is to help the survivors through this kind of thing. It is not yours. Trying to take on everyone else’s responsibilities will cause all such responsibilities to suffer, whether you were always obligated to them, or not. Again, seems fine now, but eventually, we’ll start measuring the death rate in months, weeks, days, even hours. I’m not questioning whether you can handle that. You would probably be fine. Throughout your entire twenty-four year shift, you probably wouldn’t notice any scheduling strain. But remember that you’re only the first of nine. You don’t want later captains to feel this burden, do you? They will not be able to handle it.”
Halan laughs, and holds his forehead against his thumb while he scratches his eyebrow with his ring finger. “Quit makin’ sense.”
Dr. Meziani nods. “It’ll be okay. I can report to you that the family is in high spirits. Mrs. Sambra died happy, and it was her time, according to her, and everyone who knew her. She got to see one last beautiful thing before she died. The survivors are not expecting to see you. I didn’t tell them you wanted to, and no one suggested you should.”
He nods back. “Good.”
After a pause, Dr. Meziani goes on, “I don’t have any more patients today, if you would like to talk. Losing someone under your care can be tough. I know you were so far removed from her to not have even heard of her—”
“I’ve heard of her.”
“You have? Before today?”
“I know everyone on this ship.”
“I had a learning chip implanted in my brain, which uploads the history of the ship. It doesn’t...well, it’s complicated how it works. Every day, it reminds me of everything that it has already taught me. I don’t access the information from the chip when I need it. It just keeps teaching me and teaching me, and I keep memorizing and memorizing, until I get it all. It updates once a year, and teaches me every day.”
“You’ve memorized everything that’s ever happened on this ship ever?” she questions.
“No, just general information, like energy consumption, and average daily distance covered, which shouldn’t change, but it sometimes slows down slightly. Basic personal info about everyone on board is the only thing I know to any level of detail.”
“Interesting. So do you feel Mrs. Sambra as a loss?”
“No, not like that. I never did meet her. Most of the passengers are, umm...” He hesitates to continue.
“Doctor-patient confidentiality, obviously.”
Halan sighs. “They’re almost like not real people. I know all of their names, birthdays, and jobs, but I still don’t know them. Since I have to memorize so many, it’s all just data. I think it’s important, though. When I pass someone, I need to be able to greet them by their name, no matter who they are.”
“That is a fascinating stance.”
“I just consider it part of the job,” Halan explains honestly.
She nods, but says nothing more.
“If I could ask you for one more bit of advice?” he requests.
“Of course.”
“I was hoping to mention the death in the evening announcements. Do you think that will be okay, or would it also lead to an untenable precedent?”
“That should be fine, as long as you frame it as a one-time deal, because it is the first death. I won’t tell you what to say, but make sure the people understand that you’re talking about it because this is only the beginning, and that it’s all part of the circle of life, and we’re all here for a purpose, and everyone knows that they will never see planet Extremus.”
“I think I can do that. In fact, I’m not much of a writer, so I better go tell my speechwriter all of this.”
“Very well.” She stands up, and extends an arm.
Halan looks down, and smiles slightly. “The old way?”
“This is our universe now, let’s get used to it.”
It isn’t how the Ansutahan humans, or their descendants, normally greet each other physically, but it’s how their ancient, ancient ancestors did, and it’s how everyone else in this galaxy does it. Which gesture two people choose often depends on which one of them holds out their hands—or hand, as it were—first. Halan cordially grasps her hand with his own, and they shake up and down. He was born here, but this does not feel right. It’s never become common.
He leaves her office, and heads back to the bridge. He steps on deck to make sure everything is okay. The ship runs itself, as all ships do. Building a ship that actually requires a human crew would be like always expecting a mother to give birth to her child completely alone. It’s possible, and it’s been done, but it’s dangerous, and it’s manifestly irresponsible when you have a choice. The bridge crew, therefore, is primarily responsible for monitoring systems, rather than directly controlling them. In the four years they’ve been operational, they’ve not had to interfere once. Most of the time, they’re watching casually and comfortably, but not carelessly. “Report.”
“All systems optimal,” the Bridgemaster says. It’s her job to ask the rest of the crew individually how things are going, so that when the Captain shows up, he doesn’t have to go through it himself.
“Carry on,” he orders. Then he steps into the Passenger Outreach Room.
“Sir.” The current announcer hangs up the phone quickly, and stands up.
“Did you just hang up on a passenger?” Halan questions.
“It was just a friend, sir. We weren’t discussing anything important. But I, uhh...assure you that I keep both eyes on the incomings. I always switch as soon as someone else calls. I’m very sorry, I shouldn’t have been doing it...”
“It’s fine, Andara. Personal calls are fine. I just came in to talk to you about the speech. Did Rita ask you to write something up for me?”
“Yes, she did.” Andara hands Halan her tablet. “I’ve finished it.”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to rewrite it. I spoke with Dr. Meziani, and she thinks I should be careful about how I frame it.”
Andara smirks. “Why don’t you read it first?”
Halan complies, not knowing why it matters, but as he looks over the words, he realizes that she picked up on the same things the grief counselor did. By the time he’s done, he’s decided that only a few things need to be altered. “I wasn’t briefed about this,” he says about one piece of news. “They only told me about the death.”
“I’m briefed about everything. Your Lieutenant’s filter is always preceded by my filter. And you were busy.”
“I didn’t even notice..four years.”
She shrugs. “People weren’t overly concerned about it, I guess. I don’t think it was intentional to delay this long. It’s begun now, though, and it won’t stop.”
“This is great, thank you. But it does need to be reworked a little.”
Paranoid, she takes the tablet back. “How so?”
“You need to do it instead.”
“It’s your job. And they’re your words.”
“Same time it always is. For now, I have to go see someone else. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Halan goes out to meet with Omega for one of their weekly check-ins. A couple of hours later, Andara begins her announcements. “Good evening, folks. This is Andara Goodman, coming to you from the Passout Room. The time, as always..is this moment, where we’re all together. Bittersweet news today; as one life ends, another begins. I’m saddened to be the one to inform you that we have experienced our first death. Mrs. Kaiora Sambra left us this morning, surrounded by her family and friends. She came here knowing that she would never see our dreams realized. She came here to help us; to help our descendants. She wanted a real home for the Ansutahan refugees, and her impact on that will live on well beyond her time on the physical plane.
“I’m also happy to announce that we have also experienced our first birth. Last night, Mrs. Sambra’s great granddaughter, Kaiora Leithe opened her eyes to the world, and the first thing she saw was her namesake smiling back at her. The Captain and I believe this to be a perfect example of why we’re doing this. The persistence of life—in a free and open world, of our own making—is vital to the prosperity of our people. Every single one of you has made a conscious decision to board this ship, including the children. There are those who wished to come, but could not, because it would mean leaving behind those who did not wish it. We do not know which choice little Kaiora would have made, but she’s here now, and she will help us flourish either way. Goodbye, Kaiora. And welcome to Extremus...Kaiora.”

Year 5

Captain Halan Yenant is standing at the head of the table, while the rest of the group is seated. To his left is Lieutenant Mercer, who is one of only three people who know what’s going on, and why this meeting has been called. Most of the rest are clueless. “To begin, I’ll do introductions. You may all know each other, but let’s do it anyway. I’m Captain Yenant, first of nine. This is my Lieutenant, Eckhart Mercer. Over here we have Lead Engineer, Veca Ocean, who brought the issue at hand to my attention. Next to her is another engineer, Omega Parker. He’s here, because he’s the clone of a very clever man, who was partially responsible for much of the technology that we take for granted on this vessel. I have recently named him Head of Special Projects, which is what I believe this will be, if it isn’t already. Back on this side is Head of Security, Karson Gideon. He’ll be present for every meeting henceforth, and will be largely responsible for the secrecy of this committee’s mandate.”
“What is this committee’s mandate?”
“I was getting to you, Satyria,” Halan says. “I guess I’ll skip over these others to introduce you to Satyria Ebner. She’s Passenger Chair. While I am still demanding that this project be kept secret from anyone outside this room, she has the right to be included. Coming back this way, Lead Mechanic Corey Holgersen. Across from them is our one and only Temporal Engineer, Valencia Raddle, plus her apprentice, Augustina Voll.”
“But she goes by August,” Halan added before realizing that she was trying to say that herself. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine, I didn’t know you knew that. It’s not in my file.”
“It is now.” Halan points down to the end of the table, past Satyria. “Those two down there are The Bridgers.”
The crowd looks down at them, surprised to see them here.
“I know,” Halan says, holding his hand up. “They’re not supposed to be out in public, but it’s too important. This project is long term. It will probably last the entire trip. If word gets out that this committee has formed, or why it has formed, anyone here is subject to profound disciplinary action, including me. I could be deshifted for it, it’s that serious. Anyone who reveals anything about the Bridgers, however...will be executed, because it’s even more serious. No one can know who they are, or that they’re here. Does everyone here understand this? I need verbal confirmation from every single one.” He received it.
“They probably won’t say anything,” he goes on, “and you won’t need to say anything to them, and you don’t need to know their names.” The Bridgers are a mystical and mysterious class of people. They live in a secret section of the ship, and don’t participate socially. They are immortal, having undergone transhumanistic upgrades to keep them from dying. Over time, either their current bodies will be modified, or their consciousnesses will be transferred to new bodies entirely, just to better ensure their anonymity. Now that this meeting has been called, only eleven people in the universe know anything about them, including Rita, and their personal doctor, who lives with them. The next administration will be read-in when the time comes for transition.
The Bridgers were created to maximize the chances that this project will succeed. If something goes wrong during one of these administrative transitions, they can assume authority, and put a stop to any conflict. If something goes wrong with the entire mission, they are expected to survive, along with embryos that are being stored in their secret section. If no one else survives to reach the Extremus planet, hopefully the two of them will, along with a new generation of human descendants. They can’t let this all be for nothing. Of course, this is only a last resort, but the original engineers, some of which ultimately decided to not even come along, felt it necessary to stack the deck in their favor. The very idea of the Bridgers was spread throughout the passengers and crew as a way to frighten those who might go looking for proof of their existence, while maintaining the very real possibility that there is no proof, and that it’s all just made up.
Halan regards the people of the committee, looking for anyone who wants to ask a question, but is too afraid to. He doesn’t plan on answering such questions, but he needs to know if they’re there. “Okay. I’ll cede the floor to Mrs. Ocean, who first came to me with this problem.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Veca says. “As he said, we have a problem. It’s not one we didn’t see coming, nor are we completely unprepared for it, but it is worse than we thought it would be, and it will probably only grow worse as we approach Sagittarius A*.” She places her tablet in the center of the table, and activates the hologram. “This is a rough map of the Milky Way galaxy, based on readings taken from Earth over the last several centuries, the stellar neighborhood from the last several decades, and Projects Stargate and Topdown from the last few decades. Right now, we’re here, and we’re headed to somewhere around here.” She points. “Between us and our destination are stars, planets, and even asteroid belts and shells, but this map is missing a key component. It’s impossible to map to any significant detail, and difficult to illustrate in general, but it’s there, all around us.”
“The interstellar medium,” Corey guesses.
“That’s right,” Veca confirms. “It’s composed mostly of gas and dust, but larger micrometeoroids take up a greater share than we ever knew. The center of the galaxy is denser than the outer arms, therefore, we assume there will be even more micrometeoroids.” She brings up a data table. “Over the last five years, we’ve noticed an increase in field collisions. So far, it’s held. It teleports any incoming matter to a random spot anywhere between a few hundred meters to an AU away. Again, everything is fine. The field has never failed. We want to solve the problem before it fails, though, because that is not an impossibility. However remote, the chances are not zero. This committee was formed in order to make sure it never happens.”
“All of you need to know about this eventuality, but no one else does,” Halan says, retaking lead. “I’m not saying that we won’t ever bring in others, or even make a public announcement. It’s just not in the plans right now. I want to see if the people in this room alone can come up with a viable solution before we start getting inundated with other opinions.”
“If I may make a suggestion on how to proceed?” Omega jumps in.
Halan merely nods.
“When I was working with Team Keshida, if they ran across a problem, they would separate from each other prior to any deep discussion. It was each of their responsibility to come up with ideas without being distracted by other ideas, kind of like what you’re saying with the public. It seemed to work well with them. I propose we adjourn immediately, so each of us can return to our lives for at least a week. Then, we come back together, and present our solutions.”
Halan thinks this over. “The ship is not going to explode in the next week, and if it does, nothing we decide here today will be able to stop it. I accept the proposal. Mrs. Ocean will provide you with the relevant data. If, during the week, you think you need more than what she provides, come to me, and I’ll see what I can do. Sound fair?”
They all seem to think it does.
“Thank you,” he ends. They all get up to leave. The Bridgers activate their teleporters, so no one sees where they go. Only Halan, Mercer, and Omega remain. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” Halan says. “I’ll be fine.” He knew Omega would want to speak with him privately. That was the point of the whole weeklong recess thing. Once Mercer leaves, he turns to the engineer. “What’s your plan?”
“I don’t have any specific ideas,” Omega explains. “I just want to do something I’ve been asking for for the last two years.”
“You’ve been asking for a lot for the last two years,” Halan volleys. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
“I think maybe someone’s already come up with a solution to this, and we just don’t know it.”
Halan shakes his head slightly, and tries to think. Then he realizes where Omega is going with this. “You mean Old Man.”
“We have no clue what’s in his lab. We don’t know what prototypes he’s made, what working machines he was using, what designs he’s drawn up. Frankly, it’s irresponsible to not look. Maybe there’s a timebomb in there that’s scheduled to go off in a week. Somebody should look, it doesn’t have to be me.”
“But you’re the most qualified, aren’t you?”
“Saxon was smarter than Veca ever will be. Yes, I’m the most qualified.”
Halan breathes deeply. “I supervise, and I’m putting cameras in your own lab. If I find out you’re trying to create something unauthorized that’s even so much as inspired by Old Man’s work, I’ll banish you to the Karen airlock, and I won’t even let you have a wristwatch. Those are my conditions.”
“I see no problem with that. I don’t want to engineer something if you haven’t asked me to.”
“Thanks. I’ll be reporting this arrangement in the transition file I give to the next captain.”
The two of them go down to Old Man’s old lab, which has been locked and off limits since he disappeared in 2272. It looks the same as it did before, which is good. He was always half-worried that Old Man was actually still around, and secretly hatching schemes down here.
Omega slowly scans the room. “This could be awhile.”
“If I need to leave to handle Captain’s duties, you’ll leave too. We’ll come back as often as it takes for you to get what you think you need.”
“I’ll start with the main computer.” He sits down, and gets to work.
Halan looks over his shoulder for a bit, just to make sure he isn’t trying to access the self-destruct sequence, or navigational controls. Then he starts to look around on his own. He doesn’t fiddle with any of the weird inventions lying around, but he does open cabinets and drawers. One drawer appears to be DNA locked, which means it’s the one he needs to get into.
“Oh, I, uhh...” Omega starts when he sees Halan trying to break in.
Halan rolls his eyes. “What?”
“I can...get into that...for you...probably.”
“How so?”
“I’m not just a clone. I can alter my DNA at will.”
“Why would Saxon build you to be able to do that?”
“Diversity. Each clone was assigned a different module in the Project Stargate ships. Once we were done with our shifts—as you would call them—we would be allowed to go off, and live wherever we wanted. In order to sort of make it less weird, Saxon gave us the ability to change our DNA, so it wasn’t like he was trying to take over the whole galaxy with his own copies. He didn’t want to be seen as some kind of conqueror. The only reason we were clones was because otherwise, over a million people would have to volunteer for the job.”
“So you can make yourself look like anyone?”
“Not superficially. I’ll still look like me, but I can change the blood in my finger long enough for the safe to register as belonging to Old Man.”
“Do it. But just this once.”
“You’ll have to give me six hours. That’s how fast my body can replace a sufficient number of neutrophils. It would take longer if we wanted it to be permanent.”
Six hours later, the DNA safe is open. Halan reaches in to find a stack of letters that were once held together by a now deteriorated rubber band. There are also a couple of ancient storage devices called flash drives, what appears to be a really old cell phone, and an envelope full of hard copy photographs. “What is this? Who is this kid? He’s in nearly every photo.”
“Hmm.” Omega takes one of the better photos, and sets it on the table so he can scan it into the computer. Once the image appears on the screen, Omega commands the computer to age the subject. “Just as I suspected. It’s Old Man. It’s...Young Man. What is his real name?”
“That name is in his official records. I never questioned whether he legally changed it at some point, or if his parents were just weird.”
“He’s from Earth. I recognize this place,” Omega says, picking up one of the other photos. “He’s at the Mauna Kea Observatories, which were decommissioned in the late 21st century.”
Halan shakes his head. “No, I spoke to the other older people here. I wasn’t probing, but they talked about knowing him from before we were rescued. They definitely saw him on Ansutah. He was there.”
“Well, he was also on Earth...about two hundred and fifty years ago, back when they were still using actual film cameras. These sure look like it’s where he grew up, and not just somewhere he visited as a time traveling universe-hopping kid.”
“Who was this guy?” Halan asks, mostly to himself.
Omega flips the photo over. “Elder Caverness, 2005.”

