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Week #48 - New character design

First AI Unit look The county Sheriff The game will have various type of unit that will investigate your behavior and that will populate each level. Depending on your action unit will become harder and in bigger number. The basic unit is the regular cop, followed by the sheriff. Second unit type is the army soldier, followed by their caporal. Third unity type is the Majestic unity, which are governement alien oriented unit. Each of the unit will have their look change based on their location and behavior (ability and feature) affected by their rank. For instance, a soldier may or may not wear a night vision, allowing them to see you in the dark, but they won't be able to see you if you are cloacked; then, their caporal, may or may not be equip by a heat vision allowing them to see you cloack. Global awareness effect Each action you do can affect your global awereness and if the globe know about your presence on earth, they will prepared themself. Some city may be under the protection of the army, while some region may increase the amount of patrol to keep the street secure. In this non linear game experience we want action to have consequences. That statement is often trown in the air and we don't pretend there is a good or a bad way to do it, but we want to make sure that each game you play is really unique and different. We want this addictive game to be fun as you try over and over to beat it. Beating the game is going to be very challenging, it has this core arcade root that require painfull death and frustrating time  But unlike classic game that you really replay the same game over and over untill you learn the pattern, this one is trying to be different on each session while allowing you to improve with the core level design of each country.     State of the game update Almost a year of development. I can't beleive it. It much more work then i thought, but it much much better than what I was hoping to achieve. We are confident in delivering a full feature indie game. It's fun to finally work on visual stuff, i insisted to work only on the code to make sure it was possible to do my vision before doing anything visual to avoid wasting time and focus on feature. Now that everything is done in a rough state, the focus was on building the basic asset. We now have enough asset to start building a level. Once the level is done, we can finally test all feature in real-game environnement and slowly improve their functionnality and the look/special FX/sound of each of them. We can also slowly add asset and replace generic one. Add more unit and create all three playable caracther. All the core feature (script) is working and being tested / improved / rewritten The main menu is completed (no audio yet) Soundtrack is completed (very  nice bad ass classic sounding retro music score) The hangar is completed (no audio yet) 80% of the assets required to build 2 levels are completed We are implementing temporal AA for highest quality possible. We are still updating/improving character controller and AI for better performance Current Milestone : Build the tutorial level (so we can test all feature in 1 single map and improve them) (3 month) Next Milestone : Build a demo level to show the game (1-2 month) Third Milestone : Finalise asset, playable character, sound and special FX of first 2 level (2 month)

Gon'Interactive

Gon'Interactive

Planetary hitting Code Finally working!

TLDR;  Beams (and everything else) finally hits the Terrain Surface properly!  What this also means is the building code finally works again, because you can select a spot you want to build a building on the surface! While the code to touch the surface immediately beneath something has existed for a while, tracking across a surface is QUITE different because of how mountains and other surface details work, and how much more complicated it is to do that. Full story » Original post blogged on Rank: Warmaster Dev Blog.   View the full article  

LordArt

LordArt

 

Graphics Programming weekly - Issue 65 — December 2, 2018

WebGPU - An Explicit Graphics API for the Web review of problems with classical APIs (OpenGL) and motivations for the creation of WebGPU presentation about Dawn, WebGPU implementation from Google splits into render passes that insert resource transitions between passes automatically how numerical fences are implemented (Monotonically increasing values indicate a timestamp in GPU execution history) considerations for implementations using cross-process communication sourcecode Vulkan Raytracing - bunny and teapot part 2 of Vulkan raytracing series extends the application with multiple 3D meshes, texturing, simple shading, shadows, reflections, and ice shading model sourcecode wayback-archive A radiative transfer framework for non-exponential media development of a new rendering framework for transmittance for participating media that enables non-exponential media types to be represented archived by splitting transmittance into 4 transport functions discussion of how to express this new model so that it is intuitive to use and still creates physically correct results paper archive video archive sourcecode archive wayback-archive Breakdown: Animated Raindrop Material in UE4 walkthrough of the implementation of a rain material using the Unreal Engine 4 shader graph wayback-archive How to Sanity Check your Spherical Harmonics Projection Code a short summary of what spherical harmonics are and what they are used for proposes a sanity check for SH projection code, by passing a function with a constant of 1, should result in a first coefficient close to 2√π wayback-archive Procedural Color - Introduction article series about procedural routines for color generation talks about some techniques to generate procedural color variations explains HSB color space and the effect of changing each component convert from RYB hues to HSB hues generation of monochrome color schemes how the difference in colors influences human perception wayback-archive Encoding Indirect Command Buffers on the GPU a sample that explains how to use Metal to generate render commands on the GPU implements GPU culling only to issue rendering commands for visible meshes and remove empty draws the final command buffer submission is controlled from the CPU wayback-archive Sampling the GGX Distribution of Visible Normals explains a new model for sampling visible normals of the GGX distribution summarizes the properties of GGX and how sampling a 2D projection of the truncated ellipsoid is equivalent to sampling the visible normals of the GGX distribution the method is more precise and quicker than previous methods provides a GLSL implementation paper archive code archive wayback-archive Twitter Thread - Where do the BRDF formulas come from? How can we make our own? twitter thread that discusses what a BRDF is and how they are formed links to sources with more in-depth information wayback-archive Halcyon Architecture - Director's Cut a single slide-deck that will evolve and serve as a single reference point for information about the SEED Halcyon engine the content was discussed in issue 63 61 of this graphics programming weekly series pptx archive pdf archive wayback-archive glsl-reduce the walkthrough explains how to use GLSL-reduce to simplify a GLSL shader and preserve certain conditions such as a crash or invalid output this is achieved with an interestingness test script the script expresses what is considered to be interesting, such as specific compiler crash, high memory usage, long compile time, etc presents the problem of bug slippage, this happens when a reduced shader generates a problem, but it’s not the same problem as in the original shader wayback-archive 2D SDF Shadows a tutorial explains how to implement ray traced shadows when using a signed distance field to represent the scene geometry using Unity wayback-archive Reweighting Firefly Samples for Improved Finite-Sample Monte Carlo Estimates interactive WebGL demo for the paper describing a technique to reduce firefly artifacts from path tracer outputs webgl-demo wayback-archive If you are enjoying the series and getting value from it, please consider supporting this blog. Support this blog
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jendrikillner

jendrikillner

 

Worthless, Chapter 56

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 56 The ferry. It had been a long time since using such a simple convenience. A boat to one of the handful of Danish islands that were far enough away for it to be an actual journey. Ages ago, the bottom of the Baltic Sea had cracked, and at an intersection of such cracks, a small piece of rock, roughly in the shape of a square, had broken free of the Earth's crust. Pressures from deep inside the planet, pressures similar to those that cause volcanoes to erupt, had pushed against the piece and shot it upwards until it rose above the waves. Now, the result of these massive forces was known as Bornholm, famous for its round churches and smoked herrings. Less famous for being a prized military target in both the world wars and the Cold War, simply because of its strategic location at the mouth of the Baltic.
And mopeds. So many mopeds.
Against that backdrop, the bright blue car stood out like a signal flare. But as in Nakskov, barely anyone cared, and all it got was a casual glance and a smile from the occassional passerby. If anything, the man leaning against it, looking horribly bored but strangely content, got the most looks of any from the meager crowd of morning people near the ferry harbor.
"So," he said, taking off the sunglasses with the purple tint, the ones that were almost synonomous with him at this point, "this is a first." He smiled, but he not the actor he thought himself to be. The uncertainty and curiousity was practically bursting out of him.
"What? You picking me up?"
He nodded, rather slowly, as if he was actually unsure of that.
"More the fact that I managed to track you. I don't think I ever did that before."
Acting as if his casual mention of illegal tracking of civilians was nothing to make a big stir over, he got up from leaning against the car and, in an unexpected display of gentlemanship, walked the entire way around the vehicle to open the passenger door and get back on his driver's side of it.
"Yeah, the invisibility cloak is at the cleaner's. Hope you don't mind."
"Mind? I take pleasure in knowing a little about your journeys, for once."
He waited patiently, sitting down slowly into the rather soft driver's seat, from the looks of it. Leaning into the passenger's seat confirmed that the seats had been chosen for their plushy quality, at least among other things.
"Im just wondering w..."
"Medical issues."
The quick answer made him fall silent. Not because he felt uncomfortable, or at least, he showed no signs of that. Rather, it seemed to fascinate him, causing him to pause before putting the shades back on, making a head to toe visual check.
"You sick?"
"No."
"Injured?"
Not answering, of course, proved to be more than answer enough.
"What, you get here by cannon usually?"
"Yes, Jonathan, I get here by being fired out of a cannon. The Embassy provides free circus education. Go socialism."
It was meant to be a more cheerful comeback than it ended up sounding. Daniel's voice still seemed to hover above everything, protesting leaving the 2250 branch office. Bones had healed, skin had healed, organs had healed, but he clearly still felt that the riskoutweighed the benefits. In all honesty, he was right. But the bored impatience outweighed both.
"Well, no sling or cast, no bandages. Your head isn't in one of those plastic cones, either, so you weren't sterilized."
That one got a slight laugh. A slight one.
"I assume microfractures or internal injuries? You're sitting comfortably, so no lower abdomen. Broken heart, perhaps?"
"Stop flirting, you."
This time, he laughed. The road out of town had already come and passed, and now, the car was on the one between this town and the next. Only about 50,000 lived on the entire island, but it felt like being almost anywhere in Denmark, with the biggest cities as a logical exception.
"Anyway," he said after a bit, "it's good to see you again. But what brings you to the east coast, so to speak?"
Trees zipped by here and there, but most of the place was open land. It was a different feel, in spite of all the similarities. It had hills, lots of up and down terrain. Mainland Denmark did, too, but it was all about the ratio. Bornholm seemed sometimes to be made of them.
"Yeah..."
More landscape passed, Jonathan remaining silent for a few seconds.
"With all due respect, Marie, that's not really an answer," he chirped. His smile was feeling more and more fake, frustration bubbling inside. Or maybe that was just projecting things onto him.
"I know you deal with crap dropping from space."
His smile seemed to flicker a bit, like a candle caught in a draft wind. Then he simply let it fade, exchanging it for a small and cautious smirk.
"So, I'm not the only one with spies, am I?" he said, sounding a little defeated by the notion.
"Nope, I gots 'em."
The landscape kept passing by. The ride was only around ten to fifteen minutes, and even that was because Jonathan hated undue risks, including driving even remotely fast.
"You here to get pointers for Space Invaders?"
It took a second to make sense of his remark. He was in his fourties, he remembered an older generation of video games.
"Not really. But I am actually here for some historical stuff, so you're not entirely off the mark."
The jab was meant to get a bit of a smile back on his face. It didn't seem to work.
"I want to check your written archives. I need to know about the things you fight."
Now he seemed honestly confused, trying to refrain from frowning too much. It was an odd sight, the man being usually all about staying in control, in charge. The people serving him had long ago nicknamed him Conductor, and it seemed to be a sign of respect. He had been at the same station for over twenty years, according to files at The Embassy, and had more or less run the place for more than a decade. He wasn't the kind to get caught off guard, and even less the kind to let it show.
"You could have just called," he remarked calmly.
"You could have just lied."
Finally, he laughed again. Well, chuckled.
"Not the trusting kind, I can dig that."
"Dig?"
"So you want a look at the archives, and you think your, let's call it impressive physique will intimidate people into not holding out on you?"
"Not really. But it's harder to hide things from someone who is there and looking, than from someone on the other end of a phone."
The car slowed down quite suddenly, as if he had forgotten to keep an eye on how far it had gotten. Up ahead, an old compound, built from traditional red bricks, emerged from a line of trees. It had a low wall around it, enough to hide the immediate things going on, without seeming flat out creepy. A sign on the wall said "Closed for repairs". It had hung there for at least a few years, now.
Jonathan's own car seemed a bit our of place as it slid perfectly into the vacant gap between mostly military vehicles, emergency vehicles, and large vans. The brilliant blue seemed almost like a taunt of the mix of dull and practical colors that now surrounded it, like the one guy on a football team that just insisted on having a rainbow mohawk. As he got out, though, he walked away from the vehicle without even looking back, so one way or the other, it was just the usual to him.
"I'm gonna set you up with Mehmet, he's the head archivist at the moment," he said, again appearing as if it was all just business as usual.
"Just like that?"
"Just like that," he answered, sounding oddly pleased with himself.
"No strings attached?"
Jonathan cracked a smile, pushing the ridiculously small, purple shades back up the bridhe of his nose.
"Always strings attached, Marie, you know that. But there are enough strings between us, so a few more won't sour our business with The Embassy."
He never even turned around, just walking at a rigid stride towards what seemed like the biggest building not built to house an assortment of vehicles. Closer up, it had a small plaque that simply said "Administration", in a font that seemed scientifically designed to be as boring as possible.
The term did seem to fit, though. Upon entering the place, the first thing that stood out was rows of people behind desks, looking at screens and now and again typing for a brief burst. It had so much of an office feel that, like the sign outside, it seemed almost designed to come off as boring. Jonathan was no dummy, of course, so there was a good chance that much of it was some kind of charade, something to disguise the real purpose of the place. Although it was done very well, and seemed to be a big show for no one in particular.
"Mehmet," Jonathan called out, and a short guy with shallow, very hipster, mutton chops shot up from a table he had been leaning over, apparently talking to a man that looked disturbingly old, thin and serious. "Please escort this young lady to the archive. She has a one-time clearance level of Jinx Heracles."
"Jinx Hera..."
Before it was possible to ask the question, Jonathan had turned around and left. Mehmet wasted no time, either, walking with brisk pace towards a small hallway of densely packed doors.
"Hi, Mehmet."
He turned briefly, to give a polite smile and a nod. In a strange way, the excessive politeness was enough to make anyone feel very unwelcome!
"We use non-linear security codes to prevent people from figuring out how high up the ladder they have been placed," he said dryly, not turning around for eye contact while talking.
"So is Jinx Heracles high on that ladder?"
He briefly turned his head and smiled a very, very polite smile.
"Sure."
Without another word, he opened the second door on the left and flicked on a light. There was nothing but a downward stairway inside, and he didn't wait around before hurrying down it, enough that it felt unsafe to rush down the steep steps fast enough to keep up with him!
Although a bit long, the stairs finally ended in a small room with just one door, on the opposite side. Mehmet pulled out a key, and actual, physical key, one that looked old enough to have been used in a castle at some point. With a meaty clunk, the door unlocked, and he stepped in, stopping for long enough to hold the door open a bit.
"The archives," he said, in his apparently standard dry tone. "I'm staying here, both to keep an eye on you and to help retrieve files." He turned with a very serious look in his eyes. "Don't touch anything by yourself." The archives turned out to be quite a bit larger than expected. Hundreds of different creatures that Jonathan's people, and those that came before them, had been dealing with. There were a fair handful of cases that matched Klaus' iron foxes, but they were far from the only ones. And with a few exceptions, they all had one thing in common. They all seemed to be related to something falling from the sky.
"How long have we been down here, Mehmet?"
The archives had no windows, likely being too far down to have any access to the sky. There were no clocks anywhere to be seen, either. It might have been just as easy to check the one on  the phone, but it seemed like the short, bearded man had been sitting quietly for over an hour. Perhaps it was as much to make sure he was still breathing.
"Five hours plus," he answered, voice still dry as salt.
"This is insane. Is there really no system to these things? No, I don't know, family tree, or some kind of solid timeline to them?"
"The first ones appeared in the late 1700s, that's about as much..."
Through the door leading to the stairs, a faint sound could suddenly be heard. Muffled by doors and stairway, and whatever might be blocking it beyond that, outside, it sounded like a strong wind howling, except for the rhythm it had.
"Is that... Is that an alarm, Mehmet?"
The guy looked nervously at the door, but said nothing. It did leave him inattentive, if just for a second. A second was more than enough.
"No, Marie, you can't..."
He was too late. Out the door, halfway up the stairs before he even got out of his seat to pursue, and out in the courtyard outside the administration building, the bright sunlight stung in the eyes after so long in the basement.
Everything was chaos, at least at first sight! At a second look, there seemed to be some order to it all, some system to the people running around. Vehicles were leaving their garages, and most parking spots were already empty. Not all, though. Jonathan's car was still there.
"You can't get in the..."
"Where is Jonathan, Mehmet? What is going on?"
He didn't need to answer. Looking over the rush of people and vehicles, Jonathan turned out to be fairly easy to spot, standing in the middle of it all, large trucks passing by him dangerously close, to say the least! Getting to him would be near suicide, which could have been Mehmet's point, had he been given time to finish a sentence.
"Mehmet, answer me, what the hell is this?!"
The man looked absolutely flustered, his facial expression jumping between panic and anger faster than a ticking metronome.
"What's going on?!"
"Something's coming," he let slip, in one of those moments of panic.
"Something? What something?"
His eyes briefly looked into the chaos, and it was easy to see that they were looking at Jonathan. Perhaps he wanted a sign, some idea what to say. Instead, he drew attention to the truck that Jonathan was now walking disturbingly calmly towards.
Mehmet yelled angrily, but his words disappeared in the noise. The worst of the chaos had already left, which was no doubt why Jonathan himself was now preparing to join in. The large truck, it's cargo trailer nothing but a white block with a red strip on it, had been one of many. Now it was soon to be the only one left at the entire compound.
"Hi, Johnny!"
His eyes lit up like a Roman candle, seeing the door to the truck's passenger seat open without warning.
"Marie, get out!" he snarled.
"No. I need to see this."
He looked like he could explode at any point in a fit of murderous rage, but he didn't. Whatever was going on, there was no time to argue, it seemed. Instead, he gritted his teeth, almost frothing at the mouth, as he slammed his palm on a plastic pad that somehow seemed to function as the ignition. The entire machine sprang to life in an instant, taking no time to build up the engine roar, and the acceleration of the huge vehicle felt like being launched by a rocket!
"Seat belt!" he yelled, his voice managing to drown out the sound of the engine. The sound itself seemed wrong, somehow. It seemed nothing like a vehicle that size should sound.
"Is this thing electric?"
"Seat belt!"
"Yes, sorry, okay!"
Even the seat belt snapped in in its own odd manner, some magnetic thing pulling it the last bit instead of requiring the usual fiddling.
"What the #*@! are you thinking, girl? I let you go into the archive, not run around as you..."
"Yeah, yeah, I get it! I'm an irresponsible pain in the ass. You're not the first to tell me that!"
His look was one of baffled frustration, as if not knowing whether he should keep his hands on the wheel or use them for a good, old-fashion strangling! He resorted to angry cursing, more or less under his breath, as he punched even harder down on the accelerator. The open road zoomed past, a single car parked at the side of it, a man in a blue windbreaker and oversized sunglasses looking at the convoy of vehicles blazing past with his mouth hanging a bit open.
"Your boy Mehmet let it kinda slip that we're being attacked. By what, exactly?"
Jonathan muttered a very long and complex, and very foul, remark about people who couldn't keep their mouths shut. It seemed to be about Mehmet, but he left it vague enough to worry.
"It's a bit hard to explain," he grumbled, easing the big, fast truck into a bend in the road. In front of the truck, looking dangerously close, others like it were speeding down the road just the same. It seemed that just about every vehicle in their fleet had been activated.
"Oh, try me, soldier man."
That remark distracted him more than any other had! In a brief lapse of concentration, he drifted off course, only to have a faint ding alert him to pay attention again.
"We've been monitoring the Baltic for as long as I've been with the unit. Every now and then, something drops from space into it, something small. Then, a few days later, something emerges from the sea. Something big."
Flashes of the iron foxes forced their way to the surface. Something from space. Something that put a whole base of unofficial military people go into high alert.
"How big?"
"Big."
"How big?!"
He sighed, growling something incomprehensible.
"Last one was the size of a medium apartment building," he said, teeth less gritted as the road straightened out. "This one is bigger."
Definitely not iron foxes!
As the road stayed fairly straight and onboard navigation took over, apparently advanced enough to handle the slightly uneven terrain at the high speed. Jonathan never took his hands entirely off the wheel, but a bit of calm did come over his face.
"They've been increasing in number and size over the last three years or so," he sighed, completely without being asked. A weird look in his eyes hinted at something he wanted off his chest. Maybe that was it.
"Why?"
"No idea," he answered, briefly looking at his hands as they rested casually on the steering wheel. "Back four or five years ago, we'd get maybe one or two per month, rarely bigger than a large house. But something pissed them off up there, whoever they are. Now we get two or three a week, and much bigger!"
"Up there? Who's up there?"
He laughed.
"Damned if I know, I'm just a ground grunt. Little green men with a grudge, I presume."
The same green men, or whatever they were, that dropped iron foxes. It seemed impossible that it was just a coincidence, it had to be related. Creatures dumped from the sky for centuries. And far more over the last few years. The years that The Embassy had been in operation. Again, not a coincidence, it couldn't be.
Before he could get another question, Jonathan's attention suddenly switched to a small GPS device, or something that at least looked like it.
"Hold on to the seat," he said calmly, pointing at some fairly easy to miss handles on either side of the seat cushion. "No matter what, don't let go."
"Okay... sounds a bit omin..."
Without listening, he slammed the GPS shut and pushed a button displayed on a touch screen on the dashboard. Then he, too, grabbed those handles, and grabbed them hard!
The soft but rather loud click sounded like just a minor adjustment inside the vehicle, but that quickly changed! With a hiss and a snap, a transparent sheet split the cabin in two, a split second before firing both halves ouward, one to either side! The truck kept going, not slowing down in the slightest, while the two cabin halves landed rather roughly on the ground. At first, the thought of escape capsules seemed most appropriate, but the capsule did not stop going! Instead, it tilted backwards during the rather rough ride, sprouting offroad wheels on either side. The handles also seemed to come loose, but turned out to simply have changed into joysticks.
"Use the sticks to pilot the buggy," said Jonathan's voice out of nowhere.
"Where the #*@! are you?! What the hell is..."
Somehow, controlling the tiny vehicle with the sticks felt like second nature. To the side to turn, front and back to control speed. But what really caught the eye was the truck, now a good deal ahead on the much more driveable road. From the grassy meadow that the buggy was rather rudely plowing through, the entire convoy was more or less in sight. That is, what used to be the convoy was. Up ahead, multiple vehicles had come apart and dug into the ground, forming a ramp, like half a bridge, reaching out over the water. The lack of an other side to th bridge didn't stop the remaining trucks, though, as they simply hurled themselves, at full speed, off the ramp! And like some exploding toy filmed in reverse, cables shot between them, locking them together and pulling them in to join completely! When they finally splashed into the water seconds later, they had formed one large machine, a four-legged walking cannon, the barrel being formed as it rose from the shallow waves and cables pulled Jonathan's final truck into place. The trailer split open and swiveled around, as the cabin cracked open and dug into the back of the lumbering giant like a key in a lock. Had the two buggies not been shot out like they were, being driver or passenger would have ended up a very messy death!
It was a bit of a struggle to get the buggy up onto the road, in part because of how strange it felt to handle it, and in part because of how the small, light vehicle bounced around on the uneven terrain. Jonathan, not surprisingly, got to the road first, looking like he was just another casual driver on the road, racing towards the half-bridge ramp. Catching up was impossible, but once at the ramp, he stopped, dismounting from his buggy.
"What the #*@! was that, Jonathan?!"
He was now standing by the ramp, which was slowly disassembling itself, carefully lifting its component parts back over itself, letting them drive down and onto the ground as they changed back into trucks and a few other assorted vehicles.
"I told you not to get on," he coldly remarked. "It's your own damned fault that you had to learn how to drive it on the fly."
He honestly seemed convinced that the topic of the question had been the buggy, never lowering the binoculars he was looking across the sea with.
"Not the #*@!ing buggy, I'm talking about... that!"
He finally looked away from the binoculars, giving the finger pointing at the lumbering monstrosity in the water a quick glance.
"Mobile cannon," he casually answered. "The marine cannons we have circling can take out small threats, but the big ones require heavy guns to take down."
As he spoke, he raised the binoculars again. The walking cannon was surprisingly far out at sea already, starting to look more like a lightbrown dot than four legs and an artillery platform.
"I don't see any threat. What are you..."
He handed over the binoculars without a word, helping to point them in the right direction. The impressive magnification made the cannon look like it could be hit by throwing a rock really hard, but what was more interesting was a darker brown dot that seemed to be waving arms around.
"Is that the threat?"
Jonathan nodded.
"The cannon should be in range soon. We can follow it better on screen," he said, putting down the binoculars and walking over to his buggy. He didn't flat out say so, but it seemed like a good idea to tag along, despite the allure of looking through the binoculars again.
At the buggy, he tapped the windshield twice, and a small interface projected on the glass. With swift fingers, he pulled up a set of eight camera angles, all clearly being mounted on the walking cannon.
"Is it just me, or does that thing look a bit like a dragon? Or one of those Godzilla things?"
Jonathan tilted his head a bit, as if he wanted to get another angle on the screen. His only real answer was to shrug.
"Maybe. I don't think the shape of the thing is that important."
Why would he? He wasn't the one who still remembered a dragon diving to sink its talons into him.
"And you have no idea who made these things? I mean, someone has t..."
There was a loud boom, like an entire thunderstorm had saved up all its power into one huge thunderclap! It took a few seconds, then a rush of wind came roaring from the water, spraying everything with a light shower of saltwater and nearly blowdrying it in the same move. Jonathan looked completely unaffected.
"That was..."
"Yeah, the cannon, I pretty much figured."
On the screens, the dragonish thing was writhing wildly, huge jaw open in a scream that no microphone was capturing, for better or worse. A large gash in its left side was dripping a very dark fluid, looking like blood and tar in some unholy mixture.
"Jesus... How are you gonna cover this up?!"
Turning with a perplexed look on his face, Jonathan said nothing.
"What? I mean, that has to be heard far and wide. Right?"
He smiled, like an adult smiling at the ramblings of a child.
"The only place nearby is Svaneke. We have a few people there keeping the aura of who cares going, but a loud noise from the sea? Come on, Marie. And even with those things, you can't see what's going on," he said, showing the binoculars. "As long as none of the fishermen get too obsessive, we're in the clear. Most of them don't mind staying quiet, with a bit of financial insentive."
"You bribe people to be quiet?!"
"Just the ones we need to," he said, shrugging with a smile. "We want to respect the locals as much as possible. Plus, you know, supporting local economy and all."
There really wasn't much to argue with, and other people were showing up, a few in their own buggies. All of them wore full or partial military outfits, marking them as part of Jonathan's unit, as he called it.
"Sir, the threat should be..."
Another boom sounded at sea, and everybody calmly waited for the blast of air and spray of seawater to pass.
"The threat should be neutralized within a few minutes. We've got air support on standby, but it seems like a closed file." His eyes then drifted a bit. "What about the civilian, sir?" he asked, followed by a quick lookover. "Drug and dump?"
"No, she's under my clearance, corporal," Jonathan quickly answered. As the soldier left, Jonathan had a sheepish, fairly awkward smile on his lips.
"Respecting the locals, huh?"
He just shrugged.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 55

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 55 "This is a horrible, horrible idea, Ida."
There was a very good chance that he was right. Emilie had been guarding the door upstairs while the last time travelers went away, fearing that she would not be able to run up the crude stairs quickly if things went south. Meanwhile, I had said my goodbyes to Karen, sending her to whatever place and time she had chosen. It was now just Mischa and myself in the basement cave.
"It'll work," I said softly, taking a single, very uneasy step onto the platform. I feared the weird fingers would disassemble and rip me to shreds without warning. Nothing happened, luckily. "It'll work."
"How the hell do you know that?" he asked, sounding like it was an actual, honest question. I had no answer, of course, but he was at least not tackling me to the floor to keep me from entering the time machine platform.
"It's not a long trip, Misch. Just a few days into the past. It'll be okay."
I had no way of knowing. Everything could go horribly wrong. It was a horrible, horrible idea. But there were no good ideas checking in. Horrible had to do.
"It's time travel, Ida. Who knows what a long trip really means."
Breathing deep and slowly, I refused to tell him that he was right.
I knelt down, like I had seen the others do, resting on one knee and my knuckles, like a sprinter waiting for the starting shot.
"There's a button flashing on the screen. Press it."
He hesitated. Turning to look at him, I could see that he was looking at the right button, but he hesitated.
"Press it, Mischa. It'll be okay."
The sounds from upstairs were getting worse. The rebel time travelers were either losing or leaving. I could hear things breaking, wooden things and whatever glass still remained. And then, I heard her voice. The woman in white, screaming a command. They had cleared the way enough for her. This was the endgame.
"Mischa, press the..."
I never saw him actually do it, but when sounds suddenly emanated from the machine and the fingers rose into their starting position, I knew he had. A powerful static filled the air, making it painful to breathe, making every bit of skin feel tingly and sore.
"Ida, there are some numbers here," I heard him say over the rising scream of the now rapidly spinning and disassembling fingers. "They're counting down," he added.
"Numbers? What are y..."
Long ago, when I was about seven or eight, I had played with a knife. Not a big one, just an average eating utensil that I had snuck away from my mom as she was doing the dishes. I had been fascinated at how it could scrape layers off of things like electrical wires, and I had hidden away behind the television, whittling away at its power cable. And when I found some shiny metal inside, I had touched it. I remember all lights going out as fuses blew, but mostly, I remembered the intense pain, the kind that made every muscle in your body tighten and made it impossible to scream. Peter had been quick and pulled the cable out ofmy hand, although the fuses had likely already cut the power to it. I had been in the hospital for three days, most of them crying.
This pain made that memory disturbingly vivid again.
For a fraction of a second, everything was a burning, bright light, even though I had my eyes firmly closed. And then, the light became a normal kind of bright. And then dim. Then bright. Dim. Bright, dim, bright, dim. Pain.
This second pain was more tangible. I had hit something, my entire body smashing into something firm, but not too hard. I had spun, and I had hit something. Those thoughts scrambled through my head as I lay there, wherever there was, feeling my body in panic. Everything felt broken and bleeding, and I was afraid to move. Even breathing hurt, as if I had been punched hard in the lungs. And when I finally began moving slightly, the pain just worsened, feeling as if my limbs were, indeed, broken.
Earth. Soil. I was in a field. I was in that field, the one I had passed on my way to the school. Karen had talked about setting up destinations for the time machine. She had been nervous, afraid of being left behind by the others, and while instructing me on how to operate the machine, how to send her to some destination, she had overtalked, telling me far more than I needed to know. I had helped her do so, of course. I wasn't exactly proud of the fact, but I had offered to help her whille hiding my own agenda from her. This was that agenda, or at least a part of it.
Looking around, I found the rock I had grabbed from the field. It was here, now, too, shattered into jagged pieces, smoking in the cool noon air. I had grabbed that rock, grabbed it and taken it to the time machine, where I had fitted it into an empty cartridge for the machine. The thing the size of a wallet that I had pulled out of the damaged machine was such a cartridge, some destination they had put in when someone sent a surge through from the past or future somehow. The ruptured cartridge had let time energy escape, messing up anything related to time travel in the vicinity of the school, and Nakskov, and likely anything farther south of the schoo buildings! Very potent things, destination cartridges. And I had simply picked up a rock, crammed it inside an empty cartridge, and made one.
Everything was very dry. It confused me at first, but I soon remembered the drought a few days back. This was it. I was those few days back, and it was next to impossible to make my brain wrap itself around that fact. Which was why I tried to instead wrap it around something more concrete. Like the fact that I was on fire!
In a weird way, I had already known for the better part of a minute. My loose blouse had felt wrong from the moment I faceplanted into the field, and I knew the smell of burning clothes, for various reasons at this point. I had rolled over on the burning patches, sloppily trying to suffocate the smoldering heat, but a few had resisted. With a slight struggle, I got the blouse off, checking my underwear for any sign of flames, finding only some hot patches that I slapped out. In my eagerness to deal with the blouse, I quickly realized that slapping even a minor burn was a really bad idea!
There were no puddles, no small bodies of water, anywhere. As my body cooled from the trip, the cool air doing its best to sap away the excess heat, the pain kept telling me of new burns. On my knees, in the dirt, holding my smoldering blouse in my hand, I started a painful game of whack-a-mole, trying to put out a dozen or so tiny fires in my pants, all while I became fully aware that my sneakers had melted.
Tired, in pain, and smelling like a cannibal barbeque, I stumbled towards the road in my gooey, slowly dissolving shoes. While still a good few minutes from it, I watched with a sigh as the only bus in the area rolled by, nearly every seat inside visibly empty, mocking me, taunting me. I had bad burns on the inside of my legs, I could feel the red and peeling skin beneath the charred pant legs, gaping holes in so many places it looked like some new wave of punk fashion.
And the thirst! My throat felt like crumbled up newspaper, sending out stinging pains from just turning my neck! I wanted a warm bed, I wanted a good meal. I wanted to die, for this to end. I tried screaming, in pain and frustration, but the sound somehow got stuck in that dried up throat. I had the road, and nothing else. So I walked.
My first thought was the old school buildings. Fresh clothes, no doubt a first aid kit somewhere. But I forced the thought out of my head quickly. This was not just back before the rain ended the drought, it was back before the time machine had been wrecked. Whatever had been going on at the old school, it was going on right at this minute, blissfully unaware of the impending doom to come. I could go there. I could warn everyone. But it would still happen. Even if they believed me, the time machine would likely still blow, taking everyone nearby with it. That could be them. That could be me. I had no idea what would happen. I never had, but now, it seemed somehow daunting. I was used to not knowing exactly what would happen. But I was not used to feeling this helpless about it.
The streets of Nakskov were fairly quiet, a car passing now and then, a handful of delivery trucks going about their business. Everything looked the same, no drama, no chaos, no nothing. I had gone back in time, defied the laws of the universe as I had been raised to understand them, and all I saw was everyday life, playing itself out before my eyes as it would on any other day. In a strange way, the complete lack of anything special happening was about as surreal as it could possibly get.
Keeping to the alleyways and out of sight along the streets, I slowly made my way into town. There were a few moms on maternity leave with babies in their strollers, a few senior citizens walking slowly in the streets, going to get groceries or simply out for a walk. The average sights of Nakskov. I stayed out of their way, out of their sights. To my knowledge, I wasn't bleeding, but the burns were too bad to hide. I would stick out like a burned thumb. I had no time to come up with explanations, no time for well-intentioned people to offer their help. I knew the event would happen sometime in the early evening, I remembered that much. Everything connected with time travel would be hit, and that included me. Everything that was not far enough away from the time machine when it blew.
In the few seconds that the promenade lay empty of people, I lumbered out from my hideout in the narrow alleyway between it and the harbor. It felt wrong, because it was wrong, but with a quick grab, I snatched a few small pieces of clothing from a bargain bin that had been put outside one of the many thrift stores. I barely glanced at it, my throbbing heart reminding me at any moment to keep an eye out or get caught. The clothes were next to worthless, I knew that. Some donated pieces that nobody had bought for a while, so they ended in that bin. But it was stealing. I felt dirty.
The promenade gave way to small streets, which in turn gave way to the road going through town, passing by the schools near the train station. I turned away from them, taking the street that ran parallel to the harbor, out of sight of any schoolyard. Everything hurt. I picked through the clothes I had grabbed, counting among them a pair of green socks, long shorts, and a top meant for a very small child. Struggling against the urge to go back to return the top, I instead snuck into the corner of an open garage to change into the shorts. The light was limited, the spot hidden enough that very little of the afternoon daylight found it. It hurt. Removing the pants was like pulling off an old bandaid, much of it clinging or outright sticking to my sore skin. Standing the, legs bare, I felt my heart sink and my stomach twisting as I gave the burns and the bruises a quick look. The shorts ended up covering my thighs well, clearly made for someone a size or two bigger than me, but with excellent elasticity. My shins looked like I had been hit by a car. And in my head, I kept hearing my mom's voice, a replay of a hundred times I injured myself as a small child. But there was no bathroom to sit down quitely and clean the wounds. I had to make due with the small top, and the experience was every bit as painful as I expected.
The socks went into a pocket, for later use. Amongst all the stories I had forgotten from my history classes, the one I remembered was soldiers during one of the world wars taking off their boots, only to have their sore feet swell and become too big to get back in. I hadn't marched for days or been in firefights, but I only had to look at the red skin on every visible part of my body to have horrifying images appear in my mind.
With a sigh, I threw the destroyed pants in an open dumpster.
I had never been good with the town's geography. I knew how to get from and to most places, simply because I remembered it. I knew many other places, and had a fair idea where most of them were, but I never had the innate sense of direction to find any of them easily. I kept that lack of skill in mind as I tried to avoid the main road to the time traveler house north of town, doing my best to build up a map in my head as I followed the myriad of smaller streets that ran alongside it. There was no grid, no rhyme or reason to the layout, just streets that had been drawn and laid down as people needed them. Winding roads, at first, then long, straight ones, lined with houses of varying size, age and quality. Nakskov's own version of suburbia.
Before I really knew it, I was on the outskirts of what most would consider to be the actual town. Fields and woodlands, all carefully maintained and sharply defined in the landscape, reached as far as the eye could see. The residential parts were still nearby, and from a good spot, some of the taller buildings in town could be seen clearly. Houses and their streets grew along the main road out of town like leaves on a branch. I was simply at the edge of the leaves, following the branch from one street away. That simply happened to be where fields and forests started.
With an eye always on what could be seen at the far end of any street, I made it to where that all ended. This was where I stood, at the end of a gravel path going by the outmost houses, with a narrow road going from left to right, one way leading back to the main road, the other leading along fields and bending inward in the distance. It would rejoin the main road, too, but not until it had gone by a few farms. That was where I stood. And it was stilll where I stood when a strange, nauseating wave went through me.
Everything seemed to spin and fray, like a video image hit by some kind of interference. I gasped for air as I sunk to my knees, feeling like I had been punched in the chest from inside my own body. And as my eyes looked across the sky, I tried to remember that evening more clearly. How late had it been? It felt like it was too early for the event to happen. It was too light. Getting my wind back, I took a look at the houses nearby. It was late afternoon, but even with no lights visibly on, I could spot the flicker of TV screens inside a few of them. The power outage had not struck yet. This was not it.
And yet, getting up was a mean fight. My legs were buzzing, my arms like rubber. Thoughts felt scrambled and unclear.
On the left, open landscape along the fields. Nobody to look at me as I stumbled about. Nobody to see. Which meant nobody to help me. And to my right, down the narrow road, was the main road again. People. Eyes. I imagined the concerned locals coming to my aid, and instead of feeling safe, I felt fear. I felt that I was dragging them into something they were not a part of, much like I had been. Even before looking even one of them in the eye, I felt guilty.
The forest. We had been here before, a year or two ago. Biology, nature walk. The forest had a ton of clear and open paths. People walked animals there, rode bikes and had lunches. It was lare enough that at most a few would be out, doing any of those things. And it was early enough that the forest would not be covered in darkness.
I was halfway to the dirt road leading into the forest when it became apparent that others had had a similar idea! A few shouts, angry and startled, and one old lady giving a frightened scream, were the first warning of something on the way. As I scanned the edge of those outermost houses, I noticed little signs of something going, at least at first! Bushes were shaken, someone threw a large ball, and the top of a head briefly came into view, just behind a hedge! With the sounds and little visual cues combined, I could follow where things were happening.
And then, a young woman came running out of one of the gardens! Short, with short blond hair and thin lines cut across her tanned face, only bleeding slightly, she had a determined look on her face as she darted out of the garden, turned sharply, and sprinted down the dirt road into the forest. She was barely even gone from sight when another, a young man with messy black hair, slammed into a car parked by one house, never quite falling over but struggling to regain balance without ever stopping his run. Clumsily, perhaps hoping to cut half a second off his run, he leapt over the low growths around the dirt road, but only just avoided a complete tumble as he landed awkwardly on the other side. He was still visible, scrambling into the forest, when the third one came running from a street near the garden. She looked Asian, with...
"Vera?"
I was too far away for her to hear, too far away for her to even notice me. And even if she had, this was before I had named them, so to speak. But it was like she had never gone away. She looked the same, down to the orange aviator glasses and the blue patchwork coat flapping about her as she darted into the woods!
It all happened in the blink of an eye, but sounds persisted in the area, sounds that seemed unusual. Had I known nothing, I might have guessed at a sports event spilled into the streets somewhere, the occassional shouts and dispersed sounds of someone running being almost like watching a match of some kind, with only the sound on. I never even noticed it at first, but my jog had slowed down to a slow stroll as I watched for more things to happen. And happen they did.
They came from everywhere, pouring out of every yard and street, all within a span of a few seconds. Had I not spotted a missing hand, parts dangling like Christmas ornaments, I would have mistaken them for human. Robot copies, clearly on the hunt, about an even dozen or so. They had barely shown up before they filtered down the forest road with what looked like impeccable coordination, not one of them bumping into another on the narrow path.
Finally satisfied that no more would pop out of the woodwork, I took chase! The gravel path into the wooded area was fairly torn up, the underlying soil not only exposed but sprayed about as feet had taken sharp turns and skidded. Even with the path trimmed nicely, branches from trees along its sides had been snapped en masse, some going as far as damaging the trunk, likely from full on colliding with it!
As if that was not enough to track the commotion, it could be heard, too. The trees muffled a lot of the noise, but when the wind died down for a moment, shouts could be heard. I followed them, followed them blindly, not stopping to think or look around. The sores in my legs felt like they were being ripped apart when someone slammed into me, pulling me from the path and through a thin line of trees. We ended in the water, in the lake on the other side of the trees, one of the many small lakes in the area. Like the unseen attacker, panic grabbed me, up and down becoming blurred as I went down. Everything turned green from light passing through the water, but we quickly hit the bottom, the lake luckily being shallow at the edge. All it took was a few frantic kicks, and I was free to stand.
Drenched, cold, and with every sore burning and every joint and muscle aching, I more felt than saw my fists strike about in the air, hitting nothing. As my eyes thoroughly cleared, I saw my attacker twitching under the water. Robot. Badly damaged. Water was obviously leaking into its systems, or whatever ran it. It was no longer a problem, at least not for me.
Flares of blue and yellow were lighting up around the lake, perhaps even farther into the little piece of woodland around it. Climbing up onto the old boardwalk build for those who fished in the lake, I thought I could spot a human head or entire figure amongst the trees and tall grasses, but everything was a mess. The sky was turning darker, too, and whether it was the weather changing or my soaked clothes, the cold made me shiver badly.
None of that really held me back. On the contrary, the cold made me move, made me warm up my body by not simply standing still. Keeping my wits far more about me than before, I followed the gravel path deeper into the woodlands. I, we, were already far enough inside that it would be hard for anyone outside to hear us. I was alone. Nobody would come if I called out for help.
If I had doubted that fact, I would not have doubted it when I turned into the clearing! Shouts rang out as hazy blue bolts shot through the air, most disappearing into the surrounding trees, a few striking the robot targets they were likely aimed at. The first girl was limping away from the clearing, bloodied nose and her one eye mostly shut. The young man and Vera were covering her. Suddenly, Vera shouted something at the others, and they both kneeled down, firing their knuckle guns with renewed intensity. As I watched from the edge of the small battlefield, Vera disappeared into the woods. The robots, taking cover behind the public benches and assorted other things there, popped out to fire off a red or orange bolt of some kind every now and then.
And then, a hum filled the air, like every machine in a laundromat switching to spin drying simultaneously! I watched silently as Vera smashed out through the trees, wearing what looked like a medieval suit of armor, except designed by an experimental car manufacturer! In one leap, she crossed the clearing, landing hardenough to send a slight tremble through the ground. Raising the suit's two arms in either direction, she sent a blue flash through the ranks of the robot copies, making them pop like balloons.
She never stood up. The suit remained kneeling, with her in it. After a few seconds passed and nothing happened, I started to worry. The suit only covered strategic spots, making most of her face visible, and her eyes were closed, her head hanging. Only when the young man came over did she open her eyes and look up at him, making my heart skip a beat from pure relief!
Forgetting myself for a moment, I also walked towards the suit. A strange sensation went through my body, like placing your hands on an old TV set and feeling the hum from the screen, and I noticed the injured woman pointing her knuckle gun at me.
"I'm not a robot!" I yelled across the clearing, feeling weird at how mundane it felt to say that. The woman, clearly confused, stared at Vera and the young man. The man was clearly confused, too, because in spite of what had just happened, he still held his knuckle gun pointed rigidly at me!
"I'm a friend," I called out. Neither the injured woman nor the young man seemed very convinced, but I could see Vera squint and think very hard as she snapped open the chest of the suit, allowing her to climb out.
"You've been looking for me. I'm Ida," I added. Vera still looked as if she was analyzing every word and move from me, while the two others seemed completely unaffected by anything I said. She climbed out of the armor, gathering her strength as she got to her feet, and the man stepped into it in her place. They shared a look that seemed like a silent debate for a second, then he walked off, armor and all.
"Who did you say you were?" she asked, tightening muscles in her arms and legs, getting tension out. Had it only been her body, she seemed fit for fight once again. But her eyes told a different story, constant fits of rapid blinking, much of it very unevenly. She was as good as done, running on fumes.
"Uhm, Ida," I stuttered, watching as the man in the odd armor half carried the injured woman away. It took a few seconds, and then they were gone.
Vera looked me over multiple times, appearing very unsure of herself. Or more likely, unsure of me, and what to do.
"You've been looking for me, right? Your simulations or whatever said that I was the right one to help you out?"
She said nothing, the expression on her face screaming disbelief. It suddenly occurred to me that she might not even know how I looked! Hoping to win her over, I said nothing as she looked me over one more time.
"You jumped recently," she finally said, and the word had to rattle around my skull for a moment before I caught on.
"Yeah, I used the time machine! I fixed it, like you asked me to."
"Fixed it? Who d..."
A pulse of blinding, scorching pain went through me, and I could hear her scream, as well, as I dropped to my knees! It felt like every organ in my body was brutally ripped apart, every bone broken into pieces, and my brain itself being stretched and twisted so hard that thoughts had trouble forming inside of it.
When it had all passed, we were both on the ground. Fighting to make my limbs work again, I pushed myself up on my right hand, enough to look over at her. She was already up on all four, trying to get up on her wobbling knees.
"What was that?" she asked in a hoarse voice, not making eye contact. "What did you just do?"
I shook my head, thinking for sure that I had heard that wrong.
"I didn't... do anything," I panted, fighting to breathe right after the event. "That was your time machine. The one in the old school, south of town?"
Standing with her legs wide, like a newborn pony, she raised her head to look at me, but her neck muscles kept failing on her, making the head instead bob around softly, like on one of those dolls you found in novelty stores.
"Who the hell are you? How do you know about any of this?" she hissed, sounding like every syllable hurt her on its way out. "You're a #*@!ing native, a civilian. What have you done?"
The last word was an outright growl, an angry snap from deep down in her stomach. I just stood there, knees bent and arms supporting me against them.
"But... your models. Your predictions. You know me, Im the special person. You've been #*@!ing look..."
She slammed me to the ground. It was a clumsy move, her balance clearly still of and her mind still struggling to adjust to what had just happened to it. She looked on the verge of puking her guts out, pale skin damp with sweat, eyes watering, limbs twitching gently as she got to her feet.
"Who... who sent... you..."
She barely managed to force the words out before she grabbed her head with both hands, screaming in pain, tumbling back to the ground! It took about a second, then I felt it, too. Like shrieking, a thunderstorm of angry banshees, in my ears, in my brain! She was still half on top of me, pinning me, and the only thing that kept her from holding me down by force was the pain, just as the only thing keeping me from throwing her off of me was the pain, as my body twisted and convulsed along with the screams.
"What are you doing?" she asked, whispering, fighting for breath, tears down her cheeks, as she tried to raise herself up on her limp limbs. "How are you..."
She swayed, her eyes becoming unfocused under the messy, short, black hair. I wanted to respond, but my head felt like it might crack open, too. I struggled, resisting the urge to scream out in pain or break down crying, to get up enough to just sit.
"Look around you, V..."
I cut myself off, reminding me that she didn't know that name yet. She was still swaying, shaking her head like a dizzy animal, growling softly, too, not unlike an animal.
"Look around. Lights are out. The city is dark, for #*@!'s sake. The time machine was blown apart."
She more stumbled to her legs than actually stood. Staring me straight in the eyes, she nodded. Feeling that she might have actually understood, or at least accepted to listen, I felt a calm wash over me. As my body relaxed, I slipped back on the ground, prepared to breathe deeply to regain strength. I looked up to find Lisa and Elmer standing behind and now above me, looking down. Then Lisa pulled a small device, and everything became numb. They carried me back with a pillow case or the like over my head. Nothing to see, but plenty to hear. Which was a good thing, as not a single muscle in my body seemed willing to respond, so hearing was all I had. Hearing and smelling. Both signalled very clearly that we were not in town any longer. We were out amongst the fields, which left me with only one guess.
Elmer removing the pillow case confirmed my suspicions. The house looked different, though, full of activity! Other people, people I had never seen before, were loading things in crates much like the ones I had seen in the basement cave under the old school buildings. Nobody was talking, everyone knew their place.
"Are you all the same time traveler, sent back so many times?" I asked, realizing too late that these were not yet the people I knew, or felt I knew. The young man from earlier showed up, glaring at me angrily, as if I was somehow offending him by being awake. I tried moving, but apparently my wrists and ankles had each been tied together while numb. I only felt it when the blue nylon rope dug into the skin as I moved them about, or at least tried to.
"How do you know about that?" he mumbled skeptically, giving me a glare that could be anything from intrigued to disgusted by my words.
I was on a couch, an old leather one that I just barely recalled in the house. It seemed long ago, making it that much more frustrating to think that it hadn't even happened yet. Even just entertaining the barest hint of the thought made me shut my eyes down hard to push the whole matter deep into the back of my head again. The furniture in general seemed the same, with the same old glass cupboards flanking the same TV shelf along the wall. The crowd was the real difference, but as I looked on, they seemed to be thinning out.
"We're gonna be best friends a week from now, buddy. Just you wait and see," I said, making the sarcasm as obvious in my voice as I humanly could. He gave me a frown before disappearing into the moving mass of people.
The knots were tough. My hands were on my back, making it impossible to actually get a look at them, but I could feel them, feel the many bulges and trace the complicated path of the rope. And all the while, it almost frustrated me how people ignored my desperate writhing and growling on the small couch!
When I finally writhed enough to tumble to the floor and someone finally paid attention, I quickly regretted having ever wanted anyone to notice me, though. There were still no voices, nobody saying as much as a word to one another, but a smallish woman with short, pink dyed hair and a large man with nearly none quickly picked me up and carried me upstairs. Neither said anything as they dumped me on an old single bed in a room barely large enough to contain it, and then left. As the door shut, I was left in near silence, the only sounds being from the activities downstairs and what sounded like a car leaving outside.
The knots refused to give, no matter what I tried. I was never a girl scout, never boarded a real boat, and never had anyone teach me knots for any other reason, either. My skin was aching from writhing under the tight rope, and I could feel my patience running out. Wringing and twisting my body, I managed to sit up, narrowly avoiding what seemed to be an old tanning apparatus hanging over the bed, for some odd reason. Small boxes were stacked along the wall, making for even less available room, but I quickly noticed that what I had thought was just another wall by the door was actually a kindof woven bead curtain, roughly the same color as the wall. Clumsily jumping to my feet, I stood by the bed, fighting to keep balanced with my ankles bound, looking around to the best of my abilities. The last remnants of daylight were nearly gone, but the ghostly glow of the outside streetlights helped me make out everything, at least the general details.
The window to the outside was tempting, but I managed to lean enough to see the steep, vertical drop outside, and quickly reconsidered. Heart in my throat, I took a few small hops through the bead curtain, but my heart sank back again when all I found was a small kirchenette, the kind that had a microwave and waterheater by a sink, likely once the living space of a teenage child or someone renting very cheap. What it did have, however, was a slanted window. The kind that had a roof outside.
It took some acrobatics, and my first attempt at getting on the kitchen table beneath the window failed when the faucet got in the way, but on the second attempt, I got up. On my back, scraping my feet at the handle of the window, I got it open, enough to raise myself out through it.
It was getting cold outside. In the distance, I could see lights coming on in Nakskov, but the immediate surroundings were a greater problem. Faint yellow streetlight snuck over the angled roof of the house, but only enough to see vague outlines. The old roofing tile crunched and creaked as I slid slowly down it, stopping at the top of the indoor terrace. It's plastic roofing made a horrible, squeeky noise as I wriggled along it, staying over one of the wooden beams that I could see through the semi-transparent plastic. With visions in my head of crashing through and breaking every bone in my body, I nonetheless made it to the edge. Now, there was nothing below but a thin strip of backyard, and beyond that, the small stream running by the house. Everything was overgrown, but I could make out the slope from looking at the plants growing closer to the neighbour's yard.
"Please, no thorns. No thorns..." I whispered, right before I rolled off the roof.
There were thorns.
With a loud splash, the cold water of the rapidly flowing stream engulfed me. It was too narrow and too shallow for the strength of it to carry me along, the drought no doubt having part of the blame for that, but it did mean I could easily stand up. And as I did, I noted the wet ropes stretching a bit. Not much, but enough for my small hands to slip out. My excitement got a bit of a kick in the balls when I remembered the faucet upstairs, though, and I briefly cursed my ignorance about rope properties.
The streaming water felt cold, and the evening air on my wet clothes felt even colder. The indoor terrace had its lights on, and I did my best to sneak through the water, but the activity inside the house was unlike what I had ever seen any of the time travelers doing. Someone kept emerging from the door leading into the garden, most times carrying something that looked heavy, in spite the size. My brain kept leaping to new conclusions, guessing at a range of different things that could be crammed into the various crates and boxes. But I blocked it out. There was no real way to know.
The nearby road, the one leading into town, ws upstream. I struggled, thinking that such a small stream could hardly be enough to hold me back, but I was very wrong. Even standing still pushed enugh against me to be a problem. I would have expected that after rainfall, but how the drought made the waters run was beyond me. I finally began sloshing along with the stream, keeping the noise as low as possible, following the water to wherever it would guide me. It guided me to the neighbouring homes, not surprisingly, with no real place to sneak through easily, hedges and bushes in the way. I instead grabbed some long grass on the other side and struggled my way up onto the field behind all the houses. Dirty, wet, and tired, I looked back at the house I had escaped. My mind kept going over the entire course of events. They had told me about their models, about my place in their plans. If she didn't know me, who was I to them? What was so special about me? The intense feeling of betrayal boiled inside, making my head hurt and the shivering from the cold bite even worse.
The school.
As I stood on the side of the road, shivering, having snuck by the house without notice, it all began to click. I had gone to the school south of town. Was that really it? Was that all? I had snooped around in the place they wanted to get into, but couldn't?
That sinking feeling came back. Not the feeling of betrayal, not anger or even frustration. Emptiness.
And then, after that, the anger.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 54

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 54 It was a nice and very clean table. The chair was almost as clean, a few scoff marks on its legs from fidgety customers. The air was temperate, warm enough not to freeze, cool enough not to sweat. There was a wiff of roasted meat in the air, the succulent scent of warm kebab.
"Hello, Marie. How are you doing?"
It was Daniel. He spoke slowly and clearly, as if he feared that he would not be understood otherwise. He was nicely dressed, clean checkered shirt with a speckled grey T under it. And although his face seemed a bit sedated and overly calm, there was a concern in his eyes as he spoke.
"Hi, Danny. Fine."
In the brief intermittent pause, he failed to make eye contact several times. His calm exterior seemed to be covering something, something that really, really bugged the hell out of him. But nothing about him hinted at what, exactly, that might be.
"Why? I mean, how are you? And why do you ask?"
There was a stilted quality to the whole thing, like Daniel was rehearsing lines to a play or a movie. The only thing that even seemed to break that facade was his constant unrest, shown in small movements, and in the constant breaks of eye contact.
"Daniel, are we being watched?"
The question, even though whispered, made him visibly flinch. He leaned in, at first as if to whisper back, but it quickly became obvious that he just needed to wring his hands and needed room on the table for that.
"Marie, listen carefully to me. You're in the hospital."
For a fraction of a second, the volume seemed to drop out of the surrounding sound, as if someone cut the feed to the speakers of reality. But then, almost as if reality noticed, everything was briefly turned up, and a handful of teens came into the diner, talking and laughing rathre loudly. Their sounds faded as they began to debate what to eat, but by then, the noise had done its job of preventing any silence from making a mark.
"Is this... What is this, then? A dream? Wait, I'm not dead, right? Right?!"
The words came rushing out too fast to really control, but Daniel quickly made calming gestures with his hands. They could be seen as someone just trying to make someone else not act inappropriately, but they felt more intense, more personal to him.
"Please, Marie," he outright begged, his voice about to crack, "you need to stay calm. Your body can't handle much stress."
Looking down, there was nothing to see that supported his warning. The jumpsuit was gone, replaced with a breezy blouse over a tight top, and what appeared to be old sweatpants. Appeared to be...
"Daniel, why am I unsure what kind of pants I'm wearing?"
"Because you're not wearing any," he sighed, nervously cupping his mouth and nose in his hands. "You're in a hospital bed. You're wearing bandages and medical microbots."
Looking down again, this time for much longer, the sweatpants took on a sinister dimension. They felt unreal, even ghostly. Ghostly sweatpants.
"Medical microbots?"
Daniel nodded.
"That's not a 2019 technology."
Daniel shook his head.
"Thats... are we post-2250?"
Daniel nodded.
"Danny, what the #*@! is going on?"
"You timed out healthy, but when you timed back in... Jesus #*@!ing Christ, Marie, there was barely anything left of you."
He sounded honestly torn up at the thought of what he described, voice quivering and his eyes looking anywhere but straight ahead.
"Where am... Where is... I want to see me. I want to see my body, Danny."
Finally making eye contact, he looked terrified at the prospect! Holding up both hands as if they were a physical blockade, he shook his head wildly.
"No, no, no. No, Marie, you don't w..."
"Show me."
"Marie, you need to keep ca..."
"Show me my #*@!ing body."
"M..."
"Now!"
In perhaps the one and only way he could do something unexpected, Daniel's entire body seemed to freeze in mid motion, like a video game character put on pause. After a few seconds, he began moving again.
"What the #*@! just happened there, Danny?"
Suddenly much calmer, he put his hands on the table. He still looked tortured about the whole ordeal, but at least he was not in a panic.
"We paused. Your vitals were going off the charts, we needed to get you..."
"Paused? Is this..."
The entire place suddenly seemed as weird to look at as the pants.
"Of course. This is just a simulation, isn't it? I'm hooked up to some brain rig, playing a game with you in some virtual world. For #*@!'s sake, Daniel, is this..."
"Necessary?" he intrrupted. "Yes. Very."
For whatever reason, for whatever idea had popped into the head of someone running the entire thing, one of the diner's staff members came over with a large portion of french fries and a soda for each.
"Virtual food? Oh wow, you really shouldn't have."
With a sigh and a shrug, Daniel actually took one of the fries, dipping it in the small cup of ketchup and biting down on it. He looked either not very pleased, or just plain surprised at what he tasted. Neither option was that enticing.
"We need to keep you in a calm state. This is one of your favorite lunch places back home, it seemed like the best option to put your mind at ease while we talk."
He wasn't lying. The place had been open a few years back home, but the staff was always nice and cheerful, and  the food was good and cheap. It had become a safe place to meet and talk business when not at The Embassy itself in Nakskov, and just as good a place to simply kick back on an extended break in town. It was a good choice. But not good enough.
"I need to see my body, Danny. I need to know how bad it is."
"It's bad, isn't that enough?"
"Not if you want to keep me calm. If I can't see it, I'll imagine far worse."
Putting down the soda and hesitantly trying another virtual fry, Daniel leaned back, looking a little defeated.
"They're not good at simulating fries," he mumbled out loud. "It's the salt. The taste is there, but I don't feel it on my tongue. It's kinda freaky."
"Danny, focus! Me, body, see. Now."
He sighed, limply dropping the fry on the table. Without saying anything, he made eye contact again, the look of defeat now practically radiating out from him.
"You won't like this," he said softly.
"I don't expect to."
The diner dissolved. It wasn't quite like when movies showed dream worlds or even virtual worlds. No soft fadeout, but no fancy wireframe graphics, either. Things just flickered quickly and disappeared, one by one. People first, then the world outside, then everything except the table and the chairs. Then the table and the chairs.
It was all replaced very quickly, though. It felt like floating, hovering above a brilliantly white bed, kept in a large transparent tube, shaped like a pill. And in it, a small body. More or less.
"You came back screaming," Daniel said without being asked. "You actually screamed until you were spitting blood. I never saw anything like it."
It looked like some straneg girl. Same hair, same color and cut. Same skin, same freckles. Same size. But the girl in the bed was barely even there. Skin and bones. Sores, bruises, spots of skin so pale it looked dead, spots of skin so dark it was clearly dying. Burns. Some black and brown, skin peeling like grilled pork. Some bloody, covered in semi-transparent bandages with thin tubes attached, most likely to keep them moist and apply assorted drugs.
"Am I even alive?"
"Your brain is," he replied calmly. "Obviously, I mean. But the rest... #*@!, Marie. They wanted to amputate about half of you. Your kidneys looked like they'd been sundried. I can still feel the bones in your fingers snapping when I..."
He paused again, his virtual body freezing for a split second. Then he was back, but silent.
"When you what?"
"Sorry?"
He seemed momentarily out of it, like someone waking from a daydream.
"You said you felt my finger bones snap when you did something?"
He looked very confused, his eyes constantly skipping to the badly damage body in the hospital bed.
"Daniel, how long did you just pause for?"
His eyes looked tired again, like the simulation was refusing to show him actually crying.
"Three weeks."
There was a weird sound from the pill-shaped bed containment thing. It seemed to be measuring something change.
"Is this... is this live footage? Is this me right now? Was that sound measuring me reacting to what you said?"
Daniel nodded.
"It's not running at full rate, but yeah, that's you, right now."
"Why not at full rate?"
"We need to keep you on limited neural activity. Your brain has been set to 30% signal speed, so what you're seeing is roughly a third of what's going on."
There was nobody walking around the bed, so there were no human movements to compare time to, only robots that moved at speeds that could be anything. There was no way to tell if he was lying, really, but then again, he had no need to lie. The truth was bad enough.
"So the world moves at about three times normal speed, from my perspective. Never tried that before."
It was a bit surprising, but looking quietly at the bed was calming. It felt weird, looking at oneself, possibly hanging between life and death, but there was something peaceful about it.
"Marie, we need to talk about what you saw. Just in..."
He stopped himself, suddenly looking strangely embarrassed.
"Just in case I never wake up."
"Yes."
It was perfectly rational, even sensible. It could be important information, for all they knew. Losing that kind of information was a bad tactic.
"You got something more.... nature?"
For once, Daniel actually smiled, and the live feed from the hospital bed disappeared. This time, it faded out as a full image, unlike the virtual worlds created by whatever they had running the simulation. Fields appeared instead. The simulation started with what was close by, leaving the rest a yellowish haze, as if blinded by the sun. But bit by bit, over a few seconds, everything came into crystal clear view.
"Is this Nakskov?"
It was an unfair question to ask. Daniel knew only some parts of the place, mainly those right by The Embassy and places in the town itself. The nature around it was harder to know in detail, at least for outsiders.
"Closer to Halsted, but yeah, it's in the vicinity," he said softly, sounding like a tour guide reading from a pamphlet. "Around 2010. Most of the woodlands are gone, now, to make room for even more fields."
"Yeah. Fertile soil, ripe for agriculture."
The simulation was pretty impressive. Birds took off in the distance, hares could be seen jumping along the edge of the treeline. There was even a family of deer, complete with two very young ones, grazing in the distance.
"What happened out there, Marie? What did you find out?"
The simulation was a temptation. It made the brain want to fade into it, to believe that it was real and that reality was just a bad dream. Forcing memories back into focus was like pulling a splinter out of that brain. Painful, even if well-intended. And while pulling at it, other memories came rushing back. Memories of being ripped out from the age of magic, right before the dragon's talons dug in. A brief glimpse of being ripped through the cavern where Kehu scraped up black dust, through the artificial worlds made by the Wenway group to coax out information. The old mansion, the pirate fort, the raging battle in Prussia. It all tore through like wild dogs, clawing at everything, dragging scars in the dirt.
"Something is wrong, Danny. Something is very wrong."
"It's okay, we'll up the painkillers, lower neural to..."
"No, not me. Not with me."
How the simulation worked was still a bit unclear, but Daniel's virtual body actually rushed in to help. The words made him stop midway, though.
"Daniel, there's something wrong with... I don't know, maybe with time, or history. Or maybe just with how we..."
The words written in the old mansion, the hidden words, kept reappearing, like a beacon in the mind.
"We're not originals. We're not... We're not the original."
Everything seemed to slowly stabilize. Up became up, down became down, and things stopped being blurry and spinning.
"We're not original what?" asked Daniel, sounding as confused as could honestly be expected.
Sitting down was a weird experience. The simulation got the slight chill and soft sensation of sitting down in the field pretty spot on, but it felt too comfortable.
"The woman in white used to clean up colonies far back in time. I mean, like, at the end of the last ice age. The whole spirit energy thing was just rampant back then, with peolpe that might as well have been wizards or something. And huge monsters, like dragons. #*@!ing Lord of the Rings kind of place."
The heavy breathing had to be a mental thing. It seemed like something a simulation might skip, even when connected to a hospital bed.
"Okay, never heard any of the refugees talk about that," Daniel said, soundnig very skeptical.
"No. No, we wouldn't hear about those. They got away on their own. Well, a few, from what I could tell. I'm pretty sure they went into hiding. But somewhere along the way, they ended up poking at history, and I think they nudged it off course."
Suddenly, the symbol from all the paintings and from the abandoned bunker popped up, like clouds parting and showing the sky!
"Look, this symbol. What is it?"
there was nothing to draw on but the dirt itself, but it did the trick. A symmetric cross, and the four bars that formed a circle.
"It's a Swaztika," Daniel answered calmly.
"No, it's something else. There were no normal Swaztikas anywhere."
It looked uncanny, like some form of magic, as Daniel replicated the symbol in the air, drawing over the lines in the dirt with black lines from his fingertips. Once the symbol was reproduced, he turned it in the air, inspecting it closely.
"You running a search on it?"
"Yeah, just... I'm still learning the interface here," he answered. There was a pause, neither saying a word, but a question had begun to burn.
"Daniel, how long have you sat by my side in this place?"
Although he smiled, there was a sadness to him as he let the symbol hang in the air for a few seconds.
"Little over five months, I guess."
Again, a silence.
"Look," he sighed, taking his eyes off the floating symbol, "all those years back, you and The Embassy took a chance on me, and you basically saved my ass. I'd have to be a royal prick not to return the favor, right? Plus, I carried you into the time machine when we went here, so if I go back, you go back with me. Not gonna happen, not until you're up and walking."
Even though he was clearly tired beyond belief, he smiled, and the smile seemed gnuine.
"Wait, if you carried me, what about... did you, you know, get geared up for, uhm, the guy thing?"
And finally, he actually laughed!
"Yes, I put on that god awful jock strap, and it hurt like hell, but I should still be able to be a daddy one day, other injuries notwithstanding."
Seeing him smile, and hearing him confirm that nothinghad gone horribly wrong, felt like a huge rock breaking off the heart.
"Anyway, I think I got the search function to work. It's all mental symbolism, you know, using non-essential neural processes to..."
"Nerd."
"Sorry, I don't get to go to the future and play with their tech much, you know!" he complained, but with a playful tone to his voice. "Anyway, it's actually a kind of pre-Nazi Swaztika. It's from the Thule society, some weird group of occultists with a hard-on for German folklore. They were a big part of getting Hitler started, but he basically screwed them over early on and kicked the whole thing out. I guess he just used this thing as an inspiration for the Swaztika we know."
Every afsterschool special and late night documentary about WWII began playing in some weird memory space. Pieces, bits and pieces, all tried to fit together.
"So if Hitler had never done that, the group might have used this symbol instead?"
Daniel shrugged, but nodded.
"Danny, did you ever hear that whole thing about whether you would go back and kill Hitler if you had a time machine?"
Although first looking a bit perplexed, he slowly nodded.
"I think someone actually did. I think someone broke history, and now there's an alternate one out there, one where these Thule farts ran the war."
"What's that got to do with anything? I mean, you went back to..."
"I think some of the refugees that escaped back then saw Hitler coming and killed him. And I think that our woman in white is trying to hunt them down to stop them."
"And the big machines? The ones that your spirit energies got so worked up about?"
There were pieces missing. Most of it fit together, but there were still pieces missing.
"I think she's trying to destroy the energy."
"Destroy.... energy?"
"Destroy, dampen, whatever. She wants to stiffle them."
Looking at Daniel was like looking at a small child listening to a chemistry lecture. He understood some basic points, but the rest was just a haze to him.
"You didn't see what they can do, Danny. If I was her, I'd try to handicap them, too. Handicap them before... striking."
That, he understood.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 53

