Silence of the Lions

In the decade since Rei Kiriyama’s family died in a car crash he’s made very little progress. Orphaned at the age of seven, and already emotionally subdued to begin with, Rei has become a master introvert. His only real gift is for shogi, a Japanese board game halfway between chess and checkers. Fortunately, Rei is very good at shogi and makes a living as a professional shogi player in between attending classes at school and living alone. It might seem like a great way to live but for Rei it’s a necessity. Life with the family that adopted him wasn’t easy. His adoptive siblings resented him and he felt awful about it. His adoptive father was a shogi pro, after all, and Rei was the only one of his children skilled enough to follow in his footsteps. There are many things plaguing Rei as it turns out. Plenty of reasons to become more sullen and withdrawn.

Naturally, the world keeps throwing funny, cheerful and energetic people in his path.

For me, it was this conflict, the clash between Rei’s normal disposition and that of the people around him, that really kept me involved in March Comes In Like a Lion. Yes, there’s good character conflict in the story, Rei’s shogi matches have solid stakes for both him and his opponents and there’s a lot of good humor and serious situations. But far and away the best part of the show is in how it sets up great contrasts between the conflicting moods Rei grapples with.

At it’s heart, March Comes In Like a Lion is a study in how an emotionally wounded introvert faces the world and how the people around him help him to do that. The broad strokes of the conflict are character versus the world and the show brings these points to bear by showing us the two sides in strikingly different terms.

The first minute of March Comes In Like a Lion, opening credits aside, are a series of stark monochrome images showing Rei’s silhouette, images of running water and roiling clouds, and a truly beautiful sequence of Rei standing under a bridge as gusting winds batter him. A mocking female voice over reminds Rei of how he is alone and lost until her words are lost in the sound of howling wind. The title card tells us this is Chapter One, Rei Kiriyama.

Rei wakes up and goes through his morning routine in total silence, then walks to the Shogi Hall, upbeat yet wistful music playing in the background. He greets his opponent, a man who appears to know him well, and then proceeds to best him in a game of shogi. The man compliments Rei on his growth as a shogi player, mentions that, “Ayumu and Kyoko miss you,” and departs.

The first words we hear Rei say accuse his opponent of lying, although we are the only ones that can hear it and we’re not sure if Rei thinks part or all of the other man’s statement is a lie.

As he’s headed home Rei gets a text message inviting him somewhere for dinner. He’s about to refuse when he gets another message asking him to pick up ingridient’s for the meal on his way. Just like that the chessmaster is checkmated. Abruptly the story turns from a gripping look at a grieving young man to a fish out of water comedy as Rei goes to visit a small family – a grandfather and three granddaughters. While it’s not slapstick it is funny and irreverent, going so far as to give the pet cats their own internal monologues. Rei can barely squeeze a word in edgewise but, quiet nature aside, is barely recognizable as the character we saw in the first half of the show. He’s unsure, unsteady and bemused the whole time. The contrast is striking, and encapsulates the appeal of the show quite well.

What’s so impressive about March Comes In Like a Lion is how it manages to have it’s main character say so little while expressing so much. Rei’s posture, expression, even the way he moves around the world tells us a great deal about his moods and how he is thinking. That level of expression extends to every character in the show but, as Rei talks so little, the strength of the animation comes through that much more. March Comes In Like a Lion is a masterclass in emotional storytelling and in no small part due to how little it’s protagonist says. Check it out if you get the chance.

The Broken Character Cycle

I’m not a huge fan of mainstream American storytelling, especially in longform mediums like TV or serialized novels. This may come as a surprise to longtime readers who have seen me comment on a number of such works in the past, many of which I said I liked. Well, odds are I still like them but as I’ve consumed more and more of them I’ve noticed one plot in particular occurring over and over again, a plot that has grown quite old and worn. I refer to this plot as the Broken Characters Cycle and this week I want to take a quick look at what it is, why I think it’s grown so popular and why, ultimately, I think it needs to go.

First things first. What is the cycle? In broad strokes it looks something like this:

  • There is a character who has made Bad Choices
  • That character seeks a New Start or undertakes a Great Work of Atonement
  • The New Start or Great Work requires the character to form new Relationships
  • The character is improved and edified through the Relationships and values them highly
  • At some point the Great Work forces the character to betray the Relationship or the other(s) in the relationship learns of the Bad Choices the character has made causing them to question the Work
  • The character sacrifices the Relationships for the Great Work (or visa versa)
  • Completing the Work or saving the Relationship leaves the character unfulfilled and full of guilt
  • The character seeks a New Start or undertakes another Great Work
  • Repeat ad nauseum

So why is this so popular? Two reasons.

