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PART FOUR: THE SANDS

CHAPTER 12

The sun, a fiery eye on the sky, watched as Dom and Elze slid down the dune to where the body had come to a rest. The man was wearing a black suit, of a style that Dom didn’t recognize, and his footwear was equally odd. They looked more like boots than dress shoes, to which Dom ascribed a notion that the man was more comfortable in a different sort of uniform than an off-the-rack business suit.

Elze touched the man’s shoulder, as if she were afraid to wake him, but they both knew he wasn’t sleeping. His limbs were too floppy and his neck was bent at an unnatural angle. She sucked in a breath and rolled the body over. She gasped, and even Dom felt his stomach tighten at the sight of the man’s face.

He was dried out, like a piece of fruit left too long in the sun. His skin was leathery and tight across his skull. His eyes were gone, and his mouth gaped open. His lips were pulled back, showing his teeth.

“How is this possible?” Dom asked. He looked away from the corpse, unsettled by its desiccated state.

Elze started going through the man’s pockets. “He’s been here awhile,” she said. “I was matched to his signal, but I wasn’t in phase.”

“I don’t understand what that means.”

Elze didn’t find anything in the man’s pockets, but when she pushed up the sleeves of his suit jacket, she revealed thick bracelets on both of the man’s arms. Dom, curious in spite of his confusion, knelt beside her to get a better look. The bracelets had no discernible clasps and were made from a strange mesh that looked both slick and bumpy. “What are those?” he asked.

“WOC bands,” Elze said.

“What bands?”

“Wave Oscillation and Calibration.” She pushed up her left sleeve and showed Dom her bracer. It was made from the same material as the bracelets the corpse was wearing, but hers covered most of her forearm. “It’s how OTP agents manipulate the time wave.” She raised one of bracelets and looked at her bracer. Dom didn’t see anything on the ridged surface, but Elze was looking at her arm like she was seeing something. “Shit,” she muttered, letting go of the dead man’s arm.

“What?” Dom asked.

She stood, ignoring his question. “Come on,” she said, starting back up the dune.

Dom hesitated, and then he reached for the dead man. The man’s arm was light and the skin felt like old burlap. The bracelet was cooler to the touch than he expected, and he was surprised to find it tight against the corpse’s mummified skin. In fact, he couldn’t get under the edge of it at all, which surprised him. The body had dried out, the skin tightening. He didn’t understand how the bracelet could be so tight, unless it had shrunk with the body . . . ? Regardless, there was no way of getting it off without detaching the whole arm, and how was he going to do that?

Dom let go of the arm and left the corpse in the sand. Feeling both a chill down his spine and a feverish bloom on his cheeks, Dom trudged after Elze.

She stood at the top of the dune, and when Dom reached her side, she dropped the hand she had been shielding her eyes with and let out a heavy sigh. “Nothing,” she said.

Dom looked in the direction she been staring, and saw an endless expanse of sand that reached all the way to a horizon that wavered and danced with heat. He looked to his left and then to his right, and saw exactly the same thing. To be thorough, he looked behind him, and the horizon waved back at him, maddeningly the same. “Okay,” he said. “It looks like you and I are the only people for—I don’t know—it’s probably not hyperbole to say ‘for as far as I can see,’ so maybe you could take a minute or two and explain to me what the hell is going on?”

“There’s no time,” she said. When he looked at her, he saw both the tension in her face as well as a fierce spark of merriment in her eyes.

“Right,” he said. “For a second there, I thought you were serious.”

Her lips curled up at the corners. “I am, but not for the reasons you are thinking.”

“Of course not.” He fought back the urge to shake her.

“That body down there is an OotCee,” she said, nodding toward the corpse at the bottom of the dune. “A Utilitarian Temporal Courier. The OTP—”

“Hang on. The what?”

“The Office of Temporal Perpetuation,” she said.

“Which you work for.”

Elze inclined her head. “Which I work for,” she said. “The OTP use OotCees to carry messages and packages across the time wave. They’re vat-grown and don’t have any real personality or identity. They can pass as real people—most have a basic interactivity package installed—but for the most part, they follow their directives and then return. Their course along the wave is usually preset into their WOC bands, though some are designated DNR and they just . . .”

“Just what?”

Elze waved a hand at the sand around them. “They self-eliminate.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s more efficient to dispose of the OotCee than to bring it back, but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t leave anything behind. You can’t have them immolate or jump off a building. There are too many variables: an innocent might get hurt, or the body be recovered. And so, the WOC is programmed to send the OotCee to a time and place where they can . . . disappear.”

Dom looked at the dunes again, seeing them in a different light. “So, let me see if I get this. This—this Utility—”

“Utilitarian.”

“—Utilitarian Temporary, Tertiary—whatever it is—opened a door and came here. Using the same technology in your own gizmos, you were able to hitch a ride or come through the same door or something, but instead of coming through at the same time as it did, we came through later. I dunno. Weeks? Months? Years? It doesn’t matter. Regardless, you brought us here, which is the middle of some empty desert somewhere—somewhen—where all your discarded tech goes to die.”

Elze wrinkled her nose. “More or less.”

“Should I even bother asking why? Why did you chase after it?”

“It spooked.”

“Who did? The not-a-person guy?”

“Yes. The OotCee. It was watching us, and when it realized it had been spotted, it ran.”

“Why would he—why would it—do that?”

“I’m not sure,” Elze said. “That’s—that’s outside their programming.”

“Their what?”

“Their programming. Their . . .” She searched for the right words. “It’s a set of instructions that inform them how to act.”

“Like . . . Like stage actors?”

“Sure,” she said. “Like actors. They have lines and stage directions. They follow them in order to perform certain actions. In order to do the things they need to do.”

“And that’s all they know?”

“Yes. That’s all they know.”

“What—what happens when they encounter something they don’t know?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, good actors learn their lines and stage directions, sure. But they’re also capable of improvising. They react to the other actors. If something changes on the stage, they adapt what they do. Can’t these . . . OotCees do the same thing?”

Elze frowned. “I suppose so, but I don’t know the details of how that would work.”

“You said they have a—what was it? A interactivity program?”

“Yes, it’s a basic package that includes baseline responses to a variety of core human interactions.”

“If I say ‘hi,’ it’ll say ‘hello’ back. That sort of thing?”

“Yes. Like that. It allows them to function effectively enough to not draw attention to themselves.”

“But this one drew attention to itself,” Dom said. “I feel like you’re contradicting what you just told me.”

“Yes,” Elze said. “Which means this one had special programming. It was supposed to run when it was spotted.”

“Why?”

Elze had been scanning the horizon while they had been talking, and she finally spotted what she had been searching for. “There,” she said, pointing.

There was a black mark on the horizon. At first, it was nothing more than a dot, but as Dom watched, it started to get bigger.

“We were lured here,” Elze said.

“We?”

Elze sighed. “Yes,” she said.

Dom glanced at her, and she wouldn’t meet his gaze. “I’m sorry,” she said.

The dot grew bigger, resolving into a black triangle. It was an airship of some kind, and it was heading straight at them.

Dom realized she wasn’t apologizing for bringing him here, she was apologizing for what she expected to happen next.

