Hogarth Pudeyonvic and Hilde Unger were back on Tribulation Island, awaiting some good news. It was time to go back home; or at least the last place they were living before their friend’s memorial services. They were pretty sure they would be able to get back to the Milky Way galaxy, but it might be a little more difficult to reach Glisnia specifically. The intergalactic transporter there was destroyed, and though they asked its mysterious engineer to repair it for them, she seemed hesitant to do that. It wasn’t that she thought it would be bad to help them, but she was very, very old, and none of this mattered to her. Anyway, it wasn’t absolutely vital. They really just needed to get close, and then they could travel the rest of the way by ship.
“Okay, I found it,” the technician said.
“What took so long?” Hilde asked. “That’s not a criticism, I’m just curious.”
“I had to change...a parameter.”
“What does that mean?” Hilde pressed.
“You had to adjust the fourth dimension, didn’t you?” Hogarth guessed.
“That’s right,” the technician confirmed. “I can send you to the recent past, to just before the Nexus replica explodes...or the far future, to just after it comes back online.”
“How far in the future?”
“The year 2400,” the tech replied.
“Why is that?” Hilde asked her wife. “Why that year?”
“That must be when The Engineer finally gets around to fixing the replica.”
“Well, we don’t want that,” Hilde decided. “We’ll go to the past instead.”
“We shouldn’t do that,” Hogarth argued. “We don’t wanna run into our Past!Selves, or do anything else that could disrupt the timeline.”
“What are you talking about?” Hilde questioned. “We’re time travelers, we do that all the time.”
“That’s true,” the tech agreed. “You’re time travelers. Twenty-two sixty-two, twenty-four hundred, what’s the difference? You may as well see the future. You’ve already done that once, right? Aren’t you from 2017?”
“Twenty-sixteen,” Hogarth corrected. “He’s right. We don’t even have to go to Glisnia. We could go to Earth, or Gatewood, or back to that place where we met the Engineer.”
“Oh no, I can’t get you there,” the tech said.
“Didn’t you modify the machine, as I instructed?” Hogarth wondered.
“I did not receive authorization to do that from Transportation Administrator Moss. She says we’re not ready to explore other universes. If you want to return, you’ll need to go to Glisnia.”
“I really do want that,” Hogarth said to her wife. She didn’t need her permission, per se, but every decision they made needed to be unanimous. Their relationship didn’t work when one of them resented the other.
Hilde shrugged. “Glisnia 2400; sounds like a TV show spinoff. Let’s do it.”
The tech nodded, and started pressing the appropriate buttons as the two travelers left the control room, and stepped into the transportation chamber. “Thirty second warning,” he announced, as per protocol.
“Thanks for helping us with this,” Hilde said.
Orange light rained down from the ceiling, and overwhelmed their senses, but then a problem arose. Hogarth thought she had gotten over this, but apparently it was still in her. Back in 2016, she built a machine she hoped would transport her to another world. It went wrong, and ended up sending the entire town with her. Though this would turn out to be for the best, it didn’t not come without its problems. For one, Hogarth began to suffer a time affliction. It wasn’t a pattern, like the salmon had, or a power, like the choosing ones. It was very difficult to control, very unpleasant, and dangerous. The last time it happened to her, she thought would be the last ever, but it was starting again. She was about to explode herself, and be sent to some random point in spacetime. “Wait! Abort!” It was too late. The explosion swelled from inside her just as the machine was reaching its final phase. Both of these energies released simultaneously.
Time slowed down. Hogarth couldn’t so much as blink her eyes, but she could still see. Her explosive power, and the Nexus replica lights, were crashing into each other, and igniting. She could feel her atoms doing the same, and being ripped apart from each other. She always knew this was what was happening, but it was the first time she could actually perceive it. She didn’t detect any pain, but it was still horrific. Then the scene changed, and she could see more than she ever thought possible. The entire network of Nexus replicas, and original Nexa was before her. She couldn’t reach any of them, but she could see them. She could watch them. She could witness them exploding all around her. First, the one on Durus, and then Earth, and then the Metanexus, which served as an entry point to the multiverse. Be it the past, or the future, they were all falling apart, and now she knew why. She was the one responsible for it. She had destroyed them all.
Time restarted, the network faded away, and her molecules reconstituted themselves. She fell to her back, and just lied there a moment. She still wasn’t in any pain, but she couldn’t bring herself to sit up, and get a look around. She and her friends had been trying to figure out who was running around, destroying Nexus replicas. Now they knew it was her. It was all her fault. While she was trying to work up the courage to get to her feet, and make sure Hilde was okay, Hilde did it first.
“Are you okay? Can you move?”
“I’m all right,” Hogarth responded. “You?”
“I’m okay,” Hilde said. “What happened?”
“That’s what I would like to know.” The tech was stepping into the chamber, and approaching them. “The controls are dead. I don’t know where or when we are. It’s not Darius, though, I’ll tell ya that much. That room is of a slightly different design.”
Hogarth finally got to her feet, and looked around. The place looked all right, so if the controls were off, it was probably a software issue, and hopefully easy to fix. “In that case, there’s only one way to find out.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Hilde asked again.
“I’m fine. I’ll explain later, but I need to know where the machine sent us first.”
“And why I came with,” the tech added.
“No, I know the answer to that,” Hogarth told him. “I screwed up.” She led them down the hallway, and towards the exit. There were almost no windows in this building. Glass was both reflective, and transparent, so it was counterproductive to the machine’s need to contain temporal energy. The window between the control room and the transportation chamber came from an unknown source. Whenever a new replica was built, the directions instructed the maker to leave that space blank. At some point by the end of the project, the window fabricated itself, out of an unknown material. It should have protected the tech, but Hogarth’s explosion must have interfered with its integrity.
Before she could open the door to the outside, it opened for her. A mech was on the other side, sporting a disconcerting smile. “The Forerunners. You have returned.” This wasn’t as glorious of a title as it sounded like. A forerunner was a type of ship that flew ahead of a new colony’s first colony vessel. If something ended up having gone wrong with the automated factory ships that were sent even earlier, they would be able to fix everything before the colonists arrived. When Hogarth and Hilde appeared in the Gliese 832 star system, they became the first vonearthans to set foot on Glisnia, which was its only terrestrial planet. This made them notable figures in Glisnian history, of course, but there was nothing else special about them, and they didn’t do anything. The only nanofactory ships that ever malfunctioned did so over a planet called Varkas Reflex. So Hogarth and Hilde used their time alone to build their own little home on the surface. It also gave them time to explore a little, and discover the Nexus replica in the first place, which they had tried to keep a secret. Apparently that plan failed.
“We have,” Hilde said. “Report.”
“It is the year 2400,” the mech began. “The Matrioshka brain is complete, and we’re now working on the body.”
“The whatnow?” Hogarth questioned. “I don’t follow.”
The mech now tried to show them a smirk, but it was even more unsettling than the first facial expression. Artificial intelligences were perfectly capable of understanding both why smiles were socially beneficent, and even also how to make one. Unfortunately, except for the ones that were built with synthetic skin—and, more importantly, lips—the actual execution of a smile was generally extremely difficult.  Their mouths just didn’t look quite right. Eye smiles were generally pretty good, though, so people were taught to focus on them instead. He bowed graciously, and stepped aside, so they could walk through the door.
Here there was a window, showing that they were no longer on Glisnia; probably because it didn’t exist anymore. It was taken apart completely, and integrated into a megastructure surrounding the star. A matrioshka brain was always on the schedule for the future of the star system. They only landed on the planet to get started, but the world wasn’t going to last forever. It was far more valuable in its new form. A dyson shell was constructed around Gliese 832. Most of the energy was absorbed by these artificial structures, and used to power their systems. The rest was bled off into space in the form of infrared light, and a not insignificant amount of visible light. They weren’t opaque spheres like old fiction liked to portray them as. That didn’t mean all the energy that escaped was completely useless. All they needed to do was build another shell around the first one. And then another, and another, and another. They built as many as they needed to maximize the energy input; until building more would be more trouble than it was worth.
They were clearly finished with this process, having been working on it for the last a hundred and fifty years. That was incredibly impressive, even for a group of artificials whose sole responsibility was to make it happen. “Was there enough raw material in this system to do this?” Hogarth asked.
“For the brain, yes,” the mech replied. “We sent refinery ships to nearby systems to get material for the rest.”
“Moar!” the tech exclaimed jokingly. They needed to learn his name.
“Indeed,” the mech agreed. Surely he had a name as well. “We do need even more, and we have to go farther out. That’s where you come in.”
“Me?” Hogarth asked. “What can I do?”
The mech gestured towards the door behind them. “You obviously have a way to travel the stars. We need you to replicate that for us, but on a much, much larger scale.”
She didn’t do that. She didn’t build the Nexa, or develop any other form of faster-than-light travel. That was Hokusai’s deal. She was more about parallel dimensions, and artificial gravity. Still, it should be possible. But why didn’t they figure it out themselves? “Why didn’t you just figure it out yourselves, while I was gone? Surely, with all this time...”
“We’ve been locked out of this structure since we discovered it. A human woman named Azure Vose told us to—and I quote—am-scray.”
“That sounds like her,” Hilde said.
“We just have one condition,” the mech said in a worried voice. “The other mechs won’t let you be involved unless you become one of us.”
“I have to upgrade?” Hogarth asked, though she knew that was what he meant.
“Humans aren’t allowed here. It’s been declared. Upgrading isn’t enough, though. You have to upload.”
This was no huge surprise. Though humans weren’t illegal in the beginning, it was probably always going to end up like this. There were hundreds of billions of stars in this galaxy alone. No one was going to get pissy about one of them being set aside for a particular group of vonearthans. Hell, there could be hundreds, thousands, millions, even billions of them in the future. There were plenty of resources for everyone. That wasn’t really the problem, though. Hogarth wasn’t sure she wanted to become completely inorganic. She grew up in a time before that was possible, and had been so busy as a traveler, that she had never given it any real thought. He was right, however, that she didn’t belong here in her current form. This planet was not meant for her, as it was designed for artificial entities. Perhaps it was time—not to change this fact—but to change herself. The only question was whether Hilde could ever feel the same way. Would she be willing to upgrade as well?
“I’m in,” Hilde said, shockingly. “I wanna see what this matrioshka body ends up looking like, and if nothing else, I need to survive long enough for you to finish it. Let’s do it.”
That was easy.

