Source Variant

Operation Starseed

Right now—if there even is such a thing as a now—Saga is on a mission to find her daughter. Also right now—but a different now—Vearden Haywood is back on his homeworld, having just spent an indeterminate amount of time exploring the bulkverse. Neither of these people is unique. Each one of them possesses an alternate version of themselves. This Saga is from a different timeline, one in which Saga and Vearden are friends who were put in dangerous situations, charged with helping people at different points in time. This Vearden is from the current reality, and has never met any version of Saga, though he has heard of her. They will finally meet each other today, but what does it mean to be in today?
Saga!Two—as she’ll be called, to differentiate her from her recent counterpart—has been listlessly opening doors in this hotel. Her daughter was taken from her by The Emissary, who was working on behalf of the powers that be, who chose Étude to be The Last Savior of Earth. She has no choice in the matter but to teleport all over the world, saving people’s lives, and she won’t be able to see her family until she’s done. Saga!Three could be an old woman at that point, so she’s been trying to skip over all that, and jump forward in time. Unfortunately, her ability to open literal doors to others points in spacetime is less of a power, and more of a game of probability. It sometimes takes her on a mission she had no intention on going on, and sometimes just takes her somewhere random. Most of the time, whenever she opens a door, it just takes her to the other side of it, just like it would for any normal person. This looks promising, though. When she opens the door to room 233, she doesn’t find two beds and a TV. It looks more like a laboratory, full of computers, and equipment she doesn’t recognize. She might think this is some kind of secret temporary spy agency field office, but it’s a hell of a lot larger than it should be. It extends far beyond where the window to the outside should be.
Vearden!Three—as he’ll be called, to differentiate him from his earlier counterpart—is just hanging out. He’s in a hotel room as well, but 164 years in the past, from Saga!Two’s perspective. It happens to also be a room 233. He grew up knowing that he was meant to be a time traveler, and developed an inexplicable drive to go to Kansas City from Oklahoma when he was a teenager. This is where his suspicions were confirmed, at least partially. He met two totally legit men from the future, who were trying to return to their own time. He helped them get back, and then years later, met back up with them to help them again. This was when a special universe-hopping machine called The Crossover showed up. A woman who claimed to be his wife invited him in, and claimed she would introduce him to endless wonder. He took her up on this offer, but it’s been difficult for both of them. He hasn’t felt the love for this woman, Gretchen as she feels for him. She was married to Vearden!Two, and he is not that man. They both agreed to go their separate ways, at least for now, to take a bit of a break. Vearden!Three asked to be dropped off in 2019, because why not? It wasn’t exactly when he was from, but he quite liked it the first time around. He’s just opened the door from the bathroom when he finds himself in some kind of laboratory.
“Hello?” he calls out to the aether. “Gretchen?”
No one answers.
“Gretchen, it’s only been two months for me. I need more time than that.”
Still no answer. As he’s examining his surroundings, another door opens, right next to his, where he can still see his Peruvian hotel room. He instinctively hides behind a table.
“Hello?” Saga!Two asks. “Étude?”
Vearden!Three has heard the name before, so he can guess who this woman here is, and has been told that he would be able to trust her.
“Umm...hi,” he says timidly.
“Vearden?” Saga!Three asks. She hasn’t seen him in many years, since he died, and everything. She instinctively runs over, and wraps her arms around his shoulders.
Again, he’s never met Saga before, but this feels so comfortable. He should pull away so he can explain the truth, but he’s missed true human connection, so he just leans into it.
Saga!Two finally releases him, and takes a half step back. “I’m sorry. I don’t even know where in the timeline you’re from. When was the last time you saw me? Have you been to Tribulation Island yet?” That was where her version of Vearden died.
He shakes his head. “I’m afraid I’m not who you think I am. This is the first time you and I have met. I am from this timeline, not yours.”
Her smile transforms into a frown. “Oh. You’re Vearden!Three.”
“Yeah, that’s what people keep calling me,” he says. “I get who Vearden!Two is, but no one ever explains who Vearden!One would be.”
She nods. “I don’t know him either, or the first version of me. I mean, there have been far more than three realities, but people don’t like to think in such complex terms. I think there were really just two major timelines before this one, and they’ve had the most lasting impact on reality. You’re Vearden!Three. I’m Saga!Two.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you.”
“No, don’t say that. Don’t ever apologize for being you. It’s still really nice to see that face after all this time, and if you’re half as good as he was, I’m honored.”
He smiles. “Thank you. He sounds like a lot to live up to.”
She smiles back. “Do you know where we are?”
“I have no clue,” Vearden!Three replies. He gestures towards the doors. “It’s supposed to be 2019 Cusco for me. You?”
“No idea. I think it’s 2183 Panama, but it’s hard to keep track. I’ve been trying to find my daughter. I don’t imagine this has anything to do with that.”
As they’re watching their doors, they slowly begin to close on their own.
“Should we try to get back through them?” he asks as he’s kind of inching in that direction.
Saga!Two shakes her head. “It wouldn’t work. The powers that be want us here, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. For all we know, it’s good for us. We better just let it go.”
The magical doors close completely, and turn back into regular doors.
Vearden!Three points to an ominous door on the opposite wall. “My instinct is to go through that.”
“Same.”
They carefully walk over to it. Saga!Two grabs a phallic device from a table that’s probably used to test atmospheric composition, or something. Hopefully it’s not an alien probe. She gets in a Jackie Robinson position as Vearden!Three prepares to open the door. She nods when she’s ready.
Stasis pods. That’s their best guess as what these things are. Slanted at forty-five degrees towards their respective walls, they span all the way down to the darkened other half of the giant room. They’re each only large enough to fit a child. Of course, they’re frosted over. Still carefully, they walk over and wipe the frost from one to see inside. Any two other people would have probably jumped back in fear, but this isn’t the first time they’ve seen aliens. This isn’t even the first time Saga has seen this particular kind of alien.
“You know what they are?” Vearden!Three asks.
“Orothsew,” she confirms. “It’s just a child, though.”
Vearden steps over, and clears the frost from another, and then two more. “They look the same. Is this gonna be some kind of horror story, Saga.”
“I don’t know. I’ve encountered them before, probably in the future, but also in a different timeline. They’re not evil, but they’re not saints either.”
Vearden starts messing with the console next to one of the pods. It’s in English, but he doesn’t understand what any of these metrics mean. “Nothing is all pure. Nothing is all dirty,” he says cryptically.
Saga!Two gets back in a defensive position when they hear another door open from the other side of this room. Footsteps approach.
“Hello?” a voice calls out from the dim lighting. “I know you’re in here! The proximity alarm went off! Make yourself known.”
“We can’t see you!” Saga!Two calls back. “Step into the light, then we’ll talk.”
The man gets close enough for them to see his face, and for him to see theirs.
Saga recognizes him as well. “Julius?”
He doesn’t look happy. “Would people stop goddamn calling me that! Saxon! Saxon! I’m Saxon Parker in this reality. I’m sick of meeting people from other realities.”
“Hey,” she says, kind of condescendingly. “I meant no disrespect. I just didn’t know.”
He calms himself down. “I know. It just gets a little tedious after awhile.”
“I can appreciate that,” Saga!Three says truthfully. “Unfortunately, we do have some more questions. Would you be willing to answer them.”
“I can, yes,” Saxon says.
“I’m Saga!Three, and this is Vearden!Two. He’s from your reality, so you have that much in common.”
Saxon is wearing his poker face.
“Could you tell us what year it is?”
“By your calendar?” Saxon begins as he’s consulting his watch. “3300.”
“Holy shit, Vearden!Three can’t help but say. He’s been to a dozen other worlds, but they all had the same start value, which means they all measure time in the same way. He was usually in the 21st century, give or take a couple hundred years. 3300 is the furthest in the future he’s ever been.
“What exactly is this place?” Saga!Two asks. “What are you doing with these Orothsew children?”
He looks inquisitively at one of the pods. “Is that what they’re called?”
“Oh no,” Saga!Two says sadly. “Did I just mess up the future?”
“Probably not,” Saxon assures her. “If you got this information from an alternate timeline, we shouldn’t be at risk of any bootstrap paradoxes. Someone else came up with the name where you’re from, you learned it later, now you’re naming them in this timeline. The future we’re heading for is entirely separate.”
She’s relieved. “Oh good.”
“Anyway,” Saxon begins, “these are the fruits of Operation Starseed. Earth sent giant ships from a star system called Gatewood. As we speak, these ships are breaking apart into smaller and smaller modules, which will be assigned different regions of the galaxy. For most of them, we’ll be taking surveys of every single star system, and building ways to travel there using faster-than-light quantum communication. In others, we’ll be doing something like this. People on Earth donated genetic samples, and allowed them to be placed on the Project Stargate ships. On suitable worlds, we are seeding actual life, which will live and progress there. In this case, I don’t think they’ll be aware of where they came from.”
“Do humans look like this in the future?” Vearden!Three asks, surprised.
“No,” Saxon answers. “They look different, because they were exposed to microscopic organisms from this planet. We didn’t have room to carry food from Earth, so they’re only eating what can be found here. What we didn’t realize was how much an effect that can have on the genes of the subjects. So, they’re part human, but part something new.”
“My God,” Saga!Two says. “This changes everything about my memories of meeting them in an alternate future.”
“Yeah, I predict this sort of thing will continue to happen on other worlds that we try to seed life on. This operation has become exponentially more complex than we thought it would. I’m tentatively calling it...the source variant.

Dandavo Dali Dali

Right now, Saga!Three is on vacation for an indefinite amount of time. Also right now—but in a different universe entirely—Vearden!Two is trying to heal from his injuries. Like his alternate reality counterpart, Vearden was operating The Crossover, but from the machine’s perspective, at a much earlier time. After some crazy adventures, he recently found himself in a universe called the Composite, fighting against a magnetokinetic named Arkan. He was badly hurt, and a teleporter named Zektene attempted to take him to a hospital, but they weren’t able to stay there long. What they didn’t realize was that one of their other enemies, Cain possessed a powerful object capable of blasting them across the multiverse. They weren’t anywhere near him when he set off this device, but that didn’t matter. They were both unwillingly pulled from the hospital, and delivered back to Vearden’s home universe. Fortunately for him, Saga!Three is an experienced medical professional.
She’s just spent the last however many years of her life as Doctor Baxter Sarka’s nurse. He’s a salmon, dispatched by the powers that be to treat other salmon throughout time and space. While she had no obligation to help, she chose to do so, because she felt like it was her personal calling. She’s grateful for the field education she received along the way, because now she needs it more than ever, because she’s the closest thing to a doctor Vearden!Two has at the moment. She starts working right away. None of them has any clue where they are, but there are plenty of medical supplies nearby. She starts barking orders at Zektene, who retrieves exactly what she asks for without question, and helps to the best of her ability. Fifteen minutes later, Saga!Three has done about as much as she can do for him.
“This is Vearden Haywood?” Saga!Three asks.
“Yes, have you heard of him?” Zektene answers and asks.
Saga!Three looks back at him. He’s barely conscious. “We were friends...in another life.”
Zektene doesn’t understand.
“Or so they tell me. I have no recollection of it. It was in a different timeline.”
Now Zektene understands. “Where are we?”
“It looks like some kind of laboratory, though everything is really big. Look at this table. I would need a high-chair to sit here.”
“Yeah, this looks very alien to me. All these objects are somehow both recognizable, but still familiar. Are we in a different universe?”
Saga!Three doesn’t know what she means by that. “Do you mean reality?”
“No.”
Vearden!Two clears his throat, and tries to move.
Saga!Three rushes back over, and holds him in place. “Lie still.”
“I’m home,” Vearden!Two notes. He can barely open his eyes, but he can see enough to know that his best friend, Saga is here. “How did I get home?”
“I don’t know,” Zektene tries to explain. “One minute, I’m teleporting you to a hospital. The next, I see an explosion of colors, and then we’re just suddenly here.”
“I don’t think I can get you back,” Vearden!Two laments. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Zektene says. “I didn’t have anyone back there. I was a girl out of my own time anyway.”
After Saga!Three makes sure that Vearden!Two can start healing on his own, she introduces herself to her new friend, and they decide they need to get a good look around. She didn’t come here on purpose either, and that is a mystery waiting to be solved.
While there are tons of instruments and other tools in the lab, there aren’t any actual chemicals or specimens. It’s like this place was created for a specific purpose, but has not been put to use yet. It’s the cleanest room Saga!Three has ever been in before, so either it’s vacuum sealed, or someone is maintaining it for this hypothetical future use. There’s no evidence that anyone else has ever been here before, though. While they’re examining everything, the door on the opposite wall is calling to her, like every answer they could want is just on the other side. Zektene seems to be feeling the same way about it, so they prepare to defend themselves against a mysterious enemy and open it.
They’re in a much, much larger room now. Stasis pods line the walls in two rows, illuminated only by the light from the lab. Zektene feels the wall behind them, and quickly finds the switch. Yeah, it’s even larger than they realized. There could be two hundred pods in here, but upon a closer look, they see that they’re not housing humans. Monster is perhaps the best word to use, even though their instinct for violence is not yet known.
“Gondilak,” Vearden!Two says. “They’re called Gondilak.”
“Vearden,” Saga!Three complains. “You shouldn’t be up.”
“I’m fine,” he argues. “It was getting really uncomfortable in that position. It feels good to move around a bit. I promise not to run any marathons until at least tomorrow,” he jokes.
“How do you know what the aliens are?” Zektene asks. “I feel like I’ve seen them before, but they don’t look quite right, and that word doesn’t seem right either.”
Vearden!Two slowly steps forward, leaning against objects to maintain balance. “I’ve met them before. The first time I traveled through a door, they were there...” he nods his head towards Saga!Three, “attacking the other version of you.”
“So, what are they doing in stasis pods?” Saga!Three asks. “Are we on a ship?”
Vearden!Two shrugs.
“Maybe we could ask this guy?” Zektene has moved over to one of the other pods. As the other two approach, they see that there’s a perfectly normal human inside of it.
“That’s really weird,” Vearden!Two says. “The last time I checked, the Gondilak weren’t capable of space flight, and they weren’t too keen on humans. I guess maybe they wouldn’t have been able to achieve it unless they shed their racist ideas. I wonder where the Orothsew are.”
Zektene moves to the other side of the pod to see the man from another angle. “What are the Orothsew?”
She must have accidentally activated something, because just then, the human’s pod starts making noises. Its interface monitor lights up with a language they don’t know, and the pod starts to open. “Treda Kestolin Hibesof,” says the automated voice from the computer. “Human presence detected,” it appears to translate to English. It’s a little anticlimactic as they watch the man wake up from suspended animation. It’s not like in the movies where they can jump right out and get to work. It’s a long and drawn out process where fluids are reintroduced to his system, and also spilled onto the floor under him. While it’s happening, Saga!Three redresses one of Vearden’s wounds, and Zektene looks around some more to see if she can find a window.
Finally, the man is awake, and aware of his surroundings. When he sees their faces, his eyes tear up, and then he starts crying. “Oh my God, it’s been so long. Are you really here?”
“We are, yes,” Saga!Three says. She places a comforting hand on his. “What is this place?”
The man looks up and down at the other pods. “Oh, they actually went through with it. Why did they put me here?”
“First off,” Vearden!Two says. “What’s your name?
“Ramses,” he answers as he’s struggling out of his pod. “Ramses Abdulrashid. Do you know what year it is?”
They all three shake their heads.
“Ramses,” Saga!Three presses. “What did they go through with? What is this?”
“Dandavo Dali Dali,” he replies cryptically.
“Is that a band, errrr...?”
“It best translates to Project New Beginning.”
“What does that mean?”
Onda means new and ondali means beginning, so they do this weird reduplication rule when they put them together.”
“I don’t mean, what does it literally mean,” Saga!Three tries to clarify. “I mean, what is the project for?”
“It’s kind of the Maramon version of Project Starseed.”
“What did you just say?” Vearden!Two questions, horrified.
“That’s it!” Zektene exclaims. “They’re not called Gondilak. They’re Maramon! But they look a little different.”
Ramses practically crawls over to get a good look at one of the other pod people. He thinks over what he sees. “So, they were right. They thought this might happen.” He stands up straighter to realign his spine.
“I don’t care about this,” Vearden!Two bemoans. “If these are, like, evolved from the Maramon, then we have to destroy them.”
“I’ve promised to keep them alive,” Ramses contends. He prepares to tell them a story. “If you’ve heard of the Maramon, then you know how bad they are. What you don’t know is that there was one good group amongst them. These dissenting voices were imprisoned by society, but ultimately rescued by me and my friends. They wanted a homeworld of their own, so I helped them go out on a ship and find it. Almost two centuries after arriving on Kolob, the new civilization was getting worried about experiencing the same problem they did in their original universe. You see, they don’t die; or at least, it’s hard to kill them, and they won’t die of age-related diseases. So their population just keeps growing. Back in Ansutah, they came up with some nasty ways of combating the population crisis, but the Kolobians thought of something different.
“They decided to stop having regular children, but they didn’t mean they didn’t have the drive to create life. That life just needed to be different than they were. They needed to be mortal. Unfortunately, some scientists worked on that a long time ago, and couldn’t figure it out. A mortal Maramon just could not be engineered using the resources that were available to them. Fortunately, things were different in this universe, because they had access to so many new resources. They started scouring the nearest stars, looking for a planet that could give them what they needed. If I’m right about where we are, then I think they may have found it. I’ve been in stasis for who knows how long, so I can’t be sure, but these others may be the genesis of a new species. They should be able to carry on the good-natured Maramon tradition, but also be able to die.”
“So, they’re not really Maramon,” Zektene works through. “They just come from them. They probably dont even know that.”
“Yes,” Ramses confirms. “They’re based on Maramon DNA, but also on whatever they’re feeding them on the planet we’re on right now. The scientists had a term for that. I can’t recall what it was in their language, but I remember the translation. They called it...the source variant.

