“Impressive, isn’t it?”
It was much more than that, but she was not about to give them the satisfaction of saying so.
Aradidjad folded her arms and did her best to look supercilious rather than sullen; she stared past the open walls of the cage-like elevator as much to avoid the eyes of her captors as to take in the incredible scene.
The citadel of the Scions of Vemnesthis hung suspended in a void; all around was an endless vault of stars and eerie splashes of faint color like distant nebulae—a sight she dimly recognized from her undergraduate years, though she was no astronomer. The whole complex was even surrounded by a ring system like Bast’s, tilted at a crazy angle. Like the rings around the distant gas giant, it seemed to be made of dust and chunks of floating debris, being just close enough to the elevator for her to make out its texture.
In the center of the complex hung the vast hourglass. Multi-chambered, filled with sands which glowed in shifting shades of gold and silver, streaming through its many compartments in patterns that made no sense even when they were not interrupted by miniature sandstorms, the glass was an endless tower suspended in space. It actually seemed to terminate far below, but stretched above apparently infinitely. The relatively small segment surrounded by the Scions’ base might as well have been perfectly vertical, but as its vast length extended toward eternity it could be seen to weave and waver in an irregular pattern.
Rings of metal surrounded the hourglass, broad walkways upon which Arididjad could see people coming and going. There were over a dozen layers of them, connected by an erratic network of spiral staircases and rope bridges, all wrought from metal which gleamed like chrome. A faint glow washed outward from the great hourglass, but there were also incongruously mundane-looking street lamps on posts positioned here and there, mostly at the foot of each bridge.
The elevator “shafts” were little more than long metal poles guiding the course of each car, which itself was nothing but an open cage of brass and a glass floor—enough to give a person vertigo, to which she was fortunately not very susceptible. There were dozens of these elevators, all positioned around the edges of the metal platforms, apparently stopping at multiple levels and all rising to the gateways which hung in space several stories above the highest level of the complex.
Extending out past the network of platforms and bridges, but within the planetary ring, were a profusion of buildings covering every conceivable architectural style. Everything from mud brick huts to stone temples, log cabins and graceful palaces, even several towering and improbable-looking structures of glass and steel. They floated in nothing, reached from the platforms by more hanging bridges.
There were no banisters or safety rails anywhere in the place.
“Aw, it’s all right, you can say it,” the gnome prompted with an irritating grin. “It’s no admission of weakness. It is damn impressive, and you know it.”
“No need to prod at her,” the elf said in a mild tone. While the gnome seemed strangely cheerful about this whole contemptible business, the elf had just been standoffish and left her alone. Aradidjad didn’t know the little red-headed gnomish woman from a hole in the wall, but this elf was unmistakable, and her presence here boded ill. Her apparent disinterest was, if anything, encouraging.
“How long am I expected to serve, here?” she demanded.
Tellwyrn had been watching out the front of the elevator with her back to Aradidjad, but now half-turned to look at her sidelong, pushing those gold-rimmed spectacles up the bridge of her nose.
“This is a life sentence, Dr. Aradidjad. Idrie should have explained that to you.”
“Oh, I bloody well did, an’ you know it,” the gnome huffed. “C’mon, Arachne, you know what they’re all like when first picked up. I told ‘er what she needs ta know; it won’t stop the questions.”
“So,” Aradidjad grunted, “I’m here till I die, then? Well, at least I know how to quit.”
The elf’s shift in posture was infinitesimal, and her expression changed not a hair, but suddenly Aradidjad’s nerves jangled with a sense of impending danger.
It didn’t help. Moving with the characteristic fluid speed of her race, Tellwyrn whirled, whipping a gold-hilted saber out of nowhere, and drove the blade straight into her heart.
She gaped, in total shock, at the elf’s faintly sardonic expression…which drifted upward as she slumped to her knees. Blood spurted with each agonizing beat of her heart. The pain… It hurt less than she’d have expected. It felt like pressure more than a cut, she noted with scientific detachment, even as her senses faded into blackness.