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 53 The entire city really was a traffic mess. Cars were blocking everything, traffic jams the like of which I had not seen in Nakskov my entire life. Every single one had a logical explanation, from a flat tyre blocking other cars to complex gridlocks that made it impossible for anything to move. We took the more obscure route, back around the sugar factory and the gravel paths around the harbor. The traffic situation had people distracted, but a young girl running at blazing speeds with a smaller, younger girl piggybacking would likely still turn a few head, if done too publicly!
The moment we left the city streets, we left the traffic chaos. The entire thing had an insane and completely artificial feel to it, as if cars were breaking down and crowding up on purpose. The woman in white had orchestrated it, somehow, there was no point in doubting that. But the question remained why, and what else she had been doing.
We soon found that out.
As the small hamlet that surrounded the old school buildings came into view, Emilie slowed down. It was not entirely out of the blue. The last long stretch, mostly just long, straight road, she began to wobble, losing her bearings a little, and then a little more. The trees near the school had just come into view when she finally stopped completely.
"What's..."
"Legs," she panted, gritting her teeth soon after. As I climbed inelegantly off her back, I gave her legs a quick look. They were covered in skintight leggings, under her greyish knee-long cutoff jeans. They also looked very wrong! The shins were slightly twisted and a bit more bent, one of them clearly in multiple places.
"Can you even walk on those?" I asked, letting a bit of my horror at the sight slip into my voice.
"Honey, I can dance the lambada during a kickboxing match," she answered, utterly out of breath, yet grinning wide, "I just can't run like that anymore."
She looked like a drunk, stumbling slightly with each step she took, but she made it forward.
The leaves on the trees made odd sounds around us, a rustling that seemed too fast and constantly stopped and started. Emilie was the first to look up, and she stopped at what she saw, poking me in the shoulder, then pointing up. It looked like clear skies, at first. But watching the clouds felt like watching a phone screen as its camera showed what it saw. Colors were weirdly off in places, and there was an ever so slight stutter to the various streaks that could be seen.
"Capture ships," Emilie whispered, "like the ones at the house." She then looked away from the strange skies, and instead looked straight at me. "She usually only uses one."
I had no time to pry her for stories of how she would know that. Looking back, towards town, the sky looked the same in way too many places.
"She's definitely using more than one here," I mumbled a bit out loud. Then I started running towards the school. It took a second to notice that Emilie still stuck to walking speeds, but she just waved me off.
The place was crawling. There were people everywhere, turning the sleepy little community into something that resembled an open air rave fest during a half hour break. A bizarre mix of ages, styles, ethnicities and other population groups stood around in one big, very evenly spaced mass. None of them moved. Some turned their heads as I walked discretely along the sidewalk, my hoodie covering my face in case of recognition. It was a gamble, a bet that they were waiting for the woman's orders, or for something else, and that they were not supposed to attack random strangers. Anything else would be insane, causing a free-for-all mass brawl the moment some hapless local went for a walk with his dog. No, they were robot copies of locals, waiting for their owner to oversee the last onslaught on the school. Vanity or tactics, she was not gambling it on the dubious initiatives of a bunch of machines.
The school grounds were watched closely. Near any door, they cluttered in dense packs. To keep up appearances, I took a turn in the other direction, seeking out the small grocery store nearby. The bell dinged, and a very bored teenage boy sprang to life behind the counter.
"Hey!" he proclaimed with a smile. Something told me that the parade of mindless drones outside was frightening away the usual clientel.
"Hey," I cleverly replied, flashing him a courtesy smile, perfectly aware that my tight hoodie and solemn demeanour made me look a lot like I had something to hide.
"I'm not, you know, gonna rob the place or anything," I let slip out, my thoughts briefly overclouding my better judgment.
"Oh, that's really, like, cool of you," the boy replied, smiling and nodding as if applauding my life choices.
"What's with the festival of duh out there?" I asked, pointing out to the street. He shrugged, looking like he was awkwardly trying to think of something funny to say.
"They've been there for a few hours. I think it's like, a flash mob or something. You know, performance art?"
"For hours? Out here? There's nobody to see it."
He looked toward the street, entirely by reflex, since he had no nearby window to actually look through.
"Rehersal?" he guessed, trying to salvage the idea. I just nodded, not wanting to be impolite, or to waste a lot of time on aimless debate. Instead, I walked over and picked the first diet cola I spotted.
Outside, I made a conscious effort to open the soda loudly, forcing the notion that it was my sole reason for even being there. A chill ran down my spine as every robot copy, in true B-movie horror fashion, turned to look at me, silently and without moving. Just dozens and dozens of lifeless eyes. Losing my cool for a second, I took a step back. To my horror, I bumped into something. Turning my own head, I found myself looking at the boy from the store.
"Are you Ida?" he asked, and I could feel the hair on my arms stand up!
"No. Nope, definitely not," I answered, quickly forcing on a smile. "Hi, I'm Roberta, I'm here for the... over at the... you know? Could you hold this for me?"
Smiling like a complete tool, I handed him the can of soda to hold. A bit surprised, he took it and, for just the briefest of moments, stared at it. I suckerpunched him in the gut before he had a chance to look back up at me.
Everybody was suddenly moving! Like gathering flies, the dozens of robot people in the street casually strolled towards me, not even showing enough respect to at least run! There was no way out, no way back, no way through. They were everywhere!
Which was when a rumbling sound pierced the air! Sounding like a thousand growling dogs, a bright green tractor plowed its way through the robot copies a bit farther down the road, and the ones surrounding me stopped, looking first at it, then at me, then it again. And then, they finally ran!
"Holy shit, this baby can move!" screamed Emilie as she drove the tractor straight through the ones that failed to get away in time, obstructed by their robot buddies. "Climb on!"
I looked at the chunks of robot sprayed across the road, then at the plexiglass door that she had kicked open to invite me into the vehicle. But then, I looked past it.
"It's too big!" I shouted, pointing at the school building nearby. The gate leading into the schoolyard was clearly meant for cars only. Emilie looked at the building, then looked back down the road.
"Other entrances?"
"Holy #*@!, are those robots?!" I suddenly heard the boy in the store yell out.
"Is he a robot?" yelled Emilie from the tractor.
"Oh #*@!," I heard myself whisper. "Dude, I'm so sorry, it's just... I'm under a lot of... Forget it, is there a back door?"
He nodded, frantically, eyes wide open.
"Go, get, run. Get away."
He kept staring wildeyed at me, and a bit out the door.
"#*@!ing schoo, dude!"
Scrambling to get on his feet, he turned to run, then stopped.
"Look, don't hurt me, but this guy got here before the... them. He said for someone called Ida to find him by the courtyard entrance with the big tree."
Giving me and the robot debris in the street outside one last look, the boy darted off to find the escape exit from it all, leaving me with little more than a guilty feeling in my gut for punching him in his gut.
"It's not gonna work, we need to get in there!" I yelled at Emilie as she tried to figure out what most other things in the tractor were meant to do. She mouthed some silent cursing as she slammed the dashboard, her eyes scanning the near surroundings for the robot copies that survived and were now fishing for a revenge strategy. Without warning, she stomped down her foot on the accelerator. The metal monster roared and fought its way to a good speed, crushing damaged robots and debris underneath its huge wheels.
The gate was not that far away. It was tempting to just run. The robots were now moving faster, clearly feeling more urgency. Assuming that was even a thing for them, of course, feeling something. And inside the gate, waiting patiently in the courtyard, I could see more of them. They were like a plague of locusts, feeding off the school buildings, eyeing out me as some next meal on legs. They were all here, it seemed, with none dropping down from the invisible ships above. Or maybe they were just invisible, too, until they touched ground.
"Hop on!" a shout suddenly called out, and everything went dark as the rear of the large tractor was parked up against the store, forcing me back inside! A small step, perhaps for maintenance or when attaching tools to the big vehicle, was just low enough that I could get on.
"It's too big, Em, the gate is too old!" I yelled, but rather than an answer, I first got an ear full of revving engine.
"It'll fit!" she yelled back between revs. "Eventually!"
Wondering what the hell that meant, I clutched the nearest thing that even looked like a railing, as the machine roared to life and thrust forward.
"Watch your head!" came the warning from inside the canopy, and I looked around bewildered, the machine taking up enough space that I could stand on my own shoulders before having my head in any kind of...
The tractor slammed into the old building with a loud crash! Spinning on compacted dirt and gravel, the mighty wheels effectively became digging shovels, ripping through the quaint old pathway leading into the courtyard. Emilie's warning still in my head, I ducked close to the machine and covered my head with as much hood as I could, right before a deep crunch was folowed by twisted metal and splintered plexiglass tumbling down from up there. I wanted to look, to know what the hell she was doing, but I was in no way ready to risk my eyes for it! For a good minute or so, the world was a spray of gravel and a flood of scraping, screeching sounds from above, the tractor making irregular, sudden thrusts forward.
And then, it was free! I nearly lost my grip as the entire vehicle bolted forward for a few seconds, until she got it under her control again. Crushed plaster from the top of the arched gate fell like snow from my hood as I peeked out at the world again, and I immediately turned, still clutching the tractor's railing, to see a nasty chunk scraped from the top of the tunnel into the courtyard, more plaster everywhere, mixing with metal and plexiglass debris. And just outside the tunnel, multiple robots were flailing about, much of their outer layers sandblasted away by the gravel spray. They looked like large, broken toys.
"They don't, like, shoot anything, right?!" yelled Emilie from atop the tractor, in what had moments earlier been the canopy. Now, it was a few metal bits sticking up, bent back and out of shape.
"I actually don't know," I answered, realizing how quickly everything could have ended on that account. "I don't think so, they're just cheap copies of people."
A jolt went through the tractor the instant I finished reassuring her, and moments later, more robot parts flew by, spat out by the big wheels. From the best of my assesments, she was taking the entire courtyard, either for safety's sake or as a destructive victory lap. It only ended once she got to the main entrance of the school. As the wrecked tractor came to a halt, me dangling like a pair of fluffy dice behind it, I could see Mischa's baffled face through the entrance windows, gaping out at us.
"Jesus, what did you... Oh shit, is that the running girl?!" he shouted from the door as he opened it for us. His eyes quickly scanned the courtyard for any surviving robots to come attack, but Emilie's rampage had cleared the area quite well. For now.
"Yeah, friends call me Emilie," she said as she ducked through the door, having more or less just jumped down to the ground on her bent legs.
"Hi, Emilie..." Mischa confusedly replied, looking over at me as I dangled back and forth like a landlocked sailor. "You okay!"
I gave him two thumbs up, fearing that any more spoken words would be followed by me hurling! "What the hell are they doing out there?"
Emilie's question gave a soft echo down the empty hallway. We had quietly and quickly found our way inside and up to the best viewing point towards the world outside. Through locked glass doors, we could see more and more of the robot copies gather outside, the smashed ones being carried away to a spot amongst some trees, sheltered from view by anyone passing along the road. Cables like tentacles appeared out of a flicker to lower new robots down and take away the broken ones. A casual eye would never notice the shimmering shape hovering just above the trees, but once you knew where to look, the ships were hard not to notice.
"Why aren't they just rushing us? They could smash through these doors like they were made of corn flakes."
Mischa and I looked at each other, neither wanting to admit how little we still understood. I could see by the look in his eyes that he still thought of her as the unwilling ally cornered in the street. No doubt he expected her to smash through the door, jump down the stairs and disappear into the horizon again.
"They've been there for hours," Mischa said, not really answering anything, perhaps even making the question even more puzzling. "They just stand around most of the time, but some of them kinda pace the ground or something. It creeps me the #*@! out."
There was that old scifi horror vibe to them. Mindless people, ganging up like a zombie horde. The less they physically did, the more disturbing they seemed.
"There's a time machine below this place," I said, a bit out of the blue. I had no answers, but felt that they both deserved some kind of information, useful or not.
"A what?" asked Mischa, turning his eyes away from the glass door.
"Time machine," Emilie echoed. "This whole place is a pirate relay for illegal time travel."
"Pirates?! What the #*@! is going on here, Ida?"
I wanted to give a clear and concise answer, but my mind wasn't really finding the exact words. In a fit of desperation, I found myself looking at Emilie.
"Time travel is illegal, kinda," she said, sounding very annoyed with either what she said, or that she had to say it. "Those who don't fall in line get hunted down and taken back. Or worse."
She paused in a peculiar way, as if her thoughts became distant with that last remark. She soon snapped back, though.
"So some time travelers got pissed and started helping those who wanted to get away. And now these rebels or whatever you wanna call them are getting hunted down by the ones in charge. And they've got a time machine somewhere in here, apparently. It's hooked into some technobabble main timestream highway or something that the ones in charge also use."
"Like pirating cable," Mischa added, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. But he didn't think any of this was normal, I could see that in his eyes. He was too calm, too focused, too unemotional. He did that, when things got too big to fit in his view of the world. The only question was how long he would, because after that...
"We still have a situation here, people," I said calmly, taking an extra peek out the glass door. The robot copies were still out there, slowly rebuilding their numbers after Emilie's little tractor stunt.
"What? They're not doing anything," Mischa remarked.
"Yeah, that's kinda what freaks me out."
My mind raced. They just stood there, looking around. It looked like the biggest, most boring garden party in Nakskov history.
"They're waiting," Emilie mumbled, clearly speaking what she was thinking, without a filter. "They're waiting for someone to... I don't know, tell what to do? They're machines, they don't act on their own. Right?"
Immediately thinking of my own robot copy, who had taken things into her own hands, I got nervous about the truth in that. It made sense, especially given the situation. But still...
"They're waiting for her," I mumbled, barely even knowing why.
"Her? The white lady?"
"Yeah. She needs to be here."
"Why?"
I looked at the both of them, buying a bit of time to gather my thoughts and phrase everything right.
"The rebel time travelers gave me a task," I sighed, wishing I could have found a way around the matter. "The time machine is broken, and it keeps them from using it. It also leaks some time travel energy stuff that #*@!s up every time traveler that gets near it. That's why they haven't fixed it."
Both of them looked at me, but while Mischa was just trying to keep up, Emilie was clearly crunching with some thoughts, fitting this new information into something she already knew.
"The woman in white can't get close, not in a normal way, at least. She has stuff that can neutralize this time energy crap, but I only ever saw her do it in small doses."
The image of the woman poking me in the chest with the weird rod that sucked the time energy out of me bubbled up in my mind, and I had to suppress it to focus on the matter at hand.
They were still waiting outside. The wrecked bodies had been taken away, replaced with new ones. I could spot several just from the window who I had seen destroyed. Square one. We were back at it.
"Wait, this is, like, a rebel base or something, right?" asked Mischa, his eyes suddenly glowing with renewed energy.
"Yeah, why?"
"Nobody would put something as crazy as a time machine in a place that's not defended, right?"
Both Emilie and I were suddenly looking at him with annoyed anticipation.
"What you getting at, dude?" asked Emilie.
"Mischa," said Mischa. "My friends call me, well, Mischa. And I mean, there must be some kind of defenses around here. Traps, weapons, something. Right?"
It made sense. In a single look at Emilie, I could tell that she agreed.
"Spread out," Emilie said, speaking about as much with her hands as with her words. "We need to cover as much ground as possible."
We all bolted in different directions, never stopping to plan anything. Of course, that only dawned on me as I was running down the stairs to the lower level of the building. Standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking at the dirty, slightly messy space around me, I felt my heart pounding at the thought of having to cover an entire floor by myself! That, and the sudden sprinting down stairs probably got the pulse up a bit, too.
I ran straight for the room that had the time machine hidden beneath the floorboards. It looked perfectly normal, like any storage room at an average school. A few shelves, a few rolling tables, but nothing else worth remarking. The adjacent room had heavier tables and lots of cupboards, but everything was still empty, apart from a few art supplies abandoned ages ago by long forgotten students. Then I felt a buzz in my pocket.
"Is prolly hid. L 4 secret shit," said the text from Mischa. I looked up and looked around the room again. If there was anything hidden, it was hidden well, not a weird mark or...
In two leaps, I stood in the room with the time machine hidden under the floor again. For seconds that felt like an eternity, I fumbled at the door, trying to find whatever hidden sensor would open the thing. And then, I heard a click!
Stepping back, I just barely avoided the floorboards as they began shifting around. Like before, they unfolded like some giant's origami project, boards sliding under and over boards to open up a passage down to... well, that was the question.
The same pale light met me as had met me before, as well. Blue, mostly, with green streaks in the mix, forming a strange techno rave display on pause. There were flickers, brief lapses in the steady lights, but they seemed to be unintentional, perhaps caused by a bad power connection or dust getting in front of a lightsource.
The stairs down were crude, the first part dug into the foundation of the building like some kind of mine, the last part dug into the earth beneath and supported by makeshift beams made of whatever strong materials had apparently been at hand at the time. Some were thick wooden beams, others were salvaged equipment made from old steel. This was no sleek rebel base. It was an emergency operation.
In the far end of the rather large room that had been crudely excavated, a platform stood, surrounded by five weird, bendy towers, looking more than anything like fingerhs reaching up from beneath. With jury-rigged screens and old computers wired together around it, it screamed time machine to anyone who knew what this place was used for.
My eyes quickly moved beyond the bizarre monstrousity, gliding over the walls and fixating on a series of slanted metal crates. A bit hesitantly, I walked over to the nearest one, examining it with every step I took towards it, to the point that I nearly tripped and fell over scattered bits of gear that were clearly discarded from somewhere. The crates themselves looked like refitted cargo boxes, the kind that planes and cargo trucks might use. That similarity evaporated when I actually got close enough to touch one of them.
"dwnstirs nw" was all I wrote, cursing every letter I felt could not be cut. The text only got sent when I moved out of the artificial cave, the signal too weak to break through whatever stone and dirt surrounded it, and concrete above. Both Mischa and Emilie came racing down, Emilie almost collapsing on her damaged legs going down the stairs!
"We've got gear," I told them, brandishing an almost excited smile!
Going back down, both of them followed me very nervously as I descnded the crude stairway. Even before they reached the bottom, they both stopped to stare slackjawed at the contents of the underground cave, and perhaps at the cave itself, as well!
"Is that..."
Emilie never finished the sentence, her face contorted into a twisted knot of skeptic wonder.
"I think so," I answered calmly, "but I never really saw it used as a time machine."
Tossing Mischa a stray glance before focusing on the crates, I noticed an almost dead expression come over his face, as if he was having a stroke. Emilie began moving again, but he did not. He just stood there, near the bottom of the crude stairs, his eyes gazing into the distance.
"Hey, Misch... You okay?" I asked, feeling increasingly worried about the possible answer. He said nothing, and I waved at him, trying to catch some kind of attention. His lips slowly began moving, but his eyes stayed weirdly unfocused and aimed at the machine.
"That's a time machine?" he asked, something in his voice adding greatly to my worries.
"Yeah, think so," I answered, at first thinking nothing of it. It was a big thing to absorb, and he had already dealt with a lot over the last few days.
"A time machine" he repeated, his voice slipping away a bit.
"Yeah," I answered again, this time letting my voice show my worry a little more. "Misch, I talked about this. That's what's going on. There are time travelers in Nakskov. They have used this. But right n..."
"It's a time machine," he repeated. But this time, his voice sounded strangely firm and serious, although still also in some kind of shock. "It can go through time."
I looked over at the machine, trying to recall any and every detail that Karen had given me on how it worked.
"No, I think it just sends someone out. After some time in the psat or future, they snap back."
He was still staring at it. But all of a sudden, he slowly tilted his head. I noticed that he had tears in his eyes. He wasn't crying, but something was swelling up in him. I put the pieces together when he looked at the watch I had given back to him.
"Paul..." he whispered, from the looks of it mostly to himself. Then he flinched, turning his eyes straight at me. There was a fire in them I had never seen before. "Ida, I can get him back," he said in a loud but whispering tone. "I can... go back for him. Right?"
Before I could answer him, I felt Emilie's hand on my shoulder.
"We have no time. They could storm us at any time," she whispered in my ear. I could only nod.
"Misch, we can deal with that later. Right now we have..."
"I want him back!!"
The outburst made both Emilie and myself freeze up. Mischa was shaking, tears making their way down his face. The adrenaline had worn off, the stoic, singleminded Mischa was gone. Replaced, perhaps, with a differently singleminded one.
"Mischa, I barely know how to..."
"You're smart," he half yelled, half whimpered. "You have your freaky time travel friends. You can figure it out!"
I looked over my shoulder, seeing Emilie reach into the crate I had already opened. It contained the brass knuckle things that the time travelers had used to destroy robots before, lots of them, along with similar devices that seemed to be weapons based on the same technology. They all had a style that looked homemade, but unlike the room itself, they looked like nothing about them was improvised.
"Maybe!" I shouted, feeling a sudden chill infest my body. It was a mix of fear and guilt I had never felt before. "Maybe we can, maybe this thing can do it, but I don't know enough about it, and I don't think they are going to..."
"Make them!" he yelled, pushing his voice to the point that it broke. Becoming aware of how rash he sounded, I could see in his eyes how he regained some control of himself. His voice even calmed, at least a little. "I've helped you out, Ida," he almost hissed. "I've stuck my neck out like #*@! these last few days. I was there for you. Don't bail on me. Not on this. Not this, Ida."
With my heart hurting like someone had reached through my chest and beaten it, I looked at him for a few seconds, looked at how he was shivering, his fingers twitching and his breath so deep and rapid that his chest looked like a loudspeaker playing a rock opera.
"I will figure it out, Misch. I promise."
As I watched, his breath became steadily slower, and he started blinking a little more. Finally, he wiped tears away with the end of his sleeve.
"You promise?"
"I promise."
He remained at the end of the stairs, taking one last look at the time machine as it glowed a dull blue in the end of the room.
"Don't #*@!ing play me on this, Ida. I swe..."
"Not playing you. We do this, get all this over with, and we'll figure out how to do it."
It took him a few seconds, but in the end, he climbed down the last bit of stair. He never broke eye contact with me as he passed me towards the crates. It was getting a little late. The first long shadows had appeared out on the open fields of grass around the buildings. The robot copies were still there as we came up from the basement, lugging whatever we could carry. Mischa and I was hauling the most, Emilie's legs showing more on more the burden of heavy ude while damaged. For the same reason, she was the one to look at the robots outside the most.
"Something's different," she muttered, making me rush over to look. "See, they're all standing a lot closer than before. And more of them are walking about."
I stared intensely at the figures pacing the lawn. At first, I saw nothing new, but it slowly dawned on me that she had a point.
"Emilie, does it look to you like they might be cleaning the lawn?" I asked, not really thinking about the oddity of those words.
"Why would they be..."
She stopped, and like a bad movie, we both turned at the same time, looking first at each other, then at the poorly lit floor.
"That black stuff on the floor, is that the stuff that's..."
"Yeah," I cut in, knowing very well where she was going with it. "It's from when the time machine blew. It #*@!s up any attempt to..."
"Mischa!" yelled Emilie in a move that should have made me flinch, but my fearful reactions were entirely centered on the robots outside. "They're clearing the way for the bitch in white!"
With little doodads dangling from shoulder, waist and hands, Mischa came stumbling down the hallway, his confused expression only just visible in the increasingly murky dark building.
"They what?" he asked, sounding half out of breath. I turned away from the glass door.
"They're not waiting. The #*@!ers are cleaning this black shit from the area so that their time traveling boss and her real minions can get through," I said through gritted teeth, feeling a growl in my throat as the words made their way out.
"They've been doing that for hours?" he asked, dumping items rather unceremonously on the floor near us. I nodded. "What about your time travel friends, didn't they need that to get here, too?"
The same thought had been running through my mind over and over since I realized it. And then, the pieces finally fell into place.
"Jesus #*@!ing Christ, I'm such a #*@!ing sap!" I hissed, punching the door so hard an actual crack appeared in one of the glass panes.
"What?" came the instant response from both of them. I was breathing heavy, trying to get my anger under control before answering them.
"How much you wanna bet that they counted on this? That they expected her to clear the way for them?"
Looking over the faces of the other two, I raised the anti-robot knuckle gun I had put on my right hand. I had one on the left, as well, but the rash punch at the door made me think it might need replacing.
"They've got all this shit, wanna bet they have a stash elsewhere? The robots clear most of the way, they come in blasting and use the machine to escape. Sound like a strategy to you?"
"What about the time..."
"They don't care about that," I interrupted him. "Once they're gone, who the #*@! cares if that bitch gets her hands on some crappy little time machine. I doubt she'd even care about it herself. She just wants to plug a hole."
"So they're betting this place will be overrun, with or without us in it?"
I leaned against the cracked pane, the feeling of betrayal weighing in my chest like a lead ball.
"I don't know. Maybe they had a way out for us, maybe not. I just know they want out, and they'll use whatever they can to get it."
"How about we #*@! up their plans?" said Emilie from behind us. We both turned to look at the girl as she fitted as many of the doodads to her body as humanly possible. She had even taken the skin-like shell off of her legs, leaving the internal mechanisms exposed and hanging more items from little protrusions on them. The bent steel core, effectively her artificial leg bones, looked like someone had whacked them over a rock, each of them bent in its own unique way. Nothing in her attitude hinted that she gave a #*@! about that right now.
"What you got in mind, Rambo?" asked Mischa, and I noted a look in his eyes that was more than just his curiousity being piqued.
Emilie took a few clumsy steps towards the door, each one letting her calibrate the weight of all the gear a little better, until she seemed barely affected by it at all.
"They expect the robots to do the cleaning and pave a way for them, right?"
We looked at each other, then at her, and nodded. "Can't clean much if we blow the hell out of them. Maybe we can even take down some of those flying #*@!ers, too."
Mischa didn't skip a beat, marching right over and grabbing everything his scrawny body could carry. I suddenly realized that I was smiling. Then I did the same.
The glass door unlocked with a thick click, and while I managed to push the handle down, it was Mischa who kicked the thing open. As Emilie and I ducked out, he covered us, firing the knuckle guns from both hands. With a quick glance, I noticed that very few of his shots actually seemed to hit, the dusty blue streaks flying through the air and striking the ground with no real effect. But a few found targets, causing limbs to overload and even a few heads to pop like fireworks in a lego model. Most of all, dozens of them turned to look at us as we made our way down the concrete staircase leading from the door down to the large parking lot on the opposite side from the courtyard.
We got to the bottom of the stairs easily, when Emilie pulled one of the doodads dangling from her naked metal legs. With an uneasy look at me, she pushed buttons on either side of it and threw it into the parking lot, while I fired the knuckle guns over her shoulder. For a moment, I refused to duck back down, carried away by how easily I hit the robots in the lot when they were all so close together. She pulled me down right before a powerful static filled the air, making hair rise and skin tingle. When we looked up again, nearly a dozen of them lay twitching on the ground while their comrades simply trampled them to get to us.
And then, they started firing back.
It started from behind their ranks, out in the grassy fields, orange and yellow streaks like thin lines cutting through the evening air. Like a very narrow hailstorm, they peppered the brick walls around us with sparks as they chipped away at the buildings. Then they moved forward.
"Ida," yelled Mischa from atop the stairs, "I think we may need your friends to join in!"
As I bolted back up the stairs, cursing under my breath at how it felt like a sudden retreat, I felt the warmth of the orange lines that came too close for comfort. Ducking inside the still open glass door, which had lost several panes at this point, I quickly smelled the stinging scent of burned clothes. In a desperate dance, I managed to put out the scattered holes in my clothes that lucky shots had left. Apart from one very sore mark, like a very local sunburn, I had lucked out. The few walls outside were not the best protection, but in retrospect, I felt lucky to not be dragging bleeding limbs behind me!
The noise from outside persisted as I rushed through the dark hallways and down the stairs. Every now and then, I could feel a strange electricity run through everything, guessing that another doodad had been thrown by one of them outside.
Only once I stood in the room, facing the time machine and the entire, wildly complicated mechanism of wires, computer parts and strange electronics, did the sounds from outside fade to nearly nothing. The soil and concrete around and above the artificial cave muffled it, making it sound like a very distant rumble somewhere. It seemed almost harmless that way.
Mumbling to myself what Karen had explained to me, I looked over the entire web of machinery. Behind the platform, she had said. Look for a large, dark grey box, one with a mess of wires and cables sticking out its top, but nowhere else. I found it, lurking silently behind a small wall of computers that had been disassembled and reassembled into some frankensteinian electronics monster. The grey box had a large swell in its side, like it had badly overheated.
As she had described it, there was a small metal handle on the top edge of the box, and I pulled it. The thing popped open like a cookie jar, and black smoke billowed out. Once it cleared, I could see the intricate mechanics inside. Three small latches, all of them bent slightly out of shape but still intact, came open with barely audible pops. The machine tried desperately to assist, some mechanism inside whining badly as it fought to push out the box that the latches had held in place, but failed. I fumbled a bit to pull out the manual handle attached to the box, and gave it a tug. It sounded like dragging wood on gravel, but the box finally came out. Suddenly unobstructed, the machine took over, moving the small box into place and opening it. And inside was the center of the entire debacle. A small block, about the size of a fat wallet, looking like a fancy external harddisk. Except it was cracked, with a dull green glow emanating from inside of it. I held it carefully between my fingers and lifted it out.
The instant it left the machine, everything changed. The dull blue light disappeared, replaced with bright lamps. The machine made a few mechanical sounds, and then the drawer that had held the broken part closed up on its own and slid back into place. Screens came on, parts moved into place. I stood there, watching the whole ballet for half a minute or so. Then came the shouts from upstairs!
I ran up, sprinting through the dark halls with feet lifted as high as possible to not trip over scattered clutter. Within what felt like less than a minute, I was at the glass door.
Everything was chaos. The robot copies had taken serious damage, and the invisible ships were doing their best to keep up, having the still active robots collect the fallen ones for repairs. But from unseen corners, down the road and behind scorched bushes at the far end of the vast lawns, blue bolts glittered as they zipped through the fading evening sunlight. Distant booms announced strange double explosions, orange flashes through which new figures seemed to arrive. The figures stumbling out of the explosions were immediately met by others, and soon after, they started firing the same blue bolts at the robots.
"I thought your said five time travelers?" mumbled Mischa, staring slackjawed into the rampant chaos of destruction. He had not fired even once since I came running up the stairs.
"I... I did. They must have had friends hiding somewhere!"
Even with what weaponry the robots had been given by their ships, it slowly turned from chaos to a slaughter, more and more explosions bringing new people in faster than the robots could be repaired.
"This is our chance, Ida," said Mischa in a strangely calm way. "We can leave. I don't think..."
His words got cut short by the crash of a window somewhere. Emilie, hiding behind the wall as before, lobbing the occassinal grenade doodad as a way to participate, suddenly came scrambling up the stairs, her legs on the verge of bending completely at this point.
"Their going through the windows," she growled as she clumsily ran by, looking like a drunk at high seas.
We stopped at the stairs. My brain was, on its own accord, mapping out the entire place, and the only real conlusion I could draw made me stop and block the others.
"We're never going to be able to cover it all," I panted, all while we heard more windows crack on the floor below. "We clear the hallways. Mischa and I go downstairs and cover a hallway each, they'll be coming in that way for the most part. Em, you shift between these two hallways. Take down any of them that get through."
Feeling almost confident about the strategy, I began down the stairs. When I realized that Mischa was not following, I turned to see both of them standing at the top of the stairs, still.
"Ida," said Mischa with a shaky voice, "are we going to die here?"
I sent Emilie a look, but found her looking just as terrified as him.
"Nobody is dying here," I said, in the most confident tone I had in me. They both took a second to compose themselves. Then they moved.
The sound of shattering windows was echoing down the downstairs hallway like slow footsteps. The first ones were already in the hall, walking at a fairly calm speed towards the open area by the stairs. Mischa and I, both of us dragging enough knuckle guns to supply a small invasion, silently took our places at each hallway. Giving each other a nod and taking a deep breath, we opened fire.
Blue glow illuminated the entire hallway, turning it bright as daylight, filling the air with the sound of robot bits rattling to the floor. We had watched war movies before, and clips kept bubbling to the surface of my mind. They were robots, soulless copies of people that were dead, likely because of the woman in white. And still, something felt weird about it. I kept reminding myself that we were very likely fighting for our lives, but still, something in me felt uncomfortable seeing them shatter and fall.
That all ended when the windows behind us shattered into tiny pieces around us! I tried to scream at Mischa, but all I could do was look on as copies scrambled through the windows surrounding the stairway between us. A few simply stepped through the door, but the rest had no patience for that, crashing through anything fragile enough to breach.
We both turned or aims on them, firing wildly down the hall and at the bursting stairway, but it felt like a flood. They walked over the wrecked remains of the fallen, pouring in without pause. It felt like drowning when a blinding blue flash filled the room.
"Elmer?"
Even before the debris of blown robot minds had all fallen to the floor, he stepped over the pile of shattered bodies on the floor. Behind him, Lisa and a handful of others followed, every last one of them armed to the teeth.
"Ida, nice to see you got the machine working," he replied in a terse voice, scanning the hallways and taking down a few surviving robots trying to get through.
"Yeah, great seeing you, too."
He gave me a look that seemed a bit more confused by the sarcastic remark than actually offended by it, as he moved through the place towards the room with the time machine. Those that had come with him never even gave me much of a look as they passed through. Amongst the last ones was Karen, who gave me a nod as she passed. I nodded back, letting her know that our agreement still stood.
"What just happened?" asked Emilie, climbing awkwardly down the stairs, her legs looking worse for every step that she took.
"I think we just won," I answered hesitantly.
"Yeah, we..." added Mischa, sounding very suspicious of the whole situation.
Even from the open area by the stairs, we could hear the machines in the artificial cave begin to charge. At first, I assumed it to be the time machine, but as the pops of remaining robots outside began to be heard, it became clear that some form of automated defenses had been turned on. While Mischa helped Emilie walk down the hall, I went ahead and down the stairs. I was just in time to watch as Karen put her hand on what looked like a scraped old touchpad hooked into the mess of computers. The creepy fingers around the platform seemed to dissolve into flying pieces, spinning around the person kneeling on the platform to fit inside of them. A bright flash filled the room, and nothing but dust fell to the floor. For a moment, I feared something had gone wrong, but everyone looked completely fine with the outcome, and the next person immediately stepped onto the platform.
"Should we maybe leave now?" asked Mischa, standing atop the crude staircase, Emilie leaning heavily on the wall behind him.
"I have something I need to do first, I just need them to be done with all of this." I pried my eyes away from the now once more spinning fingers and looked up at him as the flash erupted from the platform. "I really need your help to do it."
Disturbingly calm and stoic, Mischa walked slowly down the stairs. I could see in his eyes that he was tired, but forcing himself to nonetheless keep going. But behind that, I saw something else, something I had a hard time getting a real handle on.
"Ida, this has already gone too far. We've risked our lives, for #*@!'s sake," he said, or perhaps sighed, sounding like he was half saying goodbye. "What is there left to do?"
"You talked about Paul, right?"
The mention of his brother brought a intensity to his eyes that I was still not used to. He talked about him now and then, but that was memories. This was completely different, and with good reason.
"Ida, I want him back, but we need to be alive to do that," he said, his voice sounding as if he was forcing himself to speak calmly. Another flash from the time machine illuminated his face from the side, making him briefly look taller and more fierce than I was used to thinking of him as.
"We need to end this first," I sighed, turning to look at the next person step onto the platform. There were maybe ten more after that, which seemed like far fewer than we had seen outside. If Karen had explained, and I had understood, everything right, it looked like they had received some help from people arriving by time machine from other times. They would only stay here shortly and then disappear on their own. They would not need the machine. Only those escaping our time needed the machine.
"Why" he complained, his frustrations starting to shine through. "What the hell is it that you feel you have to prove?!"
I wanted to be angry. I wanted to tell him off, to scold him, for thinking just about himself. But I couldn't. He didn't. He would never have stuck it out if he did. He never did.
"They're out there, Misch. Tons of them. Others like her."
I looked up the staircase, at Emilie, who was now sitting on the floor, out of breath and out of strength, just trying to breathe calmly. Mischa briefly turned to look at her, too.
"Then we find them, help them one by one, as many as we can," he said, practically pleading his case. I wanted to give him that, wanted to agree and leave, leave and come back later to find a way to go back and save his brother. I wanted everything to be easy, everyone to be safe. But I knew that was not how it worked.
"We need to do more than that. We need to stop the ones hunting them."
Mischa made a few frustrated, growling sounds, clawing and rubbing his face to calm down.
"Why, Ida? What is it that..."
"If we don't, they could die!" I snapped at him, feeling my body tremble as another flash lit up the room. Outside, we could hear the battle continue, the ones that did not need the machine still taking down a horde of robot copies, no doubt.
"So could you!!" he yelled as his hands flew off his face and made strangling motions in mid air! "Do you understand this, Ida?" he added, his voice now low again, breaking, tears beginning to come from his eyes.
I nodded, shielding my eyes as I looked at the machine gearing up to send another person through time. There were four left, and then only Elmer, Lisa and Karen.
"I understand," I answered calmly, feeling tears press on the inside of my eyes, too. We stood quietly as we watched the machine send another person away, and then another. I finally broke the silence, still feeling my heart and throat make a tight and uncomfortable knot in my chest.
"You know why people love stories about religious saviors and great heroes saving the day?" I asked, Waiting a few seconds before looking at him. Judging by his face, the question had caught him completely off guard, which was hardly surprising. "Because everybody wants someone else to come along and solve all their problems."
He said nothing in reply, just stood there, a tired expression on his face.
"I'm tired of seeing people here suffer while I feel powerless to do anything about it, Misch."
I could feel it inside, that feeling that had been bubbling throughout so much of this whole ordeal, ever since I first saw the fear in Camilla's eyes. An anger. Bitterness, burning inside of me, wanting to lash out at something.
"I already started this. Its time to finish it."
Another flash glowed, and as the big fingers spun down to a stop, the last person before the ones I knew stepped onto the platform. As we watched, she knelt and soon after disappeared. As Elmer stepped up on the now empty platform and knelt down, he sent me a strange look. Anyone else might be excused for thinking it was stern, but I saw something else in it. I saw relief. Perhaps I even saw a bit of gratefulness.
The fingers spun, the flash appeared, and he was gone. As Lisa walked onto the platform, she gave Karen a nod, then looked at us.
"Good luck, Ida," she said, in a voice that made me worry a bit. I said nothing, though, just nodding back at her. She was gone soon after.
Listening to the noise that still raged outside, we all fell silent for a long moment. Finally, Karen stepped away from the screens.
"Do you..."
"I remember," I said, knowing what was on her mind. "Did you set a target?"
She nodded, smiling for the first time in a long while.
"Spain, 2280. I have some friends there. Well, some connections."
With those words, she stepped onto the platform. Before kneeling down, she sent me one last look as I took my place by the screens.
"Thank you."
I just smiled back at her. Then she knelt down, and I pushed a button. A second later, she was gone.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

Well now, I can't be the only one having fun! :D

So, as this first day of raBid development has come to a conclusion, I find I've spent far more of it having fun playing my new mini-game than I did actually feeling like I was making one.  And HEY!  Check this out, I have a Toy Build for you to play with too...!! (this is just a screen shot of it though, you'll have to find the attached .zip file) Takes a second to get used to the controls, it's a fully physics driven movement system, so keep that in mind.  You are moving with Thrust, and there WILL be THRUSTERS!! on these super robot boards!  I didn't have time to add the THRUSTERS!! to the toy, sorry for that..  Yes, they will be awesome enough to have two exclamation points, and yes even in the middle of a sentence..  So don't worry about it. Enjoy. Oh yeah, and if you happen to think about it, I would love feedback on EVERYTHING... 32bit Win Build in zip(Scanned with Kaspersky VirusDesk before upload), I'll probably put up an Android toy too, dunno when yet(tomorrow?).  Trying for several platforms here, but I've only got PC and Android that I can test myself, so we'll see how it goes.  I may have to borrow an Ipad from somebody. Anyhow, enough of my rambling, go on, kick the tires!!  Hope it doesn't crap out on ya.  It works on my dev. machine which has some pretty terrible "graphics hardware"..  Easier to keep things mobile-friendly that way though. Latest Build: https://www.gamedev.net/blogs/entry/2266237-sling-bot-boarding-day-7-toy-build-4-d/  

Septopus

Septopus

 