*

CHAPTER 13

Dominion Eldritch Sebastian had been in tight spots before—more than can be reasonably enumerated in the short time before the approaching airship arrives—and one of the critical things he had learned from prior incidents was that panicking never solved anything. In fact, more often than not, panicking was embarrassing for everyone involved. The person panicking looked terrible, for one. There’s a reason why “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” is the cliché it is, because nobody wants to see that. Plus, it’s exhausting, and it’s best to save your strength for when you can actually accomplish something, versus looking like . . . you know . . .

Besides, he was in a desert. There was nowhere to run. 

Dom did his best to look unconcerned about the approaching aircraft. His brain, on the other hand, was rapidly flicking through a stack of images—freeze-frame shots of the past few days. What had he missed? What angle could he play? And, more critically, how much of what Elze had said was total bullshit? 

Most of it, he decided. 

He had been played. That much was obvious—well, to be fair, he wasn’t sure he would have seen the con coming. There were elements of her story that couldn’t be faked—how they got to this desert, for one. And, as he himself had done once or twice, when you knew more about the people and the time period than those who were living in it, you had a killer advantage. It was like sitting down at a card table and not only being able to read all the other players’ cards, but also knowing what they were going to draw from the deck before they did. 

However, there were ways to play the player in games like that. Dom had had first-hand experience in this. There was that game in Berlin, back in ’37, when he realized he had been setup by the house. Informing on your fellow citizens was a national pastime in Germany leading up to the Second World War, and the proprietor of the gambling house had wanted to send Dom a message. It hadn’t been a terribly clever attempt—a beating from Germany’s secret police wasn’t very nuanced—and Dom had seen the trap before it had been sprung. A greedier man would have played the cards he had been given, but doing so would have culminated in a series of hands so egregious stacked that even the dimmest of players would have to acknowledge that Dom was cheating. 

Dom had cheated, of course, but not in the way the dealer had anticipated. He folded on a full house; he took three cards instead of one on another hand; and he engaged in an outrageous bluff with a Gestapo Kriminalkommissar who had the power to throw him into an unmarked cell. In doing so, he altered the flow of the cards, and instead of being dealt a royal flush on the penultimate hand (as he suspected he had been set up to do), he wound up with a pair of fours. He still won, of course, but did so by doubling down on his bluff, which earned him a steely-eyed stare from the Kriminalkommissar and enough winnings to pay outstanding debts in another time and place. 

A pair of fours, he thought. Two, four. All he was missing was another two, and he’d have the signal the woman had passed him. It was easy to ascribe symbols where there were none. People had been doing so for generations. The trick was knowing when you were working too hard to put sense to a situation where there was none. 

He reflected on the woman in red—the one who wasn’t Elze, but at the same time, might have been. She had flashed him a series of numbers—two, four, two—but she had also put a finger to her lips, suggesting that he was supposed to . . . what? Keep a secret? Not share with anyone what she had told him? 

“Messages from future selves are really annoying,” he said out loud. 

“What?” Elze’s eyes were wide. After her apology, she had been standing awkwardly beside him. 

“I saw someone dressed like you,” Dom said. “Shortly after you took off after this OotCee. She tried to tell me something, but . . .” He trailed off, hoping he had baited the hook enough. 

“She? It was a woman?” 

Dom nodded. 

“What did she look like?” 

“She was wearing a cloak like yours, but she had the hood up. I couldn’t see her hair. Just her face.” He offered Elze a smile. “She was pretty.” 

“That’s it?” 

“Well, that cloak hides a lot,” Dom said. “And she was on the other side of the street.” 

Elze fumed silently for a moment. A muscle worked in her jaw. 

The aircraft, which had been steadily approaching, was close enough to make out some details. It wasn’t a plane like Dom had thought. It was more like a boat, but broader in the beam and lacking masts. It did have a single canopy that was sail-like, but his mind balked at how a sail would work on a vessel that flew in the air versus across a surface. The canopy had markings on it, which were unlike any sigil or flag of a nation or ruler he knew, and his knowledge of such iconography was extensive. 

“What did this woman tell you?” Elze asked. 

“It’s not important,” Dom said. 

“It might be.” 

Dom smiled at Elze. It was a slightly patronizing smile, and it probably wasn’t the wisest choice, but, well, he had made his share of mistakes in that regard, hadn’t he? This was merely one more to add to that list. You might be playing me, the smile said, but you aren’t in control of the game. 

He was surprised when she smiled back at him. “Hang on to that attitude,” she said, looking at the skyboat as it slowed to a stop over a nearby dune. “And we might have a chance.” 

“We?” 

She nodded. “Whatever happens next—and I expect it will get strange—remember what that woman told you.” 

A portal opened in the side of the boat, and three dark shapes launched from it. They unfolded into winged creatures that swooped across the sand toward them. They wore armor that was like the beetle-men Dom had seen at Le Bivouac, but these also sported wings and jetpacks. They also carried long-muzzled weapons, and as they soared over the dune where Dom and Elze were standing, she grabbed his arm. 

“Kiss me,” she said. 

“What? Now?” 

She pulled him close. “I want to know what it feels like,” she said. “In this body.” 

Before he could lean toward her—who was he to deny such a request?—one of the winged men fired his weapon. There was a flash of smoke, and then Dom felt something strike him in the chest. He was knocked backward, and he tumbled unceremoniously down the far side of the dune. His arms were pinned to his sides, and he couldn’t see anything. All he could feel was the sensation of falling, going end over end like he was in a barrel that was tumbling down a hillside. When he finally came to a stop, even that feeling was gone. 

He was motionless, in the dark, and unable to move. He was cocooned, and he couldn’t even open his mouth to scream. Now is a good time to panic, he thought, and if he had another thought after that one, it was . . .  

. . . lost to—wait, where was he? 

Dom, his brain realizing that he could move, thrashed. He was tangled in some sort of netting, and when he opened his eyes, he gradually realized it wasn’t a net, but bedsheets that were constricting his movements. This awareness—along with the presence of mind to realize he was actually conscious—calmed him down. However, the sheets were wrapped around him, and their tight embrace was triggering a reminder of what his previous thoughts had been. Had it been a dream? He yanked an arm free and nearly clouted himself in the face. There was a pillow under his head—more than one, in fact—and he elbowed them away. He got his other arm free, and shoved himself upright. Where the hell am I? he thought. 

It wasn’t his bedroom in Paris. That much was certain. Nor was it one of the suites in the Hôtel Napoleon, which was a very distant possibility but one he didn’t mind entertaining for a few seconds. Those few minutes in the hotel room with Chaumonieux were the last time he had felt . . . in control. Ever since then, everything had been topsy-turvy. 

And now? Well, now was waking up in a strange bedroom, wearing—he checked under the sheet—strange pajamas. At least I’m not naked, he thought. 

The room wasn’t very large, and the walls weren’t straight. There was a single window, covered in heavy glass, and the light coming through it was hot and bright. The bed wasn’t enormous, but it was more than enough for his frame. The sheets were light—a cross between cotton and silk, he decided—and they had been tucked tightly around a unitarian mattress that was machine-stitched. The frame of the bed contained a pair of locked drawers under the mattress, and the whole unit was attached to the wall. It was made from the same material as the walls—a smooth metal that was unlike any steel or alloy he’d ever seen. 

