RustWhen we drop from warp, we stare at the navigational charts in stunned silence. How could an Eden vessel use Safeharbor protocols?
More questions surface as my eyes explore the charts. Something's wrong here. The system isn't where it should be, located in an entirely different part of the galaxy.
"Are you seeing this?" I ask. "This Isn't where the Sepia cluster should be."
Fray nods. "It's not just sepia. Several systems I'm well aware of are not where they should be. I don't think we're done quite yet."
"What do you mean?"
They pull up a live feed, the planet I once called home appearing on the display. It's not how I left it. The reds are darker, blended with blood orange. The Colossus of Rhodes is nowhere to be seen, a Dreadnought class that'd be hard to miss.
We venture into the atmosphere and the city covering the planet is crumbling. The buildings used to be taller. We pass over entire districts that simply aren't there anymore. The metal plates that held them up have no given way, sending the district into the depths below.
All signs of life are gone. The red flora that once dominated the landscape are gone, the fauna are either dead or so deep underground they can't be differentiated from the planet's geothermal processes.
I hear a notification and see an open communication meant for us. I answer, "This is Captain Amberlie "Pariah" Hurst of the…" I freeze. It suddenly occurs to me that this ship lacks a name.
The person on the other side doesn't give me time to finish. A man responds, his voice urgent. "Captain, a storm is nearing. Why aren't you docked yet?"
"A storm?" I ask.
"Reports predict a rust storm just south of Hope. I'm sending coordinates to the nearest open dock. Get in before the shield goes up."
"Understood," I respond, though it sounds more like a question.
When docked, I came to understand just why the message was so urgent. As we land, we notice something on the horizon, a wave of red dust headed for our position. We see a flash of blue light, then another, each lighting in sequence from one side of the region to the other.
The light reaches far into the sky, and with each beacon lit, the beams connect and spread. When the process is complete, the entire region is covered in a blue dome, a shield.
The wave of dust hits the shield hard, causing distortion as the light pushes back. The storm rages, blocking the sun. Electrical arcs flash, dancing across an otherwise blackened sky.
In a matter of minutes, the storm fades. Light shines back through the cloud of rust. The dome holds firm, a thin layer of iron coating the outside and stretching out in sharp spikes.
The dome breaks, one section at a time. The rust slides down the side and to the ground outside of the dome until the shield is completely deactivated.
I've never seen this kind of weather before. I turn to Fray and ask, "What is this?"
"The future of Safeharbor, it seems, or maybe a different version of Safeharbor entirely." They reply. "I think we still have a ways to go."
"How?" I ask, but before they can answer, they are interrupted by another message.
"Captain, what did you say your name was?"
I respond, anxiety building. Surely they don't remember me now. "Amberlie "Pariah" Hurst."
"No kidding." The man pauses, and the wait feels like ages. "I'm sorry to say but you've come at a really bad time. We're evacuating as we speak."
"Why?" I ask.
"This outpost is the last on the planet, a research project observing the supernova."
"Yup, she's about to go boom and we don't want to be around when she does."
Fray tilts their head. "How can they predict a supernova? That's well beyond human technology. It's almost beyond ours too."
Before I can ask, the man speaks again. "Docking restrictions have been lifted. You're free to go when you're ready. You have maybe four hours."
"Thank you." I reply. I turn to Fray. "Let's just go."
"Sepia 9." The man says.
"You're next destination. It's Sepia 9. Safe travels, Pariah." Before I can reply, the signal cuts out. I check the navigational charts as we lift off the landing pad.
Sepia 9 is gone, and that's what makes this interaction so scary. It's a black hole, a singularity, another passage through time.
Streets of gold
We venture into the singularity at Sepia 9, and emerge soon after. I lay in a course for Sepia 1, the warp drive activates, and soon after I'm met with a blinding light.
This was to be a planet of rust, but all I see is shimmering steel. The live feed shows the furthest thing from what I'd call home. The planet feels alive. I see towering spires, ships flying to and from the surface carrying a vast assortment of cargo.
I see the Colossus of Rhodes, a Dreadnought perched above the planet's northern pole. They open communications immediately but I hesitate to answer.
"Should we leave and try again?" I ask. "Our ship doesn't even have a name."
"Too late now." Fray replies.
I answer the call, "Colossus of Rhodes, this is-"
The voice of a woman cuts me off. "You're late, hurst. Maintain approach and dock in Autumn. We've been expecting you."
