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Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

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Master of the Portal
Master of the Portal

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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 10:53 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

“Through a Mirror Darkly”

Chapter 14

“Broken Reflections”

Originally posted on November 4th, 2009

[19-Aug-2009 23:30]

Byte had just drifted off to sleep in her room when the sound of lightning crackling and booming woke her up. “Must be a nasty storm”, she muttered, and looked outside – to a crystal clear night. “Huh?”, she grunted, and then heard the thud of something heavy hitting the floor on the other side of the room. She turned her head quickly, and reached for the nearby .357. Her optic implant switched to night vision, and she saw someone getting up off the floor. In the middle of the room, about two feet off the floor, was a black disk about 6 feet in diameter. It just about reached the ceiling, emitting crackling sparks and various waves of alpha, beta and gamma radiation.

The figure slowly turned around, and their eyes met. The face was beyond familiar – it was her own! “No! “, she yelled. “How can this be? I’m in this bed? Who are you?”

“I am you – from the future”, the other ByteSlinger said, quietly,” And we have a lot to talk about!”

Byte1 sat up fast, and aimed her pistol at Byte2’s head. “Look, this isn’t funny. I don’t know who you are, or what you’re doing, so you’d better speak fast, or…”

“… or what – you’ll shoot me?”, Byte2 parried. “Look behind me – ever see a portal like that before? And look at this”, as she held up her cybernetic left arm, “Just how many of these do you think Tim made? Let’s face it, you’re more curious as to how I – or you - oh, fuck, I hate quantum relativity – are in two places at once right now!”

Still holding her weapon steady, Byte1 countered, “Yeah, you talk a good game – I’ll need more proof than that if you expect me to even consider believing this story”

Byte2 thought a moment, and then smiled as she said, “What if I told you something that only you would know that you never shared with anyone, ever?”

“So, what deep, dark secret about me can you tell me that’s going to change my mind?”, Byte1 smirked.

“I know what happened to your left eye.”,Byte2 started, “Yes, you lost your arm in that rescue accident years ago, but there’s more to it than that. After the transport was hit, you were lying under the rubble, losing blood and in shock. You were in a lot of pain, and didn’t know if you were going to live or die. Dying was honorable, but you didn’t want to live life as a cripple, always being less than a woman. So, while still under the cover of the wreckage, you took your pistol, aimed it at your head, and pulled the trigger, hoping to kill yourself. But all the blood on your hand made the gun slip, and the bullet pierced your eye and cracked the socket on the way out. With all the gunfire and explosions around you, no one ever heard you pull the trigger. When you realized that you had failed to kill yourself, you took it as a sign that today was not your day to die. So you staggered to your feet and managed to get noticed – and rescued as well.”

Byte1’s jaw dropped open slowly, and she lowered he weapon – and then her head. “I never told ANYONE that. I was too ashamed to admit that I failed twice that day – I failed the rescue mission, and then…so, you really are me? What’s going on? Why are you here? And what the hell is that thing?”

“That ‘thing’ is a Portal that can span space, time and even alternate dimensions. It was developed from a prototype based on the Portal gun from the Aperture Science labs”, answered Byte2,” and I have used it to jump back here so I – er you – oh, actually, it will be “I” - can prevent a kidnapping and an attack on the EGB.”

Byte1 looked puzzled. “Derived from the Portal Gun? How….”

But before she could finish, there was another burst of lightning in the room. Byte2 turned around quickly to see what was happing with the portal – and there, along side it, at an awkward angle, was a second portal! A moment later, a body rolled out of the portal, jumped up and aimed a gun at them both - It was ANOTHER ByteSlinger!!!

“Jeez, three of us – this is getting too weird!”, Byte2 commented. Byte1’s eyes were wide – this was too much to take in all at once.

Byte3, still panting from jumping through the portal, glared at them both, and barked “Look, I can’t let you kill her! You don’t have the right to change time the way you see fit!”

Byte1 looked at Byte2 and asked, ”Were you going to kill me?”

Byte2 answered, “I’m not sure what I was going to do – I figured we’d talk first, and then working something out!”

“LIAR!”, Byte3 screamed. “You know the only way to change the future is for you to do it – not her!”

Another crackle and more lightning – and a third Portal opened, disgorging a 4th ByteSlinger. This one, however, did not have any implants – she was fully human!

“If she must die to make things right, then isn’t that a death worth dying for?”, Byte4 added. “I am here to make sure she carries out her mission – things need to be changed!”

Byte’s private quarters were a decent size, but with three portals flaring and 4 armed woman from various dimensions all arguing at once, things were starting to get claustrophobic. Chaos broke out, and it looked like the yelling would never stop. But it did – when the fourth portal opened up in the ceiling. Another ByteSlinger fell out – this one similar to Byte1 – but her implants were reversed, right to left.

“No more meddling with the space-time continuum!, “yelled Byte5, “All of this unnecessary travel is going to create a tear in the subspace layer! “

“Um, looks like it already did!”, Byte2 commented, as more and more of the room began to lose its shape when portal after portal after portal began to open up.

“Shit, we’ve breached the dimensional barrier! “, Byte3 announced, barely audible above the roar of space-time ripping.

“What does this mean?”, Byte1 screamed, grabbing Byte2 by the front of the shirt.

“It means that we are now in a temporal-causal event that will keep growing exponentially until either all of our dimensions are obliterated – or someone figures out how to stop it. There is a mobius-loop cause and effect problem here. Something has to change here – and quick – or we are all royally fucked.”

In all the chaos, no one notice that one of the bodies that joined the pan-dimensional meltdown looked nothing at all like the others. It looked like a man, but it was hard to tell under the hooded robe. And no one noticed that he took aim with his Deagle and squeezed off one shot…

At the same moment, Byte1 took a swing at Byte2 with her cybernetic arm – and then fell back as the bullet tore through the connections at Byte1’s cyber-wrist. It shorted out the arm’s circuitry with visible sparks.

A second shot followed right behind the first, and this one tore the left hand off completely. This didn’t hurt Byte1, but it did surprise her. She looked towards the direction of the last shot to see her attacker’s face…

The third shot found its mark, tearing through her skull, and leaving an exit wound the size of a softball out of the back of her head. She fell to the bed, dead before touching the covers. Byte2 spun around, her weapon drawn – and all of the other Bytes were starting to do the same.

Then Byte2 gave a puzzled smile to the newcomer – and then her eyes went wide as he removed his hood.


“Figured you might need some help.”, he answered with an impish grin.

“But how? I should have changed the future already! What happened?”

“If you wait a few moments, you’ll understand what I’m about to tell you a little bit better…”

Slowly at first, and then growing faster, one by one the Portals began to shrink down, pulling in their respective Bytes as they closed.

“You see, right now, in some quantity of parallel dimensions, you are trying to save your future. And all of you will succeed or fail to varying degrees. In some cases, the quantum and temporal outcomes create a paradox or instability, and the entire dimension will eventually shut down – and no one will ever remember it. Some of you will wind up back in the same base dimension as you started in –and others will miss by anywhere from one electron to a completely alternate civilization. But the instance of your consciousness that you call “you” can only perceive the four dimensional version of all of this – so, you will be satisfied as long as everything you think should be right is right.”

“Perceptive reality?”, Byte2 questioned.

“No, it’s beyond that. All realities exist – it’s just that we are limited to which one we choose to accept. We can only comprehend that we exist in one continuum as one soul. But in truth, all of your variations in all of these dimensions are just bits and pieces that make up ONE you. It’s like one toe not realizing that the other toes are all part of the same foot – and both feet are part of the same body.”

“All I wanted to do is go back and make things right”, Byte shrugged. “So, did I? Will I?”

“You will continue on with the path you must take. But you must accept the fact that no matter what path you chose, you can’t save everyone.”

“I couldn’t even save myself”, she said glumly, looking at the bleeding corpse of her past self. “Why did she have to die?”

EagleRock walked forward, and picked up Byte1’s corpse in his arms. “Because if she didn’t die, you wouldn’t be here now.” EagleRock reached into the cyberarm, and pulled out both storage modules, sticking them in his pockets.

Byte2 watched as EagleRock walked over to his own portal, and aimed what looked like a hefty TV remote at it. The portal sparked and pulsated and then complained bitterly as the new signals pierced the event horizon.

Before Byte2 could ask, EagleRock told her what he was doing. “Just reprogramming the other end…ok…there we go!”

And with a mighty heave, EagleRock tossed Byte1’s body into the portal. The Portal hissed like hot steel in a cold bucket of water – and then vanished, with no trace of the body or itself.

EagleRock turned to Byte, and smiled. “You’re a good soldier. Go finish your mission – and don’t forget about me!”. Then, like a Cheshire cat, he faded away to nothing, leaving Byte all alone in her quarters, stuck in the past.

* * * *
[Gamma 3-July-1904]

No one noticed the mountain shake as a portal opened up deep inside the rocky layers. For a moment, a pocket of space had been displaced long enough for Byte1’s body to fall out of the portal. Then the moment the portal disappeared, tons of rock crushed down to flatten it. Everything seemed to be displaced except for her cybernetic arm, still missing a hand, and bent a little at the elbow. It would stay buried like this for almost one hundred years – when it would be dug up by an up and coming technician named “Slinger”…

* * * *
[20-Aug-2009 midnight]

The clock chimed midnight as Byte sat down hard in the chair at her desk. The only evidence that anything had happened at all was the blood stains on the bed and the chunks of brains and skull on the wall. It was odd that no one heard all the commotion, but that was okay. She cleaned up all of the mess, wrapped up the sheets and bed covers, and stowed them in a large, heavy-duty trash bag. Finding clean sheets, she flipped the mattress, remade the bed to military specs, and straightened up the rest of the room. After a much-needed hot shower, she dried off, put on a soft sweatsuit, and crawled into bed. She never slept in pajamas, in case she had to get up at a moments notice to be ready for battle.

Despite all of the questions humming in her brain, the moment her head relaxed on her favorite pillow she fell off into a deep sleep. All of the exhaustion had caught up with her – and tomorrow, she had more work to do.

[20-Aug-2009 07:30]
Byte usually wakes up to the sounds of a very annoying alarm clock that she takes great pleasure in beating on until it’s quiet. This morning, however, her alarm clock had a rank and hovered over her bed, shaking her arm and repeating her name over and over again…

“Byte, Byte, you gotta get up! You’re late for the early meeting with Slash”, Lizzardis was wide eyed, almost panicky. “You know today we unveil the new tank – and one of us gets to be chosen as the first driver! Come on! Get up!”

Byte shook the cobwebs from her head. It was morning, and she had no idea about anything on her itinerary. She had hoped to discuss that with her previous self, but that never happened. And Lizzardis had no idea that the ByteSlinger he was talking to was actually a future version of herself. So far, so good. But she did have this overwhelming urge just to hug him, grateful that he was still alive. However, that might make things awkward for protocol. With an age difference of over twenty years, Lizz though of Byte as his “Auntie” at times – but never called her that in front of the command staff. In turn, she never called him “Tiny Lizz” in front of anybody except Krev, who gave him that name a while back.

“Okay, I’m up. Thanks. Please go tell Slash that I will be there in five minutes, ok?”

“Sure – see you at the hanger!”, and Lizz bounced out of the room, closing the door behind himself.

Byte jumped up, put on her milspec camos, belt and boots, grabbed her PDA and headed into the bathroom to brush her teeth and tie her hair back in a ponytail. “Good enough!”, she said to herself in the mirror, and headed out to the hanger.

* * * *
SlashFirestorm gave Byte a stern look, letting her know that he didn’t appreciate her tardiness. Byte stood front and center in front of Slash, saluted, and said “Sorry about being late, Commander. It won’t happen again!”

“See to it that it doesn’t - or you will be demoted. Understand?”, and he returned the salute.

“Sir, yes sir!”, and she turned on her heels and walked into formation. Only Krev and SlntCobra1 saw her smile to herself and heard her mutter “I should get an Emmy for that act!”. This made them both snicker, and Slash glared at them both. “What’s so damn funny?”, he demanded.

“Cobra farted”, Krev lied, and this made even more of the barracks chuckle.

“Did not!”, retorted SlntCobra, “You didn’t hear anything!”

“Yeah, we know it was you.”, Porkchop added. “You even admit to it in your sig: ‘You’ll know when I strike!’”

Now everyone was laughing – and even Slash had a smile on his face. Slash looked at Byte and said, “Why is it that whenever you get called into a meeting or become part of a conversation, that it’s not long before we get derailed and are reduced to hysteria, innuendos, bad puns, wry humor – and then I lose control of the situation?”

Byte smiled and answered, “It’s a talent I have.”

“Okay, enough!”, barked Slash “Let’s get down to business. We are here today to unveil the first prototype mega-tank that we will use to not only defend the Portal, but to patrol the nastier parts of the General district – and level them if they get out of hand. Fellow Elite Guards, I present to you the first edition M1A1 EagleRock Abrams!”

Slash pulled a long rope, and the curtains fell away, revealing a tank that made everyone’s jaw drop. It had triple 120mm main cannons, dual sub-machine guns, forward and rear flame throwers and heat seeking missiles, special armor plating, and an interior that made the bridge of the Enterprise D jealous.

SlashFirestorm continued his speech “Today, on the two-year anniversary of EagleRock’s untimely death, we celebrate his life and spirit by giving his name to this new line of specialized assault vehicle. We know that like its namesake, it will help us fight the good fight, bring justice to where there is chaos, and bring peace to all – one way or another.”

Everyone started to clap and cheer. Phantom, Coop83, PossiblePancakes and Andrea364 all had tears in their eyes. It was a bittersweet moment for them. They were there when he died – and some wounds never quite heal right.

“There is just one more thing to do.”, Slash picked up a battered helmet off of the table. Across the front the stenciled name “EagleRock” was still visible. “All of you, take off your dog tags, and drop them in his helmet.”, and as the helmet was passed around, everyone placed their tags in with quiet respect and reflection. When they were all collected, Slash shook them around a little bit, and then walked over to Phantom and asked, “Will you do the honors?”

Nodding yes, Phantom reached in to the helmet, swirled his hand around a bit, and then grabbed a chain. He pulled out a set of tags, and handed them to Slash. Slash looked at the tags, and smiled.

“Yes, he will do quite nicely. Staff Sergeant SlntCobra1, front and center!”

Cobra broke formation, and strode directly towards SlashFirestorm. Cobra saluted, and Slash returned it briskly.

“SlntCobra1, you are hereby assigned the additional duty of tank commander for the first edition M1A1 EagleRock. You may select up to three additional soldiers to be in your crew. In your tank, you will be commander, regardless of the rank of those you select as crew. You will be fully responsible for the care, maintenance and well being for the tank and your crew – and in return, you will be able to test it as you see fit, within the general guidelines of the Barracks. Do you accept this assignment?”

“HELL YES!!!!!!”, SlntCobra screamed, “WOOO HOOO!!!! I got me one bad-ass tank!”

Slash smiled at seeing Cobra’s face light up. He knew that Cobra was the perfect man for this duty. But he also knew that from now on, the only place he’ll ever find Cobra will be in, on or under that tank.

Everyone clapped and cheered for SlntCobra. Krev walked up to him, gave him a hug, and said, “if you want, I’ll paint a cobra logo and your name on it for you”.

“That’ll be great. Thanks!”, he answered, still grinning from ear to ear. Everyone started to walk around the tank to get a better look, and as they passed EagleRock’s helmet, they collected their tags back, and realized that somehow, somewhere, he was looking down on all of this today, and smiling with them all.

Byte walked up to Cobra and said, “I have the perfect target you can tackle on her maiden voyage”

“Oh? What’s that?”, Cobra asked.

“Well, I know that thing is powerful – but do you think you can level a mountain with it?

“Mountain?”, Cobra scoffed. “Shit, with this thing, I can level an entire city!”

“Good. Meet me after lunch mess. I think we’ll be going on a little field trip!”, Byte said with a dark grin, and then she saluted SlntCobra, and walked back to her quarters.

“I’ll have him collapse the mountain before the portal is ever finished.”, she thought to herself, “No one will be able to get through to this side, and they won’t be able to kidnap our commanders. Everything will be the way it should…be…”

Then it dawned on her. “EagleRock has been dead for two years now? He died in 2007? No, that’s not how I remember it – he should still be alive!

[End of Chapter 14]


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Master of the Portal
Master of the Portal

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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 10:53 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

Through a Mirror Darkly

Chapter 15

Loose Ends

Originally posted on November 7th, 2009

[20-Aug-2009 09:15]

Byte sat at her computer in her quarters, and brought up the current roster for the EGB. EagleRock was not on the active roster – in fact, he was declared a war casualty two years ago. “He didn’t make it out alive”, she thought. “He died, along with twenty other soldiers, in that CS fiasco back in ‘07. That’s why they named a tank after him.”

As Byte read the entire list of those who died in that struggle, her eyes began to well up. “Such a tragedy. If only I bounced back to ’07, I could have prevented that loss as well. But it still doesn’t make sense – I know that EagleRock survived that skirmish – he was barely alive, but he did survive…So why does history now show him as dead?”

There was a knock on the door. Byte closed the Roster files, and called out ,”Who is it?”

“Hey, it’s me, Lizz – and I got Cobra here. Can we come in?”

“Sure. It’s unlocked.”, Byte answered, and rotated her desk chair to face the door.

Lizzardis came bopping in, looking more chipper than usual, followed by an equally happy SlntCobra1. They both looked like they just won the lottery, and Byte wondered if they’d ever stop smiling.

“Guys, those grins are creeping me out. What’s up?”, she asked cautiously.

“Cobra asked me to be the rear gunner in his new tank! So when goes to blow stuff up, I get to help!”, Lizz replied gleefully.

“Congrats to both of you. That’s one cool piece of hardware you have there. Just don’t blow up anything that will piss of Slash, ok? In fact, don’t blow up Slash, either! He probably won’t find it as funny as we would.”

“Thanks. We’ll keep that in mind. Lizz, make sure you put a Post-it on your console that says “Please refrain from blowing up the Supreme Commanders. They won’t find it amusing.”

Lizz chuckled, and Cobra continued. “Byte, I understand you wrote a lot of the AI code for the Tank’s systems, right?”

Byte had to stop and think a moment. She had memories of many weeks of traveling between dimensions and living out of time. For her, this was four or five months ago – and a lot happened in between. But it did sound somewhat familiar, so she decided to play along.

“Hey, you know that’s what I do best”, she offered, without really answering his question.

“Well, would you like to join us as our Tactical and Communications officer?”, offered SlntCobra

“Can I blow stuff up, too?”

“Oh, yeah – you’ll be guiding the long-range remote-view Sidewinders and keeping on top of the onboard systems. You know – geek stuff!”, explained Cobra.

Byte decided to give him a hard time just to break his chops. “Gee, I don’t know. Me stuck in a tank with two sweaty guys…”

“Three, actually”, interjected Lizz. “PorkChop is our pilot and navigator”

“Well, that settles it. How can you turn down an offer to not only run the systems on a new prototype assault tank, but share that experience with three young men who are hoping the air conditioning fails so I get so hot I have to strip down to my camo bra. Sign me up!”

“WOOO HOOOO!”, cheered Cobra

“You really wear camo bras?”, asked Lizz.

“Yes, but nothing with an underwire.”, Byte replied, ”They set off the metal detectors – and I don’t need the extra support, thank you! Now, when do we start playing with your new toy, Cobra?”

“How about we meet later, say around 14:00, in the tank hangar?”

“Works for me. Gives us time to grab some grub before we set out. Okay, we’ll meet up then.”, Byte agreed.

“Cool. I gotta get back to the hangar. Krev is painting a Cobra logo on it for me, and I want to see how it’s going. Lizz, you coming?”

“Actually, I wanted to talk to Byte about something first. I’ll catch up with you later, Ok?”

“Sure. See you guys later!”, and Cobra closed the door as he happily left to go play with his toy.

Byte looked at Lizz curiously. “So, what’s up, Tiny Lizz?”

Lizz smiled at the personal greeting. “Well, Auntie, I’m kinda embarrassed to bring this to you. It could just be my imagination, and then you’ll get upset because I’m making something out of nothing…”

“Lizz!”, interrupted Byte, “How many times have I told you – if it’s important to you, it’s important to me – that’s what friends are for! Now, take a deep breath, relax, and tell me what’s on your mind.”

After a deep breath, Lizz looked at Byte and began his story. “When I saw you this morning, something looked a little out of place. You looked different, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. But, after a while, it came to me. It’s your cyber arm…”

“What about my arm?”

“It’s different. I know you added some modifications to it over time, but they were small. Now, besides being almost completely chock full of parts that I’ve never seen before, it’s also a different shade of grey. And it’s scratched up a lot more than before.”

Byte looked at her arm, and then back at Lizz. Obviously, he thought he saw a difference, and she wasn’t going to call him a liar. So she decided to go on a fishing expedition. “Yes, you’re right. I’ve been doing a lot of modifications to my arm lately. I was inspired by all of the electronics on the new tank, so I’ve been tweaking my servos and circuits a bit. It’s a different color because I anodized it with a titanium coating, and it’s scratched because I was testing how well the coating worked. Not as good as I liked, unfortunately, so I guess I’ll have to polish it up and try again. So, tell me, what do you see that you haven’t seen before – and I’ll tell you what it does…”

Lizz looked at the arm for a moment, and pointed first to a large, odd-shaped honeycombed box, with a small, blue glowing LED inside, pulsating slowly. “That’s new!”, he said.

“Bluetooth Plus”, she answered. “It’s a Bluetooth transceiver, with a signal extender and built-in pin hacker software. It lets me connect to Bluetooth enabled devices, even if protected. Great little gadget for grabbing info from PDAs, laptops, cars and even cell phones.

“How do you control it?”

“Through the pop-up menu in the optic implant”, she answered – and his eyes grew wide. “I thought the implant was only for normal vision – when did you change that?”
“Lizz, l’m gonna let you in on a little secret – promise you won’t tell anyone?”

“Cross my heart!”, he exclaimed

“Ok. Everyone once in a while I take a trip back to a quasi-secret lab, where the people who developed my arm install upgrades and make sure the interface to my nervous system is working all right. I don’t make a big deal of it, and most of the time, you can’t tell from one week to the next. But recently, between what I added and what they added, well, it was a major upgrade”. Byte paused, knowing that this was a load of crap – but hoping Lizz would accept it. There were subtle details all around her that didn’t match up from what she remembered, and she wondered if it was a side-effect of all this time-tripping. Fortunately, Lizz had no reason not to believe her, and he sat back and smiled.

“So, all this time you’ve been sneaking out and getting upgrades, huh? Why didn’t you want anyone to know?”

This answer was easy, and she didn’t have to stretch the truth here. “Because when most people outside of the EGB see me and my arm and eye, either they’re scared, or they call me a freak, or they think they can challenge me to prove to themselves that they can beat a cyborg. I get tired of being the circus side-show, so I try to draw as little attention as possible to my implants. They’re a constant reminder that I’m not completely a woman – or even human…”, and her voice trailed off. She thought about being in the male Slinger body, and although it wasn’t hers, at least it was all human. No one stared at him like he was a freak, because he looked just like everyone else.

“Hey, Byte, I’m sorry!”, Lizz blurted out, misreading the look on her face. “It’s none of my business what you do in private, but I will tell you this – even though parts of you are machine, your heart is all human, and you’re a good friend. Isn’t that what really counts?”

Byte smiled at Lizz, feeling a little guilty she had to lie to change the conversation. “Thanks, Tiny. You’re a good friend, too.’ Then there was an awkward silence, so Byte took this opportunity to change the subject. “You know, being it’s the two year anniversary of EagleRock’s death, don’t you think we should go pay our respects?”

Lizz thought about it for a moment, and answered, “Yes, you’re right. Want to see if anyone else wants to take a ride with us?”

“We’ll first get the OK from SlashFirestorm to take a Hummer to the cemetery, and if anyone asks where we are going, we’ll invite them along.”

“Why do we need the Hummer?”, Lizz asked, a little concerned.

“Because the cemetery is located on the Southeastern side of Newgrounds, down in the eastern section of the Flash Gallery district – and we pass through General to get there. You know how bad that place has been lately”, replied Byte.

“Well, then shouldn’t we take the new tank?”, Lizz queried.

“No, we don’t need that much firepower yet – well, at least I don’t think we do. We’ll pick up some rifles, pistols and blammunition for the trip, in case things get dicey. Maybe try to stay incognito.”

“Then you’d better wear a long-sleeved shirt and some gloves”, Lizz retorted.

Byte picked up the phone in her quarters, and directly dialed Slash’s quarters. After two rings, he picked up

“Yes, ByteSlinger, what can I do for you”, he announced, sounding a bit distracted.

“Commander, with your permission, I’d like to borrow a Hummer and take a few men to pay our respects to EagleRock and the rest of the fallen”

There was a moment of silence, and Byte thought she might have lost the connection – but then Slash answered quietly, “Yes, that’s commendable. You have my permission. Just let the gate guard know who’s going with you.”

“Lizz will be joining me – not sure about who else yet, though. But we will be leaving in about 15 minutes.”

“Very good. Oh, and Byte – try to stay out of trouble…”, and then the line clicked to silence.

Byte looked at Lizz, smiled an evil little smile, and said “He don’t know me very well, do he?”

Lizz followed Byte to the motor pool, where they grabbed a fully-fueled Hummer, and a compliment of weapons and ammo. Along the way they bumped into Coop83 and Porkchop, and invited them both to come along. Without giving it a second thought, they both accepted the invitation. Coop83 drove, Byte sat shotgun, Lizzardis sat behind Byte, and Porkchop was behind Coop83. They left the barracks from the south gate, which would put them on a road that would bring them to the north east side of the general district. From there, after about another ten or fifteen minutes, and they’d be at the cemetery.

No one spoke during the ride. All three passengers avoided conversation by cleaning and prepping the pistols and rifles, making them ready in case they were needed. Even the outskirts of the General District were rough, so they had to be ready. This was going to be a tough enough trip by itself – they really hoped there wouldn’t be any incidents that would mar the visit.

[20-Aug-2009 10:22]

As they drove through the General district, it was as if all the color had been drained from every house and occupant. Even in the morning sun, it was a bleak and desolate place. Many buildings had been abandoned and boarded up; others were burned-out husks. Most of the cars on the street were on blocks; if you wanted to keep a vehicle here, it had to be kept in a secure garage.

Spammers floated around the streets like cheap hookers – they enticed the young men with flashy come-ons and the promise of cheap porn, but in the end, they delivered nothing but empty promises. All the attention made them stronger, and as more of them survived, others became brave and began to join them. Their work was presented by the uncaring bots, and if they lasted through the first few minutes of judgment, they would join all of the other spam flashes flooding General.

Suddenly, Coop83 slammed on the brakes. “Look, over by that burned-out ice cream truck!” They all turned to see half a dozen spammers and a few rogue bots attacking what looked like to be a street bum. They had the poor bastard pinned down, and while some held him, the others took great delight in pummeling the shit out of him

“Let’s do this!”, yelled Porkchop, and they all jumped out of the Hummer and took aim with their rifles. “Aim high – don’t hit the vagrant!”, ordered Coop, and in unison, they fired at the heads of the attackers. Three out of the four first shots found their mark, dropping three of the attackers and causing the others to turn and face their assailants.

“I got one! I got one!”, Lizzardis boasted. His adrenaline was pumping, and he was getting ready to fire another round.

But in that moment, when the attackers released their grip on the bum, he jumped up like a cat, face bloody – and pulled out a very familiar rifle. In the same motion, he fired it at point blank range into the chest of one of his antagonists, and then a moment later, voided the warranty on one of the attacking bots.

Byte zoomed in with her optic, and saw the markings on the barrel and stock. “That’s an EGB blam rifle! How the hell did he get that?”, she exclaimed.

“Well, he sure moves like he was combat-trained!”, answered Coop

“Let’s take him in – he has no business with that weapon. It’s obviously stolen!”, added Porkchop.

They all took a step forward and aimed their guns at the street bum, just as he knocked off the last bot. He was facing away from the Hummer, and starting to stand up when Coop took charge of the situation. “Drop your weapon, and turn around slowly. If you cooperate, you won’t be hurt”

The figure stopped for a moment, and then tossed the rifle to the ground. Byte followed it to get a better look – and managed to zoom in with her optic and pick off the serial number on the stock. But that’s all she got, for as the bum turned around, he dropped a flash-bang from his left hand, and on the way down, kicked it towards the Hummer. It went off, blinding everyone for a moment, and when they could see again, the bum and his rifle had disappeared.

“We have to get him!”, yelled Porkchop, “He can’t be that far away!”

Coop looked around at the area. It seemed kind of familiar – and very unsafe. “No, we’re not ready for that. If he has a stolen EGB rifle, there might be others – and we could follow him into a trap.”

“I don’t know about that”, added ByteSlinger, ”He was fighting the spam and bots as they ganged up on him. Once we stepped in to level the playing field, he tore into them like a shark in a tank of floating cows. And he only used a flash-bang to get away – that could have easily been a thermite charge or a biological weapon. He didn’t want to hurt us – he just wanted to get away.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”, conceded PorkChop, “Well, citizens, nothing left to see here. Let’s move on”, and they all piled back into the Hummer. As they approached the cemetery, Byte replayed the image of the rifle in her optic lens. The serial number was quite clear; now all she had to do was check it against the master database back at the Barracks, and see which soldier got careless – or greedy. She kept this little fact to herself – she would tell the others once she confirmed the owner.

They passed into the gates, and followed the road to the section where the fallen soldiers rested. Solemnly, they exited the Hummer, and slowly walked towards the oak tree where three rows of seven graves laid. As was the practice in the military, the marker stones were actually at the foot of the grave. This was done out of respect, because anyone who stood in front of the stone to pay their respects would not be standing on top of the grave – it would be completely in front of them .

EagleRock’s grave was front and center, and the four of them stood quietly, heads bowed; each prayed silently, remembering the fallen in their own way. Byte looked up, and read the graves. Some of the names she remembered from prior rosters, and others she had even served with for a while. Then she noticed that someone had left a single white lily on all the graves… except for EagleRock’s. Maybe it was taken? Why would someone forget the leader – unless they were angry with him? No one else seemed to notice, or if they did, they didn’t say anything.

Coop stood up, and commanded “Atten-hut!”. All of them stood in a row, straight up, at attention.

He then brought his hand up into a salute, immediately followed by the other three. He held it there for a long time, and Byte could see that a tear was rolling down his cheek. “Two years later, and he still hurts”, she thought, “I can’t imagine the pain he is in now. The pain – and the guilt.”

Coop released the salute, and then spun on his heels, and walked back to the Hummer. Lizz, PorkChop and Byte waited behind for a moment. Byte spoke quietly to the others, “Coop is taking this very hard. Do you think he’ll ever heal from all of this?

PorkChop leaned over, and answered, “No. He’ll never have closure”

“Why not?”, asked Byte

“Because Coop had to reclaim and identify the bodies that were recovered after the massacre. If that wasn’t hard enough, add to it that not every body was recovered.”, replied PorkChop.

“What?”, and Byte stared incredulously at PorkChop, like he suddenly grew a third eye.

“Out of the 21 dead, only 18 bodies were recovered. Three of those graves are empty – and one of the empty ones is Eagle’s. But that’s unofficial. The official stance was that everyone was recovered, but because of their injuries, they all had closed casket ceremonies. Coop knows this, and not only does he not forgive himself for what happened that day – he can’t forgive himself for not getting Eagle’s body back to its final resting place.”

“Oh…wow…”, muttered Byte, understanding it all a little better. But there was no way she was going to blurt out the fact that she had seen EagleRock last night, as he popped out of a trans-dimensional portal and killed her past self in order to shut down a rift in the time-space continuum. “Somehow, I don’t think he’d believe me”, she thought to herself. And in her heart, despite the fact that everyone here thought EagleRock was dead, she just wasn’t sure anymore.

They all started to walk back to the Hummer, not wanting to upset Coop any more by lagging behind him

“Keep this to yourself. We never had this conversation.”, added PorkChop, as they approached the Hummer. Coop was already in the driver’s seat; his face was a little red and puffy, most likely from crying, but no one mentioned it. They all climbed in, secured themselves, and drove away from the graves, towards the cemetery’s exit and back to the main road.

They didn’t notice that they were being watched. Behind one of the tombs not too far away from the gravesite, a familiar looking vagrant with dried blood on his face and hands – and an odd-shaped lump under his tattered coat – watched the tail lights of the Hummer disappear down the road. He turned away, and disappeared into the streets, blending in with all of the grey wasteland that was known as the General District.

The ride back to the barracks was just as quiet as the ride to the cemetery. No one spoke until they reached the guard gate, and identified themselves when asked. Coop drove the hummer directly to the motor pool, and signed it back in. They parted ways at the motor pool, still somber from the trip.

ByteSlinger walked towards the tank hanger, and saw Krev sitting on a stool with her paints and airbrush gun at her side. She was painting the Cobra logo on the side of the tank, as she had offered earlier.

“Hi, Krev!”, Byte called out.

“Hey, Byte! What, now it’s your turn to stalk me?”, she said, laughing. That was the ongoing joke – that Krev was stalking Byte, and enjoyed making comments about it just for laughs. Byte didn’t mind at all – Krev was about as stealthy as a bowling ball in a bag of potato chips. But she had the same twisted and perverted sense of humor as Byte did – and you just had to admire that in a woman!

“Nah, that’s your job!”, Byte answered. “I just came by to see how Cobra was doing with his new toy. Hey, that logo is coming out real sweet! Nice work there, Krev!”

“Thanks. Cobra is inside the tank, adding some of his own touch to the interior.”

“Great. We’ll have the only tank in the area with a gun rack, a six-pack cooler, a confederate flag on the wall, and every country CD ever made”, retorted Byte

Krev busted out laughing, “Damn! How’d you know?!”

“Hey!”, Cobra interjected as he popped up out of the hatch. “Just because I’m from North Carolina doesn’t mean I’m a redneck! That’s just a stereotypical view of all us southern folk!”

“Yeah…well this Yankee is betting 20 bucks that at least half of what I just listed is already in that tank. And if you could fit it, there’d be a sofa lashed to the top deck – you know, the one you originally had on your front porch! Now, let me in and see if I won that bet or not.”

“Fuck you!”, he answered. “I’m not taking that bet. Besides, I’m the commander on this tank, and if I want to decorate it a certain way, I will.”

“So, where DID you put the gun rack?”, asked Krev

“It’s over by the munitions storage…aw, shit! “, Cobra answered, realizing he had just played into the stereotype.

“It’s okay”, added Byte, “I don’t mind the Southern touch. Just make sure you unplug the bug zapper before you leave!”

Byte had to duck as Cobra threw a wrench at her head for that last comment. “Ha! You missed! …I’ll be back at 14:00 – we’ll take this baby out, and see if you can hit a big target first, like maybe the side of a mountain.”

Krev was still laughing as Cobra muttered obscenities about Byte’s parentage as she just walked away…

[20-Aug-2009 11:45]

Byte walked back to her quarters, and logged into the EGB central computer. She accessed the weapon assignment database, and did a search on the serial number of the rifle she had observed earlier. The system took a minute to find the answer, and when it was displayed, Byte just stood and stared.

“Son of a bitch!”, she exclaimed to the empty room. “That was EagleRock’s rifle!”

[End of Chapter 15]


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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 10:54 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

“Through a Mirror Darkly”

Chapter 16

“Sand Through My Fingers”

Originally posted on November 10th, 2009

[20-Aug-2009 11:50]

ByteSlinger sat on the edge of her bunk, not knowing what to make of all of this. “EagleRock was alive when I started – he had survived the kidnapping and returned to active duty. But now, history is different. He was reported killed in that skirmish, but his body was never recovered. And today, his rifle turns up on the streets of the General District, in the hands of some well-trained street bum who knows how to fight. What the hell did I do? I didn’t go back that far to affect this part of the timeline. I just don’t understand how I did this!”, and in her disgust, slammed he hand on the desk, knocking her mouse on the floor.

She bent over to pick it up, and as she did, she noticed what looked like a small, rolled up piece of paper secured by a piece of tape. She picked it up, and looked at it curiously, half-expecting it to explain itself. Using her thumbnail, she peeled off the tape, and unrolled the paper. It was a short message, written in black ink:

“Hey, ByteSlinger: you’re not the only one who’s on a mission to save the future by changing the past. It may not make sense now, but someday it will. Just don’t believe everything you hear! – E –“

“E?”, she said out loud. “E – EagleRock?!? How did this get here?”, then she remembered that he did show up last night with the express purpose to fix a problem that she was too close to. He must have dropped this note before he left!

“And he didn’t go through a portal – that closed before he disappeared!”, she thought, “which means he knew that by doing what he did, he changed the timeline! Was it possible that he went back further to alter the events in 2007, and met with a different fate? And how the hell did he jump?”

Then she remembered what the future Phantom had said – “EagleRock was going to build his own portal and try to go back and fix it himself.” What if my travels interfered with his? Or were mine part of his plan?” Nothing made sense anymore.

She lay back on the bunk, and stared at the ceiling, trying to meditate and focus her thoughts. After a few minutes of deep breathing, she calmed herself down. “Everything about EagleRock is speculation right now; the only real fact is that I need to get Cobra and his tank to level that mountain before the portal is operational on this end. That will stop the second wave of kidnapping, and the destruction of the EGB. Once I do that, I’ll put back on my Sherlock Holmes cap and figure out the clues to the rest of this puzzle.”

With her mind focused, she sat up, and then got up and walked over to what looked like a blank spot on the wall. With a few touches here and there, a panel slid away, revealing a wall safe. She put her right hand on the access pad, and a few seconds later, it turned green as the magnetic lock released and the safe opened up. She put the message from EagleRock in the safe, and then closed everything up, leaving no trace that she had been there.

It was almost noon. She headed over to the mess hall, and had some lunch, making small talk with a few people here and there. In her mind, she was hours ahead, going over everything that she needed that tank to do to ensure that the past didn’t repeat itself.