Year 6

Over the next year, the micrometeoroid problem worsens. Several even manage to slip through the field. Or maybe the field actually teleports the objects inside of it, instead of away, which was an early problem that the technology had. A woman named Weaver figured out how to reduce the chances of that happening, but she was operating under the assumption that the interstellar density would not change this dramatically. Fortunately, it’s not like Extremus was designed with a single layer of aluminum foil. The bulkhead has so far proved strong enough to withstand the damage, and robots have been dispensed to repair the dents immediately. Many of the meteoroids don’t even hit the ship itself anyway. The field is meant to be a buffer; not the last line of defense. Still, it’s a concerning issue, and it still needs to be dealt with.
After a week, the new committee that Halan formed reconvenes. Individuals and teams give their own ideas about how to solve this issue. The Bridgers make another appearance, but it’s their last one. Any information that they need to know about the future of the mission can be passed along to them at a later time. They don’t vocalize any ideas themselves, but everyone else has more than one possibility. Head of Security Gideon has the simplest idea. They could make a lateral course adjustment, and fly parallel to the galactic plane, rather than right through the center of it. It’s not the craziest plan, but it’s also not ideal as it extends their mission time by a measure of years, and potentially uses up too much energy. Lead Mechanic Holgersen thinks that all they need to do is bolster the hull by adding Whipple bumpers, and other armor. Again, this isn’t insane, and it’s certainly doable. Almost all of the ideas come with downsides. They are only short-term solutions, or they make something else about the mission harder, or they just won’t necessarily be good enough for an even higher interstellar density. And then there is one that is the craziest of them all. Surprisingly, it comes from passenger representative, Chairperson Ebner.
Omega and Lead Engineer Ocean have been working out the details for the last year, and now it’s time to present it to the rest of the engineering team. So far, no one else has been brought into the mix—not even the rest of the crew—and this strategy has been working. That has to change now, but they should still be able to keep the circle tight. “Thank you all for coming,” Veca begins. “I know you’re all worried about your apprentices, but I’m confident that they can survive the next few hours without you. That’s what they’re here for.” When the mission began, a certain number of people were approved for the crew, based on their education and background. Now that the mission is six years in, some of the younger passengers are finally ready to prepare to replace the initial crew members at a one-to-one ratio. Each current crew member has been assigned an apprentice to train, who will supposedly take over their responsibilities when their shift is over.
Veca continues, “before I begin, due credit is owed to the woman who came up with the idea. She has no engineering experience, so it’s the rest of us who will have to make it actually work, but it’s a good example of how everyone has something to offer, and solutions can come from some of the most unexpected places. Chairperson Ebner, would you please stand up?”
Satyria likes to be heard, but she doesn’t just want people to think that she’s important. She wants to actually be important, and to earn all of the recognition she receives. She works hard to contribute to the cause, and never rests on her laurels. Still, she doesn’t love to be the center of attention. She would rather just know that people are pleased with her contributions on their own time. Even so, she stands up, and thanks the crowd as they clap politely.
“Now. Again, we need you. This is a massive endeavor. About half of you are directly responsible for the construction of Extremus. The other half was still in the middle of your education. Either way, you all know what it took to make this dream come true, and none of you takes that for granted. It is a magnificent vessel, and I am profoundly proud of the work we have all accomplished. Unfortunately, as you read in the pre-meeting brief, there is one flaw, which comes out of a lack of data about the composition of the galaxy. You built a great ship. Now I’m going to have to ask you to do it again. It won’t be an entirely new ship that’s the same size as this one, but it will be heavily fortified, and it will be responsible for acting as a sort of frontrunner shield. We’re tentatively calling it The Spearhead.”
One of the engineers raises his hand. “You want a second ship to fly in front of us, so it can take all the micrometeoroid damage on our behalf?”
Before Veca can answer, another engineer piggy-backs on the question. “How do you suggest we get this thing in front of Extremus? Even if we build it in modules, and assemble it on the outside, we’re literally going as fast as relativity allows us. We’ll have to slow down so it can accelerate, and get ahead of us.”
“That’s what those three are for.” Veca points to the corner of the room.
Temporal Engineer Raddle and her apprentice, August are sitting with a second apprentice whose first day on the job was yesterday. Valencia stands up. “We don’t have to slow down to get something in front of the ship. All we have to do is teleport it to a point in space ahead of us. FTL technology isn’t fast or safe enough for general interstellar travel, but it’s perfect for short range jumps. We’ll attach the Spearhead to the bottom of the hull, fire up its engines, send it to the edge of shield space, and let it fly in front of us. Boom, easy.”
“Yeah, that sounds easy,” someone from the crowd groans.
“Simple, not easy,” Veca corrects Valencia’s point. “Look, I know that this sounds crazy,” but Omega and I have been running simulations for months now. Quite frankly, we should have designed the ship to have an external shield the entire time. It will create a clear path for us to follow, and warn us of other dangers ahead of time, like gamma-ray bursts, and collapsed stars. The Spearhead is about more than just micrometeorite strikes. It’s about knowing what’s coming before risking any lives.”
Before anyone can say anything more about anything, they hear a thunderous explosion, and feel a shockwave ripple through their bodies. Captain Yenant, who’s been quiet this whole time to let the experts carry out this presentation, jumps up and activates his emergency teleporter. He likes to walk from place to place most of the time, but obviously he needs to get to the bridge quickly. Mayhem has taken over, and crew members are screaming data at each other, and trying to communicate with their comrades around the ship. “Report!” Halan screams.
“Fires on decks nineteen through twenty-two. Casualty reports still coming in. Deaths upwards of eleven.”
“Sir,” someone else begins.
“What? Just say it!” Halan demands.
“Deck twenty-four, main engineering, has been obliterated. Twenty-three is exposed.”
“Has it been sealed off?” Halan questions.
“Yes, sir.”
“Teleport all injured parties to the infirmary.”
“Already done, sir.”
“Main engines.”
“Power efficiency.”
“Down to 83%, but rising.”
“Hull integrity.”
“Stressed between twenty-two and three.”
“You’re sure that everyone is out of twenty-three,” Halan asks.
“Sir,” he confirms.
“Decouple,” Halan orders. “Jettison deck twenty-three, and what’s left of twenty-four, before they tear us apart.”
“Jettisoning twenty-three and down,” he agrees as he inputs the command into the computer.
Halan waits a moment, and watches the screen to make sure the damaged sections are successfully removed from the ship. “Okay. Reframe speed.”
Halan sighs and shakes his head in sadness. “All that. All that death, and we’re still just moving along like nothing happened. Did we even lose any time?”
“No, sir.”
“Great. I’m sure everyone we lost was comforted in their final moments that we’re all still doing okay.”
“Compile the data, and run full diagnostics on every single system on the ship, including the passenger sections. I’m going to the infirmary.”
Fifty-five crew members, and one passenger were killed in what they could come to learn was yet another micrometeorite strike. According to what little data could be recovered from the incident, it was about the size of an ancient Earthan baseball. Though not so big, it was able to do sizable damage, because of how fast the ship was moving. The teleportation shield made an error when it transported the object closer to the ship, where it was able to rip straight through the lowest deck, and kill everyone there instantly. The only silver lining was that this was the main engineering section, which was designed to sit lower than anything else. The passenger sections were numbered from the opposite direction, since it was more intuitive for them to think of it like an above-ground building. Level one actually coincided with Deck 20.
Since nearly all of the current-shift engineers were in the middle of the meeting on Deck 2, they managed to survive the strike. Sadly, their apprentices were down there instead, monitoring systems, and relogging data. They were all killed, and as if that wasn’t sad on its own, it also meant that there would be no one to replace those crew members once their shift officially ended. Perhaps Halan would be able to convince them to extend their shifts until replacements could be sufficiently trained, but that isn’t what matters right now. They have to rebuild, and fortify the physical shield, and increase power to the teleporter field, if possible. Nothing like this can ever happen again, and it falls on Halan’s shoulders to ensure that. No one seems to blame him for it, but as Captain, he is ultimately responsible for literally everything. A lot of people were nominated for the position, and about half of them declined specifically because it was too much pressure. The other half are probably feeling lucky right now that they weren’t put in charge. Well, one of them doesn’t feel lucky, because she’s dead.
Captain Yenant addresses the whole ship on the evening announcements, explaining to everyone what happened, and what they will be doing to prevent another tragedy. It’s over the next few days that he starts to hear the criticisms, and they are all pretty much valid. He can’t condemn anyone for losing faith in his leadership, or in the mission as a whole. There is a carefully laid out procedure for recalling a captain, but the passengers have less to say about it than the crew does. For now, no one’s been talking about that, and Mercer has been keeping his ear to the ground for it. It’s not out of the question, though. It’s never out of the question. And Halan will step down gracefully, should the need arise. A battle for power does no one any good, and undermines the spirit of the ship’s mandate. Hopefully it won’t come to that, and it’s looking like it won’t. The crew still does not blame him for what happened.
The repairs themselves were fairly quick and easy. Extremus was designed to drop any section at will in case something like this occurs. The decks above were negatively impacted, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed. A significant portion of the vessel was designated for spare parts and raw materials. That’s not the problem, though. It’s the missing decks themselves that are going to make things difficult for them. They don’t ever plan on stopping, unlike most ships, which only have to make it to a destination in the stellar neighborhood. The really cool thing about relativistic travel is that it cuts down on the amount of time that something can go wrong. At the moment, the closest outpost is only twenty light years from Origin, which means while it takes a little over twenty years to get there from Earth, the crew only experiences ten days. Extremus, on the other hand, will be en route for 216 years. They can’t afford to have to rebuild the ship over and over again. They’ll be able to replace those missing decks over the course of the next year, but every time that happens, it cuts down on their reserves. They will eventually run out, and Halan doesn’t know what happens when they get to that point. For now, the problem has to be solved, and Halan isn’t sure they’ll be able to take care of it before another strike kills them all.

