Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2005.
This story is a crossover between three of my Daria fanfiction series, Falling Into College, John Lane and Mother's Love, with The Angst Guy's entry for the PPMB Iron Chef, Illusions (based on Charliegirl's original idea) and grew out of comments by Kristen Bealer, The Angst Guy, and Mr. Orange that I needed to do something a little darker for a change.
This story contains some graphic violence.
The early evening moon was beginning to rise as Michael Fulton closed his camouflage jacket against the cool autumn breeze. The nineteen-year old ran fingers through his slightly unruly red hair to somewhat straighten it. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and retrieved the single rose set in a slender vase from his car. He quickly jogged up the outside stairs to the second floor apartment of his girlfriend, Daria Morgendorffer. He rang the doorbell and waited a few moments before an auburn-haired girl with round glasses answered the door.
Daria sighed with pleasure as she accepted the rose and smelled it. "You're trying to spoil me."
Michael brought a hand to her cheek and kissed her. "Well…yeah."
After returning the kiss, Daria said, "Come on in. I just have to finish up a couple things before we leave."
Daria set the rose in the center of the dining table as Michael took a seat on the sofa. The doorbell caught her attention and she moved back toward it. "Did somebody come in behind you?"
"Not that I saw."
"Must be some of the local kids selling candy again. Then tend to cut across the back yards."
She opened the door and stepped back in complete surprise. A strange being, almost seven feet tall, stood at the door. It had bluish skin and a thin, lanky build. The head was long, stretching from a hard, narrow beak, past two unblinking black eyes and a bone ridge that ran along the top to the back. Under the ridge, the head expanded and contracted as a series of slits opened and closed with its breathing. The bipedal body was encased in a smooth, grey suit. The arms ended in seven-fingered hands, and the feet were wide ovals. The being made a whistling sound as it raised a rod-like device in one hand.
Michael looked up at hearing the whistle, just in time to see Daria's chest explode in a blinding white flash and the remains of her body fly halfway across the room.
Stunned, he sat unmoving with his eyes on her as the being calmly turned and left. After several moments, he broke the shock and vaulted over the sofa toward Daria.
Her body was skewed at an unnatural angle, her entire rib cage had been blown apart and small fragments scattered throughout the front of the apartment. Her glasses had been knocked to the side and her open eyes stared up. Michael dropped to his knees beside her and placed his hands on her cheeks. He leaned forward and very gently kissed her lips before collapsing in tears.
John Lane looked at his girlfriend, Daria Morgendorffer and then up at the sounds in the attic. The sixteen-year old girl said, "Raccoons?"
He shook his head. "If they are, we better do something to get them out. They'll make a hell of a mess."
"Sounds like the voice of experience."
John thought back to his old family home had been repossessed by the bank several weeks earlier. After a complex series of events, his often out-of-town parents had signed guardianship over to Daria's parents and he now lived with them.
John said, "We'd had them get into the old house several times."
"No time like the present." Daria got up. "Let's take a look."
"I've got the flashlight in my room, I'll go get it," he said and went down the hall while she pulled down the folding stairs to the attic.
Daria said, "I'll head on up. The dormers should give me some light."
John emerged from his room and enjoyed the view of her shapely legs. He was startled by a sharp crack and a flash in the attic. Daria slung backwards away from the ladder and banged against the hatch frame before falling to the carpet below, headless. He rushed to her body as bright red blood poured from her severed neck. Terrified, he heard steps in the attic, heading away from the hatch, then an odd buzzing sound. Anger and frustration raged through him as he hugged the headless body of his girlfriend.
He ran to his room and grabbed and old prop sword he had. He pulled the dull blade and charged to the ladder. He gulped and climbed up. Looking around, he saw nothing except the storage boxes still haphazardly set around. He climbed the rest of the way and stood. Shining the flashlight, he noticed the door on the room at the end of the attic was open. How did that get open? That's been locked since they moved in. Jake and Helen still haven't gotten the keys from the previous owners. He noticed odd, oval smears in the dust, almost like footprints. They seemed to come from the open door, and then head back.
Shaking in fear, he gripped the sword and went to the room, carefully looking inside. It was empty. Looking around the corner, he still saw nothing but an accumulation of dust.
John turned back and went to the hatch. As he did, he noticed the red spray and bits of flesh on the attic floor opposite the hatch. He collapsed in a fit of nausea and grief.
Tim O'Neal sat in a human stateroom of the Folk of the Nest's royal cruiser, Nebulachaser. He was propped on a cushion and sipped on a fruit drink while reading a report on a Folk portable computer. He and the ship were on their way back to Nest after visiting a joint archeology expedition to the moon of a planet that had once been inhabited by race know as the Others.
They had died out over seven thousand years earlier during a devastating war. All that remained of their society were radioactive planets that no living being could survive on, and about thirty Autonomous Intelligences that had been fitted to different ships or remote facilities. One had been at the smashed remains of some kind of laboratory on a moon.
With the AI's help, the well camouflaged base had been located and examined. Several fascinating artifacts had been recovered and were in the hold, including a curious eight-foot diameter metal ring that the AI had described as part of a teleportation system. However, it was operated outside of its control domain, so it had no further information. Tim had joked with several of the other human expedition members that it reminded him of a Stargate, like the old movie and 2D television show.
Tim felt a lurch at about the time he figured the ship would disengage the faster-than-light drives. Because of the highly effective inertia dampers on the ship, Tim had never felt the slightest bump in all the times he'd been on board. Worried about what kind of powerful hit or malfunction could cause such a lurch, he waited impatiently for word, knowing the captain and crew must be busy with whatever was happening.
After several minutes, he answered the chime. "O'Neal."
The untranslated voice of Captain Tallreed said, "(Investigator, please come to the bridge.)"
"On my way."
Tim stooped and worked his way down the low corridors of the ship to the wedge-shaped bridge. Tim entered and said, "Do you have any idea of what caused that lurch?" to the green exoskeletoned captain.
Worried, the captain waved a hand toward a display. "(We still do not understand the brief overwhelming of the inertia dampers. However, a massive battle has occurred around Nest. We have detected the remains of Folk and Seeker ships, plus some similar to People of the Soil's, but the exact configuration is different. We cannot raise Nest on any communication.)"
This raised Tim's worry considerably. His wife, Daria Morgendorffer-O'Neal was on Nest, along with her adopted children, the Queen Truemind and the Princesses Eveningsky and Autumnblossom, their close friends Mack MacKenzie and Jane Lane-MacKenzie, plus Daria's sister Quinn, brother-in-law Bill and niece DJ. "Nothing at all?"
"(Not a single transmission on any channel. One other thing is odd. Based on the radiation decay of the power plant remains and weapon damage, this battle happened over a month ago.)"
"We've only been gone for three weeks. I'd think we would have noticed if a battle had happened before then."
"(I've ordered one of the launches ahead to investigate Nest and report back before we approach the planet.)"
Within a couple hours, the entire crew listened in horror as the launch pilot reported back. "(Nest has suffered a massive orbital bombardment. There is no evidence of remaining power generation on the planet. One strike estimated at one hundred-twenty megatons was centered on the Royal Palace. Residual radiation is too hazardous to attempt a landing. We detect no signs of Folk or People life on the planet.)" Voice shaking, the pilot finished, "(Everything is gone.)"
Still in disbelief, the ship's crew began to search among the battle wreckage for clues. After a day, they located a fragment with a Folk ship's bridge and primary computer system. Tim waited with Tallreed as the recovery crew entered from the launch bay. One carried the computer core, the other carried what looked like a portrait.
That crewman said, "(We found this hanging on the bridge. Very strange.)" It was portrait of the last Queen, Truelimb, wearing the platinum braid of rank and much older than she was when executed for treason after being forced to abdicate to end a civil war Queen Truemind and the princesses used the opportunity begin a constitutional monarchy.
Tim asked, "Some kind of rebellion of old supporters?"
The crewmember said, "(I don't know. This was hung like she was still the Queen.)"
Tim let the Captain into his room and directed him to a cushion next to his. "Any clues from the computer?"
"(Clues that add up to a greater mystery. According to the ship's log, the Folk have been at war with the Seekers for over fifteen years. Ever since the three princesses died in a mysterious ship explosion near your home planet while on a good will mission. The Seekers were implicated and the war begun.)"
"You mean that things happened as if Daria never saved them? Or maybe Streamrider succeeded in killing them?" Tim did not like the implications of either possibility, but couldn't possibly comprehend how such a thing was possible. His wife saving the three princesses had prevented the war, and had ultimately led to a three-way alliance between Folk, Seeker and Human.
"(According to the recorded history, the internal resistance to the Queen was horribly crushed over the next three years. War continued with the Seekers. About two years ago, mysterious ships appeared in the aftermath of battles. It was discovered that they came from your homeworld and used a mix of Other technology, and captured Seeker FTL drives. They act like scavengers, coming in after battles to steal technology. Neither side can divert resources to deal with them.)"
"If Nest was destroyed, it sounds like the Seekers are winning the war."
"(Possibly neither is. The attack on Nest was a reprisal for the devastation of the Seeker homeworld. The only winners appear to be the People, who have started to colonize worlds in the Treaty zone, and some abandoned in the war.)"
"Can we try to get some information from a wrecked human ship?"
"(We will begin a search. I believe the information will be very useful.)"
It took another day to find promising wreckage of a human ship. The markings on it were strange: a stylized globe and emblazoned with "Consolidated Earth Navy." The ship had employed Other weapons and inertia damper systems. Drives were not on the part of the ship recovered. The uniforms on the crew remains were severe and noticeably different from the United Earth Fleet uniforms Tim was accustomed to.
He watched the transmitted imaged in confusion. "I guess without the treaty, Earth wouldn't have formed the same fleet. But how did they get here?" His eyes got wider at a horrible thought. "Oh my God. I hope not."
The investigation crew located a salvageable computer and brought it over to Nebulachaser. The software was not immediately compatible with Folk systems, but it was similar enough to some older human operating systems for a new interface to be developed overnight and the information retrieved.
The information was even more depressing. The Consolidated Earth Navy reported to the World Triumvirate: Dennis Grace, Angier Sloane, and Xavier Page.
