Tirius was gone when I woke, which I’d expected. The smell of food pulled me out of slumber, and I rolled out of bed, running my tongue along my teeth and grimacing at both the taste in my mouth and the mid-day sunshine blasting through the large bedroom windows. I should have showered before bed, to get rid of the pub smell and the grime of too much tea, beer, and more tea. Though the smell of food caused my belly to rumble, I opted for a shower and clean up first. I changed into the black trousers and tank top that I’d arrived in days earlier, freshly clean from the laundry. Shivering, I grabbed a gray sweater from the closet and wrapped myself in the softness, pulling my damp hair out from beneath the fabric and letting it fall down my back.
Kieren was putting the food on plates when I came out. Also looking clean and refreshed, his dark hair was once again pulled back into a low cue at the base of his skull, his own form-fitting black clothing his familiar uniform, and his skin the more normal brown color. Catching sight of me, he nodded towards the couch. “He’s gone,” he said, bringing the two plates of food around the counter and putting them on the glass dining room table. The table’s surface glinted with the afternoon sun, the dunes outside seeming to amplify the light.
“There’s a note,” Kieren said, pointing to a white piece of paper attached to the fridge as he sat down at the table.
I grabbed the note and joined Kieren, reading over the brief message as I shoveled scrambled eggs into my mouth. It simply read: “good luck on your mission; remember, things work both ways.”
“Do you know what it means?” Kieren asked, sipping at his coffee.
I shook my head, and put the note down, continuing to eat as I thought about Tirius’s visit. “Why did he show up?” I asked between bites.
Kieren gave me the look, finishing his food. “Your guess will be better than mine.”
I nodded, but I didn’t have an answer either.
As we got our weapons together, strapping them on in familiar silence, I thought about the visit. He’d told Kieren to go back, of course, which was essential, but that could have been done at any time. Unless, of course, he only knew for sure that we would be in this location at this time. I thought about our conversation when we’d returned to the Archives to speak with him then. Had we told him where we were? I was pretty sure Kieren had, which meant that perhaps he’d come to this location because this location was the only place he knew for sure both Kieren and I would be.
He was still pulling strings though, and as we went over the plan to infiltrate the lab, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there were other reasons for Tirius to have shown up at this location on this timeline. Was it to warn us about the event, and how it was essential to the human timeline?
Would we somehow have a role to play in this event?
Circular thinking, I knew, taking my staff and settling it into the holster at my back; it always came down to circular thinking.
As we prepared, the afternoon sun fell lower in the sky, the sea sparkling just beyond the dunes. There was not much for us to do until full night, but I was antsy and from the way Kieren paced the living room, he was as well.
“How far along the beach do we have to go?” I asked, staring out the windows.
“Three miles to the harbor.”
“Then in the water?”
Kieren nodded. “In the water, underneath there is a blind spot that is just outside the camera’s view.”
I looked at the sea in the distance and shivered involuntarily. “It’s frigid isn’t it?”
“No worse than what we’ve had to do before,” Kieren replied, giving me a ghost of a smile as he came up beside me. He looked better with food and sleep, his eyes no longer fatigued and lined with shadows and in his presence, I felt his familiar warmth.
“Be it as it may,” I said to his smile, looking once more at the seaside view in front of us.
I felt his gaze on the side of my face. “You’ve changed,” he replied.
I snorted. “Of course. We all change. What are you talking about?”
Kieren’s greenish gaze scanned my face, taking in my features as he spoke. “I saw you, in the doorway, right after that event when they put you in your chambers, took away your Guardian access, and you were not who you are now.”
Grimacing, I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve learned a bit between then and now.”
Kieren tilted his head as he continued to study me. I could feel him, that presence that always seemed to tug at the back of my brain as if we were connected by more than just a partnership. I doubted the feeling, but it never quite left. Thinned, yes, when we were apart, but never fully disappearing. The memory of what happened in the cell floated into my awareness and I wanted something, felt it in my belly, the tightening of my chest, but what that was remained elusive, lost in the mission before us, in our past, in who we were and what we had yet to become.
I refocused on the outside, ignoring what might or might not be taking place inside.
Kieren leaned against the glass, long body taking up the side of my vision, forcing an awareness that was only partially explained by our partnership. On missions, we’d been physically close before, but this felt different from sleeping a foot away from each other in an unknown jungle.
“Wren,” he said, intense, voice quiet.