First, it is a really good structure for a story. It has conflict built into it already, the structure is very flexible and can apply to anything from a courtroom drama to a hospital procedural and still function as is. Pretty much any kind of character can fit into the story structure, from cheerful slackers to driven geniuses. Second, the end of the cycle seamlessly blends into the beginning, allowing movies in a franchise or seasons of a TV show to return their characters to their neutral starting position and facilitating an easy set up for the next installment.

Both of these storytelling considerations are very important for the writers of long, ongoing media properties. Each movie, book or season needs to start at a place where new audience members can easily join and that makes the second point very important. The first point makes keeping up with the grueling timetable of a modern media franchise much easier as the basic framework of story and narrative beats never changes, just the details plugged in to them.

But these are only benefits for the production crews working on these media properties. The broken characters cycle doesn’t really provide a whole lot of benefits for the audience beyond a steady stream of story. And even that steady story can become a drawback.

The thing about the cycle is that it isn’t particularly complex and is very predictable, with story beats that come in very specific times and from very specific directions for maximum impact. You don’t have to be a media glutton or a trained story analyst to start seeing through the cycle, it just starts happening after a little while. And, worst of all, it doesn’t let the character at the center of the cycle grow from their experiences at all. There’s no character growth or substantial change to the status quo that isn’t quickly made irrelevant or undone entirely.

That gets frustrating very quickly. Media franchises need some kind of escalation over time, especially when they run for more than three installments. When the plot deliberately cuts that out of the equation through every iteration then it gets harder and harder to get invested.

Worse, while the cycle does provide great potential for conflict, both internal and external, for all those involved it’s very easy to see it coming, to the point where who falls in which roles can be determined as soon as a character starts down the cycle. With a story so easily predicted it can be easy to lose your audience. Think of it this way. I loves me a good pot of chili, but if I had to eat it every day for a month I’d get tired of it no matter how good the ingredients were or how skillful the chef that prepared it. The cycle is the same way – it’s not flawed inherently but today pretty much any story seeking to be dramatic executes the cycle at some point, if not as it’s primary story arc then as the arc for a supporting character. An most of them will run through the cycle repeatedly.

Now it’s true that there aren’t really any original stories, just new takes on character arcs like the broken characters cycle. And the lack of novelty is one of the reasons why anything attempting something fresh, from presentation to technique, tends to attract the attention of media critics. But with pretty much every major dramatic media franchise leaning on this cycle to some extent broken characters wear out their welcome very quickly.

I don’t really know what to do about the broken characters cycle. As I said before, it’s grown so popular for good reason. With the endless churn of Netflix, Hollywood and TV constantly demanding new content it’s entirely possible we won’t see a change of direction simply because relying on crutches like the cycle are the only way to keep up. But with the rise of the Internet independent media has begun to challenge old production cycles and changed the playing field. I hope to contribute to that change myself. But even if you don’t be on the lookout for this kind of ingrained wisdom. Stepping outside of it is sometimes all it takes to be a breakout in the media world.

See you next week when we talk about not talking.

Iron Fist’s Identity Crisis is NOT What You Think

For those who are new to this blog, the basic pattern I have is to alternate between writing fiction and general commentary on writing and stories. Now that The Face of the Clockworker is complete we’re switching gears into something a little different. Hope you enjoy!

Netflix original shows are stirring a lot of hype these days, none more so than those connected to Marvel. I recently picked up Netflix and decided to give the latest series, Iron Fist, a watch to see what all the noise was about.

That was a mistake.

Iron Fist is not particularly good TV, an opinion most people who have watched the show seem to agree with. The reasons for that are pretty straightforward, yet it’s a trap a lot of writers, myself included, tend to fall into and that makes it worth looking at.

Let me start by mentioning two things people are blaming that are not the reason Iron Fist is lackluster. First and foremost, the problem is not Finn Jones, be it as an actor, a martial artist or a white dude. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t find his performance in Iron Fist particularly memorable. But he does give the role a bit of nuance, handling nostalgia, discontent, joy and anger pretty well. He’s not going to win awards for his performance and that won’t be an oversight – he didn’t do anything that would stand out. But his performance is worthy of any number of CSI/Law and Order franchise shows and plenty of people like them.

It is true that Finn Jones was basically an amateur martial artist but, through intense training and what was most likely good use of stunt doubles they were able to make him pass as a competent fighter. Maybe not a great one, which he is admittedly supposed to be, but it’s really hard to tell. Danny Rand does so little fighting in the series, especially in the first half, it’s hard to get a grasp on how good or bad he is at it. Iron Fist has some really great fight scenes in it, especially in the later episodes. Not all of them are works of beauty and they lean a little too much towards being over choreographed ballet than the frantic, semirealistic action of a John Wick. But it’s supposed to be a martial arts series, not a typical run-and-gun action series so I can forgive that. The genre tends much more towards that kind of hyper stylized action and I generally like it. I generally liked the action in Iron Fist, too. In short, I don’t think Jones’ experience – or lack thereof – in the wushu department was the problem – or even a problem.

