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.

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Ardath Rekha • Works in Progress