I glanced over. The planes of his face gave nothing away, but I saw the clench of his jaw, the way his mouth moved around my name when he said it again.
I wanted something, but the other memory was there, the request for another partner, the likelihood that if we ever got out of this situation, he would become Warden. And then; the information he held back from me. The missions he went on alone.
And the information I now held from him. The story from Darkside. Tirius’s role and my loyalty there.
A wedge created out of a myriad of different situations.
I backed away. A step and then another. Creating distance, familiar ground, and understanding. Turning to catch my breath, to walk away, I grabbed my jacket from the counter and pulled it over my weapons. “Let’s go. We can pass the time when we get there.”
Kieren paused at the window and I felt a flash of his reluctance, of his disappointment that I quickly ignored and shoved aside mentally, checking over the living room before going to the front door. After a moment, he followed, joining me in front of the house. I didn’t look over at his face but felt his withdrawal nevertheless, a distancing as we made our way towards the beach.
Talking as we walked, Kieren went over the details again, a familiar habit that he did before most missions. I halfway heard him, paying attention to the layers of dunes around me, the blue sky overhead, and the sand underfoot. We walked slowly, partially because we were wasting time until we could really get going, and partially because the sand pulled at our boots as we walked.
Coming to the last dune, we simultaneously sat down amongst the grass. Kieren pointed to the chain-link fencing I could just make out in the distance. “Cameras, motion sensors,” he said.
I nodded, following the fence line into the sea. The sun still felt warm, but it crept towards the horizon and the sea had taken on a grayish tinge. Swimming in cold water was something we’d done on occasion, and something that we trained in, but I hardly looked forward to it and I doubted Kieren did either, though he looked like his normal stoic self.
Moments ticked by as we watched the sun set on the sea. The waiting was also familiar, but the tension was new, something created out of our situation, or something created out of what happened at the house; though, nothing had happened. I closed my eyes against the setting sun, feeling the wind through my hair, the sand under the palm of my hand, and then inward, to the breath, the inhale and the exhale, and further inward to the stillness there, the awareness of my center and the awareness of my partner.
Like before, in the room that was a cell, I felt Kieren’s being as if he floated in that stillness next to me, as much part of this centered piece of myself as the stars overhead or the raft I imagined floating on. A seemingly essential aspect, but not too, the doubt worming in, creating a wave-like effect, jarring enough that I pulled out of that space and opened my eyes. I halfway expected Kieren to be watching me, but he still stared forward at the setting sun, the light-catching at the shadows on his face, the dark smoothness of his hair.
Apparently feeling my gaze, he looked over and our eyes met for a moment, a flash of awareness, a sudden flutter of nerves in my stomach, in the palms of my hands, and an intense awareness of the man that was my partner and had been for six cycles.
“Ready?” he asked, voice breaking into the tension, but I heard the gravel of it as if something was in his throat. I could pursue it, I thought then, I could say something, I could push this, come clean with my knowledge, push him about the Warden.
I could have pursued it.
I didn’t. Nodding once instead, I turned to my boots to unlace them. Setting the boots aside, I pulled off my socks and then the pants I wore leaving only my underwear, binding, tank top, and the staff snuggled into the holster across my back. The wind picked up with the setting sun and I shivered once then twice as the colder air flowed across my bare skin.
Kieren had followed suit and now stood only in a pair of shorts, his knives in calf holsters.
“Ready?” he repeated, flashing me a grin that spoke of an excitement to get started on a nearly impossible task.
It was a familiar grin, one that I knew intimately, and it settled something inside. “Race you,” I yelled, taking off for the water.
Kieren easily caught up with me, trying to pass but I put in a bit of speed, digging my toes into the sand and we stayed together, racing towards the frigid water. I was the first one in, diving into the cold in a swift move. The cold took my breath away for a moment even as I started with strong strokes out to the sea. Next to me, Kieren’s movement through the water was a graceful dance and I worked to imitate his movements as I always did in these scenarios. He’d grown up near the sea before moving over, obvious in the ease in which he moved through the water.
We surfaced, now some distance out. The cold pressed, enveloped, my system compensating but only just. Kieren started off parallel to the shore and I followed. As Guardians, we trained constantly, both physically and mentally. That combined with the enhanced abilities gifted to us upon transferring made it so many times the physical toll of a mission was significantly less than it might be otherwise. Swimming through that frigid seawater, that ease disappeared. The water temperature pushed my augmentations to their limits and my arms started to burn as we kept going, getting closer yes, but still so far away. I reverted to the trick of counting my strokes, keeping Kieren just ahead of me so I could fall into his rhythm. Nevertheless, my back muscles started to protest, then my legs. When Kieren finally slowed to tread water, I felt the distance and the cold in my bones.