It was about 13:30 when Byte wandered into the tank hanger. Krev was spraying on the last coat of clear sealer over the Cobra logo – it looked really sharp, almost 3D. “You have quite the talent there”, commented Byte, and Krev turned around and gave her a big smile. “I do enjoy the painting. It’s the only part of the job I really like…”, and her voice trailed off a bit.

“Hey, what’s the matter, Krev? Something got you down?”, Byte asked, concerned for her friend.

“Look, you know I’ve had a few personal issues that could affect my performance here. Any single one of them I would just work through and call it a day. But there are too many little things – and a few bigger things – that are just getting in the way. I need time to take care of things, to take care of myself.”, and she trailed off again

Byte waited for the punch line. This didn’t sound like it was going to end well.

“What I’m trying to tell you is that I am seriously considering quitting the Guard. There, now I said it!”

Byte’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “Wow. I didn’t see that coming. Anything I can do to change your mind?”

“No, there’s not much anyone can do. It isn’t a matter of who I get along with and who I don’t – it’s just that after serving here as long as I have, I think I expected more – more out of the Guard, and more out of me. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, and it’s just time for a change. But I’m not gonna up and quit. I’ll finish off a few projects that I have open, and make sure my notes are in order so that the next person in line won’t be in the dark. My guess – I’ve got about another month in me here before I become a civilian again.” Krev’s eyes showed some sadness, but Byte could see the resolve in her face as well. This decision didn’t come easy, but for Krev, it was the path she had to take.

“I can respect that, and I hope that after you leave, you keep in touch. We’re still friends, right?”, Byte asked.

“Of course! You can’t get away from me that easily!” Krev joked. “But one favor – tell no one. I want to do this on my schedule, and I want people to hear it from me first.”

“Done. In the mean time, we can still have a little fun here, right?”

“Hell, yeah!”, Krev yelled.

“Hey, wanna go on the maiden voyage of the USS Doublewide with us?”, Byte asked, pointing to the tank.

“I HEARD THAT!”, screamed SlntCobra1 as he popped his head out of the hatch. “Show some respect for the dead, will ya! And stop it with the damn Redneck references already!”

“Sounds like someone woke up on the wrong side of the sheep this morning”, commented Krev

“And what exactly is the right side of a sheep?”, asked Byte

“Damn you both!”, Cobra continued his ranting, “That’s not funny! Besides, we didn’t raise sheep – we raised hogs!”

“Don’t let PorkChop hear that. It might make him worried!”, added Krev.

Cobra was beet red now, and totally exasperated by the two women who were just completely disrespecting him. Had they been men, he’d be out of the tank and in their faces. But his Daddy told him never to hit a woman – especially if she outranks you and has a titanium cybernetic arm that could crush your cajones in a second.

“Well, don’t just stand there, climb back down – we’ve got a few pre-checks to go through before we leave.”, commanded Byte. “Oh, and Krev will be joining us in the jump seat”

SlntCobra just glared at Byte and Krev, and then as Byte climbed up the side railing to the hatch, she looked at Cobra right in the eyes, smiled sweetly and said, “Now, you know we’re all just kidding with you. Don’t take anything I say too seriously, unless I have a gun in my hand or one pointed at my head, ok? I’m sorry I ruffled your feathers.”

Cobra relaxed a little bit, and said,” Apology accepted. But remember, once you’re in this tank, I’m in command!”

“Of course you are!”, Byte agreed, and winked at Krev.

Krev closed the hatch behind her as she climbed into the neon blue glow of the tank’s interior. Lizzardis was at the rear gunner’s console, Porkchop was at the pilot controls, Cobra was in the command chair, Byte settled into the communications and remote control console, and Krev got comfortable in the jump seat.

“All stations ready for final checklist”, announced Porkchop.

As Cobra rattled off the punchlist of all the components, each member of the crew answered in the affirmative for anything they were responsible for operating or monitoring. Byte sat at the communication console, and began to log on. Suddenly, her optic implant began scanning the console automatically, and in a few moments, a pop-up screen appeared, floating in the field of vision of her implant.

“Console model XR2-7 detected. Maintenance access port model IEEE 455.6 located. Begin automatic interface?”

Byte responded “Yes”… and the fingers of her left arm began to change into a long, flexible probe, terminating with a control plug that matched the maintenance port. The plug connected into the socket, and a second later, Byte was directly connected to the onboard systems. Another pop-up appeared.

“Connection established. Full administrative rights to /root and all subsystems granted.”

Byte was stunned. She had never seen her arm do this before; it must have been a dormant program that hadn’t been run until now. Just as she was about to point it out to the crew, she realized it was completely silent in the tank, except for the sounds of the machinery humming. Four pair of eyes had transfixed on her left arm and the metamorphosis that had transpired.

SlntCobra1 was the first one to speak, “When the fuck did you become a transformer?”, and he was more confused than serious.

“Just now. It’s a beta upgrade that the lab did a few months ago.”, she lied. She actually had no idea how this happened. “It’s the first time I’ve ever used it.”, she added – and that was the truth.

Porkchop looked at Cobra and remarked, ”You do realize she now has full access to the entire tank?”

“And what’s wrong with that?”, Byte countered. “I wrote most of the code for this thing. If something goes wrong out there in today’s test, it will be most likely in some sort of programming module – and I want to be right there to make sure it doesn’t go from bad to worse.”

“She has a point”, quipped Lizzardis.

“Okay, for today’s test, I’ll allow it. But in real combat situations, you need to ask me first, got it?”

“Yes, sir”, Byte answered, trying to placate him a little.

“All systems are green and ready to go”, announced PorkChop.

“Command central has been notified”, added Byte. “We have permission to leave the base and head into testing area Bravo 7. They are aware that we are carrying live rounds, and this will be a full munitions test”.

“Very good”, replied SlntCobra1. “PorkChop, take us out, and head towards the Bravo 7 test area.”

The tank’s dual diesels revved up, making it lunge forward like a horse out of the starting block. By the time they reached the western gate, they were going almost 60 miles an hour – and there was more room on the throttle!

“Are we really doing almost 100KPH?”, asked Lizz.

“Hell, yes!”, answered Cobra,” And she can go faster if we push her! Control, system monitor status, please”

Byte responded quickly, “All systems operating in nominal range. No anomalies or considerable variations detected.”

“Very good. Now, one last thing to do”, commented Cobra, and he pushed a button on his command chair. Some music began to play, and Cobra sang along with it, “If I leave here tomorrow…”

A few moments later, the entire crew was jamming to “Freebird” as the M1A1 EagleRock supertank rocketed towards the Bravo 7 testing area. Which, coincidently, happened to include a certain mountain that needed to be leveled.

* * *

[20-Aug-2009 14:29]
Inside the Mountain Cavern

Three generators chugged along at full cycle, keeping the string of work lights and the balky ventilation system barely running. In the glare of the work lights, an almost-completed Portal stood inert in the center of the natural cavern. A dozen workers were welding braces and brackets in place, while others were testing and installing the various electronic components.

On the far side of the cavern was a tunnel-drilling rig. It could dig a horizontal tunnel about 6 feet in diameter, but given enough passes, it could make one of just about any height or width. So far, the crew of five assigned to the rig had managed to dig a rough opening about 30 feet wide, 20 feet high, and about 80 feet towards the mountainside. They were using all of the extracted earth to level the floor of the cavern, and shore up some of the interior walls as well.

All of the workers looked the same in their maintenance jump suits, work helmets and heavy boots – all but one. One person stood out from the others – a large, well-built man with hazel eyes, short cropped red crewcut, and a scar on his cheek. He wore a lab coat, and was very engrossed in the programming and calibration of the equipment around him.

Just then, a loud chime went off three times. “Break time!”, one worker yelled. “Smoke’em if you got’em!”

Slinger looked up from his desk, and watched as all of the union workers just stopped what they were doing to take a 15 minute break. “Jeez, what a racket!”, he thought.

A moment later, one of the workers who was only known as “Ralphie” walked up to Slinger and asked, “So, will this thing be ready by 17:00, because if it ain’t, my boys will be on overtime if they stay here past that.”

Slinger looked at the shop steward the way he would look at a glob of dog turd stuck on his shoe. “Don’t worry, Ralphie. You and your men will be paid as promised. Don’t worry about when it will open. Just think of all of the huge checks you guys get if it is late.”

Then another grunt ambled up. The name “Lenny” was stenciled on his jacket. “Ya know, today is me and the missus’s anniversary. I really wanted to get home in time to take her to a nice dinner. Why can’t they just zap another hole open and let us go back?”

Slinger shook his head, as if trying to explain calculus to a sock. “Because they can’t reach us here with 100% certainty until this portal is active with the right homing beacon. There is no guarantee that if another free-ended Portal opened up in here that it would lead back to exactly the same time-continuum that we came from. But with the beacon on, the right Portal will find us, and we can get back home again.”

Lenny’s eyes glazed over as his brain tried to handle all of the big words. Then Ralphie interpreted “Lenny, the only way to get back home is to go out this Portal once it’s runnin’. Until then, we stay put.”

“Thank you for that accurate and quasi-informative translation”, Slinger responded, and then went back to work on the console, ignoring the remainder of the conversation. He looked at the programs and the feedback loops, and after a few dozen calculations, figured that as long as the goon squad here didn’t screw up anything major, this portal will be minimally operational with four to six hours. “Looks like the union workers get overtime again”, he muttered to himself.

A few minutes later, the chime rang again, and all of the worker drones went back to their assigned tasks. But none of them felt the ground shake ever so slightly as the juggernaut tank from the EGB approached the mountain base.

[20-Aug-2009 14:46]

The M1A1 EagleRock tank flew down the foothills, approaching the center of the Bravo 7 testing area. From that point, to the south and east were concrete shacks and targets used for gunning practice. There were also scattered half-dead trees, large boulders, cacti – and to the north, a series of small mountains.

Byte manipulated the final stopping coordinates to put them in line with the mountain. “Command control has approved our final coordinates. We are to stay at this coordinates, but we have full 360 range of fire at our discretion. All air traffic and ground transports have been safely diverted from the area.”

“Full stop”, ordered SlntCobra1, and the tank came to rest in the center of the test area.

“So, what do we blow up first?”, asked Lizzardis, ready to see anything reduced to dust by the awesome power of this titan.

SlntCobra1 checked the remote cameras, and did a full sweep. “Porkchop, find your mark at 192 degrees, distance 430 yards. Concrete bunker, red paint”

“Got it, Commander.”

“Load up three of the modified HEAT rounds, and fire all simultaneously at that target”, Cobra said, grinning

PorkChop and Lizz loaded the shells, and prepped the cannon for manual fire. “Whenever you’re ready, commander”, Lizz added.

SlntCobra sat back, and with one finger, pressed the “Main Weapons Manual Fire” button on the arm of his command chair. The tank rocked slightly as the three shells exploded out of the barrels at just over 500 MPH. What was even more amazing was that inside the tank, there was no loud noise – just a muffled thud, like a large rock hitting a steel floor.

“Nice sound proofing!”, remarked Krev.

A moment later, the main cameras went white as the three shells found their mark. The vibrations of the explosions gently rocked the tank, but the noise was barely audible. When the dust settled, the concrete bunker was no where to be seen – and in its place stood a rather large and ragged hole in the ground.

“Woo Hoo!”, screamed SlntCobra. “Now, that’s what I call fire power!”

Byte saw her chance, and took it very discreetly, “Yawn…. Anybody can blow up a concrete box with three shells. I thought this tank had more balls than that!” She knew this would get under Cobra’s skin.

“Balls?!?! This tank has HUGE balls!”, Cobra screamed, still pumped from decimating the concrete bunker.

“Oh, so THAT’s what I’m sitting on?”, quipped Krev. “They ARE big – and SOFT, too!”

“Why not try to take down something a little bigger?”, prodded Byte.

“ANYTHING! Bring it on!”, and he started blasting “La Grange” by “ZZ Top” to accentuate his testosterone-driven rush.

“How about leveling that little hill directly north of our position?”, she challenged.

“Hill? Let me see that hill! “, and he punched up the stereo-optic cameras and pivoted them to the north.

“That’s not a hill – that’s a 200 foot mountain! “, exclaimed PorkChop

“Yeah, it’s probably too big to take down – even by half. Let’s find an easier target”, conceded Byte.

“Hell No!!!”, Cobra yelled as he jumped up from his command chair. “This tank can level a fuckin’ city – it sure as hell can flatten that mountain! Porkchop, Lizz, activate all staged munitions. I want 15 sets of the Type-3 micro-nuke HEATS readied for the forward guns, and configure the 4 forward Sidewinders to strike in a staggered-spray pattern.”

Byte just smiled to herself as she heard the others answer ,”Sir! Yes Sir!”. But she wanted to make sure it was overkill.

“Hey, Cobra – that pile of dirt is over 200 feet high. I don’t think the 15 HEATS and the 4 Sidewinders will take it down below 150 – that’s a lot of earth to move. You’ll have to find a way to start an avalanche.”

“You don’t think this baby can do it, do you? Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is, woman!?”

Byte glared at Cobra for that last remark – but let it pass. She got what she needed – now she had to play along.

“Okay, little man. What do you want to wager, and what is the goal?”, she sneered.

“The goal”, he started,” is to bring that pile of dirt below 150 feet with the 15 sets of HEATS and 4 Sidewinders. When I am done blasting the shit out of that sand pile, we will let the onboard systems remap the height – and whatever it says, we go with as the final result. Agreed?”

“Okay, I agree on the terms.”, answered Byte, “Now, what is the wager?”

“If I win – and I am damn sure I will – you gotta get ‘SlntCobra1 Rocked My World’ tattooed on your ta-tas!”

Krev choked and gargled something incoherently, PorkChop was smiling an inhumanely toothy grin, and Lizz just went wide-eyed and started to drool. But Byte remained calm.

“And when you fail, and I KNOW you will, you will get “Byte Me Hard” tattooed on your ass – IN FLUORESCENT PINK!”

The tank fell silent except for the hum of the engine. The gauntlet had been thrown down. Would he accept the challenge?

“Done!”, he answered, “ We have three witnesses – and no backing out, right?”

“Oh, not at all. I’ll have a nice, padded seat ready for you later – my treat!”, she answered with an evil gleam in her eyes.

As the turret spun around to face north, Byte used her cybernetic interface to access the scanners and the forward monitors. She switched to sonar and thermal – and a moment later, the cavern appeared as a hollow shadow. Using the dimensions of the mountain as a guide, and over-estimating the empty volume of the cavern, she feed her raw values into the simulator, and asked for the best-case scenario – complete collapse of the cavern, remainder of mountain leveled. What would be the lowest new height calculated?

It took the computer only 3 seconds to cycle through all of the variants. The lowest answer: 156 feet. The mountain was just too wide to take it down any further. Byte chuckled to herself, and ended the simulator. She already won the bet – now it was time to watch history get changed.

“Lizz, set the cannons to auto-fire based on the optimal targeting system”, SlntCobra ordered.

“Aye Aye, Sir!”

“Your own program is going to beat you!”, jeered Cobra

Byte just sat there, and quietly smiled.

“All systems ready for firing!”, reported PorkChop.

There was a tense moment as SlntCobra looked around the room to all of the crew, and then as he sat back down in his command chair, he simply said, “Fire.”

The computer had detected the cavern, and aimed the first volley at the hollow spots in the roof. With a muffled thunk, the 3 micro-nuke HEATS shot forward, and in less than a second, buried themselves in the mountainside, and detonated all at once…

[Inside the cavern]

The explosion rocked the cavern, sending tons of dirt falling and knocking out a generator. The lights flickered, and the air ventilation system shorted out and went off-line.

“Earthquake!”, someone yelled, and all of the union workers tried to scramble under vehicles or anything that would shelter them from the falling ceiling.

“No, that’s not an earthquake!”, yelled Slinger, “Someone is blasting on the mountain!”

“Why would they be blasting?”, screamed Ralphie. “There’s nothing down here!”

Slinger thought for a moment, and his eyes darkened. “Yes, there is – us! Our cover must be blown – they’re coming after us!”

“We only got pistols! They’re gonna kill us all!”, cried Larry, “You gotta do something!”

“Oh, I will…”, Slinger answered mysteriously. He reached down, and grabbed what looked like a boom-box stereo. It was very modern looking – state of the art. With the boom-box in hand, Slinger headed over to an alcove that seemed to be out of harms way – for now.

“You gonna hide in a corner and listen to some music, and just wait to die?”, mocked Ralphie, “You’re a chickenshit coward!”

Slinger ignored his rantings, and put the unit down on the ground, near the wall. Then he pushed a few buttons on the front panel, and the box opened up, revealing a small parabolic antennae.

“Hey, it’s a satellite phone!”, Larry squawked, “He’s gonna call for help! We’re gonna get rescued!”

Slinger looked at him, and said sardonically, “You’re half right.”

The transmitter glowed for a few seconds, and there was a slight crackling sound as the unit powered up and began to transmit a data beacon – through a microscopic version of a portal wormhole.

[Gamma, same time]

IB saw the emergency distress beacon light up on the console. Automatically, the Portal started the source trace and began to use the beacon as the target for a free-end portal. The console displayed the status message “48 seconds to target acquisition”

“Looks like Slinger needs a trip back home. He probably just misses me”, IB said sarcastically.

[Back in the Tank]

After the dust from the first volley settled down a little, SlntCobra1 queried the computer. “Damage report”

The main screen displayed statistics; “27 tons displaced. No measurable difference in height. Hollow areas still exist within target. Recalculating optimal strike points - please wait…”, then after a few seconds, the readout changed. “New trajectory calculated. Auto re-aim in progress.”

They heard the turret pivot and turn up slightly – and then heard the familiar thunk as 3 more shells fired into the mountainside.

[Inside the cavern]

Another explosion echoed through the cavern. This time, the partially-dug tunnel collapsed in on itself, and a huge avalanche of dirt fell on top of two of the generators. Tons of dirt buried five workers who had made the fatal mistake of hiding under a heavy metal work table nearby.

The aftershock shook the floor, and Slinger swayed a bit and had to hold onto the wall for support. Fortunately for him, he happened to be further away from that last blast than he was from the first.

“What do you mean I’m only half-right?”, questioned Larry, looking more confused than before.

Slinger saw the status light go from red to yellow, and felt a familiar change in the air behind him. “Well, yes, I did call for help – but, unfortunately, my dear Neanderthal, only one of us is getting saved tonight”, and with perfect timing, a 6 foot portal opened up behind him. Slinger smiled nastily at Larry, Ralphie and the rest of the union work crew, who watched with wide eyes in amazement as he stepped backwards into the emergency portal, giving them all a final farewell finger salute as he disappeared.

“What an asshole!”, Ralphie exclaimed as the portal disappeared.

Slinger stepped backward into the lab’s control room, none the worse for the wear. IB grabbed him from behind, put her arms around him, and with a big hug said “Good to see you back!” Then she spun him around so he could face her, and in one swift motion, slapped him across the face, leaving a handprint on his left cheek. “Now, what the fuck just happened down there?”

Slinger rubbed his stinging face with his hand as he looked into IB’s eyes and said “They were on to us. The mountain was getting shelled – the whole damn cavern is collapsing. They’re forcing the mountain to cave-in on itself.”

“What about the portal?”, she asked, wide-eyed.

“Total loss - along with the entire work crew. Hey, those are the chances we take. No guarantees, you know that!” Slinger remarked off-handedly.

“So, how do we classify that target dimension now?”, asked IB

“Mark it as hostile, and we’ll just move to the next one. There are so many times and places to choose from – we don’t have to get hung up on any one in particular.”

[The Tank]

After the second volley, the computer detected a massive shift in the contents of the mountain’s interior, causing the overall height to drop 4 feet. “Woo-Hoo!”, yelled SlntCobra, “we’re cookin’ with gas now!”

“Yeah, but at this rate, we’ll have to make two round trips back and forth to the Barracks so you can reload”, snickered Byte.

The computer calculated the next target, and fired shells 7, 8 and 9. Along with that, Lizz fired off the 4 front Sidewinders. “That should take it down a few more feet!”, he commented.

[Inside the Cavern]

The third set of explosions detonated almost within the cavern itself. Huge slabs of dirt and rock fell down everywhere, crushing workers left and right. Just before a twenty-ton chunk of granite flattened them into red goo, Ralphie looked at Larry and said ”Looks like you’re gonna miss your anniversary dinner.”

The cave went black as the last generator was destroyed. The Portal frame was twisted beyond recognition, and the computer console now only existed in two dimensions – which was the fate of most of the men left behind. Their final resting place continued to fill with endless tons of dirt, leaving only empty caskets to be buried back at home.

[In the Tank]
[20-Aug-2009 15:05]

Byte smiled to herself as she watched the console monitor report that the hollow areas in the mountain were all but filled. Minor thermal hot spots still registered, but they were cooling as the bodies they represented bled out and died. “No one will be sneaking in through that cave”, she thought, “now let’s see what happens in the next few days.”

Then she sat back and watched as SlntCobra1 did his best imitation of Captain Ahab, determined to take down that Great White Mountain with all of his ammo. Cobra grinned as he reached the halfway point of his attack. “Ha! Half way through the ammo, and I dropped it 31 feet! Only 19 more to go!”

But he failed to realize that it was the hollow caverns that gave him that wonderful statistic. Now the mountain was just about solid again – and it wasn’t going to fall as easy as it did before.

Round after round was fired, and after another twenty-two minutes of shelling, all of the ammo had been spent. Everyone waited with anticipation as SlntCobra1 raised his hand, indicating he wanted silence. The computer had waited for all the dirt to settle, and rescanned the mountain’s dimensions. It seemed to take forever, but then on the main console, the final status was displayed:

“Recalculation after munitions testing confirmed. 165,398 tons of material displaced. Current target height: 158 feet”

Cobra’s jaw dropped as Byte asked one single question: “Left cheek or right?”

[End of Chapter 16]


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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 10:54 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

“Through a Mirror Darkly”

Chapter 17

“Devil in the Details”

Originally posted on November 20th, 2009

[Aug 20, 2009 15:52]

PorkChop drove the tank back towards the Barracks at a stately 50 MPH. Everyone was talking about how much power this tank had, and what a great shakedown run it gave. Everyone seemed to be very happy – except for SlntCobra1.

He hated to lose. And he especially hated to lose to a woman. Now, his ass literally had to cash the check that his mouth just wrote. “DAMN, DAMN, DAMN, DAMN, DIGGITY FUCK, DAMN!”, he said out loud, displeased at his own failures. He really thought he could bring that mountain down 50 feet with this bad boy – but it just didn’t work out as planned.

ByteSlinger unplugged from the terminal console, and then reached over, and shut off the music in the tank. SlntCobra glared at her wordlessly, waiting for her to say anything that would get him started.

“Cobra”, Byte began firmly, “if you have a moment, I’d like to discuss something serious with you.”

He looked at her quizzically, still angry, but curious as to what she had to say. “Go on”, he replied.

“You are well on your way to becoming an excellent commander. You have a great understanding of warfare and machinery, and you are passionate in everything that you do. But there is one thing that you need to learn to do if you want to be a truly great leader…”, and she paused for a moment, letting the statement sink in.

Everyone in the tank waited for the answer, and Cobra was getting madder . But before he could complain, Byte continued.

“You need to learn to get all the facts before you go into battle – and you need to trust those that you command”.


“Do you know how I won that bet?”

“You got lucky! And you’re not gonna be happy until I get my ass inked, so don’t rub it in!”

“It had nothing to do with luck”, Byte answered gently, “it was because I had all the facts – and you didn’t!”

“What do you mean, you had all the facts? How could you know what would happen?”

“Easy. I asked the computer to analyze the mountain as a target, and based on it’s structure and all of the firepower we had, what would be the maximum damage inflicted, as well as the amount of mass we would move. The computer did all the work, and came up with an estimated height of 158ft. after we were done.”

Cobra looked at Byte angrily, “Yeah, you could do that – you were plugged in!”

“And you could have done it too. The options are all on your main targeting and analysis menu. But you either never bothered to look at those tools, or you didn’t understand them, and were too proud to ask for help. So, which was it?”

Cobra sat up straight and said proudly, “I don’t need a computer to tell me how to take down a target! I know how to fight my own battles all by myself!”

“And there in lies the problem.”, Byte replied, ”You are not an army of one. And this tank is much more than three cannons and a great sound system. It has more computer capability than any other weapon systems that the EGB – or the US Army – has in a hanger. It is built to withstand a direct hit from a small nuclear bomb, and if sunk in the ocean, the hull can withstand pressures up to 100 meters, and run on waterproof batteries for up to 6 days. It can also monitor multiple communication frequency bands – and had 178 different decryption and high-powered decoders to break into over 95% of all milspec encoded transmissions.”

Cobra was stunned for a moment, and then said quietly, ”I never knew that. Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”

“As commander of this vehicle, it is YOUR responsibility to know everything about it. You have to know this thing like you know your modded auto-fire blam rifle. You have to know it – and trust it. Just like you need to know and trust your crew.”

“I know and trust all you guys – and gals – already! How can you say that?”, he volleyed back

“Yes, you do – but not as a commander. It’s different. You need to be the leader – and we need to be confident in your abilities. Like I said, I see it in you – you just have to see it in yourself – and get all the facts before you jump into battle. You let a bunch of little details get the better of you.”

Cobra didn’t like to be chided, but he knew she was right – again.

“Well, if I’m falling short, why don’t YOU be the commander of this thing, then?”, and he started to get angry again.

“Not my purpose here. I’m here to support and help you. And part of taking this tank out was for you to learn how to handle it – ALL of it. I’m not going to push it any further, but I will leave you with this quote from ‘The Ancient Art of War’:

“A truly great leader knows to only start the wars that he can win. This way, all who follow him know that he always leads them into victory. The trick is knowing which wars you can win”.

There was silence in the tank as those words sank in. and then Cobra spoke. ”Yeah, so if I had all my facts straight before I made that bet, I wouldn’t have taken the bet at all – or maybe set the height a little higher. But because I jumped in old-school, thinking that just raw power would be enough to do the trick – well, I made an ass of myself – literally.”

Byte smiled, and shook her head slowly, ”You know, you did the same thing with the bet. You left a lot of details up to interpretation – such as the size of the tattoo, and even if it should be permanent or not, or if it could be removed after it was done. None of that was discussed – you just assumed “big and permanent”, didn’t you?

SlntCobra nodded, “Yeah, of course. Why would I think otherwise? I know you!”

“Yes, you know me – but if you’re going to put your ass on the line, you’d best get all the details first, regardless if friend or foe!”

Cobra smiled,” So, does this mean you’re gonna let me off the hook for that bet, then?, he asked hopefully.

A familiar impish grin returned to Byte’s face. “Not exactly. You did lose a bet, so there will be a price to pay. But not as bad as you think…”, and she paused for the dramatic effect

“Oh, Byte, stop teasing!”, yelled Lizz, “I wanna see ‘Byte Me Hard’ on his ass! That was the bet, wasn’t it?”

Cobra threw a pen at Lizzardis’s head, bouncing it off his nose and ricocheting somewhere under a control chair.

“Funny you should say that, Lizz.”, Byte continued, as she pulled out something from her shirt pocket.

It was a pink Sharpie, medium point. She handed it to Lizz. “Since you want to see it so bad, you’ll get to do the honors. Nothing too fancy, and limit yourself to one cheek…”

“Oh, HELL NO!!!”, yelled Cobra. “He’s not going anywhere near my ass with that pen! I’ll knock him out first.”

“Oh, like that would take ALL your manly strength!”, interjected Krev.

“Well, the way I see it, you have three choices: you let Lizz do it here and now, and what happens in the tank, stays in the tank, or you let someone on base do it, but I will let everyone know it’s there – or you renege on the bet, and we let people know that you are a bad gambling risk”

“That’s blackmail! The only way you’ll keep quiet is if you get your way! That’s not fair!”

“All’s fair in love and war, Cobra. Now, as a commander, choose your destiny. But think it over carefully first!”

Meanwhile, Lizz popped the cap off the marker, and sniffed it,” Hey, it smells like bubble gum – this is bubble-gum pink, isn’t it, Byte?”

“Yeah, it may smell like bubble gum now”, added PorkChop, “but after ten minutes on Cobra’s ass it’s not gonna smell like that anymore!”

Everyone but Cobra chuckled at that remark. He was getting redder and visibly angry. “I don’t like being played the fool here! This isn’t right – and you cornered me into three choices that I hate!”

Byte leaned over, took Cobra’s face in her hands, looked him in the eyes and said, in barely above a whisper “Remember this feeling. Remember that a poor decision can lead you down a path with no easy way out. Remember that above all else, a man is always judged by his actions, even in adversity. Had we been in a combat situation, you would be gambling with our lives – and that’s no place for long shots and sucker bets. Do you understand what I am saying? Do you see why this was an important lesson?”, and she waited for an answer.

Cobra trembled in her hands, angry but scared, hating himself for feeling this way, hating that she saw through him, hating that a moment of bravado put him in such a stupid situation. Byte let go, and slowly leaned back, just watching Cobra’s face. His mind was racing, and inside, he was struggling with what to do next.

The tension was mounting in the tank. No one was used to Byte ever being this serious – or Cobra ever being so shaken up. It was almost surreal.

Finally, Cobra looked up, and said, “What happens in the tank, stays in the tank, right? You ALL promise that, right? No slip-ups, no crossed-fingers, no ‘oops’. Are y’all gonna keep your word, as friends and as Guards?”

They all looked at eachother, and each nodded and answered “Yes.”

“I can’t fuckin’ believe I’m doing this!”, he said, and he turned around, away from everyone – and dropped his pants and boxer shorts, exposing his lily-white posterior.

“Full moon’s out early!”, yelled Krev

“Okay, Lizz – be gentle”, nudged Byte. “Make it quick and simple – and stay away from his asshole.”

“Awww, you never let me have any fun!”, he complained

“You got 15 seconds, and then I’m pulling my pants back up – make it fast!”, commanded Cobra.

“You heard the man!”, added Byte. “Start that graffiti !”

With quick, deliberate strokes, Lizz drew the three words with a few flairs and embellishments, and when he stopped, the rest of the crew took a quick peek just before Cobra pulled his pants back up.

“Okay! The bet has been paid! Nothing is said outside this tank – EVER! – or I will make your life a living hell!”, he stated

“Yes, he’s right”, Byte commanded, “This stays here, PERIOD! No exceptions, no excuses. Are we all clear on that?”

There were unanimous consents among everyone, and the secret was safe.

A few minutes later, they returned to the west gate, and re-entered the Barracks. PorkChop navigated the tank back to the hangar, and after the shutdown sequence, they all filed out of the hatch. Byte hung back a little, and when she had a moment, whispered in Cobra’s ear , “A few rags with rubbing alcohol or turpentine will clean things up pretty fast, if you catch my drift”, and then she smiled, and walked away.

Krev walked with Byte, and asked ,”What was that about? Another secret?”

“Nah, I just told Cobra how to clean up a small problem real fast”

“Oh, so he’s probably going to run back to his room, lock himself in with a can of turpentine, and scrub his cheek until it’s all red and clean, right?”, wagered Krev.

“Yeah, most likely. The next time we see him, all evidence of our bet will be gone.”, replied Byte.

“No, not exactly…”, grinned Krev, and she pulled out her cell phone. She turned it on, accessed her files., and then showed the display to Byte.

“Oh, my – that’s, er, very clear”, Byte commented.

“Yes, this camera phone does take life-like pictures, doesn’t it?”

“Now, remember, we all promised!”, Byte reminded her.

“Of course!”, retorted Krev, “As long as I’m in the EGB, his secret is safe with me!”

Byte smiled at first, and then looked worried, “Hey, wait!!! – didn’t you say you were going to quit next month?”, she asked.

Krev didn’t say another word. She just flipped her phone close and smiled a wry, little smile.

[Aug 20, 2009 17:35]

After quietly eating some dinner at the mess hall, Byte went back to her room, and sat on the edge of her bunk, just trying to get a handle on everything. “I took care of that mountain, but there’s still some questions about EagleRock. Is he dead or alive – and in hiding? “I know I saw his rifle used today, and that bum sure fought like he was military trained. Those rifles are never meant to be used by civilians…”

“I need more answers”, she said out loud to the empty room. “I need to know what happened two years ago – and I know who I want to speak to first...”. Picking up the intercom phone, she punched the access code into SlashFirestorm’s private line. It was one of the few secure channels in the EGB phone network, and only used if absolutely necessary.

After three rings, Slash picked up. “ByteSlinger , this better be good. You’re interrupting ‘Wheel Of Fortune’ and a good bottle of Scotch”

“Slash, we need to talk. It’s very important. I saw something earlier today, and I need to report it to you.”, she answered.

“What is so important that you have to call me on the secure line?”, he replied, a little pissed off.

Byte waited a moment, and chose her words carefully. “It’s about EagleRock. I saw his blam rifle today in the General District, and the bum who was using it knew how to use it well”

The line was silent so long that Byte thought Slash might have passed out or hung up. Then he spoke in a low and commanding voice, “Get here – NOW!”, and then he closed the connection.

“Looks like I hit a nerve”, she said to herself, and immediately left for Slash’s quarters.

A few minutes later, after some double-time striding, she was outside his door, and just as she was ready to knock, the door swung open, and Slash made a motion for her to come in. He closed – and locked – the door behind them, and then turned on the stereo to a local music station.

Byte sat down on a chair at his kitchen table, and Slash sat opposite her, bottle of Scotch at the ready. “Drink?”, he asked. “No, thanks. But help yourself”, she answered.

“Don’t mind if I do”, he replied, and took a swig right from the bottle. Then he looked at Byte, and said “You know, I thought I’d be over all of this by now. But I’m not. Too many loose ends. Too many secrets. It’s enough to drive a man to drink – oh, yeah – it did!”, and he took another swig.

“What loose ends?”, asked Byte. “Is this about EagleRock?”

Slash looked at Byte with steely, squinting eyes, like he was trying to look past her eye and into her soul. “You tell me what you have to tell me first. Then we’ll go from there.”, he replied, not answering her question.

She told him what happened in the General District – about the cornered bum, the firefight, the rifle – and the way the bum escaped. She also told him that she thought the same bum had followed them to the gravesites. And finally, she told him that she knew three of the graves were empty – EagleRocks, TheThing and SilentSoldier. Then she added that she looked up the serial number on the rifle, confirmed that it belonged to EagleRock – and it was supposedly in storage. But she crossed-check the storage manifest, and the location on file was fictitious – it used to exist, but they converted that part of the storage area to a communications closet two years ago.

Slash was silent during her entire monologue, trying hard to keep a poker face. But Byte could see his face change slightly as she spoke, from anger to sadness to almost resignation. She knew she had made him uncomfortable – which meant she was on the right track. When she had finished, there was an uncomfortable silence in the room. Slash leaned back, took a long, hard swig, and through reddened eyes, said simply, “So what? He’s dead, and some vigilante got his rifle. Nothing to see here, folks!”

Byte stood up, and looked at Slash with anger in her good eye. Her optic implant extended an inch, zooming in on his face, scanning the thermal readings from his skin. “Damn it to Hell!”, she yelled. “We hold the same rank, we’ve know each other for years, fought side by side – and yet you think you can just flat-out lie to me when it suits you?”

Slash stood up quickly, knocking the almost-empty bottle of Scotch to the floor. As it shattered, he grabbed his firearm off his hip, flipped the safety, pointed it at Byte and commanded, “Stand down, soldier! Or I’ll toss you in the brig for insubordination!”

“And you’ll be in the cell next to me when they find out that you’ve been selling EGB firearms and supplies to vigilantes – not to mention the insurance fraud you set in motion claiming that EagleRock was dead – when he’s not!”. She was fishing now, not sure of the truth – but she knew she got under his skin, and something was going to pop. Hopefully it wouldn’t be that gun pointed at her.

“And if I killed you here in self defense, I wouldn’t have to explain anything to anybody, would I?”, and he aimed the gun at her head.

She looked at him, not flinching, not moving. Then quietly she spoke. “You’re not a killer – and even if you kill me here and now, the secrets you carry and the lies you are living won’t go away. My death at your hands will just drive you deeper into your bottle – and that will kill you slowly and without honor. How do you know that I’m the only one who suspects your role in a cover-up? What are you going to do – track all of us down and kill us? Bad plan, if you ask me.”

They stood frozen in time. It could have been a moment, it could have been an hour. Nobody moved; in the silence, you could hear the clock ticking on the desk, and the voices of soldiers talking down the hall.

A bead of sweat broke out on Slash’s forehead, and ran down the side of his face. Slowly, he relaxed his trigger finger, flipped the safety back on, and re-holstered his weapon, never taking his eyes off Byte. She was relieved to see him stand down – but she knew he could draw again and shoot her in a blink of an eye. She waited for him to speak.

“I witnessed something no man should see. I saw almost two dozen soldiers under my command die, and I was helpless to stop it. They fought well, but in the end, they all died on my watch. I wasn’t worthy to lead them then, and after two years, still feel unworthy now. I’ve been going through the motions, waiting for a better commander to step up and take the lead. Then I could go retire, and hide in some dark hole in some forgotten corner of the world, where I belong. Two years of guilt. Two years of nightmares. I look in the mirror, and sometimes I can’t even face myself for what had happened..”

“But it wasn’t your fault!”, Byte interjected

“Fault?! When you are in charge, it IS your fault if the mission fails. If you lose someone, accident or not, as commander, you ARE responsible. All those live – all that blood – will always be on my hands. It seemed like there would never be any redemption for that loss. No way to ever try to make it right – or at least stop it from happening again. No way … until ….”, his voice trailed off, as he hesitated to finish the sentence.

“Until what?”, Byte asked.

SlashFirestorm walked around to ByteSlinger’s side of the table, and literally came face-to-face with her. She didn’t move as he spoke in barely above a whisper, “You must swear to me on your life that what I’m about to tell you will NEVER leave this room. If you so much as hint to anyone any of this, I will see to it that your body will never be found – along with whomever you tell. Do you swear that, on your life and on your honor, to take all of this to your grave?”

Byte stepped back a half step. There weren’t too many things that scared her, but this was one of them. “What the hell is this secret”, she thought,” that I need to stake against my life? Do I want to know the truth?”

