"Are you sure about the layout?" Jade asks for the fourth time.
You survey the cavernous interior of the underground lab, which you and she have spent the past month installing in a custom-built bunker on the property next to your house. You can see why Jade has reservations. There is no logical reason to place all the power hubs into a giant chessboard of green-on-green, nor to believe that such complicated and delicate equipment as an appearifier or a transmaterializer will survive four centuries of neglect and ocean storms with their settings intact.
And yet. Oh, and yet.
"I know what I've seen, and you can ask Dave about the relative advisability or inadvisability of interfering with the established flow of time," you say. "The transportalizer goes in the center, the hubs in the grid, and the other apparatus along this wall. I admit you may have a point about the monitoring system, however. From what I can tell, there won't be any meteors to track now that Jake and Jane have arrived, and it's been black and broken in half my visions in any case."
You frown at the overly elaborate console with its maze of bare steel posts rising like the branches of a tree in late winter, ready for spring to bedeck them with leaves. Or for you and Jade to bedeck them with monitors, as the case may be, unfurling to reveal all the colors of a glorious summer that will never come, your world and species rendered barren at a stroke, all seasons subsumed by a hungry ocean of... of...
Every time Dave comes to visit, you find yourself starting to think in overly elaborate metaphors. Fortunately, he is currently aboveground inflicting dangerous quantities of inane cartoon television shows on Jake's impressionable infant brain, which should give you a chance to recover your own turn of phrase.
Jade eyes the console, teeth gnawing thoughtfully at her chapped lower lip. It is the gesture of a much younger woman, you think -- unexpected and all the more endearing for the incongruity with her age and social status.
"If you've seen it broken, we'd better leave it here to break," she says after a minute. "Dave's given me the lecture on doomed timelines and it's not as if I haven't been careful fiddling around in the Medium." She sighs, her eyes going distant as if seeing the impossible landscape of her adventures once more. "I'd love to be able to study that place in more detail. I know you think the programming on the transmaterializer and the meteor monitor is complex, but it's nothing compared to what must underlie Sburb as a whole."
"How so?" you ask as you use a steel-tipped knitting needle to slit the cardboard box holding the first and smallest screen for the console's massive display.
Jade spins to face you, eyes practically setting her glasses aglow with the fire of scientific and technological challenge. She stabs a single finger emphatically toward the metal ceiling of the unfinished lab, where the time and space compressors will eventually be installed. "How so? How so? Infinite ways! It would be simpler to ask how not so! But we have to start somewhere, so let's keep talking about time!"
"I'm all ears," you say.
Jade rakes her gaze up and down your body with a cheerful leer. "Ears. Right."
"Metaphorically," you say as you lean the monitor screen against the console and begin searching for the stepladder.
"Why Dave, I didn't know you were such a master of disguise! And here I thought you were my girlfriend!" She winks at you, laugh lines swallowing one bright green eye for an exaggerated second.
You flutter your eyelashes at her, trusting your habitual overuse of mascara to make the gesture visible despite your colorless hair. "No ma'am, sorry to disappoint, you'll have to make do with your boytoy instead," you say in your best imitation of Dave's exaggerated-for-interviews Texan accent.
Jade laughs, a raucous snort of amusement eerily similar to her brother's trademarked guffaw. Then she shakes her finger at you. "Stop distracting me. It's exposition time!"
You do your best to look attentive.
"The Medium is discontinuous from the spacetime of our universe -- not a parallel timeline, but an entirely separate frame of existence," Jade says, in the same rational, factual tone you remember from your first meeting, when she laid out the truth of the alien menace behind your world's slow deterioration, calmly overriding your last attempts to rationalize away the troubles as homegrown. "As such, any moment of time in our universe can theoretically connect to any moment of time in the Medium without any of the energy expenditure that seems to be required for appearifying or sendificating objects in a single universe. So it doesn't make sense to talk about the Medium as having a past or future relative to us, because relatively speaking its entire timeline is available for us to view and manipulate, just as our universe's entire timeline is available for anyone in the Medium to view and manipulate."
