Sic Transit…

Sic Transit Labor

Freya and Limerick watched in horror as her mega dragonfly babies flew away. He reached up, and prepared to start plucking the strays out of the air, but was hesitating. “I...uh.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“Do you want me to kill them, or...?”
“Yes, of course!”
Limerick grabbed one, and smashed it in his hands. It was a hell of a lot larger than a regular dragonfly, but as a newborn, still small enough for him to destroy in one move. He was able to snatch five more, but the rest managed to escape. “Sorry, I just...”
“Do you think that I think of those as my babies?” Freya questioned.
“Well, I don’t know.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Freya said, shaking her head. “It’s not like you could have killed them all. And we both know what becomes of them. This is where the Ochivari begin. We did it. We created them.”
Limerick frowned. “Stable time loop. Engineers of our own fate.”
“Yes.” She frowned as well. Then she winced. Then she screamed.
“What? What is it?”
“It feels like a contraction.”
“There are more in there?”
“It’s different. That was incredibly uncomfortable, but not really painful. This is pain. It’s starting to be the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced.”
“Okay,” Limerick said, calming himself with some deep breathing. “I remember what you taught me when we thought you were just pregnant with a human baby. We have to assume this is that human baby, and work from there.”
“Whatever it is, get it out of me!”
She had technically been in some form of labor for the last several hours, so the real baby came out in a matter of minutes. She was crying and screaming, as any good baby should. Ten fingers, ten toes, and most importantly, no wings. The problem was that she wouldn’t let up. She just kept screaming and screaming. Both of them had heard babies before, but imagine the loudest baby in the world, and then turn that up to eleven. Finally, the scream seemed to reach some kind of apex. It was so powerful that it tore a hole in the fabric of spacetime, and sent all three of them to a different universe.
Once the technicolors faded, the baby’s cries stopped, like she knew she was in a safe place, or even knew how to navigate here. They found themselves in a very small clearing in the woods. It was beautiful and peaceful. Limerick rested his chin on his fist, and admired his little girl. “She must get that from you,” he joked.
“You make light of it, but this could be a problem.” Freya was still in a lot of pain, but being here made her feel safe and comfortable.
Limerick kept smiling. “She knows what she’s doing.”
“I don’t doubt it.” A young woman appeared from behind a tree. “You should name her. It’s bad luck to travel without a name.”
Now Limerick was defensive. “Who are you?”
“Thack Natalie Collins. I’m the one what brought your little team together. I see the goingson in other universes. This is where Landis is from.”
“Voldisilaverse,” Freya uttered.
“Your baby is a hundred percent safe here,” Thack claimed. We will always protect her.”
“We?” Freya questioned.
Thack reached up, and twirled her finger in the air. Other people started coming out of the woodwork, and approached nonthreateningly. They kept a little distance, though, presumably out of respect. “We are all voldisil. I foretold your arrival, and I gathered only the best, and most virtuous, among us, to help me create a haven for the little one.”
“They look like they’re waiting for something,” Freya pointed out.
“We’re waiting to take you to your new home,” Thack explained. “You really should name her first, though.”
Freya looked down at her precious love. She recalled a personal conversation she once had with Diamond Zek. Zektene was a teleporter Freya met a couple years ago, who was accidentally transformed into a diamond in the attempt to boost her abilities. They were talking about Freya’s new name, and Zek pointed out that the goddess, Freyja from Norse mythology bore two daughters of lore. One was named Hnoss, and the other Gersemi. Both of them meant treasure. Diamond Zek admitted to thinking it would be a good name for a girl. They weren’t really thinking about Freya having an actual child at the time, but looking back, it felt like destiny. “Treasure.” She sighed blissfully, and looked up at her daughter’s father. “Treasure Hawthorne.”
He smiled gratefully.
“Treasure Hawthorne,” Thack echoed, as if addressing the heir apparent. “This will be your home...for now.” She took a beat. “Come. You should see a doctor. Your physiology may be too different from ours, which could potentially lower the efficacy of the panacea. Once we determine that it will work, you are welcome to start taking it like everyone else.”
“This is the Landis panacea, correct?” Limerick figured. Landis Tipton was another member of their crew on the Cormanu. He had many abilities, but one of them allowed him to heal any wound or medical condition. He used it to cure millions of people on this version of Earth, and only stopped because biomedical scientists were finally able to synthesize a drug that people could take whenever they needed it.
“Yes. We call it Tiptokois.” Thack turned, and started walking away. The others waited until Limerick was able to help Freya up. They formed a security barrier around them, looking out for all dangers. Voldisil was a general term for anyone who was born with some kind of ability in this universe. They could be good, or they could be bad, and some chose to be bad. Neither Freya nor Limerick knew much about the culture here, or how prevalent bad voldisil were, and even if Landis had given them details, they didn’t know how much time had passed since he left to join their crew. These could all, in fact, be bad people pretending to be on their side. They didn’t know anyone here, though, so they had no choice but to trust them, and hope it didn’t backfire later.
They walked for maybe a kilometer before Thack stopped, and turned towards one of her people. “Are these good?”
A man stepped forward, and carefully inspected two trees standing opposite each other. He waved his hand in the space between them. “This will work. Gather inside.” They all crowded around, and waited. The man continued to wave his arms around, this time like he was dancing without his feet, or like he was playing a game with the wind. This wind picked up, and after a minute, blew them away. They instantly transported to a pair of different trees in an urban setting. They were spaced about the same distance apart as the first trees, and as they looked around, Limerick and Freya could see other pairs, at different spacings. It was an interesting form of teleportation that was unmatched by anything in Freya’s universe, despite the fact that a lot of people there could do it in some way, or another. Tree portals, she presumed to call them.
Thack continued to lead them forward, all the way to a small hospital. It looked like something out of an old timey one-horse town, but this was clearly a big city. Freya figured that made sense, because most people here would have access to Landis’ panacea, which mostly negated the need for traditional medical practices. The receptionist greeted them kindly, and then stood up from her chair, showing that she was wearing a lab coat. The others stayed behind while she led Thack, Freya, Limerick, and little Treasure to the back, where she revealed herself to be the doctor as well. Again, with such little need for medical infrastructure, there wasn’t much reason for anyone but a doctor to work in what might very well have been the only hospital on the whole planet.
They spent the rest of the day being examined, and undergoing tests. Blood draws, CAT scans, and urine samples; they were all quite familiar to them. Once it was over, the doctor sent them on their way, saying that the results would be ready in the morning. Thack and the voldisils accompanied them to their new home. It was just large enough for two people and a baby, but very nice and clean. This world was all about simplicity and efficiency. It didn’t need to be luxurious to be comfortable, and to have everything they needed. Their only neighbors were Thack and the other voldisil. There was no telling how long they had been preparing for their arrival. Different universes operated on totally unrelated timestreams. The moment they left salmonverse, and the moment they arrived here felt consecutive, but there was no telling how much actual time these people had to plan for this.
Time was simultaneously important, and not all that important. Freya and Limerick wanted to get back to their friends, but again, it didn’t matter how long they waited. There was no rush to leave when this world was perfect for them right now. So they stayed. They stayed for over sixteen years. All three of them were taking the monthly tiptokois pill, and keeping a stash of emergency class pills at all times. The former kept them young and healthy, and they never found themselves ever needing the latter. According to the history, volidisil once kept themselves hidden, working in the shadows to either make the world a better place, or a worse one. Landis was the first to step into the light, and show people what he could do. It inspired others to use their own gifts out in public. This transformed society, creating a one-world government, and shedding a lot of the pain and suffering that most civilizations lived through.
On a personal note, Treasure was a great child. She was nice, caring, and affectionate. She was disciplined, patient, and interested in learning. Thack taught a special study program at a community college on exoversal cultures. It was generally limited to adults, but they made an exception for Treasure for obvious reasons. Everyone loved her, but she didn’t have any close friends. This world loved and accepted people who were different, but she still always felt so foreign, and never really got over that. People didn’t realize either, or they probably would have tried to help. She was just so popular that no one noticed she didn’t hang out with a specific group, and didn’t have anyone outside her parents who she could trust fully, and confide in. She wasn’t depressed exactly, but she wasn’t super happy either, and that was a realization she had to come to herself. It happened this morning.
“Treasure Lydia Hawthorne, get in here right now!”
She knew what her mother was angry about, but she was going to hold firm. So she took a deep breath, and prepared for battle.
“What is this doing on the table?”
She couldn’t yell, because if she yelled, it would give her mom even more reason to think that she needed it, which she didn’t anymore. She could control herself just fine. “I’m sick of it, and I’m over it.”
“It doesn’t work that way. This necklace is for your own protection.”
“It’s not a necklace,” Treasure argued, “it’s a collar. Your flowery language doesn’t work on me anymore.”
“I don’t understand, you used to be fine with it. You know what it’s for.”
“I control my voice. I’ve taken it off before, and didn’t have a problem.”
“What is this right here?” Freya asked, pointing.
Treasure sighed, realizing her mistake by claiming there was never a problem. “That’s my elbow,” she recited in monotone.
“We left that scar to remind you that if not for the panacea, you could be dead right now. That weird bird creature was this close to eating the rest of you. Your father found you in an uncharted universe after making four—four!—shatter portals. You realize how hard that is for him? It wears him out, he could have died trying to rescue you. He got lucky that time, because of Miss Collins, but if you scream just once, you could end up too far away for even her to detect. If you see a spider, or a boy gets too handsy, that could be it. You could be lost forever. That is why the amazing scientists on this planet built you that necklace, and that is why you can’t ever take it off unless he’s there to go with you. Which you’re not going to do until you turn eighteen, which you agreed to ten years ago.”
“I’m not asking you to let me train with dad. I just don’t want to wear the collar anymore. I’ve spent my whole life not raising my voice, I think I’ve been conditioned enough.”
“Or maybe you’ve been stifled for so long, it’s all just waiting to burst out all at once,” Freya argued.
“All the more reason to let me get used to taking it off!” It wasn’t a scream, but her voice was indeed louder than it had ever been since that time she got stranded. She was still a baby back then, though, and had no memory of that.
Steam came out of Freya’s ears. She held up the collar. “Put this goddamn thing back on this instant, before you do something you regret. I’m your mother, and you’re going to listen to me.”
“I’ll show you,” Treasure claimed. “I’ll show you that I can control it.”
“Yeah, you will, because you’ll be wearing your necklace.”
“Stop calling it that. It’s a collar, and I’ll put it on in five minutes.”
“What are you going to do in the next five minutes?”
“I already told you, I’ll show you that I can learn control. I’ll be back before you know it.” She ran down the hall, and into her room, ignoring the complaints from her mother. And then she screamed.

