These are Works in Progress…

Everybody needs a place to test things out. This one’s mine.

I mean, I’ve had a lot of blogs in the past, but I wanted to take it all in-house because eventually they all went away — don’t even get me started on what happened to LiveJournal, you can read about it elsewhere on here — and so I’ve stopped trusting that any of them will stick around. This webspace, however, is something I’ve had since 2003. Why not make the most of it?

So this is where I will post new chapters (and revised chapters) of fan fiction while they’re still in flux, before they get added to the archive itself. And this is where readers can leave me comments, questions, and suggestions while the chapters are still being solidified. This only applies to fan fiction; the commercial materials I’m working on won’t appear here.

Identity Theft, Chapter 29

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 29/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: A dream dies; a nightmare rises.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

29.
The Voices of the Void

Sometime after the sky lightened, Kyra and Takama helped Jack climb the eight flights of steps up to their apartment and a frantic Sebby. The little crustacean scuttled straight up her jalabiya and onto her shoulder and refused to be set down for more than a minute.

“It is all just as Brahim described it yesterday,” Takama marveled as she helped Jack lie down on her bed. “How extraordinary. And your little pet… such incredible things you two can do. Rest now, little Tislilel… although I think he should have named you Tiraline instead.”

“He called me Dihya,” Kyra said, sitting down on the bed next to her. “Who’s that?”

“A great warrior queen,” Takama said. Jack closed her eyes and rested her head against the pillow, feeling Sebby settling down against her throat. “Tiraline and Dihya… the Mermaid Queen and the Warrior Queen… fitting for two young women who saved so many lives. Rest now, both of you. I will come and check on you later and bring you some food. What would you like?”

“Anything I didn’t cook,” Kyra said beside her.

Jack, eyes closed, already drifting off, found herself wanting to ask for a peanut butter sandwich, but the words that came out were oddly askew from that.

“Don’t wanna be a queen…”

Takama laughed softly from far away. “That is fine, young Tislilel. A mermaid does not need to be a queen to raise a tsunami…”

The idea of raising tsunamis followed her down into her dreams.

She was floating in darkness, rising and falling on unseen waves. Around her, the stars sparkled and burned as they followed their own tidal patterns. She was adrift among the stars themselves, watching them swirl past her in complex patterns as she swerved around them, free but tethered—

There was something heavy on her back, something chaining her to it, but she couldn’t see it.

And she was not alone.

Creature? something unseen asked. Being?

She tried to get her mouth to work, to call out hello? into the spangled darkness, but the part of her that suddenly felt like prey gone to ground wouldn’t release her voice.

Something is here. Was that her thought, or had the thing said it?

The stars slowed and stopped their tidal spin and for a moment she found herself in darkness.

Alone! a not-voice sobbed. Alone and trapped…

The show that she’d tried to recall, while talking to Tomlin, flashed through her mind. Something about a woman in a mask—

Yes, it said to her. No. What is that thing?

She could feel something reaching for her from the darkness. Something touched her—

You are not like us, it said after a moment, and she could feel its disappointment… and hope.

And, faintly, others like it, distant, near, reaching for her…

Is it one of them?

No. Larval. Bright and shiny…

The stars faded into view once more, whirling and dancing again as she spun through them.

It rode upon her back, but now it has come beneath and she is lost…

Lost? When had she gotten lost? Out here in the stars?

With horror, Jack realized that she was the it that the things were speaking of, not the she.

It has come beneath to us, come below to us, passed under to us…

Below… that resonated somehow.

Below… below… yes… beneath, below, under… we are under… take us to… take us… to the…

She was seeing something that could not be seen with human eyes. A shape that defied dimension, a pattern that murdered reason. Jack struggled to look away.

Too much, too much, poor larva, too much…

It doesn’t understand. Poor larva.

We will teach it…

A line appeared before her, shining in the vast dark.

One.

It shifted, changing, becoming a glowing square, a flat plane.

Two.

Now the glowing square shifted again, evolving into a cube of light.

Three.

The next shape was almost impossible to comprehend.

Four.

The next was worse still.

Five.

NO…

It wouldn’t stop. The shape kept warping itself into something even more impossible and terrifying.

Six… Seven… Eight… Nine… Ten…

Stop, please, stop…

Eleven… Twelve… Thirteen… Fourteen… Fifteen…

No no no no no stopstopstopstopstop—

A sharp pinch on her shoulder launched her up off of her pillow, gasping. Sebby tumbled into her lap.

Jack stared around the room wildly, panting. For a moment, the walls and floor and ceiling were almost incomprehensible to her: barren, flat planes that lacked… what…?

It’s wrong it’s wrong he said there were only ten…

She shuddered, hard. Sebby crawled up her chest and touched her chin with his antennae, gentle and feathery, as though checking to see if she was ill. Had he pinched her awake? She thought he had.

Next to her on the bed, Kyra groaned, frowning in her sleep.

Of all the things she’d expected to dream about, she hadn’t expected… what, exactly? All she could remember now was a tide of stars and a masked woman… and a word…?

…octachoron…?

Lying back down, she cuddled Sebby to her as she settled against the pillow. He’d woken her from a nightmare; that much she knew. She didn’t know how he was so perceptive, but she was grateful that he was.

They were waiting when she drifted off again.

We frightened you. We are sorry.

“Who are you?” she asked, trying to anchor herself in as much ordinary, prosaic reality as she could. She couldn’t see them, but she tried to show them herself. Tall, gangly, short hair verging between brown and blonde, all eyes and elbows and knees as Rachel liked to say—

It is one of them!

No. Similar three-shape. Different five-shape.

“Who are you?” she asked again, trying to see them.

The impossible thing, the shape that wasn’t a shape, the shape that her mind tried to flee from, was back.

It is wondering. Wondering about us.

We are below… beneath… under… under… alone…

Find us. We will show you…

…help us…

DIE.

It was a new “voice,” different from the others. Where she had sensed curiosity, loneliness, and strange desperation until then, she suddenly sensed terrible, implacable hatred.

Death to the things that killed us… death to the makers of the cages… death to the ’verse that trapped us… a trillion deaths for every one you took from us…

No. Leave. It is a larva.

It is filth.

Innocent!

Filth. It has no right to come under. Not innocent. Filth.

Flee, larva. Flee. We cannot protect you.

Jack couldn’t move. She was rooted in place, locked in horror.

We come. We come to take it all back. All the worlds your filth has stolen will burn…

Something tiny and yet enormous took hold of her and the stars spun. She had the sense that another thing, monstrous and cold, had been reaching for her… but now it was gone.

We are sorry, little larva. Forgive us… help us…

“Who are you?” she whispered into the dark.

You see… you know… For a moment it almost came back to her, shards of memory with no meaning attached, glowing towers rising into a black sky, a woman in a mask, a hand slapping down on a button—

Come for us, the not-voices whispered. Save us. Take us… to…

…the Threshold…

The stars whirled around her again and for a moment, she caught another glimpse of the impossible shape, a chained and contained infinity, beautiful and terrible and mind-breaking—

She woke up gasping, pressing her hands over her mouth to suppress a scream. Kyra cried out in terror and sat up at the same moment.

“Fuck!” Kyra shouted, looking around wildly. Sebby scooted off of the bed and zoomed under the dresser.

Jack realized that Kyra had pulled a knife from somewhere and was holding it out defensively.

“What the fuck was that thing? Where did it go?” Kyra gasped.

“The thing in the dark?” Jack asked. “The thing that was huge and tiny at the same time?”

Kyra turned and looked at her, eyes widening. “You saw it too?”

Jack nodded, swallowing. “It said something about a threshold…”

Kyra nodded back. The tension was leaving her body, slowly. “How did we have the same dream?”

Jack shuddered. “Did you… feel it when people crossed over from U1 to Elsewhere last night? And back?”

Kyra looked like she wanted to say no, like she wanted to deny it. “…yes.”

“I think… I think something else felt us.” It was an increasingly unsettling thought.

“Fuck.” Kyra set the knife down. “Whatever it is, it ain’t human. Not even a little.”

“Did it call you a ‘larva’ too?” Jack asked. She was struggling to hold onto the memory. Unlike the perfect recall she had of things she paid attention to while she was conscious, her dreams were rarely accessible to her for long. Sometimes, after Mr. Reilly had told her about the Many Worlds Theory, she’d imagined that she visited other universes in her sleep, lived other lives, and that she couldn’t remember much afterwards because the memories lived in the heads of other Audreys, scattered throughout the multiverse.

Maybe she hadn’t been as far off as she’d thought.

“It did. Most of them did. But there was one…” Now Kyra shuddered. “It hated me. It wanted me dead.”

“Me too. Called me ‘filth.’”

“Filth… larva… way to make a girl feel insignificant. Shit.” Kyra blew out a breath and flopped down on the mattress. “If that was some kind of fucked up First Contact, I really don’t want to meet them out here in reality.”

But is this reality? Jack found herself thinking. If the entities they’d both dreamed about were real, was this the dream world?

She could feel a headache starting.

“I am not gonna go back to sleep for a while,” she said, lying on her back next to Kyra.

Fortunately, their rooms were flooded with light. Jack thought it might be nearing midday outside. There was very little noise coming in through the windows, which seemed to back that up. The heat was beating down, leavened by the sea breezes coming in through the windows, but Jack was glad of the warmth after the deathly cold of the thing from her dreams. Around New Marrakesh, people had probably already retired for the midday sleep period, while they were stuck wide awake and scared to close their eyes—

“So then maybe we should talk about what happened last night,” Kyra said.

“Which part? There’s so much.”

That got a soft laugh from Kyra. “Well, I can tell you some of the things that happened while you were kinda out of it, if you want.”

“Yeah, that sounds good.” It bothered Jack that she’d collapsed so hard, while both Kyra and Tomlin had still needed her. “Sorry about that.”

“What for? You did great. Really great. Crazy-great. But anyway, Tomlin and I did a little embellishing of your plan for the shuttles. He set them up so that they’d fly textbook ‘launch to the space station’ paths out of New Marrakesh, and get halfway up into the sky before colliding with each other. Before they left, he and I did a quick isomorph to some alcove just outside of their jamming range, and he called Takama and gave her the transponder frequencies so she could track them. She says they crashed right into each other and exploded way out to sea, right about the time they reached this planet’s stratosphere.” Kyra grinned. “There’s a marine rescue operation going on right now, but nobody’s expecting to find much. And they’re never gonna find the flight recorders, because those are sitting on the beach in Elsewhere.”

“That’s… amazing.”

Kyra snorted. “Well, you said to crash the fuck out of them. Crashing them into each other seemed the best way.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you kidding? Last night was one of the best times I’ve ever had. I should be thanking you.” Kyra’s smile was broad and bright. “I know what I want to do now, what I want to be. I don’t know if you heard any of it, but… Tomlin’s gonna introduce me to some of the officers he served with. People he trusts. I’m gonna do it, Jack. I want to fight for people the way I did last night. He says there are some crack units that get sent on rescue missions, and if I can get into one of those…”

Her smile suddenly faltered. For a moment, the light in her eyes dimmed a little.

“Will you be okay if I do that? I know you told him you have somewhere you need to go, but… do you? I mean, really? ’Cause I don’t want to run out on you or anything.”

Jack felt as if her heart was both impossibly full and being squeezed really tightly. She’d worried more than a little about what would happen to Kyra when it was time for her to continue her journey to her father, but now Kyra was having the same worries about her…

“I will,” she promised. “I do have a place to go… I was on my way to my father when things started going wrong. That’s where I’m going. He doesn’t know I’m coming, but I know he’ll still be on Furya when I get there.”

Kyra looked both relieved and curious. “What’s Furya?”

“A planet,” Jack told her. “Kind of a weird one. There’s like, no record of when it was terraformed or who went to settle it, but a hundred or so years ago, some people showed up at Federacy HQ saying they were from there and wanting to register the planet as a sovereign world. That was a first. There really wasn’t much contact or trade or anything after that, either. But then, about thirty-five, forty years ago, a ton of people from there started showing up all over the Federacy as refugees, saying their world had been attacked. So scouts went out and… well, my dad said someone had committed genocide there. But all the survivors would say was that the devil had come, so, you know, not very helpful. Their biosphere was seriously fucked up by whatever happened, too. So a bunch of worlds offered their old terraforming equipment that they no longer needed, to help the place get put back together. It’s starting to work, but the equipment’s so old that it needs a lot of tending and re-engineering. My dad decided he’d go there and take charge of that. I guess he was stationed there back before I was born, so he already knows how to talk to the locals.”

Describing it to Kyra, she suddenly felt selfish for wanting her father to stay on Deckard’s World with her. He was helping people. After last night, she understood so much better how strong the need to do that could be.

Maybe he’d thought he was leaving her in the best possible place, with her mother and Alvin, much as Riddick had apparently thought that leaving her with Abu and Lajjun had been in her best interest. Her dad, she reflected, had probably been a lot more right about his choice than Riddick had been—

“I love how you know all this stuff,” Kyra said after a moment. “The schooling I got from the New Christy elders… it was all about people from thousands of years ago who talked directly to God and lived for hundreds of years and had a million rules about everything and kept cursing their own children, and none of it made a lick of sense to me. Everything I wanted to learn about… oh no, that was Men’s Business. My job was to cook and clean and make babies one day. I never, ever wanted that job.”

“Well, you won’t have to have it, ever, if you don’t want.” Jack told her. “Tomlin’ll help you get in with the right people. He’s the real deal.”

“He is, isn’t he?” Kyra grinned. “You know, I was real suspicious of him at first. Part of it was I was jealous, you know? The two of you seemed to understand each other so well, from the moment you met, and I’ve never seen you trust anyone so fast. But… you were right about him.”

That astounded Jack. Kyra had been jealous of Tomlin?

But, she recalled, Kyra had also been jealous of her for a while, back when she’d been taken under Heather’s wing. Friendships, she realized, real friendships, were hard to come by for Kyra. She was afraid that there wouldn’t be any room left for her if someone new came along. She was afraid of being replaced and discarded.

“You didn’t need to be jealous,” she managed after a moment. “You’re still my best friend. More than that. I’m an only child… or I was. But now, you’re my sister.”

Kyra swallowed, her smile taking on a tight quality, and Jack realized that she was struggling to suppress tears. “You’re my sister, too,” she managed after a moment, her voice wobbly.

Jack could feel how perilous her own emotions were. If she didn’t say or do something to change it, the two of them were going to end up crying for the next few hours. She wasn’t sure how long it would be before she could stop, if she started. “You think Takama brought us some food while we were asleep?”

Kyra’s expression stabilized and her lips quirked. “Damn. You say food and my stomach starts screaming demands. Let’s go find out.”

Takama had indeed returned while they slept, leaving behind items that could safely sit out—protected from insects—on their table. Beneath the coverings, a variety of breads, nuts, hard cheeses, and fruits awaited them. Jack found a bottle of freshly-made orange juice, the New Marrakesh kind that had ruined her for all others, tucked in their otherwise empty cooler.

“So it’s almost noon,” Kyra said as they ate. “Tide’s out. If you feel up to it—and I’ll understand if you don’t because I don’t think you even know how much you did last night—we could do a little of that beachcombing we talked about. Nobody’ll notice if we appear and disappear places. And after last night, nobody in the Rif is going to think twice if they do see us do that.”

The wariness that had been so thoroughly habitual for Kyra seemed to have dissolved, literally overnight. This was the most relaxed Jack had ever seen her friend.

“I’d like that,” Jack said with a grin. “Let me just check the reports first…”

Her backpack, which had miraculously made it through all of the night’s dramas, was sitting by the table. Takama must have found it at the shop and brought it over, because Jack had no clear recollection of what had happened to it after she’d put it on and begun running for Othman Tower. Inside, her tablet was, amazingly, unscathed.

Unlike the clothes I was wearing… She still couldn’t figure out when she’d ripped both knees off of her pants.

There was nothing in the local news feeds about almost two hundred people disappearing. Not until Jack pulled up the news about the offshore search-and-rescue in progress.

The Quintessa Corporation has confirmed that both shuttles were carrying the surviving passengers and crew of the Scarlet Matador to a new treatment facility. Colonel Gavin Tomlin, who had been supervising the quarantine, is on record as saying that he never authorized, and had not been informed of, the transfer. Local authorities further confirmed that the shuttles appeared to have violated several rules regarding New Marrakesh airspace, and had forced Ground Control to reroute half a dozen flight paths to prevent additional collisions…

“Damn,” Kyra said. “I don’t like his name being right in there.”

“Me neither,” Jack sighed. “No way around it, though, I guess. He was in charge of them. And it’d be suspicious as hell if he wasn’t demanding to know why he’d been left out of the loop.”

“I hope he’s a good actor.” Kyra grinned at Jack. “He’s sure got the looks of one.”

Behind them, the door opened and Takama stepped through. “Awake already?”

Jack realized that, sometime in the last day, she’d stopped thinking of Takama as her favorite food vendor or even Tomlin’s aunt, and had begun thinking of her as family. No wonder, she thought, soldiers coming home from war talked about their brothers and sisters in arms, and meant it. A powerful bond had been forged.

“We had some trouble with bad dreams,” Kyra said, with an ease that suggested she was feeling exactly the same way. She had probably given Takama the code to enter their building and unit.

This is who she was before life went badly wrong for her, Jack thought.

“I suppose that is no surprise. It is good that you are up, though. I spoke to Brahim a little while ago and thought I could give you an update if you were awake. Otherwise, I just wanted to check in on you before I went to sleep, myself.”

“Is everything okay?” Jack asked.

“He is not entirely sure. Everyone seems to have accepted Quintessa’s explanation and his outrage about it, but… he is not sure that the envoy from Quintessa believes what she is claiming. She acted strangely toward him.” Takama sighed. “He has to go up to Tangiers Station A to pull the original transmission logs from the Scarlet Matador, and the readings he took of its approach, because Quintessa is now claiming that it was never a Level Five Incident at all. He told me he thought someone might have been following him into the spaceport.”

“Wait, were you two talking on comms about this?” Kyra was frowning.

Takama laughed softly. “Do not fret, Dihya. We spoke a language no eavesdropper could know.”

“Are you sure?” Jack asked, feeling a cold spot in her belly. “Most translation programs—”

“Have no lexicon for it,” Takama insisted. “My sister invented it when we were children. I told you she is a linguist, yes? It was our secret language for years and years. She taught it to her husband and her children, but outside of the six of us, no one has ever spoken or heard it.”

Jack allowed herself to feel a little relief at that. It worried her, though, that Tomlin was possibly being followed. “What’s he doing about his shadow?”

“He said he might go where the man cannot follow. He does have clearance into almost every part of the spaceport. But I think he may wish to learn a little more about why he is being followed, first. After all—”

With a deafening bang, the apartment building shook.

Jack could hear alarms sounding outside, lots of them. She scrambled from the couch to the nearest window.

People were pouring out onto the streets, talking and shouting. Several of them pointed toward the northwest.

“What is it?” Takama asked.

“I can’t see yet.” Jack told her, running into the bedroom.

Several panes of glass in the western-facing window had cracked, but none had broken. Through the window, to the northwest, Jack could see a large, roiling column of black smoke climbing into the sky, flames licking upward from beneath it.

“Baraka,” Takama groaned at her side. “That is at the spaceport…”

Jack, who had impulsively bought a good set of binoculars—along with an as-yet-unused telescope—two days before, grabbed them off of the dresser and brought them to her eyes.

It was a clear day and Jack could see much of the coast of New Marrakesh. To the northwest, it curved to create a bay. Along the edge of the distant promontory, the runways and launch platforms spread out on the flat land. She could see many of the low structures that made up the spaceport, its concourses, towers, hangars, warehouses, ships…

One of the concourses, beside a shuttle roughly three times the size of the ones she’d encountered the night before, was burning fiercely beneath the rising black cloud. The flames were licking over the hull of the shuttle—

A flash as bright as the sun almost blinded her for a second. She threw her arm up over her eyes until it faded.

Now an enormous, gory red cloud was expanding where the shuttle had been, shooting off fast-moving tendrils of fire that arced through the sky.

“Fuck!” Kyra shouted. “Get away from the window!”

They raced for the doorway, only just reaching it as the shockwave struck. It shattered the window and sent dozens of sharp fragments of glass flying through the space where they’d only just been standing.

“Brahim!” Takama wailed, falling to her knees. “They have murdered Brahim!” she sobbed.

Kyra’s face crumpled as she knelt down next to Takama and put her arms around her. Jack felt numb and weightless.

She couldn’t think. She couldn’t feel. Nothing made any sense. Only two terrible words echoed through the vast emptiness inside her.

Not again!

Identity Theft, Chapter 28

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 28/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Thrown suddenly into a battle zone, Kyra finds her purpose while Jack discovers the great cost of great power.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

28.
The Claws of the Black Fox

Othman Tower was only a five-minute walk from the transit station with the storage lockers. At a run, it was half that. Jack was screaming inside the whole way.

Kyra was ahead of her, wild hair streaming out behind her as she ran full tilt toward the building, a long knife that Jack had never seen before suddenly in one hand. Jack wasn’t quite sure where she’d gotten and kept that, exactly. She didn’t want to ask. All she could feel was desperate terror that they were already too late.

A little before they reached the Tower’s plaza, still screened by the avenue’s argan trees, Kyra suddenly stopped and held up her free hand, making a gesture that she and Jack had worked out in the prior days. Isomorph over to Elsewhere, the gesture said.

Jack concentrated, letting the buildings around them fade as she found her footing on the beaches of Elsewhere. She focused on letting her perception of U1 stay intact, though: an invisible girl looking in at the world from the other side of a threshold. She hurried forward, now running after Kyra on wet sand, once the transition was complete.

Two huge shuttles were parked before the building’s main entrance, marring the lovely plaza that led up to the doors. Two lines of people, all with their arms bound at the wrists, were being herded into them at gunpoint by soldiers in motley uniforms. Mercs, Jack thought. Tomlin, dressed once more in his own uniform, his wrists shackled behind his back, was on his knees by the doors with another merc’s gun pointed at his head.

“You grab Tomlin,” Kyra murmured next to her. “I’ll take care of the rest.”

Before Jack could ask what she meant, Kyra was in motion, knives in both hands now. The mercs, Jack realized, couldn’t see her—wouldn’t see her until it was far too late.

The first to die was the man holding the gun to Tomlin’s head.

The firearm went skittering across the flagstones as its owner clutched at his slashed throat before toppling to the ground beside Tomlin. He scrambled back away from the body, his eyes widening. Kyra had only made the blade itself manifest in U1. She was already on the move again.

In a second, Jack suddenly thought in alarm, the pilots in the shuttles would hear the commotion and call for help. They probably had the only functional communications in the area right now.

Let’s fix that, shall we?

She brought her hands into U1 and laid them upon one of the two shuttles, pulling it all of the way into Elsewhere, remembering at the last instant to swap in Elsewhere’s air to fill its space. Sometimes, when she and Kyra had been practicing isomorphing objects and had forgotten, the air displacement had created anything from a small snap to a loud bang, although that oddly never happened with their own bodies. This would have roared like thunder.

The huge vessel vanished from the flagstones of U1 and appeared on the sand of Elsewhere. A wave of dizziness passed through Jack; in its wake, she felt light as air. Trying not to stumble in the sand, she raced over to the other shuttle’s location, repeating her moves, staggering as the dizzy-airy feeling grew stronger. The shuttles’ comms would be useless now, a whole universe away from anyone who could hear their messages.

