Proxima Doma

Imminent Domain

The year is 2215. Étude Einarsson and Vitalie Crawville have just watched their friends ship out to one of Proxima Doma’s nearest planetary neighbors, Bungula. Formerly known as Proxima Centauri b, Doma is an excellent planet. With a mass not too terribly higher than that of Earth’s, a normal human is capable of thriving, given certain amenities. The atmosphere is thin, but a stable magnetosphere protects a portion of the surface from stellar winds. This is called the Terminator Zone. One side of Doma always faces its red dwarf parent star, and one side always faces the cold, empty black. Where these two sides meet, a paradise sits. Though the air is still not breathable unaided, it is possible to survive with sufficient technology. Great domes have been constructed in strategic locations around the border. Étude and Vitalie are presently living in a dome called New Hertfordshire. It’s capable of housing tens of millions of vonearthans, which is the collective term for any entity ultimately deriving from Earth.
Their presence on this world remains a mystery to its inhabitants. They first arrived following the destruction of their ship, which was meant to venture all the way to Bungula. That the ship was destroyed is unquestioned, but the fact that it arrived so quickly after the first colony ships makes little sense. There was no talk of such a trip before the colonists left, yet they would have had to have left soon thereafter, unless they were utilizing faster-than-light technology, which they secretly were. Étude and Vitalie’s survival of the crash is another mystery the colonists have not been able to solve. Fortunately, they are far too busy starting their new lives on an alien planet to spend too much time investigating. There is plenty of room for the two of them, so they have been allowed to stay, as long as they contribute positively to the colonization efforts. At the moment, the two of them are debating the magnitude of this contribution.
Of course, they are perfectly willing to help, but there’s a bit of a catch. Étude was born of three powerful people, who were each capable of manipulating time in different ways. Her father was a time traveler, who was sometimes bound to the whims of an even more powerful and mysterious group of people known as the powers that be. He was sometimes not. Étude preferred to leave this gift alone, as she believed altering the timeline was usually too dangerous to even attempt. She was rare in that way, as many thousands of other people shared this ability, and used it to change reality at their will. Étude’s egg-mother was also sometimes beholden to the powers that be, though there was some leeway. She could often force a door to another time and place to open, but it wasn’t always when and where she wanted to go, and it’s unclear whether Étude inherited any traits from her concerning time manipulation. Her womb-mother, Andromeda was the most powerful of all. She could instantly transport materials from all over time and space, and rearrange them into useful structures.
Étude is a walking collection of construction crew and equipment, who can operate at shockingly high speeds. She can construct a whole house in a matter of minutes. And this is where the debate comes in. With this power, she could fill the entire dome—and all the others, for that matter—with massive structures to satisfy the needs of every colonist. In fact, she could probably do this for every vonearthan in the universe, and she would be able to do it all by herself. Obviously, this is not an easy decision, as her coming out as someone known as a choosing one not only impacts her life, but the lives of others. Though there is no formal time police running around, stopping temporal manipulators from revealing themselves, a few have taken it upon themselves to stop such attempts. Beaver Haven authorities, however, traditionally operate in earlier time periods. Telling a 21st century friend, for instance, that you can see the future, is a lot different than transporting Genghis Khan to the stone age, and back again.
The more the world progresses, the easier it is for time travelers to do as they please, as outing themselves doesn’t affect normal people’s developmental process. Besides, these are not the humans of yesteryear. Everyone living on this world has been modified on a genetic and glandular level to survive in extremely harsh conditions. Some of them are over two hundred years old, which means they know what the world looked like before true AI, or biological upgrades. Revealing their true nature to these highly advanced creatures would probably go unnoticed by the prison-keepers, and would not necessarily endanger the Proxima Domanians’ sensibilities.
“You shouldn’t do it,” Vitalie finally said.
“That’s it?” Étude questioned. “We’ve been talking for, like, an hour, and you’ve suddenly realized what the answer is?”
“It hasn’t been that long, and yes.” Vitalie started trying to choose her words carefully. “If you could see the future, you could be hired by one company. That company could benefit from a far superior understanding of market trends, but for the most part, the world would stay as it is. Maybe it’s a bit more advanced than it would have been without you, but still nothing outrageous. Or you could be a secret agent, like your father. Or more accurately, like Ecrin’s mother, who could actually see the future.”
“Sort of,” Étude corrected.
“Sort of,” Vitalie agreed. “The point is that there are lots of different time powers, but there’s no one quite like you. I can count on one hand the number of time-builders this universe has seen. You could drastically alter the course of vonearthan history, and not travel through time once. You’re too...big.”
“So, I shouldn’t help build the colony, because humans still have to work for themselves.”
“Yeah. We’ve been considering the ramifications of revealing your secret, but that’s only one issue. The other issue is that the reason these people came to Doma was to start fresh. If you do everything for them, then it’s like they never left Earth. They were all born into a world that was pretty much finished for them. Sure, there was still room for improvement, and resources weren’t always easy to distribute, but everything every single individual needed to survive was at least somewhere. Back on the home world, everyone has different goals and needs, and they have responsibilities that reflect that, good or bad. Everything here is new, so everyone is working towards the same goal. If you take over their jobs, you rob them of their fated accomplishments.”
“These are all good points. I just feel so useless here. Like you said, they all have the same goal, but we’re both outsiders.”
“Well, you’re probably feeling like that, because you were The Savior,” Vitalie posited.
Before Étude developed her three time powers, she only really had the one, though really not even that, because she had no control over it. She was socially engineered to be The Last Savior of Earth. For centuries, a special class of temporal manipulators were conceived to teleport all over the world, and save people’s lives. Sometimes that meant pulling people out of crashing airplanes, and sometimes it meant convincing them to follow more healthy choices, if the paths they were on were going to lead to untimely death. Over time, the powers that be tapered off the number of these Saviors, until Daria Matic became the first of their kind to do it all on her own. Most Saviors either die on the job, or retire, but they’re always replaced by someone new, until Étude became the last Earth would ever see. She spent years in the position, exercising no ownership of her own life. It was tiring and frustrating, but the worst thing it did was leave her with nothing once it was over. At least then she had a purpose. Now, she was just floating through life, still with no true agency.
“I didn’t mean to make you feel bad,” Vitalie said with concern after Étude didn’t respond very quickly.
“No, it’s okay. You’re right. I need to help. I just don’t know how.”
“I may have a few ideas,” Vitalie said with a charming smile.
“Ideas, like what?”
“Most of the colonists are, more or less, regular humans. They’re not like the humans from the early 20th century, but they’re also not as advanced as Brooke Prieto. Their lives are still pretty dangerous. A circuit breaker exploded in a man’s face the other day. He almost died.”
“I heard about that.”
“You could have stopped it. How do you feel about restarting the Savior program?”

Backfill

“So, instead of using my construction power, you want me to use my time traveling power?” Étude asked.
“Why would you need to do that?” Vitalie volleyed.
“The reason the original Savior program worked is because the powers that be could see the future. They would send me, and my predecessors, to save people who they knew were going to be in need of it. We don’t have that intel, so I would have to go back in time each time something bad happened.”
“Oh, I didn’t think of that. I guess I was just considering your teleportation ability, which you still possess. But yeah, of course you couldn’t have done your job all alone. But would that be so bad? I know you don’t like to time travel, but maybe for these emergencies...”
Étude shook her head. “It would get out of hand. In a few days, there could be several versions of me running around this planet. I could overtake the whole population in months.”
“I can think of worse things that a few extra Études,” Vitalie noted.
“It would threaten my identity. I still want to feel unique; maybe even more so because of what I can do.”
“Well, how do other time travelers deal with this scenario?”
“Some just go their separate ways, and don’t ever see each other again. Some Past!Versions don’t even know a Future!Version of them exists. I once found myself in this freaky dimension populated by hundreds of one person. Every time he had to make a correction to the timeline, he would step into this little pocket universe, and let his primary move on with his life. I also knew this woman who wore a suicide belt at all times, and would sacrifice herself, so there would only ever be one version of her. And then there’s...”
“Then there’s what?” Vitalie prompted.
Étude was reluctant to answer. “You can also merge. Most people merge.”
“What does that mean? Isn’t that the thing where two separate places are put together? I heard about a guy who could do that.”
“That’s a merge, yes, but a different kind. Though, I suppose you could argue they operate on the same principle. Where a triality merge—that is, a coming together of mind, body, and soul—differs from a spatial merge is in its permanence, and its existential incertitude. If two people wanted to merge—”
“You mean two versions of the same person,” Vitalie tried to correct.
“Well, I’m not really up for explaining why there’s no such thing as an alternate version, except to say that, as far as quantum physics goes, reality doesn’t consider two alternates any more alike than any other two people. So if two people want to merge, they first have to map their neural pathways. Then they have to overlay one brain pattern over the other, and find a way to fit them together, so a third consciousness emerges, based on equal parts of both. Then the soul, if it exists at all, has to latch itself to one of the bodies, while every single atom from the other body is teased away, isolated, and returned to the cosmos.”
“You mean, they die.”
Étude nodded. “Yes. One person—well, one body—has to essentially win the merge, but they sort of die too, because the resulting consciousness is no more or less them than it is the so-called loser. They both die, and in doing so, birth a new being into existence. It’s not very zen.”
“So, that’s why that woman wears a suicide belt.”
“At least she dies knowing someone who is almost exactly like her still gets to live, and without the troubling memories she formed that led her to going back in time in the first place. To her, a merge is more frightening than death.” The thought made Étude shiver.
“What if you...” Vitalie wanted to suggest something, but didn’t know if it would be appropriate.
“Go on,” Étude pressed. She wanted Vitalie to know she could say anything to her.
“What if you merged your mind without involving the body?”
“How so?”
“Well, what if you send your mind back in time, right into your younger self’s body.”
“Ah, you’re talking about consciousness travel. There are some philosophical debates around that one. I’ve heard of a few people who have that power, and the question is, is that necessarily any different than an extremely detailed and vivid method of seeing the future? We all agree that future-sight does not place one’s identity in danger, so is this any worse? You’re still killing someone, and taking over their body, though, so that’s not great. Alas, it does not matter, because I do not have this power.”
Vitalie was silent for a moment and a half. “I kind of do.”
Étude stopped to think about this. “Well, you can send your consciousness to other places, but not into other people’s brains, or something.”
“That’s exactly what I do. I can’t just send my mind anywhere. I have to attach it to a person. I’m not really standing next to them, invisible. I’m in their head.”
Étude thought about this some more. “Huh. You’re also a consciousness traveler, but without a time travel component.”
“I heard of something somebody called...cooperative magic.”
“That’s a feature in an old TV show and book series, since magic isn’t real. But I know what you’re talking about. It’s when two people with different powers combine them to do something neither could do on their own. My mother’s partner, Vearden went through that once. What are you saying, that I take us back in time, and you send just our minds, into our younger bodies?”
“If we can’t see the future, like the powers that be apparently can, then that’s our only way to restart the Savior program.”
“I haven’t agreed to that.”
“Because you didn’t think it could be done. I’m offering you a solution.”
“You’re offering a potential solution. We don’t know if it would work, or if I want it to work, or that it won’t come with its own unforeseen consequences. I have reason to believe there’s good reason I’m retired.”
Vitalie didn’t know what she meant by the last part, but she put a pin in it. “We should test it.”
Étude looked around, for no reason in particular. “If it were going to work, it already would have.”
“What do you mean?”
“We should be dead by now. Future versions of ourselves should have returned, overwritten our consciousnesses, and it would be done.”
“From our perspective, that can’t happen unless we make it happen. We have to do it first, even though it happens in the future.”
“Okay, fine. We’ll ignore the paradox, and give it a shot. Take my hands, and we shall attempt to combine our powers, and send our minds to one hour ago.”
“No, I don’t want to do it like that,” Vitalie argued. “If only one of us manages to make it through, they’re going to have to explain this whole thing to the other. Let’s do it tomorrow, so we at least don’t negate this conversation.”
Étude shrugged. “That’s fine with me. I’m not all that confident in it anyway.”
Vitalie nodded understandingly, but then she stopped and stared into space for a not insignificant amount of time.
“Are you okay?”
Vitalie blinked once slowly. “Okay, so I was right. Only one of us did make it through, but it was not the one I thought.”
“What are you talking about?” Étude questioned.
“I’m from twenty-four hours in the future,” Future!Vitalie explained. “I don’t know why you couldn’t come with me, but it did technically work.”
“It did? You’ve come from the future, into your younger body, and you have full memory of what is going to happen throughout the next day.”
“That’s right.”
“All right, now we can test it.”
“We just did.”
“We have to test its effects first, in case it’s done something weird to your brain, or mine, for that matter. Then we have to do it again, and make sure the experiment can be repeated, and its results reproduced.”
“That sounds like a lot of work.”
“You’re going to have to get used to it, because if what happened the first time happens every time, it’s going to turn out that I was not actually the last person to hold my title.”
Vitalie was confused. “Who else would it be?”
“It’s you, dummy. You’ve just backfilled my position. You are the Last Savior.”