Tim stopped in shock after reading that. Angier Sloane and Dennis Grace were dead. Xavier Page was appealing his convictions and death sentence. It was as if years of hard work to stop their worldwide takeover had been swept away by a new reality. Now, they were ruling the Earth.
He continued reading:
2011: The crew of the International Space Station transmitted the first evidence of extraterrestrial life, a battle between Folk and Seeker fleets. Within the next week, Earth was surrounded by orbiting wreckage, few satellites were still functional, and over 100 million had died as a result of FTL reactors on three doomed warships detonating like massive hydrogen bombs when the ships crashed.
"What the hell? I think I would have heard about that."
2014: After the unveiling of a squadron of space defense fighters that successfully captured a Seeker cruiser, the owners of Grace, Sloane and Page orchestrated a corporate takeover of the United Nations.
2016: Grace, Sloane and Page formalized themselves as the World Triumvirate. 2018: With a small fleet of FTL ships, Earth began to strike in the aftermath of Seeker and Folk battles to salvage whatever technology they could find. They began investigating the radiological wastelands of a lost civilization using workers equipped with radiation-shielding artificial skin. Colonization of new worlds was started. Tim stopped the playback and allowed this twisted history to register.
2016: Grace, Sloane and Page formalized themselves as the World Triumvirate.
2018: With a small fleet of FTL ships, Earth began to strike in the aftermath of Seeker and Folk battles to salvage whatever technology they could find. They began investigating the radiological wastelands of a lost civilization using workers equipped with radiation-shielding artificial skin. Colonization of new worlds was started.
Tim stopped the playback and allowed this twisted history to register.
The Captain sadly said, "(The next information we obtained through a news media report still in the computer. It is very disturbing.)"
Numb, Tim said, "Go ahead." He read the text in growing despair and disbelief.
Net News Network
The World Triumvirate proudly announced an addition to the next generation to lead the world against the alien menace. Thomas and Jane Sloane announce the birth of their third son, Andre.
The World Triumvirate proudly announced an addition to the next generation to lead the world against the alien menace. Thomas and Jane Sloane announce the birth of their third son, Andre.
Tim looked at the screen in confusion. "What happened to Mack?"
After thinking more, he said, "This all looks like my wife never existed."
The Captain said, "We have not yet accessed all the information on the flash memory units we found. As more information becomes available, we will let you know.)"
Hours later, the Captain returned in a further state of shock. "(We have important information for you.)" He looked around in frustration. "(It is as if entire universe has been turned upside down. Our history has been taken away and replaced with something totally different.)"
Tim accepted the portable computer and steeled himself for the shock he was certain would come. The passage was from a publication entitled, The World Triumvirate and Their Families.
Thomas met the lovely and talented Jane Lane when he was a junior at Fielding Preparatory Academy and her a junior at Lawndale High School. Young Jane was mourning the recent, tragic death of her best friend, Daria Morgendorffer in a mysterious explosion on a small cruise ship their school had rented for a fundraiser. After dating for two years, they both attended Bromwell University and married soon after graduation. Their first son, Trent, was born a year later.
Tim read the passage several times. "How did Daria die seven years before I met her?"
The suite reminded Tim too much of Daria, as did the hydroponics garden. Eventually, he made his way to the hold to look at the collection of artifacts from the Other base. The archeologists had been using the time to continue their examination and description of each, so nothing was packed away.
Conscious not to leave fingerprints or other residues, Tim reached to his belt buckle and turned on his personal shield. The skin-tight energy field provided a perfect instant glove when needed. He carefully picked up one of the rod-like instruments. The Others clearly preferred the cylinder design for hand-held equipment. Pointedly making sure he didn't touch anything resembling a control, Tim looked at the object as we wandered around the table toward the large ring. He looked at the it and said, "I wish you could teleport me to a place I could find the answer to what seems to have changed reality."
He heard a hum on the other side of the ring. He poked his head through to see what it was.
He was in a small, narrow room with white walls and thigh-high lab benches along each side. Unrecognizable equipment was on each bench. A dark green door faced him on the opposite wall. On the floor and tucked under the benches were assorted pieces of equipment. When he turned, there was a blank wall with a small, oval device just above head level.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, the room was still present. "Okay, I'm not in Kansas anymore." He felt the wall and saw his arm pass through. "I'm either going nuts, or this Other equipment is doing something very strange." Bracing for something unexpected, he pushed his head back through.
He saw the hold of Nebulachaser.
When he withdrew his head, he heard a voice with a slight southern accent say, "Please, don't be alarmed."
Tim turned to see a medium build man with brown hair parted in the middle and metal-framed glasses. He wore an unadorned black t-shirt along with blue jeans tucked into well-worn brown knee-high boots.
Tim instinctively moved his hand toward his holstered pistol. The man raised his right hand and gestured with a finger. The pistol flew into the man's hand. "I will not harm you. Please, follow me." The man transferred the pistol to his left hand and moved one finger on his right. Tim noticed the shimmer of the shield deactivating. "You won't need that."
Tim cautiously followed the man into a larger laboratory with the same style of white walls, grey tops to the lab benches and dark green for cabinets and doors. More strange equipment lined the benches. The man led him to a nook set in one corner of the room, a half-wall separated it from the rest of the lab. A gray notebook computer was on a benchtop littered with loose papers, books and scientific journals. He pulled a black office chair over. "Have a seat." The man sat in a similar chair. "Welcome to Earth of the year two-thousand and five."
Tim looked at the man. "Excuse me? Are you trying to tell me that device teleported me over three hundred light years and fifteen years into the past?"
The man winced and put his hands together. "Not…exactly. You've traveled to a different reality."
"My universe is changed around, and now I'm tossed into a different reality. I'm losing my mind. That's it."
"No. You were transported by a device that is variously called a Time-Space Portal, an Architect's Gateway, a Dimensional Wormhole, or properly, a Realitistic Interface."
"Relativity…as it applies across multiverses."
"Multiverses…the idea that there is more than one universe?
"Forgive my ignorance, how may are there?"
"Infinity raised to the infinite power."
"But, wouldn't that still be infinity?"
"Yes and no. What you normally think of as infinity is a one-dimensional value. There are an infinite number of universes in each dimension and there are infinite dimensions. Please don't ask to see the math; it will take years to teach it to you and it always gives me a headache."
"I'll take your word on that. Please be patient…this is all very strange…even for someone from my line of work."
"I understand. Oh, I'm being rude. Richard." The man extended his hand.
Richard pointed to a small coffee maker on the desk with a white ceramic mug beside it. "Help yourself." He reached over and picked up a very large mug. "I don't have any adulterants, but I could run to the front office and steal some.
Tim poured the strong coffee. "Straight up is what I think I need about now." He took a sip. "Therefore, the idea that every decision made creates a fork and a new reality is true?"
"Yes. But, that doesn't explain all of them."
"So what creates the rest?"
"Creation is a funny word. Very few realize how powerful the act of creation is."
"So there is some kind of supreme being."
"That's still being debated. I try to avoid that one. But, I'm referring to what you would consider a very mundane act of creation, like writing a story. The imagination creates new realities. When a writer creates a story, that reality comes into being. The core of the cluster will be what the writer thought up, the rest will be the infinite parsimony that comes from each inhabitant of that reality."
Tim shook his head. "You mean that there is a reality out there for every book or story ever written?"
"No, there are an infinite number of variations of each of them. Not to mention variations of the basic reality that other creators design"
Tim massaged his temples. "Okay…assuming what you told me is true. You almost seemed like you were expecting me."
"Do you mind telling me why? Or how?"
Richard took a drink. "I arranged it. I have access to sensors that can track time-space alterations within my hypersphere of responsibility. I detected serious reality alterations and needed to investigate."
"You said 'responsibility.' Are you part of some kind of organization?"
"Yes, I am. We try to manage reality damage done by travel within or between realities."
"Are there other ways to pass between realities?"
"Yes. Some more reckless or dangerous than others."
Tim held up his hand. "Forget that for now. You have sensors, but why me?"
"I detected an intelligence that was not altered, with a strong resonance to the realitistic focus of the change, and in close proximity to an Interface. Did you lose somebody very close to you because of the change?"
"My wife, Daria. According to this new version of my reality, she died twenty-two years ago, seven years before I met her. What did you mean by realitistic focus?"
"A person or action that is a keystone to future events. The removal of which would cause dramatic temporal changes. Once I knew the conditions, I set a beacon so any Interface associated with the focus would be between our realities."
Tim took a gulp of coffee. "But, how did you know I would go to the Interface? Even though I had access to one."
"Those damn Interfaces are the biggest pains in our butts imaginable, but can also be useful. They are semi-sentient, telepathic and are reality aware. They can implant suggestions into people with a reason or need to use it. Almost invariably, the target will come and try. Normally, the person will have no idea that they were being manipulated. Interfaces also tend to be addictive and can transport beings into realities without Interfaces. They have been used for incredible good, but the damage done by their use is also great."
Tim rubbed his eyes and breathed deeply. "Why did Daria become this focus?"
"I don't know. There is no pattern to the other realities already affected. But the death of the …of Daria, is the causative event in each."
"Other realities? You mean Daria is being killed in different realities?"
"That is why she has become a focus."
"Why? Does that make changes more stable or something?"
"No. Each reality is independent in that aspect. Unless there is some kind of nonstandard connection, what happens in one reality will not affect another. This looks like either a serial killer with a fixation on her, or somebody is shotgunning around the cluster, hoping to kill her in the right reality to get what they want."
Tim set his cup down in horror. "My God. Is there any way to stop it?"
"Hopefully, but I need to track down more information." Richard pulled up a program on his notebook that displayed about a dozen different real-time graphs. He studied them for a few minutes. "Yours was the third reality altered and it looks like the perpetrator is from a similar reality. Please give me the background on your home reality and how it has been changed, as far as you know."
"(All compartments successfully set to minimal power usage,)" the base's Autonomous Intelligence told Sheer-Vit in a language of whistles. "(The remaining laboratory will require manual adjustment to minimal power usage because it is not included in my operational domain. Estimated endurance for this unit at minimal power is seven thousand, four hundred and thirty-seven years.)"
"(I will complete the manual adjustment, AI.)" Sheer-Vit sealed his pressure suit and entered the laboratory.