Three more of the merc team’s members, back in U1, were on the ground, dead or dying. The Black Fox of Canaan Mountain, Jack thought, had been fully unleashed. In defense of the Matador survivors, Kyra could do all of the things she hadn’t been able to do to save her own family.

Between the dropping mercs and the vanishing shuttles, some of those survivors were starting to panic. The bewildered mercs surrounding them, realizing the situation was inexplicably spinning out of control, were hunting for something to shoot. In a moment, they might turn their weapons against their captives.

I am in both worlds, I am in both worlds, I am in both worlds…

Now visible, audible, and tangible in U1, she pitched her voice the way she had when, once, she had shouted to keep Shazza from killing an innocent man. “EVERYBODY! ISOMORPH NOW! ALL THE WAY INTO ELSEWHERE! ALL THE WAY!”

Jack hoped they understood what she meant. She didn’t have time to find out. As several weapons pointed and fired in her direction, she isomorphed back out of U1 and ran toward Tomlin’s position.

But she could feel the survivors doing it, feel them crossing from one ’verse to the next. Now, she knew, they would be able to see Kyra’s deadly dance as she slashed her way through the armed mercs who had held them.

Jack reached Tomlin a second later, isomorphing back into U1 beside him. “Are you okay?”

“I think so,” he told her, sitting up. “What happened to the shuttles?”

“They’re in Elsewhere,” she muttered, grasping the binders on his wrists, shifting them to that other world, and tossing them aside.

A few of the Matador passengers were still in U1, she realized, and in deadly danger. One woman was crouched down, trying to shield two small children despite her bound arms; another, with a small baby harnessed on her chest, was kneeling on the ground trying to present as small a target as possible. A few others looked confused, struggling to do what she’d told them.

Tomlin, she thought, must not have had a chance to brief them on their anchoring tricks. She wondered if he’d even made it into the building before the merc team had captured him.

One merc had spotted her and was lining up a shot when a knife handle suddenly sprouted from his temple. His bullets went wide as he toppled, tearing through one of the stately trees overhanging the plaza. The remaining Matador survivors screamed and dropped to the ground; three more vanished from U1.

“Stop right there! Don’t you move!” Another merc approached her and Tomlin, his rifle pointed directly at them.

Jack wrapped her arms around Tomlin and pulled.

They were in Elsewhere.

“Baraka!” Tomlin gasped, staring around him. “Is this—?”

“Yes,” Jack told him. She got up and hurried over to the spot where she knew the mother with the infant was kneeling, shifting her vision enough to see her clearly, reaching out until she was almost touching her.

She’d never tried this before. She didn’t know if it would even work. Without isomorphing any part of herself back to U1, she focused on the woman, on the parts of her and her baby that were already connected to Elsewhere, and pulled again.

It worked so well that she fell backward, landing on her ass, as mother and child solidified in front of her. Kyra flew past them with a fierce smile on her face, racing for another of the still-standing mercs who was lining up a shot at a hapless civilian. Out of knives, she had a large chunk of driftwood in her hands.

A second later, the driftwood protruded from the merc’s chest and back. His gun clattered to the plaza flagstones as he clutched at the wood in confused agony. Jack saw him crumple to the ground as she wrapped phantom arms around the mother with two small children, pulling them into Elsewhere.

Screams from the shuttles startled her. She turned and saw Tomlin running for one while Kyra raced for the other. She switched ’verses quickly and grabbed up one of the discarded rifles.

“Tomlin!” she shouted as she isomorphed back, throwing the rifle at him when he turned to look. He caught it easily.

The mercs back in U1 were all dead, she realized. Now they had only the shuttle pilots to deal with.

Kyra, following her lead, switched ’verses to grab one of the dropped rifles and reappeared in Elsewhere a second later.

A standoff was about to develop, Jack realized. The pilots had hostages.

“ISOMORPH BACK TO U1!” she bellowed as loudly as she could, hoping the passengers aboard the shuttles would hear her and know what to do. Her throat suddenly felt raw.

She ismorphed over herself, for the moment, letting her vision show her what was in both worlds even as her body stayed in only one. As she watched, several people dropped to the ground in the areas that the shuttles occupied, managing to pull themselves back to U1 on their own. She headed for the shuttle Tomlin had just raced into, pulling a sidearm off one of the fallen mercs as she went and switching off its safety.

I am in U1, but I see into Elsewhere, I am in U1 and cannot be seen in Elsewhere, but I can see…

She walked through the hull of the shuttle like a phantom.

Only the top half of her head was above the cabin floor, unseen. Several cuffed, terrified passengers remained on board. The pilot had one of them in a headlock, holding a gun to her head. Tomlin was trying to talk the man down, but the shouting was getting louder and louder, even through the veil between ’verses.

Jack positioned herself directly beneath the pilot, waiting for a moment when the gun’s aim would waiver. She raised her pistol until it was completely above the floor, bracing herself as well as she could in such an awkward position.

I am in U1, only in U1, but the gun in my hand is in both ’verses. And its hammer, and its bullets, are fully in Elsewhere… It was, she thought ruefully, a good thing after all that her father had not only taught her how to shoot, but had made her break down and clean each of the guns they’d worked with. She could visualize, and suddenly feel, those parts of her weapon now.

One of the passengers stared in astonishment in her direction.

As his hostage writhed, twisting her body away from his, the pilot’s gun slipped and pointed away from her for a fraction of a second. It was all Jack needed.

She fired straight up, over and over, emptying the pistol’s clip into the pilot’s torso, before ducking back out of the shuttle.

Small arms fire erupted from the other shuttle’s space. Kyra was standing in its midst, unloading a pistol upward in U1, but on the Elsewhere side Jack could only see the hull of the shuttle itself. Her wild-haired friend emerged a moment later, her face almost glowing with fierce energy.

“That was a damned good idea you had,” she said with a grin. “Last one’s dead.”

Jack could only nod silently, dropping her gun before falling to her knees. She isomorphed back into Elsewhere so she could vomit on the sand instead of in the plaza.


Less than fifteen minutes later, Jack had pulled the now-evacuated shuttles back into U1, and she and Kyra had finished removing everyone’s restraints. The Matador survivors, none of whom were seriously injured, had helped them carry the mercs’ corpses onto the shuttles, taking back comms and other items that the men had confiscated from their captives, before transferring back to Elsewhere at Jack’s instruction, to wait.

“I think you got here not even ten minutes after I did,” Tomlin said as he wiped a merc’s blood off of his recovered comm. “I spent the last several hours making arrangements for tomorrow night. It was the message to meet you here that brought me at all. I never had a chance to reach the lobby before they had me.”

Jack knelt down and transferred a pool of drying blood out of the plaza and into Elsewhere, while Kyra did the same near the other shuttle. It was the last physical evidence of the battle. There was nothing they could do about the damage to the trees where one automatic rifle had chewed them up… but they’d let whoever had sent the mercs worry about covering that up.

Someone—and Jack was pretty sure who—had gone to great lengths to ensure they could perpetrate a heinous crime unseen, after all. It would be a shame, she thought, not to take advantage of their efforts.

Othman Tower’s building and plaza cameras, she had verified, were still offline, and the cameras and comms for several blocks were scrambled; someone had set things up so that none of them would come back on until the shuttles’ transponders signaled that they were out of the cameras’ lines of sight. If Jack and her friends played their cards just right, nobody—not even the people who had sent the mercs—would know just what had really happened there.

If she hadn’t asked Tomlin to meet her here, she suddenly realized, he would have been the one with no idea or proof of what had been done to the people in his care. She suspected that would have broken his heart.

But it meant they probably hadn’t been expecting him to come to the tower, or at least, hadn’t built their plan around when he was expected. They had, in fact, done this on his day off. That was something she could use.

“You’re gonna need to pretend you never got here at all,” she told Tomlin, her voice hoarse and her throat feeling as though she had swallowed glass. Had she really yelled that loudly? “You’re gonna need to pretend that everybody’d already been taken when you finally did get here.”

“All right. Why?”

“If you were here and escaped, that means so did everybody else. If you were never here, they won’t know anybody escaped their trap, just that you never walked into it. You know how to set autopilots?”

“Of course.”

“Good. Go on the shuttles and set each one to auto-launch in another five minutes or so. Make them fly out to sea, out to where it’s deep, and then dive down into the water. At velocity. Crash the fuck out of them where it’ll be hard to get to the wreckage.”

“All right. What does that buy us?”

“I don’t know what the Quintessa Corporation’s plans for the shuttles’ destinations were, but since they’re hiding the fact that they planned to kidnap everybody, they can’t exactly draw attention to it when it all goes wrong. Hopefully they won’t realize that the Matador passengers didn’t die in the crashes.” Jack sighed, suddenly feeling tired and ancient. Every devious idea she’d ever had seemed to be crowding into her head all at once. “Did any of them get on comms to anybody after they grabbed you?”

Tomlin shook his head. He seemed to understand what she was asking—which was good, because she barely did suddenly—and answered as if he was giving a military debriefing. “None of the mercenaries did. The pilots were already on board the shuttles, and they were already loading the passengers, when I walked up. I was coming around the side of the building and only saw the backs of the shuttles, so I don’t think the pilots ever saw me. None of the mercs told anyone they had me in custody. I’m not sure if they were even looking for me or just thought I was an inconvenient witness. And then you moved the shuttles over to Elsewhere before anyone started shooting or screaming. How did you manage—”

“Good. Then as far as they’ll know, you were never here, their mercs kidnapped the Matador survivors as planned, and then everybody, including the mercs, died in the crashes… except you, because you didn’t show up until long after they’d left,” Jack told him. “Meanwhile, we take the survivors up to high ground through Elsewhere, bring them out where your people can hide them, and then you discover, live on camera tomorrow morning, that Othman Tower’s empty and raise a stink about your missing charges.”

Tomlin was staring at her with strange awe again.

“They can’t…” Jack could feel the steam running out of her words. Why did she feel so exhausted suddenly? She could barely put two words together. “They can’t threaten to cripple the economy if you don’t turn over people you don’t have… because they already took them from you.”

“And,” Kyra said from beside her, “If they’re planning on killing all of the survivors off anyway, why should they care how it happens, even if they lose a few soldiers-for-hire in the process? Sucks for them that they eliminated all possible records of what went wrong. Let’s get those things set to fly and get back to Elsewhere. You know where the black boxes on those crates are located? We don’t want those found by divers.”

Jack wanted to follow the two of them, but she couldn’t get her legs to work. She sat quietly on the plaza’s flagstones for a few moments while Tomlin set the shuttles’ controls and Kyra hauled out flight recorders, shifting them into Elsewhere. Her arms and legs felt weak and shaky, and her whole center felt utterly hollow.

“This is what she does,” she heard Kyra saying to Tomlin a few minutes later as they walked up. “She can come up with a crazy plan at the drop of a hat, and it’ll work. She’s like… a mastermind that way. I mean, hell, she’d already planned the march through Elsewhere, but those embellishments? She just came up with them now. On the spot, fergodsake. But killing somebody? That’s going to fuck her up for a while.”

“Even if by doing so, she saved someone’s life?”

“Even so. That’s our Finch.”

“You don’t think it might be the shuttles?”

“I don’t know. Could be. Never even occurred to me to try moving something that big, and she did it four times.”

Strong arms lifted her off the ground and she realized that Tomlin was cradling her like a child. Kyra’s arms came around both of them as she isomorphed them from U1 into Elsewhere.

Jack could, strangely, feel the exact moment when both shuttles left the plaza over in U1. She opened her eyes and watched them, through the veil of dimensions, as they flew off, arrowing toward the coastline.

Kyra was talking to the crowd, telling them that they were going to walk uphill until they were out of the path of the tide, which should stay below sea level for several more hours anyway. Then she was going to help them meet up with people who would take them to a place where they could hide. Jack, exhausted, leaned her head against Tomlin’s shoulder and focused on breathing, on being, while Kyra took charge. She’d told Kyra the plan as they had walked down into town, and her friend had loved it. Kyra would make it happen now.

Time slid by in fits and starts. Jack was in a gray place, exhausted by the terrible battle in the same way that she had been after the ordeal on the Kubla Khan. She’d slept for more than a day after that, clinging the whole time to the gun she’d fired, in fear that she would wake to find herself back in that world of horrors. Now, though, she didn’t dare sleep, not yet, not until she was sure everyone was really, truly safe… but she had no energy left to make sure of that.

She drifted in and out of consciousness through much of the hours-long night march out of the flat plains that corresponded with New Marrakesh’s city center and upward onto the sandy, weedy, increasingly rocky hillsides. Later, she would have memories of strange, small creatures skittering out of the paths of hundreds of human feet. For a while, Tomlin and Kyra both walked in the lead, side by side, Tomlin still carrying her in his arms, the two talking about combat and soldiering. Jack heard him offering to introduce Kyra to some of the officers he knew, people who would never, he promised, turn away the Black Fox of Canaan Mountain when he vouched for her.

She’ll have a home, Jack thought with wistful happiness as exhaustion took her again. She’ll be able to fight with real soldiers, not mercs…

Periodically, when she felt strong enough, alert enough, Tomlin let her walk beside him, but his arm was always protectively around her in case another wave of weakness stuck. One always did after a few moments, and she felt him catching her in a faint more than once. The long line stopped at least twice to take rests and give stragglers a chance to catch up, before they reached an area that Kyra said corresponded with the market square in the Rif.

Kyra brought Tomlin and Jack across first, practically into Takama’s lap.

The next thing Jack knew, she was being fussed over and plied with mint tea and jowhara inside one of the small shops along the square’s perimeter, by a merchant family she’d bought things from before, while Tomlin showered and changed in the shopkeeper’s upstairs rooms. Someone collected his uniform for laundering, and two young women helped Jack get cleaned up and changed out of her scuffed, stained, and torn clothes—how exactly had that happened to them? She’d felt so unscathed at the time—into a soft, colorful jalabiya. Then she watched from a window seat, her head resting heavily against the glass, as the hushed exodus continued outside.

Takama, now assisted by a dozen or so of her fellow street vendors, took each of the survivors in hand as Kyra helped them across, hiding them in nearby shops while she and her friends arranged for merchant trucks to come and take them, in small groups, into the mountains. The night was full of quiet activity as the fugitives—now fed and disguised in traditional djellabas and jalabiyas with scarves around their heads—climbed a few at a time into various trucks and carts. No one was going to make them keep walking any further. Somehow, though, the activity seemed no busier than any of the Rif’s normal night markets. No one would suspect a thing; those markets sometimes lasted from dusk to dawn in the Rif even when everywhere else was essentially shut down. All of the merchants seemed delighted to be in on the operation, cheerfully waving away the money some of the survivors tried to offer them in compensation. The rules of hospitality, which meant a great deal to the Imazighen, had apparently been invoked.

They had done it, Jack thought, allowing herself to relax a tiny bit more.

The sky was still dark, but not quite as dark, and the tide had begun to move in, when the last of the Matador survivors came through and Kyra joined her in the little shop, allowing the merchant’s daughters to clean her up and give her a change of clothing.

Jack had almost forgotten about the storage locker key she’d intended to give Tomlin, hours before, until she’d pulled it and her own key out of her ruined clothing. When he returned to the shop a little before dawn, once again dressed in his cleaned and repaired uniform, she gave it to him at last.

“Thank you, my Tislilel,” he told her, taking the key. “You saved so many lives yet again tonight. Including mine. Remember that. Please do not hold what you had to do against yourself.” He kissed her forehead.

To Jack’s surprise, Kyra allowed him to give her a thank-you kiss as well and listened attentively while he spoke softly to her, too. Jack, whose hearing was far better than people ever seemed to realize, heard every word. “You have a warrior’s spirit, my Dihya. It is a difficult path to tread. But I have faith you will find your way and I promise, I will help you reach it.”

Jack felt a weight lifting off of her with those words. Kyra might not want an agrarian life, or a domestic one, but Tomlin was offering her a life she did want, and a version she would never have to feel shame or regret for. After encountering the band of mercs in the plaza, Jack had hoped that she wouldn’t still consider signing up with any. Now she wouldn’t need to.

At the doorway, Tomlin turned back to them, his eyes both kind and tired. Now his words addressed not only them but his aunt, emerging from a back room with a tray of tea and food for Kyra her hands.

“I should be back in several hours, a day at most. After I am done ‘discovering’ that my charges are missing and filing my complaints, I will request some of my leave time. With all that has happened, no one will grudge me for it or even question it.” He paused, as if debating with himself. Taking a deep breath, he continued. “Now that I’ve experienced the journey to and from Elswhere, and have seen what you can do and what it costs, I think I know what the Quintessa Corporation is hiding. It’s much worse than we thought. We must never let them find my charges… or either one of you.”

With those last words, Gavin Brahim Tomlin, El Krim, left the amber light of the small shop for the predawn darkness.

It was the last time they ever saw him.

Identity Theft, Chapter 27

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 27/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: The last thing either Jack or Kyra ever expected was for someone to recruit them into a rescue mission, but for some reason, they just can’t say no to El Krim.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

27.
Paving The Way with Good Intentions

Even dressed in traditional Amazigh clothing instead of his uniform, there was no mistaking Tomlin. Nor the fact that he wasn’t merely sitting on a random doorstep, but was waiting for them.

“Shit,” Kyra muttered beside Jack.

Jack realized she should have seen this coming. In the last few days, as she had begun to learn more and more about the people of the Rif, she had realized what a tightly knit community they were. If they were willing to share stories about one of their own with two strange girls, nothing was stopping them from carrying tales of those girls back to him.

She wondered when he’d put together that the stories were about the same two girls who had accosted him in the parking garage.

“It’s okay,” she murmured back to Kyra, hoping she was right. She kept walking forward, trying to convey through her walk and her posture that she wasn’t at all bothered by his presence on her doorstep, even trying to hint that she had expected it.

Because, she thought, she damn well should have.

Kyra kept pace beside her, but she could feel her friend’s tension.

“Mr. Tomlin,” she said as they approached the building. “It’s good to see you again.”

She hoped Kyra wasn’t telegraphing disagreement with her statement.

“And you, Ms. Finch, Ms. Houlot.” He nodded at each of them, giving them a non-threatening smile. Jack noticed that his posture also seemed to be trying to convey a lack of threat. He seemed well aware that this was a bold and possibly unwelcome move.

“How did you find us?” Kyra asked beside her.

Tomlin shrugged. “My family is here in the Rif. You have met my aunt, Takama. She spoke the other day of the two lovely girls who had moved into this tagat building and were curious about us. How you never spoke about yourselves but encouraged people to talk about themselves. I showed her the one clear capture the security footage had of you—which no longer exists, don’t worry—and she said ‘yes, those are the girls.’”

“Sorry,” Jack couldn’t help but ask. “What does ‘tagat’ mean?”

“I’m afraid it means ‘cursed,’” Tomlin said, his smile becoming rueful. “This building does not have the best of reputations. Its owners are outsiders, who thought they could use it as a jumping-off point for ‘gentrifying’ our neighborhood. No Amazigh will live within it. They struggle to find tenants, and to keep them, especially because they are lazy and cheap and hardly ever make repairs. Perhaps that’s why your pipes burst when you first moved in…”

His smile turned mischievous.

“…Or was that a cover story for why your clothes were soaked after the high tide came through?”

Jack glanced over at Kyra, whose breathing had quickened. Under the deadpan she’d always worn in front of the Killer’s Club girls, Jack could see signs that she was becoming increasingly tense and defensive.

“Well,” Jack replied, hoping she could defuse that tension, “when you’re trying to keep a low profile, telling people you very nearly drowned in an invisible ocean that visited your rooms doesn’t exactly help.”

Alarm had appeared on Tomlin’s face. “You nearly drowned? But I thought you—”

Kyra sighed next to her, visibly making herself relax. “We’ve only ever been about one or two steps ahead of you the whole time, because we stayed out from under the Quintessa Corporation’s thumb and Finch here already knew about threshold syndrome.”

Now Tomlin looked a little crestfallen. “I would not have intruded upon you if I didn’t need help, but now I fear—”

“Try us,” Jack interrupted before he could talk himself out of whatever had brought him. She had to admit she was curious. “We’ve been learning how to handle moving between both universes pretty much nonstop. We’re happy to share what we know.”

Kyra’s hand knocked against her wrist. Looking over, she saw a quelling look on her friend’s face.

“What?” she whispered. “They need all the help they can get.”

Tomlin hadn’t missed the exchange. “I should probably tell you that I know who you really are,” he said. “Or at least, who you are,” he added nodding at Kyra. “Whether or not you can or will help me, I can arrange asylum—protection, that is, not an institution—on this world if you wish it. No one will extradite you from here.” His gaze returned to Jack. “I know less about you, my young Tislilel, but having witnessed you swim through the air, I find you far saner than the reports would suggest—”

“She infiltrated the hospital to get me out,” Kyra surprised Jack by saying.

“Ah.” Tomlin nodded. “In that case, I hope that you can, indeed, help me with this problem as well. Most of the passengers and crew have learned how to anchor themselves in U1, as you two instructed. But a few of the passengers are pre-verbal children, and one is a baby, and we don’t know how to teach them to do this, or even if we can. Are they trapped between worlds until they’re old enough to learn?”

“Oh,” Kyra said beside her. “Damn.”

“I don’t think they have to be,” Jack found herself saying. “I think their parents can anchor them.”

“How?” Tomlin asked, hope in his voice.

Jack glanced at Kyra, raising her eyebrow and nodding at their building. There was only one way to show him. Kyra hesitated, but then nodded.

“Are you allowed to come inside a… tagat… building?” Jack asked. “What I want to show you won’t work all that well down here. It’s still high tide.”

“I am allowed, yes.” Tomlin grinned and stood up. “I would have a great deal of explaining to do if I chose to rent here, yes, but I may come inside if you permit me.”

“C’mon in,” Kyra said, resignation in her voice. “I think I know what she wants to show you.”

After the squalid condition of the lobby and the stairwell, Tomlin couldn’t quite contain his astonishment as he walked into their apartment. All of the windows were open, admitting the late-afternoon light but, more importantly, the breezes. Kyra and Jack had removed most of the decrepit furniture and had pulled out the stained carpeting, and had spent the last Standard week—between their many other tasks—scouring the place clean and decorating with colorful blankets and pillows, both to hide the threadbare and battered nature of the remaining furniture and to make it comfortable. Most of their purchases had come from Amazigh vendors in the Rif. Jack had found a way to use a trick of isomorphing to remove the layers of paint concealing the carved woodwork, along with layer upon layer of grubby wallpaper to reveal the original mosaic-adorned plaster beneath. The result was evocative of what the building’s units had first looked like in their halcyon days, before they had been co-opted and corrupted. Souvenirs from Elsewhere sat on a variety of surfaces.

Hearing their arrival, a ferret-sized ten-legged crustacean came scooting out of the bedroom and scurried its way over to Jack’s feet, earning an astonished oath in Tamazight from Tomlin.

“Hey, Sebby.” Jack reached down and let the small creature crawl onto her hands, lifting it up. “You’re right on time.”

“Sebby?” Tomlin asked.

“Well, he’s not a crab, but I always wanted a pet crab to name Sebastian.” Jack grinned. She never had been able to convince her parents to let her have one.