Planet of Hats

Saxon talked a little bit more about Project Stargate, Operation Starseed, and two other interrelated endeavors called Operation Anglo, and Operation Soul Patch. Apparently, Projects are publicly known massive undertakings, while Operations require a little more secrecy, and are often used to support the projects. He evidently cloned himself millions of times, and sent each one of them to a different section of an unfathomably huge ship, which would break apart, and start exploring the galaxy. He was the OG Saxon, however, and was able to exercise a little more independence because of it. Following some research, before the Stargate ship was able to break apart too much, he switched places with one of the random Anglo clones, so that he would be stationed on this planet. According to early synthetical readings, the world that would one day come to be known as Orolak was rated at .982 on the Terrestrial Habitability Similarity Index. A perfect score would have been 1, so this was pretty good.
Saga!Two and Vearden!Three did what they could to help Saxon with his work. For most of the worlds that were being seeded with evolved human-based life, the first generation would be raised by some form of artificial intelligence, but either way, they couldn’t do it on their own. The humans were responsible for maintaining the growth pods while the Orothsew subjects were still in preliminary biological development. Once they were born, they were then responsible for protecting them, and teaching them how to live. They went over the basics: finding food, eating, sleeping, not killing, etc. They didn’t teach them any math or science. They didn’t tell stories of Earth, or explained how it is they came to be. Hell, they didn’t even speak to them, because then the Orothsew would learn English, and they were meant to form their own language. It was only their job to make sure they survived long enough to propagate the species. Once the first phase of their social development was complete, so was the job.
To unwittingly mark the occasion, they open a door to get something to eat, and all three find themselves transitioning to what they soon learn to be a different point in time. Based on stellar drift, it’s almost exactly two hundred years later. They had set up a little village for the first generation of inhabitants several kilometers away from the facility where they were grown, but that facility still existed, and it’s where the humans were living once it was safe to leave the children alone for extended periods of time. The place is still here, just as they left it, but automated systems had buried it underneath a hill, so that it perfectly blended in with the environment. Orothsew progress was still in its infancy, so any exposure to advanced technology could disrupt their continued social development. It’s not quite the Prime Directive from the Star Trek franchise, though. If the powers that be transported all of them to this moment in the future, then it’s obviously for a reason, and that reason probably doesn’t involve too much passively observing from a safe distance.
It does involve some observation, though. They look through the data the facility has been keeping track of since they were gone. The population rose at a predictable and steady rate until something terrible happened eighty-three years ago. An infection spread through the village, and though the villagers had the good sense to isolate all who were showing symptoms of the disease, they didn’t consider quarantining asymptomatic people who might have been exposed to the pathogen. All told, the population took a hit of three hundred and fifty-eight people, but it could have been so much worse. It could have spelled the end of the species, and Saxon has been reluctant to answer what they would have done in that situation. Though, to be fair, if that were to ever happen, the PTB would probably step up, and send them in to stop it. Perhaps that’s why they’re here now. Maybe there’s another disease coming, or some natural disaster that the Orothsew are woefully unprepared for.
Saxon is still looking over the numbers, head in hand. “Five hundred and ninety-one.”
“How many should there be?” Saga!Two asks.
He shakes his head. “Around fifteen hundred. More.”
“This happens,” Vearden!Three assures him. “Humans went through a lot more than this, because they didn’t have us.”
“Yes, they did,” Saxon says.
“What?”
“Huh?” Saxon has gotten lost in his thoughts.
“What do you mean, humans had us?” Saga!Two questions.
“Oh, sorry. Well, I should be clear; they’re a theory. There are some inexplicable anomalies when we look back at the hominid population hundreds of thousands of years ago. Our ancestors survived some things they probably shouldn’t have. These disasters were just shy of being enough to wipe out the species entirely. Humans from what’s considered to be the very first timeline ever supposedly went back in time and saved their own ancestors, thus propelling us towards a more stable population growth rate. If this is true, it’s before the powers that be or The Gallery existed, and the changes they made were so dramatic that not even one individual was born in that timeline, and also in any other since.”
“So, there’s no proof any of this is true,” Vearden!Three says.
Saxon goes back to looking at the data. “No, but there’s strong evidence.”
“You’re human,” Saga!Three says in a non sequitur.
Saxon stops dwelling for a moment again. “Yes, why?”
“Why do you know so much about us? Who taught you all this?”
He chuckles. “You people spend a lot of time talking to each other to get information. Word of mouth is full of errors, lies, and truths lost in translation. I’ve heard so many contradictory claims about who the powers that be are, and what they have to do with the choosing ones. There’s a whole library out there that’s maintained by The Historian. I got access to it, and I did what I do best; I studied my ass off. I’m not saying there are no inaccuracies or biases in those books, but they’re at least based on research. You should be careful when someone tries to tell you what’s going on. They may not be right.”
“Thanks, professor,” Vearden!Three snarks. “I’ll remember that the next time I travel to one of the dozens of other universes I’ve gone to.” It’s true that, after traveling all over the bulkverse in The Crossover, he has a few experiences Saxon could never begin to understand, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things he could learn from the legit astronaut. His advice certainly isn’t unreasonable.
“Vearden,” Saga!Three scolds.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Saxon sighs and moves on. “Well, the disease is over. It ran its course decades ago. I’m looking at atmospheric and seismic readings; I don’t see anything else that gives you a clue what you’re back here to accomplish.”
“What would you be doing if you hadn’t jumped forward two hundred years?” Saga!Three poses. “That is, what would you have been doing for the last couple centuries?”
“I dunno,” Saxon answers, “but I wouldn’t still be here.”
“Oh, no?”
“No, I would have left after the last member of the first generation died, which they already have. Once no one was left alive who was grown in a pod, it would have been up to the remainders to sustain their population unaided. If you do have a job to do here, I’m not sure I should even help you. I didn’t, like, sign an oath, or anything, but I wasn’t meant to stick around forever.”
“So our door cut you off from your job?” Vearden!Three laments.
“I should clarify,” Saxon begins. “Vonearthan intervention ends after the first generation in most cases, including this one. It didn’t have to be me. As soon as I disappeared, automated systems took over.”
“That’s comforting,” Vearden!Three says with an extended nod. “It doesn’t tell us why it is we’re here now, though.”
As if there were a correlation between his words, and what was happening in one of the now several Orothsew villages, an alarm goes off. A live feed from a microdrone disguised as an insect comes up on the main screen. Since none of them speaks the Orothsew language, subtitles appear as well. Two males are fighting in the middle of a crowd. They’re not at full fisticuffs yet, but their argument is as heated as it is petty. It’s over the hand of a mate. One of them will push the other, or knock his hands out of the way. Waggling fingers and rude hand gestures; this is getting bad. But it apparently can’t go further in the here and now. The Orothsew have rules. The duel is scheduled for tomorrow, at high noon. The three humans aren’t sure what a duel in their culture involves, because they don’t mention details during the fight, but one thing the monitoring systems know is that they haven’t invented guns yet, so that’s something.
“We have to stop it,” Saga!Two declares.
“We can’t,” Saxon contends. “We can’t go out there like this. Back when we were teaching the wee babies how to survive, looking human was fine. They didn’t pass that information down to their own children, because they didn’t yet understand. Even if they describe us generations from now, no one will believe in ancient astronauts, just like people on Earth never did. But they’re already developed enough to record quasi-accurate history akin to the Bible. We can’t show our human faces; we just can’t.”
“I can help with that.” A woman walks in from the other room. A human woman. The three of them take a quick glance at each other, but their facial expressions do not suggest anyone already who she is. She tries to shake their hands, but they’re reluctant. “It’s a good thing I’m not easily offended. If my visage makes you nervous, I can always take a form you are more comfortable with.” With no more warning, she suddenly transforms to look exactly like Leona Matic.
“Who are you?” Vearden!Two asks. He’s never met Leona before.
“My name is Alyssa McIver. I’m an illusionist. I can make you see whatever I want you to see...as long as what I want you to see exists at some point in spacetime. I can’t conjure imaginary visions; just superimpose real ones.”
“Could you, then. Umm...?” Saxon was uncomfortable. “Could you go back to your real face?”
She does as she’s asked. “I can help you blend in with the natives. I’ve done it a million times.That was my job almost a thousand years ago on the AOC.”
Now Saxon is interested, and more receptive. “So it’s true; the source variant theory. This is going to keep happening on other worlds.”
“It already has,” Alyssa confirms. “Source variants are fabricating aliens where there would not be aliens naturally. What you’re doing here; infiltrating the natives, and secretly helping to fix their problems? That’s what I and my crew did in the third millennium.”
“What year is it right now?” Vearden!Three asks her.
“Nine-two-seven,” Alyssa replies.
“What? No, I mean by the Earthan calendar.”
“Oh, you mean the old calendar. Three-five-two-seven.”
This freaks him out. “Why do they restart the calendar? Does the world end?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Alyssa says dismissively. “Do you like hats?”
“Alyssa,” Vearden!Three presses. “Does the world end?”
“I’ve taken the liberty of guessing what kind of hats you’ll be more comfortable with.” She removes three hats from her bag, each of a different design. One is a snowcap, the other a driving cap, and the third is something none of them knows enough about hats to designate. “No one will see the hat, of course. It will just make you look like a, uh...”
“Orothsew,” Saxon helps.
“Orothsew,” she echoes. “Yes. When I was on the AOC, I would just maintain the illusions myself, but I’m not sticking around here, so Holly Blue imbued these with my powers.”
They take the hats graciously.
“I do have some more questions,” Vearden!Three says.
“Cool. I gotta go, though. Bye!” She may teleport away at that point, or she just makes herself invisible. Either way, she’s gone.
They’ll probably never know what prompted her to come to the future to help them, but they’re grateful. Now it’s time to go stop that duel. They don’t realize until later how absolutely vital it was that they stop it. Either of their deaths would have caused catastrophic problems later on.

