South of Bikini 2: E7- Losses and Beginnings

Returning from Egypt, Alex suffers her first real loss since becoming Empress. An emergency mission to right a fatal mistake ensues requiring her to re-establish balance between two Universes.

 
 

Copyright R.G. Beyer 2011


 
 


South of Bikini:

Onward

Episode 7

“Loses and Beginnings”


 
 

1303 hours, Reilly Research Station, Kili Island, June 28th, 2028
 
 

“Welcome back, Empress. It is 1303hrs, June 28th, 2028.”

“Thanks, RVP. Has anything happened since we left?” I asked the A.I.

“Two volcanic eruptions have occurred, one in Iceland and another at Mt. Vesuvius in Italy.”

“Any population affected?”

“Minimum casualties so far, Seismography equipment provided ample warning, Alex.”

“Good, we shouldn’t be needed then.”

“You are already there, Empress, along with Dr. Rosen, Ms. Cummins, Langford, Hardt, Marsh, Simonetti, and Hilf.”

“Understood, thanks, RVP.”

“Will you be staying, Alex?”

“I wasn’t planning on it, I have to get Brie and Chuck back home and the rest of us need to return to 1944, I’m sorry, RVP.”

“Acknowledged, I will return to standby mode on your departure.” Was it me or did the A.I. sound a little disappointed?

I slowly removed the pins holding my tiara in place after shutting down its operating system. Up until now I had forgotten I was still wearing it. How funny I must have looked in modern day Warsaw- though no one on the street had paid me any attention?

”I’ll be right back; I have to put this in my quarters.” I told everyone as I walked out the door.
 
 

My newest piece of jewelry looked, for no better term, ‘royal’ sitting by itself on my bed pillow. I had gently placed Randi’s masterpiece at the head of my bed. It matched perfectly with the rose colored, silk-like pillow, sheets and duvet. But without my headpiece in place, my hair now took center stage by quickly falling into and past my face, obscuring my sight as soon as I leaned forward. The tiara had helped me to forget the annoyance of my longer hair by holding it back somewhat. Now free of any resistance, it threatened to become very aggravating!

“RVP, will Randi’s tiara pose any problems with your systems should it mysteriously reactivate?”

“External Processor #3-Omega has included an encrypted file containing the emergency disarm code should that happen, Alex. Otherwise, I would just talk with it should it reinitialize.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Though, I would not think it to be as challenging a competitor as External Processor #3-Omega in a chess tournament.”

“RVP, do y’all want us to stay a while longer so you and Randi could play a few games?” I asked, hearing the true disappointment in the A.I.’s voice.

“Oh no, I would not ask that of you, Empress. You have prior commitments and must deliver your travel companions to their respective time periods.” She replied despondently.

Was a machine trying to make me feel guilty? I giggled quietly and shook my head in disbelief.

“I think we could maybe stay another day if you’d like, RVP.”

“Really?” Her voice went up an octave or two as she squealed in joyous delight.

“What kind of Empress would I be if I didn’t treat everyone equally?” I said as I rolled my eyes and looked to the ceiling a few times.

Was it my imagination or did the air quality in the place suddenly smell sweeter, I asked myself as I sniffed the air in my room.

“RVP, since we’ll be staying a day or two, could you bring the food stations on levels three and two back on line?”

“With pleasure, Empress!” A very pleased RVP replied.

I just shook my head as I left my room and walked back to the conference room to inform the others.
 
 

“Let me get this straight… you caved to the computer?” Brie looked at me, amazed by my gullibility.

“I don’t think of RVP that way, sis, and neither should you.” I said in my own defense. Randi’s bright smile off to my left made me chuckle.

She promptly excused herself and ran out the door. I shook my head while closing my eyes. I smiled.

“Jack, since we’ll be staying a day or two, could you contact Jacki and see if they need any help?”

“Will do, Alex.”

“You two don’t mind a few more days of ‘R and R’?” I looked to Brie and Chuck.

“Not as long as the hot tub and sauna still work.” Chuck laughed.

“Alex?” Jack caught my attention.

“Jack?”

“Alex, Alex said she could use our help in Italy. They have relief efforts underway in Iceland, but she said if you want to handle Italy it would save her travel time.

“What? Save her travel time?” I was flabbergasted!

“Hey, that’s what was relayed, Cap. Don’t shoot the messenger!”

“Alright, we’ll leave first thing in the morning, Commander.”

“Brie and I will come along also, Alex.” Chuck offered.

“NO!” Brie and I shouted at the same time.

He frowned at her and raised an eyebrow. Peyton also looked taken aback by our combined outburst.

“No? Why not? Is something going to happen to me? Would I come under some kind of distress?”

“Nothing like that, Charles, we just aren’t needed. We’d just be in the way.” Brie told him as calmly as she could.

“Brie’s right Chuck, you two would just be in the way, best you stay here and have that second honeymoon you always wanted.” I added, trying to hide my nervousness.

“Forgive me, but I don’t believe either of you! I may be a lot younger than y’all, but I wasn’t born yesterday! So tell me, oh wise and protective Empress, what misfortunes have you and your sister seen for this, your humble servant?”

“Wow, that wasn’t sarcastic at all, Chuck.” Jack deadpanned. Peyton put her hand to her mouth to hide her smiling snicker.

“Okay, wise guy, what do YOU think will happen to you?” I asked as my expression went dead serious.

“If I go, I die in some kind of strange mishap- an expelled lava blob- a newly opening vent- maybe a pyroclastic cloud? Oh, I know! Jacki sneezes and a new lava vent opens and I fall in! Am I close?”

The sweet smell of ozone quickly filled the air.

“Honey, don’t provoke the Mind Warrior- it would be very…bad.” Brie warned with a slightly evil grin on her face.

Jack began laughing and the sweet air immediately dissipated.

“You get stabbed in the chest by a looter in Terre de Greco. We both get knifed, only I survive…you don’t.” Brie looked to the floor with sadness, a few tears followed.

A fowl expletive silently escaped Chuck’s mouth and he immediately collected my sister into his arms.

“I’m sorry, dear, I didn’t know.” He told her quietly as he ran his fingers through her hair.

“No, you moron, you didn’t and you don’t know how it feels to lose someone you love in some ridiculously stupid incident!” Brie pushed back enough to glare directly into his eyes.

“I thought you told me that he died of natural causes eleven years ago!”

“As of this moment in time it was twenty nine years ago, Charles.” I interrupted.

Brie glared at me a moment.

“Not him, Charles! Emily’s first husband!”

“You were in love with your sister’s husband?”

“You idiot!” Brie shouted. “Emily’s Jim died helping us rescue people trapped in Haiti’s earthquake back in January…I mean January of 2010. One of the aftershocks weakened the footings on a wall he was walking past. Alex had been called away and…” She broke down, burying her face in his chest.

“You never told me any of that, honey. How could I have known? I mean I thought you were acting a little down when y’all came back, but…” He told her, again running his fingers through her hair and holding her tight.

“I’m sorry, Alex, but I didn’t know.” He apologized to me.

“Not many do, Chuck. It’s something we don’t like to talk about often.”

“Couldn’t you have gone…?”

I shook my head and cut him off. “It was another one of those times when the Empress would have done more harm than good, hun. It just had to be…can’t we just leave it at that?”

He closed his eyes and nodded slowly.

A few minutes passed in silence.

“May I go in their place then, Alex?” Peyton inquired.

I began to run the possibilities.

“Yes.” I smiled. “You can come along, but only if you remember to obey one single command! When I shout ‘duck’ you hit the deck as if gravity suddenly increased tenfold, got it?”

“I can do that, Empress.” Peyton agreed with a big smile.

“Then it’s settled. Chuck, you and Brie stay here and relax. I can almost guarantee Randi will be jacked into Reilly’s systems so you shouldn’t see her unless something unexpected happens. Jack, Peyton and I will leave for Italy around 0900hrs tomorrow morning.”

“So, what do we do in the mean time, Alex?” Peyton asked with renewed energy.

“Now, I think I’m going to take a nice…long…bath.” I smiled deviously thinking about the warm relaxing soak in my very near future.
 
 

1810 hours, Reilly Research Station, Kili Island, June 30th, 2028

 
 

The hot sulfur-incensed air and red sunrise east of Naples, Italy became Reilly’s small, clean smelling, indirect lighted, conference room.

“Welcome back, Empress. It is 1810hrs. June 30th, 2028.” RVP welcomed us.

“Thanks, hun, it’s good to be back.” I commented as I drew in a big breath of clean, fresh, air.

All three of us couldn’t wait to hit our respective bathtubs! Three weeks of search and rescue expeditions in the mud, ash, and rain had left us tired, sore, and eager to return home.

“Why is it so quiet?” Jack asked immediately, as she searched the walls and ceiling- something very out of character for her to do.

“Jack?”

“It’s too quiet here, Alex. I can’t hear anyone at all in Reilly. Where are Brie, Randi, and Chuck?”

“Maybe Alex came back and either took them home or needed help in Iceland?” I asked.

“Something isn’t right here, Alex!” Jack insisted.

“Cmdr. Cummins’ right, Alex, I get no feeling of occupancy.” Peyton added, agreeing with my first officer and looking worried.

I searched the possibilities.

“I’m not getting anything.” My anxiety started to escalate exponentially. Had I fallen victim to another virus or Mind Controller?

“RVP? Where are my sister, her husband, and Randi?” I asked cautiously, trying to remain calm and upbeat.

“Brianna and Charles Mason are in Recreational Stimulus Pool four. Surveillance has been disabled.”

“And Randi Van Pelt?”

“External Processor #3-Omega is not on line.”

“What do you mean she’s not on line?”

“I’m not on line, Alex, plain and simple!” The computer replied in anger.

This wasn’t good! Why was RVP answering me like Randi was still in the system? And why did she sound so angry suddenly?

I had an incredibly bad feeling my sister was in trouble!

“We need to get to Brie and Chuck! They may or may not know what’s going on.”

“I have a bad feeling about this, Alex!” Jack shook her head slightly as we headed off to the hot tub.
 
 

“It won’t open!” I hit the door control in anger after several failed attempts to gain entry. “RVP, I need to get into the Spa, please.”

“No!”

“Excuse me?”

“I said no! Brie and Chuck don’t want to be disturbed!”

“Randi, open the door…please!”

“Randi isn’t here, I told you that earlier! Go away and leave them in peace!”

“Director’s override, OakridgeEmpress8716! Open this door, RVP!”

“Override not accepted! Go away, Alex!”

“Jack. Persuade it!” I turned to her with a very determined expression. Peyton and Jack’s faces’ shared my concern.

“Aye, Cap.”

The door started to open but a bolt of light whizzed past me and caught Jack in the thigh.

“SON OF A BITCH! THAT HURT!” She screamed in pain.

“I SAID LEAVE THEM ALONE!” RVP screamed back at us.

“Fine we’ll do things my way then!” I glared to the ceiling. “Peyton and Jack, take my hands.

Just as we phased out another blast transited the passageway, just passing through my abdomen as we phased!

That was close!

“We’re going in, ladies!” I told my two companions as I tugged on their hands.

A collective gasp escaped our mouths and filled our ears as the nightmare unfolded before us. I’m sure each of us felt our stomachs’ lurch as we looked on at the grizzly scene. The disgusting mess; the expressions on what was left of their faces; the…

“Keep holding my hand. We need to get out of here!”

The macabre vision of my sister and brother-in-law- or what was left of them after being boiled to death in the hot tub became the blackness of my private domain, its single unmoving sun providing just enough light to see by.

I released my companion’s hands. We each bent over in separate directions and emptied our guts into the nothingness.

“This can’t be happening!” I wailed as I tried to spit the pungent taste from my mouth. I could barely see through my fast running tears! “This is impossible! My sister can’t be gone again! It has to be some kind of illusion- some nightmare! Peyton, are you sure you were over that bug Hathor gave you?” I cried, grasping for any logical reason for seeing my sister and her husband basically rendered like old horses at a glue factory!

“Be assured it was not I! Never have I seen something so grotesque or terrifying! What was all that gellatinous…” Peyton bent over once more and emptied her gut for a second time. “Empress, what happened?” She asked wiping tears from her eyes and then her mouth.

“Alex, how could this have happened? We were only gone for two days.” Jack fought to keep her anger from destabilizing my domain. Out of the three of us, she had the best constitution. “And what is with the A.I.? It sounded like Randi was in the system, but RVP claimed she wasn’t! I don’t like it!”

“Jack,” I fought off another dry heave and forced myself to think clearly- objectively. “According to my initial target date and time, it should have been five days. Brie and Chuck were going to try for a child and I thought they could use the extra privacy.”

“Then why did RVP say it was the thirtieth?”

“When we find Randi we’ll get the answers, Jack.” I replied. My whole body was still shaking violently as I struggled to put that gruesome image out of my mind. I resorted to thinking about the atomic test footage, playing it over and over again hoping that it would replace this latest horrible image.

Jack glared at me. “Do you really need to do that, Alex?”

“As opposed to what we’ve just seen…YES!”

“Okay, so what do we do?” She surrendered.

“First we need to see if anyone was watching.” I said, concentrating on someone who I thought could help.

“What is that awful stench?” The woman’s voice called out from just outside the lighted region of my domain.

“Alexandra honey, aren’t you feeling well?” Momma Scott asked as she came into full view.

“I’m afraid not, momma, and I’m sorry for disturbing you, but we need your help.”

The woman was met with my hopeful glance and stares from Jack and Peyton.

I quickly closed the gap and hugged her- my tears overflowing from my eyes as I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed for dear life.

“Alexandra, I’m already dead so you don’t have to squeeze so hard!”