Worthless, Chapter 52

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 52 It was not the same.
Any time machine can be different. Any method of time travel can feel like nothing else. The pain, the disorientation, the problems on arrival, all can vary from  device to device. But this felt unique. This felt like nothing that anyone at The Embassy had ever described.
The Devil fingers were not like the ones at The Embassy. They looked the part, as long as the machine, or whatever it should be called, was dormant. It likely had been for centuries. But when it activated, rather than disassembled pieces spinning out to form a sphere that kept the tremendous energies inside, these fingers turned to a mist. The inside was like a thunderstorm, everything pulling in every direction, all at once. Lightning flying in small bursts, setting errant fabric ablaze. Everything about the device screamed experimental, a rushed construction by some desperate faction long ago. And yet, for all its flaws, it worked.
For a brief moment, the round room disappeared, subplanted by blackened earth and a grey sky. Black dust covered every bit of land as far as could be seen, and small towers, most still only the hasty constructions erected by someone in a rush to claim land, dotted the land. Heavy beasts pulled unusual plows through the black dust, swirling it up and into collecting bags. Men, skin and clothes blackened dirty by the dust, swung whips above the heads of the beasts.
But as quickly as it came, the sight vanished. Back was the throne room, Kehu still standing by the distant wall, collecting bits of the dust that was now left.
"Did it..."
The device left no more time for talk than that. Everything dissolved again, and the floating feeling returned. A boom signaled the arrival to another place, this one nothing like the lands inside the wall. In fact, in the distance, a large wall could be seen, looking new, stone still shiny and smooth, as far as one could tell. But as before, the view was snatched away abruptly. The throne room was back, but only briefly. There was no time to even call out.
The third arrival felt... real. The pain was familiar, everything came in topsy turvy. Then, like a skipping vinyl record, it stopped, and happened again. Again and again, the same arrival, everything flickering as the time travel failed to hold. Until finally, it did.
The forest floor was a rough landing, but it was a clearing, free of too much undergrowth. A few prickly thorns from tiny vines and the painful bumps on dry branches hurt, but nothing entangled any body part. And most of all, it was still. The quiet of a thriving forest, only birds and animal chatter to be heard. No beasts of burden, no sound of people. Forest life, and nothing else. It made it feel far more warranted to lie flat, waiting for more than a minute to see if the time travel would falter again, if the pull back to the cavern throne room was too strong. It held.
The land did, in its own weird way, seem familiar. The lay of it, the way it curved and bent, the way hills rolled. The babbling of a brook nearby was a new experience, but much of it seemed oddly familiar.
Turning around to spot the cave not far away sealed the deal. This was the same place, the land of black dust. Only the dust was not there, yet. The past. The past of a distant past, to be precise. There was no way to know the year, but if Hathark had been speaking the truth and Kehu's version of their history was to be believed, that would mean about seven hundred years back, perhaps even more.
With that in mind, it all seemed remarkably modern. A forest, its trees, plants and animals. The sky, a brilliant blue. From immediate looks, it could be simply off the beaten path anywhere back home.
The brook that made its natural sound actually did run into the cave, as the dried out riverbed had, in the future of the place. A small stream, its water no doubt absorbed by layers of earthen soil on its way down the cave. It beckoned, the cave. Beckoned to be explored, to see if the time machine was still there. Or perhaps better put, if it was already there. It would be new, perhaps in a much better condition. It might even be manned.
Without torches, though, it would be suicide, and in any case, there was no time for minor exploits and side-quests. The sun was at late morning, if the bearings from back in the land of black dust was still anything to go by. And considering there were likely no walls yet, it would be a game of chance to even find signs of civilization. Centuries in the future, this forest would be cleared and the biggest wild animal would be closer to a rabbit than a wolf, but this was wild forest. Even in the day, there could be risks. At night, all bets would be off.
The clearing was larger than it first had seemed. The wild grass did cover it well, but crossing it away from the cave was a fair walk, perhaps half an hour's worth. It eventually opened onto a meadow, nothing but grass and flowers to be seen. The open space showed how much the hills did indeed roll, and that in turn gave a good look of the land.
Farther away from the clearing, the grass became abruptly low. Broken strands and trampled patches, grazing grounds for animals. Settlements. People. Civilization. But nothing immediately to be seen. No farmhouse, no town, no fields. It brought forth images of nomadic peoples, grazing their livestock through an area and moving on before depleting the land entirely. Others could be waiting to come in and continue, making use of the grass that grew from there and all the way to the forest clearing. This was a common practice in older cultures, the use of a place with respect for others who might use the same. In old times, it had helped different tribes coexist, even mingle and share their cultures, their resources, and their bloodlines.
It was a nice thought. But it clearly was not the case.
At first, they seemed like patches of bad grass. The dull brown mixed in seamlessly with the green, and with the sand and gravel that lay strewn in places. The hills did theirs to trick the eyes, the angle of the patches atop other hills making it hard to see them clearly. Between the hills, there were none of them. It made sense, in retrospect. After all, who would build a home between the hills, rather than atop them?
Up closer, standing only a hill away, it became all too clear what they were. Small stumps stood up, broken and charred, slanting as if hit by something massive. Smoldering debris and ashes still hot were scattered by winds, carrying some of the heat to patches of grass dry enough to have since flared up. They now looked like dark spots on a landscape painting.
Standing in the rubble, with the sun crossing midday, the carnage became all too clearly written in the scorched remains of the small hamlet. Eight houses, only two of any real size, had stood there. Now, there was next to nothing left. Even the dirt beneath where wooden floors had been was scorched black, looking almost like the black dust back in Hathark's caverns. The destruction was, in its own terrible way, impressive. Stumps. People had lived here, grazed animals and raised children, likely. They could have inhabited the hamlet for years, decades or more. And now, there were only stumps. Stumps and ash.
But among the ash, there were footprints. Heavy marks, people carrying heavy loads. Hard shoes, though, not the average boot that a farmer would wear. Military, perhaps. They formed a labyrinthian chaos, going in and out of buildings that no longer stood there, chasing things around open grounds as ash still fell.
They also left in the same direction that they came, all of them together. It only took perhaps an hour or so to begin to catch up with the owners of said footprints. The first sights were not soldiers, or even distant screams or crumbling houses, though. It was smoke. Thick pillars of smoke on the horizon, long before anything else was truly visible. Another hamlet, already up in flames.
The screams did come, closer up. From a few hills away, the chaos of people chasing people, people desperately fighting people, and an all around mess, was horrifically visible! Houses were ablaze, straw roof engulfed in flames while fire took a slow hold of wooden beams and planks. Black figures on the ground where they had fallen as fire caught their simple clothes. There was no way to intervene, nothing to be done to save anyone. The distance alone would make any attempt redundant. Several minutes later, standing on another, closer, hilltop, there was nothing to do but witness the fires begin to die out as houses collapsed entirely. Men, not in military uniforms but definitely wearing something that signified who they were, moved on with people walking with them, tied to long wooden poles that were dragged behind horses. Prisoners. Perhaps hostages.
They were all gone by the time it was possible to reach the area. It was a slightly bigger hamlet than the other, only a few houses more, but bigger ones. Piles of broken wood still burned, the hot air making one's eyes water, and the smell more than enough to upset a weaker stomach. There were no weapons in the ashes, nothing metal even dragged out of a house. Perhaps there were farming tools inside the burning piles, but from outside, there was no way to tell. There were no tears, nobody crying, nobody screaming. No one was mourning the dead. Because the dead were all that was left.
Which made it that much more of a surprise to feel a hard hit in the back of the head! Movies love the idea of being knocked out. A quick dunk in the braincase, and someone goes limp for minutes at a time. The real world works differently. Between the hit from behind and the hands grabbing and tying up every limb, there were only seconds. It was a blur, though, the hit making any reaction impossible, any defense impossible. A flash ambush, over before it was even fully understood.
On the positive side, it made it impossible for them to use the poles. It still hurt, being thrown heavy-handedly into a rolling cage about the size of a large suitcase. But even then, it allowed for a moment to rest, a moment to gather thoughts and regain all mental faculties.
Someone in a cage nearby said something, perhaps trying to start a conversation. One of the men in matching clothes put a stop to it, slamming a wooden club against the other person's cage, but it would have mattered very little either way. The language, like so often, was nonsensical, something local, something not taught at The Embassy, not even for basic recognition.
And even if that hadn't been the case, the pain was back. It had been there, dull and dormant, ever since arriving, but the added ache of the hit made it flare up again. Time was breaking, stretched across perhaps ten millenia now. It tucked at every atom, wanted to snap back. But it never did. Not yet.
The sun was low by the time the small caravan came to the encampment. The materials were local, mainly wood and stone, but the design had a strange feel to it. Careful slants made the walls look more robust than a castle or fort built with the same materials, walls curving outward in precisely spaced waves of stone, an increased defensive strength that an attacker would be wholy unable to spot at a distance. Metal fixtures that looked taken out of some dark fantasy artist's mind lined the walls, like teeth that had already dug into the stone. And still, the inside looked like any busy castle courtyard, people walking and pulling horses or other animals around, the ground covered in mud and hay.
One of the men in the matching clothes began talking. At first, he seemed just desperate to strike up a conversation, but as he continued, he was clearly cycling through multiple languages, trying to find one that hit the spot. None did. They were all gibberish, native to times and places that could only be guessed at. But then, something got through. Latin. The man instantly noted the recognition, repeating the phrase several times. A few thoughts passed by inside his head, judging from his eyes, and the next thing he said was in clumsy French. Who are you? Who sent you? But before there was a chance to answer, another voice cut in.
"No, not French," said the voice in a flowing English. "Twentieth century, right? Perhaps twenty-first?"
A woman stepped out from amongst the men, holding a clipboard that, although clearly homemade and rather primitive, looked completely beyond this age.
"Asian features, but you don't seem Asian to me," she added, leaning in ever so slightly. "Immigrant. Western. I would guess American, but that almost seems too easy. Right, little girl?"
Everyone was oddly quiet around her. She had power. They feared her. And as the final pieces fell into place, that made far too much sense!
"You...."
There was a shift in her eyes as she reacted to the hissed word. It had been hard to tell at first, with her leather and string outfit. Mostly because it wasn't white.
"See, Valinse, she knows the language," she chirped, clearly proud of herself. "And from that seething anger, I think she knows me, as well!"
It was her. It had to be. The woman in white. But something was not matching up.
"so tell us, little girl, where are you from?" she asked, still smiling, knowing that the cage protected her. The man said something to her, making her briefly turn her head, and when she turned it back, she was clearly thinking behind the smug grin on her face. Turning slightly, yet not looking away, she called out loudly to someone, and somewhere, a voice called back.
"Because, Valinse," she said, sounding as arrogant as always, "she has never seen one of these."
Even before the last word had left her lips, a shadow passed overhead, and a roar of unbelievably power shook the air! With a crushing sound, heavy feet landed on a raised perch in the open courtyard, talons gripping the stone so hard it cracked beneath them. Scales slid between one another as the serpentine body came to a rest, folding massive wings tightly onto its body. Then, it roared again.
"A dragon?"
"Yes, little girl, a dragon. And if you do not give us some useful answers, you will be seeing it up close. Very close."
Even the people in the courtyard, both the men with matching clothes and the rest, were moving slower, avoiding the perched dragon to the best of their abilities. As if to emphasize what it was, the dragon blew small puffs of flame from between long, sharp teeth. Never enough to do much damage, but enough to intimidate.
"I will feed you to it," she explained, giving the beast a quick glance.
"Oh, I got the clever hint."
She frowned, just for a moment, at the remark. Then she stood straight again.
"Who are you, little girl?" she asked, completely casually. Her face left no doubt, this was the woman in white. Except not in white. And apparently, with a few bits of memory missing. "You clearly don't belong with this ragtag bunch."
She nodded at the jumpsuit, which was showing beneath the more locally appropriate clothes from back in Kehu's time. And she had a point. The rest of the rounded up looked like peasant folk, simple clothes and skin rough from physical work. And yet, they did not look like the historical peasants from any age that came to mind. There was a crude ingenuity to their clothes, clever little details like crafty pockets and practical patches and string. It was the peasant look, but updated by a far more modern mindset.
"California, 2005. Your people destroyed my colony."
She made no sign of doubting any of the lie. It fit her expectations. That, or she let none of her doubt show.
"You're a long way from 2005, little one," she said in what could best be described as a grimly concerned voice. She had to be a great deal younger than any other version of her. The woman in white before she became the woman in white. She looked pretty much the same, her face and figure, but only physically. There was something missing, something in her eyes and in the way she moved. She seemed as disciplined as ever, but in a practical way, not the strict, rigid way she was known for. Brutality. For all the carnage and destruction she had evidently caused here, perhaps having her pet dragon burn down entire villages, she lacked the aura of brutality.
"I thought it was safe here. I have nothing else left."
With a satisfied smile forming on her lips, she gave a gentle nod of approval, then took a step back. She seemed about to leave, but her eyes stayed fixed.
"None of you have anything left," she said in a voice far too soft to match her words. "It's over, I hope you understand that. Your rebellion is done. A  century from now, and there will be nothing left to show that you were even here. History will be locked down."
The men around her moved aside respectfully, or perhaps just fearfully, as she turned and started to walk away. She said something in the gibberish language to the men, loudly, as if giving a collective order, and several of the other captives began to struggle against their ropes and chains. Something bad seemed about to happen, but it was impossible to tell exactly what. As the men began to pull them into a building one by one, many began to struggle, while others fell to their knees, begging for mercy in their foreign languages. They were ignored.
Even without restraints, the wooden cage was limiting. It was too low to stand up in, and barely large enough to sit in right. On the trip to the encampment, one of the men had reached in, at first looking like he just wanted to grope or maybe do something hurtful for his own entertainment. He had been going for the hands, however, which were now tied with rope. It was a good, strong knot on rope that was a little too wellmade to match most of the surroundings, adding to the feel of some updated medieval theme. What he had not done was tie either hand in place. Through some hidden fumbling and wringing, the horseman's trinket dropped out of the jumpsuit pocket, and plonked onto the dirty cage floor.
Even just holding the trinket was painful, once the thick leather wrapping came off. It felt as if it had a glow around it, a scorching sphere that dug into the skin like long surgical needles. A penetrating pain, like as an atom here and an atom there was forced out of this time and back, back through Kehu's age, back through the Wenwey hubs, back through the pirate fort by the coast and the Prussian town built as an Embassy office. Back to Nakskov. But only individual atoms. If the trinket and its strings of black dust were surrunded by atoms from another time, it would trigger a chain reaction, one atom blowing the next back to its own time. The stick that held the strings was long enough to not make that happen. A single stick, no longer than a hand from wrist to fingertip, was all that stood between anyone holding it and the forces of time.
And then, the men came. A handful of others had been taken into the nondescript building, crying, kicking, screaming. There were still plenty left, but somehow, someone had decided to now empty the cages. There were five in total, five cages with a captive in each. They came for all five at the same time, two men for each. They were rough. It felt like being handled like cattle, or even worse. Dragged out by the feet, thrown on the ground. The leather wrapping held over the trinket kept it from pressing against the jumpsuit, but it had to be held tight, even if it hurt. It had to be held tight, or they would find it.
The first man screamed when the trinket touched his bare skin. It was a simple sleight of hand, slipping the thing up his loose sleeve. He screamed instantly, a jolt going through his hand, powerful enough to feel outside the sleeve. And then, the chain reaction took hold. He squirmed, at first, then flailed his arm, as if to shake off the pain. By then, it was too late. As he stumbled backward, his comrades realized what was happening to him. Not one of them came to his aid.
The second man was more of a challenge. Like his companions, he stepped back to stare at the flailing man, stepping out of reach. A bit of acting did the trick, pretending to be terrified, stepping over to the big man for protection. And then, the trinket up the back of his leather tunic. He roared, his back tensing like a bow. Half of it was drowned out by his buddy being engulfed in colored dots and exploding, however. The burst took every part of him not of this time, ripped it from time itself and pulled it back to wherever and whenever he had come from. But he had been in this time for far too long. His body had absorbed utrients and built blood and cells with it. Those parts of him, a vapor of bodily fluids and matter torn apart, stayed behind, the energy from the sudden time jump overcharging it all and making it burst into flames, falling to the ground, drenched in unchecked energies. Black ash. A single spot of it.
His clothes burst into flames, as well. The fabrics caught fire, the leather charred and deformed. His tools, however, survived. They were thrown by the blast, though, and while a small hammer hurled itself at the shin of one of the other men, the knife impaled one of the wooden cages. And while everyone fled as the second man began to burst, there was no one to keep that knife from cutting the ropes. The blast of the second man bursting back in time felt like a warm wind, and a perfect cover to escape!
The captured people screamed. Some in cheer, some in fear for their lives. A few others tried to make a run for it, as well, but without the cover of bursting time travel minions, they quickly failed. It felt wrong, watching them, knowing their fate. The urge to help, to create more chaos for them to escape in, was strong. But it would not work. Even if it would have no effect on history to free them, the alarm had sounded. It felt wrong. It felt cold, looking them in the eyes and turning, but there was no other way.
It quickly became clear that nobody understood what had happened. The troops, the henchman of the woman that was not yet the woman in white, attacked one after the other, thinking it was just a case of an escaping captive. They were clumsy, brutish, hurling themselves into what they thought was a fistfight against a small, unarmed woman. One by one, they were caught in their own swarm of colored dots. They were the perfect foil, rushing in and providing more cover as their burst. The gate was within reach before anyone thought to order arrow fire.
Large arrows, looking more like spears, ripped through the air. They struck everything, be it captives, troops, or random workers. Seeing one guard struck off his horse, it was pure instinct to grab the rein. The gate was still open, captives still being brought in from who knew where. Caught off guard by the chaos, terrified by the rain of oversized arrows, nobody got in the way.
In a frenzied gallop, no doubt wanting to get away from the chaos, as well, the horse ran! Holding on was a challenge, even with the trinket wrapped and secure back in its pocket in the jumpsuit. The road was open, but uneven enough to make the ride bumpy, and night was creeping in. There was no other life in sight but the encampment, nothing to ride to.
And then, the roar sounded! Heavy wings cut through the air in the twilight dusk, swooping in. The dragon was nothing but a large shadow in the air, the only color being a faintly purple outline around it, the last light of the sun hitting it in flight. Like a bird of prey, it rose up, its eyes clearly already on its target. And like that bird, it hung motionless for a split second, and then dropped in for the kill!
No fire. No scorched earth. The horse reacted instinctively to the reins being pulled, skidding to a halt. The leap of its back, even before the animal stood entirely still, felt like hitting a brick wall, rather than the actual dry grass. And with a powerful crunch of talons and terrifying weight, the horse was gone. Warm blood scattered in the air like a thick mist. Causing a powerful wind, the massive wings landed, the purple now fully visible in the dying light of the sun. The huge beast stared silently at its bloody prey, stomping to loosen bits of dripping flesh from its feet. It seemed to try and smell for something, but gave up when, from the looks of it, the smell of horse entrails overpowered its nostrils. As the wings raised the beast into the air, the wind beneath them felt like a flood of water, the weight of it crushing down.
Silence. The beast was gone. The air was thick with the smell of blood, but the threat was over. And as the first of the lesser beasts started to prowl for the dead horse, it seemed only smart to leave, as well. The wood was surprisingly warm, even throughout the night. It had seemed a bit risky to pick the same hamlet, but it seemed equally risky to venture even farther out into the hills at night. Moreover, the last hamlet to be burned down, it seemed only logical that it would still have the most heat left to fight the cold of night, too. It was hard to say what time of year it was, but there was an unnatural cold in the air, a chill that seemed not to fit in. Most straw had long since burned out, but wooden beams splintered on the ground and no doubt wooden furniture inside still had strong embers, a few of them even some flames in them.
By morning, though, all of it was cold. The jumpsuit did a bit to ward off the freezing morning air, but survival meant crawling inside the collapsed homes of likely dead or gone people to seek shelter. Deep inside, there were even a few pieces of wood still warmly smoldering.
At the first sound of footsteps, all thoughts immediately ran to the henchmen coming back! With only a few hours of sleep, it was hard to keep the mind from panicking, but the first sound of life, and of footsteps, came from far away. There was time to get that mind under control. When they finally came close, the panic was gone.
Voices spoke a foreign language. It could be any of the foreign languages that the henchmen had spoken, but there was a difference in its tone. One voice quivered, another gritted its teeth so hard it muffled sounds. When the first foot came into view, it was as it kicked a piece of scorched wood, clearly in a fit of impotent anger. They were emotional, a sense of pain running through everything they said, even if the words were incomprehensible.
There were three, at the least. Two sets of feet looked large, heavy, the feet of fully grown men of some size. The third could be either a small or young man, or a grown woman. One voice had feminine qualities to it. They seemed aimless, not knowing what to do or where to go. One of the male sets was getting increasingly restless, walking from ashpile to ashpile, calling out words that could easily be names. Then, the other set of men's feet kicked again. This time, they kicked the remains of the house that had provided shelter for the night! The smoldering wood cracked in many places, ash falling like black snow. It got into everything, the eyes, the ears. The nose.
It was just one cough.
The men immediately raced around the blackened remnants of the house, looking in, their torsos becoming visible through gaps in the wood. The woman called out, yelling words that sounded like nothing but gibberish. There was no way out, no way to slip by them and play it safe by running again. There was no way in, either, no gaps big enough to slip through to dig deeper into the ashpile and hide better from these prying eyes. It did not take long before two green eyes peered through between two smoldering beams of burned wood.
"Kidaome?" asked a voice, likely the one that belonged with the two green eyes. "Kidaome sandeh?"
All three began grabbing things, pieces of wood still strong enough to use as tools, large beams loose and balanced enough to move safely. Before long, others joined in, feet, hands and voices that had never drawn attention to themselves, perhaps looking in the other ruins of the destroyed hamlet. Four, five, six, they continued to appear out of nothing, hidden from view by the blackened remains of the house. Hands grabbed the black wood, pulling and lifting beams apart from one another. Like the mouth of a giant beast, the ruins opened.
There were over a dozen of them. People of very different ages, men and women alike. They had the same simple fashion as the captives at the encampment, but they moved differently, even what little they showed while staring inside the gaping maw of the ruin they had pried open. There was a strange sense of organization to their movement, stepping out of the way of one another quickly and with ease. They stood up straight, almost rigid, at every turn, and the work with the ruin was instinctively coordinated. They were trained, disciplined. And yet, nothing about them screamed military.
"I don't... I don't understand you," was the only response that seemed to make any sense, knowing full well they would likely not even understand the language. As predicted, none of them answered back. One, however, said something briefly, then ran off.
Chatter broke out as hands reached in, wanting to help with getting out of the ruin maw. They really didn't need to, there were no broken limbs or the like. The house had been a hiding place, long after it collapsed. But there was no real way to tell them that, no way to say thanks but no thanks. And with the intensity they showed for helping, it would have seemed a heartless thing to do, anyway.
While both eyes and hands checked for any injuries, dusting off the jumpsuit without ever asking permission, the one who had run off returned. She had a woman with her, one that looked slightly old and, at a closer glance, partially blind. Her eyes seemed to move, under her control, but they focused on nothing for more than a fraction of a second, as if she could see something, but saw nothing clearly.
"Ileba," she said, not knowing quite where to turn to.
"Sorry, I... #*@! it, you don't understand me, either."
The words honestly just flew out, never intended to be said out loud. That made the sudden smile on the woman's face even more creepy.
"You jump to conclusions, my friend," the woman said in a hoarse voice.
"You understa... Wait, are you using a spell?"
"Oh, no," she laughed, holding onto the young girl who had brought her, as if she was scared that she would be lost if she moved away for even a second. "I understand quite naturally. I was taught your language long ago, among many others."
The entire crowd was hushed as the woman spoke. Glances were exchanged, faint shrugs and whispers, perhaps from people guessing at what the old woman was talking about. Obviously, none of them understood any of it, which likely turned their world a bit on its head.
"Do you know what happened here?" the old woman asked, letting go a bit of the girl's arm as she tried to look around. She squinted, perhaps trying to see something other than black blurs in the backdrop of green hills and blue morning skies.
"A dragon."
As a complete surprise, someone in the crowd said a few words and everyone gasped. There was one word, at least, that they could translate into their own tongue.
"A woman uses it to burn places to the ground, killing all or having her henchmen take them as captives."
With a slow nod, the old woman listened. Then she turned her head slightly to translate to the girl, who spoke the translation out loud. Cries of panic and pain broke out in the crowd, men shouting enraged words while others held their mouths in their hands, some trying not to cry or gasp out loud, some clearly trying not to throw up for sheer fear, pain or anger.
"She's... The woman, she is... unusual. I work with some people that..."
"She is a time traveler," said the old woman, speaking as calmly as if she had been talking about the weather. "And so are you."
"How did..."
She said nothing just lifting a hand to point at where the jumpsuit stuck out of the more time appropriate clothes.
"We are all time travelers, or the offspring of them," she added, turning to whisper something to the girl. The girl instantly let go of her and ran off to something down the hill.
"You're a colony? Or, I mean, you were a colony?"
The old woman's hand felt like treebark. She mainly held onto the sleeve of the ragged clothes that covered the jumpsuit, clothes that now were nearly black from sod and ash. But the small, comforting pat that she gave made the brush against the back of the hand feel like gently scraping an old elm.
"Stop thinking in thise lines, my sweet. We are people." She smiled, a tired smile, hiding sorrow. She tried not to look around at the smoldering rubble. "Come, help an old woman to her cart."
On the way down the hill, towards a pack of horses and, tied to many of them, carts to carry people, there was a lot of angry grumbling, restrained sobbing, and other expressions of sorrow. Nobody said anything outright, but watching grown men and women struggle not to break down crying told its own story. This was not just some isolated hamlet, people had lost friends, perhaps family, here.
"What's your name? Mine is Marie."
"Gertrude," the old woman answered, sounding like a sigh. "Gertrude Hedester."
"Why is she taking them to that horrible place, Gertrude? What does she want with them?"
The girl that Gertrude had sent away came running, having prepared the old woman's seat in a cart and ready to help her into it. Others made brief moves as if to help, but held back when the girl seemed to have it under control. There was a strange love and respect for the woman, moreso than simply for a town elder or the like.
"They say to keep history on its tracks," she sighed, her weak eyes making a few quick moves to suggest that she struggled to believe that answer herself, "but it always ends with power. The power to know the future by knowing the past."
"Sounds very wise."
The old woman chuckled, loudly, sounding as if she kindly mocked the idea of wisdom, or at least that she sounded wise in any way.
"I escaped her once," she said, now suddenly speaking with a deeper, stronger voice, as if the memory of her past made her young again. "She makes a great speech of the past, of how it is set and cannot be changed. And yet, she fights to keep evreything and everyone in line." At the last few words, the old woman's voice became her age again. "Such is power."
"Power..."
Mumling the word got a quick glance from the woman, even though she might only see a blur with the old eyes. There were pieces missing, some bit of a puzzle that stuck out like a gaping hole in a complex tapestry. Something that nobody said. Something nobody knew. Something they could not...
"You will survive this."
In an unprecedented move, the woman waved her hand quickly in the air, hushing everyone around her. It was as if a light inside her old eyes had been turned on, a vigor suddenly returned to her body.
"What, my dear?"
The crowd understood nothing of the conversation. They had their own language, that much had been clear from the start. And yet, they now suddenly look on, perhaps detecting the slight burst of life in their elder, looking as if they were trying their hardest to follow along.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to say that out loud."
"But you did. You said it. You said that we survive." Her eyes squinted, her bushy brow seeming to want to reach out from her head and demand answers all on its own. "What do you know?"
Even though they only looked and could not truly listen, the crowd seemed to suddenly force themselves into the matter. Gertrude told them nothing, spoke no words in their language. But it felt like they understood, perhaps from sheer willpower alone!
"You were not meant to be here. Your presence threatens history, so she will fight to the bitter end to wipe you all out, or take you back, or whatever it is that she does. But she is going to miss some. They will hide, but they will..."
It started as just a few calls from the back of the small caravan. Then, far too quickly, it became panicked screams! Men from the back came running to the old woman, telling her things quickly in their language, and she raised her eyes to the sky, again squinting in the hopes that it would make her youthful eyesight return, even if just for a moment. Judging from her frown, it did not.
From afar, it looked mostly like a bit of missing sky. A dark, nearly black patch against the morning blue. And then, it moved around, swaying from side to side as it bent and stretched. As it flapped... wings.
"Dragon..."
"Indeed," the old woman growled under her breath.
"There is a clearing not far from here, Gertrude. Send everyone there."
"It's a dragon, dear, it burns those for..."
"There's a cave there, a deep system of caverns. Many tunnels, many exits. Even a dragon can guard only one."
Gertrude instantly shouted commands to the people within earshot, and everyone reacted like veteran soldiers! Whips cracked as horses were pressed to their utmost, the hard wooden wheels rattling dangerously against the gravel road, and people grabbed one another to keep anyone from falling behind. The fear was still there, strong and commanding, but the panic that would see them fall over one another under pressure was gone. All would reach the cave together, or nobody would!
As the clearing surrounded them all, the dark spot had gained enough distance for its mighty wings to clearly show. Across the massive distance, its shriek could still be heard, a low, piercing sound so far away, like feedback from a dying speaker system. It flew at a breakneck speed, gaining and gaining, but the forest was now showing its trees. Sure, they would easily burn, but there were many of them, dense enough to obscure anything below their branches. The dragon would be burning the entire forest to find its prey!
And then, the group stopped.
Carts slowed to a halt, people dug their heels in to cut their haste to nothing. Whispers ran at first, but then, nervous chatter set in.
"Gertrude, why did they stop? Tell them to..."
"The forest," she said, her voice oddly calm. "This is sylphin land."
"What? Sylphs? Air spirits? Those are from fairy tales!"
"Call them what you will. There are spirits here that guard their land viciously, we just gave them a name we knew. They will let a few pass, maybe, but not this many!"
"They let me pass, easily. What do I have that... Oh..."
"What? What is it, child?"
Spirits. Magic. It was all Fifth Force stuff. The memory of the mansion and its magics just breaking down from contact with time travel energies came rushing back.
"Magic... magic doesn't like me much. Tell your people to stay as close to me as they can!"
One step forward, one step to go have spirits chased away. The old woman's fingers were strong on the sleeve. And she held fast, held firm, as her old, strained eyes gazed through skin and soul.
"Child... how long have you been here When did your trip through time arrive in ours?"
"Yesterday."
Something shifted in her old eyes at hearing that.It was impossible to truly tell what it was, except that it was emotional. Tears threatened to roll down her face, but never did, as she hardened her own soul, gritting what was left of her old teeth to be able to talk instead of crying.
"We will survive?" she asked, voice nearly breaking.
"Yes. I don't know how many, but some of you will live on after this."
She let go. Then, bringing back the strong voice of her youth, she shouted words to the rest, words that only they understood. And everyone looked over, hesitant, staring worriedly at the strange woman in their midst that they had likely been told to trust with their lives against magical beings. The youngest gathered around, urged on by the older, while the older themselves took the horses and carts to the edge of the clearing, spread out so as to not make the dragon's work too easy.
"You will take them in, Marie," said Gertrude, a steely gaze in the old, faltering eyes. "If you can, come back for us, but they are young, they matter most."
"But if we..."
"No," she interrupted, her voice suddenly soft as velvet. As if to make her words carry more weight, her leathery hands wrapped softly around the wrist of the frayed jumpsuit, holding gently but with a strength that had nothing to do with her physical muscles. "The spirits will be threatened less by fewer. It is a risk either way." The gentle carous became a respectful but firm hold on the wrist. "Trust an old woman in this." The younger in the group followed obediently into the forest, but it was a struggle to not look back. Branches and leaves soon closed around everyone, the forest now being all there was to see. It had been like this, looked like this, after the arrival to this place. But as everyone moved deeper into it, the trees themselves seemed to change. Colors seemed to fade and shift, brights becoming dull, colors becoming grey. In other spots, colors flared up, as if someone had tampered with the saturation settings of the world. Things, intangible but there to feel, moved through the crowd. But they only picked at the edges of the group, never daring to meet the one in the middle. They feared the energy that still dragged behind like a slipstream, a slipstream of broken time.
A scream rang out, a young man suddenly dangling in the air! Whatever tried to carry him off was stopped as others grabbed his legs, others yet grabbing them to hold them back! The entire group, as if in one thought, locked hands, grabbing anyone near them and holding on for dear life, in the most literal way possible! With a shriek, the man plummetted to the ground, where likely someone picked him up and pull him tight into the group again. From the center of them all, it was hard to see precisely.
While the forest filled with unnatural sounds, someone at the head of the group began calling out. The words still meant nothing to anyone but them, but it sounded joyous. At the first sound of the bubbling brook that likely ran into the caverns, it felt like a weight was lifted, like light was brighter and the air fresher. And then, someone got impatient.
As before, the actual events at the edge of the group were hard to see from its center, but three people, at least one of them a young man, were suddenly too far away to have patiently stayed with the rest. They had rushed to the cave, either to enthusiastic or too desperate for something they could see and touch to protect them against the forest. They screamed as they were picked off the ground and hurled into the woods. One came back, struggling against unseen hands clawing at her legs and body, leaving bloody gashes where swirls of dry leaves and dirt seemed to take on life and lunge at her. She was at last pulled back in. The two others were not. Their screams rang through the forest, but even without understanding the foreign language, it was clear what everyone whispered, tears in their eyes. Bait. The spirits wanted to lure others away, tempt them into a daring rescue. They failed.
When at last at the mouth of the caverns, the ones left rushed in. It would have been easy to escape with them, but once they were gone, there was only the forest left. Following them into the caverns was not an option. Gertrude and her old guard were still out there.
Unlike the first time, the forest now looked vile, threatening,perhaps even evil. Things lurked out there, things that were angry with humans, perhaps angry with everything that was not them. It felt like the mind refused to wrap itself around the notion of intangible forest spirits, wanting to constantly see figures, humanoid forms, in the green and brown that was everywhere. But whatever watched, it had no human form. Pure spirits, the free kind, prowling their territory. Not the tamed kind that Happy Marla spoke to, not the trained energies that Copper Claw used. Wild, savage, merciless spirits. And if there was any doubt, they themselves disspelled it when the mangle corpse of the young man taken was suddenly hurled through the air, already dead bones breaking against a large tree with a crushing sound. A show of power. Frustration. It was almost as if their voiceless screams filled the air with a disembodied anger.
But they were impotent, unable to get close. Held back by other unseen forces, likely causing them as much fear and frustration as their intangible bodies caused physical beings in their woods. And in the end, the clearing came into view. Branches and leaves parted, and sunlight made its way in, warm and plentiful!
The other warmth was less of a blessing. Fire crackled, several of the carts set ablaze. Two horses lay dead, and by closer examination, so did about half a dozen of the people. There were no loud screams, nothing but a few that could be heard in pain somewhere. Of those still on their feet, most were in the open, far too easy targets for the beast whose shadow slipped over the tall grass as it prowled for new victims, safe high up in the sky.
Gertrude was seated on the ground, breathing heavily, by some freestanding trees. No one dared go near the forest, and it was now painfully clear why, but she looked like someone who had run out of strength.
"Gertrude, are you..."
She nodded, waving a hand to gesture not to make too much of a deal out of it. She tried to talk, but she needed deep breaths to even focus.
"Child... are they safe?"
"They are at the caverns. Now we need to get the rest of you there."
She raised a weak arm to point to the sky.
"I believe someone above us disagrees," she said, chuckling a weird, raspy chuckle. Then she looked down, her hand reaching out and touching the grass. "It's okay. My time here is at an end."
The massive shadow went over the tree behind her, covering everything in darkness for a brief moment. Then it passed, and light came back. The shadow was large. It was low in the sky. It was chosing its prey.
"Gertrude, I think I may have been wrong."
A bit of life cameback into her eyes as she looked up, uneasy frown on her face.
"What, child?"
"I think... I think that you were all meant to die here. I think I changed your history."
She looked up towards the circling dragon, bewildered, not sure if she should be afraid.
"You need to tell your people to stay out of the way of the world. You need to tell them not to meddle in the affairs of history. To live and eventually die out in peace. Can you do that?"
Her voice cracking, her eyes finally beginning to fill with tears, she kept looking for the dragon that was hidden behind the bright sunlight, a shape she would barely be able to see with good eyes.
"How can I? I have no more voice to shout with, and they are far away."
The shadow passed again. As it did, it shrank. The dragon was rising up, getting ready to strike.
"When I'm gone, you will tell them."
"When you are gone?"
It was painful meeting her eyes, but in that moment, it almost felt as if she saw everything clearly.
"Your time here is not at an end."
She said nothing, but her eyes asked a million questions.
"But mine is."
With a slight touch of the old woman's wrinkled forehead, there seemed to be nothing more left to say. Deep breaths drew warm air into the lungs, filling the body with new energy. A paralyzing fear tried to make its way from gently shivering fingers up through the spine and into the brain, but it was blocked, forced to writhe as an impotent emotion deep inside a dark corner of the subconscious. Reaching into the jumpsuit, the antimagical trinket felt like an old friend, the thousand needles on the skin like a warm carous.
"You there, #*@!er?! Come and have a bite, you flying #*@!ing rodent!"
As if commanded by a higher power, the tall grass moved out of the way, making running through it feel like nothing more than a track race back home. Home. Glimpses of it flashed by, of The Embassy, of everyone there. To them, no time had passed. The time machine had flared up and made a loud noise.
"Remember me, skyturd?! I'm the one who royally butt#*@!ed your master!"
The shadow suddenly passed over, tiny, the dragon so high above. There was nothing but open space around, now. There were no obstructions, no distractions. Turning around and looking up,the shape of the beast blocked the sun, creating a dragon-shaped halo in the sky. The leather wrapping came off the trinket with nothing but a flick of the wrist and fell to the ground silently.
"Come on! I'm right here! Move that slow ass! Was your mother a #*@!ing blimp?!"
It dropped like a rock! The shadow grhew in every direction, the sun disappeared, and the early noon light only fully illuminated the glistening white teeth and talons as they hurtled towards the earth.
The trinket dug into flesh, through to bone. It would do nothing to a dragon. The dragon belonged here. But it was not the target.
All it took was wrapping naked fingers around the black dust on the strings. The pain shot through everything, feeling like fire in the eyes and thorns through every drop of blood. It was impossible not to scream. So why bother resist? As the mighty beast threw itself towards the ground, its trajectory stopping only when its claws dug into its prey, colored dots filled the air, and pain filled everything else. Four... Three... Two...
"Come and #*@!ing get me!!!!!"

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 51

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 51 Blinding lights. No, lights on blinding white surfaces. Whatever the case, my eyes burned from simply opening.
I was laid down on a bed, one that was overly soft and, like walls and ceiling, very white. No decorations. A hospital.
The clinic!
I sat up quite abruptly, instantly letting out a cry of pain as my skin felt like it cracked and my muscles tore themselves apart! Aches and pains ran rampant in my body, covering every bit of skin and every pieces of organ, as if my blood itself was filled with burning needles. The room spun, tilting in ways that went beyond the movements of my head, I suspected. And then, everything aligned. I turned my head just in time to not puke on myself.
"Ida?"
The question was slurred, like someone drunk was asking it. It came from slightly behind me, and it took some painful strain of the neck to look over my shoulder at the source. Flat on his back, blinking and trying to focus right, was Niels. Bandages on his right side and wrapping his left leg had red splatters on them, from some form of bleeding inside. He moved, but no more than he he to in order to look up from his own bed. Plastic strips tied his wrists to the metal frame of the bed, and I instantly looked at my own hands. The right hand was secured by an identical strip to my bed. I was not moving anytime soon, it seemed, and with a hurting back I laid myself down on the bed again.
"Hey, Niels. How's the fam?"
The first thing I could make out from him was mostly just a growling sound, a complaint without actual words. It took a few seconds for it to turn into a deep sigh.
"Jens basically collapsed when he stepped out of the car. Had it gone on for much longer... I dont know. But everybody is alive. That was the main plan, right? Dont die?"
"Yeah. Don't die..."
The words echoed around inside my brain for a bit. Images of the fight with the woman in white's goons kept flashing through my head like poorly edited film clips, making my heart skip a beat practically each and every time. Spurred by a sudden impulse, I sat up again so quickly that the strip around my wrist yanked back, making my arm hurt more than any other part of my body!
"The others! The rebels!"
Niels looked over at me with a weird expression on his face, looking like I had just screamed incomprehensible nonsense at the top of my lungs.
"I need to get... out. I need to leave," I complained loudly. So loudly, in fact, that a nurse came over. I froze as she suddenly stood by my bedside, arms crossed over her chest and a stiff look in her eyes.
"You're not leaving until you've talked to the police," she said with what was seemingly meant to be an authoritive voice. She failed to hide how tired she was, making her sound more snarky than authoritive, but the message got through quite nicely, nonetheless.
"No, I need to get..."
Before I could finish, she put her surprisingly firm hands on my shoulders and laid me back down, tucking me in and securing the sheets firmly around the sides of the bed. They could easily be pulled loose again, but along with the plastic strip, she was letting me know quite clearly how I was expected to behave.
"Whatever you idiots have been blowing up out there and around town, the police want to see you about it, and I'm not..."
Pulling the aforementioned sheets loose, I fought to sit up again, pulling at the plastic strip, feeling my heartbeat get more erratic and the multiple aches becoming a tense frustration all around my body. She grabbed me by the shoulders, again, and this time forced me down quite powerfully.
"If you don't lie down and stay there, I will tranquilize you," she said through gritted teeth, and from the look on her face, I believed her.
Staying down in the bed until well after she finally left, I listened to the sounds around the place. The nearest real hospital was several towns away, the local one having been cut from the budget long ago to save money. There rarely passed a week where government officials didn't complain in one way or another about small towns being a drain on resources, and how they wanted to centralize and optimize hospital planning and so much else. In other words, anyone not living in one of the ten biggest cities was a bum and waiting two hours for an ambulance during a car wreck or a heart attack was what people in expensive suits felt that such lowlifes deserved. It had been a debate for as long as I could remember. But this once, not having to listen to the flood of noise in a fully equipped hospital was arguably a good thing. With much less background noise, the interesting things stood out much better.
What was easy to hear was that there was a bit of a panic going on. I had been to the clinic often, almost always to see my mom at work. Behind the closed doors, it was a lot easier to get a sense of the hectic work environment, and one thing I had long ago learned was that it had a rhythm to it. People spoke a certain way, walked a certain way, did everything a certain way. They were not doing it that certain way right now. They had upped the beat, everything faster and leaner.
"Niels?"
There was a grunt from the nearby bed.
"Did something else happen? Something that has people in a rush here?"
"Dunno," Niels replied, sounding a little out of it. "Something about cars piling up."
"Cars? A pile-up of cars? In Nakskov?!"
He grunted to confirm, but it still sounded wrong. Traffic was barely ever even dense in town. Mischa had a running joke of calling one car stopping behind another a Nakskov traffic jam. There simply where not enough cars to fill the many streets.
"Niels? You still there? Do you know where the others went?"
A slurred mumble could be heard from him, a slight hint of a complaining growl. Whatever was bothering him, it wasn't leaving him alone anytime soon.
"A few jumped out by the edge of town. The rest are here," he mumbled. He just barely finished the sentence when a nurse stopped by him to say something and check something. With him behind me and the plastic strip limiting my movements, it was hard to tell what, exactly. As she walked away, I managed to twist my neck enough to get a look, and he was fast asleep on the mobile hospital bed. A few random sounds mumbled as he fell into a deeper slumber was all the sign of life he had to give.
With nobody to talk to, the place suddenly seemed a lot bigger. As minutes ticked by, I closely watched every corridor within sight, hoping to see someone familiar turn a corner. Nobody came. I pulled and yanked against the plastic strip, but it never gave way, not even the slightest,and all I managed to do was make my wrist hurt. Finally, tears in my eyes, I gave up. Holding back a scream of frustration, I collapsed back on the bed,making its metal parts rattle loudly.
"You need help with that?"
The voice sounded very familiar. I had to tilt my head back at an uncomfortable degree to see, but even before I saw her face, I felt a warm rush of hope race through me.
"Hi, Ida," I said with a broad smile. The robot smiled back.
"Hi, Ida," she said, leaning in abit comically. Her face still had an abundanceof wounds, but they were healing rather impressively, to be honest!
With one eye on the people in the hallway that mine and Niels' bed were placed in, she walked around the bed and stood up on the metal railing to reach over me. The right side of the bed, and hence my right wrist with the plastic strip, was placed against the wall, and something told me not by accident. Still, she could just reach it. With a quiet snap, she pulled the strip apart, sending me a proud smile while she jumped down off the bed again.
"Cool, thank you so much," I sighed, then looked over at the now sleeping Niels. "Could you do his, too? Please?"
The robot copy looked at him, clearly a bit confused by the request.
"He might wake up and have to make a run for it," I commented, answering whatever question she wasn't asking. With a nod and a look down the hall, she strolled over to the bed and reached in to snap his strip, too.
"What now?" she asked, looking very excited to be part of the whole undertaking.
"I need to get to the time machine. I need to get the rebel time travelers out of this place, out of harm's way."
Having finished the sentence, I felt my brain go over it, going over the things the time travelers had kept secret, the way they had treated me. And I thought of Vera's last seconds, in the tall grass north of town. Then I shook all those thoughts out of my head.
"There's something going on with traffic, you should..."
She stopped talking, noticing that I was nodding to let her know I had already heard about the cars.
"Yeah, I need to find some other way to get there. And I don't think that's a coincidence."
"Me neither," she replied, and we looked at each other for a moment before we smiled, both admiring how alike we apparently still were.
"First thing's first, though," I said, jumping down from the bed and taking in the surroundings, now without being restricted to twisting my neck around. People still moved back and forth with a sense of quiet rush to them, but none of them seemed very interested in our little part of the hallway.
"It's dangerous out there. Take these," said the copy, handing me a fresh set of clothes. She clearly caught the fact that I was staring rather confused at them.
"The spare key," she explain very casually. "Peter was in his study, no problem just walking in and taking them."
"Cover me," I whispered quickly, right before I started changing against the corner of the bed. She didn't hesitate, moving to block any potential prying eyes so quickly that I suspected she already knew I wouldn't waste time looking for a proper place to change. A minute or so later we wrapped my filthy clothes around a pillow and did our best to make it look like I was sleeping in the bed. It would only trick people at a distance.
Down the hallway and to the left I knew there were stairs. In my times following my mom to work, back when she hesitated letting me roam free around the house when not in school, I had gotten enough of a look around the place to know the layout, know the ins and, especially, the outs of the place. These stairs would lead me to the main lobby, which meant to a way out. Theoretically, at least.
The moment I got to the bottom of the stairs, I knew something was wrong. The lobby was roomy, meaning there was never really much hustle and bustle in there. But even before my feet were at the foot of the stairs, I could hear people, many people, a level of activity that was completely out of place there. One peek through the glass door and any doubt was laid to rest.
It was not chaos. In a strange way, things seemed more in control than I might have expected, had I even known that there were that many people in there. But the lobby was, in a word, crowded. Leaning against the stairway wall and sneaking glimpses of it all, I could see clinic personnel weaving in and out between a lot of people that were...
I froze, leaning out awkwardly from the wall. I had expected police to be there. Even with the limited number of officers allotted to small places like Nakskov, two vans dumping off injured people, some of them kids, would attract attention from some part of the authorities. And there were officers there, to be sure. From a quick count, five of them. But there were at least a dozen more in there, and none of them looked like cops or clinic personnel. They looked like random people, just standing around.
Copies.
And that was when sounds began to ring out from upstairs, too! Off hand, it could be anything, but it felt like a safe bet that someone had found the fake pillow me in the bed, along with the snapped strip. The hunt had already begun. They would soon think to look in the stairwell.
On the other hand, it made a few of the people in the lobby, including two officers, rush to the elevators when word came in over their comms. The people, three of them, tried to be very casual about following the two cops, but only someone completely oblivious to them would not spot it. They were robot copies acting like robot copies, but not a soul was looking for such things, so it didn't even matter.
I spotted her in a reflection. The woman in white, standing by one of the large windows, keeping an eye on the entire operation without even mingling. What she spotted was beyond me. Maybe my long jacket, maybe the hair. Whatever it was, she didn't wait for anyone else to react, she just bolted down the hallway leading away from the exit that all the people, probably not coincidentally, were blocking. The door to the stairwell had barely even glided shut before she passed by, and I could only watch her hot in pursuit by catching glimpses of her in even more reflections, or the blur when her long coat flapped in the air like a cape. She was fast, faster than I remembered having ever seen her before, and getting rid of her seemed less likely for every second that passed. It only took one wrong turn, and the hunt was over. That turn ended up being a small exam room across the hall from the corridor that ran to one of the rear exits.
"Hello again," she chirped, flashing a smile so falsely warm that it was outright creepy. "Funny running into you here."
She was breathing a bit too rapidly. Not out of breath, but pressed, that much was clear. A fast move might be enough to evade her. Maybe.
"#*@!ed up sense of humor you have, lady."
Her smile simply grew wider and creepier at the insult. Her neck long blond hair was a mess from the sudden sprint, and in a weirdly casual move, she stopped for a moment to untangle a bit of it from her collar.
"Its over, little girl. We've got the exits covered, we've got your little friends tied to hospital beds, and we've got your cars boxed in right outside in the parking lot. Not a lot of options left."
"Really? You're covering all the exits? Quite a lot of them, you know..."
"Yeah," she purred, taking a few feminine steps forward, making the room seem a whole lot smaller. "It did take me a few minutes to regroup after that little stunt of yours out at the fallen colony. But hey, not my first spin around the block."
The way she talked, the look in her eyes, the calm way she tried to walk forward without seeming to intimidating. It looked weird. It looked like she felt some kind of respect. In the hallway, two of the obvious robot copy people had showed up to block the door out of the room, just in case.
"I really wish you would have teamed up with us. You're good."
"Are all your people really covering the exits?"
She laughed. It seemed genuine, but it came completely out of left field!
"What, you think you can take them? I told you, you're out of options, little girl. Give up. Give in."
"Yeah, about that... You might wanna check again."
Her laugh had died down, but now her smile also started looking a bit forced.
"What, your friends are going to launch some assault?"
"Nope."
"Then what?"
"Me."
"You what? You're going to launch an assault?"
"I'm not a little girl."
Watching the woman's reflection in the fullbody mirror on the far side of the exam room from out in the hall, a warm sense of victory flowed through my body as her cocky smile faded, realizing that she was not talking to the real me. I pulled the solid wooden door shut behind her two robot copies the second the copy, my copy, threw itself at her, and as bodies slammed against the door, pinning it shut, I heard the woman in white roar in anger as the little robot tore into her and everything else. Even as I headed down the hallway, I could hear things smashing inside the room!
"Ida?"
My mistake occurred to me too late. Turning the corner, she just stood there, holding a small tablet while talking to one of the doctors.
"Mom?"
Neither of us said anything, but the looks we sent each other were a furious conversation in their own right.
"I'm... Mom, I can expl..."
"Are you one of the kids they brought in?!"
She was terrified. I had heard her voice like that before, but there had always been some physical reason for it. Beebee's bike getting hit by a car, me taking a hit to the head during some dumb sports event at school. Something to be afraid of, something tangible. I had never heard it as just a reaction to seeing me.
"It's... I'm trying to help someone..."
"Who? Panik, what are you doing here?!"
It took me a second to realize that she was looking at the cuts and bruises on my face and hands. The fresh clothes covered everything else, but not those.
"I... I'm sorry, I have to tell you later!"
Seeing her standing in the hallway, eyes wide and confused to near the point of tears, felt like a spear through my chest. And yet, I ran by her, into her office, the place I had been looking for. She had been using the same office for years, and I knew every bit of it by heart. That included the small window by the radiator. I had snuck out of it many times to mess with her as a kid, having her wait for me in the lobby and then calling to her from the outside. As my clothes scraped against the metal frame I had to accept that I was not that kid any longer, but in spite of some aches and scrapes, I tumbled onto the damp grass outside.
The office was placed far enough from any exit that the woman's minions were nowhere to be seen. I did my best to ignore the thought of my confused mother, no doubt walking to her office now, expecting to find me inside. I was gone from the window before she had a chance to see me through it. I didn't stop before I reached the parking lot behind the clinic, and even then, I only looked back briefly, cursing under my breath, angry and sad that she had to be there to see me. I couldn't see her, or even see her office window that well, but instead noticed that several suspiciously nondescript people hanging out near the various exits of the place were now scrambling to either get in or look around outside the building. The cars hid me well, but it was only a matter of time before someone came looking.
The road nearby was a bit of a puzzle, it always had been. Nakskov was old, and many streets had been laid down with horses in mind, new streets growing as needed when the town grew. Even after all these years of living there, I still had an uncanny  ability to lose my way around streets I rarely used. This was one of those cases.
In the end, I doubled back around, getting as close as I dared to the clinic again, but by another road. Even from a distance, I could see the hushed commotion of the woman's henchmen trying to get the situation under control. There were even police cars there, two of them, parked on the curb outside the clinic grounds. The parking lot could get cluttered, so it made sense. What made a little less sense was that there was clearly someone inside. More precisely, someone in the back.
"Hi in there. What are you in for?"
The joke was in poor taste, and I fully deserved the angry glare that Emilie sent me from inside the backseat of the car. Without a word, she held up her hands, showing a plastic strip much like the one I had on just minutes ago, holding her wrists together. I was surprised at how little I felt when I turned and walked to the front yard of a nearby house, picking up a grey brick from the nice flowerbed that was made from them. Emilie's eyes grew the size of teacups when I raised the brick, and she covered every bit of skin right before the broken bits of safety glass rained down on her seat.
"What the... I mean, thanks. I guess."
Looking at the clinic, keeping an eye out for anyone who was distracted from the manhunt for me long enough to actually spot me, I helped her squeeze through the broken window. With her hands still tied together, we did our best to look inconspicuous as we hirrued away. And as I carefully put the grey brick back, I picked up the sharpest bit of flint I could spot in the mixed stone gravel that had been spread out carefully in the front yard around the flowerbed. Still looking over her shoulder, Emilie used it dilligently, and just as we reached the main road that the street was attached to, the plastic strip snapped open.
"So, not that I mind, but exactly why did you risk everything to get precisely me out of there?" she asked, sounding honestly grateful, but also honestly confused.
"How are your legs doing?" I asked, fearing the answer.
"Just fine. Why?"
"The lovely lady we've been fighting blocked everything from here to the place I need to get to. Im pretty sure her minions are already there, and we need to beat them to the punch."
"Where is it?"
"An old school south of here."
"Give me the directions and I'll...."
The way she suddenly met my gaze told me that she had just figured out what I was asking of her.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 50

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 50 It was nearly noon. The gate ahead was a different one from the one near the beggars' tent, a move of necesity as that part of the city had started to fill with people asking uncomfortable questions. Kehu had, quite understandably, predicted that any gate near the mansion would be on alert. It had been quite a walk to get to the next gate, but it meant slipping out with fewer questions asked. Kehu had even done something, perhaps a spell, to make the tattoos fade and look no different from regular skin. Somehow, for the first time, it made it at least seem like Kehu was a man. A slim, even gangly man, with few of the muscular features one might see elsewhere in this time, but a man nonetheless. Maybe. There was no point in risking to actually ask.
The others had stayed behind. The strange armor from the mansion had fetched a good few coppers from a shady middleman that prefered to deal only with Timnas, and the old man even proudly showed the one silver coin that the deal had apparently garnered.
"Copper is for trading goods," Kehu had explained on the way to the other gate. "Silver is for trading favors with powerful people." As with matters of gender, it seemed not worth the possible fallout to ask if there were coins for others things. Wooden tokens for beggars, copper for common goods, silver for special favors. There was a strange poetry to this odd economy, but knowing more would not pave much of the way ahead, it seemed.
Copper bought two horses at the gate, too. Even if they looked a bit old and worn, just mounting a steed outside the massive gate made the surrounding forest look smaller and less daunting.
"Why do you know so little about the world?" Kehu asked once there was nothing but forest around, no tent town by the wall there to overhear unusual questions, and perhaps unusual answers.
"I come from a different place."
"And your name, Marie? That comes from this place, as well"
"It does."
"Is it common there?"
"It is. That's why I chose it."
Kehu fell silent, the sounds of animals in the forest and the slow hooves of the horses now the only sound around.
"You chose your name?"
"I did."
This was not good. There had been very little time for sleep, and things were slippingout that should not. But the burning hum of atoms starting to stray and yearn back to a different time was becoming worse. Soon, whether asked to or not, atom after atom would start to defect. The results of that were never good.
"Why?"
There were too many questions that would follow. This line of conversation was a bad thing.
"People like me never get names. But people had to call me something."
"People like you?"
Kehu was right to ask, but this was a talk that could only end badly.
"We work for a group that helps others. I got lost on a mission and found myself in the forest."
The leaves rustled. It was hard not to flinch at sounds, the thoughts of people still hunting the thieves of last night.
"A guild, I assume?"
A nod was enough to answer his question. Or hers, if the guess had been wrong.
"Does this guild deal in lost magics?"
The way the question placed magic alongside time travel, even unwittingly so, was enough to cause the mind to wander. Still in its pocket, the small toylike thing, the anti-magical trinket from the horseman, was sending a strange and sore sensation through every bone and muscle near it. It was made with magic in mind, or so it seemed. It was easy to imagine not one person using it knew anything about time travel.
"In a way, yes."
Kehu clearly waited for that short answer to be elaborated upon. It felt mean to disappoint, even if it was the easiest way to make the topic seem inappropriate to poke at more.
"How much of it?"
And there it was. The question had been hanging in the air ever since first talking about the trinket back in the city. The powers of it had to come from somewhere. A random horseman carrying something that was apparently this valuable was too much of a coincidence. Even if he had found it, the fact that he had been allowed to keep it was too curious. Others would have taken it. They were attacking people using magical spears and who knew what else, for #*@!'s sake! Either the strongest would have such defensive items, or they all did. The signs pointed to all.
"Perhaps a lot."
Kehu kept looking but there was something in those eyes, something trying to weigh the situation.
"Perhaps a mine."
Finally, Kehu's eyes turned away. They were wide, accompanying the slightly open mouth nicely. But they were turned away.
The forest was getting dense. Memories began returning in flashes of the forest growing dark as the tall, thick trees crowded out the light of a low sun, but this was not the case at the moment. The dense trees and growth cast long and imposing shadows, but they were not an artificial night. Not yet.
"Were you in such a mine for a long time?" asked Kehu, eyes and mouth now back to normal. "Is that why you... why you do what you do? Why you are what you are?"
"In a way."
That answer was a copout, saying neither yes nor no. It was still very hard to talk to Kehu about important matters. This was, after all, only hours after having been more or less forced by the same person to commit a crime, one that could have ended far worse than it did. Being upfront and honest was not the kind of friendship that had developed in that short time, especially about things as troubling as time travel.
The rest of the trip was dominated by casual  chat. Kehu had been abandoned as a child and grown up with an old mage, who survived by scams through petty magic. A life of crime had come naturally after that. The stories of the others, as retold by Kehu, were much the same, although with thieving, conning and brute force supplanting the magic.
The wall came into view some time into the afternoon. It was getting harder and harder to hide the infrequent stabs of pain that came from the anchor, the energy holding atoms in this time, beginning to slip. It was still a necesity, however.
"You escaped this?" asked Kehu, letting a hint of being impressed slip through.
"Yeah. Different gate, but yes, this wall."
Kehu took it all in. The massive gate looked rotten, but anyone with half a mind would know it was only a surface rot. The mass of the wooden door was still strong, proven by it still standing, if nothing else. The metal fittings along the edge of each huge door had plants growing on them and innumerable scratches, but there were no signs of rust to be seen.
"Last time, there was a small crack near a hinge. Maybe we..."
It was unclear of Kehu even listened, walking up to the small door inserted in the large one. Guards at the other wall had hovered closely by a similar small door, but there were no guards here. Still, the other small door had been thick, its true size visible when looking at it open. It seemed likely this one would be the same. And yet, Kehu placed a hand softly on it. At first, it seemed that Kehu's weight was causing the door to groan, but it soon became clear that something else was at play. Clunks rumbled through the wood, even sending complaining sounds through the great gate itself. And with a push, Kehu opened the small door.
"That was... Did you just pick the lock right now?"
Kehu smiled. "And nudged the bolt out of its place. Many of the magically inclined hide away in empty walls, I have been told. Now, it makes a kind of sense to me!"
It was hard not to imagine The Skillwalker and Donlarn and all the rest having gotten in that way. What was hard to imagine, however, was that they were hiding inside the same wall. This was a far more eastern gate, and they were too far away to even see the remaining towers of the ruins they had made their home in.
"How big are these walls, anyway?"
Kehu looked over from trying to help the horst through the door meant for humans. The horse was being uncooperative about the whole ordeal.
"Legends say every one of the one hundred rulers granted the right to form a wall was told to let their people run from one spot and in every direction from the rise of the sun till the last sunlight faded in the evening. As far as they got, the wall of that ruler could be."
Hearing that, the distance took on a different meaning. It now looked like a challenge, a dare to see who could cross from wall to center from dawn to dusk, and then from center to another part of the wall on the next day.
"Of course," Kehu chirped proudly as the horse finally squeezed through, "many likely cheated."
Like the other place along the same wall those few days ago, this place had levels of wall, too. Long terasses, like the stands in a colosseum, ran along the wall, stairs leading from one to the next. Climbing to the top, after having been on horseback for hours, took its toll on the legs, but once Kehu and the horses were no more than small blobs of color at the foot of the wall, the lay of the land inside the wall suddenly unfolded before one's very eyes! Ruin towns not far inward, empty and dilapidated like the one that housed the Skillwalker and Donlarn, dotted the landscape. Up close, the town had looked like a center of a small, rural community. But from above like this, they looked like nothing more than dispersed barracks, little camps for housing, feeding and perhaps entertaining workers and guards. What was harder to see was what the workers were housed for. All that could be seen was a dusty and dark cluster of badly damaged structures in the middle of them. It was far away, too far to make out any details. It could very well be that center of the walls that Kehu had mentioned.
"I think we need to ride that way, directly away from the wall!"
Shouting at Kehu was futile. The sound barely carried, and something in the few words of his that could be heard back suggested that his supernatural means of translation carried even worse at that distance. The climb down was mych gentler than the climb up, luckily.
"I think I saw the center."
Kehu said nothing back, but clearly expected more elaboration. The horses were a bit unruly, showing signs of being nervous, and had been bound to the branches of a large bush. It bothered Kehu, too, and it showed.
"There is something odd about this place, Marie," said Kehu, looking around as if to find the thing that was wrong by sight alone.
"We are inside a wall the size of a large city, and there is nothing in here but ghost towns. Yes, there is something odd about the place, I have no doubts about that."
The slight sarcasm was clearly lost on Kehu, who looked like a confused child trying to understand a parent's prank. Of course, since the tattoos were no longer hidden, that broke the similarity to a child a bit.
"Yes, Kehu, there is something odd in here. I know. And it worries me, too."
The horse protested a bit at being untied. It never panicked, never tried to pull away, but the constant heavy breathing and uneasy feet made it feel like it could do either of those things, at any time and without warning. Both horses acted this way, and Kehu clearly had the same worries. But mounting them and having them ride off towards the darkened center, or whatever it was, did not spook them. They were uneasy, but they still obeyed.
After some time on the horses, it was clear that whatever the dark spot was, it was not the center, or at least, not the exact center. The gate had not been truly east, not judging by the sun and the shadows near noon. And yet, going to the dark spot on the horizon felt very close to chasing the sun, going a constant west. It was closer, too. It had to be. A wall this long, an area this large, would take too long to reach the center of. And yet, with the sun still on a slow climb down the sky, the earth beneath the hooves of the horses began to grow darker and darker. Black powder, like a fine ash, covered the ground and had long ago choked all but the most resilient plants. Deformed and dying bushes stood here and there, but there was no grass on the near barren ground. Animals, it seemed, also stayed away. The sound of birds disappeared long before even entering the area, and by the time the black dust was all around, not even insects could be heard.
"Marie, are you okay?"
There was a strange scent in the air, a kind of rot that had nothing to do with meat. It was hard not to feel some revulsion at the smell.
"Marie, I asked if you were okay? You are bleeding."
Moreso than the smell, it was strange how Kehu's words were loud and clear, and yet felt like they disappeared into theunnatural silence.
"Sorry, yeah, I'm okay, I just... Wait, bleeding?!"
Kehu pointed, and indeed, blood was trickling through some cuts in the forearm of the jumpsuit, thin stream of blood making its way down to the hand and from there dripping to the ground. Halting the horse to take a look, no wound seemed to be there. Little cuts, tiny gashes, seemed to bleed each a tiny bit, the nearly imperceivable streams uniting into one.
"I don't know if basic healing works on you," Kehu sighed, "but if you wish, I could try"
A nod made Kehu put one hand on the slowly bleeding arm. A few mumbles, a few signs in the air, and a warmth started to touch the arm. But it healed nothing. It just slowly became hot. And with a hiss, Kehu pulled the hand away, staring bitterly at the sightly less bleeding arm.
"Sorry, it's not something I can, you know, control. Is your hand okay?"
Kehu nodded, but the eyes had more to say. They kept jumping back between the hand and the bleeding arms, a vague disbelief to their gaze.
"This was not entirely you," Kehu said, sounding very pensive and unnerved. It seemed like there was more to say, but instead, Kehus eyes looked down. Down at the blackened ground. By the hooves of the horses and scattered by faint winds, the fine ashes were suddenly ful of embers, glowing like tiny coals on the bare ground. It filled in most densely along what seemed to be a dried up riverbed, as if it had gathered in the river or by wind after it dried up. It ran towards the wall, but it seemed to be the other direction that had once been down river.
"Where does it go?" asked Kehu, clearly thinking that having been inside the wall before meant knowing all about the geography in there.
"I have no idea. But wherever it goes, you'll find the thick of this black dust there."
It was obvious to anyone that Kehu tried to hide a swell of interest. For Kehu, this was just a different kind of heist. And there was no use at this point in trying to explain the far more complex truth.
Even on the horse, moving just slightly farther aong the riverbed was torture. From its black blanket on the ground, the dust radiated strange energies, and they could be felt as they tampered with anything not of this time. Or anyone.
"You have to stop," Kehu sighed. All but hanging from the horse, it was hard to argue. It felt like being massively drunk, like every bit of the body shutting down. And it was only going to get worse.
"No, we have to... get..."
Gravity seemed to shift. Gliding off the horse felt nothing like falling, it felt like slipping off a soft chair and onto the floor. Except the floor was farther below, and had little rocks in it.
It took a few seconds before the smell of burned flesh started to fill the air. Then, the pain! Like burning coals, the dust reached through the ragged clothes and the jumpsuit. Kehu came running almost immediately, likely pushed on by the eventual screaming! In the haze of pain and blurry colors, Kehu's gestures were hard to discern, and the cryptic words no longer translated. They were just noise.
"Kehu, no, not h..."
There was black static in the air, sparks of darkness filling it for asplit second. Then, the air itself seemed to explode!
When everything calmed down, the burning pain was gone. No searing of the skin, no fire in the lungs. Every breath felt fresh.
The black dust was gone. Not gone entirely, but blewn away. Around where the horses had stood, even the loose dirt of the riverbed was torn up and out, leaving only compacted earth and stones to heavy to be swept up in...
Kehu!
Getting up revealed that the pain was numb, not gone. Legs burning, skin like old paper, walking over to Kehu was a struggle. Kehu, meanwhile, was sprawled out on the ground, flat on the back, body feeling like it was on fire!
"Kehu, wake up!"
There was no reaction.
The horses had run, but not far. The blast had sooked them, but just outside the black dust, they had stopped to graze. Just tying one of them to the other to ride both was enough to make every finger feel like it would snap off like dry driftwood, but in the end, the animals walked back to the blewn spot. Kehu, weighing next to nothing, was easy to get over the back of the horse. Mounting it while holding on to the unconscious body was a greater challenge. "Where are we?"
There was a rough quality to Kehu's voice when waking, like that of an unrepenting chainsmoker or heavy drinker.
"The river."
Kehu was laid out in the grass and not all that easy to see, but a head did suddenly stick up.
"The river was dry," Kehu responded, sounding very disoriented.
"No, just the part we were at. I hid from raiders not far from here. The ones that had the anti-magical trinkets."
The river was deeper here. Not much broader, but broad enough to bathe in. The blood washed away quickly, and only a few minor wounds refused to provide the water with more. The worst were the burns, blackened and charred skin, painful to the touch, like a very bad sunburn. They were everywhere, on limbs and body and, perhaps most painful of all, across the face.
"What did you do, anyway? How did you cause that blast?"
Rather than immediately answering, Kehu staggered and stood up, carefully.
"An illusion. A powerful one."
Water in the river flowed slowly, washing the red and black away. It was also very clear, and Kehu was getting close enough to make modesty an issue. And still, whether Kehu was man or woman was impossible to truly tell. There was no sense in a time traveler with qualms about his or her body, the job simply had to many unforeseen possibilities. But local culture could be anything, from calm indifference to hysterical modesty!
"Wait, how could an illusion..."
Kehu chuckled, looking slightly proud while looking around, still swaying slightly.
"I figured any powerful magic would have a reaction. All it needed to do was blow outward."
"You okay? You seem..."
"I am fine," Kehu answered quickly, but followed with a deep cough. "Where are you? I can't see you anywhere."
"In the river, washing off the dust."
It was a bet, hoping that either Kehu would do nothing to look or that looking would do nothing to Kehu. Walking over and painfully kneeling down, Kehu showed it to be the latter.
"What do we do?" Kehu asked, sounding more than worried, sticking a hand carefully into the river, wetting it to wash the other and then gently run both hands wet over a face that looked to be in a bit of pain. The tattoos had only dull, simple colors to them, no glow or shine, and there were tiny black dots like freckles all over the skin.
"I'll be done here soon. You can wash off that dust, and we can..."
Kehu said nothing, but stood up and walked away slowly.
"Was it something I said?"
With a strange, distant look in the eyes, Kehu shifted from politely looking at just the river water and looking off into the distance.
"When magic was all but lost after being forbidden, some of our ancestors struggled to find new ways of hiding it," Kehu said, fingers nervously twiddling. "Some hid power in stone, in markings like the ones you have already seen. Others found ways to hide magic in and on the body."
With some hesitation, Kehu pulled up a sleeve, showing the full extent of the tattoos on that arm. Near the wrist, they were elegant lines, weaving an everchanging pattern. But as they came closer to the shoulder, they became grotesque, with jarring streaks and jagged, twisting lines that looked like flesh torn up, except in all the wrong colors.
"I carry this. It is not something I like to display."
It was weird to hear a powerful sorrow in Kehu's voice, the daring mage having seemed so in charge for the better part of the journey. It felt more like an admission of guilt than a personal anecdote.
"You got all those tattoos so you could practice magic? That's impressive dedication, I have to say!"
It was meant as a compliment, perhaps a bit as a quip. But nothing in Kehu's face changed. The sorrow was still there.
"They are not mine. They were put on me as a child. They were meant to fuel someone else's spells. I just learned to harness some of their power."
Kehu's voice was close to breaking, but it was getting harder to judge if it was pain or anger.
"My... job... demands a lot of me."
Kehu fel silent and listened. It seemed that it made the painful memories disappear for a moment.
"I travel. A lot. I guess you would say I travel by magic. I dont have the same kind of dramatic tattoos, but..."
Stepping out of the river and into the early evening sun so low in the sky felt odd, like moving from one cold into another, equal cold. But as Kehu's eyes nervously ran across all the burns and scars that had accumulated over time, it felt worth it. There was no worry about body, no shyness or shame. Just two people admitting that they had the marks to show what they had been through.
"What do we do?" asked Kehu, now sounding more alive and awake. Not cheerful, still worried and apprehensive, but with a renewed sense of hope in both tone and body language.
The river made a soft, bubbling sound as it ran through the landscape. It narrowed into a stream not far away, by a cluster of thick bushes that looked almost like tiny trees.
"What exactly is your kind of magic, Kehu?"
"Mostly the mind, trickery. And a few defensive tricks, for when that other trickery, well, fails."
It was hard not to smile a bit when seeing the sly expression on Kehu's face.
"Can you do anything to bock the flow of a river? Just briefly?"
Kehu looked down the river, now also spotting the narrowing not that far away, but saying nothing. "I followed the dry riverbed to this spot. The horsemen I ran into last time I was here have diverted it, I guess to water their horses and for their own needs."
"You want to make it overflow?"
A nod was all the answer needed. Kehu was looking at the river, realising that yes, it was at its highest at the moment. The rocks had been eroded over time to show how high the waters rose on their own, but there was still room for more. And with a determined breath, Kehu walked in long, brazen strides to the narrow length.
"What can we do? Is there a spell for this?"
Kehu, surprisingly, pulled up the sleeves again, this time looking intensely at each tattoo, at every ine and symbol.
"I only ever dabbled with the ones that came naturally to me..."
Taking a deep and uneven breath, Kehu then let the sleeves fall again, and instead loosened the strings that held the entire robe closed. Right before it fully loosened, fingers grabbed the collar, holding it closed in a balled fist, knuckles growing slowly white.
"How much of this black dust is inside that place?"
"A lot. More than you can imagine. And far, far more potent than what we saw already."
As the fingers released the collar of the robe, the fabric slowly fell. Tattoos covered every bit of skin, the lines from the face gathering into twisted images and abstract symbols that would likely take a lifetime to study. It was impossible to even see the color of her skin. But Kehu was, in body, a woman.
Still with the robe mostly around here, Kehu knelt, the fabric draping over her back as she reached her arms into the running waters. It briefly became dark as it washed the black dust from her skin, but quickly returned to its normal clear.
"We only need it to rise for one swift wave. That should wash away enough to let the normal river rip the rest of their dam away."
Kehu nodded, saying nothing. She was starting to shiver from the water as it rushed quicker and thus colder through the narrow strait in its course. As she began to mumble, tattoos on her chest and throat flarred up, colors glowing in an unruly, chaotic pattern. But then, slowly, the water began to build up, the surface before her arms rising and the one after them falling. A spray of random droplets continued to spill through, but whatever spell she was tapping into, it worked.
"That's enough. That should..."
With a gasp, she apparently took the remark as a command, and as the spell ended, was pulled into the sudden torrent of water! At the last second, she reached out a hand. Pulling her up was a struggle against the rush of built up water, but drenched and her robe a mess, she slumped down in the grass. Laughing.
"I never knew... I had those tricks up my sleeve," she gasped, wiping water from her face as she fought with the robe to get properly dressed.
"Technically, not up your sleeves."
She coughed, but laughed again at that remark, shaking her head and causing drops of water to fly everywhere. The riverbed was no longer dry. The burst of water in the river had indeed taken the top off of the earthen dam made by those who wanted it redirected, and the dam was washing away, but it had not all happened in one swooping flood. The water running through the land of black dust was perhaps deep enough to soak an ankle or two. But it was enough. The dust was washing away with it.
"Where does the dust go?" asked Kehu. She was still shivering a bit, trying to dry entirely before the cool night air set in. "I mean, I can see the direction, but what is down there The river must come from the mountains outside the wall, flowing through some opening or simply soaking the grounds and going through the soil. But where does this riverbed... end?"
There was no way to fully answer that question. But there was an answer to suspect.
"It flows inside. Inside a kind of place I hope I will recognize."
Kehu made a snorting sound, a faint laugh.
"You talk like the mystics. Or the charlatans. Your pick, really."
It was clearly meant well, but she clearly had a point. The black dust had been there, as expected. The horsemen likely harvested it to fund themselves. But beyond that, the details were fuzzy. This was not the modern world, not a world of machines and clockwork organizations. Anything could be waiting at the end of the riverbed.
It ended up being a cave.
"I assume you want to go in?" whispered Kehu. It was just for conversation, she clearly had her eyes set on a bounty of the anti-magical black dust, and it was enough for her to risk as much as she already had, and now likely more!
The inside of the cave was, at first, uncomfortably narrow. The walls were jagged and dirty, and the feeling of time becoming unstuck started to return. But the dust had fallen to the ground over time, and the water that now ran into the cave had washed almost all of that away. What was left were traces, just evidence of what had been there.
And then, without warning, the narrow cave became a cavern! Wide walls, the ceiling high above, and a drop in the floor that could have killed an unwary visitor. Stalagtites in the ceiling dropped droplets of water unto smaller stalagmites on the floor, the moisture gathering to join the river stream as it flowed effortlessly through. Now and then, a droplet even caught either my or Kehu's torch, causing it to sizzle threateningly. They never went out, however.
"This looks nothing like a mine," Kehu remarked, not as if it was a complaint, but as if there were bigger questions about the place going through her mind.
"No, you're right, it doesn't. It looks like..." There was something off about the cavern, something that called forth recent memories.
"Like what?" Kehu wondered out loud.
"Like a tunnel system."
It did. Everything looked like the perfect system of tunnels and caverns for someone to hide away in. That was the memory it called forth. The caverns beneath the pirate fortress.
"Someone made this? I have problems belie..."
Kehu stopped, her eyes suddenly wide as she looked around the place.
"What? What problems?"
Instead of answering, Kehu walked over to the cavern wall. It rose very abruptly, not in the smooth curve one might expect from natural cave formations. Her fingers ran over the slippery stone, water from the damp air washing delicately between her fingers and down her palm before continuing to the floor.
"This is old magic," she said,sounding as if she was speaking mostly to herself, even though she spoke out loud and clear. "Magic from before it was outlawed. From before the walls."
"Magic was once used freely?"
It was a stupid question, but that only became clear a second too late. Nt stupid because the answer was apparent, but stupid because the answer would be apparent to anyone who had lived a full life in this world, in this age. It was a signal flare, a symbol of ignorance, to ask it.
"You are from a very distant land, arent you?"
There was really nothing to do but nod in agreement.
"It was centuries ago. The original people was already centuries old and had learned to harness the powers needed for magic. But as they grew more powerful, they also grew more ambitious. In the end, they wanted what all ambitious people want, they wanted what others had. And magic became a tool for war like none other. When the war died out along with nearly all beasts and men, the surviving rulers and generals gathered to agree on each building a wall to rule behind in isolation, not one ever charging beyond it, or all the rest would punish him."
Staring at the walls, it was a lot to take in. Old magics, different from the ones here and now. Even the distant past had a past. Everything was the middle of a story.
"So great mages fought a great war, and other people decided to never let that happen again, huh? Sounds strangely familiar."
"Lies!!"
The voice boomed from deep inside the cavern, and it was followed by a heavy footstep. That, and a frightful scraping.
"Lies, all of it!" the voice cried out, angry. More heavy footsteps pounded the cavern floor, causing a tremor to flow from deep within it. "Cruel lies, to make the despicable look righteous!"
"That sounds familiar, too."
It was only a whispered remark, but Kehu immediately sent an angry glare, while more footsteps brought the source of the sound ever closer. Finally, large feet in very old armor stepped into the limited light of the torches. Legs followed, then the full form of a hunched body in caped armor. The metal was nearly nothing but rust, and the fabric of the cape was in rotten tatters, but it was very recognizably a knightly outfit. A knightly outfit for a knight twice the height of a normal person!
"Who are you? State your names, trespassers!"
"I... I am Kehu of Tatalung," Kehu stuttered, clearly on the brink of a heart attack. "And this is Marie."
The larg knight turned, but the extravagant movement and the exaggerated stare seemed somehow wrong. The face was hidden inside a rusting helmet, a clearly once elaborate piece of work, with metal decorations now also rusting away on it. But there was something about that stare...
"Which Marie? Which Marie are you?"
"Marie of... Nakskov."
"Never heard of it," the large knight huffed. And at that moment, what was wrong became clear, the knight turning his head to focus as he heard the voice speaking. It was not clear if Kehu had noticed, but there was no doubt about it. The knight was blind.
"Who are you?" asked Kehu, sounding honestly a bit defiant. The knight clearly thought the same, slamming a foot down into the cave floor for emphasis!
"Hathark the Faithful," the voice thundered from within the helmet. "I watch until the true heirs of the land return!"
"True heirs?"
The knight disliked having that turn of words questioned, and another heavy foot was stimped down, causing tremors. The cave would withstand it, he was not big enough to do that kind of damage. But remaining footed through the tremors was hard, and a single misstep on the slippery cavern floor was an easy way to get rushed off with the river stream that was growing stronger, no doubt as the dam outside eroded further.
"The true heirs will return, the imposters will flee, and the land will flurish once more!" he thundered, sending echoes of his powerful voice through the caverns. Sharing a glance with Kehu, it became clear that she was having some doubts, as well.
"Hathark," she said in a sift, almost meager voice, "how long have you been here? How long have you watched?"
"Hathark the Faithful," the large knight demanded.
"Sorry. Hathark the Faithful, how long have you..."
"Since the last heir left," he interrupted. Kehu suddenly fell very silent.
"Kehu, what's going on here?"
Kehu was pale, eyes still as wide as ever, but her hands looking as if they trembled slightly.
"I... I don't understand all he says, but I think he has been here since the old times."
"For centuries?"
There was no time for Kehu to answer, because at that moment, Hathark decided to, quite literally, cut the chitchat short! A battleaxe, its head the size of a small human, cut through the air and split the rock where the river stream flowed!
"Your chatter is a heresy!" he yelled, beginning to sway in a threatening, but seemingly uncontrolled way. "The true heirs are returning! They will..."
"Hathark!"
The look in Kehu's eyes was beyond terror at seeing the knight being called out! She looked over, looking as if she was saying good bye. The interruption had been foolish, no doubt about that. But the knight seemed ready to tell to many stories, likely the same again and again.
"Why do you dare call on me, faithless?" the huge knight growled. It seemed like a threat, but there was a tired streak to the voice.
"Hathark, who are the true heirs? Who put you here to guard... Wait, what are you guarding?!"
In a brief and uncharacteristic fit of confusion, the knight let his head sway back and forth, like someone listening for sounds. It seemed unlikely that there were any sounds to listen for, though. At least, any sounds not entirely in his head.
"I guard the land. It must regrow. The great beasts, they lay waste to it. The fields must regrow for them to thrive again..."
"But why do you watch the land from inside a cave?" Kehu chimed in. The slight confusion seemed to be growing into a panic inside the knight, his gigantic axe swinging and scraping the stone on every side of him, one at a time.
"The land is dead. Dark magics have snuffed out the light. The dark clouds must lift before..."
For a few breathless seconds, the knight stood still, only the head moving a bit erratically. It seemed like he was calming down, accepting that something had to be wrong. They were lovely seconds.
The anguished cry of fury echoed through the cavern like a hihgpitched explosion! Axe in hand, tightly gripped, Hathark swung with all his might, cutting several stalagtites down as the weapon spited its rust and overall condition and sliced clear through this fragile stone. He was slow, though, and telegraphed every moving muscle seconds ahead of the strike. Getting out of the way was no great challenge.
"Hathark," Kehu yelled again, trying to shout over the sound of stalagtites crushing beneath the giant knight's feet as he regained balance, "who are the heirs? Where did they go?"
It made sense for Kehu to ask, but for anyone with the right experiences, the answer was becoming increasingly obvious. The black dust, while washed away from where the stream touched the floor, was still visible along walls and on protruding rocks. The heirs, or at least some of them, hard never gone anywhere.
"Hathark the Faithful..."
Both the knight and Kehu fell silent, looking over. It took some effort to speak calmly, but as the knight became more unhinged, the cavern looked ready to have stalagtites fall to the floor, on principle alone!
"Yes..."
The huge knight seemed, for a moment, to calm down. There was a sorrow somewhere inside his voice, a tired pain. But he was trained to never show, and he was trained well.
"Hathark the Faithful, we are not the true heirs..."
His shoulders rose, tense, aggressive, but he was not raising his weapon.
"We are not the true heirs, but we do not want to steal your lands."
The mighty armor's shoulders kept rising and falling, even though there was no breath to be heard. It was becoming frightfully clear that blind was not all the knight was. But at the moment, at the very least, he was not attacking.
"Hathark... Hathark the Faithful... please think back. Try to remember."
The giant knight said nothing, standing still as if on pause, only the shoulders rising and falling, still tense.
"Where did the true heirs go?"
Kehu was about to interrupt, pointing back to the cave opening. But even though she only seemed to ready a whisper, all it took was the wave of a hand to stop her from saying anything.
"They..."
The knight turned, blind eyes thinking that they were looking down the tunnels.
"They went down to the throne. To pray. The gods took them to a hiding place, and they will return when the land is... ready. When the land is ready for them to return."
It hurt to hear the memories deep from within the knight try to make him realize the truth. That the true heirs had left him there. But it was not the right time to do right by him.
"Hathark the Faithful, stay here, continue your guard, and we will go find the true heirs. If we do, we will tell them you still guard their lands."
The knight stood still, only turning his head, blind eyes still trying to look around.
"You," he finally said, leaning in while Kehu stood by the wall, watching on in growing terror. "You smell like them."
There was no smell, nothing but the pungent odor of the cavern, damp and clingy in the nose. What he smelled was not what anyone else did.
"Like... the true heirs?"
"You smell like you do not belong," he said, sounding very much like he was thinking hard about something. "Are you Marie of Nakskov Or are you Marie of the Wenway?"
That word made the entire cavern feel cold all of a sudden! Kehu, not understanding the reaction, simply stared. Controlling the bitterness and speaking in a kind tone was suddenly very much a challenge.
"No. No, I most certainly am not with the Wenway."
"Lies!!" roared the knight, swinging the giant axe over his head and immediately striking large stalagtites that came crashing down! "Lies! You defile us! You defile the heirs!"
The floor of the cavern sounded wetter than before, running through the open space that Hathark almost managed to occupy entirely by himself. Kehu was quick to follow, and the tunnel that Hathark had so briefly gazed down was clear to see. It took nimble moves, but very soon the sounds of smashed stalagtites fell into the background, though the knight's roar lasted longer than that.
The tunnel was drenched. The rising water had obviously found it to be the best place to continue downward, because although the water was barely running, the floor quickly went from simply wet to being filled ankle high with filthy water. The feeling of being pushed out of the time was returning, however. The water was not just dirty, it had black dust in it. The dust was no longer being washed away. It was pooling.
"What are we running to?" shouted Kehu, falling behind and running out of breath.
"With luck, a fortune for you."
Kehu seemed to like that reply.
The tunnel soon ended. Water filled a large, round room, the ceiling of which had in places been untouched by time enough to show its original stonework. The place had been built, or at least, a cavern had been used for building something into it. That something, likely what Hathark had called the throne, was likely what stood in the room's center. On a podium, raised in levels to form a round flight of stairs up to it, were five big, fingerlike things, sticking up as if the Devil from beneath had reahed up through the stone and into this world.
"What is that?" asked Kehu, not surprisingly. Her eyes were on the device on the podium, but only at first. Then, they slowly moved around the room. "Is all that... the black dust?"
Tunnels could be seen lead in several directions, pathways to the surface. Perhaps each had its own guardian, like Hathark. Perhaps guardians had long left, either all or just some. Perhaps they had been slain, by intruders or by time.
"Yes. That is the black dust."
There was none of the dust on the throne. It made sense. The blast would have pushed it outward, and there would likely have been no one using it at the time.
"But where are the heirs he talked about" she continued.
"Look closer at the dust, Kehu."
There was a gasp, then the sound of Kehu throwing up. Looking back had no purpose, the machine was all that was important right now. But she was right to throw up, nobody could blame her for that. Maybe she had spotted the charred and mummified remains of an arm or a leg, maybe a skull, cleaned white by age, stuck out somewhere.
"Marie, what did the dust do to those... Are those your people? Is that why you..."
"After a fashion. Not friends, but they travel like me." The words felt weird to say. "They traveled like me."
The machine still looked intact, after all this time. This was one question that was flung around The Embassy on those nights when everybody was overworked and tired, but too hyped up to truly rest. Questions like how the flow of time affected the time machines themselves, if it preserved them, if the ravishes of time were kept away. It was idle philosophy, nothing that the engineers trying to understand and improve the machines could use for much. But here, the literally ancient machine standing in the center of the empty room, it suddenly became all too real.
"Why did they die?" she asked, her voice now far enough behind and below that the echo began to be more easily heard.
"They ran to this. To the throne. It would get them out, let them flee. But they were too late."
"Flee? But what killed them?" asked Kehu again, her voice beginning to sound frayed and nervous. Turning around, it was a strange sight to behold. The powerful, magical creature that had held back a river, was suddenly standing in a pool of water, arms around herself like a frightened child. It almost hurt to see the shift in her.
"Kehu, I'm not from a distant land. Or at least, not that distant."
She looked up from her gaze at the black dust. Her eyes were, much like the cavern, slowly filling with water.
"Im from a different time."
She took it well. Or at least, she showed no sign of taking it poorly. She barely moved, to be honest.
"This, on the podium, is a time machine. I want to use it to see the past that you and, especially, Hathark talked about."
She nodded. It was a slight, delicate movement, but she was holding herself together. Judging by her tight embrace of herself, it could perhaps be said literally, too.
"If it works, there will be a lot of noise and strange lights, and I will seem to change in the blink of an eye, as I go into the past and return within the space between two seconds. Do you understand?"
She nodded, this time more frantically, more forcefully.
"The black dust is all that's left of time travelers that were slain in a battle across time. Shortly after I return, I will probably leave this time, and I will also leave a little of the dust behind. But not much, because most of me will, hopefully, go back to my own time. These heirs, the time travelers, were not so lucky. A blast through the time machine killed them. A blast caused by enemies who are now in some other time."
"You... you will go there, come back, and then you will leave? You will leave me here? Alone?"
She didn't so much seem afraid of the prospect as saddened by it. That, more than anything, was a surprise.
"You can make your way out on your own. Take as much of the dust with you as you can. The horsemen are clearly mining it from one of the other tunnels, I doubt they will ever find you here. I assume Hathark made them look elsewhere for their riches. But take what you can carry, and never come back. Don't get greedy, do you understand?"
She nodded, even more frantically than before.
"I will come back. Maybe it will take a long time for me, but for you, it will be next to nothing."
That reassurance actually brought a slight smile to her face.
"I will look for you in town."
She said it first. There was no need to repeat it back to her. She knew.
There were no more words. The splashes of Kehu's feet in the slowly rising water could be heard as she went to gather black dust where it was dry, but that was just background noise. What really mattered was the machine.
It was a different design. No screens, no cables. It had a large stone, looking like the top of a massive stone ball chopped off and put with the bulginf side towards whoever stood beside the machine. Touching it made it instantly spring to life, and it was as if symbols and pure knowledge leaped from it into the core of the brain, through skull and blood! Time was not numbers, but a concept. Places formed out of a fog, only to disappear again as others took their place. The machine was damaged, the blast all that time ago having scrambled many destinations catalogued in it. But the core of it still worked. And it had a handful of functioning destinations, nearly all of them in the past of this place.
Picking one made the fingers open.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 49