Hat Tricks

After Vearden!Two healed fully from his injuries, he opened a door to grab a snack from the kitchen, and found himself two hundred years in the future. Saga!Three and Zektene followed a few hours later when they were searching for him throughout the Maramon lab. Ramses was left in the past, and whatever had happened to him in the last couple centuries, he was no longer in the facility. There was no evidence that he died here alone, so perhaps he decided to leave.
“What are we doing back here?” Saga!Three asks.
“I don’t know,” Vearden!Two admits. “I can sometimes walk through a door on purpose, but I wouldn’t have in this case. The powers that be created that one. We have to figure out why, I guess.”
“It surely has something to do with the Gondilak,” Zektene assumes. “We need to find out what they’ve been up to all this time; how they’ve developed.”
“We won’t be able to get very close,” Saga!Three warns them. “Seeing a clearly intelligent species that doesn’t look anything like them could seriously disrupt their culture, especially at this early stage in their development.”
“Maybe we could dress up like them?” Vearden!Two suggests.
“You mean, like makeup?”
“Yeah,” Vearden!Two says. “Have you seen what some makeup artists can do? They’re amazing.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Saga!Three agrees. “So let’s open a door, and find one of them. We’ll have to make sure they have the right equipment. We’ll tell them it’s for the Gondilak, and since they know what Gondilak are, they’ll know exactly which colors to use.”
“Okay, well, you don’t have to be snarky about it.”
“Sorry, it’s just...it would be a good idea if we had all the resources we needed, but we’re pretty limited here.”
“I can help with that.” A woman they don’t recognize suddenly appears before them, right where they had heard her voice.
“Hello,” Vearden!Two greets her. “You can make us invisible?”
“I can,” the woman confirms. “Sometimes you’ll want to be invisible, and sometimes you’ll want to look like a, uhh...”
“Gondilak,” Zektene assists.
“Gondilak,” she echoes. “I can give you the ability to do either one.”
“Great,” Saga!Three says. “I assume you know who we are, but we don’t know who you are.”
“Actually, I don’t know her.” The woman indicates Zektene.
“Hi, I’m Zektene. I’m from another universe.”
“Oh, cool. I’m Alyssa McIver. I work primarily with Mateo and Leona Matic, but many centuries in the past.”
“How many centuries?”
“You wanna know what year it is,” Alyssa guesses.
“By the human calendar,” Vearden!Two says. “Yes.”
“Which humans?”
“On Earth,” Saga!Three specifies.
“I’m kidding. I knew what you meant. It’s three-six-four-one by the calendar you’re familiar with.” Hm, that’s interesting. They must start a new calendar sometime in the future. Alyssa looks around. “I have four hats.”
“Oh, fun.” Saga!Three says, not sure what that has to do with anything, but wanting to be understanding. “Do you like hats?” That might have been a little condescending.
“That wasn’t a non sequitur,” Alyssa claims. “The hats will give you my ability to create illusions.”
“Oh, okay.” Saga!Three takes a beat. “Oh, you probably mean Ramses. Yeah, he’s not here. We don’t know what happened to him.”
Alyssa removes a notepad from her back pocket. It was the same brand that Vearden!Two remembers Mateo always using to keep track of the people he encountered on his travels. She flips back and forth through it, looking for the right page. “Vearden!Two. Saga!Three. Ramses Abdulrashid. One other unnamed individual, that’s probably you.” She points at Zektene with both hands, still attached to her notepad.
“I hope he’s okay,” Saga!Three says, concerned.
“Is he salmon?” Alyssa questions.
“He’s human. I think.”
“Then the powers that be have no control over his movements.” Alyssa scratches his name out of her notes.”
“Well, they have no control over me,” Zektene points out, “but I’m here.”
“Lucky you.” She removes a hat from her bag, and hands it to her. “You look like a cowgirl.”
Zektene takes the hat and shrugs.
Alyssa takes out one of those brown helmet things ancient Europeans used to wear when they went off to explore Africa. She hands that to Saga!Three, and then gives Vearden!Two a mask.
“A baklava?” he asks with a funny face.
Alyssa shakes her head. “No.”
“These are gonna turn us into Gondilak?” Zektene asks.
“Yes, they operate on psychic energy, so when you need to change forms, just think about it. You could theoretically look like whatever you wanted, as long as you have a good enough idea of what it looks like, and it already exists somewhere, at some time. You couldn’t, for instance, make yourself look like a taco that poops ice cream, because that’s completely made up. My power is still time-based, like all others. All you’re doing is taking someone from another point in spacetime, and making it look like they’re standing in the same point you are.”
They nod. It makes perfect sense. It’s weird, there’s no denying, but it does make sense. They’ve all seen enough special abilities to accept the logic behind any new one they learn about. “No ice cream-crapping tacos. Got it.” Vearden!Two nods again.
“This is all you got?” Saga!Three asks her. She isn’t a very vain person, but this looks ridiculous, and will probably look worse when it’s on her.
“Sorry,” Alyssa replies. “I gave all the normal hats to...um, never mind.”
“Well, what’s the fourth one?” Vearden!Two asks. “The one you were gonna give to Ramses.”
Alyssa removes a fourth piece of headgear from her bag. They stare at it a moment.
“Oh, hell no.”
“Cool. Then we’re good. I gotta go now.”
“Wait,” Vearden!Two stops Alyssa before she can blip away, or whatever it is she’s going to do. “How are Mateo and Leona?”
Alyssa smiles. “Does it matter? The next time you see them could be long before, or long after, the last time I saw them.”
“It does matter,” Vearden!Two argues.
“They’re fine,” Alyssa answers. “That was eleven hundred years ago, though. Who knows where they are now?”
“Thank you for your help,” Saga!Three says to her graciously. “Hopefully you’re not a bad guy pretending to be good.”
Alyssa transforms herself to look like a legit bad guy named The Cleanser. But she keeps her original voice, which suggests this was now the illusion. “Yeah, hopefully.” With that, she disappears.
“Are you still here?” Zektene asks the aether.
“There’s no way to know,” Saga!Three reminds her, which Zektene fully understands.
Vearden!Two is fidgeting with his mask, looking for circuitry, or other signs of it being more that a piece of cloth cut a certain way.
“You meant balaclava,” Zektene explains to him as she places the cowgirl hat on her own head.
“Yeah, that’s the word.” He slips it onto his face and adjusts for comfort.
Following suit, Saga!Three puts on her helmet. “Anyone know exactly what this thing is called?”
“Nope.”
“Anybody know what the hell they’re doing?” Zektene asks. She spins the hat around her head, presumably to see if she can activate it somehow.
“We’re just meant to think about being invisible,” Saga!Three says.
“Wait, are we sure we want that?” Vearden!Two questions. “Maybe we want to blend in with them by looking like them.”
“Do you speak Gondilak?”
“Actually, a little,” Vearden!Two replies proudly. “I can say...Dandavo Dali Dali.”
Zektene chuckles. “We all learned that one.”
“Besides,” Saga!Three says, “that’s Maramon. We don’t know that these people speak the same language as their progenitors.”
“Oh!” Vearden!Two remembers. “Ked rihl. That means pipe dream. Or maybe more like yeah, right. Or maybe that was the Orothsew language. Oh yeah, it was.”
“Okay, so—” Saga!Three tries to get back to the task at hand.
“Treda!” Vearden!Two exclaims.
“What?”
“That means human,” Vearden!Two adds. “It’s what the Gondilak called me.”
“That’s the last word we want to say to them,” Saga!Three complains.
“And it’s only one word,” Zektene adds. “We wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation. Maybe we can learn their language in time, but we should be invisible to do it.”
“Exactly,” Saga!Three agrees. “So everyone, just think about not being seen.”
“No, that’s not it,” Zektene disagrees. “Alyssa said we’re not really turning invisible. We’re just making it look like something is in our place. What we have to do is show the Gondilak what the area were standing in would look like if we weren’t in it.”
“Is that different than what she said?” Vearden!Two asks.
“It is,” Saga!Three says. “She’s right. We should look around behind us, take in our surroundings, and then command our hats to present that to others.”
“Okay.”
Vearden!Two shakes out his arms and legs to prepare. Zektene starts to breathe in and out methodically. Saga!Three closes her eyes, and tries to lower her heart rate. When she opens them again, the other two are gone. “Hello?”
“I’m still here,” Vearden!Two says. “Where did you guys go?”
“I’m standing where I was,” Zektene answers.
“We can’t even see each other?” He asks, frustrated.
“She said we have a psychic link with our respective hat,” Saga!Three begins, “but we’re not mind-controlling other people. We can’t see each other, because there’s nothing to see.” She tries to wave her hands in front of her face. “I can’t even see myself.”
Vearden!Two looks down at where his own body should be. “Ah, crap.”
“Not used to people not being able to gaze upon your magnificence, are you?” Zektene teases.
He decides to lean into the joke. “I don’t like to deprive people.” He’s largely considered to be the most attractive time traveler in the underworld, and he can’t help but know this. Other people don’t really let him forget it.
They spend the next hour practicing their use of the magic hats. They transform themselves into various forms. They start simple, conjuring the images people they know, like Ramses and Alyssa herself. Then they get a little more creative by looking like fire hydrants, and two moose chillin next to each other under a tree. They even discover that they don’t have to be inside the illusions themselves. They can create one on the other side of the room, and still appear as normal people in funny hats.
It’s not until they’re confident in their abilities, and are about to go out and field test the technology, that they realize they don’t know why they’re doing this. When they go and observe the Gondilak, what are they looking for? Are they expected to take notes about their behavior and habitat, like a conservationist would? Will they be going into people’s homes, and watching them in their private moments? What is the point of all this? Their question may have to wait, however. As soon as Saga!Three opens the exit door, they see a mirror image of their own lab staring back at them.
“Is this someone’s illusion?”
“No,” the other two answer in unison.
“I think we’re going to the future. Again.”
She’s right. The door sends them another two hundred years in the future. After they close the door again, and then try to walk back through it, there’s another mirror image. Except now they see themselves on the other side, like a real mirror. Vearden!Two walks through, and simultaneously reappears going the opposite direction. They’re stuck here, but why?

Rock God

Not long after Saga!Two, Vearden!Three, and Saxon find a diplomatic solution to the disagreement between the two Orothsew, another portal door opens for them. They quickly learn that it’s been another two hundred years. A pattern has formed, which possibly answers some questions they had earlier. The Orothsew could have used their help many times while they weren’t in the timestream, yet the powers that be did not allow them to be there. This pattern does not suggest some major issue will arise every two hundred years that only they can solve. It only suggests that the mysterious people controlling them have some idea of how often the three of them should show up. It doesn’t matter what happens in the meantime, or what mission they could possibly complete now. They’re going to appear every two hundred years, even if that means relaxing in the lab for a few days, because there just isn’t anything required of them. The powers don’t seem to care about protecting the Orothsew population. They just want the humans to watch them periodically. Any aid they provide is just gravy.
Something they learn about the magical hats that allow them to look like Orothsew is that they have a few features they weren’t told about. Number one, it instantaneously translates the Orothsew language into English for them. It also translates their own English words into Orothsew. This was greatly helpful when they were trying to get the two men who were about to duel each other to open up a dialog. Alyssa failed to mention that the hats would do this, but they failed by not asking about it. How else would they have communicated with the aliens? This time, it worked out, but they needed to be better at getting the whole story, and planning ahead. The hats can also make them invisible, which is good when they just want to observe without interfering with the natural progression of things.
While they were gone, the lab continued to gather data from the insectoid microdrones, and kept up with the Orothsew society’s progress. The population is now at about five thousand people, and there are even more villages than before. Almost all of them stayed in the same valley, but two groups broke off. One settled hundreds of kilometers away, nearer the coastline of the ocean. They couldn’t live too close to the sea, though, since high tide caused great flooding. They didn’t leave because of any disagreement they had with the rest of their people. They wanted to see what else was out there, and once they discovered the ocean, they decided it would be their new home. The other group had the same idea, but they instead went south, into the mountains that could be seen in the distance if one were high enough on the original mountain range. They never found any place that felt like home, so they just kept moving. They eventually determined that this was just their lifestyle. They were nomads, and no place they came across would be good enough to settle down. The rest of society eventually forgot they even existed.
A more involved monitoring system was dispatched by the lab’s AI to keep an eye on the nomads indefinitely. The microdrones weren’t capable of doing their job that far away, so a mobile station was necessary. It was designed to resemble a boulder, and this had some consequences that the AI didn’t predict. The rock was capable of hovering above the ground up to a meter, and carried with it every instrument necessary to track the nomads movements. For the most part, it tried to keep its distance from people, so they wouldn’t see what they would most certainly consider to be supernatural in nature. If ever one drew too close, it could still land back on the ground, and look normal. This worked for a good long while, but recently, one particular individual noticed something strange. Or rather, she noticed the rock at all, which she wasn’t meant to. At four times, she has come across the boulder more than anyone. The first time she saw it was an occurrence. The time after that was a coincidence. This was kilometers away from the last, so surely it couldn’t have been the same one. After she saw it for the third time, though, she thought she was going crazy. Either some rocks look exactly alike, or this thing was following her around. Though she feared what people might think of her, she told them what she believed. A handful of them took a look at the boulder themselves, but of course, it wasn’t moving at the time, so they had no reason to believe her. Still, they didn’t burn her as a witch, or anything. They waited until the fourth time.
For many, they were seeing the boulder for the second time, and could confirm that it absolutely had to be the same one. After decades and decades of roaming the lands, their journey was over. Now that they knew something was up with the boulder, they thought it might stop following them around, and they didn’t want this to happen. If they didn’t want to lose the boulder forever, they would have to stay right here. They began to worship it. It became a holy idol; something to be admired and protected, but also feared. They built a sort of Stonehenge-like structure around it with other rocks. Some evidently wanted to construct an entire temple, but the boulder was a component of nature. It needed to remain free, and out in the open, where it could enjoy the warmth of the sun, the tickle of the wind, and the smell of the dew.
It is forbidden both to touch the boulder god, or to not idolize it. Boulder prayer is a daily exercise, punishable by a violent practice they call single-stoning. Anyone who misses their prayer session by fall of night must choose someone to throw a hand-sized rock at them. It’s not meant to kill them, or cause permanent damage, but it does provide incentive to respect the universal beliefs. Exceptions are made for the ill, or hunters who are not able to return in time, due to weather, or whatnot. They are still expected to pray; just not at the boulder. The three humans who are just now learning about these developments can’t help but be impressed by it. Failure to effectively worship the boulder god could be met with so much more violence. The expectations the now former nomads have for each other are not as bad as they could be. You’re allowed to be female, you’re allowed to have a different shade of skin, and you’re allowed to be attracted to members of your own sex. As unyielding as they are about their religion, they are leagues beyond more accepting than humans were after thousands of years of so-called progress. Even their form of punishment isn’t as brutal as the myriad of ways humans came up with to hurt one another. Still, it’s savage, and needs to be stopped. It is up to Saga!Two, Vearden!Three, and Saxon to find a way to change it.
With such advanced technology, the trip from the lab to the boulder worshipers is shockingly fast. They have to land far enough away from the settlement so as to not be heard. It would be ironic and problematic if they created a new religion for them to follow because the Orothsew saw a gigantic metal bird in the air before they even invented the aerosol can.
“Well, it shouldn’t be hard to introduce ourselves,” Vearden!Three says. “We’ll just say we’re from a different village. It broke off a hundred years ago, and then the three of us broke off, say, ten years ago.”
“Yeah, that could be our way in,” Saxon agrees. “It wasn’t so easy last time, but they’re so far removed from society that they won’t know what’s been going on since we left.”
“Okay, good. That’s settled,” Saga!Two says with a nod. “Now we to figure out what our objective is. Are we trying to steer them away from this religion, end their beliefs in religion completely, or just try to get them to stop throwing rocks at each other?”
“It’s neither ethical, nor our place, to prevent them from believing in anything at all,” Vearden!Three replies.
“I’m not convinced that’s true,” Saxon disagrees. “What if we’re here to erase religion? What if it’s our job to introduce them to rational thinking, empirical evidence, the scientific method, e-t-c?”
“They’re too young for that,” Saga!Two argues, referring to their developmental condition, rather than their literal ages.
“Who decides what’s too young, and what’s advanced enough?” Saxon poses. “Waiting until they invent warp drive technology is just as arbitrary as any other time. There’s no universal rule for this. The ethicists in charge of Project Stargate didn’t plan on exploring any inhabited planets for millenia.”
“You’re right,” Saga!Two admits. “I don’t know when the Orothsew will be ready to learn about aliens and stuff. I just know it’s not right now. I know that, if we try to dispel religion for them, it will make things worse. They will reject our claims, and probably dig deeper.”
“Well, then what right do we have to do anything for them at all?” Saxon asks. “Sure, this single-stoning thing is terrible, but why should we stop it? If we’re worried about how they develop, shouldn’t we not interfere in any way?”
“The boulder their worshiping is our technology,” Saga!Two contends.
“To be fair,” Saxon begins, “it’s my technology. Well, it’s more mine than it’s yours. I helped build and deploy it. If anyone’s responsible for what that survey boulder has done, it’s me.”
“When I say ours,” Saga!Three says, “I mean humans. Earthans. And I won’t let you take all responsibility for it either. We’re a team now. I need to make sure you understand that, and accept it.”
“I’ve been part of a team before,” Saxon assures her. “I’m not trying to dismiss you. But I’m going to continue to feel more responsible for this mess, because I could have prevented it. The Orothsew should never have suspected that rocks can move.”
Vearden!Three nods disagreeably. “The AI should have thought it through better, and been more careful. But that doesn’t matter. It can’t be undone now, unless we...ya know, go back in time, or something. Our best move now is to get them to stop using violence to solve their problems. As of three years ago, the nomads are the largest independent population on the planet. In another two hundred years, their numbers could rival the rest of the villages combined. Their urge to increase the number of devout followers is phenomenally strong. Once that happens, they’ll figure out what war is. I can’t tell you why they’ll go to war, but they’re developing separately, and when two separate cultures meet each other, it almost never goes well. They may have evolved from a source variant, but they’re still ninety-seven point six percent human, and we all know how poorly humans can treat each other. I don’t care if we have to land in a spaceship to get them to stop throwing rocks. I just want it done.
“The powers that be haven’t told us why we’re here, but that’s the benefit and burden of being Freelancers. We get to choose what we do, and how we do it. I see this as an opportunity to protect the Orothsew from all the mistakes our species made. I sincerely wish someone had done it for us, even though it would logically mean history would be different enough to prevent me from ever being born.”
“That’s an untenable goal,” Saxon says to him sadly. “We’re here every two hundred years...evidently. We can help them in isolated missions, but we can’t guide them on a long-term basis. The powers that be can clearly stop you from trying. The way Saga!Two explains it, you don’t always walk through doors to travel spacetime. Sometimes it just happens.”
“We’re not going to land in a spaceship,” Saga!Two declares. “Nor are we going to rob them of their convictions. We just need to show them that worship is a personal experience, and that there is more than one way to practice. If they think people can still follow the boulder god without mumbling prayer to it every day, in public, it will be easier for the nonbelievers to go on unnoticed until they’re strong enough to reject what they’ve been told...publicly.”
Vearden!Three takes a deep breath to center himself. “Okay. That’s a little more, uhh...subtle than I’m used to, so we need to come up with a plan.”
“I think I know what we can do,” Saxon says. “It’s not gonna be painless, though.”

