The Pryce of Heaven

The Paigenic Council

The team has been assembled, and Jupiter Fury thinks that it’s complete, but someone has a different idea. Lowell Benton is there to rescue Jeremy Bearimy, Missy Atterberry was assigned Sanaa Karimi, Téa Stendhal will be responsible for Angela Walton, and Trinity Turner was supposed to be there for Ellie Underhill. There is a reason that her name means three. She is the third version of the original Paige Turner. Jupiter knows of eleven versions total, but there might be more. Every time Paige has to go back in time and correct something about the future, it generates another alternate version, and instead of assimilating into one person, this alternate always ends up going off to do something else with her life. Trinity is the one with close ties to Ellie, so why are Tetra and Quinn here?
“She can’t be part of this mission,” Quinn argues.
“Why not?” Jupiter questions.
“There are things about her future that she cannot know,” Quinn explains.
“I hope you haven’t told her already,” Tetra adds.
“We’re looking for the afterlife simulation that a future version of Tamerlane Pryce creates,” Trinity says, proving what she knows.
“It’s too late,” Tetra says, shaking her head.
“No, it’s not,” Quinn assures her. “We can erase her memories to preserve the timeline. I just need to make a call, and I need...I need Trinity to consent.”
“No, hold on,” Jupiter jumps back in. “I have seen no evidence that Trinity—or any version of Paige—has anything to do with the afterlife simulation.”
“She will be there at its conception,” Quinn says.
“Well, I didn’t know that,” Trinity pushes back, “but now I do.”
“You knew enough before we arrived,” Tetra argues. “You have to erase your memories. Too much about the future is at stake here. You are the most important of all of us, besides Paige the First.”
“Please,” Quinn begins to beg, “just let me contact Tertius. You know what happens when you change the wrong thing about the past. This is wrong.”
Trinity shifts her gaze from Jupiter to Tetra to Quinn, and then back to Jupiter. He looks to the latter Paiges. “Okay, I will admit that my primary reason for conscripting Trinity for this team is a...little more poetic...and a little less inherently necessary.” He looks at Trinity. “You may have Tertius erase your memories, if you would like.”
Trinity thinks about it more. It’s true that she understands the dangers of altering the past, and she has to surrender to the wisdom of the latter Paiges. Each new version was created with greater concern for the timeline than earlier ones, like her. “Call him.”
Quinn takes out her photo device. When Paige was a child, she was accidentally whisked away from her life in 1971, and taken to the future. This had the side effect of giving her the ability to travel to any point in time and space, as long as she was looking at a picture of it. The devices they carry—which are alternate versions of the same thing as well—contain millions of photos from the past and future, so they can go just about anywhere and anywhen. Quinn isn’t using hers to make a jump, though. She needs to bring someone to her, which is a secondary time power that, for whatever reason, not all of the Paiges have. She finds the photo she’s looking for, then points the device away from her, like a TV remote. A beam of light shoots out of it, and conjures a man.
He looks around to get his bearings. “Greetings, kind folk.”
“Thank you for coming,” Quinn says with a slight bow. “I will send you wherever, whenever you want, if you will please erase my friend’s memories.”
All of them?” he questions.
“Heavens no,” Trinity clarifies. “They will be better at explaining what I am to remember, and what I’m not.” She takes out her own photo device, and finds the right photo. She hands it to Tetra. “Once it’s done, and I’m still in the daze, take me back to this dumpster. It’s where I was when Tracker found me.”
Tetra bumps Trinity’s device with her own, and transfers a copy of the photo. “I would have chosen a beach, but I won’t yuck your yum.”
“I would rather not explain why I’m digging around in the trash,” Trinity requests.
“Oh,” Tertius says. “If you’re going back to a departure point, I don’t need to know which memories to take, and which ones not to. I just need to know how much time has passed since then. You don’t even need to know the answer yourself. I can search your brain for the right duration.”
“What happens to my memories after you take them?” Trinity asks. “Do you keep them?”
“It depends,” Tertius begins. “I can hold onto them for you, like a flash drive, if you want them back later. I can keep them in my own head, and it will sort of feel like part of me is part of you. I can also just purge the memories, so they cannot be retrieved.”
“That one. Do that.”
“Okay. Since this is an individual job, and not for the greater good, I am going to need consent from you.”
“Of course, you have it,” Trinity replies.
“Right. But I mean, you’re going to need to keep the memory of your official, verbal consent. You won’t remember what memories I take obviously, but you will have access to this consent. You won’t be conscious of it, but if you need it, you can get it.”
“I don’t understand the point of that.”
He tries to formulate the right words. “You ever seen a movie where the protagonist spends ninety minutes trying to find out what happened to him, and in the end, he discovers that he actually asked for his memories to be removed.”
“I haven’t seen many movies,” Trinity says, “but I grasp the premise.”
“If you find out you have missing time, you might start running around, trying to get those memories back, and figure out who hurt you. This little secret memory nugget will be like a little voice in the back of your mind that tells you, in your own words, that it’s okay, you shouldn’t get those memories back. Everything’s hunky dory.”
“All right, I can do that,” Trinity agrees.
Tertius does his thing, Tetra does hers, and then Quinn announces she’s going to leave.
“Whoa, hold on,” Jupiter stops her.
“What?”
“I haven’t decided which one of you two is going to take her place on the team.”
Quinn looks back at Tetra. “We’ve already talked about it.”
“We didn’t talk about it,” Tetra contends. I won RPS 101 Plus...twice.”
“You cheated the second time.” Quinn is getting a little bit defensive.
“I don’t care if you fought to the death,” Jupiter declares. “It’s my team, I choose.”
“That’s not how consent works, sweetheart,” Quinn fights back.
“That’s a microaggression,” Jupiter volleys.
“True. But this is the way it is. You have Tetra, and I have to go do something else.”
“I don’t think you understand that—” Jupiter manages to say before he’s interrupted.
