The Toliman Nulls (Part I)

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image Duet AI software
When Brooke Prieto, Sharice Prieto, Mirage, and the newest member of their group, Belahkay Teal arrived inside the heliosphere of Alpha Centauri B, they immediately figured out why the vonearthans had chosen not to colonize it. All stars and other celestial bodies are valuable. They contain hydrogen, helium, and other elements, which can be used to produce energy and/or construct useful structures. Lots of science fiction stories only care about worlds that are naturally habitable, but that doesn’t really matter. With sufficiently advanced technology, anything can become habitable, even if that only means breaking it all apart to make enclosed spaceships. Nothing in the universe is completely useless, including Toliman, except that there’s something different about it. There’s something eerie about it. The closer they got to the star, the worse they felt, and there was no escape from this. Mirage was an early general intelligence turned transdimensional observer god turned android. Sharice was an unregulated AI turned android. Brooke was a human turned android. Out of the four of them, only Belahkay was alive with nearly all biological components. They were all capable of manipulating their sensory inputs to varying degrees, but not in this case. The sickness took hold of them all, and made them all feel the same.
According to the exploratory records, a single probe was sent to the star system. This happened at the same time that they were being sent to Proxima Centauri and Rigel Kentaurus. These were the three closest stars to Sol, so it made perfect sense. While the first two received later vessels, as well as passengers, Toliman was abandoned after the first probe. The reason for this was never publicized, but since there were hundreds of billions of other stars in this galaxy alone, no one really bothered to question that decision. Not even Mirage knew the answer, but her educated guess was that a time traveler had something to do with it. Travelers come from all time periods, and while the majority of history can be attributed to normal people making whatever decisions they feel they ought to, a few events were ultimately caused by someone who knew how specific decisions would turn out. Of course time travelers made certain decisions all the time, but in this case, we’re talking about deliberately driving the course of the future with profound and more obvious choices, or with big nudges.
For instance, to travel at something called fractional speeds—which is to say, a significant fraction of light speed—an object in motion must accelerate from a stopped position. This works with anything. A car can’t just suddenly go from zero miles per hour to 60 miles per hour with no intervening speeds in between. Except it can, as long as it can manipulate time and space properly. It was a time traveler, or perhaps a team, who first introduced the humans to this concept, and vonearthans have been taking the feature of interstellar travel for granted ever since. It’s not instant, but it’s impossibly fast. They don’t have to accelerate or decelerate at nearly the same rate as normal physical laws would suggest, which cuts down on travel time. Mirage was sure that Toliman was just like this. She thought a time traveler needed the star system for something, and made sure that no one would come here until they were ready. That might still be the case, but there was more to it. There was something wrong with it. There was something wrong with people when they came here.
Every atom in each one of their bodies was telling them to leave. They felt nausea, chills, muscle fatigue, dizziness, and fear. This place was frightening in an indescribable way. If they were on a planet, they would say that there was something in the air, but in this case, maybe it was in the radiation? They couldn’t tell, and they didn’t want to spend too much time trying to figure it out. Unfortunately, fate had other plans for them. They couldn’t leave, because one of the symptoms was a complete loss of motivation. Had Belahkay waited even one more minute, he may not have made it to the stasis pod, which saved his life. Because the other three stopped where they were, and didn’t move for the next five years. In that time, the little jumper ship they took from the planet of Bungula drifted throughout the star system until it finally happened to come close enough to the nanofactory that Mirage sent there years ago. Their real ship dispatched a tugboat to tow them into the hollowed-out asteroid. It wasn’t until the hatch was sealed behind them that they were released from the spell.
Brooke stood up, and emulated a deep breath. “What the hell was that?”
Sharice couldn’t stop shaking her head. “It was bad, it was bad, it was bad, it was bad. We can’t go back out, we can’t go back out, we can’t go back out.”
“We have to,” Mirage reasoned. “We can’t live here forever.” She composed herself, and approached the console to get some answers. “Whatever was doing whatever it was doing to us can’t reach us through the walls of the asteroid, but that might not always be enough. We have to take our new ship, and get the hell out of here.”
“Is the ship even finished?” Brooke questioned.
“Of course it is.” Mirage tapped the button to open the forward shutters. Before them was the interior of the asteroid. A shipyard was built here, and in the center was a beautiful shining vessel. It was small for a transgalactic ship, but it wasn’t possible to look at anything else in the room. The hull was a dark royal purple, with perfect curves, and no sharp edges. “Ladies...say hello to the Iman Vellani.”
“Unique design,” Brooke noticed.
Sharice was admiring the ship as well before looking over her shoulder. “The human. Is he okay?”
The Prietos ran down to the other side of the jumper to the stasis pod. “Vitals are okay,” Brooke said as she was looking through the interface screen. She released the door, and had to catch Belahkey before he fell to the floor.
He took a moment to catch his breath, and shake off the feeling of dread. “At the risk of sounding like a cliché, are we there yet?”
“Yes,” Sharice replied, “and now we’re leaving.”
“Good.” He shivered again. “What the hell is wrong with this star?”
“Mira?” Brooke asked. Belahkay was still having trouble walking, so she was carrying him down towards the control area. “What’s wrong with Toliman?”
“I don’t know, affects everything. The Vellani, it’s...damaged. There are parts of its operational code that I didn’t write.”
“Can you repair it?” Sharice asked her.
Mirage sighed. “Not here. The effects of the...” She didn’t know what to call it.
“The Nulls,” Belahkay suggested. If it affects you as well as me, it’s not a real disease. It’s something new.”
“The Nulls,” Mirage echoed. “The shielding of this asteroid appears to be protecting us from the symptoms, but it’s really just suppressing them. I can already feel myself losing motivation again. We can’t stay here for even a day.”
“But if your ship is broken.”
“It’s not broken, it just needs to be reprogrammed” Mirage contended. “I’ll fly it manually until we can do that. This will work. We’ll just point ourselves away from the star, and go. But just to be safe, Belahkay, you should go back into stasis.”
“No. I’m with you.”
“It’s your choice. I’m not your boss.”
“Aren’t you, though? Sharice asked as Mirage was walking away.
Mirage didn’t answer. While she went off to prepare for things in their shiny new ship, Sharice teleported Belahkay over, and then started to ferry all of their belongings. It thusly fell to Brooke to distribute antimatter bombs in key places in the asteroid. They weren’t really bombs, but antimatter was inherently unstable, so if you wanted to turn some of it into a bomb, all you had to do was find a way to disrupt the magnetic field that was keeping it from touching matter, and preferably do so remotely. They could imagine some intrepid explorers in the future, who couldn’t understand why this star system was off limits, coming here to figure things out. They too would become trapped, but if they were organic, it could result in their deaths. This could still happen, but at least there wouldn’t be anything left around here to make it more interesting and inviting.
Once everything was done, they convened on the Vellani, and prepared to launch. They left the jumper where it was, because it was no longer of any use to them. They had everything they would ever need right here. Mirage commanded the airlock doors to open, and then shot out of there as fast as they could. They immediately started to feel the effects of the nulls again, but now that they knew what they were up against, they were able to fight against it. If they were to stick around much longer, the sickness would probably win again, but they weren’t planning on doing that. Even if they did lose all hope, and become unable to escape, they wouldn’t last much longer. The antimatter containment pods were programmed to fail on a timer, rather than be detonated remotely. It had to be this way, because what if Brooke lost her motivation to trigger the chain reaction while she was out here. And anyway, there should have been enough time to get sufficiently far away. The resulting explosion would be large, but still mostly limited to the scope of the asteroid. The pods they used weren’t full to the brim with antimatter, and it’s not like they needed to destroy the whole solar system. So the question was, why did that happen?
They were more than far enough away from the asteroid when it exploded, but the annihilation didn’t stop there. Bursts of energy started to pop up in all directions, much farther than they should have. It was like there was more antimatter in the area than they expected. But that couldn’t be possible? Antimatter wasn’t just floating around all over space. It was short-lived, because whenever it came into contact with ordinary matter, they would annihilate each other, particle by particle. How was this still going on? How could they stop it?
“We can’t stop it,” Mirage explained to Belahkay, who probably should have been placed back in stasis. “But we can protect ourselves.” She tapped on the controls, and boosted the EM shield. It was a simple enough feature that every starship had. While time travelers had access to things like a teleportation field for dust and micrometeoroids, that wouldn’t help them with things like solar wind and cosmic radiation. Still, the electromagnetic shield wasn’t usually turned up to eleven, because it didn’t need to be. In this case, it did. The Vellani was made out of matter, and if those explosions got any closer, they would all be vaporized instantly. The EM shield held, but it wasn’t enough to protect them from the devastating effects of what they had done. Something started to pull them back towards the host star, and they couldn’t do anything about it.
“Can you boost the propulsion?” Belahkay offered. He was holding onto the center console since artificial gravity had been turned off. The other three could magnetize their feet at will.
“All available power is being diverted to the shield!” Sharice replied. “We would be destroyed if we started using it for anything else.”
“If we fall into that sun,” he reasoned, “we’re gonna be destroyed anyway.”
Mirage was watching the screen as the explosions all began to approach the star. It too was made out of ordinary matter. “There is no reality where we’re not destroyed! Everything living on Bungula is dead too! It’s over! We fucked up!”
The ship continued to fall into the sun at an accelerated rate, and soon, the four of them lost all will to care about it. They just sat there, not worrying about anything, not willing to do anything to fix it, which was okay, because there wasn’t anything to do except accept their fate. In the blink of an eye, Alpha Centauri B was gone, as was the newborn starship Iman Vellani, and its crew.

