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About this blog

Ponderings of someone in over their head...

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'Play From Zero' Development Philosophy

(I have been asked about my limited writing here, and the reason is simple: My dad died in February, only a week before my birthday, and I have been... 'less' ever since. Hopefully, I am now getting back into some level action now. Hope my content will start to interest people again!) I have a problem. In fact, I have a *cluster* of related problems. One is perfectionism, in that I hate publishing anything as finished unless it lives up to some ridiculously high standards. Another is that I cannot work on something without getting an avalanche of constant ideas that could improve it. Those two sort of play off each other, driving me insane with anything that I am the sole authority over. Most people likely recognize this; it is the bane of many creatives. I am trying to solve this problem these days. I recently got back into writing the final draft of the first Embassy of Time book(s), and I have accepted that I need a new kind of structure. I'll leave the writing structure to my Tumblr blog and the like (social media is still chaos to me), but I found a way I might break the back of the problems I have with developing games. I call it Play From Zero. Think of any game you would like to develop, but have not yet started work on. Imagine a line going from 0 to 1, from nothing to a complete product. This is my and anyone's usual view of it. Finish the product, then publish. Maybe a WIP / Early / Alpha version on the way, but those are just 'test versions', not something 'complete'. What if the developer cut that imaginary line into microscopic pieces? What if every bit of programming had to leave a complete product? I'm not saying you should have complete AAA games done in a few hours. Instead, everything you do should make a small, but worthwhile, change in your game. After a 5 hour programming session, you have a tiny, simple game. After the next 6 or 7 hour session, that game has a new feature. It's not a WIP, it's a better game, fully playable. Complexity is built along the way, as tiny 'micro-features' stack up. Of course, you can plan a complex product in advance, but whenever you actually do anything, you're aiming for a tiny, but worthwhile, expansion on your game. You need to finish the game every time you work on it. There is no "this will be cool when I finish it... some day"! It's a thought. I have not yet started down this path, because I need to focus on some writing and animation first and foremost. I have pulled together enough money to dedicate 2020 to my work on The Embassy, and I need to plan more strictly than ever before to make the most of it. That means spreading myself less. But I hope to soon starting my first Play From Zero project, and hope a few in here will pay interest and give me  some good, honest feedback on not just the game at any stage, but the idea of a growing, organic, and most of all playable product. Does this make sense? Tell me in the comments!

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

No market for 'good games'?

No, this is not about the quality of modern games, don't worry. At the start of the year, a small handful of 'business angels' gave me a limited budget to come up with a game, both in concept, gameplay, and code. The basic idea was "a game that makes it fun to do good deeds", and the money was meant to allow me to work part time on it for the first half of the year. Through a lot of meetings, a lot of research, and a ton of different outlines and mockups, we got a few concepts moved into the very early test stages. The period laid out is now coming to an end, so what is the verdict? "There really is no point in trying to push a way of living (doing good deeds) on people who don't want it, and the ones who already live that life don't need it." Although this is paraphrasing a lot, it is pretty on the nose. Making good deeds fun is pointless, because those who disagree won't be swayed by a game, and those who agree don't need the game as a reason to do good deeds. I understand that, perfectly. I even, much to my displeasure, agree mostly with it. But it SCARES THE LIVING CRAP OUT OF ME, nonetheless. It basically means that it is highly unlikely for anything positive to change negative behaviour, in my mind. Games won't make you try to be a better person, or healthier, or more informed in your decisions. Part of it is the flipside of "violent games don't make kidsviolent". Bad things in games don't inspire bad things in people. But apparently, good things don't inspire good things, either. I want to make the world better. I honestly hoped to find a way to press my foot inside the door somehow on that, with this project. But it seems that there is a hardcore psychology side to trying to MAKE a trend rather than just make something that follows trends blindly. I don't know how to work with or around that, or even how to fit it into my head, but it saddens me, greatly. My work with this small group will likely not end with this. They have ideas, I have ideas, they have a bit of money, I have bills to pay and hopes of doing it through something I enjoy, like making weird games. But I honestly cannot see this particular angle going much farther, and it bothers me. There are at least 5 small projects on the table now, though not all strictly games. We'll see where those go. Right now, I have allergies and cats (not related) to attend to!
 

When code just isn't enough...

I have this theory. It goes "nobody has any real idea what they're supposed to do until they're done doing it". Case in point, the project to gamify good deeds that I have gotten somewhat financed (working title simply "The Good Game") is still under frantic construction. And yet, I've only ever written maybe a hundred lines of code (HTML, JavaScript and PHP). How is that? Well, much to my chagrin, the massive bulk of this project is... talking. The design of the game is novel, as in "nobody seems to have made anything even resembling this kind of game before", so every idea, every concept, every feature pilfered from some other game, they all need to be discussed endlessly, regarding their need, the consequences of bringing them in, potentials both short and long term, and so on and so forth. That's a lot of talking!! Right now, at the very least, we're dealing with actual game design, rather than abstract concepts like gamifying ethics, player psychology, social impact, etc. No graphics to speak of, and the proposed method for testing is... amusing? It's chaos, is what I'm saying. But, hopefully, creative chaos! Wish me luck. I need it!
 

A game to save the (real!) world?

Little over a year ago, my blog postings on science in games inspired a small private investor to track me down for a chat. We talked about the next big ideas in games and how games connect to the real world. He eventually had me meet a few of his fellow investors to do a quick presentation. Ever since, there's been a slow and irregular back and forth about what could be a fun project to try. In December, they picked one. Sort of. For those few unaware, "gamification" is a fairly hot topic in certain circles. None of the people talking to me are in games development as such, but they took a liking to the concept. So I now have a little bit of financing to research how to make a game, from this outline: The game challenges its players to make significant improvements to their real-world lives and surroundings, awarding creative and organized problemsolving of real-world problems. That's the sum of it. The rest is up to me, to show that this line, and the many concepts discussed while coining it, can be turned into an actually entertaining game, with lasting effects. That should be.... easy? Work In Progress: The Basic Premise How do you turn "save the world" into a game? The same way you eat an elephant, I guess: One small bite at a time. The first bite is to turn "improve your life and the world around you" into some form of award system, such as points, achievements, etc. My current thoughts revolve around a real-world version of RPGs, e.g. character building, combined with a strategy game (4X, RTS, whatever) territory concept. In short, build a group of skilled members and level up a clearly defined geographical area. Levelling up an area could boost the value of character traits, or build some kind of faction reputation, opening up new abilities and possibilities. Work In Progress: The Real-World Connection The first layout is to have those characters be actual people. Players can join up with various teams (parties, in a way) to take part in projects (an equivalent to raids, maybe?), and players can bring their own allies and skills to the pot. The territories that projects take place inside will likely be based on actual geography, likely something like counties, neighbourhoods, blocks and the like. Specific criteria must be met (and documented) to raise a territory by a level. In short, players join up to level up their chosen (captured?) territory by making certain improvements. But that's all very nebulous, and not all that original, little more than awarding your child "points" for cleaning their room and taking out the trash. The specifics will be in the actual criteria. Upgrading players is a bit different. Much of it will basically be training, using tests available through the game to evaluate and even teach new skills. Yes, we're talking edutainment *shiver* The skills will be more practically minded,of course, aimed at boosting the player's efforts in the game, in the short or long term. An added step as characters, territories and teams progress will be the availability of real-world alliances. Local projects that exist beyond the game, such as humanitarian and charity work, can open up for volunteers from the game, making them effectively NPC allies, or even "mission boards", and allowing their skills to influence players as they try to progress. A local fire department could be the access to extended First Aid training, for example, or wildlife projects could add training in ecology and animal sciences. Work In Progress: The Technological Platform This is not going to be simply some graphics on a screen. But that will be a key part of the game! Much of the visuals will likely be inspired by existing strategy games, showing territories, resources, players, and more. This can be boosted with features taken from social media, showing the efforts and challenges of players and territories. The big question, of course, goes back to that original issue of quantifying progress. Missions/projects will yield reputation, as will player progress, and the total progress of a team will be a possible score for comparison. Recruiting valuable players across teams will be a contentious issue, of course, but there is room for freelancing teams that help across territories. Being responsible for a territory is another possible way to affect a score, with territories yielding more respect as they level up. In The End..... This is just the earliest scrape of the surface. To create something sensible, comprehensible, and most of all worth taking part in, the details need to advance far beyond these basic ideas. But everything has to start somewhere!

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

It's (almost) over: Post-thoughts on Meta-Narrative designs and impact

Dear lord do I sound like a pompus academic! Words are fun!! The flashy title aside, I just got the full content of the second draft of "Worthless", the/a key storyline for a multi-game project I have been embarking on for about a year with some people in suits. And looking back is giving me panic attacks! The 63 chapter draft (which, again, is free to read online) details the beginning of a fairly sprawling time travel universe, meant to be the bedrock for games on he drawing board, most of them smaller indie titles over the coming years. Plus comics and more stories and all that good stuff, but I digress. The idea is tha familiarity not only breeds greater interest, but will also allow for some games that stand out more from the crowd, because players will either know or have the option of learning the backsory before a game even begins. Kind of like game franchises, but in reverse. Kind of. A year ago, this was jus some collection of thoughts and notes, and a lo of noncommittal talk with people who knew/know little to nothing about writing, game design, etc. Now, with the second draft out there, it has become very real, and i am thinking thoughts I never had before. I have 300-500+ views on each chapter, but no comments, so I have no idea if anyone is really reading any of it (if you are, please let me know in the comments!), and in these days, game backstories seem to be in a weird place. Back in the 80s and 90s, story sometimes made up 50% or more of the gaming experence, because games themselves were limited. Now, people brush right by the story in games like Mass Effect or Mirror's Edge and just play the game. So I can't help but wonder, what is the role of a story at this point, on a deeper player interaction level? Is the existence of a deeper connection between games something that people react to, or is it jus somehing they skate by in a WhatCulture video? I am a huuuge fan of the storytelling in Dark Souls, but part of it might be because I respect how it doesn' really matter to the game, so it makes me wonder how much it really matters to players. And would the modern player enjoy the fact that there exists significant sory content outside the game, which can enhance or elaborae the story in the game? I'm still in a weird place after finishing that second draft (and not just due to the 300K+ wordcount...), and there are waaay too many weird questions in my head right now. But if any of this made sense, please let me know your stand on the value of stories in, and beyond, the games you enjoy!

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 63

(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 63 Fields as far as the eye could see. The old school building wasn't that far away. Mischa and I had worked with the local refugees and some of their friends to clean it, scrubbing away all the black dust. The more we removed of it, the more of the time travelers could enter without getting hurt. In the end, everybody had a chance to be part of it, and many were. The Embassy. Our very own Embassy of Time. Just a building, for now. Potential.
"I'm freezing my #*@!ing tits off, Id... Sorry, Marie," complained Mischa, slapping himself in a rather dumb-looking way to keep a little warm. "Are we even in the right place?"
"Yeah, should be," I answered, looking at my new phone. The copy had my own, sligtly less new one. It felt weird, not being me, but I was adjusting. At least, I felt that I was. "Walther said this was the spot. Should be right about now."
We were a crew of five. One trained medic, four to just help. We had stood there for about half an hour, and Mischa wasn't wrong about the temperature.
"How do they even know this shit? I mean, how do they know the time and place someone arrives?" he grumbled, looking over and waving to Mikael, the medic. Like so many others, Mikael was just someone that someone knew, a guy that had been in Nakskov for about a decade, but trained to be a medic in some future war against crazy machines. It all sounded a bit silly, but who was I to disagree.
"I think they sent someone a bit farther back to tell them. You know, send back the strong and capable to make sure the weaker ones have someone waiting for them, that kind of stuff."
"Huh," Mischa replied, mulling it over. "So, doesn't that, like, change history or something? If they send someone back to before The Embassy is created to make sure The Embassy... Christ, I got a #*@!ing headache just from saying that."
"Yeah," I mumbled back at him. "We need to figure all that out, too. Lots of stuff to be done."
He was thinking of something he wanted to say, but as he raised his finger to ask what he clearly felt was an important and very poignant question, a loud boom rushed across the fields. Everyone reacted immediately, running across the tilled soiled to the best of their abilities. Somehow, I got there first.
A boy lay on the ground. Ten, maybe eleven years old, dressed in flimsy clothes that simmered, turning the humid air to thin steam. I stepped over to check his pulse, and he immediately flinched, curling into a bal and then toppling over, somehow ending up in a sitting position.
"Who are you?" he asked with a very thick accent, his eyes darting bout, trying to take in everything. His arms fumbled their way out of the weird clothes, enough to see a nasty scar down his left arm. It looked old, not something connected to his trip.
"I'm...." The whole secret identity thing was more of a challenge than expected. "I'm Marie. I run The Embassy. What's your name?"
"Where are my parents?"
I looked over my shoulder. The others had arrived, and Mikael was already sizing up the boy, looking for any obvious injuries, at first.
"We don't know. They'll probably come along later."
"When?"
The boy was slowly beginning to worry. Fact was, there was no guarantee that they would ever arrive. Some simply sent their children to have a better life, unable to also send themselves along.
"We have to wait a bit and see. But I'm sure they'd want to know you're safe. Would you like to go with us back to The Embassy?"
He nodded, silently, his eyes still darting all over the place. Finally, they calmed down a little, and he looked at me.
"I'm Daniel. My name is Daniel."
"Nice to meet you, Daniel," I told him with a genuine smile. "Welcome to The Embassy."

