Child of Time

Child of Time

The Stranger, The Hunter, And Her

January 17, 2486

As far as Leanne was concerned, you couldn’t find a more astonishingly ordinary person. The only notable abnormality she could think of was that she’d remained, even after nearly 30 years, completely augment and modification free. It wasn’t that she didn’t approve of them, she just liked being natural.

It was occasionally tiring, explaining to people for the umpteenth time why she was still ‘pure’ (though they rarely used words as… positive as that). Usually people assumed she was lying, or just stupid. A lot wondered how she’d managed to live so long. The world was a dangerous place, after all.

As both an employee of SynTech, and a resident of one of their larger, wealthier cities, it wasn’t like she didn’t have access to enhancements, but she’d always preferred to stay away from them. Her employer, Synthetic Technologies, was a genetic and cybernetic research and production company that had flourished following the Outbreak. They now owned and operated cities all over the planet, and were responsible for nearly half of the planets remaining population.

Admittedly, there was some modifications that were entirely outside of her control. Despite having just turned 30, she still looked like she was in her early 20s, and would continue to look that way for another hundred years or so. It was part of the immunity treatment that prevented her from succumbing to the SA virus that had devastated the world nearly 300 years ago.

Ethnically, Leanne was Chinese, but it had been centuries since that had made any difference other than superficial. The world’s population was too small and too fragmented to maintain much in the way of cultural diversity. Everything had just consolidated into a haphazard mash-up of the more prolific cultures just prior to the outbreak. Not that there weren’t pockets, but Leanne didn’t care much for those. She just wanted to live a normal life.

Like so many people, Leanne held two jobs. Her primary occupation, according to her official file, was a dispute resolutions officer. She liked to joke that some jobs could never be replaced by machines, no matter how clever they made them, but she knew that wasn’t true. It was already getting harder and harder to tell the difference between an AI and a ‘real’ person.

Her job involved a lot of listening, and being understanding, and then making the decision that benefited SynTech, regardless of the people involved. Most of the disputes were so petty, it didn’t matter much anyway.

Her other work, what she considered her real work, whatever her file said, was her work as an illustrator, providing the artwork for several best-selling picture books, graphic novels and even contributing to a few art collections. She always worked under one of several pseudonyms, so nobody ever associated her with it. That was the way she liked it. The extra money was nice, but fame was the last thing she wanted.

Overall, Leanne was a very private person. She’d left her family in another city eleven years ago, and barely spoke to them since. She didn’t really have any friends. She always met with them outside of her apartment, so none of them knew where she lived. She hadn’t had a lover in a few years now, but whenever she did, it had always been at their place, never her own.

In fact, there wasn’t a single person, alive or dead, that knew where she lived. Which is why, when she heard the doorbell buzz, she very nearly fell out of her chair, spilling ink all over the page she was working on.

Fuming, she marched over to the door, wondering who could possibly want to bother her at this hour, and why they didn’t have the decency to call ahead first. She never had visitors, and deliveries came through an automated system.

She opened the door to a curious looking man with asymmetrical brown hair and eyes hidden behind sunglasses, dressed in a dark suit that was clearly too big for him. In one hand, he held up a folded slip of paper, while the other was resting in the pocket of his slacks. He looked very confused, and in more than a little pain, and not quite sure of where he was.

There was a woman standing behind him, similar in stature to Leanne, who looked familiar, but she couldn’t quite identify her. Leanne folded her arms, keeping the door half closed with her foot.

When the man didn’t say anything, she flexed her fingers.

“Um, hello?”

“Hello again,” he said strangely, as if talking to someone very far away, but not raising his voice. She frowned; she was fairly confident they’d never met.

“Do I know you?”

“Not yet,” he said. “At least, I hope not. Otherwise I’ve done this horribly, horribly wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. What time is it? No, don’t answer that. No time for that now.”

Leanne, now quite convinced she was dealing with someone at least partially insane, held one finger against the security button. He didn’t look particularly strong, but that was a pretty poor measure of strength. Still, he didn’t seem dangerous, so she held off pressing it.

“It’s… nearly one,” she said, checking the watch on her wrist. It was an antique; a relic from before the outbreak. Even then, watches were rare. These days, it was probably worth more than anything else she owned. It wasn’t a particularly effective method of telling the time, but it was a pretty interesting accessory, she thought.

“Nearly. Nearly time to go,” he said distantly. “Good. I don’t much like it here anyway. I hope I don’t stay long. Um. Maybe I already have. Memory is hard. Have we met?”

“No,” she said irritably. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

Despite herself, there was something about him that did seem strangely familiar to her. Not his face, at least not what she could see of it that wasn’t behind the sunglasses. Just a feeling she got from him.

“Don’t know yet,” he replied enigmatically. “Who, that is. That comes later. Here to give you this.” He handed her the piece of paper he’d been holding. “Hold on to it. Don’t lose it. Very important.”

Reluctantly, and almost without thinking, she reached out and took it from his hand. The paper was surprisingly warm. She didn’t read it, just placed it in her pocket and almost immediately, forgot about it.

“Why write it down?” she asked. “Why not just send it digitally?”

“So impersonal,” he said disapprovingly. “Never can rely on machines to send things on time, anyway. Always have to do it their way. Anyway, have to go now. It was a pleasure to meet you, I think.”

With that, he turned on the sport, and wandered absently down the hall, followed by the silent woman, who looked rather impatient. She watched them until they disappeared around the corner, then shut her door and went back to work, putting the strange man out of her mind entirely.

* * *

Even among the extraordinarily special, Tyson Briggs was unique. For one, he was one of the few remaining survivors of the outbreak, and though nobody knew exactly how old he was, that automatically made him at least 300. For another, he was hideously, indisputably ugly, and that was the way he liked it.

At over seven feet all, he towered over everyone else around him. He was a large man naturally, but ever since a nasty incident with a couple of escaped scientific projects, Specimens G and Z, he was a monstrous presence. An explosion that should have been fatal had fused a heavy set of military grade combat armour to most of his flesh, nearly doubling his bulk. Half his face had been burned away, leaving part of his skull exposed. At this point, it was more metal than bone anyway. His entire right arm had been replaced by a mechanical one, the long, sharp fingers more like claws than anything else.

As far as Tyson was concerned, everyone was a monster. Some just hid it better than others. He took pride in the fact that his outward appearance reflected the savage beast within. It was more than could be said for most people, these days.

Unlike those around him, he still remembered what it was like before the world collapsed. He’d seen real monsters then, the wealthy, powerful and ambitious people that would lay the world to waste to get what they wanted. Most of the time, what they wanted was more power, more money, or both.

Then came the SA virus, and it turned people into the monsters he knew them to be anyway. Horrid, bloated and mad with bloodlust, he’d watched humanity tear itself apart, and laughed the entire time.

On more than one occasion, the accusation had been levelled against him that he was maybe just a bit insane. He knew for a fact that wasn’t at all true; Tyson was exceptionally insane. His official record described him as psychotic. That’s what made him so very good at his job.

It was Tyson’s responsibility (or from his perspective, privilege) to track down and either retrieve, or more frequently, destroy anything that might be of value or a threat to SynTech’s continued interests. He had a small army of genetically and mechanically enhanced super-soldiers at his command, but usually, he preferred to deal with things himself. He was the sort of man who would happily stare death in the face, then laugh until death gave up and went home.

He was sitting behind a plain, simple desk, staring at a trio of projections. Whenever he had a moment to himself, that was where he liked to be; staring at the face he knew he would one day crush.

The centre projection was of Specimen G, the man responsible for his current condition. G was something of an ongoing bounty, and not his highest official priority, but there was nobody Tyson wanted to hunt down more.

To the side was a humanoid shape with no identifiable features. Surrounding it was all the data they had on it, which was embarrassingly little. Mason was under the impression it was possibly the most dangerous and valuable entity on the planet, and of course he wanted it for himself. An analytics program was busy crunching data, trying to calculate the next location it was likely to be spotted. A single label existed underneath it: Damien.

The third projection was nothing but numbers and scientific reports. A huge surge of energy had been detected, simultaneously confirming the existence of a hypothesised parallel Earth, and providing SynTech with a target so potentially valuable there was no way it could be ignored. Mason had sent the reclaimed Specimen Z, possibly the only person more gloriously dangerous and violent than Tyson himself. He liked her, but he also liked having her out of the way. It meant less competition for him.

Suddenly, all three projections flickered out, replaced by a single projection, of an unfamiliar man, quickly followed by several data readouts. He skimmed them all quickly.

Once again, he was working with very little information. He had a location, one of their own cities, but one of the largest. He had a mountain of technical data that meant nothing to him, other than the continued repetition of the words ‘temporal’, ‘discharge’ and residue’.

That didn’t matter. Tyson didn’t need to understand why he was hunting to enjoy the hunt. Had he still been able to smile, he would have smiled then. Instead, what he did would probably be best described as leering, or maybe grimacing.

He hadn’t been to that continent in decades, but he’d always been fond of it. Before the Outbreak, it had been America. Now, it was like visiting the grave of a titan. Still, it was home to several of cities, including one of the largest.

Tyson stood, the projections vanishing as he left the desk, grabbing a large black coat as he left the room. People instinctively moved out of his way as he strode through the hallways, just the way he liked it. His private vehicle as already being prepared. In a matter of hours, he would be hunting again.

* * *

Leanne jumped back as some stranger hurtled across her path, as if propelled by some invisible force they were unable to resist. Unfortunately for them, there was a wall immediately in front of them, and they collided with it head first, bouncing off painfully and landing in a sprawl right in front of Leanne.

At first, she thought his hair was a vivid shade of green, but as she looked, she decided it must have been a trick of the light, because it was very clearly more of a teal colour. His clothing was mismatched; a selection from a variety of eras that looked like it had been thrown together from a dozen different wardrobes, without much thought for what the overall ensemble might look like.

“What? Oh, fine, thank you,” he said, clutching his head and attempting to pull himself up into a sitting position. Leanne frowned, confused.

“What? I didn’t say-”

“Oh,” he interrupted, looking up at her with bright blue eyes. “Sorry. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.”

As she looked down at him, she actually saw his eyes change. She watched as they changed from blue to green, then brown. Then they turned purple, then red, then indigo.

Eventually, they seemed to settle, but it wasn’t a colour she could have named. If asked to describe it, she would have said it looked like every part of the rainbow at once, but that wouldn’t have been accurate. What it was actually doing was cycling through every colour on her visible spectrum of light, but doing it all at the same time, a paradox her mind wasn’t capable of parsing.

She shook her head, trying not to think about his eyes.

“Tell what?” she asked, trying not to think about his hair, either, which was now a dark blue.

“Like that, for example,” he said, rather than explaining anything. Carefully, he pulled himself to his feet, looking very unstable. If she hadn’t seen him hit his head against the wall, she’d probably have assumed he was just drunk.

“Like what?”

He opened his mouth to reply, paused for a second, then closed it again. His eyes, still not any identifiable colour, traversed her body, appraising her. His hair decided it would rather be purple, and shifted accordingly. The style was changing too, and even the length, but her brain was starting to hurt, only allowing her to observe so much of it.

“I’m not sure,” he began, still a little unsteady. “I’m not sure if you just said that, or if you’re about to. And now I’m not sure if you’re still going to, if you haven’t already.”

She was definitely getting a headache.

“Um, what?”

“It’s all the same to me,” he explained, though it did little to nothing to help her understand. She didn’t like to think of herself as particularly dim-witted, so she decided he just wasn’t talking any sense. He had hit his head pretty hard.

Of course, stranger things had happened. She knew for a fact that Genesis had a telepath on their payroll, for example. She was pretty sure this strange man wasn’t that, but she was willing to keep an open mind.

“How do you know what I’m going to say before I say it?” she asked. If nothing else, she’d at least be able to give a detailed report to the medical team, because she was a good employee and a caring citizen.

“I don’t follow,” he said, sounding confused himself. “I don’t know anything before you’ve said it. I’m remembering what you said. I just don’t know if it’s before or after you’ve said it. Either way, you’ve still said it. Er, kind of.”

“Oh,” she said, now gripping the portable computer in her pocket. One touch would call security, if she needed them. The latest models could read electro-synaptic signals even if your brain wasn’t wired; that’s why she’d bought it. She didn’t even notice the piece of paper that was still folded up there, even though she’d changed her clothes since then.

“See, you’re getting it now,” he said happily.

“Yeah,” she said. “I get it. You’re crazy.”

“I am a little mad, yes,” he agreed.

“Fucking brilliant.” It occurred to her that his skin was also changing colour, but less noticeably. It was definitely paler than when she’d first seen him. His hair was also now a deep crimson, and somewhat wavier than it had been.

“Where am I?” he asked suddenly, looking around. He placed one hand on the wall, running his fingertips up and down it, then pulled it away, and licked his hand. Leanne wasn’t quite sure how to answer. He didn’t seem to know which planet he was on, let alone anything more specific than that. Did he want the section they were in? The city? The continent?

“That’s not-” she began, but he interrupted her again, as if she hadn’t spoken at all.

“Smells like America,” he said, sounding inquisitive without actually asking anything. He sniffed the air a couple of times, as if trying to make sure.

“It’s-”

“That’s not what I meant, anyway,” he chided, but she couldn’t tell who he was talking to. “What did I mean? It’s not where, no, where doesn’t matter. Oh!” He clapped his hands together. “What time is it?”

“Um, six-forty-three,” she said, without checking her watch. Leanne had always had a good sense of time. She never even needed an alarm; her body always knew the exact right time to wake up.

“No,” the stranger said.

“No?” Was he telling her she was wrong? She checked her watch. 6:43 exactly.

“Hmm.” He paused, and sniffed again. Unsatisfied, he made a face at Leanne. “What year is it?”

“Twenty-four eighty-six,” Leanne replied, rapidly losing confidence she was going to leave this conversation without a migraine.

“Wrong again,” the stranger said condescendingly.

Leanne felt her free hand ball up into a fist. She wasn’t overly fond of being told she was wrong, especially when she knew she was right. This strange man with the orange hair was crazy, what did he know about the time, or the year?

Oh, wait a minute, she thought. Suddenly, it made sense. He was one of those horrendously irritating New Age cultists. The absolute last thing she wanted to deal with right now.

