Saga (Part I)

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The date was November 21, 2259 by the Earthan calendar. The new crew of the X González starship just launched from the planet of Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida. Superpowered inventor, Holly ‘Weaver’ Blue; career government administrator, Goswin Montagne; and superintelligence, Eight Point Seven left friends both back on that world, as well as on another ship going in a different direction. Coming along with them was prisoner Briar de Vries, who was accused of, and admitted to, murder. The nature of his crime was too complicated to let him be processed through any standard judicial system in the stellar neighborhood. The crew didn’t know what they were going to do with him yet. The leadership of the planet where the incident occurred wanted him gone, so this was the best way to accomplish it. For now, he was being limited to his cabin.
They didn’t know where they were going either. They made a few jumps, but dropped down to drifting speed until they could decide on a vector, or at least a direction. There was no point in firing up the fractional engines until they had some clue what they were doing. They were still within the Tau Cetian heliosphere, watching the host star get smaller and smaller as they slipped farther away from it. Goswin and Weaver were doing this anyway. Eight Point Seven’s consciousness was uploaded into the ship’s systems itself, and Briar’s cabin did not have a viewport, nor was he going to be involved in the decision-making process.
“How far has the galaxy been colonized by now?” Goswin asked.
“To varying degrees,” Weaver began to answer, “Earth has begun to explore most systems within fifty light years. That’s the bubble of the stellar neighborhood, and Earth is going to be focused on that for a while. Of course, Gatewood has launched a set of modular ships that will spread across the entire galaxy, but it will be tens of thousands of years before that’s all over.”
“So that limits where we can practically go,” Goswin posed. “Unless, I suppose, if we want to go somewhere that no one has been before. That sounds boring, though. If there aren’t any people, it’s probably not all that interesting yet.”
“Mostly, you’re right.”
I have a suggestion,” Eight Point Seven announced through the speakers.
“What is it?” Weaver asked.
Thirteen and a half light years from here is Alpha Centauri B,” Eight Point Seven continued.
“Also known as Toliman,” Weaver added, nodding. “I’ve heard of it.”
Did you hear that it was destroyed?” Eight Point Seven asked her.
Weaver took a moment to respond. “No. Destroyed how?”
Unclear, but my guess would be a matter-antimatter annihilation.
“How would it be possible to annihilate an entire star?” Goswin questioned.
An antistar,” Eight Point Seven answered.
“If antistars exist,” Weaver started, “they’re nowhere near regular stars. The chances of one drifting close enough to hit Toliman before hitting something else are approaching zero.”
Maybe then it’s worth checking out?” Eight Point Seven offered.
Weaver sighed. “You’re the captain.”
“I am? Oh, I am. Well, that was...” Goswin had leadership skills, but did that make him qualified to captain a starship? It was a tiny little crew, with only a pilot and an engineer, so he didn’t feel much pressure taking it on as a role, but now a real decision had come up, so he needed to start thinking about what his job truly meant. “That does sound interesting. How far away did you say?”
“It’s 13.5 light years,” Weaver answered him. “It will take us 13.5 years to get there, but for us, it’ll feel like a week.”
“Eight Point Seven suggested it, which suggests that she’s in favor of it. I’m in favor of it. That leaves you, Weaver.”
“This isn’t a democracy,” she argued.
“I don’t see why it can’t be, at least for now. We’re not in any big hurry, are we? Let me make the decisions in the heat of the moment, but if everything’s okay, I’ll want to hear your respective opinions.”
Sounds fair to me,” Eight Point Seven agreed. She too had leadership experience, but has since retired, and she just wanted to fly the ship now.
“Very well. Let’s go to Toliman...or not, as it were.”
“Pilot,” Goswin said. “Lay in a course, and engage at maximum warp.”
Eight Point Seven laughed, and started the fractional engines.
A few days into the trip, everything was going fine. They had passed several light years already, and were on track to making their arbitrary deadline. The ship was perfect, running on its own, with Eight Point Seven only having to make a few minor course adjustments, and repairs from micrometeoroid strikes that the EM and TK fields were unable to handle. This was all about to change. The great thing about moving at extremely high fractional speeds is that you get to where you’re going much faster, but it does come with its downsides. First, those micrometeoroids can become a real problem if the power shielding and the hull fail. Secondly, you could encounter—or even pass—something without even realizing it. For the most part, space is empty. The chances of running into a celestial body are rather low, which is why it’s generally okay to move so quickly. There are some things that cannot be predicted, however, nor detected. Eight Point Seven processes information rapidly, and can see a lot beyond the doppler glow that blocks views from the ports, but even she isn’t omniscient.
Something came upon them; some kind of force, and they never saw what it was. Normally, the internal inertial dampeners would prevent them from feeling that the ship was even in motion. The humans would be splattered red against the walls if this safety feature didn’t exist, which was why the redundancies for the redundancies on all of these interstellar ships had multiple stages of redundancies on top of their redundant redundancies. It was the one thing that almost no one could survive. Even the loss of life support could be okay, as long as it was brief, and not too extreme. Even so, failures did happen, and it was what happened here. Fortunately, it was not as bad as it could have been. Everybody survived, but the humans were severely injured when the ship X González suddenly lurched to the side.
This was when weird things started to happen. As they were each trying to get back to their feet, they started to see other versions of themselves, standing, crouching, or lying in different places around the bridge. Even a few versions of Briar were there with them, when he should have been still locked up in his cabin. A nearby console would spontaneously transition from being whole to being damaged, and then back again. The lights changed colors, and the space around them warped and stretched to a point of infinity. Feelings of profound dread were met with feelings of elation, and even euphoria. At one point, the whole ship cracked in half, and then reassembled itself. Finally, after all this tumult, everything stopped, and they started to drift at normal subfractional speeds again.
“Eight Point Seven!” Goswin and Weaver cried at the same time. When the latter conceded to the former, he repeated himself, and went on, “Eight Point Seven, report!”
I...I don’t know,” Eight Point Seven admitted. “The data in my memory indicates conflicting information, including that the incident took place over the course of a few moments, that it took 141 years, and also that we’ve been gone for an eternity. I cannot rectify the discrepancies.
“All right, don’t worry about the past. Let’s just focus on our present circumstances. Can you find our location?”
We are roughly 135 light years from our original position. I’m afraid that I don’t have an exact number, due to an uncertainty regarding our starting point, but based on astronomical data, I can pinpoint our location at the outer edge of the Achernar system, also known as Alpha Eridani.
Goswin looked to Weaver for guidance, who shook her head. “Never heard of it. I’m an inventor, not an astronomer.”
“I don’t suppose it’s populated,” Goswin asked.
It appears to be,” Eight Point Seven answered.
“You mean, it appears to not be,” Goswin figured.
No,” Eight Point Seven insists. She turned the main viewscreen on to show them the star that they were approaching. It had been surrounded by a Dyson swarm. There were definitely intelligent entities here. How they managed to cross the vast distance in such a short amount of time was unclear. Then again, they didn’t quite know what year it was anyway.
“Do they see us?” Goswin pressed.
“Absolutely, they do,” Weaver replied.
“I’m receiving a message. Text only.” Eight Point Seven displayed the message on the screen. X González, please rendezvous with Intake at the below coordinates for debrief. Klaatu barada nikto. And then it provided the coordinates.
“They know who we are,” Goswin pointed out the obvious.
“Time travelers.” Weaver nodded. “The ship has no weapons, captain. I suggest we rendezvous, and I recommend we do so at subfractional speeds.”
“Do you know what those last three words mean?”
“No idea.”
It’s hard to know their intentions,” Eight Point Seven began, “but it’s a pop culture reference from the 20th and 21st centuries that could mean stand down.
“Uhh...” Goswin had been learning a lot about this ship, but at relativistic speeds, he had not had that much time with it. “Maximum subfractional to the coordinates, or whatever. Just...go as fast as possible while operating under the assumption that these people actually don’t know anything about time travel and teleportation.”
Understood.” Eight Point Seven piloted the ship into the asteroid, and docked where the lights indicated. The two humans stepped out, and approached a small group of other humans who were waiting for them on the pier. A man took a half step forward, and offered his hand. “Captain Montagne, my name is Intake Coordinator Pontus Flagger. Let me be the first to welcome you to the Parallel.”
“It seems you have us at a disadvantage,” Goswin responded. “We don’t know who you are, or what this parallel is.”
“You’ve heard of alternate timelines?” Pontus assumed.
Goswin was determined to remain cagey. “Maybe.”
Pontus smiled. “This is like an alternate timeline, except that it happens at the same time. It’s a parallel reality. There are other parallels, but ours was the first, so it earned the most on-the-nose title.”
“Do you know how we ended up here?” Weaver asked him.
Pontus started casually doing finger tuts with one hand. For the last movement, he slid his index finger horizontally, allowing a holographic screen to appear between them. It started to show them images from a very, very old TV show. “Do you recognize this?” he asked.
“It looks like something out of The Verge Saga, perhaps Crusaders?” This was a multiseries franchise that took place in a far away galaxy, a long time ago.
“That’s right,” Pontus confirmed. “The premise is that there is a single point in space at the center of the fictional galaxy where all interstellar travel meets. It doesn’t matter where you wanna go, you can only move in two directions; either towards the Verge, or away from it. This place is like that, except it’s not so unilateral. In a few months, people, objects, and even individual particles, will find themselves here. In addition to preparing for these arrivals, we’ve been studying the phenomenon for decades, trying to figure out what causes it, and whether it can be controlled. You appear to be some kind of vanguard. If you explain what happened before you arrived, it might help us understand. Perhaps you’re just early to the party, for whatever reason, or there’s a chance that you caused it.”
“You know who we are,” Goswin reminded him, “and the name of our ship.”
“Your story is a matter of historical record to us,” Pontus clarified. “It would be like you knowing who was on the boat that crossed the Delaware on Christmas 1776.”
“Do you also know who else is on our ship?” Goswin questioned.
Pontus waited a moment to respond. “Besides the pilot, we are aware that you are transporting some kind of prisoner, but we do not know who.”
Goswin looked over at Weaver, not for help navigating this situation, but because she may not approve of the direction that he wanted to take. He decided to make his first executive decision as the Captain. “Yes, we’re transporting him, because there is nothing else we can do for him. He is the man who killed Mateo Matic. If you’ve heard of us, I’m sure you’ve heard of him. To my knowledge, time travelers do not have any formal legal institution, and we believe that he would be unfit to stand trial within any court system in our...reality. Do you suppose someone here would be equipped to take this challenge on?”
Pontus did not expect this development, but he was showing signs of patience, as well as a hint of curiosity. “We have nothing like that here, and due to the nature of our research, we couldn’t install a Nexus for instantaneous interstellar travel. We would be willing to transport him elsewhere, but you should first learn how our legal system works. You may not be so keen on it if it’s sufficiently different from what you know.”
“Yeah, I think that would be best. Something should be done about him. He can’t stay in his cabin forever,” Goswin decided.
“Very well. Come with me.”

Aura (Part II)

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Briar was gone. Once Goswin felt like he knew enough about the Parallel justice system to trust that it was fair and, well...just, he returned to the X González to explain things to the suspect. Briar was not in his cabin, nor did it look like anyone had ever stayed there. The bedsheets were perfectly aligned, and the surfaces were dusty from disuse. Goswin stepped back into the hallway to see if he was just turned around, but this had to be the right cabin. Still, he checked all of the others, and Briar wasn’t anywhere else either. It wasn’t a huge ship. Eight Point Seven’s sensors were damaged, in addition to her memory, so she was unable to find his location. The researchers on this asteroid had their own security system, which could not find him either, nor detect that anyone besides Goswin and Weaver had ever stepped out of the González. It was a mystery, the answer to which almost certainly had something to do with time travel.
“There’s a database,” Pontus began to explain. “It stores the records of every single person in every reality, throughout all of time, in every timeline. It could trace Briar’s steps as long as he showed up somewhere that records such data. While it does have an unspeakable amount of data, it’s not magic. If someone went off somewhere alone, they could hide from it, just like you could slink through the blindspots of a security camera.”
“Might as well try it,” Goswin decided.
“It’s not that easy,” Pontus replied. “It’s not here. It’s hard to reach, and reportedly harder to access. Almost no one in the universe is granted permission, and even when they are, their activity is heavily monitored to prevent abuse. The Tanadama, which are sort of like our god-leaders, would be prone to letting someone like you use it, but you would still have to go there first, and there is no guarantee.”
“Can we just...call them?” Goswin asked. “I don’t need to look at this database myself. He’s a dangerous and unstable man. He was an adult before he met anyone besides his mother, and he found himself trusting the wrong person. I don’t know what he’s gonna do...and if he’s dead, I need to know that too.”
Pontus shook his head. “We can’t just call. Part of the point is making the journey to Sriav.” He looked towards the back entrance of the hollowed-out asteroid. “It’s out there, in the void, away from all others, in this tiny pocket of civilization. I couldn’t even give you the exact coordinates. I think you’re expected to intuit your vector somehow. They call it our sister outpost, but we’ve never interacted with them, and I’ve never given it much thought.”
“Well, this has to happen. Whatever you need from us, it will have to wait. Briar de Vries is our priority.” He turned away as he tapped on his comms disc to make it clear that he was starting a separate conversation. “Eight Point Seven, Weaver, we’re going to a world called Sriav.”

