The Edge

The Eagle Has Landed

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Leona closed the door behind her, and let the portal close along with it. She turned and reopened the door on this side to confirm as much. A part of her hoped that her husband and friends would be able to join in on this special occasion, but she was not surprised that they weren’t. There was a reason they called this group The Shortlist. It will presumably be even shorter now that Ramses was dead. Either that or they’ll pull him from earlier in the timeline, which seemed a little unlikely since there was not much the two of them didn’t tell each other prior to his death. He probably would have let it slip at some point. There never had to be eleven members, though. That was just how it worked out. Perhaps they will find someone worthy of replacing his seat, or maybe they won’t. She didn’t know who was organizing this whole thing. No one was really in charge, but Hokusai Gimura often found herself in a pretty strong leadership role.
They were here to discuss the future of the Milky Way Galaxy in the main sequence parallel reality. Most of the public had seen or learned by now that there was something else going on in the universe that they didn’t understand. A message appeared in the night sky that could not have formed using conventional technology. Light just does not move fast enough to join stars together like that in a brand new constellation. Plus, the stars that were used to display the message weren’t even on the same celestial plane, as they never were. There was just no logical explanation for the message. For now, no one had to come up with one yet, but the longer they put it off, the trouble it might cause. Someone has to answer for it, and the energy god who actually wrote the message wasn’t going to do it.
“The Eagle has landed,” Thor Thompson said into his watch as Leona passed.
“Hey. What are you doing here?” Leona asked. He was intelligent, and well-versed in the world of salmon and choosers, but he was not part of the Shortlist.
“I’m just here to watch.”
Pribadium Delgado glided up, and took Leona by the hand. “He’s been saying that to everyone. Everyone is The Eagle.”
“What does he mean that he’s here to watch?”
“Come. We’ll explain.”
As Pribadium was leading her down the corridor, they heard Thor repeat the phrase when Weaver walked in through her own portal, from wherever it was she was.
They turned into a room which might have been the observation deck of a space station. A large array of windows was showing them the star that they were orbiting. “Where are we?” Leona asked.
“Altair. The locals have agreed to host,” Pribadium answered.
Leona kept looking at the beautiful star for a moment before turning her head. “I’m not familiar. Not the star, I’ve heard of Altair. I just don’t know who lives here.”
Pribadium smiled. “The Altares, of course.”
Leona chuckled. “All right.”
“Follow me. This is their diplomacy station, which they call Diplomacht.” She continued through the corridor until they came into an open space. It was a huge expanse with simulated daylight, plantlife, including trees that would be the envy of the tallest redwood, and walking paths. And these paths were being walked on, but not by humans or other humanoid entities. They were animals. They were intelligent animals. Some were wearing clothes, some were carrying on conversations with each other. The majority of them were the great apes, like orangutans and chimps, but there were plenty of canines, felines, and even birds. It was difficult to tell whether the birds were smart too, because they were just flying around and hanging out, but everyone else was definitely of comparable intelligence to humans.
“Uplifted animals. How did I not know about this?”
“You’ve been pretty busy, going to other worlds, other realities. Besides, this is a different timeline than the one you left. It’s close to what you recall, I’m sure, but you can’t trust anything you thought you knew from the past.”
“You seem to know a lot about what I’ve been up to,” Leona noted.
“Your grandfather filled us in.”
“Labhrás is here?” Leona questioned.
“We sent him back to where he belongs,” Pribadium explained. “He still has to father your father, so your father can father you.”
Leona nodded, and continued to watch the animals moving about like a creeper.
A bonobo hopped over to them. “Take a picture! It’ll last longer!”
“I’m terribly sorry,” she said to him.
“I’m kidding,” the bonobo replied with a laugh. “It’s okay to be intrigued. If I saw a cricket pushing a baby carriage, I would probably stare too.” He held out a hand. “Hello, my name is Gresham Oberti, Exalted Ten. I run this station. If there’s anything you need, you can ask me, and I’ll do what I can.”
“Exalted Ten?” Leona asked with a slight grimace, embarrassed by her ignorance.
“There are degrees to which an organism may be uplifted. Level Ten means that I have the tools I would need to elevate myself to superintelligence status, but I have not actually done that. In my opinion, Ten is the best. I don’t wanna know everything, and I don’t understand anyone who does. Anyway, I have to introduce myself to the rest of the Shortlist, but remember what I said, I’m here to help.” He ran off.
“Altair,” Leona repeated. “Exalted ones. Cute.”
“We didn’t name them that, or choose this as their homestar. They chose for themselves, and the migration was authorized by the Earthan government. There are plenty of them who still live there, of course, and on the other worlds. They just wanted a home of their own, as we all do. You’ve been gone a long time, and as I said, this is not the timeline that you remember.”
“Yeah. Our actions changed a lot.”
“Not just yours. There were other teams crossing the parallels, creating new timelines. I’ve done it a few times myself.”
“What does any of this matter?” Leona asked. “The meeting, I mean. You know what’s about to happen, don’t you?”
“The Reconvergence? Yeah, we don’t have to worry about that.”
Leona shook her head. “I’ve spoken to people who know the fate of the universe. The main sequence will be taken into the Sixth Key. If there was ever any hope that the public could be kept in the dark regarding time powers, it has been sent down the drain. It will happen. If nothing else, the Parallel and the Fifth Division will see to that.”
“It’s complicated, but don’t you worry,” Pribadium began. “We’re not going to be in the Sixth Key. We’re staying right here. Now let’s keep going. We’ll be convening tomorrow in Lylla Hall. It’s across Town Square.”
Leona looked back to see Weaver in the middle of a conversation with Thor and Gresham. Everyone on the Shortlist was probably taking the same route. This was all planned and structured, but by whom? They walked across Town Square, and entered the double doors under the huge sign that read Lylla Hall. They first entered the vestibule. Standing there in full military dress was General Bariq Medley from planet Teagarden. He was once in charge of the Quantum Colony game that millions of people played without realizing that it wasn’t a game at all, but they were in control of real star systems light years away, some of which were inhabited by clueless natives.