A certain subset of the population had declared the Outbreak to be day the world ended, and every day since was part of a new era for humanity. To them, it was only the year 277. They were the same annoying people who were trying to reclaim the word ‘human’ to refer to the various kinds of people, regardless of modification or enhancement. Since the Outbreak, ‘human’ was synonymous with ‘infected’. There were a lot more infected than not, after all.

“I’m sorry?” she said indignantly. If he wanted to fight about it, she’d happily argue it. She had no time for religious zealots. Everybody in SynTech accepted there was only one true God, and His name was Mason.

“Oh, not you,” he said absently. “Me. Wrong question, not wrong answer.”

There was something so innocent in his tone, she was immediately disarmed. Her shoulders slumped; he was just in need of proper help, and there wasn’t anything she could do for him.

“Do you want me to call someone?” she asked, knowing she was going to call them anyway. She just wanted to make it less of a shock.

“Maybe,” he answered. “Do you have a watch?”

Despite the fact that she was wearing one, asking for a watch was a very strange request. She didn’t know a single other person who wore one, and though she was sure she couldn’t be the only person who had one, nobody would ever wear them for practicality purposes. Their only value was in telling the time, and even someone without any cybernetic augments carried enough devices on them to tell you the time that a watch was never anything more than a trinket.

“Why on Earth do you need a watch?” she asked, confused.

“To tell the time,” he said, as if explaining it to a child. Then his face lit up. “Oh, you do have a watch! Why didn’t you say so?”

The watch was hidden under her sleeve, so there was no way he could have known that, but she didn’t comment on that. Instead, she grumbled at him.

“I already told you the time.”

“Not the right time,” he said offhandedly. “Here,” he added, slipping the watch off her wrist before she even realised what he was doing. She hadn’t even noticed him close the distance between them. Strangely, it didn’t concern her.

“Sorry about this,” he added distantly. “Not usually necessary. I’ve taken a bit of damage since the last time. How long has it been for you? Ten years? It’ll soon sort itself out.”

Ten years? What? She was absolutely certain she’d never met him before, let alone ten years ago. He was not the sort of person one would forget. She opened her mouth to say something, but was distracted by what he was doing.

He held the watch in front of him, flipping it over a few times, running a finger over both surfaces. He shook it once, holding it up to his ear, then sniffed it. Leanne wondered if he realised it was a digital watch. Then he held it up by the straps, and pulled.

She yelped when both the straps snapped off, but the watch didn’t fall. Instead, it just stayed in place, supported by absolutely nothing, then started to give off a strange colourless glow.

The stranger tapped it with a single finger, his skin now quite dark, his hair a bright yellow. The single tap was enough to break the watch apart, bursting out into its individual components, all of them floating in the air in front of him. She caught a glimpse of the screen; it was still displaying the time.

The strange man tapped a few individual parts, and blew on a couple of others. Some of them flipped over, or changed colour, or changed size, and Leanne started wondering if he’d released something into the air, some kind of hallucinogenic gas or something. Then there was a flash, and the watch was whole again, straps and all.

“Much better,” he said, handing the watch over.

“What did you just do?” she asked nervously, strapping the watch back on without even thinking.

“Temporal energy,” he said quickly. Then he grinned. “Oh, I like the sound of that. What language am I speaking? English? I love English. Terrific language.”

“I think so,” she said, wondering if they were, in fact, speaking the same language. She wasn’t quite sure if crazy counted as its own language.

“Well, you’re no use then,” he said dismissively. “Which Realm am I in? Can you at least tell me that?”

Leanne had no idea what he was talking about, but the word ‘realm’ had a strange kind of resonant power, as if it had a significance she wasn’t picking up on. She turned it over in her head a few times, but it slipped away all too quickly.

“I’m sorry?”

“Don’t you know?” he asked, disappointed. “Who’s, um, in charge? Um… what’s the word? I’ve changed my mind, English is rotten. Terrible language. God! That’s the word I’m looking for.”

“Mason,” she said instantly. “His name is Mason.”

“Who?” he asked, and her face reflexively contorted into a mixture of bewilderment and a little bit of anger. “Oh, wait,” he said. “Okay. Is that a person?”

“Of course He’s a person,” Leanne said, pressing her hands to her temples. “What else would He be?” Mason had always been very clear on that. Whatever else He might be, and Mason was happy to be called whatever people wanted to call Him, He was always one of them.

“Good question,” the stranger replied. “It has a great answer. Really, just brilliant.” He leaned against the wall, smiling. She looked at him expectantly, but he didn’t say anything else.

Like his eyes, his skin seemed to have settled into a single tone, but much like his eyes, she couldn’t say what that was. When she looked at him, she could have easily believed he belonged to any ethnic group she could think of, or none at all.

His hair kept changing, though. Now it was sky blue, and she even thought she saw some white in there, like clouds. Maybe, she thought, she’d been working too hard.

“Anyway, it’s not him,” he said, and she tried not to get angry. “Not even close. But, well, you’ve narrowed it down to three. That’s… hmm. I think I know.” He grinned again. “Don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner.”

“What now-” she started, but never got to finish.

He stepped up to her and without ceremony, planted his lips on hers. The feeling was something like an electric shock, only significantly less unpleasant. The sensation passed through her entire body, a small shockwave travelling all the way down to her toes, and then back up again. When he pulled away, it felt like he took something with him.

He licked his lips while she stood there, speechless. Whatever that had been, it wasn’t a kiss. It left a funny taste on her lips, but as she tried to lick it away, it was already gone.

“What the- what was that?” she demanded, more confused than angry.

“Information transfer,” he said. “Quick and painless. Mostly painless. Hmm. You taste human. Are you human?”

At this point, she was pretty sure he wasn’t actually a New Age cultist, but she still didn’t think that by ‘human’, he meant the infected. It was such a strange way to think of people, all being one species. There was too much variation, too many different categorisations, for them to all fit under one umbrella anymore.

If he was asking, though, it begged another question. What else did he think she could be, if not human? She looked at him, wiping her mouth on her sleeve.

“Aren’t you?” she asked.

“Oh, dear, no,” he said, sounding almost offended. “Do I look human? I suppose I must. That’s all you’ve got here, isn’t it. How dull.” He sounded disappointed.

“Um… I’m sorry?” she said, not quite sure what she was apologising for, but quite certain it was the right thing to say.

“It’s okay,” he said pleasantly. “Not your fault. Less confusion this way, too. Anyway, now I know where I am, and when. You just told me what I am, which is fantastic, by the way, love humans. I have a pretty good handle on the who, too, which is to say, I’m as sure of who I am as ever, which itself is to say, not much, but no less than normal. I’m sorry, I’m rambling, aren’t I? So if I can just work out why I’m here, we can both go about our business.”

It suddenly occurred to Leanne that she hadn’t at any point asked this strange man who he was, and briefly wondered why. It almost felt like she already knew, but that definitely wasn’t the case. She had no idea. She put it down to being baffled by his strange appearance and mannerisms. Normally, it would have been the first thing she asked.

“Who are you?”

“Funny, that’s usually the first thing people ask,” he said. “Not the first thing they say, mind. That’s usually ‘you’re weird’ or some variation thereof. Not usually so polite, of course.” He smiled, but said nothing else.

“And what do you tell them?” she prompted, wondering why she was even bothering.

“Oh, all sorts of things,” he said happily. “Depends on who I am, you see. Wouldn’t do to tell someone I was one person, when really I was someone else.”

“Do you ever give straight answers?”

“Only if there’s no other choice,” he answered with a smile.

“You no longer have a choice,” she said threateningly.

“Of course I do,” he rebuked. “There’s always a choice. Don’t ever tell me there isn’t a choice. It’s all about choice. Everything.”

Leanne sighed. He was very tiring, but at the same time, she found herself fascinated by him. He was strange, certainly, and quite possibly dangerous, but at least he was interesting.

“Do you have a name?” she tried again.

“Oh, plenty,” he said, and she immediately regretted the question. “I like names. Always useful in a pinch- ah, I suppose you want one, eh? Not to keep, mind. No, a name for me. Silly me. Let me see… For this time, and this place… Yes. Okay. You can call me Wil. Like you used to.”

Used to? No, that definitely wasn’t…

Wil? For some reason, Leanne found the name disappointing. Such an ordinary name seemed out of place on such a curious man, but as soon as he said it, it was locked into place, and she couldn’t think of him as anything else. Once again, she sighed.

“Are you always this difficult?”

“I try,” he said.

A Case Of Mistaken Identity

Before their conversation could go any further, or Leanne could consider yet again the prudence of calling security, their conversation was interrupted. From the other end of the hall, a broad-shouldered man with dark hair and a sculpted jaw saw them, and called out. Leanne cringed the moment she saw him.

His name was Balard, a writer she’d worked with once, and only once. Working together had brought them closer, and she’d enjoyed the time they’d had together. Unfortunately, her passion passed when the project ended. His did not.

Every time they bumped into each other, he deluded himself into thinking he could reignite the spark, and Leanne deluded herself into thinking if she just smiled politely, he’d get the message and stop.

She had tried to explain, once, that she wasn’t interested in a sexual relationship with him, or any man, but it fell on deaf ears. They lived in a time of flexible sexuality, and it was exceptionally rare to find someone who was attracted to only men, or only women. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t believe she only swung the one way.

“Leanne! Haven’t seen you in a while. You look great! As always, of course. How’ve you been?”

He had a deep, booming voice that always put her on edge. She hated the thought that everyone in yelling distance could be privy to their conversations.

“Never better,” she said quickly. “Um, how are y-”

“Great!” he boomed, cutting her off. “Couldn’t be happier. Plenty of work, and all that.”

He paused, and glanced at Wil, who was looking at Balard as one might look at an entirely knew species of plant, which is to say, he regarded Balard with some interest, but with the distinct impression he didn’t consider the subject capable of intelligent conversation.

“Who’s your friend?” Balard asked uncomfortably.

Wil looked surprised, and somewhat delighted. Grinning, he straightened up.

“Call me Wil,” he said cheerfully. “Everybody does.” He offered a hand, which Balard declined to take.

“Like who?” Leanne asked, not quite convinced he’d ever actually met another person.

“People,” Wil replied curtly. “Anyway,” he said, spinning back to face Balard, and still watching him like a possibly dangerous specimen, “who are you?”

Leanne noted that Balard hadn’t commented on Wil’s strange, fluctuating appearance. Then again, neither had she. She guessed living in one of SynTech’s larger cities, she was used to seeing the results of strange experiments and modifications.

“Bowman,” Balard answered. “Balard Bowman. Maybe you’ve heard of me? Leanne is an, er, old flame, so to speak. How’d uh, how’d you two meet?”

She smiled at his discomfort, remembering the last time they’d met. They’d both been at the same party, and she was in the middle of being flirted with when he’d spotted her. She’d spent the rest of the night trying, unsuccessfully, to shake him, and had ended up leaving alone.

Also, what was that ‘old flame’ rubbish?

“Ran into each other in the corridor,” Wil said, half miming the encounter with his hands, though not well enough for it to look like anything other than mad flailing.

“We’re working together, on a new project,” Leanne explained. “He’s very talented.” She didn’t need to say the implied insult, but it was very obvious in her eyes. Balard didn’t miss it. Wil did.

“Are we?” Wil asked vaguely. “Oh. We are. We are! I’m very talented,” he added, sounding distantly excited. Leanne rolled her eyes, wishing he’d just stayed quiet.

“Uh-huh,” Balard said, unconvinced. “So, what do you do, Bill?” he asked. “What have you done?”

“Oh, I don’t like Bill,” Wil said, making a face and ignoring the question. “Sounds like a duck. Do you have ducks? Or money. No, you don’t really have that, either, do you? No? No. Not bills, anyway.”

Wil looked disappointed by his own observations, and Leanne wondered again who and what he was. It was seemingly increasingly likely that he was part of an experiment, one she hoped had gone wrong, because if he was considered a success, well…

SynTech did some wonderful things, but she’d always been suspicious of scientists. Utterly mad, the lot of them, and not in a harmless way, like Wil.

“Is he always like this?” Balard asked condescendingly.

“Well, you know what they say about geniuses,” she replied, trying to put as much spite in her tone as possible.

“He’s that good, huh?”

Wil leaned closer to Balard, and sniffed his face.

“I really hope so,” she said defeatedly. Balard was a bit dull, but it would take an idiot not to see what she was trying to do. Still, maybe he would find the attempt offensive, and leave her alone.

Yeah. She should be so lucky.

“You haven’t actually seen his work yet?” he accused, his hopeful tone making Leanne uncomfortable.

Leanne sighed. Convincing him she’d found a better writer was a waste of time. His ego was big enough that until they’d actually produced something that outsold him, and probably stolen an award or two from him, he wouldn’t even think twice about it. Which was never going to happen, because Wil wasn’t actually a writer. Just an oddball in the wrong place.

“We were just on our way to, uh, brainstorm,” she said, trying a different approach. “A, you know. Private session.”

“Oh,” he said.

“We’re actually running late already,” she continued.

“I see.”

“And I’m feeling particularly inspired.”

“Ah, that’s…”

“So we’re gonna leave, but it’s been great seeing you again. Really.” She leaned over, and kissed him on the cheek. He tasted disgusting.

Balard looked flustered, which made her perversely happy. His ego as a writer might have been untouchable, but as a lover, she could still get to him. Well, it served him right. The last time she’d turned him down, he’d been so incensed he’d gotten three separate projects she was working on cancelled.

“Yeah, you too,” he stammered. She wondered how he saw Wil, how much of a blow that was to him. “Nice meeting you, BIll,” he said.

She’d probably regret it later, but her head was full of all the times he’d ruined her day, and it was nice to finally have some small kind of revenge. If he got belligerent later, she could always move to another city. She’d been considering that anyway. More than one person had mentioned the restoration work in Asia was going well. Rumour had it they were going to open a new premium residential district in New Shanghai, and she was probably entitled to get in.

Smiling to herself, she grabbed Wil’s arm, pulling him along and away from Balard. He didn’t resist, though he did seem a little confused. When they were out of earshot, he leaned down, and whispered in her ear.

“Where are we going?”

“My place,” she answered.

* * *

“About what you said before,” he said, leaning awkwardly against the door. His eyes scanned the room, found her desk, and wandered over to it.