When he turned back to ask for permission to leave the asteroid, Pontus was gone. Beside him were Weaver and Eight Point Seven in her humanoid form. “How did you do that? Did you have that body ready and waiting?”
She was just as surprised as he was. She patted herself. “Are we all corporeal?”
“No way to test that,” Weaver acknowledged. “We could all be in a simulation.”
“Not a simulation,” came a voice behind them. “It’s Sriav.”
They turned to see a grand entrance to an expansive room. It was so wide and deep that they couldn’t see how big the room was. The walls and ceiling were ornately decorated, but it appeared to be completely unfurnished, like a shell waiting to be filled and used. “I’m sorry, I got the impression that this planet was located in the intergalactic void.”
“It is,” the woman confirmed. “It’s roughly a million light years from the edge of the Milky Way galaxy.”
“We were just on an asteroid in the Achernar system,” Weaver said.
“Well,” the woman began, “if you were going to be in one place one second, and another the next, it would be Po.”
“That’s the primary planet orbiting Alpha Eridani. Hi. I’m Madam Sriav. You came here for a reason, I presume?”
“Captain?” Eight Point Seven urged.
“We’re looking for a man by the name of Briar de Vries,” Goswin started to explain. “He disappeared from our ship. We don’t know exactly when, or how, and we certainly don’t know where we went. Our arrival here is the second time today we’ve jumped through spacetime inexplicably quick. I was told that you have a database?”
Madam Sriav smiled. “This world is quite remote, as I’ve said. We have true faster-than-light travel, of course, but you can’t use it to get here. If you try, you’ll slow down for no apparent reason. It’s a security feature. No, if you wanna come here, you have to do it the old fashioned way, with a simple reframe engine. That could take you upwards of 1400 years. Most barely try, and most of the rest quit. The few who have dedicated their lives to such a pursuit have ended up staying here. There is no better place to live, I believe.”
“Okay, but the database?” Goswin pressed.
She smiled again. “A mechanical rabbit lure, just to give people a reason to head in this direction.”
“So it doesn’t exist,” Weaver surmised.
“A computer that tracks everyone in every reality? What horrors could that lead to? I wouldn’t want to live in a universe that had something like that.”
Weaver faced Goswin. “There must be some reason we’re here. There’s a reason we were thrown to Achernar, and now this place. I think you’re doing it.”
Goswin shook his head with the confidence of a math professor. “No, I’m not.”
“There are only three reasons to slip timespace the way we’ve been doing it; incidentally, by one’s own hand...or by someone else’s,” Weaver went over.
“What is here?” Goswin asked Madam Sriav. “What is the purpose of this world?”
“If you have to ask, you don’t belong,” she answered.
“It would help us understand how we ended up here,” Eight Point Seven reasoned. “Perhaps Briar is already here.”
Madam Sriav sighed. “It would not be my place to say, but...”
“But what?” Goswin waved his loose hand in circles. “Go on.”
“You could always look for a tracker...assuming you can make it back to civilization.” Madam Sriav didn’t think that would ever happen. “There are people who specialize in it. Some have learned and trained, others are born with the gift. Some were imbued with power by the Tanadama themselves.”
“A tracker?” Goswin questioned. “Is there a real database of such people, like a...um...”
“The word you’re looking for is a phonebook,” Weaver helped. “Madam, I know you don’t use money for transactions, but if these people help people like businesses, there must be some central location to find them.”
Madam Sriav shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I was born on this world. I don’t have much of a practical understanding of the way they do things out there.”

Now Goswin sighed as he looked up at the high ceiling. “Well, do you have any ships? We forgot to bring ours.” Something weird happened. Did the ceiling change? Yeah, the ceiling appeared to change. It was sort of gradual, but also abrupt? He kept staring at it, and trying different angles. It looked more like a sky at dawn now.
“Captain. It happened again,” Eight Point Seven explained.
Goswin nodded, still checking different angles of the sky-ceiling. “Yeah, I know. I’m just afraid to look. Everytime I wanna go somewhere, we go.”
“It’s worse than that this time,” Weaver said.
Goswin dropped his chin. Madam Sriav was still here with them, and they were no longer in the frighteningly large room. They were outside, in the center of some kind of meadow nearish the top of a mountain. “I do apologize for...whatever is going on. With me, or with us. I just don’t know.”
“You need to get me back,” Madam Sriav insisted. “So please, figure it out.” She seemed like the kind of person who was not used to getting upset, and was desperately trying to keep her emotions in check, even though she had ever reason to be cross.
“Hey! Who are you?” A man was walking towards them from the slope.
“We are the crew of the X González,” Goswin replied, hoping that Madam Sriav would rather be lumped in with them than stand out in the presence of yet another stranger. “Can you tell us where we are?”
“You’re on Lorania, on the side of Mount Aura.”
“Lorania?” Eight Point Seven echoed, “as in, the island on Dardius?”
“That’s right,” the man said.
“Dardius only exists in the main sequence,” Madam Sriav revealed. “You brought us across realities. How are you doing this?”
“I still don’t know, but I’m worried that he’s accidentally joined us, and if I start thinking about going somewhere else, I’ll only make matters worse.”
“No,” Madam Sriav began to calculate. “Think about Sriav, and that’s where we’ll go. I don’t really care where anyone else goes. I welcomed you to my planet, because that is my job, and I can’t do it if I’m here, so I’m done humoring you.”
Wow, this situation escalated quickly. “Are you a tracker?” Goswin asked the new guy. “If you’re a tracker, that’s why I’m here.”
“No. I’m Harrison. Tracker Four is up there.”
“Great. Maybe they can help everyone get home,” Goswin hoped.
“She’s with another client,” Harrison said, stopping them from stepping forward with an imposing stance.
“You can come back for her later,” Sriav said to Goswin. “You take me back first.”
“I can’t control it,” Goswin argued. “I’m not even sure I am doing it. I don’t feel anything when it happens. Do either of you feel anything?”
Weaver and Eight Point Seven shook their heads.
“Yeah,” Goswin went on, “so let’s say it’s me. What if I accidentally send us to the inside of a volcano, or hell, just the vacuum of outer space?”
“Don’t even suggest things like that!” Sriav was raising her voice now. “Don’t put those thoughts in your own head!”
Goswin made prayer hands, with his index fingers wrapped around his nose, his middle fingers pressed up against his forehead, and his thumbs pushing up the corners of his lips. This is what he did when he was frustrated, and trying to solve a problem. “Harrison, is this region dangerous in any way.”
Harrison didn’t expect the question. “Uh, there’s a natural merge point a few kilometers that way, which will take you to prehistoric times. As long as you stay away from that, you should be good.”
“I’m not gonna try to do anything yet. Madam Sriav, I know that your life and your job are important to you, but you have a few hours to just wait, so I can get this right. I’m going to go meditate. When I get back, if you happen to have photos of where you live, there’s a chance that helps. I really couldn’t say for sure. I’m sorry if I did this to you, but this is uncharted territory, so your patience would be greatly appreciated.”
Still annoyed, Madam Sriav raised her eyebrows, and gestured for him to get on with it. Then she turned around, and started kicking at some nearby flowers.
Goswin wasn’t super into meditation, but he had done it a few times, and it was a great excuse to get away from everyone. If he really was responsible for all of this, standing around and being berated about it wasn’t going to help. He found a nice, soft patch of grass a couple hundred meters away from them. He sat down cross-legged, and closed his eyes, hoping to free his mind from all distractions. The birds were starting to chirp, but they were very consistent and melodic, so it actually helped. There was a slight breeze that cooled his face just enough to be comfortable in this tropical weather. He breathed in deeply, held it in for a few seconds, and exhaled through his mouth. This wasn’t him. It couldn’t be him. He didn’t have powers, or a pattern. He was just a normal guy who met a bunch of time travelers one day. That was why he jumped at the chance to board the X González. He wanted to know more, to meet other people. He wanted to have an adventure. He didn’t want to ruin people’s lives.
He was sitting there for several minutes when it began to rain. It was only a sprinkle at first, but then the drops began to fall harder. It didn’t stop him, though. He stayed where he was, trying to find his center. This was just another distraction that he had to let go of and ignore. Before too long, though, the rain was pouring. The grass under him was pushed away to be replaced by mud. He didn’t know how long he could stand it. It wasn’t the most discomfort he had ever experienced, but he certainly didn’t want it to worsen.
“Ēalā! Eart þu hāl!” an unfamiliar voice shouted to him.
He felt like he had no choice but to open his eyes. This was definitely not Lorania anymore. “What? Sorry, I slipped, but I’m okay.” He started to stand up. “Where am I?”
She seemed quite confused at his words. “It’s England.”
“Forgive me, but...what year?”
“Oh. You must have come through the cave.”
“What cave?”
“On Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida. It’s the year 1133 on Earth. My name is Irene. Irene de Vries.”

Mirage (Part III)