That made me cry all the harder!

“That hit the right cord, didn’t it?” Ruth Scott looked at Jack and a woman she had yet to meet.

“Momma, it was horrible! Chuck and Brie, just lying there in the hot tub. Their flesh melted away below the neck. And what was left of it filling the top of the water like…like…”

“Alex, what are you talking about? What’s this about Brianna and Charles? Honey, what are you fussing on about?”

“Momma, Brie and Chuck are dead and I think I may have caused it!”

I heard and felt her gasp. Ruth Scott remained quiet for a moment.

“Nonesense! How could you have caused something like that?”

“I’m not sure, but I must have done something? Momma, Brie’s dead! I’m not sure if I can rescue her again! I don’t…I don’t know what to do!” I broke down again and cried on her shoulder once more.

“Alexandra? Calm down, child! I’m sure you had nothing to do with what happened! Dry those beautiful hazel…honey, why are your eyes blue? Now that I notice it, why is your hair golden blonde- and down past your butt? What in heaven have you done to yourself, child?” Momma Scott asked in alarm.

“Mrs. Scott,” Jack approached her, “We had just come back from a mission to 1945 Poland. Alex had to look like an Aryan version of the Empress so we could steal back the Meridian 12 spacecraft. When we arrived back at Reilly Station in 2028, our presence was requested at a volcanic eruption in Italy. It was when we arrived back at Reilly again that things went into the trench!”

“Momma, I never meant for this to happen! I just wanted them to have some privacy! She was going to try for another baby. I thought they could…um…”

“I’ve got the idea, Alexandra; now please try to calm down so we can talk things out rationally.” She told me as she began patting the back of my head gently.

I felt her lift a handful of hair from behind me, the difference in weight obvious.

“Wow, I could have a field day braiding this!” Her voice had taken on some excitement.

“Momma, my hair and eye color are not what’s important now! Please, can you help us?”

“Alexandra, I think we better call another witness to the stand. Frederick, your Granddaughter needs you!” Ruth Scott sang out. “So tell me, Alexandra, who is your new friend?” She nodded over to Peyton.

“My name is Persephone, ma’am, but Alex calls me Peyton. I’m not from this time, I’m afraid.” Peyton introduced herself in a timid voice.

“I should say not, young Terran!”

“You know about me?”

“We don’t get many foreign exchange students here, Peyton. I make it a point to remember my ancestors, though.” Momma Scott looked around. “Oh, where is that man? Frederick, come here at once, Alexandra needs our help!” She shouted again.

“You can do that, momma?”

“Can’t you?”

“But I’m the Empress!”

“And I only look like you? Is that it, Alexandra?”

“I didn’t mean it that way, I…”

“I am coming voman! I am dead, not hart off hearing!” My grandfather’s voice shouted back. He walked into the light. “Vhat is zee problem, Alex?”

“Frederick, something terrible has happened to Brianna. Have you been watching over her?”

Momma Scott gently nudged me away and turned to face my Grampa.

“Last I see they vere in a big round tub! Zey vere kizzing und embrazing und…acht to leiban! Have you done somezing mit your hair, Liebchen?” Grampa stared at me.

Ruth Scott rolled her eyes. “I mean did you see what happened after that?”

“Vell, after I looked back, zey seemed to have gone to zleep. I vent to check up on mine two daughters, Freddie und Dee after zat. Vhat haz happened vis Brie? Am I to be a great grandfather again?”

“Grampa, Brie and Chuck are dead,” I cried! The pain of those words and they’re meaning stabbed at my heart!

“Zhat eez not pozzible! Zey looked to have had a vonderful time vhen I leave zem!”

“Is it possible they weren’t asleep, Fredrick? Could they have already been dead?”

“Of zees, I’m not sure, some times I have zee hardt time hearing dee living!”

“Okay, for the time being, let’s assume that Brie and Chuck had somehow fallen asleep. That would partially explain why Brie didn’t try to contact Alex via their link.” Jack began logically.

“I’d like to know how she could fall asleep after what Frederick described? I know Charles would fall victim to sleep- men are so susceptible that way! Why, I remember when Louis and I used to…”

“Mrs. Scott, I don’t mean to interrupt a particularly romantic memory, but we should really try to think this out.”

“No, momma’s right, Jack. Why would Brie fall asleep after such an exhilarating…um…activity?” I felt my face flush at my own memories- future memories. “There has to be more to this! Something we’re not seeing.”

“Something we’re not seeing. Something we are not seein…” Peyton stopped abruptly, her eyes going wide!

“Alex?” She asked pensively. “What was it Lady Brianna’s husband said while we were in orbit in Meridian? Something about spacing that Nazi Major?”

“He was only kidding about putting the Major out into space to suffocate, Peyton!” Jack tried to explain her statement away.

We looked at each other for a few long moments.

“That’s it! It has to be!” I gasped as the light over my head went on.

“What has to be it, Alexandra?”

“Yes, vhat eez it, Alex?”

“Something we have to watch out for in the Silent Service is our air supply. If we don’t scrub the air of the carbon dioxide, we get drowsy and fall asleep- suffocating to death in the process! The human body needs oxygen to live. I think the oxygen was taken out of the room!”

“Who would do something like that, Alex? RVP would have put up a fight if someone tried cutting off the air from any of her compartments!”

“Unless zees RVP vas in kahoots!” Grampa added.

“No Grampa, unless it was RVP doing it!”

“Alex, think about what you’re saying! How could RVP possibly hurt us? She was programmed to protect everyone on Reilly!”

“Maybe her program changed? Like in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’!” Peyton blurted out quickly.

Memories of the 1968 Science Fiction classic about a spaceship bound for Jupiter that killed its crew filled my mind.

“RVP was fine before we left for Naples. What changed after we left?” I asked out loud.

“Apparently zees RVP, Alexandra.” Granpa added, stating the obvious.

“But why? What changed after we went to Italy?”

An image of Randi running out of the conference room came to mind.

“RANDI!” Jack and I shouted at the same time.

“Randi? Randi Van Pelt wouldn’t hurt a fly, Alexandra!” Ruth Scott exclaimed and glanced over at Jack a second.

“Not knowingly, she wouldn’t. But what if she and RVP had some kind of disagreement?” I proposed.

“A feud, Alex? I thought that only happened in your neck of the woods?” Jack was trying to lighten the mood…I hoped.

“The whole country knows about feudin’, Jac’lyn Cummins!” I growled.

“Girls, why don’t you find Randi and ask her?” Ruth Scott suggested, trying to avert the argument she saw coming between Jack and I.

“We don’t know where she is, ma’am. “ Peyton informed her. “RVP stated that she was not on line.”

“Now vhat does zhat mean, Liebchen?” Grampa asked.

“It means that Randi was not connected to RVP’s external interface.” She explained.

I thought a minute, adding up the facts in my head. Judging the words individually, I began to see differences in what Peyton had defined and what RVP had stated when asked about Randi.

“Peyton, RVP only stated that Randi was not on line. “ I began. “She never said that Randi was not connected to her systems like she would normally do. Maybe Randi is still physically connected to the A.I. but she is unconscious…or…or…” I let the thought drop quickly.

“I think you have your answer and plan of action, Empress.” Ruth Scott smiled, as she looked at me- her eyes bright and filled with pride.

“You girls be careful. If something is wrong with that computer thing, you best be alert.” She added as Jack, Peyton, and I closed on each other and we took each other’s hands.

“We’ll be careful, momma.” I acknowledged.

“You find out what happened then go back to remedy the situation, Alexandra!”

“We will, momma.”

“Ruthie, let zem go! Zhey vill never complete zee task if you do not let zem go!”

“I just wanted to make sure!”

“Step carefully, Alexandra!” Grampa warned before he and Momma Scott faded away.

“Are we going back into that room, Alex? I don’t think I could handle that again!” Peyton asked, rubbing her stomach with her free hand.

“No, we’re heading for the interface chamber, hun.” I informed her. A look of relief appeared. “Don’t relax yet, hun, we don’t know what we’re gonna find in that room either!”

A dimly lit room about thirty feet square replaced my dimly lit domain. Six recliners similar to modern dentist chairs were arranged equally around three of the walls. A handful of wires and three hose-like appendages hung from the ceiling over each chaise.

One seat was occupied.

“Randi!” I whispered loudly. We were still out of phase so I couldn’t figure out why I was being quiet.

“Alex, I’m not getting anything from her. No thoughts, no movement, no heartbeat.” Jack said sadly.

“You mean she…she’s dead?” Peyton’s voice cracked in sorrow.

“Keep holding on to me.” I ordered as we began to move closer to the motionless figure.

There before us was Randi Van Pelt, still connected to Reilly’s A.I.- physically. Equipment on the wall she was facing displayed several straight lines and three bluish-green readouts displayed a double ‘0’. Another piece of equipment displayed ‘104.5 F’ with a flashing red light next to it.

As we looked on, a single peak appeared on each of the four straight lines and the accompanying readouts jumped to life reading: 120; 80; 1. Randi seemed to spasm once also.

“Blood pressure and pulse rate, Alex.” Peyton said.

“So that must be body temperature.” I nodded to the other device

“If that’s right then she has a high fever, Alex.” Jack commented.

“At least she’s still alive, Jack.” I responded.

“Barely.” She replied.

Peyton went to place her hand on the stationary body.

“Don’t try to touch her, hun. Not without us first finding out what it is or how this happened!” I warned.

“I thought we were safe when phased, Alex?”

“We’re not taking any chances, Peyton, on the off chance this is another one of Hathor’s tag-along virus things.” I told her cautiously.

“Alex.”

“Brie?” I asked, my voice jumping an octave.

“What, Alex?” Jack asked.

“I just heard Brie call me.”

“Cap, unless she was hiding a part of her gift…” She trailed off, leaving the statement unfinished.

“I heard her, Jack!”

“Alex.”

“See? You heard her just now, right?”

“I didn’t hear anything but Randi’s machinery indicating another single heartbeat, Cap!”

“I heard nothing also, Alex.” Peyton added with concern.

“I heard Brianna call my name twice now. Why can’t you two hear that?”

“Honest, Alex, I didn’t hear anything but the machines- not even in your mind.” Jack said apologetically.

“Alex, help us.”

“Tell me you just heard her call for help!”

Jack looked around the room. “Nope, nothing, Cap.”

Peyton just raised her arm and shugged her shoulders.

“Alex, help us. I think RVP is in trouble.”

I looked around the room several times.

“You just heard her again, didn’t you?” Jack asked.

I nodded. “I’m going to try something, Jack.”

Concentrating as hard as I could on Bries face, I posed my questions.

“Where are you sis? What happened here?”

“Now that, I heard!” Jack replied rubbing her temples. “I think the whole Pacific Rim heard that, Alex!” She complained.

“Alex, RVP is sick.”

I relayed what I heard to Jack.

“Now that is spooky!” She commented. Peyton’s face lost some color as her mouth opened slightly.

“Alex, I hope you can hear this. Charles and I are suddenly sleepy. Blacking out. Randi. Virus.”

“Brie? Brie, answer me! What about Randi? What about a virus? Brieeeee!” I cried, releasing the two hands from mine as I rephased. My hands quickly covered my face.

A warning klaxon broke the quiet, steady buzz from the machines in the room.

Wire harnesses began lowering from the ceiling above the other loungers.

“Don’t let them touch you!” I screamed as the scene reminded me of some space movie my future self had seen. A name…’Borg’, suddenly popped in.

“I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE US ALONE!” RVP’s voice shouted at us.

“Not until you tell us what happened!” I shouted back. “Jack, shields up.” I told her.

“Aye, Cap.”

“RVP, who are you really?”

Silence.

“RVP? I asked you who you are! Comply!” I asked in a commanding tone.

“We are RVP.”

“WE?” I asked, my eyebrow rose.

“We are RVP.” She said again.

“Hun, RVP is a single entity! We, infers a plural- more than one! Who else is in there?

“We are RVP.”

“Fine! We are Empress!” I motioned between Jack, Peyton, and myself.

“We are RVP.”

“We are Empress!” We three chanted in unison.

“The Empress is a single entity! Although multiples of the Empresses can exist and interact in a single time frame, three dissimilar entities cannot be the Empress!”

“But if you insist you are a multiple entity, the Empress can too. It’s only fair, hun.” I argued.

“The Empress is defined by a finite genetic code and is exclusive. The Empress cannot be more than one entity.”

I winked to Jack and Peyton.

“We are the Empress!” We chorused.

“To have three separate entities composited as the Empress is impossible.”

“Nothing is impossible, RVP! Review the archived files of Reilly’s transition to this universe if you need proof of that.” I suggested.

“The Empress is a single being. Three unique genetic patterns cannot comprise the Empress.”

But we do, RVP. Jack Cummins, Peyton Triebsch, and Alexandra Steinert.” I paused for a split second.

“We are the Empress!” We chorused again.

“Why don’t you tell us who y’all are comprised of, sugar?”

“We are RVP.”

“Oh, come now, hun, I told y’all who we are! It’s only courtesy to introduce yer selves.”

“We are RVP.”

“We already got that, hun. Jack…Persephone…Alexandra.” I pointed to each of us individually.

“We are RVP.”

“If that’s the way y’all want ta be. Jack, start unhooking Randi from the system.” I ordered.

“No, Alex, it’ll kill me!” Randi’s voice echoed through the room from the loudspeakers.

“Then tell me who y’all are, RVP! Tell the Empress who you are!”

“We are RVP.”

“Jack?”

“Alex, no! I’m in here!” Randi’s voice cried out.