Neighborhood Watch

“That doesn’t make me the Last Savior,” Vitalie pointed out. “You’re still the one who can teleport. I’m just the source of your intel, like the powers that be.”
“I can apport you anywhere you need to go,” Étude explained, “but you have to be the one to help these people directly.”
“Why would that be?”
Étude was quiet.
“This has something to do with your mysterious future-seer, who has dictated your life since you retired, doesn’t it?”
“So, what if it does?”
“Are you still in communication with them? Do you have access to the quantum messenger.”
“Look, all you need to know is that I’m not meant to continue the job. It’s all about you now. This is important.”
“If you knew all this, why did you not say anything? Why did I just have to convince you of any of it?”
“I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, Vitalie. I was just told to hand my torch to an old soul who has seen tomorrow.”
“You think that’s me?”
“Well, it can’t be some rando resident of Proxima Doma. You just came back from twenty-four hours in the future, you understand what it is I used to do, and you were the one who came up with the plan to restart the Savior program in the first place.”
“Ya know, it’s really convenient you always have this seer who has already made big decisions for you. It’s like you forged a doctor’s note that gets you out of gym class.”
“Are you saying I’m lying about him?”
Are you?” Vitalie asked. She could trust that Étude was a good person, and wanted to do the right thing, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t capable of lying.
“I’m not. He hasn’t been dictating my entire life, but he has gotten me where I am today. Who knows how reality would have turned out if I hadn’t teleported to the Sharice Davids? I saved your life, and Ram’s. I protected the Insulator of Life, so Brooke and Sharice Prieto could be extracted from it. So yeah, I believe in what he’s told me to do, because I have years of experience with his predictions. I think he’s done more than enough to prove himself.”
Vitalie didn’t say anything right away. Then she stepped closer, almost condescendingly, but also quite affectionately. “Things are good, but they are not perfect. You can’t ever know how well history would have turned out if he had just kept his mouth shut. Perhaps our lives would have been even better.”
Étude mirrored Vitalie’s actions, and stepped closer still. “There is always a better timeline out there. Fortune-teller or not, we can never truly know what might have been. I’m just trying to do my part. Now, I spent seventeen years as Earth’s Savior. It may have been one of my kind’s shortest tenures—and it may have been the easiest shift to work—but I still know what I’m talking about when it comes to saving people’s lives. I just got promoted to management, while you’ve been offered my old position. You don’t have to take it. I’ll keep my ear to the ground, and do my best without you. But I’m not handing you my new job. It’s either this, or nothing. And that’s not coming from my seer; that’s from me.”
Vitalie hadn’t before thought of the Savior as an employee. In the real world, you can’t simply work whatever position you wanted; it had to be offered to you. Étude was the hiring manager, so it was her call. She had to take the job, or no one would. “Okay, I’m in. As long as you’re sure you can remotely apport me to the danger zones. I didn’t know you could do that.”
“Eh, not every teleporter can, but when I’m using my power to build a structure, teleporting objects from other places is exactly what I’m doing. Before you ask, this isn’t something I considered trying until after the Sharice Davids catastrophe. If I had realized it back then, I could have pulled everyone out of the other half of that ship, and saved them from the explosion. I’m not proud of myself.”
Vitalie sighed shortly, and placed a warm hand on Étude’s shoulder. “A bunch of maniacal capitalists destroyed that ship. No one blames you for not saving everybody. You barely got the five of us out of there once the rest of the ship blew up, and two of those people were stuck in a magical object. It’s a miracle that anyone was saved.”
“Thanks.” They paused in a moment of silence for their fallen friends and enemies. “So, now that you know what happens today, who needs to be saved first?”
Vitalie laughed. “Nobody. Nothing really happened today. A mining bot will be hit by a cave-in, but he was due for a hardware upgrade anyway, so we should leave that alone. Besides, he practically struck gold when he did it, so they’ll want that section open. The world is a lot more dangerous than present-day Earth, but that doesn’t mean it’s the stone age. People still have a lot of redundancies, and emergency protocols.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Though, things will get worse once the OPPs arrive.”
“The who?”
“Opps. Oblivio-primitivist Pioneers. You’ve heard about this; don’t you keep up with the news?”
“Not really. Aren’t those the people Brooke and Sharice fought against? They blew up a space elevator, because they want us all living like monkeys?”
“Not exactly. The Oblivios want to go back to a simpler time, but they’re not terrorists, or violent at all. They’re coming to Proxima Doma, so they can be free from all the distractions. They don’t want to see any aircraft flying around, or spaceships blasting off. They just want their farms and covered wagons.”
“How are they going to get that here? We have spaceships too.”
“There won’t be any in the gargantuan dome they constructed near the pole. It’s going to perpetually simulate a normal terrestrial sky. No advanced technology allowed. None of the other Domanians are going to be allowed inside either. We’ll sneak in when necessary.”
“Well, will these people be able to leave, if they want to?”
“They won’t want to. That’s the oblivio part. They’re having their minds wiped, so they have no clue that there’s anywhere to go beyond the dome, or even that there is a dome.”
“That sounds unethical.”
“They agreed to it. The first thing the nanofactory ship did when it first arrived twenty years ago was start working on their dome, and on local terraforming. This has been in the plans for a very long time. The primitivists who first came up with it are dead now, and will never see how well it goes.”
“That’s sad.”
“Welp, they knew this wasn’t going to be easy. They wanted to build a dome on Earth, but leadership wouldn’t let them. There was a huge debate about whether the dome would support, or undermine, our attempts to give the surface back to the wild. There’s wildlife inside, but it’s still just a simulated environment. Anyway, I don’t know if you’ll be able to do any good in there, because we don’t want to start giving out your secret, but we’ll see in a few months. Savior gotta save.”
“Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. If I’m going to be doing this, do you think we could come up with a different name? It sounds a bit...”
“Pretentious? Self-indulgent? Prideful?”
“You said it; not me.”
“That’s okay. I obviously didn’t come up with the title myself. I’m sure we can think of something better for our new little Neighborhood Watch.”
So the two of them got to work. Before Vitalie could go on even one mission, they had to make sure they had the logistics ironed out. They needed to come up with a good name, because if they didn’t, other people would do it for them. They also needed to know how they were going to gather their intelligence, and how Vitalie was going to remember all the details. She wouldn’t be able to write anything down, since only her consciousness would be going back in time. They needed to make sure Étude was indeed capable of apporting Vitalie where she needed to be, and they needed ways to protect her from harm once she was there. They would have to stay in constant communication when she was out in the field, so the technology they used had to be reliable. In the end, they realized there was only one good replacement title Vitalie was comfortable using. She would now be known as Proxima Doma’s Caretaker.

The Hinterland

The thing about the original Savior program, and which Étude herself didn’t always know about, was that most of the people saved had no recollection of it. There was a lot of secret power behind the whole operation, and it involved a lot more than one person teleporting around, getting people out of bad situations. The sheer number of people who were ultimately helped by one of the Saviors throughout history would have resulted in the secret of it, well...never actually being a secret. At the very least, as soon as internet message boards started existing, rumors would have been so consistently accurate that it would be hard to argue against their veracity. Chances are high that you know someone who has been rescued by a Savior at some point in their life. In order to protect the secret, people’s memories had to be altered, and in modern days, other—more inescapably reliable—forms of evidence had to be changed too. It was unclear whether the powers that be what controlled Étude’s missions were themselves responsible for proverbially flashy thinging witnesses, or if they got choosing ones to do it. However it was done, it was something Étude and Vitalie could not. After some thoughtful discussions, they both agreed that they needed to find a different way.
“The problem is we’re so isolated here. We’re living in the hinterland.”
“This is true,” Vitalie agreed, “but I’m not following your point.”
“If we were on Earth, we would have access to the chooser network,” Étude answered vaguely.
“Is that a TV thing?”
“If you need something done, and it requires a time power to do it, and you don’t have that time power, and you don’t know someone who has that time power, then you know someone who knows someone who has that power. Or you know someone who knows someone who can find someone who has that power. All you gotta do is ask for help, and hope that your reputation—from both the past and future—hasn’t ruined your relationship with the right people. Take Arcadia, for instance. She tormented Leona and all her friends on Tribulation Island. She tore them out of time one by one, and forced them to compete in challenges to get them back.”
Vitalie nodded, “yes, I remember the stories.”
Étude went on, “she would often watch them covertly from another dimension, or she would teleport in, or control someone else’s body, so she could talk through them. Well, she alone wasn’t capable of doing most of these things. She really only had the one ability, so whenever she needed any of the others, she got someone else to do it for her. Now, she used threats and violence to get what she wanted, but you get the idea. This is a roundabout way of explaining that, if we were on Earth, or were capable of contacting the right people on Earth, there would be a time power solution to our memory problem.”
“Well, I might be able to contact someone on Earth. Who do we need, do I know them?”
“I thought you had to know them to communicate remotely, and I didn’t think you could reach all the way to another solar system.”
“I can’t go that far on my own, but fortunately, we have a workaround. I can piggyback on a signal that’s being sent to Earth, and talk to anyone I want, whether their near their own QM, or not. That’s how I’ve stayed in touch with my dads without anyone here knowing about it.”
“I didn’t know you were talking to them,” Étude said. “Well, what about that other question? Don’t you have to know someone in order to send you consciousness to them?”
“I can do it if I’m with someone who does know them. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work, but it’s possible.”
“Well, I suppose it can’t hurt to try, am I right? I knew a guy who could manipulate memories. He couldn’t blend people’s brains, like Nerakali or The Warrior, so he can’t make you remember alternate realities, but he can reconcile temporal corruptions. If you were to teleport someone out of a fire, he could make them think they found their own way out, or a firefighter rescued them.”
Vitalie nodded. “If you believe he can help us, I’m willing to give it a shot.”
“Do you need to be...” Étude didn’t know how this worked.
“No, I can do it from here,” Vitalie explained. “The QM is pretty much always on. Take my hands.”
The two of them held both each other’s hands, and closed their eyes to concentrate. “Okay, think of the person you’re trying to contact,” Vitalie instructed. “Think about his face; the shape of his jawline, color of his eyes. The fall of his hair. Think about the sound of his voice, and the manner of his gait.”
Étude did as she was told, and tried to remember everything she could about one Tertius Valerius. They could feel their minds being torn from their respective homes in their brains, and traveling across the planet, right to the Oblivio dome.
Tertius was standing in front of some kind of electrical box, messing with the wires. He stopped and looked over at them. “Oh, hi, babes.”
“Tertius? You’re on Proxima Doma.”
“That’s right,” he confirmed. “Where are you?”
Étude was very confused. “We’re here too, in Dome Four.”
“Isn’t that the one that collapsed?” he asked.
“That was Shelter Forty-One, and also...not..real.”
Tertius nodded, and started eying the electrical box. A part of him wanted to get back to work; doing whatever it was he was doing.
“So, what are you doing here?” Étude questioned.
“I work here,” he said. “In life support.”
“You’re not a systems engineer.”
“I’m learning,” he said with a shrug. “They needed my particular set of skills, so I’m working as an apprentice.”
“What skills do y—” Étude stopped herself. “You’re making the memory wipe technology work.”
He smiled. “They couldn’t figure it out. Sure, they can erase everyone’s memories of their own pasts, but that leaves so many gaps. Where did they come from? Who are their families? Do they like chicken? They don’t just want people thinking everyone in their literal microcosm suddenly appeared out of nowhere with amnesia. They want to fabricate an entire history. That’s where I come in. Should anyone in this dome start to remember things they shouldn’t, or question the nature of their reality, the environment can correct it in realtime. Life support.”
“The Oblivios know what you can do?” Vitalie asked. “They know about time powers, and choosing ones?”
Tertius laughed. “I came to them with revolutionary technology that I refuse to allow anyone but them to utilize. They have no clue I can just do it with my mind. They’ve been...quite grateful.”
“Well, they’re not the only ones who could use your help,” Vitalie began the pitch. “We’re restarting the Savior program.”
“You’re coming out of retirement?” he asked Étude.
“She’ll be taking over,” Étude said. “We’re calling it the Caretaker program.”
He nodded again, and yawned. “So, you want my help keeping your schtick under wraps, I dig it.”
“You can dig it, but can you do it?”
It was hard to tell what he was thinking as he was staring at them, but it felt like he wasn’t going to agree to help them unless he was getting something out of it. “I can, but I’m not sure I should. I’ve committed to the OPP dome. You’re asking me to divide my attention.” Okay, that wasn’t an unreasonable concern.
“What do you want?” Vitalie asked.
“Vita, careful,” Étude whispered to her, but it was loud enough for Tertius to hear.
“No, let’s not dance around this,” Vitalie argued. “He doesn’t work for free, this much is clear.” She directed her attention back to Tertius. “So name your price.”
“I want a house—no, a mansion—no, a tower!” He sought answers in the space before him at a forty-five degree angle. “A Sauron tower, with a panopticon.”
“You wanna rule over Proxima Doma?” Vitalie questioned.
“Not Doma,” he said. “Just this...doma. And I don’t want to rule them; I just want to live in a tower.”
“Aren’t the Oblivios meant to not have any technology? Surely they would notice a giant tower lording over them from the center of their world.”
He literally handwaved this problem. “I can make ‘em forget. I can make ‘em forget they saw a tower while they’re looking at the tower. I can basically be invisible.”
“Wull, I can’t build towers,” Vitalie said regrettably. “So, it’s not up to me.”
“I want this fix just as much as you do,” Étude told her, then she looked back at Tertius. “But you better be right the Oblivios won’t be able to see it. If you make me part of destroying an entire culture’s worldview, I’ll knock you off that tower. My mother did that once, and I inherited more from her than just her blood, so don’t think I’ll hesitate.”
He mimed cutting an X into his heart.
“I need verbal confirmation.”
“I solemnly swear that I am up to all good. Believe it or not, I feel for these primitivists. They’re sacrificing everything they have to start new lives, and they’re going to great lengths to unburden the rest of humanity from them. I’m not getting paid for this. I’m helping, because I want them to have what they need to be happy. It also reminds me of where I grew up, back before the common era.
“Then we have a deal,” Vitalie said with finality. “Let’s shake on it.”

