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.

An Hour of History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Triangles.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sam,” she said softly. “What-”

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we with Thunderclap and his friends?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We?”

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

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

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

“But they could fly?”

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

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

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

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

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

“The girl we met at your dorm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How come the girls transform into…”

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

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

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

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

An Hour Beyond

“And it’s on.” Sam checked his phone and confirmed he was getting input from the temporal relay. “Nice to have my eyes and ears back.”

“I’m sorry, Sam.” Sharon plopped down in one of the chairs at what he affectionately called the Snack Table, since it was where he ate when working. “That shouldn’t have happened.”

“Since I’m still not sure how she’s finding me I don’t see how we can place any blame for this on anyone.” Sam grabbed a chair next to her and sat in it, looking over the new work space. It was the same place as before, actually. He was hoping that not moving after The Girl found him might throw her off her game. “She only fried the relay, didn’t touch anything else, so we’re not too far behind schedule because of it. And from what he said Alejandro knows something about her, hopefully something we can use. So on the whole the trip was a win. If I’d been here I don’t think it would have worked out as well for me.”

“He really managed to stop her?” Sharon gave him an incredulous look. “I was here when she showed up, you know. She smashed the safe you keep the relay in by waving her hand.”

“And he knocked her through a concrete wall.” Sam leaned back in his chair and looked over his handiwork. “Humanity is changing, Sharon. We can read about what happens in the future but we’ve only got the here and now to do something about it. And it’s not time to tangle with those two yet. How’s your side of things coming?”

She leaned back in her chair with a sigh. “You catch Thunderclap and I’ve got the case for deputizing you as a temporary law enforcement officer ready to go. I can’t say it will work, but we can make the case.”

“That’s all I can ask.” Sam casually looped an arm around her shoulders and smiled. “Humanity is changing and we may not understand the reason, but we still have our wits and morals. It’ll be enough.”

Sharon shot him a sideways look. “You got all that out of the relay after it’s been back two minutes?”

“That’s not a prediction, it’s a conviction.” He patted her shoulder. “Without them predictions are useless.”

——–

Teddy crashed down on the armored car feet first, leaning hard back and forth to keep it from swerving off the road as it screeched to a stop. It had taken some practice but on this fourth attempt he managed to keep it from straying out of its lane in spite of the several tons of vehicle bucking to a stop beneath his feet. As soon as they were stopped he smashed both hands through the windshield and hauled the surprised looking guard out of the drivers seat and tossed him to one side. The other guard in the passenger’s seat had enough time to draw his weapon but not enough time to fire before he went the way of the driver.

Teddy slipped down and picked up the guard’s weapons and threw them as far as he could, which was more than far enough for them to disappear beyond the scrub brush along the sides of the road. Then he turned and flew himself to the back of the armored car, ripped the door open and pulled out his cell phone. “We’re in! Come on over.”

The armored car rocked with a loud bang.

Teddy drifted a few steps back and a foot or so off the ground, peeking carefully over the top of the car.

A seven foot tall suit of tan colored body armor finished pulling itself upright and into his line of sight. The most distinctive feature was the helmet, a bullet shaped thing that covered the head and the top half of the face, with an opaque strip around where the eyes should be. Below was a half glimpsed set of fairly intricate, interlocking plates that whirred with half heard motors. Almost the instant Teddy spotted the armor it sprang forward and hit him with a square on body block.

Teddy pushed back and up, flying up and away even as his head swam. The guy in the suit had hit him hard, way harder than Teddy thought possible, and your actual fighting had never been his thing. He’d figured that whatever had happened to him was enough that he’d not get hurt and finding out he’d been wrong wasn’t fun.

Teddy stopped about ten feet up, shaking his head to try and get his bearings. The world came into focus just in time for him to see the armored man leaping up at him from the ground. Teddy threw his hands up and wheeled backwards, flipping head for heels. By dumb luck Teddy got his heels planted in the chest of the armored man as he spun and their collision sent both bobbing erratically through the air both of them scrabbling with each other. An armored hand clamped around Teddy’s arm and he couldn’t shake it off so he used the attached arm to lever his opponent around and pushed down, driving armor boy into the ground with both feet.

