The Hour of Dragons

The coast of Greenland was craggy and sparse, little more than rough gray and tan rocks and dirt that ran down to a steep drop off of about thirty feet ending in the frigid ocean beyond. Small ice floes drifted back and forth in the bay beyond. It looked much the same as the surveyor’s reports showed it. He’d chosen the location because, eighty years in a future now far removed, the U.S. Navy had established an observation point to keep an eye on Atlantis.

The Navy had determined the bay was too shallow to let Atlantis approach without having to drag most of its body out of the ocean. The assumed that, like a whale, it would collapse under its own weight once removed from the buoyancy of the sea. They hadn’t really been taking magic into account at the time.

Sam had chosen the site because it guaranteed a chance to look the dragon in the eye, since it had to take it’s head out of the water at some point.

He’d set up most of his equipment already, although large scale tachyon disruption fields seemed a bit silly given what he was going up against. Still, he needed to leave some kind of mark on history, might as well go for broke. Now it was time to set the most important part.

He pulled an hourglass from it’s carrying case and moved towards the highest point nearby, a raised hill that was more rock than dirt, missing even the tough, wispy grasses that struggled to cling to the landscape. The hourglass was a good two hands tall but still looked like a toy in the glove of his suit. He set it down, a bit self conscious, and carefully rotated the top a quarter turn counter clockwise. In response a a deep crack formed in the middle of the bottom and ran all the way to the base. Then the whole thing lit up with a soft white glow.

There wasn’t time to check and make sure it was working. As if on cue the moment he twisted the top a sound like a thunderclap hit him, the disturbed air enough to make the armor’s joints creak. Sam spun away from the broken hourglass and looked out into the bay, expecting storm clouds. The reality was worse.

A massive claw had smashed into the cliffs a quarter mile away at the end of a mind boggling limb that stretched up into the air, out over the ocean and disappeared beneath the waves. Two thirds of the way back to the waves, easily five hundred feet along the arm, Sam spotted something that might have been a giant elbow. The impact shook the ground but the hourglass stayed put.

For a full ten seconds nothing happened. Rather, nothing moved. Sam could almost see the enormous muscles of the limb tensing up, gathering power as seawater poured off in sheets. A bit stunned, he took a few half steps away from the hourglass, only to be rooted in place again when the arm surged downwards and started to lever Atlantis out of the seas.

The first thing to break the surface was a tower. It was far off, beyond the calm waters of the shallow bay, a single point of pale ivory amidst the grayish green waves, looking for all the world like the watchtower of an ancient English castle. Then the water around it erupted and buildings were shooting past far to fast to catalog, even with the enhanced mind of the Clockworker. Sam got little more than a quick impression of streets, crowded buildings and a single, massive gate before a towering neck shot into his line of sight and cut most of the dragon’s body from view.

When the head at the end of the neck was more than six stories overhead, with no signs of stopping, some sensible part of Sam’s brain that had survived several years of wrangling politicians and supervillains, sometimes both at the same time, kicked in and suggested that it was time to run. To, you know, get some distance and rethink things, since that was a lot more dragon than he’d been counting on dealing with.

It was the same part of his brain that was lamenting never building a working flight unit for the power armor. They had always seemed so clunky and impractical before, more suited for long range military purposes than being the flagship of what was, essentially, a specialized police force. Not that either one of those roles was going to do much against Atlantis.

There was too much magic in the area to time shift, the tachyon field would never hold up. The disruptor was equally useless as an offensive tool, Atlantis was putting off a magic signature that compared to Split Infinity’s the way the sun compared to the moon on a cloudy night during a solar eclipse. And there was the mind boggling size of it. Just seeing Atlantis outlined on a screen did nothing to prepare him for being in the presence.

As he scampered back up the coastline, feeling small and powerless for the first time in years, the ground shook underfoot, first with the impact of another foot, smashing into the ground in the distance, then with the friction of a living continent dragging itself across a dead one as Atlantis pulled itself onto shore. Sam made the mistake of looking back at just the right moment to see the dragon open jaws the size of a football field and announce it’s return to the world of men.

It was not a thing you heard.