Sic Transit Lar Familiaris

Treasure had never traveled the bulk on purpose before. In fact, she had no recollection of ever having done it. She didn’t even have proof growing up that she was capable of such a thing. Perhaps the time she transported her family to this world, and the time she accidentally transported to some random dangerous world by herself, were all lies her parents made up. Why would they do this? Why would they force her to wear a collar, and claim it was so she didn’t end up getting lost in the multiverse? What could possibly be weirder—or worse— than that? Nothing, apparently, because as she was proving now, it was all true. Her scream really could resonate at the right frequency to break a temporary hole in the membrane of the universe, and allow her to jump to other worlds. Unfortunately, her father had promised to teach her how to use her powers once she turned eighteen. They were planning a family vacation on that day to celebrate. Since she was leaving early, she didn’t know what she was doing, or where she was going. She could figure it out eventually, though, as long as she survived long enough. Once she did, she would be able to return home at the very same moment she left, and unless she said something, her parents would never know exactly how long the trip was from her perspective. But again, she had to survive.
Alarms were blaring, and she could hear gunfire outside the door. It took her a moment for her eyes to adjust to the low lighting. This room appeared to be an advanced futuristic laboratory, but what did she know? If this really was a different universe, their history could be unlike anything she had ever studied before in Miss Collins’ class. There were an infinite number of branes in the bulk, and this could be pretty much any one of them. The furniture and instruments looked somewhat familiar, though, so it probably wasn’t the version of Earth where dinosaurs evolved planet-dominating intelligence instead of humans. She wanted to escape, fearing for her life, but she couldn’t just leave without doing something. One time, when she was younger, she took a train to visit Chicago. It stopped to pick up a few more passengers in Iowa, so she took that opportunity to step off the train, just so she could say she once went to Iowa. But she hadn’t really. She was out there for all of thirty seconds, and had never returned for real. This could not be a repeat of that. She needed to explore, to make some mark—however small—so someone could corroborate her claim that she was here.
She stepped over to the door, and cracked it open carefully. The gunfire was farther away now, so she hoped the hallway would be empty. It wasn’t. Someone pulled the door open all the way, and forced himself in, nearly knocking Treasure down to the floor. He shut the door behind him, and pressed his ear against it. Treasure straightened up her clothes, and cleared her throat. “What’s going on?” Treasure whispered.
The man hissed at her in a language she didn’t know.
“I’m whispering,” she explained, even quieter this time.
He hissed at her again, and tightened the suction of his ear on the metal. They waited for a good five minutes. Once he was convinced they were safe for now, he breathed a sigh of relief, and started trying to talk to her. Language was the weirdest thing about the bulkverse, according to her studies. All these different worlds, some not even just alternate versions of Earth, but unrelated planets. And they all pretty much spoke English. It was the dominant language everywhere. Of course, other languages existed, but Miss Collins spoke of only a few planets that developed completely without it. The evolved dinosaur one was an example. This was a human, and she didn’t know what language he was speaking. It didn’t sound like anything she had ever heard before, except maybe...Ancient Egyptian?
They continued to try to communicate with each other, using hand gestures and facial expressions. He pretended to hold a gun, presumably asking whether she was armed. When she shook her head, he got really offended, and tried to frisk her, which she promptly put an end to. He put up his hands, somewhat apologetically, but not sincerely, and started pantomiming again. He held up an invisible gun, pointed to the door, and turned his fingers into legs. He opened a hypothetical door, and entered what he seemed to think was a glorious room. Something was lining the walls. Paintings? No. More finger guns. All different kinds. He threw a grenade. An armory. He wanted them to go search for an armory. Treasure wanted to shake her head again, but she didn’t know what to do. Was this guy a terrorist who deserved to be caught by the authorities? Was he an innocent accountant for this place who was just trying to escape? There was no way to know which side of this conflict she had stumbled upon. The only way she was going to understand it is if somebody here happened to speak English, French, Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, Japanese, or Maramon.
Treasure relented, and followed the man out the door. They crept down the dim hallways, sticking to the walls as much as possible. They could still hear gunfire, but it was even fainter now. That certainly suggested an attack, rather than an authoritative raid. She would think cops would leave agents scattered throughout, instead of just moving through the whole thing together. But maybe not. There was no telling how large this facility was. She didn’t know what they did here, or why there was both a lab and an armory. They kept going until they could no longer hear the bullets. They were replaced with humming. It didn’t sound ominous or evil, but pleasant and comfortable. She almost sounded...bored. The man wanted to get away from it, but Treasure insisted they go check it out. If she was another survivor, they had to know, and if she wasn’t, Treasure could always scream.
They slipped through the door, and into what looked like a hock. The woman was alone, locked up, and didn’t stop humming when she saw them. Her arm was lying on the floor, which looked quite uncomfortable. She appeared to be stuck there. The two of them started speaking to each other in their language, so Treasure just stood there patiently. The conversation became heated, though, and he grew angry. It almost looked like he was blaming her for something. Finally, he took Treasure by the shoulder, and tried to pull her out. “No,” she responded, pushing his hand off of her. “What’s going on?”
“I couldn’t give him the answers he was looking for, so he’s abandoning me here,” the woman explained.
“Wait, you speak English?” Treasure questioned.
“I do, yes. I’m from Ansutah.” That was one of the bad universes. Miss Collins would never use such a word, because she was a kind and understanding person, but all the students got the idea. It was populated by monsters, who broke off of the universe that Treasure’s mother was from. They caused a lot of problems all over the bulk. They weren’t as bad as the Ochivari, but it was dangerous to trust them.
“You’re one of the human refugees,” Treasure guessed.
The man started complaining again, forcing the prisoner to get back into the argument. She dismissed him, and he finally gave up, deciding to leave me behind, and go look for his precious armory.
“Sorry about that. I’m half human, half Maramon. They call us hybrids. My name is Azura, and I was sent to this universe to neutralize one Missy Atterberry as a threat.”
“So you are bad?” Treasure said.
Azura scoffed and laughed at the same time. “No, I never had any intention of doing that. I couldn’t even if I wanted to. Missy won’t show up here for another several billion years. I purposely screwed with the algorithm, so my creator would send me to the wrong time period.”
“Oh. My name is Treasure. I’m from voldisilaverse,” she felt compelled to reveal.
“I see. You don’t seem like a pretentious asshole.”
“I wouldn’t call them that. They’re just...proud of themselves.”
“What did I say?” she joked.
“Umm. Are you, like, bolted to the floor?”
“Kinda, yeah. These people hacked into our medical implants, and pushed the gravity up to eleven. I only survived because of my Maramon side. It won’t last forever, though. If you could kindly hand me that cuff right there, I would be eternally grateful.”
Treasure looked over at the object on the table. “What does it do?”
“It will disable my chip, putting my gravity back to normal. You don’t have to unlock the gate, I just don’t want to die on the floor.”
Miss Collins taught them about the adventures of The Newtonian Expats, and The Hybrids. The latter were sent to remove the time powers of the former. Each ended up in a different universe when The Crossover exploded, and started impacting history from there. Most of the hybrids switched sides, and became friends with the Expats, but not all of them, and this Azura person was never mentioned. Still, if Treasure was going to make her own difference, she had to start by giving Azura the benefit of the doubt. That was what Miss Collins would do. Treasure grabbed the implant disabling device, and slipped it through the bars. Azura pushed the buttons on the screen, which were displaying what looked like hieroglyphs. She wrapped the cuff around her arm as well as she could, and activated it. Then she was able to stand back up after however long. She stretched, and massaged the implant site.
“Why are you in here?” Treasure asked.
“I built this device,” Azura said, holding up the cuff. “The implant tracks every single member of the Astral Military Force. I really just wanted to be able to go off-world without my superiors knowing about it. I didn’t know it could have saved lives. As it stands, other than me, it only saved two.”
“Where are the other two?”
“Off fighting against the invasion, I imagine, surely presuming me dead. I did pass out for a while. Anyway, thank you for your help—”
“I’ll let you out,” Treasure assured her. “You don’t have to be weird about it.”
“Okay, thanks, because...I don’t belong in here. As punishment, they would have made me clean the restrooms for a few weeks at worst.” She guided Treasure towards the keycard, which unlocked the hock gate. She repeated herself, “Thank you for your help, but we should get you to safety. This is no place for a youngling. Where is the door to the Crossover?”
“I didn’t come in the Crossover.”
“Hm. The Prototype?”
Treasure shook her head. “It’s just this thing I can do.”
“Hmm. You weren’t on the list.”
“The list of what?” Treasure questioned, worried.
“The list of people who can travel the bulkverse,” Azura clarified. “You’re not on that list. With a name like that, I would have remembered.”
“I’ll use that to my advantage.”
“That would be wise. Though...because of time travel, once the secret gets out, it was always out.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Two questions, did that guy know where the armory is, and do you?”
“Not really, and yes. He was just a visitor who wishes he had come yesterday instead. The armory is just next door.”
“That seems stupid.”
Azura smiled. “This hock is meant for insubordinate soldiers who they don’t plan on kicking out of the military. If I were a traitor, or deserter, or something, they would have put me somewhere much more secure. This is mostly my commanding officer’s office. What does it matter, though, aren’t you just going home?”
“I have to help you. It’s why I’m here. Let me get you to wherever it is you need to be.”
The two of them stepped out of the hock office, and down to the next door. Treasure kept watch while Azura punched in the code. They walked in, and started gathering supplies. Azura took weapons and tactical gear, but Treasure just fitted herself with a bullet proof vest, and a helmet. Her father taught her how to defend herself, but no one trained her on weapons, and she grew up in a fairly peaceful world. All she wanted to do was protect herself, not hurt anybody. Azura, meanwhile, was carefully removing a grenade from a lockbox, placing it into a smaller box, and lowering it into her bag.
“You really need a grenade?” she asked.
“This is not a grenade,” Azura answered. “Are you ready to go?”
“Where are we going?”
“The Condensed Command Center. There will be very few survivors, and they will all convene there.”
“Okay.”
They opened the door, and tried to leave the room, but were immediately spotted by the enemy. Before she could react, Treasure heard a shot, and felt a choking pain on her neck. Something wet rolled down her chest, and she fell to her back. Azura returned fire only briefly, before dragging Treasure back into the armory, and locking it.