A narrow bench stuck out from the wall in the corner opposite the bed, and there was a bundle of clothing neatly arranged on it. Feeling adventurous, Dom pulled his legs free of the sheets and got out of bed. The metal floor was cool against his bare feet, and somewhat unsteadily, he made his way to the other side of the room. It was only three steps, but it was far enough. The room spun and all he wanted to do was go back to bed. 

He sat down on the bench, gripping its edge with his hands, as if he were afraid of falling off. Which was a silly fear, wasn’t it? How do you fall off a flat surface? 

From the bench, he could see the view afforded by the window , and glancing out, he realized the source of his internal distress. He was moving. Rather, his room was inside some vessel that was moving. I’m on the skyboat, he thought. Of course you are, replied the part of his brain that was already alert and thinking about his situation. 

This same part of him also pointed out that other than the window, through which he could watch the dune sea undulate by, there was no way out of the room. 

Of course there is a door, he mentally scoffed. How else did I end up here?  

Bravo, his survival instinct crowed. Glad to have you back.

He ignored that voice. Inspecting the bundle on the bench, he found a light shirt made from the same material as the loose pants he was wearing. He checked for a manufacturer’s tag and inspected the seams. Manufacturing and material construction provided clues as to the time period, and Dom made such an inspection a regular part of his mental calibrations when he arrived. There was no tag in the shirt, and like the sheets and the pants he was wearing, the stitching suggested both high-speed and automated machining were commonplace in this era. 

There were also socks and a pair of canvas loafers. Both were the same pale blue color as the shirt and pants. He slipped the clothes on, marveling for a moment at how light they felt. I’m ahead of 1958, he thought, but he wasn’t sure how far. He glanced out the window again. There were only a few spots on the planet which could offer this much sand, and until some other feature of the landscape presented itself, the true date was going to elude him. 

The skyboat started to turn, a change he felt as his hips made contact with the wall. Steadying himself against the wall, he got closer to the window. The dunes were still the most prevalent feature of the landscape, but there was an irregularity in the landscape now. A place where the sand didn’t fill everything. A road? he thought, having to guess as the skyboat was flying too low for him to be sure. 

The boat turned again, and he finally spotted something different. Jagged spires rose up from the sand. They were twisted and pitted, and at first, Dom thought they were husks of buildings. No, not buildings, he realized, recognizing a mismatched pair of spires. Cathedrals. He was seeing the tops of churches. 

And then, the all-too familiar shape of France’s most iconic landmark hove into view, and Dom knew they were flying over Paris, but the famous city was covered in sand . . . 

*

CHAPTER 14

Elze watched their approach to the Eiffel Tower from a room not far from Dom’s. Like his, it was nothing more than a space for a bed, a desk, and a window. Unlike Dom, she knew there was a door in the blank wall, and when the ship reached its final destination, someone would open it. Until then, there was no reason to panic. Everything was proceeding according to plan.

Well, mostly.

During the hour or so they had been in flight, she had been mentally gnawing at the plan, and she was mildly surprised it hadn’t come apart already. It was rare for an Elevated Architect to propose an incursion, and even rarer for such an extrapolation to be seriously considered by Central Authority, but somehow the idea of using one of Cencarrion’s own waveframes to infiltrate their organization made it through committee. Someone had put forth her designation as the right agent for the job, and when she Returned, she was decanted into this body. We shall provide you with a lure, the Illuminated Committee Speaker had told her during the briefing, one that they won’t be able to resist. Once they take the bait, you will be returned—she had been keenly aware of his stress on the word—to their fold.

If she was fortunate, she’d be in the same room as one, or both, of the Twins. It would be the closest an OTP asset had been in generations. All she had to do was re-engage the body’s security protocols and . . .

It wasn’t the first time she had been send on a suicide mission. That was the benefit of Returning, after all. The physical body wasn’t required.

But how will my signal be acquired? she had asked. This isn’t an OTP frame. Do we have the DNA signature for these Cencarrion frames?

The Speaker had patted her hand. Don’t worry about that, he had said. This is all Operational Security Protocol Nine.

She had smiled and nodded, earnestly playing the part of the good soldier. She paid attention during the briefing, asking all the right questions, and she gave nothing away when they dissembled on their answers. We’re sorry, they said. This mission has been classified OpSec P-9, they said. We can’t afford the possibility of key information falling into their hands, they said.

We aren’t bringing you back, was what they didn’t say.

The rest had been like any other mission. She departed Perpetuum-3, following a wave that brought her to the early aughts, where she had been told to wait for final instructions. Her new handler wasn’t going to be Weston, of course, and that realization had stung a bit more than she had anticipated, but what had surprised her was that they sent an OotCee. Though, in retrospect, it made sense. OotCees were manufactured not to care who sent them; they didn’t care about the individual they were tasked to meet; and they were incapable of deciphering the message they were carrying.

But it wasn’t an OotCee, she realized. It was someone pretending to be a Utilitarian Temporal Courier. It had been a good act, one that required an exceptional amount of control over facial muscles and vocal cords. Regardless, it had worked, and she had accepted the courier’s message without being distracted by its origin.

The orders had been straight-forward: go to Paris, make contact with the individual who lives in the flat on Rue de Mézièzes. He will have a Rembrandt original, the orders said, and she had been astonished to see the painting hanging right there in the foyer of the apartment. Your counter-signal is the notion of a lost Rembrandt. He will accompany you . . . That part of the mission hadn’t been difficult. Dom’s face had lit up when she had mentioned the painting, and he had quickly agreed to accompany her on her quest to retrieve it from a private collection. Then, when she had spotted the OotCee watcher—when he had signaled her to follow him—she had done so, hauling Dom with her. All the way to . . . this version of Paris.

This is a declination, she thought, staring out the skudder’s window. Sending her in the Cencarrion waveframe made sense now. It had probably originated here, and was already attuned to this temporality. Declinations were aberrations in the wave, divergent ripples that—in most instances—died out with a generation or two. Some managed to find their own oscillation frequency, and they would sustain themselves by collecting other declinations. If the declination got strong enough, it would cast off its own ripples. These would, according to DTRD theorists, collide with W-1—the Division of Temporal Restructuring and Divination’s designation for the wave where Perpetuum-3 was anchored. Too many of these collisions could damage the integrity of W-1, which would lead to . . .

Well, it was all theoretical, anyway, and we know how Elze feels about theory. Besides, she had more pressing matters to consider. The identity of the person who had masqueraded as the OotCee tasked with delivering her mission parameters, for one. How she was supposed to escape from whatever fortress she and Dom were being taken to, for a second. And the third thing on her mind was: Where did Dom fit in all of this?

He was a natural. She didn’t think such a thing was possible. But there was no other explanation for how he managed to cross over with her. He wore no weavesuit. He had no tuning focus. He didn’t even understand the basic conceptual language she used to talk about the wave. He just . . . knew how to move through time.

Elze frowned. Her fingers tapped against her hip. The questions were swirling around each other in her head, and they were starting to thread together. There’s a pattern, she thought. Connective tissue that bound everything together. It would show itself, though she worried that she would understand it in time . . .

Once he spotted the Eiffel Tower, Dom quickly oriented himself. The main depression he had thought was a road was, in fact, the Seine, though if there was any water still flowing along that course, it was buried beneath a great deal of sand. Those spires are Notre-Dame, he noted, which meant that he should be able to see Sacré-Coeur in the near distance, but when he leaned forward and peered out the window, all he saw was subtle change in elevation of the sand dunes.