Steady as a Rock

The three of them—Saga!Three, Vearden!Two, and Zektene—are stumped. After Vearden attempts to walk through the literal magic mirror, which sends him right back into the room, the others try as well, but also fail. There are two other exits in the facility that haven’t been buried by the robots to keep the planet’s natives from discovering the truth about their origins. They too are mirror portals, leaving the humans wondering what the powers that be are thinking. After this last jump forward two centuries, they continue to remain in the same linear series of moments in time. So their overlords want them to be in this time period, but they don’t want them to do anything while they’re here? That doesn’t make any sense.
Zektene gets on the computer. While the system was designed by Maramon engineers, before he left, Ramses showed them how to operate in English mode. Still, language isn’t the only problem. It was designed with Maramon psychology in mind, and they have a completely different outlook, which means understanding their computing logic can be tricky. She’s proven herself to be the most competent when it comes to grasping the fundamentals. “Perhaps there’s something wrong outside that we wouldn’t survive, like a dust storm, or something.” She checks a few readings. “Atmospheric pressure within nominal range. Composition same as it ever was. Immediate terrain hasn’t changed beyond predictions.”
“Can’t you just teleport us out there?” Saga!Three asks.
“Well, yeah, probably, but...should I?” Zektene answers, and asks.
“Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because there must be some reason we’re trapped here,” Vearden!Two says. “Maybe we’re not ready. We could try to practice more with the McIver hats.”
“We are great with the hats,” Saga!Three asserts. “You couldn’t find three better illusionists if you quantum duplicated two other versions of Alyssa herself.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Zektene disagrees.
Saga!Three sighs loudly.
“Why are you so anxious to go out there?” Vearden!Two asks her.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Saga!Three echoes herself.
“We have no personal interest in this mission, or missions, as it were. We’ve just been ordered to do this. We don’t gain anything from it ourselves, so what do we care? Maybe the powers are trying to give us a quick vacation, or maybe they think we just need a bit of extra sleep. Ya know what? Even if that’s not their intention, I wouldn’t mind a good rest. We might as well take advantage of the time, and then, if we’re feeling up to it, we can try to tackle this problem in the morning. You may wake up and stop seeing it as a problem.”
“I guess it’s hard to argue with that,” Saga!Three has to admit. He’s right in that anything they do on this planet is at someone else’s behest. Staying in the lab is apparently their present directive, so there’s no point in fighting it. They all wake up later with the same supposition. They’re not alone.
“Who is it, and where could they be hiding?” Zektene questions. “We didn’t search the whole facility when we came back, but we didn’t stay in one room either.”
“We don’t know that they’re hiding,” Vearden!Two reasons. “Maybe they’re hurt, or lost. They’re surely scared, since this type of advanced structure is nowhere near being built by the Gondilak.”
“If we’re not careful,” Saga!Three says, “they’ll start worshiping us. But first, we have to find them, so we can see what we’re dealing with. We’ll spli—”
“Nope,” Vearden!Two interrupts. “We’re not splitting up. It’s not that big of a place. We’ll go together.”
“Okay.”
So they start to search the facility, which turns out to be larger than they realized. Or maybe it wasn’t their fault. There’s one room that couldn’t have been there before without them knowing it. The lab has been growing. For whatever reason, the automated systems have been constructing more space. There’s no telling how large it’s become; not until they find the end of it. After twenty minutes of checking every single new room they come across, Vearden!Two stops them from leaving for the next one.
“I’ve been here before.”
“You have? That’s impossible,” Saga!Three contends. “This entire section is, like, a kilometer from the lab.”
“Not recently,” Vearden!Two begins to clarify. “In the future. I don’t know when in the future, but in the other reality, when the Gondilak capture me, they bring me here.”
“This is where they do experiments on you,” Zektene presses, “to see how come you had healing powers.”
“Yeah,” Vearden!Two confirms. “Yeah, the more I look at it, the more sure I am that this is it. It looks exactly like I remember.”
“I thought the Gondilak were less technologically advanced than the Orothsew,” Saga!Three recalls. “If they’ve discovered this place this early on, surely they would skyrocket in technology, and surpass them by centuries.”
Vearden!Two shakes his head. “I don’t think there’s anyone here. I don’t think that’s why we’re not allowed to go outside. I think the facility’s growth itself is a problem we need to solve.” He breathes deeply through his nostrils. “We have to find the edge of this, and now. We’re not super far from the nearest Gondilak village. If the robots are still building, they’ll eventually crash the party.”
And so they keep moving through the corridors, maybe a little faster now. They stop checking the rooms, because they’re confident that’s not the point. The sooner they find the edge, the sooner they can stop this. They’re not sure how they’re going to accomplish that, since none of them is educated or experienced enough to reprogram robots, but they can’t think about that right now. They just need answers. When they finally do reach the edge, their best guess is that they’re about a kilometer from the Gondilak village.
It’s happening a lot slower than they thought, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise to them. This might have been going on for the last two hundred years, so the entire planet would have been consumed if the bots were eating up resources as fast as they had imagined. Either way, though, something has to be done, and they have to figure out what that is. They don’t see any bots; or at least not what they’re used to. They just see this gray goo on the edge of the floor, walls, and ceiling. Little by little, it’s expanding, somehow converting the soil and rock it finds into building material, which it then incorporates into the preexisting structure.
“You can jump back to the main lab, right?” Vearden!Two asks Zektene.
“At any time, yes,” she replies.
“Okay,” Vearden!Two says. “Umm...cease production,” he orders the goo. “Cease...operations.”
“Shut down,” Saga!Three attempts.
“Computer!” Zektene starts. “End expansion program!”
The goo makes no indication that it’s so much as detected their presence, let alone understood their demands.
“All right,” Vearden!Two resolves. “You two go back to the main lab, and see what the command console has to say about this. Bring me back a radio, so we can stay in touch. I’ll monitor the situation here.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Zektene says. She takes Saga!Three by the arm, and teleports them both to main section. She grabs a radio, quickly delivers it to Vearden!Two, then returns to get to work.
Saga!Three watches, but isn’t able to help in any significant way. Perhaps they weren’t the most suited for this mission at all. What they need is an engineer, or hell, even a physicist. Somebody smart needs to be here to explain just what the hell is going on. They can’t stop it unless they understand how this became a problem in the first place.
“Looks like it hasn’t been an issue until somewhat recently. Let me see.” Zektene refocuses on the information she’s reading from the logs. “Fifty-six years. It was a mudslide. Horrible rains came, and threatened the entire village, so the bots were dispatched to build a secret retaining wall of some kind.” She did a bit more clicking. “There was a glitch in the code, and bots failed to deploy the delivery system. Apparently the gray goo we saw are nanobots. They would have built the wall faster, but they couldn’t get to the site on their own. Even without help, though,” she says, stepping back from the monitor, “the nanobots tried...and they’re still trying.”
Any idea how we can stop it?” Vearden!Two asks from the other side.
“Let me look through this more,” Zektene requests. She continues to pore through the information, trying to find a shutdown protocol, or a loophole, or something.
“Do we really need to stop it?” Saga!Three asks after almost an hour of this. “What happened to the village. I thought you said the terrain hadn’t changed too much.”
“I guess the computer didn’t acknowledge this as a big enough change since it technically predicted it at one point,” Zektene says, still working with one half of her brain. “The village took a hit, and some did die, but the majority survived. They rebuilt a few hundred meters away, and actually...” She stops to read more. “They built their own wall. Huh. Yeah, I think we have to stop this. I get what you’re saying. Even decades late, the nanobots should know not to reveal themselves to the natives, but it’ll disrupt the structure they have there now. The nanobots just aren’t that smart. And there’s no way to shut them down, unless...”
Unless what?” Vearden!Two asks.
“It’s morbid,” Zektene complains.
“Just say it,” Saga!Three prompts.
Zektene gulps. “They are programmed to ignore organic material. That’s why it’s even taken it this long to get as close as it finally is, because it had to wind around roots, and the like. If we were to place, um...dead bodies around the edge, the nanobots would immediately halt production.”
The other two don’t respond for a beat. “Why would we need to use dead bodies if it also ignores plants?” he questions.
“It moves around plants,” Zektene explains. “It’ll just restart somewhere else. Gondilak, however, dead or alive, are too valuable. If it detects the specimens it’s meant to protect, it will stop, and await further instructions. That will give us time to clean them out, and dispose of them properly.”
“You want us to go get dead bodies?” Saga!Three asks her.
“I don’t want to do that, but I’ve not been able to find a better solution. The computer didn’t tell me this was solution. I had to come up with it based on what I learned about its behavior.”
“There has to be another way!” Saga!Three suspects.
“Well, we have to wait until nightfall anyway. I can teleport Vearden to the cemetery; maybe make a few trips. Until then, I’ll keep looking.”
Zektene makes good on her promise to search for an alternative, but never finds one. When darkness comes, she teleports Vearden!Two to the graveyard, and helps him dig. Then they transport one body at a time to the edge of the gray goo, where Saga!Three carefully and respectfully puts it in place. It doesn’t work with just one body, so they keep going. They will never be the same after this.

Painting the Forth Bridge

Saxon’s idea was to make their McIver hats turn them invisible. Whenever one of the natives was discovered having missed daily boulder god worship, they would step in front of them, and take the hit themselves, to prevent anyone else from getting hurt. They were wearing some padding, but they didn’t bring any special bullet-resistant vest with them, or anything. So it wasn’t a whole lot of fun, but it eventually did the trick. Their constant misses caused the Orothsew to believe that their means of punishment was not appreciated by the boulder. It took a few times for it to really sink in that this wasn’t just a fluke, or weirdly powerful gusts of wind. There was one particularly devout rock worshiper who wouldn’t accept it, though. He just kept throwing rocks at people, even going so far as to throw them at former victims who he figured were still not committed enough. Vearden!Three finally decided that the only way to deal with this bully was to start throwing rocks back at him. If this didn’t lead him to believe that God was angry with him, he at least didn’t like the taste of his own medicine. After a few days of monitoring this isolated group of Orothsew, Saga!Two, Vearden!Three, and Saxon stepped back into their shuttle, and flew off. They traveled really far in time, but not very far in space. They ended up landing exactly where they were before, but two hundred years later.
The three of them stay in the shuttle for awhile. It takes a few minutes for it to reconnect with the system. They need to find out what’s been going on before they do anything. After the update, they start looking through the historical records. The former nomads, turned rock worshipers, have now dropped all rock-worship, and have founded a new culture. And it’s all their fault. Again. As it turns out, the Orothsew they were trying to help—who have now distinguished themselves from the rest of the world by calling themselves Telijir—did not attribute the human intervention to the rock god at all. They now worship Ijirasa, a whispering god of the wind. While they were invisible, the humans still needed to communicate, but this was a difficult task since they were unable to see each other. They thought their voices were going unnoticed, but that was clearly not the case. All they did was replace one false deity with three others. Yeah, the Telijir were even able to tell that there were three of them. A cursory glance didn’t make it seem like their new religion was as violent as the one they followed before, but it still had to be stopped, right?
“What are we gonna do this time?” Saga!Two questions. “I feel like anything we try is just going to create a whole new set of problems that we can’t predict. I mean, if we’re only here every two centuries, we can’t keep trying to guide them in the right direction. I think this has grown beyond our capabilities.”
“Do we even need to do anything?” Vearden!Three asks.
“Why wouldn’t we?” Saxon asks. “This is our doing.”
“Right,” Vearden!Three agees, “but the Telijir haven’t heard whispers since we were here. Yet they still believe. I kinda think that’s on them.”
“Never underestimate the power of conviction,” Saga!Two says. “According to these notes, the Telijir still hear whispers all the time.”
Vearden!Three dismisses this with his hand. “We know they’re making it up. Every time a Christian claims to see a bush that burns but isn’t consumed; or a Buddhist claims to have found enlightenment—it’s all just bullshit. There is no God, on any planet, and anyone who claims to have uncovered evidence of such is only doing so to stop themselves from feeling like shit about their lives. They want to believe there’s some higher power, not to take comfort in their divine control, but so they don’t have to admit that their predecessors duped them into believing such obvious nonsense in the first place. No one wants to acknowledge that it isn’t real, and they’re just being stupid. Should we try to convince the Telijir that they’re wrong? Of course not.
“People spent a lot of time and energy on Earth trying to debunk other people’s myths, and they didn’t make one step of progress. No follower has ever been told they’re wrong, and been, like, yeah, ya know what? I think you’re right. Sure, they switched religions all the time, because some invading force conquered them, and they didn’t have a choice, but it never really took hold until the next generations. Why? Because people don’t change; they just die off, and make room for different people, with different ideas. That’s the only reason religion faded away on Earth. No one changed their minds; they were just increasingly less skilled at getting their children to believe as strongly as them. So why should we refuse to help? Because we’ve already seen that it’s a fruitless pursuit, and is more work than it’s worth. The only thing we can do is find some other lie to grapple onto. They won’t become rational overnight. The best we can do is hope it gets better for them faster than it did for us.”
“This is a complete one-eighty from your position last time,” Saga!Two points out.
“That was two hundred years ago,” Vearden!Three says.
“It was a week,” Saxon corrects, though it didn’t need to be said.
“Maybe I changed my mind after all those people threw a bunch of rocks at me.”
“I thought you said people don’t change their minds.” Saxon actually isn’t happy about noting the contradiction.
“I meant that people don’t change their minds about their worldview,” Vearden!Three argues, “but they gain perspective all the time.”
“Vearden,” Saga!Two begins. “How did you get to be so cynical? Was it really the rocks?”
“I’m just sick of this,” Vearden!Three begins. “When I was young, I kept looking for my purpose. With no prompting, I just knew there was something about the world that was hidden from most people. It was by random chance that I stumbled upon the truth. Now I know none of it matters. Nothing we do is going to make any real difference. So why have we been sent to this world? To keep fighting against the inevitable? Count me out; I ain’t doin’ shit this time. May the powers that be strike me down if my decision angers them. I don’t care anymore.”
During Vearden!Three’s last speech, Saxon was looking through the window. Once it’s over, he stands up, and tries to get a better view of something out there.
“What is it, Saxon?” Saga!Two asks.
“Do you think it’s possible that the Orothsew built a monument that’s strikingly similar to Stonehenge on Earth?” he wonders.
“You’re joking.” Saga!Two stands up, and gently moves Saxon out of the way, so she can see what he’s talking about. “That’s the real Stonehenge.” She engages the exit door. “Come on, Vearden!Three. There’s someone I would like you to meet.”
The three of them leave the shuttle, and head for the standing stones. The Delegator is waiting for them in the center with a neutral smile. “Ah, there you are. Thank you for coming.”
“Who are you?” Saxon asks.
“My name is The Delegator. I handle salmon assignments; when necessary, that is. Some salmon don’t need to speak with anyone to do their jobs. They figure out what’s expected of them, and do it with no instructions. Others can be confused, resistant, or just need a little proof that they are indeed there for a reason, and it’s not all just a random occurrence.”
“Which is it for us?” Vearden!Three questions. “Why are you here now?”
“It’s a little of all three. Saga!Two, you seem to be having a little trouble making decisions. Vearden!Three, you’ve obviously become quite jaded about this whole thing. And Saxon, you like facts. You’re a facts guy. I’m a fact. I’m here, and you’re here, and this planet needs you. Those are the facts.”
“Why are the powers that be having us show up every two hundred years, and not a year too soon. That actually is random,” Saga!Two complains. “It may seem like a pattern, but socio-political events don’t follow it, so neither should we.”
“You’re right,” the Delegator begins, “it’s a temporal pattern, but not a logical one. But that’s how they all work. We got a few guys who jump through time based on temperature scales, as they convert from Fahrenheit, Celsius, and Kelvin. We have another group that only lives during repdigit years; year eleven, year two hundred and twenty-two, year three thousand three hundred and thirty-three, and everything in between. One guy only exists on Tuesdays, and July. His name is JB. Anyway, that’s part of the suspense, and it mirrors real life more than you would think.” He starts pacing around demonstratively, like a college professor in the middle of a lecture. “The question that everyone should be asking themselves, whether salmon, or choosing one, or just regular human, is what do I do with the time that I’ve been allotted? The question doesn’t really apply to immortals, so don’t worry about them. Most fully biological people know, assuming nothing goes wrong, that they’re gonna live about eighty years; maybe a hundred. They have to grow, mature, learn, become wise, contribute positively to society, and leave a legacy. Some do better than others, but that’s besides the point. They all ask themselves the question, whether they’re conscious of it, or not.
“You have to ask yourself this as well. Just because you’re not limited to the linear eighty years doesn’t mean you don’t have a limit at all. You have a few days, maybe weeks, to help these people. You have to help them in any way that’s possible, based on where they are in their development right now. You can’t help them in fifty years, or a hundred and fifty. You’re gonna come back in two hundred. And when you do, you’re gonna try to help them again. Neither I nor the powers that be are going to tell you how to do that. They don’t..know. They’re not giving it any thought. They, honestly, probably don’t really care. They’re sort of...into math. Your appearances are mathematical, and they wanna see how that turns out. What you do here is totally up to you, but once you decide what your job is, the powers are going to wait until it’s done before forcing you to move on. This is how it’s been working, even if you didn’t realize it. So Mister Haywood, you intend to sit this one out?”
“Yes.” Nothing the Delegator said has changed Vearden!Three’s mind.
“You can’t,” the Delegator says definitively. “If you attempt to do nothing, you’ll be stuck here. You’ll be stuck here...for eighty years. Do you understand what I’m saying? Your life will mean nothing. You will have failed to answer your question appropriately. What are you going to do with the time you’ve been allotted cannot be answered with nothing of value.”
“So what if I’m stuck here?” Vearden!Three begins to argue. “What’s the difference between living eighty years in one place, and living eighty years jumping through time. That might be preferable anyway.”
“If you do your job, you are not going to be living here for eighty years.” The Delegator chuckles. “My God, man, that’s hundreds of thousands of years in realtime. How long do you think civilizations survive? This is your last assignment. Did you not realize that?”
“No,” Saga!Two says. “Why would we know that?”
“What does that mean?” Saxon asks.
“When you’re finished here, we’re going to let you live out the rest of your lives in Havenverse.” The Delegator pretends that this is a reasonably sufficient explanation.
“What the hell is that?” Vearden!Three asks angrily.
“It’s safe,” the Delegator answers. “Saga!Two, you will be reunited with your daughter. Vearden!Three, you will find where you belong. And Saxon?”
Saxon smiles with one side of his face, curious about the answer. He’s never really seemed to know what he’s wanted out of life, but safe has never been it.
The Delegator continues, “Saxon, we’ll let you go wherever you want, I guess. The powers that be have no real control over you. We’ve let you tag along with the other two, because we recognize your value, but you can quit anytime.”
“No, thank you,” Saxon says politely.
They stand in silence for a few moments.
“Well.” Vearden!Three finally says, but waits another moment to find all his words. “Any suggestions for this point in time? What could we do to help the Orothsew, and provoke the next jump?” He seems to have accepted his role.
The Delegator thinks about this. “You could be a bridge.”
“A bridge between what and what?” Saga!Two asks.
“Two cultures have appeared on this continent. They originated from the same one forty-seven, but they’ve been separate for centuries. Perhaps it is time to bring them back together.”
That’s not the worst idea ever.
The Delegator speaks again, “but that really is but a suggestion; one I’ve just now thought of. It’s not a mandate. You do what you wish.” With that, he disappears, along with all of Stonehenge.