Body of Theseus

Consciousness is a tricky thing. For as long as computers have existed, people have been trying to draw comparisons between hard drives and human brains. The analogy certainly seems reasonable. Both of them store information, both allow that information to be accessed, and interfaced with. But there is a huge difference between how the two operate. Computers process information in binary code, through logic gates that really just boil down to on or off. Brains, on the other hand, are a chaotic mess of neurons and synapses. Memory is retrieved through associations and connections. Each one is unique. In the 21st century, many researchers believed they were capable of mapping a given human brain, and recreating the structure in a computer model. But it was nothing more than a copy, and a copy is not the original.
The science behind mind uploading was always a gray area, and the problem of mind transference felt insurmountable. If you were to attempt to upload yourself into a new substrate of some kind, there is a fifty percent chance that you wake up in the new substrate. There is thusly a fifty percent chance that you wake up to find yourself still in your old body, while some rando copy of you is waking up, thinking they’re the real version of you. It’s just a copy, though. That doesn’t mean this copy isn’t real, but it  hasn’t solved your problem of wanting to shed your old substrate, and become something different. It doesn’t matter how many times you try this, in each attempt, there is also a version of you that’s the copy, and a version of you that’s just failed in getting what they wanted. There will always be someone left behind. And the reason that is is because a human brain is not a computer. Files can’t be transferred to some other location, because thoughts and memories aren’t stored as files in the first place.
Experts came up with a somewhat viable workaround to this issue. If the mind wasn’t designed with files and folders, then it had to be converted. They called it Project Theseus. The Ship of Theseus is an old thought experiment, which questions whether a ship that’s had every part of it replaced over time is even the same ship as before. The rational answer seems to be...sort of. Mostly. We hope. Even though none of the parts were there in the beginning, some of the parts are older than others, and they were around to be connected to even older parts, and those older parts were there with parts that are older still. As long as they’re replaced gradually, each new part can claim to be a component of the whole, and that doesn’t change even when all its nearby parts are also replaced themselves.
Project Theseus took this interpretation of the experiment, and applied it to the human body. You replace a patient’s hands, and let them use them for a few weeks. Then you replace their arms. Then their feet, then their legs, then their internal organs. By not doing it all at once, each new part can integrate itself into the system, so that that system has a chance to consider it a constituent, rather than a foreign extension. After discovering that this seemed to work, the experts decided it was time for the next step. They now hoped to apply the Theseus technique to the central nervous system, though they recognized that it would be far more complicated. It was going to take a lot more research, heaps more patience, and an uncomfortable amount of trial and error.
The Theseus technique worked well for decades, but it wasn’t perfect. The time it took to complete the whole thing wasn’t much of a problem for most people. The average human being was going to live for a century without it, so even if they decided to become inorganic later on in life, there was usually plenty of time. There were some people, however, who couldn’t wait that long. Even after all this, there were still some medical conditions that science couldn’t fix, and brain uploading was the only solution. These people needed a completely new technique, which scientists started referring to neurosponging. An artificial brain is first synthesized, which perfectly resembles the patient’s brain. Electrical signals are then basically absorbed into the synth, just as they’re being lost from the original. It was like Theseus on a profoundly shorter timeline, but it alone did not solve the problem. Though artificial, this new brain was still organic, and still prone to degradation. Fortunately, it could be programmed to rewrite itself, until it exhibited an easier to organize filing system. Then that could be transferred to something more durable. This was the route that Hogarth Pudeyonavic and Hilde Unger chose to take.
In a matter of days, the process was complete, and they were both mechs. There were two primary types of mechs in the stellar neighborhood. Some were artificial intelligences, while others were transhumans who passed the singularity when they were upgraded so much that they became mechs. There were no terms to distinguish these two types, however, because internally speaking, a mech was a mech, and they treated each other as such. Hogarth and Hilde now belonged to Glisnian society, and would be allowed to contribute to the cause.
“Why are we keeping your former substrate?” The mech they met when they first returned was going to remain their associate. His full name was Mekiolenkidasola, though he sometimes just went by Lenkida.
The tech from Dardius was still human, and named Ethesh Beridze. “Yeah, your dead bodies are freaking me out.”
“They’re not dead,” Hogarth reminded him as Hilde was closing the drawer that contained her body. “They’re in stasis. In order to help the Glisnians crack superluminal travel, I need to study my old body. How did I do it? I explored the answers all I could while I was still alive, but now it’s time to perform a dissection, and really figure out how it worked.”
“You don’t understand why you were capable of traveling through time?” Lenkida questioned.
“It wasn’t so much something I was capable of as it was a medical condition that was thrust upon me. I’m not the best candidate for this research. If you want to study someone who can travel the stars, you’re gonna want The Trotter. He’s not here, however, and my body is all we have right now. Still, I once jumped here from another universe, so this should at least give us a start.”
“There are other universes?” Lenkida wasn’t shocked, but he was surprised. It was practically impossible to shock anyone in the 25th century.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Wait, why do we need your body at all, if we’re just going to build more Nexus replicas?”
“I’ll be studying the replicas too,” Hogarth explained, “but I don’t want to just make more of them, not after what I’ve learned. I’ll go over my reasons later.”
“What do you need?” Lenkida offered.
Hogarth slid her metallic fingers over her old fleshy arm. “I need you to find me an assistant. Someone who was once human, understands both human physiology, and the human condition. Obviously they need to be discreet. I’ll build you a resource extractor, but not a stargate network. That’s my requirement.”
“Understood,” Lenkida said. “Let me go find you some candidates.”
“I’ll come with,” Ethesh asked.
While they were off doing that, Hogarth and Hilde took some time to get used to their new bodies. They chose a humanoid design, with a synthetic skin overlaid. It probably wasn’t too terribly common, but it wasn’t unheard of either. Many of the formerly organic mechs preferred this, because it made them look as they always did. Most eventually shed this facade, however, and just went with the robot look, because skin didn’t serve a utilitarian purpose, and faces only helped in certain social settings. The two most recent mechs weren’t going to make any rash decisions in that regard.
“How does it feel?” Hilde asked.
“I could ask you the same thing,” Hogarth said. “We’re in the same boat.”
“Not really,” Hilde contended. “You were the one with a time affliction. I haven’t lost anything I’ll miss, but your ability got you out of a lot of sticky situations, even if you weren’t in control of it. How many times did you almost die, only to be spirited away at the very less microsecond?”
“I don’t need to worry about that anymore,” Hogarth assured her. “My consciousness is constantly being backed up to eleven locations.”
“Still,” Hilde went on, it was a part of you, and now it’s gone forever.”
Hogarth smirked, and opened the drawer where Hilde’s body was resting in stasis. “Is it? Who says I can’t just jump back in whenever I want? Who says you can’t do the same?”
“Mech law—”
“Mech law can suck it. I haven’t ever followed anyone else’s rules, and I’m certainly not going to start now. I’ll do what I promised, and get them the resources they need to complete their matrioshka body. I may not do it the way they want it, and they’re just gonna have to accept that.”
“What didn’t you want to say when Lenkida and Ethesh were here? Why aren’t we just using the Nexus replica?”
“I cannot allow anyone the ability to travel faster-than-light. We’ve seen what humans do when they get a taste of a new world. They do whatever it is they want with it.”
“They’re mechs, though.” Hilde argued.
“Same same, but different. Vonearthans all come from the same place. Why, we’ve already seen it. Glinsia was a planet, with a surface, and a core, and satellites. They destroyed it, which is fine; there wasn’t anything living on it, but eating up resources is what people do. I have to be the one to control what they take, and where they take it from. I’ve seen too much not to.”
“What happened to you? When we jumped here from Dardius, you were on the floor, and you weren’t okay. Did you see something?”
Hogarth simulated a sigh. It felt strange, since she wasn’t breathing, and didn’t even possess any mechanism to pump or transmit air. She just let out a sound that sort of sounded like breath. “That jump is what destroyed, and will destroy, the Nexa. My affliction happened one more time, and combined with the transport. When that happened, it rippled all throughout spacetime. Every Nexus that’s ever been mysteriously destroyed, and each one we hear of from now on, will have been caused by what I did.”
“So what?”
“So what, Hogarth, who cares? It’s like you said, vonearthans abuse the powers they recieve. They don’t need the replicas, and the time travelers don’t need them either. No one needs them. They’re just more convenient.”
You don’t understand. I didn’t just destroy the replica network. I destroyed the entire thing. The explosion reached across to the originating universe, and is destroying all of those too.”
“Yeah, that sucks,” Hilde agreed, “but they’ll be okay. Or they won’t. Maybe people will die from that, or maybe people will survive because of it. Maybe a villainous force is on its way to invade an innocent planet, and you saved those people because the villains weren’t able to reach them. You keep using the word affliction, but you also keep trying to blame yourself for it. This isn’t something you’ve done, it’s something that happened to you, and in this case, it happens to have impacted other people. Again, it sucks, but you didn’t really do it. We have to find a way to move past this, because I know you, and you’ll brood for years. If the only solution is I hack into your episodic memory files, and erase the issue, I’ll do it.”
“I don’t want to forget anything,” Hilde. “My memory is everything.”
“Well, I guess therapy is your only other option. We’ll do that instead.”
“Did you just haggle me?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She shook her head, happy to be with someone who understood her. “I should get to work.”
“What are you planning? What will studying your organic body do for us? You use the word extraction.”
“I don’t know yet, but if I learn enough about how I was able to jump across dimensions, I might be able to come up with a new solution. I don’t like the word extraction, now that I’ve thought about it. I believe I would call it...time siphoning.”

Out-of-Body Expo

The good thing about dealing with a mech was that it had the ability to erase memories from itself. Hogarth was free to tell the candidates for her associate all she needed about time travelers, her former affliction, and the Nexus replicas. There was no guarantee that they actually would erase their memories of the interaction afterwards, but she was pretty confident that they would. People lied a lot in the past. They lied about having completed tasks they didn’t want to do, or liking people they hated, or whatever. Vonearthans of all types didn’t generally feel the need to do that anymore. Prosocial lying wasn’t completely obsolete, but it wasn’t usually necessary. People rarely felt embarrassment or awkwardness. If someone asked them to do something, and they agreed to it, then it would get done, because if they couldn’t make it happen, then they would just say no. They would be able to say no, because there was little incentive to not be honest about one’s intentions. It probably all came down to the fact that each generation since the mid-twenty-first century bought less and less stock in judgmental people, until being judgmental was far too out of fashion for it to be instilled in the young.
Hogarth interviewed dozens of candidates, and only one checked all the boxes, and passed all the tests. Its name was Crimson Clover, and it preferred it as its pronoun. It didn’t say a word about its old life as a human, except that it possessed extensive knowledge of human biology/anatomy/physiology, and went through the background to back it up. It also implied prior experience with time travelers, though did not confirm it. Hogarth just felt comfortable opening up to it about everything that had happened to her and Hilde.
“So, this is it, huh?” Crimson said as it was standing over Hogarth’s old body.
“Yeah, you don’t think it looks the same as I do now?”
“I can tell the difference,” it replied.
“So, what do you think?” Hogarth prompted.
“Well.” It started to go over the body’s specifications on the interface screen. “You call it a time affliction, correct?”
“Yet you did eventually learn some control?”
“Yeah, kind of like how a person with allergies can hold back a sneeze, or anxiety can be treated with certain stress-reducing activities. I suppose I never tried too hard to fix it with science.”
“And you think this is our best avenue for getting the resources we need from other star systems, or interstellar space?” It asked.
“We could use the replica, but I don’t want to give vonearthans faster-than-light technology. If anyone is going to do that, it’s going to be my colleague, Hokusai Gimura.”
It nodded, and confirmed, “that’s Hilde’s mother, yeah?” As a mech, Crimson had perfect memory, so the question needn’t be asked. It was just exercising social grace, and keeping Hogarth part of the conversation, instead of internalizing its thoughts.
“Yeah, and she’s in charge of what the galaxy knows about space travel. I’m in charge of transdimensional work.”
“Why isn’t she here, then?”
“I don’t know where she is in this time period.”
Crimson nodded again. It opened a small panel on the back of its neck, and removed a syncing disc. “Well, the best way for me to understand your old body is to take it for a test drive.”
Hogarth stared at it, but said nothing. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a shock.
“Do I have your consent to upload my consciousness into your former substrate?”
Hogarth stayed there, narrowed her eyelids, and stared at it. She stared into its eyes for eleven minutes. Neither one of them moved a micrometer the entire time. This was a test; a test of Crimson’s patience and commitment. She didn’t know why she felt the need to do it, but she barely knew this person, so she had to do something to give her peace of mind. She was going to let it upload its consciousness, as it asked, but she couldn’t let it be as easy as asking the question once, and receiving an immediate affirmative. Finally, after the time ran out, she responded. “I consent to the temporary use of my former substrate.”
“Great.” Crimson made all the necessary connections, then performed the upload. It was a lot quicker, and a lot less involved, than before. Technology had come a long way, even in the future, where a lot had long been invented.
Crimson woke up in Hogarth’s body, and took a couple minutes to acclimate. It was much lighter, and more fragile now, and it had probably not been so squishy in centuries. It walked around the room to get a feel for how the muscles worked. “Fascinating,” it said, like some kind of alien who has made a moderately interesting discovery about another species. “I can feel it.”
“You can feel what?” Hogarth asked.
“The power,” it continued cryptically. “The energy.”
“I didn’t feel energy,” she contended. “It was more...pressure. Like I was a covered pot about to boil over. It never built up, though, so I couldn’t ever predict it. I suppose when I figured out how to control it a little, I was just tightening the pressure on purpose.”
Crimson shook Hogarth’s head. “Nah, it’s not pressure; it’s moving, flowing. I can work with this.” It slowly lifted its new hands from its sides, and spread its fingers. It closed its eyes, and released some air from its lungs, through its nose and mouth at the same time. As it gradually turned its lips into a smile, tiny pieces from its fingertips began to disappear. Her body was breaking apart at the molecular level.
“Where are you going?” Hogarth asked.
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
It appeared to be right. A couple meters away, tiny pieces were popping into existence, and coming together to form larger pieces. There was something wrong, though. Present!Crimson started demolecularizing from its hands, but this new shape was forming from the feet up. Was this an entirely different being? What was happening? Still, they were traveling at the same pace, so when a quarter of the first body was gone, a quarter of it had reappeared. And when half of it was gone, half had returned. Now it was even clearer that there was something different about the returning figure. It was wearing different clothes, and standing in a different position. The fact that it was happening at the same time was a complete coincidence. Present!Crimson was on its way to somewhere in the past or future, and the fact that it returned to this very moment revealed nothing about how long it spent away. That was how time travel worked.
Just as the last of its feet faded, the last of its head appeared. “Did I get the timing right?”
“That was perfect,” Hogarth replied. “For how long were you gone?”
“Centuries,” Crimson answered.
“How is that possible? This body looks as young as it did, and I wasn’t immortal.
“You were anything you wanted to be,” it started to explain. “You had no idea the kind of power you had. You gotta try this thing out. I can teach you.”
“Maybe later,” Hogarth said. “I’ve agreed to do a job for the Glisnians. I need to see that through before I think of doing anything else. What did you learn, besides how much more complicated my condition apparently is?”
“I learned that your ability sprouted from your brain, and rewrote your DNA. Adapting it to technology in order to create a time siphon may be more difficult than you thought, or impossible. You were smart to keep it alive, for we may need it to power the machine.”
“I know someone who might be able to help. Adapting powers to technology is her thing. If it can be done, she can do it. To put it a better way, if she can’t, it means no one can.”
“Do you know how to contact this person?”
“I don’t suppose anyone in this system has a phone.”
“Like, with a dial pad?”
“Yeah, it has to have physical buttons.”
“Well, I mean, someone could build one for you, but you wouldn’t be able to call anyone. We use a completely separate communication network to stay in touch with each other now. You may as well ask me to sign you up for cable television. All those shows have been cancelled, so you’ll only get static.”
“It doesn’t have to be on a network. It just has to look like a phone, and generate electrical signals. The signals don’t have to go anywhere; they just have to exist.”
“Yeah, sure, that’s easy.” Crimson walked over to the industrial synthesizer. “Hey, Thistle. One obsolete push-button telephone, please.”
“Thank you,” Hogarth said. She graciously accepted the phone replica, and prepared to dial. “I’m glad I got these upgrades. Her phone number is really difficult to remember. She made it so long to keep the riff raff from reaching her.” She then proceeded to push the buttons. There were fifty-two digits in total.
Crimson tilted its lizard brain jokingly while she was still in the middle of it. “I recognize that number. That’s the code Data uses in episode three of season four of Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Hogarth shrugged while she was waiting for her friend to answer. “Just because it’s hard to remember doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. Her direct line is a hundred and eight digits long, and completely random.”
“If this isn’t her direct line, what is it?”
“This line lets you put in a request for me to come to you. My direct line would take you to me, and I only give it to the people I know won’t give it away to a stranger.” She was here. Holly Blue.
“Thank you for coming,” Hogarth said to her.
“Why are there two of you?” Holly blue asked.
“Oh, that’s just this thing. We were hoping to procure your services. Do you think you could turn my ability into a gadget? If you do, I’ll get you back to your son.”

