by Dan Swanson
Rexford Tyler and Theresa Knight continued to consider the scientific possibilities upon the whiteboard. And after a great deal of theorization and experimentation, it turned out that their original idea wouldn’t work — they needed to connect the dimension-hopping circuits directly to the cosmic rod, and they couldn’t extract the embedded rod from Theresa’s nervous system without killing her. So they would need to build a duplicate of the energy-controlling circuits from the cosmic rod using components from Rexford’s chair. This would make the problem easier in a way, but in another way, it became more difficult — after they had scavenged the parts they needed out of the chair, Rex would no longer be able to move around. And as his prosthetics were disassembled for other projects, he would become less and less able to assist Theresa. It was a difficult tradeoff, and both of the young scientists were glad that Canary was around to make the hard decisions.
So they turned their attention to the other problem. Could the time-cube built into Rex’s chair be altered as required? It was best to think the entire problem out first. They covered the whiteboard with equations and schematics, and as Theresa created another board, they covered that as well, and they were well into the third board when they broke for lunch.
Drake Burroughs had thoughtfully created some comfortable furniture with his green energy powers, now that he had finally begun to wield them more effectively. His four teammates gratefully slumped onto lounges and overstuffed easy chairs. Rex used the prosthetic arms on his chair to open his built-in emergency supply cabinet and started to hand out nurto-bars.
“Hold on, Rex — I’ve got something better!” Drake pulled a green hemispherical cover off a large green platter to reveal a veritable luncheon buffet — submarine sandwiches, pizza, salad, and a wide variety of drinks. None of it was green. His teammates were astonished.
“How’d you do that?” Canary demanded.
“You all think you are so damn smart, and I’m just the team klutz, and you can ignore me except when you need someone to pull off a miracle. Well, what do you think of that?!” He pointed, and at just that second, the asteroid’s rotation brought a spaceship into view. After a moment of stunned silence, his teammates were all whooping cries of disbelief at him. He ignored them and flew off toward the ship, dragging the bubble and everything in it — including his incredulous teammates — with him.
As they got closer, they saw the name burned into the bow of the ship: Verdant Flame.
“Like her? She’s ours. The technology isn’t familiar — it’s human, but there is no Terran influence. But the Starheart is a universal translator, and I’ve put labels on everything.” He smirked as he spoke. The babble among his teammates finally died down, and Canary spoke.
“OK, we get the point. We ignored you, and you obviously had a good idea. Great going! So what did you do?”
“I asked the Starheart if it could help us get to civilization. Back in the twentieth century, Green Lantern discovered that he could use his ring to create wormholes and fly through them. As you know, travel through wormholes is virtually instantaneous, regardless of the distance covered in our own universe. And there are no relativistic effects, because all the travel actually takes place in another dimension.” Thanks to his immature personality, they often forgot that Drake himself was also a scientist, so he was enjoying reminding them.
“Anyway, I asked the Starheart to create a wormhole to the nearest inhabited star system. I don’t know how it did that — remember, it’s magic! But it’s only a couple light years away. I jumped there, introduced myself to the leader of their Solar Patrol, and bargained for a spaceship. I used my powers to help them do some asteroid construction, and they gave me a small interstellar vessel in return. So here I am!”
“Wait a minute!” Rex interrupted. “If the Starheart can travel through wormholes, why do we even need a ship?”
“Good question, Rexy! About time you guys started thinking again! As you know, wormholes are infinitesimally small. It requires a tremendous amount of energy to open one wide enough for a person, and even the Starheart doesn’t have the power to hold it open for more than an instant. One person is the limit that the Starheart can transport. A second traveler would get trapped in that wormhole forever.” Drake shuddered. Rex looked sick. Being trapped in a wormhole would be much worse than anything he had ever endured, even losing the use of his limbs.
They reached the Verdant Flame, and Greenfire shepherded his teammates through the airlock into the gallery. “You guys enjoy your lunch. I’ll get us moving!” he said cheerfully. The anger toward Drake had dissipated, and it was replaced by kind of a sheepish embarrassment. They wouldn’t ignore him again.
“This ship is a dream!” Drake was showing Horus and Gina how to fly the Verdant Flame, while Rex struggled with the limited historical database available in the ship’s computers, and Theresa monitored subspace communication traffic. Though Rex’s chair-mounted computer wasn’t nearly the equal of Gernsback, with a little Starheart-assisted guidance from Drake, it was up to the task of translation. The fact that there were a lot of stored videos helped, too.
“It’s at least ten times faster than any of the ships we found in Knight Base. It must operate on totally different principles than the Knight-O’Malley warp drive.”
This was a sore point for Theresa, and it was why she was monitoring the communications gear rather than learning to fly the ship. Her family pride was injured that someone had invented a better space drive than her great-grandfather. It seemed such a petty thing to be prideful about. Yet she couldn’t quite get past it yet.
