Discordant Hour

Alejandro’s reaction time was impressive, even if it didn’t measure up to someone who was bending time to give himself an edge. His hands got halfway up into a defensive stance before the bolt hit him and carried through into a scooping motion to grapple Sam’s gun hand. Unfortunately for him that was his artificial left arm and it had more than enough strength to keep Alejandro from pushing it out of position.

The other man pulled up short, looking surprised. Sam could see the thought process in his face – a surprised look as he realized he didn’t have the strength to move Sam’s arm, then a realization that he wasn’t in pain. Alejandro’s eyes narrowed. “What was that?”

“Tachyon disruptor,” Sam said, taking a half step to the side to put a more comfortable distance between them. “Creates a localized distortion field that prevents people struck by it from manipulating magic. Or whatever it is you people do with it. Not sure how long the effect will last-”

Alejandro was shuffling back and forth on the balls of his feet and suddenly shot forward nearly ten feet with a single hop. “Not long.”

“-and it may vary depending on individual power levels. There are some kind of individual levels, right?”

“Yeah. And I gotta tell you, if it only lasted a few seconds with me it’s not gonna do squat to your magical girl.” He shook himself like a ghost had just passed through him, giving Sam’s weapon a skeptical look. “We’re not sure how the Legacy gathers power but the stories make it pretty clear that the girls tap power straight from dragons themselves. And dragons are supposed to be the source of magic. So, by default, we assume they’re harder hitters than we are.”

“Fair enough, but how accurate are these stories?”

Alejandro offered an eloquent shrug. “As much as legends from the bronze age can be. But everything we have on the Legacy holds true, so why not the other half as well?”

“I can’t argue with that.” He stowed the disruptor prototype in the locker and keyed it closed. “You said the Legacy counterbalances the magical girls. How does that work?”

“I only know one Legacy bearer who’s met a magical girl, and you’re looking at him.” The shrug was less eloquent this time, more dismissive. “There’s not much I can tell you beyond that’s what the theory is supposed to be. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to use the Legacy responsibly – there’s a reason I’m studying criminal justice, after all – but using it like it was originally intended? That context didn’t even exist three months ago.”

“More like six,” Sam muttered, but the other man ignored him. “Okay, so you’re not quite sure what your relationship to Split Infinity is-”

“Split Infinity? Is that some kind of codename or something?”

“Yeah. It’s a long story.” Sam started back towards his workstation. “Anyway, here’s another question for you. If I could set up another meeting between you two, would you be interested in trying to work it out?”

“What? Did you two exchange phone numbers while you were running for your life in one of these dustups?” Realization dawned. “You know when she’s going to show up in the future, don’t you.”

“Tomorrow Sharon and I go to check on the holding cells I put Thunderclap and company in at the request of the Indianapolis Police and install a few more units.” He hit a key on the workstation and brought up the plans for the installation. “I’m guessing that’s one thing she’s going to mention when we talk later. While we’re there Split Infinity is going to put in an appearance.”

“And you want to use this as a chance to… what?” Alejandro jerked one finger in the general direction of the locker the disruptor was in. “Use one of those popguns to try and bring her down to normal human status? Because that ain’t gonna work.”

“I’m installing a much stronger version on the Clockwork armor right now. The hand version is so weak because it doesn’t have a power source on the same level as the armor.” A swipe brought up the plans for the jail complex where he’d left Thunderclap. Sam pointed Alejandro towards a side room. “But if you can be there I can send you to the utility room on a pretext and you can flank her when-”

“No.”

Sam drew up short in confusion. “No? No, you don’t flank people? You want to switch places? You don’t want to go toe to toe with her?”

Alejandro waved the questions away. “None of the above. You need to understand something, Sam. I get that you’re probably well intentioned. But you’re tampering with things you probably shouldn’t. Sharon told me you can read the future. And about the same time you first did that your magical girl – Split Infinity or whatever you want to call her – showed up. I said it already, they respond to things that dragons consider threats.” He sat down at the foot of the stairs and shook his head. “Look. I don’t know what, exactly, a chimeric mythological beast considers a threat. But there are consequences to actions and I think this girl is one to yours. I’m not sure it’s my place to mess with that.”

Sam blanked his workstation. “So you’re not going to help?”

“No.” He laced his fingers together, stared down at his hands. Let out a deep sigh and ran his hand over his hair. “Look, if it makes you feel any better I don’t plan on helping her, either.”