Without pause the other man pulled Teddy down into his rising fist.

With stars in his eyes Teddy pushed up again, swinging around wildly and flailing at the armored man. He managed to land a hard hit somewhere on the other’s arm and body. With the second hit the hand holding his arm let go and Teddy spun for a moment in the air before he got his bearings.

Armor guy was scrambling to his feet and Teddy had enough time to line up and dive bomb him, slamming both hands into this side in a full powered shove that sent him bouncing off of the road like a hockey puck. Teddy settled to the ground, breathing deeply as he took stock of the situation. Slim was watching from around the side of the armored car, his piece dangling forgotten in one hand. Not that a 9 mm was likely to do much against whatever crazy stuff the armored man was wearing. When he didn’t immediately pop back up and come running onto the road again Teddy touched down next to Slim, who had motioned two others out from the shadow of the car and started gathering money out of the back door. “Where’s Upsilon -”

Before Teddy could finish there was a loud whizzing sound and Slim rocked backwards with a dull thwap. A second later one of the two guys in the back of the truck recoiled clutching his side accompanied by the same noise, except this time a series of metallic thunks followed as whatever hit him bounced around the inside of the truck. The other guy, miraculously unhit, bent over and picked it up as it rolled along the floor. Teddy snatched it away and looked it over. It appeared to be a hard rubber ball, blue in color, like you might use to play handball. As he looked it over another one hit him square in the face, bouncing away harmlessly.

Slim had gotten to his feet again and was pointing off to one side of the road, yelling into his phone. Teddy followed the finger to see the armored man crouched down in the brush at the side of the road, his entire left arm unfolded into some kind of weird, snub nosed gun that was firing the rubber projectiles rapidly. Teddy tore the door off the back of the car and slammed it down in front of Slim as a makeshift shield only to see several of the balls bank off the ground and up into the armored car, to a chorus of pained grunts from the guys inside.

Cursing he took to the air again and flew towards the armored man at top speed. His target jumped to his feet, the gun arm folding up into normal configuration as he braced for Teddy’s arrival. Just before Teddy hit the other man stepped forward and ducked, letting Teddy sweep by overhead and grabbing him by the heels as he went past. With a comical grunt Teddy was jerked to a stop and then whipped into the ground like a rag doll. He lay there in a daze, vaguely aware of more yelling and the sound of that rubber shooter firing again, then the armored man was back, staring down at him.

Teddy gave him a weak grin. “I’m Thunderclap. And you?”

The corners of the mouth visible beneath the helmet turned down. “I guess you can call me the Clockworker.”

“Weird name.” Space behind the Clockworker bent and two hands slapping firmly against the back of the armored suit. “That’s Upsilon. Nice to meet you.”

The suit of armor shimmered for a second, then collapsed in on itself with a quiet pop, leaving a shocked looking woman with an unflattering bowl cut staring at the space the Clockworker had just occupied. Teddy sat up with a groan. “Thanks for the save, Upsilon. What did you do with him? Send him to China? Or just out to the middle of Lake Michigan? That’d be fine, too.”

“I don’t know.” Upsilon turned her confusion to Teddy. “I don’t know where he went. Something different happened that time.”

That was true. People she teleported usually just popped out, without the protracted visuals. It had only taken a half second for the thing to play out but even that was unusual. “So we don’t know where he is or when he might come back. Guess that means we just have to grab what we can and go. Pop the other guys out of here and back to the meeting spot, I’ll go up and keep an eye out. When you’re done text me and teleport home. I’ll fly there and meet you.”

She nodded. “On it, boss.”

——–

Sam came to feeling like he was floating.

He opened his eyes and realized it wasn’t a feeling. All around him there was vertigo. He didn’t know how he knew to call it that, but he knew that was what it was. Dizzying horizons were all around him, beckoning him fall back to reality but he wasn’t sure how to get to them or why he was wherever he was, rather than down underneath them. He wasn’t even sure his mind was forming coherent thoughts.

Then he heard a footstep, a comfortingly normal footstep, near his head and the indescribable panorama around him faded away, turning to a barely perceived fog at the edge of his vision, and a head swam into view. It was surprisingly bald.