Finally, I don’t think the fact that Finn Jones was white was a problem. I could go on and on about the European martial arts traditions and how they developed differently from the Asian martial arts, and why, but that would waste space. Firstly because the point of it all would be to say that the basics of unarmed combat exist in every culture, the cultures just put their own spin on them. The only thing particularly unique about the Asian traditions is the strong emphasis on spiritual awareness they tend to include in their teachings. Second because that’s not the real problem people have when they make the point.

For some reason a small cadre of people hate the notion of an outsider coming in, learning a skill from a given culture and mastering it better than his teachers. The fact that a white person does it somehow makes this the same as colonization, apparently. The whole notion is ridiculous. Ignoring the fact that outsiders as protagonists makes exposition much easier for the author, the point is it happens all the time. In fact, it can lead to radically advancing the art form. Consider the Suzuki school of music. Shinichi Suzuki, a Japanese man, created one of the most widespread and successful methods of early music education even though all the instruments taught with that method are European.

Besides, Iron Fist isn’t even a story about a man learning and mastering a skill from a foreign culture. It’s about a man who has already done that and comes home to use the new wisdom and power he gained from the lessons of others to help those he left behind. Danny Rand frequently seems to miss the world he left behind far more than he values the one he returned to. What’s really being praised in that case, American culture or Eastern culture? And why should it make a difference either way?

The second thing that is not the problem is the show’s production schedule. I hear it was somewhat rushed, in particular leading to Jones not getting as much training in stunts and martial arts as the stunt directors might have wished. Maybe this all is true, but I couldn’t see many signs of it in the way the show was shot or the way the action scenes unfolded.

In truth, this show could have had any lead actor and all the filming time in the world and, if the script and structure of the story wasn’t touched, I would still find it mediocre.

The real problem with Iron Fist is that, while it features a protagonist who’s supposed to be a master of martial arts and uses that mastery to defend the little guy there isn’t a whole lot of martial arts or defending of little guys going on at first. And even when the series picks up in the second half, Iron Fist remains weirdly obsessed with corporate intrigues, boardroom politics and the owners of the Rand Corporation, the business Danny’s parents owned before they all flew off and died in a plane crash along with Danny. Compared to the kung fu action we are promissed by the show’s premise it’s all pretty boring.

Worse, the show treats this corporate conflict as the core conflict rather than the sideshow. The mastermind of the process is the villain taken down in the final episode even though he hasn’t really been an obstacle to Danny for the rest of the series. The Hand, the villainous Triad-ninja hybrid crime gang that Danny spends most of the series fighting gets plenty of screen time but doesn’t really seem to do much for the story. In fact, except for a tacked on and nonsensical attempt to have the climactic episode of the show tie in to Danny fighting a dragon and gaining his powers during his training, the whole corporate intrigue side of the show doesn’t tie into Danny’s character arc at all.

While the Meechums and other corporate characters are kind of interesting, and might have made for a good story on their own, when tied to the story of Iron Fist they just take up running time that could have been spent developing characters like Colleen Wing or Claire Temple more, characters who brought much more to the central thrust of Danny’s story than the Meechums. Not to mention we might have gotten to see Danny doing more cool martial arts stuff like, I don’t know, fighting a dragon?

This is a common problem for a lot of writers and Iron Fist is a great example of why cramming too many conflicts, characters and themes into a single story hurts. The people who wrote Iron Fist tried to chase two rabbits and caught neither, leaving the audience hungry and feeling like their time was wasted. The show is a mess because no one knew what kind of story was being told. Sad, but not entirely unexpected. Better luck with The Defenders Marvel.

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

Rising Hour

Sam woke up to the red phone ringing. He rolled over in bed and flailed about until his hand landed on the nightstand with the device buzzing under his fingers. Sharon made an annoyed sound next to him and rolled over in the other direction, taking most of the covers with her. Sam sat up and shook the cobwebs from his brain, then staggered towards the door. Calls on the red phone were important, less than a dozen people had the right technology to even make a call to it and they were all priority one, but they were expecting to talk to the Clockworker, not Sam King.

Some days he wondered if maintaining the fiction that they were two different people was worth the trouble, the public knew he was a close associate of the Clockworker and a lot of people suspected they were the same person, but the engineer in him still wanted the extra layer of protection for Sharon, no matter how thin it might be. So for the moment he let the myth persist.

He raised the phone to his ear and said, “This is the Clockworker.”

