Book: Walking to Infinity
Walking to Infinity
Mathew thought he was just a normal student, until an extra-dimensional monster appeared out of nowhere and proceeded to tear Cambridge apart to get at him. As the monster closed in, he summoned powers he didn’t know he had and found himself on a different world, a very different universe from his own. He didn’t know what had happened…or what was about to happen next.
Grey had been a Walker for years, walking across timelines and exploring, when he was sent to recover Mathew before the mysterious Enemy and an old friend of his reached Mathew first. He didn’t know what was happening, or why Mathew was targeted…
And neither of them have any idea that their troubles have only just begun.
This is what you need to know.
Our multiverse was born in a burst of unimaginable power.
Almost at once, it started to diverge into different universes, different timelines. For every decision, there exists the possibility of causing a divergence, sometimes subtle, sometimes gross. Some universes died very quickly, others gave birth to life, intelligence spreading out and multiplying the number of universes as decisions are made, reflecting all of the possible choices and paths that intelligence could follow. Imagine…
Imagine a river, running endlessly from its source, sometimes moving through a valley, sometimes flooding out over a floodplain; the endless stream of time giving birth to countless numbers of universes. Some of those are right next to the one that gave you birth, glimpsed in shadows at the corner of your eyes, or glimpses in the mirror of the alternate being that you could have been. Some of them are so…different, so…other that no contact is possible, universes where gods walk the Earth and humanity hides from the monsters that lurk in the darkness, walking where they will. They are the nightmares that have followed, hidden in the darkness, as humanity cowered beside the first campfires.
They have been walking beside you since you were born, the other, the alternate, the person you could have been…
In some of the universes, intelligence finds a way to cross the barriers between universes, trading, conquering, or exploring. In others, there is no contact, no way of knowing outside theory that the multiverse even exists. Sometimes, people wonder what might have happened if, others chose to dismiss the possibilities. The barriers seem impossible to even perceive, let alone break, until a Walker appears.
No one knows where they come from, or why they exist, but they do. They appear in isolated universes, born with the power to perceive the truth of the multiverse, or to lead others across universes. They learn to walk across the universes; they learn how to walk more than just themselves between the universes…some learn how to do much more. Some learn to tap into the energy of the multiverse directly, wielding it in ways seen as magical or fantastic. They produce lightning, heat, coldness and much else. They can manipulate the laws of physics that govern the universes. The ultimate limits of the abilities of the Walkers are not known.
Some are good, some are bad, and some are just explorers, charting the multiverse and learning the secrets of reality. They know truths that non-Walkers could never understand; they know about the War, they know about the effects of the War, but they believe that it could never affect them. They continue Walking…
Chapter One: In Which We Begin
“As one can tell,” Professor Naccarato said, as he concluded his lecture, “history remains the eternal playground of the ‘Great Man,’ who appears, struts upon the stage, and reshapes it to his will. Hitler, as an example, rose to power and radically reshaped the European mainland within six years; Stalin, along the same lines, completely changed the makeup of the Soviet Union, permitting it to survive the modern war brought to it by Hitler. Other Great Men have been in existence, some positive, some negative; witness the different approaches of Bill Clinton, Bush I and Bush II to Iraq and the question of world peace in general.”
He paused. “For your homework, I want a short essay on how the three American Presidents approached the problem of Iraq,” he concluded. “Study how they formed their policies and how they shaped opinion to support them. Any questions?”
Mathew Ryan stuck up his hand. “Professor, what about the situations that the different Great Men found themselves in,” he said, wondering what the Professor made of the question. Most Professors – and indeed Professor Naccarato’s great rival – tended to be either Left or Right; it was sad, but true, that an essay on such a controversial topic as Iraq could pass or fail depending upon how the Professor in question felt. “Hitler had very real limits to his power; the German economy was simply not capable of providing what he needed for his plans of conquest.”
“Ah, economics,” Professor Naccarato said, with all the distinction of a snob opening an inferior bottle of wine. “The Great Men don’t exist because of economics; they exist because they are born with, or develop, the ability to bend situations to their will and build power structures that will support their primacy. Hitler and Stalin both built their own power structures, but the ability to build them and the requirements they needed to support their primacy had an effect on their actual preparations for war. Witness Stalin’s purging of his officer corps and Hitler’s willingness to see the Nazi regime split up into dozens of different factions, despite the obvious weaknesses that this caused.
“In contrast, a President or a Prime Minister will have their primacy inherently supported by the system,” he concluded. “There is much less room for a classical Great Man within the system, but the system itself will ensure that a certain degree of competence and continuity will continue to exist, as long as the system is not questioned or disgraced. Note that both Nixon and Clinton damaged American faith in their Presidents; from a position where they believed that every President was an excellent representation of their nation, they moved to a ‘guilty until proven innocent, and then guilty anyway’ view. Many of our current problems stem from that cultural meme.”
He glanced at his watch. “But I am delaying young fellows like you,” he said. There was a small chuckle in the lecture room. “You may depart; see you all next Tuesday. Jackie, Syeda, stay behind five minutes; I need to discuss your last assignment.”
The lecture hall emptied quickly; there had only been around seventy students, mainly ones who had courses that touched in some way upon history, or considered the general history course to be an easy way to gain marks. They had rapidly been disabused of that belief; Professor Naccarato wasn’t known for giving anyone an easy ride. Some of the students were mature students, returning to university for a chance to broaden their minds a little, others were visiting from other universities in Cambridge. A handful had come from overseas; Americans, Europeans, Indians, and even a handful of Chinese students. There was no one quite like him.
Mathew gathered his own books, packed them quickly in his bag, and wandered out of the lecture hall. There was a small crowd already gathering, waiting for their turn to use the hall; the class on legal liability was very popular with the students, many of whom hoped to enter the legal profession. Few of them paid any attention to him; Mathew had long since given up hopes of being accepted into the mainstream of university life. He was just a misfit…in a place where fitting in was perhaps the most important thing of all, although the professors might have disagreed. People came to Cambridge and the universities there to learn, they claimed; simply sitting back and enjoying oneself was somehow considered a bad idea. Mathew could see their point…but then, he had always been able to see both sides of an issue.
He caught sight of his appearance in the glass wall separating one of the lecture rooms, noting his short brown hair, glasses, and reasonably fit body. He wasn't really ugly, or fat, or disgusting…but girls had never shown any real interest in him. They sensed, somehow, that he was different…and while Mathew wouldn’t have argued with that, he would have given a lot to know how he was different. Part of him was young teenager, taking his first steps away from home as an independent and mature student – or at least as independent and mature as a teenage student could hope to be – and part of him remained the young boy who had read a history book and thought…I understand…
He had come to Cambridge in search of answers, seeking to fill a void within him, but a year later, he didn’t feel that he had learned enough to understand himself, let alone understand history. If Professor Naccarato was to be believed, humans shaped history to their will, it was the Great Men who altered the course of history for their own reasons. They popped up everywhere; Washington, Pitt, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Saddam and many, many others, and yet…there was something missing. Professor Carlson, Professor Naccarato’s rival, believed in the force of history and economics; the Great Men accomplished what they could within their bounds, and if they overstepped them, as Hitler, Napoleon and Saddam had, they came to a sudden and unpleasant end. And yet…
Mathew couldn’t claim to be a great professor; in truth, he knew far less than either of the two professors who between them dominated Cambridge’s history world, but it seemed to him that the truth lay somewhere in between. Hitler could have had a peace, if he had been willing to make it; Napoleon could have ended up with an Empire and some of his conquests if he had been willing to negotiate before it became too late. Hitler’s fate had been sealed when he declared war on the United States; Japan – which lacked a Great Man, as Professor Naccarato had pointed out – had launched a suicidal attack against the United States. But, Mathew wondered, could any Great Man have made a real difference to Japan’s disastrous situation?
He shook his head. That could wait. In the meantime, there was the bothersome business of reality to attend to.
The university campus was packed as he stepped outside, thousands of students milling about, talking together in more than a dozen different languages, from English to Arabic and Chinese. The students themselves were a colourful bunch; unlike Mathew’s own dark clothes, they wore hundreds of different outfits. There were Indian girls in gorgeously colourful saris, Chinese girls in western outfits, Arabic girls glancing around nervously as they tested their new outfits, each one a far cry from their normally all-concealing outfits. The men were more homogenous; almost every male student wore western clothing or something like it, with only a handful of more traditional costumes. Cambridge was a melting pot, in many ways; those who returned would be forced to change their ways or change their own society. Looking at the vivid picture in front of him, Mathew was left wondering who would change whom.
He smiled as he walked past a group of religious displays, a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew, all abandoning their positions to actually talk to one another, united in their disapproval of the way students acted when they were freed from most parental shackles for the first time in their lives. Cambridge had a very discreet clinic for fixing ‘little accidents’ such as losing a girl’s maidenhead, or an accidental pregnancy. The religious representatives, bent on converting students into different religions, disapproved; Mathew had heard that there had even been protests against the clinic…and they had been very poorly attended. There was a moral in there, somewhere, he felt.
“Hey, Mathew,” a voice called. Mathew looked up to see David Ellis standing there, one arm around a girl and the other holding a McDonalds drink. “Are you going to be coming to the next party in the hall?”
Mathew shook his head. “No, thank you,” he said. Like many of the students, he lived in university accommodation, where the students were sometimes allowed to hold parties. He hated parties; he had gone to two of them and ended up a wallflower on both occasions. Parties just weren’t his cup of tea; others went, enjoyed themselves, and ended up with a bed mate for the night. He ended up going back to his room, alone…although, he had to admit, there were worse fates. The student population often had encounters with waves of sexually-transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies; the clinic handed those as well, although not always as discreetly as the students would have preferred. “I just don’t do parties.”
He wandered onwards, wondering why girls never really seemed to notice him. There seemed to be no reason for it, no evil reputation following him; he hadn’t even had the chance to come up with an evil reputation. Girls went for the hunky jocks without a single cell between their ears, or the boys who hurt and tormented those who were the slightest bit different. He smiled thinly as he passed an advert for the Cambridge Gaysexual – homosexual – club; he had never been particularly interested in men, either, and gay men had never hit on him either. He had realised, a long time ago, that he would always be alone.
“Tonight,” someone was shouting, “Professor Anderson will be demonstrating the effects of his radioactive chloroform, in Hall Seven…”
Mathew smiled. He liked Professor Anderson, even if the radioactive chloroform was far from actually radioactive, although some students got to handle dangerous substances from time to time. The endless war over safety had touched Cambridge as well; Mathew had heard that, at one time, students had been much more hands on than they were permitted to be now, after several students had run into trouble after not listening to instructions. It didn’t bother him, much; the last time he had experimented with chemicals had been back in school, when he had been permitted to ignite a small batch of magnesium and had been seeing stars for several hours afterwards. It might be worth going to see the demonstration…
He felt it, then, a sense of very real danger. A chill ran down his spine as he glanced around; he hadn’t had such a primal sense of danger since he had been a young boy, wandering alone in darkened woods. There was nothing, no trace of anything dangerous, nothing that looked as if it was about to explode, no armed men or policemen coming to arrest or kill him…but the sense that something was dangerously wrong kept growing stronger. A noise in the air caught his attention and he glanced up, to see an airplane flying overhead, a standard jumbo jet heading north. There was nothing wrong, but the sense just kept growing, and growing…
A frisson passed through the air, a sense of something forcing its way towards him, and then he saw it, materialising in the middle of the grass. It was…massive, a strange shimmering area of air that seemed to be taking on shape and form, or as if it was uncloaking…but never really completing the materialisation. He saw a Christmas tree near the…thing, near the entity, it was as if the tree was making room for the creature, rather than the creature brushing it aside. The creature seemed to be making room for itself by pushing the very fabric of reality aside…
Mathew stared. How did I know that…?
The creature never fully materialised, remaining a shimmering hound-like shape as it seemed to look around, strange senses probing for its target. Mathew felt them touching him, felt the impact as if the creature was touching him on a very intimate level; he stared, rooted to the spot by sheer terror, as the creature turned slowly to face him. Its mere presence was an abomination, a monster beyond reason or hope of comprehension; the voice whispering in the back of Mathew’s mind was hinting that the creature wasn’t all present, that part of it existed elsewhere…
He came face to face with the creature’s ‘face’ and all rational thought deserted him. The sense of overwhelming wrongness and terror kept him pinned as the creature examined him, one long claw reaching out and transforming slowly into a hand as it reached towards him…and then the spell broke. The students and university visitors who had seen the monster started to scream in horror, a policeman, running towards the scene of the chaos, saw the monster and started to reach for his gun. A panicking student – Mathew never knew who – picked up a stone and threw it at the monster; it turned with impossible speed, claws lashing out, and sliced through the students as if they were made of nothing. Flesh, bone and blood went everywhere; the policeman fired once – the bullet struck the side of the monster and vanished, as if the man had shot directly into water – before he was ripped apart by the monster. In his mind, Mathew heard terrible laughter as the monster ripped through cars and bicycles with ease…
Run, part of his mind screamed at him. Something seemed to break and he could move again, he realised, dimly, that the monster had somehow hypnotised him, its prey. He didn’t know why the monster wanted him – he was just a student and Cambridge was full of them – but somehow it did…and he knew now to run. He turned and fled, unsure of where to go or why. He thought, absurdly, of the library, or maybe of his apartments; the campus police station wouldn’t be able to stop the monster, or the Territorial Army garrison near the city. The voice at the back of his mind was telling him hints, secrets; the monster couldn’t be hurt because it wasn’t all there to be hurt. Even an atomic bomb wouldn’t kill the creature…
He glanced back and saw flames and smoke rising as the monster completed the destruction of a chunk of the city, and then grew larger, buildings either making room for the monster or being knocked down, as if Godzilla had come to town. This time, he could feel the waves of energy the monster used to hunt; somehow, he was visible to the creature in a way that no one else was. The creature didn’t care how many it killed to get to him; as it advanced slowly, a massive shimmering not-quite-there hound over Cambridge, it smashed fleeing students, buildings and policemen with ease. One claw reached up into the sky and slashed through an airliner; Mathew watched in horror as the aircraft tilted and fell out of the sky, slamming into the ground with a thunderous explosion, coming down on top of one of the older universities. The creature…
The creature! He cursed himself, then, as he started to run; it had almost hypnotized him again, somehow without ever having to look deep into his eyes. He could feel waves of energy reaching out for him, powerful hints of what might happen to him if he was foolish enough to get caught; he ran past a stunned policeman and anti-terrorist squad as they tried to deploy, their weapons suddenly seeming very small against the sheer immensity of the monster. The creature didn’t hesitate as it loped unhurriedly after him; he heard a handful of shots, followed by screams, as it walked through the pitiful resistance and kept coming. He tried to think, tried to think of a plan, but he couldn’t think of anything, but running. The monster was so large that it might not be able to see him…
A massive shimmering claw reached ahead of him and slammed into a building, sending it cascading down in a shower of rubble and a dreadful noise that tore at Mathew’s ears. The way ahead was blocked, in a pile of rubble and bodies, some of them still twitching as they died; the monster, unhurriedly, came up behind him. He could sense it, somehow, a presence that was always there, like feeling the sun on the back of his head. He turned slowly, to look up at it; the monster was shrinking, coming down to a more normal size…whatever normal was for such a creature. Its massive head seemed to lean forward, sniffing the air; Mathew brought up his fists, but dropped them a moment later. He doubted that punching the creature in the face – if that was its face – would make any difference to it, not if gunshots, flames and smoke hadn’t made any difference. He felt oddly calm as it looked closer, its eyes becoming clear and examining him…and then the calm broke as the creature’s claw became, once again, a hand…
Panic rose up within him and something broke loose, deep inside him. Everything seemed to hinge, suddenly, on his thoughts and he wanted to run, to run, to escape, to get away from the monster before it could destroy him and…the world spun around him. Cambridge seemed to vanish into blue light, he was aware of the monster screaming its rage into the air and lunging for him, before it all went away in a flash of blue light…and crashed down into darkness.
Chapter Two: In Which An Old Man Becomes Young
There was a place which existed somewhere in-between the ebbs and flows of the Multiverse, a place which existed as a home for those creatures who had no home in any given timeline, no timeline to get back to, or maybe just wanted to talk and trade with other dimensions. The place was as large as it needed to be; rumour, the one force that spread through the multiverse faster than a quantum disintegration phase, claimed that it had been created from the remains of a previous universe which had somehow been destroyed, or had been created from nothing by the entity that ran the place. No one knew for sure; all they knew was that the Hub existed…and that it was eternally uninvolved with either side in the Multiverse War. It was neutral ground.
Grey Incanus Wolf examined the bottles in front of him with a detached eye. The Hub served alcohol from right across the Multiverse, each drink that had ever had the potential to exist could be created in the Hub, but it wasn't that easy to get drunk. Walkers just found it harder to get drunk than normal people, although Grey had been taught to regard that as a challenge rather than as a law that no one, not even a Walker, could break. It might not be possible to get smashed out of his skull – although he had a lot of fun trying – but it was possible to get drunk enough to spend the evening in a pleasant haze that obscured his memories and kept him from thinking too clearly. The Hub’s constructs, solid-light holograms that served as servants, barkeeps and the occasional enforcer, knew his tastes; by now, they just left a set of bottles by his table every hour or so. Grey drank and watched, keeping himself to himself; the Hub resolutely refused to fade out of his mind…
It was large and small at the same time; someone – and he suspected a Walker from so long ago that even the Hub had forgotten his name – had defined the universe as being endlessly malleable. The hall he sat in was large enough to hold thousands of people, and yet, everyone could have a seat next to the stage if they had wanted, or remain lurking at the back near the bar. He could have walked over to the stage in a matter of moments, or crossed the floor and walked out within a minute, or even instantly move from his table to his bedroom within seconds. The Hub was special, an exercise in transdimensional engineering that defied description or even understanding. To a Watcher, he could see the way that space and time had been twisted to produce the Hub; to anyone without Watcher powers, the Hub was confusion incarnate. It wasn't a place for normal people…
But they had come anyway. As he glanced around, he could see hundreds of people who had found their way to the Hub, or had been brought to the Hub by a Walker, or had just ended up being the last survivors of their particular timeline. Some stayed long enough to become part of the establishment, others stayed long enough to learn more about the multiverse, and some came just to find somewhere where they could be themselves. He could see several versions of Elvis Presley sitting in one corner, discussing their lives; a strange horse-like creature, but with three legs, cantered across the floor and headed out of the door, space and time twisting around it as it vanished. A woman in an outfit that made a Burka look outrageously revealing hid in one corner; no one, not even the barkeeper, had been able to convince her that the Hub was safe. She still feared that the man who had kidnapped her from her family would come for her, even in the Hub; she rarely talked to anyone, apart from the constructs and the non-human visitors.
A note rang out and he turned his attention to the stage, where a blonde bombshell had taken the stage and started to sing. It was almost raw sex; dispassionately, Grey could see how she was moving to attract attention from the watchers, knowing that she could walk home with any man from the audience and have a great night with him. That sort of confidence had no equal; he wondered, absently, where she thought she was singing. Did she know that she was in the Hub, or did she think that she was just performing for a local nightclub? There was no way to know.
“My name is Kilngirl van Stockholm Baltic Malmo Gustavus Adolphus Scandinavia North,” the girl announced. She could have read the stock market or a boring economy textbook and it would have attracted the same rapt attention; Grey was almost impressed. He generally reserved his lusts for bottles of drink. “That’s my first name, of course; the remainder would take a day to recite for you.”
There were some chuckles. “And now,” she continued, as if she had been a naughty girl, “I will sing a number for you that I wrote after someone shouted at me after I performed my nude gymnastics on my roof, a song I call…Do you hear me singing?”
She went into a racy routine as the music rose up around her. Her voice took on an odd accent; Grey, who spoke every language in the Multiverse – it was another of the Walker gifts – didn’t recognise it. The tune was oddly familiar, but he couldn’t place it at all…
“Do ya hear me singing?
“Yes we hear ya singing!
“Ya know why Kilngirl singing?
“Why Kilngirl singing?
“Cause Kilngirl got it all! Got it all!”
Grey smiled; he had recognised the tune by now, Blow Gabriel Blow. It had been a hit in several universes, and in one it had caused a civil war.
“ I been sinnin', that Kilngirl admwit,
“And I been a bad girl since schwool days when I wearn to do it…”
“I didn’t know that you liked blondes,” a voice said, from behind Grey. Grey turned and glared in the direction of the speaker as the sound of the singing faded out, but only in their private little corner of reality. “I thought that the only blondes you were interested in were the type that came out of bottles…”
Grey glared up at the speaker. “Ian, I thought that we had agreed that I got to drink myself senseless,” he said. The man who, some claimed, had built the Hub met his gaze evenly. There was nothing particularly special about Ian, he seemed almost achingly normal…until one saw the eyes hidden behind his shades. They were endlessly infinite, eyes that had seen the entire sweep of the multiverse and had been forever marked by the experience. “You said that you were going to leave me in peace…?”
A bra flew overhead as the singer continued to strip down. “I believe that you agreed that,” Ian said, without a trace of gloating, condensation, or anything else. It would have been a dispassionate voice, except for the tiniest hint of worry hidden underneath; Grey found that oddly worrying. Ian, in the Hub, was almost omnipotent; what could worry him, and why? “I made no such promise.”
Grey fixed him with a look. “You know what happened a while ago,” he said. Precision was impossible in the Hub; the disaster could have taken place a day ago, a week ago, a year ago, a century ago…and so on. Or it could have not taken place yet…except he remembered it, but that didn’t always mean anything when the multiverse was involved. “I would like to be left alone…”
Ian looked at him. “Is that really what you want?” He asked. “You have spent the last few weeks moving between here, your bedroom, and the brothel.” Grey smirked; one of the advantages of the Hub was that it was possible to find someone who would be happy to do whatever you wanted…and enjoy doing it. “Is that what you want to do with your life?”
Grey rubbed his eyes, feeling the effects of the drink billowing up within him. “Ian, what do you want?”
Ian titled his head. “I think that you need to sober up,” he said. Grey opened his mouth – too late – as reality shivered around him…and then his thoughts were as quick and clear as they had ever been, the day his father had taken him on his first trip into the Hub, activating his powers as a Walker and introducing him to a whole new life. He had spent years – or had it been longer? – working for the Hub and exploring the multiverse, providing a service that only the Hub could provide…
And then it had all gone to hell.
“Bastard,” Grey said, without particular feeling. Ian smiled absently. “So, what do you want?”
Ian smiled, glancing over at the stage where the singer was receding from the view of the patrons, her clothes strewn around the stage and lying there for the constructs to pick up, later…or maybe Ian would just make them vanish. Grey had seen him tidy up much worse disasters; one of the most popular ways to reach the Hub involved time travel experiments that went disastrously wrong, dumping a starship into the Hub. An antimatter core exploded, part of the Hub was blown into flaming wreckage…and, moments later, time would reverse itself and the starship would come in to land normally, where the crew would be informed that they had discovered a way of crossing dimensions, rather than times.
“I think we should discuss that somewhere else,” he said. “Come on…”
The scene changed instantly as Ian worked his magic, moving them instantly from the bar to Ian’s office…or perhaps bringing them to the office, or perhaps just redefining the office as being where they were. Grey, truth be told, found it a little disconcerting; he knew what it was like to walk across universes, but this casual use of power bothered him, in some very fundamental ways.
“There has been an interesting development,” Ian said, as he took his seat. The office seemed to move around him, shifting, as if part of it existed beyond Grey’s ability to perceive it. “A new Walker has started Walking.”
Grey looked at him sharply. Walkers were rare, true, but almost all of them ended up at the Hub pretty quickly, mainly through trying to Walk without a clear destination in mind. Ian might try to keep almost all of the Walkers working with the Hub, creating an inter-dimensional trade and communications network that wouldn’t become involved with the War, but there was really very few ways to actually compel a Walker to join. Some were terrified of their abilities, some were delighted to have finally found a place to call home, and some were just interested in exploring for the sake of exploring. The latter caused Ian the most problems; they tended to sleep with women from the timelines they visited, leaving Walker genes behind and causing newer Walkers to spring into existence.
“How…interesting,” he said, leaving just enough of a pause to convince Ian that he was being sarcastic. “Does this have anything to do with our old friend?”
“It may have nothing to do with him,” Ian said. His face twisted bitterly. “How’s Bruno, by the way?”
“He won’t be looking at any more lesbian vampires, but apart from that, he should be fine in a few weeks,” Grey said. “You’re changing the subject; does this have anything to do with our old friend?”
“It has everything to do with the Enemy,” Ian said. Grey felt as if someone had punched him in the chest; he had had one encounter with the mysterious Enemy and had no desire for a second one. “The Walker manifested his abilities in Cambridge, TimeLine A, a section of that particular region of the Multiverse where the War has recently manifested another front…indeed, it is possible that the Walker’s manifestation might have brought the war to that region.”
He held Grey’s eyes. “And the Enemy has always wanted to get its hands on a Walker…”
Grey stood up suddenly and paced the room. The War had flared on for centuries, maybe ever since the universe had been created, sometimes a secret war fought between covert agents, sometimes direct clashes between the two sides…both of whom were equally mysterious. No one knew who directed the Time Agents who fought for one side; the Enemy remained as faceless as they had been, centuries ago, when Ian had created the Hub. The War raged on endlessly…and Grey knew that he had been lucky not to have been taken by the Enemy, the one time he had come close to one of their operations.
“And you think the Enemy are after him,” he said, slowly.
“I don’t think,” Ian said. “I know. They sent a Time Hound into the timeline, a creature that they would have almost nothing capable of stopping or even harming it, and that creature went hunting.”