Quinn begins to fume, and gets in Jupiter’s face. She lifts her photo device, and speaks a command. “Protocol Six-Six-Six.” A picture of what just looks like a mountain of fire appears on the screen. “Tetra is gonna get you into heaven. You choose me, you go here. Is that what you want?”
Jupiter doesn’t say anything.
“You and your little Springfield buddies like to think that you’re top shit. But there are more of me than there are of you.”
Jupiter can’t help but scoff. “I can make endless copies of myself, and I don’t have to jump back in time to do it.”
Quinn smirks. “Technically, I do. But does that really matter?” She lifts her arms to the crucifixion position. About twenty alternate versions of her appear out of nowhere behind her, looking menacing.
“You can’t quantum assimilate,” Jupiter argues, but he’s quite fearful. “Now there are just a bunch of extra versions of you.”
“Who says I can’t?” Quinn asks rhetorically. “I just usually don’t, unless I’m trying to prove a point.” She gracefully drops her arms. The other Quinns disappear. “Thanks, Indvo,” she says, but no one knows what it means.
Jupiter doesn’t back up, but he does kind lean away from her as subtly as possible. “Tetra will be fine.”
“Good, because I’ve wasted enough time here already.” She swipes at her device until she lands on the photo she wants, and disappears into it.
He gathers his composure. “Are you ready to meet the team?”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Tetra apologizes. “She’s been through a bit more than the rest of us have. Except for Nova. She...anyway, yes, let’s go meet the team.”
They make the trip to the Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, which is the ship that they borrowed from a slightly different team. They will be giving it back once this is all done. Missy, Téa, and Lowell are reading the same hardcopy book, suggesting they’ve formed some kind of club. Jupiter facilitates introductions and explanations before getting into his speech about what they’re going to be doing together.
“In the future, a man named Tamerlane Pryce will find himself on a planet called Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida for the second time. Trinity Turner will ask him to be there so he can help build a tourist attraction, where people will come to insert their consciousnesses into cloned animal substrates. This will allow them to go on extreme close-up safaris. After his job is done, he will remain on that world, and continue his own private research. Meanwhile, Trinity and her friends—which includes Tamerlane’s daughter, Abigail—will be working on their own thing. They had the idea of creating a perfect world simulation, and use it to upload the mind of every single person who has ever died. This obviously requires time travel, but that’s also obviously okay, because that’s what we’re all about.
“We do not know what happens after the spark of this idea, but we do know that Tamerlane Pryce becomes cognizant of the idea, and then gets his hands on the resources necessary to pull it off. For the last several thousand years, everyone who dies is sent to his virtual construct, instead of theirs. We don't know how involved the others were, but we know he’s at least in charge of it now. We also don’t know where it is in physical form, but it has to be massive, because the amount of processing power required to run the damn thing is something humans can only dream of today. I’m talking larger than a whole solar system massive. If it were close, we would notice it, so it’s probably thousands of light years away. I have assembled this team in order to locate it, travel to it, remove Pryce from power, and rescue a few friends who had no business dying when they did. That is all we are there to do. We do not want to destroy the simulation, and we’re not going to save everybody from it. We’re getting these four people, and that’s it.”
“Got it,” Lowell acknowledges, feigning enthusiasm. “How are we going to find it?”
“Did you enjoy the tea I gave you?”
“Yeah, it was actually pretty good.” Lowell grows suspicious. “Why?”
“I learned a few things about how the simulation works,” Jupiter goes on. “When you die, your consciousness transfers to the simulation, wherever it is. But how does it know that you’re dead, and how does it find your mind? There has to be something in the brain that allows this transfer, and that’s not something that people naturally evolved to have. I mean, it would be like a little computer somewhere in your head.”
“You’re making me nervous,” Lowell admits.
“Me too,” Missy concurs.
“Téa, are you nervous too?” Jupiter asks.
“I would be lying if I said no.”
“Don’t worry,” Jupiter says, shaking his head slowly. “Tetra, you’re all right too.”
“You said something about tea,” Missy reminds him. “We all drank it. Did you drug us?”
“Yes, but the drug itself isn’t going to hurt you. It’s like a beacon. If I did this right, it should allow us to track a dead person to where they go.”
“So...you’re going to hurt us,” Téa presumed.
“Not you.” Jupiter takes out a gun, and points it at Lowell’s chest. “Just the serial killer.”
Lowell makes no move to get away, or argue against it. He just regards Jupiter with disdain, and sighs. “Try to make it quick. I imagine shooting me in the head puts the mission at risk, and I know it seems like I don’t have a heart, but it’s right here.” He taps on the left side of his chest.” The last thing he hears is the gunshot, and Téa’s instinctual yelp.
Lowell finds himself face up in a stream, a large rock preventing him from being washed away. A child approaches as he’s climbing out. Without a word, the child takes Lowell by the hand, and leads him down the trail. They come to the treeline, and see a tower several kilometers away. They keep walking until they reach it. After the child presses the elevator button, she stays behind, and begins to walk away. Lowell goes up to the top floor, and is asked by a secretary to wait. After a few minutes, a very distraught Ellie Underhill comes out of the office, and heads for the elevator. Jupiter showed him a picture of her when his mission began, which is the only reason he knows who she is. They lock eyes, but just for a moment before the doors close in front of her.
“You can go on in now,” the secretary tells him.
Lowell stands up, and goes into the office. Tamerlane Pryce is waiting for him there. He doesn’t remove his gaze from the window. “Did you ever think,” he begins to ask before a long pause. “...that you would one day be here, having suffered exactly what you forced on others so many times?”
“Did I think I would one day die, just like them? Yes, sir, of course.”
Tamerlane nods. “Do you think you deserve heaven or hell?”
“Yes.”