When Antistars Align (Part II)

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image Duet AI software
They couldn’t see anything, but they could feel it. The inertial dampeners could only do so much to protect them from the shaking ship. Mirage ran over to release an emergency crash cocoon for Belahkay, since he was in the most danger from all this mayhem. It wasn’t long before it was all over, though. The Iman Vellani’s EM shield managed to protect them from the massive matter-antimatter annihilation that was supposedly going on all around them. Maybe they overestimated how bad it was going to be. It would certainly explain how it was at all possible for them to survive. They were drifting through space aimlessly, but apparently safe now, so they raised the viewport shutters to get a look at what had happened.
Belahkay tried to say something, but was muffled by his cocoon.
Mirage lifted her palm in front his his face. She tapped her index finger and thumb together. Then she tapped her middle and index fingers together. She continued down the line to show him how to escape from the bubble. He mirrored the steps, successfully deflating the bubble. “What were you trying to say?” she asked.
How do I get out of this thing?
Mirage smiled, and went back to the console. “Preliminary readings coming in. We’re definitely not in Toliman space anymore. The stars are all wrong.”
“Could we be in the wrong time period?” Sharice asked. She looked over at her mother to see if she was wearing her umbilical cord necklace, which she would need if she wanted to travel through time.
Brooke guessed at her inquiry. She slipped her thumb underneath the chain, and pulled out the pendant to show her that time travel was a possible explanation.
“Impossible,” Mirage said. “The stars are too wrong for even that. They’re too far away. I mean, we could still be in the wrong period, but we’re nowhere near the stellar neighborhood anymore, that’s for sure.” She stopped, and looked up for answers on the ceiling. “Topdown.” Project Topdown is a special endeavor that Earth created in order to map and understand this local region of the universe. Two arrays of eleven telescopes each were sent off into the voids on either side of the Milky Way. They each had their own mandates, but combined, they should be able to tell the entire story of the galaxy, and beyond. It was launched from the Gatewood Collective about ten years ago. The data wasn’t accessible by most people yet, especially since there wouldn’t be much information to pick from at this time, but the relevant time travelers were given VIP early access. She shook her head. “We’re farther than even they can see.” She sighed. “Let me try to find Sagittarius A-star.” She kept fiddling with the instruments.
“Hey, guys?” Belahkay was looking through a side viewport, trying to get a better angle on what he was seeing.
Sharice was the only one to take notice. “What is it?”
“Hell. If I. Know.” He stepped back to let her see.
“Holy crap that thing is big.”
“Yeah, I see it now. Or rather them.” Mirage had gotten control of attitude for the most part, but they were still drifting. The profoundly gargantuan megastructure was now visible through the forward ports as well. “I’m scanning it too. Three nested rings. We’re on a trajectory to crash into one of them in the next couple of days, assuming they don’t start moving, which I believe they are supposed to. They look like an aerotrim.”
“What are they?” Brooke asked.
“A threat.” Mirage turned away from the controls. “I found our black hole. I know where we are. We’re around seventeen thousand light years from Toliman, on the top edge of the galaxy, looking down at the spirals from the void.” She waved her hand towards the floor, and made it disappear behind a hologram. There it was, the galaxy from a short distance. “This shouldn’t be here. We’re in trouble.”
“What makes this a threat, knowing where we are?” Belahkay asked.
“We’re too far from civilization to be seeing signs of civilization,” Mirage began to explain, “especially of this magnitude. I don’t know the purpose of these rings, but they’re designed to generate a massive electromagnetic field, and there’s something very familiar about the data from my scans.”
Sharice stepped over to the console to look over the data herself. After a few minutes, she figured something out. “Antimatter. It’s a giant antimatter containment field. And by giant, I mean the size of a star.”
“Oh my God,” Mirage said. “It was a star. It was an antistar.”
“I thought those were just a myth,” Belahkay said.
“We never really knew. From the outside, they look like regular stars, or we assumed they would. Even these days, scientists haven’t figured out how to tell for sure that they’re looking at an antistar, and it’s not particularly an area of interest for me. I can tell you that, due to their very nature, they would have to be like this, distant from anything else. So not only did someone come all the way out here long before they ought to be, they found the first confirmed antistar in the universe, and engineered a way to contain it. I sure would like to determine who the hell they are.”
“What was its connection to Toliman?” Sharice questioned. “That’s obviously why it’s been destroyed, because there was some kind of link, which became unstable, and led to their mutual annihilation.”
“We did this,” Brooke noted. “We destabilized the link. I don’t know why it was there in the first place, but we set off a few of our own antimatter bombs, and these are the consequences.”
“We don’t have enough information yet,” Mirage said to her dismissively. “The connection to Toliman might somehow be natural, in which case, sorry, our bad. If it was created by the builders of this megastructure, on the other hand, it would be their bad. What did they need with a random orange dwarf thousands of light years away, so close to Earth, and what gave them the right to it?”
Belahkay shrugged. “Let’s ask.”
“Ask who?” Brooke asked.
He pointed. “Them.”
A capital ship was heading right for them from the direction of the nearest containment ring. As it approached, a swarm of smaller ships broke off, and fell into an envelope formation. Mirage zoomed in to get a better look at them. They looked like flying police cruisers, complete with the red and blue flashing lights on the roof. All four of them looked at each other incredulously.
Mirage opened a drawer in the back of the bridge, and pulled out a stylish harness vest. “Take off your top.” Once Belahkay complied, she fitted the vest over his head. “Let me know if you ever want to upgrade your substrate. Until then, this vest mimics some of our most important features, like increased strength, durability, and a little speed. It also has limited teleportation capabilities.”
Belahkay intuitively pulled on the chest straps to tighten them up, and tight they became. He screeched in pain as a surge of energy rippled through his body. It only lasted for a few seconds, though, and he felt all right again.
“Oh, yeah, it’s gonna hurt a little bit,” Mirage added.
Belahkay rolled his eyes, and struggled to put his shirt back on. “Thanks.”
Sharice helped him secure his clothes over his new superhero suit, and then started to gently massage his shoulders.
The flying police held their position around the Vellani. Once the main ship was closer, a call came in on an open channel. “Unidentified foreign vessel. Please respond.
Mirage snapped her fingers. “This is Captain Mirage Matic of the Stateless Private Vessel Iman Vellani, go ahead.”
Please prepare to be boarded. You may make it easier on yourselves by extending an airlock, but it is not wholly necessary.
“Boarding us will not be necessary either,” Mirage replied to the voice. “I know where we can talk.” She started to do some finger tuts that no one else in the room understood. The last movement featured her fingers tightly pressed against their respective thumbs, and slowly drawn away from their opposites like ripping a piece of paper in half. A section of the Vellani separated itself from the rest of the ship simultaneously, and started to float away. “Teleport into it,” she said to the crew only.
“Better not test your new power in the vacuum of space,” Sharice said to Belahkay after Mirage and Brooke were gone. She took him by the hand, and transported him.
Once they were all on the separated section, Mirage did some more finger tuts. The rest of the Vellani disappeared.
“Is it invisible, or did you teleport it away?”
“Both,” Mirage answered. She snapped her fingers again. “You may dock with my Ambassador Detachment,” she explained. “If you’ll send us your boarding specifications first, I can modify my airlock to accommodate for its unfamiliar dimensions.”
The voice waited to respond. “Very well, but we are not happy about it. We are starting these discussions on a bad egg. You will not be retaining the advantage.
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Mirage closed the channel. “What do eggs have to do with anything?”
“Since when were you a Matic?” Brooke asked Mirage accusatorily.
“It felt like I needed a surname, and his was the first I came up with. Mateo and I were very close once. Like, real close.” A long time ago, in an old timeline, Mirage was created with the directive to kill a man by the name of Mateo Matic. He managed to stop her, and she managed to stop herself. She transcended her programming, and they became friends. In a desperate play to save her life shortly thereafter, he literally swallowed some of her composite nanites. It obviously worked, which was how she was still alive today. Brooke and Sharice were not cognizant of this particular story, and Belahkay didn’t know who they were talking about.
“Gross,” Brooke said. She was partially raised by Mateo’s future wife, Leona, and still thought of her as a mother figure.
The visitors docked with the Vellani Ambassador, and came in hot with a police contingency. A man stood amongst them who was clearly in charge. He was one of only two people with a face. The other looked like his lackey. Everyone else was wearing an opaque helmet. “To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?” Mirage asked.
“I am Ex-10. Are you the ones who destroyed the Red Heart of Exis?”
Mirage looked over through the nearest viewport. “Probably.”
“We didn’t do it on purpose. Have you ever heard of Alpha Centauri B?”
The leader guy’s lackey tapped on a tablet. “Origin plus 4.”
“That was our counterstar,” Ex-10 said cryptically.
Mirage emulated clearing her throat. “It wasn’t your anything. It belonged to the stellar neighborhood.”
“We are vonearthans, same as you. We had ever right to channel baryonic particles through the portal at will.”
“You are not vonearthans,” Mirage argued. “You couldn’t be. How did you come to be this far out?”
“Human ingenuity, and the visionary leadership of our Emperor, the Great Bronach Oaksent.” He stood there proudly, clearly under the impression that the crew of the Vellani should bow in fright at the sound of his magnificent name.
“Who?” Mirage questioned jokingly, doing her best impression of Djimon Hounsou’s Korath.
Ex-10 came this close to growling at her.
“I suppose you’ll want to kill us now,” Sharice guessed.
“Don’t give them any ideas,” Brooke warned.
“Oh, as if they needed my help getting there.”
“Silence!” Ex-10 ordered. “You cannot die yet. You must replace what you broke.”
“I’m sorry to tell you, Toliman collided with your antistar through the portal that you created. Those there stars are gone. Destroyed. Kaput. Annihilated.”
“We are aware of how matter-antimatter reactions work. My father’s father’s father’s father was responsible for building the Hearth Rings.” He looked up at the rings in reverence. “We found a suitable replacement. It was going to be our backup Heart, but thanks to you, our plans must be expedited. You will serve the Exin Empire in that capacity until the job is done. If your lifetimes are too short for the job, accommodations will be made to extend your lives.”
“How long did these take to be built?”
“Roughly four hundred years,” he answered.
“Pshaw,” Mirage laughed. “I can do it in two hundred. Hell, hundo-fitty.”
Ex-10 narrowed his eyes at her ominously. “I will hold you to that. But you might want to think about the fact that it will take us roughly 33 years just to get there.” He jerked his head to signal to his men that they could file back out of the room. “We will send you the details, including the coordinates to the new antistar that needs to be protected. Any attempt to diverge from the path will be met with excruciating pain, but not death. You will not be allowed to die until we’re done with you.”
Mirage nodded like that was nothing more than a word of caution, instead of what it really was, which was a major threat.
They waited for the boarders to leave before speaking again. “We’re going to surrender to their demands?” Brooke questioned.
“Just look at them,” Sharice reasoned. “If the way they look and act doesn’t scream bad guys, I don’t know what does. That man had a number, not a name.”
“They’re right,” Mirage explained. “We’re responsible for what happened to their antistar. Besides, I’m a follower of Leona’s Rules for Time Travel. Rule Number Fifteen, don’t antagonize the antagonist.
“I don’t want to be stuck here for a hundred and fifty years,” Belahkay admitted.
“Don’t worry,” Sharice assured him. “She pulled that number out of her ass.”
Mirage looked over her shoulder at her own ass as if Sharice meant her comment literally. “I don’t know who these people are, or how they came to be here, but there are things I know about the future which no one can escape. When the time comes, the antistar containment rings we build will change hands swiftly anyway. Besides, I like a challenge. As for you, Belahkay, we won’t be doing anything by hand anyway. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, because the robots are the ones who will be doing the actual heavy lifting. You won’t have to do a single thing yourself.”
A nearby console beeped. Brooke stepped over to look at it. “Directions to the new antistar. It’s about 23,000 light years away, deeper into the void.”
Mirage nodded. “Yeah, that’ll take around 33 years with a reframe engine at maximum speed. These people must have access to such tech as well. I find that concerning considering that it was just invented recently. They didn’t even offer us a ride, which means they either know we have one as well, or they presume we do. Either one is bad. I don’t like them being able to scan my ship, and I don’t like the possible ubiquity of the technology.”
“So, what do we do?” Belahkay asked. “What can I do? I’ll be an old man in 33 years. I wanted to have an adventure, not sit on a ship for most of the rest of my life.”
“There’s plenty to do,” Mirage explained. “Don’t worry about aging. We can place your body in stasis, and your mind in a surrogate substrate. Or you can just be in stasis. We can all go dormant for stretches of downtime. We’ll play it by ear.”
“Hold on,” Brooke jumped in. “We’ve not even decided if we should really be doing this. The Vellani can turn invisible and teleport. There must be a way to escape without any hope of them pursuing us.”
“Again,” Mirage began, “we don’t know what kind of technology they have. How about we try to gather more information first? We have a few decades to change our minds. Let’s reconnect the detachment, and start heading that way. Sound fair?”