A Bridge Too Far

After the deed was done, there was no more talking for a good deal of time. They took their showers, ate separately, and went to bed. For the following week, they didn’t bother keeping up much with the Gondilak. They could be in the midst of a bloody internal conflict for all they knew, but the humans felt it was none of their concern. They had just desecrated several graves, and violated holy law for both species. They were never really going to get over this; not even in time. They felt like they deserved a break, and the powers that be seemed to agree, or at least they didn’t argue in whatever way they would. Saga!Three and Vearden!Two kept opening doors—to the bathroom, the kitchen, other sections of the facility—and always ended up on the other side. Vearden!Two thought maybe they were being prevented from jumping through time again because they were avoiding each other, so the powers didn’t have any opportunities to transport them all at once, but he couldn’t vocalize his theory, because they were too melancholy to exchange even one word. One day, though, they all felt a jolt, but nothing in their respective rooms changed. Still, a quick query of the facility’s system told them that it was now indeed two hundred years later. Once they were all in the same room together, the environment changed again.
They are standing in the middle of Stonehenge, in front of The Delegator. He’s an intermediary between the powers that be and salmon, much like The Emissary, but in a more middle management-like capacity, rather than as an interdepartmental message delivery system. Both this version of Vearden, and this version of Saga are familiar with him. Vearden!Two was given his second assignment through the Delegator in the other reality, and Dr. Baxter Sarka had to go through him in order to recruit Saga!Three as his physician’s assistant in this reality. Being from a different universe, Zektene has no clue who he is, though.
“Are you three feeling better?” the Delegator asks.
None of them wants to answer, for fear of making the other two feel bad. The problem with not talking to each other this whole time is that they don’t know each other’s status. They’ve been internalizing their feelings too much.
“The powers that be did not see that coming,” the Delegator continues. He’s not any more comfortable here than they are. “They didn’t know what you were going to do. I think they predicted you would somehow blow up the entire facility, or learn how to reprogram the nanites.”
“We would never have learned how to program nanites, and blowing up the facility would have alerted the Gondilak to our presence,” Vearden!Two explains.
“True. Obviously your plan worked, and you saved however many lives, while also protecting the integrity of the experiment.”
Saga!Three scoffs and exclaims, “experiment?” This is the first word she’s uttered in five days. And the only reason she spoke before that was because she stubbed her toe on the food synthesizer, and involuntarily damned God to hell for it.
“Hey, don’t yell at me,” the Delegator pleads. “Neither I, nor they had anything to do with the creation of the Gondilak. Experiment might not even be the best word for it. I just don’t know what else you would call it. Endeavor?”
“It’s fine,” Vearden!Two tries to mediate. “We’re just on edge. What are we doing here?”
“What have you been doing on Gondilak this whole time, you mean, or in Stonehenge right now?
“Both,” Saga!Three clarifies.
“Hold up,” Zektene interjects. “Before you say anything about that, who are you?”
“Oh, sorry,” Vearden!Two says. “This is the Delegator. He gives salmon assignments. Though, he’s not particularly useful. The first time he showed up was over a year after my first assignment began. For the other Saga, it had been over three years.”
“I only go where I’m needed,” the Delegator explains. “You didn’t need guidance until then, and in this reality, you haven’t need guidance here until now. I came because of how terrible your last mission was, because we felt it necessary to clear the air. Like I was saying, we did not create the Gondilak. Nor did we create the dire situation you were in two hundred years ago. The powers that be are powerful, but they are not omnipotent. They don’t control every little thing that happens in this universe, and they don’t control what happens in other universes at all. Maramon technology is so beyond their purview that the only way to stop all the problems it’s caused here is by dispatching people like you three.”
“People like us?” Saga!Three echoes. “Are you saying there are others? Is there another team, somewhere else around here?”
The Delegator is taken aback by this. He clears his throat, but can’t think of what to say.
“Oh my God, there is,” Vearden!Two suspects. “Where are they?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the Delegator claims.
“He’s lying,” Zektene says. “But maybe you asked the wrong question, Vearden. Maybe it’s not about where they are, but when. Maybe there’s another team that comes every two hundred years as well, but always a hundred years before or after us.”
“I’m not so sure,” Saga!Three disagrees. “You’ve been through the Maramon’s computer systems more than any of us. Did you see any evidence that others have come through here?”
“No,” Zektene admits with a frown. “I guess I’ve not.”
“The Orothsew,” Vearden!Two says cryptically.
“Oh, that’s that other species, right?” Saga!Three remembers. “They evolve on that other continent, and come here once they’re developed enough.”
“Yeah,” Vearden!Two confirms, “or so we were told. Maybe we don’t have all the information. When we first found out about the true origins of the Gondilak, it was my assumption that the Orothsew were the native species here, and the Gondilak the invaders. But maybe that’s not the whole story. We always thought it strange how—I mean, don’t me wrong; the Orothsew didn’t look human—but they did look a little human. There’s another team on the other continent. No, there’s more than one team on the other continent. When the Gondilak captured me in the other reality, they said the human time travelers always showed up to help the Orothsew. Now I’m fairly certain I know why; because the Orothsew evolved from humans. They are the product of us, as altered by their own source variant.”
“What does that mean?” Zektene questions.
Saga!Three starts to work it out in her head. “The Orothsew came from humans, and the Gondilak from Maramon. They both came here, but were presumably unaware of each other, because the systems are all automated.”
Zektene seems to notice that the Delegator has been pretty quiet while Vearden!Two was trying to figure out the truth on his own. “What’s his motivation? What do the powers that be want with this planet?”
Vearden!Two shakes his head in disappointment. “We’re not here to help the Gondilak at all. The Gondilak are the enemies. I was never meant to make friends with them in the other reality; to...uncover their decency. Our objective has always been to destroy them, and we keep going off mission.”
It’s about this time that the Delegator would have let out an uncontrollable maniacal laugh, now that the three of them have figured out his secret. But he’s not an evil demon who’s trying to torture people. He’s just a soldier, following orders. So no laugh, but a bitter sigh. “You guys, like, totally tore this whole thing wide open. I didn’t let on what was happening; you just...logicked your way out of it. How the hell did you do that?”
“So, it’s true?” Saga!Three prods. “You want us to kill the Gondilak?”
“Well...that was the original idea,” the Delegator says. “It would have been easy for you to destroy the pods before they ever opened. I guess we didn’t quite realize how fond of them Vearden!Two became. I mean, they cut him dozens of times after learning he absorbed their healing powers. We also didn’t count on Ramses being here still, and filling your head with ideas of nobility. Have no fear, though, we took care of him.”
“What did you do with him?”
“That’s none of your concern,” the Delegator says. “The point is that you missed out on your opportunity. Every time you jump two hundred years forward, your job gets a little bit harder, and unfortunately, you get a little more invested in actually helping the monsters. My God, that was your first clue! They’re called..white..monsters! Why are you trying to save them!”
“Because that’s what people do,” Zektene jumps in. “I don’t know what things are like where you and the powers that be come from, but in my universe, we don’t kill people because of what they might do in the future. This isn’t even people; it’s an ever-growing population. They have a right to develop, whether you like it or not. You can’t just go back in time and nip their buds. What the hell do you think gives you the right?”
“Well, you know what Spiderman’s uncle says about power and responsibility,” the Delegator responds.
“We’re not going to do what you want,” Vearden!Two tells him defiantly. “Send us to any damn year, it doesn’t matter. We’ll always try to help.”
“Yeah, why is that?” Saga!Three asks. “Why do you keep making us jump two hundred years. If the plan was to destroy the pods, why did you make us leave at all? You can do anything, can’t you?”
“There are rules,” Vearden!Two explains for the Delegator, who obviously wants to say as little as possible. “The powers that be are playing a game, and it wouldn’t be fair—or fun—if they could just sweep the game pieces off the board with their arms. They have to actually play it, and see how things turn out. Two hundred year time jumps are just part of the gameplay that not even they can go against.”
“Look,” the Delegator finally says. “You can’t kill all of them now. I mean, you could try to develop a plague, and wipe them out, or something, but otherwise, their numbers are just too high. You can, however, weaken them. You can slow their development. There’s still time to fix this. Just make sure they don’t get too powerful, so when the Orothsew advance enough to cross the ocean, the war is...easier.”
“You don’t want a war,” Zektene spits at him. “You want a massacre. That’s horrid.”
“Well, that’s your opinion,” the Delegator says, knowing he’s far removed from the moral high ground. “Just be careful with opinions.”
“Why don’t you just send someone who’s gonna do the job you want?” Saga!Three asks the Delegator.
“Don’t give him any ideas,” Zektene says in a loud whisper.
“No, he already knows whether he can do that or not,” Vearden!Two says. “Like I was saying, that’s against the rules. They already chose their players, and if they’re not happy with us, that’s their problem.”
“So, what are we going to do?” Zektene asks her friends.
“Whatever we can,” Saga!Three replies. “Like the man said, send us to whatever year you want, we’ll continue to do the right thing. When the Orothsew come, not only will they not win the war against the Gondilak, but there will be no war. We’re gonna stop it.” She turns to address Vearden!Two and Zektene directly, ignoring the Delegator. “Throw out your McIver hats. We’re going to introduce ourselves to the Gondilak. That’s what the other reality was lacking. They were angry about being left out, and ignored. We need to show them that humans, and by extension, our descendants, aren’t all bad.”
“That’ll never work,” the Delegator says, now with a bit of an evil grin. “It’s the Orothsew who inevitably start the war, and you have no control over them.”
“Don’t we?” Vearden!Two asks rhetorically. “I think I realize why I’m working with a version of Saga from a different reality. I’m pretty sure I know who you sent to help the opposite side of this. It’s us, isn’t it? You sent...the other versions...of us.”

