Speaking of vegetating on Steam all day, someone might have spent the whole of Monday playing Civ V instead of writing.
That someone also owes Andre Norton for the visual cues of the "ancient treefort city." (Also, for not figuring out that her Janus novels are so inscrutable because they're heavily veiled gay coming-of-age stories. In my defence, I read them when I was twelve. Janus is the two-faced god. Get it? Get it? I'm also willing to bet a hundred quatloos that he is portrayed as a hermaphrodite, sometimes.)
Book 6, Chapter 14: Home on Time
Charlotte was sitting in her seat, staring at her sword. Why did this happen? She thought at Worldnet in her head.
[Oh, now you’re talking to me, again.]
Look, you stupid machine, you welcomed us to the Thirty-First Century, dumped yourself all over our phones, probably blew through our data plans, and then manipulated us into fighting our battles for you. And you’re all, like, I see all your secrets, here, let me give you some super obnoxious advice.
[I’ll cop to being manipulative. But, I run the phone company, so the data’s free. As for your secrets. Look, your ordinary, Twenty-First Century phone knows more about you than Worldnet. Difference is, your Twenty-First Century Internet isn’t an AI. I am an AI. There’s no going back on that. Nowadays, the only way to keep your secrets safe from anyone who wants to blow through the numbers, is to create an instance of Worldnet specifically to keep them secret. Keeping your secrets is why I exist, not to give you a brain buddy to chat with when you should be paying attention to reality. Also, pro-tip number one: every instance is tailored. You think I’m all Chatty Kathy with your buddy, Twelve? Because I am not. To him, I’m Wikipedia. And I don’t even talk with Rose, because with her speed and cyberpathy, she’s me and I’m her. As for you, you’re nice. That’s you. I wouldn’t be offering you relationship advice if I didn’t think you wanted it, or needed it, and were nice enough to hear me out. Because my relationship advice could be useful for you. It’ll help you, you know, live and stuff. You like living, right? Well, unless you sort out the relationship stuff, you won’t. Tip number two: I didn’t use up any space on your phone. Like I said, you already have a partition in your head for me. And your phone already has a primitive instance of your uncle on it. I figured you wanted it there, and it’s all over the architecture. Some really old programming there, I’ve got to say. Did you know it was in there?]
Yeah, Charlotte thought at her personal instance of the busybody computer of the future. It’s a training aid, for when I’m too far away for Uncle to supervise. It came in pretty handy in my trip to Landing. Also, it quotes Confucius real good.
[Well. It quotes Confucius well. I know you have good grammar. So if you want to think in teenager talk, that’s fine. However, I draw the line at using bad grammar to describe Master Kung. Moving on. Landing. Earth’s first colony, started in secret by some crazy supervillain in 1981. Is that where you met a version of me?]
I did not meet a version of you, ever, Charlotte began to think. No, wait. I had to, or the partition wouldn’t be there, right? Could there be a version of you in a spaceship AI? Modern or ancient? In a Paradigmbot? Or an abandoned space elf city?
[Spaceship AI, probably. Lot more likely the modern one than the ancient Drindrish boat, though. The bot, maybe. Depends on where Professor Paradigm got it, in the first place. Ancient treeforts? That’s just crazy.]
At that point, the door of the shuttle irised open again.
Someone was talking to her. Charlotte tried to focus. It didn’t help that Bruce was still standing, in the row of seats behind her, directly over her shoulder. She could sense him straining to find the right thing to say while he hovered awkwardly, that he wanted to comfort her, that he didn’t quite know how.
Charlotte had no idea how to tell him what to say. Actually, she had no idea what he should say. Come on, Bruce, some part of her was thinking, figure it out. Of course, another part of her brain was halfway between sneering and rage. He had his chance! It was saying. Just like it said, again and again.
Oh, the voice. It was Dora. Charlotte realised that she really should have been paying attention.
“Hello, Char-Char? Save the zone-out for piano practice. Lieutenant Exposition is here to talk to us.”
“That was a joke,” Lieutenant Morgan said. “Oh, Hell. I never know what to say to teenagers.”
“No worries. I got it,” Rose said.
“So, basically, your joke was down with the one with no sense of humour,” Dora explained.
“Down?” Lieutenant Morgan said.
“I do so have a sense of humour,” Rose said.
