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Welcome to the Future
“It was one thing being an outlaw in a society with laws, but this society didn’t even have the concept.”
(Part 11 of “The Misfits” series)
The way Verona told us we needed to talk about Transom gave me the sense that her issue had something to do with him personally, as though he was the issue. And she paused after saying it: “We need to talk about your friend Sebastian.” I guess that was a funny mannerism—maybe personal or maybe a characteristic of her sect—announcing what she wanted to talk about rather than just diving into it. Rishi, Juice, and I sat there for about five seconds staring across the table at each other waiting for Verona to say more. I couldn’t help but turn to gaze out the front window of her cruiser at the cloudy pink stars of the Vance Nebula, waiting for Verona to start talking about Sebastian, ask us a question maybe, but she didn’t.
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“Were you planning on talking about Sebastian?” Juice said. “We’re ready whenever you are, Verona.”
“I sense that each of you may harbor reservations about Sebastian,” she began.
“Enough with the preamble,” I interrupted. “Just say what you need to say, please, Verona.”
She looked over at me, and perhaps for the first time since we met, she looked like she was genuinely hurt by my bluntness.
“Very well,” she said. “He is unique, at least as the sect understands it. For nearly seven centuries, we have been struggling to rectify a problem of our own making. Sebastian has come face-to-face with the terrorist named Clem Aballi. I’m not certain what each of you knows about Aballi, but he is not an ordinary man.”
“We know he’s like you,” I interrupted again. “Immortal, more or less. At least that’s what Maícon told us.”
“He is not of our sect,” Verona said. “But he does share our longevity and some other attributes. Sebastian is the only person we know to see Aballi in person recently and live to tell about it. There were pictures of him while he was in Athosian custody, but we understand he has been altering his physical appearance.”
“What’s your interest in Aballi?” I asked.
Verona looked uncertain. “I intend to track him down. I cannot say with any certainty what that will mean. Much remains in doubt.”
“Do you intend to kill him?” Juice asked.
Verona paused, staring back into the empty passenger compartment of the ship.
“I think not,” she finally said.
“Then what’s your interest in Sebastian?” Rishi asked. “Because I’m pretty sure Sebastian doesn’t have any interest in a dialogue with Aballi. He just wants to kill him.”
“We think Sebastian could be useful locating Clem Aballi,” Verona said. “That was what Maícon promised us in exchange for our help recovering your friend Leda.”
“Why would you think Transom could help find Aballi?” I asked her. “He doesn’t know any better than any of us.”
“He’s seen Clem Aballi’s face,” Verona said, “and Sebastian has a sense for how he thinks.”
“We’ve all seen his face,” Juice said. “Rishi’s probably got the footage in memory, unless I’m mistaken. Leda was with Sebastian the first time they fought, and she was streaming her ocular feed at the time.”
“I have the footage,” Rishi said.
“Oh,” Verona said. “That would be extremely helpful.”
“Also, Verona,” Rishi continued, “I can assure you Sebastian has no idea how to find Clem Aballi.”
I got this funny feeling suddenly about Rishi—the way she was talking.
“You know something the rest of us don’t, Ship?”
“I know a lot of things you don’t.”
“Obviously, yes,” I said. “What do you know, Rishi?”
“I don’t know where Aballi is, Burch. But I know where he isn’t, and I know how to find him.”
“Well, that’s cryptic,” I told her. “Care to explain a little?”
“How much time are you willing to invest in finding Aballi, Verona?” Rishi asked. “That’s probably the most relevant question.”
“Time, I have plenty of,” Verona said. “Years. Decades. Locating Clem Aballi is my mission now, so perhaps even centuries if it’s warranted. I don’t understand what you’re getting at, respectfully, Rishi.”
“To start, it would take us nearly six months just to begin to search for him. From there, I have no idea how long it might take to locate him or if it’s even possible.”
“Where in the galaxy is he, Rishi?” I said, losing patience with how indirect she was being. “Do you know where he is or not?”
“He’s not in the galaxy, Burch,” she said. “And don’t take that tone with me. I know what I know, and I’ll tell you what I’m ready to tell you when I’m ready to tell you.”
“I’m sorry, but this seems to be a theme with you lately, holding things back from the rest of us. We don’t hold anything back from you.”
“That’s because I know more. I see more.”
“Would you two like a moment?” Juice said.
He wasn’t joking or trying to break the tension. I think he was legitimately uncomfortable and hoping not to get in between us.
Rishi and I glared at each other. I was angry. I supposed she was too.
“To answer your question, Rishi,” Verona interjected, “I personally wouldn’t mind that timeframe. But I too would like to know what finding him would entail. I presume this means a long trip, but out of the galaxy in six months? Even our sect can’t do that.”
“I know where his ship is,” Rishi said, “and I don’t mention how because I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say, or, rather, when I should say it.”
“Oh, I know,” I said, staring over at Rishi. “This has something to do with the artifacts, right?”
“The artifacts?” Juice said to Rishi. “How could you know that?”
“Would you like to tell them, or should I?” I asked her. “It might as well be you, Ship. I think I’ll get the gist of it. I’m just not sure on the details yet.”
She looked at me, her head cocked sideways, and then she shook her head and straightened up.
“I know more about the artifacts than I let on,” she said turning to Juice. “I wasn’t trying to be secretive or deceive any of you. I was told by the being we encountered, very specifically, that certain things would happen and that I shouldn’t reveal what I knew until the right time. It’s not easy to know, though. In this case, what I can say is that I know Aballi knows about the artifacts. He has known for some time.”
“If he’s not in the galaxy, though,” Juice said, pausing to think it through. “You mean he went in?”
Verona looked over at me and then at Juice. “I don’t know what artifacts you three are referring to.”
“Well buckle up, Ms. Wizard,” I told her, “Because this universe is about to get a lot stranger.”
It turned out that Verona’s sect did have an idea about the artifact in the Kappas, but they had their own acronym for it—KATDDS—Kappa Alien Time Dilation Device or something extra long-winded like that.
“We just call them the artifacts,” Juice said. “Much quicker.”
Verona told us she’d been in the Vault for some time when the first set of explorers found that first artifact in the asteroids, and she had no knowledge of the second expedition—the one where the artifact supposedly sent the young woman all the way back to Earth. That was some prospect—Clem Aballi back on Earth. We asked Rishi if she knew where the artifact might have sent him, but she didn’t know for sure. Whatever those devices were communicating to her, it sure wasn’t specifics—or at least she wasn’t sharing them with us if it was.