“Underneath here,” he said, the wind causing waves to slap at him. Daylight had turned gray with the setting sun, the perfect moment of infiltration as the early evening light waves skewed images caught by security cameras.
The pressure, the cold, pressed in on my head, the gray light giving way to darkness under the surface, but I ignored the low-level panic of not being able to see and not knowing where I was going, following my partner just ahead of me. We could swim underwater for some time, but just like everything else about this mission, Kieren pushed the comfort zone and my lungs were starting to protest when I finally followed Kieren to the surface. We came up underneath a concrete dock with just barely enough room for our heads. Taking in long slow breaths of oxygen, I looked over to my partner who was shadowed in the near darkness. A significant amount of reconnaissance had gone into this approach and I low-level appreciated Kieren having done it because I would have hated it.
He nodded downwards and then dove again.
I contained the sigh and followed.
The dive was shorter this time, but the water was darker, and I followed Kieren by feeling more than by sight, emerging from the water once more into almost blackness. We could operate in the dark, but Kieren brought forth his penlight and flicked it on. I blinked several times in the sudden illumination, my eyes slowly adapting. We were in a tunnel of concrete, a grate just in front of us.
“Sewage again?” I asked.
Kieren snorted. “Nope, just water. Come on.”
I swam with him to the grate. Kieren had already loosened it and he pushed it free, settling it just inside. Pulling himself in he waited for me to do the same before moving forward. The tunnel was small, barely big enough for Kieren’s larger body, but he managed, crawling further into the tunnel slowly and then dropping to his belly as the tunnel grew narrower. Before following, I placed the grate back in its place and then made my way along the concrete, scraping my bare knees as I did. The tunnel was slightly warmer than the water, which was a blessing, but which hardly made up for the cold that had seeped into my bones. The cold was not at dangerous levels yet, but I had to shove aside thoughts of cozy blankets and warm fires.
We came to another grate that Kieren shoved open with a loud screech that made both of us wince. We paused, both listening for any noise to suggest company, but all was silent except the lap of water behind us. “Almost there,” Kieren said, likely sensing my unease. The close quarters bothered me slightly, feeling the walls near my skin, right above me as I slowly made my way forward. I was never one to like small spaces, though moving helped and I kept my focus on the way ahead.
“Here,” Kieren whispered back at me and then he suddenly disappeared. I eased to where he had disappeared, a dark hole highlighted by Kieren’s light. I moved forward, holding on to the edge of the exit and flipping down to land next to him.
“Where are we?” I asked quietly, not able to see much other than that we were in a hallway.
“From what I can tell, the backend of the server rooms. This way.”
The hallway was not really a hallway, but a narrow passageway filled with a low hum. I saw various access points that did lead to walls that looked like servers with blinking red and green lights.
Kieren stopped in front of me and then pointed up at the vent above his head. Another grate.
“Thank God for venting,” I said, causing an appreciative grin from my partner. He hoisted me up by my foot and I undid the grate, twisting the screws with my fingers then handing it down. Grasping the ledge with both hands, I pulled myself up and in. Kieren followed without help, leaping and catching the side and then pulling himself up next to me.
“Which way?” I asked, once more in cramped quarters.
He started to the left. I followed.
The maze continued for a while more until Kieren paused and then motioned me to join him. The passageway had gotten bigger and I scooted up next to him, fitting my body next to his, skin against skin. The flash of awareness was instantaneous, and I consciously worked to not betray the sudden onset of desire I felt low in my belly, heat flooding my face at the inappropriate reaction. Looking downward at a lab spread out before us, I struggled against this new awareness, this sudden epiphany. Kieren lay perfectly still next to me, his breathing normal, and I was thankful for the darkness, trying to control my own breathing.
“That’s their lab,” Kieren whispered, his voice inches from my ear.
Not trusting my voice, I nodded and then because all I could focus on was the feel of Kieren’s skin against my own, the tickle of his breath against my ear, the heat that steadily grew in my lower belly, I dropped down into stillness and gathered myself. Outwardly I stared down at the lab, waiting with Kieren for what was to come next, internally I wrangled myself together, getting my body and mind under control. The technique was one we used when being tortured, ironically enough.
