Most Pivotal of Questions
I think you know how we answered that.
With Alex in recovery from childbirth, it was natural to gather in Stormfall.
It helped that the Epochal Guard established the Diverging Reality as a permanent base of operations. They essentially controlled this world; what was left of it from Kamal's conquest. Real Space was militarizing in the wake of Salem's defeat. As their governments woke up to the reality of time travel and Diverging Realities, Stormfall was a safe place for the Guard, Allied forces, and other such organizations to gather. Things would be touchy for the next few months. But Skylar was optimistic for a change.
The Guard was busy these days brokering formal organizations with dozens of newly liberated Diverging Realities. They were in a position to police and maintain Slip-Gate corridors. It offered stability against surviving military forces from Salem—and there were plenty of those slinking into the shadows. Ultimately, it ensured that those corridors remained under centralized control. If too many pocket universes decided to close off or pirate routes, it could complicate relations going forward.
At least they would always have Cadence. It was becoming the model world these days. Chancellor Stieber had consolidated surviving nationalities and formally stepped down as emergency mediator. She now participated in local elections for a Representative Counsel—an organization that would speak on behalf of the nations of Cadence in the arena of Diverging Realities. An Allied Coalition of Worlds. It would be messy at first. But there weren't any warlords of the magnitude of Salem surfacing at the moment. They could do it.
For the time, with so many of the Fourth Generation scattering about the Diverging Realities, the Fifths were stationed at command posts in Stormfall. That gave the S.G. opportunity to gather for a final war conference at the base in China where Alex recuperated. After that…Skylar could only imagine where the Gang would go next.
"Almost every major urban center experienced combat," said Alex. "I don't know if that was a psychological effort on Salem's part, or if he believed he could pump out an army a hundred million strong to occupy those cities. Either way, everyone in Real Space saw the war. It was in their streets and the casualties are still coming in. If the war had lasted two days longer, I can only imagine the destruction we'd see across the globe."
"He could have done it," said Marissa. Like Alex, she joined their private meeting in a wheelchair, her right arm in a sling and bandaged. "I saw the fold world where his daughter was playing goddess. She could have created an army a billion strong if Kyle hadn't…" She trailed off.
Skylar frowned at that. Everyone walked on eggshells when Kyle's name came up. He couldn't figure out why; Kyle was a hero. He was singlehandedly responsible for collapsing Salem's fold world and closing the portals. But even Alex—who was supposed to be Kyle's closest friend—kept away from that discussion. She looked choked up from Marissa's mention.
He was each their friend—their leader—but maybe something special with Alex.
"The point is, the secret is out," said Maggie. "Real Space knows something profound has happened. A lot of people are going to have to adjust to the paradigm shift of multiple worlds connected to ours." She squeezed Skyar's hand. "But they will adjust."
Alex took a breath. "I think our new mission as the S.G. is obvious in that light: we need to be ambassadors to Real Space. We'll carry the story of the Epochal Guard; of the Diverging Realities ready to traffic freely through the Slip-Gates."
"We'll tell them about the First Generation," said Robby. "How this all began and where it's going."
"Some of them we'll try to fight to fight us," said Bryce. "They'll see us as national security threats."
Alex nodded. "It's going to be a difficult transition for some. But the old paradigms are fading. They'll have to accept a world of chronometrics. Worlds of chronometrics."
Skylar cleared his throat. "Has anyone come to a reasonable explanation why the other Diverging Realities have those?" He looked around at the others; all blank faced. "I mean, I thought it was supposed to be genetic. Passed down the Generation Lines."
"Salem wasn't in the Generation Lines," said Alise. Skylar looked over at her. She sat perched on a countertop near the back of the room, away from where the others circled together. He had nearly forgotten she was in attendance.
"He was Charlie's cousin," said Sean.
"On her father's side," said Alise. "If the stories from the First Generation are true, he found his chronometric power through toying with the cosmos."
"Is that what's happening, then?" said Skylar. "Are these Diverging Realities us toying with the cosmos? And so people living in these worlds come in contact with the power?"
Alise didn't respond. She pulled her knees up close to her chest, folding her arms pensively. "We don't know," she admitted. "There's a lot of our standard models and ideas that will have to change now. A year ago, I would have told you that worlds like Cadence and Stormfall were rare. That Diverging Realities were brief and died with their Observers. Now they have a chance of living as eternally as Real Space."
"Gee," Marissa grunted, "makes you wonder if Real Space isn't just a Diverging Reality attached to some other world."
Skylar shifted his jaw. That was a little too existential for him to consider at the moment. He quickly put the notion out of his head. No point confusing himself.