I scoff. "Excuse me?" My words go unanswered.
"Curious," Fray says with a smile. "Do it. I want to know what's going on here."
We land and leave the ship to the roar of thunderous applause. The sound makes me shake, the last thing I could have expected upon returning home.
Fray and I are escorted through the crowd by wayfarers. The crowd cheers, chanting my name as if they know me. I'm terrified. What sick joke is this?
As we move I catch a sight that stops me dead in my tracks, a statue depicting me in all the ways I'm not. I stare up at her, this unknown hero that wears my face. Who the hell is she? She stares into the sky, her pose triumphant, defiant even.
Fray chuckles, a sound I barely hear over the crowd. They lean close to my ear, shouting to be heard, "They really captured your good side, I think."
"Stop," I snap, though it's clear I'm not mad at them. "This is wrong. Something isn't right."
My words dig deep, as if only now could Fray really see how I'm feeling. "What's wrong?"
"My people hate me." I shout.
Their eyes narrow, scanning the crowd for some sign of malice. "I can't tell."
The escorts push forward. We follow close behind, stopping at the steps of a small building. The words on the front are engraved with gold, "The Hurst Museum Of History and Art."
I see pictures of me, my face smiling from fabric tapestries draped over the side of the building. My breathing increases, my heart pounding.
"Relax," Fray says.
"I can't. This isn't right." I reply, slowly making my way up the steps. I reach a glass door and peer through. The inside is filled with exhibits, but it's hard to tell what they are. I see my face on the walls. I see small model replicas of my old ship. I see an engine dangling from the ceiling that looks eerily similar to the one on the ship we arrived in.
Finally, I'm calm, curious. I reach out and open the door. I try to step through. Before I can, a woman with striking blue eyes and long blonde hair appears and blocks my path.
Another follows behind her, but they aren't a woman. They're lebhan, with black hair and golden eyes.
I take a long look at their faces. I recognize them. They're us, but older. My face bears the slightest trace of wrinkles, laugh lines. Of all things, I see laugh lines on my future face.
"Amber?" The woman says with a wink.
I reply with wide eyes, "How?"
The woman shrugs, "I think I asked the exact same question. I still don't have an answer." She waves off the crowd, smiling as the roar dies down. The crowd slowly disperses as she turns back to me and says, "Come on. We're refueling your ship and there's just so much we could talk about." We then walk along the metal streets, with Fray and their twin following close behind.
I start asking questions immediately, beginning with the most pressing concern, "Nothing's going to happen right? We're not going to break the universe if we talk?"
The woman shrugs. "I don't think so. It didn't when I was in your shoes."
"How old are you? How long has it been?"
She laughs the kind of laugh I never thought possible coming from me, the kind of laugh that's full of life; the joyous kind of laughter. "Time is an illusion. You know that. Maybe a hundred years or so, give or take."
"I live that long?" I ask.
"That's up to you. I did." She replies.
"Are we not the same person?"
She shrugs. "I don't know. We could be, or maybe we're just different versions of the same woman. We never figured that out."
I nod and give a smile. "So what happens? You seem so much happier than me."
They pause and tilt their head, as if my words went off script. "What do you mean?"
I feel a sudden rush of panic. What if this is beyond me, a possible life I could never live? "Maybe I should just wait and see."
They smile back, but it feels less than genuine. "That might be best. I'd hate to spoil it for you."
We talk for a time, but it never goes anywhere. I'm surprised at how boring I am. Even when talking to myself I have so little to say.
It's clear something was off. My questions were unexpected. Even when it came time to say goodbye and board the ship, my future self failed to hide her concern. Maybe it's best not to dwell on that. I've had enough hardship at this point.
We return to Sepia 9, enter and exit. When we do, I finally see the Safeharbor I remember. I feel tears rise and fall down my cheek. Finally… I'm home.
The other Fraeia looks ahead to make sure Amber can't hear. "No need for pleasantries, yes?" They ask.
Fraeia nods and listens as the other whispers. "Your the key to all of this. You have one final job to do, and if you fail-" they pause and take a deep breath. "Don't fail. She can't take it."
"I understand. What is my final task, then?" Fraeia asks.
The other stares deep into Fray's eyes. "Amber's mother. A deal was made and there's a debt that needs to be paid. No hesitation."