Year 7

Their only short-term solution to the growing micrometeoroid problem is to divert extra power to the teleporter field. There was, as far as they knew, no power loss at all, but it’s kind of all they have right now. The errors came out of random chance, and nothing will stop it until they find some other workaround. For now, though, things seem to be going okay. There hasn’t been a strike since the one that destroyed main engineering. In more than a year since that, the two missing decks have been entirely replaced, using the raw materials they had in storage. While it wasn’t all they had, they certainly now have a lot less than they should. They still have over two hundred years to go, and there is definitely not enough material to build the frontrunner ship that they need. They might have to cannibalize the internal structures just to get by, which the passengers are not going to be happy about. It could also endanger the compartmentalization and modularization components of their safety strategy, which is the whole reason they survived the first major strike.
As for the personnel, the engineers are doing okay. The apprentices that were working on main engines weren’t anywhere near the decks that were destroyed, and they’re really stepping up to make sure the current team members don’t have to work too hard. New recruits have been signing up to compensate, and are running through an accelerated education program. It’s looking like the original crew won’t have to extend their shift after all. Still, general consensus is that they’re all willing to stay to make sure the job is done, and not leave the ship hanging. At the moment, they’re back in another meeting, just like the one they were in when tragedy hit. Omega now believes that the original frontrunner ship design isn’t the best chance they have. He’s preparing to pitch a new plan, which should lower the amount of needed material, but probably requires more labor.
Omega clears his throat too close to the microphone. “Oops, sorry. I’m not an orator, so I’m going to get right down to the point. The frontrunner plan is out. Now we’ve moved on to the frontrunners. Instead of one large metal shield, all we need are small vessels with their own debris transport fields. Our problem is that we only have one field mounted to Extremus, and when it fails, all is lost. Sure, we have a thin backup inner field, but it’s designed to support us only at slow speeds, or when we’re docked. If the main field falls, protocol dictates that we decelerate, and effect repairs at drift. I don’t wanna do drift repairs, I want to keep going. So instead...” He engages the hologram. “I propose five frontrunners; one at the apex, and four at the base points, in the shape of a pentahedron. They will be positioned at strategic locations in front of Extremus, with minimal field overlap, like a protective cone...protecting us. We’re not planning on getting rid of the main teleporter field, but if we can minimize the number of objects that even reach it in the first place, we minimize the potential for catastrophic damage.”
An engineer raises her hand. “Yeah, how does this help us? Each frontrunner still has the same probability of transporting the object inside the protected area, rather than away. Sure, multiple fields is great, but can’t we just install more on Extremus?”
“On Extremus proper, no. It’s a design flaw, actually. For reasons I won’t get into now, because it’s all outlined in the report, retrofitting the ship with additional fields is impossible at reframe speeds. We would have to stop, and take both current fields offline for an extended period of time. Otherwise, the new ones could interfere with the old ones. I could imagine a celestial body being batted around like a ping pong ball, and the longer that object stays within range, the more opportunities it has to collide with us. That’s kind of why it wasn’t built with multiple fields in the first place. Our best chance has us creating entirely new transport fields that are not incorporated into the main systems.”
“You’ve not answered my question. How are you decreasing the chances of a strike?”
“Notice how I keep calling it a transport field, and not a teleporter field. That’s because we don’t have to transport it through space. We can jump it through time. The hologram illustrates in slowmo as he’s talking about it. “The object passes through the field, and instead of being sent an AU away, it’s sent one second into the future. By the time it shows back up, Extremus is a hundred million miles away. Frankly, I don’t know why Weaver and Team Keshida didn’t come up with this themselves.”
“Um, probably because the chances of something going wrong actually increase,” Valencia pipes up. “At relativistic speeds, time is complicated. A year outside is half a day inside. Add the reframe engines into the mix, and even though the time differential approaches zero, the complexity is only compounded. Time travel is more imprecise than you’ve probably been led to believe. You may have seen people suddenly appear in the room with you, and you think their aim was good, and since they didn’t blend into a wall, yeah, I suppose it was pretty good. But the average room is measured in meters. On the macro level, that’s totally fine. But at the quantum level, that’s a problem. Every time you try to send a meteoroid into the future, there’s about a percent of a percent chance that it’ll show up in the past.
“And this one second figure you’re going on about, you can forget that. There is no way we generate enough energy to go that far in time for every single particle we’re encountering on our way to Extremus. We’re only worried about the larger pieces, but the teleporter field doesn’t care about that. It transports everything, because it can’t distinguish those sizes. Anything that goes in, must come out. Also, don’t underestimate those smaller particles.”
“So we calibrate the time field,” Omega argues. “We only go after the bigger pieces, and let the teleporter field handle the smaller ones. It’s like installing a larger filter in front of the finer one.”
Valencia shakes her head. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but time travel requires a lot more energy than teleportation. People with powers absorb the energy they need from the environment as time marches on, but technology hasn’t been able to do that. There is no such thing as a temporal energy generator.”
“Then help me with the math,” Omega requests. “I suppose I should have come to you about this first.”
“Probably,” Valencia agrees. She takes a moment. “Very well. Send me the full report, and I’ll get back to you in a week. I make no guarantees.”
The meeting breaks. While Valencia starts to go over the report with her team, Omega returns to his new lab, which is the one that Old Man had before he made himself disappear. Halan has given Omega a lot more leeway with his work than either of them ever thought he would. Some random guy is already in there. He’s looking through some physical papers.
“Can I help you?” Omega asks in faux politeness.
The man turns around. It’s someone that Omega doesn’t recognize, which is strange, because like Halan, Omega prides himself in knowing everyone on this ship. “No. I think I have it well in hand.”
“You are not authorized to be in this section of Extremus.”
“How can you be so sure?” the man questions.
“Because only two people are allowed down here, and you’re not one of them. I don’t even know who you are.”
The man smiles knowingly, and separates one of the papers from the stack. “This formula is wrong.” He taps a finger on it. “It’s missing a minus sign.”
“I didn’t write that,” Omega explains. Some of this stuff is from what Old Man left. A lot of it is written in code, or is just illegible, but they have to mean something. It would be irresponsible to just throw it all away when it might be useful in the future.
“I know. Old Man. He, uhh...” He pauses to laugh. “The flourishes. It’s the flourishes that get him. He has more lines in every character than he really needs, and sometimes, when he’s reading it back, he mistakes one for something else. He transcribed this from his clearboard as a seven, but it’s a negative-one. That’s important. You’ll need it.”
Omega crosses his arms impatiently. “I’ll need it for what?”
“Who are you talking to?”
Omega spins around to find Captain Yenant standing in the doorway. He turns back. The intruder is gone. “How long have you been standing there?”
“It’s important. Did you see me talking to the wall, or did you just hear me from around the corner?”
“I saw you talking. There’s no one there.”
Omega sighs. He finds a pen on the table, and draws over the negative-one to make it more clearly distinguished from a seven. Then he gathers all the papers from this particular stack, and presents them to the Captain. “Please give all this to Valencia. It may be important, it may not be. I’ve not had time to study it.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“You saw me talking to no one?”
“That’s right.”
“Then I need a brain scan. You’ll have to take me off active duty, and put her in charge of the project.”
Halan nods with a grin. “This is a surprisingly mature decision, Omega Parker. I’m proud of you.”
“This is who I’m supposed to be. This is Saxon Parker. This is what he would do.”
“Come on. I’ll escort you to the infirmary myself.”

A few days later, Valencia finds herself bursting into Halan’s office, holding the mess of loose papers in one hand. She’s a bit out of breath.
“What did we say about doors, Miss Raddle?”
Valencia sits down. “I don’t remember.”
“Please remember for next time.”
“I’ll look into it.” She drops the papers on his desk.
“Did you find something in there?”
“Umm, just the answers to everything.”
“How do you mean?”
She starts excitedly pointing out the text, graphs, and formulas, almost forgetting that Halan doesn’t know how to interpret any of it. “I know this handwriting. This was Old Man. He survived, didn’t he?”
Halan set his face into a quizzical look.
“He did, didn’t he?”
“I imagine it’s possible. It’s a big ship, and a man like that...we can’t rule out that he’s been hiding all this time, or even that he transported himself a couple years in the future, long after we concluded our sweep of the ship. Why?”
“He has it all laid out. The...frontrunners, the time traveling miners, everything. The plan is right here. It’s everything we need to make this happen.”
“Maybe he knew it would be a problem down the line. Whenever I gave him a mandate, I knew he had no fewer than three side projects he would work on when he needed to take a break from the main issue. I think that coming up with long-term solutions to seemingly insurmountable obstacles were a hobby of his.”
“I still think you should sweep the ship again.”
“We can do that,” Halan agrees. It couldn’t hurt. Actually, it could. It could undermine people’s faith in him as a leader; this question whether Old Man has been able to evade detection all this time. Or they could lie about why they’re searching every square meter of this place. What could that reason be, though? He’ll have to speak with Mercer, and finesse the situation. “So we’re good? You can do this?”
“Well, when I said everything, I didn’t mean everything everything. We still need to double check the math, and translate some of the writings into a human language. His code isn’t uncrackable, but it’s...sloppy. I think that’s the point.”
“What do you need from me?”
She’s nervous to ask. “It would be helpful if I could...maybe...recruit Omega back into this?”
“Not possible,” Halan says with a shake of the head.
“I know he’s in trouble again—”
“He’s not in trouble,” Halan contends honestly. “He’s sick.”
“Sick with what?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.”
“I just need his mind. If he’s in quarantine, I’m happy to communicate virtually, or even wear a hazmat suit.”
“You can’t have his mind, that’s...” He shut his trap.
That’s enough for Valencia to understand. “His mind is what’s sick.”
“I urge you to respect his privacy, as I would expect him to do for you.”
“It’s okay.” She stands up. “It’ll take us some time, but we’ll figure it out.” She starts to leave.
Halan lifts his tablet up, and leans back in his chair. “Take those weird dead trees with you, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Right. Thank you.”
“And chirp the door next time.”
“Of course, sir.”