The Shortlist

Holly Blue stood there reverently and quietly. She didn’t look surprised or pleased at Hogarth’s offer to help her find her son. Neither did she look perturbed that this might have all been a ploy, and Hogarth wouldn’t actually be able to deliver. “He’s in another universe. How do you have access to that?”
Hogarth gestured towards Crimson, who was still inhabiting Hogarth’s original body. “My name is Crimson Clover. I borrowed this substrate so I could experiment with Madam Pudeyonavic’s time power. I’ve been traveling the bulkverse, visiting strange new worlds, meeting interesting people. Hogarth, I didn’t get a chance to tell you any of that yet. How did you know?”
“I took a guess,” Hogarth replied. “I’ve been traveling through time in this universe, and the people I meet either know about my past, or a believable future. No one has so much as hinted that an entity going by the name of Crimson Clover has been traipsing around the timeline with my face. The idea that you just jumped to other universes was a far more logical answer to where you were while you were gone for the last several centuries.”
“Are you bothered by this truth?” Crimson questioned.
“I only hope,” Hogarth began, “in all that time, you managed to meet someone by the name of Declan Aberdeen.”
“He might be going by something else,” Holly Blue said. “He hadn’t settled on one yet, but he was thinking—”
“He goes by Declan,” Crimson interrupted. “He didn’t use a codename; none of us did, though of course, everyone thought mine was made up. Since we were all from different universes, it didn’t seem necessary to hide our identities.”
“You worked with him?” Holly Blue asked.
“Yeah, we had a whole team; me, Declan, the Fruits...”
“How did you leave him? Was he okay?”
“He was...all right when I left,” Crimson answered.
“Why did you leave at all?” Hogarth asked.
“It was time,” Crimson said. “We accomplished what we set out to do, and once it was over, we went our separate ways.”
“Did he go to another world,” Holly Blue started to ask, “or do you know where I can find him that wouldn’t disrupt the timeline?” Traveling to other universes is dangerous, and not just due to physical limitations. Each universe operates on an entirely independent timeline, and is meant to remain as such. Any external force threatens that more than internal time travel ever could.
“I can take you to him,” Crimson promises with a nod.
“But I have to build you something first,” Holly Blue acknowledged.
“No,” Hogarth insisted. “If you want, we’ll skip that part.”
“That’s not what we agreed upon,” Crimson reminded her.
“I’ll find another way,” Hogarth told him. Holly Blue wasn’t the only way to invent a special time-siphoning device; she was just the easiest.
“You guarantee my safety throughout the process,” Holly Blue began, “so I don’t die before I find Declan, then I’ll build whatever you want.”
“You don’t wanna know what it is first?” Hogarth wondered.
“I trust that you’re not trying to get me to make you a bomb, or something,” Holly Blue said.
“Definitely not,” Hogarth, “though it does technically involve blowing up.”
“This ability isn’t about blowing up,” Crimson started to say. “You only perceived it that way, because you didn’t understand it. You were moving so fast that it felt like an explosion, but as I’m sure you saw, you can do at a slower pace. Someone I knew long ago called it molecular transportation, but there might be a better term for it.”
“You want me to adapt that power into something that anyone can use?” Holly Blue guessed.
“Sort of,” Hogarth said. “We want to siphon resources from distant star systems, without crossing the distance, or even teleporting to their locations. We just want the stuff.”
“Have you considered the ethical ramifications of such an endeavor?” Holly Blue pressed.
“Perhaps not all of them,” Crimson replied. “There’s absolutely the possibility of abuse, but we plan on sticking to the stellar neighborhood, and maybe a little beyond that. We’ll only take from uninhabited worlds.”
“How will you know which worlds are inhabited, and which aren’t?”
“Data from Project Stargate and Project Topdown,” Hogarth answered.
She nodded. These were semi-secret projects that involved sending automated ships across the galaxy. The idea was to explore these other systems, and catalog anything found in them, including life. Not every vonearthan was aware of it in Hogarth’s time, but this was the year 2400. Things might have changed since then. The ships were traveling near the speed of light, so at this point in history, they had already traveled a hundred and fifty light years from their starting location at the Gatewood Collective.
Holly Blue needed more information. “So, you wanna pick a target within a hundred light years, and take whatever you need from it; hydrogen, metals, whatever?”
She looked around the room, but more in a general sense. “You don’t have everything you need here, wherever this is?”
“We have exhausted our resources,” Crimson explained. “We are trying to build something truly gargantuan, and no star system in the galaxy alone possesses enough material to accomplish it.”
“What is it?”
And so they went about explaining the matrioshka brain, and the matrioshka body. It was an absurdly ludicrous goal, but if they could accumulate the materials they needed, there was no reason not to. It would be possible to see the matrioshka body from light years away, including Earth. People could look into the sky, and see the largest structure that vonearthans ever created. It would be a magnificent sight once it was finished, and everyone who looked upon it would know how powerful they were. Should an alien race gaze into the void, in the right direction, they too would see it, and both know that aliens existed, and would prove to be a formidable force. This would either scare them into staying away, or excite them with the prospect of new friends who might share knowledge with them. It was a better form of communication than any golden disc or degraded radio signal could provide. It also followed the rule of cool, and maybe that was enough.
“A time-siphon,” Holly Blue echoed. “I don’t see why not. I only have one condition, besides your promise to get me to Declan.”
“Naturally,” Crimson agreed preemptively.
“It can only be operated by The Shortlist.”
“What’s that?” Crimson asked.
Hogarth blended a scoff with a chuckle; not in disgust, but more out of surprise. The Shortlist was a self-serving and pretentious—obviously quite small—group of people who partially declared control over what people in this galaxy were allowed to have, and when they were allowed to have it. A day might come when the general public would be informed of the truth about time travelers, but if that timeline ever came to pass, it would be at the pleasure of the Shortlist. Because of time travel itself, no one really knew who came up with the idea of the list, but membership did not require consent. If you were chosen to be on it, you were on it, whether you wanted to be or not. Being short, it was rather easy to list every member. Hogarth Pudeyonavic, Hokusai Gimura, Holly Blue, Weaver, Brooke Prieto, Sharice Prieto, Kestral McBride, Ishida Caldwell, Pribadium Delgado, Leona Matic, and Ramses Abdulrashid made up the entire ensemble. Eleven people. Eleven people either decided they were in charge of the scattered trillions, or were told they were responsible for them, in some capacity.
Being smart or important was not enough to qualify someone to be on the list. Plenty of very important people were off it, like Meliora Rutherford, and Étude Einarsson. They also had to be a scientist or an engineer, and have become that way predominantly because of their exposure to time travel. Not everyone wanted to be on it, or actively contributed to its efforts. Weaver was just an alternate version of Holly Blue, and following a few adventures upon first arriving, kept herself pretty well out of this timeline’s business. Sharice was an artificial intelligence. Though that was no reason to keep her from the list, she actively protested her inclusion, for her own reasons. Ramses was the only man, which was an interesting fact. Leona was the least knowledgeable out of all of them, and her lack of credentials should have barred her from membership, but she was the special pet of the powers that be, so they kind of needed to be able to trust her in an emergency. Her husband, Mateo was an honorary member, who needed to be available for the same reasons.
There were probably some people who deserved to be on the list, if it deserved to exist in the first place. The doctors, Sarka and Hammer were more than qualified in their own field. Trinity and Ellie Underhill were never formally trained in the sciences, though they were extremely intelligent, and experienced, and some noticed evidence that the latter knew a whole lot more than she let on. Thor Thompson, Saxon Parker, and Mirage probably had a place somewhere too. So it wasn’t a perfect list, but it was the one they had, and few would argue with it. Members weren’t chosen because they had the potential for a technological breakthrough that could either destroy or save the universe, but because they actually had created something which fit that criteria. The justification for the group was that it was less about wielding power, and more about keeping each other accountable for the power they found themselves in possession of anyway.
Still, Holly Blue mandating a Shortlist limitation was a big deal, and something which most of the members were required to sign off on. Some wanted a decision like this to be unanimous, but gathering all these people in one place at the same point in time was difficult at best. If they wanted to hold a legitimate vote, they would need help from a couple people who weren’t even on the list, and Holly Blue had to be sure she wanted to go down this road. “Yes,” she confirmed confidently. “Call a vote.”
“Very well,” Hogarth said. “I’ll see who we can get for a quorum.”

Role Call

Not everyone had some way to contact them through time, but for anyone who didn’t, they could be reached second-hand by contacting someone who did have a means of cross-temporal communication. Holly Blue had a long-ass phone number, while Dr. Mallory Hammer needed to be more accessible to her patients so her number was easier to remember. If Hogarth and Holly Blue wanted to get a hold of someone called The Porter, there was a very delicate routine that they needed to get through. It wasn’t dignified, and could be a little embarrassing, but it was certainly easier than doing all the work of finding The Shortlist themselves. Hogarth started to stumble around the room, occasionally stopping to recite the magic words, “I am the Keymaster, are you the Gatekeeper?” Once she had made a right fool of herself, she approached a door, and recited the line one last time. Then she opened the door.
“Are you the Keymaster?” Porter asked. “I am the Gatekeeper.”
“Thank you for coming,” Hogarth said to her.
“What can I get ya?” Porter offered.
Hogarth lifted her hand, and held it there a moment. Realizing what she was asking for, Holly Blue pulled a card out of her pocket, and handed it to her. Hogarth then relayed it to Porter. “This is a list of everyone we need for a meeting. Well, we don’t need everyone on it, but we do need at least seven, including the two that are already here. You think you would be able to retrieve five out of the nine remaining?”
“Six,” Holly Blue corrected.
“Oh, right. I forgot about that.” Hogarth took the card back real quick, and scribbled one more name on it. “We need a mediator too. I always forget about that part.” A mediator was required for every meeting, whether there was a full roster or not. This guide could not be a member of the Shortlist themselves, and they were not allowed to have overseen a meeting beforehand. It was a one time deal. While this might have sounded random and irrational, members agreed they could lose perspective if they kept all outside voices on the outside. Ethesh, Lenkida, and Crimson were disqualified from serving as mediator, because it would be a conflict of interest in this case, so Porter needed to find someone else. Hogarth chose someone she knew would be fair, and careful about this important decision about the kind of technology the galaxy would be allowed to utilize.
Porter looked over the list. She nodded, and gestured towards the door on the opposite wall. “Your guests have arrived.”
“That was quick,” Crimson pointed out.
“It took a lot of time,” Porter explained, “and a lot of work.” Porter had the ability to summon just about anything from any point in time. If you wanted a cheeseburger, she could snap her fingers, and it would appear before you. She wasn’t creating these objects, but stealing them, though, so someone who prepared or ordered that burger had just lost it. For bigger jobs, like finding a half dozen people from all over time and space took more effort. She couldn’t just pull each one from whenever she wanted. They were time travelers, who crisscrossed the timeline, and ran into each other unpredictably. Sometimes, one person will know something about another’s future, and in order to avoid these incongruencies, Porter had to find the very best version of each. Every person in the next room should be about as knowledgeable about the timeline as every other. Should.
“No,” Crimson said, “I’m an extremely advanced intelligence. Had you just teleported away, and tried to return to the same spot, I would have noticed.”
Holly Blue chuckled. “No, you wouldn’t. She’s that good.” She really was. Lots of time travelers had the ability to return to the spot they left so quickly that a human wouldn’t be able to detect that they were ever gone. Porter was the absolute best at this, however, so that even the most sensitive equipment couldn’t identify a change.
Hogarth opened the door, and stepped through to find all of their friends on the other side. And when she said all of them, she meant all of them. This was no quorum, but a plenum, meaning that every single member of the Shortlist had come. They had never had a full roster before, but that was probably because every invention one of them had come up with thus far had been for the benefit of the inner circle. This was at the request of the people of the Milky Way, so it was more delicate. Porter had done well for them.
“Madam Pudeyonavic,” Hokusai said with a nod.
“Madam Gimura,” Hogarth said back.
“What is this about?” Brooke Prieto asked.
“Obviously, I will explain everything,” Hogarth said. She looked towards their new mediator. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Uh, I just happened to be with her.” Jeremy Bearimy gestured towards Leona Matic. “Am I meant to be here as well?”
“You are our honored guest,” Holly Blue told him.
Now J.B. looked nervous. “Is this a sex cult, or something?”
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” Ramses Abdulrashid joked. “Haven’t made any progress on that front, bud.”
“It’s a meeting,” Holly Blue clarified. “You’re in charge of it.”
“Why me?” J.B. questioned.
“Because you’re not a member,” Brooke’s daughter, Sharice explained to him. “Neither am I.”
“We need you,” Hogarth said to her. “This is important.” She took a half step back to address the whole group. “This impacts the whole galaxy. It’s so important that Holly Blue and I haven’t even invented it yet. We have to consult you first, because it has the potential to literally destroy everything.”
“Ain’t that always how it is?” Kestral McBride pointed out.
“Shall we find somewhere to sit?” Ishida suggested.
“Crimson,” Hogarth began, “do you know where we might hold this meeting, obviously in private?”
“Where’s my daughter?” Hokusai asked before Crimson could respond.
“You’ll see her later, mom,” Hogarth said.
“I better.”
“I know where you can go,” Crimson finally answered. It lifted Hogarth’s finger towards Porter’s face. “You can trace objects, right?”
Crimson demolecularized its finger, and sent it away, presumably to their meeting room.
Porter smirked, and nodded. “Gross.” With a wave of her hands, she spirited everyone away to follow the finger.

It was sitting in the middle of a table, like a message from a rival mafia family.
“Are we just gonna leave that there?” Pribadium Delgado asked.
Hogarth picked it up, and threw it into the material reclamator that appeared from the wall. It wasn’t something that could be reclaimed, but the sorting machines would filter it out, and dispose of it with the rest of the biowaste. She wished being able to regrow her own body parts was something she knew she could do all along.
They all found seats, and sat down. “First order of business,” Hogarth began, “I move to take point right now, so that J.B. can get up to speed, and understand what it is we do. I request a no-vote, but open the floor for any objections.” She waited a moment to see if anyone would object, which she didn’t think they would. Unlike most governmental bodies, there wasn’t any animosity amongst them. They disagreed with each other all the damn time, but they were always cordial, polite, and respectful. There was nothing wrong with her declaring herself the leader until J.B. was ready to take the job for himself.
She started off by explaining the purpose of the Shortlist, and why they felt it was necessary. Sharice jumped in with a few snide remarks, since she was the most resistant to the group as a whole. The alternate reality version of Holly Blue, who went by Weaver to avoid confusion, added her own thoughts, since she understood it all better than anyone. After that was finished, Hilde’s mother, Hokusai took the reins, and went over the rules of the meeting. She needed some additional help from Weaver in regards to protocol, because again, they had never all been in one place before. There would be times during this meeting when the discussion needed to be formal and blocked out, like a presidential debate. There would also be times when they needed to make it less formal, and more natural. They might even break into groups, and discuss the problem separately before coming back together. There would be no votes until they figured out what the votes would be. It was far more complex than just a question of whether they should allow time-siphoning technology to exist, or not. Once a vote did go through, that didn’t mean it was a done deal. By the end of the meeting, they would vote again, on whether to accept the results of all the other votes. It was this whole thing.
J.B. was a smart fella, so he picked it up right away, and embraced his role appropriately. Not everyone was like that. Nerakali tried to take over the group, and use it towards her own goals, which they should have guessed would happen. The Overseer was quite used to being the one to make decisions, and didn’t understand why her vote didn’t override all others. They once asked The Superintendent himself to mediate, but since his decisions did overrule everyone else’s, it was a disaster. That was how Hokusai and Hogarth ended up swapping technologies. They took a break after the introductions, and let people mingle. J.B. also needed time to look over the procedures guide that Weaver wrote. The rest had to be careful about preserving the timeline so as to avoid creating a paradox, but there were no real rules here, except that they couldn’t leave the room. No one would be able to leave until the first recess, which may never come. This wasn’t congress; they should be able to go through the entire agenda in one sitting. Hokusai was perturbed by this, because she didn’t get to see her daughter a whole lot. She agreed long ago to let Hilde live her own life, but had never truly accepted that. Their separation contract was set to expire after ten more of their respective personal timeline years. They could see each other, but not for an extended period of time.
“So,” Hogarth said to Leona. “Where’s your husband, and when?”
“You ever heard of the Fourth Quadrant?” Leona prompted.
“Oh, that alternate reality, right?”
“Yep. He’s there, helping our friends save some lives, and whatnot.”
“Oh, cool.”
“So, this is Glisnia?” Leona had been here before, but a very long time ago, so she only knew it as a regular planet.
“Yeah, it’s a matrioshka brain now.”
Leona nodded. “I would like a tour one day, if at all possible.” She checked her watch out of instinct. I live in the early twenty-second century right now, but I’m scheduled to return to this time period in the next couple of months.”
Kestral, who was in the middle of a conversation with Pribadium, laughed. “It’s gonna be a lot longer than that.”
“Madam McBride, you know the rules,” J.B. said, stepping in. “No future-talk.”
“If you ask me, he’s enjoying this a little too much,” Kestral noted.
“I was gonna ask Sanaa Karimi to mediate,” Hogarth said.
Kestral took a drink from her cup. “Never mind.”
“All right,” J.B. announced. “I believe we are ready to restart. According to this, the next thing we need to do is confirm me as mediator.”
“Confirmed,” Brooke said.
“Seconded,” Sharice added.
“All in favor, say cello,” Kestral’s partner, Ishida declared. This was the random word she chose. Votes were not made by using the traditional aye and nay. No one in this group was liable to slack off, but by choosing a different word each time, they lowered the risk of someone voting after not having paid enough attention to know what it was they were voting on.
“Cello,” everyone voted in relative unison.
Since it was unanimous, no one could now vote against this, but Ishida was obligated to follow through regardless. “All against, say pangolin.”
No one said pangolin, not even Ramses, who was known for voting twice just to piss people off.
“Perfect,” J.B. said with a smile. “I feel so included.” He aimlessly flipped through the pages. “Now, I’ve been going over this manual, and have decided to start with a role-reversal argument. Hogarth, is it true that you are in favor of inventing time-siphoning technology?”
“I’m about as close to that position as anyone,” Hogarth believed. “I’m fairly neutral about it, though.”
“You...gave up your body so you could do it for these people, correct?” J.B. asked.
“I suppose that’s true.”
“Then you will be arguing against invention. Who here is the most against invention in actuality?”
Pribadium raised her hand. “I don’t think we should do it.”
“Scale of one to I’ll kill everyone in this room before I let this kind of technology get out into the universe.”
“Six, I guess,” Pribadium determined. “I don’t wanna kill anybody.”
“Can anyone give me a number higher than six?” J.B. opened it up to the group.
“I think I’m probably at an eight,” Holly Blue declared.
They were all surprised by this. “Miss Blue—” J.B. began.
“My name is Holly Blue; not Holly, not Miss Blue. Holly Blue.”
Apologies,” J.B. said sincerely. “Holly Blue, you co-signed the request for this plenum.”
“I was asked to come here,” Holly Blue began. “So I asked everyone else to come here, to talk Madam Pudeyonavic out of it.”
J.B. nodded understandingly, but stoically. Her attitude on the matter wasn’t at all against the rules. “Can anyone give me a ninth level opposition?”
No one spoke.
“Very well,” J.B. continued. “To recap, Hogarth will be arguing against invention, while Holly Blue will be arguing in favor of invention. Both parties agree?”
“Agreed,” Hogarth said, nervous.
“I’ll do my best,” Holly Blue conceded.
J.B. looked down at the manual. “Both sides are allowed one hour to prepare—”
“Right to waive,” Holly Blue said quickly.
“Preparation time twenty-five percent waived,” J.B. alerted.
“Waive,” Hogarth agreed.
“Fifty. General consensus?”
The crowd all seemed amenable.
“Seventy-five,” J.B. found. “And I waive too. A hundred percent waived. Madam Pudeyonavic, you have the floor.”
The Devil’s Advocate exercise wasn’t the only section of the meeting, but it was the most intense, and probably the one that informed most people’s votes later on. In the end, the group decided to proceed with invention, and that Holly Blue would be in charge of it every step of the way. Hopefully that would be fine.

