Empire Time
empire time
Image from Bernd Helfert
By Bill Glover (2008)

Yusuf awoke to a measured jolt of adrenalin squeezed into his system by his internal alarm clock. He opened his eyes. Frieta's sleeping face was inches from his nose, and seeming to float above her cheek, his HUD clock showed 06:00 hours, Empire Time. An overdue scheduled icon blinked beside it. He turned off the indicators. The bed was warm and the urge to wake Frieta and snuggle away the morning was almost irresistible. He lay there another moment, stalling, avoiding the beginning of a hectic day.

"Good morning," Frieta said as she opened her eyes. Yusuf had always loved the way she moved with such slow, calm assurance. But right now her glare was sharp, the sleepy patience of a predator crouching beside the top of the food chain, and he felt himself sliding down that chain, link by link. "Did you backup?"

"Not yet. I'll have time before I leave for Elastrea, and I want to get any final plans into the backup," he lied. She propped herself up on an elbow. "Your last backup was over a week ago. There's nothing to say that you can't backup again just before you go." Her eyes were a solid, bright blue today, disconcerting, but nice. "I'll not loose a week of you to forgetfulness."

Yusuf grimaced, but if he argued he would have to admit he was afraid. A fast backup would be over quicker than a gradual, conscious backup, so he lay back and sub-vocalized his authorization sequence. Then came the abrupt falling sensation as he went under. There was a familiar, jarring shift before his HUD reappeared. The time was 06:22.

"Thank you." Frieta said from the foot of the bed, now up and dressed and brushing her hair for work. He knew she wasn't trying to sound condescending. But she did.

Yusuf mumbled, "love you," and used the bathroom as an excuse for privacy to hide his what, annoyance? Revulsion? He hated backups. They made him feel empty and ill. He reached for a pore-cleansing mask that ejected from the wallfab, but he snatched it too forcefully and the mask ripped. Closing his eyes he took a deep breath and threw the filmy mess in the recycler. After a moment the anger and annoyance passed. He felt foolish, but he was glad that twenty-five years of marriage had taught him to take his moods out of the room. Frieta was only holding up her end of things, serving as his conscience. He was into his skin suit and overalls and on his way out the door by 06:45, stopping only to kiss her good-bye.

The ride to the habitat's pod bay was quick and uneventful. Yusuf used the trip to reorganize his bookmarks, check his manna and read the company news. Nexus shares were up, which explained his higher manna. That was comforting and might even signal an end for the current down cycle, at least that was what the company newslog claimed. He grinned at the next entry, "Public projects like the array at Elastrea are a big reason for the current shift in public opinion. -- Guillermo Sans, CEO Nexus corp."

The get-about trail led through a spinward edge of the neatly organized botanical gardens. Epiphany was a company habitat and as such had a subtle, utilitarian aesthetic which Yusuf liked. Even the huge botanical gardens and recreation area revealed a little more planning and conservative management than would be allowed on most habitats where the wild new neostochastic forms were the current style. Yusuf liked Epiphany's predictability. He passed a gardener who waved, obviously recognizing Yusuf from the news logs. As the Nexus "Lead Wormhole Technician" he was proud of his position's status, even if the AIs made it mostly ceremonial.

When he reached the bay, the nearest pod was a small, yellow personal transport. It was only a six gee pod, so the acceleration tank would be a gel vat. A larger, blue, cryopod stood two berths down. Nobody really enjoyed gel vats, but fast meant expensive as this was technically a vacation. Nexus would prefer to let a telepresence drone do the inspection of the array, but ceremonial as the Lead Tech position might be, Yusuf took his responsibilities seriously. Of course, personally performing the inspection would earn steep manna from the astronomy buffs, and that couldn't be discounted either. He yawned and stretched his arms until they cracked. His real reasons were simpler still. He just wanted a break, some time away from everyone, even Frieta. "Dirty jobs pay more," he muttered and chose the, yellow pod. It split open vertically like some hungry plant as he stepped off the get-about. On the platform inside, there was barely room to walk around the foot of the small acceleration tank. He wouldn't have far to travel anyway. He might as well be conscious.