The sound simply picked him up and tossed him to the ground a hundred feet away. Damage reports sprang up all over his heads up display. Prosthetic arm partially offline, no longer able to unfold it’s internal weapons systems or feed power into the suit. Right shoulder and right chestplate hardlight projectors offline. 30% of power relays out of alignment. Motors lost in left arm, left leg and right shoulder assemblies. Seven minutes to fully repair.

Disoriented, Sam rolled over and sat up, aware that he needed to move but too dizzy to trust his feet. He wouldn’t have the option again. Atlantis’ other claw slammed down with no more force than an avalanche, not quite crushing him entirely. Both legs from the knee down disappeared from his suit readout and from his body.

The suit responded automatically, first demanding the mobile arsenal he’d brought prep the appropriate replacement parts and, for the first time ever, the appropriate field triage prosthetics. He’d really hoped he’d never need those. The suit also dumped pain blockers and anti-shock drugs into his system, those would be fun to scrub out later, and slapped twenty second century triage gear over the new ends of his legs to stop the bleeding. The whole process took maybe three seconds.

Automated pattern recognition software calculated an escape route across the terrain and back towards the prosthetics that were already in motion, hopping slowly towards him in a way that would have been eerie if the situation wasn’t already so terrifying. A second later the arms of his suit kicked into motion, dragging him that way while his decision making brain was still getting over the sudden loss of legs.

Samuel Isaiah King

The voice didn’t come through the air or strike with the force of the dragon’s roar but somehow Sam still knew what he was hearing.

To transgress time and endanger this world is crime enough.

Sam spotted Atlantis’ head high above, partly obscured by the low hanging clouds. But not obscured enough to hide the glaring yellow eyes of the dragon, the only feature of the long, vaguely horselike head that he could make out clearly. Water rushing off of Atlantis’ body mixed with the clouds and dim light to obscure all but the barest glances of the creature’s long, serpentine neck and flashing emerald scales. The neck and arms of the beast ran back to what looked like a sheer cliffside that rose out of the bay, the dragon’s body lost in layer after layer of sediment and detritus built up after untold centuries of slumber. The limbs appeared almost spindly in comparison to the massive body. What Sam could see was built more like a turtle than the traditional depictions of a dragon, though most of the creature’s bulk was clearly still beneath the surface of the ocean.

To ignore the warning we sent and continue the damage is unconscionable.

His awkward scrabble came to a stop, not because he was scared but because he’d reached his new legs and new knees were currently in the process of bolting themselves into place. Unlike when he attached his arm several years ago he didn’t feel pain. Not because of any advancements to the technology, although there were those, and not because there wasn’t pain, that was never going away, but because he was too preoccupied.

To pervert our protections and turn our messengers against us, all while hewing away at the fabric of the world that I am sworn to protect is unforgivable.

The moment the legs clicked into place the Clockworker suit pushed him to his feet, leaving Sam a touch unsteady but, in theory, ready for whatever might come. He was missing the armor from the legs down but that was okay. The armor had always been a backup plan and, clearly, one that was woefully inadequate.

You will leave this world for the one beyond. It falls to us to set right the damage you have done.

The dragon’s mouth opened again and it filled with light, not a solid burning light as a dragon in movies might, but rather a constellation of small swarming lights that swarmed around its teeth. It was the kind of light show that came when Alejandro or Split Infinity did magic, except dragons could apparently do it just by speaking.

Magic still wasn’t something he entirely understood. But he did know magic words of his own.

Although it probably wasn’t necessary Sam set the armor’s speakers to maximum volume and said, “I can do a better job of it.”

For a moment he didn’t think it worked. The light kept building in the dragon’s mouth and Sam was sure he’d guessed wrong and Atlantis wasn’t the Power the Gatekeepers had told him was in charge of keeping his world in order. Then he saw the dragon’s eyes narrow.

What?

“I can fix time. A few years back Natalie said you gave her a time limit to take me out of the picture so you could fix time. That’s come and gone.” He jabbed a thumb at his chest, affecting confidence he didn’t feel. “I still can. I can do it better.”

There was a long pause, what he was beginning to recognize was the long wind-up the dragon needed to move it’s body around. Apparently magic only let you bend the laws of physics so much. Stray thoughts like that disappeared from his mind as soon as Atlantis brought its head down to just above ten feet off the ground, leaving him face to lower jaw with the largest living creature on Earth.

