ante bellum

r |major character death | disturbing content



Delta impatiently looked over his shoulder at the woman lying on the couch.

"Still just me, sorry."

It had been almost an hour and he was starting to wonder if it had failed. This was hardly the first time he had worried about the outcome of the project, but it was the most troubling roadblock he'd come across. She was the result of eight years and numerous attempts at genetic engineering. She had passed all the tests. She should be perfect. It was 2026 and his remaining contingency plans involved kidnapping his -

She sat up abruptly, clutching her head and crying out as if in pain.

Excellent.

"Omega?"

She didn't respond, stumbling off the couch and making her way to the trash can next to his desk. She vomited, and he frowned in disapproval.

"Yes," she said, eventually.

"Good. You need to write down as many details as you can, as quickly as you can. As this was your first SHIFTing through time, and not merely in and out of a body, you may not retain your memories for very long. That will improve."

He shoved a notebook at her, but she was staring down at her chest, hands moving over her shirt.

"So ... was it a blank, or am I in my clone?"

"I can't tell you that." He pushed the notebook towards her again, more forcibly this time.

"But why?"

"I will need you to make hundreds of jumps before this project is complete. If I tell you that I fired a blank round and you were in no real danger, or I tell you that your body died and I had to wake up one of your clones, and this continues for multiple trials, you may begin to perceive patterns that don't exist. If you begin to believe you are not in danger, you may not SHIFT. I need you to be afraid that you might die every time."

Omega looked irritated, but only briefly. She nodded and started to write in the notebook.

"What can you tell me about it?"

"Sometimes I wish you could just read my mind," she muttered.

"As do I. Believe me, I find it very frustrating that my mind hacking abilities don't work on the one creation of mine that is capable of SHIFTing. Now, what did you see?"

She sighed. "It ... I mean, it was pretty boring. You had them in the jail cells."

"Confinement rooms."

"Whatever. You talked to them for a while, then you flipped a coin, and it was red, and Carlos guessed it, and you let them go. I ... I was kind of surprised. We didn't get to have any fun with them."

"All things are necessary for fate. Did you have trouble getting back?"

"I ... I don't think so. You ... the future you, I mean, you pointed the gun at me and fired. Everything went black. I woke up and I was here. I don't know if the radioactive tracer is needed. It wasn't anything I thought about."

Delta turned back to his computer and typed into an open file. "We'll keep injecting it prior to each jump, just in case. It won't harm you."

"Like it matters. I have plenty of spares."

He didn't acknowledge her as he minimized the file entitled 'hypothetical map' and pulled up another, entitled 'actual flow chart'. He placed as single icon at the top and smiled at the screen.

-

"It's not really fair."

He didn't have to be able to read her mind to see that Omega was bored. She had been pacing his office for almost twenty minutes before he had finally ordered her to sit down. Now she was sitting on the couch, twirling a strand of blond hair around her finger.

"I mean, I helped build some of these puzzles with you. I should be there to see how everything plays out. I want to watch."

"You are." Delta stopped typing and turned around in his chair. "Your consciousness from now is living through everything in two years."

"Then why don't I remember any of this?" She held up both hands and waved them in the air. "I have no memory from the past of jumping to my present. I have no memory of living this."

"Really." That puzzled him. All of the clones had participated in building the puzzles, but this version - number 10 - had seemed the most promising, which is why he had selected it to be his primary assistant. These trials consisted only of her consciousness swapping back and forth within one body. If the future her was being displaced for the past her, then the future her should retain the memories from her past self visiting the future.

In theory, anyway. It was difficult to keep it all straight sometimes.

He heard a thump behind him. She had fallen off the couch and was sprawled out on the floor. After a moment, Omega opened her eyes. He held out the notebook and she stood on trembling legs and took it without complaint.

"What was it this time?"

She sat back onto the couch and began to write. "Mira wasn't happy when I told her she couldn't touch Junpei's heart. She ... cheered up a little when I told her we had to dismember him."

