by Dan Swanson
Finding their home planet in the midst of an ice age that had to be at least decades old, when they had only left it months ago, was stunning. Horus, after all his recent hallucinations and nightmares, simply refused to believe this was reality and withdrew into a coma-like state. Rexford Tyler and Theresa Knight became involved in a long, drawn-out, extremely acrimonious debate on the theoretical dynamics of an ice age, becoming so caught up in their anger and furious arguments that they were able to ignore reality. Gina Lance just collapsed into her bed and stared at the bulkhead, refusing to talk to anyone. Only Drake Burroughs remained active. Over and over again he tried to encourage his teammates back toward reality, but continually failed. He soon began a series of independent actions.
He flew the Verdant Flame closer to Earth, looking for any signs of life. The planet was filthy with radiation, and he could detect no living things on the surface. The water was green with algae, which seemed to be the only surviving life on the planet. The geography was totally distorted, and he couldn’t find any features that were easy to recognize. Once he finally found the Azores mountain range, he was able — with computer assistance — to superimpose continental outlines on the global map he’d made, and he saw that sea level had dropped perhaps a quarter-mile. There was a lot of water tied up in the giant glaciers descending from the poles.
Nowhere could he find any evidence of humanity, which made it difficult to date the disaster. He was able to locate the first lunar lander, the Eagle, still on the moon, so he knew it — whatever it was — had happened after 1969. Computer simulations suggested the ice age had been going on for at least two-hundred and fifty years. This bracketing strongly suggested, to Drake at least, that the final war was related to the attempt by Vandal Savage and Mekanique — or Vandal Savage and Futura, if there were two of those robots — to take over the world.
After about ten hours, he got fed up and disintegrated the door to the cabin Canary had chosen.
“OK, bird babe! I’ve had enough of you lying there sucking your thumb. You are supposed to be the leader. You’ve always been the leader. You always wanted to be the leader. So damn it, get up and lead!” She rolled over and stared at him dully. “You dragged me out of Legion Headquarters and made me a rebel without even asking me, and now you’re going to abandon me? You owe me, chickee!” He’d deliberately used two nicknames that she hated, but there was still no reaction. He wasn’t quite through yet.
“What kind of leader quits when things get tough? Look around you — you may think your world is ended, but there are people who need you now, more than we’ve ever needed you before. If you quit now, why should the rest of us go on?” She still didn’t say anything. “Well, the hell with you, then!” He turned and left the room.
He was trying to learn some alien computer game only a few minutes later when he saw a reflection in the screen. Canary slipped silently and furtively out of her damaged cabin and into another one. He heard a shower, and a few minutes later, the Legion’s leader strode into the cabin like she owned it.
“Five minutes and eight seconds,” Drake said, as if to himself. “Damn, I missed it by over a minute!” He turned and spoke as if none of the above had ever happened.
“Horus is still hallucinating. Rex and Theresa need some direction. And there’s no indication that there was ever any life on Earth. I recommend it would be best for the sanity of all of us if we leave the Solar System, boss! The people who gave me this ship seem to be a pretty nice group. Maybe they need some heroes?”
“Plot a course, Drake, and let’s go see,” she ordered briskly. “I’m going to go talk to the science team.” She spun on her heel and got into the lift to go down to the lab level. Just before the door closed, she said one more thing: “Thanks!” The door closed, and she was gone.
“I guess she’s still way shook up,” he mused, then turned to the control board and started plotting their new course.
Getting out of the Solar System seemed to be a very good idea. Once they didn’t have the dead Earth hanging in their view-screen, their natural resilience began to reassert itself.
“Sorry, Rexy, I don’t believe your theory,” said Drake. “If our timeline was wiped out as if it had never existed, and our parents aren’t dead — instead, they were never born — then why do we remember them? Better yet, where’d we come from? We just spontaneously popped into existence out of nothingness? What about conservation of matter and energy?”