How far in the future am I? he wondered. Other than some stiffness and lingering lethargy from having been trussed up like a fly caught in a spider’s web, he felt fine. Which hadn’t been the case when he had visited New York City in the ‘60s. He had only stayed a week, but his body had treated each hour like a month or more. He had lost so much hair by the time he left, and he had felt no shame at finding it lush and thick on his head when he returned.

As the skyboat banked around the metal frame of the Eiffel Tower, he balked at the idea that he was hundreds of years in the future. No, he thought, it’s not hundreds of years. It must be thousands.

He couldn’t help but think about the dinner parties he had attended during a time when he had been at the Royal College of Science (though, that hadn’t been the name of the college back then). He had met Herbert George Wells then, who had been fascinated with the stories he had told during some of the more riotous evenings. Bertie—as he insisted on being called when he was in his cups—had been the one to call him ‘an anachronist,’ to the delight of a number of free-thinkers present (they were all in the grips of Morris’s dream of utopian socialism at that time). Nebogipfel, Dom had replied, and he recalled Bertie’s howls of laughter at the nonsense word he used in response to being called a man out of time.

He had been surprised to see the word in a serialized story published in the school’s journal a year later. “The Chronic Argonauts” had been one of Wells’s first forays into fiction. Less than ten years later, he would publish the novella that made him famous.

In The Time Machine, the unnamed narrator—the Anachronist Man—accidentally travels millions of years into the future. When he steps out of his machine, he finds strange crab-like creatures scuttling across a featureless landscape, chasing equally strange butterflies. There are no remnants of human civilization, and the world is covered by a simple lichen that lives only to breathe and replicate.

They hadn’t traveled that far into the future. Based on the winged men who had captured he and Elze—as well as the basic configuration of the room and amenities—humanity still existed in this epoch. But the sand, he thought, that takes time.

As they passed the Eiffel Tower, Dom caught sight of a black disc on the sand. It appeared small in comparison to the rangy structure of the French monument, but that was only because there was nothing else to provide scale. Dom, having spent many years in the presence of the iconic tower in his version of Paris, knew how tall the tower was. The disc was larger than it seemed, and as the skyboat floated toward it, the reality of the disc’s size became more apparent. It was some sort of landing pad, and the skyboat came to a stop over it. Dom, his nose pressed up against the window of his room, marveled at the boat’s ability to hover in place, not unlike the hummingbirds which flocked Montparnasse Cemetery in the spring.

The boat landed with a gentle bump, and a moment later, the pad started to move. Dom staggered, surprised by the downward motion. The bright light of the sun was cut off, and for an instant, it was dark in the room, but then tiny points of light winked on from the corners of the room. It’s like a dumbwaiter, Dom thought. Or like one of those freight elevators on naval ships that he had heard about.

He paced around the room for a moment, trying to bleed off some of the nervous energy singing through his blood. There was nothing he could do. His captors had seen to that. There was no door that he could use to escape. Where would I go?, he thought, dismissing the idea almost as immediately as it rose in his head.

Eventually, he felt a change in the boat’s downward motion and then it stopped. He went to the window again, but there was nothing to see. Either they were in a dark chamber or some sort of shutter had come down over the window while he had been pacing.

“I hate waiting,” he muttered. For an Anachronist Man, waiting was the one thing he could not bend to his will. Time was out of his control.

Machinery hissed somewhere in the walls, and as Dom watched, four triangular segments of the wall drew back, like sharp petals retreating from a flower’s bud. Light from the hall spilled into his cell, and it was eclipsed by a pair of beetle-men. They were carrying weapons like the one he had taken from the man at Le Bivouac. What had Elze called them? Ah, yes, a Personal Defense Rifle. These had longer and thicker barrels, though, as if they fired larger projectiles.

Dom raised his hands as one of the beetle-men gestured at him with the weapon. “No problem,” he said. “I’m coming.”

Elze slipped into a light trance as she was collected from her cell. She wanted to record every detail of her environment. Declinations were filled with aberrations and breaks. Some were minute, and would likely have little effect; others would be significant. The latter were what made this wave distinct from W-1. These sorts of breaks were the basis of much speculative fiction written by genre writers and Anthropocene futurists. The death of a single butterfly is enough to calve off a declination, was a warning OTP field agents heard on many occasions during training.

Bradbury’s Butterfly—as it was more formally called—was a minute variance that took thousands of years to manifest enough amplitude to be statistically visible. Men, like the ones escorting her, were still men. The weapons and assault gear of these beetle-men were similar to what she had seen Castor’s foot soldiers wearing in her primary wave. The skyboat was unfamiliar in configuration, but its fundamental composition was a level of technology that matched Third Millennium science.

No, this declination had been born of a greater schism. Something more recent. Something catastrophic. Whatever it was, it had caused colossal climate change.

She and her captors collected Dom and another pair of beetle-men. His face lit up at the sight of her, and she suffered a momentary pang of regret when she waved off his attempt to talk. Give them nothing, she implored him silently. He tried to keep his disappointment off his face, but her senses were too aware to not notice the tightening of his lips or the flexing muscle at the back of his jaw.

After disembarking the skyboat, they were directed toward the edge of the platform where more beetle-men waited for them at the mouth of a passage. The hall was lit with recessed fixtures, and the walls were painted a nondescript beige that was a uniform facet of any military installation across any wave. A series of numbers and letters painted on the wall near the landing pad were indicative of some sort of location matrix, and Elze filed them away for later reference.

One of the beetle-men had an orange band sewn into the arm of his armor. His helmet bobbed as he gave instructions to the others, though she didn’t hear anything. Tight-band wireless comms, she thought, and her gaze lingered for a moment on the ceiling. How far below ground were they?

A beetle-man nudged Dom, who glared at the foot soldier for a moment before following the beetle-man who was leading the group. Elze fell in behind Dom, and the rest of the squad was on her heels. They passed several halls that intersected theirs, and Elze memorized the wall markings at each junction. Just in case, she thought.

Eventually, they came to a series of doors: two on the left side of the hall, three on the right. The beetle-man in the lead opened the middle door on the right, and he indicated Dom and Elze were to go in. She followed Dom, and the door was shut behind her. None of the beetle-men came with them.

They were in a conference room. There was a long table, surrounded by chairs. Along one wall were a series of frames containing electronic maps. Part of her brain tried to summarize the maps, but the information was too abstract and the markings were too obtuse. She made notes anyway.

There was a man in the room with them. He was sitting in the chair at the far end of the table. He was wearing a dark blue cloak that looked like the garments issued to OTP field agents.

“Oh, maybe you can tell us what is going on,” Dom said.

The man stood and put back his hood.

Elze gasped. “Weston?”

”What?” Dom was astonished. “You know this man?”

Elze returned Dom’s stare, realizing the source of the astonishment on his face. “You know him too?”

”I do,” Dom said. “His name is Belette.” 

*

CHAPTER 15

During the War, Dom had known a corpsman who made all of his decisions based on his gut. During a particularly bloody month, even the battalion’s captain began to heed the tightening and loosening of Mackerel’s bowels. If the man was hanging around the privy, shifting nervously from foot to foot, the captain would forbear sending men over the wire. If Mackerel was in the trenches with the other men, slapping backs and sharing cigarettes, it was a positive sign. Mackerel became the battallion’s lucky charm. 