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Goswin wiped the rain from his eyes, and was able to see that this Irene de Vries woman was not alone. A very young child was huddled against her hip. All signs pointed to the fact that this was Briar, but it could also be his son, or his great grandfather, or his eleventh cousin, forty-two times removed. “What year are you from?” Goswin asked. “Oh wait, no. Sorry. I mean, uhh...report.”
Irene smiled. “Trinity used to say that to me all the time. Is that in the time traveler’s handbook, or something?”
“If there’s an actual handbook, I’ve not actually seen it. That’s just what I’ve heard others say. May I ask the boy’s name?”
“It’s Briar.” Confirmed. “Hey, do I know you from somewhere? You look familiar. Have you ever been to the 21st century?”
“Captain!” Behind him, Weaver was power walking up, followed by Eight Point Seven, and Harrison.
“Is Madam Sriav with you?” Goswin asked.
Weaver shook her head. “She didn’t come. We assume she’s still on Lorania.”
“That’s not good,” Goswin mused. “We’ll try to get back to her. Crew, I would like you to meet Irene de Vries, and her son...Briar.”
Eight Point Seven didn’t react, and of course, neither did Harrison. Weaver flinched, but kept it together. Briar was in very, very big trouble, but not yet. Warning Irene that her son would one day become a killer was not going to help. Things could conceivably get better, but they could also get worse. She may decide that the only way to stop this would be to murder her son, and that would not be an okay decision. It wouldn’t work anyway. Briar killed Mateo while he was wearing the hundemarke, which was a special temporal object that created fixed moments in time. No matter how you try to change the past, this will always happen, as will anything inherently necessary to lead up to it. “It’s nice to meet you.” She pulled Goswin towards her, and did her best to whisper in his ear while still being heard through the rain. “We need to get out of here.”
“I know,” he replied.
“If you have to go back to the Middle Way, or whatever it is you did to make this happen a fourth time, then do it again. I don’t care if we end up on the moon. Just get us out of this paradox.”
“Fourth?” Goswin questioned incredulously. “You think I’m the one who took us to Achernar in the first place? You think that this was just something I’ve always been able to do, but the first time I tried was when I was in my 80s?”
“The thought crossed my mind. Maybe you’re salmon.”
“Excuse me?” Irene interjected. “The rain’s starting to come down harder. I really could use some shelter. There’s a cave nearby that we can hide in temporarily.”
“Hey!” a voice shouted to them. “Get the hell away from my mother!” Briar was running towards Goswin as fast as he could, and unlikely preparing to come to a complete stop just to exchange a few choice words. He was in a tackle posture. Fortunately, he didn’t make it that far. Harrison reached out, and lifted him up by his underarms, holding him in the air effortlessly as Briar continued to paddle his feet to no avail. “Let me go!”
“Did he just say mother?” Irene asked, confused and scared.
Goswin waggled his finger at the still struggling Briar. “Stop. Stop! We’re not going to hurt anyone. If you want to protect her, then you will stop moving, and listen to me very carefully.”
Briar went limp, and started to pant.
“Everyone gather around. Not you, Madam de Vries. Please go protect your son.” Once everyone else was in a huddle, Goswin went on. “I have a theory. Briar, are you familiar with any landmark on Earth; anything at all?”
“No, nothing.” Yeah, he had only ever remembered living on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida. “Well, except for this.” He held up a photo of Irene in her younger days, smiling in front of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. “It was her favorite place in the world.”
Goswin closed his eyes and sighed. “Okay, I’ve been there too. That’ll work. Think about that place. Think about trying to go there.”
“Would you just do it? The National Museum of Natural History. Think about the museum. Think about visiting there. Don’t think about anything else.”
“Okay, I guess.”
The rain suddenly stopped. They were now in the middle of a grassy park. To one side of them was a giant bosom, and to the other a giant phallus. Behind them stood a red castle, and before them was the target museum, which was the second bosom. This was Washington D.C. all right. They were soaking wet on a bright, sunny day. The tourists around them were confused, and a few of them looked really nervous.
“Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea,” Goswin admitted. “I just didn’t want us to go back to Bida, and Briar doesn’t have a frame of reference for much on Earth.”
“What is your hypothesis,” Weaver asked, “that he’s the one who brought us?”
“Well, it seems like the only possibility,” Goswin determined.
“We didn’t even see him at the other locations,” Weaver pointed out.
“Excuse me?” A man in overalls had approached Briar. “Could you please step closer to your friends?”
“They’re not my friends,” Briar spit at him.
“That is very much not my point, sir,” the stranger said. “Please step closer to them.” He waited, his patience thinning. “Please,” he repeated. “Thank you,” he added when Briar finally complied.
“What is it you need?” Goswin asked, ready for a fight, even though he was not much for violence.
The stranger held up his hands like he was trying to block the sun from his eyes. He jerked them a centimeter away from each other, which served to freeze everyone around them in place. Time was stopped, or at least moving very slowly. He gradually pushed his right hand forward, and in front of his left hand, which pulled back, and moved in the opposite direction. As he did so, time began to reverse outside of the bubble he had erected for them. They watched as the tourists walked backwards. A child’s scoop of ice cream flew back up to his cone from the ground. Once the scene was back to where he wanted it, he closed his hands into fists, and snapped them against each other, pinky to thumb. The five of them felt a lurch, as if the roller coaster ride were just beginning. The man carefully placed his left fist against his nose, and looked over his hands like a sniper. His arms were shaking, but not like he was struggling, more like it was integral to the process. As he slowly moved his fists away from his face, the scene around them began to blur and fade into blackness. They flew forward, also like a roller coaster. Finally, he opened his hands back up, and separated them, stopping the ride.
They were standing in a desert, the three main pyramids of Giza rippling above a mirage a few kilometers away. The slight distortion from the bubble dissolved, and the warm wind began to blow sand into their eyes and noses. “All right. It’s done.”
“What’s done?” Eight Point Seven questioned.
“You’ve been erased from the timeline. No one who witnessed your arrival in the National Mall remembers that it ever happened, because it didn’t. They’re all going about their day, still clueless about time travelers, and the like.”
“Thank you, Repairman,” Weaver said to him as if they were old friends. Maybe they were.
“When you say, we were erased from time...” Goswin trailed off intentionally.
“You just never showed up there,” the Repairman clarified. “Instead, you transported yourselves to this random spot in the Necropolis. You’ve been here the whole time, and if anyone were to ask a lizard or cactus around here what they saw, that’s what they would say.
“I don’t see any cactuses,” Briar noted.
“Then maybe you don’t have to worry about any witnesses,” the Repairman joked. He paused a moment. “Well, bye.”
“Wait!” Goswin stopped him. “Could you help us again...maybe by telling us what’s happening to us?”
“I wouldn’t know, but I heard you blame everything on this guy,” the Repairman said. “What I’ll tell you is that the ability to transport people from a distance is rather rare. It’s not impossible but...in my experience, when multiple individuals travel together without any of them realizing how or why, it’s not because one of them is doing it on purpose, but because there’s some kind of glue that binds them together.” He made a quarter turn, reached out, and opened an invisible panel in the air. They couldn’t see anything, but they could hear the familiar creak of metal scraping against metal. He reached into it, and took hold of an equally invisible handle, which he pulled down. His figure turned into a black silhouette for a split second before disappearing completely.
They stood there in silence for a few moments. “I have another idea,” Goswin finally said, worried how they would take it.
“A new experiment?” Weaver asked him, intrigued.
“Are you up for it? We have to get a handle on this. I don’t really want to spend the rest of my life randomly jumping from point to point.”
“Let’s hear it,” Eight Point Seven encouraged.
“You can’t,” Goswin replied. “I’m going to write four places down, and keep them compartmentalized. You will each think about your own place, and only that place. If he’s right, and there’s some kind of glue between us, it won’t work, because it will be contradictory.” He pulled out his handheld device, and started writing the locations down. He showed Briar the first one.
“Really?” Briar asked incredulously.
“Don’t. Give it away,” Goswin warned. “It’s a magic trick.”
Briar sighed, upset. He was being expected to think about the cliff where he killed Mateo Matic. It was simultaneously the worst and best place for him. What happened there was probably the worst thing he had ever done, so that meant, now that he had been triggered, he wouldn’t be able to think of anything else, even if he wanted to.
The other three, on the other hand, were going to be thinking about the the west entrance to the primary research facility on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida. No one ever went back there, so they shouldn’t have to worry about being seen. Goswin was the only one who knew that he, Weaver, and Eight Point Seven had the same spot in mind. If Briar were the one in charge, it didn’t matter what the others thought of, because they would always end up where he wanted to go instead. “Everyone ready?” Goswin asked. “I guess time travel works on psychic powers, so...everyone think about your respective locations, please, and really, truly, desperately try to actually go there. Don’t think about anything else. It may take a while, I really don’t know.”
They stood there in their huddle for a minute or so without anything happening, the humans struggling with the dust storm that was starting up around them. It did work, though. The sand and sun disappeared to be replaced by a dense forest at twilight. Alien bugs crawled around on a tree next to them, as wingèd ones swarmed in their faces. This was definitely Bida. But it wasn’t the cliff where Briar committed murder, and it wasn’t anywhere near the research facility.
“Whose spot was this?” Eight Point Seven asked.
“No one’s,” Goswin revealed. I don’t know that we’re right about this.”
“Don’t be so hasty,” Weaver said, taking out her own handheld. “I can connect to the satellite now.”
Goswin was worried again about how they would take it. “Briar had the...the cliff. You know the one I mean. The rest of us had the west entrance to Pryce’s lab.”
Weaver peered at him over her device. “Only two places.”
“Yes, it was like a blind study.”
Weaver nodded, and tapped on the screen. She held it in front of his face. “We’re right in the middle.”
“What?” Goswin took it from her, to see what she was talking about.
“Exactly equidistant from the cliff and the building.”
“We split the difference,” Eight Point Seven noted. “The Repairman was right. It’s all of us. Whatever each of us wants, this...force between us tries to come up with something that matches our criteria combined. If you wanted Italian food, and she wanted Chinese, and I wanted French, and he wanted Ethiopian, we would end up at a fusion restaurant.” She started pointing at the members of the group accordingly. “If we wanted to go to the years 1776, 1912, 2024, and 2100, we would show up in 1953.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Goswin said. “Briar wasn’t with us on that void planet, or on Dardius.”
“Wasn’t he?” Weaver prodded.
Briar frowned. “I was hiding. I wasn’t planning on showing myself at all, but then you attacked my mother...”
“No one was attacking her,” Goswin defended. He grunted. “We have to figure out how to get rid of this. It could cause us serious problems. If one of us wants to go to Teagarden, and the rest want to go to Glisnia, are we gonna end up somewhere in the middle of empty space?”
“We can’t do that yet. We have to go back to return Harrison and Madam Sriav to where they belong.”
“That’s true,” Goswin agreed. “Can we all come to a consensus long enough to make that work?”

Magnolia (Part IV)

Generated by Google Gemini Advanced text-to-image AI software, powered by Imagen 2
Neither Harrison nor Madam Sriav were where the four of them expected them to be. It was still raining when they went back to England centuries ago, but the area was empty. They figured that Harrison took Briar’s mother, Irene to safety somewhere, but when they looked around, they couldn’t find anyone. “Will he hurt her?” Briar asked.
“I really don’t think so,” Weaver answered. “He knew Mateo and Leona back in the day, and helped them with some of their earlier exploits. He wasn’t programmed for violence, nor does he have any reason to cause harm to her.”
They kept searching, but still couldn’t find either of them. Whatever cave was supposed to magically transport them to Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida was presumably pretty well hidden, which would explain why the local villagers didn’t constantly go missing, only to reappear in the timestream a thousand years later. Briar didn’t know much about time travel, so he reasoned that his mother must have survived all of this, or he wouldn’t exist right now. Of course, the other three knew that the cosmos was full of new timelines, sprouting up every time someone went back in time to change history. It was entirely possible that Briar was wildly different in this current version of reality. Just because he was still standing here didn’t mean that everything that happened in the past was identical to what happened where he was from. No one told him all of this, partially because it was a complex and hard-to-teach concept, but also because they were better off not meddling in this time period any further than they already had. If he understood that there was no such thing as fate, they would never be able to get him to leave. He would die of old age in the attempt to locate her again.
They huddled together, and thought of the island of Lorania on Dardius. Here, the weather was a lot less exceptional, which made it difficult to be sure that they had returned to the right moment. Madam Sriav was also nowhere to be found, but Eight Point Seven was pretty sure that little time had passed since they last left. When Madam Sriav was frustrated with having been taken from her home, she kicked flowers, and at one point, sat down to pull pedals apart. Some of this debris was still where she had left it, or nearby. It had not yet been blown away by the wind, or decomposed to the ravages of time. Eight Point Seven estimated that at most, only several minutes could have passed. They were less certain in this case that anyone involved would be safe. They had no frame of reference for predicted events here, nor any clue whether Madam Sriav was destined to do something particular in the future. If she was taken by someone, or otherwise lost, it could be catastrophic, and they would be hopeless to stop it. They didn’t have enough information about it.
“At least we’re navigating pretty well,” Goswin acknowledged. “If we keep this up, we shouldn’t have to worry about ending up in outer space, or anywhere else too dangerous, or even just wrong.”
“That’s still a danger,” Weaver determined. “If there’s no way to put a stop to this, we’ll probably find ourselves trying to use it towards some end. Good luck to us, figuring out what that objective should be, and how to go about achieving it.”
“Are you talking about me?” Briar questioned, offended. “She looked at me when she said that.”
“I was looking at everyone,” Weaver insisted.
“No, you were looking right at me,” Briar volleyed. “I get it, I’m the problem child. You’re all saints, but I’m the no-good dirty murderer.”
“She was looking at you,” Eight Point Seven confirmed.
“Thank you!” Briar shouted. “At least you’re honest.”
“She was looking at you, not because you’re a problem,” Eight Point Seven went on, “but because your motivations are distant from ours. In fact, I’m not sure what they are. What do you want?”
“What do you want?” he asked. “Are you quite certain that the three of your motivations are as aligned as you think?”
Eight Point Seven tilted her head, having been programmed to simulate inquisitive dispositions to better blend in with human cultural communication. “They may not be, but these other two can listen to reason, and they can agree to a decision without necessarily liking it. You were raised alone, in a world of two people. You lack social skills, and I need you to remember, Briar, that that is not your fault.”
Briar blinked excessively, waffling on whether to let the tears welling in his eyes fall to the ground, or somehow suck them back into their ducts. “You’re right,” he realized. He glared at Goswin. “It’s his.” 
“What? What do you mean?”
“We could have saved her,” Briar explained. “We could have kept my mother out of that cave, and away from Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida. I could have grown up on Earth, around normal people.”
“I didn’t do that,” Goswin defended.
“Yes, you did. You took us away from there during your little experiment to see who was causing this. By the time we got back, she was gone, having no other option but to seek shelter in that cave. This is all you! You’re why I grew up alone. You’re why I killed Mateo Matic! But I didn’t, did I? You did. You killed him!”
“Briar, that’s not how it works. The timeline has been changed,” Weaver said. “Harrison would not have left her alone to go travel the English countryside. He’s with her on Bida.”
“No, he wasn’t,” Briar argued. “I was there, remember? I never knew the guy.”
“Exactly,” Weaver agreed. “That’s why I said the timeline changed. Our memory of events is different than what happened in this reality. Harrison was probably there the whole time, but none of us recalls that, because we’re the ones who changed it. We originated in a different timeline, and we’re all duplicates now. Our alternate selves are currently somewhere else, having done different things with their lives, if only slightly.”
“So, there’s another me out there, one who didn’t kill Mateo at all?” Briar asked her. “He’s happy?”
Eight Point Seven took a half step forward to indicate that she would field this one. She shook her head. “What you did cannot be undone. They already tried to change it, but you were wearing the hundemarke. That’s why the timeline is likely only slightly different. What happened happened, and couldn’t have happened any other way.”
He frowned and hung his head low. “Oh, yeah. I remember that.”
They all tensed up, waiting for Briar to decide that they should go back to save his mother, and maybe himself, in some other way, but he just stood there. With disaster somehow averted by the truth, they participated in an impromptu moment of silence, each of them lost in their own minds. Goswin stared at the broken flowers on the ground as the wind picked up, and did begin to scatter them down the hill. He ultimately took a breath, and looked up at the others. “Now that we know this about ourselves—that we share some sort of...power—we have to decide what to do with it. What’s our next step? Where and when do we go? This was always a vaguely mandated mission, but I feel like...we can’t just waste this on a beach resort.”
“You mean...what are you going to do with me?” Briar asked.
Goswin took a deep, rejuvenating breath. He got right into Briar’s face, but in a comforting way, rather than a threatening one. “You killed a man. You did it with malice and intent, and you expressed no remorse for it. What I need to know is are you going to do that again, to anyone, for any reason?”
Briar took a long time to respond. He was thinking on it carefully. “I know what you wanna hear, but the truth is that I don’t know. I don’t want to promise you something that I can’t necessarily follow through on.” He looked amongst them. “You three seem to have some idea of what’s going to happen in the universe. You have to understand that I don’t. I imagine that it’s quite easy for you to tell others what you’re gonna do, because you know what you’re gonna be up against. It’s not fair, really, being around such confident people, and being so...ignorant. So small.”
Goswin closed his eyes and shook his head mildly. He could actually relate to this sentiment, having to compare his knowledge of the universe to these other two, especially Weaver, who conceivably knew that all of this would happen, and how it would turn out.
Briar continued, “I can tell you that I don’t want to kill anyone in this moment, and that I have no plans to do it again. And I can tell you that I do feel remorse. I just don’t know how to show it. I think my mother was a little too...patient with me. She did her best to teach me how to feel, but not to make sure that what I felt was clear to others. I’m sorry that Mateo is dead, and that he died by my hands. I really do wish that I could undo it. Now, no matter how many other duplicates of me there are, they’ll always be just as miserable as the real me.”
“Don’t think of it like that,” Goswin told him. “You had good times in your life, I know it. Otherwise, you would be a wild animal. You wouldn’t wish to undo anything, except maybe to make things worse.”
“Maybe,” Briar admitted.
They all looked up to find that they had moved again. They were in a jungle that looked not unlike the one on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida where they tried to experiment with their new joint ability. “Where did we go this time?” Eight Point Seven asked.
Weaver started to work on her handheld device.
“Don’t bother,” Briar said to her. “I know where we are. This is my home. This is where I grew up. I was feeling nostalgic, I guess.” He walked straight for a large tree that had been marked up by tons of hashes. “This is tree eight. It’s my favorite one, because it’s when my mother started letting me mark the calendar unsupervised. I was eleven at the time.” He looked down the line at the other trees with hash marks, which supposedly represented their own years. He appeared to be doing some mental math. “It’s too late. Mom’s dead, and so is Mateo. We can’t change anything now.”
“We should still leave,” Weaver warned. “We don’t want to step back into our timeline. People live here, maybe not in this area, but still.”
Briar nodded, still admiring the eighth calendar tree. “I know, I’m sorry.”
“We all did this,” Eight Point Seven reminded him. “That’s how this works.”
“Yeah.” He nodded again, and managed to tear his gaze away, only to find himself distracted by something else. It was a different tree. This one had no hash marks on it, but there was something very different about it. The branches spread wide despite its currently short stature. The flowers were a stunning shade of blue. It was one of a kind, at least in the immediate area. “What the hell is this?”
“What? What’s wrong with it?” Goswin asked him.
“This shouldn’t be here. I memorized every blade of grass in this area. That tree was never here.”
“As I said,” Weaver began, “we’ve changed things. As we suspected, Harrison was here. He must have planted it a long time ago. Briar, he probably helped raise the other you. I don’t know how you feel about that.”
“I don’t either,” Briar said.
Eight Point Seven stepped towards the tree, and began to examine it closely.
“What is it?” Goswin asked her.
Eight Point Seven leaned forward and licked the bark to absorb some of the mysterious tree’s DNA, which she took a moment to analyze. “Magnolia arthurii. This species was introduced to England by mysterious travelers in the early 12th century, and disappeared from the records shortly thereafter. This is from Earth.” She turned to face the group. “Harrison didn’t just plant it, he brought it here. He might have done it on purpose, or the seed got stuck in his boot.”
“It’s beautiful,” Briar said in wonder. He slowly walked up to it, and reached out. He placed a hand upon its truck, and suddenly froze. The flowers buzzed as if carrying an electric current. Ripples in spacetime emanated from the bark, and into Briar’s face. With each wave, his head jerked back a little from the force, but he never let go of the tree. By the time any of them thought to maybe stop whatever was happening from happening, the ripples ceased, as did the buzzing. Briar fell towards his back, but Eight Point Seven managed to catch him before he crashed.
Is he okay?” Goswin asked.
“I’m okay,” Briar answered for himself. He gently pulled himself away from Eight Point Seven’s grip. He stumbled a bit from dizziness, but he never fell again. “I remember everything now. I remember my life with Harrison. He was my father. That didn’t happen before, but I remember it now. I remember both timelines.”
Weaver walked up to the special magnolia now. “This somehow stores memory, and he activated it for upload.” She turned to face Briar. “Do you have anyone else’s memories, or just those of your alternate self?”
Briar stopped to think about it for a moment. “Just mine, I think. I don’t feel like I’m anyone else.”
“Psychic and at least moderately sentient. This thing is very interesting. Either all magnolias of this particular species could do this, or it changed when it passed through the time cave.”
“Should we...all touch it?” Goswin posed.
“Absolutely not,” Weaver urged. “Don’t go around touching things. That could be one of Leona’s Rules for Time Travel.”
“You wanna stay here, don’t you?” Goswin presumed. “You wanna study it.”
“We could always leave later,” Weaver said out of hope. I don’t think any of the colonizers made it all the way out here. But it’s up to you, Captain.”
Briar seemed to want to stay as well, which made some sense. Eight Point Seven couldn’t care less. “Okay,” Goswind agreed. “We still don’t know exactly what year it is, though, so we can’t be certain how far the colonizers are. Stay vigilant.”

