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.

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Discordant Hour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——–

“Absolutely not.”

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

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

“It’s not magic.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon wrinkled her brow. “Why is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Hour For Legacies

“Wow. Fifty years makes a big difference.”

Sam broke a newly refabricated piece of ceramic exoskeleton out of his newest ceramic printer. “This? This is more like tech from thirty years forward. I’d need a couple of weeks of retooling in order to produce something on spec for fifty years futuretech.”

“He says it so casually.” The remark was addressed to no one in particular as Sharon picked her way through the living room work area. “Not bad, all things considered. You only had to relocate twice this month.”

“Still more than I’d like. It’s slowing down what I can accomplish a lot.” Sam carried the new piece over to the exoskeleton and started installing it.

Sharon swung around the work space to peer over his shoulder.”So what is it? Power armor?”

“Powered exoskeleton.” He carefully broke a set of seals and pulled out the old left arm array. “I’m waiting until I can put out the next generation of ceramics to print the armor.”

“You know, people the office thinks you’re an entire cadre of supergeniuses cranking out groundbreaking technologies with the help of neuroenhancing drugs.” Sharon laughed. “I’m not sure the truth is any stranger. I mean, this tech is decades away.”

“Three of them, to be exact. Although functional powered exos will be patented first in twenty years.” He locked the new part in place and extracted himself from his project. “I don’t have anything pulled anything new from the future for a patent yet.”

Sharon shook her head. “Not what I’m here for. Although you do have another request to use that memory metal patent from last month. Looks to be another big earner.”

“I’ve been picking things with a lot of potential uses. We’re going to need capital down the line.” He shrugged uncomfortably, still not entirely comfortable with profiting off other people’s inventions. There were going to be a lot of people loosing out on their rightful profits in the next few years. Hopefully he could make it up to them by altering history a bit. “Speaking of, have you looked over the superhuman accords from the latest iteration of the future?”

“No.” Sharon tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, turned the gesture into brushing her hair over one shoulder, leaving her slim neck exposed on a backdrop of golden curls. “I found something interesting last night.”

“Yes.” Sam snapped himself back into the present moment. “Sorry, what?”

She rolled her eyes and handed him a tablet, one he’d modified to be able to access the temporal relay. It showed him a picture of a barrel chested man in a conservative suit that didn’t quite hide the tire around his waist, seated in front of a Congressional panel. “I was browsing the futurenews late last night, just seeing if anything would jump out at me, and I saw this guy.”

“Alejandro Gutierrez. Assistant Director of the CIA.” Sam thumbed down to read the article. “Atlantis. Yeah, I remember seeing something about that a month or so ago. Archaeologists find evidence of it in a few years or something. I didn’t have time to look into it when it last came up.”

“Well,” she took the tablet back from him. “In twenty five years Atlantis isn’t a legend anymore, it’s a real place in the Atlantic. And Gutierrez has a lot of weird rumors swirling around him in days to come. One is that he knew about Atlantis since he was very young, part of a secret society or something, and that’s part of what got him to his position at the CIA so young.”

“How young?”

“Appointed at forty. He’s forty-five in that picture.” She swiped from that article to another one. “Now look at this.”

It was a blurry photo reportedly taken by an U.S. Navy observation drone that showed a fuzzy mound in the middle of the ocean with what might have been a city skyline on top of it. More importantly, a dizzying spiral of glowing light rose above the shape as if the stars themselves had come down to greet it. Sharon pointed at it needlessly. “I saw that and couldn’t help but think of what you told me about The Girl.”

In spite of being an MIT graduate Sam’s brain still insisted on counting backwards very carefully. “So, if Alejandro Gutierrez knew about Atlantis from a young age and he’s forty-five twenty-five years from now…”

“He’s twenty now.” Sharon wiped from the relay to a more standard web browser. It showed a Facebook page for a student at the University of Phoenix. “Worth looking into, don’t you think?”

——–

Sam had exactly zero infiltration skills, something that didn’t strike him as a problem until he got to Phoenix and realized that he had no idea how to find Gutierrez or what his typical routine was. Finally, after a couple of hours poking around the Internet he found the right dorm and started peeking through windows and comparing them to pictures Alejandro had posted online. He felt more than a little like a stalker.

But he did eventually find where he needed to be. Thankfully he was stalking someone who lived on the first floor.

A few hours of waiting, nose buried in technical specifications for new future tech, and Alejandro Gutierrez made his appearance, passing through his room long enough to collect clean clothes before leaving again. With his ear pressed to the window Sam could vaguely pick up the sound of a shower running. Time to get through the window.

After some fiddling he settled for carefully jabbing a single finger of his artificial hand forcefully through the glass, hooking it over the window lock and flipping it open, then carefully pushing the window up on its slide and letting himself in. Hopefully Alejandro wasn’t the type to wander around in a towel after his shower. That could get awkward. He kept reading to keep his mind busy.

The door opened some ten minutes later. Sam, sitting at the room’s desk, glanced up and set his tablet aside. “Nice room. Nowhere’s better than MIT, but it’s close to the same.”

Alejandro froze in the doorway. He was a little shorter than Sam was expecting, although still an inch or so above average, and he hadn’t grown a moustache yet, but Sam could still tell that this was the same man as they’d seen some years in the future. “I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong room.”

“Actually, no. You’re Alejandro Gutierrez and you’re here, so it’s the right place.” Sam stood up from the desk and carefully put his hands at a neutral position at his side. “I need to ask you a few questions.”

“Now?” Alejandro gave him an incredulous look.