“We were in the past when the timeline changed, so the change didn’t affect us,” explained Rexford. “Conservation of matter and energy is maintained by some mechanism we don’t understand as yet.”
“Sorry — I believe in the quantum universe theory myself,” replied Drake. “You know, the a new universe is formed every time a decision is made theory? The universe we were born in is still out there somewhere, and we’ve just been shunted to a totally different universe.”
Theresa interrupted. “There’s no practical difference. Whether there is only a single timeline, and the entire future of that timeline is rewritten whenever someone changes an important event, erasing the previous timeline, or there’s an infinite number of universes, branching at every important event, to us the results are the same. We are no longer in the universe or timeline in which we were born, and our chances of ever getting back to that place are virtually nonexistent!”
“Makes a big difference to me, twinkles,” said Drake. “In Rex’s one timeline universe, most of the people I ever knew are nothing but memories — fantasies, really, because they are memories of something that never existed. In my quantum universe, all those people are still alive, just somewhere else. I know what I prefer.” He paused a second. “And I think even Rexy will agree that the math involved in my preferred theory is a lot more satisfying than the math in his single timeline theory.”
Rex looked stubborn. “I don’t agree. The quantum theory doesn’t explain where the energy required to create an infinite number of universes comes from.”
Before they could continue the argument, the subspace communicator came to life.
“Gernsback at Knight Base, calling the Legion of Justice! Gernsback at Knight Base, calling the Legion of Justice!”
“Gernsback! Is that really you? How is that possible?!” Rex actually yelled at the subspace transceiver, relief showing in his voice.
“It is I. Check your security panel.” On the security panel built into one of arms of Rex’s chair, a small green light glowed. Gernsback was sending a predetermined message, long ago programmed by Rex, over a specific set of subspace channels encoded and encrypted as strongly as Legion technology allowed. In Rex’s mind, the identification was absolute.
“How can you possibly still exist? Our timeline was erased!” Canary asked. It sounded like Gernsback — but Gernsback sounded a lot like any other talking computer. It wouldn’t be hard to replicate his voice.
“Yes, our timeline was erased, yet you yourself still exist,” Gernsback pointed out. “The story of my survival is similar to your own. I am as expert in time-travel theory and practice as either Rex or Theresa. After you departed on your mission to the past, I constructed a time-cube large enough to transport Knight Base into the past before the time change. When the change was complete, I returned to the present. Knight Base has returned to its original location. I can bring you here immediately.”
“Please d–” Rex began, but he was interrupted.
“Hold on, Gernsy! The Verdant Flame can have us there in about a day, and I don’t want to lose my brand new spaceship!” Drake complained.
“I can bring the ship as well.”
This disturbed Canary, and she started to speak, but Rex was faster. “Do it!”
“Stop!” Canary yelled, but it was too late. The Verdant Flame was now sitting in the hangar deck of Knight Base. “Sit4V6Turtle!”
Sit4V6 meant, roughly, “We’re in enemy territory; don’t trust anyone around you.” Turtle was the golden force-field that immediately surrounded the group, and it was followed instantly by a green shield just outside the golden one. Drake was finally getting the hang of commanding the Starheart.
“Dammit, Rex, I said Turtle. Why aren’t we a half-second uptime?” Canary was furious.
Rex was stunned. “C’mon, Gina, are you nuts? It’s Gernsback…”
“You’re supposed to be the freepin’ genius. How come you never stop and think first? Just ’cause your little green light flashed, that means it must be Gernsback? This must make me Gernsback, right?” She palmed a device from her belt, pointed at the same little green light, now dim, and it flared green again. If there was a beam from her device, it was invisible. “You built Gernsback — does he have the power to jump a whole ship through a boom tube, or whatever just happened?”
“Gernsback doesn’t, but I do.” A tall, golden figure appeared just outside the protective bubbles.
The Legionnaires felt a thunk as Rex jumped them a half-second into the future, and the scene outside the bubble faded to black.
“–anique!” squeaked Horus.
She interrupted, coldly. “Retard us until we can see what’s going on out there! Hold at three nanos uptime.”