The lights in the lab came on and I pulled myself away from the internal stillness, distantly pleased to find that I had created a certain amount of control and barrier against the intense awareness I’d experienced moments before.
A man entered the lab. He was older, gray hair falling over his forehead, face wrinkled with time and stress, but upright, back straight, shoulders strong underneath a white lab coat. Another man followed, this one also gray-haired but portlier, not as physically fit though seeming to have more energy, his steps light and buoyant whereas the first man’s step was steady and cumbersome.
They headed to the center of the lab where a glass room encased a machine.
“Is that?” I asked Kieren in barely a whisper.
“Mhm,” he answered.
“This is the thing,” the shorter man said. “We aren’t going to be able to fix the situation unless we take steps against the Conrads.” They’d stopped in front of the glass room. The taller man was working buttons on a display there and after a moment, the doors to the room opened.
The shorter man continued. “It had to be taken care of. You know it, I know it. If we are to make progress, we are going to have to take drastic measures.”
The taller man nodded at his companion and then reached up and tapped a button above the doorway. The sleeve of his lab coat slipped from his arm, something I wouldn’t have noticed but for Kieren’s body suddenly tightening next to me.
“His wrist,” Kieren breathed, and I saw what he saw, five dots and a swirling of black around them indicating a level five Collector, only two steps underneath Tirius’s own position as Archivist.
“What,” I said, but then felt Kieren lean into me, hushing me with the contact as the two men walked into the walled room with the machine, cutting off their conversation. The event was supposed to happen tonight, and I saw evidence before me that it was manipulation, but manipulation by a ranked member of the Master Realm? A plant, something else, what was the meaning of it?
I watched their facial expressions as they continued to converse, the taller one typing into the machine.
A new player arrived on stage. Of medium height, with dull brown hair in a bun and wearing a lab coat of her own, I recognized the Guardian from our training. Kieren did as well.
We looked at each other and decided together. Kieren went first, landing lightly on his feet. The move took the Guardian by surprise and he had her on the ground within moments. I followed, landing without a sound just to the side of them and then helping as Kieren secured the Guardian, a knife at her throat to keep her quiet. We pulled away from the glass room, neither men inside noticing the events. I went around Kieren and the woman, peaking out into the hallway and, seeing it empty, nodded towards Kieren who dragged the woman behind him. We looked a sight, in our underwear, still damp from our swim, but the woman knew who we were, glancing at our own tattoos on our wrists.
“Fools,” she hissed at us despite the knife at her throat and then closed her eyes.
I felt the energy field as she gathered it to herself and made to shout at Kieren, but he’d felt it too and pushed the woman away from him just as her field coalesced and she disappeared in a Travel.
Kieren glanced at me and then catching sight of something above my head paled. I looked above my head, saw the time and then turned and sprinted towards him. The time was approximate, of course it was, no one knowing for sure, but the woman’s words were enough of a clue. Kieren grabbed my arm and pulled me against him. Distantly something rumbled, something heated, and then we Traveled ourselves, Arriving together in front of the house, afternoon sunshine bathing us in warmth.
I stepped away from Kieren immediately, still not trusting this new awareness, noticing but refusing to notice that he seemed reluctant to let me create space between us.
“When?” I asked instead.
Kieren pushed a hand through his hair, mussing the tightness of his caul, scanning the area before focusing on me. “Right after we left. I thought it the best scenario.”
I nodded, shivering then. “We’ll have to go back,” I said. “See what we interrupted. See if the Guardian was there to instigate or not.”
“And the Collector,” Kieren said, looking at me with a gaze I refused to meet.
“Yes,” I replied and then started for the entrance of the house. Kieren remained where he stood, scanning the area and I stopped to wait for my partner, but it was in Kieren’s brief moment of looking around, the slight delay, that created the opportunity, and just as it had happened with Tirius, the hooded figure emerged from nowhere, grabbed my arms, wrapped around me in a full-body embrace, and pulled me out of the timeline.
The Arrival was abrupt, sideways, but I was already pulling my staff from the small of my back even as my eyes tried to adjust. I swallowed down on the bile filling my throat.
“I am really sick of that,” I said through clenched teeth, extending my staff with a flick of my wrist and blinking rapidly to clear my eyes. The prick in my neck landed without my knowledge, though the spot was sore later, instead, the world started to tilt, and before I knew what was happening, I fell, my body distantly hitting the ground as blackness stole over me.
