"It's the moment of truth and the moment to lie
And the moment to live and the moment to die
The moment to fight
The moment to fight
To fight
To fight

This is War, Thirty Seconds to Mars


Opening Salvo

And so your maker has come to reckon.

Arianna gazed around the Council Room, observing Epochal Guard leadership. The last few minutes of the meeting left most of them pale faced. She wasn't sure why. Nearly everyone here was Fifth Generation. She recognized the retired Samuel Porter of the Fourth Generation, perched up on the podium stage near the back. A relic of former times; more of a guest rather than an actual part of the council. As for the rest…these were veterans of the Second Time War. Many of them former members of the first reborn Seminary Gang in their generation. What were they so worried about?

Arianna turned back to her mother, Alexandra Dresden, sitting at the head of the podium. Her dark hair was touched with gray, cut short—which was a real crime, since it looked so much better worn long. She focused on the holographic pedestal off to her right, where their judicial AI—Cartonius—took minutes and generally got on everyone's nerves.

"Cartonius," said Mother, "I hope you're recording this for the record."

"Most assuredly," the intelligence replied. It held no physical representation; the voice projected from the room's stereo system. On the holographic pedestal, data and imagery flashed into the air. As far as Arianna knew, the AI possessed no assigned visual form. As long as she could remember, it was the phantom voice that spoke with exaggerated elegance and diction at all of their Epochal meetings.

"We need to start making sense of these causal loops," Mother continued. "It's clear that the Second Time War was only getting started with the Cadence affair. If recent reports are accurate, we're about to see them arrive in unprecedented numbers."

Arianna raised her hand. "If I may."

Two seats to the left of Mother, Skylar Evans nodded. "Go ahead, Arianna."

Arianna took a deep breath. Time to try to put them all at ease. "I suspect that when I go back, I'll gather more than just the information regarding Suha. I think this causality loop was derived specifically as a bridge between our present conflict and the initial outbreak at Cadence."

Skylar grunted. "And I suspect Cartonius cannot confirm nor deny these conclusions."

"Your assessment of my allowances is correct to a fault," said Cartonius. Though his tone was ever neutral, Arianna detected a hint of joviality in his meaning. Who said computer software couldn't be personable? "What you now call the Second Time War is but a brief surge in the sea of conflict arisen since the inception of time travel."

"We never did learn how far that conflict extended," Mother sighed. "The fighting was all over in our earlier time stream."

And that, Arianna suspected, was the true reason for the concern from the rest of the Fifths. While her Mother bore the collective fear of the room with silent resolve, the others—stalwart individuals like Marissa Edwards or Bryce Moore—looked downright terrified. For all of them, the Second Time War ended nearly twenty-two years ago.

In reality, it still raged. The collective focal point of that war focused on or around the year 2106. Arianna's birth year. But engagements had broken out in scattered points in Real Space and the Allied Worlds in the twenty-two years since. Those skirmishes were usually localized; lost in the continual gray mess of conflict in the Diverging Reality network. Then there were large scale battles like the Conquest of Redwood, seeing the Allied Coalition called in to fight. Redwood was three years past, and Arianna's first frontline combat action. Back before she was a member of the Seminary Gang. Since then, skirmishes continued cropping up across all the worlds—prominently in Real Space.

The Second Time War was over, in a fashion. In other ways, they were catching up with the battles that happened elsewhere.

"And we don't know if these are conflicts reaching from an as of yet unidentified Third Time War," said Skylar. "Not that Cartonius would reveal such things…"

"Master Evans," Cartonius began, his hologram surging with light, "my programming includes protocol for early warning. If such an extended conflict were on the horizon, I would have duly warned the Epochal Guard."

Which was telling in and of itself. If Cartonius felt no need to warn of combat action, then it was almost certainly the leftovers of the Second Time War. The only real question left was how much of that conflict would impact their present time stream.

Oh, and then there was the matter of Arianna's mission to the past. They needed to wrap this meeting up, as a matter of fact. Causality was waiting for her.

