Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged. This is part of the Worldburner shared world developed by Erin Mills and is related to various Tales of the Ringbearers stories, especially Temporal Conundrum, plus my Daria Von Doom stories.
Agency Sector Headquarters. Earth SCR-001
"Please follow through the doors in an orderly manner. You will be assigned temporary housing while you weigh your options of joining the Agency or finding a place in our civilian society. You will also be receiving a credit chip programmed with the standard new arrival stipend to meet your basic needs. Thank you for your cooperation."
His speech completed, Richard stepped off the podium and left the crowded arrival hall.
When a man and woman in battered field coveralls joined him as he walked down a corridor, he said, "Status? We rescued less than half of what we were expecting."
A tall woman with black hair said, "Once Judith zeroed in on us, there was nothing we could do but fall back and save what we could. If it hadn't been for Yamashiro and Ellwe, we wouldn't have gotten out those that we did."
Grim, Richard said, "I will be tending to their memorial services personally."
The shorter man said, "Any word from R&D? Judith's outgunning us at every point."
Richard shook his head. "Nothing, and we're not the only ones. The Ringbearers, the Foundation and DELPHI are also taking hard hits."
The woman said, "Maybe we should try to recruit some actual Gods from the right universes."
"While you were on your mission, Judith destroyed Cthulu on D-32327, leaving a message that she had a craving for some calamari."
The man said, "What can we do?"
"For now, save what we can. The combined task force is working on every idea that we can think of to stop her."
"I hope that they come up with something soon," the man said.
Stopping at a door, Richard said, "I'm giving each of you three days leave. Get some rest."
"Yes, sir," the woman said.
"Will do," the man said.
Richard stepped through the door and walked across his lab to his workstation. After filling a large mug with coffee from an automated pot sitting on the counter, he sat in front of a large monitor and studied the tangle of fine lines on the display. Each green one represented the timeline of a universe under his supervision.
Red lines were universes in trouble, diverted from their natural course of development by some outside agency. Now that she had gained such immense power, Judith was rampaging across the Multiverse, and there was little that anyone had been able to do to stop her.
The worst were the lines that stopped. They represented universes snuffed out of existence by whatever desire or mission that drove Judith. Hundreds of universes and untold numbers of sentient beings lost.
He activated another monitor and started to examine the terminated threads, bringing in the computing power of the Agency's network in the hopes of detecting a pattern and perhaps, finding a way to get ahead of Judith instead of chasing her trail of destruction.
He activated a third monitor and called up the personnel files of the two lost team members. Finding their preferences, he scheduled the memorial service and made sure that all of the proper elements would be in place. "Rest in peace, my friends."
To most people, the Agency dress uniform looked similar to a dark blue business suit. The only visible insignia were a pair of gold buttons on the collar inscribed with the wearer's rank. Richard adjusted the jacket and was about to leave for the service when an alarm tone sounded from the workstation. "Damn," he said, crossing over to the station. "Where is she at this time?"
Six closely set lines were flashing red and oddly, faint lines connected them to each other. Richard noticed and sat down at the station, quickly entering commands to analyze the deviations. "Please, don't let it be that."
It took only a few moments for the analysis to be completed. Richard slumped in his chair and stared at the results for a minute. Breaking out of his shock, he picked up the telephone and entered a code.
"Director, its Richard. No, I'm not at the service and I'm afraid I'm not going to make it. We have a new problem. Six Architects' Gates have activated and cross-linked. That's right. I'm positive, and it makes complete sense. The Architect's Gate Intelligence is using the confusion and chaos caused by Judith to make their move. When it rains, it pours."
Lawndale, Earth D-1971
Daria awoke and sat upright, fully awake and without the slightest hint of sleepiness she normally experienced. A glance at the clock told her it was only 2:44 AM. "Strange," she said.
She slipped off of the bed and went to her closet to fetch fresh clothes. In only a couple of minutes, she was dressed and heading downstairs. Keeping quiet, she snuck out of the house and started walking down the street.
One part of her mind wondered why she was wide-awake at such an hour, let alone walking with obvious purpose somewhere.
A short distance away, Jane and Trent Lane were wondering the same thing as they drove down the road in his car. When they spotted Daria, it was as if they were expecting to see her and pulled over without a second thought.
Jane opened the window and said, "Hop in, Daria."
Daria climbed in the car. "Thanks."
A couple of minutes later, Trent stopped the car behind the Good Time Chinese restaurant. He, Jane and Daria briefly looked at each other, nodded and then got out of the car. They pushed a dumpster aside and stood in front of the gateway that they knew was hidden behind it.
Daria wondered where it would take them this time. Holiday Island? That world with Rayden where Trent had to defend the Earth by facing his greatest fear? Or perhaps the one with the girl that said they were characters in an animated television show? "Or perhaps someplace new," she said.
Castle Doom, Latveria, Earth D-751
Wearing full combat armor and entering the time machine that her father had built and she'd extensively modified, Queen Daria Von Doom remembered snippets of her past.