The phrase was both a greeting and the voice print authorization that unlocked the phone and answered the call. There was a split second as the phone processed his voice and sent the greeting, then a click at the edge of audibility as the other line patched in. “Good morning,” a smooth baritone on the other end said. “And happy Anniversary.”

His brain ran through the list of people who could call the red phone. None of them sounded like this. Only Sharon and Alejandro knew who they talked to on the other end. “Who is this?”

“Senator Ichiro Maslow, Clockworker.” Sam’s brain was fully engaged by that point, telling him Maslow as from Nevada and served on the Armed Forces Committee. “Before you become overly concerned, Alejandro lent me his phone to call you. We met three and a half years ago, although you may not remember it. We let him handle most of the leg work.”

Sam took his finger of the phone’s panic button and tapped it twice, cancelling the trace on the call. Somewhere three floors down a suit of Clockworker armor stopped powering up for a quick jaunt across the country. “You’re a part of the Legacy.”

“I am.”

“I don’t suppose this has anything to do with your getting Natalie off my case.”

There was a short laugh on the other side of the phone. “No, I’m afraid her opinion of you remains as low as it’s ever been. As odd as it may sound, knowing magic does not make you a miracle worker.”

“Fine and dandy, but having her running around as a vigilante has made getting the Guild sanctioned much harder than I’d hoped.” Sam let himself through the door at the far end of the hall, stepping into the house’s situation room, full of equipment and monitors that let him keep tabs on the world and scramble wherever he needed to go if the situation called for it. “So to what do I owe the honor? Not my anniversary, I think.”

“Sadly, no. I’m calling about the matter that brought you into contact with us in the first place.”

Sam absently started scanning through the reports the screens were displaying. “I haven’t had any problems with Natalie since you guys took her in hand the last time we met. Has she decided to bail on whatever agreement you made then?”

“We didn’t make a deal.” There was a pause on the other end of the phone, the kind of pause he’d come to associate with Alejandro decided how much to tell him about some esoteric point of magic. “She was given a time limit to deal with you. We just kept her from tapping the powers of Atlantis until it ran out and convinced her it wasn’t worthwhile to keep hunting you after that, since you do have your own plan to set things to rights. But your greater concern was the dragons themselves, wasn’t it?”

“Well, yes. After all, if they just tried again I’d be right back where I started. But so far they haven’t.”

“No, because Atlantis was planning to go one further. He’s coming himself.” A notification popped up on one of the screens, informing him that a confidential file server had just received files from one of Alejandro’s encrypted servers. “I just sent you a report from the U.S.S. Leyte Gulf carrier group showing significant seismic agitation and mysterious sonar contacts in the northern Atlantic. Alone, not much, but Natalie told Alejandro earlier today that she’d had a vision of the dragon for the first time in years. We did a little digging with our own resources and when you put it all together it all leads to one conclusion.”

“Atlantis is rising.” Sam put a hand over his mouth and thought for a moment. “Senator, Atlantis isn’t due for another eighty years. How can it be rising now?”

“We’re talking about a creature that sleeps for millenia at a time,” Maslow replied. “Waking up a few decades earlier or later might not make that much of a difference.”

“How has Alejandro not mentioned that in the last three years?”

The senator laughed. “You never asked. And I notice you never mentioned you knew when he was coming back to us. That might have been worth knowing.”

“Touche.” Sam paged through the report. “On the other hand, I do have an idea for what to do now.”

“Anything we can do to facilitate?”

“Can you keep the carrier group out of the area?”

The laughter was incredulous this time. “I thought that a decentralized leadership was something you always praise about government when you stump for people to agree to having a Guild branch in their area.”

“So I guess that rules out your trying to keep Thunderclap’s appeal from going through, too.”

“Retroactively applying new laws is a can of worms no one wants to open, Clockworker. You didn’t have the right to bring him in and no amount of legal finagling is going to change that. He’s probably going to get out when the circuit court rules on it.” He could almost hear Maslow shrug over the phone. “If it’s any consolation I did stump for the Guild when it came to Nevada. Now if you really don’t need anything, I have a lot on my plate.”

“Then I’ll let you go. Thank you for the heads up, Senator.”

“Give my regards to your wife.”

The senator hung up and Sam turned around and found Sharon leaning in the doorway. She was holding her own red phone, the only one he’d given out that could listen in on calls from the others. He’d modified it to do that as last year’s anniversary present. “How much of that did you get?”

“Everything from Natalie still hates your guts.” She sighed and looked at the monitors, where the map of the Atlantic showed a two mile stretch of ocean floor that had started shaking at a 4.7 on the Richter scale six hours ago in spite of there being no known fault lines in the area. “How are you going to fight that, Sam?”