Phase Two (Part III)

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image Duet AI software
The year: 2283. After traveling at maximum reframe speeds for 33 years, they were at the new antistar. Like the first one, it was located in the intergalactic void, which was the safest place for it. If any particle from it encountered any particle of regular matter, they would annihilate each other. Fortunately, there is really no such thing as an antiphoton, or simply seeing the light emanating from an antistar would destroy you. They were orbiting at a safe distance, but keeping their EM shield up at all times for safety. They sacrificed less essential systems, like lighting and life support. Belahkay could survive by limiting himself to a small section of the ship, and he was posthuman enough to manage with less than an OG human. The other three didn’t need much at all.
Photons were not the only particles that came out of stars, and those would be quite dangerous. That was why the antistar was so lonesome. Any one that tried to form closer to other celestial bodies would end up being annihilated sooner or later. Being that the universe was created over fourteen billion years ago, the chances of an antistar surviving inside of a galaxy were low, and the probability would only decrease.
During the ride over here, all four of the crew stayed in VR stasis pretty much the whole time. This left their normal substrates in dormant, energy-saving mode—or in Belahkay’s case, metabolic suspension—but their minds active. They spent most of that time constructing new simulated worlds in a shared virtual environment. They could theoretically connect themselves to the quantum grid, and interact with other people in the galaxy, but they didn’t want to risk leading people to this region of the Milky Way. Yeah, anyone capable of traversing these vast distances in any reasonable amount of time would almost certainly be a part of the time traveler underground anyway, but there was no reason to put anyone in any unnecessary danger. The Exins had the ability to form portals between stars, like the one they used to maintain a connection between the original antistar, and Alpha Centaurus B, so that was another reason to leave everyone else out of the line of fire.
As far as the Exins themselves went, the crew tried to learn more about them, and how they came to be this far out from Earth, but they were not able to learn much. They tried to hack into their communications system, but there didn’t appear to be one. Surely their escort vessel has some way to maintain contact with the rest of their empire, but their means of accomplishing this was not readily apparent. That escort ship occasionally pinged the Iman Vellani to make sure that it was still on course, and of course, it always was. They made no attempt to escape, and that was partly due to the fact that none of them had seen an antistar before, and this may be the only opportunity to get up close and personal with one. One thing that their escorts did decide to tell them was that both of the two antistars they managed to locate were incredibly unstable. This could be for any number of reasons, ranging from the possibility that antimatter itself was inherently unstable in mass quantities, to just the fact that some stars were less stable than others. On cosmic timescales, a star dying out after a few millions years would certainly be something to write home about, but it could be quite common in the world of anti-celestials. There just wasn’t enough known about them.
“Yep. That is an antistar,” Mirage said admiringly. “I can’t believe I’m seeing one. She’s beautiful.”
Belahkay pointed to a blip on the screen. “What’s that over there?”
Sharice stepped forward, and zoomed in. “Holy shit, it’s a planet. It’s a gas giant.”
“That’s so unlikely,” Mirage noted. She looked through the data as well. “I think...I think it’s made of antimatter too.”
“An antiplanet,” Brooke mused. “In every sense of the word. You could send that hurtling through space, and completely annihilate any target you wanted.”
“By you,” Mirage figured, “you mean these Exins.”
“We should be quite worried about that,” Brooke confirmed. “They might be able to do it with the star itself anyway, but it’s so powerful, I think they probably want to keep it on hand for their regular needs. An antiplanet might seem like a tolerable sacrifice as a single projectile against a major enemy. It could decimate an interstellar-based civilization. How would you stop it once it was on its way?”
“What are we talking about here?” Sharice asked. “Are we going to destroy it?”
“We could throw it into the sun,” Belahkay suggested. “We would just be adding to their antimatter stockpile, not taking anything away. They appear to be more interested in staying hidden than picking a fight with outsiders. If we do this, and they argue, how might they explain why they’re so mad about it if not to use it as a weapon?”
“As Mirage has pointed out, they’re holding the cards,” Brooke began. “They may not feel obliged to explain why they wouldn’t want us to destroy the antiplanet, or they might go ahead and admit that they would like to keep it as a weapon, because they don’t think there’s anything we could do to stop them.”
“They’re wrong,” Mirage declared.
We know that, but how could we convince them that we’re not just going to roll over and do whatever they want without making any decisions?” Brooke questioned.
Mirage nodded slightly as she was thinking about it. “Destroying the antiplanet. That will send the message that, just because they’ve demanded we do something for them, and that we’re actually going to do it, doesn’t mean we’ve lost all agency.” They spent much of their time during the last 33 years debating whether they would go through with this at all, and they settled on doing it, instead of running. Again, this might be a once in an eon opportunity, and while the Exins may have control over it now, that might not be so true in the future. Based on Mirage’s once-godlike knowledge of the future, other, far more powerful civilizations, would be stepping on stage relatively soon. The Exins were probably still nothing compared to the likes of the Fifth Division, and the Parallelers.
“The Iman Vellani is impressive,” Sharice admitted. “But I’ve been up and down its systems, and it can’t move a planet, let alone an antiplanet.”
“This isn’t something that’s going to be done tomorrow. While we’re constructing the containment rings, we’ll also construct a modified stellar engine, fitted with a forward-facing EM generator to push the planet.”
“Ah, it’s a test,” Belahkay realized.
“What? They’re just testing us?” Sharice asked him.
“No, moving the planet can be a test. It’s small, we can argue that it’s insignificant. We need to make sure that it’s both possible and feasible to engineer the rings, and one way we could do that would be to build this modified stellar engine first. So when they ask us why we’re doing it, that’s our excuse.”
“They already know that it works,” Mirage explained. “They devised the rings in the first place, for use around the first antistar.”
“We didn’t see that,” Belahkay contended. “They didn’t send us any data from the operation of the original rings. All we have to go on are the specifications for the rings themselves. Nothing about that proves that they actually function properly. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to let us test the technology out with a prototype first. It shouldn’t take up any extra time. Like you’ve said, this is all going to be automated. It’s not like we’re building it brick by brick. We’ll program some robots to build the rings, and others to build the prototype simultaneously.”
A call came in. It was Ex-10. “That’s enough gawking. Now that you know we’re telling the truth about the antistar, please proceed to the nearest regular star system for your raw materials, and begin processing immediately. You only have about a century to get it done.
“We have a hundred and fifty years,” Mirage argued.
That’s not what we agreed upon.
“The time hasn’t started until now, upon reaching the star for initial inspection and observation,” Mirage insisted. “You’ll agree to this, or you’ll have nothing. We’re prepared to die on this hill, and we’ll take as many of you with us on our way down. Then you’ll have to build it yourselves. Sounds like a lot of work. You’ll still be over two hundred years ahead of schedule, so stop complaining, and let us do what we do.”
There was a long pause before Ex-10 replied. “Very well. Be finished by 2434. I tacked on an extra year as a sign of good faith.
Mirage took a beat before responding too. “We appreciate that.”
Sending you the coordinates to the nearest second star system. We recommend you cannibalize it for your self-replicating machines. We assume that’s how you’ll gather the reset of the raw materials for the rings. That’s how it was done the first time centuries ago.
“I’m sure we’ll do something similar,” Mirage agreed, “but faster.”
We look forward to it,” Ex-10 said before he hung up.
“All right!” Mirage clapped her hands together. “Do work, son.”
It took them about three weeks to get to the staging star system using the reframe engine. The yellow dwarf that was not unlike Sol was located on the outer edge of the Milky Way galaxy. It was here that they built more than two thousand nanofactory ships out of an orbiting asteroid field. Each of these ships had their own reframe engine, so they could go out to other nearby star systems. Some of them had to travel as far as fifteen light years, but that only took them around a week. Bringing all of the materials back was going to be the big chore here. The reframe engine was not something that could be scaled very well. It wasn’t constrained to a single size, but there was still a limit to it, and the mass of a terrestrial planet was well beyond that limit. Even so, each was only responsible for that one system, so the automators only had to build celestial thrusters for themselves. These were giant rockets that propelled the planets through space. While they couldn’t get back to the crew in only a week, they were able to accelerate to high relativistic speeds. The whole second phase of the project only took 50 years, which wasn’t too bad considering. This would leave them with 100 years.
Since the specifications for the rings were already done, this plan was decided upon over the 33 years that it took them to arrive in this region of space. Everything was correct, and ready to go. Those automators worked smoothly on their own, sending back periodic updates, and error reports. In the meantime, they learned that they needed something else. There was one component that could not be found around any old star. In fact, it was only on one planet. And that planet...was inhabited.