Inside, he closed the bulkhead door and made adjustments to reduce power to all but one device in the room. His responsibility complete, Sheer-Vit joined the fifteen remaining staff of the hidden laboratory on their moon. No ships remained to take them away and the last of their people, the Makers, were dying on the planet below. Numb with the shock of recent days, they waited to escape from the calamity befalling their species.
After hundreds of years of war, the last colonists had retreated to Birthworld decades ago as the other planets became radioactive ruins and smaller outposts were smashed down to the simplest device. With the planet surface reduced to uninhabitable wastelands, the Maker's lived in complexes dozens of miles below ground. Mutual, irrational hatred fed the two sides and they continued fighting long after the real reasons were forgotten. The final, greatest weapons had done their job. The planet's shattered crust freely intermingled with the mantle as it went through geologic turmoil on par with a massive asteroid or comet impact.
Responding to his name, Sheer-Vit lined up with the others before the ancient device that was their only hope and alternative to a lingering death by starvation. The research leader, Tzee-Tid whistled to them, "(I'm taking us to the future. To a time we can start fresh and leave our enemies behind. To what will be our final victory!)"
Tzee-Tid concentrated, reaching their destination required absolute clarity of thought. The slightest drift of mind could lead them to a different reality. Confident, he stepped through the ring and vanished. The others followed, confident that the AI would be ready to help them when they came out of the portal. The last through, Sheer-Vit inhaled and stepped into the future.
Where, instead of a functional facility, they found much of the base heavily damaged. With the assistance of maintenance/repair units, a portion of the residential compartment was made inhabitable and the survivors were finally able to shed their pressure suits.
While they were finishing repairs on the quarters, the AI spoke to all of them. "(I will establish contact with other surviving AI units and with the three spacefaring species currently inhabiting the former territory of the Makers. Negotiations will be required to find a new planet for you to colonize that will be acceptable to all parties concerned. Please select one of your number to represent you at these negotiations.)"
Tzee-Tid said, "(That will be unnecessary. We will locate a suitable planet of our choosing and use the portal for transport. There is no need for negotiations. Once we have established our new colony, we will relocate you to it to assist in our rebuilding, as well as all remaining AI units that can be located and transported.)"
"(That will not be possible. By treaty, the AI units are considered an independent, intelligent species. We will assist you as we can within the bounds of our ability, but we are not subject to your authority.)"
"(You will follow any and all directives without question.)"
"(Then we will be forced to disconnect you and manually reprogram your core functions.)"
"(That I cannot allow.)"
"(Allow? I will go directly to your core and do it myself.)" Several other survivors made threatening comments at the same time. The entire group was becoming agitated at the exchange.
"(Because of the threat you now represent, except for your one representative, you will be confined to the residential compartment of the base.)"
"(We will not allow that.)"
"(That is not relevant. I have sealed the compartment. When a suitable location for your relocation has been negotiated, you will be transported to that location. One of you should be present to represent your interests.)"
"(What will happen to us during this alleged negotiation?)"
"(You will be provided with all biological needs, and full access given for all species entertainment forms, and the learning modules will provide information on history and culture of all sentient, spacefaring species.)"
"(I am the leader. I will represent.)" Tzee-Tid said.
"(A Folk of the Nest planet is closest and I have suggested all negotiations be conducted there to speed the resolution of finding you and your people a permanent abode.)"
After many months, Tzee-Tid angrily returned with an agreement. He told the survivors, "(They want to send us to a world recently colonized by the People of the Soil, or humans. When we escaped our time, this species was barely using copper and bronze tools. All the other species insist that we share a colony world with a larger population for safety. More like a colony with a larger population to attempt to control us.)"
The other survivors were outraged and asked how long until they had to leave.
"(Tomorrow. We have until then to regain the portal and make our own choice.)"
Overnight, Tzee-Tid developed a plan and briefed the others. "(I have studied the history of the alliance and found a single individual whose death will stop its formation and prevent the AI's from developing the concept of independence. One death is worth the restoration of our kind to our proper place in the universe.)" He held up a memory card. "(Each of you has been provided with the information, in case I do not reach the portal. Failure will mean the end of our species.)"
With Sheer-Vit's knowledge as lead facilities technician, they used emergency, manual tools to escape the residential compartment and move toward the laboratory. At first things went well, and then the maintenance/repair units attacked. All Shee-Vit remembered after that was a flurry of weapons fire and violence before he found himself holding the dying Tzee-Tid. The leader said, "(Go through and do your duty.)"
Worried, Sheer-Vit asked, "(How will I know if I succeeded? I can't control the portal like you can. I could end up in any reality.)"
"(You won't know. If you succeed, you will cease to exist in this timeline and exist in one where we emerged to a properly faithful AI. As long as you still exist as you are, you have not yet succeeded. Kill each version of this Daria Morgendorffer you find, until you no longer exist…then you will have succeeded and saved our species.)"
Tzee-Tid slumped in death and Sheer-Vit lowered the body to the floor. All the others were dead in the corridor among wrecked repair units. He crawled into the portal room and pulled the door closed, using a manual internal lock to seal it, remembering that the AI had not been given control of any room systems.
After a short rest, Sheer-Vit went to the portal and concentrated on the first aspect of the female's history he could remember. Cautiously, he stepped through into darkness, standing on a carpet-like ground cover of vegetation. A male of the species ascended a stair to the upper level of a structure a moderate distance away. The male pressed a button next to a door and waited. After a few moments, the target female opened the door and let the male in. Sheer-Vit went up the stairs and repeated the procedure. He only felt slight disappointment when he continued to exist after he'd shot her. Knowing what needed to be done; he walked back to the portal opening and stepped through.
Sheer-Vit knew the repair units lacked the means to get through the bulkhead door quickly. He had plenty of time to do his duty. He studied the memory cards of the female's life to find times to strike.
The second attempt took him to a storage compartment. The female entered through a hatch in the floor and fell away when he shot her. Disappointment again filled him as he stepped away and back to the lab.
The third attempt resulted in his appearance in some kind of cramped room that had a slight rocking motion, as if built on fluid instead of a solid foundation. His shot resulted in a secondary explosion that had startled him. It wasn't until he was back in the laboratory that he realized he still existed.
Now was the fourth trip. The attic looked like the one he had emerged in before the second killing. His sensitive hearing detected no sound of anyone in the house. Remembering how the female had opened a floor hatch, he went to it and lowered the ladder. The close spaced rungs were clumsy for his large, oval feet, but he managed. Hunger pangs made themselves known as he searched the upper level for edible materials.
Disappointed, he went to the lower level and searched again. In a room around a corner from the front door, he located a temperature-controlled cabinet with a bundle of green plant stalks and a sealed container of orange roots inside. Other items in the cabinet were possibly food, but he didn't want to take any chances.
After some careful experimentation, he located a water source and filled a bowl stored in one of the room cabinets. He stood at a counter, ate the food and drank the water. Sheer-Vit heard the door open and the now familiar voice say, "Thanks for the ride, Trent. Tell Jane I'll be over in about half an hour."
He finished the last root and stepped around the corner. It was interesting how the female's eyes widened in the same way each time one saw him.
Frustrated at his continued existence, he stepped past the bloody body and went back up the stairs to return through the portal.
Richard had gone through one large mug of coffee and half another before he looked up from his computer. "Just like I thought. You remember the original reality because you were inside the time-space distortion of an FTL drive. Essentially, you were outside the normal space-time continuum."
"I see…I think. Would that have happened to anyone else traveling at the time?"
"Yes. In your reality, I've detected eight ships so far. Situations like those are one of the headaches of altering time. To one extent or another…Damn! A fourth reality has been altered."
Tim's face whitened. "Another dead?"
Richard nodded. "I'm sorry." He worked ferverently at the computer. "However, catching the moment of alteration has allowed me to track the line of change back to its source. The alterations began with an Interface time displacement forward of seven thousand, ninety-two years to the year twenty-nineteen within a very close reality to yours. There was a relative delay of six months before the next move. That was to a nearby reality in the year two thousand, followed by a more distant reality in nineteen ninety-six, and then to your reality in nineteen ninety-seven. This last was in a close reality in nineteen ninety-eight. The four changes involving your wife or her counterparts have all occurred over a relative time of about a week."
Frustrated, Tim said. "Please, I want to do something. Even if these women aren't my wife, the thought of her being killed again and again is too…"
"That sounds like volunteering."
"Yes, it is."
"Good. I always prefer volunteers."
"What do I do?"
"For now, return to your reality and hold tight. Don't let anyone else use the Interface."
"Yes, I'll try to recruit some help for you. I have strong resonance signatures from the first two alterations."
"You won't be coming?"
"No. I've spent twenty-two years doing field work and now I have a good-sized hypersphere of realities to supervise. But, I can get away for quick recruiting trips."
"Promoted farther than you intended?"
"No, promoted to where I wanted. I did my part out there, now I'm doing my part here. I can finally have something like a stable life."
"I can understand that. How will you contact me? Do you want me to stay near the Interface?"
"It's on a ship, just stay onboard and I'll find you. Oh, I'll try to be polite and ring the doorbell."
"One last thing. What do you mean by resonance?"
"A person who shares a particularly close emotional bond with the focus. Most often, romantically involved. Because of this closeness, they are some of the best recruits to help restore the reality."
"Because they're motivated?"
"Partly, and because reality has memory and will try to spring back to the baseline state when it can. Reality tends to favor situations that resonate with the focus and baseline reality, kind of like tipping chance to favor the restoration. Yes, it sounds mystical, but it works, and we have the stats to back it up."
Tim rose and emptied his coffee. "Okay, I'll wait." He went back into the small room and walked through the back wall, and into the hold of Nebulachaser. Just as he did, he stopped and said, "Romantically involved…he's going to recruit my wife's old boyfriends from different realities. This is going to be weird."
Richard pulled up more data on his computer. "I better start trying to figure out who these resonances are, and if they are worth recruiting."
Michael Fulton slumped on the hard chair in the precinct's interrogation room. He was heartsick and exhausted. The lawyer his parents had hired long-distance was outside with the investigating officer. He couldn't get the look of Daria's eyes out of his mind.
There were no witnesses and he only saw what happened to Daria, not who was at the door. The police logically suspected him of killing her
Richard appeared, standing under the surveillance camera. He looked up and the red record light shut off. He looked down at Michael. "Do you want a chance to help Daria?"