And suddenly, everything was running backward. She moved through a haze over which she had no control, watching the last few seconds rewind. Aradidjad was pulled upright as if on strings, Tellwyrn reached out to grab the saber’s hilt and yanked it from her chest. That, oddly, didn’t hurt.
Then time resumed its normal flow, and she stumbled backward. Fortunately her back came against one of the elevator’s upright supports, which spared her a tumble into the impossible voice. Aradidjad scrabbled frantically for the handrails, gasping. She clawed at her chest; no wound. There was no blood. Her shirt wasn’t even rumpled.
“You get to quit,” Tellwyrn said wryly, “when we decide you can.”
Idrie the gnome rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Arachne.”
“You could just have explained that!” Aradidjad snarled.
Tellwyrn shrugged and turned her back again. “I find that experience is the best teacher.”
Aradidjad bared her teeth at the elf’s back, straightening up and raised one hand; energy began to coalesce out of the air in her grip.
Idrie cleared her throat, catching her eye, and then shook her head pointedly.
After a short pause, she let the half-formed spell disperse. What was the use, anyway? Tellwyrn didn’t even bother to acknowledge it, though she of course must have been aware of a spell of arcane destruction being cast directly behind her. Well, of course she didn’t. It was Arachne Tellwyrn. Cyria Aradidjad was a much more than competent mage, but instigating a wizard’s duel with this one would have been nothing but drawn-out, extravagant suicide.
And if she correctly interpreted the point of the very painful lesson she had just been given, even that option was not available to her.
Apparently the time reversal had been highly localized. She couldn’t tell whether Idrie had been affected, but the elevator itself was not; it continued down, its progress not altered by the few seconds which had moved backward for Aradidjad. She was still getting her breath back under control when it reached its destination. The cage came to a stop alongside a level near the middle of the complex, a soft chime sounded from somewhere, and the doors slid open.
“Well, step lively now,” Tellwyrn said lightly, striding out onto the metal platform.
“Are you in a hurry?” Aradidjad snipped, following her. “I would think we have all the time in the world.”
“Sloth is a moral failing regardless of its concrete effect,” Tellwyrn replied without turning around. “Come along, Doctor. You will quickly learn to develop the habit of keeping in motion. The kinds of people recruited to serve here are usually those whose minds go to dark places when they have time to sit and contemplate.”
Aradidjad narrowed her eyes, but followed. That description was so true of herself it was eerie.
With Idrie trundling along behind them, seeming to keep up effortlessly despite her tiny legs, they made their way along the platform. Aradidjad glanced down rope bridges as they passed. Not rope, she saw now, but some kind of steel cable. They still didn’t look terribly sturdy. Each led to a floating building; all had their doors closed. There was no guessing at the contents or purpose of any from what she could see.
“And here we are!” Tellwyrn proclaimed, coming to a stop at one end of the long platform. Off to the side of the space, two bridges extended away to other platforms, next to a spiral staircase leading both up and down to still more. This area, though, was set aside for occupation, with a profusion of mismatched tables, chairs, and a few long sofas. Perched across one end of the seating area, precariously close to the edge of the platform, were two food carts such as Aradidjad often saw on the streets of Tiraas. At least, their purpose was obvious, though one was a primitive wooden affair with a charcoal brazier and the other seemed made of brushed steel and contained an arcane cold box of a design clearly more advanced than she had ever seen, to judge by the compact structure of its enchanting components. “Everyone, meet Dr. Cyria Aradidjad, our newest Scion. Cyria, everyone.”
“This is everyone?” she demanded, sweeping a surprised stare around the group. There were only five of them. But then, with power over time itself, she supposed the Scions did not need to be a numerous group to be everywhere they needed…
“Not hardly, it’s just a figure of speech,” Tellwyrn said brusquely. “You can meet everyone at your leisure, but this is a good start: these are exactly the folks you’ll be interacting with the most. Behind the carts there is Kaolu, our chef and groundskeeper. Stay on his good side if you wish to eat well. This is Q, short for Quartermaster, and the only thing he wishes to be called. Chao Lu Shen is our librarian and archivist—any mission which requires you to be updated on the details of the period, which will be most of them, begins with him. And these are Rispin and Yalda, who are much less important.”