As the pale green gel flowed over his face Yusuf squeezed the remaining air from his lungs and disabled his primitive gag reflex and vagus and glossopharyngeal nerves. He inhaled the gel in practiced gasps, and felt it crawl into every space within his lungs. It tickled and itched deep in his chest displacing bubbles of gas which rose from his lips to dissolve inches above his nose. He remembered again why he hated gel vats and swore once more to use a cryopod next time. Once the familiar torment was done, he switched his HUD to an outside view and watched as the pod moved smoothly along its track to the nearest launch tube entrance. It paused a moment as the tube sealed and evacuated. Then the yellow sphere flashed down the launch rails riding a magnetic wave which crested and broke at the end spilling Yusuf and his pod into blackness and stars.

He slowed his time sense, three subjective hours in eight days passed boosting at six gees. He njoying the peace and quiet despite pressure against every inch of his space adapted body, until the pod flipped and began to decelerate. The vat moved around the inside of the sphere so that to Yusuf the pressure came from the same direction, but it diminished. Buried in and breathing firm gel, Yusuf watched the approach to the near wormhole gate in his HUD. The stargate was named "Semblance of Order" a major subpersonality of the same "Enfoldment by Implicate Order" which kept the Elastrea Array. The gate looked like a huge black mirror, but the stars within were no reflection. Semblance of Order beamed him a polite hail as Ysuf's pod approached, and Yusuf responded with a canned, but cordial message frame. He was still traveling fast, so he assumed the far mouth of this hole must be accelerated relative to this mouth otherwise he would be slowing more. Passing though the gate and thus bypassing the intervening hundred or so light years took no time, and he felt nothing. He couldn't smile, or rather, couldn't do anything but wear an acceleration grimace, but he felt a warm wash of satisfaction. His timesense slowed to a near stop and several more gates flashed by in quick succession as the pod threaded the wormhole Nexus transfer points, finally decelerating violently as it approached a minuscule stargate hardly ten meters across. This was "Fractured Sequence/7" the Elastrea Stargate. Suddenly, there was a tiny dwarf sun. The system and sun had no name, just a catalog number. It's most prominent feature was a pair of twin gas giants orbiting very near the sun and visible in maginification only as blots against it as he left the gate.

"Welcome to Elastrea, Lead Technician, Umaru. I hope your journey was pleasant?" Fractured Sequence had a subtle sense of humor and this node was no different, Yusuf had almost eleven days travel to go.

"And many pleasantries to yourself Fractured Sequence. I trust you are well?" Yusuf sent back in a different and more carefully coded message frame he had purchased some time back. It was supposed to indicate several shades of fraternal respect and stylish disregard for formality. He suspected it just made him look foolish and pathetic. His "colleagues" didn't seem to mind.

For six subjective hours, the pod decelerated and Yusuf used the time to nap as he approached a tumbling rock which in turn orbited the gas giants. With a stuttering drum roll of thumps the pod made fine corrections and settled toward a dark smudge on the surface of the moonlet. Its mottled rock glowed yellowish beneath a sky filled with the spectacle of the two worlds. This pair of churning, vaporous twins was the object which the local Enfoldment by Implicit Order had named "Elastrea" which may or may not have meant something to other AIs.

As the pod descended, the array's dark smudge became a silvery field of tiny moth like antennae spread across the black and gray surface. The moonlet's orbit and rotation had been altered to point the array forever at the titanic shared storms of these two huge siblings. Gravity distorted the shapes of the globes, and between them, intense magnetic fields interacted and merged. The atmosphere beneath their closest points twisted and swirled into huge, perfectly matched cyclones. He switched to a feed directly from the array, and while the pod approached the flat landing deck he let out a long, slow, liquid breath at the spectacle. Material ripped from the two gas envelopes traveled a Gaussian highway, ionized and glowing brightly in the terahertz range, forming a ghostly tornado of light which joined the two worlds. It twisted and danced at an unimaginable scale and speed. The vortex's most narrow point could have easily engulfed a good-sized planet, yet it flicked around like the tiniest whirlpool in a stream. Yusuf added an audio feed from the secondary RF array surrounding the field, and as if to provide music for the dance, these frequencies wailed and whistled with the phenomenon's eerie cry.

