Varkas Reflex

Time

Pribadium Delgado, Hokusai Gimura, and Loa Nielsen were standing awkwardly in the hallway. The former hadn’t seen the latter two in however long, and they didn’t know what to say to each other. It was ridiculous, though, because they were all friends. “It was a lovely service,” she finally blurted out. Mateo Matic was dead, and being honored on a very distant planet called Dardius. He was still alive, though, because...time travel. So he was around as well, though far too popular at the moment for them to have any hope of catching up with him.
“Indeed,” Hokusai replied.
“Yep,” Loa agreed.
“So, where have you been?” Hokusai decided to ask.
“Lots of places,” Pribadium answered. “It’s been a whirlwind. Do you know who Arcadia Preston is?”
“We do,” Hokusai answered. “Not well, but we know of her.”
“She’s the one what took me from Varkas Reflex, and transplanted me to a ship called the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
“That’s Leona’s ship.”
“Yes, I met her at some point. Two versions of her, actually. We jumped through time quite a bit. I went back to Earth in the past. Now I’m here.”
They nodded their heads. It wasn’t much information, but they could discuss the details later, if there was going to be a later.”
“So, what year is it for you?” Pribadium asked.
“It’s actually 2263 for us,” Loa said. “We came here across space, but not time.”
“Well, time and space aren’t really all that different.”
“Yes, dear,” Loa said jokingly.
“Do you wanna come with us?” Hokusai asked. “I mean, it’s where you were, which theoretically means that’s where you wanted to be when you stepped onto the colony ship. But if too much has changed since then.”
“Ya know, I’ve spent all this time just trying to get through the next hour that I haven’t thought about what I want to do in the future. Things have finally slowed down, and I don’t really know what to do with myself. I suppose I would like to see how Varkas has changed in the last seventeen years.”
“Quite a bit, actually,” Loa said. “We would love to have you see it.”
“How did you arrive here? Would I be able to latch on?” Pribadium asked.
“Invitations,” Hokusai began. “It’s just like with Mateo and Leona’s wedding. We just have to press this return box right here.” She held up the piece of paper that allowed her to shoot across space at speeds far exceeding the speed of light.”
“I should be able to latch onto one of you,” Pribadium said. “That’s what Mateo and Leona did to go to their own wedding.”
“Are we ready then?” Loa asked.
Hokusai held onto Pribadium tightly by the shoulders. Then she initialized her return protocol. They went right back to Hokusai’s lab together.
“Everything looks the same,” Pribadium pointed out.
“Has as much time passed for everyone here as it did for us at the memorial?” Loa asked.
“According to the invitation, this should be a mere second later; just enough to avoid a temporal paradox,” Hokusai explained. “Hey Thistle, what is the current time?”
Eleven-fifty-seven Earth Central Standard,” a voice responded.
Hokusai went over to inspect her desk. Things looked slightly different than they had when they left. It wasn’t enough to make her think that she had been robbed, but perhaps someone had come in, searching for a pen. Though, if it truly had been only one second, that shouldn’t be possible. “Thistle, what is the standard Earthan year?”
Two-two-eight-seven,” the computer replied.
“Thistle, using all available resources, including stellar drift data, please confirm that the year is indeed twenty-two-eighty-seven.”
Working...” It took nearly twenty seconds for her to continue, but this was an illusion. The computer’s response should be immediate. This data was easily accessible, and while it was certainly possible for there to be some kind of error, it was unlikely, especially when it came to a question such as this. Hokusai was simply exercising her right as a flawed human being to deny the truth as it stood before her. Asking for confirmation was nothing more than an attempt at psychoemotional comfort. Artificial intelligence, at its core, felt no such desire, nor did it appreciate this kind of need in others. To make them easier to communicate with, AI programmers coded these entities, however, to at least approximate human emotion, and respond accordingly. Inflections, pauses in speech, and in this case, a delayed response to pretend it was searching more thoroughly for a solution to the problem, were all about making the human requester feel better about the inevitable conclusion. “Confirmed. The year is twenty-two-eighty-seven.
It’s been twenty-four years,” Loa noted the obvious. “We’ve been gone twenty-four years.”
“Why?” Hokusai wondered out loud. “Why did the invitation return us to the wrong point?”
“It’s me,” Pribadium said. “I’m the variable that the invitation didn’t account for.”
“Is that what happened when Mateo stowed away to witness his own wedding from the audience?”
“No,” Pribadium answered, “it took us back exactly when it should have once it was over.”
“Well, in that case...no valid conclusion.”
“All things being equal, Madam Gimura, I’m the culprit. We can’t deny it. I screwed this up for you.”
Then Loa just started laughing her head off. “We’re all immortal here. We spent nine years on a scouter ship to get here in the first place, while you were spending slightly less on the colony ship. Time ain’t nothin’ but a thang.”
“Well, that was only four years from our perspective,” Pribadium pointed out.
“Exactly,” Hokusai agreed. “And just here, we only lived for a few hours, and now it’s over twenty years later. I don’t see the problem. When you’ve got eternity, this is shorter than an eye blink of time. Let’s assume you’re the thing that caused the delayed return: whatever, I don’t care.”
Loa was still laughing a little bit. “Let’s go outside, and find out what we missed.”
“See?” Pribadium began. “You even say that you missed it.” She couldn’t bring herself to not feel guilty about this, even though she didn’t purposely make them late.
“We’ve also missed everything that’s been happening on Earth, and Gatewood, and Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida,” Loa argued. “FOMO is a state of mind, but you’re always missing something, because you can’t be in two places at once.”
Hokusai stopped, and tilted her head ten degrees.
“Oh no, I know what this look is,” Loa said.
“Is she thinking?” Pribadium guessed.
“She’s inventing,” Loa clarified.
They waited about three minutes for Hokusai to step back into the real world. She was like a sleepwalker in that it would be dangerous to try to pull her back to reality before she was ready.
“Maybe you can be in two places at once,” Hokusai finally spoke. Though, she remained in her thinking position.
“How would you do that?” her wife asked.
“Extended consciousness,” she answered. “We’re already built for it. Project Stargate is building surrogate substrates for us as we speak. Right now, a mind can only be in one place at once, but that’s a very deliberate limitation. We could change it.”
“There’s a reason that limit is there,” Pribadium contended. “Hive consciousness muddies identity. You can move your mind from substrate to substrate all you want, and as long as you’re using a neurosponging technique, there’s no issue. If you want to spread that out amongst multiple separate substrates, though, who are you really? Are you everyone, or any one of them?”
Hokusai fully snapped out of her mind. “We can debate the ethics all day, as well as the technology necessary for it. That’s not what we’re here for, though. We want to see what Varkas Reflex looks like now.”
They stepped out of the lab, and prepared to climb onto a special hover platform Hokusai and Pribadium had invented together many years ago. It and the lab were both designed with artificial gravity. The mass and density of Varkas Reflex were very high, making it impossible for an average human being to stand on their own two feet. Transhumans were more capable, though it was still uncomfortable. Colonists instead lived in a special O₂-rich water, which they could breathe through their skin. They essentially turned themselves into water-dwelling creatures.
Unlike most people, Hokusai had knowledge of time travel, and parallel dimensions. She used her skills to generate lowered gravity for a given area by placing a different dimension underneath the regular one. A user wasn’t quite in one dimension, or the other, but simultaneously in both. She had built these dimensional generators in only a few key locations, however, including the hover vehicle they were intending to use as transport. It was gone, and seemingly unnecessary. The ground below them was perfectly fine, evidently calibrated for Earth gravity.
Loa was no scientist, but she understood what was happening, and why it was a problem. She was worried for her wife. “How is it like this?”
“I didn’t give anyone else the technology,” Hokusai answered. “Leona has some idea how it works, but the reason she couldn’t learn all of it is the same reason she couldn’t have done this; because she skips so much time. I also gave it to Pribadium, but she’s been gone as well.”
“Maybe you underestimated the people here,” Pribadium offered. “You left the tech unattended for two decades. They probably figured it out.”
“You mean, they stole it,” Loa said.
“It’s fine,” Hokusai said. “I didn’t want anyone to have control over it, because it could endanger natural technological progress. But I’m not Captain Picard, and this isn’t the Enterprise. The fact is that other dimensions exist, and let us do wondrous things. Time travelers have been hoarding these properties of physics since the dawn of man, but things are different now. We’re approaching the 24th century. Perhaps it’s time the vonearthans catch up. Perhaps...it was inevitable.”
“Do you think they placed generators all over the surface of the planet?” Loa asked. “Has there been enough time for that?”
“It depends on how long it took them to break into my second lab,” Hokusai answered. While she genuinely believed what she said about letting them have this technology, it was still going to be hard for her to come to terms with it. It had more to do with the damage already being done anyway, and less to do with real acceptance.
They ventured out to find answers.