“Always a pleasure to see you too, Boss,” the blonde dwarf introduced as Yalda replied sardonically. Rispin, a male drow, just looked at Tellwyrn and then at Aradidjad, his expression betraying nothing, and did not pause in chewing whatever was in his mouth.
The three Tellwyrn introduced as important were all humans. Kaolu was a Westerner of towering height, who fixed Aradidjad with a stony stare from the moment of her arrival. Q gave her a curt nod to soften his speculative expression. It was a little hard to read his face, dominated as it was but an enormous handlebar mustache and the bushiest eyebrows she had ever seen. He was actually an inch or two shorter than she, but incredibly burly, with a ruddy complexion and reddish-brown hair that was beginning to recede. Chao Lu Shen was a diminutive Sheng man wearing frameless spectacles which appeared to be clipped onto the bridge of his nose, without earpieces. He smiled pleasantly at her and bowed at being introduced.
Not one of them looked like mages, though only mages ended up running afoul of—and being forcibly recruited by—the Scions of Vemnesthis. Then again, appearances did not count for much even in the rational world she knew. Here, it might be best to assume nothing meant what it seemed to. What little seemed to mean anything.
“So, a doctor?” Q rumbled. “Would that be of the medical sort?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “I am a researcher in the Arcane Sciences Department at Imperial Univeristy in Calderaas.”
“Were,” Idrie corrected her cheerfully. “You’re one of us now!” Her smile was undaunted by Aradidjad’s answering scowl.
“Pity,” Q grunted. “We could use a medic.”
“For what?” Yalda asked in exasperation.
“General principles. Feels wrong, serving in a unit with no medic.”
“So, a theoretical scientist.” Rispin had swallowed, and now addressed her in a low, warm voice that might have been seductive had she been in any mood for it. “I suppose that explains how you came to be here.”
Aradidjad’s attention was diverted by Kaolu, who had continued staring at her flatly with that unreadable expression. At the drow’s open invitation, though, she cut her eyes to him and narrowed them. “I’m not interested in talking about that.”
“Oh, by all means, take all the time ye need,” Idrie said lightly. “Times all we’ve got in ‘ere, aye? Everybody comes ’round eventually. Me, now, I’m an archaeologist!”
“Don’t you mean were an archaeologist?” Yalda retorted, earning a few points in Aradidjad’s book.
“Are, were, all the same,” Idrie replied, waving her off. “Leastwise, fer me it is. I’m in it ta study ancient cultures, an’ hell’s bells ‘ave I got the opportunity of a lifetime fer that! I may never publish another paper, but damn if the work ain’t excitin’!”
“I, too, find cause to appreciate my current position,” Chao Lu Shen said almost diffidently. “I created a stable temporal loop, enabling myself to live the same day over and over.”
Aradidjad had resolved not to get involved with these people and focus on getting out of this predicament, but that story diverted her attention both from her plans and Kaolu’s increasingly unnerving stare. “One day, on endless repeat? Why in the world would you want to do that?”
“I was a librarian even then,” he replied, smiling. “The Library of the Celestial Emperor in Zingyaru is among the greatest in the world. Texts from every land, from every age! A scholar could devote a lifetime and explore only a fraction of one wing. Indeed, it would take a lifetime’s study to learn every language needed to decipher every document in the Library. I could not bear to be among such a wealth of knowledge, and know that my mortality would deprive me of all but the merest sliver.”
“You imprisoned yourself in a time loop,” Aradidjad said slowly, “to read books.”
He bowed to her again, his smile undiminished. “And now, I have access to books and knowledge beyond all mortal apprehension, and eternity itself in which to study them! I am most content with my lot. If Vemnesthis demands my service for this privilege, then I am honored to serve.”