“Madam Matic,” Medley said. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“Likewise, I hope,” Leona replied. “I did not expect you to be here.” She looked over at Pribadium, who wasn’t looking back. “I did not expect any of these people.”
Pribadium cleared her throat. “Is she free?”
“She’s inside, finalizing the audience roster,” Medley told her.
“Audience?” Leona questioned. “What audience? Pribadium Delgado, who is she, and what audience are we talking about? Will people be watching us?”
The door to the meeting hall opened. A familiar face stepped through. It was Divinia Tiongsong. They met her in the Third Rail, but she didn’t say who exactly she was, or why the global brain scanner logged her as an error who had experienced an unusual amount of time for someone in the rather primitive reality. “It’s okay, General, I’ll take it from here.”
He nodded, not just respectfully, but reverently. She was more powerful than him. “Ma’am.” He walked away with his entourage of officers.
“I could hear you talking from in there,” Divina said to Leona. “Yes, there will be an audience, and no, it was not our idea. Members of the Shortlist made this decision. Why you were not involved is not something that I can answer, but in your absence, they convened a quorum, and requested certain things from us. Firstly, they did not want to hold the meeting on Earth, Teagarden, or other politically charged locations. They chose Altair, and the Altarens obliged, following my facilitation. If you take issue with his, I suggest you speak with the others. As the term goes, the public has been deveiled. It’s my job to keep everyone safe while you decide what that means.”
“Okay.” It seemed wrong and weird, but what could she do? Leona wields the least amount of power and influence amongst the group. Honestly, she’s always felt that her inclusion was more out of pity than anything, so if this is how the others want to do it, then she won’t object unless someone else does first. The question was, who would be in this audience, and would they have any say in the decision-making process?
Weaver and Thor came into the vestibule. The former was just as confused as Leona was. Thor just acted fortunate to be included. Right behind them was Ramses Abdulrashid. He did show up. “Oh hey, Lee-Lee. Shocker I know. I’ll explain how I survived the destruction of Phoenix Station. But first...I found Olimpia.”

From Entrance to Exit

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Pribadium directed Leona to a room where she and Ramses could have a private conversation, and also told them where they could find their bedrooms. The meeting wasn’t going to start until tomorrow, after formal introductions, and a fuller explanation of why there was to be an audience. “I figured, if you showed up, you would be from some time in the past.”
“I didn’t even wanna come now, but Pribadium forced me and Hogarth. I got the impression that she knows what’s going to happen to Olimpia, and either wants it to, or doesn’t think that it can be prevented.”
“Where is she?”
“The Sixth Key.”
“That’s what we guessed.
“But it’s complicated,” Ramses explained. “I think she’s the only one there. Let me start at the beginning. I didn’t find her by happenstance. I went there on purpose. Just before Phoenix Station blew up, I commanded the magic mirror to send me to Olimpia’s location after Dalton sent her away using his weird cane thing.”
“Oh! I should have thought of doing that. I keep forgetting that the mirror isn’t just for dead people. It can go to any point, any time, as long as someone is already there. I’m such an idiot. So, what happened after you found her? Is she okay?”
“Well, I didn’t find her right away. It was dark, but I came across two dudes who were working on the planet. I mean that literally. They were building the planet itself, or at least checking their work; I don’t know. They hadn’t seen her, but they agreed to help me look. We searched all night, kind of in concentric circles. The mirror was supposed to take me right to her,  so she couldn’t have been too far. Come morning, I felt something tap me on the shoulder. It freaked me out, but I was too curious to run away from the scary invisible monster. Of course, it was her. We decided that she was trapped in another dimension, because that’s what made the most sense. She was able to breathe, but there was nothing to eat. She could hear me if I yelled, but I couldn’t hear her at all. She can see through the dimensional just fine when she’s trying too, but if she loses focus, it sort of turns opaque. She was always able to get it back, she finds it claustrophobic. Because no matter how far she walks, the walls follow her. It’s like she was between two worlds, each one pressing up against her at all times.”
“You keep switching tense. Is she, or isn’t she, okay...the last time you saw her?”
“Kind of both. The dudes knew Hogarth Pudeyonavic, so they went off to ask her for help. She was the one who figured out where Olimpia truly was. She used Hokusai Gimura’s goggles to look through to the other side, and to communicate better with her. But then Pribadium showed up, and spirited us away. Hogarth said that the Sixth Key isn’t really there yet. It’s like this primordial reality that’s waiting for the Keys to do whatever it is they’re gonna do to make it exist. That’s as much as she was able to explain before Hokusai took her away to discuss this meeting we’re apparently gonna have. I know that the Keys are people, and they’re going to make a new reality, where all the people in the other realities are gonna live together.”
“Yeah, that’s all done. I mean, it’s not complete yet, but they’re doing it. I thought we weren’t going to have to deal with it anymore, but Olimpia’s situation changes everything. We can’t just leave her there. Ramses, they have someone who can literally move planets. She can transport them to other universes. She moved the Third Rail version of Earth to the Fourth Quadrant reality already, and she’s gonna do it with the countless other worlds. What’s that going to do to Olimpia? That much energy, that much gravity. That’s not a safe place to be. It’s dangerous to be in a falling elevator, but it’s even more dangerous to be standing at the bottom of the shaft while it’s falling. We have to go help her. We have to get the hell out of there.”
“Is that possible? We don’t seem to wield any power here. I feel like a space whale in a nebula around these people.”
“Little fish, big ocean.”
“Oh.” Leona sighed, and thought over their options. “You’re right, we’re the lowest men on the totem pole, which isn’t surprising. I barely belong here.  Where did Hokusai take Hogarth? Did you see?”
“If we get back to the portal, I can head in the right direction, but I can’t tell you where they went after that.”
She shook her head. “No, and they could have taken a teleporter to the other side of the planet for all we know. I do wanna look at that portal, though. There must be something special about it if everyone is coming through there, instead of just random spots in the area.”