"I sense a 'but' approaching," you say. "Jade, what have you done with the ladder?"
"Whoops, just a sec, I think I captchaloged it. Getting fuzzy in my old age," Jade says. She shuffles her sylladex cards and spreads them out like a paper fan. "Pick two, any two..."
You roll your eyes and draw the relevant cards. The stepladder materializes when you turn them upright.
"Don't climb carrying the screen. I'll hand it up to you," Jade says, moving to check the ladder's stability. "Actually, why don't I climb? I have no moral high ground when it comes to skirts, but I firmly believe you shouldn't play handywoman in high heels. "
"A lady can do whatever she wants," you say, but you pass the packet of fixture clamps and screws to your friend and lean on the struts to anchor the ladder while she grabs a fistful of black denim in her hand, drawing her skirt halfway up her shins, and stomps upward in her hiking boots. "You were talking about discontinuous instances of spacetime?"
"Yes, and thank you for reminding me!" Jade says, waving her Phillips screwdriver toward you by way of indecipherable gestural punctuation. "The thing is, even though we shouldn't be able to say that any part of the Medium's timeline is 'the past' or 'the future' relative to our present position in our universe's timeline, since any point we chose to interact with would be completely arbitrary, the two frames aren't functionally as separate as they ought to be. The kids' dream selves are an active, continually maintained link, which forces a shared timeline between the Sburb session and our universe. The especially crazy part is-- is-- oh, you fucker, why won't you turn? Turn! Turn or I will end you!" Jade breaks off, muttering under her breath as she fights a recalcitrant screw.
"I find that inanimate objects respond better to flattery than abuse," you tell her.
"That's what they want you to think. It only leads to rebellion and tears in the end," Jade says absently. "Ha! Victory is mine. Now, where was I? Right, links. So the crazy part is that the shared, parallel timeline exists even though from a certain point of view our universe will create that instantiation of the Medium but hasn't done so yet, which leads to the logical assumption that interaction should be impossible from our end until the moment of that creation. Except it's obviously not, because I've been there and the kids' dream selves exist. And ha, done. Screws zero, Jade English eleventy billion! Hand me another screen while I'm up here -- I think I can reach those posts just to my right."
"Which one?" you ask, leaving the ladder and prodding at the stack of flat cardboard boxes with the toe of your stiletto-heel shoe.
"A-42," Jade says. "Medium size, should be about halfway down the stack."
You locate the relevant box, slit it open, and toss her the packet of fasteners and screws. Then you hoist yourself onto the console -- a simple maneuver, not even properly qualified as gymnastic, though you award yourself points for keeping your dress and stockings free of snags from the sharp-edged buttons -- and slide the screen itself upward. From this location, you can help support its weight while Jade fixes it to the posts.
"Anything else you want to know about the Medium?" Jade asks as she girds herself for battle with inanimate objects. It is an absurdly easy fight compared to the ones you and she normally engage in. Perhaps that's one reason she was so ready to help you set up this haven for your time-lost daughter.
Jade has seen Roxy, if only in the Medium. She has stolen into the stronghold of Derse and stroked your sleeping daughter's face, straightened blankets disarrayed by Roxy's restless sleep, sung lullabies to sweeten her dreams. You will never have that chance. You can only see the future in shadowed flashes of probability, never touch it, or even do anything to change it in more than superficial ways. All your struggle and defiance has been doomed from the moment the idea of rebellion took root in your mind, never to flower, let alone bear fruit.
And yet you have to try. Just as Jade has been trying for decades, with her company, her research, her careful creation of the underground network whose embrace you sought the moment you realized the world was twisting and rotting around you. Just as Dave is trying with his abominable movies and their codes and subliminal messages.