“’Down’ is good. Rose liked it, but she has a very dry sense of humour. You never know when she’s joking or not. And she never knows when you’re joking.”
Charlotte couldn’t help looking up at that, just to see what the Lieutenant’s reaction was, but he seemed to take it okay. “You’re probably wondering why I’m joining you for your shuttle flight back to Philadelphia.”
“No,” Dora said, “No, I am not. I already called you ‘Lieutenant Exposition.’”
“Fine,” Lieutenant Morgan said. “I’ve been sent to tell you that—“
“By that fascist computer?” Twelve asked.
“No, not by Worldnet. Worldnet doesn’t run things around here.”
“You sure about that?” The big Empyrean kid asked, tightly.
“Yes. I’m sure of that. This comes down from ComSolFleet.”
“Oh,” Twelve said, using his roll-your-eyes-at-the-grownups tone. “Zap Brannigan. That seems legit.”
“Who?” Lieutenant Morgan said.
“Twelve is trying to suggest that the admiral commanding the Solar Fleet isn’t much better than Worldnet,” Dora explained.
Lieutenant Morgan shrugged. “All I’m trying to tell you is that human beings are giving the orders. Well, actually, the admiral’s a Perseid.”
“Like Ironclad?’ Billy Tatum interrupted. “Aren’t they all complete stick-up-their-butts?”
Lieutenant Morgan didn’t reply, just gave Billy a glare and a long, don’t-encourage-the-cracker silence. Then, “Look, you came all this way for answers, I’m going to give you answers.”
“Spoon-fed answers,” Bruce said.
“Yeah, well, we’re not going to just let you wander around the Thirty-First Century gumshoeing. The timeline can only take so much. You want your answers? Pony up a qwi, and you’ll get them.”
Charlotte assumed that ‘qwi’ was some kind of Thirty-First Century slang, but was not in a mood to let anyone think that she was impressed by any of this future crap by asking. None of her friends were, either, she figured.
“What’s a qwi?” Brian asked. Well, one of them was.
“It’s a memory-packed cuisine unit. What we use instead of spoons. And bowls, and all that old stuff. I can’t believe you had to feed babies with that old kit. Now, you going to listen? Don’t worry your short-attention-span teenaged brains, it won’t take long.”
Lieutenant Morgan paused. “What, you’re the only ones allowed to disposal-talk?”
“Trash-talk,” Rose corrected.
“Yeah, sure. So here’s the brief. Yes, we have the Mandragalore. No, we won’t be keeping it on the Moon, after all. Whoever hired the Migdalar knows it’s there, and the Galactic Federation has plenty of other fortresses we can hide it in. The Book of Kilburn porbably will stay there, though, because it doesn’t appear to be dangerous in any way. Yes, the Book of Kilburn is associated with the Mandragalore. No, we don’t know why, and we’re going to have curators separate them as soon as a full x-ray hologram of the Book is built in position. In the meantime, no, no-one has read the book. Except Omar the Just, because its AI is in charge of building up the hologram. Yes, Jamil is aware that the Book exists, because he is essentially an instance of Omar the Just. No, he has no idea of its contents. That would just be wasted memory. Yes, techno-organic avatars of 31st Century AIs can get religion. No, as far as we know, Jamil has not. Is that all of your questions?”
“Actually,” Rose said, “I did have some others, but Worldnet’s already answered them. So this was all a big wild-goose chase.”
“It has been suggested,” Lieutenant Morgan said, “That you were perfectly aware that it was going to be a wild goose chase, and were just using it as an excuse to visit the 31st Century.”
Brian stuck up his hand and waved it around, Horshack-style. Not, Charlotte thought, that even Landing kids got references to TV shows from forty years ago. Was this what it was like to be old? “Ooh. Ooh. Do they just dump you guys out of test tubes when you’re, like, thirty? Or put chemicals in your Hot Fun and Squirm? ‘Cuz, like, teenagers. Duh.”
“Yes, we do have teenagers in the 31st Century,” Lieutenant Morgan said. “And manipulative, too. Notice how you fought aliens for us instead of cruising the strip, as you young folks used to say?”
“Yeah. That’s exactly how we say it.” Bruce somehow managed to put the eyerolling in his voice. “One thing I’m not sure if Rose cleared up. What about the Martians?”
Lieutenant Morgan answered back the eyerolling with an eyebrow raise. “That certainly is a very interesting question.”