Ramses took her by the hand, and tried to teleport them both away. “No, it’s no use. They’re blocking my power.”
“That’s okay. I remember where it is.”
They walked back through Town Square, and down to where they first came through from their respective locations. In front of the portal was someone they knew from back in the day. “Hello, you two.”
“Mirage. It’s been a long time for us.”
“Longer for me, I’m sure.”
“It’s been about four and a half billion years for me.”
Mirage laughed. “I stand, corrected.”
“You our way.”
“I can’t let you try to leave.”
“Just the fact that you’re on guard tells me that there is a way through,” Leona calculated, “and that means I’m going to take it, because that’s what I want.”
“Not here. You don’t get what you want while you’re here. I’ve been asked to keep anyone out using whatever means necessary, short of murder, of course. But then, you would just go to the afterlife simulation anyway, wouldn’t you?”
“You know about that?” Ramses asked.
“I’ve been briefed.”
Leona nodded. “I think you’re confused. It doesn’t matter where I am, or who I’m with. I get what I want because I take it. I’m taking that portal. You can use all the brute force you want, I will figure this out. It’s what I do.”
Mirage emulated a human sigh. “Pribadium Delgado built this portal herself. It is incompatible with conventional time tech and time powers. It operates on her own special protocols. If you try to step through, you could end up lost in time forever. There’s a reason why she’s the one who retrieved everyone from wherever they were.”
“I’ve seen Pribadium’s technology. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I noticed similarities between it, and other tech I’ve encountered. It may not be as original as you think. She may not even realize that she didn’t come up with it herself.”
“I don’t know why that matters,” Mirage said.
“Hey, Opsocor? Are you there?”
I’m here, Leona,” came the voice of the Nexus network from the aether.
Mirage was stunned. “Who’s that? Where are you?” She stepped into a defensive position, and narrowed her eyes, probably activating all of her sensors to find the source of the supposed intruder.
I am everywhere.
“She’s a god,” Leona explained.
No, I’m not.
“I’ve heard it both ways,” Leona responded. “Opsocor, can you help me navigate using this portal?”
I can, if that’s really what you want.
“Why would I not want that?” Leona questioned.
It sounds like these people would like to have a full roster.
“Without me and Ramses, they’ll still have a quorum. They don’t need us,” Leona explained. “They probably won’t take our opinions into account. They usually don’t.”
Very well. Please step aside, child,” Opsocor requested.
Mirage was super offended. “Who are you calling a child?” There was nothing she could do about it. Her feet started to slide along the floor, all the way to the wall, which she found herself pressed up against, hopelessly unable to move. “I’m not even magnetic,” she complained.
“Don’t hurt her, please,” Leona asked.
Of course not,” Opsocor replied.
“You understand where I want to go?”
Yes. Go ahead, I have your destination queued up. But just you.
“Thanks.” Leona reached forward and opened the door. “Wait, why just me?”
“Leona Bluebell Matic, do not step through that door!” Pribadium shouted from down the hallway.
“That is not anywhere close to my middle name. Where are you getting that?”
“Goddamn bug,” Pribadium muttered as she walked towards them, tapping on a handheld device.
I am not a bug,” Opsocor insisted. “I keep telling you, this is my people’s tech. Your brain picked up on the persistent psychic signals that bounce around—
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Pribadium made one final tap, and released Mirage from the wall. “Please stop her from leaving.”
Mirage took Leona by the shoulders, and held her in place. “Sorry.”
“Ram, go, please!” Leona pleaded
“No!” all three of the others shouted, but it was too late. He jumped through the portal without a second of hesitation.
Pribadium shook her head. “I think you just killed him. Isn’t that right, bug?”
Opsocor took a long time to answer, but she did answer. “It’s possible.

Leona woke up in her room the next day feeling like shit. Before Pribadium suppressed Opsocor’s presence in the system for what sounded like the upteenth time, Opsocor explained that the portal was tailored to her neurology, and her genetics. That was why only she was allowed to go through. She was intending to reinitiate the portal for him once she was through, but they weren’t meant to go at the same time, or out of order. There was a chance that he was vaporized or spaghettified so quickly that he didn’t even feel it, but he also could have appeared inside of a star, somewhere in outer space, somewhere in the outer bulk, or in something that she called the kasma, which was basically a particular region of the outer bulk. The chances that he landed anywhere safely were not zero, but they were close. She still had faith, though. They thought he died on Phoenix Station, and all of their lives were in danger tons of other times. The guy was pretty resilient. If anyone was going to find Olimpia again, it would be him.
Leona was startled when she saw that Pribadium was sitting at the table on the other side of her bedroom. “Christ!”
“Sorry to scare you.”
“I don’t need a guard. You’ve sealed up that whole section. I couldn’t leave if I wanted to. Opsocor isn’t answering me.”
“I can’t let what happened to Ramses happen to you.”
Leona got out of bed, and looked at her body in the mirror like Buffalo Bill. “I wonder what you look like naked?”
She transformed herself into a likeness of Pribadium.
“I...didn’t know that you could do that.”
“I think I’ll walk around the planet like this, making you look like a fool.”
“This is the future, Leona. No one cares.”
“Well, I have to do something to get back at you. Everything would have been fine if you had just let me go. I don’t blame myself. I blame you.
“Well, I know that—”
“And I don’t care about The Edge,” she said in a mocking tone. “All I’ll do at the meeting is oppose you. You could say that we should give the public time powers, and I’ll disagree. You could say that we should prevent all the children from dying, and I’ll say that we should kill them. Now, you can try to use reverse psychology to your advantage, but we will never come to a consensus, because you and I will always be at odds.”
“Don’t be so petty.”
“Oh, you’ve not seen petty, Pribadium Delgado. Like you said, this is the future. Everyone’s cool. Everyone’s woke. Nobody’s angry. I’m angry!” On that word, she turned herself into a particularly large zombie that she recalled from an episode of Z Nation named Sarge. He was portrayed by a man in makeup, rather than via CGI, which was why Leona was able to steal his light for the illusion.