The Friend of My Friend

Two hundred years ago, Saga!Two, Vearden!Three, and Saxon use their advanced technology, and their McIver hats, to bridge the gap between the two separate groups of Orothsew. The Telijir and the originals needed to come together, and see the world as a unified culture, full of diversity and new ideas. It was not an easy task. The humans spent the longest they ever had in one time period. For a year, they introduced diplomats to each other, and mediated trade negotiations. A literal highway was beginning to take shape between their lands when suddenly it was the year 800 OAC. The abbreviation was a calendar designation that stood for Orothsew Affirmation Count, as translated into Standard English. Affirmation was the best approximation of the concept that the humans could come up with. The Orothsew decided upon it during the reunion process, as they were establishing themselves as a singular peoples.
Though the Orothsew were unaware of their origins, they were able to trace their history to about five hundred years prior to the reunion, according to stories passed down the generations. They figured their species had lived at least another century before that, and were astonishingly accurate. They were only off by nine years; an imprecision that the humans were able to remedy with a little dumbed down science. A year for the Orothsew, based on the planet’s orbit around its parent star, took 1.1383 Earthan years, so the math wasn’t too terribly difficult to calculate. At the moment, now two centuries after the reunion, it should be the year 4210. But based on Alyssa’s claims of a new Earthan calendar being created, it’s apparently actually the year 1610 on Earth.
Over 600,000 people live on this continent now, which is about half what the human population was around 10,000 years before the common era. This is sometimes considered to be the dawn of the human epoch, even though humans and other hominids existed on Earth well before that.
“It’s not half,” Saga!Two argues. “It’s closer to the same. There are probably around a million inhabitants on this rock right now.”
“How do you figure?” Vearden!Three asks her.
“The Gondilak,” Saxon reminds Vearden!Three. “They’re on the other continent right now, doing their own thing.”
“Oh. Yeah, I remember that now,” Vearden!Three says. “When do they finally run into each other?”
“I have no idea,” Saga!Two replies. “The other Vearden and I never knew what year it was in that reality.”
“You told us a little bit about their level of advancement, though,” Saxon begins. “We might be able to estimate a future date from that data. Well, the computer could, that is.”
“Does it matter that much?” Vearden!Three questions. “We’re either going to catch up to that time period, or not. How does that impact what we do today?”
“I fear we made an error,” Saga!Two says solemnly.
“Explain.”
“We’ve unified the Orothsew.”
“Yeah, that’s a good thing.”
“This could be how it begins,” Saga!Two continues. “This could be why the Orothsew are so hellbent on conquering the Gondilak. In trying to teach unity, we may have inadvertently also taught them xenophobia.”
“I think that’s a stretch,” Vearden!Three disagrees. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Maybe we prevented the war you saw in the alternate reality.”
“Or we precipitated it,” Saga!Two argues. “Time travel is complicated. You’re talking about an alternate reality, but that’s not exactly the same thing as an alternate timeline. When you call it a reality, you’re referring to the world as it is in any given instance. A timeline refers to how things developed over, well...time. How much of what we’re seeing now is different than what happened before? More importantly, how much is the same?”
“What do you suggest we do, Saga?” Saxon asks.
Saga!Two takes a moment before responding. “We have to come out of the closet.”
“What does that mean?”
“We should throw out our McIver hats, and introduce ourselves to the Orothsew as humans. You’re right, Vearden!Three, it doesn’t matter when your counterpart and I were dealing with this in the other timeline. Our best course of action is to start early, and show them that non-Orothsew aren’t all bad. So when they finally do meet the Gondilak, whenever that is, they might not have an immediate violent reaction.”
“That sounds like too much work for the three of us.” Vearden!Three didn’t say that because he isn’t willing to put in the effort. He’s just not sure it’s possible. Bridging the gap between two independent states is one thing, but deveiling a species so early in its development, proving that other intelligent life exists out there, feels like an insurmountable task, even if they had a large and well-qualified team.
The other two understand what he means. “I think it’s worth a try. Yeah, it’s possible that we ultimately make things worse, but I can’t imagine anything will get better if we don’t even try.”
“That’s true,” Saxon admits. “We’re here to do something, according to the Delegator’s directives.”
“Well, how would we even go about this?” Vearden!Three asks. “When I was living on Earth, humans expected aliens to come down in gigantic ships, usually landing in or around important cities, like New York, and Tokyo. But I don’t know what earlier humans thought of aliens.”
“I know a little bit about this,” Saga!Two begins. “When Vearden!Two and I were being sent backwards in time, we considered who it was that did this to us. We made some inquiries regarding what it was that people believed. We found that the first speculation about aliens from other worlds appeared sometime in the fifteenth century. The people we were around in the years before that time period had no concept of extraterrestrials. Of course, every species if going to be different, but if the Orothsew are anything like us, they are indeed far too young to understand who it is we are. Your point is well made.”
“I didn’t make the point,” Vearden!Two acknowledges. “You just did that yourself.”
“Now, hold on,” Saxon stops them from giving up. “You asked a good question, Vearden!Three, and then we skipped over it. If strange beings were to come, how would the Orothsew expect them? Flying ships? Teleportation? Crawling out of the ground? Probably not. But what about an ocean vessel?”
“They haven’t built seaworthy ships yet,” Saga!Two reminds him. “This world’s moon causes far too violent tides and waves for them to survive it. They’ve barely tried.”
“True,” Saxon agrees, “but they do have riverboats. The cities of Wonblajse and Dodeglu exchange goods, and experience seasonal migration, with this method of transport.”
Vearden!Three shakes his head. “There’s still so much to consider. Do we speak their language, or is it reasonable to teach them ours? Do we share our seafaring technology with them, or do we make them do it themselves. That could anger them, and either make things worse with the Gondilak down the line, or create friction between us and them. Quite frankly, I don’t think we can pull this off. Saga!Three, you said salmon from all over time and space were transported here by the powers that be. It sounds like it was a centuries-long enterprise. We can’t do this alone, and we have no way of asking for help.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Saxon contends.
“Do you have a way of contacting The Trotter?” Saga!Two hopes, or someone else capable of traversing interstellar space?”
“No particular individual,” Saxon starts to clarify. “I have the ability to reach the vonearthans, though.”
“Explain,” Saga!Two echoes Vearden!Two’s earlier imperative.
Saxon breathes in deeply through his nose, and the other two aren’t sure when he exhales it. “Follow me.” He proceeds to lead them down the hallways, and into a section of the facility they’ve passed a million times, ending up in a storage room full of random and boring replacement parts for the shuttles. “You have to understand,” he says as he’s moving some of the crates of parts out of the way, “I didn’t lie to you about this. I even mentioned it once, but I quickly changed the subject, so you wouldn’t dwell on it, and then you seemed to eventually forget about it.”
“What is this, Saxon?” Saga!Two questions.
Saxon goes on, “every single star system either has something like this, or will one day. Sometimes it’s built on a planet, sometimes on an asteroid, or even a comet. There’s a whole protocol the artificial intelligence follows to determine the most ethical and safest way to do it.” He moves enough of the supplies to reveal a secret door neither Saga!Two, or Vearden!Three ever noticed.
“I should have guessed something like this existed,” Vearden!Three muses. “What’s on the other side of that door?”
“I think I know what he’s talking about,” Saga!Two says, remembering something they never discussed after first arriving here. “It’s the quantum surrogacy room, isn’t it?”
“That’s right,” Saxon says, placing his hand on the door handle. “I disabled the link when I arrived here. I wanted to decide when and if other people came here.”
“I’ve been to a lot of different universes,” Vearden!Three says. “People often throw that word quantum around, as if it solves everything. What does it mean here?”
Saxon opens the door, revealing nothing more than a staircase. Once they descend, they see an entire wing of the facility. Dozens of more growth pods line the walls, along with all kinds of computers and other equipment. It doesn’t look a whole lot different than the rest of this place, but they can clearly see that it serves a very specific purpose. Saxon approaches one of the opaque pods, and flips a switch to make it transparent. Inside of it is a person, or at least the approximation of one. It has two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth, and a chin. Then it has a neck, a torso, two arms, two hands, barbie doll hips, two legs, and two feet. It looks like a person, but doesn’t really have any discerning features; like it was built out of clay, and the details haven’t been carved yet. It’s the base model of a human, but not unique. Surely these other pods house merely the same model, copied over and over again.
It’s the hips that really give it away. “It doesn’t have any genitals,” Vearden!Three crudely points out.
“That’s right,” Saxon says. “When a traveler—and I don’t use that word to refer to salmon, choosers, or any other kind of temporal manipulator—is transferred to this substrate, it doesn’t need to eat or drink, so it doesn’t need to make waste either. Nor can it procreate. This thing is just so the person who comes here can move around, and explore the star system.”
“It’s like a robot body that you 3D printed,” VeardenThree notes.
“Basically, yes.”
Saga!Three looks around some more. “So you’ve been in communication with Earth, or the other colonies?”
“Definitely not,” Saxon assures them. “And not just for your benefit. It’s true that you’re not meant to be here, but neither am I. Hell, I don’t even know if the greater vonearthan population has been made aware of Project Stargate, or Operation Starseed, by now. Most people may be completely in the dark, and believe that the only human establishments beyond the Sol were made with the fleet of colony ships.”
“Why haven’t you opened communication with them?” Vearden!Three asks. “Or, like, with the people you know already know about this whole secret project?”
“That is because of you,” Saxon says. “I didn’t know how the powers that be would react to this. I had the impression that they wanted you two to have to do all this on your own, and that my personal involvement has always been a concession on their part, rather than a mandate. I always thought letting other people here would anger them.”
Vearden!Three makes a closer examination of the surrogate’s face. “So you do have faster-than-light communication in this universe?”
Quantum communication, yes,” Saxon confirms. “We can send data, but not massive objects. Ships are still limited to sublight speeds. Though, obviously we all know FTL travel is possible, but a time traveler would have to introduce that, and the way I understand it, that’s against the rules.”
“It is,” Saga!Two says. “I believe you made the right call, not allowing the other vonearthans to come here.”
“It’s not guaranteed,” Saxon says. “This place was formed centuries ago. That’s more than enough time for the vonearthans to come here on their own.”
“True,” Saga!Two says. “We’re not too terribly far from Earth.”
“Even if we were,” Saxon begins, “it wouldn’t matter. We could be thousands of light years from Earth’s region of the galaxy, and it would still only take them a couple years to arrive. Like I said, this thing is going to be built somewhere in every star system. If they find themselves locked out of one, they could always access the next closest star, use one of the interstellar ships that the robots built for them, and come in no time. That aspect of the project is vital. I can’t remember the exact failure rate, but some of the factory modules we sent have, and will inevitably, experience functional errors. Some stars will rely on neighboring modules to fill in the gaps.”
Saga!Two sighs. “Well, like I said. I think you were right to shut this place down, but I don’t think you were right to not tell us. We’re both aware of how dangerous the powers that be are. We wouldn’t have done anything to jeopardize our mission.”
“To that end,” Vearden!Three says, “nothing has changed. We still can’t open communication. The powers may destroy all the surrogates, and might even kill us for defying them. We do this alone, just as they intended.”
The other two nod. It might not be the best way to get the job done, but it’s the safest. Just as they’re trying to walk away, the computers start booting up. More lights flicker on, and the air conditioning kicks in.
“What did you do?” Saga!Two asks, not so much accusatorily, but inquisitively.
“Absolutely nothing,” Saxon answers sincerely.
“Neither did I,” Vearden!Three makes sure the both of them understand.
They turn around and watch as all the equipment starts operating on its own, including the humanoid growth pods. They watch it all for several minutes, afraid to interfere, and risk breaking something. Once it’s over, the humanoid begin to wake up.

Public Friend Number One

For the most part, if any version of Saga and Vearden wants to open a door to another time and place, there’s about a one in three chance that it’ll take them when and where they want to go. There’s a one in three chance that it’ll take them to some point in spacetime out of their control, that the powers that be have decided. And then there’s a one in three chance that it will simply take them to the other side of the door, like it will for any regular person. There are ways for them to increase the odds of getting what they want, but it takes a lot of concentration, plus the ability to kind of act like they don’t want it. They have to trick the spacetime continuum into believing they’re neutral about it, like a bit of metaphysical reverse psychology. As one might imagine, this is incredibly difficult to pull off, and none of them is sure the theory is even true. Still, Vearden!Two, and Saga!Three found themselves energized by their conversation with The Delegator. He wanted them to do some very bad things, which didn’t discourage them from going against him, but galvanized them into action. They became even more certain of their convictions.
Their determination alone seemed powerful enough to literally open doors for them. They started jumping forwards in time separately from their preset two-hundred year pattern, and it was unclear how hard the powers that be were fighting them on it. They thought maybe, perhaps, they were actually rooting for the three of them to do the right thing, and that this was all part of the plan. As far as their plan went, they had to refine it after owning their power. They chose to not throw out the McIver hats, but instead used them to their advantage. They each chose a random face from their past; someone they knew wasn’t a real time traveler, and would have no chance of showing up as themselves. Then they revealed themselves to the Gondilak, and made up a half-true story about being visitors from another world, here to help them develop as a race, and a nation. Saga!Three used her medical background to treat some of the sick and injured, to show that they could be trusted. Then they turned themselves invisible, and walked away. They returned a year later, but this time, the doorwalkers remained invisible, while Zektene appeared in a completely new form. She used her power of teleportation to save a few lives here and there.
They continued to do this; jumping a little bit further in time, putting on new illusions, helping the natives in some small way, and then leaving. As far as the Gondilak knew, humans were a species of temporal manipulators, who frequently traveled to other worlds, and altruistically helped the aliens they found there. This was in stark contrast to Vearden!Two’s timeline, where salmon were only dispatched to provide aid to the Orothsew, while Gondilak were either ignored, or actively offended. The Gondilak here felt special, cared for, and most importantly, worthy.
Neither the Delegator, nor the powers that be themselves—nor anyone else, for that matter—did anything to prevent their actions. They just kept opening magical doors, and making more jumps; a day or two here, a couple decades there. One day, they realized that it had been exactly two hundred years since they began their little rebellious crusade. They were back on their pattern, and wondering whether it was time to change strategies, not because it wasn’t working, but because so much about the world was different. Maybe it was time to regroup, and see if there was something else they should be doing.
“How are they doing?” Saga!Three asks.
They’ve been gone for the last seven years, so before they do anything, they need a progress report. Zektene is at the computer. “Two million, forty-four thousand, two hundred and fifty six people are presently living on the continent, plus the three of us.”
“Not too bad, according to projections,” Vearden!Two notes.
“How’s that internal conflict on the Uilkeh Peninsula faring?”
Zektene pulls up the survey from that region. “Still at a stalemate. Things have not gotten worse, but it appears they’ve not gotten better either.”
“If they can just last until the lunar eclipse next year,” Saga!Three begins, “they’ll see that the moon has nothing to do with crop yield, and the five families might come together again for the Harvest Meal.” She’s become the de facto leader of their group. While Vearden!Two knows more about the people they’re dealing with, Saga is the one with the leadership skills.
“Do you wanna intervene?” Zektene offers.
“The youngest Rekohs son’s condition should remind the Oppetara matriarch of her late sister. All they need to do is find out about it. Let’s wait it out,” Saga!Three decides.
“Okay.” Zektene switches the Uilkeh Peninsula file from a red flag to a green flag, indicating that they’ll monitor the situation closely, but not intervene unless there’s an immediate threat to life.
“Any other threats?” Saga!Three prompts.
Zektene scans the files quickly. “None the drones have marked as urgent. This is a pretty good jump.”
“All right, let’s get some sleep.” They sleep every night, and never specifically address it. When Saga!Three uses the word, she means that they’re going to be taking a break for at least three days. They’re no good to the Gondilak, or the world as a whole, if they burn out in the middle of a mission.