Emerging into consciousness was like climbing out of a well, the light far off and distant, the sounds echoing and blending into a cacophony of nonsense. As the light grew brighter and the sounds clearer, the pain seeped into my bones, nerves, and then finally into my head, thumping in time with my pulse.
Forcing my eyes open, I squinted at the bright light. The light slowly dimmed to a low glow that barely lit the circular room. I was roped to a chair in the middle of the room, still only wearing my underwear. Two-story stone walls created a sheer expanse of gray all around me, an equally dull gray stone floor beneath the wooden chair I sat on. There were no windows, and the ceiling was high enough and the lights dim enough that I was unable to make out the top portion of the room. The room smelled musty, dank earth and wet and was altogether unfamiliar. Trying at the ropes at my wrist, pushing and pulling, my skin scraped against the rough surface, but the rope remained tight and restrictive.
The ropes that linked my ankles to the chair legs were similarly tight.
The door opened.
I stopped moving, though resisted the urge to appear still unconscious.
A woman crossed the threshold. She appeared human but there was something not entirely human about her, as if she wore the skin of a human over her own form. Her hair was short, cut around her chin and gray, her skin a perfectly smooth marble color that did little to add to the believability of her form.
A man followed her. A Sideian. He looked as if he could have been related to Kieren so similar in appearance he was to my partner, though his dark hair was wavy and loose around his face instead of pulled back in the way Kieren preferred. And then there was the way he held himself. There was a way about the Sideian, men and women both; a projection, something in the way they carried themselves that suggested years of conflict and warfare. Kieren’s still awareness portrayed his origin realm. This man had the same still intensity.
The woman stopped in front of me. She was only a little bit taller than me even sitting, but it felt as if she towered over me from a great height.
“Who talks first here?” I asked, trying for nonchalant, though the unblinking nature of her gaze wore on my calm.
“You are Guardian Wren Oridian, partner of Kieren Taninian, formerly of the human realm,” the woman said, speaking in the human tongue but lilting along the lines as if the language, like her body, was not her original.
“And your point?” I asked, looking beyond the unwavering gaze to the man standing at the door.
“We need to know the location of the Archivist,” the woman replied.
I frowned. “Tirius?”
She stared at me.
“Of course,” I muttered. “It always comes back to that damn man.” I tugged at my hands, wishing that I could rub at the headache that was still pounding behind my eyes. “Look. I don’t know where he is; he comes and goes, popping in and out of timelines and storylines like some kind of maniacal jack-in-the-box.”
The woman tilted her head bird-like. “Jack-in-the-box?”
I huffed. “Never mind. I don’t know where Tirius is; I never know where Tirius is. He makes himself known when he wants something, and then he leaves. If you’re able to Travel, which you obviously are, I can tell you where and when to find him in the Master realm. Will that do?”
The Sideian stepped forward and I noticed how silently his step was even as he demanded my attention with his size, green hazel eyes hard. “No. Not in the Master Realm. The human timeline.”
“Did you check World War I?” I asked, only somewhat flippantly.
The Sideian took another step forward. He was easily two heads taller than the woman, and twice as wide, heavily muscled shoulders outlined under a dark gray long-sleeved shirt.
The woman put a hand up to either stop me from talking or the Sideian from doing violence. Both of us turned our attention to her.
“You misunderstand us. We know where Tirius is theoretically within all the timelines; however, we need to know where he is in the timeline in which we found you.”
I shook my head. “Really, sorry. At this point, I would love to give him up to you, but I don’t know. Really. I saw him a bit ago, he was there, where you kidnapped me, but he left without saying where he was going or what he was doing next. He isn’t one to tell others those things. His agenda is always entirely his own.”
A ghost of a smile played across the women’s features and I wondered if she knew exactly what I was talking about due to personal experience.
“Why was he with you?” the Sideian asked.
“He was there with information about something my partner and I were looking into, and also to tell us, well, to manipulate the timeline really.”
“Explain,” he pursued.
I told them about Kieren’s return to the Master Realm in order to warn me of the danger in staying at the Citadel, and how we were in that time and place to possibly stop, or help, a human event from occurring.
I didn’t tell them about the Collector and the Guardian at the lab and what that might mean, mostly because I had no idea what it might mean myself.
