Chapter 9

The monsters remained hidden and the maze was silent, as were we, making our way quickly through the maze, through the tunnel, and walking into the darkness of full night. We Traveled as a unit but without touching. Kieren’s presence wrapped around me as we Arrived, and I leaned into him for a moment, warmth against my arm as I blinked at the sudden light, trying to regain normalcy.

We stood there, morning dawning among the dunes and then walked through waist-high grass smelling of the sea towards the glass-encased home set against a storm-ridden sky that threatened in the distance.

Starved, I maintained our silence when we arrived and went to the kitchen to prepare something, anything, dropping the scrolls on the counter. There were very few snack-like things, but I found some nuts in one of the drawers and opened the package with my teeth, eating what the packaged labeled as a special mix of nuts. Kieren went to the fridge and took out two bottles of fizzed water, handing one over to me. I took it without comment then guzzled the contents, washing down the husks caught in my teeth. 

Wind gusted against the glass, pushing at the quiet. I felt Kieren watching me. I refused to look in his direction. I had no idea what would be there, or if he would present with his usually carefully controlled features, dark eyes without expression, lips set in a line that could indicate any several emotions. I could feel him in the way that Guardian partners could, but I also turned away from that knowledge. Really, I wanted bed and some space to think about Tirius’s words.

I grabbed the scrolls, walked a wide circle around Kieren and headed to the long white couch, flipping on the fireplace and the heat as I went. Rain had started against the windows, the sky growing darker with the approaching storm. 

Following, Kieren threw the book down next to me and took the opposite corner of the couch. He methodically unstrapped the knives from his body and tossed them in a clatter of sound on top of the low glass table positioned in front of us.

 I ignored him and the commotion to untie the scrolls and smooth them out in front of me. The language was not English, but a distant dialect of T’nGali, which I did know, albeit not very well.

“Another mystery?” Kieren said and his tone matched the dark storm outside.

I refrained from replying, a snap on my tongue, instead trying to make sense of the information as well as the irritation that sparkled along my nerves. There was no reason for me to be upset with Kieren, but something akin to anger pushed at me, and I wondered if I was angry at my partner or angry at my former mentor.

Or maybe I was just angry at the entire situation and the inability to find a straight answer.

“Why give us random books and random scrolls to figure it out? Why speak to us in riddles?” Kieren continued, sitting forward, unconsciously echoing my thoughts. One of his knives lay flat on the glass. He pushed the non-sharp side, causing it to twirl about and about. “We are chasing shadows, Wren.”

Looking up from the language puzzle before me, I studied Kieren. His face was drawn, a pale tone to his skin and emotion did play about his features in the way his jaw clenched, and his lips were a thin compressed line. We were within a hand-reach from each other, but I felt our distance. Not for the first time I wondered if the distance was because of what we were going through, or if it had started before the whole mess.

I had a feeling, kind of like a sickness in my stomach, that the distance had started some time before.

Trying to keep the feeling contained, I focused on the source of Kieren’s annoyance.

“Tirius speaks in circles because that’s how he thinks,” I explained. “He doesn’t see things in chronological order because he doesn’t exist in a chronological world.” Glancing back at the scrolls, I shook my head slowly. “And neither do we any longer.”

 Kieren’s reaction was oppressive, though he said and did nothing outwardly. But I felt it, like a great weight descending from the ceiling. “If your life wasn’t in danger, would you still pursue this path?” he asked after a moment.

I smiled. “You mean this whole asking questions and searching for answers thing that I’m doing; that we’re doing?”

Kieren didn’t reply, nor did he look up from the knife he continued to manipulate.

I answered. “Yes, I want to know what’s going on, don’t you? I want to know why we were sent to get Tirius; why he disappeared in Sarajevo; what is being manipulated and what is the intent; and where do I fit in?”

“Apparently you’re not supposed to fit into any of it,” Kieren said, and the words were spiked with intent. He finally looked up from the knife, trying read me.

Around us, the storm hit, rain and wind a rush of sound against the windows. There, the two of us on a couch, I thought about this twin and what Tirius said, the implications between Kieren and I.

“What do you think?” I asked him, holding his gaze.

I expected him to look away, to break eye contact, but instead he leaned closer, just slightly, but enough that he was in my space and knew it. “Does it matter?”  he replied, voice pitched lower, so low as to almost be lost in the sound of the storm.

“Yes,” I said without hesitation.

As it had lately, the silence stretched between us, becoming tighter and tighter. I refused to look away, holding his dark green eyes with mine, trying to see beyond to who he was, what he meant by the question, and more, for an explanation of what it was that was taking place between us.

“If you are not supposed to be here, that changes everything,” he said.

It did, I knew that, though to hear him say it increased that sick feeling in my stomach and I was the one, then, to lean back, away. “All for a reason,” I managed as I broke eye contact. Turning back to the scrolls, I swallowed on the tightness in my throat, and when Kieren stood and walked from the room, I kept my focus forward.

Moments later I heard the shower turn on and I slumped down into the couch, cradling my head in a palm.

There was so much. Too much.

Wiping angrily at the tears that threatened, I picked up the scrolls and began to read, translating the language in a snail’s pace of understanding. The storm moved on and the sun hit the windows in sharp diagonals. I got hot, peeling off my weapons and lying them next to Kieren’s and then the jacket and overshirt, leaving only my tank and trousers on. I needed a shower too, but as I read, I found myself falling into the story of a lost civilization in the Triaxon timeline. I’d never heard the history of Triaxon, and the scrolls were more than just the historical record, they were the official Collector report for Archives submission. The language was Triaxon, which was why I hadn’t fully recognized it.

Kieren startled me out of the history, putting a plate of noodles and red sauce before me, the smell of tomatoes and garlic distracting me even as I finished with the sentence. 

“You cooked?” I asked, stupid, blinking at the passage of time. A glance showed me that the kitchen was littered with the remnants of food preparation and at some point, afternoon started to golden the skies through the floor-length windows.

“I did. You’re welcome,” he replied and sat next to me to devour his heaping plate. His hair was still wet from the shower, long sleek blackness down his back, creating a damp spot around his shoulders, his white t-shirt clinging to the muscles there. 

 I turned from him and took up my plate, suddenly starving. The nuts were a long time ago. 

“So. What’s in there?” Kieren started, nodding his chin towards the scrolls that I moved far away from the red sauce. 

I swallowed a bit of perfectly cooked pasta. “It’s the official documentation of the entirety of the Triaxon timeline, including specific details about their extinction.”

Kieren looked at me blankly. 

“Triaxon culture was a completely failed experiment, something about the level of curiosity it appears. They had three different extinction events, all occurring before the human timeline. They were a highly advanced society, much more advanced than either of our past cultures have yet accessed, but they expanded too far and too fast and on multiple occasions ended up nearly killing themselves off.”

Speaking around a mouth of pasta, Kieren eyed the scrolls. “And this is supposed to help us how?”