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 62

(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 62 The slush in the cup tasted horrible. It was supposed to taste like strawberries, but it mostly tasted like the cardboard things that strawberries usually came in. And sugar. It definitely tasted like sugar.
"Do you have any idea how lucky you are, that we have access to future medical knowhow here?" asked Kris as he and Daniel sat down around the table. The Embassy medical department was disturbingly large, having taken over thehospital left behind in the colony, and then expanded to a few nearby buildings. Half the future medical knowhow had been left behind, too, and the woman in white had never gotten around to remove it. Or maybe she had just made use of it, like we now did.
"Yeah, I should have been dead, I know," I answered back calmly, much to the restrained frustration of Kris. "But then again, we use time machines. I didn't just cut myself on the kitchen knife, right?"
Daniel found the remark amusing. Kris, if he did, showed no signs of it.
"You actually took that bitch down with the original blast you took her down with back all those years ago," Daniel mused. "That's balls. You got, like, girl balls."
I smiled and nodded at what was clearly his attempt at a very high praise. I tried to put the weird strawberry slush away, but Kris took the cup from me and placed it right back in front of me with a resolute gesture.
"Drink up," he grumbled. "The crap they put in it wasn't all easy to come by. It's not for your enjoyment, it's to keep you bleeding your organs out of your ass, for #*@!'s sake."
A few defiant glances went back and forth between us, before I reluctantly picked the cup up for another horrible sip.
"And you're not going back on the road for a long while, either," he added, looking away to avoid more eye battle. "I'm almost insulted you actually survived this round. Guess I need to revise my guidelines."
"Oh, please don't!" I laughed, instantly buckling over with a grunt as my sides felt like everything inside was ripping open. For a moment, I feared it might, but my medical bracelet ran an instant scan and showed only a few minor bleeds that the staff would handle once my nutrient session was over. Calling it eating would be a bit too flamboyant.
"I need one last trip," I managed to say, ignoring the sore side. Both Daniel and Kris looked at me like I had screamed about spiders in my eyes.
"No, you really d...."
"Not now," I interrupted. "I'll heal up, then I'll go. And then I'll stay around here for a good long while, out of trouble, like a nice girl. Maybe go visit some family."
The two looked at each other, then over their shoulders, before they leaned in.
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" asked Daniel. Kris looked like he already had an answer to that, but I nodded quite casually.
"I visit now and then. I'm starting to look too old to play myself, so the copy gets to do that. But I'm quite the friend of the family at this point."
With a sigh of surrender, I took another sip at the gross slush, then dug my spoon into the cookie dough-like food that was going to, hopefully, be very good for me. Somehow.
"Meanwhile, I have a job for the both of you," I added, staring at the brown dough goop. It was almost as I remembered it. The chaos, the yelling, the stench of burned materials in the air. The house was there, looking much like it still did back home. The Embassy was cautious about using it, fearing that local connections of the woman in white might still be keeping an eye on it, but it had turned out to be a great place to put half a dozen refugees and a few extras while they settled in to 2019.
I watched as my younger self appeared, all full of fire and faith. Part of me missed it, missed her, missed the innocent will to fight for what was good and right. The Embassy still did that, still saved refugees by the thousands, in Nakskov alone. But age brought nuance, and no good intention remained pure. She still had them, and it was a marvel to behold!
The spectacle played out as I remembered it. Elmer and Lisa being their usual hardass selves, just like they had been ever since, every time we ran into them. They were tacit allies, but they had never really accepted The Embassy and its work, still wanting a full ally in their little war. I had seen Karen since, too. She had mixed feelings. Looking at the whole thing unfold here in 2015, I started to remember how I had basically played her, using her knowledge to further my own agenda. I had never been entirely proud of that, but pride was not the priority that results were, sadly.
And then, it finally got to the point I had been waiting for!
The dots had already started swarming her when I snuck up through the tall, wild grass by the side of the road. At this point, nobody was coming back for her, not even my younger self. She had been abandoned, a casualty of war, not unlike the many refugees that had come through The Embassy over the years. Time traveler or not, she was fair game!
"Hi Vera," I whispered as I slapped the circular device onto her that it had taken me a month to reconstruct in this time. It had been a bitch to construct, but half the parts would never have made it even the few years back in time from The Embassy.
"Who are.." she gargled, twitching as the pains of return travel set in, but I shushed her as I dragged her away through the grass. We were basically in someone's back yard before I threw the cheap fireworks I had acquired from some shady bordershop, via the people we now had in 2015. People that would have been nice to have the first time around, but things had to play out the way they always had.
We waited, silently, on someone's lawn, behind assorted garden equipment and things I knew far too little about. The Embassy had gardens, as did the many hideouts we placed refugees and agents in, both in and around this time and in many other ages. But garden work was calming, and usually part of refugee therapy, so few of the rest of us ever had a garden to tend.
"What is this?" asked Vera, throat dry and raspy, as she tapped the circular thing on her stomach, without getting up from the damp grass.
"Emergency anchor. Some refugees from the 3400s figured it out by reverse engineering some scraps we took from... You know what, #*@! it. It's a time travel life preserve, how about that?"
She nodded with some effort. "Yeah, I'll take that."
Morning came as we waited for everything to be safe, and for her to regain her strength. By noon, we were sitting on a bench by the sports fields, both with a pita kebab and a soda in our hands.
"So, what's with the bag?" she asked innocuously, through another bite of meat, bread and assorted veggies.
"You get who I am, right?" I asked back, and she nodded very casually.
"You're Ida. Or Marie, if you want. You're the girl we got into this mess. Except you clearly got a taste for it. How old are you at this point?"
I chuckled over my meal, my brain again starting to try and calculate age by the way of constant time travel.
"Technically 17, but probably closer to 19, biologically."
Vera just nodded, looking at her pita kebab before taking a small bite, like a tiny predator carefully devouring its prey.
"So," she said again, "what's in the bag?"
The bag was a rather bulky thing, one that I had only picked up right before we went to eat at the bench. A courier from a small local office of The Embassy had held onto it while I pulled Vera out of the fight.
"Mission reports," I answered, my mind flashing through years of missions. "For you."
"Why?"
I sighed, a deep sigh, fearful of how she would react to the plan I had for her. At that moment, for the first time ever, I wondered how she had felt about lying to me about being special.
"The woman in white is going to lose Nakskov. Like, completely. It's going to be a haven for refugees in that war you have with her. And since you died in that war out there, you're no longer going to be a part of the fight."
"You're recruiting me? For real?"
"Yeah," I chuckled, "I guess I am."
Kids were running out into two of the football fields. School kids, most of them just wanting to mess around in the fresh air before going back to classrooms. Their teacher was desperately trying to enact his own plans for what had to be gym class.
"At some point, she'll get the upper hand, and I need to take that away from her," I continued, my voice suddenly very solemn, surprising even myself. "I need you to go back before all this mess even happened and start The Embassy all over again. A full copy, so that the bitch can't just swoop in and blow my younger self's brains out and replace her, thus stopping The Embassy from ever existing."
She had stopped eating, chewing the one bite in her mouth slowly before swallowing, all while looking right at me.
"I'm going to recreate what you created as, what, the time travel version of a backup copy?"
I nodded.
"Yeah, it was the b..."
"That's #*@!ing brilliant," she whispered, her eyes turning to gaze aimlessly out across the sports area.
"Uhm, well, thank you. Yeah, we had our best minds on it and everything," I quickly lied.
She finally started eating again, although her brain was clearly crunching the numbers and connecting the dots on what I had just told her.
"So I go back and reenact the whole creation of The Embassy, do all the missions as written, and so on, until it becomes inseparable from your own version of The Embassy. What then? I mean, if you want to timelines to merge, the two of us are still the one thing that keeps it apart. And won't people react differently to me than to you? I mean, you're Inuit, I'm Asian, so they..."
She stopped when I started giggling girlishly.
"Vera, nobody can tell the difference. Most of my life, everybody kept thinking I was Cambodian, and I have no idea why."
She sat silently for a moment, chewing on both what was left of hermeal and on that thought.
"Okay, but how am I going to prevent the past version of you from making the original Embassy? There can be only one, you know. Right?"
"I'm going back with you. Let me handle that."
"The moment you do, you'll no longer be able to exist here," she said quite casually. "If the timeline can't become what yours is, you'll fall out and back to your own."
I nodded, knowing that there would be no way for me to follow up, once I made it so that I would never start The Embassy here. It boggled the mind, but I understood the consequences.
The next few minutes were spent in contemplative silence, her trying to create the first pieces of a mental model of the ssignment, me just enjoying the sights of what Nakskov had looked like back before it had all started. Not so different, when all was said and done. The air was dry. I had shared Vera's ride back to the days before my younger self ever got involved in any of the madness that had unfolded. The mission journals had been packed tight, so tight that there was no air to set the pages ablaze, and crammed into a fireproof box just as tightly. It was a clumsy way to get a lot of information through the time machine, but it worked, and had become the operating standard for many things. Paper and wood burned, but handled right, it only ruined the outside of a crate. Plastics, metals and electronics were still a problem that had no solution.
Vera was now at a house we had picked simply from the fact that it would be for sale for many years to come, and eventually bought by an ally of The Embassy. She had time to prepare there, time to figure out how to make sure her version of The Embassy would go through the exact same steps as ours. We would meet again, as she progressed, to sync up our results, by both going to meeting spots in the past in a complicated dance of aligning timelines that I still had trouble understanding. They, the original time travelers, used similar methods, and Karen had at some point sat down with me to explain them. Not because we were close friends, because that was never going to happen! But along the way, they had figured out that The Embassy was there to stay, so teaching us how to not make a complete mess of time travel was in everybody's best interest. I had not protested to that.
And now I stood on a Nakskov street, breathing in the dry air of the drought that had been plaguing farmers and the like at that point in time. And as I stood there, I saw her. Me. The younger me, from before any of it happened. She was walking along, minding her own business, ignorant about the secrets of the world. And she had to remain that way. A life that didn't matter. Born, lived, died, without making much of an impact, just like the woman in white had described it. I imagined living that life, never having gotten entangled in wars across time, never having been thrown through millenia to hunt down this and recruit that. Never having the responsibility for a flood of refugees that the younger me walking towards me knew nothing about. Part of me envied her. Part of me regrhetted nothing.
I saw the car this time. Some young person behind the wheel, distracted by something, seemingly talking on a hands free phone. He wasn't being overly reckless. Just some random person not completely aware of every bit of his surroundings. The kind of people who, whether they wanted to or not, were destined to be the source of a million sorrows.
And when I heard the slight mew, I quickly stepped over and reached down. As I lifted the kitten up in my arms, the car swung by, the guy inside shouting some obscenity at me as he passed, nearly clipping a bus that he failed to break for at the end of the street!
"Hello, little kitty," I whispered, as I stroked its fur. A little dirty, a little malnourished. Homeless, just a big kid prowling the streets for something to eat.
"Hi," I heard nearby. "Cute cat. Can I pet it?"
I looked up, looking into my own eyes. She stood there, on the sidewalk, smiling at the cat, her eyes looking at me like none of it had changed the entire world forever.
"Are you Ida?" I asked, and she nodded, looking a bit uneasy at this stranger asking her questions. Some part deep inside my brain remembered this cautious spirit. "Well, I heard from someone at work that you were thinking about having a kitten. Maybe you could give this little one a loving home?"
The young me looked wary, but she softened up the moment she held the cat.
"I think something's burning," she said, looking at the colored dots that had been gathering for the last minute or so, ever since I picked up the cat. "What's its name?"
"Jamie," I said, on the spur of the moment. "Will you keep her really safe?"
The pain was setting in. I could feel points on my body like tiny fires.
"Okay, yeah. Hi, Jamie," she said, holding the cat.
"I need to go," I sighed, petting Jamie's head for one last time.
"Okay. Take care," she answered back as she walked away, a little confused.
I walked around the corner of the nearest house. I just barely got to a small yard before I fell out of a timeline that I no longer belonged in.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 61