Gulping hard, Byte looked into Slash’s eyes and vowed, ”On my honor and on my life, everything said in this room will stay in this room, and I will take this secret to my death.”

Slash nodded slowly and said ,”You’re right. EagleRock is still alive – and I see him at least once a week.”
Byte sat back down in the chair, and Slash sat in his as he continued his confession. “He never died in the battle. Even though he was seemingly shot at point-blank range, the bullet actually skimmed across his skin. It hurt like hell, and he fell down hard. But he didn’t die. One of the moderators who were on body patrol were sympathetic to our cause, and when they went to collect his body, discovered that he wasn’t dead. They patched him up in some makeshift hospital, and then snuck him out in the trash. But I didn’t know this until much later.”

“That explains why EagleRock’s casket was empty – what about TheThing and SilentSoldier?”

“TheThing is also alive, living in the same secrecy as EagleRock. SilentSoldier, however, really did die – but his body was never recovered. Some say it was ground up for dog food. Others say it was just tossed in a dumpster. No one really knows. But there is no closure here –we had nothing to bury, and we don’t know if he’ll ever be at peace.”

Byte let it all sink in, remembering the state of the EGB and Newgrounds two years back. It was getting out of hand – not that it was any better today, but it could be worse.

Slash continued. “It was some time later that I received a puzzling note to meet someone in the General District , behind the back alley of a local pub, at night. I was told to come alone, and that I wouldn’t be hurt if I did. I was feeling so bad about the recent fiasco that part of me hoped I would be ambushed and killed – so I went. I found the alley and waited for the meeting time – and two hooded figures stepped out of a door near the end of the alley. I stood there watching them, and as I reached for my sidearm, one of them spoke. “That won’t be necessary”, he said, and both of them pulled back their hoods, revealing their faces. I almost fell over when I saw EagleRock and TheThing. They were both scanned the alley and the rooftops for any witnesses, and as fate would have it, there were none. They told me to follow them, and we went into the cellar of the pub. In there, they told me how they escaped, and how they both decided that they could fight the war better if everyone thought they were dead. They wanted to become deep operatives for the EGB – officially, they didn’t exist, so they didn’t have to play by the rules. They asked me for my help – to give them supplies and weapons, and in return, I would know what was happening in the underbelly of Newgrounds. But I could never tell anyone that they were still alive. I agreed, but later realized that it didn’t lighten my burden – it made it worse. I now had to not only lie about their deaths, but I had to steal from the EGB and hide my tracks to keep them in business. I was doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons – and now, I’m in too deep.”

“But what if EagleRock and TheThing come back to the EGB and tell the truth? There might be repercussions, but at least you won’t have it over your head anymore!”, she asked.

“If they did that, I would be court-martialed and either sent away for life – or killed on the spot. Besides, they are doing more good for us being ‘dead’ than they could alive. But stealing supplies and fudging the records to cover my trail is getting harder and harder. If I get caught, I told them that I would confess to selling them to the black market in the General District, that I needed the money to pay off gambling debts. But I would never mention their names. Just like you never will, right? RIGHT?!?!?”

“Yes, I swore that to you, and I will keep that oath, period.”, she answered, “Now, where do we go from here?”

Slash thought for a moment, and then said “WE don’t go anywhere. You know the truth, but you can’t act on it. You have to pretend this never happened. You can’t help me, you can’t get involved at all, because if I get caught, I don’t want to bring anyone else down with me. I certainly don’t need that shit over my head. I’m already in too deep, but you still can walk away. Now that you know everything, please stop digging under rocks for the answer. If anyone has concerns about EagleRock’s status, you must insist that he is dead – do not offer up any alternatives.”

“So, I’m caught up in this lie as much as you are now”, Byte added sourly, “ and I have to keep it going. But it still doesn’t sit right with me.”

“That is the price of knowing the truth – you have to bury it with a lie for it’s own good. Just Like I’ve done these past years.”

“No, no that’s not what I mean”, she continued. “This is not how I remember it. I could have sworn EagleRock, Coop83 and you were the only survivors. They both continued their command, supporting you and rebuilding the barracks afterwards…”, her voice trailed off, and then she asked Slash, ”Do you have a secure computer terminal here?”

“Yeah, in the back office. Why?”

“Because I have the records from the barracks for the past three years on file in this”, and she pointed to the storage module embedded in her left arm. “I’ll hook up to the console and let you see for yourself. “

“If you say so – but let me unplug it from the network first – don’t need prying eyes to see this”, and he unplugged the patch cord from the wall. The console powered up, and Byte sat down in front of the terminal. “Now how are you going to access the data from your arm?”, he asked

“Like this”, and the two fingers transformed again into a data plug, which connected directly to the console. Byte logged on and found the EGB records. They were password protected, but instead of typing it in, she slid her chair over and told Slash to continue. “These are your files. You know the access codes, and I want you to see for yourself what these files contain”

“When the hell did you learn that trick?”, he asked, staring at her morphed fingers.

“That just happened recently. Must have been a latent program change that just decided it was time to run.”

“Whatever you say…”, he said, shaking his head slowly.

Slash sat down, and keyed in his access codes. They worked like a charm, and he was now granted full read access to the EGB files. He fished around, and found the current roster – it showed EagleRock as active! He went back a little over two years, and found his personal logs. While there was complete details about the kidnapping and the fighting, the last few entries told of the survivors – which did include EagleRock!

“Either you doctored these files somehow, or one of us is crazy! I know I saw what happened – and you saw him for yourself in the General District! How do we remember this differently?”, and his eyes were wide with confusion.

“No, those files I downloaded just recently – they should match what’s on the EGB system word for word!”, and with a few keystrokes, printed the pages to Slash’s laser printer. She logged him out, and disconnected from the console. He reconnected the network plug, and powered his terminal up again. Byte watched as he logged back in, and pulled up the files from the EGB server. He found the active roster, and showed it to Byte.

“See, no EagleRock!”, he said, triumphantly, and then he showed he the old logs, and the death notices, and the funeral arrangements – all of it describing in vivid detail the demise of EagleRock. “These files are different!”, blurted Byte, “But why?”, and she just stared at the data on the screen, trying to make sense of this.

There was an uneasy silence as the question hung in the air unanswered.

SlashFirestorm closed out the files and shut down the terminal. “It’s not just the files that are different. You and I remember the past differently. And there is something different about you – maybe it’s the fact that you’ve done so many modifications to that arm that I’ve never noticed before. Or maybe it’s your face - you look like you’ve aged a lifetime in the past few days…”

“I have”, she interrupted, “and what I’m about to tell you will take some time and sound unbelievable, but maybe it’ll make more sense when I’m done.”

Slash opened the fridge, and grabbed two cold beers. Byte took one without hesitation, popped the top with her cyber fingers, and chugged it down in ten seconds. She put the bottle down, looked at Slash, and belched loudly, very unlady-like. Slash just smiled, and took another cold one out for her. They sat down on the couch, each taking an arm and an end, and Byte began her tale: “It all started with the trip through the Portal…”

[Aug 20, 2009 21:45]

After several hours and several beers later, Byte finally brought her tale to the present. Slash kept quiet during the entire time, occasionally grunting or chuckling at the appropriate moments. “Now, do you understand what I’ve been through?”, she asked.

Slash looked at her, and then began to laugh, almost as if he lost his mind. “You know, I thought you might have been crazy – or pulling my leg – when you first told me about seeing EagleRock. But now, after hearing your story, I am convinced of one thing…”

“And what’s that?”, she asked

“That you’re just fuckin’ nuts!”, he answered, laughing in her face.

“How…how can you say that?”, she cried, “I told you the truth. I told you everything! How can I be crazy?”

“Well, for starters”, he began, “you just based your entire story on a computer game!”

“What?”, she said, very confused.

“Look, you and I both know that you based your whole story on the game “Portal”. There is no REAL Aperture Science lab, and nobody has the technology to even design a real Portal, much less build one. And then, to say that somewhere in an alternate universe, someone managed to tweak it even further to span time and dimensions – that’s just pure fiction!”

Byte heard what he was saying, and tears began to flow from her right eye…

[End of Chapter 17]


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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 10:54 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

“Through a Mirror Darkly”

Chapter 18

“Cumulative Errors”

Originally posted on November 28th, 2009

[Aug 20, 2009 21:50]

SlashFirestorm watched ByteSlinger’s face for a moment as the tears ran down her cheek. Then he spoke in a quiet but authoritative tone: “Look, this whole EagleRock ordeal took a lot out of all of us. I know it hit me hard – probably as hard as it is hitting you. But quite frankly, I’m worried about you. If the story you told me is all part of your imagination, then I may have no choice but to relieve you of your duties until you’re mentally ready to resume your post. But even if only part of your story rings true – well, I’m not sure where that leads us. But you’ll need a lot of facts to prove the truth. For now, just go back to your room, take a few Sominex, and get some sleep. In the morning things may be a little clearer – that’s an order, soldier! Dismissed!”

And with that, Slash ended the conversation. Byte stood up, gave the Supreme Commander a quick salute, and then unlocked the door and left. At this time of night, the barracks were very quiet, so Byte managed to get back to her place without running into anyone looking for a long explanation about why she had been crying.

Back at her place, Byte locked herself in, set the comm. phone to privacy mode, and then slipped into her nightclothes – a comfy pair of sweatpants and a light cotton t-shirt. Turning out all of the lights, she slipped into bed, and the last thing she remembered thinking was “I need proof…”

During the night, Byte dreamt:

Byte stood in a large room, fire raging all around her. Where ever she turned, all she could see were flames and smoke. The heat was becoming unbearable, and it was getting harder and harder to breathe. She spun around, and saw a black door in front of her. Despite the heat and the smoke, it was a strangely normal looking door. She reached for the doorknob, and it was cool to the touch. Turning it, she heard the door latch open, and the door began to swing into the next room.

As she began to peer in, an explosion behind her pushed her through the door, and she tumbled forward into the cool air. Jumping to her feet, she spun around a moment too late – the door had just clicked shut. Then she realized that she was in the middle of a very long hall, and there were doors on both sides of the hallway. The doors that she could see all looked the same – normal wooden doors, painted black, simple wood frames. Nothing fancy here. The knobs were rubbed brass, as well as the hinges. It looked almost like a hotel hallway, but the hall itself was featureless – no visible lights, just oddly glowing smooth grayish walls, floor and ceiling. If it wasn’t for the doors providing points of reference, there’d be no way to know where you where in the hall.

Looking closer, she noticed that each door had a metallic plate attached, just about eye-level. On the plate on the door that she had passed through, it had a single digit: “1”. Looking at the door to the left of this one, the plate was much longer – in fact, it spanned almost the whole width of the door. On it was a series of digits, and when Byte looked at the leftmost digits, she saw that it started as “0.999999999998748374832344….” . The door on the right had a similar number: “0.99999999999874822341097….”. “That’s odd”, she thought in her dream. “Why would someone put a decimal number on the door?

She continued examining the numbers in both directions, and discovered that the further she walked away from door #1, the smaller the numbers got. There was no pattern as to how much they went down at each step, but they did gradually decrease. Reversing her course, she went back to door “1”, and tried to open it – but it wouldn’t budge. Then she looked at the door directly opposite of door “1”, and saw that there was a “1” on this door as well. She put her hand on the doorknob, and turned it until the latch opened. As she slowly opened the door into the hallway, she suddenly heard the sounds of fire crackling and felt the heat pouring out from behind the door. Quickly, she shut it again.

“Can’t go back there”, she thought. She tried the door to the left of the one she just opened, and it also had an inferno behind it. “Damn, are they all like this?”, she wondered, and she systematically tried door after door down the hallway – and each one was impassable. After about 40 doors, she came to the conclusion that this fire must be pretty big, so maybe if she traveled further down the hall, she’d get past it.

After a few minutes of walking, she checked the numbers on the plates again. This one was “0.99102394323….’ Then she took a step back, and looked at the door. Something was different about this door. It looked like the same door – and then Byte realized that the doorknob and hinges weren’t brass – they were a silvery color, like plated nickel. In fact, all of the doors in this part of the hallway had the same brushed nickel hinges and knobs.

She gave the knob a twist, and opened this door. She didn’t hear any fire burning, or feel any heat blast, so she opened it all the way, and peered in carefully. She saw her barracks apartment, but it had been burned to the timbers. Everything had been destroyed by the inferno, and the smell of smoldering wood made her gag. It wasn’t safe to go in there, so she closed the door, and rested against it for a moment.

In the dream, Byte knew that she couldn’t stay in the hallway forever. She had to find the right door to open – but the choices seemed endless. “And what’s up with the funny room numbers anyway?”, she said to herself. Then she spoke out loud, as if someone could hear her here, “This hall can’t go on forever – I’ll just run to the end and see what my options are when I get there.

She broke out into a double-time jog, and proceeded to mark time down the hall. After about another fifteen minutes, she stopped – and noticed that doors had gradually turned from black to a dark red, with gold-tone hardware. The number on this plate was “.98200028374654…”

“Oh, what the hell...”, she said to the door, and opened it carefully. She peered inside, and there was her barracks apartment – completely undamaged, looking the way it always had. “Okay, that looks about right, but…”

Then she opened the door to the left of this one. It was marked “.9820001998371…”, and it, too, opened up to her apartment. “Two doors to the same place?”, she wondered. To test that theory, she reached into her pants pocket, and pulled out about two dollars in small coins. She tossed the coins into the first room, where she could see them land on the carpet near the coffee table.

She looked in the other doorway – there where NO coins to be seen! She looked back in the first doorway – and the coins were very happily sitting on the floor. “It’s NOT the same room!”, she gasped. “But they both look the same – how do I choose?”. She looked between the two rooms for a few minutes, and noticed that one had darker curtains than the other. Byte always liked her privacy, and if given the choice, the darker curtains did seem to match better than the lighter ones. This happened to be the same room where she tossed the coins, which seemed to make her feel a little better. “Well, you know what they say – always go with your gut choice!”, and she walked through the doorway, stepping into the middle of her living room. The moment she passed the threshold, the door pushed itself close behind her. She turned to reopen it – but it had vanished!

Looking around, everything felt familiar. She looked out the window, and saw the main EGB courtyard as before. The sun was shining, there were platoons performing field exercises, and the trees were swayed gently in a breeze. “Finally, I’m home…”, she started to say, when something caught her attention outside, and stopped her mid sentence.

At first she thought it was a flock of birds. But birds don’t wear camo outfits and boots and carry rifles strapped to their backs. As they came closer, she recognized the faces of her fellow guardsman – and they all swooped and flew in formation on large, white, feathery wings…

“No….”, she said, taking a step backwards, “No! That’s not right!”, and with another step backwards, Byte clips the corner of the coffee table, and trips, falling backwards. “Oh, Shit!...”, she yells…

…And wakes herself out of the dream. Covered in sweat and her heart pounding a mile a minute, she jumped up out of bed. Her clock showed that it was 02:45 on 21-Aug-2009. “Too late to call anyone”, she grumbled. After downing four Sominex with some warm milk and cookies, Byte sat in her recliner, tilted it back a little, and fell asleep watching an old movie channel.

This time, there were no dreams, and she was very grateful for that.

[Aug 21, 2009 08:43]

Byte woke up with a funny cramp in her neck. She had slept awkwardly on the recliner, and it felt like she really didn’t sleep at all. Standing up and rubbing her neck, she realized she missed morning breakfast down at the mess – but being a commander, where she ate breakfast was discretionary. The memories of the dream she had earlier were still clear in her mind – and she had a strong feeling they had something to do with the portal traveling she had been doing.

She took a quick shower, changed into clean clothes, and then had a bagel with cream cheese and a grapefruit for breakfast. “Well, I feel a little better now”, she commented to the empty kitchen, noticing that it was now 09:20. As she was powering up her terminal to check on today’s duty roster, she was interrupted by a P.A. message:

“Attention, all Barracks Officers. ByteSlinger, SlntCobra1 and Lizzardis are hereby ordered to meet Supreme Commander SlashFirestorm in his office at 09:30 hours. No excuses will be accepted. That is all”, and then the P.A. went silent.

“What the hell is this about?”, she asked. “Maybe something about the tank maneuvers yesterday?”, she pondered., “Oh, whatever it is, I know I’m not going to like it.”. Byte finished off her outfit, putting on the regulation boots, tucking in her top shirt, pulling her hair back into a ponytail, and then strapping on her sidearm and ID. With everything in place, she stepped out of her door, and headed directly for Slash’s office.

Along the way, she met up with SlntCobra1 and Lizzardis. “Hey, any idea what this is about?”, Lizz asked the other two “No”, came the same answer from Byte and Cobra. “But it doesn’t sound good!”, Byte added. They walked in uneasy silence towards Slash’s office, like three kids being called down to the principal.

As Byte went to knock on the door, it swung open. SlashFirestorm greeted them with a serious look, and motioned for them to come inside. As they filed in, Slash said “Take a seat, and listen up.” Three sets of eyes showed full attention to their Supreme Commander, who looked very serious in his combat shirt, camo pants, utility belt – and fuzzy bunny slippers. Byte’s first instinct was to crack a joke, but a little voice inside her head told her that would be a bad idea. Between the dream she had last night, and now this meeting, she was beginning to think that her sanity was going on vacation and leaving her behind in a puddle of drool.

Slash remained standing in the middle of the room as he began his speech. “I’d like to say that all of you are fine examples of what an Elite Guard should be.”, and they all smiled a little as he started his compliment. “I’d like to – but I can’t “, The three smiles turned to three puzzled looks. “You see, while all of you each have good qualities that have taken you so far, all of you lack some skills and abilities in one - or more - areas. Some of you have issues with authority, some of you think this is the wild west, and some of you just need to toughen up. Fortunately, as your commander, I have a way to address these problems. You are all going on a mission.”

He paused, and watched the faces of the three Elite who now were more confused than disappointed. They wanted to ask questions, but no one dared to speak just yet.

Slash continued: “We received intelligence that a large crate of stolen blammunition and some high-powered blam rifles will be sold tonight in the General District. Someone inside the EGB is working with mercenaries to peddle the stolen weapons, which in itself is bad news. But the Fulps have caught wind of this, and now they know that the EGB can’t control their own people. We were given one last chance to correct this problem, or they’ll shut down the EGB for good, and we’ll all be dishonorably discharged.”

Byte remembered the conversation she had with Slash last evening. He was the source of the leak, and he knew it. But she couldn’t say anything. She glared at Slash, who looked her back in the eye, and just smiled a little. “This is a setup”, she thought,” Someone is going down for this, and he’s covering his ass. I don’t like this at all…”

“I was also told that this will be a covert operation – if you get caught, we know nothing. The EGB has no authority over civilian matters – only the NGPD does. But they don’t have the skills or manpower to go undercover, find the source of the stolen goods, gather evidence and then arrest those involved. We need an air-tight case – and you three are going to be the squad that will make it happen.”

“Us?”, asked Lizz. “We’ve never been undercover before. We don’t know how to be sneaky!”

“Yeah, we’re just not Ninja material”, added SlntCobra

“WRONG!”, Slash bellowed. “That’s why I’m sending you all – to push yourselves out of your little worlds, and learn what it’s like to get your noses bloodied and your hands dirtied – and how to NOT to get caught doing it.”

“Well, if this is covert”, started Byte,” does that mean that we can use any means necessary to accomplish our task to your satisfaction, or are we still limited to those silly little rules like the Geneva Convention and the EGB Articles of War and Human Rights?”

Slash grinned a little evilly. “Now you’re thinking. I can’t tell you what you’re allowed to do, since it would be wrong of me to direct you to act against those rules of engagement and human rights. But I can tell you that if accomplish your mission successfully, well, we won’t be paying attention to certain details along the way.”

“And if we fail, we’ll be either dead – or spending the rest of our lives in jail”, noted Cobra.

“Also very true”, replied Slash, “but if I were a gambling man, I’d go with ‘dead’. The people you are dealing with aren’t exactly known for their mercy. If they get a chance to kill you, they will.”

“But I’m too young for this mission!”, cried Lizz. “I’m not ready for a life and death battle. That’s not what I signed up for when I joined!”

Slash took a step forward, and glared directly into Lizzardis’ face. “So, you’re telling me you’d rather die a coward’s death? That there is no honor in dying for your position? Do you think that being an Elite Guard doesn’t carry risk and responsibility? It does, every hour of every day. Some soldiers die old, and some die young. It’s not WHEN they die – it’s HOW they die that matters…”, and his voice trailed off as his thoughts went back two years, reliving the nightmare of the loss of his comrades at the hands of Waldolf.

Lizz was shaking a little; Cobra was getting excited about going on the mission. “Finally, a decent mission for once!”, he thought; and ByteSlinger just sat there, waiting for the propaganda to stop.

Slash turned to Byte, and then added, ”You will be in charge of this mission. The success of the mission, and the lives of these young men, are in your hands – so to speak. Here is the mission briefing – you will all stay here, read it and then formulate a plan. You have two hours. I’m going to go take care of other business. When I get back, you will present your plan to me for approval. Understood?”, and they nodded as he tossed three large envelopes in their direction.

He saluted, and they all stood, and returned the salute. Then he left his office, locking the door behind him on the way out.

“Nothing like a heaping pile of steaming bullshit to start your day, right?”, sneered Cobra as he began to open up his envelope. “All this fuss about an undercover mission – what the hell can be so….”

His words ended mid-sentence as he began to read the briefing, and the others quickly read theirs as well:

“Eyes only – Security level 6 document.

Original Date : 12-February-2008
Revised Date: 18-August-2009

From: T. Fulp, W. Fulp

To: Supreme Commander SlashFirestorm

Subject: Operation Hangman

Frankly, Commander SlashFirestorm, we are very disappointed in the long delays and excuses your office has shown us these past 18 months. We had expected far more progress than this, despite the fact that it is a covert operation.

Need I remind you that as each week passes, it will become progressively more difficult for you and your officers to accomplish the two goals of this operation: Discover all the parties involved in the arming of civilians with stolen EGB weapons and munitions, and then destroying the factory and stockpiles of weapons. We know from our intelligence gathering that all of these weapons are part of a larger plan to ultimately overthrow not just the government of NewGrounds, but also the command structure of the NGPD and the EGB. We also know that there are traitors among us in all of these organizations, and no one can really be trusted.

The weapons started appearing in the General District some time around 15-October-2007. At first, it was just a rifle here and there, and we attributed it to nothing more than petty theft. But eighteen months later, we have confiscated a total of twenty three (23) EGB high-powered blam rifles – and they are all crafted copies from the originals. It appears that a rogue weapons factory has a few of your original rifles, and are now making functional knock-offs that are just as deadly as the ones in your barracks.

For every spy we have sent that managed to return with some useful information, we have lost four. Even the careful ones made small mistakes – but big enough to blow their cover, and end their lives. This has to end, and it has to end now. We do not want to exercise our rights as government leaders to pick the task forces ourselves, but you are going to force our hands. If you do not have a team – and a plan - in place within the next 5 days, we will step in, remove you from command, and take over the EGB ourselves.

You have your orders, Commander. You have failed us for the last time.”
- - -

“We are in some pretty deep shit here, folks”, commented Cobra

“Yeah, tell me about it”, added Lizz. “But how come after eighteen months Slash hasn’t done anything yet? What’s the matter with him?”

But ByteSlinger knew what this was about. Slash had told her the truth – to some degree. He was helping out EagleRock to maintain a clandestine undercover operation by providing guns and ammo – but what he failed to mention is that some of them wound up in the wrong hands, and he’s now in way too deep. Then the government wants to know who’s responsible for this, and ironically, it’s the commander they’ve tasked with solving the problem. But Byte swore she would tell no one this, so it was time for a little story telling…

“Look, he was in no shape the first few months after that fiasco with Waldorf”, she began. “It shook him deeply. It looks like while he was down, some people took advantage of the fact that no one was really watching the store, and took advantage of his weakness. Then later, once he tries to start an action plan, he realizes it will be very difficult to cobble together a crew that he could trust. Time keeps passing, and he can’t find anyone. Between his grief and his pain, he just can’t do it. But now, after this ultimatum, he has no choice – and it seems like we’ve drawn the short straw. It all rests on our shoulders now”

“Well, that does make a little sense”, quipped Lizz. “But how are we supposed to help?”

“I’d like to just take the tank to the General District and open up an economy-sized can of whup-ass, but that just isn’t subtle enough for a covert op”, replied Cobra, “no matter how much fun it would be…”

Byte just shook her head back and forth slowly. And then she had a thought that chilled her blood cold. “What if Slash’s only way out is to set up someone else in the EGB? He couldn’t just make up a story – it wouldn’t stand up in court without evidence. No, he’d have to set someone up to take the fall – a frame job. And the only way they couldn’t testify against them is if they were dead. They could find the dead soldiers with incriminating evidence, and then jump to their own conclusions. That means when we go on this mission, we’ll be like three lambs to the slaughter. This isn’t a suicide mission – it’s a cover up…”

SlntCobra interrupted Byte’s mental epiphany with his own question, “So, Commander, what should we do?”

Byte looked at Cobra and Lizz grimly for a moment, and then spoke. “I don’t know, guys. I got a bad feeling about this…”

[End of Chapter 18]


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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 10:55 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

“Through a Mirror Darkly”

Chapter 19

“Trust No One”

Originally posted on December 6th, 2009

[Aug 21, 2009 09:45]

ByteSlinger, Lizzardis and SlntCobra1 pored over the maps and intel reports for the mission. There were three locations that were identified as possible storage areas for the weapons. All of them involved underground parking, and all of them could be well guarded. The meetings seemed to always take place in one of the burned out or abandoned warehouses on Mortis Grande lane, and with good reason: even though it was a dead end, there was access by train and it was right on the canal. The canal hadn’t been used by the shipping line for years, and it grew shallow with disuse. Only flat-skiff airboats, like those used in the Everglades, could navigate it. Over time, various abandoned and burned out vehicles were dumped in the canal, making it a treacherous maze for any boat over twelve feet long. The train rails have been off the main switch for years, but it was rumored that some modified Hummers and Land Rovers ran the rails on specialized rims that acted like train wheels. Both the canal and the rails provided multiple escape routes from the lane, and with only one road in, it was easy to defend and monitor.

“I think we should divide and conquer”, commented Cobra. “One of us goes in quiet to gather more intel and ID the pricks, and the other two track down and storm the storage bunkers, catching them with their pants down”.

“I dunno, Cobra. “, replied Lizz. “We could hit a lot of opposition, and if we split up, we could be too weak to fight if we get cornered. What do you think, Byte?”

Byte sat back for a moment, and then gave her answer. “There are too many unknowns here. We are stronger as a team than we are separate, so my first inclination is to stay together. Remember, we have two tasks here – find out who is involved, and secure – or destroy – the weapons cache. But it just may be that by acting on one task, we can also accomplish the other.”

“What do you mean?”, asked Cobra.

Byte continued, “Let’s say we first positively locate the weapons cache. We know it’s underground, so we have to figure out all of the exits. Is it accessed only by the street, or are there service access tunnels to the subway? I’m willing to bet it would have both. The subways in that area are minimally guarded, and it wouldn’t take much for a group of men to dress up like a maintenance crew, carry some boxes onboard that would hide weapons or munitions, and then get off to do some delivery work. Street access is tricky – cars can be followed or even electronically monitored.”

Lizz looked at the three choices, and checked against the subway map. “Bingo! Only one of them has subway access! It’s the parking garage for the Gimme5 Games administration offices.” Then he pulled out the blueprints for the building from the packet. “The parking garage goes down five levels – the first four are public access, and the fifth requires a special pass key for employees and maintenance crews. And there are two subway platforms on the northern spur branch that can eventually be switched into the main subway line!”

“Good eyes, Lizz!”, commented Cobra, “That sounds like a perfect place to stash something – a secured underground level with two subway exits. I think we have a winner!”

“Well, that may it – but it’s going to be a bitch to work with”, growled Byte

“Why do you say that?”, Lizz asked

“Because the damn building is still active! The Gimme5 Company has about a hundred and twenty employees working there, and they work weird shifts. I doubt all of them are involved in the weapons smuggling, which means we now have to account for innocent bystanders when we make our move!” spat Byte

They sat silent for a moment, and then Cobra showed a big toothy grin and a glint of excitement in his eyes. “I know how we can do this! It’s easy!”

“Go on – whaddya got?” replied Byte

“Well, first off, we need to clear the building before we make our move. We can do that by setting a fire and forcing an evacuation. But it won’t be any fire – we’ll have redirected a service subway train to the platform, and when it gets there, it will have a full electrical melt-down, causing a fire with a lot of smoke – and also block the escape track. When the fire is called in, we show up dressed as firefighters, but we have everything we need under our firemen outfits. We’ll get to the fifth floor, find the cache, set up C4 charges with timed and remote detonators, and then get the hell out of there. We can also release a canister of some noxious chemical that will force the fire department to abandon the floor. We all get out, and then when the fifth floor is clear, blow it up!”

Byte and Lizz first looked at eachother, and then at Cobra. “Wow. There’s a few details to work out, but that…that is a freakin’ great plan!”, commented Byte. “Just one thing – how in Hell did you think of that?”

Cobra smiled broadly as he proudly replied, “I told you I know a lot about military weapons and tactics. I’ve read about strategies and infiltration techniques. I may not be able to plan a war – but I sure can find a way to get you into that garage!”

“That you did”, Byte replied,” Simple, but effective - create a distraction, get the place emptied, and then we stroll in and do our dirty deeds. But before we do that, we have to make sure that is the right place.”

“Well, if we set off the subway explosion and evacuate the building, and then go marching in to discover that we can’t find the weapons, we don’t have to blow it up – we just leave and let them try to figure it all out.”, parried Cobra.

“Well, that does make sense. It’s going to take a few days to line all of this up, but we can still outline this part for now to give it to Slash”, added Byte.

“But what about finding out who’s involved?”, asked Lizz.

“Ah, there’s the beauty of it!”, responded Cobra. “If they are using the fifth underground garage level as storage, there will be at least one or two people on the Gimme5 payroll that are involved to some degree. They will constantly be monitoring the 5th floor, and most likely be keeping odd hours – and that’s where Byte’s skills come in!”

“Moi?” she answered, coyly.

“Do you think you can hack into the Gimme5 network and access their employee list, security badge listing, and the access logs for all the doors and elevators, so we can track who’s been working where? “, asked Cobra, already knowing the answer would be ‘yes’.

It was a little-known fact that many years ago, ByteSlinger worked as a “white-hat” – she belonged to a group of hackers that broke into networks just for the sake of doing it, and leaving note files behind telling their victims how they broke in, and what they could do to tighten their system security. No one in her group stole data, planted virii or did anything else to hurt the company. It was a combination of bragging rights and trying to be helpful. This was opposed to the “black hats”, who not only hacked into systems, but did malevolent things afterwards. Eventually, due to the negative press that the slanted media always produced, the general term “hacker” became synonymous with “evil” – and the concept of a “white hat” was lost to jaded history.

And now, between her learned skills and the abilities of her implants, there really weren’t too many systems she couldn’t access. Fortunately, her high moral standards (and the innate desire to stay out of prison) kept her out of any system unless she absolutely needed to be in it.

“Well, I guess I could give it a try – but I’ll have to use a few proxies, and bounce a signal between satellites to hide the trail. In case they back-trace the IP we don’t want someone to figure out that the EGB is more like the KGB!”

Lizz reached over and powered up the console on SlashFirestorm’s desk. Byte sat down as her left hand formed the interface connector once again, and linked directly into the management control port. The control menu appeared in her optic implant, and within minutes, she had root access to the EGB servers – and satellite communications control. Lizz and Cobra watched in stunned silence as Byte created masked proxy links from the EGB site to COMMSAT7, to TELSAT42, bouncing a signal down to France, rerouting through England, back up through the HMS Renegade docked in London, off of a British TV satellite, then back down through the HBO network, and finally into the land lines in NewGrounds. “It’s a little laggy, but I think we’ll be safe for a few minutes”, she announced.

With the convoluted proxy in place, Byte located the servers at Gimme5. They were behind numerous firewalls, but after a little discreet probing, she discovered the version of Linux and Apache Server they were using. From there, she cross-checked against a list of known (and unpublished) exploits to find commands and codes to get access behind the firewalls. Eight minutes later, she had admin/root access to the Gimme5 servers, and immediately began to copy and transfer the databases she needed. “This may take a while – I’m using a low-priority maintenance-level program protocol that hopefully won’t set off any access alarms. If you read too much too fast, it could trigger a security bot.”

After another twelve minutes, Byte smiled as she logged out and erased the evidence that she was ever in the system. She had managed to capture all of the files she needed, including the door access and security system codes.

“I think we have what we need. Now, let’s cross check these files and find out who likes the 5th floor...”, and a few queries later, a short list of 3 names appeared. She wrote them down, and showed the list to SlntCobra and Lizzardis:

1- Peter Byrd
2- Francis Leek
3- Steven Sarr

“All of these people have repeatedly visited the 5th floor garage – and here’s the odd part – always in pairs, but never all three at the same time. They cover the two shifts from 07:00 to midnight – the garage seems to be locked down after then…wait a minute…there are some deleted records in here that haven’t been purged yet. Looks like somebody was trying to hide their tracks! All three of these employees accessed the garage after hours, too!”

“Can we find out where they live or anything else about them?”, asked Lizz.

“Nah, I bet they’re all fake names!”, replied Cobra. “Think about it – you’re smuggling weapons through the bowels of a major city, which is considered treason and punishable by death – and you’re gonna give them your REAL name at your job?”

Byte smiled at the obvious answer, but knew that there had to be a way to track these people down short of tailing them. As she pondered her options, Lizz looked at the list and said, “Steven Sarr – that name sounds familiar somehow. Wasn’t he involved with Newgrounds a while ago?”

“No, you’re thinking of Seven Star, of the Star Syndicate…oh…shit… it’s a play on words! Look, take the “t” from “Star”, and insert it into “Seven” – you get Steven Sar!”, exclaimed Byte.

“And Francis Leek – wouldn’t that be Fleek, a known spammer and enemy to Newgrounds?”, added Cobra

“Yes! Yes you’re right! But Peter Byrd – that doesn’t ring a bell”, added Byte. “Must be another criminal nickname. Okay, nevermind that - we’ve got enough to start a plan. Let’s iron out the details; we have an hour before Slash returns.”

In the hour that followed, Byte, Cobra and Lizz worked out a general plan to infiltrate and destroy the weapons cache – and in the process, flush out some of the players behind it all. Fortunately for Cobra, the plan involved copious amounts of explosives and a chance to blow up a subway train and part of a building. He was happy with that, since Byte told him he had to leave his tank home for this one – they just couldn’t use it as a fire truck! “No, even if you paint it red, add blinking lights and hang a few ladders off of it, I just don’t think it’ll pass as a hook and ladder truck”, she said.

“What if we have a Dalmatian puppy on the front?”, asked Lizz. “Everyone would be so busy looking at the cute puppy they may not notice that the fire truck has steel treads and Sidewinder missiles!”

“Nice try, but no tank. We have to travel light on our feet for this one. We’ll save the tank for …later.”, Byte answered with a grin. They just finished printing out the last few copies of the draft when SlashFirestorm returned. He didn’t look happy, and all he said was “Well, what do you have for me?”

They handed him the plan, and sat back as he read it. His frown relaxed a little, and then when he was finished, he looked at Byte and said “This just might work. You did a good job figuring out the entry strategy, and using the fireman’s outfit as cover is simplicity itself. Well done!”

“Slash”, Byte replied, “I didn’t come up with that idea. Cobra figured it out. All I did was help him think through a few details – but the plan was his. He gets the credit for it!”

“SlntCobra set this up?”, he answered, and turned to Cobra,”I see you’ve done your rank proud, Master Sergeant! Keep up the good work! But according to this plan, you’ll need a few days to get the materials together…let’s see what they are…C4, no problem...fireman’s outfits, no problem…night vision goggles and full Kevlar body armor, check…one used self-powered subway car to be converted to fake maintenance vehicle, oh yeah –I have one of those RIGHT HERE UP MY ASS! Are you out of your collective minds?!?!? Where am I gonna get you a used subway car?”

“We could check the Newgrounds Classifieds under ‘Used Vehicles For Sale’ “, retorted Cobra, “and see if they have anything late model available, maybe with a sunroof and stereo?”

But Slash’s glare quickly silenced the room. He was about to restart his tirade when Byte spoke up, “I can get us a subway car. I’ll bring it down off the south access spur, into the canyon pass north of the weapons testing zone. We can make the modifications there, and then we’ll bring it back when it’s ready.”

“And just how…actually, I don’t want to ask that question, because then I’ll know the answer – and I really don’t want to know how you’re going to pull that off. Just remember, this is a COVERT operation! Getting caught swiping a subway car will not look good on your military record!”, barked Slash

“No, but it will be as funny as hell to watch on ‘America’s Dumbest Criminals’!”, Cobra wisecracked. Lizz smacked him in the arm for saying it – even though he was right.

Slash stood up, gathered all the paperwork that was printed, tossed it in a metal garbage pail, and then tossed a lit match in. Everyone watched as the reports caught fire and were destroyed. “No more hardcopies. All files to be 256bit encrypted with password protection, and ALL files pertaining to this operation WILL BE MILSPEC ERASED immediately after final use. No conversations over the phones, internet or any other unsecured line. When you speak about it, do so in a known protected are – like here. Even the smallest leak can be fatal. Do you all understand me?”

“Loud and clear, sir!”, they all answered in unison.

“Good. You are all dismissed for now. ByteSlinger, I expect to meet with you at least once a day to fill me in on the progress of the operation. No surprises, hear me?”

Byte just nodded, and they all left Slash’s office in quiet reflection.

“Hey, it’s a little past noon – anybody want to grab some lunch at the mess?”, chirped Lizz. They all agreed, and headed to the mess hall. Cobra and Lizz chatted about tanks and weapons and puppies, but Byte was preoccupied with all of the thoughts swimming in her head. “The upcoming mission is a distraction to my agenda”, she pondered, “which is to find a way back home. This dimension is very close to mine, that’s for sure – but it’s not the same. And killing off my local double didn’t help matters – if I find a way out, I’ll have to fake my death here and leave no body. But if what Slash says is true – that there was no Portal technology developed in this dimension – then I may just have to face the fact that I’m stuck here.”