Sic Transit Vox

This was it. This was exactly what her parents were so worried would happen to her. She was shot, and bleeding out on the floor of an unfamiliar universe. If her father was going to find her here, he would have to do it quickly. Azura grabbed the medkit from the wall, and started wrapping gauze around Treasure’s neck, but this wasn’t a hospital, and she wasn’t a doctor. There was no guarantee of survival. Worst of all, without a throat, she couldn’t scream. She couldn’t escape. Something was pounding on the door.
“Can you leave?” Azura asked. “Can you jump from here?”
Treasure shook her head, but obviously couldn’t answer. She started pantomiming again. She pointed to her throat.
Something pounded on the door again.
“You have to be able to talk?”
She mimicked air coming out of her mouth.
More pounding.
“You have to sing?”
She shook her head again, and widened both her mouth, and her eyes.
Something struck the door so hard, dust flew in from the edges.
“You have to scream.”
Treasure nodded.
The door dented inwards.
“Okay. That’s okay. I just need time to program it.” Azura just as carefully as before removed the grenade from her bag, and placed it on the floor. “I don’t know the coordinates to voldisilaverse. That’s loci non grata for us. Where else do you feel safe? Where should we go?”
Treasure removed one hand from her neck, keeping the other in place. She waved her finger down, into a curve, then back up, and into a complementary curve, before finishing off the tail.
The dent in the door grew deeper.
“That looked like a fish. Salmoverse, really?”
Treasure nodded.
Light from the hallway peeked in through a little hole in the dent.
“All right, well, I definitely have those coordinates.” She started messing with the gears and tiny buttons, and whatever, on the grenade. When she was done, it opened itself up, releasing a glow. The door broke open too. Just as the enemy soldiers were coming in to kill them, the whole room filled with technicolors, and spirited them away. It spirited all of them away.
Luckily, Azura knew what had just happened, so she wasn’t as confused as the soldiers. As she lay there dying, Treasure watched Azura make the first move. She started fighting the enemies on her own, switching opponents easily, always knowing which one was the greatest threat that second. She got shot herself a couple times, but just kept going. In the end, they were all on the floor, and she was left standing. “Hold tight,” she said to Treasure. Not only had all the people come through the transport grenade, but the weapons and other gear did too. She found cuffs and chains, and used them to bind the soldiers to the seats. Yes, seats. This looked like a really big train car.
Now that the enemies were disarmed and no longer a significant threat, Azura felt she could drag Treasure to the next car up, and start getting back to treating her neck. Treasure tried to speak, but still couldn’t.
“Just rest. I’ll get you patched up.” Azura removed a syringe from the medkit. “This...is gonna hurt.” She jammed it into Treasure’s neck, and knocked her unconscious.
Treasure woke up after a good night’s rest. She was no longer on the floor, but in a bed that looked like a sleeper car. It didn’t just look like a train. It legit was a train. The windows were weird, though, and it was far too big to fit on a regular set of tracks. Was this—? No, it couldn’t be. What were the chances...? She sat on the edge, and started testing her throat. She could swallow, and she could cough, but she couldn’t speak. Well, she could eke out some really pathetic sounds, but not enough to convey information, and she absolutely couldn’t scream. Was this permanent? It was then that she realized that there was something on her head. It kind of felt like a tiara. She accidentally tapped the jewel in the center of it, which apparently powered it up. “What the hell is this thing?” a voice came from the tiara. “Who said that? Was that me? That sounds like me.” It was her own voice, but instead of coming out of her mouth, it was through a little speaker. The tiara was evidently converting her brain signals to an audible voice. She didn’t even have to move her lips.
Treasure left the sleeper car, which was actually just one section in a whole car of other sleeper rooms. While looking for Azura, she ended up finding the first car instead. The soldiers were still chained up to the seats, but their arms were now free, so they could eat. They regarded her with fairly noticeable indifference, probably having realized that she didn’t know anything about them, and had no stake in their war. One man didn’t have any food yet. Azura was just coming in from the other side to hand it to him. She changed tactics, and handed Treasure the food instead. “How do you feel?” she asked.
“Like a robot,” Treasure’s brain answered.
“Oh, good, the tiara is working. I’ve yet to find an exit,” she began to explain, “or a control room. We may be floating in space, for all I know. I know what this is, though.”
“The Transit,” Treasure said first. “The missing bulk travel ship.”
“That’s right,” Azura confirmed. “My people made it, but never used it, and then it disappeared. They always suspected it ended up in Salmonverse, but I don’t think they spent much time looking. It, uhh...never worked that well. Elegant design, but half-assed engineering. If we want to use it to get you back home, we’ll need someone smart enough to get it running.”
“Can’t we just use your grenade thing?” Treasure presumed.
“It was a one-time thing,” Azura said. “That’s why I was being so careful with it. I was trying to figure out how to reprogram it for multiple crossing, but only ever figured out how to change the destination. It kind of...exploded after we used it.”
“My true voice. Will it ever come back? I doubt this thing will let me...”
Azura hesitated to answer. “Medically speaking, it’s possible for your vocal cords to repair themselves. With anyone else, I would be hopeful. Realistically, historically, futuristically, probably not. You might heal, but I think you probably aren’t destined to. It would explain why you weren’t on our list of people and machines capable of crossing over. You only did it once, so...it wasn’t in our records.”
“It happened more than once, but that wasn’t the point. Now her only hope of getting back home was this machine, and no one here would know how to fix it.”
Azura turtles her head forwards. “You just said that out loud. And you said it in Vertean. Why did you use third person past tense?”
“What’s Vertean?”
“That’s their language.” She indicated the soldiers.
Treasure looked down to find the soldiers looking at her funny. “I think I need to practice using this thing. Alone.”
“I’ll keep looking,” Azura said. “The ship is pretty big.”
Treasure went back to her sleeper car, and started talking to herself. She complained about her parents, and how this was their fault. They should have taken her on trips early on, so she could get used to being on other worlds, and better understand how to use her powers. Perhaps there was a workaround. Maybe she didn’t really need her voice after all, but now she couldn’t test that theory. Now she was stuck. They should have let her learn. But it wasn’t their fault. They laid out the rules, and they were clear, and they were reasonable. This whole thing was exactly why those rules existed, and she should have respected that. She should have trusted them, and honored them. They were going to help her learn when she was an adult, and that should have been good enough for her. She should have been patient. This was her fault, she was such an asshole.
“I don’t think you’re an asshole.” Azura was at the door with one of the soldiers.
“What do you want?” Treasure asked.
“Treasure,” Azura said from behind him. “Siphon would like to say something to you. Go ahead, Siphon.”
“I’m sorry for shooting you.” The tiara was both translating her thoughts into his language, and his voice, into her tongue. It wasn’t that hard to use, now that she knew the difference between a stray thought, and one that she wished to vocalize. “I realize now that you were never my enemy, and...we should have been more careful. We should have kept our war to ourselves. I apologize. I know what it’s like to be silenced.”
Treasure stared at the man with a blank expression. Then she reached over to the sliding door handle. “Get the fuck out of my car.” She slammed the door shut. Hopefully that word translated well, so he would fully grasp how angry she was. She half-expected Azura to come in, and try to talk to her, but she didn’t. They both left, and Treasure went back to hating herself for getting her into this mess.
Hours later, a simple knock on the door indicated that there was another food tray waiting for her on the table outside the bedroom. This was how they started doing things. Treasure would stay in her personal train car alone, mostly in the bedroom. Azura would come by every once in a while to switch out her food trays, and update her on the goingson. She and the enemy soldiers drew up a truce, and then came to an understanding, and then became friends. They weren’t so different after all. It was only Treasure who didn’t belong, even though she was the only one actually born to this universe. Of course, she crossed over to volidisilaverse within seconds of her birth, but her mother was from here, and spoke of it often. If they ever figured out how to get this train back down to Earth, she would know who to contact.
Yes, the train ship was in space, probably in some kind of lava tube on Pluto, in order to keep it out of the hands of those who would exploit its power. Based on gravitational readings, that was as much as Azura could determine, but even that didn’t seem right, based on what she thought she knew about Pluto. The windows were there, but they were opaque, so it felt like living in an underground bunker. There was plenty of space for the small group of them, and they spent the entire time trying to power it up completely, if only to send a message to Earth. Treasure spent three weeks almost completely alone before something happened that forced her to leave. There was a jolt, and a surge of energy throughout the walls. It didn’t hurt much, but she definitely felt something, and she had to go out to ask about it.
Azura and the rest of this brand new crew were in an auxiliary control room. She was pounding on the inputs, trying to get them to work. “Come on, you were doing something before. You’re alive sometimes.”
“What happened? I don’t mean to interrupt, just curious,” Treasure added.
“I believe we went back in time,” Azura replied.
“Why?”
“I can only get any screen to give me any information for a moment. My guess is that the ship is quantum locked. It exists exclusively during a fixed period of time, probably according to the orbital period of whatever rock we’re on. That narrows down the list of suspects, but I still don’t know where we are, because I don’t have that data, because I can’t turn on most of these damn interfaces!” She was frustrated with all the time it was taking to work on this, but not mad at any person. The crew understood.
Treasure stepped forward to comfort her, and maybe apologize for being such an insolent little child this whole time. As she did so, the nearest computer booted itself up, as if responding to her presence. They were all very surprised.
“What did you just do?” Azura questioned.
“Nothing,” Treasure claimed. “I’m just standing here.”
“Walk over towards that computer over there.” Azura jerked her head farther down the car.
Treasure did as she was asked. That computer turned on as well.
“Oh my God, it’s you,” Azura complained. “This ship senses your power. I can’t believe you were the key to our salvation all along. Come with me. I need you to activate the engine room.”