“If you’re thinking that makes you a bad fit around here,” Yalda said dryly, “don’t. Chao Lu Shen is the exception, not the rule. Most people who were ambitious enough to try messing with time don’t particularly care to be pressganged into being wardens of the very prison they tried to bust out of.”
“We all make whatever accommodation we must with our situation, as it is well and truly permanent,” Rispin added. “Trust me. Some of your new colleagues—none of those here—have chosen to embrace madness rather than endure this situation at face value. From watching them, we have learned that the excuse of madness does not relieve us of duty, but merely makes it more difficult to perform. It is worth devoting some attention to keeping yourself sane.”
“What’re you in for, then?” Aradidjad asked him.
“Bad form, that,” Q snorted. “Won’t tell us your story, but you wanna hear everyone else’s?”
“Aw, quit bein’ such a grouch,” Idrie ordered, strolling over to smack him on the knee reprovingly.
“There is no harm in the asking,” Rispin said with a shrug. “If I did not wish to answer, I wouldn’t. Vemnesthis is not widely known in the Underworld; most of the Pantheon are not. I crafted a plan which would have catapulted me to immense power over my fellows, but failed to account for the existence of an entire deity devoted to thwarting ambitions such as mine.”
“Sorry it didn’t work out for you,” Aradidjad said, struggling to withhold the spite from her voice. Typical drow.
He shrugged again. “One tries what one must; sometimes one fails. I may not have power, here, but the accommodations are indescribably luxurious, compared to what I endured before. I have not learned to appreciate being ordered around by a distant god and his sharp-tongued delegate, but who among us gets all we wish from life?”
“I just wanted to see my fiance again,” Yalda said quietly, fixing a cold stare on Tellwyrn. “But to hell with that and with me, I suppose.”
Aradidjad followed her eyes, deliberately ignoring Kaolu, whose stare had neither relented nor shifted from her for a second. The man didn’t even seem to blink. “Yes, I can’t help but notice that our most famous member appears to be out of uniform. What’s her story?”
Tellwyrn was standing off to the side, silently watching the conversation with her arms folded. Indeed, she wore a simple blouse, vest, and trousers in green and brown, while the rest of them were clad in robes of a pale bronze color deliberately reminiscent of the sands in the titanic hourglass which loomed off to the side.
“Oh, ‘aven’t ye guessed?” Idrie chimed merrily. “She’s the boss of us, an’ now of you, too! That there’s the high priestess of Vemnesthis, an’ the one from whom you’ll be gettin’ yer marchin’ orders from now on.”
“She’s out of uniform,” Yalda added with barely-concealed dislike, “because she gets to go home.”
“The Scions have no home but this citadel in time, and no life but our service,” Chao Lu Shen said in his soft voice, “and never see the world of our birth save on missions in the name of Vemnesthis. Except for our leader, who has the privilege of a dual existence. When not directing us, she returns to her own affairs in the mortal realm.”
“In your entire life,” Aradidjad asked Tellwyrn bitterly, “have you ever encountered a rule that actually applied to you? Or do you just apply them to others?”
“Yes, yes, how very put-upon you all are,” Tellwyrn said in a bored tone. “You all know exactly what you did to end up here—especially you,” she added, tilting her head to stare over the rims of her spectacles at Aradidjad. “I should think it would be fresh enough in your mind. Complain if it makes you feel better, but I’ll warn you up front that it won’t, in the long term. And the long term is what you’d better start thinking of. There are no short terms, here.”
“You have barely begun to dislike Arachne Tellwyrn,” Rispin said with a sarcastic smile which strongly suggested he wasn’t of Narisian origin. “She is an abrasive, unlovable onion whose many noxious layers you have all the time in the world to open, one by one. But, and this is one of her most annoying traits, she is very seldom wrong. She’s not wrong now. Don’t dwell on your anger, comrade. It will only make you miserable, and gain you nothing.”
Offering him no response, Aradidjad stared at Tellwyrn through narrowed eyes in the ensuing silence. She glanced aside; yep, Kaolo was still glaring at her. That was going to get very old, very quickly.
Then, before her better judgment could kick in and dissuade her, she whirled and dashed for the edge of the platform.