I sighed, wiping my mouth with the napkin that Kieren had also provided. “That’s the thing; it’s an official account of the timeline, but I’m not sure how it’s relevant. I thought maybe I would find something showing similar manipulation events, but so far that hasn’t happened. Of course, I’m not done, so it’s still possible.”

Kieren put his plate down, now clean of all food, and picked up one of the scrolls, scanning it. “Language?”

“Triaxon, I think, though I’m not entirely sure. I’m somewhat familiar at least because of the T’ngali root structure”

“Of course, you are,” he said. I wasn’t sure if it was pride or censure that colored his tone.

Putting my own plate down, I took up the second scroll. “There is a rather interesting aspect to the history so far, about what this collector calls soul groups, or at least, groups of the same people traveling from one life to another. It appears that these groups were relevant to significant changes in their reality. I’ve heard something similar with other timelines as well.”

“The partner theory,” Kieren said, surprising me.

“The what?

Putting the scroll down, Kieren got up, taking both of our plates and walking back to the kitchen. He spoke over his shoulder as he walked away. “The partner theory. It’s what informs the whole idea of Guardian partners. There are halves of wholes, or something along those lines, though I don’t know how much of that is true. There are individuals that naturally work together because of some kind of inherent partnership, or inherent connection. Usually, that’s how Guardian partners are paired.”

I hadn’t heard any of that before, which was strange having the background I did, but then, I’d not been recruited to be a Guardian in the same way Kieren had, which made me think of our own partnership and pairing.

“How do you know all that?”

He shrugged, returning with two glasses of red wine. He handed me one and then settled back into the opposite corner of the couch. Hair down, wine in hand, Kieren looked more relaxed than I’d seen him in many cycles. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him as relaxed. For some reason, it unnerved me, and I took a rather large sip of wine to cover up my sudden uncertainty.

Trying to move along, I jerked my chin downwards. “The partner theory would work here. There were definite dynamic partnerships that helped the entire Triaxon timeline move forward evolutional-wise, making significant advances for their society. There were individuals as well, of course, there always are, but the number of partners in their timeline is significant.” I frowned, thinking back on my own studies in history. I had specialized in several different timelines, but for whatever reason, I had never noticed this partner aspect.

Kieren nodded. “Partner theory.”

I shook my head, irritated. “Why haven’t I heard of that?”

Something like a grin flashed across Kieren’s face. “You don’t like it when I know something you don’t.”

I waved a hand at him but picked up my wine to take another rather large swallow. The dry bitterness bit at the inside of my cheek, but not unpleasantly. “No,” I said. “It seems like it would be a rather important aspect of Collecting if indeed this partner theory is something that actually exists.”

“Maybe it’s just an upper realm thing, not actually within the timeline?”

“No. It’s littered throughout this document. Maybe I just never noticed, and if I never noticed such a significant aspect of the experiments; that makes me wonder what else I’ve not noticed.” I paused, rubbing at the point between my eyes. Outside, the remaining afternoon light colored distant clouds in a fiery pink. I couldn’t remember if it was pink at night that brought doom, or the pink in the morning.

“What’s wrong?” Kieren asked. His scrutiny was like a physical push, but I couldn’t easily forget the conversation before his shower, even if he had chosen to ignore it.

Gathering the scrolls and putting them between us, I stood up with my wine. “I need a shower.”

Leaving him, I walked to the large bedroom I’d slept in the night before. Across the bedspread, clothing lay scattered about from where I’d tried to find something before taking off to the Archives. The gigantic closet attached to the room had provided a lot of options, including trousers and tops in mostly my size. That I found clothing that fit in some random closet was the least surprising thing that had happened lately, and I grabbed now a pair of soft leggings and an oversized sweater of the softest cream material, thankful that I had something to put on. They smelled of clean laundry with a hint of cedar, as if they’d been laundered and left on the cedar-lined shelves for long enough to gather the scent. 

The bathroom had a large tub and a glass shower. I opted for the tub, turning the tap on hot and starting to undress. I had taken my knives off, but my staff was still strapped to my back and I undid the holster with deft movements. I studied it for a moment. It was not the first weapon I’d been given. There had been swords, knives, and other weapons that I’d worked my way through before coming onto the staff. When not retracted, the middle part was silver and about the length of my forearm. When retracted, the shimmering energy blades were lengthened on either side of the handle, creating a weapon as tall as I was standing barefoot. 

I wondered if I deserved it. I wondered if I was supposed to have it. 

Lying my staff on the counter, I finished stripping down and emerged myself into the hot water. With only the light from the bedroom, the dimness fit my mood and I closed my eyes as the water got higher and higher. I only turned the faucet off when the water lapped at my chin. Still, with my eyes closed, I let my mind wander over the last while, the meeting with Tirius, the maze, the brief something in the kitchen, almost dying, all the events circling and leaping about in my brain. Kieren was right, the answer was so far away in the distance it seemed as if there were no answers. I knew that was the reason Kieren was getting so frustrated; the ambiguity of it all, but I also wasn’t sure how to help him with that, or if I even should.

I was at a loss, mostly because for the first time since becoming partners I wasn’t sure where I stood with Kieren. He’d always been distant to an extent, reserved, not one to talk or share his thoughts and feelings. He spoke more often with expression and action than with words, and I’d thought I’d become rather good at interpreting those expressions and actions. Our co-fighting was one of the best of all the pairs we’d been put against, winning every time in the many different events and competitions that made up Guardian social life; and we’d emerged from so many missions that seemed on the surface impossible that we’d started to garner a reputation for those as well. The ghost team is what some called us because we moved in quietly and left without a trace. There was no way that we’d be able to do that if we weren’t supposed to be partners, right? 

But, apparently, I wasn’t even supposed to be part of this realm, still anguishing in some human timeline somewhere.

And maybe none of it mattered. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be in the realm, partnered to Kieren; perhaps it was what it was, and we needed to do what we needed to do despite whatever mistakes were made or had been made along the way.

I sat up. “Mistakes made,” I said out loud to the empty bathroom, my mind switching from the personal to the bigger picture. Tirius said we were within striking distance of an extinction event, but what if the extinction event was more than a mistake? Perhaps, like Sarajevo, this was a manipulation that we were to observe, and perhaps even stop.

I ignored the water sloshing a bit over the side when I stood, grabbing one of the white towels from the rack behind me. Wrapping it around my middle, wet hair dripping down my back, I went out to where Kieren was still sitting on the couch reading the book Tirius had given us, long legs stretched out in front of him, bare feet propped on the glass table. The light from the fire warmed his features, softening them.

“We need to observe the extinction event,” I said, breaking the silence.

Not at all startled, Kieren looked up to where I stood at the hallway entrance and regarded me. Something shifted, grew darker and I realized I was dripping on the wood floor. To cover the sudden ball of nerves in my stomach, I waved a hand, the other one clenching at the towel in front of me. “I’ll clean the water up later. Did you hear what I said?”