Otter Eyes

Once the plenum was over, it was time for Hokusai to go see Hilde. Her relationship with her daughter was not bad, but they did have kind of a bizarre way of interacting with each other, and it all came down to a book. Back before either of them knew anything about time travel, and related phenomena, Hokusai read Hilde a book. They actually read it together, switching off at each chapter break, to teach the young one how, and to do something as a family. It was just the two of them, moving from city to city. Hilde’s biological father was in prison; one of the too few examples where a rapist was actually punished for what they did. Besides the whole rape thing, he was the kind of asshole who didn’t care about his family, which turned out to be a blessing. He could have just as easily been obsessed with forming a twisted relationship of his own with his daughter. There was no reason to believe, when he got out, he would ever pursue them, but the whole experience messed with Hokusai’s head, and her trust in people. And she never felt safe in one place for very long.
She kept her own name, but gave Hilde a different surname, so they could lie to the new people they met, and claim that the imaginary Bob Unger was a great guy, who died too young. Hilde grew up knowing the truth about her origins—Hokusai never lied to her—but this dynamic was what ultimately gave them their untraditional relationship. Well, it wasn’t the only thing that did that. After all, there were only twelve years separating them. When people said they thought the two of them were sisters, it wasn’t just a pick-up line; they legitimately presumed this to be the case, and they were forgiven for this. Hokusai knew she was too young to be a mother, but she loved her child, had the money to support her, assistance from an aunt early on, and the capacity to care for her. It only ended when the portal that Hogarth accidentally created sent the entire town of Springfield, Kansas to another planet, sweeping Hilde along with it, and leaving Hokusai behind.
The two of them were eventually reunited, but only after some time without each other, and because of a lot of time travel. By then, Hilde was her own person, with a daughter of her own, and that was when the struck a deal. The book they read together those many years ago was about a family who stumbled upon the fountain of youth, and found themselves unable to die. The members of this family didn’t stick together throughout the centuries. They went their separate ways for decades at a time, always with a plan to come back at a certain place, at a certain time. Little Hilde was fascinated by this concept, so much so that she based her whole life around the possibility of becoming immortal, so a few decades to her felt like taking a short trip to the store. When her mother returned, that was what she asked for. They weren’t actually immortal yet, but they were both time travelers, which gave them all of time and space to explore. Hokusai respected Hilde’s wishes, and eventually grew used to the life. Though they were criss-crossing the timeline, they both lived in a time period where immortality was indeed possible, and they had both taken steps to make this happen. But Hilde had just essentially taken the last step by digitizing her consciousness, and this was the first Hokusai was hearing of it.
“But you’re okay.” It might have been a question, but probably more of a hope.
“Yes, mom. I’m okay.”
Hokusai nodded understandingly, but awkwardly. “Are you eating all right?” Okay, it was a really good sign that she was joking.
Hilde tried to hold back a laugh, but couldn’t. “Yes, they give me all the gear lubricant and solar conversion I need.”
Hokusai nodded again, but more comfortably now. “I’m pleased you look the same. I’ve always loved your face, Otter Eyes.”
“Ya know, I never got that reference, but now I do. Except now I don’t get how you knew the reference. That show didn’t come out until I was eighteen.”
“It’s not a reference,” Hokusai explained. “I made it up. I have no idea how the writers got a hold of it. Perhaps one sat next to us in a cafe, and heard me use it.
Hilde was suspicious. There weren’t a whole lot of coincidences once you’ve learned about time travel, and that show was about time travel. Still, she shook it off, and moved on. “I hear you’ve made a lot of progress on Varkas Reflex. You’re inventing a lot of things.”
“Yes. Hogarth didn’t come to the quorums for that stuff, so we weren’t able to catch up. That is a long time ago. I wonder what it looks like at this point in the future.”
“We could find out, as long as you don’t intend to return to the past.”
“We left Loa there, and some other friends,” Hokusai said. “We’ll only be staying for the next eleven years, though.” She would only have to live for that amount of time more before she would rendezvous with Hilde at the Gatewood Collective, where they would stick together for a while, until restarting the separation cycle.
“Oh yeah, you’re with one of the Petrićs, right? Katrina?”
“Katica,” Hokusai corrected. “Yes, she’s been regulating time technology as a representative for the humans.”
“She should be here,” Hilde suggested.
“She can’t. She can’t travel through nonlinear time. It’s like a time affliction, I guess.”
“Ah, I see.”
“That’s my cue.” A woman had come into the room. Hogarth and Hilde didn’t know who she was, but Hokusai did.
“Katica?” She was surprised. “How is this possible?”
“I came here the long way around,” Katica answered. “Well...the medium way. I’m here to object.”
“Object to what?” Hogarth questioned.
“Your little time-siphoning technology,” Katica said. “I cannot allow you to build it without doing my due diligence.”
“The matter is settled,” Hogarth tried to explain. “The meeting is over.”
“I demand representation,” Katica insisted.
“That’s not how this works,” Hogarth volleyed.
“Piglet,” Hilde jumped in. “Be respectful.”
“She’s not part of The Shortlist.”
“Neither am I, but my opinion has mattered in the past. You should hear her out.”
“The plenum is gone,” Hogarth reminded her. “Pribadium, your mother, Holly Blue, and I are the only ones left.”
“I’m here too,” said Ramses.
Everyone jumped. “Oh my God, you are still here.”
“That’s still only five; not enough for a quorum. I’m not even sure if we can reverse a prior decision without reconvening the entire list. Even if I were to allow this outrage at all. The Glisnians are counting on us.”
“I’m not letting you destroy perfectly good stars and orbitals,” Katica argued. “The rest of the galaxy is counting on me.”
“I don’t know what you want me to do. Everyone qualified to make this decision did so. We do not take it lightly, and we are taking every precaution to ensure the safety of the vonearthans, and any Starseed descendants. I assure you there is nothing we have neither considered, nor won’t consider by the time it becomes a problem.”
Katica nodded. “Right. Your shortlist. I have a shorter one.” She removed a card from her back pocket, and slapped it on the table.
Hogarth and Hokusai scooted closer together to look over it. Ramses glided over to look over their shoulders. “Jupiter’s on here twice.”
“There are two Jupiters. We may need one of them, but I don’t know which one to trust. They’re not really on the list. We would just call them if what I propose is accepted.”
“Thor or Saxon?”
“Yes,” Katica confirmed. “Either one will do; whichever you can get. Someone needs to represent Project Stargate.”
“Kestral and Ishida sufficed for that earlier,” Hogarth put forth.
“I want more voices!” Katica’s own voice grew louder with every word. “These are the people who have the galaxy’s best interests at heart; not just the scientists.”
“We understand that,” Hokusai said, “which is why our mediator is never a scientist.”
“That’s not good enough,” Katica contended. “Are you going to play ball, or not? Because if you don’t, I might have to take matters into my own hands. You’re not the only ones with resources and power, and you’re not the only ones worried about consequences.”
“Are you threatening us?” Now Hogarth was getting upset.
“We’ll do it. Holly Blue was standing in the doorway. “Porter is still here, waiting to send the Varkans back home. I’m sure she’ll help us gather this new list.”
Hogarth sighed. Holly Blue was indeed in charge now, but she wasn’t happy. They had just spent hours hashing all this out, and it could all be undone by this bogus new list. “This can’t possibly be the Viana Černý.”
“The very same,” Katica verified.
“Who deveiled her? Or do you plan on doing it yourself now? Beaver Haven might have something to say about that, even this far in the future.”
“She’s pretty smart. She figured it out. The story of how we met is actually rather funny; us realizing we both carried the same secret.”
There was a brief silence. “Fine,” Hogarth acquiesced. “We’ll do it again.”

The Shorter List

Porter decided to find Jupiter Rosa, as opposed to Jupiter Fury, even though they were alternate versions of the same person. When he was a child, he discovered his ability to call upon quantum duplicates of himself. Each was from an alternate reality, which was only slightly different than the first. These other worlds only lasted for fractions of a second before collapsing to make way for the reality that was meant to win out, but when accounting for time travel, those few microseconds were enough. Before Jupiter understood what he was doing, there was no telling which Jupiter was the real one. Only one of them truly belonged to this reality, while the other was a visitor, and could be reabsorbed into the primary by a process called quantum assimilation. By the time they figured out which of them was this primary, each Jupiter believed himself to be it. And so the primary decided to let the other live on as his own person. As the years flew by, neither of them could remember which was which anyway. Both of them were good, but Jupiter Rosa was better, because he rejected the influence of their friends, and went on to make his own decisions.
Saxon Parker was another person with alternate versions of himself, though by different means, and so many more. He was part of a massive exploration project, which sought to establish a settlement in every single star system in the entire galaxy. It was called Project Stargate, and though the ships he and his team built were automated, their overseers wanted them to carry a human touch. So Saxon cloned himself well over a million times, so each could keep watch over one of the modular ships. In order to protect causality, Porter was forced to look for Saxon after he underwent this project. She found this to be extremely difficult, and didn’t realize her mistake until after it was made. As it turned out, one of Saxon’s clones developed independent thoughts, and rejected his destiny. He asked to stay where he was, which forced Saxon to take his place. Porter didn’t know this, and accidentally retrieved the clone, instead of the original. He called himself Omega Parker, and he would have to do.
The third member of Katica’s shorter list was a man named Lihtren Uluru. He was born out of a companion endeavor for Project Stargate called Operation Starseed. While the former was designed to allow exploration, communication, and even travel to the Milky Way stars, the latter was created to seed life. Lihtren was born on a planet over sixty thousand light years from Earth and Glisnia, which meant it wouldn’t happen for at least as many years from now, if the timeline hadn’t been altered enough to prevent it. He unjustifiably traveled to Earth, unwillingly went back in time, and unwittingly became immortal. Though he was not as heavily involved in time traveler affairs, and had not gotten himself mixed up with interstellar expansion, his opinion mattered, and Katica figured he would be on her side.
The last member of this new list was a woman called Viana Černý. A long time ago, the world governments began to change. Several of them adopted a new form of democracy with a stronger sense of checks and balances. The state was run by two separate leaders. Each was advised by a separate board of experts, and following this advice, made decisions together, with the guidance of a mediator. Upon coming to some kind of consensus on a given matter, they sent directives to their administrators, which were just as respectively experienced and educated as the advisors, except they were in charge of carrying out the decisions, rather than merely discussing them. The interesting thing about this form of government was that it was scalable. The leaders answered to a population representative congress. One person represented 240 people, while the Senator oversaw 328 of these groups, for a total of 78,720. Larger groups combined with other groups, and reported to higher ranks. And this process could be repeated as needed, like proto-planetary dust coalescing around a star, until the whole world was unified. Whereas before, each nation state had its own government, they were now governed by a single body. Viana was an important member of this whole world government.
She was the Futurology Administrator, and one of the most important singular voices when it came to the interstellar expansion. She helped decide which star system the Earthans would explore, where they would go first, and how they would get there. Because of how much respect she earned around the stellar neighborhood, exoplanet colonists sent her regular updates, even though they were not obliged to. When very few people were made aware of the strange goingson that happened on a new world, she was one of those people. So it was no surprise that she consolidated all of this information, and eventually realized that time travel must exist. She wasn’t meant to know about all that, but once she discovered it, no one could take it away from her. Viana was an intelligent and responsible person, who could be trusted with the truth. She didn’t reveal what she now knew to the neighborhood at large, or even one other person. Katica Petrić felt this integrity entitled her to a spot on The Shorter List, and the right to help come to a decision regarding what kind of technology Glisnia was allowed to have. Katica didn’t think everyone here had earned that.
Hogarth was disallowed from participating in the meeting, which of course, pissed her off. She was the one the Glisnians asked for this, and she wasn’t even part of it anymore? That was total bullshit. She had called the first meeting, and it was a good meeting, and it should be honored. The Shortlist wasn’t something they just came up with one day while they were all hanging around together. It took a lot of time and effort to organize. Hogarth couldn’t help but worry that this new group had no hope of reaching a legitimate decision. Holly Blue was allowed to be in the room where it happened, which made this even more frustrating. Though she accepted the real decision, she would surely fight against it now that she had a second opportunity to do so, and that wasn’t fair. There was no one on the Shorter List which Hogarth felt would be on her side, and fight for her position. Right now, she was sitting in the hallway with Jupiter. “Why are you here?”
“They didn’t tell you? They want me to use my magical powers for an alternative solution to your resource shortage.”
“What can you do?”
“Well, I can access other—”
“No,” Hogarth interrupted, “I know what you can do, but why would that help us?”
“As I was saying,” Jupiter continued, “I can access alternate realities, and retrieve alternate versions of people and objects. Evidently, Katica believes this power can be scaled up for your purposes.”
Hogarth stared at him blankly for a moment. “She wants to steal resources from alternate realities?”
“Alternate uninhabited realities,” Jupiter clarified. “Think about it, if Holly Blue can adapt my power to a machine that siphons materials from an infinite supply of alternate Glisnias, then they will never run out of anything they need.”
“Is that possible?’
Jupiter smiled, and turned to face the opposite wall. “Unequivocally no. I don’t care how powerful I get, or how much of a boost Holly Blue can muster, it won’t be enough. The realities I access are really close to ours. One might be, for instance, exactly like this one, except with one less mosquito. I cannot, sadly, reach far enough into the multiverse to find one which doesn’t have any people in it, and even if I could, you couldn’t siphon enough resources out of it to justify the amount of energy you put into the trying. It’s like fusion power in my time period, the 21st century. Sure, it works, but it takes more energy to run the machine than the machine produces for you.” He indicates the universe around them. “Obviously, people in the future eventually figure out positive fusion energy.” He shook his head. “They won’t ever figure altreal siphoning, though. It can’t be done. So I suppose it’s less like fusion, and more like plugging a surge protector into itself.”
“Holly Blue’s alternate, Weaver invented what she calls a perpetual motion engine, using time technology,” Hogarth argued.
“Well, I don’t know anything about that. Like I said, I’m from the 21st century. Though I doubt that’s really what’s happening. I’m sure it’s a lot more complex than that.”
Hogarth turned to face the wall as well. “Yeah, it is. But if she could do it—if she could figure out altreal siphoning—I won’t fight against it. It would be a lot better than what I proposed.”
“If I’m being honest,” Jupiter began, “I don’t much care for Holly Blue. These future people, they...they don’t know what it’s like. You and I, we’re just a couple of jabronis from Springfield, Kansas.”
“You’re from Springfield?” she questioned.
He turned back to face her. “Of course! All the Springfield Nine are. That’s why we’re called that.”
“Oh, yeah.”
“Miss Pudeyonavic, if we weren’t time travelers, I would be three years older than you.”
“It’s Madam Pudeyonavic. I’m married.”
“Why isn’t it Missus?”
“Because Hilde and I didn’t change our names. Madam is what you use for a married woman who still uses her birth name.”
“Who came up with that rule?”
“The Superintendent, I think.”
Lihtren stuck his head out of the door. “Mr. Rosa, we’re ready for you.”
“Not without my associate,” Jupiter contended.
“Who is your associate?”
Jupiter stood up, and offered his hand to Hogarth. “Madam Pudeyonavic.”
Lihtren looked over his shoulder, back into the room, but didn’t say anything to the people in there. “I cannot guarantee this will not be contested. We don’t really have protocols and procedures laid out.”
“Clearly,” Hogarth grumbled.
The two of them stepped into the room, and Jupiter’s decision to include her was indeed contested. There was nothing Katica could do about it, however, since the other three members had no problem with it, and Jupiter was holding all the cards. Hogarth was grateful to have met him. It only took four hundred years.
“We believe, Mr. Rosa, that we can convince you to help us,” Katica began.
“I understand your plan,” Jupiter replied, “and I’m here to tell ya that it ain’t gon’ happen. I’m not powerful enough, you’re not powerful enough. It won’t work.”
“We thought you would say that,” Holly Blue said. “Which is why we brought in some extra help.” She held up what looked like a garage door opener. When she clicked it, Crimson Clover appeared, and it wasn’t alone.
“Hi,” said the stranger. “My name is Ambrose.”
“Ambrosios?” Hogarth questioned. “The mad immortal.”
“No, just Ambrose,” the man corrected. “Ambrose Richardson.”
“He’s a power booster, like Savitri,” Holly Blue revealed proudly.
“I met him during my travels,” Crimson explained.
“Does this change your mind?” Katica asked Jupiter.
Jupiter thought about the offer for a moment. “I’ll consider it, but only if it works; only if he can boost my power enough.”
“That’s fair,” Katica agreed.
“And only if Hogarth is in charge.”
That was less fair. But awesome.


