"There's something I've got to tell you," says Dr. Ritenrong.
"Yes?" Doc looks up from the glass of 300 year old Chananna brandy the Host and Cook had thought to make in anticipation of their future arrival.
In the distance, the Sleipnirs dance a with a viking around the crystal pond beneath the orbiting Earth as the sun and moon rise.
"I caused the destruction of the galaxy."
Doc looks at Steve solemnly, as if the wind had just changed for the worse.
"It was the XD Drive. I stole the idea from Dmitri Valia. He was supposed to come up with the idea that neutrinos were just mathematical shadows of extradimensional high energy particles, and that by utilizing gamma reflectors and manuseisium electromagnetic-gravitational converters one can vector the full thrust of an antimatter reaction and accelerate a ship instantly faster than light. He was his era's Tesla, and I was his Edison.
"When I gave myself the power of time travel, I started a paradox that is going to destroy us all. But it won't happen all at once, just through a series of causal catastrophes that lead inevitably towards armageddon. The first thing I did with the power to time-travel was jump ahead to see the future. I took inventions refined from Dmitri Valias ideas back only ten years and held them up as my own. It brought me fortune and glory, but humans lept into the universe faster than they should have. That shortcut of only a decade slashed the continued existance of our galaxy from billions of years to a handful of centuries, and it gave extraordinary power to people like Admiral Spaaz.
"I've tried my best to undo what I've done, but it's like trying to influence a Pachinko game to get the ball into the one slot that won't trigger nuclear armageddon with my mind. And I'm the one who dropped the ball.
"I'm a poor scientist. I'm a thief. Hell, I stole my only true invention from myself. I was given power and the first thing I did was misuse it, and the rest of the galaxy will suffer the consequences. I know it wasn't me, or this iteration of me who did the actual deed, but I can't say that I would've done it differently were I in the same position as the version of me who was.
"You saved my life, though. I was supposed to die on that ship. I wouldn't have been able to escape again, to tell myself of the plight of the future. I would not have made it to that cave where all my other bodies lie, where the history of a hundred failed futures is carved on the wall. I would not have been able to add my own failed future to it, and I certainly would not have been able to write the one that succeeded.
"I don't think, now, that we can stop the destruction of the galaxy directly. Every time I do, it seems to bring a more powerful ship with a bigger, more powerful XD engine into the grasp of that insideous beast. It's like that being, or force, or whatever it's pan-dimensional name is- has control over me, and that by doing what I think is right, I'm only bringing it what it needs. It's as if the paradox its self is intelligent, omnipotent, and malevolent."
One of the eight legged horses, the foal, breaks away from the pack and approaches cautiously, looking for food. Steve extends a handful of dried insects, locust-cockroach crossbreeds designed to maintain a specific link in the food chain of this artificial paradise. The young horse strobes bright greens and blues as it munches merrily on the snack.
The viking comes to join them, sweating from the joy of playing with his new found companions. "So when will we meet Odin?"
"There's something I've got to tell you," says Dr. Ritenrong.
Thanks to Doc's incredible (-ly lucky) surgical skill and the amazing tools at hand in the Younger Brother Pear's medical bay, Steve's recovery is quick and relatively painless. Fortunately for him, the reactive gel in his armor worked well enough to slow the .50 caliber bullet fragments down before it failed, doing not much more internal damage than bird-shot. He was also incredibly lucky, for if the shot had been a few microns to the left, Steve would no longer have his origional heart.
After a good, long nap, Doc is able to treat the rest of the crew's bumps and bruises. Thunderhorse caught the second worst of the three of them when he ran out into the hail of gunfire to save Dr. Ritenrong. Almost his whole body was black and blue.
Doc's own body is well beaten. His jumpsuit peels off like a giant band-aid as it tears at the blisters and bruises left behind every bullet it stopped. It definitely could've been a lot worse, and he is impressed by the stopping power the reactive gel has.
Steve is out like a light and will be for a day or so. Doc makes sure of that by sealing him in the stasis bed and pumping the contained atmosphere full of drugs. It is a cocktail of gasses designed to regulate his metabolism in such a way that he stays asleep and focuses every available calorie on repairing his damaged tissues.
When he finally makes it out of the Medical bay, Doc heads straight for the galley, where the Host and the Cook greet him kindly, as if they'd seen him just yesterday, even though it's been more than three hundred years since they last laid eyes on him. Mark and Thunderhorse are enjoying a meal and several large drinks. Doc has what they're having.
The next morning, Steve is up and about, looking groggy but none the worse for wear.
"Uh," he groans as he approaches the bar where Doc is enjoying a hot coffee and his MAD magazine. "My head is killing me."
"At least it isn't bullets killing you, anymore," Doc replies.
Steve looks concerned. "Is that what happened? Was I shot?"