Kieren blinked. “About the extinction event?” he clarified, his voice off.

I nodded. “Yes. We need to observe it. There might be nothing at all, or there might be something.”

He tilted his head. “Wouldn’t Tirius have told us if there was something about the event to look for?”

“Not necessarily,” I said. “The Tirius we just saw might have not known about Sarajevo. The Tirius you spoke to in the hospital wing might have been being cautious.”

Kieren nodded slowly, thinking, his stare no longer on me but on something in the distance. 

“It’s something,” I said. “We need to do something.”

“We do,” he agreed.

I waited for more of a reaction, but when nothing came, returned to the bedroom to get dressed. The clothing was just as soft on as it looked, and I wrapped my hair up into a bun at the top of my head before heading out with a towel to wipe up the puddle I’d caused. Kieren was no longer on the couch, nor in the kitchen, and I knew with those instincts that I had with him, that he had left the house all together. I sighed, throwing the towel into the laundry room with its giant washer and dryer, then went back to the couch to try reading over the scrolls. Tiredness dragged at me, and as I once more positioned myself in the couch, I knew I only had a little more in me before I had to sleep. I didn’t want to go to bed with Kieren gone, however, and I stubbornly started to read where I had left off.

I woke in the big bed, settled under a couple of layers of blankets. Wind and rain once more pounded at the glass walls, darkness heavy outside. It was late, though I was unsure what time, and it was comfortable, and I felt safer than I had in a long while. The combination lulled me back to sleep and when I woke up again the sun was bright outside, though the light still suggested early morning. Stretching, my bones cracking as I did, I lay for a moment staring out the window at the sparkling sea beyond the waving dune grass. The home was in a lovely, quiet spot, and something very basic in me wanted to stay right where I was, in bed, staring at the view. There was enough food in the kitchen to last us for a while, and heat, and warmth, and beds and tubs, and I wanted to pause to regain some sense of self, or sense of normalcy. These things were not the gifts of those walking a Guardian path, but suddenly and completely, I just wanted to be human again. My human life hadn’t been that great, in fact, achingly lonely and bleak, but I’d slept in on Saturdays, took naps on Sundays, and, in general, had moments of rest.

There were not a lot of moments to rest in the life that I’d chosen.

Sighing, I kicked the covers off and wandered out to the living room and kitchen. Kieren was up, hair pulled back into a neat cue at the base of his skull, black trousers paired with a button-down white shirt. The shirt looked a lot like the ones that Tirius always wore, though Kieren’s shoulders filled the material out much more than Tirius’s ever did. He drank what smelled like coffee from a white, heavy-looking mug.

I found the coffee in a stainless-steel pot on the stove and poured it into a matching white mug I found in the cupboard. Now that I had coffee, Kieren pushed a notepad with scribbles across the counter at me. I took it up, reading over what looked like an address.

“The event location. It’s an industrial complex on the outskirts of the town located about five miles from here,” Kieren said. “The town isn’t large, but big enough that we will be able to blend, though the industrial complex is heavily guarded. We could infiltrate it by night, but without knowing the security measures…”

I nodded in understanding. “What do they do there?”

“It’s a lab.”

“In an industrial complex?”

“Well concealed.”

“Which just means they’re hiding something.” I glanced out the window at the morning. “The town is a decent size?”

“To blend, yes.”

“And there are meeting places; lounges, bars, those type things?” 

Kieren set his coffee down slowly, studying my face. “What are you thinking?”

I smiled at the irony of his question but answered simply. “I was trained as a Collector even if I did walk away from it. I can get the information we need.”

“You’re not going alone.”

Ignoring him, I took another sip of coffee, thinking about how I would approach the situation. All I needed was a few individuals willing to tell me their stories, the rest of it was easy enough to accomplish. 

I put my coffee down and refocused on my partner who was watching me closely. “It won’t work if you are sitting at my elbow glowering at people.” 

“I don’t glower.”

Raising an eyebrow, I gave him one of my looks, to which he shrugged. 

“I don’t glower much.”

“Whatever. They must be comfortable. They have to feel like what they’re saying is the most important thing that has ever been said.”

“How do you make people believe that?”

“Trick yourself into believing it first.”

Kieren frowned.

I left for my bedroom before he could formulate an answer, knowing I was right and knowing that he would come to the same conclusion. Changing into yet another outfit, I eyed myself in the mirror hoping that Tirius was smart enough to fill the closet with time-line appropriate clothing.

Not for the first time, I wondered who the clothing had been for.

Reemerging from the bedroom, Kieren waited for me. He wore a black heavy woolen jacket over the white shirt, eyes distant, face smooth and without expression.

“I’ll drive you,” he said.

Not seeing why he shouldn’t, I followed him out to the low, hovering car in the driveway. He opened the door for me, and I slipped into the silent interior, the leather-like seating giving off a distinct smell that reminded me of Tirius. Kieren joined me, pushing the seat back to accommodate his long legs, and started the car with a button. With an expert touch, he backed up and then eased the car out onto the road, the car nearly silent and not at all like the combustible engines of the 20th and 21st century. Though partially flying, Kieren kept the car low, and I was glad that we were driving country roads. We’d been trained in different modes of transportation throughout the timelines, but I’d never actually been so far down the human timeline, and I was glad Kieren could take care of it while I looked out the window at the passing scenery. I thought about mentioning the car to Kieren, as an example of human’s ability to adapt. They’d faced extinction before and managed to figure out how to, if not fix their damaged Earth at least try to help rather than harm, and had, for the most part, succeeded. But talking about extinction events and human timelines felt more like a conversation I would have with another Collector, not my stoic partner.

“Did you find anything more in the book?” I asked instead.

Kieren shook his head, his profile sharp. “It’s a chronicle of what happens here with the event, but there isn’t a lot of detail to it.”

I frowned. “Maybe a preliminary study.”

Not answering, Kieren turned onto another highway and civilization slowly started to make its presence known; the occasional house appearing, growing closer and closer together until we came across a bend in the road and the town spread out before us. From our perch at the top of the hill, I could see most of the town laid out, the industrial type complex in the farthest distance, and Kieren was right, the town wasn’t very big. But it was big enough for what I wanted to do.

“Is there a coffee shop, tea shop, something along those lines?” I asked, glancing at the time on the dashboard that showed it was creeping up to the 10 am hour. 

Kieren nodded, turning down a road that headed towards the sea, beach-like homes lining the tidy street. I wondered at their newness, as if they’d been built within the last decade, and then remembered the “when” of where we were in the timeline. From what I could remember, many of the coastal towns in the wealthier countries had changed and moved, adapting to the rising water situation.

“Did you scout this out last night?” I asked.

He remained silent, and I took the silence as an affirmative. As we drove, I saw on the one corner, there was a tea shop, with parking out front, several other cars taking up spaces.

“Give me an hour,” I said as I got out, closing the door on whatever reply Kieren might have given.