“Yes?”

He picked up a few of her sketches, holding them up against the light. One of them in particular caught his eye, and he held it up to her.

“Who’s this?”

“A villain,” she said, snatching it back from him. She tried to remind herself he wasn’t trying to be annoying. “It’s a commissioned work. Sort of, you know, propaganda.” She had no idea why she was admitting that. It’s not like anyone had said anything, but she was clever enough to work out what it was. “I’m drawing a graphic novel about him. A sort of warning to people. He’s a bit of a, er, a trickster, and it’s easier for us if people don’t trust him. Just one part of a larger campaign, of course, but I like to think it’s important.”

He picked the sketch up again, flicked through the other pages, and found another sketch of the same person, in colour. She’d tried to draw him as sinister as possible, which was difficult, because in person, he was anything but. Of course, she’d only seen photos, but that was enough.

“You capture him well,” Wil said, smiling at the picture. “Most people only pick up on what’s on the surface.”

That was the most lucid she’d ever heard him, and it surprised her. He sounded pensive, rather than manic, and his expression was uncharacteristically serene. It was almost like…

“What, you know him?”

“Not yet,” he said, snapping back to reality. Or as close as he was capable of coming, anyway. “Not for a little while. He’ll be grieving. Such a sad thing, to lose someone so dear to you. It has to happen, of course. He won’t understand, but he’ll accept it.”

More nonsense. He was delusional, that was the only explanation. There was no way she was going to believe he could remember things that hadn’t happened yet.

“Specimen G,” she said slowly, “does not grieve, nor does he love. All he does, all he can do, is destroy.”

“True, too true,” he agreed pleasantly. “Though he prefers Gabriel. Still, very dangerous. Very scary. Very sensible attitude, that is. There are worse out there than him, of course, but not many. Hmm.”

He went back to flicking through her sketches, and found another one. Almost immediately, she tried to snatch it away from him.

“Who’s this?” he asked.

She looked at the drawing, and suddenly felt cold. It was a woman, of indeterminate age, with pale skin and dark hair. She was naked and so very, very thin. Her gaunt face and black eyes were staring directly at the viewer, longing and hungry, cold and alone in vast, dark room. Black chains bound her to the floor, though they were clearly unnecessary; the woman was so frail she looked like she could barely lift her head.

“I… don’t know,” she admitted. “I saw her in a dream. I don’t really know anything about her, but I think she’s hungry. Well, of course she is. Look at her.”

“Interesting,” he said. “You talk about her as if she’s a real person. She’s not just a dream, then?”

Leanne blinked. Of course it was a dream. She’d never actually met the woman, whoever she was. But something about it had felt very real. She’d woken from that dream feeling exactly like the woman she’d drawn; cold, lonely, confused and more than anything, hungry.

“Not much longer now, sweet Lady Eternal,” he said wistfully. “He’s coming for you.”

Wait, did he know that woman? Did he know who she was?

Suddenly, she didn’t want to talk about it any more. Those feelings were beginning to creep back in, and they frightened her. She searched her brain for something to change the topic to, and found the perfect subject.

“Anyway,” she said, “you were saying? About what I said before?”

Wil seemed to recognise her distress, and put the image down, for which she was grateful. Just another reason why she never brought anyone to her apartment.

“I remember, yes. Well. I couldn’t help but notice, and please, excuse me if I’m mistaken, but it seemed to me that you were, um, suggesting, perhaps, that the reason you were bringing me here was for, for, certain, um, certain activities, and I, that is-”

She cut him off, laughing. She was used to being the awkward one; it was a nice change.

“Not a fucking chance,” she said, relaxing quickly. “No offence. I was just trying to get that jerk riled up.”

Curiously, she did find Wil somewhat attractive. He didn’t really feel male to her, though she didn’t really know how to explain it. Gender didn’t really seem to apply to him, but he was definitely in a male shell, so that’s how she identified him.

“Oh dear, well, thank goodness,’ he said, breathing a sigh of relief. “As you said, no offence, but, well, you’re not exactly my type. You’re all… squishy, and soft, and… and young. It would be terribly inappropriate.”

She couldn’t help but laugh at that.

“What do you mean, young? I mean, thanks and all, but how do you know how old I am? And for that matter, how old are you?”

“You’ve just turned thirty,” he said, licking his lips. “Well, you taste a bit older than that, but not by much. I’m… I forget. Let me think… What year is it? No, don’t answer that, you’ll give me the wrong one. I’m sorry, I’m terrible at math. So rigid and structured. Can’t skip to the end of a math problem. I think, and this is a bit of guess work, but I’m either six-hundred and forty-two, or I’m eight-hundred and six. Teen. Er, ish.”

Leanne blinked, not quite sure what to make of that. It would have been easy just to disregard it as nonsense, and she almost did. She was no longer sure he was just some crazy escaped experiment, though. For one thing, his DNA scan didn’t set off any triggers when he entered her apartment, so it wasn’t like there was an alert out on him or anything.

She knew the outbreak was 277 years ago, and she knew that there were a few out there who predated that. Mason Himself, for one. She’d heard rumours that Specimen G was the one that had ushered in the Outbreak himself, too. There were even rumours of someone, or something, even older than that, but she didn’t believe it. Damien was just a myth.

Six hundred years, though? Or eight hundred? Nobody was that old, it was impossible. Eight hundred years would have been… the 1600s. The technology to extend life didn’t exist back then, did it? She was pretty sure that wasn’t really available until the late 22nd century, and not perfected until post-Outbreak.

He had said that he wasn’t… human, but then, what did that make him? Surely… surely he wasn’t Damien?

“You were alive in the seventeenth century? Are you…”

“Alive? Certainly. I wasn’t here for it, though. Wasn’t a safe place to be, back then. You still had… what name did They go by? The Glorious Reflection. They never let anyone into their Realm. Hmm, wasn’t long after that the Destroyer… I might have been able to catch the very end of it, but there was a lot of turbulence, and I had much better places to be. I could go back, I guess, but… no, best not to.”

Leanne just threw her hands up, giving up on the conversation entirely. She still had her computer in her pocket. When Wil went back to browsing, this time looking through her shelves full of old art supplies and personal trinkets, she pulled it out.

It lit up in response to her touch, the light weight comfortable in her hand. Wil’s genetic identifier had been scanned when he walked into her apartment. With that, she could find out just about anything about him, unless he’d paid good money to keep it private, like she had. Even then, there were ways, but most people weren’t that paranoid about their own privacy.

She was about to run the code through the internal search engine, available only to privileged SynTech employees, when she actually looked at it. It was a sequence of symbols and alphanumeric characters that made absolutely no sense to her, like any other genetic code. Like her own, in fact. She recognised her own, but had no idea what any of it meant. His was a lot like hers, actually.

Too much like her own.

Instead of running it through the search engine, she quit back up to the top level, and brought up the list of people currently inside the apartment. To her surprise, she saw only herself listed. Twice.

That’s impossible, she told herself. How could he have the exact same genetic sequence as she did? Even a clone would have an additional tag at the end identifying it as such, and he didn’t look or act anything like her.

She looked up at him. He was staring at the fish swimming in the wall, making faces at them.

“Uh, Wil?”

“Who? Oh, that’s me! Mmm, I like it. Nice name. Sounds good. Do these fish have names?”

Leanne looked down at her computer again. A message had popped up. Years ago, she’d paid a programmer to set up a simple system, which alerted her if her name or any personal details were ever targeted by the authorities.

She hadn’t expected it to ever show up; she lived a clean life, but there were stories about innocent personnel disappearing because they heard or saw something they shouldn’t have, and she wanted some sort of warning.

It didn’t take a genius to work out why it was going off now. The system had detected two instances of the same person. That meant either someone was disguising their own genetic code, which was illegal, or an unregulated clone had been made, which was also illegal.

“Wil, security is on their way. Is there anything you want to maybe tell me before they get here?”

He cocked his head to the side, looking confused. She’d never seen anyone actually do that in real life before.

“Security? No, there’s nothing. Uh, you have a nice house. Kind of small, that’s okay. Don’t need a lot of space, I suppose. The fish are nice. Especially Francis. Why are security coming? Did you do something?”

Leanne shook her head. He was impossible.

“Wil, they’re coming for you. You’re… replicating my genetic code. That’s illegal. The system picked up on it. I was wondering if maybe you’d like to tell me why.”

Wil wandered over to the sketching table again, and picked up another sketch. It was another page from the commissioned graphic novel, this one featuring the hero. She’d had to take creative liberties there, too; in real life, he was ferociously ugly, but with the right artistic style, the metal arm became a striking feature. The face was more difficult, so she just drew him with his head turned most of the time, so you could only see the ‘good’ side.

“They’re not sending him, are they?”

She slammed her hand down onto the table, pinning the sketch in place, and glared fiercely at him.

“No,” she said. “He’s probably in the London Undercity, with Mason. You are going to answer my question. Now.”

* * *

There was no security detail waiting. They were all terrified of him, and for good reason. Even the most grizzled, experienced, toughest, most augmented soldier knew better. Tyson needed neither protecting nor escorting, and would be offended by the suggestion of either.

Tyson was the first. He was the one Mason had chosen to hunt down and destroy his precious escaped angels. The technology keeping him alive was leagues ahead of what they mass-produced for the rest of them. Even the Adepts knew their place: beneath him.

As soon as he disembarked, the information he needed started streaming wirelessly to his brain, the back of his mind full of new information. He had a location, a name, and some security footage. That was a good start.

He began playing the footage, a moving image in his mind, as he walked briskly through the rapidly emptying corridors. Almost immediately, he identified a problem.

The footage showed two people, but something was wrong. The data must have been corrupted, or the recording equipment was faulty, or most likely, something was interfering. How any of that could have happened, he wasn’t yet sure.

One of the people was fine, identified by the system as an employee, fairly low level; a disputes resolution officer. He wasn’t interested in her any further than as a possibly link to his target. The other, though…

In the footage, they appeared distorted, a combination of pixelation and blurriness, and their speech just sounded like garbled gibberish and white noise. The strange thing was, the rest of the recording was fine. It definitely warranted investigation.

As he watched, a third person showed up, identified by the system as a freelancer, not an employee. Fucking freeloaders, Tyson grumbled. What was a writer doing in a city like this?

The first two people left, and the third just stood there, dumbstruck, for a few minutes. When he recovered, he put in a call to security, then returned to his quarters. Tyson couldn’t care less about him.

The footage followed the other two back to an apartment, owned by the woman, which was the location he was already heading towards. The system logged both of them as the same person, the name that was already on his list. That annoyed him.

The system should have been smarter than that. Most of it was built from code fragments of the system that had run the Genesis facilities before the Outbreak, an exceptionally intelligent and advanced AI program that had since evolved into a major thorn in his side. Simple genetic duping shouldn’t have been enough to confuse it.

To his surprise, when he looked closer, he found he actually recognised the woman. She’d interviewed him not that long ago. As well as her formal role, she was an artist, or some such bullshit. A waste of time and money, and not worth his attention, but Tyson was nothing if not obedient.

As if their stupid little comic book would stop that treacherous little fucker from fooling them the same way he always did. Tyson was the only one smart enough to stop him, but if they wanted to waste their efforts on picture books, good for them.

His mind switched over to live footage of the security team closing on the apartment, despite his explicit instructions they were to stay out of the way and wait for further orders. He growled loudly, startling a young couple walking hand in hand in the other direction.

As he watched, the two targets left the apartment, the second figure still distorted, and started to run. Stupid little children. Still, it was better for him if they avoided the security team. It would give him the freedom of dealing with them in his own way.

Roaring loudly, he took off, running down the hallways and bounding down the staircase, in too much of a hurry to bother with the shuttles. They took too fucking long, in his opinion. His own legs moved much faster.

* * *

“Question?” Wil frowned, confused. “Oh, the genetic code sequence. I don’t know. Honestly. I don’t have one, you see. Well, I do, sort of, but it’s in flux, and not, you know, human. Your system wouldn’t pick it up. Wouldn’t know what to do with it if it did. It’ll be centuries before it’s that advanced. At least. Or it would be, anyway, if it didn’t all… um, never mind.”

Leanne shoved him, pushing him back onto the bed. He was surprisingly light, and offered no resistance. She wasn’t exactly strong, so the result surprised her. Usually, she was used to being around augmented people.

“Then why is it saying that you’re me?” she demanded, her eyes lit up with anger.

Wil hesitated, his pink eyes staring deeply into hers. He licked his lips, then pressed them against his fingers. His eyes lit up, and he sprang to his feet, dodging her attempt to keep him down.

“Of course. Of course! Information transfer. I must have taken a bit of your genetic information, too. I always wondered how that worked. Probably the only part of me your system recognised, so it assumed that’s what I was, too. Ugh, wouldn’t that be terrible. No offence. Hmm. Seem to be saying that a lot.”

Leanne paused. In a disjointed, confusing way, he was starting to make sense. Even if she accepted that he wasn’t trying to steal her identity, though, it didn’t answer any of her other questions. In fact, all it did was raise more.

“What are you?” she demanded, well aware that they were running out of time. She wasn’t guilty of anything, but it would take them time to process everything. Questions would be asked about why she didn’t report him sooner. Balard probably already had, if he got the same vibe from Wil that she did.

“No idea,” he said. Leanne raised a fist, and he cringed. “Okay, I have some idea. But you probably won’t like it.” She raised an eyebrow, but let him continue.

“I’m a construct. A homunculus, where I’m from. Um, someone built specifically to serve a certain purpose. I seem to have forgotten what that is, exactly, but I can tell you who made me. Wait, no I can’t. Um. I don’t know the word for it in English. What do they call it? The Grand Schemer. That probably doesn’t help you.”

The proximity alert around her apartment started to go off. Leanne was starting to be grateful for her paranoid -no, forward-thinking- nature. For once, it was starting to come in handy.

“Alright,” she said reluctantly. “Fine. You’re… probably insane, but I really don’t want security busting into here. It’s going to look terrible on my records. So here’s the deal. I’m going to get you away from here, you’re going to go about doing whatever the fuck it is you’re supposed to be doing, and I’m going to get on with my life. You, uh, kidnapped me, or drugged me, or some shit. I don’t know. That’d work. My body isn’t immune to half the crap you need augments to protect against. Fuck, I’m swearing a lot. I must be stressed. We really need to go.”