Pribadium jumped up, and backed away from the monster, but she quickly composed herself, and decided that it wasn’t real. “Be in Lylla Hall in two hours for introductions. This is bigger than you or me, or Ramses. Please recognize that, and do your job. You may not have come up with the idea of The Shortlist—neither did I—but you’ve participated in the past. I hope you can remember why.” She walked out.

Éminence Grises

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Leona reluctantly returned to Lylla Hall. The audience looked back at her as she was trying to slink down the aisle. She recognized a lot of these looky-loos, but not everyone. The group sitting with Divina and General Medley were probably all from Teagarden. Coronel Zararias from the Third Rail was in his own section with part of the Mozambican Naval Fleet, which was an interesting development. As she scanned the rest, she started to get the sense that everyone was in their special section, according to reality, and then more precisely to world. They were in assigned seats. Her place was up on stage, where the rest of the Shortlist was waiting. “Sorry I’m late.”
“You’re right on time,” Hokusai Gimura explained. “The rest of us were early.”
Leona walked up the stairs and sat down between Kestral and Weaver, though there was still an empty seat between her and Weaver that was meant for Ramses.
“Welcome,” Ishida whispered over Kestral’s lap.
“Thanks,” she whispered back. She turned to eye Weaver and her alternate self, Holly Blue, who was last seen on her way to another universe to reunite with her son.
Holly Blue smiled, and pointed at the front row. Declan was there with a handful of other kids. “I found him.”
“I’m happy for you,” Leona replied.
“All right,” Hokusai projected, standing up.
“Oh, hold up.” Ellie Underhill trotted in from sidestage, and cupped her hands over Hokusai’s mouth. “Okay, there you go.” It begged the question, if everyone else could be here, why was Leona’s team not allowed to come? It was starting to feel like they were deliberately excluded, but for what reason?
“Thanks, El,” Hokusai said in a normal voice, but the sound replicated around the auditorium for all to hear perfectly. “Hello, all. My name is Hokusai Gimura. I was born in 1985, in the main sequence. I’m a scientist. I’ve made a number of breakthroughs in temporal technology, and I did so without the benefit of time powers of my own. I had to figure it out, and that was dangerous. My friends and I formed this group, not to hoard such technology, but to protect it, and to protect the general population from it, and its risks. We are standing in the year 2400, during what my people refer to as...The Edge. Its properties are hazy, this despite the fact that we’re time travelers, and our ability to know anything is a matter of finding the right moment.
“I can’t tell you how many temporal manipulators there are in the timeline, or even how many of us are not members of the subspecies, but are heavily involved in their affairs. Yes, that’s right; they’re a subspecies, but it’s really complicated. It has more to do with their neurology than their genetics. Most of you know most of this already, but none of you knows everything. None of us knows everything. That’s what this meeting is about. We’re here to get on the same page, with each other, and with you, and to decide the fate of the universe, or at least this particular reality. The meeting will not begin today. It will, in fact, be in two days. We are here in this room to meet, and to greet. Everyone up here...and a couple of others...will introduce themselves. In addition, you have been placed in groups of your own, and we’ll ask you to introduce yourselves as well. No pressure. We’ve never done it like this before; it’s going to be very informal. We all just need to, like I said, get on the same page. I’ll stop here in case anyone has any questions at this time, but only about the schedule?”
A man in the back cleared his throat. Whoever was in charge of lighting shone a spotlight on him. It was Senator Morton. “I was to understand there were eleven of you.”
“Yes, there were. One of us has been...detoured. We all have very busy lives.”
“But you’re time travelers, so that shouldn’t matter,” Morton reasoned.
Leona hung her head. This was her fault. It feels wrong, doing this without Ramses. He made the choice that she wanted to make herself, and she could never thank him enough for it. Even so, there is little reason for him to not be here. Unless his mission went bad. Oh no...the mission went bad.
Hokusai went on, “we will not be discussing any individual lifepaths here. We’re not here to talk about any salmon or choosing one’s specific rules, constraints, patterns, behaviors, choices, or missions. Ramses Abdulrashid cannot be here, and he will never be able to be here. That’s okay, because we never needed a plenum to move forward. We just would have preferred it. But fear not, because there actually are eleven of us. Our final member is simply happens, even in our line of business.” She leaned her head down and whispered something to Pribadium. Not even Leona could hear it, but Pribadium stood and left. Hokusai sighed. “Anything else?”
Someone they didn’t recognize stood up. “Yeah, hi. Captain Waldemar Kristiansen, Eighth of Eight here. I need to get back to my ship. I was told that the amount of time I’m wasting here will be the same amount of time I’ll be missing there. That is unacceptable.”
“I assure you, Captain, the Extremus will be fine without you for a few days.”
“Yeah, but see, you’re not starting the meeting for two days. I don’t understand—”
“Thank you, Captain Kristiansen,” Hokusai said quite dismissively.
He continued to try to speak out, but no one seemed to be able to hear him. That must be Ellie’s doing.
Hokusai went on. “Ah, here we go.” She was looking sidestage.
Pribadium had just come back, and was trying to urge someone else to come forward who was still shrouded in shadow. “Come on. Come on,” she insisted.
Finally, Aldona Calligaris stepped forth, and approached the table. “What am I doing here?” she questioned through gritted teeth.
“You have been invited,” Hokusai said to her, not using Ellie’s projection ability.
“I respectfully decline,” Aldona said.
“Not possible. You’ve proven yourself worthy, so you’re here.”
“All of my work was done in the future in the Sixth Key. It is not relevant—”
“It’s relevant to us. Sit down, please. Ramses’ seat is right there.”
Aldona sighed and plopped down with attitude. Leona took her hand, and squeezed. “Let’s stick together.”
“Okay,” Aldona agreed.