“Who else is in there, RVP? Obviously, External Processor #3-Omega is one entity that makes up RVP. Who else is in there? Tell me or I pull #3-Omega’s plug, hun!” I warned.

“ALEX, NO!”

“We are RVP. We consist of RVP, External Processor#3-Omega, and Phrack-EU.”

“Well hello, Phrack-EU. Where did we pick you up from?” I asked, hoping it would answer.

“We are RVP.”

“That’s just rude, RVP. I just wanted to learn more about Phack-EU. Where did you come from, hun?”

“We are RVP.”

‘Alex, the air is starting to get thin in here.’ Jack thought to me.

“Okay, RVP, have it your way. Jack, disconnect Randi from this thing.”

Several wires pulled from her motionless body and it spasmed a few times.

“ALEX! TIARA!” Randi’s voice screamed in pain.

I nodded to Jack, who nodded her understanding.

“The entire wiring harness pulled from Randi’s body and the three hose like cables pulled from three different orifices.

The immobile body began to spasm uncontrollably for a few seconds then stopped abruptly.

The single, steady, tone emanating from the equipment monitoring my comptroller’s life signs indicated that I had just terminated Randi’s life.

“Take my hands, we have to go now!” I ordered.

We phased out again and found ourselves in my quarters.

“Hold your breath. I need to fetch my tiara!” I ordered as I rephased us and took the decorative headpiece from its pillow. Placing it quickly on my head, I grasped my companions’ hands and phased us out again.

My quarters in Reilly became the parade ground on Atlantis-Minor.
 
 

1030 hours, Atlantis-Minor Base, June 27th, 1944
 
 

“Skipper, what are you doin’ back here? We didn’t expect you for another day?” Michelle Simonetti asked with a start, a cloud of fine sand kicking up as we rephased.

“Circumstances beyond our control forced us to evacuate Reilly, Ensign.” I gasped as I tried to wave off the dust cloud.

“So, what’s with the hair? You looked better with it shorter and darker, Skipper. Nice…um…tiara?” My shoreman grimaced as she stared at my golden, bejeweled headpiece.

“Randi made it for me for the mission.” I hoped the sadness I was feeling remained hidden behind my makeshift smile.

“Where is Ms. Van Pelt? Chief Samuels wanted to ask her opinion for a new something-or-rather on Sand Dollar.”

“Randi stayed behind. We have to go back and get her after we figure out what happened.”

“Is she alright, Skipper? I’m getting some really strange emotions from all three of you.” The ensign paused a second, her expression grew dark. “She’s dead isn’t she?” She accused quietly.

“Not for long if I can help it, Ms. Simonetti!”

“Do you need my help, Ma’am?”

“Not this time, hun, but thanks for the offer.”

“Just say the word, Skipper.”

“Thanks, ‘Shell.”
 
 

“What’s the plan, Alex?” Jack asked as we entered my office.

“First we have to figure out where this ‘Phrack EU’ thing came from. After that we figure out how to stop this from happening.”

“Alex, from what I know of my time in that century, ‘EU’ stands for the ‘European Union’, an amalgamation of countries in Europe that established a standard financial and currency system there. I’ve heard the term ‘phrack’ before, but I can’t place it. Maybe your future self can define that word better.” Peyton briefed, adding what information she could.

I began searching through my future memories looking for any reference to the strange word. The only reference I could find was from an old- relatively- television show that sought to explain the fabled, missing ‘Thirteenth Tribe of Israel’ in a science fiction motif. The word was a derivation of the pornographic acronym my brother-in-law had silently mouthed earlier.

“The only instance of the word I can find is a different way of swearing without the censors cutting it from the TV show.”

I received two blank stares.

“In this early 1980’s show about space, instead of using the actual curse words, frell was used instead of hell and phrack was used instead of…” I felt my cheeks warm. “Fornicate.”

A light went on in both women’s’ minds’. Good thing too. I hated that word- even moreso recently!

“So this thing wants to mess things up in this EU? What…some kind of gangster, money laundering computer?” Jack asked, not really sure if she was making sense, or not.

“More like a computer that wants to put the screws to the banks of Europe.” I clarified.

“Why would a computer want to foul things up for those banks? They only do what they’re told to do by a programmer. If anyone would want to steal money from financial institutions it would be a human- not a machine, Alex.” Peyton said making perfect, logical sense.

“So, someone wrote a program to steal money from this European Union? Why would anyone do something like that, Peyton?” Jack asked.

“Hacking into places like that to steal or cause havoc is a form of terrorism and is more prevalent than you think in the twenty-first century. We even had some factions opposed to Pharaoh, attack in a similar method, though our scientists developed successful countermeasures.”

“Hathor, right?” I smiled at her and closed my eyes momentarily.

“She was one of several, Alex. They are like a plague to information exchange.”

“Ol’ Hathor seems to be real good at plagues and viruses, don’t she?” Jack said off-handedly.

Virus? Why did that word sound so familiar? I decided to check with my internal friend.

“RVP caught a virus!” I exclaimed, making my two companions jump. “That’s what Brie was trying to tell me!” I had no idea how long they had been waiting.

“How can a machine catch a cold, Alex?” Jack asked sarcastically.

“It’s not a real cold, Jack! Programmers design small undetectable programs to do specific things, like steal money, erase information from storage systems, crash operating systems, redefine targeting parameters, things like that!”

“So, how did RVP catch this…virus, Alex?” Jack asked seriously.

“That, we have to find out. Let’s retrace our footsteps on this mission.” I smiled; happy we were another step closer to finding out what had happened.

“How can retracing our steps help us cure a virus, Alex?” Jack asked curiously.

There was a knock at my door. “Cap? Cap, M’chelle says that somethin’ happened ta Randi- somethin’ not so good?” Ricky-Lynn asked opening the door slightly.

“Come on in, Chief.” I invited her in with a smile. “Somehow RVP in 2028 has caught a virus. Randi was in the system at the time. I’m afraid we had to unhook her.” Tears started streaming from my eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“So where’s our Randi?”

“Future Randi was on maternity leave, chief.”

“You can fix this, right, Skip?” Ricky-Lynn managed to get out, though her mouth wouldn’t close completely.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out, chief.”

“Sounds like ya needs an antivirus! Lynn mentioned something about them when we was ahead in Flagstaff.” She suggested.

“That may not happen if we can’t find one of your ‘antiviruses’, chief.”

“Can’t we just go to a dimension were it didn’t happen- Randi, I mean? You can still jump dimensions, right?”

“I’m not sure that would prove successful or wise, chief. The particular virus we’d be looking for may not exist there.”

“Well, couldn’t you use yer gift ta make sure it’s the right course o’ action?” Ricky-Lynn asked innocently.

I had to give her points for being upbeat. I took her suggestion and began using my gift.
 
 

“It’s been an hour. How much longer is she going to stay like that, Cmdr. Cummins?”

“I couldn’t tell you even if I knew, Peyton.”
 
 

0630 hours, Atlantis-Minor Base, June 28th, 1944
 
 

“Jack, Peyton honey, it looks like she may be coming out of it.”

“This may be a new world’s record, Emily. Eighteen hours.” I heard Jack say sarcastically as I slowly became aware of my surroundings again.

“Welcome back to the living, Alex.” Emily said kindly, placing a steaming cup of coffee in front of me.

“Here’s a dampened towel for your face, ma’am.” Peyton offered as she came into my view. My eyes stung and the cool rag provided some needed relief as I held it to my finally closed eyes.

“Any luck, Alex?” Jack asked as I tilted my neck in all directions to clear the stiffness.

“Ricky-Lynn’s dimension idea has many viable scenarios- all equally successful.” I informed the four people standing before me. It felt strange to have this many options- usually there was maybe one or two that stood out.

I stared at Ricky-Lynn for a minute. “Are you sure you’re in the right time, chief?”

“You ain’t the only one that shares memories, Skipper.” Chief Samuels smiled brightly.

“No, I guess I’m not, chief.” I laughed.

“So when we ship out, Skipper?”

“I leave immediately, Ricky-Lynn.” I told her as I stood up.

“But it was my idea!” She complained.

A somewhat familiar alleyway replaced my office.

Walking out onto the main sidewalk, I noticed my previous companions several yards ahead of me. As I remembered, this was about the spot where the young Polish woman asked Alusia about her clothing. The sting of fresher, darker memories threatened to break my concentration of what I had come here for.

“Hey, honey, like the outfit! Is that new this year?” I heard her ask.

“No, it is thousands of years old I am told.” Alusia told her honestly once more.

The woman glared at her momentarily then hurried towards me looking insulted!

“How dare that bitch steal my designs? Now I have to go back and start over! How could she say they were thousands of years old? How rude!” The angry woman said to herself as she quickly passed through me. Good thing I had remained phased out or we both would have been on the ground!

I looked back at the woman in time to see her stop and look back- as if really seeing or feeling me. Something told me I would see her again.

Closing the gap between us, I noticed that people weren’t only staring at Alusia, but at me also! It was the tiara, still on my head, attracting the attention. I had forgotten to take it off until we got back to Reilly.

‘And now I have you on again.’ I thought to myself. I had completely forgotten I had returned to my quarters in Reilly and retrieved it before going back to base to regroup.

Quickly, I turned the headpiece on and brought up its screens on my HUD. The power bar indicated it held almost seventy-five percent power and was charging. Given the amount of electricity powering the lights and signs around me it wouldn’t take long to reach full capacity.

Randi had wanted me to get my tiara when we started to unplug her from RVP. Why? What was so important about the tiara that Randi needed to break through the restrictive walls of the virus to tell me to take it?

I noticed a question mark had appeared in the upper right hand corner of the tiara’s menu window.

I mentally clicked on it.

‘Welcome to Van Pelt Industries Tactical Information Array, and Radiometric Analyzer. Please ask your question in a clear and concise manner.” Appeared in a smaller, pleasant looking window. There was a blinking…um…cursor, I think Randi called it, in a small blank white box. It appeared to be waiting for me to ask a question.

‘Viruses’ I thought and the proper text appeared in the white box.

Another screen popped up to give me the definition of ‘virus’. The definition of the biological, physical health related ‘virus’. That was no help!

I continued my journey down the street.

My previous group had already entered the little café where we had sent the initial ‘Meridian’ message to our earlier selves. I knew it would be at least twenty minutes before I could try to interact with them in any way. All the scenarios had this point in common. They seemed to indicate that this was where Randi had accidently acquired ‘Phrack EU’- I just had to find out how.

As I remembered, Randi said our meal was on her that day. She had taken the check to the counter before I could stop her. Was that when she caught the virus, and how would I find an antivirus for this ‘Phrack-EU’ thing?

Motion before my eyes reminded me that I had forgotten to exit Randi’s help window in my tiara.

“The Phrack EU Trojan, circa 2009 AD, was originally designed to seize control of and restrain safekeeping protocols of targeted ‘Bank of Europe’ financial computers. Sophisticated parametric algorithms assured any attempted removal would be dispelled by either crashing the operating system or sabotaging any unsecured memory devices, ie: Hard drives, Network Storage Arrays, flash memory drives, or any unrecognized peripherals. Infection was typically through Visa © Express terminals popular in the time period. Method of removal: Insufficient data available.”

‘Okay, that made a little sense, but how do I keep it from infecting Randi?’ I thought as I watched Randi begin her walk to the register.

Another even smaller window replaced the previous one.

“Would you like to enable transaction monitoring for future reference?”

‘I sure would!’ I thought excitedly.

“Full isolation protocols initiated. Broadband data logging enabled. T.I.A.R.A must be kept within two meters of suspected transaction device to be effective.”

Another new window popped up, this one displaying a bar graph similar to the tiara’s charging indicator. As I got closer to the register, it lengthened, filling the blank section of its box and turning from red to yellow, to green.

“Broadband Data Logging Established.” Appeared in yet another window. It quickly changed to ‘Broadband Data Logging Progress.” And another bar graph slowly lengthened from left to right.

“Would you like any cash back, miss? The waitress/cashier asked Randi. My Comptroller paused briefly before declining the offer.

“Thank you and stop back again.” The young woman said cheerfully to Randi, who smiled back before heading back to our table.

The young waitress/cashier suddenly said something not in the Polish translator and, with a stunned look, stared at the group that had just given her a twenty-percent tip!

“Broadband Data Logging Complete.” My HUD told me.

So far so good, now what to do with the information, and even more important, who do I give it to? Should I return to Reilly and interrupt our original return or should I jump back to Brie’s house in 2010? Either scenario seemed to work.

Reilly’s small conference room replaced the pleasant Polish street café.
 
 

“Welcome back, Empress. It is 1303hrs, June 28th, 2028.”

“Thanks, RVP. Has anything happened since we left?” I witnessed myself asking the A.I.

If I only knew then… My chest started to tighten with sadness.

“Two volcanic eruptions have occurred, one in Iceland and another at Mt. Vesuvius in Italy.”

“Any population affected?”

“Minimum casualties so far, Seismography equipment provided ample warning, Alex.”

“Good, we shouldn’t be needed then.”

If only we had been needed. I thought to myself watching my sister, her husband and Randi- alive once more.

“You are already there, Empress, along with Dr. Rosen, Ms. Cummins, Langford, Hardt, Marsh, Simonetti, and Hilf.”

“Understood, thanks, RVP.”

“Will you be staying, Alex?”

Please say no!

“I wasn’t planning on it, I have to get Brie and Chuck back home and the rest of us need to return to 1944, I’m sorry, RVP.”

“Acknowledged, I will return to standby mode on your departure.”

I would give anything to hear that disappointment in RVP’s voice now!

I watched as I took the hairpins from my tiara and turned for the doorway.