Safety Officer

And so Vitalie becomes The Caretaker of Proxima Doma for the next year. Every day, she and Étude keep track of everything bad that happens on the whole planet. She develops memorization techniques, reminiscent of when Horace Reaver and Ulinthra would do the same nearly two centuries ago. She then sends her own consciousness to the past, and takes over her younger body, relaying the information to Étude. The latter then apports her anywhere she needs to go, so she can save people’s lives. In order to protect their secret, Tertius alters memories of the event for any witnesses. Even if the nature of Vitalie’s assistance wasn’t inexplicable to those witnesses, they didn’t want her developing a reputation. As far as anyone knows, Proxima Doma simply never experiences any fatal, or near-fatal, accidents. After the first year, though, people have started getting suspicious. They can remember spontaneously avoiding dangerous situations, with no real reason. The fact that nothing truly awful ever happens on a colony planet was always bound to get noticed, and this is something the two of them should have predicted. Their wards, as they would come to call them, have no way of knowing anyone was protecting them from the danger, but they still questioned their lives.
A new decision had to be made, which Vitalie and Étude never even considered could possibly become an issue. Even at its peak, the Savior program on Earth was never capable of saving everyone. It was probably technically feasible, but the powers that be were likely never interested in creating a perfect, hundred percent safe, world. Some people still got hurt. They couldn’t be saved, not because it wasn’t possible, but because life doesn’t come without risk. The powers probably assumed humanity could not accept a world where nothing bad ever happened. That didn’t mean they were right, though. It was time for Vitalie and Étude to decide whether they would find a way to go back to the old ways, or just stay the course.
“One of my biggest regrets,” Étude began, “or should I say, many regrets I had, were that I couldn’t save everyone. Even with the Salmon Runners, and the Kingmaker, and the Doorwalkers, and the IAC, and all the other time travelers who used their abilities to protect people, we could not save everyone. There were just too many people on Earth, and the only reason I’m not still doing it, is because a shadow government of people who don’t know what life is like for mere mortals arbitrarily decided it would stop. Yes, Earth is safer now that it ever has been, but safer doesn’t equal safe. People still die needlessly. But we have an opportunity here, to build a better world. The population is small right now. I don’t think we should just keep doing what we’re doing. I think we should scale our operations, as need arises. When the population on this rock starts numbering in the millions, we’ll probably need some help.”
“Is that fair to them, though?” Vitalie argued. “Are we taking something from them by becoming gods? Do they not deserve to do at least some things on their own? Should they not learn to save themselves? This isn’t Earth. They don’t need thousands of years to develop safety protocols. The protocols are already in place; they just need to be better. I’m starting to think they don’t need me at all. I’m starting to think we should quit.” That came out of nowhere. It wasn’t like Vitalie was feeling tired of this work, or didn’t realize what she was getting into. It just kind of dawned on her that it was possible they were doing more harm than good.
“You want to quit?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You kind of did.”
“The whole secret thing makes this strange. These people don’t know anyone’s looking out for them, so they go through life, thinking the risks they’ve been taking weren’t all that risky. They don’t ever learn from bad experiences, because they’re not having any. A species develops, and evolves, according to valuable life lessons. Early humans didn’t take samples of all the plants around them, and study them to find out which ones were edible, and which were poisonous. People died finding out that information, and it was really sad, but now they know what not to do.”
“You’re talking about the Prime Directive.”
“Well, that’s more about not exposing mine and your powers to the people. I don’t care what they know, and don’t know. We’ve been looking at the idea of helping people as meaning literally going out and doing things for them. But there are other ways to help.”
“You’re right, but you need to be careful about where that line of thinking leads. I met a lot of choosing ones who use their abilities for selfish gain, and they’ve done so following some revelation that this is exactly how the world works. They can all logic their way out of any argument against their behavior, because they’ve decided anyone in their position would do the same. I didn’t have a choice when I was Savior, but you do. If you can quit anytime, but don’t, that shows others that we can actually change the way the world works, even if they’re right about it how it is now.”
“That’s a lot of pressure to put on me, Étude.”
“I know, and I didn’t mean to make you feel like you had no choice. If I guilt you into not quitting, then I’m no better than the powers that be. I just think we have a good thing going here, and I don’t want to stop, especially not since our hardest job is about to begin.”
“You’re talking about the Oblivios,” Vitalie guessed.
“Their lives are going to be more difficult than we’ve ever seen. Who knows how many Saviors there were at one time back when humans on Earth were living like the OPPs are going to live.”
“Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that, because their arrival actually supports my position. I’ve been reading up on Earthan history, since that’s where everyone here is from. These pioneers are recreating a time in history where couples—as terrible as it sounds—planned to have extra children. Their families were so much larger, only because they felt the need to hedge their bets, and wanted to be prepared for when some of them died.”
Étude nodded solemnly. “Yes, I know about that.”
“They’re going to have an even harder time accepting a world where nothing bad ever happens. It doesn’t matter how much Tertius alters their memories, they’re not going to understand why no one’s ever fallen off a cliffside, or been trapped in a sinkhole. Plus, they’re going to develop religious superstitions, and I don’t want to be a part of that. Can you imagine them worshipping the invisible fairy sa—”
Savior?” Étude filled in. “You were going to say savior. That’s okay, I realize my place in history unavoidably came with this mystique I can never live down.”
“I’m sorry.”
This was all news to Étude. She thought they had made the right decision, and that Vitalie was on board with it. Had she been miserable this whole time, and was just too polite to say anything? “Why? Why did he tell me to come here? And why did he tell me to pass the torch to another?” She lived her life by the guidance of a man who could see the future. He had never been wrong before, but now she was wondering who was benefiting the most from his advice. The concept of right was a subjective one. “I mean, this was your idea.”
“I know, and I’m not saying I give up. I’m just having doubts.”
Étude needed to find a way to convince Vitalie to get back on track, and let go of these doubts. “Have you ever heard of a safety officer?”
“Like a cop?”
“No. A safety officer is a member of the construction crew who makes sure everyone is working safe. And when something inevitably goes wrong, they’re there to tend to their injuries, and get them more advanced help.”
“Are you saying I’m a fancy safety officer, and I should just treat this as any normal job? I have a special set of skills that no one else does, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it? I have a responsibility to help others as no one else can?”
Okay, Étude wasn’t expecting her friend to jump to the right to her conclusion. She was laying out this whole speech in her head, but would apparently not need most of it. “Companies hire safety officers all the time. Nobody on the crew freaks out, and claims they can take care of themselves.”
“Limited medical training is a far cry from time travel and teleportation,” Vitalie said. “I don’t treat people after they get hurt. I stop them from getting hurt. All I’m saying is maybe they should get hurt. If humans didn’t feel pain, they would constantly hurt themselves, and they would never learn to prevent it, because they wouldn’t be able to see the consequences. Even if only subconsciously, we’re letting these Domanians think they can do  no wrong.”
“I feel like we’re just arguing in circles.”
“Me too.”
“Look. The first of the Oblivios aren’t going to arrive for another few months. For diversification’s sake, colony ships are designed to accommodate a hundred and forty-seven passengers, but there are a lot more Oblivios than that. The first to land are going to live with their memories intact until everyone is here. Just wait until then to decide whether you want to quit or not. Give it one more chance.”
Vitalie wanted to think it through more, but she understood that Étude’s suggestion was not an unreasonable one. She still felt the need to contribute positively to society, and being the Caretaker was currently the best way for her to do that. She agreed to keep going until the Oblivios lost their memories.

Split Level

The first spacecraft that humans came up with were unmanned. They were sent up to study the sky, and gather data. The first manned craft had a capacity of one individual, while other early designs allowed for only a few people. These are all incredibly dangerous, and resulted in a number of deaths. Safety was always priority but humanity did not always know what that took, so they added two more pillars of spaceflight; compartmentalization and redundancy. If one system failed, another needed to be able to take over, and possibly another, if the second were to fail as well. Sections of vessels needed to be capable of being completely cut off from the rest, either to insulate it from them, or insulate them from it. If a fire, for instance, could not be put out, the crew needed to at least isolate it as much as possible. But these three pillars could not do the work on their own. Even later in history, scientists determined they needed a fourth pillar. Modularization. It wasn’t good enough just to be able to quarantine sections. These sections needed to be able to operate independently as well, and the vessel as a whole needed to be able to adapt to virtually any new dynamic, save for its total annihilation.
Colony ships were no exception to the SCR&M rules, which was pronounced like scram. Each ship had a maximum capacity of 168 people, though it was only designed to carry 147 at a time, seven of which were crew members. Each section, which was shaped in a hexagonal prism held seven—eight in an emergency—passengers, and could conceivably travel to the nearest star, going ten percent the speed of light. Based on stellar distribution in the Milky Way Galaxy, one such of these trips should take a maximum of twenty-five years. This wasn’t an ideal situation, but preferable to death. Four sides were lined with sleeping capsules. According to necessary conditions, a passenger could sleep in one of these capsules like normal, or they could activate stasis mode for longer journeys, or they could access virtual reality constructs. Each capsule also acted as an escape pod, and could traverse the breadth of a solar system. It could theoretically orbit a star indefinitely, maintaining perpetual stasis for the passenger, until help could arrive.
Proxima Centauri was a red dwarf, which was, by the far, the most common class of star in the galaxy. But it was also a flare star, which meant it frequently experienced magnetic fluctuations, resulting in bursts of volatile energy. Through the magic of science, these flares can usually be predicted, so as to effectively schedule space travel. Unfortunately, the technology wasn’t perfect, and there were still a few surprises. No matter how well someone followed the four pillars of spaceflight, life in the vacuum would always be dangerous. And they did not work when they were not followed. When the first of the Oblivio-primitivist Pioneers arrived in the Proxima Centauri system, Proxima underwent one such of these unpredicted solar storms. A normal colony ship would be able to handle it and survive, but the Oblivios requested special modifications, so as to better align with their ideals. They were already sacrificing much about their principles just by being in outer space at all, so the engineers and regulators felt they owed them something.
Colony ships Doma 01 and Doma 02 were already within range of the star when the storm erupted. Doma 01 was able to effect repairs on the fly, and enter a safe orbit around the planet, but 02 was not so lucky. It was forced to separate into its constituent parts, and scatter in different directions. Normally, an independent artificial intelligence could pilot each section towards safety, but the Oblivios insisted the crew consist of purely biological humans. Not every member of the crew was qualified to pilot a section; not that it mattered, since most sections at the time of module separation weren’t occupied by a crew member anyway. This left dozens of Oblivios stranded in interplanetary space, totally powerless to navigate their way to safety. At least one section was destroyed immediately, and evidence suggested another lost life support within the first ten minutes. Vitalie and Étude were equipped to solve just about any emergency on the ground, but did not have the resources, nor the time powers, to help Doma 02. And then it happened. Sensors witnessed two terrible tragedies occur almost simultaneously.
Two sections were decoupled from the main vessel, which was what they were meant to do. They started drifting away from each other, but a man in one section apparently started feeling his convictions a little less deeply, and attempted to pilot to safety. Of course, with no training, he was unable to do this successfully, and ended up crashing into one of the other sections. That wasn’t terrible, because Vitalie could go back in time, and the two of them could easily steal an interplanetary cargo ship. Sadly, though, at almost the exact same time, an unaccounted for escape pod from Doma 01 burned up in the atmosphere of Proxima Doma, killing two children who were too afraid to sleep apart. Of course, Vitalie and Étude did not know any of these specifics at the time. All they knew was that fifteen people died, and they were the only ones who could stop it. But how? Étude could teleport anywhere on the planet, or within a very low orbit, but these two incidents happened much farther apart than that. She could not be in two places at once; not even when Vitalie was there as well. They were presently discussing options.
“We have to travel back in time,” Vitalie realized.
“Right, but that doesn’t solve our problem.”
“No, I don’t mean my consciousness. You have to take us back in time physically.”
“No, I’m not doing that,” Étude argued.
“It’s the only way. We need a teleporter to save the people in the rogue section, and we need a teleporter to save the person in the pod. Since we only have one teleporter, we need to double you.”
“I’m not going to allow two different Études to run around the same timeline.”
“So, you’re fine just letting these people die?”
“We can establish contact with that rogue section, and talk the wannabe Oblivio pilot down. We can convince him to not commandeer the controls, and then I can send you to rescue the pod person.”
“You can’t be sure that’ll work. We don’t know anything about this guy. He might not listen to reason. Maybe if we had time to study his profile, or even just get his last name, someone could talk to him, but not you. You’re not a trained hostage negotiator. We can’t risk that. We have to go back.”
“Why would we have to go back? It would just be me. You said we needed two teleporters, but you can remain safe in your singular identity.”
“I want to help,” Vitalie said.
“And you will. One of you will; because there will only be one of you.”
Vitalie was getting sick of how negative Étude always was about this. She took her by the shoulders, and shook ever so slightly to emphasize her words. “You talked me into this. You made me The Caretaker, when you were fully capable of doing it on your own. I’m tired of all these cryptic little hints about how I’m meant to take over for you. I’m done talking about this.”
“We just started talking.”
“I’m already done with it. You’re going to take us both in time, and once we get there, we’re going to explain the situation to our younger selves. And then the four of us are going to hash out a real plan. No one dies today. You want me to take over? Fine, but I call the shots now.”
“What happens after the mission? What do we do about our doubles?”
“I don’t know; I don’t have all the answers, but maybe all four of us can figure it out. Maybe one pair just heads off to Bungula. Maybe that’s what we end up doing; just constantly replicating ourselves until every inhabited planet has a Caretaker team. I’m only focused on the mission right now. Those people need us, so let’s stop talking, and end this before it starts.”
          Étude pulled her arms out of Vitalie’s grasp, and took her by the shoulders instead. “Fine. I hope you know what you’re doing.” And with that, she sent them both back in time one day.
Their younger selves were sitting at the breakfast table. They weren’t shocked or confused. They just patiently waited for a report.
“Eat up,” Future!Vitalie instructed. “We’re gonna need to be at maximum strength. This is the worst one yet.”

