Prologue

Time Has No Meaning, In An Alternate Reality

There is an imbalance; this must be rectified.

There is no counterbalance within the area so unbalanced; this must be rectified.

Ah. Here is the counterbalance, but it is in the wrong reality; this must be rectified.

The Transferring to the proper reality will destroy it, as it currently exists; this must be rectified.

It is done.


Unpowered

Autumn 2019 through January 2020, Pasadena, California, USA

Helena Troy Martin enjoyed the way numbers added up and did what they were supposed to, when a spreadsheet was programmed properly, and enjoyed playing math games with her friends both online and at Pasadena City College. There, she was a freshman studying Accounting working towards bookkeeping and tax prep. She was required to take other classes as well, to qualify for a bachelor's degree down the line. In her English 101 class, she found herself seated in front of an undergrad from Pacific Polytechnic, which was adjacent to PCC.

David Lewis had managed to get through most of his university experience without taking an English class, but in order to complete his degree, he had to show proficiency in written communication. He opted to fill those requirements at the less expensive community college, while still engaged in his expensive bio-chemistry studies. He was well aware that he was markedly older than his classmates, at twenty-four.

The first week of classes, Dave was amused at how childish the freshmen seemed to him, especially the little brunette from Temple City, because she was a full foot shorter than his six-foot-two. Helena wondered what was with the really tall blond guy who kept sitting behind her in their English class; he was cute, but holy crap, he was tall! He had a PacPolyTec sticker on his cell phone, and a security access pass on his courier bag for the new PacPolyTec bio-sciences building down the street.

At the end of the fourth session of their English class, Helena turned in her seat to introduce herself to the blond guy. He was collecting his notes and shoving things into his messenger bag, as the "kid" in front of him turned to face him.

"Heya. I'm Helena. I was gonna grab a frap at the Buckysters on the way to the garage. Care to join me?" She was amazed with how confident she sounded, and bit on the side of her tongue, waiting for an answer.

Dave blinked at Helena, and offered a vague smile, "Uh, sure!" He grinned and offered his right hand, "I'm Dave. I was planning on an iced latte, before heading to the lab."

Helena took the offered hand and grinned impishly, nodding. "I saw the badge on your bag, last class. Piqued my curiosity," she admitted.

They exchanged contact information during that impromptu coffee date, and continued going for coffee together on Fridays. By the end of September, they were actively dating, often winding up at Dave's studio apartment in Eagle Rock, because Helena was still living with her parents. They shared an enthusiasm for action movies, cute animal videos, and bardcore. Dave had a lovely tenor voice, and Helena had a decent alto range, and they'd sing along with whatever was on the radio or video, and laugh when one got the lyrics wrong.

Helena and Dave had been seeing each other exclusively for four months. They recognized that they were unlikely going to be a permanent couple, because their long-term plans didn't align well, as they saw it. But, during the 2019/2020 term, they enjoyed hanging out together, being a couple. They enjoyed the time they were having. For Halloween, they were Princess Buttercup and the Dread Pirate Wesley, and that's when Dave introduced Helena to his family, at his parents' house in Arcadia. The following weekend, Helena's family had Dave over for dinner, in Temple City.

The holiday season that year was entertaining. They promised to keep gifts cheap and fun. They exchanged extremely ugly Winter Solstice sweaters, obscure music related to their separate majors, novelty candies, and gifted the other with a copy of their own favorite fantasy novels. Helena gave Dave a copy of "Zero Sum Game," and received a paperback edition of "Strange Chemistry: The Stories Your Chemistry Teacher Wouldn't Tell You."

It was early January when they had just finished a burger dinner at the local Hearty's. They were walking down the street, to the building Dave's lab was in. They hadn't even gotten halfway down the block, when the ground started rolling violently. Helena stumbled and grabbed the trunk of one of the trees lining the street, while Dave was knocked completely off his feet, getting sent sprawling on his chest, onto the sidewalk.

With the ground still heaving, Dave rolled towards Helena, away from the dry cleaners' plate glass windows, rattling dangerously in their frames. As he reached a parking meter next to the tree, the windows shattered, sending shards both into the building and towards the street. Several larger shards struck the couple, but they scarcely noticed, at the time. Masonry was falling from all the nearby buildings, windows shattering, people crying out, cars' brakes squealing as their drivers fought for control.

Helena watched in horror as the dry cleaners' ceiling collapsed and the street was plunged into darkness, when the local power grid failed. She didn't know how long the rolling continued; it felt like hours, but it was only a matter of minutes. She clung to the tree, praying that it wouldn't fall over, while nearby buildings fell, cars rocked in their parking spots on the street.

And then, there was silence.

And then, there wasn't. Groans of the injured, the creaking of broken buildings, the blaring car alarms, the rattle of falling debris. A car in the street had slid to an angle before stopping, the headlights shining into the wreckage of the dry cleaners. Helena saw a dust-covered arm, the hand trying to push rubble off. The debris shifted as the person started to pull themself out.

"There's somebody in there! Dave, call 9-1-1!" she called out, and started gingerly climbing over the rubble to the survivor. She was reaching for that hand, when the aftershock hit.

Except it didn't feel like any earthquake Helena had been in before. There was a sound like discordant notes being played on a grand church's pipe organ, then a bright light, below her and to her left. She turned to the light, confused, and felt the world drop out from under her.

She was surrounded by both light and darkness, and not falling, but not floating, either. There was a roar of sound, but also deafening silence at the same time. Helena couldn't get a breath, but she was screaming. She could move, but there was nothing to move against, or towards, or anything. Helena felt like she was being torn inside out, folded into herself like a crumpled piece of paper, stretched like a well-used hair-tie. There was pain, and numbness at the same time, and sensations she would never be able to describe, even to herself, of being torn apart and reassembled, with unnamable differences.

She had no idea how long she was in that place that wasn't a place, before that strange pipe organ sound dominated her senses, once more. She found that she was falling, backwards, and was finally permitted the sweet oblivion of unconsciousness.