Sam mulled that over for a second or two. “That’s your opinion? Or one of your predecessors?”

“Mentors,” Alejandro corrected. “You’re never not a part of the Legacy. You just don’t always get the perks of being the latest, greatest model.”

“Humility being one?” Sam asked. Alejandro ignored the sarcasm.

“Just… take care of yourself. Like I said, you look like you mean well.” He got to his feet and started up the stairs.

“Yeah. You too, kid.” Sam watched him go without comment. It had been a long shot after all. A future CIA director probably wasn’t careless in the decisions he made. Same picked up his phone and pulled up Sharon’s number.

——–

“Absolutely not.”

An hour later he was regretting calling her. “I just need you to stay out of the line of fire. Or the melee, since she likes getting in close.”

“So you gave me this magical think of triangles thing-”

“It’s not magic.”

“Whatever, you give me this shielding necklace and then you tell me to not use it?” She was so mad she actually stamped her foot for emphasis. “What’s the use in that?”

“It’s a low powered stopgap measure, Sharon. Split Infinity could cut through it with one finger. Ninety percent sure. You’re not equipped to fight someone on her scale.” He threw his hands in the air. “I don’t know anyone who is.”

“But you’re still going to try it. Sam, we can postpone this inspection, it doesn’t have to be tomorrow.” She gestured at his workstation. “Give yourself some time to pull a solution from the future. You said what Alejandro told you mostly confirmed things you learned from reading the future news, right? Someone must have found a solution to magic in a hundred years time.”

“Actually they only had a decade. Atlantis doesn’t reappear and bring magic along with for another eighty years. And I only have ninety two years of predictive power right now.” He held up a hand to forestall the next question, which he’d already guessed. “I don’t want to dig deeper into the future than that.”

“Why not?” It was as much a demand as a question.

“Because Alejandro was right.” He ran his human hand over his face. “There are consequences to cheating time. To see a thing is to change it.”

There was a moment to digest that, then Sharon took his arm and led him over to a seat by the snack table. “Explain.”

“Okay.” He reluctantly took the seat and ran his hands up and into his hair, trying to marshal his thoughts and explain the problem. “So there’s a thing in quantum physics. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. It states that you can’t know both where a subatomic particle is located and how fast it’s moving. Measuring one will change the other. Gross simplification, that, but that’s the general idea.”

Sharon wrinkled her brow. “Why is that?”

“Do people act the same when their being watched as when they’re not?”

“Some do.” Sharon shook her head. “And particles aren’t people.”

“In this respect they are.” He pulled out a packet of saltine crackers from the snack box on the table and pulled one out. “Now time isn’t a particle per se, although tachyons tie back to temporal dynamics in some way I haven’t figured out, but it still has a sort of uncertainty principle of it’s own. Observing time from… outside, if you will, causes it to change. Problem is, only the observed part of time changes, the rest remains as it was. Like this.”

He held the saltine in place with one hand and stabbed the finger of the other into the cracker, breaking it.

Sharon stared at the crumbs for a second. “Are you saying you broke time?”

“In a nutshell. That’s the most simple explanation, there are nuances that aren’t important.” He hesitated for a minute. “Well, to understanding the problem.”

She leaned in closer to him. “And why might they be important?”

“To someone who wants to fix the problem. Which I do. But step one is not making the problem worse and that means not peaking into the future. Or, at least, doing it as much as possible.” He dusted the crumbs off the table into his hand and absently tossed them into his mouth.

Sharon pulled a disgusted face but didn’t comment on it. “So what does Split Infinity have to do with this?”

“Fixing time takes time.” He waved his hand at the production lab around him. “There’s a lot I can do with this but it’s not nearly enough. I wanted to get out ahead of the delta-human problem because it was a disaster waiting to happen, and keeping some of the worst abuses I saw in the future from happening is still important to me. But to fix the larger problem I need an organization on, at the very least, a nationwide scale. Founding the Guardian’s Guild means more than just protecting people from changing humanity, and vise a versa, although that’s still really important. It’s the first step to preventing the larger temporal disaster that’s coming.”

“And if we don’t do something about temporal disaster… what happens?”

Sam scooped up the cracker packet with his normal hand and tossed it in the air, then unfolded his prosthetic and vaporized it with the internal laser mounted there. “Like that, only worse.”

“Got it.” Sharon looked at her hands. “And the Guild probably won’t work out if you’re tangling with a magically powered girl with a messiah complex at every turn.”