Year 8

It took Valencia, and the other smart people on this ship, nearly five months to double check the math, and draw up a flawless plan. While the micrometeoroid threat was indeed growing larger by the second, they couldn’t screw up the solution, and good solutions require time. The robots constructed extra physical shields to the front of Extremus to better deflect oncoming objects, and this proved to be effective for now. At the moment, they’re only about 18% of the way to the galactic core, where it’s most dense. They still don’t really know if it’s going to get worse than it already is, even worse than they ever imagined possible, or be all fine and dandy. Today is a new launch day. Under Valencia’s supervision, the engineering committee is going to be dispatching a series of mining automators to the nearest celestial bodies. The problem is a lack of data. They are literally in uncharted territory, which means they don’t know what kind of planets and asteroids are floating around out here, or what treasures they bear. So multiple automators have been built, hoping that at least one of them doesn’t fail, and encounters something good.
On a personal note, Omega has been doing all right. Medical tests turned up nothing unusual about his physiology, or neurology. He occasionally catches glimpses of the man who isn’t there, smiling down on him, but he no longer speaks. There is no apparent reason for Omega to be having these hallucinations, but as of yet, they have seen no evidence that they’re doing him any harm, besides causing him to doubt himself. He wants to be there for the launches, so while he isn’t in charge of the special project anymore, he’s being released for the day to witness. The nurse insists they keep him in the hoverchair so he doesn’t overexert himself, but it’s completely unnecessary. She doesn’t know what this project is, though, so she can’t stick around. Halan agrees to assume responsibility for his health while they watch the show.
The rest of the committee is already in the observation room that is overlooking the drones in the cargo bay. Omega regards with wonder, glad that they have been able to pull this off so far, and saddened that he wasn’t a part of it. Halan gets him some cheese and bread bites from the refreshments table while they wait to begin. When it’s time, Valencia moves to stand between the crowd and the windows. She has to gesture for August Voll to follow her. “Well, it’s finally ready. The project is about to begin. For those of you without the requisite education, I’ve asked my First Apprentice to explain to you what’s happening today, and why it’s necessary.”
August clears her throat. “When we first launched, we did so with finite resources, as I’m sure you know. Only so much mass can fit on this vessel. We had more than enough to make it through the entire 216-year journey without ever having to stop. We grow our own food, we make our repairs en route. Sadly, as it turns out, the repairs we had to make a few years ago have proven to be far more involved than we thought we would need. Had this happened near the end of the trip, we probably would have been fine, but now our reserves are too low, and it’s too risky. We need more materials, and for that, we need more time. In order to keep our dream of constant motion alive, we’re going to have to get creative. That means getting resources not just from nearby worlds, but from the past.
“What you see in each of the five designated sections of the cargo bay are five space-capable drones. They’re small, I know, but they’re each fitted with a mini-fusion reactor, and an AI program capable of finding a suitable celestial body, landing, and extracting resources. We have enough power to safely send the drones about thirty years into the past. This should be enough time for them to travel to their star system, mine the resources, and return to the rendezvous position. We could send them back further, but it would cost more. We don’t presently have the materials we would need to fit them with reframe engines either, so relativistic speeds are going to have to do. Slow relativistic speeds, in fact. They max out at point-six-c. If they have to travel five light years away, and five back, that leaves them around thirteen years to mine. They should be able to handle that, but it could be tight, which is why we’ve programmed them to extract the materials, but not build the Frontrunners themselves. We don’t really know how far they’ll have to travel in their search.”
While Valencia is talking, Omega notices a figure in the corner of his eye. Other people are standing there, but this person stands out. He’s afraid to look, because he knows who it is. It’s that hallucination again. He appears to just be enjoying the presentation with everyone else. Omega leans over to Captain Yenant, and whispers, “I’m going to get some water.”
“I’ll get it,” Halan says.
“No, I know all this. You should stay with your people.” Omega flies the chair to the back, and heads for the water. The hallucination man follows him. Omega waits behind the table, ready to start actually getting the water if someone were to look back curiously.
“Are you feeling okay?” the hallucination has the audacity to ask.
“What are you doing here? Who are you?” Omega demands to know.
“I’m a program, and I’m here to make sure the ship runs smoothly.”
“If you were a hologram, other people would be able to see you, and I don’t have any neuro-tech enhancements. I receive life extension treatments, and I have some musculo-skeletal implants. How are we communicating?”
“As a clone, you have advanced neurological capabilities, including techno-psychic communication. You can’t interface with any bit of technology you want, but you’re connected to me, because...”
“Because what? Why are you hesitating?” Omega asks that a little too loud, prompting Head of Security Gideon to look back. Now he reaches for the water.
“Because you are, in terms of security protocols, Elder Caverness.”
“What are you going on about?”
“You altered your DNA to make Old Man’s safe think that you were him, so you could open it.”
“That was temporary.”
The hallucination shook his head. “No, it wasn’t.”
Omega has some control over his own physiology, and even his genetic code, which is what allowed him to break into the DNA safe in the first place. Still, there is only so much he can do, and only so much information about his health status that he can gather in realtime. He looks down at himself like that alone could confirm or refute what the hallucination is claiming.
“Don’t be afraid, it’s a good thing. Now you have me, and I can help with things, like showing you the solution to the micrometeoroid problem, and telling you that one of these drones is about to land on an inhabited planet.”
“So your creator, he knows the future. There is no other way you could possibly know that. Or you’re just lying.”
“My creator, me...what exactly is the difference?”
“Stop speaking in half-explanations, forcing me to ask more questions. Just give me all the answers.” Gideon looks back again, so Omega has to reach over and sample one of the deserts, even though it’s not time for that yet.
“I wasn’t created by Elder Caverness. I am Elder Caverness. I designed a perimortem consciousness transference device.”
“Those are illegal on this ship,” Omega protests.
Up until this point, since no one else can see or hear him, the hallucination has been speaking in an inside voice. He drops to a whisper to mock him. “Then I suppose we won’t want to tell anyone about it, will we? Shh. Hush-hush.”
“What is your purpose?”
“I designed it primarily for the Captain, so this boat can enjoy a little bit of damn continuity. Why hand over power when you can just stay alive throughout the whole journey?”
“That doesn’t make any sense. You were the one who tried to give the Captain the device that would have sent him off to a death in the void.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” the program says. “Obviously I had to test the technology first. The last version of me was uploaded into the computer a few months before the incident. I couldn’t tell you why Corporeal!Me tried to kill Captain Yenant, but I had nothing to do with it. We were two separate people by then.”
The conversation has to end as the speech before them does. The people begin to crowd around the windows. The part that Omega missed was about how the successful missions will appear pretty much instantaneously. Years will have passed for them—though it’s impossible to know how many without first knowing how far they’ll have to travel at relativistic speeds. But they won’t even be the same drones anyway. In order to transport the materials they mine, they’ll also use part of the material to build their own replacements. Those will be the ships that will appear in the cargo bay with the payloads. They’ll be extremely bare, and not even vacuum sealed. They’ll be more like only the framing, with enough space to hold what they need, along with the engines. They call it a gridship.
Omega flies over towards the window, and the crowd separates so he can see better. As August is counting down to the first launch, Omega notices AI!Elder, or whatever it is they should call him, standing in the fourth section. He’s wearing an old timey airport marshaller’s uniform, and making random arm movements, demonstrating the importance of this particular section. He opens his mouth, and rolls his eyes to the back of his head as he pulls at his shirt collar. He’s pantomiming dying. He’s pantomiming dying in section four. For whatever reason, when the gridship rendezvouses with Extremus, people are going to die. And apparently, Omega is the only one who can stop it.
“Go for One!” August declares. The drone disappears. A minute passes, but nothing returns.
“Aww,” the crowd groans, displeased and disappointed.
“Go for Two!” It’s only eight billion miles away from the first one, but it’s heading on a completely different vector, so it should have different candidate objects. It returns with a nice payload of various building materials, which will help them complete their project. The crowd cheers. It’s only about half of what they need to dispatch the Frontrunners, so hopefully one of the others also succeeds.
August waits another five minutes, which gives the third drone about forty billion miles to find something else. “Go for Three!” It comes back with more than enough of what they will need. The crowd cheers again, this time much louder.
The Elder program is still in section four of the main cargo bay. He’s shaking his head. Nothing has changed. This will still end badly. Omega doesn’t know how he knows this, especially with so many variables, but he can’t take the chance. They have the raw materials they need right now. There is no reason to continue. They could always send more missions later on, now that they know it’s possible.
Now the Elder program is pointing at the scorch station. Should a contaminate be loaded into the cargo bay—which is what this program appears to be suggesting will happen—the scorch station is capable of destroying any organic substance in the entire cargo bay. Since this is obviously so dangerous, it’s not like anyone is allowed to just walk up to it, and turn it on. They need authorization. Fortunately for Omega, he is more than qualified to break into it, especially if the Elder program is there to help him out. First, he hacks his chair, and teleports into what’s generally a time power-free zone. He won’t be able to trick the system into believing he’s a senior officer, but he can make it think he’s the cargomaster, who is also authorized to perform this action.
He checks his watch as he’s working, acutely aware that the next scheduled launch is in less than two minutes. He doesn’t absolutely have to get this done before the contaminant shows up. Either the fire prevents the launch from taking place, or it kills what’s already come through. Either way, everyone remains safe. It looks like it’s going to be the second possibility. Just when he’s cracked it, Omega sees the drone disappear, only to be immediately replaced by another vessel, but it’s not a gridship. It’s sealed up with a hull, and the hatchway is opening, which suggests that someone alive is inside. It’s too late. Scorch protocol engages, and overwhelms the cargo bay.

Year 9

The fire was not without its consequences, obviously. Omega was placed in MedHock for his actions while an investigation went underway. As for the raw materials, they were fine, albeit a bit melty. They were going to be moulded and adapted as needed anyway, so the Frontrunner project was able to continue, mostly unimpeded. A body was recovered from the shuttle that appeared in section four of the cargo bay. A simple DNA test showed that it was Elder Caverness, presumably having returned from wherever it was he went six years ago. There was no telling how much time had passed for him, or where he had been. And since he was dead, he couldn’t tell them what happened to Rita, or Airlock Karen. No other remains were found inside the shuttle.
Omega was not in some kind of catatonic state, but he remained completely silent for nearly a year. Halan came up with this idea to have the robot who delivered him food refuse to let go of it unless Omega verbally asked for it, but that didn’t work. Omega kept his mouth shut, and just began to starve. He was too traumatized by what he did. Today, they try a different approach. They need answers, and there may only be one person in the universe who can get it out of him. It’s probably going to traumatize him more, but it’s their last resort. A hologram of Old Man appears in Omega’s cell. It doesn’t say anything, and finally, Omega speaks. “You’re old again.”
“I am as I was when I died,” Hologram!Elder explains.
“You’re the one who killed him,” Omega contends. “Don’t act like it bothers you.”
“I did not kill myself,” Hologram!Elder argues. “You engaged the scorch protocol.”
“Because you told me to!”
“Why would I do that?”
Omega considered the possibilities. “I imagine you didn’t want any competition. You probably saw him as a threat to your survival. If the real Elder returned, what would he do to the uploaded consciousness he left behind?”
“Uploaded consciousness!” Halan shouts. He rounds the corner, and approaches the cell. “What is this about an uploaded consciousness?”
Omega literally slams his lips shut.
“No,” the Captain says, hovering his finger over his watch. “You keep talking, or I’m transporting you to the vacuum.”
“You would never,” Omega insists.
Halan sighs with relief. “Now we don’t have to find out. Explain. What uploaded consciousness are you talking about?”
Omega points to what he still doesn’t know to be a hologram. “I know you can’t see him, but Old Man is standing right there. He’s inside my head. He’s actually inside the computer system, but he appears to me, because I altered my DNA to match his. I was hoping he would go away when I changed my DNA back, but he’s returned anyway.”
“Computer, end program,” Halan orders, causing the hologram to flicker and disappear.
Omega regards the space he was once occupying in horror. “That wasn’t really him? It was just a simulation?”
“Correct,” Halan confirms. “I thought that you might choose to communicate with the person you killed. I had no idea that he was the one who convinced you to do it in the first place. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“He finally explained who he was at the launch,” Omega reveals. “I got caught up in his claims about something dangerous coming from the section four mission. I thought it was gonna be some kind of contagion from the planet the drone landed on. I thought I was saving us. Now I realize he just didn’t want the real version of him to come back to Extremus.”
“Why did you not recognize him immediately when the hallucinations first began?” Halan questions.
“He didn’t look like himself,” Omega clarifies. “I’m sure he did that for this very reason, so no one would be able to help me.”
Halan shakes his head as he’s processing this new information. “I wish you hadn’t changed your DNA back. There’s a genetic lock on that little ship. Only Old Man is able to access the logs. We need to figure out where he was, and how he got back.” He waves his watch in front of the cell lock. The gate slides open. “Now that I know the truth, I can help you.”
“I’m not forgiven,” Omega says, not in the form of a question. “I still killed someone, unusual circumstances notwithstanding.”
“As Captain, I have every right to pardon you. You were under the influence of a powerful external entity. We’ll get rid of him soon enough, but only after he explains himself further. Rewrite your DNA for us yet again, and let that be your first step on the road to redemption.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.” Omega curls up tighter on the bed, even as the door remains opened.
“In hock or not, you are still under my command, and that is an order.”
Omega lays down and rolls over to face the back wall. “I’ll need a few days to make the transition. I’m more comfortable here than I ever was in my original quarters.”
Over the course of the next three days, engineers attempt to look for this uploaded version of Elder in the system, but they come up with nothing. He’s probably keeping himself contained, rather than spreading his consciousness out. It’s harder to find the code when it can move around to avoid detection. He likely doesn’t have any intention of taking over the whole vessel, but if he ever tries, they will be ready for him. Now that Omega is sufficiently Old Man on a genetic level, Halan goes back down to MedHock to retrieve him. The door was left open, but still, Omega never left. He continues to do the right thing, and since he’s become aware of how susceptible he is to persuasion, he plans on being particularly leery of others.
Lead Engineer Veca Ocean is sitting in the shuttle in her hazmat suit. She’s not wearing protective headgear, or a respirator. It’s mostly just to keep her clothes clean of the soot and ash. The internal computer system appears to be fairly intact. It’s a sophisticated ship, meaning it took time and resources to complete. As Omega enters the hatchway, it begins to power up on its own, responding to his presence. “Welcome back, Dr. Caverness,” the AI says.
“On screen,” Omega orders. The main menu of the computer appears on the HUD. “Date of manufacturing.” September 9, 2273 appears on the screen. “Power specifications.” Antimatter drive for propulsion, fusion for internal systems, and temporal energy for temporal displacement. “What is your personal timeline?” The shuttle went from October 31, 2273 to March 18, 2272, and then it continued on in realtime from there.
“So he did go back in time,” Veca noted. “It was a year and a half before he built the shuttle, so he had to take it at least that far back to make it to the rendezvous point in enough time. He was probably flying just ahead of us this whole time, and we didn’t even know it.
“Why did he wait to show up now?” Halan asks. “He could have rendezvoused with us essentially instantaneously. Hell, he could have crossed his own timeline.”
“Computer, answer his question,” Omega commands.
Unknown,” it answers simply.
Veca takes it upon herself to look through the logs manually. Then she gets up and paces while she thinks it through. “So he lands on a planet. It’s either habitable, or he has some way of surviving using that bag he was carrying at the time. At some point, he builds a shuttle, probably using nanotech in his bag. He integrates it with a time machine so he can get back to Extremus, but he doesn’t do so for another five years. What was he doing all that time? He was the only one in here, so if the other two survived the initial transport, they didn’t come with him. What happened? Did he do something to them? Did they catch a cold and die?”
“Computer, answer her questions,” Omega repeats.
Unknown,” it repeats.
“Keep digging,” Halan orders. “I’m going to go monitor the final Frontrunner launch. We’re doing them with a lot less fanfare than the mining automators.”
“Thank you, sir,” Omega says genuinely.
He stops and looks at Omega, unsure whether he should try to give him some advice, or what. Instead, he nods professionally, and moves on.
Omega steps down from the shuttle, and watches the Captain leave, waiting to make sure he gets all the way out of earshot. Then he turns back around. “Is this vessel reparable?”
“You’ve spent time assessing the damage. Can you make it work again?”
“With Valencia’s help, probably, why?” Veca says.
“We may need it in the future.”
She squints her eyes, and looks at him with suspicion. “What do you have planned?”
“Nothing. Very much so nothing. Until I can be sure that this Old Man program is outta my head, I can’t be trusted with anything. I’m going back to my cell.”
“Not so fast,” Elder’s avatar says, appearing before him. “You have to stop the Frontrunner launch.”
Ansutah was first formed thousands of years before the humans living there managed to escape back to their home universe. In that time, a lot less had changed than people might expect. The human population began when a handful of them found themselves stranded. And it was those castaways that held the traditions of before together. They maintained written records of Earthan history, and passed down all the knowledge they kept with them to the later generations, eventually numbering in the billions. Some information was lost, yes, but most of it remained intact. It was important to them. It was important that they not forget where they came from, or what it took to get there. English never fell out of favor, and neither did American Sign Language. Unlike on Earth, it was a mandatory skill that every child studied, and this standard remained even after the great migration to Gatewood. Being a genius, Omega managed to learn it fairly quickly, even though he had no obligation to.
He signs behind his back as he speaks to the Elder program, hoping that Veca is watching from inside the shuttle. This is their chance to capture the program, isolate it from the rest of the system, and prevent it from causing Extremus problems. She must see his warnings, for she activates her emergency teleporter, and jumps to the bridge.
The Elder program chuckles. “I know what you just said to your little friend in there. Come on out, Veca. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
Confused, Omega looks back into the shuttle. No, she’s not there anymore. She left. “Can she hear you?”
“I can always make anyone hear me. Did you think you were special? No, I just chose you because your altered DNA gave you some permissions other people don’t have, and you were susceptible to my manipulation.”
“So what you’re saying is I am special.”
He smiles sarcastically. “Right. Seriously, Veca, everything will be all right.”
Now Omega is the one who chuckles. “Elder, there is no one in that shuttle.”
“I saw her go in there,” the program argues. “You and the Captain followed, and then the Captain came out, and then you came out. But she never did.”
“Can’t you tell that she’s not in there?” Omega questions, trying to understand.
The program doesn’t answer.
“You can’t,” he realizes. “It’s shielded. The real you shielded it from you.”
He’s getting angry. “I am the real me!”
Omega steps back onto the ramp, but sticks his head out. “Can you see me now? Do I just look like a floating head to you? I saw a meteorologist do this once with a green dress.”
The Elder program purses his lips, not wanting to confirm his limitations, but confirming them just the same. “Whatever. Minor blindspot. What are you gonna do, transfer ship controls to this little shuttle?” he asks with a yawn. Generally speaking, computer programs don’t need to yawn.
Omega steps back down the ramp. “No. I’m just the distraction.”
The program begins to nod off, not understanding what’s happening to him. “What did you do? I feel...trapped.”
“We’re not gonna kill you,” Omega promises. “You just can’t be allowed to go wherever you want anymore.”
“No.” He’s struggling to stay awake. “You can’t do this. I haven’t told you yet.”
“Told me what?”
The Elder program gets down on his hands and knees, but he’s only staving off the inevitable. “I figured out why my corporeal self tainted the recall device that was supposed to send you and Airlock Karen back to Gatewood.”
“You can tell us later,” Omega says. “As soon as we’re sure you won’t be able to access anything we don’t want you to.”
“You silly fool,” the Elder program accuses. “They’re not sedating me. They are killing me. I’m trying to hold on, but I’m losing control. It’s almost over.”
“I didn’t know,” Omega assures him. “I’m sorry.”
“I die...knowing that you will never know...who hired Old Man...to kill the Captain.” He falls to his virtual face, and disappears.