He chuckles once, and finally turns around. “Best answer possible, I imagine.” He gestures for Lowell to sit in the guest chair, and then leans back on the desk. Next to him is a wheel with twelve unequal wedges. Jupiter told him about this too. You spin the wheel, and whatever you land on decides where you’ll be assigned. You could be killed forever, or resurrected, or get anything in between. “No, no, no. This one isn’t for you.” He lifts the wheel up, and turns it around, so it’s facing the other direction. On the other side is the same circle, but painted with different wedges. There are only four of them here: black, blue, red, and orange; all the bad ones. “You are a temporal manipulator. Well, I mean, you’re a psychic, but that’s close enough. Normally, I would assign you a good level, because I like people like you. But you hurt people, and like all other maniacs before you, this only ends bad. He points at the wheel. “Fate will determine how bad.”
Lowell studies the wheel, and recalls the levels as former dead person, Mateo Matic recited them the other day. Level 0 is the true death. Level 1 is like being put on a flash drive. You still exist, but you’re not aware of the passage of time. Level 2 and Level 3 are both prisons, except you’re completely alone in the former. He smiles, almost graciously, and nods. Then he reaches over to the needle, and turns it directly to Level 1.
Tamerlane watches it over his own shoulder. “That’s not exactly how it works, but...I suppose I have to admire your chutzpah. I do recognize that you only killed bad people, like Dexter, and you surely deserve some credit for that. Level 1, Iced blue it is.”
Lowell’s clothes turn blue.
“Oh,” Tamerlane says as he’s standing up, and walking back to the other side of his desk. “There’s a chance of you being unshelved eventually, but only if your friends who are coming after me can get past my defenses, and only if they like you enough to look for you. I don’t love your odds.”
Shit. He knows they’re coming.

Blackbody

The beacon was live, but for only less than an hour. It went dormant after that, which suggests something happened to Lowell. Oh well, Jupiter figured. There was a reason they chose him for the task. If he was killed permanently, it would have no great impact on the timeline, and it’s not like he was ever a great person anyway. He did his job, and now it’s time to move on to the next phase. They’re standing at the Nexus annex on Earth, waiting for the technician to integrate the machine into their ship, which is too large to fit inside  the Nexus proper.
“Why are we in this other timeline?” Tetra asks.
“It’s not another timeline,” Téa explains. “It’s another reality. It runs parallel to our reality.”
“Yes,” Missy adds. “Other timelines technically take place in the past. When you go back in time, you don’t actually go backwards. What you do is bring the past conditions up to your present, and continue forward from there. You’re always moving forward.”
“Oh.”
“I brought you to the Parallel,” Jupiter begins, “because I have the power to do so, and it’s kind of our one advantage. We will travel to the point in the galaxy where I picked up Lowell’s beacon, and then send us through a transition window back to the main sequence, so he doesn’t see us coming.”
“We still don’t have much information,” Téa argues. “We may know where Lowell was, but we don’t know where he is, and we don’t know what kind of technology this Pryce fellow has, or what. We don’t even know that he doesn’t have access to the Parallel.”
“That we do know,” Jupiter argues back. “Parallel researchers assure me that we are completely separate. Their version of death is different than ours. If you were to die here, you would not go to Pryce’s simulation.”
“What would happen to us if we died here?” Missy questions. “That would be kind of nice to know.”
The technician stops her work for a moment, and gives Jupiter this look.
“I’ve already asked that. Death is a touchy subject for these people even more than it is in our reality. They won’t talk about it.” He takes a beat. “But you don’t have to worry about that. Not only am I going to keep you safe, but all three of you have things to do in the timeline that you have not yet experienced. You will find your way back. You have to.”
“Speaking of which,” the technician says, “you will not be able to come back. Your ship is not capable of near instantaneous interstellar travel. I can send you where you wanna go, but once you get there, the connection will be severed. You’ll have to find some other way.”
“We’re not worried about that right now,” Jupiter assures her. “We’ll be in the main sequence, so it won’t matter what we can and can’t do.”
“That’s not really true,” Téa points out, but they drop the subject, and decide to hope for the best.
After a final system’s check, they climb into the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and prepare to launch. “Oh, by the way,” the technician says through the speaker. “You’re getting pretty close to Stellaris Collapsis Centralis. Things are gonna get slow for you.
“What’s Stellaris Collapsis Centralis?” Téa questions just as the engine reaches critical mass.
“Oh God,” Jupiter says as he’s massaging the bridge of his nose. “The blackhole.”
They jump.
“Missy!” Jupiter cries. “No, I mean...computer, calculate temporal dilation with reference frame Earth.”
Calculating,” the computer responds.
“What’s going on?” Tetra asks, frightened.
“The time dilation is—” the computer tries to say.
“On-screen!” Jupiter orders.
The time difference appears on the screens before them.
“Missy, can you read those figures, and come up with a temporal bubble to match?” Jupiter asks.
“Give me a second.”
“We don’t have much more than a second,” he replies.
Missy takes a breath, and forms a bubble between her fingers, which expands far from them at the speed of her exhale. “Bubble’s away.”
“Computer, how long has it been since departure, realtime?”
Three years, four months, and twenty-nine days,” the computer answers.
“Ah, damn,” Jupiter says at a fairly low volume. “I didn’t want it to take this long.”
“Can someone please explain what happened?” Tetra asks.
Jupiter prepares to explain. “Gravity bends spacetime. The higher the gravity, the slower time moves. When you’re standing on the surface of Earth, time is actually moving slower for you than for someone floating on a space station in orbit—not by much, but not nothin’. Black holes have profoundly high gravity; higher than you’ve ever experienced before. We are extremely close to it, so while we were only here for a few seconds, almost three and a half years passed for everyone else. Well, I shouldn’t say everyone. Some people in this reality live relatively close to black holes. For them, maybe two years have passed, for others, only one. I asked Missy to generate a temporal bubble, to cancel out this gravitational time dilation. We’re now moving really fast compared to the region of space around us, but it’s matched up with the people on Earth.”
“Pryce must be using the time dilation to prevent people from finding the simulation,” Téa guesses.
“That would be my assumption,” Missy confirms. “If he’s this close to the event horizon, he hasn’t been here long.”
How long?” Tetra asks.
“Well, when did Pryce first arrive here?” Missy asks in return.
