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.

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