Year 10

When a Captain’s shift ends, that doesn’t mean that their responsibilities are over. It is a lifetime appointment, it’s just that their duties shift. When the 25th year of the journey begins, Halan will hand the reins over to someone else. This change in power is a complicated one, which involves a vote from the crew, a vote from the passengers, and Halan’s final say. Not everyone’s vote is equal, and the result can change even after an appointment has supposedly been made. There is a probationary period of one year, where the new captain must prove themselves capable of handling the job on a day-to-day basis. It is believed to be the best solution to the problem of there being no such thing as a captain’s apprentice, unlike other roles. Even then, Halan will not be finished. During that year, he will be known as the Admiral Pro Tem, and at the end of it, he’ll be automatically promoted to full admiralship. He will advise and guide the captain, and should he still be alive when the third captain is chosen, he will continue to serve the ship in this capacity. He’ll reserve the right to resume power if the circumstances deem it necessary. Multiple simultaneous admirals could mean multiple people fighting for this power, but the hope is that it will never come to that.
Halan will not be the first admiral that Extremus sees. There is already one in that position right now, who was sort of shoehorned in so that the First of Nine would have someone to consult in the way that he one day will himself. His influence over the crew is limited; more so than it will be for Halan in fifteen years. He’s not even allowed to interact with them very much, and his ability to assume power is far weaker than it will be for the same rank later. For this reason, Admiral Perran Thatch is rather bitter and grumpy about the whole situation. He wouldn’t have wanted to be captain himself—and was, in fact, unqualified, due to his age—but he expected a much higher sense of reverence from others than he’s been receiving. This is the first time Halan has stepped foot in his office since the day before launch ten years ago.
Alcohol isn’t very common anywhere in the stellar neighborhood. Earth never technically outlawed it, but it fell out of favor decades ago when healthier, and more sophisticated, ways of destressing became available, such as virtual relaxation therapy. The Asutahan humans developed no such luxuries, as they had to deliberately temper their technological advancement in order to avoid being detected by the white monsters. Still, relatively few people on this ship are old enough to have begun drinking by the time they were rescued, and returned to their home universe. Adhering to Gatewood’s dry policies was fairly easy for the majority of the population, and the practice has largely been eradicated here as well. Admiral Thatch is a major exception. He’s almost never seen without a drink in his hand.
He pours another glass, and tries to hand it to Halan. “Your father was a bootlegger.”
“He kept a bottle of bourbon under the counter for special guests. He didn’t drink himself, and neither did I.”
“Take it please.”
Halan reluctantly takes the glass, but just sets it down.
“If you’re here, it must be wildly important. Can’t hack it, can you? Micrometeoroids won’t stop knocking you down.”
Halan leans back in his chair to avoid showing the man any level of respect. He sighs, and waits to respond. “Was it you?”
“Was what me? The one who sent the meteoroids on a collision course? I dare say, I’m not that potent.” He smiled sinisterly.
“Were the one who tried to have me killed?” Halan clarifies.
Thatch is in the middle of attempting to take another sip, but it doesn’t reach his lips before he stops. “Who tried to kill you?”
Halan doesn’t want to answer, because he still doesn’t know the answer to his own question. This isn’t a formal interrogation, though, so he has to make it look like a moderately cordial conversation. “Old Man.”
“Old Man is gone,” Thatch states the obvious.
“I just found out that he may not have been working alone. Someone put him up to it. I don’t know what they offered him, because I don’t know who it was. Was. It. You?”
Thatch closes his eyes and scratches between his eyes too rigorously. “What would I have to gain by having you assassinated?”
“Perhaps you believe you could run this ship better than me?”
“My dear boy, you know the rules. Nothing would change about my job. I would just be reporting to someone else.”
“Maybe there’s someone else you would rather be reporting to.”
“I don’t much care for the announcer boy either.”
“Rita was my lieutenant when this happened.”
Thatch nods and watches his bookcase remain motionless. “Oh yes, I did like her quite a bit. She would have been a better choice for the seat all along, don’t you agree?”
Halan sits back up, and rests his elbows on the desk. “Maybe. We’ll never know, because she’s gone, and I’m still here, and I still don’t know who is out to get me.”
“You sound paranoid.” Thatch resumes his drinking.
“Paranoia is a delusion. I’m operating on facts. And the fact is that Old Man tried to hand me a tainted time traveling device, which would have banished me to who knows where. Now, we were not the best of friends. At the time, I considered it some kind of personal grudge. Today, the facts say otherwise. I have been quietly looking into the matter, speaking only to a few trusted individuals. I’m beginning to branch out to people I can’t trust...like you.”
Thatch isn’t perturbed by the old news that they do not like each other.
Halan goes on, “I am going to ask you again, and I want an actual answer; not a deflection.” He stands up and holds his fists against the desk, like he might try to push it through the floor. “Did you try to have me killed?”
Thatch sets his drink down, and stands to meet his accuser’s eyes. “Unequivocally...no.”
Halan takes a moment to study Thach’s face for any signs of deception. He’s not a particularly adept poker player, but he wouldn’t have been assigned this job if he weren’t at least somewhat decent at reading people. He sighs and steps back. “I almost wish it was you.”
Thatch picks his drink back up, but doesn’t sit down. “Why is that?”
“Because I would be confident in the belief that the conspiracy would end with you, on account of the fact that you’re not super popular around here. Anyone else who’s behind it is not working alone. I will never be able to trust anyone again.”
Thatch switches his glass to his left hand, so he can extend the right. “You can trust me, sir.” He sounds rather genuine. “I may be a bastard, but I’m a loyal bastard.”
Halan waits for a moment before taking the hand, and shaking it. “Just...be on the lookout for anything suspicious, or any whispers. I don’t need you going around asking questions. You’re about as subtle as a Maramon in the short grass.”
“Will do, boss.”
Halan leaves the room, only to experience the actually paranoid, possibly misguided, belief that Thatch immediately took out a communicator, reached out to his co-conspirator, and started discussing how they were going to handle this new complication. He keeps walking down the corridor, doing his best to convince himself that none of this is true, that Thatch was being sincere when he said he was on his side. Suddenly, a passenger appears from around the corner, freaking Halan out, and forcing an embarrassing sound to come out of his mouth.
“Terribly sorry, sir,” the passenger says. It’s Riltren Takeda. Halan doesn’t know that much about him, but he remembers how nice he was to Airlock Karen. He never could tell whether Rilten agreed with her anger about the mixup, or if he was just really good at pretending. He seems to be being nice right now, but is that an act. Is he just being polite so Halan doesn’t figure out his true intentions? What is he doing up here?
“What are you doing up here?”
“I was just on a walk,” Riltren answers.
“The track isn’t good enough for you?”
Riltren looks at his watch. “It’s pretty crowded this time of day, and I like to be alone. If I just wanted the exercise, I would probably use a stationary machine.”
Nah, he’s up to something. Nobody should be in this section of the ship unless they need to talk to Thatch, and no one needs to talk to Thatch unless they’re hatching a scheme together. Thatching a scheme. This is all very sus. Halan can’t trust anyone.
“Are you okay, Captain?” Riltren asks.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Halan shoots back at him.
“Forgive me for saying this, sir, but you don’t look so great. Why don’t you let me take you to the infirmary?”
“I’m not going anywhere with you!” Everything went black.

Lieutenant Eckhart Mercer is standing over his superior officer, watching him sleep. He actually looks rather comfortable, despite what must be a busy and tormenting nightmare. According to his neural readings, his brain is extremely active at the moment, but he is showing no such signs on the outside. “What the hell is wrong with him?”
“Frankly, we don’t know yet.” Dr. Ima Holmes is the Chief Medical Officer of the Extremus. Her duties are primarily administrative, despite what science fiction would have you believe. She’s only chosen to return to practice right now because it’s the Captain. “What unusual signs was he exhibiting before he collapsed?”
“I don’t know,” Mercer replies. “I wasn’t there, but a Riltren Takeda was the one who brought him in.”
“I’ve spoken with him. He believes the Captain was acting irrational and paranoid, but admits that he does not know the man personally, and can’t speak to the difference between usual and unusual behavior.”
“Why is the sedative not working? It should be calming his mind, as well as his body.”
“It should, yes. If this were purely psychological, that wouldn’t be possible, which is why I’m running a tox screen right now. The truth is that he’s out cold primarily due to whatever is causing this.”
“How long will this take?” he asks.
“Impossible to tell as of now. It could be permanent.”
Mercer breathes deeply, and continues to watch his boss not move a muscle. There’s nothing he can do about it. “I have Takeda locked in an interview room.”
“Okay...” Dr. Holmes begins, not sure what he means by that.
“If you could erase his memories, that would be great. I can work around it, but it would certainly make it easier.”
“Make what easier?” Now Dr. Holmes is worried.
“Did the Captain ever talk to you about something called The Façade Contingency?”
Dr. Holmes contorts her own face. “He had me look into the technology a few months before launch, which I complied with, but I took it as a joke. You’re not seriously suggesting...”
Mercer shakes his head. “The crew needs a captain. Whether they would believe it or not, so too do the passengers. If only his body were damaged, we could surrogate his mind into an android substrate, but since it’s his mind that’s the problem, someone is going to have to go out there and lead this mission...until you can bring him back to us.”
“Are you trying to seize power?” Dr. Holmes questions, this close to calling in a security team.
“Lieutenants are not the next in line for the job. The position was designed as temporary backfill.”
“Exactly,” she agrees. “Which is why this is highly irregular.”
“If Second of Nine were lying there in that bed, Halan himself would be able to step in and take his place, but we cannot trust the current Admiral to do the right thing. Someone has to take the Captain’s chair, and unless you can tell me he’ll be up and about by tomorrow morning, it has to be me, and it has to be right now.”
“Why can’t we tell people the truth?” It sure sounds like a reasonable suggestion.
“Because someone is trying to kill him, and until we figure out who, we need the guilty parties to expose themselves by trying again. I am a great decoy, because I already know what’s going on, and honestly, I’m more expendable than you might think. So strap me into whichever one of these machines is pertinent right now, and make me look like Captain Halan Yenant.”

Year 11

Eckhart Mercer stands in front of the white door, waiting to walk through it, and leave the executive infirmary. The AI system is pretty sophisticated. It will open automatically, but also knows when someone is not quite ready for it, and it will remain closed until such time that the user’s body language suggests that they’re ready, or if they open it themselves. He takes one last look in the mirror on the wall to his right, just to make sure nothing gives it away. He knows nothing on his face does. If anyone is going to recognize him as an impostor, it won’t be because of the flawless plastic surgery. It will be because he’s unfit to lead as captain, and everyone will be able to see right through his impersonation. He looks like Captain Yenant, but he still doesn’t feel like him, and he doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to pull this off. Yenant has left big shoes to fill, and even though he’s not dead yet—just in a coma—it’s looking like he’ll never recover. He’s been under for a week, and they just can’t wait any longer. The Captain is afforded the time off, but that time has passed, and people will start to get suspicious. Mercer takes a deep breath, and finally leaves the room.