For a moment, he just stood there, staring at her. His eyes were a deep midnight blue, and his hair was almost white. She hadn’t even noticed when they’d started changing again.

“Okay,” he said. “Thank you. I think.”

“Shut up,” she snapped.

Grabbing his arm, she dragged him out the front door, and they took off together. Leanne guided him down the only corridor she knew for sure didn’t lead to a security station; hence, the only direction she could guarantee they wouldn’t be coming from. They’d still pick them up on the security footage, but it was better than hanging around and waiting.

She hoped.

For someone who never did any exercise, Leanne was a surprisingly good runner. Not good enough to keep pace with someone who was augmented, but definitely above ‘natural’ standards.

Beside her, Wil was doing fine, matching her pace perfectly. She wondered if the concept of fitness even applied to him.

She didn’t realise they were heading towards the medical centre until they’d almost arrived. It made sense, of course. They had security there, but wouldn’t send them out to respond to an alert. When she and Wil got there, she could hand him in, and avoid most of the questioning and embarrassment of having her home broken into.

“Oh,” he said beside her, not at all out of breath. “I hadn’t realised you were going to hand me in. Careless of me. Forgetful. Should have been paying more attention.”

She almost stumbled and fell, but managed to stabilise herself just in time. Neither of them stopped running, though if he knew what she was planning, she didn’t understand why he hadn’t turned around and run off in another direction.

“What, you’re a mind reader now too?”

“Mind reading? No, you’d need to have some kind of super-intellect for that, not to mention telepathic powers. I have neither. No-one has both of those things. Not yet, anyway. She can, but, well, that’s not for a little while, yet. Things can change. Um. Oh, no. I just remembered what happened. Will happen? At the medical station. In about five minutes.”

She glanced over at him. He seemed unusually perturbed by whatever it was that was running through his head. Then again, he was so strange, she had no idea what he was thinking or feeling at any point.

“Why are you still going with me, then?” she asked.

“I’m not,” he answered soberly. “You just took a wrong turn. Saying things always changes them.” He cringed. “I never learn. He’s going to get us now. That’s much worse. I wish I’d just kept quiet.”

She was about to ask what he was talking about when they both ran headfirst into a mountain of a man, a black leather coat covering heavy metal armour, maniacal grin plastered across his twisted face.

Leanne bounced off his chest painfully, crying out. As she stumbled backwards, she saw Wil get grabbed by a sharp metal claw.

“Oh, shit,” she said when she recognised him.

“So, that’s what you look like,” Tyson crooned, holding Wil up by the neck. “Strange. Not what I was expecting. I can see why Mason wants you, though. There is just all kinds of crazy business going on inside your body right now.”

For his part, Wil just hung there, clearly unhappy with the situation, but not doing much to fight it. There probably wasn’t much he could have done, but Leanne still felt weird watching him not even try.

Well, it wasn’t her problem. She didn’t need to get any more tied up in things than she already was. Brushing herself off, she craned her neck to look Tyson in the eye.

“Mr Briggs! Thank goodness you’re here,” she said, recovering quickly. “I think he’s insane. I was just taking him to the medical centre. I think he might be dangerous.”

Tyson ignored her, for which she was extremely grateful. She hated speaking to him. Always seemed like he was a stone’s throw away from madness himself.

“Hmm. Almost too easy. I was expecting more trouble, catching a precog. Makes me suspicious.” He leaned in close, his face almost touching Wil’s. “What are you planning?”

Wil frowned. “You know, I’m not sure. I think I might have made a mistake, trusting a human. Not her fault, of course. Then again, maybe this is a good thing. No, I doubt that. It’s going to hurt, isn’t- OUCH. Oh my, yes. I just remembered. Unpleasant. Still, at least I don’t die. It’s never happy with me when I die.”

Gritting her teeth, Leanne gathered what little courage she had left. She had to know.

“Uh, what are you going to do with him? Can I ask where you’re taking him?”

Tyson looked down at her, and she felt her legs get weak. It was like looking into the face of a human, one of the infected, only a thousand times worse. His expression was monstrous, whatever it was. It terrified her.

“China, eventually,” he said cruelly, though she didn’t understand the significance. “That’s where the best facilities are. Even something like this can’t escape. But for now, we’ll process him here. New Shanghai isn’t ready. I didn’t think I’d catch him so quickly.”

For some reason, when he started talking about China, she thought of the woman in her picture, the one from the dream. It was something to do with the way he said it. She never felt that way when she thought about moving to New Shanghai.

“Oh,” she said blankly. “Um, thanks. Could you, um, could you let security know everything’s okay now? I’m kinda tired, and I don’t really want to deal with them right now.”

He looked at her like she’d just asked him to cut off his own foot, not that he had feet any more. Not organic ones, anyway. From what she’d heard, most of his left leg and all of his right were artificial.

“They know,” he said after a brief, intensely uncomfortably pause. “Go home. And don’t tell anyone about this. This thing is top secret.”

“Of course,” she said accommodatingly. “Thank you. Um, it was nice to see you again. Not that I expect you to remember me. You’re probably very busy. I’ll go, now. I won’t say anything, of course. I’m used to that. Not that I know much anyway, barely anything, really, but you get the idea.”

Tyson just stared at her until she shut up, then turned and walked away, still effortlessly holding Wil up by his neck.

As soon as he was out of sight, she collapsed to the floor, shaking. He terrified her, but it wasn’t just him. She felt bad for Wil, almost responsible for his predicament. Hopefully, whatever happened to him wouldn’t be too painful for him.

Eventually, she pulled herself up, and walked shakily back to her apartment. Thankfully, it hadn’t been entered. Exhausted, she collapsed onto the bed, not caring that she was already behind with her work, and fell into a deep sleep.

Messages and Dreams

She was dimly aware that she was dreaming when she walked into the room, but that sensation had vanished by the time she’d reached the centre of it. The room itself was massive, but outside of that, she found it difficult to get a sense of scale.

It was circular, the dark floor terminating in darkness just beyond a row of pillars that surrounded the room. Around the edges, between the pillars, were twenty thrones, each in different styles. Some looked ancient and worn, others relatively new.

One space held a throne that looks specifically designed to seat two, an ornate metalwork piece shrouded in darkness. Another seemed to be lashed together out of bones, but none of the bones were human. She even recognised one that reminded her a disturbing amount from the throne that Mason ruled from.

The room was empty, aside from her, but as she took another step towards the centre, she thought she observed a silhouette in one of the thrones, and began to walk towards it instinctively.

The throne was simple, carved out of stone with veins of precious jewels running through it. The figure seated in it was perfectly motionless, but it wasn’t until she got closer that she realised why.

Like the throne itself, its inhabitant was entirely made of stone, though this one had some metal plating and joints through it too, all intricately carved. Silver filigree patterned its chest and limbs, and blank eyes of brilliant ruby, actual stones, stared out from its face.

Then it moved, and had it been under any other circumstances, she would have screamed, or at least jumped from the fright. Instead, she simply nodded to herself, as if it were exactly what she expected to happen.

Its movements were slow and exaggerated, but somehow still gave the impression of being capable of great speed should the need arise.

When it spoke, it spoke with a deep, grating voice of stone and power. It did not raise its voice, but the words echoed throughout the empty chamber, rolling over the thrones and bouncing off the pillars.

“HUMAN.”

Leanne looked around, confused. Then she realised the human was her. Like Wil, it seemed to have a different definition of human to her own.

“Where am I?” she asked, not really expecting an answer. The stone figure looked directly at her.

“THE CITADEL,” it said.

“Oh,” she replied, not really understanding. It could have been a citadel of some kind, she supposed. That still didn’t really answer her question. “Where’s that?”

“THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS,” it told her.

“You mean space?” she asked numbly, feeling very small.

“NO.”

Still disoriented and not quite fully functioning, she assumed worlds to mean planets. It didn’t occur to her at the time that the space between worlds could mean anything other than literal space.

She looked around. The empty thrones felt powerfully ominous. Even when empty, they seemed to represent a strength beyond her understanding. There was a strong sense of purpose to the place, and of protection and safety, but from what, she didn’t know.

“It feels weird here,” she said simply.

“IT WAS NOT MADE FOR MORTALS,” the statue answered.

Leanne found that statement singularly distressing. She thought of herself as mortal, and if she wasn’t, there was only one other alternative.

“Am I dead?”

“YOU ARE DREAMING,” it said, and she relaxed. That was much better. You could be anything in a dream, and it didn’t matter.

“Oh,” she said blankly. “Are you dead?”

She didn’t know why she asked that.

“YES.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, sympathetic. Her brain was still moving slowly, not quite functioning the way she was used to. Everything felt strange to her.

“I AM NOT.”

She looked around again. For a brief moment, she thought she saw someone else, a woman with golden hair, sitting in a golden throne, white wings folded behind her, but when she tried to focus on her, the woman faded away.

Another throne, one that seemed to be constructed entirely from shadows and missing space, suddenly felt occupied, but there was nobody sitting on it. At least, nobody that she could see.

“Who are you?” she asked the statue, ignoring the feeling that she was being watched. She felt out of place, and unwanted.

“THE SENTINEL,” it answered. “I AM A GUARDIAN.”

She caught a reflection in one of the plates of polished metal adorning its body, and thought she saw a familiar looking child with lilac hair, but when she turned around, the child was gone.

“I don’t know what that means,” she said, turning back to the Sentinel.

“NOR SHOULD YOU.”

“Oh,” she said again. It seemed like the only appropriate answer, or at least, it was the only appropriate answer her brain was capable of producing. She felt so far away from herself.

The Sentinel shifted slightly, only slightly, but the movement was significant. A stone finger pointed directly at her. She followed it, looking down at herself, and realised that she was naked, but didn’t care.

As she looked, the symbol of an hourglass appeared on her chest, beneath her left breast.

“YOU HAVE MET THE CHILD OF TIME,” it said, though she couldn’t tell if it was an observation or an accusation. Either way, she had no idea what it meant.

“Who?”

“IN YOUR TONGUE, HE CALLS HIMSELF WIL,” it explained.

Her breath caught in her chest, as she remembered the strange man who had appeared suddenly, and vanished just as quickly.

“What is he?” she asked hopefully. “What is he, really?”

She wasn’t sure why, but it felt like the Sentinel could answer her question better than anyone.

“HE IS AS HE SAYS HE IS,” the Sentinel answered. “THE CONSTRUCT AND SLAVE OF THE GRAND SCHEMER, WHAT YOU WOULD UNDERSTAND TO BE A GOD.”

“Oh,” she said again. He had said something to that effect, but she’d disregarded it as deranged babble. It was much harder to deny, coming from this Sentinel.

She looked at the statue, and shivered. It felt like judgement. She felt like she had failed.

“HE REQUIRES ASSISTANCE,” it informed her. She just stared at it, unsure of what to say next. Eventually, words came to her.

“From me?”

“CORRECT.”

Leanne closed her eyes, remembering. Wil had been taken by Tyson. She had no idea where he’d been taken to, or what kind of security they had him under. She didn’t know how long he’d be there, and she didn’t know what she could possibly do to help him.

It never occurred to her that she could refuse. The Sentinel spoke with such conviction, and she felt so insignificant and lonely that she was powerless to even consider the concept of saying ‘no’.

“How?”

The Sentinel moved its head, making a low, grinding noise. The noise, like its voice, echoed throughout the room.

“THERE IS A PIECE OF PAPER IN YOUR POCKET,” it said. “IT HAS A PSYCHIC LOCK ON IT.” There was a brief pause. “THE LOCK IS NOW BROKEN.”

She didn’t actually have any pockets, but she was suddenly reminded that she was in the middle of a dream. When she woke up, she would have pockets, and maybe one of them had some paper in it. She didn’t really remember, but if the Sentinel said it, it felt like it was probably true.

“So what do I do?” she asked nervously. “Read it?”

“IMPROVISE,” it said. “THAT IS YOUR TALENT.”

Leanne had never thought of herself as an improviser. She liked to plan ahead. She was good at planning ahead. When she thought about it, she hadn’t ever really had to improvise anything.

“How do you know what my talents are?” she demanded.

“THE SECRETS OF MORTALS ARE KNOWN TO ME,” it said definitively. Once again, Leanne felt a chill.

“Then why choose me?”

The Sentinel looked down at her. Suddenly, it looked much bigger, and she felt much smaller. Their sizes hadn’t changed, but suddenly it towered over her, she was terrified.

“I DID NOT CHOOSE YOU,” it said coldly.

“Then who did?”

The Sentinel paused. It looked around her, and she did the same. Several of the thrones now had floating flames above them, giving off a soft light. Looking back, she realised there was one above the Sentinel, too.

“YOUR TIME HERE IS AT AN END,” it informed her. “THE CITADEL WILL NO LONGER ACCOMMODATE YOUR PRESENCE.”

Leanne looked around, but couldn’t see an exit. Just a solid ring of pillars and thrones, surrounded by darkness.

“So how do I leave?” she asked. “I mean, I’m not even really sure how I got here. Do I just, like, wake up? Or-”

“YOU SIMPLY LEAVE,” it said.

* * *

Leanne opened her eyes to find herself back in her apartment, lying on her back, staring at the ceiling. It wasn’t quite like waking up; it felt more like she hadn’t slept. Already the specifics of her ‘dream’ were fading, but she remembered a dark room, and a set of instructions.

For reasons she didn’t quite understand, and couldn’t quite explain, she felt overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and responsibility. They’d taken Wil, and she’d let them.

Well, who wouldn’t have? She barely knew him, and she would take Tyson’s authority over some crazy guy and a weird dream any day.

Even still, it felt wrong. Wil was strange, sure, but he wasn’t dangerous. Really, he’d seemed almost entirely harmless, and after you got used to his weirdness, it was even a little endearing.

She tried to tell herself the feeling would pass, but deep in her gut she knew it was a lie. She’d seen what could happen to the people that SynTech took. It wasn’t always the same thing, but it was always bad. Wil didn’t deserve that. No-one did.

Blinking in the soft light, she rolled off the side of the bed, scowling at herself as she realised she hadn’t even taken her shoes off before collapsing into bed. Still not quite fully awake, she decided to take a shower, and stripped off her clothes before wandering into the bathroom.