Grey shivered. He knew enough to know just how dangerous it would have been, even if a fully-trained and experienced Walker could destroy a Time Hound; the creatures, wherever they came from, were deadly killing machines. They couldn’t remain in the more regular timelines for longer than an hour or so – the universe of TimeLine A had never been designed to hold their kind – but while they were present, they were utterly deadly and almost unstoppable. He dreaded to think of what sort of universe might have given them birth, or what the Enemy might have done to tame them; they were wild creatures, almost beyond control. If the Enemy hadn’t been able to somehow tame them, he would have thought that it was impossible…
He scowled. “And so you want me to recover his body?”
“No,” Ian said. “The Walker’s abilities manifested and he – or she – went walking. The Time Hound wouldn’t be able to track him across the timelines, so he may be safe for the moment, but only for a given value of safe. It wasn’t a crosstime bomb, so they will be able to track him with other means, and they may be sending others after him.”
Grey nodded once. “And he might face dangers from the inhabitants of wherever he ended up,” he said, remembering wars and battles he had been forced to use as cover, or fast-moving battles that could have ended his life…without the combatants ever being aware of his presence. “Where did he go, anyway?”
“I’m not sure,” Ian admitted. Grey gave him a sharp look; the Multiverse might not have been infinite, but it was vast beyond all hopes of comprehension. The Time Agents, the Enemy and the Walkers hadn’t really even begun to map the entire Multiverse. It was utterly vast and a single human, even a Walker, would be smaller than a needle in a haystack. “You’ll have to go to TimeLine A and find out where he went.”
“That’s not possible,” Grey protested. “Any half-trained Walker knows to hide his destination…except our new friend won’t have known, will he?” Ian nodded. “Fine, what do you want me to do with him?”
“Find him, teach him about us and bring him here if there is still danger,” Ian said. “That’s the last resort, Grey; I don’t like how the Enemy knew to look for him before he manifested his abilities. That should have been impossible, or at least so fantastically unlikely that it was as good as impossible, so he may be a Trojan Horse. If so, I don’t know why they would risk losing him like that, but…take extreme care. Anything can happen when the Enemy is involved.”
“Perhaps they found something that led them to him,” Grey said, wondering. Ian had a point; despite his earlier reluctance, the older Walkers had a duty to at least ensure that the younger ones knew what dangers awaited them in the Multiverse. “The bastards are clever and they certainly have good reason to be watching for a vulnerable Walker.”
“Or maybe they found one and convinced him to join, or worse,” Ian said. “Grey, will you do this for me?”
Grey nodded once. “I dare say I can do it for you,” he said. Ian smiled once as Grey stood up again, feeling almost like a young man again. “Is there anyone else who can help me?”
“Not directly, not here,” Ian said. “The Hub’s agents are out there; if you want to call on them for help, you are welcome, but I’d prefer not to have to engage either of the sides outside the Hub itself. Our neutrality very much depends on both sides believing that we are truly neutral, rather than getting involved in one side or the other. Our own nature makes that complicated; there is no reason why a Walker cannot go to work for either side, or…”
He nodded at a huge crystal ball, positioned in a stand at the corner of the room. “There are agents for both sides here, including Time Agents, several Marked Men and others,” he said. “They can’t be denied entrance unless they break the rules and get kicked out, but they might well become dangerous in the short-term. The underhand trading that takes place here is very important to both sides.”
He stood up and held out a hand. “Good luck, Grey,” he said. “I’ll provide the first transport.”
In a flicker of light, Grey found himself elsewhere, staring at a disaster zone. The city, he realised that it was Cambridge as his Walker senses reached out and started to absorb information from the surrounding area. It was healing slowly; time and space, outraged at the violation of the Time Hound, were slowly mending and erasing all of the evidence of the disaster. In a few hours, insofar as it could be measured, the disaster would never have happened at all…and the only trace it had ever happened would lie within the missing Walker and bad dreams.
And Ian was right, he realised; there had been a Walker here.
“Ah ha,” he said, talking to himself as he realised where the Walker had gone. “I don’t know why you went there, but, ready or not, here I come.”
Grey vanished from the world in a flash of light.
Chapter Three: In Which A Girl Is Pushed Towards Our Hero
There was…something…vast and breathing, there was a voice, there was someone speaking right at the edge of the universe, there was…darkness. Mathew felt as if his eyes were closed and open at the same time; he could see everything and he didn’t know where to look first so he looked everywhere first and he could hear the voice, all around him, speaking words that he thought he would understand, if he listened long enough, but it was all…so…big and beyond his comprehension. Energy danced around him, energy that was somehow calling to him, welcoming him, and he panicked, trying to work out what was happening…
And someone was speaking. “Ibrahim, you must look after him,” it said, except it didn’t. It spoke in a language that sounded oddly familiar, and yet was completely impossible to understand, but was also understandable. Mathew’s mind, tormented beyond understanding, refused to try to process the paradox; shuddering, he blacked out again, and again, only vaguely aware of figures near him, soft voices sharing their thoughts. The great voice at the end of the universe was muttering again…
Mathew sat up, sharply, as the darkness fell away for the final time. The motion should have made him feel sick, except it didn’t; his mind was too busy trying to process the new…feeling surrounding him. It felt as if he was somehow…lost, somehow far from home, and yet he felt as if he understood everything. He had been lying in a bed, a bed that was soft and warm, and yet…memory returned in a flash; the monster, the darkness, the…
He rubbed the side of his head. Whatever he had seen, in-between the darkness, had faded from his memory. His mind, he guessed, had decided that it had never happened, preventing him from remembering it in sheer self-defence. The monster – he remembered that clearly – had killed thousands and wrecked half the city, or had it? Mathew’s mind raced; had he been drugged, or had he been feverish and trapped inside a coma? He’d read a thousand stories around that premise, or had seen television shows that focused on imaginary worlds; he had watched all of Life on Mars after John Simms had played the Master on Doctor Who. He tried to remember what had happened to Sam Tyler, but his mind refused to provide the answer; he guessed that he was still slightly concussed by…whatever had happened to him.
“You’re awake,” a voice said. Mathew cursed himself for missing the fact there was another person in the room; somehow, he had been so centred on his own condition that he hadn’t looked around to see where he was. There was a girl in his room, a sight so surprising that he wondered if he was still dreaming. “How are you feeling?”
Mathew concentrated. “Surprisingly fine,” he said, as he pinched himself under the sheets. It hurt…or perhaps he had only dreamt that it had hurt, or perhaps…he shook his head, dismissing the thought, as he looked up at the girl. “Are you a nurse?”
“No, of course not,” the girl said. “My father just asked me to take care of you.”
Mathew studied her and felt puzzled. He had considered himself familiar with every ethnic group on the planet, thanks to being a student by day and a porn-watcher by night, but he couldn’t place the girl at all. She was…strange; she had dark hair, so dark it almost absorbed the light, and her skin was barely coloured, but coloured just enough to suggest that she had Indian or Arab somewhere in her ancestry. His gaze flickered across her body; she was young – he guessed around sixteen – and had small, but shapely breasts, what little he could see of them. She wore a very loose headscarf, a strange dress that reminded him of an Indian girl’s dress, but seemed completely composed at being alone with a strange man. He wondered, just for a second, if they actually were alone, but there was no one else in the room.
He sat up again, noticing the strange pyjamas that someone had dressed him in, and looked around the room. It, too, was odd; in some ways, it was just like a normal bedroom, but in others it was…odd. The bed itself was strange, just enough to disconcert him, while the walls were decorated with tapestries and strange script that meant nothing to him. A handful of pictures dotted one wall, but they were all landscapes; there were no pictures of humans, or animals, or…
And it was quiet. He could hear no aircraft, no cars, nothing, but a very faint sound of chatter, coming from a very long distance away. The window, shaped in a very Arabic fashion, was allowing the sun to shine in, but it was open…and he could still hear very little. The strange sense of…otherworldliness rose up again; he was suddenly very aware that he was a long way from home. He turned back to the girl and tried to read her expression; sympathy, concern…and something else, a nervousness that seemed as much shared with him as directed at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, as he turned again to face her. “Where exactly am I?”
“You’re in the house of Ibrahim al-Musa, the greatest merchant in the city,” the girl said. The name meant nothing to Mathew; Ibrahim was the Islamic name for Abraham, if he remembered correctly, but that useless titbit of knowledge didn’t actually help him at all. “My father has seven ships and has friends and allies all around the world, from the Three Holy Cities to the shores of Hindustan, Sino and Nippon. He is one of the richest men in the city.”
Mathew blinked, trying to understand. Hindustan had to be India; he’d read that the newly-independent Indians had considered renaming India Hindustan. Sino? Would that be China? Nippon had to be Japan…but three Holy Cities? The thought kept growing in his mind; wherever he was, he was a very long way from home.
“I guess I’m not in Kansas anymore,” he said, absently. The girl blinked at him; the name meant nothing to her. He guessed that that meant he really wasn't anywhere near Kansas anymore.
She leaned forward. “Is Kansas where you come from?”
Mathew considered her accent, but found it impossible to place. “Not really,” he said. He remembered, with a moment of embarrassment, that he had forgotten to ask her name. “If you don’t mind me asking, what is your name?”
She hesitated, just long enough to puzzle him. “I am Aneesa al-Musa,” she said, after she had overcome her hesitation. The sense of still waters running deep reached out at Mathew again; there was something going on that he didn’t understand. “What’s your name?”
The shift between hesitation and almost blatancy puzzled Mathew. “I’m Mathew,” he said, wondering how she would react to his name. “What is this city called?”
Her eyes were unreadable. “This is Jisr al-Kâm,” she said. “You’re real, aren’t you; my father had his doubts. Abdul is sometimes untrustworthy…”
Mathew felt a hot flicker of anger. “What happened to me?”
“I’m not quite sure,” Aneesa admitted. She shifted closer to him, almost as if she was trying to pick up the nerve to do something, or maybe as if she was seeking comfort. “Abdul brought you here, claiming that you had appeared out of nowhere in the city and had to be kept safe, because you were a…Walker.”
Mathew looked at her. “What is a Walker?”
“You’re a Walker,” Aneesa said. “Don’t you know what you are?”
“No,” Mathew said. He swung his legs over the bed and stood up. “I don’t know what I am, and I’m getting tired of games. What was I drinking last night?”
He didn’t drink, but he wondered if that was why he felt confused, as he staggered over to the window. The glass was transparent, almost impossible to see until he was very close to it, but there was no despising the view beyond. There was a city, that was to be expected, but it was…strange, alien, and yet…not alien. He could see the River Cam in the distance, but that was all he could recognise; Cambridge’s monuments and buildings seemed to have almost vanished. The Churches, all great architectures, had all vanished; the Colleges didn’t seem to have ever existed. The different buildings of the various universities, from the modern monstrosities to the older buildings that had been in existence for years, were all gone. The strange building that everyone called Porterhouse…
Gone. All of it gone.
He felt his mind reel.
He looked down at the crowds moving through the streets. They were…strange, just as strange as his own Cambridge, but at the same time, they were oddly familiar. There were Muslims, walking with their traditional dress, moving around without hurry, children and teenagers everywhere. He saw a pair of Jewish rabbis, wearing their religious dress, conversing with a pair of Muslims and a man wearing a Cross, all in peace and harmony. The buildings themselves were strange, reminding him of a horror picture the National Front had once produced, a Mosque that was half Western in design, half Arabic. It had been intended as a warning about the dangers of Eurabia, but instead…
“It’s real,” he said. He knew, deep inside, that it was real. He had wondered if it was an elaborate television prank, perhaps the latest version of Candid Camera, but somehow he was certain, at a very basic level, that everything was real. The people in the streets, Jews, Muslims, Christians, belonged there. “All this is real.”
“Of course it is,” Aneesa said, puzzled. “I’ve lived here all my life.”
Mathew ran his hands through his hair. Had something happened while he had blacked out? “What year is it?”
“This is the year 1428, anno Hegirae,” Aneesa said. “Abdul said you’d ask that question.”
“Then I think I want to have a chat with Mr Abdul,” Mathew decided. A thought struck him. “Do you know what year it would be as the Christians reckon things?”
Aneesa frowned, puzzled. “The number of years since Jesus Christ,” Mathew promoted. What had happened here? “That’s how they count it…”
“That’s easy,” Aneesa said, relieved. “There were two thousand and nine years between the birth of the Prophet Jesus and today.”
“Jesus wept,” Mathew said. His legs gave out and he collapsed onto the floor. The carpet felt soft and warm; part of him wanted to just stay down and enjoy the feeling. He could have lain there forever. “This isn’t my world, is it?”
He scowled down at the carpet. The conclusion seemed inescapable; the world felt different, at a very basic level. Now he had an idea of what had happened, it was much easier to feel the differences, somewhere at the back of his mind. The world felt different to him, partly as if Aneesa belonged there, but he didn’t belong there at all. He could see the world, somewhere; he wondered just what had happened to him. As far as he knew, people never went world-hopping, or at least if they had, no one had told him about it; he had thought that it remained in the pages of various fiction books.
“Your father,” he said suddenly. “Why does he want me?”
Aneesa hesitated. “My father…my father was involved with an attempt to make use of a contact with one of Allah’s other worlds,” she said. Mathew blinked; had they made contact with his world…and did they have evil intentions? He had to remind himself that just because Aneesa was nice, and easy on the eye, didn’t mean that all of her people were decent. “They wanted to trade, you see, but the traders had all of the advantages and always got good bargains.”
Mathew frowned. He’d heard nothing about it back in his world…and he was sure that a secret on that scale would be impossible to keep. He looked back out of the window again, looking for some signs of the technological level, and saw a train moving along a train track, blowing out smoke. If that was the best that the world had, they would have nothing that his world would be interested in, even if they could make contact.
“I see,” he said, for want of something to say. “What does that have to do with me?”
Aneesa’s face coloured slightly. “You really don’t know?”
Mathew shook his head. “All I know is that some freaking huge monster wrecked half of Cambridge and somehow I ended up here,” he snapped. “What does your father want from me?”
She stepped closer to him. “You’re…a Walker,” she said, again. Mathew was starting to get sick of that word. “If a Walker exists within a world, according to Abdul, that world can use the Walker to gain access to the Multiverse and technologies that can be used to improve the world and spread Allah’s word across the universe. You could do that for us…and, if you have children, your children will have the same abilities. My father…wants me to marry you and have children.”
She kissed him, then. The kiss felt wonderful, as amateurish as it was, and Mathew almost relaxed into it before he remembered himself. He wasn't the nicest person in the world, and if he had been offered a chance at guilt-free sex in his own world, he would probably have taken it, but, in the end, she had little choice in her actions. Her strange behaviour made sense, all of a sudden; ordered to seduce him, she had hesitated, and then been more blatant than anyone could have expected.
“No,” he said, pushing her away with a very real effort of will. She looked crushed; he wondered, just for a long moment, what her father would do to her if she were rejected. It was…insane! Just what was the bastard thinking? Horror stories about the lives of Muslim girls surfaced at the back of his mind, reminding him that she might be killed, or married off to the family goat, or perhaps sent to be the third wife of some older gentleman who felt that a young woman might restore his flagging and flaccid penis…
“I can’t,” he protested. “Aneesa, you’re a lovely girl, but” – he thought for a crazy moment of pretending to be a homosexual, remembered what happened to homosexuals in Muslim countries, and decided not to lie – “I can’t sleep with someone I barely know.”
He saw a mixture of relief and despair in her face. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I have to find out,” he said, hoping to comfort her. She didn’t look as if it had worked very well. “I’ll come back for you, I promise, and then we can decide.”
She looked up. “Are you going to visit another world?”
“If I knew how, I’d go home,” Mathew said, before it occurred to him that it might not have been a good idea to let her know that he had no idea how to use his abilities, if he had abilities. The jury was still out on that. “I just want to have a look around and see what the city looks like, that sort of thing…”
“We’re going to have food just after Zhur,” Aneesa said, seriously. Her face lowered. “Do you want me to show you around?”
“No, I will be fine,” Mathew said. He wondered, absurdly, if she was afraid that he might find another girl to have children with, but that was definitely absurd. He glanced down at his pyjamas. “Ah…what happened to my clothes?”
“Abdul kept them,” Aneesa said. She covered her mouth to hide a smile that radically transformed her face. “He said that we could loan you some clothes belonging to my brother and he’d return yours as soon as possible.”
Ten minutes later, Mathew found himself on the streets. Truthfully, he was half-determined not to return to the house of Ibrahim al-Musa, no matter that he was the richest merchant in the city; he wasn’t sure that he wanted to meet the man. Whatever he had really meant by introducing him to Aneesa, he suspected that it hadn’t been good; what would have happened if he had actually slept with her, or if he had stayed in the room? Had the mysterious Abdul taken a sample of his sperm while he had been blacked out, or had something else happened?
The temperature wasn’t that different from the Cambridge he remembered, although he could smell much less pollution in the air. There were still bicycles buzzing around, but far fewer cars; he only saw three vehicles of any kind in the centre of the city. In the air, he glanced up as a shadow fell over him, remembering the monster from Cambridge…and saw an airship heading towards the south. London – he wondered what it was called here – was in that direction; he wondered just what was happening in the new world. However he had ended up here, there had to be something to attract traders from another timeline, assuming that Aneesa was telling the truth.
It struck him then, as he gazed around at the people; he was looking at the melting pot in action, perhaps the original melting pot. People of different colours had married, and produced mixed-race children, who had gone on to have children on their own. Islam, he remembered now, had its own standards of tolerance; most Islamic sects would accept another Muslim as one of them, even though some ethnic groups had problems with different groups. This place…seemed to have plenty of tolerance; he could see more Jews and Christians, treated as equals, some of them shopping, others just wandering the streets. Life seemed to be slower here…
Homesickness overwhelmed him and he almost collapsed. What had happened to him?
“You must be Mathew,” a voice said, from behind him. Mathew almost jumped in the air. “At the risk of sounding dreadfully cliché” – the voice sounded as if being cliché was somehow terrible – “come with me if you want to live.”
Chapter Four: In Which We Meet A Marked Woman
It was traditional to materialise in an alleyway, a place where people would be unlikely to notice the side-effects of a Walker imposing his presence into yet another universe. Jonathon Dark focused his mind as the effects of the transit into the new universe faded away; there were no threats nearby, nothing that might notice him while he was effectively defenceless. The alley itself had its counterpart on billions of worlds; brick walls, drab marks where dogs and drunks had urinated against the walls, rubbish lying around, an unpleasant smell…and no sign of human life.
Jonathon smiled to himself as he took in the scene. He’d seen it before, on hundreds of worlds; there was nothing new or special in the alleyway, or dogs that might notice his presence. The field that bent reality, very slightly, around him would be almost completely unnoticeable to a human, but a dog might notice, or another Walker. It was vaguely possible that a Time Agent would have noticed his presence, but even someone who had spent years in the Vale would have had problems…and, besides, there was no reason to believe that the Time Agents were genuinely interested in the timeline. This timeline, according to his employers, had never produced a Walker; Jonathon had decided that, before he left, he would do something to ensure that there would be a few more baby Walkers popping up, perhaps ones his employers could recruit before they came into their powers.
He strolled out of the alleyway, his powers bending reality around him, and no one saw his coming or going. The main road was packed, thousands of people, hundreds of them soldiers dressed in uniforms that weren’t that different to the BDUs Jonathon remembered from Fort Pendleton, thronging around, waiting for the announcement. Information flowed into his mind as he expanded his powers, testing his own abilities by walking and sifting for information at the same time; the final confrontation between Capitalism and Communism was about to begin. This world – this America – felt dark and drab compared to his timeline; they had their backs to the wall and knew it. Incursions in Mexico, submarine raiders off the coasts; the forces of Communism were coming to America to crush the remaining non-communist states…and the battle to decide the fate of the world was about to begin.
He walked on, testing deductive abilities he hadn’t used since Ian had banned him from the Hub; there were few non-white faces in the crowd…and, as he glanced down an alley, he saw a black face hanging from a lamppost. He twisted his mouth slightly; the Marines might have banned him from the Corps because they believed that he was a sociopath, but even he had admitted that black men and white men were equal; they could be screwed just the same way by a man with the intelligence and ruthlessness enough to screw them. This world clearly disagreed; he wondered, briefly, just what the lynched man had done…or even if he had done anything. He could have sifted through the background information that made up the universe and learned exactly what had happened, but that would spoil the game. What was the point in playing if you already knew who would win?
A group of soldiers, ahead of him, completely missed his presence. He walked right through them, the reality-distortion allowing him to slip between them, and continued, checking out the tanks that had been gathered to impress the people with American military might. Jonathon wasn't impressed; he suspected, looking at them, that they were little better than an early-model Abrams at best…and there weren’t many of them. Most of them would probably be along the border with Mexico, preparing for the final stand, or perhaps they would be gathered elsewhere for a desperate thrust into the enemy flanks as they finally launched their offensive. It was backs to the wall time.
Idiots, he thought, and walked on. A moment’s sifting brought the information that nuclear weapons had been barely developed in this timeline; the Communists and Americans alike possessed only a handful of them. Some of them would be used in the coming war, Jonathon was certain, but ICBMs didn’t exist in this world. Even if they did exist, there were too many targets to ensure complete destruction of the communist war machine…and the USA was just as vulnerable. This timeline had never heard of Mutually Assured Destruction; they’d never had the chance. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America…they were the only remaining free states, isolated by the seas from the irresistible waves of Communism, led by Trotsky, which had crashed into Germany, France, Britain…
It would fall apart, in time; Communism never worked. Jonathon had visited thousands of timelines and the only ones where communism had come close to succeeding had been the ones where it had evolved, slowly, into a free market economy and could no longer really be called communism. This particular People’s Global Communist Movement would last as long as it took to defeat the remaining free states…and then it would splinter, perhaps going down in civil war, perhaps a peaceful split between communist states that would lead to another global war. It would be interesting to watch…from a very safe distance.
Oh, who am I kidding? Jonathon thought, as he turned into the centre of Washington. In his timeline, there was the Pentagon and the White House; in the new timeline, the Pentagon just…wasn't there, and someone had blown up the Senate Building. I’d love to watch this, perhaps even pour more fuel on the fire…
Which was, he reminded himself, just why he was present. The crowds had given some space for the ceremony, right in the centre of Washington; the President would speak directly to his people right after being inaugurated as President, perhaps the last President of the United States of America. There was little enthusiasm in the air; America had fought and fought for years, ever since it had woken up and realised the danger on its doorstep. The war in Central America. The Fall of the Panama Canal. The Battle of the Atlantic. The Mexican Civil War. Battles fought, won, lost and lost again, the very people the United States sought to save turning against them. Insurgencies in a dozen cities, led by the great terrorist Martin Luther King fighting to gain equality at last for black men and women; the fabric of the United States had been torn apart. The decline and fall of the economy. They wanted the new President to give them hope…
And he was going to ensure that the new President didn’t do anything of the kind.
He found a vantage point, noting the patrols of uniformed Secret Service agents, plain-clothes agents, armed militia and soldiers, watching for threats. There wasn't a single non-white face anywhere to be seen; black and Hispanic terrorists had committed enough outrages to convince the population to create ghettoes and keep the remaining non-whites inside, where they could no longer be a threat. Jonathon suspected that once the Communists overran the camps, the prisoners would become their most enthusiastic supporters, just as the Jews had become Stalin’s most enthusiastic supporters in a world where Hitler’s armies had been defeated in 1941 and Stalin’s red banner flew from Korea to Portugal. This timeline hadn’t had a holocaust, not yet, but it wouldn’t be long before they had one…
A black genocide, Jonathon thought, as he scanned the waiting crowd. How cliché…
He couldn’t see any faces he recognised from his own timeline, although that wasn’t surprising; William Clinton, George Bush, Al Gore and their cabinets would probably never have existed in this timeline, particularly not Powell or Miss Rice. He wondered absently what might have happened to some of them, but the waves of immigration, refugees desperate to escape the Communist invasion, would have altered the demographic beyond all recognition. Millions of people would never exist here; millions more would exist who had never existed in his timeline. The few that did have counterparts would be nothing like their counterparts; his Martin Luther King would have been horrified to meet the one that had existed here.
The President finally appeared, to a round of cheers; everyone was looking to him for leadership, guidance and, perhaps, a way out of the disaster staring America in the face. Jonathon studied the President carefully; in appearance, he reminded him more of Bill Clinton than George W. Bush, but with brown hair and darker eyes than Clinton. The President looked confident, but Jonathon could tell it was a pretence; the man was trembling inside. He knew, now, what the Government had kept a secret from its own people; the military balance was firmly in the hands of the communists and would remain that way for the foreseeable future.
“My fellow Americans…”
Jonathon didn’t listen any more to the speech; he could have recited half a dozen of them in his sleep, bland statements of respect and loyalty to the country, faith in God and the American Way, the President’s conviction that all could be mended, given time. Instead, he walked forward, cloaked in his powers, and stepped towards the stage. The tough-looking Marine at the steps completely missed his presence; for a moment, Jonathon seriously considered goosing him rather than carrying out the mission, but he dismissed the thought. The Marines here weren’t the Marines who had rejected him.