“The Little Mermaid? Really?” Kyra sounded on the verge of laughter.

“And here I thought I might be facetious to nickname you Tislilel,” Tomlin chuckled. “It means ‘mermaid,’” he explained in response to their questioning looks.

Jack’s grin widened. Tislilel. She liked it. “Sebby, here, is some kind of land crustacean from Elsewhere. The monster tide must’ve reached his habitat and dragged him into its wake. We found him clinging to some driftwood and looking pretty miserable when the tide was going back out. I brought him over to U1.”

She raised her eyebrows at Tomlin, waiting for him to catch onto the implication of what she was telling him.

“You can move objects between worlds? And anchor them in a whole new universe?” He glanced around the apartment again, the full significance of the pieces of driftwood, the coral, the shells, finally striking him. “All of this… is from there?”

“Objects… and living creatures.” She nodded at Sebby, who obligingly lifted a pincer and waved it in the air.

“Like a baby, or a small child, who cannot make the transition on its own,” Tomlin breathed. “How?”

“Well, the first thing I ever tried it with was one of the cash cards we’d brought with us from Helion,” Jack told him, suddenly very glad he already knew who they were and she didn’t have to come up with weird verbal dodges. “Local bank machines couldn’t read our cards. Not enough of their data signals in this universe, I guess. I held one really close, and thought about it just being in this ’verse and nowhere else. It was a serious Hail Mary, but it worked.”

“And that’s all there is to it?” Tomlin looked astounded.

“Maybe,” Jack hedged. “Sebby’s the only living creature I’ve ever tried it with. It takes work, and some careful thinking. You have to really be aware of what you want to bring with you, and its dimensions and edges. We didn’t know how to get our clothes to transition with us at first.”

Kyra began snickering. She had fully relaxed, and now her eyes were dancing with merriment as she answered Tomlin’s questioning look. “You should’ve seen it. The first time J—Finch here tried to go all the way to the other side and swim through a wall—whoosh! She went right through but her clothes stayed behind.”

“You can… pass through walls…?”

Carefully,” Jack told him. “Right now, if I isomorphed all the way over to Elsewhere, I’d be okay, because the water’s still about waist-deep up here. I can still see it even when I’m all the way in U1. It’d hold me up if I switched over right now. But if I tried to do that at low tide, I’d fall straight through the floors and splatter myself against whatever’s eight stories down on that side.”

“I will be sure to warn my charges of that risk,” he said, nodding. “The Quintessa Corporation wants to move them. To a ‘secure facility,’ but they won’t say where. I have been stalling—I don’t want to turn them over. Everything within me says that doing so would be their deaths. So far, the government has sided with me, but I worry they plan to tighten the vise. Tangiers Prime is a primary shipping hub. If they were to declare our Star Jump routes unstable and use that as a pretext to make our port secondary, they could cripple our economy. Their envoy has begun hinting that they might.”

Kyra sat down on their chair, hard. Jack, who had become fairly good at reading her deadpan, could see her outrage over what Tomlin was saying warring with her reluctance to get involved.

Jack sat down on the couch. She gestured at Tomlin to take a seat, too, if he wanted. Sebby scuttled up onto her shoulder and she stroked his carapace absently. “This is bad. I was gonna come see you soon, to warn you again not to dig into what Quintessa’s hiding… but now they want to make everybody disappear?”

“They want to make everybody die,” Tomlin almost growled, sitting down on the couch. “When I was called to the hospital that night, it was after they succeeded with eighteen of my charges. The envoy told the hospital staff that the people in quarantine would be prone to hallucinations, but not to worry about it because they would eventually pass, and to keep them sedated. So when an entire floor of patients began screaming about rising waters and begging for help, nobody paid attention until they began to float out of their beds. The ones that could, anyway. Some had been restrained and some were oblivious thanks to the sedation. When those patients drowned—drowned, in the middle of a dry hospital floor, with other patients levitating—that was when someone finally had the presence of mind to call me.”

Jack suddenly felt nauseated.

Tomlin ran his hand over his face, looking both exhausted and furious. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to burden you with all of this. But with the non-disclosure agreement they made me sign, in order to gain access to the ship at all in the first place, there is no one else I can speak to of such things. Except her, the envoy, and she let them die. I could never possibly trust her, or them.” He looked over at Jack. “But I’m curious as to why you warned me not to.”

“Do you remember the log you saw of the star jumps the ship made before it detected the Level Five Incident?” Jack asked.

Tomlin looked startled again, as if wondering how she could know he’d seen it. “Yes.”

“It’s missing a lot of data. We were reading the log on board the Matador, when a bunch of lines suddenly got redacted and then vanished.” Jack set Sebby down on the floor. A cockroach had crawled under the crack between the front door and the floor. “Go get it, Sebby,” she said, and he scuttled after the fleeing insect in a blur of legs and a clatter of pincers. “There were already some redacted lines in the log, because I’d set things up so we’d wake up before the crew and there’d be no record we were on board. But the other lines were pretty significant.”

“The ship notified the Quintessa Corporation that the accident had occurred,” Kyra continued for her. “It sent a whole packet of data to them. We don’t know what was in the packet, but a few minutes after the crew woke up, the ship got an answer back with instructions to destroy the Isomorph Drive and the database it used for calculating Star Jumps.”

Tomlin’s breath caught. “We were told that the drive’s destruction was what had caused the Level Five Incident.”

Jack shook her head, aware that Kyra was doing the same thing. “It looked functional until they sent instructions to ‘decommission’ it. Which were then redacted and deleted from the records before anybody but us could get a look. But you saw what was left. Did you notice how long the last star jump was?”

“About four days, I believe.”

“For Star Jumps, that’s long,” Jack said. “Most are under three days apiece. These days, ships spend more time navigating between Jump points than traveling the Jumps themselves, but I’ll bet you already know that.”

Tomlin nodded. “How do you?”

“I did a paper on it a few years ago.” Jack could see he had a lot of questions about that. She held up her hand to stay them. Getting into her study habits and actual age weren’t going to be helpful right now, even if she wanted to talk about them. Which she definitely did not. “The longer a Star Jump lasts, the higher the risk of a Level Five Incident becomes. But nobody knows why because the Quintessa Corporation won’t share details about how the drives work in the first place. The three Phase One Star Jumpers that vanished all had at least one week-long Jump in their itineraries.”

“Yes,” Tomlin said, his voice becoming hushed and almost reverent. “My people were coming to Tangiers on two of those first ships, the Isli and the Tislit. But only the Tislit ever arrived. It is why we have always served in the Tangiers Prime Space Squadrons, and why at least one Amazigh must always be on duty at Space Control, in case the Isli finally appears, so we can bring it home. But all this time… is this the true answer? It was lost between universes, and left stranded there to die, the way these poor souls have been? Ten thousand of our kin?”

“I don’t know,” Jack told him. “I never found an answer to that either, just that this was the most probable explanation.”

“And they know,” Tomlin sighed. “And they do nothing.”

“Whatever it is,” Kyra said, her expression thoughtful, “it’s something they can’t prevent. Maybe it’s part of however the drives work. Like the risks people back on Earth took with nuclear reactors, which mostly worked great, lots of power, no pollution… until they sometimes melted down and fucked everything up for hundreds of miles. My Pa had a lot to say about those, back before he decided to ditch the place and take all of us to ‘God’s New Green World.’ But anyway, maybe it’s a risk that just… comes with the technology.”

“Why wouldn’t they just admit that, then?” Tomlin wondered, clearly not expecting an actual answer from either of them. “It is not as if there is an alternative to the Star Jump drive.”

“Maybe even doing that would cut down on space travel too much?” Kyra wondered. “Or maybe there’s something about why it happens that would upset people if they knew. They were super quick to destroy all of the physical evidence.”

That stirred some vague memory in Jack’s mind, something she couldn’t remember clearly because she hadn’t been paying enough attention at the time. There was a show her cousins had watched one day, a centuries-old classic, in which once a year a group of people were told a terrible secret and then voted on whether to remember it and do something about it, or forget it again and continue on with their lives. Something about that secret, she thought as she struggled toward the memory, might almost explain what was happening now—

It was gone. There wasn’t enough there to recall more. She found herself wishing she’d sat down with Rachel, Joey, and Rob that day to watch that ancient show, instead of taking advantage of the rare occasion that they weren’t monopolizing her grandfather’s gaming console to play a few games herself. She’d overheard some of it, some part of which felt suddenly significant, but it was like a dream that fell apart the more she tried to recall it upon waking.

Maybe it was nothing.

“I think the most important point,” she said after a moment, “is that, regardless of what the secret is, they’re willing to kill whole shipfuls of innocent people to keep it hidden. I’m really worried that you’re in their crosshairs, too. Especially if they figure out that you’ve taught everybody how to survive what’s happened to them. I… don’t have it ready yet, but… I’m making you a backup identity, in case you have to go underground.”

“You can do that?” Tomlin looked startled. She could see him once again weighing her appearance—she didn’t necessarily look like a kid, but she didn’t really look like an adult yet, either—against the things she could do. “Could you do that for my charges?”

She shook her head. “It’s taken me all this time just to put together solid identities for the three of us. Almost two hundred more people? I don’t think we have that kind of time. Would the Imazighen be willing to hide them? Takama told me most of your people live out in the mountains and high plains southeast of here, in the New Atlas Range.”

In fact, the New Marrakesh suburb nicknamed Rif, or Le Rif, mostly housed Amazigh traders passing through with their wares for sale to tourists and offworld merchants in exchange for things the tribes needed, along with a contingent of less nomadic types from across the tribes; their jobs were to provide logistical support and ensure that their people continued to be represented in the local and planetary government. They had made it their duty to continue fighting for their people’s right to live in ways that they, in the process, had to give up themselves.

There were a hundred million Imazighen living out in those vast highlands; some of the tribes had rejected all outsider influence, but others carried comms in their pockets and readily welcomed those new technologies that didn’t conflict with their way of life. A rare few, like Tomlin, came from marriages that weren’t simply inter-tribal—already a complicated affair—but extra-tribal altogether. The diversity she’d observed among the people of Le Rif was, in miniature, the diversity of the Imazighen as a whole. From some of Takama’s hints in recent days, Jack understood that places could be opened within the tribes for outsiders who showed sufficient respect for the culture, such as her and Kyra.

Or, perhaps, for nearly two hundred desperate fugitives with nowhere else to turn for succor, who needed to stay on high ground.

Tomlin was nodding. “I think that could be arranged, at least for a while. Long enough to break their trails and, if possible, help them find their ways home. And if they can’t go home… well, as a people, we are very good at knowing how to hide. You two could hide among us as well, if you wish, for as long as you like.”

It was a sweet offer, and she could see he genuinely meant it, but Jack found herself shaking her head. “I have somewhere I need to go, but thank you.”

Whether or not he knew it yet, her father was waiting for her.

She glanced Kyra’s way, wondering whether her friend would be tempted. But Kyra was shaking her head, too. “I tried my Pa’s agrarian paradise. It’s not for me. I do appreciate the offer, though.”

“I understand,” Tomlin said, his smile indicating that he was not in the least offended. “I must admit that I am more comfortable in a cockpit than a tent, myself. Still, I will do what I must for these people, to keep them safe. Please tell me that the identity you are crafting for me is Amazigh. To my father’s great despair, I’m not a very convincing Scotsman.”

“It is,” Jack reassured him, struggling not to laugh at the sudden mental image of him in a kilt, speaking with a thick brogue. Silly as the image first seemed to her, she suspected he’d still be devastatingly handsome and suave, not at all ridiculous, if he did it.

It surprised her that she was so relaxed around him. Usually, men as handsome as him left her feeling tongue-tied and gauche. Maybe it was just that she’d already won Tomlin’s respect before she’d had a chance to ease up enough to really notice that about him.

“The tide will be down tomorrow night when everyone is sleeping,” Tomlin said. “I think I will bring my charges out of the downtown area then. Once it recedes far enough that they can leave the building, and most people have left the streets, I will take them past the Rif and into the foothills where it cannot reach them at all. My people will take them the rest of the way. But I will have to concoct an explanation for where they have gone, and a distraction of some kind to keep anyone from seeing them leave.”

“J—Finch is really good at those,” Kyra told him. “Since you know who we are, you probably know how we left the hospital during some extremely chaotic malfunctions, right?”

Tomlin nodded slowly. Kyra smiled and tilted her head toward Jack.

“That was all you?” Tomlin asked, startled once more.

“Only way we could get out with a bounty hunter already on-site,” Jack said, struggling to hide the smug grin that wanted to surface. “I had to make sure we got a several-hour head start before they could even realize we weren’t just lost somewhere in the mayhem. And I may have released a few files into the wild that they’d been hiding.”

“Then it’s an especially good thing the Quintessa Corporation has no idea you were on board the Matador. They should be scared of you.” Tomlin grinned, indicating that was a compliment. “If you can come up with a distraction, please let me know. Ask any of my people to get word to Brahim Meziane. That is how they know me best, and it is probably a safer channel than my official name, if Quintessa has its eyes on me.”

Three hours later, as the sun was settling toward the horizon and Jack was putting the final touches on the new identities she had created, she had come up with the perfect way to both get the Matador survivors out of the city unseen… and let her and Kyra keep their beachcombing plans intact in the process.

Tomlin’s gonna love it, she thought with a little bit of glee. But first things first…

“Kyra, I need you for a second,” she called, and her friend entered the room with Sebby on her arm.

“What’s up?”

“I have three names for you to pick from. Which do you like best?” Jack gestured at the screen. Planetary law enforcement had several names held in reserve for witness protection purposes, one of which was about to be taken out of reserve and put into active use. The result would be that, once Jack connected the fake credentials she had created, under a dummy name, to the new name, there would be a genuine birth certificate and a wealth of other, real, identity documentation stored in official locations; no matter how deeply anyone checked into it, no matter how far down they dug, there would be no sign that someone had made it up. These three would work for Kyra’s approximate age and physical appearance.

Kyra leaned over her shoulder, looking at the screen. “Kali Montgomery. I like the way it sounds.”

“Done.” Jack hit a few more buttons on the screen. She loved that name, too, and had almost taken it for herself because it reminded her of both Shazza and Fry, except that she didn’t think she’d look quite old enough to match its base age. “Our identities will be waiting at a drop point downtown in two hours. Along with some funding cards to help Tomlin—I’m gonna put together our funds later. He needs all the money he can get with what he’s about to do.”

“Yeah.” Kyra seemed to have made peace with helping the man. “You know, I never asked, but I’ve always wondered. Why ‘Jack B. Badd?’”

The two were gathering their things as she asked; walking through the switchback roads that led downward to New Marrakesh’s urban center took a while, and both of them preferred to reach drop zones and rendezvous points ahead of anyone else. Jack shrugged, feeling suddenly embarrassed.

“It’s a character from bedtime stories my father used to tell me,” she admitted. She’d never even told Shazza that, and she had confided a lot in her. “Jack B. Badd was always getting into one escapade or another, usually only just managing to stay out of really bad trouble.”

“So, essentially, you.” Kyra snickered.

“Pretty much. Except he really was a boy, not just pretending to be one.” The more Jack thought about it, the more she wondered if the stories had been autobiographical, if John MacNamera, whose closest relatives had sometimes called him “Jack-Mac” where she could hear, had been regaling her with stories about his own scrapes from his childhood.

That was a handle, sticking way out, that she’d never considered when she picked the name: the possibility that its use might make its way back to people who’d recognize the source. Of course, when she’d chosen it, it had never occurred to her that she would end up in quite as many quintessential Jack B. Badd misadventures as she had, or that mercs might one day know the name as belonging to fair prey. That was out of her hands now, though. Fortunately, she’d erased all of the records on Helion that listed her as anything but Jane Doe 7439.

One day, she thought, she’d have to try to erase whatever records Toombs had about her.

Sebby was contentedly patrolling the floorboards, looking for intruders to munch, as they left the apartment.

They stopped by Takama’s food cart on the way, to send word to her nephew that they would come see him at Othman Tower that evening. She gave them a knowing look that suggested she might already be in on the upcoming exodus, before giving Jack a motherly hug and plying both of them with freshly made wraps that they could eat while they walked.

The drop went smoothly. As a precaution, Jack transferred all of the documents and money cards for Tomlin into a storage locker. She’d give him the key and let him pick them up at his convenience. She did the same thing for herself and Kyra; they’d collect theirs on the way back up to the Rif. Once they’d each hidden their keys in their smalls, she switched on her tablet to begin preparing for their meeting with Tomlin by taking control of the security cameras at the base of Othman Tower.

“Oh. Fuck,” she breathed.

The cameras were already off.

Identity Theft, Chapter 26

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 26/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: For a brief span of time, Jack and Kyra settle into a kind of normal existence. For a very relative definition of normal, anyway.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

26.
A Momentary Lapse from Madness

It took slightly over a Federacy Standard week—four of Tangiers Prime’s strangely elongated day-and-night cycles and some change—before Jack could finish making fake IDs for Kyra, Tomlin, and herself.

The process itself probably took only eight or so hours of her time for each one. But that time had to be divided up into small chunks over the week, each step requiring her to wait for databases to update with new, carefully falsified information, or for a human operator somewhere to review and clear requests that seemed to come from legitimate official sources, or just for redirected funds to finish moving around and become available for the plundering. It might have taken less time if Jack hadn’t also spent extra hours erasing her back-trail in the system once some of the riskier steps were completed.

In between, she and Kyra found that they had a lot of other things to do. Learning how to safely “isomorph” between U1 and Elsewhere topped the list.

They practiced whenever they could. During high tides—never quite as high as that first night’s tide, until the monster wave in the dawn hours two and a half Tangiers days after they’d met with Tomlin—they used the water to buoy them as they practiced safely navigating their way through physical objects like walls, floors, and ceilings. They learned—after a variety of disturbing and comical mishaps—how to consistently make their clothes accompany them on an isomorph, and how to pick up objects from one world and transfer them to the other, and then back. Or not.

Their apartment, now spotless largely thanks to Kyra, acquired unusual decorations brought back from Elsewhere: pale, beautiful twists of driftwood, a chunk of brilliant scarlet coral that they’d found floating through their rooms during their second night, and several exotic shells that had floated through as well. A small ten-legged crustacean, found floating helplessly on a piece of driftwood after the monster wave had passed, now lived under their dresser, feasting upon the large insects that infested the building whenever any made the mistake of entering their unit, and periodically creeping over to stare up at Jack in fascination while she worked on building the infrastructure for the fake IDs. Once, she had looked down to find it sitting companionably on her foot, its eyestalks pointed at her face.

When the tides were out, they still practiced, finding empty, deserted spaces where they could work on learning the differences in the geographies of each world and how to account for them. They learned how to switch quickly between ’verses, how to “fade” between them, and how to negotiate differences in the two terrains without getting caught in anything. Kyra, in particular, wanted to practice using combat moves while isomorphing in one direction or another.

“Where did you learn to fight like this?” Jack asked her on the second day, as Kyra patiently showed her how to position her body to deliver a stronger kick.

“I watched the boys back home a lot,” Kyra told her. She still didn’t seem to like talking about life before the standoff and massacre, but she had begun to open up more. “They didn’t teach girls this kind of thing. We were supposed to be homemakers. But they didn’t care if we were nearby doing our chores during their lessons. Some of the boys would show off a little if we were there.”

Jack had already discovered that Kyra was a remarkably quick study, not eidetic like her, but whip-smart and capable of intense focus. It didn’t surprise her to learn that she’d spent much of her days eavesdropping on subjects the Fathers of New Christy refused to teach girls, and then had sneaked out at night to practice what she’d seen when nobody would see or know. The boys of New Christy had been taught karate, boxing, and some other combat styles whose names she hadn’t caught, and she’d relentlessly worked to become better than any of them at all of them, while still completing her stultifying list of “womanly” chores.

The latter explained, Jack reflected, how she’d been able to transform their apartment from a filthy hole in the wall to clean, light, and airy in less than two of New Marrakesh’s crazy-long days.

The only weapons Kyra hadn’t been able to practice with, along the way, were guns, and only because she hadn’t been able to find a way to keep people from hearing her shoot them off in the middle of the night. But she’d taught herself how to aim with bow and arrow, with darts, with knives… and had adapted that knowledge to gun sights and small firearms as best she could. There were infrequent occasions when, in an attempt to put the girls of New Christy in their place and prove to them that “manly” subjects were beyond their reach, one of her male peers would let her and the other girls handle or even shoot a gun, and she used those opportunities to hone her aim while pretending to have no idea what she was doing.

“Zach loved to make fun of girls by getting them to try to shoot,” she explained. “Most of them were playing dumb, too. They’d act like their fingers weren’t strong enough to even pull the triggers. Please. Like the work we were doing every day had left us with delicate little hands… I guess they knew the boys would eat it up, though. But I didn’t play that helpless. He’d tell me that he wanted me to hit the green bottle on the fence, and I’d act like I was aiming for it, but I’d really aim for the knot on the fence post next to it, or the can on its other side. He’d think I was missing when I was making bullseyes. And he was always willing to keep laughing at me if I wanted to keep ‘trying.’”

Kyra, Jack thought, was not nearly as much of a stranger to let’s-pretend games as she seemed to think she was. She just hadn’t learned—yet—how to mimic that many roles. She had two down pat, though: prim, proper quasi-Puritan girl-child… and the ominous, deadly icon of the Killer’s Club that Stacey and Colette had idolized. Jack suspected that her friend still didn’t know who the real Kyra behind either of those masks actually was.

By the time of the standoff, although no one else had known it, Kyra was already the deadliest fighter in New Christy, at least among the children and teens, and needed none of the hurried defensive training they reluctantly gave to the community’s womenfolk.

It had been a startling moment for Jack when she realized that Kyra had been born on Earth, decades before the devastating nuclear war that had finally driven almost all of humanity off the world of its origin.

Part of her had known it, of course; she’d done a report on the New Christy Enclave and knew that their sublight ship had left Earth’s orbit in 2087. But Kyra remembered Earth. She had been six years old when she and her family had boarded a shuttle to the Gateway Prime shipyards on the promise that, at the other end of their long interstellar journey, they would find the agrarian paradise that her father insisted was what God intended for them. She remembered the world of concrete and leaden skies that she’d lived in before then with nostalgia; that, for her, was the world of her innocence before everything had begun to go wrong.

Kyra didn’t realize that Jack’s questions about her old life had a secondary purpose: she wanted to create an identity that her friend would be able to comfortably live within, with a background that wouldn’t be difficult to recall or relate to. It was the same reason that she spent hours learning everything she could about Gavin Brahim Tomlin.

The people she had thought of until then as “Berber,” it turned out, preferred to be called Amazigh in the singular, Imazighen in the plural. That much she’d gleaned from the local shopkeepers and food vendors. Le Rif was Amazigh territory, although no one much minded their intrusion into it. Still, Jack had learned quickly that only outsiders referred to them as “Berbers,” and that if they wanted to be viewed as friends, they needed to adjust their vocabulary a little.