“Yes. For starters, how did someone with your family background afford to come to a school like this?” Sam pulled a set of printouts from a shirt pocket. They didn’t have anything to do with what they were talking about but Alejandro didn’t need to know that. “You shouldn’t be able to afford it without a lot of help but you didn’t file for any scholarships this year. Or the last two years since you first enrolled.”

“I had some help from a friend. Look, who are you?” Alejandro pushed into the room, looking around as if he expected a camera crew to be hiding in the corner, waiting to jump out and announce he was being pranked.

Of course, Sam hadn’t expected a straight answer to that question right away. He pulled a printout of the Atlantis picture from the middle of the other papers and held it out to the other man. “Do you know what this is?”

Alejandro gave it a quick look, opened his mouth and started to say ‘no’, then clamped it shut and snatched the picture out of Sam’s hand. “Where did you get this?”

“It’s from the future,” Sam said, half smiling. As he’d expected, that got him another double take.

“No, seriously.” Alejandro crumpled the picture up. “Where did you get it?”

“I have more.” He was in the process of retrieving the phone in order to the next step of the conversation, showing Alejandro a taste of the actual temporal relay, when there was a muffled knock from the outer room. Presumably someone at the door to the suite Alejandro shared with his roommates. Alejandro looked at the door, then at Sam meaningfully. Sam just smiled and nodded, inside he was annoyed but he didn’t want Alejandro doing anything rash or someone at the door letting themselves in and hearing something they shouldn’t.

As the other man stepped out of the room Sam pulled out his phone and thumbed it open, ignoring a handful of notices and opening the relay’s app. There was a brief pause then the screen announced, “Not Found”.

That meant the relay wasn’t responding for some reason. Like it was turned off, or there had been a local power failure. Or it was being moved. None of which should have happened. He quickly backed out and checked his notifications. Sharon had texted him. Several times. The last few looked to be the same message over and over, starting with the words, “SHE was here.”

He switched off his phone and tucked it away quickly, pulling a patch like a nicotine bandage out of the same pocket and pulling the backing off it with shaking hands.

“Hey, this girl with you?” Alejandro called from out in the main room.

Sam slapped the patch to the side of his neck, neurostimulants hitting his blood almost instantly. Time seemed to dilate and his senses sharpened. He grabbed the thumb of his prosthetic arm and racked it back like pumping a shotgun, breaking the body of the arm open and letting him bring the riot gun inside to play. Almost at the same time there was a loud boom from the main room. Sam hooked one foot around the edge of the door and swung it open, tracking across the doorway with the stubby end of his arm, the fingers of the hand splayed to form a crude sight.

Sure enough, The Girl Who Splits Infinity was there, still shimmering slightly from her transformation, Alejandro backing away with a look of shock on his face. Sam thought about making a fist with his left hand and the riot gun barked, sending a two in ball of rubber the rough shape of a fist whistling towards her at close to a hundred miles an hour. It hit her on the shoulder and bounced away without apparent harm. The Girl brushed at her shoulder in that annoyed, anxious manner that maintained his impression that she was still a pretty green fighter, just absurdly durable, then flipped her fingers through the lines of light that came with her transformation and spun them in a wheel, from which leapt a serpentine line of fire that rushed through the main room, winding over top of the dirty dishes on the dining table and punching through the back of the couch that faced the entertainment center before blasting through the spot Sam had been standing just seconds ago, before he dove for cover.

He pumped his riot gun again and turned the mental dial on it up from normal to high and fired the other rubber slug at four times the speed of the other one. It hit The Girl as she stormed forwards and she seemed to notice it this time but it still didn’t slow her. He snapped the arm’s thumb back down, closing it up into a more normal looking prosthetic, and yanked his left sleeve up, pulling it as close to the shoulder as it would go so that the hardlight generator in the upper arm could raise a shield without setting him on fire.

It wasn’t as big as the bubble generator he’d used back at the campsite a few months ago but it was just as powerful and it could run on batteries for at least a half minute so that was something. Enough that The Girl hit it and bounced off in surprise at least.

Before she could recover Alejandro was there beside her. What happened next was a bit of a mystery to Sam. One moment both he and The Girl were staring at Alejandro in shock, Alejandro in the middle of a flawless windup, hips rotating his torso as his fist lind up with The Girl’s sternum.

The next there was an incredible thump and she was gone. Sam thought for a second she’d teleported again. Then he realized there was a new hole in the dorm wall. He gaped at it for a second, then started at Alejandro. “Okay, I’m impressed.”

Alejandro panted for a moment, his head on a swivel as he waited to see if The Girl would come back. Finally, he straightened up and said, “So you know one of them?”

“There’s more than one?” Sam buried his face in his hands. “Why do I even bother?”

“No, no, there’s probably only one at a time. Look. You’ve got some tricks up your sleeve.” Alejandro winced, realizing how that sounded. “I mean, you’ve avoided her this long. Can…” He thought about it for a long moment. “Can I check with some people I know? I don’t know a whole lot about that side of things. You’ve got questions, I get it. But I’m not sure what I should tell you or what matters in your situation or what. So can I get back to you later?”

The kid looked awfully hopeful about it. Obviously he was interested in what was going on now, and understood that secrecy was the order of the day because he was playing his hand really close to the vest. Sam pointed at the printout he’d given Alejandro, left abandoned on the table. “You can reach me at the email on there. That girl’s had it out for me for a while, though, and she’s getting better at catching me faster than I can get better at running away. I’d appreciate anything you can tell me.”

He nodded, very serious. “I’ll tell you everything I can, as soon as I can. Now you’d better get going before someone comes investigating.”

Sam left the same way The Girl had, examining the hole she’d made on the way out. Alejandro had punched her through almost a foot of concrete. Obviously he’d been using kid gloves in this fight. It was time to stop.