No one tried to stop her; no one even exclaimed in surprise, with the exception of Idrie, whose whoop could only be taken as encouragement. Aradidjad only had to take four long steps to reach the edge of the un-railed platform and hurl herself off into the infinite abyss.
She had, fortunately, plunged into a section of space with no structures under it…or perhaps unfortunately. Involuntarily flailing her limbs, she plummeted past rope bridges and more platforms, and barely missed skinning herself on the long bulk of a floating lighthouse (of all the absurd things), and then she was falling through sheer nothing, toward nothing. Stars drifted all around; in her spinning descent, she caught glimpses of the base of the hourglass, retreating above her along with the citadel of the Scions. It was smooth and rounded on the bottom, filled with sand, and rapidly shrinking behind her…
And then time slowed, and stopped. For a second, she hung there, fixed in place. Then it began to run in reverse, dragging her helplessly along.
Aradidjad rose straight back up, unable to move against the rewind but conscious of it. She shot past hovering structures to the edge of the platform on which Tellwyrn and the other Scions stood, staring at her—not caught in her rewind, she noticed—as she landed on its edge, jogged backward a few steps without the ability to so much as protest, and was finally released, standing in exactly the position from which she’d started.
“Wow,” Yalda drawled, sounding oddly impressed. “Most people have to deal with this place for a few years before trying that.”
“Oh, we’ve got us a live one ‘ere, we ‘ave!” Idrie crowed.
“I was wondering about the lack of safety rails,” Aradidjad commented.
“You’ll be glad to know,” said Tellwyrn dryly, “or perhaps not so glad, that if you land on something solid and crush yourself like an egg on the cobblestones, it works exactly the same. You work for Vemnesthis, now, and nobody’s going to get you out of it. Not even Vidius.”
“We’ll see,” Aradidjad replied, staring her down.
Tellwyrn sighed and shook her head. “Yeah, we sure well. All right, since you all look so bored, it’s mission time.”
There were a few muted groans, but clearly everyone present knew the futility of protest. Tellwyrn continued barking orders, ignoring them.
“Chao Lu Shen, back to the library and prepare to assist your colleagues. Q, fetch a service pistol for Aradidjad here and meet her by Shaft Six. Kaolu, I’ll have a bowl of kake udon with a slice of tangerine ginger cheesecake for dessert. Rispin, you’re delivering a first warning to an arcanist in Akhvaris; no special accommodations with the culture are necessary this time, I want you to scare the hell out of her. You’ll embark from Shaft Two. Yalda, there’s another tribal group fucking around with that off-kilter hellgate in Arkania, a century and a half after the last batch. Same drill as before. Chao Lu Shen will brief you on their etiquette; we’re assuming at this point that they’ll comply with a divine messenger. If not, we’ll try harsher measures. Shaft Eleven. Ardidjad, you’re doing a recruitment, Shaft Six. The shafts are clearly numbered, just head clockwise around the platforms from here and you’ll get there.”
“Honestly, that mess again?” Yalda whined. “Since you’re the one who can bloody well leave, can’t you straighten that damn thing out? It’s a big, red, glowing button with a ‘poke me’ sign for anyone with a shred of arcane or infernal talent.”
“You’re not wrong,” Tellwyrn said with a grimace, “but options are few in that period. In my official capacity as Vemnesthis’s representative I have repeatedly asked the local cults to intervene, but the Avenists have their hands full with the other hellgate in that region and the Salyrites aren’t yet organized enough in that century to be much use. It’s long before I came along, or I’d just do it myself. My next gambit will be Vesk; he’s annoying to deal with, but if I can get him to make a quest of it some adventurers will eventually straighten it out. That’s why I want you to be polite to these people. I don’t think this group will help, but try to persuade them to stabilize the gate instead of making use of it. If they won’t, just get them to leave it alone; there’ll be another group along in another eighty years who will be more accommodating.”