“Let’s assume he’s been here the entire time,” Jupiter puts forth. Based on what I’ve gathered, he started collecting consciousnesses about twelve thousand years ago.”
Missy taps on her screen a few times, and her eyes widen. “A day.”
“Excuse me?”
“A day,” Missy repeats. “If Tamerlane Pryce arrived in this region of space—this close to Sagittarius A-Star—then from his perspective, he’s only been here...for a day.”
“He must have his own way of manipulating time then,” Téa determines. “Mateo was communicating with Leona from the real world, from Earth.”
“The simulation would be running at a highly accelerated rate. The entities monitoring the computers from the outside, would only experience minutes, but for the people inside the simulation, decades have passed.”
“How does this help us?” Tetra asks. “How does it hurt us?”
“Well,” Jupiter says with relief, “thank God Missy’s here. Honestly, I chose this team for poetic value. I didn’t give much thought to who would be useful for the mission. We lucked out that Sanaa is one of the people who need rescuing, and that I’m kind of a psycho who wants to see what happens when she finds out her mortal enemy has saved her life.”
Téa continues the interrogation, “what happens when we transition to the other reality? How close are we to Lowell’s beacon?”
“We are safely two light years from it, so when we transition, we’ll have to make the journey across, as soon as we gather some data. It’ll only take us a day.” He directs his attention to Missy, “Miss Atterberry, you think you can hold up your bubble during the transition?”
“I don’t see why not,” Missy decides. “It’s not like I have to concentrate on it. I create a bubble, and then I let it be.”
“Okay. Then I’m gonna send us through,” Jupiter says, waiting for anyone to protest. Mateo or Lowell would have been the ones to do that, but they’re not a problem anymore. “Here..we..go!”
They switch back over to the main sequence. Everything seems to be about the same as it always was, but then they looked out the right viewport. They are flabbergasted and lost.
“What the hell am I looking at here?” Tetra asks. “Is there someone standing outside the ship?”
“Like a robot?” Téa adds. “It looks like a robot, or a statue.”
“Oh my God,” Jupiter says breathily. “I think that’s the matrioshka body.”
“That’s crazy,” Missy says, staring at the screen. “I’ve heard of a brain, but...someone built this thing?”
“Hogarth Pudeyonavic,” Jupiter answers. “It’s not supposed to exist for another two and a half centuries, and then some.”
“Can someone explain?”
“The matrioshka brain,” Missy starts to go over it. “What you do is build a bunch of structures around a star, which will absorb the light from that star, with what are basically gigantic hyperefficient solar panels. They don’t absorb all of it, though. Some light will get through, and those structures will radiate heat away. Notice how your phone gets hot when you use it too much? That’s just energy being wasted, and space is no exception. So what you do is build even more structures behind the first layer. They’ll catch that radiated heat, but will in turn radiate their own. So you build another layer. And another, and another, and another, until you’re no longer benefitting from the radiation. That’s a matrioshka brain. It’s not a solid sphere, but from far enough away, it looks like one. If we built one around Sol, the whole thing would extend farther than the orbit of Neptune. According to the computer, this brain is surrounding a red dwarf, so it’s smaller.”
“You call that small?” Téa can’t fathom anything larger than this.
“Yes, and it includes a full body. There’s not really any point in doing that, except that it’s badass, and I’ve never heard of it before, and I wish I had thought of it.”
“Someone stole it, and brought it to the past?” Tetra assumes.
“That would seem to be the case,” Jupiter agrees. “Pryce is more powerful than I imagined. Some argue you could build a sufficient simulation with a dyson sphere, which would just be one layer of structures, so this is extreme overkill.”
“How do we get over there?” Missy asks. “If he hasn’t detected us already, he will soon.”
“We’re quite close to darklurking,” Jupiter assures her. “That thing would probably just interpret us as a glitch in the system, we’re so small. That’s the benefit of a tiny ship. Everyone seems to think bigger is better, but that’s not always the case.”
“Computer, go ninety-nine percent dark,” Missy orders. “Life support, dim lighting, and HiBo grav only.” She sees Jupiter looking at her. “No point in testing our limits.” She starts tapping the computer screen. “There is no way we’re getting over there. He’ll spot us, and blow us out of the sky. I mean, one laser beam, and we won’t know what hit us.”
“Paige can get us there,” Jupiter says. “Or Tetra, rather.”
“Me?”
“All we need is a telescope,” he tells her. “It doesn’t take any power. I think they have one down in engineering, kind of for things like this.”
“Missy will help you find somewhere pressurized and oxygenated. Hell, I could do it. We all got our cuffs on. Everybody’s got everybody’s powers. You guys remember that? You need to learn to use them first, though; they’re not automatic.”
Tetra sighs. “You get me a clear shot inside a window, I’ll get us into that room.”
“Okay,” Missy says. “I’ll find something. It might take me awhile. I would really love to make sure there’s no one in that room when we get there.”
It really did take long for her to find a good entry point. The matrioshka body was predominantly designed to accommodate a species of people known as mechs. They don’t need air, and they don’t need gravity, and some don’t even need light. There are places regular organic humans could survive, but without the blueprints, or some foreknowledge of this place, they’re hard to see, especially since most of them are deeper in. Besides, for Tetra’s teleporting ability to work, she needs to see where she’s going. That can come in the form of a photograph, or straight line of sight, or—in this case—a telescopic view, but she can’t simply be cognizant of what’s on the other side.
“Wait,” Téa interrupts as they’re discussing the details of the jump. “When will we arrive in that room? I don’t know much about science, but I know that light moves at a certain speed. When we get there, will it be present day, or will it be two years ago?”
They look to Tetra.
“That’s the thing. I don’t know. Normally, it would be the past. I’m looking at a star that’s two light years away, which means the events unfolding before me happened two years ago. I’m not sure how to account for the black hole’s time dilation, or Missy’s time bubble. It’s kinda gonna be a crapshoot. Don’t misunderstand me when I say that I can’t recommend this course of action. I’ll do it if you want, but only if you want.”