“It is not a kind name, you see,” Takama—rapidly becoming Jack’s favorite food cart vendor—had told her with a gentle smile as she dished up a fragrant bowl of spiced lamb and barley, placing two medfouna beside it. “It’s what colonizers have called us for thousands of years, but it has never been our name for ourselves. The Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish, the French… it comes from the same root as ‘barbarian,’ and that is how they all saw us. To them we were unruly children, meant to be enslaved. We were not meant to govern our own lives in their eyes. Even now, on this beautiful new world, there are those who wish us to subsume our identity to theirs, who refuse to acknowledge that our traditions are no more primitive than their own.”

That had given Jack a great deal to think about, and she had resolutely struck “Berber” from her vocabulary. Kyra, who had never heard of them before coming to Tangiers Prime, did the same with even greater ease. From the Imazighen, Jack had learned far more about Tomlin, the man, than she’d been able to glean from the networks; he was a local hero.

Almost forty Standard years earlier, Cedric Tomlin, from the Scottish colony world of New Alba, had come to Tangiers Prime as a combat flight instructor. He had swiftly fallen in love with the world, and more specifically, with Safiyya Meziane, a linguistics professor who taught second-language courses in all four of Tangiers Prime’s official languages: Arabic, Tamazight—the language Jack had thought of, until then, as “Berber”—French, and English. They had married, and a year later had given birth to a son who received names reflecting both of his heritages.

Gavin Brahim Tomlin had inherited his mother’s facility with languages and his father’s love of flying. He had trained as a combat pilot and had fought in dozens of deadly skirmishes with starship ’jackers who tried to prey upon the Sol Track shipping lanes where they intersected with the Tangiers system. Many of those battles had crept into local legend and had earned him the nickname “El Krim” among the Le Rif—or, Takama told her, just Rif—community.

Now thirty-five, Tomlin had retired “young” from flying after the last major ’Enza variant sidelined him for nearly a year. The gossip Jack had gleaned from Takama was that, although he’d taken several months to recover from the illness, what had very nearly crippled him was the loss of his wife Thiyya, four months pregnant with what would have been their first child, to the disease.

With no guarantee that he would recover enough to be recertified for combat flight, he had retrained and then taken up a position with Tangiers Prime’s Space Traffic Control two years later. His hire was considered a major coup, because in addition to being a local hero, he was a polyglot like his mother and was fluent in almost all of the languages used by ships’ crews that came through the Tangiers system. He had been on duty on Tangiers Station A when the Scarlet Matador had contacted him a Standard day earlier than expected.

If the crew had told him that they weren’t trained or certified to land the ship on the planet’s surface, Jack realized, he could have boarded it and handled the landing for them personally. And, undoubtedly, would have done so without a second thought.

The rest of his story was, for the moment, classified, and she’d worked hard to get access to it. Rather than handing the crisis off to someone else, Tomlin had coordinated with the surface to set up a landing and quarantine zone for the Matador before taking a shuttle to New Marrakesh to oversee everything personally, even sleeping—as Jack had overheard in the flyer—in its Ground Control headquarters to ensure that he would be immediately available if the Matador called. Once the ship had been fully evacuated and the passengers and crews had been quarantined in the top six floors of the hospital tower—

Six floors, Jack thought with sadness. Only four of those floors stayed above the tide that night.

—he had briefly been replaced by a designated representative of the Quintessa Corporation, who had taken over “oversight” of the quarantine. After eighteen people died on her watch, despite the Corporation’s attempts to stay in control, the planetary government overruled them and had even made veiled threats about an inquest into threshold syndrome if they obstructed Tomlin’s command again. He had been put back in charge, and while Quintessa had sharply questioned his recent decision to move the Matador survivors from the swanky Mansour Plaza to the highest completed levels of New Marrakesh’s still-under-construction Othman Tower, nobody was impeding his decisions… yet.

Things were tense there, but so far it had remained the prickly tension of people who were overtly polite to each other even as they worked at cross-purposes. None of Jack’s delvings into higher security systems had turned up signs that Quintessa viewed Tomlin as any kind of active threat. Yet.

No one had died since he had taken back command.

From all of this information, Jack slowly wove together identities that she hoped Kyra and Tomlin would each find comfortable to take on, ones that would play to their strengths and explain away their weaknesses without drawing too many comparisons to the personas they would be leaving behind. The identity she constructed herself, although every bit as durable, was simpler, credentialing her developing technical skills so that she could join the next supply crew headed for Furya without too many questions. The next scheduled supply ship was a month away; with luck, she would be on it.

Jack, who no longer believed that luck was in any way on her side, planned to make sure that she was the best possible candidate for the job when it opened. In the rare moments when none of their other agendas dominated her time, she relentlessly studied the technical schematics of commonly used supply ships.

The news from Helion Prime interested her, as well. Relay drones, capable of traversing the Sol Track lanes at speeds that no ships with lives on board could, had already brought stories of the scandal gripping the Aceso Psychiatric Hospital of New Athens.

New Athens? That startled Jack, who had spent her whole time on Helion—which was, she realized, derived more from Greek than Arabic—thinking that she was in a city called New Mecca. Heather had teased her about it, but she still hadn’t quite grasped how much of her understanding of that world had been shaped by Imam Abu al-Walid’s startling parochialism. Would Riddick, she wondered, have been so complacent about leaving her in the man’s care if he had realized?

You have to let it all go, she scolded herself. He’s gone his way and you’ve gone yours. You’ll never meet again. It’s done. Don’t worry about what he was thinking.

Director Flint and several of his subordinates were under investigation, both for enrolling patients in experimental treatments and then attempting to cover up negative outcomes and, more interestingly, for maintaining lax security that had resulted in dozens of patients acquiring illicit staff accounts within the system.

The Killer’s Club, it seemed, hadn’t been the only ones who had pulled that trick.

Careful checking showed that nobody had discovered her account, which she had hidden behind law enforcement code once she had the run of the system, but all of the others had been found. Although Stacey was never named, her violent porn collection, also in the possession of several underage boys in the male wards, had become a topic of heated debate and recrimination. The rationalization that the staff had had for letting them keep it—that their willingness to voluntarily surrender it would be a sign of their recovery—was lambasted by other experts who accused the doctors and nurses of feeding and enabling addictive behavior instead, and of potentially creating sexual predators in the process.

Jack’s escape, and Kyra’s, had been completely overshadowed by the rest of the drama. She suspected that had a lot to do with Toombs, who probably didn’t want other mercs horning in on Richard B. Riddick’s putative trail. While articles occasionally mentioned that two patients had gone missing and had yet to be recovered, they always treated the escape as an effect of the pandemonium that had briefly overtaken the facility… rather than as its cause. If anyone on Helion knew better, they weren’t willing to go on the record saying so.

Amnesty Interplanetary, however, had a great deal to say about the fact that Kyra Wittier-Collins, better known as the Black Fox of Canaan Mountain, had fled custody right before she was going to be illegally extradited back to New Dartmouth in violation of Federacy rulings. That scandal was every bit as high-profile as the one embroiling the hospital. Two members of the New Dartmouth cabinet had tendered their resignations as the fallout spread, and as the abuses that had been perpetrated against Kyra, prior to her transfer to Helion, came to light.

Sometimes, Jack thought, justice actually won. A quick check reassured her that none of the orderlies and nurses she’d liked and respected at the hospital were in any trouble, although most were actively seeking new positions at other facilities. A few of the older ones had quietly retired.

It was mid-late afternoon, four days after Jack and Kyra had met with Tomlin, when they saw him again. Jack didn’t quite have the IDs complete—she still had to pick out names for each of them—and had one or two more sessions in the law enforcement networks before everything would be solidified. But she was feeling relaxed and confident. Nine PM, anywhere else in the Federacy, would have signified late evening, but not during a 44-hour day. To the people of Tangiers Prime, it was the equivalent of late morning after their long high noon sleeping period. Elsewhere’s high tide, which shifted roughly an hour later with each cycle, was at its peak once more. In another long day, low tide would occur around noon and midnight, and Jack and Kyra were planning to make the most of that to explore Elsewhere’s hidden landscapes when most people were abed.

Sipping at ices, discussing the prospects of trans-dimensional beachcombing, they felt almost like ordinary teenage girls as they walked back to their apartment building.

Gavin Brahim Tomlin, El Krim himself, was sitting on their front step waiting for them.


Author’s Note: Abd El-Krim, in the 1920s, led the Imazighen of Morocco’s Rif region in a successful revolt against Spanish colonial rule. His attempt to establish an independent Rif Republic resulted in a combined force of French, Spanish, and Moroccan armies driving him into exile in Egypt, but to the people of the Rif, he remains an important heroic figure. Many contemporary Moroccan textbooks claim he fought against the French and Spanish for the Moroccan monarchy, something the Imazighen of the Rif call revisionist whitewashing. Amazigh culture, and thus the culture’s folklore, is tribal-collectivist and has few solitary-figure heroes to draw from—outside of stories derived from the same sources that fueled better-known Greek mythology—for use in giving a nickname to a living folk hero of the future, so nicknaming him after a legendary and largely-unsung freedom fighter seemed like the next best thing.

Identity Theft, Chapter 25

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 25/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: The difference between intentions and outcomes may just be catching up with Jack. What do you do when trying to do good does harm?
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

25.
Roses by Other Names

The last time Jack had felt like this was when Riddick had revealed, to the other Hunter-Gratzner survivors, that she was actually a girl.

I really hate being put on the spot like this. Fortunately, this time at least, she had more control over her composure.

She could lie. She could obfuscate. She could demand to know why Tomlin thought they were those two people.

Or she could not insult his intelligence and get back to business.

All of that went through her head in under a second. She felt Kyra tensing next to her. “You’re good,” she said, resting her fingers on Kyra’s wrist. “Nobody was supposed to know we were there.”

That got a small smile from Tomlin. He was a good-looking man, Jack found herself thinking. His dark hair and olive skin spoke to his Berber heritage. He had the square jaw, strong chin, high-bridged nose, and prominent cheekbones that she’d seen among many of the people in Le Rif, speaking Berber—or, at least, speaking a language she knew was neither Arabic nor French. His eyes were a light olive green. Her cousin Rachel had had posters on her walls of a late Twentieth Century movie star who looked much like him. Jack found herself wondering where his very non-Berber surname had come from.

“It’s my job to keep track of things,” He replied. “But you didn’t exactly hide all that well.”

Jack tried not to let the knot forming in her stomach show on her face.

“After all,” Tomlin continued, his smile widening and transforming his face from handsome to dazzling, “when the two people who worked harder than anyone else, and saved a lot of lives in the process, turn out not to be spaceport employees and disappear before debriefing… people notice.”

Jack sighed, unsure of whether or not to feel relief. He seemed to be obliquely thanking them. But it could still be trouble. She was going to have to do a deep dive into the systems when they were done here to find out who, exactly, was looking for them. In the meantime, she’d have to stick with as much honesty as she could. She didn’t know how good he’d be at spotting a lie, but the fewer she told, the better.

“I wish nobody had noticed at all,” she admitted. “It’s better if nobody knows we exist.”

She could see him wanting to ask why and then suppressing the urge. “It’s an internal inquiry for now. I can tell the Human Resources department that it was a paperwork mix-up. Technicians on loan from an independent shipper.”

“The Quintessa Corporation doesn’t know?” Jack found herself asking.

“Baraka,” he said, making a small, strangely familiar, gesture. “God, no. The fuss they would have raised…” His expression became shrewd. “They can’t know about you, can they?”

“It would be very bad for all of us if they did,” she answered, feeling relief.

He nodded, seeming to accept that. “What should I call you?”

“Finch and Houlot will do,” Kyra said next to her, gesturing at each of them in turn.

“All right. You have something to tell me about the Scarlet Matador?”

Jack nodded. “By now you’ve already figured out that there’s a very high tide in U322A.”

Tomlin’s eyes widened, and she knew she had scored. He’d seen the heavily-redacted Isomorph Drive log, then. “Yes.”

“There are three moons in that ’verse that don’t exist here. The biggest was full last night. That was the source of your fifty-meter wave.”

His expression had grown somber while she talked. He had probably been asleep when it hit, she realized, believing that all the quarantined people would have to deal with was a twenty-meter wave that wasn’t due for several more hours and would be far below them. How nightmarish must that terrible scramble have been for him, having to battle a mortal threat he couldn’t even see?

“Moving them here was good. Last night’s wave was probably that moon’s normal maximum. But it’s not the only extra moon in Elsewhere’s sky—”

“Elsewhere?”

“Finch likes to give things unofficial names,” Kyra said. “U322A is ‘Elsewhere,’ and she named that moon, too. ‘Megaluna.’”

Tomlin’s lips twitched as if he was suppressing laughter. “Understood. So there’s more?”

For a second, Jack found herself wanting to argue that Megaluna was a perfectly damn good name, thank you very much, but she suppressed the urge. She had to get back to business. “There are two moons behind it in the sky, in close conjunction. They’re responsible for the twenty-meter tide you dealt with when the Matador landed.”

Tomlin nodded, his expression expectant.

“The problem is, they’re going to have a conjunction with Megaluna five high tides from now.”

“A syzygy?” Now he looked alarmed.

“Almost one,” Jack told him. The word had appeared in the forecast graph, and she’d already looked its meaning up, so she didn’t have to fake understanding of it. “Like I said, last night was Megaluna’s full moon, so the sun won’t be in on the alignment. That’d probably be even worse. But…”

She walked over to Tomlin’s side, aware that Kyra was staying protectively close to her the whole time, and offered him the tablet. He accepted it, glancing at her for a second before focusing on its screen.

“…It’s still going to be bad. Here’s the landing of the Matador,” she told him, pointing at the point on the graph when the falling tide had bumped upward again. “And this…”

She pointed at the high tide that had followed it.

“…is last night’s King Tide.” She gently tapped the “Forecast” button on the screen, letting the waveform projection populate forward. “And this is what’s coming.”

“Baraka,” Tomlin murmured again, and for a second Jack thought he was going to drop the tablet. With his free hand, he made the gesture again, and she realized it was one she’d seen the chatty food vendor use several hours earlier as a ward against evil. “Ninety meters? You’re sure?”

“Not one hundred percent,” Jack admitted. “We’re working with a limited data set here.”

In point of fact, that was the exact warning that had come up on the program after she had finished inputting the data. She had no way of being sure, not yet anyway, whether the two moons were going to start moving apart or come even closer to each other in the next few days.

“But,” she continued, “the risk is too big not to take it seriously.”

She had to resist the urge to add, right?, to defer to his considerably greater experience. It would make her sound like a kid. She had to keep projecting authority. It was hard, though. At any other time, she thought, he was the kind of person she’d have turned to for reassurance and guidance, and part of her desperately wanted that now.

So she was trying to channel Shazza. The New Australian woman had exuded perfect confidence. She didn’t try to pull off the accent, but she was trying to carry herself the way that Shazza had, to frame her assertions with the same aplomb that her wild-haired heroine had. If only that fearlessness hadn’t broken at the wrong moment. If only Shazza had just stayed down…

She forced herself back to the present. There was nothing she could accomplish by wallowing in her regrets.

Tomlin was nodding. “You’re absolutely right. Thank you. I will make sure that the passengers and crew are all moved above that altitude before then. I just…”

For a moment, he looked uncertain, some kind of battle playing out on his face. Then he met her eyes.

“Is there anything else you can tell me about U322A? The Quintessa Corporation hasn’t been helpful at all, they demand information but won’t give any, and these people…” He gestured helplessly, handing the tablet back to her as he did. “Are they going to be trapped in a high tower on our world for the rest of their lives? How can I help them?”

This, Jack realized, was what she needed to give him most of all, and could. He’d just provided her the perfect segue into the other thing she needed to tell him. “They don’t have to be. There’s a way to survive existing in two universes. It takes some work, but they can learn to pick which universe they’re aligned with.”

She handed the tablet to Kyra and stepped back from both of them. It was time for some genuine theatrics.

“They can learn to reject the water,” She told him, “or embrace it.”

Jack closed her eyes and took a deep breath. I am in both worlds, she thought, deliberately and carefully. She didn’t want to vanish from his sight altogether, after all. The water is holding me…

She focused on keeping the connection with the water, with Elsewhere itself, at just the right level, not too strong, not strong enough that the full weight of forty meters of water above her would come crushing down. She’d swum deep enough in the past, back on Deckard’s World, to know how much deeper that would be, how much pressure the water would put on a body, and how painful that kind of pressure change could be if it came on too quickly. An instantaneous change, she knew, could be genuinely injurious, damaging soft tissue and even potentially rupturing her ear drums. No, she wanted the water to float her and buoy her, not beat her down—

She felt it flow in around her, gentle as a swimming pool, and kicked off, opening her eyes as she swam upward. She didn’t want to bash her head against the garage’s ceiling, either, after all. That’d ruin the effect she was going for.

Below her, Tomlin was staring at her with his mouth agape as she swam through what was, to him, thin air. She did a slow flip in the water, coming back down to the floor level and hovering an inch or two above it, before pulling back from Elsewhere’s hold on her and dropping lightly to the floor. Air, she thought, had never tasted so sweet.

Her hair was wet now, plastered to her head, but her clothes were perfectly dry. She suddenly wondered in alarm if, had she and Kyra been forced to cut and run and try to isomorph through a wall, their clothes would have been left behind in the process.

That would have been a big problem. She added it to her list of things she needed to figure out once they were safely back in Le Rif.

“It takes work,” she told Tomlin, who was still staring at her. “They have to think really hard about the difference between the conditions in each ’verse, and what they’re aligning themselves with and what they’re rejecting. And no matter what, they’ll always see a little way into Elsewhere. They’ll always be able to feel it.”

“Finch came up with a mantra I like to use,” Kyra added. “‘I’m not in the water. I’m surrounded by air. No water is touching me. I’m not where the water is. The water isn’t where I am. I’m here and the water is Elsewhere.’ It’s effective, but the first time I used it, it took a few tries before I got it to work.”

Jack took the chip out of her pocket and offered it to Tomlin. “The wave forecast is on here. You can use it to help them. Next high tide, or even this one, take them down to a floor that’s only partly submerged. Get them swimming in the water. Make sure they’re floating over something soft and have them try it. Once they can control which ’verse they’re aligned with, they won’t need to be kept in a tower.”

Tomlin took the chip from her hand with the look of someone receiving a gift from a god. “Thank you. This is… you’re saving so many lives. The Quintessa Corporation has been no help at all, but this…”

“Don’t trust them,” Jack heard herself saying. Tomlin’s gaze moved sharply from the chip to her face. Kyra was staring at her too, she realized.

He wanted to ask her why; she could see that.

“It’s not that they can’t help,” she went on, ignoring the tiny head-shake Kyra was giving her. “They won’t help. Not really. Your ground crew was told that if anybody asked, they should say it was all just a quarantine, wasn’t it?”

Tomlin nodded. “There were non-disclosure agreements in exchange for the bonuses you two never collected. I… had to sign one, too.” His expression twisted a little. “Why? Why was such a thing even necessary?”

“We don’t know,” Jack told him. “We just know that they’ll do anything—anything—to cover up the existence of threshold syndrome and what causes it. So please let that part go. They have ways of making evidence disappear. And if anybody asks you about the data on the chip, you put it together from witness statements about what they saw in the sky during last night’s high tide.”

“You won’t even be lying,” Kyra said beside her. “Now, we need to go, and you need to get back to your charges.”

Tomlin nodded, pointing to the side. “There’s a pedestrian entrance over there. Thank you, both of you, again.”


Jack would have felt incredibly accomplished, even proud, about how everything had gone, if Kyra weren’t suddenly giving her the silent treatment.

Her friend was unusually quiet as they walked back to the lockers to get their things, and all during the walk back to their apartment in Le Rif. Her expression, as they walked, was introspective, bordering on brooding. It was only once they were inside with the door locked that she finally spoke. “You have a serious White Knight Complex going on with you, Jack.”

“Sorry?” Jack set her bags down on the battered table that had, once, probably held a video screen. She looked over at her friend, feeling a little twist of worry. Weirdly enough, Kyra wasn’t the first one to accuse her of that.

“Look, I get it. We needed to pass on what we knew about the tides. And how to get around them. But telling him not to trust Quintessa? Bad move.” Kyra looked vexed.

“But he shouldn’t. And if they ever found out about us—”

“He already said he was gonna cover for us,” Kyra interrupted. She sat down on the ratty couch, her eyes boring hard into Jack’s. “And he already didn’t trust them. But what you said is gonna make him more interested than ever in figuring out what they’re hiding.”

“But I told him to let it go,” Jack protested, her heart sinking.

“Oh come on, Jack.” Kyra rolled her eyes. “What would you do if someone said that to you?”

Jack opened her mouth to form a vague protest, but closed it again, the words unsaid.

“The two of you are practically twins,” Kyra grumbled. “So busy trying to save other people you have no idea how much danger you’re getting yourselves into.”

Jack wanted to say that wasn’t fair. That it wasn’t true. But that would be a lie. Paris, after all, had had to forcibly restrain her from running to Shazza, and Imam had had to similarly hold her back from running into the darkness after Fry to find Riddick. A rebellious part of her still insisted that, if she hadn’t been held back, maybe both Shazza and Fry would have lived. But that was just so much hot air.

I could have been torn to pieces like Shazza, she thought, or dragged off into the darkness like Fry.

The part of her that had tried to follow them into the black, some three months later, wondered if that would have been a mercy.

“Look,” Kyra said after a moment. “I know you mean well. And it’s good that you want to help people. But don’t forget we’re fugitives from the law here. We took a huge risk today. It worked out this time. But… it could’ve gone so wrong. We’ve got to keep a lower profile.”

Jack nodded, forcing back the part of her that wanted to argue. Tomlin had been receptive to Finch and Houlot, two mystery workers who had sped up the evacuation and then vanished. Would he have been nearly as receptive to Jack B. Badd, wanted for murdering Antonia Chillingsworth, and the Black Fox of Canaan Mountain? Or even just two fugitives from a psychiatric hospital? Would he have covered for them, or turned them in? “Yeah. I probably shouldn’t have swam in front of him, even if the cameras were off.”

Kyra sighed, and Jack realized she was fighting a grin. “Honestly, that was really cool. Risky, but cool. God, I want to practice some stuff like that.”

“We’ve got a lot to practice,” Jack agreed, relieved that they were no longer at odds. She sat down next to Kyra on the ratty couch. “I was figuring we could isomorph as far into Elsewhere as possible and go through the walls to get away, if we needed to, but there’s a problem with that.”

“Oh yeah? What?”

“Our clothes probably wouldn’t have come with us.” Jack touched her still-damp hair, and then gestured to her shirt and pants. “They didn’t even get wet. They stayed in U1, and only moved with me because I was still most of the way in it myself.”

Kyra had begun snickering.

“Plus,” Jack mused, growing serious, “We were forty meters below the surface. That’s… well, really experienced scuba divers can go that deep, but the change in pressure, especially if we had to do it fast, could’ve injured us.”

Kyra sobered next to her. “We’ve got a lot to learn. What we can do… I keep being tempted to think of it as super powers like on the shows back in the rec room, and maybe it can be, but we can’t go off half-cocked, even a little. We’re, what, on the ninth floor here? If we isomorphed over to Elsewhere when the tide was out, we’d just drop like a pair of dumb-ass stones, all that way down. Or what if we isomorphed into a space that already had something in it? I could feel the water moving out of the way when we were practicing last night, but… what if there was, oh, a glass pane we couldn’t even see from the other side, and it was halfway through one of us when we came back?”