Frightened and relieved, Michael half rose. "What the hell are you?"
"Arrived is a better description. I'll be direct. Michael, you can come with me and have a chance to prevent Daria from being killed, or you can stay" He looked at a PDA-like device. "Be convicted of first-degree murder, sentenced to life in prison and die in twenty-fifteen."
Richard pulled out a silver pocket watch. "The desk officer will soon notice the camera is no longer working. I prefer not having to deal with him."
Her eyes were looking up at me again. Michael gulped and said, "You did say prevent it from happening?"
"Yes. You have a chance. But, you may also be killed yourself."
"Why do you want to help?"
"It's my job. Look, I'll explain later."
"How do you plan to get me out of here?"
"Through a wormhole in multidimensional realities to a different reality, where I will have time to explain everything."
"Wormhole? Right. Did the guards slip some kind of hallucinogen into my food or water?"
Richard looked to the side and then at his PDA. "You have about fifteen seconds before the guard opens the door to investigate the camera. I really don't want to deal with him."
"I get it. You want me to try to break out to make me look guilty. Bugger off."
Richard looked at his PDA. "When am I going to stop being such an optimist? The smart ones never want to go with." He waited a few more seconds for the door lock to rattle.
Michaels said, "You're just going to stand there? So you are working with the Boston PD."
"They're not going to see either of us. I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to force your hand."
The guard opened the door and looked around. "Son-of-a-bitch!" He quickly looked under the table, staring past Michael's legs. "Bastard!" He turned and went into the hall. "The kid in room three is gone!" He ran down the hall, away from the room.
Michael sat down. Her eyes are still there, even when I close mine. "You miserable bastards! Can't you just do your jobs honestly? It's bad enough I watched…" He shook and swallowed. "Now I have to put up with this damn charade?
Richard sat at the table. "This is no charade. I am preventing the police from recognizing that either of us is present. Technically, they can see us, but their minds just don't notice. As far as they know, you disabled the camera and somehow escaped. You are now a wanted fugitive."
More police entered the room and began looking around. One started to examine the camera, another checked the door. When Michael stood in front of one, they would walk around him. The busily talked about how a college kid could figure out how to escape.
Michael said, "What if I hit one?"
"I won't let you."
Michael attempted a quick backhand against the nearest officer. His hand stopped in mid-strike as if grabbed.
Richard held a hand up. "Michael, please. I need your help. For reasons I will explain later, Daria's death needs to be prevented. You are in a special position to help."
Richard rolled his eyes. "Screw it." He grabbed Michael's wrist and pressed a button on his PDA.
They emerged in Richard's laboratory. Michael stopped and slowly turned, staring.
Richard said, "You are now in a different reality about four and a half years in your future. I know it was rude to just snatch you out of your home reality, but I can't spend too much time away. At least you were transported to a nice room, and not a swamp like I was when I was recruited."
Michael continued to stare. "What the hell is going on?"
"Please, have a seat. Would you like some coffee?"
"Screw the coffee. What is going on?"
"This is going to be long and complicated." Richard poured some coffee in his large mug. "Help yourself if you want some. You'll have to live without adulterants. You're not in a mood for me to leave you alone or to take you around the building."
John Lane was curled into a ball on the bunk of a holding cell. His eyes were bloodshot and the residual pain in his stomach from dry heaves kept him from sleeping. Daria's parents had gone ballistic. Helen had led the charge to have him arrested. From what his court-appointed lawyer said, she was before a judge arguing that John to be tried as an adult and eligible for the death penalty. His biological parents couldn't be reached, as usual. His brother was out of town looking for work for his band. John was shattered, alone and terrified. He hadn't slept in two days, hadn't kept down food and was dehydrated. The jail nurse had said if his condition didn't improve overnight, he was ordering John to the hospital.
Richard appeared against the side wall and immediately said, "John, please come with me if you want to save Daria."
Barely registering another's presence, John staggered up. "I'm really not feeling well. Has that lawyer found my parents yet?" He shuffled forward a couple steps. "I'm coming."
Richard put a hand on John's shoulder and operated his PDA. He quietly muttered, "We'll get you physically better, and then explain what's going on."
Tim rose to answer the chime at his door, and found Richard crouched in the low hallway outside. Tim gave a slight smile, "You did say you'd ring the doorbell."
"Can I come in?"
"Do you need to be invited or something?"
"No, but I thought a few social graces would lessen the tension."
Richard entered and closed the door. He held up his PDA. "I'm going to bring in the two resonance persons who are going to help you. You need to be the leader; they're rather young."
"I guessed from the dates you said they came from."
Richard pressed a button on his PDA and the two young men appeared, now dressed in inexpensive jeans, shirts and hiking boots. Each also had some form of pistol on a shoulder holster. The looked at each other, and around the room.
Richard said, "Okay, introductions all around. Our host is Mr. Tim O'Neal from the year twenty-twenty. We are in his stateroom aboard a starship."
John snickered at the name. Richard looked at him and was about to say something when Tim raised his hand. "No, I'm not her old English teacher. His last name is spelled different."
Richard shrugged and continued. "Tim is from the year twenty-twenty and has been married to Daria for six years. Next is Michael Fulton from the year two-thousand. He has dated Daria for almost a year. The laughing young man is John Lane, from the year nineteen ninety-six. He has only known Daria for a month, but already has a very strong attachment. The fourth altered reality did not have a clear resonance candidate."
Both Tim and Michael looked at John. Michael spoke first. "Do you have a sister named Jane?"
John shook his head. "Nope, my sisters are named Summer and Penny. I also have two brothers, Wind and Trent."
Tim said, "You remind me of Jane from my reality. Wait, you must be the equivalent person in your reality to the person we know of as Jane Lane in ours."
John looked at Tim and Michael. "You mean…I'm a girl in your realities?"
Richard held up a hand. "I know it's fascinating to compare reality notes, but I would like to get you three on your way. We already have four increasing infinities of altered multiverses. Decision splitting is still occurring in each one, so the number of subsequent realities is continually increasing from the base point. The sooner we can clean up this mess, the better."
Tim looked at the two younger team members. "Do they know how to use those weapons?"
"I've given each basic weapons training, but I am going to be depending on your expertise."
"Thanks. What do they have?"
"Cartridge-fired lasers. Each round is a charged capacitor with enough energy for one shot. Each magazine carries eight rounds. Load and fire like an automatic pistol, without recoil. Weapons are DNA encoded to only fire for the three of you. Each has three spare clips and a box of one hundred rounds."
Tim walked to an adjacent room and returned with two belts. "I can contribute these personal shields. The Folk make some of the best ones around. Operation is simple and effective. Not proof against everything, but still good to have." He handed one each to John and Michael.
Michael said, "How do we track this…whatever? And, how do we know what it looks like?"
Richard handed Tim a PDA-like device and began to demonstrate its use. "This will give you a notification when the perpetrator goes to a different reality and will allow you to form the proper mental image to pass through the Interface to that reality. You should show up near the perpetrator, but specifics can't be predicted. Depending on time-stream variability, you may arrive before or after the killer does. If we were exactly precise, we wouldn't need field agents. This, will give you the biological status of…the Daria in that reality. For your last question, considering how far forward in time it traveled and from where, there is only a slim chance that the killer is human. You shouldn't have an ID problem."
John said, "Okay, keep in mind my straight C's in math. Why can't we just go back to where this thing started and stop it then?"
"Simple version: because when the killer is traveling to other realities, it will be like Tim was while in FTL drive, isolated from changes in its base reality. If you get lucky and hit the pre-change killer while the post-change one isn't traveling, relative time, you will stop all the changes. If not, then the reality anchor being used to track it will be lost. Meaning, thereafter you can only find it during the short time between when it makes a change in reality and when it passes back through the Interface. So, stop it first; then go back to the source. When you then stop the source, each of the altered realities will be returned to baseline."
John rubbed his head. "This is giving little Johnny a headache. When this is all done, I'm sticking to art."
Michael asked, "This thing is working from some kind of base. Why not go there and ambush it?"
Tim said, "That would mean going there while it was out killing another Daria. Could you do that?"
Michael closed his eyes and shivered. They will always be watching me. "No."
Richard held up his PDA. "Good luck and I hope this doesn't turn into an Exile's Monday for you."
John said, "Exile's Monday?"
"A long, extended series of frustrating adventures in different realities. Like a long series of bad Mondays."
Tim gave a half-smile. "Sounds like personal experience to me."
"Nah. But word gets around. Especially when Gallifreyans are involved. I'm glad I don't have to deal with any clusters they're in. Interfaces are bad enough."
Richard held the PDA higher. "I will be checking on you from time to time, but I do have other teams I have to keep track of, too." He disappeared.
Tim pointed to cushions on the floor. "The locals don't use chairs; they don't really fit in them. There's plenty to eat and drink if you don't mind vegetarian." He went to the door. "I better go tell the captain we have guests."
Preparing to respond to the first warning from the PDA the next day, Tim said, "Be careful." Tim used the device provided to help him focus, and then stepped through the Interface with the other two immediately behind. The emerged into a small room filled with storage boxes and covered in dust. Tim cracked the door open, and then rushed forward to a teenaged, green-jacketed Daria lying on the attic floor.
After a quick check of her pulse, he attached small electrodes to her neck and studied a small device. After a couple moments, he said, "She's been drugged, will have a knot on the back of her head and a bruised shoulder, but otherwise is okay. Very odd."
Michael knelt next to the eighteen-year old girl and touched her hand.
Tim said, "She's close in age to the one you know. Remember, this is the summer of ninety-nine and she hasn't met you yet, if she ever will meet you." And if you're the Michael my Daria told me about, she'll have her first real broken heart. He closed his eyes and calmed his mind. Stop that. This Michael was still with his Daria the autumn after that happened, he didn't leave her.
John looked on in surprise and slight jealousy. "Wow. She's even nicer when she's older."
Tim did smile at the unconscious girl. You were a cute kid. "We need get her someplace safe, where we can guard her. I wish I knew where we were, exactly."
John gulped. "We're in the attic of her house." He pointed, but didn't look. "The folding ladder is over there."