“More manipulation,” the Sideian said, his voice low and the statement more to himself than to either the woman or me.
I glanced back and forth between the two. “Are you going to tell me who you all are, why it is I’m here, obviously against my will, being held in ropes?”
The woman glanced down at me, and then over to the Sideian. “Untie her.”
He shook his head once, long wavy hair emulating the movement. “No. She’s a trained Guardian.”
The woman’s head tilted. “You think she can overcome you?”
“No,” he replied immediately. “But I’d rather not have to kill her.”
The woman looked at him with the same bland, no emotion expression until he relented, a knife appearing in his right hand. I flinched when he descended, his presence wrapped up in the smell of saltwater and something woodsy, there and gone within a breath, my arms and legs free from their rope bindings.
I rubbed at my wrists, red from the rope, creating a stark background against the black tattoo. I watched the Sideian warily.
“Please, this is so very important,” the woman said.
“Why?” I asked, realizing that probably should have been my first question.
The woman paused, and again, I was struck by the uncanny nature of her person, the unusual way her body seemed to be not quite in-sync with her movements. She pointed to a pile of clothing I’d missed before. “I will show you. First, get dressed.”
I did as she said, walking somewhat unsteadily towards the clothing. I pulled on black pants and a tank, both of which looked suspiciously like Guardian attire.
“Follow me,” she said once I stood dressed.
“Cana,” the Sideian warned.
“It will be fine,” she said, turning and walking from the room.
I eyed the Sideian but when he remained where he was, I slowly followed the woman.
He fell in step behind me, and I tried not to let it show that this bothered me right down to my toes. I had no weapons, something I had immediately discerned upon regaining consciousness, which put me at a decidedly inferior position in a fight with the man behind me. Trying to distract myself from the uneven nature of my situation, I studied the hallway that we now walked. Like the room, the floors and walls were stone. Electric torches lined the hall and when we started up the spiral stone stairwell, those torches became more frequent. The bare stone walls gave way to tapestries between the torches until we stepped from the stairwell into a long hall of intermittent windows that were several stories tall. It was night, darkness black and impenetrable outside the window, but the hall itself was lit with more torches, the stone floor changing to thick carpets in dark, densely woven fabric. Wherever I was, it was somewhere of wealth.
“This way,” Cana said, opening an arched door.
I followed, though I stopped when I crossed the threshold and was met with a wall of screens and technology. There were several other beings in the room, all of them looking my way, but I barely noticed them, instead trying to puzzle out the many scenes that were playing on the screen.
“Move,” the Sideian said behind me, and though he did not physically touch me, his presence was big enough that it jerked me out of my surprise. Walking to the back of the room, I followed Cana down a steel stairwell this time and into an area that appeared to be a meeting room and a kitchen rolled into one. A long table filled out one part of the room, couches and chairs another, and a full kitchen in the remaining portion.
Cana opened a door near the kitchen space. “Ti, tea please,” she said to someone in the other room, then she turned to me, indicating with a wave of her hand that I should sit at the long table.
“What is this place?” I asked, ignoring the invitation.
“Somewhere you shouldn’t be,” the Sideian said.
I ignored him, as did Cana who continued to stand near the door until a slight Diax emerged from the room. It was little more than a child, perhaps older, its body not yet filled out. When it saw me, it paused, vibrating.
“It’s fine, Ti,” Cana said, laying a hand on the Diax’s sloping backside free yet of scales. “Tea, please.”
Ti did as it was told, going to the kitchen. Because my attention was clearly making it nervous, I looked away, taking a seat though not without caution, watching to see where the Sideian would deposit himself. I was not at all surprised when he stood at the only entrance to the room, arms crossed in front of him, leaning against a door jam, staring at me.
I looked back to Cana who was typing into a handheld device that had emerged from somewhere. As she typed, the wall behind the conference table lowered, revealing a large black screen with the white words “input needed” in T’ngali. Cana typed something else into the slim pad she held and the T’ngali disappeared to be replaced with an array of sectioned off scenes. The content was the same or very similar to what I’d spied in the room we’d walked through.
“What am I looking at?” I asked, scanning the squares. They were like security footage of places; some of them in extremely rural settings, others depicting cities with beings walking alongside various modes of transportation. Two of the squared scenes depicted deep space.
“These are a handful of timelines that we are currently observing,” Cana said, pushing something on her tablet so that another wave of squares appeared.
