He had done it.
A hand touched his shoulder. He turned. It was Alexandra.
His sobbing mixed with laughter. “What are you doing here?”
“I hid on the Verity,” she said tears falling. “I couldn’t let you do it alone.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you!” He reached to embrace her, but she stepped back. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing, I--” she fell backward. Pilot X rushed to grab her, but he was too late. She tumbled down into a deep crater and out of sight.
“There was a 17% chance she would not survive the Instant,” he heard Verity say. “But I didn’t calculate her slipping and falling like that.”
Pilot X was enraged by Verity’s lack of respect. “What have you done?!” he shouted, realizing what he said was illogical.
“It’s not what I have done at all,” Verity said. “And I dislike the implication.” She launched the ship into the sky, then disappeared in a flash, leaving Pilot X alone in the wake of destroying the universe.
“No! Verity come back,” he cried.
“It’s time for breakfast,” she said.
But she wasn’t there. Also, he wasn’t there. And Alexandra wasn’t there. He woke to darkness.
“It’s time for breakfast,” Verity repeated.
That’s right. He was alone. Inside a hut he built. Not nearly as nice as one he had once built, but it kept the sun out. Kept it our very effectively as it turned out.
“It’s time for--”
“Yes, I heard you!” he shouted and got out of bed.
Outside was a wood, unspoiled by sentient occupation with two exceptions. One was the poorly-made hut that looked like a sad man’s faded yellow winter hat dumped in a pile of leaves. The other was Verity. The bright silver-gray cylinder with its curved glass cockpit window was three times Pilot X’s height but still seemed small somehow. Perhaps because Pilot X knew the timeship hid a singularity compartment that was as big as a planet.
In a clearing between the hut and Verity, Pilot X had set up a pot over a crude and now cold fire pit with a stump for a seat next to it. He sat down on the stump, took a plastic jug full of water and used a wooden ladle to add water to the pot. He took some salt out of a pocket of his filthy suit and sprinkled some in the water. He sighed and looked around, scratching his lengthy beard. Somewhere under it was a face that itched. He searched around near the fire pit for a mound of kernels of the local oat-like plant he planned to boil for breakfast. He found the pile and began gathering them up.
“You don’t have to do that,” said Verity. “I’ve made you bacon and eggs.” The smell of a delicious breakfast drifted out of the ship towards Pilot X.
Hmph. He grunted. Verity was an AI who, among her many talents, could reform local matter into some of the proteins and fat and other delicious elements of breakfast foods. She had been trying to use those talents to shake Pilot X out of his depression and self-imposed hard living.
Pilot X dropped the kernels he had collected.
“That’s not fair.”
A smell like coffee drifted towards Pilot X.
“That’s not real,” he said.
Verity said nothing.
“Verity! You can’t lie. Is that really coffee somehow?”
“I am unable to synthesize proper coffee but I have created--”
“Scratch and sniff,” Pilot X grunted and started picking up the kernels he dropped.
“Scratch and sniff?” Verity asked, pretending she could not figure out what he meant.
“Yeah. Smells like coffee but isn’t.”
“It’s hot. And brown,” Verity suggested in what might have been meant to sound hopeful and pleading.
Pilot X said nothing. He dumped the oat-like bits in the kettle and settled down to make a fire out of leaves and twigs. He did this every morning, struggling for 15-20 minutes before he got the fire to light. Verity did not tell him she remotely started the fire every morning for him.
Later that day Pilot X slept sitting up on his stump. He had eaten what he called breakfast, then tired himself out carrying one of the empty plastic jugs to the stream for water. He’d thought about bathing but shrugged it off. It didn’t feel properly penitent.
Pilot X was an Alendan. He was the last Alendan and it was his fault the rest were gone. His people had engaged in a time war with two other species that threatened to tear apart the fabric of time The Alendans outdid them all by making a weapon that could have destroyed all creation. Pilot X stole the weapon and used it to erase the three races from time and reset the universe to a more peaceful version where the time war never happened.
Pilot X still existed because the weapon, called the Instant, protected him. But no other Alendans survived. Not the Secretary who had prosecuted the war. Not Guardian Lau who had tried to keep the Instant a secret. And not Alexandra. He had barely got to know and fall in love with her before he had to destroy her. And he felt pretty damn guilty about it. And he felt guilty about feeling guilty about destroying one person, when he had destroyed so many others. Not destroyed. Prevented from existing. Most of all, he felt guilty that he knew that if he were sent back to that exact point with that same choice in those same conditions, he’d do it again.
After fleeing to the farthest edge of the universe where the Fringe Cascade heard his story and let him go, he had come here. He was hiding, but there was no one looking for him. He could take Verity anywhere in space and time but instead he stayed here, on an unoccupied planet. He spent his days listening to Verity’s pleas, eating boiled kernels and fetching water in a plastic jug, plastic being one of the few luxuries he allowed himself. That, and naps.
Pilot X woke with a start.
“Alert,” Verity said again.
Great Verity had a new tactic. “Oh, just stop,” Pilot X shook his head.
“Alert,” Verity repeated.