Her bathroom had a full length digital mirror, and she stopped mid-stride when she caught her own reflection. That wasn’t right.

On her chest, just beneath her left breast, was a small dark marking, one she knew hadn’t been there before.

Moving closer to the mirror, she realised it was a tattoo; a small hourglass on a background of golden filigree. Where it had come from was a mystery to her.

As Leanne stared at it, she thought she saw it change, turning over on her chest, the golden sand trickling down. When she blinked, it was unchanged.

Shaking her head, she stepped into the shower cubicle, which immediately blasted her with hot water, and she sighed in relief. The pressure forced everything else out of her mind, and for a few minutes, she enjoyed the blissful escapism.

Ten minutes later she emerged, bone dry and feeling much better. She pulled out her favourite outfit, a black and brown bodysuit under a red coat. Usually she reserved for special occasions. It felt like a special occasion to her.

There was something warm in the pocket of the coat that grabbed her attention. Reaching in, she found a small piece of paper, folded in half. Her name was written on it in elegant script. Where had that come from?

Curious, she unfolded it. A second piece of paper, the same size as the first, fell out. She grabbed it, and held it up, but it was blank. She held up the one with writing on it.

Leanne,

I forgive you.

I am sorry for the trouble I have caused you, and the trouble yet to come.

I need your help.

They are holding me in lab CS/5-1, but only for another 24 hours. Then they will move me, and I will have failed.

Tyson will be absent between 17:00 and 19:15 tonight. The passcode is A5B46731. Your genetic sequence has already been authorised.

When you find me, give me this piece of paper, and the blank one behind it.

You will understand when you find me.

Forever in your debt,

~Wil

The letter was written in the same elegant handwriting, and at the bottom was a small symbol, like a stamp. It was an hourglass, exactly the same as the one on her chest. His symbol?

When had she received this letter? She tried to think back, but it wasn’t…

Before she’d even met Wil. Someone at her door, someone she didn’t recognise. A strange man and his female companion, who handed her a letter, which she promptly forgot.

Surely that couldn’t have been him. That was impossible. Unless he knew exactly what was going to happen to him. That far in advance, he should have been able to avoid it, right? No, she decided, it just didn’t make sense.

None of it made sense.

An elaborate trap of some kind, then? That wasn’t impossible. All of it could be a set up. It would explain a lot of things, but…

Who would set up something like that? To what end? No, a trap didn’t make any more sense than anything else did.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter what it was, or how it happened, or how much sense it made. Wil needed her help, and even though Leanne knew she was as crazy as he was for even thinking it, she was going to do it.

It wasn’t a matter of whether or not he was insane, or whether or not he was worth it, or even if it was a stupid idea. He was almost certainly insane, probably not worth it, and it was indisputably a bad idea.

It was a matter of right and wrong, though. What they were doing to him was wrong, she knew that, even though she had no idea what it was that they actually were doing to him. Not helping Wil, that would be wrong.

Sighing and slumping back on her head, she glanced at a clock. It wasn’t even noon, which gave her five hours to kill. In the back of her head, some small part of her brain was screaming at her for not forgetting the whole issue, but she ignored it.

With nothing better to do, she looked up lab CS/5-1 in the system. It was a small lab, researching alternative power sources, ironically drawing more power than any other lab in the city. She brought up a floor plan, but it wasn’t necessary; the lab was tiny, and only had a single entrance.

Satisfied she’d done her homework, she went over to her sketching table, and began to draw. Letting her mind wander, she did’t realise she’d drawn Wil until he was mostly done, sitting complacently on the bottom corner of the page. She couldn’t capture his constantly changing features, but the ones she’d drawn were perfectly his anyway.

Her hand didn’t stop there, though. She kept drawing, filling out the rest of the page, and she didn’t really feel like she had much agency in the action.

Whatever she was drawing was a vaguely humanoid shape, but easily four times the size of Wil. It stood oppressively over him, bound by chains to something off the page.

As she filled in the details, she realised it was taking the shape of an elderly man in a simple suit, with a trimmed beard and short hair, both grey. His skin was pale, but not any colour of flesh. It was a true white, or maybe slightly blue, more like the moon than a person.

The colour, of course, was only in her mind. The sketch was black and white, but she could feel the colours as vividly as if they were already on the page.

The expression of the man on the page was one of patience, and even for an aged man he somehow looked powerfully, inconceivably old.

She drew the eyes last. They were magnificent and terrible, though she couldn’t truly capture their power. Wherever this image was coming from, the feeling was vivid. The eyes shone with every colour of the rainbow, and several more. They were eyes that saw everything, knew everything.

She kept drawing, this time around them. Wil was bound to this man, chains surrounded them both, and it was clear who the master was.

There was some space on her wall, and when it was done, she felt compelled to hang it up. After scanning in a digital copy to her computer, she stuck the large sketch on the wall, all the way to the left. After a moment’s thought, she rummaged through her pile of sketches, and found another.

It was the woman, naked and weak, that she pulled out. She hung it on the wall beside the man. Somehow, she thought, they belonged together. There was more space on the wall beside them to the right, but she left it empty.

It would have been easy to centre the images, more logical to spread them evenly, but somehow that didn’t feel appropriate. She wanted, needed to leave them were they were. They needed that space beside them, as if waiting for something else to fill it.

Her alarm started beeping as she sat back down, and it was only then she realised how long she’d been drawing. It was already time to leave. She hadn’t managed to get any real work done, but somehow that didn’t seem all that important. She had other things to worry about, and deserved a break anyway.

Slipping her computer back into her pocket, she left the apartment, locking the door behind her. Pausing there for a second, she activated a second security protocol, another off-the-record purchase, that would lock the door even to official personnel. The only way to get in now was brute force: she needed all the security she could get.

She was about to do something very illegal, after all.

The Rescue

Lab CS/5-1 wasn’t hard to find. As soon as she’d identified it on her computer, holographic arrows projected from the walls, guiding her there. It took her only fifteen minutes to walk there, arriving at five past five, just barely missing Tyson. He was the last person she wanted to run into.

Most facilities relied on genetic scanning for their security. It was simple and easy, yet very difficult to break through, and nobody had to remember any codes or sequences or procedures. A lot of labs felt like they needed a higher level of security, since it wasn’t completely impossible to fool the gene scanners.

A simple passcode wasn’t much, but combined with the genetic sequence, it would have been difficult enough. Looking at the passcode terminal, though, Leanne realised she had another problem.

The lab had an added layer of security. The code had to be entered to a certain rhythm, ensuring it couldn’t just be stolen from a file somewhere. She had the genetic approval, and she had the code, but she didn’t have the rhythm. Time to improvise, she thought irritably.

Working inside the system certainly had its advantages. With her clearance, she didn’t have access to security footage from inside the labs. From the outside, though? That was well within her range of authority.

The camera feeds were edited in such a way that she couldn’t actually see the code being entered, but luckily that wasn’t the information she needed. She just needed to see that pattern they entered it with.

She entered the code in sync with the screen in her hand, and after a brief pause, the door slid open. Putting the computer away and smiling, she walked in, pleased with herself.

The lab was even smaller than she’d expected, with large chunks of the walls being taken up with strange pods, most of them empty. Two large benches filled the centre of the room, covered in a variety of electronic parts and tiny devices of unknown purpose.

A scientist was working on the bench closest to her, but he stopped and looked up at her as she came in. He had a pair of tweezers in one hand and a thin metal spike in the other. Leanne tried her best to look like she belonged there.

“Crap, already?” he mumbled, looking slightly nervous. “Look, I know the place is a little messy, but we do know what we’re doing. It’s perfectly safe. Here, just give me a sec, and then I’ll show you around.”

Leanne wasn’t quite sure what he was talking about, but she was smart enough to work out that he thought it was some kind of inspection, probably a safety one. That could work in her favour, if she played her cards right.

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” she said casually. “I can look around just fine on my own.”

“No, no, no, don’t… just- Stay there for a second, okay? Dammit, I thought that bastard said he was going to take care of this.” He stopped, breathing deeply, trying not to hyperventilate. “Okay, listen, whatever you find, we do have authorisation. You just need to speak to-”

“Mr Briggs?” she asked. “I know. I’m actually medical, believe it or not. I’m here to check up on, you know. Him.”

“It,” the scientist corrected. “It’s not Old Human, though it looks like it. It’s not any kind of human evolution. We think it might be extra-terrestrial. But it’s not a he. It’s a subject.”

As he spoke, his eyes drifted over to one of the pods on the wall. It was certainly large enough to hold a person, but the glass was frosted, and she couldn’t see inside. She’d just have to take a chance.

The scientist finished whatever he was doing on the bench and came over to her, offering a hand. She took it with a smile.

“Van,” he introduced himself. “Van Nomash.”

Up close and standing up straight, she realised he was actually quite tall, and a little bulky. Beneath his lab coat, he was wearing an oddly familiar dark suit.

“Leanne,” she replied, omitting her last name. She hoped it gave her a sense of authority and mystery. He just nodded and took her over to the pod.

Van pressed a button on the side of the pod, and the glass cleared. It was definitely Wil inside, but it looked like he’d seen better days. It took all of Leanne’s willpower not to react visibly.

He’d only been in there for, well, less than a day, but it looked like it could have been weeks, even months. He was skinny, almost gaunt, his skin dark and not shifting. His hair was a dull aqua colour, and his eyes were closed.

“Its physiology is quite incredible,” Van effused. “It seems Old Human at first, but it’s all fluid. I mean, not liquid, but it keeps changing. It had two lungs when they brought it in, then three, then one. Same with its heart, and liver, and kidneys. Its blood is actually fairly consistent, probably the only thing, and that’sdefinitely not human, Old or New.”

Wil looked beyond terrible, and Leanne couldn’t help but to feel guilty about that. She placed a hand on the glass, and as her fingers touched the cool surface, his eyes opened. They were also dull, a sort of faded grey, but they brightened slightly as he recognised her.

“He doesn’t seem healthy,” she said irritably. “Are you sure you’re taking proper care of him? If he dies-”

“It won’t die,” Van interrupted. “It’s like those bloody Adepts. Got more energy in it than this whole damn city. That’s why they brought it here. We tried to cut it open, but with all that energy, its cellular regeneration is, well, it’s too fast for us to get a proper look.”

Leanne shuddered. An Adept? That was a possibility she hadn’t considered before. She’d illustrated enough comics and novels about them to understand what they were.

Supernaturally powerful, often with strange and unique abilities, and always drawn beautiful and heroic. They were the legends and heroes that SynTech rallied behind, and she knew Genesis did the same with theirs, though they called them something different. Inheritors, or something.

“We tried getting in and taking out a kidney, fast. Kept the wound pried open as we cut to be sure. We actually managed to get it out, but another one grew in its place, and the one we took out just rotted and died. Withered away to nothing before we could do anything with it.”

Leanne knew what the Adepts really were. A dark secret she’d stumbled on a long time ago, and the knowledge had sickened her. She’d never told anyone about it, and never would. They were monsters, and there was nothing beautiful or heroic about them.

Was that what Wil was? One of them? A monster? Had she made a terrible mistake?

Well, it was too late to go back now.

“Honestly, I have no idea what this thing is, but the last thing we need to worry about is it dying.”

Nodding, she spied a tool on the bench behind her, and took a step back, resting her hand on it casually. She’d illustrated enough scenes just like this to know how to deal with this. Luckily, Van didn’t notice.

“Huh, what’s that on his chest?” she asked. “Is that a tattoo?”

“What?” Van leaned in for a closer look. “You’re right! Weird, I didn’t even notice. Oh wait, yeah. One of the girls was reading it before. She thought it was really strange. It says, ‘Now would be a great time, Leanne’. Huh. Isn’t that your-”

She jammed the end of the device into his neck, sending a powerful shock through him, cutting him off mid-sentence and leaving him convulsing on the floor. Then she tossed it aside, and looked at the control panel on the side of the machine.

Too many buttons, and no idea what to do with them. Then she noticed a scrap of paper on the floor, and picked it up. Strange. There was writing on it, the same handwriting as the letter she still had in her pocket. It was scrunched up, so she unfurled it.

It was instructions. A series of button presses that she guessed was for the control panel in front of her. It wasn’t a hastily scrawled note, either. Was this another of his notes written in advance, dropped beside the machine where nobody would notice it?

She followed the instructions, and seconds later the pod opened with a low hissing sound. Wil dropped to the floor, coughing, his hair spiking up and turning red. Leanne helped him to his feet, and he smiled graciously. He didn’t seemed to notice that he was entirely unclothed. She politely looked away.

“Thank you,” he said breathlessly.

“Don’t mention it,” she said. “Uh. Maybe we should find your clothes.”

“Don’t bother,” he replied. “Gone. Burnt. You’re right, though. Clothes are good. Humans need clothes. Look silly without them. Who’d have thought?” He looked around. “He has clothes. I’ll take them.”

Together they stripped Van, and dressed Wil in his dark suit. It was too big for him, but it did the job of covering him well enough. As he began buttoning up the shirt, he looked at her, his eyes a bright green.

“Glad you came,” he said. “Not surprised, of course. Never doubted you. Never could. I’d remember if you were going to leave me here.”

He wobbled a bit, unsteady on his feet. Wil looked terrible, but she wasn’t going to say anything about it. She was frightened that if she asked, he’d tell her exactly what they did to him, and she wasn’t sure she could handle it.

“Uh, yeah,” she said hesitantly. Then she remembered his tattoo. A message specifically there for her, for that one specific moment. “Hey, uh, can you just change your skin to show messages?”

It didn’t seem like that much of a stretch, really. His body was constantly changing, and though she didn’t know how much control he had over that, she would happily believe he could use that to show messages.

He looked down at his chest, through the shirt. Then he rubbed the area where the tattoo was, as if it were itchy. As he rubbed it, the tattoo seemed to just come off.

“No,” he said. “Got this one a few weeks ago. Somewhere else. Then I came here. Didn’t really understand it at first. Some memories are clearer than others. Now it makes sense, of course.”

Leanne felt the beginnings of a headache pressing against the edges of her skull. He’d gotten the tattoo because he’d had a premonition of that exact moment when he’d need it. She wasn’t entirely sure she believed it, but considering how willing she was to accept he could change his skin to show messages…

“Um, I got your letter,” she told him. “How did you… um, did you know this was going to happen? How far into the future can you actually see?”