Thankfully, Mother was on point. "We're distracting from the issue. This council was summoned to prepare you for the causal loop taking you back in time. Instead, we've gotten distracted by that letter sent from the First Generation. If it were only my say, we'd conclude now and send you on your way."

Arianna smiled at her. She was grateful her Mother served on Epochal Guard command. She had a way of focusing in on what mattered most. And it was good to spend time with family. It was a real shame the Seminary Gang existed purely for the younger generations—the Sixths and Sevenths these days. She wouldn't have minded serving alongside her Mother in that role.

Or her Father.

"Arianna, you were right about what you said earlier," said Skylar. "That we are screwed."

Arianna rolled her eyes. "And I was just being dramatic. Cartonius could never fully seal away how things panned out in Cadence. Too many members of this panel were there to witness it firsthand."

"Though not for lack of trying on my part," said Cartonius.

Arianna sat up straight. A spacetime thread teased at her mind, leaving a tickling sensation that ran down the middle of her chest. She recognized the feeling—it was part of her chronometric ability. Someone was trying to anchor an artificial causal loop to this moment.

She instinctively reached for her sidearm. The air in the room rippled, the temporal change already affecting local time streams. Skylar Evans spoke, but his words were distorted by the oncoming rush.

"If the Cadence affair…harbinger of things to come, well…"

It happened quickly. Arianna leapt from her seat, diving behind one of the podium walls for cover. Though coated with laminated wood trim, all structural construction in this room was steel plated. Designed in mind if a firefight ever broke out—and right now was that moment. Gunfire rang loudly in Arianna's ears, pinging off her cover.

The artificial time stream took hold of the scene. A squadron of soldiers teleported into the center of the room, wearing black and silver body armor. Their high caliber rifles trained on Guard command, blue tracer rounds flooding the Council Room. Arianna caught sight of her Mother and Skylar flying back from their seats, uniforms chewed up and bloody.

Arianna closed her eyes, taking a deep breath to center herself.

Leaping up, she got off a free shot that downed two of the soldiers. Their gear was good, but their helmets weren't perfect enough to stop a headshot. With the temporary lapse in weapons fire, she bolted for the podium stage door out of the room. This scene was a distraction. A diversion to keep a chronometric like Arianna from finding the Anchor.

The soldiers were good. Arianna danced from cover to cover in the corridor outside, finding the floors clogged with the dead in this time stream. All the Sixths on garrison duty were dead, as well as most supporting Fifths or Sevenths. The survivors were holding a prolonged standoff near the front lobby.

Arianna probed out with her chronometric sense. She began to feel the geometry and structure of this causality loop. It was completely artificial, which meant the time stream playing out around her wasn't remotely real. If they got the Anchor in place, then part of it would snap into reality. A few of the soldiers would appear in the Council Room, but temporal security would ping them before they could do too much damage.

Mother would probably die. Which meant Arianna seriously needed to find that Anchor.

They were hiding in a utility room. Arianna followed the geometry of the causal loop, like walking down a steep slope into a gulley. It left a gravitational weight she could feel pulling her in as she drew close. Being an Anchor was also a chronometric ability, albeit one that wouldn't manifest for at least another few decades—probably around the Ninth or Tenth Generation.

Arianna kicked down the door into the utility room, laying waste to the two soldiers left to guard the Anchor. She was a middle aged woman, wearing a copper colored one-piece that bore advanced semimetal-weaves. Definitely someone from farther up the timeline with fancy toys.

The Anchor blinked wide-eyed as Arianna put a bullet through her forehead. Almost immediately, the artificial time stream began to collapse. Soldiers storming on Arianna's position from the rear began to evaporate, the whole scene growing as distorted as when it began.

When it warped beyond all recognition, Arianna felt a seat rise up beneath her. The sidearm vanished from her hand, and the surroundings settled back into the shape and form of the Council Room less than five minutes before. Skylar Evans was still prattling on.

"If the Cadence affair was a harbinger of things to come, well…what have we to fear, really?"

Cartonius' hologram shifted to bright red, his former data tables and images vanishing. "Alert. I am receiving reports of an artificial causal link to this location."

"Relax," Arianna grunted. "Taken care of. Now can we focus on sending me back in time?"