"The world is changing," said Bryce. "We have an opportunity to be agents for progress in it. We can tell the stories and help those who accept them. We can also mitigate those who would lash out against them."
"We can be what Kyle wanted us to be," said Alex. Her voice trembled at the mention of his name. "We can be what the world needs us to be that isn't always a military solution. We have the power, and now we have allies."
"I guess we need to put together some lists," said Robby: "Who will go to which heads of state. Who will draft up correspondence and diplomatic contracts."
"And who is going to help out in the Diverging Realities," said Maggie. "We'll need to watch for warlords looking to take advantage of the delicate aftermath. And we'll have to look for leftover hardware from Salem. Soldiers, tanks, tech—anything they could use to start another Time War."
Alex nodded. "The Second Time War wasn't limited to a single day. I think we'll be feeling its effects for the next couple of decades."
Skylar actually found himself smiling at the notion. He supposed it wouldn't be a proper Time War if the combat didn't spread out among multiple periods of time. Perhaps that's why Salem had so many supporters warping in from the future. It certainly explained why someone like Arianna had traveled back. But apparently they weren't supposed to talk about her. Skylar had a fair guess it had something to do with Alex's new baby girl who also bore the same name.
"Part of the reason I wanted to have this council," Alex continued, "was to find out if any of you wanted to opt out. I know things are going to be difficult going forward. So many of you have already sacrificed for the fight."
Bryce laughed. "Hell, Alex—how could we say no now? It's like you said: this is the vision of the Seminary Gang Kyle held for us. I didn't leave the Guard to quit on you now."
The others in the room added their assent, which Skylar happily joined. It had taxed him dearly in the beginning, but he was glad he took the chance; knowing deep inside this was probably the most important thing he could do with his little life. And he wouldn't dare back out when it would take Maggie to distant shores. He would follow her anywhere.
"Then this is where I leave you." Alise hopped down from her counter top.
"We could use you, Alise," said Alex.
She hesitated at the door, sparing a dark look back. "I was never part of the S.G., and I won't pretend to show any care for it now. We helped each other and that was enough."
"Where will you go?" Skylar found himself asking. In the past, he might have blushed at asking such an audacious question. But what did he have to fear? He almost laughed out loud at the thought having to face her down. With the Kae-Lith augmentation to his body, he could surely match her.
"Annemarie and I are setting out," said Alise. "We have some places to investigate; things to look for."
"Setting out on your own new adventure," said Marissa. "Sounds like fun."
Alise stared back blankly. "You took care of Hakim; I certainly ended Salem. I can only imagine what you've all overlooked out there."
"Of course," said Skylar. "You're going after Kamal!" The one Attar that slipped beyond their reach at the end of the war. The one wholly responsible for Stormfall.
"I'm not concerned with him," said Alise. "He was a poor substitute for his brother and an embarrassing legacy for his father. But if we ever cross paths, I will make short work of him."
"Then where will you go?" Marissa pressed.
Alise shrugged. "Onward."
She turned, pressing out of the door. Skylar wasn't certain if he would ever see her again. Part of him hoped she would crop up from time to time, doing her part to make the Diverging Realities a better place. He liked to think that was what drew her to Cadence in the first place. But Skylar honestly didn't know Alise. Maybe that was the last time he would ever see her.
He wouldn't miss her.
Alex sighed. "I don't know if there's much else to discuss. We should get some rest and reconvene in a day or two."
"Sounds good to me," Maggie said, standing to stretch. "Message me if we hear any new developments out of Real Space. I'd like to be ready to act if the need arises."
Skylar stood as well, holding her hand as they shuffled out with the others into the corridors beyond. He had to admit, he felt a warmth of excitement building within. Without the threat of war looming overhead, the prospects ahead of them felt thrilling. If Skylar was honest with himself, he had no idea how they would meet them. But he was certain that as long as he was with Maggie, the two would figure out a way to make it work. Maybe he would find that diplomatic work agreed with him.
The Chinese Base held several barracks the Gang requisitioned for their stay. Skylar followed Maggie back to hers, where the two kicked back in her little bunk. The Kae-Lith in his system relieved him of any physical and emotional fatigue. For now, it was satisfying to lie here quietly with the woman he loved.
"Where do you think we'll go first?" Skylar asked, projecting the question into her mind.
"I'd like to go back to Jasper," she replied quietly. "Find out if there are any rogue elements lingering there."
Skylar nodded, nuzzling against the side of her face. "I wouldn't mind that. Keep my combat skills sharp."
Maggie chuckled. "I thought you'd be all for settling down."