“Found it,” the face said, looking up and back over it’s shoulder. “Want I should put it back or do you feel like talking to it first?” The voice was a bit coarse and gravelly, in contrast to the smooth hairless expanse on top of the head.

“Talk to him, I think.” A second voice answered, moving closer from the sound of it. As it approached the fog around them seemed to solidify more and more. “Is he awake? He’s twitching. Might want to step back, Jack.”

Jack did just the opposite, reaching down to give Sam’s cheeks a quick slap. “You awake? Snap out of it, pal.”

“We’re officially not pals,” Sam groaned, rolling onto his side and hitting the quick release on the armor, popping it open so he could crawl out and scramble to his feet. “Where am I? Who are you two?”

Jack grabbed him by the arm and steadied him as he rocked back and forth slightly. “You don’t know where you are?”

“No.” He gave Jack a suspicious look. “Should I?”

“It’s not that unusual for people to take their first trip accidentally,” the third man answered, “but stopping Out Here takes a lot of precision for most. It’s certainly unusual.”

Jack smirked at the other guy, the action transforming his featureless face into something more personable, if a bit unpleasant. “Way to explain it clearly for him, oyaji.” Then to Sam. “You’ve left the world as you know it, kid. Kinda stuck inbetween expressions of reality right now, not common like the old man says but not rare either. Any idea how it happened?”

Sam ran over what had just happened. “I was fighting Thunderclap. Then the world went topsy turvy. And I woke up here.” Something he’d read from the future’s news occurred to him. “Thunderclap ran a criminal gang with a teleporter in it. Could that have something to do with it?”

“Teleportation could have something to do with it,” the so-called old man said. “But I think it has more to do with you. Look, Jack.”

Jack did just that, peering closely at Sam from several angles. “Oh. I see.”

Annoyed, Sam gently pushed him away. “What? And are you going to tell me who you are?”

“We’re the Gatekeepers,” Jack said. “It’s our job to make sure travel between worlds runs smoothly.”

“Sorry, what?”

The old man sat down by Sam’s armor and started rummaging around inside. “Look, you seem to be a smart kind of guy. The problem is, when people get smart they start to think they’re in control, and the two are not the same. Look at us. We weren’t always the people who made sure comings and goings between worlds didn’t tear the universe apart.”

“Yeah?” Sam gave him a skeptical look, not sure he belied it. That they were such beings or that the universe could be torn apart. “How do you get a job like that?”

Jack shrugged. “Let’s just say, if you ever get mad at the universe don’t insist you could do a better job than it is on whatever’s pissing you off. You might just get the chance to try.”

“O-kay…” Sam shook his head. “So if you’re the gatekeepers who regulate interdimensional travel-”

“There’s a nostalgic phrase,” the old man muttered. Sam ignored him.

“-why are you here digging me out of whatever I was stuck in?”

“Because your world is, for lack of a better term, under quarantine. At some point in the next two or three hundred years it’s going to collapse in on itself and we’re preventing travel between it and other worlds in an attempt to minimize the damage the collapse causes to the surrounding horizons.” The old man pulled a fried circuit board out and set it aside. “There. Your armor was out of synch with your base pattern and it was holding you in a permanent transweave state. If you stayed out of it after we collapsed this pocket the chaotic state outside will kill you but you couldn’t return home in it. But if you reset the power systems now and think happy thoughts you should be able to make it without too many problems.”

Sam stared at him, mind blank.

The old man’s brow furrowed. “What?”

A Peaceful Hour

Sam slid into the seat with a weary noise. “What makes you think I can predict the future, Sharon?”

“This.” She plopped the pile of paperwork in front of him. Idly, Sam wondered if they ever replaced paper in the future. Might be worth looking into that. “Changes to the patent application process that came into the office bright and early this morning, due to go into effect next month.”

He stared at the paperwork stupidly, his pain and exhaustion fogged brain still able to suggest one pretty good reason Sharon might suddenly think he could predict the future. “And?”

“And they make the patent application you gave us 100% correct. I’s dotted, T’s crossed.” Sharon folded her hands on the table in front of her. “Problem is, no one outside the patent office should have seen these changes until this morning. You submitted your application to us two weeks ago. How do you think that happened?”