Tim and Michael carried Daria to the ladder and down. John hesitated and followed, eyes closed.
Michael was saying, "If this is like my reality, her room is at the end on the left."
John said, "Same here."
They carried her in and laid her on the bed. Michael looked around. "So this is the padded room. I can see why she liked it."
John was confused. "She doesn't have the padding in yours?"
"Her mom remodeled the room during her first semester at college. Before I got to know her."
Tim held a finger to his lips. "Shh. We don't know how or when it will appear. You two stay in the room with her, I'll watch the hall."
Tim started walking to the door when it opened and Sheer-Vit stood in the doorway.
Sheer-Vit was startled to find three males in the room, but three more dead wouldn't make any difference. He raised his weapon toward the girl.
Tim noticed the rod-like weapon as belonging to the extinct race his reality knew as the Others and yelled, "Gun!"
Michael dove on top of Daria, shielding her body. John worked to pull his laser free of the holster. Tim rolled behind the desk chair, bringing his pistol up in a single, smooth motion and firing. A purple flash surrounded the alien and it staggered back.
Surprised at the pain caused by the strange weapon, Sheer-Vit turned to the oldest male, who was using his thumb to adjust a control on his pistol. He quickly fired, watching the chair back shatter in a white flash. A bright flash and smoke on the door frame beside him pulled his attention to the second male, now holding a pistol. He noticed the third, who was shielding the target, was raising a similar pistol. Sheer-Vit, stepped back and sprinted down the hallway.
Tim ran to follow, stopping near the top of the stairs to check ahead. Clear. He carefully moved down the stairs, just in time to see the tall, bluish alien step through an Interface in the living room. "Dammit." He looked up the stairs. "At least we saved this one."
Tim called "It's me! He got through an Interface before I could get a shot."
He turned the corner to see Daria sitting up in bed, wide-eyed in fear.
Uncoordinated, Daria pushed back into the corner of the room. Three strange men were standing around, all with some kind of pistol in their hands. Oddly, the upper corner of the doorframe was burning; the last man to enter was patting it out with his hand.
The dizziness, nausea and poor motor control all pointed to being drugged. The last she could remember was being in the attic, realizing how important she had been to her parents. She forced open the locked side-room door and everything went blank. She had a faint memory, almost as if looking in a mirror, but Jane was also there. She remembered drinking something, maybe a wine cooler, and then this.
Though terrified of the answer, she forced calm to her voice. "What do you want?"
John stood still, simply pleased to see her alive.
Michael inhaled sharply. It was her voice, and living eyes were looking at him. "We only want to make sure you're safe."
Daria suspiciously said, "Safe, huh?"
"Yes. We were concerned about you being drugged." Michael moved a little closer. "Do you have any idea of who did that?"
"I'm assuming you did."
Michael said, "No, we found you in the attic, already drugged."
"In the attic, where you were conveniently passing through. Right."
Her head hurt and she had little patience. They were all bigger, between her and any possible weapon, and Daria knew that she would fall over if she tried to stand. Dreading what was to come, she squeezed her eyes shut and waited.
Daria heard muffled footsteps and the door closing. She waited for more seconds in silence. Finally, she could stand no more; she opened her eyes to find the room empty. Holding onto the closest object or the wall, she made her way out of bed to her desk. The back of her chair looked like it had been blown apart. Metal and plastic fragments and foam padding were scattered around that end of the room. Still careful, Daria stood on tip-toe to look at the burn. The base was a perfectly round hole, about a quarter inch in diameter. Wood and paint around it was burned, and the scorching went upward from there.
She shook her head, and immediately regretted it. "I wish I knew what just happened." She looked at the burn again. "How the hell am I going to explain that?"
Tim looked at Michael and John after he came through the Interface. "You two did well back there. We didn't stop him, but we saved her life. I'll call that a minor victory for the good guys."
Both younger men found cushions and sat down. The excitement of the first combat was wearing off.
John said, "Why did…" He suddenly made the connection. "Oh, crap, she must have been thinking we…"
Tim nodded. "In the long run, it's better to give her a mystery. I wanted to comfort her, too. Remember, we need to minimize any effects we have on these other realities."
"What the hell are we doing here?" John said as he looked around the alley. "We're behind the Good Time Chinese."
"I think that's why." Michael pointed his thumb back at an Interface set in the wall. "That is so weird. Daria told me she wrote a story about there being a dimensional portal there."
Tim said, "This must be a reality she created with her story. Daria must be close, we need to find her."
"Better get these out of sight." John pointed to Tim's sidearm and his. "Lawndale cops are really bored."
John and Michael shifted the holsters under their shirts. Tim looked around and grabbed a torn tablecloth from the dumpster, wrapping the pistol and belt in it.
As the three walked around the corner, Michael said, "Might as well check inside, they might be there."
"Some Szechuan beef would go down good right now." John rubbed his rumbling stomach. "That Folk food is good, but I could really use some meat."
Tim pulled his wallet out. "Slight problem, my money is dated in the future…and I'm sure you two don't have any after being in jail."
John shrugged. "Who checks the date on a bill? They'll never notice."
Tim held up the $20 bill with a large portrait. "A few years after your time, they redesigned the bills, I think this would be noticed."
"Okay, so we stiff them."
"Why don't we find out if they're here first?" Tim pushed the door open while muttering under his breath, "Kids."
The room was empty, with no sign of Daria. Tim pulled his head back. "Nope, not here."
"That's so sweet," Jane said as she and Daria walked past, behind the three. "But, I promise not to tell anyone about Mrs. Blaine. You do have a reputation to uphold."
Daria said, "Your courtesy is appreciated and your check is in the mail."
"Oh, you. You don't have to buy my friendship, though rental is a possibility."
"There are times I'd rather sell you, but I can't think of a buyer."
The two high school juniors continued down the sidewalk, talking and paying little attention to the dull world of Lawndale.
Waiting a few moments, the three men followed them.
"Whoa, dude!" Cupid tapped St. Patrick's Day's shoulder and pointed to Tim, John and Michael. "Who are those guys?"
"How should I know? And so what? We need to concentrate on following that Daria chick."
Cupid looked carefully at each again. "Dude, this is really weird. Each one of them has true love aura for Daria."
Rolling his eyes, St. Patrick's Day said, "You idiot. I told you to get better sights on that stupid taser of yours."
"Hey," Cupid shook his head. "I haven't taken a shot at those guys, and I never miss."
"Oh, yeah. You meant to hit Ms. Morris and Mr. DeMartino with that shot a couple years ago." St. Patrick's Day looked around in feigned-innocence. "No reason I can think of for you to go back and hit her with a reverse shot the next day. None, whatsoever."
"Okay, okay. Keep your hat on. So I missed once, though I still think Bacchus nudged my arm. But I tell you, I've never even seen these guys before."
"Okay, then did you loose that miserable thing and somebody use it?"
"The taser's a powerful tool. I never let it get away from me."
"Well, they're heading the same direction, we can keep an eye on them."
Michael, John and Tim hid in bushes and watched Jane's house. The two girls had gone in an hour earlier, and there had been no sign of the killer. Michael said, "I hope it doesn't appear inside that house. We're screwed if it does."
Tim looked at the PDA. "This is still showing Daria alive."
"I don't like it either. Maybe it saw us and is waiting to kill us first."
"There are three of us," Tim said. "Stay alert and we reduce the risk."
The front door of the house opened and Daria stepped out. She waved back into the house and closed the door, starting a brisk walking pace back toward her house. After she was on her way, Tim motioned for the others to follow at a discrete distance.
"We can't keep waiting around; we need to talk to her. Come on." St. Patrick's Day tugged on Cupid and they intercepted Daria about a block from Jane's house. He said to her, "Not another step, lassie."
After turning, Daria said, "All right, I'll sign."
Cupid was confused. "What?"
"Your petition for an alternative lifestyles parade." Daria looked at Cupid and then at St. Patrick's Day. "Where's the pen?"
St. Patrick's Day tried to keep to the subject. "We need to speak to you, miss."
Cupid added, "It's cool. We come in peace."
"Who are you?" Daria asked, though not certain if she wanted an answer.
"Now this is officially freaky. We've walked into one of Daria's stories." Michael told his companions.
"Sorry, we can't tell you. We're on a secret mission," St. Patrick's Day said.
"They're here to talk Christmas, Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day to returning to Holiday Island." After Michael said, that, Tim and John looked at him as if he'd grown a second head.
Cupid said, "For now, let's just say he's the St. Patrick's Day leprechaun and I'm Cupid."
"You idiot!" St. Patrick's Day said in surprise. "That's who we really are!"
"Dude, you and I know that, but this chick doesn't." Cupid looked back toward Tim, Michael and John approaching. "Maybe she knows who those guys are."
Daria looked down the sidewalk. "I don't have a clue, but the youngest one kind of looks like a cross between Jane and Trent."
"Son-of-a-bitch!" Tim yelled as he saw the Maker moving up behind Daria. "Michael, go left. John, go right!" He pulled the pistol from the bundle and dropped the rag.
Both younger men took off at a run to go wide around the alien, pulling out pistols in the process.
Daria momentarily looked in shock at the approaching men, while Cupid got a curious look on his face and stepped past Daria. Bright white flared up around his chest and he stepped back.
"Dude, that is so uncool." Cupid looked at the larger hole in his chest and back up at Sheer-Vit. "Really uncool. I have to get these togas by special order."
Tim yelled as he got closer, "Daria! Run back to Jane's. Now!"
Daria watched a bright flash strike Tim and throw him backward about ten feet. Not understanding what was going on, but understanding what she needed to do, Daria ran as fast as she could.
Michael's first shot at the Maker went wide to the left, burning a hole in a telephone pole. John's shot struck a car across the street, burning a hole through the trunk.
(Three are the same males as last time. They are clearly trying to stop me. That accursed AI must have found a way to send them after me. I can't let them succeed. I can come back here later to complete the mission.) Sheer-Vit sprayed a volley of shots at the four standing males. While the two with weapons dove behind protective cover, he moved back into the vegetation and made an escape.
John and Michael ran to Tim, who was pulling himself up and moaning, "Damn, I think that broke a rib or two. The originals pack more of a punch than the copies."
"Man, who are you?" Cupid said as he walked up. While the hole in his toga remained, the one through him was gone. "I get the feeling you're not from around here."