Rex relaxed his power a little, and the bubble holding the Legionnaires uptime shifted toward the present. The scene outside became a little brighter. They could see Mekanique standing exactly where she’d been when they vanished. They were invisible to the golden robot, but she had to know they were observing her. Canary studied her for a few minutes, then turned to Rex.
“OK, team, we’re still in Sit4V6, but Turtle is over — for now. Rex, retard us to real time.”
“Now I know you’re nuts! You were just–”
“You know, this is exactly why I ordered you to stay behind when we went on our missions to the past. You don’t pay attention to what you see, and until you do, you are dangerous to yourself and the rest of us. I don’t have time to babysit. Figure it out yourself, or ask me later. Now, retard us. Orders!”
He did, and the five Legionnaires appeared in front of Mekanique.
“I presume you have deduced that I am not the Mekanique you know — and that I am no danger to you. I congratulate you, Canary. For a human, your mind works quickly and logically.”
Rex looked more closely, assisted by all the advanced scanning and sensing tools built into his chair. This was not the same robot that they had encountered before. Both were tall golden robots shaped as voluptuous human females — but the original Mekanique’s body appeared to be organic, with no sharp corners, few straight lines, and very fluid joints, while this body was clearly based on a stack of cylinders with mechanical couplings at the joints. Someone had done a lot of work improving this body, but the original, more primitive configuration still showed through.
“I haven’t reached the no danger to us part yet. Don’t presume I will! Who are you, really, and what do you want?” Canary demanded of the robot.
“Who I am is a long, tedious story. My mind is human, and at one time, I inhabited the robotic body you know as Mekanique. I want my body back, and I want to destroy Vandal Savage. And for my own personal reasons, I sincerely wish to prevent the disaster that destroyed the Earth. I believe that several of these goals are compatible with your own, and I wish to propose an alliance.”
“What’s in it for us?” Drake wanted to know.
“And why should we trust you?” Canary added.
“To begin with, you get the satisfaction of preventing a war that killed billions, including six of your teammates. Additional benefits will accrue.” She stopped for a second, as if thinking. Canary reflected that a second of thought was a long time for Mekanique.
“As for the issue of trust, I can offer only this: Gernsback is convinced of my sincerity. I assisted Gernsback in his escape from the erasure of your previous timeline, and I aided him in retrieving your team and your vessel. I could have as easily let him be erased or just now deposited the five of you in the center of a star. And we have common enemies and similar goals.”
“All that proves is that you need us for something.” It was Canary’s job to be suspicious. “How do we know you won’t attack us when you don’t need us any longer?”
“You cannot. Perhaps during our association our mutual actions might lead to mutual trust.”
The Legionnaires and Mekanique stared at each other for a few seconds without moving. For Mekanique, the subjective interval was thousands of times longer than it was for the human and humanoid Legionnaires. She had other things to do.
“Clearly this is a difficult decision, and your discussion would be much less constrained were I not present. As well, I have urgent issues that require my attention, and I must depart. Shall I return for your decision?”
“Give us a day,” Canary answered.
“Very well. Ciao for now.” And she vanished.
“‘Ciao for now’?!” Horus was stunned. “That doesn’t sound like the Mekanique who just got done torturing us!”
“Boss-lady, how could you just let her go like that?” Greenfire demanded.
“We couldn’t stop her anyway, Drake. Her time-cube is built-in, I think.” She turned to her team. “Turtle.” Instantly, they were surrounded by two sparkling energy shields, and more importantly, they were a half-second uptime. “I don’t believe she can spy on us as long as Rex keeps us uptime. So let’s discuss this.”
The decision to work with this Mekanique to destroy Futura — the other Mekanique — and Vandal Savage, prevent the final war, and save their teammates was a foregone conclusion. It was not to say that it was easily reached; the discussion was not always calm.
Rex asked, “What if we make things worse instead of better?”
“What could be worse than the end of the world?” Horus responded mockingly.