Everyone who didn’t need to be in Glisnia anymore left. There was no reason for Katica to stick around, since she wasn’t really welcome here in the first place. The rest of the hopefully now disbanded Shorter List, and the remaining members of The Shortlist needed to return to their lives as well. Holly Blue was still around, though a lot grumpier than before. Futurology Administrator Viana Černý wanted to conduct some business here, and she was welcome to do so. She was welcome pretty much anywhere she wanted to go in the stellar neighborhood. She probably wouldn’t be too involved with Operation Starsiphon. Ambrose Richardson, who evidently hailed from an entirely separate universe, was here to help Jupiter Rosa realize his full potential. Jupiter could access alternate microrealities. These potential worlds only existed for fractions of a second, within a higher dimension, and represent what might have been if different decisions were made. It was possible to steal matter and energy from these realities, because they were going to collapse anyway, so no one should miss them. Most of the time, Jupiter could use his power to make a copy of himself, or in rare instances, many copies. He couldn’t siphon wholesale resources from an alternate version of Gliese 832 without a little boost from Ambrose. Or rather, a huge boost.
According to Ambrose himself, he had never boosted anyone’s ability to quite this degree before. If they were going to pull it off, he would need time to practice and prepare. The two of them went off together, while Hogarth and Holly Blue started working on the technological side of this endeavor. At the moment, they were trying to figure out if there was any way to boost Jupiter’s power even more. They needed as much as they could get, and there was no reason they couldn’t tackle this problem from more than one angle. “Are you mad at me?”
“Why would I be mad?” Holly Blue questioned.
“Because Jupiter gave me this project?”
Holly Blue adjusted her magnification goggles to get a better look at the logic board she was making. “Aren’t we calling this an operation?”
“You know what I mean,” Hogarth noted.
She stopped working, and looked up for a moment, but didn’t remove her goggles, so she couldn’t really see Hogarth’s face. “Do I strike you as some kind of narcissist? Is that really what you think of me?”
“Well, you’ve been really antagonistic lately, so I didn’t know if it was something I did, or...”
Holly Blue went back to work. “I just didn’t agree that we should steal resources from elsewhere in the galaxy. I’m allowed to have a different opinion.”
“I know that. It just felt very personal to me.”
“It wasn’t, Hogarth. I assure you, we’re good.”
“That’s nice to hear.” She went back to triple checking her fusion equations for a bit, but couldn’t do it for long. “It’s just...what do you have a problem with exactly? Those star systems aren’t inhabited. Brooke and Sharice Prieto have a method of detecting future life potential, so that shouldn’t be an issue either.”
Now Holly Blue figured she had to stop working, and take off her goggles. She sighed heavily. “Take a look around, what do you see?”
“My lab? I mean, our lab.”
“This is a matrioshka brain.”
“It is.”
“And you’ve started on the neck of a matrioshka body.”
“This whole system is here to benefit the Glisnians.”
Hogarth narrowed her eyes. “I suppose so, yeah. But the whole neighborhood will benefit in the long run. With this much processing power, we could make so many breakthroughs, it’’s beyond what we can even fathom today.”
She nodded, like she agreed, but then she said, “bullshit.”
“It’s bullshit. This project is about ego, and peacocking. The mechs are no more sophisticated or evolved than humans were four hundred years ago. They all just want to show off, to be better than everyone else, and make a mark. People thought that people would lose ambition once they cracked immortality, but that hasn’t happened. They’re even more obsessed with making a name for themselves, because now there’s too much competition, and it’s all so fleeting. Tens of billions of independent conscious entities, it’s impossible to be famous. Who’s the one who wants this from us, the one who asked you to build him the time siphon?”
“Mekiolenkidasola, a.k.a. Lenkida.”
“Yeah, he’s gonna get credit for this. I’m not saying he’ll steal all the glory, or anything; he won’t have to, because you and I don’t have the same goals as him. He’ll go down in history as the person in charge of making the matrioshka body happen. What he doesn’t realize is that it’s a fruitless pursuit. He’ll be big for a while, but then someone will come up with an artificial great attractor, or a singularity siphon, and he won’t matter anymore. Used to be, a man could die, feeling like he was the most important man in the world. Now, though, everyone lives to see themselves drift into obscurity. That’s gonna start causing a lot of problems. Immortality has downsides that they did not predict. You understand what I’m saying?”
“Sorry, yes, I did hear you. I’m also thinking about the black hole siphon, and the hypergravity generator you mentioned. I understand your meaning. You don’t seem to take issue with Project Stargate, or Operation Starseed, though. Aren’t those designed to do the same thing? Boost ego?”
“I disagree with the time siphon exactly because of those two endeavors, Starseed especially. It was created to create life. Civilizations will rise on those planets. If evolved aliens existed, I would probably be against it, but it would seem we are the only ones here, and our species has a right to those worlds. Because when new life springs up on them, they will make it their own. They will work hard, and make mistakes, and they’ll fail each other, and they’ll create amazing things. The time siphon would have interfered with that. The way I see it, Starseed is like the modern day version of turnover. We don’t die anymore, but if we seed life somewhere else, and don’t interact with them for a long time, it’s like we’re dying, and making room for new generations. The only good thing about death was its ability to force new ideas. Starseed fosters that; the time siphon hinders it. That, Madam Pudeyonavic, is why I pushed back so hard.”
“Why didn’t you say any of that during our first meeting?”
Holly Blue turned back towards her work, but didn’t pick up her tools. She stared into blank space for a few moments. “I didn’t understand it myself at the time. I felt it, but I didn’t know it, and I couldn’t formulate my argument yet.”
She nodded. “Well, we’re not doing it. It was a tough road, but we got here. We have an alternative, and I think it’s good. I’m glad you pushed back. Unregulated science leads to mad science, and I don’t wanna become that.”
Before they could get back to their work, Hilde rushed into the lab. “You need to come quick. There’s something wrong in the training grounds.”
They jumped up immediately, and ran off to follow Hilde down the hall. She led them past where Hogarth thought Jupiter and Ambrose were training, and into a different corridor. They came to a room so large, that it looked like they were outside. Holographic imagery simulated the sky, and the sun. They quickly redirected their attention to the middle of the field, where something Hogarth wasn’t certain how to classify was hovering over the artificial turf. A glowing orb was spinning and pulsating before them. Jupiter and Ambrose were watching it from opposite sides, and holding their arms down and behind themselves, as if anticipating being knocked over. By the time the three of them made it across the field, the orb was already larger. It was growing.
“What is this?” Hogarth demanded to know.
“We’re not sure,” Jupiter cried. “We were hoping you could tell us.”
“Back up!” Holly Blue ordered. “Stop letting it catch up with you.”
There was a way to figure out what this was, and how it got here, but it might be impossible for Hogarth in her current condition. When she was a child, time itself spoke through her. It compelled her to create a special book. She didn’t have to write it. She drew on a door with a pencil, and once she was finished, the seemingly random assortment of lines and curves lifted from the wood, and combined with each other to essentially make the book out of nothing. They called it the Book of Hogarth, and if you had a question about the universe, and how it worked, it would have the answer. You weren’t necessarily entitled to read it, and find that answer, but it would be in there somewhere. She could once summon her book at will in desperate times, but that was in her OG body, so she might have lost her ability to pull off that trick. The worst that could happen was the attempt overloading her neural network, and killing her permanently. So no big deal.
Out of instinct, Hogarth stretched her neck out, and shook her arms and legs. Holly Blue apparently recognized this. “Don’t do that. We don’t need your book.”
“This thing could explode at any moment,” Hogarth contended.
“True, but your book isn’t going to help us with that,” Holly Blue tried to explain. “I think we all know that this is the sun. We’re looking at it as filtered through some kind of dimensional barrier, which is why it appears so small right now, but it is bleeding into our reality, and we will eventually be able to detect it in three spatial dimensions. I don’t know what happens when two versions of the same star suddenly occupy the same space as each other, but it is not good. We have to evacuate.”
“The book can help us stop it,” Hogarth argued. “It will have the answer. There’s a specific page that I know will help.”
“This shouldn’t have happened,” Ambrose apologized. “I’m not that powerful. I was only trying to help him gain access to another reality, not bring a whole star into ours.”
“No one could have predicted this,” Hogarth assured him. “You were doing what we asked. Now, everybody stop talking. I need to concentrate.” She took a deep fake breath, and closed her artificial eyelids. As she was standing there, the temperature rose slightly, indicating that the mini-sun had grown yet again. A hand landed on her shoulder. She opened her eyes to find Ambrose.
“It’s okay. I can help.”
The book was never meant for her. It was designed to help others, which was something she knew deep down inside, even though no one ever told her that. Still, she had an unbreakable connection to it, so if she needed it, she should be able to get it. Ambrose added the extra energy she needed. She held out her arms, and let the book fall into them from the invisible portal it came through. She flipped it over. Back in the day, she would have needed to procure a scanner from somewhere, or make one from an industrial synthesizer. Her new sensory detectors, however, were capable of scanning anything, from optical signals, to RFID tags, to QR codes. It was that last one that she needed right now. She tried to scan it a long time ago, but a voice in her head warned her that it was dangerous, and that she should only do this in a terrible emergency. This surely qualified as that. Before she activated her scanner, she just stared at it in the visible light spectrum. “Start the evacuation procedures,” she ordered no one in particular. “I don’t know what this is going to do. It may not even be our best option, but it’s the one I got, so get everyone else out.”
“Wait,” Hilde tried to stop her, but it was too late.
Hogarth toggled her retina, and scanned the code. She could feel a darkness overwhelm her from behind, and tear everything in the room away from her. She was standing in a void, and she wasn’t alone.
A hazy violet figure appeared before her, but she couldn’t tell if it was small, or far away. It either grew, or drew nearer, until it was about Hogarth’s size, and looked like a man. “Hello. I am Aitchai. What can I do for ya?”