”I’ll be right back; I have to put this in my quarters.”

Now was my chance! I rephased myself.

“Hi everyone- sorry to just pop in.” I chirped.

Not a soul jumped or even flinched! They must have been expecting me.

I rushed over to Brianna and wrapped my…

My arms went right through her!

Why hadn’t I rephased?

I tried again, this time my hand went straight through the table and a chair!

What was going on?

‘Alex to Agent Brianna. Can you read me Agent Brie?’ I tried our temporal link and waited. And waited.

What in the world was going on here? Why couldn’t I make contact with them?

I brought up my tiara’s help screen again.

‘Can I establish communications with Randi Van Pelt?’ I asked.

“Would you like to communicate with a biocomptroller?” It asked.

“Yes!” I thought emphatically.

“Bio-digital communication protocol enabled. Establishing interunit translation.”

“No Bio-digital device found. Retry? Y/N”

What? ‘Yes, of course, try again!’ I thought.

“No Bio-digital device found. Retry? Y/N”

‘No’

“Communication request terminated.”

Is there anything here that I can talk too? I thought offhandedly.

“No Communication devices found.” The display told me.

What was going on? I clearly saw that Randi was in the conference room not ten feet from me! Why couldn’t I contact RVP? She monitored every room, storage space, and passageway in Reilly! Brie stood next to me- why couldn’t I contact her via our link? Why couldn’t I rephase in this dimension? I clearly existed here! What or who was making my job impossible to complete?

The pleasant Polish street café replaced Reilly’s small conference room.

My little group was just leaving the restaurant.

‘Establish Broadband Communications with full isolation protocols.’ I thought.

“Full isolation protocols initiated. Broadband communication enabled. T.I.A.R.A must be kept within two meters of communication transceiver to be effective.”

The expected signal strength bar graph appeared but remained empty.

“Broadband communication could not be established. Try again? Y/N” appeared after several long seconds.

‘NO THANK YOU!’ I thought angrily. This was getting ridiculous! Why couldn’t I make connection, it worked before?

Out of desperation, I tried to rephase. At this point I didn’t care who saw me and wasn’t worried about it!

My hand passed through the register countertop.

Now I was mad! If I couldn’t rephase in the future, couldn’t rephase here, where on Earth could I rephase? I mean if I tried the future, tried the present, should I try the past?

Reilly’s small conference room replaced the pleasant Polish street café.

“Welcome, Empress. It is 1303hrs, June 28th, 2025BC.”

“Hello RVP! Y’all don’t know how good it is to hear yer voice!” I responded in relief.

“You sound very troubled, Alex, what has happened?”

“Oh, hi Alex.” Cami greeted without even looking at me as she hurried down the passageway outside the conference room.

“What on the Homeworld did you do to your hair?” She exclaimed a second later, ducking her head back in the doorway.

“I just came back from a mission, Sweetheart. I needed to look like an Aryan princess.” I told her. I knew that was going to confuse the life out of her.

“Oh, whatever that is…you look the part.” She said effortlessly as she started to disappear back into the hallway.

Her head suddenly popped back into the room.

“By the Goddesses, you’re the Empress!”

She immediately fell to one knee.

“Welcome to Reilly Research Facility, Empress! It is June 28th, 2025BC. It is afternoon…um, sometime!”

“Will y’all stand up, for crying out loud?”

“I’m sorry, Alex, we weren’t expecting you. What’s the matt…oh, by the goddesses! I’m so sorry, Alex!” She exclaimed, as her eyes grew wide.

“That’s why I’m here, Sweetheart, now, is Random in the Station?”

“I’m here, Alex. How can I help?” Randi’s voice came over the room’s loudspeaker.

“Randi, how close in protocols are you and Randi Van Pelt?”

“Genetically we differ by fifteen-percent. Functionally, we are one hundred-percent compatible. What have you done to your hair and eyes, Empress?”

“That’s…not important right now, Randi!” I said to the ceiling. I noticed Cami trying to stare at my eyes. Before she could voice her question about they’re color I cut her off. “What is important is to analyze the program file stored in my headpiece and derive an antivirus from it. Randi Van Pelt’s life depends on it!”

“Alex’s sister, Brianna and her husband depend on it too, Randi! “ Cami added, to my chagrin.

“It is a marvelous device! The workmanship is impeccable and recognizable as that of Randi Van Pelt. I have nothing like this archived! Tell me, Empress, what is a virus? I have nothing in the archives encompassing digital devices.” She asked.

“This type of virus attacks the operating system and peripherals with a program that is designed to do a specific thing and keep would be diagnosis and removal from happening. It has infected you in 2028AD, killed my sister and brother-in-law and imprisoned Randi Van Pelt in Reilly’s system. We had to physically remove Randi in order to gain any useful information.” I lowered my head as I spoke the last few heart wrenching sentences.

“Forced physical removal from my system would result in deletion of the current revision…”

“I know, RVP!” I started to cry. “I know that.” I wiped a few tears away- a futile gesture, really. “It was the only way we could find out who else was in you!”

Camille Darrough gently wrapped her arms around me, holding me until I could compose myself.

“Alex, why come all the way back here? Why not just go back a few minutes before I became influenced by this program?” RVP asked.

Cami’s eyes said everything as they stared deep into my soul.

“She couldn’t Randi! She couldn’t rephase into the temporal stream. Her headpiece couldn’t even find anything to communicate with. It was like the things she was seeing weren’t really there.” Cami said as she continued to gaze into my eyes.

“Sweetheart, I can tell my own story if y’all don’t mind.”

“I was just trying to help, Alex.” She replied sounding a little disappointed. I nodded once in appreciation.

“Alex, please bring the archive to Lab Six. I’ll meet you there in five minutes. Cami, please alert Samantha and Cassandra to meet us there.”

“Randi, this thing is very dangerous to you! I recommend extreme caution!”

“Processor #1 Omega is offline, Empress. Time to physical disconnect: sixty-five seconds.”

“Thanks, RVP. Please pass on my warning to her?”

“It is already done, Empress.”

“Let’s go, Cami. We don’t want Randi to start without us!”
 
 

1310 hours, Reilly Research Station, June 28th, 2025BC
 
 

“What took you two so long?” Randi greeted Cami and I as we entered the inner airlock of Lab Six. This was the first time I…Alex Steinert, had visited the equipment-congested room. Alex Reilly, I remembered, had visited many times in the last nine hundred revolutions…I shook my head…years.

Lab Six wasn’t a very big room, nor was it very fancy by the standards of other laboratories in this facility. The equipment installed here looked mostly electric in nature. Microcomputers, oscilloscopes, logic analyzers, spectrum analyzers, and other test equipment filled its shelf lined walls and workbenches.

Random was just finishing her preparations and system boot-up as Cami and I entered.

“Hun,” I started, “I have no idea how this thing got into my Randi, so be very careful! Assume this thing jumps through the air like a biological virus!”

“Alex, could I ask you to recall the memories approaching the moment you suspected Randi’s acquisition of this destructive program?”

I looked at Cami who nodded once and I in turn nodded to Randi. I began the distasteful recollection of our visit to Poland 2010 and the proceeding results.
 
 

As I finished my playback, I noticed that Sam and Cassie had arrived. All four women looked pale in the face and slightly nauseous.

“That, by far, was the grossest thing I have every seen!” Cassie exclaimed before rubbing her stomach hoping to settle it.

“No, I think that time Caleidra mixed up that Primal soup thing and left it overnight was way grosser than what we just saw!” Sam argued.

“Maybe, but I think the time you miscalculated your menstr…”

“Ladies, enough! We need to find a way to destroy this thing so I can save my sister, her husband, and my Randi!” I interrupted before my mind went to places I still wasn’t comfortable visiting.

“Alex, I’ve configured this processor similar to the operating parameters of our systems. I’d like you to bring your headpiece online and establish a link to it and only it! I’ll remove myself from the room and take myself out of range, just in case. Download…copy the archive only! Do not execute it, only copy!” Randi warned us as she accessed the inner airlock’s keypad and slipped through it quickly. I thought it humorous that she had resorted to physical means of data entry given her gift.

The download, as Randi had called it took a few minutes once I had acquired the new host computer. Cassie had monitored the transfer and now touched several sequences to break the link between my tiara and the newly infected surrogate. Actually, I had no idea how these virus things worked- I had just witnessed their results.

“Cami, tell Randi we’re safe.” Samantha said, breaking the near silence of the room. “The archive has been isolated and prohibited from executing.”
 
 

“The archive size is substantial, Alex, I thought you defined a virus as a small, nearly undetectable, program? I did not expect four sectors of data.” Randi questioned as she inspected the downloaded file over Cassie’s shoulder.

“I recorded the whole transaction from start to finish. I have no clue where, in all that this ‘Phrack EU’ resides, hun.” I admitted. Most of my Alex Reilly memories swayed more toward Advanced Bio-Genetics and Theoretical Astrophysics. I knew from her how to make and run a computer program with RVP’s help, but tearing one apart to its base code was way out of my league.”

“Empress, this is going to take some time to analyze completely. Maybe you and Randi should go take a rest period?” Sam advised, her eyes never budging from the display.

“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea, hun! Last time I left, I came back to that hellish nightmare you saw earlier!”

“Alex, I’ll keep an eye on things.” Cami assured me in a calm, confident voice. “If anything initiates degradation, I’ll…um…oh ya…I’ll pull the plug.” She smiled, happy that she remembered one of my sayings.

“Empress? How about a nice relaxing walk along Kili’s beach? I happen to know that several of our sisters had planned a luau this evening. They would be most honored if you were to attend.” Randi took my hand and tugged gently. “I’m sure Cindy would prescribe the same course of treatment when we see her.” I felt her squeeze my hand tighter for a second.

“Alright! I get the message, hun. Ladies, the Empress is going for a walk on the beach. I’ll see y’all at the luau.”

Sam and Cassie waved half-heartedly to us- their eyes never leaving their displays. Cami gave me a slight smile then she added a nod telling me they would be all right.
 
 

The sound of waves breaking on sand increased in volume daring me to open my eyes- curiosity, really, rather than a need to actually wake up. I fought that dare and clinched my lids tighter. The next thing I observed was the severe ache on the left side of my neck. More of me awakened. I could now feel the gentle morning breeze on my arms, legs, and feet. My hair gently floated across my face and tickled my shoulders, breasts, and stomach. All in all it felt wonderfully relaxing.

Quiet snoring from my right told me that I was not alone here- that someone else had succumb to last night’s shindig. Lifting my head slightly, I dared open my eyes. The sun was just up over the eastern horizon; the water pulsed onto shore in gentle one-foot swells.

Such a placid place, I thought to myself.

The quiet snoring again caught my attention. I could barely hear it over the waves.

Looking to my right, then left, I saw no source of the audible slumber. It was then, after awakening a bit further that I felt an almost weightless object on my right thigh. There, a small, six-inch woman with beautiful, multi-colored, compound wings protruding from her shoulder blades, laid spread eagle, her arms and legs limply matching the curvature of my upper leg. Her face, turned left, appeared content and comfortable. A tiny, glistening rope of saliva played sentinel before her slightly opened mouth.

Apparently, Yuuka had over indulged in honey last night and was now sleeping off her version of a hangover.

I noted that I was wearing my favorite pink nightie.

‘Alex’, I thought. ‘Your going to have to stop drinking so much at these things!’

The Pixie on my thigh started to stir. She began to stretch, to work out the effects of her inebriated slumber. Her wings twitched every so often in conjunction.

“Good morning, Yuuka. I trust you slept well?”

“Good morning, Alex.” She purred. “That was the best sleep I’ve had in a…” She stopped as she finally looked up at me. “Empress!” She tried to get to one tiny knee before even standing erect and rolled off my leg into the sand. Quickly reappearing in a kneeling position on my thigh, she continued. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to mistake you for my bed, Ma’am! Please forgive me!” She said apologetically, her wings twitching nervously. She then took to the air- hovering a foot or so from my face.

“It’s okay, hun, I’ve woken up in some strange places before. This beach is just one of the more pleasant venues.”

Off to my right, I noticed smoke gently wafting from the remnants of last night’s fire.

“Must have been one helluva party.” I laughed quietly, not knowing how bad the Pixie’s head still pounded.

“You seemed to need to unwind, Empress. What better way than with good friends? Rumor has it that several unimaginable events have befallen you. I have become a very good listener if you need one.”

“Thanks, Yuuka, but the very thought of those events will bring tears to my eyes.” I felt wetness transit down my cheek.

“Then perhaps we should just stretch the sleep from our bodies and go find our sisters?”

“Perhaps, but I feel like taking a run along the water’s edge this morning, Yuuka. Care to join me?”

“Do I have to grow up, Empress?”

“Only if you want to, hun.” I laughed. I selected my pink tank top and jogging bra, denim shorts and pink sneakers from my suit’s HUD and plied foot to sand heading south down the beach.
 
 

0730 hours, Reilly Research Station, June 29th, 2025BC

 
 

“Feeling better this morning. Alex?” My voice asked as Alex Reilly walked toward me from the opposite end of the passageway.

“A little better. I guess that y’all have been informed of the events in 2028?”

“I’m so sorry, sister!” Her arms wrapped around me as soon as she was within range.

That familiar tingle felt like the best thing on Earth right now!

‘Alex, please meet us in Lab Six.’ Cami’s voice echoed in my head. It was a good thing we healed fast!

Alex and I looked at each other after she released her hold on me.

“Lab Six.” We said together and laughed.
 
 

“Alex, Empress, We think we might have found something in the archive.” Samantha informed us as we entered the Lab.

“I thought I was going to tell her! Why are you always the one that gets to give the news?” Cassie protested.