Gravity

The three of them walked over to the Capitol building. Being such a vital contributor to the development of this planet, Hokusai enjoyed a special relationship with the Council leaders. That was two decades ago, however, so she couldn’t be sure the same people were still in charge. Much had changed since she was first growing up on Earth in the 20th and 21st centuries. It was a lot harder to stay in power if you weren’t very good at it. Civilians were no longer interested, for example, in electing a nation’s president for four whole years, with very little hope of recalling them, should something go wrong. This process started slowly, particularly in the United States. Checks and balances were first bolstered, so that the president and vice president were not elected in the same year, and were voted for separately. Then responsibilities changed, so that power was never consolidated into a single person. Experts in their fields were chosen to make decisions, rather than just anyone with enough money to run a campaign, and they were chosen by their peers, rather than just anyone who happened to live in the country.
Over the years, these changes grew more dramatic, until the world’s governments hardly resembled earlier ones at all. The colonies were especially different. They weren’t awarded their independence after protests and battles. There was no pushback in the first place. While Earth was completely in favor of maintaining healthy communication, and sharing of technology, colonists were expected to decide for themselves how they were going to run their own planets. If multiple factions rose up, and threatened each other, Earth would not intervene, except in situations that were manifestly unjust, or which threatened the entire stellar neighborhood. Fortunately, nothing like this had ever happened before, but many experts believed conflicts were inevitable, either internal, or interstellar. Hokuloa refused to believe that, though.
Anyway, Varkas Reflex was—not a party planet—but it was certainly hedonistic in nature. Advanced technologies, like universal synthesizers, and now this artificial gravity, made a happy life available to everyone. Hell, the whole reason this group of colonists agreed to live on a world with much higher surface gravity was because they were cool with just hanging out here, and not concerning themselves with anything else. They were here to enjoy themselves, because they believed that was the whole point of life, and was absolutely the point of a virtually immortal life. As such, not a lot of governing was happening on a regular basis. It was still necessary, and the people they chose to take care of this for them wouldn’t do it if they didn’t want to, but it was also very lax and casual. Hokuloa and Pribadium simply walked into the Capitol, and approached the head councilor’s office.
As they would expect, he was leaning back in his chair, feet propped up on his desk, and drooling down his cheek. Hokusai cleared her throat. “Sir?”
He woke with a start, and wiped off his face. It took him a moment to find his place in the real world. “Madam Gimura! Madam Nielsen, and Miss Delgado. What a lovely treat. I heard you ran off to Teagarden.”
Who told that lie? “We were indisposed, Councilor Dazzlemist.”
“Please. Call me Gangsta. We hate formality.” There was no such thing as a weird name anymore. You wanted to call your son Gangsta Dazzlemist, no one was gonna stop you, and it was fine.
Hokusai’s anger about the dimensional gravity thing was building inside of her, so she had to take a moment to continue speaking. Gangsta just waited patiently. He didn’t know that she was angry, but it wasn’t like he had something more important to do. She breathed out like a mother in labor, and went on, “could you explain how this world has changed since we’ve been gone? How is there more artificial gravity than I built?”
“Oh, yeah, I can explain that. They didn’t respect your wishes to keep it secret.”
“They? They who?”
“The Varkan scientists,” Gangsta started to explain. “They decided to break into your office two years after your disappearance.”
“And you didn’t stop them?”
“This is Hedonia,” Gangsta argued. “Nobody stops anybody from doing anything without proof that it would cause harm to others. I’m not a leader; that’s a misnomer. I’m a continuity supervisor. I make sure the fusion reactors stay on in the sentry stations, and the habitat tanks stay wet.”
“You’re still using habitat tanks?” Pribadium questioned. “But if you have artificial gravity...”
“Some people prefer to live in the water. That was the plan when they boarded the colony ships, and that’s how they want to stay. Even more are on your side, and don’t like that your technology was stolen, so they stay underwater too, out of solidarity, I guess.”
“I need to speak with these scientists,” Hokusai declared.
“Okay, cool,” Gangsta agreed. “Give me a minute.” He stared into space for a moment. A normal person might be confused, but it was clear he was communicating with someone using computer contact lenses on his eyeballs, which he controlled using his brainwaves. “He’ll be here in a few minutes. Would you like some cucumber water while you wait?”
A half hour later, a scientist arrived. One of the more frustrating aspects of living in the future was people’s perception of time. Everyone knows that one person in their group of friends who says ten minutes, and means an hour. They’re always late, for everything, and if you want them to be on time, you kind of have to fabricate a deadline for them that’s much earlier than what you really need. This became the normal way of doing things after humanity reached the longevity escape velocity. If it didn’t matter that it took a person literal years to move from one home to another, because it happened to be located on an exoplanet, then it certainly didn’t matter if they were twenty-five minutes late for a meeting. Of course, the majority of the population was fine with other people’s relaxed view of time, because they were all on the same page about it, and their own patience evolved with everyone else’s. They were late, but so were you probably, so whatever. This was a difficult culture for Hokusai and Loa to get used to, however, because both of them grew up in worlds where such irresponsibility was completely unacceptable, and undeniably rude.
“You stole my technology,” Hokusai accused.
“Yeah,” said the man. “But to be fair, I didn’t think you were ever coming back, so I wouldn’t get in trouble for it.” This poor morality was, fortunately, not a universal trait among modern vonearthans, but it wasn’t terribly uncommon either. Crime was at near zero, because if you wanted a table, for instance, you just had to ask for it, and never needed to steal, but this came with consequences. While taking whatever you wanted was no longer necessary, it also made it more difficult to truly own anything. If someone wanted your table, then they might think it was okay to just take it, and put the onus on you to ask for a new one, instead of them. A hedonistic place like Varkas Reflex made this even more common, because their concern was only ever the consequences of their actions, rather than the intrinsic ethical integrity of them.
Hokusai was going to need to do some mental gymnastics to argue with a person like this. She couldn’t rely on providing him with rational evidence against his position, because he didn’t respond well to reason. “Well, I’m back now, and you shouldn’t have thought that I wasn’t coming back, because I never told anyone that I wasn’t.”
“You’re right, I never heard that. It was a supposition, and I apologize.” Now, he was apologizing for what he had thought to be true, instead of how he acted because of it. That wasn’t good enough.
“You stole something from me, and if it had been my spaceship, or something, at least you could have given it back later. But what you stole was intellectual property, and that’s just about anyone is allowed to claim ownership over these days.” This was true. Again, the construction and supply of a new table was a trivial and minor inconvenience for the people who were in charge of making tables. Ideas and creations, on the other hand, always belonged to the person or group who came up with them, and even if they gave it away freely, they still had the right to credit. In this case, she hadn’t given the creations away, at least not in their entirety.
“Right again,” the scientist agreed, “but I had good reason, and I won’t apologize for it.”
“Explain,” Hokusai said simply.
“Why don’t you come with me? I would like to show you something. By the way, my name is Osiris Hadad, in case anyone wanted to know.”
“Oh.”
He led them across the dome, and into what was presumably his laboratory. Then he ushered them into a darkened room with a large viewing window. Another scientist was holding a tablet, and observing two children playing in the room on the other side of the glass. She didn’t pay them any mind, but focused on her notes. “These are my secondary children, Jada and Lysistrata.” A secondary child was the future-time equivalent of a godchild, or even a nonbiological niece or nephew. Should something happen to their parents, Osiris would step in to take care of them, and possessed the legal right to do so. For now, he did likely help raise them in whatever way he and the parents deemed was appropriate. The religious connotations died out years ago, and new terminology was formed to reflect that. He went on, “Jada gestated, and was born, on the colony ship that brought his parents here several years ago. His sister, however, is a dwarf, which I’m sure you can see, even at this young age. She was born on this heavyworld, and her parents decided to raise her here. Her doctors performed procedures in utero so she would be able to survive naturally this high gravity. It worked. She’s perfectly content walking around on the surface of this planet, with absolutely no further aid.
“Unfortunately, there was a side effect that the doctors didn’t predict. She can’t breathe the oxygen-rich water through her skin, like a normal human can. She can’t breathe this planet’s normal atmosphere either. For some reason, she can only live on land, under the domes. This means she didn’t meet her brother...until yesterday. I mean, not really. Obviously, they were able to communicate virtually, but they had never given each other hugs. He can’t stand this planet, and she can’t stand to be off this planet. Look at them now. My lead scientist designed the shoes and clothes they’re wearing. They use a compact form of the dimensional generators you built for us four decades ago, each set tailored to a different level of artificial gravity.”
A single tear escaped from Hokusai’s eye, and rolled down her cheek before it was killed by her hand, and its friends were destroyed before they could follow at all. Loa and Pribadium felt no such need to hide their emotions.
Osiris went on, “your invention is helping us promote this colony as the number one vacation spot in the stellar neighborhood. Even Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida can’t compete with their alien animal surrogacy substrate program. We have a roller coaster that spans the entire equator, we’re working on an escape complex that takes up most of the south pole, and construction begins on a Westworld-esque immersion experience a few thousand kilometers from here. That’s not all you’re doing, though. You also helped these two children find each other, and who knows what else it could do? I know you’re worried we’re gonna use it for evil things. It’s true that, when you can manipulate gravity, you can create a weapon that quite literally crushes an enemy vessel. But scientists have been risking this for centuries, and every time they failed, it was because they had something that we don’t.”
“What is that?” Pribadium asked.
His facial expression suggested the answer was obvious. “Enemies.”