We debated for much of the afternoon on our next step. Either way, we needed to head back out of Trasp space toward the Letters, so Verona jumped the Cannon back in the general direction of Letters space. Along the way, Rishi displayed a map of the sector for Verona, highlighting the artifacts we’d visited on our first expedition with Carolina. Rishi claimed that Aballi’s ship was parked at an artifact in one of those distant asteroids way out past the boundary worlds—a six-month transit from our position at the Vance Nebula.
The debate for us was whether to retrieve our ship and our people to take Verona out there in the Yankee-Chaos. There were complications, though. When we’d left Carolina in charge of the ship, I had a conversation with her about her next moves, but she didn’t have a clear picture then, and I had no idea where in the Letters she would be, or even whether she’d still be in the Letters at all. At best, a detour to track down Yankee-Chaos would add at least another month to our travel time, and realistically, it would probably be closer to three months. The opposite prospect was another concern. We had planned to rescue Leda and be back in the Letters in a few months tops. Chasing after Clem Aballi would mean leaving Carolina in charge of the Y-C for at least a year, most likely, considering it was going to take six months for us just to get out to the artifact.
It seemed like I was more concerned about that than Rishi, who was enjoying her new body so much she was hardly in any rush to head home.
Juice raised a genuine point about our first trip out into that unknown space. Verona’s little cruiser was a little cruiser. At least on the Y-C, when we’d ventured out there the first time, we’d had some elbow room. Six months in Verona’s ship was going to require some old-school spacefaring of the highest order.
Verona had us on a course for Port Cullen again. If we decided to go after Aballi directly, at least we could properly provision there, prep the ship, pick up a year’s supply of pills for low G, and whatever else we needed.
I was still not loving the idea. Going after Aballi had gotten Transom blown half to hell, and that was in this galaxy—by far our best warrior. Who the hell knew what we’d be running into if we tried to go after Aballi inside that artifact? If anybody did know, it was Rishi, but again, she wasn’t talking. I think she was angry with me for being upset she’d concealed so much from us about the artifacts. The more I thought back on it, the more I recalled that not only was she dishonest in the way she’d failed to reveal what she knew, but she’d straight-up lied to us about not remembering anything from that mission. That was no small matter in my book. I could readily concede that whole episode bent the bounds of our reality, and maybe what that being shared with her was for her ears only, so to say; but for her to take issue with me feeling like she’d betrayed a trust? I guess I was properly mad about it. Yeah. I didn’t really know what to do about it, though, because now we were planning the next year of our lives—and whether to pursue the most dangerous man in the galaxy—all on Rishi’s word. I did trust her still, but it sure was a bigger leap of faith than it used to be.
When we got to Port Cullen, hub of the Battery Systems, Juice and Verona left Rishi and me alone on the ship. We needed the privacy to hash out our recent differences.
It was the first proper fight we’d ever had. The back and forth lasted several hours, but after a few rounds and quite a bit of talking past each other, I was willing to concede that she’d had some unique circumstances pressing on her mind that I couldn’t fathom, and she came around to the idea that despite that, she could have been more forthcoming.
By the time we were done figuring out our differences, Juice had pinged us, letting us know how anxious Verona was to get underway. Her preference was clear, she wanted to pursue Aballi as immediately and directly as possible. I didn’t particularly care to pursue him at all. We’d seen what had happened when Transom went after him, and the four of us were somehow going to do better? I was more than willing to give Verona a ride, but as far as I was concerned, our obligations ended there.
I suggested we discuss it over a proper meal. There were some real restaurants in Port Cullen. I hadn’t spent much time on Athos, or in the Inner Battery where all the finest restaurants supposedly were, but if I had to put a list together, I’d wager at least four of the top-ten meals of my life had been inside one of Port Cullen’s rings. So we did just that, sat down together in one of the Trace Band eateries and shared a meal. And what a meal. Persang Salad. Fried potato dumplings. Marteria soup. Meigi noodles. Chocolate plata. I hadn’t eaten like that in years. I swear that spaceport never failed me.
Even I, ornery as I was after quarreling with Rishi all day, was in a post-meal bliss that left me a bit more amenable to accompanying Verona out to that artifact. Rishi was set on it. We decided to take a vote, seeing as I wasn’t Captain anymore. It was pretty clear how Rishi was going to vote, and I was against it, but I didn’t want to put the pressure on Juice to be the deciding vote, so I asked him for his thoughts first.
“Fair’s fair,” he said. “Miss Verona risked her life taking us to see Leda. I’m willing to do the same.”
“That’s good enough for me,” I said, doing my best to mask my disappointment. “I make it unanimous. Let’s make the best of this one.”
It was a little less than six months from Port Cullen to the artifact, which meant a full year’s worth of supplies. We sure had some shopping to do.
If Clem Aballi had gone into that artifact, as Rishi said, Verona was sure lucky she’d stumbled on us. I figured we were about the most educated party in the entire galaxy on the artifacts’ workings, and, we had a lot of time to share that knowledge with Verona.
Her little cruiser, Cannon, was some tight quarters for a journey of that length. In order to stock it for a year, we had to fill up two sleeping quarters, so we ended up sleeping in eight-hour shifts—Me and Rishi, then Juice, then Verona. Day after day, for one hundred sixty-seven days. I’d say of the time we spent together that Verona only became more mysterious to us, but I learned more about Juice than I ever imagined I would. We played a lot of Sabaca and listened to maybe a hundred books as we played. Everything from thrillers to philosophy to ancient Earth literature. After all, it was possible that the artifact would send us back to Earth like it did to that woman. What a prospect. The more I thought about that, the more I wondered what I was thinking possibly turning that opportunity down—if it worked, that is. Theoretically, we could’ve ended up anywhere in the past, Imperial Rome, Egypt in the time of the pharaohs, or my personal favorite, the Age of Exploration, riding the waves in wooden ships. We picked out a lot of books from different historical eras to cover our bases. If we did end up back on Earth, I insisted, no matter what happened, we were going to the Himalayas. That was usually when Rishi would remind me we’d be looking for Aballi, not vacationing. I was of the opinion we could do both.
Anyway, that was most of our days, apart from getting on the bands and treadmill and doing our best to get some exercise in, which was vital, despite the atrophy pills. Nanotech could only do so much if we didn’t do something with our bodies.
On day one hundred sixty-eight, Rishi popped us out nearly on top of the artifact she’d highlighted all the way back at the Vance Nebula. She still hadn’t explained exactly how she knew it, but tethered to the asteroid on a low wire was Clem Aballi’s cruiser—the same little ship he way flying on that small moon Minstik months back. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before that moment, but seeing his ship floating there all alone in empty space like that, it was impossible not to think it.
I looked over at Juice. “Boom,” I said. “Problem solved.”
“No,” Verona said, floating onto the flight deck behind us.