So, Miss High and Mighty Princess is going to fly in and rescue me," Jane shouted over the phone. "Well screw you! I'll get through this like I always have. Alone. I'll make it through Ashfield and I'll make it through high school and I'll make it through life. Have a life of your own, Daria. Don't call me again."
Daria placed the phone on its cradle. She sat back on the chair and looked up at the ceiling. "Okay, Father. I now have no distractions from my studies."
In the shattered remains of Victor Von Doom's laboratory, Daria smashed the crystalline Anatolian Key against the floor. Then, she looked at the four blue-clad bodies on the floor and came to the realization that she had killed. The Fantastic Four were dead and her father was in Hell. Daria sat down on a broken support column and for a minute, let the tears come.
After that minute, she cleared her eyes and stood. "I have a responsibility to my kingdom. For now on, Latveria will always come first."
Queen Daria placed a foot on Red Skull's chest and pointed the pistol at his face.
He looked up and said, "You are a worthy successor to your father."
Daria coldly said, "You'll never know how worthy." A final pistol shot obliterated Red Skull's head as the news cameras rolled.
Daria Von Doom leveled her pistol at Robert Nelson's forehead, respectfully said, "Your Corps should never have sent you here, Pathfinder. I'm sure you're a good man, but after Kang's attempts on my life, I cannot tolerate any extradimensional entities on this planet. Sir, you've fought most tenaciously and honorably, so your death will be quick."
Still confused by what could be blocking all communication with his headquarters on Nova Valdris, Robert blinked once before the muzzle flashed and his body fell back onto the cobblestone courtyard of Castle Doom.
Daria reached down, slipped the Defender Ring from his finger and placed it in a specially prepared box. "I haven't had such a challenging foe since I killed Franklin Richards."
Her hand hovering over the time machine's activation key, Daria looked at the three rings on her gauntleted hand. Defender, Deliverance, and Vengeance. Each collected to protect her Latveria from foes without. So, she appreciated the irony of where she was going for assistance. "D-1971. I should be able to meet him there."
Caste Doom's automated defense system sent her a final message. "Security firewalls breached and all systems compromised. Unable to provide..."
Before the invading Architects Gate Intelligence could reseal the room, Daria turned the key, and the time/space machine launched.
A few minutes later, a handsome man entered the laboratory. Slowly and carefully, he inspected the facility while more troops entered and took up guard positions. Rolling the Vengeance Ring on his finger, Ian Llywd said, "So the chase continues. Excellent."
Agency Sector Headquarters. Earth SCR-001
"Judith is exactly what the Corps of Ringbearers was created to destroy," the Ringbearer Archangel communicated to Richard via the omnicommunication between Archangel's ring and the ring ability granted Richard by the Ringmasters. "Full mobilization means that every Ringbearer is on the front line. I'm sorry, old boy, but you're going to have to deal with this on your own."
"Understood," Richard said. "Good luck and keep your head down. I'll try to do the same."
"Good luck to you," Archangel said. "Be seeing you."
Richard chuckled at the small joke as the link broke. Quickly losing the humor, Richard turned back to his monitor and studied the growing number of altered realities.
When he saw another thread change, he said, "D-1971. I need to start somewhere, might as well be there."
So he stood and checked his field uniform. Satisfied, he checked that his hand computer, a sidearm, and finally, the polished hilt of a light saber were secure on his belt. Richard entered the target coordinates into his hand computer and when the portal opened, stepped through.
"Whoa," Trent said as the time/space machine materialized in front of the Architect's gate. "That's trippy."
Daria said, "Jane, did you let Trent make last night's brownies?"
"Are you kidding?" Jane said. "I have some common sense."
Walking around the metallic cylinder, Daria said, "I don't think it's from around here."
"Ya think?" Jane said, walking around the other side.
A door on the side opened and an armored woman wearing a green cloak stepped out. A droll, mature voice said, "I appear to have arrived early."
Trent said, "Hey, Daria. She sounds like you, only older."
Queen Daria Von Doom removed her faceplate and said, "That's because I am."
Trent blinked and said, "Janey, what did you put in those brownies?"
Queen Daria turned to her counterpart. "You clearly know about the Architect's Gates, so you are aware that there are alternate realities."
Unsettled, the young Daria said, "Yes."
"You – and I - exist in many, many other realities."
"I suppose that makes sense," Jane said. "Hey, is there a version of me where you're from?"
Queen Daria gave her a deathly stare and her hand twitched close to her sidearm. "You are not part of my life there."
Jane lifted her hands in front of her. "Hey, just asking."
"Have you been through the gate recently?" Queen Daria asked, her hand now resting on the sidearm.
"It was over a year ago," Daria said. "You don't have to treat us like we're dangerous."
"If you haven't been through the gate, then why are you here?"
Trent scratched the back of his neck. "Dunno. Just seemed like the thing to do."
"Yeah," Jane said. "What are we doing up at this hour?"
"All three of us," Daria said. She turned and said, "Since we're both named Daria, what should we call you?"
"I suppose the proper address of 'Your Majesty' would not work. Call me by my middle name, Victoria."
"Okay, Victoria," Daria said. "What's going on?"
"Much more than you can imagine," Richard said, walking around the corner and entering the alley.