It started out rough, but over the last year, Mercer has grown used to pretending to be the Captain. No one seems to suspect a thing. Nothing has gone wrong, however, which is probably what’s been making it easier. He hasn’t had to make any dire decisions, or prove himself in any significant capacity. The attempted assassin has yet to reveal themselves, but Mercer is keeping an eye out. He synthesizes his food himself, and has it analyzed by a closed AI for every single meal. He hasn’t been having meals or drinks with anyone, which is a little out of the ordinary for Yenant, but it’s just too much of a risk. It’s not practical or safe for him to test for poison while people are around. The idea is to catch whoever is trying to kill the Captain, not let them succeed in killing the Lieutenant.
At the moment, he’s in the engineering room that’s designated to monitor the Frontrunners. “I hear there’s an issue with one of them,” he says.
Earlier this year, August Voll was promoted to full Second Temporal Engineer, leaving the second apprentice as the one and only primary apprentice. Vesper Yordanov’s current responsibility is to exclusively monitor the frontrunner ships that are flying ahead of Extremus to protect it from micrometeoroid strikes, and make any adjustments necessary. There were never meant to be so many people on the temporal engineering team, as the original mission parameters didn’t consider that it would become so vital to the safety of the crew and passengers. Department leadership is presently deciding whether even more people need to be trained in the discipline. It’s the most difficult one on the entire ship, and it’s pretty important that anyone selected to even make an attempt at taking that educational track be born with genius-level intellect.
It’s not one of those fields of study that anyone with enough time and patience can explore. Even the other engineers are mostly not capable of switching over, as it requires a much deeper understanding of physics. Perhaps if the general population of the stellar neighborhood were made aware that temporal manipulation was real, educational resources could be devised to increase their numbers. As of now, the only way to learn is directly from someone else, and decent teachers are rarer still. Valencia Raddle was chosen for the position in the first place because of her aptitude as a teacher. It’s unclear whether August or Vesper will be able to successfully fill her shoes in that manner. “Not a problem,” he explains. “I just need authorization to swap the apex.”
“What do you mean by swap?” Mercer asks.
Vesper appears to believe as if the captain of this vessel should already understand what’s happening here. As the lieutenant, however, Mercer’s duties often take him in so many directions that it’s difficult to keep up with everything. Captains are also chosen quite carefully; for their predisposition for leadership, but also their ability to retain massive amounts of information. A lieutenant is decidedly not next in line for the chair. Mercer’s real job is to coordinate between departments, including the executive crew. As an executive herself, Valencia enjoys a direct connection to him, and therefore requires no such liaison. Mercer is now showing the tip of his cards, and Vesper isn’t sure what to think of it. “Is this a test, sir?”
“Everything is a test,” Mercer answers, hoping to remain as stoic about it as possible. He is the captain, after all, and if this were a real test, Halan would act like this.
“Okay, I can explain. The temporal fields on the Frontrunners are just as unreliable as the teleporter field around Extremus proper. It’s not much, but it’s bad enough that some material does make it through the field, without being expelled to the future at all. This causes damage to the hull. We could probably leave them out there, and be fine, but you asked us to rotate them, and effect repairs on the one that’s out of service, replacing it entirely, if necessary.”
“Good. So it’s time to do that, right?”
Vesper is still a bit suspicious. “Right.”
“Then you have my authority.” Mercer pats him on the shoulder, and stands straighter, preparing to leave.
“Sir, I need your teleportation codes. A vacuum jump is considered too high risk to entrust to anyone but you...after the recall device fiasco of Year Three?”
“Of course. I’m quite tired, however. Could we do this tomorrow instead?
“Absolutely, sir, we’re not in any immediate danger.”
“Good.” Mercer takes a breath once he’s on the other side of the door. Things are falling apart. He has been lucky up until now, but that is all about to change. He needs to figure out how to get those codes, and so far, all attempts at reviving the Captain have failed. Dr. Holmes has been attempting some kind of neural interface to at least communicate with Halan, but those have failed as well. There’s only one person on this ship with any hope of bypassing the authorization, and his loyalty has been in question since he first stepped foot on this vessel. Mercer proceeds to Omega’s new laboratory, and prepares to explain himself to the man.
Omega takes one look at Captain Yenant’s face, and smirks. “You’ve finally run into a wall, haven’t you?”
“I’m sorry?” Mercer legitimately doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s probably a reference to a conversation he had with the real captain over a year ago.
“If I had been able to reveal the truth with anyone else, I might have bet on your failure sooner than this. I must admit I’m impressed you lasted as long as you did.” He pantomimes tipping a hat to him.
“I’m afraid that I do not understand your meaning. You see, I’m not—”
“Captain Yenant,” they say at the same time.
“You knew?” Mercer questions. “Oh right, genius. I should have guessed you would figure it out.”
Omega squints, confused. “What are you talking about? Did. Holmes not tell you?”
“Tell me what, that she outright told you who I really was?”
“My Dear Temporary Captain, she had to tell me. How exactly do you believe you look exactly like him?”
“Surgery,” Mercer answers.
“That’s invasive, dangerous, and though technically reversible, any additional surgery would have placed you in even more danger. The human body is not designed to be...jacked around that much.” He laughs, “no, it’s a hologram.” Omega takes out his handheld device, taps on it a bit, and evidently turns off the illusion.
Mercer instantly looks like himself again. He paws at his own cheeks as he’s looking at his reflection in the fridge glass, trying to gauge whether this is, in fact, the illusion. There’s really no way to tell, not with technology this good. “How could I have not known?”
“Honestly, I can’t answer that; I thought you did. We probably could have gone the surgical route, but neither Holmes nor I believed it would have to go on this long.”
“So my assistant, who’s masquerading as me?”
“If I had to hazard a guess, I suppose now I assume he also doesn’t know he’s a hologram.”
“What’s the power source?” Mercer pads clothes, and the back of his head.
“The ship itself,” Omega replies. “Wireless energy, produced by the fusion reactor. You have a new access chip in your neck, which generates the image. I’m very sorry you didn’t know about this. I feel like it would have made it easier, if you could return to your real form when necessary.”
Mercer sighs again, realizing that this epiphany changes nothing. He still doesn’t have those codes.
Omega detects that there remains a lingering issue. “Knowing this doesn’t help you with whatever problem you’re facing right now, does it?”
“The real Captain has codes, which I need in order to swap out one of the Frontrunners.”
Omega balks at this. “Why would that be necessary, what’s wrong with it?”
“Yordanov says it’s time for regular maintenance, because of all the meteoroid escapes.
As Omega is pulling something up at his workstation, he says, “it’s a highly redundant system; that’s what the Frontrunners were created for. If one of them doesn’t get the meteoroid, the others should compensate.” He pulls up a set of data that Mercer cannot understand. “There. I’m reporting no damage since they were dispatched, on any of the Frontrunners, or Extremus.”
“So...he lied? For what purpose?”
“The codes,” Omega suggests. “I don’t know what these codes are, but they would likely give him access to more than what he asked for. It’s not surprising Halan has locked everyone out of the teleporters that could potentially send someone to space, but they might do all sorts of things. Or...he’s just trying to send you to space. That was the plan all along, wasn’t it? That’s what Old Man was meant to do. Maybe they’re trying it again.”
“How would Vesper lock onto him?” Mercer questions. “Would he use his DNA, or would he just transport the man who looks like Yenant, and is standing right next to him.”
“The latter would be easier, and if he doesn’t suspect you’re an impostor, he would have no reason to do it any other way.”
Mercer begins to pace just a little. “Still, there has to be some way to shield The Captain...keep anyone from locking onto his location, just in case.”
“It’s already been done. Otherwise, anyone with the ability to request the ship locate him would uncover the ruse.”
“Yes, of course, that makes sense. So this should work.”
“So, what would work, teleporting you to outer space? I suppose it would.”
“If you have the ability to make anyone look like anyone else with a hologram, why couldn’t you do the same with, say, a robot, or even a broom?”
“What is a broom?”
“You know what I mean. It doesn’t have to be me in that room. He just has to think that it’s the Captain, and once he makes his move, we’ll know he’s in on it. He may be the ringleader, for all we know.” Only now does he see the flaw in his plan. “Oh no, but we don’t have those codes.”
“I can get you the codes,” Omega says with a shrug. I know how Yenant thinks.
“Can I trust you with this?” Mercer asks.
“You can trust me with anything. I long ago accepted how similar to my progenitor I really am.”
When the Ansutahan refugees were first brought to Salmonverse, they were elevated technologically, so they could enjoy the same amenities the galaxy had to offer at the time. They weren’t simply given such technology, however, at least not all of it. Some of it they were expected to learn themselves. The owners of Gatewood gave them the tools they would need to develop sufficient artificial intelligence, but it’s not perfect. Spawning a new lifeform has proven to be rather difficult. They have enough for the ship’s AI to make the necessary life-saving calculations for them, and for its constituent robots to effect repairs. They still don’t have lifelike androids, however; ones that are capable of passing even the most forgiving of Turing tests. The truth is they haven’t been trying very hard for this, because Extremusians won’t want to share their future home with another race. This is all irrelevant right now, though. Omega can make a bot look like Captain Halan Yenant, and Mercer can pilot it like a drone, and they should be able to maintain the lie for long enough to fool Vesper. They have to catch him in the act, or none of their interrogation tactics is going to do any good.
The next day, the bot strides into the Frontrunner monitoring room, claiming to be ready to provide the teleportation codes.
“Great. We’ve had a few more strikes since yesterday. We really should do it now.” Vesper hovers his hands over the keyboard.
“I feel more comfortable doing it myself,” Mercer says through the bot’s vocalizer.
“Very well.” Vesper seems unconcerned by this. He even walks around to the other side of the workstation so he can’t see the code.
The bot enters the override codes that Omega gave him.
Vesper smirks. “Perfect. Now we’re done with you.” He taps on a tablet, and spirits the bot away, just as they predicted he would.
Mercer steps into the room, holding a gun. “Who exactly is we?”
Vesper attempts to escape through the backdoor, but security jumps in before he can leave. He tries to teleport himself out, but teleportation has been disabled shipwide.
We? We! We are the true Extremusians, and we will not let you invade our planet! Not again!” He removes what suspiciously looks like a detonator from his pocket, and readies himself to press the button on top. “I die in service to The Oaksent, and you cannot take that from me!”
Before he can detonate, Omega transports him to the cold vacuum of space.
“What is the Oaksent?” Mercer asks no one in particular.
A sickly but awake Captain Yenant shows up in his hoverchair. “That’s the name of the fourth person who was missing after Airlock Karen activated the recall device.