He stepped up behind the President, drew his knife as he shimmered his reality into line with the President’s, bringing them both together, and slit the President’s throat with one easy motion. The crowd fell dead silent – to them, he would have appeared out of nowhere – and then someone screamed, and another. Jonathon, unable to resist, bowed to them…and someone fired at him. The field surrounding him compensated for the bullet; the shot missed him because the field ensured that he wasn’t where the bullet flew, and he turned, heading for the steps. The Marine he had passed fired at him and reality twisted again; the people watching from the outside would see his body twisted into weird impossible positions to avoid the bullets. The Marine leapt at him, reality twisted…and the Marine found himself nearly a kilometre in the sky…and falling fast. Jonathon laughed aloud as the reality field shifted soldiers, agents and the crowd out of his way, and then he ran as fast as he could, reality twisting once again to ensure that he made a clear escape. To them…
He smiled as he found himself, once again, in an alleyway. To them, he had to have used an invisibility shield of some kind, not unlike the Predator movies had used…and they would suspect that he was a communist agent. The very will to continue fighting would fade away from those that had seen him in action, the communists would be likely to win the forthcoming war, and his masters would be happy. He still didn’t understand why his masters cared enough about the President – the most powerful man in the world would be an insect to them – to send him to assassinate him, but what the hell? Jonathon had enjoyed the challenge.
No one would have recognised him; the reality field saw to that. Even if by some dark miracle someone actually had managed to take a photograph of him, a policeman could see him with one eye and the photograph with another…and never realise that they were the same. He stepped out into the alleyway, slipped his hands into his coat pockets, and slouched along towards the nearest bar. There would be time for picking up a prostitute, perhaps one of the handful of female students out to earn some additional money or just pick up a mate for the night with all the male students in the army and deployed along the front lines, later. The bar itself was shadowed, a combination of low lighting and cigarette smoke; it was, apparently, one of the few places where there was genuine racial equality. If you could pay your way, the bartender would be quite happy to serve you, whatever your colour. The place wouldn’t have any time for the police either; for Jonathon, it was just like coming home.
He ordered a beer, and then another beer. Five minutes later, someone came over to his table, a form that was clearly young and female, even in the smoke and dim lighting. Jonathon smiled, preparing an opening line in his mind, and then he looked up. As soon as he saw her, all thoughts of sex vanished from his mind; he was looking at a Marked Man – or, technically, a woman. He was looking at an agent of the Enemy.
She stood there, young, beautiful, with soft brown skin and dark eyes, looking down at him. Her body moved as if the current owner didn’t have any idea what to do with it, as if the central brain had gotten the idea, but the rest of the body had decided that obedience was optional; in her eyes, he could see something screaming helplessly, screaming against the violation that had left her body free for something else to use. Her clothes were badly scrambled, as if the current user had no idea how to dress, or even how to use fingers; he wondered, vaguely, if the possessed body had been raped. He’d seen a Marked Man once pluck out his own eye, just to see what it felt like; he could see a possessor permitting a rape to go ahead, just out of curiosity.
“Jonathon Dark,” she said, or thought; the strange sense of two beings inhabiting one space and one voice almost overwhelmed him. He’d heard how the entire system worked; someone who desperately needed help, perhaps to survive, perhaps for a more mundane purpose, would be offered that help…for a price. The price was simple; they would be marked and when the Enemy decided that they were needed, the mark was activated, their personality was pushed to the side, and something else took over their body until the task was completed. “You have completed your mission.”
“Sure,” Jonathon said, cursing himself for the slight stammer in his voice. He wondered what the girl had been so desperate about to make a deal with the Enemy; had she been on the verge of death, or had it been something else. “The President is dead, just as you wanted.”
The girl stood, looking down at him. It wasn’t rudeness; the…thing controlling her body literally had no idea of how to use it, or why it might be a better idea to sit down rather than remain standing, exposing her weakness to the entire room. It was quite possible that the girl, whoever she was, would wind up pregnant…and the Enemy wouldn’t care. They might not even bother to notice; the mind parasites that controlled the Marked Men were dangerous, but far from intelligent enough to care about any damage to their hosts.
He shuddered. Not even Ian had been able to determine just how the Enemy had tamed the mind parasites, or why. Jonathon had worked for the Enemy since he had fled the Hub, but it still galled him that he had no idea just who he was working for, or what their endgame actually was. They were Beings of Power, obviously, because they had tamed creatures like the Time Hounds and the mind parasites themselves, but they had never shown their face. He looked up at the girl’s suffering eyes and wondered; was he looking into the face of the Enemy?
“Yes,” the girl said. Jonathon wondered absently what her name was; it seemed important, all of a sudden. “You have another mission; we require you to capture another Walker and bring him to the Stronghold.”
Jonathon bit down a laugh. “The only Walker you are likely to get is me,” he said. “No other Walker is going to be taken easily; you know that as well as I do.”
“There is a new Walker, one who is inexperienced,” the girl said. “We sent a Time Hound after him and his abilities were triggered, sending him plunging across timelines. We traced his path; he found a world that is on the verge of being incorporated into one of the multiverse trading networks. He must be found and brought to us, willingly or otherwise. We have a purpose for him.”
Jonathon lifted a single eyebrow. “Why not just pay me to do it for you?”
“That is not an option,” the girl said, sternly. “You are required to find the new Walker for us, using your senses and avoiding further notice from the Hub and perhaps the opposition.”
“The Time Hound triggered off alarms at the Hub,” Jonathon guessed. The Enemy probably had hundreds of agents in the Hub; none of them, however, would have any access to the Administration, not even with all the power and resources of the Enemy at their back. “Do you know who was sent after the newcomer?”
“We had a look at him as he materialised in the city called Cambridge,” the girl said. Jonathon winced; Cambridge sat on a fault line running through the Multiverse and was therefore a place of interest for both the Enemy and their opponents. “It is your old friend, the Grey Wolf.”
Jonathon smiled. He hadn’t forgotten the last time they had met, face to face. “Snatching the boy from under his nose will be a pleasure,” he said. He allowed the girl’s mind to pass him the information he needed, careful to avoid any contamination from the mind parasite. “I’ll be on my way at once.”
He looked down at the girl’s open shirt, revealing the tops of her breasts, and then up again into her suffering eyes. “One question,” he said. “What is her name?”
The girl made the faintest suggestion of a shrug. “Does it matter?”
“No,” Jonathon agreed. “I guess it doesn’t.”
Chapter Five: In Which Two Of Our Heroes Meet
It had been surprisingly easy to trace Mathew’s jump across the timelines, something that further confirmed Ian’s claim that Mathew was very new at exploring the Multiverse; Grey allowed the wake to lead him onwards until he finally reached the borders of the new universe and inserted himself into the rough location where Mathew had materialized. Unsurprisingly, it was in an alleyway, although this one was surprisingly clean. Grey glanced around, hunting for any traces of Mathew, but found no physical traces at all; only the sense that Mathew had appeared in the alley, his power leaving traces that would be likely to have interesting effects on the local population in later years, proved that he had been present. The power hung in the air, neither rising nor falling; with a moment’s concentration, Grey absorbed the power into his own being and focused it into his reality field.
It had been much easier to work out the name of the Walker; that had been embedded into the traces from his first jump from Cambridge. Mathew Ryan, apparently; a student at the university, specialising in history without a precise time. That was par for the course; most Walkers tended to develop an interest in history, even if Mathew had only had a chance to study boring old World War Two. Grey had wondered why he had come here; Mathew wasn’t a Muslim and had no unconscious desire to see a world where a peaceful form of Islam dominated, but it might just have been a random jump. Or, of course, it might have been someone redirecting him; Grey had found no traces of it, but if a Being of Power had been involved, he might not find any traces at all. Even so, the very clarity of the trail argued that there had been no redirection; if the Enemy had decided to redirect Mathew somewhere where they could pick him off at leisure, why leave the trail for Grey to follow?
Unless, of course, it’s a trap for me too, Grey thought, wryly. He extended his senses as far as he could, but only sensed Mathew’s presence and the flickering sign of a Portal, existing some thousands of kilometres from his current location. There was no time to triangulate, or play Mycroft Holmes; he accessed the universal background and absorbed the information he needed in one quick motion. The impact, as always, disorientated him, but he was experienced enough to handle it without blacking out. Mathew, he guessed, didn’t know that he could do that and therefore wouldn’t have tried; like a normal person, he would be completely disorientated in the new world. People slipped between worlds all the time, either through the actions of one of the sides in the War, or through scientific accident, or just through wandering onto the Roads of Happenstance. Not all of those experiences ended happily.
“Time to go hunting,” he said, to himself, and wandered out into the streets. Mathew’s own presence was moving, wandering with some speed and increasing desperation; Grey walked faster to catch up with him, hardly sparing a glance for the surrounding city. Jisr al-Kâm – the City on the Cam, or Cambridge, as it was called in TimeLine A – was strange, but, compared to some timelines, almost like home. Arabic and Early European buildings mixed, matched and merged together and pushed apart; Mosques, Churches, a building that even Grey didn’t recognise, rather than the university town of Mathew’s home. He passed through a market of a type normally seen in Tehran, then a school building that had come right out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and had to smile; no one else here would have seen the funny side.
There, he thought, as he saw a clearly disorientated figure ahead of him. Several of the passers-by were starting to take an interest, perhaps deciding to interfere…and he couldn’t have that. This wasn't a timeline where children were at risk from sexual predators, but Grey didn’t want more people interested in Mathew than he could avoid. The new Walker wore local clothes, real ones, not an illusion created by his reality field, which suggested that someone in the local timeline had taken an interest. Grey frowned; had it been a gesture of Islamic charity, or did it have a more serious motive behind it?
“You must be Mathew,” he said. Mathew almost jumped in the air. “At the risk of sounding dreadfully cliché, come with me if you want to live.”
Mathew spun around to face him. “Who are you?”
“I’m Grey Incanus Wolf,” Grey said. “You may call me Grey.”
Mathew stared at him. Grey realised that some of his Walker senses had activated; he was seeing Grey as he really was, not the disguise created by the reality field or the impression that his voice created. He would see Grey as the old soul he was, a man over two hundred years old, and he would see the power of a Walker bending space and time around him.
“What are you?”
“I’m a Walker, just like you,” Grey said. Staring at Mathew was like staring into the heart of the sun; the newcomer was bleeding power into the surrounding area without any sense of what might be watching for the power…and come hunting. That would have to be fixed, quickly. “And, as I said, come with me if you want to live.”
He led Mathew quickly through a series of side-streets – he didn’t want to risk warping reality just yet, not until Mathew was ready for it – until they finally reached a small African-seeming café. He pulled some money out of his pocket, Walker chips that became whatever the local currency actually was, and passed it to the owner.
“Coffee, please, lots of it,” he said. It would be almost useless asking for alcohol in this timeline; the only drink that was freely available was communion wine and Grey had never developed a taste for it. “My friend and I have a lot to get through.”
He waited until the coffee had arrived – tea had never caught on in this timeline – and allowed Mathew to take a sip. “Do you know what you are?”
Mathew frowned. “She – Aneesa – said I was a Walker,” he said. His face twisted. “What happened to this place?” Grey lifted an eyebrow. “This is Cambridge, but it’s…not Cambridge, and it’s so…peaceful.”
“Fuck, it is boring, isn’t it?” Grey agreed. “Why don’t you think it would be peaceful?”
Mathew looked at him. “Back home” – Grey didn’t have the heart to tell him that he had never had a home and never really would, just like any other Walker – “the…ah, Muslims are always protesting, or ranting, or killing people who disagree with them, or…and one of them wants me to marry his daughter!”
Grey laughed as he sipped his coffee. “You’re letting your prejudices show,” he said, mischievously. Mathew gave him a sharp look. “This is not your world and it doesn’t have your history, so take it for what it really is, rather than what you think it to be.”
Mathew scowled. “And why is this world different?”
“You should be able to learn that for yourself by reading the background information in the universe,” Grey said. He decided to explain anyway, just to get them back onto the important subject. “Basically – and this is the American Education System version – the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, had four successors; the Rightly Guided Caliphs. With me so far?”
Mathew nodded. “In your world, things fell apart pretty quickly, Islam fractured into two separate groups, which then fractured again, and the tools of absolutism had been set. A few hundred years later, one of the Caliphs decided to forbid further independent thought and the tradition of applying logic and reason to the Koran and the words of the Prophet himself, with the net result that Islamic nations tended to slip towards decay and collapse, although, owing to the lack of any super-powerful outside force, this process was actually delayed until the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire came to an end. The wreckage of Islam in your timeline is a direct result of that decision.
“In this timeline, things went a little differently,” Grey continued. “The second Caliph was a much more of a builder than any of the others and was able to organise the conquests of Islam to ensure that the empire didn’t just fall apart. There was no major split within Islam because they had developed a certain kind of tolerance for those who respected others who were tolerant. They had incorporated a great deal of democracy after Ali – who became the fourth Caliph in your world – tried to lead a coup attempt, with the net result that they ended up with much more social justice and much more appeal. Christians and Jews were basically regarded as other Muslims who just happened to be a little bit different. Imams were selected by the community and could be replaced at will, so there were no grasping Mullahs; the peasants had, generally speaking, a much better life.”
He waved his hand in the air. “To cut a long story short,” he concluded, “they spread rapidly into Europe, Africa and America. Orthodox Russia barred their way for a long time, but they ended up having to make major changes in their own society because Islam was very tempting to the serfs; China, Japan and India – Sino, Nippon and Hindustan here – kept their independence. They went to America, were as shocked as the Spanish in your timeline by Aztec religious practices, and ended up colonising it themselves. By now, the United States of Islam – as we may as well call it – holds almost all of the world, is a democratic state…and is boring as anything.”
Mathew looked at him. “I see,” he said. “All right; what are we?”
Grey took a long breath. This was the important part. “In every universe, from time to time,” he began, “a small number of people appear who can walk from timeline to timeline, sometimes remaining only capable of that basic ability, sometimes possessing much greater abilities…”
Mathew interrupted. “Such as what?”
Grey leered cheerfully at him. “You don’t think they speak English here, do you?” He asked dryly. “Your talent for understanding every spoken language is clearly having a field day today. The merchants here speak a form of Arabic that doesn’t exist in your world; the religious scholars speak Arabic in a way that your own Muslims would recognise. That’s actually quite a small ability, in its way; in time, you will learn how to access information directly from the universal background and discover everything you want about a specific timeline.
“Anyway, Walkers exist and they have vast abilities,” he continued, slightly confused. “This makes Walkers very dangerous; you don’t know this, but you were leaving a trail behind you that a blind Walker could follow, or someone else with access to a means of travelling between timelines. You’re a valuable target for plenty of people who want Walkers to assist them with their projects, or their wars, or…once you learn how to use and manipulate your own reality field, you’ll be almost unstoppable by people without Walker abilities.”
He paused. “Any questions?”
“That…thing in Cambridge,” Mathew said. “What was it?”
“That was a Time Hound,” Grey said. He sighed. He hadn’t wanted that part of the discussion yet, not least because he wasn't entirely convinced that Mathew was innocent in that incident. “You see…there’s a war going on, The War, and you are, through no fault of your own, caught up in the middle of it. If you’re not careful, the Enemy might capture you; they sent the Time Hound to capture you and if your abilities hadn’t manifested, you would have been taken with ease.”
Mathew stared at him. “Who wants me?” He asked desperately. “Why?”
“I wish I knew,” Grey admitted. “No one knows who the Enemy is, or what their reason for fighting the war is…and, to be fair, no one knows who’s behind the Time Agents either. That said…bending a Time Hound to your will was believed to be impossible; they appeared – no one knows from where – killed for a few hours or so, and then vanished…and we classed them as natural disasters until one of them turned up under Enemy control. What they must have done to bend it to their will…”
Mathew sipped his coffee, making a face as he drank. “How come you don’t know where it comes from?”
“The Multiverse is vast, almost infinite,” Grey told him dryly. He wished, not for the first time, that Walkers could pull information about each other from the local background. He would have given anything to know how Mathew was taking it. “Only a tiny fraction has been mapped, even by the Hub…and there are some realities where the laws of science have been replaced by the laws of magic, or sheer random chance, or corruption has set in to the very fabric of the universe and warped reality around its suffering inhabitants. There are places where reality has been mashed together, collapsing worlds and counterparts together, leaving them screaming in the night. All we know about the Time Hounds is that their world must be weird indeed.”
He paused. “We – the other Walkers – have a place we go to live,” he said. “It’s called the Hub, a place built by one of us – or so we believe – where we can be safe and take no part in the War. We generally try to stay out of it, but the Enemy has already targeted you for capture, which means that they’re not going to give up in a hurry. They have other agents than the Time Hounds, some of them much harder to notice before they’re on you…”
Mathew looked to be reeling. It was a hard piece of knowledge to take in; the knowledge that Beings of Power had targeted one for extermination or capture was disconcerting at the best of times. Grey’s own introduction to the Walkers had been much less traumatic, even if the entire Jonathon Dark affair had rather soured him on the concept of Walker brotherhood.
Mathew’s voice rose in protest. “But they can’t find me here!”
Grey allowed a flicker of his irritation to colour his voice. “Haven’t you been listening?” He demanded. “You left a trail that anyone could follow if they had access to the Multiverse, and one set of things we know for sure about the Enemy is they have access to the Multiverse, agents everywhere, and powers that we don’t understand, let alone know how to counter! They’re going to come here and they’re going to come for you and they’re going to take you unless you learn how to use your abilities in time to stop them!”
He softened his voice. “Look, I know it’s a shock, and I didn’t take it much better when I was first introduced to the Multiverse, but you don’t have time to be shocked,” he said, reaching out a hand and squeezing Mathew’s shoulder. “You’re a target and your best choice is to come with me to the Hub.”
Mathew looked up at him. Grey could see the desperation in his eyes. “How can I know to trust you?”
Grey rubbed his eyes. “I didn’t start by trying to kill you,” he said, resisting the temptation to make a snide comment about it. “Look, you can get back, in time, to your original timeline if you like, but that’s not going to change anything. I don’t want to think about why they want you, but you have the powers and abilities of a Walker locked up in your cells, which suggests, I’m afraid, some pretty nasty possibilities.”
“They want me to give Aneesa children,” Mathew said, his voice dazed. Grey understood without needing to know anything else; like most Walkers, Mathew would probably never have met a girl who was willing to partner with him, just because he would never quite fit in anywhere. The offer had to be tempting, which meant whoever had pushed Aneesa into making the offer had to know Walkers, which meant…
“They wanted to breed some additional Walkers for their world,” Grey filled in. He smiled, unable to resist the chance to tease Mathew a little. “Do you like her? Is she pretty? Do you think you could sleep with her without being sick?”
Mathew glared at him. “What will happen to her if she fails to bear my children?”
Grey grinned. “Your prejudices are showing again,” he said. He smiled at how relieved Mathew looked; while many young men were keen on boasting about their sexual prowess and conquests, they tended to be rather embarrassed when faced with the reality. True debauchery took a great deal of work. “It will be rather embarrassing for her father, who probably wasn't keen on the idea in the first place, but she won’t be killed, if that’s what you’re asking. She’d probably be rather relieved; this place tends to spend a year in courtship before there is any thought of actually getting into bed with a man.”
He smiled. The puzzle had just solved itself. “Did anyone mention the name Abdul to you?”
Mathew blinked. “Yes,” he said, astonished. Grey smiled at his tone; like Watson, he had missed the fact that had allowed Grey to realise who was involved. “Another Walker?”
“No,” Grey said. “He’s someone who started life in another timeline and ended up here. His presence would explain a lot; he used to go on and on about how the Armenian Genocide never happened, instead of being covered up by the Turkish Government of that time…”
“That’s a lie,” a voice said, from behind them. It was thick with an accent that Grey hadn’t heard for years. “The Armenian Genocide never happened!”
Chapter Six: In Which There Is An Uncomfortable Dinner Party
“Salaam, Abdul Hadi Pasha,” Grey said, as he looked up at the newcomer, a man who had walked up right behind Mathew. He was getting sick of people sneaking up on him. “We were just talking about you.”
“I heard,” Abdul said sharply. “There was no genocide.”
Mathew turned slightly to look up at the newcomer. He was the first person in the new world whose origins he was easily able to place; Abdul wore a purely Turkish traditional costume, complete with fez on his head and dark, scowling expression on his face. The outfit was so stereotypical that he was left wondering if Abdul wore it purely to be considered a Turk, rather like the Thompson twins had used to dress up in the national dress of wherever country they visited, often to comic effect.
He looked back at Grey and gave him a helpless look. He wasn't sure what to make of Grey, now that he could see him clearly; the average appearance that he had worn had faded, revealing an older face and long grey hair, perhaps the source of his name. Abdul didn’t have quite the same presence that Grey possessed, but Mathew could tell, somehow, that he didn’t really belong in the Islamic world, any more than he did. He might not have been a Walker, but Grey had been right; Abdul had come to the world from elsewhere.
Grey leaned forwards slightly. “Abdul came from your world, where he wandered into the Roads of Happenstance and somehow ended up here,” he said. “You might as well call him a trading factor if nothing else; his presence explains a great deal about how you were found and the…ah, offer that was made to you.” He smiled. “Abdul, old friend, how did you find Mathew anyway?”
“I merely checked all the alleys until I found him, once we had detected his arrival,” Abdul said, stroking his moustache. “Mathew, you don’t want to listen to old Grey Wolf too quickly; we have quite an offer for you.”
“So she said,” Mathew said. He wanted to run off, screaming; only sheer determination kept him facing the two older and more experienced men. “Why have I become so important all of a sudden?”
“It’s quite simple,” Abdul said. Mathew felt his heart sink; every time he’d heard that from a professor back at Cambridge, it had been astonishingly complicated. “You’ve come into your powers as a Walker.”
Mathew had to laugh; it came out as a giggle. “Everyone has been telling me that,” he said. “But really…why?”
A noise ran through the air, a man was calling for prayer. In near-perfect harmony, other voices joined his, adding to the harmonious and somehow eerie words rippling through the air. Now Grey had pointed out the obvious to him, he could hear both the Arabic and the deeper meaning below it, calling the faithful to prayer. He opened his mouth and Grey tapped his finger against his lips, warning him to be silent as the call to prayer came to an end.
“It’s time for prayers,” Abdul said, cheerfully. “I trust that the two of you will accept the invitation to dinner, where we can make full explanations?”
Grey looked doubtful, but Mathew had already made up his mind. “We’d be delighted,” he said, determined for once to get some answers out of Abdul and Ibrahim. “Mr Grey, I take it that would be fine?”
Grey shrugged. “I dare say we can find the time,” he said, grimly. Abdul nodded and asked quickly for them to wait while he used the local mosque. “Abdul is a believer, which put him head and shoulders above most Muslims where you came from, but don’t expect him to do you favours for nothing. His outfit should tell you that; he has an ideal in his mind and he tries to live up to it. Oh, and don’t mention the genocide; it never happened here.”
Mathew felt a hot flash of anger. “I don’t want you controlling my life,” he snapped. “I want to know what the fuck is going on!”
Grey did the unexpected; he laughed. “You remind me a lot of my younger self,” he said. There was no real anger in his voice. “And, without much hope you’ll listen, just remember this; you know almost nothing about what’s going on and you don’t know how to use the abilities you have.”
Mathew took a breath. “I’m sure you listened to whoever taught you,” he said sarcastically. “I just…want to know what’s going on.”
“I didn’t have the Enemy breathing down my neck,” Grey reminded him. “This place is boring, but it’s peaceful; do you really want to lead a force of Nazi Stormtroopers or FSB Rape and Terror Squadrons to this place? This place, as a general rule, is really not that much more advanced than the Americans were when they had their civil war; how long do you think they’ll last if one of the Nazi inter-dimensional empires opens a Portal and invades?”
“That’s not going to happen,” Mathew protested.
Grey gave him a droll look. “How do you know?”
Abdul returned before Mathew could say anything else, wiping his hands on the side of his outfit. “I always feel better after prayers,” he said, to no one in particular, and led the way through the side-streets back towards Ibrahim’s house. Mathew could look at it with new eyes, now he understood much more; the house might have been the greatest in the city, but it was very primitive compared to some of the houses back home. The handful of land vehicles, he could see now, were odd; a mixture of technology he sort-of recognised and designs right out of the Lost Regiment novels. “And Ibrahim’s wife always cooks well.”
He paused. “Better take your shoes off here,” he said, as they entered a small lobby here. “Shoes are not worn inside the house.”
Aneesa greeted them as they entered, her outfit changed slightly into something that was more form-fitting, although still very conservative. She flushed slightly as she saw Mathew, and then smiled as she saw his own blush. She was prettier than he remembered, he realised as he looked her over properly, but the mere suggestion that he should provide her with children – as if he was nothing, but a stud bull – make him feel almost physically sick. He hadn’t had much experience with women – he had hardly any – but he knew enough to be sure that marriage shouldn’t start with rape.
“A pleasure to meet you,” a man said. Mathew had been expecting a bearded man with a skullcap; Aneesa’s father was, instead, a young-looking man with a pale face and hardly facial hair at all, although the look in his eyes was wary. His handshake was firm, but just hard enough to make Mathew wince; there was a warning in there, somewhere. “This is my wife, Nabihah.”
Nabihah proved to reassemble a slightly-younger version of Adjoa Andoh, wearing a headscarf and a long dress that was beautifully ornate. She didn’t shake hands, instead pressing her hands together and half-bowing over them. Mathew remembered Aneesa’s claim that her father was a successful merchant and saw some evidence in her mother’s appearance; the outfit she was wearing had some Chinese influences in it. It might have meant nothing, but…
“Thank you for honouring us,” Grey said. If he was impatient, he kept it to himself. “We will endeavour to do justice to your home.”
“We have had visitors from other timelines before,” Ibrahim said, as he led the way into a small living room. There was a cloth spread out on the gorgeous Chinese carpet; Aneesa and Nabihah quickly placed a small basin of curry in the centre, and then started to ladle it out along with bread and some cream. Ibrahim muttered a prayer under his breath and then motioned for them all to start eating; the curry tasted…strange, Indian in taste, but with elements Mathew couldn’t recognise. He tucked in and enjoyed the strange meal; the food defused the awkwardness.