“This was the first time I got to do it in months, besides, you told her the last time!”

“No, I got to tell Alex the last time! You told the Empress the last tim…”

“Shut it!” Alex and I shouted in unison. At this moment I was regretting my daughters and these two ever getting together.

“Cami, why don’t you tell us what y’all found?” Alex Reilly asked.

Sam and Cassie groaned in disappointment.

“We found two instances of the ‘Phrack EU’ virus in the archive, Alex. One significantly larger in size than the other.” Cami told us.

“The initial program was smaller in size.” Samantha continued.

“The second instance, the larger of the two, was transmitted but was not commanded to execute and instead incorrectly deleted.” Cassandra went on.

“By who?” I asked, amazed that so much evidence had been derived.

“It was Randi Van Pelt, Alex. She had to be the one to modify the original virus. We cannot find any reason for her to do this though.” Ransom sounded shocked. “Why would she do something knowing it would cause her harm later?”

“I’m not entirely sure she realized her mistake until it was too late, ladies. In our time, 1944, computers exist only in the most primitive form. Add, subtract, multiply, and maybe divide- that’s all a building-sized computer of our day can do. Until I found Randi’s help screens on my tiara, I had no idea computers could catch ‘viruses’!”

“What’s a tiara, Empress?” Cami asked innocently.

“The thing I had on yesterday when I arrived. My headpiece…it was on my…” I reached up to indicate where it went and felt the metallic piece of jewelry.

I still had it on.

“Empress, I strongly suggest you securely delete the archive from the device before it is accidentally opened. These modifications to the original program impart wide-ranging capabilities that could possibly compromise not only this station, but a worldwide network as well! If we were on the homeworld, life as we know it would cease, Alex.” Randi explained in a dead serious tone.

I quickly accessed my HUD and deleted the file using the Tiara’s ‘Secure Delete’ option- I hoped that meant what I thought it did.

“Done, Randi.” I confirmed its erasure. “So, how do we delete this thing and how do I deliver the ordinance?”

“You can’t just delete it, Empress. After it has secured the system it must be stopped and systematically removed- bit by bit! Now that we know its properties, we can write our own program to gently corrupt the modified Phrack EU’s code. It could take several hours of processor time to implement.” Randi informed Alex and I.

“But how do I get this program into RVP or Randi and still save Brie, Chuck, and Randi?” I asked frustrated by the fact that I had failed to rephase here in 2028- or in 2010 Poland, for that matter!

“Why can’t we install it in RVP here…now?” Cassie suggested.

“Ya, why not? RVP is the one that gets infected in the future so why not install it in her today? That way it’s already watching.” Samantha agreed.

“Hathor.” I whispered as I thought about the hard-fought battle to keep Kili and Reilly out of her hands just a month before in 2028.

“I thought you and Tibius took her back to Memphis, sis?” Alex asked in concern.

“We did, but not that much time has passed between her defeat and this. What if she would find our antivirus and use it against us? She already used a designer virus on me and Peyton, don’t forget.”

“How is Persephone doing, by the way?”

“Pharaoh commissioned a statue of her in the government square. Natalia was so overjoyed that her daughter was recognized for her heroism. He knelt down before her, sis! There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd!” I smiled as I recounted the joyous scene.

“Oh, that we could receive that recognition!” Alex giggled having sorted through those newest memories from me.

“I prefer to just be the myth and legend of multiple worlds in multiple universes, sis. Statues crumble over time, myths and legends become…well, myths and legends.” I giggled.

“Not too full of ourselves are we?” She guffawed.

“We should know, sis.” I laughed.

“I see someone’s feeling a little better.” Cami smiled. “You don’t look as beautiful when you’re sullen, Alex- even with the new hair and eyes.”

“Is that really the way these ’Nat-zees’ think the Empress appears, sis?” Alex Reilly asked.

I nodded.

“We do look very alluring in that costume, don’t we?” She smiled.

“Let’s see!” Sam and Cassie chorused with big smiles.

I had no other choice but to select my ‘Aryan Empress’ costume.

“Wow!” Cami gasped. “Didn’t we see something similar in tenth century Arabia, Alex?”

“Except for those high heels! They can’t be very comfortable, sis.”

“Oh they’re just perfect for walkin’ ‘round wet, moldy, dingy, ol’ mine tunnels for five days straight! Have y’all seen enough?” I asked in annoyance. My feet already ached!

My clothing reverted back to my shorts, tank, and sneakers.

“So, about our little problem with delivery?”

“Well, if you’re so worried about Hathor finding it- why not hide it…until RVP needs it? I mean, its not like we don’t know the date, right?” Cassie remarked.

“How about a password?” Cami suggested.

“Too easy to break. If one of us were to be captured and subjected to one of her illusionists…”

“Voice encode it.” Alex Reilly said quietly.

“What?” I asked.

“Like I did before I stepped into the portal! I encoded my voice print to the project archives so that you and only you could continue on and rescue Reilly as I foresaw.”

“Alex, you saw everything that we would go through before you disappeared?” Cami asked slowly as she stared at my twin. Sam and Cassie also stared at her in disbelief.

“Not everything. I saw myself reappearing in the Protoverse chamber and ultimately figuring out our means of escape. I didn’t realize at the time that Alex would be that me.”

“How do you propose we encode our antivirus, Alex?” I asked to break the solid staring contest between my twin and our four sisters.

“Empress,” Randi asked, “Is there anything you said or asked RVP that was singularly erratic?”

My hand went to my head to scratch an errant itch. I bumped my tiara. Why did I keep forgetting I still had the thing on?

My tiara…

I blinked.

“She’s blinking her eyes, girls!” Cami announced as I blinked my eyes again.

“Only twenty minutes, Alex! She beat you by seven minutes!” Samantha chirped.

Five sets of eyes stared at me waiting for me to speak.

Lab six became my quarters.

“Welcome, Empress. It is 2304hrs, Janurary 15th, 2025BC.”

“Thanks, RVP. Can I have the whereabouts of Cami Darrough and Alex Reilly, please?”

“Camille Darrough and Alex Reilly are on a mission to Sumaria. 2812BC, I believe.”

“Thanks RVP.”

“Do you require contact with them, Empress? I can page Billie Sangiere or Mina Smith if you wish.”

“No, that won’t be necessary. I just wanted to know we were alone, hun. I want this visit struck from the station archives, understood?”

“This conversation is now isolated in local mode. Proceed.”

“RVP?”

“Yes, Empress.”

“RVP, on my command I’d like you to attach this encrypted voice pattern sequence to whatever program I specify. After being attached, the original sequence file will immediately be deleted and overwritten twice with zeros.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Once validated, you will silently execute the designated program. No acknowledgement will be given; instead, you will blink my quarter’s lights three times in rapid succession, understood?”

“Acknowledged, Empress, but what is this about?”

“It’s a project security protocol I want to use at a future date.

“Acknowledged, Empress. Proceed with voice print sequence.

“Okay, here it is: ‘RVP, will Randi’s tiara pose any problems with your systems should it mysteriously reactivate?’ End sequence.”

I wanted to make sure I had the intonation right. “RVP could you play that back so I can be positive its right?”

“RVP, will Randi’s tiara pose any problems with your systems should it mysteriously reactivate?”

“Great, it sounds just as I remember it!”

“Please assign an archive name.” She requested.

“Saverandisass2028” I stated.

“Confirmed. The encripted voice print sequence is now available for insertion into a program of your choice, Alex.”

“Thanks, RVP, see you soon.”

Lab Six appeared around me, as well as five confused women.

“What on Earth did you just do?” Alex Reilly asked raising an eyebrow.

“She doesn’t trust us!” Cami cried in mock disappointment.

“No, sweetheart, I just made your lives easier. You now have absolutely no idea what kind of security I will put on that antivirus. Plausible deniability they call it in the future.”

“Are you sure you two are the same person, Alex?” Cami said as she looked between Alex Reilly and I.

“Sometimes, I’m not even sure about that, Sweetheart.” Alex replied.

“Ladies, how long until I can bottle up this genie?”

I received five blank stares and a lot of silence.

“When can I encrypt the antivirus program?” I rolled my eyes at them.

“It shouldn’t take long. We just have to pressure and heat-treat any undesirable infestations before we retest the beta. Compilation shouldn’t take more than two minutes if it proves stable.” Cassie advised me. I was only able to understand a fraction of what she said. Something about ironing out the bugs…

Even with Alex Reilly’s memories I still had a hard time understanding these people!

I threw up my hands. “I’ll be down on the beach. When y’all need me, just have Cami call!”

Lab Six became Kili’s eastern shoreline.

The sun was still climbing toward its zenith so I moved up the beach apiece and lowered myself to the warm sand below a palm for some shade. The muted sun felt wonderful on my face. What I wouldn’t give to have my bikini right now, I thought.

Wait.

I reselected my Aryan Empress costume once more.

Once the change was completed I stood and removed the delicate, translucent, golden dress leaving just my flimsy, minimalistic black brassiere and thong panties.

“Close enough.” I said to the trees, surf, sand, and a songbird or two.
 
 

“I think she looks wonderful. Mother should take lessons from her.” Two women giggled uncontrollably from somewhere off to my left.

“Me still thinks she’s dressed lesser than a wanton strumpet!” A familiar voice commented as I slowly opened my eyes. The shade from my palm had deserted me and I now lay in full sunlight- it felt deliciously invigorating on my skin.

“M’lady, we did not mean to disturb your slumber. Forgive us, we will venture on.”

“It okay, Mariah. I should be getting back to Reilly anyway.”

“Aye, Alex and Cami have been inquirin’ as to your whereabouts. I’m surprised she can’t find ya!”

‘I knew where you were. I just wanted to let you recline longer, Alex’ Cami said in my mind.

“Looks like she found you!” Reilly Reilly laughed, seeing my eyes roll before closing suddenly.

I nodded as I slowly got to my feet, stepped into my dress, and started to pull it up my legs.

“The Empress’ work is never done, Ms. Banes.” I said to her, Reilly, and Belinda, a new girl about Reilly’s age Alex had rescued from Cypress.

“Nor boring, M’lady.” Mariah added with a giggle.

“Never boring, ladies.” I laughed back and dusted the sand from my sheer dress before triggering my shorts, tank, and sneakers to return.

“I wish thee well in your endeavor, M’lady.”

“Ya, Alex, kick that thing’s butt!” Reilly added with a devious smile.

Belinda also offered her best wishes, but I didn’t have my translator on. I wished I had studied a little harder in Latin.

I decided to walk into Reilly instead of porting in.
 
 

“There you are!” Alex sounded agitated as I keyed into Lab Six. “Sam and Cassie have finished your antivirus, Alex. It’s ready to be encoded with your ‘mysterious’ protocol.” Alex’ hands went into the air and formed two ‘quotes’ with her fingers

Wow, I hoped I didn’t sound that sarcastic when I talked like that. Since we were identical it seemed I would have to work on my voice skills.

“We’re ready, Empress.” Cassie looked my way and nodded her head once.

“RVP?” I asked, automatically looking to the ceiling of the room.

“We’re still isolated from Reilly’s systems, Alex.” Sam reminded me.

“RVP is now online, Alex, go ahead.”

“RVP?” I asked again.

“Yes, Alex, how may I help you?”

“Hun, I’d like y’all to exec…” I stopped and looked at Cassie for the file name.

“Phrack EU Antivirus” She told me.

“Thank you, Cassie.” I winked. “RVP execute program ‘Saverandisass2028’ on ‘Phrack EU Antivirus’, please?”

“New program has been encoded and archived, Alex.”

Randi gave me a frustrated look.

“Thanks, RVP that will be all.” I smiled to the group.

“Are you sure you two are identical?” Randi asked, still looking frustrated. “Because our Alex wouldn’t think to autodelete the initial archive and overwrite the space where it resided.”

“I would so! I was just assuring access for Alex when she got here. I wasn’t sure if she would know how to unlock the project. Hathor didn’t worry me- she couldn’t write cursory code to program her way out of a flexible cellulose container!”

“I agree, Hathor probably couldn’t hack her way out of a paper sack, but she was smart enough to make Peyton a carrier for that custom bug!” I tilted my head momentarily and raised an eyebrow. “She also knew enough to sabotage your targeting system…”

“Alright, sis, I got it! She’s more intelligent than we anticipated.”

“Than you anticipated,” I said, almost in a whisper.

“What?” Alex Reilly glared at me.

“You couldn’t have anticipated.” I said louder.

“No, I couldn’t have! I didn’t know how to use my gift at the time.”

“So now what will happen, Empress?” Randi asked, putting a stop to our developing argument.

“Well, the antivirus should remain dormant until my voice says the recorded sequence. Once authenticated, the antivirus will run and hopefully eradicate Phrack EU from RVP and my Randi. Hopefully, I will have averted the loss of three people I love dearly!”

“So, are you going to stay the night, Alex?” Alex Reilly asked after I thanked Sam, Cassie, and Randi for their assistance and expertise. “It’s past midday. Why not take another evening to relax further?”

“I think I will, sis. I’d like to go back down to the beach. I haven’t had the time lately back home.” I admitted.

“You know this will always be your home, Alex, just as it is mine.”

“I know, Alex, and I’m grateful for your help and patience.”

“Empress, I have an idea.” She went to grasp my hand, but for some reason I pulled back at the last moment.

“Alex, what’s wrong? Why didn’t you let me take your hand?”

“I don’t know, sis. I just felt that I shouldn’t. I didn’t mean to insult or anything.” I smiled. “See you down at the beach, sis!”

Reilly’s passageway became Kili’s pristine beach.