The wind cut through the sweater I wore, the sun out but still cold. I shivered, wrapping my arms around myself as I hurried to the front entrance. The glass doors were hand-painted with the words “Marley’s Tea Shop,” and when I pulled open the door, a wave of cinnamon- and nutmeg-scented warm air greeted me.

The combination of warm air, scent, and the sound of a busy tea shop was instantly calming, and I felt myself physically relax as I walked further into the environment. As I suspected, there were individuals scattered about, some of them interacting with personal data devices that looked like very thin mats, and a few talking among themselves. Things always changed in hundreds of years of human timeline, but the need for a cozy spot to gather remained the same. 

I ordered the daily special, a too-sweet tea that left a coating on my tongue and some kind of muffin with fruit. Settling down, I watched and listened as I picked at my muffin. The people surrounding me were not the best of choices, but then a short muscular man with graying spiked hair, and a curvy blond woman in a tracksuit came in, talking over each other. The man was especially vocal, using his hands in broad strokes as he ordered the teas, barely leaving off in his conversation with the woman as he did.

I listened as he talked, picking up by the time they sat down that he was complaining about the especially long hours his spouse was putting in at the lab, the woman interjecting occasionally with her own story, also complaining.

I had my couple.

The trick with being a Collector is to become a non-entity; become what the Source wants you to be. A Collector emulates those desired characteristics to create ease, a space of honesty and openness. 

I became what they wanted me to be; a stranger, yes, but a friendly one, eager to make friends.

I approached where they sat, an apologetic smile on my face. “So sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help but overhear about your spouse. My partner and I just moved here, and he begins work there soon.”

It was just enough for the man and he indicated I should sit, immediately launching into a full description of why working at the lab was a challenge, especially for the spouses of those working at the lab. As I listened, they shared their stories, trading laughter back and forth as they talked about the late hours, the unusual lights that came from the place, and how neither of their spouses could talk about their work there. The man’s spouse was an engineer. The woman’s spouse was a physicist.

“So smart, right? But boy do they not have an ounce of common sense,” the male, Jake, stated as the woman, Missy, nodded in agreement. 

“What do you mean?” I asked.

And they told me. About how their spouses couldn’t manage to do housework; or help the children with homework. I nodded in agreement, amused to find that humans varied so little from time period to time period. The same complaints of family, jobs, and life, no matter if the complainer existed in the late 19th century or the 23rd.

Eventually, Jake grew silent and leaned forward, lowering his voice. I mirrored his movements, knowing that he wanted to share with me a particular piece of information he thought very important. 

He looked around the shop in a move that was almost hilarious in its obviousness, but I kept my head tilted forward and my face straight. “You see, they’re working on a new energy source. We’re not supposed to know, Missy and I, but we do. Everyone in town does.”

“A new energy source?” I asked.

“Jack,” Missy said, warning.

Jack waved his hand. “If she’s going to live here, she’ll know soon enough. The experiment messes with things like bird migration, and underground water. I don’t know all the details, or the ins and outs, but I don’t think it’s the safest of things. No one says anything, of course, because the only reason why any of us live here is because you or your partner work at the lab, and they pay really well. But there’s always black air-hawks that come in and out, and not just those from the Commonwealth, from all over.”

Missy, who didn’t want to be left out, also sat closer to me. “The thing is, my husband thinks that it has the potential to bring us completely out of the era of solar and wind, fueling space exploration, but it also has the potential of being a really big weapon.”

I sat back. “Seriously?”

Missy and Jack nodded. Both were uncertain if they should be telling me these things, evident by the tense shoulders and the way they kept glancing at one another, so I changed the subject, starting them on the topic of their children, both of their nonverbals easing back into relaxation. That lasted for long enough that another tea was required. It wasn’t until the end of the second cup, that I brought up the plant again, idly wondering if visitors were allowed.

“Oh no,” Missy said. “There are guards that change every twelve hours and even when we go for the holiday party, we have to go through all the security checkpoints. I mean, really, who needs four levels of security checkpoints. Honestly.”

Jack nodded. “You don’t visit. We’re invited once a year for the holiday event, but other than that, it is oh so off-limits. They have these killer security bots called detectors. I’ve never even heard of them anywhere else, but this place has them.”

I wanted to ask about the detectors but stopped myself, feeling instinctively that Jack was fishing for something. Instead of asking, I finished my second cup, formulating plans to extract myself from the situation when Misty grabbed at my arm out of nowhere. It was only with extreme control that I didn’t react, though she must have seen something in my face because she dropped my arm with a blush.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, pointing at my wrist. “I just saw your tattoo.”

I looked down at the three dots and the single swirl of black that indicated my rank.

Jack turned his head to see better, leaning into my bubble, a whiff of his cologne filling the air around me. “I recognize that,” he said.

Surprised, I studied his face and then glancing at Misty saw that she too recognized the tattoo.

“Someone you know has a similar one?” I asked, thankful my voice didn’t hold the edge of urgency I felt coiled in my belly.

Jack frowned. “Yes, but I couldn’t tell you who. Someone at the lab maybe?” He directed the question to Misty.

She shook her head. “I couldn’t say, but it is so unique, very neat looking but different.”

I resisted the urge to cover the ink, smiling. “One of those young adult things. It was a design in a tattoo shop. I thought it was interesting. Not thinking,” I smiled trying to deflect.

Luckily, an hour had passed and as if on cue, Kieren walked in the door distracting everyone. Jack immediately perked up, sitting forward to look at my partner who was glancing around the shop.

“Oh my,” Jack said, eyeing Kieren who walked towards us having spotted me. In a flash, I saw what Jack saw, and something hitched in my chest. Kieren walked with an easy roll, broad shoulders beneath his black jacket, raven hair pulled back to show off high cheekbones and dark eyes over a generous mouth.

I stood up when Kieren got to our table.

He leaned down and brushed a kiss across my lips. It was brief, a hello, a how are you, entirely appropriate to help with Missy and Jack, but it was a first and in that brief contact, something else hitched in my chest, and I felt my cheeks flush.

 Hiding my sudden confusion, the sudden buzz in my hands, I looked away from him to the two watching us. “Kieren,” I said, smiling over my nerves. “This is Jake and Missy. They’ve been giving me the insights.”

Kieren smiled at the pair, a rare sight even if it was fake, and the two of them reacted with the same version of a flirty smile.

“Learn anything?” he asked.

“I have,” I said.

“Great. But we have…”

I nodded. “I know.” I gave Jack and Missy my best friend smile. “Thank you, hopefully, we will run into each other again.”

“We’re having a dinner on Friday. You both should come,” Jack said, emphasizing the “both.” 

I nodded, glancing over at Kieren who also nodded though couldn’t all the way hide a flash of reserve. Jack appeared not to notice, and contact information was exchanged, Kieren providing a phone number with the promise of trying to make the dinner in two days’ time. Missy waved, and we walked out of the shop, our backs to the two of them though I could almost feel the whispers as we walked away.