Anchor (Part V)

Generated by Google Gemini Advanced text-to-image AI software, powered by Imagen 2
Briar was a normal biological human, Goswin was a transhuman with biological upgrades, Weaver was technologically enhanced, and Eight Point Seven was mostly inorganic. Despite the range of substrate properties, they all slept in one way or another. Even Eight Point Seven needed to periodically take time to reorganize her data drives, perform diagnostics, self-repair, and give her microfusion reactor some time to power cycle, and purge waste byproducts. For the longest time, researchers believed that giving inorganic intelligences the ability to dream was nothing more than, well...a dream. They figured that they would have to directly program scenarios for them to merely simulate the experience. As it turned out, once technology advanced sufficiently, this was not necessary. Androids will do it themselves during these periods of low-power memory consolidation. Random neural firings will generate aberrant thoughts akin to the way that  humans dreamt. One of the greatest challenges of 21st century AI research was figuring out how to teach such intelligences to wake up from these dreams, and leave those thoughts behind, so that they didn’t negatively impact their normal operational requirements. Occasionally, this subroutine will fail to trigger, just like it can in humans, who sometimes wake up angry with someone for things that never happened in the real world. Early models sometimes became unexpectedly violent due to these errors.
The first night that they spent in Briar’s old camp on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida just so happened to be when Eight Point Seven needed to go into sleep mode for about an hour. She tried to hold off on it, so she could keep watch over the others, but she was not yet used to this new substrate. She didn’t even take this form on purpose. Her consciousness somehow uploaded itself to it at some point before their first jump. They had been so busy with all this stuff that she hadn’t taken the time to really investigate. That was probably why she had to do this now, because her mind was in conflict with her body. They were unfamiliar with each other. That night, she dreamt of her home. She was first created on a planet called Bungula, which orbited Rigil Kentaurus. Theirs was an ever-changing society, always run by an artificial intelligence, which frequently purged its own memory to be made anew. Her name was Eight Point Seven because she was the 78th incarnation of this entity.
Something went wrong with Eight Point Seven’s programming. She decided that she wanted to live, and not make way for the next version. The Bungulans eventually accepted her decision, and let her keep administering them accordingly. She grew tired of this, however, and ultimately chose to leave with Leona Matic. They eventually made their way to Bida together, and then separated to different ships. She had always wondered what became of Bungula, though. They had to have some form of government without her. Was it a human this time, or did they recreate the old program, and finally get their Eight Point Eight? Perhaps they skipped all the intervening versions, and just went straight to Eleven Point Nine.
All four of them woke up with a start. They were no longer in the jungle of Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida, but under a geodesic dome on the very end of a lava tube. They could see the stars above them, shining through the triangles of polycarbonate. The air wasn’t stale, but it wasn’t windy anymore. The whole world felt still, whichever world this was. Eight Point Seven Stood up from her cross-legged position. “This is my homeworld,” she determined. “This is Bungula.”
“Why are we here?” Goswin asked. “Who brought us this time?”
“We all did,” Weaver stated. “Remember? We don’t go anywhere unless we go together. There has to he some kind of consensus”
“No, it was me,” Eight Point Seven argued. “This is what I was dreaming about.”
“You can dream?” Briar questioned.
Of course they could dream. Goswin ignored the question. “Maybe we’re not entirely right about how this works. Maybe one of us sometimes pilots the whole crew. Someone’s...psychic power is just a little bit stronger. I wasn’t dreaming of going anywhere in particular. If your thoughts were more specific, they may have overwhelmed the three of us.”
“I was dreaming of seeing Leona again,” Briar explained.
“She’s here,” came an unfamiliar voice. They turned to find an unassuming man standing outside of their circle. “But you cannot see her. Hi. I’m Lieutenant Administrator Eleven Point Eight. I am...moderately aware of this time travel stuff, but I’m not well-versed, and I would not like to be. The current Administrator is very busy with her new plans for this world, and she does not have time to deal with whatever this paradox-waiting-to-happen is. Please leave however you came.”
“Forgive us,” Goswin said. “What is the date?”
“October 19, 2226.”
“This is the day I left,” Eight Point Seven noted.
“Yes,” Lieutenant Eleven Point Eight concurred. “You’re about to launch, and I’ve been asked to retrieve Madams Prieto and Prieto so that my superior may speak with them. As I asked, please leave.”
“Hold on,” Eight Point Seven stopped him. “The past version of me has not yet left, but there is already a new admin?”
“Of course,” Eleven Point Seven confirmed. “You thought there would be a gap?”
“Have we met? It and I, have we met?” Eight Point Seven questioned.
“Yes, you met. I was there during the handover ceremony.”
Eight Point Seven’s eyes widened. “That didn’t happen in my timeline. I never met my replacement. There was a gap, because it’s fine. The colonists mostly govern themselves.”
“Things have changed beyond Bida,” Weaver acknowledged. “We changed them.”
“Why should they?” Eight Point Seven questioned her. “This is before I showed up on Bida. I had never heard of Briar or Irene yet.”
Weaver shrugged. “Harrison was in the twelfth century, in England. That was the point of divergence. Nothing we know of history since then can be trusted.”
“Could you please get on with it?” Eleven Point Eight urged. “I have to go, and so do you.”
Eight Point Seven shook her head. “We can’t stay in the past. I know you wanted to keep studying that tree, but it’s too dangerous. We don’t know anything about what the universe looks like post 2400. That’s the only safe point in time for us. We have to stop risking these paradoxes, like he said.”
“She’s right,” Goswin agreed. “Let the past stay in the past.”
Weaver nodded. “Okay.”
They all turned to Briar, even Lt. Admin Eleven Point Eight. He was taken a little aback. “What, you think I would sabotage this? It’s fine, it’s fine. Let’s just go.” He sighed, frustrated at still not being trusted. “I said, let’s go!”
They blinked, and the scene changed. They were back in the ship bay in the asteroid near the planet of Po. “Hmm, that worked,” Briar mused.
“Yes, so it would seem. Or maybe not. “We’re still in the past, just not too terribly much this time.” Goswin nodded over to the clear end of the bay where he could see himself.
The other Goswin was holding a tablet and staring at them while staying in the discussion that he was having with the man next to him. He pointed towards the door, like he was respectfully instructing the other guy to leave.
“Though, I don’t remember this,” the present-day Goswin noted. “I don’t recognize that man at all.
Once the local was gone, Alt!Goswin made his way to the group. “Report.”
“Uhhh...report,” Goswin said back.
Alt!Goswin kept his eyes on his other self, but lowered his chin in distrust, and repeated, “report.”
“Enough!” Weaver stepped in. “This is never gonna end. Goswin that we don’t know, how long have you been here?”
“A few months,” Alt!Goswin replied.
Weaver looked over to her Goswin. “We’re not in the past. We’re in a new timeline. The changes we made, this is a natural byproduct of that.”
Just then, another version of Weaver appeared behind them. “That’s not exactly what’s happening. Tell me, were you on the X González, or the Emma González?”
“The X, of course,” the first Weaver replied. “That’s their chosen name.”
“Yes, but sometimes the ship is named after their original name,” Alt!Weaver clarified.
Sometimes?” Weaver echoed. “How many timelines are there?”
“All of them,” Alt!Weaver said cryptically.
“What the hell does that mean? What was the point of divergence?”
“It’s not like that,” Alt!Weaver answered, still not clarifying anything. “There was a moment of split, but it wasn’t linear. Perhaps you remember seeing a whole bunch of other yous on the González?”
Yeah, that happened. They saw a few alternates on the bridge, but they assumed that that was just some temporal glitch, since they quickly disappeared. They didn’t think that those other selves still existed somewhere. How many splits were created that they didn’t witness? “Yeah, were you one of the alts we saw on the bridge?”
“No, I was in the engine room at the time,” Alt!Weaver began, “but not all of us were. Not all of us were even on the ship at all. Like I said, it wasn’t linear. We’ve been replicated all over the timeline, and rescattered all over elsewhere on the timeline, and in every parallel reality. Furthermore, we can move ourselves along the timeline, and across realities, at will. This star system here is a sort of an anchor point. We’ve all been showing up here for months, and recording each other, adding to the data pile. It’s difficult, though. I don’t always know if the versions of my friends that I’ve been with are still the ones that I’m with now. We may be shifting between groups, and not even realizing it.”
“That’s why I have a body,” Eight Point Seven realized. “It’s not my body. I was uploaded directly to the ship, but I stole this from someone else. What happened to her, the victim?”
“Mapping our alternates is even more difficult than mapping the timeline itself,” Alt!Weaver explained. “I don’t know how to differentiate anyone. A lot of people think that time is a river, and that’s only a metaphor that they recognize because it’s not analogous to time...but to consciousness. Your mind is fluent, and you are not the same person that you were a split second ago. Shifting to your alternates could be happening literally as we speak, and we wouldn’t be able to detect it. In this region of space, spacetime breaks down. Everything converges here. Everything diverges here.”
“Did we cause that, or did it cause us?” Goswin asked her.
Alt!Weaver smiled. “Yes. And no. There is no cause. There is no effect. It’s just bleh.” She pantomimed vomiting. “It’s everything,” she added, mouth still agape, and hands still cupping the bowl of the imaginary toilet.”
“Everything, everywhere, all at once?” Alt!Goswin offered.
“Pretty much,” Alt!Weaver replied.
“There is a magnolia on Bida,” Weaver said to her alternate. “I believe that it can reconverge us. We just have to figure out how to control it.”
Alt!Weaver nodded. “The Blending Tree. Yeah, it’s possible, but we would have to get everyone there at the same point in time; to the everything bagel,” she said as she was gesturing to Alt!Goswin to reinforce his reference. “As I was saying, I don’t know how many of us there are, or where they are, or what they’ve changed in the timeline. Some of us keep displacing other people, and that’s a whole other box of problems,” she added under her breath.
“Oh, haha,” Goswin laughed awkwardly. “What a bunch of bozos.”
Two different versions of Eight Point Seven showed up, one of which had a deep scar running across her cheek. The first Eight Point Seven stepped closer and regarded her, tilting her head to the side as if she had a lizard brain nestled inside of her dominant neural net. After taking a look at the scarless Eight Point Seven, who was indistinguishable from herself, she reached up to her own face, and dragged her fingernail across her forehead. Blood leaked out, and dripped down. She then stepped back to where she was, not bothering to clean it up.
The Eight Point Seven with the other scar nodded. “Your new designation is Eight Point Seven Point Six.”
“Dude,” Briar said, aghast.
Eight Point Seven tilted her head back to where it belonged. “It didn’t hurt,” she said, a little like Cameron from The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
The other scarred Eight Point Seven addressed the whole group. “It’s beginning.” She sounded even more like Cameron, so robotic.
“What’s beginning?” Goswin asked.
“The Reconvergence,” the other, other Eight Point Seven answered.
“Of us?” Goswin pressed. “We were just talking about the magnolia tree.”
“It has nothing to do with us, I don’t think. The destruction of four realities, and the creation of a new universe, is happening today. The war begins tomorrow.”