“It wasn’t time travel.”

She shook her head in irritation. “Mr. King, this kind of insider business move is highly illegal. I don’t know how you heard of the changes ahead of time but if you think-”

“I didn’t.” Sam pulled his left glove off and drummed the artificial fingers under it once on the table. The middle and ring fingers spasmed erratically for a half second then fell back into place. “Like you said, I predicted the future. The changes were already in place then.” There was a moment of silence as Sharon stared intently at the hand. “The hand is exhibit B. That’s how lawyers say it, right? Or is that just a TV thing?”

Sharon ignored his banal question and asked, “Did you have that yesterday?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t attached to me.”

“Why is it attached to you now?”

“Well.” Sam ran it over once in his mind. “I guess it started with the lottery numbers…”

——–

“Damn, TC, you went through that like a thunderbolt!” Slim knelt down and ran his fingers along the edge of the sheet metal Teddy had just flown through, examining the almost cartoonishly round hole, complete with ragged edges jutting out, that he’d left behind. “Wasn’t expecting you to hit it so low to the ground, though.”

“Wanted to see if being as tough as I am protected my clothes along with the rest of me.” Teddy pulled on his shirt, which was full of rips and tears all up and down the front. “Which it apparently doesn’t.”

“You need a tighter fitting shirt,” Slim suggested. “Maybe something in the UnderArmor category.”

Teddy made a noncommittal sound, keeping his own lack of confidence in skin tight clothing to himself. Maybe less his confidence in the clothing itself and more his lack of confidence in him, wearing said clothing. A diet might be in order. “So I can fly, I’m tough and I’m strong. That’s really basic stuff, right?”

Slim shrugged. “Way I see it, you can take a bullet or ten and answer with a rock going twice as fast. Why complain?”

“Point.”

“Question is, what do you want to do with it now?”

“Me?” He gave Slim a look.

Slim started. “Well, yeah. I mean, I ain’t giving you orders anymore. I’m not stupid. The way I see it, you can do pretty much anything you want now.”

Teddy walked over to the large passenger van he’d lifted, figuratively and literally, as a test of strength earlier. He rocked back and for on it’s suspension with a light touch, rolling over possibilities in his head. “Tell me something, Slim.”

“Yeah?”

“How much do you think an armored car weighs?”

——–

“You had a file on me?” Sharon asked.

“It made sense, don’t you think? Anyways it’s all public domain stuff, forward facing social media and the like.” Sam shrugged, poking at circuits in his prosthetic, trying to track down where that spasm was coming from. “Of course you had to undergo some serious vetting when you joined the DA’s office five years from now.”

“I’m going to be a district attorney?” Sharon shook her head. “Don’t tell me, I know. Not necessarily, especially now that I’ve read this. Causality and all that.”

That got her a surprised glance. “Not a word I was expecting to hear from you.”

“Why? Because I didn’t post nerd memes to my public pages?” Sharon favored him with a wry smile. “You know a lot, especially with your temporal relay gizmo going, but clearly you’re not omniscient.”

“Meaning?”

“You have to have some kind of science background in order to practice as a patent lawyer. My undergraduate degree was in computer engineering.” She went back to the relay’s screen and kept poking around. “Futurenews. I’m guessing that’s how you got me yesterday’s headlines.”

“Yep.” Sam went back to his arm. It would be nice if he could use two hands to work on it but then, he’d preferred not to have lost the original in the first place. Or be chased by the Homicidal School Girl in the first place. Definitely that. “Why did you switch?”

She looked down for a moment, looking profoundly embarrassed. “Promise not to tell?”

“Of course.”

“Too many of the people I met in school had a problem with abstractions.”

The arm twitched frantically as his other hand slipped and sparks flew. Sam quickly tamped down on the problem and then looked back at Sharon. “I’m sorry?”

“It was all math and tolerances and highest returned value and-” She paused to gather her thoughts. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind those ideas and they’re really important in making things safe and functional. But I’m not sure I could work a full time job where those were the only things we thought about.”