“Why?” I asked, trying to make a connection from one square to another and not seeing any similarities between any of those places.
“These are specific locations in which a manipulation, as you call it, has occurred.”
I sat forward. “Has occurred?”
“These screens, yes.” Cana typed something else into her handheld and the scenery changed once more, revealing much more population heavy scenes ranging from those with space faring technology to two screens showing horses and wagons. “These are recordings prior to the manipulation event.” Cana pointed to one that looked very familiar. “Watch this one please.”
I did as she asked, putting my hands on the table and leaning even further towards the scene that showed a heavily populated city area. The high-rise buildings reached towards a storm heavy sky, Rushielian beings going about their business, hover vehicles zipping about on multiple levels of roadways between buildings. “I know this place,” I said, sitting back when the Diax deposited a cup of tea in front of me.
“You should,” the Sideian replied at the door. “You played a part in destroying it.”
I looked over at the Sideian, his body tense, his gaze two shades away from murder.
“What are you talking about?”
Cana zoomed the camera and there I was, dressed in the black hooded robes we’d donned for our last mission; Kieren unmistakably at my side though to the casual observer we appeared as our disguises suggested.
I looked back and forth between Cana and the Sideian. “What is this?”
“You remember this mission?” Cana asked, and in her voice, I almost heard gentleness. Almost.
I nodded. “Yes. It was the last mission I did before all this,” I replied, waving a hand to encompass all of what had happened since then.
“Can you tell us what the mission was?”
If I was still a Guardian, still working for the Master Realm, still bound by my vows, I would have denied the request, but those vows no longer held, so instead I nodded, focusing on the video showing Kieren and I walking down a Rushielian hallway. “It was a directive from the Warden himself. We were given information to deliver to a specific member of the Grand Council. It had to be delicately done because of the tension, so we infiltrated the Council Compound, delivered the message, and left. There were no casualties.” There was a little more to the story than that, obviously, but I wasn’t going to pass on the rest of the details unless pressed.
“Then,” the Sideian prompted, finally peeling himself from the wall, stalking towards me until he came to a stop on the other side of the table.
I watched him, mind going over the different weapons I could make out of the chair beside me or the hot tea in front of me. “What do you mean?” I asked.
Cana typed something else and the scene changed, a different camera feed showing buildings decimated, the streets empty, an ash rain falling from the sky. “This was the result,” she said.
I shook my head, something heavy and dark in my chest and I swallowed at the denial in my throat.
“You never thought to question the directives, the missions, never thought to ask why you were being told to do what you were being told to do?” the Sideian asked, scorn dripping from his words.
I turned to him, anger taking the space of horror. “We take orders. We do as we’re told. You should know all about that, Sideian,” I replied, sneering the last word.
Though he stood in one place, his entire being stilled and I tensed in response.
“Colm,” Cana said. “She speaks true. You cannot fault her for it.”
I kept my gaze steady on him, daring him to make a move. My staff was gone, along with my knives, but I had skill and experience, and cycles of sparring with another Sideian, albeit a slighter one.
He turned away, taking a seat, artificially relaxing into it.
Cana changed the scene. “There are many of these moments,” she said, switching to other places and times.
“Because of me?” I asked.
“No, this is the only one that we’ve found that you’ve had an influence on. But, other Guardians, yes.”
I shook my head, looking down at the tea in front of me. I had not had a single sip, but my stomach heaved and rolled with the information and I left it there, letting it cool. “As a Collector, we are given specific directions to never interfere. We are taught that these timelines, these experiments, are holy. They are constructs of something greater than us, or anyone. They are sacred. Tirius showed me Sarajevo, and I thought it was an isolated event, something that was out of the ordinary, but you’re saying that this is occurring all the time, in different timelines, and that the Guardians are complicit in this?” I looked up. “That directive to not become involved, to do nothing to the timeline, that’s all made up?”
Cana sat down next to me, studying my face. “You were taught to respect the timeline as a Collector. What were you taught as a Guardian?”
I looked at my hands. “Our purpose is to guard the wellbeing of the Master Realm. I always believed that meant we were guarding the sanctity of what I was taught as a Collector.” I pushed back my chair and stood up. I ignored Colm’s tension as I walked towards the many different squares of reality. “There are so many rules, even as a Guardian we are taught not to interfere and to follow our directive exactly, all so we do not influence a being or a timeline, or make any changes without permission. We are to go in, do our job, and get out.”