“Hopefully I won’t have to.” He got up, blanking the screens as he did. “Admittedly, given how much Natalie hates me, it’s fair to assume the dragon that sent her after me is likely to be just as hostile. And since Atlantis wants me, staying put places a lot of people in the line of fire so going to meet it is the best bet for everyone. I wouldn’t deserve to be the leader of the Guardian’s Guild if I was willing to put people in danger for my own convenience.”

“Better it be just you.” She didn’t sound bitter, although he knew from past experience the bitterness was there, deep down.

“I wish you wouldn’t worry.” It was a stupid thing to say but it still managed to slip out.

Sharon gave him a thin smile. “Sam, you’ve got a basement full of replacement prosthetics, for all four limbs. Not to mention the artificial replacement organs you’ve been tinkering with.”

He winced. “I didn’t think you’d seen those.”

“It’s not hard to keep tabs on when you access your temporal relay, and when it’s not attached to a crisis at the Guild I’m not above peeking. The fact that you’ve powered it up is enough to give me jitters. And I’m not the only one relying on you.” Sharon glanced over at the emblem of an hourglass, a deep crack running down it’s bottom half, that was emblazoned on his workstation. The sigil of the North American Guardian’s Guild. “Don’t you worry that it won’t last without you? Three thousand people working for the Guild in the U.S. and Canada, not to mention all the people who count on said Guild for their safety while the delta factors in the population continue to increase.”

“The Guild is built to outlast me, Sharon. It has to.”

She slumped down in the chair he’d abandoned. “I know. You have to fix time. That might be another reason to avoid fighting dragons, you know.”

“Since it’s the reason the dragon is mad at me I’d tend to disagree.” Sam went over to the wall and started pushing buttons on the keypad there. “Besides, I think this is a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.”

Sharon looked up. “How so?”

“I need to reach some kind of bargain with Atlantis or it could really get in the way, so that’s bird one. Bird two is that I need to put down a fixed point in time.” A panel on the far wall slid open to reveal a suit of Clockworker armor. It was a few months old but essentially fresh off the fabricators as it was his latest antimagic model and he hadn’t needed it since it was built. He kept pushing buttons, ordering specific equipment lots mobilized and loaded onto his jumpship.

“A fixed point in time.” That was Sharon’s patented I Don’t Understand So Keep Talking Or Get Punched tone.

“So I’ve been saying I’ve broken time to describe the problem but on digging into the problem more I’ve determined it’d be better to say I’ve pushed it out over a place where it has no foundation. There are a lot of worlds out there, kind of woven together like a tablecloth, and by changing the course of time I’ve pulled us out of the weave.” He finished setting his loadout and activated the armor so it stepped forward out of the alcove, which closed behind it.

“So we’re like a loose thread? What, are we unravelling the universe or something?”

“Nothing quite that drastic. But if a thread gets long enough without anything to support it, it will break under it’s own weight.” He climbed into the armor and started sealing himself in. “When I disappeared after Upsilon tried to teleport me the first time I went… outside our world and figured a few things out. I think I can put us in a new weave with some of the worlds around our new position. But if time is a thread I need to be able to pull on it without breaking it myself. For that, I need fixed points in time.”

Sharon was nodding. “Points, plural, to spread out the strain.”

“Exactly. And you reinforce the places you expect to bear extra strain so it’s best if these fixed points correspond with significant events.” Sam detached his helmet from his waist then thought better of putting it on. It probably didn’t fit the mood of the conversation.

Sharon gave him a sardonic look and stood up to put her hands on her hips. “Events like the rising of a dragon that’s been dead and sleeping for thousands of years?”

“That would fit the bill.”

“How many of these fixed points do you need?”

He tucked his helmet under one arm. “I’ve identified eleven suitable points over the next thirty years. With Atlantis rising that makes twelve, which should be enough. I’ve built in four extra, for safety’s sake.”

She stepped closer and ran her hands up the armor’s chest plate to rest near where his shoulders were under all the machinery and ceramics. “Thirty years? Think you’ll be in any shape to go running around fighting when you’re nearly sixty?”

He looked away in discomfort. “Well… thing is, once I start doing this the Heisenberg effect of my future knowledge will quickly unanchor the fixed points. If I remain in the timeline. So I’m going back outside, to the place Upsilon sent me before. If I can establish all twelve fixed points inside of three weeks it should be fine.”

“No, I’ll be gone for a little less than two.” He set his helmet on the desk and gently wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “Outside a world isn’t a healthy place for people. I’ll need to set up a few things before I can bring you there with me.”

Skeptical, Sharon leaned back and studied his face. “Samuel King. Are you asking me to go time traveling with you? When were you planning to bring this up if ancient dragons hadn’t forced the issue?”