Once more in the car, I relayed the information to my partner in a rush, slowing down the flow of words when I realized I was rambling.

“Guards. Detectors.” Kieren repeated turning down another street that led away from the sea this time. “Not anything we haven’t handled before.”

“Right. But, a lot more technologically advanced then what we’ve dealt with in a long time.”

“There was the Riot,” Kieren reminded me, which was a civilization more advanced but hadn’t involved infiltrating a secure complex.

“And it isn’t just about infiltrating,” I continued. “We need to observe. That is the primary goal. We’ve got to figure out if this is a manipulation situation, and what we should do if it is.”

Kieren glanced over at me. “Yeah, well, we only have a handful of time.”

I turned in my seat to look at him. “When does the event happen?”

“Tomorrow.”

I sat back straight, staring out the window. “We could always go back further in the timeline, to try to observe for longer.”

“We could. But, as you’re always saying, everything for a reason. Tirius wanted us here during this time.”

I knew he was right, but one day was hardly any time at all. “I have one more idea for collecting, and then we’ll have to see if we can get in tonight. Maybe we can study the logs, security footage.”

We stopped off for lunch at a small diner, eating in near silence as we thought our own thoughts. My thoughts were most definitely not on Kieren, refocusing repeatedly on the conversation with Missy and Jack. I wrote as much as I could down. Usually, I would have recorded the conversation, written it as part of my internal log, but interface use was still off-limits, so I did it with pen and paper. It probably looked a bit strange, but even at the end of the 21st century, no one seemed to notice the archaic use of writing utensils.

After lunch, I explained to Kieren the rest of my plan and dutifully, at the end of the afternoon as workers started to leave the industrial complex, he dropped me off at the local pub. The pub was trickier than the tea shop in that I was a single female, and this always went sideways in human timelines, but it was also something I could use, and I did, getting several men from the industrial complex’s docks into a conversation over pints. Alcohol was another never-ending human pastime. This time I’d told Kieren not to come in, that I would go to him after I was done collecting. I halfway expected him to ignore my request, but he stayed away as the workers told me more about the security system, explaining the different shifts, and regaling me with stories about the strange occurrences that had occurred the last few weeks. When one of the burlier ones with a deep red beard started to get handsy, I excused myself from their company and wandered out into the now dark night.

Kieren waited in the car a block away. I felt his frustration as soon as I got in, his face carefully blank. 

“That took long enough,” he said, turning the car on.

I ignored the comment and told him what I’d found out. “We have enough to explore tonight, but I’ll need to go back and get my weapons.”

Kieren agreed with a nod, the soft green glow of the dash highlighting his face. I wondered what he’d done while I was in the pub, it had been several hours, but refrained from asking. Instead, I brought out the notebook once more and started in on a sketch from the limited amount of data that I’d learned. There were four different areas of access, all guarded by detectors that sounded very much like highly sophisticated motion sensors. The only way to get beyond the perimeter was to go through the two guard stations, which were manned by four guards on an alternating schedule all day and all night. 

And that was the exterior security measures. 

There were interior measures as well, though no one I’d talked to had been much help in that regard. But there was ductwork for sure, with a possible entrance at the docks that were located on the seaside of the complex. We really needed a map of the ductwork as going in blind was not the best scenario, but then nothing about our situation was the best scenario.

With night full on and a sliver of a moon, the house looked deserted when we pulled in, but I noticed that Kieren tensed as he slowed the car down to a stop.

“Someone’s here,” he said.

I focused on the scene before me, noticing nothing but a dark house, the night sky, and the sound of the ever-present wind and sea. But underneath those things, there was a presence, a shift in the energy about the place. 

“You have nothing on you?” Kieren asked, opening the car door.

“No,” I answered, knowing that he meant weapons. It was never a good idea to bring weapons when collecting. A weapon on a person gives off its own tang, influencing the way a person interacts with the world. I’d wanted to seem harmless; having knives strapped to my body was hardly going to help with that image. 

“Behind me,” he said in response and I let him take lead without protest, getting out of the car and falling behind his tall form. My hand itched for my staff that was currently stashed underneath a pile of clothing in the bedroom closet, and I briefly reconsidered my policy on having a weapon at all times. It was one thing to be a Collector without a weapon; being a Guardian without a weapon was an entirely different animal. 

Kieren headed for the left side of the house where the bedrooms were located and I followed, staying several steps behind him as I promised, walking in his shadow. Gaining the back of the house, the wind took on a different level of intensity, barely contained by the rolling dunes of seagrass. There was a salty, electrified taste to the air too, as if another storm approached far off at sea. Kieren stalled in front of me as we came to the corner of the back of the house, dropping down to a crouch. He crept low to the ground towards the wall of windows that were putting off a faint orange glow. I expected Guardians, or perhaps even people from the town, but instead, as we came upon the large floor to ceiling windows it was Tirius sitting there staring at the fire.

“Of course,” I heard Kieren breathe.

Still alert, I took the lead, walking around him and opening the sliding glass door that we’d left unlocked earlier in the day. 

Tirius looked up from the scrolls he held in his hands, sparing us a glance before looking back down at the heavy parchment. At first, I thought he held the scrolls that he’d handed over to me, but the ones he had were darker brown and even from where I was across the room, I could tell that the writing was bolder, scrawling large across the page.

“What did you find out?” Tirius asked as Kieren closed the door behind us, partially shutting out the sound of sea and wind.

Feeling Kieren’s tension next to me, I answered before my partner could say anything. “The lab is heavily guarded, almost impenetrable, and we’re not sure if we will be able to get the information we are looking for before the event tomorrow.”

Tirius did look up then, his dual-colored eyes moving between Kieren and me. “The information?”

I sighed, going to the kitchen and getting some water and some more nuts. The pint of beer sloshed in my stomach uncomfortably. 

“Which Tirius are we speaking to this time?” Kieren asked.

“The one that is going to send you back to warn Wren to leave the Citadel. She’s about to have an unfortunate accident,” Tirius said, voice dry.

I looked up from my nuts. “What?”

Tirius sighed himself, putting the scrolls down and rubbing at his forehead, the lines there more pronounced then I’d ever seen them. That combined with the tired at his eyes and the slight gray in his normally dark curly hair, I wondered what time this Tirius was from, and then on the heels of that thought, wondered if it really mattered. 

“You’ve come back to find us,” I said before he could answer my initial question. “You’re again messing with timelines. Tirius, what’s going on? You keep leading us on these merry chases of information. Not one version of you I’ve talked to has given me a straight answer. What’s going on? And if you don’t know, what’s your theory? What are you having me, us, do?”

Tirius dropped his hand from his forehead and looked on me with something akin to fondness. It was a look he used to give me on occasion when I answered a question with a coherent answer.

“You died,” Kieren said to Tirius before the older man could answer. He had followed me to the kitchen and he now leaned up against the counter; a coiled threat as he assessed the Archivist. 