Thought

Osiris seemed like a genuine person, who legitimately wanted to help people. Hokusai probably needn’t worry about what he was going to try to do with her technology, but that was rarely the problem. Most technological advancements didn’t risk falling into the wrong hands so much as each development inevitably led to further developments. Sure, you have things like the Manhattan Project, which was specifically designed to kill people, and the scientists working on the problem of fission knew exactly that that was the goal. But most of the time, science must, and will, press forward, and the best one can hope for is understanding consequences. At first, dimensional gravity was used to allow people to walk around on this heavy world in designated areas. Then it was used to launch ships into the sky. Now it was being used to help people move around anywhere, with their own personal gravitational field. This all sounded very good and benevolent, but each application could transform, and that could happen in the blink of an eye.
Given enough time and motivation, someone with dimensional gravity could create an execution platform. They could launch a vulnerable living being into the empty, or they could increase gravity, and crush them like a soda can. They could create a handheld weapon that tore a target apart, with each limb being drawn in a different direction. They could design regular-sized missiles that traveled interstellar distances at such mind-boggling speeds—and thus contained ungodly amounts of energy—and destroy a whole planet. Plus, manipulating gravity also means manipulating time, so something like this could be used to imprison people for years, while only seconds passed for those outside the prison. These were just the risks that Hokusai could come up on the top of her head, and they only involved the artificial gravity aspect of it. Tapping into other temporal or spatial dimensions could come with even worse consequences.
Osiris appeared to sense that her concerns had not gone away, which they never would. Still, he was determined to help alleviate them any way he could. “Come. I want to show you one last thing for the day.” He led them farther down the hallway, until reaching a very ominous door at the end. The sign said, Gravity Weapons Laboratory.
“This. This is exactly what I was worried about. I can’t believe you—!”
“Open the door, Madam Gimura,” Osiris said.
Hokusai could only shake her head in disappointment, so Pribadium decided to open the door herself. On the other side was nothing but a stone wall. “Is it a hologram?” she asked. To answer her own question, she reached up to find a real, physical wall.
“What is this?” Loa questioned, kind of protectively of her wife.
“It’s a symbol,” Osiris began to explain. “This is no trick. It’s not a secret transporter that takes you to the lab. The lab doesn’t exist, and it never will. We built this door to remind us that nothing we need is on the other side of it, and it never needs to become a room. As long as we’re in charge of this technology, it won’t be abused, and we will remain in charge as long as we’re alive, and if we do die, it dies with us. We’ve been very careful to quarantine the information. Only a few key people understand how it works.” He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small spherical cube box with a single button. It almost resembled a detonator. He handed it to Hokusai.
“Conceptual understanding of dimensional gravity was copied and sequestered on eight neural implants. Every time we want to do something with the knowledge, those in the know have to access the data using the implant. Practical application runs directly from this chip, and into our hands. Incoming data runs directly back to the implant, and we no longer share information. I, for instance, don’t actually know how gravity clothes work. Nor does anyone else, except for Dr. Petrić.”
“What is this?” Hokusai asked, indicating the sphube.
“The implants are airgapped, and they come with a single vulnerability,” Osiris went on. “A radio signal sourced from this box will disable the implants almost instantaneously. Now you’re the one in control of it. If you decide to erase everyone’s access, that’s what will happen.”
Hokusai looked down at her doomsday device. “Will it hurt?”
“I don’t think so,” Osiris answers. “Even if it does, the pain will be minimal, and temporary.”
She now half-frowned at the device. “Okay.” And with that, she pressed the button. A squeal escaped from it, and made its way through the air beyond them.
Osiris pressed his fingers against the top right side of his head. It didn’t look extremely painful, but more like he had accidentally bumped it against the edge of the coffee table after retrieving his contacts from underneath. Tiny massive weights hooked themselves to his eyelids, and he only barely fought against them. He quickly succumbed to the fatigue, and collapsed to the floor.
“Was that supposed to happen?” Loa asked.
“It’s not what he said.” Pribadium knelt down, and checked his pulse. “He’s still alive, just sleeping.”
“I don’t feel bad,” Hokusai said. “He gave me the button.”
“No one’s blaming you,” Loa assured her.
Pribadium walked a few meters down the hallway to the emergency box. There were two buttons. One was for urgent need, and the other simply connected with dispatch. She pressed the latter.
Can I help you?
“We need assistance transporting an unconscious man to the nearest medical facility.”
A carrier is being sent to your location. It has been programmed to transport him to where the others are being taken. Please follow behind for routine questioning.
A couple minutes later, a hover gurney appeared, and wedged itself under Osiris’ right side. Hokusai and Pribadium worked to drag him onto it, so it could take him to the infirmary. An investigator was waiting for them. Five unconscious people were already there. The other two were hopefully on their way, so they too could be treated. The investigator was taking someone else’s statement, and adding notes to a computer system that had been grafted onto the skin on his forearm.
“This is what did it.” Hokusai handed him the detonator sphube.
“What is it?” he asked her.
Hokusai felt no need to hide the truth. “You should find neural chips in each of their brains. These chips contained very sensitive information. The box was engineered as a failsafe, to prevent this information from leaking.”
The investigator nodded. “The gravity data. Yes, I know of it. Why was it activated?”
“He placed me in control of it, and I decided to use it.”
“Forgive me,” he said, “but we’ll have to wait until we revive them to determine whether you’re telling the truth.”
“Of course.”
“I’m sure they are.” The scientist who was observing the gravity children before stepped into the room. The seventh hover gurney followed her through, and took its place next to the others.
“How are you awake?” Hokusai asked, almost accusingly.
“That’s what we need to discuss,” the scientist replied. She faced the investigator. “You may go now. I’m invoking scientific immunity for everyone involved.”
The investigator switched off his arm interface. “Very well.”
“I’ll take that,” the scientist said before he could leave. Then she snatched the box out of his hand.
A robot surgeon removed itself from the wall, and began to perform brain surgery on the patients, starting with Osiris.
“My name is Katica Petrić. I was responsible for human gravitational adaptation, and there’s a secret I never told anyone; not even Osiris.”
Hokusai figured she understood. “You’re immune to the button.”
“Not exactly. I mean, no more or less than anyone else who didn’t have a gravity chip in their brain. Eleven years ago, my colleague was experimenting with dimensional energy. He was taking his job beyond his mandate, and because of it, something went wrong. I had to go down and release the energy before it blew another crater into the planet. Obviously I survived, but the incident had a side effect. The chip—for a reason I don’t know, because I’m not a neurologist—released all of its data into my mind, and then it melted. I was under the knife for hours while a surgical robot cleaned the chip out of my gray matter. It could do nothing for my memory, however. That button won’t work on me, because I possess knowledge of dimensional gravity that can’t be erased without seriously damaging my mind. I’m more like you now.”
Hokusai nodded. “No technology is foolproof.”
“Are you going to kill me?” Katica asked.
“Of course not.” Loa was more insulted than her wife. “We used the button as it was intended, for people who we presume consented to the eventuality. We don’t kill, and if your team hadn’t thought of the chips in the first place, then we just would have trusted that you wouldn’t do anything wrong with the knowledge.”
“You obviously didn’t want anyone using this knowledge anymore, though,” Katica began, “so I agree to retire.”
Pribadium had been searching her own memory archives since the first time she heard the name. “You’re a Petrić, as in the Kansas City Petrićs?”
“Yes,” Katica confirmed. “Third generation.”
“Thor told me about you,” Pribadium said. “I mean, he told us about your family, and the other three Croation families. You’re kind of the unsung heroes of Kansas-Missouri history.”
She laughed. “I dunno, they sing songs about the Matics, and Bozhena.”
“But no one else,” Pribadium argued lightly. “That’s not my point, though. From what I gather, your family, in particular, has always been fully aware of salmon and choosers.”
Katica knew she had been found out. “Every Petrić is born without the ability to move backwards in time, but we’ve all been protectors in our own human ways. I’ve been deeply invested in what happens to salmon since we found out what my adoptive brother and sister were.”
“Who were your brother and sister?” Hokusai asked.
“Mario and Daria,” Katica answered. “The Kingmaker, and The Savior of Earth from 1981 to 2034.”
“You don’t just protect salmon,” Pribadium pointed out. “You’ve been protecting the vonearthans from them. You got yourself onto this team to prevent it from growing out of control.”
Katica turned to watch the surgeon continue removing the neural implants from her colleagues. “I do what I have to.”
“Your story was a lie,” Hokusai accused. “There was no energy generation accident. You removed the chip, and kept the knowledge for yourself.”
“Oh, no, there was a definite energy crisis, and I did have to stop it,” Katica contended. “I also just happened to be the person who started it. If I didn’t do something to prevent them from learning too much, Beaver Haven Pen would have imprisoned them all.” She dragged her knuckles against her upper teeth, presumably as a nervous tick. “I modified the killswitch for the same reason.”
“Are you telling me this is a real killswitch?” Hokusai was horrified.
“No, sorry, that’s not what I meant. It’s just...”
“What?” Loa prodded.
“The chips didn’t work. No one else knew, but there was no way of sequestering the information. The longer the data was in their heads, and the more they used this data to invent things, the more their brains absorbed. Mine did it faster, because I already had some preexisting knowledge, but it would have happened to them eventually, and I can’t be sure they would have all been as noble as Osiris was about it.”
“What did you do?” Hokusai pressed.
“I didn’t just modify the button,” Katica started to say. “I had to alter the chips themselves. I turned them into gateways to the brains. When you pushed that button, it did exactly as you wanted, but because the chips were no longer the only issues, the memory wipe had to be more...comprehensive.”
Just then after a few minutes of recovery, Osiris started to reawaken.
Ever the mothering type, Loa glided over, and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Are you feeling okay?”
“I think so,” he replied. “I do have two questions, though. Who are you? And who am I?”

