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TimeTrap: The OverLand Trek (excerpt Chapter One)

Day 1
It is the year 2579 when we join the adventurers
2579 space travel day 5—Personal LogBook entry—06:55 AM ship’s time

Like all bad ideas, it sounded perfect at the time. It’s just that being sucked to the absolute edge wasn’t part of the game plan. Neither was a dangling in a reallyyyy nasty Space-Time Vortex where the normal laws of physics probably don’t apply. In a panic, we pressed all the buttons—including at least one wrong one. Blam!
Don’t waste your time guessing what happened ‘cause it’s far worse than you can imagine.
    So here I am, one of the crew—not that any of us know ‘where’ or ‘when’ we are—half-gobbled into the fourth dimension, slipping one degree at a time, out of control, no idea what to do since what we did isn’t covered in The Manual. I listen as another piece rips off our spaceship.

    Next to me, someone yells: “Analyzer, how bad…?”
    StatusAnalyzer’s programed with many personalities, most of them annoying, especially the ‘nanny’ one. It sings over loud crackling noises punctuated by occasional explosions: “… hyperspace decimation immanent… above... between … ntum foam carried ship up, over and too close to Vortex. Search for safe….”
    Analyzer’s tone makes us sound like naughty kids in the middle of an intergalactic pool party instead of a serious mission. Analyzer’s metallic tones are remote and disapproving:
    “Perhaps you newbie, third-tier cadets need me to screen a definition of the word in the event you do not understand what is about to swallow you, me and our space vessel whole.”
    Which word? Analyzer, you’re supposed to be helping us, not playing word-clue games during a Code Red.
    One of us manages to think in a straight line: “Analyzer, your messages are breaking up. Give us an Alpha Bravo. We caught the something about ‘hyperspace’ … repeat about the foam.”
    No response. Probably because Analyzer’s gone all huffy. Third tier cadet? As if! It’s a thoroughly-nasty piece of machinery that thinks it’s human. Instead, we hear only the high-pitched racket of being pulverized by something smashing the port hull again and again. And ear-piercing static.
    Next to me, someone leans over and whispers in my ear: “Ntum foam? Makes no sense to me. Doubt Analyzer has enough robot-IQ points to get us through this mess. Think we can trust it?”
    The half-word, ‘ntum’ is nudging in the back of my brain, somehow familiar. I pull from my brain fuzzy bits from last month’s Academy Hall of Heroes special lecture.

     “You young folk are ready for your solo space mission—out and back in under three weeks.”
    The lecturer? Admiral Dreadnought, a revered space veteran. Rumor claims he’s one of the few people admired by all sides in the war. That thought alone made me look even closer at the man on the stage. I pushed away thoughts about the battles raging on each continent. Warfare makes our voyage important. After all, if we didn’t train to harvest out in space, how would we survive?
    Claim is Admiral Dreadnought had pushed time travel back to the point he walked on parts of Cordilleran Ice Sheets, to observe human migration across the Beringian Landbridge. Probably a mostly-true claim but who’s to say since we can’t have real books in the Catacombs? Unofficial records say he and his team saw mammoth herds but that’s all it is, unofficial and passed along, as usual, by fragments memorized and shared. Up front, in person, and newly-retired from service, he sure looked and sounded his age. No wrinkle-free surgery for him. He was all reality, showing every cut, scar and dent from service in the deeps. Ninety-eight and counting. Not that he wasn’t interesting to listen to. He was. At the time, listening to him, I was kind of hoping he might throw in bits about being in space when The Great Scything hit. How else would an elder of his generation have survived?
    At our age, we wouldn’t be doing this run for another ten years when our brain connections were more or less in place. War has pressured our tribe into doing the unthinkable. Officially, I was set for Students’ Mission One— the fancy name for practice run, limited harvesting involved. Our run is not time-travel back to Gondwanaland or Pangea—both impossible, Holy Grail times and places for all astronaut explorers--but ours is still a first space mission following our months of protected practice under The Labyrinth, well inside Catacombs territory and back from shifting battle lines where Outsider troops and others can’t get at us. Not that practice prepared us for this catastrophe!
    From the stage, the Admiral casually dropped a thought-bomb:
    “Academy students on your practice voyage, soak up all there is to know about quantum foam. Or you may not live to regret it.”
    How’d he get on to foam? I must have been daydreaming. Not that that was hard. All any lecturer needed to mouth was the word ‘mission’ and I was off dream-catching. Imagining stretches of space travel ahead of me—and what our team would find as we came close to Pluto then beyond. Out There. Not far. Though to be strictly accurate, we cadets were taught not to call it travel but to think of it as CTCs or closed timeline curves. The Admiral’s words should have warned us or at least me.
    Now, days later, out in black space depths, as our ship’s suffered rounds of being shredded and pulverized interspersed with almost normal calm, I tug back memories from the lecture and hope they make sense. The same night as the lecture, I decided to plug in my DeepSleep—‘The memory machine that helps you remember fast!’—a second-hand, tenth generation wall-paper version, not much more than six nodes and ten circuits stuck together with stale chewing gum but hey, that’s all my family could afford. Poverty’s one of the reasons I’m at the Academy since it’s a way to pull us out… but I digress.
    I set DeepSleep to brain-patch in the lecture. DeepSleep spun past chunks of his talk, then fed me a recap, sound effects and all:
  “Cadets of Earth to Space and Time Academy, what did you fail at today? Which are your successes? We, your elders and teachers, ask you this each and every day because you are the very best … (cough) because each one of you seeks answers to the… (spin) you tackle tasks that will… (spin)
… unafraid of hard work (cough) and difficulties… don’t slack and let others … you do not compete to be a star…do not worry about… (spin)  better than others… (spin) you understand how this… solid work has a positive effect on… (spin) neurons in your brain… (nose blow) This builds your intelligence. In the end, you go further and achieve far more than most who started out as… then…..”
    A thought jams my memories: why chose me and send me off on this practice run? All things being equal—which they aren’t—I ought to be slogging through homework back at The Academy and battling Envy Demons. Instead, one of the crew was injured last month during a raid by The Outsiders. I get the chills thinking about it. I guess I could have been happy about being next in line. But that means I’m next in line for anything—including being wiped out. Someone else could be in my place fighting off thoughts of death. Why me?
    I give my head a rough shake. Unless I recall the useful chunks of the lecture in time, we might not… well, I don’t even want to think about it. Then, more words from Dreadnought’s lecture ring in my ears:
    “Long-ago, four… no, (throat clear) five hundred years back, quantum foam was viewed as the very fabric of the universe. (cough, nose blow) Wheeler called it a probabilistic foam-like structure of space making up the core of singularities. (phlegm gargle) I shall not digress onto singularities, which, I am told (cough) your class covered last semester. Suffice to say…(nano chalk scratching, long pause) my calculations show quantum (throat clear) foam appears only in ordinary space and only on calibrated scales of the Plank-Wheeler length and less (cough)….’
    Unexpectedly, our craft rights itself and sails along majestically. But I’m not fooled. We’re doomed unless we fix the idiotic mistake we made just after midnight. Again my brain’s infected with the question: why me?

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