He laughed. It sounded like the auto-alert she used to give when he was flying missions. It was not part of her AI system but an autonomic response to any danger that showed up in a scan.
It was very clever of her to imitate it. The autonomic responses were like a knee-jerk would be for him. Something he couldn’t resist doing if provoked by a hammer on the knee, but something he could fake if he needed to.
“Give it a rest!”
“I’m sorry. It’s my autonomous system. You’ll need to acknowledge it to stop it,” Verity said in her normal voice.
“Fine, alert acknowledged,” he mumbled.
“Scans have detected a time tremor. The tremor matches a signature listed as high danger.”
Pilot X squinted. “A time tremor? I thought you said there aren’t any more time traveling species.”
“Yes,” Verity said. “There are no species dedicated to time travel like the Alendans were. There are some civilizations with minimal chronological technologies.”
“A time tremor would need more than minimal,” Pilot X scoffed.
“That is true. Would you like me to interpret the findings?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Get me talking. Get me engaged. Forget it, Verity. I’m not biting.”
“I did not ask you to bite.”
“Ha. Humor still coming along, I see.”
“I was not attempting humor, I was attempting to interpret the alert for you.”
Pilot X just stared at the ship.
“That was an attempt at humor,” Verity said.
“Maybe you’re not getting as good as I thought. “OK. Fine. Interpret it.”
“A time tremor was generated likely as part of a test of a time dilation and space-time-fabric-affecting device. It was not likely a transportation device but it’s waveform suggests it is meant to reform nodes.”
Pilot X almost fell off his stool. “There’s only one thing that could ever reform nodes. That’s really not funny Verity.”
“I did not say it could reform nodes. I said its waveform suggested it was meant to reform nodes. It did not appear to succeed.”
“What does it mean?” Pilot X found himself asking despite his attempt at calloused uncaring.
“It certainly is an attempt at chronological observation. It is also likely to be an attempt of non-transportive timeline adaptation. Examples could include broad effects like climate adjustments or orbital velocities. The level indicates at present it is only capable of small effects on very large objects or regions. It is more difficult to determine intention.”
Verity had been getting better at translating her precise probability percentages into natural language approximations such as “likely” and “certain”. Pilot X was impressed.
“Not a single number in there. Well done Verity.”
“Thank you. Would you like to hear my projections on intentional possibilities?”
Pilot X was softened up. “Sure.” He said.
“Someone is trying to create the Instant.”
“Oh, sod off,” Pilot X said.
Verity said nothing.
“How can you know that? You’re just saying that to get a rise out of me. Well, it worked. But not the way you wanted. I’m going to that stinking hut and I’m not coming out.”
“I may be wrong,” Verity said.
That stopped him. This wasn’t some ham-handed psychological trick, or she wouldn’t have admitted that. Unless she was so good at psychology that she could mimic the one actual thing that would make him take notice in a way that was utterly indistinguishable from the real thing. And if she could do that, she would know that he would not be able to risk someone creating the same device that he had used to destroy his own race. Because that device could also destroy everything. And if there was even a sliver a chance that it could happen again, he would have to try to stop it. In fact, he might be the only one who could stop it.
She would know that. She would know he couldn’t resist. So, she could, potentially, act in every way like it was true. And in the end, it didn’t matter. If she had faked it, he would deal with that later. It would end his relationship with Verity in a way that hiding in his hut could not. She would know that too. And she wouldn’t risk that.
“You’re serious,” he said.
“I cannot lie.”
“I’m beginning to wonder about that. Which makes for a puzzle when you say it, but-- you mean it about the time tremor don’t you?
“I do,” she said.
“Let me clean up.”
He hated to admit it, and wouldn’t if pressed, but it felt good to be back in his pilot’s chair, looking out the curved window at the stars, knowing that the cramped efficient ship carried a planet-sized space around in its singularity.
He wondered sometimes what all was in there. He hadn’t been the first to pilot her. All kinds of things could be hidden away in that much room. So much so that he couldn’t possibly find it all. Verity herself could only scan for dangerous items and life signatures, neither of which were present. Well aside from the cleaning products. But old notebooks? A classic car from Alenda’s motor age? Pie?
Well pie was problematic. It wouldn’t last long. That was one of the downsides of his planet-sized singularity. No planet-like climates. There could be no secret hidden pie. None edible in any case. None that wasn’t a moldy spot. And he missed pie. He hoped the universe had reinvented pie when it reinvented itself after he activated the Instant. How could it not? Pie was universal wasn’t it? He supposed he could put that to the test. He would make it the secondary mission: to find pie.
Wait, tertiary mission. Obviously, the primary mission was to find out about this time tremor. And his tertiary mission would certainly be to find pie. But almost more important than the potential destruction of the universe and solidly the secondary mission, was to find coffee.
It had been the first thing he ran out of. He hadn’t had any pie on board when he destroyed the universe. Bad planning that. But he had coffee. Not nearly enough. And he had rationed it to one glorious cup every sleep cycle. But it eventually ran out. And the planet where it had been discovered was obscure now. He hadn’t properly researched his history to know where it came from and all he had to go on were oblique references in the few texts he had with him. No coordinates.