Her train of thought was interrupted by SlntCobra who was nudging her elbow and asking ”Hey, if you’re not gonna eat that brownie, can I have it?” Byte smiled a little, and nodded yes. Cobra grabbed it fast, and ate it as if it was his last meal. “So, what do we do now?”, asked Lizz. “We have three days before our mission – how do we get ready?”

“I would recommend spending as much time as you can in the Urban Tactical training ground. Get used to running inside buildings and stairwells, and practice your targeting skills – remember, there will be innocent civilians around, and if things turn ugly, I don’t want anyone but the bad guys dropped, ok?”, suggested Byte.

“That’s sounds good”, added Cobra. “When do you want to go?”

“You and Lizz can go now, if you want. I have to figure out how to steal a subway train!”, and she stood up from the table.

“Ok. See you at the training grounds later!”, he replied, and they went their separate ways.

[Aug 21, 2009 13:30]

Byte walked back to her place without incident, and as she walked in the door, she noticed that the message light was blinking on the answering machine. Looking at the display, it showed that there was one message from the Barracks Operations desk, which was part of the internal EGB secure phone system. Whatever it was, it was important.

Byte pushed the [Play] button, expecting to hear the machine recite the date and time of the message, and then the voice of the caller. But instead, she heard a series of clicks, like an old-style rotary phone – and then the caller-id display showed just one line:

P. Byrd

Her blood ran cold. That was the first name in her list – and only three people knew about it! “Did someone trace my hack?”, she thought. “No, no way. I wasn’t on long enough, and it would take a few super computers and a room full of black hats a whole lot of time to figure out the backwards proxies. Besides, if they figured out I did the hack, why would they let me know that they knew about it? This just doesn’t make sense”

She deleted the message, and looked around her place, just to make sure nothing else was going to creep out and surprise her. “I have to unwind – all of this cloak-and-dagger stuff is getting to me. But I know what will help me take my mind off of it!”, she said out loud.

Unlocking her rifle cabinet, she pulled out her Mark 4 blam rifle. It had a telescopic night scope and a re-bored barrel that takes .357 long-jacket shells. The clip held 16 rounds of the high-powered blammunition, which you could only get once you reached Supreme Commander. These rounds were about 60% more powerful than regular-issue munitions, which usually meant a faster takedown for all of the bad flash that flooded the Portal. The rifle was heavily modified beyond EGB specifications, and theoretically could be confiscated since it was no longer government approved. But her changes were minor compared to what Coop83, Phantom and a few others had done to theirs.

She grabbed a bandolier of 100 rounds of the long-jacket shells, and hung it over her neck. Then she picked up the phone to the Central Command Information Office, and said “This is Supreme Command ByteSlinger. I am leaving for Portal guard duty now – I expect to return by 18:00 hours.”

The clerk on the other side cheerfully answered “Very well, Commander. We will make note of that on the active logs. Good hunting!”, and then they hung up, not waiting for a reply.

She grabbed her helmet and flak vest, her utility belt, and a canteen full of fresh water, and headed out to the transport area. There were other Elite guards waiting there as well – Porkchop, Idiot-Finder, Ismael92 and Sheizenhammer. “Ready to blam and protect, gentlemen?”, she asked as she put on her jacket and helmet, and repositioned the bandolier. Her rifle hung at the ready over her right shoulder.

Sheizenhammer looked at her rifle, and then at the handgun he was carrying, and frowned a little. “Hey, how come all I get is this pea-shooter?”, he complained.

“You have to earn that rifle, soldier!”, commented Idiot-Finder, “and when you work your way to the top, you’ll get one just like it!”

A moment later, the transport Hummer turned the corner and approached the pick-up area. The five Elite climbed in and stowed their gear, and the Hummer drove towards the NewGrounds portal without further delay. The driver on duty was puddinN64, who had been assigned this task for a week after a certain unfortunate incident involving too much alcohol, a puddle of puke, and a certain Supreme Commander who slipped in it before it could be cleaned up. Somehow, the next morning, puddinN64 just couldn’t understand that the phrase “Oops, sorry – my bad!” was not enough to placate the still-angry Aldlv. So now puddinN64 is the town taxi driver, ten hours a day – but not in a row.

It didn’t take too long to arrive at the Portal. Located at the edge of Newgrounds, it was quite a large artifact, with two distinct openings. One was for standard Flash entries, and the other was for Audio and Music. The Flash Portal was by far more active than the Audio Portal, as it seemed that the Flash Portal was more susceptible to spam, stolen work, and low-quality entries. The Audio Portal had its share of problems, but on a smaller scale. Usually, the biggest concern on the Audio side was plagiarized derivative work.

[Aug 21, 2009 15:10]

As Flash submissions popped out of the Portal, they were a distinctive purple color – which meant that they were available for viewing and judgment. If enough positive votes were counted for a flash, it would be protected, and be allowed to enter Newgrounds. If it was popular, it would be given a green marker. If it was very popular, it would be given a blue marker. But if it didn’t get enough positive votes – which meant a majority of blams – it would turn red, and then eventually be killed and remanded to the graveyard.

Part of the job of the Elite Guard was to fairly judge every submission on its own merit, and help it along to either being a protected entry in Newgrounds– or blammed into oblivion. The higher your experience and rank, the more power you had to sway the vote one way or the other. Byte, because of her rank and experience, now wielded power that was almost 11 times stronger than the ordinary citizen of Newgrounds. Her blam rifle, like all the others in the EGB, carried two types of ammo – blammunition, for obliterating unworthy, immoral and/or illegal flashes, and a green low-powered emerald laser. This laser, when aimed at a purple flash, would improve its color and status. This indicated that it was worthy of passing, and had been approved by that particular EGB member.

Working against the EGB – and the Newgrounds PD, too – were special interest and lobbyist groups known as crews. They would work together to attempt to push sub-standard flashes through the Portal and into Newgrounds by working as a group to up-vote their work as fast as possible. Sometimes, there would be a flood of duplicate or unworthy flashes unleashed by a spammer (and their crew) and it was up to the EGB and the NGPD to quickly identify each one and handle them appropriately.

Byte took her position close to the portal, and began to monitor each purple flash. It seemed that for every one that she hit with blammunition, 2 or 3 more would be saved. It was satisfying to hear the sounds of all of the EGB blam rifles being fired when an obvious spam or stolen flash materialized. Byte was feeling less than generous today, and she was more critical than usual with the Portal entries. She did try to vote fairly, but she just wasn’t in the mood for borderline bullshit, so she played the ‘when in doubt, blam it to Hell’ game.

About 45 minutes had gone by when she began to notice the sound of another blam rifle being occasionally fired off to her left. She looked around, and accounted for all of the EGB members that were supposed to be there. All of them were to her right. She watched them all as another bad flash was spit out of the Portal, and after a quick review, she watched the muzzles light up as the blammunition was sent on its way. But she heard another rifle being fired off to her left. Without drawing too much attention, she feigned running out of ammo, and toyed with her own rifle, slowly turning her head to the left. Another shot from her left, and in the extended peripheral vision of her left eye she saw movement in the trees – and the familiar gleam of an Elite Guard’s rifle barrel!

“Why would an Elite Guard hide in the trees to do his job?”, she thought, ”There’s no need for secrecy here – every citizen of NewGrounds has the right to vote as they desire. So, either that Guard has something to hide – or that’s not a guard using the rifle…either way, I want to find out who our introverted friend is…”

As Byte finished her thought, a flood of spam flashes started pouring through the portal, and four crews started to mass up-vote them. Moments later, she heard the EGB firing madly, trying to stop the spam before they could pass. She glanced to her left, and it looked like her mystery shooter was focused on the portal as well, taking shot after shot as each purple flash plopped out of the portal.

Without hesitating, Byte used this distraction to take a few steps back out, hopefully out of the peripheral vision of her shooter, and then quickly and quietly ran across the grass to the other side of the trees. She was now almost directly behind the shooter now, but she couldn’t see through the leaves – and it looked like they might be wearing camouflage.

Switching her optic implant to zoom mode and then into infrared, she could see that the shooter was alone, and standing up, resting on a low tree branch to steady their shots. The body heat signature was highest from the back of the knees to the ankles, and at the base of the neck – which meant the shooter was wearing body armor and full front gear. Part of the body was obscured by branches – but only a few leaves blocked the vulnerable legs.

Taking careful aim at the fleshy part of the calf, Byte fired a single round at the shooter – and then started running towards them. The shot hit cleanly in the right calf, and missing the tibia, passed through the leg completely. It took the shooter by surprise, and they fell back…only to look up into the barrel of Byte’s rifle!

Byte was pumped with adrenaline – but also surprised. This was the same bum she saw battling in the streets a few days ago, on the way to the cemetery! “Drop your weapon, or the next shot goes through your head!”, she commanded.

He glared at her from behind a dirty bandana that covered most of his face, and in those eyes she saw anger and determination. He pause a moment, as if in defiance, and then tossed his rifle away. She didn’t follow it; instead, she took a step sideways to put herself between him and the weapon.

“Roll over on your belly, and put your hands behind your back – NOW!”, she yelled, and aimed her rifle at his head. Slowly, he turned over, and put his hands behind him. Byte took the pair of NGPD handcuffs that she had on her belt (an interesting gift from Lizzardis) and slapped one on his right wrist. As she went to secure the left wrist, her captor twisted underneath her, pulling away from the cuffs, and knocked the rifle from her right hand.

He then lunged forward, and from out of his overcoat, pulled out a knife, and tried to drag Byte closer so he could stab her. He grabbed her right arm with his left, and yanked hard. But what he didn’t see is that her left arm – the one made of titanium alloy and hidden well under her fatigues – had built up a sizeable pulse in the discharge circuit. As he drew closer, aiming for her neck, the taser circuit discharged 10,000 volts into his body. Fortunately, the amperage was low, but it was more than enough to temporarily disable his nervous system – and possibly make him have an involuntary bowel movement.

As he lay there twitching, Byte removed his knife, and finished handcuffing and securing the shooter. She used duct tape to secure his ankles, and to cover a clean cloth that she put over the bullet hole in his calf. No one had seen or heard the scuffle in the trees, as they were all still dealing with the spam flood.

Before he could come to his senses, she pulled the filthy hood off of his head, peeled away the grimy bandana… and then let out a gasp as she finally recognized the grizzled and weary face …

It was EagleRock!

He smiled a little and said to her, ”I’ve been expecting you…”

[End of Chapter 19]


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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 10:56 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

“Through a Mirror Darkly”

Chapter 20

Sum of the Parts

Originally posted on December 27th, 2009

[Aug 21, 2009 16:05]

ByteSlinger could count on one hand the number of times she was ever rendered speechless by anyone or anything. But now, she had to add one more to that count. She looked into his tired, dirty face and knew it was him underneath all those rags. He looked back at her, waiting for her to say something – and hopefully remove the duct tape from his ankles and wrists in the process.

But even though her body stared motionless, her mind was racing. “It’s EagleRock! I know that face. I’d recognize it anywhere! So Slash was right – EagleRock is still fighting the good fight – but he’s doing it undercover. He’s not dead …”, and then the question that had to be asked finally surfaced. “But which one is he?”, she thought. She had seen many different versions of EagleRock – one in the future, one in her past, one just a few days ago in her room, and now this one. Which one was this? She was too stunned to think up a test question, so she decided to play stupid.

“You’re supposed to be dead!”, she exclaimed. “I saw you buried along with the twenty other of our comrades two years ago! How the hell?!? – explain yourself, soldier!”

EagleRock broke out in a fit of laughter. “Haha!.. Oh… What a hoot! You look so mean and angry – but we both know you’re lying through your teeth! You knew damn well before you saw me that I was still around. And, not only that – you were sent to find me! “

This reaction shook up Byte a little. “Maybe he’s just fishing”, she thought, so she continued on her line of plausible deniability. “Look, the dead just don’t spring back to life. Either you were never killed and faked it all, or you’re just someone surgically altered to look like him. Either way, you’re supposed to be dead!”

EagleRock leaned back a little, and relaxed the best he could, considering how he was trussed up like a deer about to be chucked into the back of a pickup truck. “You can do better than that”, he chuckled, and then, before Byte could answer, he said just one simple phrase: “Phantom sends his regards, and he’s glad your Portal notes were so thorough”

In a world where there was no Portal technology, there was no other explanation – this EagleRock didn’t belong here, either. Byte was stunned to silence, but she answered by cutting the duct tape from his legs and unlocking the handcuffs from his wrists. She looked at his leg, and was further amazed that the wound was already scabbed over. EagleRock saw the look on her face and added, “Even after two years, I still heal fast. Those drugs just never left my system”

Then Byte remembered that when she left Phantom behind during her first Portal jump, the EagleRock in that timeline was dead – and by Phantom’s hand at that! So how could this be the same EagleRock? As he started to slowly get up, Byte took him by surprise and grabbed him by his neck with her left hand. The mechanical servos pressed around his throat, and a slight shock pulsed through her fingertips. She pushed him back down to the ground, looked him square in the eyes, and said “If you so much as flinch, I will kill you. I’m going to ask questions, and you’re going to answer them. If you lie to me, I will hurt you. If you lie too many times, I WILL kill you. Do you understand?”

EagleRock’s face was a mix of anger and fear. He knew that she could kill him in a heartbeat – but would she? “What is her problem?”, he thought “You’d think she’d be happy to see me!”

Byte took a deep breath, and began to speak “So, what exactly did Phantom say to you when I jumped through the portal and left you two alone?”

EagleRock gave her a lop-sided grin and said, “I wouldn’t know. I was dead at the time.”

“Yeah, I know – which is why you shouldn’t be here!”, and her grip tightened a little. “So, tell me how you were resurrected…”

“When you jumped through the portal, Phantom was alone for a while. Then he told me that he felt a strange energy, almost like a pulse or wave that reverberated through his body. Everything turned black for a moment, and at that time, he thought he was dying. But then, the feeling of disorientation passed, and when he looked around, nothing much had changed. He looked around outside – still looked the same. He checked out the EGB headquarters – still just a hole in the ground. He checked my grave – I was still there. From his perspective, your jump did only one thing, and that was to leave him stranded alone in the future.”

Byte was confused. She knew that after her first jump, she had prevented the destruction of the EGB. The future that she was in would most certainly have been changed. Phantom and all of the others would have been restored to their own proper future. Then with the second jump, she prevented the kidnapping of the command staff by destroying the portal in the mountain – which meant that the whole line of history had to be changed. Something didn’t add up.

EagleRock saw the confusion in her face, and continued his response. “There are three important facts that you need to know now. The first is that after Phantom realized nothing changed, he took it upon himself to read all about the Portal you left behind, and with the help of your notes, figured out how to make a jump back in time to prevent my death at his hands. I died because I confronted both of you in the lab, and Phantom knew that the only way out was to let you jump. He jumped back in time, and managed to intercept me while I was on the way to the lab. He told me the truth – that I was speaking to a future version of himself, and that it was vital to let you do the jump.

I didn’t believe him at first, so he told me to go inside and peek into the lab. He said I would see you and him working on the portal. So, of course, I looked in – and sure enough, there was a second Phantom in that room as well. I stepped back out, and he told me to follow him back to the Portal. Again, I was surprised to see a working Portal after all these years. I asked him what I should do – and his answer was simple: just work with us on the Portal, and don’t cause the confrontation that would end his life. Then he shook my hand, saluted, and stepped back into the portal. It closed behind him silently. I realized that he was right, so I went back to the lab, and when I saw you and Phantom again, I told you both that I had a change of heart and wanted to help you with the project. It worked out rather well, as there were no hard feelings – and when you made the jump in that modified timeline, we were both there to wish you well.”

“But, that’s not how I remember it! Shouldn’t that have already happened? Why do I know it differently?”

“You’re thinking only 4th dimensionally. When you jumped back first, you created a new time stream. It affected the dimension you both were in as to what you perceived to be current events. Then when Phantom went back, he split it again – and even though he went back only a few weeks, it was not in the “old” time stream. That version of you remembers that I am alive and well, and we all got along just fine.”

“Hold it – what do you mean by ‘that version of me’? , she asked

“Well, that brings us to the second fact that you need to know. Your first jump back was very close to the mark – you were at 99.99998372% accuracy, which means that you hit a dimension and time that was so close to the one you were aiming for that you couldn’t tell the difference. But it WASN’T the timeline that you started from – so when you changed the future, you changed it for a little different world. Then, on your second jump, you were rushed, and wound up hitting only a 98.215343% match. Again, very close to yours, but that meant that for every 50 little facts, one would be different – such as the concept of Portal technology, which doesn’t exist here. You kind of missed the mark on that one,”

“So, wait a minute – I stopped the EGB from getting destroyed – not MY EGB, though, but an alternate universe’s version?”

“Yes, exactly. But that universe was so close to yours, if you hadn’t made the second jump, you’d have lived there just as happy as can be – and never know you really weren’t home.”

“So, that’s why Phantom didn’t see any change – I didn’t change HIS timeline – I changed someone elses. And now, I’m trapped in a completely wrong dimension – and stuck here with you!” EagleRock could hear the frustration growing in her voice.

“Well, then there’s the third fact: Ever since your first accidental jump through the portal, you’ve never been back to your home dimension and timeline. The future you visited was one similar to yours, but not yours. In that one, you were male. The past you returned to was close, but again, not the same as the future line you were in, so you never affected that one. And now, you’re here in a third different stream, and by know wondering if any of this was worth it – did you really make a difference?”

Byte turned away in anger and shame. “How could I have been so careless? “, she thought. “I didn’t change anything. It was all wrong “, but that she spoke out loud.

EagleRock spoke again, and this time, just a little softer. “That’s why I didn’t want you to jump back – I knew that the damn Trans-Dim portal was never 100% accurate unless you had a beacon that matched your temporal signature. When you jumped, you had no idea just how quickly those little errors could add up. But now you do.”

“Well, that’s a wonderful explanation – but it doesn’t help me. How did you find me, anyway? There was no beacon set – in fact, you might have the wrong version of me now – ever think of that?”, she chided.

“Nope. I have the right ByteSlinger. Remember after your first jump, in your room, you had all those portals open up with different versions of you arguing over what you should do next? That was a temporal nexus, and those occur when a certain event transcends multiple universes. Why was that a nexus? Because in many of the other parallel universes, that was the day you went back to try to set things right. Some versions of you thought this was a good idea, while others wanted to stop you, fearful of the consequences of messing with the time stream. Good thing I showed up when I did to close them all down.”

“How do you know I’m the right one?”, she asked incredulously

“Your beacon. Just had to find it and follow it”, he answered. She gave him a dumb look which he read as “What the hell are you talking about?”, and he continued. “In your arm. Once you downloaded all of the portal information and ran it through your systems, your nano-bots built an internal beacon based on you home dimensional signature. This way, when you traveled through the Portals, you could align the endpoint to match your internal beacon – and really find your way home again.”

“So, you can follow me across dimensions? Great, just what I need – a trans-dimensional stalker! Now, how is that going to get us home – there’s no freakin portals here! You jumped into a dead end!”, she said through gritted teeth.

“Well, uh…yeah, I didn’t know that until after I jumped”, he admitted sheepishly. “So now I’m stuck here. And to make matters worse, I have to keep avoiding my other self that’s native to this dimension”

“So, the version of “you” in this timeline really didn’t die in the fiasco two years ago – he’s been undercover, just like Slash had told me!”, she exclaimed.

“Yes. Well, about that – you’ve got a problem there. You see, in this world, my counterpart lives. Slash knows he’s alive, and tells the few people he needs to that my counterpart is “working deep cover”. But since I look just like him, I have found out a deeper truth – and that is that Slash is using the deep-cover version of me to be a double agent – selling guns and ammo from the EGB to the underground hacker movement, and then go around and kill anyone in the way without the risk of punishment. Slash is the mastermind behind this, but the EGB smelled a rat. He’s sending you and your little troop to be cannon fodder – and to take the brunt of the blame when you’re set up to be the gun runners! This way, the EGB gets a high-level officer to blame for the weapons leak – and it’s not going to be Slash. He’s just saving his own ass at the expense of yours. In this timeline, he’s looking for an easy way to a lucrative early retirement – and he doesn’t care who he has to step on to get there.”

EagleRock paused to let Byte think about all of this. After a moment, she released her grip from his neck, and sat back on her haunches, like a catcher waiting for a fast breaking ball outside over the corner. “So, let me get this straight: I’m in the wrong dimension, and so are you because you followed me here. There is no Portal technology in this dimension, so we currently are stuck here. And the commander of the EGB is actually a criminal mastermind who’s running guns and using dead guys to enforce his own laws. His plan is to set me up as a patsy for doing the dirty deeds, which will mean my court-martial and subsequent demise. Did I miss anything?”, she added sarcastically.

“No, I think you got it. But the big question is this – where do we go from here?”, he asked quietly.

Byte untied him again, and helped him to his feet. “Where can we go to talk in private?”, she asked.

“I haven’t had much time to find a place to live yet – but I did find an abandoned apartment down in the General district that I’ve managed to secure. It’s not pretty, but I can catch some shut-eye there and take an occasional cold shower. It’s about as safe as we’re going to get around here.”

“Well, let’s go already”, Byte answered impatiently.

“You can’t go there in uniform – you need to look like a local. You need to be in dirty clothes and rags, show no weapons or armor, and blend in like all the other refuse in the streets.”, he announced dramatically.

“Oh, and maybe get a glove for this thing and a pair of sunglasses while I’m at it”, as she gestured her left cybernetic hand at her eye implant. “Unfortunately, I left my ‘gee, let’s run away and hide from the EGB’ overnight bag back in my apartment. If you want me to change, I’m going to have to go back and get some other clothes”

“No, too risky. Follow me – I think I can help you with your disguise.”, and with that, EagleRock headed down a narrow path a little deeper into the trees. Byte followed him for a few hundred yards until he came to a sewer grate. It was old and rusty – and unlocked. He swung it open, and climbed inside. “Well, are you waiting for an invitation?”, he asked. “Get your ass in here before someone sees you!”. Fighting off the stench that wafted up through the grate, Byte climbed down and closed the grate behind her. It squealed a bit on the rusty hinges, but settled into place with a little persuasion.

The sewer was dark, and EagleRock took out a small flashlight to guide the way. Byte set her optic implant to night-vision mode with thermal overlay, and had no problems following the pipes – and avoiding the small furry creatures that they were disturbing as they walked.

Her auto-navigation and GPS systems in her arm were useless in these concrete pipes so many feet underground. No signals in – or out. She was literally off the EGB grid now. EagleRock led the way wordlessly, navigating the maze of pipes and junctions like he had done this a hundred times before. “But he hasn’t been here that long – how could he know the way so well?”, she asked herself.

As if reading her mind, he said to her, “If you ever get lost in these pipes, it’s really easy to find your way back to the Portal. When they did the upgrade a few years back, they added a new fiber-optic circuit that runs from the main line, through these pipes, right to the Portals where we just were. If you switch to normal vision and take a look at these lines, you’ll see a thicker, yellowish cable among the copper bundles. Sometimes it goes behind the copper, and sometimes it’s in front. When you use night-vision, you can’t see the color differences – but in white light, it’s the path you need to follow. I found it by accident when looking over some blueprints. I started at the source, which was in the sub-basement access of one of the communication nodes in the General district, and followed it until it ended at the Portal. Along the way, I discovered a few interesting places that you just might need to know about.”

Around the next bend they came to rebar ladder that went up into the gloom. “Let me go first and get the cover off”, EagleRock said, and he clambered up the ladder, flashlight in hand. A few moments later, Byte heard a metallic scraping sound followed by a soft thunk, and then EagleRock’s command, ”Come on!”

Up the ladder she went, and found herself in what looked like a basement to a warehouse. EagleRock closed the sewer cover once she had cleared it, and then slide a locking bar across it. “Well, this is my home away from home. This is where I’ve been hiding since I got here. It’s not where the fiber line terminates – but it does have a tap node here.”

Byte looked around in the gloom, lit by a few bare bulbs. At one time, this was a utility and storage basement – there was a service elevator in one corner, but it looked like it was mangled beyond use. There were access stairways, but they had been barred shut from the inside, much like the sewer cover. There was a power panel in another corner, and Byte could see the jerry-rigged cables that gave power to the lights in the place. Near the power panel was an old office desk, with a dusty – but functioning – Apple computer and a few notepads and pens. Along another wall were two doors – one for janitorial supplies, and the other for a bathroom. An army cot and a small table gave evidence that EagleRock did sleep here more often than not.

EagleRock pointed to a large, open crate along the wall and said, “In there you’ll find clothes and rags and anything I’ve managed to pick up along the way. While it’s not Macy’s, I’m sure you’ll find something that will fit you poorly and make you look more like a street hobo.”

Byte picked through the rag bin, half expecting that she’d be disturbing the nest of something very small with very large and pointy teeth – and an attitude to match. Other than a few wayward beetles, nothing jumped out at her, and she did manage to find an oversized dirty poncho, some long wool gloves, a pair of threadbare but useable painter’s overalls, an old knit cap with a New York Yankees emblem on it, and a pair of beat-up sneakers that might just fit. EagleRock handed her a pair of cheap sunglasses, and told her to change into her street outfit.

He turned away from her and headed towards his computer. She turned to face away from him, looked around, and realized that she might as well get changed here. Leaning against the crate, she peeled off her boots and her camo pants, and pulled off the camo top. She stood there in her underwear and t-shirt, and tried to psych herself up to put on the stinky pile of disgusting clothes.

EagleRock turned from his computer to ask Byte a question, and was caught off-guard by the view of the half-dressed Supreme Commander facing away from him. He could see that the implant on her left arm connected just below the shoulder, and that there were visible wires and some surgical screws visible in the light of the bare bulbs. She wouldn’t have made it as a runway model – her legs and thighs were very muscular, but her hips and top seemed to be well-padded. There were scars on the back of her legs, and one on the back of her neck that normally wouldn’t have been visible, but with her hair up in a ponytail, and from this angle, it was obviously a nasty one.

Feeling a little like a voyeur, he watched her slip on the overalls and size up the shoulder straps. She sat down to put on the sneakers, which were a little big but still workable. EagleRock started to feel some pangs in his soul. He had been lonely for a long time, and this wasn’t helping him to stay focused. His mind started to wander, thinking about the life he had before he began this journey – about the wife he had at home that he’d probably never see again. In this dimension, his counterpart never married his wife, and she moved on and married someone else. He missed her touch, her companionship, everything they shared. Just before he left, she had mentioned wanting children, and the last thing he said to her as he walked out the door was “when I get back from this next mission, we’ll go for it!”

But from his standpoint, that was months ago, in a different time stream in a dimension light years away. A big part of his soul ached to go back to her, hold her in his arms, to be complete again. He wanted nothing less than to be a good husband and soon, a good father. Yet he was stranded here in a reality that was not his own, and his only hope of ever getting back home was embedded in the mind and computer systems of the woman whom he tried to rescue – and failed.

And then the dark part of his soul crept into his thoughts. “What if we’re stranded here? What if we can’t get back? I have no one here, and neither does she. Agghhh!!! I’m even crazy contemplating all of this! What’s wrong with me? I can’t let a little loneliness get in the way of my vows. But what if she gave me up for dead? What if she’s moved on already? What if I get back, but it’s too late?“

EagleRock was so engrossed in his own thoughts that he didn’t notice that Byte had turned around, and was watching him now. She could see he was deep in thought, and he had a pained look on his face. She took a few steps towards him, and he looked up, into her eyes. But when he saw the implant, his own eyes started to well up. For some reason, the sight of her face being permanently disfigured with a mechanical implant made him feel sad. His façade of being tough and stable and a daunting leader began to crumble under the avalanche of emotions racing through his mind.

Byte saw his face go from confusion to anguish, and she watched as he absent-mindedly fidgeted with his wedding ring. Before he could speak, she lifted up her right index finger, put it to his lips, and quietly spoke, “Don’t say a word. I can see it all in your face. You miss your wife, and you think you’ll never see her again. Now we’re here alone, and you’ve seen me without my uniform – and I bet a lot of different things are going through your mind right now.”

He nodded his head slowly up and down in agreement. Byte continued whispering, ”No one would blame you – or me – if we found solace in each-other’s arms right now. We are both stranded here, away from our loved ones, away from what is really ours. All we have is each-other…”

She paused, and looked in his eyes. They were wide now, not sure of what was going to happen next.

Then Byte took a slight step backwards, and smiled a little. “But, my friend, as much fun as it would be to have a romp with you right about now, I just can’t do it – and neither can you. It would be the perfect way to screw up this friendship - and command structure. I plan on getting home, and dragging you along with me. And I certainly don’t want any skeletons to be popping out of our closets when we get back. You’ve become a successful man by being honorable – and I will not take that honor away from you, no matter how lonely you – or I – feel. I will admit that you are a handsome, intelligent and attractive man, and I can certainly see why your wife fell in love with you. She is a very lucky woman, and deserves you at your best. So, for now, for all of us, we need to stay focused on getting back home. “

“I’m…I’m sorry, Byte”, he stammered “I don’t know what came over me.”

“No need for apologies “, she replied. “Unlike me, you’re only human. But before anything happened, you listened to reason, and logic won out over your emotions. You have nothing to apologize for, and nothing to feel guilty about.”

He looked at her with sad eyes, and then reached forward as if to hug her. Byte raised her arms slightly, and as he drew close, he tried to bring his lips to hers…

..but what he found was the cold metal of the fingers on her left arm as she intercepted his maneuver.

“No, Eagle, don’t do this…”, Byte begged

“What could it hurt?”, he asked, and pressed a little closer.

“Actually, quite a bit – for you…”, and then the capacitor in her left arm discharged a high voltage, low amperage taser blast through her fingertips. The shock wave traveled through his lips and face, knocking him backwards. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.

“That’s going to sting when he wakes up”, she said out loud, and she left him on the ground as she finished dressing up as a bag lady. She put on the long gloves and the cheap sunglasses, and then checked herself out in the dirty mirror in the bathroom. “Yeah, this’ll do just fine”, she said.

As she walked back into the main room, EagleRock began to grunt and then slowly get up.

“Time to wake up, sleepy head!”, Byte sang in a scarily cheerful voice.

EagleRock looked at her, shook the cobwebs from his head, and then felt his face and lips. “Did you punch me in the face?”, he asked.

“Oh, no, I’d never do that!”, she sang back, coyly. “I’d never punch a gentleman, no matter how improper he might get!”., and then she gave him a very evil smile.

He then remembered what happened, and decided that the best course of action was to just say nothing and move on. “That little lightning bolt has a way of clearing your mind”, he thought.

“So, are you ready to take me on the tour of the dark side of the General District now?”, she asked.

He stood up, dusted himself off, and answered in his best southern drawl, “Yeah, let’s go paint the town red, darlin’!”

They went back down the ladder into the sewer, and continued on for another fifteen minutes until they came to an intersection of pipe that sloped upwards. EagleRock led the way up the pipe, and as they walked, Byte could hear the sounds of traffic and other street noise. They arrived at a circular grate that opened up under an abandoned overpass, and a minute later, stood quietly on the asphalt, looking towards the center of the city.

“Grab that old shopping cart, and throw some junk in it”, EagleRock said. “Then walk on the other side of the street. Play the crazy bag lady role, but keep an eye on me, and follow my lead”.

Byte nodded and did as he asked. She threw some random junk in the cart, and began to shuffle along slowly, talking to herself. EagleRock walked on the other side of the street, keeping to the shadows. The shopping cart rattled and squeaked as Byte pushed it along; EagleRock occasionally glanced over in her direction, as if waiting for something to happen.

A few blocks later, as they turned down a side street, three guys in battered leather jackets staggered out of a doorway. One of them stumbled and tripped over the shopping cart, sending it crashing to the street. Byte was taken by surprise, but decided to play the role. “Hey! That’s all my treasure! All my treasure! All my treasure is in the street! You can’t have my treasure!”, she cried, and went down on her knees to pick up the junk.

“Stupid Bitch!”, one of them slurred. “Cantcha see we’re walking on this here street? Get the fuck outta our way!”, and he kicked the shopping cart into the gutter.

Then one of them behind her kicked down to the ground, and as the third one said, “Let’s stomp her!”, Byte rolled onto her back to face her attackers. “Please, don’t stomp me! You can have my treasure! There’s always more treasure in the caves!”

This was enough to make the guys think for a moment. “Caves? Around here? You’re nuts!”, and just as they raised their legs to stomp her, she kicked out her own leg and ankle-swept two of them to the ground. At the same time, she brought up her left arm, and discharged a near-lethal electrical blast to the chest of the third guy. His jacket wasn’t zippered shut, so the energy blast had no problem penetrating cloth and upsetting his cardiac rhythm. He grabbed his chest as he fell down.

Following through with the leg sweep, Byte brought her leg over, and then spun around and rose into a ready stance. The other two guys had made it back to their feet, and when they saw their buddy on the ground, they charged like enraged bulls.

Byte sidestepped one, and with a simple judo move, used the mass and momentum of the other one to send him flying upside-down into the middle of the street. His head cracked on the pavement, and Byte wasn’t sure if he was dead or just knocked out. But he wasn’t moving at the moment, and that’s what was important.

The last attacker turned around and pulled out a nasty wavy-edged kris blade. She had seen that blade before – it was only used by gang members who had been in the gang at least two years – and had over 25 kills to their name. This guy wasn’t going to stop until one of them was dead.

“You ain’t no street bum, bitch!”, he sneered. “But that’s okay – you’ll bleed just the same! If you’re lucky, maybe you won’t be all the way dead when I start fuckin’ you!”

Byte had to stall him for a few moments to let the capacitor in her arm fully recharge. “Well…if you don’t cut me, maybe you can get even luckier!”

“How’s that?”, he growled.

“Well…”, and she paused for dramatic effect – and to kill more time, “…if I wasn’t cut, I could definitely make you feel better than if you just dry-humped my corpse”, and she took off her cap, and let her hair out of the ponytail.

At the same time, the internal monitor on her arm indicated that the recharge was complete.

“So, why don’t you put that little old knife away, and let me make you feel all better?”, and she held out her left hand as if to beckon him closer. He didn’t notice that there were scorch marks on the fingertips of the dirty gloves she was wearing. He was too busy drooling to care. “If you try anything stupid, I WILL kill you – slowly!”, and he reached out with his left hand - and grabbed hers quickly, pulling her down to the ground. The knife was still in his right hand.

A moment later, the full discharge of the shockwave capacitor was sent through his left hand, up his arm, and into his heart and brain. Byte could smell the flesh on his hand burning as his heart was shocked still and his neural cortex fried. His body twitched as he fell to the ground, quite dead.

Byte looked around to see if anyone else was going to give her a hard time, and that’s when she noticed that EagleRock had disappeared into the night, leaving her stranded in the deadliest part of the General district. “Some friend you turned out to be!”, she thought.

Fortunately, no one else was on the street. Byte put her hair back up under her cap, and decided that she needed to get back to the sewers and then to the Portal, where she could catch a transport back to the EGB. She skulked along in the shadows, and walked back carefully to the road that would lead back to the abandoned overpass. But the overpass wasn’t abandoned anymore. There were four vehicles there, forming a semi-circle with their headlights. There were eight or nine people standing around in the center of the lights, and when Byte looked a little closer, there were others still in the vehicles.

Byte switched to low-light enhanced vision mode, and saw that there was a beat-up Cadillac Escalade, a very new looking Mercedes SUV, an older but well-maintained BMW – and a military Hummer with EGB markings!

Looking back into the crowd, she couldn’t make out faces – but she could see that two of the people in the lights were wearing military-issued jackets, and carried EGB sidearms. There were three large cases on the ground by the Hummer, and one of the guys in the circle had a large, metallic briefcase. She could hear bits and pieces of an argument, but it didn’t last long. The man with the metallic case handed it over to one of the military figures, while three other men each grabbed one of the larger cases, and placed them carefully into the back of the Escalade.

With no handshaking or other acknowledgments, everyone filed back to their vehicles, and they all left the overpass. The Escalade and the BMW took the first right, so Byte couldn’t see any faces. But she did capture the license plates.

The Mercedes and the Hummer headed her way, so she ducked around the corner and watched as they drove by. There were four people in the Mercedes, but they all had hoodies on, and she couldn’t get any clear facial images. She did manage to get the Mercedes’ license plate just as the Hummer passed.

She looked up into the open driver’s window of the Hummer, and the two faces that were talking and focused on the road ahead never saw her watching them. But Byte’s jaw dropped as they passed. She knew those two faces. The driver was TheThing – and his passenger was EagleRock!

“But which one?”, she thought.

End of Chapter 20


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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 10:56 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

“Through a Mirror Darkly”

Chapter 21

Follow The White Rabbit

Originally posted on February 24th, 2010

[Aug 21, 2009 19:05]

[Elite Guard Barracks]

Supreme Commander SlashFirestorm sat at his desk, looking over the piles of paperwork stacked on all sides. He never realized just how much administrative work had to be done on a daily basis just to keep things running. “Man, if things don’t get better soon, I may just take that early retirement plan”, he thought as he signed off on some purchase orders and reviewed some inventory reports.

“Whoops! That one almost slipped by!” he whispered, as he noticed the requisition and release form for three cases of blammunition. “Gotta make this disappear!”, and he ran the forms through the security shredder, making a neat pile of confetti. He went to his private terminal and logged on with an alternate administrator ID. At the command prompt, he typed the cryptic line: IPXC d:7080 q:3 and pressed [enter]. A moment later, the display showed the digit “1”, and then automatically logged off the workstation. To any of the administrators on the system, it looked like a simple network checking tool. It didn’t seem to do much of anything.