Of course, “luck”—like many things—was relative, and when a round fired from a German sniper ricocheted off the captain’s helmet, the tumbling bullet caught Mackerel just behind the left ear. It didn’t kill the corpsman, but it did scramble his brains. He lost the ability to speak, and he had trouble staying awake. But his guts were still prescient. When Mackerel shit himself, the captain knew trouble was coming. 

“You don’t look happy to see me,” the man Dom knew as Belette said. 

“I’m thinking of a man I once knew,” Dom replied honestly. “I miss his insight.” 

Belette—and Dom was still reeling from the revelation that Elze knew him as “Weston”—waved a hand at the chairs around the conference table. “Sit,” he said. “We have much to talk about.” 

“How—?” Elze was in no mood to sit and chat. She wanted answers, though she couldn’t decide which question to ask. “What is—?” 

Belette smiled at her. “I know that outrage,” he said. “It is you, Sky Ten, isn’t it?” 

Elze gave him a terse nod. “I’m Azure Eleven now,” she said. “But yes, I was Sky Ten.”  She looked over at Dom. “I get a new code designation with each generation,” she explained. “Weston knew my previous iteration, which was designated ‘Sky Ten.’” 

“Weston . . .” Dom said. He didn’t like the taste of the man’s name in his mouth. Well, it was more that he was feeling fussy about whatever relationship Elze had with the other man. Why do I care? he wondered, trying to pretend he didn’t. 

“We worked together,” Belette said. “I was her handler.” 

“Is that like being her manager?” Dom asked. 

“More or less. I was yours as well.”  

“What?” Dom tried to laugh, and found it harder to do than he anticipated. “What sort of nonsense is that?”

“Did you not pay off your debts with material artifacts? Artifacts that I suggested you bring?” 

“That’s not how—” Dom cleared his throat. “It was an arrangement that worked for both of us. I was the one with the contacts in a number of antiquities markets. Contacts I had spent years—” 

Belette interrupted Dom’s explanation with a wave of his hand. “Oh, please. We both know where you were getting the art.” He smiled at Elze. “And do you know the best part? Using you—and the OTP—to put them back.”  

“What?” Elze’s face was ruddy with outrage. 

“That Tiepelo you stole from Höltzbrïn? Who do you think sold it to him?” 

“You said it came from a Nazi cache of art that had been stolen during the War!” 

Dom scratched at the side of his neck. “Well, technically, it was, but  . . .” 

“Oh my god. I can’t believe what I am hearing.” 

“Interpol raided Höltzbrïn in 1972,” Belette explained to Dom. “An hour before they arrived with their fancy badges and reams of legal paperwork, Sky Ten lifted the Tiepelo, a Manet, and what was it?” 

“A Van Dyck,” Elze said through clenched teeth. 

“Yes, a Van Dyck.” Belette nodded. “They had been hanging in Höltzbrïn’s dreary castle for nearly thirty years. He and his housekeeper were the only ones who knew he had them.” He clucked his tongue. “Ah, that poor man. His health had been in decline for some time, and all those thick-browed Interpol agents stomping around his house was just too much for his heart . . .” Belette made a popping noise with his mouth. “There wasn’t any family. Not that they would have gotten anything. Not after Interpol was done.” 

“I returned those pictures to the families who had lost them during the War,” Elze said. “They gave them to museums.” 

“Yes, and when those donations were made, Höltzbrïn found it all very distasteful. He believed this sort of shoddy showmanship was the real tragedy. How could these museums hang pictures they knew were fakes? They were defrauding their patrons.” 

“But they weren’t fakes,” Elze said. “They were the real paintings. I took them. My God, Weston. Do you know what you did?” 

“Of course,” Belette said. He held up a hand, two fingers a scant distance apart. “But it only caused tiny ripples.” 

“I—what are you two talking about? What ripples?” Dom asked. 

“Objects can’t be in two places at once,” Elze said. “Not objectively, at least. And when things overlap, it causes ripples in the wave. If the variance is significant enough, a declination occurs.” 

“A what?” 

“An alternate time wave,” Belette said. “There are only a few inviolate rules in the Universe, and ‘thou shalt have no paradoxes’ is one of them. When an event creates an aberrant oscillation in time, the wave sheds that excessive variance as a new time wave. Most of these declinations are temporary. They can’t sustain themselves and they collapse fairly quickly. Some, however, are a little more persistent, and if they grow strong enough, they create their own ripples.” 

“These ripples interfere with other waves,” Elze said. “If there’s too much interference, it can collapse a wave.” 

“It’s a self-correcting system,” Belette said with a smile. 

“I stole these paintings from the Nazis in 1944,” Dom said. “When I gave them to you, you said they were going to a museum. But they didn’t, did they? You sold them to this Holstein—” 

“Höltzbrïn.” 

“Whoever. You sold him the paintings, and he had them in his collection until 1972?” 

“That’s when I stole them,” Elze said. “You told me I was correcting an aberration. That’s why they needed to be returned. I took them to—when was it?” 

“1963,” Belette said. “And then, yes, the families donated their recovered property—stolen so horrifically from them by those brutish Nazis—to museums, who were only too happy to have new works for their permanent collections. Oh, think of the increase in devoted art lovers, flocking to see these lost treasures.” 

“And the whole time they’re causing ripples.” 

Belette raised his shoulders. “Now, now. Höltzbrïn was the only one who would have known, and as I said before, he thought they were fakes. You’re getting worked up over something that has very little significance.” 

“Hang on a second,” Dom started, and when Elze whirled on him, he held up a finger. “I’m on your side,” he said in an effort to anticipate her mood. “But I do want to point something out.” His finger rotated toward Belette. “You sold these paintings to this guy. You made money on this.” 

“So did you,” Belette pointed out. 

“Ah, well, so to speak, but—”

“But what? You stole them from the Nazis. Does that absolve you?” 

“No. Well, yes, but—“ 

“Oh, I’m so angry at both of you,” Elze said. 

“Why are you mad at me?” Dom wanted to know. “Because I stole something? Didn’t you do the same thing? In fact, you stole the very same paintings.”

“That was different,” she said. 

“Because it was the ’70s? Were the rules different then?” 

“No,” she said crossly. “That’s not it.” 

“And weren’t you trying to seduce me with the idea of stealing a Rembrandt?” 

“Oooh, really?” Belette interjected. “Which one?” 

“It’s not important,” Elze said. “And I wasn’t trying to seduce you.” 

“No? It certainly sounded like that to me. Or was the rum doing all the talking?” 

“I was not drunk!” 

“Well, I was, and—” 

The door of the conference room swung open, and Dom’s reply was lost as a figure made an entrance fit for a Roman amphitheater. The individual was dressed in the same flowing drape that Dom figured was the only uniform the OTP saw fit for its agents. This one was yellow, though, somewhere between canary and the sickly stream that comes up after you’ve already vomited a half-dozen times in the last hour. In marked contrast, the individual’s hair color was shockingly green. Iridescently so. “Are you having a staff meeting without me?” the person exclaimed, their eyes wide with exaggerated dismay. 