After a literal night’s rest, Saga!Three steps into Vearden!Two’s room uninvited. She does this, because Vearden!Two doesn’t look like himself at the moment.
He quickly drops the illusion, and slips off his balaclava, but it’s too late. She saw what he looked like.
She laughs. “I’m sorry, did you think I didn’t know about this?”
“It’s not what it looks like.”
“Don’t be a cliché. I know what you’re up to.”
“I assure you, you don’t,” Vearden!Two hopes.
“You’ve been sneaking out, dressed like him, doing good deeds, and making him look like the best person in the world.”
“Okay, maybe it is what you think.”
“Vearden!Two, they have shrines dedicated to Mateo Matic. Did you really think you were getting away with it?”
“I was just hoping to do this as long as possible without being stopped, whether you found out about it or not.”
“Why is this so important to you?” she asks.
“Mateo has had a rough go of it. He’s not always welcome when he shows up. I’m just trying to protect him, so if he ever finds himself on this planet, people will already have good thoughts about him.”
Saga!Three sighs. “Come with me. I need to show you something.”
Vearden!Two follows her out of the room, and down the hallway, back into the main section of the facility. Zektene is having a midnight snack, but doesn’t say anything, because this doesn’t have anything to do with her.
Saga!Three turns the computer monitor away, so Vearden!Two can’t see it. “When did you start sneaking out, and pretending to be Mateo?”
“A hundred and twenty-one years ago. I got the idea from—”
Saga!Three turns the monitor back around, so Vearden!Two can see what’s on it now. He tilts his head to get a different angle. “Yeah, that’s an incredible likeness. I’ve never seen that one before. Where is it?”
“That doesn’t matter,” Saga!Three explains. “This cave painting is over eight hundred years old.”
“What? No, that’s impossible. That’s after we...” He hesitates. “That would mean—” Vearden!Two can’t finish his sentence.
“Vearden!Two,” Saga!Three says reluctantly, “Mateo has already been here.” She taps a button, and moves over to the next picture. “So has Leona. I don’t think they’re coming back.” She goes to the next picture of the cave drawings. “I don’t know who these people are.”
“So I’ve just been wasting my time?” he asks sadly.
“You haven’t been wasting your time,” Saga!Three promises, “but you have been wasting your vacation. He doesn’t need our help.
Zektene is suddenly right next to them. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that.”
“Wadya mean?”
Zektene takes over, and pulls up a different set of photos that the monitoring drones took a very long time ago.
“Whoa,” Saga!Three says.
“No!” Vearden!Two cries.
“Are they burning him at the stake?” Saga!Three asks.
Zektene giggles. “They tried to.” She shows them the next picture. The fire has been turned to smoldering ash, and Mateo’s likeness isn’t there anymore.
“He disappeared before he died,” Saga!Three assumes.
“That was my guess,” Zektene says. “But I don’t know who he is.”
“He lives for one day every year; jumps forward at midnight, according to central time zone.”
“Ah.” Zektene nods. “Well, I would have said something had I known you knew him. I just archived these photos, and let it go.”
“So he may come back?” Vearden!Two asks.
“We’re time travelers,” Saga!Three answers with a shrug. “Anyone could come back at any time. Maybe you making him look good wasn’t a big waste. Maybe you changed everybody’s minds on him. I don’t know.”
Vearden!Two breathes a sigh of relief. “I know it seems stupid, to be protecting this one guy. He’s just...if you met him, you might understand. He’s just so...”
“Brave?”
“Amazing?”
“Brilliant?”
“Strong?”
“Helpless,” Vearden!Two clarifies. “People don’t help him because he’s a good person—though, he definitely is—we help him because we know he can’t do this on his own. He needs people like me. I feel very protective of him; have since day one.”
Zektene places her hand on his shoulder. “That makes sense, Vearden!Two.”
Meanwhile, Saga!Three steps off to the side to think about their situation. She’s not thinking about Mateo. She has no strong feelings about him. His presence in those cave drawings does pose an interesting question, however. She should have taken it more seriously before. They are not the only time travelers, and theirs is not the only agenda. This is a big planet, and even with the insect drones, flying around, keeping track of progress, lots of things can fall through the cracks. Even if a drone catches something on camera, the artificial intelligence in charge of them may not tell the three of them about it. Not everything it sees seems like a threat worth mentioning. It’s particularly difficult for them to elicit information from it since the system wasn’t designed for humans. Almost everything they do to get it to work is done through force. “Zektene?”
“Sir?”
“I know we’re on vacation, but...”
“What do you need, sir?” Zektene is always ready to get down to business.
“I need you to...write a program, or run an algorithm, or whatever. Make it so that the computer spits out every human it’s ever seen, including us.”
“Sir?” Zektene questions again, but this time because she doesn’t fully understand.
“Where are you going with this?” Vearden!Two elaborates on the question.
“The Delegator seemed too cagey, but also too confident. I’m worried we actually aren’t the only humans on this continent. Even with our recent shorter time jumps, there’s a lot of gaps we don’t know as much about. Someone else could even show up at the same time as us, but in some other village, and we may never learn about it.”
“If a drone saw someone,” Zetkene begins, “I’ll find that footage.”
Two days later, the computer has finished sorting all of the data collected over the last eight centuries. Saga!Three happens to be in the room when the computer beeps, letting her know that it found someone who shouldn’t be there. She pulls up the image, and sees a man. He’s standing before Atlimai Valley, smiling sinisterly and waving at the camera. When she summons her two partners to come take a look, it’s clear that both of them know exactly who he is.
“That’s Cain,” Vearden!Two reveals. “And if he’s here, the Gondilak aren’t the ones in trouble. We are.”

Class XI

For two hundred years, off and on, Saga!Two, Vearden!Three, and Saxon work to ensure that the Orothsew see foreigners as potential allies, rather than dangerous threats. They’re aided in this endeavor by a team of vonearthans, who were dispatched to Orolak for this very purpose. None of them knows who conscripted them for the mission; just that they were called to action for a chance to explore a new world hundreds of light years away. They fabricate a story about a third continent—even though the Orothsew have not yet encountered the second—and claim that this is where another species evolved. They arbitrarily call themselves the Clexa, and never appear in human form. An entirely new substrate is created that one of the operatives designed specifically to be a perfect amalgamation of an Orothsew, and a Gondilak. The idea is to prepare for the inevitable meeting of the two real species, and prevent them from ever warring with each other.
The three primaries show up every once in awhile, and make sure the rest of their new team is doing okay, and they always are. They modify their faces regularly so the Orothsew don’t realize they’re just the same few dozen people who never die. The Orothsew don’t get upset that the Clexa aren’t sharing their technology. If fact, they seem to believe in their own form of the Prime Directive from the Star Trek franchise. They want to develop on their own, because without struggle, they believe that the reward isn’t worth anything. Since this is all going so well, the vonearthans make plans to travel to the other side of the world to do the same thing for the Gondilak, but every attempt is sabotaged. They even try to fly over there in shuttles, but are always forced back. The powers that be have some interesting ideas about how this mission should be handled, and it apparently doesn’t involve reaching out to the other continent until some time later. When exactly that will be, no one knows for sure, but we’re likely talking centuries.
After just over four decades of absence, the primaries exit their portal door, and find themselves exactly two hundred years since this latest job began. A cursory glance at mission status reveals that the vonearthans disappeared eleven years ago, and have never returned. It would seem that the powers consider this chapter to be closed, and now it’s up to the only three humans on the planet right now to figure out what they should do next.
“According to your account, and my calculations,” Saxon begins, “this should be our last mission before the Orothsew cross the ocean.”
“Are you sure?” Vearden!Three asks.
“If we’ve returned to our regular two hundred year jump pattern, then yes, I believe we’ll catch up with the time Saga here, and the other version of you, first landed on this world.”
“Hm,” Saga!Two can only think to say.
Saxon continues, “while the Clexa didn’t give the Orothsew our technology, there’s no way to stop them from having ideas. Now they know what seafaring ships should look like, and they have the inkling to go explore.”
“Well, what else can we do?” Vearden!Three asks. “Either we’ve done all we can to prepare them, and today is our vacation, or we’ve not done enough, and we only have one more chance to stop the war.”
“Well, we could make another appearance,” Saxon suggests. Though the responsibility of pretending to be Clexa rested on the special team that showed up, the three of them used their McIver hats to do the same, though with far less diplomatic experience to back them up.
“Nah, I don’t want to do that,” Saga!Two says. “The other Clexa left, and whatever reason the Orothsew came up with to explain that, we shouldn’t confuse them with more interruptions. I think it’s time they start making their own decisions. We probably won’t be there when they meet the Gondilak, so let’s let them be.”
“So, you think we should do nothing?” Vearden!Three questions.
“Maybe your remark about this being our vacation was a joke,” Saga!Two begins, “but it doesn’t sound like a terrible idea to me.”
The other two don’t know what to say. A break is the last thing they would have thought someone like Saga would suggest. They don’t have much time to think about it before an alarm starts going off. Saxon rolls his chair over to the main computer to find out what is going on.
“What is it?” Saga!Two asks.
“Unauthorized entry,” Saxon replies. “Someone is coming through the quantum network, and unlike the vonearthans from before, this isn’t from the stellar neighborhood.”
“Where is it from?” Vearden!Three asks.
Saxon continues to look through the data. “All systems within fifty light years of Earth are considered to be part of the neighborhood. Project Stargate completely avoided all of these. The world that’s incoming is almost forty light years beyond the threshold, and was evidently one of the first discovered to have a high Terrestrial Habitability Similarity Index. Higher than here, actually. It’s at .993, which may be the highest we’ve ever encountered. Oh, shit.”
“What is it?”
“Shit!” Saxon exclaims again. “We gotta go!” He jumps out of his chair, and takes off towards the quantum surrogacy section.
The other two follow him. “Tell us what’s wrong! Who is coming through?”
“If we get there in time,” Saxon begins, “no one. We cannot let them through. The natives call their planet Worlon, and Earth designated it Loci Non Grata!”
“You mean like Utah?” Vearden!Three jokes.
“Yes, but worse!” They continue to run down the passageways. “I ran off before I could find out why, but Earth does not take that designation lightly.”
They reach the secret section. Saxon removes an energy weapon from yet another secret compartment, and begins to blast away all of the equipment, including the surrogate pods. He destroys everything. Saga!Two and Vearden!Three can’t be of much help right now, so they just watch until he feels he’s done.
“Explain,” Saga!Two orders.
Saxon removes an extra tablet from the shelf, and quickly connects it to the system. “Let me find out.” They wait for him to retrieve the necessary information, then listen to him recite it. “Worlon is Class XI LNG—that’s loci non grata, which is Latin for a place you don’t wanna go. I’ve never heard of Class XI because Class X is only theoretical. If ever needed, it would be reserved for hostile aliens who pose an immediate and nearly unstoppable threat to life in the entire galaxy. If Worlon is worse than that, then...I think that means they threaten the whole universe.”
“You’re confused,” a sinister voice comes from a dark corner.
Vearden!Three grabs the energy weapon that Saxon set on the table, and trains it on the invader. “Explain yourself, or die.”
“Class IX is for galactic threats.” An alien they’ve never seen before that kind of resembles a dragonfly comes out from the shadows. “Class X is for universal threats, though we’re still not sure there is any life beyond The Milky Way, so both nine and ten are theoretical.”
“Than what’s Class XI?” Saga!Two demands to know.
The alien grimaces. “The multiverse. We’re not sure if that exists either, but uh...” He loses his casual attitude, and becomes quite serious, “if it does, we’ll kill them too.”
“Why?” Saga!Two asks. “What’s your motivation?”
“There’s only so much room in heaven,” it says, as if it’s an accepted truth that she should already understand. “We’re not going to share it.”
“You start killing everyone,” Saxon argues, “you won’t have to worry about how much room there is in heaven. You won’t be going there.”
“Not yet, no,” it acts like it agrees. “Neither will you. Since you killed the rest of my strike team, I suppose all I can do now is give you a message.”
Saga!Two tenses up. “What message?”
“We’re coming. It might takes us awhile, since we have a lot of pit stops ahead of us, and you destroyed the quantum link, but we’ll get here eventually.”
Vearden!Three pulls the trigger, and sends a powerful enough blast towards the enemy that it flies apart into a million pieces. “Well, I would say that I did that on accident; that I didn’t realize how sensitive the trigger was, but the truth is that my finger was barely strong enough to squeeze it.”
“No.” Saxon carefully takes the gun from him. “You did the right thing. Now I know what our mission here is really all about.”
“Yes.” Saga!Two steps forward, and examines the bits of the Worlon creature. This was never about the war between the Orothsew and Gondilak.  We’re here to stop them.”