Developments

And then there were four. Two of each. It was as awkward as you might expect, but they kept going, and eventually fell into a good rhythm. Now there were two Caretakers. The people of Proxima Doma were getting into a good rhythm as well, and figuring out how to protect themselves better. They were becoming more and more like the Earthans of the day, creating the same kind of infrastructure and society that allowed the original Savior program to end in the first place. The Caretaker program wasn’t so much a program as it was a failsafe. They went for days not having to go back in time at all, and even when they did, usually only two of them would have to work, and it was usually the pair who were responsible for there being duplicates of themselves now. But things were changing once again. The last of the Oblivio-primitivist Pioneers were arriving, which meant it was coming time to erase their memories. Technically, the memories of the ones who were already inside of the simulator dome weren’t completely intact. Étude had built Tertius a command tower in the center of the dome, which stretched all the way up to the ceiling.
The residents had no clue that the tower was there at all. They could be literally looking at it, and would not be able to see it. Their brains were interpreting the tower as a physical object in three-dimensional space, but Tertius was using his power to prevent that information from encoding itself as memory anywhere in the cerebrum. If some other resident of the planet ventured into the dome, they would not be able to see it either. He was only actively allowing the two Études and two Vitalies to see, along with the Ambassador.
The Oblivio ambassador wasn’t the only one who would never have her memories erased, but she was the only one who fully understood that Tertius possessed special abilities, rather than just highly advanced technology. She and the rest of the cognizants realized it would be impractical to leave the integrity of their new way of life in the hands of strangers. They sacrificed their aversion to technology to make sure their people would be safe from learning the truth. It was unclear whether their secret would die with them, or if they would pass the knowledge onto a select few, so the Oblivios could always be protected. One of the pairs were now discussing the far, far future with Tertius and Ambassador Kavita Lauritz, around one of the many fountains Tertius asked Étude to build for him. One day, the dome would not be large enough to keep residents from exploring its borders without realizing it. Similarly, Tertius would not always be around to work his magic. Everything they had come up with was a temporary solution, and it was time to think about how things could last.
“Well, in less than four hundred years, the walls of the dome could likely come down anyway,” Vitalie pointed out.
“How so?” Kavita questioned.
“That’s the estimated time it will take to terraform this planet,” Étude answered in Vitalie’s place.
“Are they doing that?” Kavita asked.
“Yeah, they’ve begun the process,” Vitalie said.
“Venus won’t be done until 2700,” Kavita noted.
“They started earlier, which means they started with older technology. The progress is getting faster and faster.”
“Plus, we have a different set of variables. We’re not saying it will definitely be done by 2600, but that’s the goal anyway.”
Kavita nodded, but also shook her head at the same time. “That’s assuming we can’t figure out how to keep them from reaching the dome walls. I would rather they continue to be protected from all external influence.”
Vitalie breathed deep, and addressed the ambassador more directly. “The average life expectancy for the human species, barring medical upgrades, is still about ninety years. I even rounded up to make the math easier. In four hundred years, everyone living today will be dead. Were any of you transhuman, the timespan would be meaningless, but you will not be able to control where your society goes. The last time our species was living under the conditions you’re planning to live under, we didn’t stay there forever. We figured out how to churn butter faster, and get to places more efficiently. Though thee pioneers for yesterday were fine with their way of life, and many individuals never wanted it to change, as a whole, progress just cannot be stopped. Religion does a pretty good job at suppressing and oppressing, but we always overcome. My point—and I do have one—is that we have no reason to believe your Oblivios won’t do the same.
“Once all the people who came here by choice are gone, and all you’re left with are their descendants, who never developed distaste for technology, memory or no, there’s no telling what will happen. I know you don’t wanna hear this, but there’s no reason to believe by the time the world is fully terraformed, your people won’t have invented cars and television. In all likelihood, history will just repeat itself. Nothing stays the same forever. Ironically, you might be able to get away with it if you don’t erase their memories, because then parents will be able to indoctrinate their children into remaining as they are, but by making them Oblivios, you’re really just making them unadvanced peoples. Unadvanced peoples always either die out, or become advanced.”
“What about the American Indians from our history. Their technology remained stagnant for centuries, while the rest of the world developed,” Kavita said.
“That’s a common misconception. They were more advanced than you’ve probably been taught. They just did things differently. And they died out, because they were massacred, by people who were, not superior to them, but greedy and envious.”
Kavita thought about this for a moment. “Well, we’re here by choice. Everyone in this dome has agreed to have their memories wiped, and to live a simpler life. Our future children never agreed to that, so it would be unethical to find ways of sheltering them, should that go against their wishes. We don’t have to tell them where they really live, but we can’t stop them from trying to find out. It’s less a technology thing, and more a philosophical one. Humans are driven to explore, and we recognize that, which is why we’re not violent, like the anarcho-primitivists.”
“That’s not our biggest problem anyway. I still won’t live forever,” Tertius reminded them. “Unless you can find me some immortality water, I’ll die long before the planet is terraformed. If I tried to adopt transhumanistic upgrades, I would just lose my powers.”
“What you need is a successor,” Étude said to him. “Like Vitalie is for me, and I was for Xearea...and Xearea for Makarion.”
“That would be great,” Tertius said, “if that person existed. There are others with memory manipulation powers, but none quite like me; not with my scale.”
“What if you had a kid?” Vitalie asked.
“Time powers can be genetic, and are sometimes hereditary, but there’s no guarantee. Plus, I’m not going to have a child just so I can groom them to replace me. I never wanted children, so it would be wrong.”
“What if we could create a successor?” Étude wasn’t sure how they would take her suggestion. They seemed to want to know more. “My seer. I haven’t spoken to him in years, but I will never forget his last prediction. He said, the water reptilian living on Earth’s twin can make or break your gifts.
Vitalie raised one eyebrow. “That’s vague.”
“I don’t know what it means, but it certainly sounds like he was talking about Dardius, which is a planet eerily similar to Earth. And it sounds like someone there can give people time powers.”
“It sounds like some sort of animal can give people powers,” Vitalie said. “I mean, are we supposed to—?”
“It’s not an animal,” Étude interrupted. “That’s just a clue to who we would need to hunt for there. She might have a tattoo of a lizard in a river, or maybe an actual pet is owned by the metachooser. I don’t know. But I know we can find it there, if that’s what we want.”
“Where is this Dardius?” Kavita asked.
“It’s two million lightyears away,” Vitalie replied.
“It’s closer to two point eight.”
“Oh, that’s so much better.”
“It doesn’t matter how far it is if you can get me the Cosmic Sextant,” Tertius said.
“What the hell is that?” Kavita was still learning about all this crazy stuff that existed.
“It’s a special device that can help navigate space travel,” Étude answered. “It can’t take you that far without a massive structure that facilitates said travel. It can go a few stars over at most, but definitely not to another galaxy.”
“That’s why they built the Great Pyramid of Giza,” Tertius said. “That’s its entire purpose.”
“Wait, people with powers built the pyramids?” Kavita asked, heartbroken.
“No, we didn’t,” Étude promised her. “People like us just designed them. Pure human ingenuity and willpower is what really built them.”
“It does us no good for the Sextant to be on Earth,” Vitalie said. “We would need Tertius in person to create his successor, and he can’t leave Proxima Doma.”
“I can’t leave this dome,” he corrected. “Fortunately, there’s more than one reason I asked you to build me this tower, and do so with this shape.”
“Yeah,” Étude understood. “It’s an echo chamber; the cylicone. I thought you needed it to magnify your powers.”
“It certainly does that,” Tertius confirmed, “but it’s also good enough to facilitate travel all the way to the Dardius galaxy. If you go back to Earth, get the Cosmic Sextant, and bring it back here, we can reach Dardius. What you’ll find there is anyone’s guess, though, because I never spoke to this fortune-teller of yours.”
“The question is who will go?” Vitalie realized. “I kind of need to stay here and protect the Oblivios, now that it’s finally time for them to have their memories erased.”
“I’ll do it.” It was the other version of Vitalie; the one who never experienced the reality where the colony ship experienced a cataclysm. She could have been eavesdropping on their conversation the entire time. “This planet isn’t big enough for the two of us anyway. I wanna do something important.”

Rebidden

Fourteen years later, there was no sign of Past!Étude or Past!Vitalie. They both traveled back to Earth using one of the colony ships, which an engineer retrofitted to move at present-day speed standards. If all had gone according to plan, they would have returned in 2228, or maybe 2229, if they ran into trouble while looking for the Cosmic Sextant. The fact that they were still not back, and hadn’t sent them some kind of message, suggested something tragic had befallen them instead. They were never likely to see them again. This was proving to be an even more dire problem than they thought. At the moment, Tertius was gravely ill, and was unable to maintain his memory blocking powers, and recover at the same time. The more he tried, the worse it made him, until it just wasn’t feasible to keep going. His continuous hold over the Oblivios inside their dome finally let go, and they were able to not only see the tower in which they lived, but remember it later. They were shocked by it, some considering it to be the tower of God. Étude did what she could to treat him, but they were still on a world with limited resources, and there was only so much she could do.
Since the Oblivios had no memory of technology, they had no idea what the tower really was. No manmade structure had ever been so much as dreamed of by them. There weren’t even that many mountains within the confines of the dome, and none of them was even this tall. Only one woman seemed unafraid of it. Étude and Vitalie watched on the view screens as this old woman, holding some kind of box, bravely approached the hidden entrance, punched in an access code she shouldn’t have known, and rode the elevator all the way up to the top, where they were.
The doors opened, and she walked into the room. “Is Tertius dead?” she asked.
“You know him?” Vitalie asked her.
She closed her eyes. “Is he dead?” she repeated impatiently.
“He’s sick, but still alive.”
“Good. I can save him.”
“Who are you?”
She placed her box on the table, and removed a key from her neck. “I’m a very old friend.” Her weak hands were shaking as she attempted to unlock the box.
“Here, I’ll help,” Vitalie offered.
“We don’t know what that is,” Étude warned.
“She’s not a terrorist, Étude.”
“Thank you, my dear,” the old woman said graciously.
Once Vitalie opened the box, vapor hissed from the cracks, and revealed it to be some kind of cryogenic case. Inside were eleven water bottles, kept preserved for who knows how long?
“Is that what I think it is?”
The old woman smiled and nodded. “Immortality water. It took me years to gather it all together, and a lot of money to preserve it like this.”
“Did you get it for him?”
She nodded again. “I wasn’t able to hold onto the Cosmic Sextant, and now it’s lost to...well, the cosmos. So I decided to find us the next best thing.”
They were confused.
“What’s your name?” Étude asked.
“What’s your name?” the woman volleyed.
“Étude Einarsson.”
“How funny. That’s mine too.”
Vitalie gasped. “You’re the other one. The other Étude.”
Old!Étude laughed and pointed at Young!Étude. “She’s the other one.”
“You look like you’ve been gone longer than we’ve been waiting. What happened to you?” Étude asked, not sure how to feel about this situation.
“A great deal,” Old!Étude said, trying to pull a chair up for herself.
Vitalie helped her. “I’ll give this water to Tertius. I can still hear you from the other room.”
Old!Étude began to tell her story. “Everything went fine on Earth. We got there when we were supposed to, The Concierge let us into The Constant, and she gladly handed over the Cosmic Sextant. Then we got back in our ship, and headed on our way. Something went wrong, though, proving how foolish it is to go on an interstellar journey without a pilot, or at least a mechanic. Our only hope was to activate the Sextant itself, and take it all the way to Dardius. We were there for...a little bit, not as long as I look now, but we started a life. We found who we were looking for. It wasn’t an animal. His name was Newt. Newt Clemens. I fell in love with him, and he did us a favor. He transferred my powers to the other Vitalie. She is, as far as I know, presently still on Dardius, doing her thing for those people. She doesn’t even need my help anymore.” She paused to rest her eyes for a moment. “Anyway, Newt and I had a child, but that child was not safe there. It’s funny, Newt was rescued from his timeline, because that was the safest place for him, but it wasn’t safe for our child...not anymore.
“He sent the two of us away. We snuck into the Nexus replica, and traveled back to Earth. But not just any Earth...he sent us to the past, because no one would be looking for us there. It was there that we lived in peace for eighteen years, which was when I finally found the last of the immortality water. I was pretty old by then. It was millenia after Tertius was first born, and decades before he would arrive in the future. The early 21st century was just a pointless time period for me if I wanted to get this stuff to him. If I was going to survive, I would have to let myself die first. I spent the rest of my money on cryonic preservation, scheduled to be released at the right time to get back here to Proxima Doma. Well, not all my money. I spent a little on euthanasia. If I had let the disease that was killing me run its course, people in the future might not have been able to revive me, or just might not have bothered. I left my daughter; abandoned her, all to protect these people here.” She gestured towards the outside.
“I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” Young!Étude apologized. “Forgive me, but, why wait all this time to approach us?”
Old!Étude giggled. “Because, dummy, you erased my memories. Like I said, I was already old by then. I was...having trouble with my mind, and wasn’t able to identify myself in time. I’ve been living here in blissful ignorance, thinking I was born to a world with a blue sky, like everyone else. I only got my memories back when Tertius got sick.”
“What was your daughter’s name?” Vitalie was standing at the doorway, having finished spoon feeding Tertius the immortality water. “Is,” she corrected herself.
Old!Étude smiled once more, but this time was different. She was remembering all the love she felt for her child. “Cassidy. Cassidy Long. That’s my last name too; I had to change it, obviously.”
“So she’s...” Young!Étude started to say.
“She could be alive, or dead. She was young to reach the longevity escape velocity, but I don’t know if she chose it. I didn’t have time to look her up before the Oblivio colony ships left Earth. The company I paid to freeze me didn’t wake me as early as I wanted them to.
“Why didn’t you seek someone to send you to the future instead?” Tertius was out of bed, and standing behind Vitalie.
She stepped to the side, and helped him to the table. She had given him the water, but it evidently still needed a minute to take effect.
“I purposefully avoided all temporal manipulators. I didn’t want anyone knowing who I was, or who she was. You have to understand, protecting her was my—”
Tertius interrupted her, “I was just curious. I would have made the same choices.” He paused. “Thank you for doing this for me. I’ll never be able to pay you back.”
Old!Étude leaned back in her chair, in apparent deep thought. “I’m dying again.”
“Oh.” Vitalie jumped. “I didn’t give him all the water. We could give you some too,” she suggested.
Old!Étude shook her head. “I don’t wanna live forever. I’m tired, and I’m ready. I just want one thing before I go.” She fell asleep again. “I wanna know what happened to my girl. If you could access the network.”
“Of course,” Tertius said. He looked up at the ceiling. “Hey, Thistle.”
Yes, Mister Valerius?” the artificial intelligence assistant replied.
“Please run a historical search; parameters Cassidy Long, from...”
“Lawrence, Kansas,” Old!Étude filled in. “Social security number six-six-six-zero-zero-one-two-three-four.”
Seconds later, the AI responded, “Cassidy Long, born Lawrence, Kansas May 11, 1997. Last seen in the Champagne Room of Wonderberries Club on May 11, 2019.
“She disappeared on her birthday.” Vitalie noted.
“That was a fake birthday, Vitalie,” Young!Étude reminded her. “Wonderberries. Is that where she worked?”
“Not when I died,” Old!Étude answered. “I know that place, it serves alcohol, so she wouldn’t have been old enough. She was at a different strip club before, I can’t recall the name.”
“Miss Long...” Tertius tried to say, but trailed off.
“I know. There are only two options in our world when it comes to people disappearing. She was either killed, or...” Old!Étude trailed off too.
“Or she was sent to somewhere else in time and space,” Young!Étude finished for her.
“Did she have powers?” Vitalie asked.
“I don’t know,” Old!Étude replied. “I never even told her where we come from. As far as she knew, I was born in 1940-something, and looked younger than I was because I ate right and exercised.”
“I’m sorry,” Vitalie said reverently. “She may come back, though. She may walk through that door in ten seconds, and no time will have passed for her.”
The four of them looked at the door in hope. Ten seconds passed, and no one came through it.
“Or in another ten seconds,” Vitalie added.
“I appreciate the sentiment,” Old!Étude thanked her. “I’m going to choose to believe she’s a chooser, like her father. I’m going to choose to believe she jumped through time on purpose, and wherever she is..whenever she is, she’s happy, and safe. I’m not even going to think about the possibility that she was dancing for a sketchy client who—nope, I’m not gonna think about it.” She kept nodding her head, focusing on the good times, and trusting that her daughter was alive and well, or died old and content a long time ago. Perhaps she just ran away from her old life, like her mother before, and started a new one somewhere else. “One more thing.”
“Yes?” Young!Étude asked with a frown. Her alternate self was not looking good.
“The lid, of the case I came here with.” She tried to reach for it, but could barely keep her arms in the air.
Vitalie hopped over, and got to the case first. “I’ll find it. What am I looking for?”
“A vial,” Old!Étude said.
Vitalie pulled the lining from the lid, and retrieved a vial from behind it. “Got it. Who’s is this?”
“It’s Newt’s blood, with a little somethin’ extra. You infuse that in your body, and any child you conceive is guaranteed to be born with your powers. You’ll also lose those powers.”
“Why would we want this?” Young!Étude interrogated.
“It’s for him.” She jerked her head up to Tertius. “Just because he’s immortal now, doesn’t mean he’ll always want to do this. If he ever wants to pass the torch, he can. I even think his immortality will be passed on to his offspring. Now, put it back in the case and close it. It still needs to be preserved.”
Vitalie quickly did as she was told.
“Mister Valerius,” Old!Étude said, “could I possibly borrow your bed? I’m frightfully tired.”
“Of course. Here, let me help you.” Apparently back to full strength, and then some, Tertius lifted the old woman in his arms, and carried her to the other room. He returned ten seconds later. “She’s gone.”