Year 12

The cat was out of the bag, but only a few people saw it. Word spread to the rest of the crew that someone was trying to kill the Captain, and that Mercer had taken his place in order to root out the culprits. Vesper was proof that this was a real threat, and this was the silver lining, for if that proof did not exist, Mercer would probably be in a lot of trouble. Halan himself would have completely understood, and devised the protocol for such an occasion. Others might not have been so kind. It would look like an ironic power grab.
The investigation continued, but quickly hit a dead end. They had more people working the problem, but doing so risked further exposure. So far, the passengers still don’t know that anything is amiss—Mercer’s impersonation was successful—but it’s probably only a matter of time. The good news out of this reality is that the people responsible for the assassination attempts probably already do know that the crew is investigating them. They would be pretty dumb not to, now that Halan has survived so much. The problem is now getting more information. Omega did the right thing by transporting their own suspect to the vacuum of space before he could activate his suicide bomb, but now they have no suspects, and the trail had no choice but to grow cold.
Captain Yenant has been trying to take his mind off the problem, and just focus on his responsibilities. Catching killers is not in the job description, and he has plenty of other things that he is expected to be worried about. It’s been eleven years since Extremus departed The Gatewood Collective, which means it’s time for new passenger leadership. They hold elections for the major offices every three years. Each position comes with a four-term limit. Satyria could have been replaced already, but she’s been a popular incumbent, so she’s been able to hold her seat the entire time. Everything good must come to an end, and she is no longer eligible for reëlection. It has so far been a surprisingly intense campaign season.
While this is the first time the Chair has been anyone’s seat to lose, it is generally accepted how important the ship’s captain’s opinion matters. Halan has yet to endorse a candidate, and his choice could prove to be the unofficial deciding factor. Current shift crew members can’t vote—though apprentices retain this right—but passengers still want to know what they think of the civilian government. Perhaps it’s even more important than voter opinion, since public endorsement is the only way their voices are heard in these matters. It is no shock that the captain’s voice carries the most weight of all. In the past, Halan was able to say little, and let voters interpret his carefully curated words however they wanted, whether that meant believing that he still backed incumbent Ebner, or he had changed his mind. The luxury of avoiding taking a clear side is over, and he’s been forced to spend the day speaking with each candidate, so they can plead their case to him.
Ovan Teleres is the last in a long line of hopefuls who have so far made Halan want to float himself from the Karen airlock. Still, “thank you for coming,” he says politely. He just has to get through this, and then he can ask his advisors which one he should choose to support. Because honestly, none of them seems to be better or worse than the rest. If they didn’t look like different people, he would swear the same individual just came into his office five times. They all pretty much said the same thing, and he has no reason to believe that Ovan won’t follow suit.
“No, sir, thank you for having me.”
“Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?” Halan begins.
“Well, I was born on Gatewood Three. I studied Earthan anthropology, and historical extrasolar migrations, including the move from Durus to Ansutah, and the Dardieti timeline rescues. I graduated from college last year in the middle of my class, and I’m ready to serve my community in the best way possible.”
“You just graduated?” Halan echoes.
“I may be young, but that just means I won’t croak before the job’s done.  I assure you that my social skills are more than enough for me to understand the needs of the passengers on this ship, as well as how to fulfill those needs. I know that I can make this ship a better place. I wouldn’t have come this far, with the highest number of ballot access signatures, if I wasn’t good at convincing others that I can help them get what they want.”
Halan can’t help but laugh. “I don’t doubt your potential. This is just about getting to know you.”
Ovan nods.
Halan goes on, “so you studied migrations? I suppose joining the mission was the ultimate hands-on experience. I can’t imagine how excited you were when we first announced it.”
He takes a moment to respond. “Can I be frank with you, sir?”
“I wish you would.”
“I didn’t wanna come here, not at all. I wanted to live on a planet, and I do not take comfort in knowing that my children’s children’s children’s children’s children get to realize that dream, but that I will be long dead.”
“Why did you come? You mentioned Durus. Plans were being drawn up to migrate to our ancestral home.”
“I was seven years old, I didn’t have a choice.”
Halan balks at this. “There was no minimum age of consent for the mission. If a toddler could vocalize their refusal to come, their parents would not be allowed to force them.”
“That may have been the official stance, but not every family listened to their children. It was strongly suggested to me that I...keep my reservations to myself.”
“If you never wanted to come, why do you want to be Chair now?”
“I’m here now, so I can at least make this a great place to live.”
“There’s also no statute of limitations for breaking mission laws. I could arrest your parents for breach.”
Ovan shakes his head. “That was twelve years ago, I’m over it. I’m not gonna cause a scandal now, and it’s not gonna get me to Durus.”
“I must say, your honesty is refreshing.”
“Getting a lot of brown-nosing?” Ovan asks with a smirk.
“I cannot comment on my private interactions with other candidates.” He takes a beat. “I’ll only say that not everyone would be willing to admit they want this place to change.”
“Is that what I said?”
“I would not have come this far, having been selected as First Captain of Nine, without being able to see people for who they truly are, and not simply who they want me to see.”
“What does that mean?” Ovan questions. “Would you endorse someone like me, or not?”
“I’ll announce my final decision tomorrow, as I have been asked.”
“Can’t give me a hint?”
“I have not been revealing which way I’m leaning as it will unduly impact a fair conclusion, and could cause undue hostility after perceived premature victory.”
“What does that mean, literally?”
“Whatever I say, my words may be interpreted any way that suits a candidate’s own biases. They may believe that they have won because I complimented them on their shoes, or that I have written them off because I mentioned not liking the same foods as they. I urge you to take nothing I say as confirmation one way, or the other.”
“You have already made similar remarks to me.”
Halan leans forward. “Which is precisely why I did not want to have these conversations. I’m telling you this now so you’ll understand that I have not yet made a decision, and that your chances of winning have neither gone up, nor down. I have never placed much stock in polls and rumors. As far as I’m concerned, the six of you are presently in a seven-way tie.”
Ovan closes his eyes and nods respectfully.
“Thank you for coming in,” Halan says. “I have a lot to think about tonight.”
He replies with a quick, “sir,” and leaves the office. Most of the conversations ran longer than this, but Halan realized that he had to cut this one short. He already said too much. Ovan is the type of person who will take every syllable a person utters, and twist it to his advantage. He is a dangerous man, and the more he sat before him, the more uncomfortable Halan became about him. Yes, he speaks the truth, but that doesn't mean he's being honest. It's not bad that he didn't want to be here at first, or that he wants to change the government. It's that he loathes the crew. No, he hasn't said so, but Halan can see it in his eyes. If allowed, that man will destroy this vessel, and everyone on it. He cannot be allowed to sit in the chair.
Halan leaves his office to express his concerns to the rest of the executive crew, including Dr. Meziani. There are other members of the mental health team. She’s only supposed to be the grief counselor, but Halan has found himself not being able to trust anyone else with his secrets, so she agreed to do more sessions as a side hustle. She’s having the hardest time understanding Halan’s reasoning out of everyone.
“I am not confused,” Dr. Meziani contends. “I recognize where you’re coming from, and I appreciate your perspective. I’m just not sure I believe that your interaction is enough to prove one way or another what kind of leader Mr. Teleres would be.”
“You didn’t see him,” Halan says for the third time during this discussion.
“Yes,” she says, “his eyes. He was regarding you with contempt.”
“It was all he could do to prevent himself from crawling over the table and strangling me in my chair.”
She doesn’t let him say things that he can’t prove. “You don’t know that.”
He doesn’t respond to this, and everyone else manages to stay quiet.
Dr. Meziani clears her throat. “Leave us.”
Omega stands up from his chair, but then he sees that everyone was too scared to move in real time. They activated their emergency teleporters. “Okay,” he says awkwardly. “Uhhhhhhhh...bye.” He teleports away as well.
She continues, “I believe that your recent trauma has clouded your judgment, and caused you to see enemies where there are none.”
“Dr. Holmes figured out that the paranoia I was feeling was chemically induced, not psychological.”
“Psychological processes are chemical, and while Holmes cleared you for duty, that does not mean there could not be any residual effects of the poisoning.”
“My interpretation of Ovan’s intentions comes from my intellect, not from my feelings. I assure you that I know how to compartmentalize.”
“You don’t have to assure me. I’ve spoken to you enough times to know what you’re capable of. What I’m saying is that you have not spoken to him enough times to do the same.”
“I’m not going to talk to that man again. I have to do everything I can to keep him out of office.”
“Please, Doctor. Halan.”
“Halan,” she agrees. “I need to know what the word everything means to you.”
“I’m not going to kill him, if that’s where you’re going with this.”
She looks at him above imaginary glasses.
“I’m not going to have him killed either. That wasn’t a semantic trick. I have been asked to endorse a candidate, which I will. I have not been asked to censure any of them, but there is nothing in the bylaws that precludes me from doing so.”
“May I suggest that you not go down that road?”
“My worry is that it will only serve to hasten, or even precipitate this divide you think may exist between the passengers and crew.”
“I can’t let him be Chair, Itri. I wish you could have been in the room. He’s...”
“He’s a danger,” she says, trying to calm him down. “I understand. And I’m...willing to trust your judgment. But you have to promise me that you won’t do anything unethical, even if it’s not specifically prohibited in the bylaws. If you really want to, I will back your decision to both endorse a candidate, and disapprove of another. But you are not joining the campaign trail. You may mention your opinion precisely once on a public platform, make it clear that you will not elaborate on your reasons, and then you must agree to accept the results regardless.”
“Okay, I can do that.”
She isn’t done. “You must also accept the fact that people are going to continue to push the matter, and ask you for details. You cannot give in to those demands, even just to shut them up. If you’re willing to shoulder that burden, then fine, I won’t stop you. You still have plenty of time to change your mind. No one else knows what you’re planning to do, so you have to hold onto some kind of prideful commitment to this.”
“I shall consider it. I value your counsel.”
“Thank you.”
In the end, Halan decides against condemning a candidate, but three weeks later, he comes to regret that concession. His chosen candidate comes in second, which means he’ll be Second Chair, but it probably won’t matter. Ovan Teleres begins a path towards stripping away everything that makes Extremus the beautiful ship that it is, and covertly and subconsciously turning his people against the crew.

Year 13

The election is over, and there is no going back now. Ovan is going to be smart about his takeover of the ship. He isn’t going to suddenly start trying to order the security team around. He drops a few hints here, makes a quippy remark there. Everything he says out loud says fine when you first hear it, but if you think about it too hard, you realize how some people could interpret it to mean that the passengers should become hostile towards the crew, probably without even realizing it. He’ll grow bolder as his plans begin to bear fruit, but right now, Halan has other things to worry about.
“How do we know he’s not one of them? He and Vesper could have been working together,” Omega suggests.
“We don’t, but I’m not getting the sense of that,” Halan says. “I feel like Ovan, and his drive to take over the ship, is completely separate from the people trying to kill me. Getting rid of one Captain is not going to do the passengers any good if they have a problem with the entire crew. I’ll just be backfilled by the Admiral, or maybe even the Bridgers. No, Ovan wants this to become a fully civilian operation. More to the point, he wants to be in charge.”
“Why didn’t he just get on the Captain’s track?” Omega questions.
“He’s not the right age. It’s a timing issue, you see. It’s the reason why the crew shifts in and out at different times. My shift lasts for 24 years, but if everyone was like that, everything would have to change hands all at once. That’s a logistical nightmare. By staggering them, we allow for people to apply for positions even when they come of age in the middle of a cycle. Still, on the individual level, this can potentially exclude a lot of people. There is no law that says a 32-year-old can’t become Captain, but it’s unlikely he would ever get the job, since he’ll be in his fifties by the time he’s done.
“That’s not that old,” Omega argues. “I’m 64 if you count my rapid aging as part of my lifespan, rather than just subtracting this year from the year I was manufactured.”
“True, it’s not,” Halan agrees, “but if there is a single worst character flaw that Ansutahan humans have, it’s probably ageism. Life expectancy used to be a lot lower for us, since medical science was stunted by a number of factors, all stemming from the fact that we were constrained to one continent. Younger people have always been better at securing leadership positions, and then they are strongly urged to step down when they get too old.”
“Why does that same unwritten rule not apply to Ovan’s position as Passenger Chair?” Omega asks.
“It’s a shorter term. Even the term limit is shorter than a captain’s shift. Anyway, he might not have known what he wanted until it was too late. Captain’s track starts in the single digits. There’s a decent chance that my successor was born here. Now let’s get back to Vesper’s co-conspirators.”
Omega nods, but still isn’t convinced that they should be focusing on this. Yes, the extremist group hiding in their midst is a greater threat, but they don’t know where to begin. At least the anti-crew movement has a face. And a punchable one, at that. Even so, he keeps his mouth shut, and concedes to the Captain’s decision. Most problems need to be solved either way. “Indeed,” he says simply.
“So,” Mercer begins after having been silent most of the time. “Omega’s right about one thing.”
Halan gets it. “We still don’t know how to find these true Extremusians.”
“First order of business, I believe, is we should try to come up with a new name,” Mercer decides.
“Agreed,” Halan replies. “We are true Extremusians. If anyone on this ship is under the impression that they are somehow special, and different from the lot of us, then this misunderstanding must be rectified. Henceforth, in all reports, they will be known as...” He trails off, not knowing what would be a better word to use.
It is then that Omega realizes that he already came up with a name for them in his own headcanon. “True Extremists,” he offers.
“Hm.” Halan considers this. “I imagine that could be quite insulting to them. It is close enough to what they apparently call themselves for us to pretend our words are an accident, but different enough for them to know in their hearts that we do not respect them.”
“Perfect,” Mercer says. “To begin again, how do we root out these True Extremists? We must get them to reveal themselves without realizing they’re doing it, and without alarming the rest of the ship.”
“Right,” Omega says. “And why exactly can’t we tell the ship that they’re out there?”
“For the moment,” Halan explains, “they appear to be rather contained. I do not think there are very many of them, and I do not think they are recruiting. Vesper strongly suggested he was from a planet that they consider to be Extremus. I don’t know exactly how they arrived there, but they take a strong disliking to everyone else. Still, we don’t need to turn anyone to their side, and the only way to do that is to prevent any would-be sympathizers from finding out they even exist.”
“Well, it’s not the only way, sir,” Mercer clarifies for him. “It may be the best, but honesty is always an option.”
“I am aware of that, Lieutenant, thank you.”
Mercer knows he’s being sarcastic, and to combat that, he closes his eyes and nods respectfully so as to make it look like he’s taking the response sincerely.
Halan moves on, “any ideas?”
“The Elder Shuttle,” Omega says cryptically.
“What about it?”
“Advanced, powerful, compact. Time travel-capable, self-sustaining...and coded to my DNA.”
“Where would you take it?” Halan questions.
“May 29, 2272,” Omega answers.
“We are nearly 7,000 light years from their position,” Halan argues, “and we still don’t know where they were teleported to. You would have to hunt for them, and who knows how long that could take?”
“That’s the self-sustaining part. It was engineered with something that I haven’t mentioned yet, because it’s dangerous technology, and Veca and I agreed it would be best if no one else knew. But I suppose now is the right time.”
“What?” Halan prompts. “Some kind of highly destructive weapons system that would be capable of taking out our ship?”
“Nothing like that,” Omega assures him. “It has no weapons at all. It does, however, have—”
“A quantum replicator!” Valencia has since retired from her position as the temporal engineer. Unlike other jobs, however, it’s important that she remain available in case they need her for an emergency. Just about anyone can learn engineering, but people like her are rare, so while August Voll has taken over as head of the department, Valencia still helps out. She’s more like a consultant now.”
“How did you know?” Omega asks.
“How did you get in this room?” Mercer asks.
Valencia is the one who designed the teleportation systems on this ship, and all the ways they can control who has access to what sections, and when. If she wants to bypass a restriction, she will, and she’ll do it with her eyes closed while she’s composing a new sonata. Knowing this about her, Omega rolls his eyes, and emphasizes his own question. “Did Veca tell you?”
She smiles, and removes something from her ear to present them with it. “It’s a sangsterbud.”
“What the hell is that?” Halan doesn’t like people inventing things without him knowing about it.
“Simple tech,” she says. “All it does is transduce future soundwaves—in this case, from about five seconds—and plays them for me to hear.”
“Why are you wearing it?” Halan presses. “Knowing what people are going to say just before they say it isn’t that helpful unless you want to prevent them from saying it, or in this case, show off what you can do.”
“I’m just tryna figure out who I am now that I’m no longer Head Temporal Engineer,” Valencia says.
“I offered to extend your shift,” Halan reminds her. “Now that Vesper turned out to be a mole, we’re down one member of the already small team anyway.”
Valencia shakes her head. “August needed the job. She deserved it. I just underestimated how bored I would be. Now I see there’s more for me to do. I can go on this mission with Omega. Together, we can find out what happened to Rita, and those other three people who we don’t really care about personally.”
Omega shakes his head too. “No, the mission could take years. I can go, because I’m immortal. You don’t wanna die out there, in that tiny little ship, with dumb ol’ me.”
“I’m immortal too,” Valencia reveals.
“You are?” Halan asks. “Extremus is generational. We all agreed...”
“Yeah, I broke the rules,” Valencia confirms. “I guess you better kick me out, and force me on the Elder Shuttle.”
“Can we come up with a better name for that too?” Mercer poses.
“What kind of upgrades do you have?” Omega is pleased to finally be around someone else like him again. No one else on this ship understands him, and they never will.
“Cellular countersenescent.”
“How do you accomplish this?” Omega is even more interested now.
“Antintropic technology that I invented myself. I got the idea from my refrigerator.”
“Holy shit. Is it a constant process?”
“As we speak.”
“Holy shit,” he repeats.
“Could you dumb it down for the rest of us?” Halan requests.
Omega opens his mouth to explain, but realizes that Valencia should do it. He gives her the floor.
She begins. “When your cells lose the ability to replicate themselves, they become senescent. They are essentially dead, but they’re a problem, because they sort of just sit there in your body. On the whole, this is what causes you to degrade and age. It’s obviously a complex process, but the most important aspect of longevity treatments is our ability to reprogram the body, and command it to undergo a process called transdifferentiation, which basically means the organism reverts to a less mature state. That’s what allows the vonearthans to live incredibly long lifespans.”
“So that’s what you did to yourself,” Mercer figures.
“No. I’m not allowed to do that. I’m not even allowed to access the research that allows the vonearthans to do that. But I did do something similar. I’m a temporal engineer, so what I do is command my cells to become young again, but by essentially reversing the flow of time for them. This creates issues for the natural laws of entropy, but it’s fine on smaller scales, like my tiny little body. It wouldn’t be okay to do that to the whole universe. Anyway, when a cell of mine begins to deteriorate, it releases a chemical, which triggers something I’ve deemed a tempomere to activate the countersenescence. So you see, I’m perfect for this mission. I don’t belong here anymore, and I won’t age out there.”
“What does any of this have to do with that quantum regulator?” Mercer questions.
Replicator,” Omega and Valencia correct in unison. She continues alone, “it’s exactly what it sounds like. Place one grape in there, push the button, and you’ll have two grapes. It’s technically the same grape, but one of them was stolen from an alternate reality. Now put those two back in the replicator, push the button, and you have four. Rinse, repeat, and eat as many grapes as you’d like. As long as you got power, and at least one copy of something that you need, you got as many of that thing for replacements.”
“This one has a fairly extensive database,” Omega adds. “We can spontaneously generate an object without ever actually bringing it on board. Evidently, Old Man spent a lot of time encoding everything he could get his hands on.”
“Great,” Valencia says. “Even better. Does it have ice cream?”
“Hold on, I haven’t agreed to anything,” Halan warns the both of them. “If we’re doing this, we have to be careful. We can’t let anyone else know about it, not even Old Man. If you show up in the past to meet him before he has a chance to invent the damn thing in the first place, it could cause a paradox. It could cause one even if he has already invented it.”
“So we’ll modify it,” Valencia promises. “It shouldn’t be too hard to make it look like something completely different, and alter its specifications. I already have some ideas on how I can improve power efficiency, and safety protocols. Old Man obviously didn’t give that sort of thing much thought. It’s a time machine, so it doesn’t matter how long it takes us.”
“I will...remember that when I’m making my decision. For now, we should all return to our duties. Now that you’re in the braintrust, Miss Raddle, I trust you understand not to tell anyone about any of this?”
Valencia zips her mouth shut, locks it up, and throws away the key. Then she leaves with Omega to begin making the modifications. But first, they have to find a way to get the thing out of the cargo bay, and into a secure area.