The pod bumped gently as it landed. The gel slurped away pulling itself out of his lungs as it went, and the tank lid opened. Yusuf yawned and stretched, Micro gravity felt soothingly free to his sore body. He didn't like spending too long at more than the habitat's three quarter gee, and six was as much as a near baseline could be expected to take for so many hours. He squeezed a diamondite fishbowl over his head into the skin suit's neck coupling. The suit's tiny nanoactuators grabbed the edges and cinched it tightly just as they grasped the edges of the hoses from his bioreactor support pack. He attached two extensible safety lines from his belt to eyelets and gave a thumbs up. The pod depressurized conserving its thin atmosphere and then split open. Yusuf's reflective, gold skin suit stiffened beneath his traditional technician's bib and pockets, but the pressure of the suit's thin, pure oxygen atmosphere was not enough to make him clumsy.

"Welcome to Elastrea, Lead Technician Umaru." Enfoldment by Implicate Order/119, said.

If a Stargate genius like Fractured Sequence/7 as a single node was equivalent to the intellect of all the baseline sophonts in Epiphany Orbital together, Enfoldment by Implicate Order was several orders of magnitude greater still in inscrutability. Yusuf abandoned his canned message frames, "Thank you, Enfoldment by Implicit Order." Yusuf latched on to the top two of the three narrow cables which made a minimalist bridge. The cable stretched from the raised landing deck to a control structure half the distance to the array. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine, thank you. It's unusual to have company here, Lead Technician." With typical AI aplomb Enfoldment was able to sound innocent and suggest insult at the same time. A baseline human would hardly rate as company to a sophont of er complexity, and with internal communication wormholes linking it to the rest of er own distributed identity, the array was hardly likely to become lonely. This node was sitting in the middle of an empty system because e liked things that way, and e was taking the first opportunity to remind Umaru.

Yusuf bit back a sharp reply, "Please, call me Yusuf." The time away from the habitat didn't seem like as much of a vacation as it had a moment ago. He transferred his two safety lines and pulled himself along steadily hand-over-hand. The control structure was a two meter tall diamondite shell surrounding the computronium core of 119. The regolith came right to the edge of its base, most of the structure was buried beneath a loose accumulation of dust.

Yusuf had just touched his foot to the ground beside the core when something caused a brightening of his surroundings. It was like a single, brilliant, strobe. It cast sharp shadows.

"Yusuf?" 119's voice was carefully measured, but the AI put a good deal of tension in its tone.

"What's happened?" Yusuf turned carefully to look back toward the pod, but he saw nothing unusual.

"The Stargate Fractured Sequence/7 has apparently malfunctioned," 119 said. "I'm sorry, Yusuf, our companion is gone."

"Gone?" Every muscle in Yusuf's chest tightened as if against a blow. "How?"

"I detected a powerful Visser stream building soon after you arrived." As 119 spoke Yusuf's incoming feed indicator appeared, and he numbly accepted a composite image showing a fountain of fire. Virtual particles poured into the stargate in a tight column which trailed off the edge of the image. The view pulled back quickly to show a line leading out and away from the system to apparent infinity. "My best hypothesis is a wormhole from a different time domain approached closely enough that it and our wormhole mutually annihilated. I have received Fractured Sequence/7's last incremental backup. There was some loss of information, fortunately minor."

"I'm relieved to hear e was saved, but a CP event? From where?" How could this happen? Yusuf's fingers began to ache, and he realized he was squeezing the guide wire with all the strength in his right hand, squeezing so tightly he was lifting himself off the ground.

"To cause a Chronology Protection Event the other hole could not be part of our Nexus. I have not detected evidence of the other hole's destruction, so if it was large enough to survive, it must then be on a course which carries it no closer to our position. Alternately, it was destroyed and is sufficiently far away that we have not yet seen the explosion. If this is the case, then its effect here indicates a home time frame substantially different from ours." 119 made the sort of pause AIs make to pretend they are taking time to think. "My best guess is that we have just run afoul of the expansion wave of another civilization."

"All of that you get from a single flash in the sky?" Of course, the AI would have already conferred with a huge number of other... "Wait! Is your communications picohole still functional?"

"Yes, this is what leads me to believe the other hole cannot still be approaching. The communications picohole is placed one light second from this station along an opposing axis. It was not destroyed. The illumination you experienced was actually an interesting cascade effect created in the upper atmosphere of Elastrea B by the Visser fountain. The phenomomenon continues as a unique, high frequency aurora. I could show you some analyses?"