“So you’re in a playful mood then?” My voice said behind me.

“No, not really. Is this where you were going to port us, sis?”

“I thought some sun would help us both. I haven’t been here near enough lately either.” She told me as her clothing changed.

My Aryan Princess costume reappeared and I promptly shucked off its outer sheath to reveal my skimpy, black lingerie.

“There’s a nice spot over there, sis.” Alex Reilly pointed to a pair of palms about ten yards ahead. Both provided just enough shade for us to lounge.

We had been enjoying the muted sun in silence for several minutes.

“You know you’ve just changed your future, Alex.”

“I know.” I answered softly.

“If that is the case, you, not the Alex of that time will have to surrender.”

“I know.” Again I answered softly. The very thought had already occurred to me. “I’m willing to forfeit my existence so that my sister, her husband, and Randi Van Pelt’s lives will continue…as they should.”

“Alex, wouldn’t that be considered…suicide? For you?”

“Other instances of me have conceded. Why should I be any different? I don’t want to become hateful and driven insane like the one Empress I had to defeat a few months ago. It took all I had- all we had- to repair that dimensional tear. I’m not afraid to merge back into the right and proper time stream, Alex. I look forward to seeing my Brie again.”

I felt tears rolling down my face as I thought of my sister’s confused face when we meet again- when I rush to her, wrap my arms around her, and squeeze like I’d never let go!

“I wish I had a sister, Alex.” Alex Reilly said sadly. I heard her sniff back a tear or two of her own. “I guess that is the main difference between us. You have family and know your parents- you really have a foundation. I, on the other hand, can hardly remember anything prior to the Homeworld tragedy. Nine hundred years have diluted them to the point that I have no recollection of my parents- of any brothers or sisters I may have had. My history is a blank wall.

“You have my memories, Alex. They’re yours if you want them.”

“Thanks, sis.” She replied quietly.

“Alex?” I asked after another few minutes.

“Ya, hun.”

“I have to leave. I can’t put things off any longer.” I told her sadly.

“I think I understand, Alex. A part of me has been saying the same thing. You should get this over with.”

We both got to our feet. I quickly pulled on my dress and commanded it to change into my shorts, tank, and sneakers.

“Empress?” She asked mostly to get my attention.

“Ya?”

Alex Reilly winced and her hand went to her abdomen.

“I think I know why you held off holding my hand.” She smiled nervously. “Until another time, Empress.” She nodded to me.

“Until another time, Empress!” I replied, happy I had listened to my instincts.

Kili’s wonderfully sunbathed beach became Reilly’s small conference room once more.
 
 

1303 hours, Reilly Research Station, Kili Island, June 28th, 2028
 
 

“Welcome back, Empress. It is 1303hrs, June 28th, 2028.”

“Thanks, RVP. Has anything happened since we left?” My past self asked the A.I. I found myself mouthing the conversation exactly.

“Two volcanic eruptions have occurred, one in Iceland and another at Mt. Vesuvius in Italy.”

“Any population affected?”

“Minimum casualties so far, Seismography equipment provided ample warning, Alex.”

“Good, we shouldn’t be needed then.”

“You are already there, Empress, along with Dr. Rosen, Ms. Cummins, Langford, Hardt, Marsh, Simonetti, and Hilf.”

“Understood, thanks, RVP.”

“Will you be staying, Alex?”

“I wasn’t planning on it, I have to get Brie and Chuck back home and the rest of us need to return to 1944, I’m sorry, RVP.”

“Acknowledged, I will return to standby mode on your departure.”

Once more I watched as I slowly removed the pins holding my tiara in place. ”I’ll be right back; I have to put this in my quarters.” I followed my past self out the doorway.
 
 

I watched patiently as I again placed my newest piece of jewelry on my bed pillow- just as I had twice previously.

“RVP, will Randi’s tiara pose any problems with your systems should it mysteriously reactivate?”

The lights in my quarters flashed three times.

“What was that?” Past me asked as she looked around the room. She received no response. The anitvirus had been activated.

I had expected to feel a chill, wave of dizziness, or even my very soul being ripped from this dimension.

I felt none of that. In fact, I felt no different at all.

I decided to continue watching things play out.

“External Processor #3-Omega has included an encrypted file containing the emergency disarm code should that happen, Alex. Otherwise, I would just talk with it should it reinitialize.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Though, I would not think it to be as challenging a competitor as External Processor #3-Omega in a chess tournament.”

“RVP, do y’all want us to stay a while longer so you and Randi could play a few games?” Again, I heard the true disappointment in the A.I.’s voice.

“Oh no, I would not ask that of you, Empress. You have prior commitments and must deliver your travel companions to their respective time periods.”

I realized this time that she really was trying to make me feel guilty!

“We could maybe stay another day if you’d like, RVP.”

“Really?” Her voice went up an octave as it had before.

“What kind of Empress would I be if I didn’t treat everyone equally?”

I saw my self sniff the air in my room.

“RVP, since we’ll be staying a day or two, could you bring the food stations on levels three and two back on line?”

“With pleasure, Empress!”

I looked on as previous me shook her head. We left my room and walked back to the conference room to the others.
 
 

“Let me get this straight… you caved to the computer?” Brie looked at past me. Was I really that gullible? Probably.

“I don’t think of RVP that way, sis, and neither should you.” Randi’s bright smile again made me chuckle.

She promptly excused herself and ran out the door.

“Jack, since we’ll be staying a day or two, could you contact Jacki and see if they need any help?”

“Will do, Alex.”

“You two don’t mind a few more days of ‘R and R’?”

“Not as long as the hot tub and sauna still work!” Chuck laughed.

I inwardly cringed, hoping I had remedied this timeline.

“Alex?”

“Jack?”

“Alex, Alex said she could use our help in Italy. They have relief efforts underway in Iceland, but she said if you want to handle Italy it would save her travel time.

“What? Save her travel time?”
 

Once again I asked who was I trying to kid?
 

“Hey, that’s what was relayed, Cap. Don’t shoot the messenger!”

“Alright, we’ll leave first thing in the morning, Commander.”

“Brie and I will come along also, Alex.” Chuck offered.

“NO!” Brie and both of me shouted at the same time.

He frowned at her and raised an eyebrow. Peyton also looked taken aback by the combined outburst.

“No? Why not? Is something going to happen to me? Would I come under some kind of distress?”

“Nothing like that, Charles, we just aren’t needed. We’d just be in the way.” Brie told him as calmly as she could.

“Brie’s right Chuck, you two would just be in the way, best you stay here and have that second honeymoon you always wanted.” My previous self added.

I looked more nervous than I had thought. I bet I surpassed that look now as I waited for my ‘re-insertion’.

“Forgive me, but I don’t believe either of you! I may be a lot younger than y’all, but I wasn’t born yesterday! So tell me, oh wise and protective Empress, what misfortunes have you and your sister seen for this, your humble servant?”

“Wow, that wasn’t sarcastic at all, Chuck.” Jack deadpanned. Peyton put her hand to her mouth to hide her smiling snicker.

“Okay, wise guy, what do YOU think will happen to you?” Previous ‘me’ asked.

“If I go, I die in some kind of strange mishap- an expelled lava blob- a newly opening vent- maybe a pyroclastic cloud? Oh, I know! Jacki sneezes and a new lava vent opens and I fall in! Am I close?”

Everyone began to sniff the air.

“Honey, don’t provoke the Mind Warrior- it would be very…bad!” Brie warned with a slightly evil grin on her face.

Jack began laughing.

“You get stabbed in the chest by a looter in Terre de Greco. We both get knifed, only I survive…you don’t.” Brie looked to the floor with sadness, a few tears followed.

A fowl expletive silently escaped Chuck’s mouth and he immediately collected my sister into his arms. I immediately thought of the word ‘phrack’.

“I’m sorry, dear, I didn’t know.” He told her quietly as he ran his fingers through her hair.

“No, you moron, you didn’t and you don’t know how it feels to lose someone you love in some ridiculously stupid incident!” Brie pushed back enough to glare directly into his eyes.

“I thought you told me that he died of natural causes eleven years ago.”

“As of this moment in time it was twenty nine years ago, Charles.”

Brie glared at past me.

“Not him, Charles. Emily’s first husband.”

“You were in love with your sister’s husband?”

“You idiot!” Brie shouted in disgust. “Emily’s Jim died helping us rescue people trapped in Haiti’s earthquake back in January…I mean January of 2010! One of the aftershocks weakened the footings on a wall he was walking past. Alex had been called away and…” She broke down, burying her face in his chest.

“You never told me any of that, honey! How could I have known? I mean, I thought you were acting a little down when y’all came back, but…” He told her, again running his fingers through her hair and holding her tight.

“I’m sorry, Alex, but I didn’t know.” He apologized.

“Not many do, Chuck. It’s something we don’t like to talk about often.”

“Couldn’t you have gone…?”

“It was another one of those times when the Empress would have done more harm than good, hun! It just had to be…can’t we just leave it at that?”

He closed his eyes and nodded slowly.

A few minutes passed in silence. All the while, I thought about the scene I hoped would not exist soon. It was still clear as crystal in my mind- a fact that worried me. Had I accomplished what I had set out to do, or was history doomed to repeat itself?

“May I go in their place then, Alex?” Peyton inquired.

“Yes.You can come along, but only if you remember to obey one single command. When I shout ‘duck’ you hit the deck as if the gravity suddenly increased tenfold, got it?”

“I can do that, Empress.” Peyton agreed with a big smile.

“Then it’s settled. Chuck, you and Brie stay here and relax. I can almost guarantee Randi will be jacked into Reilly’s systems so you shouldn’t see her unless something unexpected happens. Jack, Peyton and I will leave for Italy around 0900hrs tomorrow morning.”

“So, what do we do in the mean time, Alex?” Peyton asked with renewed energy.

“Now, I think I’m going to take a nice…long…bath!”
 
 

1810 hours, Reilly Research Station, Kili Island, July 3rd, 2028
 
 

The hot sulfur-incensed air and red sunrise east of Naples, Italy became Reilly’s small, clean smelling, indirect lighted, conference room.

I had followed my past self back to Italy and observed that mission while still phased out. Only a few times did I try to phase back into this time stream. That was to quickly replenish my personal air supply.

Maybe I was still frightened of what would happen to me.

“Welcome back, Empress. It is 1810hrs. July 3rd, 2028.” RVP welcomed us.

“Thanks, hun, it’s good to be back.” Previous me commented. I drew in a big breath of sulfur-laced air. Unfortunately, I was still phased out so my air supply hadn’t renewed itself. I noted RVP’s welcoming date had changed to what it should have been originally.

“Why is it so quiet?” Jack asked immediately, as she searched the walls and ceiling- something very out of character for her to do.

NO! Not again!

“Jack?”

“It’s too quiet here, Alex! I can’t hear anyone at all in Reilly! Where are Brie, Randi, and Chuck?”

“Maybe Alex came back and either took them home or needed help in Iceland?” I heard myself ask.

“Something isn’t right here, Alex!” Jack insisted.

“Cmdr. Cummins’ right, Alex, I get no feeling of occupancy.” Peyton added, agreeing with my first officer and looking worried.

I searched for possibilities as to why my plan hadn’t worked.

“I’m not getting anything!” My past self said in concern. I wasn’t getting anything either!

“RVP? Where are my sister, her husband, and Randi?”

“Brianna and Charles Mason are in Recreational Stimulus Pool four. Surveillance has been disabled.”

“And Randi Van Pelt?”

“External Processor #3-Omega is no longer online.”

“What do you mean she’s not on line?”

“I’m not on line, Alex! I’m not like you- I can’t be in the same place twice or three times!” Randi growled as she entered the conference room.

“I beg to differ, Ms. Van Pelt!” My past self said in relief. “Is there any reason why I can’t access my gift, Randi?”

“We’re having a containment problem with the Protoverse Chamber, Alex. Its field strength is fluctuating almost three percent at times. RVP and I have been trying to stabilize it, but so far we’ve only managed to buy some time. We were hoping you could give us some help, Skip.”

This was very different from my initial experience! I decided to try rephasing.

“Empress!” The people I had been watching suddenly gasped and fell to one knee- my past self included!

“Welcome to Reilly Research Station, its 1820hrs, July 3rd, 2028.” The four chorused.

“You, of all people should know better, Alex!” I pointed and glared at my twin.

“It was a reflex, sis.”

“Keep telling yourself that, hun.” I laughed.

“What brings you here, Alex? I didn’t see your next visit this soon.”

‘What brought me here?’ I thought. Unexpectedly, my memories of the alternate timeline filled my head. I knew as soon as it happened Jack would catch them and know what had been changed.

As expected, her eyes bulged and her mouth dropped open.

“Oh God, Alex!” She gasped, totally flabbergasted by what she saw in my mind.

“What, Ms. Cummins? What’s wrong?” Randi immediately grew concerned.

It was Peyton’s turn to gasp.

“Empress, is what you picture in your mind what was…the first time?”

“Alex, what have we done?” My twin asked, looking at me suspiciously.

“I’ve fixed the horrors to which I arrived here the first time, Alex.” I felt my eyes begin to moisten. “I couldn’t just leave that happen. I couldn’t let it happen!” I lowered and shook my head slowly.

More tears fell from my eyes.

“Alex, we need to check on Brie and Charles!” Jack reached for and took my hand. I noticed she had my twin’s in her other hand.

She quickly dragged us down one floor and two hallways to the Recreational Spa Area.

Once more I stood before THE door- that door behind which I first took in the gruesome scene.

Slowly, cautiously, I reached for the keypad; half hoping my fingers would pass straight through it. Carefully, I entered my code to release the lock and grant us entrance.