Sic Transit Tempus

Image credit: NASA / JPL / SSI / Gordan Ugarkovic
Treasure felt bad about holing herself up in her train car, and not doing even a little bit to help them all escape this place, or at least find out where they were. She had all this power, and she should have thought to use it. It just didn’t occur to her that she could do any bit of good for their situation. She was sixteen years old, and had yet to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. Explorer was the best that she could figure, because of her bulk traveling abilities, but that wasn’t a job; not really. “I’m sorry,” she felt compelled to say, as they were all making the trek to the front of the train, where the main engines were.
“I hope you’re not worried about it,” Azura said. “You couldn’t have known you would magically be able to activate the computer systems. If anyone should have realized that, it should have been me. Now I realize that the reason the computers worked sometimes is because of residual bulk energy that my body has absorbed. It also explains why it gets less and less reliable each time, as the energy dissolves like nitrogen. You, on the other hand, probably produce bulk energy, which is why you’re able to spontaneously open shatter portals. I’m sure your father does as well.”
“Does that mean I don’t actually need to scream to make it happen? Could I just do it on my own, maybe by punching?”
“It’s possible. I’m no expert, I just have experience. It’s also entirely possible that producing bulk energy isn’t enough, that you need some way to harness it. It could be like visual processing and interpretation. Your brain is the thing that’s capable of processing the light it receives from external sources, but you still need eyes to receive that light. The brain wouldn’t be able to do it on its own. My guess is that your scream is like the organ that can actually use the energy in your body.”
“What’s wrong with my voice now? My neck is healed, but I can’t speak louder than a whisper, let alone scream.”
“You suffer from vocal cord paresis. I patched you up, and your body is healing, but I don’t have the skills or tools to make a sufficient prognosis. So...you might continue to improve. I’m sure there are exercises you can do with your throat that aid recovery, but I’m not cognizant of them, so for now, keep using that tiara, and rest.”
“It’s weird that this tiara was in the medkit,” Treasure pointed out. “Do people get shot in the throat a lot?”
Azura laughed. “That’s not designed for people who can’t speak. Vertean is the primary language in their universe during that time period, but there are a few planets who developed mostly independently, and created their own languages. That tiara lets Olkan communicate with others. It reads brainwaves, instead of translating voices.”
“Who’s Olkan?” Treasure asked.
“That guy right there.” Azura gestured towards one of the men behind them. He didn’t speak English but he recognized his own name, and knew they were talking about him.
“Oh. I should give it back,” Treasure said, hoping to not actually have to do that.
“It’s fine. He knows a little Vertean, and is getting by. He knows you need it more. They’re good people, once you get to know them. We were on the opposite sides of a war that should never have begun, but their cause is not without its merits. I even agree with them on principle, just not with their methods.”
They were finally in engineering. The systems, including the engines, finally booted up, and Treasure could feel the sense of relief in the room. They had been working on this for so long, and now we had hope. They all went their separate ways, and started working at their respective stations. Apparently, Azura taught the Verteans some Maramon, so they could get going. They were all clearly getting stuck, though.
“Okay,” Azura said. “I could use your tiara just temporarily, though. If we interface it with the computer, it will be able to—”
“Translate to their native tongue,” Treasure finished. “Of course.” She removed it from her head, and handed it over. Then she stood in silence, and watched them work. It was then that she realized that one young man was still back by the entrance, not doing anything. He was just watching everyone, like she was. She was about to introduce herself, which she realized she could neither speak, nor understand him. It had only been a few minutes, and it was already getting to be too frustrating. Azura said that it would be about fifteen more minutes before she figured out how to connect the tiara with the computer, so Treasure decided to go grab some water from the dining car. As soon as she crossed the threshold to the next car down, everything shut off. She could hear the cries of irritation in the others. She immediately hopped back in, which powered the systems back up.
“Apparently, you can’t leave if we want to keep these on,” Azura realized. “I was not aware of this either. What did you need?”
Treasure mimed drinking water from a glass.
Azura said something to the boy who wasn’t doing anything, prompting him to leave. Treasure waved her hands in front of her chest. “It’s okay,” Azura said. “That’s what he’s there for. He’s like a roadie, but for soldiers. He carries extra weapons and ammo, and sends messages to other units. The closest thing to it on your world would probably be the quartermaster, but I think I would translate it to Valet, because Quino garners a lot less respect than a quartermaster. He was born on a fairly poor planet, so he doesn’t have all that much education, and he’s meant to just feel lucky he has a purpose in life. Only a couple people here are actual engineers, but the rest are decades old, and have studied lots of different things. He’s closer to your age.”
Treasure frowned. That didn’t sound very fair.
“He’s getting refreshments for all of us,” Azura clarified.
A little while later, another soldier got Azura’s attention, and showed her something on the screen. They exchanged words in their language, and everyone else started listening. Azura sighed, and prepared to explain it all in English. “Okay, so you’re constantly emitting low levels of bulk energy. You, at all times, straddle the dimensional membrane, and let energy pass through freely. Don’t worry, I doubt it’ll cause you any problems, or cause anyone else any problems. Microscopic tears in the membrane form and heal all the time. Most worlds call it dark energy or vacuum energy, and it’s what causes the expansion of their respective universes. It just so happens that your tear never heals. The Transit was designed to run on multiple power systems, and apparently, the guy who stole it removed almost all of them. He couldn’t remove any of the bulk transistors, though, or he would have just destroyed the whole thing. I don’t know why he chose not to do that, but perhaps he knew we would be coming? It would explain why he left the dining car with the food synthesizers intact.”
Treasure tried to ask what that meant for her, but the gestures weren’t conveying the information clearly. Azura noticed that the tiara was done syncing, so she handed it back. “What does this mean?” she asked. “What does it mean for me?”
“It means that we can take this thing wherever we want to go,” Azura said, “as long as you’re with us. To free us from our reliance on you, we would need to replace the other power systems, like the antimatter drives, fusion reactors, and fuel cells. The good news is that that’s totally doable. I can think of three universes off the top of my head that could accommodate our needs.”
“What are you, uhh...what are you gonna do with this thing?” Treasure questioned. She knew what The Transit was. Her parents spoke of it. It was her mother’s intention when she first left her friends to find The Transit, and use it in the oncoming fight against the Ochivari. She and her partner at the time, Zektene switched gears by joining a crew that planned to stop the Ochivari from existing in the first place. This was where they met her dad, Limerick. When their mission failed, they got sidetracked from having to raise their daughter. Surely they would still want this, and surely Treasure had a high claim to it since this was her universe. The problem was that Azura had a higher claim, since it originated in her universe, and that could create some conflict.
Azura was very good at reading people, and understanding subtext. “I’m going to get these people home, and then I’m going to take you home, so your mother and I can fight over who maintains control over it. Yes, I know what her mission was. Yes, I know that this vessel is crucial in the Darning Wars. No, nobody really knows who’s in charge of The Transit Army. It might be her...but it might be me.” She looked next to her at one of the soldiers. “It might be this guy right here.”
“I’m sure it’s not me,” that guy said.
Both Treasure and Azura were surprised by this. “Whoa. Hadron, you speak English? How is that possible?”
“I speak every language in Vertea,” Hadron answered. “I’ve always been very good at picking new ones up quickly. I’ve been studying English and Maramon since we got here, since I’m not good at much else.”
“How, though?” Azura pressed. “I can’t get anything to stay on for more than a few minutes at a time.”
“I’ve been sleeping in the car next to hers.” Hadron pointed to Treasure. “Before you get huffy, I didn’t know that that was why. I figured that particular car happened to have its own power source. I looked through it, though. It only contains entertainment and cultural research. It has no information about the ship itself, so it wouldn’t have done us any good.”
Now someone else got Azura’s attention, and showed her something on her screen. They talked a little bit. The others weren’t that fascinated.
“Hyperion,” Azura said. “It’s a moon around Saturn, and has an orbital period of about twenty-one days, that checks out. It’s very small, and we are presently seven thousand years before the common era. That makes sense too, because the man who put this here didn’t want to have to worry about someone stumbling upon it. Not even a trotter would think to come to a place like this in a time like this.”
Treasure was concerned. “What about communications? If the Maramon computer can tell where we are, does that mean we’re connected to some kind of network?”
“Nah, that’s all gone,” Azura promised. “That’s the first thing we checked. The comms array has been utterly removed. The thieves likely left it in Ansutah, because they wouldn’t have wanted to be tracked either.”
Quino returned with a cart full of drinks and snacks. Everyone took a break to eat. Everyone...but one. The woman who figured out they were on Hyperion chose to keep working at her station. She seemed very determined to figure something else out. Curious, Treasure looked over her shoulder. The woman didn’t seem to mind it. Some of it appeared in Vertean, but it was also still in Maramon. Treasure spoke Maramon quite fluently, but she didn’t read all that well, and the data on the screens was all very technical. It contained a lot of words that Miss Collins wouldn’t have thought to teach her, so she had to make a few assumptions based on her intuition.
“Treasure, what are you seeing over there?” Azura asked after a few minutes.
“She can explain it better,” Treasure replied, “but I think we have to spend another twenty-one days here.”
Azura thought about it. “There’s a little bit of logic to that. You can only enter or leave at a particular moment, and it’s the moment that the time loop first began. That’s why the grenade brought us here exactly when it did.” She translated the explanation into Vertean, so everyone else would understand. They all seemed fine with it. Three weeks wasn’t that long, and they knew that it didn’t matter how long they spent outside of their universe, they could return to any moment, including the one right after the one they left. Of course, they could die before ever making it back, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen. As long as the synthesizers kept producing food, they should be safe here.
So they waited. Treasure’s role on the ship was wildly different than it was during the first half of their vacation. Where once she was isolated and unhelpful, now she was vital to the mission. She was getting a lot of exercise, running back and forth from the front of the ship, to the middle, to the back. It felt like punishment, but at least it was keeping her fit. Did this thing have to be so long, though? Most of the cars were designed to accommodate soldiers and their cargo, but three of them were used to keep the ship running. It was modular, as one might expect. Each car was capable of traveling through space on its own, but only the first and last could pierce a portal through the universal membrane. They needed to both be in operational order, to maximize their chances of escaping this universe, and accumulating the right resources. Treasure tried to expand the breadth of her power, but was only ever able to power systems from one car over. One of the crew was a medic, and was able to help her come up with some recovery exercises. She still couldn’t scream, but she was eventually able to speak at a very low volume, which was enough to allow her to return the tiara to Olkan.
When they weren’t maintaining the engines, the crew was taking a page out of Hadron’s book, and learning English. They didn’t do it for Treasure’s benefit alone. Though they were supposedly going back to where they were, they wanted to know the dominant language in the bulkverse, in case something like this ever happened again. While they weren’t all particularly adept at learning languages, most of them were a couple centuries old, and had a lot of experience with gathering new skills. Lifelong education was kind of the defining characteristic of their galaxy. That didn’t mean everyone had access to it, but the longer someone was alive, the more chances they found to add to their repertoire. By the time they left Hyperion, all of them had a working proficiency, and were speaking English exclusively for practice.
When their forty-two days were up, they gathered in the engine car again, and took off.