(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 61 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?"
Less than half an hour later, I was sprawled out on the ground, the woman in white looming over me and above her, the black canopy of the veil that hid the buildings behind her from the rest of the world. The colony that the time travelers had talked about. A fallen colony, now in her hands.
"You're history. Literally," she hissed. "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.
My school bag was not that far away, thrown in the dry dirt that covered much of the ground under the canopy of whatever that invisibility field around the colony was. Sunlight never got in, the veil bending all light around the place so that it just passed on, making it seem like there was nothing there. The dead ground was a result of that lack of sunlight. Eternal night.
Inside the bag, things were suddenly different. The main room of the bag had been filled with tennis balls rolled in the black dust, a quick and literally dirty weapon against her time traveling minions. But in the smaller front pocket was the cartridge I had grabbed from beneath the old school buildings. Just a random cartridge, one that I would know to grab again later. I would put a tiny bit of it into the time machine and use it as a destination. And then I would go back. That was the energy about to rip both it and the bag apart. And as I gave the bag a hidden glance, I saw the colored dots begin to swarm it.
"Get out of my face," I repeated, my voice suddenly finding new strength. "Get out of my life," I added, noting a slight shift in her expression, as if she was wondering where my newfound energy was coming from. "And get out of my town."
The blast was in two parts. The first part was an explosion in reverse, the impact of a time traveler sending the blast back in time. Karen had never told me that, but somehow, it just made sense as I saw it. The second blast was forward in time, a regular explosion. The time traveler had arrived. The cartridge had been ripped apart, its bits scattered across the field.
"What the..." she growled, dropping her menacing lean over me and standing up straight. She had clearly not even noticed that the colored dots had started to surround her. "Who the #*@! just arrived?!"
In her confusion and anger, she looked down at me on the ground. And I looked over at where the bag had been a moment ago.
"Me," I answered with a scowling grin.
I looked like shit. The colored dots were already swarming me, as soon as I arrived. And from my spot on the ground, I stared with a smile at my kneeling body where the explosion had centered. I looked as I raised my head, bruises and all, and looked myself in the eyes.
"You little #*@!, you're going to destroy the..."
"No," I said, my voice insultingly calm. "The shattered cartridge is all over this place now. It's poisoned. Scorched earth."
For the first time, her eyes lit up with a fear as she shrugged and twitched, the colored dots burning her like sparks on her skin. She screamed something incoherent, something in a language I did not understand. I could hear screams elsewhere, too, knowing that our people were back in the vans, out of reach. It was just me and her. And the other me.
She looked strange, not at all like a mirror image. I didn't even see myself, looking at her. I saw a tired girl, burns and bruises, clothes a mess, hair charred and in places melted together. The colored dots were swarming her, but with a tear in her eye, she smiled. At me.
The screams filled the air, like the cries of birds fighting over scraps of food. At the last possible second, I closed my eyes, and let the blast wash over me as the woman in white was ripped out of my time, torn away by the dust of the shattered cartridge that was no doubt fast mixing into the ground, poisoning it for her for a very long time.
"It worked. It #*@!ing worked," I whispered, and as my future self began to buckle from the pain of time ripping her away, too, she nodded.
"It worked," she said in a tired voice, distorted by the energies surrounding her. Maybe it was because she had traveled across far less time than the woman in white, maybe not, but she seemed to linger almost as if by will alone, looking me in the eyes. And I could swear that I saw the same pride for me that my eyes hopefully showed for her. Proud of what she had accomplished, while she was proud of what I hopefully still would.
And then, a soft pop. Not a loud blast, just a gentle pop and a wash of warm wind as she was torn away, going back to whenever she had come from.
The field was quiet. The dark canopy of the invisibility veil still hung over me, a few sounds of something breaking inside the buildings. This was not a blast on the scale of the one that had happened those days ago. It was smaller, I knew that. But for the time being, the woman in white had lost this ground, lost this battle.
I thumped back on the ground, feeling the cold soil chill my jacket, and I laughed. First a giggle, then a roaring laughter. The last thing I saw was myself on the ground, looking back at me as the woman in white disappeared, screaming, in a cloud of dots. Then the energies of time overwhelmed me, too, and I felt how they ripped me out, ripped me away from the spot in the field, back through time to where Mischa had sent me from.
It hurt like hell. My veins burned, my mouth tasted like copper, and I fought for breath. It took a moment before I realized that the steam around me was my own sweat, boiling right off my skin, leaving it pink and sore like a sunburn.
"Did I do something wrong" asked Mischa. I smiled, then shook my head.
"No, all is good now."
He looked at me, completely baffled. I wanted to explain everything to him, but I felt myself slipping. The energies from the ruptured cartridge in the field were still affecting me, or maybe their effects just were. I only knew that I had seconds left here, in this time.
"Misch, whatever happens, you need to forget this. You need to pretend it never happened.
"Why?" he asked, surprisingly calm.
"Just... nothing can change. We both did this before, and it needs to go the same way this time around."
His baffled look became a tad more panicked. The explanation clearly wasn't doing it for him.
"Just pretend none of this happened. Especially when dealing with me, okay?"
"With you?"
"Mischa," I said calmly, looking him straight in the eyes, "I'm from a different time, not that far into the future. But my old self is out there. And she's going to need you, very much, in the next few days."
He just nodded. Then his gaze danced around, as it followed the dancing dots of color that formed around me.
"I'll see you around, Misch," I said with a smile as I got pulled out of time. I arrived back in the basement cave as if slammed into the floor from a great height. Everything hurt. But I looked up and saw Mischa there, by the machine. Emilie sat at the top of the stairs, only just visible from my awkward angle, laid on the platform inside the machine.
"Holy #*@!ing Christ!" I heard Mischa yell, through the loud buzz and sounds like jet engines that filled the inside of my ears. "Are you okay?!"
I lay curled up on the same platform as when I left. My body was shivering, even when I tried to stay still. The smoldering fabrics of my clothes hurt, like hot needles stuck in my skin, but I could do nothing about it. My limbs refused to work, instead obsessively curling me up into a fetal position as I gasped for air.
"Something's wrong outside," I heard Emilie yell down the stairs. Forcing control over at the very least my own head, I bent my neck back to look up at her. She was covering her eyes.
"D-d-did it... wwwork?" I asked nobody in particular, the scolding heat in my body suddenly switching to a jarring cold.
"Ida, we need to get you..."
"Did it work?" I whispered, interrupting him rudely. He had great difficulty in looking away from me, but ended up calling something out to Emilie. He then turned with a strange expression on his face, a mix between confusion and, it seemed, joy.
"They're gone," he said. Then he broke into a laugh. "They're gone. The time people just screamed and disappeared right when the machine flashed. The robots then turned and ran." He broke into an almost frenzied laughter. "We did it. We did it, Ida!" He then looked at the machine as it finally died down and went silent. "Uhm, Ida?"
"Yeah?"
"What exactly did we do?"
My every muscle burned as I forced myself first up on my knees, then unto my feet. Mischa immediately stepped in to support me, but I found myself a bit distracted. A thought lingered in my mind.
"Misch, the numbers. What were the numbers?"
He stopped in his track, then turned, still carrying me and thus accidentally swinging me around like some lifesized ragdoll as he stared over at the time machine.
"They're still counting down," he said, sounding understandably worried.
"That's usually not good, is it?" I asked, fighting for every breath.
"Nope."
"Leave?"
"Yup."
As he dragged me up the stairs, up to and through the wrecked school, debris cluttering every hall and making every step a science in its own right, I saw Emilie stumble along the wall, her legs looking like novelty drinking straws at this point. Neither of us said anything, Mischa saving his breath for hauling me and I myself focusing on getting my body to work again to lighten his load. Emilie did speak, but most of all, she muttered very foul words under her breath.
Out of the school, across the road and well into a nearby field, we finally stopped. The air felt cool against the skin, soothing and kind. The soil was wet, but somehow, sitting down in it felt warm and welcoming.
"Did we maybe overreact?" panted Emilie as she plunked down in a patch of grass on the edge of the field.
"I just went back in time and returned to flashing numbers in a secret underground cave," I panted back at her. "I don't think it's even possible to overreact to...."
A loud rumble ripped through the air, followed by a powerful tremor through the ground, both of them coming from the direction of the school. The sound mixed with that of a few dozen windows shattering, as a puff of smoke billowed out from several places in the building.
"Yeah, I think we reacted appropriately," Mischa said, completely deadpan on his delivery. He then, too, plunked down onto the soft, damp soil. It was early evening. The day had gone by in a haze, but I remembered that someone Emilie knew had taken care of my injuries, rather than risk strange questions at the clinic. They were real doctors, she had said, refugees from the future, just like her. Part of a network usually restricted to other refugees, but my contributions had softened them up to me. All I knew was that I woke up in a house somewhere on the edge of town, before Emilie and a large man who never told me his name drove me home.
Mischa was there, waiting. He immediately reached out to support me, fearing I would fall, but I calmed him down. I could see a handful of the others, in various states of healing, wait at the edge of the newly lit streetlights. Nobody said anything, not out loud. There was a whisper here and there, briefly, but they restrained themselves. Even Alex and the two other agents were there, though the two others waited a bit farther down the street, by what seemed to be their car.
"Are you ready for this?" asked Mischa, full of concern. "I mean, are you sure this is what you want to do?"
I nodded silently, ironically now feeling even more worried about my decision. None of the others spoke.
The moment I walked up the tile path to the front door, the hedges covered them all, and I could neither hear them, nor see them when I briefly turned my head for a glance back. That was pretty much the idea, but it suddenly felt awfully lonely. A warmth did run through me when Mischa casually stepped out from behind the hedge and gave me a nervous wave from the sidewalk. He stayed there, though. As it was intended.
I never even touched the door. It just flew open, my mom standing inside with tears in her eyes.
"Ida?! Oh god, Ida, where have you been?!" she all but yelled, breaking down crying as she grab me and held me tight. I slowly put my arms around her, squeezing with all my might.
"I'm so sorry, mom. I had to do something, I had to..." I started crying back.
"It's okay, panik," she sobbed, holding me close. "It's okay, we'll figure it out. Just... Just don't go away like that again, okay?"
I silently nodded, unintentionally wiping my tears off on the shoulder of her blouse.
"I love you, mom. You know that, right?"
She fell silent a bit, just holding me. I could almost feel her worry about what I was thinking.
"Of course, panik. I love you too, more than anything."
We stood there for a few seconds, just holding onto each other in the cool evening air. Finally, I let go, and she hesitantly did the same.
"I'll just go say bye to Mischa, and I'll be right back, okay?"
She nodded. She was smiling through the tears, but I could see her eyes, face, even entire body scream with worry.
Turning the corner by the hedge, I saw the rest standing there, still waiting silently. Mischa looked at me but said nothing. I simply gave him a nod. Then I nodded at the others.
My mom waved at Mischa. She was trying to hold it together, but everything about her screamed that she could not do that alone. Inside the house, through what I could see of the hallway, Peter was holding Beebee, who was not surprisingly curious and nervous about what was going on.
"Did Mischa help you get here?" my mom asked.
"Yeah. He mostly just, you know, helped me through a few things."
"Like what?"
"Can we talk about it over dinner? It's not a big deal, don't worry. And I'm getting a bit hungry, feels like I've barely eaten in, like forever."
"Sure thing, sweetheart."
And then the door shut. I heard the sound behind me. I didn't look.
"You think she'll be okay?" asked Mischa as we walked away. Alex and the agents had returned to their car and driven off, never saying anything. They didn't have to, really. We had all said what needed to be said, and the looks they gave me told all that remained.
"Yeah. She just needs some feeling of normalcy. She worries. Moms do that."
"Oh, yeah, your mom," he said, sounding a bit surprised. "Yeah, I guess she just needs to believe that you're not, like, selling drugs or something."
"Oh, you meant the copy? Yeah, she's lived my life before, maybe even better than I do. She'll fit in, no problem."
For the first time since watching the copy walk up to the door and into the house, almost symbolically taking over a part of my life, I turned around, looking back at Lavender Street.
"It looks so quiet," I mumbled. "They don't even know what's out there, what's going on."
"That's how they need it to be," Mischa calmly replied. "They need to feel that everything is in its place, that they're safe. That the world isn't, you know, #*@!ing weird."
"Yeah. Weird."
I turned back again, and we walked on. The main road that Lavender Street branched out from was slowly approaching. A car waited for us nearby.
"We agree that the time machine is, like, gone, right?" asked Mischa, and I nodded with a grunt. "So what is there even left to do?"
At the corner, I stopped. It was fast getting truly dark, the lights of houses and streetlamps being all that there was to see.
"She can never come back here," I started, then smiled a bit at my own words. "Well, not for a long time, anyway. Her base of operations is contaminated, completely off limits to time travelers, and I have a feeling that anything else she has is not that close by."
The car drove up, parking so silently that it almost screamed that it was not a gas engine. Both doors, front and back, by the sidewalk opened. Inside, Camilla and her mom waved us in.
"We are a safe zone, now," I continued as I walked slowly to the car, Mischa taking the back seat beside Camilla. "There'll be others out there who need that. We will do what we can to help them get out of that #*@!ing war."
"What, like a refugee camp?" Mischa asked as he sat down inside the car.
"No," I answered with a sigh as a thousand half-finished plans ran through my mind. "There are others out there who can help. We just need somewhere that can, you know, connect them all up. We'll take in refugees, but they should not have to be refugees for long."
"Oh, like an embassy of some kind. An embassy for time travelers?"
"Yeah something like that," I nodded as the doors shut and the car started moving.
"Well, Madam Ambassador, I look forward to help you," said Camilla's mom with a smile that hid more gratitude than I could even compute.
"Jesus, please don't call me that," I chuckled, finding some relief in the jovial tone.
"Well, the copy is Ida now, we need to call you something," Mischa intervened.
"I'll make up some identity I can use," I just replied.
"What, like some superhero?" asked Camilla from the back.
"Time Girl!" proclaimed Mischa with enthusiasm! "Or... wait... no, that's the only one I can think of."
"No thank you," I chuckled back at him. "Just another name. Something normal."
"Maria is a very normal name," Camilla added.
"Maybe. Yeah, something like that," I nodded. "Maybe just Marie. How does that sound?"
There were calm agreements throughout the car.
"Yeah, Time Girl would require you to time travel, I guess. Not gonna happen now, machine gone and all."
I could hear a sadness breaking through in his voice. His mind was slipping to his brother, Paul.
"No. There is another," I said, my voice almost a whisper as I thought about what lay ahead. "She abandoned the colony. I think there is a time machine there."
Suddenly, everybody was looking at me. I ignored it.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 60

