The causality loop slowed, leaving Arianna lightheaded

The passage through time ended, bringing her back to the real world. It took a moment to catch her breath. Twenty years wasn't distant, but this loop had natural structuring to it. As if destiny itself crafted it special for her. Arianna felt more comfortable traveling artificial causality loops; those had familiar sensations and didn't leave her stomach queasy.

Thankfully she didn't lose her lunch. It was barely two hours since she had eaten at Epochal HQ; less than ninety seconds since the joint session with leadership ended. Her mind reeled with the revelations of that meeting. And that was to say nothing of riding a natural causal loop back in time to before her birth.

The nausea of travel passed and Arianna finally took stock of her surroundings. She was where she needed to be on the Wyoming prairie. Not a living soul or sign of civilization in any direction—save the small concrete Slip-Gate structure fifty meters off. So far she had the right geography; time to check the date stamp.

Arianna fished her Time Remote out of its holster. It took a few seconds to covertly sync with local Epochal Guard systems. At this point in the timeline, no one in the Guard had interacted with messengers or individuals from the future. For the sake of this causal loop, Arianna needed to temporarily keep it that way.

She would have plenty of time to get chummy with the locals later.

Her Remote finished syncing, verifying the date stamp. She was in the right place and right time. Not that there was much doubt. Especially after everything Cartonius had told her. Which reminded her…

She swiveled through the Remote's menu, looking for the private link with Cartonius' hardware. The AI had nodes as far as back as the founding of the Epochal Guard. In practice, she should have access to reach and talk to him. It would help having the Cartonius' guidance going forward.

The screen froze, a loading icon winking to life. Arianna raised an eyebrow. This was new. Her software was supposedly light-years ahead of stuff at this timeline point. What the hell could slow it?

The screen finished loading, a single document appearing on her hard drive. It was titled simply File-FG406. Text woven as if in golden ink scrolled before her eyes.

"I need to make these words as clear as possible. Heaven knows we have enough vague prophecies to leave future generations confused about."

Arianna grinned, scrolling through the letter. She had nearly forgotten about this.

"As you're reading these words, you know quite well that your visit from the future has triggered their release. The software attached was designed to update itself covertly each and every day, looking for the day new software pinged in with an obvious time stamp far removed from present markers. Whoever you are, child of future Generations, you have decided it important enough to travel back to Fourth or even Fifth Generations for help."

Except she hadn't come back for help—she came to offer help. Arianna closed the document, pocketing her Remote and made for the Slip-Gate structure.

Everything needed a first time in the timeline. File-FG406—what her leaders simply called 'the Letter'—was in their archives as of yesterday in their point in the timeline. Everyone was reading it. Everyone was playing 'guess who from the First Generation wrote it' and why. Cartonius was going into overtime analyzing it and offering sage philosophy on what it meant. But it wouldn't—hadn't—come into their possession until this exact moment. Presumably it would travel with Arianna back through the causal loop to her present. Or maybe it was already saving itself to the Guard's hard drives for them to read in twenty years before she came back. Either way, they had all read it by now.

Arianna hesitated on the threshold of the Slip-Gate chamber. Someone in the First Generation worried for them once upon a time. Maybe guessed that their enemies were far from destroyed. There were lots in that letter about Charlie, but only a few questions about Salem. The lost cousin. The father of two God-Sons making a play to ignite the Second Time War.

Arianna sucked in a calming breath. It was going to be all right. The causal loop that brought her here was natural—maybe part of the Eternal Streams Cartonius hinted at so cryptically. Forces of destiny had brought her back to help a new Seminary Gang. The next S.G. of hopefully many to come.

Reaching for the assault rifle on her shoulder, Arianna switched off the safety. She checked the Slip-Gate terminal briefly, confirming that she had safe passage into Cadence. The next part was going to be exciting to say the least.

Arianna leapt through.

On the other side, the room opened into a chamber with space for a small army. Two guards stood through an open arch into the Gate complex beyond. Arianna kept her rifle at her hip, firing two quick bursts that dropped the sentries before they could turn on her. She was leaping past their bodies when klaxons sounded in the halls.

Contact lenses on her retinas projected a HUD, complete with active proximity sensors and blueprints of the complex. The Guard kept maps of every key structure in Cadence Arianna had requested. She spent time memorizing those before her the mission, but it helped to have them now for reference. It was a simple matter locating a service corridor on the north side of the building. It bisected the barracks and cardinal entrance points.

A few more utility rooms and turns later, Arianna had slipped past most of the on-site security. From there, she used a subterranean vent to get past the building's shield perimeter. Considering that Kyle Porter and Raquel Tree Top used this path recently, it was a wonder Hakim wasn't beefing security around the route. Then again, the God-Son was probably more concerned with holding out an army. When it came to individuals making quick entrances and hasty departures, there were too many sneaky places in the complex to slip by. Getting Raquel back out again with her was going to be a chore.

But they had a Seminary Gang Raquel needed to meet in Real Space.