Egress

All better now, Tertius returned the dome to normal. He erased everyone’s memories of the last few days, and prevented them from realizing there was still an impossibly giant, anachronistic tower in the middle of their universe. Ambassador Lauritz asked Vitalie and Étude to leave. It wasn’t anything they did, but she decided she didn’t want there to be a Caretaker in their midst. People were going to get hurt, and they were going to die, but that was part of life. She didn’t want anyone interfering with what she considered to be a profound truth. The whole reason they came here was to avoid the conveniences of modern life. Sure, what the two of them could do wasn’t tech; it was seemingly natural, but that didn’t mean it belonged in that world. The Oblivios needed to live their lives as they would have on Earth centuries ago.
They weren’t really needed in any of the other Doma domes either. Despite being light years away from the heart of civilization, technology here was approaching comparability. They were in constant quantum communication with Earth. The best scientists from both worlds were always talking to each other, and sharing data. If one advanced, the other did too. This was a second Earth; the only difference being the inhospitability of its surface. But even that was going to change in the future. It would seem that the Caretaker program was over. It probably wasn’t the shortest tenure, including all Saviors throughout the timeline, but it certainly wasn’t the longest. Hopefully the other Vitalie was living a more impactful life on Dardius. This was the price of anonymity, though. Even if she had done this here for the next hundred years, she would never be remembered for her contributions. It was always going to end like this. She just hadn’t realized how much that would bother her.
So the two of them just started living normal lives. They thought about leaving, and maybe catching up with Leona and Mateo, but ultimately decided against it. Neither of them knew this was where they would end up, having been born so far away, but Proxima Doma felt right now. Étude started working in construction. She didn’t use her powers to build things, but it seemed like a natural fit, and it kept her busy. Vitalie still didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life after the program ended a few years ago. She was well into adulthood, but in a universe of virtual immortals, that didn’t matter much. So she did what most people in her position do; she went to school, and tried to figure it all out. She was presently focusing most on astronomy and physics, having been inspired by one of her idols, Leona Matic.
It wasn’t like they were completely banned from the Oblivio dome, so they would regularly take the tram to the top, and visit with Tertius and Kavita. They were having their weekly brunch with them when they suddenly felt an overpowering warmth. The air around them vibrated, like it had an electrical charge. The walls cracked, the lights flickered, and the floor turned to dirt. After it was over, Vitalie felt the worst nausea ever. She keeled over, and tried to throw up, but nothing would come out. She just kept heaving, but it wasn’t doing her any good. It felt like death. She looked up to see Étude tearing off all her sweat-covered clothes. She didn’t feel any nausea, but she was burning up, like someone had turned the whole room into an oven. Kavita was gathering the clothes up in desperation, and holding them tight to her body. She was a shivering blue popsicle. Only Tertius seemed unaffected by it. The alarm was blaring, indicating a problem with the life support systems. These weren’t the symptoms of exposure, but if life support was given the opportunity to shut down entirely, things would only get worse. He thought quickly, and rushed over to open the safe, to retrieve the immortality water. He dove down to Étude first. “Drink this.”
Étude hadn’t really thought much about becoming a true immortal, but if ever there was a time to consider it quickly, it was when she was literally dying. She took two big gulps of the first bottle, but Tertius stopped her from drinking any more.
“Pass it down the line!” he ordered.
Once Étude passed Catalyst to Vitalie, she took a drink from Existence, then Youth, then Longevity, and so on, until she had reached Activator. Vitalie did the same, as did Kavita. In only a few moments, where there was one immortal, there were now four.
“Seal up this room, Étude,” Tertius commanded.
Étude called upon her power, and filled in all the cracks. Somehow, the top of the tower must have been removed from its place of safety inside of the dome, and became exposed to the harsh environment outside. There weren’t any viewports, though, and the monitoring systems weren’t working, so there was no way to get answers yet.
“We have to find out what’s going on outside,” Kavita said. “Vitalie, you can fix the computers?”
“Me? Why would I be able to do that?”
“Aren’t you studying that?” she questioned.
“No. I’m studying space and physics, I’m not particularly good at it, and I’m still early in my education. I don’t know how these things work.”
“Well, you know more than I do; I grew up plowing fields.”
“I’ll take a look at them,” Tertius said. “I’m no computer scientist, but I installed them myself. There’s one vacuum suit in here. Étude, maybe you could teleport out there, and assess the damage.”
“Of course,” Étude agreed. “Vita, help me get that thing on.”
After Étude was fully fitted with the spacesuit, she jumped to the roof of the tower, where she was immediately met by Vitalie, who was using her own power to connect to her psychically.
“The dome is gone,” Vitalie pointed out. Not only was this level no longer on top of the tower, but the whole tower was gone, as was everything else they would have been able to recognize. All they could see were dirt and space rocks.
“Or we’re gone,” Étude said. “We could have been apported anywhere else.”
“Well, we’re still in dark tide, apparently,” Vitalie said. Proxima Doma was tidally locked with its parent star, which meant one side of the planet was in permanent darkness, while the other permanently in daytime. Each one was completely inhospitable to life, even while inside a protective dome. The best place to survive was where these two sides met, though safer still on the darker edge of that. As they were orbiting a flare star, solar radiation was especially nasty. The domes were placed all over the surface, though as a collective, they were starting to form a ring, so as to remain in the safest areas. This was especially important for the Oblivio dome, as they were not equipped with redundancies, like self-contained emergency bunkers, or escape vehicles.
“We have to get those systems back up,” Étude said, shaking her head. We have to know where we are, so I can get us back to where we need to be. Whatever it was that tore us apart probably didn’t stop there. The whole dome could have been exposed.”
Vitalie could hear something from her body. “Get back inside. He has something.”
“We have power,” Tertius announced after Étude teleported herself back to the room, and removed her helmet. “The computers just needed to be rebooted, though the outside cameras appear to have been damaged. Unfortunately, I have even worse news. It can’t connect to the satellite.”
“You can’t fix it?” Kavita questioned.
He breathed in deeply. “It doesn’t need to be fixed. When I said that it couldn’t connect, I really meant that the satellite isn’t there. Or rather, no satellite is up there. This world is pristine...untouched by man.”
“We went into the past,” Étude lamented.
“That’s what you would think, but...”
“But what?”
“The first thing the computer does when it’s turned on is try to establish a connection with the network. The second thing it does is determine some reference of time. The network itself would provide it with that information, but since it didn’t have that, it resorted to calculating stellar drift. We’re still on Proxima Doma, according to all data out there, but it’s...different.”
“Different how?” Vitalie asked.
“We could be in the past. We could be so far in the past that humans haven’t modeled stellar drift information from this far back. Or it’s somewhere else, and we just don’t have the data.”
“Okay, well...” Vitalie began. “How far back would we have to go to have no sense of time?”
He continued to hesitate and stall.
“Mister Valerius, we don’t have time for niceties,” Kavita told him. “Say what you need to say.”
“This would have to be hundreds of millions of years ago, at the most recent. It could be longer. We know where the stars were pretty far back in time, especially as choosers, which have extra information that I included in my databanks when I set this tower up. We don’t know that far back, though. The fact that the computer can’t calculate an exact date means that we’re the only humans in the entire universe right now.”
Just then, there was a knock on the door.
“You were saying...” Vitalie teased.
“That can’t possibly be a human out there,” he warned.
“We can’t answer it either way,” Kavita reminded them. “There’s no airlock.”
“Étude, could you...?”
“Put my helmet back on?” she guessed. “Sure.”
She teleported outside once more, but was careful not to let whoever it was out there see that she could do that. They rounded the corner to find what appeared to be a normal man standing at the door. He wasn’t wearing a suit, or any form of protection.
Oh, hello, he mouthed. He didn’t seem to need to be able to breathe, but unlike the kind of bullshit you might find in a Superman movie, you can’t talk without air, or some other medium, no matter how invulnerable you are.
Who are you? Étude used sign language, hoping this impossible person somehow knew the language.
My name is Gavix Henderson, he signed perfectly. Do you folks need some help?
How are you surviving? They did need some help, but Étude couldn’t help but ask the question.
I can survive literally anything, he replied. If you will allow me to beam you to my ship, I’ll explain everything. Do you have any wounded?
No wounded, but we should indeed talk.
This is going to look weird, but I assure you, I’m communicating with my crew. He started drumming on his thighs, like he was in an air instrument band.
A blue light overcame Étude, and she disappeared. Vitalie then found herself in Gavix’ apparent ship, back in her own body. She stood back up. Several crew members were standing around, smiling warmly. They were all carrying something on their backs, with a liquid being sent to little gills on their necks.
Welcome to the...Besananta, did one of them say?
“I can hear just fine,” Étude said. “I used to be mute, so I know sign language.”
We can’t speak, the crew member explained.
“I can.” Gavix was here now. “These are the byrqoz. They evolved as water-dwellers, so no vocal cords. “Where are you four from?”
“Proxima Doma,” Étude answered. “Forgive us, but...what year is it?”
He was taken aback by this. “Hmm. I dunno. We don’t really worry about the measurement of time. There aren’t any humans in this universe, except the ones I created, which I know for a fact aren’t anywhere near here. I specifically avoided seeding life in the Lactean galaxy. So, tell me...where are you from?”