"No, thank you." Yusuf sighed with relief and allowed himself to relax. His feet drifted back down to the ground. "Could you please route for me? I would like a gestalt line to my wife."

"I must apologize, but I can only offer you text communication for the next few hours," 119 said. "I am performing an off-site backup to my nodes 118 and 120. I can, of course, make capacity available for you to backup as well." The message was obvious, 119 was busy saving its own prodigious, esoteric fundament but the AI was offering to make room in the lifeboat.

"I've backed up recently. Text messages will have to do, thank you." Frieta's news filter would be screaming at her by now. Yusuf composed a quick note to her. It would have to be enough. Don't worry. I'm fine. Can't gestalt yet, communications is at capacity here. I'll send more later.

Her answer came immediately after the two second delay. I love you. Please be careful!

I love you too. I will, he replied, looking around at the silent rock. He was on the night side of the moon, but Elastrea cast pale yellowish shadows. It was a tiny, empty place. There was nothing for him to do, reckless or careful. He was helpless. "Has Nexus said anything about how we get out of this?"

"The Nexus regional administrative node has suggested that both you and I terminate and restore from backup in a more accessible place."

Yusuf's heart pounded in his throat. "Terminate! Why?"

"There may be another extra-domain wormhole following this one. In fact, this is typically what we have seen in first contact, and this is the reason the stargate was positioned in such a way that the station is always shielded by Elastrea B. If this is a first contact, the next wormhole will destroy our remaining communications. Also, unless I expel the picohole, the Visser particle stream from it's detonation will destroy my core and this station. I would prefer to reoccupy the existing station when the crisis is over. In any event, the Nexus will be launching two large replacement stargates toward us in a few hours at relativistic speeds. These will provide more protection against this sort of incursion and shore-up our Empire Time domain, but the growing time delta of the approaching holes will also destroy our picohole soon after launch." 119's tone was casual, like a verbal shrug. "I'm preparing to shutdown my higher functions as soon as I complete this backup, Yusuf. I choose not to gather impressions I won't live to remember."

"How..." Yusuf stared at the black monolith which now seemed so ominous in the sickly yellow light. "How would I terminate?"

"You could easily terminate by lowering the oxygen output from your bioreactor." The AI used a soothing voice, but the words were as cold as its black core sitting in the airless night. "The effect should even be pleasant if done slowly. Please choose soon. I will be expelling the picohole in nine hours."

Yusuf carefully swapped his safety lines and began walking his way back to the pod, "How long until I can get a gestalt?"

"Two hours," 119 replied.

"Route me as soon as you can." Yusuf returned to the pod and sat on the edge of the acceleration tub as the pressure rose. He could live indefinitely with pod support, it was a closed system. And with luck the modern medical nanites in his body would keep him alive for another century. A century on a rock, without even text messages for company. All the manna in circulation wasn't worth this.

Time seeped by, and Yusuf had far too much of it with which to think. He assumed anyone else in his position would be as calm as the AI. After all, what was a backup and restore? It was done all the time for things as trivial as soma-sculpting and rejuvenation. Backups were mandatory, but Yusuf had never restored before. His stomach churned at the thought, and he felt his breath coming faster. It was always his father that came to mind at times like these, damn him. He tried to control his panic, but finally resorted to letting his health system take over regulation, bringing his misbehaved endocrine subsystem back into balance directly. It helped his breathing, but without dampening neurotransmitters, nothing helped his scurrying thoughts. He let them run. He couldn't stand the thought of meeting his fate with chemically induced acceptance.

"I have a route for your gestalt and am in contact with both your wife and your mother," 119 announced. "I will be terminating now. You have control of the routing functions directly. The picohole will eject automatically in seven hours."

"I understand, thank you."

"It was a pleasure meeting you. Please give my regards to both the elder and the younger Mrs. Umaru. You are a very fortunate man." The connection indicator for Enfoldment by Implicit Order/119 vanished.

Yusuf was puzzled by the inexplicable sentiment. He realized at that moment that he was as alone as he had ever heard of anyone being. He certainly didn't feel lucky. Shrugging off the thought, he quickly established the gestalt. He was relieved to see the pod dissolve around him as the gestalt replaced his physical senses with a shared world.

