(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)
"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?"
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..."
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.
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.
"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."
"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."
He stpped what he was doing, turning and looking bewildered.
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."
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.
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.
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."
"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.
"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.
"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..."
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.