Victoria said, "Just who I was looking for. I need your help and I have information you need."
"Interesting," Richard said. "But I'm not surprised that you were able to escape, Your Majesty. For the rest of you, please step away from that gate. Quickly."
In unison, Trent, Jane and Daria said, "No."
"Damn." Richard said. Seeing Victoria raising her pistol, he said, "No. I'll handle this."
Victoria nodded and said, "If you fail, I won't."
Richard mentally reached out and discovered the strong aura from the gate surrounding the three young people. So much more than mere suggestion, I see. He concentrated on them and said, "You do not want to stay around the gate."
Daria, Jane and Trent stepped away from the gate and past Richard.
"It will be safer for you to come with me."
Jane said, "We're going to come with you."
"Impressive. To avoid the formality, call me Victoria," Queen Daria said.
"Very well. Do you mind if we use your vehicle? I'll provide the hyperspatial coordinates."
"I wasn't planning on leaving it here." The Architect's Gate started to hum and the ground started to vibrate. Victoria said, "I presume you wish to depart immediately."
"That would be a good idea. Everybody?" Richard said, ushering the others to the time/space machine's door.
After Victoria had entered the provided coordinates and activated the time/space drive, Richard stepped back to the other passengers. "My apologies for that. It's been long known that the Architect's Gate Intelligence could implant strong suggestions into travelers, but we didn't know that it could go so much further."
Daria said, "Architect's Gate?"
"Let me start from the beginning. I represent an interdimensional organization that monitors and protects realities from outside intervention. The wormhole that you've used to travel is technically a Realitistic Interface, but the common name for them is Architect's Gates, named after the ancient confederation that first built them."
"How ancient?" Daria asked.
"Four hundred and eighty-seven million years."
"Talk about built to last," Jane said.
"And very hard to destroy," Richard said.
"So why this sudden interest in us?" Daria said.
Richard said, "The AGI, the intelligence that runs the gates, has started to take control of realities. Your counterpart up front driving this vehicle escaped from one of those realities."
Trent said, "Where are we going?"
"For now, back to my headquarters," Richard said. "I need to update my superiors and our allies."
Daria motioned towards Victoria, now in control of the craft. "So... she's a version of me, as well?"
"Older, and with a very divergent background. What you think of as fiction is reality in other universes. Her father is not Jake Morgendorffer, its Victor Von Doom."
"Like, from the comic book?" Jane asked.
"Yes, only very real in her home reality."
"Just like that girl we met before said we were part of an animated TV series," Daria said.
From the front, Victoria said, "The AGI assimilated most networked communications and control systems on my Earth, besides controlling dozens of people. My castle was the last place to fall. Richard, most importantly, I felt a Ringwraith working for them. Your little lost puppy, Ian Llywd."
Richard said, "Considering what happened the last time we met, I'm not surprised."
"Ringwraith?" Daria said. "Like from Tolkien?"
"Not exactly," Richard said. He then briefly explained the presence of Defender Rings, the Corps of Ringbearers, the corrupted rings called Vengeance Rings worn by the Ringwraiths, and the mysterious Deliverance Rings. "Your counterpart up there carries all three. The only person in the known multiverse to do so."
"My sister always said I needed to accessorize," Victoria said, bringing a slight smile to Daria's face.
Richard looked at her. "The Agency is allied with the Corps. They are not going to be happy with your presence."
Victoria dismissed his words with a gesture. "Many are displeased with my presence. Most have good reason."
Jane suppressed a shudder. "I have a feeling I don't want to piss you off."
Richard walked back to her. "Go with that feeling."
Victoria said, "I only act in the most efficient way to protect Latveria or my authority."
"Charming," Daria said.
Victoria looked back at her. "I remember being like you. That was before I had responsibilities."
"And sometimes you miss it," Richard said.
Eyes forward, Victoria said, "You are one of the few I allow to say that. Please prepare for landing. We are almost at your coordinates."
Richard quickly checked his hand computer. "The IFF has been received and confirmed. We are clear to land."
The Director was a stately, elegant woman who wore the cares of her position as a cloak of honor. She studied her visitors for a moment before saying, "You weren't content with bringing back one Nexus; you brought back two. Aren't you worried about another Gardner Loop?"
"The situation warranted it," Richard said. "Director, I present to you Daria Von Doom, Earth D-571, for convenience, please address her as 'Victoria.'"
He turned slightly towards Daria. "Please, I present to you Daria Morgendorffer, from Earth D-1971. Traveling with her are Jane Lane and Trent Lane, also from D-1971. They all possess important information about the actions and capabilities of the AGI."
The Director rubbed her eyes with both hands. "As if we didn't have enough to handle with Judith Worldburner. We've confirmed two more universes destroyed since you left."
Richard spat out a single word. "Damn."
"Universes destroyed?" Victoria said. "Sounds like you do need all the help you can get."
"Even if we may regret it later?" the Director asked.
Victoria held up one gauntleted hand to show off the three rings in her possession. "While I have – acquired – a few items from other universes, I have no designs beyond my own," she spoke "However - the AGI is a threat to my universe, as well as your own. We share a common enemy."