Tirius refocused on my partner, his facial expression cooling to chilly. “They did try to kill me, yes. Is that what the Warden told you? That I died from my injuries while in the hospital?”

I looked over at Kieren and saw his jaw jump and knew that was exactly what had happened.

“So. You didn’t die from your wounds in France?” Kieren pursued.

“Wounds from Germany, and no, I didn’t. I have a stubborn way of continuing to live.”

“And when we were in Sarajevo?” I asked.

Tirius inclined his head. “I do apologize.”

“You left me.”

He smiled his slight smile that said more than it should. “I knew you could handle it.”

I glared, which caused his smile to grow slightly, a lopsided thing that I rarely saw and as a result disarmed me. “Nothing happened, did it?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Not until I returned.”

“And now she is on the run as well,” Kieren said gesturing vaguely in my direction. “Because of you, because of your tactics.” He paused, leaning forward towards the other man. “Why don’t you just go talk to the Masters, ask them yourself, find out your own information?”

I tensed at the suggestion but Tirius smiled and the smile was gentle as if he knew something Kieren was oblivious about, which only served to make Kieren’s scowl deepen.

Tirius continued as if Kieren’s words were not still echoing through the room. “And now you know the identities of two Masters that are involved in the situation, which is information I very much need.” Tirius glanced at me, then back to Kieren who glared in an unusually blatant sign of aggression. Tirius endured the look, not reacting with aggression of his own but rather a gentling as he regarded my partner. “And you, young Guardian, have a role to play right now. You need to go back to the Master Realm and find her. You are to tell her to leave and give her this, or her life is no longer her own, or yours.” He held up a pinky drive and I recognized it for the one that my partner had slipped me on that evening after returning from Sarajevo.

Kieren looked over at me, and I nodded, explaining to him what had happened. Suddenly, the difference in Kieren’s demeanor that night made a lot more sense.

Kieren walked over to Tirius and took the drive, pocketing it. 

Tirius rattled off the exact Travel coordinates. “Watch for your previous self,” Tirius warned.

Kieren said nothing at all, looking over to where I stood. He communicated something with his eyes, a goodbye of sorts, though I wasn’t sure. “I’ll be back directly,” he said, then shimmered and disappeared.

I stared at where he’d stood for a moment longer, the pressure of his existence lessening now that he was no longer in the timeline, though not disappearing entirely. I looked over at Tirius. “You’re playing us like game pieces; he doesn’t appreciate it.”

“And you?” Tirius asked.

“I’m used to it,” I replied. Putting the nuts back in the cupboard, I got another glass of water and walked over to where Tirius had surrounded himself with books and scrolls. I took a seat at the couch, the leather-like surface making a sound as I sat, toeing my shoes off and digging my toes into the fluffy white carpet. 

“What’s all this?” I asked, indicating the many rolls and books now littering the low table.

“Evidence that Masters are manipulating the human timeline to ensure failure, along with several other timelines, and evidence showing that a civil war is about to break out between two different factions of Masters.”

I snorted. “That’s all?”

Tirius’s facial expression hardly changed as he looked down at his evidence. “Mostly having to do with the manipulations. It has gone too far, and the game is no longer a game but one with lives at stake, a great many lives.”

Startled, my stomach clenched. “What? You know this for sure?”

“Within a certain parameter of doubt, yes.”

I jerked my chin towards the documentation. “And this proves it?”

“No, but it is information.” His voice trailed off, his gaze on the things in front of him, the light from the fireplace flickering across the surfaces. Outside rain had started, pelting the giant glass windows, creating a strange hybrid of dark and light. Tirius shook his head. “Sometimes that’s all we have and all that is needed.”

I sat on the couch edge, looking at the mess in front of us because I wasn’t sure where else to look. My brain was not processing at the level that it should’ve, feeling sluggish as I tried to work out what Tirius meant by that level of manipulation. “But why?”

“That’s the question.”

“You don’t know?”

“I have my theories, but my theories are just that; the reality is that this timeline is in danger of going extinct again because of manipulation and in direct violation of the rules.”

I stared up at him. “What rules?” 

“The rules laid down by the Council.”

I frowned. I’d heard of the Council of course, but as a myth more than anything. “And who is part of the Council and why haven’t you talked about it before?”

Tirius shook his head once, dark curls moving against his too-pale skin, another piece of information that he wasn’t going to share, which spiked at the low level of anger and irritation that I constantly carried. “Tirius. Give me information. I am operating in the dark. What is the Council?”

He rubbed at his eyes and then looked over at me. “The Council is the Originals. It is the Creators.”

I shook my head. “That’s a myth.”

“Where did you come from?” Tirius asked, surprising me.

“The human timeline,” I answered.

“Created by?”

“A Master,” I suggested.

“Who are?”

I paused, leaping. “From timelines themselves.”

He nodded and I saw it. “But who created the original timelines?” I asked and looked around the room, the modern design with the white couches, the marble fireplace, the large windows as if seeing it for the first time. “So not a myth.”

Tirius shook his head. “Not a myth.”

“And you’ve spoken with this, Council?”

He shook his head. “No. But I, along with the Warden and the Masters have ways to communicate with them.”

Waving at the documentation before me, I looked up at Tirius. “And they know of all this.”

“I imagine so.”

“But yet they do nothing?”

He let me stew with the question, not answering, and I realized after a moment what he suggested in his silence. “Because we are but a piece of a larger reality. An experiment in our own right?” I asked.

Shrugging, Tirius suddenly looked much older than he ever had before and though I had more questions, always with the questions, I narrowed the focus back to the situation with the human timeline. I knew the human experiment had failed once before, and I knew that this version had undergone several periods of possible extinction, either because of manipulations or because of the flaws in the design, but Tirius was suggesting failure was the purpose of the manipulations, which of course, begged the question of why.

“Tell me what has happened,” Tirius prompted, pulling me from my thoughts.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, swiping a palm over the coolness of the couch cushion. 

“Perhaps I will see something that you don’t,” Tirius said unnecessarily, leaning his long body into the back of the couch.

I told him, starting from the point that we received orders to bring him back from France; being abducted in Rushiel; what he showed me in Sarajevo; what I’d discovered at the cottage; my time in Darkside and seeing Master Cynthe and the other two Masters; and returning with Kieren to be met with an assassination attempt. The story of Master Cynthe and the other Masters garnered no reaction, but when I told him about the assassination attempt, something like understanding flickered across his face, quickly replaced with his neutral expression. I continued without asking for an explanation, finishing the tale by relating the information we’d learned today. 

At the exact moment I was telling him about the dinner on Friday, Kieren walked in from the front door, startling me enough that I went for the staff on the table. He stood in the entryway, his hair undone, soaking and windswept. He wore different clothing than what he had on when he’d Traveled, the material worse for wear. I stared at him for a moment before I realized he was shivering, dripping on the floor, hooded eyes taking in the scene but in a kind of fevered way.