Roundabout

“We’re..from...home,” Kavita answered him, like there was no better way of explaining it. But we are ultimately all from Earth.”
“I was born on Durus,” Vitalie corrected.
“Honduras?” Gavix asked. “Never heard of it. Never heard of Earth either.”
“We need to find a way to get our bearings,” Tertius suggested.
“How old is this universe?” Étude asked Gavix.
“Oh, yeah,” Tertius realized. “Assuming each of our universes was banged out with the same start values, knowing the age of the universe would tell us our temporal distance from our present.”
“Right,” Gavix said, “but I don’t know how you perceive time.”
Tertius thought about this for a minute, but couldn’t come up with an answer. Vitalie knew what to do. “One-elephant, two-elephant, three-elephant, four-elephant, five-elephant. That was five seconds. There are sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour, twenty-four hours to a day, and three hundred sixty days in a year.”
“Five,” Étude had to correct, recognizing that Vitalie was not from Earth, and had her own way of measuring time. “Three hundred and sixty-five days in a year.”
Gavix tilted his head for a moment. Any normal person would have no clue what to do with the data he was just given, but this guy would clearly be able to internalize, and use it properly. “The universe, at this moment, is roughly nine-point-three billion years old.”
Tertius just shook his head.
“How old is the universe for us?” Vitalie asked him.
“Thirteen-point-seven-something, or other. This is billions of years ago.”
“In a different brane,” Gavix reminded him.
“A what?”
“Brane,” he repeated. “Uh...universe.”
“That’s worse. It makes it even harder to swallow,” Kavita pointed out.
“No, it doesn’t,” Gavix assured her. “The truth is that it doesn’t matter what year it is in one universe, as compared to another. This may resemble where you came from in many ways, but it operates in a completely independent timestream. You didn’t travel four and a half billion years into the past. You just crossed over to our brane, incidentally at this point in our history. When you cross back, it can be at any point in your own history. Our timelines have nothing to do with each other. When I take you back, you’ll be fine.”
“You can take us back?” Étude asked, astonished.
“Yes, of course.”
“What do you mean, of course? Do you have access to The Crossover?”
Gavix breathed in deep, and sighed, as he looked to his crew with an expression of only mild distaste. “My ship was the one built to navigate the bulkverse. The engineers who created the Crossover didn’t so much as invent it as they progressed enough to send a message across the bulk. We received this message, and followed it out of curiosity, which was when they stole our technology. That’s also how come we knew you were here. We detected your arrival, and jumped right away.”
“What if we were going to steal your technology, just like the Ansutahans did?” Étude asked.
Gavix shrugged. “They didn’t just steal the plans for bulk travel technology. They stole the engine itself. What we’ve been left with wouldn’t be able to accommodate an army the likes of which we found ourselves up against before. Honestly, I’m not sure all four of you can use it either. It’s only so big.”
“Is it some kind of time pod?” Vitalie guessed.
“Uhh...” It’s like Gavix didn’t want to say. “No.” He looked at one of his Byrqoz people, and signed for him to go open the safe. After the guy left, he prepared to defend himself. “Okay, it’s not going to look like much, but I promise that it works. It wasn’t designed to do what it can do. It’s this unbelievable story that involves rubber bands, a particle accelerator, and my lunch.” He used airquotes for the last word. “I was wearing it at the time, and it became imbued with the power to cross over.”
A crewmember standing nearby caught Étude’s attention, and signed, he stole it when he was drunk, snuck into engineering, and ended up being exposed to exotic matter.
The Byrqoz alien person returned with a colorful garment draped over his arms. You might even call it technicolor. He presented it to his leader like it was the world’s most precious item.
Gavix accepted it. “We call this the dreamcoat,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible to navigate. It can only take you to a brane you’ve already been to before. Obviously this shouldn’t be a problem for you, since you’ve not been to any oth—”
“I have,” Vitalie interrupted, knowing what he was going to say. “I’ve been to five. Total,” she added, “including home. I don’t know if this one we’re in right now was one of them, though.”
Gavix was surprised. “Oh, well...then I can’t promise the coat will take you to the right one.”
“She can be a passenger,” Tertius said. “One of us will drive.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Gavix said. “There’s no driver. It attempts to send you back to where you’ve been. The more branes you’ve been to, the bigger the crapshoot. You can’t control it.”
“We can handle making three or four pitstops,” Étude said. “That’s not a big deal.”
“It would only not be a big deal if you were immortal, or at least ageless. It requires time to charge after each use.”
“How much time?” Kavita asked.
“In your terms, I would estimate a thousand years, and that’s a very rough estimate. Like I’ve explained, I’m quite immortal, so I never kept track when I was using it.”
“You guys think we can handle a thousand years?” Tertius asked the gang.
“Wait, you are immortal?”
Étude ignored the question, because the answer would grow obvious as the conversation continued from here. “It could be up to four thousand years.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Gavix contended, worried someone would shoot the messenger. There’s nothing about this coat that prevents it from doubling back. You could end up back here for another thousand years, and then in one of the others again. I repeat...crapshoot. I probably wouldn’t have suggested it had I known about your friend here. I spent a lot of time lost throughout the bulkverse.”
Kavita sighed, and put her hands on her hips. “Lost for how long?”
“I wanna say...a million? Maybe two? I never really made much attempt at returning here, though, because it mattered little to me where I was. I guess you could try to navigate by thinking about your universe real hard, but it’s not, like, a psychic coat, or something.”
She took the universe-hopping garment from him, and spread the corners out with her arms. It was a fairly large coat, but four people might have been pushing it. “Someone has to stay here anyway, and I’m not really up to the whole crapshoot thing. If I’m gonna live forever, I may as well do it here. Maybe this is exactly where my life has been leading me.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Vitalie said with a frown. “There’s no reason for us to worry about it. All your problems will be solved if I just don’t go with you.”
“We can’t leave you here,” Étude argued. “Nor you,” she said to Kavita.
“No, I wanna stay,” Kavita argued back. “I’m not doing this just to be a martyr. When I volunteered to be a cognizant for my people, I fully intended to live amongst them, and just pretend I didn’t know about technology. But then I became friends with the three of you, and we started spending a lot of time together. I would be lying if I claimed it wasn’t nice using the food synthesizer, or watching a movie in air conditioning. I guess I’m not as much of a primitivist as I thought I was. So there’s nothing for me back there. None of the Oblivios could ever truly know who I am, or what I’ve been through.”
“We would be there,” Tertius said. “We know who you are.”
She smiled sadly. “And I will never forget the gifts you’ve given me. I consider this universe the culmination of all that. I really do wanna stay.”
A moment of reverent silence.
“And you,” Étude said, like a protective mother. “She’s already used the new life, new path explanation. I won’t let you off that easy.”
Now Vitalie was the one smiling sadly. “You remember what I said when I gave you the water?”
Tertius didn’t respond.
“I wasn’t the one what procured it for you, but you insisted you pay me back. I’m collecting. Take Étude. Take the coat. And go.”
“I’m the one who got the water.” Étude was raising her voice with each word.
“That wasn’t really you,” Vitalie said.
“Well, it certainly wasn’t you,” she fought.
“I was delirious,” Tertius said to Vitalie. “I didn’t know what I was promising you. If you would like to collect at a later date, I would be happy to...give you a back massage, or beat up your ex. I’m not stranding you alone in a frightening new universe.”
Vitalie plopped her arm around Kavita’s shoulders. “I’m not alone, it’s not scary, and these seem like good people.”
Étude shook her head. “It could be a thousand years, it could be a million. We have the time, so we’re gonna take it. You’re coming with, and that’s that.”
Vitalie could see that nothing she said was going to change their minds. Their only hope was to remove all alternatives. “Mister Henderson. You have no stake in this. I’m asking you first, before they can. Teleport those two back to the surface, with the coat, and then, like, spool up the FTL drive, or whatever.”
Étude and Tertius both shook their heads. “Don’t.”
Gavix looked amongst them, weighing his options. Then he nodded tightly to one of the crew.
Étude tried to stop the Byrqoz, but Gavix held her back.
“Don’t do this,” Tertius pleaded. “You won’t ever see your coat again.”
Gavix shrugged. “It was never mine. I stole it. I just thought it looked cool.”
Vitalie wanted to say her goodbyes, but the strategy wasn’t allowing enough time. Gavix did what she asked of him, and sent her two friends back down to this other version of Proxima Doma. Then he jumped his ship so far away that there was no hope for Étude to teleport them back.
She might have tried to travel back into the past, and stop them from leaving at all, but that could have resulted in disaster. In the end, they were forced to respect Vitalie’s wishes, and just leave. They didn’t really know how to operate the coat, but they didn’t have to. It started glowing as soon as Tertius put it on. She slipped underneath and held onto his chest, which was a little awkward, but it worked. They removed it when it stopped glowing, and found themselves on the penultimate level of the tower in the center of the Oblivio dome. Above them, where the top level used to be, they could see the hologram of an open sky the Oblivios were shown to make them think they weren’t really inside of a dome. On the ground, a crowd had gathered around the tower base, just like last time, when Tertius was too sick to erase their memories. Only an hour of time had passed since they left.
While he was working on correcting this yet again, a ceiling spontaneously appeared over their heads. A hatch popped open from above. Vitalie stuck her head through it. “Oh, hi. I was told I know you. Is this true?”

Capacity

Étude raced over to the hatch. “Oh my God, you’re back. You made it out.”
“I did,” Vitalie said as she was lowering herself down.
Tertius grabbed her by the waist, and let her down gently.
Étude tried to give her a hug, but she carefully and politely avoided it.
“I only left because these people told me they recognized me.”
“I’m the only one who recognizes her,” came a voice from above. Ecrin Cabral, a friend from long ago, jumped straight through the hole, and landed gracefully.
Another voice called down to her. “Do you want us down there too?”
“No, Creaser. Stay up there, and close the hatch,” Ecrin answered. “The Lieutenant is in charge.” She took a breath. “It’s been a long road to get her, but we’ve returned your girl. “Hello, Madam Einarsson. We never shook hands before.”
Étude took Ecrin’s hand. “Quite. Is that The Prototype up there?”
“It is,” she answered. “We’ve been traveling to other universe, killing Maramon.” She turned to face Tertius. “Mister Valerius, I was surprised when Vito did recon years ago, and reported back that you were here.”
“You two know each other?” Étude questioned.
“He’s a time traveler, I’m ageless. It was bound to happen once or twice.”
“Or three times,” Tertius said in a sultry voice.
“Stahp.” Ecrin was embarrassed, which felt uncharacteristic of her.
“I’m immortal now,” Tertius explained. “As are those two.”
“Yes, about that,” Ecrin said. “You may have noticed Vitalie is not warming to you well. My team has investigated, and discovered that she is extremely old.”
“How old?” Étude asked, worried. “How long was she over there before you found her?”
Ecrin hesitated to answer, but did. “We don’t have the exact number, but...four and a half billion years, give or take a few hundred million.”
“Oh my God!” Étude didn’t know what to think. She had met many people who had lived a long time, but no one with a span of billions of years. The Concierge, Danica Matic was rumored to be around that age, but no proof of that existed.
“Is that why she doesn’t remember us?” Tertius asked. “It’s just been too long.”
Ecrin shook her head. “Not exactly. From what we gather, Miss Crawville here loses her memory every second of her life. She can only retain the last fifty-six years of experiences”
“I’m fifty-six,” Tertius said.
Ecrin nodded. “That was my thought. You drank the immortality water first, right?”
“If she doesn’t remember that far back,” Étude began to ask, “how would you know that?”
“Like I said, Vito did recon. We didn’t know it was best to bring her back to this year. I thought she belonged earlier, because that was when I knew you were headed here. When we discovered there to already be a Vitalie on this world, we decided to come back later, so as not to disturb the timeline.”
“You could have stopped us from ever—”
Ecrin held up her hand dismissively. “She’s from a different universe, which utilizes a totally independent timestream. Stopping it would have just caused you to end up with yet another Vitalie. Nothing we do here can change what’s happened over there. Now, as I was saying, you drank the water first. Have you ever heard of backwash?”
“Yeah, it’s gross. It was a life or death situation, though. We—”
Ecrin held her hand up again. “It’s not a judgment. What you didn’t realize, though, was that you let a little bit of your memory-erasing power back into the bottles. Then when the others drank the bottles, they got a little bit of its essence. It’s not a power for her, though; more like an affliction. She calls it evanescent amnesia. Rather, that’s what her tattoo calls it.”
Before she was asked, Vitalie revealed her palm, showing that she had the words I have evanescent amnesia tattooed on it.
“So, she’s going to experience that too,” Tertius guessed, indicating Étude.
“I would imagine,” Ecrin said. Then she turned towards Étude. “But you probably won’t notice until a few years after you turn fifty-six, if you’ve not already. People don’t retain memories from that early in life anyway.”
“I’m so sorry,” Tertius said. “I should have been more careful.”
I should have been careful,” Vitalie argued. “I’m the one what gave you the water, according to some early video footage I found of myself.”
“No, you did great,” Étude assured her. “You were smart to save some of the water back. You and I would be dead, as would Kavita. Is she here too?”
“I only know who that is through my videos,” Vitalie answered. “We must have lost track of each other a long time ago, because I don’t recall meeting anyone by that name.”
Étude approached carefully. “I’m sorry this has happened to you. What’s the point of living forever if you don’t remember it? You’re always going to be fifty-six years old.”
“So will you,” Vitalie reminded her.
“That’s true. I drank the water first, though. Does that mean you also have my powers?”
“My videos called it my apropos,” Vitalie began. “I can summon objects, or I can teleport, but only when absolutely necessary. I can’t just decide I want to go somewhere, and be there. It’s kept me out of jail once or twice, but it’s not a daily convenience.”
There was a pause in the conversation.
“We’re glad to have you back,” Tertius said finally. “That is, if you are back. Is this a pitstop, and you’re intending to return with them, or what?”
“I’ve spent billions of years in that universe, but I only remember half a century. You would think that would be enough to make a place feel home, but not really. I travel around a lot, and probably always have. So this universe, that universe; is there much of a difference? I’m fine staying here I guess.”
“That would be lovely,” Étude remarked with a smile.
A man suddenly teleported into the room. “Did you ask them?” he demanded to know from Ecrin.
“Go back to the Prototype, Vito.”
“Did you ask them,” he repeated, more earnestly.
“They can’t help you,” Ecrin warned. “No one can.”
The hatch reopened. “Captain, I asked him not to do this.”
“It’s all right, Burton. No one blames you.” Ecrin directed her attention back to Vito. “I don’t blame you for what you’re feeling either. You are in an impossible position. I know what you’re going through. Arcadia and I were born this way, you were made under unique circumstances, these three drank some water.”
“Yeah, and one of those ways is reproducible,” Vito argued.
“Are you here looking for immortality water?” Étude asked.
“Do you have any left? Vitalie’s videos didn’t have any details.”
Ecrin sighed. “We’re here to return your friend. He’s hoping to...”
“Not lose the love of my life,” Vito finished.
“We are protecting him,” Ecrin reminded Vito.
“You can’t protect him from time.” Vito was getting more upset. “I have been searching for this since I met him, and you have been zero help. Now we finally have a lead, and you’re doing everything you can to stop it.”
“I’m not getting in your way,” Ecrin reasoned. “We’ve not been helping you, because that’s not the purpose of this crew. We exist to fight the Maramon. That’s it.”
“Burton has done more for this cause than you ever will!” Vito screamed. “He’s a fragile human, and he’s been fighting them in his home universe longer than we’ve been on mission. He deserves this.”
“No one is arguing against that.”
“And I’m not that fragile.” Ironically, Burton was struggling to get through the hole, and into the room. Tertius helped him down too.
“Class,” Ecrin started, “this is Vito Bulgari, my Number Two. This is his love interest, Burton Jameson.”
Burton started shaking people’s hands. “Hi, I’m not really part of the crew. I’m more of a refugee passenger.”
“You don’t have to tell people that,” Vito complained.
An evil person named Ulinthra stuck her head through the hatchway now. “Where da party at?”
“Shut up,” Ecrin and Vito said simultaneously.
“Hi, Ulinthra,” Burton chirped instead, apparently having less animosity towards her. He’ll get over that eventually.
“Hi there,” she replied, almost sincerely.
“Close the hatch,” Ecrin ordered her. “Vito, teleport Burton back to the Prototype, and stay there. I’m going to make sure Miss Crawville has everything she needs. Then we’re leaving.”
Vitalie needed nothing. All she ever kept with her was her little satchel, and the clothes on her back. This was the time traveler’s kit of essentials, and evidently a convention that never went out of style, even after four and a half billion years. All she needed to do was go back up to the ship, and say her goodbyes. It didn’t sound like she had spent too terribly much time there, but it must have been short enough to retain complete memories of them, and long enough to form real connections. After she was safely back in the tower, the Prototype disappeared, leaving them once more with the open air.
Right at the last second, though, Vito teleported back down to them with Burton. “You guys are gonna help us find what we’re looking for,” he said menacingly.
“Don’t be like that,” Burton commanded.
“I’m just trying to save your life.”
The Prototype reappeared above them, and the hatch reopened. A woman Étude didn’t recognize jumped through.
“Arcadia,” Vito lamented. “I thought you were covering for us.”
“I covered for you for two weeks,” she claimed. “The Captain was bound to realize you were missing eventually.” She pointed upwards. “You do realize that thing is a time machine, right? Anyway, she’s ordered me to bring you back, and if I don’t, she’s gonna follow through on her threat to abandon me in a dead universe. I know what it’s like to love someone so much, it makes you crazy. You’re the one who saved me from killing him, but right now, I’m going to do what I’ve been asked by any means necessary, ya dig? I suggest you jump yourself right back up there before I show you what I have in mind. Burton doesn’t age while he’s in the bulkverse. We’ll figure it out. You might even want to consider option two.”
Vito reluctantly teleported himself and Burton away.
“What’s option two?” Étude asked. It didn’t sound good.
“Option two is him shedding his own immortality so he and Burton can grow old together,” Arcadia responded. “Have you been to sleep since you drank the water?”
“No,” Étude answered. “Why?”
She nodded. “I have a little bit of experience screwing with people’s memories. The timer begins the next time you wake up. I can almost guarantee that that’s how this works.” She nodded once towards Tertius. “Maybe he can help you get your memories back. Maybe he can help you too, Vitalie.” She waited a beat. “Maybe he can’t.”
“Thank you, Miss Preston,” Vitalie said to her honestly.
Arcadia didn’t seem like the horrible ghoul Étude remembered her mother telling her about when she was a child.
When Étude woke up the next morning, she couldn’t remember a single thing that had happened to her before the age of nine.