Crystal Clear (Part IV)

Generated by Google Workspace Labs text-to-image Duet AI software
Over a half century into Phase Two of the project, Ex-10 messaged the crew of the Iman Vellani with the additional plans for the antistar containment rings. When Mirage asked him why the plans were changed, he told her that they weren’t. He just chose not to divulge everything all at once. She asked whether there was anything else that he wasn’t telling them yet, but he refused to respond. What a dick. Hopefully, any further changes wouldn’t disrupt their progress, or force them to alter course. Fortunately, they had not yet begun Phase Three, which involved actually building the structures using the materials that they were procuring from the nearby star systems. Even if they had, it would have probably been okay. The new plans called for an extra layer of material on the inside of the rings.
“Hypercubic crystal lattice?” Belahkay asked. “Forgive me for my ignorance, but what the hell is that?”
“No,” Mirage assured him, “you’re not the only ignorant one. I’ve never heard of it either. I know what a hypercube is, and I know what a crystal lattice is, but a hypercubic crystal lattice? Sharice, what does it say?”
“It’s a special material. Incredibly rare. They’ve only found it in two planets.”
In two planets?” Brooke echoed.
“It’s evidently only located deep in the core,” Sharice replied. “It doesn’t form naturally anywhere else. We’ll have to rip the whole thing apart to get to it.”
“Shouldn’t be too hard. What exactly is it?”
“It doesn’t say,” Sharice explained, “but if it’s what it sounds like, my guess is that it manipulates time in some way? Maybe it protects it from future or past tampering? Damn, I don’t know. There’s barely anything in this document.”
“Well, how far away is the nearest world that has this stuff?”
“Uhh, 707 light years,” Sharice answered.
“It will take us exactly one year to get there with the reframe engine. How convenient. Belahkay, how are the automators?”
It was his job to manage all of the machines that were spread throughout this sector of the galaxy. He synthesized error reports, and coordinated arrangements to get the project back on track. “It’s been four months since the last issue, and that one wasn’t that big of a deal, we just lost a chunk of one planet. It wouldn’t have slowed down the project.”
“You can keep an eye on the progress on the ride. We’ll all go to this magical fourth-dimensional planet, and see what we see.”

A year later, the Vellani was in orbit over the planet, which they discovered to be inhabited. Ubiquitous plant life was visible with the naked eye. There were billions of bodies of water, and evidence of seasonal shifts. The surface gravity was decently suitable for human life. Oh yeah, and there was human life there. A small settlement was found, and a closer look proved that people were currently living there. Something had happened somewhat recently, though. Most of the buildings had been severely damaged in an explosion. A few of the structures, which had been built farther from the apparent epicenter, managed to stay whole, including a perimeter fence. There was also one more thing that they saw when they zoomed in.
“It’s a time mirror,” Mirage noted.
“People are coming out of it, one by one,” Belahkay noticed.
“They’re armed,” Brooke pointed out. “They’re either about to attack the settlement, or protect it from someone else’s attack.”
“Can they see us? Do they think that we’re a threat?” Sharice asked, worried.
“I see no sign of space observation technology. We’re shielded by the daylight.”
Belahkay pointed at the screen. “Oh, look at that.”
A figure was running out of the ruins of the bombed out settlement. It ran straight through the gate of the fence, and towards the mirror. Just before it could make it through, the mirror exploded. “Whoa!” they all shouted in unison. The explosion sent everyone flying in all directions, no one farther from it than the person who had been running towards it. They were thrown all the way across the field, over the fence, across the interior field, and then back into the ruins of the settlement. There was no way that person survived that.
“Oh my God, what did we just witness?” Sharice asked, horrified.
Determined, Mirage stepped over to the corner, opened a secret compartment, and revealed a cache of weapons.
“Those have been here the whole time?” Brooke scolded.
“Yes, mom. Here’s yours.” She tried to hand her one of the rifles.
“No. Never again.”
Mirage tried to hand it to Sharice, who also refused, as did Belahkay. She growled. “If you don’t arm up, you’re not going down to the surface.”
“Stop us,” Brooke goaded. Then she disappeared.
Sharice looked at Mirage awkwardly, and then followed her mother. Belahkay stepped over and reached into the cache. He took out a handgun, and hid it inside his vest. “I got your back.”
They teleported down together, meeting the other two in the crowd of bodies near where the mirror once stood. They fanned out, and approached a body each. “Ex-088-GL0821,” Mirage called out.
“Ex-088-GL0403,” Sharice returned.
“Where I’m from,” Belahkay said, “this patch would be for the wearer’s name.”
“Yeah. I think it’s the same for them. These people belong to the Exin Empire, almost surely some kind of military force.”
“Ex-10 must be pretty important if he’s as low a number as he is, and these guys are named in nine figures,” Sharice decided.
“I imagine it’s far more complicated than just one through a billion,” Brooke guessed.
“I don’t have your fancy sensors. Are they all dead?” Belahkay asked.
“Yeah, they are,” Mirage confirmed. “No human lifesigns. So unless one of them is an alien, we should go into the ruins, and see if anyone there is still alive.”
They teleported away to find four people. The woman from the mirror explosion was lying on her back on the ground, just as they saw her. They thought that she had landed on the other side of a statue, but it was gone, and another woman was lying face down on top of her. She was completely naked. They were both breathing, but cut up from the glass that they shared, embedded in their skin. Two children were huddled together nearby.
“Sharice, take the wounded up to the infirmary, and place them each in a medical pod. Then you can come back. I’ll keep an eye on them from here.”
Of all of them, Brooke was the softest. She cautiously went over to the children. “Hey. It’s okay. We’re not gonna hurt you. Are these your parents?”
The kids were six, maybe seven years old, but they didn’t seem too terribly scared. The boy shook his head. He gently elbowed the girl in the arm. She pulled something out of her pocket, and held it up. It was a rock.
“You want me to have this?” Brooke asked. She carefully stepped forward, and took it from the girl.
“My mom’s in there,” the boy said.
Brooke moved it around in her hand, and then reached back to hand it to Mirage.
“It’s a homestone.” Mirage bent over, and looked the boy in the eyes. “Did you use this to get here, or were you going to use it to go somewhere else?”
She used it to get here,” the boy explained. He took a rock out of his own pocket. “I used this one. I came alone. She came with my mom.”
“Don’t mix them up,” Mirage advised. “Homestones are identical. We’re not even sure that it’s not just the same stone at different points in spacetime. If one of them contains his mom, we have to work with the right one.”
“It could contain his mom?” Brooke questioned. “How’s that?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never heard of it, but I believe him. If he says that the girl and her mother came together, then something must have happened to the mom.”
“She’s not her mother,” the boy corrected. “She’s my mother, but we’re not siblings. It’s just that we both first traveled through time at the same time.”
“I see,” Mirage said. “You sound older than you look.”
“It’s been several years for me,” the boy—or rather, the young man—explained. “She’s older than she looks too, but even when she was older, she looked young.
Mirage nodded, and turned to the other three. “The homestone takes you back to where you were when you first experienced nonlinear time. It reyoungifies you to the age that you were, but it doesn’t undo history. It potentially gives you a second chance at life, but whatever originally happened after that moment still took place in the timeline.” She sighed, and looked over the girl’s stone. “You can take passengers with you, but it’s not the safest way to travel. Again, I’ve never heard of someone getting stuck, but I can’t rule it out.” She turned back to the young man. “Can I take this to test it?”
He nodded.
“What are your names?” Brooke asked.
“I’m Aristotle. This is Niobe Schur.”
Niobe cupped her hands over Aristotle’s ear.
“She can talk,” he told the crew. “She just doesn’t like to meet new people. When she gets to know you, she’ll warm up to you.”
“Well, what did she say?” Belahkay asked him.
“She doesn’t go by a name anymore. She goes by a number. I’m trying to fix that.”
“So this planet is in the Exin Empire,” Mirage reasoned.
Aristotle’s eyes narrowed. “No. This belongs to the Extremusians. The Exins are just the ones who kidnapped us, and forced us to live in the Goldilocks Corridor.”
“My mistake,” Mirage said apologetically.
“The women you took up to your ship,” Aristotle went on. “One of them is First Chair Tinaya Leithe. She’s very important. I don’t know who the naked one is.”
“Aristotle! Niobe!” A third adult woman was running towards them from a path that went through the forest behind the settlement. “Oh my God!”
The crew stepped back instinctually to make themselves look less like a threat.
The woman hugged the children, and frowned at the crew, trying to stop crying. “I saw the patches. You’re Oaksent’s people.”
Mirage shook her head. “We’re not part of them. Well, to be fair, we work for them, but we had no idea they came here. We were not told that this was a populated planet. They asked us to procure a rare component for something we’re building for them due to a debt that must be paid.”
“Another weapon of theirs, no doubt,” the woman spit.
Mirage sighed. “It’s possible. It’s possible in the way that a car can be used as a weapon if the driver chooses that.”
“We mean you no harm,” Brooke added. “Your friends are healing on our ship.”
The woman wiped tears from her eyes, and looked at the young man. “I thought that they had taken you. I couldn’t find you. No more hide-and-seek. It’s too dangerous.”
“We were taken, mom,” Aristotle said to her sadly. “The Captain rescued us, but when she tried to take us back through the mirror, we didn’t end up on the Extremus.” He paused. “We’re from the future. He handed her his homestone.”
“You’re his mother?” Mirage asked.
“She’s my Past!Mother,” Aristotle explained. “My Future!Mother, from the other timeline, she is indeed in that stone. I can feel her.”
The mother stood up straight, and composed herself. “My name is Lilac. Can you get my alternate self out of there?”
“I can try,” Mirage answered. “ I promise nothing, but I have cloning tech in the Vellani. Your DNA would do us a lot of good in that department if your alt has lost her original substrate.”
Lilac pulled her sleeves up. “Take however much blood you need.”
They all teleported up to the ship in orbit. While Belahkay monitored the other women’s progress in the medical pods, Mirage started to take readings from the homestone. They needed to find out if a consciousness really was trapped in there, and whether it was intact. Sharice took her own mother aside for a private conversation. “It’s clear to me that we can’t take this hypercubic lattice stuff out of the core of this world. The only way to extract it is to destroy the whole thing.”
“I know,” Brooke agreed. “I just accessed the updated records. The Extremus launched from Gatewood, and is moving at maximum reframe. It’s literally impossible for us to ever catch up to it. I think they had a time mirror on board, and were using that to travel back and forth through a portal. If these people don’t want to leave with us, they’ll have to stay here. This is their world, we have no right to it. More to the point, the Exins don’t have any right.”
“What do we do?”
“We protect them, at all costs. If Mirage’s explanation of how the homestones work is right, those military guys connected to this mirror from a different point in time. That’s probably what blew it up; they got the wires crossed. If we can stop them from ever attempting to override the original connection—”
“We can prevent the attack on the settlement,” Sharice guessed.
“That woman,” Brooke began, “the...First Chair. She knows something. She was running for that mirror for a reason. We need to talk to her when she wakes up.”
“She’s awake,” Belahkay announced.