(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 60 "The safe route?"
Standing amidst frail-looking floating panels and wispy glowing symbols hovering in the air, Adric seemed honestly a little concerned. The arrival had to have been his first hint of something out of the ordinary. No dramatic slam into the invisible safety fields that surrounded the arrival point, no massive discharge of errant energies. Quiet, mild. Safe.
"Everybody has their limits, Aldric. Even..."
"You?" he finished skeptically. "I never knew you to have much caution in you. Why now?"
For a moment, he stood with a slight smile on his face, clearly taking it all as mostly a quirk. But when a lack of response filled the air, the smile began to slowly fade.
"Did something go wrong?" he asked, now showing his more concerned, nervous colors.
"Not in the usual sense of it."
He lifted his brow, then his chin, looking a bit down his nose.
"Well, the usual sense of it was never that... usual, was it?" he rhetorically replied.
The activity was minimal in the captured old station. Through gaps and hallways, there were fragments of the spectacular view given of the surrounding cosmos, the Earth silently dangling in the black below, and the unbridled force of the unshielded sun casting straight and sharp shadows at an angle that told the star itself was just out of view, perhaps a few degrees around a corner somewhere.
"We need a final interrogation of the time agent. Can you set that up?"
"Sure," said Aldric casually. "I've been running a few diagnostic mod... Wait, what?"
He fell silent for a few seconds, looking up from something that the paper-thin panels around him seemed to hide from anyone else. But that was not what caught his attention, which was no real surprise.
"Did you say a final interrogation? As in, there will be no more when this is done?"
"Yes."
It was difficult to find the right pose, the right moves, the right words, to convey when stepping out of the arrival area. This was Aldric's prime field of expertise, a thing he not only excelled in but devoted nearly all his time to, and this particular agent had been the most fertile source of information The Embassy had ever had. To him, the agent was the culmination of half a lifetime of work, the key to everything he had worked with and for in ages. Finality had likely never really crossed his mind.
Snapping more or less out of his fixation on that one word, he made a few light gestures and some symbols changed. He was adept in reading the room, quite literally, and took the sudden cascading change in them with little more than a slight tilt of the head. To anyone else, it might have looked like something... important.
"Your prisoner is activated," he casually confirmed, looking over the many altered symbols. "Seems reactive, though. I need to adjust some settings to keep the mind open but docile."
"Why? Its usually perfectly calm, isn't it?"
"True," he sighed, making gentle gestures to adjust a few symbols in ways only he seemed to understand, "but we've been hammering away at this one quite a bit, remember? The constant scans and all the poking at neurons has caused it to be a bit more aware that someone has been talking to it."
He made a slight gestures, and an image of a brain, presumably the agent brain, appeared in mid air.
"We copy how the brain, this brain, works, but we need constant updates to get everything. And your prisoner here is starting to get a bit annoyed by it."
"Aldric, the prisoner is not even conscious. You're just looking and copying. We're interrogating a copy in the computer. Right?"
Another sigh, one sounding half like worry and half like a lack of sleep.
"This is not a book, Marie. Even a sedated brain has some activity, and this one seems to have been altered to spot someone poking around, even if just to copy it."
"Will it cause problems?"
"Not really, I just need to reset a few things," he remarked absent-mindedly. "The best thing would be to put the entire body back together. A lot of it is just the brain freaking out about not sensing its body. Give it a brief..."
"No."
With a frown, he finally took his eyes off the colorful reenactment of brain activity that the floating image of the brain was displaying.
"I'm not going to wake her up, Marie. It's all subconscious."
"No, no assembly. I don't want a fully functional agent in this place, not even for a moment, not even deeply unconscious."
The frown turned to some rapid blinking and a confused look back and forth, mostly at the brain model for no sensible reason.
"What can an agent do that scares you so?" he asked, sounding like a concerned parent asking a child about the monster under the bed in hopes of debunking it.
"I don't want anyone here to get any ideas."
And finally, the rapid blinking and confused look turned back into a frown, though this one was more of the angry sort, or perhaps just very hurt.
"This is a secure..."
"Not that secure."
Aldric seemed genuinely insulted by the notion. He was the lead neurosimulation expert, but many looked to him almost as the manager of the entire operation there. This was his baby. Questioning it was personal to him, that much was obvious.
"Fine, we'll see how much we can get from it this way. But you should give me about a thousand hours before your next visit then, if you want me to fine tune this one."
He froze a bit at the gaze he found looking back at him.
"There is no more after this, Aldric. We shut the operation down and destroy this one once I have what I need here."
The finality still had not quite sunk in, that much was clear. But he was trustworthy, always had been. He nodded reluctantly, but not offended. Then he raised his palm politely at the passage leading to the actual room where the brain, and the rest of the captured agent, were stored.
It seemed like a waste. The station had been a hellish challenge to set up, from the precision needed to target time machines at the arrival point to the unnoticed movement of crew into the place. It was a derelict orbital station, true, but this far future was closely monitored, especially when orbiting the Earth itself. Secrecy came at a cost, one that was hard to pay. But the operation would soon be over.
Walls that looked flimsy from the perspective of someone versed in wooden, stone or steel structures unfolded like precision tapestries, shifting corridors and rooms to fit needs. The agent floated unconsciously in a socalled foxed room, one that was not allowed to change, and the entire place was trying to work around that as smoothly as possible. Other people in other rooms were moved aside to make way for what had to end up around the agent's body, barely a single one in all the rooms paying much attention to it. Like clockwork, the world molded itself to fit the needs.
Of course, it was in these moments that the outer cosmos was even more laid visible. As rooms slid in and out around the station, they would briefly expose the outer canopy, letting in the vista that had only been visible in gaps from the arrival platform. The massive Earth beneath the station, clouds swirling across lush blue, green and a thousand shades of brown. And the sun, a filter in the canopy keeping it from being just an utterly blinding disk. It hung silently, a fleet of tiny specks about it like moths by a bulb, each speck a part of the monumental project to inspect the large artifacts in low solar orbit near the sun's surface. The people of this time knew nothing about the horrors to come, the devastation that those alien artifacts were closely tied to, and telling them, warning them, would be to meddle in time on a possibly disasterous scale. Destruction in waiting, beautiful to behold.
The room with the agent assembled itself quickly around the actual agent body. Floating in the middle, the body looked like it always did, an unassembled mess, like a car carefully taken apart to clean every piece and part. No blood, thanks to the technologies in use. Clean and ordered. But the damage showed, the broad patches of skin burned black, the bruises and fractures. The machines not only served to interrogate an unconscious brain, but also to keep it and its disassembled body alive. The face alone was so damaged and disassmbled that it looked more like a cloud of delicate machinery tinted pale red than anything remotely human.
"The latest models we ran on it traced several thousand new paths into its limbic system," Aldric began to explain in an unusually disinterested tone. He was always so obsessed by his work, making this experience of him just going through the motions seem oddly out of character for him. "At this point, we should be able to not only recapture visual and auditory memories for display, but also attach most main primal responses and..."
He finally looked over, and seemed a bit disappointed at the slightly vacant stare that met him.
"Okay, we can not just see and hear what this agent experienced, but also what feelings it caused. Like, was the agent scared when you.."
"Yeah, I got it."
Daniel and Kris back at The Embassy had both had wildly different opinions when they heard this interrogation method described, but they agreed on what it essentially was: Interrogating the dead. Daniel had marveled, Kris was disgusted at the notion, but saw the practical uses.
"Can we access it?"
With a flick of his wrist, Aldric called forth a set of complicated wispy panels that immediately gathered by his hands and face. He said nothing, but gave a look that silently asked to continue.
"Ask it about dragons."
His stare became a little disconcerting, suddenly filled with a surprised distrust.
"Just... trust me on this one, Aldric. Ask it about dragons."
Whatever he did, a large field of dots appeared, the shape of a brain. A series of dots lit up, then the whole thing spread, racing through the misty image like matchheads igniting one another.
"We have some images," Aldric calmly declared, and the room filled with images about the size of a human head. Some were meaningless and easily discarded. Some were actual images of dragons. There were several that were drawings or paintings, of which a fraction seemed to be the prisoner actually drawing or painting it, looking at them all the while. But some looked like actual, real creatures. Aldric was clearly unnerved by that.
"This one."
On command, he picked out one image. It was the one from the encampment back over twelve thousand years ago. The exact same dragon.
"Put a pin and that, and ask it about this symbol."
Drawing the symbol in the air was harder than expected. Whatever controlled Aldric's flimsy panels immediately reacted and made the drawn lines look real as they formed the four arms of the completely circular alternate swastika.
Again, dots fired up and triggered a chain reaction, until Aldric could call forth images. They looked desceptively like Nazies at first, but there were differences. Most of all, though, the chain reaction seemed to go on a lot longer, drawing in a strange assortment of things. Things like soldiers marching in uniforms centuries before the Nazi war. Or things that looked like other worlds, deep in space. A planet similar to Saturn, with rings around it, and something moving in those rings.
"Marie..."
"Ask it about beasts falling from the sky."
"Marie, we need to stop."
The images disappeared, the mist of dots portraying activity in the brain faded.
"What? Why? Bring it back up, this is essential!"
Frantic symbols, flashing in weird stop-motion ways, hung above Aldric's floating panels. Gauges measuring god knew what filled most of his field of vision, and he seemed highly displeased by what they showed him.
"The brain is reacting too much. I already switched off access to the amygdala in the simulation, so it's not just a knee-jerk response." He made a gesture that caused all panels to shrink, making his nervous face easy to see amongst them. "Whatever you're digging for, it's essential to the brain, too. You're touching on something deeply embedded in not just memories, but the brain's sense of self."
"In plain terms?"
"Plain terms?" he asked, sounding like a movie character cliche. "The brain is pissed and doesn't like what you're asking about."
It hung there, motionless. The body was largely one object, even though it was held in the bloodless, opened condition the machines needed to access everything. The brain was unfolded, the skull carefully opened and the folds, the gyres, of the pink and squishy brain carefully unfolded just slightly, just enough to expand access. It was barely anything, but it made the brain look like stretched bubbles gum. And the gum was refusing to cooperate.
"Can you bring it back up?"
Breaking from his usual delicate motion, Aldric had the panels go dormant as he called a set of circles out of thin air, walking over to the brain itself. Although he stood at an angle, it was clear to see that the circles functioned as some kind of magnification and detailed information tool, scanning the actual, physical brain
"I need to assemble the brain fully for this, Marie," he said apologetically. "It knows something is wrong, and it needs to feel less manhandled."
"How much?"
"I need to assemble the head and most of the upper body. And the hands. The fake inputs are not doing the trick any longer, it needs to believe that it has its body, at least those parts."
"No face."
He stpped what he was doing, turning and looking bewildered.
"No face?"
"Exactly."
He looked back at the disassembled body floating in the middle of the room, clearly baffled.
"Alright. The face doesn't seem essential to its sense of self, so no face. If that's what you want."
"It is."
He made some gestures and the machines took over. A ballet of tiny strings and what looked disgustingly like delicate hooks began to reassemble the pieces and get much of the floating body back together, before Aldric called the previous panels back up.
"Okay, beasts from the sky," he mumbled, and the images appeared. As expected, the iron foxes were in there, as were many that looked like what Jonathan's unit had been up against. There were even plenty glimpses that seemed pulled from the archives back at their base, the kind of images Mehmet had gone through by the dozens.
"Right. Take the dragons, the round swastika, the old soldier uniforms, the Saturn planet things and the beasts from the sky and combine them all with one concept."
Aldric flipped through the images like someone going through the latest releases at a vinyl record store, lining up a complex but in the end compact collage. He did what looked like a quick test, and several gauges popped up, looking a bit ominous.
"What is the concept?" he asked, his teeth locked together like those of a man expecting to soon regret something.
"Error."
Looking over to check that he had heard right, he picked a symbol through a quick sorting process that he somehow knew to navigate. The symbol stacked on the collage, and he looked over again before activating the whole thing on his flashy simulation of the agent's brain.
Everything lit up. The simulation sent traces between the tiny dots by the dozens, and they multiplied into hundreds, then thousands! Suddenly, the same warning signs came up as before, only more of them!
"The simulation needs to tap into the brain to follow this. You've hit some kind of motherlode, here!" proclaimed Aldric, speaking much louder than he needed to, a mix of fear and excitement having crept into his voice.
"Let it access whatever it needs, Aldric! This is what we've been looking for all this time!"
He waved his hand through several warning signs, and new paths began appearing between the little dots that symbolized the brain. Then, new symbols also appeared. Aldric's panels vanished, and a flood of what looked like symbol messages showed up.
"What the hell is going on, Aldric?!"
He was standing still, mesmerized, eyes wide and jaw dropping slightly. He had never before looked out of his depths, but this was a man seeing the center of his world fall apart, from the looks of him.
"Someone else is in the system," he simply said.
"Someone else?"
Symbols suddenly disappeared. The tiny machines holding the agent's body sprang to life and started handling the body. Started putting it together.
"Marie, we need to..."
"What the hell are you doing?!"
"Nothing!" he yelled, his voice tearing through the soft rush of sounds from the machines as they attached bone and tissue. "Whatever you hit, the system recognized it. The #*@!ing station system saw what you were asking and intervened!"
"How the hell is that possible?!"
Aldric stared at the body as misty beams from tiny, snake-like hooks closed up skin seamlessly, and others cleaned the burns to apply new flesh.
"Someone on the station must have hidden this reaction in it long ago," he tried to explain, his voice starting to crack.
And then, everything stopped.
The agent's body slowly turned around in the air, everything but hair back as it had been. Repaired, whole.
"Her?!" Aldric erupted! "You said it was just an agent! You never told me you #*@!ing captured her!"
The woman in white, naked and bald, floated gently down on the floor, landing with barely a sound on her feet.
"Kill her, Aldric!"
"How?!" he shouted back. "This isn't a prison, it's a #*@!ing neuro lab!"
"You must have weapons! We have guards here, right?!"
"You have shitty recruitment standards."
The last sentence wasn't spoken by Aldric. The voice sounded soft as velvet, calm as a whisper. It was her.
The place seemed to freeze, becoming oddly paralyzed. Any panel seen disappeared, anything displayed lost along with it. The room suddenly felt naked, stripped of anything but the walls and basic lighting. The woman in the middle of it, equally naked, was all that there really was to focus on.
She looked like a doll. Bald, every part of her body hairless, her eyes looking bulgy without brows or lashes. But it was her. The cheekbones would have given it away to anyone in doubt, but there were only three people in the now sealed room, and not one doubted.
"It took forever to find this place," she mumbled, sounding almost as bored as she did bitter. "Once we did, though, your people were laughably easy to infiltrate."
Behaving like some common guest at a stale dinner party, she took slow steps away from the platform she had floated over mere moments ago. When she wasted a moment looking at anyone, her eyes were filled with casual disdain, as if anyone daring to expect her attention was actively offending her.
"Clothes," she said in an equally bored, yet a bit more firm voice. A mist of tiny machines like those that had kept her body alive and, in the end, revived her, swarmed her and weaved fabrics right onto her body. Rather than the white coat she was known for, however, the weavers stuck to a very plain skintight one-piece, not that different from a quality gymnastics outfit, at least in appearance.
"Gun," she added, making Aldric crack a smile.
"Thats restricted," he remarked, sounding very sure of himself. He looked less sure when the machine mist swarmed her raised hand and a shape with the hint of a short barrel began to take shape.
"Station, cancel gun," he said out loud, but nothing happened. "Station, unseal room!"
"You're not in control," she snarled at him, seeming more annoyed than threatened by his growing desperation. "The second your little trooper here brought me in, the station recognized me and gave me full control over everything." She looked over, with a smirk on her lips. "Except I wasn't really in a state to use it, was I?"
There was nowhere to run. The room was now reduced to a circular box, sealed tight and emptied out. Details inside of it seemed to continuously fade by the second, as if she was actively having the station erase anything inside.
"Wasn't I?!" she suddenly yelled, pointing the gun aggressively. It had an odd design, looking more like a handheld model jetpack, with sharp angles and short double barrels with no holes in them, no muzzles for bullets. It had to be a particle accelerator of some kind.
"You picked the fight. We just won it."
She smiled, or rather grinned, at that comment.
"I hope you enjo..."
She was talking. It required a snap move, just a punch to the chest at the right angle. And as the small container cracked and spilled the black dust, the anchor to Aldric's age fell apart. Dots danced briefly, time enough to send poor Aldric a look that screamed for forgiveness for leaving him behind. Then, painfully, time ripped open. She had less than a second to react, and the gun wasn't charged, the perfect oversight on her part. But as the age dissolved, it left no feeling of victory.
3379 unfolded like paper crumbled in reverse, but everything seemed jittery and out of focus! Someone immediately sounded an alarm for some reason, people and hovering drones rushing in. Talking to them seemed in vain, either because they were ignoring every word, or because no words were coming out, it was hard to tell. But something smelled like blood. Something tasted like blood.
"... had a bad return," someone managed to yell through the incessant hum that seemed to fill everything. They all kept trying to do things, in one big, messy wave of activity. Suddenly, there was a brief blue glow and the taste of blood disappeared. Sound rushed in like a tidal wave!
"Marie, can you hear me?" someone kept repeating.
"Yes, yes, yes. I hear you. What happened?!"
"You broke your anchor. You ended your jump badly, and your body couldn't..."
There was some noise nearby, in a room obstructed by the walls.
"Your body couldn't handle it. You need to get back to..."
Another loud sound echoed through the hallway outside, distracting everyone.
"Did my return cause something through the building?"
Nobody seemed capable of answering. A disembodied screen appeared near the now crowded platform, but the moment it did, it just showed a brief glimpse of a wrecked room and then disappeared.
"What the hell is happening?!"
Again, no answer seemed to be coming. Half the people and drones in the room left through the door as it widened automatically to let them pass through, and in the briefly wider doorway, the hallways outside became visible. Yellow flashes ripped through the air nearby, causing everything to flicker briefly. Screams could be heard.
"Don't get up," someone warned, but it was too late. A bit hesitantly, everyone parted to make way, but walking felt hard, like dragging something heavy.
The door had shrunk down again, but with a quick command gesture, it moved along the wall and widened again to show the carnage unfolding outside. Defense drones had been summoned, the air thick with small machines swooping in to attack whatever was there. A series of flashes shredded them, clearing the air of obstacles.
"I know you're here!" roared a voice through the hallways. Her voice. The woman in white.
"Get everyone out of here."
The man who took the order nodded, then darted off.
"I can #*@!ing smell you, you insolent cunt!" she screamed, her anger filling the place more than her actual words. "I know you were in my brain, I can still feel the trenches where you dug!"
With remarkable efficiency, everyone had already mostly cleared out, leaving the place eerily empty and smelling of charcoal. The yellow flashes had subsided, but hasty, angry footsteps could be heard somewhere.
"There," she hissed quickly as she turned a corner, and a yellow flash ripped through the air! It split into a hundred smaller flashes and fizzled out along nearby walls, with her staring at the results with an annoyed scowl.