“If there is nothing else, we’ll bring out our guest of honor; our mediator. This is something that the majority of you probably don’t know, our mediator is never a member of the group. We do this intentionally, in order to keep the proceedings fair, and as unbiased as possible, as well as provide us with some insight we may not be able to find in this group of mostly like-minded scientists and researchers. Friends and allies, please welcome this meeting’s mediator, Winona Honeycutt of the Third Rail.”
The audience clapped as Winona came from backstage, and approached her seat in the center of the table. She stood and watched the audience, not smiling, but not frowning, waiting patiently for them to finish paying their respects. “Thank you, Madam Gimura, for the opportunity. And thank you, esteemed guests, for the warm welcome. I am a relative newcomer to the underground. A little bit about me, My father is a lifelong civil servant, who is still in my reality of origin, dealing with our many crises. I’ve worked in the federal government for most of my adult life as well. To be specific, I run—I mean, I ran—a covert operations joint task force that brings together the six major branches of law enforcement for my version of the United States. When temporal manipulation was discovered, I found myself as a...handler of sorts, liaising the time travelers with our corner of the government. I think that’s all I’ll say. Who’s next?”
“I’ll go next,” Hogarth volunteered.
Winona nodded at her, and started to sit down as Hogarth was standing. She then nodded at Leona. She was told that she was an important contributor to the grand mission of the Six Keys and their Keyholders to pull every world in every reality into a new universe, and save them from some mysterious force that would see them destroyed. As it turned out, Winona and the others were merely decoys, so any dissenters would not know the true plan, which was still so secretive, not even Leona knew the truth about it. Apparently, the main sequence was free from having to worry about the Reconvergence, though, which was why this meeting will go on as planned.
The rest of the members of the Shortlist introduced themselves in their own way. Brooke Prieto explained that her temporal specialty was not being able to be manipulated by temporal manipulation. Sharice Prieto talked about her origins as an Unregulated Artificial Intelligence, and Brooke’s daughter. They then continued down the line, letting everyone speak before Leona. It was like they knew that she would not want to say anything, and would rather make it brief. This way, they could argue that they were low on time, and needed to move past introductions anyway once her turn came around, so it wouldn’t be Leona’s fault. At least that was how she reasoned it, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than it being because of her spite and anger. Though her anger should really have been focused on Pribadium alone, or honestly probably not even exist at all. She was being irrational and emotional.
No, she wasn’t last. That honor would go to Aldona. Leona stood up, and swallowed nervously. Ellie stepped over, and gave her the sonic projection ability. It only took a second, but the audience didn’t know how it worked. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Go on. It’s okay.”
Ellie nodded, and walked back out of the limelight.
Leona scanned the audience again, not for any particular reason, but because she couldn’t think of anything to say. She wanted to participate, as Pribadium had asked. This was her duty. She was a member of this group, and she needed to help figure this all out. But she didn’t want to. Not anymore. She just didn’t care. They could claim all day that they weren’t elitist; that they were necessary...vital, even. But in the end, they were technology hoarders, and she didn’t want to be a part of it anymore, even if that was supposedly ending. “My name is Leona Matic, and I’m outta here.” She grabbed Aldona’s hand again, and pulled her up. Together, they walked off stage.


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Leona and Aldona were talking about nothing and everything in Leona’s bed last light, and ended up falling asleep next to each other. They still didn’t know how they were going to get out of this star system, and back to where they wanted to be. Leona needed to return to her life, of course, and Aldona had more work to do for the Third Rail and Fourth Quadrant Earths. Would anyone let them actually go do those things, though? There was a knock on the door, but the person on the other side of it didn’t bother waiting for someone to answer. Ishida Caldwell walked in. “Hey,” she said in a very soft voice, like a mother to a child with the cold.
“We’re not going to be at the meeting.”
“Don’t ask us why, because you’re not going to like the answer,” Aldona added.
“I know why you’re not going to be there,” Ishida replied, “because you don’t wanna. If you don’t want to help, there’s no reason for you to be on this space station.”
“I thought that this was the only place that could protect us from the Reconvergence,” Aldona recalled.
Ishida shook her head. “There are a few others; namely Dardius, and Durus.”
“I don’t think they call it Durus anymore,” Leona divulged.
“Does that mean we can leave?” Aldona asked.
“Can anyone give us a ride?” Leona asked.
“Let me show you something first. Get dressed.” Ishida left and closed the door behind her, but it felt like she was just waiting for them out in the hall.
They were both already wearing clothes, but from yesterday, so Leona let Aldona borrow an outfit. They scarfed down a meal bar each, cleaned their teeth with a couple of mouthbombs, and left too.
Ishida took them by the hands, and teleported away. They were now in Team Keshida’s new masterpiece ship, the Jameela Jamil, which wasn’t super new anymore. It was the single most advanced vessel in the galaxy, besides maybe the Matrioshka Body, which let’s just say, didn’t really count. Aldona was immediately smitten with its sleek curves, its absolutely cleanliness, and its perfect lighting balance. She had obviously never seen it before, even in the future, her past.
“Yeah, this is really nice,” Leona determined.
“This isn’t what I wanted to show you,” Ishida clarified. She started leading them down the corridor. “As you know, the JJ exemplifies the four pillars of spaceflight. Safety, Compartmentalization, Redundancy...” She paused while she slowly opened the last door, “and Modularization.”
They were in a shuttle bay, except fit for much larger vessels. Three were docked here at the moment, but there were spots for many more. “This is the Cleopatra. Next to it is the Ava, and that one down the Phoenix.”
Aldona smiled. “I’m sensing a pattern.”
“Where’s the Tahani?”
“It’s out with its new crew. Or should I say, they are out with their new crews,” Ishida began cryptically. “Quantum duplication is difficult to pull off. It takes a lot of energy, and what we’ve found is that the larger the object—or rather, the more massive—the likelier the duplicate is to come with issues. So we decided that the Reconvergence is an opportunity. We sent the vessels away from Altair in order to give them a fifty-fifty shot of sticking around. One duplicate will go to the Sixth Key, and the other version will stay here. The Sixth Key crews will go on missions in that universe, away from the guidance of the mothership. We’ll reconvene with the copies that stayed in this universe at a later date.”