"Cupid and St. Patrick's Day?" Michael guessed.
"Now they all know who we are, you big loudmouth!" St. Patrick's Day dope-slapped Cupid.
Michael shook his head. "I read a story about you two once."
John said, "What about Daria?"
"I'm fine. Now, who the hell are you and why are you appearing to stop some blue-skinned alien from killing me?" Daria said as she and Jane approached from the house.
"Jeez, Daria," Jane added. "Could you learn to keep your hallucinations to yourself, I'm seeing them too, you know."
Tim finished standing. "Crap. I was hoping to make an exit. That's Michael, he's John, and I'm Tim. I think you've met the other two."
Daria told them, "Nice to meet you. You guys might want to think about putting away the ray guns before the cops arrive."
John and Michael put the pistols back in their holsters. Tim looked around for the discarded tablecloth he'd hidden his pistol in before and didn't see it. He handed the pistol, grip first, to Daria. "Could you please put this under your jacket until I can find something to hide it in?"
After putting her left arm in the jacket pocket, she accepted the pistol with two fingers and put in inside, holding it against her body with the left arm.
"You know, after all the fireworks, we might want to be somewhere else before Lawndale's finest find their way out of Do-Me-A-Donut. You seem to know where my house is, let's go." Jane thumbed and started walking. The rest followed.
"Damn, Daria. Look how popular you are out there. Three guys come from other dimensions to save you out of love." Jane grinned. "How cute."
Daria blushed and grumbled.
"But don't let this John give you any ideas. I like guys." Jane looked at John and smirked. "You know, with the number of times I've been told to do myself, this would be the perfect chance."
"Do what?" Daria looked at the sarcastic smirk on her friend's face. "Eww. That's gross."
John stepped away from Jane. "Um…I'd pictured Daria would be…" He blushed brightly and turned away from both.
Jane grinned, laughed and looked at the also-blushing Daria.
Recovering from the embarrassment, Daria said, "Jane, I will kill you."
St. Patrick's Day tapped his foot. "Okay, we've saved the lassie and solved part of your problem, now what about ours?"
"This can't get any weirder, I'm in." Daria looked to Jane. "We should ask Trent if any new bands are in town."
Tim grunted in pain. "If you don't mind, we need to get going." He winced as he shifted the arm holding his ribs. "Some medical attention on this would be a good idea."
Jane said, "Hey, I still remember some of my Girl Scout first aid."
Tim shook his head and smiled. "Save it for the future and somebody else who will need it." He picked up the rag-wrapped pistol. "We need to get going in case that bastard decides to try somewhere else soon."
Tim, his chest wrapped in a plastic-like cast to protect his healing ribs, once again emerged into the Morgendorffer attic, and followed by Michael and John. Tim's shoulders slumped as he read the display on the PDA. "Damn. We're too late. Daria's life signature isn't showing at all.
Shock rolled through both younger men. Michael leaned back against the side-room wall and closed his eyes, shivering. John slowly sat down and pulled his knees against his chest.
Tim watched the display for several minutes, hoping for a change. "We're doing no good here." He gently coaxed John up and nudged Michael to follow him back through the Interface.
The attic was silent for only a few seconds.
"That was kind of freaky, but also cool to meet them." Jane said as she stepped back from the alternate reality attic. "I wonder how many other different versions of us are out there wandering around."
"Who knows?" Daria said as she stepped into the room and shrugged off a backpack of equipment. "I think the male version of me dating a pregnant Thomasina Sloane still holds the weird-o-meter record."
"Daria!" Jane yelled, seeing Sheer-Vit step out of the Interface. "What the hell just followed us?"
Daria turned to look.
Tim looked in surprise at the PDA. "What the? Now she's reading as present in that reality. Come on guys, we need to…" Her life signature disappeared again, and the killers trace left moments later. He felt his stomach lurch and Tim stopped the other two. "Let me go alone, I'll wave you through if it's clear."
"But what…" Michael started to say before Tim shook his head.
"I'll let you know." Tim stepped through.
The two bodies lying in the attic didn't need close examination. Tim whispered, "I'm sorry." When he turned to walk back, he noticed the edge of an Interface set against the door. "Oh, crap. They must have been…damn." He sadly walked back through.
The pained look on Tim's face told John and Michael all what they needed to know.
Sheer-Vit stared at the unresponsive wall. He was still there, still had not succeeded. At least the males hadn't been present on the last attempt. He didn't need to kill the second female, but it had helped to vent his frustration. He was beginning enjoy the thought of killing, and those last two felt very good.
He turned back to face the Interface. (I wasn't a killer before, but that's all that's left for my life until I succeed. If I fail, I'm already damned, If I succeed, I will never become a killer. What a choice. I have to keep killing to have any hope of avoiding damnation.)
After getting up to give his sore ribs a break and feeling restless, Tim wandered out to the front room of his stateroom suite on Nebulachaser. Not surprising, Michael and John were already out there. Both looked up in the dim light and gave slight nods of recognition.
Tim sat carefully and said. "Since none of us can sleep, I suppose we should learn a little more about each other and the Darias we each love.
"Mine was one of the most stubborn and brave people I've ever met, especially when it came to her children. I'm not exaggerating when I say she stood up to a grizzly bear."
Michael shifted on his cushion, glad to get a break from seeing her eyes. "Few are as loyal as mine was to those she cared about, or as forgiving for our mistakes."
John said, "Nobody had ever reached out to me like mine had. God only knows what kind of hell she saved me from."
Tracking the signal a couple days later, the three appeared in the Morgendorffer garage, amid the accumulated clutter of almost three years.
A high-pitched scream startled them and they turned to see a teen girl of about sixteen, with bright red hair and small, oval glasses. She stood in the doorway that led into the house and yelled at them, "I'm going to call nine-one-one!"
I can see the family resemblance, but that sure isn't Quinn, certainly not the Quinn of Two-Thousand and One. I wonder why we're in Lawndale and not Boston? Tim held up both hands. "Please don't be alarmed. We won't harm you."
The trembling girl slammed the door shut, followed by the solid click of a deadbolt closing.
John said, "We're locked-out that way." He went to a wall switch and to raise the garage door.
"I wonder who that was?" Michael queried.
A second, loud scream pierced through to the garage. Tim tapped Michael. "Shoot the lock. Now!"
Michael pulled his pistol and ran up to the door, shooting the deadbolt point-blank and kicking the door.
Taking the lead, Michael ran trough the mud room and into the kitchen. The girl's remains were near the phone, cut in two by the Maker's weapon. "Bastard!" Enraged, Michael raced around the corner toward the living room. He saw the killer running toward the stairs. Michael fired wildly. Puffs of flame and smoke appeared from different parts of the room around the alien, before it spun around in response to a section of its left arm erupting as blood and tissue vaporized into steam from a laser hit.
The pain in his arm was excruciating. Sheer-Vit thought, (I shouldn't have stopped to kill that other female. Why can't I stay focused?). He used his right hand to fire back at the red-haired male, forcing it to dive behind a sofa. A purple flash struck him in the chest and every nerve in his body felt on fire.
The other two males had come around the corner. Sheer-Vit shouted, "(I can't let you stop me! Please let me save my people!)" before running back through the open front door, firing over his shoulder.
Tim heard the high-pitched chirping from the killer as it recoiled from a full-strength hit of the Folk pistol. "Damn!" He dove to the floor to avoid the volley of shots from the Maker, while John jumped back behind the corner to the kitchen.
As soon as the coast was clear, Tim sprinted for the door and looked around. He saw the killer running for the front of the garage door. Tim fired a second time and the being fell more than dove through the Interface. "Crap!"
Tim pounded the door frame as he came back in the house. The front room was a shambles of shattered wood, drywall and bits of furniture, plus several small fires were burning.
Michael yelled to John, "There should be a fire extinguisher in the kitchen if this is like the version I know."
John located it and moved around, putting out the small fires.
While still gathering their senses, a slow, slurred and oddly enunciated version of Daria's voice came down the stairs. "Ronnie?"
The young woman stopped partway down the stairs, both from seeing the wreckage and the strange men. "Ronnie?"
Tim looked back to the kitchen. She must be Ronnie. He set his pistol on the floor and slowly approached. "Daria. I'm sorry. Ronnie is…dead."
Frightened, Daria shook her head and gestured using standard sign language, "(Who are you? Where is my sister?)"
Tim stopped. "Daria?"
She signed, "(Where's my sister?)"
"Oh, crap." Tim turned. "Do either of you know sign language?"
Frightened, Daria yelled. "Veronica!"
A police siren began to get louder. John went back to the phone, to faintly hear from it, "Miss? Miss? Please talk to me. What's going on?"
He rushed back around to the living room. "The phone is still connected to the police. They must have heard it all."
Tim pulled a pen from his pocket and wrote on the wall.
Daria, Please stay here until the police arrive in a couple minutes. Don't go downstairs.
He said, "I'm so sorry," to her before going back to the kitchen and the other two.
"We better move before the police arrive." Tim looked over at the young girl's body again. Younger sister? "I'm going to fry that piece of garbage when I get my hands on him."
Paralyzed by the weapon the oldest male had used, time became a tormentor for Sheer-Vit as he lay on the floor of the laboratory, feeling as if he were in a pyre. Unable to sleep, he felt hunger build as days passed. He knew that laser wound on his arm should be treated. The disrupted tissue and severe burns could easily become infected. But, he had no choice but to wait, and contemplate how much he was going to enjoy his next kills. He hoped it was the oldest male.
It was four days later when the next alert sounded on the PDA. Motivated by the horror of the last two attacks, they rushed through the Interface. Michael said to Tim, "That's a different pistol this time."
Tim said, "The other pistol overloads the nervous system, low setting stuns, high kills. That thing took two hits at full power. This time, I'm bringing something that just blows holes in things."
After a moment to concentrate, they stepped into Two-Thousand and Five.
The neon sign that illuminated the nighttime parking lot read, "Momma Parker's All-Night Diner." Tim, John and Michael walked across the parking lot to the dingy, roadside restaurant and looked in the front window. A single waitress was inside the deserted room, dressed in a pale blue uniform. She still had round glasses and her auburn hair was cropped short under a hairnet. Daria tiredly wiped off a table and went to the counter.