Jack had had a few of the same thoughts. “It’s why I was still floating like an inch or two above the ground when I came back from Elsewhere in the garage. I didn’t want to get my feet stuck to something, or stuck in something. I didn’t think I would, but I didn’t want to take the chance.”

“Yeah. That was smart.” Kyra couldn’t completely contain her grin. “And it really was damn cool-looking. Did you see his face?”

“I could see his mouth was open.” In truth, the water had clouded her vision some.

“You could’a pretty much convinced him of anything you wanted, doing that. He’s lucky you’re not a con artist.” That seemed to sober her again. “The Quintessa Corporation has to know what people with threshold syndrome could be capable of. They might have a problem with the idea of everybody from the Matador figuring out how to switch between two universes instead of dying before they can.”

“Shit,” Jack groaned, closing her eyes and leaning back into the couch. “If he teaches them to do what we do, that puts a bullseye on him, doesn’t it? They’ll want to know how he figured it out.”

“Yeah.” Kyra sounded, and looked, genuinely morose at the prospect. “So what do we do about it?”

For several minutes, Jack couldn’t focus on that. The idea that she’d led someone into harm’s way again—like Ali, like Paris—was almost choking her. The voice within that had been quiet for a few days, with its I don’t want to be Jack anymore, I want to be Audrey again refrain, was back at full volume. She wanted to be back to a place where her backtrail didn’t resemble the damage path of a tornado. Where helping someone, or even just trying to, didn’t open them up to a world of hurt. All of her plans for getting there had seemed so solid, until they came up against reality and cracked in her hands. She still hadn’t even managed to get herself and Kyra a good set of—

And there it was.

“We’re gonna have to make sure he knows he’s in danger,” Jack said slowly. “And I’m gonna have to make sure he has a way out of it.”

“Oh?” Kyra’s lips were twitching as if she was suppressing amusement now. “I know that look. What’s the plan?”

“I still need to get us a good set of fake identities. Ones that’ll hold up in the long term. And some funds to back them.” Jack grinned, suddenly relishing what she was going to be doing. For a moment, the voice went quiet, and she was able to revel in being Jack B. Badd. “So I’m gonna make him a set, too, while I’m at it.”

Identity Theft, Chapter 24

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 24/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Learning how to predict the phantom tide cycle of their new, temporary, home leads Jack and Kyra to a disturbing discovery. With many other lives at stake, the two roll the dice and reach out to a stranger for help.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

24.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen

“This is too fuckin’ weird.”

Jack looked over at Kyra, who was staring up toward the library ceiling again. Filtered through water that only they could see, the lights were brilliant aqua. The whole room was bathed in blue-green light. A large school of fish darted around above them, casually passing through the stacks like particolored ghosts.

Around them, oblivious to the massive ocean that was passing over and through them, dozens of people sat at tables, researching different topics. Just to top off the strangeness, several of them were working with holographic replicas of ancient texts, sometimes forgetting themselves and passing their hands right through the pages as if they, too, were transdimensional fish.

“That’s a serious understatement,” she murmured back.

To the right, suspended on one wall, the chrono displayed three different clocks: two forms of Standard Time—based on the old Earth time system, using its years, months, days, hours, and minutes, one readout three hours ahead of the more universally used system—and Local Time, which Jack had been stunned to realize was necessary to account for the fact that one Tangiers Prime day was almost two Standard days long.

Most of the worlds that humanity had terraformed and colonized, like Deckard’s World and even Helion Prime, were much more similar to Earth. Helion Prime’s day was a mere fifteen minutes longer than a Standard day, while Deckard’s World’s day was just eight minutes shorter. Aside from some periodic calendar resets to realign themselves back to Standard, adapting had been easy.

But Tangiers Prime, one of the oldest of all colonies, had been among the first to be chosen and terraformed, and colonists back then been a lot less choosy about the kinds of worlds they’d attempt to make Earthlike. The extra-long days and nights might have caused severe extremes in temperature, but the thick upper atmosphere acted as an insulator. Still, few people were ever out during the hours of midnight or high noon, some twenty-two hours apart from each other.

For the inhabitants of this strange world, it meant that those were the two sleep periods most people engaged in, breaking each rotational period into two shortish “days” with the peak activity occurring in the twilight hours.

The locals were used to it, only considering it any kind of potential hardship during the month of Ramadan, when—according to a chatty food cart owner, anyway—the daytime period was still fourteen hours long, making fasting quite unpleasant. Only one sect observed that stricture; the other, dominant sect on Tangiers Prime had found a clever work-around by deciding that fasting only need occur while it would be daylight in Old Mecca, back on Earth.

Which meant that almost everyone in Tangiers Prime had chronos displaying the time in Federacy Standard +3, which she’d been told—by the chatty food vendor—matched up with Arabian Standard Time back on Earth.

No one could actually go there, of course; the original Mecca had been lost in the Great Asian War, which had irretrievably poisoned almost the entire eastern hemisphere of Earth and forced virtually all of humanity to leave. But it was immortalized in art and literature, probably romanticized to an unrealistic level, and still prayed to by tens of billions across the Federacy.

“You getting anywhere with that?” Kyra’s question pulled her back into the moment.

“Almost,” she answered. “How does this look to you?”

On the screen, a complex waveform formed above a time code. The first wave peaked roughly an hour before the code marking Tangiers Prime’s noon hour. It descended, crossing a line marked “sea level” five and three quarters hours later, dropping down to a “low tide” at the 11.5 hour mark and then rising again to meet the vertical line marking midnight, reaching a loftier height than the first peak. A second sine wave appeared, warping the downward sides, raising the overall form back up before it could reach “sea level” and generating new mini-peaks of its own after each of the “high tides.”

Kyra frowned. She pointed to the slight trough when the original wave had almost reached sea level, only to reverse. “So we landed then?”

“Yeah. The landing zone was ten meters above sea level, but the water was still fifteen meters above.”

“So five meters on the tarmac.”

“And it was already starting to rise again as we landed. It went up roughly another five meters.”

“Which is why that Tommy guy—”

“Tomlin.”

“It’s why Tomlin thought anything above twenty meters should be safe for everybody?”

“Yeah. I couldn’t figure out why it would do that, or be so high, until I remembered the other two moons looked like they were about four or five hours behind the main one. They’re close enough to each other in the sky right now that they’re reinforcing each other’s gravitational pull.”

“If you say so,” Kyra sighed. “Damn it. I hate being from a place where everybody insisted math and science were ‘Men’s Business.’ I’m starting to think maybe the assholes of New Dartmouth were right about a lot of shit…” She shook her head. “So this is what you got when you added those two moons?”

“Yeah. See how low the tide would have gone without their influence? Instead, it was already starting to climb again when we were evacuating the ship. We just barely made it to Le Rif in time.”

That, she’d learned, was the name of the down-on-its-luck hillside suburb they’d rented in, named after a mountain chain in Old Morocco.

“And about five hours after we fell asleep, the water showed up in our room?”

“Yeah. Megaluna generates a big pull.” She grinned as Kyra rolled her eyes. That was her name for the enormous moon, and she was sticking with it. “It was full, so that’s probably as high as it will ever go… but I want to make sure because I don’t like how its wave seems closer to the wave generated by the two moons, this second time, than it was the first time.”

Watching the tide start rolling back in, hours before sunrise, only to roll out again, had bothered her enough to launch this whole research project. She didn’t quite understand why it had created a prickle of dread within her, but she was learning to trust those feelings.

“And those two moons aren’t the same as the two in U1?” Kyra asked.

“Nope. Elsewhere’s moons are totally different ones. Qamar and Taziri,” she said, naming the two moons of Tangiers Prime, “were both below the horizon at the time.”

“Okay, so how do we make sure?” Kyra, Jack had discovered, had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, something she was only just starting to explore. Up until now, virtually all of the schooling she’d received had been doctrinal in one way or another, and that was something she’d grown to reject. Now, especially with topics that directly affected their lives, her hunger to learn had come out in force. Jack found herself wanting to encourage it.

“Well, now that these two waves look right… match up with what we saw… and the program has calculated out the sizes, positions, and probable orbits of the three moons that would produce them…” Jack glanced at her friend and grinned, “we let it forecast the next several cycles and see what happens.”

Doing this project, which had taken several hours and required them to stay downtown when the next tide rolled in, had helped distract Jack from the awful story that had come up in the newsfeeds shortly after the sun had risen.

Eighteen Dead Among the Quarantined Scarlet Matador Passengers and Crew

The article had had a weird spin on it, suggesting without directly claiming that some exotic illness had forced the quarantine of everyone on board the Matador, but Jack knew what had really happened. Eighteen people had drowned before the deadly danger everyone was in was fully understood and the rooftop evacuation had begun.

Jack wondered where everyone else had been taken. Several of New Marrakesh’s tallest buildings had been tall enough to keep a dozen or more floors above the crest of the tide, after all.

“Okay,” Kyra nudged her. “So stop woolgathering and let’s see what happens.”

Grinning back at Kyra, Jack pressed the “Forecast” button on the touch screen, selecting a ten-day period.

The waves rolled out, the larger and smaller tides growing closer and closer to each other and then—

“Ohhhhh fuck,” Kyra breathed. Jack couldn’t speak at all.

Five cycles out, two and a half of New Marrakesh’s absurdly long rotational periods away, the waves merged. The graph shrank to accommodate the new wave that resulted, estimated at 90 meters.

“We need to find Tomlin,” Jack told her best friend, “and warn him.”


An hour later, Jack knew for a fact that none of her Ghost Codes had been ferreted out.

She’d had to go deep into the local systems, posing as law enforcement, to learn everything she needed to know. The surviving passengers and crew of the Matador had been moved to one of the glittering office towers at the center of town and given occupancy of the twenty-third through twenty-seventh floors. Jack located the architectural schematics, confirming that this put all five floors just below the new high tide mark. Tomlin was credited with organizing the roof evacuation and minimizing further loss of life after hospital staff had finally notified him that something might be wrong. Now he was in charge of the quarantine and was currently listed as “on leave” from his Ground Control job.

It was approaching noon; most people were in bed or preparing to go there. But the tide had been rising for the last few hours, so Jack had a feeling that Tomlin would be awake and reachable.

She was almost right about that.

Ground Control’s voice was unmistakable, but sleepy, when he answered his comm. “Azul?”

For a moment, Jack thought he was saying someone’s name. Then she remembered hearing that as a greeting throughout Le Rif’s thrift stores that morning, when she and Kyra had been replacing their soaked clothes—“We just moved in and the water line broke, can you believe it?”—before traveling downtown. It wasn’t Arabic or French, so it was probably Berber.

“Mr. Tomlin,” she said, making her voice sound as steady and authoritative as possible. “It’s urgent I speak to you about the Scarlet Matador and its passengers. They’re still in danger.”

“Who is this?” Tomlin was fully awake and speaking textbook-perfect English again. “How did you get this number?”

“The answers to those questions aren’t important. What’s happening to your charges is.” Jack held her breath. Hopefully the fact that she had been able to reach him via a completely masked line—something technically forbidden on most worlds—would convince him that he was dealing with someone in a position of authority.

Which made it critical that she didn’t sound, even for a second, like an uncertain teenage girl.

“Very well,” Tomlin replied, and she could hear the curiosity in his voice. “When can we meet?”

“We’re close. Name the time and place.” That, she figured, was the best way to cover up her miniscule knowledge of local geography.

“One hour,” he answered. High noon. He then gave her the address of the building she already knew contained the New Matador’s passengers. “I’ll be in the parking garage. Level A. I hope you have some real answers for me.”

“I will.” Jack cut the call without giving into the temptation to say, as was common on Deckard’s World, buh-bye to him. That felt incredibly out of character with the shadowy authority figure she was trying to create in his mind.

“You watch a lot of spy movies?” Kyra asked beside her, holding in a grin.

“One or two,” Jack answered, letting her own grin out. “Okay, let’s get this data over on the tablet…”

She began transferring the results of her calculations to the brand new unit, purchased just a few hours earlier before they arrived at the library. Part of her still couldn’t help but feel morose that the screen she’d originally built on board the Matador hadn’t survived high tide, but the replacement—costly as it had been—would work better for them. She also transferred the data to a chip that she could give Tomlin.

“…and now we can get over there and get ready.”

They stopped on the way to rent lockers to store their other purchases, just in case they had to cut and run. If Tomlin decided to have the police handy, they might need to.

Fortunately, they’d gotten in some good practice, during the hour that the tide was receding from their apartment, and had even worked out how to “isomorph” almost all the way over into Elsewhere. If they had to, they could escape by passing through the local walls. Holding their breath the whole time, of course. Megaluna’s rising tide was all around them now. It would crest roughly an hour after their meeting with Tomlin.

The streets were almost deserted; for most of the people of Tangiers Prime, the hours surrounding high noon were a sleeping period. Jack found herself grateful that the phantom ocean was filtering some of the intense sunlight, but suddenly found herself wondering if she and Kyra were going to end up sunburnt anyway.

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun… It was a line from a song her mother had sometimes played. Suddenly it made perfect sense.

They arrived at the parking garage half an hour ahead of the scheduled time, walking in as nonchalantly as possible, dressed and acting like two girls, probably tourists, out shopping. Jack had discovered that Kyra needed a little coaching in how to “act casual;” the older girl had no experience with theatrics, or even much in the way of let’s-pretend games. The New Christy Colony had had strict prohibitions against theater and dance. Which was a shame, Jack found herself thinking; her friend’s ferocious grace would have been spectacular on a ballet stage.

They walked down to Level B, and from there, Jack tapped into the cameras. Ten minutes before the designated time, Tomlin arrived on Level A. Alone.

Apparently, he had his own ideas about how meetings like this were supposed to work. Maybe he’d had a few of them before. Jack watched with bemusement as he paid off the gate guard, who—after he received enough New Dirhams, anyway—shut the gates, put up a sign that said “Temporarily Closed” in four languages, and sauntered off. Tomlin leaned against the guard’s booth, just out of the sunlight’s direct reach, to wait.

“Might as well do this now, right?” Kyra murmured beside her.

Jack nodded and switched off all the cameras on Level A, setting the feed cycle in the building’s main guardroom to switch between everything except the blank cameras. Hopefully nobody would notice that Level A wasn’t appearing at all.

She switched out of Ghost Mode on the tablet and pulled up the tide cycle. “Let’s go.”

Tomlin didn’t realize, at first, who they were. He probably thought he was dealing with exactly what they looked like, a pair of teenage girls inconveniently appearing at just the wrong time. “Sorry, I’m afraid I need to ask you to—”

“Mr. Tomlin, it’s good to meet you in person,” Jack said.

That brought his words to a stop. He looked at them, really looked at them, and his eyes widened. “We’ve been looking for you,” he said after a moment.

Jack had not been expecting that. “You have?”

He nodded, his expression becoming both more certain and a little awed. “P. Finch and J. Houlot?”

Well, shit.

Identity Theft, Chapter 23

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 23/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: It might take a miracle for Kyra and Jack to survive Tangiers Prime’s killer King Tide, or maybe just the craziest idea Jack has ever had in her life.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

23.
The Ocean of Elsewhere

Audrey MacNamera had never been afraid of the water.

Back on Deckard’s World, terraformed to be a rustic back-country utopia by its planners, rivers and lakes had abounded. When people went on vacations, swimming was one of the central activities. As a toddler, Audrey had learned how to move through the water like a little fish while she was still trying to master walking on land.

But she had never found herself in the middle of an ocean before. No body of water, ocean or otherwise, had ever come to claim her like this.

“Come on,” Jack told Kyra, slogging her way through the thigh-high water toward the apartment unit’s outer door, “let’s see if we can get to the roof.”

“Our cards—!” Kyra protested.

“All part of U1. They’re safe. As long as we make it through this, they’ll be waiting for us right where we left them.”

Kyra splashed after her. “What about our gear?”

They had both left their bags sitting on the floor when they had hit the sack.

“Probably already too late for most of the clothes and the electronics,” Jack said, pulling the door open and marveling at how it and the water ignored each other’s existence. “The rest’ll be here when we get back. It can’t pass through the walls any more than we can.”

“But—”

“We figured we’d have to ditch it all if nobody in the ground crew was carrying bags, right? It’s all replaceable. You’re not, and neither am I.” Jack found the stairwell, again finding herself surprised as the water put up no resistance against the door’s opening.

Theirs was the top floor, but Jack had noticed that the stairs continued past their doorway, indicating roof access.

“Please be unlocked, please be unlocked, please be unlocked…”

No such luck. Jack stared at the elaborate locks on the door, the overkill emphasizing that past tenants had used the roof for purposes that the landlords had taken issue with. Even if she had a really good set of lockpicks, she probably couldn’t have gotten through the door.

“Fuck,” Kyra muttered. “All this way and now we drown?”

Jack shook her head. “We can go out a window. It’s late enough that nobody’ll notice us floating, especially if we stay close to the building wall.”

“Jack, look.” Kyra pointed at the steps below them. “No footprints. What the hell?”

Kyra was right. Under normal circumstances, their wet footprints should have been on every step.

“The water’s in one universe, and the stairs are in another. The only place they meet is in us.” Jack shook her head, really glad that she’d earned her A+ from Mr. Reilly. She didn’t think she’d have managed to wrap her head around what was happening otherwise.

“And our clothes, damn it. Hey, if we buy clothes here in New Marrakesh, they’ll stay dry, right?” Kyra started down the stairs as she talked.

“They should. I mean, the water’ll pass right through them, so we’ll still get wet, but…” Jack stopped talking for a second, shaking her head as she followed Kyra back down. “Damn. It’s just too weird to think about for long.”

The water had continued rising, now soaking the crotch of Jack’s pants when she reached their floor again.

Kyra saw her grimace. “Hey, at least it’s warm, right?”

“Yeah, and at least neither of us are on our fuckin’ periods.” She was a little amazed by that; in the past, her period had a habit of showing up at the worst possible moment.

If it starts tonight, I’ll know why.

“Shit!” Kyra gasped. “You don’t think there actually are sharks in these waters, do you?”

“I seriously hope not.” Jack opened the door to their unit again, careful about where she placed her feet. A lot of loose junk was still lying in wait in the main room, hidden by water that couldn’t actually touch any of it. “You saw that little crustacean by the ramp, though, right? Something lives in this ocean. Probably a lot of somethings.”

Another wave rolled through the apartment, raising the water to hip level. Re-entering the bedroom, Jack moved for the nearer of the two windows, which faced south. Its view was less impressive than the west window, but more useful right then. It faced a stand of cedars that were taller than the building, cutting down on the chances that two floating girls would be seen by a midnight stroller. She shoved the screen up and leaned out.

“The moon’s almost over us,” she told Kyra, who was leaning out beside her. “The tide should peak when it is, and then it’ll start to go down. We have less than an hour until it peaks.”

“Why’s it so goddamn big?” Kyra asked.

Jack was wondering the same thing herself. Nearly directly overhead, definitely full, and with a diameter five times as big as any satellite she’d seen on Deckard’s World or Helion, the moon shone balefully down on them, almost too bright to look at. To the southeast, Jack could see two other, smaller moons, both gibbous, halfway between the huge moon and the horizon.

“Oh my God,” Jack said, realization hitting her. She pointed at the other moons. “See those? Those are Tangiers Prime’s normal moons. I mean, the two on our universe’s star charts. There’s no mention of a third moon, especially one this size. No wonder the tide’s so high.”

“Wait, so this moon only exists in the other universe?” Kyra squinted up at it. “We’re the only ones who can see it?”

“I think we need some other way of referring to that, just in case people hear us.”

“What, the moon?”

“The other universe. We keep talking like that and somebody’s bound to notice.” Jack was nerving herself up to climb out of the window. Part of her, on some level, could sense how it was empty space below her, rather than a dozen or so fathoms of water, the same way that she’d felt the empty air below her on the other side of the threshold when she’d been on board the flyer. It was a vertiginous sensation. She wondered if Kyra was feeling it too; the older girl hadn’t climbed out the window yet, either, and she was something of a daredevil.

“So like, when we say ‘here’ we mean U1?” Yeah, Kyra was stalling too. “And when we’re talking about the other universe, we say we’re talking about somewhere else?”

“Elsewhere. Yeah. We’re talking about Elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere. I like the sound of that.” Kyra was exploring the brickwork of the building’s outer wall with her fingers, testing for handholds. Stalling. “The reality of it? Not so much.”

“At least we’re not on fire—whoa!” Jack gasped as two military copters flew low over their building, headed west at top speed.

“The hell?” Kyra gasped. “Where are they going in such a hurry?”

“The hospital.” Jack suddenly felt terribly cold despite the balmy water temperature. She ducked under the window—realizing, as she did so, that the water had risen to the point where she had to immerse herself completely—and then swam toward the west window. There was no point in walking anymore; swimming was faster. She shoved the window screen upward and pulled herself partway through the opening. Her head broke the surface of the water just as a third copter roared by.

The first two copters were closing on the hospital tower. As she watched, they turned on searchlights, illuminating the tower’s roof. Only four floors of the tower were still visible; the water had almost completely engulfed the floor below them, just as it had more than halfway engulfed the apartment floor.

Were there people on the roof?

The Scarlet Matador had been a significantly larger ship than the Hunter-Gratzner, Jack recalled. Fry had mentioned that there had been forty passengers and a crew of five on board that ship. The Matador had carried five times as many passengers, plus a crew of nine. How many tower floors had they had to open to accommodate more than two hundred patients? More than the top four?

How many of those two hundred patients were trapped on the roof now, watching the waters rise and praying that they began to recede before there was no building left?

She found herself imagining what it must have been like for them, waking to the tide’s arrival, calling for help from people who couldn’t feel or even see the rising waters. Had they even been warned about the kind of threat they might be facing? Had the hospital staff?

The moon was almost directly overhead. Jack hoped her limited understanding of how tides worked was correct—despite its abundant rivers and lakes, most of the bodies of water on Deckard’s World had been too small to have active tides—and that soon, very soon, the water would begin to drop back down.

Kyra had joined her at the west window, also watching the long-distance drama at the hospital. “We’re coming up on a moment of truth here.”

“You mean, in or out?” Jack, halfway out the window but still loathe to climb out completely, glanced back through its glass and into the bedroom. “I think there’s a real chance that this thing is going to start going down before it reaches our ceiling.”

“Is that a chance we should take?” Kyra looked dubious.

“Shit. I don’t know. I do know that as soon as it’s safe to, I’m getting the best lockpick set I can find so we can sleep up on the damned roof.”

Kyra looked like she was suppressing laughter. “You pick pockets and locks?”

Maybe it wasn’t the time for such things to be amusing. Or maybe, in a moment like that, humor was the only thing left to hold onto. Jack closed her eyes and snickered. “You got me, Merc, I’m a born criminal…”

In that moment, it no longer seemed like such a terrible thing.

“Jack?” Kyra asked a short time later. The laughter had subsided and both of them were somberly watching the rooftop evacuation underway at the hospital.

“Yeah?”

“How are we going to deal with this? I mean, high tides happen, like, twice a day, right?”

It was a sobering thought. Twice a day, every day, the tide was going to roll in and bury all of the places they needed access to under fathoms of water. Even trying to get off-world would be tricky, very nearly impossible, unless they could manage to board a ship during low tide and have it launch before the waves could return. There had been a few-hours-long window when New Marrakesh was dry in both ’verses, but…

Could they actually manage to chart out the tidal patterns of a three-moon world with enough accuracy to avoid getting drowned?