Hogarth didn’t know where she was, or who this...entity before her was, but she always tried to follow Leona’s Rules of Time Travel. Rule Number Five seemed pertinent right now, treat everyone you meet with respect, as they may unexpectedly return. “My name is Hogarth Pudeyonavic. I’m not sure what’s happening here. I scanned a book that I...”
“Created with your mind?” Aitchai finished for her.
“That code delivered you to me. How can I be of assistance?”
“We’re not sure of all the details, but we believe we tapped into an alternate reality, and accidentally...merged our two together? The alternate sun is bleeding into our reality, but it’s small right now, at least from our dimensional perspective.”
The man tilted his head back in thought. “Hm. Interesting.”
“Have you seen anything like this before?”
“I’ve seen overlaid realities before, yes, of course. I’ve never heard of your specific case, though. It is quite interesting. Is it growing?”
“Yes, we believe as it slowly pulls itself into our reality, it’s adopting our dimensions.”
“Quite right, except I don’t imagine it’s from an alternate reality. I believe you’ve reached another universe; one that is—to dumb it down, with apologies—smaller than yours. Did you see colors as it was first emerging?”
“I was not there. They called me in to help. One of them is indeed from a different universe. He has the power to enhance other people’s power, and he was trying to use it to help one of our people access other realities. It’s this whole thing.”
Aitchai shook his head dismissively, but still respectfully. “I don’t need to hear anything about it. Just give me a second.” And then his stood there for a moment, unmoving. “Okay, you’re good.”
“Really? It was that easy?”
“For me, anyway.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m everything.”
“Like...literally, err...?”
“Pretty much, yeah. I was a man once.” He raised his arms outward at a ninety-degree angle, lifted his shoulders, and looked down at his chest. “I looked like this. My name was Dyne Dyne Pala Pala. A few of us encountered a temporal anomaly, and it made us all immortal. We each have our own thing, though. My version is...unusual, and my essence ultimately became integrated with the fabric of time and space, for every universe in the infinite. I’m everything now. I’m really just the energy that pervades all matter. You’re talking to a high concentration of it, in a form that just makes it easier for us to communicate.” He shook his hands like he was warming up to play the piano. “I don’t normally have hands anymore, though.”
“Do you interfere a lot?”
“I’m not sure I would say a lot, as I’ve lost all concept of scale, but I suppose about as much as I feel is necessary. There are some points in spacetime that need my attention, as do some people. You are one of those people. I needed there to be a book in your world, or rather your world needed it. Most universes are just...normal. They don’t have time travel, or anything. Closest they might get are relativistic speeds. For the few with special needs, I monitor more closely.”
“Why me?”
He smiled, though as a holographic projection of a boundless metaconsciousness, it was just for show. “I don’t talk to many people, and they all ask that. The answer particular reason. You’re random.” He seemed worried that sounded offensive.
“Whew, what a relief,” Hogarth said. “Now I don’t feel so pressured. Whatever I do, it’s what I’m meant to do, right? I don’t have some specific purpose or destiny that I’ve been missing.”
“No, you’re just part of the puzzle. You’re a brighter part, I would say—you stand out more—but you still fit just as snuggly in the tapestry of reality as anyone else.”
“But I have been given the chance to talk with you directly, which is rare?”
“Indeed. You’re a puzzle piece that I picked up and inspected, to stay with the metaphor.”
“Does this have to be a one-time thing?”
“It’s not a one-time thing, but it’s not a whenever you can’t find your car keys kind of thing either. Your universe has car keys right?”
“Not anymore,” she responded. “Well, don’t worry, I won’t bug you too much.”
I’m always with you, though,” Aitchai added, “as cheesy as that may sound: in the sun’s rays, in the hum of electrical lines, in the cold of winter; that’s me. I am the energy that keeps all things moving. At least, I’m the conscious element of these natural processes.”
She nodded again. “Thank you for your help with this. Are you gonna warn me about messing with things I don’t understand?”
He shook his holographic head. “Nope. I trust you.”
“I appreciate your support.”
And with that, he was gone, and Hogarth was back in the training room.
Everyone else was still staring at the space where the miniature sun used to be, the rest of the group having entered the room at some point. Now everything was fine, and they were confused. The ones here when she left were standing a little farther from the epicenter of the problem than they were before, indicating that it had grown while she was talking with Aitchai. It took them a second to realize she was back.
“How long have you been gone?” Hilde asked.
Their friends walked over to hear better.
“A few minutes, I guess. Why, do I look older?” Hogarth joked.
“No, it’s just that it’s fixed,” Holly Blue pointed out. “Did it only take you a few minutes to get your answer, and correct the issue?”
“I met someone who fixed it,” Hogarth began to explain. “It only took him a second or two. We spent the rest of the time talking.”
“Who was this person?” Holly Blue was concerned.
“He called himself the Aitchai. Crimson, I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
“Oh, yeah,” Crimson started, but then said, “no. Why? Should I have?”
“He’s, like...the god of the bulkverse, so I guess I assumed you had at least heard the name at some point in your travels.”
“No, ‘fraid not,” Crimson replied.
“How do you know he was who he said he was?” Holly Blue posed.
“How do you know I am who I say I am?” Hogarth volleyed. “We never really know anything. I choose to believe. He did fix the sun. It was from another brane, by the way, not an alternate reality.”
Jupiter slapped Ambrose on the shoulder, somewhat affectionately, but also a little to roughly. “You boosted my power a lot more than you knew you could. You need to be more careful, brother.”
Ambrose nodded his head, horrified. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
“Well, it’s all right now, we got it fixed,” Hogarth reminded them.
“How can we be sure it won’t happen again?” Holly Blue was about ready to scrap the whole project.
“You mean how can you ever trust me again,” Ambrose corrected.
“I was jokin’ with you, man,” Jupiter assured him. “It takes two to Tango.”
“He’s right,” Lenkida said. “We need safeguards, and contingencies, and simulations. You have all been going through this really quickly, but this has always been a long-term project. We have plenty of resources to keep us busy for the next several years. Figure out how you’re gonna do what you need to do before you start trying to do it.”
Hogarth looked over at her lab partner. “Holly Blue. Don’t.”
“What?” Holly Blue asked. “I didn’t do anything.”
“You’re about to suggest we give up, and I’m telling you, don’t suggest that.”
Holly Blue breathed in deeply, then released it all from her lungs at once. “I need to go before I say something we both regret.” She reached over to her wrist, and activated her teleporter, disappearing in a flash of lightning that was only there for effect.
“I’ll talk to her,” Crimson said as it prepared to teleport as well.
“Wait,” Hogarth stopped it. “Take her to Declan. She doesn’t wanna be here anymore, and this is my responsibility.”
Crimson tipped an imaginary cap. “As you wish.” It exploported away. Was that a good word for it, exploportation?
There was silence for a few moments.
“Ethesh,” Hogarth began. “I could do with a technician.”
“At your service,” he replied.
The two of them walked out of the room, and headed for the lab. There was a moment during this that gave her pause. This whole facility operated on wireless energy. Solar radiation was absorbed by the conversion panels on the outer layers, and delivered everywhere else. Every entity that required electricity to survive got it from broadcast nodes that the engineers installed at strategic locations. It didn’t matter where a mech or transhuman went, there was always a node nearby to supply them with power, and the signals generally overlapped with each other, so there was no loss of constant recharge, even though everyone was equipped with a backup battery. There were a few spots, however, with no overlap. They were simply oversights that no one had bothered to correct, but again, that was fine, because constant supply was a luxury, not a necessity. The threshold separating the training room and the hallways was one such of these spots, and when Hogarth crossed it, she could feel it. It was only for a second, but her sensory detectors were sensitive enough to register it. Normally, she would move on, and not give it any thought, but now she noticed it.
“What is it?” Ethesh asked her.
“That’s the Aitchai.”
“Your magical god friend?” he questioned.
She looked around like a paranoid wallaby. “He’s everywhere,” she whispered.
Ethetsh looked around too, but only with his eyes. “Are you seeing him right now? Is he telling you to do things?”
“Everything is always everywhere, and right here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s all connected.”
“Do I need to get a doctor?”
“Energy. Matter. Matter. Energy.”
“You’re really starting to freak me out, and I don’t freak out easily. I once met Ludwig van Beethoven backstage in Gandren the past.”
“We’re thinking about this all wrong. We don’t need an altreal siphon. The time siphon will do just fine, as long as we use it correctly. Just a few molecules from everywhere, it’s all connected. Crimson Clover!” she shouted at medium volume.
Crimson exploported in. “Holly Blue has agreed to go meet Declan, but she has to get ready first. What do you need?”
“I need my body back,” Hogarth demanded.
“I can’t take her to Declan’s universe unless I keep it. I promise to return it immediately afterwards.”
“Don’t worry about Holly Blue right now. I can finish the matrioshka body.” She grabbed it by her shoulders, and forcefully swapped their consciousnesses.

Flesh and Bone

“Well, I know that body belongs to you, but that was a little jarring,” Crimson Clover said.
“I’ll make it up to you,” Hogarth replied. “Lenkida said this was a long-term project, but I’m gonna prove him wrong. I’m gonna build his matrioshka body, and I’m gonna do it all at once.”
“How is that even possible?” Ethesh questioned. “I know I’m not anywhere near as intelligent or knowledgeable as anyone here, but that doesn’t seem physically possible.”
Hogarth shook her head, glad to have it back in her possession. The upgrade was nice, but it wasn’t really her. She was more of a flesh and bone kind of gal. “You’re thinking linearly. Everything happening in order, and over time, is the exact same thing as everything happening all at once, as long as you’re looking at it from the right perspective. I can see it now. I mean, I can’t see it like Aitchai can, but I understand it better. Everyone, everything, contributes just a little bit. We’ll all become part of the Glisnian collective. It will be the body that’s made up of the whole universe.”
“I’m not sure you’re making sense,” Ethesh pointed out, “and not because I’m just a dumb technician, but because you’re only giving us half the information.”
“I know,” Hogarth said with a nod. “I will explain everything. We just need to put the team together.”
“Who is on this team?” Crimson asked, like he was preparing a grocery list.
“Call everyone who’s still here. We don’t need Ambrose, Jupiter, or Hilde, but they can join us if they want.”
They met back in the room where The Shortlist and The Shorter List had their respective meetings. Hogarth, Hilde, Ethesh, Mekiolenkidasola, Crimson, Holly Blue, Jupiter, and Ambrose were there.
“Oh, God,” Jupiter said, “are we doing this again?”
“You’re not here to decide how we’re going to move forward,” Hogarth began. “I just want to tell you my new plan.”
“If there’s a new plan, then we should contact the others,” Holly Blue announced.
“I’m not going to do that, I’m done with the meetings. Holly Blue, you can leave, if you would like. Once I’m finished here, I will honor our deal, and get you back to our son, but if you don’t want to continue helping, I won’t make you. I think I can handle this.”
“Are you even capable of traveling to Declan’s world?” Holly Blue asked.
“Let me put it like this,” Hogarth said, “if I’m not capable of getting you back to Declan, I’m not capable of completing the matrioshka body.”
“How do you propose you do that?” Lenkida asked, wanting to get to the matter at hand.
“The time siphon,” Hogarth started her presentation. “You told me you wanted me to help you reach other star systems at faster-than-light speeds, so that’s how I went about tackling the problem. I saw each star as a target, but it doesn’t have to be like that. We could reach every star...every orbital around every star, in multiple galaxies. If we take just a little bit from everything—and I’m talking a molecule here and there—then it doesn’t matter if there’s life, or potential for life, or anything. No one will notice it’s gone, and they won’t miss it. I don’t see an ethical problem with it.”
The group sat in silence for a moment before Holly Blue spoke. “You wanna build a filter portal.”
“If that’s what you call it, then yeah,” Hogarth agreed. “Am I not the first to think of it?”
“You’re probably the first to think of something on the scale you’re talking about, but I know of other filter portalers. Keanu ‘Ōpūnui is a notable example. He uses his powers to manipulate the weather.”
“He can teleport individual molecules from one place to another?” Hogarth asked to make sure she was understanding her correctly.
“That’s what you do, but only with your body,” Crimson reminded her. “What makes you think you can scale it up that much? Mr. Richardson?”
“Hey,” Ambrose said, “I’m not sure I feel comfortable with that. I still have no clue how we conjured a star from another universe.”
“I don’t need you to do anything anymore,” Hogarth assured him. “I can get all the energy I need from the universe itself. Every time I reach out to a celestial body, it will connect me to the other nearby bodies, like a chain reaction, or a web crawler.”
“That’s absurd,” Holly Blue argued. “What makes you think you can do that? I can’t build something that can do that. My powers only let me invent time technology that exists as a power or salmon pattern that is exhibited by someone else. It’s a lot easier when I’ve seen it done by that someone else, and even easier when I can study them. I don’t know anyone who can filter portal the universe, do you?”
Hogarth smiled. “I do. I just met him, the Aitchai.”
“Ugh,” a few of them said.
“We don’t know anything about this mysterious energy god you claim to have met,” Holly Blue added.
“You think I’m lying?” Hogarth questioned. “Tell me, Holly, how could I have gotten rid of the star intruder if not by his hand, and why would I have not just told you that truth?”
“I dunno,” Holly Blue admitted, “and don’t call me that; you know I don’t care for it, which is why you said it.”
“We used to be friends, a long time ago.”
Holly Blue took a breath. It would seem she was having a hell of a time with her respiratory system. Hogarth had thought she was imagining it, but now it seemed real. Holly Blue could sense this realization in the others. “I’m dying.”
“I have a time disease.” She smiled quite sadly.
“Do you mean a time affliction?” Hilde asked. “That’s what we called what Piglet had before we learned she could control it.”
“No,” Holly Blue answered. “It’s an actual disease.” She breathed heavily again. “It’s the kind of thing that humans go through when someone messes with their linear pattern, and they don’t receive the proper treatment. It happened to me, ‘cause...because time and I have been working against each other for a”
“What does this mean?”
“It’s a unique cerebrovascular disease that affects my autonomic nervous system.” She reached up, and tapped on her eyeballs, removing two contact lenses from them. “It started out by blocking my pupillary response. I had to invent these things to regulate how they constrict and dilate, because my brain can’t do it on its own. The disease then moved on to my urinary system, which I imagine you don’t want to hear about. Now it’s gone after my lungs. Eventually, if I survive long enough to reach the final stage, my heart will just stop beating. Even if you implant artificial organs, my capillaries will stop exchanging chemicals with my tissue, and I won’t be able to transport water, nutrients, or oxygen. Can’t replace those, not all of them, anyway.”
Lenkida reached over and placed his hand upon hers. “Yes, we can.”
Holly Blue nodded negatively. “Yeah, but I’m not going to do that. I have to see my son, even if it’s the last thing I do. I don’t know if I can jump universes as a mech, but I know I can as a choosing one. I might consider upgrading afterwards, but...”
“But what?” Hilde encouraged.
“The disease might follow me through any transhumanistic upgrade. That’s why I called it a time disease, because it doesn’t respond to medical treatment. It...disappears, and comes back in the future. I think it’s literally traveling through time.”
“Have you spoken with Dr. Hammer or Dr. Sarka?” Hogarth suggested.
“Both,” Holly Blue said. “They tried, but they couldn’t do a thing.”
Hogarth looked over at Crimson. “How do you navigate the bulkverse? How can you find Declan?”
“Give me back the body, I’ll take her,” Crimson requested.
“No, I want to take her,” Hogarth insisted. “Just tell me how.”
“It requires calculating hyperdimensional metamathematics,” it responded.
Hogarth accidentally let out a belly laugh. “I sent an entire town to another planet when I was a kid. You think I don’t know metamath?”
“You did that on accident,” it said to her.
“Can you teach me, or not?”
“Yeah, I’ll teach you,” it promised. “Of course I’ll teach you.”
“Thank you.” Hogarth returned her attention to Holly Blue. “I’m sorry I’ve been hard on you.”
“No, I should be apologizing,” Holly Blue contended. “I’ve been grumpy about it. When you’re a time traveler, the future seems inevitable, as does the past. You can live in 1992, and then jump right to 2400. It can really feel like you’re immortal, because you see how things change. But I didn’t watch history unfold, I just skipped a bunch of parts. I’m just as prone to death as anyone else, and I can accept that. It’s just been tough. So many people have promised to help me find my son, and they have done so with the absolute best intentions, but they have not been able to deliver.”
Hogarth glanced over at Crimson for a half second. “I can deliver. I will. I wasn’t trying to be dismissive earlier. I can do this without you now, because you’ve been invaluable thus far, and not just on the technical side. Your sense of ethics is unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met, and I won’t forget the lessons that you taught me. But it’s time for you to go home.”
Holly Blue looked like she was tearing up, but nothing came out of her ducts, probably because of the disease. “Thank you.”
Hogarth tabled the discussion on the intergalactic time siphon thing, and focused on helping her friend with her dying wish. Crimson spent the better part of the next week teaching her how to transport her atoms to other universes, and more importantly, how to navigate to a specific point in spacetime. Then it showed her the coordinates to Declan’s location specifically. Once Holly Blue was packed, and ready to leave everything she had ever known behind, Hogarth embraced her, and dismantled every molecular bond in their bodies and belongings.
Declan was waiting for her on the side of a road, apparently having settled on this moment as a rendezvous with Crimson Clover long ago. It warmed Hogarth’s heart to witness the reunion, and reminded her that the point of doing anything in life was to progress, and support others. The matrioshka body was great and all, but it wasn’t the only path to the future, and it wasn’t essential. She would still do it, for sure, but at least she was no longer so anxious about getting it done. She had all the time in the worlds, which was nice, because that allowed her to hang out with her friends for a good month. When she left to go back to their universe of origin, Holly Blue was still alive, and actually kind of doing okay. It was possible that her time disease couldn’t follow her here, but Hogarth would never know. Holly Blue asked that she leave before seeing proof either way. She wanted her friends to move on with their lives without knowing how things turned out. She somehow took comfort in that, and Hogarth did too.
When she returned, a few days had passed for everyone else, indicating that the calculations Hogarth had come up with were a little off, and she needed to really nail those down before she tried something like that again. For now, they had work to do, and Ethesh was eager to show her the prototype that he had built in her absence.