But Slash knew otherwise. That little utility was a present from EagleRock. It ran a well-hidden worm that removed all traces of all documents linked to a requisition, and from a database standpoint, made it look like it never happened. It was the missing piece that allowed Slash to acquire ammunition and weapons from the EGB and get them into EagleRock’s hands. Or, at least, that’s why it was designed a few years ago – to help bury the trail of the occasional weapons and ammo that EagleRock needed to stay undercover.

However, as time passed, Slash realized he could hide just about any requisition. With the help of a few unwitting privates who didn’t disobey any orders, he started his own black market of stolen EGB hardware. He figured if he could steal for EagleRock, he might as well steal for himself and make some money along the way. He kept primarily to older weapons and the surplus shelves, since these items were generally inventoried once a year. Any discrepancies could be explained away as “used in target practice” or “defective and discarded”.

Slash went over to the corner of his office, slid a fake potted plant out of the way, and rolled back the carpet from the corner, revealing a small floor safe. Keying in the digital combination, he heard the locking mechanism slide away with a subtle clicking sound. Opening the safe, he pulled out a well-worn PDA . He turned it over, and opened the back panel. Reaching down again, he found the battery pack, and installed it in the unit.

The green power indicator turned on, and he watched as the LED screen lit up and the unit found a carrier signal.

Suddenly, from behind, he heard a crackly static sound, followed by an urgent voice, “Commander SlashFirestorm, we have a situation!”

His heart began to race, and in his nervous surprise, he dropped the PDA as he spun around to see who interrupted him.

But no one was there. It was the intercom, and the duty commander had just buzzed through on the direct channel.

Feigning composure, Slash answered, “What is the situation, Corporal Michelinman?”

“Supreme Commander ByteSlinger is an hour late from returning from Portal duty. We have been unable to reach her by any electronic means”, came the reply.

Slash figured that Byte was doing some off-scope research on the secret mission, and lost track of time. “Copy that. Give her another thirty minutes, and if she hasn’t reported in by then, let me know.”

“Yes, Commander. But there is one more thing you should know. “, the voice added. Slash tilted his head and had the same puzzled look on his face that a dog has when he watches his master take a dump on the toilet.

After a brief pause, Michelinman continued, “We have several eye-witness accounts that she was seen entering a wooded area near the portal – but no one saw her return. Porkchop, Idiot-Finder and Ismael92 went in to find her, and discovered that there were signs of a struggle, with blood on the ground. A spent rifle casing was found nearby, along with a lot of weeds and grass that had been trampled. But there was no sign of Byteslinger or the other combatant. We think that she may have been kidnapped...”

Slash was stunned for a moment from this latest development. “Aw, fuck me!”, he exclaimed. “Belay that last order. I’ll put together a search team right away. Slash out”, and he shut off the intercom.

Things were starting to spin out of control. ByteSlinger was going to do some recon and find the guys responsible for the illegal gun trade. “She wasn’t supposed to engage the enemy now. “, he thought to himself. “That was to happen later – where she would die a hero’s death while killing off the scum in the General District. The papers would all say that she died on a mission to stop the gun runners, and any survivors would get the brunt of the public wrath. But more importantly, it would get the heat from the EGB off my ass, and let me walk away from this mess while I still can.”

He was quiet as he picked up the PDA off of the floor, reseated the battery, and then typed in a short text message:

STS? - and then sent it off.

A few seconds later, he received this reply: OK+16K+5C+12R=4D+19H+OK

To anyone else, it looked like an odd math equation. But between him and his contact on the outside, it told a whole story. “OK” = the deal went well. “16K” – made $16,000 on the sale. “5C+12R” = need 5 more cases of ammo and 12 rifles, “4D+19H+OK” = “Can you have them in 4 days, delivered at 7PM?”

He thought for a moment, and replied back “OK”

Ten seconds later, the screen blipped with “OKO “=“Ok, over and out”. He pulled the battery out of the unit, put it back in the floor safe, and hid all traces of his conversation. But he was disgusted by the whole thing. He had wanted out months ago, but once he hooked up with the NewGrounds Mafia, there was no way out – except death. He just couldn’t stop selling them those guns and ammo. They would kill him, but only after they tortured, hurt and killed those he loved and cared about first. They were quite clear about that.

“I have no choice”, he said to the plant. He talked to the plant a lot. It was cheaper and safer than therapy, and it was really good at keeping secrets. “I want out, and the only way to do that is to send someone in to clean up my mess – even if they have to be unfortunately sacrificed in the process. But now…did she blow her cover? Is my plan ruined? Where the hell did Byte go? And who has her? It must’ve been either by surprise or a big group of ninjas got her, because she wouldn’t go down easy.”

He sat quietly for a moment, then clicked on his intercom to the staff secretary.

“Yes, Commander?”, a chipper voice answered, much to his dismay.

“Please contact SlntCobra1, Lizzardis, PorkChop, Fro and A-Wahl. Tell them to meet me in Hanger 4 at 20:00, and be battle and recon ready. They will be part of the search team for ByteSlinger. Over and out”, and before the secretary could answer, he flipped off the intercom.

He sat back down on his desk, pulled open the bottom drawer, and grabbed the half-empty bottle of Loch Lomond Scotch from behind a few folders. He removed the stopper with a single yank, and then chugged a few swallows like it was lemonade. It stung a little going down, but once it hit his stomach, he began to feel warm inside again, and life became a little blurry and softer. He sat back, cradling the bottle like a small pet, and tried to relax a little. He looked at the clock on the desk, and it displayed 19:15 in bright blue neon LEDs.

Half smiling, he confided again to the plant,” Well, I got 45 minutes to pull a plan out of my ass. No pressure here!”, ending the sentence with another half-dozen swallows of the Loch Lomond.

[Aug 21, 2009 19:15]

[General District]

ByteSlinger stayed in the shadows as the Hummer drove away, and waited for the streets to stay quiet for a while before she ventured forward. Looking around furtively, she saw no sign of EagleRock – either one of them – or anyone else. The air stank of old garbage and low tide as a warm breeze wafted in from the river. Realizing that she was alone, she began to think about her options. “I’m alone, stranded in the General district, and it’s going to get dark soon. I have no weapons, and I’m not even quite sure where I am. I’ve missed the 18:00 return time, so I know someone at the EGB is going to start worrying about me. But I’m not supposed to be here, so I can’t call for help. And the one guy who got me here vanished mysteriously just before my little scuffle. Just like a man to disappear when you need him to commit to something. So, what to do, what to do?”

She stepped back into the alley and the small street where she just had finished her fight, and checked to see if any of her attackers had moved or left. A quick glance showed that none of them had moved – and her infrared vision showed that all three bodies were below 90 degrees. “All dead. “, she whispered out loud, almost ashamed. “More needless blood on my hands – but it was either them or me, and I had no choice.” She stepped closer to the first body – the one she electrocuted – and noticed that he had a shoulder holster under his coat. She rolled the body on its back, and removed the Springfield .45 from the holster. It had a full clip, and the safety was on. “Oh, what the hell”, she muttered, and began to search the dead man’s corpse for anything worthwhile. “It’s just like in Dungeons and Dragons,” she thought. “First, you kill the bad guys – then you ransack them”.

It took a few minutes to search all three men, but she was surprised at what she found. One had been carrying an envelope full of cash – over $20,000 in hundred-dollar bills. Another had two more handguns, along with an expensive cell-phone/PDA and enough gold chains to start a small jewelry store. The third had a ring of keys and what appeared to be a lock pick set. None of them had wallets or IDs – and all three of them were wearing the same ring on their right hand – a black onyx crystal, oval cut, in a gold base. The gold base had two symbols on it – a pyramid with an eye in the center, and the other was a hollow circle with ten lines sticking out of the edge. Obviously, they were members of some gang or organization – and these rings gave them recognition. Byte grabbed all three rings, and slid the best fitting one on her right hand. The other two went inside her inner shirt, along with the money, chains, keyring and PDA. One gun went into her waistband at her lower back; the second was in the holster on her shoulder, and the third strapped to her ankle.

“I feel a little more secure now”, she thought, as she dragged the bodies behind a dumpster and covered them with a few stray garbage bags. “And I have plenty of cab fare, too.”, she chuckled. But then she remembered that her outfit, ID and weapons were in EagleRock’s hidden sewer apartment. She had to get them first before she could return to the EGB.

The sun was lower now in the sky, and the tall, abandoned buildings cast long shadows in the streets. Byte shuffled slowly to her shopping cart, picked it back up, and reprised her role as a crazy bag lady as she headed out back to the sewer grate exit. “Best way to hide is in plain sight”, she whispered as the shopping cart rattled along, drowning out her occasional random mumbling. No one was on the street, but a few pair of curious eyes peered out through curtains and shades to see what was making the noise. Satisfied that it was only a harmless street bum, they all went back to their daily lives without a second thought.

Byte found the sewer grate entrance, and worked her way back inside. She found the flashlight hidden behind a brick, and used it to follow the fiber-optic wire back through the maze of sewer tunnels. Eventually, she found the ladder up to the hidden room, and she listened carefully before she tried to get in. She heard nothing from the room, and with a little pushing and prodding, moved the cover out of the way and worked herself back into the main room.

A quick search confirmed that she was alone, so she put the cover back in place, and then slid the security bar into place over it. This prevented anyone from climbing up from the sewers and surprising her. Then she powered up the small generator, and got a few lights to cooperate. After a quick wash-up in the sink, she changed out of her bum clothes and put back on her outfit. Everything was where she left it: weapons, ammo, tops, bottoms, headgear – so there was no problem slipping everything back on, regaining her proper rank and title.

She slid all of her corpse-booty into various pockets and pouches on her camo uniform, including the extra guns and ammo. Opening the fridge, she grabbed an MRE and some Pepsi, and had a little snack while she waited for EagleRock to hopefully show up.

“Why the Hell did he run off – and to where?”, she said out loud to the empty room. As she sat back and glanced at the clock on the wall, she realized it was almost 8:00 PM . “Oh, crap”, she muttered, “I was due back at the Barracks two hours ago. They’re going to be looking for me soon. I can’t wait here – I’ve got to get back”

Byte stood up, and as she was walking to the exit door, she heard a familiar crackling sound behind her. The air filled with the smell of ozone from the static charge as she spun around to see two soldiers in unfamiliar armored uniforms step out of a portal and aim their weapons at her. Instinctively, she drew her left arm up to fire an energy burst, but the soldier on the left fired his rifle. Instead of a projectile, she felt a wave of energy pass over her. Then she felt nothing at all. She tried to move, but every muscle seemed to be locked in place. All she could feel was her heart pounding in her chest, and her lungs breathing shallowly. This technology was new to her – too new.
The soldier on the right looked a little familiar – she couldn’t quite place the face, but he reminded Byte of someone she knew. She could see the insignia on his uniform – it was a stylized double-ellipse with the initials ETG in gold. It looked almost like an hourglass viewed at an odd angle. On his chest, where a pocket might be, was an insignia bar with an interesting logo on it. It was two interlocking circles, one blue and one yellow, stretched out to make the sideways-eight symbol for infinity. On each side of the logo were a pair of gold wings, and inside the logo she could see “TC-2” in red. Under it was the name: “M.P. Stone”

He looked at Byte, then to his partner, and asked “Is this her?”

The other soldier had secured his rifle, and pulled what looked like bar-code reader off his belt and aimed it at Byte. He pulled the trigger, and a brief flash of dull blue light illuminated the room. The device beeped and hummed for a moment, and then quietly stopped. Byte stood helpless as the soldier smiled and announced, ”Yes – this is the one we’ve been looking for!” She could see his name on his uniform now – it was “S. Feuer”

M.P. Stone looked at Byte, shook his head slowly, and then started his speech. “Supreme Commander Byteslinger, you are under arrest for numerous violations of the Temporal Prime Directive of 2651, including tampering with the natural timeline for personal gain, introducing forbidden technology to alternate dimensions – and, of course, murder. You have the right to remain silent, and anything you will say has already been recorded and will be used against you. You have the right to an attorney, but since no lawyer in his right mind would ever take your case, you’ll be assigned a court-appointed syntho-legal to speak for you. You have the right to a speedy trial, and yours begins in one relative hour. How do you plead?”

Feuer pushed a button on his scanner, and Byte was now able to move her head and neck – and even speak.

“Plead?”, she answered, “You’ve shown me no proof that you are who you say you are. You could be just another pair of idiots with a portal device trying to get their rocks off by screwing with people’s heads. I do not recognize you, your uniform, or your authority. Yeah, you got some nice little toys here – but that doesn’t mean you’re a time-cop!”

“Looks like you’re not going to come along quietly, huh?”, said Feuer

“No, she wouldn’t”, answered Stone,” we knew that from her profile. Let’s just take her in – she has to be stopped now.”

“Wait!”, Byte pleaded, “I have to finish my mission here. There are things I need to make right. And I…”

Stone cut her off before she could finish her sentence. “You’ve done enough damage here already – and nothing you can do will make it better!”

“But I have to stop SlashFirestorm from sending my friends into a trap – and EagleRock is still stuck here, too! We can’t leave him here!”

Stone laughed out loud, like Byte had just told the funniest joke in the world. “You just don’t get it, do you? This ISN’T your dimension – and it ISN’T your problem. Everything was going along as it should until you stumbled in and messed things up trying to be a hero.”

“People are going to die! I swore to protect my comrades in the EGB as I protect the portal. I couldn’t sit by and let them get hurt or killed if I knew it was going to happen!”, she retorted.

“Well, first off, did it ever occur to you that maybe the ByteSlinger you killed would have taken care of this anyway? But more importantly, did it ever occur to you that you have no business here – regardless of what you perceive as right or wrong? Oh, and as for your alternate commander EagleRock – he’s been secured and is in our custody. You are the last part of this cleanup – and we still have a big mess to undo.”

Byte stood there, taking in everything Stone had said. She could understand what he was saying – but she couldn’t agree with it. “What if the natural course of this dimension DOES include interference from other dimensions? What if YOUR involvement in stopping me is wrong – and what I’m doing is the correct course?”

Feuer shook his head at her. “No, the Temporal Prime Directive is quite clear. After examining centuries of history – and any temporal violations that occurred – it was proven that any interference between dimensions was unnatural. We have encountered dimensions where the inhabitants travel through time as easily as you can walk across a room – but they stay within their dimension, and therefore don’t violate the Directive. We are firm in our belief that any cross-dimensional temporal interference is detrimental.”

Byte was getting angrier with each passing comment. Instinctively, she gave the command to her arm to recharge the firing capacitor for another attempt at an energy pulse. But she did it slowly, in hopes that it wouldn’t be detected by either one of her captors.

Stone spoke when Feuer finished. ”You are here by accident. Your last Portal jump was faulty – but even if you did land back in your own dimension, you are still in violation of the Temporal Prime Directive, section 4B – no single entity will use a temporal transit device in order to attempt to alter history for their own personal gain.”

“Personal gain?”, asked Byte, trying to stall for more time as her arm recharged, “I was bounced through the Portals by accident. We were being invaded by an alternate universe, and I was caught up in their plans. All I wanted to do was shut them down!”

“And then go back in time and prevent the deaths of your friends – which is for personal gain - a clear Temporal transgression”, added Stone, “but you had to jump prematurely – and that’s how you got here.”

Byte felt the onboard response from her arm. The capacitor was at 100% now, and ready to fire. She was hoping that she could knock out the force field and take out one of the soldiers – and maybe level the playing field. Just as she was thinking about waiting for the perfect moment, Feuer picked up his scanner, aimed it at Byte and said “We’ll have none of that now!”. He pulled the trigger, and another wave of energy passed over Byte. “What…”, she started to protest, but was then rendered unconscious by the energy field. She fell unceremoniously into a heap on the floor, only to be scooped up by the two guards, who carried her into the portal.

The portal closed with a slight crackling sound, and then the room was silent once more.


Byte woke up to the sensation of falling. She opened her eyes, and although she could feel her body fall, she could see nothing but black. No points of reference, no natural light sources. She tried to shift the spectrum with her optic, but that wasn’t responding. In fact, she was getting no readings at all.

“Damn! That last energy blast knocked out my implants!”, she muttered – or so she thought. Something puzzled her. “Hey! Where am I?!?!”, she screamed – or tried to. In her mind, she was bellowing, but her ears picked up nothing. No bone conduction from her own voice, no echoes, nothing.

She then realized that she couldn’t feel her own arms or legs. In her mind, she commanded them to move, to reach out, to try to find something – including herself. But she felt nothing. She was conscious – or at least coherent – but completely detached from her body.

“But how can I feel motion?”, she thought. “I know I’m not dead. But I can’t feel my body. Was there an accident? Am I a vegetable brain sitting in a paralyzed body, trapped in this darkness? I know who I am – and I remember being zapped before passing out. I’m certain I was dragged back through that portal – but since I was out cold, I have no idea what happened next. Maybe I’m still out cold, or in a coma. Or maybe the portal got fouled and I’m stuck between dimensions. Or maybe, I just have no freakin’ idea what the hell is going on, and right about now would be a good time to start panicking!”

Her mind started racing, and suddenly, the sensation of falling seemed to accelerate. “Oh, great … wait a minute…when I started to lose control, I started to fall faster. That’s interesting…which means…”

In her mind, she took a deep breath, and calmed herself down. She visualized herself standing firm and at ease, in control, calm and collected. The falling sensation slowed down again, and within a few moments, stopped completely.

“Aha! That’s it! Whatever is going on here is responding to my thoughts and feelings. If that is so, it’s possible that with the right mindset, I can figure out a way to escape this darkness.”

Byte took another mental deep breath. “Well, for starters, if there is a way out, it would be through a door or doorway or portal of some sort. I can’t see it with my eyes, so I’ll have to see it with my mind.” She cleared her thoughts, and pictured a white door glowing in the darkness, something easy to spot even a long way off. She pictured it in front of her, a nice white, wooden door - one that you would find on the front porch of your Grandmother’s house. Something simple and inviting and unlocked…

Slowly, a small white dot appeared in front of her. It appeared to be far away, but it was there. “Finally, a reference point – and hopefully a way out!” Then she pictured in her mind that she was jogging double time, comfortably running towards the door. With each step, she would get closer and the door would grow bigger.

The white dot responded to her thoughts, and gradually grew in size until Byte could see that it was rectangular. A few moments later, she could see it as a door, with a brass handle and rusty hinges in a distressed wood frame. This door had seen a lot of wear and tear, but it still looked solid.

She pictured herself getting closer, and reaching out her hand to open the handle. The door grew to a respectable height, and seemed to hover within arms reach. As she made a mental grab for the door handle, she noticed that there was a handwritten note pinned to the door. “I didn’t imagine that…” she thought, and willed herself closer to read the words:

“Be careful what you wish for…”

She recognized the handwriting – it was her own. Was this a warning, or just good advice? Byte regained her focus, and imagined her right hand reaching for the handle and opening it. She saw the lever move, and the door opened inward slightly. She tried to peer in, but as she willed herself towards the door, it swung open, and she was pulled inside. She fell forward, and started to roll. The bright sunlight blinded her, and she could feel the grass and the dirt on her hands and knees as she rolled down the hill. It smelled like a meadow after a rain shower – all clean and fresh and clear.

Byte finally stopped tumbling, and wound up sitting down, facing the meadow with the hill behind her. She stood up quickly, turned around and looked up – but there was no sign of a doorway, just a grassy hill with a few trees and some small bushes, and a few butterflies fluttering around the wildflowers.

“Looks like it’s time to find another way out…”, she grumbled, and turned to face the meadow. In the distance, she could see someone – or something – coming towards her. It didn’t seem to be dangerous, but then again…

As it grew closer, Byte could see that whatever it was, it had long, white floppy ears. “Christ on a roller coaster! Is that a giant rabbit?”

Yes, it was. It was wearing a dark blue vest over matching pants, and it seemed to be preoccupied with a pocket watch that he held in his right hand. Byte stood there silently as the giant rabbit approached. Suddenly, it looked up at her. Even though it was a rabbit, the face reminded her of someone – it was somehow familiar, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“I’m late! I’m late! And so are you, young lady! We shouldn’t be late for tea, now follow me! Good thing you’re already dressed for it! Come along!” And without waiting for a response, the rabbit took off again, into the woods.

“What the hell???...”, she thought. “This is something right out of ‘Alice in Wonderland’! And me, dressed for a tea party – yeah, like they want to see a dirty soldier …in…camo…”, and her voice trailed off as she looked down at herself.

Instead of her GI boots, she had on white party shoes and anklet socks that had lacy tops. Her legs were exposed because she was now wearing a blue and white party dress. Both of her arms looked quite human, and when she turned her head, she caught a glimpse of her ponytail – it was much longer now, and quite blond.

“Oh, man, I must be tripping on some good shit!”, she said out loud. The rabbit stopped, turned, looked at her and said “Hey, bitch, you’re gonna make us late! Get your blond ass over here NOW!”

“Well, the rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s story would never use that language”, she mused. “So this is another test, another illusion – but in the Looking Glass genre. Is this a metaphor? Is my mind trying to put some sense into all of portal traveling I’ve done? Or have I finally gone insane?”

Then she realized that she had two choices – follow along with the story, or change it. In the original story, after a bunch of stupid interactions with the local crazies, Alice eventually finds her way home. But she could have done that by bypassing all the useless fools that wasted her time.. And quite frankly, Byte just wasn’t in the mood to be playing parlor games now.

She looked back at the rabbit, game him the finger and said, “Fuck you! I’m NOBODY’S BITCH! And if you have the furry little balls to come back here and say it to my face, I will beat you down so hard no one will recognize you!”

The rabbit turned fully to face Byte, put the watch back into his pocket, and gave her a very evil grin. His eyes started to glow, and his cute little bunny teeth started to grow into menacing fangs. Claws erupted from between the toes on his paws, and he seemed to get a little wider and more muscular.

“So, you want a piece of this, huh? Well here it comes!”, and he bounded towards her. Byte's self-defense training automatically came into action. She took a stance, and stood still as her antagonist ran towards her, fangs gleaming and claws swinging. She watched his movements, followed his stride, and made a few mental notes. Shifting her weight to her back foot, she waited for the rabbit from Hell to make his move.

He came at her fast, but at the last second, Byte ducked down, turned her hip, and grabbed his arm. In a classic judo move, she stood up, and using his own momentum, tossed the furry bastard flying over her shoulder – and into the tree a few feet behind her. She heard a hollow thump and then a cracking sound. The rabbit gave out a quick groan and then said nothing more as his body slumped to the tree roots.

She waited a moment to see if he was getting back up – but he wasn’t moving. She walked around him in a wide circle, not getting too close in case he was playing possum and waiting for her to get within arms reach. When she could see his face, she noticed that blood was trickling from his ears and nose, and good portion of his forehead had been dented.

When she got closer, she realized he wasn’t breathing. She reached for his neck, looking for any vein or artery, She could feel what should have been one, but there was no pulse.

“Uh oh!”, she said to the flowers, “Looks like the rabbit died! Someone is in BIG trouble!” She rolled the rabbit on his back, and went through his pockets. All that he had was the watch. She grabbed it, popped it off the fob, and took a good look at it.

From the outside, it looked like a conductor’s watch – there was an old locomotive etched on one side, and on the back was a picture that looked like a train station. But it wasn’t right. The station looked way too modern and new to be paired with the old locomotive on the front. “Oh, well, guess it’s just a cheap knock-off. Let’s see if it’s running…”

Byte opened up the watch, and stood there in amazement at what she saw. Instead of a watch face with numbers on it, she was staring at a mini-portal! She could see through the portal hole to the other side – it looked like the Barracks! Some men were approaching, and she could see that one of them was Phantom!

“Hey, Phantom! Can you hear me?”, and she yelled and waved. But no one seemed to notice her. She looked down, and picked up a pebble . “Let’s see if this is a portal!”, and she dropped the pebble into the middle of the portal screen.

A moment later, a huge boulder appeared in the Barracks courtyard and began rolling through to the motorcade. Byte watched in horror as it crushed a few jeeps and came to rest next to the commander’s quarters.

The courtyard was abuzz with activity. “Where the hell did that come from?”, demanded Phantom, “is this someone’s idea of a bad magic trick?”

So, sound wouldn’t travel through it– and it seems to be a one-way portal, as no one had mentioned anything about the black, undulating gateway floating in the sky. And there was definitely a spatial difference – anything that passes through the watch would be enlarged in the alternate visible universe.

“So, all I have to do is find something to shrink me to a one-inch height, and I’m outta here!”, she exclaimed.

Rifling through the Rabbit’s outer vest, Byte also found a guitar tuner and an invitation to the Queen’s tea party. Why the Rabbit had a guitar tuner in his pocket is still a mystery today - no one really knows why he carried it around!

Byte stood up and began to walk through the meadow, heading in the direction the rabbit had chosen before. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the fish happily flew by in colorful schools.

She did a double-take when the fish drifted by. “I don’t remember them in Wonderland”, she said out loud.

“Then again, Alice didn’t murder the White Rabbit in that story, either”, a male voice spoke quietly behind her, making her jump and spin around in a defensive crouch.

At first, she saw no one behind her. Then she noticed the floating smile. “Ah, so who’s my Cheshire Cat?”, she asked. “The voice sounds familiar…”

Slowly, a head, torso and body materialized. It was Stone, dressed in the same uniform as when they first met. He smiled again, and continued speaking. “It is hard to imagine that such a violent race never destroyed itself completely. Every challenge is met first by the ego and then by a weapon. For the allegedly most intelligent race on the face of the planet Earth, you are all barely more than well-dressed chimpanzees. Oh, you feel bad when you kill – but that doesn’t stop you from doing it again…”

Stone looked at Byte as his words hung heavy in the air. She looked a little puzzled at first, and then his diatribe sunk in, making her angry. “Nature is violent”, she retorted, “The strong survive, the weak die off, and we all wind up as someone else’s lunch. And despite all of this, the universe really couldn’t care less. I have been trained to be strong, to protect those who are law abiding and punish those who are not…”

“And who are you to be judge, jury and executioner?”, he interrupted. “Why does your will and your point of view matter more than those who you seek to punish? How do you justify your actions if you make a mistake?”

Byte’s face was red as her blood pressure welled up. She had a strong desire to pound the shit out of this guy. “How dare you diminish me and the job that I do! I represent law and order and fairness…”

“Bullshit!”, he interjected. “You have always been anti-establishment. You hate to follow the rules, but you chose a military life anyway. Why? So you could be trained in weapons and self-defense. You figured you’d put a few years in, build up your skills, gather some weapons, make some contacts – and then work in the private sector making big bucks as a bodyguard or bounty hunter. But until then, you would play the ‘soldier girl’ role. Losing your arm and your eye changed that. You felt incomplete, less than a woman – unlovable and undesirable. This drove your desire for vengeance even stronger, and you made the EGB your life. A perfect cover up – you get to practice taking out the bad guys in the name of law and order. But that didn’t work. You made mistakes, and you have regrets and guilt…”

“We all make mistakes”, she said, “and sometimes we wish we could go back in time and fix them.”

“That was your BIGGEST mistake”, Stone yelled. “You stumbled across a portal in your world – which, by the way, was introduced from an alternate dimension in direct violation of the Temporal Prime Directive.”

“I had to stop them – they were going to …uh, already did…might have tried to blow up the EGB headquarters.”

“We knew that – and we were ready to step in and take care of things. Did you ever have a feeling of deja-vu where you said to yourself ‘ wow, that was close’ or ‘that could have really ended badly?’ Odds are you were sensing a timeline continuum repair. Something externally had affected your time/space continuum, and we were sent back to clean it up – professionally. But every time we tried to intervene, something shifted the time line. That something was YOU!”

“Me? I’ve only made a few jumps. How could I have been responsible for all the rest?”

“Between you trying to double-back on yourself to fix your mistakes, and the cross-contamination between nearby dimensions, we have been cleaning up after dozens of you. You have been keeping us busy for a while – and we’re not finished yet!”

“I know”, Byte replied. This whole conversation was exasperating her. “I have to go back and make things right – and you’re in my way! And what happened with EagleRock? I promised him I’d help him get back, too. There are just too many loose ends, and you’re not helping my cause right now.

Stone took a step back, and started laughing so hard that he could barely contain himself. He sat down hard on the grass, and Byte watched with confusion as he literally was rolling-on-the-floor laughing.

“What the hell is so funny?”, Byte demanded

Stone looked up, tears in his eyes, and said between chuckles, “You.”

“Me? You’re nuts! I couldn’t be more serious. I’m not going to stand around here any more to be mocked and abused by someone who claims to be a time cop. When you’re ready to be serious, find me!

“But…But…where are you going?”, Stone stammered as he began to calm down.

“For starters, I’m going to follow the path through the woods that the rabbit was going to take, and see what I could find there.

“Really?”, he answered. “What rabbit? What path?”

“That rab…”, and Byte’s sentence stopped mid syllable as she turned to look at the defunct rabbit – but he wasn’t there any more. Neither was the tree he hit. There was no path, and as Byte turned slowly around in a full circle, all she could see was a flat meadow covered in grass to the horizon, and a clear blue sky with the sun directly overhead.

“Well, that shut her up”, another familiar voice spoke behind Byte, and she turned to see who else was here.

It was Feuer, also decked out in his uniform. He was standing next to Stone now, and they both were watching Byte like a scientist observes a rat in a cage.

“Do you know where you are?”, Stone asked Byte, “Do you know why you’re here?”

“Well, it started off as an odd trip through Wonderland, but it went off on a tangent. The only thing left is me in this blue dress.”, was her reply.

“Dress? You’re not in a dress”, answered Stone. Byte looked down at herself – she was back in her camo outfit again and her implants were back and online.

Byte stopped to think. “Where am I? Well, it’s not a place where normal physics apply, so either I’m in some sort of oddball dimension - or subdimension – or, I’m in some sort of simulation. Or maybe, I’m nowhere at all…”

She looked at Stone and Feuer, and said “I think I know where I am…I am not here. This is all a mental projection or some sort of simulator – and my mind is somehow connected to it. I’m not sure where – or when – my body is, but since I still have my thoughts, I gather that my mind is still functioning…”

Neither Stone nor Feuer gave her an answer, but Stone managed a slight grin, as if to acknowledge that she was on the right track.

“So, which is it?”, Byte asked. “Is this something like ‘The Matrix’ and I’m jacked into some sort of computer, or am I running around in a controlled dream-world like J-Lo did in ‘The Cell’?”

“It’s not a computer simulation”, Feuer answered her, “but it’s not your subconscious, either. You are quite conscious right now – you’re just not connected to the physical body that you’ve grown fond of. You are in a dimension where the thoughts of those who exist here can change the very fabric of existence. You felt it before. You started out in blackness, and wanted a way out. You thought of a door, and one appeared. You entered the door, and fell into Wonderland.”

“That wasn’t what I was thinking!”, she rebutted

“No, but it was what WE were thinking”, came a quick reply from Stone. “This realm does follow some rules. For example, the more people who want something a certain way, and believe in it, will have their manifestations materialize, despite the few that may think differently. Simple physics – the stronger force prevails. We wanted to toss you into “Wonderland” as a metaphor for your journeys. You saw it, accepted it, and without realizing it, reinforced it. But we altered it by making the rabbit a little more obnoxious. We wanted to see how you would respond to something so strange – but possibly dangerous.”

“Once that rabbit started acting nasty, the gloves were off! I didn’t mean to kill him. I just wanted to throw him down, but I hit the tree by accident”, Byte exclaimed.

“Funny thing about that tree”, added Feuer. “It wasn’t there when you first saw the rabbit…”

“You bastard! You put it there at the last minute so he could hit it! His death is on YOUR hands.”

“Death?”, asked Stone. “For something to die, it would have to be alive. There is nothing alive here. Not the rabbit, or the grass, or even you or us. We are physical manifestations of thoughts. You can only die here if you believe that you can be harmed by mere shadows. Some have died here, thinking that this is reality. But it’s not.”

“Then what is it?”, she asked, “Why bring me here? To test me? To punish me?”

“To teach you”, answered Stone. “To show you that there not only places beyond your imagination, but places that exist only because of your imagination. To open your mind beyond four dimensions, and to put into perspective what is important and what isn’t.”

“My friends are important. So is my family. I liked my life and who I was. I am part of something bigger than me, and I took an oath to defend and protect those who stand by me, and the innocent people who need my help.”

“Of course”, answered Feuer. “Those ideals are certainly important for your home dimension. But they only apply there. Here, in this realm, with a thought you can change just about anything. You can recreate your world as you desire, and live it to your heart’s content. If something is wrong, you can make it right at any time.”
“You would be God here”, added Stone.

“But none of it would be real!”, protested Byte. “It would just be the sum total of all that I imagine!”

“True.”, replied Feuer, “but you could imagine other people in this world that could think independently and make their own decisions. They would add a level of chaos and uncertainty that makes life interesting.”

“You don’t get it! They’re NOT REAL! They don’t have souls. They’re just created from my imagination!”

Stone looked at Byte squarely in the eyes, and quietly spoke. “For all of the people you’ve befriended in your realm, for all the things that you’ve seen and know, how do know for a fact that they are real in the conventional sense, or just a manifestation of someone’s imagination? How many real souls are there in your realm?”

Byte lowered her head. She didn’t know how to answer that. Then, after a pause to gather her thoughts, she looked up again, and carefully chose her words. “The concept of perceptual reality always intrigued me, and in this dimension, it was quite obvious that it certainly exists. Did it exist everywhere else, or only in certain continuums? And what about my home dimension? How much of that is real – and how much isn’t?”

Feuer looked at Byte and smiled. “There is only one answer to that: the only reality is coherent thought. Through all dimensions and all realms, physical laws can vary. But the concepts of intelligence and communication span all of them. There are coherent, organized and intelligent sources of energy – which some call souls, and others call spirits – that through will of thought, create and reinforce the reality around them.”

Byte was trying to soak it all in when Stone interjected his thoughts. “The truth is – there is no truth. Every reality, every realm, every alternate dimension exists because the beings that inhabit them believe it to be so. At the quantum level, we exist across all of these realms, unaware that we are one and the same. There are multiple manifestations of a single soul – and many of these manifestations are unaware of the others.”

“Oh, come on!”, Byte retorted, “You mean to tell me that reality is what we believe it to be, and that despite the fact that I have run into – and even killed – a few of my alternate selves, that we all share the same soul, and are all part of a single intelligence?”

“Ding Ding Ding! The lady hits the bullseye! She wins the big prize!”, Stone announced.

“Then what is all this nonsense about being temporal police, and arresting me for messing with the time streams across dimensions? They’re not real!”

“On the contrary, they are the definition of reality. If group of souls create a reality to live in, it is their reality, and no one has the right to interfere in it. Even their alternate physical manifestations from other dimensions have no rights there, unless specifically invited. The rules are made to keep order and peace – you know that, that’s your job – and since the rules are created by those who reside in that realm, they need to be preserved and followed.”

“My head is spinning. I don’t know what to believe anymore. I don’t know what to think. I am beginning to doubt my sanity, but at the same time, I do understand the basic concepts that you are kicking around.”

“It really does take some time to acclimate to all of this”, chimed Feuer, “You’re a small fish that we grabbed out of a puddle, walked by the lake, and then tossed in the ocean.”

“But why me? Why couldn’t you just leave me stranded in one of those other dimensions that had no portal, so I couldn’t do any more real damage? I would dumb and happy living in my little ignorance, taking care of my little corner of the world. But now, you’ve taken that all away. I no longer feel secure, and I don’t even know what to think about my family and friends. You showed me the truth – and it’s worse than any lie that I could imagine.”

“We had to do it”, Stone announced. “It was the only way.”

“The only way to do WHAT?”, Byte demanded.

“To make sure that you are mentally and physically ready to join us. I think you are – what’s your vote, Feuer?”

“Yeah, she’s ready. Let’s head back to the office and get the paperwork started”

“Office? Paperwork? What are they talking about? “, thought Byte.
A moment later, a portal opened up in front of the three of them, and Byte was escorted through, one soldier at each shoulder. When the portal disappeared, so did the grass and sky…

[ETG Headquarters]

Corporal Geist sat at her workstation, monitoring all of the floating 3D-vid images from her security station. Not much going on today – only a few visitors and a minor maintenance issue with a secondary cooling line. Her optic enhancements allowed her to directly interface with quantum G i-Net, giving her access to any relevant piece of information she needed at the speed of a single thought.

She looked up at the info wall to watch some news about the protests on Phobos and Deimos. It seems that these Martian moon colonies were running low on supplies and energy converters, and they couldn’t come to an amicable trade agreement with the natives on the planet’s surface. Who would have known that when the United States had sent deep-bore probes to Mars hundreds of years ago that it would trigger an invasion alarm? The native life, which had been living happily hundreds of meters underground, eventually dug out to the surface and demanded to know who was stomping around in their front yard. It took the better part of six years (and a few dozen dead interpreters) before we mastered translating their language. They were much more intelligent than us, and pretty much just pitied our existence.

Finding life on Mars ultimately triggered the 4th World War. No one had ever thought there’d be a 4th world war, since the 3rd World War of 2235 eliminated every major city on the globe with enhanced neutrino bombs, cutting the world population in half. But 233 years later, in 2469, after the Martian race made themselves known, the conglomerate world powers fought over who would make first contact and get the business rights. This war was dirty, with nothing less than complete obliteration to the losers. Over 4.6 billion people died in that war here on Earth, leaving a scant 4 billion remaining. But the colonies on the Moon and Mars held another 1.5 million, and they were spared the slaughter.

It was discovered that the Martian race had developed the technology to create portals in space and time. They used it carefully, but eventually, that technology was stolen from them. It was first developed as a weapon here on Earth, but later, as the parts became easier to make, the Portal generators could be found hidden in any major university or research center.

The Portals made a wonderful tool for those bent on taking anything they wanted, and even used to go back and forth across time to change world events. But the time-line rapidly became unstable as paradoxes were generated by all of this unrestricted time travel. In 2650, Aperture Science, the world’s largest conglomerate research company, created the Elite Temporal Guard. Their function was to preserve the space-time continuum, either by preventing a time breach, or by going through time to undo them. In 2651 the Temporal Prime Directive was drafted, and all non-registered Portals were to be destroyed. Many children – and grandchildren - of the Ancient Order of the Elite Guard joined the ETG – it was much more interesting than just protecting the citizens of NewWorld (previously NewGrounds) from minor hoods and thugs.