"And you are?"
She was silent for a moment. Then, "No. I couldn't. Not now; maybe not for awhile. But…I won't discount the possibility."
Skylar turned, kissing her. "We have plenty of years ahead of us. We'll figure out where we're going as we follow the road ahead of us."
She kissed him back. "I thought you wanted to leave the conflict behind."
"I think life is conflict. Peace is simply those quiet moments you get to spend with someone you care about before you go out to face life again and again."
Maggie smiled deeply, closing her eyes and wrapping her arms around him. "In that case, I guess I wouldn't mind settling down into the adventures ahead of us."
Skylar didn't reply. He didn't want to waste this perfect moment with talk.
Marissa wasn't going to be a cripple.
That was too bad; she kind of liked being the convalescent of the group. Everyone took care of her and paid her the time of day. She also mingled with the other Fifths shipped back to Stormfall for medical treatment. They shared camaraderie and battlefield scars. None of them ever asked about her Sixth Generation status; she was one of them. Also, it was kind of fun being a temporary cripple with only one arm. Marissa exercised several fantasies where she had to learn how to adapt without it.
But if she was being honest with herself, there wasn't an end to her treatment that could leave her crippled. The tissue and bone regenerators could mend the worst damage. If she actually lost her right arm, they could grow a new one in a vat. At most, her experience as an amputee was childlike make-believe. Something fun to entertain herself.
It also helped distract her from Arianna's absence. Her battlefield partner never visited during the brief treatment at Fairbanks. She never showed up during any of their meetings in Stormfall. And as the rest of the Gang began dispersing to new tasks, there was no word on Arianna's role in these events.
Lazy bitch went back to her time period without saying goodbye.
A week after the S.G. council, Marissa was nearly finished healing. The medic attending to her and the other Fifths in recoup wanted her to stay another day for tissue regeneration. Then it was off to Real Space, where Marissa would tag along with Alex for several North American conferences. Bryce and his sister, Liz, would complete their retinue for the event. Marissa felt excited to be a part of it.
She finished another session in the medical lab when Arianna strolled in out of the blue. "Hey girl, how's the downtime treating you?"
Marissa blinked. "About damn time you showed up." She stood, pulling her into a hug. "Thought you'd run back off to the future."
"I've been out in Jasper for awhile. I had to confirm some reports before jetting off. Couldn't leave any stone unturned. Sadly, it kept me pretty busy. Sorry for not phoning in sooner."
Jasper? That was where the Guard originally suspected Salem to make his first assault. "No one has heard anything from you in nearly two weeks. What were you even looking for there?"
"Residue of Salem's fold world."
"It collapsed, right?"
Arianna laughed. "And nearly took us with it, if you remember. It's hard to explain, since the science behind it is still theoretical by my time."
"Your time is only twenty years from now."
"Yes, and you can't imagine what's going to change by then. I'll give you a hint—you're a Captain in the Epochal Guard."
Marissa felt her insides twist up. "I'm getting kicked out of the Gang!"
"No, sorry, didn't mean to upset you. Not kicked out; graduated. The S.G. is always a younger generation's mantle to bear. In twenty years, you're going to be fast approaching your forties, managing a family, and playing in all sorts of affairs across the Diverging Realities. A Captain in the Epochal Guard is a high honor—especially since you will always bear the title of Seminary Ganger. That never leaves you."
"Are you really supposed to be telling me these things?"
Arianna grinned mischievously. "I haven't told you anything specific."
"Well, you've pretty much confirmed that the world won't have ended and that things stabilize politically."
"I'm here, aren't I? That should have been your first clue."
Marissa exhaled, settling back in the chair under the tissue regenerator. "It's been awfully convenient you weren't around the last couple of weeks. Alex wants to erase you from the records here."
Arianna nodded, sitting down across from her. "It's for the best. Only a handful of people knew I was ever going to come back, my mother of course included. She kept the secret from me very carefully over the years. I didn't know until a few days before I came back—when the causal loop opened up to my chronometrics."
"What was that like?"
"Shocking, to say the least. Mother was very good about erasing me from the records here. I studied them in school, you know. The Second Time War is a watershed moment for history. And I had no idea I was actually there for all of it."
"I'm still alive by then," said Marissa. "Wouldn't I have told you? Won't we still be friends?"
"Of course we are. You're practically an aunt. Why do you think I chose you to be my partner when we set out to reconnaissance? I wanted someone familiar I was close with. I had no idea I was laying the seeds for our future friendship."
Marissa smiled to herself. "Auntie Marissa. I guess it's good I'm starting off my first assignment with Alex."