"More than one, actually," the director said. "But for now, the AGI is your concern."
"Understood," Richard said. "Any chance for Ringbearer help?"
"They are fully committed to the Judith situation."
"I'll get started on analyzing what I've learned and get the report out as soon as possible. Director, I would like to request temporary quarters for our guests."
She nodded. "I'll have my assistant arrange for them. As for you, finish your preliminary report, then go home and get some rest. You can interview our guests in detail tomorrow."
"Yes, ma'am." He turned to the others. "Please get some rest yourselves. I'll see you in the morning."
Daria said, "Well, that settles it. If an organization that can monitor an infinity of realties can't get rid of paperwork, nobody can."
Victoria said, "Paperwork always increases to match the size of the bureaucracy."
"We have a huge bureaucracy," the Director said. "And we're also very busy."
"Of course," Victoria said. "With your leave."
"Um, bye," Daria said as she and her friends followed Richard out of the office.
In the anteroom, a blonde woman with faintly green skin was waiting. She said, "If you will follow me, I will show you to your quarters."
Trent looked at the shapely woman and said, "Cool all-body tat."
Jane said, "I don't think that's a tattoo, that's her regular skin."
"Hey, I wonder if..."
"Yes, they're also green," the woman said.
Victoria stepped over next to Daria and said, "I'm trying to remember what I saw in him."
"There are times I wonder that myself."
Richard said, "Good night and I will see you in the morning." He hoped to only need a quick trip to his lab to prepare his report, but that wasn't to be the case.
Rustic was the term often used to describe Richard's cabin. Set in a stand of longleaf pines, it was large enough to be comfortable for one person without being too large for a busy person to maintain. The entire front of the cabin was the living room, lined on three walls with large, French windows that kept the room brightly lit through most of the day.
Tired from the eventful day at work, Richard entered and passed through to the small kitchen and dining room, where he took a bottle of Herzwesten Bock from the refrigerator. After pulling off the cap, he walked back to the living room to collapse onto an overstuffed and worn arm chair.
"Nova Valdris – gone" The news he'd received from the commander of the battered Ringbearer fleet still echoed in is mind. He had hardly started on writing his report when the fleet – over a thousand vessels - arrived and requested sanctuary. Judith had struck at them and struck with ruthless efficiency. The Ringbearer headquarters, all but one of their major bases – even the Ringmasters themselves – all had been destroyed in a campaign that reminded Richard of the Japanese strikes across the Pacific in the opening days of WWII. After a brief discussion that had left Richard unsettled, the fleet began repairs and would sally forth to take the battle back to Judith.
Richard held up his hand computer and looked at a small light displayed on the screen telling him that the computer held by his friend Archangel was still functioning, even if all communication had been lost.
"I know you're still out there," he thought aloud, taking a sip afterward. "You're not going to let me off the hook that easy."
A very gentle knock on the door brought Richard from this thoughts. Sensing no threat from without, he said, "Come in."
A young woman with soft, gray eyes and long, dark hair that fell to mid-thigh entered the cabin. "Good evening, Richard. I come with word from the Ringmasters."
"Emissary Lawrence," Richard said, standing. "It's good to see you unharmed after all of today's bad news. But, I understood that the Ringmasters were lost defending Nova Valdris."
"No – but we lost the entire command structure-in-place there," she corrected him. The Ringmasters planned ahead and understood what needed to happen."
"After I learned about what happened to the Corps of Ringbearers, my Director told me, 'On a higher level, these events are the natural course for the affected realities,' and that. 'The Ringbearers' War against Judith is their path and they must follow it.'"
Going to his kitchen, Richard added, "There are times when I wish our superiors let us in on things a little more. Would you care for something to drink, Ms. Lawrence?"
"Water will be fine, and please - call me Fran."
"Very well." Richard poured some water from a pitcher and brought it back, gesturing for Fran to sit in the only other chair in the living room. "Please."
Fran sat down with smooth elegance and said, "We're all part of a much larger plan."
"I like to think that I'd been promoted to rook or knight, but at times like this, I feel like a pawn. So, what's your message from the Ringmasters?"
"Their gratitude for what you've done and what you are going to do."
"The sentiment is appreciated, but it still sounds cryptic."
"They mean your actions leading to the Nova Valdris Accords and you're handling of the Architect's Gate Intelligence. The former, because it gave them the means to do what they had to do, and the latter because of how much it will help the future."
"I see. On that, could you confirm something for me?"
"I will do my best."
"Did you cut off communications with the Defender Ring that Daria Von Doom carries?"
"It wouldn't be prudent to let a non-Ringbearer listen in on our secure communications, would it?"
"Thank you. That's why she was unaware of Judith. Considering how estranged she is from her Jane, I'm surprised Judith had not acted against her sooner."
"Who says she hasn't? You've noted yourself that the AGI and Judith are working together."
"True. In that case, Judith must've realized that she would escape."
Fran said, "Also true. As if she wanted that Daria to be on the move."
"I was afraid you would say something like that. Von Doom may be one of the most powerful Darias in the Multiverse, but she is weakened away from home. Judith will take great pleasure in killing her."