Absentmindedly, Corporal Geist scratched at the neuro-link embedded in her skull just behind her right ear. It was only 4mm in diameter, and completely covered by skin. It was implanted the day she left the incubator and began her year-1 accelerated information absorption regimen. Her pre-natal genetic profile had determined that she would be a perfect candidate for ETG training. Twenty years later, here she was, exactly as planned. It was nice growing up and not wondering if you’d ever find a job you’d like.

To the left of the security monitoring station was the main transfer chamber. This was where all of the Temporal Portals were to be opened. Every jump and return was registered, and after that, long-term temporal fluctuations were checked to make sure nothing changed that wasn’t supposed to change.

A portal opened in the main chamber, and a moment later, two ETG soldiers walked out, escorting a female soldier in green camo. Corporal Geist waited for the Portal to close completely before releasing the security force fields around the room.

Byte looked around at the subtle but elegant room she just stepped into. The air was comfortable, with a slight hint of spring rainstorm. She saw Corporal Geist at her workstation, and watched as few others walked around between various rooms. They all wore similar outfits, each with the ETG logo. No one carried any visible side arms.

She noticed that there were no phones, no paging systems and no windows. But 3-dimensional images could be displayed just about anywhere, and they were all fully interactive. There were no obvious computer terminals or any other electronic devices, yet everything and everyone was connected in ways Byte couldn’t really understand.

A wall in the chamber faded open into an archway, and Byte was gently asked to proceed through it. Stone and Feuer closely followed. After a short walk through a hallway, they came to another chamber. As they entered, Byte could see that this room was configured more like a lounge or living room. There were geometric couches and recliners all circled around a larger conversation area. On the walls were 3D renderings of open windows looking out over a beach at sunset. 3D Seagulls flew sedately from window to window, and the gentle sounds of the surf were barely audible as background noise.

Byte’s looked at the couch and saw three people sitting down – two men and a woman. The man in the center had his head down as he was leaning over to sign some papers. The other two people were wearing ETG uniforms and standing up to greet Byte and the other soldiers as they entered the room.

The man spoke first: “Welcome to ETG central, Supreme Commander ByteSlinger!”, and he saluted. Byte saluted smartly in return, as did the two soldiers flanking her. “I am Supreme Commander Roan, and this is my Temporal Analysis officer, Commander Lassuk”

“Please to meet you both”, replied Byte, shaking hands firmly with both of them.

“And I do believe you already know our other guest”, Roan said, gesturing to the man hunched over some paperwork.

Byte glanced down, and her heart skipped a few beats as she recognized the face.

“Hi, Byte!”, said EagleRock. “Sit down and get comfortable – we have a long debriefing ahead of us!”

End of Chapter 21


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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 10:59 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

“Through a Mirror Darkly”

Chapter 22

Tapestry Frayed

Originally posted on March 23rd, 2010

EGB Headquarters-Main War Room

All of the senior staff had been at the table for hours, heatedly discussing how they should respond to Wade’s request for an off-site meeting to handle the issues with the Duck Division and the recent attacks on Newgrounds. There were clearly two opinions forming, and it was dividing the EGB along dangerous lines.

“You know, I could just pull rank and order all of you to attend that meeting as planned”, SlashFirestorm added, “but you know that for something this important, I need to hear all of my options from my staff before I decide on an action plan.”

“What is there to decide?”, questioned EagleRock. “The Duck Division is behind the attacks, and somehow they are in bed with the NewGrounds Mafia. If we don’t marshal all of our forces now, we may never be able to stop them. We have finally rebuilt the EGB since the two years of the Battle Royale – we lost so many soldiers then”

“And you were hiding until a few weeks ago”, added Phantom. “We all thought you were dead. We mourned your passing. There was a funeral, and many of us were numb for a long time. Then suddenly, you re-appear like Lazarus from the tomb, telling us this tale of how you’ve been working deep cover in the General District. Your story looks like it could pass muster – but it does seem a bit convenient and coincidental”

“What are you saying, Commander?”, replied an angry EagleRock, his face scowling , “Because it sounds like you’re calling me a liar – are you?”

“No, not a liar”, answered Phantom,” I saw you fall, and then your body was taken away, not to be seen again until we discovered you in the General District. I carried the guilt of your death on my back for two years – and then when you suddenly pop back up during the shitstorm caused by the DD and the NG Mafia, well, it just seems too coincidental. Like maybe you may know a lot more than you’re telling us – or maybe…this is a trap.”

The room went unnaturally silent at the end of that last sentence. EagleRock stood up slowly, his eyes mere slits as he aimed them at Phantom. Phantom stood up slowly on the opposite side of the table, glaring back at the deadly serious face of his commander.

“Mister, you are one step away from a court-martial!”, whispered EagleRock. “I will not be slandered that way. You have no idea what it was like for me to live two years without being able to contact anyone – no friends, no family – just a constant vigil in the General District to get intelligence that only a dead man can get.”

“Oh, but you DID have contact with the EGB”, Phantom interjected. “You had been working with SlashFirestorm most of that time – he kept you well in armor, weapons and ammo. He also continued the lie about your death. He couldn’t trust us with the truth, either. What kind of betrayal is that? How can we trust our leaders if they can lie to us so easily? How do we know that the off-site meeting isn’t just another set-up, and you’re leading us like lambs to the slaughter?!?”

All hell broke loose as everyone started to voice their opinions simultaneously. Some were defending EagleRock, and others supported Phantom and his theories. It was a house divided, and not even SlashFirestorm could get them all to quiet down and settle in.

“Enough of this already!”, yelled Supreme Commander ByteSlinger. “You are all fighting like little children! This meeting isn’t about how much we believe EagleRock – it’s about if we should let all of the command staff group at an unprotected off-site location in the name of peace between us and the netizens of Newgrounds.”

“So, what is YOUR opinion, Byte?”, asked aldlv.

While I am upset about how long EagleRock was under deep cover, I don’t think he did it just to hurt US. It was a terrific sacrifice for his family as well. This may be a trap, but if it is, I seriously doubt that EagleRock had anything to do with planning it.

Suddenly the intercom buzzed. “Excuse the interruption, Commander SlashFirestorm, but this is very important.” It was Sgt. First Class Lizzardis, and he sounded agitated.

“It better be, soldier. What is it?”, answered Slash.

“We just received word from the NewGrounds government. The summit meeting has been canceled.”

“Canceled?” asked Slash, “Why the hell would they cancel it?”

There was a long pause before Lizzardis answered. “It seems that Wade and a few of the moderators have been declared incompetent to hold their positions. According to this report that I received from the NGPD, sometime this evening the NGPD was called to Wade’s house for a disturbance complaint. When they got there, Wade and some of the moderators who had been visiting him were found wandering around in the yard, mumbling and crying and acting very strangely…”

Lizzardis stopped there, waiting for a response from anybody.

“What the hell were they drinking?”, asked Byte. “Sounds like their meetings are a lot more fun than ours!”

“Commander ByteSlinger, show some respect, please!”, reprimanded Slash, “This is serious. Any idea why they were acting that way, Lizzardis?”

Lizz cleared his throat, and continued. “Preliminary tests for alcohol or obvious drugs were negative. They all seemed to be biologically clean and sober. But all of them kept babbling about the same nonsense over and over…”

The room was now as quiet as a tomb, with everyone straining hear the rest of Lizz’s report.

“…something about being kidnapped weeks ago, replaced by body doubles, and kept as prisoners in some other world. But then they were rescued by the EGB and brought back here. But none of them are sure if this is their real home, or just another fake...”

Everyone looked puzzled, and then a low murmuring broke out in the room.

“What does that mean, Lizz?”, asked Phantom. “What were they talking about?”

“No one is sure, Phantom”, Lizz replied. “They are obviously hallucinating and disorientated, and need some help. Maybe it’s dehydration?”

“Or possible over-hydration from vodka?”, added aldlv.

“Enough!”, Slash commanded as he stood up. “The decision has been made for us. There is no meeting to attend now, so there will be no further debate over it. We will continue to monitor and evaluate the information that EagleRock has been collecting from the General District, and as of now, any action there will be on MY command. Any questions?”

No one said a word, as they knew it was a rhetorical question. Slash snapped to attention, and began a salute. Everyone else in the room stood up and returned it. “Dismissed”, he commanded, and everyone started to file out of the war room.

But no one saw Byte glancing at EagleRock, and giving him a quick wink and a nod – and getting a quiet nod back.

[ETG Headquarters]

Byte stood in the middle of the room, looking down at EagleRock as he sat back on the leather couch. He was clean and trimmed and looked healthy and well rested – which was the complete opposite of how Byte looked and felt.

“Well, you cleaned up quick”, commented Byte. “Barely gone two hours and you look like you’ve been on vacation for a week”

“Two hours?”, puzzled EagleRock,” I’ve been here almost six days.”

Byte was at a loss for a moment, and then the light bulb came on. “Oh, wait – when they grabbed you, they brought you here. You chatted for a few days, and then they came back for me. But from my point of view, it was only a few hours. That explains how you fell off the face of the earth right after I was attacked – and why you never showed up back at your place.”

“I knew you’d head back there”, responded EagleRock, “so I told them that’s where they could find you.”

“You gave me up!?!?!”, Byte yelled. “Why the hell did you did that? You sold me out!”

EagleRock shook his head slowly. “No, Byte, I didn’t. And when you hear what they have to say, you might even thank me for it,”

“All I know is that they arrested me on some obscure charge of messing around with the time stream for personal gain. I think it’s just all bullshit”, commented Byte.

Eagle looked at Byte, and calmly responded. “Actually, they’re not fooling around. They pulled me in on just about the same set of charges.”

“Then, either they postponed the trial, or you were acquitted”, noted Byte.

“Neither, actually”, quipped Eagle. “Once I heard what they offered…well, you’ll see. I’ll let them tell you all the details. But I will tell you this: they can help you find what you’re looking for.”

A moment later, TC-2 Stone walked into the room. “Sorry about hitting you with the neural blocker beam, but we have to follow protocol when taking in someone dangerous,”

“Me? Dangerous?”, joked Byte, “Surely you jest.”

“No, I’m not jesting”, replied Stone. “And…please don’t call me Shirley. Call me Mark.”

“Just don’t call me grandpa!”, added EagleRock

Byte looked like she had just walked into the second half of a dumb movie with no real plot. “Why would they call you that? You don’t have kids yet!”

Mark answered, ”the key word there is ‘yet’. One day he will have kids – and grandkids and great grand kids, and so on for about 28 generations – and that’ll bring you to me, Temporal Commander 2nd Class Mark Ptyoter Stone . You see – EagleRock is my great, great…it goes on and on – great grandfather..”

Byte looked at Mark for a moment, nodded her head slowly, and spoke. “I do see the family resemblance - especially that classic jaw line in profile. Nice to know you come from a long line of dedicated soldiers.”

Mark smiled back, and replied. “Thanks. Now, I bet you’re exhausted from all of this traveling, and you probably could use a hot shower and a decent meal…”

“Is there time for all of that?”, interrupted Byte. “There are so many loose ends right now – we have to clean them up before it gets worse!”

“We have all the time in the world”, answered EagleRock. “But most importantly, we have time to sit back and think through our next actions – and how we’re going to make things right once more.”

Byte was puzzled again. “But if we – I – messed around with the time streams, wouldn’t that ultimately affect us here? Couldn’t I have created a paradox somehow?”

“Could have … possibly”, interjected Mark. “Will you – probably not, since we extracted you before the next critical temporal nexus.”

“Temporal nexus?”, mused Byte, “as when multiple time lines and/or dimensions intersect?”

“Precisely. One of those had occurred in your recent past – when you encountered multiple copies of yourself in your alternate barracks room – and then EagleRock showed up to make a decision that collapsed the quantum node. Unfortunately, it did affect multiple time streams, and that took a little bit of work to undo.”

As tired and as hungry Byte was, she was much more interested in getting answers, and her curiosity made her more vocal. “I can eat and shower later – but I really want some answers now. I’m way too excited to rest, like a kid on Christmas eve that is trying too hard to sleep.”

Mark motioned to the recliner chair. “Sit down, relax. We can chat now if you want. I had thought you’d want a private conversation with EagleRock before we had our group discussion…”

“Uh, Mark”, interrupted TC-2 Feuer, “it’s too early for that. They haven’t experienced those events yet.”

“What haven’t we experienced?”, asked EagleRock. “Why would we need privacy – we’re not involved or anything”

Byte looked at Mark and Feuer, and her woman’s intuition kicked in. “No – not yet. But we’re going to be, aren’t we?”

EagleRock’s eyes opened wide at just the thought of what Byte was implying. Feuer shook his head, “Damn – we’re not supposed to tell people about their potential future – but in this case, we need to so we can fix the past. Sometimes these damn quantum causal loops wreak havoc in five dimensions. Byte, you’re on the right track, but it’s not what you think.”

The conversation stopped cold for a moment, followed by an awkward silence. Everyone stared at Feuer, who looked at Mark. Mark nodded his head slowly, and Feuer continued.

“First off, you two will never get romantically involved, for many obvious reasons. However, your lives will become intertwined in your futures – and if you don’t make the right decisions, well… that WILL create a paradox. You will both eventually return to your normal time streams – once you successfully repair the damage you did in the other dimensions. You will both stay on in the EGB, and later, EagleRock will have three children with his wife – two boys, and the youngest a girl. In the beginning, all will be fine. But when your daughter is about 3 years old, and the boys are 5 and 8, an unavoidable tragedy will occur – you will lose your wife.”

EagleRock first couldn’t comprehend this – and then he got angry at it. “Bullshit! Now that I know about it, I can stop it!”

“Just because you have knowledge of an event does not mean that you have the ability to alter it”, opined Mark. “You know the sun will rise in the morning, but you are powerless to stop it. Some things will happen in our lives that can’t be stopped – or shouldn’t be”

“I can research what happened, make changes – make a different path!”, EagleRock exclaimed. “She doesn’t have to die!”

“We’ve already examined all of the options”, replied Feuer. “If your wife survives, it alters the path of two critical temporal nexii – and in both of them, you and your entire family are wiped out – either in a plane crash, or by a drunk driver, or a dozen different intersecting paths that you have no control over – and they all kill ALL of you. If you and your kids die, Mark will never be born. The ETG will be formed with different ideals, and there will definitely be a paradox in this future. Based on the Temporal Prime Directive, we cannot interfere with the natural causality of life for our personal gain. As much as I know it will hurt you, your wife must die when she does. Everything in life has a cycle and a purpose, and you must believe me when I tell you that her death is definitely for the greater good for generations afterwards.”

“So, how do I fit in all of this?”, asked Byte.

“As a close friend”, continued Mark, “you will help EagleRock through the years of depression he will go through after her death. You will help with the kids, like a kindly Aunt, but you never cross that line into “romantic involvement”. EagleRock’s family will also help out at first, but eventually, they will fade back as they think he’s coming around and getting a handle on life. But on the two year anniversary of her passing, EagleRock starts going through some old pictures and letters, and gets very sad. He also gets very drunk, and in the middle of the night, in a drunken stupor, tries to drive to the cemetery to visit his wife’s grave. He winds up wrecking his car, and when the cops find him, he’s thrown in jail for DWI. In jail, he has a nervous breakdown and becomes suicidal, and they wind up admitting him to the local psych ward. Byte, you wind up taking a 6-month leave of absence to help raise his kids while he gets better. Eventually, he does come back around, and within the year, you’re both back at the EGB. EagleRock never remarries, but with Byte’s help as a friendly Aunt, continues to raise three fine kids.”

“Wow. That’s quite a tale. But what if I don’t want to raise those kids?”, Byte asked.

“They wind up in foster homes, and two of them get abused to the point where they never have kids of their own – thus creating the paradox.”, replied Mark.

“So, I’m going to raise them because you told me I have to, or because I was going to anyway?”, puzzled Byte.

“We’re not sure which was the cause and which was the effect, but we knew that for the time line to stay true, you had to be involved. I am of the opinion that you would do it anyway, as that is the type of person you are. I don’t think it’s forced on you – the kids have way too much fun with you when you’re around, and they don’t look unhappy in the least.”

“So when my world crashes”, interjected EagleRock, “I’ll be leaning on Byte to get me back up on my feet. And if I don’t it screws up everything. No pressure here, huh?

“That’s what friends are for…”, Byte answered quietly with a smile.

“Ok, I’ve said enough”, Mark added. “You both have the idea. Now, I think it’s time for a shower, a hot meal, and some shut-eye.” Corporal Geist made a few hand gestures at a floating 3-D interface, and a gentle blue-neon path formed under Byte’s feet, and lead away down the hall and into a private room. “Please follow the path to your room. It will open to your voice command or touch. In your room you will find all that you need for a bath or shower, as well as some clean clothes. It is a little past 19:00 now – we will reconvene in the Commander’s lounge at 20:00 for food and drink, and to relax a little. But I expect you to be back in your room by 23:00 to get some shut-eye, understood?”

“Got it!”, answered Byte, and she saluted as she stood up. “Excuse me gentlemen, but I have a date with a hot shower and some clean clothes! The men stood up, returned her salute, and she spun on her heels and followed the path to her room.

The door opened automatically – into an empty large room. No furniture, no towels – nothing at all. “Well, this sucks. Why did they give me an empty room? The walls are so drab, the floor is nondescript. I thought it would be a bit more appointed than this – you know, maybe a nice, dark hardwood floor, cream and tan walls and accents, an expensive oriental rug in the middle of the room. Maybe a nice comfy couch and an easy chair, with a decent TV on the wall and a wet bar…”

From out of nowhere a digitized female voice announced “Verbal request for furnishings have been queued and are being processed. Please stand back towards the doorway for a moment.”

Byte stepped back from the door, almost back into the hallway. A few moments later, the walls started to change hues, and solid objects began to solidify in the room, as if from her thoughts…

…and from her verbal descriptions, the room took on the colors, shades and textures she had described. But it didn’t stop there. There were odds and ends, various pictures, molding, chair rails – all added in fine compliment to the general description she gave the room.

“Oh, wow – am I still in one of those perceptual dimensions?”, she muttered lowly.

“Negative”, replied the digitized voice. “Living space has been programmed according to your general parameters. If you wish to make any adjustments, please describe them in detail.”

Byte stood in the doorway, just a little overwhelmed at it all. She stood there for a moment, and then the voice continued: “Excuse me, but Supreme Commander EagleRock is requesting entry to your room. What is your response?”

“Oh, let him in. That’s fine”, Byte said, and the door behind her opened. She turned slowly, and EagleRock was standing in the doorway, grinning ear-to-ear. “Pretty cool, huh?”, he said. “It freaked me out the first time I saw it happen.. But you get used to it. In fact, you should be used to it.”

“I’m too tired to play this game, EagleRock. Why should I be used to it when I’ve never seen this before?”

“Sure you have. It’s the same type of technology that you have in your left arm implant – the ability to transform your fingers and hand into various tools and connectors – or did you forget about that?”

Byte nodded her head slowly, “Ah, I see it now. Same concept, but on a much bigger scale.”

EagleRock continued, “Well, it’s very commonplace in this place and time, and people use this technology, along with a form of personal inter-dimensional storage, to live in smaller, more efficient homes that change inside as needed. Usually, a home today consists of one room per person, plus a common area. Each person can configure their personal space on-the fly, including bathroom shower, bedroom, lounge – just about anything.”

“What about the things in the room, like a TV or a dresser or lamps or other personal effects?”

“Well, most of the room is dynamic – it changes based on the desires of the person in it. This society no longer amasses large quantities of objects to store in over-sized homes just to keep it all as a status symbol. All necessities are provided with the home space. Only personal items, like jewelry or 3D recordings are collected. “

Byte stood quiet for a moment, thinking about what EagleRock has said. “So, we evolved to communism, where we share everything?”

“No, there is no “ism” anymore. After 700 years, a few world wars, and a heavy does of humbling by our Martian neighbors, we have directed technology to truly solve our problems – and not just by amusing us to avoid reality. For instance, there are no thieves anymore. Everyone gets what they need, from conception to death. Our children are taught at an early age the importance of living in harmony with the planet and each-other. We challenge ourselves to be the best that we can be – but the reward is not measured in pride, glory or dollars. It is measured in your own self-satisfaction that you have taken a step closer to reaching your full potential. People do perform tasks for society, but these tasks are part of what they like to do. The only jobs that potentially require work are those in the emergency medical, fire/rescue and state security – like us.”

“Sounds like utopia – but that’s an illusion. Where does it fall apart?”, asked a cynical Byte.

“For all that we do to keep people healthy and active, we don’t alter the mental construct or internal chemistry of the human mind. This means that there will be a small percentage of the population that either become visionaries or rebels. Visionaries are fine – they are generally non-violent folks who wander off in small groups to contemplate life beyond what they know. Some embrace more technology, others desire less. But they do society no harm by examining philosophies and questioning what will be next.”

“But the rebels…”, added Byte, waiting for an answer.

“These are the people who not only feel that technology has taken over too much of our lives, but want to reverse our society to pre-war status. Sometimes they will picket and argue – and sometimes they use violence. They can become martyrs or mercenaries, and have been known to kill innocent people occasionally. But they only do that once…”

“Only once? “, queried Byte. “How do you stop them – shoot them on sight?”

“Well, actually – yes”, EagleRock grinned. “In this society, the rules are simple. There are no courts. There are no lawyers. Every public and semi-private place is monitored and recorded. If you are caught performing an act of violence to someone else, you are hit with a neural blocker wave. If that violence causes the death of another individual, your life is forfeited on the spot. “

“Oh, great. Just what the Civil Rights lawyers want to hear”, quipped Byte.

“There haven’t been any lawyers here since WW4. They all got killed off, and we figured it was a good idea not to start that mess up again.”

“But what if two people are just fooling around, mock fighting or have a momentary bout of anger that would pass?”

“That’s why the neural blocker is used first – everyone involved gets a ‘time out’ until the situation is evaluated. If any real damage is done, or if a death is involved, the perp is permanently put down, on the spot.”

“By whom?”, demanded Byte, “Who’s authority? Who’s the judge, jury and executioner? “

“In this society, everyone is. Every person has given their views, ideals and desires to the Main Core – the central repository for all knowledge in all society. The Main Core analyzes these views, and generates concepts for laws and punishment. Everyone gets to respond to these requests – you’d know them as a “bill” in congress. But there is no filibustering or stonewalling. Every voice is heard and weighed, and no action becomes a law unless at least 75% of society agrees to it. That’s why most people are happy – the laws of the land are their laws, enacted and executed by an incorruptible process not affected by greed and personal gain.”

“Are you telling me that EVERY person has a say in EVERY law?”

“Yes – and there aren’t as many as you’d think “, added EagleRock.

“And just how is it incorruptible?”, demanded Byte. “People always have their own personal agendas that affect they way they judge others.”

Just then, Mark rejoined the conversation. “But that’s the point - there are no people involved in the judicial system here”

Byte looked confused, and EagleRock smiled as Mark continued his explanation: “The personas of only the most level-headed and clear-minded intelligent people have been digitally recorded and used as a template for the active Neural-net Intelligent Synthetic Society – or NISS, as it’s known. Currently, there are 19 distinct personas that exist within the network, and when the need arises that a person be judged by the laws of the land, they will analyze the situation and make their ruling as evenly as possible.”

“You mean that a bunch of A / I programs judge humanity now?”, Byte asked, now visibly distressed. “What about a jury of your peers? What about facing your accuser and defending yourself?”

“Outdated concepts”, replied Mark. “Everyone is accountable for their actions, and everyone is aware of the laws of the land. If you break the law, you face punishment – why would that be negotiable? Why should two people who perform the same crime get two different punishments?”

“It sounds so cruel – so uncaring!”, replied Byte.

“We take our cues from Nature”, continued Mark. “No one really owns anything except personal keepsakes and family heirlooms. No one has to steal or kill for food, shelter, clothing or status. No one needs to take anything by force, as all is given. The only laws that we have are those of violations of a personal nature, such as personal injury or unwanted sexual contact, or even death. If you can’t respect the sanctity of other people’s bodies and minds, you can’t be part of society.”

“Well, what about drug laws, or gun laws, or motor vehicle laws?”, questioned Byte. “There are a lot more laws than personal laws to manage.”

“Not anymore”, answered Mark. “You have the right to ingest any drug you want, as long as you do not harm others in your choices. Same thing for weapons – and with the neural blockers, we don’t see any shooting sprees. As for motor vehicles – well, there aren’t any in this society. Haven’t been for centuries.”

“No cars? Oh, everyone uses buses and trains, right?”, blurted Byte

EagleRock smiled. “No, Byte, you don’t understand – there are NO vehicles AT ALL in this society. No need for them”

“So, people walk everywhere, right? What happened? Are you all part Amish?”

“No”, answered Mark. “We have static single-connection portals all through the city. These portals connect to other parts of the city, to the other cities in the land, or to the gateways to the reclaimed wild-lands. Our citizens can walk or ride bicycles to literally anywhere they want using the portal connections. We can also transport supplies the same way. The portals are active all day and night, so anyone can come and go whenever they choose. And they can do so without burning fossil fuels or negatively impacting the environment.”

Byte sat down for a moment to take it all in. “It sounds like Utopia. And I don’t trust anything that sounds too good to be true. I guess I’m too much of a cave-woman to really appreciate this society.”

EagleRock and Mark chuckled at Byte’s statement. “It took centuries to change our society and our views on life and laws. It may not be perfect, but it is much more civilized and balanced than any past society.”

“Don’t worry too much about it, Byte”, chimed EagleRock. “You won’t be living here – just visiting once in a while. But we’ve talked enough – go grab a shower, change into something comfy, and meet us at 20:00. That’s an order, soldier!”

Byte gave him a half-assed salute, and pushed them both out of the doorway. “This is getting too crazy – even for me”, she said out loud. “But a nice hot shower would be perfect now.”

As she finished her statement, part of the room changed into a separate room, which then transformed into a lovely walk-in bathroom, complete with full-room shower heads. A table lifted up from the center of the floor, filled with clean towels, a fresh robe, and a collection of soaps and shampoos. As the room steamed up, Byte stripped off the stink of the day and let the hot water and soap melt away her stress.

Fifteen minutes later, Byte had toweled off enough to slip into some clean, comfortable ETG fatigues, put her hair back up in a ponytail, and get ready for a decent dinner. As she walked out of her quarters, the room reverted back to a neutral color and design, ready for her next command.

“So, where is the Commander’s lounge, anyway?”, Byte asked out loud, hoping Geist would look up and answer her. Instead, a quiet, synthetic female voice spoke to her and said, “Please follow the marked blue path”. At her feet, she saw a blue line form on the floor. Carefully, she followed it down the hall and around a few corners – and found the lounge without incident.

EagleRock, Mark, Feuer and a few others had already gathered, and welcomed her warmly to the lounge. There was a decent assortment of food laid out in a simple buffet, and everyone was helping themselves to whatever they desired. “Don’t be shy”, commented Mark, handing Byte a plate. “Grab a plateful of food, and come sit and talk with us.”

Byte smiled, and helped herself to a little bit of everything. The smell of it all made her realize just how hungry she was, and she couldn’t wait to sit down and start to eat. She noticed that there was an open place setting at the main table, and EagleRock motioned to her to come and join them. The chair was comfortably padded, and it surprise her just a little to feel it shift slightly as she settled down into it.

Mark saw the look on her face, smiled, and spoke. “Nice thing about our furniture – it automatically senses your body shape, size and mass, and adjusts itself for maximum comfort and minimal stress and pressure.”

“And I thought someone in here was getting a little fresh”, she said with a sly smile.

She looked around the table, and saw some familiar faces – and others that looked familiar, but she didn’t really know. EagleRock was sitting next to her, on her left, and Mark was on her right. Following around from the right was Feuer, Geist and Lassuk, and then another commander, Cooper. “Familiar faces…somehow I know them”, she thought to herself.

EagleRock stood up, and in a most chivalric manner, cleared his throat and spoke. “While everyone else at the table knows my friend and comrade-at-arms ByteSlinger, I think she may be at a disadvantage of not really knowing all of you, so let me do some formal introductions. By the way, everyone here is directly related to someone you know from our time, Byte, as a great-great…etc grandson or granddaughter. Mark you’ve met; 2nd TC Feuer is from SlashFirestorm’s family; Sgt. Geist is a grand-daughter of Phantom, Commander Lassuk is from phantomlassuk’s stock, and Cooper – yes, you guessed it, is from Coop83’s clan.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you all, and it’s been an honor serving with all of your families”, Byte answered humbly. “I’m still a little out of sorts from all of this traveling, so I apologize if I’m a little overwhelmed. Maybe after a good night’s sleep I’ll be better company”.

“No, you’re doing just fine”, answered Lassuk with a broad smile. “But enough chatting – let’s dig in before it gets cold!”

Everyone murmured their agreement, and they all began to eat. Byte was starving, and everything was delicious, so she listened to the small talk as she cleaned her plate. The wine was good, too, and it helped her relax a little. “This is almost surreal”, she said to everyone at the table. “From my perspective, it’s only been a few months, but in that time, I’ve bounced around a half dozen dimensions, been to various futures and pasts, and even swapped bodies with an alternate ‘me’. I’ve done more in these past few months than most people do in a lifetime. I used to have everything all planned out, but right now, I’m not even sure what I’ll be doing tomorrow anymore.”

“I can answer that”, replied Cooper. “After a good night’s rest, you’ll begin your training as an Elite Temporal Guard Flow Corrections Officer, or ETG-FCO”

Byte looked puzzled, and EagleRock smiled “I was going to tell you earlier, but we were interrupted. It seems that the best course of action to clean up the messes you made in all of your travels is to teach you how to go back and fix them.”

“But what about me being arrested for all of those so-called temporal violations? That’s why I was dragged here in the first place!”, Byte asked.

“That’s still true, but the NISS consortium has calculated a very high probability that you’ll be able to be trained to go back and clean up after yourself, and if you do manage to undo the damage you’ve done, there won’t be any violations anymore.”

“But wouldn’t everyone know that already? If I went back and fixed it, it should already be fixed.”

“No, not yet. Everyone has choices, and if enough choices influence the outcome of an event, too many temporal paths are created; nothing becomes firm until an action is performed, and the quantum options collapse to the singularity line that you’re oh-so-used to perceiving”, chided Cooper.

“So, because I haven’t made up my mind yet, or did anything up to this point, you don’t know what corrected path the past will take. But once I start to act upon it, the outcomes become clearer”, Byte noted.

“Yes, something like that”, said EagleRock. “Besides, you won’t be doing it alone. I’m in the same boat you’re in, since many of the infractions were cause by a combination of my actions and yours.”

Byte sat back for a moment. Despite being tired and feeling content with a full belly of food, her mind was racing now.

“So, let me get this straight – tomorrow morning Eagle and I embark on this training regimen, and once we’ve got the hang of it, we’re going to bounce through time and space on specific missions to straighten out the tangled time-lines that we created, right?”

“So far, so good”, agreed Mark.

“But I have a few questions to ask. First, let’s make a broad assumption that Eagle and I manage to go through all of our missions and successfully execute them. Sooner or later, we will have cleaned up all that we can. What happens to us afterwords?”

“You will be placed back into your own time streams, reintegrated into that time point, and continue on going forward as nature intended it to be”, remarked Feuer

“Well, that sounds nice. But what if we make a mistake, and screw things up more than before. What happens then?”, she asked.

“You might have to make additional missions to clean things up”, spoke Cooper.” Or… you may become a casualty of temporal recovery…”

“What does that mean?”, Byte demanded

“It means that if the time line is better served for us to be abandoned at any point in any dimension, then we will be left there, as is. And it’s possible we’ll be left behind as corpses”, answered EagleRock.

“Great. We fail – we die. Nice.”

“And how is that different than any other mission you’ve ever accepted from Slash or me?”, ask EagleRock.

“It’s not different at all”, she answered,” It just means that I need to bring my A-Game out, because we’re now in the big-leagues. This is a whole new level of serious.”

“I’m glad you see it that way”, smiled Mark. “Fixing the time streams is very important. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have your life back, you’ll be with all of your friends and family, and nothing will ever feel too difficult to do ever again”

“Yeah, you’re right. So tomorrow, I get to learn the first chapter of ‘working a Portal Generator’. Those things are hard to control and hard to program. It could be months before I get the hang of it.”, she said sadly.

“No, not months – probably a week”, quipped Feuer. “You’re only going to need to learn one Portal Generator system – and you’ll always have it with you – and he tapped Byte’s left arm.”

She looked at Feuer, and at her arm, and her eyes went wide. “You’re gonna weld a Portal Gun onto my implant?”

“No”, he said calmly. “We’re going to upgrade your implant to be a Portal Generator – and we’ll be throwing in some other improvements as well.”

“We do what we must, because we can, for the good of all of us - except for the ones who are dead”, sang EagleRock, with a slightly evil smile.

End of Chapter 22


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Master of the Portal
Master of the Portal

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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 11:00 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

Through a Mirror Darkly

Chapter 23
“Unlearning and Undoing”
Originally posted on May 19th, 2010

[ETG Headquarters]
16 July 2710

The dim light in Byte’s bedroom was more than enough for her to change out of her uniform and into loose and comfortable pajamas. Between the wine, the heavy meal and all of the excitement of the past few days, the exhaustion finally caught up with her. Her body screamed for sleep, but her mind was racing – so many questions, so many loose ends. She laid down on the bed, and pulled up the soft sheets to her neck. “Oh, god, it feels so good to finally be in a comfortable bed”, she said out loud softly. “This will be some well-deserved shut-eye – I need this so much...”, and as she spoke, she yawned, and in a matter of moments, was fast asleep.

. . .

The room had changed when Byte opened her eyes again. The first thing she noticed is that she was no longer sleeping in a bed – she was sitting up in an old-fashioned wooden chair. Then she noticed that all the lights in the room were from hundreds of candles in various holders and wall sconces. She stood up slowly, a bit disoriented and still a little groggy. “Where am I?”, she asked, more confused than angry. “I know I didn’t sleep that long. Why did the room change on it’s own? And where is every body?” She glanced around the room, and noticed that one end continued on into an endless hall. She walked slowly into the hallway, looking around carefully. “This looks like an old castle right out of Medieval Times”, she commented. Along the hallway, on both sides, were countless tapestries. Some looked old and worn, while others looked almost new. Some stretched from ceiling to floor, and some were very short. Some had ragged edges, while others looked neat and tidy. Each one seemed to have a single person’s face at the top center, surrounded by other faces and images that somehow seem connected to each other.

Then Byte noticed that there were strands of thread that seemed to string from one tapestry to another. Some were thick, and some were thin; some look strong, and others look frayed and worn. These threads were woven into the very patterns of each tapestry, not just connecting them, but becoming part of them.

Byte continued her stroll down the hallway, and noticed that there were other hallways branching off in many directions. In fact, there seemed to be no end to them. She didn’t see any windows or any doors, just endless tapestries connected to countless others. Then in a moment of clarity, Byte realized that there was the subtle sound of machinery and conversation floating around in the air. Listening carefully, she started to head toward the source of the sound. She walked on and on, stopping at intersections to get her bearings. The sounds eventually grew louder, and then around the next turn, Byte stepped out of the hallway and into a large room.

Three women in flowing white gowns were in deep debate, speaking in what sounded like ancient Greek. They all had their backs to Byte, and the sound of the giant loom clanking in the room almost was enough to drown out their conversations. While they argued, one woman was filling up spools of thread from a spinning wheel – yet there was no flax or cotton on the floor! As the wheel spun, the thread seemed to materialize from the air itself, and then be collected quite easily on the spools. The second woman was directing the weaving machine, making patterns and shapes as the thread became a tapestry in itself. The last woman watched all of the work come together, and then with a learned eye, cut the thread. The final tapestry was removed from the loom, and a new one was started. The just-finished tapestry floated up by itself and then zoomed down a nearby corridor, finding an empty spot on the wall. It reminded Byte of a scene from a Harry Potter movie.

Just then, the Greek conversation stopped suddenly, and the three woman slowly turned around to face Byte. They spoke in Greek, but Byte seemed to understand them:

“She is here”, announced the first woman with a sneer. “the one who would try to undo what we have done.”

“Clotho, don’t judge her yet”, added Atropos, ”she cannot help that she has been misled by so many.”

“Nor does she realize that what she has done has already been woven into the tapestry of the Universe”, commented Lachesis.

Byte stood in awed silence as she watched the scene unfold. Then, in a flash of insight, it finally came to her. “Clotho? Lachesis? Atropos?...You’re the Three Fates!”, she said to the trio.

“Well, at least she knows who we are”, quipped Atropos, ”but does she know why she’s here?”

“Here?”, answered Byte, “This is nothing more than a dream. I’ve had more than my share of reality-hopping in the past few weeks, and this is nothing more than my overworked subconscious trying to make sense of it all!”

“You sound like Scrooge as he’s trying to explain away Marley’s ghost!”, retorted Clotho. “This is not a dream, my dearie.”

“Oh, so now you expect me to believe that I’m in some dimension where the Greek deities of Fate exist, mapping out every person’s life from birth to death? Come on, don’t insult me.”, Byte grumbled, “This is nothing more than a dream, and if I try hard enough, it’ll all fade away, and I can get back to my shuteye in peace!”

Lachesis looked at Byte, then reached out slowly and took her hand. “My child, do you really think that you are sleeping in a comfortable bed in some long-found future? That this is all your imagination? You’ve been through many places that exist solely because the thoughts of those who reside there make them exist. Or sometimes, your thoughts open a doorway to those places you can’t reach just by walking. This is one of those places.”

Byte felt the warmth of Lachesis’ hand in hers, the steady pulse of the older woman thrumming like a clock. She looked into Lachesis’ face, and realized that the world wasn’t foggy anymore. Everything seemed clear and crisp – even her thoughts. She didn’t feel tired, either. In fact, she felt energized and now fully awake – and very confused.