“So you study the law and wind up working with the same set of people as a patent lawyer.” Sam shook his head at the irony.

“Hey, I have a shot at the DA’s office.”

“In ten years you’re only an ADA,” Sam pointed out.

“Five, since I get hired five years from now.” She went back to perusing the future news listings. “Do you use this for anything other than staying alive?”

“I object to the idea that my staying alive is somehow a bad use of my brilliance.” Sharon shot him a sour look. “But yes, I have found the time to look into a few other things that bothered me. Look at the ‘Changing Humanity’ filter.”

She pulled up the right option and started looking through it. “Wow.”

“Yeah. Wow.”

Sharon was quickly swiping through various news stories. “Flying guy. Crazy strong guy-”

“Dense, actually. He’s capable of quintupling his mass without causing damage to himself. Makes his bones more dense than lead, but he still moves as if he were a person of his normal mass. Except for jumping.” Sam reached over Sharon’s shoulder and hit a few commands, scanning forward two years. “There was a teleporter there, too, but let’s ignore him for a second. Things get scary around this point.”

A news story with a video loop of a woman who’s eyes seemed to fire beams of scorching energy that melted through a concrete wall.

“Laser vision,” Sharon murmured.

“Not exactly,” Sam said. “But destructive to say the least. This is when things start getting bad.”

“How bad.” She glanced up from the screen. “Are we talking human rights disaster here?”

“Pogroms, at least.” He sighed and sat down on the desk beside the relay. “Lynchings, if you will. Changing humanity will be cast as an opponent of everything from white supremacy to civil rights and through it all the government sits on their hands too afraid of a human rights disaster, as you put it, to seriously consider the problem.”

Sharon had pushed to the end of the available futurenews reports and found a mob surrounding and beating a man who was trying to defend himself with a pair of cables that moved with a mind of their own. Since it was an official news clip it cut away before anything gruesome but from the look on Sharon’s face it had been enough. “What… what are you planning?”

“Well, whatever happens we need to set up some kind of long term system, a legal system, for dealing with the changes that are coming.”

“We?” She gave him a skeptical look.

“Come on. Do you think I dug as deeply into your future just because I thought you were hot?” He shrugged. “I need someone who understands the law to help me come up with a long term solution.”

“Just because I’m hot.” She shook her head. “Nevermind. How do you plan to get anyone to listen to your long term solution.”

“Mostly by catching the world’s first major superhuman crime ring.”

——–

“Not good, TC,” Slim said, looking over the cash. “This was an ATM delivery truck.”

“So?”

“So what if the money is marked? They could have the bill numbers or something, and we get nabbed when we try and spend it.” Slim shook his head and grabbed the edge of the door, careful to ignore the sharp protruding edges where Teddy had smashed through it. “Risky.”

“Do they track that kind of stuff?”

“Dunno.” He rubbed his chin. “I know a guy who used to handle incoming product. He works as a rinser. We might be able to clean some of this, but we’re going to loose a lot of the value in the process. In the future it’s probably better to hit stuff outside of big stores, WalMart and whatnot.”

Teddy just grabbed two of the boxes and slung them over his shoulders. “Whatever. We’ve got enough to get some real wheels and keep us fed. We’ll get more next time. How long will it take to clean the money?”

“We can get an advance on some of it, I think. What do we need wheels for when you can fly?”

“I can only carry so much.” He braced himself and gave the armored car a hard kick, sending it rolling down into a ditch where it would be harder to find. “Meet me back at the old warehouse. Not the one we were using when the boys went up against you, the one when you brought me in. And let people know we’re looking for more hands.”

Slim scowled, no doubt unhappy at more hands drawing from the pot. “What for?”

“We need people to help us case marks. We do it ourselves someone’s gonna get wise.” He rose a few feet into the air, then stopped and lowered himself back down to eye level. “And one other thing. Don’t call me TC. I never like it.”

“Sure.” Slim gave a noncommittal shrug. “I mean, we justed used it because it had your name in it, but it didn’t, know what I mean? Got another name you like? Just wanna go by Teddy?”

“No. What did you say earlier? When I was trying stuff out?”

“Uh…” Slim thought for a minute. “You hit like a thunderbolt?”

