The Visitor on the Valorous

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Lily Landry opened her eyes and immediately squinted.  She noticed the sounds just as quickly as she noticed that the light shining through her window did not reach all the dark corners of her bedroom.  Those sounds, like some kind of industrial machine.  She searched her sleepy mind and found the reference.  Jet propulsion?  And wind.  She flipped aside her covers and donned her slippers and robe.  She walked out onto the balcony of her third-floor apartment, holding a hand up to her eye as she squinted up at the source of the light.  It was too bright.  She couldn’t see anything beyond it.  Before she could think another thought, she was swept off her feet.  She gasped as she started floating upward into the light.

The light became too bright to bear.  She closed her eyes and crossed her arms before them, and suddenly, her feet were on solid ground again.  She uncrossed her arms and sensed that the bright light was gone, or at least, had dimmed enough for her to open her eyes.

Lily found herself in the most outrageous situation she had ever found herself in.  And she had once stood in the middle of an ancient king’s burial chamber surrounded by treasure and the remains of a legion of guards.

She gulped and tried to tell herself what she always told herself in such situations.

There’s a story here.

A figure approached her and she gulped again.

Come on, Landry.  Put on your reporter’s hat.  No time to panic.  No time to—

The figure reached out to her with one of its eight arms.

***

Lily held up both of her hands to show they were empty.  “I mean you no harm,” she said, unable to look away from the eight-limbed creature moving toward her, unable to make her own legs move her away.  It looked like an octopus.  Or a squid.  Its head was made of hard sharp angles, and its eyes were black.

There were others in the large room.  Three others in front of her.  She was afraid to look behind herself.

Nor do we wish you any harm, Miss Landry.

Lily frowned in slight confusion.  The words had come to her clearly as if she’d heard them directly in her mind.

The eight-limbed creature continued to move toward her, and Lily noted with still more confusion, that it was decked out in some kind of decoration, and clothing.

 Did you just speak to me? Lily thought as she gazed at the creature.  Her limbs found their strength again and she stepped back.

“Commander, please allow me,” another voice said.  This time Lily heard the voice through her ears.

One of the other figures stepped forward.  Lily glanced over.  This one had two arms, two legs, a head, two eyes, a nose, two ears…long pointed ears.  She had orange skin and magenta hair.  Lily called this new figure a “she” because the voice had sounded feminine, and the hair too was styled in a jaunty bob.

“It’s me, Lily.”

The orange lady pressed a finger to her neck, and her visage changed to something—someone—that Lily was familiar with.  The blond bob.  The cold cream complexion.  That “aw shucks” smile.

Lily’s eyes widened.  “Doris?”

Doris—or the person who looked like Doris—nodded vigorously and shrugged her shoulders, just like Doris would nod.  Just like Doris would shrug.

She stepped closer.  “Listen Lily, I need to get you up to speed with a lot of information in a very short period of time.  It will be overwhelming, and I’m sorry about that.  But we need you to keep up.”

Lily blinked.

Doris laughed nervously.  “Nothing to say, huh?  That’s a first.”

Lily was known for being loquacious.  She stared at Doris.  The features were the same, exactly the same as the orange lady who’d been standing there before her only a moment ago.  In her mind, Lily tried to switch Doris’s hair color from blonde to magenta.

Doris pointed and looked behind Lily.  “Let’s start by having you turn around, so you can see for yourself what you’re dealing with.”

Lily turned around.  There was a large window behind her, a curved window as wide as two of the walls of her apartment put side by side, and twice as tall as she was.  Through it, she saw the night sky, or what looked like the night sky.  She saw stars.  She saw the moon, only it looked far bigger than she’d ever seen it.  And far clearer.  And behind the moon, she saw something she’d never seen in the night sky.  A giant orb, mostly blue with white marbling.  And under the marbling, there were some dark greenish splotches.

“It’s Earth, Lily,” Doris said from behind her.  “We are currently standing on the bridge of a spaceship in orbit around the planet Earth.  We swept you up from your apartment and transferred you directly here.  My commander, who just spoke to you telepathically, insisted on greeting you first.  It’s protocol and the commander figured it would be faster.  But I think we need to throw the diplomatic relations protocols out of that window.  And maybe keep it verbal for the time being.  What do you think?”

Lily stared out of the window, gazing at the blue-and-green orb.  “I gotta say.  This is the most vivid dream I’ve ever had in my life.”