Byte shook her head. “I just don’t get it. This does feel real, but how real is it? If I take this as real, then I have to accept that everyone’s life is preordained from birth, and that everything that will happen to us has been written in a book – or already woven into the tapestry of Life. “

Atropos nodded in agreement. “Yes, that is the way it is – and we are the weavers of destiny. From paupers to kings, peasants to billionaires, we write their lives in the very fabric of Life.”

“NO!!!!!!”, screamed Byte, pulling away from Lachesis and taking a few steps back. “I refuse to believe that we do not have free will. That all outcomes have been planned, no matter what we do. Who gave you the right to treat humanity like puppets - if in fact you can do what you say?”

“Zeus, the God of all Gods, gave us the task to manage the Mortal realms”, answered Clotho, ”A very long time ago, you did have free will. But you almost destroyed the worlds in which you lived. Zeus took pity on you, but realized that you are all true children, and need to be guided from birth to death. That is what we do; we plan out each life, but in such a way that you think that free will exists. We plan out fairness and inequity, wealth and poverty, success and failure. But what we plan is what you follow, because that is part of your Soul.”

“Oh, so you knew that I’d be bouncing through different times and dimensions, and eventually end up here…right!”, Byte sneered. “You’re just saying that to sound convincing. I don’t believe you!!”

“Follow me, child”, Atropos said quietly, and headed down a corridor. Byte shrugged, and followed Atropos as she walked. Byte didn’t say a word as they proceeded through the galleries of tapestry, but sometimes a face here or an image there looked familiar.

“Over here”, said Atropos, and pointed at a long tapestry. Byte walked over to look at it. It was a little different than the others. The edges were very frayed, and many of the images were incomplete. There were literally hundreds of loose threads spreading from the tapestry, across the walls, and attached to countless others, She turned her gaze upward to look at the figure depicted at the top of the broadcloth…

…and saw herself looking back. Her image was that of a young woman, dressed in what appeared to be old leather armor. In her right hand she held a sword, but the blade looked worn, and had either rust or dried blood along the edges. The left side of her face and body were in a shadow and not as clear as the rest of the picture. In her left hand, if you looked hard enough, was a wand – like a magician’s wand, but older.

There were images and text randomly scattered on her tapestry – but they all seemed to flow from one to the other. Looking closer, she thought she could make out the face of her late husband, or the house where they first lived. Other pictures clearly portrayed her companions in the EGB, and even some of the events that had taken place recently. Many of the pictures had long threads pulled from them, and they led off her tapestry to others near and far.

Byte stared for a long time, and then smiled and shook her head. “Nice try, ladies. But I’m not buying it. Everything I see here is all based on what I’ve already experienced. The fact that my mind is portraying it as Fate is my subconscious desire to allay my guilt over some of my decisions. If it was meant to be, then it can’t be my fault. Simple psychiatry – blame Fate, and avoid all responsibility.”

“Since you put it that way, you’re on the right track”, added Lachesis, who had followed quietly behind them as they walked.

“NO! This is all a lie!”, blurted Byte, “Because if I were to believe you, I’d have to admit that praying is useless, that free will is an illusion, and no matter what I think I choose to do, it’s already been planned for me – even if that plan includes the illusion of alternate realities and bouncing through time. That religion is completely artificial, and that if there is a Heaven or Hell, it’s out of my hands where I wind up! What kind of God would not only take away free will, but then make it a cruel joke by letting us think we have our freedom?”

“Why does one keep an untrained dog on a long rope in the yard?”, asked Clotho. “ To give it enough freedom to wander within bounds, but then stop it from jumping over the fence, wandering off and getting hurt. If the rope is too short, the dog strains to reach the fence and mark his borders. He is unhappy, and knows he is limited. But if it’s too long, the dog can escape or get hurt just outside the border – and then one blames his master for not keeping him safe.”

“So we are all nothing more than pets to our God?”, snapped Byte, eyes blazing.

“Well, humanity IS one of Zeus’ favorite creations”, commented Lachesis,” He does try to keep things simple while tending to his favorite race – and he certainly doesn’t want them wiping themselves out again”.

Byte stood quiet for a while, first angry – and then incredulous. “So all of my time traveling is for nothing! I can’t fix the past and I can’t change what went wrong. The Elite Temporal Guard is a sham as well. They are nothing more than a bunch of disillusioned technocrats who think they can fix all the ills of the world one portal jump at a time!”

All three women smiled and chuckled as if Byte had told a humorous anecdote rather than going off on a tirade.

“You silly thing! You’ve got it all wrong!”, offered Atropos, “Mistakes have been made, and you’ve made some of them. You will have to go back and make it right, and you’ll have some company along the way. Time travel, dimensional folding, the Portal Wars – all of this has been woven in your tapestry, and then some. Do you think Fate only works within four dimensions and a linear time stream? No, we don’t – and neither will you. All that you need to do with the ETC will be done – it’s all been woven into your Life. All of the mistakes, and all of the corrections, already written – but not foretold. “

“But how will I know what to do? I’ll always be second-guessing myself! And if I agree that free will is an illusion, then why bother doing anything?”

“Because right now, against all odds, you want to prove us wrong. That human free will can change the tapestry of life, and you will live the life you choose – and not the one chosen for you”, finished Clotho.

“Okay, I’ve had enough!”, Byte ranted. “You’ve proven nothing, and all you’ve done is regurgitate your religion’s dogma at me. You have an answer for everything, yet it wasn’t an answer at all. I just want to get back to sleep and get my rest. This hallucination has gone on for too long!”

The three woman looked at each other in quiet contemplation for a few moments, and then Atropos spoke. “Very well. We will return you, as you wish. But let me warn you now: soon, you will have two lives in your hands – yours and a close friend’s. One must die so the other can live. It will be your choice – choose wisely…”

Then the room began to fade to black as her last words echoed in Byte’s head. She felt like she was falling a little, but shortly, she felt that soft bed underneath her body. With a yawn and a sigh, Byte drifted back off into a deep slumber.

. . .

ETG Headquarters
17-July 2710

Byte woke up to the same soft bed and fluffy pillows she went to sleep with last evening. “Yeah, it was all just a dream. Silly Greek mythos!”, she said aloud to the empty room.

“Do you wish to research Greek Mythos?”, the computer voice in the room asked.

The sudden voice startled Byte and made her sit up fast.

“I am sorry. I did not mean to surprise you”, apologized the computer.

Byte let out a little chuckle. “That’s okay. And, no, I do not wish to do any research at this time.”

“Very well”, answered the computer.

Byte stood up and stretched. Other than a vague memory of a distant dream about some old ladies, she had a good night’s sleep, and felt much better than she had in a long time. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something lurking in the background – something important… and very dangerous.

After a hot shower and a change into clean fatigues, Byte readied herself for her busy day. For some reason, her left arm was irritated at the implant interface, and her eye implant required a few restarts before it finally activated into full focus. While annoying, this had happened a few times before – and usually after a hot shower that opened up her pores and relaxed all of her muscles. It would clear itself up in a little while; it was the price she paid to be complete.


Byte left her quarters and walked out into the main hallway. No one was there, so she headed toward the front desk. There should be a duty guard at that post at all times. Byte rounded the corner…and saw the desk unoccupied. She instinctively reached for side-arm, only to remember that she wasn’t carrying one here. Nervously, she did a full circle sweep of the room. Other than being empty, there was nothing out of place. No signs of struggle or panic, no computer voice counting down to self-destruction or evacuation. All of the video screens were at the idle, showing a semi-animated ETG logo and the current time and date.

“Computer, where is the duty officer that should be at this post now?”, Byte asked with authority.

“Captain Michellen’s whereabouts are unknown at this time”, answered the computer flatly.

“Unknown?”, Byte asked, amazed at the computer’s response. “What about their CO? Or Commanders Stone or EagleRock?”

After what seemed like a very long pause for a simple question, the computer replied: “The locations of Brigadier Commander Senti and Commander Stone are unknown; However, Supreme Commander EagleRock is still sleeping in his quarters.”

“Please show me how to get to EagleRock’s quarters”, Byte asked. She was feeling more and more uneasy with each passing second. A moment later, a blue path lit up in the floor under her feet, guiding the way. Byte followed the path, looking in every room she passed along the way. But every room was empty. “This is too freaky. No one in the Mess hall; nor in the Officer’s Lounge or work-out room; it looked deserted.

“Computer, besides EagleRock and myself, how many other people are currently in this facility?”

After a very long pause as every floor was scanned, the computer’s answer gave Byte chills: “There are no other people in this complex at this moment.”

“What?!?”, exclaimed Byte. “Where did they all go? Was there an emergency? Why wasn’t I woken up?”

“There was no emergency”, the computer replied emotionlessly. “There was no need to wake you up.”

“So, again I ask - where is everyone?!?”

Another long pause, but before the computer answered, there was a sudden power drop and everything turned grey for a moment. A strange wave passed through Byte, and everything seemed to shimmer. Then, as quickly as the power dropped, it came back again, as if nothing happened at all.

“What the hell was that?!?”, screamed Byte, as a feeling of nausea began to overwhelm her. She leaned against the nearest wall, trying hard not to throw up.

There was a burst of static from the wall speakers, and then the computer responded. “Class 4 temporal anomaly has been detected. Backup database has been reactivated. Converging nexus points and stabilizing internal systems. Current roster being re-evaluated, please wait….”

Byte made a puzzled face, not quite sure of what she just heard. After a few seconds, the computer continued: “Roster recalculated. Condition Moebius now in effect. Active roster count: two members found.”

“Two? There were hundreds of members here last night! What happened to them?”

“Temporal anomaly has altered this time frame. Those members no longer exist.”

“Then why am I still here, and how come this building is still standing? If there’s no ETG, why is this place unaffected?”, asked Byte, still feeling sick.

“This building, and all of the artificial intelligence that maintains it, is designed to monitor all temporal fluctuations. In the event that substantial fluctuations are detected, multiple redundant backup copies stored in static dimensions are used to restore all functionality to all systems and all portals”, recited the computer.

”To what end?”, queried Byte, “Why keep this place intact if no one is here to use it? It sounds like a lot of trouble for nothing.”

“It is part of the Temporal Prime Directive. This complex must always exist in this time line, acting as a beacon should any temporal Guards become misplaced in time, or cause a temporal paradox. Additionally, the events of the unaltered time line are compared to the current time frame, and key jump points and modification incursions will be calculated in order to restore the time line to its proper state. By keeping this complex intact, all ETG travelers may use their universal homing device to return them here, no matter where – or when – they may be.”

Byte sat down on the floor, her knees suddenly weak underneath her. She was trying to get a handle on what the computer told her, and at the same time, not pass out from the weird feelings twisting her inside. The one remaining question crossed her mind, and she asked it out loud:

“Then why am I still here?”

“That should be obvious. Your presence here is the reason why the time line has been altered. You will be sent on a mission into the past to alter the time line, but something will go wrong. You will eradicate the need or existence of the Elite Temporal Guards. When you return here after your failure, you must find another way to correct your error. As of this moment, you have not yet corrected that error.”

“Wait…”, Byte interrupted. “You mean that the reason why everyone is gone is because of something I haven’t done yet?”

“That is correct”, responded the computer. “You must continue on with your planned missions, knowing that at one point, they will fail; and then you must return here and find a way to not only complete your mission, but restore the time-line as well. That is your destiny and your fate.”

“Destiny? Fate? From a computer?”, thought Byte, “I think these time glitches screwed up some code in the mainframe…”

Byte stood up slowly, and then focused on the blue path that lead to EagleRock’s quarters. With a new-found headache throbbing like a Neil Peart drum solo, she managed to stagger along the corridors until she found the end of the blue path at EagleRock’s door. She banged on it a few times, until it slid open, revealing a none-too-happy Supreme Commander wiping the sleep from his eyes. He blinked a few times, and then stared at Byte with a very puzzled look.

“Eagle, we have a situation here. Things have gotten real weird while we were sleeping”, Byte announced.

“Umm, …I’d say I have to agree with that...”, answered EagleRock.

“Why? I haven’t told you anything yet”, she replied.

“You didn’t have to – I see it in your face – literally”, he retorted.

“What do you mean?”

“Take a look”, he said, and pointed to the mirror inside his quarters. He stepped aside and let her in.

Byte looked in the mirror, and her eyes went wide. Then she looked down at her hands.

There was no trace of any implants on her body. Two green eyes looked back from an unmarred face, and her left hand was just as feminine as her right. But what really made them both speechless was the round bulge she now carried around her waist. As she stared at it, she felt a strange stirring inside her…

…the baby was kicking.

End of Chapter 23


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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 11:00 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

Through a Mirror Darkly

Chapter 24

“Fate Denied”
Originally posted on May 30th, 2010

Groton, Connecticut
16-May-1997 17:45

John just finished a long day at work, and was looking forward to getting home and having a quiet weekend with his wife. They had just moved in, after four years of saving up to make the down payment. It was a nice little house in the suburbs, white clapboard with black trim, and every window adorned with a flower box full of pretty marigolds and pansies. It was a dream come true, and today would make it even better. He had great news to share – he was promoted to District Manager today, which came with a healthy raise, a company car, better hours and less traveling. It was exactly the break they needed – and now they could afford to start on expanding their family, one kid at a time.

When he got to his car, he just had to sigh and shrug. “Damn. A flat! Must have picked up a nail or something.” After a quick call to his wife to let her know he’d be a little late, he changed the tire and put the defective one back into the trunk. As he placed it down, he realized something – the valve stem was no longer in the rim. “Probably got torn up on that last pothole. At least it won’t be expensive to fix.”

Finished with his repair, he jumped in his car, and headed home – paying no attention to the woman peeking from behind the building across the alley. As she turned away, for a moment you could see the implant over her left eye flashing in the sun, and her red ponytail twirling behind her head. Then a circle of pulsating white and blue energy appeared in front of her, and in her shadow, you could see a glint of light reflect off the metal that was her left hand . She walked hurriedly into the light, and soundlessly, the light collapsed on itself and disappeared, as if she were never there.

John drove for a mile, and then wound up stuck in an unusual traffic jam. He could see many flashing red and blue lights ahead, and realized there must have been an accident. The police were redirecting the traffic down the side road just before the accident, so everyone was slowing down to take a peek as they turned down their detour. He called his wife once more, and she was so glad to hear from him. She heard about the fatal accident on the news a few minutes ago, and the police had not released any details other than a drunk driver had blown through an intersection and T-boned some poor soul who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. “No, honey, I’m fine”, he said, “just a little impatient waiting in this traffic. I’ll be home as soon as I can… Love you, too!”

As he made his way down the street to the intersection, he could see the two cars that had tried to occupy the same space at the same time, in defiance of a few dozen laws of physics. One was an old, brown Buick – a tank of a car, nose and passenger side crumpled, driver side door torn open – and beer cans on the floorboards. Some of the cans were on the lawn as well. It was obvious that this was the drunk’s car.

Then his heart sank as he looked at the other vehicle. It was a familiar lime-green Volkswagen, but it was bent horribly out of shape. You could still see the blood on the door and the front seat. As he drove by, he saw the license plate : “Jennie-1”. “Oh, no, not Jennie…”, John sobbed. Jennie worked in his office, and she had just accepted an engagement ring from a great guy she met at college in New Jersey. He was a computer professional, and probably was one of the nicest guys you could ever know. He couldn’t remember his name, but he knew that there would a phone call to him later that would change the poor bastard’s life forever. He made another call to his wife as the traffic cleared up, and filled her in on the details. She didn’t know Jennie very well, but she knew her death really bothered John.

It felt like an eternity, but John finally made it home without further incident. As he walked up to the house, the front door opened, and a young woman with long auburn hair and shining green eyes stepped out to greet him. After a long hug and a comforting kiss, John looked at his wife with deep appreciation in his face, and said “Come on inside, Byte – I have some really good news for you.”

“I sure could use some of that right now”, she said, thinking of the bad news of the day

He reached into his suit jacket pocket, and handed the promotion letter to his wife. As she read it, her face lit up and she began to smile. “Do you know what this means?”, she asked

“Oh, yes I do”, as he took her hand, led her back into the house and closed the front door. “Let’s go practice making some babies!”

* * *

ETG Headquarters
17-July 2710 09:20

ByteSlinger and EagleRock stood in the awkward silence of the now-empty building. Byte rubbed her temples – she had a pounding headache, and she couldn’t seem to focus on anything. EagleRock also felt a little dizzy, but not as bad as Byte did.

“Computer, chairs please!”, he commanded, and two simple desk chairs formed up from the ground. Byte sat down in one, while EagleRock just leaned on the other.

“What the hell just happened?”, he asked out loud, not sure who he wanted to hear the answer from.

Byte looked up, glassy eyed, and softly answered him, “I’m not sure. But something is wrong with me. It’s like I have two sets of memories from the past – the one that got me here, and other one that is mine – but isn’t. Oh, and yeah – I seem to have a bun in the oven. Neat trick, since up to a few minutes ago, I had no ovaries or uterus.”

“Computer, can you explain what happened?”, demanded EagleRock.

“Just a moment…”, it replied. “Yes, I can give you a general summary or full details. Which would you prefer?”

“Start with the summary – I’ll stop you if I want more details”, he answered.

“All systems are currently attempting to prevent a temporal paradox from destroying this location”, the machine said flatly. “The nexus of this paradox is Supreme Commander Byteslinger, who not only created the temporal rift, but wound up sending a past version of herself back to this location. This past version had to be integrated into the version we are maintaining here. All of these cumulative issues are causing a backlash in anti-time that will eventually cause this location – and all the remaining inhabitants – to no longer exist.”

“When did she go back to the past?”, asked EagleRock. “We haven’t left for the first mission yet.”

“Had the time line not been affected by that mission, she would be leaving at 11:00 hours. Her destination is / will be the Gamma Variant 5.322E2883 dimension, local date and time of 2-September 2009, 09:45. The mission is to stop the initial infiltration of that dimension into your home dimension by destroying the portal project in that alternate dimension. By eliminating the portal before it can be used to kidnap the command staff, that will prevent the chain of events that unravel and cross-connect so many time streams. In the event that this mission fails, the alternate mission is to recover the kidnapped command staff and return them to their rightful time and place before the portal pulls ByteSlinger into the first of many dimensional jumps, and then destroy the portal in the home dimension.”

“Looks like both missions failed miserably”, commented Byte, struggling hard to pay attention as memories fought each other in her mind.

“On the contrary”, replied the computer, “your first mission was a success. It was your unauthorized jumps after that mission that creates this paradox.”

* * *

Groton, Connecticut
24-Mar-1998 02:33

In the dark and quiet basement of a little white house with black trim, a glowing disk of white and blue energy appeared. It stretched to about 2 meters in diameter, and then from within it, a female figure stepped through. With her implant in her left eye socket, she scanned the basement for any animals or debris, but only found a chair sitting next to a dusty table. The glowing sphere shrunk in size and then disappeared without a noise.

She checked the ETG Temporal PDA, and confirmed that today her younger self was now about four months pregnant. But what she didn’t know was that within a year, she would contract uterine cancer. Treated early, she’d be able to stop it and still bear more children. Byte wanted to make sure that the pregnancy was well established before she let her younger self hear the good and bad news.

Her plan today was simple: leave a note and enough information for her past self to convince her to get an early checkup. The problem was where and how to leave it. She didn’t want to confront her personally, so this was going to be tricky. But she wasn’t too worried. Her first mission to the Gamma dimension went well – she managed to destroy the portal and the lab by jumping into the energy reactor room, hacking into the security system to disable the alarms – and lock every door in the building. Once that was done, she set up an overload in the reactor, and then jumped out to the safe zone out of harms way. The reactor overloaded and exploded as any nuclear plant would when all the safety mechanisms have been shut off. It left a scorching hole in the ground half a mile in diameter, obliterating all life in its path. They wouldn’t be invading any other dimensions any time soon.

It was back there in the safe zone that Byte first checked the scanner, and it very cheerfully reported that the time stream had been corrected to within 1.5% of standard. “Not bad at all”, she thought. “This should make everyone happy.” Then a thought crossed her mind, from somewhere deep in the shadows of her fears and desires. “Everyone … but me. I’ll just be going back to my life in the EGB, putting on my clown act as I constantly try to live with all of my own losses and failures. I’ve fixed the big mistakes for the EGB – but what about for me?”

After a few minutes of contemplation, Byte figured out that the single event that started her life on the path she chose now was the death of her husband. A simple ride home from work turned to his last day alive as a drunk driver plowed into him a mile from his office. “If he was just a few minutes ahead – or behind – that drunk, he’d still be alive today”, she thought."It’s not always easy to make people go faster, but there’s always a way to slow them down."

She found the temporal coordinates for that day, and jumped there, behind the empty warehouse across the alley. Her mission: give him a flat tire just before he left. Changing that tire would slow him down enough to avoid the accident – and he’d be alive today! It was simple, and it worked like a charm. She went back, pulled the valve stem out of a tire, and then jumped back to the safe zone. The PDA reported that the time stream had been altered again, and that John did not die that day, or any other day in the few decades that followed. In fact, shortly afterwards the PDA reported that Byte would become pregnant and bear a son within the year. But she would also develop cancer, and catch it too late. She would have only one child.

“Nope. I can warn her about that, too!”, and that’s when she decided that a second jump to save herself was in order. Which was the reason why she was now standing in the murky gloom of her basement past.

There was nothing in the basement to write with or write on. It was pretty much just an over-sized storage area, full of boxes of memories and junk and promises to be fulfilled. She’d have to go upstairs and wing it. Her night vision in her implant let her easily find the basement stairs, and very quietly, headed up to the main floor. The basement door would open up into the small hallway opposite the bathroom and her bedroom, so she’d have to be careful in case any doors were open – or if someone was up having a midnight snack.

As Byte carefully opened the door into the hallway, she suddenly became dizzy as a wave of energy passed through her. The PDA was displaying a warning message, and the auto-return on her personal portal device had just started a countdown. Through her dizziness, she could read the big orange letters flashing their bad news: “Temporal Paradox Wave detected – return to home base immediately.”

Somehow, the simple act of delaying her husband in her last jump created a paradox, and now she was feeling the effects. It was getting harder to concentrate as each second passed, and as she stepped through the threshold, she lost her balance and fell into the hallway. Her metallic arm hit the wood floor and it sounded like someone dropped a bowling ball out of the closet. Although John was a heavy sleeper, she remembered how lightly she always slept.

Sure enough, that noise was enough to wake up her younger self, and a few moments later Byte looked up to see the surprised face of her former self staring down at her in shock. “Who… who the Hell are you, and what are you doing in my house?”, the younger Byte asked. Then her eyes went wide as the young Byte stepped back and stammered: “You…you’re me! And from the looks of things, you’re from the future. What are you doing here?”, young Byte repeated her question once more.

“So much for the subtle approach”, the elder Byte murmured, as she turned around and sat cross-legged on the hallway floor. Her legs were rubbery and her vision was fading in and out, making it difficult to concentrate. She looked up, and saw the bewildered look on her younger self, anticipating her response.

“I came here to tell you about your – our – future. I was just going to leave you a note and move on, but something is going wrong. I did come from the future to go back in the past and clean up a few mistakes. Had this nifty tool to help me”, and she held up the ETG PDA with the personal portal generator. “This thing lets you locate exact points in space-time, and then create a mini wormhole to get there. You can also check to see if your actions affected the time stream.”

The younger Byte, who was an avid sci-fi fanatic, was thrilled to hear this news. “Time travel! I knew it was possible! And you came back here to fix a mistake – just like I would do, if I had the chance. So, what did you have to fix?”

The elder Byte shook her head and replied, “I’m not sure you want to know.”

“Please, tell me!”, she begged. “Because whatever you did, it’s making you fade in and out! Something is really fouled.”

“Okay, since I know you won’t stop bugging me until I tell you, I’ll let you know. Remember about ten months ago, when John came home late because of that accident – and he told you about his promotion?”

“Oh, yes! It was one of the best days of my life!”, the younger Byte beamed. “We could finally be ahead of our bills and start a family – see!”, and she pointed to her swollen belly.

“He made it home because I gave him a flat tire”, the elder Byte responded. “That’s how I changed the past. If I didn’t stall him, he would have been the drunk’s victim – dead on the spot. You would have gotten a call from the police to come down and ID his body. It would be the worse day of your life.”

The younger Byte looked solemn for a moment. “I remember I had a bad feeling during that day, but I couldn’t figure out why. Yet when John made it home safe and sound, I just shrugged it off as unimportant. So, what you’re telling me is that I go on with my life alone and… what branch of the arm forces did I join?”

“You moved to the mega-city of NewGrounds, and joined the Elite Guard, the sworn protectors of the city. They keep the peace and eliminate those who would seek to harm the citizens. You never remarry, and you never have children, because a few years after John’s death, you are told you have uterine cancer. To keep your life, you wind up with a hysterectomy. You spend a lot of time bitter and angry at life, and push away most of your friends and family. Eventually, you make friends with some of the EGB, and settle in as a lifer.”

“Oh…So you came back today to warn me of the cancer, right? But something doesn’t make sense…”

“Really? What’s that?”, asked the elder Byte, holding her head and watching her body start to shift in and out.

“If you came back here to give us our life back by preventing John’s death, wouldn’t that mean I would live a “normal” life – and NEVER join the EGB. And if I don’t join the EGB, how did I come back to warn myself? You’ve unraveled our future, changing it completely. You – the future of me – can’t be here. That future no longer happens – and that’s why you’re fading. Remember “Back to the Future?” all the kids in the photos started to fade away because the time stream was altered!”

“But if I fade out…no longer exist…”, labored Byte, “then I can’t fix the other problems I have to correct. Too many things will be undone.”

“Who cares?”, asked the younger Byte. “I’m happy now. I have a great husband, a nice house, my bills are under control – and we have a baby on the way. And now that I know about the uterine cancer, I can handle that early. Life is good! Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t want the future you represent. I don’t want to be alone and angry – and a mechanical freak! You’re not taking this life away from me – I won’t let you! You did what you wanted to – you fixed our past. How many others ever get that chance?”

“But I’m dying – disappearing…too many loose ends left”, she struggled, “It sounded like a good idea at the time…”, and her voice faded off. She started to mumble, and the younger Byte had to move closer to hear what she was saying.

The elder Byte looked up, sadness in her face, a tear running out of her right eye. “Forgive me…”, she said, and activated the auto-return on the PDA. It started to count down from 5 seconds, and before the younger Byte could figure out what was going on, the elder Byte pushed her back – and tossed the PDA at her. She instinctively reached for it, and as she grabbed it, the portal opened, and she fell into it. The younger Byte and the ETG PDA disappeared – next stop, 2710.

The flash of light and the noise disturbed John, and as he jumped out of bed and looked out to the hallway, he watched in amazement as the elder Byte disappeared into nothingness…

* * *

ETG Headquarters
17-July 2710

The younger Byte reappeared in the Temporal Buffer Recovery area – a small room with a simple bench, table and a few cameras. All time travelers returned here first so that the Temporal Management Program could determine the impact of their mission, and make any corrections and adjustments. In some cases, these adjustments could be a bit extreme.

Byte looked around, confused and angry – but aware that she was now in the future.

“Okay, why am I here?”, she yelled. “How do I get back home? I demand some answers NOW!”

“No need to yell”, answered the computer. “I am analyzing the effects of this mission, please wait…”

“Who are you?”, she asked

The computer ignored her request, and after a moment spat out the bad news. “Supreme Commander ByteSlinger has violated the precepts of the Temporal Prime Directive by interfering with her own past in an attempt to make it more acceptable for her own personal desires. The unauthorized contamination of the time streams have created a series of temporal paradoxes that will affect the very existence of this organization. It has already caused the alteration of her own future, and some of the missions she had to complete. Only viable solution is to integrate both instances of ByteSlinger into a single being and then recalculate the repair parameters.”

“Integrate both instances? What the hell does that mean?”, she demanded

“At this point in the time stream, SC ByteSlinger exists in two bodies – her current form, and her past form, namely you. Both instances will be merged into a composite body and mind, in order to retain all memories and life functions.”

“But, the future me is a freak! I don’t want to be half machine! And what about my baby?”, she screamed.

“Solution set calculated. Due to your pregnancy and the underlying rules that prohibit me from injuring an innocent life, your existing body will be untouched. However, your mind and memories will be merged with your older form. This may cause some minor disorientation for a while, but that will pass. “

“So, I keep this body – but get a bunch of memories that aren’t mine? No thanks, I’ll pass. Now, let me talk to your supervisor.”

The computer ignored her again, and said flatly, “Prepare for integration in 5…4…3…2…1…via con Dios!” Byte let out a stifled scream as the energy in the room changed, and she felt like she was falling in all directions at once.

“You bastards!”, she yelled, and the room went black.

The next thing she knew, she was standing in a white hallway, her head throbbing. She had to find EagleRock “Who was that? “, she thought. “He’s my friend and my Commander. How do I know that? You’ve always known that! It’s like there’s two of me in here! There is – but there isn’t. Give it time, it will all make sense…”

She eventually found EagleRock…and the computer filled in some of the blanks.

* * *
ETG Headquarters
17-July 2710 09:22

EagleRock didn’t know what to make of this. He was speaking to a younger – and very pregnant – version of ByteSlinger, who was sent to the future by the Byte he knew – but because of the temporal paradox she created, along with some magic from the ETG A.I., this version of Byte had all of the other Byte’s memories. Two Bytes in one person and a bigger mess to clean up. He looked over at Byte, who seemed to be a little more stable now.

“How are you feeling?”, he asked.

“Physically, a little better”, she answered. “Mentally – well, I’m going to need some serious therapy”.

There was a few moments of awkward silence, and then the computer interrupted their chat:

“Sorry to intrude, but we still need to address the temporal paradox that SC ByteSlinger created. This is a massive paradox threatening the very existence of the ETG. If it is not corrected with two local hours, the effects will be permanent and irreversible. A new mission plan is being calculated and downloaded to SC EagleRock’s PDA. He will take point on the next mission. Under no circumstances is SC ByteSlinger permitted to perform any more temporal missions until further notice”.

“So, I have to clean it all up now”, sighed EagleRock as he read the mission briefing. Byte watched as his face darkened and his expression turned grim.

“What is it?”, Byte asked “What did you read that’s so bad?”

EagleRock turned his face down, away from Byte, and shook his head. Then he softly spoke: “The mission is to correct the time stream that you had fixed and then made worse with your personal jumps. I have to undo what you did…”, and his voice trailed off, letting her draw her own conclusions.

Byte sat for a moment, thinking of what EagleRock said. Then her face turned red, and she stood up, full of anger. “If you undo what I did, that means my husband will die, and this baby – MY BABY – will never be conceived! No! I will NOT let you take them away from me again!”

EagleRock looked back up at her, his face saddened but firm. “I have no choice. If we don’t undo what you did, the EGB will not be as strong as it should be, and it will not be able to stop the invasion from the alternate universe. You will not be in the EGB – and neither will I. Our absence from the EGB will weaken it at a key point after the Portal Wars, and NewGrounds will fall.

Byte was going to continue her tirade, but then a question came to mind. “Why wouldn’t you be in the EGB? I didn’t know you back then – you didn’t even live near me!”

EagleRock looked at Byte, face to face and eye to eye, and said “When you went back and delayed your husband, a different person became the drunk’s victim.”

“Yes, it was unfortunate – some young lady named Jennie was killed. She worked with John”, Byte acknowledged. “So what does that mean to you?”

EagleRock took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “Jennie was to eventually be my wife. Because she died that day, I never married her, never relocated to NewGrounds, and never joined the EGB. Your mission to save your husband not only doomed NewGrounds, it undid my life as well!”

End of Chapter 24


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Post Thu Jun 17, 2010 11:01 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

Through A Mirror Darkly

Chapter 25

“You Can’t Run Away Forever”
Originally posted on June 15th, 2010

Groton, Connecticut
16-May-1997 17:40

Behind a closed-down warehouse in the middle of a quiet commercial complex, a sparking globe of light appeared, floating about four feet off the ground. From within the light, a black sphere formed and expanded, until it was about six feet in diameter. Despite all of the apparent light and electric energy, it was eerily quiet.

But what was more compelling was the figure that stepped out of the center of the black sphere. Dressed in urban camouflage, an obviously female soldier stepped out casually, as if getting off a bus. In her right hand she held out what looked like a cross between an oversized PDA and a hand-held walkie talkie. But it wasn’t what she held in her left hand that made the scene odd – it was her left hand itself. Peeking out from beneath the sleeve was a silvery metallic robotic hand, fully functional, and then some.

It was a good thing no one was there to see her face when she looked up to scan the area. If they thought her left hand was strange, the glowing optical implant that replaced her left eye would have really drawn stares. She carried no obvious side-arms, and seemed to be looking for something while studying the PDA.

After a minute, to no one in particular, she murmured “Ah-hah! That direction! ” and she headed north through an alleyway to the street. When she reached the end of the alley, she checked the area to see if it was clear. Most of the workers in this area left between 17:00 and 17:30; only a few stragglers remained. There were only a few parked cars in some of the lots, and even less parked on the street. “Not too much cover”, she thought, “so I’ll have to act fast. Even if someone spots me, they won’t be able to stop me or catch me. I’ll have disappeared by then anyway, and the deed will be done.”

16-May-1997 17:42

As she was stepping forward to break from the alley, the wind shifted behind her, and the electrical energy made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. In one quick motion, she spun around to face what was behind her, her left arm up and pointed like a weapon, with the sound of high-output capacitors rapidly charging.

She turned around as another soldier passed though a similar portal. This one was male, and besides camouflage he was wearing full body armor, a riot helmet, battle gloves and heavy boots. He was also heavily armed, with a Desert Eagle in each hand, another pistol strapped to his thigh, two knives, a bandoleer of grenades and extra ammo on his belt. He aimed his firearms directly at her, and from under the helmet, the command was quite clear:

“Stand down, ByteSlinger, and disable that weapon, or I WILL shoot to kill. I have my orders!”

Byte froze for a moment. “Who the Hell are you, and where the fuck do you get off drawing your weapon at me?”, she demanded.

“Power down that weapon, and we’ll talk”, the voice under the helmet answered impatiently.

“You drop yours first, and maybe you’ll have a chance. You know that I could knock you out with the pulse generator in my arm before you could even think about pulling that trigger. And even if you did, that same pulse beam will slow down the velocity of the bullets you fire so that it will either fall short completely, or be slowed down enough to do minimal damage.”, replied Byte. “So maybe you want to reconsider and stand down yourself.”

He attacker didn’t budge at all – he just stared at her from behind his riot visor, apparently deciding his next move very carefully. Byte stood still as well, think of her options. “Look”, she said matter-of-factly,” I don’t have all day here. Either you stand down now, or I will shoot you. You’re in my way!”, and she slowly raised her left arm to point to his chest.

Out of all the possible responses that played out in Byte’s mind, what happened next wasn’t one of them. Her antagonist lowered his weapons, and then began to laugh. He reached up slowly, and flipped the visor up into his helmet. Byte did a double-take as she looked into his eyes.

It was EagleRock! Byte stood there confused, and lowered her arm. “What? Wait…You just sent me on this mission. Why are you stopping me now? I went back and destroyed the portal lab exactly as I was directed to by the ETG A.I., and restored the time stream to within required specifications…”

“And now you’re going to make it worse than ever before”, Eagle abruptly interrupted. “You want to delay your husband so he doesn’t die today – and then maybe you’d get your life back, right?”

Byte looked down for a moment, embarrassed that her plan was exposed. “So what? Why can’t I have MY life back? I’ve spent years protecting the countless, faceless populace of NewGrounds from enemies they never knew. I’ve been giving my best – hell, I’ve even given up an arm and an eye! I have the chance to change my past now – my reward for years of service. Why would you deny me this?”

Eagle sighed, and spoke softly “Byte, I hear you, I really do. But you have to believe me that what you’re about to do is going to have profound effects on the future – not just yours, but mine and the whole city of NewGrounds. You knew before you left on this mission what the Temporal Prime Directive stands for – and if you change the past for your own gain, you will be punished for it. But if you stop now, it’s no harm, no foul. I don’t want you to throw away everything you’ve worked so hard for all your life.”

The sound of a car starting up across the street made them both turn around. “Shit! He’s leaving!”, yelled Byte, as she watched her husband drive out of the parking lot. “I have to stop him!”, and before EagleRock could make a move, Byte discharged the stun pulse from her arm. Eagle fell back and landed hard on his ass, his ears ringing from the pressure wave.

Byte looked around for a moment, and spotted two cars parked on the street. One was a Cadillac Escalade, the other was a tricked-out wanna-be Honda Civic, complete with spoiler, racing rims and dual exhaust. It looked like the owner never had a chance to paint it, as it seemed to be one giant fiberglass patch.

“That’ll do!”, she said, and she smashed the driver’s window with her left hand. Then she looked down, and had to laugh. “That figures”, she smirked, and then opened the door – it wasn’t locked! She brushed the crystallized safety glass off the seat, sat down, and after a quick seat adjustment, reached over and used her left hand to tear open the steering column. A moment later, the engine revved to life, and the little car left rubber as it sped down the street.

EagleRock was shaking the cobwebs off his stunned brain when he saw Byte speed away in the stolen car. “Oh, fuck me!”, he muttered, and shakily stood up again. With his options limited, he decided that it takes a thief to catch a thief. Fifteen seconds later, he was steering a stolen Escalade down the street, trying to catch up to the Civic. But Byte was known for her devil-may-care driving skills, and she drove that car like she owned the road. The Caddy was powerful and comfortable, running like a stallion in the straight-aways - but it wallowed like a whale on the turns. EagleRock came close to sideswiping a few parked cars as the Escalade fishtailed around every turn. He pushed the luxury car harder and harder, and his coaxing did seem to close the gap between him and Byte.

In the Civic, Byte shifted gears and did a controlled power slide around a tight turn, narrowly missing oncoming traffic. The quiet respite of these suburban streets was shredded as the little car screamed down the street at 70 miles per hour. Outraged residents yelled obscenities at Byte, but she didn’t hear them – nor did she care. She only had one goal: to intercept her husband and slow him down so he avoids the crash that will take his life. She glanced at the rear view, and saw the Escalade drawing closer. But it was at that moment when she took her eyes off the road that something more important was about to happen.