Reconstruction

Vitalie wanted to help Étude, but she had no recollection of feeling perturbed about her own memory issues. At the moment, as in every moment, she could only remember the last fifty-six years of her life. For a person who was only in their early sixties, that would likely be traumatizing. Without amnesia, a person should be able to retain memories of when they were nine years old, and several years younger. Walking around with a total blank from that time period meant Étude could sense that there was something missing from her life. She should have been able to recall her mother comforting her when she was scared of the dark. She should have been able to remember her birth father sending her off to live on The Warren, so she would be safe from the dawning of the Maramon white monsters. Vitalie was different, though. She knew she was much older than that, which meant she had spent a long time without those kinds of memories, and now, it just felt normal. She also couldn’t remember Étude herself, so this whole situation was a little uncomfortable. Still, she tried. “What is the first thing you remember?”
“I remember Brooke teaching me how to fly the ship. I mean, she wasn’t really teaching me. Like, I couldn’t do it now. But she was showing me the basics.”
Vitalie nodded.
Tertius only frowned.
Étude went on, “it’s weird. Intellectually, I know that picking your earliest memory isn’t this easy. You don’t always know whether something happened before, or after, some other event you remember. Before full memories, you’re gonna have fragments, and two-dimensional freeze frames. Sometimes, you could also be conflating a fictional story you watched or read with your own life, so it never actually happened. Memory is usually complicated and unreliable, but I remember Brooke’s pilot lessons, and I know for a fact that that is the first thing. At the same time...” she trailed off.
Vitalie was still nodding. “At the same time, you can feel it slipping away.”
“Right,” Étude confirmed. “Because time is still moving. That memory is quickly being overtaken by the next thing that happened after it. I mean, I don’t even know if...”
Vitalie sighed. “It’s best not to focus too much on your earliest memory. It’s always ephemeral, and it’s really unsettling to feel it constantly being replaced by the very next event.”
“It feels like I’m riding on a train. Up ahead is only blackness, as the tracks form themselves little by little. Then behind me, it’s also black. It’s further away, but I can see the tracks gradually disappearing. I try to hold on—”
“Don’t try to hold on,” Vitalie interrupted. “You can’t, and it will just hurt more. Try to live in the present. We’re talking about episodic memories here. You’re not going to forget what a paperclip is, or how to drive a car.”
“I never learned how to drive a car,” Étude argued, but realized that that’s not the point Vitalie was trying to make.
Vitalie sported a small smile. “Whenever you pick up a new skill, you’ll always have it. Well, not necessarily. I’ve been told I used to be a doctor, but I guess I spent a long enough time pretty isolated, without any patients, and now it’s gone, because I didn’t flex my brain muscles. That’s true of anyone with anything, though. What I’m trying to say is, don’t worry so much about the daily events that you’ve gone through. Concentrate on what you have at this very moment, and do what you can to solve any problems based on what your gut tells you you know how to do.”
“That’s the thing, though,” Étude said. “I can’t just ignore those events. While everything before I was nine is disappearing, everything more recently is becoming clearer.”
Vitalie didn’t know what she was talking about. “It is?”
“Yeah, it’s like I’m slowly developing hyperthymesia. Anything within the fifty-six year timeframe is far easier to recall than it ever was before.”
Vitalie stared at her. “Either that’s a feature that will eventually go away, or you’re different than me. None of my diary videos say anything about it, but we shouldn’t be surprised if it turns out Tertius’ saliva is affecting you differently, since you drank it first.”
Tertius flinched at this; being the cause of all of it.
Vitalie noticed this. “I’m absolving you of any wrongdoing, Mister Valerius. I’ve been around for four and a half billion years, yet my brain is the same size it always was. I have a limited number of neurons, with a limited number of neural connections. Maybe humans just weren’t meant to live as long as I have, because we certainly weren’t designed to. I probably would have lost my memories anyway, but it would have been unpredictable, and it could have had other negative effects.”
“Well,” Tertius began, “you’re the only one who’s lived this long, so there’s no way to know.”
“I’m not the only one,” Vitalie contended. “I don’t remember them now, but my diaries have mentioned other immortals, who were much older than I was when I first ended up in that universe.”
He widened his eyes. “Really?”
“Yeah, I don’t know what happened to them. They seemed to be doing okay, but I think it was taking a toll on them. I’m fine with who I am. I enjoy a perpetual clean slate, like a bad credit score after seven years.”
Tertius breathed in deeply. “Well, we still haven’t tried something.”
“Can you even restore memories?” Vitalie asked.
“I never have before,” Tertius said, “but I’ve also never tried. Ya know, I don’t think I’ve met anyone with amnesia before. If I can’t do anything, though, we can try to contact The Warrior.”
“Who’s that?”
“He can give you memories from an alternate timeline. He might not be able to restore you and Étude exactly as you should be, but he could come damn close. Basically, you might remember wearing a red shirt one day twenty-four years ago, but in this timeline, it was blue. That would be the only difference; not a big deal.”
“I don’t want him to do that to me,” Vitalie said.
“You don’t?” Étude asked her.
“No, like I said, it’s been billions of years. He probably couldn’t access anything that happened to me in the other universe, and I’m so far removed from my life in this universe, that he would be giving me the memories of a stranger. I know you two wanted me to come back, and just restart my life, but this isn’t my life anymore. I don’t know who it is you knew, but I’m someone else. I don’t need to know her, and I definitely need to be her. I really am fine. I hope your respect that.”
They stood in silence for a reverent moment. “Miss Einarsson?” Tertius offered.
“I would like you to try, and if you can’t, I would like to see if we can reach the Warrior. I’m not sure if it’s possible, though. As far as I know, he doesn’t have a temporal calling card.”
“I don’t think he does,” Tertius agreed, “but I know someone who does have one, who could make an introduction.”
“Temporal calling card?” Vitalie asked simply.
“All these people with time powers,” Étude began to explain. “Since we don’t all experience linear time, someone figured out how to communicate across time, but only with a select few. You have one, actually.” Étude pulled out one of the pennies she kept on her person at all times. “I set this on the table and deliberately utter, be the penny, and it summons you to me. You’re not a time traveler—or, at least, you weren’t—so I think you would have to be in the present moment.”
“I’m always in the present moment,” Vitalie joked. “Anyway, I’ll get out of your hair, so you can try to get your memories back.”
“No, can’t you stay?” Étude instinctively took Vitalie by the arm with affection.
Vitalie was less tentative about this than she was when she first returned. “I can do that,” she answered gracefully.
Tertius took two cushions from their chairs, dropped them to the floor, and sat down on one of them. He patted the other, indicating that Étude should do the same, facing him. He began breathing exercises, and asked her to match. “Relax,” he instructed.
Étude kept breathing, until they were perfectly in sync. Without him telling her, she started clearing her mind, and focusing on one thing: the tower they were in. It was an echo chamber, which could amplify anyone’s time power. If he wasn’t normally capable of restoring people’s memories, the tower might have been the only thing that could make it happen now. She could feel an energy pass back and forth between her and him. Her head felt cool, and maybe soft? It was kind of hard to describe. She just felt open, and available to accept knowledge in a way she didn’t know was possible. She felt a pair of hands cup her temples, then she started receiving a flood of memories. But they weren’t of her childhood; they were of her daughter’s. She could remember going to Earth to retrieve the Cosmic Sextant. Something went wrong with the ship on the way back, and she was flung all the way to Dardius. She met Newt Clemens, and many other people. She had a child, and had to escape with her back to Earth 1997. She raised her for years, taking breaks only to find Tertius his immortality water. She was essentially killed, so her body could be cryonically frozen, and restored later. She came out, made her way back to Proxima Doma, lived in peace for a time, then went back up to this very tower, where she died.
Étude opened her eyes.
“Did it work?” Vitalie asked. “Was that supposed to happen?”
Tertius opened his eyes too. He looked above Étude’s head, and she realized it was not his hands that were touching her. He scrambled back like a frightened rodent under the sudden kitchen light. “Oh my God.”
Étude slowly turned as the hands removed themselves from her head.
It was Nerakali Preston, which was the woman who initially had the power to blend memories from alternate realities. Years ago, the Warrior killed her, and stole this power for himself. Though, when one is dealing with time travelers, one can’t ever expect to never see someone they know to already be dead. “You’re welcome,” she said, almost clinically, but not coldly.
“What did you do?” Tertius asked. He was still profoundly scared of her.
Nerakali scoffed. “I did what you asked of me. Or rather, what you would have been going to ask me in the future.”
“Are you okay?” Tertius asked. “Did she really do it?”
“Yes,” Étude answered him. “Well, not exactly. I have to find my daughter. I have to find Cassidy.”