“Yeah. But not thunderbolt. Thunderclap.” He grinned. “My name, but not.”

“Okay.” Slim grinned back. “See ya later, Thunderclap.”

Confrontation’s Hour

“What do you mean it’s no good?” Sam demanded. He swiped his tablet to life, a copy of the patent forms already open and at hand, just in case. It was scheduled to be filed for approval in six months time. He didn’t have much time to get his own filing in, bureaucratically speaking. “But the paperwork looked fine.”

The lawyer smiled, an expression that didn’t quite make it to her eyes, and said, “Technicalities, Mr. King. Ninety nine percent of the law is technicalities. Your paperwork isn’t quit right. I think you have the wrong set of forms. It happens more often than you might think.”

Sam glanced down at the filing date of the future’s forms and carefully switched his tablet off, a sense of foreboding creeping up his spine. “Do they change that kind of thing often?”

Another not quite sincere smile. “More often than you’d hope. The technical side of things is fine, of course. It’s bureaucratic things like the sections of law and regulations sighted, that sort of thing.”

“Right.” The sensation passed and Sam put it out of mind. More pressing matters were at hand, like whether he could afford to have the paperwork reworked or if it was better to just refile with another law firm when the paperwork changed format. If there was even time for that. “Well,” he glanced at the name on the desk again, “Sharon, what will it take to get it straightened out?”

She took her glasses off and pursed her lips, studying his papers with a thoughtful expression that Sam found a lot more attractive than her forced attempts at friendliness. “A couple of hours of work, at the most.”

“Well.” Legal counsel didn’t come cheap. “Maybe I can get back to you on that?”

Sharon set the papers aside, favoring him with a wry smile that seemed a touch more honest than the previous ones. “Tight budget?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“It’s a common problem.” She turned to her computer and started tapping through something. “Lots of entrepreneurs start out on a shoestring budget. If you weren’t filing in an up and coming field like memory metals you’d probably be better served doing the paperwork yourself. But there’s a lot of work going on there now, if you get caught in a legal snag – like citing the wrong regs or filing bad forms – chances are someone else is going to beat you to the punch while you try and get it straightened out. Can you meet for lunch tomorrow?”

The question took him by surprise. “I’m sorry?”

“You’re not the first part time inventor with a great idea who needs a little backing to get things wrapped up.” She glanced up from her computer. “We can put you in touch with venture capitol investors who will help you make it into the field, put together the resources you need to get the idea patented and even put you in touch with companies that might be interested in your intellectual property, if you’re not planning to use it yourself. If you’re interested I think I know someone else who would like to work with you. I’m offering to introduce you to him tomorrow at lunch. If that works for you.”

“Yes.” The word got out of his mouth before he could think it over, the kind of snap decision he knew he’d probably come to regret. But he didn’t take it back. It just compacted his schedule a bit. “I should be available to do that.”

For the first time Sharon gave a genuine smile. “Good.”

——–

A meeting in the middle of the day wasn’t a terrible pressure on his schedule but he’d have to keep it short. The Girl was still chasing him.

It had been two months and Sam was starting to get a handle on his advantages and disadvantages. He still wasn’t sure how The Girl was following him but he was pretty sure it was the girl he’d seen at the construction site that day. He’d caught sight of her twice since then, both times in fairly crowded places where he’d picked her out before she’d spotted him. He hadn’t seen her do whatever the transformation he’d seen before again but clearly she had some kind of tricks at her disposal. Twelve year olds didn’t follow you over hundreds of miles on their own and he doubted her parents were driving her all over Michigan looking for a small time lottery winner.

There was, of course, the ever-popular government conspiracy angle to consider, but he didn’t think even such a shadow organization would stoop to using middle school girls in their pursuit squads.

The relay was still his biggest advantage. Not just because it let him read the future’s news but because he was pretty sure something about the relay interfered with however she tracked him. She’d first caught up with him in Holland, a small town with a picturesque shopping strip along it’s main street. He’d ducked into a clothing store and pulled up future news to see if there was anything he could try to reduce the chance of a run-in only to see the girl go from moving purposefully to wandering aimlessly. Now he tried to keep a connection to the relay open when he was planning to be in one place for any length of time.