He frowned. “Letter? I didn’t send you a- oh, wait, now I remember. Haven’t sent it yet. Really should. Guess I don’t need to, now, but I like consistency. Can I have it?”

He took both pieces of paper from her, and read the first. Then he nodded and folded the other piece in half, wrote her name on it, and slipped it into his pocket.

“I’m not sure I understand,” Leanne admitted. “Are you going to deliver that letter to me in the past?

“From your perspective, yes,” he said, offering no explanation.

Leanne sighed. He wasn’t going to explain that.

“There were two pieces of paper,” Leanne pointed out. Wil just looked at her. “When you gave me the letter, it had two pieces of paper in it. Now it only has one, and it’s blank.”

“Psychic lock,” he said. “So you won’t open it until it will make sense. As a precaution, if you do, it’ll be blank. Sometimes psychic locks don’t work on… well, people like you. But the letter isn’t actually blank, of course. It can’t be both blank and written on at the same time. So there has to be two in there. One blank, one not. It’s simple physics.”

Leanne opened her mouth to say something, then shut it again. He had to know just how stupid he sounded, right? No, he probably didn’t. She opened her mouth again, determined to get a proper explanation from him, then closed it again. It wasn’t worth the headache.

Wil just stood there, smiling happily, watching her with his sunken bruised eyes. His skin was getting pale again, making the bruises stand out even more. Suddenly she was grateful that most of his body was covered by the suit. She couldn’t have stood seeing his whole body like that.

Briefly, she wondered if he felt pain the way that normal people did. One look at his face gave her the answer. Shaking her head and trying not to think about it, Leanne offered him her hand.

“We should get moving,” she said softly. “I think we can get to the airport before they notice you’re gone. Then we can go wherever you want.”

Wil took her hand, but didn’t move. He ran a finger over her palm, tracing the lines, then looked up at her eyes.

“You’re coming with me,” he acknowledged.

“Yeah,” she said. “I can’t stay here now. There’s no way they won’t know it was me. I can’t hide that. But if we go somewhere else, I have a program that’ll just obliterate my presence in the system entirely. It’ll look like a glitch, and by the time I arrive somewhere else, it’ll have reset to a few months ago. Um, we’ll have to stop by my apartment first, but we should still have time for that.”

“Oh, I sincerely doubt that,” a cruel voice with a heavy pre-Outbreak accent said from behind her. She didn’t need to turn around to know who was standing there.

Leanne looked around for something she could use as a a weapon, but she knew it was useless. The two of them couldn’t fight Tyson with all the weapons in the world. They couldn’t run, either.

Wil’s eyes and hair dulled to a reddish brown, and he rested a hand on Leanne’s arm. It was surprisingly comforting. Together, they turned around to face the monster.

“Tyson,” he said, his voice deep and confident. He was suddenly very focussed, tense but somehow relaxed at the same time.

“In the flesh,” Tyson replied, grinning. “So to speak. I trust you’ve enjoyed your brief sojourn out of the tank?”

Wil smiled back, licking his lips. In his hands, he held Leanne’s watch. She hadn’t even felt him take it off her. She looked down. The watch straps were still around her wrist, detached from the actual watch.

“You’ve been draining me,” Wil said coldly.

Things like you are a great source of power,” Tyson said cruelly. “Like that bitch Adept in Old Melbourne keeping the whole city alive. That’s why we dock all our airships there, you know.”

That wasn’t just a rumour, then. It had never made a lot of sense to Leanne, why there was so much air traffic down there. There hadn’t been any restoration work done in Australia. There were far more important places to rebuild, first.

Though, she had heard of work being done there recently, some secret plan to build a military base beneath Old Melbourne. The area had zero tactical significance, and she hadn’t been able to fathom why before. Now she understood.

If that was true, though, and a whole city was being powered by an Adept… well, they were monsters, certainly, but living out the rest of your life as nothing but a battery? She couldn’t think of anything more horrible.

“I know,” Wil said. “I’ve met her. She gets out, eventually. And not even the Guardians will be able to help you when she does. But you don’t need to worry about that. You’ll be dead long before that happens. Would you like to know how? I could tell you, if you like. I’ve seen you die.”

Guardians… Why did that sound familiar?

Leanne looked at him, and knew he wasn’t bluffing. He knew exactly what he was talking about, even if she didn’t. She had no idea what a Guardian was, or who was trapped down in Australia, but she trusted that he did.

His body hadn’t changed, but it no longer looked frail. The bruises, his gaunt face and thin frame no longer looked weak. He was drawing strength from somewhere outside of his body.

“You think Mason’s gonna let me die?” Tyson growled. “You think he’s ever going to set me free?”

“There are forces outside of his control,” Wil pressed. “Your daughter, for instance. She’s part of a much larger collective, now. Her face will be the last one you ever see.”

As he spoke, he played idly with the watch in his hands. Leanne caught a glimpse of the screen; it seemed to being going backwards. Whatever Wil was doing, Tyson seemed oblivious to it.

“I don’t have a daughter,” Tyson snarled. “I never will. Z took care of that, before her change of heart. That was a weak bluff.”

With his accent, he pronounced it ‘zed’ and not ‘zee’, which was not something she’d heard before. He really was a relic from a different time.

“It wasn’t a bluff,” Wil said distantly. “Not that it matters. You’ll find out, soon enough. I think I’m strong enough, now. Let’s find out. What does your clock say?” he asked Tyson, tauntingly.

The screen on her watch said 17:05. That wasn’t strange; she already knew better than to trust a watch in Wil’s hands. But there was a readout on one of the monitors that also said 17:05, and that was wrong. She hadn’t been in the room at five past five.

“Huh,” Tyson grunted. “What did you do, change the clocks? A cute trick, but it doesn’t mean anything. You can change every clock in the city; it still won’t save you.”

Wil smiled, and flipped the watched like a coin. “No, just this room,” he said airily. “The clocks are all accurate. What time did you leave this room?”

Tyson turned just in time to see himself materialise in the doorway, walking backwards in a perfect imitation of his arrogant, animal strut. It wasn’t quite running at the right speed, though. It was a little slow, and Wil looked more than a little strained.

“What the fuck is this?” Tyson demanded.

“Temporal displacement,” Wil explained. “Courtesy of the power I drained from your facility. Why did you think you needed so much power to hold me, when I was producing so much anyway?”

Leanne watched as the watch froze in midair, hanging on its side, the no-longer-flashing second indicator stopped on a 03. The backwards Tyson stopped moving backwards, and turned around to face himself. The two of them stared at each other for a second.

“What the fuck-” they roared in unison, then their expressions turned to murder. Both of them spun around to face Wil.

“Careful now,” he warned them. I’m the only thing keeping this paradox in place. “Touch me, and the room snaps back to normal.”

“Doesn’t sound like a problem to me,” one of the Tyson’s said, flexing his clawed hand. Leanne, thinking on her feet, stepped in front of Wil.

“You’ll die,” she said confidently, which was the exact opposite of what she was feeling. “This is a paradox. If he ends it, you’ll die. You can’t be in the same room as yourself. You’ll just… stop existing. At least, one of you will, and who knows which one? Are you willing to take that risk?”

“Yes,” they said together, still advancing, but slightly more slowly.

Wil put a hand on her shoulder, and she grabbed it. It was empowering, like he was giving her the strength she needed. Standing up to Tyson was so far outside of what she’d ever imagined herself doing, she needed all the help she could get.

“Only, I don’t think that’s how it works,” she said, stopping them. “You just walked into a trap, and you don’t even realise it. He can see the future, remember? You think he didn’t know this was going to happen?

“See, you can’t fix a paradox like this by just erasing one of you. The one left would still have seen the other, still have been in the same room. That’s still a paradox. You’d still be breaking the laws of physics. The only way to fix that is to erase both of you. Not even Mason could save you from something like that.”

The two of them exchanged glances. She was a counsellor; she understood how to read people’s emotions, their fears and concerns. She hadn’t spent a lot of time with Tyson, but she knew enough. Death didn’t frighten him. Pain didn’t frighten him. People hating him didn’t frighten him. Vanishing without a trace, though? That scared him.

He wanted to go down in a blaze of glory. When he welcomed death, he wanted it to be as equals. He wanted to die knowing there was someone, something more powerful than him, something that would take his place in the world, some way for him to live on after his death as a terrible tale. But not the most terrible tale.

“Good job,” Wil whispered in her ear. “Load of rubbish, of course. All they’d have to do is touch each other and the paradox would break. Good thing they don’t know that. See if you can convince them to let us out, now.”

Leanne cringed. Even though he’d whispered it, Tyson’s senses were sharper than any beast. He could probably hear someone whisper through a soundproof room. There was no way he hadn’t heard what Wil had just said.

Both Tysons looked at each other, and grinned. Then they reached out, grabbed each other’s hands, and disappeared.

Flexible

“What the-” Leanne just stared, flummoxed. “Where did they go? I thought you said it would break the paradox!”

“It did,” Wil explained. For them, anyway. They’ve snapped back to your present, a single entity once more. We’re still, say, twenty minutes behind. Plenty of time to escape, don’t you think?”

Leanne just stared at him, completely and utterly confused. She searched her brain for something, anything that she could say to him, but it kept coming back blank. She really just wasn’t cut out for understanding the complexities of time manipulation.

“Whatever,” she said, mentally exhausted. “Let’s just go. If we run, we can be back at my apartment in under ten minutes, and halfway to the airport by the time we’ve caught up with Tyson.”

Wil grinned, and grabbed the watch from the air. He handed it back to her, and as soon as she took it, the straps fell off her wrist. The watch itself was extremely warm, and she put it in a pocket instead of worrying about the straps.

“We’ll have to take a different path,” he said as they started running. “It wouldn’t do to run into yourself; your brain has a way of filtering things like that, usually. Not really possible in Tyson’s case. But if you saw me, you’d get a bit confused.”

“Fine,” she said, blocking most of what he said out. Nothing that was happening made any sense. She decided to just ignore it and focus her efforts on running.

Fortunately, she hadn’t taken the most direct route the first time anyway. It took them barely five minutes to get back to her place, and another two for her to disable the extra layer of security she’d activated when she left.

They slipped inside before anyone saw them, and immediately she began throwing things into a bag. Leanne already had one prepared with emergency supplies, but a lot of items with important personal significance were still on her shelves, and she was loathe to leave them behind.

As she packed, Wil wandered over to the wall and stared at the new drawing she’d put up in his absence. Enraptured, he reached out as if to touch it, but stopped his fingers before they made contact with the page.

“When did you draw this?” he asked.

“After Tyson took you,” she answered, pressing a stuffed animal into her bag. It was important for more than just sentimental reasons.

“Do you know who it is?” he queried.

“No,” she answered immediately. “I think it’s supposed to be you in the corner, though. Why, does he look familiar to you?”

Wil turned around to face her, incredulity on his face, aqua eyes shining brightly. In three quick steps, he’d crossed the room, reaching out to touch her.

“He was right,” he said, not making contact. “You’re incredible. And dangerous. Yes, definitely a threat. He’s not going to like that I’m taking you with me.” Before she could ask what he was talking about, he stepped around her. “Have you drawn others that feel like them?”

She stepped away from him, feeling like a freak. But his expression wasn’t one of judgement, it was wonder. It made her feel like a fraud; she had no idea who they were.

“One,” she admitted, before she could stop herself. “But I sold it. I’d forgotten about it until I put up those two on the wall. I don’t know what made me think of it, but…”

“Take those with you,” he said. “We’ll get the other one later. No time now. Take your art supplies, too. Trust me, this is important.”

Leanne made a face at him, but she did as he said. Part of her wanted to take them anyway; they were some of the best works she’d ever done, and something about them just felt important. The art supplies would be heavy, but she had to admit, she did feel better with them around. Traditional art supplies were becoming increasingly difficult to come by.

Fully packed, she flipped out a concealed compartment in one of the walls, and pulled out a small metal case. Inside were four syringes, each containing a liquid of red and green, swirling and bubbling gently. She pulled two of them out, and put the case back in the wall.

“Here,” she said, handing one to him. “Take this. I don’t want another incident of you tipping off the machines.”

He took it, and held it up to the light. As his fingers touched the glass tube, the green and red liquids began to mix, becoming a darker red mixture.

“What is it?”

“It’ll disguise your genetic sequence,” she explained. “They only last about four hours, but that should be enough. The system will think you’re an entirely different person. Me, too. And don’t worry, I checked when I bought them; these people don’t exist anymore. Not listed as dead, just no longer around. It won’t trigger any flags. I hope.”

Wil looked at the needle, and grimaced. She injected herself without any difficulty, but he just watched, looking decidedly uncomfortable.

“Something wrong?” she asked.

“I don’t like needles,” he said.

“Figures,” she muttered. “Here, hold your arm out. I trained as a nurse, too. Never actually worked as one, because I wouldn’t take the immune booster gene mods, but the lessons stuck. Now just relax, and give me the needle… there. That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

The look on his face told her what he thought of that, but she just smiled sweetly. Then she shoved one of the bags into his arms.

“Time to move,” she told him. “We have eight minutes. It’s not enough, but maybe we’ll get lucky.”

She noticed him pick up a pair of sunglasses, a prop from a stage show a lover had appeared in. Leanne had liked her, a lot, but she’d wanted to go to New Paris and Leanne had wanted to stay put, so they’d parted ways. She’d kept the glasses as a memento.

She activated every security system she had after they left, including the program that would wipe her record clean. When they arrived at wherever they chose to go, she would be able to slot right back in, with a nice new apartment, and once she was sure Tyson was gone, she could come back and clean out the old one. Nobody would ever know.

“When did you get the letter?” he asked suddenly, as they stepped away from the door. Where had that come from?

“Um, maybe twenty-four hours ago? I’m not really sure,” she answered vaguely. “Do we need to worry about that now?” She was looking anxiously at her watch, still warm in her hand. “Wait, can you take us back a day?”

“No,” he said apologetically. “Not right now, anyway. I’m still rather weak. But I can roll the apartment back for a day, for maybe a minute. Then we’ll really need to run.”

She didn’t even bother trying to reply to that. She just stood back, leaning against the wall. Wil put on the sunglasses, and knocked on her door.