Sic Transit Pueritia

The Transit pierced the membrane, and crossed through to the other side without an issue, but they couldn’t go straight to their destination. Hyperdimensional physics is too complicated to fathom for most people, but thinking in terms of a bunch of universes floating in a vat is good enough for analogy’s sake. Looking at it this way, it’s easy to see that some branes are close to each other, and others are not. Meliora, Limerick, and Treasure can only travel to nearby branes. If they tried to go further, they would probably die in the equilibrium of the outer bulkverse. It is not a hospitable environment, and since there would be nothing protecting them, they wouldn’t last long enough to reach another membrane. Zoey Attar is different in that she wears a special suit that keeps her alive, but the further she wants to travel, the longer it will take. She’s still a little limited, because she can’t get up and move around while she waits. Fortunately, time in the outer bulkverse does not pass the same way it does inside of any given universe. Again, hyperdimensional physics. It does still pass, but people don’t age, and their bodies metabolize chemicals much slower. All that being said, according to clocks inside the ship, about five days passed before they were at the pit stop.
“This universe doesn’t have a name,” Azura started to explain just before they pierced the second membrane. “All I know is that its human inhabitants successfully made it through their Great Filter. Barring Ochivari invasion, they would be virtually impossible to destroy as they have now spread out across their galaxy. Their proper physics are reminiscent of what you might find in the Composite Universe, or your home, Universum Originalis.”
“What’s proper physics?” Gamma asked. “Isn’t all physics proper? Or am I translating that word wrong?”
“Proper physics refers to the set of physical laws specific to a given universe. Some laws are multiversal, like the fact that light moves faster than sound, or temperature usually flows spontaneously from hot to cold. Others can change. Not everyone has plex dimensions that they can use for interstellar travel. Treasure’s mother’s brane doesn’t. Her father’s doesn’t even have any form of FTL. This universe does.” She turned to watch the show. They broke through the barrier, and started flying through the air of whatever planet they were now on. Azura switched on the viewscreens, so they could see the trees before them, and a city off in the middle distance. They were pretty low to the ground. “And they use it well.”
Apparently through an automated subroutine, the Transit’s horn blared for presumably the entire frickin’ solar system to hear. Treasure wasn’t sure why the Maramon would want to announce their arrival, but it confirmed that its shape was no coincidence. They really did design it to be a space train. As they were slowing down to come to a stop, the viewports finally became transparent, and showed them the outside. They saw people stopped on a highway, watching this alien vessel fly by. As they slowed down more, they could make out faces of people who were surprised, but not frightened. They didn’t know this was coming, but they weren’t too worried about it.
Just as planned, they stopped at the entrance to an architectural marvel. It wasn’t designed with any practicality in mind, but to mostly be a giant art piece that people could walk in. If Treasure had to use one word to describe it, she would probably go with palace. As they were exiting the ship, guardsmen filed out, and took position up and down the steps. A woman in fancy attire stepped outside, and walked forward with a strong air of authority.
Azura approached her as nonaggressively as possible. She spoke into Olkan’s tiara, which could evidently amplify sound as well as translate thoughts. “Oh, Wise Leader, we come to you, tails between legs, hearts on sleeves, and as honest as the sun. We were marooned on a foreign world, with only enough energy to make one final jump. We chose to come to you, hoping that you should see fit to aid us in our attempt to return home. We require multiple advanced energy source replacements, and will do anything you ask as payment.”
The leader walked up to a microphone as the lectern rose up from a trap door. She cleared her throat. “We are cognizant of The Transit, and its purpose. And we understand the nonlinear nature of adjusted time. Is this the origin of The Transit Army?”
“We do not know,” Azura replied. “Our current plan is to return home. As for what happens to this vessel after that, we could be part of it, or we might not. We too know what becomes of it, but we are unaware of our level of involvement. Myself and this one here are the most likely to stay on board, we admit.” She indicated Treasure.
The leader chuckled once. “I would like to speak with Miss Hawthorne alone. The rest of you will be escorted to visitor housing.”
Azura didn’t see this coming, and didn’t like to be left out, but she kept her composure, and remained respectful. She nodded, and started to walk away.
“But first,” the leader stopped her, “please give her back her tiara. Her bare head makes me uncomfortable.” That was weird.
“Your future is in their past.” Azura placed the tiara in Treasure’s hand, but didn’t let go right away. “Be careful what you let them tell you. Causality breaks down when you travel the bulk.”
Treasure remembered the warning as she was following the leader into the palace, Quino right at her flank.
“No, no, no,” the leader argued. “Just her.”
“I am her bodyguard,” Quino defied. “She goes, I go.” That wasn’t the truth, but it was probably a good idea, seeing as that Treasure avoided combat training as she was growing up. They made it available to her, if she wanted it, but she never did. She wasn’t a pacifist, but she wasn’t a fighter either.
“Very well.”
“Thank you for the invitation, Wise Leader,” Treasure said once they were in the office, hoping it was the right and polite thing to say. “We appreciate it.”
The leader closed her eyes gently, and nodded slightly. “I am Principa Hoyvanen, and I knew you when I was a little girl. You never told me that I would become Principa one day. You acted like our meeting was an accident, and could have happened to anyone.”
“Perhaps it was,” Treasure acknowledged. “And perhaps, we shouldn’t be talking about this. It could be dangerous.”
Principa Hoyvanen dismissed this. “Have no fear, it is a stable time loop. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m only here to bring the truth to the surface of your consciousness. That tiara you wear, the man who once owned it no longer needs it. He speaks all the languages he’ll ever need. It is yours now, and you will need it. As you’ve learned, every time you speak, you release a little bit of bulk energy. It disperses from there, spread so thin that it cannot be used. In order to conserve this energy, you must silence yourself. The less you speak, the less you lose, the more you have to power your trips. It is almost worthy of a song.”
“How does the tiara help me with that?” Treasure asked
“It can boost this energy. Well, that’s not the word you used. It was...”
“Sharpen,” Treasure guessed. That was the word she would have used, had she figured all this out herself.
“Yes, sharpen,” the Principa echoed. “It doesn’t let you make any more energy than is already there, but it helps you focus. When you scream, and release all that bulk energy, some of it goes into opening a portal, and delivering you to your destination. Some of it is wasted. The tiara cuts down on that waste. It’ll help you only release as much energy as you need to reach your destination. You’ll still need to learn to control it better, but you will. I know it as fact.”
“Well, thank you. However, that can get me home. You say nothing of The Transit.”
“The Transit is not my problem.” Hoyvanen gestured around her in general. “We have found harmony with our world. The Ochivari will not attack us. When you are ready, you will transport these people back to their respective homes, and then you will move on with your lives.”
“The Transit then stays here.” Treasure realized this was what the people of this world wanted all along.
“Do not concern yourself with the Transit,” she said, hoping her position as leader would prevent Treasure from questioning any further.
Treasure was sixteen Earth years old. She was not quite an adult, and still had a lot to learn about the worlds. She thought she was ready to go out, and make her own choices. She came to the realization while she was brooding in her train car alone that this was the wrong call. She should have trusted her parents, and surrendered to the process. None of that could be undone now, though, and she had no other choice but to act like the adult she once thought she was. This Wise Leader was the ruler of a foreign world, and while she deserved respect, she was not Treasure’s ruler, and she didn’t have to do what she said. “Azura lays claim to it. My mother was seeking it. And I control it. I can leave here right now, with all my crew, and go find another world that will provide us with the tools it needs to keep going. It doesn’t actually need these tools, however, as long as it has me. I won’t leave it behind until I’m sure it can run independently, and that it’s in the right hands. I do not believe yours are those hands.”
“That may be,” Hoyvanen began, “but this is my world, and I am holding all the cards.”
“I have a few cards myself,” Quino revealed. “It’s already been programmed to deliver you to your evacuation planet. The trip will be short.” He removed a sort of kazoo-lookin’ thing from his breast pocket, and slammed it on the ground. An orange light shot out from the larger opening, and overwhelmed Hoyvanen and the two guardsmen behind her. In a flash, they were gone, along with every object and piece of furniture that was on that side of the room. He lifted his wrist, and spoke into his communicator, “Badjob, fall back.” He then took Treasure by the hand, and escorted her out. He didn’t rush, or look panicked. The guards they passed had no idea that their ruler had just been spirited away to another planet, so they just assumed the conversation was over, and the two visitors were on their way somewhere else.
Once they were outside, they moved a little quicker, worried that someone would start to get wise before they retreated into the Transit. Azura and the Verteans were coming out of visitor housing, and on an intercept course. Two of them were carrying something that looked pretty heavy, but it was covered with a tarp. This was what aroused suspicion. The guards took offensive positions, and sought out orders from their superiors. They were too late, though. The crew made it into their ship, and closed the doors before anyone could fire a single shot.
“Problem,” Treasure said simply once they were all safe inside.
“You’ve been talking too much,” Azura guessed. “You don’t have enough bulk energy to get us out of here.
“Based on what little experience I have with this,” Treasure said, “I don’t think so. I could probably get all of us out of this universe, but not the whole Transit. Kind of the whole reason we have to bail is because the Principa was hoping to steal it, so I feel like it would be counterproductive to leave it behind.”
“We’re not doing that,” Azura agreed. “This thing is far too important to hand it over to just one brane. It’s destined to save all of humanity, and the only two people I can confidently say will work towards that goal are myself, and your mother.”
“Can they break through?” Hadron questioned. “Is the bulkhead strong enough to withstand their attacks?”
“Over a prolonged period of time?” Azura assumed. “Probably not. It’s strong, it’s powerful, but it’s not impregnable. They’ll find its weakest spot, and once they’re in, they’re in.”
“Will this help?” Gamma asked as she and Alluvia removed the tarp from the object they stole. Treasure had no idea what it was.
“Fusion reactor.” Azura gave it a quick inspection.
“Take it to Onboard Weapons. “Hopefully we’ll deter retaliation until Treasure is ready to take us out of here. Speaking of which.” She turned to face her.
Treasure mimed zipping her lips shut, and locking them up.
“Good girl. Breathe, though. I think breathing will help. Don’t power up weapons!” Azura called over to the ones taking the fusion reactor away. “I don’t want to make the first move, just get it connected!”
Breathing did help, as Azura predicted, but it wasn’t nearly enough. She had just been talking too much, and it was gonna get them killed. The guardsmen fired the first shot, and while they were frightened by the Transit’s onboard weapons system, they held their ground, and strategized. If Treasure was going to get them out of here before a hull breach, she needed to accelerate the absorption of bulk energy that her body could accept. Her instinct was telling her to cut herself. It was like the opposite of bloodletting, or trepanation. Instead of wanting something out, she wanted to let more of something in, and honestly, if felt amazing. If she wasn’t careful, she could probably become addicted to it.