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 49 The early morning wind was cold. The fields out north of Nakskov had very little tall vegetation to speak of, most of it being trees to mark the edges of the individual fields, so there was nothing to really catch the faint winds that blew about. Colliding and merging, those faint winds became stronger.
"I dont get it," Alex said, sounding calmly frustrated.
"You don't get what"
He didn't look at me, his gaze scanning the horizon in a desperate attempt to find the answers he felt he needed. He wasn't succesful.
"I don't get it, this, whatever this is," he restated, this time adding a few waving gestures at the empty fields. "You said you had a plan, fine, but don't you need something to use that plan on?"
I had a pretty good idea what was going on with him, but ever since the fight at the time traveler hideout, something had changed in him. He was no longer pretending to be in control, for one, and that alone opened up the chance, or at least the hope, that he would become easier to read. Right now, just seeing him at a loss, was perhaps the most honest thing I had ever seen from the guy.
"They hide, you dumbass," I answered with a grim grin. "Did you expect somekind of Welcome to Time Town sign by a floating parking lot or something What do they teach you inspy school, anyway?"
It felt good to talk like that.
"Not a spy. And I wasn't really expecting huge underground villain's lair in the fields of northwestern Lolland, to be honest."
As if to emphasize his words, he said the entire line while glaring right at me, looking away again the second he was done.
I didn't feel like explaining too much. The woman in white had without a doubt already seen us and was contemplating how to react. She would hardly do anything just because of us standing there, but giving the enemy time wasnever a good tactic.
With a sigh and a slow motion, I placed my yellow and brown schoolbag on the ground, frowning a bit at seeing it sink slightly into the muck, getting dirty and moist from the early morning dew.
"That's what you needed from that old school? Tennis balls?" he complained, looking at the bunch of tennis balls I had crammed into the bag. I didn't give him an answer, but simply dumped the balls out on the ground, picking up a couple with my slightly cold hands. With him watching, I began throwing them as far as I could into the field, each in a different direction.
"Look, Ida, I don't know what the hell is going..."
He stopped talking the moment he noticed a creepy smile make its way across my face. When I picked another ball up from the ground to throw, his eyes followed it as it made a slow arc over the empty field... and vanished.
"What the #*@! was that?!" he whispered, as if the question was entirely meant for him to hear.
"That," I answered with unbearable self-satisfaction, "is your villain's lair."
Both of us struggling with the soft earth beneath our feet, we walked farther into the field, leaving the road and the two large cargo vans behind us. I had planned on doing this part on my own, but Alex had insisted on tagging along, leaving the two other agents in either car. It was still unclear if he was being protective or simply didn't trust me, but it felt pointless to start up an argument about this minor change of plans.
"Were out in the open. Are you honestly expecting nobody to see us?"
I shook my head, noticing how slow my movements were. The night's battle had worn me out, and what little sleep I or anyone else had found was too little. But it had to do.
"No, I'm expecting pretty much all the baddies to be watching us, right at this very moment," I replied with a tone that even I could hear sounded very arrogant.
As we walked and the moist ground sucked more and more against our feet, I kept throwing the tennis balls I carried in my arms, even letting him carry a bunch and, on occassion, throw one. As we moved closer to whatever was hiding the place that the time travelers had tried, and failed, to attack, more and more balls disappeared into thin air when thrown. When we could throw in almost any direction at even a slightly forward angle and see the ball quickly fade away, Alex stopped. I said nothing, stopping a few steps ahead of him and turning to look.
"What the #*@! is going on in Nakskov, Ida?" he asked, sounding more like he was churning over uncomfortable thoughts in his own head than actually asking me for explanations.
"Whatever it is," I answered, trying to ignore my own thoughts on the matter, "a big part of the answer is in there."
Standing still, breathing so heavy I could see his chest move and the humidity from his breath turn to droplets in the air, he balled his fists and moved to start walking again. But at the last second, his efforts were cut short.
"Hello again, little girl."
The voice sounded strangely muffled, like a video loading wrong or a radio hit by brutal interference. At first, it was completely disembodied, but as she spoke, the woman in white appeared first as a vague shape, then as humanoid patterns of color that merged into her before our eyes.
"You're becoming quite the little bag of surprises," she said with a grit to her voice. As she took slow steps towards me, her white coat flapping softly in the same wind that kept forcing her to shake strands of hair out of her face, she gave Alex a long and slow glance. I only looked over at the man once, instantly noting how he froze up while staring at her like a hesitant predator trying to measure with his eyes if his prey was, perhaps, a little too big to safely chase. He didn't look like he came to a decision on that, to be honest.
"I'm here to talk," I said, my mind suddenly getting weirdly confused about what I was actually there fore.
"About what" she asked, her eyes revealing that she was surprised by that reply.
"About you getting the hell out of Nakskov, for starters."
She seemed honestly taken aback by the answer. Not threatened, not intimidated, just surprised. As she stood there, doing nothing except looking from me to Alex and back several times, the air itself seemed to begin sparkling. Colored blurs began appearing like apparitions, fuzzy outlines and transparent shapes. It only took them seconds to unblur, the outlines becoming sharp and the shapes melting together to show their true forms.Men and women, well over a dozen, all with imposing physiques. Many had tattoos that seemed to glow and writhe softly on their skins. Some carried gear so fitted to the shapes of their bodies that it almost looked like thick patches of paint, easily unnoticed at any significant distance.
"I think my admiration for you is at an end, girl," she sighed, not sounding at all like she was trying to intimidate anyone. "My tolerance, too."
There was a strange sense of stand off in the field, the woman in white and her assorted henchmen staring us down. Their eyes rose up a bit when the two cargo vans suddenly left, their engine sounds cutting clear across the open space.
"Your friends left," the woman said, her voice sounded a bit surprised by the apparent ease of victory.
"No, they just had to get out of the blast radius," I answered, making a conscious effort to sound as casual about it as possible. The woman took a step to the side, letting her look past Alex and myself a little better. That allowed her to clearly see the large crate that stood where the cars had been a moment ago.
"A bomb?" she asked, almost as if she was about to laugh. "You're gonna blow us all up?"
"Not quite."
I stood in the field, hands in my pockets, rocking back and forth with a tremendous sense of superiority as the woman in white looked more and more confused. She whispered something, the sound lost to the wind but her lips clearly moving, and as about half her minions rushed toward the crate, the others turned to run. They were too late, of course. As the vans got out of the estimated radius of harm, agent Teglgaard pressed a button, sending a message from his phone to a burner phone that the nameless guy had, of course, been carrying as a safety backup. The moment the phone received the message, it sent a current through the wires connected to its speaker, the ringtone being used to trigger the device put together by the agents and the more tech savvy of the time travelers. A stack of old car batteries released their power into a capacitor that Niels had strung together from assorted materials found in his garage earlier that morning. In an invisible blast, all the power was flushed through the surrounding air, creating a wave of unchannelled electricity. It struck every single robot minion the woman in white had brought with her, the ones that had turned tail and run just seconds ago. The massive energy surged through them, far more powerful than that on the ship or in the house. With sparks shooting out of joints in their bodies, their limbs lost all control and they crumbled to the ground in fits, smoke rising from the overheating fake skin and plastic parts inside. And all the while, the entire sky seemed to flicker along, the vague outline of huge things appearing in a foggy silhouette behind her!
"Alex, put on your socks," I said with a predator smile. Alex wore a more modest grin as he dug the socks out of his pockets. We both stacked several layers, making sure there was enough chaotic time energy in either hand to take down most targets in a single blow. As we walked calmly towards the group of seven or eight people that the EMP blast had left behind, likely because they were her time traveling henchmen and not robot minions, we could hear the screeching wheels of the vans returning. Before we clashed with the now slightly uneasy group of henchmen, I looked to my left and saw the rest of ours pour out from the vans and run into the field!
"As many as we can," I said in a low, calm voice to Alex. The socks were a powerful weapon now, but they would become a risky tool the moment other time travelers got close enough to fight by our side. The energy didn't care who a time traveler was or worked with, it struck indiscriminately.
The first of her goons rushed me with his teeth bared, giving a scream that briefly sounded ferocious. Somehow, my body forgot to flinch, forgot to be frightened by his roar. All I saw was his arms beginning to flare up with pink lines, as some other form of energy that I had no knowledge of built up for him to hurt me. He was too slow. I felt a jot go through my body as I grabbed him by the wrists, my fingers pressing the fabric of the charged socks against his skin with all my might! His roar became a scream as burning pinpricks of mesmerizing colors danced around him, and I used his own weight against him to throw him to my side as he dissolved and finally exploded into colorful dots. I felt them burn against my own skin, but it only stung. I closed my eyes and lowered my head for a second, and as I looked ahead again, I stared at a very tall woman as she, too, bared her teeth. Unlike the now gone man's, however, hers were suddenly growing wildly, her gums bleeding slightly from the change! Coarse hairs had begun to sprout on her skin, and the skin itself was turning bright red as the body underneath it changed much faster than it was meant to.
Before she could fully change into whatever beast she had planned, Alex came rushing in from the side, howling like a banshee on espresso shooters! She barely knew what hit her before her changing body dissolved and erupted into bright spots in the air!
Only four of the woman's minions were left when the rest of ours arrived, and they were taking worried steps backwards.
"I asked you nicely, lady, but now Im telling you," I shouted across the field. "Take your remaining stooges and get back to..."
My mouth stopped talking all on its own as I spotted new blurry forms taking shape from behind the veil that hid their invisible base. Three dozens, easily. I didn't even move when the rest of ours, perhaps emboldened by seeing me and Alex clear the first wave, stormed by me, howling and screaming like animals! Jens and Niels were swinging around some homemade devices, Emilie ran circles around enemies while getting in one suckerpunch after another. Weird energies flew through the air and punches and kicks fell fast and hard.
And in the middle of it, the woman in white! My eyes found her as she grabbed someone by the metal rod he was swinging at her, and holding the rod swung the guy away with a fiery frown on her face. She looked at some of her own people and yelled an order, but the screaming and shouting between us drowned out her words before I could hear them.
My feet suddenly took on a life of their own. Digging into the thick, Nakskovian soil, they launched me forward at her. I dodged one arm swung at me just at the edge of my sight and evaded another that seemed to be swung in my path, but at someone else. Hands ahead of me, the energy in the socks practically burning as I came down on my target, I was within arm's reach when she reached out and snatched my wrists right out of the air.
"This shit ends here," she growled, pressing her own hands into mine. Golden lines along the inside of her fingers flashed with a brilliant light as I felt the buzzing energy in the socks evaporate like the morning dew around us. As she tossed me aside to yell new commands, I felt the first touch of true fear since arriving. I was on my feet by the time she was done with orders and turned her attention back to me, but I was still struggling to regain my courage.
"You don't get it, do you, you little cunt," she hissed as she took long, quick strides towards me. With quick flicks, I got the socks off my hands and dug deep into my pockets for new ones that still brimmed with that weird time energy. "This is all history. There is nothing for you to change. You're the past, you already happened!"
"#*@! your past, here's a present for you!" I yelled as I threw myself at her again, a part of me deep inside feeling a bit proud at the quip! She sidestepped me with ease, but at the last second, I got a hold of her long, white coat. With a loud growl, she pulled her arms out of the coat's sleeves and tossed it far away as it started to dissolved into colored dots. However, by not touching it, she was apparently spared.
"That is #*@!ing it!" she roared, and her voice seemed to vibrate as she, likely by accident, stepped inside the veil that they had all come out of moments earlier. Her shape seemed to blur, outline and background merging ever so slightly, as she flicked her now bared arms outwards. It looked like the bones in her arms cut out through the skin as the arms suddenly, for just a second, disassembled and reassembled. A fog of pink and purple swirls began dancing around the arms, sputtering like bared electrical wires in the rain. I only caught a brief glimpse of Emilie as she threw herself at the woman, but the swirling colors around the woman's arms blew her back with ease. I struggled to keep my eyes on the woman, but for a split second, I checked that Emilie got herself off the ground, damaged but still breathing!
"Fine!" I yelled back, swinging my bag from off my back and into my arms. With a quick pull, I opened it up, and tennis balls instantly fell out. The woman glared at both me and the tennis balls, angry but uncertain by the whole gesture. That changed as I picked up the balls and held them against my body as I hurled them, one by one, at her! They sizzled against her protective swirls, a few forcing a pained flinch out of her as it struck just right to touch her. She didn't dissolve in dots of colors, but she was realizing the predicament. And as she began to become a blur of shapes and colors, I pressed on, picking up the balls I had thrown at the veil earlier, the time energy from the school still in them. My own hands soon began to blur as I stepped through the veil myself. The sky became dark, and strange architectures emerged, little more than contours against the black sky behind the veil, poorly lit from inside long windows and thin strips of light outlining pathways on the ground.
"What, lost your balls?"
She lowered her arms and the swirls around them with a vicious grin on her face. She was right. I had no tennis balls left. The bag was empty, and there were none on the ground near me to simply pick up and continue. With a howl, I spun around and hurled the bag itself at her, and she ducked out of the way. Breathing heavily, exhausted and with a rising sense of terror inside of me, I cast a glance at my wrist. Mischa's watch showed a few minutes to half past seven.
She was enjoying it. I had seen her proud and arrogant, even gleeful, before, but this was new. There was a tranquil satisfaction in her eyes as she made a minor twitching move with her arms, causing the colorful swirls to intensify.
"I give up."
She stopped, a slightly baffled look sliding over her face.
"I give up," I repeated. "I surrender. I yield. I whatever. You win."
Looking briefly over both her shoulders, clearly thinking it was a trick, she then turned her skeptical gaze at me.
"You give up? What exactly do you give up?" she asked. It was obvious to anyone, had anyone been there, that she was trying to quickly make sense of an unexpected turn of events. I just wiped a bit of blood from my lip and staggered a bit, my body suddenly seeming to realize its injuries.
"This. This whole... thing," I answered, waving my hand in the air at the carnage around us. "We'll leave you alone. I'm done, I can't... this... I just can't... any more."
My breath was uneven, lungs too often empty when I wanted to say a word. I stretched and could hear my own whimper clear as day. I felt pathetic. But there was no other way.
Still keeping the swirls alive, the woman in white shouted out a command, and everything became still.
"Everyone, we're done!" I yelled, following her lead. The sounds died down completely, although a moment later, the injured ones began whining loudly, knowing that now, they could.
"You think I'll let your friends go?" she asked, sounding a bit like it was an honest and sincere question.
"No. But if you give them a head start, Im sure they'll accept the terms."
She looked around the field, taking in the situation. She knew she had the upper hand, but something about her suggested that she would rather round people up quietly, one by one.
"I accept," she said, sounding a little cheerful, of all things. The swirling colors around her arms faded, but her eyes still scanned the surroundings, wilfully paranoid that there was a trick to be sprung, still. But nothing happened.
"Everybody, back to the vans," I yelled, not taking my eyes of her. I knew that most in the field could not even see me, being on the other side of the veil. From the inside, we could look out, everything just toned down in color, like a screen in power saving mode. But those outside could not see us, the way I could not see the hidden base before I stepped through the veil. It was still there, its outline towering against the dark sky inside the veil.
"You really think this will work?" the woman asked, her voice now a little confrontational. "You think you'll actually be safe?"
My eyes flickered, going from her to, briefly, her various minions around the field. None of them seemed very hyped about the surrender, most just looking on a bit confused as our people dragged the ones worst hit back to the cars.
"I have no idea. I bought them some time, and that's enough for..."
"Time?" she asked, laughing a bit as she spoke. "You bought them time?"
I nodded, looking at her with uneasy confusion in my eyes. She lowered her gaze, almost like a movie villain, and chuckled.
"You have no time, you dumb little #*@!," she sighed. Then she looked me straight in the eyes. "You're history. Literally. You, this, all the past. It all happened a long time ago, and nothing you do will change even a footnote in the archives about this age."
All of a sudden, she seemed to have a trembling in her voice, an anger or frustration mixing itself into the restrained chuckle.
"You are all already dead," she added, her voice turning into a sneer. "You did nothing with your life and then, you died. Your friends, your family, the people you see when you walk the street, all dead, all gone. None of this exists any more. It's all past. It's all history."
As she spoke, her tone climbed from soft mockery to a scolding snarl, until she was hissing at me so close that I felt the warmth of her breath in the cool morning air.
"Get the #*@! out of my face," I growled, trying to hide the fear building up in my chest. She stood for a moment, motionless, and then she backed off, taking a few steps back to leave some room between us again.
"Your friends seem to have crawled back into those metal boxes you like to call cars," she said with a strangely mocking tone, as if the concept of cars was somehow offensive to her. I quickly looked over my shoulder, seeing Jens in the distance carry Emilie into the back of one of the vans. She was holding onto him, so she was still alive and aware of her surroundings. That was good.
Still staggering, I took a deep breath, then started dragging my aching legs back towards the road. After a few steps, I stopped, turning around slowly and painfully to look at the woman one more time. She looked back, having perhaps never taken her eyes off of me. When she caught me glancing at the ground, she grabbed the school bag and looked inside. Without a word, she pulled out a tennis ball that had apparently somehow hidden itself inside. As it sputtered, the time energy trying to mess with whatever kept her rooted in the moment, she looked me straight in the eyes. Then she threw the ball away, and hurled the bag at me. It hit me straight in the stomach, making me buckle over in pain, whimpered loudly. As I struggled to get back on my feet, I saw her giving me a tired smile. Agent Teglgaard sat behind the wheel in the van as I climbed into the passenger seat. I was gasping for air, having just thrown up at the side of the road from sheer pain. Perhaps not pain alone. There had been some blood in it, too.
"Get us to the clinic," I managed to say over the pain. The agent looked at me, asking with just a stare if I was going to make it. With a strained stare back, I tried to change the subject.
"Everybody made it," he said as the engine began to rumble to life.
"Good," I replied, knowing too well to stick to short sentences.
"Did everything go as you wanted it?"
I nodded. Then, everything turned dark.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 48

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 48 It felt like something old, something known. Something that had happened before. It felt... familiar. That was not a good thing.
The late afternoon sun still shone through the treetops, but the forest outside the giant wall was so dense it barely even mattered. The sky was visible. The ground nearly wasn't.
Back inside the wall, the horse beast had been very confused at being let loose, but tying it up seemed utterly cruel. Nobody would be coming for it. There was no reason to leave an innocent steed to die, even if it was bred and trained by cruel people. Or maybe they weren't, there was really no way of saying. The Skillwalker and Donlarn had seemed cruel and hostile at first, too, and honestly still seemed more than a little shady. In the end, it was not about taking sides in a battle between two unknowns. All it was was an old man and his friends pointing in the direction of another great wall, one that had a far more thriving society inside it. Hopefully.
If Aldric had read the interrogation right, these huge walls were a defense mechanism in more than the immediate sense. An old war, centuries before this, had nearly wrecked everything. To constrain their world from repeating that kind of war, surviving rulers had granted the construction of a hundred walls. Inside a wall, a ruler reigned absolute. Outside the wall, he ruled over nothing. Should one try to expand beyond his wall, the rest would fall on him like a plague of locusts and rip him apart. This secured a semblance of peace. And inside their walls, some thrived, while others withered. It had been bad luck that the first wall had been a withered one. If the Skillwalker spoke the truth, and if nothing there had changed, the next wall would not be guarding a dead city.
But the forest was the first challenge. The rulers had their walls, true, but there was plenty of smaller riffraff between those walls, in places like this forest. They never grew all that powerful, or nearby wall rulers would snuff them out. But they were dangerous enough for a lone woman in the forest come nightfall. Every noise in the foliage sounded like a threat, every silhouette passing between the trees a potential attacker. None of it felt very safe.
North-east. The sun over your left shoulder. That was the bulk of the old man's instructions. It was very little, although at least, it was easy to follow! He had also said something about carrying the wood piece, but that had been a bit more obscure. The wooden pieces he had handed over, the beggar tokens carrying a hidden message, were simply clacking along on their rough strings by the belt. He had made a big point about the wooden piece knowing the city, but the details had been fuzzy. Perhaps a key of some sort, or simply a strange way to explain that the wooden pieces would attract the right people who knew it. Or the wrong. It never seemed like a warning, but this place clearly was not what it seemed all the time!
If anything, the old nutcase could at least have provided some form of light. A lantern, perhaps, or some magical stone that glowed in the dark. He hadn't. He had been adamant that the wall was easy to find, and that the wooden pieces would help with the rest. The dark, he said, would not be a problem. It was starting to look like trusting him on that had been a grave mistake. Emphasis on grave.
And like that, the sun finally got low enough to cover the ground entirely in shadow! Up above, the trees up high were still bathing in the warm glow of an evening sun, but none of it reached the ground any longer. Dense growth, tall trees casting long shadows, it all conspired to leave everything below in darkness. And sounds were beginning to creep out of the woods already.
The ground itself was tricky in the dark, crawing vines and roots catching a foot easily. This had been a horrible idea from the start, the wall had been safe enough far from the battle, safe enough for spending a single night and gaining more daylight to reach another wall. This was suicide.
Something growled. Something big, something hungry. Vague outlines in the dark were nothing to go by, it could be any one of them. Yelling proved useless quite quickly, a lone voice doing next to nothing in the massive woods. A very nasty ending to a trip, and this close to answers. Words like futility came to mind.
The wooden pieces were a little smaller than a palm. They felt soft, spongy, perhaps from having been gathering dust and humidity for longer than they were intended for. But they held together, even when smacked together. And the loud clack echoed quite effectively amongst the trees. It seemed like agood idea, a good scare tactic to keep lurking predators at bay. But the reason it worked came as a surprise!
It came on a bit slowly. The loud clack caused commotion with the wildlife, but there was nothing running that sounded big enough to have made that growl. The second clack was even louder, but by then, the weird effects started showing. Tiny blue vapors in the woods, dancing amongst the trees like giant fireflies. The moist air made them light up like burning fogs, droplets of early dew catching their light and reflecting it in every direction possible. They danced without moving, their light flailing softly like vaguely defined limbs. And the moment the wooden pieces were hung back to dangle, the blue glow disappeared.
"Carry the wooden pieces..."
Something had gone wrong in translation. This should have been easy for the old man to explain clearly.
"They know the city walls..."
Holding the wooden tokens, even just one of them, made the glow return, and faster this time! They were all around, floating amongst the trees, hanging still in the air. But some were glowing more than others. And as the eyes adjusted to the sharp contrast between black forest and blue lights, that difference became a pattern. A single line of sharper defined lights. A guide.
With the lights as a line literally drawn in the air, lighting the nearby forest well enough to see one's own feet, at the very least, the trek through the forest was completely different. An hour passed, maybe a little more, and the blue glow intensified until it lit up a wall like a mystical fire.
And this wall was cleared, a wide swath around it completely cut down, leaving only grass for some animals to apparently graze from, and bare dirt. Clear of brush, the wall could be seen all the way up. It was tall, perhaps taller than the one around the dead city. And even in the dark, lit only by small torches up high, guards could be seen walking near the top.
By the base of the wall, little clusters of tentswere set up. They looked like camps, the sort one might find in the desert or on the plains, nomadic people or a travelling party needing a place to rest and perhaps let animals graze. A camp like that, leaning against a wall, looked out of place. But a little more strangely, the few people that were awake, wandering the camp with small lanterns, paid no attention to the blue glow. There were bigger lanterns on poles, much like streetlights, and the blue glow was no longer needed, so the wooden tokens were put back on their strings. But that nobody reacted still seemed a bit odd.
Then again, it seemed nobody reacted to a stranger suddenly appearing, either, which made walking along the fairly well lit path a lot easier, and gave a feeling of safety. Guards, walking single here and there so casually it made them almost glow with an aura of confidence and security, took no notice when passed by in the coolevening air, many of them either looking utterly bored or spending their time talking to others in the camp. Their language was as nonsensical as that of Donlarn and the Skillwalker, but the tones sounded chummy and polite.
"Do you understand me?"
It was a shot in the literal dark, but not testing the guard's language seemed like a dumb idea. He just stared, though, confusion in his eyes. Showing him one of the wooden pieces changed that. He touched the piece, his eyes looking over the old jumpsuit. A beggar's token, and of course he looked to see if a beggar was carrying it. He seemed to think so, likely due to the state of the jumpsuit. Whatever his motives, he said a few incomprehensible words and pointed off in the distance, adding a point at the lit path and a few more words that made no sense. It seemed needlessly impolite to let him know that. The message seemed clear enough.
What he had pointed to turned out to be another tent, larger and in slightly worse condition than many of the rest. Old people and dirty children could be seen sleeping on piles of old cloth, wearing patched and stained clothes themselves. Beggar's token. Beggar's tent. It made sense. And yet, it felt wonderful to simply sit down on an empty pile of old cloth and feel every leg muscle finally relax.
The joy was shortlived, though. Barely a minute after sitting down, a woman, young but with old eyes, came by with a very uncertain look on her face.
"Itasin botayme?" she asked, it only being clearly a question from the intonation and the expression she wore. With no chance of answering, the best option seemed to show her one of the beggar's tokens. Her eyes immediately became calmer, looking perhaps even a bit tired, as she took the token. As she walked away, a dreadful thought occurred! Every muscle that had finally begun relaxing felt like stone from standing up suddenly, but as she disappeared into the large tent and the smaller ones around it, the thought of having lost part of a secret message trumped the pain!
The large tent was an obstacle course of sleeping people clutching old blankets to keep warm in the cool night air. Here and there, a small group or perhaps family, including children, were huddled together for added warmth. The tent had equate protection against the gentle winds that were often enough to turn a warm bed cold, but the air came in, everyone effectively sleeping near a draft. It was painful to see, many of them causing images to dance by of the work The Embassy did. The lost, the broken, the abandoned. They were everywhere, and in every age.
The woman was in a smaller tent, one connected to the large tent by a short cloth corridor. She was talking to a tall man with broad shoulders and a myriad of fine scars across every patch of skin exposed. He looked old, his short hair nearly white, but there was nothing feeble or sorry about him, quite the opposite! And the glare he sent went straight through skin and bone.
"Eolu," he grumbled out loud, holding up a single finger in a manner that looked very foreboding when coming from him. It apparently meant stop, because stopping on the spot made him return his eyes to the woman. She, on the other hand, spoke a few hasty words as she looked over, and it was impossible to not see that something was going on. The man turned again, his eyes this time piercing, looking like some strange, upright animal on the verge of attacking. Sounds began to come from everywhere, incoherent mumbles and shrieks, climbing, climbing every second, drilling themselves through skullbone and brain matter, rising in a crescendo of grey noise!
"Who are you?"
The voice seemed to come a little from him, a little from everywhere, all at the same time, like someone speaking through a long tunnel. His eyes were calm, but still piercing. They appeared to be a brilliant green.
"Marie. I'm... a traveler."
The man nodded, hesitantly, as if to say that it sounded like a plausible claim, but nothing else.
"You are different. From the others," he said, or the voice said, sounding more like a question than information. He was speaking, that much was clear. His lips moved. But they did not match the words. Translation, just like the Skillwalker.
"I come from very far... wait, what others?"
For a moment, he was silent, the piercing eyes still looking, studying. Then he waved the woman away with a light gesture of his hand, almost dainty. She left with no protest, although she did deliver one final, very skeptical glare before disappearing back into the larger tent.
"Yalent sent a few before you, carrying much the same message," the man said, the lips still not matching up, and the faint sound of his real words slipping through as he stepped closer. It sounded like a badly dubbed foreign film. It was distracting, but the translated words could still be heard over it.
"Yalent?"
The man hesitated, seeming to doubt that there was anything to question about that name. "Is Yalent an old man, one who uses skill?"
Whoever this person was, he clearly disliked the mention of skill. It was something entirely different in their language, little or no chance that anyone would overhear and understand, but something instinctively made him uncomfortable.
"Yalent knows we cannot come to rescue him," the man continued, blatantly ignoring his discomfort about the word. "He gambled and lost. We have no..."
He stopped in the middle of the sentence, entirely of his own will. His eyes were shifting from piercing to an uncertain gaze, as if a question had gotten stuck in his brain and now tampered with his speech.
"You are not one of his," he simply said. His gaze became more and more creepy, once more piercing but this time in an almost threatening manner. "You are not one of ours."
It started as a slight blur, a tremor at the edge of sight. It quickly escalated, however, as the world seemed to twist itself like a painting being wrung and shaken. And then, like leaves in the wind, everything blew away. Everything except him. There was nothing but an empty darkness and him, his piercing stare illuminated by some invisible lightsource.
"Who are you?" he asked, in a voice that was far too calm for the thing that had just happened. "What are you?"
Answering was impossible. He had brought that on himself. It was impossible to keep the brain from grappling with the suddenly, allencompassing darkness. And even if it had not been, his questions made no sense.
"Are we in my head? Please don't tell me we're in my head, 'cause, you know, very empty in here..."
In the absence of anything else to compare him to, he seemed like a giant, monstrous, his form filling every corner of this empty void, the mind failing to acknowledge anything else. As he stepped forward, he only loomed larger over it all. Over the nothing.
"No, girl," he said in a booming voice, as if the empty universe itself had started speaking, "this is my domain. Your mind belongs to me in here," he explained, dramatically waving his hand to point at all the nothing. "I control this. You cannot escape."
For some reason, taking a step back did nothing at all. He was no farther away, and yet he seemed to know about the vain attempt.
"No escape, girl. Now tell me, who and what are you? Why would Yalent send you and not a trained messenger? Tell m..."
A glimpse of brownish green, colors smeared across the emptiness, interrupted him. Blurry shapes began appearing, twisted versions of the world he had made vanish.
"Uhm, I think your domain is broken."
He didn't answer, only  sending an angry glare. But this time, there was something behind the anger in his eyes. Fear. Confusion and fear.
"What are you doing? What skill is this?" he asked, his eyes squinting in a vain attempt at regaining the threatening quality they lost the second he lost control of whatever his domain was. His anger clearly boiling over, he reached out his hand, the fingers appearing to grow twice their length as they came closer. The feeling of them wrapping around the throat was disgusting, unnatural. But it only lasted a split second. They had barely even touched skin before the dark void cracked and blew away like sand in a storm.
The small tent was almost back, flickering into the dark. Between sheets, sheltering those inside from the outside chill, distant trees could be seen. In another direction, the mighty wall.
"What did you do?" he hissed. It was hard to keep a sinister face, the entire situation being as baffling as it was. But the tables had turned. Whatever the reason, there was nothing to do but seize the moment.
"Your trick is falling apart. Tell me what I want to know or it won't be the only thing falling apart!"
It was a risky bluff, dependent entirely on whatever was happening to not suddenly end on its own! This man was clearly taken aback by it, but that was no guarantee that he would continue to be confused. For the time being, luckily, he was.
"What?! How dare you make demands? Who are you? Why did Yalent send you instead of a messenger?!"
His voice was breaking. He was breaking.
"That's my question. Why did he send me to you? Why not a messenger? Who did he send before me?"
The questions came lightning fast. It threw him off, kept him from regaining his wits. Bu tmost of all, whatever was happening might suddenly stop. Or it might go through to its logical end, which could be anything.
The ma just gave a glare of resentment. His powers had been questioned. He was clearly not a fan of that.
"He's an old fool," he finally snarled. "We fight for our lives here and he runs away and hides with his flunkies. And then he sends messengers for us to pull him out of the fire when things go wrong.""
"Why me? What messengers?"
"His people. They come back, we take them back in, keep them safe, more than he ever did."
"Fine, whatever. Why me? Why send a nobody he doesn't know?"
There was no answer to that.  The man fell quiet, looking nauseus, perhaps even constipated, with no answer to offer.
"Why me?!"
"I don't know," he hissed, looking on the verge of throwing up, "but this might be why." He gestured at the void he had made, the void that was quickly falling apart around him.
"I... destroy magic? I destroy the skill?"
Something changed in his eyes, something angry and threatened, but before he could answer, the void collapsed completely. The tent was back entirely, sounds flooding in of night guards passing, beggars sleeping, and nature waiting just paces away in the forest.
"How?!" he bellowed angrily. "How did you do that?!"
He was not quite shouting, but his voice was loud. It seemed like someone should come running, but nobody did. Leaving no time for answers, he spoke a few words and did something with his hand. A glow appeared, coming from inside the jumpsuit, and it was followed by a painful heat. The strange string thing, from the fallen horseman! As the man fell to his knees, dry heaving, the thing sputtered and sizzled. Even pulling it out and throwing it on the ground was painful. For a brief moment, tiny colored dots appeared, single atoms ripping themselves out of time, going back. But it never escalated beyond that. Those atoms would be joined when this trip of madness ended.
"Why do you... carry counterskill?" asked the man as he stumbled to his feet again. There was no good answer. The illusion of power was broken.
"Who are you?" he asked again as he limped forward. His eyes burned with anger, or even hatred, and his body was softly coiled, like a wounded predator looking for a chance to strike.
Then, he reached out. The second his fingers wrapped themselves around the collar of the jumpsuit, he cried out in pain, pulling back and staring in disbelief at them. Before his eyes, wounds began to open across the palms of his hands, and like flowing blood, their red lines in his skin began to run down the length of his forearms. He screamed, buckled over in pain on the ground, blood beginning to flow from the arms.
Somebody would come. Somebody would be there very soon. The gate through the towering wall was not that far from the beggar tent. In the commotion from the man's sudden screams in the night, nobody paid attention to a single person walking to it, but the gate itself was heavily guarded. The massive door itself was closed shut, with heavy bolts that were obviously just there to declare that it was not opening. There was, after all, no point in bolting any door from the outside, when keeping people out.
By the edge of the huge door, however, a number of guards were positioned at a much smaller door, one actually set inside the large one. It took a bit of watching to be sure, with one eye still on the direction in which the tall, bleeding man's beggar tent stood, but it soon became clear that the small door still let people in and out. It was less clear who could pass.
"Eulo," said the guard. Stop. The string of words that followed were far more difficult to grasp. When he finally stopped, the only thing that came to mind was to show him the wooden tokens that still dangled on their strings, in the hopes that they served some kind of permission. From his frown and how neither guard moved aside, they sadly didn't serve that function, though. It was only when the guard was shown a few of the copper pieces that Donlarn had been kind enough to donate that the guards stepped aside. They took none of them, but it appeared that having some money was a prerequisite for entering that particular wall.
Behind the door, that was confirmed quite massively! Even with the night sky black as tar, the street ahead was flooded in light. The flames of hundreds, perhaps thousands of torches danced in the dark, chasing it away. Storefronts were open and active, drawing a crowd more often than not. But what was most overwhelming was how close this shopping street started to the wall. Only a minute's walk was left between the wall and the first shop, just enough to see fields behind them, beyond the street, the spilled light from the torches giving the low grain an eerie blue color against the light of the half moon. The people gathering around stores would never notice it, the shops built wall to wall, all but the outermost of them going as far as to stack one atop the other. A myriad of creative staircases allowed the top ones to still catch a shopper's eye and then guide them up to make the purchase. It was all in wood and stone, but it broke any expectation to wha could be done with that.
From one shop, a voice called out, a large woman that clearly had a talent for being heard! Meeting her eyes, even briefly, was like having an entire conversation, but her lightning fast words were the same, or some other, local language, and completely incomprehensible. She quickly realized this, turning her attention and her voice to others with better odds of understanding her. She did manage to make her establishment stand out, though. It sold beverages, teas from the look of it. Apart from a quick drink of water at the beggar's tent, it had been too long. Hydration was important, after all.
"How much?"
The man walking around, serving the handful of sitting customers, just looked a bit nervous and very uncertain of what to do. He was old, a bit older than what one might expect from someone serving. A short man who moved in a fairly fast and oddly flowing way, every bit of clothing kept so neat it looked like he only pretended to work. He spoke a string of strange words and pointed to paper hung with impressive precision on the wall, not one sheet crooked or not matching another in size. A few people were looking at them. Menus, it seemed.
Mingling was a strange feeling. There was a static in the air, a crisp hum that seemed to follow every step. It had been there in the tent outside, but only in the distant background. This was different, and it felt that every second, people were noticing. There was no point in tempting fate in a small and immobile crowd.
The crowd in the street was not only mobile, constantly shifting and people changing, but it was also loose, a little more room to move. The hum toned down, but it never disappeared. It felt like an unwanted companion, some animal that had landed on one shoulder and now refused to leave. It did nothing, not a parasite or an attacker. It just hung there, making the air feel angry and tense. Even toned down, it clearly shifted with the nearby folk, as if they caused waves in the hum, like ducks in a pond. But it never hinted at what it was.
And then, out of nowhere, there was a push, a shoulder or elbow in the crowd just forcing itself by, crude but essentially innocent. A simple distraction. The sound of quick footsteps that followed was all the reveal that was needed! And a speedy pat on every part of the jumpsuit confirmed it. The copper coins, all of them in the same pocket, were suddenly lighter!
The crowd suddenly felt denser, like it was closing its ranks, masking the thief's escape! It wasn't, of course, but piercing the crowd with sight alone was suddenly a challenge. The sounds were masking everything, too. And still, kneeling down to look at legs rather than bodies, there they were. Two small feet, slipping in and out between larger ones. Nimble, fast, focused.
"Excuse me! Sorry!"
The words meant nothing. Nobody understood them, all they saw was a woman clumsily trying to push through. A few took a single look at the dangling wooden tokens and frowned, looking like they might even refuse to step out of the way. Beggar money, a worn down jumpsuit that looked nothing like what anyone else wore. They saw someone they felt no need or reason to respect. It didn't help the chase!
When the crowd finally opened up, the thief was gone. The large market square, as bathed in the light of torches as elsewhere, looked like some strange construction site, shops and other places stacked and racked any which way. Like some deranged godchild's building blocks, they were placed wherever space had once allowed it, and some looked like the stack of blocks might fall over without warning. And yet, nobody seemed to worry. People went about their way with what seemed like barely a care in the world. Of course, apart from two who stood near a twice lifesize statue of some unnamed god, not a guard was to be seen. A place well designed for thieving.
It was the shoes that gave him away. A boy, perhaps ten, walked through the crowd. His eyes were not quite on the same goods and posted offers as everyone else, but his shoes were what stood out. The rest of his clothes were simple, but on his feet he had meticulously made shoes, with thin, delicate weaving of leather without a hint of fraying. Everybody else had either obviously expensive boots or hastily fitted wrappings. His were cheap, but unusually functional. The thief had been wearing the same.
Stalking him was surprisingly easy. His eyes were on the people around him, no doubt prospecting targets for nimble fingers. He never looked over his shoulder. And when he finally found one he seemed to like, he followed the target quietly. The target was a gangly man in older nice clothes, someone who had money but wanted to look as if he had more, causing him to wear the same too expensive outfit likely every day, just to get its money's worth. Vanity, flaunting both a measure of wealth and a heap of poor planning. And as if to underline that, he turned to walk down a narrow street, empty and poorly lit. The thief had seemed mighty swift when grabbing those copper coins, but this target took barely any skill, it seemed!
The narrow street, basically a dark alley, was long enough to let the well-dressed man walk at a slow pace and not be half at the end of it before the thief entered. Walking into it felt somehow in poor taste, like walking up to a car crash merely to gawk at the fire. And when the man reached the end of the alley, he turned, looking right at the thief. And then, he smiled! As he looked up, over the head of the short, young thief, meeting his eyes felt immensely wrong. So did the feeling of taking a step backwards and hitting what at first felt like a wall that had not been there before!
"Meyiko lateo" was all that could be clearly understood from the large man that had snuck up and now blocked the exit. He added something after that, but his rumbling voice and the foreign language combined to make it unintelligible.
With no way out and no real option for calling for help, there was little to do but stay and watch as everything unfolded. The young thief, who upon closer examination appeared to be a young girl, darted swiftly by to see if anyone around the bend of the alley was coming to watch. The older man said nothing but simply stepped aside as a hooded figure seemed to take form right out of the shadows. The way every bit of the person's body was covered in some form of clothing, it was impossible to deduce a gender. When he or she pulled back the hood to reveal a shaven head covered in tattoos, it helped very little.
"Emik suoalen bahen," said the androgynous person, the voice giving no further clue. Judging from his or her eyes, it was a question. It seemed to offend or frustrate the person when there came no answer. The person then reached out to touch the dirty wall of the alley. Without warning, a hazy ring of symbols appeared on the moldcovered brick. And the ring rotated slowly, a living piece of softly glowing, purpleish graffiti. Sounds began to come out of nowhere again. Voices, mumbling and ranting in a hundred languages.
"Trying to find the right language?"
It was getting hard to talk, for some reason. A pain formed, below the chest, between the lungs. It flowed like an ether into every organ and limb, dissipating as it spread.
"You are used to this magic?" said the person, the lips, again, not matching the words and bits of his or her rea language seeping in. Just like before. Well, not entirely like before.
"I thought you called it skill?"
To the apparent confusion or surprise to the others, the androgynous one chuckled. It was becoming increasingly clear that this was a very private kind of magic.
"Maybe your mind translates it differently," the person said. "Or maybe we just don't have to give a crap. No point in hiding one's crimes behind words when they stick out so clearly in action, is there?"
As the person spoke, the tattoos seemed to gently breathe, the intensities of colors rising and falling ever so softly. Sharp even became dull and dull sharp. But the overall designs and hues stayed the same. The signs and pictures never moved.
"Why do you follow us?" the person asked, still keeping a calm and collected tone.
"I followed a thief who stole from me."
It was clear that the answer seemed too little for the person. Moving the hand on the wall made the ring of softly glowing symbols shift as it rotated, and either the symbols or the person's tattoos, or both, gained some intensity.
"You stink of strange magics," the person said. "You bleed essences like a broken bottle. And the beggar tokens you carry are practically dripping with more of it. What do you want with us?!"
The calm was quickly evaporating from his or her voice. An anger had already crept in, but more than that, a fear was in there, trying desperately to stay hidden!
"Look, man, I don't... I mean, man or woman, it's all fine. I don't want trouble."
The ring on the wall flared up, and it was as if the flare soaked into the tattoos.
"Trouble wants you," the person hissed, taking a step forward and letting go of the ring of symbols, which promptly disappeared. The tattoos still seemed to smolder and fume, though!
One of the others, perhaps the man in the old, nice clothes, tried to say something, but the androgynous one had no time to listen. The outstretched hand had a faint mist around it, a swirl of faded yellow, and it was going for the throat.
"You will tell me who..."
That was all the person managed to say. Moments before the feeling of strangling fingers around the neck, there seemed to blow a strong gust of wind through the alley. The mist around the person's fingers refused to be controlled and erupted briefly, fading away entirely as the person gave out a yelp and stepped back, hands across the face for protection.
The older man said a few hushed words as everyone stood deathly still.
"The one from the tent outside," said the androgynous one. Red splotches marked his or her face where the strange mist had burned the skin slightly, but he or she was actually smiling. They had to be insane.
"You have to be insane. I'm not doing this."
The name of the androgynous one was apparently Kehu. The gender was still up in the air.
"You came to this place with nothing but beggar tokens. Is that how you want to survive?"
Kehu was passing on the words of the older man in the old but nice clothes. Timnas, he said his name was. It was a challenge to not simply call him Thomas. The names were becoming frustrating, too many of them cluttering up the mind.
"So you want me to rob someone? I don't know you, and I don't know him. Why should I even believe you?"
They had been very excited about the whole tent thing. Apparently, word traveledfast in this place, and the word of someone making magic fall apart traveled even faster. The man in the tent was known in the circles these people traveled in, his magic was used among the poor. It was illegal, but the city let him do his work outside the wall, to keep the poor he treated from finding their way in. He had been hurt long ago, and his arms had been healed with magic. Apparently, some of the damage was still held together by it, and the anti-magic, as they seemed to call it, had undone that. The word now was that he was being treated. Their word. What could and could not be trusted was hard to say.
"Magic is outlawed," Kehu said softly, this time not speaking on behalf of anyone else. "And still, he hoards it. What is in that house could help feed hundreds, but to him, it is just another way to hold power."
It was still night, but there was a difference to the dark. The mansion was outside the city, just beyond the lights of the thousands of torches, and the night sky was visible again. The horizon had a purple tinge to it. Dawn was coming. Slowly.
The mansion itself was close to being more a small palace. White marble on a dark stone foundation, pale red tile roofing, small towers at several corners. What really struck was its size, though. There were no doubt villages out there smaller than it.
"Fine. Whatever you... whatever you say."
An ache. It was back, swirling through veins and tissues, the faint sensation of fading. One atom at a time, its anchor across time burning out. None of this was standard Embassy procedure, and very little of it was even considered acceptable. But the pieces still did not fit. Aldric's interrogation of the captured time traveler had given many vague and incherent answers, but also a few fairly clear landmarks to seek out. Something was hidden in this world, something that tied the massive machines across time to these strange abilities, these spirit magics.
"But it has to be tonight. It has to be now."
Kehu said nothing in words, but the eyes said everything needed. The others slowly caught on to something being wrong, but when they appeared to ask Kehu, they got no answers.
"It has to be now, Kehu. My time here will soon end, I cannot afford to be patient."
With a nod and a skeptical look, Kehu translated and explained the situation to the others. An argument immediately broke out, the pointing back and forth telling all the story that needed to be told. But it was all brought to an end quite effectively, by the one person there that said nothing.
The big guy, Latoro, moved silently through the grain. The fields around the mansion were not far from harvest, and whatever the grain was, it was tall. Latoro was the only one to have his head be above the top of it, and his massive physique cut apath through it for others to easily follow. There were some hushed cries of protest from the others, but it seemed the big man had had enough of the debate. He was ready to act.
The small one, the thief called Ovolli, made a quick dash through the grain at Kehu's command, disappearing amongst the tall grain stalks like a ghost. Timnas followed the marked path along the field to the road that went from the city to the mansion. There was a plan at work, even if only they knew it.
What Ovolli and Timnas were doing was impossible to say. Latoro, however, marched silently through the grain, towards the house. He never turned to look if anyone even joined him. His mind was set.
"Stay close to him," said Kehu, now in a voice more subdues and hushed. Not as if to not be heard, but more serious, more focused. Perhaps even more tense. "Your strange ability will guard against their magics, and his strength will guard against their weapons."
"And you? What will you guard against?"
"Their cunning," he answered, making no attempt to sound dramatic.
As Kehu slipped away, falling back and hiding within the tall grain, his words became a frightening reality! Large figures, hidden in the dark that surrounded the mansion in all places but the road leading to it, rushed in. Some awkward sparks flew in the air, like fireworks that fizzled and died before truly detonating. And yet, they felt like needles. Like needles going straight through every limb and organ. Quick pains, too quick to allow for any great reactions before they were gone again. And amidst those awkward sparks, colored dots. Atoms breaking their bond on this time, returning. The pains were no doubt atoms in those same limbs and organs urging to join them.
Wasting no time, Latoro grabbed the figures, reaching his hands into the darkness of night and ripping them into his sight. They were smaller than him. They had counted on magic to do their dirtywork for them. Now, they were just toys for him to throw about. He punched one with his free hand, then threw him over the shoulder and grabbed another, one that he could pull in and headbutt into submission with just one try, then drop him on the ground. It was hard to see, but the sound of steel on steel rang out quite clearly as he raised his arm against someone coming at him. Something, perhaps a simple metal stick hidden in his sleeve, took the brunt of a small axe swung over the attacker's head. Latoro showed no sign that it worried him. The attacker was down a moment later.
Sounds soon could be heard from other parts of the mansion. Commotion, people reacting hastily to things too far out of sight and too far into the dark to see. Ovolli, no doubt, causing a divertion. Or perhaps she was the real mission. Perhaps this was the divertion!
"Follow me," came Kehu's voice out of the air. Latoro reacted instantly, calmly turning in the direction that the voice seemed to flow from. The mansion was close now, and the voice seemed to lead to a small door. A door one floor up, on a balcony! Latoro wasted no time climbing the wall, his massive hands grabbing decorative protrusions as his legs supported his body against a tree too far away from the wall for anyone even the slightest smaller than him to make use of. Swinging his massive frame over the edge of the balcony,he reached down a hand to assist the climb.
"Follow me," Kehu's voice repeated on the balcony. Kehu was nowhere to be seen.
"Latoro, wait!"
The big man stopped, his feet needing a full three seconds to slow his hulking, lumbering mass down before coming to a full halt.
"Why is there no defense here?"
Looking around for a moment, the man silently pointed to symbols painted in delicate colors along the edge of walls. They flickered, like lights unable to turn on right. Colors that just seemed wrong crept through them, like oil through water.
"Am I doing that?"
The man nodded.
"Then why can Kehu still..."
Finishing the question was difficult. What Kehu was doing was hard to find the proper words for. Latoro, though, seemed to understand perfectly.
"Weak magic," said the voice of Kehu in the air. "I am in your mind. It takes skill but not power. Their defenses take power, not skill. You only ruin strong magics, not my delicate work."
Looking at Latoro unintentionally confirmed it when the large man nodded slowly. Then, he walked towards the door that opened with a loud click.
The inside of the place was, for lack of a better word, splendid! Tapestries ran the length of the halls, doors were heavy and yet delicately carved wood, not one door made from the same kind as the next. Carpets were thick and embroidered, patterns that ran the entire length of a hallway. And on the walls hung large paintings, paintings that showed scenes of war and what looked like celebrations of victories. One had a castle on fire. Another showed the spectre of Death creep over soldiers painted as brutish and crude. Not a single picture was simply a portrait or a tranquil landscape.
"How did you get in?"
Kehu was standing on a flight of stairs, looking at an old suit of armor mounted on a giant board. The armor looked made of leather and wood, not metal.
"They rely on old magics," said Kehu, not looking away from the armor. "Your... skill made them fail. That made it easy for someone with more... elegant magics to find a way inside."
Even Latoro looked when Kehu pointed down the hallway to what looked like the main door. Timnas was standing there, looking far too hardened for someone of his face and fashion.
"Take this down," said Kehu in a gentle voice, sounding almost like a question. At first, the remark seemed aimed at Latoro. It was not.
"Why?"
"Because it is drenched in protective magic," Kehu replied. "The owner cares nothing about the laws regarding magic, I doubt he cares about laws regarding life."
Very little of that made serious sense, but it seemed prudent to be done and leave quickly.
The armor was in tatters, clearly a collector's piece. The same feeling of ethereal needles rushed through hands and arms when reaching for it, but at the same time, things in the board sputtered and howled. Time energy, anti-magic, Fifth Force, it all pushed against the others, ripping and clawing.
Out of the blue, a thin stick appeared! It took a second to notice the tiny blade that had shot out of the board and now dug into the stick, causing its wood to crackle and complain!
"I told you," said Kehu, "you disarm their magics, I disarm their cunning."
Pushing the blade back with the slowly splintering stick, Kehu nodded at Latoro, and the big man handed over what looked like a piece of old and dirty rope.
"Bind it up in this. Then, we leave."
Kehu's promise was enough to spark renewed motivation. The place had a creepy aura to it, the walls themselves feeling unnaturally alive. Pulling the old armor down and binding it up took no more than a few seconds with the thought of leaving waiting at the end.
None of that lasted longer than the time needed to get halfway to the main door.
"Magi," growled a man easiy the size of Latoro, but strapped into armor that was not nearly as quaint as the collector's piece now bound in old rope.
With a few waves of arms and legs, Kehu made the air itself simmer with a teal flame. The bits of fire flowed together, additional gestures seeming to bind the heat much the same as the rope had been used to bind the old armor. Tattoos along Kehu's arms and hands, the few that could be easily seen, became briefly brighter as the fire gathered.
It took the large man a single swing of a long baton covered in dark strings to rip the spell apart in the air! The flames scattered with a sputtering sound, charring clothes and walls wherever they hit. But before the next swing could land, Latoro stepped in, knocking the man's spell-destroying baton aside. Even though clearly matched, he did not hesitate to step in and grab the man at the throat, swinging for a punch. The man pulled out of the grip with ease.
"Kehu, why did I understand what he said?"
Still stunned and off balance, Kehu said nothing, choosing instead to mumble what sounded like some kind of chant. Blurry symbols, tiny and looking warped, began searing themselves into the wallpaper, making a crisp and sizzling sound in the process. In spite of the compulsion to ask again, it suddenly felt prudent to take a few steps back. Even though Kehu doubtlessly did not mean to, the appearing symbols felt like they burned, as if they were made with hot coals. Nobody else seemed affected by that. It had to be a time travel issue.
Up the stairs, out on the balcony, the door still stood open. It took no time for the symbols along the walls, the alarm system of this place, to react, sounds coming from them that sounded wrong, their color turning sick and pale. And for every anti-magical effect they suffered, the burning dug deeper into the skin. Even climbing down became too much, ending in a fall with still half the way to go!
At the foot of the house wall was gravel. Tiny jagged edges cut into the skin, but they felt cool. The burning was still there, but it was not getting worse, and the cool gravel soothed the skin. It took a few seconds to even notice the sounds of guards approaching fast. It took a few seconds more to notice what they were likely coming for. Luckily, the old collectors armor seemed to have taken no real damage in the fall.
Whether it was lucky or not, Ovolli was suddenly there, too, stepping out of the long grain not far away like some agrarian spirit! She looked around, saying nothing, then darted over and grabbed the armor, gesturing what seemed to mean "stay quiet, everything is under control". It was hard to believe her, but it was even harder to stop her, and there seemed to be no use in trying.
The noise from inside the house was spectacular. Crisp zips, loud pops, screams of anger between screams of pain. Scrambling into the crops was a risky strategy, so easily detected, but the guess that the guards would go for the loud sounds and ignore the rustling of grain was right. From between the long straws, it looked like a small army descended on the place. Dawn was breaking when Kehu showed up. The torches in the city were beginning to be extinguished as natural daylight made its way through cleverly placed gaps between the stacked shops and dwellings. Arrays of small mirrors caused redirected beams of light to dance in the streets, as beautiful as they were convenient.
Ovolli had been waiting back near the road that went out to the mansion. She said nothing, perhaps knowing that there was no way for her words to be translated and useful. Instead, she seemed concerned, giving a gentle examination, without words, to check every slight burn and scrape. The damage was minimal. The fall from the wall had been painful, but the jumpsuit beneath the covering rags had taken the worst of it.
Kehu looked in worse shape. The two of them sent each other glances and exchanged a few words, but every breath from Kehu looked like its own bit of torment. The tattoos looked pale, as if they were dying, and the bruises were many. It took some close looks at their body language, but one topic seemed to be the stolen armor, which Ovolli no longer carried. That, however, did not cause much concern, so it had to be somewhere safe.
"What happened back there, Kehu?"
The bald mage said nothing, looking confused for a moment. Then, he or she made some gestures, wincing in pain through most of them.
"What did you ask?"
"What happened back there"
Kehu looked a bit unsure, as if having to remember or at least phrase it all properly.
"The guard showed up," came the final answer. Then, Kehu said nothing, looking instead at Ovolli as she put some bandages on a bloodied tattoo. As the fabric wrapped around, it seemed to fume slightly.
"I could see that much. Kehu, I understood the man, the large one. He called you magi. That is Latin. It means sorcerer."
Something in Kehu's eyes flashed, an anger that was clearly not meant to be shown. It quickly faded, though. Or perhaps Kehu simply suppressed it expertly.
"I told you, magics are illegal. We are seen as traitors for using it."
"But that mansion, it had..."
"Trophies," interrupted Kehu. "They hunt down and kill those of us who use magic. Then, they take any items as a trophy. Some use these to defend themselves."
"That seems..."
"The word is hypocrisy," Kehu hissed, at first seemingly at pain from the bandaging, but on second thought, perhaps more an angerh at the topic.
"So how did they stop you? I saw him cut your spell right out of the air!"
Kehu looked up from the bandages as Ovolli seemed done with the one arm and about to begin the next.
"Anti-magic," Kehu answered, short and firm.
"Like mine?"
There was a pause. Kehu did the best to make it seem like Ovolli's bandaging was the reason, but again, any closer look revealed that it was not.
"Like yours. But they use cursed objects."
"The baton..."
Kehu nodded. But more than that, Kehu sent a look at the jumpsuit, at the pocket where the small woven stick from the horseman was wrapped thick in leather.
"Why don't you use the same against them"
"It is costly. Only the very rich can afford it."
Reaching in to pull out the horseman's little trinket felt dangerous, rebellious, even, knowing what conflicts apparently surrounded it. Not only did Kehu's eyes follow it as the leather was unwrapped, but Ovolli stopped the bandaging and stared at it, as well.
"I took this off a mere bandit."
Their eyes widened at the thought.
"How can a mere bandit be carrying something that costly?"
Neither one answered. Timnas stepped through the door at that moment, his eyes immediately fixated on the small trinket. Latoro, looking in poor shape, followed him.
"They mine it," said Kehu, eyes still fixed on the trinket. "They mine black dust to give it the anti-magic."
"Where do they mine it?"
Their eyes finally, and almost simultaneously, broke from the trinket.
"Maybe the question," Timnas started, "should be, where did you get that?"