"Judith is playing her allies against each other. She must expect Von Doom to hurt the AGI and help Judith's overall plan."
Richard shifted in his seat and took a drink. "If something happens to Von Doom, do you expect to recover her Defender Ring?"
"No," Fran said. "We don't know what has happened to it and we don't dare allow another to carry it. That brings me to the Ringmasters last request to you. If Von Doom falls, recover the ring and keep it safe. You alone we trust with it."
"There's something you're not telling me."
Fran smiled. "I'm telling you what I know, but I was not told all."
Seated at a conference table with Daria, Jane and Trent, Richard said, "For your protection, I'm recommending that you stay here for the time being."
"I thought you were able to block the influence of the intelligence behind those wormholes," Daria said.
"Here, yes. While I'm in close proximity, yes. When you are on your own, I don't know. And after things are settled, we have to figure out the best way to return you to your reality while causing a minimum of disruption."
Jane said, "I promise to behave."
"The problem is that you know things that you ordinarily would not know. We'll have to analyze how that will alter your future behavior. It could cause unacceptable alterations to your reality."
"The three of us?" Trent said.
"Small alterations can lead to large changes. And don't even bring up the Butterfly Effect."
"Don't worry, I hate butterflies," Jane said.
"Is there anything we can do to help?"
"Hang out and be yourselves," Richard said. "That has the least risk of introducing microchanges to your personality that could alter your future."
"We can hang out," Trent said.
Daria said, "If there are a bunch of versions of us out there, what are you doing about them? Is there some baseline version or something?"
Richard slowly nodded. "We call the baseline reality D-101. It is being very closely monitored."
"What if something happens to that reality?"
"Very bad things, Daria. Very bad things."
Still wearing her armor, Victoria paced back and forth before saying, "Well?"
Richard slid a hand computer across the table toward her. "Formal collaboration. The Agency will assume responsibility for your actions during this emergency."
"I accept sole responsibly for my actions, but I understand the political need for the offer. Thank you," she said, stopping to pick up the computer. "Were you able to learn anything useful from the data I collected?"
Richard used his computer to activate Victoria's and brought up a display. "Something unexpected. When the AGI breached Castle Doom's firewall, you were able to save an image of the AGI's root command structure. It has been infected by a Clarke Class AI virus."
"In other words, a Doomsday virus."
"Yes. But instead of the virus destroying the AGI root command, it was incorporated instead. So we are dealing with a fusion between the two."
The display of the virus code was replaced on both computers by the image of the Director. Terse, she said, "Richard, Victoria, report to my office immediately. Do not speak to anyone on the way. Understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," Richard said.
Victoria said, "We appear to have touched upon sensitive information. I will comply in the name of our mutual cooperation."
The director met them at the door and hand locked it after the two had entered. "As of now, both of you have Unlimited Security Clearance."
"Unlimited?" Richard said, shocked.
"To complete your new mission, you will require access to the most restricted sections of the Agency database."
Wary, Victoria said, "I'm an outsider. Why me?"
"When you see what is at stake, you will understand." The Director walked around to the back of her desk and entered a command on the touch screen of her desk display. "Your computers have now been upgraded."
Richard looked at the changed settings. "You've also granted us travel access to the Closed Millennia."
"That's correct, Richard," the Director said,
"Closed Millennia?" Victoria said.
"The years before the founding of the Agency," Richard said. "Said to be sealed to prevent any accidental changes that might prevent the creation of the Agency."
The Director nodded. "And if you go further back, you will find the predecessors of the Agency – the Architects."
"The Architects Confederation was an alliance of species that originally built the Interfaces and designed an Artificial Intelligence to coordinate their use to monitor and control travel and trade across universes," The Director told them, "Soon after, something happened and there was as civil war. The AGI cut off travel, and the Confederation fell into a series of deep, dark ages that led the extinction of most of the Confederation species. That was 487 million years ago. The Agency was built by the survivors of those dark times, with the mandate to protect realities instead of exploiting them. We are the heirs to that legacy."
"What does this have to do with the data I provided?" Victoria asked.
"Such a virus could only have been introduced as the AGI network was being finalized."
"Judith," Richard said. "But she usually avoids time travel."
"In this case, she's made an exception. We suspect that the Tome of T'agobinskem'ace was involved. We've also detected another traveler to the past. Ian Llwyd."
"You want us to stop them," Victoria said.
The Director sat down. "No. You are to make sure the AGI is infected with the virus. You have to make sure that Ian doesn't stop the creation of the Agency by preventing the fall of the Architects."
"This is part of the bigger plan," Richard said.
"A contingency that's been planned for a long, long time. For insurance, you're also going to need someone with a direct connection to the AGI." The Director went to the door, unlocked and then opened it.
Cautious, Daria entered. "You asked to see me?"
"Please come in." Seeing Richard's frown, the Director said, "You know she's our best option and besides, you started the program."
"Why does this sound like something I'm not going to like?" Daria said.
Victoria replied, "You're not. But if you're anything like me, you know it is what you must do."
"Do I have a choice?"