“That’s probably because it’s not a dream, honey.”

Lily turned back around and peered at the woman.  “Doris…”

She nodded.  “Yeah, Lil.  It’s me.”

“How can this not be a dream?”

Doris grinned.  “Trust me, pal.  There are stranger things in the universe than the Valorous and its crew.”

“The Valorous?”

“It’s the name of this ship, my ship, our ship.”  Doris swept her arm around the bridge to encompass her eight-limbed commander and the two other…people standing at attention and watching them.

In the back of her mind, Lily had a distant thought, a question, about why there were so few people present to man what appeared to be a vast bridge with dozens of work stations.

Doris took a deep breath, cuing Lily for another batch of new information.  “That crook we were chasing is no ordinary crook.  And it’s gotten serious enough that we decided I needed to drop the act and let you in on the truth—well most of it anyway.”

Lily took a breath.  All right, keep up, she told herself.  This is what Doris was like anyway in the short time they’d been friends.  A lot of sharp and sudden turns.  If Lily had figured out how to keep up with Agent Doris Sorolov, then she could figure out how to deal with whoever Doris really was.

“So you’re not a federal agent?” Lily asked.

“My credentials were forged.  And I’m a good mimic.”

Lily nodded.  “I thought so.  I didn’t think they accepted women yet.”

“I’m gonna take my ‘makeup’ off now,” Doris said.  “You ready?”

Lily felt herself tipping slightly to the right.  She regained her balance and nodded.

Doris pressed that same spot on her neck, and she shifted again.  It was like watching the color shift on a new television set.  The blonde hair shifted to magenta.  The pale skin brightened to orange.  Otherwise, she looked the same.  But the suit and skirt she’d been wearing vanished altogether, replaced by a something that looked like a surgeon’s operating coat, only instead of being white, it was teal-colored, and there was a patch just under the collar on the right embroidered with a large “V” symbol.  Doris glanced around the bridge and noted that the commander, and the two others present, were wearing variations of the same outfit.  It was a uniform.

“Say,” Lily said, as the latest of a flood of thoughts surged to the front of her mind, “shouldn’t a ship have a captain?”

She narrowed her eyes and peered at Doris.

Doris nodded.  “Yes, it should.”

“What’s happened?”

“We’re not just from another world,” Doris said.  “We’re from the future.”

All right, Lily.  Keep up.

“Future…okay.  What year is it where you came from?  Or when you came from?” Lily asked.

“According to which temporal metric?”  The tall bald green-skinned fellow standing behind some kind of console had asked the question.

Lily felt her brow crinkle just a bit.  “Well, there’s only the one…isn’t there?”

“According to our calculations, we have been thrown back over a thousand Earth rotations…years.”

“A thousand…”  Lily felt a rush of some feeling overcome her.  Her head wobbled slightly.  “I have lots of questions.”

“I’m sure you do,” the green-skinned man said.  “We have been warned that you are quite inquisitive.”

“Warned?  By who?  Uh…whom?”

His gaze shifted toward Doris.

Doris nodded.  “It’s true.  And that crook we’ve been after?”

Lily blinked and tried to orient her mind.  “Smith?”

“Also from the future.”

“The same time as all of you?”

Doris nodded.  “Yes.”

Lily crossed her arms.

Doris continued to explain.  “We caught him, Lil.  He’s in the hold as we speak.  I wouldn’t have managed it without your help.”

Lily glanced around the bridge.  “I don’t suppose you folks swept me up into your ship just to thank me?”

“Not just,” Doris said.

Lily gulped.

Doris explained that the bridge crew was a skeleton crew, consisting of Commander Octavius, who was currently in charge; Doris, who was a junior field science officer; Chartreuse, the bald green-skinned fellow who seemed to be some kind of advisor; and a child-sized robot security officer whom everyone called Pop.  They took Doris into what was usually the senior officers’ conference room, whose walls were arrayed with humongous screens.  (They made the little television screen in her parents’ house look like a guppy next to a whale.)

As Doris spoke, images appeared on the screens that helped Lily understand and see what had happened to bring the future ship to Lily’s time with only a handful of crew members onboard.

***

The captain and the senior officers of the Valorous had been called to a special meeting.  The ship was docked and most of the crew were allowed a few days of rest and relaxation.  Those who stayed onboard received a communication by someone very high up in their chain-of-command, and they said that the Valorous was the only ship nearby with a hold capable of containing a high-profile criminal, whom they needed transported from one location to another for undisclosed reasons.  When Commander Octavius tried to contact the captain, the commander was informed that there was no time, and the Valorous was sent the needed authentication codes.