Equilibrium

The adjudicative system today was a lot different than it was when Hokusai was growing up. Instead of a single jury, deliberations were done with two separate arbitration panels, of five people. On each panel, three were regular people who served as arbiters, while two were educated arbitrators. There was still a judge—though, the position was now called adjudicator, to align with an a-word motif—but it was their responsibility to manage and mediate the court, rather than make summary judgments, punish the half-guilty, be corrupt, and stand above the law. The court system on Varkas Reflex was quite new, and while societies on the other colony planets generally stuck with the systems created on Earth after millennia of development, the Varkans decided to throw most of that out the window. Theirs was not an unfair process, but it wasn’t formal either, and it wasn’t orderly, nor predictable.
The good news was that Loa and Pribadium were both deemed innocent for the potential crime of erasing the episodic memories of the dimensional gravity scientists. The bad news was that Hokusai was not. She was sitting in the courtroom now, which was usually used for zero-g darts. One of the eight alleged victims was responsible for coming up with new forms of gravitational recreation, so this was her spot. Of course, she didn’t remember doing any of that, which was why they were all here now.
Gangsta Dazzlemist was playing the part of adjudicator, Katica Petrić was acting as advocate for the defense, and the investigator from before was the adhering attorney. Two people were chosen at random to approximate the role of arbiters. One was a permanent resident, while the other just happened to be in the middle of a decade-long vacation. Neither of them exhibited any signs of caring whether they were there or not. The only truly qualified person here was a bona fide arbitrator from Bungula. He had reportedly moved here to make sure proceedings such as this didn’t end up in kangaroo court. Anywhere else in the stellar neighborhood, most of these would be considered conflicts of interest, or at least inappropriate selections, but people here didn’t see it that way. If they were impacted by whatever had happened, then they were believed to have the right to decide the consequences and conclusion.
A slapdash Gangsta was sucking his teeth repeatedly, out of boredom, as if waiting for someone else to start, except that this was his duty. He apparently knew this, and finally perked up. “All right. Let’s get goin’. Adherent Blower, what’s your accusation?”
“It’s Boehler. Risto Boehler,” the investigator responded.
“Is that your accusation?” Gangsta joked.
“Hokusai Gimura stands accused of maliciously erasing the memories of seven innocent scientists.”
“Okay,” Gangsta said. “Hokusai? Are ya guilty?”
“I am not. I did know it would erase all of their memories, but I was told that it would not hurt, and I did it with no malice.”
“‘Kay, cool. Go ahead and ask your questions, bro.”
“Thank you. Madam Gimura, when did you first arrive on Varkas Reflex?”
“Twenty-two thirty-nine,” she answered.
“So, you were part of the original colony fleet?”
“No,” she said truthfully. “I arrived in my own vessel.”
“This vessel was much smaller than standard technological development in the 2230s would allow, correct?”
“I’m ahead of my time.”
“And how exactly are you ahead of your time? Where were you educated?”
“Earth. I was just born smart.”
“When were you born?”
“June 27, 1985.”
“So that would make you three hundred and two years old. You’re a tricenterian.”
Hokusai bobbed her head side to side. The reality was that she was much younger than that, because of all the time travel she had experienced, but she couldn’t say any of that. Fortunately, perjury didn’t seem to be a thing here, so okay. “Well, it’s more complicated than that, because of relativity.” That wasn’t quite a lie anyway.
“Sure,” Risto began. “I’m just gathering some information. Let’s get to the real questions. You’re the one who invented what scientists refer to as dimensional gravity?”
“Yes.”
“How does it work?”
“You would need at least three postgraduate degrees to have any hope of understanding it.”
“I have equivalent-seven.” He didn’t say this to brag. Equivalent-seven wasn’t even all that much in this day and age. With no need to use one’s education to make money, and literally all the time in the universe, casually gaining profound amounts of knowledge over the course of several decades was commonplace. “But assume I don’t. Explain like I’m five. How does it work, at its most basic level?”
Hokusai squirmed in her seat, and looked to her wife for help, but Loa could only frown at her. “Gravity is a force, enacted upon an object to a certain calculable degree, according to mass, density, and proximity. My technology generates a field of negative mass, extracted from another dimension. It doesn’t lower the gravity under your feet; it’s more like it gets between you and the gravitational object, so that the object can’t pull on you anymore. This energy can be manipulated to adjust your weight.”
“Wow, that’s some smart five-year-old,” Risto remarked.
Hokusai tried to dumb it down further. “Water makes you buoyant, so you can float on it. It doesn’t negate gravity, but it can make you feel weightless, because the water is trying to push you up at the same time. Think of my tech as just a lake of water that isn’t wet, and is made up of particles other than dihydrogen monoxide.”
“What particles is it made of?”
“Are you still five years old in this question?”
“Fair enough, I’ll move on. Who did you work with to create this technology? Who else was on your team?”
At this, the professional arbitrator, Jericho Hagen shifted in his seat, as if perturbed by the question.
“No one.” Another truth, but it was hard to believe.
“You did all by yourself?”
“Yes.”
“That’s impressive.”
“I had decades upon decades to work on it.” That wasn’t totally true, though. Hokusai had indeed been inventing things since the 20th century, but dimensional gravity was a more recent endeavor.”