Sic Transit Res Historia

They pierced the membrane, and landed in the new universe. It already looked a lot different than the first one, but that could have just been more about where they happened to come through. There was no city before them, but trees and other wildlife. They were in the middle of a great field, and there was no sign of intelligent life. “The reason I didn’t pick this universe first,” Azura began, “was because of payment. The people of Whrweh will be a lot more welcoming, but they will expect something in return for their help. It’s interesting how their society developed. They never came up with a form of currency that was accepted by all. They understand the concept, but just chose not to do it. They relied heavily on a robust bartering system all the way into their pre-singularity era. Now that they live in post-scarcity, they have everything they need, but in order to deal with alien cultures—which do exist here, for reasons I won’t get into—they continue to exchange favors. If we want power systems, we’ll have to genetically engineer a dog with two heads, or teach some random group of people how to sing.
“These favors don’t mean anything to them, they just want us to have to work for it, because they don’t think it’s fair to give away something for free. The problem is that they accept no substitutes. The council will decide what they expect of us, and that could take up to a month. We can either take it or leave it, but we can’t offer them something else. Seriously don’t even try, that is incredibly rude in their eyes, as they consider it a form of negotiating. We just have to hope it’s something that we can give. I don’t know how to genetically engineer dogs, or teach people to sing, so cross your fingers.”
“How did they advance to a post-scarcity society without ever having money?” Treasure asked, using her tiara. This was just how she was gonna talk now. Her true voice would be reserved exclusively for travel.
“Very slowly,” Azura explained, “but steadily. They remained in small and somewhat isolated pockets. Each pocket developed on its own, for if they attempted to reach out to others too much, it would make things too complicated, and they probably would have needed to devise a banking system. One thing this did was pretty much prevent all war. I mean, there has been almost no violence in their history, because people lived where they could find the resources, and operated independently. They still shared information with each other, but they didn’t collaborate directly. Their impact on their environment has been incredibly low, impressing even the Ochivari, and insulating them from attacks. They don’t live on the surface anymore. They live on the orbital ring.”
Just then, a shuttle dropped down from the sky, and landed on the grass in front of them. Azura led the crew out. “Greetings, friends,” she said. “We come on a peaceful mission, seeking power systems to repair our vessel.”
The man stepped closer to them, and sized up The Transit. “Peaceful,” he echoed. “We know what you are, this is not a peaceful mission.” It was starting to look like what happened in the last universe would happen here, or something similar.
“We discovered this ship, and are only trying to use it to return home to Universum Originalis. While this is destined for war, we are not its warriors.” Azura wasn’t technically lying, as she wasn’t part of the war yet, but she had every intention of joining, so it wasn’t the whole truth either.
“We do not interfere with the Darning Wars,” the man said, “but do not mistake that for endorsement. We do not interfere...on either side.”
“Hmm,” Azura said, only loud enough for the crew to hear. “Our database is incomplete. Obviously they’re peaceful, but I believed they would help us.”
Treasure decided to speak up, “please take our request to the council. Let them decide our fate.”
Azura looked over at her approvingly. This was the right thing to say.
“I am obligated to relay your message,” he agreed. “Payment is never guaranteed, but...I do not look favorably upon your chances. Come. You will stay with us while you await your answer.”
“Stay with the Transit,” Azura ordered Siphon and Spectra, and was met with no protest. The rest of them stepped into the shuttle, and went up to see what this orbital ring thing was all about. Treasure had never heard of it before.
It was exactly what it sounded like, a massive ring suspended in space that went all around the planet. People did not go down to the surface very often, instead deciding to leave it to the plants and animals. They mostly lived in large structures that were hanging from the bottom, down towards the atmosphere, like gargantuan stalactites. How interesting. The Transit crew stayed there for about a week, learning about their culture and history in the museum, and enjoying some of their entertainment. People didn’t seem to know anything about other universes, it was really just the representative who came down to investigate. The locals just figured they were from some other planet, if they even asked where they were from at all. They blended right in quite easily, because they were just nine out of tens of billions of people. Once the council was ready with their decision, they summoned the crew to council chambers.
“Thank you for coming,” Council Leader Ignatius said. She sat up there with her own crew, high above the floor, forcing all who seek help from them to literally look up to them. “We understand that you would like some advanced power system to integrate with your...space train.”
“That’s right,” Azura answered. “We would be eternally grateful, and eagerly await your charges.”
Ignatius nodded. “In exchange for our technology, we ask that the first thing you do with it is to travel back to our past, and extract an important figure before his death.”
“What’s that now?” Azura questioned. It was okay to ask for clarification, just not to argue or propose conditions.
“Mizakh Bordalajner is one of the most influential leaders of our history. It was he who first predicted that we would one day live as we are living today. He came up with the idea of the orbital ring, and he fiercely argued in favor of ecological mindfulness, so our species would survive long enough to realize his dreams. He, of course, died long before singular immortality, and we would like to reward him for his efforts by bringing him up to our present, and saving him. Have no fear, time travel is impossible in this universe without the aid of a machine such as yours. We do not wish for you to alter the past. Simply remove him from his deathbed, and bring him back here, so our advanced science can keep him alive forever.”
Azura looked at the four people to her left, and the four people to her right, just to gauge their reception of the request. No one seemed to have any objections. It was fair, within their power, and unlikely to cause problems for this world, or come with unforeseen consequences. Even if it did have consequences, that wasn’t really the crew’s problem. “We accept. Provide us with the pertinent information, and we’ll go retrieve your man.”
“That will not be necessary,” Ignatius said. “One of our top historians will be accompanying you, to make sure the mission moves forward smoothly.”
Azura nodded deeply, and cordially.
The anti-negotiation stance was a two-way street. The council failed to request that their own people would be the ones to install the new power systems on the Transit. Once the council meeting closed, they could no longer amend the request any more than the Transit crew could have. It would have been unfair, and unjust. They were a consistent and thoughtful people. So the crew was able to insist that they be the ones to interface human technology with Maramon technology, and get the whole thing up and running. It took longer, but they didn’t want anyone else getting their hands on bulk travel knowledge. Causality was grateful for the limited number of parties capable of risking paradoxes for all of reality.
The historian was a woman in her late twenties named Rosalinda. Treasure’s first impression was that she was nice and talkative. She loved to tell anecdotes from history, and she probably taught them more than they could ever learn from the museums. She also knew everything there was to know about this Mizakh Bordalajner. He was exactly where he was meant to be, exactly when he was meant to be there. They even knew when he would be alone, so that no one would try to stop them from abducting their loved one. The mission was so boring that only Siphon and Spectra were sent into the field. They returned with no problems, Bordalajner was hooked up to life support, and the Transit went back to the future. The problem was that this was not the correct future. Whrweh was still there, and perfectly intact, but the Whrwehs were gone. They had died out centuries ago, and the only explanation was the absence of this one historical figure. Even though he died anyway, he must have had a significant impact on the outcome of events.
“All right,” Azura said, quickly getting over the shock. “This isn’t a problem. All we have to do is go put him back. The Transit can mask its signature from itself, our past selves won’t even know we were there. We’ll put him back in bed right after the Young!Siphon and Young!Spectra first took him. Everything will go back to normal. We’ll figure out an alternative payment later. Rosalinda here can vouch for us, and explain why it didn’t work.”
“I don’t know why it didn’t work,” Rosalinda revealed. “He died. In fact, and I didn’t want to say this before, but he went missing. This was all destined to happen. At least I thought it was. I thought we were just closing a timeloop.”
“We are,” Treasure said. “We’re closing it now. Quino and I will put him back in bed. It’s best not to run into your alternate selves.”
“I’ll go too,” Rosalinda insisted. “It’s my world.”
“Very well,” Azura decided. “Let’s go.”
They returned to the past, overlapping with their own timeline, and preparing to make the exchange. If everything went according to plan, not five minutes would pass from the time Siphon and Spectra first took him, and the time Treasure, Quino, and Rosalinda put him back. No one would ever know they were there, not even their Past!Selves. It did not go according to plan. They avoided being seen by the other two crew members just fine, and got him back to bed, no problem. It was getting out that messed things up. Mizakh’s husband came back in time to see them trying to sneak out of their house. He shouted for help, causing a number of neighbors to flood the streets. They were trapped. He was an important man even while still alive, so they were all very protective of him. They formed a circle, so that there was nowhere for the three of them to go. There was nowhere for them to go...except through another dimension. Seeing no other choice, Treasure took a deep breath, and then she screamed.