The commander discussed the matter with the others who were left in charge of their respective departments, including Doris.   The discussion was a short one.  They all agreed that they had no choice in the matter once those codes were sent over.  They took aboard the prisoner and a special escort consisting of just one highly specialized guard.

“We were told nothing of what this prisoner’s crimes were,” Doris explained as Lily watched an astoundingly crisp video recording of the prisoner being taken to the hold.  His attire was very different from the doctored photos that Doris had shown her.  But Lily recognized the face.  He didn’t have blue skin or tube-shaped ears or yellow eyes or seven arms.  He looked human.  Pale complexion.  Pale hair.  A thin scar crossing his chin.  Just like the photos.

Doris continued.  “We were just tasked with taking him to JJ-Q3.  That is, Judgement Jurisdiction, designated Q3.  It wasn’t far from us.  Not far at all.  We were almost there.”

Doris shook her head.  “We encountered an anomaly.”

“We’re almost done analyzing the data that our ship’s multitude of sensors picked up and gathered during the…anomaly,” Chartreuse said.

Lily glanced at him.  “What kind of anomaly?”

Doris creased her brow and pursed her lips, as if trying to think of a brief way to answer the question.

“Think of it like a time storm,” Pop said.  “We got caught in it and were thrown back in time.”

In the chaos of keeping the ship from tearing apart, the crew, already stretched thin, didn’t notice until it was too late that the criminal had escaped.  The single highly specialized guard who’d been sent as escort died in a struggle with the criminal.

Limping along and flying almost blind because of damaged sensors, the Valorous managed to track the criminal’s escape shuttle to a familiar solar system with exactly one habitable planet—at least in that time—Earth.

Lily raised a brow.  “Is his name really Smith?”

“We don’t know,” Doris said.  “That’s just what we began calling him when he first came aboard, and it fit when I presented his case to you as a story lead.”

“The only person who might have known anything about our escaped prisoner was dead,” Pop said.  “Our ship’s sensors and database suffered a lot of damage from the storm.  And the only clue we could be sure of was the energy emissions trail that led straight down to the Earth.  So the commander gave Sidorius here, whom you know as ‘Doris,’ the authority to recruit a human aide.”

Lily turned to Doris.  “Desperate times, huh?”

“We were trying to find someone who struck the proper balance between the necessary level of competence to help and a sufficient level of anonymity,” Chartreuse explained.

“Smart enough to help, but not in a way that history would remember.  Got it.  But if you’ve got Smith, then what do you need my help with?”

“Contamination.”

“Pardon?”

“Whether intentionally or unintentionally—and I have to assume it’s the former in Smith’s case—he has caused what we call ‘time contamination.’  It’s when something happens differently than it did in the original version,” Chartreuse said.

“If we don’t clean it up,” Doris said, “time contamination could develop into time corruption, which is near-impossible to fix or redeem.”

Lily creased her brow and leaned over the table.  “What does that mean?”

“It means that the timeline has been irreversibly changed.”

Lily paused for a moment.  “But how could you even know that?”

Chartreuse cocked his head.  “In short, we have the proper equipment.”

“Smith managed to do some damage before we caught him,” Doris said.  “After repairing the proper equipment, we identified three points of contamination.  We managed to clean up two of them.  But the third remains.”  Doris straightened in her chair and peered at Lily.

Lily’s eyes widened.  She sat back.  “It’s me, isn’t it?”  She glanced at Commander Octavius.  “You’re not going to kill me, are you?”

There was a sudden shuffling of chairs and exclamations as the crew assured Lily they would not harm her.

She had only been half-serious, but found it comforting how appalled everyone was at her question.

“We discovered a discrepancy in your public records,” Doris said.  “You once spoke about an encounter with ‘space men’ in your original timeline.  But now, there’s nothing about that.  We don’t think the encounter is referring to us.  We can’t be sure.  The records are vague.  But now, because we are having this discussion with you about time corruption, you may have attempted to preserve the timeline by saying nothing.  The irony is, in keeping our secret for the sake of preserving the timeline, you actually changed the timeline.”

Doris paused a moment.

Lily took a breath.  “What is it?  What happens to me?  Give it to me straight.”