“I was actually planning to do it today,” he said sheepishly. “I worked out the last details a few weeks ago and had everything ready to go except for when I would be ready to leave on my first jump.”

“You were going to invite me on a crazy, time travelling expedition to save the world for our second anniversary?”

“It seemed like a romantic idea at the time…” He shrugged as much as the armor would let him. “Maybe our five year would have been mor-”

Sharon cut him off with a kiss that was a lot more interesting than whatever he’d been about to say.

After a minute she pushed away with a grin and said, “Go slay your dragon, Sam. I’ll be here whenever you get back.”

He scooped up his helmet and jammed it in place, grinning back and ready to take on all the dragons the oceans had to offer. “Be back before you know it.”

An Hour for Magic

The Marion County Sheriff, a lean man with graying hair and moustache, peered up at Sam from behind thick glasses. He didn’t look like a timid man but, as the Clockworker armor gave Sam a good two feet on him, he’d kept a respectful distance during the brief tour. Now that he was done with that Sheriff Heigl had dispensed with courtesy and was scrutinizing everything Sam did, from checking the power supply for the modified holding cells to doing a quick health scan on Thunderclap and his two cronies. Finally, as a couple of deputies wheeled in the crates of parts he’d brought along to set up another half dozen holding cells, Sam asked, “Something I can help you with, Sheriff?”

“How many cells can you rig with these… what did you call them?”

“Delta-human dampeners.” He lifted the first piece, a two hundred pound power regulator, off of the car with one hand, the armor whirring softly as it shifted to counterbalance the weight while he grabbed the long power cables that would attach it to other parts of the rig and slung them under his other arm. “And I can theoretically put as many in as you can afford. But only the first dozen are free, after that I intend to charge. And there’s the cost of running them to account for, too. They need a lot of electricity.”

“I’ll talk to the Mayor and Unigov about it.” For a minute Sam could pick out a crack administrator under his weathered appearance, weighing how many of these gizmos he might want and how much he could convince local government to pay for. Then he was back in the moment. “Why delta-human? Nothing triangular about Theodore Clapper, not that I can see.”

“In math speak delta is the symbol for the change in value.” He waved down the hall in the general direction of Thunderclap’s current residence. “Humanity is changing, Sheriff. By my estimates in twenty-five years one in ten thousand people will demonstrate abilities like Thunderclap’s. In a century one in four will have a delta factor. I’m not in the business of evaluating whether that’s good or bad, so make of it what you will. But law and order is good for most people, delta factors or no. That’s why I’m offering the services of the Guardian’s Guild.”

Heigl snorted. “Indiana’s a weird place to start if you ask me.”

“I don’t really care where I start. Indiana, Marion County, even just the city of Indianapolis is fine with me. I just need a proof of concept to prove the model can work.” He tapped his fingers in a specific sequence, activating his helmet’s microphone and putting him in contact with the maintenance guy he’d left in the breaker room. “Go ahead and cut power to cell twenty nine.”

Once he got an acknowledgement he set the regulator down in the right part of the cell and automated machinery inside whirred to life, sending out probes that would splice into the building’s power grid. Sam straightened up and turned back to the sheriff, switching the mic back off as he did. “I take it you don’t like the idea?”

The older man responded with a level stare. “Don’t know yet. But I suppose we could try it.”

“I appreciate your-” The tachyon proximity sensor went off. Split Infinity was somewhere nearby. “Sheriff, you need to evacuate your staff. Right now.”

——–

Heigl wasn’t keen on the idea but Sam short-circuited discussion by picking him up and carrying him out of the high security section. There would probably be some kind of legal consequence for that soon but Sam was willing to take that over having someone die because they wanted an explaination there wasn’t time for. Thankfully the Indianapolis Police Chief wasn’t on hand to double the charges against him.

Sharon shooed most of the rank and file deputies and officers out after the Sheriff then moved towards the holding cell he’d started modding, pulling a tachyon disruptor out of one of the crates. Mixed in with the upgrade parts it’d been fairly easy to sneak in. Plugged in to the power conduit it should have enough kick to slow Split Infinity down.

Some.

He’d have to trust her to do her part. It was time to go full Clockworker.

As soon as he thought it the process kicked in. A net of nanofibers built by honest to goodness nanotech activated in his brain, doubling the speed of most of his cognitive processes. At the same time the power taps in the armor kicked into high gear and deployed a time shift field. Suddenly time around him was moving five times faster than real time and, by extension, so was he. Sam knew it wasn’t a silver bullet, Split Infinity had favored getting close in previous encounters and when you got close enough you got the same benefits from the field, so they’d wind up on even footing if he ever let her get there.