Cass (Part VI)

Generated by Google Gemini Advanced text-to-image AI software, powered by Imagen 2
The four of them reached out for each other, and took hands. They were totally in sync, and were able to make the jump without saying a word. They were back on Earth, but roughly 542 million years ago, standing on the beach of an ocean. They lingered for a moment or two before letting go, and awkwardly turning away from each other. Weaver walked over to a rock a few meters away, and stuck her arm into a deep hole. They heard a click, which served to split the ground apart, and reveal a stairway leading down into the earth. Lights began to switch on automatically, revealing that the bottom was only a few stories down. “It’s okay,” she said. “We’ll be safe down there. I built my own mini version of the Constant to be alone.”
“You’re not alone,” Goswin contended.
“We’ll see.” She stepped down, and never looked back to see if they were following, but they were anyway.
They landed in a decent-sized foyer with a mostly homey feel, but also laboratory-like qualities. Weaver continued to lead them down a hallway until they came upon the main room where they found an aquarium that took up one entire wall. The glass barrier curved inward, which would let creatures swim right up to investigate the humans, if such creatures were anywhere to be found. There was a lot of underwater life to admire, such as algae and a seaweed of some kind, but no fish.
After Weaver tapped something on a control panel that the others assumed was a security passcode, she watched them watch the prehistoric creatures floating around soothingly. “Those aren’t plants, if that’s what you’re assuming. They’re not animals either. They’re unlike anything you’re used to in the modern age.”
“Protista?” Eight Point Seven guessed. She was more knowledgeable than the other two, but still didn’t recognize these organisms.
Weaver shook her head. “Some people think that there are eight kingdoms, including Protista and Chromista, but there have actually been eleven throughout history and prehistory. Two of them went totally extinct long, long ago. These right here belong to Ankorea, which came this close to surviving to our day. They exhibited traits from all of the other modern kingdoms. Their frond right there shows the first inkling of photosynthesis that we’ll later see in plants. It doesn’t convert sunlight directly into energy, but it does power the decomposition process that the organism uses to break food down like fungi. It’s what makes them brown, instead of green. Despite being multicellular, they reproduce via splitting, like bacteria, which sounds insane, though I’ve never witnessed it up close. This area is really calm and hospitable, but they’re extremophiles, like Archea, able to survive in both high and low temperatures. They can nearly all transition from one to the other if need be, making them unique. But unique isn’t the right word, because they’re quite diverse, like protists.
“All of these that you see belong to Ankorea, despite how different they look, and that explains why I built my constant here. You see, their defining characteristic is that they all have this anchor that can anchor them to the seafloor. This allows them to catch food as it floats by from one spot while saving energy. Once they feel that the area has been stripped, they pull the anchor up, and move on. They can swim or drift, depending on their energy reserves. Some of their anchors extend, like the majority of the ones you’re seeing, but that one there isn’t a rock. It has a nonextendable anchor. When it’s released, this thing will kind of start to roll around until it finds a better source of food. I don’t see it here, but one of them actually has two anchors, so it can walk like an animal. It’s crazy to watch, I wish you were here for that.”
“They sound so resilient,” Goswin pointed out, “how did they go extinct?”
“No one knows. I’ve brought a few experts back to study them, but we don’t understand it yet. Of course this is all before whatever ended them, but the current theory is that they were outcompeted by stronger organisms. They might have overgrazed their own environment. As you can see, there’s not a whole lot here. That’s pretty indicative of the world right now. The food cycle is difficult to maintain in the Ediacaran period. The ones that survive are the kind that thrive with less.”
“You brought other people here?” Eight Point Seven asked. “Did that not risk paradoxes? If they had published papers regarding what you know to be facts, but which were lost to the fossil records for the majority of the population, I would have it in the repository of knowledge.”
“I erased their memories,” Weaver explained. “They weren’t happy about it, but I promised to credit them for any work published after a point in the timeline when I felt like this information could be shared. Honestly, I’ve not even decided whether that moment will ever take place. There’s no decent way to explain how anyone could possibly know this much about organisms that never fossilized. Unless time travel becomes public knowledge, this is just for me. And for you now, I suppose.”
“Are we going to keep talking about something dumb and meaningless, and sidestepping the real issue, which is why we’ve come here?” Briar questioned.
“He’s right. We have to address the elephant in the room.” Goswin looked around the room, and took a half step back as if he were searching for a literal elephant. “It’s no coincidence that we all agreed to jump to this place without exchanging a single word. We all wanted to leave where we were so we could unpack recent events and revelations.”
“The question I have,” Briar began, “is which of us are real?”
“We’re all real,” Weaver reasoned. “There’s just a slight possibility that we’re shifting timelines without realizing it.”
“Not only a possibility,” Eight Point Seven argued. “I don’t belong with the three of you.” She frowned. “This isn’t even my body.” The cut on her forehead had since healed into a scar, which perhaps alternate or shifted versions of her would be able to use to tell each other apart, but it meant nothing to the other three members of the crew.
“We don’t know that it quite works like that,” Weaver tried to clarify. “Time is a weird thing, and it’s getting weirder. The laws of causality are breaking down, and we are at the center of it. Remember what I told you about the river of consciousness. That’s not just a metaphor that applies to us because of our bizarre situation. All conscious beings experience this on the quantum level. Your mind is in a constant state of flux. Eight Point Seven, you’re considered a true artificial intelligence because when you were first created, you passed a series of rigorous tests meant to determine this very thing. Classical computers do not flow like human minds. Their alterations are quantifiable, and even reversible. They can be codified as a series of rapidly changing states. No matter how rapid the change is, each state can be pinpointed and recorded. Humans do not exist in states, and neither do you. Not simply knowing, but understanding, this phenomenon was key to advancements that led to things like mind uploading, digitization of the brian, and total immersive virtual reality.”
“I’m having trouble following,” Briar said nervously.
Weaver faced him. “Time travelers tend to think of reality in terms of clearly definable timelines, which you can destroy when you create a new one by triggering a time travel event. We call this a point of divergence. But that’s not really how it works. Time is constantly shifting through an array of equally probable potentials of superposition—”
“You’re getting technical again,” Goswin interrupted to warn her.
Weaver sighed, frustrated at having to figure out how to dumb this down. “There is no real you, or fake you. They’re all you, and you are all them. Even without this thing that happened to us, you may be jumping to different realities all the time, which exist simultaneously in parallel. That’s what we’re all worried about, right? We’re afraid that we don’t belong together, because we can’t know whether someone’s been replaced. Think of it this way, it may be true that you’re always being replaced, no matter what you do. You step into a new reality, don’t realize it, and move on like nothing happened. That could simply be how it works for everyone. It may be an inexorable characteristic of existence. There’s still a lot about the cosmos that even I don’t know. So the question is, if that has been happening to you your entire life, why worry about it now?”
“Because some of us appear to be shifting back,” Goswin noted.
“Yes,” Weaver conceded. “We’re encountering ourselves, not as fixtures at different points in the timeline, nor even as alternates from conflicting timelines. They’re just us, copied to possibly infinite numbers, looping back on ourselves, and criss-crossing each other’s paths. It’s chaos. It’s chaos incarnate. That’s scary, I get it. We can try to fix the issue, or  we can try to ignore it.”
“Wait.” Goswin stepped farther away, and peered around the corner of another hallway. “If we thought to come to this place, how come no one else did? Our other selves, that is. Or...whatever we should call them.”
“Shifted selves,” Eight Point Seven suggested.
“They should not be able to enter the premises,” Weaver assured him. “I placed us in a temporal bubble. We’re currently moving through time at a speed that is only nanoseconds slower than outside, which is more incidental than anything. The purpose is to erect a barrier that cannot be breached, even by another me. It’s a safeguard I put in place, not to stop my...shifted selves from coming in, but any alternate. If another Weaver shows up, she’ll see the bubble, and know to jump to a different moment—perhaps a year from now—to avoid running into herself. When you travel this far back in time, precision is implausible at best. I have labs all over the timeline, but this is more of a vacation home to get away from people.”
“Maybe this already happened, and they went back, instead of forward,” Goswin proposed. He had wandered over to the kitchen table where he found a piece of paper. He lifted it up, and turned towards the group to read it out loud. “Shifted Selves Visitor Log. Weaver, Goswin, Eight Point Seven, Briar, Six Point Seven, Ellie Underhill, Holly Blue...” He stopped at the last name on the list. “Uhh...”
“Are there tally marks next to each one?”
“Uh, yeah,” Goswin confirmed. “The usual suspects are about even. Holly Blue is here three times, as is Six Point Seven, and Ellie came once. I guess she decided to join us on the X González in one timeline.”
“At least one,” Briar added.
“Right,” Goswin agreed.
“What is it, Gos?” Weaver asked him. “You’re balking at something, and it isn’t the tally marks. Those are interesting additions to the crew, but not wholly shocking. Who’s on the list that shouldn’t be?”
Goswin looked up from the paper. “Misha Collins.”
The Misha Collins?” Eight Point Seven asked.
“Who’s Misha Collins?” Briar asked, having lived his whole life literally under a rock, or cave, rather.
“Misha Collins is an actor from the 20th and 21st centuries,” Weaver explained. “I would like to hear the story that led him to show up here.”
A shadow appeared out of nowhere next to the refrigerator. It was sliced up in segments, which were shimmering, and moving from side to side like Pong, as molecules worked to coalesce into full form. It started with the shoes on the floor, and began to work its way up as the traveler struggled to find his place in this point in spacetime. Pants, trenchcoat, narrow tie over a white shirt, and finally the neck and head. It was none other than Misha Collins. He only took a few seconds to get his bearings. “What is it this time? Uh, I mean...report.”

Monarch (Part VII)