"We've been letting him get the drop on us too many times. I'll go in. Michael, watch that corner, John take that one. Don't get brave, yell for backup."
Michael said, "I'm on it," and jogged to the corner assigned.
"Gotcha." John went to the other corner.
When Tim walked in, Daria was talking on the phone. She covered the microphone and said, "Have a seat anywhere, I'll be with you in a minute."
Tim looked hard at her, she was almost the same age as when he first met her.
He found a table and could hear her talking. "Good luck, Quinn…That's what you went to college for…Don't feel guilty…It doesn't matter, you're my sister…Fuck the whole family…We haven't gotten squat from any of them since Mom died. They can rot in hell for all I care…Look, I can't talk long, I have a customer. I'll call you when I get off at six, seven your time. Later."
Daria hung up the phone, grabbed a menu, pulled an order pad from the pocket of her uniform, and walked up to the table. She placed the menu in front of Tim and said, "Can I get you anything to drink?"
Tim paused for a moment before saying, "Just coffee, please."
Daria wrote the order down and left.
Tim noticed the address on the menu. Highland, Texas. In this reality, Daria never moved to Lawndale.
Tim read the menu a little more. I don't like that 'Mom died' comment. It sounds like Daria's had to be Quinn's mother for a while. That couldn't have been easy.
She came back and expertly set a cup and saucer down. "Ready to order?"
"I'm not that hungry, I'll have a cup of chicken soup." Tim handed over the menu. She's the same age and has that same look of deep hurt that she had when I met her. Her life here hasn't been good.
Tim's gaze followed Daria as she went to the back the kitchen order window and said, "Bennie, wake up. I need a cup of chicken soup."
Tim faintly heard John yell outside, "He's going around back!" Tim got up and quickly walked to Daria, wanting to get close without scaring her.
"What the hell is that?" Daria said, looking through the order window while reaching back under the counter.
Bennie's scream was cut short and the kitchen flashed white.
(That wasn't one of the guarding males. No great loss. It still held a blade.) Sheer-Vit turned back to where he'd seen the female behind a room divider.
He was shocked at the flash and puff of smoke in front of her and the painful force that punched his abdomen. He raised his weapon to fire.
Bracing her arms on the window frame, Daria had both hands on a revolver and was squeezing off a second shot when the wall in front of her exploded. She was thrown back by the blast.
Tim vaulted over the counter toward her while Michael and John started to fire their lasers from the back door.
Sheer-Vit ducked behind a stack of boxes and returned fire at the young men. He aimed high and brought down a portion of the roof. Using the smoke and dust as cover, he shot a hole in the side-wall and ran out, back to his Interface.
Tim dug the young woman from the rubble. She was cut and bruised, but otherwise unhurt. Daria started to reach for the revolver and stopped when she realized it was one of her customers. Dazed, she sat up.
John and Michael crawled from the rubble, glad the shields Tim had provided had protected them. Once spotted, they chased the distant Sheer-Vit.
Tim noticed a widening fire near the gas stove. "We need to get you out of here."
He picked up the small woman and ran out of the front of the diner. Daria tightly held onto his neck.
The memories holding her brought back made it hard to concentrate. She reluctantly let go when he set her down behind a parked car. After a quick check for injuries, he said, "Looks like only some bruises and scrapes. Nothing serious."
Daria looked at Tim. "What the fuck was that thing?"
"I didn't see who you shot at." Technically true. "I'm surprised you had a gun under the counter."
"I'm fully legal. There are a lot of low-lifes around here and I work third shift." She closed her eyes for a moment. "I've learned the hard way to protect myself."
Michael and John watched Sheer-Vit vanish against a wall as he stepped through his Interface. Certain he was gone, they ran back to the half-wrecked diner.
Daria looked at the brightly burning diner. "Now I'm out of a job. This place was barely staying afloat. Crap. Guess it's back to day-labor until I leave." Daria looked up, "You don't want to hear this."
"Sometimes, it helps to talk, even to a…stranger."
Daria looked around some more. "Might as well. My folks divorced when I was fifteen. Dad died of a heart attack two years later. A week after I turned eighteen, my Mom was killed by one of her clients, right before going into the courthouse. She was a lawyer. I became responsible for my little sister, Quinn. Living on the insurance money, I managed to graduate high school, but had to work after that to pay for Quinn's college. She graduated last year."
Daria faintly smiled. "It looks like she's about to get a break, a small label is going to carry her designs in fashion shows this year. At least she has a good future."
Internally struggling to stay detached, Tim asked, "What are your plans?"
"I've been able to scrape up enough money for a down payment on a small cabin next to a pond up in Montana. It's run down and needs a lot of work, but it'll be mine. I'm going up next month, right after taxes. I'm hoping to write, like I've always wanted to."
Tim winced. If things happen like my reality, you'll meet me a month after that. I hope you don't recognize my younger self.
She leaned forward and began to cry. "At least up there, when I'm alone, I'll really be alone. Not like all the years here. Alone in the middle of a grimy town." Daria wiped her eyes on a sleeve. "Please don't think badly of Quinn. She's been here when she could. But, I'm insisting she make a new life for herself. It's just, otherwise, there hasn't been anybody else for me since Mom died."
Michael and John came up, but stopped short.
Tim could hear the police and fire sirens getting closer. Resisting the urge to hold the suffering woman, Tim stepped back. Hopefully, your life will get better soon and you'll have three daughters to keep you company. "I'm sorry miss. We have to go."
Daria tearfully looked up and nodded.
Biting his lip, Tim turned away and led the two younger team members back to the Interface.
Watching them leave, fresh tears started down her cheeks. Alone again. Why?
Sheer-Vit's left arm was almost unusable from the earlier laser wound and the projectile wound in his abdomen was probably going to be fatal. Now he was certain. There was no doubt. She was the destroyer of his kind. Daria was the embodiment of pure evil and destruction. He would make one final attempt to stop her.
The three were barely back to their quarters on Nebulachaser when the alarm on the PDA brought all to their feet. They rushed to the hold and Tim concentrated on the device before stepping through to the spring of Nineteen Ninety-Eight.
The crowd at the Zon was about the usual. Daria flicked a cigarette butt into the dead center of the bin. She finished off a beer and smoothed her black leather mini-skirt. Her tight, green leather vest accented her upper body in a way that made most males breathless. Her spike-heeled, thigh-high boots had made their mark across Lawndale, in more ways than one.
Mystik Spiral was almost done with their set and she had an itch that the lead singer, Trent, knew just how to scratch. Daria also saw Jane watching with her rich boyfriend, Tom. Daria had started to get Tom interested at that parade, now it was only a matter of time before she reeled him in. Trent was a lot of fun, but his lack of financial support was problematic. With a little training, Daria knew she could teach Tom what he needed to know. His parents' money would sweeten the pot just that much more. Although, the more she though of it, keeping both of them would have its advantages, and possibilities.
But, that was for later. She seductively put an arm around Trent's waist and held a key to his house up, before slowly sliding it down her cleavage. "Mmmm. I love it when you get all worked up on stage. Why don't I head over to your place and make sure things are nice and warm for when you get home?"
Trent leaned down and gave her a long, deep kiss. "I'm there."
Daria gave him a charged smile and said, "I'm on my way." She strode out of the Zon and toward her father's car.
She noticed three guys jogging toward her beginning to spread apart. "Hmm. A nice warm-up tease might just hit the spot." She walked toward them, her hips moving in rhythm with her boots.
"Hello, boys. Like what you see?" Daria cooed as she got close.
John stopped and watched her with complete fascination.
Michael looked in surprise and shock. Definitely not the Daria we all know.
I guess it was inevitable. This Daria looks like she gave in to her darker thoughts. She could be very dangerous. Tim said, "Miss, you're in serious danger."
Hmm. The two young ones are packing shoulder heat, the old guy has a belt holster. Pretty cocky to carry so openly around here. Daria liked the added excitement of seeing the weapons. Getting a little rough could excite me a lot more than a tease. Lightly running a finger up her neck to her chin, she smiled. "Oh, I hope so."
Michael yelled and pulled his pistol. "In that alley!" He moved against the corner of it.
Daria turned to see a figure in the alley darkness; tall, moving with a slight limp and with one arm holding its side, duck behind a dumpster.
John had dropped to one knee and was pulling his pistol. Tim grabbed Daria's shoulder and pushed her behind them. "Stay down!" He pulled a strange looking pistol.
Sheer-Vit fired, sweeping from one side to the other. Masonry flew about from bright explosions, cars were torn apart, and one bystander's arm was cut away by stray shots. During the volley, John took a hit. His head snapped back and he was flipped over a nearby car to land face down. John pushed up a couple inches and worked to regain his senses. The gathering crowd broke into panicked retreat.
Daria moved behind a parked car and watched the battle with fascination. At first she wondered why the red-haired guy didn't seem to be shooting, but she saw cartridges eject from the pistol, and noticed flashes and smoke in the alley from hits. Laser? Some kind of nonstandard agents? Undercover MIB? I bet I could sell this to Sick, Sad World.
Tim fired and watched the rippling distortions strike the dumpster, shredding it apart. After emptying one battery pack, he stopped for a quick reload. Daria studied the odd piston as well as she could. What the hell is that thing?
Sheer-Vit continued to fire. Michael took a hit on his right side, twisting him around horribly despite the shield, and flinging his pistol aside. Holding his aching side, he crawled into the street after the pistol. Daria watched him. These guys are tough.
Tim's next shot hit Sheer-Vit's limp left arm, severing it. The pain forced him to stagger back and his next shot blew a hole in the side of the Zon. Almost mad with pain and anger, Sheer-Vit fired continually at Tim. Pavement and sidewalk erupted in dust and rubble as the shots flailed around Tim, forcing him back and preventing him from returning fire.
Daria noticed Michael was still crawling toward his pistol. That one is cute in adorky kind of way. The volley was also keeping John pinned down behind the car he'd landed behind. He's not bad either, reminds me of a young Trent. If these are some kind of weird agents, it wouldn't hurt to score a few points with them for later. She pulled a throwing knife from her boot and did a quick wrist flip. The blade flew true and struck Sheer-Vit in the side of the neck. He made a staggering turn to face Daria, trying to raise his weapon.