But he didn’t want to be on the run forever. He was going to need more information. He’d figured out a lot of improvements he could make to the relay in the past weeks and he was starting to pull information from almost two decades in the future. That was enough time to open up new advancements and techniques to him, some of which he planned on putting to work.

The really disturbing thing was, he knew he could never get away from The Girl entirely. No matter what kind of plans he put in place, he always saw his death coming one or two months in the future. He wasn’t sure what to make his own swiftly vanishing fear of his own demise. Some of the ways his death had been predicted were quite painful sounding but he’d apparently run out of the emotional stamina to get worked up over it. If he wanted to stay alive he had to do something about her. At the same time, he didn’t like the idea of fighting a child. The only answer available was getting more information.

Most of his future deaths involved dying with some collateral damage so, before he’d realized he could “hide” from The Girl using the relay, he’d set up a campsite in a remote nature reserve he could go to if it ever looked like he well and truly doomed so as to die with the least possible impact on other people. Once he’d gotten ahold of schematics for serious future tech he’d gone a step further. Unfortunately, even with all the safeguards he’d put in place he hadn’t come up with a way to survive an encounter with The Girl there. Best case scenario had been dying of blood loss from a missing arm.

Until he’d done some more digging and discovered that the research into prosthetics started by IEDs in the Middle East wars of two decades ago would bear serious fruit very soon.

Now, with an oldfashioned remote car opener in one pocket and a backpack full of advanced sensors, he was ready to go and take a crack at The Girl again. School let out in two hours. Should be enough time. A quick glance at the relay informed him that a new story had hit his future newsfeed. The headline said something about archaeologists and the lost city of Atlantis. Probably interesting but nothing that couldn’t wait. It’s not like Atlantis would matter for another twenty years. Sam switched off the relay and walked out the door.

——–

The campsite was starting to get dark, the tall pine trees casting long shadows in the late fall sun, late migrating geese bustling by overhead on their way to better climates. School had been out for two hours. The Girl was late.

Sam had wondered if she was trying to keep whatever dual life she lived a secret. It was a fair bet, even if the idea of a secret identity didn’t have much sway in fiction anymore. Social media had pretty much doomed it’s credibility around the turn of the century. But most stories where someone tried to live a double life didn’t involve the person aging a good ten years when donning their secret identity.

With an effort Sam pushed that kind of wool gathering aside. The Girl wasn’t obligated to walk into his trap. Or even spend every waking minute looking for him. The whole errand could prove a waste of time. What he really wanted to be doing was running diagnostics on equipment but he really needed it prepped and ready to go if she showed, so he couldn’t exactly field strip anything and start tinkering. He adjusted his weight on the tree stump he was using as a seat and waited a bit more.

Finally, as the sun was almost entirely lost in the treetops, he got to his feet, dusted himself off and headed towards his car. He could always come back and try again later. But it would have been nice to make decisions on the future based on whatever he could learn, and with the meeting with patent investors coming up he suspected those decisions were fast approaching.

Wool gathering again. It should have cost him, that time. The Girl was right there in front of him, appearing as if by magic on the trail by his car. She was wearing an ankle length skirt, purple jacket and bright blue backpack. Her hands were tucked around the straps of her backpack. Big, serious eyes stared at him from a head that seemed comically small in comparison. “Hi, Mr. King.”

Sam froze in his tracks, his own eyes just as comically overlarge as the girls but for different reasons. “Hi.”

Silence stretched out for a moment. “How do you know my name?”

“It was on the news,” The Girl said in a matter of fact way. “The day after the first time.”

“Of course.” Any kid with a phone and the desire knew how to find that kind of thing out. He had made the news, disappearing like he had after an unexplained “accident” at his old job. He just hadn’t expected her to do something so mundane after teleporting away from their last meeting. Not to mention inexplicably following him for two months. “Want to tell me what this is all about?”

“You’ve seen things you shouldn’t,” she said. “Seeing things changes them. And they have to be put back.”