“No. She may have gotten that complex in totally reasonable ways, but we have to do something about her if I’m going to fix things.”

“Okay. Then tomorrow we go to Indy.” She looked up, determination in her eyes. “And we take her on. Both of us.”

There was no give in her stare. Sam weighed his options. “Fine. Both of us.”

An Hour of History

“Two months!” The outside door banged open hard enough that the building shook. The sound of the shout, followed closely by the rippling impact from the door opening, dopplered through temporal shearing and got translated by specialized implants in Sam’s ears. He slapped a switch on his prosthetic arm and the temporal distortion around him vanished, letting him experience time like normal people.

“You’re gone for two months and then you toss Thunderclap in a jail in Indianapolis and call me to come deal with it.” Sharon was picking up a good head of steam going through the living room. He figured it would be a good idea to go meet her at the door, cut her off at the pass as it were.

Before he could clear the workstation she got through the pass, bursting into the lab with the same, or maybe even more force than the outer door. “It takes a lot of… nerve…”

Sharon trailed off as she came to a stop at the top of a set of stairs that hadn’t been there on her last visit. He’d also dug out a whole sublevel for the room, giving him two stories of room to build a triple printer/fabricator rig for building pretty much anything he could think of. It was in the process of repairing and upgrading the Clockworker armor from it’s second outing, assembly arms pulling wrecked components out of the frame and feeding them into recycling ports while new modules were moved into place. Mostly it was the delicate electronics that needed reworking, the armor plating itself was standing up to punishment incredibly well.

Aside from the printer/fabber the bulk of the room was devoted to racks of things awaiting testing, from weapons systems to restraints, there was still a lot of futuretech he’d tried duplicating to mixed results. The whole scene was cast in a harsh blue light from the workstation, basically a single chair by a hard light projector projecting a twenty second century computing system he’d pirated wholesale a week ago.

Sharon stared at all of it before locking on to him. Her eyes narrowed. “Sam, what happened to you.? You’re hair’s gone gray.”

That’s what she notices,” Sam muttered. He reached down to the storage drawers by his workstation and rummaged until he found what he was looking for. “I made something for you, Sharon.”

She made her way down the stairs. “Is it a fully functional cyborg that’s going to explain to me where you’ve been for the past two months? Or a hologram?” She glanced at the hard light display. “You’re apparently doing those now.”

“None of the above.” Sam met her at the foot of the stairs and reached up and around her neck.

“You got me a necklace.” The flat, factual, laywerly side of her was in full force on that statement. A danger sign if she ever had one.

Sam just closed the clasp and brought his hands back to rest on her shoulders. “Sharon, I need you to wear this at all times. It’s a personal shield generator. You can activate it by pressing one of these fittings.”

The silver chain had four round, brown, gemlike things set equally across the front. Sam tapped the one on the left. “Once you do, just think of triangles.”

“Triangles.”

There was that tone of voice again, but this time Same could see the absurdity of the statement being weighed against all the other absurd things she’d seen him do in the time they’d known each other. “Size, color and type doesn’t matter,” he said, “so long as they are triangles.”

She glanced down at the necklace, where the setting he’d touched now glowed softly, and sighed. Her eyes flicked up to the right and a glowing quarter hemisphere of light appeared behind her. She jumped a little, turning to try and look at it squarely only to find it rotated with her. Sam quickly stepped back to avoid being swiped by it, then sidestepped to get back in front of her and tap the fitting again to switch the shield off. “The outer two switches control the quadrants behind you, the center two the quadrants in front. It can only draw so much power, though, so the full shield will only stop gunfire, where one quadrant can probably stop a runaway semi.”

“Sam.” Sharon gave him a hard look. “Am I in trouble?”

He put his hands back on her shoulders. “Not that I’ve seen. But I’m hoping this will keep any trouble you do attract from hurting you. I’m… going to be quite busy, soon.”

She looked down at the necklace. “How do I keep it charged? Or do you need to replace it every so often.”

“Odd as it may sound, that’s what thinking of triangles is for. It runs off a Heisenberg power tap, which, to tell you a secret, is something I came up with myself. I was worried we’d have to calibrate it some to sync with you but it looks like it worked fine.” He adjusted the necklace slightly, getting distracted by the way the chain lay against her neck.