The door opened quietly and revealed two motionless figures neck deep in the bubbling pool.

What happened? Were we too late? Why hadn’t my plan worked?

I looked back to my twin and companions, extreme sadness etched on my face.

Slowly, we cautiously entered the room and dispersed ourselves evenly around the twelve-foot diameter hot tub. There didn’t seem to be residue of any kind on its surface, just bubbles from the upper jets.

Brianna suddenly opened her eyes and screamed- standing as she did so! I quickly noted that she had forgotten her bathing attire.

“Alex!” She screamed as her hands tried to cover everything, “What the hell y’all doin’ here? This better be good!”

Chuck exclaimed the same foul expletive he had only mouthed before while hurrying to cover up.

I was too embarrassed to say anything legible so I just turned my back quickly and waited. Tears of joy exploded from my eyes, partially dowsing the fire in my cheeks! My plan had worked! Brie and Chuck were still alive!

“I wan’ an answer, Alex! Why’d y’all sneak in here and scare the livin’ daylights outta me an’ Chuck?” Brie growled in anger.

“This…this…” I paused and tried to calm myself enough to speak. “This didn’t happen…originally.” I said quietly, refusing to face her.

“Something happened here before, Brie.” I heard my twin tell her.

I heard the sound of cascading water, a pause, then the same sound again. My sister came around into my sight, wrapping a towel around her dripping body.

“What happened before, Empress?” She asked, fright very evident on her face. I noticed she was shaking a little.

“Something very…something horrible!” I rushed to her, wrapped my arms around her, and squeezed with everything I had. Tears erupted from my eyes again as I broke down and cried in earnest!

“I…I…thought I’d never see you again, Brianna Mason!” I whispered in a shaky voice after a moment only to break down again.

“Thought I’d lost all four o’ y’all!” I managed to get out in between my bawling.

“Four of us, Alex?” Charles Mason asked in confusion as he looked to the others.

“Apparently there was a mishap with the hot tub and you both were…were injured.” Jack explained, withholding the gory details.

“That’s only two, Jacki.” He looked at her questioningly.

“The malfunction also affected RVP. Randi was connected to her at the time and received injury too.” Jack added.

That’s three, Jack. Alex distinctly said four!” My sister said, counting. She pushed me away and awaited an answer.

“I did say four, sis, you, Chuck, Randi, and Brittany.” I surrendered as I looked to her abdomen.

“Brittany?” She repeated as her eyes followed my gaze.

Brianna started laughing immediately!

“Unless I inadvertently changed too much!” I joined her laughter with my own.

“Did I miss something, girls?” Chuck asked as he repositioned his towel for more modesty.

“Nope,” I shook my head, “Y’all were right on target, Cowboy!” I exclaimed with a forced smile.

My twin came over to me. I knew that what happened next would prove or disprove my theory.

“Thank you, for righting things, Alex.” We embraced each other and I physically braced myself.

There was only a slight tingle- not much of one at all.

Alex looked at me in concern. Her face grew sad.

This was it for me. I would now be the one to feel the inevitable realignment, the merging of my body and soul into me- the ‘me’ holding me at this moment. I hoped the transition wouldn’t be too painful.

“We changed things that much?” She asked as we parted slightly.

I nodded, tears filling my eyes once more.

“So when does it happen?”

“I’m not sure.” I replied honestly.

“Me or you?”

More tears rolled down my cheeks.

“Oh.”

“Alex? A word, please?” Brie caught my attention. My twin moved away and stood next to Jack, Randi, and Peyton.

“What is it, Brie?” I asked, just above a whisper. I didn’t know when the process would start and I was getting more frightened by the second.

“We died, didn’t we- Randi, Chuck, and I?”

I nodded.

“You found Chuck and I here?”

Again I nodded. I must have looked horror-struck. Brie’s face softened then saddened.

“It was a gruesome picture, like maybe we were boiled?”

I could do nothing but close my eyes and look to the ceiling. How could she know?

“You had to remove Randi from RVP.”

“How…how did you know that?” I looked around at Jack. She shook her head ‘no’.

I looked back at my sister, confused.

“Alex, while in the Jacuzzi, I had this dream…a nightmare, actually, just ‘fore y’all scared the tar outta me. I dream’t y’all come in and found us reduced to nothin’ but glue and bones. I tried callin’ out fer ya, but y’all couldn’t hear me. I remember yer face though, Alex! I ain’t never seen such a sad, lonely face on ya since Grampa passed! I recollect fallerin’ y’all down to Randi’s interfacin’ chamber. I tried callin out ‘gin- y’all started to look ‘round, but I guess y’all still couldn’t hear me. Alex, I remember hearin’ the tone from them monitors! How could I’ah seen all that? Could it’ah been the link, maybe?” Brie confessed.

I’m not the one ta ask, Brie. I’m the one that’s got to let go now. I’m the one that set things askew. It’s my turn to be re-absorbed into this timeline.”

“But, yer the Empress, Alex!” Brie looked at both of us, wondering if that had been the best thing to say.

“I’ve set the new course, sis. This one no longer needs this Empress.” I pointed to myself. “I’m ready when y’all wanna take me.” I said to my twin.

“WARNING! Protoverse Chamber Containment Field Instability increase detected! Field collapse in four hours!” RVP announced Station-wide.

“Alex, we need to fix that thing before it fails! I don’t have any data on what will happen if it does!” Randi told us nervously.

“Mergin’ y’all into me gotta wait, sis, right now I need both of us to play with the controls!”

“You know just as much about it as me, Alex!” I told her.

“Two’s better than one, Empress! Come on!”
 
 

The flashing red glow of the warning lights played strangely on the control room walls. Alex and I had taken places together at the control panel in the center of the room. Through the observation window before us the flashing lights made the Protoverse cloud pulse with an evil, reddish hue. I quickly tried to remember everything Alex Reilly knew about her project- everything I had read while still orbiting the Homeworld.

“RVP, list possible circumstances that would lead to this sort of failure?”

“Severe power fluctuations from one or all reactors may cause field instabilities.”

I checked Reilly’s reactor outputs- point zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-two percent fluctuation was as bad as it got. Everything looked good- near perfect condition, in fact!

“All good! Next?”

“Instability of Protoverse itself due to engineering errors.”

My twin performed a comparison between previous measurements and the latest ones.

“Protoverse maintaining size and mass. Next?” She said quickly.

“Atmospheric breach in Protoverse Chamber due to seal failure on inner and outer airlock hatches.”

I brought up Chamber and Airlock integrities. Both showed in the green.

Chamber and airlock seal integrity nominal.” I looked to my twin for any hint of inspiration. She looked back at me with the same expression.

“Next?” We both said at the same time, looking back down at our own half of the board.

“Protoverse containment field emitters may be improperly balanced by point zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-zero-four, plus or minus between any two.”

Alex checked her display.

“I’m showing a deviance of hex zero-one-five- well within specified tolerances!”

“What else y’all got, RVP?” I asked frantically.

“Theoretical mitigation, Director. No models have been created for such criteria.”

“Unless y’all can think of anything else, hun, we’ll have to try that.” I looked over to my twin. We both shrugged our shoulders and nodded to each other. “Let’s hear the thesis, hun!” We ordered in unison.

“Natural imbalance within Protoverse may destabilize containment field over long periods of time. This has only been theorized and not calculated or proven, Empress.”

How could I check the balance of a whole universe?

I looked over to see five stone-cold, expressionless faces. I…we needed to figure things out before our two universes eradicated each other from existence.

I had just gotten my Brianna back and I was in no mood to lose her so soon!

“Enabling targeting system.” Both my twin and I exclaimed at the same time. We looked at each other for a second, smiled and looked back at the console.

Within seconds we had targeted the Homeworld, its Earth-like surface zooming up on the one, designated display. Both water and landmasses had formed in the time since I had exchanged the two universes and reset the multitudes of failed planetary fusion experiments there. Alex increased the magnification on the peaceful looking globe.

Varied patches of greens, browns, and grays appeared first followed by structures- man-made structures! Someone lived there! Again we looked at each other in amazement.

“I’ll try it.“ I told my twin. “I’ll see if I can feel out with my gift like I did on Reilly originally.”

Her eyes said everything. “Be careful, Alex.” She added almost inaudibly.

Excusing myself, I stoically walked past Brie, Chuck, Peyton, and Randi and closed my distance to the Protoverse Chamber. As expected, the gentle tingling increased the closer I got. Just as before, I could feel the power of the unseen portal surge up my arm as I extended it nearer.

Dozens of images flashed before my closed eyes- images answering unasked questions about our situation…and my future existence. As before on Reilly, the visions were spectacular and extremely vivid. Images of the Homeworld became interspersed with images of what I had to do- what needed to happen to avert catastrophe. The Homeworld was indeed, spectacular!

Within seconds, everything became clear. I knew what had to be done and I was no longer frightened about my existence.

The harsh tingling began to subside as I felt hands gently grasp my waist. The rate in which images filled my mind slowed and almost stopped.

Someone was pulling me away from the portal!

I didn’t know how I should feel about that. One part of me thanked those hands that continued pulling me away, the rest of me cried out in anger that I was being kept from re-establishing balance to the universes!

“It has to be done.” I whispered softly, mostly to myself.

“Alex, what were you doing? We almost lost you, half your arm had disappeared!” Brianna cried out in a scared voice, but scolding me nonetheless.

“It has to be done.” I repeated quietly.

“What has to be done?” She asked, her voice now an octave higher.

“Balance must be returned.” I mumbled. I had no idea where that thought came from.

“Excuse me? Balance must be returned? What kinda horseshit’s that?” She almost screamed at me.

“Balance between the two disrupted universes must be restored. Universal balance ratio has been two to none instead of one to one for seven millennia. It has now reached a critical threshold. Balance must be restored or total annihilation will cancel both realities, thereby restoring balance.” I heard myself say in an even, monotone voice. I had no idea where the words where coming from- certainly not from me!

“What does that mean, Alex?” Jack asked me as the others looked on.

I reached for my twin unexpectedly and grabbed her arm.

The tingle that passed between us felt like thousands of volts of electricity! It also brought me back from…wherever. Alex matched my shocked- literally- expression. She now understood, for she knew everything I knew.

“It’s me, Jack. I’ve been here for too long. Alex Reilly and I should never have been allowed to stay in the same universe. We’ve upset the natural balance of things here.”

“Alex, you told us that Alex Reilly passed on sometime in the fifteenth century! You told us it was the reason she couldn’t come any further forward in time! There is only one Empress now! So where is the unbalance?”

“I’m the reason the two universes are out, Jack! I’m here twice!” I pointed between Alex and I.

“But you’re a few days older than me, Alex! Why would that not count for anything?” My twin reasoned.

“Maybe it’s too close, Alex. Whatever the reason, I have to leave. I have to go back to the Homeworld.” I paused a second.

“I’m the start of the legacy. I’m THE Empress- the woman of legend- the myth. I’m the first Empress!”

I turned around and began to approach the mysterious, invisible portal.

“Alex, I don’t want you to go!” Brie cried to me.

“I’m not going to go!” I pointed to my twin. “Don’t you see? I’m not leaving, I’m right there! I’m the one who has to leave!”

Even by my standards of late, that sounded insane, but how else would you phrase the situation? There was two of me here. One of us…me…had to leave this universe in order to save said universe by balancing the Empresses. So that left me to leave and the other me to stay and continue the Empress’ work- simple, right?

“Alex, you can’t leave! Especially since you just got Brie, Randi, and Chuck back!” Alex argued. “I’ll go in your place!”

“I’m not sure that’s going to work, Alex! I’m the one that imbalanced this reality, I’m the one responsible for rebalancing it. Not much more to say, hun!”

“Why not? I’m the same person as you. What difference should it make? Besides, you’re forgetting one important detail!”

“And what detail did I forget, Alex?” I asked as I took another step closer to the portal and my transit from this universe.

“How many Jacks and Peytons now exist here?’

“What?” I asked in confusion.

“How many Jacks and Peytons are here- in this universe?”

I thought a second. “One of each! What does that have to do with anything?”

“As near as I can determine from our recent memory exchange, Jack and Peyton are here- “She motioned to Jack and Peyton. “And also Jack and Peyton are waiting back at Atlantis-Minor…in 1944. So there are two of them stuck here also, in this unbalanced paradox!”

Jack and Peyton’s mouths dropped instantly!

I dropped my gaze to the floor and tried to think how I had missed that ‘small’ detail.

“I’ll have to go back, get them…” It was all I got out before seeing Alex nod to Jack.

Everything went dark.
 
 

“Alex? Alex! Sis, wake up!” Brie’s voice called to me.

Opening my eyes, I saw Brie, Randi, and Chuck hovering over me.

“What happened?” I asked as Brie helped me sit up.

The warning lights had stopped flashing. Everything seemed unusually calm and quiet. I looked around the room. We were the only four people here now.

“Alex, Jack, and Peyton, where’d they go?” I asked as I rubbed the back of my head. “What hit me?” I asked.

“I believe you experienced your first mutiny, Captain Steinert.” Chuck said flatly. “And I believe you were the lead mutineer!”

“Mutiny? What?”

“They left, Alex.” Brie said sadly. “They went in your place.”

“Who?”

“Alex, Alex! You…she, Jack, and Peyton! They disappeared…to the other universe…I guess!” Brie stammered.

“Help me up, please?” I asked immediately.

All three helped me stand. Once steady on my feet, I made my way to the control console and repositioned the targeting system. Zooming in on the Homeworld, the four of us saw the world enlarge and refocus.

“Alex, it’s beautiful!” Brie exclaimed as I zoomed closer.

