Stef walked quickly from the gym, and made a beeline for the lift. She pressed the call button, and predictably, eight seconds later, the lift arrived. She took a quick look at the panel of buttons before her, and stabbed the one for the floor above, the tech department.
When the doors slid open, a pair of Goggles looked up at her. It took her another moment to realise that they were attached to a slight, pale-skinned young teenager. He stood directly in her path, and stared at her, seemingly having no intention of moving.
Slowly, he extracted a hand from his labcoat, and lifted it. He held his hand up, the fingers slowly spreading into a Vulcan “V”. ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto.’
She grinned. ‘Good to know all those years spent practicing to look like Gort didn’t go to waste.’
The goggled-boy smiled. ‘Oooh, one of us…’ He grabbed her hand and dragged her down the hall.
She allowed herself to be pulled along by the young tech. ‘Where are you taking me?’
‘You’re here to see Jonesy, he’s in the games room.’
She didn’t bother to question how he knew – then again, it was probably obvious. She looked down at her uniform, and made a guess that they weren’t all that common a sight on this floor.
The young tech pushed open the door to the common room. Inside was a plasma screen half the size of the back wall, with a game paused on the screen. The walls were covered in posters and printouts. There was a green couch, a purple couch and a rainbow couch with half a dozen recruits lounging on them. Another stood in front of the TV arguing with Jones about physics.
Goggles whistled and everyone turned. The lounging recruits turned away after brief waves and smiles, Jones handed what looked like a hybrid controller over to the recruit he had been arguing with and walked over. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Could I speak with you for a moment, sir?’ Jones just smiled, and the sound of his recruits’ laughter filtered up through her self-induce static. The urge to run flared and quickly died when she realised that it was “with” laughter, rather than “at” laughter. ‘What’d I do wrong now?’
‘Nothing, really,’ Jones said. ‘It’s just that no-one calls me sir.’
She smirked. ‘Sorry sir.’
He gestured to a table on the far side of the games room. ‘Frankie’s data,’ she began as they sat opposite each other, which caused the tech agent to smile. ‘What?’
‘I assume you’re speaking about your laptop.’
‘Yes. I named-’
‘Him Prometheus, I noticed when I was testing him. How many people get the joke?’
‘Not many,’ she admitted. ‘Frankie’s data, please level with me here, it was all stuff you guys knew already? All of it? There was nothing that was of any use?’
‘It did nothing more than confirm a few things. A parade of ghosts, well very rarely means anything other than a mirrorfall. After that, a little checking, and we knew it was landing here. Approximate landing point is easy when we see where the ghosts are radiating from.’
‘And it didn’t tell you anything useful about Astrin either?’
‘The starchild, the leech? No. Blood that clean-up and forensics helped somewhat, but whether by design or luck, he’s mostly been staying in blackout zones.’
She snapped her head up to look at the tech. ‘What?’
‘Well, after last night, you have some idea of what a blackout zone is.’
More phantom pain flared in her shoulder, and she rubbed it, half-expecting the wound to open back up and leave her bleeding out on another cold floor. ‘Yeah,’ she said flatly, ‘some idea.’
Jones sat back in his chair. ‘That was a very clever idea you came up with, especially under that much pressure. Did you know we were still monitoring you, or did you just bank on paranoia?’
She shrugged. ‘Paranoia has never steered me wrong before. I still don’t get how an area can be blacked out from magic.’
Goggles tapped her on the shoulder. ‘We do ok in the first three, it’s the fourth we have trouble with.’
Three what?
Why is a raven like a writing desk?
‘Dimensions?’ she said slowly. ‘They’re using…time?’
Goggles nodded. ‘Blackout zones are where the timey-wimey ball gets all messed up and everyone can break.’
The image of a bloodstained and pale Ryan flashed in her mind. ‘Yeah, I know that part. So what happened, someone take off with the Delorean and figured a way to use it for evil?’
‘Unfortunately, dealing with Time is not as easy as dealing with Emmet Brown. The gods created us, so we have control over the physical.’ He demonstrated this by requiring a small bag of boiled sweets for the goggled recruit, who was hovering around their table like a small, lab-coated helicopter.
The recruit pushed his goggles up, popped one of the red sweets into his mouth, hugged the agent, then retreated to the rainbow couch, its colours shifting slightly as he sat.
‘The Ladies control their respective elements, we do not have control over life or death. Time is the only other factor in this equation, and he does not choose to allow us control over Time, and he’s also rather vindictive, thus, if we are in an area that is even a half second out of step with the rest of the timestream, we are cut off. That’s what most of the blackout zones are, just a second or two out of step with the rest of the world.’
She scratched her head. ‘So…what, he’s working with the Solst-ass?’
Jones shook his head. ‘No. His children also have the ability to manipulate time.’
‘The Children of Time,’ she said flatly.
‘Not those ones,’ he said. ‘He fathers very few children, and usually the mother has no idea, at least, until their powers start showing themselves. The Solstice don’t have Time on their side, they have Maestro locked up.’
It was a statement that Jones said easily. It wasn’t one that was given particular gravity or ceremony. It was stated as fact. And, after everything, it was the one that made her mind snap. She stared at the tech agent for a moment, then closed her eyes, as if a frail layer of skin could protect her from the strange world that seemed intent on shocking her at every turn.
Someone tugged on her chair, and the world spun.
She opened her eyes, and found herself in Jones’ lab. She blinked and gave him a quizzical look. ‘Huh?’
‘You were unresponsive for five minutes,’ he said. ‘Sorry, I thought you knew about Maestro.’
He rose from his chair and handed her a white cup, without looking at it, she drank it. The urge to retch came as the unfamiliar taste washed down her throat. ‘What’s wrong with this coffee?’ She looked down, and took in all of its pasty-white glory. ‘Milk? Warm milk?’
‘Your brain went AFK for five minutes, I figured you needed something to calm you down.’
‘Ok, so not only is Maestro the son of a guy who murdered a bunch of hackers for no good reason, he’s not…or is David Kane Time, or is…fscking hell. I’ve spent my entire career hero-worshipping this guy, am I supposed to turn around and hate him now?’
Jones shook his head. ‘No. In this whole thing, Maestro is an innocent. We were trying to save him when his powers manifested. The rumour of the two bodies in the Botanical Gardens? True, but a complete accident. He sent this city into chaos because he could not control his power, and that is not his fault. We don’t persecute the innocent. He’s with Solstice because of David Kane, the man he thinks of as his father. He’s their prisoner. So, no, you don’t need to worry, he’s not flagged for PvP.’
‘I can take Solace in that at least.’
‘The situation with the monster bothers you, doesn’t it?’
She just nodded. Her milk disappeared, replaced by a small headset. ‘I don’t think that’s a liquid.’
‘Quick,’ Jones said, ‘put it in.’
She slipped it over her ear, and tapped the button on the side. ‘Um, hi?’
‘Please report to my office.’
She hit the button again. ‘Sure.’
With a wave, she hurried from Jones’ laboratory.