"Did Carlos and Akane suspect anything?"

"No. We made sure to change his clothes before. They were so convinced the body parts were fake, they didn't even consider the alternative."

"Good. And after?"

Omega sighed heavily, but kept jotting down notes. "Carlos assumed he had killed Junpei and he killed himself. Oh, and you need to make sure we have extra couches. Akane destroyed one with a chainsaw."

He turned back to his computer to update the flow chart. "This is ... the timeline where D-Team was executed, correct?"

"Yes. So there's five dead. They only need to kill one more to escape. But given what you told me, this should be one of the non-essential timelines, right?"

"That doesn't mean we can't have some fun." He opened up the map of the shelter and pulled up the files detailing the puzzles in each room. She came up behind him, watching over his shoulder.

"What about the Biolab? Just because you're using it in one of the essential timelines doesn't mean we can't use it twice, right?"

"Actually ... perhaps my Study could be of use here."

She glanced around the room. "I guess we could hide things in these books. Like codes that they would have to input into your chair."

He snapped his fingers and began typing away into a new document. "Let's get some safes. And some weapons."

"Okay. More knives?"

"No. Projectile weapons. Crossbow, guns, things like that. And call Jacob. I want some drawings done."

Omega flipped to a blank page in her notebook. "A shotgun like the Pod Room? Handgun? Assault rifle? The last one might be a little harder to get."

"Handgun. Wait. How destructive could an assault rifle be on a safe?"

"It depends on the weapon. And the safe. If you want to blow up something, why not a grenade launcher?"

He got up and removed a measuring tape from the desk. "Let's get some dimensions on the room first, and some information on firepower of one of those. I want them to be able to fire it without jeopardizing the structural integrity of the rest of the shelter."

She dutifully took one end of the tape and stood by one of the bookcases as he crossed the room.

"Almost ten feet here. Record it."

Delta waited for her to write it down, but she just stood there, staring at the one hand that wasn't holding the tape.

"Omega, is there a problem?"

She clenched her hand into a fist. "Dismembering a human being is harder that you'd think. Mira ... she figured it out, but it took longer than we anticipated. It almost jeopardized the game."

"Almost?"

"We made it in time."

"The time in this game is what I say it is. That's not a problem. Almost ten feet. Record it."

She hesitated for only another moment before following his instructions.

-

Anagrams weren't as easy as he thought they'd be.

-

He was in the Biolab, marking which equipment should be moved out before everything began. He couldn't help picking up the box containing the Radical-6 vials. So many years of work, distilled down to a few containers in a box that he could hold in his hand.

"I'm back."

He barely acknowledged her, resting the precious box on the counter.

"Wouldn't it be easier just to stab some random person out there with a needle? It could spread that way."

Omega never used to question him before she started SHIFTing. He was her creator, the holy Brother, and if he had told her to slit her throat on Fifth Avenue at noon, she would have only asked for recommendations on the knife.

"This is how it escapes because this is always how it escaped. And I have told you, there is more than one essential timeline. I have com-"

"Complex motives. I know."

She never used to interrupt him, either.

"Do you have your notebook?"

She was silent until he turned around to glare at her. She had it and was clutching it to her chest. When their eyes met, she swallowed hard and nodded.

"I used to be concerned that your plan to let Mira run around could be risky, but ... Eric is severely mentally ill."

That piqued his interest. He was aware the young man had a deeply troubled childhood, but from what he knew, it seemed to have only manifested into inappropriate affect and a terribly annoying personality. Maybe Eric could be more useful than he originally thought.

"Tell me everything."

Omega's gaze travelled over to the robot that had been assisting Delta in his work in the Biolab. She looked ... sad.

"Isn't this going to mess things up, you activating him how?"

"Omega. Tell me. Now."

-

He was working out the arrangement of items in the safes when she returned. She was getting better with the side effects; she just shook her head for a moment and then picked up the notebook.