“Still,” he went on, “others have had about as much time as you, and they never did it, so you must be something special.”
“I must be,” she said.
“When you came to our planet, you agreed to help us combat the high-gravity problem by letting us use your dimensional gravity technology, yes?”
“I did.”
“Yet you didn’t allow us to reverse-engineer or reproduce it, right? You handled every aspect of early construction, and didn’t let anyone else in?”
“That’s not the whole truth. I trusted my apprentice, Pribadium Delgado with it.”
“Yes,” Risto understood. “You trusted Miss Delgado, up until the point she disappeared. Then you disappeared as well, along with your wife.”
“I didn’t disappear.”
“Oh, no?”
“I always knew where I was.”
“Quite. But we didn’t, and still don’t. Care to share where you were during that time?”
“I don’t.”
“Don’t what?”
“Care. I don’t care to share. That’s classified.”
“Well, that’s a good segue. Let’s talk about the neural implant chips, and the classified data on them. Did you have anything to do with their creation?”
Jericho shifted in his seat again.
“I didn’t,” she said. “I wasn’t here, and hadn’t heard of them until yesterday.”
“Yet you had control over them.”
“Briefly.”
“Enough time to push a button, and erase everyone’s memories.”
“Enough time for that, indeed.”
“Why did you do it?”
“I was told the button would only purge the data on the chip, not affect the rest of their respective brains.”
“But you knew it was a possibility?”
“Of course it was a possibility. There was a possibility that, when I pressed the button, the whole building transmuted into gold. The chances were absurdly low, but still not zero. Osiris gave it to me, knowing full well I would use it, and probably sooner, rather than later. He knew the risks, and I accepted his consideration without spending time considering these risks myself.”
Jericho could clearly bite his tongue no longer. Arbitrators were not usually meant to speak during the trial. Like the juries of ancient days, they were expected to only listen until deliberations began. He couldn’t suffer the ineptitude anymore, though. “You’re not asking her any real questions!”
“I’m sorry?” Boehler asked.”
Jericho stood up. “This is supposed to be a trial. You’re supposed to find out what she did, why she did it, and whether she’s a danger because of it. The four of us are then supposed to figure out what to do with her. You can’t just keep letting her off the hook. Where did she go after she disappeared? Don’t let her not answer that. How confident was she that the memory-erasing button was safe? Ask that question.  Make her tell you what this other dimension is where we’re getting our gravity. This isn’t the 21st century anymore. There’s no such thing as proprietary privilege. Ask the damn questions!”
Adjudicator Dazzlemist pretended to bang a gavel, and released a sort of barking sound with each one. “Mister Hagen, this is highly irregular!” He said it with about as much seriousness as a clown at a comedy club.
“This is a joke! You don’t want justice for these people’s lives. Do you even know what life is? It’s memory. I’m two hundred and sixteen years old. I spent four of those in stasis on my way to Alpha Centauri, so I’m not really two-sixteen, I’m closer to two-twelve.”
“You chose stasis for a six-year flight?” Gangsta questioned.
“That’s not my point!” Jericho contended. “I didn’t make any memories during the trip. I was essentially dead. Because memories are all we have, the act of erasing someone’s memories is tantamount to murder. So let’s do a real trial, and figure it out.”
Gangsta’s face changed in such a way to make his name sound a bit unrealistic. He finally lived up to his position as a world leader. “This isn’t a real trial. This is more of a mediation. We’re trying to determine, not the truth, but what we should do with that truth. We know that Madam Gimura erased the victim’s memories, and we know she didn’t do it on purpose, because we have testimony from Madam Nielsen, Miss Delgado, and Dr. Petrić. All we need to do now is decide if she’s too dangerous to stay on-world. I understand that you would prefer we make this all very formal and regulated, but your response to the lack of organization was a chaotic outburst of passion. I hope you can appreciate the irony in that.”
Jericho sighed. “I do.”
“Good. I have some questions of my own. “Dr. Petrić, you possess knowledge of dimensional gravity, correct?”
“Indeed.”
“As do you, Miss Delgado?”
Pribadium didn’t know why she was being addressed, but had to answer, “yes.”
“This place thrives on safety. There aren’t a lot of laws that we care about, but we care about that. I see no reason for you to fill out seven billion forms to request an assignment on a ship collecting hydrogen from this system’s mini-Neptune, Lycos Isledon. You wanna go, just go. The only reason our species used to have closed borders, visas, and passports is because people were greedy and dangerous back then. We got rid of that when we got rid of most of the motives for crime. Still, crime does exist, because people still have complicated motives. It would be equally difficult to categorize Madam Gimura’s actions as harmless as it would be to categorize them as malicious. I can’t have someone on my world who has erased seven people’s memories, and it doesn’t much matter whether she did it on purpose, or not. It throws off the equilibrium, and it has to be stopped before it gets out of control. She can go live somewhere else, which I know she’s capable of doing, because she’s three centuries old, and she’s done it before. My judgment is permanent exile. Thank you. You’re all dismissed.”
Hokusai wanted to be upset, but the reality was that her technology was safe, and there was nothing particularly appealing about this planet, so she didn’t need to stay. He was right, she could live anywhere. So she would go without a fight.