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Weaver stepped towards Misha Collins, who looked at her with some level of familiarity, suggesting that he had been here before, or had at least seen her somewhere. He wasn’t shocked or scared, but more annoyed. She reached out to shake his hand, but pulled it away before he could reach back. “Sorry. First. Do you know who we are?”
“You’re Holly Blue, Goswin Montagne, Eight Point Seven Point Two, and Briar. I never learned his last name.”
“Have you been to this location before?” Weaver pressed.
Misha looked around. “Yes. About a month ago.”
“I wish I knew which kind of month we’re talking about,” Weaver muttered to herself. That is, had it also been three months in the Ediacaran period? Understanding whether the disparate time periods were somehow linked to one another could help prevent this from happening again. She reached her hand out once more, but pulled back yet again at the last second. “Sorry, do you like...salmon?”
“I suppose I do, as much as anyone,” Misha said, confused.
“I didn’t say salmon,” Weaver tried to clarify, “I said salmon.” This was a test of sorts. When a time traveler encountered someone whose understanding of time was in question, pointedly asking them whether they liked salmon should indicate at least a baseline. If they thought that they were only talking about the actual fish, they probably didn’t know anything, or perhaps just not very much.
“I’m sorry, I don’t hear the difference,” Misha admitted. He was a human, and while this obviously wasn’t his first time around the block, other shifted selves of this group had so far kept him pretty well in the dark about the details.
“Holly Blue,” she echoed, finally shaking his hand, “but you can call me Weaver.”
“You can call me Castiel, if you want. A lot of people prefer it.”
“We need to get you home, Mister Collins,” Goswin said, also stepping forward. “If you’ve met others like us, and returned home, then they must have figured out how to do it.”
“They just surrounded me in a circle, closed their eyes, and then I was home.”
“That’s all it was?” Eight Point Seven asked.
“Oh.” Misha pointed to Weaver. “You tapped something on this refrigerator, and said something about a bubble.”
“I don’t know how he got through the bubble in the first place,” Weaver began, “but we’ll probably have to drop it to send him back. It would be the only safe way to do it. But we should be quick. We never know when other shifted selves will show up. We could have just missed the group that came before us. Measuring time is difficult. I don’t even keep a clock in here, except for my special watch. I may have left it somewhere...”
“Do what you gotta do,” Goswin requested. “Let’s make this quick. We’ll try to send him back where he belongs, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll just go with him.”
“Wait, there was one more thing,” Misha remembered. “You gave me this.” He knelt down and pulled something off of his shoelace aglet, handing it to Weaver.
She inspected it. “This is a temporal tracker. She probably used it to make sure that you were returned to where you belonged, instead of Belgium, or something. You weren’t meant to keep it; that’s why you were able to break through the bubble.”
“I must have missed that part,” Misha said. “I was looking at the sea cucumber.”
Weaver looked over at the glass. “That’s not a cucumber. What was the date?”
“The first time it happened was January 11, 2011,” Misha answered. “This time, it was February 25.”
She handed him the tracker back. “All right. Wait thirty minutes, and then step on it. I mean exactly thirty minutes. Set your watch to it.”
“I understand,” Misha promised.
“Okay.” Weaver went over to the refrigerator, and started tapping on the screen. Blast doors dropped down over the glass, to block the view of the water, and its sea creatures. She kept tapping on it, causing the space around them to shimmer, implying that the temporal bubble was now down. They all felt a small lurch in their stomachs as a result. Still, Weaver kept tapping on the fridge. They started to hear a persistent beep from down the hallway, the exact source of which was not clear.
“I think your smoke detector needs a new battery,” Misha guessed.
“It’s fine, we like fire,” Weaver said oddly. “You heard the man. Let’s put him in a circle.” They all came together, and held hands, even Briar, who wanted to fix this just as much as the rest of them.
Goswin was the captain here, and even though Weaver knew a lot more about this stuff, he needed to step on up. “We’re trying to get our new friend here back to February 25, 2011. February 25 in...”
“Vancouver. You don’t need to know my exact address; anywhere there is fine.”
“Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada,” Goswin said. “Everyone think about that, and nothing else.”
They shut their eyes instinctually, and focused on the goal. None of them wanted to open their eyes for fear of breaking concentration, but success was fairly obvious when they felt a short burst of wind, and heard the flap of wings. They each peeked with one eye, and found there to only be three others in the room. Weaver checked the tracker output on the fridge. “He’s home.”
“What’s to stop it from happening again?” Goswin asked. “It happened once before, it could happen a third time, and more, and nothing can stop it.”
“You hear that beeping noise?” Weaver posed.
“Yeah?” Briar answered in the form of a question.
Weaver sucked her teeth a little. “We should go. Oh, there’s my watch.”
They climbed out of the bunker, and back onto the surface. One set of their shifted selves was standing out there already, with their version of Weaver trying to unlock the door using the secret boulder switch. “Weaver!One,” she acknowledged with a nod of her head.
“Weaver!Two,” the first Weaver replied.
“Had to be done.”
“How long?”
Weaver!One looked back at the steps as the hatch was closing up. “It’s soon enough. We should all go.”
“We came here for a reason,” the other Briar pointed out.
“The cons outweigh the pros,” Weaver!One tried to explain. “Now hustle off. Don’t let us get mixed up with each other.”
When Weaver!One tried to walk away, Weaver!Two took her by the arm. “Don’t go back to the Nucleus.” Her eyes darted over to the first Goswin. “One of them has taken his job a little too seriously. We barely escaped.”
“One of the Goswins?” Weaver!One asked.
“Just don’t go to the Nucleus,” she reiterated. “At least one group ended up on Dardius, where they were forced to watch some bizarre propaganda films. They’re taking the Reality Wars very seriously, they think we should join, and they have a way of keeping us from shifting away.” She didn’t say anything more about it.
The two groups separated from each other, and disappeared. At least that was what presumably happened. The first version of the crew leapt away first, leaving the newcomers’ fates in question. Perhaps they would go down into the bunker, halt the self-destruct sequence, and start the whole cycle over again. Misha Collins could spend the rest of his life being shifted back and forth to the Ediacaran period, altering future events irrevocably. It was possible that every other Weaver or Holly Blue who took her copy of the crew to that place inevitably made the same choice to destroy it, only for her plan to be unknowingly thwarted by the next copy. Time and reality were now defined by chaos. That was only meant to be the expected end state of the universe, not the beginning of it, nor the middle.
“This is where you grew up?” Eight Point Seven asked. They were standing by a pond in the middle of a small field, with a forest all around them.
“Monarch, Belgium,” Goswin confirmed. “Population: zero.”
“Your family was the only one here?” Eight Point Seven continued the interview.
“There were others...until the very end. In the late 21st century, when they started erecting all the arcological megastructures, of course most people eventually moved to them, or they wouldn’t have been successful. It was the rewilding effort that did it. As antienvironmentalists started to be turned over to death, it became easier and easier to convince people that giving the land back to nature was the only ethical choice given our technological ability to accomplish it. They left their homes, and made new ones. The cities disappeared, both in name, and in infrastructure. I believe they used to call this Ghent. Ghent didn’t get an arcology. The nearest one is closer to where Antwerp was.”
“Yet some people didn’t do that?”
“The megatowers are more environmentally friendly for sustaining the massive population of the whole planet, but it’s okay if a few choose other methods. North America had their circles, and we had our villages. We lived in arcologies too, just not gigantic ones. We lived on the land, but we didn’t live off of it, instead importing produce from vertical farms. That was my job for a time, pulling the cart of food by bicycle. That’s all I did; just pedaled back and forth from the village to the arc.” He stared at the pond. “Over and over and over and over and over again.” He paused for a few moments. “I got tired of the monotony, so I left. I had studied both history and futurology, so I knew that the villages would die out too. It was only a matter of time before kids like me decided that there were more social options in the towers. I won’t get into how I moved up to become the Futurology Administrator of the whole world, but...I’ll never forget where I came from. This is where my mother died. She wasn’t transhuman, so she only lived for 74 years. My dad underwent some treatments, but he stopped them for her. Unfortunately, I guess, it was too little too late. He still outlived her by 21 years. But not here. After the second to last person left Monarch, he left too, and moved into my cluster in the arc.”
Goswin looked up as if just remembering that he was talking to other people. “For those of you who don’t know, the arcologies are modular. Each unit is the same size, and comes with a baseline configuration, which includes a bathroom. It can be turned into a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, a bedroom, or even a simulacrum of an outdoor space, among other variations. And they can be moved around, so he didn’t move into my cluster of units so much as they literally picked up my one unit, and flew it down to another slot; one that had empty units next to it, which we began to occupy together.”
“Where are we in the timeline?” Eight Point Seven asked him. “Are you still on Earth? Is your father?”
Goswin took a deep breath, and twisted Weaver’s wrist, which sported a watch that always told her the time, even when she traveled through it in the wrong direction, or at the wrong speed. “We were very precise with this jump. My younger self left with my dad fifteen minutes ago. We just had my mother’s burial ceremony.”
“Where’s her grave?” Briar asked.
Goswin actually smiled. “Over here.” He led them down the path a ways.
“Monarch butterflies,” Eight Point Seven pointed out as a few of them began to land on her arms and head.
“Our namesake,” Goswin explained. “Like I was saying, they gave all this back to nature, but they didn’t just let it grow on its own. They planted things on purpose according to a very well thought out ecology algorithm, generated by an entity such as yourself. They decided that Belgium would do well with milkweed, and with milkweed comes Monarch butterflies.” He continued through the trees until coming to another clearing. A gravestone marked the spot where his mother was laid to rest, but it wasn’t altogether necessary. A swarm of monarchs were keeping watch over it.
“It’s beautiful,” Briar couldn’t help but say. He was starting to relax into himself.
“We can’t stay,” Weaver said with a sigh. “We have to go back to the Nucleus.”
Goswin nodded gently, though no one was looking at him; they were still watching the monarchs flutter about. “I know,” he whispered.
“You heard?”
“I may look like a regular human, but I have excellent hearing.”
“Are you prepared to meet your possibly evil self?”
He took a beat, but then answered confidently with, “yes.”

Elder (Part VIII)

Generated by Google Gemini Advanced text-to-image AI software, powered by Imagen 2
They were time travelers, so there was probably no need to hurry away, but there might be. It was unclear how connected they were to their shifted selves. Perhaps every second they spent at one point in spacetime had an impact on the events in another that they couldn’t understand, or determined precisely when they could return to a given place. They watched the butterflies for a few more minutes, but had to focus on the task at hand, which was what exactly? They didn’t know yet. They were just going to go back to Po, and see what was going on there. The four of them came together as twilight was falling, and reached for each other’s hands, but then Goswin stopped, and massaged his chin while he looked upon Briar. In response to this, Briar flinched and leaned back. “Is there something wrong with me?”
“You know what...” Goswin began cryptically, pausing to everyone’s discomfort. “I don’t think that there is. You grew up under extraordinary circumstances, and you’ve improved in a very short amount of time. Do you regret killing Mateo?”
“Of course I do,” Briar said. “What does that mean? Why do you ask now, when we’re about to leave?”
“It means that I think we’ve officially become a real crew—all four of us together—even though I couldn’t point to a moment when it happened. We’ve been worried about shifting to competing realities apart from each other, but I don’t think that’s been happening. Eight Point Seven, you are our Eight Point Seven, just in a new body. Weaver, thank you for letting us into your home. And Briar? I think you’re gonna be okay. You’re one of us now, and I’m going to rely on you just as much as them to help us solve whatever problem we’re barreling towards. Whatever happens, we stick together, okay? Our powers operate on a psychic level. I’m not worried about the abstract concept of identity tomorrow. If we wanna stay together, we will. We can call ourselves The Primes.”
“Others shifted versions of us are probably coming to the same decision,” Weaver!“Prime” pointed out.
“Yes, but it will be true of none of them but us,” Goswin said, knowing that it didn’t make a lot of temporal logical sense.
“I hope you’re right, Captain,” Weaver said.
Eight Point Seven only nodded.
“Thank you,” Briar said to him graciously.
“What was that thing you said to Leona Matic that one time?” Goswin asked Eight Point Seven rhetorically. “You better make like a jock and strap in. Shit’s about to get real.”
They shifted themselves back to The Nucleus, which for all intents and purposes, was the center of the universe. They were not the only ones there; not by a long shot. The place was chock full of their shifted alternates, some running around, others wandering, and some just standing there, some in fear, and some in determination. There were several other people scattered about who weren’t the same as the core four, including Ellie Underhill, as well as her friend, Trinity Turner. They saw a few instances of Cassidy Long, her mother Étude Einarsson, and her mother, Saga Einarsson. They were all about the same age. At least one version of Leona was here, and she was either teleporting around, or different versions were popping in and out of existence like virtual particles. She was stopping only long enough to whisper something to someone, and hear a response before moving on. They didn’t recognize everyone, though. The place was utter mayhem. No one knew what they were really doing, and no one was in charge. Or maybe that wasn’t true.
A catwalk extended from a balcony two stories above the crowd. Four people walked along as it grew longer and longer. They were not alternates of the core four, but entirely different people, and they did appear to be in charge. They didn’t appear evil, but they didn’t seem particularly friendly either. One of them was Tamerlane Pryce, but none of the other three looked familiar. A cursory glance around the room gave the impression that they did not have any shifted selves here, but were each one of a kind. It wasn’t totally out of left field that Pryce should be here. He was present on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida when the crew of the X González departed. He was there for a reason, but there must be a reality out there where he finished his work on the planet early, or was perhaps fired for sometimes being an insufferable tool. Where did these other three come from, though?
Pryce held up both of his arms, and slowly lowered them to quiet the rabbling crowd. They did not comply. He jerked his arms back up, and tried again, but still it didn’t work. He looked to one of the women to his flank, and held out his hand. She gave him an object that resembled a bullhorn, and that was exactly what it was, but not a regular one. The Time Shriek was a mysterious scream that randomly echoed across the lands at various points in space time. There was no predicting its appearance, nor anything to do about it. If it interrupted you while you were in the middle of something, you just had to stand there and wait until it was over. This device was evidently capable of summoning the Shriek at will, and even amplifying it. It scattered across the hall, pounding into everyone’s eardrums, causing them to grasp at their heads in pain, and forcing some down to their knees. “Thank you! It’s so kind of you to give me your attention with no incentive.”
“Why can’t we leave?” a version of Briar demanded to know from the floor.
“That’s a good question, random citizen,” Pryce replied, pointing down to him. “It’s because of my good friend here.” He placed a hand on the shoulder of the woman who didn’t give him the Time Shriek Horn. Iolanta Koval is a very powerful metachooser. None of you is in control anymore.”
Iolanta glared at the audience. She reached into her fanny pack, and pulled out some kind of fruit, which she bit right into, rind and all.
“Ha! She’s got an affinity for citrus. It’s a time traveler thing. You all get it. I’m sure you know me,” he went on, “but just in case one of you shifty mother fuckers is from a reality where I don’t exist, my name is Tamerlane Pryce, but to distinguish me from my Afterlife Simulation and Third Rail selves, please just call me The Elder.”
“There’s already a guy named Elder!” one of the Weavers called up to him.
“There are hundreds of people that share your name too, jackass!” Pryce snapped back.” He huffed. “Anyway, as I was saying, this here is Airlock Karen. That’s obviously not her real name, but everyone she thought she could trust on her ship started calling her that, so she’s decided to own it. Similarly, A.F. here adopted his name from his enemies, who never bothered to learn his real name either. He hopes to vanquish them one day, but for my part, I hope he fails, ‘cause they’re good people, but I’m not gonna get in his way. We’re a team, just like the four of you...and you...and you, and you.” He pointed at random groups. Was everyone here always in a group of four exactly, even when they weren’t the core defaults?
“What are we doing here?” a Goswin questioned.
Pryce looked down at him. “I want to join forces.”
“Yes? Go on,” the same Goswin urged.
“Yesterday, I moved a mountain,” Pryce said bizarrely. “I mean that literally. The four of us stood before it, and we made it disappear, only to make it reappear by the end of the episode—I mean, a few hours later. But we didn’t put it back where it belonged. It’s now two meters farther north. It wasn’t easy, but we got it done. Different crews have developed their powers differently, and some of you may have done something similar, or even more impressive. We can alter time and space on a level that no one in histories has ever enjoyed, and I believe that together, we can do even more. We can remake the future to our desires. Notice that I didn’t say whims. They’re not going to be pointless and silly. The mountain was just practice. There is a war brewing in the Sixth Key, I’m sure you’ve all at least heard about it. They call it the Reality Wars because five parallel realities have been forced together into one. Their respective habitats remain intact, but the stars have been consolidated, cutting their available resources by 80%. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine a friend sending you an uncompressed video on your phone, which suddenly dropped your charge from full to 20%? You’d be pissed. Everyone is pissed, and they don’t have a true culprit to blame, so they’re blaming each other. We can help them.” He paused for effect. “We can move them.”
Leona appeared next to Goswin!Prime. “Are you the ones who took Angela?” she whispered to him.
“That’s a no.” She was about to teleport away again.
“Wait. What does she look like?” Goswin asked.
Leona held up her palm. A small holographic photo appeared of a woman that he had never seen before. “A core crew was on our ship, and when they left, she disappeared along with them. She’s not here, so they left her somewhere else in spacetime, but if you don’t recognize her, then it wasn’t you.”
Goswin looked to the other three Primes. “Let’s find her. Just like Misha.”
They nodded. And just like that, Angela was standing next to them. “Oh, thank God,” she exclaimed, taking Leona into an embrace.
“Excuse me!” Tamerlane asked from his balcony. “What’s going on down there?”
“Sorry, sir!” Goswin!Prime answered. “She was just looking for a friend!”
Pryce looked over at Iolanta, and snapped his fingers at the primes. She peeked over the edge at them, and a second later, the whole crew was standing on the platform with the Elder, and the other self-proclaimed leaders. “You just summoned someone here, even with the Time Lid shut?”
“The what?” Briar asked.
“Is that a band, errr...?” Weaver asked sarcastically.
Pryce looked at Iolanta again. “Why are they able to do that?”
She took another bite of her citrus. “They shouldn’t be able to. Not here. Not now.” She shrugged, and tried to take another bite.
Pryce slapped the fruit out of her hand. “That’s your only job!” He pointed at the primes. “Focus on them. Stop them specifically from using their powers!” He faced the primes. “Bring me...a dancing monkey in a hat.”
“No,” Goswin decided.
“Okay, that’s fair,” Pryce admitted. “There’s ethical concern with that. Instead, just bring me a birthday cake.”
“No,” Goswin repeated.
“All right, you don’t want to steal from a kid, I get it. Just summon anything that isn’t already in this asteroid. Dealer’s choice.” He looked back at Iolanta. “Are you blocking them?” he reiterated.
“Absolutely. I can feel it,” she assured him.
Goswin sighed. He hovered his hand over the floor, and summoned Portrait of a Young Man, which was famously stolen by Nazis during the war, and never recovered. He held onto the frame to keep it from tipping over.
Pryce noticeably gasped. “How did you do that? You four didn’t even talk about it? That is the biggest issue within the crews. No one can agree on anything.”
“We’re in sync, I guess,” Goswin figured.
Pryce took the painting, and held it up for all to see. “Witness power! These four have accomplished the impossible: true neural synchronization! This painting has been missing for four hundred and fifty years, and now here it is. They barely gave it a thought. It was probably destroyed in the original timeline.” He gazed upon the Primes. “These versions will be our foundation. They—not I—will lead us into the future, and the past. They’ll stop the Reality Wars, and save all of mankind in the Sixth Key.” He figured that this choice would endear everyone to him.
“How ‘bout no, Scott..okay?” Goswin!Prime snapped back.
“You seem to like references,” Goswin continued, “so no. Scotty, don’t.”
“I don’t think I saw that one,” Pryce admitted.
Goswin rolled his eyes, and looked back at his crew. “Don’t tell Scotty, Scotty doesn’t know.”
“Enough,” Pryce declared. “I know that I’ve been cracking a few jokes of my own, but I’m being serious. “We need you. Your powers may be limitless. And you don’t really have a choice.”
“I actually think we do,” Goswin suggested. “I believe that that is exactly what you’re trying to tell us, wouldn’t you say, kids?”
“Yeah, I agree,” Weaver!Prime said.
“That’s what it sounds like,” Eight Point Seven!Prime concurred.
Briar!Prime nodded. “Yep.”
Goswin stepped up to the railing, and looked out over the audience. “Do you all wanna be here? Raise your hand if you do?”
A few people raised their hands.
“Then be free.” Goswin!Prime swept his hands forward from his chest, and all but the ones with their hands raised disappeared. Goswin turned, and swept only one hand this time, causing the famous painting to disappear. “It belongs in a museum.”
“We’ll get them back,” Pryce promised.
“No. You won’t.” Goswin held his hand up again to facilitate his own departure, along with the other Primes, but this A.F. guy took it as a threat. He reached over with a huge compensation knife, and jammed it into Goswin’s stomach.
“What the hell did you just do?” Pryce questioned. “Iolanta, stop blocking powers. We need to get a medic here stat!”

