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 √Čtude 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. “√Čtude?”
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, near the coastline of the ocean. 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 eventually society 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.”

Part VI

Coming soon...

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