"Your defensive systems aren't gonna protect you for long," she yelled down the hallway as she dug in her naked heels and picked up speed. She was wearing a simple grey coat and nothing under it, something she had likely grabbed from a room or her first victim. And yellow sparks were zipping along it like fireflies on tiny leashes.
"How the hell did you..."
"You're not going anywhere," she growled, reaching a good running speed down the hallway. With a roar, she let loose another flurry of yellow bolts, but they all merged with the walls harmlessly. She was five seconds from physical impact, though.
She hit like a freight train, the yellow sparks now digging directly into the flesh that she touched! Tilting backwards on purpose made it possible to guide her in a soft arc, a trajectory going over and past. With a hollow thud, she slammed into the time machine platform inside the room.
"How did you track me here? What happened to Aldric?"
She scrambled to get on her feet again, but her odd flailing and unfocused eyes signalled that she was far from in control of her body. Time jump side-effects. She had also just arrived.
"Oh, you think you're so clever, little girl, do you?" she hissed as she struggled to regain her footing. "You take my base of operations, use my time machines. Did you honestly think there was nothing of me left in them?"
She was talking about The Embassy, about the main buildings back in Nakskov, in 2019. The time machines that had been captured from her, all those years ago.
"Yeah, feeling a bit less clever now, aren't you?" she growled as the yellow light began to manifest along her arms again. This time, however, the defensive systems went on the offensive, and small drones shot at her from every angle, covering her arms and seizing her legs and body. With an angry roar, she lit up in yellow like a short circuit, and the air again smelled burned. Breathing heavily, she locked eyes, barely even blinking.
"You want to know where your little creatures from the sky originated, girl?" she asked, trying to stop panting while her yellow sparks regained their strength. "Then let's get out of this place."
The room seemed to suddenly comply with her, reacting on nothing but thoughts. The time machine came alive at her mere touch, calibrating a jump that was very much not inserted into it.
"What do you say, little girl? All your questions ans..."
Bolting for the door in the middle of her sentence seemed the best choice at first, but her yellow lightning flashed through the air and struck the doorway with enough power to overload it, making the entire wall shut down, becoming a flat, dark blue surface.
A fog filled the room. The security system, preventing a fire it thought had damaged the wall.
"You're not going anywhere, girl," she growled as the time machine began to unfold its devil fingers. "You're coming with me."
The fingers turned into the usual cloud of smaller parts, adjusting and controlling the many energies within their sphere to rip a hole through time.
"You're insane if you think I'm stepping into that with you."
"Not exactly my plan," she answered with a frighteningly calm smile as the time machine began to give off an unfamiliar glow and what sounded like a busy tone on an old phone connection. The woman barely touched a spot on a small panel attached to the machine, and the fingers opened wider. The place became filled with a powerful vibration, a trembling in the air, before it sent out a powerful pulse that make the security fog slam against the walls of the room as a blast of light shot upward, ripping away the ceiling and exposing the sky through a glowing hot hole.
Everything became silent again. The machine simply stopped, the fingers never even reassembling, parts just falling to the floor as if it had all died from the effort. She stood on the far side of the room, now peering up through the hole with an unnervingly calm smile.
As the security fog scattered out through the hole in the ceiling and the air cleared, she grabbed a random piece of former furniture smashed against the wall and casually threw it onto the time machine's platform, right beneath the hole in the ceiling. Without breaking eye contact, she stepped onto the piece and jumped up, grabbing the edge of the hole and pulling herself out with disturbing ease.
It would be stupid to follow. She had all the advantages and...
There was no point in dragging it out. The wall with the exit was still glitched and firmly shut. The small patch on the jumpsuit that held the vial with enough black dust to be pulled another jump backwards felt tempting under the rough fabric, but she was doing something, something devious, tracking the jump back, destroying everything in her path. It seemed futile, like postponing the inevitable, but maybe this age had something out there that could deal with her, when nothing inside the now badly broken Embassy base could not.
It took another piece of broken furniture, stacked on the first, to make it even humanly possible to grab the edge of the hole and pull through it by strength alone. She wasn't there, waiting. The roof of the base, a half buried military installation, looked like an unusually bizarre rock formation, parallel ridges running along it for quite some distance. But beyond it, nature could be seen. Trees far away, rock closer by. The place had been deserted early in the war that now raged far away, the Earth now mainly a memorial to fallen civilizations. In decades, new structures would spring up, and by the time of Aldric's age, the planet would be a wildlife preserve, the one place in this part of the galaxy that allowed evolution to run rampant and create new species to study and seed on other worlds, if worth it. Huge, black monolith would be built, housing offworlders in sealed habitats to protect them against the organisms outside, and vice versa. Right now, it was an abandoned battlefield.
"Where are you?!"
The shout echoed freely a few times between the hard roof and the rising cliff walls nearby, before fading into the noise of thriving nature. It was answered by a clap in the distance, far too distant for her to have simply walked there. She had always been formidable, but this was not right. She had never been this strong, this empowered. Something wasn't entirely right.
"Curiousity killed the cat," a voice said out of nowhere.
"I'm not a cat."
"No, you definitely are not," the voice answered with a hint of glee. It was her. The voice had no distinct sound to it, but it was clearly her, from the way she spoke, the vicious undertone, like the voice a viper might have if it could talk.
The outline of her started to appear at the end of the roof, nothing but a shady blur. There was no sign of...
The feel of a powerful force came out of nothing, the sensation of it grabbing arms and legs being like the wind itself attacking! It pulled, pulled hard, towards her, making everything seem to zip by. And it ended in her hand, the squueze of her fingers around the throat.
"But maybe you're cat enough for me," she hissed through her shut teeth.
Being flung through the air by her felt like a child throwing away a candy wrapper, and the pebbles that lined the nearby river delivered a painful landing.
"You've been stalking me like a lost puppy for so long," she grumbled, walking menacingly across the the rocks, "I thought you'd be more enthusiastic about my evil reveal!"
The kick came like a dumptruck to the stomach, lifting everything up enough to float above the rocks for a second. It felt like both lungs had to reset themselves before working again, and while they did, her fingers got a hold of hair, pulling it back so hard it could be felt in every muscle of the neck.
"See the shapes at the edge of the trees?" she asked,  whispering like a snake's hiss. "They are the ancestors of iron foxes."
There were indeed animals by the trees, pacing back and forth like walking vultures. Beneath the shade of the trees, they were nothing but dark shapes, but whenever one peeked out from beneath that thick canopy, the long maws stood out clearly as it growled, wanting to attack but biding its time for perhaps an easier kill. Strange ridges, like low spikes or teeth, lined the outside of its mouth, and its fur looked scaly.
"You #*@!ed up, didn't you?"
From the harder pull on the hair it was clear that she disliked the question.
"You #*@!ed up, all the way back then, all the way back in that dragon and magic age."
Another kick to the gut, another explosion of pain. But this one was her letting out frustration, not taking control.
"Someone got away, and thrived. Someone built a future. And that future went up there."
Rolling over, the sky came into view. Yellow streaks among pale blue, a whimsical cloud here and there, but not many. Up there. She disliked the laugh that followed so naturally.
"The big, tough lady from the future #*@!ed up, and now, she's trying to, what, play tough? What do you expect..."
Completely without warning, she backed away in an inhuman jump! As she landed across the shallow river, she casually looked towards the trees. The animals had seen her leave, and now all they saw was a wounded person on her back. They immediately flew into a ravenous sprint!
Suddenly, the jumpsuit felt like a labyrinth! The small vial with black dust was somewhere in it, but in the panic, it became hard to remember where! Finally, a soft crack could be heard beneath the fabric, and as the colored dots and the burning pain rushed in, it was neck-a-neck with the rows of teeth and scales that smelled weakness!
3120 returned as a blinding white light, the long bridges and open space around the time machine's platform looking as if they glowed.
"She's coming. She is tracking me."
There was nobody to talk to, but someone was listening. Someone was always listening.
"There are no registered arrivals other than..."
It stopped, the room falling silent.
"There is one other return arrival. The source is not registered."
Of course not. Whatever she was using to track the return jumps, it was not a part os any Embassy system.
"Employ defenses. Stop her."
The next little vial was a tiny bump underneath the jumpsuit. It tempted badly, but the pain from just this one return still rushed through every vein and artery. Going to interrogate her had been risk enough, rushing back was a dangerous gamble.
Back. Why did she want to track the jumps back?
"System? What's happening?"
The voice had fallen silent. A faint tremble ran through the entire place, like something big closing in.
"Unidentified vessels approaching," the voice finally said, completely stoic.
She was taking out Embassy bases. Calling in reinforcements and taking them out, somehow!
The next small vial broke with some effort, the snap as it cracked disappearing into the sound of the colored dots rushing in.
2851 appeared, but nobody even had time to react. Each vial of black dust had been custom designed for just one trip backward, not the full jump back to 2019. It was ironic, this tactic being emplyed as a safety measure, a way to not die from the massive energy released by such a trip. It had almost been fatal when returning from the distant past, and nobody got two chances in a row. Now, however, one vial at a time meant a risk to everything The Embassy had built in the bases used.
The next vial cracked quickly, hopefully quick enough to not give her time enough to call in an attack on that one base. But it came at a cost.
"Marie, are you injured?" said a slightly artificial voice. The vaguly humanoid robot mimicked a look of concern, although its face was not entirely built for that.
"Activate all defenses. We are going to be under attack!"
The robot looked with dead, mechanical eyes, as if it was thinking about it, hesitating. The lights soon shifted to a thick yellow, rotating along all walls as a pulsating sound rang out.
"Marie, are you injured?" the robot asked calmly again. "Do you need medical assistance?"
"If you have something that only takes a few minutes, sure..."
Thin pillars reached up around the platform that the time machine was seated on, switching on with a sound that was reminiscient of a wind with constantly changing strength. A glow flowed from them, creating a soothing sensation in every limb and organ. Veins and arteries could be felt as they tightened and closed up their ruptures. Bone felt like it vibrated, like the humming sound of changing winds went directly into them and gently shook tiny fractures until they fit together. Then, moments later, a warm intensity as a new set of vibrations made blood rush in where it was needed. A scent of oranges and rust filled the nostrils, feeding something inside and helping the healing along.
Before the soothing wave could even end, the sounds from outside penetrated the walls. Dull thuds at first, then worse. A crunshing crack could be heard as something broke. Sirens of some kind blared not far outside the big room.
"I need to move on."
"You just got here. Your body should not..."
"I know. I know."
A rumbling spread into the room, sending a faint shiver through the very floor.
"My body will deal with it. Just break the anchor and have me return one step back."
The devil fingers flared up, but not like they did before sending someone out through time. They were activating to cut the anchor that had been planted in order to get here. This was still not a trip. It was a return.
The pull back through time felt like someone yanking every atom, every cell, in the body, all at once. But there was no pain, nothing serious, just the feeling of getting the wind knocked out of the lungs. And then, everything was a dusty brown.
"2613, welcome back, Marie," said one of the military clad people in the room.
"Thanks. Prepare the base for complete lockdown, quickly."
The man, looking to be in his twenties based on physique but fourties in his eyes, made a confused and rapid salute as a sign that he had gotten the message, but was stopped before he could rush off.
"They... they're already preparing," he said, looking into the air as he listened to a report coming in over an earpiece or something similar. "There's movement to the north. Rogue machine unit, hunting a woman headed this way."
Clever girl.
"If you can, take out the woman!"
The man looked completely flustered at that request. He stuttered a few sounds, then relayed the command through the same earpiece.
"Ma'am, why did I just order fire on a human?"
The machine war had passed. The world was rebuilding. Human life was still seen as precious.
"She's not human. She's a top of the line infiltration u..."
The pulsating beam of faint purple ripped through the wall like it was cheap paper. Screams flooded in, along with thick plumes of dust. Shots rang out somewhere, and things could be heard falling over or slamming into other things, or walls. Two small arial drones zipped in through the hole left by the beam, but thin wires followed and plunged into them like whaling harpoons, and they were yanked out the same way, slamming into damned near everything in their path.
"Run."
"What?" asked the soldier a bit skeptically.
"Run. Join the fight or run away, your choice. But don't be here when..."
Too late. The woman in white, now covered in dust and grime and blood, though it looked like someone else's, stepped over the wall, through the hole in it. With the calmest of expressions, she dropped to the floor, landing toes first and barely even needing to bend her legs to absorb the impact.
"How long do you think you can keep this up, little girl?" she asked with a voice that sounded more bored than angry. "You look damaged. Maybe just sit this one out, eh?"
The blast came out of nowhere. The soldier had snuck his way to a beam weapon that looked far too heavy for a single man to carry, and the recoil from the blast rocked him back on his feet. Beam weapons had very little recoil. The blast had to have been powerful!
Whether it truly was never came into play, though. It slammed the woman, sending her flying through the rubble and into a wall on the far side of the room, but it did not cut through her as it was likely meant to. It lingered, a cloud of sparks and static hanging around her like debris of a meteor clinging to a moon it had struck. As she stood up, it all faded away slowly.
"She told you to run," she sighed. As she stretched out a hand towards the soldier, he looked up from the sights of the huge weapon as it recharged. There was a strange mix of wondering and acceptance in his eyes as the cloudof sparks flared up around the woman and slid along her body, converging at the pointed hand. The bolt of energy made the room feel like the inside of a furnace. The soldier wasn't dead afterwards. He was simply gone.
"Now, you and me, little girl," she said softly, a faint wall of steam rising from her body.
"Stop calling me that, old lady."
Frustratingly, all she did as a response was to smile.
"What, you don't think I know who you are, Marie? You don't think I recognize you?"
Screams kept sounding outside, large machines briefly visible as they passed by the hole in the wall. Inside the room, there was a clenching silence.
"Oh, sweet, innocent, naive little girl. I recognized you the moment I caught your trail stalking mine," she said in a mockingly kind voice, like someone making fun of a child. "And I am going to ride your wave all the way back to your little consulate of misfits, tearing everything down along the way."
With needlessly slow, calm steps, she scaled a bit of rubble in the middle of the room. There was something mesmerizing about her as she moved, like watching a predator trying to walk calmly enough by its prey to not spook it, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
And when she struck, the small bolt of energy hit through kidney and into the bone. Not enough to kill, or even break the skin, but enough to fold like a cheap doll.
"Now break the anchor. Show me your next return point," she hissed.
As she moved in close enough, all the little vials began heating up, almost wriggling as if in fear. There was no choice.
2482 unfolded like an old television being turned on. With it came the taste of blood, cells rupturing in mouth and throat. As the small splatter of coughed up blood hit the floor, a thin vapor rose from it, like water being slowly brought to a boil.
"Are you..."
"Sorry, no time for chat."
The two men and one woman in badly worn clothes could do nothing but look on as the next vial was broken and the cloud of colored dots swarmed in.
2309 looked red, but not because of how it was designed. The warm sensation in the eyes told the story. Bleeding, the more sensitive cells in there having buckled under the pressure. There was no time to waste. The voices of the people rushing in disappeared in the thundering roar of the next vial breaking and time disappearing.
2146. Someone immediately rushed in, carrying a jurryrigged piece of machinery with a core of old world tech stolen from some heavenfall wreckage out there in the world. It would heal wounds. It would give back energy, stamina, the will and ability to fight her. But even with blood swelling in the skin and spilling through every orifice, there was no time. It was hard to find and break the final vial with trembling hands, as bloodloss slowly began setting in. But somewhere beyond the surrounding walls, the pop of a muffled arrival could be heard. She was already here.
As 2019 rushed in like waves crashing on the shore, the first thing that came into view was Daniel's face. His concern from when the time machine was originally activated was still the same. For him, it had been a quick flash, and the entire trip through time had been done. Now, all he saw was...
"For #*@!'s sake, Marie! We need to get you to..."
"No."
The single word came with accompanying blood, the droplets scattering over the time machine platform.
"No, 2015, September 17th, 11.25am, the small patch of forest just south of The Embassy."
He paused, looking horrified, not sure what to do with himself. Kris was already calling in medical personnel. The first thing they were trained to do was get the traveler out of the time machine, away from any lingering energies.
"Daniel, please. She's coming."
A whisper was all that came out, that and a bit of blood trickling down the lower lip. Daniel was pale as a corpse. But he nodded. And as Kris could be heard screaming at him in rage, he flicked in the destination with one hand on a nearby panel screen. The machine sent a command through its many, many complicated systems, systems that nobody at The Embassy truly understood, systems that had been studied ever since taking over the old time travel colony. They had the destination stored in there, in some hidden cartridge that was permanently hooked into the machines. No manual exchanging of cartridges before every trip. On an average day, a nice convenience. On this day, the chance to jump before Kris had time to swoop in and rescue anyone.
2015 hit like a sledgehammer. The destination was close, only a few years out, but it still meant arriving without a platform on the receiving end. Shot out of a cannon and through time and space itself.
The cool ground felt almost gentle against the jumpsuit, as blood began to seap out slowly. The air was cool, just as it had been on that day. Not far away, the sounds of struggle could be heard. Distant figures ran across the open field, while something invisible kept being slightly visible. The Embassy. The colony that would house it, all in good time. And the figures were pressing forward, flashes and dust flying back and forth. Soon, they would break through the veil and set foot, for a brief moment, on the grounds of the colony.
The slam of air from her arrival interrupted the brief moment of peace that watching that old fight from afar had so kindly brought.
"So, this is where you want your final stand," she said. Not a question, her voice made that perfectly clear. "Not much left in you now, huh, little girl?"
Rolling over felt like turning in a warm bath, the blood running through every cavity inside the jumpsuit, warm and sticky. The sky looked pretty. A few featherlike clouds, and sunlight.
"I hoped you would..."
"You talk too much, Sidney."
She fell silent for a moment.
"That's not my name," she hissed as she leaned in. Her long, slender fingers wrapped around throat and jaw like boney worms, and her grip tightened.
"You're no use to me dead," she said softly. "I know your corpse will just snap all the way back when your anchor expires. But this, this is a precious moment."
At first, her tightening fingers made the air taste metallic, as blood tried to fill the shrinking airways. Then, there was no taste. Her hands, however, did not prevent tilting back the head to look at the struggle in the distance.
"Yeah, relive old memories, little girl. While you slowly..."
She stopped all on her own. The second that her hand released a bit of its grip was enough. A quick, sloppy smash with a weakened forearm knocked her hand away, allowing a deep gasp of air to rush through mouth, airways, and into the lungs.
"Yeah, they're your memories too, bitch."
The struggle in the distance was culminating, and as the woman in white looked at her own minions beat back the attack of a bunch of kids, she remembered what was happening inside the veil. She remembered when the flash of an arrival made everything flicker, showing the colony briefly.
And the pain of the shockwave from it all washed over the land surrounding it like a glorious torrent of pain.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 59