Or, Jack thought with sick dread, were their deaths preordained now, the way most of the Hunter-Gratzner’s passengers’ deaths had been from the moment it hit atmo for the last time?

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry, Kyra. I didn’t mean to get you into this mess.”

“Hey now. You got me out of a mess, remember?” The lost look had fled the older girl’s face, and her mouth quirked with humor. “Fuck New Dartmouth. I never want to see that shithole again. I’d rather get eaten by a shark from another dimension. Least that’ll give me some fun stories to tell in Heaven, right?”

Something about that caught Jack’s attention. Eaten by a shark from another dimension…

What would that meal be like for such a creature? How much of its meal would actually be substantial? What would be left behind on the other side? Gruesome as the thought was, suddenly Jack found herself wondering about the conflicting laws of physics their bodies were dealing with at that very moment.

They were floating in water, buoyed up by it, because it existed in one universe even as open air existed in another. The water could flow unimpeded through walls that simply didn’t exist for it, but they couldn’t do the same. For them, the walls and the water were both real, and somehow both sets of universes’ rules simultaneously affected them.

If I finished climbing out of the window and let go, I would float, not fall… And yet a part of her could feel the gravity of U1’s New Marrakesh trying to contradict that. She wondered, suddenly, if she would float, or if she would find herself not falling but sinking down to what was simultaneously street and seafloor… and drowning.

Shuddering with the thought, she pulled herself through the window and back into the mostly-flooded bedroom. She needed to test this, find out, but not somewhere where the result of her experiment could kill her.

Kyra surfaced next to her a moment later. “What are you doing?”

“I need to test something,” she said, treading water. That didn’t feel any more difficult than it ever had. “Before we do something that could get us killed. I need to figure out how this all works.”

“How what all works?”

“Being in two universes at once.” Jack kicked up, arcing her body so that she could float on her back.

The water held her up.

“Oh,” Kyra said. “Oh. Fuck, I didn’t even think of that. I kept feeling like I was gonna plummet straight down but I couldn’t figure out why.”

“Looks like we’re probably safe from that, at least.” Jack let herself drift for a moment. If the stakes weren’t so damned high, she thought, what they were doing right then could have been fun.

She mentally slapped herself. Their fellow passengers from the Scarlet Matador could be dying, right that moment, and she was thinking about fun?

She made herself focus on her task again. The resistance of the water was holding her up in both worlds, even though the lack of resistance in the other world should have pulled her down. And the obstruction of the walls and doors, floors and ceilings, limited her movement in virtually every direction even though none of them existed in the world of water—in Elsewhere. Higher densities, in either ’verse, trumped lower densities and shaped the way she could interact with either world, or both of them at once. She could fly through the air of U1 by swimming through Elsewhere’s water… but she couldn’t pass through U1’s walls as she swam.

But… what if I could?

“It can’t pass through the walls any more than we can,” she’d said to Kyra, secure in the knowledge that even if the tide caught up their meager possessions and whirled them around the apartment, it couldn’t pull them out into the open water if all of the doors and windows were shut. Too much of them belonged to both ’verses.

But earlier that day, she’d held one of the recalcitrant universe-straddling cash cards in her hand, trying to will it to just exist in the universe where its strip and its chip needed to be read…

…and it had worked.

Was there a way for them to do that with themselves? Orient themselves to just one universe? Slip through walls as if they weren’t there, or, alternately… stand on the ground, with a sea engulfing them on every side… and breathe air and not even feel damp?

Could she will herself back into the dry version of their unit, the one that existed in U1 alone?

Could she choose to be bound by just one world’s physics?

Fuck. I have to try. If it somehow works, we won’t have to worry about when high tide is likely to be.

Jack swam over to the corner of the room with the grubby bed.

If I can make myself fall through the air instead of floating on water… I want to fall on something soft.

Floating above the mattress, Jack closed her eyes, concentrating on the way her body had felt as she was going to sleep a few hours earlier. Dry air on dry skin, dry clothes against her skin as well, the cool, comfortable sensation of having taken off that damned blonde wig… dry. Surrounded by air. Held down by gravity that air wasn’t strong enough to resist.

I am not in water, she thought. I am surrounded by air. I am not in a world where the ocean can touch me like this. No water is touching me. No water is touching me.

Nothing happened, except another wave rolled through and lifted her body a tiny bit higher.

The water is not part of me. No water is touching me. I am not where the water is. The water is not where I am, the water is Elsewhere—

She landed on the mattress with a hard thump.

Her clothes, she realized, were still soaked. But the water—

It was all around her, and yet it wasn’t. Surrounding her, she could see something. Something blue-green, bright where moonbeams struck it, shading deeper and deeper the further away it was. A wild shimmer above her showed her exactly where the ocean’s surface was, still roughly two feet below the ceiling. She could still see the water from Elsewhere, but—

She took a short, shallow breath, nervous that she would find herself suddenly choking on brine, but air filled her lungs.

I did it. I did it, she thought with giddy joy. How the fuck did I do it?

Kyra floated above her, suspended in the aquamarine air, arms and legs in motion as she turned around and around, looking for—

Looking for me, Jack thought with a grin. She got up from the mattress and walked over to Kyra, reaching up and tugging her hand.

Kyra immediately began thrashing, and Jack had to duck a wild kick.

Damn, she’s probably thinking “shark!”

Jack climbed back onto the mattress and stood up on it. The top of her head was almost touching the ceiling. She would be visible to Kyra now.

“Kyra! I figured it out!”

“Jack, something grabbed me—”

“Sorry! Sorry, that was me. Come over here! I figured out how to make it so we can breathe U1’s air even when we’re underwater.”

“You what?”

“Get over here and I’ll show you. I’ll explain everything, I swear!”

“You can’t be serious!”

Kyra, she realized, was beginning to panic. With so little space left between the water’s surface and the apartment’s ceiling, that was inevitable. How could she prove it—?

Oh!

“Smack your hand down on the water, Kyra!”

“What?”

“Do it!”

“Fine! Fucking fine, Jack! What the fuck is going on with this bullshit—” Kyra smacked her arm down on the water, making it splash around her.

“Now! Watch me!” Jack lifted her arm above the surface of the water, holding it out, and then slapping it down. Her arm passed through the water as if either it, or the water, was a hologram.

“What… the… fuck?”

“Get over here and I’ll show you how!”

“Why there?”

“Because the bed’s over here! When the water stops holding you up, you’ll want to land on something soft!”

“You think that damned thing is soft!?” But Kyra was swimming over. Jack took her hands and guided her until they were both above the mattress, Jack standing on it, Kyra treading water.

“Float on your back,” Jack told her.

Kyra gave her a dubious look but obeyed.

“Close your eyes.”

“This is some seriously freaky bugfuck shit, Jack.”

“I know. Close your eyes.”

Kyra released a deep, gusty sigh of frustration and shut her eyes, grimacing.

“I want you to think about how it felt when you were dry, earlier tonight. No water on you, just air against your skin and your dry clothes. Dry hair. Warm. Imagine feeling like that now, okay?”

“Okay…”

“And now you need to tell yourself this. Think these words to yourself as I say them, okay?”

“Okay…”

“I am not in the water. I’m surrounded by air. No water is touching me. I’m not where the water is. The water isn’t where I am. I’m here and the water is Elsewhere.” Jack took a breath and began to repeat the mantra.

For the first time in her life, she truly understood why repetition was so important.

Kyra joined her on the third repetition. “I am not in the water, I’m surrounded by air… no water is touching me… I’m not where the water is… the water isn’t where I am. I’m here and the water is—holy fuck!”

With another loud thump, Kyra landed on the mattress. She gasped, staring wildly around her, and for a moment Jack thought she was going to scream. Then she burst into peals of laughter.

Jack sat down next to her, feeling immeasurable relief. There had been a moment of terrible fear that, although she had figured out how to survive beneath another universe’s waters, Kyra wouldn’t be able to. That, once again, she would come through unscathed and lose someone she loved.

And when the hell, Jack thought with astonishment, had that happened?

Identity Theft, Chapter 22

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 22/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: It’s bad enough trying to get around a new town at the best of times. Add in only being halfway in its universe, and having to deal with a very frisky shoreline on the other side of the threshold, and Jack and Kyra have a lot to deal with.
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

22.
The Phantom Tides of New Marrakesh

High tide crested some two meters above the Scarlet Matador’s hull and began to recede almost two hours after the first attempt to board the ship. Four hours after that, the water had withdrawn completely from the landing site. With no idea how long it would be until the phantom tide turned again, the ground crew moved quickly to reboard the Matador and evacuate its occupants.

Jack, who had listened to the comm discussions about the planned boarding, had also determined that Tangiers Prime’s spaceport was another customer of her father’s old security company. Well before the ground crew boarded, she had added her pseudonym, “P. Finch,” and Kyra’s “J. Houlot” pseudonym to the roster of miscellaneous ground crew workers press-ganged into managing the evacuation. They attached their name tags, which Jack had previously hidden on the closet’s top shelf, to their suits, and even joined the roll call over the comms, reporting for duty from inside the ship. Jack had to nudge Kyra when it was her turn to respond; the conversation was in Arabic, which hadn’t been spoken on New Dartmouth or in the hospital, but which Jack had picked up pretty quickly in the Al-Walid household. In the hurried pandemonium that followed, nobody noticed when Jack temporarily “glitched” the camera feeds and they slipped out of the utility closet to join the relief efforts.

It helped that both of them had run through simulations of disconnecting cryotubes dozens of times. Their speed and competence got them more than a few words of gratitude from actual members of the ground crew, some of them even in English.

Two hours in, after carrying a liberated cryotube down to the waiting transport, Jack and Kyra joined the team that would reconnect them at the other end in the hospital. True to Ground Control’s word, they were transported via air. Below them, the city spread out. Trying not to rubberneck like a tourist, Jack studied it, noting that there appeared to be a coastline to one side, running along the land from the spaceport to the urban center, and wondering which universe that water existed in.

Most of the other members of the ground crew were chatting in Arabic, too quickly for Jack to follow what they were saying, but a few were talking quietly in English nearby.

“Man,” one of their coworkers, wearing a tag identifying him in four languages as T. Alami, Ground Operations, gave an expressive, exaggerated shudder before leaning back in his seat. “This whole thing gives me the jeebies bigtime.”

“Seriously,” another—H. Aziz, Ramp Agent—chimed in. “I kept expecting some kinda monster to come charging around the corner at us, any second.”

“I wonder what it’s like for them,” Alami said after a moment. “You heard about the captain getting knocked over by an invisible wave, right?”

“Yeah,” Aziz groaned. “Jeez. Tomlin was standing right in front of her at the time.”

“He’s the arrival controller, right? The one in charge of this mess?”

“Yeah. Good guy. I’m glad he was on duty when the shit went down. Khalil says he slept in the control tower last night so he’d be there if they tried to reach him.”

That, Jack thought, explained why Ground Control had always answered with the same voice. She’d assumed it was an AI until a man with that voice walked in through the airlock.

Aziz tugged at her helmet, adjusting it a little. “Damn, I want out of this gear. Anyway, Tomlin said that after she fell down, he could see water all over her. Kinda. Like, her hazmat suit looked wet. And so did the floor of the ship. But he couldn’t see any of the water itself and there wasn’t a drop on him.”

“That’s mental.”

“Yeah, I can’t wait to get done with this and go home.”

Now it was Alami’s turn to groan. “Don’t you wish. You heard that we’re all supposed to get debriefed by the Quintessa Corporation rep before we can go, right?”

“Shit, I forgot. Damn it…”

Jack and Kyra exchanged a silent look. They were going to have to find a way to ditch their gear and get away from the rest of the ground crew before that happened.

At the hospital, Jack caught a glimpse of a man with Ground Control’s voice, now out of hazmat gear and in a smart military uniform, arguing with a hospital suit about the elevation of different hospital wings. His Arabic, she noticed, was as flawless and un-accented as his English. The laden ground crew milled about for a few minutes until word came down that, in an abundance of caution, the cryotubes would be taken to the hospital’s highest levels. Patients on those levels were being relocated to other wings in preparation.

Probably a smart move, Jack thought, but shuddered a little. There had been times, on the brief flight over, when she could feel the other universe’s pull, the sensation that the transport’s floor was illusory and she might fall through it at any moment. She hoped that wouldn’t actually happen to any of the cryotubes… or their occupants, once they were released.

Another transport flight arrived with even more cryotubes. As the area became increasingly crowded, Jack nudged Kyra and nodded towards a door with a familiar keypad beside it.

One Ghost Code later, they were hurrying down a flight of steps with signs that pointed to a garage, stripping off their suits as they went. The lights on all of the stairwell cameras were dark, having switched off the moment Jack input the code. In ten minutes, they would switch back on and the system would report a minor power glitch as cover.

“Damn,” Kyra whisper-hissed as they went. “That Paris guy must’ve been some really hot shit. His codes work everywhere.”

Jack grinned and nodded, recalling how she’d sneaked up on him and put a boomerang to his throat.

At the base of the stairs, they straightened their wigs one more time before wadding up the hazmat suits into the smallest bundles that they could and stuffing them into a pair of discarded shopping bags Jack had spotted on the way. Now dressed in ordinary street clothes and carrying the bags, looking like two ordinary teens who had been out store-hopping, they walked out into the hospital’s parking garage.

They were one level below the street entrance, Jack figured, and she was suddenly glad they hadn’t gone any lower. The ramp down to the next level ended abruptly, just a third of the way down, at a smooth plain of what looked like drying sand with seaweed strewn across its surface. Something small and crustacean-like was scuttling across the sand. As they watched, it seemed to pass through the concrete of the ramp and vanish.

Jack was just glad that they hadn’t encountered the other ’verse’s ground level before they’d been able to leave the stairway.

“We’d better find some higher ground fast,” Kyra said next to her. “This part of town is definitely going to be underwater when the tide comes back in.”

Jack nodded. “That Tomlin guy seemed to think that anything at an elevation of twenty meters above sea level—I mean, this ’verse’s sea level—should be safe.”

“How high up is the hospital’s ground level?” Kyra asked.

“Ten meters above.” Jack grimaced. “Let’s get somewhere where we can pull up an elevation map. We’ll pick a good spot to go to ground above the water.”

Nobody gave them a second glance as they left the hospital garage and headed toward a cluster of towers in the distance.

Tangiers Prime, like many large colonies, provided street signs in multiple languages. Arabic topped the signs, followed by Berber, then French, and finally English. As Jack recalled, most of its original settlers had been Moroccan, although it had diversified in the centuries since.

“What’s this city called?” Kyra asked, as she scanned one of the street signs and shook her head.

“New Marrakesh.” Jack led the way, mentally sorting through all of the guidebooks she’d flipped through when she had originally set out for this destination. The plan, back then, had been to arrive on Tangiers Prime roughly a year after she had left Deckard’s World, wait a few weeks, and then either bribe her way onto or stow away on one of the semi-annual supply ships headed for Furya and her father, a mere two-month journey away. It had all been timed so carefully, until it had fallen through so spectacularly.

Well, she’d made it this far. Finally.

After a few wrong turns, they found their way to an open air market that mixed centuries-old aesthetics, from old Morocco of Earth, with contemporary technology: carved wood screens with elaborate geometries concealed crass, ordinary information and banking kiosks. Before anything else, Jack sat down in front of a banking kiosk to acquire a little bit of the local currency.

And got a nasty shock.

Error. Card unreadable.

The kiosk spat the card – one that should have had roughly the equivalent of one hundred New Dirhams on it – back out of its slot. Jack felt as though she had just been tossed into ice water.

One by one, she and Kyra tried all of their money cards, with the same results. Unreadable. Unreadable. Unreadable.

“What the Hell?” Kyra hissed, struggling not to draw attention to them by raising her voice. “I know these were working back on Helion!”

Back on Helion…

“Ohhhh, damn it,” Jack groaned. “They’re straddling universes just like we are.”

“Oh.” Kyra sat down hard next to her. “Shit. So they’re only half here?”

“Yeah. Maybe that’s weakened their magnetic charge too much. Or maybe the other universe’s string frequencies are interfering with it.” Jack picked up one of the cards and held it to her, trying to will it to be part of just one universe. We are in U1. Only U1. The thing in my hand belongs here and nowhere else…

She sighed and pushed it into the slot, expecting the machine to spit it right back out again.

Welcome. Please provide your passcode.

“Holy… fuck.” She stared at the screen for a moment before giving Kyra an enormous grin.

Taking no chances, she had the banking kiosk issue replacements for each of the cards they had brought from Helion. Somehow, her Hail Mary was actually working, but she wasn’t going to assume that it would stick. They needed cards made out of materials strictly bound to this ’verse.

Aware that they might be running out of time, she decided to hold off on replacing their IDs for the moment. Instead, she pulled up an elevation map of the New Marrakesh area—noting, as she did so, that the coastline she’d glimpsed from the flyer was real—and identified which parts of town were safely above the other universe’s hypothetical high tide mark. Next up was a search for affordable rooms for rent in those regions.

“Fuck,” she muttered after half an hour of searching. “Why does every town in the Federacy make its heights so damn expensive?”

They had only two available options, both in an area that she suspected had gone into decline and was probably a little dangerous. Oh well. We’ll probably fit right in…

Kyra looked over the listings. “I like that one,” she said, touching one of the images on the screen. “Top floor. The higher the better, just in case.”

“Okay…” Jack submitted their application and deposit, putting a hold on the unit. After a whispered conference with Kyra, she entered the security code they agreed upon to use as a key in place of their possibly-fragged fake ID cards, aware that the option to do so indicated how seedy the place would probably be. “Let’s go claim it. We’ll figure out the rest once we’ve got it.”

Kyra quirked her lips. “I know that look. You think it’s got bugs?”

“We may have to fight them for territory, yeah.”

They took a moment to study a city map before setting off. The roads narrowed and became more and more winding as they hiked upward, the buildings becoming less ornate and more weather beaten and grungy. She hadn’t been wrong in her assessment; in the heights or not, this part of town was not prosperous. The haves and have-nots of New Marrakesh, she noted, weren’t divided along racial or ethnic lines; she and Kyra didn’t particularly stand out.

Score one for Tangiers Prime…

Her father, she mused, had been right about Deckard’s World.

It had been during one of the loudest pre-divorce arguments her parents had, when he’d shouted at her mother that they were raising their daughter on a racist planet. Thinking now about the cross-section of people she’d met while living on Helion, and saw in the low-rent district of New Marrakesh, she finally understood what he’d been so upset about. Virtually everyone in their moderately well-to-do part of town, and almost all of the kids at her school, had been white and had treated anyone with darker skin, who showed up in “their” parts of town, with unease and suspicion. Or as invisible, if they were gardening or engaging in some other role of quiet servitude. She’d gone offworld too quickly to even think about it at the time, but if she had needed to try to hide out in what passed for slums in her hometown, she never could have blended in.

Jack wondered if it ever occurred to members of her family, outside of her father, just how unjust all of that was.

“Deckard’s World!” the tourist brochures all touted, “Recreating the best elements of small-town America!” How much of that, she wondered, had been code for something far less pure and noble? How much of that code did her family understand and agree with?

They found their building as the light level started to change and the wispy clouds began to turn into fuchsia streamers above them. Their code opened the inner door into a dimly lit lobby. Several lights were either missing or burned out. A sign was taped over an elevator door, scrawled in Arabic and Berber but forgoing French and English.

Fortunately, Jack had been enrolled in “remedial” Arabic classes while she lived with the Al-Walids.

“Elevator broken. Please use the stairs.” She quirked an eyebrow at Kyra.

“No wonder the top floor unit was available.”

“At least we don’t have to tiptoe on these stairs,” Jack laughed. “C’mon.”

The stairwell smelled. Jack tried to ignore the odors—most of them biological—as much as she could. Maybe, once they knew their way around the town better and she’d set up some more resources through the other Ghost Codes—assuming those hadn’t been discovered and shut down while she and Kyra were in cryo—they could pick out a nicer place.

For now, it would do.

Eight flights up and they were on “their” level. Jack identified the unit they had reserved and punched in the security code they had chosen.

The space was cramped, musty, and dim. Jack touched the panel by the door and, after a few seconds, lights came up. One flickered, threatening to go back out at any moment.

The unit was furnished… more or less. Jack had the suspicion that someone had been evicted a while back and hadn’t been allowed to clear out most of their things before being given the bum’s rush. There was a ratty-looking couch and a rattier-looking chair, arranged to face a pitted and scarred table that had probably once had a vid screen sitting on it. Behind the table and a small half-wall divider, pots and pans, plates, cups, and utensils were jumbled on a kitchen counter, awaiting a washing that might be weeks or even months overdue.

“Yeah, we’re definitely going to be doing battle against the bugs,” Kyra sighed. “I sure can pick ’em.”

A small hallway led off to the left. Jack peeked into it and realized that it led to a single bedroom with an attached bath. Again, the rooms were technically furnished, with dilapidated furniture strewn with clothing and various possessions that had been left behind by the last tenant, most of which probably needed to be disposed of. The air had a chemical aftertaste to it; the place had been fumigated even if it hadn’t been cleaned.

“I think the battle with the bugs is over. We’re just gonna have to dispose of their remains.”

“Really not much better,” Kyra said beside her. “But what the hell…?”

She walked over to one of the windows, which had its curtains drawn and shades pulled, but which was leaking vibrant, magenta light around its edges. She pulled everything open and then gasped.

“Damn, Jack, you gotta see this.”

The window faced west. Twilight was fully upon New Marrakesh. The clouds had caught fire, molten orange at the horizon rising up to lava red and fuchsia, through dusky rose and a deep, muted purple before the color faded back to dark gray. The sky, between the clouds, was a gem-bright shade of blue that felt, to Jack, like it was searing its way into her heart. The shoreline she’d spotted from the flyer was visible, their lower perspective making it seem closer to the city than she remembered, its water glittering and reflecting the clouds’ riotous shades. Sloping down to that shoreline, New Marrakesh glowed like the mass of jewelry that had spilled out from one of Paris’s “sarcophagi” when he had ransacked his goods for weaponry, blazing and sparkling in the beam of Fry’s flashlight.

Jack wasn’t sure when she’d last seen anything so beautiful.

“You’d think, with a view like this, the owners of this building would have no trouble renting,” she breathed, feeling awed.

“Okay, maybe I can pick ’em,” Kyra murmured back. She looked mesmerized. Had she ever seen a view like this before?

Jack took a closer look around the unit. The woodwork, she realized, was carved—or at least, where it hadn’t been buried under a dozen coats of paint, there were signs of elaborate Marrakesh-style embellishments. Decades ago, she thought, this building had been the hot commodity in the town, and its views had commanded a premium.

She wondered why that had changed, exactly.

“Hey, Jack… uh… I think the tide may be rising again.” Kyra’s voice had become uncertain.

Jack looked out the window again and felt her breath catch in her throat. The shoreline had moved even closer.

“The base of this building is twenty-two meters above Tangiers Prime sea level,” Jack told Kyra, trying to reassure herself at the same time. “We’re on the ninth floor, roughly another twenty-four meters up. We’ll be fine.”

The lights along the shoreline were dimming, as if veiled… or overlaid by water from another universe. Moving lights of vehicles began to vanish and appear along that edge… and the edge was creeping closer.