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 47

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 47 Skies were darkening. A thick, grey layer on top of the world, like a huge blanket of week-old lint, or a dust bunny of religious proportions. It was going to rain again. That might not be a good thing.
"Ida!"
The voice and the knocks that followed cut through the still country air around the house. I had never stopped to appreciate it, the quiet, the few times I had been forced to spend time out here. Standing on the old and poorly maintained balcony, not leaning against the railing for fear that the rot had spread much farther than the visible part, I had stood with my eyes gazing over the nearby field, spotting both a few squabblilng swans and a small family of deer grazing. Back when I first heard the word 'juxtaposition', I had been obsessed with finding out what it meant. Two or more things that were put together, even though they were in many ways complete opposites. For example, a peaceful rural landscape, almost idyllic enough to belong in a painting or nature documentary. And a house falling apart with time traveling rebels squatting in it. Maybe not the exact definition of juxtaposition, but good enough for me.
"Ida, I know you're in there!" the voice continued, with the same series of three knocks, precisely spaced, following the words. I wanted to yell back, but the path from the balcony to the door was a bit odd and took me through the entire house, so yelling would be loud and quite likely still useless.
"Other door!" I said through the small window by the main door. "I haven't found the key for that one, yet."
I had recognized the voice quickly, but confirming it by looking through the small window, standing on my toes on an empty wooden crate found inside the house, seemed a good idea. It was true, though, that the key had been nowhere to be found. Luckily, this strange house had anothre door almost next to it, and the key to that had been left on the kitchen counter, for unknown reasons.
"Jesus Christ, you really aren't much of a spy, are you?"
"Not a spy," Alex said, gritting his teeth in poorly concealed frustration. At least he was polite, waiting for me to step aside and gesturing an invite before just waltzing in.
"Then why are you here?" I asked, doing my best not to sound offensive in any way. "I mean, no disrespect, but nobody invitated you. Right?"
For someone who wasn't a spy, the FE agent sure made an effort to subtly study every bit of the house as he walked through the boiler room and then the kitchen.
"I get the feeling nobody invited you into this house, either," he rebutted, in turn seeming to make sure not to sound too snarky. "According to our records, this house belongs to a little old couple living a few towns over. Been for sale for quite a while. Did you buy it?"
On that last remark, he failed to not sound snarky.
"So what if I did? Why are you here, Alex?"
He moved to continue into the house, his eyes going to the currently closed door leading from kitchen to hallway. He wasn't shy about it, either, and only stopped when I physically placed myself between him and the door.
"We've been keeping an eye on you," he said, faking a smile in that special way that was so obviously fake that it seemed like he was honestly admitting that it was not a real smile. "You didn't think you could just run around freely after that whole affair by the harbor, did you?"
More than anything, he seemed casual about everything he said. He wasn't making threats or arguing. He was just stating facts, and nobody could really argue with facts. He probably didn't even have a choice in the matter, some shady boss somewhere handing him his orders.
"I had hoped so, to be honest."
His eyes went to the door again, but this time it wasn't a casual glance. Not the way he kept shifting between the door and looking me right in the eyes.
"If you're such a badass superspy, why do you need to ask permission from me? Just go, snoop around."
He cracked a smile, making it hard to tell if it was polite, grateful, or just very self-satisfied. Then he nodded and walked around me, opening the door.
Ashe stepped through the hallway and into the living room, everybody inside froze. What was a little more surprising, but satisfying to see, was that Alex did the same. His confident swagger slowed to a crawl and then stopped as he gazed around the room, his jaw hanging slightly open and his brows starting to frown a bit.
"Everybody," I said a bit loudly, "this is Alex Jokumsen. He's local. Like, local local. And he's military intelligence, so, you know, don't invade Iraq or anything while he's here."
There were a few coy hellos around the room, and a lot more uneasy stares at the man, making me almost feel sorry for him. He took it in stride, though, nodding his own hellos back at everyone, one by one. He looked almost ready to go through the room, shaking everyone's hand, like the last one to show up at a family birthday.
"What's a spy doing here?" asked a short, young woman who had reflexively stood up from the very low couch by the window, the second Alex stepped into the room. She was obviously nervous, clutching a packet of nicotine gum far too hard.
"Alex, that is Jonna. Your facial recognition connected me to her older brother, who should be here somewhere, too."
Jonna grunted something and pointed her thumb at the small second hallway farther in. There was a small bathroom there, which seemed to be what she was mainly trying to indicate.
"Hi, Jonna," said Alex, like some new member of a self-help group. "I'm Alex, I'm from..."
"Yeah, yeah, we got that, James Bond. She was asking what you're doing here?"
I smiled, patting Alex on the shoulder as I pointed to the guy speaking with an open palm.
"You'll like him, Alex. He doesn't want us to know his name, real spy-like. But he did help us capture the robot copy of me that you saw in town."
"So not a spy," Alex grumbled under his breath. Then he put his hands together in a way that made him seem like an awkward public speaker at some paid engagement.
"Yes, hello, everyone. My name is Alex, and I am from military intelligence. I have been working with Ida here for a few days, and I just wanted to see if there was anything I could add to this..."
"Bullshit."
That particular remark garnered a few supporting outbursts. It was Niels, who was sitting in a recliner next to his brother in a rocking chair, both of them tugged away a bit in a weird nook that the living room for some reason had.
"Why you here, spyman?" asked Jonna again, and got some agreement from around the room. A look at Alex and I could see his good nature, natural or not, starting to fail. His smile was getting more strained by the second, and he was rubbing his hands together a bit too hard.
"Very feisty bunch you've assembled here, eh, Ida?"
I nodded, unable to hide a somewhat cocky smile.
"I'm here because I'm military intelligence," he repeated, this time with a less cuddly public speaking voice, "and we just returned from a local farmhouse where a highly magnetized car managed to nearly rip the ears off of one of my colleagues."
A hush went through the room. A few of the faces shifted from vaguely disguised resentment into nervous shyness.
"Wait," said a young man, sitting in another couch to the far left of the room, "how does a magnet rip of someone's ears?"
"Spies like to accessorize, too," replied Alex in a somewhat scathing voice. It took a moment for people to catch the meaning, but many, especially the female ones, suddenly begun rubbing their earrings with an uncomfortable expression on their faces. "Yeah, and funny thing is, we spotted a car leaving there moments earlier. Guess where we found that car."
Without even being asked, Niels awkwardly raised his hand a bit and mumbled what sounded like an apology, all while Jens looked at him with a harsh frown on his face.
"Jens, where did you park?" I suddenly asked, and without saying anything, the big man got up from the rocking chair and put on his jacket before he pushed past Alex on his way out to, presumably, move the car to somewhere less conspicuous. Two others in the room suddenly became restless, too, and finally decided to follow suit.
"Ida, what the hell is going on here? Who are these people?" asked Alex, glimpsing an opportune moment while everyone was preoccupied with people going to move their cars, and perhaps thinking whether they themselves had done something that might attract attention to the place. Jonna's brother Anton stepped into the room in the middle of everything, looking very perplexed at what was going on, but he stepped aside quickly when I guided Alex into the adjacent dining room.
A single table and some old chairs were all that was in that room, and as the sliding door between it and the living room closed shut, the sounds of the people in the other room talking amongst themselves practically disappeared. And yet, Alex insisted on whispering.
"Ida, you gotta gimme something here! You've been dragging a wake of weird stuff behind you for days now, and even if local police doesn't give a rat's ass about a few weirdoes running loose, my superiors are starting to freak out! I'm not even sure they'll let me run this op on my own much longer, or if they'll just have some hardass rush the place and put everybody in a hole to be interrogated one by one!"
Anyone else might have been persuaded by the picture of doom and gloom the man was painting, but what really got to me was the way he was obviously trying to hide his desperation. His voice was getting raspy, and in the light from the naked lightbulb in the middle of the room, his face was starting to have a very red shine. Part of me expected him to buckle over in a coughing fit, or a migraine!
"Look, I don't know if... I mean, can you handle weird? Like, really, really weird? No questions asked, no accusations of lying and so on?"
"I just had two of my best people tell me very convincing stories of killer robots, while we called removal on some lifelike sex doll thing in a warehouse that wasn't there when we got there. I think I can handle it."
"No, I mean weirder than... wait, the robot copy wasn't there anymore?"
"The warehouse wasn't there," he hald hissed at me. "Somebody cleared out everything and torched the surface, I guess to remove microscopic traces. And no, nobody saw a fire. So yeah, I can handle weird!"
"I mean weirder than that," I finally added, sighing deeply as I did. His eyes squinted at me, like someone trying to figure out if he was the target of some really mean prank. I finaly caved in.
"Jonna!" I called, and she pulled the sliding door aside before I gestured her in. She shut the door behind her, looking a bit confused at my sudden calling. "Jonna, would you please tell our friend here where you're from?"
"Friend?" she asked softly, looking the man up and down. I just nodded and signalled to her to continue. "I'm... I'm from Stokkemarke, out east.Why?"
"And would you please tell him when you're from?"
At that question, both the other two in the room were suddenly looking at me strangely. The difference was that one was skeptical, while the other looked almost petrified.
"Uhm..." she started, constantly looking back and forth between Alex and me, "I'm... I mean, my family is from... we're from 1846."
Although all three od us fell silent, Alex' body language was screaming louder then words ever could! His eyes went back and forth between us, his lips kept trying to form the beginning of a sentence and then giving up. And his hands seemed to be having half a dozen different conversations all on their own, all of them very loud!
"Time?!" he suddenly shouted, loud enough that we could hear everyone shut up in the next room. "You're telling me that she's a time..." He suddenly hushed again, his voice dropping massively in volume but not one bit in pitch."You're telling me she'sa #*@!ing time traveler? Like, some Back to the Futureshit?!"
"More like Terminator, but yeah, something like that," I answered, not even thinking about my choice of words. Startled, I practically leapt aside as he marched in long strides to the sliding door. With one hand, he pulled out open and glared around the living room on the other side of it.
"Quick census," he said in a commanding voice, "what year is everyone in here from?"
The responses came slowly at first, then more built up the courage to follow. 2293. 1740. 1941. The answers ticked in one by one for a few seconds, while Alex stood completely still. Then, without a word, he shut the sliding door and thus shut out the remaining few answers.
"Is this a trick?" he asked, looking over at Jonna, then at me. Jonna said nothing. I shook my head.
"No. No trick. How do you think they know how to build those robot lookalikes?"
"Time travel? That's not a thing that exists. That's not a..."
"Faulty logic," Jonna suddenly mumbled out loud, immediately looking surprised that anyone heard her!
"Care to explain that?" asked Alex. His face was getting a lot of nervous ticks, and his voice sounded on the verge of cracked, all of which made the false, saccarine smile on his lips look even more forced and creepy.
"Well," Jonna started slowly, looking at me as much as she did at him, "time travel doesn't really have to exist. Orbitalcities don't exist, either. But they will be invented one day. The difference is, the day time travelis invented, it can go here, now, and exist without having been created yet. I mean, that's just... you know..."
There was a quiet bit, during which Alex kept pointing his finger at her as if to ask a question or make a remark, but he never said anything.
"Look, Alex... Alex, hey, snap out of it and look at me..."
I waited a little for him to fully react, his eyes constantly glazing over a little and getting that thousand mile stare that people got when they had no idea how to deal with a situation.
"Alex, if you're going to stay here, you're going to have to deal with this, and you're going to have to deal with it on your own time, okay? This is why I wanted to..."
My words were cut off when there was another knock on the door, a rather loud and hectic one. I could hear some of the others in the living room get up and walk to it, but I still stepped around Alex, ignoring his brief complaint, and hurried out to the door myself. Peeking through the small window in it first, I felt a strange surprise fill my body as I opened it up.
"Emilie?"
The weather had taken a slight turn for the worse, threatening to go farther in that direction very soon. Out in the cold drizzle stood the girl from the volunteer place. She was already rubbing her arms and trying not to shiver too much.
"Yeah. Still got room for one more?"
"Yeah, sure," I stuttered as I let her in and locked the door behind her. She gave me a glance as she passed me that almost seemed embarrassed, which made absolutely no sense to me. As we entered the kitchen, seeing through the door as people filtered back from the hallway and into the living room, she stopped. With nervous eyes, she turned to me, still rubbing her arms, but it seeming more like a way to distract her hands than a way to keep warm.
"Sorry to..."
She stopped on her own, like she was struggling to find the right words. Slowly, her fidgetfy movements ground to a halt and she just stared into nothing. When I reached out to touch her, she flinched, snapping back to the real world. There were tears in her eyes.
"They came," she said, her voice cracking almost immediately. "They came to my house. My parents, my brothers. They just... They just took them. Like ithey were some #*@!ing, I don't know, like they were packages to deliver. They just..."
The tears became sobbing, and before I could catch her, she fell to her knees. Curling up, gasping for air, she leaned against the ktichen counter, arms around her knees, weeping.
"They took them, and I just looked. I was nearly home and I just looked while they took them away. I did nothing!"
The last word she punctuated by slamming her fist into the floor, clearly a painful move, but she hid the pain behind the steady flow of tears.
"Emilie," I said, putting on the most caring and sympathetic voice I could muster, "this is important. Do you know where they took them?"
She nodded, rather frantically, tears still flowing.
"I followed them. I ran behind their cars, but they didn't see me." She suddenly broke out in a smile, chuckling lightly. "I mean, who watches the sidewalk for people following a car, right?"
Only when she briefly glanced at her legs did it dawn on me that they were bent out of shape, mainly from the knees down. Not in a dramatic way, but more as if someone had put a far too heavy load on a flimsy metal scaffold. Had she never drawn attention to it, the loose pants would have hidden it just fine.
"Where did they go?"
"There's an old farm, out near Halsted," she said, wiping tears off her nose with the sleeve that still looked moist from the drizzle outside. "They keep them there. All of them."
"All of them?" I asked, a bit hesitantly. She nodded.
"Yeah, they've got, like lots of people there for shipping. Someone once told me that they don't just cut the anchor and make someone snap back to their own original time, because then they end up in the time machine they used for leaving, and that makes them hard to find." Her sobbing had faded, becoming a sniffle. A few old rags had been left in the kitchen by whoever had lived there last, or by someone trying to make the place look more inticing to a potential buyer. I handed her one to wipe tears and rainwater off her face, saying nothing when she decided to clean her nose, too. I just hung the thing back on the little hook on the wall.
"So they..."
"They use a special time machine, very heavy duty stuff. The kind they use to send special units."
With those words, she broke down crying again, shivering, but not from the cold.
"Come with me," I said, helping her to her feet. Being taller than me, by more than a bit, she was difficult to support beyond just getting her off the floor!
In the living room, everybody fell quiet almost immediately. Emilie hesitated in the doorway, clearly feeling an urge to run away from the lot. But she stayed.
"Tell them what you told me," I said to her, and she summarized the entire thing for the people in the room. There was a lot of angry talk, mostly just people cursing the woman in white and her goons. One, I noted, reacted very differently. Standing by the now open sliding door, Alex had a strange look in his eye, a kind of skeptical panic. The moment our eyes met, he stared for a second, then turned his back and went into the dining room, half shutting the door behind him.
The first thing I noticed when opening and stepping through the sliding door was that Jonna was no longer there. I gave the living room a quick glance and, to my relief, spotted her on one of the many couches. Then I turned my attention back to Alex.
"Sonne, listen to me, I don't give a shit! I want you and Teglgaard on this pronto, and I want someone at home office to..."
He stopped hissing at his phone the moment he noticed me in the room. Apart from the angry brow, he looked oddly nervous, or at least stressed, as he took a deep breath and focused on his phone again.
"Look, just... the names are in my case folder, just use the op password. No, just do it, don't call for confirm, this needs direct action, ASAP. Yeah, thanks."
"That Simon on the phone?" I asked, trying to sound like there was nothing to getf all wound up about. Alex nodded. "Got him tracking down the ones I couldn't find?" He nodded again.
"I didn't tell him your little, let's call it a time travel theory," he muttered under his breath, making it seem like time travel was a dirty word.
"It's not a..." I stopped myself, weighing the pros and cons of the semantics in question. "You know what," I ended up adding, "doesn't matter. Let me know what they..."
Without warning, there was a series of loud pops, and the place fell into nearly complete darkness. I could see the silhouette of Alex go for his gun, but never actually pull it out.
"What the #*@! was that?" he asked, instead. I waited for any other sounds, but none came.
"The lamps. All the battery powered lamps we brought, they must have popped all at the same time."
"Why? A power surge?"
I stared at the dark  outline of the man, a bit annoyed that he probably could not see the glance I was sending him.
"Battery power, Alex. I don't think a power surge would... wait..."
My mind fumbled about a bit, trying to recall what was bugging it. When it finally did, I rushed to the sliding door and practically ripped it open!
"Everybody alright?!" I half yelled into the room, suddenly finding myself staring at about a dozen confused and frightened faces. It took a second to realize that I was the one who had scared them!
"What the hell, Ida, you scared the shit out of us," said Niels as he lit another candle with his lighter. A drawer in one of the old pieces of furniture was open and apparently had a bunch of small candles in it. How he had found them was beyond me.
"Is everyone okay?" I repeated. One by one, they all nodded, looking at each other.
"What's the big deal, it was just a power..."
Jens, who had been speaking, suddenly froze in the middle of his thoughts. Then he ran to the window facing the road outside!
"It's hit everything nearby." He turned, almost like in a television drama series. "The streetlamps farthre away are still on."
"Shit," hissed the nameless guy.
"What? What's so important about a power outage?" asked Alex as he pushed his way by me and into the living room. Everybody just stared at him.
"Remember the big power outage a few days back?" I asked, never looking at him. I heard him grunt his yes, though. "That was a blast to throw time travelers out of our time. It's what set all this in motion."
"And now we've got a new one," said Jens as he walked through the room, his big feet making loud, heavy noises against the old carpet.
"So... why is everyone so freaked?" Alex continued. "I mean, everybody's still here, right?"
Jens, in spite of his huge stature, squeezed between myself and Alex with impressive agility. I turned to see him hurry up the stairs to the floor above, the one that had a balcony looking out over the surrounding landscape. Moments later, we all heard his outburst!
"#*@!!" was the first part. Then came the sound of old wood being hit, hard. "#*@! those #*@!ing #*@!ers!!"
With everyone else itching to rush up to him, I waved at them and ran up the stairs myself. I climbed the staircase to see him standing in the doorway to the balcony, leaning his forehead against it withhis teeth gritted and bared. His knuckles had traces of blood on them. So did the doorframe.
"What did you see?" I asked, even though I rushed to the windows overlooking the balcony and looked out myself. He simply pointed to the road nearby, the one leading into town. There were at least five spots, all lit up by swirling, colored lights. Right before the light disappeared in five intense flashes.
"Oh #*@!," I whispered. "Do you know who it was?" Jens simply shook his head.
"Ida, why are we still here?" he asked, causing me to look confused back and forth between him and the now once again dark spots outside by the road. "What is this house? Why didn't it affect us?"
"A rebel outpost," I sighed. "They abandoned it. Dunno where they are now. But they apparently shielded it back when they were still here."
"That's why you gathered us here?" he asked, turning to look at me with tired eyes, forehead still pressed against the doorframe. I nodded. He finaly took his head off the doorframe and walked by me.
"They're here," he said, not bothering to turn and look at me. "They're coming for us. We need to batten down the hatches." With those words, he disappeared down the staircase.
Downstairs, we were both met with frightened glances. Alex was standing a bit aside from everyone else, checking something on his phone with an intense look in his eyes, but everyone else seemed to have been just waiting for us to return, now silently awaiting our report from upstairs.
"They are coming," I blurted out, before Jens could even get a word in. "We need to..."
It felt almost like a dramatic cliché, me about to pass on a battle plan, and then getting cut off in mid sentence. But unlike unoriginal action movies, it was not an explosion or even gunfire that interrupted. Instead, a string of a dozen or so loud crackles could be heard through the walls, the walls muffling them enough to make it hard to place them geographically. But they sounded close by!
"What the hell was that?" Alex asked remarkably levelheadedly.
"Someone just timed in," Emilie answered, her voice still sounding a bit frail.
"Lots of someones," Niels added.
Everybody just stood around for the next few moments, listening intently. Snapping out of it, Jens and the nameless guy went to different windows, sneaking a peek outside. None of them seemed to spot anything.
"Alex," I said casually, nodding to the dining room. He sent an uneasy look around the room before he strolled calmly through the sliding door.
"What?"
"Take this," I said, handing him two small plastic bags. He looked at them, pushing and prodding them a bit to identify the things inside.
"Ida, these are boxershorts. And are those... are those socks?"
I nodded.
"Look, the pops you just heard were time travelers. I know it sounds insane, but these can hurt them."
"Socks? Underwear and socks have time travel powers?" he asked, his voice drawing out the words in disbelief.
"It's not just socks and... Look, it's just these. They're special, oka..."
We were interrupted when a loud banging sound came from the main door. In the living room, we could hear a panic start to form, a few voices calming the crowd.
"So what, I just shove underpants in their faces and yell skidmarks or something?"
Alex' voice was reaching a pitch that promissed nothing good. His breath was getting rapid and his eyes squinted in a way that seemed a bit erratic. None of it was good.
"Basically, yes! Just keep it away from the others, it's against time travelers and it doesn't care who those time travelers are. You got it?"
He stood for quite a while, just looking at me with his mouth hanging a little open. A few times he looked to the living room, to the people now loudly discussing what to do, as another loud bang came from the front door.
"Alex, you got it?!"
"Yeah, yeah," he stuttered, still visibly confused, "shove underwear in time traveler's face, stay away from friends, I got it!"
"Great. It's just a matter of..."
The banging sound returned, this time followed by a loud crack as wood gave in. From somewhere in the house, Jens shouted words that could not be understood through the walls. I could hear something heavy being dragged.
"There's a backdoor, out by the small conservatory at the end of that hallway. They'll find it soon. Watch it. Don't get hurt. We clear?"
Alex nodded, and as I pointed my finger toward the other hallway, he hurried for it.
Running through the living room I pushed people aside more crudely than I wanted to! In the main hallway, I found Jens and a few others cooperating on getting furniture stacked against the main door. I didn't wait around, but instead bolted through the kitchen, heading for the secondary door. It was a miracle none of the attackers had thought of it yet, but I was not going to complain or ask questions!
As I got there, I found the nameless guy looking around for things to stack against it. He seemed flustered, his face red in the light of the old and dim lightbulb that hung naked on the wall.
"Don't," I said quickly, fearing that it sounded like a hiss or a scolding. "We need to funnel them."
He just looked at me with a very lost expression on his face, but he stepped aside when I pushed through the small entrance room to look out the tiny window in the door. I instantly jumped back with a loud yelp when a set of angry eyes looked back through it!
"Leave," I told the nameless guy. He hesitated, looking at the window and then back at me as I fumbled with the plastic bag. Just from the presence of him, and perhaps our new guest outside the door, I could feel the clothes inside the bag start to heat up as they were freed from my pocket.
"Leave, now!" I yelled at him, watching him closely as he got out of the small room. With him gone, I slid several pieces of clothing over each hand, enough that I had to struggle to get a tight grip on the key as I pulled it out of my pocket. Then I stuck it in the lock and, hearing the rusty old metal of both key and lock scrape together, turned it.
The moment the lock clicked, the door flew open, the stocky man outside nearly ripping it off its hinges! He roared at me and raised his fist to pound me to dust, the fingers glowing with an eerie raddish mist. I didn't think, not even for a second, but just let instinct take over. One hand grabbed him by the face, pressing multiple socks into his eyes and mouth, while the other went for the shoulder of his raised right hand. He screamed instantly, colored dust bursting out of thin air to surround him. Kicking myself away from him more than him away from me, I got a bit of distance between us before the swirl of colors sent him screaming out of this time, or whatever they were doing.
Behind where he had stood, three others now suddenly looked at me with a bit of angry confusion in their eyes. I wasted no time, but simply stormed out the door, sprinting straight at them! The first got a sock crammed forcefully into his mouth and left there. The second, a woman that I thought were a man until the final look at her, soon found me wrapped around her leg. She pulled out what looked like a small baton, but before she could use it, colored dots were engulfing the both of them. As they howled, I threw myself into the bushes nearby, feeling the blast of them disappearing wash over me just as I landed.
The last one looked oddly calm. I got out of the bushes even before the colored dots had truly faded, and he stared me down instantly. Then, he pulled out a small baton of his own. We traded glares for a few moments before I launched myself at him, roaring with all my lungs!
I knew something was very wrong the moment I grabbed at him with my left hand. He gave the hand a quick slap with the baton, then poked me hard in the stomach with the tip of it. Hunching over at the painful jab, I stared at the hand as it became warmer and warmer, before I struggled to get the socks off of it and throw them on the ground. As they smoldered and caught fire, he used my distraction to grab my right arm and pull me in by it. With a furious glare, he pressed the small baton against the hand, and I screamed as the clothes wrapped around it started to heat up. He never let go of the hand, instead staring at me with a very satisfied smirk as I started crying in pain. In his hubris, he never noticed my now painful but free left hand fumble through my pockets. Trying to ignore the searing pain in the right hand, I pulled up a small pair of boxershorts, and the second he turned from looking at the simmering hand to staring me in the eyes, I crammed it in his mouth so hard I felt at least one tooth scrape so badly against the back of my hand that a piece broke off. He tried to pull the boxers out, but keeping his hand away and pressing them in against his attempts to spit them out was easier than his fight to hold onto my now smoldering hand. In a fit of rage, I headbutted him on the chin, making his mouth shut hard around the boxers. I never noticed whether or not he managed to swallow them before the colored dots appeared to swallow him up!
Inside the door again, I finally buckled over, crying out in pain. Both hands red and swollen, it was an endurance challenge to just close and lock the door properly! The nameless guy had left completely, apparently taking my request to heart, and with tears streaming down my cheeks, I made my way in. Once in the kitchen, I stopped, gasping through the pain, and with a last, great effort, I turned on the faucet. It rumbled, making screaming sounds of its own, and for a moment I feared it had been shut off. It would make sense, in an empty house like this. After all, the power was down. But as the first rush of, admittedly brown, tapwater came gushing out, I foud myself smiling warmly at what real estate agents would leave on in case of having to show a house to potential buyers.
With cold water running down my swollen hands, I finally listened. The house wasfull of sounds, now, but it was so full that I had problems telling them apart. There were only very few screams, and none of them were all that bloodcurdling. A few crunching sounds of broken glass being stepped on, sounding very much like it came from the living room. It made sense, that being one of the few rooms with windows facing the street. But what I noticed much more was the sound of electric static filling the air, followed by a snapping boom. As the water cooled my hands, I heard it twice. Alex was getting the hang of shoving underwear in people's faces.
Imore stumbled than walked into the hallway, seeing another door open into what might once have been an extra bedroom, or perhaps a study or home office. The window was smashed, one of only two other than the living room facing the street. The third was the bathroom. The door there was still closed.
In the living room, everything was chaos! Furniture had been thrown about, Jonna was on the floor, a bleeding wound in the back of her head and her hands caught in some strange threads that looked like tactical silly string, which she struggled mdly to get rid of. A disturbingly bright light shone through the large window facing the garden, but that window did not open. Someone had tried to break it, but all they managed to do was leave a few huge cracks in it. By the corner of the small nook in the room, I could see Jens beating the everloving crap out of someone who had not been there before, likely, and hopefully, one of the time travelers come to capture people. Three others were holding another one of them down, while Niels struggled to tie him up with what looked like half a roll worth of ducttape.
Through the sliding down, which had been smashed to splinters, I could make out others struggling, but as I looked on, one of them was yanked away, and as the other, one of ours, dove for cover, colored dots erupted to light up the room. Alex had apparently made his way back into the house. As I watched, slowly regaining my strength, there was a loud crack behind me, and splinters of the front door flew by me like a cloud of sharp steam!
For a moment, everything seemed quiet. I didn't realize at first that my hearing had simply gone away for a little while. I never even considered that something bad had happened until Jens reached over and grabbed me by my jacket collar. Shouting something that only came through as discombobulated vowels, he ripped me aside as something passed my ear. I never even saw what it was.
Sounds returned about the same instant as I landed hard on the old carpet on the floor. For unknown reasons, I only now noticed the scent of of charcoal and burned meat in the air, most of it doubtlessly from the time travelers that had been sent back. From the door to the hallway, the door that Jens had ripped me away from, a woman stepped into the room. She sent me a brief glance, cold and lifeless eyes without a hint of emotion. Then she turned her entire attention to Jens again. With an inhumanly quick punch she broke his shoulder so thoroughly that I could see the bones deform under his clothes, even from my pron position on the floor!
"ROBOTS!" I yelled with all my might, and faces turned towards us by the door! There were barely any of the attacking time travelers left, and I could see that it might be because people in the living room were swarming them and forcing them down, then throwing them into the dining room for Alex to dispatch. A single thought went through my head: That tactic would no longer work.
Even with his shoulder looking like hell, Jens simply slammed into the robot, his other shoulder as a ram, when the one behind it came for me. Both machines went backward, their strength meaningless when pushed. They were made to weigh the same as people, so they were about as easy to push! Resisting my urge to help him in a fight I knew I stood no chance in, I scrambled clumsily to my feet and tried not to fall as I dodged out of the fight entirely!
"It won't work on them, they're robots," I hastily explained as I grabbed Alex by the wrist and got him back into the dining room he was about to leave. He wanted to join the fight, that much was crystal clear. It was admirable, but this was a fight that was not won by courage alone!
"Robots?" he asked, his mind taking a second to remember that everything was insane, and he had no reason to stop and wonder about this added mess.
"Yeah, the time travelers were just to soften us up, I guess. Or they thought the robots would only be needed to drag the fallen amongst us away."
I was breathing heavy. Too heavy. Some poorly defined pain was flooding my midsection, and I hoped dearly that it was simply a stitch, or maybe a strained muscle. Nothing warm came out, nothing stained my clothes. If I was bleeding, it was internally. For some reason, just for a second or two, my mind managed to convince me that was a good thing. For a second or two.
"Robots like the ones you fought by the harbor?"
There was a crash from the living room, the sound of something heavy smashing to the floor. There were other furniture in there but the couches, and I forced myself to believe that only robots had been hurt by whatever furniture had fallen over.
"Yeah, like the..."
Suddenly, all sound dropped away again, but this time it was because of my own mind. Images of the boat in the harbor flashed through.
"Alex, call Josef," I groaned, leaning against the window sill. The window faced the street, but it was obscured by plants that had been trimmed too long ago. My neck hurt like hell as I twisted it around to look outside without twisting my painful waist. Strange lights in the sky mixed with the backdrop of stars that had come out now. In the shine of that unexplained light, I saw shapes in the sky, edges of something floating which kept trying to hide slight reflections of its massive outline.
"Josef?"
"Agent... agent Telmore," I complained.
"Teglgaard?" he asked, pulling his phone out like some modern gunslinger.
"Yes! #*@!ing agent whatever, get him on the..."
There was a scream and the crunch of an already broken window being splintered even more. I turned too quickly, my midsection sending a flood of pains through my entire body, and watched out the window as Emilie was flung through the air and into the light. At the last second, a previously hidden mouth of some kind opened, tentacles reaching out to grab her and pull her into it. Then, it all disappeared again, leaving only the lights and the faint reflections of an outline.
"I didn't track the car," Alex said, out of the blue.
"What? Why do you..."
"I didn't track the #*@!ing car," he hissed, phone at his ear, waiting for the other agent to pick up. "When you handed me your phone, I downloaded a tracking program." While he spoke, he took the phone from his ear. "Don't trust people, Ida." Then he put the phone on speaker.
"Sir, we're at the Olsen residence, and it... it's a shitshow, sir. Nobody is..."
"Josef, how did you make that weapon against the robots?!"
There was a moment of quiet. Or, more accurately, the phone fell quiet. The living room was now a source of constant crashing, crunshing and screams.
"Ida? Sir, is that..."
"Answer her, Teglgaard!" yelled Alex, raising the phone to his lips for emphasis!
"Sorry, uhm, you need to juryrig a large capacitor to house the charge, and then you..."
"I don't know what the #*@! that means," I said out loud, to both him and Alex, tears in my eyes. With a growing sense of terror, I looked on as Alex walked straight past me and into the living room. It took about five seconds before he returned with Niels, who was bleeding badly from his nose and mouth!
"Teglgaard, run this guy through it!" yelled Alex into the phone, which he handed to Niels. He and Niels locked eyes for a second before Niels simply nodded a bit hesitantly. Then Alex sent me a final look, his eyes looking the least confident I had seen them in the brief time I'd known him, and leaped through the sliding door, into the battle in the adjacent room!
"I can... I think I can do this. Ida, is there a fuse box?"
I was shaking. Every part of my body was experiencing spasms I had never felt before. Small spasms, twitches and jerks, perhaps more like a poorly coordinated shiver than shaking.
"Ida!"
"Yes, yes, there... Oh #*@!, it's on the other side of the living room, in the hallway!"
"Backdoor?!"
"This way," I said, my brain finally snapping back into gear. Not waiting for a response, I darted out through the second hallway and out the backdoor in the rundown conservatory at the back of the house. I could hear Niels follow, but I never turned to look.
The garden was a mess, overgrown and full of thorny plants. Vines and some of the worst thorns grabbed at my clothes as I rounded the corner of the house and ran up a small flight of concrete steps to reach the front yard. At the top of the steps, I stopped abruptly enough that Niels slammed into me from behind, but he managed not to do much damage, except for the repeated throbbing from my waist.
"What?!" he asked angrily, and I pointed up into the air. Whatever was up there, grabbing people from inside as the robots threw them out, only the disembodied lights were visible.
Niels gave me a push as me scraped by on the narrow garden path, between bushes that were slowly reverting to their wild form from neglect. I watched the sky with half an eye as I ran by, quickly turning the next corner and running to the front door that had been smashed to bits in the cloud of splinters that had passed me little more than a minute ago inside.
"Fuse box," I said, pointing to the small hatch on the wall. Niels wasted no time. With the fight still raging visibly on the other side of the open door in the opposite end of the hallway, he pulled out a few tools from his pocket and got to work. While he spent about half a minute on that, I turned my eyes from the hallway and looked out at the tiled path between the main door and the street. The lights slid by irregularly, illuminating the street right outside. I wondered what anyone watching this from surrounding houses, if any, might think of it. But my thoughts stopped when I spotted someone dressed nearly all in white, caught in the lights as they tuched the street out there.
"Got it!" Niels said, stepping away from the fuse box. "Okay, this might... you should stand back," he added, looking less than confident. I heard a scream as someone else was taken by the lights. With determined eyes, I took two steps back, nearly tripping on the stone stairs right outside the door.
Between his fingers, Niels clamped two wires together with a small plastic thingie. Nothing happened. At first. Then, a strange smell started coming from the fus box, and it started to smoke! I sent Niels a look, but he was staring at the box, looking less than confident all of a sudden. When he took another few steps back and covered himself, stepping into the small bathroom that was in the hallway, I took a long step away and to the side of the concrete stair.
A hum filled the noise in the air, and the smell of smoke become a stench of charred plastic. Then, a loud pop, like a car blowing a tyre, sounded out, and everything went dark. The distant streetlights that were still on, the houses nearby, even, for a flickering second, the lights in the sky! Only the stars still shone.
And then, it was all quiet.
Hearing nothing but my own rapid breath, I looked into the dark house. Somewhere, a candle still flickered, but everything else had been snuffed out by the fight. It was a miracle nothing had caught fire. Looking across the road, I saw nearby houses completely dark, a few sounds now possible to hear from them in the night. The woman in white had left, and I suddenly noticed that the lights in the sky had gone, too.
"Is everyone okay?!" I asked loudly into the house. There were a few grunts from inside, and I could ear someone crying. I walked inside, through the shattered door, but in the dark, I could see nothing at all.
"We need to leave," said Alex, scaring the hell out of me as his crude shape emerged in the dark. "And I think we need an ambulance."

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 46

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 46 The forest seemed to go on forever. Aldric had gone in deep with the interrogation that had pointed to, among other, this time and place, and the most surprisingly vital bits of survival information were the tiny tidbits about experiencing it all. The key was to look at the sky right above the treetops. It had yet to yield anything useful.
Somewhere in the growth, the fake Tarik was likely being torn apart by animals. He didn't getf back up from the final blow with the branch, and showed no signs of life, but it seemed pretty clear that he was all biological, even when ignoring the problems surrounding non-biological things and time travel. If he had survived it, the cracked skull injury was convincing and he had ways of holding his breath and hiding his heartbeat for an impressively long time. His body never did grow cold, but then again, the air was warm and moist. Very warm, and very moist. Even with nothing on but the old jumpsuit, and with it ventilated nicely by the slits meant for releasing heat after time travel arrival, it felt like being cooked slowly. Or, perhaps more accurately, being steamed alive like some health food vegetable dish.
Daylight was starting to vanish, too! Whoever Fake Tarik had reported back to, they quite clearly wanted to know about The Embassy and the places and ages its agents visited. The question of why still lurked out there, but it seemed unlikely that they had aimed the time machine at a completely different place and time. Making it closer to nighttime was actually pretty clever. It made splitting up a bad idea, because that would leave everybody alone when the dark settled. Of course, so did killing the other guy, but every plan had its flaws.
As the first streaks of red slithered across the sky, warning of night to come, the whole idea of looking at treetops finally paid off! Above the lower trees to the right, a flat, horizontal line split the bottom tip of what could be seen of the sky. It was easy to miss, looking a bit like just some steam rising from the dense forest, but when studied carefully, it was clear that it was something else entirely. It was a wall.
"It's nearly impossible to walk more than an hour without seeing the tip of a wall above the treeline."
That was what Aldric had deduced from the interrogation data. The one word that had become increasingly a cause of worry during that walk in the forest was the word "nearly". This was uncharted land. The Embassy had no footing here, none at all. Had everything gone according to the original plan, the thirtieth or so jump would have been made with the help of some rickety rogue outfit operating out of some stoneage colony, hiding away from 28417 in cave systems much deeper than those underneath Klaus' pirate fort. Every jump for millenia before that one would have been made in similar ways, in fact. This was so far off the reservation for The Embassy that even the existence of the reservation became a matter of myth, so to speak.
Perhaps it was the renewed enthusiasm, or perhaps it was just the lack of having to constantly check the treeline, but getting to the wall seemed like a quicker affair than first expected. And when it came into clearer view, it was with all the majesty that could be expected from something of its magnitude! It seemed to be not so much a wall in the forest as a wall in the world, the endless width and height feeling as if it cut the world in half, the part inside and the forest outside. The interrogation had revealed information about the walled cities, but seeing even this one wall up close brought the abstract idea of it into a frightening, very real light!
There was no gate. The stone wall stretched deep into the forest in both directions, disappearing amongst the tall trees. Vines and even less adventurous plants grhew along it like cracks in the stone itself, and they particularly grew around actual cracks, giving them more to hold onto. In spots here and there, they could be seen growing into and through the wall, finding an old gap so narrow that only the delicate form of their tiny green fingers could creep through. An old wall, this section perhaps left unchecked for decades or even centuries. The tall trees and dense growth nearby suggested nobody had been in that particular spot for ages.
Walking the length of the wall made it clear that the spot was not a freak coincidence, either. The simple act of following the wall was constantly made near impossible by the dense foliage, trees all but clinging to the wall, and small once in some cases sprouting from cracks that seemed to have been first made worse by other plants growing in them without restraint. This seemed somehow wrong, like some ominous warning about either the plant or the wall. The interrogation data claimed that the walls were guarded ferociously, that if a wall was not cleared by hand or fire and patrolled, it was cluttered by merchants or others wanting to service the people inside without ever going in. Even a short piece of wall in such a sad state was a direct contradiction of that. It should not exist. But apparently, it did.
Judging by the rapidly setting sun, this was the north side of the wall, sunlight now starting to die in the west, to the right when facing the wall. The air was getting colder, too. In the red and purple light, flowers could be seen closing their petals up for the night, conserving warmth to stay alive. The false Tarik had never given a clear idea what season his masters had aimed the time machine for, but the state of plantlife suggested early autumn. The night would not be freezing, but it would be a chill. And with the odd plants around, it was anyone's guess what wildlife would come prowling after dark!
With the last beams of sunlight starting to fade, the gate finally came into sight! As the wall, it was massive, reaching up so far that it might well have been just another section of wall from just looking at it. The hinges were what gave it away, though, large protruding mechanisms of wood and metal. The gate itself, its enormous door, was equally made from a heavy wood, with metal fittings running its full edge to strengthen it. Looking up the side of the entire thing made the world seem to warp, the sheer scale of it pushing hard against the brain's perception of reality. There was a limit to the reach of human depth perception, a limit that made looking up at a skyscraper from nearby a bit of a mental ordeal, when the brain was forced to switch back and forth between seeing a full, three dimensional building at the bottom, and a strangely flattened matte painting at the more distant top, with no easy division between them along the surface of the building. This door gave that same sensation, but at the same time, it was a door. The brain was not used to having problems fitting a simple door into its handling of vision.
With that headache in full roar, it was hard to truly study the gate, but in the end, a crack could be seen in the dying light. It was just below the lowest hinge, likely a slab of stone worn down by years of opening and closing of the gate, and now brought to break by the unknown number of years it hard been left to fall apart on its own. It wasn't that high up, in all honesty, and plants, even a small tree, ran the edge of the wall by the door, leading right up to it. Had it not been so dark, climbing it would be fairly easy. But it was dark. The climb was not easy. And once by the crack, squeezing through it made a painful finale to a straining effort. What was inside the crack was impossible to say. Daylight had ended. Daylight came back with no real fanfare. Tiny beams of light could be seen in the dusty air inside the wall, one of the biggest sneaking through the crack by the hinge. Other, smaller beams of light shone through tiny cracks elsewhere, the entire stone structure looking like a worn curtain.
The floor was wood. Old wood. It had to have once been very good wood, and very good craftsmanship, or it would have fallen apart over the years. A second or third floor, raised from the ground, running much of the length of the wall, but inside of it. Thick stone on both sides were what anyone from the outside would see. The wall was not just a wall, it had room inside it, likely once built for guards or even for storing goods near the gates. Old torches hung on the walls, looking dry enough to either flare into ash or simply fall apart at the mere thought of lighting them. It was a well known way to build a defensive wall, but the size set this wall apart. The inner spaces could be a castle onto themselves, which ample room for any number of people.
Now, though, it had all fallen apart. The floor felt as if it was about to splinter just from the pressure of getting up from it. The rough surface felt like driftwood against the palms, and it looked like broken pieces put together on nothing but a whim.
On the bright side, the cracks allowing light in made the place easier to navigate. It had dark spots, for sure, but there was light enough, on floor enough, that walking around became perfectly safe. At least, as long as the wood never snapped and plummetted down, taking any fool standing on it with it down!
One door was nearby. There were doubtlessly more around, but this first one, while locked, was in such a poor state that it took only a hard push to make the piece around the lock splinter into almost nothing, just bits of rotten wood shattering on the floor. And as the now truly broken door swung out, sunlight flooded in. Morning had clearly passed, leaving early noon to warm the landscape. Green stretched as far as the eye could see, even here on the iside of the mighty wall. Grasses had grown tall and wild, weeds and vines battling for living space amongst it. There were disappointingly few trees, making it possible to see far and wide, in stark contrast to the rampant forest in the other side of the wall. The outside of the wall. It was a bizarre concept, but from what the interrogation had found about this age, walls like this one were, in fact, roughly round. They encased an area, inside which people could live. The exact purpose of the walls had never come up, nor had what they protected against. But somewhere in the distance, the other side of the giant wall kept out another forest, or something else. A ring too big for the human eye to comprehend, running tall and thick into the distance.
Right outside the door, the wall had a raised floor, stone tiles no doubt laid on wood that still survived beneath them. Looking along the wall, each level, each floor, of the wall had its own terrace, so to speak, making the whole thing look like a wide stairway for giants! Smaller stairs, some of stone and some of wood, could be seen in various spots, connecting a terrace to another below or above. The wooden ones, again, looked in poor condition, but the stone ones made getting down to ground level an easy walk.
The quiet was remarkable, and honestly, a bit unnerving. Large animals likely had no way to cross the wall, leaving only birds to fly over or small woodland creatures to crawl over it or through the many cracks. But something had once lived in there. Beyond the grass were buildings, small ones, but large enough to spot, especially while walking down a wall as massive as this one. But the quiet of the place only served to cement the one thing that stood out about it: It was quiet! Not a sound of life nearby, or in the distance. No faint voices of people calling out to one another, not the sound of things moving in streets. Nothing. It was a desolate place.
Breakfast was provided by berries on bushes on the way to the buildings. Wild grain did grow in many places, but eating it from the stalk seemed less than appetizing, and it seemed less filling, as well. And the berries were plentiful, which was a bit surprising! Haphazardly scattered clusters of bushes offered berries of many kinds, so the risk of eating any that had a poison in them was less, simply because there was no need to eat more than a few of each. It was in no way a perfect strategy, but it was a strategy, and in the silence, a growling stomach was a loud distraction.
Up close, the buildings looked to be in as pitiful a state as the wall itself. Wooden beams in and between the houses had rotted almost, or entirely, through, and stones had eroded and started to slip, several of them ripping out their particular house wall along the way. Old pots lay shattered in the cobblestone streets, their shards dulled over long periods of time. Nobody had lived in this place for a very long time.
On the walk towards one large building, raised on a hill that seemed almost deliberately placed at the center of the dead town, the wind started to pick up. Perhaps it was simply the raised position, so far from the sheltering wall, but it seemed like the wind itself wanted to surround the building. Huge pillars, nearly all in surprisingly good condition, held a stone roof above a similar stone pathway, leading the last bit to the entrance of the building. A town hall, a temple, a mansion, a museum, it could be anything. Anything but unimportant, judging by its appearance. On the pillars were stone tablets, each on a small pedestal of its own. Writing on them had faded into nearly nothing, at least on those that had not broken apart entirely and crumbled. What little text could still be clearly seen was not in any recognizable alphabet.
"Hello? Anybody here?"
At the mouth of the bulding, each word echoed inside of it, over and over again. It could perhaps be called a doorway, but there definitely was no door, only more stone walls, stone obviously being the only thing that had survived long enough to still be around. There could have been a thousand intricate wooden parts in the building's youth, but they would all have fallen apart and the dust been blown away in the time that the place had stood empty. Decades no longer seemed like a satisfactory timeframe. The place had to have been abandonned for centuries.
In the rising midday light, the shadows cast through the long, rectangular holes above that constituted windows looked like an alternate arrangement of what was really inside. Statues, roughly twice the natural height of a person, stood lining the inner walls, looking like the guardian figures of gods or kings that nobody was there to remember any longer. The shadows, on the other hand, made them look like they were fighting or partying with one another. It was impossible to tell if that was by accident or some weird intention.
The same could not be said for the voices! It took a little while, but as the wind outside became more a faint background sound, they could be heard. Another strange language to throw on the pile, incomprehensible words in short but clearly complicated sentences. More than one voice, as well! In the foreign tongue, it was hard to know if they were having a whispered conversation, or merely talking over one another! But much more than that, it was hard to know if they were a threat!
The outside, bathed in sunlight, suddenly looked less peaceful. The voices showed no sign of following, but sneaking out had seemed to be wise, in hopes that they never noticed anything. Turning to look at the dilapidated town, it suddenly looked less like an abandoned ruin, and more like a ghost town! The difference was semantics, but the words suddenly seemed to very much paint the scene. Ghost town. A town of ghosts.
"Asaikeye!"
The word, or phrase, came out of nowhere! Yelled more than spoken, it sounded like an order, but what it ordered was impossible to know. The voice clearly didn't care. One more step, and it broke the sound of the wind as a swoosh went by and a spear, coming from nothing, planted itself in the ground nearby.
"Asaikeye!" the voice repeated.
"I don't know what that means!"
The voice did not answer. Then again, nor did it repeat itself. All that could be heard was, once again, the wind.
The spear still swayed nearby, the metal head buried in the dirt of what had to once have been a small city garden. Withering weeds were all that now grew in the dirt, even they barely able to force any life out of a soil that nobody had likely tended to in generations. The weeds, of course, were not the interesting part. The spear was. The metal head of it was ornate, the color hinting at some variant of bronze, with intricate lines and symbols along the worn and slightly dented edge. The wooden body of the spear, however, seemed to be nothing but the one stick most nearly straight that someone had been able to find in the forest outside. One item, two parts, each looking to be from very different sources!
"Aki... Akakshi... #*@! it, I don't know!"
The voice still said nothing. It was hard to say if it was gone or simply quiet, but it said nothing.
"Show yourself! I'm not here to..."
All it took was one step. One step towards the spear, planning to pick it up. Whether it was the step alone or that it was towards the spear was unclear, but seemingly from thin air, another spear cut through the air, this one hitting stone and, failing to impale it, fell to the ground with a clattering noise.
"Asaikeye! Asa asa!"
"Asshole to you, too! Show yourself!"
Nobody showed themselves. Not by face, at least. Instead, out of the blue, something snuck up and everything went dark. The smell was like old, damp clothes, thick and warm, but it was overshadowed by the feeling of the cloth not just going over the head, but then wrapping around the throat! Strong hands, not from just one person. They were everywhere, touching, grabbing, holding! Locking arms and hands, covering the cloth that was already covering eyes and mouth! But amidst it all, there was one more thing that could be felt. A body. A physical body, grabbing from behind. Someone was there!
They expected a struggle, a fight over the tightness of the cloth, a fight around the throat to preserve the right to breathe. They were wrong. A rapid step to the side was all it really took. The tip of a foot bumped the heel as it moved. A target. The heel went down, hard, catching the tip, and someone screamed! The hands holding the cloth loosened slightly, for just a moment, and it was more than enough. All it took was swinging a fist backward, with a rough guess from what little was known about the unseen attacker. The fist met flesh, and the flesh buckled around it. A groin, perhaps just the kidneys. Someone screamed out in pain.
With a moment of even looser cloth, ripping it away entirely finally worked! There was a spectacle of voices and grunts as the many hands seemed to stumble over each other to either getf away or get through and reestablish control. All of them failed.
"Who are y..."
A single fist came out of nothing, swinging for the head. It was a close dodge, but retribution was swift and the short, stocky man that had thrown the punch completely lost his balance as his forward knee took the hit!
"Imtaie!" yelled someone, safe to say not the same voice as before. "Imtaie!" agreed another. Four people, none of them very imposing, nearly stumbled over one another to get away!
"Yeah, imtaie! Imtaie!!"
Surprisingly, screaming that word was enough to make the last one, the man taken down by his knee, look with angry worry and then tuck tail and run.
Ragged clothes, old decorations, leather that seemed to not quite fit. Scroungers. They ran quickly as soon as they no longer had each other to trip over, jumping on and over walls with agility, and they clearly knew their surroundings. Squatters, likely.
But they left one spear, the one stuck amongst the weeds. The other had been taken before they lost their grip on the cloth, before they were beaten into running. Someone had been quick while the others were struggling, perhaps. This one, though, they had apparently not had time to fetch. It pulled out of the ground with a faint metal ringing, like a tuning fork hit gently. The weight of it was remarkably balanced, considering the poor quality of the wooden body.
"Got your spear, #*@!ers! Come out so I can hand it back to you!"
The sound of the wind was now interrupted by scuffling noises from many parts of the ruins. Shadows seemed to dart across empty streets, the mind playing tricks on the eyes and making every odd shape look as if it might be a living thing, trying its best to hide in the dusty streets. Few of them were, or at least so it seemed.
Then, one of them stepped into the near noon light, standing atop a crumbling building two stories tall.The figure itself was a man, normal height, which made him a bit taller than the ones that had attacked and run away. Like the others, though, he wore faded and worn down clothes, mostly muddled grey and brown, covered in and old leather vest, smaller leather pads tied to his limbs.
"You want your spear back, asswipe? Point first, or would you like to come and ta..."
He lifted his hand,looking completely indifferent to any threat or insult. The moment he did, the spear began to tug, hard, in his direction. At the third tug, it slipped through the fingers and spun in the air like a wheel with only two spokes. Not showing the slightest sign that he cared about the thing flying at him, the man simply held out his hand and caught it in the air. It even had its point still aimed, ready to be thrown. And yet, for some reason, it wasn't.
"Umumaie. Kamope tui," the man said with a piercing, yet deep voice. Waiting a few seconds after the short speech, he simply stepped down some staircase hidden from view, disappearing out of sight.
"I don't...." Suddenly, there was no one, again. The wind was all that could be heard. "For #*@!'s sake, moron, I don't know what you're saying."
The remark wasn't really aimed at anyone. It was low, merely muttered in frustration, frustration that they likely would never understand it, anyway.
"Kaiehe," came the voice again, now from within a building near where the man had disappeared from sight. It was his voice, but all that could be seen was a shadow passing by the window of the old house. Still, the way his voice carried, it seemed very much to ask to follow.
The old door of the house, wooden and rotted, nearly came off when opened! Inside, dust on the floor was like a thick carpet, albeit one that dissolved into the air at the moment it was touched or even nearly so. The windows let in enough light through their empty holes that most of the inside of the place was visible, but little more than that. Little piles littered the floor, piles of wooden bits that looked like they had survived a little better than the wood that was used to build with. They looked like pieces for some game, like domino or wooden playing cards. Dust, however, had sunken into every crack, coloring them a dull grey when picked up. Even shaking one did not break it free of the dust.
"Where are..."
They didn't understand. It was a frustrating fact that required constant reminding. The man's back was visible down a narrow stone hallway that ran from the house and the houses around it, gathering together the lot of them like some backdoor culdesac. The hallway was indeed also open into what might once have been a small courtyard, with the sad remnants of what might have been a fountain. Now, it was nothing but dust, vines and weeds that enjoyed the place.
It was a short walk before the man turned through another door, into what would likely be another house. As he did, he turned his head slightly to look, his eyes carrying some weird, skeptically resentful expression as they made the traditional toe-to-head gaze. Whatever he was doing, he seemed conflicted about it, holding back some kind of anger.
It was, indeed, another house. This one, though, had been cleaned. Thick carpets, themselves as old but cleaned as the house, covered much of the floor, and through another doorway, on a small pile of similar carpets, sat a man. A very old man, his beard looking as if it had copied the strategy of the vones and weeds, to simply spread in every direction. It went down his chest, below the middle of his stomach, and out to the sides, joining with his hair to run over and down his shoulders. All of it white as snow, with the exception of a few,perhaps youthful, lines of light grey woven in here and there.
The younegrh man with the spear said something to him, a sentence much longer than any he had previously used. During the rapidfire stream of words, he pointed back a few times, his voice shiftig to a soft, growling complaint. Even without the actual words, it was easy to understand whom he was talking about.
"Elaile ikaie," said the old man, his voice so weak it was nearly gone. His waving gestures made it clear that he was offering the carpets in front of him as a place to sit, hopefully a place to rest. There was no guarantee that he meant it so kindly, of course.
Sitting down and looking into the face that was nearly hidden under the heavy hooded robe he wore, it was hard to even see his eyes. His hair seemed perfectly normal, even if it was uusually long and flowing, merging into the beard seamlessly. But his eyebrows were so bushy it felt unnatural, like some artist's way of exaggerating an old man's age. Only as he leaned forward did the eyes, a piercing, faded blue, shine through.
"Numkuva," he said, in a soft a kind-sounding voice. "Numkuva pemenle."
"Uhm, numkova to you, too."
There was an odd smell in the room, thick and pungent, like raspberry jam that had recently gone bad. The scent seemed to flow through the room, not stay in one place, like a swirling mist. When it dipped and became less forceful, the air simply smelled wet. And yet, it was as dry as a desert in there.
"Numkuva," the old man repeated, sounding very certain that it would make sense. "Numkuva pemenle."
It was still noon outside. The sun stood high in the sky, shadows increasingly flat and short. The sky had been entirely clear, not a whisp of cloud to be seen. And yet, through the empty window near the ceiling of the house, the light seemed to dim.
"Numkuva," he said again, his voice sounding so similar every time that it could have been a recording, lips just moving to make it seem like speech. "Numkuva stranger."
"Look, I'm sorry, but I... wait, what?"
It was getting a bit hard to see clearly, as if thick clouds had covered the sun. The man with the spear, the one who showed the way to this old man, stood at the opposite end of the room, and the room seemed to have gotten just a little bigger. His arms were folded in a very determined kind of body language, and his face wore a gentle frown. He was not happy, not happy about what was happening, but he knew not to speak up. Maybe.
"Numkuva,"  the old man said again. His voice was the same, but it was starting to feel, not sound but feel, stronger, more forceful, more penetrating, like a soft voice through powerful headphones. "Numkuva stranger."
"Okay, I heard that!"
For whatever reason, standing up was impossibly hard, as if gravity itself had quadrupled without warning. Pushing against the floor to stand up felt like gripping hot coals, and the mere try made it hard to breathe, as if those hot coals sent scolding smoke into the air and into the lungs!
"What did you do? What did you do to me?!"
None of them reacted, not even the slightest. They seemed to not even hear a word.
"Numkuva," the man repeated, the unchanged voice sounding like a thunderstorm. "Welcome, stranger."
Like lights suddenly turned on, everything returned to what it was meant to be! Sunlight illminated the small house clearly, everything felt the proper weight. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Which made tumbling to the floor and clutching the nearest, old carpet feel that much more humiliating.
"Wait, you speak? I mean, you speak my language?"
"No," the old man said very tersely.
A laugh rang out, but not from him. The spearman, instead, was caught in a giggle in his corner of the sparse house.
"You just said welcome, stranger. I #*@!ing heard it!"
The man's utter lack of movement, or even signs of emotions, was becoming an annoyance. It seemed to mock the very idea of being frustrated with him,which in turn made him even more frustrating!
"Then what did you say?!"
"Nothing," he said even before the question had finished. "In your head. Words in your head."
"You're speaking in my head?"
"Yes. No words, just thoughts. No language."
In the tense silence that followed, even the spearman stopped smiling, perhaps worried about the sudden quiet.
"Words in your head are stronger with spoken words," the old man added. He was clearly moving his lips, but like some bad foreign movie, the lips did not match the words, at all.
"You understand my words, but through my head, not my mouth?"
"Yes," he answered.
With balance regained, standing up made the spearman cautiously reach around himself to put a hand on what looked like a long knife or very small sword. The old man made no movement, looking barely even alive. When nothing more happened, the spearman sllowly moved his hand away from the weapon.
"What is this place? Who are you people?"
Finally, the old man showed signs of life, turning his head ever so slightly to catch a sideways glance at the spearman. He muttered something soft and slow to him, and the spearman answered in a short sentence. Their language made no sense now, perhaps because they were speaking only to one another.
"Are you a spy for horses?" the old man then asked, 
"Am I what? No, I'm not a spy for anyone. Especially not horses! Are there even horses inside the wall?"
With a slow but notably steady hand, the old man made a line on the floor in fron tof his pile of carpets, a line of very green sand. It curved, the line, little bumps on it and the sand spread unevenly, but in a way that seemed on purpose. When he finished, he gave a faint sign to the spearman, who then took a small candle that had been burning in the room, burning so faint that its light had never been remotely noticeable. With a drip of hot wax, he made the green sand sputter and ignite, burning slowly and sending a new smell into the air, one more like fresh, very sharp lemon, and salt water.
"Horses are on the hunt," the old man said, his voice now sounding frighteningly determined! "They hunt us, they hunt the skills, they hunt for the ones who worship metal."
As he spoke, there was a sense of weird flashes. Not in the air, but somehow still there, in the room. Flashes of strangely armored riders on heavy horses, and a brief sense of death. Screams filled the room, but not as sound. They seemed like memories. Someone else's memories, but memories nonetheless.
"Horses. You mean riders, horsemen. Horsemen are hunting you..."
"Yes," he answered, his voice now back to its normal monotone. "They hunt the skill."
"The skill?"
With his fingers, he drew scribbles in the green sand, which had now all but burned away, turning a more muddled, dark shade of green, and black.
"The skill," he repeated, drawing over and over in the now barely recognizable line of sand. Then he raised his hand up and gently ran it from the middle of his forehead to the middle of his nose. The now sticky, dark green sand clung desperately to his skin, looking like quickly peeling facepaint.
"Ah, the skill. The stuff you just did. Got it."
Magic. He meant magic. Or whatever the hell he was doing. In the early afternoon sun, the place looked less wild than it had in the morning. This could have been psychological, of course, just knowing that there were people living there somehow making everything appear less chaotic and abandoned. Or it could be that the view from the top of the two-story building that the spearman, who apparently bore the name Donlarn, had chosen as an improvised outlook post. The landscape, completely devoid of the large trees that filled the surrounding forest, looked almlost flat from that perch.
"Iyun ponna lap," Donlarn said, pointing off in the distance with an odd sound of caual disdain in his voice. The horsemen were out there, that much was clear even without understanding the individual words. The old man, who seemed to go by the name Skillwalker, had managed to give a pretty detailed account of what was going on, the connection across language growing stronger with every sentence exchanged. Bandits, essentially, roaming between the mighty walls, preying on stragglers and unprepared merchants. Each wall, all one hundred of them, was made to withstand attacks far more savage than a pack of raiding bandits, but they had traced the Skillwalker and his small entourage, including Donlarn, to the abandoned wall. Now, while the Skillwalker and his people were simply trying to find a place to live after being chased out of another wall for things that were a bit hard to understand, the bandits wanted a place to fortify and rule. They had a camp near the south gate, where they had managed to break through the wooden gate enough to force very young horses through. The few that survived grew up inside the wall. They had done so for a few years, building a fine little herd, and breeding them for battle. A battle Donlarn, even without understanding his language, made it very clear he did not like to think of.
For now, though, there were no signs of them. No signs of horses, or their riders. They had struck three days ago but laid low since then, their tactics apparently being to be unpredictable, except for the predictable fact that they would, at some point, strike again.
Donlarn was holding his spear, standing very rigidly on the wooden roof, looking like a palace guard of some sort. The roof had been fixed not that long ago, that much was obvious, and Donlarn and the others probably had something to do with that. How they got fresh wood was never mentioned, but the wall clearly had holes, and these people clearly were resourceful!
"What's with the spear?"
Asking made very little sense, on the face of it. He had no idea what the words meant. But pointing and sounding like a question was, sometimes, enough.
"How did you... you know..."
Even if words had been useful, explaining the whole spear return flip was a bit odd to do. He seemed to understand, though, raising an eyebrow skeptically as he visibly wondered whether or not to reward the question and its many gestures with an answer.
"Houklen," he simply said, pointing back down. Houklen. It didn't actually mean Skillwalker, but it seemed to be a nickname for him. Donlarn then pointed to the bronze tip of the spear, tracing the ornament lines with his finger. "Eusuminai," he added. The meaning was somehow clear, even if the word seemed impossible to translate. The Skillwalker had done something to the metal tip of the spear, and now, people like Donlarn could call it back like a welltrained dog. It still felt mentally jarring to think of it that way, but basically, magic.
The Skillwalker had spoken about those things, about what he insisted on calling "skill". How it was his training over decades that let him change and shape natural energies. How those energies could be forced together to become light, how they could tamper with a person's mind, how they could be made to move things, even at someone else's command. Again, it was easy to just call it magic. But a lot of it sounded very much like Fifth Force stuff. It was a world apart from Happy Marla's intangible spirits running errands for her, but the similarities were there. It wasn't hard to imagine invisible, living energies racing through the air to push against the metal tip of a spear like that, perhaps unable to truly grab it and wave it around, but with a million nudges make it tumble through the air in that hazardous way Donlarn had learned to catch it.
"I was sent here by someone's mind being interrogated."
Donlarn understood nothing of that, but it somehow felt nice to just tell him, nonetheless.
"Hunting across time to understand what scares things I don't even understand myself. At least, not yet."
He looked over, ignoring for a minute the horizon he had so relentlessly scanned. It was written in every fold in his face that he wanted to understand, that it frustrated him to not be a part of the conversation, even one that one-sided. Quite surprisingly, however, he instead reached around to his other side and pulled out a knife. Flipping it over in his hand, he offered its handle.
"No thanks. Weapons aren't really my thing. I always end up hurting myself more than anyone else."
Less surprisingly, he didn't react to that rejection, most ikely because he had no idea his offer was being rejected. He simply stayed there, hand stretched out, the handle of the knife pointed forward. It was an old piece, a weapon that he had most likely grabbed from some fallen foe, or gotten for very little at a market. The handle had been redone, fresh leather straps wrapped around it, but even that looked to be a while ago. The blade had rusty spots on it, and the small crossbar did, too, especially where the blade intersected it. It was unlikely he thought of the knife as a gift. He just wanted to offer some defensive means. It seemed easier to just take it than to argue.
"So is this... houklen? It's magic?"
He got the question. Either that, or something else made him laugh and do the wavy little thing both he and the Skillwalker did when others would have shaken their heads. No houklen. No magic. Just a knife. He even, perhaps as a joke, gestured how to stick a knife into someone to make them hurt. He clearly found that instruction to be the most funny thing of all.
It was a bit before anything happened. Donlarn had made no attempt to hide that others were posted elsewhere to keep an eye out, but he was not trusting enough to say where, even in his foreign language. The Skillwalker had, for the time being, set aside any fear of a horseman spy, but Donlarn was clearly not a man to take that chance. When the sound of rocks being banged together rhythmically could be heard amongst the many dilapidated houses, however, he instantly looked to several places that would have to be other outlooks. Whatever he saw, he turned his eyes immediately to a direction that he had not been scouting over before!
"Rusaikmen," Donlarn said, very nearly gritting his teeth as he did. Waving his hands in the air, the spear looking like it might poke his own eye out by accident, he showed his left hand move around the right arm and continue away. "Rusaikmen!" Remember. Remember the plan.
Why they had laid that plan was unclear, to say the least. They could not possibly have been just waiting for someone to show up and help them, not for as long as they seemed to have been camped in the old city ruins. It was not a complicated plan, as such, just a matter of getting to another walled city that the Skillwalker described and give a certain person a certain piece of wood. It was a piece like those that were found in scattered piles here and there around the ruins, clumsy bits of currency that, according to them, beggars would exchange for food in most of the walled cities. Not money, as such. Money was metal coins, and Donlarn had shown a handful of copper ones, and been very sensitive when he showed one of silver that hung in a chain around his neck, stuffed inside the leather armor. He had tried to explain its significance, but the Skillwalker's conveyance of that had been a bit hard to understand. It was not just a more valuable coin, that was the only thing that was perfectly clear. It meant something else. But the wooden tokens were seen as worthless to all but beggars, something that people simply handed out to them out of pity, or to get them to go away. Nobody would steal or even care about them. That made them the perfect medium for a secret message. All they needed was a carrier. Why they had no one else for the task, they did not say.
Far away, in the direction that Donlarn had clearly seen someone pointing, little dots were forming. Any casual onlooker might have dismissed them as animals grazing, or some rock formation. But there were no animals that large inside the wall, and carefully watching them revealed that they were moving. Not much, not charging or fleeing or trying to run some distant flank on the ruins. Just pacing amngst themselves, like wolves watching their prey from afar.
"Rusaikmen," Donlarn repeated, doing the hand around the arm motion again.
"Yes, yes, rusaikmen, I know. I didn't forget, just... take it easy."
"Yes yes rusaikmen," he said back, leaving no hint as to what he thought he was actually saying. His eyes quickly scanned the edge of the ruin city, and he pointed to a cluster of rocks that stuck out of the ground, a crack in the surface where one of the local creaks ran through. A hiding spot. And there was no mistaking the gesture that followed. Hurry. Hurry to the hiding spot!
Getting to the spot was easy. The streets of town flowed out from the center in a very predictable manner, and once the streets ended, the land was flat enough to be easily managed on foot. If anything, the fact that the rocks by the creak broke the flat landscape so much made the hiding spot seem less of a sure bet! Like a tree in the desert, the rocks stuck out. Tall grass and a myriad of other growing things helped, but every step closer to the spot was one worry more that it was the most visible place outside the city itself.
And then, there was the wait. Kris had made it perfectly clear that the bulk of any job, and any mission, was waiting, and how it could mess with your mind. What he made less clear was how boring it could be. The sun was still in its early afternoon decline, far from any horizon to measure it by, but the shadows crept slowly across the ground, telling time as clearly as any watch. Donlarn had been kind enough to donate a traveler's lunch, a small leather bag containing strips of meat that he used gestures to show was rabbit or hare. It was unclear if he knew how silly the gestures were. What was not unclear was how well salted the meat was. It took quite a bit of scraping to make it palatable. To make things worse, the strain of time travel had been continuously kicking in, at least when it came to eating. Even if a time traveler's stability at a destination was the best it could be, things were flickering in and out on a subatomic scale. The body had problems aligning things of the past with things of the future, and as the body of one absorbed food of the other, the two had their struggles. Recruits in training alway puked, even on their first trips just hours into the past or future. But even veterans could suffer, when they were stretched far enough from their native time!
It was easy to see, even with the naked eye, that the sun hung a little lower in the afternoon sky when the dots so far away became the shapes of humans and horses. The beasts looked odd, not like horses would commonly look. Too much muscle, too small bodies. Perhaps a different stock of horse, a breed that belonged more in the minus 9000s than in a more modern world. Or perhaps their riders had bred them differently, hoping for a more sturdy beast of battle. If so, something would suggest that they had achieved their goal! More than walked, the beasts lumbered across the open space, flattening grass so thoroughly that even at a distance, the footsteps they left in the tall grass could be seen.
And then, they charged! There was no hesitation, no tactical circling. All they needed was to feel that they were close enough to the ruins, and they let rip, the beasts teraing up the dirt were their heavy hooves trampled! Like a cloud of flying soil and torn grass, they thundered forward, racing for the ruin city like a comet for the ground! Donlarn was impossible to spot, he and the rest hiding well inside the ruins. The horsemen knew they were there, but whether they knew where exactly was hard to tell!
Three spears tore through the air as the horses came in close. Two found a victim, one visibly punching through the chest or at least shoulder of a rider and throwing him to the ground. Those that charged behind him did their best to evade him on the ground, but it was hard to see how well they succeeded.
The other was a rider on the flank. The spear took him in the shoulder, more grazing than penetrating it. Pulled off balance, he turned the horse, moving out of the way of the charge. He slowed to a near halt, trying to calm his horse-beast down. And that was when he looked over! His eyes widened so much that even from afar, the whites of them could be seen. And then, he rode in!
The first instance of panic didn't even feel like a panic at all. Being spotted in the minimalistic hiding spot was one thing, but having some bulging beast and its rider suddenly barreling down just made everything short circuit. It felt unreal, like watching some horror movie with monsters in it!
But then the panic subsided. The beast still charged, the now handicapped rider hanging on with a fury in his eyes as man and beast came closer! And yet, panic trickled away, evaporating into the afternoon air. The handle of Donlarn's old, unimpressive knife felt good, solid, reassuring, fingers wrapping around it as if holding it tighter meant it would make deeper cuts. And when the rider saw that his target was not moving, he clearly suspected that panic had done the hard work for him. He aimed to trample. He wanted the heavy hooves of the horse beast to finish the work! He would be disappointed. But only briefly.
A roll to the left, and the hooves passed by! But the roll was a gamble, it was close, a narrow escape, no more than an arm's length from being a bloodsoaked failure. That arm's length was what the knife was for. Before the hind legs passed, the knife cut through the air, striking the blade against the skin right above the hoof. The beast made a frightening sound, crying out in pain with a strange, high-pitched growl! It rode a bit farther, but it was swaying wildly. The cut was in no way brutal, only just deep enough to break the thick hide on the beast. But neither the beast nor its leg were the real target.
On the beast, saddled across its broad back, the rider was taken by surprise by the sudden sway and roar of the beast! He struggled to hold on, and in the end, failed. With a cry of his own, he fell to the ground, tumbling in between the panicked legs of his steed. The sound of his leg being crushed under the hooves he had planned to trample with, not be trampled by, was a sickening snap, a crunch so quick it barely even sounded like bone shattering. But the pain was real. He screamed as he clutched the leg with the hand that did not already have a shoulder injured by a magical spear.
Not far fromhim, the beast stopped, complaining briefly about its pains before becoming almost restful. It never came back to him, though, instead just leaving him to writhe in the tall grass. Walking up to him was, now, as easy as picking a flower.
"Who are you?"
He looked up, his eyes only  breaking contact for a few fractions of a few seconds to look at the painful leg. He either understood none of the question, or did not want to answer.
Far behind him, the beast now looked fairly calm. Looking back, away from the fight, was a grim reminder of just how far away the wall really was. It was, above all, a horse. It could be useful, even if just for that one ride inside the wall.
Sadly, the rider did not approve. He came out of nothing, waiting until he could go for the back. He was wild, roaring as he attacked, but he was crippled. The next roar came when he felt his leg bent as the foot dragged in the ground, twisting the compound fracture in the bones inside! All it took was a single punch, and he fell to the ground in a pile of sobbing pain. He made one final attempt, pushing himself forward with his good leg, launching himself into the air for a desperate assault! As his body fell on the knife, the weight of his entire body as it bled was overwhelming. Sinking to the ground with him felt like being dragged down into his grave.
He fought against the bleeding for a while, the sticky red life flowing out of him very fast. He didn't die, not then and there, but after a few heavy breaths, his eyes began to become unfocused and he became limp. Still, he was bulky. It took some strength just to roll him off. The weight of him was enough to make breathing hard.
As he plunked down in the grass, everything became quiet enough to hear the sounds of combat in the distance. The riders had clearly found Donlarn and his men. What happened from then on was in the hands of fate. Far away, the sounds of large birds could be heard. Maybe it was coincidence. Maybe it was vultures.
The rider was flat on his back in the grass, his body so close to the rocks that he could easily be pushed to roll off them and into the creak. Whether it would take him anywhere was impossible to say, considering his size and its, well, size. Then again, there was no point to it. He was not moving, and likely never would again, at least not by himself. His cloth underneath leather was already soaking in blood, and he was barely breathing, from the looks of it. That opened up a whole new temptation, though.
It was harrowing, sticking one's hand inside the man's armor. He was still breathing, shallow breaths, so there was still the chance that he would wake. And even unarmed, he was large, a single hand looking big enough to crush a small head! But he never moved.
Hanging from a sturdy string inside the armor were what had to be some personal trinkets. A small bag had a few of the copper coins in it, hanging next to what felt like something woven fromvery coarse hairs, maybe from the horse beast. A good luck charm, a symbol of his faith or the band he rode with, it could be anything. And reaching a bit farthre in...
There was no warning! With a bright flash, the thing shot out a painful bolt of energy, charring the man's flesh along his ribs! But the ribs were not what made the bolt shoot out. This was something else. Something frightfully familiar!
The knife cut through the strings holding together the man's leather armor quite quickly. He had shown no reaction whatsoever to the bolt of energy, making it perfectly clear that his breath was just the body forgetting a few things as he lay there dying. But the stench of his roasted ribs bellowed out as the armor loosened, filling the air with a bitter scent. It was a distasteful blessing, making it easier to ignore the pain in the hand that the bolt had caused.
At a glance, it looked like nothing but a thin stick, wrapped in some string that was either red or had been colored so by his blood. It looked like a child's toy, and a dull one at that. But the energy around it was impossible to mistake.
"Why do you have this? WHY DO YOU HAVE THIS?!"
The man did not react. In all ways but the actual biological ones, he was already dead. He was not going to answer anything.
The stick toy was attached, like the small coin purse, with string to the thicker string he wore like a sash under the armor, a utility belt of sorts. The knife cut the stick from that string quite easily, but picking it up was another challenge entirely. In the end, it took the small pouch of Donlarn's dried meat to hold it, and the meat inside no doubt helped in keeping it from sparking again.
Using the knife to cut off a lock of hair was in no way the standard way to test such things, but with the sounds of combat rising, it seemed the easiest. The lock rested on the rocks, as did a lock of the man's hair a moment later, just for comparison. As the stick passed over his hair, nothing happened, but it never even got close to the other lock before the hair flashed and burst into flames!
"Why do you..."
It made no sense to even think about the question. The man was barely even breathing any longer, and if the stick did not react to him, not even when hung inside his armor, against his body, he was not a time traveler. It was meant for that, only. It was meant to hurt time travelers. Why would a bandit have something for that?
The sound of battle suddenly seemed a lot scarier, even as it disappeared behind the horse beast as it rode towards the wall.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 45