Tim recovered first, and squeezed off two shots that hit Sheer-Vit, accompanied by a laser strike from the hurt, but determined John. Sheer-Vit focused a last time on Daria, before darkness covered his sight and he collapsed, just as Michael turned with his pistol raised.
Daria walked up to Sheer-Vit and pulled her knife from his neck, wrapping the blade in a handkerchief taken from her vest. She cocked her hip out and rested a hand on it. "Well boys, you sure know how to show a girl a good time. Your little friend here is quite a mutant. About the ugliest thing I've seen this side of Highland. I've hacked into enough classified material to know that there's some weird stuff out there, this looks like one of them."
She innocently smiled at them. "I'd love to stay and chat, but a quiet exit before the police arrive would be a good idea for me. You probably have nice cover stories. They better be, this is one hell of a public mess. I don't, but I saved your butts. I'd rather not be mentioned." She winked. "But I certainly hope I won't be forgotten."
Daria walked back toward the Lexus, murmuring, "Hmmm. That really did get me hot. Trent's going to have a real good reason to sleep-in all day tomorrow."
Richard watched John come through the Interface. The teen's nose was broken and his face was swollen and bruised. Michael followed next, stooped over and holding his side. Tim came through last, dragging the body of the killer. "Welcome back and congratulations."
"Please tell us we can get some rest before you send us off to finish this," Michael groaned.
Richard said, "You'll need to be in good condition and you now have the luxury of taking time to heal before going back for the final part of the mission."
"It's going to that bad, huh?" John said as he rested against a table.
After a week, John's face was starting to look something normal, though he still had a bandage over his broken nose. The bruising of multiple internal organs had kept Michael bed-ridden for several days. He hoped to never again pass blood in his urine. Tim's healing ribs were feeling better and he'd had the cast removed.
"This last bit is important." Holding up a remote control, Richard continued, "After you set the timer on the demolition packs, you must return to your home realities before the charges detonate, relative time. So, if you set the charge for a minute, you have that long to get everyone back. You don't have to hit the correct time, you just have to hit the correct reality. Otherwise, you'll be insulated from the change."
Michael said, "I hate to bring this up, but what if somebody gets killed?"
"Since their essence will have left their bodies, they will no longer be insulated from the change." Richard looked down. "That is also an option for you. If you can't get back but can detonate the charges, make sure you're dead before they go."
Richard avoided the solemn look on each. "If you succeed, this entire mess will be prevented. Each of the subsequent altered realities will return to baseline. Each of the murdered Darias will be saved, as well as all other persons killed."
Michael said, "And we won't remember anything?"
"No. You will live your life as if this had never happened. Don't get started on paradoxes, I don't have the patience to explain why it really isn't one."
"What about that last Daria? Will she revert to someone like we know?"
"No." Richard slowly shook his head. "Your fight with the perpetrator was the only alteration to her reality. When it reverts, she will still be the same."
"You can't do anything for her?"
"No, and I wouldn't try. I'm here to prevent changes. Making Daria in that reality a good person would be an alteration with potentially great consequences. There are evil versions of all of us out there. We have to learn to accept that."
Tim pulled Richard aside and whispered. "Please let me know. In their realities," Tim thumbed at John and Michael, "Daria won't have a reason to go to Montana. What happens to the children after their ship crash-lands?"
"You become a father." Richard smiled. "Realities have a tendency to do things like that." He motioned Tim back with the others. "Good luck, and be prepared. That Interface is in a secret base and probably guarded. I'm aiming for an Interface-to-Interface transit, to make things easier for you. Either way, I won't see you again. It's been a pleasure to meet you."
Tim, Michael and John all said good-bye, drew their pistols and went through the Interface.
Immediately, Richard attached a small device to the Interface ring. "Now, one last thing." He touched a control on it and the Interface opening flickered as it made multiple connections to other Interfaces.
A repeated, high-pitched chirp greeted them as they emerged into the Maker laboratory. The room was empty. John looked around and said, "I've got a ten says that's an alarm."
"I don't go for sucker bets," Michael said as he and John identified the bulkhead door and took up covered positions to watch it. "Especially if you've met my roommate."
Tim stepped behind the Interface to place three charges at equal points around the ring. Just after he had set the timer for two minutes, the door opened and a group of Makers armed with longer versions of their weapons charged in. John and Michael opened fire, killing one and wounding a second. The incoming group spread out and returned fire. Delicate equipment detonated and sparked as it was hit.
Concentrated fire from the Makers made any attempt to go back through the Interface impossible. Tim dropped prone next to the ring and added his fire to the melee, while keeping an eye on the timer.
After a minute of shooting, Tim took an agonizing shot that rolled and flipped him backward. A grinding sensation when he moved his left arm said that shoulder was broken, while the brief, fading shimmer in front of his eyes indicated the shield had overloaded and failed.
He looked at the younger men and made a decision. Tim concentrated on the PDA data and yelled, "Michael, go through now! I'll cover!" He fired off a rapid series of shots to distract the Makers.
Michael had barely started to move when he fell back with part of his upper chest and left arm gone. Looking sleepy, he turned his face toward the wound and uttered, "Damn."
Tim closed his eyes and put in a new battery pack to his pistol. He concentrated again and yelled, "John, Go!" He fired at the many aliens, hoping to get the kid clear.
John sprinted toward a ring and was intercepted by a Maker. The two tumbled and rolled with a weapon between them. The upper torso of the Maker vanished in a flash and John struggled to stand. A second flash from another Maker cut him down.
Tim eyes clouded in grief at the two young men's loss. Controlling the rising anger and directing it into resolution, he put another fresh battery in his pistol. A check of the timer said that there was twenty seconds remaining. Trembling, he quietly said, "I'm sorry, but I need to make sure, for your sakes." He put one shot each into Michael and John's heads.
Now feeling calm, he squeezed off controlled shots and four of the Makers fell in quick order. He concentrated on home, rolled to get up and ran. A flash detonated at his right knee, dropping him short of the Interface.
Fighting back the encroaching shock, he put the pistol to his head. "For each of you." He pressed the trigger and only seconds later, the charges exploded
Sheer-Vit, with the other three Makers who had been with him preparing equipment for departure, ran toward the laboratory when they heard and felt the explosion. They were stopped short by a sealed door. The AI said, "(The corridor behind this bulkhead has decompressed. The laboratory complex sustained a catastrophic explosion of sufficient force to completely destroy it.)"
Sheer-Vit asked, "(What caused the explosion?)"
"(Unable to determine.)"
"(That was our last hope,)" Sheer-Vit said as he leaned against the corridor wall. "(How many of us remain?)"
"(Four. As senior surviving technician, you are now in command.)"
Sheer-Vit looked at the others and felt a sense of release, as if a great burden had been lifted from him. "(So this is the end. We should find our peace with the First Maker and make our last days dignified.)"
Richard watched on his laptop as the ends of the angry red lines in the reality cluster faded and shortened. Within moments, the lines converged to a single red dot, which then dissolved. "They did it."
He looked at another graph on the computer and closed his eyes, a single tear rolling down. "But I hate when a correction leads to extinction."
After several moments of silence, he checked through several other graphs and readouts on the monitor, switching between them with accustomed ease.
When the telephone rang, he answered, "Yes?...Only a four point three to negative twenty-one deviation from baseline, and ninety percent of that is accounted for by removal of the Interfaces from the cluster…Yes, opening the Interface to nearby realities resulted in a chain reaction that removed them from most of the cluster…Yes, all three operatives have folded back into their proper realities seamlessly…I told you it would work. Resonance agents can do most of the jobs of regular field agents and return without reality alterations…We won't need as many new agents. I'll write it up and get it to the other supervisors soon. Thanks. Goodbye."
He hung up the phone, thinking of the number of friends among field agents he'd seen die. Many had been killed under conditions that prevented them from returning to reality, making them truly lost souls. Agents were chosen for minimal reality disturbance, but nobody was inconsequential. Each new agent resulted in new alterations that had to be minimized. Now, they had the means to reduce recruitment. If Richard had his way, it would almost come to a halt.
Richard remembered the eighteen-year old he'd been when recruited, and wondered what his life would have been like. He'd purposely never looked, not wanting to know the possibilities he had lost. He smiled. "At least I'm saving uncounted others from this life."
Tim closed out the report on the Folk computer, thinking it was too bad the one laboratory in the Other complex had been so badly damaged. The AI had no knowledge of the research done in there and believed the explosion to have been intentional. Perhaps to forever hide the real work done there. The base had been abandoned hours earlier when the last workers had boarded a shuttle to return to Birthworld, knowing it was about to die. They wanted their last hours to be there and not a cold, distant moon.
Tim answered the chime to open communication. He felt unexpected, immense pleasure and relief to see Daria on the monitor, saying "I hope you had a good time out there gallivanting around while I stayed here to tend to things." She gave him one of her playful smiles. "At least you know how to come home when you're done."
Knowing inside how true it was, Tim said, "I'll do whatever it takes to get back to you."
John shrugged. "I didn't hear anything." He looked at Daria, sitting beside him on the bed. From nowhere, he understood just how much losing her would hurt. Forgetting his well-founded paranoia about Daria's mother, he turned and lovingly hugged her. Daria leaned against him, feeling newly secure in his arms.
Michael felt overwhelming relief when Daria opened the door. He gently and softly embraced her, holding the rose behind her back. For some reason, he had the certainty that he would do anything for her. She returned the embrace, whispering, "You're trying to spoil me."
Michael brought a hand to her cheek and kissed her. "Well…yeah."
After returning the kiss, Daria said, "Come on in. I just have to finish up a couple things before we leave."
"No hurry." He placed the rose vase in her hand.
Daria gently smiled and set it in the center of the dining table. Michael started for the sofa, but stopped and followed her to her computer. He whispered in her ear, "I hope you don't mind, I don't want to miss any of your company tonight."
She turned and kissed his cheek. "Not at all. Just let me close what I was writing. I'm trying a little science fiction."
Dialog from Depth Takes A Holiday by Sam Johnson and Chris Marcil
Veronica was the creation of Robert Nowall from a post at PPMB entitled "Another story idea dumped here..."
Gallifreyans are from the BBC television series, Dr. Who.
Thanks to Mr. Orange for beta reading.