(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 59 The damp streets of Nakskov glistened softly with those last bits of early autumn rain still clinging to the pavement. The hum of school children from the multiple schools that lay shoulder to shoulder near the town train station was a droning sound, mixing with the hush of low afternoon traffic.
At the edge of the sidewalk, barely noticing the cars occassionally passing in the street, sat a small figure, poorly dyed black hair covering its face, eyes fixed on fingers.
Farther away, a figure looking just like her was running as fast as possible.
I had at that point run for the better part of half an hour, feeling my legs pounding like I was sitting on the speakers at a rock concert. I had managed to hide along the way, but only briefly. Only to regain my strength. I was never the long distance runner in gym class, more the brief sprinter and then downsitter at the nearest bench. I didn't mind that phones were not allowed in gym, I was typically too preoccupied with feeling sorry for myself for any and all physical exhaustion.
They werent that hard to spot. Turning the corner, they came into sight very easily. The fact that I had run there was more perplexing, actually, and as I became aware of what I was doing, on a deeper time travel level, panic began to set in. Maybe I was attracted to familiar places, maybe I had just followed the road to its inevitable conclusion, I had no idea. But she, the robot copy of me, was not the one I knew. She would be later, once several things happened to pull her out of her current mindset. Right now, she was just a machine mimicking a girl. Not even alive, really. Easily repaired or replaced if she got damaged. Thoughts like those made me feel far less crappy as I raised the knuckle gun and fired off several shots. It was hard to  see the finer details while running at full speed, not to even mention feeling ready to faint at a moments notice, but it did look pretty when she exploded into robot confetti from a precise hit!
Mischa, who had been talking to her while her head exploded into robot components, was less thrilled.
"RUN!" I screamed, approaching him with rapid steps. But he barely even noticed.
"Run, dammit, run!"
He finally snapped out of it, pulling his eyes away from the twitching piece of headless machinery beside him and looking down the street at me as I came closer.
"Ida?" he asked in disbelief. I noticed his gaze briefly pass over my left hand as I flicked the small weapon into my palm and pocketed it. Even I was surprised at the damage it had done to the fake body double. Misha, needless to say, was still even more surprised.
"Run. Now!" I yelled, now seconds from him. He pulled away from the sputtering machine and got to his feet, hitting running speed almost the instant I passed him. I still grabbed his hand, making sure he would keep pace. He did.
"What the... what was..."
"Not now," I interrupted, but I could feel the confusion slowing him down.
"You exploded!" he finally half-yelled, and I felt him starting to slow down badly.
"Not me," I hissed, sending his eyes a quick, intense glance. "A double."
"Why?" His speed picked up a bit at finally getting some answers, in spite of the new questions they clearly raised.
"They want to replace me," I snarled between quick breaths.
"Why?" he added again.
"I stole a time machine. Pissed them off a bit."
Misha slowed for a second, then picked up pace even more than before. I smiled as I continued to try to plot the best course in my head.
"You what a what?"
The inner streets of town were not that crowded at that time of day, as far as I could remember. With my legs burning, I forced him to speed across the crosswalk diagonally, then head towards some of the more windy streets that Nakskov had to offer. One came up pretty quickly, doubling a bit back on my current route, but it seemed troublesome enough to follow us down.
Mischa did nothing but keep up with me, his terrified chatter having quickly died down as his panic and challenged breath needed  his attention. A vague, unclear sound stumbled its way out of his mouth here and there, but nothing of any consequence, or even sensible meaning. That ended when we took a very narrow path between two buildings and, contrary to every instinct in my body, stopped.
"Ida, what the hell is going on?!"
I wasn't answering him. The footsteps of about half a dozen of the time travelers from the house came through astoundingly clear between the many small streets. They sounded lost. Nakskov had that effect on a lot of people.
"Keep an open mind, okay?" I asked, waiting longer than I liked for his eventual, and inevitable, nod of acceptance.
"Time travelers are hiding out in Nakskov, because nobody really gets a bug up their ass about what weird people do down here. Oh, and they seem to believe that not a lot of people from around here will matter, like, historically. A bit insulting, if you ask me."
He just looked at me, eyes like a lost puppy, at first. Then he peeked into the street, pulling back quickly.
"Look, whoever you got mad, just tell me, we can fix it."
Feeling a bit insulted, I found myself taking a disheartened step back.
"I told you, dammit," I complained, making him only look more tired. "People from the future want to kidnap me and replace me with a copy."
It was a bit freaky to hear him spontaneously start laughing, honestly.
"So, time travelers want to replace you with lifelike copies? What the hell did you watch last nnnnnnn....."
His voice didn't exactly fade out as much as it shortcircuited rather abruptly.
"You're thinking about the me that blew up in your head, aren't you?"
He nodded.
"Okay, so clearly, some bizarre replica of you, I can live with that."
"Oh, it gets much weirder," I said, almost sounding like it was the second phase of a surprise party. Mischa seemed less confident in the whole situation.
"So were running from, what, time traveling robots?!" he said, his voice getting steadily louder and shriller.
"No, that's stupid. They just send humans. Some do weird stuff, but still human!" I tried to explain, seeing the pieces move around in his head when I looked at his eyes.
"But if they..."
"Metal conducts the energy used to time travel. Like tinfoil in a microwave. I think. And plastics melt. Living beings get some burns but they can heal."
He took one look up and down me, something I was not used to from him!
"Is that why you..."
"Yes, and I had to change, my clothes were basically glow in the dark. The bad kind."
It was quiet. There had been no signs of my pursuers for a while. Something relaxed inside of me, loosened up, and I took slow steps towards the mouth of the narrow path, where we had entered.
The streets were empty. A single car was parked on the curb, but nothing moved. No sounds.
"I think it's clear," I whispered. All of a sudden, I felt kind of silly.
"I think it's clear," I repeated, in a more regular voice. Mischa, apparently not entirely convinced, also peeked out.
"So you..." He seemed to honestly be looking for words to say. "You stole a... You stole a time machine. From evil time travelers."
"I, well. Not, not really. I think."
"Then explain it to m... run!"
He darted off without waiting, but at this point, running away had become a reflex. I was on his tail in seconds, not even looking back at what I was running from. He finally stopped a bit farther down the street.
"What the hell did you see?"
He had a weird look on his face, like a small child trying to explain an awkward experience.
"Not sure. I may have overreacted," he sheepishly grumbled. "Look, I'm not used to this shit after..." He looked at his wristwatch. "... after 14 minutes, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah, I've been there," I managed to get out between deep breaths.
"So why did you come to me?"
I completely forgot about breathing deeper to replenish my oxygen, instead looking at him with my mouth still somewhat open.
"We're... I mean... we deal with, like, shit. Together. Right?"
"I guess," he sighed, also trying to regain full breath and stop looking like someone trying to actually eat the air around him.
"I mean, I had this plan, you know, and it was kinda... I mean, it was like #*@!ing beautiful. Clever and shit," I rambled, feeling my brain shut down unimportant parts to conserve energy. Like the parts that made me think about things before saying them.
"What plan? Was I part of it?" he asked, sounding like he would be horrified to know the answer.
"Sort of. Your future version was. This is all, like, improvised, right now."
Some part deep inside my brain screamed for me to just shut up, before it became too dumb, or worse yet, revealed too much!
"So what is it?"
"Contact the good time travelers, have them help me destroy the bad."
"Really? How?" he replied, suddenly standing up straight, seemingly ignoring any strained breathing.
"Doesn't matter. They're not as good as I thought."
"Oh great!" he burst out, loud enough that I tried discretely shushing him and looking nervously around the street. "Now we have bad time travelers, and not so good time travelers. Sounds like solid company you're stuck in, Ida."
Feeling the disappointment of my journey into the past wash over me, I sank down against the old house behind me, face in my hands, struggling not to cry.
"It's all #*@!ed, Misch. They told me I was special and everything, and I listened. Now it's just, it's just all #*@!ed."
He stood very quietly for a moment, looking for anyone threatening walking the streets.
"Do you need them for it. Like, for real?"
The question ran through my head, multiple times. Karen's explanation of how time travel worked, or at least some interesting basics. The fight with the woman in white out in the fields north of town. The old school buildings to the south. Something was hiding in there, an idea. And when it finally clicked, I felt a soothing sensation wash over me from the inside.
"No, we don't need them," I answered in an uncharicteristically confident manner.
Footsteps could be heard at that exact moment, almost as if my answer had called them into existence! We had been so deep in the conversation that neither of us had been watching our surroundings, and now that had snuck up on us! There was a loud crash, and even before I could turn and look, Mischa had glanced over my shoulder.
"Holy shit, are there other robot things out there?!" he said as he backed away. As he ran, so did I, never getting a full look at the source of the sound.
"Yes, why?"
"Because I am pretty sure those guys are robots!"
"What? Who? Why?"
"Behind us. Just run! One of them smashed right through a set of storefront windows to get to us!"
"People might do that!"
"There was a #*@!ing open door right there! That's robot beha..."
He made a choking sound when something grabbed him from around a corner we passed, and I turned instinctively and fired the knuckle gun. Bits and parts exploded everywhere, and somehow, Mischa still managed to land on his feet. Clumsily, but on his feet.
"They're catching up!"
"Who is?!" he asked frantically as he gained speed and caught up with me.
"The #*@!ing robots. Or the time travelers. I don't #*@!ing know any more!"
"What? Are there werewolves and ghosts out there, too? What the hell is..."
"The harbor," I suddenly yelled, cutting him off. "We need to go there, they can't hang out there."
"Why?!"
"Some wacky energies from a school down south. I'll explain later!"
Everything ached as we sprinted through town. Mischa still had his strength, but I was running on fumes and a spreading sense of pain free numbness. The shifting street pavement, going from asphalt to cobblestone to tiles in just seconds, was killing my feet, but I blocked out the pain as best as I could.
Finally, the harbor showed up ahead of us. I smiled, tired, at the smell of saltwater and light industry, the sight of light reflecting in water as we came near. And a strange sense in the pit of my stomach. Hope.
That sense was quickly drowned out by another, a sense of pain! I said nothing, just gritted my teethand sucked it up, hoping it would not get much worse. It did.
"What's wrong?" asked Mischa, slowing down as I grew slowly weaker.
"Nothing. A cramp. It's okay," I managed to say, clutching any part of me I could. "Here, take this!"
Struggling a bit to get it off my hand, I threw one of the two knuckle guns to him. He caught it, still while running, but just gave it a puzzled look.
"It's a gun. Kinda," I explained, poorly. "Put it on and use the thumb trigger."
He looked at me with horror in his eyes, glancing at the device a few times, still running at an okay speed.
"I'm not gonna kill people!" he proclaimed, sounding and looking gravely offended.
"Don't worry," I said calmly, "it only harms robots!"
Looking at the device with a slight amazement in his eyes, Mischa nearly ran into poles and whatnot standing in his path, but he evaded each one at the last second. Suddenly and without warning, he made a spin to a full stop, aiming the knuckle gun directly behind us. I came to a halt a bit farther away, but turned to watch him fire at the figures we could see in pursuit of us. One stumbled, his arm going slack, the other was slowed massively down. But Mischa kept firing. Until suddenly a car on the road sparked visibly, wavered a bit, and simply came to a dead stop. With a look of confused fright on his face, he looked back at me.
"Huh. I guess it's anti all machines or something," I answered to his unasked question, as if it was about nothing but a fancy remote control.
The pain felt like small creatures gnawing at my innards at this point. I kept telling myself silently to just endure it, but it was becoming more a steady drag on my energy than some form of injury. It was perfectly clear that Mischa saw this when looking at me, his eyes filled with impotent worry, knowing both that we could not stop, and that even if we could, I had my mind set on something, and he was not going to back out of anything.
"The green park thingie," I half gasped through what felt like the worst running stitch of my life at this point. Mischa did not skip a beat, and continued to follow the harbor, only sending a slight glance back from time to time to check on the pursuers.
The green park thingie was not quite a park, but it kind of had the ambitions to be one. A few cleared paths ran through a thinly wooded space between the roads, looking like you walked through a tranquil forest. If you ignored the constant sound of traffic right outside the treeline, that was.
The lights were on our side, more or less. Mischa got ahead of me, my legs feeling more like lead by the second! He timed it perfectly to cross at green along the one crossing point, while I was two steps out when it turned yellow, but with too much momentum to do much about it. I got across just as it turned red, noting that there were actually a few cars out and about at that time. Not many for most places, but a fair number for Nakskov. Reaching the green path, I turned to see a few of our pursuers stumble their way across to avoid cars, while others held impotently back. But more than that, I saw how several were grabbing their stomach, one his chest. The energy from the blown timemachine was affecting the ones amongst them that were time travelers and not robots. I was feeling it too, though, and keeping up with Mischa was becoming impossible.
"Misch, I need... we need to stop... for a moment..."
He stopped and turned, looking on edge, constantly glancing over my shoulder.
"I need to... tell you something," I panted, fighting for oxygen. I was about to continue when he bolted off to the right! Everything felt like I was being electricuted, or burned from the inside, as I followed suit. Energies ran rampant in me, not enough to really do anything but be felt. Unable to hold a pace with Mischa, I slowed a bit more and looked back. Five were in full pursuit, getting close. The rest were stumbling more and more, looking tormented as they tried to endure the same energies. For a brief moment, I hoped dearly that being only a few days in the past gave me some kind of advantage.
As we made our way into the open green field near the path, a splash of pure green hidden from the streets by only the thinnest of treelines, dizziness began setting in, making my vision blur and setting the world slowly spinning. When I felt the numbing jolt in the back of my leg, hitting like a thrown electric shock, I cried out, collapsing on the grass. Forcing myself to look ahead, I saw Mischa kneel and fire off a stream of faint bolts from the knuckle gun. Then, things got really quiet. Even the sounds of traffic seemed to fade away a little. I rolled over on my back, my leg feeling burned but looking only a bit red as I gazed down. Past the tips of my toes I could see the trees by the green path like a conga line of fuzzy green and brown. I could also see blurry figures either writhing or dancing manically, falling over and forcing themselves back up. A barely visible bolt went through the air, leaving a humming sound in its wake, like a crisp static. Even though it passed safely over me, I felt the strange hum in my body, like I had in my leg.
"Get up!" hissed Mischa not far away from me. I struggled, trying to make my legs work, but they kept failing me. "Get up, I got the robot ones, apparently. The others are..." He looked towards the treeline. "I dont know what the hell they're doing, really. But they're not coming for us!"
I saw the glee in his eyes, the rush of adrenaline that he would never, ever admit to. Then I tried to stand, but it felt like phone signals going through my head, noises like voices, a screaming from far away and right beside me at the same time! Clutching my ears, I fell to the ground again.
"What the hell is wrong with you," I heard him ask from behind the noise. Rolling onto my back again, Mischa kneeling over me with his knuckle gun pointed at the time travelers that would never feel it, I concentrated with all my might on that one moment. All my strength, focused on making that single moment work.
"You know the school building down south, right? The big one?" The old school buildings were quiet. The bus disappeared down the long, empty road that continued onwards to some of the small coastal hamlets. It had been hell, traveling towards the source of the nausea and pain, but it made it seem worthwhile to know that any of the woman in white's stooges would suffer even more if they tried to follow. And I had Mischa. Unaffected and utterly confused, he never took his eyes off of me during the entire ride, even telling the bus driver that I had food poisoning, complete with a story about a made up food challenge at a made up friend's place, all without ever letting his eyes off me.
And when we got to the stop by the old school, he practically carried me out. Sweat ran from my brow like a broken water main, and I was shaking like a fever victim before the last breath. The driver had called back as we got closer and it got worse, asking if we should go to the clinic instead, but Mischa politely declined every time. I couldn't fit the notion in my head. Going there, being in places in my own past. A string of movies warning of dire consequences when meddling with the past ran in my head, all at the same time.
Around the school, things were different. The fields were quiet, and the one main street was devoid of people. Wanting to argue but failing at it, he supported, nearly dragged, me to the old bike sheds nearby. They looked horrible, rust already set in throughout the metal roof and its supports, weeds and vines fighting to grow over the low wall first. The racks themselves were old fashioned iron ones, and nearly all had been vandalised enough to now be bent out of shape. As he sat me down in their shade, I felt like I would soon become some bizarre new part of the living mass that was the bike racks.
"Seriously, Ida, what the #*@! are we doing here? You look like a three days old corpse, and there's #*@! all here but... Shit, I don't even know what's here. Windmills and existential despair?"
My arm flopped about a bit. I wanted it to point at the school buildings, but it had clearly checked out for the day and was not about to cooperate.
"In the... bliding..."
"In the building?" he less than confidently corrected me. I smiled and gave him a sloppy thumbs up.
"Is masine in basmin. Go in foo boken windo," was all I managed to rattle off. He nodded, but it was obvious to anyone that it was mostly out of courtesy.
"Peat," I demanded. "Peat wasad."
It took him a few seconds, then his eyes lit up like candles.
"Repeat?"
I nodded.
"Uhm, sounded like there is a mason in the basement, and you want me to go in through a broken window?"
"Mash. Mashen."
"There's a machine in the basement?"
I nodded again, feeling like my head could drop of like a ripe pear at any moment.
"Go bind, poo aw dingie, tack carsash. Cartish. Fuuuu...."
It felt like the worst possible fever. My organs were clearly trying to kill me, either by cooking me or by swelling till I popped. Somehow, I thought that was funny as hell. Realizing that made me worry what the time energy radiation stuff might be doing to my brain!
"Go bind? Blind?"
I shook my head, feeling about to vomit from seasickness.
"Go behind? Oh, go behind the building? The machine? Go behind the machine, pull the... thingie? Okay, good. Pull that and take.... cash?"
I made a box with my hands and pretended to insert it into something. It looked fine in my head, but it came out like a spastic seizure.
"Cartridge?"
I had never been so happy to hear a word.
"Broken window, machine in basement, go behind, pop out a cartridge and bring it to you, got it."
"Nooo.... out, put away."
"Put it away, got it. Where in the basement is it?"
"Art suppie. Hidden folo. Seckit button in door fame."
"Art supplies, hidden floor, secret button in door frame."
I gave him the best thumbs up my muscles could perform, and he stood up to walk, then walked away with strides full of fake confidence. I had seen him walk like that before, but it tended to be as a joke of some kind. Part of me was worried, but the rest of me was too tired to care. I watched him disappear around the back of the school, stretching my neck to look over the low bike rack wall.
It took a few minutes. There was no real warning, it just felt like the world suddenly switched on again. Light became the right brightness, edges were crisp and clear, sounds and smells made sense, and my thoughts became coherent. With some trepidation, I tried moving my limbs, finding each of them to be perfectly functional. It felt like being dealt a fresh new body, straight off the factory line!
Walking, or perhaps more strutting, across the parking lot, I marveled at the limberness of my legs, unable to take any of it for granted! Not stopping to worry whether everything was really back online, I skipped a small fence to get behind the school building from this opposite end of it. In no time flat, I was at the broken window, still flapping gently in the soft wind.
"Hi!" I said, loudly, seeing Mischa inside the room. He freaked completely, having a sudden fullbody flinch that looked more like a bad dance move.
"Jesus F. Christ, Ida, you scared the... Hey, you're walking!"
"Yeah, miracle cure, first come first served!"
"Okay, a bit too chipper, Hermoine" he said, walking to the window with a look of suspicion on his face. "What now? What's the master plan?"
The moment I opened the loose window, the nausea and pain came flooding back. It was a split second, just until my fingers lost control of the window and it smacked halfway shut again, but it was unmistable. I suddenly remembered to look at the floor.
"Shit. I cant go near that black stuff, or even breathe it," I muttered a bit out loud, and we exchanged glances for a bit.
"You're going to ask for a piggyback ride, aren't you?" growled Mischa, defeated look in his eyes. I slowly nodded. Standing in the presence of the time machine again was a strange feeling, a strange thought to wrap one's head around. I would use that in the future. I would go into my recent past with it, and there, here, now, I would attempt to use it once more. I felt like either I would remain confused by that concept, or I would understand time travel and just go mad from it.
"This is... This is a time machine?" asked Mischa. I had half expected him to.
"Yes," I answered, rushing over to the crates full of cartridges. It took me no time to find the right one. Even with their simple shape, each had its own elaborate design, like abstract posters in a dorm room I had once seen.
"We could... We could do anything. Kill Hitler, stop 9-11, play the lottery...."
His voice dragged on the last idea. I already knew why. I already knew what his brain was about to think, before it even did.
"Paul..." he muttered in a low voice, right before I grabbed his face in my hands and stared him directly into his eyes.
"We will try to save your brother, but right now, we need to stop the people coming for us."
"But we ditched them already. Didn't we?"
I made a low growling sound as I walked over to the many screens and panels on the machine, made from tablets and phones and anything they could find when they built it. Whoever they were.
"Those were a small handful of goons she could spare. She should have sensed that the machine is fixed and the energy leak is gone." I breathed deep, the fight at the school building flashing before my eyes. "Theyll be here soon. Unless we mess it all up for them."
Without giving Mischa any kind of explanation or even warning, I whacked the cartridge I had pulled from a crate against the rough stone floor. To my dismay, nothing happened.
"What are you trying to do?" asked Mischa, sounding far too level-headed for someone who had just seen his first time machine.
"Trying to break a piece off," I answered, quickly regretting how angry my voice sounded. Without asking, he grabbed the cartridge from my hand, then put it on the ground. When he pulled the damaged cartridge from a spot in the corner, I instantly felt the unsecured energies reach out and grab my body. But before I could react, he smashed the broken cartridge on the one I had picked. With quite some pride, he held up the tiny bit that came off the corner.
"Same material, equal strength," he chirped, and I made a sarcastic grin right back at him.
Karen had explained more than she needed to when instructing me on fixing the time machine, far more. The empty cartridges were exactly where she had said they would be, and after sticking the broken piece in one, I inserted it into the slot that the broken cartridge had been in. It pulled the cartridge into the machine, and I could feel a pulse go through the entire place. When I looked at Mischa, he seemed completely oblivious.
"This piece is my path through time," I said in a pompous voice, pointing at the now shut cartridge slot. "The machine will track where it is in my destination time and have me arrive at its exact location."
"How exact?" asked Mischa, oddly casual about the whole thing.
"Perfectly exact," I replied, noting how excilerated I sounded! "I will arrive at its location, shattering it in the destination time. But really it's already shattered all up and down the timeline. It's a bit hard to understand," I ranted, going through options on the screens, all of them in pictograms that still required me to think carefully.
"Try me," said Mischa, and I turned to look at him.
"Its hard to understand, meaning I don't understand it, Misch."
"Ohhh..." he responded, giving me the old nod, click and a pointed finger. "Why do you.."
"Im going to break a cartridge all over the place," I answered before he could finish.
"So, uhm... Didn't you already break it?"
I suddenly stopped and looked at the damaged cartridge on the floor. I would be there in a few days, my original, un-time travel self, picking up the cartridge and putting it in my backpack before Alex drove me to the fight. What had I put in my bag? Had I just changed the future?
I never finished the train of thought. Mischa simply pickedup the damaged cartridge, polished it with his sleeve, and neither of us could even see that the corner was missing. The elaborate surface design was like an abstract painting with one color stroke missing. My future self would never know.
"Did we do this in the p..."
I grabbed the cartridge from him and looked him right in the eyes.
"Do not go down that rabbit hole. This is mind#*@! country," I sighed at him while putting the cartridge back. I then stepped over to the main screen, if one could call it that, and activated the machine. The devil's fingers sprang to life and exposed the platform. I didn't even hesitate before stepping onto it.
"The flashing red button on the screen," I told Mischa as I knelt down on the platform, turning my overall shape into a ball, feet and hands supporting me like a runner at starting base.
"Flashing red sounds bad," he said in a weird, slightly distant voice. Then our eyes met and he hurried over to push it. Within seconds, the large fingers were dissolving into their tiny components, and I felt the energies of past and future rush through me. Or just a damned lot of electricity!
Everything went blindingly bright.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 58