Dom made note of the flash of genuine panic that slithered across Belette’s face before being replaced with a smile so precise that it could only have been cut by an exceptionally sharp knife. “Manifest Invocator,” he said, an obsequious ooze in his voice. “This is unexpected.” 

“Yes, the joy of the unexpected arrival. So delicious.” The Manifest Invocator threw their arms out and held them there, as if in anticipation, but of what Dom wasn’t entirely sure. Dom looked at Elze, hoping for some help, but she was trying to hide her revulsion. After an embarrassingly long moment when no one moved, the Manifest Invocator started to flap their gloved hands, like minnows darting. 

“Um, are you”—Dom looked at Belette for guidance—“are we supposed to . . .” 

“Yes,” the Manifest Invocator exclaimed. “Group hug!” 

Elze struggled to keep her calm. “I don’t think that’s appropriate right now,” she managed. 

The Manifest Invocator pouted. “How about you?” they asked Dom, their hands continuing to minnow. “A little one-on-one?” 

“We haven’t been properly introduced,” Dom said. “And so—” 

“But that’s what hugs are for!” 

Dom paused for a second, trying to parse a response that was both polite and boundary-setting. “After . . .” he said, leaving everything to an indeterminate realm of possibility. 

The Manifest Invocator moved in the blink of an eye. It was like watching a film with missing frames. The arms came down, the body shivered like a hundred tiny legs under the cloak were jostling together, and then the Manifest Invocator was standing next to Dom. Up close, Dom could see cracks in the pancake makeup applied to the too-smooth face. The irises of the staring eyes were too white, like they were made from the material used on plush animals that kids like to clutch at night. The smile wasn’t straight either. The right drooped a tiny bit, as if the muscles on that side of the face weren’t as tightly trained as the left. The Manifest Invocator exuded a smell of wet rot and overripe fruit, and—oh God, help me—Dom held back the whimper of terror rising in his throat. The sound the Manifest Invocator made as they moved was like the long claws of irritable birds rattling on a tin rooftop. Tacky-ticky-tack-tack. 

“I frighten you,” the Manifest Invocator whispered. A tongue moved in the dark recesses of a mouth that looked like it couldn’t open more than the width of a fingernail. Yet, at the same time, Dom envisioned the head rearing back as the jaws gaped impossibly wipe. 

“It’s been a trying day,” Dom said. “A lot has happened since breakfast.” 

“Mmmm, breakfast,” the Manifest Invocator whispered. “Did you have rolls? With butter?” Their eyes widened, like spotlights dimpled with impossible darkness in their centers. “Or jam. Did you have jam? I miss jam.” Their head came closer, the nose questing like an eager hound. “Let me smell,” they said.

Dom drew his head back. “I don’t think—” 

“Let me smell it!” The Manifest Invocator’s voice changed. They crowded closer, growing taller and blotting out part of the room. A fresh crack split across the hardened foundation covering their forehead. A gloved hand caught Dom’s chin. Dom flinched, but the Manifest Invocator’s grip was like being caught in an alligator’s mouth. The Manifest Invocator squeezed their hand, and pain rippled along Dom’s jaw. He gasped, and like a hummingbird darting at a flower, the Manifest Invocator’s nose shot into Dom’s open mouth. The Manifest Invocator sniffed, and Dom swore he could hear the nasal inhalation echo in his brain. 

The pain in his jaw vanished as the Manifest Invocator released his hold, and in a tacky-ticky-tack-tack freeze-frame motion, the Manifest Invocator flashed around the conference table. They paused behind Belette, their sickly pale face hovering near the man’s ear. “Liar,” they whispered, and then they moved again, breaking the dying tick of cesium atoms. They tried to grab Elze’s chin, but somehow she had met their hand with her own. The Manifest Invocator’s fingers flapped and strained at Elze’s face, the tips of the gloves brushing her skin. “Ungrateful skin-sister,” they hissed. 

The Manifest Invocator moved once more, and they were no longer in the room. The only sound was the gentle click of the door’s latch as it settled into the plate. 

Dom was the first one to speak. “What the fuck was that?” 

Belette cleared his throat. “That . . . that was my boss,” he said quietly. “Well, one of them.” He put a finger to his lips and shook his head when Elze started to speak. “We will talk more about this later. I promise. But—” 

The door swung open again, and as the Manifest Invocator flickered into the room again, Dom couldn’t help but think he was experiencing a loop in time. Hadn’t this moment happened already? His momentary confusion was complicated by a sensation that started somewhere deep in his hind brain. They looked like the Manifest Invocator, but they weren’t—not in a way that Dom could consciously articulate, but a tiny mewling part of his instinctive mind could tell the difference. Whereas before he had felt revulsion and a prickling dead, this time he was seized by animalistic terror. Holy Mackerel, he thought, recalling what the soldiers used to say when the paralyzed soldier’s bowels let go. In that moment, he knew what Mackerel felt. 

This Manifest Invocator shifted toward Elze, their cloak slithering, their hidden feet going tacky-ticky-tack-tack. They shot their pale face forward, peering at Elze with one eye. The other eye stared unblinkingly at Dom. 

A quartet of white-robed and masked guards shuffled into the room as the Manifest Invocator drifted and twitched. “Theeeeesssss?” they rasped. If the first Manifest Invocator sounded like a lunatic lost in a helium haze, this one sounded like a ninety-year-old matron who huffed industrial solvents. Hearing their voice was like having your ears abraded by a rusty rasp. 

The eye staring at Dom flicked to stare at the screen behind him. Then it flicked to a corner of the room. Flick. Looking at him again. Flick. Flick. Dom was suddenly reminded of the manner in which birds—corvids, especially—moved their heads. 

Belette was nodding. “Yes, Absolute Egregore. These two. The woman is not what she seems.” His eyes shifted toward Dom. “Nor is he, for that matter.” 

The Absolute Egregore’s eye continued to flick about, staring at things Dom could not see. “Plots against ussssss,” they sibilated. 

“Indeed,” Belette said. “We set a lure, which proved its warrant. They have been delivered. All plots are null now.” 

The Absolute Egregore twitched and darted, flashing through three locations at once: near Elze, on the conference table, beside Dom. “Layersssss,” they murmured. Their face loomed at Dom, and while it was merciful to Dom’s sanity that both eyes were staring in the direction, being the focus of the Absolute Egregore’s attention was unpleasant. They raised one of their gloved hands and pinched their fingers together, as if they weren’t entirely comfortable with all the digits on the hand. “Peeel the layersss. Uncover the juicy bitssss.” 

Belette coughed, and the noise startled the Absolute Egregore. One of their eyes darted toward Belette, and they drew back their lips, showing metal teeth. “My apologies, Absolute Egregore,” Belette said. “I need some information from them, before you . . . before they lose the ability to speak.” 

The Absolute Egregore hissed, and the sound was like a sack of kittens and rattlesnakes. 

“We have to ascertain the measure of the Elevated Architect’s plan,” Belette said, a mild tremor in his voice. “Otherwise, this effort will have limited value.” He inclined his head. “Your pleasure, notwithstanding.” 

“My pppplleassssshurrr,” the Absolute Egregore slurred. “Yesssss.” Their pinching fingers hovered close to Dom’s face. 

Belette gestured at the white-robed guards. “Take them to the lab,” he said. “Where the intelligence I—we—require can be extracted. Once I am finished, you may take your pleasure.” 