Force

Iota Leonis was a triple star system located about seventy-nine light years from Earth, but not quite that far from Wolf 359. Iota Leonis B, in particular, was a main sequence star that was not a whole lot different than Earth’s sun, Sol. Because of its distance, it was not considered part of the stellar neighborhood, which was exactly what Hokusai was looking for. Her initial desire was to be alone, at least for the next decade or so. Fortunately, the trip from Varkas Reflex was a lot shorter for her than it would be for most people. It was she who developed a new way of traveling the stars called the reframe engine. The fact that the star was seventy-one light years away meant that it would take seventy-one years to get there. Or rather, that was what everyone outside of the ship felt. Just being inside the ship made time move slower, so that seven decades equaled only thirty-seven days, from a traveler’s perspective. The beauty of the reframe engine, however, made it so that this relative time frame actually equaled the true passage of time. Thirty-seven days for her was thirty-seven days for everyone else, yet she was able to travel seventy-one light years. It was the only form of faster-than-light travel that anyone had come up with on a technological level. Certain time travelers could move much faster, but she hadn’t figured out how to replicate these abilities, and maybe never would.
When people first became virtually immortal, they were able to hold onto their old values and ways of doing things. After all, knowing that they might never die did not yet change how little life they had lived so far. After ten years, the people who had been married for fifty years simply became people who had been married for sixty. But then seventy rolled around, and then eighty, and now things were starting to feel different. By the time the first couple celebrated their hundredth anniversary, the institution was transforming; not into something better or worse, but altered. Of course, individualism being what it was, different couples had different plans. Plenty of married folks were these days enjoying their fourth century of being together, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with that. Still, there were others who placed limits on their relationships. Instead of letting death do them part, they were agreeing to stay together for a few decades, before moving on to other people. Others kept things up in the air, without worrying too much about what they would do in the future.
Where divorce once marked the end of a bad relationship, it now only signified a transitional period, and former partners often maintained healthy relationships with each other. Some even found themselves separated by light years, and didn’t maintain contact at all, but still remembered their time together fondly. Hokusai and Loa’s relationship was on the complex side of this. They frequently married, separated, divorced, and spent time far away from each other. They always ended up back together eventually, and not because they realized they made a mistake, but because they decided to not be apart anymore, and they were going to stay that way until something changed their minds. Hokusai didn’t ask Loa to come with her to Ileaby, and Loa didn’t offer to. They didn’t divorce either. They were just going to be apart for now, and probably meet back up somewhere else later. They never made any plans, and it wasn’t like they had to. Not everyone in the entire stellar neighborhood was afforded a quantum messenger to allow FTL communication, but Hokusai didn’t need to request one, because she could build one herself in her sleep. So she was able to talk with her wife on a regular basis, though not as frequently as she spoke with her student.
Pribadium Delgado knew a lot about how dimensional gravity worked, but she didn’t know everything, so Hokusai continued to train and mentor her for the last four years. There was even more that they both needed to learn about it. While she was the foremost expert, she had not yet explored all possibilities either. At the moment, they were telepresenting with each other using time technology. This wasn’t just a holographic communication device, like something out of an early Star Wars movie. This was more like a force bond, like something out of a later Star Wars movie. Their two labs—Pribadium’s on Varkas, and Hokusai’s on the Greta Thunberg—were merged together. They could move freely between each other’s areas, but they restricted this level of interaction, since the connection was tenuous. A choosing one named Kayetan Glaston was capable of doing this sort of thing on his own, but Pribadium figured out how to do it herself. Hokusai was so proud of her.
Partially inspired by the speech Gangsta Dazzlemist gave years ago when he first exiled Hokusai, the two of them were presently working on a new technology called the equilibrium drive. This wouldn’t simply be lower or higher gravity, but controlled gravitational force on the molecular level. When you drop an object on a world, it will fall towards the center of that world. Of course, the surface will get in the way, and not let it reach that center, but that’s essentially what gravity is doing. It doesn’t matter how high or low the gravity is, that object will always eventually fall to the ground, unless hindered by an external force, like a hand catching it. Even the artificial lower gravity that Hokusai invented in the first place retains this principle. She can make it easier for a vessel to escape its world’s gravity well, and rise up, but she can’t make the gravity itself propel the ship away. It still requires some kind of fuel. In an attempt at undoing this natural deficiency, the two scientists came up with something new. They all but abandoned the original idea in favor of another. Surely it would come in handy, but it wasn’t the most interesting application. What if an object dropped on a world neither fell to the surface, nor rose up from it, but instead, stayed exactly where it was?
With an equilibrium drive in play, the only objects capable of motion would be the ones in possession of self-propulsion. The most obvious example of this would be a person. Someone standing inside the chamber could climb up the invisible gravity lattice, and stand high above the floor. They would be able to get themselves down, but gravity would never do the work for them. And if they were holding, say, an average plastic basket, only they would be able to make that basket move. If they were to let go, it would just wait for them right in that spot, as if sitting on top a table. Of course, the ultimate goal of this tech would be to imbue individual objects with this equilibrium. The chamber might be a lot of fun, but if you want to take advantage of it, you have to stay inside, and that doesn’t really help if you want to use it in your everyday life. And they couldn’t accomplish this effect simply by turning the whole world into an equilibrium chamber, because not everything should be in equilibrium all the time like urine or a swimming pool. In fact, there seemed to be some issues with prolonged exposure.