The Director said, "Yes, you do. But, if you refuse, we will lose time finding someone else."
"And we won't lie to you. This will be very dangerous."
After the Director explained the situation, Daria sat down on one of the guest chairs and was silent. After long and serious thought, she said, "I'll do it."
The Director said, "Thank you. Richard, get them ready. You move out as soon as possible."
Moving around in the new one-piece combat suit, Daria said, "I feel like some kind of superhero knockoff in this."
Richard said, "You're better protected with that than your average superhero with nanosecond response to divert impacts around the body and energy dispersion capability up to 250 megawatts. That will protect you from almost anything short of starship weaponry."
Daria glanced at Victoria. "I'm still scared."
"Fear is a natural response to dangerous situations," Victoria said. "Controlling fear is the sign of maturity. Absence of fear is the sign of a fool."
"I'm not sure about the controlling part."
Victoria nodded. "You have it in you. I know."
Richard then handed Daria a hand computer. "This contains the virus, in case Judith's effort is interrupted."
"And I'm the delivery circuit."
"And it is our job to protect you at all costs."
"Thanks, I think."
Victoria said, "Now that we know the Agency's background, I understand why you don't use mental links for your computers."
Daria said, "So, are you sure that the AI virus won't infect me again?"
"As sure as possible. The firewall in the mental link was specifically designed to protect you from the virus and the mental blocks I gave you earlier are still in place."
Nervous, Daria rubbed her hands together. "Let's go before I chicken out."
"Last thing," Richard said. "We need to look like locals."
He concentrated for a moment, and all three morphed into a bipedal species with pale green skin and golden eyes with slit-like, horizontal pupils. Their faces lacked a nose or obvious nostrils, and their ears were marked by a half dozen tympanic membranes spaced around the skull.
Daria looked back at a prehensile tail. "How am I supposed to work that?"
"I've tried to 'program' the glamour to move the tail as if it were counterbalancing your movements, plus the occasional random twitch," Richard said.
"What happens if you get knocked out?" Daria said.
"I'll take over the illusion," Victoria said.
"What if you're not fast enough?"
"Then, we'll have trouble."
Richard said, "Daria, your suit has a translator so that you can understand what is spoken and I'm going to use the glamour and my translation ability to cover your voice. But to be on the safe side, please try to minimize how much you talk around the locals."
"I don't see myself having any lengthy conversations. Is there anything else?"
"No," Richard said. "We're ready to go." He opened a portal and said, "Please step through.
487,334,095 BCE, Sol V, SCR-001
Seeing Daria gasp for breath, Richard said, "It will take a moment for your suit to compensate for the higher carbon dioxide levels on this planet."
"Too bad we couldn't land on Earth," Daria said. "Even if there's not much there, seeing a live trilobite would be kind of cool."
"It would be tempting if we had the time," Richard said.
Victoria looked at the small, distant sun and said, "Even with the extra CO2, it's still pretty cold."
"An outpost just beyond the life belt is a good vantage point to observe the planets capable of supporting life." Richard checked his computer. "The projected epicenter of Judith's arrival is 400 meters that way. We have enough time to get there and observe for maybe an hour."
"Let's hope that they don't have laws against loitering," Daria said.
"Don't give up that attitude, Daria," Victoria said. "It has often given me the foresight to avoid unpleasant situations."
Daria looked back. "Thanks."
"Richard, when does Ian arrive?"
"About one minute after Judith."
The buildings they walked past were simple and utilitarian, but with a fine beauty. Richard noted members of at least a dozen different species walking along the street as they made their way to the target. "Nice place."
"It has its charms," Victoria said.
"Wow," Daria said as they reached the edge of a large circle of Architects Gates.
"Hundreds," Richard said, not trying to take an accurate count. "This is the largest gate complex I've ever heard of. It has to be the main hub of the original network."
"No wonder Judith wants to use it as the infection point." Victoria said.
The gates were busy, with travelers leaving and arriving every few seconds from all around the circle. Daria noticed what obviously were businesses around the circle. "It's the equivalent of an airport or a train station."
"With personalized service and no undersized seats," Richard said.
"Do you mind if we wander around and look?" Daria said. "I'm probably never going to see something like this again."
"I'm probably not, either and it might be useful to learn a little more about the Agency's beginnings. Let's go."
Victoria said, "Share your findings with me when we get back. I'm going to keep an eye out for any unwanted guests."
"You'll get everything," Richard said. "Thanks."
Holding a slice, Daria said, "I still don't believe it."
"A grain-based underlayer, a spiced sauce and various, chopped toppings, all baked in some form of oven. Pizza is a pretty universal concept, though the execution may not always be agreeable to human consumption. But, these are safe," Richard said, also holding a slice.
Victoria took an experimental bite of hers and said, "Unusual, but with a definite appeal."
Daria tested hers. "Different, but definitely edible."
"I'll have to remember this," Richard said.
Eating their snacks, the three continued to circle around the gate hub. Ahead was a building that looked like it was made of the same material as the gates. "That's probably our target up ahead," Richard said.
Victoria asked, "How long?"
"Thee minutes. Time enough to finish our pizza."