Only a Stone’s Throw Away (Part V)

Generated by Google Bard text-to-image AI software, powered by Imagen 2
First Chair of the Extremus, Tinaya Leithe was not the one who was awake. It was the other one, who had fallen on top of her naked. For her safety, it was not possible to exit the medical pod from the inside, but the woman was perfectly calm and patient. Mirage came over to address her, along with everyone else. She opened the pod, and let the patient sit up. “My name is Captain Mirage of the Stateless Private Vessel Iman Vellani.”
“Spirit Bridger of the Void Migration Ship Extremus.”
Lilac gasped. “She’s a Bridger. We’re not allowed to be here. Come on, children.” She ushered the kids out of the room.
“Are they afraid of you?” Mirage asked.
“No, I just know things that they’re not allowed to know about the secrets of our mission,” Spirit explained. “You’re not allowed to know either, so it’s not like I’m going to talk about it here. And anyway, I quit already, so that’s all behind me.”
Mirage nodded, and respectfully waited a beat. “Can you tell us what happened? Did the Exins blow up your settlement?”
“Who? The Exins? Never heard of them.”
“Bronach Oaksent,” Brooke clarified.
“Oh, that asshole. Yeah, no, this had nothing to do with him. It was an internal matter. I shouldn’t talk about it either.”
“Well, the Exins were on your planet. It looked like they were trying to attack,” Mirage told her.
“Wait, what year is it?”
“It’s 2341 by the Earthan calendar,” Sharice answered.
“Oh, I’ve been gone for a year,” Spirit realized. “This explosion you speak of must have been pretty devastating. Did anyone else survive?”
“Just your friend.” Belahkay stepped out of the way to reveal Tinaya in the other pod. “The kids and the mother were elsewhere, I guess.”
Spirit looked over at her friend. “No, those wounds are fresh. Whatever happened to her was recent. As a Bridger, I was part of the Phoenix Program, which can reconstitute a user after they have been completely vaporized. It just takes time. A year sounds about right, I suppose. I’ve never needed it before. She’s not part of it, though, so do everything you can to save her.”
“She’s stable,” Mirage said. “However, evidently the pod is having trouble removing the glass. Each time it tries to remove a shard, it digs in deeper, like it’s alive.”
Spirit was confused. “Glass? As in literal glass? We don’t construct with glass. It’s too much work. We use polycarbonate or transparent metal. Wait.” Her eyes widened. “What happened to the time mirror?”
“Oh, that was destroyed in some kind of powerful explosion,” Mirage replied. “Miss Leithe was right in front of it.”
Madam Leithe,” Spirit corrected. “She was married. Where’s Arqut?”
“We didn’t find anyone else,” Brooke said.
“Unless he was one of the Exin soldiers.”
Spirit shook her head. “No, he’s not involved in that. Of course, I’ve been gone for a year, so maybe he infiltrated them, but probably not. He serves as the Superintendent.”
The three ladies exchanged a look. Belahkay didn’t understand why.
Spirit chuckled once. “Not that Superintendent. He runs our local government.” She took a deep breath. “Anyway, what is an Alpha Centauri ship built in the 23rd century doing all the way out here?”
“You’ve heard of the Iman Vellani?” Sharice asked.
“You’re a matter of historical record. The books lost track of you, though. I guess now we know why.”
“The IV shouldn’t be famous,” Mirage contended. “That’s why I built it on Toliman, so we wouldn’t be written about.”
“Everything gets written about,” Spirit said dismissively. She tucked her legs up to her chest, so she could roll out of the pod.
“Do you want some clothes?” Brooke offered.
“Don’t worry about it.” Spirit took a breath. “I’m craving fudge, though. Do you have any fudge?”
“I have a food synthesizer,” Belahkay exclaimed. “I’m surrogating right now, but I still have an organic body.”
“That sounds lovely. Go back to your body, let’s eat some together.” She took him by the arm like they were on a first date, and let him begin to lead her out. “Please alert me if and when Tinaya’s condition changes. Do you have a shower too?” she asked Belahkay once they were out in the hallway. “The pod did its best, but...”
“I have a sonic mister, and a soaker.”
Sometime during Spirit’s bath and fudge meal, which may or may not have happened at the same time, she realized that she hadn’t asked the crew why they were here. Belahkay tried to explain it, but he didn’t know all that much about this phase. He was still mostly responsible for the automators, which were doing just fine on their own, which was probably why they were called that. “He said it was a hypercubic crystal?” Spirit questioned? Like, a fourth dimensional crystalline structure?”
“Yes, have you heard of it? Did you know that it was in the core of your planet?”
Spirit looked at each of them one by one with a soft poker face, but then she couldn’t hold her fervor back any longer. She burst into riotous laughter. “The Maramon were students of temporal manipulation. Not one of them was born with time powers, and they were jealous of the humans for this, even though most humans aren’t time travelers either. Their research passed onto the Ansutahan humans living there, then later to the refugees in Gatewood, and later to the Extremusians on Extremus. If there was such a thing as hypercubic crystal, trust me, I’d-a heard of it. Sorry, kids, you got played.”
“I’m sure we’re all older than you,” Mirage argued.
“Heh. Time, right?”
“Why would the Exins demand we come here? They claim that it’s a critical component for the containment rings,” Brooke pointed out.
Spirit shrugged. “Why would it be?” These rings are just penning traps on megasteroids. Do normal containment pods contain this magical substance? And have you ever heard of any material that only exists inside of a single planet? Oh, and I suppose it’s just a coincidence that their bitter rival just so happens to have chosen this world as its Beta Site? Let me guess, the only way to extract it would be to destroy the entire rock. Am I onto something here?”
Mirage simulated a sigh. “They just wanted us to kill you.”
“Which is ridiculous,” Spirit reasoned. “There were only ever a few dozen people on that planet. They kept it a secret from the general public. I didn’t even know about it from the beginning.”
“The mirror,” Sharice began. “You set up a permanent portal with it, and a second one on your ship?”
“Semi-permanent, I believe. I wasn’t involved in that. I was just asked to go through to help Tinaya with the hostage situation.”
“A portal like that, between a planet, and a moving target, would have been difficult to maintain at best. Imagine building a walkway that leads from the street to the train. Not the train tracks, but the train itself. No matter where the train goes, you can walk onto it from the street. That link would have to be pretty robust. Ripping the planet apart may have destroyed Extremus too.”
“That still doesn’t make any sense,” Belahkay jumped in. “They know us well enough. They knew that we would investigate a planet that harbors life before doing anything with it. Finding the settlement was not hard from orbit.”
“That’s why the soldiers came through,” Mirage figured. “It was their Plan B, in case making us do it didn’t work. You’re right, it was dumb to bet on us at all. Maybe they were just hoping we would get blood on our hands?”
“The True Extremists are brutal and advanced,” Spirit said. “But they’re not too organized. We believe that their civilization is riddled with horribly chaotic compartmentalization. No one knows what the hell is going on. It’s entirely possible that Plan A was made from the stew of multiple sub-plans that were, in some cases redundant, and in others, totally contradictory.”
“Hm.” Mirage thought about this. “We can use that.”
That was when Lilac came back into the room. “I need to go back down to the planet. I have to feed the prisoner.”
“You have a prisoner?” Mirage asked. “One of the Exin soldiers?”
“No, the terrorist,” Lilac clarified. “He’s the one who blew up the settlement. I’m the Hock Watcher. I...should not have left my post at all, but the kids were missing...”
“I’ll take you back down,” Brooke volunteered.
“And can Aristotle and Niobe stay up here? They’re old enough to take care of themselves, and they won’t get into any trouble. I know—”
“It’s fine,” Mirage responded. “We’ll be here. Sharice will be most available while I look at your homestone.”
“Room for one more?” Spirit asked-slash-offered before Brooke and Lilac left.
Lilac wasn’t sure.
“As Hock Watcher, you may permit visitors at your own discretion. Of course, you may also deny.”
“No,” Lilac decided, “it’s okay. We may be stuck on Verdemus awhile, so we’re in this together.”
Belahkay jumped up. “I’ll take you!” He was a little bit too excited. Spirit was perfectly capable of teleporting on her own. “I mean, I don’t need to meet the prisoner, or anything. I just wouldn’t mind a nice walk on an inhabited planet.”
Spirit looked to Lilac for guidance.
“Why are you looking at me? I’m not in charge here.”
Spirit tilted her chin to the side slightly. “I think you are. It wouldn’t be Tinaya, if she were awake, and it’s certainly not me.”
“Isn’t that literally your job?” Lilac put forth. “To step in when all else fails?”
“This is out of my jurisdiction, and I am a Bridger in name only now.” Spirit grimaced a bit.
“Okay, anyone who wants to go down to the planet can,” Lilac decided.
Only the four of them ended up returning to the surface. In the meantime, Mirage went back to her lab, and agonized over the homestone. She had strong reason to suspect that there was indeed a person’s consciousness in there, but she couldn’t prove it. It was giving off different energy readings than the other stone was, but that was about all she could determine from her limited tests. There was no conclusive evidence of a trapped consciousness, or anything else. It could just be that different homestones were made slightly differently. A third stone would help come to some better understanding of them. As far as she ever knew from her time in another dimension where all of time and space was laid out before, no one else had ever taken the occasion to study them. They still didn’t know where they were from. Some temporal objects were designed partially through technology. Others were normal objects imbued with power. These appeared to be categorized as the latter, but as a stone with no moving parts, nor complex internal structure, it was unlike even those. Even the Escher Knob only worked when you used it as a doorknob. The stone evidently activated by being squeezed, coupled with psychic intention. What the hell did that even mean?
Mirage leaned back in her chair, as if she needed to rest in a chair, and massaged her chin, as if she could feel it through biological nerves. There was one test that could not be done from here. It would require her to go somewhere else, and she had to go there alone. She didn’t want to do that, though. It could seriously screw things up for everyone; not just the crew, or the Verdemusians, but literally everyone in the universe. Just then, someone who looked very much like Mirage came down the hall, and stood in the doorway. Mirage looked over at her, unshocked at the development. “Yeah, Okay. I’ll do it. Blindspot, I guess.”
The other Mirage smiled, and didn’t speak.
Mirage initiated her internal comms device. “Brooke. I think this is going to work, but in case it doesn’t, you’re in charge.”
What? What are you going to do?
“The other Lilac is stuck in a dimension that can only be accessed by this rock, and you can’t access it unless you use it.”
Brooke teleported into the lab. “Wait!”
Mirage squeezed the stone, and thought about her past. Before she knew it, she was falling from a few meters in the air, and into the water. She sank a little before inflating her buoyancy compensator, and rising back up to the surface. The lake was packed with people on boats who were all very confused about what had just happened. She looked around to get her bearings, recognizing the geography right away. This was indeed Sherwood Lake in Topeka, Kansas, which was where she was when she accidentally fell into another dimension while saving Mateo and Leona’s lives.
She looked over, and breathed a fake sigh of relief when she saw someone she recognized. It was Lilac. Her plan worked; no clone body, nor crazy time tech required. All she had needed to do was activate the stone again, and trigger a new point of egress. The problem was, if these stones worked the way she understood them to, it was going to be rather difficult to get back to where they were. It should be the year 2036.