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 45 It was still dark. The festivities in town had died down, but the nightowls were still making the most of a good excuse. Mom, Peter and Beebee were all back at home, sleeping tight in their warm, dry beds. I had gone to bed, too, keeping up appearances. Beebee had a bedtime, and even with the special exception of the town festival, she was down and out by midnight. The rest of us had kept it going a few hours more, my mom picking a movie for us to watch, one that didn't require loud sounds. I barely even followed it, and at this point couldn't remember the title of it if my life depended on it. Some old crime flick.
The place smelled. Even with so little time passed, I had forgotten the damp, pungent smell. But then again, the weather was acting up, humidity climbing to compensate for the drought that had ended days ago. Only days ago. It seemed weird, like time itself was stretching and twisting, fitting in more than there should be room for in fewer hours than we should have. Like a movie on fast forward. Too many things happening in too little time.
"Hello?"
My voice echoed only slightly amongst the peeling walls in the old cinema. I kept it low, not wanting to attract attention from anyone outside the place. It was a longshot, but it had been the first place that came to mind. Both now, and then. It seemed logical.
When my feet were abruptly pulled away under me, the unexpected struggle against something in the dark as my new phone and its faint light tumbled to the floor was terrifying. It only lasted a brief moment, though, perhaps half a minute.  Then my assumptions were confirmed.
Stepping into the upward cone of light from the phone, she seemed larger and more monstrous than she was. I needed a second to be certain it was her, but nothing more.
"Hey, Ida," I said, trying to sound calm and casual as I pulled against the ropes on the floor. I was never a girl scout, but Peter loved this old TV show MacGuyver, about some  guy who made traps and solved problems with anything he could find. I couldn't set a trap, but I could definitely cover bits of rope with ducttape and let someone trip and get sticky-tangled on them!
"I could say the same to you," she replied, sounding a bit disappointed for some reason. "What are you doing here? How did you even find me?"
With a bit of planning and a lot of effort, I got my right arm free of the sticky ropes, allowing me to carefully pull the stuff off of my other limbs, one by one.
"Back when you lived my life, it was the first place I laid low in after everything went straight to hell," I answered. There was no way of knowing how well her mind was modelled after mine, but up to this point, it seemed pretty spot on. There apparently were some fringe benefits to that.
"So what, we're twinsies now? We know each other's thoughts? I was gonna make a joke about wearing each other's clothes, but I'm literally wearing your stuff, from socks to hoodie," she remarked, cracking a smile that looked a bit gloomy, but perhaps that was the fault of the lighting. "Except the shoes and jacket," she added. "No need to outright advertise the connection."
I nodded. I would have thought the same. Being recognized as one another in a crowd was one thing, but having essentially me run around as two versions, everything being interchangeable, was a gamble. I had never had to think along those lines before, but perhaps that was why I tried to imagine every silly little risk. And why she did, too.
"What brings you here?" she asked, finally beginning to help me get the last sticky ropes off my shins. I could now grab my phone and lend some light to the task, which helped quite a bit.
"The time travelers, the ones that recruited me, they're leaving. The day after tomorrow."
She stopped, looking at me with a very human expression on her face.
"We gotta do something," she sighed, running both hands through her hair. It was weird to see that habit of mine as an outside observer. Part of my brain kept screaming at me to copy the move, for no real reason other than the familiarity.
"I know," I told her, pulling the final bit of dicttape off my shoe. "I have a plan, but I need you to cover for me."
She suddenly perked up a bit, squinting and frowning at me in skeptical curiousity.
"I need you to go to school and be my public face for the day, while I go recruit whoever we can find that has a stake in this."
"That's nice," she said, her soft voice dripping with sarcasm, "but what's the actual plan? I'm assuming you're not recruiting for a dance off or candlelight vigil or something?"
I shook my head, carefully moving away from the ducttape ropes now scattered haphazardly on the floor.
"No, not exactly. But I need as many as possible, and I don't have much time to get them."
"So let me do that. I'm figuring out how to use this body, you know, move faster and stuff."
Again, I shook my head.
"Sorry, but these people probably know about the copies and everything. They might see through your disguise. You know, with the injuries and everything."
She suddenly fell quiet. Sitting up against the wall, wrists on her knees, she started playing around with her fingers. It was obvious what was going through her head, even without us thinking with similar brains, but after a few seconds, she confirmed it by touching her face softly.
"Then how can I be you, I mean, with this face?"
The damage was still pretty extensive. Red streaks from both burned and cut skin crisscrossed parts of her face, especially the cheeks and chin. Her lips had a strange, dark color, as if they had just barely kept from being charred black, and she had vrey little eyebrows to speak of. But every major thing was still there. The face looked bad, but it looked like a face.
"Nobody at school expects you to be a robot. Or expects me to be a ro... Nobody there thinks there are robots."
I held up a small plastic box. As I moved it, it rattled slightly.
"Is that... Is that mom's makeup?" Something seemed to dawn on her immediately after saying that. "I mean, is that your mom's makeup?" she corrected, her voice a little lower and a lot sadder.
"It's okay," I said, feeling my heart ache in my chest. "Yeah, it's her makeup," I answered, then looked straight into her eyes as tears started to form in them. "It's our mom's makeup."
She perked up completely at those final words, mouth slightly open, looking like someone reborn. Then, she smiled. I had been a bit uncomfortable about calling the number on the card. Too many spy movies, way too many spy movies, had convinced me that just that one phone call would be enough for evil to descent on me from the skies themselves. But nothing happened. It had been a quick conversation, just stating the bare essentials. A meeting. Time and place. And as the first rays of sunlight began to creep over the roofs of Nakskov's rustic brick houses and other buildings, I turned the corner by the retirement center, not far from where we had fought the robots in the industrial section of town.
"Ida, nice to see you!" he said, lighting up with a smile. I stopped for a bit, looking at him with skeptical eyes.
"Sooo.... Is that how spies work? You just shout out someone's name in the middle of the street?"
Alex chuckles, making a slight bow in apology.
"Again, not a spy, but I am sorry for my indiscretion. Hello, agent," he chirped, though it was clear that some part of him was, indeed, serious about the apology. "What is it you need?"
The first number on my new phone, after my mom's, had been Mischa's. I felt guilty, even more than usual, for connecting everything to him, but he had what I needed, and it had taken a bit to get it all across, roughly twenty minutes of figuring out all the settings on the new thing, and then sending and receiving the files from his.
"These people," I said, handing him the phone with the pictures opened on its screen. "We need to know who they are, so we can talk to them."
Alex nodded with a shrug, looking annoyingly unimpressed.
"Sure," he said, "we can do that. It'll take a few minutes with facial recognition, and I need to send the pics to home office, if that's okay with you?"
I nodded.
"So... who are they? I mean, why do you want to know who these people, specifically, are?"
In all honesty, the question was not only asked in a perfectly natural, completely casual way, it was also a perfectly logical thing to ask. And still, I felt like I caught a slight undertone of deliberate questioning, like he not just asked, he really wanted to know.
"Persons of interest," I answered, trying to read his eyes as he listened. "Isn't that what you spies call it?"
"Not a spy," he sighed, though with an annoyed smile on his face.
"Look, Alex, I'm sorry about all this weird stuff, but things are, well, really, really weird right now."
He just kept staring at me with frustratingly forgiving eyes, his fingers moving over the screen of my phone as he, presumably, sent the pictures to whoever was going to analyze them for him. For us.
"Let's make a deal," I heard myself saying, not entirely sure where that way of thinking suddenly came from inside my head. "If you help with this, no questions asked, I'll tell you everything. But not until two days from now. Deal?"
At first, he said nothing, and I felt the anxiety inside of me rise, struggling to hide it from him. Instead, he quietly looked at the phone.
"There," he said, handing me back the phone. The first image had already been returned, with name, address, and a few added details on it. Jens Magnussen. The street address was a place just on the outskirts of town. "And sure, I can wait two days."
I smiled, a genuine smile, watching the phone screen as another image came back. Grete Tornby. She lived on the road next to the one Mischa's family lived on.
"Ida," he said in a voice that, despite being very soft, filled the air with a strange sense of impending doom, or at the very least, a sens of drama. "Be careful. Be very, very careful. Promise?"
I nodded, suspecting I failed to hide my sudden feeling of dread. The fields reached as far as the eye could see. In the distance, the two large silos of the sugar refinery in town could be seen, and if one squinted a bit, so could the spire of the town church. The rest of town was a multicolored blur half covered by trees that were scattered between town and this place. A few houses nearby added to the rural feel, all of them surrounded by dense plantlife, mostly tall trees that looked several decades old.
It was mostly a garage, it seemed. The house, a pinkish thing about the size of one of the smaller town houses, was hidden from view from the street by the large building beside it, and obscured a bit more by a few cars in the massive driveway. Tyres lay stacked around it, roughly separated into neatly stacked new ones and the more sloppy piles of obviously very used ones. A single car without tyres, or wheels for that matter, stood on a lawn on the far side of the large building, looking as if it had been there for quite a while.
Parking my bike I felt the burn of having driven it as far into the outskirts as I had. Part of me regrhetted not just waiting for a bus, but with the schedule this far out that the buses kept, I could easily be stuck for hours. A cab would have been nice, but to my great frustration, I knew it would be an expense I could not hide from my mom. Not a trip this far, and definitely not a return trip.
A bit hesitantly, trying not to appear conspicuous, I peaked at my phone. The picture of this Jens Magnussen was on the screen, full screen, but the man my eyes were tracking was not him. Jens was a heavy man, looking like one who had made a life from manual labor. Gruff, bulky. The guy walking around inside the large building was smaller, and younger, from the looks if him. Still a bulky fellow, but not as intimidatingly as the one in the picture.
"You looking for someone?"
I flinched with my entire body, looking up from the screen in a bit of a panic. On my way there, using my strength and concentration entirely on the bike, I had never even noticed how nervous I was. Now, it suddenly came rushing back to me.
"Uhm, yeah, where's Jens?"
"You got an appointm... Sorry, who should I say is asking for him?"
I became extremely selfconscious when he changed his question as he stepped out the door and saw me in full. Perhaps he just noticed my age. Perhaps he spotted the bike. He clearly figured out I was not here to get my engine looked at or anything else that they seemed to offer.
"I'm Ida," I said, awkwardly extending my hand to shake his. He looked at his right hand, the grime and oil on it, and carefully used the left. Although they looked fairly new and of good quality, his overalls and the shirt beneath them showed very clear sign of being work clothes, with grease and a bunch of other stains leaving a colorful, if chaotic, pattern on them.
"Niels," he answered, sounding a little out of breath. He kept shifting a wrench, or some tool I thought looked like one, between his hands, fiddling with it like I would do with a pencil or my phone. Noticing that he stopped and hung the tool from a strap in his utility belt, I followed suit and slid the phone into my pocket.
"I'm his brother, we run the place together," he added, looking a bit confused. "I'm sorry, but who are you? What do you want to talk to Jens about?"
There was a reason why I had chosen this place first, even though it was the one farthest from town that I planned to visit. And it was yet another reason I had gone there by bike. It was, more or less, located in the same direction as the old school. the place had been quiet, but I had only snuck in to grab a few bits of the second hand clothing. A few socks, a scarf, a couple of handkerchiefs, anything small and light that I could get easy, without going too far into the still terrifying buildings. I smiled politely at him as I pulled one of the handkerchiefs out of my pocket and wiped a bit of grime off my hand after the shake. It wasn't my plan, but it worked out just perfect as an excuse.
"Just wanted to look around for some parts for a school project," I answered, giving the whole place another look over. "Does that car even work? The one on the grass?"
Niels turned his head to look over at the car, and as he looked away, I took as casual a step as I could towards the car, making sure it brought me a bit closer to him, too.
Starting in my wrist and quickly spreading through both my hands and a bit up the arm, I immediately felt the static, tingling charge I had almost forgotten. Like a living thing, it crept around my arm, an invisible worm trying to wrapall the way around. Niels, meanwhile, looked like something bothered him, like his back had suddenly become sore. He shrugged uncomfortably, his shoulders almost writhing for just a few seconds, before I stepped away again, making it look like I was walking towards the car in nothing but a slightly weird arc.
"It's a... It's an old one, been there a year or so. Engine frame is... Sorry..."
Hearing him start to cough softly made me feel like the pit of my stomach had gone cold. I looked, stepping back another bit as began to look a bit sickly, his face reddening and his throat convulsing slightly, as if in the fit of some spasm.
"You okay?" I asked, not only knowing perfectly well that he wasn't, but also knowing all too well why. He just nodded, leaning over to support himself against his own knees as he coughed, deeply.
"What the hell is going on, bro?" came a voice from somewhere. I flinched, again, this time feeling more worried that I had actually done something wrong, done some kind of harm! Just by nervous reflex, I tugger the handkerchief even deeper into the pocket than it already was.
"It's fine, just a fit. Dunno what the hell happened," Niels called back, his voice cracking at the end of it. A large man turned the corner, wearing very similar overalls and carrying a large garden rake. Spotting me, he smiled, still keeping half an eye on Niels.
"Hi, I'm Jens," he proclaimed, extending his hand. Without thinking about it, I reached out and shook it. Or rather, I tried to.
Without warning, the large man burst out in a harrowing sound, his voice twisting into some kind of high pitch mockery of human sounds! He instantly pulled back the hand, looking at it in terror, then at me.
"What the hell are you doing, girl?!" he roared, clutching the hand with the other and staring at both in disbelief as, I assumed, the strange time energy stuff got from the first hand to the second.
"I'm... Oh god, I'm so sorry," I stuttered, feeling like I might cry at any moment. All of a sudden, both men were now looking at me, both bent over in their own particular pain, both with a mix of fear and anger on their faces. Standing there, frozen, I noticed the big one, Jens, sneaking nervous looks back towards the house.
Niels was fast. He made a bee line straight back into the open garage, heading for a medium-sized metal tool rack that was not yet open, in spite of him obviously having worked aroundit for some hours. In my distracted state, I didn't think to move my eyes away from him, and when I finally looked around, Jens was gone.
"It was an accident!" I yelled, but at this point, nobody was listening. In fact, nobody was even there. Where Jens had gone was anyone's guess, but Niels had clearly snapped the rack open somehow, grabbed something from it, and doven for cover behind one of the many things cluttering up the garage. There were at least four cars in various states of being repaired, and any one of them could easily conceal a grown man of his size!
My first thought was to simply hightail it out of there! But the moment I turned to jump on the bike, I also looked at the roads I had to pick from. Either one of them would be nothing but open space and me in the middle. Target practice, if that was what they were thinking of. I threw the bike on the ground and made a run for it!
"Look," I heard Niels shout from somewhere inside the garage as I bolted for the car in the grass, "we don't want trouble. We're just living here, for #*@!'s sake! We're not breeding, we're not..."
"I'm not with them!" I shouted back, with every bit of air in my lungs. "I'm not here to hurt you!"
A wave went through the air, leaving the weirdest sound in its wake, something akin to a burp in a tin can recorded and played back at high speed! It clearly passed through part of me, but other than a strange tickle inside my organs, it did nothing. At least, not to me.
"I know they're coming for you, I want to help!"
They said nothing, the entire place falling silent and giving way to the sounds of nature. Nature, as it happened, was a bit nervous, too, and the scrapping and squeeking of terrified animals trying to get away seemed to come from  everywhere around me.
"You're not with the 28417?" came the voice of Jens from somewhere. He sounded more than a bit uncertain of the answer. Uncertain was good. Uncertain of everything beat certain of the worst thing, any day!
"No!" I yelled back. "I mean, that 28 is the woman in white, right?"
"Yes, the psycho bitch!" Niels yelled back from somewhere inside the garage.
"Nope, definitely not with her. She kinda wants me dead. Already tried to replace me."
The silence came back, but the animals were now either gone, hiding or just dropped dead from fear. All that could be heard was a weird, scraping sound, seemingly coming from the air itself.
"Uhm, if that's true," Jens yelled, sounding a bit hesitant, "you might wanna, you know... move away from the car."
"I'll move away when you put down your weapons!"
There was silence again.Except for the scraping noise, which was getting louder, ever so slowly.
"Yeah, about that," he continued, "the car is kinda the weapon."
Not thinking about my actions, I threw myself away from the car and into the grass. On my back, staring at it, I winced a bit at the increasingly discomforting sound of something scraping, metal against metal or metal against something else.
"You okay out there?" I heard Niels yell, sounding a bit less aggressive all of a sudden.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Are you screwing with me, 'cause the car is just..."
The screw, quite ironically, hit me in the back of my head, managing to hurt a bit, even through the hoodie. Luckily, my instinctive reaction was to lay flat in the grass, because less than a second later, more screws came flying out of nowhere. Then a few bolts. Then two bike chains and one regular chain, rather long. I cried out with mostly fear but also a bit of pain as a large metal bearing rolled clumsily over my hand in the grass. And as a finishing touch, my bike came flying through the air, passing me a little below my feet before it slammed into the car.
"Yeah, uhm... sorry!" yelled Niels, still hiding in the garage.
It took a few moments for everybody to find their inner zen again. Making sure that nothing was going to shoot through the air and hurt me, I slowly got up from the grass. My eyes tried to scan my surroundings for dangers, but they kept going back to my bike, which was apparently somehow stuck to the car in the grass. Not leaning against it, either, but actually hanging against the door, bike tyres not even touching the ground.
"What the #*@! was that?!"
I was thinking out loud, but the two clearly heard me just the same. Jens was standing by the corner of the garage, in the gravel courtyard by the house, and he was holding what looked like a small uitcase, pointed ahead of him, roughly in my direction. Niels leaned against the inner wall of the garage, showing only a bit of his left side as he looked at me over his shoulder.
"Magnetizer," Jens said in a loud, affirmative voice. "If you'd been a robot, you'd be stuck to the car now."
His eyes fixed hard on me, he slowly lowered the suitcase thing, the heavy shoulder mount behind it coming into view. Giving the car another glance, the many things stuck to it, I stuck my hand in my pocket. The phone wriggled a bit, but showed no signs of ripping through my pants.
"Modern phones rarely react to magnets," Jens said comfortingly, lowering the strange device entirely to his side. "Too much plastic and non-magnetic metal.You might wanna check its memory, though. Sitting by a magnetic car can #*@! that up pretty bad."
I instantly thought about the pictures and adresses on the phone, but pushed it out of my mind, for the time being. Niels was also building his courage and tearing himself away from the garage wall. My phone could wait. The inside of the house was remarkably old fashioned. Blue and white patterned china stood on little shelves and on the walls hung nature paintings and old photos, many in sepia or black and white, of what seemed to be old Nakskov and some of the nearer surroundings.
"Sorry about the whole, you know," said Niels as he joined. Jens had carefully invited me into the house, still very obviously keeping an eye on my every movement. Niels had fallen behind in order to close the garage, apparently not wanting anything to interfere or to worry about. What he expected to be interfered with what less obvious. I was, after all, alone in the house of two strange men, in the middle of nowhere.
"She says they're rounding up refugees in town," Jens told his brother, with a burdened tone to his voice. "Kinda lines up with what we already know."
Niels nodded, sighing. Standing in the doorway, he tapped his fingers against its frame, looking like he was trying to phrase something in his head. Or perhaps he simply wasn't too happy with the things he was being told.
"So you're, what, some kind of Paul Revere? The redcoats are coming and all that?"
"I... I don't know that reference. I'm not English."
Jens let out a slight laugh, looking like he was about to say something but stopped himself and simply shook his head.
"Look," I said, dangerously close to sighing, mostly because my body was finally calming down after the earlier encounter, "I just... I am trying to help. I think I can..."
"Why?" interrupted Niels. He didn't sound any kind of angry or even suspicious. At most, he sounded a little bit confused. But mainly, he sounded like he had trouble understanding.
"I... Well, it's..." For the first time it dawned on me that the only thing that had ever really pressed me to do anything was the time travelers themselves, and they were clearly not on board with my current plans. "I have friends that are going to get hurt," I lied, at least sort of. For a brief moment, my mind went back to Camilla and how terrified she was when her mother realized what was going on, long before I even did.
Jens handed me a glass for the soda he had found in the fridge. "So, what kind of resources are you bringing?" he asked, sounding far too casual about it. I made sure to follow the glass with my eyes, afraid that if I looked at him, he would see right through me.
"Some gear from rogue TTs. And a bunch of other refugees, of course."
The two brothers looked at one another for a bit, before they both turned back to me. The look in their eyes was a bit hard to read.
"Okay... so what's the plan?"

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 44

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 44 "Why are you not wearing clothes?"
It was a sensible question, even if the answer was frustratingly stupid. Of course it had been some dumb joke. Of course the time machine didn't require the traveler to be naked. Of course the master was just being a jackass about helping. It wasn't that any of that was surprising, none of it was unexpected. What was unexpected was that the time machine actually seemed to be set to what was promissed.
The arrival platform was basically the same as the departure one under the big estate. It was a big, circular device surrounding a stage-like central platform that worked much like the time machines  back home. Except that, if the master had been truthful, this was roughly eight centuries in the past, something no time machine back home could even attempt in a single jump. Even if one of them had, the arrival would have been a lot more... messy.
Unlike the one at the estate, however, this one was not a lonely circle in some dank cave. A vast hall stretched out in every direction, hosting machine after machine on large squares that had a few design features in common with ziggurats, essentially pyramids with the top lobbed off. The size of the structures and the rings on top of them was the only reason that much could even be deduced, because the distances involved were daunting! Here and there, a distant boom announced someone either departing or arriving, but seeing the people inside the circular machines was impossible. A speck of dark in the distance, like seeing a fly land on a car parked outside a window, was the most that was ever possible, and even that was a rare treat.
"Why are you naked?" asked the voice again. Although it was a soft, relaxed, gentle voice, it seemed to come from a person at the very edge of the large square, just outside the circular time machine. The gender was impossible to discern, the person wearing what looked to be a kind of medical hazmat suit, a formfitting one-piece in a faded shade of orange, with a face mask not unlike an elaborate welding visor.
"I was told to be naked to travel."
"You do not need to be naked to travel," the voice said, quite casually. It sounded vaguely male, but not enough to place any bets on it.
"Yeah, thanks, I know that now."
Whatever had compelled the person to ask about the nudity, it ended abruptly. So abruptly, in fact, that there was no time to put on the jumpsuit that still lay folded on the floor of the machine, within arm's reach. Instead, the floor simply dropped in the middle, pulling everything, and everyone, on it along for the brief ride!
The ride ended at a very small platform, at least by comparison. It had the feel of a futuristic phone booth, round like a tube and shiny like polished steel. On second thought, it had the feel more of a giant tin can. Except it was open enough for people to walk by and stare at the young woman kneeling naked inside.
While putting on the jumpsuit, though, it seemed like nobody really took notice. The people walking by were a mixed bag, but oddly enough, none of them seemed entirely exotic. Fashions seemed simple, most just wearing something light, thin, and quite honestly a bit bland. Single colors, basic designs, very little of it even hinting at the time and place they might be from. And all of them eerily calm, not one of them in a rush or seeming annoyed, stressed or even unhappy. Stories of mindless clones and unfeeling robots came to mind.
The place also had a blandness to it, floor after floor visible beyond the railing of what seemed like a large balcony, showing more balconies, nearly identical, both above and below. Everything was very evenly lit and open. It felt weird.
"Enjoying the view?"
The voice was familiar, but it took a moment to spin around and locate it in the surrounding crowd.
"Tarik?"
It was his clothes that made him hard to quickly identify. They looked like a test run for the disco era, plain pants and shirt with a thin, black belt across the waist. The fabric, though, was a light grey that seemed to reflect the light in a very unusual way, almost like low, silky fur. At first glance, not very disco, but then again, disco was never that easy to define.
"Tarik, what the hell are you doing h... Wait, how the hell did you get here?? I just arrived, and you were just..."
He held up both hands a little defensively, the barrage of questions being perhaps a bit much to throw at him right away.
"Easy, easy. I left just like you, only a few hours before, during the night. I arrived here about an hour ago." His last few words were drawn out, sa if he was very unsure of them. He did sigh a moment later. "Of course, time is ironically hard to keep track of here."
At first, the explanation made sense. But only at first.
"Wait, if they sent you here before I went, then you've already returned! You finished your trip before I was sent back, so I'm changing your timeline. I'm essentially messing with your past. That's... that's bad. Right?"
There was something comforting at seeing his casual smile, something that seemed to say that everything was alright. But at the same time, it made him seem horrifically casual about the whole topic of crossing timelines. That was far less comforting!
"They have really clever systems in place," he said, finishing the sentence as if it explained everything. It quickly became clear to him that it didn't, though.
"They track my movements, so they know if anything deviates from my original experience. Then, they erase or replace any offending memories, so no matter what, I return the same as the first trip around."
"So you'll end up not knowing what happened between the two of us?"
His casual smile turned to a grin, like a poker player about to win on a complete bluff.
"I go back after you're done here, and they restore my memories. But at that point, everything between us here is over, and I only end up with my final memories. It's a very basic way they avoid cross contamination."
The crowd kept moving by as if nothing special was taking place. It seemed insane and completely logical, all at the same time. This was a hub for time travel. Nothing that was said was likely to be anything new to these people.
"So why did they send you here, anyway?"
"As a guide," he stated calmly. It took a moment to take the whole thing in, but he seemed to be serious.
"You're going to guide me? In this place?"
He nodded, the smile now just a calm stretch of his lips.
"Well... Where do we go?" Huge windows, like pieces carved out of reality itself, ran across the entire wall. The ceiling was so far above the floor that it seemed like the place was built for giants, or simply to impress anyone standing there. Some distance back, the open space split into four floors, bridges slender and bland crossing various gaps in the floor of each level, apparently for no other reason than to break up the view. But here, all four floors were united into one large room, and the windows reached from the very top to the very bottom of it.
"We're in a mountain side," said Tarik, indeed sounding like a run of the mill tour guide, even more than he had back at the estate. "Well, technically on a mountain side. The whole thing is built to look like part of the mountain at a distance. Only those close enough to really examine it would notice, and nobody comes up a mountain like this to look closely at it. Not in this day and age."
The windows were not just holes covered in glass. Sets of shutters or something like it ran horizontally across, making them seem like the windows of a war time bunker. It was easy to imagine that from the outside, the slits that were open to look through would be as good as invisible.
"What's that?"
Through the slits, which were still large enough up close to getf a good view of the surrounding landscape, signs of life could be seen not far below. Brown shapes, likely buildings, had little dots moving between them, most likely people.
"That's a village," Tarik answered, sounding none to impressed. "They're with us, put there to make sure nobody else starts up a settlement and gets in the way. Locals, almost all of them. Rescues that would have been lost from history in shipwrecks and the like."
"Right. So, where are we? Denmark doesn't have mountains like this. Denmark doesn't have mountains, period."
"Norway, 927. Somewhere between Kristiansund and where Trondheim will be founded in a few decades from now."
Looking at the village below meant looking through a slit at a certain angle. Stepping back, it became possible to look through other slits, at other angles. The view of the Norwegean coastline hit like a slap in the face, the stunning vista looking almost fabricated through the large window.
"And what's with the whole layout of this place, by the way?"
It was immediately obvious that he had no idea what that meant.
"I mean, it just looks like endlessly repeating balconies over balconies over balconies. Is that somehow futuristic?"
Tarik let out a small laugh. "Not futuristic, no. Humans just seem to come predesigned with an affinity for repeating rows like that. The ancient Greek forums, the Roman Coloseum..."
"... American shopping malls..."
It was clear that Tarik had to think about that one for a moment. It was, in retrospect, a silly or even arrogant remark, thinking that he would have any real knowledge of something as banal as a shopping mall. In a life of time travel, it was doubtful that late 20th century malls were big on the list of stuff he would remember, if he had ever even visited one. If he had even visited the 20th century!
"Why?" he asked. "Is there anything particularly wrong with... shopping malls?"
"Not at all. It just seems a little underwhelming. I mean, big time travel organization like this, seems like things would look more... well, more."
He nodded, apparently getting the point, or at least pretending to.
"We can go to a different area. They'll get in contact with us when you are ready to jump again."
"Ready to jump? I'm not ready to jump? I thought they were just a bit booked. What's wrong with me if I can't jump?"
Again, he laughed. It was becoming a bit annoying.
"You just need to cool down and aclimatize on a molecular level, is all. They'll check in, they tend to know how long it takes."
Tarik seemed to know exactly where to go, taking long and hasty strides across the open, light and shiny floor. It took a few seconds to get truly away from the huge windows and back to the multilevel structure, and once there, something seemed a little off. Something about the people walking around. They all seemed a bit aimless, but that could simply be from not knowing what their aim was. People in the street of any city or town seemed aimless at first sight. But there was something more than that.
"I think... I think I just saw someone."
Tarik stopped in his track, turning around with a puzzled look on his face.
"Someone?"
"Yeah, someone. Sorry it's a bit unspecific, but it was a face in the crowd. Someone I thought I recognized."
His annoying laugh and smirky grin were gone, replaced with a pensive and slightly worried frown.
"A time traveler?" he asked, clearly trying not to make a big deal out of it.
"I don't know. Don't think so, to be honest..."
People went by at a breathtaking pace on the other levels. Not breathtaking because of speed, but because of how many seemed to be there. The crowding seemed oddly exaggerated, as if more were pouring in just to show how many would fit.
"There!"
Tarik followed the extended arm and finger at its end, trying to trace it to someone on the balcony below. He seemed to fail.
"There, the guy with the very short hair and brown suit!"
Again, Tarik tried to follow the pointed finger to the target, but seemed to fail.
The bannisters between levels in the place were not really bannisters. They were sloped side, raised to between chest and waist level of any normal height person. The fact that the slope extended far was enough encouragement to make use of it! Nobody got in the way of grabbing the top of the sloped side and leaping up on it, and people reacted mainly with surprised outbursts at seeing someone actually slide down it to the next floor. Halfway down, the fact that the plan might not have been thought through that well became apparent, of course, but at that point, there was no way back!
The slope ended a bit more above the heads of people on the next floor than expected. A few startled voices rang out as it became clear to people that this journey would only end by landing amongst them, at a somewhat daunting velocity! They cleared the way in good time, luckily. And for some reason, landing on the floor felt no worse than a rough time travel arrival! The flat floor that looked so much like polished stone felt like thick carpet to land on. It hurt, sure, but with a proper roll, it was manageable. Getting up was a bit weirder, since everybody was now silently staring. Had there been time, it seemed like the whole event warranted a deep bow to the audience.
But there was no time. The man in the brown suit was nowhere to be seen, the lack of standing above him now becoming a bit of a problem! People did jump aside, at least at first, perhaps fearing someone else would drop on their heads from above if they got in the way! But eventually, it became a needle in a haystack.
"Marie!" shouted a voice in the crowd. The hope that the man had himself realized the situation was dashed when a very out of breath Tarik pushed his way through the crowd.
"You couldn't just use a lift like a normal person, could you?" he panted, trying to fight back against his strained lungs and straighten his back. When it finally succeeded, more or less, he pointed to a small, flat circle embedded in the slope above. People were stepping into it and quickly hovering up or down to their destinations.
"He's here, Tarik! I can't see him anymore, but he's here!"
"Who?!" the poor man asked, frustrated and with a slightly uncomfortable look on his face as he held his hands pressed against his sides.
"He's... Oh, #*@!, I know his name, wait a second..."
Tarik said nothing, but under less stressful circumstances, the look on him would have been priceless, every fold and muscle in his face screaming "did I run myself into a stupor for this?!" He never said anything about it, though.
"Brown suit, right? Short hair, brown suit?"
"Yes, did you spot him?"
"No," he said,  still breathing a bit heavy, although he stood erect now, "you said that, right before you #*@!ing launched yourself of the balcony like some waterslide."
His mention of waterslides distracted, but only for a moment. Shopping malls were perhaps easy for a time traveler not to ever encounter, but knowing about waterslides and not malls just seemed weird. But there was no time for such banalities.
Tarik immediately began scanning the crowd, standing on his toes. He was a tall man, and that came in handy now, but he still seemed to struggle a bit.
"He's some guy from the future. I think his name was Tanner or Tenner or something..."
"Who does he work with?"
"Work with?"
"Who is in charge of his, you know, time travel."
"He's not a time traveler."
Tarik abruptly forgot about looking and turned with a confused glare.
"Not a.... How is he here, then?"
"Well, that's the freaking question, isn't it?!"
The reply was a bit harsh. Tarik was right, it all seemed a bit far fetched. But the guy in the robot scorpion had a very particular face, and it was hard to think that it could be anyone else. Even under these unusual circumstances, to put it mildly!
For a brief moment, the crowd became less dense. Any crowd did, if you looked at it long enough. People moved around, and how close they remained to one another was always in a state of flux. This was nothing special. But in that brief moment, it became possible to see many times more of them walk around, in a single look!
"There!"
Tarik flinched for a second, but then looked. Then he followed.
The guy was walking very calmly, clearly not thinking about anyone identifying him, and was esay to catch up to. He never even reacted to being grabbed by the arm, even when everybody right around him seemed to stop and stare for a moment before walking on.
"Tenner, is that..."
The world seemed to suddenly shift, as if the entire floor dropped just a little bit, giving that sucking feeling i the pit of the stomach.
"That's not.... what the hell is going on here?"
"What's happening?" asked Tarik as he got through the crowd. He ran fast, but he took up enough space that it mattered in a crowd.
"No, this isn't possible. This has to be some kind of...."
The words trailed off. The sucking feeling was getting worse.
"Marie, talk to me," pleaded Tarik, to the point of kneeling a bit to not loom so tall.
"This is... This is not him. It's not Tenner."
Looking almost a bit disappointed, perhaps more by the overly dramatic reaction than the fact that it was the wrong guy, Tarik stood back up and looked over the man in brown now standing in front of him.
"So we'll just keep looking. He's gotta be here somewhere."
The sucking feeling was so strong, it hurt.
"No, this... This isn't Tenner."
"I got th..."
"His name is Maltheus."
Squeezing his eyes shut and shaking his increasingly weary head, Tarik began to rub his face.
"What?" he finally asked.
"This is Maltheus."
"I got... I got that. Who is Maltheus?"
The man in brown stood almost perfectly still, turning his head only a little back and forth to follow the conversation. He said nothing. But his face was impossible to mistake.
"He's... he's not a time traveler, either. He works for one, but he's not..."
The man, Maltheus, just stood there, looking, his eyes growing more confused by the second.
"I met him in... twice, actually. Once during The Decline, once after Heavenfall. He... he's just some guy that connects people."
"Not a time traveler?" Tarik asked, trying to fully confirm it.
"No. Not a time traveler."
"Do I... know you two?" asked the man in brown. He seemed even more confused than Tarik about the situation.
"Yes! You helped me track down The Wheel Yard, remember?! You gave me some anti-stressor gum and I went a little nuts. Don't you remember that?"
He just shook his head, looking increasingly panicked.
"You gotta be, what, in your thirties now? We met twice, but the older you.... Oh, shit!"
Without asking, Tarik grabbed both shoulders, and his stare was more intense than ever.
"Marie, what the hell is going on? Who is this Maltheus, what is The Wheel Yard and all that other stuff, and who is this Tenner guy?"
It all seemed to be spinning. The floor, the crowd, Tarik. It felt like panels were coming off of walls that weren't supposed to exist.
"It's... I... I need to sit down..."
The words alone triggered some reaction from the place, making a large chair rise from the floor as the shiny, stone-like material deformed itself to meet the requirement. At first, it seemed weird, but it made sense. The place was molding to fit the needs of anyone there. That was likely how the floor had been so safe to land on after dropping from the balcony above.
"Just take it slow. Breathe, Marie. Breathe slowly and tell me who these people are."
From the beginning, Tarik had been pleasant to talk to. But now, he seemed almost soothing, making the tension slowly dissipate. Sadly, it became clear too late that Maltheus, or whoever that person was, had also dissipated.
"I was following up on some information about large machinery through the ages, clearly something tied to time travel."
"Time machines?" Tarik interrupted.
"No, they're something else completely. I think they block time travel, or alter it, or something. Anyway, I started near the year 4000 and worked my way back. I missed a destinaiton by a century, almost exactly, and I met that Tenner guy there, piloting a big robot scorpion."
Tarik said nothing. The floor had molded a chair for him, too, and he simply sat there, patiently looking, listening. It felt... therapeutic.
"He helped me out with some problems and some robots he worked with helped me find another of the big machines."
"Wait, robots?" Tarik finally asked.
"Yeah. I was surprised, too. I mean, we knew there was a period after The Machine War when humans and robots worked together on hunting down rogues on both sides and cement the peace, but The Embassy never had anyone check out that era."
"The Embassy? The ones you work with, right?"
"Yeah, we mainly help people that get caught up in all this #*@!ing war stuff across time. But... Anyway, on a later trip, I was trying to track down a rogue time traveler to ask her some questions, and she had something called The Wheel Yard in the 2060s, and I met Maltheus when he was just a kid in the ruins, trying to find work or something."
"A kid in the ruins? But he..."
"Yeah, I know, he was clearly older here. I ran into him in The Wheel Yard on the next trip, decades later, when he was older. This version of him here is clearly aged somewhere in between."
"And that was after the... that..."
"Heavenfall, yes. It's something that happens around 2100 or something, I don't know if you ever went to that era."
Tarik shook his head, leaning back in the chair and causing the chair, in turn, to mold into a softer recline, fitting his limbs and back perfectly.
"It's just... Well, during The Decline when things went to shit, some powerful people tried to escape the planet in this whole big array of fancy space habitats. Thing is, something went wrong and they started crashing to Earth, and people called them Heavenfalls. And then someone got the great idea of just calling the whole event The Heavenfall, or just Heavenfall. But yeah, it kinda #*@!ed the planet up an extra time,  y'know. But anyway..."
People were keeping their distance. Somehow, the place had sensed that the conversation with Tarik was a bit private, and thin pillars had risen to form a kind of periferi, keeping the crowd back. It seemed a bit luxurious, perhaps even frivolous, to suddenly have a little private spot in the midst of the masses.
"So, they're not time travelers?"
Tarik waited, but a shake of the head was answer enough.
"So, not time travelers, but they show up here. Or seem to. I mean, that last guy..."
"Yeah. He didn't seem to know what I was talking about. That was..."
The conversation sort of died out, neither one saying anything but both scanning the crowd, perhaps a bit aimlessly. Nobody out there seemed even remotely affected by the pillars, although it seemed they had to get in someone's way at some point or another. The whole place had a zen-like busy calm to it.
"And what's with the brown clothes? Everybody else is wearing bright colors, but they just wore... wait..."
It wasn't a familiar face in the crowd. But it was a brown outfit. Tarik looked in the same direction and barely even noticed he was suddenly sitting there alone!
The crowd stepped aside with some agility, not one of them getting in the way this time. Thanks to that sudden practicality, it took no time to catch up to the person in brown.
"No..."
The crowd kept moving, unaffected. But the moment he turned around, it felt like reality shattered with a loud crack.
"No... No, not you. That's impossible..."
The man looked almostcompletely unaffected, a mildly annoyed frown being the only sign that he even acknowledged anything that was happening. After a brief look, he simply stepped back into the crowd and seemed to disappear. Even the brown clothes faded from sight, as if he had been nothing but a mirage.
"For heaven's sake, Marie," panted Tarik as he finally caught up, "what happened now?!"
Everything felt out of whack. Gravity itself seemed to become fickle and playful, making it impossible to even stand up. And when the floor below turned soft as a pillow to dampen the impact of the knees, it was little comfort at all.
"Tarik..."
"Yes?"
"Get me out of here." The next stop was a bit rougher than the first. Three millenia, they said. Three thousand years into the past. They had asked for a destination, how far into the past the trip was meant to be. The answer "as far as possible" had quite clearly not pleased them, but they had acted on it. Three millenia. About ten trips worth of what The Embassy might have been able to offer.
The original plan had been complicated. A series of Embassy facilities, then an array of allies and assorted factions that had time travel available for some price. The time travel economy was complicated, with payments made in any and all ages and currency rarely fit for bringing along. Paying for the use of a time machine could require payment in the originating era, the destination era, or through intermediaries in any other era imaginable. It was not quite the smooth system of trade, but that did make it oddly flexible. Sometimes.
Jumping these three millenia was free. Nobody had ever mentioned a price, and it was becoming increasingly odd. Still, that bit of oddity completely drowned in the flood of other questions that were now surfacing.
"Who was that last guy?" asked Tarik. Apparently, their time machines were big enough to house multiple travelers, and he had joined in on the jump back to the early second millenium BC destination. Asking for the exact year created some confusion, mostly seeming to be about why someone would ask that. But the estimate was the year minus 2038.
"A friend. I think."
The place was very different from the first hub. It was smaller, with only a handful of time machines visible on arrival. They had the same overall ziggurat shape, but they seemed less neat, the design less clean and simple. Things protruded from them, sections were missing. They looked incomplete, but they apparently worked fine.
"That's not much of an answer," he growled. It seemed somehting about the trip was getting to him, too.
"Look, I don't know, okay? I don't know how this is happening or why they don't seem to know who... Forget it."
The air was remarkably fresh. From the arrival platforms, walkways had radiated out in multiple directions, but Tarik seemed to have some kind of internal map going,perhaps from having been there before, or even from some kind of design philosophy that allowed him and others from the Wenway Group to instinctively know how to navigate a new hub. After all, he had seemed very familiar with the previous one, as well.
"What was his name? We'll start with that," he sighed. It almost seemed as if he was asking because he didn't  know what else to say, but feared the silent alternative.
"Aldric. His name was Aldric." It almost hurt to say it out loud. "He's from the future, from my future. And your's, I guess."
It was hard keeping a form focus on the surroundings with memories of Aldric suddenly flooding back. There were quite a lot, he had been with The Embassy for a long time.
"His name was Aldric and he is supposed to be in the future, doing neurosimulation analysis."
"Neuro what?" Tarik asked almost immediately, sounding strangely annoyed by the words.
"Big machines scan a brain and track signals through it. If you know how to read it, and how to trigger the right signals, you can basically read everything in a person's mind. It's a kind of interrogation."
Not surprisingly, the description of that particular scientific field made Tarik look very uncomfortable, almost disgusted, even. He seemed to have problems processing the idea completely, looking vacantly into the air ahead for a few, long periods of time, breaking away only to make a deeply pensive sound now and then.
"Do you know how to do that?" he finally asked. This reaction was a little more surprising.
"Nooo! It's a huge and complicated field, with tons of science and machinery from the future. I barely even understand what the guy says most of the time."
The long walkway, little more than a suspiciously narrow bridge inside a transparent tube, was about to end. Outside were trees, some of them looking very unfamiliar, and the occassional animal slipping through the flora. Some of the animals looked a bit odd, too.
"I just... I can't shake the thought of what they would be doing here? I mean, it seems like they are not them, like, the ones I know. They just look the exact same. I don't know what the hell is going on, here. You ever get that feeling?"
Tarik nodded, rather frantically. "Funny enough, right now," he mumbled out loud.
The plants outside continued looking more and more odd. The air had a slightly different hue, less blue and more bright and yellow, as if the sun was a little more intense. Whether there was some powerful air conditioning going on inside the transparent tube or the coloring was just some trick of the light was impossible to say, but something seemed a little off.
"Where are we going, anyhow?"
"Nowhere special," Tarik replied. That prompted a full stop, which somehow seemed to surprise him. Noticing after a few more steps, he stopped, too.
"What?"
He seemed honestly confused.
"I need to get farther back, Tarik. This isn't enough. I need to get back to around 10,000BC."
"Why?" he asked, looking like a baffled child, eyes distracted by thoughts and body getting a bit restless.
"I need... I have something to do there. Something I need to check."
There were a few seconds of silence, while some group of lizards decided to crawl along the tube on the outside.
"Look," he finally said, sounding a bit tired bythe whole thing, "I get that you have your secret mission stuff, but the more you can fill me in, the better I can help."
"With what?"
His eyes lost focus again as his brain starting hunting for useful answers. He came up with nothing.
"Okay, the traffickers will..."
"The what?"
"Traffickers. The ones running this place," he explained, sounding a little frustrated. "They will contact us when everything is ready. I thought you might need some distractions, and I kinda know the place." He waited for an answer. All he got was a skeptical glare. "Do you want to go have a look, or would you rather just sit and wait?"
There was very little to sit and wait by. There were the platforms and the tube bridges.
"Right, shall we, then?"
He clearly knew his way around the place, not hesitating at intersections and quickly navigating the more confusing hubs. It took no time before the tubes opened up into what looked like a city frozen in the middle of an explosion. Parts and pathways went in every direction, including up and down at gravity-defying angles. In places, the architecture looked outright irresponsible, thin rope-like structures holding entire islands of construction afloat, the structures on them not caring much which way was up or down, looking more like they grew on the rope structures like coral reefs than anything built by human hands. Or any hands. Or machines.
With an annoyingly unimpressed swagger, Tarik simply walked up one of the nearest ropes. As he did, his gravity seemed to shift, until he walked at an angle that should, according to physics and logic, make him tumble backwards like a ball on a hill.
"Where are we going?"
He let out a laugh that sounded quiet, but considering the odd, intense sounds of what could best be described as an electronic ocean permeating the air, he had to be speaking very loud and clear.
"There's a place to eat. Physical food is a bit of a luxury here, but I know the entity in charge."
"Entity?"
"Uhm, I guess you would call it an artificial intelligence, but the line is kinda blurry around these parts."
As he turned, now walking what should be almost straight upwards, his feet seemed to cause the string-thin structure beneath them to unfold like a flower, forming a complicated walkway of tiny moving parts. It was daunting to follow in those footsteps, especially since the flowery parts folded back in after each step he took. They did unfold again as needed, luckily!
"We met during a dig near the future location of the English Channel. She was working in analysis, doing high level computations on some soil management, I think."
"So many #*@!ing questions..."
He laughed at the remark, this time very loudly and clearly, almost as if to make sure he was heard.
"Hit me," he simply said, actually stepping beyond the edg of the flowery unfolding pathway, in order to cut to another branch. All he had to do to not step on what was essentially air until the path decided to change that was walk a few steps farther, but he seemed confident in cutting across. He seemed surprised that he was the only one. Taking the safer path took only a few seconds extra.
"Well, first, the English Channel was formed long ago, so how..."
"Last time it opened. Doggerland, about 7000BC."
"Right, and the AI is a she?"
"It chose the pronoun. I'm not questioning something with the computational power of a few million people."
"And third, how the hell did an artificial intelligence go from 7000BC to, what, 2000BC? Machines don't do time travel."
"Information does," he said, now with a bit less bravado and more weight to his voice. "She instructed the group on how to reconstruct her here. Don't know what happened to the original, and I have no idea about the philosophical implications of an intelligence reconstructed across time. I just know she makes incredible stuffed breads."
Practically the moment he finished the sentence, he opened the door into what looked like a slightly angular donut. The inside had people, and things, sitting along the outer wall, all the way round, adding more angles to the defying of gravity. Comfortable, reclining seats and armrest tables formed for two, and even before either sat down, a pale blue beam made foods form on the tables.
"What?" he asked casually. "Sit. Eat."
Eating or drinking anything in the place seemed not just reckless, but outright stupid. But then again, the smell was incredible. Both the food and the drink tasted amazing, the former being the aforementioned bread stuffed with some kind of juicy yet crunchy filling, with some meats and assorted others added. The drink tasted like fresh spring water, but creamy with just a hint of hazelnut.
"Told you," Tarik added, smiling victoriously. It was hard to disagree.
"So how far back and forth have you been in your line of work with the group, Tarik?"
He was munching with delight on his own food, chewing as he thought it over. Before answering, he very visibly considered simply taking another bite instead.
"Three trips into the ice age, but nothing after 1850," he managed to answer before chowing down again.
The food somehow managed to be not just tasty, but also filling, and yet never outstayed its welcome. The porions were clearly sized for the customer, his being the larger one, but whoever had made it knew exactly how much to make. The plate disappeared in another pale blue beam, empty, but there was no feeling of hunger left behind, and no sense of bloating or overeating. The perfect meal. With no way to tell time, ironically, it was impossible to say how long the meal had taken, but it was still daylight outside when the door to the weirdly designed diner closed. The air felt even fresher than before.
"So, Marie," said Tarik, sighing with the delight of a man that had enjoyed his meal just as much, "you ready to... Marie, what?"
"You gotta be #*@!ing kidding me..."
In the soft daylight, it was hard to make out anyone with total clarity at a distance. The strange architecture seemed to warp the light that made its way in. But on another unfolding flowery path, at a completely different impossible angle, was a person in completely brown clothes.
"What? Another one?" asked Tarik, quickly spotting the brown clothes.
"Yeah. Klaus."
Tarik said nothing, but his eyes felt like a burning question mark against the skin.
"He's from 1701. Well, I recruited him from some other time, dying from a disease. Or something. I couldn't remember, he just... told me so."
Feeling Tarik's hand calmingly on the shoulder was highly unexpected, but he ignored the brief flinch.
"Let it go, Marie. This is something messing with your head, somehow. It's not safe." His voice was surprisingly calming, too. "Also, they should be ready to get us to the next hub at any time, now."
The brown clothes with the Klaus lookalike in them were quickly becoming a brown dot in the distance.
"No. No, this time, I have the initiative. This time, surprise is on my side."
The path unfolded below, tiny petals of the metallic flowers creating a place to put another foot.
"How do I run on this?"
Rather than telling, Tarik made a slightly effeminate move with his toes as he stepped quickly forward. Looking at his feet, however, meant looking down, or the version of down that anyone on that path had. The angle meant that down was more sideways, the solid ground truly beneath the path becoming a near vertical mass far to the side. It seemed safer to just walk, at a brisk pace.
Klaus, or whoever it was, luckily had things to do. The brown dot became a brown shape again as he stood still, never noticing anyone approach, his entire attention fixated on rearranging some floating bits of color, looking like tiny building blocks for children. He seemed to be doing so in accordance with something written on a small screen-like item floating by his other hand.
"What is he doing?"
"Adjusting something. Not sure what," Tarik said, shrugging. "What did you say he did for you, again?"
Watching the Klaus lookalike do unexplained things, and listening to Tarik asking about the actual Klaus, something felt oddly off. Pieces of a weird puzzle seemed to be coming together, slowly, but the picture they formed was a bit unnerving.
"He designs vehicles, and maintains them."
Tarik let out a calm "oh," nothing more than confirmation that he heard it. But it only took a few seconds for the lie to blossom.
"That explains that, I guess," he said, pointing up, or what was up for the Klaus lookalike. A million tiny pieces were assembling into some form of machine, looking deceptively like a futuristic jet or even spaceship.
"I think I'm ready to go, Tarik."
"We can... Wait, what?" he asked, the sudden break from observing the Klaus lookalike understandably taking him by surprise.
"Yeah, I've seen what I need. I'm ready to go back a few more millenia."
It was obvious to anyone that Tarik was trying to figure out some mistake, pick out some misunderstanding about what was being said. He hesitated, but slowly regained his speech.
"Right, I think all we need to do is say it. They should be bringing us to the time machine in just a moment."
He spoke slowly, still not quite understanding the abrupt change of mind. He wasn't meant to.
"Just one thing, Tarik..."
"Yes?"
"Where we go next, is there a beach? I would like a beach."
"Uhm, yeah, there's a very nice beach."
Of course there was a #*@!ing beach. The beach was  actually very impressive. Azure waters along a glittering sand coast, low vegetation near the water and taller, seemingly tropical vegetation farther in. There was a disturbing absence of animals, though, suggesting that whoever was in charge had walled off or otherwise protected the place. Because judging from some of the plants, this was not a soft and gentle place. Some of the thorns looked like naturally grown weapons.
"Everything okay?" asked Tarik, standing a few paces away, just looking, clearly trying to hide some confusion.
"Yeah, everything is fine."
Ironically, everything actually was fine. Pieces were falling into place, and although the picture that the puzzle painted was a bit disturbing, seeing it clearer felt like getting the upper hand on, well, everyone.
"You don't want to go somewhere?" he asked, almost sounding like a restless child afraid to be a bother.
"No, just here is nice. We'll just wait until they're ready to send us on. This is the last hub, right?"
He nodded, slowly and looking almost disappointed.
"Yes, last one. Once you're ready, they can get you to anywhere in the vicinity of 9000BC."
The sun was low in the sky now, coloring the horizon more and more red, tinting the waters slightly purple.
"Are you coming along?"
"Yes," he instantly replied, suddenly seeming to wake up a bit. "They'll send me with you, just to make sure everything goes right. Not a time we usually operate in."
"Too close to the ice age?"
Tarik nodded. It made some sense. If they had a lot of their operations centered on the northern parts of Europe, 9000BC meant those areas were still pretty much covered in ice. And moving to other places had little point, since there was very little treasure to hunt for this far back. Stoneage people did not have many ships loaded with gold, after all. Why they even had hubs that went back to before the Egyptian faraohs was a bit odd, but not a topic to discuss at this point.
"They're ready," he said, after a moment of peaceful silence. Arriving in the ancient forests of what would one day be the Schleswig region at the border of Denmark and Germany made the memory of the huge ziggurat platforms seem like a blissful dream! The jumpsuit took the worst punishment, but the overall impact was more than enough to get all the air knocked out, and leave a very painful back and thighs, the parts that had taken the brunt of the final collision. Somewhere nearby, Tarik hit the ground with an angry howl.
After taking a few seconds to get oriented, it was fairly easy to spot him in the tall growth. The greens and browns of the woodland area clashed quite visibly with his black leather patchwork armor and the light grey cloth he wore underneath it. He had skipped armor in the hubs, not surprisingly feeling safe in what was basically the man's workplace. But now, he was out of his comfort zone, and the light armor outfit from back at the estate was somehow available. Or they had copied it. They obviously had the technology for that.
"Not used to rough landings, are you?"
He was still sitting on the ground, almost laid out flat on his back. A mix of discomfort and outright pain kept flashing across his face as he got up, tiny move by tiny move.
"So this is how you typically operate?" he asked, clearly being rhetorical. He seemed inattentive. He didn't notice the very large branch, for one.
"Hey, Tarik?"
He stopped his cumbersome attempt at getting to his feet, looking up from his awkward kneeling position.
"Tarik, what did you and the men back at the state talk about?"
Inelegantly getting his left foot finally underneath himself, the first step in pushing off the ground to stand, he gave a slightly baffled stare.
"The men you talked with. While I ate. What did you talk about?"
"Not much, really. Mostly hunting."
"Who were they?"
His eyes were getting frantic, just a little. A panic was setting in.
"Just some friends."
"Friends? What kind fo friends? How did you know them?"
His eyes were getting worse. Panic was setting in.
"Locals. I knew them from..."
He never finished, instead springing to his feet very awkwardly, his footing still too poor. All it took to make him stumble and fall was a hard shove. With a yelp, he tumbled into shrubs and dead branches covering the forest floor.
"How much of you did they copy? How much of Tarik is in there?"
He said nothing, scraping against the dirt to push himself away, but constantly managing to only hurl around loose soil.
"How much? Did they get a full copy from the real Tarik in 1652, or did you just scan my brain like you did to get the looks of all those lookalikes you used to #*@!ed with me?"
"I don't... they got a copy! They got a copy!" he yelled, his facial features starting to become erratic. As the large branch came swinging down on him, he screamed. It smashed into the ground between his head and the right shoulder with a thick, crunchy sound.
"Trick question, mother#*@!er! It was 1668!"
A few garbled sounds came from him, from his throat more than his lips. He was short circuiting, for lack of a better term.
"How much did you get from me? How much did you find out with your #*@!ing questions?"
He was starting to lose focus, his gaze slipping and his limbs either going limp or freezing up. He wasn't built for this. Just some organic copy to tag along, using every opportunity to ask questions. A subtle interrogator.
"How did you know?"
It took some strength to pull the large branch back, but as it went away, he seemed to relax, his panic shutdown subsiding a bit.
"You #*@!ing idiots built everything around what I said. Did you really think I wouldn't notice that?"
"I don't think they do it to time travelers that often," he said. His voice was suddenly softer, letting him gasp for air while talking.
"Then why now? Why me?"
He shook his head, letting out a strained chuckle.
"Do you actually think they'd tell me? I'm a #*@!ing copy of someone you barely knew."
"So you know? You know you're not the real Tarik?"
"Of course I do," he laughed, a dry, sickly laugh, while he looked at his filthy hands, all dug into the soft soil. "My objectives don't match anything in my memory. Also," he added, the laugh becoming a little crazy, "the information I do have on you is something that tool would never even understand, much less know to ask about."
He winced with minor aches as he tried to get up from the ground again. Although he seemed more out of breath than before, likely from struggling around down there, he did seem to be recovering from the trip.
"What do you know about me?"
"Something you don't," he said, sliding his leg up under him and starting to lean forward.
"Stay down."
"Or what?" he asked, his laugh this time sounding tired and somewhat mocking. Making a foolish mistake, he locked eyes right before lunging forward.
This time, the branch didn't miss his head.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 43