Arianna reached out, touching her left hand. "Don't you worry about the next twenty years. They'll take care of themselves—they already have from my perspective. I'm here because I wanted to thank you for the time we had to spend together."
"We'll see each other again when you return, won't we? You're going back to your time, aren't you?"
"Of course, silly." Though there was something in her smile that Marissa wasn't sure about. But that was the essence of Arianna, she supposed. Always one step ahead; always up to something secretive. Marissa only hoped this meeting here wasn't a farewell point for both of them.
Marissa leaned forward, giving her a brief kiss on the cheek. "It was good to work with my future niece. Now skedaddle back to the future so we can have some more adventures there."
Arianna laughed, standing. Marissa joined her and the two embraced one last time. "Okay, Marissa. See you around the timeline."
Saying goodbye to Marissa was convenient because she happened to be in Stormfall.
In this point on the timeline, the North Americas of Stormfall were radioactive wastelands. That would change dramatically in the next two decades. For the time being, there was an old Canadian outpost that escaped most of Kamal's nuclear bombardment. After finishing her farewells in China, Arianna slipped away and over to the far side of the world. Her time here was done, and the only history of it that mattered was in the future waiting for her.
Arianna didn't know where Kamal made his pattern for Stormfall. Supposedly this Diverging Reality began in the early twenty-first century like so many of the others. A lot of the existent technology and infrastructure supported that notion. But there was an inconsequential island covered only in sand and scrub with an empty facility that should not exist. At least not in the early twenty-first century.
There were a lot of questions why Gray Goose held an analog in Stormfall, but those were irrelevant for Arianna's purposes. More important was the fact that this facility held a working temporal node linked to Cartonius' spacetime continuum network. If Arianna wanted to be direct, she could have used any of the secure facilities in China—the South Dakota HQ in Real Space also held a working node. But this was much more discreet; she didn't want locals from this time period aware that their god AI could talk to them. They might start asking questions. And questions could lead to uncomfortable answers.
Alone in the island facility that shouldn't exist, Arianna pulled up a communication request to Cartonius. He didn't waste any time responding.
"Greetings, Miss Arianna. Based on my temporal calculations, you are nearing the end of your causal loop to this time period."
"Correct as always, Cartonius. I don't know what calculations you're running—you had to know I would come here at this time. How couldn't you?"
"You always assumed that causal loops keep time travel from altering the timeline."
Arianna took a step back. "They don't?" That had horrifying implications.
"I will admit causality still preserves essential events. Paradoxes would severely disrupt that, as we have witnessed all too well with Salem's fold worlds. But the subtleties and nuances of the Eternal Streams leave me without a more perfect vision of the timeline. An effect, I must confess, from the chaotic nature of quantum mechanics."
Arianna wasn't certain how to take that. In a few short words, Cartonius overthrew her essential conventions. Was there anything sacred left to believe?
"I want to go home," Arianna groaned. "I can see the causal loop—but will it take me back to the present I left?"
Cartonius chuckled lightly. "Do not fear, young Arianna. It would indeed take you home to people you know and the world you left. But open your eyes. Can't you see that other pathways lie before you?"
Of course she could. It was a key aspect of her unique chronometric power. Arianna could see dozens and dozens of potential causal loops all around her everywhere. They offered her pathways and chances to stride the rivers of time anywhere and take a place in shaping history. These causality loops offered her a chance at unsullied time travel, free from dangerous paradoxes. Even with Cartonius' cryptic hints that not everything stayed the same, Arianna saw all of these loops and the countless lifetimes they offered her.
But only a small, select few of these ever caught her attention, because they bespoke critical roles she had to play. It was the reason she ever came back to the Second Time War—because destiny demanded that she be here.
Now…she wasn't so sure about the loop that would bring her home. There was no destiny demanding that she return. But where would she go? What was Cartonius alluding to?
"Have you really already forgotten?"
Arianna jumped, startled, spinning in time to see Alise fade out of green light into the room. She was accompanied by Annemarie, a young woman with blood red hair and a heritage that was impossible not to recognize. Arianna had never met her before, but the resemblance was uncanny to her mother. She also never learned what happened to her by Arianna's time. That was another detail lost to the histories.
"You did forget," said Alise. "We have unfinished business to attend to." She held up her Remote for show.
Arianna blinked. She could see it now—the causality loop that would allow Alise to bestow that Remote to her former self; a homeless girl named Raquel Tree Top, barely fifteen and living forgotten from the rest of the Third Generation in her time. That Remote would set Alise on her path to a brief surrogate mother—Autumn Porter—and inevitably on to Hakim at the beginning of Cadence. That same Remote that would finally lead her here to Arianna, come full circle.