“And you did that well,” Cana said, again with the gentleness in her voice. “But what your job was, your missions, those were not innocent, not without significant impact.”
I stared; my eye caught by the dark scene of space. “This is a giant game then? A giant farce? Who is making these decisions to manipulate timelines and beings? What is actually going on?”
“A war,” Cana said quietly.
I turned back to look at her, skin tight. “A war? Between who?”
“Between those who always go to war; those with power-seeking to garner more power.”
“And Tirius is one of those with power?” I asked, wondering if that theory helped explain his actions but quickly realized that it explained absolutely nothing.
Cana smiled, seeming to read my thoughts. “Tirius is trying to stop the war; as are we.”
“He knows about all this?” I asked, waving my hand at the screens, at the two of them, at the Diax who still stood quietly in the corner of the room. I was thinking of the conversation we’d had before Tirius had left the night before, and he hadn’t seemed so sure at that moment.
“He founded all this,” Cana explained, waving a hand around her. “We are trying to stop the manipulations, the interference, the war that is using innocent beings, entire timelines, as their pawns.” Cana put a hand towards me. “He was recruiting you when he took you to Sarajevo.”
I stared at the woman.
“Cana,” Colm warned, but she ignored him, keeping her gaze on me.
“He believed, believes, that you are instrumental in ending this conflict.”
Shaking my head, I took a seat once more, picking up the tea and holding it. “That doesn’t make sense. Why not just tell me?”
“Perhaps he had not yet found the moment, or perhaps you have not yet interacted with the Tirius we know,” she replied.
Colm snorted. “It’s because he wasn’t sure if you were the right one,” he corrected.
I put the tea down. “My twin.” I looked over at Cana. “Right? That’s what he’s talking about? I wasn’t supposed to move on. It was supposed to be this other woman, with her degrees and changing the world.”
Cana met my gaze with her own steady one. “I don’t know.”
“But it doesn’t matter,” Colm interrupted. “Because Tirius is gone. Disappeared. Nowhere to be found. And without him, your involvement doesn’t mean anything.” He turned to Cana. “I’ve said this before, and I am saying it again, we do not need Tirius to move onto the next stages of our plan. We know what to do, we don’t need his presence to carry the plans out.” He pointed at me with a finger that I had the sudden urge to break, continued. “Whatever he believed about her involvement has always been just a theory. We don’t need to find him. And we don’t need her here.”
Cana focused on the large Sideian. “I will not be a blind executioner. That is not our role here, Colm. You know this. We need Tirius and the information he has.”
Colm hesitated. Clearly, this was a conversation they’d had before, one in which they disagreed. I tried capitalizing on the moment. “He can be found if you go far enough back into the Master timeline. I did exactly that.”
The two exchanged looks. Cana spread her hands out. “You see, our sources are unable to find him in any timeline.”
The sources aspect caught my attention, but the second half of the statement struck me hard in the chest. I stared. “What?”
“He’s disappeared from all time,” Cana explained.
Shaking my head, I felt something shift under my feet. “No, that’s not possible.”
Cana shrugged thin shoulders. “Whether it is, or it isn’t, it appears as if it is the case.”
“But I have a memory of him, so do you. If he was completely erased from reality, none of us would remember him. It would be a blank space of nothing.”
“Yes, we’re aware, which means he does exist somewhere, somehow, which is also why you are here.”
“And how am I supposed to find him?” I asked.
Cana seemed to smile.
Colm broke in. “It’s late and we need to leave. You can discuss this on the way.” He spoke as he typed at a handheld device that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.
Feeling the ground of uncertainty, I frowned. “You’re leaving?”
“We are,” Cana said, then clicking the tablet the wall went black again. “We have something to show you, but it requires some travel.” She tilted her head. “How are you with space travel?”
I frowned. “Actual space travel?”
She nodded. “Where we go, you cannot Travel.”
That was impossible and that doubt must have come across through my expression because she did that smile thing in response. “You’ll see.”
“And my partner?” I asked, not moving from where I sat.
Cana hesitated in her step, looking over at Colm who waited at the door.
“Your partner…” She began.
The Sideian cut her off. “Not now.” He looked at me. “We need to leave. Now. Do I carry you, or do you come of your own free will?”
“That’s not how free will works,” I fired back but got up from where I sat, following them from the room, wondering what it was that Cana was about to say before Colm stopped her.
Originally published 2020, copywrite 2020