Bright sunshine shown down, and the air smelled of the sea. Yusuf was surprised to see the old family home on Wabe instead of the Epiphany orbital.

"At the sound of the tone, the time will be eighteen-hundred Hours, thirty-two Minutes and eighteen seconds," said a tiny, antique clock which sat atop the solitary table on the veranda. The clock chimed quietly as a breeze billowed the sheer white curtains to each side of the open doors. They framed a view of the bay and a wide stair leading down to the long, green lawn.

"Your mother's here. She called as soon as she heard." Frieta topped the steps, the same soft breeze swirled her skirt around her ankles and blew stray hairs across her face, but her expression was intense and her eyes unblinking.

Yusuf looked away, pretending to search the grounds. "Where is..."

"You don't intend to restore, do you?"
Frieta smoothed her gown and composed herself, but her expression was still hard. "Mother Umaru is waiting by the boathouse."

Remembering the two second roundtrip delay in communications, Yusuf altered his timesense then nodded and they made their way down to the boathouse by the tiny beach and pier. Yusuf remembered sneaking down this path as a child, feeling his way in the darkness, taking the old dingy away and fishing by lantern light off of the point. Mother hadn't told him about the nanite trackers in his "toothpaste" until he was in college. It had never occurred to him that he was the only child he knew who still brushed his teeth.

When they arrived, she was standing on the short pier waiting calmly for them as if she hadn't been waiting at all. Her typically conservative business sari and walking stick were the image of the modern financier. Yusuf's mother and Frieta embraced formally and Mother turned to Yusuf, surprising him with her stern expression. "Has she told you yet?"

"Told me?" Confused, Yusuf turned to Frieta, and saw nervous concern.

"No, Mother Umaru. I was waiting for later."

"Later?" She raised an eyebrow and tapped her stick. "How much time do you think you have?"

"Please, Mother." Yusuf raised his hands as if that would hold back her formidable will. "We shouldn't spend this time arguing." He looked to Frieta. "What were you going to tell me?"

"I want to send a copy to be with you." Her expression said, "Please hear me."

Now he understood why the boathouse and the mystery. "I don't want a copy of you. If I'm to be stranded, I don't want to spend the time with a facsimile, just as I've never wanted to spend my life with a restored copy."

"But it would be..." Frieta began.

"It would be false." He waved his hand to indicate, the almost ocean and not-quite sky. "A copy would be like this stuff. I tolerate it because it's really you on the other end. This is just a medium for us to reach each other. But without you there to drive this, it's just a dream, just a cruel imitation."

"Yusuf!" Mother Umaru tapped her staff forcefully, her own young face the proof of her regular rejuvenations.

Yusuf thought of his father and felt the tug at his belly and the gorge in his throat. "You were quick enough to take Uncle Musa when Dad was gone."

She raised her chin and glared at him from some imaginary height. "Your father left. Musa has been a great comfort to me." And she was only telling the truth in that, Yusuf knew. It was his father who had chosen to spend the next thousand years as a backup only to return to life if something came along that his search agents considered worth experiencing. He had always been so witty and bold and interested in everything. Then Yusuf had found him, blue and cold in his chair with a short message playing over and over from the comm system still working in his dead flesh. It was only then that Yusuf had know that his father's passion and joy was all a lie -- an act by a consummate actor. Even so, Yusuf had wished in that moment that it was his mother instead.

"Who was there to comfort me while you were playing with your new toy?" Yusuf said. He saw the hurt in his mother's tightened lips and narrowed eyes, and he regretted the words as he said them, as he had regretted that thought so long ago. He did not hate his mother, but it was so difficult to hate his father in his absence, to hate a pattern of bits in distributed storage. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. He hurt us both, and Uncle Musa has never been anything but kind to me."

"Yet here you are ready to do the same to your wife and to me." She swallowed noisily and pointed a finger at him. "Look at you. The same as your father. bored with us and with living, none of it, none of us good enough for you."

It was Frieta's turn to stem the tide. "We agreed, Mother Umaru, I would talk to him about this alone."

"True. And you have earned that, but this is my only boy." And then something happened that he had never seen in his life. Strong, youthful, Mother Umaru became a small and frightened old woman. As if her bones were truly weakened by age, and she was an arthritic character from an old play, she leaned hard into her cane and rocked her head as if in prayer.