I’d thought she was asleep, but apparently, she knew exactly when to wake up.
“No,” she repeated emphatically. “Nobody deserves that, Burch. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“You didn’t see the trail of bodies that guy left strewn across the boundary worlds, a few of which were nearly my friends, so in my mind, it’s a perfectly sensible thought.”
“We go in,” Verona said. “Rishi, any specific directions?”
“Full suits, and just follow my lead,” Rishi said. “It’s important that we stick together if we want to end up in the same place. That’s all I can say for sure right now.”
Rishi looked over at me, emphasizing with a look that she was telling us everything she knew. Then she added, “The artifacts respond to thought. I know that much, and I expect I’ll get a clearer sense for what we need to do as we get in there.”
Juice, Verona, and I got suited up. Rishi, of course, didn’t need a suit herself—one of the clear benefits of that new artificial body of hers.
This artifact had been disturbed, like the Kappa artifact. In our first expedition, we’d scanned the interior of the asteroids to map the artifacts hiding inside them, but the Kappa site was the only one that had been dug out. Clem Aballi must have dug this one out himself since we’d been there, because there was a depression in the asteroid’s surface, leading down to a round door, like at Kappa-363.
We floated out the back airlock of the Cannon, leaving the ship’s interior dark for the first time in nearly six months, Rishi leading us to the door, which opened as she approached. She didn’t offer us any directions as we floated along, occasionally micro-pulsing ourselves with our gloves and boots to keep on course. We wound down a tubular corridor to another set of inner doors, which opened for Rishi again as she approached. Inside, there was a giant cylinder within a slightly larger drum, a smaller cylinder habitat than we would build, but a space habitat nonetheless. It did seem dark and maybe slightly alien, but apart from the atmosphere inside the artifact, there wasn’t anything that jumped out to me as distinctly alien—not like that weird planet-sized ship we’d encountered in our earlier expedition.
The vast room inside was mostly empty and unremarkable except for some metal cells about halfway down the cylinder, which we bypassed, floating overhead like a small flock of weightless birds cruising above a network of abandoned buildings.
It took about ten minutes to fly all the way to the end of the empty cylinder, at the end of which was an unremarkable wall. Rishi directed us to decelerate to a dead float in the center of that circular wall.
“Join hands,” she said. “I need you to think with every bit of focus your mind can summon. Think clearly that you wish to follow me, stay with me. I’ll get us where we need to go.”
“What will you be thinking of?” Juice asked.
“Following Clem Aballi,” Rishi answered. “No matter how long it takes, do not doubt and do not lose focus. Whatever happens, wherever it sends us, we will return here with our bodies at the end of it.”
I was about to open my big mouth and ask where Aballi’s body was if that was so, but Rishi gave me a stern look. It was time to focus. We joined hands, and for the longest time, I fought the urge to question and doubt. I just kept the thought in mind: Follow Rishi. Follow Rishi. Follow Rishi. Every moment resisting the urge to think: this is ridiculous; what the hell am I doing?
The light in the cylinder went from dark to darker with a subtle blue hue in the atmosphere around us. I wasn’t sure when or how, but I suddenly found myself very confused and gasping for air, because the air in my suit somehow got thick, or maybe it was the sudden feeling of gravity pulling on me.
“Ship?” I said to the darkness. “Are you still there?”
“Easy, Burch,” I heard Verona’s voice. “You’re all right.”
I was looking up at moonlight I thought, the dull glow of moonlight through the branches of the most tremendous tree I had ever beheld. I was lying on my back in a grassy field. It was night. We were in another place—Earth, I thought. Where else could we have been but Earth? But it occurred to me that the air was awful difficult to breathe. I hadn’t expected that.
Rishi came over and helped me to sit up. I was confused. The past was cloudy, distant. I still had a sense of who I was, but my life seemed like a distant memory to me. All our people—they seemed like characters I’d passed in my dreams. This place, wherever it was, this seemed real now.
Verona was doing a little better than me. She was clear-eyed and didn’t seem to be gasping for air the way I was. Juice, on the other hand, was to my right and was properly panicking. Rishi was trying to talk him into calming down. It seemed like he didn’t remember just who he was or how we’d gotten wherever it was the artifact had sent us. He kept repeating, “I’m from Charris. My name is Kristoff. I’m from Charris. My name is Kristoff.”
“Nobody said traveling through time would be painless,” Rishi said, looking over at me and Verona, her eyes reflecting that dull blue glow that was penetrating the trees.
I stood, looking up into the canopy of branches. It was every bit as beautiful as any picture of celestial beauty I had ever seen—a revelation. I looked around.
The trees were so large that underneath, there wasn’t much undergrowth, just wide-open space and grass. In the distance now, I could see the blue glow reflecting off a sheer watery surface. Through the trees I could see where all the light was emanating from, not a moon but a city—a shimmering city of bright beautiful skyscrapers, each hundreds, maybe a thousand meters high.
I suddenly became aware that I was walking, almost involuntarily, toward the edge of a long shore. “Not even Athos,” I mumbled, completely in awe.
“I don’t recognize it,” Verona said. “I can’t remember this place.”
I turned back toward her. She was following me. Behind her, Juice was still getting his head about him with Rishi’s help.
“It might be a city built after,” Verona said. “After our ancestors left Earth.”
“I don’t think this is Earth,” I said. “I think we’re somewhere different.”
“How do you know?” Verona asked.
She hadn’t seen yet, but from my vantage just ahead of her, with the trees opening up, I could see.
“Because that’s not Luna,” I said, pointing up to the huge pink moon dominating the sky over that shining city.
As soon as she saw it, Verona’s face lit up in awe, her eyes widening.
“Where are we, Burch? Where are we?”
We decided Rishi and I should explore the area. I didn’t love the idea of splitting up there, but we needed to figure out where the hell we were, and a couple, we figured, was more inconspicuous than a group of four strangers. Plus, Juice was still a bit loopy. Wherever we’d landed, so to say, it wasn’t the wilderness. It was a park just outside this city, somewhere along the coast. We just needed to figure out where and when we were. It couldn’t have been far in the past by the looks of the buildings.
Rishi and I set off together on foot. We could have double timed it in a handful of minutes given we both had legs that were built to provide genuine speed when required, but we didn’t know where we were yet, and two people running through a city like robots wouldn’t exactly have been inconspicuous in any era. Instead, we walked, hand in hand, trying our best to look like we belonged in the place. We didn’t talk too much or too loud, but it was impossible at times not to remark on the wonder of this planet. Rishi had an extensive memory on every civilization in the Battery, and the Athosians, Hellenians, even the Trasp had never built structures like the buildings in the distance. The skyscrapers looked like they’d been printed directly from a dream, hanging together at impossible angles, dangling in the air, glowing.