“Sam,” she said softly. “What-”

“Er-herm.” The two of them awkwardly jerked apart and Sam looked around. Up on the landing, Alejandro Gutierrez watched them with a trace of embarrassment. “Hi, Mr. King.”

“Alejandro.” Sam hesitated a split second, then stepped away from Sharon to get a better angle to see him from. “You’re a long way from Phoenix.”

“Well, it’s summer break and I talked to the people I said I would last time we met.” He started down the stairs and Sharon moved aside to give him space. “You weren’t here when I arrived but Ms. Sanderson was nice enough to put me up in a hotel for the last few weeks. My… friends said it was important to talk to you.”

Sam leaned in to whisper to his lawyer out of the side of his mouth, “Do I owe you for this?”

“No,” she whispered back. “I still have power of attorney over the shell companies you’ve been using for your ‘inventions’ and there was more than enough money to cover one college student’s room and board.”

“Where are we with Thunderclap and his friends?”

“The Indiana state legislature wants you to appear and testify about what’s going on there next month. We have a lot of prep work to do but it won’t be urgent until tomorrow.”

“No it won’t, but I’ll show you that secret later. I think I need to talk to Alejandro now. Want to sit in?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Oh, do I rate full access to the secrets of the Clockworker now?”

“You’ve earned it, but I don’t think I can give it. It’s… hard to explain.”

“That’s the only explanation I’m interested in. Talk to the man, fill me in later.” They pulled apart and Sharon headed towards the stairs.

Alejandro watched her go and shook his head when she was gone. “Best of luck to that woman. You seem like a handful to deal with.”

“Thanks.” Sam sat down in his work chair and tinkered with the hard light projector until it produced another chair for Alejandro. “So. You said you weren’t sure what you should tell me before. What can you tell me now?”

The other man studied the chair with a skeptical eye. “What do you already know?”

“Very little. I’ve inferred some things, the future tells me others. My own observations don’t contradict any of it but that doesn’t mean it’s true.” Sam leaned back and shrugged. “How about you just tell me everything you can and I’ll sort it as best I can?”

“Fair enough.” Alejandro finally decided to work with the chair and sat in it. “Wow. That’s more comfortable than I thought it would be.”

Sam just raised an eyebrow and motioned for him to go on.

“Right. Thousands of years ago there were civilizations based on entirely different systems of understanding reality. Not unscientific or anything like that, but not,” he gestured to the equipment around them, “technological is how we say it.”

“We?”

“I’m getting to that part.” Alejandro steepled his fingers and stared at them for a second, gathering his thoughts. “Two of the creatures most commonly associated with these civilizations were the phoenix and the dragon, or creatures very similar to them, associated with the storm, immense physical power and an unnatural cycle of death and rebirth. These civilizations-”

Sam waved a hand for a pause then asked, “There were more than one?”

“Two, that there is evidence for. Maybe more.” Sam nodded and motioned for another continuance. “These civilizations revolved around a creature or creatures with characteristics of these two mythological beings, although physical descriptions are more consistent with dragons. In particular, the fact that they lived in the ocean. So that’s what we call them.”

“But they could fly?”

Alejandro gave a thin smile. “The more famous of the two civilizations in the West was Atlantis. The dragon supposedly carried the city on it’s back. Something like that flying isn’t impossible, given what the dragons are capable of, but given the way they interacted with the world I don’t think they’d bother.”

Several things he’d read in the past few weeks clicked in place. “Atlantis is a living creature.”

“In a manner of speaking. As I said, the dragons have an unusual life cycle, dying and then reconstituting into a new incarnation of the same creature.”

“Hence the association with the phoenix.” Sam nodded, thinking back to his school days when he’d had a woefully insufficient exposure to Greek legends. “Then the city sank when the dragon died. What happened when it was reborn?”

“We don’t know. It might not have happened yet. But we think it’s getting close, because half of the dragon’s emissaries are appearing again.” Alejandro pointed one finger square at Sam. “You’re being chased by one.”

“The girl we met at your dorm?”

“We’re not sure why dragons exist, or what kind of thought process leads to them meddling in human affairs, but when they do it’s always by appointing a young girl, around the beginning of puberty, imbuing her with, for lack of a better term, magic powers and turning her loose on whatever problem the perceive.” Alejandro shrugged and stood up, looking around the room. “If I had to guess, I’d say this kind of total plagerization from the future would be enough to set them off.”