And he wasn’t a whole lot faster than she was, with the kind of strength she’d shown on previous encounters she could probably outpace a cheetah without breaking sweat, the only real advantage Sam had in that department was better reflexes born of having more five times the opportunity to react. But the real rub was that time shifting relied on a structured tachyon field to take place. He couldn’t fire a tachyon disruptor without, well, disrupting that field.

Meaning he had to be able to put some distance between himself and his target before he tried to use the thing. Meaning he couldn’t get cornered.

Sam moved until he was at the intersection of two halls in the maximum security wing, waiting to see how Split Infinity would make her entrance. In their previous encounters she’d made her entrance as a young girl, probably counting on her “real” form to lower people’s guards and help her get where she needed to go. But that wasn’t going to get her in to a prison very easily, so he was expecting her to enter via teleportation.

She did not disappoint.

The massive tachyon disruption he’d been tracking pulsed, suddenly moving from the perimeter wall eight hundred feet away then reappearing about twenty feet away. Right outside the jail wall.

Even with ten times the reaction speed, even with the right shoulder shield projector already basically pointed in the right direction, Sam almost didn’t get a hardlight shield deployed in time. As it was, the flying chunks of concrete and dust that flew in when Split Infinity blew through the wall was enough to blind him and leave him disoriented. Flashes of light sparked off the dust, probably coming from her pulsing trail of energy, but he couldn’t tell whether she’d come through or not and the tachyon signal was too dispersed for him to get a fixed location. She was just radiating magic all through the general area.

And there was a new complication he hadn’t been counting on. Tachyons disrupted magic, but the reverse was true as well. Whatever magic tricks Split Infinity had deployed didn’t just exist in and around her, they were all over the place and they were crashing into his time shifting field. It was deteriorating fast and he was going to be back in sync with the rest of the world very quickly if he couldn’t get distance.

Gambling that his opponent would want to cut him off from the other exit as quickly as possible, Sam pushed deeper into the hallway she’d come in through, leading with his right side, hardlight barrier still in place. That barrier probably saved his life, because Split Infinity hadn’t gone to cut him off, she’d withdrawn up the hallway to cast a spell.

It was his first time seeing magic in action from inside his armor. The experience wasn’t any less intimidating than on previous occasions. The spell warped and pulsed into a fractal form for a half second then a lighting bolt collided with the his shields, turning them opaque for a split second. His naked eye missed whatever came next as the adjusted to the sudden change in lighting but his helmet’s scanners picked up another surge going down into the ground just before the floor burst up in a jagged wave that collapsed the shielding and drove him back another half step.

Split Infinity emerged from the settling dust cloud, one hand moving the crackling lines of magic into a new shape as the other reached forward to grab for him. Then a triple pulse from Sharon’s tachyon disruptor hit her and the magic flickered out for a half second. It was enough time for Sam to find his feet and bolt down the other hallway, throwing a grateful glance back into the main cellblock where Sharon was braced in a crouching stance, the power cable attached to the disruptor stretched to it’s limit behind her.

As he got distance from his opponent the temporal shift rebuilt, giving him a little over twice the time to work with she was going to get. It was enough to get to the end of the other hallway, unfold his left arm and switch the power relays over.

Everything he’d brought to the jail was modified for this particular encounter but the left arm was purpose built. It sacrificed strength and durability for the largest tachyon disruptor matrix it could fit and still function as a prosthetic. Catch was, it had no power source.

The necklace he’d given Sharon ran on a small Heisenberg powertap. After he’d realized how observing time changed it had occurred to him that similar changes took place every moment around people all the time. It had taken work but, with a couple of months inside a temporal shifting field, he’d managed to find a way to tap that change for power.

Every person felt, heard, smelled and saw an absurd amount of information about the world that their unconscious mind analyzed and filtered every second of the day, creating a maelstrom of subatomic Heisenberg disruptions to draw on. Generic thought exercises, like thinking of triangles, could focus those disruptions in ways that made them a little easier to draw on. With access to an MRI and other diagnostic tools you could eventually find a personalized thought exercise and tune specific Heisenberg taps to pick up on it that would increase the accessible power by a factor of ten. With every square inch of skin on his body a vector of observation and Heisenberg taps covering the inner lining of the Clockworker suit he had almost as much power available as if it was fueled by a miniature nuclear reactor.

As he braced himself at the end of the corridor and brought his arm to bear he disabled the temporal shift and started charging the disruptor. Split Infinity careened around the corner, her magical power back in full force and already bending into some new display of half understood energy and he leveled the long blue spine of the disruptor at her and started charging it; then he lapsed into his personalized exercise.