“So,” Grey said, afterwards. The food had long gone and had been replaced with cups of coffee. “Abdul, Ibrahim, just what is your interest here?”
Mathew sat up and listened carefully. “As you know, Grey, I came here from a different timeline,” Abdul said, in his gravelly voice. “A few years later, a group of explorers along the Roads of Happenstance found this world – I should say, I guess, that they found this world again – and opened a Portal near Gárnata al-yahud, which more or less corresponds to Granada in my home timeline. They asked for trading rights and I, as the only person with any real knowledge of the roads, ended up working with Ibrahim and several other merchants to exploit this opportunity.”
“I’m sorry,” Mathew said. “What are the Roads of Happenstance?”
Grey laughed. “That rather depends on whom you ask,” he said. “The simplest explanation is to consider them chinks in reality between different universes, places where someone can walk from universe to universe without Walker abilities, assuming, of course, that they can get onto the Roads. Most people, like Abdul here, never manage to find their way back to their home and end up settling down somewhere along the Roads.”
He smiled. “Anyway, Abdul…you were saying?”
“We do not have much of a basis for equal trade,” Ibrahim said, before Abdul could speak. “Already, we have some problems because they are providing us with items that we cannot duplicate through our own efforts, therefore causing problems with limited supplies. A radio, for example, is beyond our ability to design and build, even though Friend Abdul assures me that we should be able to build one in time. There are other reasons to be concerned; they are clearly from a much more advanced timeline and have no reason to wish us well, seeing so little of what we have is actually useful to them.”
Mathew frowned. “Why’s that?”
“Dollars are useless in a world where America never came into existence,” Grey said. “Other things can be even more useless; a train from here would be nothing more than a curiosity in your timeline. They might trade for women, because there aren’t that many women on the Roads, but there are plenty of timelines that would be happy to sell women into slavery without coming here. Oh, sometimes you encounter amusing little titbits like the world where Clinton was a successful porn star, or the world where Al Gore nuked Afghanistan, but most trading tends to be on a very limited scale.”
He scowled. “You may remember that the American Indians – or Native Americans, as we are meant to call them these days – became dependent upon the goods produced by the Europeans and became weak because of it,” he said. “Ibrahim, whom I guess has some links with what passes for a government here, is worried about that, right?”
Ibrahim nodded. “You are correct,” he said, shortly. “The Caliph sees it as an opportunity, but also as a deadly threat to the foundation of our society. It may also be possible that the Hindus or the Nipponese will take advantage of the traders to get weapons they can turn on us; neither of them have ever quite forgiven us for showing the world the wonder and glory of Allah.”
“This is very interesting,” Mathew said. It was, in a way; he had never felt important before. “However…what does this have to do with me?”
“The gateways into the Roads can be opened by a Walker,” Abdul said, very seriously. “A Walker with the proper equipment could take several people into a different timeline, like the one that gave me birth, or you, and help us to find items we need to create a defence against the traders.”
Mathew blinked. “You don’t know that they’re going to invade,” he pointed out. “Or do you know something you’re not telling?”
“If they have access to the Multiverse, they will have access to weapons and technologies that could make taking over this world easy, or even just a tiny fragment of it, say Britain,” Grey said. “Their superiority would be such that they could take the rest of it over, bit by bit, without having to worry about a counterattack; there are timelines where such events have actually happened. Imagine, Christopher Columbus, his three ships approaching America…and then being ruthlessly strafed by Hurricane fighter aircraft. A group of refugees from Britain of the 1940s found their way through time and space to there…and set up shop. By the time Columbus came along, they held all of America and took over the rest of the world in the next few hundred years.”
He grinned. “I think they were just a little disappointed in Good Queen Bess, though,” he said. “I can’t think why.”
“We need some way of accessing the Multiverse,” Abdul said. “We need a Walker, as many of them as we can get. You’re a new Walker, so you won’t want to be tied down, but if you had children here, they would have some of your abilities.” He glanced at Aneesa. “She has volunteered to bear your children, if you will have them with her, and I guarantee that they will want for nothing. Once they learn to use their abilities, we can gain access to other universes and find the items we need…”
“And what else will find you?” Grey asked. “There are powers out there that won’t think twice about swatting your world and everyone on it, just because they had a bad hair day or whatever creatures like that do to get into a bad mood. There are…things out there that will promise you the universe, if only you’ll let them in, creatures that will rip your very universe to shreds for their own sick amusement. They may not even care about you, they may not notice you, they may just destroy you because of the sheer weight of their presence in reality.”
He looked over at Mathew. “The Time Hound wasn't quite in your reality,” he said. “The Enemy, no matter how much power they have, couldn’t force it to manifest fully because the shockwaves would have ripped a hole in your universe large enough to toss your entire world into the Vale, or slam it into another timeline and crash it into another Earth. Think what could happen, just through accident, or even malicious intent.”
Mathew stared at him. “And you’re advising me to…do what? Leave here and go to the Hub?”
“The Hub?” Abdul asked. “I thought it was just a legend!”
“It’s real,” Grey said. He laughed once, bitterly; Mathew wondered just what he was remembering that made him laugh. “Look, Mathew…leaving Walker genes scattered around is an old and time-honoured tradition; one of us goes into a new timeline, stays a while, finds a girl, knocks her up…and all the good things happen before the wanderlust takes us again and we leave the kiddie behind, until they come looking for us later. Abdul wants to create new Walkers for his own purposes; I won’t say they’re not noble purposes, but it’s a dangerous plan.”
“Doing nothing is also dangerous,” Ibrahim said. “Mathew, is there something wrong with my daughter?”
Mathew felt a hot flush of pure anger. “I discovered…yesterday…that I was a Walker,” he said. “I didn’t know – I’d never heard of them – until Aneesa mentioned the term, and I didn’t know what one was until Grey explained it all and I still don’t know anything important and there are monsters after me and…”
He felt hot tears on his cheek and wiped them away angrily. “I don’t know and I don’t want to sleep with anyone against their will,” he snapped. He saw Aneesa’s face and felt, for the first time, that he was doing the right thing. “It’s tempting, tempting almost beyond my ability to resist, but I won’t do anything like that! Aneesa is lovely, but I barely know her and I am not the type of person to sleep with someone before I know her, let alone create some children whom I may never see again and…”
“It strikes me,” Abdul said, once Mathew had run out of steam, “that you would make a very good Muslim.”
Mathew wanted, then, to hurt him; reality shimmered around his body, a shimmering line of force that could tear into Abdul and end his life…
“Careful,” Grey said. The tone of command in his voice brought Mathew back to reality. Everyone was staring at him; he could see fear in their eyes, apart from Grey, who seemed more amused than anything else. “Don’t go unleashing forces like that until you’re ready to control them.”
He waited until Mathew had calmed down. “There is no reason,” he announced, “for you to make an immediate decision. The situation that concerns Abdul and Ibrahim will not resolve itself at once; you will have time to visit the Hub, learn everything that we can teach you, and then make your own decision. If you then decide to return here and start helping Aneesa to churn out babies, you can do so; no one will stop you.”
Mathew nodded. “I’ll come back, whatever happens, just to let you know,” he said, to Aneesa. She looked up at him; he realised that he had scared her when he had manifested additional powers. Perhaps she wouldn’t be so keen on having his children now…and that would solve the problem, even though part of him regretted it. She was pretty enough for ten girls. “I promise you that I…”
A massive explosion, right next to the house, shattered windows and shook the ground. Before Mathew could realise what had happened, he saw, with a growing sense of pure horror, that the roof was starting to cave in on them…
Chapter Seven: In Which Our Heroes Discover Their Enemy
Jonathon Dark hadn’t been impressed by the alternate city of Cambridge, although, unlike Mathew, he wasn’t burdened with memories of how it had been in the alternate world. His own dislike of peace and quiet prejudiced him against it, almost as much as his own inherent distrust of Islam. It never occurred to him that his distrust stemmed from a basically sociopath-style mindset, or that he would, in the absence of Islam, find something else to dislike. At bottom, he was simply incapable of caring for anyone, apart from himself. The city could not be trusted; for one who had spoken endlessly in favour of ‘Option Zero’ and found the Republican Party too liberal, there was really no other choice, but to destroy it.
His own need for secrecy stayed his hand. His masters had been clear; they wanted the new Walker and nothing else, not even a destroyed city and the chaos that would result. This peaceful timeline, with no real problems apart from the encounter with other travellers from an alternate timeline, wasn’t a target…and Jonathon really didn’t understand it. His masters had sent him into various timelines to spread chaos, such as when he had assassinated a President in a manner that would be all-too-revealing if a Time Agent examined the evidence with an unbiased eye, but they didn’t want chaos in this new world. If Jonathon hadn’t seen how his masters had shown endless contempt for all forms of single-God religions, he would have wondered just what they had been playing at, maybe even if they were going soft.
A Time Hound would make this place so much more interesting, he thought, as he strode through the city, cloaked in his reality field. He was invisible, but more than a few girls started as they sensed his looming presence moving through the shadows, hidden within a fold of reality. Part of him laughed to watch their faces, coming, very briefly, face to face with death, the remainder just pushed him onwards towards the new Walker…and Grey. Jonathon could sense his old friend and current enemy’s position with ease; the old Walker seemed not only unwilling to flee the timeline, but apparently heedless of his own safety. The new Walker was even worse; his power ebbed and flowed around the city, completely out of control…just for a second, Jonathon wondered if he was walking into a trap.
He probed ahead of him, carefully, and located both Walkers. There were four other people with them in a building, a grotty old building that had been created by a drunken designer, mixing Arabic and British designs to the point where it just wasn’t funny anymore. The building wouldn’t win any prizes; the owner might be a wealthy man in his own world, but by any standards Jonathon used to measure wealth, he was very poor indeed. A second probe, very light, revealed that one of the other people in the house had originated in a very different timeline, one oddly familiar to Jonathon’s mind. The chances, he calculated with a moment’s thought, were that the other traveller had come from his own home or a universe very close to it.
He smiled, completely, and stepped out of the fold in reality. Grey would be able to sense him now, but it hardly mattered; it would be far too late for him to do anything about it, apart from one thing. Jonathon had thought it through; if Grey stood and fought, he could take him, if he ran, he would go right into a trap. He roused the power within him, and, with a mighty effort, sent a reality-distortion field sliding over the house and blossoming out of control over parts of the city. Moments later, the house started to collapse.
Grey had only sensed the presence of the third Walker seconds before the building started to cave in on them, and the numb shock of realising who it was had stunned him just long enough to make it impossible to counteract the effects of the reality-distortion field. The field wouldn’t last long – no Walker, not even Jonathon, could hold one in existence for long – but it would certainly bring the house down, as well as probably wrecking chaos on the city itself.
“Get up,” he snapped, as he felt his own powers rise to contest the issue. The roof was collapsing; he sent his own field up to hold it back, altering the laws of physics and common sense through sheer determination. Mathew was still staring around wildly, his eyes terrified; Grey realised he had to be feeling the effects of Jonathon’s attack on a very primal level. Abdul, the only other person who might be able to appreciate what was going on, looked terrified as well; the others were just scared and confused. They might even be thinking that Mathew was somehow causing the chaos. “We have to get out of here!”
A wall collapsed, and then another, revealing the garden behind the house. Ibrahim had done well for himself; Grey hadn’t seen such an attractive garden since leaving the Hub, but there was no time to spend admiring it. He cast his power into the ceiling, trying to hold the roof up, as he pushed Mathew out towards the garden, followed by his would-be lover. He would have preferred to have just Walked out, back into the Multiverse, but there was no time. If he knew Jonathon – and he had once considered him his closest friend – the rogue Walker would have set up all manner of traps to send the pair of them Walking right into a trap. Mathew couldn’t take care of himself yet; for all he knew, he might end up facing a Time Hound in a universe where the damned creatures could actually manifest their full abilities.
“Run,” he snapped, and pushed Abdul out, before running himself as the reality field started to falter under the unflinching pressure of reality. The laws of gravity said that the building was going to collapse, but he could bend them just enough to slow the collapse, leaving him with a chance of getting the entire party out. “Run for your life!”
Behind him, the building crashed down into wreckage, splintering down in a cloud of dust and strangely-shaped pieces of wreckage, a testament to the brief struggle Jonathon and he had waged for control of the area. He fled into the garden, wondering just when Ibrahim had found the time to create it. In its own way, it was a work of art, a miniature version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Behind him, he could sense the growing waves of power from Jonathon’s position, and knew that there wouldn’t be time to make their escape before the rogue Walker came after them.
“Allah,” Ibrahim said, his voice broken and terrified. “The city!”
Grey turned and looked, silently cursing Jonathon under his breath; the city looked as if it had been hit by a hail of bombs. The reality field had blossomed out of control, causing localised disturbances in the laws of reality, some of which would be lethal to anyone caught in them. He dismissed the thought of waiting for the Street Guardians; the police that existed here wouldn’t have anything that could challenge Jonathon. The rogue Walker would cut through them like a knife through butter.
And I thought it was boring, he thought, as the smoke of the explosion started to fade away. I wish it were boring again now.
He forced himself to think. “Abdul, get Ibrahim and his family out of here, now,” he snapped. He would have preferred to have grabbed them all and swept them somewhere else in the Multiverse, just for Mathew’s own sake, but that was no longer a possibility. Grey was too old to consider that anything that might have blossomed between him and Aneesa would be permanent – poor kids – but if the new Walker had decided to feel something for her, it wouldn’t do to make him feel that she wasn’t being looked after. “They can’t stay here!”
Abdul looked at him. His fez had gone missing somewhere in the rubble of the house. “What about you?” He demanded. “What’s happening?”
“I’m happening,” a new voice said. Grey watched as the smoke faded away, finally ending up as a nimbus surrounding a figure he remembered all-too-well from the past. “I’m here for the new boy.”
He stood there, as large as life, his very reality field contriving to give an impression of him being more there than anyone else. His dress sense hadn’t improved, Grey realised; he wore a trenchcoat over a black suit, which perfectly matched with his dark hair and grim expression. His eyes – dark, naturally – showed little in the way of happiness or sadness, merely a strange amusement and a dark dancing anticipation.
Mathew stepped forward. “Who are you?”
Jonathon smiled. “I’m the man your parents warned you about when you were younger,” he said. He held up one hand; a staff of pure shimmering reality formed in it, positioned neatly in the ground. He held it gently, without concern for the side effects such a staff would have on the local environment, and smiled at Grey. “Grey, old buddy – we meet again, for the last time.”
“You always were fond of ham acting,” Grey snapped. It was true; Jonathon had been a drama queen worthy of a gay actor, or a male actor pretending to be gay and overdoing it. “If you feel any urge to stroke a white cat, you will let us know, won’t you?”
Jonathon eyed him balefully. “I’m here to take the boy,” he said. “I will offer you one chance, Grey; stand aside or fight and lose.”
Mathew was staring at Jonathon as if hypnotized. “What will happen to me if I come with you?”
Grey hissed at him. “This is not the time to be self-sacrificing,” he snapped. He understood the need to prove one’s self as much as anyone else, but there really wasn’t any time for Mathew to prove himself. “What have you been doing with yourself lately, Jonathon? You’ve really let yourself go.”
“I found a new set of employers,” Jonathon said easily. He stepped forward, moving the staff as he moved, reality shifting and flickering around him. The city was starting to suffer; Cambridge had only very tiny earthquakes, but it wouldn’t be long before the shifting nature of reality caused an earthquake that might toss Jisr al-Kâm into the Multiverse, sending the entire city adrift on the sea of time. “They’re very interested in you, young Mathew.”
Grey could hear the defiance in Mathew’s tone. “I’m not going with you,” he snapped. “I don’t know what you want, but you stink of evil!”
Jonathon rolled his eyes. “Dear me, how pompous you seem,” he said. He looked at Grey. “I stink of evil, do I?”
“Well, personally, I think it’s your aftershave, but I could be wrong,” Grey said. “I don’t suppose that I could talk you out of…you know, the whole evil thing?”
Jonathon’s eyes hardened. “You should know, better than anyone, that I can’t change,” he snapped. “Now, there is no more time; Mathew, come with me, or I’ll reduce this entire city to rubble…paying special attention to your lady friend over there.”
Aneesa and her family were still running, but there was nowhere they could go that Jonathon couldn’t find them, if he wanted to go hunting. Grey could see that thought passing through Mathew’s head and knew the decision the new Walker would make. It would be the wrong decision, he was certain; whatever the Enemy wanted with him, he was certain that it wouldn’t be pleasant.
“Jonathon, I won’t let you take him,” he said. He pushed as much pathetic pleading into his voice as he could. “For old time’s sake, can’t you let this go?”
“No,” Jonathon said. He stepped forward again, with the staff; the ground trembled slightly. “I can take you, Grey, and if I strike you down, you will not become more powerful than I can imagine.”
He stepped forward again and Grey brought his field up into tight contact with Jonathon’s field, pumping as much of his power as he dared into the field. For a moment, reality went completely skewed, just enough to send echoes of other worlds out over the city, granting a handful of people a chance to see what their lives might have been like, in other realities. Jonathon, surprised by his sudden attack, staggered backwards; like all Walkers, he knew how to move with the flow, but at the same time he would be scrambling for reality…and reality had suddenly become very fluid indeed. He needed time…
“Come on,” Grey said, yanking at Mathew’s arm. He hoped that he had judged Jonathon right; the rogue Walker might have been a sociopath, but he wouldn’t waste time hunting down Aneesa if there was another target presenting itself. Reality twisted around him and they found themselves half a kilometre away, looking over the city. “We don’t have time!”
Mathew stared up at him. “What about…?”
“She’ll be fine,” Grey snapped, as reality shimmered to admit Jonathon’s dark form and glowing eyes. Power flickered around him and focused into a beam that crashed into Grey’s form, sending him stumbling backwards before he caught his grip on reality again and stood up. “We have other problems.”
Jonathon didn’t bother to challenge him this time, he just drove in, his powers flaring out and crashing into Grey’s being on a number of levels. The very fabric of reality was harnessed into becoming weapons and means of assault; Grey couldn’t pause to wonder what Mathew made of the conflict as he fought to defend himself and counter attack on several different plains at once. Skirmishes between Walkers were rare, the few descriptions that anyone had been able to find long on flowery phases and words and very, very, short on actual details. It was like…chess, and risk, and poker, all merged together and played out on a mental plain. He clashed with Jonathon in one plain, retreated in a second, attacked on the third, his powers merging, rising and falling as they struggled for supremacy.
He formed a staff himself, falling into a combat stance and drawing knowledge from the surrounding universe, the staff falling into his hands like a living weapon. They clashed, time and time again; each time the staffs met, the universe shuddered. Grey was lost in chaos, lost to everything, but the lure of battle; they met, they fought, and neither chose to break. Self-image was everything in such a battle, they advanced, they retreated, they danced around one another…and, in the end, they were evenly matched.
“You have learnt your lessons well, grasshopper,” Jonathon said. Both of them paused in their fight, by mutual agreement and a strange sense of comradeship. “Still, you must know that I must take the boy.”
“I don’t want to go with you,” Mathew said. The new Walker’s eyes were bleeding; Grey cursed under his breath. He had forgotten, in his lust for battle, that Mathew was far from used to seeing reality turned inside out like a pretzel on a daily basis. He’d heal very quickly – quick recovery was one of the Walker perks – but the shock to his mind would be much, much, more dangerous. “Grey…?”
“Be careful,” Grey said, composing himself. This world had no other Walkers, no visitors from other realms outside whatever passed for Spain here; there was no one who could help them. He forced through a quick prayer to Bernice, the God of Drinking in several universes, and a second one to the Holy Sheep, but he didn’t see how anyone could help them. If they could make it to the Hub, they would be safe, but Jonathon – the bastard – wasn’t even breathing hard. “You can’t trust him.”
“And you know that you can’t get away,” Jonathon said. He lifted one hand and brought it down in a slashing gesture. Other figures started to take on shape and form, monsters from out of nightmare; Grey realised that Abdul’s fear of invasion from another dimension was about to come true. “I had my people waiting on the Roads of Happenstance, just in case you tried to walk onto the roads, and now I bring some of them to face you…”
“Too cowardly to fight to the death?” Grey challenged. “You always were a coward at heart, just like when they tossed you out of the Marines!”
Jonathon fixed him with a deadly cold glare. “The Marines thought that I was almost the perfect single warrior,” he said. “They just insisted that I partner with a load of people who would only slow me down.”
“You always were a buddy-fucker, you mean,” Grey said, summoning what remained of his strength. He wanted to apologise to Mathew, but there was no longer any time. Jonathon had played him perfectly; in forcing him to expend some of his power saving their lives from the crashing building, he had drained himself of too much of his reserves. “You care for no one, but yourself.”
“Your time is up, all your bases belong to me, and so on, and so on,” Jonathon said. He lifted his hand and the shimmering figures became reality. “Take them and transport them to…”
There was a noise, not unlike a car’s horn, and a vehicle appeared out of nowhere, crashing through the materialising figures, slammed into Jonathon hard enough to send the Walker spinning backwards, and came to a halt right next to Grey and Mathew. A man, wearing what looked like a combination of long coat and walking outfit, peered out.
“Morning, old bean,” he said. The accent was pure mocking British; the girl beside him elbowed him as the car doors opened. “Hop in my car if you want to live!”
Grey burst out laughing.
Chapter Eight: In Which We Meet A Very Certain Marine Mammal
Mathew had felt his mind – again – to be on the verge of breaking apart as Grey and the newcomer – Jonathon – fought; the energies they were releasing as they struggled tore and twisted at his senses, making his eyes bleed under the pressure of their combat. It didn’t hurt, not really, and he could still see, but the presence of the blood distracted him. He'd lost track of Aneesa somewhere; the damage the city was taking suggested that she was still in danger, along with however many other people were back in the city. Jonathon advanced on Grey, reality flickering around him, and Mathew screamed inside his mind for help…
And then a massive vehicle appeared out of nowhere, slamming into Jonathon and knocking him backwards, far further than should have been really possible. The newcomer was an odd vehicle, a bizarre cross between a Cadillac from the 1950s and an old-style carriage. The doors were already opening as the vehicle screamed to a halt, revealing a pair of strange occupants. The man stuck his head out at them and grinned at him.
“Morning, old bean,” he said. The accent was pure mocking British; the girl beside him elbowed him as the car doors opened. “Hop in my car if you want to live!”
Mathew gaped at him. “Who are you?”
Grey elbowed him. “Never mind that now,” he snapped, as he caught hold of one of the rear doors. Mathew found himself pitched unceremoniously onto the rear seat, Grey slamming the door behind him as soon as he had pulled his legs into the car. “Get us out of here!”
Space and time twisted around the vehicle and they were gone, caught somewhere on the edge of the universe, and then heading away from the universe. Mathew peered out of the window and saw…everything, just as he had seen it before, something vast beyond size or comprehension. A power that seemed endless, a realm that seemed beyond the faintest hope of mapping, a vast region of space and time outside space and time…
“Don’t look at it openly,” Grey said. Mathew realised, with a moment of shock, that he had been lost within the Multiverse for hours. His head hurt badly. “Force your brain to interpret the Roads of Happenstance as something you can understand.”
Mathew forced his eyes to open again…and then he saw the Roads, strange trails he remembered from the hills he used to wander endlessly on his infrequent visits to Norway. It seemed perfectly normal for their strange vehicle to climb up a path that would have given a mountain goat problems; it dawned on him, slowly, that the car wasn’t a real car. It just looked like one. He could see its real form, right at the back of his mind, something that existed in more than one dimension at once.
“So, I hear you’re the new kid on the block,” the male driver said. He turned his head to look back at Mathew, his companion smiling indulgently as the driver abandoned the wheel and smiled at Mathew. “I’m Emery Cleveland…”
“Pleased to meet you,” Mathew said, taking the proffered hand and shaking it carefully. “Umm…are you a Walker too?”
“Oh, heavens, no,” Emery said. Mathew liked him on sight. The man was older than he seemed, but there was a twinkle in his eye and a strange sense of comradeship, someone else who had been forced to cross universes, not exactly in accordance with their will. “I’m just a Road Strider.”
“A Road Strider is someone who finds a way onto the Roads of Happenstance and ends up wandering them forever,” Grey said, in his driest tone. Something was bothering his would-be mentor, Mathew realised; the Walker kept looking behind him, studying the path below them with a cold detached air. Grey, he guessed, was seeing something very different. “Some of them make out pretty well for themselves, some of them end up like Abdul, and some of them just visit another timeline and end up getting killed there. The Walkers do try to help those we encounter get home, but most of them end up returning to the paths again.”
“Emery is fond of saying that he’d go home one day,” the woman said. She turned and smiled at Mathew; he felt his heart skip a beat as he stared into her face. She was warm, confident, frank sexuality; her long red-gold hair fell down over a heart-shaped face and a warm mouth. Her voice was beyond description; it touched off every gland in Mathew’s body. “He decided to stay with me instead.”
Mathew found himself focusing on one part of her body; somewhat to his surprise, it wasn't her chest. “Hey,” he said, in astonishment. “You’ve got pointy ears!”
The girl smiled as she brushed back her hair over the neat Mr Spock ears. “My people all have pointy ears,” she said, mischievously. “I am Cyanna of the Sid-Faer, a direct descendent of Queen Mab, honour to her name.”
Mathew blinked at her. “Really?”