Back to the Future (Part VI)

Generated by Google Gemini Advanced text-to-image AI software, powered by Imagen 2
Mirage swam over to Lilac, who was scared and nervous, but not panicking yet. She hitched a ride when Niobe used the homestone to go from somewhere in the Goldilocks Corridor, back to her home on Verdemus. This couldn’t be Verdemus, because there were too many people, and too many houses by the shore, and also, Niobe was nowhere to be found. “Lilac. My name is Mirage. I’m going to explain everything, but first, you should know that both Niobe and your son, Aristotle are perfectly safe. They’re fine, and I’m going to get you back to them, okay?”
“Okay. Where are we?”
“Topeka, Kansas, 2036.”
“Niobe has never been to Topeka, Kansas, 2036.”
“I know. This is my homestone destination. For some reason, you were unable to exit the stone, so I activated it myself, hoping to get you out with a new trip. Think of it like rebooting a computer to clear out the memory.”
“Hey, are you two all right?” A dude in a tank top was standing on the edge of his boat, holding a paddle, apparently ready to pull them in if need be. It was April, so not a great time for swimming, but the day was rather warm.
“We’re cool, dawg!” Mirage replied.
He winced, but respected their personal bubbles.
“So, that could have deleted my file?” Lilac assumed. “It could have killed me?”
“Yes, I took a risk. It was probably fifty-fifty, but know this too, there is already a Lilac on Verdemus in 2341. She’s taking care of the kids. She either has not left to ultimately become you in her future, or she never will, because we’re in a new timeline.”
“Right. I don’t know much about how this stuff works, but I tried not to think about Past!Lilac. I just wanted to see my son again.”
“You will. It will take us 300 years to get there, but I will return you to him.”
“We should start by getting out of the water. I suppose it’s a coincidence, and that Maqsud Al-Amin isn’t here too?”
“No, sorry, it’s a coincidence.” Maqsud Al-Amin, also known as The Trotter, was capable of traveling profoundly vast distances from planet to planet. He found it easier to accomplish the task by starting in a sufficiently voluminous body of water. Sherwood Lake would do. Mirage didn’t know whether Lilac simply knew this about him, or if she had some other reason to suspect that he might be involved. She chose not to push it.
Lilac started to breaststroke towards the shore. “He’s Aristotle’s father.”
Oh, interesting. How come Mirage didn’t know this? She was losing her edge. Too much of the timeline must have changed since she left the Gallery Dimension to become a real girl. She would have to make peace with that.
They climbed out of the lake, and shook off a little. Some other people tried to hand them towels, but they were just going to air dry. They walked with each other up the road until they were hidden enough from view for Mirage to teleport them both away from here.
They landed in the middle of the concourse of the Salmon Civic Center, which was a secret hidden section of a building that only time travelers had access to. There was a bank, a post office, and even a weekend club, among other things. If you were a time traveler in need of help in the 21st century or later, and The Constant was inaccessible, for whatever reason, the SCC was the place to go. It existed on a secret subterranean floor underneath a strip mall on The Plaza. A man power walked up to them. “Good morning. My name is Konstantin Orlov. Do you require any immediate medical attention?”
Mirage looked over at Lilac, who replied with, “I’m fine.”
When Kostantin switched his gaze to Mirage, she replied, “I’m an android.”
“I see. Well, I’m here to help you navigate the Center, or try to help you with anything else you may need. Right now, it’s 11:24 Central Standard Time on April 13, 2036, in Kansas City, Missouri, United States of America, Earth. Have you ever been to the 2030s before?”
Mirage pointed. “I have, she hasn’t.”
“Do you have any questions about the current level of technology or cultural dynamics?”
“I’ve studied the history,” Lilac said dismissively.
“Great!” Kostantin exclaimed. “What is the specific nature of your visit today?”
“We need to get to the future,” Mirage began to explain. “Do you have any available time travelers, or access to stasis pods?”
He tilted his head to the side. “We do have a few pods, but they are currently in use. Unfortunately, we have been limited to only those few by, uhh...certain powerful forces. We are working on securing authorization for more, but I couldn’t tell you when that may happen. In the meantime, have you tried The Constant?”
“I would rather not involve The Concierge in this.” The Constant was like the Salmon Civic Center, but it was highly exclusive, and a hell of a lot older. Anyone who knew the SCC was here could get in, unless specifically banned. Even if you had once enjoyed the amenities and security of The Constant, you were not necessarily allowed to return. The rules were impossible to know. You just had to try, and hope for the best, but Mirage didn’t want to even try unless they had no other choice.
“I understand.” He had this polite customer service representative thing down. “In that case, you might want to speak with the Travel Agents. They will take down your information, and try to connect you with someone who might be able to jump you into the future. I must warn you, not everyone is met with a favorable transaction. Payment is often cost-prohibitive for people.” In the world of time travelers, cost was a far more complicated concept. They almost never dealt in such petty trivialities as fiat currency, or even precious gems or metals. It was sometimes a favor that the provider couldn’t do for themselves, and sometimes a sacrifice that didn’t technically need to be done, but the point was for the customer to lose something. For instance, if you loved your beautiful long hair, they may ask you to cut it all off. They didn’t need your hair, but if you really wanted their help, you had to be willing to part with it. Others just gave away their services for free, but when the Travel Agents were in play, there could be a middleman fee anyway.
“Thank you very much for your help, Kostya.” Mirage turned and led Lilac to the back corner. The Travel Agency was empty, except for an old man who was either sleeping or dead on the bench against the wall. Lilac rang the bell. A thirtysomething man in a blue sweater vest came up from the back with a Stepford smile. “Hello. I’m Romeo. My wife, Honey is finishing up something in the back. How can I help you?”
Honey and Romeo. Wow, okay. “I’m Mirage and Lilac. We came here from 2341 Verdemus. We need to return there to the exact same moment.”
“Okay, was that your first time traveling through time?” Romeo asked. “Perhaps you could find a homestone.”
“A homestone is how we got here,” Lilac answered before Mirage could stop her.
Romeo smirked. “Get out here, please, Honey!”
“What did I do?” Lilac whispered to Mirage.
“It’ll be okay. You just started the negotiation too high.”
A woman who just looked like the feminine version of Romeo came around the corner. “What is it, dear? Oh, customers. I should have put my face on.”
“It’s fine,” Mirage assured her.
“Honey...” Romeo began, building anticipation. “They have a homestone.”
“Oh my, isn’t that wonderful? We just so happened to be in the market for one of those. Do you happen to have more than one?”
“Only the one,” Mirage replied a bit too hastily, which wasn’t necessary, since it was the truth.
“I’m afraid our rates are too high for only one stone. If you had another, we could talk about sending you where you need to go. Which would be where?”
“Verdemus in 2341,” Mirage repeated.
“I’ve never heard of a Verdemus. Is that a musical artist?” A common joke for this crowd, though not in so many words.
“Ya know what, don’t worry about it. Just get us to anytime on Earth in the 22nd century, and we’ll make our way to our final destination on our own.” That far in the future, they will have no problem finding stasis pods, or a ship. Hell, she could engineer her own ship and pod using the technology available in that time period.
“I’m afraid that that doesn’t change our rates. We’ll need one homestone per traveler. Two travelers, two—”
“We get it.” Mirage emulated a sigh. “One stone, one traveler. Get my friend here to this exact spot on November 22, 2260. I’ll go the long way ‘round, and meet up with her. Deal?”
The couple exchanged looks. They really wanted more than one homestone, but the only way for Mirage to procure a second one would be if the Travel Agents found them a time traveler, which would render the quest stupid and pointless, and they knew it. They nodded at each other simultaneously, then Romeo went on. “Give us a few hours to find the right traveler for your needs. You may wait over there, or go explore the Center.” He handed Lilac a buzz coaster while Honey started flipping through a rolling index of contacts. “Richard and Allen’s restaurant is open as well. I especially recommend the hadrosaurus burgers. I know what you’re thinking, but all dinosaur meat is lab-grown, and ethically sourced from still-living specimens in the appropriate prehistoric period.”
“Thanks.” Mirage didn’t eat, and Lilac wasn’t going to eat that.
“It’s Sunday, so the Salmonday Club is still open, though the portal to the Facsimile is closed.
“Thank you very much.”
“Oh, wait. Payment first.”
“No,” Mirage insisted. “Find us a ride first. If they charge for their services as well, we may need to reassess.”
“Very well.” They weren’t happy about this either, but they wanted the business.
The two of them left, and went over to the restaurant. Lilac was indeed hungry. This place was open all day and all night. It was actually technically two restaurants. A public-facing version was located on the other side of the barrier, and up a flight of stairs, between the Civic Center and the rest of the world. Regular people ate there all the time, and had no idea that they could be just meters away from a bunch of time travelers eating the same food. Or maybe they were eating different foods. The regular side served the standard fare. This side served literally anything, from anywhere in time and space, including apparently lab-grown dinosaurs.
“Mirage and Lilac?” a man behind them asked as they were sitting at their table, having finished eating a long time ago.
“Can we help you?”
“Garen Ashlock. A seer sent me here to find the Oasis and the Flower.”
Mirage was surprised, and she wasn’t easily surprised. “And you riddled that out to our real names?”
“I know who you are,” he clarified. “Do you need my help getting somewhen?”
Mirage looked behind him at the Travel Agency. “They didn’t call you?”
Ashlock looked over his shoulder. “Those creepos? No, they’re way overpriced.”
“We made a deal,” Lilac pointed out. “If we go with him instead, is that gonna cause us problems?”
Mirage scoffed. “I would like to see them make good on any consequences. Mister Ashlock, if you would be willing to get us both to at least 2260, we would be grateful.” That was the year humanity figured out how to travel at maximum relativistic speeds. The reframe engine was invented nearly fifteen years earlier, but the majority of civilization did not so much as know about it, so it was better to be safe than sorry. Lilac only had so much time in her life.
“Ooo. Unfortch, that’s too far,” Ashlock lamented. “My seer didn’t say anything about that. Why would they imply I needed to help you when I’m unable?”
“What’s your limit?
He grimaced. “It’s complicated. I don’t have a limit in terms of a solid number. It’s this complex algorithm involving my current state of health, including my age, how much I slept last night, how much I drank last night...”
“Give us a ballpark,” Mirage interrupted.
“Today feels like a gross day. That’s 144.”
“That will be far enough,” Mirage decided. “At that point, We’ll have everything we’ll need available to take us the rest of the way,” she explained to Lilac. “I could eventually make a stasis pod these days too, but closer is better, for safety and security. It would take me longer to procure the materials.”
Mirage and Lilac stood next to each other while Ashlock stood before them. He waved his hands around each other like an airbender, and then pushed his temporal energy forwards. Lilac’s body shrank to an infinitesimal point as it was thrown backwards. “Okay,” Mirage said. “Me next.”
“Uhh...that was supposed to be for the both of you,” he said quite nervously. “I don’t know why you’re still here.”
Honey walked over in her clackity high heels, sporting her eerie smile, and speaking with her fake politeness. “You entered into a verbal contract. You’re staying here until I get my homestone. Then you’ll go where I say you go...and by whose hand.”