He thought about Sharon. The way the light hit her hair, the way it lay on the back of her neck, the way she smiled whenever she knew she had the right idea for a given situation. How she’d tackled every legal hurdle he’d thrown at her in the last four months with gusto and never once tried to dissuade him from what had to look like increasingly insane goals. Quiet moments when she just dropped by the lab to make sure he wasn’t working himself to death. The skill she’d shown in looking after his affairs while he’d dropped off the face of the earth after his first meeting with Thunderclap. The kind of future he wanted to craft for her. And what he wanted to leave behind.

By that time it was an old, well travelled line of thought. His mind whirled through the thoughts, feelings and images in the space of a breath. His skin tingled and a flush of warmth and satisfaction filled him in spite of the situation he found himself in. Then he was back in the present, staring down a hallway at Split Infinity’s inhumanly perfect face as she charged towards him. It didn’t look like Alejandro’s idealized form in that moment, though, as her eyes grew wide. She’d realized he was up to something but too late to stop it.

He fired.

The disruptor spent the full force of it’s payload in a single flash of light. Split Infinity’s spell warped and flipped in front of her as a shield but broke and scattered instantly. The rest of the blast hit her full on and her shape blurred and wavered for a moment. For an instant Sam worried that, even with all the power behind it, his disruptor still wasn’t enough to break the enchantment that transformed her. Then, with a convulsive heave, she shrunk down to the small, barely teenage girl he’d first met at the construction site almost a year ago.

Sam lowered the disruptor and took a step towards her, the onboard computer comparing her face to a dozen social media and photo ID databases and returning a result. “Natalie Sharpe, I presume?”

The girl stared down at her hands, then reached for the plastic pinwheel thing that served as the focus for her transformation. It was still at her shoulder but not glowing any longer. She snapped around to glare at him. “What did you do?”

“Natalie, I don’t know what you’ve been told about me-”

“You’re in the process of destroying the world,” she snapped. “Maybe you didn’t mean it but you can’t just look through time, you know.”

“I realize that,” he said, struggling to stay calm. She had a point there but it was hard to talk about it with her ranting like she was. “And I think I have a solution.”

“Yeah, you need to leave this world. One way or another.” The words and the tone had the sound of a threat.

He knelt down to look her in the eye. “You’re too young to be using that kind of language. Tell you what. I know that Atlantis is behind you. Let me talk to him face to face.”

She just folded her arms and gave him a haughty look. Alejandro was right, she was a young, emotionally driven girl who felt entirely in the right. Too young for perspective or self doubt. Maybe Sharon would be able to get through to her.

As soon as the thought occurred the perimeter scanners pinged again. A new tachyon surge was incoming. Natalie smirked. “Neat magic trick you got there,” she said. “But Atlantis has been doing this since the dawn of time. You won’t keep him out of the fight for long.”

She was about to transform again. He stepped back and raised the disruptor again, hoping to buy more time, but almost as soon as he tried to activate it diagnostics flashed. The primary capacitor was burnt out. Eight power relays in the suit had also blown. It would take almost six minutes to repair the damage. He couldn’t stop Natalie if she transformed again. For a split second he entertained the idea of just squishing her before she could but he dismissed it. He wasn’t sure but he didn’t think that would ultimately make a difference. One of the dragons could always make a new representative and send her after him. He needed a more permanent solution.

Until he could find it he’d have to run again.

He pushed past the girl and bolted down the hallway for the hole in the wall they’d left behind. When he got there he skidded to a stop and stared.

There were seven men standing in the courtyard outside, each with their right hand raised to the sky, each hand connected by a ribbon of light, just like the magic Split Infinity used. A bolt of light as wide as a car and stretching from somewhere on high down to a point about three feet of the ground was held immobile by their spell and, as he watched, slowly shrank down until it was just a band of light no more impressive than the magic that tied the seven men together, then it vanished entirely.

In the more normal lighting Sam could tell that all seven men were dressed the same, in dirt brown suits and hunting caps. They lowered their hands and broke up, six moving towards a van parked nearby while the seventh turned towards Sam and pulled his cap off.

As Sam had suspected, it proved to be Alejandro.

Sam shook his head. “So you came to see after all.”

“At first.” Alejandro clapped a hand on his shoulder, a bit of a stretch up but not enough to make it awkward. The younger man smiled. “But that spell you cast was enough to change our minds.”

“Spell?” Natalie had called it a magic trick earlier, too. “That wasn’t any different from the disruptor I used on you yesterday.”

Alejandro laughed. “Not that part. How you powered it. You cast a vision for your legacy. We are the Legacy. And we thought it was worth helping out. C’mon, let’s go talk to this magical girl of yours.”

Sam watched as he picked his way over the rubble and into the jail, then sighed and followed behind, wondering if he’d ever understand all this magic nonsense. But if not, at the very least he’d gotten a victory out of it and that would have to do. For the moment.

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.”