“These trees,” Rishi said as we were passing through the park, “must be engineered, spliced together from who knows how many species. Even the giant sequoias of California never grew this tall, this expansive.”
We walked a little farther, stepping closer and closer toward the lights as we neared the outer edges of the park. Rishi stopped walking, grabbing me by the wrist, and she perked up as though listening to something, but I couldn’t hear a thing.
I took a breath before speaking, readying to ask her what it was, and Rishi just put up a finger, shushing me. She had a puzzled look on her face. She pulled me off the path we were walking on, and we knelt down in the bushes.
“Voices,” she whispered. “Two hundred meters in that direction.” She pointed. “Kids. Teenagers judging by their pitch.”
“What are they saying?” I whispered back.
“That’s the thing, Burch, I can’t make out the language. I’m trying to parse it.”
She shook her head. We’d spoken about this before, too. Rishi had an encyclopedic memory, not just of our sector and its cultures, dialects and slang, but past languages, too, Earth languages. She could read them all, which meant she could speak them all fluently too.
My mind started racing. The only thing I could come up with was the possibility that this was some other branch of humanity, split off from Earth the way we’d done, only maybe they’d gone in a different direction, like this might be their version of Charris or the Columns.
“Burch,” she said. “I am at a total loss. They’re speaking gibberish. I can’t parse it. Not only that, I can’t pick up a data stream, at least not an airborne one. I don’t know how they’re communicating. And something else is very strange.”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Remember how I told you I could sense the artifacts, how I could feel them in a way?”
“Are they gone?”
“No. It’s foggy, difficult to tell, but it feels wrong. I don’t know, like they’re all in the wrong place.”
“Like maybe we got sent to the other side of the galaxy?”
“I’m not sure,” Rishi said. “I can’t say.”
“What do you think we should do, Ship?”
“I think if we want to survive here, I need to figure out this language as fast as possible, preferably before the sun comes up, whenever that will be.”
“We have time,” I said. “Moon’s near full and rising. Those physics don’t change, right?”
“I suppose. If the moon and planet are in a stable orbit on the same plane.”
“They’re human, right, these teenagers?”
“I’d have told you if they were aliens, Burch. They’re human.”
“So how fast can you learn a new language?”
“I don’t rightly know,” Rishi said. “I’ve never encountered one.”
“Let’s get a little closer so we can see them,” I suggested. “We can listen, see what you can pick up.”
We crept closer, sticking to the shadows. When we got within about fifty meters, we had a clear line of sight from the darkness at the base of one of the towering trees.
They were human kids all right. Teenagers, playing a sport of some kind I didn’t recognize involving a hovering ball, glowing sticks of some kind, and four goals with four teams wearing four different colors. There were groups of other kids milling about the perimeter of the playing field, talking with each other and occasionally, breaking into cheers when something noteworthy happened in the game. Whenever a team scored, the park would erupt with music and all the kids wearing that color would cheer, sing, and start to dance.
We sat there for probably an hour. All I could hear was murmuring really, but Rishi could hear every conversation, and she could pull them apart in isolation, analyzing the sound waves of every word—call and response. But even after that hour, I had a better sense for the rules of that peculiar sport than Rishi had for the rules of their language. I could safely say, though, this group of kids looked happy, joyful in a way I’d rarely seen in the Battery. A lot like how I imagined it to be growing up on Athos or Charris—in a civilization governed by peace.
Rishi did pick up on one interesting point, even if she couldn’t parse their language. Around the playing field, just as along the walkway in the park, there were posts with small fixtures on the top. The kids along the perimeter occasionally put in earpieces that Rishi surmised were communicating with a network.
“Stay here, Burch,” she instructed, and as she said it, she morphed into that Trasp teenager, whose identity she’d adopted back on Carhall City to speak with Leda. Rishi looked like she might pass for one of those teenagers perfectly if not for the flight suit. It left me pondering the physics of the artifact—the rules. I’d come through all right, my genuine parts and my fabricated parts. Rishi had come through just fine, both her body and her mind as sharp as ever. Same with Verona. But Juice and I had gotten our heads turned a little sideways by the trip. And it made sense that Rishi had arrived here wearing the clothes she’d worn into the artifact. But the rest of us ended up here in our flight suits without our space suits and helmets, which we’d been wearing in the artifact. I couldn’t help but wonder how it all worked.
I tried to track Rishi as she made her way along the periphery of the crowd, but before long, she seemed to disappear into it. I waited for what seemed like maybe twenty minutes. The game seemed to be going on as before, and I didn’t get any sense that Rishi had caused any kind of stir by approaching them.
Another girl, a supporter of the green and yellow team, came walking back toward me, directly in the darkness as though she knew I was there. She had short, bright white hair with a shock of green and yellow flair running through it. She just kept coming toward me. I was getting ready to dive back into the bushes before she called out to me.
“It’s okay, Burch. It’s me.”
She’d shifted personas again.
“You’re going to have to let me know when you do that, you know, Rishi. A simple guy like me could get confused.”
She’d ditched the flight suit somehow and was dressed like the kids watching the match. She showed me a small device in her hand—an earpiece, she said. As she got closer, even in the darkness, I could see, her eyes were glowing a dull purple, a shade I’d never seen on another human before. She noticed that I noticed.
“They’re not exactly like us,” she said, “but they’re definitely human.”
She asked for my hand and placed a little cube into it.
“New clothes,” she explained. “Lose the flight suit, Burch.”
I looked at her doubtfully.
She smiled. “They have some interesting toys.”
“It’s weird enough seeing you as a purple-eyed teenager, Ship, but would you mind changing back to yourself if you’re going to watch me undress?”
She laughed and shook her head. Then she talked me through using that little cube thing, how to drop it to the ground and call up the clothes with a hand gesture. Sure enough, once I’d undressed, I called up the clothes, and they materialized around me in some sort of nanocloud.
“Did you get what you needed?” I asked Rishi, who looked herself again.
She showed me the earpiece she’d taken from one of the kids’ bags. She thought it was optical. They communicated through the fixtures in the posts, but Rishi hadn’t tried it yet. She imagined the interface would speak to her, but she wanted to examine the device more closely before using it—see if she could discern anything further about their tech.
“I picked out a couple words,” she said. “Greetings and a few compliments. Not much beyond that, though, Burch. Let’s go check on the others before going any farther into the city.”