“Well…your own life actually turns out to be more favorable since you aren’t discredited and later blackballed by your fellow journalists for being ‘that nut who thinks she met aliens once.’  But several other lives are adversely affected in your own time, and that adversely affects more and more people exponentially, until history is changed so much that by our time the world becomes drastically different.”

“Because of one person?” Lily asked.  “I mean some people know me, but it’s not like I’m the president or a…movie star or something.”

Chartreuse rubbed his chin with one of his three fingers.  “We can’t know for certain, but we’ve projected that there will be dire consequences to your race and even those whom you encounter in the far future, if we do not clean up the last of the contamination.”

Lily crossed her arms on the table.  “If you want my help, Advisor, maybe stop referring to me as ‘contamination’.”

Pop twisted the top-most section of his three-sectioned head toward her.  “What if I start referring to you as ‘my hero’?”

Lily exhaled the breath she’d been holding in her chest and smiled at the robot.

***

Doris gave Lily a warmer robe to wear, and the most comfortable pair of boots she’d ever slipped her feet into.  It wasn’t cold or warm on the ship, but she felt better with more clothes on that just her nightgown and robe.  Doris led her into a side room where Lily would be able to sit or lie down, and even order food and drink if she wanted.

“We don’t exactly know yet what we need you to do or say to restore the original timeline,” Doris said.  “Our computers are still analyzing the data, and Pop is still filtering it.”

“You’re not worried that I might ignore your instructions once you drop me back off on Earth and fly away?” Lily asked.  “You did say my life turns out pretty swell if I keep my mouth shut about meeting people from space.”

Doris smiled.  “Our ship and the machines on it are advanced enough to tell us whether or not you’ve succeeded in restoring in the timeline.”

Lily nodded.

“And even if they weren’t, I’ve come to know you well enough to be confident that you will do what you can to make sure you don’t hurt other people by your actions…or inactions.”

Suddenly, the door to the room slid upward.  Lily jerked.  She hadn’t gotten used to the way the doors worked on the ship.

She and Doris rose as Commander Octavius glided into the room.

I came to check on our guest.

Lily stiffened.  She tried a polite curtsy.  “I’m all right.  Thank you, Commander.”

Commander Octavius had projected the words into her mind.  Doris had explained that the commander communicated through telepathy, projecting thoughts into the minds of others, and receiving thoughts that were purposefully projected toward him.

Sidorius, you’re needed on the bridge.  Earth’s sun is quite active.  We must adjust our shields or move the ship. 

“Of course, I’ll be right there.”

Commander Octavius’s sharp and angled head inclined toward Lily before the commander glided out of the room.  The door slid down, and Lily exhaled.

Doris crossed her arms and peered at her through narrowed eyes.  “Are you still intimidated by the commander?”

“He’s…well I’m just not used to people like him.”  Lily’s eyes widened then and she leaned toward Doris.  “Actually, is your commander a ‘he,’ or a ‘she’?”

Doris shook her head.  “I forget how dichotomous your philosophy is.  There are more genders in the universe than ‘he’ or ‘she.’”

“Oh, right.  I guess with all kinds of aliens running around—or flying around—that’s gotta be the case.”

Doris narrowed her eyes as she backed toward the door.  “Right…aliens.”

“It’s the mind-reading,” Lily said.  “It’s a challenge not to think of inappropriate or silly things when I know there’s someone in the room who can read my mind.”

Doris chuckled.  “If that’s what you’re worried about, don’t worry.  It’s easy to stop the commander from reading your thoughts.”

“Let me guess.  All I have to do is stop thinking.”

Doris cocked her head.  “If you did that, you would blink out of existence.”

“You’re not going to move the ship away from Earth, are you?” The sudden chill of anxiety filled Lily’s chest.

“At the speeds this ship can travel, even if we were at the outer edge of your solar system, we could be back to Earth in a matter of minutes.”

Lily tried to smile as she sat down.  “I’ll take your word for it.”

Doris nodded.  “If you’re not going to eat, then try to get some rest.  I’ll be back as soon as I can be.”

***

Lily woke suddenly.  The earth was shaking.  It was an earthquake.  She realized she was not in her apartment.  She was not in any apartment.  The memories of the last few hours spilled back into her conscious mind.  She must have dozed off after all.