(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 58 "Are you okay for this" asked Daniel with some skepticism in his voice.
"Are you #*@!ing insane?!" followed Kris, his skepticism sounding a lot more like frustration or even anger. "You're barely alive at this point. You wanna go to the future as a chunky paste of former human body?"
He was clearly being serious, very much so, in spite of the odd delivery. He looked ready to punch someone in the face, though it was a bit unclear whom.
"I can handle th..."
"No, Marie. No, you #*@!ing cant," he insisted. "You've beaten your body to a bloody pulp over the years, but even for you, this is pushi..."
"I get it!"
Both of them were taken a bit aback by the sudden outburst, judging from their faces.
"Look, I get it, I am, after all, the one living in this body."
In spite of their obvious impulses to object, they were quiet.
"I know the risks, I know I'm technically still on medical, but..."
It was hard to defend, in so many ways. Especially as someone who had actually trained new recruits and emphasized, nay threatened, that there were only so many things the human body could handle when it came to time travel. And those recruits had not been bouncing around time like a bunny on crack for a good while!
"Look, everything is right there before us. We just need to put the pieces together."
Oddly enough, they seemed to almost be calming down. Relative to the situation, of course. For Kris in particular, going to throw pipe bombs at a schoolyard could be considered calming down, if the look on his face was any indication.
"Something happened. Something actually split time at some point, probably somewhere in the 1700s. I just need to..."
There it was again. The doubt. The nagging sensation that things like motives were getting muddled. A subconscious agenda bubbling up.
"I need to know. I need to know what we built all of this for."
It wasn't a lie. The need to know was like a ferocious monster, clawing its way through flesh and bone, wanting to burst out and devour everyone.
"If we don't understand what that woman in white did all this for, then we are still back there. Back in the mud, just fighting to hang on."
The melodrama was sneaking in, so thick it felt like sirup oozing from some deep, internal demon. Pathos. Playing on their fears, their emotions. The pure need to know was not enough, it needed drama.
"This way, we flip the script. Turn the tables, get out in front of her."
The words were doing their thing, massaging their way into their minds and causing their emotions to switch around. It wasn't just about the need to know now, it was about survival, about the greater cause. It was about The Embassy, and not just a burning question that needed to be put out.
"You're going through the boosters, right?"
It was Daniel asking, while Kris simply threw his hands in the air and made muffled, vaguely cursing sounds.
"Every last one. Not gonna risk anything that isn't absolutely necessary."
"Yeah, right, you're the epitome of cau..."
He never got to finish. Daniel had already started the devil fingers, and before the old man could finish his words, the world lit up into a blinding flash.
As the blinding part cleared and the pain subsided, the room was a different place. It looked like the inside of a large container. Mostly because, technically, it was.
"2146, May 4th, 15:18"
The information was on the wall, literally, in fairly large lightboards. Still, the young woman in the reconfigured hazmat suit felt a need to say it out loud.
"I'm just..."
The damned of it was, Kris was absolutely right. Of course he was, he knew the physics of time travel and the effects on the human body better than anyone else at The Embassy. He knew that the damage from all those trips was collecting in every joint and tendon, that being ripped in and out of time had changed enough molecules to rival toxic exposure.
"Sorry, a bit dizzy..."
"That's okay," the woman explained politely. She had to be new at this branch. She had no idea who she was talking to. "Its a very normal side effect of time travel. We have some tonics that can..."
"Yup, load me up!"
Interrupting her that crudely spooked the polite smile off her face, and she nervously rushed into an adjacent room.
2146. Not long after Heavenfall. Sections of orbital stations should still be dropping from the skies, most never burning up more than badly scorched and twisted exteriors, their valuable technologies often making it to the surface, and some even suviving the impact. That could not be said for things in their way during the fall.
The place looked like the remains of some fancy shopping mall, rounded walls and no windows, likely a floor beneath the ground. Many architects never knew how much their creations were like the bunkers of more warring times. There had been modifications, of course, with plenty of tech being brought in. And in the center, the time travel platform, the rest of the machine around it. Built from parts acquired in shady deals with time travel renegades and their often impressive organizations.
"Here, drink slo..."
She had no idea how to react, and the contents of the bottle were gone before she could think of anything.
"I'm good to go."
She wasn't moving. Recruits in future or past offices were almost always natives, unlike many at the main office in 2019, who were refugees recruited back into time travel, often with a desperate need to understand the role of themselves and their situation in the greater scheme of things. A need for answers. Not an unfamiliar concept, honestly.
"I think I should call the..."
"Gerhan, is that you by the controls?"
A short man, slightly balding and a bit too thin, perked up.
"Gerhan, start this thing up."
He looked around a bit uneasily, but then nodded.
"Yes, Marie," he casually called out. Hearing the name, something shifted in the eyes of the young woman, as if some great secret had been revealed to her. Before anything could come of it, she was gone, along with the room, the bulding, and the world around it.
2309. A sleek display surrounding the time machine said so. It said date, time and location, too, instantly informing an arriving time traveler, lessening the impact and likely confusion. But the details were unimportant.
"You, the... what are you, arrival guide?"
The man in the blue and grey lab coat kind of outfit looked up from a screen that only he could see. Implants, very handy, but it took only a bit of experience to notice them, and that quickly made the whole thing seem tacky, like a cell phone at a funeral.
"The guide is coming, miss," said the man, his eyes shifting between spots that he seemed convinced that would occur from.
"Time tech? Logistics? Come on, give a girl a hint."
He cracked a nervous smile. He looked 30-something, but this was an age of quality surgery and rejuvenating technologies. He could be any age. Few time travelers actually thought about the fact that the rooms around a time machine were often designed to display the age. It was a subtle idea, to always put a sense of their new world in the minds of the less trained, and to let the veterans keep better track of complicated jumps.
"Medical. Are you f..."
"Oh #*@!ing great!"
Standing up was an effort. It felt like defying some natural law of either physics or biology, or both. Everything felt heavy and limp.
"Medical, throw me in the nearest cocoon!"
He acted fast, likely experienced with people more or less falling out of the time machine, likely in much worse shape. That thought made it less awkward to be dragged by him into an adjacent room and placed into what looked like a large pill capsule. Shutting with a meaty snap, it felt like a casket, like a coffin. Unlike a coffin, it seemed to come alive within moments of being shut. Little bits zipped along hair-thin rails inside, with larger things visible moving on the outside, through the semi-transparent material the entire thing seemed made of.
Then, waking!
The canopy of the coffin split and opened like someone cracking a large egg, making air circulate and changing the smell from stale sweat to ionized and static air. Neither air was bad, but the massive difference between the two was like a wall hitting the nose.
"We've cleaned up your..."
"I know what the thing does."
The man standing at a physical screen held by a thin metal arm looked up, then looked at the medical expert from earlier, who was standing beside him. That man nodded softly, looking a bit perplexed himself.
"I can walk, you don't need to..."
The medical expert stopped his attempt at support, silently walking out the room. There was no hallway, no grand network of rooms. Just a door leading right back to the time machine. This time, there were several more people in there.
"Are you back?" asked an older woman, standing by a small wall of screens. "We barely had time to set it up!"
"Yeah, sorry, in a bit of a rush, here."
She didn't like that remark, not one bit. But she made no protest. The machine started up with the familiar hum.
2482, according to the screen on the slightly dusty wall. The soft curves of the shopping mall, or whatever it was, were gone, as were the flashy screens and lights. Angles, straight lines, corners and dull colors. Military base.
"You okay in there?" asked a man in plain combat fatigues. He didn't sound worried, seeming more like it was a standard question of some kind.
"Yeah, I'm actually surprisingly fine!"
He smiled.
"I can see, coming from the early 2300s. Good time. Good tech," he mused, in that casually stern military tone.
"2482? That's machine country, right?"
He nodded, standing straight as a flagpole.
"It is. But don't worry, we're pretty buried here, mines all over the place upstairs."
"Easy, soldier, just getting my bearings. Are you clocking me out?"
He shook his head, nodding at someone inside a tinted glass cage.
"Great, let it rip!"
The room seemed to shake and dissolve, and the blinding light returned. It somehow felt less intense, though.
A large, well-lit room. Quiet, but with a touch of nature sounds.
2613. Large text on the softly lit, slightly green wall. Thin lines made the text seem crisp and sharp.
"Hello? Anyone there?"
There was a hum. Not a mechanical sound that resembled a hum, but an actual voice that made a quick hum, as if very pleased with something technically insignificant.
"Hello? I need to move on."
"Do you need access to the air or spaceport?" asked a disembodied voice, sounding very pleasant.
"No, time travel. I have a set schedule, you should have it."
"Yes, I do. Sorry about that, well get you right on your way, shall we!"
"Yes, we, uhm, shall. Please."
Post-war artificial intelligence. Always a bit weird to deal with, having evolved themselves to mimic humans a bit too much. To the right of the room, there was a window, twisting spires and odd architectures mixing in with more practical designs. This age was rather infamous for its weird influences from alliance with the machines, honestly.
Blinding light. It felt slightly like a punch to the gut. The cocoon's restoration was not handling things as nicely any longer. Soon, the pain would be coming back.
2851, a slightly more daring jump than the others. The number was just one of many hovering along the walls, a deep red grading into a lighter nuance all across the room. The time machine podium, however, was a dull white, like standing atop a wide marble pillar.
"Being directed," said a man whose age was impossible to tell, mainly because of his strong teal tint. It distracted and confused the brain. But the blinding light took those worries away.
3120. The time machine operators were getting more daring, extending the jumps. Jumping from platform to platform did provide far, far more safety, but it still felt like someone sneaking up on you, the growing risk they ran. The trip was largely Daniel's design, with Kris adding some tricks in, begrudgingly.
Everything was very bright. The time machine was at the end of a narrow, brilliantly white bridge, lined by a delicate, yellow light. Somehow, it seemed decorative, not functional. Decadent.
"Getting ready for relay," said a soft voice from nowhere in particular.
"No, wait!"
"Waiting," the voice confirmed.
"I need... I need medical. I need some minor medical resto.... restoration."
A wave seemed to roll along the surface of a bridge, before it burst through its surface and was actually two big, white caterpillars. It felt very strange to have them wrap themselves around every limb, but the uneasy was somehow never more than that. They stayed attached for maybe half a minute, then burrowed into the bridge again and disappeared.
"Medical restoration applied," said the voice.
"Yeah, thanks."
A gentle force seemed to push and pull around the open room around the bridge, and suddenly, the time machine had what it needed. The blinding light was very sharp, this time.
3379. A time of war. More correctly, another time of war. This one had a greater scope, spanning stars, but war nonetheless. It raged somewhere outside the large room that held the time machine.
No voice, just an odd feeling inside the head, as if someone was flipping through brain cells. Then, one more blinding light.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