“Feh,” Yalda grunted, flouncing off. “Anything to avoid adventurers. All they do is make a mess…”
“Hang on,” Aradidjad protested while the group dispersed, with the exceptions of Rispin and Kaolu, the latter of whom didn’t stop eerily staring at her even while cooking up some kind of noodle soup with ingredients he appeared to have conjured out of thin air. “I just got here! You’re sending me—I mean, isn’t there training or something?”
“We learn by doing,” Tellwyrn said with a faint smile. “Shaft Six, off you go.”
“I don’t even have the uniform!”
Aradidjad paused and looked down on herself. Her avuncular suit was gone; she was inexplicably dressed in a set of those golden-beige robes, apparently tailored to her.
“Already,” she observed, “I really hate you.”
“I suggest you get over that, since it doesn’t harm anyone but you. Need something, Rispin?”
“A request,” said the drow, who had remained behind while the others scattered. “Would you please direct Yalda last this time? You’re always unusually grouchy after dealing with her.”
“And you thought that would help my mood?” Tellwyrn shook her head. “Fine, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I’ll be on my cheesecake by then; gods know I’ll need it. Get to your assignment, Rispin.”
“I don’t understand,” Aradidjad said plaintively.
“Through the auspices of our divine benefactor,” Tellwyrn informed her while Rispin strode away, “I will be your eyes and ears while you are on mission; you are the hands and feet. I’ll be feeding you instructions and watching your progress the whole time you’re working.”
“Well, that’s creepy as hell. So… You’re going to direct everyone at once?”
“No, sequentially. I can multi-task, but there’s no reason to, and these things go off much more smoothly when I focus on one person at a time.”
“Then we each have to wait for the one before to finish before we…” She trailed off when Tellwyrn raised an eyebrow at her. “Ah. Right. Never mind.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the elf said with mild amusement. “Everything about your brain wants to deal with time as a linear construct. The way things work here takes significant getting used to. If anybody makes fun of you for it, know that they started in exactly the same place, and also you have my blessing to shove them off a platform. Now, off you go. Shaft Six, already. Chop chop.”
Aradidjad sighed and slouched away, aware without looking behind that Kaolu was staring at her back until she was out of sight.
Despite the chaotic appearance of the citadel, there was a logic to it—at least, to the elevator shafts. She found number Six without trouble, and found Q waiting impatiently at its foot.
“Finally,” he grunted at her. “Take the scenic route, did you?”
“I have Tellwyrn’s permission to push you off the platform,” she informed him.
“Yes, and that runs both ways, doctor. This is your service revolver.” He held out the object on both open palms.
Aradidjad stared at the thing for a moment, before gingerly taking it by what was clearly the handle. It wasn’t hard to figure out how to hold it, based on the handle’s position and the obvious clicker mechanism, and it was clearly a weapon, but… “Okay. But what is it?”
“An extrapolation from a design which I gather comes along after your time,” he rumbled. “The originals used controlled explosions to fire shaped metal projectiles at close to the speed of sound—”
“That would absolutely destroy any known energy shield,” Aradidjad breathed in fascination, studying the revolver with a new respect.
“Until shielding charms grew more sophisticated to adapt, yes,” Q said impatiently. “That’s neither here nor there. This one uses arcane power crystals instead of bullets, because you cannot be leaving material evidence anywhere you’re going. Each time you squeeze the trigger—”
“You mean the clicker?”
“…the trigger,” he said deliberately, glaring at her, “it will engage one of the power crystals to fire an energy beam, and the cylinder will rotate to bring the next crystal into alignment—”
“Thus entirely avoiding the overheating problem of conventional lightning wands and enabling a much faster rate of fire!” she exclaimed, delighted. Aradidjad had never been a weapons enthusiast, but always appreciated clever applications of engineering and enchantment.
Q snorted loudly, making his mustache bristle. “I can tell you’re going to be a world of fun, doctor. You are under no circumstances to fire that weapon in the material world while on mission. Any problems you encounter will be handled by Tellwyrn—”
“How? I thought the whole point of her staying here was to provide logistical support while we’re the ones in the field?”