She rose and managed to put on the shoes that Doris had given her, open the sliding door, and stumble her way down the ship’s corridor to the bridge.  Red lights lining the bottom corners of the corridors were flashing.  But there was no audible alarm.

No one stood guard at the entrance to the bridge.  Lily stepped onto the bridge and watched as Chartreuse, Pop, and Doris frantically moved their hands—and in Pop’s case, his various hinged appendages—over different consoles.  Commander Octavius sat in the captain’s chair, two arms gripping the chair’s arms.  Lily followed the course of the other arms.  One of them wrapped around Doris’s waist.  Another was wrapped around the bottom half of Pop, and another was wrapped around Chartreuse’s waist.  The ship jerked to one side, tossing Lily against a bulkhead, and she saw one the commander’s arms slithering toward her.

Outside the bridge’s main window, blooms and ribbons of light shimmered like an aurora borealis made of various shades of white.  A screechy twinkling sound prickled Lily’s ears.  She clapped her hands to her ears as she felt a strong octopod arm wrap around her middle and anchor her to the floor of the bridge.

She glanced at Doris, who spared a glance toward her.

“Time storm!” Doris said.

And just as she yelled the words, the lights and the screechy twinkling stopped.

The ship gave a final shudder and stopped quaking.

Lily felt the grip around her waist loosen and drop away.

Status, the commander said.

“Sensors are still normalizing,” Doris said.

“Recalibrating the temporal metrics,” Chartreuse added.

Pop whizzed and rolled from console to console, checking readings and entering commands.

Chartreuse glanced up and looked through the bridge’s main window.  “Commander, we’re back.”  He dropped his gaze to meet the commander’s questioning black eyes.  “We’re back in our native time.”

Lily’s heart skipped a beat.

“There’s a ship approaching,” Doris said.

Can you identify it?

“This is strange,” Chartreuse said.

Doris answered the commander.  “Yes, it’s one of ours actually.  But…”  She leaned down over her console.

“We should still be near Earth,” Chartreuse said.  “But we’re a month away at top speed.”

That was no ordinary time storm.  It could not have been.

Doris shook her head.  “Commander, this is strange.”  She looked up out of the bridge’s main window, just as Chartreuse had done a moment ago.

“What isn’t strange?  Maybe we should start with that,” Pop said.

What is it?

Doris stared out of the window.  Lily saw what she was looking at.  A speck in the distance that was quickly growing.

“It’s us, Commander,” Doris said.  “It’s the Valorous.”

***

Even Lily, from the little Doris had showed her of what the ship looked like on the outside, could tell that the approaching ship was near-identical, except that it had a lot more attachments, what looked like armaments, affixed to it.

“It’s an alternate, Commander,” Chartreuse said, just as Pop announced that they were being hailed by the approaching ship.

Chartreuse continued.  “I’m detecting a time ripple passing through the cosmos.  Massive changes in the timeline, but we’ve come in behind the ripple.  That’s why we are unaffected.  We have records of two timelines.  That wouldn’t be so if we’d been affected by the ripple.”

Lily’s stomach dropped.

A face appeared in the corner of the bridge’s main window.

Lily didn’t recognize it, but from the reactions of the bridge crew, she could tell that they did.  No one said anything.  They all just went stiff, and their colors shifted toward paleness, save for Pop, who just vented exhaust from the lower third of his head.

“Alien ship, identify yourself,” the man on the window screen said.

“Commander,” Chartreuse said, “should we answer?”

The man on the screen frowned.  His upper lip curled into the beginnings of a snarl.  “Identify yourself now, or we will open fire.”

Lily saw one of the ventral cannons on the other ship shift position.  It began to glow.

“What does he think he’s doing?” Doris said.

Four of the commander’s arms reached for the flight controls.

Lily gaped at the ball of angry orange light forming at the mouth of the other ship’s cannon.

Evasive maneuvers!

***

Lily slid onto a nearby chair and braced herself.  Through the bridge’s main window, she could see that they were moving forward and turning sharply to the left—to port—and tilting as they moved, so that their underside would be exposed to the other ship.

Transfer power to the ventral shield!

As the other ship moved out of view, they felt an impact from the cannon fire.

Lily gasped.  She felt a sudden shift in movement that made it feel as if she’d left her spine behind.  It wasn’t painful, just odd, a strange pressure.  A moment later, she felt her spine snap back into place.

A burst of light passed by them on the port side.  It must have been another cannon blast, only this time, the other ship missed.