“No. I only did all this because Splits Infinity came for me.” Sam got up and headed for his desk. “Although given some of the things the future has in store… maybe I would have done it anyway. But on a fundamental level they had to come for me. To see a thing is to change it. What’s the other half?”

Alejandro shot him a questioning look. “I’m sorry?”

“You said The Girl Who Splits Infinity was half of the dragon’s emissaries. What’s the other half?”

“Oh. That’s me. Us, really, but me specifically at the moment.” Alejandro hopped slightly, or at least he flexed his knees like he was going to hop a few inches off the ground. The motion actually took him almost to the ceiling of the two story space. “One half of the equation is the magical girl – or whatever you want to call giving adolescent girls transforming superpowers – and the other is the Legacy.”

Sam stabbed a series of commands into the computer console and one of the lockers a few feet away snapped open. “There’s just one of you?”

“One person holds the Legacy at a time. It’s passed from one man to the next over time, and that’s about all I’m allowed to tell you.” Alejandro trailed along as Sam headed over to the equipment locker he’d just opened. “Suffice it to say we’re intended as a counterbalance of some sort, to prevent the girls from running out of control or something. There’s some kind of pseudomystical philosophy to it about opposing forces balancing, would be really unpopular today. The only person I’ve talked to about it that I’d call an expert thinks it has to do with gender differences in thought process and the contradictions the dragons are supposed to embody.”

“How come the girls transform into…”

“Idealized forms of themselves, probably. Like, what the young girl dreams of being when she matures.” Alejandro shrugged. “We don’t know for sure why it happens. The way the Legacy works was lost over time so we don’t know much about it. Even calling it ‘magic’ is just us slapping whatever term we think best fits it onto what goes on. Until I saw it happen with my own eyes we didn’t know they did that. My theory is that it helps them channel the degree of power the dragons give them without hurting themselves.”

Sam paused with a hand on the locker door. “So you’re not even sure you run off the same power source?”

“No. We’re both magical in nature, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“Good.” He whipped the door open, snatched up the snub nosed weapon within and shot Alejandro with it.

Return Hours

“You tell me the world is going to fall apart and you want me to just walk back into it?” Sam shook his head. “How about giving me a hint what’s wrong with it?”

Jack sighed and reached up to finger a pendant he was wearing for a moment. It gave Sam enough time to really study him. Apart from the gleaming bald head that demanded most of his attention Jack was a pretty normal guy. He wore a short sleeved shirt and jeans; the only distinctive features about him were the pendant, a metallic set of hash marks that added up to a total of five hung on a chain, and a similar set of weird bangles on a chain loop dangling from his belt. Sam had just started trying to parse what they were when Jack pulled on one of the belt decorations, coming up with a full sized ice cream scoop in his hand. He started dishing ice cream from a container that had cropped up at some point when Sam hadn’t been paying attention and into a pair of bowls that were resting on a table of equally mysterious origin.

“This is going to sound really weird,” Jack said, dropping a third scoop of ice cream into one of the bowls, rattling the spoon. “But we actually don’t know what’s wrong with your world.”

“How is that possible?” Sam asked, trying to stay calm. “You just said you knew it was collapsing.”

Jack returned the ice cream scoop to his belt with a flourish and handed Sam one of the bowls of ice cream. “Because we’re in charge of travel between worlds, not specific worlds themselves.”

There was a powerful urge to fling the ice cream back in Jack’s face but Sam fought it down. “If you’re so powerful-”

“It’s not power.” The old man gently took the ice cream from Sam and put a hand on his shoulder. Before Sam could think of resisting the other man had pushed him to a sitting position on the ground, cross legged, which he mirrored. Jack squatted down next to them, eating ice cream and watching warily. “What we have is authority. We can demand the universe work in certain ways, so long as it’s within our scope of purpose. But that scope ends where your world begins. If we were to go into it and try and determine the problem we’d just be normal people.”

Jack pointed his spoon at the old man. “You don’t count as normal anywhere, oyaji.”

“The point is, we don’t have authority over your world. If you’re really curious you could try and find out who or what does and ask them.” With a flick of a wrist the old man flipped Sam’s armor up into a standing position and oriented the open front towards its owner. “In the mean time, we can’t let you go on anywhere else since that kind of travel builds bridges that could drag other worlds into the collapse of yours. So we’re going to have to send you back.”

Sam started at the sudden change in subject. “What? That’s all the answers I get?”

“We’re not in the answers business either, pal,” Jack said. “I would have just sent you back and tied you directly to your world so you couldn’t leave again. Nothing personal, just the way I’d do it.”