Maybe that was because it kept her mind off the much bigger issue. All of them were focusing on small things now, because they were too scared to look at the big picture. If Rex was right, their entire universe was gone — had been erased from existence, in fact, and had never been. This made them what — shadows or ghosts? How could you be a shadow or a ghost of something that had never existed? The paradox was mind-boggling, enough to drive the most stable mind insane, and so they all were doing their best to focus on little things.
What was even worse was the suspicion that their own meddling in the past had caused this whole thing. Of course they had good intentions; of course they had just done the right things — but what if all of this was their fault? Even though they all concentrated on other things, this uncertainty was eating at all of them, and they were all very tense.
“I have bad news,” Rex spoke to the air in the control room around him.
“Freepin’ Q, Rex, is that all you ever do? Give us more bad news?” Drake’s voice was dripping in venom.
“Shut it, Drake!” Canary snapped. “We’ve got enough problems without you picking a fight!”
“Listen, bird babe! I’ve had just about enough of you tellin’ me what to do. Urbane made you the leader, but we don’t have to do what he says anymore, and I think it’s time we had a new leader.”
“You think you could lead this sorry bunch? OK, the job’s yours. I freepin’ quit!” Canary yelled.
For a second, nobody moved. Nobody said anything, but at least one of them was thinking really hard.
“Uh, Gina? Please don’t do that to me…” Drake’s voice was small and sheepish. “If I apologize and grovel, will you take the job back?”
“Do you think I really meant it, you green gazoo? Everyone, get back to work!” For the moment at least, things were back to normal. “And Drake?”
He turned to look at her apprehensively.
“If you ever call me ‘bird babe’ again…” she paused, trying to think of some terrible punishment, but couldn’t. “…um… well, don’t! Got it?”
He would have grinned, if he’d had lips.
“Um… I still have bad news,” Rex spoke. “There is no information in this database to suggest that the human race on Earth ever achieved star travel.” He was greeted by stunned silence.
“That matches what I’m finding, Rex,” Theresa added in a shaky voice. “I have been able to detect no subspace communications, and no radio signals coming from Earth since we started monitoring. As you know, our Earth radiated as much radio energy as a small star. As we were about twenty light years from Earth when we began our flight, I’m forced to conclude that there has been no significant radio activity on Earth for at least twenty years.”
The rest of the team was silent for several seconds, considering how far civilization would have to fall to reach a level where there was no significant use of radio. It was almost scarier than knowing that their original universe was gone — in this universe, the civilization on Earth was, at most, at a pre-twentieth-century level.
“There must be other explanations!” As leader, it was Canary’s job to explore every option. “Suppose they perfected communication via gravity waves? Wouldn’t that be a much better option than radio?”
“My cosmic rod could detect that, too. No luck!” said Star Lass, immediately shooting down that idea. “Good thought, though.”
Canary couldn’t think of any more alternate explanations. “We’ll know for sure soon enough. Bring us in behind the Moon. Just to be safe, Horus and I will get into spacesuits. Drake, you’ll have to–”
Before she could finish, Rex interrupted, “This will give me a chance to field-test my built-in environmental force-field.” Canary subsided, grateful that she didn’t have to make special arrangements for their teammate, and relieved that Drake wouldn’t be distracted in facing whatever they were going to encounter.
They landed on the far side of the Moon near the terminator, and Greenfire and Star Lass flew outside on recon. Horus, the best pilot in the Legion, remained ready to evade anything that might attack, and Gina and Rex used the instruments of the Verdant Flame to search for any signs of humanity on the Moon or in the solar system. But they found nothing.
Reaching the terminator, Star Lass and Greenfire were able to see the Earth — and they were horrified at what they saw.
“It’s covered in ice! It looks like an ice age!” Indeed, much of the Earth was blinding white, apparently covered in ice, starting from each pole and extending about two thirds of the way to the equator. In the icy region, even the oceans appeared to be frozen. In the small ice-free region near the equator, they could see blue ocean and brown continents. But the blue of the oceans was wrong; it was much too green. And there was no other green on the planet. From all appearances, it was a dead Earth.
“Rex, this really is Earth, right?” Canary asked. She knew she was clutching at straws, but this horror was too awful to merely accept.
“Stars are right, and telescopes show Jupiter and Saturn,” said Rex. His waldos pressed buttons, and the two most distinctive planets in the solar system were displayed side by side. “The Great Red Spot, Saturn’s rings, and especially the hexagonal cloud island at Saturn’s north pole are as distinctive as fingerprints.” He had a thought and checked something else. “Speaking of stars, I just checked the star patterns and the solar clock, and this really is 2285. Right time and the right place, but the wrong timeline!”