“Interesting. But what does that have to do with us?” Leona asked.
“We kept these three here for their own reasons,” Ishida said. “The Phoenix is what concerns you, Mrs. Matic. Atterberry pods, Ubiña pockets, state-of-the-art molecular synthesizers, internal teleportation, lander beaming technology, more sensors than you could ever imagine, protective teleportation hull field, advanced holographic illusioning, and much more. Oh, and a true faster-than-light drive. Plus, the shuttle bay has enough room for two standard shuttles, and one...Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sized ship of your choosing. All this could be yours for the low, low price of...”
Leona closed her eyes, finally understanding what was happening here. “Attending the meeting,” she finished. “This is a bribe.”
“This is an ultimatum,” Ishida contended. “Come to the meeting, do your job, get the ship. It’s simple. We’re not asking you to make any particular decision at the meeting; only to contribute. Your attendance is mandatory, as is yours, Aldona.”
“If it’s mandatory, you wouldn’t need a bribe,” Aldona reasoned. “You could just force us to be there.”
“We can do that too, but we wanted to incentivize you instead.”
“It looks and sounds nice,” Leona started, “but the AOC is safe and sound where we parked it in the Fifth Division. We’ll get it back.”
“That’s cool, but you need something more,” Ishida said. “The universe is changing. The AOC was an amazing piece of technology two hundred years ago, but this is the 25th century, and regardless of how the meeting ends up, you’ll need to be in a position of power for anyone to take you seriously. But like I said, your original vessel has a place, which is why you’re getting that one, and Aldona is getting the Ava.”
“That one?” Aldona asked, pointing. “What am I expected to do with it?”
“Go back home. Stop the war. It’s got its own special toys. What it doesn’t have is what the Phoenix does, which is why we chose that particular name for it.”
“What, does it turn into a bird?” Leona questioned.
“It can’t be destroyed,” Ishida started to explain. She reached into her back pocket, and pulled out something Leona had seen before, but it was not in great shape. “This is the little gadget that Ramses used to generate recovery states of the AOC. I borrowed it from a museum in the future. Don’t worry, it’s completely inoperable, but it’s a genius idea, and we drew from it. You see, the Reconvergence has already happened, and the Phoenix was in the center of it. It was secretly buried underneath Stonehenge in the main sequence when your husband copied the entire reality. It was imbued with the power to recover from anything, and rise from the ashes to fly again. It can survive long as the blackbox in the center of it remains undamaged. Obviously that’s why it is in the center. I’ll show you how to work it. I’ll show you everything if you agree to our terms.”
“I’m curious,” Aldona began while Leona was considering the offer, and unable to speak herself. “What’s the special purpose of the Cleopatra?”
“Oh, that’s my personal ship, which is why it’s still here. Kestral and I don’t want ourselves to be duplicated, but she did want her personal ship, the Eris, to be copied, so it’s off on its own in the middle of interstellar space. She didn’t explain why.”
“This is a nice offer,” Leona said, “but what I’m curious about is if you think I won’t be able to refuse it.”
“This isn’t a trick, Leona. This is our last attempt to persuade you. I’ve just received word that Ramses is fine. He survived what happened to him when he stepped through the untailored portal. You’ll see him again. So there is no reason for you to be mad at us anymore. All you have to decide is if you’re over your exhaustion, or if you’re satisfied flying the AOC off to a remote star system somewhere to live our your days with no more adventures or intrigue. What would the real AOC do?”
She was right. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a relentless fighter. Leona would feel bad about abandoning the ship they had used for so long, if only because of its namesake, so keeping it somewhere on the Phoenix would be a decent compromise. As far as spaceship names go, it’s not original, but surely there’s room for one more. It’s a great name, and if what Ishida says is true, it’s really the only one that fits. She’s not excited for what she has to do to get it, but she wants this ship. She really does.
“Well?” Ishida asked. “How about it?”
Aldona frowned at Leona. “I’m taking the deal. I have to.”
“I understand,” Leona replied. “I’m taking it too. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
Ishida grimaced. “That’s the thing. Errr, that’s the other thing. The meeting starts today.” She glanced at her watch. “It starts in half an hour.”
“Why did it change?”
“If you had stayed through the whole introduction presentation, you would know why.” That was uncharacteristically sassy of Ishida.
“Well...” Leona was going to clap back, but decided against it. “Can you teleport us back to my room, so we can get ready?”
“Everything you need is in your new ships,” Ishida suggested.
“Better not,” Leona decided. “I would just get distracted in there.”
“Same here,” Aldona agreed.
Ishida obliged them, but took Aldona to her own room, so they didn’t have to share a space. It was two minutes to the starting time, and Leona still hadn’t left yet. She bolted out the door, and prepared to run all the way when she noticed Pribadium Delgado leaning coolly against the wall. “I thought you might be running late.”
“Pribadium, I—”
“Don’t apologize, or I’ll feel like I have to too. Let’s just move on. ”
“Okay.” Leona nodded, and stuck her tail between her legs. She took Pribadium’s hand when it was offered, and they jumped back to Lylla Hall. A couple of ushers opened the double doors for them, as well as Aldona and Ishida, who had arrived at about the same time. Everyone looked back at Leona again, but her tail couldn’t get more tucked than it already was. “Hi, sorry. I’m feeling much better now.”
They climbed on stage with the others, and the meeting began.