The old man waved a hand across the floor and the fog that it consisted of faded away, leaving Sam with another view of the dizzying horizon fading away into reality below. This time, fully alert, he was able to make a little sense of what he was seeing. Arrayed below him was a picture of reality in the abstract, he could see the four universal forces, gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak forces all layed out in harmony, the unifying principles just out of reach of comprehension. The speed of light shot through the spectacle as the only constant, just as Einstein had suggested. And pulsing away in the background he caught the constant forward press of time, like the pendulum of a clock if it swung in a half visible figure eight.

Except the figure eight wasn’t quite balanced. Sam leaned forward and squinted, trying to figure out what he was seeing. Abstract math and abstract images danced in his mind for a moment, struggling to harmonize. Then, in an instant, past, present and future clicked in place and Sam understood. A hand took him lightly by the collar and pulled him back.

“Don’t go without the armor,” the old man said softly. “Just because we’re making you stay in a world that will only last a few lifetimes past yours doesn’t mean you need to get suicidal.”

“Sorry, I was thinking.” Sam reached absently for his armor and started to pull himself into it. “Question. Can I come back here?”

Jack exchanged a look with the old man. “Maybe you weren’t listening. You-”

“Can’t go to other worlds. Fine, I wasn’t really interested in that before. I mean, interesting concept, sure, but I’ll look to my own for now. What I wanted to know was,” Sam snapped the armor closed and waited for it to seal, tucking his helmet under one arm. “Can I come back here? Inbetween.”

The old man tilted his head towards some point in the distance. “A word, Jack?”

The two moved off and Sam took the opportunity to strap his helmet on and run a scan or two. He learned exactly nothing about the old man other than that his long brown coat and worn shoes were exactly the same shade. Examining the weird abstraction outside the little bubble was more interesting and Sam spent the rest of his time on that.

Eventually the two of them came back over and Jack offered a grudging nod. “You can’t go any further from your home than this but yes, so long as you accept that you can come ‘here’ again.”

——–

“Keep your heads down.” Teddy fumbled with a lockbox until he could dig his fingers into it and rip it open. Rolls of coins flew everywhere, prompting him to curse and look over his shoulder. “Hey, Slim…”

“Yeah?”

“You got anything?”

“Cash box, maybe a safe.” Slim toed a heavy box locked to the floor of the armored truck. “We ain’t making much on this run. Seriously, man, it’s time to look at hitting bigger targets. We got you, Upsilon and Kilimanjaro. Let’s take a bank or something.”

“No, man. Not until we got the Clockworker out of the picture.” Teddy knelt down and broke the box off the floor then started working his fingers under the lid.

“You still hung up on him? I’m telling you, whatever happened to him he’s gone. Don’t’ get too hung up.”

Teddy shook his head. “We’re not ready. Maybe one more heavy and we’ll try it. No telling what the cops might be doing to get ready for us. Any leads on the electric guy? He could probably take out security cameras and stuff.”

“He keeps moving further south.” Slim shrugged. “Maybe he’s just following suit. We came down into Indiana because the upper peninsula was getting too hot, he might have thought we were trying to muscle in on his turf.”

“Well-” the box finally burst open and some kind of a shock hit him. Teddy felt all his muscles lock in place, then begin to twitch in time with the soft buzzing coming from the box.

Slim leaned over his shoulder. “What is it, Thunderclap? Find something?” His voice turned confused. “Looks like it’s just another box. You okay, man?”

“Thunderclap!” Kilimanjaro’s voice came from outside, panicked. “He’s here-”

The big black man crashed backwards into the side of the truck, tearing through the reinforced metal. Bearing down after him was the shape that had haunted Teddy’s dreams for weeks. The sleek, bullet shaped helmet was slightly different than before, more reinforced around the visor perhaps. The rest of the armor looked much the same, a bit more reinforced at some places, but still an ugly mud color and lethal as all hell.

Kilimanjaro took a swing at the Clockworker’s head as he landed on the floor hard enough that Teddy heard the suspension give way. Not super surprising since he probably weighed two or three tons at the moment, but his punch didn’t connect. The Clockworker seemed to slip around it effortlessly then dropped his right elbow down on his opponent hard enough that Kilimanjaro went through the bottom of the truck. In the same motion his left arm unfolded to reveal not the snub nosed rubber gun from last time but a black cone that he leveled at Kilimanjaro. There was a flash of light, much like the one that had locked Teddy into place, then the Clockworker casually folded his arm back up again while his right hand pulled some kind of handcuffs from a compartment at its waist.