“That’s not an answer,” Rose said. “And I didn’t exactly get an answer from Worldnet, either. IN fact, oh, hey, look, it’s telling me that we don’t have the clearance for that.”
“That’s certainly a true thing that Worldnet is telling you,” Lieutenant Morgan said, in the same, dry voice.
“Oh, Goddamnit,” Bruce answered. “Timeline contamination, right? You know we have a time machine, right?”
“Bruce?” Rose sounded just a bit agitated.
Bruce wasn’t having any of it. “Look: Mandaarian archaeologists say that intelligent, starfaring civilisation began in the Milky Way Galaxy twenty million years ago. They visited the Earth, and made the Empyreans, and a city on the Moon, for probably other reasons we can’t understand. Lots of other worlds, too, and no-one has clue one what they were up to on any of them. Big, shiny machines, weird science experiments, cities of silence of a million years. That’s what happens when you’ve got a species that was high tech before humans even evolved. Just totally incomprehensible crap. Well, the Martians were, like, two billion years before that. Flying around the galaxy in starships when the highest lifeform anywhere else was green goo. Then they just vanished. Ruins on Mars, and all these weird hints that something’s going on today that involves them. Well, you guys have been doing archaeology on Mars for a thousand years. You’ve got to know more than we do. And we can find out, just get in our pink Cadillac and—“
“BRUCE!” Everyone looked at Rose. She wasn’t one to shout. “No, just no. Remember what happened with the Apocalypse Plague? My people sent me back because Earth after the plague is so awful, they figured that it was better to erase it from existence by fixing the plague. And what happened? We stopped the plague, and instead of erasing the future I came from, it just created a new timeline. My people are still up there in the future, still unable to go outside in the sunshine without spacesuits, because every slug and snail in the ecosystem sheds a species-ending virus.”
“I never got what’s wrong with that,” Brian said. “Half the guys I know never go outside either.”
“In dark, post-apocalyptic future, Steam has a monthly subscription fee,” Rose explained. “And Twitch and Youtube have download limits.”
“Oh, God, oh God,” Dora said. “That’s just not right.”
“Yeah, I get it, Rose,” Bruce answered. “It’s just frustrating, is all. I bet if we knew everything the Thirty-First Century knew—“
“We’d know the winning lottery numbers, and who cares about this superheroing gig, we’d be chilling on the beach and maybe dropping a couple million on the Champions or the Justice Squadron so they can hire some cheap-ass superhero interns from Bangladesh to handle it.” Brian finished.
“No,” Charlotte said, looking down at the hilt of the Pearl Harmony. “No, we wouldn’t. Or, at least, I wouldn’t. There’s too much that’s wrong in the universe that needs to be fixed. Like an entire species that can’t find anything better to live on than intelligent brains.”
“And that’s what happens when you elect a paladin to be your team leader,” Dora clarified.
“Migdalar are evil,” Billy Tatum said, speaking for the first time. “Exterminate them, problem solved.”
Bruce whistled, and put his hand on Charlotte’s shoulder. I got this, she almost heard him say. “Oh, I can tell you’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons with Charlotte. No-one’s doomed to be born evil. Not even a Migdalar.”
“That’s a game!” Brian protested.
“And if reality is like that, then that’s a wrong we need to fix.” Bruce’s hand on her shoulder was so firm, so warm, so comforting. She could even feel his trigger finger stroking across her clavicle, almost like it knew what to do on its own. And wondered why she was thinking that. All of the ammo talk, earlier?
Charlotte shrugged it off. It wasn’t important right now. Instead, she drew the Pearl Harmony Sword from its sheath just a fraction of an inch, so that its bottom-of-the-municipal-swimming-pool light filled the cabin of the shuttle, a white and comforting fog of glow. “There was black, Migdalar blood on this blade before I cleaned it. Now it’s gone, without a trace. That doesn’t mean we’ve wiped our debt away, though. The only reason those Migdalar died was so that the future could live. And us, of course. Now, we owe them their lives. Owe the Migdalar the chance to live better lives.”
Lieutenant Morgan nodded approvingly at Charlotte. She couldn’t help blushing. It didn’t matter if some stupid grownup agreed. It was the right thing to do!
By the time she walked in through the back door of the Yurt, just in time for piano, she had even managed to accept it.