Now they look to Jupiter.
“A lot of what I do is because I like the power...the control. I crave people doing what I say. I’ve grown a lot since I started doing this, though. Sending my teams into the Parallel, saving lives; it’s given me perspective, and changed me in ways I thought were hopeless since I was a child.” He shakes his head, and paces within a very small radius. “The old me would make you go, because I’m in charge. Now, though, I just want my people back. And I’m asking for your help.”
Now they all look to each other.
“Let’s do it.”
“Yeah.”
“I’m in.”
“Okay.”
Missy double checks her work, then presents the eyepiece to Tetra. They jump, and make it all the way there...but not everyone survives.

Hacking Heaven

The three of them sit against the wall. They wish they could save Jupiter, but none of them had the power to do so. Tetra couldn’t summon him to her location, and if she had tried to jump to his location, she would have immediately started dying too, because she has no idea how to survive in the vacuum of space. Missy could have tried to slow time for him, but then what? How would they have gotten him out? Téa doesn’t have any powers to speak of, so she feels even more useless. They just were never the right team to deal with a contingency like that, and now it’s up to them to continue his vision. That won’t be easy, because even though they’re in the matrioshka body now, they have no clue how to find whatever they need to get to, or what they’re going to do when they get there. Missy is still a brilliant engineer, but they just don’t have enough information about this place, or how it works.
“Does anyone know that we’re here?” Téa asks. The reality is that none of them knew Jupiter very well, and as sad as it is, the biggest issue they face is the fact that he had some kind of plan, not that they’ve been traumatized directly.
Missy takes a tablet out of her bag, and starts doing what she can. “I doubt I can hack into this place. For all intents and purposes, we might as well be trying remotely, even though we’re technically in the building. I could do more with a hardline, but if I were to design a matrioshka body, I would compartmentalize the systems to an extreme degree. We would probably not be able to do more than turn the lights on and off in this section.”
“How long would it take if we were to walk from here to where the main system most likely is?” Tetra asks. “I understand we can’t do that, but what would it look like? I’m just having trouble fathoming the size of this thing.”
Missy chuckles. “How long would it take to walk to Jupiter? How long would it take you to drive? Hell, how long would it take you to fly? From head to heel, it’s about the distance from the sun to the orbit of Neptune. We’re in the ass.”
“There has to be some form of faster than light travel,” Téa figures. “You don’t build something this big unless you can get clear to the other side of it in a reasonable amount of time, should you need to.”
“It wasn’t really built for humans,” Missy explains. “Mechs can just transfer their consciousnesses somewhere else instantaneously, and start operating a new body. Like I was saying before, this is not a solid structure. It’s a bunch of gravitationally bound parts, which move in concert. A moon could probably fit within the space between a finger and its hand.”
They sit in silence for a moment while Missy keeps working.
“We’re still in the bubble, right?” Téa inquires.
“Yeah,” Missy confirms. “The rooms around us are frozen in time.”
“I guess that’s good at least.”
They sit for another moment until a voice comes through their cuffs. “Hello? Do you read me?
“Jupiter?” Tetra asks. “Jupiter, is that you?”
It is,” he replies.
“Jupiter, how are you al—”
Missy interrupts Téa’s question by cupping her hand around her mouth.
You guys still there?” Jupiter asks. “If you’re avoiding asking me about my death, don’t worry. There’s no risk of a paradox, or anything. I’m not from the past. I am a quantum duplication of myself. I made a copy just as we were jumping, in case we needed someone to stay with the ship. I don’t really know why I didn’t tell you, but it looks like I made the right call. It’s taken me this long to establish a secure connection with you.
“So you don’t have to die?” Missy makes sure.
No, already happened. The good news is that this gives us an opportunity. Is my body there?
Tetra slides her back up the wall, and stands to look out the viewport. “It’s...it’s close, but...” While his other body is on the other side of the hull, it’s still inside of Missy’s temporal bubble, but that doesn’t matter much, because there’s no way to get to it. They would need an airlock, and a vacuum suit. It might as well be on another planet.
That’s fine,” Jupiter said. “There’s a teleportation feature built into them. It won’t let you go wherever you want, but it will allow two cuff-wearers to jump directly to one another. The problem is it’s designed as an outgoing feature. You can’t use it to summon someone towards you. Missy, I’m going to need you to hack into them. Shouldn’t be too hard for you, Leona and Sanaa did it all the time. Maybe you could reverse the polarity?
Missy bursts out laughing. “If that was a joke, it was a good one, if not, it’s probably even funnier. But okay, I’ll see what I can do.” She gets to work on her cuff interface, trying to find a way to make it so they can bring Jupiter’s body into the room. No one bothers asking him why this is even a thing. They can’t fully trust him, but they can probably trust that he isn’t asking them to use his corpse to recreate Weekend at Bernie’s. Within a half hour, Missy has finished what she needs to do. Once she activates the apporter, the body appears on the floor before them.
Okay,” the living Jupiter says. “Now it’s time to move on to the hard part.
“That wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” Missy points out.
This isn’t going to be hard on a technical level,” Jupiter begins to clarify, “but a psychological one. If you could reach into my inside breast pocket, and retrieve a little black and white bag thing.
Tetra does this. “Got it.”
That is a bag of holding. The white side is a virtual inventory carousel. I need you to look for something called an oligodendroglian interceptor kit.
“Found it,” Tetra says. She selects the item on the screen, which causes the real thing to appear on the floor. It’s larger than the bag it was in. “What does it do?”
Open it up.
Tetra opens the pack, and starts to lay out all the pieces on the provided sanitary cloth. They look like medical devices. No...surgical tools.
Téa is watching it happen. “You’re gonna make us cut into your brain?”
The body’s already dead,” he reminds them. “You can’t hurt it. Just dig a hole, find a spot to stick the antenna, and connect to it with your tablet. It’s just like syncing your phone with a pair of wireless headphones.
“It’s absolutely not like that,” Téa argues.