The Enclave

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Winona checked her watch. It was time to start, but it was like she was waiting for something. Leona didn’t know what. As far as she could tell, everyone on The Shortlist was here, excepting Ramses. While she was looking to her left and right to confirm as much, Winona was scanning the crowd, and leaning back in her seat to look sidestage. Hokusai checked her watch too, and then gently placed a hand on Winona’s. That’s when Winona stood up to address the audience. “People of the main sequence, and visitors from the other—now-defunct—parallel realities, we are here to discuss the fate of our universe as it pertains to the advanced spacetime-bending technology, created by—and until further notice, regulated by—this group of eleven scientists, researchers, and engineers. You have already met them, so we shall begin soon, but first, there are some rules to go over. In order to remain in this auditorium, you must agree to all of these, or you will be gently removed. Number one, you are in the audience, and this is not an audience participation presentation. The Shortlist is here to discuss, I am here to mediate, and you are here to witness. That is all. Number two, whatever decisions the Shortlist makes are final. They are not to be questioned, argued against, or modified.
“Number three, furthermore, the decisions are meant to be taken as inherent law, and followed ad infinitum, or until a hypothetical time when they are modified by the Shortlist themselves, or control is relinquished by them, for whatever reason. As a side note, death is meaningless for the twelve members of the group. Any attempt to alter the outcome, or reverse it, will be a waste of time. They are masters of time, and they will prove it if you force them to. Number four, everything discussed here today is confidential beyond confidential, and you all signed binding nondisclosure agreements in order to protect the proceedings. Any attempt to transfer, copy, whisper, or otherwise reveal information generated or uncovered from the meeting, or auxiliary developments, to outside actors will be stopped using the full force of temporal law and might. Number five, if you cannot abide by the rules above, we ask that you depart now, however, you are still bound by the rules in relation to everything you have heard or seen thus far, and will be at risk of judgment and punishment when discovered. Notice that I said when, and not if, and also remember that this is a group of time travelers, so even the when part is not as obvious to those of you used to linear time. And finally, rule number six, members of the Shortlist themselves are not limited by these rules, and can go against them in any way, however they wish. They can also alter the rules at their whim, and you will be required to continue to follow. Is all of this clear?”
A man in one of the middle rows, in a seat right at the end, by the wall, stood up. He performed the Picard maneuver with his shirt, then walked out. Winona looked to Hokusai for guidance, who closed her eyes and nodded, clearly unperturbed by the one person who has chosen to forgo his involvement in this event. “Very well,” Winona went on. She looked sidestage again, where a figure was now standing in shadow. It appeared to be feminine in form, but it was impossible to tell for sure. “Then we’ll begin.” She sat back down, and opened the kickstand for her tablet.
Down the line, Leona saw all the girls start to hold each other’s hands under the table. It was like a rehearsed dance move that she missed. This was true, as she was not around for much of the events leading up to this whole thing. Still, she thought she could figure it out, so she accepted Sharice’s hand on her right, and took Aldona’s on her left. Aldona, in turn, took Holly Blue’s, and the chain was complete.
“Give us one moment, please,” Winona said to the audience, trying hard to sit as still as possible, and staring at her tablet without doing anything with it. Leona couldn’t see what was on it.
Suddenly, the door in the back opened so hard that they fell off their hinges. A blinding light shot into the room like a bullet. The audience looked back, shocked by the intrusion, and maybe a little afraid. Sharice tightened her grip, so Leona instinctively did the same to Aldona. It was then that she realized that the audience was no longer moving. They were completely frozen. Either they were in a bubble that slowed time, or the Shortlist was in one that sped it up. She was inclined to assume the latter. Sharice let go of Leona’s hand finally, and patted her on the knee. The other girls did the same with each other. The shadowy figure stepped into the light, revealing herself to be a young woman that she didn’t recognize. If they were in a time bubble, she would expect Missy Atterberry to be the responsible party, so who was this person?
“Thank you, Miss Thorpe,” Hokusai said. She stood up, and shook her hand. “Everyone, this is the one I was telling you about. Her name is Greer Thorpe. She ate the yellow fruit of power, and now has Missy Atterberry’s ability to create time bubbles.”
“Some people in the audience can still see us,” Greer said. “I don’t know that there’s anything I can do about that.”
“We planned for this,” Hokusai explained. “Mr. Thompson? Are you here?”
Thor stepped in from the other side of the stage. “Thorpe and Thor, teaming up for the first time ever.”
Hokusai smiled. “Please go handle the eyelids.”
“Right away, sir.” Thor hopped off the stage, and started to lower the eyelids of anyone who hadn’t become distracted enough by the commotion in the back, and would be able to notice something weird about the people on stage. By the time the bubble is taken down, only a second or two will have passed for everyone else, but that would be enough to raise suspicion for anyone seeing hours pass in the literal blink of an eye.
“For those of us who weren’t exactly...around for the last few days, would someone be able to explain what’s happening?” Leona requests.
“Subterfuge,” Hogarth began. “We would have read you into the secret plan, but you ever since you arrived, you’ve been...”
“Unreliable?” Leona finished for her. “Unruly? Uncooperative? Yeah, sorry about that. I’m just very protective of my people.”
“We all are,” Weaver agreed. “So we understand where you were coming from, and we don’t blame you. We hope that you can understand why we’re doing this the way we’re doing it.”
“Maybe if I knew a little bit more about why,” Leona requested.
“We don’t want to be tyrannical,” Hokusai answered, “but after talking about all of this stuff, and the then-upcoming meeting, with the individual groups you see in the audience, we started to realize that they were never going to appreciate the gravity of the situation.”
“They don’t see how dangerous it is,” Kestral added. “They just want the technology, and since they’ve done so well with the tech they created themselves, they will never admit that there are some things that man should just not have access to.”
“There are inventions that even I won’t use,” Weaver continued, “because I trust myself to be restrained. We can’t say the same for anyone else. That’s why the Shortlist was created, and our mandate has not changed, even though we’re finally on The Edge.”
“So we’re not gonna give them anything?” Leona asked. “What’s the point of this elaborate ruse at all?”
“The ruse is because we didn’t want to erase everyone’s memories,” Pribadium told her, “especially since your interactions with the people of Teagarden are vital to the safety of the future. Undoing it would have caused more damage. There are other variables forcing the meeting to be inevitable. The path to this moment has already been paved. All we can do now is try to mitigate the results.”