“How are you feeling?” Hokusai asked.
“I feel like a puppet now.” Osiris Hadad, whose memories Hokusai had inadvertently erased, never lost his compassion. Though he could remember nothing about his life before the incident, he was still the same person he always was. People explained to him what Hokusai had done, but he was not angry with her about it. He too maintained communication with her across the light years, and they formed a true friendship. He still loved science, and wanted to pursue it, so he had to start from scratch, and get himself educated all over again. In the meantime, he loved helping her and Pribadium with their own research. He was in their equilibrium chamber prototype, so they could observe the long-term effects of the machine.
“It feels like there are strings on your shoulders?” Pribadium asked.
“No, it’s more like there are strings on ever pore of my skin, and they’re each pulling me in different directions.”
The other two were horrified.
“It’s not painful,” he went on. “The imaginary strings aren’t trying to tear me apart. I just don’t feel like I’m standing on anything, which I’m not. So to keep me from falling towards any surface, I guess they have to pull at me with equal force?”
“Yes, that’s how it works,” Hokusai said. “You say that’s uncomfortable?”
“It is now,” Osiris confirmed. “It’s becoming worse as time progresses. I don’t know why. I don’t think it’s changing. I think my body just gets tired of it.”
“The body gets tired of zero-g as well,” Pribadium noted. “Do you feel as if you’re exerting energy, like your body has to be the one in charge of holding in place?”
“I guess,” he said. “I mean, I know the chamber is doing all the work, and my body knows that too. It’s like I’m hanging here, waiting for you to shut off the machine, and if you do that, I have to be ready. I’m braced. That’s the word. I’m braced, in case this doesn’t last very long.”
“No species evolved to exist in true equilibrium,” Hokusai pointed out. “I mean, even zero gravity has its precedent on Earth. We evolved to handle the sensation of falling, and to float in water, but this is something entirely new; something that no one in the entire stellar neighborhood—maybe even the universe—has experienced before. Your body doesn’t know what to do with it.”
“Shoes.” Katica Petrić had walked into the lab.
“Dr. Petrić,” Pribadium said. “This is unexpected. It’s not what it looks like.”
“It looks like you’re using Glaston’s powers as a loophole to allow Hokusai to break her exile,” Katica explained.
“Are you going to tell the council?” Pribadium asked.
Katica laughed. “I’ve known you were doing this the whole time. Gangsta’s known for over a year. What he did, when he exiled you, was more to protect the people of Varkas Reflex from learning the truth about you. As long as you stayed secret, he had no problem with you continuing your work together. He’s actually counting on it. Every breakthrough you have helps the world, quite literally.” She looked up at Osiris, hanging in the equilibrium chamber. “You, however, I did not know about. I should have kept a better eye on you. I thought you were consumed by your studies.”
“Muscle memory,” he replied. “I may not remember how much proverbial baking soda to mix with the proverbial vinegar, but my hands still know how to pour the beakers. My studies go fast; I got time.”
“I see that,” Katica said. She wasn’t happy with his reasoning. She never agreed with the exile ruling, but she still felt protective over her former colleague, and knew that, because of his very condition, he could never truly understand what Hokusai had done to him; what he had lost.
“You said something about shoes?” Pribadium reminded her.
“Yes,” Katica began. “Like when we invented the clothes that lowered gravity for only the user, what you need are shoes that simulate slightly higher gravity. He needs to feel like he’s standing on a surface, even when he’s up there. He can keep climbing, or climb back down, but his inner ear needs to recognize what down even is.”
Hokusai was nodding her head. “Yeah, I think you’re right. We don’t need to make them 1-g, but they need to be higher, or you’ll always feel like you’re stuck in amber.”
“Does this matter?” Osiris questioned. “I thought we wanted to create micro-equilibrium drives, so I can hang my hat in the middle of the air while I’m putting on my coat, or accidentally bump into the coffee table, and not shatter my glass of water.”
“That is what we’re going for,” Prbadium agreed, “but we have to study its effect on the conscious body. If we don’t do it now, people are going to wonder about it later.”
“About a year after I first left Earth in 2017,” Hokusai began, “there were no significant studies on the health benefits of flossing.”
“What’s flossing?” Osiris asked.
“Exactly. Floss was this fine string you stuck in your teeth to clean them.”
“Why didn’t they just crack sonic-cleaning pellets?” he asked.
She chuckled. “They didn’t exist yet. For years, parents would scold their children for not flossing their teeth. Then scientists finally asked, hey wait, does flossing actually work anyway? Turns out, not really. They were better off using regular brushes, and brushing more thoroughly. The people who sold floss told people they needed to buy it, and no one questioned this...until some people did, and the truth came out. Science takes time, and it’s our job as scientists to let that time pass while we do our due diligence. I made a grave error when I erased your memory. I asked a couple questions, then I pushed a button. I should have been more patient, and more considerate. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“Then maybe he, in particular, shouldn’t be your guinea pig,” Katica figured.
“No, it’s fine,” Osiris assured her. “I want to do this. I should be contributing to science in my own way at this point. Until I get my knowledge back, this is how I can help.”
Katica nodded her head in understanding. “I hope you know what you’re doing, because you don’t know much beyond that. Anyway, I didn’t come in here to discuss this technology with you. Madam Gimura, your exile has been lifted, if only temporarily. Your planet needs you. I suppose you can just...come with me.”