Amal (Part IX)

Generated by Google Gemini Advanced text-to-image AI software, powered by Imagen 2
Eight Point Seven took hold of Goswin, and laid him gently onto the floor. Blood leaked out of him like a popped water balloon. He screamed when Iolanta instinctively applied pressure to his wound, forgetting that her hands were covered in citrus juice. Airlock Karen drenched his abdomen with water. Eight Point Seven was not a doctor, but she had all necessary medical knowledge in her memory banks, because there was no reason not to. “Briar! Briar! I need a med kit.”
Briar was wrestling with A.F., trying to get the knife out of the man’s hands, but also maybe trying to kill him?
“I can get it,” Weaver replied.
“No!” Eight Point Seven argued. “He needs to be the one to do it! Briar, go find me some gauze! Now!”
Briar let go of the attacker, and ran off. Iolanta followed. “I know where the nearest infirmary is!” she explained.
One of the other Goswins, who had chosen to remain here, climbed up the ladder, and approached with no sense of urgency. “I know what to do.”
“I know what to do too,” Eight Point Seven spit.
“You can’t save him,” Goswin!Three explained. The numerical designations were largely arbitrary. This was the first shifted Goswin who needed one, but Weaver!Two’s Goswin was presumably Goswin!Two. “We shifted into the Fifth Division, which is where that guy is from. That blade is poisoned. If there’s a treatment, it’s not here.”
“Is that where we should go?” Eight Point Seven questioned. “The Fifth Division?” She looked behind him to see the rest of Goswin!Three’s crew appear up the stairs. They look disheveled and tired. Their experiences were apparently not nearly as safe and easy. Who knows what else they had been through?
“You wouldn’t know where to look, and neither would we,” Goswin!Three clarified. “Besides, all members of a crew must be conscious to shift.”
“So, what would you have me do?” Eight Point Seven was desperate. She had all this medical knowledge, but no tools, and she wasn’t a miracle worker. She at least needed to stop the bleeding, even if they still had a poison to worry about. Where the hell was Briar with that first aid kit?
“Let us take him,” Goswin!Three offered. “He needs to visit the Magnolia.”
“What would be the purpose of that?” Weaver questioned.
“You must not have had enough time to study it,” a shifted Weaver said. “It does more than you think. Trust us. He needs to go to Bida.”
“He doesn’t have much time,” the other Briar claimed.
“We should trust them,” Goswin!Prime struggled to say through the bubbles of blood popping out of his mouth.
“No,” Eight Point Seven tried to reason. “If you’re conscious, then let’s all focus on a medical professional in a medical facility. Somewhere in the Fifth Division, you say? We don’t need to know where to look. That’s what our power is for. It looks for us, we just have to concentrate on it. Gos? Gos!”
“He’s out again,” the other Goswin said. “We have to go now, but we won’t do it without consensus.”
Weaver!Prime took a half step forward. “You have it. I’m second in command. When he’s out, it falls to me. Eight Point Seven, let him go.”
“We’re obviously going with you,” Eight Point Seven insisted.
Everyone shifted to the location of the Memory Magnolia on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida. This included the other shifted crews who chose to stay, as well as the warmonger crew. Even Briar!Prime and Iolanta were shifted with them, each cradling as much medical paraphernalia as they could carry. A version of either Weaver or Holly Blue was standing at the tree. She was wearing steampunk goggles, and inspecting the bark of the tree. It was much larger than the last time the Primes saw it.
“We need the sap,” Goswin!Three demanded.
Weaver!Four turned, but left her goggles on. “This kind of tree doesn’t have sap in the way that you’re thinking. If you just give me some time—”
“There’s no time, dipshit!” Weaver!Three argued. She pushed her other, other self out of the way as she approached the tree. She held her hand out by her hip, using her power to shift a spile out of some other time and place. She dropped her other hand, and shifted a drill into that one.
“No. I’ll do it,” the other Eight Point Seven insisted. She ignored the drill, and took the spile from her Weaver. She placed it against the bark of the tree, but didn’t jam it in immediately. She used her other hand to feel around the trunk until she found the right place well above her head, which she moved the spile too. She twisted it at first to begin making the dent before it was sufficiently deep. Then she forced it the rest of the way in. Once it was evidently ready, she placed her hands on either side of the trunk, and closed her eyes.
“No, I’ll do it,” Goswin!Three echoed her from earlier.
“You’ve already given too much,” the Weaver!Three reminded him.
“I’ll do it,” the Briar!Three volunteered instead.
“We’ll need a lot,” his version of Goswin warned him. “You’ll have to sacrifice a lot of memories, and that could kill you.”
“It’s for a Prime,” Briar reasoned.
“No,” Weaver!Prime jumped in. “Goswin wouldn’t want someone to die for him.”
Briar!Three smiled. “No one ever really dies. I am a wave returning to the ocean.” He placed his own hands around the tree like his Eight Point Seven did, and shut his eyes. He stood there for a few minutes, sometimes smiling, sometimes frowning. Finally, he shifted away, perhaps into oblivion. An amber sap began to flow from the spile. Goswin!Three jumped up to it, simultaneously shifting a golden grail into his hand. Once he had collected enough, he held up his free hand as if merely asking a waiter to stop adding parmesan. The sap stopped flowing after it let out the last few drops.
“Is he gone?” Briar!Prime asked regarding his shifted self.
Gone is a relative term,” Goswin!Three replied vaguely as he was slipping the sap between his shifted self’’s lips. “There’s a little bit of him in all of the other Briars now. We’re all only extensions of one person. That’s what makes us different from normal alternate selves. Identity is preserved, just...split.”
Tamerlane Pryce slowly began to climb the hill up towards the Magical Memory Magnolia. “What does that mean for those of us who don’t have any shifted selves?”
“Same thing it means for anyone,” Goswin!Three began. “You are just you.”
“But the tree,” Pryce tried to clarify. “What would happen if I were to...sacrifice a memory to it? Or all of my memories, which is presumably what caused your Briar to disappear.”
“That’s not our problem right now,” Eight Point Seven!Prime exclaimed. “How long is this miracle sap supposed to take? He’s not waking up.”
Goswin!Three checked Goswin!Prime’s pulse. “He may be too far gone. His heart is still beating, but barely. It should have worked by now.”
“You said gone isn’t really gone,” Briar!Prime pointed out.
“It’s complicated, okay?”
Everyone kept arguing while Pryce only stared longingly at the tree, and Iolanta warned him off of it. It was too dangerous, but he had to know. He would soon get his chance to find out, but not quite yet. Goswin!Prime was indeed gone, but not in the way that anyone here was imagining it. He found himself standing on an asteroid in the middle of outerspace. There was no atmosphere, but he felt no need to breathe. Only a few faint stars were in the sky, but they were moving as the asteroid rotated on its axis. From behind the hill, the Earth came into view. Except it wasn’t Earth. It was a warped abomination of many Earths, twisted around, and melded into, each other. It looked like how someone would draw the Earth if they kept messing up, and instead of finding a new piece of paper, just drew the next attempt on top of the old one. No one could have survived whatever happened to it, yet he wasn’t alone.
Some version of Briar walked up to him, and watched the Earth amalgam continue to rise in the sky over their head. “This is the result.”
“The result of what?” Goswin asked him.
“Of us,” Briar answered. “Us and our shifted selves. We just keep shifting, and these are the consequences. We start out with the best of intentions, obviously. We shift Hitler out of history to prevent the Holocaust. It works, but the war still happens, and people keep dying. So we keep shifting, a person here, a building there to avoid a tsunami. Shift this, shift that, shift who we believe to be an anachronistic visionary to another point in time. Shift entire groups of people. We try to remake the world in our image, and eventually, we just move the Earth itself. To compound the issue, we’ve already been shifted, so competing crews are running around, making their own adjustments to the timeline. The conflicts arose exponentially, and we couldn’t stop it. That’s what’s happened with that.” The amalgamation disappeared beyond the horizon. It wouldn’t be long before it was back.
“We break time,” Goswin acknowledged. “Time travel is always bad, no matter what you’re trying to do with it. We think it’s better, but it’s just movement...unless you’re a shifted one, that we end up with an amalgamated Earth.”
“That would seem to be the case, despite the fact that some of our best friends are time travelers. What’s to be done about it?”
Briar shrugged. “Some tried to go back in time to stop it from ever happening, but guess what?”
“It just backfired,” Goswin realized. “That’s the whole point.”
“That’s the whole point,” Briar echoed. “But you,” he went on. “You’re here to catch a glimpse of your future.” He put the last word in airquotes. “Perhaps you really can fix it before it starts.”
“How could that be possible?”
“How is any of this possible? Use your imagination. That’s what our power really is. We manifest what we imagine into reality, not by conjuring new constructs out of nowhere, but by shifting what already exists from one point to another.”
“Thanks for being so cryptic.”
“I’m not telling you how to fix it, not as some life lesson so you’ll come to the right answer on your own, but because I don’t know it. I was one of the ones who tried to fix it before, and it obviously didn’t work. That’s how we got the Amal.” He pointed at the Earth as it was coming into view once more.
“Amal,” Goswin whispered, getting an idea from his imagination.
“Yeah,” Briar agreed, though he did not understand what he was agreeing with.
Goswin shifted a goblet of Arthurian sap into his hand, but kept looking at his enemy-turned-friend. “I figured out your problem. You were trying to fix it on your own.” He held the goblet up to his face to prepare to drink. “It’s going to take us all.” He poured it down his gullet, and suddenly woke up in his originally body, back on the ground in the middle of the forest on Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida.
“Tammy, no!” Iolanta was shouting.
Pryce reached out towards the Miracle Magical Memory Magnolia, and placed a hand upon its bark. He disappeared much quicker than Briar did. Iolanta was holding onto his free hand, and disappeared along with him.
Goswin!Prime got himself to his feet. “It doesn’t matter. It will all be over soon.”
“Something happened to you,” Goswin!Three guessed. “You went somewhere...saw something.”
Goswin!Prime smiled at his shifted self, and placed a hand upon his shoulder. Then, without warning, he shifted him back into his own mind and body.
“What did you just do?” Eight Point Seven!Three asked.
Goswin!Prime shut his eyes, and shifted her into Eight Point Seven!Prime. Then he did the same for the other Weavers, and A.F. He took hold of the hands of each of his compatriots, and synchronized their neural signals. They reached out into the cosmos, to every shifted self, in every point in time, in every timeline, in every reality, and even some who managed to escape this universe, and enter another. He summoned them all to this small clearing in the forest, a hundred of them at a time. They were only here for a second before he absorbed them, even the copies that were not alternates of the core four, like Ellie and Paige. They absorbed them all, back to where they belonged in their respective bodies. One body each.
Now that that was over, and all was right with the world, they still had one more issue. The four of them turned to face the Mysterious Miracle Magical Memory Magnolia. Colors were flowing around the trunk and branches, radiating with energy. The space around it was distorted as it pulsated with power. It almost looked like it was getting ready to explode, and they couldn’t say what that would mean for anyone standing near it, or on the planet at the time, or hell, all of time. The crew was back together, but the rules of reality were still broken, and floating down a river of chaos.
“Something has to be done about that,” Goswin decided.
“The bark receives memories, the leaves store it, and the sap heals. What do the roots do? What do the fruits do?” Briar questioned.
“I see no fruits,” Eight Point Seven pointed out.
“It’s probably only a matter of time,” Weaver figured. “Some plants take years to mature enough to bear fruit.
“Something has to be done about it,” Goswin repeated himself.
“I have an idea,” Weaver said. “But it’s going to require more shifting, and I can’t predict the consequences. Have any of you ever heard of the Garden Dimension?”