The Absolute Egregore’s face darted close to Dom, and he found himself staring into their left eye. There was something wiggling in the darkness of the iris. “Sssssooooooooon,” the Absolute Egregore crooned. “The last dropssss of Deeeeeeee will be mine.” 

Two of the white-robed guards approached Dom—somewhat reluctantly, he thought, and Dom couldn’t fault them their reticence. The Absolute Egregore flickered onto the conference table, where they darted, froze, and slithered back and forth, as if they were constrained by the physical edge of the tabletop. Dom blinked, and an after-image danced in his field of vision. The Absolute Egregore was throwing off its cloak. Underneath, there was squirming darkness and it came apart in a furious flutter of black wings. When Dom blinked again, the Absolute Egregore was no longer in the room. 

One of the white-robed guards gestured for him to turn around. Still dazed by what he had seen (or not seen, relatively speaking), Dom faced the large panel on the wall. The image on the screen had frozen, and Dom stared at an Escherian eruption of ravens as the guard pulled his hands behind his back and placed metal cuffs around his wrists. 

“You’ve lost your mind,” Elze spat from the other side of the room. 

When one of the guards shoved her, she wasn't as tractable as Dom. She reacted, shoving back against the guard. Dom caught a glimpse of a guard slamming against the wall, and when he craned his neck for a better look, he saw more guards streaming into the room. These men had weapons, and he opened his mouth to warn Elze. 

Something struck him on the back of the head, and everything went dark. 

*

CHAPTER 16

Dom wasn’t in a rush to open his eyes. He had a lot to think about; a cascade of images filled his head when he came back from the dark hole he had fallen into. The violet-eyed woman who had forced her way—literally—into his life. The way she looked at him; he couldn’t decide which was stronger: the wounded melancholy that kept surfacing in her gaze, or the hunger she tried to hide. The door she had opened in the Parisian alley. It had been filled with sparks, and when he had followed her through it, he had seen a vast cosmos filled with writhing shapes, as if the constellations were cosmic fireworks that had been exploding for millennia. There had been dark spots too, ominous places where the light didn’t go, and he had been on the verge of understanding the patterns he was seeing when they had fallen through a curtain of glittering sand. And the strange beings who moved through time and space like those dimensions were sharp edges they got caught on. If everything were smoother, they wouldn’t exist to human perception. 

He thought about that for awhile, trying to ignore the pulsating pain at the base of his skull. He had been smacked by a hard object—a baton, most likely. He recalled a riot in London in the last days of the nineteenth century. He hadn’t meant to get sucked into the rabble coursing through the streets—he had participated in enough civil unrest for one lifetime, thank you very much—but the crowd had been moving quickly. He couldn’t even recall what the protest had been about. Not that it mattered once he was in it. Some were fleeing; some were fighting; it was elbows and fists and feet, striking indiscriminately. There were other objects too: sticks, canes, batons, knives. He had been mistaken for a sympathizer of the wrong sort, and a red-faced man had tried to pummel him with a small club. Dom took two shots to the head and shoulders before he managed to grapple with the man. His breath had stunk something fierce—a fetid combination of rotting meat and stale onions—and Dom, already addled getting hit on the head, nearly went down. He got the club away from his assailant and he shoved it into the other man’s mouth. 

Dom squirmed, pushing away that unpleasant memory. He hadn’t been his best that day. A project he had been working on for several weeks had gone sour on him earlier that day, and a woman he had been seeing—well, there was nothing to be gained from reliving the end of that relationship. He had been distant the past few days—his project had entered that phase where it required a lot of hands-on maintenance—and his inattention had caused a fatal rift. The break-up had marked him more deeply than he expected, and an out-of-work miner with bad oral hygiene had suffered for it. 

There was a hard surface beneath him, and when he moved again, he noted that his hands were not bound. He inhaled through his nose, and noted that the air was dry. There was a faint hint of oil and rubber—smells he associated with being in the belly of military vessels. He heard a steady, but not entirely rhythmic, whirr. He concentrated on the sound, trying to place it. It wasn’t a motor. Nor was it a fan assembly. It was something mechanical, certainly, but he couldn’t place it. 

Time travel was not without peril, and he had, on more than one occasion, fallen unconscious during the transition from one time to another. He had learned it was best to ease himself back to full awareness after such breaks, otherwise his mind, still anchored in whatever time he had come from, would be overwhelmed by the new environment. If he took a few minutes to focus—remind himself of his own journey, take in a few sensory details of the new place, perform a self-check—he would be partially acclimated when he opened his eyes. 

He did so now, and he found himself in a narrow cell. It was not unlike the room on the skyboat, but in comparison, the skyboat’s accommodations had been luxurious. He lay on a metal floor, and when he sat up, his body catalogued a number of sore muscles. He hadn’t been assaulted. It felt more like he had been dragged by the collar of his jacket, and whoever had been hauling him hadn’t been very careful about corners. 

The room was small. Lying down, he was more than half its length, and he judged it wasn’t much wider. The walls were featureless metal, and there was a single grate set high in the wall behind him. The cell was fronted by metal bars, half of which were on a track. A metal box hung on the outside. Dom hadn’t seen a prison cell like this, but he figured the box contained some manner of locking mechanism, which, when disengaged, would allow the bars to move. 

It’s not a door, he thought, trying not to be disappointed. 

When he did that thing he did—moving from one time to another—he would begin the process by meditating for an hour or two, forming a mental image of when—not where—he wanted to go. A physical token from that time period helped with that process. Eventually, the image in his head would become something like a snapshot from a cinematic film—everything held motionless, a single frame from a reel of film. Then, he would open the door in his library and walk through time.  

And when he wanted to return to his apartment in Paris, he would imagine his library. Creating a memory palace was a technique of his godfather’s, who, alas, was been burned at the stake in Rome before Dom had a chance to get to know him (it was only later when he read Bruno’s Ars reminiscendi that he realized the origin of the mnemonic lessons he had learned as a child). Anyway, Dom knew every detail in the library room in the Paris apartment, down to the spines of every single book on the shelves. He would imagine himself flowing toward that room—all those books calling to him—and when he stepped through a door, he would find himself home again. 

He wasn’t sure how he had managed to travel from the bathroom at the Hôtel Napoleon, much less end up in the foyer of his apartment. Perhaps it was something akin to a flight response, an instinctive revision of the world and his place within it. Would it work now? He was certainly in greater danger than he had been in the hotel suite. But—and this was the sticking point in all of this—he didn’t have a solid door like the door of the suite bathroom. That physical barrier was critical to the process. His line of sight had to be blocked. It was like that experiment formulated by the Austrian physicist—the one that had been made understandable to the common folk by putting a cat in a box. Is the cat alive? Is the cat dead? You wouldn’t know until you opened the box. In much the same way, what lay beyond the door was unknown—it was, in parlance that Elze would readily know, in a quantum state. 

And when you’ve got bars and not a solid door, it’s hard to create uncertainty. 

Ah, well, he thought. Maybe next time. A weary smile creased his lips. Next time. There was always a next time, wasn’t there? Until there wasn’t.