The Price of Doing Business (Part VII)

Generated by Google Gemini Advanced text-to-image AI software, powered by Imagen 2
Mirage stared at Honey for a moment. “You understand that I’m not human, right? I’m not going to die. When Lilac comes back into the timestream, I’ll be waiting.”
Honey shook her head, and sighed. “Your friend is not where you think she is.”
Mirage frowned, and darted her gaze back over to Ashlock, who held his hands up defensively. “Hey, I sent her to 2180, I promise.”
“He did,” Honey agreed. “My guy tracked her there, and sent her somewhere else. Don’t worry, she’s safe. All you need to do is hand me the stone, just as you promised.”
“Your prices are too high,” Mirage argued. “I took my business elsewhere. As a customer, I have the right to do that. You do not have a monopoly on time travel.”
“That may be,” Honey replied. “Why don’t you call the time police, and see what they say about it, hmm?” Time police didn’t exist. The closest equivalent was a prison that housed people who exposed the existence of time travelers to the general public. That was the only crime they cared about.”
“I’m going to find her,” Mirage assured Honey. “The only question is whether I kill you to do it, or not.”
“I think you’ll find that my husband and I are more difficult to kill than we look.”
Mirage was more than willing to test that claim, and that was the problem. She was created to be a killer, but she transcended that when a man of good heart taught her how to overcome her own programming. What would he do in this situation? He wouldn’t kill them, she knew that much, and he wouldn’t approve of her doing it either. He would find a way, and not because he was any smarter than his opponent, but because he had friends. He always won, because he always had friends. It was his greatest strength. “You’re never getting this homestone.”
“Then you’re never getting home,” Honey spit right back.
Mirage turned to walk down the concourse in the opposite direction.
“Wheh,” Honey exclaimed. She looked down at the buzzer. “That there pager’s yourn. You go more than ten meters from it, or leave realtime with it, you’re gonna start to feel a lot of pain. Even your kind can feel pain. We may look dumb, but we’re in the business of knowing things. Do not underestimate us. Even if you can take the agony, can your friend? She’ll feel it too from where she is.”
Mirage grabbed the pager. “I’m going down there, though.”
“That’s quite all right,” Honey told her. “You know where to find me when you’re ready to talk again.”
“I’m sorry,” Ashlock said.
“It’s fine, Ashlock. Go home and get sober.” She walked down to the post office.
Obviously, this was unlike any regular post office. This was here to send messages across time and space. Only The Courier had any power here, and he could go anywhere he wanted. He was so powerful, in fact, that while Mirage was in the Gallery dimension, she could detect that he existed, but could gather no information about him. He wasn’t a choosing one, but a salmon, which meant that he answered to the mysterious powers that be, though there was reportedly some leeway with that. “Hi. Dropping off, or picking up?” He spoke in a genuinely polite voice, unlike the Travel Agents.
“Mr. Patton, do you do read receipts?” Mirage asked him.
“Ah, I believe I know where you’re going with this. You’re looking for someone.” Apparently, he was smart too.
“She’s been taken.”
“I see. Well, normally, no, but I will make an exception if I can verify your relationship. Do you have an undoctored photo of yourself with the recipient?”
“I do not. We just met.” She could synthesize one, and he probably wouldn’t be able to tell that it was fake, but she wanted to be honest. She needed him on her side.
“Then, I’m afraid—”
“Wait, yes, I do.” She was being an idiot. All of her conversations were being recorded. She switched her eyes to output mode, and projected a hologram of them eating lunch together at Allen and Richard’s restaurant. Well, Lilac was eating anyway.
“You too look happy,” Ennis noted.
“Please, I have to find her. I don’t know how I’m going to get to her while I’m lugging this thing around, but...” She showed him the pager.
“Oh, I can take care of that.” He took the pager from her briefly, and flipped it over. He mouthed the serial number on it, then handed it back, and stepped through a door. While he was gone, the pager started to blink lights, vibrate, and play a little melody. As he was walking back out, the melody stopped. A few seconds later, the buzzing stopped as well, but the lights kept going. “There. Your waiting period is over. Now you can do whatever you want with it. Give it back, destroy it...”
Mirage crushed it to death with her bare hand. “Why could you do that?”
“That’s my partner, Susan’s technology. We just loan it out to the Travel Agents.”
“You are as kind of a man as I’ve been told. Though, it seems out of character for you to include a pain feature in such a thing.”
Ennis was taken aback. “There’s no pain. No, if you go too far from it, it will just follow you, and if you travel too far with it, its activation will send you back to the agency. All I did was reroute it to Susan’s control block. Jesus, is that what they told you, that it would hurt? We may need to reassess our business relationship with them.”
“They really want this homestone.” She showed that to him as well.
“I suppose I understand the appeal, but it’s no excuse for their behavior.”
“So, will you help us reunite, me and Lilac?”
“Well, if what you say is true, that she’s been taken by someone, I’m worried than any message I attempt to send will simply be intercepted. My birds have been killed by those who did not like the messages we delivered.”
“Then can you just...take me to her? I know you have that ability. You deliver large and heavy packages, don’t you?”
“I never take anything organic,” Ennis said apologetically. “That is a rule I refuse to bend, and I will  not explain why.”
Mirage cut into her lower arm, and peeled back the artificial skin that housed her non-organic android parts. The skin was alive, but she only used it to better blend in with regular people. “That’ll be fine.”
“I was wondering how you crushed that pager so easily.”
“Plus, my film projector eyes.”
“I thought that they were just advanced contact lenses.”  He inhaled deeply, and held it in for a long time. “Okay, I guess you are a walking exception, though I imagine you’re from a time when such a body is not surprising. I don’t want a bunch of other robots asking me for rides, so I would kindly ask you to not tell anyone how you got to where I’ll be delivering you.”
“I have no problem with that. I’ll erase it from my own memory, just to be safe.”
He smiled excitedly. “That’s cool.” He squinted as he was framing Mirage’s body with his hands.
She smiled, and crouched down to wrap her arms around her shins. “I can get pretty small, and I’m lighter than the androids you see in movies.”
“I never ask a lady her weight,” he quipped before he went over to the backroom to retrieve the appropriate box. He assembled it, and then she crawled inside. Yeah, there was plenty of room.
“You have enough to find her? It has to be when and where she went just after I last saw her ten or fifteen minutes ago.”
“I got you covered.” Ennis flipped the lids over, and taped them up. “And now I got you covered,” he joked. “But also, you’re about to not be covered. My non-organic rule is not just something I choose not to do. The way I move through time, it just doesn’t work. Your skin will...come off, like a damaged Terminator.”
“That’s fine. It’s inert,” Mirage explained.
“All right. Let me calculate the route, and then we’ll be on our way.”
She felt the box being lifted and carried away, and while it didn’t hurt, she also felt her skin shed off of her as she passed through the time vortex.
Moments later, the movement stopped. “What’s this?” an unfamiliar voice asked.
“Package for Lilac,” Ennis announced.
“I’ll sign for it,” the voice responded.
“No need to sign. Just be careful when you open it,” Ennis warned.
Before the man could start slicing through the tape, Mirage punched through the lid, and took hold of his throat. “Where’s Lilac?”
Eyes bulging, he turned them to point to her right.
“Mirage?” Lilac asked. “Is that you?”
“Losing my skin was the price of doing business,” Mirage explained. “I’ll be able to grow it back eventually.”
“I see. Well, I’m fine,” Lilac said “You can let him go.”
“What are we going to do with him then?” Mirage asked, still not letting go.
Lilac shrugged. “Let him leave. We’re where we need to be. I’ve been waiting for you for the last couple of days.”
Mirage gently set the man back down. “You better do what she says before I decide to override her decision. I don’t ever wanna see you again in my whole life, which should be about...forever.”
As he was running away, he waved his arm in front of him to create a black hole in the ground, which he jumped into, letting the hole close back up above him.
“He must be related to The Overseer.” Mirage emulated a sigh. “What year is it?”
“It’s 2183,” Lilac answered. “He jumped us a few years into the future to hide.”
Mirage nodded, and looked up and to the right to access her memory archives of the timeline. “Its 2183,” she echoed. “I know where to go. There ought to be a ship here that has everything we need, but I’m not entirely sure what it’s been through so far, because my knowledge of this time period may be quite literally outdated. It’s called The Elizabeth Warren, and no one else should need it at the moment. It’s not that fast, but it has stasis technology, and I could retrofit it. How would you like to see your son again?”
Lilac sighed too, but for real. “I think I’ve waited long enough.”
Mirage took her by the hand, and teleported them both to Panama.