Outside the shield perimeter, Arianna set her Remote for coordinates in Cadence's analogue of North America. According to the Guard, there was a bunker hidden in the Rocky Mountains here. Somewhere Raquel and her new friends in the resistance were hunkering down. Time for Arianna to make them her new friends as well.

As expected, guards keeping to the mountain woodlands accosted her. She let them cuff her and take her into the base. They asked no questions and Arianna had nothing to tell them. She waited until they brought her to an older German woman with a stern face and the physique of a soldier. According to her mission briefing, this was Kersten Stieber: the only surviving State Head of the empire and out for Hakim's blood as well.

Kersten didn't wait. "Alise said Kyle Porter would send someone to find us. Has he brought an army with him?"

Alise? Oh yes—Raquel's alias. If Arianna remembered the reports correctly, she had started self-identifying as such after leaving behind her life on the streets. It would be best to refer to her as such.

"Kyle Porter didn't send me ahead," said Arianna. "But the people he works for did. I'm their emissary sent here for Alise. We have a lot to discuss before we move against Emperor Hakim."

Kersten naturally looked displeased with the answer. But if she really expected Arianna to lead a vanguard of soldiers to their aid, she wouldn't have bound her outside and kept her isolated in here. She had to know Arianna was a wild card at this stage. But she had no idea how well that would work out to her advantage. Ms. Stieber was one lucky resistance leader right now.

They kept her cuffed, but eventually Alise came alone to see her. The girl looked positively cheerless and irritated. Arianna couldn't help but grin as she approached. She knew Alise well—had watched so many vids and read too many reports on the young woman's life. She was barely nineteen at this stage in her time stream. It was understandable the girl put on a stiff face for the world. It made her feel in control.

Too bad Arianna was here to destroy the illusion of that control.

Alise gave her a once over, looking unimpressed. "Kyle didn't send you? You look like his cousin."

Arianna laughed. "You have no idea."

"Speak up little messenger. I don't have all day and Kersten is furious you didn't come with Kyle or his army."

"Sorry to disappoint, but he isn't going to bring an army."

Alise sighed explosively. She punched the wall. "Then what the hell is he even doing!"

"Assembling the next Seminary Gang—the only ones who have a chance of stopping Hakim."

Alise's eyes flashed with fury. She was cute when she was pissed. She was also two seconds from a paroxysm, which meant it was time for Arianna to play her trump card. "Keep your eyes open for Arianna," she quoted from memory. "She's the only one that can help you."

The color drained from Alise's face. She sputtered on half formed curses. She recovered quickly, walking forward to grab Arianna by the cuff of her shirt. She had surprising strength, hoisting Arianna off the chair with both arms. "Who in God's name told you that!"

"You did. I was there when you said it." Arianna smiled. "I was with you the day you gave yourself a Time Remote."

The words had a haunting effect on Alise. She dropped Arianna back on the chair, taking two steps back.

If Arianna was being honest, she hadn't yet traveled with Alise to give her past self a Time Remote. That was an event to occur at a future point in their personal time streams. Part of another causal loop altogether, with structuring so natural Arianna knew she'd definitely lose her lunch. But there was always a flow of causality hovering around Alise. Arianna could sense it now about the girl. There were knotted tangles in spacetime all around her, visible only to Arianna's unique chronometric power.

At any rate, Arianna knew all about the day that changed in Alise's old life. The day she detached herself from the name Raquel Tree Top. The day a hungry, abandoned girl living on the streets witnessed a doorway of light open in the air. Past and future iterations of Alise would meet that day, one to bestow a Time Remote on the younger girl. To set her on the path that inevitably intersected with Cadence. And somehow Arianna was going to be there that day, hidden on the other side of the lighted curtain with future Alise.

It was the only way she would know those secret words Alise told her past self. Words that the present iteration of Alise had guarded, secretly watching for a girl calling herself Arianna to cross her path.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Alise muttered. Her voice trembled with anger and fear. "Why didn't you tell Kersten? Why didn't you tell any of us who you were? What if we had killed you!"

"I'm telling you now, and I have a lot more to tell you. Do you trust me?"

Alise stared at her hesitantly. Then she walked around, releasing the cuffs behind Arianna's back. Arianna stood, messaging her wrists. She smiled politely as Alise walked around again, shuffling nervously. She had transformed so suddenly from the projection of strength to something akin to trepidation.

"You came from the future," she guessed.

"I did. And I read so much about you. It's nice to finally meet you in person."

A degree of reservation returned to her face. Another attempt to project control. "You're not what I expected. I've…been waiting."

Arianna found herself grinning again. She wanted to get to business—they had much to talk about, and it wasn't going to be easy for Alise to swallow. Arianna knew she was struggling with Kyle's approach to helping Cadence. But they would have time to talk in due course. Arianna had few secrets about the future to keep from Alise. It would help her to understand their roles going forward.

For now, Arianna wanted to help assuage her fears. She could tell the two were like oil and water, but they really were going to be good friends.

Alise simply didn't know it yet.