Thinking of Roxy and the Medium, you run back over Jade's explanation and frown. "Correct me if I'm wrong," you say slowly, "but if the link between a player's dream self and waking self creates a constantly active link between the Medium and our universe, which forces a shared parallel timeline onto the two separate frames of existence, wouldn't that logically mean that the 'present' moment in the Medium -- which is the 'present' because Jake's and Jane's dream selves bind it to our present -- is somehow also the 'future' because Roxy's and Dirk's dream selves bind it to their time, centuries away from us?"
Jade beams down at you. "And you say science isn't your forte. I'll lure you to the Dark Side one of these days, see if I don't. You were destined to learn computer programming, I just know you were. Search your feelings, young Rose! You know it to be true."
You stick your tongue out at her.
Jade snorts with inelegant laughter, her face relaxing into patterns carved by a life of easy smiles. You will never cease being impressed at her ability to maintain good humor and optimism despite a childhood under the thumb of the Baroness herself and an adulthood spent speaking Cassandra truths to a world determined not to listen. She is far stronger than you could ever be.
Perhaps that's why she was given the chance to raise Jake while you were left alone.
A puff of plastic lands on your nose, drawing your attention back to Jade. "Sorry, my hand slipped," she says, not sounding repentant in the slightest. "Bad jokes aside, you're absolutely right. The Medium is synchronized to two different points on our timeline, treating both of them as the 'present' moment even though they're separated by centuries. It ought to be impossible, but it's not. Like I said, the programming that went into Sburb is complex beyond the current reach of human technology!"
"But not the reach of human scavenging," you say.
"Touché. Okay, you can stop holding up your end now. Just one more bracket to go."
You lower yourself back to sit on the console and retrieve the empty fastener packet from where it fell. Jade bangs and mutters above you, a comforting background you have long since learned to tune out. You twist the plastic back and forth between your hands and wonder if it might survive the centuries between you and Roxy if you left it lying abandoned on the console. What would she make of such a tiny imperfection in the impersonal blank vastness of the lab?
Best not to tempt fate, you decide, and captchalogue the trash.
"And voila, another screen succumbs to my astounding brilliance." Jade stretches, hands pressed to the small of her back with no apparent concern for her precarious perch on the top of the ladder, nearly twelve feet above the hard metal floor. Then she twists, examining the cavernous room. "We've made pretty good progress, haven't we?"
You hum noncommittally.
"Yeah, we have," Jade agrees with herself. "I hate to leave a simple project unfinished" -- she pats the freshly installed monitor screen with a fond air -- "but I'm not as young and full of vim as I used to be. I say we call it a day and badger Dave into making us some dinner while there's still enough light for a picnic."
You grimace involuntarily. "As happy as I'm sure he'd be to play ironic nineteen-fifties housewife, I am forced to ask whether you have ever tasted his idea of a home cooked meal."
"Well, no, we usually go out to stupidly overpriced restaurants because Hollywood runs on publicity and he needs to stay visible. But how bad can it be?" Jade asks as she clambers down the stepladder.
"The term 'eldritch horror' might not be an inappropriate description," you say dryly.
Jade shoots you a dubious look as you slide off the console and land with a neat click of of your heels on the metal floor.
"We'll let him call for takeout," you say. "This is New York state. There is bound to be a pizza parlor somewhere within reasonable driving range, and we are more than able to offer financial inducements to alter the definition of 'reasonable ' should that prove necessary."
"You two are shameless leeches and deserve every minute of grief you give each other," Jade pronounces with a knowing smile.
"Only genius can truly appreciate genius," you say loftily, then spoil the effect with an imperfectly stifled snicker.
Jade snatches your headband and ruffles your carefully coiffed hair into terminal disarray. "I'll show you genius, you upstart disrespectful whippersnapper! Have you reverse-engineered alien technology? Have you built a multinational corporation from the ground up? Have you won a Nobel Prize? Well, have you?"