Lie Low and Sing Small (Part VIII)

Generated by Google Gemini Advanced text-to-image AI software, powered by Imagen 2
Brooke nodded, understanding at least the facts of the story, but not necessarily the subtext. “So where is the Elizabeth Warren now?” she asked.
Mirage and Lilac were back where they belonged in the timeline. The latter was currently having a discussion with her alternate self, trying to figure out how they would raise Aristotle and Niobe. That was between the two of them, and the crew of the Iman Vellani had no say in it. Their trip back here was uneventful, albeit long and convoluted. They stole the ship from where Mirage knew it would be sitting unattended, docked at the top end of the space elevator leading two multiple points on Earth, including Panama. After she placed Lilac in stasis to keep her alive, she plotted a course to Alpha Centauri B. During the eleven-year journey, Mirage regrew her skin, retrofitted their ship with some upgrades, and then placed herself in stasis too, so she wouldn’t be bored the rest of the way. Once they were at their destination, they still had to wait another thirty some-odd years before it was time to literally jump ship.
Mirage’s past self sent a nanofactory to Toliman in the year 2225, just in case they ever needed to make a quick getaway from the planet of Bungula. They did end up needing to do that, though it wasn’t as urgent as she was originally worried it would be. This was where the Iman Vellani was originally built. The crew wouldn’t board it for another two decades. Until then, it sat dormant in its asteroid, protected from the ill effects of the Toliman Nulls that will essentially freeze any sentient entity that attempts to draw near. To protect themselves from that, Future!Mirage placed the Warren in an extremely high orbit from the host star. This kept them at a safe distance at all times until they were ready to head for the asteroid, and enter the Vellani.
“I left it in its orbit to automatically warn anyone else off of trying to get to the solar system. Just because the star was annihilated, doesn’t mean that the Toliman Nulls aren’t still a thing there.”
“Yeah, about that matter-antimatter annihilation,” Sharice began, “are we ever going to do anything about it? Aren’t people going to be surprised that a star in the neighborhood suddenly just disappeared one day?”
“That is the elephant that lives in the room, isn’t it?” Mirage posed.
“It’s a problem for tomorrow,” Brooke decided.
“You mean yesterday,” Belahkay mused.
“Anyway,” Brooke went on, “you two have just been hiding on this ship the whole time? You never came out? You never tried to change anything?”
“Too risky,” Mirage said. “The timeline is complicated enough as it is.”
“No, you’re right,” Brooke agreed. “But perhaps you...made preparations that could help us now that you’ve closed your own loop?”
“Yes,” Mirage said. “I finally understand who reprogrammed the Vellani. It was me. I just hadn’t gone back to the past to do it yet.” She swiped a specific pattern on the wall next to her, which released a hidden compartment. Inside was a secret quantum terminal. She pressed a few buttons, causing a crystal to pop out of the storage drive. She took it out, and held it up. This should contain proof that Verdemus was completely destroyed.”
Belahkay looked down through the viewport on the floor. “No, it’s still there.”
Mirage smiled. “It ought to be.” She shook the crystal a little. “If my plan worked, this should have footage of Toliman b being destroyed instead, and with a little tweaking of the metadata, we can use it to make the Exins believe that it was Verdemus. We’ll even burst in there, and scream at them for making us do that when there is no such thing as a hypercubic crystal lattice.
“You don’t think they’ll come check?” a skeptical Brooke asked.
“Radiation,” Sharice offered. “We’ll say that this whole region of space has been irradiated. You can’t exactly tear a planet apart with a giant space knife.”
“Don’t their ships have shielding, same as ours?”
“No, I once got a quick look at their hull coding. They’re gamma rated for zero-point-five-l. They don’t have an e-rating. I doubt they’ve even heard of superenergetic particles. All we have to do is claim that the process we used necessarily emits exotic particles, and they’ll stay away.”
“How could they have not heard of SEPs?” Mirage questioned. “They have time travel, don’t they? That’s why come they’ve been a civilization for thousands of years, even though they were founded only a few decades ago.”
“I think that technology was lost,” Sharice argued, “perhaps intentionally. The Exins we met could be just as oppressed as the rest of the empire.”
“We’re banking a lot on that idea we brought up a while back about how disorganized they are,” Brooke warned. “We may be wholly misinterpreting that. They could have e-rated shielding, but we’ve just not seen it. Shari, you didn’t get a look at the hull coding for even every vessel in the fleet.”
“I’m confident on this,” Sharice insisted. “They won’t go near it, especially if we sell the lie. We know that there is no hypercubic crystal lattice in the core of this planet. How could we know that if we didn’t do as they asked?”
Mirage and Brooke both shook their heads, unsure if this was all worth the risk. The bad guys wanted the Verdemusians dead, whether by the crew’s hands, or someone else’s. They could have a backup team lying in wait. “What if the crystal lattice does exist? What if Spirit is wrong about that?”
“I’m not.” Spirit was leaning against the doorway. “But if you feel more comfortable, why don’t you test it? See for yourself if it’s there.”
“We can’t destroy a whole world on the off-chance,” Sharice contended. “That would defeat the purpose.”
“It doesn’t have to be permanent,” Spirit reasoned. “Tear it apart, and then go back in time to stop yourself from doing it. All the humans will be up in space, just in case something goes wrong, but you might as well check for yourself, right?”
“Are you suggesting we used the homestone to reverse it?” Mirage asked her.
“No, you don’t just have a rewinder on this thing? It has everything else.”
“We’re less time travelers, and more associated with time travelers,” Mirage explained. “I mean, we’ve all broken the conventional laws of physics, of course,, I didn’t engineer a time rewinder on the Iman Vellani.”
“Yes, you did.” Someone else was there, standing against the other doorway. It was Mirage. It was some other version of Mirage.”
Present!Mirage sighed, more annoyed than shocked. “What the hell?”
Future!Mirage glided over to the opposite wall, and swiped a pattern on it to reveal a secret control terminal. “This is preprogrammed to reverse time by one year, but you can adjust it as necessary. You still need to build the planet-destroying machine, but I’m sure you already have an idea or two about that.”
“Yeah, I’ve never been worried about that,” Present!Mirage confirmed. “It’s just a simple transdimensional gravity beam. I just don’t know about this. I don’t like fudging with time, or gravity. What’s to stop us from going back, and avoiding all of this?”
“If you weren’t here,” Spirit began, “you would not have been able to save my friend, Tinaya’s life.”
“Or mine,” Lilac said, also coming into the room. “And who knows what would have happened to the children? You can’t undo anything.”
“Except for destroying the planet,” Present!Mirage countered.
“Except for that,” Future!Mirage agreed. Without another word, she gradually faded away until she was completely gone.
“I think you just erased her from the future,” Belahkay guessed.
“Whatever,” Mirage said. “It’s not up to her anyway. We vote. Everyone votes, including Tinaya. We’ll stick her mind into the virtual construct, and get an answer.”
Everyone?” Lilac pressed.
“Yes,” Mirage replied, “including your alternate self.”
“I don’t have an alternate self,” Lilac revealed. “We are one now.”
“How did you manage that?” Brooke asked.
“I don’t know. It just happened.”
Mirage smirked. She knew how it was done.
“No, I’m talking about the prisoner, Ilias Tamm,” Lilac clarified.
“Prisoners have rights,” Brooke said adamantly. “This is his planet too, and he has the right to have a say in what’s done with it. We’ll explain the stakes to him, as well as to the children. I agree, everyone votes, and it must be unanimous.”
A year later, Verdemus was torn apart by transdimensional artificial gravity, which supposedly released exotic particles in the region that rendered a radius of fifty light years too dangerous for normal ships to survive. Exotic particles were actually just very, very, very energetic particles that were extremely difficult to shield against. They were capable of passing through an entire planet, kind of like neutrinos, but destructive to baryonic matter. They aided in time travel tech so the only way to shield against them was by manipulating spacetime, essentially forcing them to pass along the shielding on a new vector, rather than through it, and then letting them go once they were on the other side. They were rare, and the crew didn’t think that the Exins understood them enough to have what was called an e-rating, so it was safe to make this claim.
Only the crew plus Spirit Bridger was on board the Iman Vellani Proper. The rest were on the Vellani Ambassador, which meant that they did not go back in time. Once the timeline was reset, they had no recollection of the past year, because they had never experienced it. They knew that it had happened, but now they were able to move on with their lives from here, safe on Verdemus, protected by a fake bubble of exotic radiation. Belahkay and Spirit got to know each other for the course of that undone year, and both could remember the relationship that was kindled by it. They wanted to see where it was going, so he left the ship and stayed behind on Verdemus. Mirage gave them and the rest of the Verdemusians a shuttle that could be used for interplanetary travel, or very slow interstellar travel, if they ever needed to evacuate. It could not reach fractional speeds, and definitely didn’t have a reframe engine, so their options were limited. But at least they weren’t singular, which was what they were facing without the crew’s arrival and intervention.
Brooke and Sharice took the ship off into the black, and quite deliberately told no one where they were going. They had to do this, because the Vellani needed to stay off the radar for the foreseeable future. Its discovery would ruin the lie that Mirage was about to tell Ex-10 regarding the fate of Verdemus, the Verdemusians, the ship, and her crew. At the rendezvous point, she teleported over from the Vellani Ambassador, and just started to wail on him for killing her crew. It took nearly twenty faceless stormtroopers with chains to get her off of him. She was pulling her punches, though. She didn’t want to kill him, she just wanted to sell the rage that she was supposedly experiencing due to what happened. They stuck her in hock while they healed their leader, and let her stew a bit.
A few days later, he came to visit her, as calm as ever, and apparently not vengeful from her attack. “Start at the beginning. What happened?”
Mirage prepared herself to solidify the cover-up. “We did what you asked. We went to the planet in question. There were people on it, but not too many, so we pulled them up to our ship, and got back to work. They protested, but we were there to do a job, so we ignored them. I built a machine that uses transdimensional energy to manipulate gravity, which ripped the planet apart, and do you know what I found there?”
“Oh, so you know. There’s no such thing as hypercubic crystal lattice.”
“No. We just wanted you to destroy the world. It is of utmost importance that the people you found living there did not multiply. They are our sworn enemies, and they were in a position of great strategic advantage. They were too close to the new antistar, and we couldn’t have that. It’s fine that you saved the ones who were already there, though. We don’t have any strong feelings about them as individuals.”
“Oh, I didn’t save them, you asshole. Have you ever heard of exotic particles?”
“Yes. But I admittedly don’t know what they are.”
“I don’t either, but they’re deadly. I was in charge of supplying the power, so I was far enough away, and naturally shielded, when we turned on the machine, but my crew was not so lucky. They were bombarded with highly energetic particle radiation, and killed. They didn’t die right away. No, it took time, but all of their cells were split, their DNA unraveled, and their inorganic parts degraded extremely rapidly. They may have been able to transfer their consciousnesses to new substrates, but those would have been destroyed too. They insisted that I escape to get my revenge before too much of the radiation could get to me on the other side of the host star that we were using as a power source. You let me out of here, and that is exactly what I will do. Or you could come in here, I’m not picky.” She was doing a pretty good job in this role. It didn’t hurt that if any of this were true, she probably would actually react this way.
Ex-10 smiled, almost kindly, likely because he felt that he was in a position of safety and power. “Well, then I suppose I will have to never let you out, except to transfer you to our penal colony.”
Mirage suspected that this might happen, which was why she programmed the Vellani Ambassador to turn invisible and escape under certain conditions, such as her absence for a week. “I will get out eventually, even if it takes me a hundred years. I’m gonna live forever.”
“And I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’ll be dead by then. I decidedly won’t live forever, so I’m not worried.” He lifted his radio. “This is Ex-10. Plot a course to Ex-666. Warn them too, so they have time to make arrangements for a special new prisoner.”

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