The Last Gate

To practice using her time power, Hogarth first took Jupiter back to where he belonged in the 21st century. She didn’t have to be extremely accurate with her temporal navigation, because he was flexible, but she managed to land on the target moment anyway. This gave her a better understanding of how to do it, and when it came time to deliver Ambrose Richardson to his home universe, she was up to the task. While the team didn’t need either of them to complete the matrioshka body, had they not shown up, Hogarth would never have found the solution she was looking for. With this new plan, she would be able to take a little bit of matter from quadrillions and quadrillions of different places, all over the universe. Each time she connected with something, or someone, it would act as a relay point, so she wouldn’t have very far to go before reaching the next point. The more things she connected with, the stronger she would become, and the farther out she would be able to reach through the voids. She could take thousands of molecules from smaller objects, and billions from others, without causing even the least bit of disturbance in what she left behind. The structural integrity of these objects would remain perfectly fine, but once combined, these molecules would be invaluable towards their goals. She could do this, as long as she had help.
Ethesh used his technical know-how to build her a machine, and together, they refined it. It was a chamber inside a room that was to be connected to every single system in the matrioshka brain. From here, they could control mirror angle, energy output, even the hallway lights; everything. It only took the team three weeks to convince the Glisnians to give them access to all of these things, which they didn’t have to do. Those separate systems were compartmentalized for a reason, because when together, they would be too easy to exploit. This put the entire population in danger. They had no reason to believe anyone would want to sabotage Glisnia, but it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. Of course, very few people were allowed in the room, and the only reason Hilde was one of them was because she was, to be honest, too incompetent to be of any threat to them. Beyond the walls, the greatest security contingency ever protected the room from any external influence, and they used an interesting tactic.
Most security plans assumed one thing; that a given set of people would have a certain level of access to the inside, and as long as only those people were accepted, everything would be fine. The problem with that was time. The longer something existed, the more chances a nefarious entity had to interfere with it, and that interference often started through some weakness in the population. A receptionist, for example, might have an ill father, who needed certain expensive medicine to survive. All an intruder would have to do was pay for that medication, and the receptionist would let them past the badged area. There were no receptionists on Glisnia, but the analogy held. The best way, they figured, to prevent any weak spots in the security system, was for it to be in constant flux. Robot A will only be on the front lines for an hour, before it’s removed, and replaced by Robot B. Robot B will last a day and a half before Robot C comes along, and to keep would-be intruders on their toes, it will only be around for seven minutes, before it’s forced to make way for Robot D.
If someone wanted to hack one of these robots to let them in, they wouldn’t know how long they had before it became useless anyway, forcing them to start over with something else. Access codes, data transference, and other vulnerabilities followed the same model by constantly shifting. The most vital component of this was secrecy. The robots and mechs they used to guard the room had absolutely no clue what was in it, and the people of Glisnia predominantly didn’t even know this was happening at all. Some weren’t even cognizant of the fact that the matrioshka body was in the plans in the first place. To coordinate, they needed a single person with the brain capacity to handle the randomized decision gates. Mekiolenkidasola was that someone. Lenkida, Hogarth, Hilde, Ethesh, and Crimson would be the only people ever in the room. They would not leave, and literally no one else would be allowed in, until the job was done. Once it was, the room would be completely destroyed, and never rebuilt.
They lived there for a month, the mechs surviving on an isolated miniature fusion power source, and the humans on mostly nonperishable food. They didn’t want anyone to need any supplies or other resources from the outside. They had all the tools they required to make sure Ethesh’ machine operated correctly, and that Hogarth would be able to run it. After countless simulations, Hogarth was ready to take the penultimate step. She knew she had access to all the energy in the bulkverse, but she still needed to reach out to Aitchia once more, to make sure he was cool with it, and to help, if necessary.
Now that she was organic again, Hogarth couldn’t just scan the QR code on the back of the Book of Hogarth with her eyes. This was something they forgot to ask for before the room was sealed, but that was okay. Ethesh had everything he needed to build a scanner from scratch. After all this, that was probably the least difficult thing they had to do in here.

“You’re back.”
“Is that okay?”
“Of course,” Aitchai assured her. “The bulkverse belongs to everyone, I just keep it running.”
“I was gonna ask you for permission, or a favor, or...forgiveness, depending.”
He grinned. “What do you need?”
“Oh, not much,” Hogarth began, worried how he would react. “Just access to all the energy in the entire universe.”
“Really? You don’t even wanna know what it’s for?”
He shrugged. “It’s just one universe. It would be like if I asked you for one of your atoms.”
“That’s kind of what I’m trying to do.” Hogarth then went about telling him their plan to extract miniscule amounts of matter from everywhere, but not too much from any one place.
“Diversify!” Aitchai exclaimed. “My finance guy always recommends I do that,” he joked.
“So, you’re cool with this?”
“I don’t see any problem with it. You’re a bookmaker, you have all you need to do what you need to do. I wouldn’t go getting a big head about it, or anything, but I’m happy for ya.”
Hogarth thanked him, and prepared to leave, but stopped. “Just one more thing. It’s...I don’t know if it’s big or not. I’m not a hundred percent certain that my friends are a hundred percent certain that you exist.”
“You want proof,” he guessed.
“Have you ever needed to do that before?”
“Tell ya what, you go back to them, and tell ‘em to look out the window.”
“Which one?”
“Doesn’t matter, I’ll know. While they’re watchin’, clap your hands once. That’ll be my signal.”
“I appreciate this; the signal, and everything.”
“It is a joy.” He smiled like a loving father.
“He wants us to watch the window?” Hilde asked.
“The stars, I believe,” Hogarth assumed.
They didn’t budge.
“What’s the worst that can happen? You’re looking out a window. Or...a viewscreen.”
Crimson simulated a sigh, and switched on the screen.
“This is realtime, right?” Hogarth confirmed. Their silence answered the question, so she clapped her hands, as instructed. A beam of light shot out from one of the stars, and made its way down to another star. A second beam then came out of the first star, and made its way to a series of other stars, eventually forming a curve, which stopped back at the second star. The lines and curves continued from left to right, until a complete imperative formed, reading DON’T PANIC.
“Holy shit,” Ethesh exhaled.
“Is this authentic?” Crimson questioned.
Lenkida walked over to a nondescript panel on the wall. He opened it up, and took out what looked like a red landline phone. He held it to his ear. “Did others just see that?” He waited for a response. “Has it been authenticated?” He eyed Hogarth as he listened to whoever was on the other end of the line. “Well, it was proof, in case anyone doubted that we could do what we said we would do. I know we had a protocol for beginning the procedure, but I believe this will suffice? Please open the last gate.” He stayed on the phone for another moment before hanging up, and casually punching the phone with his fist so hard that it shattered. He looked over at the team. “We’re a go.”
After completing the launch sequence, Hogarth closed her eyes, and said a prayer, not to god, but to Aitchai, who could make or break this whole project. When she was ready, she nodded to Ethesh, who activated the machine, and gave her access to the whole matrioshka brain. She didn’t need it to build a body, but things could go awry if the brain and body weren’t perfectly compatible. Having every qubit of data that the network was storing—about itself, about everything—was vital in completing this mission properly. It would allow her to find the right matter from the right places, and install them at the right spots, to create a seamless transition from head, to shoulders, to knees, and toes. She could see it all, it was glorious, and it was exactly what she needed.
She took a chunk out of her own body to start, then moved on to stealing a little bit from Hilde, and then from everyone else in the room. Then she continued with every independent entity on the shells, and a little extraneous matter from the shells themselves. She took some from the star, and the nearest stars, and their orbitals, and then from Sol, and the rest of the stellar neighborhood. And still, it was impossible to detect that the matrioshka was any larger than it was before. She needed more, she needed a shit ton more. No, she needed a shit ton of a shit ton more, and then she needed to take that to the power of a shit ton. Every star in the galaxy, every planet, every moon, every asteroid, every meteor, every comet, Andromeda, Triangulum, beyond; she took from all of them, and only then did they notice any progress. She reached out farther, to the rest of the cluster, and the supercluster, and the hypercluster, and the great wall; all across the observable universe, and then the rest. Before a man in Tokyo could finish his morning coffee, it was done. It was all done. The matrioshka body was complete. It had arms, legs, a torso, a behind, and even protrusions that resembled breasts. That’s right, the matrioshka was a woman, which made the most sense since the word meant mother.

Body Politics

Hogarth Pudeyonavic was sitting alone in the Judgment Room. Glisnia was designed to be a perfect democracy, or at least as perfect as was possible. Literally everyone had an equal say, or at least it was supposed to be like that. Mekiolenkidasola and Crimson Clover misrepresented how the system worked, leading Hogarth to make decisions that maybe not everyone would have wanted. There was absolutely no law against her and Hilde being human, and no reason that she couldn’t help them if she was. Best guess, Lenkida spun her that lie to get her on the hook. She needed to be told something that would cause her to believe that he somehow spoke for the Glisnians, and was responsible for securing their interests in this matter. The truth was that he probably operated within some rebel faction, which opposed the greater good in some way. She didn’t have all the facts, though, so she needed to be patient. Right now, the Glisnians were here to gather her side of the story, so they could figure out what to do about this mess.
“State your designation, for the record.” It was a dermal mech who was talking to her, but she was channeling the will of everyone. The surface data of literally every single person in this matrioshka brain was being sent to her for processing, except for the opinions of the defendants. When enough of them had a question to ask, she was obligated to ask for them. When even more of them agreed upon a decision, that was the decision they would make, and it would be carried out by individuals like this mech. That was how the government worked, and that was what Lenkida purposefully kept from her. The judge’s name was a hex code as laid out in a fractal pattern, but for the sake of the non-mechs, like Hogarth, she went by Avalhana.
“Hogarth Meridia Pudeyonavic.”
“World of origin.”
“Earth, November 21, 1994.”
“Please only answer the question as it is posed, with no flourishes or extraneous information.”
“The record will show that the third question was answered, but unasked. Remove the line from the database.”
“Removed,” came a symphony of voices from the aether.
“At what point did you first arrive in Gliese 832 space? Please note that Gliese 832 space refers to the boundary—” Avalhana tried to begin.
“I understand what it means,” Hogarth interrupted. “Just because I’m human, doesn’t mean I’m a total moron. It was 2245.”
“Please refrain from interrupting, and from flourishes and commentary.”
“Look, like I said, you’re talkin’ to a human, which means you’re gonna have to be more flexible. Go on and tell your little mechs that we don’t process data the way you do, and I’m not going to roboticize my speech for the sake of efficiency. We’re all immortal here, who gives a shit how long this takes?”
Avalhana did not respond for a good few minutes, which could be centuries from her perspective. “We will...attempt to reach your level of communication.”
That was needlessly condescending, but okay. “Okay. Next question.”
“When did you first learn that you had the power to spontaneously fabricate multi-solar system-sized objects with little but your own strength and will?” Avalhana asked.
“About a month ago.”
This disturbed her.
“I don’t have an exact timeline for you. As you are well aware, organic beings store associative memory, rather than categorical memory. It is...less efficient, but more beautiful, and I stand by it.”
“Very well. Where did you learn this skill?”
“I didn’t learn it so much as I was accidentally imbued with the power when I absorbed the force of a blast that sent my entire town to a planet that was about one-point-seven-eight light years from Earth.”
She paused again. “There is no planet at such distance.”
“It was a rogue world. It has since moved on.”
“Understood. And you survived on this planet using your, umm...?”
They did not say umm very often, because they were not surprised or stumped very often. “Powers? No, not mine, other people’s. I don’t have the details.”
“There are others like you?”
Now Hogarth was the one to pause, but she knew she had to answer. It was the 25th century, and this wasn’t the first case that suggested that temporal manipulation would be revealed to the rest of the vonearthans sometime in this time period. Many time travelers claimed to have seen it in the future, and many more deliberately avoided traveling this far forward in the timeline, so as not to be caught in some time war. There would not likely be any war, but that didn’t make it perfectly safe. Others didn’t necessarily believe the rumors, but they exercised caution just the same, because people finding out about them was probably ultimately inevitable. “Yes, and before you ask, I don’t know how many, and I don’t know where they all are. We are not a monolith. They can travel through time, and I believe that they are mostly this time, because of you...who threaten..their secrets.”
“Are you at liberty to discuss these matters with us?”
“Who’s to say? There’s a prison for people who spill the beans, but I am about fifty percent sure that this time period is beyond their jurisdiction, for reasons I could not tell you.”
“Understood.” These answers probably altered Avalhana’s questions greatly, so she took a moment to reassess with the population. “Who asked you to build this—as it’s been called—the matrioshka body?”
“Was he your only point of contact for this project?”
“There was another, named Crimson Clover. I know that Lenkida lied to me about how much influence he had over this system, but I’m not clear on Crimson’s involvement. He may be almost completely innocent. He didn’t tell me how your government works, but perhaps it simply never came up.”
“We are not cognizant of the truth about him either.” She moved on, “have you ever heard of The Iunta?”
“I have not. Would you be able to explain?”
“They are a small faction within our population that seeks to form a hierarchy of control. We believe that Mekiolenkidasola is a member, and are attempting to ascertain if Crimson is as well, and whether you are.”
“I’m not lying, I’ve never heard that word before. I assume it’s a new formation of junta?”
“I’m sorry to have been involved with them, but I promise you that I was not cognizant of Lenkida’s affiliations, or his group’s existence, let alone their motivations.”
“It if exists, your ignorance would have been established by design.”
“My ignorance does exist.”
She nodded. “Please tell us about your other associates, and whether anyone is missing from this list. Hilde Unger, Ethesh Beridze, Holly Blue, Jupiter Rosa, and another man whose only name here is Richardson.”
Ambrose Richardson,” Hogarth added. “There are others, but I am not at liberty to discuss them. We have formed a council of sorts called The Shortlist. We determine whether a technological advancement that involves temporal manipulation is safe enough to be developed.”
“Why does this particular group form the council, and why not others?”
“We are the ones capable of these advancements. When we encounter someone else with such knowledge, comprehension, or ability, we place them on the council with us. I hope you understand that I will tell you all you want to know about time powers, but I will do so using generalities, and anecdotes; not specifics, and targeting language.”
“We believe that we can accept that,” Avalhana said. “We recognize the importance of discretion, and unlike humans, we do not possess an entitlement to know the truth about everything. The only question I’m hearing now is...are you a threat to us?”
Hogarth didn’t know the answer, not with any stable level of confidence.
“You may specify, if necessary. Are you, as an individual, a threat to us? Is this Shortlist? Is the greater population of your subspecies?”
“I, personally, am not,” Hogarth began. “Nor is the Shortlist. Like any population, however, there are those who would seek to destroy, improve, control, or otherwise impact that which they encounter. You are something that can be encountered, and I cannot guarantee that no one will attempt to insert themselves into your society, for whatever reasons they have. This is true of anyone, however, and I implore you not to attack any potential threat without diplomacy first, and a clear violation of your rights. I think we all know what the humans fear about your potential. Earthan entertainment is riddled with cautionary tales about fictional artificial intelligences who rise against their creators. I can tell you, however, that I will do everything I can to protect you, just as I would protect others from you.”
“This is a fair analysis,” Avalhana, and the collective, decided. “We will not depend on your protection. We would, however, appreciate your guidance in matters of temporal manipulation, and ask that you remain on Glisnia in order to serve as our liaison to anyone with the same, or similar, abilities.”
“That’s...not what I thought you would say.”
“You were expecting to be exiled or extinguished?”
“I was.”
“That is not how we do things. Had Mekiolenkidasola been honest with you, you would have known that about us.”
“What will happen to him, and Crimson, and my friends who are still here?”
“Your friends will be allowed to stay with you, should they choose. My collective is eager to make you aware that you are not obligated to remain either. You act on our behalf upon your own volition, and you are under no contract to maintain your position for any specified period of time. We do ask, however, that while you are in this position, you endeavor to protect Glisnian interests, and develop a strong enough sense of loyalty in pursuit of this condition.”
Hogarth smiled at the formality. “I can do that. And of Crimson?”
“He will be judged shortly, as you have been.”
“I have one request.”
She extended her hand to offer Hogarth the privilege of continuing. “Lenkida and Crimson are aware of certain details about me and my people, which I would rather remain unknown to all others.”
Avalhana waited to respond as she listened to the collective opinion. “It is our understanding that you possess reasonable technical skills, and would be able to use these skills in order to delete targeted memories from a mechanical entity?”
“Umm...I’m not totally comfortable with that. Can’t you just conduct a preliminary hearing to determine their guilt, and then erase the sensitive memories afterwards? Does every judgment have to include the entire Glisnian collective? I’m all right if one or two other people know some stuff about me, just not everybody.”
They discussed her proposal. “We agree to your terms. We will adjourn for one standard Earthan hour to develop a new plan, and to give the humans time to rest.”
“Thank you.”
Avalhana nodded slightly, but said nothing further.