“She claims to be,” Emery said. “I don’t normally dispute it with her. I think her people are the cause of most of the fairy-tale stories that we used to share around the campfire, with the Roads of Happenstance accounting for some of the stories of people who entered fairy roads and didn’t get back for hundreds of years. Her people used to have quite a little empire out here along the Roads, and they reached hundreds of universes…”
He broke off. “And what happened then?” Mathew asked. “Did they just go home?”
“The Roads had one of their occasional changes in their pattern and the empire was literally ripped apart,” Emery said. “By the time I encountered Cyanna, they had become a great deal more isolated and they were very surprised to meet me, let alone that Cyanna was prepared to marry me…”
He smiled at his wife, who smiled back. Mathew felt a surprisingly flicker of envy. “So,” he said, carefully, “what’s the difference between the Roads of Happenstance and the Multiverse?”
“The Roads of Happenstance are in the Multiverse,” Grey said. He was still looking behind them, watching for trouble. “They’re not really roads, they’re…places, strings, that intersect with various nexuses within the different universes and each other, rather like a rail service.” He paused. “Is the Conductor still running his trains everywhere?”
“Everywhere they managed to map it,” Emery said, shortly. He pulled a pair of World War One flying goggles on as he peered ahead. “And I would like to know, seeing we were nowhere near that particular part of the Multiverse, why we ended up beside you?”
Grey shrugged. “I guess that Mathew called for help,” he said, winking at Mathew. Mathew stared at him, and then at Emery; had he done that? “Can you transport us to the Hub?”
Emery frowned. “Why can’t you just Walk there?”
“Because a very pissed off rogue Walker is looking for us, with all the force and power of the Enemy behind him,” Grey said. Mathew didn’t miss the look that the two Striders shared; they had to be wondering if it was worth just tossing the pair of them off the vehicle and fleeing. “I’d prefer not to send up any more ‘come kill me’ signs.”
“The Enemy have been making their own inroads lately along the Roads,” Cyanna said, her voice still dripping liquid sex. “We can get you to the Hub…”
“Or maybe not,” Grey said, a new note entering his voice. “Mr Cleveland, just how fast can this vehicle go?”
“Very fast,” Emery said. “Why?”
“Take a look in your rear-view mirror,” Grey said. “I think we have company.”
Mathew looked behind him…and the view changed. The mountain path shimmered and vanished, replaced by a racing track for motorcars, set in a dusty desert…and something coming after them. It was in the distance, only a vague shape at first, but growing steadily larger and larger as it kept coming. It pushed up a massive cloud of dust as it ran faster, gaining on them, dark glinting red light flickering in the distance as its eyes were revealed. It was…
“I don’t believe it,” Grey said. “They’re extinct! They were all destroyed under the Protocol of Ian, long ago!”
It was a massive marine mammal, running after them in a manner that seemed impossible for a sea beast, more like a horse than the beast it was. Its face would almost be cute, were it not for the maddened red eyes and the Nazi symbol tattooed in red ink on its forehead. Mathew knew he was staring, almost hypnotized as the beast loped after them in an increasingly surreal environment; he couldn’t quite grasp it…
“That’s a Sealion,” Grey said, very softly. The Sealion roared as its name was mentioned. “It’s an embodiment of a historical concept made flesh; it can’t exist anywhere in a real universe, but it can exist along the Roads of Happenstance. Sealion; the invasion that never was and only existed in timelines that diverge from boring old World War Two well before 1939.” The Sealion roared again. “Worse…that’s a successful Sealion!”
Mathew stared at the creature. “What do we do now?”
“We run,” Cyanna snapped. “Sweetheart, no pressure, but if you want to get laid tonight, I suggest you get us out of here!”
Emery laughed. “Hang on to your hats,” he said. “We’re approaching the nexus now.”
Space and time twisted, once again, as they hit the nexus; for a second, Mathew saw it as it really was, a twisting point in the space and time that existed outside the regular universe, before the image of a crossroads replaced it. The Sealion seemed confused for a long moment, before it came after them again, negotiating the crossroads/nexus without any real problems at all. Mathew had to remind himself that it wasn’t a real Sealion or crossroads; it was merely a way of looking at the monster and remaining sane. He dreaded to think what it might look like when it showed its true form.
Grey swore under his breath as the Sealion took a massive bite at them, its evil jaws snapping down and missing the car by mere moments. “Now would be a really good time to unleash your weapons,” he snapped. “That thing won’t hesitate to kill you two just to get at us!”
“On it,” Emery said. A line of switches appeared out of nowhere; he played them like a keyboard with a distracted air. Weapons appeared out of nowhere, making the car more armed and dangerous than a tank; at a command, all of the weapons fired at once, sending a massive hail of deadly intent towards the Sealion. Bullets, bombs, missiles, plasma weapons, laser cannons, antimatter bombs and a banana peel launched from the car, leaving the Sealion howling in rage as bursts splashed against its wet fur. The creature didn’t seem to be actually hurt; it roared again, standing up on its flippers, and then came after them again, an even eviler look in its eye. It opened its jaws wide, blowing a foul stench towards the car; Emery cursed and sent the vehicle rolling right across the road, jumping across the desert and onto a second road. The Sealion vanished.
“Fuck me,” Grey snapped, his voice angry. “Don’t fucking do that again, ok?”
“Would you rather be eaten by a bloody metaphor for Nazi-wanking?” Emery snapped back. Mathew glanced from Grey to Emery, not entirely certain that he knew what had happened. “The dangers of crashing into another timeline would be much less dangerous than being eaten by a creature everyone knows can’t exist!”
Grey gave him an angry look. “Just get us to the Hub,” he snapped. He ran his hands though his long hair angrily. “We have to let Ian know that one of those bastards is in the hands of the Enemy!”
The car slipped through several more dimensions, finding new roads, as it raced towards the Hub. Mathew amused himself by trying to understand what he was really seeing; rifts in time and space, cosmic strings that reached between dimensions, manifesting as roads to those who couldn’t face them for what they really were. As he let his mind roam a little more, he caught images of other places than the featureless desert, places that chilled him and places that inspired him. A looming hall, filled with dark statues of creatures that were very far from human. A disco hall with only five dancers. A forest that seemed to stink of deadly threat, even though it looked harmless…and worse. He heard something singing near the van, until Grey snapped his fingers in the air and the singing vanished; he heard Cyanna’s delighted laugh as the singing came to an end.
He forced himself to calm. “Grey, what is a Sealion?”
“It’s a concept, rooting in metaphysical reality,” Grey said, softly. “It’s a metaphor for something that never happened. Such things can take on a life of their own outside the normal universe, sometimes because people want them to exist, sometimes because people want to use them as weapons. Ideas can kill under the right circumstances; in some ways, an Idea Weapon is one of the most unpleasant weapons humanity has ever invented. Here, along the Roads, they can become really dangerous; the only good thing about them is that they can no longer return to their normal universe.”
“There have been many more disturbances along the Roads lately,” Emery said, grimly. He hadn’t taken his eyes from the front window; the car moved from side to side as the Roads shifted around them. Occasionally, they saw another vehicle, coming closer and passing them without pausing; once, they saw a steam train moving along the Roads, without rails or rules. The sight made Mathew smile; he had once loved steam trains, and seeing one of them in all its glory made him smile. It changed appearance as it passed, like everything else along the Roads, but he would always remember the Sir Nigel Gresley-style appearance it presented as it passed. “There are strange whispers in the wrong ears, things moving out of the shadows, travellers being waylaid in formerly safe areas…”
Grey laughed. “Could you be less specific if you tried?”
“There are only rumours,” Cyanna said, before Emery could come up with a sharp reply. Her redheaded face furrowed. “It’s worrying, Walker; in many ways, it’s nothing like an empire trying to expand along the Roads, but something within the Roads themselves trying to expand further.”
Grey stroked his chin. “I might mention it to Ian, although he’ll probably just point out that his jurisdiction ends just outside the Hub Universe itself,” he said. He looked over at Mathew. “Most empires that go travelling through the dimensions do it through Portals, which are much larger and more reliable than the Roads if you want to build up an entire empire. Something growing within the Roads…that might bear investigating, because it’s something that might pose a danger to the Walkers as well.”
“Way to choose a side,” Emery sneered. “I think…Jesus Christ!”
Mathew almost screamed as the Sealion manifested right in front of them, jaws looming wide for them to drive right into its mouth. Emery hit the brakes and the car screamed to a halt, before he yanked them around as the Sealion lunged forward, its stinking breath hot on their necks. A flipper came down and smacked neatly against the side of the car, sending it flying through the air back onto the road, the creature clearly unwilling to lose its prey through accidentally tossing it into another universe. The car hit the side of the road and stalled, badly; Emery tried to restart it desperately as the Sealion closed in…
“There’s no choice,” he snapped at Grey. “Do something!”
Grey looked back at the Sealion and made his choice. “Mathew, do you trust me?”
Mathew gaped at him. “There’s no time to ask that,” he snapped. “Yes, I trust you!”
“Then give me your hand,” Grey snapped. Mathew reluctantly held out his hand as the Sealion opened its mouth, clearly preparing to eat them, but struggling with some compulsion deep inside its mind. The Enemy – whoever they were – had tamed the beast somehow, but so close to its prey, it wanted to eat them and to hell with whatever the Enemy wanted. “This takes concentration…”
He felt Grey reaching into his mind, drawing on his power; the mere feeling felt terrifying. He almost broke the link then, feeling as if he was being violated on a very deep and personal level; only the sight of the maddened red eyes of the Sealion kept him focused on maintaining the link. Nothing, not even having his pants yanked down by a schoolyard bully, matched the feeling now…and yet, there was no choice. He could feel Grey, right at the edge of his mind, and he could tell that Grey found the entire process as terrifying as he did…
“Now,” Grey snapped, and yanked at his power. Just for an instant, Mathew didn’t resist and the power built up within him and unleashed itself, mating with Grey’s power and catching them all up in a whirlwind of energy. The Sealion howled a furious protest and lunged, both sides of its mind screaming for it to prevent its prey from getting away, but it was too late. The power was too great to be stopped…
There was a flash of blinding light, a long sense of falling, a sense that they had crashed right through a window, and then the car came to a halt in the middle of a crowded room. Mathew glanced around, dazed; it almost looked like a pub.
“Why is it,” a new voice asked no one in particular, “why everyone feels the urge to crash their vehicles through the roof of my bar?”
Chapter Nine: In Which Mathew Is Introduced To God
Grey paused long enough to make sure that Mathew was all right, and then turned to face Ian. The builder, maintainer and bartender of the Hub didn’t look too unhappy about the mess, although, to be fair, it happened more or less every week. Emery Cleveland and Cyanna were studying their vehicle with grim faces; between the Sealion and the escape from Jonathon Dark, it had been badly damaged. Grey guessed that one of the great machinists of the Multiverse had built the original vehicle; like almost every other vehicle that travelled the Roads of Happenstance, it was far, far more than just a vehicle.
“Mathew,” he said, as the new Walker pulled himself out of the wreckage of the car. “I would like you to meet the ruler of the Hub, Ian.”
Mathew’s face was puzzled. “Ian?” He asked. Grey could see his Walker senses trying to come to grips with Ian’s reality. “What is he?”
“I’m right here,” Ian said, dryly. He held out a hand; after a long moment, Mathew shook it. “I’m actually a representation of the intelligence that designed this place from the wreckage of a dead universe, but never mind that now. Welcome to the Hub. Please mind your manners here and don’t spam the established members.”
Mathew looked puzzled. “Parts of the Hub’s background reality can be accessed by anyone, not just a Walker or Ian himself,” Grey explained. He was starting to feel the urge to focus on something, anything, than the Sealion and what it represented. In the Hub, safe and warm, it was easy to forget the War. “From time to time, someone with a great idea they are certain no one ever had before will send messages to everyone connected to the Hub’s network, spamming them with junk. It’s really quite irritating…”
“And a banning offence,” Ian rumbled. Grey wondered what Mathew made of him; Ian might look almost harmless, but in the Hub, his powers were almost unlimited. “You don’t want to know what that means.”
“Yes,” Grey agreed, absently. “Ian, we need to talk. Emery, can you and your wife find a machinist here who can repair your vehicle?”
“There are several of them here,” Ian said, before Emery could answer. His figure seemed to split into two figures; his doppelganger nodded once to Mathew and strode off, leading Emery and Cyanna away into the recesses of the Hub. Mathew was looking a little gob-smacked; to him, the very idea of the Hub would be wonderful beyond belief, nerd heaven mixed with many other heavens, all presided over by a benevolent God. You could find anything in the Hub, from artefacts from the Roswell crash to strange magic items from worlds where magic ruled supreme; the converse, of course, was that anything could find you.
He glanced around and his gaze landed on Count Dearborn. “Count, could you please see to giving Mathew a tour of the Hub?” Ian asked. “Grey and I need to have a long chat.”
Grey glanced over at Cyanna’s retreating behind and, silently, wished Emery luck with her. Cyanna might be a decent person – and, for all he knew, she was perfect for Emery – but he had had too many encounters with the various different tribes of the Fair Folk to be completely at ease in her presence. Cyanna might be almost harmless – apart from a simple glamour, she had shown no magic or reality-bending powers at all – but others of her kind had been very dangerous. Grey had watched a handful of them take over a defenceless world through their magic, sending reality shimmering off in directions that were much more than just a right angle to reality. They were dangerous and humourless; like many humans, they took themselves far too seriously, even though they hated the hard work of government. Cyanna might have plans for Emery to, one day, become the King of her people; that, Grey knew, was far from a legend.
He shook his head. Even if she did decide to start turning people into frogs, right, left and centre, they were in the Hub. Even the Fair Folk couldn’t make any inroads against Ian; they tended to prefer to forget that the Hub existed. Emery was a good person, a fine man who had found a ring that had allowed him access to the Roads of Happenstance, but in the end, he kept dangerous company. It didn’t help that children were almost impossible for them…
Ian met his eyes; reality shimmered around them and they appeared in Ian’s office. “Well, that was interesting,” he said, absently. He paused for a moment. “Sorry, Grey, but there are a pair of political stereotypes preparing to fight over something or other, excuse me.”
He vanished, leaving Grey alone. Grey rolled his eyes as he sat back into the sinfully comfortable chair, his senses tasting how reality bent and shifted around the Hub to represent a chair in the most comfortable manner possible. Ian would have specified a chair, but the Hub Administration was much cleverer than that; it had presented Grey with a chair that was perfect for him. He closed his eyes and wondered what would happen if he went to sleep; it was hard to believe that everything they’d just been through had happened in one day.
Ian was shaking him. “I let you sleep for a while,” the God-like being said. His face showed little trace of any real anger, more faint traces of amusement. “Mathew is having fun in the bar, your two friends are rebuilding their vehicle…and…well, what did you want to say to me?”
“There are times when I wonder just what it must be like to be you,” Grey said, softly. He still felt tired; he drew a little on his own powers to regain most of his strength. “What were the political stereotypes fighting over this time?”
“Abortion,” Ian said. Grey rolled his eyes. “As long as it doesn’t come to blows, I don’t mind; I like this place without the occasional war for supremacy between political factions.”
Grey laughed. “We’re in the Hub,” he said. “Here, no one dies, or gets pregnant, or anything else…and they still find things to argue about.”
Ian nodded. “So,” he said, “what do you want to tell me?”
“Jonathon Dark,” Grey said. Ian looked at him sharply. “Our old friend came after Mathew as well.”
“I see,” Ian said, after a moment. Grey rapidly ran through the rest of the story. “What do you think he wanted?”
“He was working for the Enemy,” Grey said, grimly. “What could the Enemy do with a Walker?”
“They already have a Walker,” Ian said. “If you’re right about them using Jonathon Dark as one of their servants…”
“There’s more,” Grey said. “We met a Sealion.”
Ian frowned. “I take it you don’t mean a real Sealion,” he said. Grey shook his head. “That’s impossible.”
“It happened,” Grey said. He remembered the great cull of dangerous concepts that had taken place years ago; the Sealions and the other concepts had been believed to be extinct. It was worrying; if one of them had survived, hiding out along the Roads of Happenstance, others might have survived as well. The one that had chased them was still around, unless its masters had destroyed it in a fit of anger over its betrayal – or what they would see as betrayal – of them. “Check out the damage to the Pendragon if you don’t believe me.”
Ian scowled. “That represents something of a problem,” he said, with classic understatement. A Sealion was dangerous enough on its own; if it got into a weak point in a timeline, it could be disastrous for anyone unfortunate enough to live in that timeline. “We can’t have the Enemy playing games with creatures like that, let alone Mathew…”
His face flickered. “What do you make of him?”
“He’s young, idealistic, fairly decent, avoided the chance to have some free pussy, stood up for women’s rights…all in all, a classical teenager with an old mind,” Grey said. “In short, more or less, he’s pretty typical for a new Walker.”
Ian grinned. “I dare say that Court Dearborn will introduce him to the brothel in due course,” he said. “Perhaps one of the Redhead specials, although Mistress Erica is probably a bit extreme for his tastes; maybe Madam Ming’s House of Ming…”
Grey laughed. Madam Ming had gathered together thirty of her counterparts, all naturally almost identical twins, and employed them all in a brothel that had more than just novelty value. He’d been there twice; it had been a fascinating experience, almost like sleeping with one girl with two bodies. He would have thought that it was a little extreme for the first time Mathew had slept with anyone – he had picked up enough of his emotional response to Aneesa to be certain that he was a virgin – but in the Hub, no real harm could come to Mathew. Emotional harm, on the other hand, was something different.
“Maybe,” he said. “And the question you’re not asking?”
Ian could do inscrutable in a way that would put a Mandarin to shame. “And that question would be…?”
Grey wasn’t in the mood. “I believe that Mathew is an innocent in this affair,” he said, shortly. He was convinced of it; if Mathew had known what he was and more about how to use his abilities, he would have been able to tip the balance when Grey had fought Jonathon Dark, tip it against Grey. And yet…there was still the nagging question of how the Enemy had known to hunt for Mathew before his abilities had manifested into life. It was impossible…but then, Sealion had been impossible as well, and the concept had very definitely come into existence. “What about you?”
Ian looked troubled. “As you know, I don’t have a habit of prying into private thoughts and minds, even at levels well below the unconscious mind,” he said. “It is quite possible that Mathew may have been programmed with commands that he himself is unaware of, commands that won’t come into the fore until their time, or even infected with a fragment of alienBrain, or…”
Grey swore. “What about a mind parasite?” He asked sharply. “Could he be a Marked Man?”
“I would have detected either of those,” Ian assured him. “A mind parasite couldn’t live here, they’re one of the few life forms completely banned from the Hub; anyone possessed would have been exorcised the minute they passed through the universal boundary that separates the Hub from the rest of the Multiverse. A Marked Man is always…well, marked; I would have detected one of them when they entered, as they do from time to time. As long as they don’t cause trouble…”
“Their very existence is trouble,” Grey muttered sullenly. He had faced a Marked Man before and it had been terrifying, not so much because of the physical challenge as because of the sudden and rapid change in the man as the Mark did its dreadful work. “Could a Marked Man be activated here?”
Ian shook his head. “If the Enemy try, the Hub kicks the contamination – the person – out of the Hub,” he said. “It’s not exactly a banning offence, but with creatures like mind parasites involved, I don’t take chances. Still, we are getting off the subject at hand…”
He rubbed his shades with one pale hand. “I haven’t peeked into Mathew’s mind, not beyond the surface thoughts used to present the Hub to him in a manner his mind can cope with and understand,” he said. “I don’t know, for sure, if he is innocent in this affair; if he is aware of what’s going on, he is concealing it beyond his surface thoughts, and the core of my personality wouldn’t be aware of them in any case. When I set up the Hub, I set it up so that I wouldn’t be peeking around like Peeping Tom…”
His voice trailed off. Grey had to smile; Peeping Tom had been a Walker who had realised that the ability to access information from the background of the universe was also the ability to peek on girls he had liked, from girls who had been free with their bodies, to girls who had hidden behind shapeless clothing and burkas. It wasn’t a crime, not exactly, and the Walkers weren't big on law enforcement anyway, but Peeping Tom had never returned to the Hub after that had gotten out. Rumour had it that hundreds of outraged girls were searching the Roads of Happenstance for him, although Grey privately considered that nonsense; the girls would have to be very lucky even to find him, let alone win the ensuring fight.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Grey concluded. He liked Mathew, damn it; a dark voice at the back of his mind reminded him that he had liked Jonathon Dark as well. “They would be risking their second Walker if there was a second Walker, for…what?”
“Access to the Hub,” Ian said. For once, he sounded unsure of himself. “If the Enemy wanted to gain free access to the Hub without going through the Administration’s filtering procedures, they would have to use a Walker. Oh sure, I’d notice eventually and they could do no real harm to the Administration, but if they managed to ruin the Hub’s reputation as a neutral ground in the War…”
“And, of course, Dark is banned, so he couldn’t get in,” Grey said. “I honestly don’t think that Mathew is in league with them, because it doesn’t make sense. If they knew that Mathew was a Walker, and if they knew that before us, which they must have done because they sent the Time Hound after him, why bother with the Time Hound at all? Why not just use him to gain access before we even have a warning?”
“Unless the Time Hound was meant to panic us into inviting Mathew into the Hub,” Ian said. He scowled. “He could have gained free access before the Administration noticed that there was a person it couldn’t account for in the Hub.”
“And then why bother sending Jonathon after Mathew?” Grey asked, exasperated. His anger and frustration flooded into his mind. “Forget the rules for once, Ian, take a peek inside his mind.”
Ian gave him a droll look. “I can’t,” he said. “That’s out of the question.”
Grey met his eyes. “You are the next to all-powerful ruler of the Hub,” he said. “I’ve seen you crushing a spacecraft a thousand miles long in your hands. I’ve seen you snap your fingers and reorder reality into a thousand different shapes. I’ve seen you kill a Sealion with your bare hands, with some help from logic and reason. Are you telling me that you cannot – cannot – take a peek inside Mathew’s mind?”
He pushed. “Are you scared?”
Ian didn’t take offence. “The thing you have to understand,” he said, “is that while I created this place, in some ways it created me.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Grey snapped.
“Logic and reason, Grey, logic and reason,” Ian reminded him. “I set up the parameters for the Hub as I created it and one of them was that I couldn’t look beyond surface thoughts…and indeed, that the Administration, the entity that runs the Hub and happens to represent itself as Ian the Bartender because it thought it would be good for a laugh, does not have direct access to surface thoughts. The subroutines that monitor surface thoughts, in order to reorder the Hub’s reality in line with people and their desires, do not preserve surface thoughts for later study; in a way, they do not hold them beyond the moment when they can conclude that they have responded…like that idiot who wanted to order himself a train from the fabricator.
“But I do not have the ability to gain that access,” he continued. “When I created myself, from myself and the matter that made up the Hub, I inserted some commands into the Administration that became part of me, commands I cannot break, whatever the reason. I cannot let someone who runs through the streets shouting ‘the Jews deserve to die’ remain in the Hub, I cannot let someone who punches another person, no matter how provoked, to remain in the Hub…and I cannot – literally – dig into a person’s mind. I ordered myself not to do it and I cannot break my own command.”
“I’m confused,” Grey said, rubbing the side of his temple. He concentrated and a drink materialised in his hand. “Are you telling me that I asked for this Screaming Orgasm, which I asked the Hub to provide for me…and you didn’t know that I was asking for it?”
“Ian the Bartender didn’t know,” Ian said. “Part of Ian the Administration knew, but not the part that actually thinks and speaks and breathes…well, sort of. The subroutines didn’t tell me that you were going to order a Screaming Orgasm; they just went ahead and provided you with one.”
“Nuts,” Grey said. He forced his mind back to more regular patterns as he sipped the drink. The name alone reminded him that it had been a long time since he had known the touch of a woman and he made plans to relieve that desire as soon as possible. Still, the work wasn’t finished yet. “So, what are we going to do?”
“The only thing we can do,” Ian said. “At the moment, Mathew is a danger to everyone, so we are going to train him to use his abilities properly…and if it turns out he is working for the other side, we’re going to dispose of him before he actually becomes a danger. I know you like him, Grey – and no, I didn’t read your thoughts; that was implicit in your words – but it could be too dangerous to take chances. I don’t want another Jonathon Dark on my hands.”
Chapter Ten: In Which Dark Finds Out That There Are Darker Things
Jonathon Dark picked himself up from where he’d fallen and watched as the car – a vehicle capable of travelling the Roads of Happenstance – vanished in a flash of lights and a roar of engines. The engines wouldn’t sound anything like a real Cadillac, but the designer had altered them so they made noises right out of a boy’s fantasy. Jonathon guessed that the designer had been Cornelius Dane; it was just the sort of vehicle he would design for someone walking the Roads.
It didn’t really matter, he realised, as he pulled himself out of reality. The inhabitants of the city were scurrying around, like ants after a malicious or curious child had poured paraffin over their anthill and set it alight, but they didn’t matter either. Jonathon thought about snatching the girl the new Walker had clearly been interested in, either out of spite or out of a desire to use her to bait a trap, but he doubted that it was worth the effort. Grey would almost certainly try to take Mathew to the Hub – assuming he escaped the surprise waiting for him along the Happenstance Roads – and the Hub would be able to provide anything to match Mathew’s fantasies of female company. Anything went at the Hub, when it came to wine, woman and song; Jonathon himself had spent many happy years there before he had been banned from the Hub. Mathew, no doubt just like Jonathon himself, would forget the shrinking violet he’d been introduced to by the natives; the thought of breeding other Walkers probably wouldn’t appeal to him. It hadn’t appealed to Jonathon.