"Tell me."

"You had to hack Diana to get her to press the button."

He found that he was oddly disappointed, but not terribly surprised. "What happened after?"

"Sigma was pissed. Which kind of made no sense, since he was going to push it before Phi stopped him."

"Interesting. Why?"

"He said it was to protect them." She stuck the pen in her ear and wiggled it around. Delta made a note to throw away that pen as soon as she put it down.

"Did you believe him?"

"Yes," she said softly. "Definitely. Oh! He knows about the Radical-6! He and Phi were telling Diana about it while they were waiting for something to happen. You ... you're not surprised by that."

He had gone back to his computer and was typing furiously. "No. Go on. What happened after?"

"Um. Diana had a breakdown. Phi ... said a bunch of stuff I didn't understand. Sigma just refused to believe the others were dead. Then they left ... and Diana ran back in. I asked you if you hacked her to do that, but you didn't answer. You taunted her, saying that she was pretending to have multiple personalities to avoid murder charges on the outside. Then you ... you said, 'Stabat mater dolorosa.' You wouldn't tell me why you said that, either."

Delta paused, momentarily annoyed with himself. It may have been an unessential timeline, but he still had to be careful about tipping his hand too early. He had spent quite a bit of time studying his mother. Based on patient reports and her performance reviews, he believed she was quite skilled at accessing the morphogenetic field, even if she wasn't aware of it. She had an uncanny knack for knowing what her patients needed, for knowing just the right thing to say. People said she always helped them feel better, even in the middle of their worst troubles and tragedies. If the wrong version of her accessed these memories too early, it might raise questions. He was already questioning some of the X-Passes he had chosen.

Then again, the likelihood that she would draw the correct conclusion from those questions seemed low.

Ultimately, he enjoyed rubbing it in their faces. Even if they didn't understand it.

The X-Passes would stay.

"And then?"

Omega looked like she was about to cry.

"Well?"

"Sigma and Phi did launch a rescue mission. You let them gain access, which I didn't understand. Everything was still in place, all the rooms. Diana had broken a beer bottle and slashed her wrists with it, after she used about a dozen coasters to write a note apologizing for what she had done and insisting that she had acted alone. She wanted to make sure the other two weren't prosecuted. Sigma tried to do CPR. Phi told him there was no point. And then ... he lost it. The paramedics had to ... had to sedate ..."

She did start to cry at that point, the sound grating on his ears.

"Did I select the wrong person for this mission?"

"No." She sniffled and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "I think I've just been SHIFTing too much. I just need a day or two where I'm not bouncing all over the place."

He placed a skull and crossbones in the appropriate place on the flow chart, then pulled a tissue out of the box on his desk.

"One day. We can't afford to waste time."

Instead of saying anything, she just turned and walked out of the room. With the tissue, Delta carefully picked up the pen she had left behind and threw it in the bin.

-

"Why can't we have a dart board?" she whined. "I want a dart board."

"You should have come up with a game that involved a dart board, then."

"Not everything has to -"

Omega stopped mid-sentence. She blinked a few times and then met Delta's gaze. She groaned and rubbed her face as she shook her head.

"You'll have to go back."

"Could you just ... this was the seventy-sixth time. Can we do something that's not luck-based? I can focus in on something when it's a choice. Even that damn robot, I can ... find something from someone and direct my consciousness to the right place. But they're just throwing fucking dice! I can't pick up on - on - on - on - non-existent dice vibrations or thoughts or whatever the hell it is that I'm doing!"

He pulled the gun out of the desk drawer. Her face contorted in agony.

"Please, I can't -"

He fired.

-

"What do you mean, Carlos uses the transporter?"

"I mean, Carlos is going to show up here in a few months. Which is going to be a problem."

He rubbed his temples. He wasn't sure how exactly that fit in to everything.

-

"So, you're going to create Typhoid Mira? Or Radical-6 Mira, I guess?"