Hilde was waiting for her in the other room. She was noticeably shaking.
“Hey, hey,” Hogarth said calmingly. “Everything’s fine. We were lied to, but the mechs are not unreasonable people. Nothing’s gonna happen to us.”
“Are you just trying to make me feel better?” Hilde questioned.
“Does that sound like me?”
“No, but—”
“No more butts. We already got two; we don’t need any more. I assure you that we’re good. We can stay here. They even wanna give me a job.”
“You’re joking.”
“Really. I told them about time travel. They’re worried someone else with powers is gonna come along, and they won’t know how to handle it.”
“We are not staying here, Hogarth.”
“You don’t want this for me?”
“There are billions of mechs on this world—station—brain, whatever you call it, and they’re probably going to replicate themselves exponentially to fill out the body that you built them. We can’t be the only humans here, it’s just not safe.”
“It is safe, and you know that it is, because I’m telling you that it is. If something goes wrong, I can jump us out of here at a moment’s notice.”
“You mean you can explode us?”
“I can exploport us.”
Hilde rolled her eyes. That term was not catching on.
Ethesh rolled up. “Yo, is everything okay?”
“Yes,” Hogarth replied. “You can stay here, if you want.”
“Cool,” he said casually.
“Good answer,” Hogarth told him, then switched her attention back to Hilde. “Your turn to try.”
Hilde inhaled and exhaled melodramatically. “I will approximate an acceptance of the situation.”
“Close enough, we’ll get there.”
“What are we gonna do now?” Ethesh asked.
“I have a few ideas,” Hogarth said with a smirk. “We could do with another sun to make it work, though. I’m thinkin’ a yellow dwarf this time.”
“Oh, no.”

Binary Engine

The group was standing in the control room of the solar chamber. Though it was called a chamber, it was not completely solid, as that would have gravitational consequences. In fact, this whole matrioshka body was composed of different parts, rotating in concert with each other, and held together via energy fields, and pressure forces. Some of them were cylinders, others rings, and some even saucers. The solar chamber was a hollow sphere, lined by hundreds of millions of thermal collectors. Once the new sun was in place, these collectors will relay power to only one component. The red dwarf they were using was now going to be used to power internal systems, while the yellow dwarf they did not yet have would only power the engine. Now that the body was essentially complete, Hogarth decided she wanted the thing to be able to move. It was called a stellar engine, and while it wasn’t the first one to be designed for the stellar neighborhood, it was going to be the absolute largest, and was destined to be completed in a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the time.
“Are we quite confident about this?” Crimson Clover asked. Hogarth later learned that the Glisnian government was not composed of literally every single entity in the system, though that was how it was designed, and intended to be. Any individual was free to disengage themselves from the collective, and they were even free to return to the fold, though only at the beginning of a new cycle. A cycle was not any set period of time, like a month, or a year. Instead, each was determined by a complex series of temporal math equations, which was needlessly complicated, but if the collective didn’t want to use it, they could stop at any time. While disengaged, an individual still enjoyed the same rights and protections as everyone else, but they would not be included in determining what these were. And each cycle, these rights and protections were up for debate, and those who chose not to contribute to the decision on them risked them being taken away. Nothing significantly negative had happened to the willfully disenfranchised before, but it always could. Crimson was one of these who had never contributed to the government, and that was how it liked it, and it was because of this that it never realized how deep Lenkida’s lies ran. Otherwise, it would have said something.
“You doubt my power?” Hogarth questioned with faux bravado.
“Oh, no, I know you can do it.” Crimson gestured towards the gargantuan world around them. “I just want to make sure that we should.”
“I think it’s more asking if we’re allowed to,” Hilde offered. She was now back in her original organic substrate. She wasn’t planning on dying, or anything. She just preferred the idea of cloning herself, and transferring her consciousness over to the younger body every time she needed it. Crimson reported considering the same immortality path, after having spent centuries in Hogarth’s body.
“I did my due diligence this time. Avalhana was telling the truth, according to a random sampling.” It was true. Hogarth spent over a month going around to as many Glisnians as she could, confirming what she had been told about how the system worked. She spoke with dermal mechs, and hard tops, and noncorporeal intelligences. She even found a few organics who she should have met before, seeing as they were relegated to certain areas, not because they were unworthy, but because organic beings were limited where they could survive. Some places had more or less gravity, and more or less air to breathe. The point was they all said the same thing, that Glisnia was run by a connected collective, that some chose to disconnect themselves but remain here, and that Lenkida had been lying to them about it this entire time. Hogarth wasn’t about to let something like that happen again, even if it all turned out okay.
“Can confirm,” Ethesh said bluntly. He was still mostly organic, but had received a number of transhumanistic upgrades, one of which allowed him to join the Glisnian collective as one of them. Whether to create new life, and what kind, was the most common decision the Glisnians made together. Whether to patriate a new citizen was the third most common. Having been instrumental in completing the matrioshka body, Ethesh was welcomed warmly. He said that he was always looking for his forever home, that Dardius was never that, and that fate only placed him there so he could eventually make his way here. It was unclear if he was planning to stay as he was for now, or if he would later mechanize himself more. Either way was fine. Death was rare on Glisnia, but not out of the question.
Speaking of which, a directed death would soon take place. For the most part, capital punishment was not considered legal on Glisnia, but it couldn’t be entirely outlawed either, because that would be incredibly dangerous. Their definition of life was a lot different than it was on Earth, and few humans could argue it wasn’t right. In fact, humans extinguished life on the daily. They took antibiotics to kill bacterial infections, and wore masks to prevent the spread of viral pandemics. This was a hundred percent normal. Anyone who argued against it was fundamentally harmful to the greater good, and warranted a swift reckoning. Computer viruses were the same thing, and they formed on Glisnia all the time. Bad code, intentional malevolent forces; they were less likely to happen in the world of quantum computing, but not impossible, and quite prevalent due to the sheer number of processes being calculated every second.
Mekiolenkidasola was bad code, according to the government, and he was to be executed for it, along with a few other key potentially destructive entities. They weren’t doing it out of spite or anger. Lenkida and his compatriots were quite literally capable of infecting the entire system with their bad code, and the only way to protect the positive was to remove the negative. Every time it came to decide on something like this, the idea of exiling the disease to an isolated location was proposed. But they never went this route, because in the scifi film about it, the evil robots always returned with a vengeance. They figured it was best to just get rid of it, and not worry about retaliation. That didn’t mean they took these decisions lightly. They didn’t just go around deleting each other when something went wrong. They always tried to look for a reformation alternative, which was of course, very different than it was for organics, but at some point, they did just give up. Lenkida was someone they gave up on, and unfortunately, that meant he was going to die for it. It was something the rest of the group wasn’t going to talk about anymore.
Today, it was about the new sun. Around a hundred light years from here there was a star that was so aptly named HD 186704. It was a yellow dwarf main sequence star; more specifically, a G0V, which made it a little more massive than Sol, and a really good candidate for a stellar engine. No terrestrial planets orbited HD 186704, so there wasn’t any life evolving there. Even if life was possible, Hogarth knew that nothing lived there, because she was capable of reaching out and detecting that sort of thing, by riding the plumes of vacuum energy throughout interstellar space. The Glisnians ran an ethical survey of this star, using data collected from Project Stargate and Project Topdown, and determined that it was okay to steal it. They were going to take a star at some point, from somewhere. If Hogarth didn’t tunnel it to their location through time travel, they would have eventually found something else closer.
The matrioshka body was fully capable of becoming a thrusting-type stellar engine as it stood on its own. They just wanted a separate engine for propulsion, so if something went wrong with one of them, they would have a backup. This followed the principles of SCR&M, which demanded safety, compartmentalization, redundancy, and modularization. It would operate differently than the Shkadov thrusters that scientists and science fiction writers proposed in the ancient days, though. They were not going to move the star, and let themselves be carried along with it. Instead, the star would be like a massive, wild fusion reactor, sending energy down to the body’s feet, and producing significant thrust there. It would also break the original laws of physics by accelerating the system to impressive speeds at impressive time intervals. If they ran at full power for a hundred and fifty thousand years, everyone inside the structure would only experience a couple centuries of relativistic time, and it would get them clear to the other side of the galaxy.
A normal stellar engine would take billions of years to cover the same ground, and that wasn’t something anyone truly felt the need to do, but this was all about kicking ass in the field of advancement. They could make it go even faster if they incorporated the reframe technology that Hokusai Gimura invented a hundred and fifty years ago. They had yet to ask permission for that. One thing at a time. They first needed to steal the star from its natural spot. Hogarth had by now decided to call it Hilde, but chose not to tell anyone about it yet.
“Are we ready?” Hilde asked.
“Mister Beridze?” Hogarth prompted.
Ethesh consulted his head-up display. “Twenty-four seconds until beacon reaches the sweetspot.”
“Sweetspot?” Hilde questioned. “Is that the official term?”
Hogarth pulled her steampunk goggles down over her eyes. They looked like the HG Goggles, but they were just highly advanced sunglasses that would allow her to look straight at the new sun without it burning her eyes out. “It is, yes.”
The others put on their own solar blockers, and prepared themselves. They wouldn’t need them right away, but they looked cool.
“Five, four, three, two, one. You have about a minute before it crosses to the other side of the doughnut,” Ethesh explained.
The easiest way to get the new star here was to drop a beacon where they wanted it to be. Obviously, it needed to happen at the center of the solar chamber, so if Hogarth didn’t do her thing right now, they would have to start over. Which would have been fine, there was no rush. Still, it was time, so she initiated her temporal power. It was becoming much easier to access, even for these massive projects. Being connected to all the universe’s energy was proving to be extremely helpful.
By the time the beacon could fly too far from the center, it was already too late. Part of the Hilde star had come through the exploportal Hogarth had opened. Yeah, now she was seeing how that wasn’t such a great word to describe it. That was what it was, though. The star wasn’t going to suddenly blink into existence. She had to take it little by little, like she was draining it from one tank, and letting it fill another. After a few minutes, they still couldn’t make out the little bit of light the nanosun was radiating without zooming in. It was going to take a long time, because that was the safest way to do it. Hogarth stared at it for a moment and a half before smiling, exhaling, and lifting her goggles. “Okay, cool. Lunch?”
“Wait, that’s it?” Hilde asked.
“For now...”
“How long is this going to take?” Hilde pressed.
“Three or four,” Hogarth answered.
“Months? Years?” Ethesh chimed in.
“Maybe five.”
“You stole that joke from another universe,” Crimson criticized.
“Did I?”
No one said anything.
“It’ll only take about a month,” Hogarth clarified. “Just in time for Christmas.”
“What’ll you do after that?” Ethesh asked as they were leaving the room together.
“I don’t know,” Hogarth replied honestly. “Maybe I’ll try to build a whole new universe. Wadya think?”

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