He walked through the streets and smiled as he took in the chaos he had wrought. The Guardians of Peace were running around, some of them carrying weapons that made him laugh out loud, others trying to help the inhabitants to clear up the mess. The natives were a strange lot, Jonathon could tell; thanks to Islam’s form of social inclusion, most of them were the products of a mixed-breeding process that had lasted ever since the first Muslims had landed on British soil. The details flowed through his mind; at bottom, Islam was a religion of the poor…and they had found many converts and fellow travellers in Britain when they had shown themselves to actually keep to the standards they had set. Christianity – Catholic Christianity – hadn’t been able to compete; King Henry had never existed to proclaim the Church of England separate from Rome, nor had Martin Luther launched his campaign for reformation across Europe. Here, there had only been the endless chatter of the mullahs and the feedback from smaller communities; ironically, to his view, Islam had actually worked.
He smiled again. It hadn’t helped them. They were as feeble as his own people had been when they had been faced with a threat from outside their worldview. They didn’t believe in men with supernatural powers – although Walker abilities were not magic per se – and barely grasped the concept of atomic power, thanks to Abdul and his knowledge from another timeline. They were stagnant, doomed to fade away when they were bought into the Multiverse, or perhaps they would be quickly destroyed when Earth encountered its first alien race. There were timelines where Earth had encountered aliens far back in the past, timelines where Earth had been invaded during the American Civil War and timelines where humanity was the only intelligent life in the entire universe.
He closed his eyes, looking for potential splinters in the timeline, and found only a handful of minor ones and no major ones. The timeline truly was stagnant; there was almost no potential at all for any major change, not even the rise of a new religion or superpower. There was little room for a war that would make World War One look like a child’s tea party, nothing really even to fight over, unless they did encounter a more aggressive civilisation, somewhere along the Happenstance Roads, or if someone opened a Portal into their timeline. It wasn’t impossible…
He bid them all a silent farewell and walked out of their reality. A young Walker, like Mathew, would almost certainly have to Walk at random, without the knowledge or experience to know where he would end up. Jonathon, who had been walking for a very long time, didn’t need to walk at random; he knew the route back to the timeline he had been visiting before the Enemy had summoned him to do their dirty work. There was little point in trying to run, or hide; if they were angry enough to seek to punish him for his failure, they would know where to find him. Besides, he was bored.
“I wonder what has changed,” he said to himself, just loud enough to be disconcerting to anyone who saw his arrival. There would be little to see, really; unless a Walker engaged in childish special effects, there was really nothing to see, but a man appearing out of nowhere. There was no one nearby, he saw; the streets were almost deserted. He walked a short distance along a road that hadn’t existed in his version of Washington and found a black newsboy…with his head caved in.
Jonathon shrugged as he picked up a paper. Someone would have seen a black face and just lashed out, or maybe it had been more organised; there was really no way to know. He stood by the body for a while as he read the paper – somehow, he was unwilling to shrink to the level of petty theft – and smiled as he read the paper. It was written in the over-the-top style of the 1930s, in his timeline, but he could read between the lines. The Communist Red Army had invaded from Mexico, there were race riots in a dozen cities, at least one nuclear detonation, and – in short – the United States was on the ropes. The paper remained optimistic, with characters such as Rosie the Riveter and a topless girl called Jane fighting communists, exaggerated Negro stereotypes and trade unions – he guessed that they were banned in the alternate timeline – while somehow remaining surprisingly feminine, but Jonathon was familiar with all kinds of propaganda. The President was dead, there was a succession crisis…and then there was an enemy force advancing into the heartland of America.
He considered, briefly, and then placed a mental bet with himself that the war wouldn’t last much longer than three months…and end with an American defeat. It was easy to see, now, as he expanded his senses; the United States had become a semi-fascist nation to fight the war, but it had been too late…and too inefficient. The tools of mass population control had been given to the wrong people, who had used it for their advantage, and America wasn’t Russia. There had been revolts, chaos, illegal strikes, sabotage…this America was a sorry place indeed.
“Guess you should have appreciated your place a little more,” he said, to the body. Not surprisingly, it didn’t reply; the soul had gone long ago, perhaps to a better place. “I wonder, do you know where I can get laid around here?”
A policeman passed, his face grim and pale. He saw the body, shrugged and gave Jonathon a thumbs-up, and then went onwards, leaving Jonathon behind. Jonathon shook his head in astonishment; he drew no distinction between white or black – they were all inferior to him – but watching a policeman just allowing him to get away with murder had surprised him. He knew he hadn’t murdered the boy, but the policeman hadn’t known that and should, at least, have asked a few questions.
Idiot, he thought, and slipped away. It was easy to find a brothel; he merely hunted for the areas of the dark alternate of Washington that were bright and well-lit. Human nature didn’t change much across timelines; criminal activities like corruption and prostitution would continue to be the same, unwatched and generally unmonitored by the government. They, after all, had an interest in the prostitutes as well; only the transsexual Edgeratte Hoover from Timeline #36784 had actually managed to put a dent in the practice, and not for very long. The brothel was guarded by police – much to his amusement – and he had to slip them some money before he was able to enter and find a girl for the night. The prices were surprisingly high; half of Washington was taking what pleasure they could before the Communist Armies rolled into the city and strung half of them up from the trees and lampposts. It really wasn't that different from his own timeline; the rich stayed behind and profited, while the poor went off and died for them. He paid good money, chose a coal-black girl whose body showed signs of very real abuse, and took her into a room.
“I’ll be good for you if you slip me some bucks,” she whispered, as he closed the door behind him. “That bitch downstairs keeps all the cash…”
Jonathon threw her down onto the bed and took her, ignoring her protests, and then her screams. She didn’t matter to him; he used her, abused her, and then left her while he slept off the remains of his day…
“Jonathon Dark, we are very disappointed in you,” a voice said, cutting through the remains of sleep in his mind like a knife through butter. “You have failed in your mission.”
Jonathon came wide awake, summoning his powers…and came face to face with the black girl. He could see it, now, the strange glow in her eyes and the effect she had on the local reality field. The ropes he had used to tie her down, leaving her tied while he slept, were moving of their own accord as the Marked Woman freed herself and sat up, revealing abilities that he hadn’t even suspected that a Marked Man – or Woman – would possess.
“She was almost killed by a group of racists, who first raped her when she was seven, then tried to kill her,” the girl’s voice said. It wasn’t her speaking. “We came to her in the moment they hung her from the tree, offering her life in exchange for the Mark, and tortured her tormentors when she accepted our gift. We ripped them apart, one by one, and she laughed to see it. And we sent her here to attend to your needs…except you have failed us.”
Jonathon fought for words. “I take it that Grey and Mathew reached the Hub?”
“That is correct,” the girl’s voice said. Jonathon was oddly impressed; there were harmonies in it that no normal human would be able to match. “They have escaped us; Ian, Ian the Betrayer, will protect them as long as they remain within the Hub. Our requirement for a Walker will remain unfulfilled.”
The irritating in the voice was almost a physical thing. This was no mere mind parasite or even a piece of an alien mind, he was talking, almost directly, to someone much higher up the Enemy chain of command, maybe even one of the Enemy in person. He peered at the girl’s form, seeing how the Mark had come active and overwhelmed her body, empowered by the force of the deal she had made, long ago…but there was no way of seeing who was controlling her. The control was much finer than most mind parasites; unlike the girl who had given him his orders before he had fought with Grey, the girl moved almost normally.
Or, perhaps, she wants to do this, Jonathon thought, as he looked up into a black face and strangely fever-bright eyes. It was hard for him to accept the concept that other people had rights, but he had hurt the girl pretty badly when he had been taking his pleasure, or maybe she was just grateful to her saviours. He didn’t doubt the tale they’d told him; they were powerful enough not to need to lie.
“You have me,” he said, hunting for a bright spot. “Can I not do whatever task you have in mind?”
“No,” the girl said. She leaned closer; Jonathon could see her breasts in the half-darkness, a sight that was somehow completely stripped of anything erotic. “You would be unable to carry out the mission.”
Jonathon took a guess. “Because I’ve been banned from the Hub?”
“Something like that,” the Girl agreed. It struck him, suddenly, that he had never known – or bothered to find out – her name. “We require a live Walker that we can control.”
Jonathon thought about it. Mathew would still be their best option; unlike Grey, or even himself, he was much less experienced than any other Walker. It was possible that Grey would be teaching him, even now, how to defend himself or some of the other tricks a Walker could learn to be a far more dangerous opponent. They could wait for a new Walker to appear, but even if Jonathon impregnated the girl herself, it would still be years before the child manifested Walker powers. He had the odd sense that time was pressing…
“We need a trap,” he announced, after a long moment of thought. It had actually been obvious from the start, but he wanted the Enemy to continue thinking of him as a useful person. If he was talking to an Enemy in person, he wanted them to understand that, before they decided that he was a liability and swatted him. If they could bend a Time Hound and a Sealion to their will, swatting him wouldn’t be that much of a problem, Walker powers or no Walker powers. “We need something that will draw their attention to a location of our choice.”
“That is correct,” the dispassionate voice said. “We will consider.”
There was a long pregnant pause; Jonathon was overcome with a sudden insane urge to stroke the girl between her legs and see how the possessing creature reacted. He pushed the thought aside and thought as rapidly as he could about a trap; there had to be something that would draw Mathew out of the Hub. He thought, briefly, about Aneesa again, but it wouldn’t work. It would be difficult to bring her plight to Mathew’s attention without him – or Grey – knowing that it was a trap. Ideally, it would have to be something that would draw official interest from the Hub Administration…and nothing to do with the War.
“There is a timeline in which the Hub has taken some interest recently,” the girl said finally. Information flowed into his head; a timeline where space technology had really taken off in the 1960s, with a large moonbase, space-based weapons and several space stations orbiting the Earth before the end of the Cold War. “We believe that an assault on this timeline will gain the notice of the Hub.”
Jonathon frowned. “How do you know that Mathew will be one of the Walkers sent to investigate?”
“We believe that it is quite likely,” the girl’s voice said. Jonathon could only wonder why she was so confident; did the Enemy have a way of influencing the Hub itself? “Your presence alone will suggest to Ian that Grey should be sent after you, not least because of what you will do once you’re there. Mathew is likely to accompany him.”
She stood up, the remaining ropes fading away into nothingness, and paced over to the side of the room. She had no problems moving in the semi-darkness, Jonathon noted numbly; the intelligence directing her actions was on the outside, looking in at them as they had fucked and then fallen asleep. She pulled a small vial out of her bag and passed it over to him; Jonathon took it, looked at it, and felt his blood run cold.
It was small, silver, and marked ADAM DENTON’S WMD EMPORIUM. It was dangerous beyond belief, even to Jonathon; a Walker could, with care, survive a nuclear blast, but this was something that would threaten even him. Adam Denton, a young man who had opened up a weapons store in one of the temporarily stable regions of the Roads of Happenstance, had a reputation for stocking weapons that would have given the Nazis nightmares. Supernova bombs, molecular particle beams, something called a Kitchen Sink that no one was prepared to talk about…all of them paled compared to the small vial he held in his hand. It proved, once and for all, that the Enemy cared nothing for human life; if the vial had broken, it would have ended the Capitalist-Communist War once and for all. Jonathon might have cared nothing for anyone, but himself, but even he would never have taken such a chance. A super-nuke that could take out all of America was nothing, compared to the vial.
“Take it and go,” the girl said. Jonathon thought about trying to screw her one final time, but knew better; the Enemy probably still had a use for the girl. Instead, he dressed slowly, pulling on the outfit he had worn to the other world, and then, finally, placed the vial in his pocket. He would have been happier trying to carry a bucket of acid on his head. “Go…”
Jonathon walked sideward from reality, following a course that the girl had charted out for him, and arrived in a new world. It was Washington again, much more recognisable this time, but still different enough to be disconcerting. Information flooded into his head as he opened his mind; there were many more differences than he had expected, President Taylor for one. This world, too, had never heard of George Bush. He glanced upwards; in the darkness, he could make out the lights of space stations and orbiting satellites, floating high overhead. He’d seen worlds with much more development, but even so, this one had hope. There was still no choice…
He shook his head slowly and broke the vial.
It all happened very quickly.
Chapter Eleven: In Which Mathew Learns Some Of The Truth
“My God,” Mathew said, as he stared around wildly. “The people, the places, the things…”
“The things are also people,” Court Dearborn assured him, smiling faintly at his reaction. He was a short aristocratic looking man with, oddly enough, a chef’s hat on his head and a long beard that was flecked with salt and pepper. “Some of the people are in fact…not-people!”
Mathew had to smile. The Hub was everyone’s crazy idea of a shopping centre, mixed with a bar, a thousand different eating-places and wonderful sights. Standing on a tower, he looked out over a city that came right out of science-fiction, complete with flying cars and men flying using backpack jets. The lights of a thousand spacecraft floated high overhead as starships appeared out of nowhere, coming in to land at the docking complex floating high overhead. A giant sheep could be seen, positioned in a cloud of rising smoke, while men wearing stereotypical Australian outfits, complete with Champaign cork hats, tended to it and the joints they were smoking. Thousands of thousands of people thronged around, some of them clearly human, some of them cyborgs or other modifications of the human form…and some of them were alien. He watched in awe as a three-legged creature pranced – there really was no other way to describe it – down a long avenue, ignoring shops and stalls, while smaller aliens, spider-like, scuttled around.
The entire complex made sense, somehow, on a very basic level. It was bounded, finite, and yet infinite; he grasped, right at the back of his mind, that Ian had made it so that it was large enough for any number of things, a pocket in space and time that had become vaster than anyone could really grasp, save perhaps Ian. Robots appeared out of nowhere, carrying out strange tasks before retreating again into the shadows, while there were copies of Ian everywhere. They were all the same Ian, he had grasped, but they were, in a way, subroutines of the main Administration, rather than anything that might actually have any real power.
Court Dearborn smiled at him. “Where would you like to go?”
“I…don’t…know,” Mathew said, slowly. The Hub was infinitely tempting, a mixture of an old bookshop, where any treasure might be found, and a playground for the child that exists within every man. He looked around, taking in the sights and trying to determine where to go, but it was impossible; everywhere he looked, he saw more detail and still more detail, right down to the very structure of the Hub itself. Ian had twisted time and space to create the Hub and it showed; Mathew could barely grasp it as anything, but a crazy maze built by a Bloody Stupid Johnston who had known what he was doing. “I have no idea…”
“Well, we could go eat, perhaps at Joe’s,” Court Dearborn said. He grinned mischievously. “Or, young lad like you, what about the brothel? I hear they have a dark-skin special going on at the moment, ever since someone rescued a cargo of African slaves that were being sold into slavery in one of the Confederate Victory timelines and dumped them here.”
He elbowed Mathew, who flinched. “They even tried to get the girls a safe place in another timeline, but no, they wanted to stay here. Poor bitches had been bred for the sex trade and had no other mentality, but pleasing the men,” he said. “Ian even managed to remove many of the warped genes that had been sequenced into them by the Confederates…and they still didn’t want to leave. I suppose they feel safe, here.”
Mathew rubbed his eyes. “How long has it been?”
Court Dearborn blinked. “Since when?”
“Since I got mixed up in this madness,” Mathew said. He checked his watch; it had stopped. A vague memory of a children’s book where a scientist had encountered a broken watch, but decided it was probably close enough to the right time anyway, surfaced in his mind and he giggled involuntarily. “It was ten o’clock back in Cambridge when that monster appeared, and then…”
He felt his head reel. Just how long had it been?”
“You’ve got inter-dimensional lag,” Court Dearborn said. “Would you like to sleep it off?”
“I think that that would be a very good idea,” Mathew said. “Is there anywhere I can sleep?”
“Take my arm,” Court Dearborn said. There was a faint shimmer around them…and then they were standing in a neat hotel room, one that reminded Mathew of a traveller’s hotel. “I’d suggest having at least a few hours sleep, Mathew; once you wake up, give me a call through the Hub’s network, or just call for Ian.”
Mathew nodded once as Court Dearborn vanished, threw himself down on the bed, and remembered nothing more until he felt a hand shaking him gently. He opened his eyes slowly, feeling sore, but refreshed, and saw Grey, leaning over him. He opened his mouth to speak and Grey passed him a cup; he drank the strange-tasting water gratefully. It sank slowly into his body and left him feeling much better.
“How long has it been?” He asked, as soon as he could speak again. The water, or the drink, whatever it really was, had been astonishingly refreshing. “How long was I asleep?”
“Around seven hours, although time and space goes a little funny here,” Grey said, as he perched on the side of the bed. “How are you feeling?”
“Funny,” Mathew said, sourly. “What do I do now?”
Grey pointed a hand towards a door. “There’s a nano-shower in there, or a water shower if you would prefer,” he said. “I would suggest the nano-shower as it will take care of your clothes and…ah, other bodily needs at the same time. Once that’s done, we have to have a long chat.”
Mathew nodded once and stepped into the bathroom. It was surprisingly like a Star Trek set, although he couldn’t remember seeing any bathrooms on any of the television series; he stepped into the nano-shower and laughed as a golden field of light swept over his body, cleaning and mending his clothes as they dealt with his own body as well. A bruise that had been throbbing ever since the encounter with the rogue Walker healed within seconds, other needs were taken care of as well, leaving him feeling more than a little refreshed. When he stepped out, Grey was lying on the bed, watching a holographic movie that had appeared above his head.
“So,” Grey said, “what do you think of the Hub?”
Mathew had had a chance to gather his thoughts. “Never mind that,” he said, his voice a little sharper than he had intended. “I want to know what the hell is going on!”
Grey lifted a single eyebrow. “What the hell is going on?”
All the tension burst out of Mathew at once. “What’s happening to me?” He demanded. “Who was that bastard who wanted to kill me? Why me? What the hell do they think I’ve done?”
Grey studied him for a long moment, and then seemed to come to a decision. “It’s a long and complicated matter, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just concentrate on the basics,” he said. “You know, of course, that you are a Walker, with access to many abilities that most normal people never even have a vague idea exists. What you may not understand is what those abilities actually are, or why they can be dangerous.”
He paused for effect. “Watcher powers are all, more or less, centred around direct manipulation of reality and the meta-reality of the Multiverse,” he said. “In some ways, it can be considered magic, because magic is really the ability to manipulate the fundamental building blocks of reality, the cheat codes, if you don’t mind me stealing from the greats. Your world…has very little actual magic in it because the overall structure of the universe makes that sort of direct manipulation very difficult, particularly when channelled through something as small and limited as a human mind. Walkers, however, are not bound by such limits; even a young and untrained Walker, such as yourself, possesses vast powers.”
Mathew looked at him. “Where were they when I was being bullied at school?”
“They were lying dormant until they burst out of you,” Grey said shortly. He wasn't in the mood for teenage angst, even though Mathew had been through a lot in the last few hours. It had only barely been a day. “You have to understand; some Walkers become nothing more than wanderers, walking through the Multiverse and leaving children behind, others end up becoming far more powerful beings, such as Ian. Ian…had the idea that it would be a good idea if we Walkers had somewhere to call home, so he created the Hub, and created it in such a way to ensure that the two sides in the Multiverse War would be forced to consider it neutral territory. Ian and a number of other Walkers, such as myself, believe that it would be better if we stayed out of the war; the fallout from the war causes enough trouble along the Happenstance Roads and other little chinks in-between the universes.”
Mathew nodded. “So you have said,” he said. “This guy Jonathon…what’s his story?”
Grey winced. He would have preferred not to have to discuss that. “Jonathon Dark” – he said, using Jonathon’s full name – “is a Walker, just like you or I. Unlike me, and I hope you, Jonathon is also a sociopath; he was kicked out of the United States Marine Corps during basic training, mainly because he stabbed his team-mates in the back to win glory for himself. In hindsight, we should have probably taken a closer look at what happened before we accepted him into the Hub, but most of us are not military people, or have a military mindset, and tend to think that most military people are stick-in-the-mud unimaginative pains in the arse.”
He snorted. “To cut a long story short, Jonathon Dark was caught out running operations behind Ian’s back and was formally banned from the Hub,” he concluded. “I was involved in that and he rather blames me for it, although, like all sociopath-type people, he is literally unable to comprehend that other people have thoughts, feelings or rights of their own. He has committed atrocities that would give Hitler and Stalin a run for their money, with nary a flicker of remorse, and he works for the Enemy. That’s a bad combination under any circumstances.”
Mathew frowned. “I see, I think,” he said. “What happens when we next meet him?”
Grey gave him a sharp look. “You are not going to meet him, yet,” he said. Mathew saw the doubt in his face and winced; he wasn't eager for the second meeting, but he had a dark suspicion that it was going to happen, sooner or later. “Remember; you can’t trust him and you certainly cannot turn your back on him. He’ll work with you as long as it suits him to do so, and then he’ll stick a knife in you…you really don’t want to know what he does to the women.”
Mathew felt sick. “A devotee of snuff movies?”
“It’s not that he’s a kinky bastard, although like all men, he does have his little kinks,” Grey admitted. “It’s that he cares nothing for the comfort or even pleasure of the women. He won’t care if he hurts them, or if he makes them pregnant, or if he breaks their very souls; all he cares about is his own pleasure. We should have noticed that in the Hub, in the Brothel here, but instead we missed it because the girls there will literally do anything for you.”
“Yuk,” Mathew said. He stood up and paced the small room. “He can’t get in here, can he?”
“He’s been banned from the Hub,” Grey assured him. “He could send agents into the Hub, but violence and kidnapping is forbidden here. But…there are some of us who serve Ian as agents, and he might well try to manipulate one of them to get at you in here. Not even Ian can bring back the dead.”
Mathew felt his stomach sink. “Fuck,” he said, dazed. “So…what do I do now? Do I just stay here for all eternity?”
“That would be pretty grim,” Grey agreed dryly. “There’s only so many women in the Brothel, after all.”
Mathew rounded on him. “Women, women, women,” he snapped. “Is that all you think of?”
“By Ian, I do believe it is,” Grey said meditatively. “Naughty Grey Wolf.”
Mathew ran his hands through his hair. “So that’s it,” he said. “I’m dead, umpteen universes from where I belong…except I never belonged there, and maybe won’t ever go back.”
“I only spent a few hours in your timeline, a few years back,” Grey said. He stood up suddenly, as if something had just struck him. “Bugger this for a game of soldiers, Mathew; it’s time to get training!”
Mathew gaped at him. “Training?”
“Of course,” Grey said, suddenly bouncing around the room. “We can’t have someone like you running around without any training, and believe me, once we’re finished with you, you might even be able to defend yourself the next time the Enemy decides to make an attempt at kidnapping you.”
He took Mathew’s hand as the hotel room faded away, to be replaced by a standard training room, almost like a gym. Mathew felt his heart sink as he looked at it; at one point in his life, he had considered the PE teacher to be a monstrous man who was probably an alien in disguise. He wouldn’t have cared, so much, if he had been a perverted homosexual with a thing for boys in gym shorts; it was the blatant favouritism he had shown towards the jocks that had annoyed Mathew. He had cheered when his school had failed to get through the first round of the championship; school spirit was a joke when the players were nothing, but complete bastards.
“This is a place where you can train without hurting the background structure of the Hub, or indeed any other universe,” Grey said. He grinned. “Don’t worry; many of the basics are quite easy to pick up, and you’ve already seen one means of attack, after all.”
He shaped a thought into reality and drew a reality field into existence. “Watch what I do though your inner eye,” he instructed, “and prepare to duplicate it…”
Grey had been right, Mathew had to admit later; he had found the training period to be surprisingly fun, once the early baby steps had been cleared out of the way. Learning to manipulate the reality field surrounding his body – or, as Grey put it, his soul’s construct that defined his existence - was tricky, but once he grasped how to use the new muscles in his mind, it was easy to direct it and use it. The field itself was nothing more than a muscle, one that was much more adaptable than a simple pair of hands, and yet it was something that could billow out of control very easily before the natural limitations in the universe brought the field to an end. It helped that the Hub could literally alter its own limitations; they started in a field that allowed near-complete manipulation of reality, and progressed back towards a field that matched that of his home universe. It hadn’t been easy to hold the field in place then, although Grey assured him that it would become easier, in time; matching Jonathon Dark’s trick of slipping between the moments was much easier.
Grey’s lecture on the subject had been precise and to the point. “There are moments between the moments and you can walk there, unseen,” he had said, as he showed Mathew how to handle the field. It was strange; to his eyes, space was literally bending to allow him to walk through crowds, or avoid bullets, but through his inner eye, he could see places where the crowds and bullets simply…weren’t. Walls and other solid objects were much harder, although unlocking a door was simplicity itself; the unmoving objects existed all along their personal timelines, rather than being only there in potential, as Grey had said. “An item that cannot move has far fewer places where it is not there…”
In between training, and sleeping off the effects of the training, Mathew explored the Hub. It was, in some ways, an impossible mission; the Hub might have been a nerd’s dream, but a cartographer’s nightmare. He’d met a man who was trying to map it, wearing no pants as he carried out his impossible mission, and the Hub had been changing around him even as he tried to chart it. There would always be some places where he’d find something new, from episodes of Star Trek; Phase Two, to the missing manuscript to the final Lensmen book. He read it, with trembling hands, to discover that Christopher Kinninson had committed incest with all four of his sisters.
“No wonder it was never written in your timeline,” Grey said, when he mentioned it. He looked unconcerned about the book, as if another thought was playing on his mind. “Tomorrow, Ian wants a word with us, so be up bright and early.”
Ian himself had kept himself out of their way as they trained, although Grey had mentioned that the ruler of the Hub would be watching them, just in case something went badly wrong. When they presented themselves at the bar, Ian didn’t ask any questions, he merely teleported the two men into his private office, took his chair, and leaned forward.