Yusuf took her in his arms and was terrified by how frail she felt through the all too faithful simulation. The only sound was the old dingy bumping its mooring as it road the slapping, wind blown waves beneath them. There had been no reason for him to go to the outpost personally. He could have sent a telepresence. He had just wanted time alone, wanted to sneak off by himself. But he had wandered too far from home this time, and his sin had broken one of the pillars of his world. She's right. I can't abandon them this way.

"This has all happened so quickly. I haven't had time to stop and think." He stepped back and looked at both of them. "I leave it to you to decide whether to restore me. I can't pretend I like the idea of a copy living my life. But I think he'll..."

"Stop," Frieta said and looked away with an ashamed expression.

"But I.."

"She said, 'Stop,' Yusuf." Mother Umaru straightened, and her mouth was a hard line. "This isn't you chance to play the martyr, boy."

With a painful wrench, Yusuf saw his words from their perspective. Even now he was playing games. This had to stop. "Please forgive me." He touched his mother's arm and took Frieta's hand. "I need to grow up and accept that this is the way we live now. I don't want you to be alone. I want to be restored." He hoped he sounded more sincere now, but he doubted it.

They walked back to the veranda, and Mother held him for a long time. At last she let go and said over his shoulder to Frieta, "Tell him." She left then, walking back into the house, not looking back.

Frieta pulled him down onto the chair and sat in his lap with her head bent down to listen to the representation of his heart.

"Tell me what?" He stroked her hair. "Let's not waste time with this copy thing again. I don't want a simulation. I want to remember you as you are right now."

"But it wouldn't be a simulation." She leaned back and her wide, solid blue eyes stared into his, "It would be me. Don't you see? It..."

"At the sound of the tone, the alarm time will be twenty-three-hours and thirty-two-minutes, eighteen seconds December eleventh, twenty-two thirty-one of the Common Era, Empire Time."

He pulled her to him. This moment would not be spent in words. Just one more kiss to last him forever.

The clock's tiny chime sounded.

And her lips were still there, pressed firm and real against his. He opened his eyes. They still sat on the chair on the veranda, but now the air seemed fresher and everything was somehow clearer.

Frieta opened her eyes slowly, and their lips parted. She considered him calmly. "I tried to tell you." She pulled her bottom lip through her teeth as she always did when she was nervous. "I plan to grow old with you. I had a destructive scan and backup. This is me here with you. All of me." She hesitated. "All there is." She watched him, eyes wide with fear, waiting for him to react.

Stunned, he stared at the tiny imperfections in her skin, felt the warmth of her breath against his face. 119 must have known, he thought and a quick check of the routes confirmed it. This simulation was running on 119's core, and the AI would have had to override the normal limitations on simulations for this to be so perfect. Enfoldment of Implicit Order had sacrificed node 119 to provide the computing power for this simulation, and the AI had delayed to give Frieta time for a complete scan and backup. Bodies took tremendous information to store. But she was still just a copy, dead bits, like his father.

But as he touched her throat softly, he felt the pulse race beneath her skin. Here she was in his arms, and she had done this thing for him without even knowing if he would accept the gift. Seeing her there afraid and waiting for him to make it right, his heart opened and overflowed. He kissed her once, deeply, then he stood, taking her hand. Frieta smiled. The way his heart beat at the shine of joy and relief in her face cleared away any doubt that this was his one true Frieta. Yusuf made a quick change to the gestalt, patching it into a feed from the array. The walls around them melted away, and it seemed they stood on the bare rock of the moon. The spectacular glow of the storms of Elastrea whipped across the stars above.

He put his arm around Frieta's waist, "I think you'll like it here. The new place has a great view." She nodded silently and leaned her head against his shoulder. He let his own cheek settle in her hair and inhaled the familiar scent. "How does it... How do you feel?"

"I thought I would be able to tell the difference somehow, but it's the same."

He left it at that. Today had been a long day for them both. Yusuf brought up a command interface on his HUD and changed some settings on his bioreactor. He also scheduled an automatic backup and restore-to-sim for the moment sleep came. He wondered if he would be able to tell the difference.

Back to Stories by Author