He had given Omega a break after she finally found the history where the dice all ended on ones. She was curled up on the couch, and although he had assumed she would sleep, she had launched a barrage of questions about the last few histories she had visited.

He may have made a mistake, telling her about Mary Mallon, about how viruses could be engineered not only to create specific signs and symptoms, but so some people were more susceptible than others. She may have been his only way of knowing exactly how things would play out once the Decision Game began, but it could be dangerous if she learned too much, too soon.

He wasn't sure if he trusted her as implicitly as he used to.

"Something like that. Our vector will eventually succumb to the virus. But where other people might take only hours or days to become symptomatic, the vector will have months before becoming ill."

Her only response was a soft snore.

It was probably for the best. Delta seemed to suffer from the same flaw that so many humans exhibited - a need to show off how brilliant he was. He needed to be more careful.

-

He enjoyed spending time with future Omega more than the one from the present.

"Didn't I tell you that you can use loaded dice? Wouldn't that have been easier?"

She was leaning over him - a bit too close for his tastes - but he appreciated that she was still excited about the prospect of the game.

"There needs to be a timeline where they fail."

"Yeah, but I was reading about these dice that will roll one way on the first roll, then a different way on the second roll. The first roll shifts a ... except I'm thinking linearly again. They only throw it once."

He smiled at her. "It's easy to fall into that trap."

Omega sighed and settled back on the couch. "So you're going to create at least 216 universes?"

"Only a few actually matter to me. But yes."

"You're like ... God," she said, reverence in her tone. "I can't believe I get to be a part of ... oh. Ow."

"Ah. You're back?"

When she opened her eyes, they no longer held joy and excitement.

-

"You have a problem."

He awoke from where he had fallen asleep on the couch. It took him a moment to focus in on Omega's face. Maybe he had been working too hard; he didn't even remember what timeline he had sent her to this time.

"What problem?"

"Akane easily figures out a way to determine which one is the antidote. Carlos and Junpei - well, Carlos isn't an idiot. I've been there watching on the monitors three times with the antidote in three different cases, and although Akane does go unconscious early, Carlos can follow the logic and always picks the right one. If the timeline where they fail is essential -"

"Ah." He sat up, ignoring the ache in his back. "The Infirmary."

"Yes." Without prompting, she moved to the desk and picked up the notebook - the twenty-third since this all began.

"Then ... you were in the timeline where Q-Team is executed. If C-Team fails -"

"Six people would be dead, so if you put D-Team through the ... the ..."

"Trash Disposal Room."

"... the Trash Disposal Room, whoever survives will have enough X-Passes to escape, assuming you don't poison them, too."

He watched her as she wrote in the notebook. She hadn't cried in almost two weeks, when she had a meltdown and said watching people die was getting to her. It wasn't fun, she had said, not like she thought it was going to be. Perhaps she had gotten over the inconvenient sentiment and was recommitted to the mission. He had briefly considered putting her in cold sleep and pulling out one of her spares, but he didn't want to waste time honing their ability to SHIFT.

"We're still missing one of the essential timelines. I can't be certain that this isn't it, although it does seem unlikely. Some variables are missing. We'll leave this one alone for now."

She nodded, her face blank. "Where am I going next?"

He moved to the desk and pulled up the flow chart. There were still too many question marks for his liking. They were less than a year away now. Some of them might have seemed not strictly necessary - like finding out what happens when Sean shoots Mira instead of Eric - but the transporter threw a wrinkle into everything. It must be used at some point, even if Omega hadn't found it yet, which meant they had to track down every branch. Maybe in that timeline, Eric and Sean leave, locking the X-Door forever, and that's where Diana and Sigma transport into.

"Back to the Study."

"Okay. Which one?"

"Find Mira's mind, when Sean shoots her instead of Eric."