Not entirely sure what he was up to, she almost bit her tongue off when she saw herself answer the door.

Impossible, she told herself. She could not be standing there watching herself in the doorway. It couldn’t be happening, and yet it was exactly the way she remembered it.

“Um, hello?” she heard herself ask.

“Hello again,” Wil said, and she cringed. He still didn’t quite seem to understand that everyone else saw time in a different way to him. To the Leanne in the doorway, they’d never even met.

“Do I know you?” she asked, more rudely than she remembered.

“Not yet,” Wil answered breezily. “At least, I hope not. Otherwise, I’ve done this horribly, horribly wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. What time is it?” Leanne, the version against the wall, coughed. The time question would take more time than they had. “No, don’t answer that,” he corrected quickly. “No time for that now.”

“It’s nearly one,” the doorway Leanne answered, checking the same watch that was now in wall-Leanne’s pocket.

“Nearly,” Wil repeated, glancing back. “Nearly time to go. Good. I don’t much like it here anyway. I hope I don’t stay long. Um. Maybe I already have. Memory is hard. Have we met?”

Wall-Leanne was getting extremely impatient. He was already losing track of which timeline he was supposed to be in. You’d think with six or eight or however many centuries of experience he’d had, he’d be used to it, she thought bitterly.

“No,” the other Leanne said. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“Don’t know yet,” Wil said, confused. Leanne coughed again. “Who, that is. That comes later. Here to give you this,” he added, handing her the envelope. “Hold on to it. Don’t lose it. Very important.”

Leanne watched herself reach out and take then envelope, then put it in a pocket and forget about it. What if she’d opened it, then and there? No, it would be blank, wasn’t that what Wil had said? Psychic lock, or something, whatever that meant.

“Why write it down?” she heard herself ask. “Why not just send it digitally?”

“So impersonal. Never can rely on machines to send things on time, anyway. They always have to do it their way.” She coughed again. “Anyway, I have to go now. It was a pleasure to meet you, I think.”

The old her watched them as they walked down the hall. Leanne held her breath until they’d turned a corner, and she heard the door shut behind them. Then they broke into a run, with less than five minutes to go.

* * *

The fastest way to the airport, as far as she knew, was the shuttle system, but she didn’t want to be on one of those when Tyson started hunting them down. He could stop it in the middle of its route, and then they’d be trapped.

Then again, he’d have no idea how to trace them. The system was identifying them as two completely different people, and Tyson didn’t know who to look for. It was a risk, but one she was willing to take. Especially when the alternative was an hour and a half of walking and hoping they didn’t get spotted by the security cameras.

Ten minutes later, they were getting off at the airport, looking around nervously while trying to look as far from nervous as they could possibly manage. So far as they could tell, nobody was waiting for them, which was a good sign. If they moved fast enough, they just might have a chance.

She spotted a circle pad on the floor, and led them over to it. As they approached it, it projected a 3D image above it, of a well dressed, smiling young man. He greeted them as they stopped in front of him.

“Hi there! I’m Todd. Are you here travelling, or just looking for information?”

After asking his question, he just stood there, patiently waiting. Wil, curious, moving closer, poking the projection with his finger. It went straight through, but Todd didn’t react or comment.

“Travelling,” Leanne said. “We’d like the next available flight out to a civilian city, and it doesn’t matter where. We’re kind of in a hurry.”

“Of course,” he said. “Let me check. Okay, there’s a flight to New Shanghai in just a few minutes, in fact. We only have first class tickets left, though. Is that okay?”

Wil still seemed puzzled by the projection in front of them, which amused her. They’d been using humanoid interfaces for centuries now, long before she was born. Before the Outbreak, as she understood it. They were run by a sort of very basic AI code that could understand and interpret human speech, but were only capable of returning information from their specific databanks.

“That’s fine,” she said. “We’ll need to do a manual payment. Charge account one-oh-three-six-seven-four-two for the amount. It’s already been authorised.”

“Just one moment,” Todd said. “Okay, payment has been accepted. Thank you. Your seats have been assigned, but you’ll have to be fast. Terminal 8, just down the all and to the left. The signs will lead you there. Have a great day.”

Todd blinked out, and Leanne breathed a sigh of relief. That was lucky, she told herself. Normally, she’d have booked the tickets from home, or while they were on the shuttle, but her computer was locked to her identifier. When she showed up with someone else’s genetic sequence, it wouldn’t have let her on the plane.

They made it onto the plane just as the doors sealed shut behind them, breathing heavily. A monitor in front of them scanned them, and showed them their seats, which they made their way to immediately.

It was a private booth, big enough for eight, but they had it to themselves. The flight was only a couple of hours, but there was plenty they could do to keep themselves occupied if they needed it. Leanne decided she was just going to sleep.

She’d flown first class once before, on a much smaller aircraft. That was ten years ago, when she’d first moved to this city. Something about that time was niggling at her, though…

“Well, this is much nicer than last time,” Wil said, reclining. “Hopefully less eventful, too.”

Leanne’s head whipped around, staring at him. What was he-

A miniature holographic flight attendant popped up in front of her, on the table. She’d chosen this one from a selection last time she’d flown, too. It was nice to see they’d remembered her choice.

“Welcome back, Leanne,” he said, his voice deep and sultry. “Can I get you anything before we take off?”

She frowned. It shouldn’t have recognised her as herself. She was using a fake identity, it should have been using that one. If it knew who and where she was, so did Tyson.

“Vodka,” she said. “Lots of it. How did you identify me?”

A little progress bar began filling up beside him as the automated process to deliver the drink to their booth started. The tiny flight attendant looked up at her.

“Airline security is taken very seriously,” he said. “In order to prevent attacks both internal and external to our cities, we have the latest in genetic identifying equipment installed. Attempting to deceive our scanners is illegal, but as an employee you are of course exempt. However, in future it is required that you submit an application beforehand.”

A glass of straight vodka emerged from the table, which she picked up and proceeded to throw back and swallow in a single gulp. One of the few advantages of not being augmented was that it took far less alcohol for her to get drunk.

She smiled to herself, remembering a program she’d watched, long ago. Apparently, there’d been a time, long before the outbreak, when that much vodka would have been lethal to consume. People grew up a lot tougher these days.

“Another,” she said, and another bar began filling up.

Across the table from her, Wil was swiping through the selection of virtual attendants available to him. The projectors were designed so that she couldn’t actually see his choice, presumably so nobody could tell if someone picked one of the erotic options, but whoever he was looking at, they all seemed to amuse him in some way.

Leanne sighed, and leaned back. The plane started to vibrate slightly, which meant it was taking off. If Tyson was going to stop them, he was about to run out of time. Then they wouldn’t have to worry about him again until they landed, at which point they would be screwed. At least they had a brief respite.

“Is there any chance you can tell me the location of Tyson Briggs?” she asked hopefully. She was guessing he would be too arrogant to force the system to hide his location.

“He has just entered the airport,” the attendant said. “Further information is classified.”

“Don’t worry, that’s enough,” she said. “So long as he’s not on this plane. “Um, wake me up about fifteen minutes before we land, will you?”

“Of course, mistress,” he said. “Anything for you.”

Wil, having apparently chosen an attendant of his own, or just given up on it, was now sitting back with his eyes closed. Leanne had considered using the flight time to chat with him, but since he looked about as wiped out as she felt, she decided sleep was the better option for both of them.

A few minutes later, she was fast asleep, her second drink left untouched on the table. Once again, she dreamed.

This time, she dreamt of a familiar face that didn’t have a name. It was beautiful, and powerful, and for a long time now, it had been missing, but one day, it would come back to them. Somehow, deep with in her, she knew it would, and it would be glorious.

* * *

It didn’t bother Tyson that he hadn’t made it onto the aircraft in time. The systems here were still slow compared to what he was used to, and it was a mistake that would never have been made back home, but that was okay. There were other ways.

Boarding a civilian craft was always something of a challenge. They weren’t really designed for it, and even though they were slow, they were still fast enough to be a pain in the ass.

Tyson was currently flying directly above one such vehicle, a commercial airliner on its way to China. How deeply ironic that they should have chosen that destination. It must have been the first available flight out.

He’d considered simply waiting for them to land, since that’s where he wanted to take the aberration anyway. After last time, though, he wasn’t willing to give them the chance to come up with any clever schemes to slip through his grasp.

The ability to manipulate time wasn’t one he’d ever seen before, but as far as he was concerned, nothing was outside the realm of possibility. He’d seen children capable of tearing down a city with their bare hands, a woman who could turn her body to water and ice. There was a girl who could rip you apart with her mind, and a man who projected a field lethal to most organics. Not to mention that monstrosity they called Damien. Nobody really knew what it was capable of.

Mason was an expert at taking these abnormalities, and turning them into something greater. His greatest work had been the construction of 26 superhumans, templates for a new generation of humanity, his master plan to reshape the world. Half of them had rebelled against him, and now the world was in ruins.

There was a woman, or a thing, deep beneath New Shanghai that was seemingly incapable of death, and possessing phenomenal amounts of energy. Her DNA had allowed for the creation of those superhumans, which had in turn allowed for the existence of Adepts and Inheritors.

Tyson wasn’t a scientist. Never was, and never wanted to be. He’d been hired as a security guard, and his job hadn’t changed much in the three centuries he’d been working for Mason. The range was larger, and the things he needed to protect people from were certainly more dangerous, but it was still essentially the same work.

Whatever the thing in the plane below him was, Mason wanted it. If Mason wanted it, it was either very valuable or very dangerous, more likely both. Time manipulation, to the extent that he’d seen, wasn’t much more than a minor annoyance and a cheap trick, but in Mason’s hands, who knew what it could become?

Tyson cracked his neck, looking forward to what came next. Doing things the easy way was so incredibly dull. He always relished the opportunity to push himself that little bit further.

As he got out of his seat, his personal jet switched itself into autopilot mode, mimicking his earlier flight pattern. It held itself in place above the larger civilian plane beneath it, making it easy for him to jump off of one, and land on the roof of the other.

At such high speeds, with such powerful wind, he was glad of his incredible weight. He dropped like a stone, hitting the surface of the civilian craft with a loud thud.

The roof of the place was steeply curved, and it would have been very difficult for him to keep his footing, had his feet not been equipped with powerful magnets, holding him in place as his body was buffeted by the monstrously powerful winds. An ordinary body would have been knocked off or torn apart, but he was built of sterner stuff. He barely even felt it.

Slowly but purposefully he made his way to the closest airlock. It would have been faster to simply tear his way through the hull, and it wasn’t like he hadn’t done that before. After last time, his instructions were made clear; damage to SynTech property was to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. It was his least favourite of the few rules that dictated his actions.

The airlock had two doors, so he wasn’t going to suck anyone out by opening it, but he still hesitated for a second. Not because he cared whether or not some poor fool got pulled out of the plane, but because he didn’t want to get knocked off himself if the door opened the wrong way.

His mind had already connected to the computer that was flying the plane. The electronics in his brain gave him the power and authority to access literally any SynTech system, overriding any and every security protocol in his way. As far as SynTech equipment was concerned, he was a god.

The door opened with a single thought command, sliding sideways into the hull, not outwards as he’d fear. With some small effort he pulled himself in, then shut the door again behind him.

Safely on firm ground, he deactivated the magnets in his feet, and opened the next door, stepping into the plane, already knowing exactly where he had to go.

The Citadel Once More

Leanne awoke in a dark space, barely able to see past her own feet. There was no air, but she didn’t seem to need to breathe. The temperature was uncomfortable, but she wasn’t hot, and she wasn’t cold.

Beneath her, the ground felt like it was made of a smooth stone. Running a hand over it, her fingertips picked up countless minute vibrations, echoing through the stone. It made the floor feel like a living entity.

Slowly, carefully, she pulled herself to her feet. Her body ached all over, but at the same time, felt completely fine. She felt distant, detached, as if her body was not her own. Nothing around her felt real.

With nothing else to do, she began walking forward, and the room began to fill out around her. As she walked, the ground seemed to materialise beneath her feet, but she could see no walls, nor any ceiling above her. A soft breeze flowed through, though how a breeze could exist without air was a mystery to her.

She kept walking, not knowing what she’d find, and not really caring. Something about the place felt wrong, or more accurately, she felt like her presence there was wrong. Wherever she was, she didn’t belong.

The ground beneath her feet suddenly felt cold, and looking down, she realised for the first time that she was naked. The observation meant nothing to her; it could have just as easily been someone else’s naked body. None of it seemed relevant, or important. Her mind was uniquely empty.

Eventually, she came upon a door. It wasn’t as if she’d seen it in the distance and begun walking towards it; at a certain point, it was just there, in front of her.

The door was simple, a sort of metal-plastic hybrid that looked exactly like the door to her apartment, or any other door in that whole city. She reached out to touch it, and it slid open, vanishing into nothing. All that remained was the frame.

On the other side, she could see a room. It was as dark as the space she was standing in, but she could see everything contained within with perfect clarity. Massive pillars surrounded the circular room, and between each pillar stood a mighty throne. Beyond the pillars, there was nothing.

She was about to walk through the door when she heard voices on the other side. There were no visible speakers, but the voices were as clear as if she heard them inside her own head.

“You brought her back here,” one of them accused. To her, it was the voice of a young boy, but he spoke with the confidence and arrogant superiority of royalty.

“IT WAS NECESSARY,” another replied, and the voice sounded strangely, distantly familiar. It was a voice of stone and steel.

“Mortals do not belong here,” the first voice chided. Leanne felt a chill; it was as if her very existence had been called into question, by someone with the power to take it away.

Behind her, the floor was beginning to fall away. Slowly at first, but in the back of her mind, she knew it would accelerate. One by one, the stones began to loosen, and slide downwards at a glacial pace.

“SHE IS NOT TRULY HERE,” the stone voice said, and she felt equally chilled. She began to understand that words had power here, wherever here was.

“It’s still dangerous,” the boy replied haughtily. “Once was bad enough. Twice is unacceptable.”

Behind her, another stone fell away. The next one began to slide up, rather than down. It occurred to her that there wasn’t really any sense of gravity, where she was. The only thing keeping her down was the idea that she should be kept down.

“YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME, NAMELESS,” the stone voice said sternly. Leanne got the sense it was her they were fighting over, and thought frightened her.