Are they pursuing? 

Chartreuse pressed a button.  “Yes, Commander, but slowly.  I think they’re just trying to chase us away.”

“Or maybe they can’t move as fast as we can?” Doris wondered aloud.

“We’re outrunning them for now.”

“Where are we heading, Commander?” Pop asked.

There is a nearby nebula that emits reverse radiation.  We will be able to hide there for a little while.

Doris nodded.  “Understood.  We’ll prep the shields and sensors.”

Lily just braced herself and resolved to stay out of everyone’s way…until she had the chance to panic about being a thousand years in the future.

***

We ran.  We ran like cowards!  Again!

The commander’s upper limbs furled tightly and banged against the bulkhead.

Commander Octavius, Doris, Chartreuse, Pop, and Lily were once again gathered in the senior officers’ conference room.

The commander had announced to the rest of the two dozen or so crew members on the other decks what had happened, where they were, and what everyone’s orders were.  For the time being, they were safe.  Conditions inside the nebula interfered with targeting scanners.

The alternate Valorous had dropped off pursuit before they were halfway to the nebula.  But Octavius had not wanted to take any chances, especially as there were likely other ships out there, even more hostile than a heavily armed and armored Valorous.

“Commander, we did the right thing,” Doris said.  “I’ve checked the database.  It seems the war is still going on in this timeline.  And I’m sure you saw the markings on the other Valorous.”

“The markings of an active combat vessel,” Chartreuse said, his voice flat.

“That other ship had some heavy duty weapons,” Lily said.  “And pardon me, I’m just a civilian.  But that thing looked like a tank sitting on top of a ship that looks like your ship.  Commander, this ship is amazing, but compared to that one, we’re like a slug without a shell.  And they were about to pour a heck of a lot of salt on us.”

Commander Octavius didn’t project any more actual words.  But Lily sensed a touch of confusion drop into the bubbling pool of his fury.

“But why did they attack us if we’re so obviously a friendly ship?  I mean we look like them, right?” Lily asked.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Doris explained.  “It’s all about the markings.  And we removed ours a long time ago.  In our timeline, the war that we’re talking about ended five years ago.  That’s not long, but the truce we made was solid, and the peace has been too.  If the war is still on in this timeline…this is horrible.”

“We need to find a way to get me back,” Lily said, her stomach dropping again.  “So I can do the right thing and make sure you get that peace.”

This is not your doing, Miss Landry.  You have been wronged.

“He’s right,” Doris said.  “We were wrong about that time contamination.  Three points.  He was probably counting on us focusing on major points of contamination.  But Smith probably made a number of smaller changes that didn’t register in our sensors.  Pop didn’t have the staffing to fine-tune the sensors.  They weren’t sensitive enough.  And we have no idea how to get you back.”

“You need to get rid of Smith,” Lily said. “Get him off your ship.”

The others were silent as she glanced at them each in turn.

“If I see it, you all must have figured it out by now too,” Lily said.  “Both times your ship got caught in a time storm, this guy Smith was onboard.  What if he’s causing them somehow?”

Pop shook the top third of his head.  “We searched him for devices.  We scanned his person for any unique abilities or matter-energy composition.”

“What else could account for the coincidence?  If he’s not causing it directly, then maybe…indirectly.  Maybe he’s signaling someone else.  Maybe he’s got an accomplice who caused the time storms.”

“We did not detect any other vessels when we arrived at Earth,” Chartreuse said.

“I think she might be suggesting that this help is coming from the only ship we know arrived at Earth in Lily’s time,” Doris said.

Chartreuse glanced around the table.  “Valorous?”

Doris sighed heavily.  “We may have a traitor onboard.”

Pop made a whizzing sound.  “Can’t be.  I vouched for every member of this crew.”

“Stowaway?” Lily asked.

“The ship would detect that.”

“Well, who else was onboard when the ship went through the time storm the first time?  Other than your crew?” Lily asked.

“Only the prisoner’s escort,” Chartreuse said.  “But he died when Smith escaped.”

“Are you sure?”

“We have his remains in our morgue,” Pop said.

“How sure are you that he’s dead?  When you say remains…”

“His body was not intact,” Doris said.

“Does that mean he’s dead?”

“Dismemberment usually means death for a number of species from a number of worlds,” Chartreuse said.  “Not just humans.”

“I did not conduct my own background check into the escort,” Pop said.  He made another whirring sound.  “I should have.”