She squeezed her eyes shut and let out a long exhale. She repeated Mira's name, over and over. After several minutes, Omega nodded. He aimed the gun and pulled the trigger. Her body fell to the ground almost instantly.

-

"How is this not a paradox? It's like you're just sending me to the future and then doing whatever I see. It doesn't make any damn sense. Where does it begin?"

"I can tell from your tone that the pleasant Omega has left us."

She had been preparing lunch when her present consciousness jumped back in. She threw the half-made sandwich at him and picked up the plastic knife, as if she actually intended to do something with it. But after a moment, she set it down and put her hands on the counter.

"You can speak to me while you clean up your mess."

She left the room and returned with a damp rag and a small bag.

"Why is it that you can't mind hack me?" she said as she started to pick up the pieces of meat and bread.

"It's not unprecedented. There was someone else in my life who I was never able to hack."

She stopped in the middle of smearing mayonnaise on the floor with the rag. "Was that person a mind hacker, too?

"No. He was murdered, brutally. That never would have happened if he had the ability to hack others. Now, you were in Control. What happened?"

"I want to hear more -"

"No."

She looked at him with wide, turquoise eyes, before she tossed the bag in the trash and pressed a hand to her chest. "They were able to share the mask."

"That's impossible."

"No, they ... Junpei and Carlos and Akane just kind of ... handed it back and forth until ... I mean, Akane was pretty sick when the door opened, but they all survived."

Delta watched her for a long moment. She wouldn't meet his gaze, and she was playing with the hem of her shirt.

"You're lying."

"Carlos is a firefighter. He probably does lung capacity exercises or something. It seemed like he was letting Junpei and Akane use it more than him. And they stood up, so if carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen, maybe it sunk. I don't know. You were just as confused as I was. You told me I had to go back right away."

He didn't wait for more details, or for her to fix him another plate. He made a beeline for his study to examine the flow chart.

-

"Why don't you leave them dog food? I don't just mean for Gab, I mean leave nothing but dog food. And take all the labels off, so they don't even know what they're eating. Don't you think it'd be hilarious?"

The idea appealed to him, but a quick search revealed there was little research on if it was safe for women to consume during pregnancy.

"We'd need to make sure it was enriched with vitamins and minerals."

The future Omega laughed as she punched capsules out of the foil packets. "Do you really care if they get rickets or whatever if they end up trapped here for all eter - whoops, I messed up the red ones."

He tossed her another box and then went back to researching if dog food contained folic acid.

-

The other Omega was engrossed in a copy of Catch-22. When she had arrived, she complained that the last time she was here, she had been SHIFTed back just as it was getting good, and that she couldn't find it in the Study in the future. He made a note to remove it from the Study before beginning the game.

Her head drooped a bit and he walked over to her, placing a piece of paper to mark the other Omega's place in the book, before putting it back where it belonged on the shelf. Sure enough, when her eyes reopened and met his, he could tell she was back.

"Oh my god," she whispered.

"Did you find it?"

"I don't know. I ... I hope not."

She abruptly rose from the couch, her hand clapped over her mouth, tears spilling out onto her cheeks.

"Tell me!"

"I was there for ten and a half months. They ... Diana and Sigma ... was this our purpose?! You said it was to create a better world."

Enraged and impatient, he slammed her up against the bookcase. "What?! What happened?!"

Four years ago, Omega would have cowered in fear. She would have apologized and begged forgiveness from 'holy Brother'. Three years ago, she had been working alongside her clones, helping to set up the puzzles and talking about how much fun this game was going to be.

Now, she just glared at him. "No. This has nothing to do with creating a better world. This has nothing to do with purifying mankind. This was all a selfish excursion to make sure your pathetic life was guaranteed."

It existed. The timeline existed, and she had found it. He wrapped a hand around her neck, watching her face contort in panic.

"So... the timeline where they don't press the button in the Healing Room. That's where you went."

It was difficult with him choking her, but she managed to shake her head. She actually smiled. He let up enough pressure to allow her to speak.