“You know that isn’t true,” the boy said threateningly.

Even though his voice sounded mostly… human, a word she was still adjusting to using, a part of her knew that not only was he not human, he never had been. Whatever he was, wherever he came from, she had no idea, but they were clearly fighting over her, and she hoped he would not the the one to win, whatever that might mean.

“REGARDLESS, THE MORAL IS NOT YOUR CONCERN.”

She heard the boy sigh. “If she is what the Angel thinks she is, then she is all of our concern,” he said forcefully.

Whatever or whoever the Angel was, just hearing the name felt comforting to Leanne. She felt a strange sort of kinship, as if they shared something. Whatever emotions were running through her, she didn’t understand any of them, or where they were coming from.

“I WILL HANDLE THE SITUATION.”

“We cannot afford another failure,” the boy snapped. “The Child has already drawn the ire of the Twins, and her pet… we are not ready for a new Destroyer. There are only so many of us, and our power is waning.”

The Child’s name also filled her with a sense of belonging, but once again, she couldn’t explain why. The Twins, on the other hand, filled her with a sense of dread. Whoever they were, she found herself hoping with all her might she never met them.

“THAT IS NOT MY CONCERN,” the stone voice said.

The boy sighed again, and she felt the weight of responsibility in his voice. Instinctively, she knew he carried a heavy burden, one she would never understand. Not that she understood any of what was going on.

“The Twins are becoming increasingly difficulty to control,” he said reluctantly. “I fear they will do something reckless soon, and I may not be able to stop them.”

“THEN PERHAPS,” the stone voice said coldly, “THAT RESPONSIBILITY SHOULD FALL TO ANOTHER.”

Looking behind her once again, Leanne realised she was running out of time. There were only a few blocks left between her and the edge, and as she predicted, they were disappearing more rapidly than they had been before. Some remained floating in the air around her, serving no purpose save mockery.

All she had to do was walk through the door. It would be so simple, and there was nothing else she could do. Even still, something was stopping her, like there was something unknown she was waiting for. She looked nervously behind her, and hoped it happened soon.

The boy’s voice echoed through her head, a voice of infinite sadness and an eternity of pain. Her heart broke just to hear it.

“I wish it were that easy,” he said.

“THERE IS AN EASY WAY,” the stone voice suggested.

“No,” the boy replied, instantly defensive. “Never.”

“THEN LEAVE. THE MORTAL IS WAITING.”

At that point, the feeling left her. She could walk through the door any time she wanted, but still, she waited. It felt inappropriate, somehow.

“We will speak of this later,” the boy said.

“I DO NOT DOUBT IT.”

Leanne felt the last stone beneath her give way, falling without warning, taking her with it. Her body was slow, and she couldn’t jump off it fast enough, but she managed to grab the door frame before she fell entirely.

There was nothing below her. Not darkness, not empty space or a deep void. It was literally nothing, and she knew if she fell into it, she would never come out of it again. What else could she do, though?

Above her, a blinking light on the door frame turned red, and she swore. The door was about to close. Her time was up, and she no longer had a choice.

Summoning all her strength, all of her willpower, she pulled herself up. She lifted her body with a strength completely alien to her, collapsing onto the floor above her the moment she was safe.

The door closed just as she pulled herself up and through it. She watched it close, and with a terrible, sinking feeling, she realised she was on the wrong side. One moment, she could see the room beyond it, pillars and thrones, and the next, it was gone, replace by nothing at all. The door was gone, the floor was gone, the sense of falling had left her entirely. There was nothing.

Then, behind her, she heard the voice again. That ancient voice of stone and rock reverberated throughout her entire body.

“YOU ARE IN THE CENTRE,” it said, and suddenly, she was. The thrones and pillars surrounded her, and a statue of stone and metal stood before her, perfectly motionless.

“The Citadel,” she breathed, fragments of old memory and dream returning to her. It seemed so long ago, but nothing looked different.

“YES.”

She looked around, the feeling of familiarity washing over her, comforting her. She’d been here before, but she didn’t know where it was. It didn’t seem like it mattered.

The statue had a name, too. It was the Sentinel, and it was a Guardian.

“Am I dreaming again?” she asked.

“NO,” it replied. “THIS TIME, YOU ARE DEAD.”

Briefly, her mind flashed back to reality, a terrifying vision of Tyson filling her senses. His ghastly claw extended, descending on her waking body, then everything went black. She jumped back, but it was already gone.

“Wil?”

“TAKEN,” it told her. “SOON, HIS MASTER WILL INTERVENE. THAT CANNOT OCCUR. YOU WILL PREVENT IT.”

Leanne looked at her hand. She didn’t look dead. She certainly didn’t feel dead. Then again, she didn’t really feel anything.

“How can I prevent it?” she asked. “I thought you said I was dead?”

The Sentinel looked down at her, and she felt foolish for questioning it.

“YOU ARE. BUT YOU WILL NOT STAY THAT WAY. YOUR BODY IS BEING TREATED. SOON, YOU WILL RETURN TO YOUR WORLD.”

Leanne remembered the last time she’d woken up in a hospital. It had been her own fault, really. She’d picked a fight with another kid, so she must’ve still been in school. The other kid had already started their augment cycle, and she’d never actually fought anyone before. Just seen it in comics. It hadn’t gone well for her.

Aside from the actual fight, she didn’t remember any pain. They’d sent her home from the hospital the next day, completely healed. Many years later, she learned she’d left that fight with a collapsed lung, six broken bones and a single broken tooth.

“Okay,” she said. “So I wake up in a hospital in New Shanghai with an expensive bill, probably some lasting pain, and a new lease on life. What am I supposed to do then?”

It wasn’t like she knew where they’d taken him. She certainly wouldn’t be able to use the system to track him down, not like the last time. He was probably in a secure facility somewhere, and even if she could find him, there was no possible way she could let him out.

“YOU WILL HAVE ASSISTANCE.”

Leanne looked at the Sentinel expectantly, but it said nothing more. Her shoulders slumped. A few days ago, she hadn’t had a problem in the world. Work was going well, she was earning a decent living, she was thinking about moving to a new city. How had things changed so dramatically, so quickly?

Then she thought about what had happened since. She thought about a life of identical white corridors and the same generically attractive faces, and wondered how she’d ever found artistic inspiration before meeting Wil. Maybe it wasn’t all bad, she told herself.

“You’re not gonna tell me more than that, are you?” she asked hopelessly.

“THERE IS NOTHING MORE I CAN TELL YOU. IT IS NOT OUR ROLE TO INTERFERE WITH MORTAL AFFAIRS DIRECTLY.”

“What are you, then?” she demanded.

In her mind, she wanted to believe she could conjure an explanation that would satisfy her. Perhaps it was part of some weird alien race, watching over the pathetic, backwards human race as they destroyed themselves.

Then again, she thought, maybe it was a religious thing. Most pre-Outbreak religions had weakened and faded, and it was uncommon to find a SynTech employee who didn’t revere Mason on some level, even if they didn’t deify him.

Ideas are powerful, though, and difficult to eradicate completely. She could see the Sentinel, and the other Guardians, as angels of some kind. That seemed appropriate.

Leanne laughed to herself as she remembered an old graphic novel she’d worked on. It was about Jesus, a vampire who turned others by forcing them to drink his blood. He was killed by the government, but being unable to truly die, he’d been forced to walk the world as an outcast. It wasn’t necessarily true to the source material, but it sure had been fun work.

She wasn’t sure why that came to mind.

“I AM A GUARDIAN,” the statue said, interrupted her thoughts.

“What the Hell does that mean?” she asked angrily.

“WE PROTECT THE WORLDS. WE ARE A CHECK AGAINST THE POWER OF THE SEVEN.”

Worlds, it said. Like there were multiple. Well, stranger things had happened.

Seven, it said. She had no idea who or what the Seven were, but suddenly, she didn’t want to know. Even she knew better than that. She was standing on the precipice of knowledge that she’d rather not have, lest it drive her insane.

She didn’t say anything else after that. There was a door behind her, a different door. She stepped through it without looking back. As soon as she did, all memory of her time in the Citadel vanished from her mind, and she didn’t miss it one bit.

* * *

Leanne shuddered when she woke up, feeling a lot colder than she was used to. Her body felt heavy and unfamiliar, and the world seemed different somehow. Blurred lights partially obscured her vision, but she could tell she was in a hospital bed.

Her head felt heavy as she moved, looking down at herself, and the lights moved with her. She held up her hand, also heavy, and the lights began to focus, morphing into lists of numbers and words that meant nothing to her.

She looked around, and the words and numbers changed, but always stayed centred in her vision. It didn’t take her long to realise why, and suddenly, she was extremely pissed off.

Even though she’d never had them, she knew what retinal implants looked like. They were one of the more more popular augments, allowing people to see ambient information without ever needing to look at a screen. Most people tuned them to show things like the time, weather, social network feeds, messaging systems, calendar alerts, that sort of thing. Some people had them set to scan information networks and bring up information about objects they looked at. Usually that included people.

She looked at her hand again, this time paying attention to the retinal readout. It was listing the different augments they’d introduced while she was dead. Most of them were fairly basic, like rapid blood-clotters, muscle stimulants and bone strengtheners.

Looking down, she saw that her legs had been outfitted with shock absorbers, which doubled as jump enhancers. Her lungs now had air filters, and her blood had additional cleansing agents and oxygen carriers.

The list went on, and the more she read, the more furious she became. Vision filters, aural perception enhancements, translation units, nutrition converters. After a while, she just stopped reading. They had no right to make those changes to her body without permission. If she’d wanted them done, it would have happened by now. It wasn’t like she didn’t have the money.

Her retinal display was giving her a full body review, and apparently, she was completely and entirely unharmed. That, at least, was good.

She jumped out of bed, stumbling slightly, but quickly regaining her balance. She was definitely heavier now, and her movement had a lot more inertia behind it. It would take a bit of getting used to, but she could manage. Her body was also full of stabilisers and motors that would take care of most of that for her.

The door slid open just as she reached it, revealing a slender woman with dark brown eyes, dark skin and long, blonde hair. Leanne’s retinal display immediately identified her as the doctor who had overseen her surgery; Katrina Dawson, age 47, currently single.

Useless fact after useless fact kept rolling down her vision, and she made a mental note to disable those features as soon as she figured out how. First, she wanted a word with her doctor.

“What the Hell did you do to me?” she demanded angrily.

“We saved your life,” the doctor said confidently. “The damage was severe. We didn’t have time to repair everything organically. We would have lost you. Someone had to make the call, and I made it. Almost every one of those augmentations were necessary. Some, not so much, but it’s cheaper to get them as a package.”

Leanne was shaking with rage. That wasn’t fair, she kept telling herself. She hadn’t been given the choice.

“Fuck you,” she said. “You had no right-”

“I had every right,” Dawson interrupted. “I’ve been a doctor for nearly thirty years now. It’s my job to save people. I had the choice to either let you die, or keep you alive the only way possible. That’s not really a choice. I will never choose to let someone die. If you have a problem with it, go throw yourself off the top of the Spire, and make it your choice to die. Not mine. Now, you’re free to leave. Your new apartment has already been furnished. Just follow the arrows.”

“Fuck off,” Leanne said, pushing past her. It didn’t matter that the doctor was just doing her job. Maybe later, she’d feel bad about it. Maybe not. But right at that moment, she was too pissed off to care.

Little floating arrows appeared in her vision, pointing her towards what was supposed to be her new home. They danced in front of her, mocking her. She wanted to tear her eyes out. Instead, she followed them, hoping it would all go away when she went to sleep.

The new apartment looked a lot like the old one, only slightly bigger. It was decorated in almost exactly the same way; someone had even put the pictures she’d packed on the wall. She tried not to look at them. Wil’s face seemed to be staring out at her from his portrait, and she didn’t need that guilt.

Ignoring everything else, she threw herself down on her bed. She was tired, unbelievably exhausted, and the only emotion she could feel was rage. It bubbled up inside of her, consuming her, and she hated it.

Leanne closed her eyes, trying to block out everything. Slowly, she felt herself begin to let go, letting everything fade around her. She found herself sinking into a deep sleep once again, and embraced it.

* * *

While she was asleep, Leanne was visited twice. Neither intrusion was detected by the security systems, and she was never aware of either of them.

The first to enter was an unfamiliar man, tall and thin and pale. He didn’t use the door; it was as if he simply stepped out of the shadows. Without saying a word, he sat beside her, and stroked her face, running his thin, elegant fingers through her hair.

He spent a long time staring at the sketches on the wall, and smiled. After a while, he stood up, and departed, though even if someone had seen him, they wouldn’t have been able to describe how he left the room. He simply stepped back into the shadows, and was gone.

Her second visitor was more familiar, though she wouldn’t have recognised him. His hair was a brilliant turquoise colour, and his eyes matched. His expression was uncharacteristically serene. He used the door, like anyone else would.

Unlike the first guest, he didn’t touch her. For a while, he sat beside her, watching her sleep. Eventually, he stood, and pulled a card from a pocket somewhere. Leaving it on her bedside table, he straightened his suit, and walked out, leaving through the front door.

* * *

When Leanne woke up, she felt much calmer. The first thing she noticed was a small card on her bedside table, which she picked up and read without getting up. The writing was familiar; an elegant, cursive script that caused her heart to stop in her chest.

Leanne,

Saving me isn’t going to be easy. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to do it. But the fact that you’re reading this means you’re going to, or in another sense, you already have. So thank you for that.

I know you’re mad right now. I would be, too. You told me why it was such a big deal. That probably hasn’t happened yet. It’s still hard to keep track sometimes, but I’m getting better.

I can’t do much to help you, but where I can, I’ll leave these notes. You’re not completely alone, you know. It won’t be easy, it certainly won’t be safe, but I promise, at the end, it’ll be worth it. I know that because you told me so.

There’s an old friend of yours here, by the way. Go to the base of the Spire in exactly 43 minutes, and you’ll meet them there. They won’t be expecting you.

Good luck, and thank you.

I owe you everything.

~Wil

This time, she didn’t even question it. She threw on a change of clothes, slipped the note into a pocket and left, her new eyes already directing her to the destination. One way or another, she would save Wil. Or she would die trying.

END

Leanne will return…

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