“I have a job for you,” he said. There was something in his voice that made Mathew’s blood run cold. “Grey, I believe that it would be a good idea if you took young Mathew with you.”
Chapter Twelve: In Which The War Claims More Collateral Damage
The image hung in front of the two Walkers.
“This world was recently opened by Christopher Roach, on behalf of myself,” Ian said, his voice grim. “It is a spin-off of the Cold War timelines, but had promise; one of the scientists there opened a gateway to the Hub, more or less by accident. The faction that acquired the connection to the Hub was keen to use it to trade and gain information, mainly on spacecraft and space systems. The world as a whole was not contacted, but certain factions were interested in bringing the world directly into one of the Multiverse trading networks.”
Grey could fill in the rest…and, of course, it was possible that the ‘accident’ could have had a little help. The faction in any timeline that stumbled across the Multiverse, either through developing Portal technology, opening a shift door, or even discovering a nexus of the Roads of Happenstance, had an inbuilt advantage over the other factions, as it could use the access to learn about technologies that had never existed in their timeline. Not everything could be used across the dimensions; Grey had once seen a young man purchase a spell book, only to discover that magic simply didn’t work in his home dimension. Ian had a very real interest in maintaining some parts of the trading network; if something had happened, he would be very willing to send a Walker to investigate.
Mathew leaned forward. “So, what’s happened?”
Ian’s face remained impassive. “The world has gone dead,” he said. “There has been no communication from any of the nodes that were established there, nor has anyone tried to use the shift door. The network has been jammed before, but in this case the network is definitely functioning perfectly; there has just been no communication at all. As the world had only limited connections with other worlds, no one has been through the shift door to investigate.”
Grey frowned. “It could be nothing,” he pointed out, softly. “The network isn’t rocket science, you know.”
“Yes, it could be nothing,” Ian said. “However, in this case, I don’t think it is nothing – I think that something has gone very badly wrong.”
He paused. “I think it would be better, all things considered, if we found out just what has happened before something else happens,” he said. “If something really unpleasant has gotten loose there, or if the world has been attacked, we have to know about it before something goes very badly wrong.”
Grey stroked his chin thoughtfully. It was possible that the faction that controlled the shift door, the nation or the corporation, had been attacked by another faction, perhaps quickly enough for them to fall without being able to alert the Hub. It wouldn’t have made any difference, anyway; the Hub remained perpetually uninvolved unless its interests were attacked directly, and, as Ian had said, there was nothing actually wrong with the shift door to the universe. Shift doors were basically Portals anchored to the Hub; it just wasn't possible for them to go wrong unless they were attacked directly by a powerful outside force.
Mathew stood up. “Then we have to go there at once,” he said. Grey frowned again; he understood asking him to investigate, but it was unlike Ian to send someone he didn’t personally trust. Unless he had somehow figured out a way around his own restrictions and checked deep inside Mathew’s mind, sending him into possible danger – and a location where any hidden programming or treachery could activate itself – would be fraught with danger. “Grey, what should we take with us?”
Grey met Ian’s eyes and saw the message written there. If there was something wrong with Mathew, it was better to give it a chance to develop on an isolated world, rather than a world where the Hub itself or an empire stretching across the Multiverse might be affected. He didn’t like that sort of thinking, but he had to admit that Ian had a point; they were playing for very high stakes. He would have been happier if he had managed to catch or kill Jonathon Dark; the Enemy were dangerous enough on their own, but matched with a Walker, they could be far more dangerous.
He shared a second look with Ian. The Enemy weren’t the only dangerous things out in the Multiverse, or lurking along the Happenstance Roads, merely the most notorious and unpleasant. No one knew what they wanted, or why, which made their actions completely unpredictable and seemingly chaotic, almost random. There had to be a plan, somewhere, but what?
“We take what equipment we can take from the Hub, and then we go there,” he said, breaking eye contact with Ian and turning to Mathew. His sense of responsibility overcame him for a long moment. “It could be dangerous, so if you want to stay here…”
“I don’t want to stay here,” Mathew said. Grey sensed the frustrated wanderlust under his words and winced inwardly; he hadn’t expected that to kick in so soon. Walkers were never at home anywhere, or with anyone; even the Hub had only a few Walkers present at any one time. Legend had it that the original Walkers had been cursed to walk for all time, but most people knew better; there had always been Walkers, ever since intelligent life had developed in the Multiverse. “I want something to do!”
Ian smiled. “You can take what you like,” he said, his voice pleased. “Just come back and let me know what’s happened, so I can decide if the connection should be maintained, or if the shift door should be closed.”
It was hard to make such a decision, Grey reflected, as they were transported into the Hub’s armoury. Like all of the storage spaces in the Hub, it was literally bigger on the inside than on the outside, large enough to hold weapons and equipment from right across the universe. Walkers had been storing their equipment there ever since the Hub had opened for business, other tools or weapons had been produced by the Hub Administration from ideas or plans that had been shipped to the Hub, or even developed as a sideline when the Administration was not involved with actually running the Hub. Hub economics were simple; if you wanted something, you could have it, made for you with ease by the Administration. It was, in a very real and fundamental sense, an economy of abundance. It was harder to take items out of the Hub; Ian generally forbade such actions unless there was a very strong reason for allowing it. A person in the Hub could not be allowed to take a thousand tons of gold home, or it would wreck the economy, or maybe even have more interesting effects. Almost all trading concentrated around items brought into the Hub by traders, which at least forced people to work to cause unintentional damage…
Or so Ian had explained it once, when Grey had asked.
“Be careful what you take,” he said, as he examined Mathew’s choices. The young Walker hadn’t surprised him; he’d picked up the biggest handgun – a massive Overcompensator – that the Hub possessed. “No, you won’t need that; we’re not going to war, after all. Take a sensor watch, a force field bracelet and a pair of plasma pistols.”
Mathew looked disappointed. “But I like this gun,” he protested. “Can’t I take it with me?”
“We don’t have any idea what we’re going to find, so no,” Grey said. “Ideally, I’d prefer to have an entire investigative team, but Ian, in his infinite wisdom, has decided that it’s just the two of us. Behave yourself, Mathew; the Hub tends to turn against those who betray it when they’re actually working for it.”
Mathew looked down. “I see,” he said. “Is that what happened to Jonathon Dark?”
Grey ignored the jibe. “I think that it’s time to make sure that we have everything and that we know how to use it,” he said. He’d taught Mathew how to read the background information embedded in each universe for information, but it was well to be sure, particularly when the Enemy might be involved. He checked each of the tools before finally nodding his satisfaction. “Are you ready?”
Ian had told them exactly where the timeline was, relative to the Hub, in the Multiverse. Grey closed his eyes and started to Walk, feeling the Hub fading away around them as they stepped out of its universe and into the Multiverse, Walking according to a path they could only see in their minds, looking down at the complexity of the Multiverse below them, shimmering in their minds like a glittering jewel. It was madness to stare for too long, or to watch it with an open mind; something might come crawling in, but how could either of them resist? The infinity of the Multiverse was theirs to explore…
It could have taken less than a nanosecond.
It could have taken hours, or days, or years.
The timeline loomed up in front of them and he pushed against it, following Ian’s instructions, and felt the timeline shimmering into existence around them. He opened his eyes, shaking his head as he saw the alleyway, and then turned to check on Mathew. The young Walker was looking unsteady on his feet, but much more composed than he had been the first time he had walked out of a reality and into another one; Grey checked, absently, to ensure that he wasn't leaving a trail behind him and was relieved to see that one didn’t exist. Mathew had learned that particular lesson well, although, as the cynical part of his mind admitted, a Time Hound, a Sealion and a Rogue Walker was plenty of encouragement not to leave a trail behind that anyone could follow.
Mathew sniffed, once. “Can you smell burning?”
Mathew was right, Grey realised, and he silently cursed himself for not sniffing the air. The smell of burning was hot and heavy in the air; he led the way to the edge of the alleyway and looked out, over a scene from hell. Flames and smoke were licking up around hundreds of buildings, with no sign at all of an organised response, or indeed of any people at all. He sniffed the air again, drawing on his powers to ensure that he only breathed in fresh air, but there was no evidence as to what had started the fire…”
“Fuck,” Mathew said, as he reached the end of the alley. “They’re there!”
It took Grey a minute to realise what he was pointing at. “The Twin Towers never fell here,” he said, grimly. September 11th had only taken place in a handful of timelines, although there were many more when some incident of random chance had prevented the attack from taking place. At a wild guess, with half of what had to be a weird version of New York burning down, the natives would have preferred to see airliners crashing into buildings. “I wonder…”
He reached for his sensor wristwatch and triggered the solid-light user interface. A few moments later, the mystery deepened; the sensor was reporting no trace of any organised radio communications, or indeed of any life, apart from themselves. There were some radio signals, but most of them were uncontrolled, ranging from carrier bands to automated messages pleading for help. There was no sign at all of human life.
“I think we’d better get walking,” he said. He’d spent time in several different versions of New York, but the new world defeated his sense of direction; only a handful of buildings were familiar, including the Empire State Building, rising high above the city. Flames licked out around it as well, threatening the massive edifice; it wouldn’t be long at all before it came crashing down, along with most of the city. “Come on, Mathew; we can’t stay here.”
It was twenty minutes before they found the first body, a young man of somewhere around twenty years old. He was very dead, but unmarked; there was no trace of what might have killed him. Grey pulled on a glove and turned the body over, examining it, but found nothing; whatever had killed the young man had done so without leaving a trace. He used the sensor on the body and determined that the brain had somehow been damaged at a sub-molecular level, killing the body without any real trace of what had killed him, except to a sensor seventy years ahead of anything the timeline could have produced.
“Oh, no,” he said, grimly. There were several things that could produce such an effect – and the Multiverse was vast enough to make it certain that there were other things that could produce the same effect that he didn’t know about – but he had a nasty feeling he knew what had happened. “Mathew, check out that building and give me a shout if you find any more bodies.”
It took half an hour, during which the flames grew closer and closer, but they eventually worked out that most of the bodies were in the buildings, many of them in their beds. Whatever had killed them had killed them, literally, in their sleep; they passed adults, children, older men and women, all killed with neither discrimination nor mercy. Some of the bodies were already starting to decay, others were preserved in pristine condition; any normal human would be at serious risk of catching a disease soon, if they weren't already. A Walker would be fairly safe – Walker immune systems were perfect - but the entire environment gave him the creeps.
Mathew was looking around nervously. “What killed them?” He asked. “Some kind of super-bug?”
“Biological weapons don’t normally work like that,” Grey said, as they started to walk out of the city. He thought, seriously, about trying to teleport from one city to another, but he was pretty certain, by now, that the entire world was dead. Someone had literally murdered an entire world. “Most naturally occurring diseases tend to be, in essence, parasites that murder their hosts. A disease that kills too quickly will be noticed before it spreads far enough to be dangerous on a national scale; a disease that kills too slowly can be handled by most medical science. There are plenty of morons who will be quite happy to try to produce a perfect biological weapon, but it’s not particularly easy, even for Adam Denton.”
He scowled. “It’s also pretty hard to aim the damn thing,” he continued, as they reached a bridge that was in perfect condition, but littered with bodies and crashed cars. Whatever had killed them hadn’t been able to stop the cars; Grey’s best guess was that the fires had started because cooking units and chemical plants had gotten out of control almost as soon as their owners died. It made him wonder what had happened to the nuclear power plants; there were several timelines when America had literally built thousands of nuclear power plants…and some of them had had serious accidents. He didn’t want to think about the accident that had somehow destroyed Moscow in one timeline, or the earthquake in Africa that had been caused by a nuclear mining experiment. “You always get idiots, but…
“Someone, say an alternate version of a Confederate, had the bright idea of exterminating black people though a tailored virus,” he continued. “The disease mutated because there were people who were crossbreeds between black men and white men, people of mixed caste from India, and so on. The disease didn’t kill white men and women in its first incarnation, but the first mutation ate crossbreeds, and the second mutation, triggered off by the first, killed white men and Chinese men as well. In hundreds of timelines, the results range from near-total die-off to the limited extermination of entire continents. There’s even a handful where the human race is exterminated…there are groups that tried to kill all the Chinese, or all the Arabs, or all the Americans and all of them ended up killing themselves as well. In short, it’s not a particularly good idea.”
He peered into the universe’s background. “This place wasn’t attacked by any such weapon,” he said. He could see why Ian had liked the timeline enough to extend some additional support from the Hub; there was a great deal of promise that had been sorely misused. The space program had been much more successful, with space stations in high orbit and a moonbase, even missions to Mars and some of the asteroids. The Soviet Union had collapsed, but because of the growing spending on the space program, rather than a massive military machine, it hadn’t fallen as far as it had in Mathew’s timeline. Their space program had provided them with a way of earning cash and they had used it, carefully, to halt their decline. It might even have become a reformed state; stranger things had happened in the Multiverse…
And all of that potential had been snatched away, by someone operating from the Multiverse. Grey was sure of it; someone had deliberately killed the entire world, someone who cared nothing for human life. The Enemy rose in his head again, a grim thought; they’d crushed entire timelines as if they were nothing, what would they care about a single human world? Six billion lives meant nothing to them.
He scowled. “We won’t find any more answers here,” he said, although, truthfully, he already had the answers he needed. “I think we have to go to the location of the shift door and check it out.”
Mathew glowered at him. He wasn’t happy about being left out of the loop, even though Grey intended to tell him once he had come to grips with the information himself. “And where’s that?”
Grey smiled, inviting him to share the joke. “And where else would it be?” He asked. “Area 51, of course!”
Chapter Thirteen: In Which Mathew Realises How Evil The Enemy Are
Mathew found it hard to grasp. He’d seen what could happen in some regions of the Multiverse, or come face-to-face with the otherworldly nature of the Islamic Cambridge and the sheer weirdness of the Hub, but the timeline they stood in had looked surprisingly normal. He hadn’t even recognised it as America, let alone New York, until he’d seen the Twin Towers; the flames burning through the city would be likely to destroy almost the entire city. He’d seen movies in which the normal human society collapsed into flaming ruin, but the sight before his eyes brought all that into question. Humanity had vanished from this world…and, in its absence, the remains of human civilisation had started to collapse.
He looked up at Grey as they prepared to Walk to Nevada. “This world can be resettled, right?”
Grey shrugged. “Maybe,” he said. “It depends on what was used to kill the world; if it’s still around. I can’t detect it, but that doesn’t always mean anything, not when such weapons are involved. It’s going to be disease-ridden for a few years anyway, until all of the bodies decay completely; perhaps some group of refugees will be allowed to settle here afterwards. Ian opened a Portal once for a few thousand Jews in a timeline where Hitler won the war; that world actually worked out pretty well, apart from the fact they had to hunt down and kill most of the dinosaurs.”
Mathew had to smile. “There are dinosaurs out in the Multiverse?”
“There are places where dinosaurs have become intelligent beings and explore the Multiverse themselves,” Grey said, very seriously. “There are places where the asteroid that hit the Earth never hit the Earth and changed history, allowing the dinosaurs to grow, expand…or stagnate. There are plenty of timelines where the human race rose up, cavemen and dinosaurs, and other timelines where there is no intelligent life at all.”
Mathew sobered. “What happened here?”
Grey hesitated. “I think that someone unleashed a nanobomb here,” he said. “You’ve heard of nanotechnology, right?” Mathew nodded. “The machines would have been designed to literally kill every human they encountered, taking some of the material in their brains to make more machines, all the while spreading out across the world faster than any warning could spread…not that it would do any good, in any case. This world simply didn’t have the technology to prevent a nanotech attack.”
Mathew felt cold. It was hard to grasp; in some ways, he would have felt worse if he had only seen one dead person; six billion dead were almost beyond comprehension. He’d followed the debate over Holocaust denial with considerable interest and even understood, few people wanted to believe that their fellow countrymen could kill as many as six million Jews; it was a figure that beggared the mind. How could anyone commit such a crime?
He asked. “It depends,” Grey said, grimly. “Some people, as I said, hate people of a certain race and want to kill them all quickly. Some people just want invasion and settlement; there was a particularly nasty empire that overwhelmed a dozen timelines and exterminated the natives before they ran into something much bigger than themselves and got smashed in turn. And, sometimes, a Being of Power decides that he no longer wants the mites flying around his personal space and swats them with very real force. It doesn’t mean anything to him; as far as he’s concerned, he’s engaged in a little bit of vermin exterminating.”
He shrugged. “But I’m confident that someone from another timeline was responsible for this,” he said. “The answers will probably be found in Area 51, so that’s where we’re going.”
Mathew frowned as he felt Grey’s power, beating on the air like mighty wings. “What about Jonathon Dark?”
“It’s possible,” Grey conceded. “I would have thought he would have considered it a bit pointless, though; there’s nothing here that he would want.”
Reality bent and twisted around them – Mathew felt reality’s moment of pain as Grey told it, very firmly, that they were somewhere else – and they were standing on a long runway, in front of a small set of buildings. The complex was pretty disappointing – he’d been expecting a high-tech wonderland – but he guessed that most of the important complexes were under the ground. A small spacecraft sat nearby, a cone-shaped vehicle with neat little landing legs and an American flag on it; he remembered old concepts that NASA had never actually got around to building and, for a moment, his heart went out to the new timeline. They’d been making process…and all of it had been snatched away.
Grey wandered over to one of the hangers; he didn’t seem to feel the heat at all. Mathew was already sweltering, feeling sweat trickling down his back as he followed Grey, wondering just what the hell was going on. He glanced around again, seeing no bodies scattered across the complex; for some reason, that bothered him. He had never seen a dead body, outside the movies and the nightly news, before coming to the new timeline, but now the absence of bodies worried him.
He turned to Grey. “I think that this is the code,” he said, as he punched keys on a small keypad. The door hissed and started to open. “I don’t think that there will be any…”
He stopped dead. There was a gun pointed right at his head.
“Hands up, now,” the soldier snapped. The note of command in his voice sent Mathew’s hands flying into the air without conscious thought. There was something in it which reached right into his soul. “Who the hell are you?”
Grey smiled. “I’m Grey and this is my friend, Mathew,” he said. “Can I say that I’m very pleased to see survivors?”
“Shut up,” the man snapped. “How the fuck did you survive?”
“Ah,” Grey said. “I think it would be better if we talked to someone in authority, don’t you?”
The soldier glared at them. Mathew looked at him, carefully, and saw nothing more than a jock…a very scared jock. He wore what seemed like a normal uniform for an American soldier – although he wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference from an abnormal uniform – but he was clearly scared out of his mind. The human element rose to the surface of his thoughts; the survivors, assuming that there were any more survivors, had to be going mad, knowing that everyone they had loved had been killed in a single terrible night.
The soldier gestured with his gun. “That way,” he growled. He barked a short statement into his radio, and then looked up at them. “Keep your hands on your head and don’t even think about doing anything suspicious!”
The brief uncomfortable walk was nightmarish, even though the complex itself was fascinating, once they had descended a huge ramp down into a massive underground complex. It reminded him of a factory he’d once worked in, with equipment and strange flashing lights everywhere, but without the workers. They only saw two humans, one of them clearly restrained to prevent panic or suicide, as they progressed ever further down into the complex. It seemed spooky; he could feel the presence of the shift door, like a looming whirlpool in reality, in his mind, but hardly any sense of intelligence surrounding them.
He looked over at Grey, who seemed to be taking everything in his stride. “How did…?”
“Silence,” the soldier snapped. “Just keep silent, ok?”
Mathew took the message and kept his mouth closed as they approached a large door, which slid open as they approached, revealing a tall man with an enormous personality. Mathew could feel him even before he opened his mouth, seeing cold blue eyes and short-cropped grey hair, picking up elements of the man’s appearance rather than any impression of the whole. He just defied description, or understanding; he was just…there. Mathew could see him being the last man off the ship, or perhaps the soldier who would remain behind to blow the bridge when the enemy arrived, or the commander of the final valiant last stand. He was a very solid personality…
“I am General Lesley Arnold Wilson,” the General snapped. His voice was a rumble of thunder. “Who are you and what the hell is going on?”
Grey stepped forward. “I am Grey and this is my friend Mathew,” he said, again. “We’re here to help.”
General Wilson glared at them. “What the hell happened to…everyone?” He demanded. There was not a trace of shame or fear in his voice, but something, a nagging concern, underscored his words. Mathew realised suddenly that he, too, was shit-scared and only vast discipline and duty kept him from running around in panic. “What did you do?”
“We did nothing,” Grey said, soothingly. “We came, as I said, to help.”
“Aye, right,” General Wilson said. “And where, exactly, do you come from?”
“The Hub,” Grey said. It clearly meant nothing to the General. “You have a shift door in your basement and you know nothing about it?”
“Jesus,” the General snapped. “Are you telling me that some moron downstairs or in this very lab somehow caused everyone on Earth to die?”
“I very much doubt it,” Grey said seriously. “Please, how did you survive?”
“I don’t trust you,” General Wilson announced. He waved them both to chairs, his attitude softening slightly; their captor took a stance against the sidewall, waiting for orders. “I guess I have no choice, but to trust you, but I don’t trust you.”
The story spilled out. General Wilson had been the commanding officer of the American presence in space, based at one of the space stations that had been constructed from lunar rock, housing – as he explained proudly – enough firepower to kick the ass of anyone who dared to threaten America. He’d actually gotten on well with his Soviet counterpart; between the two powers, there were over four thousand people in space, although only a quarter of them were women. The program had been expanding rapidly, commercialism had been the order of the day, and while General Wilson – a career soldier – had disliked that part, he acknowledged that space was the key to the future. It was also the only government department to turn a profit. The future had looked bright…
And then Earth had gone silent.
“We lost the signal at midnight,” General Wilson explained, his face darkening. “A few hours later, most of the cities on the planet were burning, we could see that from space, but there was no clue as to what had really happened. It was everywhere, not just America, and there was no way of knowing what had happened. We waited in orbit for a couple of days, convinced that someone would have survived and would be able to signal us, but all we got was a burst of high-order energy coming from this place. No one knew what it might be.”
“You’re a General and you don’t know about this place?” Mathew asked. “Why not?”
“Need to know,” General Wilson said. “I didn’t need to know because no one expected the entire planet to just go silent. One of my people on the moon worried that technology might have stopped working because of some hyperspace transfer field or some bullshit like that, but there was no proof at all…and we could get some response from the computers down on the surface. We just couldn’t get anything from any living person, so we talked it over with the Russians, decided that here was the most likely source of answers because of the high-order burst of radiation, and landed a shuttle here.”
He ran his hands through his hair. “What are you and what do you know about what happened?”
Grey ran through a brief explanation of the Hub, the shift door and what they’d seen in New York. He left out details about the Walker abilities, or even any hints about their true nature; he just explained that scientists in Area 51 had opened a shift door and the Hub had decided that the door could remain open for the time being. He described the weapon that had been used in some detail – nanotech was apparently only a theoretical possibility in this timeline – and warned General Wilson that it was highly unlikely that there were any other survivors.
“But…why?” General Wilson asked, when he had finished. “Did we go poking into dimensions we didn’t belong?”
“Perhaps,” Grey said, “although I doubt it. The Hub wouldn’t have allowed a dangerous weapon to pass through the shift doors and that would have limited any angle of entry and attack into your timeline. There may be an access point of one of the Roads of Happenstance somewhere around, maybe in this universe’s Cambridge, but it’s not normal for anyone actually interested in building an empire to use the Roads for their invasion forces.”
“Maybe they just want to settle,” Mathew said, suddenly. “They used to give out smallpox-coated blankets to Indians, just to wipe entire tribes out; maybe someone has decided to apply the same principle here.”
“Maybe,” General Wilson agreed. He emitted a long gasping sob. The soldier at the back of the room looked uncomfortable. “Why does God allow such things to happen?”
Grey smiled thinly. “There are any number of religious answers to that question,” he said. He waved a hand in the air, dismissing the question; it just wasn’t important at the moment. “Personally, I think that we’d better work on finding out just what happened and helping your people get back to something reassembling normality.”
“Normal,” General Wilson echoed. “When is anything going to be normal again?”
Mathew could understand his grim question. If there were three men for every woman, the society that would result would be skewed, with fights over the handful of women being common, or acceptance of legalised adultery in the simplest outcome. They’d have to somehow survive in space until the bodies had decayed and the disease epidemic had run its course, and then land and attempt to set up a new civilisation somewhere. All of them would have lost friends, relatives, and colleagues in the disaster; some of them, he suspected, would have committed suicide by now. There were any number of books and movies covering such events…and suicides were a major problem. Others would seek a chance to gain advantage for themselves, somehow, although it defied his imagination as to how anyone could see a chance for personal gain in the midst of such horror.
“I don’t know,” Grey admitted. He closed his eyes for a long moment. “There are possibilities; your people could come to the Hub and find another timeline there. There are worlds that would be delighted to have you and your knowledge of space travel, or you could wait and resettle your world. What do you want to do?”
“I want to have my old life back,” General Wilson said. “I had a daughter and two sons…and now both of them are dead. How many others have died in this…what the hell happened?”
“I think your world came under attack,” Grey said, very softly. General Wilson stared at him through bitter eyes. “Someone from another dimension opened a Portal and dumped a weapon designed to clear your people off the planet so they could settle it themselves.”
“I want to get them and hurt them,” General Wilson snapped. The anger in his voice was almost palatable. “What happens if we wait in orbit for them to arrive and then bomb them to shit?”
“You’d hurt them, perhaps,” Grey said. “It’s bloody difficult to rotate an orbital weapons platform into a new dimension, but it would be quite easy for the people I suspect are behind this.”