Excavation

Étude remembered. She still didn’t have the memories of the first several years of her life, but she could remember one thing: her daughter, Cassidy. It wasn’t really her daughter, since she wasn’t the one who traveled to Earth, and then to Dardius, delivered a child, then went back to Earth. That was a different version of Étude, using a different body. But it still felt like her, because she could remember it all as if she had actually experienced it.
“Did you do this on purpose?” she asked of Nerakali.
“Yes. You should remember asking me. I blended memories of the alternate timeline you experienced that led you to seek me out in the first place.”
“I don’t remember that,” Étude said.
“There’s no need to lie,” Nerakali assured. “I know that that timeline wasn’t super great for you, but there’s no shame in asking an enemy for help.”
“We’re not enemies,” Étude told her, “but you didn’t blend those memories. All I remember is the first eighteen years of my daughter’s life.”
Nerakali laughed once. “Wait, what?”
“Yes.”
“You have a daughter? Wait, what happened? You asked me to come back to the past and give you the first nine years of your life back. That’s what I did.”
“No, it’s not,” Étude argued. “Something went wrong. You blended my brain with that of my alternate. We both lived in one timeline, but separately.”
“That’s impossible; it’s never happened before.” Nerakali was mortified at the thought.
“Are you so sure?” Tertius questioned. “You don’t receive the blended memories yourself, so you can’t ever really know whether you did it perfectly.”
“I’ve heard no complaints,” Nerakali promised.
“Well, you wouldn’t,” Vitalie reasoned. “If you missed something, they wouldn’t remember what they don’t remember. There’s no way to ever know.”
“I would know. If a tree falls in the woods, it makes a sound, even if no one is there to hear it. And the cat’s life doesn’t depend on whether or not we open the box to observe it.”
“What are you talking about?” Tertius asked.
“I’m saying that we would know. I’ve blended hundreds of brains; billions more, if you count the times I did it on massive scales while I was still in my home dimension. If I were the type to make mistakes, I would have seen evidence of it.”
“Maybe you just don’t wanna see,” Vitalie suggested.
“You shut your damn mouth!” Nerakali shouted, feeling vulnerable and defensive, possible for the first time in her very long life.
“Miss Preston,” Étude said calmly, after a brief moment of silence. “I am not upset, so you shouldn’t be either.”
“But if you s—”
“Miss Preston,” she repeated, still as calm as before. “I believe someone interfered with your blend. It could have been an alternate version of one of us, or some random chooser, or hell, even the powers that be. I don’t know why this future version of me wanted you to do anything, but I am happy with the results. When yet another Étude told me about her daughter, I was able to detach myself from it, because it didn’t feel real. She wasn’t around, I never met her; she was just a story. Now she’s real, and now I need to find her. If you feel bad about this, you can relieve your guilt by helping me figure out where she is.”
“I can’t stay here,” Nerakali said. “I have to go back in time, so I can die at the hands of The Warrior. The more I put that off, the more the timestream is at risk of a paradox.”
“I just need you to find her...in the past, or the future, or whatever. It’s not so easy for us to jump back to Earth and gather information. Can you do this for me?”
Nerakali stared at Étude for a good while, with an exquisite poker face. “I will do my best. It won’t be easy for you, though. You might find it...distasteful.”
Tertius went into protective mode. “Why would it be distasteful?”
“I can teleport and travel through time,” Nerakali explained. “I can’t take people with me, and it’s not particularly easy on my body, but it gets me out of tight spots, in a pinch. I definitely can’t jump between planets, though.”
“How did you get here then?” Vitalie thought she caught her in a lie.
She sent me,” Nerakali answered, pointing at Étude, “through a door.”
“So, you can open portal doors?” Tertius noted.
Étude shrugged. “I guess. Why would that be distasteful, though?”
“You can’t open doors yet,” Nerakali said. “It’s...complicated. I mean, we can try, but Future!You seemed pretty confident you wouldn’t develop that power until you were much older.”
“I’ve never heard of people having to develop their powers,” Tertius said. “We’re born with them, and we just have them. It’s like teaching a baby how to speak. They’ll get it eventually; you don’t have to work at it deliberately.”
“That’s true, for the most part,” Nerakali agreed. “It’s not always the case, though. Ellie Underhill was in her twenties before she manifested. Why, Étude’s mother broke free from the powers that be by sheer will.”
“I thought it was...” Étude began.
Nerakali nodded. “People assume she and Vearden retained residual power from my brother when he shared it with them, but that’s not quite what happened.”
They didn’t say anything for a beat.
“What’s distasteful?” Tertius asked again.
“You have to try to kill me,” she answered bluntly.
“What?” Vitalie rolled her eyes.
“My death is predestined,” Nerakali started to explain. “It’s already happened, and I can’t stop it. The upside is I can’t die until I go back to that moment, and let it happen. So every time anyone tries to kill me some other time, the universe itself will rescue me.”
“It’ll rescue you by sending you right to your death,” Étude pointed out. “This happened on The Warren before I was on it. I remember Leona talking about it.”
“Well, it’s not a perfect situation, but it gets me to Dardius, and from there, I can take the Nexus back to Earth. From there, anywhere.”
“So, you do this often?” Vitalie asked.
“I wouldn’t say often. Each time I nearly die before my time, it gets me one step closer to my actual death. Literally. Nine steps. Nine steps from the sidewalk, up to the building where I die. At some point, I run out of steps, and there’s no going back.”
“You’re a cat?”
“Huh?”
“You have nine lives, like a cat.”
Nerakali smirked. “It’s more like cats have nine lives, like me. Where do you think that phrase comes from?”
Cat jokes aside, Étude had never killed anyone before, and wasn’t interested in trying now. Sure, any attempt on Nerakali’s life should end in failure, but what if that was wrong? What if it’s the universe that fails, and destroys itself in the doing?
Tertius sighed. “Well, I can do that for you.” It would seem they had some history.
“No, it has to be her,” Nerakali said, looking directly at Étude.
“Why me?”
“You’re the one who wants my help; you’re the one who has to make payment. It’ll work either way, but if anyone but you points that gun at my head, I’ll just move on with my life, and forget all about whatever it is you’re asking of me.”
“What gun?”
Nerakali dropped her gaze downwards for a split second, then looked right back up. Étude looked down as well, then felt her pocket. Inside of it was a teeny tiny revolver. It would be worthlessly inaccurate in a shootout, but at point blank range, it would get the job done. It wasn’t that guns didn’t exist anymore, but they were pretty rare. With no money or war, people generally didn’t feel the need to shoot each other anymore. Any enjoyment they could receive out of them was tremendously overshadowed by virtual simulations, which had the added benefit of no lasting consequences. As The Last Savior of Earth, she had probably seen more real firearms in her lifetime than anyone else her age, in this time period, and she did not like them. Still, it would certainly be worth it if using the one she had now would result in her finding her Cassidy. It wasn’t like she would actually be killing anyone. Nerakali said it herself; she was already dead, and there was no undoing that.
She opened the spinny thing where the bullets go, and made sure it was loaded. Then she pulled back that thing on the back that people in movies do to show how serious they are.
“Étude,” Vitalie said, stepping forward, “you don’t have to do this. We can find your daughter another way. We have a quantum messenger, and between the two of you, we’ll find someone with answers.”
Étude lifted the gun to Nerakali’s unfazed face. “She lived in another dimension for thousands of years, where she could see all of space. We know some people. She knows everybody. She’s my best chance.” Before anyone had a chance to stop her—including her own reluctance—Étude pulled the trigger. The bullet lodged itself in the wall behind where Nerakali was once standing. At the same time, Étude heard what sounded like papers fall on the table behind her. She twisted, and picked them up. On the front of a manila folder, it read Cassidy Long – List of Appearances.
“That was quick,” Tertius said.
“There’s no telling how long your friend was working on this, or what it took” Vitalie reminded him.
He was disgusted. “She was not our friend.”
Étude was looking through the file Nerakali had compiled for her. It wasn’t undetailed, and contained information about her and her daughter’s life back on Earth at the turn of the 21st century. Honestly, the fact that none of this information seemed to have spread beyond Nerakali’s eyes would have been impressive for someone who could actually be trusted. “I don’t know about that. She done did good.”
“Does it say where she is now?” Vitalie asked, standing on her tippy toes to get one peek.
Étude flipped back and forth, back to the beginning, then to the end. “Well, there are a lot of question marks on this page, but Nerakali seems to think Cassidy was spirited away to a different planet, in the future. No, not a planet, but like, a space station, or something?”
“Like the ISS?” Tertius wondered.
“Yeah, but bigger...much, much bigger. Either of you ever heard of a place called Gatewood?”

Easement

Étude and Vitalie were sitting in two indigo chairs, in a darkly lit room, politely waiting for a response. The former was now fully committed to going out in search of her daughter, and Vitalie was willing to help. They would not be able to do it alone, though. Neither of them had access to an interstellar ship, so they were trying to get help from the Domanian government. Colony ships were still transporting people from Earth to its nearest stellar neighbors, but at present, no vessels were designated to travel between any of these neighbors. No one was going from Proxima Doma to Gatewood, and since these trips were planned months—if not years—in advance, this was going to take a lot of convincing. There was simply no time to waste.
“Well...?” Étude asked when the Transportation Administrator returned.
“You spoke with Foreign Policy about this already?”
“Yes,” Étude confirmed. “She was unsuccessful.”
“Unsuccessful how?” it asked. The Transportation Admin, Xaovi Rue rejected the concept of gender, and preferred the pronoun it.
“She said she was able to make contact with Gatewood, but they said they wouldn’t be able to help us find my daughter.”
“Well, there’s your answer,” Xaovi decided. “Why would I let you go there when there’s nothing to find anyway?”
“No, you didn’t hear her voice.”
“Whose voice? The Foreign Policy Admin, or the contact at Gatewood?”
“Gatewood,” Vitalie said. “They sounded shady.”
It seemed confused by this. “I was to understand Administrator Fillipa used the quantum messenger in private, without you being present. How could you know what the Gatewood contact sounded like?”
Étude and Vitalie looked at each other. Vitalie cleared her throat, but didn’t say anything.
Xaovi nodded continuously. “I’m not going to help you if you’re not honest with me. You might be surprised by this, but we’re pretty smart on this planet. We may have started out sort of rustic, but our technology is on par with Earthan standards now. We have ways of monitoring public occurrences, and artificial intelligence that is capable of recognizing patterns. The fact is there are things that happened that can’t be explained using current models of human social behavior. A religious individual might call these such events miracles.”
“We’re not sure what you’re—”
It shook its head. “Save the rationalization. We know a...superhero once protected this world. We even know that people like this once did something similar on Earth. Don’t worry, it’s all a tight circle. Any AI with this information either erased their knowledge of it, or retains orders to keep their speakers still about it.” As an idiom, still speakers was the inorganic equivalent to keeping one’s mouth shut. Speakers emit sounds through vibrations.
“They were called Saviors,” Vitalie relented.
They?”
“My predecessors, who inspired me,” she clarified. “I was The Caretaker here, until I felt like you no longer needed me.” She chose to leave Étude’s name out of it in this regard, because that was a conversational path that would do no one any good to walk.
“So, you can be in two places at once?”
“Let’s just say that I move fast.”
It nodded again. “Quite. I don’t suppose you move fast enough to get to Gatewood on your own.”
“No,” Étude answered.
Xaovi sighed. “I don’t know if I can authorize the easement of an entire interstellar ship for two people who don’t even know if they’ll find what they’re looking for when they get there. What if it turns out your daughter is somewhere else. Do you keep the ship?”
“We would borrow Gatewood property if we need to go somewhere else in addition,” Étude promised. “And you don’t have to give it to just us. Announce a new program; the first ever state-sponsored interstellar trip between two exoplanets. I’m sure plenty adventurous people would sign up. Some people born on Doma are even old enough now to make that decision themselves.”
“You think a hundred and forty-five people will sign up for that?”
“Is that what you require?” Vitalie asked it.
He thought it over for a moment. “That’s standard capacity, and there’s even room for more. I don’t think requiring a full complement is asking too much. This is going to take resources, and it has to be worth it.”
“One-twenty,” Vitalie said.
It chuckled once. “This isn’t a negotiation.”
“One-twenty-one.”
“Fine. You wanna play it that way? I say a hundred forty-seven total; you say a hundred and twenty-one. So I’ll counter with...a hundred and forty-seven.”
“Twenty-two.”
Étude placed her hand on Vitalie’s thigh, which would have been perfectly normal just days ago, but since fifty-six years had gone by for Vitalie, and they were no longer true friends, it wasn’t received extremely well. “Vita, stop.”
“Look,” Xaovi began, “I’m not asking you to run out and grab signatures. My team and I will coordinate surveys and signups, using standard operating procedure guidelines. We’ll even fasttrack the process, but I need to know you’re not going to do anything stupid if it turns out there’s less interest than you hoped.”
“What kind of stupid thing would we do?” Vitalie questioned.
“If you’re as fast as it sounds like you are, you could steal a ship.”
“That’s a good idea,” she quipped. “Thanks for giving it to me.”
“Vitalie, please.” She got this close to placing her hand on Vitalie’s thigh again. It just seemed so normal.
“A hundred and forty-five,” Xaovi repeated, more seriously. “A hundred and forty-five people who are one hundred percent committed to trying out a new colony, and I will authorize departure. But keep in mind, Gatewood has to accept you. I’m not sending you off without their permission; that would be absurd. It sounds like they’re not to keen on visitors, so you should be prepared to be turned down by them. That’s entirely beyond my scope of influence, so you can’t blame me if it happens. I can try to find you the passengers.”
“Yeah,” I bet you will.” Vitalie scoffed.
“Make no mistake,” Xaovi went on, still serious. “I am not working against you. I feel no personal connection to the ships presently in our orbit, or on our docks. I am perfectly happy to let one go, but only if that’s what the people want. Resources for a hundred and forty-seven people should be allocated for a hundred and forty-seven people.”
God, they were getting tired of hearing that number.
“I don’t care where those people are, as long as those resources aren’t being wasted. I will do everything in my power to get you signatures, and if we still used money, you could put it on that promise.” It shifted in its seat, and leaned forward. “But if you get a hundred and forty-four potentials, the deal’s off. All the way, or nothing at all. We can revisit the idea a year from now, and the year after that, until we find enough, but I require no less than enough to fill those pods.”
That wasn’t a terribly unreasonable deal. She needed to find her daughter, but the evidence she was in Gatewood was thin anyway. The person who answered the call sounded like she was lying. Why didn’t she just say outright she had never heard of Cassidy?
“How about—?” Vitalie began to ask.
“That’s fair,” Étude admitted. “We will accept whatever the outcome may be. One full migrant ship, or nothing.”
To their surprise, there was enough to interest in emigration to fill two ships over standard capacity. Convincing Gatewood to accept them took a little more doing, though. Apparently, it was being used exclusively for pretty secretive scientific experimentation, and also for military purposes. No civilians lived there at the moment. In the end, they agreed, but the former Proxima Domanians would be limited to their own centrifugal cylinder. Evidently, there was no planet around the star, so these giant man-made structures were the only places people could survive. They probably could have garnered enough interest from the Domanians for three ships if not for the fact that there was no planet.
Étude and Vitalie wondered what was going on. Was there some alien threat that the greater vonearthan population was not aware of, and Gatewood was being used to prepare for an interstellar war? Or had the Gatewooders discovered time travel, and were protecting it from everyone else, just like they were meant to. It would explain their unsettling reaction to hearing Cassidy’s name. Exactly how many people were living there, and would there be any way of finding Étude’s daughter? These were questions that would not be answered for years to come. The ships they were taking were only at the speed standards that they were when they first arrived. Some had, or were being, upgraded, while new ones were being built. As an unscheduled departure, however, the emigrants were only being given the outdated technology. Étude didn’t love that, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. As Barnard’s Star was about six and a half light years from Proxima Centauri, it would take them over ten years. For these people with their extended lifespans, that was no big deal. The two of them were immortal, so the only reason the duration was a problem was because Étude was anxious to finally meet her daughter. Again, though, this was about as good as it would get, so she took the win.
They said their goodbyes to Tertius, who was, of course, staying behind to protect the Oblivios. They were still living peacefully in their dome, completely, well...oblivious to everything that was happening in the real world. Étude and Vitalie boarded the ship with all the other passengers, and left Proxima Doma, probably for good.

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