It was like looking up at a football stadium. As close as he was to the creature he had no way of getting a good idea of what it looked like, he still had only half formed impressions of what he could see around the clouds. Now that it was closer to the ground he could tell that water was evaporating off of the beast in waves of steam, adding to the difficulty in making it out. The head pivoted sideways and rotated lengthwise until he was looking into a single mammoth eye.

To choose those things you will take responsibility for is the privilege of mortality. You will undertake the mending of time?

“If you allow it.”

There was another moment of gathering effort, this time accompanied by a rush of wind as if every creature in the world had sighed at once. Then Atlantis raised its head up to the clouds once again. With distance and perspective restored Sam though its eyes had turned regretful, or at least resigned, and he wondered if maybe, just maybe, the creature had to allow it.

Then no more will you be allowed to turn away from this task. Until you have set right your wrongs, you leave this world or your failures destroy it, time rests in your hands.

With the grinding roar of two continents scraping together Atlantis began to slide back into the ocean once more. Sam couldn’t say how long the process took, the dragon’s gaze held his the whole time. As the gates of Atlantis sunk out of sight once more the dragon’s head finally turned back towards the ocean, leaving one final message echoing in his mind.

Godspeed, Clockworker.

When the dragon’s head disappeared beneath the waves Sam took a deep breath, the rest of the world snapping back into place like a rubber band. The coast of Greenland felt oddly small and deflated, like a balloon that had all the air let out of it. He was standing on shaky legs that had been his for less than an hour and his power armor was still sending him repair updates. It wasn’t until he had staggered over to the hill where he left the hourglass that he heard the ticking.

At first he thought he was imagining it. But with every tick it got louder and more defined. Each second of time, clearly marked. A reminder of who he was and what he was supposed to be doing.

He sighed and scooped up the hourglass, twisting it closed again. That wasn’t really necessary, it’s not like fixing time was something he was likely to forget. But maybe that was just one of the things that went with the territory. He walked over to the mobile arsenal and spent a few precious minutes on the mundane task of switching out all the ruined parts of his armor then attaching a new set of legs over his freshly minted prosthetics – which were starting to seriously throb with phantom pains.

Once he had everything back in working order and double checked all the safety measures there wasn’t anything he could do to procrastinate anymore. Sam picked up the hourglass and rotated the top clockwise.

The crack in the base sealed and, as it did so, the world around him fell away, descending until it was just a horizon at his feet, and leaving him and the equipment he’d brought along in the featureless place between his world and all that was beyond.

The old man was there to greet him, his rumpled brown coat, matching pants and shoes all much the same as before, though he had changed shirts to a white button down at some point.

Sam set the hourglass aside and looked the Gatekeeper over once. “I wasn’t expecting you here, to be honest. Where’s Jack?”

The other man smiled, a wry tilt of the lips and nothing more. “Seems he said something to you he shouldn’t have. We’re not supposed to hand out hints, even if by accident.”

Sam slumped down on top of the arsenal and shook his head. “You guys can get in trouble?”

“Oh, yes. Something for you to keep in mind. You’re not exactly a Power like gatekeepers are expected to be but you did just dabble in something very close.” The old man clasped his hands behind his back and stepped away, staring down at the floor. “That world is going to have your fingerprints on it for generations to come, for better or for worse. How could that not have the potential to get you in trouble?”

“Of course.” Sam nodded his understanding. In that light it did make sense. “Is that why you’re here?”

“Yes. Either Jack or I will be here every time you step back into your world. We agreed to let you come here, that make us partly responsible.” He looked back up. “But there’s no hurry. Gatekeeper is an even longer term commitment than yours is likely to be. Don’t feel like you have to rush back there right away. You’ve earned a break.”

“I’ll call you-” Sam hesitated. “Okay, how do I call you?”

The old man laughed and started walking away, towards whatever else was out there. “Say my name and I’ll be there. Jack too, most likely. Until then, take care Clockworker.”

Sam watched him walk out into infinity then turned his attention back to the horizon below, the confines of the world still beyond his comprehension but seeming more clear to him now than ever before. Time was still ticking away, out of balance. But he’d put the Girl Who Split Infinity and the dragon that sent her behind him. Now he just had to fix the problem that had attracted them in the first place. A little matter of cleaning up his own messes.

He just had to fix time.

The Face of the Clockworker – fin

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