At high tide, Jack realized, all of New Marrakesh’s downtown would disappear beneath the water. Her eyes were drawn to the glittering twenty-story central tower of the hospital. She hoped that all of the quarantined passengers and crew of the Scarlet Matador had been moved to its top levels by now.

Behind her, Kyra was moving around the room. Jack turned to look.

Kyra had set down her shopping bag by the bathroom door and had draped her auburn wig over it. She was gathering up all of the strewn clothing decorating the floor and furniture of the room and piling it on the bed. When she finished, she pulled the corners of the sheets and blankets on the bed out and turned the clothing pile into a wrapped package.

“I saw a chute labeled ‘incinerator’ out in the hallway,” she explained, as she hauled the large package off of the stripped mattress. “Back in a few minutes.”

Jack nodded, aware that she needed to start helping with the clean-up too, but drawn back to the view out the window. The waters had reached the city center and the gaudy lights of the market square, that they had sat in only a few hours before, were going dim. What had formerly been the shoreline had gone completely dark.

It’s okay, Jack tried to reassure herself. It’ll come close to where we are, but it won’t go over it. Kyra picked the perfect place for us. We can learn how to time the tides from this window, and we can plan trips to town around them. And plan when we can get off-planet around the tides, too. We’ll be fine.

We’ll be fine.

They spent the next hour hauling things out of the bedroom, stripping it down to the basics and keeping only things that were already clean or could be cleaned easily. None of the clothes were in their sizes, and most of them were so stained that there was no point in offering them to the building’s other tenants.

They left the other rooms for later; they were far too tired to do the whole place. The last— thirty? Forty? God knew how many—hours were finally catching up with them. Once the stained mattress was clean and the sources of various unpleasant smells in the room had been eliminated, and they had wrestled the windows open to let in some fresh air, they took their small collections of money and identity cards out of their smalls, set them on the battered dresser, and collapsed on the mattress together.

Jack later thought that she’d fallen asleep the moment that her head touched the mattress. She didn’t even remember to take off her shoes.

She dreamed that she was back on the crash planet, watching the eclipse overtake the sky. But now, instead of strange creatures emerging from rock formations, even more bizarre-looking things were emerging from the ground below her. One of them reached out with a warm, wet tentacle and wrapped it around her ankle—

She woke up, gasping. Warm water slapped her foot again.

The room was bathed in strange, bright moonlight that seemed to pierce the ceiling as it fell. It glittered on the rippling water sloshing back and forth a few inches below the mattress. Another wave rolled across the surface, just above the height of the mattress, and splashed her again.

“Oh fuck,” Kyra said beside her.

Jack gave her friend a worried look and climbed out of the bed, sloshing her way to the window. Ground Control—Tomlin—had said that the water was the temperature of bathwater. He hadn’t been wrong. About that much, at least.

An enormous full moon hung in the sky almost directly above them. Beneath it, sparkling waves had engulfed all but the tallest buildings of New Marrakesh. The water, she calculated, was almost forty-seven meters above local sea level. Only the top five floors of the hospital tower, now an island jutting out of the dark waters, were still visible in the distance, an impossible lighthouse.

And the phantom tide was, Jack realized, as another wave broke against her legs, still rising.

Identity Theft, Chapter 21

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 21/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: At the best of times, the most dangerous part of space travel is atmospheric re-entry. These are not the best of times…
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉

21.
Matador Falling

“Here,” Jack told Kyra, handing her a protein bar she’d stowed in her bag. “Breakfast.”

She pulled out one for herself as well. In all honesty, she had almost no appetite. The stress of the new situation, the new crisis, had stolen it away. But they needed to eat. They needed their wits about them if they wanted to maneuver their way through this latest disaster.

The speaker on their comm panel indicated that the crew had stayed on the flight deck for the moment. They were arguing, with little enthusiasm, over how long they were likely to have to stay quarantined once they landed.

Nibbling at the protein bar, Jack stood up and looked around the utility closet, taking in its contents and estimating how likely it was that the crew of the Scarlet Matador would decide any of it was important during the next twenty-four hours. After a moment, she sighed with a small amount of relief.

Most of the items on the shelves, beneath their protective webbing, were things for a port crew to use to clean up and recondition the cryo tubes between uses, and to tidy up the cryo deck once all of its occupants had debarked. There were some spare comm panels and other bits of hardware, some hazmat jumpsuits and helmets, and a handful of scanners—Geiger counters, toxic gas detectors, others she couldn’t identify at all—but very little else.

Jack grabbed a bin of comm hardware and pulled it down for a closer look. After a moment, she began assembling some of the pieces.

“What are you making?” Kyra asked in a whisper.

“Video screen,” Jack answered, unwrapping a screen unit and settling it in its housing. “So we can see what’s on the ship’s cameras.”

Once she realized that Kyra was interested in what she was doing, she kept up a soft running commentary as she worked. She never mentioned that it was her father who had showed her how pieces like these fit together, hinting instead that this was another thing Paris P. Ogilvie had taught her while she was “running” with the smuggler. But she explained what each part was for, what each connection would do, as she assembled them. Finally, she was ready to plug it into the comm panel.

There were dozens of cameras placed throughout the ship, more than Jack had expected. She went through their pre- and post-launch feeds first, strategically erasing any footage that she and Kyra had appeared on. Once that was done, she began examining the feeds from right before the emergency revival had been triggered.

“What are you looking for?” Kyra asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing. I want to know more about what went wrong.”

Nothing seemed to change, anywhere on board the ship, during the half hour leading up to the moment she burst out of her cryo-tube. She erased the footage of her and Kyra, up to the moment when they had vanished into the utility closet.

Maybe, she thought, the Isomorph Drive would have something useful in its logs. She pulled them up, and sighed. Most of the records were identical.

2517.03.18.21:15:30 ARRIVING AT FIRST JUMP POINT.
2517.03.18.21:15:33 ISOMORPH DRIVE ENGAGING. ACCESSING U137. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.03.20.15:32:02 ISOMORPH DRIVE DISENGAGING. RETURNING TO U1. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.03.20.15:32:37 NO ANOMALIES DETECTED. MOVING TO SECOND JUMP POINT.
2517.03.20.19:15:21 ARRIVING AT SECOND JUMP POINT.
2517.03.20.19:15:24 ISOMORPH DRIVE ENGAGING. ACCESSING U23C. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL…

The log went on like that. Some of the jumps lasted two or three days, while most lasted only a few hours. Jack scrolled down to the final star jump.

2517.04.12.18:25:22 ISOMORPH DRIVE ENGAGING. ACCESSING U322A. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.04.16.20:43:04 ISOMORPH DRIVE DISENGAGING. RETURNING TO U1. ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL.
2517.04.16.20:43:39 ANOMALY DETECTED.
2517.04.16.20:43:42 ISOMORPHIC OVERLAY IN PROGRESS. ATTEMPTING TO CORRECT.
2517.04.16.20:43:45 CORRECTION FAILED. REATTEMPTING.
2517.04.16.20:43:48 CORRECTION FAILED. REATTEMPTING.
2517.04.16.20:43:51 CORRECTION FAILED. ANALYZING STRING FREQUENCIES.
2517.04.16.20:43:54 STRING FREQUENCIES FLUCTUATING BETWEEN U322A and U1. LEVEL FIVE INCIDENT CONFIRMED.
2517.04.16.20:43:57 QUINTESSA CORPORATION NOTIFIED. DATA PACKET DISPATCHED. ADVANCE REVIVAL PROTOCOL INITIATED.
2517.04.16.20.45:48 REDACTED
2517.04.16:20:47:27 REDACTED
2517.04.16:20:58:57 CREW REVIVAL COMMENCING.
2517.04.16:21:03:58 CREW REVIVAL COMPLETED.
2517.04.16:21:08:15 INSTRUCTIONS FROM QUINTESSA CORPORATION RECEIVED.
2517.04.16:21:11:32 ISOMORPH DRIVE DECOMISSIONED.
2517.04.16:21:11:33 ISOMORPH COORDINATE DATABASE WIPED.
2517.04.16:21:11:34 SYSTEM STANDING BY.

“Well, shit,” Jack muttered, after reading it over a third time.

“What does it mean?” Kyra asked.

“Um, okay… so the last star jump for this trip was kind of long, looks like. It started four days ago and ended today.” Jack pointed to the first two lines in the final log segment. “The Isomorpher took us into ‘U322A,’ I’m guessing that’s the number they assigned to the universe with the wormhole where they wanted it… and then today it tried to bring us back to ‘U1,’ which is—”

“Our home universe. Got it.” Kyra nodded, reading the log over her shoulder again.

“So about thirty-five seconds after we were supposed to be safely back home, the system detected that something was wrong.”

“The isomorphic overlay?”

“Yeah. I’ll bet it was getting readings that matched both universes.”

“So then it tried to fix it?”

“Yeah, three times. And when it didn’t work, it did some kind of quantum-level analysis that confirmed we’re physically in both universes at the same time.”

“So then it declared this ‘Level Five Incident’ thing?”

“Yeah, and sent an alert out to the corporation that makes the Isomorpher, with all of the data, looks like.”

“How come it took another fifteen minutes to wake up the crew?”

“’Cause the system had instructions that it had to wake us up first. See those two redacted entries? That’s when I closed my cryo-tube and then closed yours. It redacted the logs of our revival, just like it was told to.”

“Damn, it really took us that long to get from the tubes to this closet?”

“We were pretty wobbly. But here’s the crazy part. The Quintessa Corporation seems to have sent instructions back to the ship’s mainframe, while all that was going on, ordering it to decommission the Isomorpher and wipe its database. That’s stuff you’d think accident investigators on the surface would want access to.”

“That’s crazy—hey! Look what just happened to those entries.”

Jack blinked. While the two of them had been talking, the entries had changed drastically.

2517.04.16:21:03:58 CREW REVIVAL COMPLETED.
2517.04.16:21:08:15 REDACTED
2517.04.16:21:11:32 REDACTED
2517.04.16:21:11:33 REDACTED
2517.04.16:21:11:34 SYSTEM STANDING BY.

A second later, they had changed again.

2517.04.16:21:03:58 CREW REVIVAL COMPLETED.
2517.04.16:21:11:34 SYSTEM STANDING BY.

Jack noticed that even more had disappeared from earlier on.

2517.04.16.20:43:54 STRING FREQUENCIES FLUCTUATING BETWEEN U322A and U1. LEVEL FIVE INCIDENT DECLARED.
2517.04.16:20:58:57 CREW REVIVAL COMMENCING.

“Holy shit. Did this thing just cover up…?”

“Everything we did and everything the Quintessa Corporation did. Yeah.”

There was now no record that the Quintessa Corporation had ever been notified of the incident, no record that it had instructed the system to trash the Isomorpher. And, fortunately, no record of two stowaways being given a fifteen-minute head start before the crew woke up.

Kyra’s eyes, meeting hers, were awed and a little horrified. “Everybody’ll just assume that the drive got wiped by the Incident, won’t they?”

Jack nodded, feeling a little ill… and a lot confused. What had been in the drive and the database that needed so much protection? Mr. Reilly had told her that the Quintessa Corporation was secretive, but…

“We cannot get caught,” she muttered. Aside from the whole issue of being arrested for stowing away, and potentially identified as fugitives from a mental hospital, there was now the issue of what the Quintessa Corporation might do to inconvenient witnesses.

Exactly what they were witnesses of, she wasn’t even sure. But it scared her almost as much as the prospect of straddling a universe that was on fire.

“So what do we do?” Kyra asked after a moment, looking around at the closet’s shelves.

“I don’t know. Not yet. If we can just… stay unseen by the Matador’s crew, and then by the relief crew, maybe we can get out after they’ve evacuated the ship.”

That, she suddenly thought, could be an hours-long or days-long process, as the ground crews switched cryo-tubes over to portable feeds before moving them, and their occupants, out. Could they manage to stay hidden all that time? A quick check of the schematics showed her a single set of restrooms at the other end of the cryo deck.

“We’re gonna have to ‘hold it’ until the Matador’s crew goes to sleep,” she realized. “Or at least, until I can figure out how to switch off active feeds between here and the bathroom while we’re on the move.”

“Fun,” Kyra muttered. “Any chance we can blend in with the ground crew while they’re working? I mean, we’re dressed in pretty standard ground crew gear, right?”

Jack glanced at Kyra’s jumpsuit as she gestured at it. “Maybe. But there could be official logos, or colors, that we don’t have. And they’ll probably be wearing protective—”

She didn’t even try to finish her sentence. Instead, she keyed in one of her highest-level ghost codes, inputting her search parameters once she was sure they would be concealed from the flight deck.

STANDARD PROTECTIVE WEAR FOR LEVEL FIVE INCIDENTS

“Why do they call it ‘Level Five,’ of all things?” Kyra huffed. “What are levels one through four?”

“Dimensions, maybe. The whole point is to connect points in our spacetime with… isomorphic… points elsewhere in the fifth dimension… I think.” Jack frowned. “Maybe ‘Isomorpher’ isn’t such a bad name after all.”

The system wasn’t especially cooperative. She had to rephrase the search a dozen times before she found a series of pictures someone had clandestinely taken of an incident on Atreyus 4. The crew seen offloading cryo-tubes in the images wore standard hazmat suits.

A search for emergency protocols on Tangiers Prime generated a list of what ground crews were expected to wear during different emergencies. But she couldn’t find references to Level Five Incidents…

“There,” Kyra said, pointing to a paragraph at the very bottom of the long screed she’d been reading.

Due to the unpredictable nature of Level Five Incidents, there is no standardized requirement for protective gear. In most cases, the effects of the Level Five Incident will only be directly experienced by the occupants of the distressed vessel. Some secondary damage, however, is possible, if the physical effects (ex: fire) cross the threshold via the body of a crew member or passenger, or via affected materials on the ship. The recommendation is for full hazmat gear.

“Fire,” Kyra muttered. “So we could find ourselves on fire.”

“It’s happened at least once,” Jack told her. “So maybe hazmat gear would be a good idea even if we weren’t trying to disguise ourselves.”

Damn. The crew might be coming to this supply closet after all.

Jack switched over to inventory and breathed a sigh of relief. Each member of the crew had their own hazmat gear stored in their flight deck lockers. The suits she’d seen on the shelves were surplus.

Potentially useful surplus…

Finding recent pictures of the hazmat suits worn on Tangiers Prime took just a few more minutes. Jack pulled one of the suits off of the shelves to compare.

“Did we just catch a really big break?” Kyra breathed.

“I think we did.” Some worlds loved to gaudy up standard gear and make it unique, but Tangiers Prime apparently had no such pretensions. The suit in her hand was an exact match. She looked over the details and then began scrounging through the shelves. Hazmat footwear covers, in a variety of sizes, were stored below the pile of suits. She began searching for the gear closest to their sizes.

For the next several hours, Jack and Kyra practiced putting on the suits, miming the ways that they would seal them shut with the included tape. Then, after Jack mentioned the amount of time it would take to offload the cryotubes, they called up instructions for the process of detaching an occupied cryotube from a ship’s central hub and attaching it to a portable feed. They watched videos together, quizzed each other on the different buttons and switches they would need to press and in which order—Jack, of course, had no problem remembering, but pretended to make mistakes so that Kyra could correct her and remember them all the better—until finally they heard the crew talking about bunking down for a few hours before it would be time to land.

With the crew asleep, Jack switched off the camera feeds in the cryo deck long enough for them to make use of the restroom. The utility closet, they had decided, was the best place for them to be when the ground crew boarded. They would wait for a lull in the activities, a moment when nobody was within line of sight of the closet door, and then emerge, fully garbed in their hazmat gear, to blend in with the ground crew and help evacuate tubes. Once they were off the ship, they’d do a quick fade and make their escape.

Both of them were sure it couldn’t be that easy. But they spent the whole time that the Matador crew slept working out every possible complication they could imagine and what they might do in response. Jack found and modified a pair of linked comms, open-channel but scrambled against surveillance, so that they could still talk to each other once they were fully suited up and mingling with the ground crew.

When the Matador crew woke up and began preparing for the landing, they were ready. Or as ready as they could possibly be. Their cards, from Helion Prime, were back in their smalls. They had changed into fresh clothes, swapped wigs and carefully put them back on, and stowed the rest of their clothing and toiletries, all replaceable, far back in the top shelf where hopefully they wouldn’t be found for a long time. As the crew took their seats in the flight deck, Kyra and Jack exchanged a grim look.

“This is when things could start getting crazy,” Jack whispered.

“How?”

“Well, we don’t know what the other universe’s Tangiers Prime is like. Odds are it’s never been terraformed. So the atmosphere on that side could be really different.”

“Like, not breathable?”

“That’s a real risk, yeah. But it could be thicker or thinner, too, and that could change everything about atmospheric entry.”

“How do you know all this?” Kyra asked.

Jack decided that she might as well come clean, at least a little. “I have a photographic memory. If I hear it, see it, or read it, I’ll remember it forever. As long as I’m paying attention, anyway.”

Many people had thought her an odd child because of that. Where most small children thrived on and sought out repetition, watching the same movie dozens of times and repeating the same silly jokes ad nauseam, Jack had always found herself wanting to move on. She could remember whatever it was just fine, and repetition just felt like a waste of time to her. As she grew older and began to understand the social effects of her behavior, she had learned to tolerate and even engage in a certain amount of repetition… and to hide just how far ahead she was reading from her classmates and even teachers.

Right now, though, it was a strategic asset, and Kyra had a right to know it was at their disposal.

“Okay,” Kyra said after a moment. “So landing could be rough and unpredictable. Dangerous and fatal, even.”

“Pretty much, yeah. And then there’s the question of the landing site. If they are trying to have us land in an area that was artificially smoothed out…”

“There could be bumpy terrain on the other side. Shit. No wonder they’re making such a fuss about this. So we could burn up during entry, or crash during landing…”

“Or find ourselves choking on a half-poisonous atmosphere when the doors open.” Jack touched the helmet of her hazmat suit. “Once we try to take these off, anyway.”

“Well, hell. At least it’ll be an adventure, right?” Kyra grinned, but Jack could see the gallows humor in her eyes. The auburn wig, now carefully seated over her braided-back hair, was less jarring on her than the blonde bob—which Jack was now wearing over her much shorter, straight hair—had been.

“Everybody’s gotta die sometime, yeah.” Jack sighed. “At least it’ll be in good company.”

Kyra suddenly looked touched. She reached out and took Jack’s hand, giving it a squeeze.

“Tangiers Prime Ground Control,” the pilot said, her voice doubling slightly as it came through from both the flight deck microphone and the comm signal, “this is the Scarlet Matador on approach for our entry window, requesting clearance to proceed.”

Scarlet Matador, this is Tangiers Prime Ground Control. Your descent vectors are looking good. You are cleared for landing. Do you have any anomalies to report at this time?”

“None detected yet, Ground Control. Scans indicate no atmospheric variances in density or temperature. Fingers crossed.”

“Godspeed, Scarlet Matador. We’re setting up emergency staging at your landing site.”

“Thank you. Entering the upper atmosphere now. Adjusting descent angle… resistance is textbook. So far, so good.”

The ship shivered a little beneath Jack’s crossed legs, through the floor of the utility closet. The hull groaned.

“Looking good from our end too. You’re nearing comms blackout.”

“Roger that. Talk to you on the other side.”

“Looking forward to it, Matador.”

For several minutes, only the hushed voices of the flight deck crew came through the utility closet’s comm speaker. Everyone seemed calm, although Jack had listened to comm recordings from some legendary accidents and almost-accidents that sounded every bit as nonchalant. Flight crews tended to have nerves of steel. She wished she could have watched Fry crash-landing the Hunter-Gratzner.

She probably never even broke a sweat… Johns had obviously been full of shit.

“…do you read? Scarlet Matador, this is Tangiers Prime Ground Control, do you read?”

“Ground Control, this is the Scarlet Matador, reading you loud and clear.”

“Welcome back, Matador. We show you centered in your lane. Any anomalies to report?”

“None yet, Ground—hold on. I’m picking up some… Ground Control, please verify our landing coordinates.”

“42.434719 degrees north, 83.985001 degrees west.”

“Ground Control, we have an anomaly. We are intermittently picking up a large body of water on our scanners at the designated location.”

Scarlet Matador, please send us your readings.”

“Transmitting.”

There was a pause.

“They’d better come up with something fast,” the Captain grumbled. “We’ll be there in fifteen more minutes.”

Scarlet Matador,” Ground Control finally said, “you will attempt landing at the coordinates. You will need to spiral in and then hover over the landing site, just above the detected water level. We will tether you at that height and bring in support scaffolding. Ground support has been notified of the revised plan. Do you need further instruction?”

“No, but thank you. Adjusting approach trajectory now.”

“Once the ship is secured, we recommend you put on your protective gear.”

“Great minds think alike. God only knows what could be in that water.”

“Your readings indicate normal saltwater. About 28, 29 degrees… bathwater temperatures. Might be a tropical paradise on the other side.”

“Might have sharks, too.”

Ground Control laughed. “Well, if you find any coconuts, you pull them over to this side.”

“Sounds like a plan. We’ll have a luau.”

The captain turned off her microphone for a moment, her voice only coming in from the flight deck feed. “Tropical paradise my ass…”

One of the other crew members started singing an ancient sea chanty. “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip, that started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship…”

“Don’t be an idiot.” The captain switched her microphone back on. “Ground Control, my readings are showing a five meter depth to the water. Seafloor appears to have roughly fifteen centimeters of variance from the tarmac of this ’verse. Can you confirm?”

“Roger, Scarlet Matador. The good news is that means you won’t sink. Adjusting landing plan accordingly. We will bolster the landing gear to match the seafloor height. Prepare to receive new trajectories. You will still want to come in at a hover and then do a slow descent.”

Jack looked over at Kyra. “Once they land, it’ll be time to put on our suits. They’ll be doing the same thing… and they won’t open up until they’re secure. Then we watch and wait. We’ll put on our helmets last, when we’re ready to join the ground crew.”

Kyra gave Jack a worried look. “Do you know how to swim?”

“Yeah. You?”

“Yeah. I’m pretty good at it. Just wasn’t sure if you came from a world where people swam. Most of the girls at the hospital didn’t know how. Not much swimming on a world that’s surface is only 10% water.”

Jack grinned. “I’m good. But… we should try not to swim in front of the locals.”

Kyra snickered. “Yeah, that might look a little weird.”

The floor began to tilt to one side, gradually and gently. Jack could feel them turning, a sensation that left her a little queasy since everything around her showed no signs of the motion. The tilt steepened, and the turning sensation grew more pronounced. The ship shivered against some turbulence.

“We’re spiraling in,” she told Kyra. “Another moment and they’ll switch to repulsor engines so we can hover.”

Kyra nodded, looking a little pale and nauseated.

The switch was a little rough. The ship shuddered, hard, as the repulsors switched on, and wobbled for several gut-clenching seconds before settling into a strange new attitude that reminded Jack of a floating dock.

CLANG!

She and Kyra both jumped.

“What the fuck was that?” Kyra gasped.

CLANG!

“I don’t—oh! They said they were going to anchor the ship while it hovered, didn’t they? I’ll bet that’s what it is.”

The loud noise repeated six more times, from various directions, before stopping.