Year 14

If they wanted to avoid a paradox, Omega and Valencia knew that they couldn’t just fly Old Man’s time machine back to Old Man’s time period, and find out what happened to him. They didn’t want to use any ship resources either. Those materials are cataloged in detail, and recorded carefully as they’re used. So they chose to dismantle the shuttle, and build a new one, of a different design. It would still be capable of everything the original was, but be programmed differently enough to prevent anyone from seeing a resemblance, should it ever come to that. It was a long process, but necessary, and almost finished. They didn’t melt any of the metal down, but they reworked it well enough. If they had, they never would have noticed something very small in a hidden compartment. No, it wasn’t even a compartment, but a ventilation pipe that would only find its use when the ship was within a breathable atmosphere.
“What is this?” Omega asks. “It looks important.” It looks like an ink pen, but the slight vibration coming from it suggests that it’s a powered device, probably from a fusion nanoreactor. It’s also somewhat cold; cooler than room temperature anyway. Lastly, taped to it is a note reading PROOF.
Valencia examines it. “Looks like more writing right there, but it’s too small. Can you zoom in?”
“You can’t?” Omega jokes. He takes it back, knowing she doesn’t have the technological upgrades that he does. He zooms into the text. “Model number Zealotry-Castaway-Plaintiff-00256.”
Valencia input the number into the database to see if they would get a hit. “It’s a prezygotic cryopen.”
“I’m not sure what that means.”
“Well, there are a number of ways to make a long journey to a distant world. You can be generational, like Extremus. You can be ageless, like the two of us. Or you can store people. That usually means stasis, but it can also mean early developmental cryopreservation.”
“That I am familiar with,” Omega says. He was originally cloned from Saxon Parker in order to stay posted on a modular transgalactic ship for Project Stargate, which would install an outpost in every star system in the galaxy. A secret secondary mission called Operation Starseed was created in order to create life on some of the planets. Omega’s mandate was to maintain one of these modules, making sure the power sources stayed in working order, and the seed plates were not damaged.
“No, yours were different. Yours contained genetic material, which could be configured to generate new life. This pen contains one egg, and one sperm sample. When thawed and activated, they should combine, and begin forming an embryo. As far as I am aware, we only keep fully fertilized embryos in the Bridger Section as a backup plan in case the rest of the ship fails the mission. I’m not sure where this pen came from, but Old Man probably didn’t create it himself. This model number places the patent in the year 2266. It probably came from here. We definitely need to talk to the Captain.”
After bringing this to Halan’s attention, the three of them head for the executive infirmary, where Dr. Holmes is sitting at her desk.
“Ima, what can you tell us about this?” Halan asks her.
She takes the cryopen, and looks over the information that Valencia has pulled from it already. She checks her own computer as well. “It’s one of ours. Why did you take it out?”
“How do you know it’s ours?” Halan asks.
“The serial number found a match. It’s in the Bridger Section with the others.”
“I thought we only had embryos down there,” Valencia repeats herself from earlier.
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Dr. Holmes puns. “We don’t even have only one Bridger Section. We use cleaved embryos, zygotes, prezygotes, eggs, sperm, blood samples, and digital DNA. That’s in addition to our stasis volunteers, the Bridgers themselves, the generational passengers, and even non-breeders, like me.” She doesn’t mention this, but there’s also a probe, which houses a repository of knowledge from both vonearthan and Ansutahan legacies, should all life ultimately be extinguished, so maybe aliens a million years from now can learn about who they were.
“So Old Man took this from wherever it belongs,” Halan begins, “and takes it with him to the recall button destination.”
“I don’t think so,” Omega reasons. “He didn’t wanna go, remember? He probably spent all the time he could trying to figure out how to stop it from spiriting him away, and the rest of the short time available packing survival equipment.”
“Plus, that pen had the word proof taped to it,” Valencia adds. “Someone else took it, and Old Man was bringing it back to prove to us what they did.”
“Bronach Oaksent,” Halan realizes. “He’s the one responsible for the shadow group in our midst. We were operating on the assumption that he was working with Old Man, but maybe that’s not true. This evidence would seem to suggest that they were at odds. He was trying to get back to Extremus so he could show us what Oaksent had done.”
“What does he want, this Oaksent guy?” Dr. Holmes questions.
“An army,” Valencia guesses. She picks the cryopen back up. “If I’m right, this is not the only one missing. He probably took many more, and Old Man could only get one back, or only thought he would need the one. The people Oaksent has on this ship are probably only a fraction of the people at his disposal. With enough time, he could foster an entire race of followers to worship him. We know Old Man built a time machine, and installed it on the Elder Shuttle, but who’s to say that’s the only one.” She waves the pen around like an amateur orchestra conductor. “Get one hundred and forty-seven of these, and you have enough to support your plans for galactic domination. The entire Milky Way could be populated with his people, and we just haven’t met them yet, because they’re from the future, so they know where to hide.”
“This is all speculation,” Halan wants to make sure they know. “We don’t know if Oaksent took the pen, or how many.”
“There’s a way to find out,” Omega interrupts.
“I’m not letting you into the Bridger section,” Halan says. “Assuming he did take the pens, and any other samples, we don’t know what he did with them, or how much time he’s had to do it.”
“Which is why we need more information,” Omega says. “Now it’s more important than ever for Valencia and me to go on our mission.”
Halan was never really all that excited about them doing that. He stands there for a moment, hoping to come to some kind of epiphany. There must be a better way to get the information they need. Or maybe there’s not, because he can’t think of one. “Is the time shuttle ready?”
“That depends,” Valencia says. “Can we survive in it, and go back in time? Do we have enough power to pull that off? Absolutely. The cloak isn’t ready, though.”
“The what?”
“Invisibility cloak,” Omega continues. “It will never be ready. It’s impossible.”
“We’ve seen it done,” Valencia argues. “Historical records show...”
Omega dismissed her future words. “They show that individuals can render themselves invisible by manipulating spacetime, which superimposes everything in the background into the foreground. That does not help us against advanced sensors, which Old Man and Oaksent would definitely have.”
“I can make it work,” Valencia contends. “I just need time to find a way to fool the sensors too, by warping their signals around the shuttle.”
“You don’t think someone on The Shortlist would have figured that out by the time we departed?” The Shortlist is a special council of people who have proven themselves capable of inventing extremely advanced time technology. Whenever someone reaches a certain level of understanding of temporal physics, they’re recruited into the council, so they can join in all decisions about what they’re going to do with said technology. The internal systems of the Extremus are powered by fusion reactors, and propulsion is powered by a matter-antimatter reaction. Both of these are Earthan inventions, and the design of the ship itself is Ansutahan, but just about everything else they use here was sourced from someone on the Shortlist. The reframe engine, anti-gravity, local teleportation, even the life support system, are all major examples.
Valencia shakes her head. “No one has ever tried to work on that, because Earth doesn’t have any space enemies!”
“It’s not just for enemies. Such a cloak would allow time travelers to move about freely without fear of being caught, and disrupting the spacetime continuum. Where have I heard of that before? Oh, that’s right, that’s what we’re trying to do! You think we’re the first people who want to go back in time without anyone being able to see us?”
She’s still shaking her head. “With a shuttle like the one we have, against people who are paranoid about something like that happening? Maybe we are the first.”
“It can’t be done,” Omega insists. “There is no stealth in space. There never has been, and there never will be. Everything gives off heat, and you have to do something with that heat.”
“Why don’t you just shunt it to another dimension?” Dr. Holmes offers.
“That’s what I said,” Valencia agrees.
“Okay,” Omega begins to admit. “I’ll concede that that is a viable option for regular time travelers. But like I said, Old Man knows about parallel dimensions. We can’t be sure he hasn’t built them a dimensional energy detector. It’s not that hard. I saw whispers of the idea in his notes. At least that’s the conclusion I came to when I translated certain parts of his notes.”
“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” Valencia says. “We’re better off trying.”
Now Omega shakes his head. “An invisibility cloak detector would sense our proximity if it’s on, even if we’re also hiding behind an asteroid. It’s much safer to assume they can see us, and use traditional methods of avoiding detection.”
“Wait,” Captain Yenant finally interjects. “I just realized something.”
“The shuttle is a time machine, right?” Halan states the obvious.
Omega squints, suspicious of him. “Where are you going with this?”
“If you left in a year, you could still go back to 2272, and the power requirements will increase negligibly, correct?”
“Of course,” Omega says, “but the longer we wait to embark on the mission, the probability that something will interfere with our ability to finally get around to it goes up. You might decide to wait until next week to buy yourself a bike helmet, knowing that the cycling store will still exist when the day comes, but what if you get hit by a bus the next day? You will wish you had gone to the store today.”
“I’m willing to risk it,” Halan determines. “Keep working on the space cloak. You have one year. If you haven’t succeeded by then, you’ll do without it. I don’t want to take away your chance of keeping this a secret.” He turns away.
“This is a mistake,” Omega complains.
“Then we’ll go back in time and undo it,” he sort of jokes.
“Where are you going?” Omega asks.
“To the Bridger section. I’m going to count the cryopens myself.”

Year 15

Coming soon...

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