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 43 The festivities were still in full swing. The blown vaping store was already just a topic of random public debate, with passerbys noting the two men sweeping glass off the street and the air in town still having a slightly sweet smell. The panic seemed all but completely gone, little left except a few hushed voices when people in the nearby square looked down the promenade.
The moment he looked at me, I sent Mischa a glare that succeeded in telling him to play it cool. He was standing with my mom and Peter, near the smaller square that connected all the three major shopping streets, including the promenade.
"Ida! Panik, where have you been?!"
Almost trampling poor Mischa, my mom ran to me the moment she spotted me in the crowd, grabbing me in her arms and hugging me tight. She quickly stopped, though, holding me at arm's length and looking me over with a confused look in her eyes.
"And why are you soaking wet?"
I looked at Mischa, as discretely as I could, and from the calm look on his face and the small nod he quietly gave me, I figured he had told them very little.
"I saw Mischa and we were talking when that... when the whole thing with the store happened. You guys hear that?"
All of them nodded, even Beebee who was going to town on an ice cream cone that was nearly the size of her head.
"I guess we got split up in the chaos," I continued, looking to Mischa for another nod to check that the story still held. "I somehow ended up by the harbor and some panicked moron pushed me in. Like, I'm completely soaked!"
"Yeah, and you smell like dead fish," Beebee remarked, never taking her eyes off the ice cream.
"I called you about a dozen times," my mom quickly said, ignoring Beebee's remark. "Why didn't you..."
She stopped when she noticed that I was looking for my phone. I knew there was nothing to find, that if my phone even existed after the whole affair at the old school building, copy Ida had it. I only hoped she wasn't picking up.
"#*@!," I mumbled, and immediately noticed the slight frown on her face. "I mean, it's not... Damn it, it's probably in the harbor now, somewhere."
She sighed, very deep and very slow. But when the sigh ended, she put a smile back on and just hugged me tight, ignoring that I was more or less dripping with harbor water, which actually did smell a bit like dead fish.
"It's okay, panik," she said as she held me, rather firmly. "We'll see if they have some good offers tonight on a phone. Just... don't go anywhere, okay? From now on, we stick together."
I nodded, smiling back at her. I had expected to have to put on a fake smile, but having her hold me, even when she let go a bit and just held her hands around my arms, I found that the smile was entirely honest. It felt good. It felt safe. The images in my mind of copy Ida spearing robots on long metal rods faded far into the back of my brain, becoming a distant bit of white noise. I even started breathing slower, myself.
Mischa was another case entirely. As we started walking, a smile on my face, I turned to look at him as he tagged along. I was surprised to find him glaring back at me, his brow curling up and his lips tight and slightly puckered. I had seen that face before, but never aimed at me. The last time was just under a year ago, before he freaked out completely and punched one of the older students in the nuts for making fun of his older brother's death. It was not a good look to be getting from him. He had punched the other guy surprisingly hard, too!
"What about you, Mischa?" my mom suddenly asked, turning to look at him. The angry glare vanished immediately, replaced with a content, if slightly tired, smile.
"Don't mind me, mrs. Lund. My folks are having a drink with some friends over by the sausage place," he said in a calm and friendly voice. The moment my mom decided not to ask any further questions and looked away, though, the smile faded as quickly as it had appeared, and the glare returned, even if less intense this time around.
Walking down the promenade, actually going towards the wrecked vaping store, felt unnerving. Every look our way, every sudden movement, got caught by some primal depth of my brain, analyzed so loudly I could practically hear the gears turn inside my head. I felt a tingling in my skin, not from any weird time travel energy but from adrenaline. I kept the smile going, but as we moved along, it became the false show of calm that I had expected it would be from the start. Everything looked dangerous. Everything looked like it was waiting to attack me.
The phone store was ratherg crowded, every teenager at the festivities wanting to see if there was a new model or a better offer they could grab and show off over the coming days and weeks. New, shiny models hung on every wall, and a spare wall, the kind on wheels that got held in place by sand bags, had been brought in to add to the options. And every offer, no matter how alike the normal prices, was getting attention. It took only seconds before Beebee, ice cream all done with, was putting her sticky fingers on 5 inch screens all over the store.
"What the #*@! is your problem?" I asked Mischa in a whisper, while my mom and Peter discussed the merits of the seven or so different subscription plans listed on glossy pamphlets.
"What problem?" he whispered back, his voice sounding like a dog preparing to growl.
"You're giving me the stink eye like I strangled your cat or something. Either stop it, or tell me what's wrong!"
He stepped aside with a polite smile as a mother of two young girls passed between us, looking tired, perhaps from the one girl that kept complaining loudly about how unfair something was. The moment they were gone, the grim stare came back in his eyes.
"I had no #*@!ing idea if you were alive or dead," he whispered, and even then his voice sounded shrill. "You just left me there. And then your creepy friend shows up and..."
"What creepy friend?" I asked, interrupting him. He stopped for a moment, looking like he was trying to read me, trying to judge if I was stalling or really didn't know.
"That mr. Smith bozo. Alex something."
"Yeah," I sighed, "we've got a whole new level of company with the..."
"Look, Ida, this looks good. Tell her, Peter," my mom said, stepping physically in between us, even though just slightly. Peter began to rattle off the numbers he had calculated, comparing the subscriptions, and Mischa took a step back, turning to feign interest in some new touchpad device.
"Yeah, mom, that sounds, I mean, that's a lot of numbers. Does it have... I don't know, yeah, no, sounds about right."
I was barely even paying attention, and I feared that it showed. If it did, she didn't show it back. My eyes still tracking Mischa around the store, noting as his black hair moved around amongst the many others in there, I followed her to a selection of phones that apparently had some tie-in plans with the subscription. I made it a point to stand near some of the bigger touchpads on display, using the reflections as much as I could to keep tracking Mischa. Not surprisingly, I lost sight of him before Peter was done describing the first of the phones laid out on the display table. But I spotted something else, and my blood froze almost immediately.
"I just need something small and durable," I said, not really having heard exactly what Peter had been saying about my options. Even while trying to use the reflections, I could see both of them make surprised glances at one another.
"Something small? I thought big screens were so trendy," my mom said nervously, as if it meant the world to her to stay informed about young people's buying habits with phones.
"I just... I don't really feel like jumping on the trends, you know?" I said, keeping just enough attention on them to carry on the conversation, while everything else was on tracking the shape I thought I had spotted in the reflection. I was interrupted when Peter put a hand firmly on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. I looked up to see him smiling strangely at me. It took me a bit to realize he was proud of what I had said!
"You know what, Ida," he said, very uncharacteristically not looking at my mom to check her reaction, "that's really, really smart of you. I think you'll like this one." And then he grabbed an astoundingly white clamshell phone.
"Uhm, not the trends of 2003, either, but thanks," I answered with a smile. Pretending to be looking over the selection, I desperately tried to find any reflection that let me hunt down the familiar face I had seen, but it was gone.
"This one?" I asked, pointing at perhaps the blandest phone on the table. It looked sturdier than the rest.
"Oh, okay," said my mom, and I looked away as she went to find a salesman in the writhing crowd. I waited a few seconds for her to leave and for Peter to talk with Beebee about why she wasn't also getting a new phone. Ironically, due to her age and occassional temper, her phone was probably the sturdiest. I did consider offering her a trade, but felt like it would drag her into my mess, somehow.
"What are you scoping out?" said Mischa out of the blue, causing me to flinch visibly! He was standing by the wall near me, obviously pretending to care about the phones on it.
"Elmer," I answered, trying to stay casual about it. Mischa was the one to flinch this time, and I thought I caught a glimpse of him almost saying something out very loud. His lips froze a second, and then he grit his teeth.
"Elmer? As in that creepy time guy?" he more hissed than whispered, and I nodded, casting a glance out the storefront windows without giving it much thought.
"Yeah. He's shy about it, but I saw..."
My mom showed up, beaming with the pride she had whenever buying a technical product without taking days to decide. She called it a professional affliction, her job as a buyer for the clinic making her overly cautious about expensive purchases. The rest of us knew she simply hated having to compare a bunch of technical features that meant nothing to her, but nobody wanted to put a dent in her joy.
"Did I interrupt something?" she chirped, putting a hand on Mischa's shoulder as if to squeeze a bit more of a smile out of him.
"No, no," he quickly replied, "Ida just thought she saw a friend of ours in the street, but he's gone now."
She let the remark pass, handing me the stylish box containing the phone, along with a smaller box apparently containing SIM card and more for the new subscription.
"They'll do some techie magic to get you your old number back in two weeks or so," she added, before turning to find Beebee and Peter. As she moved out of immediate hearing range, I turned to Mischa again.
"We just got rid of half a dozen robot things, now time travelers?" he growled before I could even get a word in edgewise. All I could really do was shrug. My mom had already found the others and was heading for the exit, Beebee still refusing to understand why she couldn't get a new phone, but at least being somewhat civil about it.
"We were thinking about going to the cafe down at the square, get a little something to eat. How about you, Mischa? My treat," Peter said as he slowly walked by. Mischa gave me a look that seemed to want to say something, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what.
"Sure, thanks a lot," he simply answered, briefly faking a calm expression as he looked at both Peter and my mom.
We both had our eyes peeled walking out of the store. For some strange, primal reason, I was clutching the box with the phone, my general unrest somehow becoming a fear of theft somewhere inside the murky corners of my brain. The crowd was still densely packed on the promenade, but everyone seemed to move slower now, a lot more relaxed or just a little more tired. Colored lamps, the cheap kind that used flimsy paper for the color, had been turned on along cables above the street, making the evening sky look like a blurry piece of random art. People were carefully balancing oversized ice cream cones like the one Beebee had eaten, or discussing the pros and cons of unusual and highly sugared treats made by little vendors or shops that were a bit more adventurous on this festive occassion. Young couples were using the slight chill in the evening air as an excuse to hold one another closer, while older couples sat on both the regular benches and the many folding chairs set up around the place for this one evening.
None of the calm enjoyment really got a hold of me, or from the looks of it, of Mischa. Whether it was the previous rounds with copy Ida and the robots, the nerves about maybe having spotted one of the time travelers,  or simply a side-effect of the slight shiver from my still damp clothes, I felt my skin tingle and my breath struggling to find a regular rhythm. The many faces in the crowd made...
I stopped.
"There," I whispered to Mischa, nudging him with my elbow as I nodded towards one of the many small alleys that connected the promenade to the harbor. The moment he turned to look, I pulled on his sleeve, avoiding him making it obvious. He got the message and faked bumping into a passer by, so he could cast a glance.
"Yup," he whispered, looking pretty embittered. "Elmer and that horrible bitch, what's her name..."
"She doesn't have one," I remarked, not really planning to make a big deal out of it. I did notice Mischa looking at me with confused eyes, though. "They don't have actual names," I quickly explained, grumbling a bit at the strangeness of that extra fact. "I gave them names because it drove me insane. Hers is Linda." Like a TV episode replay, the memories of her ran quickly through my mind. "I kinda feel like I owe the Lindas of the world an apology for that one," I finally added.
I had only spotted Elmer myself, and my eyes were now scanning the crowd for her, as well. I only realized how much it had distracted me when I walked straight into some guy, bumping my head on his stomach and chest.
"Sorry about..."
I looked up to realize I had bumped into Elmer.
"We need to talk," he said in a quiet, very monotone voice, looking at me with a strange kind of pissy indifference.
"Hi, who the hell are you?"
All three of us, Mischa, myself and Elmer, turned to look at Beebee, who was standing with a fist full of cookies, looking at Elmer with very judgmental eyes, for some unexplained reason.
"Bee," said my mom, grabbing the girl by the shoulders and pulling her up against herself. "Your language!"
"Ida says #*@! a lot," she simply retorted, but my mom ignored it completely.
"Hi, I'm Sara," she said, extending her hand to Elmer. "Do you know my daughter?" It was her way of being protective. The friendly smile covered for a distrust in everyone who talked to me, or especially to Beebee. She didn't want to offend, nobody here ever did. But I could see the momma bear in her eyes as she looked at the tall, muscular man in front of her.
To my surprise, Elmer just shook her hand with a smile.
"Elmer," he said. "Subsittute teacher at Ida's school."
My startled look at Mischa for some kind of moral support went unnoticed. Mischa was just standing there with a softly tilted head and his mouth hanging a bit too open.
"Yeah, mom," I added, noticing how slow my voice was an immediately making it a point to not sound like I was making up stories on the spot. Or suddenly slow in the head. "Elmer teaches... music. And arts. Right?"
Elmer first hesitated, looking a bit annoyed, but then nodded. The most unnerving thing, however, was how easily he faked a completely relaxed smile. He wasn't wearing the same odd, highly noticeable clothes he was back at the house. Instead, he wore some old T-shirt with a slightly faded pattern of green and black lines, with a very darkly grey, unbuttoned shirt over it and whitewashed jeans that actually looked a bit like the whitewashing might be from natural use. It looked very casual, and almost like something a regular human would wear. It made him seem almost normal. But only almost, which was perhaps even more unnerving than the smile. It was also the reason he had been a bit hard to recognize in the reflections, I suspected.
"Oh, an artistic spirit," my mom continued, her voice now much less tense, knowing, or believing, that she was talking to a teacher at the school. "Are you here with someone, mister..."
"Elmer. Just Elmer," he answered, sending me a weird look without breaking the smile. "And I'm here with three friends, but one of them isn't doing so well right now, so the others are looking after her.."
"Oh, how sad. I hope she gets better," my mom politely replied.
"He says they have to talk, mom," Beebee added from behind her, tugging on her jacket, clearly wanting to regain some attention.
"It's just...."
"Ida is behind on an assignment," Elmer said with a voice that was clearly meant to be friendly to her, but serious to me.
"Assignments?" my mom wondered out loud. "In what, music? Or arts? Do they give assignments in that?"
"It's a special case," I intervened. "Right, Elmer?" He nodded. "And I'm not really behind as much as I want to be really thorough with it," I said, trying to round off that bit of convesation. It was clear that Elmer had other plans, though.
"Well, you're welcome to have a drink with us," she suddenly offered! I instantly shared terrified look with Mischa, who was already balling and unballing his fists in a nervous fit of frustration.
"I would love to," Elmer answered, to my mom's delight. I couldn't help but notice a weird, growling sound emanating from Mischa, however. The small cafe, or bistro as everybody kept insisting on calling it, was on the corner of the square. It was one of the early participants in the wave of places that were just as much meant to get just a cup of coffee and talk for overtwo hours as it was meant for a family party of eight to eat a full meal. On any given day, it seemed to have examples of both extremes and everything in between, all depending on when you passed by. That also made it a place for a third kind of customer, namely the one just there to look at the people there and in the streets near it.
Although Elmer's sudden inclusion in our little group was clearly going to be a problem, it was fairly amusing to see my mom grill him on his opinions about artists through the ages with names I could often not even repeat, much less knew anything about. Whether he was just expertly faking it or actually had some background knowledge, his answers, mostly short and to the point, seemed to fit her just nicely.
Mischa, on the other hand, was obviously having none of it! He made very little show of his intense anger about the situation and what I could only assume was a deep loathing of Elmer. I had a hard time blaming him, but with every subtle signal I could think of, I still tried ot tell him to keep it clean and nice. He did. The only question was how long it would keep.
"You're really big for a music teacher," Beebee said, distracting me from my pressure on poor Mischa. She had ordered the burgerh from the kids menu, which apparently got made a lot quicker than the adult dishes. I had absentmindedly glanced at the menu and ordered some random pasta dish that looked agreeable, but between keeping my eye on Mischa and on the conversation between Elmer and mainly my mom, with Peter chiming in now and then, my attention to culinary details was limited. Nobody had reacted to my choice, so I knew that the pasta was, at the very least, nothing too weird.
"He was in the army. Right?" I stepped in to say. Beebee immediately lost interest, having clearly just said something that happened to fall into her headand out of her mouth, but both my mom and Peter suddenly perked up a bit.
"Really?" Peter said, looking up from the wine menu he seemed to be looking at mostly to keep his hands busy. "Where were you stationed?"
"Anywhere dangerous?" my mom added with a hint of morbid fascination, sounding like she was checking out some new crime novel, rather than talking to a living person.
Elmer froze for a bit, hiding it behind a sip from a large soda he had ordered. All drinks came at the same time as Beebee's burger, cluttering the table a bit, but Elmer's strategy was one I knew only too well.
"You said something about Iraq," I remarked, trying to make my coaching of him sound as casual as possible. Luckily, he grabbed it and ran with it, nodding as he put down the soda.
"Infantry," he elaborated, "very dangerous."
My mom lit up like a christmas tree, and I saw dozens of questions piling up inside her head, just from the expression on her face. I knew she had no interest in a dangerous life for herself, but her constant audiobook addiction told a story all of its own, just by flipping through the titles on her list.
"Yeah, we grilled him on it, but he can't talk about it," I added, making sure to sound ever so disappointed about it.
"Or he'd have to kill us," she remarked with a weird smirk.
"That's in the past, though," Elmer continued, putting a strange emphasis on the word "past". "I'm more focused on the future," he added, again putting that emphasis on the last word. "I still like to travel, at least when I have the time."
At this point, with the emphasis on those two more key words, his obvious subtext was becoming more text than sub, and I could see Mischa's facade begin to break. My palms were getting sweaty, and I could almost hear my heartbeat in my ears.
"About the assignment," I finally said, feeling pushed into a corner, "I have some ideas that I wanted to talk to you about. You know, a way to make it work without losing some of the important parts halfway through." Lifting my own soda slowly, staring him down to the best of my abilities, I paused for a dramatic sip before continuing. "After all, there's no reason to bail on a good thing. Right?"
For a second, his eyes blazed with an anger I had trouble remembering having seen in him before. He had been fristrated, perhaps even angry, but this seemed to take it to a whole new level. He quickly glanced around the table, though, and kept his almost convincing smile on.
"That's nice, Ida," he started, talking slowly, as if to a small child, "but the assignment is what it is. Getting too experimental is going to do more harm than good."
"Uhm, is this a very important assignment?" my mom asked, sounding a bit nervous at the hint of tension that must have shone through from us.
"Very," Elmer replied. "It might dictate her entire grade for the year."
"Oh, wow, that's... Wait, there's a grade for music now?"
"It's all a bit experimental, mom," I said, hoping to calm her down a bit. Talking grades was a bit of a trigger of hers. Elmer just smiled a bit harder at the matter, taking another slow sip of the tall glass.
"Would you excuse me for a moment. I think I spotted someone I know in the crowd."
With those words, he got up, leaving his soda behind. I gave Mischa a look as he followed the man with his eyes, clearly trying not to fire laser beams out of them to incinerate the guy on the spot!
"He seems nice," my mom commented the moment Elmer was out of earshot. "A bit intense, though. Or is it just me?"
Peter put a comforting hand on hers. "He's ex-military, love. He's seen things."
She nodded, and I turned a bit awkwardly in my chair to look for whoever Elmer had referred to. The crowd was thinning a bit as the evening went on, but I saw neither Elmer nor anyone else that I could imagine him looking for. A part of me hoped he had simply seen a chance to escape and taken it.
"What's that assignment he's given you, Ida? Sounds like a big deal, at least for him," Peter asked, still holding my mom's hand as if to keep her from being nervous about Elmer. Peter was not a small guy, but there was definitely something funny about him trying to appear protective in the face of someone like Elmer. I didn't quite feel like laughing, though.
"It's just... I mean, it's something about a song. A music thing, you know?"
They both nodded, though they clearly just did it for my sake. I chose to hide my lack of musical knowledge behind the soda. Luckily, neither had a chance to ask more questions. A loud crash from a nearby alley caught their attention instead. A thud followed, then another crash. I looked around, and we were definitely not the only ones noticing it, although people just stopped briefly, looked, and then went on with their evening.
"Maybe you should just, you know, finish that... assignment," Mischa suddenly said. Everybody, including Beebee, instantly looked at him. It was the first words he had said since sitting down.
"I thought about it," I replied, leaning back as the waiter arrived with most of the remaining food and went back to get the rest. "But I think he can wait a little longer. I really want to get it right, you know? Nothing left behind?"
Mischa didn't respond much to my answer, but when I accidentally glanced at her, I noticed my mom smiling proudly. A look at Peter gave me the same from him. Part of me suddenly worried that sounding so serious about a school assignment, or what they thought was a school assignment, might give them false hope for my future enthusiasm at school!
"Sorry about that," Elmer suddenly said, slipping down into his chair with a deep sigh.
"What was that?" my mom instantly asked him, making him look confused. "Was that you, that noise?"
Elmer smiled, making me uneasy. "Oh, just a friend of mine who had too much to drink," he chirped. "Had to get him down from a dumpster before he hurt himself."
Whatever hidden message was in that line, I didn't catch it. But the way he looked at me, while smiling, made me feel very unsafe.
"I think you got some trash on you from the dumpster," Peter remarked, pointing at Elmer with the fork he had just spiked his salad with. I looked over and saw a few pieces of something on Elmer's shoulder. It looked disturbingly like tiny bits of robot. Tiny, very broken bits of robot.
"Is your friend... okay?" I asked, suddenly feeling a bit less confident than a minute ago. Again, Elmer just smiled, swirling his soda a bit with one hand.
"He'll sleep it off. Can't have one unruly person make a mess of it for everyone else, can we?"
"Are there more of your... friends... running around here tonight?" I asked, fearing the answer a bit. As he smiled and slowly took a gulp of the soda, I felt that my worst fears were about to be confirmed.
"Funny thing," he said, cocking his head a bit as if thinking hard about the topic, "some of them realized that there were a lot of unusual things happening here in Nakskov, and now they suddenly seem to come crawling out of the woodwork." He took another gulp, never breaking eye contact with me. "Imagine that, huh?"
A bit to my surprise, I felt nothing. No fear, no annoyance at his clear feeling of moral superiority, nothing. At most, part of me felt tired, maybe a little sad. Maybe it was the victory over the robots that were chasing copy Ida that suddenly felt redundant, maybe it was the sense of an uphill struggle. Maybe I was just running out of steam.
"Yeah," I finally replied, between chewing on my pasta. I had regretted my choice of dish for a moment, but whatever the slightly sour sauce was, it was growing on me. "Not something I'd run away screaming from, though."
Finally, his cocky cmile began to fade. Rather than looking angry or bitter, though, he too was starting to look tired. Very tired, in fact.
"Anyway, Ida," he said, putting his soda on the table and leaning forward with a bit of an old man's grunt, "I need that assignment from you in less than two days."
I wanted to say something, feeling a sudden rush to be a smart-ass. Maybe I was sensing weakness, or maybe the tense conversation was getting in my blood. It didn't matter. I said nothing.
"Me and my friends are leaving town after that, one way or another. If you haven't finished it by then, I really can't protect you from the fallout."
Putting on a smiling face again, he nodded at my mom and Peter before emptying his glass and casually disappearing in the crowd.
"Is it just me or did those last words sound a bit ominous?" asked my mom.
I nodded. They did.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 42

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 42 The enormous room was, in a word, intimidating. It had the air of a trophy room, even without walls covered in disembodied heads of once dangerous animals now reduced to decorative heads. Had there been the head of a lion, wolf, rhino or even some long dead breed of dinosaur mounted above the massive fireplace, it would have seemed to fit in with the decor. But there was no such thing. Not a single animal seemed to have been harmed to decorate the place. No bear skin rug, not even lamb skins on any of the large chairs. And none of the chairs were leather.
But the things that were there were far more terrifying. To most people within a day's journey, be it in nearby Nakskov or any of the small hamlets around, the items displayed would be confusing, perhaps a little disconcerting, but likely none of them would really understand the frightening message they were meant to convey. Then again, it seemed highly unlikely that anyone who did not know what these things were would ever be allowed in.
The private guard attached to the huge estate had been surprisingly professional. It had taken a few hours to traverse the forest, but as early dawn broke, the red shine of the sun had revealed the open spaces around the estate. Grassland. Hunting grounds, deer and assorted birds living free and off the land, ready to be shot by the huntsmen no doubt living somewhere in the estate, in one of the dozens of rooms. From the outside, it had as much in common with a medieval castle as with a large farm of its age. Tall walls surrounded a splendid courtyard, the only ways in or out going through the buildings in impressive archways. Three of them, to be exact, denoting north, south and east. The western wing had a different architecture, rougher and more primitive, obviously the older or even original building to which the three new had been attached over time. It would seem like nothing a few centuries down the road, but the four stories of the three newer buildings, and even the three stories of the original one, made the compound a behemoth of wood and stone in its own day and age.
The trophy room was in the north building. The stairs had been a bit labyrinthian to follow, but it seemed to be on the third floor. Having it on the first or even the second floor would have been architectural insanity. The large open space within it seemed barely able to hold up a roof without any extra pillars, let alone several floors. What was on the fourth floor, light enough to not need heavy support from the floor below, was a mystery that would likely never get answered.
"The master will be with you soon," said the tall, elderly gentleman that had stepped into the room a moment earlier. He had exchanged some hushed words with one of the guards that had been left in the room, one of five, which honestly seemed a bit excessive. The old man seemed to expect some kind of response, but there really seemed to be little to say. He stood in his impeccably white shirt and light grey pants, looking like a living hole in the dark wood and brown colors of the guardsmen uniforms, like a contrast to the much darker surroundings. When he got nothing back but a nod of understanding, he left with an odd expression of disappointment on his face.
They had never been threatening. Even when staring down the barrels of their pistols, it was hard to feel poorly treated. That, along with their physical build and the lack of wear and tear on both skin and teeth made them seem very misplaced in this age. Even the best and cleanest people living in Nakskov and other places were inevitably the victims of limited medical and dental care, and a lot of exposure to the sun. These people were very different. They practically screamed time traveler.
Of course, if there was any doubt, those trophies in the room would easily dispel it. Maps of places that would not exist for decades, centuries or even millenia. A plasma bolt rifle from half a millenium in the future, give or take. A miniature model of a starship drive. A beautiful painting of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. To a novice eye, they would seem like excentric decorations, perhaps a bit carelessly flaunting that whoever had collected them knew about the far future. There was nothing careless about it, though. They were a message. "We travel in time. A lot." The message had a definite sinister undertone.
Other than the obvious TT stuff placed in plain view around the room, the intimidation of the place was just as much a more mundane kind. Wealth. The lack of animal hides was entirely compensated for by expensive dark hardwoods, marble coloumns as fake support pillars in the corners and as legs for more than one large table, an unusually dark stone used for the fireplace, and fixtures of copper, bronze and brass on many wooden corners. It was, again, not a castle, nor was it a palace or a mansion of pomp and luxury. It was, in comparison to much other wealth, subdued, some even practical. But it stayed on message. A very alpha male kind of message.
"They say you call yourself Marie," a voice said from somewhere in the room. Rooms of this size had their own little pecularities, often when it came to sound. The acustics of a large room could make one spot a perfect stage or podium, or it could shroud voices. This one chose to spread the voice out. With a few hard clicks of boots on the hardwood floor, however, the source of the sound moved closer, and the sound itself became easier to trace.
"They say you know what these things are."
It was a man. Slightly tall, though easily half a head shorter than either the guards or the elderly man that had announced him. In a similar way, he was broad and sturdy, but not as much as any of the guards, and he had an old look to his eyes, but not nearly as old as the elderly one.
"Tell me what they are," he said, although the commanding words had a polite, pleading tone to them. As he stepped in closer, from a door that had to be somewhere at the back of the room, his clothes came into the early daylight from the windows. There were no candles in the room, no artificial light of any kind, and the low sun cast a lot of shadows. His black vest and marine blue jacket over a simple white shirt looked oddly intense in that lighting. And like the trinkets along the walls, his jeans were unapologetically out of their natural time.
"Sagrada familia, starship drive, plasma weapon."
He listened carefully, standing by the tall chair the guards had been kind enough to provide. It was almost as if they made an effort to not make it feel anything like being a prisoner. When the apparent test was over, he gave a confirming grunt and walked over to a similar chair, on the opposite side of a small wooden table and closer to the smoldering fireplace.
"We don't get a lot of time travelers here," he said, leaning back as far as the chair would let him, his head cocked to a side and his eyes squinting a little. As he sat, the elderly man casually strolled over to him. Again, he had the expression on his face as if expecting to be told something.
"Marius, I will take an English tea, thank you."
He then looked over.
"You must be thirsty after your trek in the woods?" he asked, clearly meaning something else entirely. But all he really needed was a nod and a look at the older man, Marius. "Two tea, Marius," he said, this time never looking at the man.
"So, Marie. Why?"
He let the question hang in the air a bit, as if someone would step in to fill the huge gaps in the way he had phrased it.
"Why what, exactly?"
His smile had vanished without notice, and his face, while still a friendly expression, was a bit more stern. The response didn't help change that.
"Why are you here? Or why do you travel in time? You carry a stench of amateur equipment and poorly calculated leaps around with you, I am almost sure even old Marius could smell it off of you."
The playful tone in his voice had begun to dimish, and fast. It was no surprise that the tone had been insincere, but the fact that he already decided to drop it was a bit foreboding.
"I work for an organization that tries to control some of the damage from the timetravel war that's going on." His eyes never showed any sign of reaction. It was almost like he was a machine himself. "We're trying to get to a situation pretty far back in time, and the usual route isn't safe. So we need a workaround."
He kept quiet, picking absent-mindedly at a wooden statue of a bird that stood by his side, like some kind of petrified pet. The dead look in his eyes seemed unnatural, an act of some kind, pretending to not care the slightest about what was said. In a way, even if it was, realizing that did nothing to help. It was still impossible to say what he was thinking about it all.
"Why me?" he asked as a follow-up, after having stared for an uncomfortable amount of time. "What do you want with me? What do you want in Nakskov?"
"You run this place? It's impressive."
His eyes finally reacted, squinting slightly. He hadn't meant to reveal his position at the estate.
"After a fashion," he said, using his voice to regain a bit of the mental upper hand after his accidental admission of influence. "I still report to..."
"... to the Wenway Group. Yeah, I know."
At the mention of the group, his fingers on the wooden bird, which seemed to be somekind of crane, stopped their minimalistic compulsive motions. His eyes, hacing already shed the annoyed squinting, became cold and stiff, to the point that he barely blinked.
"You track down lost riches and bury it for or give its resting place coordinates to the group, right? So they can dig it up in the future?"
Blinking returned to his eyes, this time actually a bit more severe than normal. He didn't like the situation, this stranger telling him things that he liked to feel were secrets.
"It's perfectly legit," he said in an exaggeratedly soft voice, his fingers again playing with the bird at his side. "I'm not changing the timeline. Anything lost here remains lost."
"Until your emplyers dig it up in, what, 2250-something, right?"
He was getting angry. He had been hard to read, but now, everything bubbling up was written in his face. His frown only paused when he looked over the shoulder of the tall chair to the guards that likely stood behind it somewhere, thinking his quick glances at them werenever noticed.
"Don't worry, we're not here to bust you, or your operation. In fact..."
His eyes grew a bit larger at the last two words, as if he was eyeing a way out of the frustrating conversation.
"... we're not quite on the good side of those who might want to put a stopper to you, either."
He glanced over the chair again, but it bcame clear that it had nothing to do with the guards the moment Marius came into view, carrying a fine teapot and set of cups. There was a tense quiet as the old man set down the cups and filled them with a piping hot tea. The smell was a little like that of flowers, with a hint of vanilla and perhaps some spices. Nothing about it seemed like normal peasant's tea. Like so much else, even the tea was a show of what they, he, had access to.
"So," he said, dragging out the word, "what keeps me from simply cutting your throat and dumping you in a ditch?"
The astoundingly blunt response was a bit startling, but not so much that he got to freely pick which cup of tea he would be drinking. There was no indication that the other cup would be poisoned, deadly or not, but there was nothing to suggest that trusting him was clever, either. Snatching the cup he seemed bent on drinking from felt like a good idea.
"You know all that amateurish time travel you could, if I recall, smell?"
He looked at his cup as he picked it up, stirring it while holding the saucer in his other hand. He never answered or even gave a nod, but the eyes he made suggested that he knew.
"Yeah, I've got some of those annoying people on my heels. They will track it to here, even if they are tracking a corpse."
"I could bury you far away, set up a decoy. Or I could just cut your anchor and watch as you snap back to... When did you say you were from?"
"I didn't."
For once, he actually smiled, a smile that did not seem to be false. That, more than anything, made it frightening.
"And sure, you could bury me far away, and hope they only tracked my body and not my steps. Or send me back and hope that, for some reason, I would decide not to return. But there really is a much easier way to get rid of me, and thus of them."
The tea tasted sour and sweet at the same time, zesty, like a lemon or lime soda, only a little more subdued. He had already sipped his once, and now decided to just hold it in his lap, staring, as if he could pull that last option hinted at out of thin air if he glared at it long enough.
"And that is?" he finally asked.
"Send me on to my next stop, far back."
This time, his smile, or rather, his grin, seemed perfectly sincere again, but for a very different reason. He had to lift the teacup off the saucer as his body shook slightly with the chuckle he let out.
"That's your play?" he asked, leaning forward to place the cup and saucer on the small table between the two chairs. He was still chuckling, perhaps that was why.
"That's my play. The best way to get me out of your hair is to just let me move through." The tea was starting to settle in. It really wasn't all that bad. "And if you're getting clever ideas about sending me somewhere else, remember that at some point I go back, and then this place becomes a target yet again."
He raised the chuckle to arestrained laugh, seeming to actually enjoy the whole conversation. It was hard to tell if that was a good thing or not.
"I like you," he said, wagging his index finger like a tiny whip. "You've got some balls on you. Marie, was it?"
"Yes, it was."
He got up,making a signal to one of the guards. It could have meant anything, from asking them to leave to having them whip up an execution squad. As it turned out, it was much less dramatic.
"This is Tarik," he said, pointing at the guardsman who stepped up. "He'll show you around a bit, while I discuss your... request with some of my advisors."
Tarik, a slender but fit man of a less daunting height than many of the other guardsmen nodded in a subtle bow,  then silently extended a welcoming arm, pointing towards the door some distance behind the chair. It was all very polite and respectful, which made it feel like there was more to it than just a tour of the grounds. Ironically, it suddenly felt like any objection would be, in a word, impolite. The grounds were, in fact, rather impressive. The early dawn arrival had been less of a tour, everything still shrouded in dimness and the shadows long. Not to mention the fact that the guardsmen back then had never taken that route. The trip to the trophy room, or whatever it was, had been entirely  through the labyrinthian halls of the massive estate itself.
"Tarik. That doesn't sound very local?"
The man smiled a little. Pointing to his name was just an excuse, his darker complexion and sharp cheekbones made it perfectly clear that he was neither Danish, nor any other kind of Scandinavian or North European.
"I am of the Ottoman Empire," he said, showing his strong accent at the same time. "They recruited me in 1911, on a mission in Greece."
"Mission?"
His smile turned blatantly false, hiding whatever he was feeling about the memory.
"I was what you might think of as a spy for my country. But things went wrong and I all but died. They told me later that history had noted me as dead, so I was a candidate for recruitment."
The south of Europe, right before World War I. Not a bad place to look for valuable things that would soon be lost. A perfect hotspot for Wenway activities.
"And they sent you here? Seems like quite a change of pace."
We were walking, or casually strolling, along the one side of the massive courtyard between the buildings. A few people, mostly young men that looked local but were likely entirely bound to the place, for fear that they would see and talk about things, were moving barrels into one of the buildings, through a door big enough that it clearly had to be some form of storage. The small patches of grain spilled here and there on the ground suggested it was some of the local harvest being moved to a better spot for storage.
"It's peaceful," he simply replied.
He wasn't wrong. Even with the men moving barrels and carrying sacks, the sound of birds could be heard from outside the estate grounds, and the bit of wind that got inside the courtyard only made the mild weather feel even more welcoming. It was of course very likely that he was talking about his work, especially considering that he had a past as a spy, which could make most other jobs seem peaceful, to say the least!
As we neared the door that the barrels were rolled into, Tarik turned slowly. He clearly had no idea and no instructions about what to show, simply turning the tour into a stroll around the compound. With his arms folded behind his back, he seemed like a man on a break, taking the time to relax himself a bit, as well. The entire courtyard, in spite its size, was open enough to see from any one corner to any other, making everything visible at a single glance. And yet still, he was following the order to show it.
"How did they get those things in the trophy room, by the way? They were clearly from the... what?"
A little unexpectedly, Tarik was not only smiling, he was grinning, like a child that had just played a prank on his parents. He wasn't entirely young, although it would be wrong to call him old, too, and the fine stubble on his face made the grin look especially devious.
"Did you hold them?" he asked, still grinning.
"No, why?"
"They are replicas," he answered. "The master makes them in wood, entirely from memory. Or he paints, as you no doubt have seen."
"And the blue jeans?"
"Those, however, are real. He has a few luxuries that get sent. The jeans are one of them."
"And what others are there?"
"Toilet paper."
Tarik gave that last answer quick but casually, as if he expected the question, or simply had the answer on his mind. He was slowing his walk, clearly realizing that there was very little point in walking the length of the courtyard many times over, seeing nothing that wasn't there to be seen already.
"Is there a place to eat, Tarik?"
He looked puzzled at the question for a moment, or simply at being asked anything, but quickly nodded. As he looked out over the courtyard, apparently trying to think of the shortest way to a kitchen or the like, he actually looked relieved to have something else to walk to.
The guardsmen cantina turned out to be surprisingly cozy. A single table had five men sitting there, relaxing over what looked like a glass of wine, and about half a dozen other tables stood empty, subtly suggesting that the staff of guards was biggerh than one might at first expect! The Wenway Group had a reputation, and the rumors that there was a fully functional time machine on the ground were clearly correct. With those things in mind, an extended security staff should come as no surprise, but the place had a feel not unlike the military quarters in the fort by the sea back in 1701.
"If you wish, I can have a boy get you a fresh plate of mashed potatoes, and I'm sure there is still some wine left?" said Tarik, sounding like a nervous dinner host.
"Just water. The potatoes sound great, though. All I've had is bread with fat."
"Don't trust the water here," said one of the men by the table. The others laughed, raising their glasses of wine, although the man seemed to not mean it as a joke.
"It's okay," Tarik said quietly. "The water is not that clean in these parts, but I always have the cook boil it." He looked at the men with a sort of tired smile on his face. "Not all of us find that cleaning the water with alcohol is much better for us."
The men, clearly hearing his remarks, laughed and raised their glasses again at him, seeming to not take it as an insult.
Calling through a narrow gap in the wall, looking very much like a corridor meant entirely for children, Tarik got a hold of a young boy that quickly took the request and ran off through the little corridor.
Time passed. Tarik was mostly quiet, exchanging a few words with the men at the other table. They were engaged in a game of dice that he let them explain, and they were a bit skeptical at the prospect of letting a woman in on the game. In the end, they capitulated, and as the food finally arrived, the game was in full swing. Apart from a few small windows, there was no way to know the time of day, and once the food was gone and the men were called back to their posts, it was well into the afternoon.
As the young boy returned to take away the plate that still had half the now cold portion of potatoes on it, Tarik had a slightly more private talk with the other guardsmen, discussing some issues about patrolling the forest better. It seemed like something that could, in some odd situation, be worth knowing, but the food had not gone down entirely without complaint. With mashed potatoes, that was a case for a bit of worry. Tarik either hadn't noticed or hadn't commented on it, so it hadn't shown too much. But something was wrong.
"Well, Marie, you getf the pleasure of seeing us look to the animal traps on the north side," Tarik remarked with an odd, cheerful sigh.
"Lucky me." The fake smile made no impression on him. In fact, his eyes looked a little worried. It turned out, they had a reason to. Without warning, standing up made everything suddenly spin. The floor hit hard. "When did you last eat, girl?" asked the strange woman by the bed. Everything was out of focus, everything flickered. It took a few seconds to realize that the flickering was from a candle on the wall. The focus was, although only in part, caused by the sky outside being suddenly darker.
"Eat?"
The woman stopped for a moment, looking a bit annoyed, or possibly just confused, by the question, likely because she had wanted an answer.
"Yes, eat," she repeated. "You look to have barely any food in you. Your body fainted from just trying to handle some potatoes."
"Some bread with fat on it."
"When?" she repeated, making sure to put ample emphasis on the word.
"I... I don't... Look, it's kinda hard to say."
Surprisingly, she made a mocking snort, briefly glancing with judgemental eyes.
"You time travelers. One day you will end yourselves with this unhealthy way of life."
This time, she was the one to be surprised. She clearly did not expect to cause a laugh!
"You sound like someone I know. I bet he would..."
There was no time to finish the sentence. Tarik walked through the door rather abruptly, looking strangely bitter about the whole thing, or perhaps about something entirely else. It was still a challenge to think clearly,  and thus to read people.
"Finally, awake," he said, sounding a bit rushed.
"Yeah, finally awake. Why the big emotions all of a sudden?"
His eyes flinched a bit, going over the woman briefly and then just making random jumps, nothing particular to focus on.
"Am I okay now?"
The woman seemed hesitant to answer the question, but after a stern look from Tarik, she finally nodded.
"You're weak you need rest, to let your body deal with the... food," she said, sounding awfully judgemental about that last word. She clearly didn't count a plate of potatoes to be much food to have to deal with. As she left the room, Tarik shut the door rather unceremoneously, then turned with a poorly hidden glare in his eyes, arms crossed across his chest.
"The master said your ways of traveling were... not the best. Poor equipment, poor methods, poor planning," he said in a grim, irritated voice.
"They work."
The snappy answer to his criticism, or his master's, was greatly undercut by a sudden coughing fit and a brief but vicious stomach pain. The look in his eyes revealed that the irony of that had not passed him by unnoticed.
"Why so obsessed with me, anyway?"
Tarik's eyes found the floor rather interesting, all of a sudden.
"You are a time traveler," he said, overenunciating every word as he slowly began pacing the small room.
"The master knows that."
Tarik nodded, slowly, still not making eye contact.
"Not many independent time travelers come through these parts, you know," he said, this time rapid firing the words. "It is my responsibility to make sure the master has his chance to decide what to make of you."
"Ah. Not so much a tour guide as a watchdog, eh?"
He nodded. "Rest now. The master will have his decision in the morning."
With those words, he turned and left the room, looking over his shoulder one last time to make sure everything, and everyone, was in its right place. As he closed the door, it first made the expected thud of the wood hitting the frame. But a moment later, another thud followed, one that sounded wrong for a door just shutting.
"Tarik?!"
A small peephole in the top of the door slid open, and Tarik's eyes peeked through.
"Tarik, are you... shutting me in?"
His eyes were motionless for a moment before he answered.
"For your own sake. Rest."
"There's no bathroom here."
"Chamber pot, under the bed," he remarked far too casually.
"A chamber pot? Are you serious?"
"Trust me, many in this age would envy you. And I would be more worried about what goes in than what goes out." A finger snuck through the small peephole. "A night snack. Get your health up." Then, the peephole shut with a click. It became perfectly obvious that the door was built to keep people in, not out.
On the table in the corner of the room was large, beautifully ornamented pitcher with a large cork lid on it, and in front of it something on a tray, covered by a fine piece of cloth with indiscernable embroiderings on it. It had the shape of a loaf of bread, but a bit flatter, likely some softer, sweeter bread than what one would usually see. Something easy on the stomach, to get more energy into the body quicker.
Getting up was a pain, quite literally. Every joint ached, from ankles and even toes all the way up to the neck. But the worst were the constant brief aches in the stomach. It felt like being pinched hard, but from the inside.
The room was small, but not as small as the one at Ravnhild's tavern. It was also not nearly as bare. A fine mirror stood on a fine wooden table next to a small fireplace, and generic, very bland portraits and landscape paintings hung on the walls. A small lamp in each corner lit the room with their flickering flames. Had the circumstances been much different, it could have all come off as rather lovely. As it was, it was nothing but a pretty prison cell. It was no surprise to find the window permanently shut, only a small bit on top free to open for a bit of circulation. There really seemed to be nothing to do but rest.
Not that it mattered much. They had taken off only the shoes, but that meant the feel of the cold floor hit that much harder. Even this little discomfort was enough to make everything spin again, making the idea of just staying in bed, resting, sound far more enticing. And still, that little bug kept itching. The little bug inside the brain that said to go looking. And if there was nothing to go look for, go looking for something that was worth looking for.
Putting on the leather shoes felt almost like putting on a warm coat on a cold winter's day. The warmth instantly began spreading through the toes and up to the ankles, making both feet seem to come alive once more. There was a small fire, mostly embers, in the fireplace, keeping the night chill at bay, but the walls apparently had not gotten that memo, feeling to the touch as cool as the rocks along a river. The chair in front of the fireplace, a delicately carved rocking chair, lured greatly, but so did the urge to look behind every painting and piece of furniture! The curiousity won out, although not before tasting a bit of the indeed sweet bread and some water.
There was nothing special about the paintings. Tarik's words about the master painting things from memory came flooding back, but it seemed unlikely that he meant pictures like these. They were nothing but unknown people and places that someone might recognize from near the town, but little more than that. The mirror leaned against the wall, but it was easy to look behind it, and even the table it stood on, food and all, was just far enough from the wall to easily peek behind in the soft light of the nearest lamp. There was nothing of interest to be found. It began to look frigteningly as if the room was perfectly simple, nothing more than what met the eyes at first glance.
The bread was good, though! It felt and tasted a bit like poorly made cake, fluffy and buttery. It was a bit dry, but dipping it in the water poured up carefully in a very fine porcelain cup, helped a bit with that. It did resist on the way down, though, causing a few slightly oversized bites to scrape a bit on the way. Although it seemed perhaps a bit pessimistic, it still seemed like the best idea to pull out the dreaded chamber pot. It was, of course, empty, but just the thought of using it was unsettling. Still, if a bit of bread wanted to go up rather than down, it was better than the floor.
While sitting on the bed, cup of water in one hand and piece of torn off bread in the other, staring uncomfortably at the elaborately painted chamber pot, the thought at first seemed a bit insane. But then again, there was nothing much to do in the pretty prison.
The bed was of a very typical design, just four legs holding it above the cold floor. Putting bread and water aside on the table, it was possible to squeeze in under the bed's frame, between its stubby little legs. The light from the candle lamps barely made it under there, and just being there cast a thick shadow over everything, as well. It was possible to see that there were no big items under there, but that was about it.
Prying a lamp from its spot on the wall proved surprisingly easy, though! They were bolted in hard, but the functional piece, the one holding the candle itself, was screwed into the part bolted into the wall, and although it spilled hot wax everywhere, painfully hot wax, it could be screwed loose.
Kneeling by the bed again, the point of the lamps being bolted directly into the wall became clear. The flame almost seemed to look at the thin cloth stuffed with hay that the bed was made of and lick its firey little lips. But placing it on the floor and leaving it there, to illuminate the underside of the bed without getting the flame near it, worked quite well.
It was everywhere. At first, it just looked like some odd shadows cast by the free-standing candle, but they were not. Letters. Letters in many languages, many alphabets, scribbled clumsily on everything under the bed, no doubt the one place that nobody really looked. A few of the languages made sense.
"I'm not the original," the letters said, except the word "not" was crossed out, rather angrily from the looks of it! On all the other languages, pieces were crossed out, too. It was the same sentence, repeated over and over again, in one language after the other. And it appeared to be written in blood.
The lamp quickly went up on the wall again! The sounds, and even the silence between them, suddenly seemed threatening and foreboding, like the audio track of a crappy horror movie. The room seemed smaller and insidious, as if it had a deranged mind of its own. The strange but peaceful place suddenly became more than just a pretty prison. It became a trap.
The windows were still shut solid, the open part far too small to force even a small body through. The door, needless to say, was still bolted. And the walls increasingly felt like they were narrowing in, making the room slowly shrink. It felt suffocating.
With a crackling sound, the water killed most of the embers in the fireplace rather quickly. The smoke had a bitter scent to it, as if rot in the firewood was finally allowed to breathe freely, and the room dimmed more than expected, now that the lamps were truly alone in lighting it. But the heat died out, little by little, and as the smoke disappeared up the opening inside the fireplace, that very opening became safe to reach. Safe to reach, but still not a very safe way out of the room! The metal grids that shielded the fireplace from dust and rain that fell down the chimney shaft were all frustratingly narrow, scraping against shoulders and hips, leaving long, black streaks on clothes and skin alike. And not all of the scrapes were painless.
It was a common bit of old architecture. There likely was a fireplace below, and perhaps even more small ones up above, all sharing the same chimney. A massive estate like this could never have enough fireplaces if each needed its own chimney, and anyone building something this big would know that. So they shared. It made for some smokey experiences when too many were lit at a time, forcing so much smoke through their shared chimney that some came back, but this was no apartment building. It would be a strange day when every fireplace of a certain chimney were lit at once. In fact, the design was likely so that rooms on one chimney were unlikely to be used at the same time. It was the skyscraper of its age, every problem tackled to the best of the architect's ability long before the first stone was set down. Now, that fact became useful in quite a different way!
On the floor below, which should be the first floor, the fireplace was at least three times larger, with nothing lit in it, both of those facts being both lucky and, because of the design of such a place, likely. The metal grid was so wide that it almost felt like exiting a small door, and the kindling in the fireplace itself was cold. The room was likely a spare, rarely used, meant for when another room of its size was in need of repair or, for some reason, too crowded. The estate never gave the impression of being where great parties were hosted, but there could be other reasons.
Of course, the room was not lit. The moonlight helped give an idea of larger furniture in the place, but there was no room for sudden moves. Floorboards complained softly and little trinkets rattled at the faintest touch in the dark, making every step an excersize in not panicking!
It quickly became clear that the room was not watched, though. Through the thick window panes, muffled sounds of guards and the occassional servant could be heard, bustling about in the courtyard. The size of the room alone made it hard to build up a mental blueprint of the building's design, but the room above, the pretty prison, clearly did not take up much space above the ceiling. A single pillar in the middle of the large room suggested that things above were divided up far more, but there was no way of knowing. Laying complex plans for getting back to the small room above seemed futile, but there was nothing wrong with trying.
The door was unlocked and the broad hallway outside unguarded, all facts that supported the idea that it was nothing but a large spare hall. It made sense, placing the pretty prison above something fairly worthless, even if they clearly did not expect an escape by fireplace!
At least, the hallway outside the room was lit, more fancy and brighter lamps lining the walls, silently flickering away. The walls were finely carved wooden panels, a pattern like a flowering rose or large tulip cut and set into every second panel, breaking some of the monotony. Tables with large vases for plants that were not currently in them stood at every half dozen or so panels, each vase with its own variant of a simple pattern, little figures painted on them in what looked like a more modern form of old Greek pottery. The flamboyance and the silence made the hallway seem like an elaborate tomb.
At the end of the hallway, voices finally began to appear, far more clearly and far closer than just in the courtyard outside. The language they spoke was impossible to determine, though. Not Danish, not even a dialect, and definitely not English or something else close by like German. Parts sounded like very crude French, but most just sounded like a made up language for television or the stage. Passing by the mouth of the hallway, far enough away to notice nothing, they seemed to wear thin leather vests, the same kind of very light protection that Tarik and the men in the cantina had worn.
As the light from their carried lamp dimmed, leaving only the faint light in the large room they were wlking through, it seemed safe to approach closer. The room turned out to be a stairwell, of sorts, a large, finely decorated room with heavy, winding stairs going up in several directions. One went up to what seemed to be a hallway running parallel to the previous one, only on the next floor. It took very little to sneak up it without being seen, and along the more narrow hallway's walls, a single door stood out. It was shut with a simlpe wooden bolt on the outside, and a small slit at the top, for looking in. Tarik had been tall enough not to stand on his toes to look in, but it was, indeed, the pretty prison cell. The bolt slid quietly from its place. This was the safe way back.
The other rooms in that hallway were not that different, most of them just small guest rooms with the fittings outside to also hold a bolt, though none of them currently did. There were no other guests, it seemed, at least not ones requiring their own private prison cell.
Downstairs, in the elaborate stairwell, guards were again walking around, talking in some impossible language, quite possibly the same as before. There was a clear pattern to their rounds, a way they patrolled the place, and it was laugably easy to fit into that pattern and remain unseen. But door after door in at least the stair room was locked, not one allowing for snooping around. All that remained were a few other hallways, something that threatened to take too long.
One hallway, luckily, caught some attention. It was on the first floor, nearly perfectly across from the one that had the large spare room in it. The hallway had only two doors, making it the only one that seemed possible to fully examine. And the doors were at an odd spacing, very far from one another. With the guards still following their pattern, it was easy to slip down the hallway. The first door was locked, but the second opened with a gentle click, right in time to avoid a chance of being spotted!
The room was large, much larger than the large spare room or even the trophy room. And it spanned to entire floors! A balcony ran as a second floor along most of the walls, apart from the window side that was little more than a row of glass panes, facing the outside world. It was beautiful, the moonlit forests visible in the distance, as if there was no wall at all. A conservatory, at first glance.
At second glance, however, it became clear that there was more to it. Large objects stood covered in fine cloth, like art waiting to be dramatically revealed. In the pale light, jars could be seen, the faint moonbeams being turned many shades of dark as they went through them. They felt damp to the touch, droplets of water still clinging to the outside of them.
Outside the room, the guards were about to pass by the end of the hallway again. As they did, and as they disappeared into the stair room again, there was ample time to unscrew one of the candle lamps that adorned this hallway, just as others did the other hallways. Inside the room again, the lamp lit up everything a little, but not nearly enough. It was like a single flashlight in the bowels of a hangarship, like a firefly inside a warehouse.
The lamps in the conservatory lit up one by one, easily made to burn with a bright light from the flame of the one lamp from the hallway. As lamp after lamp lit up, the covered objects were stripped of the darkness and suddenly had colors! The damp glass jars swirled with murky shades of dust, long wooden sticks sticking out of them. Brushes. Jars full of brushes. This was not just a conservatory, it was a gallery. Large paintings, covered in delicate cloth tarps, nearly a dozen of them. And amongst them, things built or sculpted in clay and stone. The master made things from memory, Tarik had said. It looked like this was where he made them.
It was perhaps just the allure of essentially picking through someone else's memories, but the impulse to pull away the large tarps was immense. It was clearly a bad idea, the tarps having clearly taken some work to put on in the first place, but the urge was strong. In the still limited light from the few lamps and the pale moonlight, it took a little while to realize that there were drawers along the walls in many places. Not desks or cabinets with drawers in them, but seemingly drawers built into the wooden walls. Dozens of them, discretely blending with the overall look of the place. In full daylight, they would likely be clear to see, but this was not the case at night. Some turned out to be locked, but a few were carelessly left for anyone to just open. Whether that was from indifference or just forgetfulness was impossible to tell.
Paper. Large pieces of thick, rough paper. Drawer after drawer was filled with it, pieces ranging from barely a palm to small posters. Rough sketches were drawn on most of them, using coal or equally rough pencil. Buildings from several ages, castles on one sheet and spaceports on the next. Some were just quick doodles that had clearly been abandoned, while others were complete works, perhaps drafts for future paintings.
And then, there was one that stuck out. Even without color, the fine details of the coal sketch was gory to look at. A mess of bodies, laid on the street of a place that, judging from the background, was a beautiful city, of thin bridges, rooftop parks and open plazas. It looked futuristic. But that was not what made it special. What made it special was a symbol. Two of the bodies had it on their chest, looking like an official insignia. And in the distance, it was on more than one wall, either as a solid decoration or on a long banner. It looked like, but was not, a swaztika. It did not have the same jagged angles, the same stiff, straight arms. It fit perfectly in a circle. Just like the one in the bunker near Benny's farm. The one that had been breeding monsters.
The lamps were much quicker to put out than to light. In minutes, the gallery was dark again, the hallway lamp back in its place. The stair room was even quicker to navigate through, and as before, the hallway leading to the pretty prison was unguarded. Nobody expected someone to be running through the halls in secrecy, the guards likely there to prevent someone from stealing or vandalising the place. Bolting the door from the outside after shutting it took nothing more than the bedsheet as a rope and a bit of precision and patience. The pretty prison was a prison again. Morning broke just a bit before the knock at the door.
"Miss," said a voice from the hall. Marius, polite as ever. "The master has ordered a bath be readied for you before your journey onward."
The bath went by quickly, apparently offending the three women that had cared for the bathtub, warming water in the adjacent fireplace. It was very soothing and was a welcome cleanse, but it didn't manage to take any thoughts away from what Marius had said. The journey. It sounded, at first glance, like confirmation of being allowed to use the time machine. But a journey could be many things. Going back to the town as a pretty corpse on charges of spying for the Swedish was, in technical terms, a journey.
"Your... jumpsuit... was quite filthy. I had it cleaned while you were."
The master entered the bathing room with absolutely no qualms about privacy, pointing a young woman to put the clean jumpsuit on a dressing partition.
"Yeah, I'm not used to fireplaces."
He didn't seem to understand the connection. Most of all, he didn't seem to leave.
"I tried dousing the fire when it got too warm. I guess I only remembered to wash my face when I got the stuff on me."
He smiled, looking very pleased with himself for some reason.
"Yes, there was some problems around the fireplace, too, I meant to ask. But none of that matters now. Others have cleaned it up." Finally he turned to leave. "I will have Marius take you to the travel room."
Marius did, indeed. The room was below, the entrance on the first floor but much of the room dug into the ground. The soft, Danish soil could be dug far into in most places before hitting any significant kind of rock. They had made use of that.
"How far back are you going, exactly?" asked the master, walking up a stone staircase, clearly built elsewhere and brought in to be assembled. It made sense. Wood might catch fire and most metal might conduct the energies from the machine, or just violently overheat.
The machine looked different. Gone were the demonic fingers that would come apart and balance the flow of rushing energies. Instead, a single ring of some odd material, parts sticking out very dramatically, surrounded a ridiculously large platform. The platform itself looked like white marble, and it was flat, not curved to accomodate a sphere of energy above it.
"How far back can you get me?"
He laughed, a bit too loudly, a bit too forced.
"Well, we can go back about a millenium here. More than that and you would be better off going to the hub in the early 900s."
He kept a slightly arrogant smile on his lips for a few seconds, ignoring the lack of an answer. Then, something in his eyes changed, and the smile became stiff and his eyes hinted at some kind of anger.
"Eight centuries? I'll be ripped apart..."
It was meant to sound as an accusation, calling him out for a lie. But the words simply trailed off, making it sound unintentionally impressed. Very unintentionally.
"No, the gateway is designed to handle it. This is how the big boys play the game."
This time, his smile was clearly meant to look like pride. It did not. There was a strange predatory aura around him, as if he was fighting an urge to do... something. Something very disagreeable.
"It's a state of the art rig," he said, trying perhaps to sound reassuring, but again coming off as arrogant and oddly bitter. "The best that can be built in this place without attracting attention. That's how it reaches so far." The look in his eyes shifted as he crossed his arms. The arrogance disappeared. The bitterness stayed. "This is not your amateur hour, little girl."
"The hub. Send me to the hub and we'll see how far they can send me back, then."
With a nod to one of the many people at the foot of the stone stairs, he stepped away from the stairs themselves.
The stone stairs felt cold, even through the leather shoes. In fact, with every step farther down, the air itself became a little colder, and by the foot of the stairs, it was outright chilly. Closer to the machine, it warmed a bit, as if the machine itself was radiating heat. Several people, all in clothes made from very fine, very white cloth, moved about the thing like doctors in an operating room. One stood by a panel in the large ring of the machine, and when he pressed something on the panel, the ring opened next to it, beckoning someone to step inside it.
"It's an impressive piece of machinery."
The man, his face only half visible through the cloth that covered his face, looked absolutely baffled at being spoken to.
"It... it's a good machine," he said, overcoming a nervous stutter the best he could.
"Sending me back almost a millenium. Must be a very advanced model."
He looked at the machine a bit, as if checking it before answering. He seemed very uncomfortable being pushed into the conversation like that.
"No, not... not really. It's just what could be put together with what..."
"Oh, by the way," the master suddenly yelled from atop the stairs, still standing with his arms crossed, "with such a big jump, no clothes." His grin now reached shit-eating proportions, looking like some frat boy about to make new recruits run naked through a sewer pipe. "We don't want you to go up in smoke."
The man by the panel quickly turned away, pretending that the previous conversation had never happened. Apparently, the little chat itself was not what had made him nervous.
The platform did, in fact, feel a little warm. None of it seemed to come from the marble white floor itself, but rather from the air above it. Closer to the center, that air lost a bit of heat, as if it was the ring itself that emanated it. Standing there, it was still easy to see him up near the entrance, arms still crossed. After a brief moment of locking eyes, the jumpsuit came off, and the shoes with it. The platform still felt just warm enough.
Someone pushed a button.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 41