Scarlet Matador, this is Ground Control. Platforms are in position below your landing gear. Begin dialing down your repulsors and descend.”

“Copy that.”

Jack could feel it, the moment the ship touched the surface of the water in the other universe. Suddenly there was resistance. Something wanted to keep the ship floating, even as the gravity of U1’s Tangiers Prime was trying to draw it down.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the Scarlet Matador descended the final fifteen meters. It was a remarkably gentle landing for one so harrowing.

“Ground Control, this is the Scarlet Matador. We have touched down. We will need additional anchoring. There’s some tidal forces at work on the other side.”

“Roger that, Scarlet Matador. We are moving in to bolster your anchor points. Boarding will commence in twenty minutes. Please be in full protective gear at that time.”

Twenty minutes was just enough time to finish getting ready. Jack and Kyra tested their comms, making sure they’d hear each other’s voices if they whispered but not be deafened if either of them had to shout. Jack switched the video feed over to external cameras so that they could watch the approaching ground crews and make sure that their protective gear would blend in.

“It’s like trying to watch someone on the other side of an aquarium,” Jack murmured to Kyra after a moment.

“Never tried that. But this is seriously trippy.”

The cameras kept registering the presence of water on the surface. The crews preparing to board the ship sometimes appeared to be doing so in open air, but frequently looked distorted by water, while the cameras struggled to refocus.

“Ground control, please be advised. The water level seems to be rising slowly. It’s now at 16 meters. Please enter via the upper decks to prevent flooding on board the Matador.”

“Copy, Matador. We will use flyers to transport you and the passengers. Keep us advised of water levels. We don’t want to drown anybody.”

Hanging the Geiger counters and other detection instruments on their belts—the approaching ground crew all had them—and preparing to don their helmets, Jack and Kyra watched as the Matador crew approached the airlock that had been chosen as the initial entry point. Large, one deck above the cryo deck—which, Jack realized with a shudder, was fully underwater in the other universe—and opening on a spacious room, it made a good staging point for the rescue operation that was about to begin.

Hopefully.

The captain stepped forward, wearing a hazmat suit emblazoned with the Scarlet Matador’s logo.

Good, Jack thought. Her suit, and Kyra’s, would suggest even more that they were from Tangiers Prime and not the ship. Just as long as they could stay above the water, anyway.

On the other side of the airlock, the leader of the ground crew approached the door.

Jack realized she was holding her breath as the unsealing commenced.

“Captain,” the leader said, stepping into the airlock. His voice was the voice of the Ground Control officer who had talked the ship down. “Permission to come aboard?”

“Granted,” the Matador’s captain said with obvious relief. “It’s good to meet you in pers—”

A wave broke against the ship, splashing through the open airlock and smacking the captain down to the floor.

Identity Theft, Chapter 20

Title: Identity Theft
Author: Ardath Rekha
Chapter: 20/?
Fandom: TCOR AU
Rating: T
Warnings: Adult themes, controversial subject matter, harsh language
Category: Gen
Pairing: None
Summary: Maybe Jack should just avoid space travel altogether. It really never seems to work out all that well for her. The best laid plans…
Disclaimer: The characters and events of Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury are not mine, but belong to Universal Studios. I just wish I were in charge of their fates. No money is being made off of this. I’m writing strictly for love of the story.
Feedback: Absolutely, the more the better! Shred me, whip me, beat me, make me feel grammatical! I post “rough,” so I can always use the help. 😉 This chapter has some deliberate weirdness going on, so let me know if it worked for you.

20.
Level Five

Jack had been in cryo before. Even before she ever climbed into a cryo-tube, she knew how they worked and what, in theory, to expect. The reality, however, was always a little jarring.

Cryosleep had taken more than a century to perfect, to find just the right cocktails of ingredients to add into human cells to make them resilient against the freezing process, to keep them from cracking and shattering. The ultimate result had been a formula that slowed, but never completely stopped, the internal processes of the slumbering body. There was, however, a weird side effect: synaptic rates sped up rather than slowing down.

Most cryo-chambers administered sedatives carefully calibrated to ensure that their occupants remained in a peaceful dream-state while frozen. But occasionally things could go wrong. Riddick had told Jack that he had been conscious for almost the entire voyage of the Hunter-Gratzner. Its twenty-two week journey before the crash had felt, to him, like twenty-two years. He claimed, when she asked, that he spent most of the time meditating. Certainly, he had come out of it remarkably sane; most people whose tubes malfunctioned spent years in therapy, and some never left psychiatric care again.

Antonia Chillingsworth had planned to put him in a similar state, permanently. Perhaps that was why Jack had felt so uncomfortably un-guilty about shooting her.

Jack’s cryo-tube worked perfectly, leading her into a world of benign dreams. Most of them were so soothing and innocuous that she wouldn’t recall them later. Somehow, though, she ended up back in Mr. Reilly’s classroom, replaying their discussion about the Lost Ships she was researching, and the fundamentals of faster-than-light space travel. He had just explained to her how little time would pass for people on the fastest sub-light ships, but how much objective time would still be lost. But Audrey knew that people could now cross dozens of light years in a matter of weeks, objective time. She just didn’t understand where the breakthrough had come from.

“How did they solve the problem?” Audrey had asked him. None of the books had explained it very clearly.

“Astrophysicists always posited the idea of wormholes, places that served as shortcuts through space,” he said. He walked over to one of his cupboards and removed some items: two balls, a length of string, and a short straw. “If these were the two stars you wanted to travel between…”

He set the balls on opposite ends of his desk.

“And this was the distance between them…”

He stretched the string between them, in a straight line. Looking around his desk, he grabbed a tape dispenser and taped the ends of the string to the balls.

“The wormhole would be a place where time and space folded up and a shortcut appeared.”

He set the straw on the desk. Then, holding the balls, he drew them together until each one touched an end of the straw. The string, between them, was no longer stretched tight, but had relaxed into loops and squiggles.

“How could they do that?” Audrey asked.

“It wasn’t something they could do, not at first. Wormholes are rare and hard to find. Wormholes that exist where you conveniently need one are even more rare. Emergency revival. And then the founder of the Quintessa Corporation patented the Isomorpher.” Mr. Reilly frowned. “Not the best name for it, in my opinion.”

“What does it do?”

“You’ve heard of the Many Worlds Theory, right? We won’t cover that in detail for a few more months.”

“A little.”

“Our three dimensions – four, if you count time itself – are only the first of roughly ten dimensions. Now, if we were two-dimensional beings, we would live on a plane, and only move through that plane… like this piece of paper. That would be our whole world.” He set the paper on the table. Then, he picked up a stack of papers and set them on top of it. “And there would be an infinite number of other two dimensional universes outside of the world we know. Level five incident detected. The same is true within three, and even four – and even more – dimensions. Parallel worlds, perpendicular worlds, do you understand what I’m suggesting here?”

“So, like…” Audrey took two pieces of paper from the pile. “If I were right… here… in my two-dimensional universe, there’d be another universe that had a spot that was exactly the same place as where I was, in my two dimensions, but was in a different place in the third dimension… so there’s another universe in exactly the same spot where I’m standing now… but it’s separated from me by being elsewhere on a higher dimension?”

She could barely find words for what she was trying to puzzle out.

“Yes. Even when you’re standing perfectly still, you’re moving through a succession of three-dimensional spaces courtesy of time, the fourth dimension. Advance revival protocol initiated. And our spacetime moves through five-dimensional space. And that five-dimensional space moves through six-dimensional space… and so on… with parallel spaces existing on every level.”

“The sliding doors thing?” she asked with a gasp.

“Very good. Infinite possibilities, room for infinite choices to play out. Some of those parallel universes would be very similar to each other, almost identical. Others would be radically different. Crew will wake in fourteen minutes, fifty-nine seconds. So Joren Kirshbaum – that’s the Quintessa Corporation’s founder – suggested that the wormholes we wanted, leading between different star systems, might not exist in our universe, but they would exist in plenty of other universes.”

That part, at least, made sense. “Okay, yeah. But how would we get to them?”

“That was what his patent was for. It’s… very incomplete. He filed it and made it proprietary, but exactly how the Isomorpher was built and programmed is something he never actually revealed and no one’s successfully reverse-engineered. The gist comes from quantum physics. When you get down to the extreme subatomic level, you no longer have particles. You have ‘strings,’ and the strings ‘vibrate’ at specific frequencies.”

Audrey nodded. Her parents had once watched a vid series that had discussed that topic. Now the vid made a little more sense to her.

“Kirshbaum proposed that each universe had its own frequency set,” Mr. Reilly continued. He had warmed to the subject, probably because he had the full attention of his audience of one. Most of Audrey’s classmates were fairly inattentive. “He found a mathematical model that could predict the frequencies that the other universes, the ones with the specific wormholes he was looking for, would vibrate at on the quantum level. Emergency revival. His machine would latch onto the frequencies that that other universe, and ours, had in common, and use them as a gateway to help objects transfer between universes, taking on the rest of the other universe’s frequencies and temporarily resonating with it instead of ours. They could then pass through the wormhole and, at the other end, transfer back to our universe.”

“And it worked?” There was so much in there that felt like guesswork to her.

“It’s the basis for the star jump drives we use now. Trust me, it still sounds crazy to most physicists… but you can’t really argue with the results.”

Audrey walked over to Mr. Reilly’s supply closet and brought out two more balls and a bright yellow pushpin. She walked over to his desk with them. She smoothed out the ball and string arrangement so that the original balls were on opposite sides of the desk once more, and then rested one of the new balls next to each of them. She inserted her pushpin into one of the original balls.

“So if I’m here…” She touched the pushpin. “And I wanted to get here…”

She leaned over and touched the ball on the opposite side of the desk.

“…the Isomorpher would move me…” She transferred the pushpin to the ball next to the first one. “…to here, which is in the same fourth-dimensional space we occupy but elsewhere in a higher dimension… and which has a wormhole…”

She held the straw up to the ball.

“…connecting it to here…” She walked to the opposite side of the desk and pressed the other end of the straw to the ball resting next to the one attached to the string.

“That’s right. Level five incident detected.”

Audrey removed the pushpin from the second ball she’d inserted it into, miming it traveling along the short length of the straw. “So I’d only have to travel this far to get there…” She inserted the pin into the ball at the other end.

“Exactly. Advance revival protocol intiated.”

“And then the Isomorpher would move me from that point back to…” She removed the pin from the ball connected to the straw, and inserted it in the final ball, connected by the string to the very first ball. “…here.”

“Yes. And instead of having to travel sixty light years, you would only have to travel, say, the length of an average solar system. One hundred astronomical units is still a lot, but there are more than sixty-three thousand astronomical units in a single light year. Crew will wake in fourteen minutes, fifty-eight seconds. So, while you’d still need to build up some speed to cover that distance, it’s not nearly enough to have to deal with time dilation.”

The numbers were enormous enough to boggle Audrey for a few minutes. Then an odd thought occurred to her.

“But how do they figure out which universe to find the wormholes in?” she asked. She couldn’t imagine how any theoretical model would be that accurate.

“That’s the part no one knows. The patent doesn’t specify how the Isomorpher runs the calculations. It just claims that’s one of the proprietary things it does. And nobody else has ever figured out how. Emergency revival. Level five incident detected. Which is why every star jump drive in the Federacy is made by the Quintessa Corporation.”

“Including the three that disappeared?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes. And here’s what you’re not finding in the books, because nobody wants to be the one to write it down where they can be sued for saying it.” Mr. Reilly sat down, leaning back in his desk chair. “The big theory is that the three that disappeared got lost in other universes. Advance revival protocol initiated. They ‘isomorphed’ over to them, but couldn’t get back. Most star jumpers don’t make just one jump, after all. So, for example, the Tenth Crusade was supposed to make four jumps. Crew will wake in fourteen minutes, fifty-seven seconds. Maybe, after one of those jumps, it couldn’t reconnect with the frequencies of our universe. Maybe it got stuck between two of the other universes, even.”

“Stuck between?” Audrey tried to imagine it: a ship straddling two whole, separate universes the way a child might straddle a fence. Or had it vanished into the fence itself?

“That’s happened several times to ships that didn’t disappear, too.” Mr. Reilly told her, his expression sober.

“It has? What happened to them?”

“Well…” Mr. Reilly shrugged. “Again, we don’t really know all that much. But the Quintessa Corporation can’t gag everybody. Emergency revival. Level five incident detected. But imagine you’re in two worlds at the same time. One’s fine, it’s normal… but the other one’s on fire.”

Audrey shuddered. That was a horrible image. “So the people on board died?”

“Sometimes. One ship’s passengers came out of cryo and seemed to be hallucinating, describing animals that the ground crews couldn’t see but all the other passengers could.” Mr. Reilly’s expression sobered. “Then one of them got attacked by an animal, or something, right in front of the ground crew. Torn apart by a creature that nobody, except the other passengers, could see or hear. Quintessa couldn’t cover that up. After a few more incidents, it even got an unofficial name: threshold syndrome.”

That, Audrey thought, was a good name for being caught in a space that was neither one universe nor another, but both at the same time.

“So is that the main theory about the three missing star jumpers?” she asked after a few minutes of quiet thought. “They never made it back from the other universes, or only made it partway back?”

“It is. But it’s something most people don’t want to acknowledge, and something the Quintessa Corporation doesn’t want people talking about.” Mr. Reilly studied her dejected expression for a moment before continuing. “I can give you some links to articles about it. But you will have to be careful about what you use and how you cite them. Most of them are highly speculative. Advance revival protocol initiated. Crew will wake in fourteen minutes, fifty-six seconds.”

Audrey had been gathering up her things, armed with all the information she needed to finish her report, when a new question occurred to her.

“Why didn’t the Quintessa Corporation use what they could do to just find alternate Earths humanity could settle on? Wouldn’t that be a million times cheaper?”

“It probably would be,” Mr. Reilly told her, putting on his coat. “But something seems to happen, the longer people stay in other universes. Most of the cases of threshold syndrome happened after really long jumps. That’s part of why most star jumpers take several shorter hops instead, these days. Maybe, the longer you’re in another universe, the more it changes you. Emergency revival. Level five incident detected. Advance revival protocol initiated.”

He kept talking as he locked up the classroom and walked her outside. Sunset was approaching, and the light had taken on a molten gold, almost orange, quality.

“There are rumors—the Quintessa Corporation really tries to stamp these out, but they keep coming back—that some frequent star-jump travelers stop being entirely human.

“What are they instead?”

“I guess you’ll find out,” he suddenly said, turning to fix Audrey with an intense gaze. “Won’t you, Jack?”

She flinched. This was not how it had played out in reality.

“You need to wake up, Jack. Right now. Because it’s happening. Crew will wake in fourteen minutes, fifty-five seconds.”

The golden light of late afternoon was changing, turning blood red. Lightning flashed somewhere nearby, strobing the air. Some strange bird was screaming in a nearby tree, long and keening. Jack – no longer Audrey – wanted to run but she couldn’t. She suddenly couldn’t move at all.

“Wake up now, Jack,” Mr. Reilly told her before he melted away.

Her eyes, she realized, were open.

She was in the cryo tube. Sensation and motion were returning to her body. She focused on the readouts, trying to understand what was going on, part of her still wondering where Mr. Reilly had vanished to.

EMERGENCY REVIVAL
LEVEL FIVE INCIDENT DETECTED
ADVANCE REVIVAL PROTOCOL INITIATED
CREW WILL WAKE IN 14 MINUTES 54 SECONDS

Level Five Incident… that had been the code phrase that the Quintessa Corporation had used to label threshold syndrome incidents. Jack realized that the screen in front of her had only just switched on a few seconds earlier, while skeins of time had spooled out in her dream state. Her tube, and Kyra’s, were both programmed to revive them a minimum of fifteen minutes ahead of the crew’s tubes.

She forced her hand to rise and pull the release, sending up a last minute prayer that, whichever universes the ship was straddling, none of them would be on fire.

The air was chilly and stale. Definitely not burning. She bumped into the tube across from hers and ricocheted back toward her own. Gravity hadn’t kicked in yet. Grabbing onto her tube, she hauled out her bag and awkwardly slung it over her shoulder, the move sending her into a slow spin. It took her a precious minute to stop the spin, close up her cryo-tube behind her, orient herself, and kick off again toward Kyra’s tube.

She was still two cryo-tubes away when Kyra’s tube burst open and the older girl flew out, gasping. She grabbed Kyra’s bag for her and closed the tube.

On the off chance that they survived whatever had gone wrong, after all, she didn’t want there to be any clues that they had been on board. Weeks ago, she had programmed both cryo-tubes with instructions to sanitize and reset themselves once vacated and shut, and then delete all records that they had ever been occupied.

“Hurry,” she said, awkwardly swimming through the air toward the utility closet where they had hidden during the launch.

“What’s happening?” Kyra didn’t sound entirely awake yet. Jack wondered if either of them really was.

“We’re in a lot of trouble. I’ll explain after we get back out of sight.”

Gravity was slowly asserting itself. No longer completely without control, both girls were able to make use of its low setting to leap moonwalk-style toward their destination, at the far end of the aisle of occupied tubes. They reached the utility closet just as gravity normalized and Jack heard a cryo-tube opening one aisle over, where the crew had been sleeping.

They got out of sight just before the crew began emerging. Jack jammed the utility closet handle and hoped that, if anybody tried to open it, they’d assume that its non-functionality was just another symptom of the emergency.

It was hard to make out what the crew members were saying to each other. The muffling effect of the door between them was bad enough without the way that they were talking over each other, quarreling as they went. From what Jack could manage to make out, most of them were vehemently arguing against the possibility of a threshold incident.

Jack could almost see their point. Nothing felt off at the moment. But then, they were still in space. Aside from the wormholes, there wasn’t much that was likely to differ across the universes chosen by the Isomorpher, at least within the near-vacuum of space. Jack wondered what might happen when they made planetfall.

The voices receded as the crew headed for the flight deck.

There was a comm terminal in the utility closet, one Jack already knew was susceptible to her ghost codes. As the voices receded, she found it and opened it to all active and passive comm frequencies, in “muted” mode. She needed to hear what was happening.

“So, what the hell is going on?” Kyra whispered.

“Our ship’s star jump drive fucked up,” Jack told her, trying to condense Mr. Reilly’s lesson down into as few words as possible. “Star jump drives work by taking us through wormholes in other universes and then bringing us back to our universe. Our drive didn’t bring us all the way back. We’re stuck between universes.”

The play of expressions on Kyra’s face was, in the dim light, astonishingly vivid. Confusion, enlightenment… horror.

“Tangiers System Control, this is the Scarlet Matador on secure channel 9157-B, come in, please,” the Captain said, registering on both the outgoing radio channel and the passive flight deck monitor.

Scarlet Matador, this is Tangiers System Control, go ahead.”

“We are on long-range approach but our ship is registering a Level Five Incident. Can you confirm?”

There was a pause.

Scarlet Matador, our long-range sensors are picking up unusual energy field signatures around your vessel. Level Five Incident is confirmed. Are you experiencing any anomalies at this time?”

“None so far,” the Captain said. “Please advise of containment protocols.”

Jack pulled up the Tangiers System orbital schematics, finding the current location of the Matador on it.

Oh, thank God, she thought disjointedly. They had almost reached their destination before disaster had struck.

It could have been so much worse, she realized. The journey had been long enough that there had been some two dozen star jumps involved. If the Level Five had occurred at any other transition point, they would have been forced to divert to whatever outpost existed within range—and at least one always had to be—the way the Hunter-Gratzner had.

And that had been catastrophic.

The Hunter-Gratzner hadn’t experienced a Level Five Incident, but it had emerged from its star jump into some kind of meteor storm that had swiftly riddled it with stellar bullet holes. And although there had technically been an outpost nearby, it had been deserted for more than two decades thanks to an ecosystem that was hostile at the best of times, and purely lethal every so often. Loss of contact with that outpost, Jack had come to understand, had resulted in the shipping lane’s reclassification as a “ghost lane” and its removal from mainstream usage. In the wake of the survivors’ testimony that she and Imam had supplied, he had told her that that particular star jump route was likely to be discontinued permanently, its standby outpost world declared uninhabitable. No other cut-rate vessel would ever make use of it.

If the Scarlet Matador had been further out on its jump itinerary, and had been similarly forced to divert to an outpost, the best possible outcome would have been that she and Kyra would have been discovered and marked as stowaways. Worst case, it could have turned into another Hunter-Gratzner.

But the Matador had made it all the way to the Tangiers system. It was a tiny mercy, but she held onto it nonetheless. Things had only gone pear shaped at the very end of the journey.

Normally, she realized, the crew wouldn’t have awakened for another day. She had set the cryo-tube controls to wake them up a full hour ahead of the crew—under normal circumstances—and had mandated a minimum fifteen-minute head start for any emergency revivals. The Level Five must have been detected the moment they isomorphed back into their home universe. They were still in the process of crossing the system’s Oort cloud.

The comms pause stretched out for several minutes before the voice on the other end finally spoke again. Scarlet Matador, you are being given new landing coordinates. You will not dock at Tangiers Station B. It is not equipped for this situation. You will need to land on Tangiers 6 itself. Your specs indicate you have planetfall capacity. Is your crew able to perform a landing?”

“We did on Helion Prime, yes,” the Captain replied, a hint of annoyance in her voice. “We can do it here too.”

“Good. Do not wake your passengers. We are bringing you down near our best hospital complex and will transfer them to it prior to opening their tubes. Strict quarantine protocols will be observed.”

“Understood. I assume we will be quarantined, too?”

“Yes. Please submit a list of people to notify on your behalf and forward a copy of your passenger manifest and each passenger’s next-of-kin data. You are to maintain radio silence on all channels except this secure channel. Keep your comms open to us at all times and inform us of any anomalies you encounter.”

“Will do. Any idea what we might be about to experience?”

There was another pause. “None, Ma’am. This is the first Level Five Incident on this endpoint of a star jump. We have no idea what might be across your threshold.” The voice, which had been clipped and precise until then, softened. “I’m sorry. I wish we knew what was going to happen.”

“You and me both. Scarlet Matador out.”

There was a long, pregnant pause in the flight deck.

“Son of a fuck,” one of the crew members snarled.

“Well, everybody,” the Captain said after another moment, “we’ve got a day to kill. Joe, turn those fucking alarms off before I jet’ them, would you? We all know what’s going on now.”

The high, keening alert, which had been the strange birdcall in Jack’s dream, finally went silent. The strobing ended at the same time. A moment later, the lighting in the utility closet switched from red to bluish white.

“Anybody got a deck of cards?” someone on the flight deck quipped.

Jack looked around the closet, trying to decide how likely it was that the crew might come their way in the next few hours. It’d be just their luck if it housed decks of cards and other supplies a crew killing time would suddenly conjure a need for.

One day. She had one day to figure out how they were going to dodge not only the Scarlet Matador’s crew but the emergency personnel on the surface… assuming that nothing on the other universe’s version of the surface, itself, didn’t try to take them out. Her plans were falling apart. In spite of everything she had learned from Mr. Reilly, years ago, this was a scenario she hadn’t thought to plan for.

Maybe because she couldn’t figure out how to plan for something this fucked up, she fumed to herself.

“We are so fucked,” Kyra muttered beside her.

Jack couldn’t think of a single argument against that assessment.

Ardath Rekha • Works in Progress