“Dr. Aradidjad,” Q stated calmly, “if you interrupt me one more time, I will take that weapon back from you and shoot you with it. I will then continue to do so each time you rewind until Tellwyrn comes down here and makes me stop. Do we have an understanding?”
“Ah. So that’s how we avoid injury with no medics.”
“Yes, yes,” he sighed. “Go ahead, get it out of your system now.”
So she shot him in the head.
The revolver produced a sharp beam, blue in color and less intense than the enchanter wands with which she was familiar. It also had more of a kinetic element, clearly. The bolt entered cleanly through a small hole it bore into his forehead, but erupted out the back of his skull in a veritable explosion of blood, brains, and bone fragments.
The rewind was fascinating to watch when she wasn’t caught in the middle of it. Pieces of Q’s head flew neatly back into place and he staggered back upright.
“There,” he said sourly, “feel better?”
“That really is amazing,” she said admiringly, and shot him through the heart.
“Knock it off, Aradidjad,” Tellwyrn’s voice sounded right in her ears, making her jump. Q lurched back toward her in a reverse of the blow which had flung him bodily away—that revolver had serious punching power, far more than any wand—and the hole in his chest mended itself. “Q, finish your spiel, please, I want to get this one in the field so I can play with her.”
“Gladly,” he snorted. “As I was saying, you are not to fire that weapon on the mortal realm. Most Scions never have an occasion to use their service pistols at all. It is only for emergency use against hazards you may rarely encounter in the place between, which is the medium used to travel to different time periods and locations.”
She frowned. “Where’s that?”
“Where you’re going next,” Tellwyrn said with ominous good cheer. “Thank you, Q, you’re dismissed. Now up the elevator, Aradidjad, your first mission awaits.”
Deliberately not allowing her trepidation to slow her, she stepped into the elevator. “Did you say you’re sending me on a recruitment? Why is that my first mission?”
“Because they’re easy,” Tellwyrn’s disembodied voice informed her as the elevator ascended with no prompting from its passenger. “Place the revolver against your side at a height that’s comfortable for you to draw it from; a holster will automatically appear on your robes and contain it. And don’t worry, Aradidjad, I’ll be guiding you every step of the way.”
“And let me guess,” she said sourly. “You can make that rewind thing happen at will, not just in response to lethal injury.”
“Precisely! You have as many chances as you’ll need to do it right. It’s not dangerous work, doctor; it’s far more likely to be tedious. Nothing ever goes off perfectly on the first try. But with all of time itself at our disposal, perfection is a very attainable standard. Vemnesthis requires nothing less.”
“Lovely,” she grunted.
“Oh, don’t be surly, your face’ll freeze that way. I’ll tell you what, after everyone’s back from assignment, we’ll have a movie night to welcome you aboard.”
“It’s Chao Lu Shen’s turn to pick, which means it’ll be early Madouris talkies, but they’re not bad. You’ll appreciate those when Kaolu’s turn comes, he makes us watch these truly inexplicable Glassian art films.”
“Am I expected to have the faintest idea what the hell you’re talking about?”
“Not at this juncture, no,” Tellwyrn said with a laugh that made Aradidjad really wish she could shoot her. “Come along, no dallying.”
The elevator chimed pleasantly, coming to a stop at the shimmering gateway at the top of its shaft. Aradidjad drew in a breath, but did not hesitate in stepping through it. Not because she gave a flying damn what her bossy captor thought about anything, but for her own sake she refused to fall into timidity.
On the other side, though, she had to stop, staring.
She did not recognize this town; it apparently empty of life. There was something wavery and indistinct about the air, an effect she could not quite place. The silence was absolute and frighteningly oppressive.
Worst was the sky; there wasn’t one. Instead was a vast mass of eyes, tentacles, claws, bulbous protrusions of pulsating flesh. It was as if the world were completely surrounded by heaving monstrosities, themselves the size of planets.
All of which, suddenly, were looking directly at her.
“Come on, Aradidjad, chop chop,” Tellwyrn prompted her cheerfully. “Off you go! Time waits for no one.”