Universal Shift: Part Two

If this were a film, I bet there would have been a great little montage somewhere. You know the sort; sleek suits, jazzy soundtrack, shots of us talking to people and/ or sneaking about and / or doing high-tech stuff. The usual.

Instead, Reg and I trotted to the ship’s library. We dug out a curiously well-thumbed copy of “My First Heist: A Pop-Up Book” and did some research. Clive told us it was there. Nobody questioned how he knew. He was psychic, after all.

Considering the number of times the book had been checked out over the years, it’s a wonder there wasn’t more trouble on this ship.

Each page was accompanied by a semi-useful, semi-patronising holographic image. Some pages showed crowd control tactics. Some how best to ‘stash’ ‘loot’. There was a surprisingly in-depth section on knots and a brief history of the heist. Lots of cowboys and gangsters.

“You know…” mumbled reg, “Considering what this book’s about, I’m amazed nobody’s stolen it by now…”

We looked at each other, grinned, and ran off, giggling.

Then I went back for the book, which Reg had forgotten to steal.

We knew that we didn’t want to resort to using weapons in our heist. We had left Clive and Trisha in the brig with the intention of grabbing the time travel belt, and getting back to them. Reg was going to go it alone, but I insisted on coming along.

Ever since the incident in the labyrinth, Reg had seemed like a different person. He was more assertive, and marginally less prone to screwing up.

And yet I still felt oddly protective of him.

In the interests of moving things on quickly, we tried to ‘case’ the ‘joint’ out. The ‘joint’ was the ship’s lab where they were analysing the time travel belt Reg had found. We spotted some cameras, but nothing else really worrying.

Then one of the scientists started shouting at us for pressing our noses up against the glass of the lab’s window.

Reg yelled back, presumably in an ironic attempt to diffuse the situation and deflect suspicion.

Things escalated quickly when he let slip that this was for a robbery. He’d mentioned he couldn’t wait to use the line as we were walking over. I tried to make it look like he was telling a joke, but the scientists started… cowering. We were in charge. Us. The little guys. So we ran with it. Within seconds I was helping tie them up, while apologising continuously.

“It’s OK. We trained for this,” one of them whispered with a wink. “Full compliance.”

I wasn’t surprised, the way this ship was run.

We locked the lab door behind us, now the belt had been “liberated” and ran back to the brig.

“That went well,” I heaved.

“Yeah. Sorry. Got excited. Sort of-” Reg waved his hands either side of his head in a gesture I didn’t really understand, “- in the zone, you know?”

“Not really, no.”

We kept running. I might have been worried about the other members of the crew thinking that we were acting suspiciously, but stupid things happened all the time in this damn place. A couple of people running around wasn’t all that unusual. You only ever really had to panic if something was chasing them or there was an alarm or some smoke.

Breathless, we reached the brig. I asked Reg what the plan was now.

He pointed at the cells. “Get them out.”

I nodded. “How? Only the Captain has the access key.”

Reg sighed and rolled his eyes. “Fine. Leave it to me.”

He pressed something on the belt and blinked out of existence. A couple of seconds later he came back, waving a keycard.

“Don’t ask how I got this.” He headed towards the card scanner on Clive’s cell.

I cocked an eyebrow. “Why didn’t we use that instead of running here?”

Reg glared at me like, suddenly, was the moron. “It’s a time travel device. Not a teleporter. You end up in the same place.” He swiped the card over the scanner.

A thought occurred. “How does that work, then, if we’re moving on a ship?”

Reg froze on his way to Trisha’s cell.

I carried on. “I mean, what’s to stop you just being dropped in space if you go far enough back or forward?”

We all looked at Clive as the forcefield at the front of his cell disappeared. “What? I didn’t invent the thing. Besides, we’re trying not to worry too much about things like that, are we not?”

Trisha’s forcefield slid open. “There’s probably some really complicated science thing about time travelling when you’re moving at the same velocity as the ship – you’ll probably move at the same speed at the other end, so be in the same place.”

The rest of us looked at each other. I nodded. “Works for me. Problem’s if they stop or accelerate or something, right?”

“Yeah. Probably. I don’t know. I don’t care.” She strode over to the guards’ weapons cabinet and helped herself to a rifle. “Can we get out of here now, please?” She waved one towards Clive with a quizzical look. He waved it away with a polite “No, thank you.”

I grabbed my rifle from the floor.

Reg was lost deep in thought. “So, if the ship’s moving, how do I go back and tell past me that the conversation with the Captain will be awkward?”

We all turned to look at him. He shrugged. “We were light years away when I turned up.”

Again, we all looked at Clive. He walked over and placed his hands on Reg’s shoulders.

“Reg. You can’t change the past. But you can change the future.”

He almost sounded sincere. Almost.