They didn’t give you time. Commander Octavius rose.  And they did not give us a choice. 

The commander’s skin darkened.

But it is I who have led you into folly, by blindly following orders.

Four of eight arms furled toward the commander’s sharp and angled head.

“We’ve been stretched so thin, and so focused on capturing Smith and fixing the ship, we haven’t had time to fully investigate,” Doris said.

“Did anyone conduct an autopsy on this escort?” Lily asked.

“There was no need to.  We saw the security feeds.  He struggled with Smith and was killed,” Chartreuse said.

“What about searching for a time signal or something using all the advanced sensors and machines you’ve got in this old girl?”

The ship’s sensors would have detected any atypical devices.  Even your wristwatch was tagged.

Lily looked at Commander Octavius.  “Isn’t it worth checking out those remains?  If there was a bad guy onboard, other than Smith, wouldn’t you rather it be one of the people who’s not a member of your crew?”

***

Lily went down to the medical bay and morgue with Doris and Pop.  They had wanted her to remain protected on the bridge.  They still believed it was critical to get her back to her time, and she still wanted to get back to her time.  But underneath the fear and disorientation, Lily’s curiosity still burned.  At the very least, it still smoldered.

The morgue of the Valorous was brighter and cleaner than the ones Lily was accustomed to.  But when Pop removed the plastic coffin-like chamber that housed the escort’s remains, the sight was a familiar one.  The escort had not been human.  But he had been a flesh-and-blood person.  And even though they suspected him of colluding with Smith, Lily still felt a dull horror and sadness at the sight of his torn and singed flesh.

Doris passed a scanner over the remains.  Pop had programmed the scanner to be far more sensitive and versatile than the ship’s main scanners.  As the handheld scanner passed over one fairly small chunk of bone and flesh that had once been an arm, it beeped and the screen filled with a stream of information.  Doris pressed a few buttons, and the information vanished, replaced by an image, the outline of the arm, and within it, the outline of a knotted bone, and something else.

“There,” Doris said.  It looked round, like a sphere, but it had edges and angles.  Doris cut into the arm, and pulled the thing out using a pair of tongs.

“It’s a polyhedron,” she said, speaking to Pop and Lily, and also to Octavius and Chartreuse, who were observing from their posts on the bridge.

“I am detecting energy signatures that match those recorded during time storms and other temporal events,” Pop said, taking the scanner from Doris.

Doris peered at the polyhedron.  “We’d better be careful how we handle this thing.”

***

Somehow Lily had managed to sleep, and to eat when she woke.  She’d wanted to help, maybe by interrogating Smith.  But Commander Octavius didn’t want Smith to know they were even aware of his accomplice and the strange device inside the escort’s arm.

Lily was summoned to the senior officers’ conference room soon enough.

“If this works,” Doris began, as an image appeared on the screen, “we won’t need Smith.”

“Perhaps we should leave him in this timeline,” Chartreuse said.  “It would serve him right.”

We would only be giving him what he wanted.

Doris creased her brows.  “How did you know, Commander?”

“Because that’s the story that seems to be coming together,” Lily said.  “He did what he did to get here.”  She pressed a forefinger to the table.  “In this time.”

Doris nodded.  “Pop and I have figured out enough about the mechanics of this device to be able to use it.  It looks as if Smith purposely got himself captured so he could be transported to JJ-Q3. It’s located on a planet that’s surrounded by rings that contain the proper proportions of the elements and energies necessary for the summoning a time storm.  We didn’t even need to get that close.  He needed a solid ship like the Valorous, but he also needed for it to be vulnerable.  That’s why he waited until most of the crew was off.”

“And this device was able to direct the storm to send us to a particular moment in time,” Pop said.

“The reason the ship’s sensors didn’t pick it up is because the escort is from a race of people whose outer layers of skin resists penetration by general methods of scanning.  A detailed scan would have found it.  But we didn’t scan him because he was already cleared by people who have the highest clearances in the galaxy.  And as the commander noted, we were rushed.”

Pop whizzed and twisted the upper third of his head toward the screen, where a large image of the device and a cross section of its inner workings appeared.  “The escort triggered the device the first time.  Then he and Smith fought.  We suspect Smith always intended to kill the escort.”

“But then, who would trigger the device the second time?” Lily asked.  “To bring Smith back to his native time?”