Vacuum

Hokusai didn’t know what was wrong with this planet, or why it suddenly needed her help. She made a point of staying out of its business, requesting that Pribadium not bother her with such matters while they were working, or visiting. She was worried, though, that someone had decided to use her technology for evil, or maybe even just something misguided, which could have similar negative results. Katica led her down the hallway, out of the lab, across the way, and into the Capitol building.
Councilor Gangsta Dazzlemist was waiting for them in the lobby. “You were right. She got here fast.”
“May I ask what this is about?” Hokusai looked around at the walls, as if this were a trick, and the building would collapse in on her like something out of a space war movie.
Gangsta breathed in deeply, and Hokusai wasn’t sure what he did with the air, because it never seemed to come out. “I’m retiring from public service.”
“Congratulations,” Hokusai said to him sincerely.
“We need a replacement,” he went on.
Hokusai nodded. Now, she was literally a genius, and her intellect wasn’t limited to knowing how to calculate the Roche limit, or observational time through relativistic speeds. She picked up on social cues much easier than the average person, allowing her to tease out an individual’s subtext, and know when someone was lying. So when Gangsta told her they were looking for a replacement, she immediately understood he wasn’t just posting an update about his life in person. His microexpressions, coupled with the fact that they had lifted her exile, meant that she was here for a very specific reason. They were asking her to be that replacement. She didn’t know why, though. “I don’t know how I could do it. I live twenty-two parsecs away.”
He pointed at her with an upwards-facing palm. “Obviously not.”
“It’s this whole thing.”
“I understand,” Gangsta began, “that you did not simply stumble upon dimensional gravity, Madam Gimura. No one has ever done anything like it. They weren’t even looking for it. I don’t know what you are, and I don’t know how many others there are like you. I don’t really care. You’ve given us so much, and we gladly accept it. But please, do not think me a fool. I know you’re more than just a scientist, and that your expertise goes far beyond artificial gravity. I am in so much awe of you, and I will not tell anyone what little I know of your secret, including your ability to teleport between star systems.”
“It means a lot, hearing you say that,” she said, again, sincerely.
“You are not only my choice to replace me. You’re almost everybody’s.”
“How’s that?”
“Someone leaked your trial,” Katica explained. “They know who you are, and what you’ve done for them.” Leak was a strong word. The governments decided a long time ago that court cases should no longer have audiences. They were still mostly public record—unless the transparency endangered lives—but without the spectacle, those involved generally found the process to be fairer. Still, the information didn’t need to be leaked. It just required someone with the motives to raise their voice loud enough for people to hear it. Combined with artificial intelligences, there were now tens of billions of “people” in the stellar neighborhood. So being a loud voice was pretty hard. A public figure with as many fans as the most famous on Earth in 2016 would be barely considered a local celebrity by today’s standards. Any rando capable of getting a whole planet—even a low-populated colony—to listen was impressive.
“They’re asking me to become a councilor?” Hokusai questioned. “Because they think it was unfair that I was exiled? That’s a bit of a stretch.”
“It’s not because you were exiled, though that does help your popularity factor,” Katica said. “It’s because they know what you did for them decades ago. They know you’re responsible for artificial gravity, and for repairing our habitats before the colony vessels arrived.”
“That wasn’t me; that was my friends, Leona and Eight Point Seven.” The first human to set foot on Varkas Reflex was Leona Matic, when a mysterious quantum force commandeered her ship, and brought her here to fix some problems with the nanofactory.
“Close enough,” Katica contended. “You’re a hero, regardless, and the people want you to lead them.”
“That’s not really my thing.”
“We know,” Gangsta said. “We think it should be, though.”
She sighed. “I don’t even like how you run the government. Don’t get me wrong, to each their own, and I’ll gladly come back to live here, but it’s too informal. I appreciate that you wanna be laid back, but you could be so much more, if you were more motivated.” She repeated her point with an exaggerated accent that a high school math teacher she once had used to get his students interested in algebra, “motivaaation. Motivaaaaation.”
Gangsta smiled. “That’s what we’re counting on. The people aren’t looking for a new councilor. They want you to be Superintendent.”
Hokusai caught half of a chuckle before it escaped her mouth, but couldn’t stop the first half. The Superintendent was essentially the term choosing ones used to describe God. It was more metaphysically complicated than that, which was exactly why the word god was avoided in the first place. In this case, Gangsta was referring to a governmental position for someone who possessed questionable decision-making scope. A superintendent wasn’t responsible for running the state, but for managing the people who were responsible for running the state. They were staff managers, human resource representatives, the occasional conflict mediators. On the surface, they appeared to have the most power of all, since they were in charge of everyone, but they still answered to the people, and they couldn’t just fire and hire other leaders willy nilly. They had to remain reasonable, and accountable. Every colony but Varkas Reflex started out with a superintendent, but most stepped down after two or three full election cycles, because they were useful when starting out, but usually obsolete once the engine got going. Only Earth held onto their superintendent, because theirs was the highest populated world. It was just funny that Varkas was finally deciding to get on board with convention.
“You’ve been in your head for a good long while,” Katica pointed out. “Do you have a response?”
“My initial thought is no,” Hokusai answered.
“That makes sense,” Katica said. “It sounds like you. But you’re the one who hates how they run the government. What better way to fix it than to be the one in charge of coming up with a new one?”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” Hokusai admitted. “While I believe what you’re doing now is not sustainable, I know that you don’t want to convert to a full mediatorial tetracameral legislature, and that’s the only one I know, because it’s the most common.” This type of government was composed of four parts. The population representative congress was there to speak for the needs of the civilians. They expressed their grievances to the two delegators, who met with separate advisory boards in order to come to decisions. Much like separate arbitration panels in the adjudicative system, the idea was, if both delegation boards came to the same conclusion, without talking to each other about it, it was probably the right one. The delegators then delegated the implementation of their decision to whichever administrators were in charge of whatever this change impacted.
This was all really complicated by design. Complexity often equaled more exploitable weakness, but also greater overall resilience. Maybe you could bribe one delegator to do what you wanted, but the other? Even if you did that, their irrational behavior would alert the mediator between them, so you would have to convince them to fall in line as well. Even so, the advisors would question why the delegators and mediator weren’t heeding their advice. The administrators would question their orders, and finally, the people would rise up against the injustice. And those people had the power to make swift changes to leadership personnel. It was practically impossible in Hokusai’s time to impeach a president, let alone remove them from office. Here, not so hard. If they wanted someone gone, they were gone. No one was entitled to power, and no one was entitled to maintain that power, once it was granted. These changes were positively unavoidable in modern times. No matter how good a leader was, there was too much risk of their control growing, well...out of control, over time. When accounting for immortality, this control could theoretically last for literal aeons, and that was probably not a good idea.
“You’re in your head again,” Katica warned her.
“Sorry, I was just going over what I would do if I were superintendent, and it always ends in disaster.”
“I don’t believe that,” Gangsta argued. “We’re not asking you to have all the answers today. Nor are the citizens. We just want you to get the process started. We all have immense faith in your ability to be fair, thoughtful, and sensitive to this planet’s unique needs.”
“Of course you may decline,” Katica started to add. “I urge you to give it some thought, though. Remember what happened the last time you made a rash decision, without knowing the consequences.”
Hokusai had never asked Katica to take responsibility for her own involvement in the memory wipe that was accidental from Hokusai’s side, but not from Katica’s. She glared at her now to remind her of this truth telepathically.
“Someone has to take care of us, and I can’t be the one to do it. Nature abhors a vacuum,” Gangsta quipped.
“Why do people always say that?” Hokusai questioned. “Nature loves a vacuum. It’s called entropy, and it’s kind of where everything in the universe is trying to get to.”
“Just think about it,” Katica requested. “In the mean, you’re expected on the balcony.”
“The balcony?” Hokusai didn’t know what she was talking about. “Who’s on the balcony?”
“No one,” she answered. “You’re the one who’s expected. They’re waiting for your fence speech.”
“What the hell is a fence speech?” Hokusai asked.
“You’re on the fence, right?” Gangsta asked her.
Not really, but Katica was right that she should at least think about it. “You want me to go out there, and tell people I might consider maybe starting to almost kind of theoretically think about one day possibly entertaining the idea of hypothetically accepting a potential offer to perhaps, perchance, try to run for Superintendent?”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but yeah, I guess,” Gangsta confirmed. “As I said, they’re expecting you.”
“You shouldn’t have told them I would be here.”
“We didn’t,” Katica said. “Like we’ve been trying to explain, it wasn’t our idea; it was theirs. They have been waiting for you.”
Demanding, even,” Gangsta corrected.
“Yes.”
Hokusai massaged the bridge of her nose. “They’re expecting a...fence speech?”
“Yes,” Katica confirmed. “They are not anticipating that you will announce your intention to run today. If you go out there, and humor them for five minutes, they’ll finally go away, and move on with their lives. They will want you to make a final decision within the week, though, so keep that in mind.”
“Fine. I’ll go talk to them, but I promise nothing.”
“That’s all we ask,” Katica said gratefully.
“If it’s a five-minute speech, I will need ten minutes to write it.”
“That’s okay,” Gangsta said with glee. “I’ll go back out and stall them with another attempt at playing the gravity organ.”
By the time Hokusai finished delivering her fifteen-minute long speech, she had already decided to run. She did so unopposed, and obviously won.

Part VII

Coming soon...

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