Juice was doing better. He remembered me when Rishi and I came back, but he didn’t quite remember that Rishi had a body or how we’d gotten to this place, wherever it was. I spent time with him while Rishi and Verona examined the earpiece Rishi had pinched. We sat along the shoreline, looking out at the city, the water, the coastline. Juice was still laboring to breathe a little, but it was getting better with time. The sensation of the heavier atmosphere had gotten him panicky initially, which had only made the sensation worse. He’d calmed down with Verona’s help. Now, looking out on that magic-looking city, that giant pink moon, it was a glorious sight.
“Tides,” he said. “A moon of that size. They must do something to control the tides. Seawalls. Powerful nanosheets. Something.”
“Looks like these people could do a lot, I’m guessing,” I said. “Who knows. They look like regular people, though. Their kids do anyway.”
“You remember why we came here, Burch, don’t you?”
“I do, Juice. We came to find Clem Aballi.”
“Juice? I remember you calling me that, but could you please call me by my real name. It feels more natural.”
“Sure, Kristoff. I’ll call you whatever you want.”
“That girl you came back with, that was Rishi?”
Kristoff shook his head.
“We don’t know where we are, do we?”
“Not yet we don’t. They don’t speak the same language as us. Rishi will figure it out though. She and Verona are working on it.”
“I don’t remember her much—Verona.”
“I think we’d all do well to just go with things, Kristoff. Take them as they come.”
We sat by the water for a while before Verona came and sat with us. She gave us an update on how Rishi was progressing with the tech. They’d managed to activate the earpiece, or at least Verona had. It responded to human touch and thought. Once Verona had activated it, Rishi was able to figure out that it transmitted a location for a light stream to beam to. Verona explained that Rishi was going to try and simulate that frequency and tap into their system. I didn’t completely understand the details.
“Ever heard of a place like this in all your centuries?” I asked Verona.
“Not remotely,” she answered. “I was expecting Earth, maybe the Columns, but wherever we are, it’s somewhere I’m not sure anyone knew about. It makes me wonder if people were on other planets before Earth and we just didn’t know about it.”
“That’s a theory,” I said.
We sat with it, taking in the beauty of the city. The peace. The calm. It was nice to ignore the urgency. Certainly, as day approached in a few hours, the people here would see us, and someone would get curious, as people tend to be with all strangers and outsiders who clearly don’t belong.
After a time, Rishi approached from the darkness behind us, stepping into the glow of the subtle pink moonlight. She sure was a sight—the real Rishi, I mean.
“I’ve deciphered their language, mostly,” she said. “There are some peculiarities. It’s difficult to figure, because they’re not very literate people, but I wouldn’t classify them as pre-literate so much as post-literate if that makes sense. Their network is unusual. The prompts are very specific and attuned to daily activities, options, schedules, but it’s a closed system and doesn’t have many places for open queries. It’s almost like a network you would give to a child to keep them from adult material.”
“It did belong to a teenager,” I said, offering up a possibility.
Rishi shook her head. “I thought of that, Burch, but it wasn’t that there were more data streams that were inaccessible to the user, they simply weren’t there.”
“What do you make of it?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. I think we should talk to someone. I’m confident I can hold a fluent conversation if we encounter people, but all activities have ceased for the night. It’ll be several hours before the city wakes up again.”
That seemed strange. A city of that size shutting down entirely for the night.
“Any idea where in the galaxy we are?” Kristoff asked her.
“That’s part of what I was talking about. I was able to pull up a map of the local stars from the floatscreen in the light-post, and there are other human settlements, but information beyond that is limited. We’re definitely not in the Battery or close to Earth. I don’t recognize the stellar layout at all.”
“What do you want to do?” I asked her.
“I think we should walk toward the city and have a look around.”
“Anybody object?” I asked.
Verona and Juice nodded and looked over at the city.
“Wherever we are,” Verona said, “it seems a beautiful and peaceful place.”
“All the same, we should be on our guard,” I suggested. “If Clem Aballi’s here somewhere, there will be danger.”
As a group, we walked the streets while the entire society slept. We didn’t even see a bot. To be fair, though, there didn’t seem to be much need for bots. Even on Athos, there’d be minor upkeep tasks like waste management or city maintenance, as well as the engineering teams that constantly monitored the structural stability of the ring—the same as in any cylinder group or outpost. But here, I couldn’t even rightly say what materials the buildings were made of. There didn’t seem to be any natural wear. Everything looked pristine—right out of the box.
As beautiful as the majestic trees of the parks were, the buildings themselves each had a stately beauty to them as well. Outside the city’s center, for kilometers, there were dwellings of great variety, some that looked like inviting round pods, others that looked like crystal shards jutting several stories into the air. The grass seemed perfectly manicured and ran down to narrow streets that seemed more for walking than any form of mechanized transport. Rishi explained that like Athos, public transport was readily available. Only here it was free and ran all the way across the city and was networked to other cities on the planet. This one, she told us, in our language would sound something like Tranchera, but the sound wasn’t exact. We would have a difficult time pronouncing it, she said.
Anyway, we walked all over Tranchera. Through neighborhoods, around the bases of these elegant skyscrapers, down to the water, where even more people lived on dimly lit barges that lined the harbor along glowing piers that ran far into the middle of that vast port, whose waters were so gentle, that the hovering pink moon reflected almost a double image to our wide eyes.
After several hours walking, Juice started to complain. It was easy for me to forget now with my new legs that Kristoff and Verona weren’t similarly equipped. So we sat for a while in a smaller park just on the far side of the city from where we started. By then, the moon was setting bright bright red over the water, and the sky was a dull blue gray as the sun, which Rishi informed us was called Cygnus-80 in our tongue, was beginning to rise. People would be waking up soon. Kristoff was feeling better by that point, except for a set of aching feet.
Rishi’s plan was to speak to the first sympathetic-looking people she could approach. We needed to get Verona and Kristoff some appropriate clothes and start figuring this place out. Rishi gave us a few tips in case people approached, how to say hello and nod in an appropriately friendly way, sort of like a half bow. “That’s how they do it,” she said, demonstrating.
At the first sight of another human, Rishi disappeared for some time. We watched the light reflecting off those crystal towers as people began to stir along the wide piers that stretched out into the harbor.
Rishi re-appeared suddenly, with some urgency, saying, “We need to get off the streets. Now.”
She led us back toward the city in the direction we’d first come. A few streets back from the park, she walked up to a house with a humble round build to it, brightly red colored. It almost looked like a giant cherry with doors and windows. A young lady opened the door when we approached and spoke to Rishi in their bizarre language. She looked at us in wonder, especially me. She fixated on my face in particular. I think it must have been the scar across my forehead. Maybe. Maybe we just looked foreign to her.
When we stepped inside, chairs materialized from the floor, as though they were a part of the structure. Each seemed to fit us perfectly—custom size for each body they rose to meet.