World Class

Before they could proceed, Saga!Three needed to know who this Cain individual was. Vearden!Two and Zektene took turns recounting how the two of them met, and how Cain was involved. He was genetically engineered by the white monster progenitors of the Gondilak. He and the hybrids were then sent to each of a very specific group of humans with time powers called Newtonian Expats, all of which were from this universe, but were accidentally sent to separate ones. Most of the hybrids rejected their mandate, and became friends with the Expats, but Cain stayed true. Or at least, if his agenda changed, it wasn’t to become a better person. They all ended up meeting up with each other at the same location. Vearden!Two was swept away with two of them, while they encountered Zektene later on her home world. Cain continued to operate against them, until he was supposed to have been killed. Though, when time travel is involved, things like that get complicated. They get even more complicated when you take into account other universes, so the Cain they saw on the monitors could be from anywhere in his personal timeline. There’s no telling what he’s been through.
After class, Zektene got back on the computer, and narrowed her search parameters. They wanted to find all instances of Cain throughout this continent’s history, and they also wanted to know exactly where he was right now. There wasn’t much to find. Since he was waving at one of the drones in the first picture, he clearly knew that it wasn’t just some bug flying around. It would be no surprise to find out he figured out how to avoid further cameras. There were a couple blurry shots here and there, but for the most part, they were unable to determine a pattern to his movements, reason for his being there, motivation for his actions, or plans for the future. In order to find that information out, they needed to speak with him first. They sought out his last known location, and Zektene tried to teleport them there instantly, but it didn’t work. The lighting was different that it should have been, which suggested they had missed time. There was also no sign of Cain, nor any way to determine how long he had been gone. So they went back to the main facility, and checked the computers. Two hundred years. They were back on their regular pattern, and Cain’s trail would have gone cold by now.
Zektene gets back on the computer once again.
“Any sign of him?” Saga!Three asks.
Zektene hesitates to answer. “No. No sign of anybody.”
Vearden!Two approaches to look over her shoulder. “Wait, what do you mean by nobody?”
“The drones haven’t been doing their jobs,” Zektene begins to explain. “They haven’t been monitoring the population for seventy years.”
“The system crashed?”
“No, the system is fine. I have weather and atmospheric data. It still knows what year it is, and the bots have been maintaining the facility. It’s just that the drones have been...in their charging stations the whole time. And I think some of the footage has been erased.”
“Somebody disabled them,” Saga!Three presumes.
“Not someone,” Vearden!Two contradicts.
“Cain,” he and Zektene say at the same time.
“Emergency McIver hats!” Saga!Three announces.
They reach into their bags, and retrieve their respective illusion-creating headgear. “Maramon form,” Zektene suggests.
“It’s too late,” comes a voice from the hallway entrance behind them. “I didn’t see who you are, but I know you’re not Maramon.”
“Stay in character,” Vearden!Two warns his friends out loud.
“That’s okay,” Cain says. “I wouldn’t recognize you anyway, whoever the hell you are.” That’s comforting, that he at least doesn’t suspect who’s been living in this place.
“How did you get in here?” Saga!Three demands to know.
“Here’s a hint,” Cain begins, “it took me a century. Those drones did not want to be caught. I could have whipped up a trap, but that would have required technology, which I didn’t have access, because these people haven’t even discovered electricity yet. So I observed. For decades, I watched them flying around. There were a few false positives, of course. It’s embarrassing how many times I came to realize I was just studying real insects. But over time, I learned more and more about their patterns, and that eventually led me here. Then it took me some time to break in, but once I did, I had the run of the place. Unfortunately, I’ve not found what I came here looking for, so I placed myself in stasis to avoid the monotony of waiting, and programmed the pod to awaken me when something interesting happened. That brings us up to today.”
“You’re pretty forthcoming with your answers,” Saga!Three notes. “What’s your plan here. What were you looking for.”
“A very special object,” Cain answers. “I spent about as much time looking for it on Kolob first, and that’s what led me here. I don’t know where else it could be. It was stolen from Ansutah shortly before the Bridge Collapse.”
“How did you get back to this universe?” Vearden!Two asks. “You’re supposed to be in Flipverse with Lucius Deschamps.”
Cain is slightly surprised by this. “I know you’re not Maramon, so how do you know what my assignment was?”
Saga!Three fakes a chuckle. “Well, we didn’t just randomly find ourselves on this planet. We know what’s going on, and we know about how Lucius and Abel shoved you into an airlock on The Stage. How did you survive that?”
“I shouldn’t have,” Cain says. “I got lucky. The outer bulkverse is to the multiverse what outerspace is to the planets. A human would be able to survive for about thirty seconds, but they’ll lose consciousness after fifteen, so unless someone else shows up to help, those extra fifteen seconds don’t matter much. Maramon were created to last closer to eight minutes. I reckon I was out there for five when a random universe came within spitting distance, and scooped me up. It’s a one in a billion chance, so I wouldn’t recommend you try going for a naked walk in the outer bulkverse, but it can happen.”
“Then how did you get back?” Vearden!Two presses.
Cain smirks. “I started a theatre company.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Oh, I thought you three knew things,” Cain teases. “Joseph and his technicolor dreamcoat. He’s the only one who can use it to travel the bulkverse, but if you want to contact him, you have to put on a play where you act out his life. It requires over a dozen cast members, so it’s not the easiest thing ever, but it’s almost impossible to reach The Crossover, or something, so it’s your best bet.”
“I’ve seen that musical,” Saga!Three says. “I’ve never seen a magical traveler randomly appearing on stage.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” Cain says with a shrug, “but that’s not important. What matters now is the Newtonian Glove.”
“What’s that now?” Saga!Three asks.
“Kinda yellowish-brown, five fingers.” Cain describes vaguely.
“It can suppress powers,” Zektene adds. “Yes, I’ve seen it before.”
Cain is surprised again. “You have? Where is it?”
“No idea,” she says. “I didn’t see it here. I saw it...somewhere else, a very long time ago. I don’t know where it would be now, but I’m pretty sure it’s not here.”
“Yeah, we’ve been all over this building for the last several centuries,” Vearden!Two agrees. “We would have seen something like that. I assume whoever hid it put it inside some kind of protective case, instead of just stuffing it into the back of a sock drawer.”
He doesn’t remember Cain being so cordial and understanding, but that’s where the time travel thing comes into play. “Yeah, it doesn’t look too fancy, so you would remember finding some random glove kept in a case without a mate.”
Saga!Three actually did see that once, and something told her it would be too important to just leave lying around. “Sidebar.”
The other two exchange a look with her. That’s a codeword they came up with that means they need to go into the next room together, and then teleport to a secret location. “Excuse us,” Zektene says to Cain.
He doesn’t seem perturbed as they’re leaving.
“What is it?” Vearden!Two asks after Zektene transports them to the woods.
“I saw the glove,” she divulged, “and I hid it away.”
“Why? I mean, good. But why?”
“It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. It wasn’t alone. There were other objects in there. This little gyroscope thing, what I believe is a teleporter gun, a stone. I don’t know what they were, but I was worried about letting them fall into the wrong hands.”
“Yeah, that was probably the right call,” Zektene admits. “Unfortunately, we have to give him the glove.”
“Why?” Saga!Three questions.
“We already have,” she replies. “Vearden and I are here right now because Cain showed up with that glove, which prevented Lucius from teleporting Vearden to a hospital. I took his place, and that’s when we ended up on this planet. If Cain doesn’t find that glove, nothing plays out as it’s meant to, including everything we’ve done here. That reality might be preferable to this one, but I don’t know for sure. Do you?”
Vearden!Two didn’t know what she was talking about, since he had been too hurt to understand what was going on, but he trusted her. If Cain was destined to take the glove, they had to let it happen, but that didn’t mean they had to make it easy for him. He sighs. “Okay, we’ll let him have the glove, but he obviously can’t have all those other things. Saga!Three, you’ll retrieve it, and hide it again. Then we’ll give him a hint about where it is.”
“We can’t just hand it over?” Saga!Three asks, confused. “You people say he needs it, then let’s just be done with it.”
He shakes his head. “We can’t do that. He’s expecting backlash. He’ll be suspicious if we just literally hand it to him. We’ll give him a general idea of where it is, and then we’ll jump two hundred years in the future, and wipe our hands clean.”
Saga!Three looks to Zektene, who doesn’t disagree with him, and doesn’t appear to have a better plan in mind. “All right. You’re the boss,” she jokes.
“I’ll be the one to hide it,” Zektene offers. “I can take it far from the facility, which is what we want, right? It’s best if you two don’t know where. Compartmentalization.”
“Yeah,” that’s smart,” Vearden!Two admits. He puts his hand in the middle of their little circle. “Everybody, hands in.”
No one else mirrors him.
“Okay, go team!” Vearden!Two chants anyway.
They execute the plan flawlessly, and then jump forwards in time. But this time, only a hundred years. And it is here that they meet their doppelgängers.

Heaven Protects

           Now things are really confusing. It was already tough for the Veardens and the Sagas to keep track of which Vearden, and which Saga they were interacting with. Who remembers what, and what have they been through? But now it’s all four of them, all together. They stand here awkwardly for a moment, in the Gondilak monitoring facility, before Vearen!Two breaks the ice. “So, you two figured out this was happening, right?”
“We had some idea,” Vearden!Three replies with a short nod, and a long blink.
“You’ve been dealing with the Gondilak?” Saga!Two guesses.
“Indeed,” Saga!Three confirms. “I assume you were in charge of the Orothsew.”
“That’s right.”
“So, are we gonna be okay?” Vearden!Two asks. “Are they gonna start fighting each other?”
“They haven’t been fighting,” Zektene explains from the computer.
Saxon is with her. He immediately jumped at the chance to look at a new system. “The Orothsew crossed the ocean decades ago. They came in peace, and they’ve remained as such this whole time. The drones report no history of violence.”
“Wow,” Vearden!Three says. “So we did it. Mission accomplished.”
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t any other threats,” Saga!Three explains. “Zek, what’s the last the drones saw of Cain.”
Zektene fiddles with the inputs. “He disappeared nearly ten years after we did. I think it took him that long to find it.”
“Find what?” Saga!Two asks.
“Don’t worry about it,” Vearden!Two assures her. “If he’s gone, that’s a good thing. This world should be safe now.”
“That’s not true,” Vearden!Three begins. “We still have to worry about the Worlonians.”
“The Ochivari,” Saxon says.
“The whatnow?” Vearden!Three asks.
“They’re not called Worlonians,” Saxon explains. “Ochivari is the name of their species.”
“Really?” Vearden!Three asks. “That’s weird.”
“Is it?” Saga!Two questions. “Humans don’t come from planet Huma, or something.”
“Well, that’s true,” Vearden!Three has to admit.
“Who are these people?” Saga!Three prompts.
“Bad aliens,” Vearden!Three answers. “Real bad aliens. Probably worse than the Maramon.”
“Maybe about equal,” Saxon claims. “The Ochivari want to destroy all life in the multiverse, so that no one else gets to go to heaven.”
“Then they must be worse than the Maramon,” Vearden!Two says. “The white monsters aren’t super great, but they don’t want to kill everyone. Their motivations are diverse, and their agendas nuanced.”
“He’s right,” Saga!Two supports. “I’ve seen what happens when a Maramon is removed from its natural environment, and taught right from wrong. They can be reasoned with.”
“Yes,” Saga!Three adds. “This world is proof of what they can do when they choose to be good.”
“Huh?” Vearden!Three asks. “What do the Maramon have to do with this planet?”
“They’re the Gondilak,” Vearden!Two says to him. “Or rather, the Gondilak are Maramon...their descendants.”
“Oh my God,” Saxon exclaims. “They’re the source variant, aren’t they!”
“That’s what Ramses called it,” Saga!Three acknowledges.
Now everything is starting to make sense. Both the humans and the Maramon chose to settle on this planet, but at different points in history. Now they’ve come together, and things seem to be going fine. Saxon and Zektene continue to catch up on the data, skimming climate patterns, and contact history. The other four mostly catch up with each other, even though this is the first time any of them has been in a situation like this. It doesn’t seem weird, though. Now that the shock of meeting alternate versions of themselves has passed, it’s actually kind of nice. Sure, their respective alts had different experiences, but there’s a shorthand between them that they would never be able to find with anyone else. Both Veardens know they can trust each other with their secrets, while both Sagas feel the same.
They listen to the updates that the other two in their newly formed group relay to them, but most of it isn’t very interesting. Current events have been pretty uneventful. This is around the same time Saga!Two and Vearden!Two were on Orolak in the second timeline, and things are extremely different. It’s satisfying to see the fruits of their labor, and to know that everything they’ve been doing for the last millennium hasn’t been a huge waste of time. The last thing they do before sharing a meal is show each other their funny McIver hats. Everyone is jealous of Vearden!Three’s beard beanie, which Vearden!Two recalls seeing once when he was browsing the internet in the other timeline.
“So, what do we think the mission is?” Saxon asks as Saga!Two is passing him the mashed potatoes. “I mean, why were you four finally reunited, and why now?”
“Well, this isn’t really a reunion,” Vearden!Two explains. “I’ve never met Vearden!Three here.”
“Neither have I,” Saga!Three says. “I hadn’t met anybody until all this, actually.”
“You know what I mean,” Saxon says. “You’ve spent centuries apart; separated on two continents by an ocean. According to our collective experiences, we haven’t gone anywhere without a purpose. But the Orothsew and Gondilak seem fine without us.”
“Maybe the missions are over,” Vearden!Three suggests. “Maybe that’s the point. We’ve done our jobs; preparing for the two races coming together.”
Saga!Three, Vearden!Two, and Zektene aren’t obligated to say anything at this point, and no one else responds either, but it feels like they’re somehow more silent than everybody else who isn’t talking. It’s like they’re avoiding the conversation actively, rather than passively.
“Okay, what is it?” Saxon asks, concerned.
“We went off mission,” Saga!Three finally replies.
“We weren’t supposed to help the Gondilak,” Vearden!Two continues the explanation. “We were supposed to kill them”
“Once we failed to do that,” Zektene contributes, “we were at least supposed to slow them down, so your people could wipe them out.”
“Oh my God,” is all Vearden!Three can say.
“That’s terrible,” Saga!Two adds.
“Well, it didn’t go that way,” Saxon reminds them. “What you did worked, and the Orothsew and Gondilak will never know how grateful they should be for you.”
“For us,” Saga!Two clarifies. “This whole thing required all six of us, and it required not listening to The Delegator, apparently to varying degrees.”
Vearden!Three smiles widely. “We should all feel proud. We stopped a frickin’ world war. Who else can say that?”
“I heard the salmon battalion stopped World War III,” Vearden!Two reveals.
“That’s an urban legend,” Saga!Two refutes. “They won wars, but they didn’t stop any.”
“Speaking of war,” Vearden!Two says, “tell us more about these Ochivari.”
“We don’t know much about them,” Saxon begins. “It’s mostly about three little Latin words. Loci non grata. Just the fact that Earth has banned all travel to Worlon space is enough to frighten me. I mean, there are worlds we don’t get along with very well, but we do try to interact with them on some level. LNG means no ambassadors, no mediators, no negotiations. If your ship has gone derelict within three light years of Worlon, you’re just straight up expected to let yourself die; it’s that bad.”
“They’re a Class XI threat,” Vearden!Three says, “which Saxon here evidently didn’t even know existed.”
“Really?” Zektene is interested. “Tell me about the classes.”
Saxon wipes his mouth to prepare for the lecture. “It’s a pretty straightforward ranking system for threats to life. A Class I threat would be to an individual; like a murderer, or something. Class II would be for a group of people...a mass murderer. Class three is city, then region, then continent, then the whole planet. Class VII threatens the whole solar system, while Class VIII the stellar neighborhood. As far as I know, nothing has been designated threat level IX for the whole galaxy, or X for the universe. And as we’ve said, Class XI is an entirely new thing, for something that could be dangerous for the multiverse.”
“Bulkverse,” Zektene corrects. “It’s called the bulkverse.”
“Oh, okay, so it is real?” Vearden!Three asks.
“Yes,” Saga!Two says to him somewhat quieter,  “the Maramon are from another universe. I explained this to you.”
“Well, yeah, but I didn’t know there are more than that.”
“She’s from a place called the Composite Universe,” Vearden!Two says, pointing to Zektene.
“Yes,” Zektene says. “It is for this reason that I must ask you a question. Would these Ochivari, perhaps...possibly resemble dragonflies?”
“Um...” Saxon is uncomfortable. “They do, yes.”
“Yeah, they came to my world once,” Zektene discloses. “They didn’t ask for anything. They just started killing people.”
“What did you do?”
“We used our superpowers, and destroyed them right back,” Zektene says as if it were obvious.
“We might need those powers here,” Saga!Two says to her. “We’re not sure when the Ochivari are coming, only that they are. The Orothsew and Gondilak might not be prepared for it when that happens.”
“Well, how has Earth prepared to protect themselves?” Vearden!Two asks her.
“A number of things,” Saxon answers instead. “I don’t have all the details, but it’s all about SCR&M. Safety, Compartmentalization, Redundancy, and Modularization. The first line of defense is recon and early warning, of course, but for anything incoming, they’re also protected by a gargantuan shield that encompasses the whole system. There are trillions of planetesimals, and other celestial bodies in spherical orbit in something called the Oort cloud, only fractions of a light year from the center. Almost every single one of them is equipped with defensive and/or offensive measures. If something were to get past that, they’ll have to deal with the armada of reserve warships, a satellite fleet, and an array of surface weapons. For the people, it’s estimated that Earth could be one hundred percent evacuated in five hours. Other planets have fewer people, and less atmosphere, so they could escape even faster.”
No one says anything for a moment or two. They’ve also stopped eating.
“All right,” Vearden!Two says, dropping his napkin on his plate. “Let’s do that.”
“Do what?” Saxon asks. “Build a defensive contingency around this solar system?”
“Well, I don’t know that it has to be the solar system, does it?” Vearden!Two believes. “We just need to protect the planet. It’s the only place that’s inhabited, ain’t it?”
“Theoretically,” Saxon admits.
Vearden!Three stands up. “We already have artificial satellites in orbit, right? I know the humans put at least one up there. I assume the Maramon did as well.”
“This is the mission,” Zektene decides. “This is what we’re here to do.”
“Hold on,” Saxon argues. “We are not qualified to try anything like this.”
You are,” Saga!Two claims. “You helped build the quantum seeder network, and you told us about those gigantic telescopes just outside the Milky Way. We can’t pick up a hammer and some nails, and expect to get anything done, but we can come up with ideas, and you and Zektene can program the AIs to do the actual construction.”
“This sounds impossible,” Saga!Three can’t help but feel.
“I would rather try than not,” says Saga!Two. “If you’re anything like me, you feel the same.”
“Don’t you just wanna get back to your daughter?” Saga!Three asks her.
Saga!Two stands up. “I wanna protect her. Maybe this is how we do it, because we have to protect the human race, and everything that comes from it...even if it’s against something else that comes from it.”
Saxon shakes his head. “This is a tall order.”
“Then let’s find a ladder,” Vearden!Two and Vearden!Three say simultaneously.

Part XIV

Coming soon...

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