Again, I…we saw the various agricultural shapes of greens, browns, and grays. Something else came into view as the system zoomed further and refocused.

“Visit Soon.” Brie spoke the words we observed on the monitor. It spanned several dark green areas- probably several actual miles in length.

I lowered my head and rubbed my forehead as tears cascaded down my cheeks and pooled before running quickly from the slightly skewed console. I couldn’t control the grief I felt at that moment! My body began to spasm and Chuck pulled me to his shoulder

“It was her choice, Alex. It was their choice!” He told me softly.

“It should…should’ve been…me!” I quivered out between sobs.

“Alex.” My voice called from the console. My face appeared on the display, replacing the message on the face of the Homeworld.

“Alex, I want you to know that we made this decision jointly. Jack, Peyton and I debated this for some time in my private domain. I’ve asked Jack to…um…subdue you so that you wouldn’t do anything prematurely.” The image of me paused a moment before continuing, my expression grew sad for a minute then my face took on a look of determination.

“Alex, you’ve lost so much in the last few days- Brie, Chuck…Randi! Y’all sacrificed your very existence so that we wouldn’t experience the horror, the loss- the pain! I couldn’t see you losing that which you fought so hard for so soon after you regained it. We decided that we should make this sacrifice instead of you, hun. I only hope I can keep our legacy intact when I get to the Homeworld.” I paused once more on the screen. My image nodded to the side as if listening to either Jack or Peyton.

“Listen, Alex, I know this hurts way worse than our Terran welcome two months ago, but as with everything, it will pass. Just know that there is a standing invitation to visit the Homeworld for anyone and everyone that wants to come. Just be sure to tell everyone about the slight discomfort of extra-universal travel.”

Jack suddenly appeared on the screen.

“Alex, please forgive me for what I have to…what I had to…oh, what I did! I’m well aware that it’s a court marshal offence to strike a superior, but, like Alex said, we had to stop you from doing something stupid.”

I could hear my voice in the background complaining about something as Jack abruptly stopped and looked off camera momentarily.

“Any way, like Alex said, stop by sometime.” Jack forced a smile then my face reappeared.

“Brie, you best take care of that youngin! I hope to see her one day soon. Chuck! Y’all take good care of that woman or there’ll be hell ta pay!” I threatened with an angry scowl. My expression then lightened a bit.

“If I’m right, there should be a matching portal on the Homeworld that we can travel back ‘n forth through for brief visits- not seven thousand year visits, mind you, but maybe a year or so.”

“If I’ve seen things right, you saw our message in the fields. It means we arrived safely and my theory about the identical portal is proven” My image paused on the screen again.

“Alex, there are a few requests that we’d like to make before we jump ahead again.”

“One, don’t chronicle this in Uncle Rick’s ‘Empress’ Report. He already has a hard time understanding how we…I relate time, space, dimensional travel- those types of things. He has enough on his mind with the war effort and all.

“Second, I expect my daughters and grandkids to visit from time to time.” I slowly moved off screen.

Jack appeared onscreen again.

“Alex, please never think or mention that I went with Al…you…you know what I’m saying! I think it better if you just returned to base and never said or thought anything about me.” She paused. “I’m probably fantasizing, but give it a shot.” She paused again. I noticed a single tear fall down her face. “I’m going to miss all of you, Captain! Don’t be a stranger!”

Jack’s hand came to her face to wipe away another tear. She slowly moved off-screen and Peyton’s sad face came into view.

“Empress, I wish to make the same request as Ms. Cummins. Please do not tell me about my decision to leave this world. My internal debate would fatigue me and render me disadvantaged in doing my duty. I fear it may also affect my home life or my visits to Memphis.” Peyton now paused as well. It looked like she was barely holding it together.

“Until another time, Empress. I shall forever, always be at your service, ma’am.”

Peyton broke down into tears before she moved out of sight.

I reappeared.

“Skipper, it was an honor servin’ with you! See y’all stateside! Don’t forget about the time differential either!” My face disappeared from the screen.

“Oh, one more thing!” I watched as my face reappeared and took on a slight devious grin.

The camera zoomed out until Jack, Peyton, and I appeared standing next to each other. All three dropped to one knee.

“Until another time, Empress.” They chorused.

“Until another time, my friends.” I choked out softly as tears burst forth once more.

The monitor went blank.

“Wow.” Chuck said just above a whisper.

“Ya, wow.” Randi choked out with a sniff.

My sister remained quiet and put her arms around me. We cried on each other’s shoulders for some time.

“Alex?”

“Ya, Randi?” I answered after wiping my eyes again. Both hands were wet and my eyes burned from the irritation of wiping them.

“Thanks.” She wiped her eyes again also. “Thanks for saving me. I was stupid for not protecting myself from that Trojan. I’m sorry to have caused this whole thing. I should have been more careful- thought things out- like you do. I’m sorry to have caused you so much heartbreak, Alex!”

“You didn’t know…we didn’t know. We’re all still learning.” I said as a slight smile crept onto my face. “I’m sure Jack and I are talking about it at this very instant. Just do me one favor, Randi.”

“Anything, skip. Name it.”

“Next time you decide to pay the tab,” I shook my head several times. “Don’t!”

“Aye, Skip.”

“Alex?”

“Ya, sis?”

“From now on Chuck and I plan our own vacations.”

“Aye, Brie.” I managed to laugh. “No more interference from me.”

“So…have we set things right with the universe, Alex?” I inquired in an annoyed tone from the Control Room’s doorway.

“So you knew?” I asked my future self.

“Not until a few minutes ago, no.” Alex came over and embraced me. The usual tingle passed between us. She smiled at me. “You know…you really have to stop changing my history, sis. It can get very disconcerting!”

“Oh?”

“Y’all haven’t felt what it’s like to be thinking about something only to be suddenly thinking somethin’ else entirely! No rhyme, no reason!”

“I’m sorry.” I said quietly.

Nothin’ to be sorry for, Alex! It happens sometimes an’ I’m sure it’ll happen way more times too!” She reassured me, pulling me to her once more.

“I let things get out of control. I let the universe become unbalanced- unstable. I almost did more harm than good! I almost killed everyone!”

“We didn’t know, hun! Like this job came with a manual, you know? Or like this body ever came with a manual!”

“That coulda’ been handy, Alex!” Brie giggled.

“As far as I know, Randi is the only one it came standard on!” I giggled also.

“Hey, just because I have a help file and you don’t doesn’t mean I’m any different from you!” Randi protested.

“Our diversity is what makes us work so well together, hun!” Future…present day…2028 Alex told Randi as she started to giggle herself. “Any Skipper knows that.”

I invited my twin up to the console and retargeted, re-zoomed, and refocused the Homeworld.

“Visit Soon. Nice to know we haven’t forgotten ourselves.” She said, reading the already faded agricultural script. “It is a beautiful place, sis.”

“You’ve been there already?” I asked in amazement as I powered down the targeting system.

“Just since you changed things.” Alex growled in mock anger. “Now, before you change anything else, get Brie, Chuck, and Brittany home!” A smile came to her face.

“Ladies…gentleman? The Empress is kicking us out. Please take my hands and hold on.” I laughed.

The now placid Protoverse Control Room became the Mason’s living room.

An unfamiliar song began to emanate from a purse I knew to be Brie’s, sitting on the coffee table.

Quickly fishing through it, my sister pulled out the offending device and touched the screen.

“Hello, Alex.” Brie said calmly as she pointed to the small device she held to her ear.

“Oh, was that today? No…I was kinda busy. What’s…? No…I was with you, sis! Of course she’s still here! We just got back…what? Oh, sure, and congratulations, sis! Here she is.”

Brie handed me the device.

“Alex wants to talk to you, Empress.”

I held the strange device my memories called an ‘I-phone’ to my ear.

“Hello?”

“I hope you’re happy, Alexandra Steinert!” My voice said harshly through the speaker.

“What did I do? Where are you, Alex?”

“As if you didn’t know, ‘Empress’! I’m here in my birthing room- where else would I be today?” My voice was very short with me.

“I’m sorry, sis, I must have forgotten. Everything come out okay?” I cringed at my choice of words, remembering exactly how Alexander’s birth would go.

“Everything went fine, but Alexander was born an hour sooner than I originally remembered! Listen, next time y’all decide to change yer future could ya please think of all the repercussions to the rest of us first? Brandon and I barely made it to the hospital this time! I know I had more of a wait before y’all went an’ changed things up!”

“I’m sorry, sis! I wasn’t ready for what happened this time. I’m sorry it went a little different than before.”

“No harm no foul, hun. I’m glad that things turned out right, that’s all.”

“It didn’t turn out right, Alex. I’m still here. Alex, Jack, and Peyton went instead of me.” I said sadly into the phone.

“I know. They did what they had to, hun.” She paused a second as I heard her choke up. “They did exactly what I would have done- what you would ‘a done given the chance.” There was another pause. “At least we still got Brie, Chuck, an’ Randi, right?”

“Yes, that was my greed-driven objective. I lost myself, Jack, and Peyton in the process though.”

“I have a good feelin’ that they are going to be so happy to see you in a few minutes! It’ll be like y’all didn’t lose a single person, Alex. Remember the requests them two made. Lock all that away from that nosey first officer of ours!”

“I’m not sure I can do that, Alex.”

“You’ll do it, sis. I did it! She won’t find out until well after those events happen- when we go for a visit to the Homeworld.”

The sound of a crying newborn filled the speaker and my ear. Memories of my trip back to the farm to visit Brianna and Dee reappeared, as well as the maternal feelings I had experienced while holding young Dee.

“Sorry, sis, gotta go. They just brought little Alexander in for his first feedin’. We both remember what that’s like, don’t we? Trust me, this is way better than what we felt holdin’ young Dee! See y’all in a few days, hun. Bye.”

The line went dead and I handed the phone back to my sister.

“Alex, why y’all got tears in yer eyes ‘gain?” Brie asked. “Nothin’ bad I hope?”

“No, sis. Tears of joy this time- just tears of joy.” I looked over to Randi a second. “We best be gettin’ on home, Brie. There’s a war still goin’ on.”

“Alex?” Chuck called to get my attention. He wrapped his arms around me and hugged me tight.

“Thanks.” He said quietly. “Thanks for saving Brianna and I.”

He released me and I nodded slightly.

Reaching out to Randi, she took my hand.

“Until another tim…” Brie’s voice began.

Brie’s living room became my quarters on Atlantis-Minor.

“So, what will be different around here, Skip? Now that we changed our futures’ I mean?”

“Nothing. Nothing has changed, Ms. Van Pelt.”

“Why? I mean, things changed then, why wouldn’t that affect us here?”

“Hasn’t happened yet, hun- won’t happen for another eighty-four years.”

“You’re going to make my buffers crash…you know that!” She smiled at me before starting to giggle.

I motioned to my bedroom door and we both walked the short hall out to my office.

Jack rushed me, wrapped her arms around me, and squeezed! Peyton mirrored Jack’s greeting with Randi.

“It worked? Everything…everyone is okay?” Jack asked before releasing me and giving me a strange look.

“What’s wrong, Commander?” I asked. Did she just break through the defenses I had just carefully erected?

“You’re blocking me from something, Alex. Why would you do that, Capt. Steinert?”

“It’s personal, Jack- something I was asked to keep to myself by a couple of good friends.”

“Oh, okay. I just thought it had something to do with me an’ Peyton.”

“Jack, you and Peyton are right here. What…what could y…what have you two been up to since I left?” I did my best to glare at them- hopefully to remove suspicion from me.

“We haven’t done a thing in the ten minutes between you leaving and you returning, Empress.”

“What about the supply requisitions, the fuel depot status…maybe next week’s duty roster?”

“Aye, I’ll get right on it, ma’am!”

Jack stood to attention and exited the office, shaking her head until out the door.

“Ms. Peyton, ready to return to the future and your boyfreind? I believe Detroit departs in two days.”

“Ma’am, if it’s all the same, I’d much rather stay on here a while longer.”

“You’ll have to pull your own weight around here, hun.” I looked directly into her eyes.

“That means no Jedi mind tricks, Ensign!”

“Understood, Captain Steinert.” She acknowledged.

I laughed at her enthusiasm. “Go see Cmdr. Cummins for your assignments, Persephone. One week here for the experience then its back to 2029 for you, hun.”

I continued laughing as I shooed her out.

After locking the door and pulling the shade down to the outside world, I walked back into my quarters. The design and detail of my bedroom still amazed me! Moreover, the comfort provided me by my bed was nothing less than magnificent!

Gently sitting myself on the opulent mattress, I ran my hands across the delicate duvet and patted the smooth, silky fabric a few times.

It had been a difficult three weeks- by my accounting of time. The challenges I had faced- the horrors- the anguish and pain- each took an unprecedented toll on me. I felt worn out- unable to produce any more tears, yet they started to gather in the corners of my eyes all the same. Blinking only caused them to cascade down my face, into my lap thus allowing more to form.

My bed sure was comfortable. Mariah’s attention to my personal comfort was extraordinary, I thought to myself.

I gently lowered myself until prone on my side on that small piece of heaven, the side of my head settled gently on one of several down-filled pillows at my headboard.

It sure felt good to be home, even though it was temporary. It was still home, for now.

My tears now had no bounds- no physical resistance stopped them from leaving my eyes as the stress from the last few weeks suddenly breached their levees! I turned my face directly into that feathery pillow- drew my knees up tightly to my chest and held them securely with one arm.

As my body began to gently heave and spasm, I mourned the loss of those I felt had sacrificed everything for what they truly believed.
 
 
I mourned the loss of three good friends.



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