“This is Mraikhanna,” Rishi said. “She’s been kind enough to shelter us for the time being. Give us some time to speak further, and then I’ll explain what I can.”
Mraikhanna seemed to enjoy the sound of our language. Her eyes were wide as Rishi made noises that no doubt seemed as foreign to her as her language seemed to us. Rishi began a rather animated conversation with the young woman. Then, without explanation, they disappeared into an adjoining room.
“I think they have a lot of nanotech here,” Kristoff said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the entirety of the furnishings were custom shaped by the occupant—maybe even the exterior too.”
Verona was quiet. My impression was that this place made her very uncomfortable. Seven centuries worth of certainty about our galaxy, about humanity, and suddenly this place. Her face was heavy, every new experience a shock to her foundation.
“I’m thinking about these artifacts,” Kristoff said. “Being here, or seemingly being here, gives me an entirely different perspective on them.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m not sure we’re really here,” he said. “Think about it Burch. What would be easier to do: transport your body across space and time somewhere hundreds of years in the past and thousands of lightyears away in an instant, or, alternatively, transport your consciousness to a life-real simulation while putting the user’s body in stasis for a short time as the sim unfolded? That was what the original explorers experienced—the woman who went to Earth only reporting a very brief time gap during which she lived an entire lifespan. The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.”
“Okay, but how did they have a complete history of Earth to simulate? Or this place?”
“I don’t have all the answers, Burch, but I’ll tell you that’s a much easier question to answer than the physics of time travel and teleportation.”
“Why did we end up here, then?” Verona asked. “And where is here?”
Rishi overheard the question as she returned with Mraikhanna.
“I’m still not totally sure yet,” Rishi said. “But my updated linguistic analysis places Mraikhanna’s language as more likely long distant progeny rather than any distant cousin or entirely original thread.”
“What does that mean?” Kristoff asked, beating me to the question.
“It means we’re in the future—a far distant future. Thousands, maybe many hundreds of thousands of years, maybe more.”
“The future?” I asked.
“Run a simulation out,” Kristoff said, “and you can place the user anywhere on the timeline, past, present, future.”
Rishi scrunched up her eyebrows like she was uncertain. “Regardless, we need to get oriented fast. I’m printing translators—earpieces—it will allow us to communicate with the people here, but I need to tell you the following before Mraikhanna can understand us. These people don’t know anything, really. Other beings control this society, AIs of some kind, I think. The user interface we saw in the park was for the humans here. Each house, though, is connected to a more sophisticated network. It’s a curated society. The people here don’t control their fate, and they don’t seem troubled by that fact. I think they just accept what they’ve been given, which admittedly seems appealing, at least superficially.”
“So the AIs are in charge?” I asked her.
“I don’t know exactly, but somebody else is. She certainly isn’t,” Rishi said, gesturing toward our host, who seemed mesmerized by the speed of this entirely alien conversation. “Hang on while I check on the print.”
Mraikhanna seemed frustrated she couldn’t communicate with us, rolling her eyes as though thinking. Then she put her hand to her chest and said, “Mraikhanna. Mraikhanna.”
“Introductions, yes,” Verona said, placing her hand over her chest likewise and introducing herself. “Verona. Verona.”
“Belona, vaal, vaal! Vreaika! Belona.” She was smiling from ear to ear as she turned to Juice.
“Kristoff,” he said.
“Ah! Kristoff,” the young woman said. “Kristoff!”
“She says it better than I do,” I joked with him. “I always thought your name sounded funny.”
She looked right at me.
“Burch,” I said. “Burch.”
She immediately got a strange look on her face. Her eyes got wide, and she looked like someone does while putting forth a great effort to suppress a sneeze. Then she couldn’t hold it in anymore. She busted out laughing like my name was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. Then she put her hands over her head as though embarrassed by her inability to suppress the laughter.
“Burch,” I said again, and she nearly fell on the floor laughing.
The three of us looked at each other, shaking our heads.
“Must mean something funny in her language,” Verona surmised.
We sat there for maybe a minute while the poor girl got control of herself. Finally, she took a deep breath as though steadying her mind.
“Belona,” she said turning back toward us, pointing her hand as she went person to person again. “Kristoff…vrancha…”
Then she looked at me again and erupted in laughter.
“Burch,” I said.
She damn near choked laughing, which got us going too.
After another minute, after calming down again. She reached over and put her hand on my forearm and jumped back, realizing it wasn’t a natural part.
“Bipal!” she said, a look of shock and terror coming over her face.
Rishi came back then. The girl seemed to be profusely apologizing. Rishi tried to explain something to her.
“I’m trying to tell her it’s okay,” Rishi said. “She’s afraid she offended you laughing at your name.”
“Can you ask her why she was laughing at my name?” I asked Rishi, which she did.
Then the girl smiled. Mraikhanna sucked in a mouthful of air and then belched out a shockingly loud burp I wouldn’t have imagined could come from such a small woman. “Burch,” she said afterward, laughing. “Burch.”
“Ah,” I said. I put my hand to my chest and tried again. “Hale.”
She busted out laughing again, shaking her head. “Hale.” Then she started muttering in her language again to Rishi, giggling. Rishi even started laughing too.
“What does that mean, Ship?”
“You don’t want to know, Burch.”
Verona looked over at me smiling, and we were both thinking the same thing.
“Helicon,” I said to Mraikhanna. “Helicon.”
“Helicon!” Mraikhanna repeated, smiling. “Vaal! Vaal! Helicon!”
“You gotta be kidding me,” I said.
Rishi and the rest of them started laughing. After all that laughter died down, Rishi handed over an earpiece to each of us.
“She’s going to sound simple to you,” Rishi explained. “She’s not stupid. It’s more the interface and some cultural differences. She’s not dumb, though. I just haven’t smoothed out the linguistic wrinkles yet, and I can’t moderate your conversation, because we need to hurry.”
Rishi was gone again so fast I didn’t even have time to ask her what the rush was. The girl popped in the earpiece like it was second nature for her to wear one. We followed.
“Helicon, you names funny in we tongue are,” she said to me. “Rishi say you human are, like us but not bipal like her.”
I didn’t know what that meant, so I just said, “Yes, I’m human. We all are.”
“You face,” she said, “broken is.”
“Scars,” I said. “We call these scars.”
She shook her head. “How have?”
“War,” I told her.
She shrugged. “War?”
For a moment, I wasn’t sure whether the translation was wrong, but then it occurred to me, considering the city we’d just walked through, that this innocent creature probably hadn’t heard of such a thing.
“A bad fight with many people,” I tried to explain.
“All the wrong reasons,” I said, which seemed to mystify her even more.
“Where from, you people are? Husson? Meifi?”