Sometimes Arianna forgot how circular the stranger causal loops could be.
"I thought that wouldn't come till later," said Arianna. "I didn't think I would kill two birds with one stone on this trip."
"Trip?" said Annemarie. "This wasn't some mission."
Arianna made sure to shoot the young woman a snarky look. Though at this point in the timeline Annemarie was older than her. "Oh really? And what is it?"
"It's the start of a new pathway," said Alise. "I won't bore you with philosophical bullshit, but let me ask you something: did you ever consider that coming back wasn't supposed to end? That after you checked off everything your superiors sent you back to do, that you wouldn't have something else waiting for you?"
Arianna looked between the two women. "You're here to recruit me."
"I was going to say 'invite,'" said Annemarie. "We're not some cult."
"Where are you going?"
"Wherever we're needed," said Alise. "Do you think Hakim was the first person I went after when I got the Remote?"
"No, you lived with Autumn; Kyle's great-grandmother—"
"She gave me a warm meal and roof to sleep under whenever I was in the neighborhood."
Arianna opened her mouth and then closed it again. Everyone always assumed Alise spent three to four years with Autumn Porter before going after Hakim. But the records and details of Alise's life were conjecture. A piss poor attempt to try to keep track of the lost Tree Top running loose across the timeline without causal loop guidance.
Except maybe she had more guidance that Arianna realized. Guidance maybe she provided.
"Cartonius," Alise barked, "tell her what you told me. About the Eternal Streams."
And apparently she knew who Cartonius was. Arianna wondered if Alise kept that secret during their time in Cadence or if this was a future iteration of Alise standing before her. It was hard to say. Alise held a timeless youth that made her look the same nearly everywhere Arianna had spied her before. Was the girl really only nineteen? After today, Arianna was willing to shed all of her preconceived notions.
"The Eternal Streams are the life and energy that fuel your chronometrics," said Cartonius. "They control and shape destiny, raising heroes from the stock of those who came before. They offer power that ultimately corrupts those who would have been heroes if not for their choices."
"The Eternal Streams are the Exotic Matter Stream?" said Arianna.
"She doesn't understand," said Annemarie. Arianna was beginning to dislike the condescending bitch. She had to remind herself that the poor girl grew up socially isolated—it wasn't entirely her fault she was gauche.
"They are no more the same than daylight and the sun are the same," said Cartonius.
"Oh, so they're an extension of power from a source."
"Close enough," Alise grunted. "Look, we all have the lovely misfortune of being born centuries before any of this will make sense. Cartonius knows too much for his own good because he's plugged into the engines of time and reality. Point is, destiny is calling us. The Eternal Streams no doubt shaped my life long before I ever got this Remote, and they've got plans for us. You just can't see it yet."
"You make it sound like God," said Arianna.
"Definitely not God," said Annemarie. "At the very most, a tool left behind by Him—if He even exists—to help us."
"Or something else entirely," said Alise. "But we're wasting too much time trying to define destiny when it has plans for the three of us."
"And you're not worried those plans might be reprehensible?"
"Damn it, Arianna, it's destiny! I don't care what you believe in, this shit is amoral. We get to choose what to make of it. The Eternal Streams simply put us places and then we do something about it. They put me on a collision path with Hakim in Cadence. I think they put you on the same path. And guess what? We did something. Now it's time to do something else."
Arianna had to admit she enjoyed a lecture on philosophy coming from Alise. The girl straddled a line between moralistic action and nihilism. But if it gave her something to do, did it matter? Arianna tried to decide what she believed, but if she was willing to accept for a moment that something as nebulous a concept as destiny existed and that it had a purpose for her, could she ignore it?
And of course she couldn't. It brought her this far already.
Arianna folded her arms, leaning back against Cartonius' console. "Obviously we're making a first stop to pass on that Remote to a homeless girl called Raquel. Where to from there?"
Alise shrugged. "Does it matter? We'll find out when we get there."
"We've got all of time, all of the worlds, and maybe many others we don't know yet," said Annemarie. "We're in no hurry to settle on any one place."
Arianna grinned, shaking her head. Her mother was going to kill her when she finally checked back in on their present. But that was irrelevant. Arianna began to sense all sorts of causal loops on the periphery that had a touch of destiny about them.
Alise was right; Cartonius was right. This was just beginning.
She stepped forward, taking a hand from both girls. "Well then. Shall we set off into the deep?"
"Hold on," said Alise. "Who knows what's waiting for us on the other side?"