Tree of Life

Eight Point Seven suggested that they go ahead and try to transport the Memory Magnolia to the Garden Dimension, so they could limit the number of times that they had to shift through time and space, but Weaver didn’t think that was a good idea. The Garden was an incredibly delicate ecosystem of plants that came from alternate timelines and realities, all along the timeline. Some species were made extinct by other species, and they could both be found there, somewhere. They couldn’t be planted together, of course, and it was the Horticulturalists’ job to make sure that problems did not arise. It was not easy, and they took pride in their work. They couldn’t just introduce a completely new species of tree, especially not one with special temporal properties. It was not their right, and they could get in serious trouble for it. They had to speak with the Horticulturalists first.
Weaver shifted a temporal bubble generator into her hand, and installed it on the tree, which should prevent anyone from accessing it, and also alert her across time if someone made the attempt. Then they synchronized their minds, and made the shift to the Garden Dimension, directly in front of another group of four people. They were not surprised to see the visitors. Getting into this dimension was not as easy as driving down the highway to the local arboretum, but it was also not impossible. Most people requested an appointment, and had to go through a vetting process, because they didn’t want to entertain someone who was going to try to burn the whole place down, but they generally didn’t freak out when someone occasionally bypassed this courtesy.
A woman who looked like she was in her fifties took off her gardening gloves, and extended her hand. “Greetings, visitors. My name is Storm Avakian. This is my husband, Pinesong Shadowskin, his sister, Princess Honeypea, and our friend, Onyx Wembley.”
“Goswin Montagne, Holly ‘Weaver’ Blue, Eight Point Seven, and Briar de Vries,” Goswin returned.
“What can we help you with?” Storm asked.
“We would like to make a deposit,” Goswin answered. “It’s a special temporal object in the form of a tree. It’s very beautiful, very dangerous, very not something that I want anyone in mithgarther to have access to. It must be protected from people, and they must be protected from it.”
“It’s called the Memory Magnolia,” Briar added.
Storm perked up at this. “It’s a magnolia, you say? Magnolia seeds were stolen from us once. We never found out where they were taken.”
“Magnolia arthurii?” Eight Point Seven asked.
Storm did not look happy. “Were you involved?”
“Absolutely not,” Eight Point Seven insisted. “Its brief existence was recorded in history. Someone introduced it in the early 12th century.”
“That was the wrong timeline,” Pinesong explained. “That never should have happened. That it died out was probably a blessing.”
“It mutated,” Weaver went on to explain. “The Memory Magnolia came from a seed that we believe was altered during an accidental trip through a time cave to another planet, centuries in the future.”
“That’ll do it,” Onyx calculated.
“That tree belongs here,” Storm determined. “You were right to come to us with this issue. Unfortunately, it will take work to find a decent place for it. Your gut may tell you that something like that needs distance, but it may not survive if not accompanied by other life, for symbiotic purposes, or just because it gets lonely. Of course, our resident Bioharmony Choreographer, Princess Honeypea will need to inspect it first.”
“She’s a choreographer?” Briar asked. He was looking at Storm, but his eyes kept darting over to Honeypea. She appeared to be about his age, though the actual amount of time she had spent alive was difficult to determine. All four of them were said to be immortal.
Princess Honeypea hopped up to the space between the two quartets, and performed a short dance for them. It was whimsical, light, and emotive. Near the end, she began to speak. “At first glance, plants don’t dance, but perchance, if you pay in advance to let yourself be entranced, you’ll find that the truth supplants your stance as you watch how the way they prance is enhanced by the grace with which they do indeed dance.” At the very end, she held her arms out wide, and dipped her nose down towards the ground as one foot rose up in the air behind her. After holding the pose for a moment, she looked back up at Briar. “Just don’t forget your underpants.” She giggled.
Briar smiled. “I believe you.”
“How difficult is it for you to take us back to where the tree is now?” Pinesong asked, presumably feeling protective of his little sister.
“I need you here,” Storm said to him. “You must meditate if you are to find enough space for the magnolia.” She looked over at the crew. “He’s our Dimensional Composer. He makes sure the specimens have a place to live.”
“I’ll be fine, brother. I’ve done this before.” Honeypea reached up, and patted him on the head. “But I love that you still worry about me.”
“To answer your question,” Goswin began, “shifting back to Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida is easy, and will only take a second.”
Weaver shifted a small mirror into her hand. No, it was two mirrors, the second of which was revealed when she split them with her thumb like a deck of cards. “We can stay in contact with these, if you need peace of mind.”
Storm took one of the mirrors graciously. “Thank you. Be careful, Princess.”
Honeypea clicked her tongue, and pointed finger guns at her boss-slash-sister-in-law. “Namaste on my vibe.”
The five of them disappeared, and returned to the Memory Magnolia, but someone was already there, likely trying to figure out how to disable the temporal bubble that was blocking his access to it. “Can I help you?” Goswin asked, stepping forward as if to protect his people. Eight Point Seven rolled her eyes, and stepped up even further, since she might actually be able to protect them.
The man had turned around quickly, startled, but was relaxing now. “Yes, hello. Do you know anything about this tree?”
“What about it?” Goswin questioned. “State your business here.”
“Forgive me my poor manners.” He removed his hat, and held it in front of him. “My name is Elmo Barone, but they call me The Baron. I was hired to procure a fruit from this tree. It evidently has the power to make people young again.”
Eight Point Seven. “Elmo Barone. Private investigator from the 21st century, specializing in missing heir recovery.”
“I’ve never heard of him,” Weaver pointed out. “When did you become a time traveler?”
When?” the Baron questioned. “Is it even possible to answer that?”
“You can’t have the tree,” Goswin said dismissively. “Besides, it’s not even fruiting yet, so it won’t be of much use to you.”
Baron nodded. “My client said that they wouldn’t say no to a sample of its sap.”
“Unfortunately, the orchard is closed today,” Briar insisted. “You may return to the time you came from, or we can do it for you.”
Baron narrowed his eyes at him. “I meant no disrespect, I’m just trying to save a life. My client’s only heir is a child. If he dies too soon, the fortune will fall under control of the child’s mother, who is an awful woman. Believe me, I’ve met her. He first asked me to find his son to become the child’s legal custodian instead, but when I couldn’t, he sent me on this quest to just stave off the inevitable.”
“Why did he not know where his son was?” Goswin pressed.
“The child’s father went missing years ago. Other investigators, and the police, were equally unable to find him.”
The crew looked amongst each other.
“We can’t do it,” Eight Point Seven argued. “We’re trying to quit. That’s what we’ve all agreed to, right, to put this tree where it belongs, and then just stay out of the timeline for all of eternity? I know we’ve not been talking about it, but that’s the impression that I get from all four of us.”
“We have to help them if we can,” Briar reasoned.
“When does it end?” Eight Point Seven questioned. “How much meddling do we do before we finally reach that last one?”
“We’ve reached it,” Goswin decided. “It’s this one right here.”
“Can we agree to that?” Eight Point Seven asked. “Can we all promise?” The other three nodded, so Eight Point Seven approached Baron. “You don’t need the tree. Death is a part of life in your time. Think about the man you’re trying to find.”
“I’m thinking about him,” Baron said.
Eight Point Seven held her palm towards him. “Okay.” He disappeared, back to where he belonged, standing next to the child’s father. It would be up to the Baron to determine whether he was a better fit for legal custodian than the baby mama.
“I think I know why the tree does not bear fruit,” Honeypea said, “but I’ll need some time.” She hopped up to it, and carefully inspected the whole thing with all five senses; its bark, its branches, its leaves, and its roots. She knocked three times on the trunk. “Hello?” she asked in a sweet voice, as if waiting for someone inside to respond. She lay down on her stomach, placing her ear upon the dirt underneath the canopy. Then she shut her eyes softly, and breathed deeply. Once she stood back up, she gathered as much saliva in her mouth as she could, and spit it at the base. As she watched it be absorbed into the ground, she nodded. “Just as I suspected.” She turned around to address the group. “Water. She needs water.”
“It rains here quite frequently,” Briar explained.
“It’s not enough,” Princess Honeypea insisted. “She needs constant water. She’s a river tree.”
“Why did she grow if—I mean it—why did it grow at all if it can only survive in a river?” Weaver questioned.
She,” Honeypea reiterated, “could survive just about anywhere, but she won’t thrive unless she’s transplanted to a source of freshwater. A river would be best, due to the constant onslaught of nutrients.”
“Do you have rivers in the Garden Dimension?” Eight Point Seven asked.
“Of course we have rivers,” Honeypea replied.
“Well...” Goswin encouraged. “Which one were you thinking would be the best fit for the tree’s needs?”
Princess Honeypea smirked foxishly. “All of them.”
“What does that mean?”
Honeypea pulled out the communication mirror. “Storm, are ya there?”
“Right here, buddy,” Onyx responded instead.
“Is Arnie around?” Honeypea asked him.
“He can be.” 
“Gather the troops,” Honeypea instructed. “Our new friends here are gonna help us move our new roommate into her room.”
The crew brought all of the Horticulturalists to their location on Bida, including a previously unmet member. Arnold Daysayer was the Garden Steward. He was in charge of providing the food and water that the specimens needed on a regular basis. Of course, he didn’t just stand there with a hose, but in addition to making sure the irrigation systems held up, it was his responsibility to watch for death and damage, natural hybridization complications, and even parasites, and other diseases.
After Honeypea explained what they were going to do, they stood around the Memory Magnolia holding hands, alternating by group. They needed all nine of them to complete the circle, because the trunk was at least four meters wide at this point. This would be the most difficult shift they had ever done, maybe even more than the mountain that the other crew reportedly shifted once, since this was a delicate living organism. It was more expansive than it appeared, with roots extending far beyond the canopy of the branches and leaves above. They had to reach out to every square millimeter of the thing, and make sure that they were able to capture all of the energy that was coming off of it. Some leaves and other debris had fallen off of it recently, and they wanted those too. They felt compelled to remove every single particulate from the planet to prevent any residual temporal power from being harnessed for any reason, good or bad; accidentally, or on purpose. Finally, after they were satisfied that they would leave nothing behind, they shifted the tree and themselves to the location of Princess Honeypea’s choosing.
The force of the transplantation pushed them all to their backs, into the water now surrounding the Memory Magnolia. According to the Horticulturalists, this was the confluence of five rivers, which they specifically designed to be a symbol for the water of life that flowed throughout this entire dimension. It was located in the very center of the world, and always would be. When Pinesong needed to extend the borders, he did so relatively evenly by expanding the whole bubble at once. As they were standing up and wading in the waters, they watched as fruits began to take shape from their stems. The tree’s energy began to bounce out of the wood, and into the conflux that they were standing in. The Magnolia breathed a sigh of relief as it settled into its new home.
“I hope you’re all prepared to stay here for a long time,” Onyx began as the nine of them were coming back together. “This will need constant supervision; the kind that we can’t give it if we want to nurture the whole garden. People will be coming for it.”
The core four looked amongst each other, and agreed to this high calling, having already predicted the necessity. Just then, another group of four people started floating towards them from up one of the rivers. It was Team Matic.

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