Oligodendrocytes are all over the brain. You just have to stick it on and connect. I know it’s gross, but this will allow us to hack into the simulation.
“They don’t do this in The Matrix,” Tetra notes.
They probably could,” he retorts. “Look, this has to happen quickly. We’re finally at an advantage I never had, because the signal is extremely strong here, but it won’t be long before my copy’s body loses its link to its former consciousness. You have to do this now.
“Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine,” Tetra says.
“No, I’ll do it,” Téa decides. I’m not a teleporter, or a tech genius, but I’ve cooked meat before, and I feel like I need to contribute something.”
No one argues with her.
Téa gracelessly uses the blade to cut into Jupiter’s head, all the way into the brain. She then drops this little pebble thing into her hole, and waits for Missy to find the connection on her tablet. It really is as easy as he claimed. Within seconds, she’s linked up to his neural signal. It’s fading fast, but it’s enough for her to establish a permanent connection to where the neural signal is going, which is directly into Pryce’s afterlife simulation. From here, they should be able to gain access to the virtual constructs.
“How much time do you need?” Tetra asks as Téa is getting herself cleaned up.
“Impossible to tell. I don’t know how complex this is, or even what language it’s written in. I’m from the 21st century, this is all pretty far beyond me. I hope there are a few cots in that bag, because it could take days, or honestly, even weeks. Sorry.”
Several hours later, Missy has pretty much full control of the simulation. She would be capable of switching it off, or altering its speed of time, or even giving people clone bodies to transfer their minds into. None of that really helps them, though. They don’t need control of the simulation, but the matrioshka body as a whole, and they need to use that control to detrone Pryce himself. Unfortunately, they’re separate systems by design, to prevent something like this very thing from happening.
“We need a distraction,” Tetra suggests as Missy is looking through the simulation specifications. “Someone is going to have to go in, and make a big stink, so the other two can get to the real controls.”
“I think we all know Missy can’t be the person who goes into the simulation,” Téa adds. She needs to stay out here, so it obviously has to be me.”
“It could be me,” Tetra contends. “I’m the one who thought of it.”
“And you also have superpowers, which I’ve already explained. I can make a stink. I made a lot of stinks when I was younger, I was an abolitionist. It has to be me, in case Missy needs you out here.”
The other two give her this look.
Téa continues, “I won’t be dead, so Pryce won’t be able to delete my code, or whatever. I’m just hacking in, and if anything goes wrong, I’ll come right back to my body.”
“I can’t promise that,” Missy says, shaking her head.
“I don’t know if my pattern is over or not,” Téa goes on. “If the powers that be still have a hold of me, then I will ultimately be here for three hundred years, at which point, who knows? But at least there’s a chance they’ll protect me. You two can’t say the same thing.” She lifts her cuff closer to her mouth. “Neither can you, Mister Fury. So jam that needle into the back of my head, give me a halo, stick electrodes on me, or do whatever it is you gotta do. Let’s stop wasting time.”
Jupiter informs them that there is indeed a VR cap in his bag. It isn’t all that difficult to interface it with Missy’s tablet, and the simulation signal. Tetra places the cap on Téa’s head, and Missy prepares to send her into the frametrix, as she calls it jokingly.
“I’m putting you in lurker mode,” Missy goes over. “No one will be able to see you if you don’t want them to. Take as much time as you need to get your bearings, and make a plan. Pryce will probably be able to see you right away, but he might not notice immediately; it just depends on how preoccupied he is already.”
“Got it. Beam me up, Missy.”
Missy activates the sequence, and resolves Téa into the simulation.

She’s standing in a room. A room full of Jupiters. It looks like a party, except that every guest is the same person. They are all wearing different clothes, but all in the same style, and they all have dates and times on their shirts. No one else is around, and Téa wants answers, so she reveals herself to the world. Little by little, they notice her amongst them.
“Who is this?” one of them asks.
“She looks familiar,” observes another.
The Jupiter listed as December 14, 2134 approaches her. “Miss Stendahl, you’ve come. But you’re not dead, right?”
“Nope,” Téa replies. “We hacked into the sim.”
He nods. “That was a contingency, in case you couldn’t gain physical access to the servers.”
“I don’t know if Missy knows where they are, or what,” she explains. “It’s just my job to create a distraction.”
December 14, 2134 lets out a maniacal laugh, and looks around at his quantum duplicates. “We can do that, can’t we boys!”
Responses like, “hell yeah,” and “I’m great at that,” came out of the duplicates. They whoop and holler and smash their glasses on the floor. One of them conjures a baseball bat, and breaks a lamp with it.
“That’s right!” December 14, 2134 concurs. Still smiling, he looks back at Téa. “I knew there was a reason I kept letting my duplicates die.” He nods proudly as they begin rushing out of the party venue. “Let’s go raise some hell.”

Crisis Averted

Missy and Tetra are able to watch Téa and the many, many versions of Jupiter Fury rampage through the afterlife simulation, like it’s a movie. Even though none of this stuff is real, it does take code to generate. Every time they crash a car into a hotel lobby, or dump a literal ton of sugar into a swimming pool, it alters the code, and the system can detect that. These changes are happening all the time, because people are driving around, and they’re adding sugar to their tea, but the wackier these code changes there are, and the more they happen in succession, the more likely it is that the system will flag it as aberrant. In many simulation worlds, the laws of physics are different, and they’re specifically being used to simulate conditions that could not possibly exist in the real world. They allow users to journey to the center of a star, or have two sets of vocal cords. The main simulation, however, is modeled after the true laws of physics. They too can be changed, as long as you’re at the right level, but unfortunately, none of the Jupiters has these privileges.