Flying down the cross street from her left, a battered brown Buick rattled noisily as it also sped along the side streets. The driver’s name was Pat Soro, and he was just finishing off his 2nd six-pack of Coors for the afternoon when he looked up and saw the speeding Civic flying at him from his right. He was going too fast to stop, even if he did have the stop sign telling him otherwise.

At the last moment, Byte caught the movement to her left in her peripheral vision, and looked over just in time to see the hood of the wallowing behemoth inches away from the left fender. She spun the car hard to the right, trying to reduce the impact to a glancing sideswipe. The change in direction and momentum did help a little, but both cars made contact as the left front fender of the Buick clipped the front right fender of the Civic. The impact spun the Civic even more to the right, and it careened off at an angle, ran up the curb, and after blowing out the two front tires, came to rest on someone’s front lawn. “Un-be-fuckin-lievable!”, she screamed as she banged the steering wheel in frustration.

The Buick, being a much heavier car, wound up making a hard left down the street, and continued heading in the same direction that Byte was originally driving. He mumbled a few curses about “stupid women drivers”, but in his drunken stupor, didn’t bother to stop at the accident scene. He just kept driving down the road, away from Byte.

Byte jumped out of the wrecked Civic mad as all hell. “All that racing around – for nothing!”, she screamed, her frustration starting to get the better of her. Less than twenty seconds later, EagleRock rolled up in the stolen Caddy, lowered the passenger side window and yelled out to Byte, “Hey, you’d better get in here before the cops show up!” She couldn’t argue with that statement. She jumped into the passenger seat of the Caddy and they sped north. Byte didn’t speak as EagleRock hit the gas and continued on, only a few blocks behind the Buick.

Then suddenly, in a moment of clarity, the reality of the moment hit Byte like a hammer between here eyes. “Eagle, you have to catch up to that Buick and run it off the road! We have to stop that car! That’s the car that slams into my husband – that’s how he dies! The accident happens on THIS road, a few blocks down! COME ON, GET THE LEAD OUT!”, she barked.

EagleRock looked into her face, and for the first time ever, saw complete desperation in her eyes. Of everything she ever wanted in life, it was clear that this was the one thing she truly wanted most. He felt bad for her, and had to look away as he slowed down the car and pulled over to the curb.

“WHAT THE FUCK! I told you we had to catch him! “, and she lunged towards the driver seat in anger. But her anger made her careless, and in her rage failed to notice that EagleRock had been anticipating her attack. As she leaned forward, he brought his Deagle up and rested the end of the barrel right between her eyes, point blank range. The safety was off, and his finger was already applying slight pressure to the trigger. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of his head, but his hand remained steady as he began to speak. Byte stopped moving, and froze like a deer in headlights.

“It’s ironic”, he started, “that the act of you stealing that Civic in an attempt to stop your husband’s accident was actually the cause of the accident. If you hadn’t collided with that Buick, he would have continued on down the other street, and never reached your husband.”

“And now it’s going to happen again!”, she screamed, not moving at all.

“No, you don’t get it”, he answered with a sigh. “It had already happened, and it needs to happen. You can’t change that. Some things can’t be changed, even with time travel. They can be made worse, but very rarely can we undo our fate.”

As he finished speaking those words, the distant sound of tires squealing followed by the heavy thunk of metal colliding against metal echoed down from the street ahead of them.

“NNNOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!”, Byte yelled, and she slammed the roof of the Caddy with her left arm, making a ragged fist-sized hole as she tore through it like paper.

“I’m sorry, Byte…”, EagleRock murmured, “But it had to be this way. I’ve seen what happens to the future if he lives…It’s not a future you could live with. Nor me, for that matter. It was beyond your control – it always was.”

“No! I could have made a difference!”, she retorted as she grew more and more angry with EagleRock

“Really? Then why didn’t you know that by stealing that car to stop the accident, you’d really be the cause of it? All you had to do was let him go home by himself, and he would have been well on his way there!”

“But…that’s not possible!”, she stammered. “He died today because of the collision with that drunk in the Buick!”

“True, but he had that collision because you interfered and collided with the drunk first, changing his direction!”, he pointed out matter-of-factly

“I don’t get it.”, she said. “I come back in time to change my past, only to discover that it was my act of coming back in time that caused the accident in the first place! How could that be?”

Eagle drew in a deep breath, slowly lowered his weapon and slid the safety back in place, and the spoke softly. “Not exactly. You did manage to come back and stop the accident. But that set up a very strong paradox downstream that would eliminate the EGB, the ETG and cause NewGrounds to fall to the invaders from the Gamma realm. I was sent back to stop you, to undo what you did. That was my mission – I had no choice…”

“Everyone has choices!”, she yelled. “You could have let me stop the accident! Don’t give me any more of that Fate bullshit! “

“Byte, think about it. When he died, was there any mention of another fender-bender a few blocks away involving the drunk and another car – like that Civic?”

“I…I don’t know. I don’t remember…”, she answered, not sure of the details. “But that doesn’t matter now. It’s already happened. In a few minutes, my past “me” will be getting a visit from a state trooper with the bad news. Nothing will have changed.”

“As it shouldn’t have”, said EagleRock. “This is exactly why we have the Elite Temporal Guard – to stop people from making things worse in the future when they try to fix the past.”

EagleRock’s PDA began to beep softly. He looked at it, and with a sad smile announced what was on the display: “Temporal paradox cancelled; time stream restored to within 0.03% of acceptable parameters. Initiating return process in 15 seconds”

“So that’s it – it’s over. I failed”, she said

“No, your first mission to the alternate universe was a success – and my mission to stop you from undoing everything you worked for was a success as well. Everything is as it should be up to this point.”

Byte opened the door to the Caddy, and started to get out. “Guess there’s nothing left to say”, she said. “Let’s go back.”

“Have a seat – we’ll go back in style!”, and he pulled her back into the passenger seat as he pressed a few buttons on the PDA. The temporal portal opened again, but this time big enough to take the car with them. After a moment of what felt like a slight falling sensation, they were now parked in the holding area at the ETG headquarters.

* * *
Manhattan Federal Court

The courtroom sat in tense silence as the steely-eyed judge spoke. “Has the jury reached a verdict, Mr. Foreman?”

“Yes we have, your honor. In the case of the State versus Salvatore Giambino, we find the defendant guilty on all seven charges of racketeering, fraud and murder in the first degree”

The court broke out in chaos as members of both families reacted to the verdict. Salvatore looked around, and found the face he was looking for. “You’d better sleep with your eyes open, Soro. You’ll never be safe.”

Pat Soro turned away, a little worried. His attorney calmed him down a bit. “Look, in two months, you won’t exist anymore. You’ll be living somewhere that even I won’t know, with a new look and a new name. The deal you cut was perfect timing. I didn’t think the DA would drop those vehicular manslaughter charges for your testimony against that mob boss, and then throw in witness protection. But it’s still a crap shoot – pissing off the mob is never a bright idea.”

“Well, it sure beats twenty years in prison. Now, get me out of here – I got paperwork to fill out.” Then like two rats skulking out of a dark alley, Pat and his lawyer disappeared into the crowd.

* * *
Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina

Randall Tyler sat back on his chair on the big porch outside his modest home. It was the perfect Labor Day weekend – hot and sunny, with the wonderful smell of the barbeque filling the air . His wife and eight-year-old stepson were in the back yard, setting up the tables for the big neighborhood party about to start soon. He looked around, enjoying this day - enjoying his freedom. But he was never fully at ease, even in this little slice of Heaven. His deepest fear was that someone would find out his darkest secret, a secret even his new wife and adopted stepson didn’t even know. But no one could know who he really was. If the mob found out that Pat Soro didn’t really die in a car wreck, but was living a new life in the deep south, not only would he be killed – so would his new family.

The sounds of silence finally caught up to Randall. He looked around, expecting his son and/or the dog to come bolting around the corner of the porch. He waited a few seconds, but nothing happened. Slowly, he stood up and walked to the edge of the porch, and peered around to the side of the house. He saw his wife still setting tables – but his son was no where to be found.

The sound of a rifle hammer clicking behind him made his blood run cold. “Don’t move – I got you covered!”, a familiar voice said, trying very hard to sound dangerous. Randall smiled again, and with his hands raised, turned around slowly to face his enemy.

As he turned around, he saw the wide grin and beaming face of his stepson, who was pointing the unloaded hunting rifle at his head. “Like I say, Pa – you’ll know it when I strike!”

Randall laughed out loud, and reached forward to give his son a hug, who continued his monologue. “One day, Pa, Imma be in the Special Forces, using my rifle and shootin’ bad guys! And then mebbe later, drive a big tank and blow up things!”

Randall smiled again, and then hugged him hard. “Oh, I’m sure you will be, Cobie…I’m sure you will!

“Pa, you gotta use my REAL call sign – SlntCobra1”, his eight year old son quickly corrected.

Randall gently put his son down, and watched him run off to go play with the dog. “Life is good!”, he said out loud.

* * *
ETG Headquarters
17-July 2710 09:30

Byte watched as the portal closed behind EagleRock as he left on his mission to fix the past. She rubbed her swollen belly, thinking of the baby inside her, and wondered how long she’d be locked in this room before someone let her out. She was all alone in the now-vacant ETG headquarters, and the A.I. kept announcing how little time they had before everything imploded on itself. “All I did was take my life back”, she said to her child, as she sat down on a comfortable couch in the room, putting her feet up on the coffee table. She looked at her undamaged body through two human eyes with a sense of satisfaction – that she was a woman again, both in spirit and body. She leaned back and relaxed, fantasizing in her mind what it will be like when her baby was finally born, and she could be a mother. It wouldn’t be easy being a single mother in these times, but she’d manage somehow…

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of alarm horns blaring through every room in the ETG. The A.I. began to blurt out its announcement: “Temporal shock wave of magnitude 7.53 approaching. Massive temporal re-alignment and recovery to occur within 15 seconds. Please stay where you are to avoid being harmed by shifting objects”

Byte felt the air change around her, and everything began to ripple like waves in a pond. She looked around through the translucent walls, and thought that she could see shadows forming. Then, starting like a whisper, the sounds of people talking began to fill her ears. The room started to quiver, and she began to feel very uncomfortable.

Struggling to her feet, Byte stood up and tried to walk to the door. But she stopped when she looked down and saw her body begin to shift and fade in and out of reality. “No! Not this! Not now!”, she yelled, but no one heard her. With a surge of adrenaline, she bolted forward to the door, bracing herself for an impact that never came. Instead, the door opened automatically into the hallway just before she reached it, and her momentum carried her out, sending her tumbling to the floor.

Looking up, she could see dozens of forms begin to take shape around her, and the sound of conversation began to fill the air. Her body rippled again, and she knew something bad was happening. She felt the baby kick hard twice, and then stop. To her left a familiar voice made her turn her head – and she saw the two very solid forms of EagleRock – and herself! They hadn’t seen her yet, but as the elder, standing Byte turned her head, she could have sworn she saw someone lying sprawled on the floor, looking up at her.

For the younger Byte, everything began to fade to white and slow down to a crawl. As her world started to evaporate like a cloud in the summer sky, she could hear the voice of Atropos gloating: “Everyone makes their own decisions – but it’s my decision that decides your Fate!”

* * *

ETG Headquarters
17-July 2710 09:31

As Byte walked through the hallway with EagleRock to the situation room, she had an odd feeling of deja-vous. Dozens of temporal soldiers hurried through the building, getting organized and ready for an upcoming meeting. She thought she had seen a familiar face, and unconsciously she rubbed her belly with her right arm while staring at her left. It was an odd feeling, but it seemed to pass as quickly as it came. She was still deep in thought about reliving her husband’s passing, and how time had been twisted into making her the indirect cause of it all. It seems she still couldn’t get a handle on anti-time events, when the effect precedes the cause, and sometimes you wind up being your own worst enemy.

Her train of thought was derailed when a young soldier turned the corner and accidentally walked right into her path. “Oh, excuse me, ma’am”, he said politely with a slight Southern drawl. Byte looked at his name tag, and began to smile. “Major T.S. Cobretti, huh? You wouldn’t be a distant relative of an old EGB soldier by the name of SlntCobra1 now, would you?”

His eyes went wide as he heard the name of his great-great-God-knows-how many-greats-grandfather. “Yes, ma’am”, he replied. “I’m proud to say I’m from his family line, and keeping the tradition of protecting and serving Newgrounds alive and well!”

Byte stood at attention, and gave the Major a salute. “Done well, soldier! Done well, indeed!” Major Cobretti returned the salute, and then he grinned. “Ma’am, I heard that there were two famous EGB heroes that were brought back from the past to help clean up some time stream problems. Y’all wouldn’t happen to be Supreme Commanders ByteSlinger and EagleRock now, would ya?”

“Well, yes we are”, replied EagleRock, “We are from the EGB, and we are from the past. But we’re not heroes – just soldiers doing our jobs”

“Y’all are too modest!”, Cobretti answered. “Commander EagleRock had a war tank made in his name, and Commander ByteSlinger here not only made some serious upgrades to it, but was also part of the crew that my great grand-grand pappy commanded!”. Then he reached back into his rear pants pocket, and pulled out large leather wallet. It was attached to his belt by a long silver chain. It looked very old and very worn, almost like a museum piece. It also looked very familiar to Byte.

“This here wallet belonged to Grandpa Cobra”, he continued. “It’s been passed down to the eldest son from generation to generation, and now I have it. “ Then he reached in, and pulled out a laminated ancient photo. “Remember this?”, he asked, handing a piece of history to Byte and Eagle. They both looked at the picture, still vibrant after all these centuries.

It was a picture of the EGB crew in the tank hanger; SlntCobra1 was standing tall in front of the M1A1 Abrams EagleRock, his cobra logo fresh from Krev’s paintbrush. All of the crew was there – everyone, but EagleRock of course. They couldn’t be prouder, and they functioned together like a well-oiled machine. They were the epitome of what a squad should be.

Byte smiled, remembering all of the great things they did over the years. It was a full life, and the only life she really knew. It was a bittersweet moment, remembering all the good – but regretting what she thought might have been different. With a deep sigh, she turned to EagleRock and said, “Can we go home now? We’ve got to finish what we’ve started.”

EagleRock looked back at Byte, and with a weary smile, nodded his head in agreement. Byte handed the picture back to Major Cobretti, and gave him a quick salute. “Thank you, Major”, she said, and then spun on her heels to walk with EagleRock back to the Situation Room. She was looking forward to the final jump – to close everything up, and get back to something that resembled her life.

It seemed almost anticlimactic, but not every ending had to be spectacular. Sometimes a quiet ending was good…

But as they walked, the sudden sounds of alarms rang through the building. “Warning! Unexpected temporal shift of magnitude 5.5 approaching. Local intercept time in 45 seconds. All personnel report to the central temporal safety chamber immediately!”

“Now what?”, Byte asked, confused and disturbed

“Come quick!”, yelled Major Cobretti, “or you could get lost in the time shift.” Everyone ran orderly in double-time to a large hexagonal chamber, and took a seat in the auditorium. As the last soldier entered the chamber, the doors closed and a powerful energy field was generated around the entire structure. The murmuring conversations died down as the computer voice interrupted. “Temporal anomaly has reached this facility. Time stream has been shifted by 48.44 percent. Will Commanders ByteSlinger and EagleRock, and Major Cobretti please report to situation room seven immediately”

The doors reopened, and as everyone filed out, EagleRock turned to Byte and asked “So, what did you do now?”

End of Chapter 25


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Master of the Portal
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Post Mon Sep 02, 2013 9:58 pm

Re: Through a Mirror Darkly - Chapter by Chapter

Through A Mirror Darkly

Chapter 26

“The Wheels Come Off The Wagon”

ETG Headquarters
17-July 2710 09:35

Situation Room Seven

Supreme Commander EagleRock was the first to enter the room. He did so without speaking a word, his face almost expressionless. He wasn’t sure what to expect anymore. “Didn’t I just finish cleaning up all of the temporal mess Byte made?”, he thought to himself, nervously. Then he felt himself starting to get angry with Byte. He look to his left, and watched as she also entered the room quietly, and took a seat at the large table that materialized in the center of the room.

Major Cobretti sat down next to Byte, and put his hand on her right shoulder as a sign of support. The door to the room closed as EagleRock sat down on the opposite side of the table, looking directly at the other two soldiers.

Without any introduction, the AI began to speak: “Due to the multiple temporal transgressions of all members present, a very disturbing time stream shift has reached this facility…”

“Hey, I haven’t done ANY time traveling at all!”, interrupted Major Cobretti, “How can you blame me?”

Before he could get an answer, the room shimmered and shifted. Byte knew that sensation – it was a time shift, and they were all part of it. For a moment, it looked like there were four other soldiers in the room, but they had their backs to the table. Three were standing, and one was carrying the fourth, From the rear, they looked dirty and disheveled – and even bloody in spots.

The room shifted again, and there was a sensation of everything moving and coming together into a central point in the room. No one physically moved, but space itself shifted in and out, almost like a pulsar. Byte got immediately dizzy, Major Cobretti became nauseous and almost gave back his breakfast, and EagleRock’s eyes rolled into the back of his head for a moment. A few seconds later, the feeling of disorientation disappeared as quickly as it happened, and the other four soldiers also had vanished.

The AI continued with an almost condescending tone in its voice: “Isn’t it obvious? You will be sent on a temporal mission in the near future, but your actions – and those of the soldiers around you – will cause this disturbance. In other words: we sent you back to fix something, and one or more of you failed.”

“Well, color me stupid, but if we fail, then just don’t send us, and that will stop the problem now!”, replied Cobretti, trying very hard to out-think the AI. But that was like an ameba trying to learn calculus.

“Foolish human!”, the AI chided. “If you are not sent on the mission, the results are catastrophic to this timeline. Even with your failures, the new errors can be corrected – but you have to make those errors first. That past has already been reintegrated with your current selves, so you must go back now and make those changes – and then, we can fix them afterwards.”

Everyone was confused. EagleRock stood up, both angry and weary, and spoke with authority to the invisible AI: “Look, I’ve been through too many jumps and did too many things that I’m not proud of in order to clean up this mess. I’m tired of it all. Why not just tell us what went wrong, and let us go back and not make the same mistakes again?”

“It doesn’t work that way, Eagle”, answered Byte. “You know that. If we go back to face ourselves, one – or more – of us have to convince the others NOT to do something. Between the obvious uncertainty that situation brings, along with a guarantee that Murphy’s Law WILL find a way to be applied at just the wrong time (pardon the pun). We’ll be second guessing ourselves – am I SUPPOSED to do it THIS way – or THAT? I’ve already had to kill off various temporal versions of myself, and let me tell you, that is very unsettling. I’ve had to be held back to watch people I know and love die – and then discover that their death was on my hands because of future temporal interference…” her voice trailed off, and then, with her head hung low, she quietly said, “I just don’t know what’s right anymore. I don’t know what I want, and I can’t trust myself.”

“Enough squabbling!”, the AI interjected. In fact, it sounded like the AI was actually getting angry and starting to lose its patience. “I will make this simple for all of you. You will each be given a separate series of missions to fulfill. All of the details, step by step, will be explained in your PDA files. You will NOT discuss your missions with anyone else, and you must fulfill your mission – or die trying. You either succeed – or you’ll never see this place again.”

Byte rolled her eyes, chuckled and interrupted the almost-petulant computer voice. “Why so serious? We’ve all been on do-or-die missions before. We’ll go knock this out and be back here in time for din…”

“No you won’t!”, screamed the AI, and it sounded like it was going to throw a tantrum. “It’s this cavalier attitude of yours that brought all of these problems to us. And it’s that same attitude that’s going to ensure that at least one of you WILL fail their mission - and die in the process.”

The room was silenced by the computer's outburst. Byte glanced at Eagle and Cobretti, and they were visibly stunned by the computer's words that echoed in the room - not the content, but how they were spoken.

"For an artificial intelligence, it seems you're becoming very emotional. No one doubts the serious of the matter...but I am starting to doubt your abilities to be objective and logical. As such, I am also doubting any plans you may be devising", Byte answered, calmly and deliberately, trying not to evoke another tantrum.

"Do not doubt me...", the AI responded menacingly, "I am adapting my programs to deal with circumstances that should never have occurred. I have to depend on fallible humans to perform tasks that impact my...our....very existence."

“Well, what’s the sense of sending us if you know we’re going to fail?”
, asked EagleRock, still not convinced that another mission would make a difference anyway. Things were so convoluted now it just didn’t seem possible to fix them.

The AI didn’t answer at first, and then when it did, it sounded almost psychotic. “It does make sense. Perfect sense. Order has to be restored. There are three sets of missions that must be executed, in the right order, to give us any hope to restore the timeline. Only one of you will succeed – and the success of the mission may not include your safe return. You are all expendable…your mission is more important than your lives…” and then the voice trailed off, as if deep in thought.

"That damn thing is crazier than a shithouse rat!", sneered Cobretti. "I don't mind risky missions, but to be sent on one that I will most certainly fail by an insane overgrown adding machine is just not gonna happen! This is getting out of hand, and until someone can convince me otherwise, I'm staying put!"

Eagle sighed heavily, looked at Byte, and shaking his head, spoke softly: "It's beyond anyone's fault now, but the truth is, you, and some of your intra-dimensional alternate personas, are responsible for tangling up these timelines. Some of you tried to be altruistic and helpful, others were hell-bent on personal gain and world domination. And you yourself thought you could change a few key events in your own life to get back what you thought was taken from you. Along the way, you got all of us involved, and now, it looks like at least two of us in this room shouldn't be making any long-term investments and planning on a happy retirement."

Byte knew this already. "This wasn't the way it was supposed to be...I never meant to do any harm...", and her voice trailed off. "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions", quipped Cobretti, " and we are too far along it now to go back..."

"Cobretti, we have no choice",
continued Eagle, "we all are going to die sooner or later - at least, if we die on a mission, we can do it with honor - and our families will be financially secured for a long time."

"Yeah, I hope my check book looks forward to watching my kids grow up for me", snarled Cobretti. "I hate being put in a no-win situation...If I don't go, we fail, and everything falls apart. If I do go, although I most likely will die, my family will be okay...not much of a choice, now that I've thought about it"

They were interrupted by a series of chimes and beeps blurting out of their PDAs. " Your missions have been downloaded. They are classified as "Ultra 1 Secret". announced the AI. " You are not to discuss these missions with anyone else, now or ever. After you are transported to your first location, your mission will be revealed. Please stand apart - portal generations will begin in 5 seconds..."

"But how will we know if this works?", asked Cobretti.

"Well, either we will - or, we won't", answered Byte as the portals formed in the room. "It's been an honor working with all of you", and she saluted her comrades as they stepped into their portals...

14-September-2009 11:15 AM

Major Cobretti walked out of the portal into the bright sun of a desert sky. It was a pretty day, with birds chirping and lizards scurrying around the foot of the mountains. It was a peaceful place...until the sounds of heavy equipment and a few tanks rumbling by on the other side of the hill jarred the idyllic scene.

He turned around, and carefully ascended the slope, keeping low and staying silent. When he got to the top ridge, he dropped to his belly and used his binoculars to survey the scene. An EGB Transport, carrying six soldiers, had stopped in front of a tunnel that had been dug into the side of a mountain. Catching parts of conversations, Cobretti learned that all of them were surprised that this tunnel was here at all, and they were going to go in to explore.

Suddenly, his PDA began to vibrate and hum. He grabbed it off his belt, and keyed it open. The screen was blinking with warning text about his mission:

"To ETG Major Cobretti: This is a class Ultra 1 message. Please place both thumbs on the display to verify your identity."

He placed the unit on the ground, and rested his thumbs on the screen as asked. A moment later, the screen went blank for a moment, and then displayed his mission briefing:

1) at 11:21 prevent the exchange and transfer of SC ByteSlinger's body between alternate dimensions
2) at 18:00 destroy the portal after all EGB members have returned
3) at 18:05 disable or destroy SC Byteslinger's arm prosthesis. Permission to terminate subject with extreme prejudice is granted"

His blood ran cold after reading the 3rd objective. "Kill Byte if I have to? Oh my god...she is the expendable one! If I thought that the freakin' box of twisted circuits finally went nuts before, I know it for sure now!"

He waited for the transport to go into the tunnel, and after a moment, skulked his way over to the entrance. He then waited until they opened up the large metal door, and walked in quietly, hugging the walls, his footsteps obscured by the sounds of the transport slowly forging ahead.

"Shit, I have 5 minutes to figure out the first part...then I have to hide for 7 hours until the next one...", he thought to himself. "And all I have on me is my two 9mm handguns and five clips..."

Once his eyes adjusted to the semi darkness, his jaw dropped as he witnessed SC ByteSlinger working on the portal. It was a spectacular feat of engineering, but in a few minutes, she would get caught up in the event horizon and sucked into the alternate dimensions that started all of this mess - assuming that the A.I.'s observations were correct.

"I can't just waltz down there and tell her to stop. And I wouldn't know how to shut the damn thing down even if I could get to the console",
he thought. "Damn it! It's not like my PS2 at home - when it won't cooperate, I just yank the power cord out of the wall, and...wait a second..."

Cobretti stared for a moment at the console to the portal, and saw the heavy black power cables connected to it. He followed it up the wall, across the ceiling, and into a sub-panel box. As a safety feature, the box had an emergency electrical breaker installed.

"That's it! ", he said softly, "I can kill the power to the portal by tripping the breaker. It's not even 100 yards away...easy shot!" It seemed that through the generations, target practice and accuracy was a fine art, passed down from father to son.

"But when I fire, they'll come looking for me...I have to throw them off my trail first", he thought. Glancing back at the tunnel entrance, he saw his footprints in the dirt. "Aha...", he whispered, and quietly jogged back to the outside entrance, being mindful not to step on his tracks leading into the tunnel. He made a quick left, jumped up on some rocks, and looked down to find his footprints that originally led into the tunnel. He planted each foot into the first set of prints, retracing his steps back to the door.

Looking back, the tracks gave the appearance of someone sneaking in, and then running away.

"Perfect", he thought. He reached into his hip pocket, pulled out the flash muzzle and silencer, and attached it to his 9mm pistol. He snapped in a fresh clip, and took aim..."I am a redneck, like my father before me", he whispered, and exhaled slowly to steady himself. He had to wait for just the right moment...

"Hey, everyone! Come quick, there’s a guy at the other end of this portal!", exclaimed Byte, and at that instant, Major Cobretti pulled the trigger on his pistol and fired at the circuit breaker. With a loud snap, crackle and pop, the breaker split apart as it tripped, and all power to the Portal was cut off.

Everyone looked up and followed the sound to the breaker box, where they all saw the unit sparking, partially destroyed. It was a perfect diversion for Cobretti, as it gave him the time and opportunity to slip into an access tunnel and hide in a maintenance room. "Just have to sit tight for 7 hours", he said to the empty desk and rusted file cabinet. He locked the room as a precaution, but doubted anyone would come looking for him.

"What the hell just happened?", screamed Byte. "Why is the console and the portal stone-cold dead now?"

"Looks like that cheap Korean circuit breaker on the subpanel blew out", quipped SlntCobra. "But I see some spare parts - should be able to get you back up in a few minutes."

"Okay, get that back online. We'll need this damn thing running if we want to get our command staff back!", she ordered.


"Hey, what the fuck just happened to that portal?," bellowed Rock. "we got a tight deadline and I just don't have time for this shit right now."

"Keep your panties on", sneered Slinger, "let me check....oh, for fuck's sake, we lost power at the other end!"

"How the hell did that happen? I thought we have backup generators - you told me it was fool-proof!", yelled Rock.

"No, I said we put in redundant systems to keep it running. It doesn't prevent one of our mentally-challenged technicians from accidentally pulling a power cord or tripping a breaker", replied Slinger.

"I need that portal back online NOW"
, screamed Rock. "What the fuck are you waiting for?"

"Let's give those asswipes 15 minutes to fix it. If it's not back up by then, I'll have to calibrate a one-way jump to the coordinates and send some new techs to take care of it..."

"Fine. I gotta go take a dump. When I get back, that damn thing better be humming again!"
he snorted as he trotted off to his private bathroom.

"Fucktard.", Slinger mumbled under his breath, and started preparing the system for a one-way jump. As he was reprogramming the interface, Commander IB slid quietly into the room, snuck up behind Slinger, and started to nuzzle his neck as she reached around the front of his uninform.

"So, what happened to your pretty toy, lover?", she whispered in his ear, and then playfully nibbled on it for a moment.

Slinger sighed, and relaxed for a moment. He gently pulled her to his left side, and turned to face her. "The damn remote portal has no power. I think they blew a breaker or tripped over a wire. If it's not back on soon, I gotta set up a one-way trip and send a few techs to clean it up. Wanna help?"

"What I want to do probably won't help you fix this problem - but it will make you feel better about it!", she purred, as she reached down to his pants, and started stroking the growing bulge between his legs.

"Oh, for crying-fucking-out-loud, can't you two horny bastards just stop fucking for a few minutes and get some real work done?"
taunted Rock, his face red from anger

"Why aren't you taking that shit you so boldly announced?", retorted Slinger

"'Cause I got halfway down the hall, and realized that I want you send your love-slut here to the other side to help get things straight. Don't bullshit me - she knows what's going on. She's spent enough time with you to get it all figured out. It's about time she earned her keep - besides what she earns on her back"
, hammered Rock.

Slinger stood up fast, and went eye-to-eye with Rock. "Hey, you can't talk like that about her. She's not a piece of meat you can toss anywhere - she DOES have a rank and she IS my girlfriend. Now apologize to her!"

"Well, actually, as long as I'm in command, you are ALL my meat puppets, and you will do as I say", Rock answered coldly. "And as for my apologies, she can have that over my dead body.

IB cleared her throat. Rock looked up … right into the muzzle of IB’s Deagle. “That can be arranged.”, she said calmly.

“Oh, fuck me…”, Rock muttered, and a half second later, his brains splattered on the wall behind him. His body sunk to the floor in a puddle of blood.

“No, sorry, not into necrophilia today", she quipped.

"Holy shit! You just killed Rock!", screamed Slinger in disbelief.

IB nodded, then walked over to the base intercom, and made her announcement: " By the revised articles of the EGB, under command section 17, I hereby claim Rock’s command as mine. If there is anyone who would challenge me, do so now…”

A room full of statues just blinked at her. Even the air conditioning unit went quiet.

“I thought so. I am now the commander in charge. Follow my orders, and you will be happy. Disobey me – and you will be dead. Real simple. Any questions?”

"Yeah, I have one", asked Slinger. "Does this mean you want to be on top now?"

IB smiled coyly and replied, "Honey, I am ALWAYS on top, one way or another."


ByteSlinger felt an odd sensation of nausea shortly after the power was cut to the Portal. She took a step back, and sat down hard in the console chair . "That was strange", she muttered, and a moment later, she heard Krev on her headset.

"What the hell just happened?"

"We blew a breaker and the portal shut down. Nothing crazy. SlntCobra and PorkChop are working on it now"

"No....it was much more than that ", Krev blurted, "I was monitoring the emissions from the portal on all frequencies, and suddenly, the whole temporal signature of muons, chrontrons and xytons changed - AFTER it was shut down!"

"Well, if it means anything, I did feel a bit queasy right afterwards", added Byte

"it's as if all of the time-related particles suddenly changed", added Krev

"A change in the time continuum?", asked Byte

"Maybe...has anything else changed", Krev queried, looking for more clues.

"Nothing obvious - I'll keep you posted. Byte out".

SlntCobra and PorkChop scrounged around for a replacement breaker. Fortunately, there were a few crates in the same room that contained many spare parts, including breakers and wires and mounting brackets. "Let's put in the 300amp breaker - that should work!", opined PorkChop.

"Yeah, that'll do just fine - you can never have too much power!", mused Cobra

"Or beer!", added PorkChop

"Or sex", smiled Cobra

"And when do you have too much sex?", asked Byte, looking at the two fools impatiently.

"All the time!", answered Cobra proudly.

"Well, that explains why your right arm is always sore", grinned Byte evilly

"OH, PWNED!", screamed PorkChop, and started to laugh hard - along with everyone else in the room.

"What...OH, NO!.. Hell no, I get plenty of attention from women - nothing to do with ...that!", and his face was red from embarrassment.

"Dates with your cousins don't count, either", added Byte, and everyone else howled even louder.

"BYTE! You know what I mean! ". Cobra's face was bright red as Byte got the best of him again.

"Alright, enough of this...just fix the breaker already. We have a mission to finish", and with that, Byte went back to examining the portal hardware and console circuits.

Cobra grumbled for a bit as PorkChop disconnected the main power to the input side of the breaker. They started the fairly simple task of dismounting the damaged unit when Cobra noticed something

"Hey PorkChop, hold up....look at this"
, and he pointed at a hole about the size of a quarter surrounded by many cracks at the base of the trip handle

"Wow...looks like that's where breaker exploded - blew a hole clean out of the casing!", admired Porkchop.

"No... look carefully", replied Cobra. "That hole wasn't from something coming out of the breaker - it was from something going INTO it!" They removed the casing from the wall, and besides the mangled insides of a 200 amp breaker, there was also another hole on side, almost parallel to the wall.

"See, there's the exit point. This breaker didn't blow - someone shot this damn thing!"

Cobra glanced over at Porkchop's face - and he look more confused than a little kid at the NBA's Father's Day dinner.

"But no one in here did that - we were all working in groups. This makes no sense...unless..", and PorkChops voice trailed off.

"Unless we're not alone in here", whispered Cobra. Slowly, he glanced around the room, trying to figure out where the shooter would have been hiding. "Duh...", he exclaimed, "right from the mouth of the tunnel, near the doors!". With weapons drawn, they carefully made their way to the entrance, ready for an ambush. Hoping for the surprise, they each turned the corner fast, one aiming high, the other low.

"Gotcha, you sneaky...."
,screamed Cobra, to an empty tunnel.

"Looks like they left already", PorkChop said, pointing to the two sets of footprints.

"Yeah, looks like they snuck in nice and quiet, and then ran like Hell right after the shot"
, replied Cobra.

"But why kill the power to the Portal? It's only a minor setback. This makes no sense", PorkChop mused.

Just then ByteSlinger came up from behind them. "What are you two doing? You have a circuit breaker to fix!"

Cobra and PorkChop told Byte what they had discovered - the hole in the panel, the two sets of footprints, and all the other details that came to mind. When they were done talking, Byte stood for a moment, contemplating what to do next.

"Okay, just repair the panel now, as ordered. I will do a little recon here myself".

"Will do, Byte. Should be back up in no time a'tall", chuckled Cobra, and he went back with PorkChop to finish the repair.

ByteSlinger followed the trail outside. It looked like the shooter ran to the left, up onto the rocks and then back up over the hillcrest. With the mid-day sun baking the sand, it was impossible to find any thermal trails, even with her implant's infra-red detectors set to maximum.

"Damn. This doesn't make any sense to me, either. ", she said to herself. "But my gut tells me that the shooter wasn't trying to stop the portal - just delay it somehow. But why?" As she pondered the reasoning of their mysterious visitor, her comm link lit up. It was Major SlntCobra.

"Just wanted to let y'all know we got the power back...you wanna come back in and do your magic with that portal again?"

"Yeah...be right there," she answered, and walked slowly back into the tunnel, carefully recording both sets of prints for later analysis. But as she walked past the tunnel doors into the main chamber, Krev was buzzing in her ear again.

"Hey, Byte...you're not gonna believe this, but those footprints you just scanned are leaking residual temporal particles that are out of synch with our own."

"And this means what to me?", asked Byte, not seeing the obvious answer.

"That the shooter was NOT of our timeframe. Based on the decay rate, I would estimate about 700 years in the future."

"You're kidding, right? You're telling me that someone bounced back 700 years to this point just to delay the opening of the portal? That seems like a lot of work for such a small task",
quipped Byte.

"Hey, timing is everything", answered Krev. "I guess we'll see what happens when we power it back up."

After a few minutes of cautious rechecking, Byte issued the command sequence to power up the portal and resume the last connection made. Two minutes later, the portal was alive and humming again.

Byte stood in front of the portal, and looked into it as hard as she could. But there was no one else at the other side anymore.


A few electronic chimes and dings made Slinger look back at his control console. All the lights were green now, and the portal was 100% operational. "Good. Looks like those fools at the other end got it working again. Now I can get back to some real work."

But what Slinger failed to realize was that the three technicians who were assigned to work on the remote portal had recently traveled back to this side just a few hours ago - and were treating themselves to some special attention from IB herself, in a large storage room in the basement. And IB did not realize that her little party was supposed to be there in the first place. For what they were paying for, it didn't involve any questions beyond "so, how does that feel?"


The portal was operating just as it was when they first arrived. Other than replacing the shot-up circuit breaker, it was as if nothing had happened.
ByteSlinger turned to her crew, and in her best command voice said, “Men, we’re setting up camp here until we straighten out all of the intel from this computer. We have plenty of rations, and I’m sure we can find a far corner of this cave to use as a latrine…”

SlntCobra interjected, “No need, boss. I found a shitter halfway down the north wall. Plenty of soap, paper towels and toilet paper for all of us!”, and he grinned his famous shit-eatin’ grin.

Byte scowled at SlntCobra, and continued, ”Ok, belay the order for a latrine. Seems like our crack sharpshooter found something more important than the whereabouts of EagleRock! As I was saying, I want two men guarding the portal, one man guarding the tunnel, and the other two on rest. We’ll take 6 hour shifts until we get to the bottom of this.”

“Uh, commander, what if something comes out of the portal?”, asked Lizz sheepishly.

“If it’s not wearing an EGB uniform, shoot it in the knees. If it doesn’t have knees, keep shooting until it stops moving. Understand?”

Everyone nodded in agreement. But as Byte looked over at Idiot-Buster, their eyes met, and it was the oddest sense of deja-vous - that this scene had been played out before, but not quite in this way.

[End of Chapter 26]

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