She pulled her hands off her backpack straps and once again Sam caught the weird plastic pinwheel thing in it. It looked vaguely like someone had drawn a backwards S on a rectangle and then cut out the inside of the curves. For a brief moment a gleam of light drew across the shape, turning the backwards S into the figure eight of infinity. Then she slid her hand across the shape, splitting infinity and with a bang she changed.

Sam frantically pressed the panic button on his car remote.

Instead of setting of his car alarm it activated a set of improvised hard light projectors around the perimeter of the clearing and they built a solid cube of light around The Girl. Without looking to see what kind of results that got him Sam scrambled for the projector’s control tablet, which he’d hidden at the base of a bush near the tree stump he’d occupied a second ago.

Improvised from parts that weren’t what the original designers intended, his hard light projectors were not the futuristic defense technology the U.S. Nave would be experimenting with in two decades. They only had a small diesel generator for power and he had to constantly ride the circuit breakers to keep anything from overloading. He hard a soft growl of frustration behind him and the weird, crackling noise a sheet of hard light made when it contacted more conventional matter. No time to look back. Sam snatched up the controls for the generator and immediately started making adjustments, turning around while keeping one eye on the readout.

In the four or five seconds the process took The Girl Who Splits Infinity had spun out her own array of light – and Sam suddenly wondered if that’s what he was seeing, another set of hard light constructs – sending it through the cage she was in without apparent difficulty. It once again spun out in a shape almost impossible to decipher, though this time it contracted all around her like the legs of a spider instead of spiraling up into the sky. That was all Sam had the time to see before a blinding bolt of lightning leapt skyward from the shape leaving him half blind and deafened by the following thunderclap.

Without a second thought Sam turned and ran.

The Girl was powerful for sure, but she’d been rightly scared of guns. Unsurprising for someone who looked like she was twelve. He’d set up a plan to hopefully exploit that fact although he didn’t want to use it. But Sam King was not used to getting what he hoped for, so the generator was not just a generator. It also blew up.

That was the “unlock” button on the car remote. Because hopefully it was getting him out of a jam.

Sam came to lying flat on his back surrounded by small fires burning themselves out. The Girl was nowhere in sight. Pieces of debris were all over. He’d built an explosive by essentially burying a canister of gunpowder under the generator when he set it up but, being an amateur he’d apparently vastly overestimated how much powder he’d need. The generator was gone, a small crater of smoking concrete all that was left, and most of the brush in the area was gone. Sam tried to sit up but didn’t make it as a wave of wooziness overtook him. He looked himself over and realized he was missing his left arm. Of course.

Miraculously the car remote was still close by. He dragged himself over and hit the “lock” button. A second later a self-propelled prosthetic dragged itself out of its hiding place towards him. He weakly scooped it up and slapped the attachment side to his arm and winced as it began anchoring itself to his arm.

——–

In a daze and operating on less than two hours of sleep, brain locked in a stupor, Sam was very tempted to skip his lunch meeting entirely. But somehow he found himself outside the restaurant Sharon had directed him to, checking his gloves to make sure the new, clearly artificial hand he had was properly covered.

A large part of his brain still hadn’t accepted this as a permanent arrangement.

Worse, the thing was twitching at weird intervals. Like the hard light projectors it was made of modern parts, not futuristic ones, and they weren’t quite up to snuff. He hadn’t worked the kinks out yet. He stuffed that hand into a jacket pocket and headed in to find Sharon.

It only took him a few minutes, it wasn’t a big place. He wandered by walls filled with pictures of somewhere that seemed vaguely eastern European and took a seat at the booth where the lawyer was. She was alone, so whatever investor she’d invited hadn’t shown up yet. Sam hoped he wouldn’t have to make small talk, though he probably would.

Sharon was reading something as he approached but as soon as he was in her peripheral vision she set it aside and gave him her undivided attention. As soon as he was seated she pushed the papers in front of him. He stared at them, exhausted mind struggling to keep up. Sharon folded her hands and gave him an evaluating look. “Sleep badly, Mr. King?”

He started a bit at her accusatory tone. “Yes? It was a tough night.”

She nodded once. “Can I cut to the chase?”

“Shouldn’t we wait for your guest?”

Sharon ignored the question. “Tell me, Mr. King. Can you predict the future?”