I went and got towels and a blanket from my bedroom, bringing them back and holding them as the still shaking Kieren stripped out of his clothes, leaving them in a puddle on the floor. His skin pebbled, the scar that ran along his flat stomach purple with cold, the usual warm brown color of his skin tinged towards pasty. He took the blankets without a sound and wrapped himself into the folds.

Concerned, I refrained from asking him questions, allowing him space to sit down in one of the deep chairs that were angled towards the couch and the fire, his form disappearing into the blankets. I went to the kitchen and put the kettle on. I watched Tirius watch Kieren and was surprised and thankful when he also didn’t ask how my partner came to be soaking wet, with different clothing, and visibly in worse wear than he was when he left moments before.

“I think something stronger,” Tirius said, breaking the silence, causing me to jump. He glanced over at me. “The cupboard above the stove.”

The cupboard was well above my reach, but I lightly jumped to the counter next to it, leaning sideways to open the cupboard. I found different liquor bottles lined up in neat rows. 

“The Ritis,” Tirius said.

Reading the labels, the Ritis was a jeweled cut bottle with an etched label in a language I couldn’t read, though the lettering was such that I could make out the label’s title. I took it down from the cupboard, finished up the tea and brought it out on a wooden tray that Kieren had discovered earlier that day.

Tirius opened the bottle of liquor and poured a half measure out in the glass I’d provided. Kieren took the glass without question.

“A full drink. No sipping,” Tirius said, and Kieren did as he was told, throwing back his head, the liquor disappearing down his throat.

Kieren managed not to sputter, green eyes watering towards hazel. He handed the glass back to Tirius who refilled it and took a shot for himself. When Tirius offered me the same, I shook my hood, opting for the tea. A pinkish tinge had appeared along Kieren’s high cheekbones, and as I watched, his entire person seemed to relax back into the chair, snuggling into the blanket that I’d provided for him, dark hair wet against the light gray material, leaving a wet mark.

We watched as he fought sleep, eyes closing and opening, until he succumbed, head slumping onto the chair back, breath evening out into the steady roll of sleep.

I glanced at Tirius who was watching my partner. “That put him to sleep,” I said, annoyed.

Tirius nodded, looking down at the bottle in his hand. “It has that effect on certain beings.”

“Not on humans?” 

Tirius shook his head and then poured himself another shot. “Not on humans, well unless a great deal more than a shot is consumed,” he said, the liquor disappearing with a flick of his wrist. He put the bottle down and glanced over at me apologetically. “I know you wanted answers.”

I shrugged, looking at Kieren who rested peacefully. I studied his relaxed face; the long black eyelashes, the straight, sharp nose, the full lips and strong jaw shadowed with stubble. Worry hitched in my chest, combining with the security I felt whenever in his presence.

“Have you fallen in love with him then?” Tirius asked.

The question took a moment to penetrate my brain, and I looked away from Kieren towards Tirius, blinking several times as I tried to process the words. “I’m not in love with him,” I said after a moment. “He’s my partner. It’s a different kind of bond.”

Tirius look pinned me. I couldn’t read his expression, but something along his mouth suggested knowing with a hint of amusement.

I shook my head, irritation spiking. “Seriously, Tirius. Guardian partners are close out of necessity. We trained together for cycles before even going out on an assignment, and since then, we’ve been constant companions, relying on one another. When your life is so wholly intertwined with another, it creates a bond that probably looks like love in the human sense of things but isn’t.”

Tirius spread his hands out before him. Like the rest of him, his fingers were long, tapered at the end; elegant hands that were mesmerizing under the right circumstances. I’d watch him use those hands to distract Collectors and Tellers in order to get more information, to expand on stories, to move into territories that the speaker wanted to avoid.

I looked away from his hands, staring resolutely at the fire that leaped and bowed in much the same way a wood fire would dance, though it was all a trick to make the solar-powered fire look real. The effect was well done.

“My Guardian knowledge is limited,” Tirius admitted after a while. “The nature of the Archivist is to know all. The nature of the Warden is to guard all. We’ve come to an impasse more than once.”

I frowned. “You didn’t know about the conditioning? The bonding?”

“Oh no, I do; in fact, I have a few ideas about how that partnership works.”

“Partner theory,” I said, recalling what Kieren had spoken about.

Tirius raised an eyebrow. “Partner theory?”

“I don’t know if that’s an official name; but, apparently, the Guardian partnerships are built on the idea that we are inherently connected to certain individuals.” I nodded towards the scrolls I’d been looking at before Tirius had arrived and scattered his own work everywhere. “It’s in the scroll history that you sent with me, and you’ve mentioned it before, though not in those terms.”

Tirius waved a hand. “I know what you’re talking of; it’s a theory I’ve been pursuing myself, but I didn’t know that the Guardians had such ideas.” He frowned, clearly not liking the idea that there was something he didn’t know.

“It’s what informs the entire basis of the Guardian partnership,” Kieren said, making both Tirius and I startle in our different ways.

Kieren opened his eyes. Though his body remained relaxed in the chair, his eyes were sharp as they took in the scene. 

“And you know this?” Tirius asked.

Inhaling and exhaling slowly, Kieren sat up. His loose hair had started to dry, creating a black frame around his face. “In order to make a decision on who partners with who, a Warden needs to understand the connection that pre-exists.”

Tirius nodded slowly, studying Kieren as if a specimen under a microscope, and like clockwork, Kieren reacted negatively to the scrutiny, sitting up further and then pulling his hair back from his face, tying it into a knot at the base of his skull. It was a familiar gesture of controlled aggression and I saw it for what it was, and I changed the subject even as I vaguely wondered why Tirius aggravated Kieren rather than soothing him in the way I knew he could. 

“What happened?” I asked.

Kieren switched his gaze from Tirius’s curiosity to mine. “I’ve found a way to get into the complex.”

My mind switched gears. “What?”

Kieren wrapped the blanket more completely around his body, shivering slightly. Even in the limited light, I could see his skin still held a tinge of unhealthy color. “I delivered the message, but then came back earlier in the timeline. I’ve been here for a week.”

“For a week?” I repeated.

“Staying at an abandoned building in town, yes. I only had an approximation of when we came back from the Master realm, so I’ve been watching to see when we would arrive, and then it was just a matter of following us and figuring out the day that Tirius Arrived. When I saw you in the tea shop today, I knew that tonight was when I would leave, so I did one last reconnaissance to see if I could gather any more information on getting into the lab.”

Amused, I smiled at him. “And something happened?”

Kieren’s look was pained as he glanced down at his blanket encased body. “Almost got caught, but I’ve figured out a way in and I’ve picked up information along the way, including that it is a team of two individuals that are heading the project, a Dr. Steven Blox and a Dr. Patrick McMullen. They’re the scientists that are pushing the experiment along. I did some research, and they’ve also had quite a few other breakthroughs in the last thirty years of their working together. I haven’t been able to observe anything because up until tonight I’ve only been able to get through the first two layers of security, but now I know the way, we can go in and be able to observe the entire event.”