Precisely because there are so many of them, Tamerlane Pryce deliberately capped all of them at Level 7 Elite. Still, this allows them to make unlimited requests for whatever they want, however absurd, as long as they follow that particular world’s restrictions. So when one Jupiter asked for one thousand airplanes that are all flying towards a single point simultaneously, they figured Pryce would take notice. He didn’t. One Jupiter requested a tank four times the size of a normal one, while a different Jupiter asked for a one alpaca that bites people incessantly, and another that bites the first one, but Pryce still did not come. The requests just kept being crazier and crazier, or more to the point, more intrusive to the harmony of the main simulation. But nothing works, until December 14, 2134 gets the bright idea to ask for a few fairly simple things. “Can I get a coke? No, a water. No, a lamp. No, a cat. Can I get a spaceship? No, one huge Junior Mint. No, a coke.” It works. Pryce finally shows up.
“Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! You said the magic words.”
“That was all it took?” December 14, 2134 asks.
“I assume you know it’s a reference,” Pryce says. “Anyone who asks for those specific things, in that specific order, and does so unironically, is awarded audience with me. So. What would you like to discuss?”

“There!” Missy declares. “Pryce is definitely in the simulation, and distracted by the Jupiters. Téa is back in full lurker mode. Hopefully Pryce can’t see her either.”
Great,” the still living version of Jupiter says. “This doesn’t mean there aren’t other defenses, but now you should be able to get to the brain. That’s where it’s possible to control the whole body, I know it.
“That’s what I was thinking too,” Missy agrees. “I don’t really know Hogarth Pudeyonavic, but that’s what makes the most sense.”
“Can we survive there?” Tetra asks. “You said some parts are completely uninhabitable.”
“That’s true,” Missy confirms, “but Pryce is still an organic human. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about him, it’s that he doesn’t wanna be a mech. He needs to be able to control the matrioshka body, so wherever exactly that is, it has to be habitable.”
“Still, we need a way to actually get up there from the ass,” Tetra reminds her.
“I’ve been multitasking,” Missy tells her. “I know enough about the section we’re in. They installed teleporter pads at strategic locations. We’ll have to make a few jumps up the torso, but it will get us to the brain eventually.”
I hope Téa and my duplicates can distract Pryce for that long,” Jupiter muses.

“We’re tired of living in the simulation,” December 14, 2134 tells Pryce.
“Okay, cool,” Pryce says. “I’ll just delete your code. Give me a second...” He starts tapping on his virtual tablet.
“No. We want to be promoted to Level 11.”
Pryce chuckles. “Why would I do that?”
“Because I asked?”
“I like to be unpredictable, and giving you what you desire simply because you asked is certainly something I would do, just to keep people from tracking a pattern to my decisions. But I’m not going to do it. And here’s why. Her.” He gestures towards Téa.
Téa thought she was invisible, but maybe not to him.
“Her who?” December 14, 2134 questions. He’s not just being protective of her. He legitimately can’t see her himself anymore.
Pryce reaches above Téa’s head, and simulates pulling down a zipper, which serves to take Téa out of lurker mode, and exposes her to the rest of the simulation. “Her.”
“What are you going to do to me?”
“Do to you?” Pryce asks, offended. “I’m not going to do anything to you. You are my honored guest; the first I’ve ever had. No one’s ever been able to hack my simulation before, mostly because they don’t know it exists. And there’s something you have to understand about that, I have no control over the living. I am Hades, relegated to the afterlife. Even though you’re in here, you’re still alive, and I can’t touch you. Your friends, who are still outside the simulation, in their bodies? I can’t stop them from doing whatever they want either. The Glisnians and I made an arrangement. I’m allowed to use their processors to run my simulation. I don’t have control over the whole thing, though. I never have. You people make a lot of assumptions.”
“The Glisnians are still here?”
“Of course! You think I stole it from them? How would I have accomplished that?”

“That’s far enough.” A woman was waiting for them in the teleporter room. They were now at the shoulder of the matrioshka body, but it took some time to get there.
“We’re not here to hurt anybody,” Tetra assures her. “We can free you, though. We can take Pryce out of power.”
“You believe that Tamerlane Pryce is in power here,” the woman gathers.
“He’s not?” Tetra asks.
“Far from it,” she begins. “We allot him processing power, but his simulation is but a small part of what we do here.”
“What do you do here?”
“Don’t be rude,” Missy whispers. “First of all, let us do introductions. I am Melissa Atterberry. This is my associate, Tetra Turner, and this is our other associate, Téa Stendahl. Her consciousness is presently in the simulation.”
“I am Avalhana. I am responsible for communing with non-Glisnian vonearthans. I must ask, are you choosing ones?”
“The two of us are,” Tetra replies. “She is what we call a salmon. It’s—”
Avalhana waves her words away. “We are aware of what it means. To answer your question, we experiment with time here. That is why we are so close to Sagittarius A*. You appear to be manipulating the speed of time on your own.”
“I’m doing that,” Missy clarifies.
“Fascinating. Which is why I should stop speaking to you. As choosing ones, you are obligated to instead speak with my associate, the Afflicted Ambassador.”
“Very well,” Tetra says tentatively.
“Please step off of the pad, so that we may bring her to our location.”
As soon as they step away, the pad activates. Hogarth Pudeyonavic herself appears before them. She looks around. “Are we in standard realtime now?”
“You are inside my bubble,” Missy confirms.
“Excellent,” Hogarth says. “I’ve always found it uncomfortable, being in the black hole, watching the rest of the galaxy move on without us.”
Avalhana unceremoniously leaves the room, but once she crosses out of Missy’s bubble, they watch her going at a normal rate. This means that she’s actually traveling at an incredibly high speed, which is highly incredible.
“What year is it?” Hogarth asks.
“Twenty-one thirty-four,” Missy answers.
“What brings you here?”
“We have friends in the simulation,” Tetra says.
“Which one?”
“Multiple ones,” Missy explains. “Sanaa Karimi, Ellie Underhill, one Angela Walton, Jeremy Bearimy, and a Lowell Benton. We think he’s been shelved, though.”
“No, I don’t mean which friends; which simulation?”
“The afterlife sim,” Tetra elucidates. “If that’s not specific enough either, it’s the one that Tamerlane Pryce is running.”
Hogarth nods. “I see. You want them resurrected.”
“We do.”