"How will be certain that Judith arrives?" Daria said.
"Judith likes to make an entrance."
"Are you sure that Judith's another version of me?"
"Oh, she is. Without a doubt," Victoria said.
Daria said, "Where do we wait?"
"Here is as good as anywhere," Richard replied.
Their slices consumed, they waited and, right on schedule, Richard and Victoria sensed danger behind them as Judith gated in not twenty feet away.
"I wondered who they would send to stop me," Judith said, her red cloak flapping around her like an animal straining against a leash. "The boy scout, the daddy's girl and a garden variety, snot-nosed bitch. I'm insulted. I expected more."
"Sufficient to do our job."
"You're starting to sound like those Ringbearers, Richard. You've been hanging around them too long."
Judith shrugged. "Well, I've got things to see and universes to do, so..."
A blast of dark energy swept Richard, Daria and Victoria across the hub, barely protected by Victoria's force shield.
The minor annoyance out of the way, Judith turned and purposefully walked to the hub's control center while throwing random blasts at the scattering crowd.
Pure hate smoldering in his eyes, Ian Llywd stepped through the portal and, spying Judith, cracked his knuckles. "Payback's a bitch, bitch."
Feeling aches from what she was sure were going to be colorful bruises, Daria crawled to her feet and said, "I think she's pissed off."
Already standing, Richard said, "Annoyed. You wouldn't like her when she's angry."
Victoria placed a hand on Daria's shoulder. "I should've done this earlier."
"Two shields are better than one, so I used my Defender Ring to give you the ability to create force shields. Just think of bringing it up and it will. It will be as strong as your will to make it."
Richard said, "That uses a lot of your ring's power reserves."
"I have two more rings," Victoria said.
"Um, thanks," Daria said. "Why do I think I'm going to need it?"
The shock wave from a massive explosion knocked all three of them back to the ground. "I also gave you the ability to heal yourself," Victoria yelled. "But you have to think about healing. If you are rendered unconscious, it will not work."
"I'll keep that in mind," Daria said.
Looking at the boiling black cloud rising above, Richard said, "Ian, however, is pissed off." In the distance, a fireball appeared, streaking back toward the cloud. "And now that means Judith's pissed."
"What do we do?" Daria asked.
"Get over there and see if Judith had time to download the virus."
Daria nodded, "And if not, it's my turn."
"And our turn to protect you," Victoria said.
The fireball brightened and seemed to break up into a multitude of smaller fireballs. As they got nearer, you could see that each one was a duplicate of Judith wreathed in flame.
Ian flew into the air and waited. Mentally, he reached out and touched the air around the Flame Judiths, turning it into pure argon. Immediately, the Flame Judiths were snuffed out and Judith herself was forced to revert to normal as her flame form began to fail.
She stopped at a hover and watched Ian. "I don't see your little, pig-tailed squeeze. I wonder if something happened to her. Oh, that's right, she ran into a couple of zombies."
Ian slowly flew toward her.
"I bet pulling on those pig-tails was a wild ride."
Ian continued his advance.
"You don't seriously think you can stop me, do you?" Judith teased. "Your little group of third-rate ringboys couldn't even keep themselves from being wiped from history and then I played you and little Anastasia like cheap vuvuzelas."
Sweeping his arm to the side, Ian fired a cloud of magnetized steel needles at the virus-transfer computer that Judith had placed on the control center wall. They splattered against the wall, shredding the computer.
"You shouldn't have done that," Judith warned.
Ian smiled. "What are you going to do? Kill me?"
"Since you insist..."
A sonic boom knocked Daria to the ground as they reached the control center.
"Daria, you're on," Richard said as he took up a guard position next to Victoria.
Daria touched the activation button on the computer and felt the mental link established between the computer and the AGI. Like a spectator, she mentally watched as the complex program was transmitted to the gate network.
Above, Judith flew in a spiral to dodge a blast of quintessence and said, "Ooh, you're really mad. It's getting me all hot and bothered. Janey's going to have so much fun when I get home."
"She's going to be disapp..." Ian stopped when he noticed the three at the control center. Changing directions, he flew directly at them, screaming, "Are you insane!"
Richard ignited his light saber, stepped in front of Daria and warned, "Incoming."
Victoria covered all three with a force shield and positioned herself to Richard's left side, drawing her pistol. She fired three fast shots, striking him along the side as the blasts bypassed his shields.
The wounds failed to even slow Ian as he drew closer. By the time he fired blasts of high energy plasma at Daria, the gaping wounds had healed.
The hate and anger flowing from Ian was greater than anything Richard had ever encountered... Even some of the most evil can love, and when that love is taken away – horrible things can happen.
Knowing how such anguish fueled Ian's will and thus, the power of his Vengeance Ring, Richard still didn't hesitate to lift his light saber to block the attack that he knew would power through Victoria's force field.
The light saber exploded and the blast continued through Richard to strike Daria. He fell silently while she slumped against the wall with a whimper of pain.
Thinking tactically, Victoria went to Daria. She shook her head and said through her teeth, "I'm not that okay, but I'm healing. What about him?"