Sic Transit Intima

This was only the fourth time Treasure had traveled the bulk using her own powers directly, and only the second time that she could remember. She didn’t know where it had taken them, but she knew it was far. She had the highest reserves of bulk energy ever, having absorbed a great deal of it once the Transit was fully operational, and transconducting on its own. The way it was explained to her, she should have only been able to cross over into the nearest branes to where she was. Some branes were touching each other, and while she could probably connect to a chain, there were other universes that were just isolated, off in the bulk, not linked to any other. The three major machines were capable of reaching these places, because they could survive in the outer bulkverse. All signs pointed to the fact that she could not. She was just a human, not wearing a spacesuit, or anything. How could she survive something as dangerous as what scientists apparently decided to call an equilibrium, in order to distinguish it from its more commonly understood counterpart, the vacuum. However she did it, she did it. She survived, and so did her friends. They were floating through the bulk, watching time knives and swirling colors pass them by, protected by some kind of bubble, and hopelessly lost.
Treasure tried to direct them towards the nearest brane she could see, because the farther they got from where they were, the less likely they would be able to get back. She had no form of propulsion, though. She couldn’t control anything at this point. As best they could tell, they were following some kind of hyperdimensional current, and traveling in a fairly straight line. The only way they were going to be able to stop at this point was to manage to run into a brane by chance. It was difficult to keep track of time in the bubble. Their watches weren’t working, and obviously there weren’t any celestial movements. They just floated there, enjoying the show, but hoping it stopped soon. They could talk, but the sound was this weird echoey muffle. Their voices were louder, but hardly intelligible, and quite frankly, annoying. Plus, they didn’t know where they were getting all this air they were breathing, so it was best to keep silent, and conserve as much as possible. There they waited for at least a day, maybe more, until they came upon a time knife, and flew into its sharp edge.
The odds that they would land on a planet with good surface gravity, and a breathable atmosphere were negligible in this situation. There was just so much more nothingness than there was nitrogen and oxygen in the right ratio, but it happened anyway. Perhaps Treasure’s power would always take her to a place where she could breathe. It was all about survival instinct, and she couldn’t survive in space. Or maybe she could. Who knows now? The rules went out the window yesterday.
“Okay, so I couldn’t really say this before, but...I’m sorry.” It wasn’t very hospitable where they landed. It was a very dry desert, and the air felt a little toxic; not enough to kill them right away, but enough to decrease their lifespans in the long-run. They started walking forward, aimlessly.
Quiet Quino was as cool as ever, and might have even been relieved to be free of his superior officers. Rosalinda didn’t seem too terribly perturbed either. “Fascinating. The chance to study, and learn from, a society that rose up in a completely different universe.”
“We don’t know that yet,” Treasure pointed out. “This could be an uninhabited universe, or maybe just an uninhabited world in a vast universe. When you add it all up, life is unfathomably rare. Civilization is even rarer.”
“That looks pretty civilized to me,” Quino mused, pointing to the distance. They were standing near what kind of looked like an ice highway. It was definitely not ice, but it was smooth, metallic, and reflective like water. Coming down it was a hovercraft of some kind. It was just minding its own business as it passed by, but then struggled to stop, and backed up. The window rolled down, revealing two hard top androids, regarding them cautiously but curiously. “Humans,” the one closest to them presumed.
“Yes,” Treasure replied. She spoke with her tiara, though, and that seemed to confuse them more.
“How did you survive the transition?” He looked behind him, just in case there was some kind of human reservation around here. “Better yet, how do you survive the pollution?”
“We’re not from around here,” Treasure answered.
“Get in,” he offered. “It’s not safe out here for organics.”
They hesitated.
“We ain’t gonna hurt ya,” he claimed. “We’re just going to contact The Transit Army, so they can come pick you up.”
“You can’t do that,” Treasure contended. “It’s a, uhh...”
“Paradox?” the passenger suggested.
“Yes,” Treasure confirmed.
The driver smiled. “So that’s how you’ve survived, not here at all. Either way, we have to get you to a human sanctuary. They’re the only ones with clean oxygen.”
Having lost all her bulk energy reserves, and not knowing how to navigate the bulkverse anyway, Treasure agreed to get in the car, as did Quino and Rosalinda.
“Go slow,” the passenger warned her friend. “Vehicles don’t come with seatbelts anymore.”
He nodded, and went pretty fast.
“So,” Rosalinda asked while they were on their way. “Humans appear to be rare on your world. Tell me about that. What happened?”
“First,” Treasure interjected, “what are your names?”
“I’m Apple, this is Kickstand,” the passenger said. “In case you’re wondering, that’s my real name, but he won’t tell me his.”
“Original name’s dead, baby,” Kickstand said. “And to answer your question, it died when my organic self did. The Ochivari came and sterilized the whole population. They didn’t like that we were destroying our planet, so they decided to wipe us all out...slowly. Well, our fearless leaders didn’t like that, but it couldn’t be reversed, so they decided to just say, screw you guys, we’re gonna become robots. So that’s what we are, robots.
Robot means slave,” Apple reminded him. “We’re not slaves.”
Aren’t we, though?” Kickstand put forth. “I didn’t ask for this. I wanted to have kids. My first wife embraced this new dynamic, but ya see, I actually care about the environment, and I always did. I only agreed to it, because the point of life is to leave a legacy. If I can’t have children, I can’t leave a legacy, so my only hope was to live forever.”
“I’m sorry this has happened to you,” Rosalinda said sincerely. “Is there hope now? Are you fixing the environment? I don’t mean you, personally...”
“Nah, we’re not doin’ that. This was the solution, and the easy way out. This is just how we’ll live; on a dying planet. Sure, the rich people can go off to colonize new worlds, and just fuck all, but the rest of us are stuck here in the shit. That’s why we’re headed South, lookin’ for work. Maybe we can save enough money to secure passage off this tombstone.”
“Easy, Kickstand,” Apple said, trying to calm him down. “I doubt these fine organics need a lecture from you. Their worlds are safe from the Ochivari, because their people made the right choices.”
“Actually, my galaxy is doomed,” Quino said.
“Wait, what?” Treasure questioned.
“Azura told me about it,” he explained. “The Ochivari invade a few years after we left. We’re not going back home, because it would be pointless. The rest of the crew intends to stay on board in a permanent fashion.”
“I...I didn’t realize.” Treasure was heartbroken. She looked over to Rosalinda, whose world could still have been destroyed as well. They still didn’t know how getting caught at Mizakh’s house impacted the timeline. “I ruin everything. I should have just stayed home. I shouldn’t have screamed.”
Kickstand slammed on the brakes, and came to a complete stop. “Wait, are you Treasure Hawthorne?”
She didn’t answer.
“You are. Oh my God, you’re a bona fide hero.”
“You can’t talk about this,” Quino said to him. “She’s not yet done anything that you already know about her.”
“I can’t believe The Treasure of Star Mountain is in my car. That must make you Quino Hawthorne, and...let’s see, if you’re not Azura...Rosalinda Schreier?”
“I’m not a Hawthorne,” Quino said.
Kickstand chuckled. “Oh, ho, ho, not yet, I guess.”
Quino turned red, and closed his eyes in embarrassment. Now things were really awkward. What little info Kickstand disclosed wasn’t proof, because time travel, but there was really good evidence now that he and Treasure were destined to end up together. It wasn’t the craziest idea. She had feelings for him that she never denied to her conscious self, and he obviously felt something too. When they were standing in a group, he always either positioned himself right next to her, or across from her, so she would be in his line-of-sight. If she had to go do something in another train car, he would come up with a—sometimes terrible—reason to need to go that direction as well. These were all things they didn’t ignore about each other, but they didn’t talk about them either. She was sixteen by the revolution of Earth, but equating that with Quino’s own interpretation of timekeeping was difficult. It wasn’t impossible, but trying to figure it out would require openly admitting why they wanted to know such a thing. Regardless, he was at least a little older than her, and some people weren’t jazzed about that sort of thing.
They drove into the garage, and entered the building. They weren’t the only humans there, but there weren’t many others. According to Kickstand’s continued rant—which Treasure only half-listened to, because she was stuck in her own head—almost the entire population transferred their minds to android bodies. Human survivors were living out the last of their days on an island somewhere, the farthest they could be from pollution, but they could all be dead by now too.
“Universe of origin,” the intake nurse prompted. It would seem bulk travel was a tiny bit more ubiquitous than Miss Collins led her students to believe.
“Universum Originalis,” Quino answered.
“Mine has no name that I know of,” Rosalinda said.
“Wait for me at that table over there, so we can run a cosmic frequency test.” The nurse looked to Treasure while Rosalinda was walking over. “And you?”
“Does origin mean birth, or where I grew up?”
“Where were you when you had your first poo? I don’t care about where you immigrated to.”
“I didn’t have my first—that wasn’t until I traveled to Voldisilaverse, but I was born in Salmonverse.”
Kickstand managed to walk over having been eavesdropping. “She’s the Treasure of Star Mountain.”
The nurse was as surprised by this as Kickstand was when he first found out. “Oh. Then why am I filling out refugee forms? You can just leave whenever you want.”
“We can’t leave until I absorb more bulk energy,” Treasure explained.
“How long will that take?” she questioned.
“You know, I don’t know,” she said. It would be a good idea to figure out how to gauge and predict all that. “I just have to wait until it feels like I have enough to transport three people.”
“It would be nice if we could wait until you can take a few more than that,” the nurse said. “The Transit hasn’t been responding to our calls. I think they’ve abandoned us.”
“The Transit is not responsible for human refugees,” Quino argued. “How did the humans get here anyway? Are they your people?”
“Two major bridge collapses happened on our planet,” the nurse explained.
Miss Collins taught the class about that. When Azura and her people were sent off to neutralize their enemies, they did it by hacking into a bridge that was only designed to connect Ansutah to Treasure’s mother’s brane, Salmonverse. This hack had terrible consequences for the whole local bulk group. Bridges started opening and closing at random, expelling objects and people from their homes, to foreign worlds. Some universes seemed to have more egresses, while others had more ingresses, like magnets. Flipverse, Hypnopediaverse, and apparently this universe were three examples known to receive a lot of people and things that didn’t belong there.
The nurse went on, “the Transit came for the first, and agreed to deliver the people back to their homes. Then another bridge dropped more people off, and they’ve not returned.”
“Where was the bridge?” Treasure asked.
“Which one?” the nurse asked.
“Closest one,” Treasure figured, but thought better of it. “No, not the closest one. Most recent one.”
The nurse found a map on her tablet, and projected a hologram. “The closest one is here.”
“That’s where we found you,” Kickstand pointed out.
“We came through a bridge without even knowing it,” Quino realized. “It wasn’t so random.”
“That’s why I need the most recent one,” Treasure said. “There aren’t any bridges in Voldisilaverse, so my teacher hasn’t been able to study them, but she has this theory that they’re all still there, even though they’ve collapsed. If you get me to the other one, it could have a higher concentration of bulk energy, which could plus up my reserves much faster. I don’t know how many human refugees you have, though, and I don’t know if I can transport that many people. I’ve only ever taken two others at the same time. It could be like diving in the ocean naked when what you really need is a boat. That’s why the Transit is as large as it is, and airtight.”
“I understand now,” the nurse declared. “The Transit isn’t responding to us, because they know the refugees have already been saved. You save them, using this concentration of bulk energy, and a vessel that our people are going to build for you. It won’t be as large as the Transit, but it will be large enough for everyone to fit. I know someone who will be quite excited to do this for you.”
Treasure was hesitant, and not because she didn’t want to put anyone out, or make them do a bunch of work for her, but because she wasn’t sure she even wanted it. Another machine? The Crossover, The Transit, and The Prototype. These were the three bulk traveling machines. This other thing has never been on that list, and when it comes to time travel, if something ever exists, then it has always existed. Then again, Azura once noted that Treasure herself wasn’t on the list either, and she had already proven herself capable of harnessing her power, even if she couldn’t quite control it. It was also entirely possible that, knowing what would become of Treasure, people intentionally kept her own story from her, in order to avoid any paradoxes. The nurse did say she knew someone who would want to do this, and if it could help a lot of people, then it wasn’t really Treasure’s right to put a stop to it. “Okay. If someone builds that ship, I will provide power to it.”
“Great. Until then, let’s get you set up in the penthouse of the refugee building. Someone like you deserves to have the best.”
“Hell yeah, you do,” Kickstand agreed.