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 41 It never failed to astound me how easily people in Nakskov would slide from a panic to a calm. As Mischa and I slipped down one of the many narrow streets between the promenade and the harbor, the cloud of flavored steam had already begun to dissipate, and frightened screams were turning to nervous laughter and intense chattering. People were unharmed, and they were now wondering if it had been a stunt, street art, a weird accident, or whatever else they might imagine. To be perfectly honest, however bizarre it could feel, the willingness to not see the world as the worst of all possibilities was often a heartwarming part of living here.
"What are we running from?" asked Mischa. "I mean, this time," he quickly added.
I said nothing. I honestly had no clear idea. The Kurt copy had been lurking, that FE Alex person had been a bit intense, but there was nothing to go on. It could be aliens, ghosts, Santa Claus or the Salvation Army, and none of us would be any wiser about it all. I just knew to run when things got crazy. It was a habit I had learned disturbingly fast.
The harbor was, a bit surprisingly, more nervous than the promenade. A local band was playing on a small stage, but they seemed a bit less energetic than they could be, the lead singer visibly looking towards the source of the boom almost half the time. Everyone seemed to want to pick up where they had stopped without skipping a beat, the band literally so, but there was an unease in the crowd, looks sent towards the promenade all the time.
"Someone told them nothing dangerous happened," I mumbled, my by now paranoid brain making up all kinds of stories of who might have tricked them. At least, it did so until I made it shut up and accept that it had likely just been the people behind the events that had passed on the message. Being constantly on edge made me see things, and seeing things made me on edge. I had fallen into a nasty spiral, and as we cut our run to a brisk walk, I kept silently cursing at myself to stop making up problems. There were plenty of real ones already to deal with.
"I need to get back to my family," I muttered, half to myself and half to Mischa. He nodded. I somewhat expected him to say something similar, but he did not. I knew his parents liked the little events that happened around town now and then, and that they likely were at this one, as well. And again, I had to cut paranoid thoughts, this time of him being a robot, out of my mind, before it went down the path of rampant conspiracy theories.
It was about at that point that I noticed his eyes. They had seemed to stare aimlessly into the crowd, but with him saying nothing and our pace still dropping, I could see that he was silently following something.
"Mischa, Earth calling. What's going on?" I asked him, but at first, he said nothing, just nodding again as his eyes kept moving slowly across the mass of people. When I finally tugged on his arm, he snapped out of it, looking briefly at me but then quickly scanning the people ahead of us again.
"I thought I... saw something," he more or less mumbled, his eyes now desperately trying to reconnect with what they had followed. I looked along the same path as he did, but he had some height on me, and all I saw was people's chests and a few random faces.
Then, without warning, he picked up his pace, never even telling me to match it! His nimble, gangly body was like a coral fish, slipping in and out between people with frustrating agility, forcing me to keep up and make use of the brief slipstream he left behind him in the crowd. In a panic, I grabbed his wrist, both to tell him where I was and to simply hold on!
When he finally swerved around the corner of one of the old walls along the street and into the open, less crowded space behind it, he stopped, and I bumped rather unceremoniously into him.
"What did..."
He held up a single hand, making me shut up more efficiently than I liked in hindsight. A few seconds passed before his hand balled into a fist and he then pointed slowly towards a cluster of large dumpsters. I looked but saw nothing. Then, his finger drew a rough outline, and I spotted a weird shadow amongst the trash containers.
The shadow never moved as we approached, not even a bit. Walking softly, we tried to hide behind the dumpsters, staying in the blind angle of whatever cast the shadow. It seemed to work.
"Why are you breathing heavily?" Mischa asked out of the blue. I was baffled until I stepped around him.
"Because I'm #*@!ing programmed to," the robot copy answered, looking up at us from her spot on the ground. She was kneeling, with her back straight, looking like a sprinter before the sound of the gun.
"Is that my old hoodie?"
She nodded, grabbing the waist of the piece of clothing as if to look at it and make sure.
"Yeah, sorry, I kinda panicked," she muttered, in a weirdly low and either tired or outright sad voice. She looked at the fabric between her fingers for a little while longer, then let go of it and returned to her heavy breathing. It was controlled, her straightened back meant to let more air into her lungs, again like a sprinter getting ready for a race.
"What happens if you d..."
I cut Mischa of, a bit rudely.
"What the hell is going on?"
The copy looked at me, and I saw her face straight on for the first time since the barn. There were nasty cuts across it, and the left half was pretty clumsily bandaged, the edge of the bandages already a dark red.
"I'm pretty sure they tracked you," she said, and I noticed for the first time, watching how her lips moved oddly against the bandages, that her was sounded raspy, like she needed a good, deep cough to clear her throat.
"How do you know they didn't track you?" asked Mischa, suddenly looking over his shoulder more than once. The robot cracked a smile, which looked very wrong with the bandages.
"Because I tracked them."
"How did you even s..."
"The chair," she said, now making me the one to be cut off mid-sentence. "It was a solid #*@!ing thing, even found a few of them crushed against it once I got out from underneath it."
I said nothing more, asked no follow-up questions. It did make some semblance of sense, I had seen the table-chair thing and could testify to how it looked like two tons of solid metal. But most of all, it was the look in her eyes that made me quiet up. Something told me she had no real desire to think back to that recent part of her technically very short life.
Both Mischa and I jumped back a bit as she jumped to her feet.
"I think it thinks I'm fine, now," she said, making the two of us share a confused look. "My body," she added, glancing at our confused faces. "My body still thinks it's human and all. Gotta keep it happy so it doesn't mess with my brain."
She glanced very briefly at us for any comments or follow-up questions, but when none of us said anything quick, she looked right through us and to the street behind us.
"We need to leave," she said, in an oddly calmvoice, almost as if she was cheerful about it. Then she started walking away, going right past the two of us without a word.
"Bossy much," I whispered to Mischa as the copy marched towards a small alley, heading as far from the street as she could.
"Yeah, it really is a close copy," he muttered, not thinking about it much, from the slightly vacant look in his eyes. I gave him a scathing glance, but when he finally noticed it, he just shrugged sheepishly.
The alley, while fairly wide and well lit, was full of trash. It seemed like festival trash, things like discarded cups, cans and plastic bottles mixed with popped balloons and food wrappers. On most days, the main streets of town were clean. But apublic event and an alley made for a bad mix, and brought the worst out in the various litterbugs in town. I never even thought about the fact that I was frowning at the garbage kicked into  the corners of the alley before I noticed that the copy was also glaring at it with some disdain.
"What exactly are we running from?" I asked the copy, trying to distract myself from  our apparent similarities.
"Three, as far as I could see," she said, never turning around to look back at us. "They have some kind of... I don't know, heat ray or something. Makes your blood boil." She finally turned around, with a weird, uncomfortable look in her eyes. "And I mean yours, of course. I just getf blisters and some power surges. My fuses have handled it, at least this far."
"Fuses?" Mischa asked. "You have fuses?"
She nodded. "I think so. One of them grazed me," she said, holding up her arm and showing a patch of little red blisters just above the elbow. "I could feel something inside me practically light up, then parts were switched off and on again a moment later. It felt like a fusebox, if that makes any sense."
We were reaching the end of the alley, and the copy was starting to lean as she walked, trying to get a few glimpses around the corners at the end of it.
"It... doesn't," Mischa replied, grumbling as if to say that he knew that nothing he said would make a better explanation come his way. And he was right.
As we reached the end of the alley and the edge of the promenade, she tugged the hoodie in tighter, covering her face as much as she possibly could. I felt a weird urge to do the same, even though I knew I was not wearing a hoodie or anything else that allowed me to do so. It was impossible to look away from her. I even studied the way she walked and then compared it to myself. It was spot on.
"We need to lure them away from people," she said, keeping her voice low enough that likely only we could hear her.
"Why?" asked Mischa.
"Because innocents might get harmed," I found myself saying, answering the question he had given her without even giving it a second thought until afterwards.
Without saying anything, the copy made gestures to suggest that she saw two in the crowd. Two what was never explained, or how she knew, but she seemed confident. Confident enough to one moment later jump into the street, startling an older woman before stopping to look. It took a second for me to realize that she was waiting for them to look and see her. When they did, she immediately bolted down one of the narrow streets in the opposite side of the promenade.
The moment I set off to follow her, Mischa grabbed me by the back of my jacket, holding on so tight that I felt the strain of my shoulders against the seams inside it. Catching my footing quickly, Imade an awkward squat but never fell to the ground. Instead, I instantly turned, not even getting up, to scold him.
"She is a robot," he hissed, his teeth clenched together tightly. "She can handle it. You cannot!"
In that moment, just for a few seconds, I hated him. Hated his guts, hated his face, hated his voice. I wanted to punch him. Not because he was wrong, but because he was right. She had walked away from an exploding barn, and even if she got hurt, odds were that she could be fixed like any other machine. I hated my vulnerable flesh and blood.
"Then what?!" I asked, not hiding my anger even though I kept my voice under control. "Let her run blindly to her death because she wants to keep others safe?"
It clearly tore at him, wanting both to help and to keep out of harm's way. He was biting his lip and his head all but bobbled around as he stared anywhere except at me.
"No stupid risks," he finally said. "If we don't have the element of surprise, we don't risk it."
I nodded, then looked for my chance to jump into the crowd. As I looked, another two turned the corner and ran down the same alley as the copy and her first two pursuers! Tall, male, physically well built, and better dressed than most others around them, they looked a bit more professional than the average copy on the street, at least from what I knew.
We both got across the busy promenade unscathed, Mischa having to dodge a bit quicker than myself as he missed the opening in the crowd by perhaps half a second. The narrow street on the other side, a bit too open to call an alley when seen up close, was already empty. There was a bit of litter along the red and yellow houses that stood squished against one another, but the copy and those on its heels were gone. For a moment, we just stood there, a bit lost. Then the sound of something heavy hitting something solid could be heard. We didn't skip a beat before darting towards the sound!
We were near the town church, the roof of it towering above the surrounding one and two-story houses. People were walking in and out of the church, enjoying whatever cultural events were being run inside. None of them seemed to notice that a small girl down the street had thrown a large man into, and from the looks of it, straight through, a large plastic dumpster! Moods were high and children were running around. The resounding smack of what had happened to the dumpster apparently disappeared in the noise of people enjoying life.
Mischa was ahead of me now. Unlike me, he hadn't hesitated to look at the crowd. He was speeding ahead, keeping near the walls of houses along the street, eyes fixed on the copy as she looked around for other threats. She spotted us quickly and, rather surprisingly, smiled at us! Then she bolted out through an archway between two buildings.
"She's too fast," Mischa panted as I caught up with him, leaning against the corner of a local bike shop. "We'll never catch her."
He was fristratingly right. Whatever she had discovered about her robot abilities, she was pushing them to the utmost. In many ways, she might have been designed to mimic me, but the shape she was in was apparently superhuman. I was about to say something consoling to him, when she suddenly came shooting through the street, at the other end of the church grounds!
"I think she wants us to follow," I mumbled, ignoring the strained whine from Mischa as he pushed himself up on his feet again.
"Maybe she's just lost," he countered. "You never had the best sense of direction."
Ignoring his sadly very correct remark, I took a deep breath and made my way quickly towards where she had run through. If she continued in the direction I had seen her run, she would already be back on the promenade, and she seemed not to want that. Exactly what her plan was, if any, was becoming a bit of a puzzle to me.
That all changed when I got to where I had seen her! A bit down the street, she suddenly camerunning through, this time with five obvious copy robots in full pursuit! I was about to run down a parallel street when the two well-dressed men suddenly also turned the corner. One of them looked my way, just casually, as if checking that I wasn't a threat. The moment he looked at me, however, he became utterly confused, nudging his buddy and stopping. The other guy, about to start running, froze up jus tthe same, looking back and forth between me and where the copy was currently running around.
"Ida... Lund?" the first asked. Skeptical for a moment, I gave him a look up and down. He dressed stiff and almost robotic, but he moved like a human. At least, as much as I knew about the matter. I nodded, slowly.
"Then who..."
He looked down the street. The copy wasn't in sight at the moment.
"Long story," I told the two. "You with Alex?" They both nodded. I looked past them, at where the copy had been a moment ago. "I think I know what she's doing. Follow me!"
I didn't wait for them to answer or give any other sign of understanding, I just ran. It was a shot in the dark, but f she was thinking like me, odds were that I was thinking like her. That, at least, was the logic I came to.
Most people had no real idea how close to town the industrial area really was. They saw the cranes and warehouses across the harbor and thought that those were all there was. But all it took was one turn away from the road that started at the edge of the town center, and suddenly it was all shipyards and grain silos. We were obviously a little late to the party, judging from one broken wooden gate and the sounds inside, but there was still plenty of activity. As we got close to the broken gate, one of the men, who I had decided had to be FE agents or something like it, grabbed me by the shoulder, keeping me from entering. I turned and sent him a scathing stare, but he didn't even seem to notice. What I noticed, however, was that Mischa was no longer with us, no doubt having run out of steam back in town. I debated for a split second with myself if I should go back to find him or at least send him a message, but it seemed meaningless at this point.
"Stay here," said the agent who had pulled me back, as he reached into his jacket and pulled out a gun that looked a little too big to be standard issue.
"Put that away," I hissed, entirely as a reflex. "People live around here, are you #*@!ing insane? You'll hurt someone."
He just gave me an offended glance. Although he didn't put the gun away, he lowered it and, from what little I understood about guns, put the safety back on.
"It won't do any good, anyway," I added, pulling myself loose enough to look around the corner, in through the gate. At about that moment, there was a loud crash as splintered wooden boards slammed to the ground nearby, shattering into bits and pieces. As I turned to look, the copy landed with a loud crunch, although the sound seemed to come from the sidewalk, not her!
She looked around, almost like on instinct. When she saw me, she just froze, an unasked question getting stuck on her face. Then she ran in the opposite direction!
The two agents instantly moved to follow her, but as the first copy robot slammed into the sidewalk from above, they stopped in their tracks, completely at a loss for what to do! When the second one slammed down, they began moving backwards, and when the third hit the pavement, they ran, one of them grabbing me by the jacket collar as he passed, physically lifting my entire body up and along with him! Even when my feet caught up and I started running, he never let go, making me feel like I was running on some weird treadmill as I bounced along. We heard the fourth copy that had been on her tail crash into the ground from above as we dove for cover in the loose rocks by the side of the road.
"What the hell are those?!" panted the agent that had not grabbed me. He was talking to his partner, though, not to me. And the partner just shrugged.
"Basically, robots," I interjected, and both of them sent me angry glares. But my brain was preoccupied with something else. "One is missing," I added.
The agents were not happy when I slipped out from the limited cover amongst the rocks and hurried across the road, but since neither was quick enough ot grab me, they quickly followed. The gate was nearly completely destroyed, only hinges and a few chunks of woods clinging to them still remaining in their intended place. The bulk of the two big doors was spread across the yard inside. Anything that had survived the initial impact of whatever had smashed through had not survived landing on the old cobblestone that covered the yard. Once through I turned to see the two agents calmly following me, guns still drawn. The last one, the one who had not grabbed me, stood for a moment to examine the wrecked gate doors.
"This would take a lot of strength," he said, seeming a bit like he was just thinking out loud. The other turned for a second, nodded with a grunt, and then turned back to follow me.
"There were five of them on her tail in town," I said without turning to look at them. "Four came out from here, still trying to catch her. That leaves one."
The building at the side of the road, now in one end of the yard, was large and looked like an average warehouse or similar storage place. Plants had grow a bit high along its red brick walls, and several windows were cracked, but the many machine parts visible inside suggested that it was still in use. It didn't take long to find the missing copy robot.
"Jesus #*@!ing christ," the nearest agent nearly yelled as he entered. I was still standing in the wide doorway, looking at the rather peculiar sight. He didn't know, or didn't understand, that we were looking at a robot. Had I not known, either, I would have reacted even worse.
A few metal beams were scattered across the floor, close to a machine that looked designed for either farming or torture. The robot had clearly stepped aside as the beams hit the ground, avoiding being crushed by them. It had apparently not noticed the long steel rods that came as the second wave, because several of them had pinned it down, leaving it hanging against the rotary blades of the machine at an odd angle. Not enough to make the blades rip through it, though, although they simply might not have the material strength to go through whatever these copy robots were made of. But the crate of machine parts that had crashed down on the robot as a third wave had plenty of force. The top of the robot, meaning most of the chest above solar plexus, was smashed back and into the blades. One arm had been ripped clear off by a machine part falling from the crate as it dropped. The head was still attached. Half of it, anyway.
The first agent walked slowly over to the twisted mess of metal and machines, looking like he was about to throw up. I looked over my shoulder to find the other one still standing in the doorway behind me.
"What the hell are..."
"I told you, robots," I said, cutting his slow sentence off before he could finish it. He just stood there, gawking at the brutalized robot.
"Peter Christensen," said the other one, from somewhere behind us. I turned confused to look at him, finding him standing closer than expected, phone in his hand. When he noticed me looking, he turned the phone over in his hand, showing the screen. It had a snapshot of the robot's battered face in some kind of message app, with then name he had mentioned written beneath it.
"How did you..."
"Secure facial recognition server back home," he replied, flipping the phone back around for himself.
"So, this guy was a robot? How do they... I mean..."
"Look, agent," I started, hesitating for a moment to think of something better to call him. He looked over, obviously having noted that.
"Sonne. Agent Sonne," he said as calmly as nothing. "That's agent Teglgaard," he added, pointing at the agent now putting his phone back in his pocket.
"Seriously? You want me to call you that on the street?"
His eyes flicked around a bit as he mulled it over.
"Simon," he added, looking and sounding oddly uncomfortable in doing so. "That's Josef."
I breathed deep, feeling that even such banalities as clear names at least made the situation a little easier to deal with.
"Great. Look, Simon, this is all a bit weird and all, but someone made a switch. The real Peter..."
"Christensen," the other one, Josef, clarified.
"Yeah, the real Peter Christensen is pretty probably dead. He started being a problem, I guess, somehow, and they replaced him with... that, to live his life in a more predictable way." I looked at the robot, getting the disgusting feeling that it was slowly, very slowly, sliding down the rods that stuck through its body. "When they needed someone to hunt down... the one we are chasing, I guess, they somehow activated him and the others to do the dirty work. Does that make any kind of sense? Like, at all?"
"Body snatchers," I heard Agent Sonne mumble, his voice sounding like that of a man fearing he was slowly going insane.
"I have no idea what that is," I reluctantly said, loud enough to make him aware that the mumbling bothered me.
"Old movie," he explained, still looking at the robot. "Aliens make copies of people to invade the world."
I nodded, but as I did, the talk of movies made me think of Mischa!
"Hey, the guy, well, the boy I was with in town, did you see..."
"We got a man on him. We thought we had two on you, of course, but..." As he said the last sentence, he pointed at himself and agent Teglgaard. "Wait, if the other one that looks like you is a robot, is there a copy of that boy, too? And is the other you, uhm, evil?"
"I don't think so. To both of those," I answered, but my attention was starting to wane. My eyes kept creeping over the rest of the place, gazing at the different machines and machine parts fastened inside of it. Ropes had been cut in multiple places, machines looking disturbingly poorly fastened. The copy had gone through a few failed attempts before making these things crash down on her pursuers. It had to have been fast, with the final success so close to the door!
"Sonne, how do we catch up to those other... robots, I guess? They have a solid head start and we have nobody out here."
Agent Sonne looked at his partner,clearly still thinking, digesting it all. I stopped my scan of the place for a moment, too, wanting to hear what he had to offer.
It turned out, he was pretty stumped.
"She thinks like you, right?" he finally asked. I just nodded. "Well, what would you do in her shoes?"
"Wet myself?" I answered, not really think about it. "Sorry, uhm... Well, if I had her strength and speed, I guess I would... Wait, she wasn't hiding here! She's ambushing them!"
I never really explained it beyond that before sprinting out the door, darting right past a surprised agent Teglgaard.
Outside, it was getting fairly dark, but as the streetlights came on, the outline of the area became somewhat visible. There were several places that she could have run, and my brain immediately started trying to spot or figure out something that would give me an answer. Nothing came to me.
"Go with your guts," said agent Sonne. I hadn't even heard him come out from the broken gate.
"The ship," I said in a slow, almost questioning voice. The ship was tethered nearby, looking almost stranded so close to the coast. A single boarding bridge connected it to the shore. "If she got them in there, there's only one way out. Well, other than the water."
There was no security on shore. The bridge was completely unguarded, both at the ground and on board. Nobody expected people to run aboard random ships, and it was probably impossible to start anything on board. People might be trusting, but they were not leaving the keys in the ignition for anyone to sail off with a whole ship.
On the main deck, the streetlights were still hung high enough to shine a light on everything. The deck was quiet, not a soul aboard, it seemed. Even with the streetlights on, the shadows were long, resulting in creepy black shapes crawling all over the deck. Agent Sonne had made an effort to board first, putting him in front of the three of us, so when he raised his hand as a fist, we all got the message and kept silent. He then spun two fingers around, which was a bit harder to interpret. Agent Teglgaard seemed to get the point, though, and started walking the deck in a circular pattern, looking closely at everything. After he pointed his gun at it, of course.
"Put that thing away," a voice whispered out of the dark. "People live around here, you lunatic. You'll hurt someone!"
All three of us stared at the shadow that formed out from behind what looked like a big transformer box on the deck. Even before her features became visible, I was rgumbling under my breath, and agent Sonne clearly noticed the similarities in hre remark, turning briefly to look at me with a weird expression on his face.
"Let me guess," he responded in a low voice, "they won't make a difference, anyway?"
The copy of me gave him a funny look, then looked at me. I just shrugged.
"Other than attract attention? No, probably not."
She gave the two agents skeptical looks, and Sonne lowered his gun and then holstered it. Teglgaard was a bit less compliant, only lowering his. He didn't even pu the safety back on. It went up again when a loud thump sounded from underneath us.
"Yeah, about that," she said in an awkward voice, looking back and down. "I got them lost down below, but they're still very much..." As if to emphasize her words, a quick series of loud thumps rang out. "... alive."
Both agents immediately began moving nervously backwards, while the robot Ida looked over her shoulder at something in the dark. The thumps were slowly moving towards whatever she was eyeing in there, but no amount of squinting was enough to make me see what she saw.
"Uhm, guys," she said, not letting the thing in the dark out of her sight, "what's the plan?"
I heard Sonne start answering something, but while one part of my brain listened enough to discount it as nothing important, another part made me look around the ship. Apart from the boat across to Germany for some tax-free shopping and a few small sailboats as a kid, I had no experience with ships, but there were plenty of things that looked hazardous to your health. Maybe something would be hazardous to theirs, too!
"Can we get them into the water? Does that damage them?"
Copy Ida looked at me, then shook her head.
"No," I grumbled, mostly to myself, "that did sound too easy."
"Where's the main power?" asked agent Teglgaard, surprising everyone for a moment. "The main power cable? Like, the central power cabinet?"
Everybody looked around a bit, until copy Ida put her hand on the big box she had come out of the shade from.
"Lots of electricity in here," she said very casually, taking a second to notice that everybody was looking at her. "What? I'm full of wires, sensing electricity is like any of you smelling a fart."
Nobody said anything beyond that, instead letting agent Teglgaard get to the big cabinet. Copy Ida helpfully snapped the simple bolt that locked the box, making the agent hesitate as he stepped past her. Without another word, he started tampering about inside the metal box, and everybody nervously gave him some room to do so. When a loud thump came some somewhere nearby below deck, he was the only one not to flinch and freeze.
"They're close," copy Ida whispered. "We should leave."
"There!" said the agent, loudly, stepping back with a proud smile. Everybody just stared. "I rigged the capacitor," he added, clearly thinking everybody would understand what that meant. When nobody clearly did, he looked first at the door nearby leading below deck, then back at the rest of us. "When it's charged, we blow it and release a burst of electricity, that will short anything electric. Like them."
"You made an EMP from a ship's fusebox?!" the other agent said, clearly surprised, and agent Teglgaard nodded proudly! His proud smile instantly faded when there was a loud thump from the door.
It all happened very fast. Agent Teglgaard stepped back at the last second, the door flying off its hinges and practically bouncing across the ship's deck where he had stood. The four copies, each one looking just like any other Nakskov local, stepped out in what looked almost like military formation, giving everyone a quick glance before two stepped forward and the other two raised what looked like large, forearm-mounted flashlights at us. The agent, meanwhile, pulled his gun out, and as he aimed it at the metal box, something clicked in my brain. Not thinking about it for a single second, I hurled myself at copy Ida, tumbling across the deck and towards the boarding bridge! We rolled off and into the water right before a shot rang out and a weird, tingly static filled the air.
The water felt like hitting a wall. I was still clutching her, and my head smacked into her chest as we hit, making everything blurry and dazed for a second. Then the cold water rushed in on me, and I instantly felt like I was passing out, only slowly. The next thing I really registered was copy Ida dragging my drenched body up on the rocks on the shore.
"Did it work??" I heard her call out, and I wanted to answer, until I realized she was calling to the agents on the boat. I couldn't hear their answer.
"It worked," she said to me, smiling from ear to ear.
"You okay?" I coughed, still spitting out foulsmelling and worse tasting water.
"Yeah," she answered, her voice now far more relaxed. "Thanks. I completely forgot what I was, for a sec there."
I nodded. "I think everyone did," I said, rolling over and onto my hands and feet. I looked up at her as I struggled with my balance, trying to get on my knees before standing. The bandages had come loose, revealing her badly damaged left side of the face. It looked like a bad movie effect, the skin dangling like thick rubber and the unrealistically simple bone beneath looking like something from a medical playset for children. There was no blood, making it seem almost like a kind of mask she wore. But it wasn't. She was a machine. And the thing the agent had put together would have blasted her, too.
"You two okay, there?"
Agent Sonne towered over us as he carefully stepped across the rocks. We both nodded.
"What now?" asked copy Ida, looking at the agents as she slowly got up, herself. The two looked over at the boat.
"We need to arrange a pick-up," agent Sonne answered. "We got them chained up with some stuff we could find up there, but there's no saying if that will hold them. One of them came back online or whatever almost immediately, right after we got the chains on them."
He kept looking at the boat, as if expecting something to happen.
"Is Josef watching them?" I asked, and it took a moment for the agent to react to his partner's first name. He nodded, though. Then he looked at us, with a very strange look in his eyes.
"I think we need to talk."
Something told me he was right.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

Sling Bot Boarding, Day 1, already makes me giggle.

Looks like video gallery links are still broken.. https://www.gamedev.net/gallery/image/10413-boardin_day1mp4/ I did work on this a bit last night as well, so I guess it's day 1.5.. ish.. haha! Still working on the crappy frame-rate, I'm not sure the frame counter is even working correctly...

Septopus

Septopus

 

Worthless, Chapter 40

(This is only the second draft of the book Worthless. Expect typos, plot holes, odd subplots and the occassionally wrongly named character, especially minor characters. It is made public only to give people a rough idea of how the final story will look)   Chapter 40 For once, arrival was a bit merciful, likely from the jump being short. The slam on every molecule in the body was lighter, feeling more like a very powerful fart going through than actual harm. The heat vented quickly, slipping out through the slits and gaps in the old jumpsuit. And it was old, that was no mistake. It had gone through a lot, and it wore the damage from it with a sense of pride, one might say. But then again, one might also say that it was just a piece of flame-retardant cloth. Practical and durable, but not irreplacable. Maybe it was about time. But that would not be now.
Klaus had been good enough to find some local clothes and drench them with cold water before sending them along for the ride. The fashion of 1701 was, after all, not that different from the one in 1668, and although the clothes likely were not as fireproof as the jumpsuit, the water took the brunt of the heat, disappearing as a handy pylon of steam that showed where the different pieces had landed. The clothes had appeared at the same time, but landed in a slightly different direction. It felt a bit weird, stripping out of the jumpsuit and standing with not a thread on in the middle of nothing, before putting on the slightly rougher clothes. But nobody was watching, and it came with the job. It wasn't the first and wouldn't be the last time.
The nearest dirt road was easy to find. The landscape was rather open, and even more, trees lined most edges of the fields. And the way to town was found by doing what any townie might do if lost: Looking for the church spire!
It had to be spring. Klaus had never specified what their time machine had aimed for, and walking along the trees made the thought surface that maybe, just maybe, that would have been an important detail. 1668, sure, but arriving in deep winter or the middle of summer was two very different things, especially this far into the past! A heat stroke or, even more likely, blistering cold could easily be a death sentence. Town was far away and the roads were hardly overflowing with people, unlike the early 21st century. Falling over from the elements would mean staying there. That was rarely a good thing.
Then again, he had dictated to the young men what kind of clothes to gather from their storage. Even though no women served at the fort, the clothes were meant to service any time traveler passing through, most of whom were female. And while it was hard to be completely certain, the simple dress seemed to be meant for spring, with good circulation of air and only a single layer of fabric. The sleeves were full length, but they were easy to arrange, and rolling them up to bare some forearm seemed not too daring. Even though the air was still a little cool, the walk would get the blood pumping, and when the heat from the trip was gone, the heat from the exercise would still continue!
Nakskov began like it always did, with a few scattered homes not too far from the road, though in this case far enough to warrant small roads leading from it to each home. Bricks were some time off, existing somewhere but not the most common to find in use. The white and black patterns of wattle and daub made the farmhouses look like paintings from afar, and as town houses began to pop up, the medieval feel, even a few centuries later, was very strong.
And still, something looked wrong. Houses had odd kinks in them, like a puzzle made partly from the pieces of another puzzle entirely. Like shards of a broken vase put back together just slightly wrong. The farmhouses seemed immune to this odd deformity, but it was immediately visible in town, and only moreso as town became denser and denser.
The air also became denser. Out by the fields, the scent of tilled earth and in some cases, manure, was dispersed by the wind. In town, the smell of animals lingered. It felt thick, also viscous, clinging to the clothes and in the nose. It wasn't horrible, no worse than smells of industry or damp clothes in closed rooms, but it was a stark contrast to the salty seaspray smell that had surrounded and, to some extent, filled the fort.
In spite of it, the town was fairly clean. Dirt was the one constant culprit, with every street seeing low piles of it scattered around, no sweeping efficient enough to force it away before more arrived. Of course, the dirt roads on the outskirts made it look fairly natural, but the cobblestone streets farther in made to layer of brown soil stand out.
People were cleaner. The future always liked to present or describe people of the past as primitive and dirty, but what folk walked the streets wore clean clothes and had clean hands and faces. A few people actually doing manual work was an exception, of course, and here and there was someone, many times someone old, who did less to care for appearances. But in all, the place was clean. Which made the buildings stand out even more.
Granted, it was far from every building. Most of them were just wooden or wattle and daub structures like any others, some looking almost pristine and others in various states of repair. But every now and then, anothre mismatched puzzle house appeared, its component parts all good but looking like they belonged in different buildings entirely. A few even mixed designs, having a sturdy wattle and daub building suddenly have half an upper floor of slightly crudely cut wood. It was hard to tell if these buildings looked sloppy, or if the makers of them had simply had a crisis of identity during construction!
"En wat es for?"
The words came from a small boy, who had suddenly decided that he was going to walk the same way, and close by. He repeated the line, which very much sounded like some kind of question, and looked a bit hurt when he got no answer. He wore what looked like a very simple sailor suit, just a restrained blue blouse and trousers, small hat on his head finishing the ensemble nicely. His mother grabbed him quickly by the arm, giving im a few stern words before dragging him away and saying some things with a smile, likely excusing her son's unexpected attention. The child complained a bit, but followed his mother down the street in the opposite direction.
Hearing the boy's words drew attention to what others were saying. Klaus' young men had had a strong accent, or more likely, dialect, and had been impossible to comprehend. What people said here was impossible to follow fully, but there were more traces of something recognizable. A stray word, a sentence with familiar tones. It was dialect, for sure, and with powerful accent, but it hinted at something that might, just might, be understood with time and attention.
The streets gradually became broader and the houses more plentiful. Little carts in places sold a few things, like vegetables and horseshoes, and a few stores began to show up. The town was no bustling trade post, though, and there was an air of inhospitality floating about. People seemed polite, on the surface, but all with glances and the smiles that appeared and disappeared like masks put on to seem friendly. There was something uncomfortable about the place, lurking behind a nice exterior. The purpose of being there was not to make friends or even carry some simple favor with the locals, of course, but it was impossible to not notice the strange aura hanging over the place.
As for what the purpose was, the best place to start down that path seemed to be a meeting place of some sort, a place to get a quick look at a handful of local people without seeming too nosy. The nearest tavern offered one place to start. It looked fairly frequented, light and voices coming from its heavy wooden windows even on just a cloudy afternoon. The name on the sign was a bit long and very nearly impossible to read, but the door was open, in a welcoming manner.
Inside, things gave off a less welcoming feel. The lights that could be seen were candles along the wall, burning at a low flame to keep corners of the place from falling into complete darkness. From the outside, they had seemed stronger, perhaps because they were only visible through the windows. Those same windows looked a lot more narrow from the inside.
But what really put the hammer to the nail was the clientel. As people overall, they likely were no different than any crowd from any tavern, bar, bodega or the like found in any time that had such. Apart from the obvious physical differences and the specifics of their clothes, they might fit in just as well in the futuristic bar in Yuna's time. It felt like a movie scene with a record scratch, their world briefly put on pause because of this strange new arrival, standing in the doorway. Of course, the record player would not be invented for anothertwo centuries or so. But the effect would fit, for those who knew it.
Behind the small counter that seemed to be the equivalent of a bar, though nobody sat against it, a woman was standing, doing her best not to stare like the rest were doing. All of a sudden, she said a string of clear, rapid words, some remark that she seemed to expect a response to. And her eyes made it perfectly clear from whom she expected that response! A few words and what sounded like gruff remarks from the regulars had already been spoken, but none of them seemed to expect any answer. She sounded friendly, and she wore a smile on her face, one that seemed fairly sincere, but she clearly expected some form of answer. And suddenly, the rest in there were staring even more!
The Embassy had training programs and procedures for first contacts. Technically, this was not a first contact, but it had a lot of the same challenges, one of them being language problems. Standard methods included a whole string of ways to start communicating, ways to make oneself understood across language barriers and learning words and basic phrases from there. All of that, of course, hinged on it being a planned first contact, an actual effort to meet someone in a new age and place. Waving your hands over your ears and making an incoherent sound was definitely not a standard procedure of any kind, and it was, admittedly, brought on by panicked improvisation. But after a few repeats of the motion and the sound, and with a few remarks from the other patrons,  she seemed to catch the basic message.
Her first reaction was surprisingly powerful. Her face changed from confused to highly sympathetic, and she began to speak very slowly, making gestures. She clearly wanted to know if there was anything she could get, anything to drink or eat. Klaus had been foreseeing enough to put a few bills that were old enough into a small leather pouch, ith nothing in it but water, to keep the paper from igniting during the jump. Tight leather and wood seals had kept air from reaching the paper, too, and kept them from being soaked and possibly ruined. It was a lot of work for a meager amount of money, even when ignoring the need to have money severaldecades old around, but it was better than arriving dead broke. The tavern keeper looked at the smaller of the bills and smiled wide, waving her arm at several things behind the counter. It was impossible to tell what any of them were. She did understand a slow and clumsy word, though, and went to get water.
What little The Embassy taught about spying on others could be boiled down to a few simple pieces of advice. One was high on the list: Make others underestimate you! Thinking that they were sitting around a deaf stranger, the locals at the tables started chatting loudly, and they made little effort to hide about whom they were chatting. The language was still an obstacle, though, as was the murky sea of voices, over a dozen easily. But they became very confident in their privacy, thinking they were not heard, that much stood out clearly. One word kept standing out, though, and if it meant what it sounded like, it was"Swedish".
As the woman placed a large glass of water on the table, she looked around at the crowd, then made a nod at someone at the counter before she sat down. Her eyes were full of compassion, to the point that she seemed about to cry, and she began to speak very slowly. What she said exactly was hard to know, but it was a question, and she was pointing around. Answering "north" with a very strong accent, to the point of sounding mentally ill, seemed to be enough. She then made the same gesture, the wave at the ears, apparently asking about the claimed deafness. She didn't seem skeptical, but simply interested and sympathetic. As she spoke along with her gestures, likely not even giving it a second thought, her slow and clear use of the language made bits and pieces of it possible to guess at. All it took to answer was knocking at the table and looking to tell her that the deafness was not complete,  that simple noises got through, and the waving motion with a verbal rumble to make her understand that the deafness was a droning noise. Even if the language had been easy to comprehend, it seemed unlikely that they had a word for tinnitus yet. She made fist flying slowly through the air and smacking the table. Cannonball. Was the deafness from a cannonball? That explanation seemed as good as any.
The reaction was instant! The woman said a few words to the nearest people, and they went into a rage-like swirl of voices, a lot of them repeating bits and pieces that seemed to be about Swedes. The year matched. It was between two major parts of the Swedish Wars, the Karl Gustav War over and the Scania War not yet begun. The hate for the Swedish was likely at a high. Seeing a stranger that didn't speak the local language right away made them wary.
"Ravnhild," said the woman, placing a hand on her own chest. She spoke very clearly and almost comically loud, to the point that someone near the table laughed at her. Flinching at the laugh was impossible not to do, but all it took was a confused and slightly frightened look around to the woman, at least, more concerned about the sound being frightening than the deafness being false.
"Ravnhild. Ravnhild." She nodded at hearing the name being repeated, slowly and with every false speech impediment imaginable. "Marie."
The woman smiled, revealing teeth that had taken some damage over the years. But the smile was warm as she reached out a hand and put it lovingly on the wrist.
"Marie," she repeated, nodding as you would when being overly polite as you exchanges names with a child. She proceeded to point out the windows, asking a slow question, a bit longer than the last one asked. But somehow, in spite of being longer, or perhaps because of it, the words were becoming easier to understand. She wondered what brought a deaf woman to Nakskov.
Even more so than the wave over the ears, the idea of pointing at the stomach and rubbing it, making a cradling motion, was honestly a sudden impulse. It worked wonders, though, the woman immediately proclaiming to everyone that this strangerh amongst them was pregnant. Bit by bit, the words were falling into place. The vowels were rough and deep, and consonants so snappy they disappeared completely, but the language was Danish enough that it might become understandable before long!
"Who is the father?"
Quite surprisingly, through the thick accent and the use of a few odd words and strange grammar, the question made sense even without gestures. To keep the act going, of course, it was important to still seem confused. She turned to a nearby table and clearly asked them how to make the question a gesture, and with a laugh she regretted it as one of the men stood up and, smiling wide, held his fist at his crotch and extended the middle finger, then pointed to the baby that he couldn't know didn't exist! The remark lifted the mood in the place in an instant!
Over the next hour or so, Ravnhold did her best to make the conversation work. She accepted that the fathre's name was still a secret, but the other patrons, now calmer and even a bit nosy, began to ask her things, which she gestured onward. The language did become easier to catch, but never became as clear as it could, always several words that seemed to make no sense or were turned around in odd ways. The Embassy had linguists trained for cases like these, and had it been a planned detour from the original travel plans, things would have been different. It wasn't, and they weren't.
The afternoon patrons slowly became the evening crowd, about half replaced and more added. Some made an effort to come over and talk, but both the language barrier and the need to keep up the act made it hard. It was clear from the talk that others carried on the topic of this pregnant stranger, though, and nobody seemed to be troubled by the story. When finally closed eyes on tilted made Ravnhild point out an empty room, she even refused to accept any of the crumbled bills for payment. It took a bit of trickery, but she explained that it was her gift to the baby. It was hard to hide the feeling of guilt about being treated so nicely for a lie.
In the small chamber upstairs that Ravnhild so generously offered, the sound of the life downstairs could be heard through the floorboards. There was a simple bed and a nightstand, little more, but the sparse furniture and limited place was not only fine for a free stay, it was likely what many of those still enjoying each other's company below had to return to, as well. Until winter, they likely spent the vast majority of their time outside the four walls of home, and even when winter came, less space meant less to keep warm.
The jumpsuit, having been crammed into a small lamb skin bag ever since the change of clothes, came out of the bag as a wrinkly clump. It was becoming more and more impossible to ignore how bad its condition was, but it was still the best option available from The Embassy. Every new recruit had his or her own ideas about what to wear during jumps, what was safe enough, what was modest enough, what was practical enough. What few wanted to admit, but what the veterans that trained them knew all to well, was that it was simply one of the few things that a time traveler could exert some actual control over. Missions came and went as needed, time travel was always a chaotic experience, and no age came without its own difficulties. Letting a time traveler, especially a rookie time traveler, at least feel clever about their choice of attire was just one way to give them a feeling of some say in their own destinites. It was a very limited way, but to many of them, it made a world of difference, at least in their minds.
As the evening crowd became the night crowd, it became harder and harder to find an excuse to leave, or a way to sneak out. The stairs went to the tavern below, the beds all behind doors in a single hallway. Ravnhild had been kind enough to pick the bed near to the indoor lavatory, making a trip to the outhouse no good as an excuse. And as the patrons downstairs continued their chatter into the night, opportunities ran out. It was dark outside, very dark, and in spite of the impatient frustration, waiting became a sensible alternative. Waiting, and sleeping. There were stars in the sky outside when loud noises came through the floorboards. Angry voices, talking loudly about what sounded like a Swedish soldier, were making the rounds, their words repeating more or less the same hard to understand questions to patron after patron down there. One voice that answered with a mix of fear and resentment was Ravnhild. Then, the footsteps came from the stairs!
It felt like a horrible idea when looking down the side of the tavern. Cobblestone below would not break a fall, but might definitely break a few other things on impact, and the window itself seemed to nervously refuse to just stay open! And yet, with no better choice in sight, the bedsheet was tied to the bedpost. They began knocking on the door soon after. From the street below, the sound of them breaking down the door still sounded loud and brutal!
Like most jumpsuits, this one had nothing for the feet. The Embassy had its options, but few modern shoes could stand the heat of time travel. Rubber souls melted, as did many of the synthetics that didn't just catch fire outright. There was a touch of irony to the fact that many choose leather shoes, often a simple design. Shoes that, unlike the jumpsuit, fitted well into this age. The clothes that Klaus had been nice enough to supply were still in the room, now likely in the hands of whoever was hunting Swedish troops in the inn. They now likely thought that they were hunting a naked and perhaps pregnant woman!
The town was lit with candle lamps here and there, but no more than enough to see where to go. It was easy to cling to the walls, making very little commotion for these unknown people to chase. A few walked the dark streets here and there, a drunk leaning on a wall, an old man obsessively sweeping a stretch of cobblestone, that sort of random folk. None of them made much of a sound when a stranger in odd clothing slipped by in the dark.
The town feltfamiliar. It looked different, it looked like a museum come to life, but there was something familiar about it. A turn, a corner, the way three streets met. It was Nakskov. Another Nakskov, a smaller, older Nakskov, but Nakskov. And the objective was east. Had to go east, had to go east!
When bells suddenly rang, lights sprang to life in window after window! Small bells, alarm bells, not the ones in the church. Bells the size of a human head, hanging above doors and on corners here and there, for a guardsman to sound alarm. The men that had forced their way into Ravnhild's tavern did not seem like guardsmen.
Beyond the denser town center, the streets began to return to dirt road, cobblestone streets being a luxury too costly in the town's outer parts. It was dry. The dirt was compacted by hundreds, if not thousands, of animals hauling loads. Had it not been, there would be tracks from the last wheeled wagon going through. Wheels dug into dirt. But there were no tracks. The dirt was sturdy. That meant good footing, perhaps even better than the still somewhat uneven cobblestones!
The lights seemed to come on in a blastwave, spreading from the town center and outwards. To see them almost racing by was terrifying. The town was catching up!
And then, the forest was there. A thick, black mass of what were likely trees, but looked in the darkness of night like a still image of Hell rising. Black branches, the light from town blocked before it hit them, reached out towards the starlit sky,  forming a monstrous silhouette, that threatened to swallow up anyone that entered. And there was no other choice but to enter.
The forest was like a wall, an invisible wall that parted human life from nature. Sounds changed instantly, the noises of people waking from the sound of bells being ripped away and replaced by the clacking, humming and hooing of animals and of branches rubbing together. But more than the sound, the forest was black. Not dark, not dim. Black. It was impossible to hold up a hand and actually see it. The dirt road was there, it could be felt, flat and firm, but it was impossible to actually see it. Running was suddenly out of the question, and leaving the road to hide amongst the trees was basically suicide. There could be anything beyond the edge of the road.
The town, in contrast, was now lit up, or so it seemed. Men with lanterns had gathered, their rough shapes in the glaring light only just possible to see without getting blinded. Their voices cut through the night, reaching into the firest and managing to drown out the noises of nature. Language was still a hinderance, but they clearly called to one another about the Swedish spy escaping into the forest.
Then, the calls began to fade. A word or two, perhaps a brief sentence, could be heard here and there, but a strange hush went over the band of pursuers as they set foot outside the comforts of town. The forest didn't just start at a point where the town ended, the two grew together at their border. But after a shared space of loose brush and shirt trees, the forest became all there was. And as the men ventured beyond that point, they seemed to change, too. The rough and hardened men became frightened little boys, the light from their lanterns becoming shaky as their hands began to tremble slightly. They feared the forest. Odds were, not without reason.
It was a strange sight. In the pitch black of night, the lanterns, many of them given blinders to light up only cones ahead like flashlights, would make the darkness dance. Shadows amongst and from the trees wrapped through and around branches, trunks, rocks and whatever else was part of the forest. Hills and hideously uneven ground made waves of the dark spread along the path of the light, one set of shadows mixing with another as cones crossed. It was a puppet show, even though not a single puppeteer pulled a string.
The sound of two men passing by was like a knife to the throat. Running made no sense, the sounds would be too easy to follow, and they had the light. A run in the dark would be a death sentence. But as the shine of the lantern grew closer and stronger, it started to seem no less risky to remain quiet.
A few rules were taught to any new recruit at The Embassy, many of them the first time they were even told that time travel existed. One such rule was to never kill in the past. It was a rule that, like any other rule, was occassionally broken, but those that did would be held very responsible for their actions. Time was, in many ways, like a river. It would flow around a small rock thrown in. But the death of a random person in the past was a slightly bigger rock. They might never have a child that was meant to be, or a living child might see its life changed drastically, making a different person with a different impact on history. Most people never made much of an impact, not on a scale of centuries or millenia. Social and political movements and the path of society were all things guided by masses, not individuals. The famed butterfly effect was real, but it only applied to everyone for a short period of time, likely the lifetime of the person and anyone close. Beyond a certain time, the lives of all that came before blended into a mass of averages, and changes to many could easily disappear. And those that did not disappear on their own were often fixed. Changing history on a great scale was near impossibly hard. But even a single death could send a few strong ripples through several decades. That made a lot of things harder.
Distraction was a better tactic. The two men passed close by the tree, the shadow on the ground making an easy guide to stay in the darkness. And the sudden swipe of a large branch drew no attention, only startling the one who got briefly struck. They were afraid of the dark in the forest, so the dark was what they looked at. He never noticed his flintlock pistol slip fromhis belt. The other was even easier. One pistol to his throat and a whisper in his ear to keep quiet as he lost his own weapon was enough to make them both be still. When the one who lost his first drew a knife, all it took was a swift strike of the pistol butt to his face made him fall in line, and let the knife fall to the ground. The other, now revealed by his companion to also be armed with blades, followed suit. As they hung the lantern on the stub of an old branch and went quietly back, all they ever saw as the finally turned was a vague figure slip back into the darkness. If they expected a nude woman, they would be very disappointed.
Once at a safe distance, not much considering the poor aim of a common flintlock, they started yelling. A few words stuck out, old words for ghosts and spirits. The lanterns that could be spotted through trees and brush reacted, their lights stopping, then changing the direction of their movements. A few hesitated, but shouts back sounded mocking, even scolding, those in charge of the band no doubt angered by frightened superstitions.
The model of the lantern that had been hung on the tree was surprisingly clever. It seemed made by request, strong signs of manual beating of the iron. Even in this age, many parts were made with clever tools, leaving few or no signs of the person shaping them. In this one, an array of sliding blinders, perhaps eight or so, were carefully crafted to let the user control the shine of the light. As it hung there, the cone was set to slip through only a small opening, perhaps a sixth of the lantern circumference. They had been looking ahead, focusing the light. But it was easy to open it to three quarters, bathing the nearby growth in the light of the soft, orange flame.
Figures immediately came to life in the forest. One was an animal, the size of a large dog but frightened and quick to run away. It had likely been trying to hide in the dark, but the dark was quickly disappearing. Even more than the hung lantern, the now gathering band brought their own, and the place became as clear as on a very foggy day. It was still easy to hide in the quarter of the lantern light that was obstructed by blinders, the quarter that remained dark. The othre lanterns flickered and waved, casting highly irregular light that still came from  the same rough direction. The directions of shadows obeyed that, and were perhaps not easy but still possible to navigate carefully. Running was still not an option, not with the many vines and tangled plants in the undergrowth that just begged for some careless soul to get snagged and fall into it.
They never gathered entirely, apparently too trained or too sensible to put every member of the group in one place. If they thought there had been time to set traps, they were, of course, sorely mistaken. But they seemed more unwilling to turn many small and difficult targets into one big and easy one. They knew about the two flintlock pistols, and they were taking precautions. That reeked of military background, though it was impossible to say who was veteran, if any.
When the shot rang out, they nonetheless went on the defensive. The flintlock had been loaded with gunpowder but not a bullet, so all that came out was the noise, but they did apparently not know that. Each pistol had two barrels, eah barrel had been preloaded with the powder in what had to be a sturdy, flammable sack. Four chances to spook the crowd. It was hard to tell if the guns were custom, like the lantern, or if they were merely of a common model that could hold the powder in while sheathed and carried.
As expected, the initial scare was followed by a carefully orchestrated new search. Like a small swarm, they spread out and moved in the rough direction of the sound, forming a line that moved forward like a giant human lawnmower. Lanterns became more steady as nerves did, and they regained a very disciplined demeanor.
The brief chaos and the darkness, however, had been enough to slip away, and it took very little cleverness to deduce where their outmost man would walk. In following their military training, they had essentially outflanked themselves. A thick branch stabbed at his stomach and his head pulled into the trunk of a tree brought him down like a wet rag. When he caught his bearings again, his pistol and lantern were gone. In the shouting that ensued, none of them could hear footsteps slipping away in the direction of the dirt road, which was still just slightly illminated by the lantern that still hung from the tree. The other stolen lantern fit nicely behind a large rock, the flame put out to make it invisible in the dark.
The men were in disarray. Their voices told the story of each and everyone. The one in a panicked frenzy, shouting the same words to his comrades in an angry voice, over and over again. The one whose voice had cracked from fear, calling out short sentences on the verge of crying. The sturdy but unsure one, who gave a few commands but wavered and never quite got the others rallied. And at least one who made long but calm protests, repeating a word over and over that sounded very much like he wanted to go back.
They stood for a very long time on the dirt road that they all found their way back to. From counting lanterns, they were seven, likely making nine with the two that had now lost theirs. When they finally left, one was ordered by a deep and bitter voice to go fetch the lantern that still hung from the tree. The forest fell quiet as they all held theirs up to perhaps see if their friend would be taken by the forest demons before reaching the lantern.
And then, they were gone. The shine of their lanterns became a dusty orange and then a faded yellow in the distance, before darkness crept in again everywhere.
The sounds of nature returned quickly, simply waiting for the sound of men to leave them alone. The lantern still lay by the rock, still a little warm. Kneeling on the ground so as to not drop anything far, it took a bit to get the flame going with the flint and steel tied to it, but in the end, some dry leaves added helped the wick sputter to life.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

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