“I doubt you’d have heard of our home,” Kristoff said. “I’m from a place called Charris.”
Verona told her the same as the girl shook her head as though the name meant nothing.
“Ever heard of the Battery Systems?” I asked her.
She shook her head again.
“Trasp? Etterus? The Letters?”
Again, no familiarity.
“What about Athos?”
Her eyes got wide, and she giggled.
“Athos? Athos rings? Hundred rings?”
“Athos? A ring, yes. Big ring.”
“Only story, Athos is. You funny people are, Helicon. Not from Athos. Funny people.”
Rishi came back into the room with urgency. She spoke to the girl in their language. Mraikhanna shrugged and seemed confused, but she took out the earpiece and handed it to Rishi.
“We need to get the hell out of here,” Rishi said. “This place is not what it seems.”
“If that’s the case, perhaps it’s better to stay here out of sight while it’s daylight?” Verona suggested.
“I’m afraid we’ve already made ourselves a bit too conspicuous connecting to the human network in the park earlier, and I just poked around the ordinal network from this neighborhood’s hub. They don’t have direct control systems in place, because the population here is so docile and obedient, but the agents the ordinals will be sending after us should arrive in Tranchera soon. I can explain more later when we get out of the city, but we’re in danger.”
“Pardon my ignorance, Ship,” I said, “but Kristoff thinks we’re in a simulation, and I tend to agree. If that’s the case, then what danger could there possibly be for us?”
“The ordinals have agents called mediums that can suck your memories out of your brain and wipe your mind clean, Burch,” Rishi said, some genuine urgency apparent in her voice. “Anyone care to wager about how compatible that process is with the mechanics of the artifact?”
“No. No I do not,” I answered. “Let’s make tracks.”
Everyone got up.
“One last thing,” Rishi said, handing the earpiece back to Mraikhanna and gesturing toward Verona and Kristoff. “We’ll need some food, and we need to get these two some clothing.”
We didn’t have identity codes in the ordinals’ system, obviously, which meant we couldn’t ride the public transit according to Rishi. That meant we had to head for the hills outside the city on foot. She said the ordinals were unlikely to consider the possibility we’d travel that way, because none of their humans would. It was a long while before Rishi explained what these ordinals were. She was trying to find some seclusion where we could lie low, talk, and not have our strange language overheard by any passersby.
When we finally sat down in a shady grove in another park about midway through suburbia, it was early afternoon. Kristoff and I were starving. Rishi had figured out how to get her body to mimic their clothing, so we had an extra clothing cube she turned right into a picnic blanket, which seemed to be something the people there did, sit on a blanket in the grass and eat. It was an odd contrast—the looming terror of having our minds wiped clean while we sat and enjoyed the simple pleasures of a fine sunlit day. The decent meal that Mraikhanna packed for us; the cool grass under us; the beautiful sky; and the air that hadn’t been recycled ten thousand times in the past year, even if it was a bit heavy—after enduring a half year crammed into Verona’s cruiser, it was well worth braving a spell of danger for a slice of a day so fine.
“Story time, Ship?” I asked Rishi.
She looked around, and seeing that we were tucked away from prying eyes and eavesdropping ears, she started giving us the lay of the land.
“This planet is called Murell. I don’t know exactly how many settlements are in the ordinals’ network, but my sense is that there are many tens of thousands—planets, space structures, moons, asteroids. The people have an extremely limited idea what the technologicals are up to. I didn’t even get a sense for it in the cursory information I pulled from the network. But the people are … kept would be a good word for it. The human society is highly curated. They engineer these people, at least minimally. That young lady we met today who looked like she was all of twenty years old was actually closer to Verona’s age than yours, Burch. And their lives are very basic. They grow flower gardens, play sports and music, dance, paint with oils and watercolors, and they raise families. They know only the history that has been prepared for them. They know next to nothing of us, of the Columns, even Earth. Noncompliance has been filtered out genetically and through mental manipulation, through the mediums I spoke of. Any aberrant behavior is corrected and wiped from memory. In the distant past, even the witnesses to crimes had those events erased from their minds. That’s why Mraikhanna was so confused by your scars and the concept of war.”
“You overheard that?” Kristoff asked.
“I was just in the next room,” Rishi replied. “My ears are quite good.”
“They’re pets,” I said. “They’ve turned us into house pets.”
“That fear was one of the reasons our ancestors left Earth,” Rishi said. “Leaving Earth seems only to have worked for a time.”
“How long a time?” Verona asked. “Do you have a sense, Rishi? Mraikhanna seemed to recognize Athos as a story from their past, like a fairy tale maybe.”
“Linguistic drift places us between eight and fourteen hundred thousand years in the future. But that calculation has a gigantic margin for error. I won’t know exactly until I can see a complete star map of the galaxy. My guess would be closer to two million years.”
I started laughing. “What, Ship? Two million years?”
“Is that so hard to believe, Burch?” Kristoff said. “You see this planet, the way these people are kept. These technologicals must have a use for them, analog data storage would be my guess, some kind of offline biological backup. Who knows to what end.”
“What are we doing here?” I asked.
“We’re here to find Clem Aballi,” Verona insisted. “And we’ll find him, Burch. We must.”
“One thing I can say for sure,” I replied, “if he’s here, Verona, there’s no way that man is living as a house pet.”
“Agreed,” she said.
“What’s our next move?”
“We lie low till it gets dark,” Rishi answered. “Then we make a break for the hills and figure out the rest from there. If they catch us, no matter what happens, make them kill you before you allow them to wipe your mind.”
We kept our eyes forward and walked, doing our best to look like we belonged, but we surely did not. Kristoff and I were the most conspicuous, I with my scars, him a few years my senior, his hair graying a touch around the ears. We didn’t see a person who looked a day over twenty in that city, though we didn’t talk much about that, or anything else for that matter. Our language was a call to attention. The goal was to draw as few eyes to us as possible.
By evening, Verona was the one to plainly state the fact that we’d probably walked forty kilometers that day. Kristoff was exhausted, but he was beyond the point of complaining about it. As much as any of us, he valued his mind. After the confusion he’d gone through getting here, I could tell, he was taking no chances getting his mind wiped by these mediums Rishi talked about. I wondered what they looked like or how the process worked, but I wasn’t nearly curious enough to risk encountering one.
We were near the edge of the outskirts, approaching what Rishi called the wilderness zone when we saw a ship come blasting down into the flight space over the city. I’d never seen a spaceship like it. Part fighter, part transport, angular, sleek, and it moved like physics was an afterthought. If poor Kristoff was tired then, he didn’t show it, leading the pace as we double-timed it into the hills.