Dom wandered up to the bars and peered out of his cell. The room beyond was long and wide, and in front of him were many cabinets covered with flashing lights and cables. Several of the cabinets had large reels of magnetic tape mounted on them, and it was the movement of these reels which he had mistaken for the sound of industrial fans. Nearby were several desks, and each one had a large box on it. Each of the boxes were fronted with glass panels that flickered with squiggling shapes and lines of text. They were smaller versions of the large panels he had seen in the conference room where— 

“Yeah,” Dom drawled quietly. “Those guys.” 

What had Belette called them? Ah, yes, the Manifest Invocator and the Absolute Egregrore. 

Dom shook his head. Just once, it’d be nice if it was all a bad dream, he thought.  

Off to his right, he spotted a circular platform, over which was suspended a metal framework. Dom eyed the cross-shaped structure, noting the loops at the end of the arms and at the base of the wide leg, and it wasn’t hard to guess what the cross was for. “Great,” he muttered. It was like Jean-Baptiste used to say: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” He even had immortalized the saying in that journal of his, Les Guêpes, which Dom had always looked forward to reading whenever he had been in Paris during the mid-nineteenth century. 

“Dom?” Elze’s voice came from nearby. Pressing his face against the bars, he tried to find her. Suddenly, her arm appeared, and he realized she was very close by. She was in a cell like his. He went to the corner of his prison and eagerly reached through the bars. His fingers touched hers, and she grabbed his hand. “Are you okay?” she asked. 

“I’ll have a headache for a day or so, I think, but yeah, I’m okay.” 

She squeezed his fingers. “That’s good.” 

“You?” 

“I’m okay.” 

“You ever been in worse situations?” 

“Once or twice. You?” 

“At least that many,” he said. He bit his tongue before he could say more. It wasn’t important how many times. This isn’t a competition, he thought. 

“How did you escape?” Elze asked.

“Oh, the usual ways,” he said, and he rolled his eyes as soon as the words left his mouth. 

“Yeah,” Elze replied. “Me too.” She let out a tiny laugh, and her fingers squeezed his again. “Think that’ll work this time?” she asked. 

Dom shook his head. “I don’t have a door,” he said. “I need a door. What about your—those thingies on your arms—what about them?” 

“My WOC bands? My power levels are too low,” Elze said. “I need fuel.” 

In spite of their predicament, Dom was curious. “What kind of fuel?” 

“I don’t know the chemical composition of it, if that’s what you’re asking—” 

“Well, I was hoping you could gloss over the highly technical bits, because, you know, I’ve recently sustained a head injury and too much thinking might . . .”

“Really?” 

“No, not really,” Dom said. “I’m not sure when I gave you the impression that I could do a passable impression of a chemist.” 

“You, ah, actually, you didn’t.” 

“But I could have,” Dom said. “If we were at a costume party or something.” 

“Of course.”

“In the eighteenth century.” 

Elze started to laugh, coughed, and then laughed again. The second time it sounded like she actually meant it. “You and Saint Germain,” she said. 

“No, he actually knew what he was talking about,” Dom argued. 

“Anyway, it’s a crystalline powder,” she said. “There’s an intake on the underside. I don’t know the conversion ratio or anything like that. I get a very tiny amount, and it’s usually enough for me to complete a mission. I had a mission once where I dropped below fifty percent, but that had been anticipated, and I got a recharge from . . . from my mission handler.” 

“You mean Weston?” 

“Yeah, Weston.” 

“Too bad we couldn’t ask him for a recharge now . . .” 

Elze didn’t say anything, and Dom could imagine what she was thinking. He had known who Belette was when a gambling debt of his had been sold to the gangster. It had been a disappointing turn of events. He had had every intention of paying back the owner of Le Cochon Sifflant, a private men’s club in the 8th Arrondissement, but, apparently, the man had grown tired of his excuses. Belette had likely bought the debt at steep discount, and Dom should have known something was amiss when Belette intimated that he would be interested in “material forms of payment” in lieu of currency. Dom had taken the bait, of course, and, in hindsight, it was almost embarrassing to see how he had been played. For awhile, they had almost been partners: Dom would bring him an artifact—last year, it had been nineteenth century busts—and Belette would take care of whatever gambling debts he had run up. Yes, the gangster had encouraged his predilection for dice and cards, but it wasn’t an addiction on his part. He could stop any time. Regardless of all that, Dom wasn’t all that surprised when Belette turned out to be more than he appeared. 

Elze, on the other hand, had just found out the man who had been in charge of her missions was, in fact, not working in her best interest. 

In an effort to keep her from dwelling too much on that betrayal, he indicated the pedestal and the cross. “What do you think that’s for?” he asked. 

“Nothing pleasant,” Elze said. 

“For me or you?” 

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Maybe both of us. Weston said that he was going to wring some intelligence from us before he . . .” 

“Before he gave us to the monsters,” Dom finished for her. 

“Yeah, the monsters,” Elze echoed quietly. 

“Are they what you were talking about when you said things were going to get ‘strange’?”

She let out an abrupt laugh. “No. This is—this isn’t what I thought. I knew we were in a declination—an alternate time wave—but I had no idea we were this far.” 

“So, the greater the . . . change from zero, the greater the . . . what do you call this? The ‘alternateness’?” 

“Somewhat. A ‘declination’ is an indication of how significant of a variation between this time wave and the one it separated from. A large declination usually means something catastrophic has happened, resulting in a time wave that is quite different from ours. These are usually very unstable, and they don’t persist long.” 

“But when they do, they put out interference patterns. Isn’t that what you said?” 

“Yes. These ripples cause disturbances, and if there are enough of them or they are of sufficient amplitude, they can cause systemic disruptions.” 

“That’s a polite way of saying they can break other time waves,” Dom said. He thought about this for a moment, and then broached the logical solution. “So, if you can move between declinations, you’re going to be interested in making sure the strong alternates don’t wreck your home wave.” 

“That is part of the remit of the OTP.” 

“And these guys—the Invocator and Egregore—they’re . . . this wave’s version of the OTP?” 

“No,” Elze said. “I fear they are this wave’s version of the OTP’s adversaries.” 

“Oh, lovely.” 

A trio of the white-robed technicians approached the cells, and reluctantly, Dom let go of Elze’s hand. The technicians stopped in front of Elze’s cell, and one of them gestured for Elze to stand back from the bars. She said something surprisingly vulgar, and the technician shrugged as if he heard that sort of nonsense about his mother all the time. He plucked a short tube from his belt and pointed it at Elze’s cell. The other two techs drew similar looking tubes, but theirs telescoped out to hard batons when they shook them. 

“No, Elze—” Dom started. 

The lead tech pushed a button on his device, and Dom heard a rattling noise as machinery engaged and opened Elze’s cell. The two techs rushed in, and Dom heard the muffled sounds of a scuffle. Someone hit the wall hard, and there was a sizzling pop, like an electrical discharge. Elze cried out, and Dom shouted in reply. There was an other sizzle, and this time, her cry was more pain than outrage. 

Dom threw himself against the bars of his cell. He strained at the bars, even though he knew he couldn’t pull them apart. He thrust his arm out, even though he knew the technician was far out of reach. He settled for calling the technician names. 

Finally, the tech turned his visored face toward Dom. “That’s right,” Dom raged. “I know you can hear me, you son of a bitch. Come over here and I’ll—” 

He never got a chance to finish his threat. 

The wall behind the racks of computers exploded, filling the room with smoke and debris. 

CONTINUE TO PART FIVE :: RETURN