Reg screwed up his face, trying to wrap his head around it. “No. No, this belt means I can change the past. That’s sort of my point.”

Clive sighed. “Has it occurred to you that the future in which you went back to the past has already been changed by your actions now, and will never come into being?”

“Uh-” Reg murmued, trying to process the idea. An alarm started up. The scientists must have got out.

I looked up at the ceiling as a red slight spread across it. “Anyone got a plan? Anyone? Any ideas at all?”

Trisha was already on her way out of the room. “Follow me.”

I had visions of Trisha blowing away half the crew on our way to… Wherever she was planning to go. I charged after her, unsure of how I would stop her.

“You won’t. Not if she wants to kill people – but she doesn’t. Not really. And the lifeboats, Paul.” Clive whispered. “She’s taking us to the lifeboats.”

I silently told Clive to stop reading my mind. He only gave me a wink as we ran.

We ran past a sign for the engine room. I tried not to question the fact it was conveniently close to the brig.

Reg stopped. “I have an idea.”

“Yes!” yelled Clive, a little too excited, given the situation.

We piled into the room. No-one was around.

Reg pointed at a couple of terminals. “They’re looking for Paul and I up near the labs, right?”

Trisha nodded. “So no-one’s here.”

“Exactly. We’re doing this the hard way. How sure are you that your idea about velocity was right, earlier?”

Trisha hadn’t answered by the time Reg and I had hijacked the engines, turned the ship around, and sent it back the way we’d come at the exact same speed. Sad, really, that it was the first time in a long while that I actually felt like I was an engineer.

There was one awkward moment when the four of us materialised in the engine room, apologised, then disappeared.

Trying not to worry about it too much, we all lined up in cover to stop anyone coming in through the door. It was only a few seconds before we heard footsteps in the corridor. Our trick with the engines led them right to us.

I turned to Clive. “How long before we get back to where we were before the breakout?”

“Ten minutes or so.”

“We have to survive for ten minutes?!”

Reg shook his head. “Nah. We’ll just keep hopping. Each one we’ll be where the ship was before, and the guards at the door will go back to being a little further away. Just make sure you hang on to me.”

“If that’s the case, why doesn’t the whole ship go with you, because you’re sat on the floor-”

A flurry of shots came from the guards at the doorway, cutting me off. Trisha returned fire, deliberately aiming away from the crew.

In a flash of white, the four of us jumped back what must have been a minute or so.

We awkwardly apologised to our past selves while they tinkered with the engine, then we jumped again.

The alarm was still going, but the engine room was empty.

We jumped again. And again. And maybe a dozen or so more times. Each made me feel increasingly sick. If not for the white flashes, it would be very hard to tell we’d jumped at all. Yet it was all incredibly disorientating; as if your body could tell something was off, but your mind couldn’t comprehend it.

Finally, everything was quiet. No alarms. No crew. No nothing.

“Why don’t the ship’s engine controls rest to what they were before we started jumping back through time?” I asked, in a vague attempt to prevent myself throwing up.

Clive seemed unaffected by it all. “Perhaps it is because the belt can only move certain materials.”

“We got lucky, then?”

  “No. I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical, reasonably explanation for how all this is working. I jsut have no idea how to explain it right now.”

I felt light-headed and resisted the urge to sneer at Clive’s cop-out answer. It was all so bloody convenient. “Reg.”

“Yeah?”

“We survive this – you’re destroying that f***ing thing. It raises too many f***ing questions.”

Clive nodded. “I agree. Who knows what damage we’ve done to the universe. Or duplicates we’ve created. Or futures we’ve destroyed. Or created. Or pasts… Or….”

“Nobody set any rules for that thing.” Agreed Trisha.

“Exactly. It’s all too up in the air without a coherent set of rules,” The way Clive’s voice trailed off suggested he’d thought of something. As he was the defacto expert on these things, it seemed like it could be important.

“What?” I asked.

“It is as if the belt itself is setting the rules as it goes. A different set each time. There’s not enough input options on the front for it to be Reg…”

Sometimes, it would be nice if Clive just got to the point. We hadn’t made all those time jumps to buy us a chance to have a chat. Knowing Clive could sense my irritation, I said “What are you saying?” to appear diplomatic to the others.

“I think the belt might be sentient, somehow. Or perhaps that belt buckle is a ship with an alien inside. Reg is just suggesting destinations and going where it goes.”

A couple of seconds rolled by as we all tried to work out what to do with this theory.

Reg screwed up his face. “Or, Clive, you could thank me for getting us out of a tricky spot. Sheesh.”

Trisha sighed. “Yeah, come on, let’s just do the whole “prisoner transfer” bit and get to a lifeboat. We’ll do the alien hitchiker thing later.”

We headed off.

Something struck me. “Wait – exactly how far back did we travel?”

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