“We’re not going to give them nothing,” Hokusai said. “We’re still having the meeting, but it won’t be witnessed by these people. When we’re done figuring out what we’re going to do, we’ll rehearse the fake but visible meeting, then pop the bubble, and put on a little show.”
Leona wasn’t sure what to think. She was looking towards the door.
“Ethical issues?” Brooke asked her.
Not really. “Who is that?” Leona asked. The face of the individual who just literally burst the doors open was obscured, overwhelmed by the wall of light coming from behind him, which was still shining into the room, though the photons were traveling slowly, relative to their perspective.
“Why don’t you go and look?” Ishida suggested.
Leona looked over to their resident bubble-maker, who nodded. “It’s fine. I can fine tune it to wrap around anyone who was in it when it was created. Go wherever you like. Just stay in this wing of the building.”
Leona hopped off the stage where Thor had, though more carefully than him. He was still making his way through the audience, making sure that no one would see enough of the creation of the bubble to think that something was wrong. She walked up the aisle, and approached the mysterious figure. Even up this close, she couldn’t make out who it was, but it looked like a man. Oh, the watch that Mario gave her had a tiny flashlight feature on it. She activated it, and held it up. “Rambo.” She looked back at the Shortlist. “Did you know he would be here?”
“Not when he stepped through the portal!” Pribadium shouted to her. “Thor was meant to be the distraction! We asked him to do it instead when he came back!”
“So he’s okay,” Leona said, though too quietly for any of them to hear. “Can we pull him into the bubble?” she asked.
“He has to stay the distraction!” Hokusai informed her. “He signed up for it! You can talk to him when the meeting is over!”
Leona sighed, and dropped her gaze. Everyone outside of the bubble was moving at an incredibly slow pace. They couldn’t be totally frozen in time, or the universe may be destroyed, but at this differential, their movements were imperceptible to a normal human’s eyes. Ramses, on the other hand, seemed a little different. Then she saw it. His fist squeezed tighter around the metal beads that he was holding onto. She looked back up to his face to see him wink at her. When she turned back to look at the Shortlist, she found them talking amongst themselves, preparing to start the real meeting. None of them had seen the wink, and probably couldn’t have detected it at this distance anyway. She smiled, and popped up to her tippy-toes to give him a kiss on the cheek. “I love you.”
He didn’t respond. However he was combatting the time bubble, vocalizing his thoughts was just asking too much. That was okay. This will be over by the end of the day, and then the both of them will be able to return to their team.
“Leona!” Sharice called up to her. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah, on my way!” She jogged back down the aisle, and climbed on stage.
The meeting began. Over the course of it, the one thing they settled on pretty quickly was that the general public would be provided with plans for the reframe engine, which would allow them to traverse the galaxy in a matter of centuries. This was akin to traveling at warp factor seven in the Star Trek canon. This little trick had been proven safe by a number of vessels since Hokusai invented it back in the mid-23rd century. To make things fair, these plans would be accessible by anyone, so the technology could not be hoarded, and provide a certain party a dangerous advantage. Teagarden was probably not going to like that, and not because they wanted to have all the power, but because it would be harder to manage the colonies if travelers could jump between them in a matter of days, instead of years. In the end, though, it will make it easier to maintain a cohesive galactic civilization, rather than a smattering of isolated, deviating worlds.
Other technologies required a lot more discussion, debate, and in some cases, outright arguments. Teleportation was a big one. It would make it easier for people to jump from orbit to the surface of a planet, or between ships, or even from different habitats around the world. Another thing it would do was allow anyone to trespass on anyone else’s private property. Though no one these days owned anything anymore, people were entitled to privacy, and safe spaces to be alone, or only with those they trusted. Time travelers had access to technology that could prevent unauthorized access, even through teleportation, but such protections would take a lot of time and effort to implement for everyone else. Every single room in every single building would have to be retrofitted with such spatial locks. They would have to do it before a single new individual was allowed to teleport even once. How would they coordinate such a monumental effort, and how long would it be before someone discovered a loophole. Certain teleporters existed who could circumvent timelocks, but that was generally okay, because this only endangered a small population. The rest of the galaxy was also in danger from regular teleporters, and that remained a difficult problem to solve. Perhaps they shouldn’t give that power out freely.
Sharice conceived of a workaround for that in the form of a point-to-point teleportation network. One could not jump from wherever they wanted, to wherever they wanted. They would have to first make their way to a designated machine, which would dispatch them to another machine, and only if the destination accepted their arrival. The appropriate members of the Shortlist would hold their own meetings to work out the design for this new device, including all of the safeguards that would need to be put in place.
They continued to go down the list, generated in random order, of temporal technologies. Some were more dangerous than others. Some were completely banned, while others were so super banned that they weren’t even going to hint at the possibility of their existence. They planned to agree to provide the public with the means to reproduce the Shortlist’s list of approved inventions, but in a few cases, they were just going to say that such a thing was possible, and it would be up to researchers to figure it out for themselves. Obviously, standard backwards time travel was a no-go, as was anything specifically designed as a weapon, or weapon-like, such as temporal guns. They were there for two days, sleeping in their respective quarters in between, the rest of the universe having not moved an inch. Once they were ready, they popped the bubble, and started back up again. The fake meeting was more formal. Some were better actors than others, but they seemed to pull it off.
Everyone in the auditorium left disappointed. Such was the nature of negotiation, but this was even worse for the people on the other side of the table. The Shortlist dictated their terms, and the beneficiaries just had to accept what was given to them. This was the easy part. It was just the beginning. The had come to The Edge, and had now fallen off. From this day forward, according to linear time, it will be up to the Shortlist to police the developments of the vonearthans until the twelve of them feel that they’re ready to stand on their own, or they have no choice. That was not Leona’s problem right now, though. She was never really one of these people. She had her own family who needed her. It was time for her to make her way back home.

The story continues on the next installment of The Advancement of Mateo Matic >

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