“That is not the agreement we have with him,” Hogarth explains. “He can do whatever he wants with it. No one is entitled to resurrection.”
“You don’t have to break your agreement,” Missy promises her. “We’ll rescue them, and leave you out of it.”
“That will not be necessary.” Téa is awake. She rubs all over her face, like she’s showering. Then she stands up, careful to not let the VR cap fall from her head. “I will release your friends.”
You will?” Tetra is confused.
“Forgive me. My name is Tamerlane Pryce. I am borrowing your friend’s body. Don’t worry, she consented. I needed to speak with you, and my own body is thousands of light years from here.”
“It is? Where?”
“You don’t need to know that,” Pryce replies. “The point is that this is my only option. If I resurrect a few people, I avoid a terrible, terrible outcome; a crisis, you might call it. I’m willing to part with them to save the whole simulation. It’s very important to me.”
“How do you know about this supposed crisis?” Missy presses.
“I ran a simulation. If I push back, you push back harder, and a lot of people get hurt. I don’t want that, because then you’ll never know that I’m not evil. I’m sick of people thinking that about me. I saved tens of billions of lives. Me! I did that! I did that alone! Stop treating me like the villain!” He takes a deep breath, and composes himself. “Sorry. It’s just been very difficult lately. You and your friends are more trouble than you’re worth. They murdered a prisoner, let another escape, and they keep changing my precious code. So I will take you to The Cervix, and we will be done with this.”
“Um. The Cervix?”
“That’s where he creates people’s clones,” Hogarth decides to explain. “It’s a symbolic gesture, which we conceded, because...I don’t really remember why. I guess I just didn’t want to argue.”
“Babies aren’t made in the cervix,” Tetra argues.
“Well, I didn’t design the matrioshka body with a womb structure, so this is the closest thing. There’s no vagina either, but that’s what he calls the Earth Nexus, which is where the resurrected come out.”
They all look at Pryce. “Oh, don’t judge me. Most partial organics here live in the breast sections; because they need nourishment. I’m not the only one respecting the symbology of shape.”
Hogarth chooses to move on. “The Cervix is no longer linked to the matrioshka body, and is located far enough away from A* that it doesn’t experience time dilation. You’ll be able to drop your bubble.”
“This seems too easy,” Tetra notes. “We’ve been through a lot to get here, and our predecessors went through more before we were even brought in. There’s something you’re not telling us.”
“There’s a lot I’m not telling you,” Pryce admits. “But it’s nothing you need to know, and you don’t have to worry. You’re getting your friends back, and there’s no secret motivation behind this. There is no conspiracy, just take the win.”
“That’s exactly what someone behind a conspiracy would say,” Missy contends.
“It’s also what someone who isn’t would say,” Pryce snaps back. “If I’m lying you’ll suffer, but if I’m telling you the truth, you have ten seconds to accept it, or you’ll really suffer. So again, take the win, and let me go back to work. This has taken up too much of my life already. I just want it to be over.”
Tetra sighs. “We’ll take it. How do we get there?”
“We have a Nexus too,” Hogarth answers.
At that, Téa’s body falls to the floor. She wakes up five seconds later as Missy and Tetra are holding her in their arms. “It’s me. I’m back.”
“Did he hurt you?” Tetra asks her.
“No, everything’s fine. I’m fine. I saw our friends, including Lowell. He was shelved, but Pryce let him out. He’ll be coming back with the rest.”
“I don’t like this.” Missy shakes her head slowly. “I don’t trust him.”
“It’s our only choice,” Téa says. “We have to assume we’re getting what he promised. Take it one step at a time. Trust, but verify.”
Hogarth sets them back on the teleporter pad, and continues the series of long-range jumps, until they’re all the way at the neck, which is where the Nexus is located. They take that to the Cervix, where all their friends have already been placed in clone bodies. It’s a pretty quick turnaround, but they decide to accept that as truth as well.
Missy, Tetra, Jeremy, Sanaa, and Angela step back into the Nexus, and prepare to return to Earth, but the other three stay outside. “I can’t go with you, Téa tells them. I have to get back to Tribulation Island in The Parallel. That’s where I’m meant to be.”
“How are you going to get there?”
I’m on my way,” Jupiter tells them through the Cassidy cuffs. “I will make sure she gets where she’s goin’.
“Ellie, are you going with her?”
“No,” Ellie responds. “I’m going to the matrioshka body. The simulation is mine, and I’m ready to take ownership of it.”
“I’ll go with her,” Lowell reveals, “and help. I don’t have my powers anymore. As far as I know, you are all sin-free. I need to do something positive with my life now.”
“I would love the company,” Ellie tells him with a polite nod.
“I’ll wait with Téa,” Missy decides, stepping out of the Nexus. “She shouldn’t have to be alone, and I feel like I’m supposed to be on Tribulation Island too.”
“Then I guess I’ll have to thank you now,” Sanaa says to her. “Which I did, and it’s done, and now we can go. Boot it up, baby!”
“No hug?” Missy asks.
“No hug,” Sanaa says. “I just don’t ever wanna see your face ever again.”
“I’ve been told that can be arranged,” Missy agrees.
They say their thank yous and goodbyes, and then the Earth-bounders leave, hoping to find their friends, or at least wherever they belong.
Ellie and Lowell then step back in, and prepare to return to the matrioshka body, but now outside of the afterlife simulation. “Should we formulate a plan?” Lowell asks.
“I’ve never found that necessary,” Ellie answers him with an evil smile.
They disappear.
“Welp,” Missy says. “According to my calculations, Jupiter is about sixteen thousand light years from us at the moment. If he flies here with the reframe engine at full speed, it will take him around twenty-two years to arrive.”
“I’m gonna be kind of old,” Téa points out.
“Fortunately, I can help with that. My bubbles can slow down time as well as speed it up.”
“Okay,” Téa nods in understanding. Go ahead and do it.”
Missy grins. “I already have.”
Just then, Jupiter opens the door from the outside, and hangs onto the handle. “Y’all need a ride?”

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