Teddy wanted to say that those wouldn’t hold Kilimanjaro, he wasn’t just heavy when he went full mountain man he was crazy strong, too. But some part of his mind told him that, if the Clockworker had brought them, they could probably hold even someone like that.

The handcuffs were clicking into place when Upsilon popped into the truck and pulled Teddy away through wherever teleported things went. They came back out in a cornfield half a mile away where they’d stashed the getaway car they’d planned to stash their take. Teddy shook himself off and looked around. “What happened?”

“I don’t know, Thunderclap,” she said, nervously brushing hair out of her eyes. “One of the lookouts called to say they saw him pop out from under a cameo thing on the side of the road.”

“A cameo thing?” He demanded, incredulous.

“I don’t think he got a good look at what it was and he got hit with something before I could ask.” Upsilon wrapped her arms around herself. “He knew we were coming. How did he know that? How do we fight someone who knows what we’re going to do before we do it and can take Kilimanjaro one on one. He could chew granite.”

“He’s not a precog, Upsilon,” Teddy said, annoyed. “Someone must have ratted us out.”

“You have a low opinion of your friends.” The Clockworker’s voice came from Teddy’s left and he whirled to look, only to have the Clockworker land a full powered armor bodycheck from the other side. Teddy rocked back and landed hard on the ground a half a dozen feet away.

Before Upsilon could recover he had her by one hand and was starting to lever her hands behind her. He rippled once, much like he had the last time he disappeared, then snapped back to normal. “Not this time,” he said, pulling a new set of handcuffs out. “Not eager to repeat that experience, thank you.”

He locked her hands behind her back and pushed her back into the car. “Are you going to sit and wait or do I need to use leg cuffs, too?”

She sat.

Teddy growled. “You decide to take up teleporting, too?”

“Directional speakers, actually,” the Clockworker said, his voice seeming to come from behind Teddy again.

When the Clockworker took a step forward Teddy launched himself up and back, flipping his momentum into a high speed reverse loop, a flying backflip that he pulled out of with his chest inches from the ground, streaking forward at close to a hundred miles an hour. It was a move he’d practiced for this fight, something he could do as naturally as breathing.

The Clockworker sidestepped him. The move was fast, unnaturally so. One moment Teddy was about to grab his ankle, the next the ankle was gone and something kicked him in the side harder than anything he’d ever felt before, more painful than anything that had happened to him even before he’d changed. In almost the same instant another hit landed between his shoulder blades and he smashed full speed into the ground and skidded to a stop.

Somehow the Clcokworker got in front of him and was pulling Teddy’s hands into cuffs behind his back before he came to a full stop.

The world had turned to a brown haze and at first Teddy thought it was from pain. Then he realized it was dirt. His landing had kicked up a cloud of it. Some of it had settled on him or on the Clockworker. The rest hung in the air as if suspended in amber. Then, as the Clockworker finished locking him into handcuffs, there was a sickening lurch and the dust jerked into motion, quickly filtering down and settling on the ground.

As the Clockworker lifted him up and slung him over a shoulder Teddy quietly said, “It’s not just a nickname, is it?”

The Clockworker hesitated. “What?”

“You really mess with the clock.” He lifted his head weakly to look where the other man’s eyes should be. “Did someone rat us out? Or did you…”

The bottom half of the Clockworker’s face gave something between a smile and a grimace. “My secret, Thunderclap. I’ll never tell.”

——–

Natalie.

She’d just put her head down on the pillow.

Natalie. You are needed again.

Natalie sighed and looked up into the towering eye. “You said he was gone. You said I was done. What now?”

I said he had moved beyond my sight. I said it was possible. But he has returned.

“Look. I don’t know if I can-”

Three days, Natalie. It must be done by then or the damage may be beyond repair.

She’d learned many things about herself and her patron in the last few months. The voice felt like it shook the world but, in truth, most of the time it shook with exhaustion. The great creature was straining itself just to make contact. “Alright. I put together a divination that found him last time. Maybe it still works. I’ll check it out first thing.”

Godspeed, Natalie.

“Godspeed, Atlantis.”

It was morning, and she didn’t feel like she’d rested a bit. Natalie sighed and dragged herself out of bed. It was going to be a long day.