Worthless, Chapter 57

(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 57 Daylight began to break. I was never that obsessive about Nakskov's nature, to be honest. I appreciated it, taking a few minutes now and then to stop and look at the landscape when I was outside the inner parts of the town, but I never really sought it out. For years, the beauty of the thing was just a plesant biproduct of everyday life. The last few days had started to significantly change that, making me step out of my plans, out of my routines, to enjoy the sight, sound, and overall feel of the wide open.
Of course, taking it in while trying to dry from an escape through a brook, hiding in an unsupervised shed on the outskirts of town was not the way I really wanted it to unfold. I stayed near the house, not wanting to spend the night walking by the roadside in drenched clothing. There were plenty of these sheds to be found, if one knew where to look. Farmers, and even people just owning homes bigger than what they needed on a daily basis, would leave an old wooden shed unattended for long periods at a time, except for the occassional stop by to put something in or take something out of storage. This night I had spent behind garden equipment, except for when I moved about or dared take off some clothing to try manually drying it. By the time the sky began to show the first streaks of sunlight, I was fairly dry, even if far from warm.
I did take a few walks, though. The house was close enough to keep tabs on the situation, even if all I could do was watch from afar. Whether or not they had noticed my absence was hard to say, the activity seeming fairly regular even without a prison escape added to it. A few cars made frequent runs to the place, staying for a few minutes before speeding off along the main road out of town, far away from Nakskov. As the night progressed, the cars stayed longer and came back later. They were driving fewer things farther away. The house was being emptied, but not to a single destination. They were spreading things out, even if knowing exactly where to was impossible.
And then, with dawn about to break, it all died down. No cars returned. Every car loaded a handful of people along with whatever items they carried. They were abandoning it. And as I stood at the curb, looking at the dark house with its curtains drawn, part of me felt a kind of sympathy with the place. Or maybe not sympathy. Maybe more a kinship, the feeling of being left behind steadily becoming far too familiar.
It was a stupid risk. However empty the place looked, all it took was one person, one sentry left behind, to grab me and condemn me to being bound and gagged in that place again, or worse. But the place drew me in. At least, that's what I told myself.
Everything was not gone. A few crates could be seen through the windows, and I recalled the woman I had seen on the bed inside, hooked up to medical equipment, unconscious and badly damaged. I had always assumed she had been hurt by the event, by the time machine being blown and sending out this strange wave of whatever. But through the curtains, through the cuts and tears in the old fabric, I could see the bed inside, empty. She would be there, soon, but she was not there yet. And as I stood there, I had to marvel a bit at how calmly my brain accepted that. My recent past was now my near future. I was remembering things yet to come, and it felt perfectly natural.
It took very little to get in. The house was fairly solid, built back in an age of thick brick walls and heavy wood, not the sleek plastics that many other houses had been upgraded to. But wood meant rot, and especially around the back, the covered terrace was an easy victim. I rattled at a door that looked like its best days were behind it, and after about a minute or two, something clicked as the wood bent, though it never splintered.
Inside, everything looked just as bad. They had not been all too careful in their moving, and scrapes had marked every part of the house. Some had ripped shallow scars in wood and walls, others had left streaks on the same walls, like scoff marks of a wallrunner. It looked like the place had been a warehouse that was robbed, with clearly a lot of things removed rather forcefully. Odds were, that was not that far from the truth. Something told me not all of the things had belonged to these rebels, although they were likely stolen from...
My train of thought came to a halt as I peeked at the upper floor. The door to the small room they had thrown me into was still closed, with a lock on the outside that told me I was not the first to be thrown in there. Or perhaps it had simply been a saferoom for some items, considering how they had completely ignored the window as an escape route. It did actually worry me how quickly my brain was distracted, thinking up escape plans for various scenarios as I stood at the top of the stairs. It was not a habit I had ever expected to develop.
In the end, the distraction was not enough, and my eyes turned back to the crate in the corner. It stood next to an old sofa, looking a bit like a small table, and something told me that was by intent. It was barely a quarter the size of the crates we had found in the school down south, but of a similar design. And as I walked over to it, it turned out to function much the same. A quick slide of a small handle, and a biggerh one popped up, which made the top part of the crate unfold almost without a sound. The silence of the whole thing was lucky, as it turned out!
The size of the house made sound travel poorly, and the design of rooms and walls made it even worse. Part of me could imagine many knocks on the door going unheard, the sound disappearing into the hallway wall or the one separating one large room from another. But in the silence of early morning, that familiar clunk of an old door being opened came through crisp and clear.
In spite of my best efforts, panic began to set in, and quickly! The sound of the door was followed by more than one set of footsteps echoing throughout the empty house, clacking first against the vinyl kitchen floor and moments later the wooden steps from living room to dining room. They were not rushed, not the same busy footsteps as the ones that had filled the house earlier. But they were moving closer.
My brain suddenly and without warning skipped back to thinking in escape routes. I wanted to dash for the room that I knew, but the lock on the door ruled that out. The two windows had nothing but a drop outside, into the garden a full floor below. Had it just been soft earth beneath, I would have taken the chance, but even from upstairs and through the closed windows, the brambles and semi-wild growth beneath was painfully obvious! That left the balcony.
The moment I opened the door to the old, wooden balcony, the cold air rushing in made me slide it shut again. I listened, fearing that voices and rushed steps would ring out as those on the floor below rushed to find me, but nothing happened. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door again, slipped out quickly, and shut it, gently but quickly! Then I knelt below the large window that overlooked the balcony and the field on the opposite side of the stream below. The wind slipping by crept in enough to cover me in cool air, but I still held my breath as much as possible.
I expected to hear voices, hear them coordinate their search, hear them talk about the whole escape action that had just been going on. But nothing. I even could have imagined them chatting about this and that, nothing important to say. But there were no voices, just an eerie silence. A silence that quickly became more eerie when I actually did hear their footsteps up the wooden, slightly creaky staircase.
They sounded in a rush, the footsteps. Looking over the window sill was tempting, but the risk held me back. I could hear scraping, thinking for a moment that they had come to finally remove that one last crate by the sofa. But that wasn't it. The scraping came closer to me, moving away from the staircase. They were moving things in, not out.
And it continued. Things were moved about again and again, and new things were moved up the stairs several times. I tried to think back to when we had held out in the house, when I had gone upstairs to this very balcony to scout for anyone approaching. All I could recall was an empty...
The sounds had changed. In my efforts to recall the part of the future that was in a way my past, I had momentarily ignored the sounds. But now, I no longer could. The scraping of heavy things being moved about had been replaced with a series of snaps both soft and hard, and various brief mechanical hums. I knew that sound, or something like it, but I had a difficult time remembering from where.
With a deep sigh, I shut my eyes to build up a moment of courage. Then, subconsciously holding my breath, I peeked over the sill.
That was definitely not there before! Or later, depending on the angle one looked at time travel from. Looking like a steel circle digging its symmetrical claws into the floorboards, there was something very military about the thing. It was about as wide as the couch, ignoring the very angular claw things that had attached themselves to the floor, and it looked fairly incomplete. That observation was backed up by parts being carried to it. By Karen and Vera. While Lisa and Elmer assembled them.
The team was all there. Apparently!
Being the most silent human being I possibly could, I slid back down, hiding behind the low bit of wall beneath the window between the inside and the balcony. The clanks and ckicks from inside continued, but for a moment, my gaze fell across the now late morning, early noon sky. The dark blues and purples were all but gone, and the ruby red barrier band was giving way to bright blue and yellow, but what caught my eye were some strange glitches. In the sky. Colors that seemed to shift around, just briefly.
"Fuuuuuck....."
It was a low sound that escaped from my lips, not even really a word. Little more than a whisper, little less than a sigh. And yet, the sounds from inside stopped. Sadly, I noticed too late.
"You!" came the voice from over my shoulder, and I turned my eyes to see Lisa standing there!
"Them!" I replied, not really sure why I used such simple phrasing, as I pointed towards the glitches in the sky.
She turned immediately, shouting some incoherent phrase very quickly into the house!
As I watched, my suspicions were confirmed, the glitches getting worse and human shapes then dropping from them and into the nearby fields. For some reason, the way they moved did not seem robotic to me. Time travelers. The woman in white's key minions. It made sense, really! The ones inside couldn't just use our trick with the black dust stuff, or they would be affected, too. That put them all on equal grounds. Except for the sheer numbers...
Lisa disappeared into the house quickly, to absolutely no surprise. I could hear hectic noises from in there, the clanks and whirs of before coming faster than they had. Whatever they were assembling either had to be something to use against an onslaught, or before the onslaught!
I, on the other hand, had a different plan! It clicked in bits and pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle assembling itself inside my head. First, the impulse to run. Then, the feeling of cowardice, the sense that I was leaving the small team of time rebels behind just to save my own hide. And finally, the realization that all this had happened before. I was from the future now, all this was my past. It had happened, and somehow, they had clearly survived. The only meaningful conclusion was that they would suvive again. In fact, I was most likely to be in the way and cause harm. They had managed before without me, they would manage best now under those same circumstances. At least, that was where my rapid train of thought led me to. I should run.
The second I stepped through the door on the balcony, everything seemed to tense up and move in slow motion. Everyone looked at me, pausing, but only briefly. They had, ironically, no time for me. Practically clutching the wall, I walked around the entire menagerie, watching everyone closely as they watched me, even while they seemed to be expertly assembling the thing on the floor. As I took my first steps down the stairs, it still looked like a metal ring with claws dug into the floor, except now, it had a band of green lights following the ring. It still looked like nothing I knew, and I had no time to care.
Downstairs, out of sight of the four of them, everything looked different from earlier! Stacks of small crates lined the walls, larger crates stood in the middle of the floor. It looked like a small warehouse. Whatever they had emptied out, it was not removed because they were simply abandoning the place. As I stepped from the dining room and back into the indoor terrace, the feeling followed me. Crates, stacked. One large crate on the floor was open, and I rushed to peek inside, hoping for some clever weapon. I found a batch of the knuckle guns. With a sigh, I took out two and put them on, like slipping on large rings. I balled my fists and watched the thin line of blue dots turn on. There could still be robots out there. Time travelers, yes, definitely, but maybe also robots. It was tempting to check other boxes, but as the entire house trembled slightly from something passing over it, I threw away that particular plan. Time to run.
The back door to the overgrown garden cracked open with a crunchy sound, the old wood somehow seeming worse than it did during our own assault. Which was later, with me now in the past. I shook my head, clearing it of weird grammatical thoughts and a desperate search for chronology.
The bushes gave way easily, but as I entered the actual garden, green lights, tiny dots on the ground, began to dance at my feet. I somehow thought to look up, just in time! Throwing myself wildly backwards onto the narrow dirt path, I was barely away before a figure landed heavy where I had just stood. Dry branches from the tall trees around the yard shattered and sprayed about like a quick torrent of toothpicks, and I found myself shielding my eyes from both that and the green lights that were apparently made by something hovering above, clipping the tops of the trees ever so slightly!
Perhaps by instinct, I fired the knuckle gun at the figure, more than once! The figure, a man of rather impressive size, turned slowly and glared at me, while another landed behind him. As he turned, there was an odd sound from the house, like a million buzzing bees going through a metal pipe. It distracted the man for a second, which was enough to let me get out of his path and away.
What followed was a cascade of tiny dots, appearing in the air like physical static. They reminded me of the dots around the woman that had disappeared, but they seemed to float freely, like the air had caught on very fabulous fire. And it burned. I could feel it on my skin, in my throat, ripping through me. But the men, now four of them, felt it much worse, sinking to their knees, clutching chests and limbs as the pain clearly ran through their bodies. Something told me that the device upstairs was finished, or close enough to be activated!
Fighting the pain, I slipped in between plants and assorted garden fixtures. Their eyes were no longer on me, instead turning to the house. One of them stabbed a large spear-like thing into the ground, letting it unfold into... something. They, like I, were fighting the immense pain emanating from the house, but they had work here. I had only escape on my mind. That worked to my advantage.
A mad dash, letting out tormented sounds as the pain seemed to shred my very brain and, to a lesser extent, my body, got me through the driveway and into the street. Figures, people, time travelers were being airdropped there, too, and my immediate impulse was to sprint away from them, deeper into the neighbourhood. I felt caught, trapped, the main road cut off from me by people falling from the sky! But far more, I felt like there was a sword hanging above my head, like imminent danger was still upon me. The pain was pulsing in my skull and in my blood, although less now. Distance.
Flailing my arms ahead of me in fear of my painful distraction making me bump into things, I made my way away from the unfolding chaos. Sounds like ripping cardboard, but louder and more vicious, filled the night air, but with distance, the pain began to lift. Reaching the bend in the road about three houses down, it lifted enough for me to turn and look.
Strange lights lit up the night, although not intensely. They looked nothing like the lasers or gun flashes I would have expected, but more like swirling colors, bordering on pretty! What really caught my eye, though, was a few of the people somehow causing them.
"I know you..." I for some reason whispered into the night, to nobody but myself. I did. I had seen them before. And as I felt the pain touch me again, even at the distance, I recognized them as the ones we had also fought. And I stared at them as a wave of sparks in the air seemed to rip them apart.

Embassy of Time

Embassy of Time

 

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

 

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

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