The wilderness area was a wasteland. Those trees, bushes, and grasses from those suburban parks were all engineered and planted. The planet Murell, it became obvious almost immediately, would have been lifeless if not for the engineering of the ordinals. This complicated matters. We had little food and these wastelands had almost no cover.
The ship that had landed, Rishi told us, had descended right into the area of Mraikhanna’s house. By the time we were a good half kilometer into the hills, the ship was airborne again, tracing a path over the city. About the only thing going for us was that there was no satellite monitoring trained on the perfectly obedient humans of Tranchera, but Rishi assured us, that wouldn’t hold the ordinals up long if we didn’t find cover.
We ducked under a rock overhang that wasn’t quite deep enough to be a cave. Even I was getting tired at that point, and my new legs were solid. It was the rest of me that needed a breather. Poor Kristoff and even Verona with her wizard’s constitution were both cooked by then.
“What’s the plan?” I asked Rishi.
“We hide, cross our fingers, and wait them out,” she said. “There’s nothing else to do.”
It sounded like a terrible plan. The problem was that we didn’t have any better options. Humans didn’t have ship access from what Rishi had learned. And who was going to hide us if these ordinals forbade it? It was one thing being an outlaw in a society with laws, but this society didn’t even have the concept, because everyone was perfectly behaved. Kept. The only outcome I could see was for us to either be kept ourselves or eliminated in short order. I was prepared to die before getting my mind wiped, at least then there was a good chance of landing back in that artifact with my sense of self intact.
While we hunched down, Rishi kept a lookout. Her tech eyes gave us what little advantage we had. She was able to monitor the search pattern of the ship and the drones it had dumped to scan the hills. Judging by their movement, the drones already knew we were in the wilderness somewhere. Presumably they’d caught enough images of us from those communication hubs to mark our trail.
It was nearly sunset. The light was getting orange in that shallow hillside canyon where we’d taken refuge. Rishi gave us almost no warning, because she herself must have been surprised. A drone dropped straight out of the sky, silently, hovering right there a couple meters from the opening to the overhang.
“Scatter!” Rishi shouted.
Again, it seemed futile to me, but hell, I didn’t particularly care to meet these ordinals on their terms. I bolted uphill and could see Juice and Verona going downhill, back toward the city as Rishi ran uphill in another direction.
I was looking back at them when I heard a noise in front of me like a klaxon honking out a single short tone. It startled me half to death, and instinctively, before I’d even fully turned my head to see what was there, I stopped.
A drone. Right there, a meter from my head. It spoke something to me in that bizarre language of theirs. Whatever it said, I didn’t do what it wanted, because before it said another word or I’d even had a chance to take a breath, the air itself shocked me into senselessness, and I fell to the ground, blacked out.
I came to in a room inside that ship. I could tell by the way the ship was moving we were climbing to orbit. Rishi, Kristoff, and I were restrained by some kind of energy field, just hovering there, suspended above the floor, unable to move. Across from me, secured into a harness in a jump seat, Verona was passed out, her face looking surprisingly peaceful considering the circumstances.
Despite already being suspended there like that, I could feel us coming into orbit, weightlessness setting in as the ship exited Murell’s gravity well. Suddenly, the ship bounced. I could feel the hull taking impact. Even in the future I knew what that meant. Some other party was shooting at us. The ship was getting bounced around good, two or three proper hits plus evasive maneuvers to avoid more. Whoever was tracking us meant business. Then suddenly, I could feel the ship jump.
The FTL jump jogged Verona to consciousness. She’d missed the space battle, though. For her, she woke up in this strange ship and met eyes with me, hovering there, no turbulence whatsoever. I was about to call out to her when a figure appeared in a doorway that suddenly materialized in the middle of the ship’s bulkhead. The wall just suddenly opened up, and there it was, a medium. I could tell instantly. This tall, human-looking inhuman creature—a dead-eyed, pale-skinned monster with a blue tone to its hair, skin, lips, and fingernails. It seemed to look right through me as it stepped into the room, the wall closing behind it. I was looking for magnetic boots or something to figure how it was walking in zero-G, but I couldn’t figure it.
“Remain seated,” it said to Verona in this robotic, inhuman voice.
I looked over toward Rishi and Kristoff, who were still passed out. Verona was breathing heavy now. She didn’t know what to do.
It walked right up to me and looked me in the eyes, inspecting me like a robotic assembly unit might examine its work product. “What is your name,” it said in that awful voice.
“How do you speak our language?” I asked.
“I ask the question. You answer the question. What is your name?”
“Tell me what’s going on first,” I said.
“I can take the answers from your mind,” it said. “That is less pleasant.”
It raised its right hand, and its hand turned into a liquid metal that congealed into a conical shape that stretched out to a long, sharp point. The medium held it in front of me to good effect.
“What is your name?”
“Where do humans come from?”
A strange question I thought at first, but then I remembered the humans here had no sense of their history. The medium was still holding that sharp silver weapon out in front of my face, its mind probe I reckoned.
“Humans come from Earth,” I said.
“Yes. From Earth.”
“Why do you conspire with technologicals?”
“What do you mean?”
“How is it you came to travel with this bipal?” the medium asked, gesturing toward Rishi.
“Don’t you touch her,” I said.
“Answer the question, Hale Burch, or I will wipe the bipal’s mind when I take its data.”
“Rishi’s not an it, she’s a human. I don’t know what that means, bipal.”
“She is bipal,” the medium said.
It took a step toward Rishi, and behind it, Verona, was loosening the harness around her chest, fixing to intervene somehow. The monstrous being seemed to know.
It turned back toward Verona. “Remain in your seat.” It pointed that sharp end of its arm toward Rishi’s head.
“Don’t you hurt her,” Verona said.
“Hale Burch,” it said, turning back toward me. “Why are you consorting with this bipal?”
I was about to answer it when the wall opened up again, a doorway just big enough for a person to float through. And there he was, in the flesh, Clem Aballi.
“Stand down,” he ordered. “Nobody told you to interrogate these people.”
“I took the liberty.”
“You don’t take liberties around here,” Aballi scolded the creature. “Get out.”
The medium looked over at me, and then back toward Aballi, who met eyes with me and then followed the medium as it walked right back the way it had come, the wall opening before it and then closing again.
Aballi flew further into the room and turned his back to me, floating there between me and Verona.
“I could hardly believe it was you,” he said. “How many centuries have passed? I can hardly count, and I still haven’t forgotten your face.”
He took her hand in his, and there was nothing menacing or threatening about the way he beheld her. I could even tell from behind. She looked back at him tenderly, sighing, and to my eyes, she was struggling to hold back tears.
“Hello, Verona,” Clem Aballi said. “Welcome to the future.”
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