"Yeah, you were shot pretty good. That gel armor is something else, though. I'd have written off anyone hit by a .50 caliber bullet otherwise."
"I see we're on the Pear again. What happened? Are we still docked to the Marriott? I'm guessing 'no' by your relaxed nature."
"'No' is correct. When you went down, Thunderhorse went out and grabbed you. He took quite a bruising carrying you back. You were bleeding pretty badly, and I couldn't keep you stabilized in that situation, so we jumped in the teacup."
"The teacup from the Marriott room? Where and when are we now?"
"June 17th, 2194. Currently in Earth Orbit."
"Any word from Veronica?"
"Not yet. Didn't she say she did- er... is doing mercenary work for the Earth Defense Forces?"
"Something like that,"
"You are correct, sirs," The Host chimes in. "Ms. Autopilot is currently in Neptunian orbit on a mission for the EDF. I am unaware of the details, however she did say she would be back by tomorrow, barring any unforeseen developments."
"Has she been keeping in contact?" Steve asks.
"She does not carry a quantum uplink on her personal transport, however she almost always returns precisely when she specifies, and always sends a message if she will be delayed. I notified her of your arrival via encrypted microwave channels. She has yet to reply, even given the eight hour response delay. It is entirely possible, however, that the parameters of her mission include maintaining radio silence. "
"Thank you, Host." Steve replies. "How's the ship holding up?"
"Very well, sir. Without organics on board, the ships systems suffered very little wear and tear. All non-vital systems were deactivated, and life support was lowered to its minimum power settings. The Observation deck has been well maintained by both myself and Ms. Autopilot. There is one incident to report."
"A decade or so after your departure, the observation deck's magnetic shielding was overwhelmed by a particularly strong solar storm. The Gobbits and Chizards fared well as their genetically improved radiation resistance prevented any harm from the effects. However, the horses you brought on board-"
"Holy shit, I forgot about the horses!" Doc says. "Are they okay? I mean, uh, are they even alive? After three hundred-sixty years?"
"In a sense, sir. As I was saying, the solar storm made all three of the adults terminally ill. Fortunately, they had already mated. The large one, the female called Lightning, was pregnant at the time of the incident. She died shortly after birthing the colt. The colt survived, and she and her siblings continued the population. However, due to the inbreeding and the effects of the intense solar radiation on the prenatal tissues, their genetic structure can no longer be classified under Equus caballus. Ms. Autopilot proposed the species Equus Levitas in honor of their late matriarch."
Steve is slightly surprised and concerned about this new information. "Are you saying...?"
Doc, to, is puzzled. He interrupts Steve. "Um, what kind of 'effects' are we talking about?"
"The first prominent feature to appear, starting with the colt, was supernumeral limbs."
"Supernumeral? How many is that?"
"Four. All functional."
"Four functional, supernumeral limbs."
"An eight-legged horse. It started with an eight-legged horse."
Doc sits back in his chair, preparing himself to take this all in. "I see. Go on."
"In subsequent generations there was a simple persistence of albinism and pigmentation loss. Further generations exhibited a slight translucency of hair, skin and internal tissues, which became more pronounced as the population continued."
"How much more pronounced?"
"At one point, they were very difficult to see in spectra greater than infra-red at distances of at least 20 meters."
"Eight legged, invisible horses. At one point. I take it that's not all?"
"No, sir. A generation after that, the species developed chromataphoric structures in their skin cells, however they still retained their translucent base."
"Chromataphors?" Steve asks. "You mean like octopuses have to change colors?"
"Octopi, sir. And yes, sir, that is exactly what I mean. Their natural reflexes towards camouflage make them nearly impossible to spot without thermal sensing when they are frightened, as the are with me. Fortunately, they 'like' Ms. Autopilot, and they tend to change colors when expressing moods, pleasure being one of the most dramatic."
"So, an eight-legged, invisible, color-changing horse? Is that it?" Doc asks, pretending to comprehend it all.
"Yes, sir. One really must see it to understand the full effect."
"Yes, I expect so," replies Steve, quietly astounded.
"The rapidity of the genetic mutations was quite remarkable, although early on the rate of infant deaths and debilitating mutations was quite high. It took only about fifty generations to reach their current state, and they've been stable since then. The seventieth generation was born only last month. We currently have a population of eight: three stallions, four mares, and one male colt, all in good health. Ms. Autopilot preserved a genetic sample of each individual, if you care to study them in detail."
"Have you explained this to Thunderhorse?" Doc asks, concerned.
"I tried, but Mr. Thunderhorse did not react well when I told him his favorite, Lightning, had passed away over three hundred years ago. He ran off to find her and prove me wrong. If you'll forgive me, sir, I don't think he quite has a grasp on the occupational consequences of being a Time Operative."
"No, we know." Steve says. "Thanks for trying."