Sic Transit Ingenuitas

Saying that the penthouse was the best was apparently not saying much. Treasure hadn’t seen a lot of this world when she first arrived, but the word she used to describe it in her headcanon was dumpy. The people here weren’t just careless with the environment, but actively destructive of it. No one deserved to be wiped out by the Ochivari, but she had to pick one universe, she certainly couldn’t pick somewhere else over this one, right? That wouldn’t be fair. Still, the individuals she met were very kind and accommodating. They seemed to love and revere her quite a bit. She was a legend before her time. She wasn’t really excited to get to the part of her future where people knew her name, and she understood specifically why. Again, she was still so young, so she hadn’t thought much about her future. She only knew that she was born with this power, and it would be irresponsible not to use it, since as far as she knew, it wasn’t something she could bequest to someone else.
Bequest isn’t a verb,” Quino instructed her. “I’ve been studying English. It’s a noun. Perhaps you mean bequeath.”
Bequest is also a verb in my universe,” Treasure explained.
“Really?”
“My own personal universal bubble that I live in that’s only large enough to fit me and my tiara.”
“I can’t join you?” he asked. They had grown closer over the last few months. They weren’t actively pursuing a relationship with each other, but they also weren’t working very hard to prevent it. Though as he said, Quino was now completely fluent in English, their preferred shared language was Flirtish.
“Okay. I just need to absorb enough bulk energy to make it larger.”
He took an eighth of a step towards her. “Ya know, if I were to stand closer, you wouldn’t have to expend so much energy to make your universe big enough for the both of us.”
“That’s true,” she agreed as she was taking a quarter step. “How close were you thinking, though?”
Quino skipped the half-step, and just jumped right to a pretty wide full step. Their shoulders were touching each other, and maybe a few atoms could flow between the left side of his chest, and her breast. She could feel his breath on her forehead. “How much energy would it take to accommodate me now?”
She was surprised by this. They had never come this close before, and until this moment, the way they flirted could have always been dismissed as nothing more than innocent, or maybe even platonic. She was glad he was making the first move, though. It was so unlike him, which showed that he felt comfortable being relaxed around her. She felt the same, so she kept going. “Still too much.” She pulled him right up against her, and held him in place with her arms. “This I think I can handle.” She rested her head on his neck, and they just held each other tightly for the rest of time.
Without releasing completely, Quino reached into his back pocket, and showed her some little metal thing that she didn’t recognize. “Happy birthday.”
“Is it my birthday?” Treasure asked genuinely. “How can you tell?”
“You told me how long ago your sixteenth was before you decided to show your parents what you could do. Based on the amount of time we were in Hyperion, and all these other universes, I think I can reasonably surmise that today is the day you turn seventeen. I’ve been keeping track, because honestly, while seventeen Standard Vertean years does not equal seventeen Earthan years, it is pretty close, and it’s when my people consider someone to be an adult.”
Treasure smiled and nodded. “How clever of you. But I must say, I do not know what that thing is.”
“Me neither,” Quino admitted. “All I know is that it’s the last part that your special ship needs to be complete. Once they insert this doo-da-bob under the whatever-ma-thingy, we’ll be ready to go.”
“That’s sweet,” she said.
He pulled away a little more, and looked confused, as if someone else had said something that made him wonder what was going on. “Is it? I’m now realizing that my giving this to you is basically like giving you permission to do something you’re already entitled to do. I have no right to give this to you. It’s not mine. It’s always been yours.”
“Don’t overthink it,” Treasure said, taking the doo-da-bob from him. “Let’s go tell everyone else.”
“Everyone knows. They’re waiting for you to give a go-ahead on the manifest.”
“Why would I need to give the go-ahead?”
“Like I said, it’s yours. This is a gift. The engineers expect nothing in return. They were happy to be doing something. Apparently, being a robot is boring. Anyway, it’s your ship, so you get to decide who gets on it.”
“All the humans, I guess. I mean, if there’s room for any androids who want to go somewhere else, I’m happy to oblige them as well.”
“No androids want to come,” Quino said, “not even Kickstand and Apple. There is a complication, though. Word got out about you, specifically to the island of organics who chose not to upload their minds to mechanical bodies. There were thousands of them in the beginning, but the majority of them were old, and have since died out. Over two hundred of them are still around, though, and they would like to find a new home.”
“Aren’t they sick?” Treasure asked. When the Ochivari travel to a new universe, they destroy all intelligent life with a virus that sterilizes the entire population. It takes  decades to complete, but it can’t be stopped once it’s begun.
“Yes, they are presently in quarantine, to protect us, and the other refugees. The  virus is airborne, but it can only survive for an extended period of time in a living host, so this whole area is virus-free. That’s why we didn’t immediately contract it upon arrival. Bringing them onboard is risky, and there’s still no cure.”
“Then what’s the point? Where do they want me to take them?” Treasure asked. “We can’t let them try to integrate into some other civilization.”
“Yeah, but this world is polluted, even where they are. The atmosphere is becoming toxic, and will kill them all before old age can.”
Treasure sat a moment with this information. Her parents and Miss Collins, and pretty much every adult she ever met, taught her to help others. That was everything to them; helping people. It was their reason for being, and they instilled this value in her. Her instinct was to help, but that word was more complicated than it sounded. If you were to try to help someone in their quest to become president of a company, you might be hurting the person who already was the president. So the very idea of helping others was a lot more nuanced than just seeing someone in need, and providing them with that need. She had to think about whether helping them could cause harm to others, and the answer was yes. Yes, it would hurt others. If there were a cure to the sterility virus, or even if there was a way to stop them from being contagious, that would be a different story. They could live out their lives, happy and healthy, and not worry about infecting others. But that was not the bulkverse they were living in. In reality, taking these people to safety meant risking destroying all life, in every universe. Not even the Ochivari wanted that.
It was also prudent to consider the victims. As individuals, they may have all been lovely people, but they were living in a dead world, because their ancestors—and frankly, maybe even they—made it that way. They caused the pollution, and by all accounts, it was worse here than any planet Treasure studied in school. Perhaps they didn’t deserve to be sterilized. And once she was ready, Treasure planned to do everything she could to thwart the Ochivari’s plans. This was all true. The problem was that saying the locals deserved this would be an overstatement, but saying they didn’t deserve it didn’t sound right either. She could not justify rescuing these people at the expense of the truly innocent, which yeah, included herself. She breathed in deep, but didn’t say anything.
Quino understood. “I’ll take care of it, and I’ll leave you out of it.”
“No,” Treasure said. “Tell them it was my call. It’s what my mother would do. Well, actually, she would be brave enough to confront them herself.”
“That’s why you have me,” Quino assured her. “We’re a team now.” He started to walk backwards. “You, me, and Rosalinda. Hey, get your stuff together. We leave whenever you want.”
Unlike how it was in Hypnopediaverse, the bridge collapse refugees here were all from the same place. They were attending a concert in the park, and just so happened to be in the same vicinity as each other in the parking lot afterwards. That was going to make dropping them off that much easier. The engineers were brilliant. They included a cosmic frequency detector, which would allow her to navigate to any user’s universe of origin, or if calibrated correctly, back to a universe they had been to before. Navigating the bulkverse was difficult for anyone to do. Most of the technology the Transit employed was dedicated exclusively towards making these calculations. Treasure was supposed to be able to do it psychically, but given where they were now, she was obviously not so great at that. Fortunately, the cosmic frequency workaround was almost foolproof, and a fairly easy component to add. In the future, they would try to link this little lifeboat up to the Transit’s database, to gather the necessary coordinate data.
It was very easy to pilot the little ship. An AI did most of the heavy lifting for her. All Treasure had to do was tell it what she wanted, and it would figure it out. Once all the refugees were back where they belonged—having aged, but not having missed anything from their lives—Treasure navigated them to what Miss Collins referred to as an uncivilized universe. This may have sounded bad and dangerous, but all it really meant was that life evolved on planets with the right conditions, but did not progress enough to have any sort of sufficiently advanced intelligence. They were actually some of the safest worlds to be, because other travelers had no use for them, and there was no one around for the Ochivari to sterilize. Here, she stepped out of the ship, and prepared to return home on her own. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Where are you going?” Rosalinda asked.
“I have to go deal with my parents,” Treasure said. “I just need to explain to them what’s happened, and that my life is out here now. They won’t like it, but they’ll accept it, and they won’t be able to stop me.”
“Don’t do that,” Quino strongly suggested.
“Why not?” Treasure questioned.
“I want you to be back here soon, but from your perspective, it should be longer.”
“How much longer?”
He hesitated a bit. “Three years.”
“Three years!” she exclaimed. “Why do you want me gone that long?”
“In three years, you won’t be that much younger than me. That’s important, but there’s a reason age discrepancies are so frowned upon. You have not experienced enough of your life. You have not figured out who you are, and what you want to do. You’ve not explored your options. You need to finish basic higher education before you start doing all this.”
“This is easy for you to say,” Treasure argued. “It won’t be but seconds for you, no big deal. You expect me to wait years for you, just so I can get a degree that I don’t care about, and won’t use?”
“You’ll use the education you receive; you just probably won’t use it to get a job,” he reasoned.
“What if I meet someone new? What then? You know what you’re risking.”
“If you meet someone new, then you will belong with that person, and I will be happy for you. You still need to come back here to pilot The Strongbox, though. I don’t want to live in this universe forever.”
“The what-box?”
“The Strongbox,” Quino repeated. “That’s what this could be called, because it holds treasure?”
They kept arguing about it, but Treasure decided to agree in the end. Fighting wasn’t helping anything, and she could come back whenever she wanted, regardless of what he thought was prudent. She wouldn’t even have to tell him. So they said their goodbyes, and then she screamed her way back home. In those few seconds while she was waiting for the shatter portal to break open, she had an idea. If she navigated precisely to the moment she first left, her mother would never even know she had gone. She wasn’t in the room when it happened, so she didn’t actually see it happen. This was fate. She knew she had heard a different scream when she left. She thought it was some kind of echo, but no, it must have been Future!Her.
Her mom burst into the room. “What did you do?”
“See?” Treasure began, feigning innocence. She spoke with her real voice. “I can scream and not travel the bulkverse. I don’t need my collar anymore, I can control it. I can choose whether my scream is more than just a loud sound.”
Freya regarded her, unimpressed. “Treasure.”
“Yes, mom?” She was still trying to act like a good girl.
“You’re wearing different clothes, and there’s something on your head. Did you become the queen of another world, or something?”
“Uhhhhhhhh...quick-change trick. Mom, I want to become a magician.”
Freya sighed, obviously not believing the really bad lie. “Where did you go, and how long were you there?”
“Wait, I can explain. Just—” Before she could finish her thought, an obnoxious horn sounded outside. Treasure smiled gleefully. It was The Transit. Azura was here.

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