"Don't lie to me. I know where you went."

"I've been ... been disobeying you. Made ... up stories. And I didn't always go ... go where you wanted. Thought ... ugh, thought you were lying about the mind hacking. That you'd know. But you didn't."

The shock must have shown on his face, because she started to laugh, as much as she could with her airway being constricted.

"Tell me where you went! I need to know which history! I need to know how to recreate it!"

"No. I was ... ten months, I was with you. I saw ... I saw what you did to th-th-"

Delta put his other hand on her neck, squeezing as tightly as he could. Just when it looked like she was going to pass out, he suddenly stopped and let her body slump to the floor. She curled up in a fetal position, violently coughing. He walked over to the desk and retrieved the gun and a box of bullets. Then he returned to her and pulled her so she was sitting up, her back against the bookcase.

He popped out the cylinder and let the bullets that were in it fall to the floor.

"They were always blanks, Omega. Did you think I was just going to go through all my clones like they were nothing?"

Her eyes widened. He took some satisfaction in knowing he could still surprise her.

"Are you going to tell me?"

"Never."

"These bullets, on the other hand, are not blanks." He carefully reloaded the weapon and pressed it to her chest.

"I'll ... I'll just SHI-"

It was fascinating, how her face froze when he pulled the trigger. He watched her for a while, waiting for her eyes to shut, her mouth to close. But her corpse just stared at him. He sighed as he stood, taking in the pool of blood spreading across the floor. He felt ... more remorseful than he thought he would. The gun dropped and he wiped his hands on his pants before moving to the computer and punching a few buttons.

When the Sean-who-wasn't-quite-Sean-yet arrived, Delta simply pointed to Omega's body.

"I see. Body disposal. Do you wish this one to be placed in the pod?"

"No. We won't be needing it. Use the incinerator."

As it was his first time Sean had to carry out this particular task, Delta settled into his chair to observe. The robot was efficient, but not quite enough to satisfy the timeline of the game. It took him two hours to get the room was returned to normal. He would need to work on that.

With the blood was cleaned off the floor, Sean identified the books that had blood splatter on them. Delta considered leaving them there to horrify Q-Team when they explored it, but decided against it.

"Put them in the incinerator as well."

Sean carefully removed them all and tossed them into a wheelbarrow. The last one he put on the pile was Catch-22, which had actually caught the bullet when it had exited Omega's back. Delta picked it up and turned it around in his hands, laughing quietly.

"I'll be keeping this one, Sean."

"It will be impossible to read in that condition."

"I know." He ran his finger along the spine. "I want to keep it as a reminder, that as much as you try to fight fate, everything is inevitable."

"Do you wish to keep any of the others?"

"No. When you're done, I need Omegas number 07 and ... 14 out of cold sleep. They need to start immediately. There's no time to waste. Bring 07 to me. Take 14 to the Infirmary."

He picked up his laptop off the desk and moved into the lounge; the smell of bleach was too strong to continue working in there at the moment. As he sat down on the couch, he opened up the flow chart again and frowned at the question mark after "Diana does not press button".

It didn't matter.

The timeline existed.

Omega had found it once. Surely, one of the nineteen remaining Omegas would find it again. Then he'd be able to recreate every detail, leave nothing to chance.

The door hissed as Sean entered the lounge, an Omega slung over his shoulders. He lay the unconscious woman on the other couch and turned to face Delta.

"Excellent, Sean. I have no more need for you."

As he waited for the new Omega to wake, he scrolled through the flow chart, a network of blue and green and red scales, skulls, question marks, and exclamation points. If number 10 had been lying, some of them may not even be true.

But he still had time. He had succeeded before, so he would succeed in the future.

Omega stirred, moaning softly. When she opened her eyes and saw him, she sat up straight, a smile on her face.

"I've been selected?"

"Yes. We must start right away."

"Of course, holy Brother."

(fin.)