"Give me time and the latter, at least, may well be doable," you say, going still in false surrender. Then you elbow Jade in the ribs and dash to put the bulk of the transportalizer between you and her inevitable urge for revenge. Your needles drop into your grasp: long enough to pierce between the ribs and shred the heart, strong enough to drive through the eyes and puncture the brain, weighted for throwing with a twist of yarn to call them back to your hands. You would never use them on Jade, no more than she would shoot you with the rifle suddenly in her own grip, but Dave is right that it's better to have strifing skills and not need them than vice versa.
Jade looks down at her rifle, blinks, and flicks it back into her specibus. "Whoops, reflex! Come out from there, Rose. I was serious about knocking off and getting something to eat. We'll make a little family reunion out of it and get Dave to take photos of Jake with pizza all over his face. It's my grandmotherly duty to keep a stash of embarrassing childhood pictures and whip them out once he's old enough to think about dating."
"I wish I could do that for Roxy," you say.
Jade is silent. The vast room seems to breathe around you, metal plates shifting ever so slightly against each other as they heat or cool. The faint noise of your own shocked breath reflects back at you from every side.
"Maybe you will," Jade says after a minute that seems to stretch forever. "They'll all wind up in the Medium eventually -- fifteen years from now, give or take a smidgeon. All you'd have to do is ensure that you and Dave are visiting me on the day in question. And I'm sure we can set the cameras in your house to save particularly embarrassing still frames from her childhood. That won't take nearly enough processing power to affect the monitoring routines and the safety protocols."
You shake your head, needles clenched tight in your hands. "I can't. As much as I want to, I can't. That would be running away, and who knows how much worse the future might become if Dave and I don't do our utmost to fight the Baroness as long as we can."
Jade sighs. "I know. But it means more if it's a genuine choice, not something you've been railroaded into with no escape options." Then she shrugs and brightens. "Besides, I'm fairly sure at least some version of you will get to meet Roxy eventually. There's a limit past which I can't travel in the Medium -- as if it's password protected after a certain time and I don't have the code or enough computer power to brute-force my way through -- so I can't give you any solid proof. But! The cryptic hints carved into the four lands and the legends kept in the libraries on Prospit foretell the arrival of players from a different instantiation of the Medium bringing four other planets into our kids' session. They also name the new players by title... and somehow, Seer of Light reminds me a lot of you."
You let go of your needles. They slide back into your specibus long before they would have hit the floor.
"It's not the same," you say, stepping around the massive green pipe that supports the side of the transportalizer.
"I know," Jade agrees, sitting down on one of the oversized blue buttons. It's a good thing the power isn't on yet -- who knows what strange inter-universal paradox she might have otherwise caused. "I know," she says again, and tugs you down to sit sideways on her lap.
You allow yourself to soak in the warmth of human contact for precisely thirty seconds. Then you tip backwards so you're lying across the other blue button and press one hand to your forehead. "Oooh, Ms. English, oooh. I feel quite faint. I dare say I have been overcome by the sheer force of your ladyvim, and I yearn to surrender to your embrace. Take me now!"
Jade waggles her eyebrows behind her glasses. "Is that a dare, Ms. Lalonde?"
You raise your own eyebrows in response.
Jade ducks in and presses a soft kiss to the corner of your mouth. You turn your head the necessary fraction to meet her more directly, tongue darting out to trace feather-light over her chapped lips. She giggles, little puffs of air dancing from her mouth into yours as her arms and breasts quiver where they're pressed against your body. You let your teeth follow the path your tongue scouted, scraping them over Jade's lower lip. Pausing. Holding. And then drawing back with a muted sigh.
Jade's eyes are soft with sympathy and love. She drops a tiny extra kiss on the tip of your nose like a gift. "You are one of the best things that ever happened to me," she says. "You are a good woman, Rose Lalonde. Never forget that."
Then she dumps you unceremoniously to the floor and runs full-tilt for the transportalizer, cackling like a cartoon witch. "Last one to tickle Dave's a rotten egg!" she calls over her shoulder.
Laughing despite yourself, you follow her out of darkness into light.