It was a dual planet, one water, one arid. Coffee came from the water one. It was around a middle-aged star. It had ice caps. It smelled like rain. Or at least that’s what one poetic travelogue said.
“Verity are you running the water-planet scanner?”
“Our mission is to investigate the time tremor,” she said.
“Sure, but we can have other missions too. You’re capable of doing what, 1 million things simultaneously.”
“No but it’s a lot. And some of them are keeping the cabin pressurized and full of oxygen and little things like that. If I drop one in order to look for coffee, you might die. Would you like me to look for coffee?”
Damn. Her humor was starting to develop into sarcasm. He had to admit, he liked it.
“I want you to not kill me, OK? But we can scan for water planets as we go, no?”
Verity said nothing
“I mean we--”
“I have entered scanning for water planets that fit the known descriptions of the Coffee planet in an adjunct slot that can be overridden by any necessary or main mission critical functions. Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Thank you, Verity. What can I do for you?”
“Find the time tremor,” she said. That was terse for Verity.
“This has you worried doesn’t it?”
“I cannot worry in the same way you can, but it has created a similar pattern of anticipations which may manifest themselves to you as worry.”
“You’re worried!” Pilot X said. “How cute!”
They arrived at the first of three stellar systems that might be the origin of the time tremor. Verity proposed time jumping to the moment right before the time tremor’s origin so they could attempt to detect it again and get a more precise location. As they orbited out among the gas giants, Verity began scanning the planets to get some background information.
“It seems to be called the Parthian system,” said Verity. The most habitable body is a rock giant called Parthian Prime. It claims to be the origin of the civilization but so do other planets and moons. There is Original Parthia, Parthian Real, Parthia and a moon called Parthian Landing. There are other inhabited moons but none others that claim to be original. Only Parthian Prime has the natural ecosystem to evolve intelligent life but the other locations claim the Parthians migrated here from another system. This seems unlikely but not impossible if there was some collapse in society after a colonial landing. Which is the dogma of the citizens of Parthian Landing.
“Despite the conflict over primacy, the civilization is quite united in a federal system and is the largest trading civilization in history, hence the large number of inhabited planets and moons that can be supported. We have arrived in the middle of the height of Parthian Civilization.”
“How do you know?”
“I jumped us forward while you were napping.”
“Stop doing that. It ruins my sleep. Messes with my circadian rhythms or something.”
“You wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t told you.”
“In any case we have not felt the time tremor yet, so you may go back to sleep and I will not jump again while--”
“Update. I have detected the time tremor.”
Pilot X sat up straight and grabbed the controls. “Where to?”
“No, the reading is odd.”
“Why is it odd?”
“Yes, but what does that mean?”
I have detected the time tremor. Its signal does not locate it here but this location echoes the origin.”
“I believe you just made me more confused.”
“Imagine the time tremor is point A.”
“So imaginative, point A. But OK. I have imagined a beautiful point A filled with pie and coffee and a time tremor.”
“Now imagine two cones with the narrow ends at point A. Each expands away from point A in a different direction. One forward in time and one backward.”
“Two delicious pecan praline ice cream cones are at an angle to the mound of coffee and pie that is point A.”
“One cone starts with the time tremor and its cone are its effects. The other cone is the prior actions and effects that brought the time tremor into existence.”
“One cone is melting and the other freezing?”
“Not far off,” said Verity almost with admiration. “We are in the cone of actions and effects that brought the time tremor into existence. It came from here. But it isn’t here.”
“Parts! You’re talking about the parts they used to make it,” Pilot X said.
“Possibly. If the parts to build the--” she stopped herself from saying the Instant. They both danced around saying it, “…device were from here that could cause this cone-like reading.”
“Well we’re here. And time’s on our side. Might as well take a look. Any particular Parthian origin-planet likely to be the origin of our parts?”
“It is hard to say. As I mentioned this is the universe’s largest and most successful trading society at its height. But in my estimation the most probability of finding information would be by visiting Parthian Prime, which is the location of the central trade administrations.”
“To Parthian Prime then!”
A dark triangle of a ship lurked off the ecliptic of the stellar system, hiding from the Parthian Trade Enforcers. Prellix Scalgote piloted and commanded the ship. She was also the first officer, cook, medic and chief engineer. That was because her shipmate Paul was useless. But she had her orders. Her orders were to operate this ship with Paul. The other orders were to find valuable goods for the Syndicate. And she had just spotted something that looked insanely valuable.
“Did you see that?”
“See what?” said Paul as if waking from a nap despite the fact that his eyes had been open for hours.
“That ship. It’s got a drive signature that’s unexplainable. I’ve never seen anything like it. Something quantum but no idea what. And the weight class sensor is impossible. Nothing that heavy could fly.”
“Huh,” must be faulty,” said Paul settling back into his eyes-wide-open nap.
“No, idiot. The sensors are fine. That thing is valuable. We need it.”
“But it’s gone.”
Prellix didn’t bother to answer. She got on the coms to command. She was going to get a promotion. Paul was not.