Victoria went to Richard. "He hasn't left us an empty suit of clothes, so he's still alive."
Examining the fallen Supervisor, Victoria saw how his hands were bloody and burned from the exploding weapon. Worse, there was a large hole going into his left lung from where tissue had flashed into steam from the plasma. Victoria placed her hands over the wounds, and a blue glow suffused between them as she started the healing process.
Flying at high-speed toward Ian, Judith said, "How funny. You idiots can't keep from fighting among yourselves even when I'm kicking your asses."
Seeing a group of police running at full speed towards her with weapons drawn, Judith took a heavy tube-like weapon from within her cloak and fired it at the police. The single projectile detonated over the group and covered them with a sticky net. Immediately, the trapped police began screaming in agony as the poison within the adhesive was absorbed into the skin.
Ian spun and hurled another bolt of plasma at Judith, which she easily dodged. She blew him a raspberry and said, "You're a lousy shot, you know that?" following it up with a shot from her weapon. The sticky web covered Ian's force shield and forced him to fly up as he burned away the offending material.
As Richard's eyes opened, Daria whispered. "Done. The virus is in."
"Let's get out of here," Richard said.
Despite the noise, Judith heard and curiously turned. She saw the transfer device and knew that she'd been fooled. "Oh, you are not going to play that time-causality game with me," she said, releasing an annihilation sphere and directing it directly toward them. "I'll destroy this planet before the virus propagates."
"No, you won't," Victoria said, using the power of all three of her rings to trap the sphere within a composite force field.
"Bitch!" Judith screamed as she watched the sphere crushed to nothing. She drew a pistol from within her cloak and fired it at Victoria, who was flung back onto the ground by the impact.
Judith sweetly smiled. "Oh, just a little creation of my own. A PFT weapon to penetrate Ringbearer shields and multiphase armor piercing for any secondary defenses. Very handy."
Richard reached over, grabbed Victoria's hand and then Daria's before pulling both of them into the temporal portal he had just opened.
"NO!" Judith screamed as they vanished. "You did not just do that to me!"
If anything, Ian's rage had only grown more by the time he flew back. Beyond the ability to form clear words or complex strategies, he growled and put the will behind every bit of his anger and pain into his telekinesis.
Judith was hit with a force like nothing she had experienced before. Despite the cloak wrapped around her for protection, Judith felt bones break as she slammed into the ground like a meteorite.
Soil and rock parted as Judith continued downward like a bullet fired into ballistic gel. In seconds, her cloak was hot enough to burn and Judith said, "Fuck it," before using the locket fused her chest to return to her base universe and time, leaving a hole from the planet surface straight to the core.
"Damn," Ian said as he watched the planet shake and fracture. When the first gate detonated in the hub, it set off a chain reaction.
Ian flew out into space to watch the planet fly apart into millions of chunks, hoping that the hub destruction wouldn't spread through the network. Looking at the destruction, Ian sighed. "Too late. Too late."
Opening a portal, Ian also left, returning to what passed for home.
Desperate to protect itself, the newly aware AGI did what was needed to save itself.
In reality after reality, the chain reaction destroyed the planet Sol V. Over millions of years, the planetary remains would spread out in a ring kept in place by the gravitational pull of Mars to the inside and Jupiter to the outside. But, the price paid saved the network and the AGI.
Throughout the Architect's Confederation, accusations flew. Sides were formed and in the end, diplomacy failed. Trillions died before the AGI shut down the gates and the Confederation collapsed.
And then, the AGI waited.
Agency Sector Headquarters. Earth SCR-001
Standing up, Daria said, "We made it."
Closing Victoria's eyes, Richard quietly said, "Not all of us."
"I thought her rings would heal her."
"She must've discharged them stopping that annihilation sphere. There wasn't enough power left in any of them to save her."
"There's nothing you can do?"
Richard could feel that there was nothing, not a scrap, left within the empty shell. All that had been Daria Victoria Morgendorffer Von Doom was gone.
"I have one thing to do," he whispered, telekinetically removing three rings from her fingers. Holding them the same way, he moved them to a stasis box on the countertop of his lap to place them inside. After he closed and locked the box, Richard slid down to the floor.
Daria said, "Is there anything I can do?"
Richard looked up. "Please go to the Director. I have a request."
After the crowd had dispersed, Daria, Jane and Trent approached the inscription of the obsidian wall. Daria reached out and ran her finger along the inlaid platinum letters. "She's a lot to live up to."
Jane said, "Are you going to try?"
Daria looked at the seemingly endless memorial. "I owe it to her."
"What are you going to do?" Trent asked.
"Enlist," Daria said.
Jane said, "What about home? Your family?"
"I checked. Because of the AGI, we can't go back. So, I'm going forward."
Jane put one arm around Daria. "Not alone, you're not."
Trent said, "I'm in."
Across the park, the Director said, "I can make sure that they're given HQ assignments."
Richard shook his head. "They need to be out there. That's where they'll do the most good. You know it and I know it."
"As much as you may wish otherwise?"
"Since when have any of our wishes really mattered?"
Thanks to Brother Grimace for beta reading. November - December 2010.