Doris smiled grimly.  “He put a timer on the time device.  It was set to trigger after a certain duration.  We didn’t capture him after all.  He let himself be caught, because he wanted to get back home.”

“But he’s still trapped on the ship,” Lily said.

He knew we’d be coming back to a time when we would be outgunned.  He is likely counting on us being attacked and salvaged. 

 “That seems risky.  What if the ship is destroyed?  What could be worth all the trouble he’s gone to?  Is he a war profiteer?”

“When we captured him,” Doris said, “he said something about enjoying the thrill of the chase and the hunt.”

Whatever his reason, it’s not worth the lives of all those who have died because this war had not yet ended.

“There’s one problem,” Doris said.  “The best thing we can do is go back and stop Smith before he reaches Earth.  But we can’t just go back and do that willy-nilly.  We’d encounter our other selves.”

“One of the immutable laws of time travel is that one must not encounter one’s other temporal selves,” Chartreuse explained to Lily.  “It causes a psychic dissonance that can never be truly healed.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“There’s already a Valorous back there in your time,” Doris said.  “We have to make sure it doesn’t see us when we go back there.  So once again, we’ll need your help, Lily.”

***

“Their sensors are still damaged.  They can’t see us.”

Lily watched as a shuttle much like the one she was sitting in, left the port bay of the Valorous.  Not the Valorous from which Doris was giving her instructions, but the one whose crew Lily had not yet met.  The Valorous that had still not yet discovered that Smith had escaped.

Doris and Pop had managed to use the time device to bring them back to the time before Smith reached Earth.

When Smith’s shuttle pulled far enough away, a ball of light zoomed toward it, shot from the Valorous that was hiding in the asteroid belt that surrounded Lily’s native solar system.  The blast struck the shuttle and the shuttle stopped moving.

“Is he…still alive in there?” Lily asked.

“Yes, we’re reading life signs from the shuttle’s sensors.  We have control of it now.  I’m releasing a sedative gas that will knock Smith out,” Doris said.

Pop’s voice spoke next.  “Once we’ve confirmed he’s out, I’ll guide you through the towing process.”

“Lily, it’s imperative that you only tell the crew what we’ve rehearsed.  No more.  No less.  They only need to know enough to get Smith, get the time device from the escort’s arm, and get home.”

***

Lily followed Doris’s instructions.  She was surprised at how well the crew of the other Valorous accepted the information she presented.  They were suspicious, but when she uttered certain phrases, she noted the subtle changes in their demeanors.  Doris hadn’t said anything, but Lily suspected those phrases might have been authorization codes or pass phrases that verified what Lily said.

She never boarded that other Valorous—the first Valorous.  She only spoke to them from her shuttle.  Her shuttle was a duplicate of one that the first Valorous had in its shuttle bay, but Doris said that seeing it would not cause any problems, because it was an inanimate object.  In fact, seeing Lily piloting the shuttle would only further validate her story and her instructions.

The first Valorous took Smith onboard, found the device, and left the solar system.

Clumsily piloting the shuttle, Lily returned to her Valorous.

***

Lily waited in the alleyway with Pop as the Valorous appeared in the sky, and shone a bright light on the apartment.  She watched herself, her past self, come out onto the balcony and get swept up into the light.

“I did notice you on the bridge the first time,” she said. “Doesn’t that change the timeline, if you’re not there?”

“But I didn’t say anything.  So a hologram will do,” Pop replied.

“Hologram?”

“A projection of me in three dimensions.”

Lily shook her head at yet another marvel of technology that the ship held.

“I don’t understand,” she said.  “There are two of us now.  In the original timeline, you would have returned me to the apartment.  So when you return her, what will happen to me?  Will I vanish?  Or will she vanish?  Or will we both exist in the world and I’ll have to move to Paris or something?”

Before Pop could answer, Lily blinked and found herself standing next to Doris on the balcony of her apartment.

“What happened?”

Doris looked different.  She had pale skin and blonde hair.

Lily frowned.  “What happened to you?”

Doris laughed.

Lily glanced around.  “Where’s the other me?”

Doris placed a hand on Lily’s shoulder.  “What do you mean, pal?  There’s only one you.  You’re one of a kind.”

A bright light shone from above.  Still smiling, Doris stepped away from Lily.

“And the universe thanks you,” Doris said as her colors shifted to orange and magenta a moment before she was swept up into the light above.

Copyright © 2018  Nila L. Patel

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