“And get blown up in the meantime,” Tirius said.

“We’ll Travel before that,” Kieren and I said at the same time.

Tirius looked at us, amused again.

“We’ve done it more than once; Travelling moments before a catastrophic event,” I explained.

“That’s something Guardians do a lot of?” Tirius asked.

I shrugged. Kieren answered. “It happens more than you think.”

Tirius got up from the couch, picking up the bottle of liquor and the tray of tea things that had since gotten cold. “I think you forget who I am,” he said, taking those things to the kitchen.

I again changed the subject. “So, we can go in, observe, see if we see any manipulations.”

Kieren nodded. “As many times as we need to.”

Tirius came back, reaching for a thick book that he’d placed on the glass table before us. “Time is always of the essence,” he said with snark, cracking the book open and beginning to read before Kieren and I could reply.

We ignored him.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” I asked. “You looked terrible coming in.”

Kieren nodded. “I’ve been better, but a whole lot worse as well. This isn’t going to be easy, but maybe we’ll get some answers, pinpoint a specific individual and we can end this madness.” 

We planned until Kieren could no longer stay awake and my own tiredness weighed down on me. Tirius read through it all, ignoring us, and I tried not to let his presence distract me, though I couldn’t help but wonder at his sudden appearance and what it foretold. But those thoughts were circular, not at all concrete, and the planning of how to infiltrate the lab was much more familiar and logical, so I happily lost myself in preparation. Towards dawn, Kieren stumbled off to his room and I closed my eyes for a moment, feeling the grit of tiredness, stretching my arms above my head.

Tirius still read, though his mess of books and scrolls were now neatly stacked on the table. He’d remained silent through the entirety of Kieren and my conversation, and not wanting to get into a conversation with him, I got up to leave without saying anything.

He stopped me halfway out of the room. “This event changes human history,” he said.

Sleep clawed at my eyelids, but I paused to look at my old mentor. 

“I know. It’s a near-extinction event.” I waved a hand. “Don’t worry. If there is someone manipulating the event to create it, we’ll figure it out. I understand.”

Tirius put down his book. “No, I don’t think you do. This event changes the entire trajectory of the human timeline.”

I raised an eyebrow, irritated in my tiredness and in the way Tirius continuously spoke around subjects. “I know.”

Exhaling in a rush, Tirius ran a hand through his dark curls, suddenly looking tired and old. “Listen, Wren. This event does not end humanity, it enables further evolving. It is a catalyst, like Sarajevo, but not a catalyst of death.”

I frowned. “Billions die.”

“Yes, but the billions who don’t die emerge triumphantly. This event kick starts a long period of evolution and growth. The billions who survive take leaps and bounds towards the betterment of all humanity. I have observed from a distance this event again and again, both before and after. It is the transition between evolutional stages.”

I watched the sky pinken with dawn as I thought through the implications. “You think someone is going to try to stop it rather than cause it? If you knew that, why have you brought us here? If you’ve observed this, why do you need us to do it?”

“Because you and your partner will be able to observe it up close.”

I nodded. That made sense. With our training, we could get closer to the event than Tirius or any other Collector would be able to. “You want us to gather information for you.”

He inclined his head. “Yes.”

“And if there is a manipulation?”

“Observe.”

“Even if it changes the entire trajectory of the human timeline?”

“We’ve seen a manipulation happen before; it might be part of the story, part of the Truth of things.”

I shook my head. “That makes no sense, Tirius. Are we trying to stop these manipulations or not?”

“Yes, sometimes; no, other times.”

“Some of them?”

“It does look like on occasion the manipulations are for something other than the advancement of timelines. In that instance, perhaps it is our duty to stop them.”

“Okay. That makes sense to me. Protect the timelines, allowing them to advance. But then which ones are manipulated for good and which ones are manipulated for some other reason?”

Tirius’s shoulders drooped. “I don’t know,” he said forcefully, looking at the piles of books and scrolls. “I don’t know enough. That’s what so frustrating. There’s a picture here. I know there’s a picture, and I can’t see it, not the entirety of it at least. Me. The Archivist, can’t see.” He was staring at his piles of scrolls and books, brow scrunched and mouth in a grim line, but then directed his gaze towards me. “Do you understand how unusual that is, to not be able to see the pattern, the truth of things underlying all that exists? There is a pattern, but it is elusive, far away, flitting and dancing just out of my reach. I know it has something to do with this partner theory that Kieren spoke of, and which you have been reading about. The partners are key. But, there isn’t always a pair that exists in these moments of cataclysmic events. Sometimes, but not always, and so there is no consistency. I just can’t see it.”

The sky had begun to mold into day, pink turning blue. “Maybe we just need sleep?”

As if the comment jolted him, Tirius’s expression softened into an unusual look akin to fondness. “Of course. Go. Sleep. You and your partner have a night ahead of you when you wake. Though I would caution any interference. All for a reason despite what it may seem.”

I stalled, studying Tirius, noticing that, at some point, a dark stubble had started in along his jaw and cheeks. “Doesn’t that contradict what you’ve been saying? That if left alone, then yes, the timelines move according to purpose, but with these manipulations that is no longer valid?” I paused, studying Tirius. “And if that is the case why didn’t we just stop the murder in Sarajevo?”

A flicker of amusement then, around his mouth. “Haven’t you been listening? It is not a simple thing, Wren. These timelines are tapestries, all woven together. Of course, we could eliminate that event, thereby changing all human time. That’s the point, that event, that moment, changed everything.”

I shook my head. “But then, are you saying that even the manipulations are part of the big picture?”

Tirius was slow to answer. “I think there is a bigger picture, and I am starting to wonder if some of these manipulations are part of this picture, though how that would be I’m not clear about. You see, we move so much in and out of the timelines that we forget that at one point they didn’t exist, you didn’t exist. As of now, from what I can gather this timeline is still moving forward, is still being created. The experiment has not failed despite the manipulations. So, what does that mean and where does this conflict between Masters fit in and what, if anything, should be done about it? There are so many variables and those are the only ones I know about.”

I had no answer, and he expected none, waving his hand at me. “It’s time to sleep now. There will be answers, we just don’t yet know all the players.”

“Are you sure?”

“About sleep? Yes.”

Shaking my head. “No. About the manipulations? That something is actually happening?”

A ghost smile played along his lips. “If you weren’t so tired, you wouldn’t ask me that question. It’s like me asking you if you’re sure that you and your partner were about to be assassinated?”

I thought back on that moment in the woods and nodded, though doubt niggled at my brain. Were we about to be assassinated by Master Ral? I couldn’t be entirely sure.

“Sleep, Wren. We’ll talk more later.”

I did as he said, going to my room and falling into the too-big bed and letting myself slip under into darkness.

Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020

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