“Point me at them,” General Wilson said. There was a grim note in his voice, the old war horse preparing for one last fight. “We need to teach them a lesson.”
Grey laughed. Mathew wondered what the joke was. “No one knows who they are, not really,” he said. “Fuck it, the other side could have done it as well; they don’t care very much for individual lives either. You’ll just get swatted if they deign to take personal notice of you, or the force that intends to settle here will have the ability to deal with you.”
An alarm rang. General Wilson picked up a red telephone. “Wilson here…”
“General,” a voice said, “we have energy spikes coming from some of the equipment down here. I don’t have the slightest idea what to do with it, but I think it’s becoming unstable and I can’t see any way of shutting it down!”
Mathew could feel it, a rising tide of energy, somehow interfacing with other dimensions to push more energy into a confined space. It hurt, at a level he hadn’t even known existed, like having a headache right at the back of your head. He shared a look with Grey and saw that his mentor was worried; the energy, whatever it was, was dangerous. He could feel the rising potential for disaster, a premonition of just what could go wrong, and why; he knew, somehow, that it had to be stopped.
“Damn it,” General Wilson swore. “We have to evacuate and hope we can get clear before it blows.”
“No,” Grey said. He stood up in one smooth motion. The look in his eye, that of a man who had finally got something to hit, worried Mathew; Grey was clearly more stressed out than was apparent on the surface. “Take me to it before it’s too late.”
General Wilson stared at him. “Can you shut it down?”
“I don’t know,” Grey snapped back. His voice grew more urgent. “All I know if that if I don’t try, the energy release will shatter a large chunk of the planet!”
Chapter Fourteen: In Which There Is An Even Greater Disaster
Grey followed General Wilson and one of his scientists down the long corridor, thinking rapidly as they moved, only a single step short of running. The military man was worried; he was certain that General Wilson would be the bravest of the brave if faced with a conventional threat – like a line of enemy tanks cresting the nearby hill – but faced with such an unconventional threat, he was on the brink of collapse. He hadn’t held up too badly – Grey guessed that he had learned how to cope with the unpredictable in the process of building the space community – but he was definitely reaching the limits of his abilities. The discovery that alternate worlds existed had shocked people right across the Multiverse, unless they were lucky enough to have been born along the Roads of Happenstance; the General was struggling to comprehend that his world had been attacked by another world, and certainly had no reason to trust him, let alone Mathew.
The scientist – a blonde-haired woman with a cute behind – chattered endlessly about what she thought was happening, which, given that she was a rocket scientist rather than an expert in quantum foam theory, inter-universal interactions or the department of random chance, wasn’t that useful. She might have been an excellent military researcher, but she lacked the sheer…unfocused energy of the classical scientist who opened Portals into the Multiverse, let alone accidentally linked into the Hub’s network. She seemed half-convinced that the machinery down below had caused the massive die-off, unaware that no amount of quantum tinkering could produce so…focused a result in such a universe. The results would have been much more likely to be on a galaxy-wide scale, if the researchers had managed to generate the power required for such an experiment, but he was certain that they were nowhere near such an achievement. They’d have to tap the complete power of the sun first, and then use it to tap into the alternate dimension that produced the energy that poured out from thousands of quasars…he would have believed in monkeys learning to write Shakespeare before he believed that the scientists at Area 51 had produced such a breakthrough. It was not just unlikely, it was impossible…
He scowled, remembering a civilisation that had done just that, only to accidentally rewrite an entire section of time and space. They’d been lucky to survive the experience, even if they had wiped out thousands of existing races and billions of potential races throughout history; the effects had rippled out across the universe. The only good result had been the – accidental – creation of a semi-transcendent race that explored the Multiverse and tried to stay out of the War. They’d been candidates for possible suspects for being the masterminds of one or both sides, but the Walkers had investigated the possibility and concluded that it didn’t exist.
“This is the main security door,” the scientist said. The soldiers had had to blow their way through, Grey noted; the security hadn’t been designed for automatically opening for the handful of human survivors. He could feel the energies now, something that made him sick to his stomach, almost like eating rancid curry. The others were fortunate, apart from Mathew; they couldn’t feel the energies that were spinning through the surrounding dimensions. “And this…is the device.”
“The device,” Grey repeated. He examined it thoughtfully; it reassembled nothing less than a Star Trek warp core, lit up with blinding lights that seemed to be flickering in and out of existence. It also looked useless; the special-effects were just that, special effects. “Do you know anything about it?”
“No,” the girl said. She held out a hand. “I’m Robin, by the way.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Grey said, staring at the device and ignoring her outstretched hand. If he hadn’t been able to feel the energy flickering around it, he would have wondered if someone was playing a stupid joke; the parts he was looking at could no more bend reality than actual artefacts from a television show, no matter how many fans swore that they had mystic qualities. “What’s this damned thing connected to?”
He scowled. “The scientists are all dead, aren’t they?” He reminded himself. Robin nodded anyway. “Not all of this is actually useful, and we have to find out what is useful before it blows up anyway.”
He danced over to one of the consoles and glared down at the display, cursing the Microsoft-designed programming that didn’t seem to be capable of handling the feedback, let alone giving him actual information. He thought, for a moment, about trying to override the device with his own powers, but it was already drawing much more power than a Walker could safely handle, more power than he had seen anywhere outside a Multiverse Ship, or the Hub itself. In fact…
General Wilson was a few steps behind. “None of this is real?”
“Someone decided that the device should be impressive and so they made something impressive,” Grey said. “Mathew, can you sense the power; there should be somewhere where the power is ebbing and flowing.”
He drew on his own abilities, reaching out to touch the shifting waves of power, and felt it instantly, an ebb in the shape of local space-time, something that should very definitely not be present anywhere near the base. Mathew pointed it out at the same moment; the centre of the ‘warp core’ clearly held something that was from a much more advanced civilisation, if not from the Hub itself.
“Help me,” he snapped, as he poked at the side of the plastic model. It took a great deal of struggling and a sharp kick to reveal the interior, lit up by blinding light that seemed to be something like the shimmer of water waves under the sun, a flickering sheet of light that flowed backwards and forwards, all centred around a single small rock. It was almost disappointing to the eye, but Grey could see it for what it really was; an artefact created by another civilisation. “Now, that’s interesting…”
Several more alarms rang. “Sir,” Robin snapped, “we’re barely five minutes from a major explosion.”
“Oh, it’ll blow this world and maybe the entire solar system apart, but no worries,” Grey said, smiling grimly. He jumped back over to the command panel and examined it; the Microsoft system made a great deal more sense now he knew what was actually powering the device. The people who had discovered the rock had set the system up to channel the power into a natural pattern, perhaps with hopes of using it as an FTL drive, rather than an anchor for a shift door. “Give me six minutes and we’ll be fine.”
“We don’t have six minutes,” Robin protested. “Get on with it!”
“Yes, sir,” Grey said, and tapped commands in rapidly into the computer. It protested, loudly, at what it was being made to do; Grey overrode its protests with brutal efficiency. “Sorry, Ian, but you can make some actual use of the energy…”
He smiled as the final commands were entered. “Here goes nothing,” he said, wishing that he had a big red button to push. He didn’t; he just hit the enter key and waited as the rock glowed ever brighter, before dumping most of the surplus energy into the shift door. It wouldn’t harm the Hub; the Hub Administration would be able to catch the energy before it could do any harm and either stockpile it or dump it somewhere into a universe that needed additional energy. Ian wouldn’t be happy about it, just on general principles, but it was better than blowing a world apart. “I think we have lift-off…”
The glow of the shift door in the next room rose ever brighter, the room seemingly distorted by the sudden influx of energy as time and space twisted around the shift door, but then it fell back to a more normal appearance, a glowing square of white light, hanging in the air in front of the faked machine. Grey wondered, now that the emergency was over, just what the scientists had thought, or if they had thought at all. Had they just hooked up the rock to their systems and pressed the button, or had they worked out what the rock did first? It was sheer luck that they hadn’t accidentally blown up the planet well before his arrival.
He frowned. Coming to think of it, how had they gotten their hands on the rock in the first place?
General Wilson looked relieved. “Is that it?” He asked. “The emergency is over?”
“I think so,” Grey said, checking out the connecting cables that linked the rock with the handful of real systems. He shared a guilty grin with Mathew; General Wilson and Robin had been facing death, along with all that remained of their civilisation, but he’d been enjoying himself. “They hooked that thing into their systems and tickled it to produce the effects they managed to gain, such as sending a signal to the Hub Administration to link into the shift door they had produced.”
Robin looked fascinated. “So, what went wrong?”
“The power kept building up,” Grey said. He examined the remains of the fabricated machine thoughtfully. It shouldn’t have gone wrong, unless there had been a failure somewhere in the command circuits, but that would have had an instant effect, wouldn’t it? “The build eventually got too high for the rock – actually, an artefact from another universe – to contain and it started to spill out of control.”
General Wilson coughed. “Never mind that now,” he said. “Can you shut it down completely?”
“It would be possible,” Grey said. There was no longer any pressing need for the rock, but he wanted to keep it around until he figured out just where it had come from…and why. Area 51…the very name reminded him of the Roswell rumours, which had been reality in one timeline, making him wonder if the rock had just fallen out of the sky one day. Had someone dumped it through a Portal or a shift door? “I’d like to leave it until I figure out just what your people were doing with it.”
General Wilson snorted. “That would be a state secret,” he said. “I don’t think I should let you just…play with it.”
Grey smiled thinly. “There was a timeline where there was a threat of alien invasion and a handful of people kept the information classified and didn’t tell anyone,” he said. “They judged by their preconceptions and thought that it would be better not to tell anyone, so they said nothing and naturally hardly any precautions were taken. When the invasion began, the human race was crushed and enslaved in a month of hard fighting…and the heartbreaking part was that the aliens could have been beaten off, if some basic precautions had been taken.”
General Wilson glared at him. “And your point is?”
“General, there’s no point in fighting over it now,” Robin said. “Mr…Grey, I would be delighted to explore the device with you.”
Grey favoured her with a smile. “Excellent,” he said, winking at Mathew. “I think that first, however, we should have a nice cup of tea.”
“Got you,” Jonathon Dark muttered, as he felt the waves of power fading away as they were dumped into the Hub’s network. He wondered, briefly, if it would give Ian a headache, although cold logic suggested that nothing short of a direct tap into a quasar source universe could even present the Hub with a minor problem. The main Hub Administration would probably not even notice.
He smiled as he stood up; Grey – and Mathew – had acted exactly as he had predicted. There had been no betraying trail to lead him to them, not this time; Mathew had clearly been taught a few things at the Hub. It didn’t really matter; the Enemy’s information had been precise, close enough for him to walk into Area 51 and trigger the meltdown that threatened the entire planet with extinction. The nanotech had done its work well, killing an entire world as if it was nothing, but a walk in the park; by the time people had started to die, it had been far too late for anyone to do anything about it. Grey would find no one to assist him in understanding what had happened, or so he had thought, and so he would head directly to Area 51. Where else could he go?
Jonathon stood up and stretched as he considered his next move. He had planned, originally, to snatch Mathew from Grey in their current timeline, but that wouldn’t be possible. Even without Grey’s presence – he discounted the possibility that Mathew would have learned enough to be a real danger to him – there were not only the handful of surviving humans, but a timeline that had been almost abandoned. The settlers who had been lined up, a complete grafting from one of the more unpleasant timelines, would be able to move in without facing major opposition, but the handful of surviving natives might pose a nuisance. It wasn't enough to simply chase the two Walkers off the world, or destroy the remaining natives; he had to spring a trap that would force Grey to make a serious mistake. He could not be given time to think.
He’d spent a few hours wandering around the ruined world as he had waited, knowing that his boredom had needed to be pandered to, even as he contemplated the ruins of civilisation. He’d seen timelines where humanity had never existed, but in this timeline, humanity had simply ceased to exist, with a serious effect on the world. Fires, still burning out of control because there was no one to fight them, oil tankers losing their course and crashing into coasts and rivers, nuclear power plants having real problems, particularly the poorly-maintained ones that were studded all over Africa, maybe even melting down. He could tell why the new tenants were determined to move in as quickly as possible; the clean-up job would be much harder the longer they waited before they entered the new world. To Jonathon, not someone given to random musings, it all seemed a symbol of what Darwin had meant, years ago. The strong took what they wanted; the weak could barely be tolerated, or exterminated if they posed a problem. What other system could survive, in the long run?
He dismissed the thoughts and closed his eyes, Walking across the world and appearing in Moscow, the alternate Moscow. The city looked finer than the one he remembered from a brief journey there to gloat over the fallen giant; this timeline had not had such a sudden collapse, but a large source of cash that had been used to make the fall much less painful, as well as providing the Russians with a base for rebuilding their nation. It would have worked, he knew, until the Enemy had deemed the entire population of the planet surplus to requirements. They had been exterminated, along with the Americans, the British, the Chinese, the French, the Germans, the South Africans…and everyone else on the planet. Jonathon smiled; the sheer size of the crime meant nothing to him. They were all nothing to him.
He slipped inside the Kremlin complex and followed the route he had scouted out, earlier; the hard core of Moscow was still intact, despite the fires that had ravaged through the suburbs of the city. He passed rooms that had once held discussions that had determined the future of the world, rooms that held treasures looted from a dozen nations in the wake of the Great Patriotic War, rooms that had given the Moscow elite a chance to relax and enjoy the benefits that their positions brought…all dead, now. Jonathon cared nothing for the bodies as he walked onwards; disease wasn't a problem for him, and the new masters would probably raze the Kremlin to the ground. There were some artefacts that would fetch a price along the Roads of Happenstance, and some of the more ruthless scroungers would probably come along the Roads into the new timeline to loot, but he didn’t care about money. He could meet his own needs; all else was nothing, but surplus to requirements.
The checkpoint had been built to defend against an infantry assault and might actually have been capable of holding the inner areas of the Kremlin…if, that is, there was someone manning them. He walked through defences that would have stopped a tank, past weapons and equipment that could have supported a defence for months, and headed down into the underground complex, deep underground. There was nothing to be said for the décor; it was nothing, but soviet chic. Dull, grey, and completely lifeless. There were timelines where that sort of design was all the rage, but they were all soviet victory timelines…and nowhere else. He walked on…
And finally entered the heart of the Soviet Union, a control complex built deep underground that had – once – controlled thousands of weapons and systems that had been configured for the final war with the United States of America. His masters had given him the command codes, although Jonathon wouldn’t have needed them with his abilities, and it was easy to access the system. Parts of it had already failed, dependent as they were upon a human element in the chain of command, but the remainder would be suitable for his purposes. The computers weren’t that advanced, for such systems; a competent hacker would have been able to subvert the command routines with ease, even without extra-dimensional assistance.
He grinned. Most of the firing pattern he wanted was already programmed into the system. There was a single red button under a security guard; he flipped it up and contemplated the button as the final commands ran through the system. Some weapons and missiles would fail, he knew, but others would carry out their orders. He paused, savouring the moment…
And then pushed down on the button.
Chapter Fifteen: In Which The Long-Feared War Becomes Surprisingly Tame
Mathew had been feeling something like a fifth wheel, ever since the rock – whatever it actually was – had been shut down. The chance to explore Area 51 had been fascinating, and once Grey had convinced General Wilson that they didn’t mean him any harm, he’d actually been allowed to have a look around the complex. It was disappointing, in a way; there were no alien spacecraft, just a handful of aircraft that reminded him of conceptual drawings from his own world. Area 51, his escort explained, hadn’t been intended to serve as a deployment base for an entire air force; it had been little more than a construction facility and a testing ground for new designs.
And, of course, there was the rock – or, as he thought of it, the Rock. He’d tried to study it using the senses that Grey had taught him to use, treating it as an object that had to be studied carefully, and he’d almost been blinded by the result. The rock wasn't a rock at all, but something else, something that took on the shape and form of a rock, but existed in more than three or four dimensions. It was something from another universe, maybe even the Hub itself, something that was just more…real than anything else. Its mere presence, and that of the shift door, blazed in his mind; it outshone the remainder of the universe like a light in the darkness. Whatever Grey had done to dispose of the excess power, it had saved more than just the entire planet.
“The options are simple,” Grey explained, repeating himself. “I can arrange for your people to be transported to the Hub if you like, or maybe even provide some support if you want to rebuild here, but I don’t think that that is a wise choice. The people who destroyed your world will come and take it pretty soon.”
General Wilson didn’t like that at all. “They can’t be allowed to get away with it,” he insisted. “I have a duty to avenge the dead!”
Mathew half-closed his eyes. He wasn't sure if he liked the General; unlike Grey, he could be direct and to the point, but fighting an enemy who had already displayed vastly superior technology struck him as futile, although, he acknowledged, it hadn’t been that futile in Iraq. Could the remaining Americans and Russians inflict a defeat on the invaders when they arrived? More importantly, he wondered, would it be worth anything in the long run?
“You can’t,” Grey said flatly. “You might be able to knock out their first entry into your universe, but they’d just be able to force open a Portal in space and attack you directly, or maybe just abandon the world completely. You don’t have the ability to take the war to their home universe and you couldn’t defeat them there even if you did have that ability.”
General Wilson rounded on him. “How do you know that?”
Grey met his eyes with a flicker of exaggerated patience. “Because these people, whoever they are, have either mastered Portal technology, or they have gained access to the Roads of Happenstance. As they have deployed a nanotech weapon against your world, I think that it is much more likely that they have developed Portals, because anyone who can use nanotech will almost certainly have the ability and theoretical knowledge base to generate a Portal. If they can do all that, they will have space-based defences of their own within their universe, and you would have problems closing down their Portals, let alone…”
His voice broke off as an alarm sounded. “General?”
General Wilson jumped to his feet, spilling his cup of tea. “That’s the national alert signal,” he said, his voice tinged with astonishment. “Come on!”
The race through the corridors took on something of nightmare as they ran, heading through empty rooms and corridors, leaving the elevators in favour of the stairs, passing broken-down security doors and a handful of bodies that hadn’t been moved yet. General Wilson had admitted that he had only brought twenty people down from the orbital stations, most of them soldiers; Robin was the only woman who had come down, much to her irritation. Mathew could understand that; she was cute, pretty in the way that some women developed when they entered their early twenties, triggering off surges in male hormones…and she was the only woman on the base. She would become an object of desire, like it or not; in the long run, the development of the reclaimed world would be interesting, assuming that they were allowed to survive.
The main control room was, like the ‘warp core’ down beside the rock, like something out of Star Trek. Unlike the equipment downstairs, the consoles and displays seemed to be working perfectly, now that General Wilson had gotten his command authority into the system. Mathew guessed that Area 51 had been designated an emergency command post for the American Government in this timeline; he wondered if someone had dreamed of massive spacecraft hovering over cities. Most of the displays made no sense to him whatsoever, although he could understand the row of monitors showing images from outside the base and in some of the compartments within the base; one display made far too much sense.
“The Russians have launched,” General Wilson breathed. Red icons were flashing into existence all over Russia, some of them blinking out moments later, others heading up towards space. “I don’t understand; how the hell did they survive?”
“They didn’t,” Grey said, grimly. “Someone else has triggered the launch.”
General Wilson threw himself down into one of the seats and ran his hands over the computer, tapping in commands with a speed Mathew wouldn’t have believed if he hadn’t seen it. The images altered, revealing that some of the Russian launches had failed spectacularly, while others were heading up towards space…and towards the United States. A handful more had been scattered over Europe; he could see, from the projected points of impact, that they had been targeted on hundreds of cities.
General Wilson turned to look up at Grey. “Those missiles there” – he indicated a group that was flashing a different colour – “are targeted on the space installations of both sides, some of them missiles are actually targeted on the lunar colony. They’re trying to complete the job of wiping us out!”
A display flickered into existence, revealing a very black face with a grim expression. “General, this is Colonel Ross,” he snapped. “The Russians have lost control of half of the independently deployed automated weapons satellites. They’re targeting everything, from our people to theirs and we’re taking losses!”
General Wilson squirmed, a man caught on the horns of a dilemma. “The cities,” he said. “They’re going to kill the cities…”
Grey caught his arm. “The cities are gone,” he snapped. “The people there are dead. You have to save what you can!”
General Wilson looked up at his subordinate. “Prioritise the antimissile defence systems for taking down the missiles aimed at the space stations and the lunar base,” he ordered, coldly. “Are any of the missiles aimed at the ground targeted on the spaceports or this base?”
“Negative,” Colonel Ross said. He sounded happier with clearly defined orders running through his mind. “The missiles targeted at the ground are all targeted on cities.”
“Bloody difficult to avoid hitting a city if you’re targeting it,” General Wilson muttered. “Colonel, take down the rogue satellites and lock out all ground-based control from our own automated platforms as well, just in case. Keep me updated.”
He turned back to Grey. “What the hell are they doing?”
Grey sighed. “Most of your people were in the cities, right?” He asked. He was studying the projected points of impact as he spoke. “At the moment, they’re all dead, but dead bodies can be dangerous, ever since the cannibal Napoleon proved that by dumping a dead body into a well in one of his timelines. If they all get burned in nuclear fire…”
Robin finished the thought. “And then the newcomers don’t have to worry so much about disease,” she concluded. “But…won’t they want to salvage anything from the cities?”
“Depends on who they are,” Grey said, as the attack unfolded. “There are some empires out there in the Multiverse that wouldn’t care anything for your tech, or indeed anything they could salvage from your world…or maybe they’re just bastards.”
The attack unfolded slowly. To Mathew, used to the concept of instant death and destruction from a nuclear attack, it was fascinating and disappointing at the same time. It was hard to remember that each of the icons on the display marked an orbital space station, or something larger; harder still to remember that when one of the lights blinked and vanished, people, maybe hundreds of people, had been vaporised or dumped into vacuum. Missiles and rogue satellites vanished from the display, others proceeded along their course, scattering multiple warheads over the American continent.
“We have a NUCFLASH,” Colonel Ross announced, butting back into the conversation. “Sir…someone just blew Moscow to shit!”
General Wilson looked up at Grey, who shrugged. “They must have some reason to destroy the cities,” he said, unconcerned. “I dare say that in the long run it will all even out.”
“We could wreck the world,” General Wilson said suddenly. He stood up and ran over to a single console, studying it with interest. “There are our nukes – the American nukes – as well and we could use them to destroy large amounts of the world and make their attempt to settle a failure.”
“It’s a bit harder to wreck a world than the environmentalists keep saying,” Grey said. He winked at Mathew. “Note political subtext here.”
Mathew rolled his eyes. “Is there nothing we can do?”
“Not at the moment, no,” Grey said. He paced across the room, as if there was a law that he couldn’t remain still for very long. “All we can do is wait and see what happens.”
Robin looked around at Grey. Her eyes were bright with tears. “Is there no one who can stop this?” She asked, her voice breaking. “Six billion people are all dead, the remainder of the human race is threatened with extermination, someone else is going to move in on our world and we can’t do anything. Is there no one who can help?”
Mathew felt a flicker of guilt. “The Multiverse is vast beyond comprehension,” Grey said. Mathew could hear the guilt in his voice as well, a sense that he should give loose change to the beggar, even though he could barely spare it, because he was lucky enough to have something the beggar could never have. “There’s no police force, no military that can make its weight felt right across the Multiverse; what little justice there is lies in the hands of God.”
Mathew was surprised. Grey had never mentioned a religion before. “Do you believe in God?”
Grey shrugged. “I’ve seen Gods,” he said. “I’ve seen creatures that were worshipped as Gods; did you know there are people who worship Walkers? And Ian? And Giant Sheep? I’ve seen creatures that gave birth to myths of monsters hiding under the bed and the half-seen shadow right at the corner of perception…and there are times when I wonder if there isn’t any truth in the oldest myth as well. And, as you grow older, the more tempting it becomes to view the Multiverse and see order amid the chaos…
“And yet, there are great crimes committed every day across the Multiverse,” he continued. “The population of this planet, wiped out. Worlds where creatures from other dimensions come to call and their very nature kills everyone exposed to them. Is there divine justice out there? I’d like to believe in it, but no one knows for sure.”
Mathew caught his hand and pulled him over into a corner. “Can’t we just get them out of here?”
“Not all of them,” Grey said. “We could get everyone in the complex out, but we couldn’t get the people on the moon out, or the space stations. Don’t try to Walk there; one of the few things that can kill a Walker is materialising in vacuum.”
Mathew gulped. “It was a good thought, though,” Grey assured him. “Have a few more like that and you’ll be beating girls off with a stick.”
Mathew had to smile. “Girls don’t go for Mr Nice,” he said. “Girls go for bastard jocks and even more bastard scumbags.”
“Depends how many of them want to give birth to Walkers,” Grey said. His eyes fell slightly, as if there was something he didn’t want to talk about. “And a lot of it is biology; deep down inside, a woman might feel that if she’s putting out for a guy, he won’t be beating her up and taking her by force.”
“You might want to see this,” Robin called, before Mathew could answer. “It’s not good.”
The display was changing as it accessed cameras all over America. Cities were dying as nuclear missiles detonated, bringing fireballs and mushroom clouds to empty cities, destroying them in massive fireballs. There was no resistance on the ground as the fireballs appeared across America, hitting all of the major cities within a space of twenty minutes, while other fireballs detonated right across the world. China and Europe were hit badly; South America and Africa were almost spared.
“We lost several space stations and most of the automated systems,” General Wilson said. The General’s face had grown paler and paler; Mathew guessed that it was hard for him to come to terms with the destroyed cities, even if they had been already destroyed in all, but name. “That’s nearly three hundred souls, two hundred and seventy of them men, dead in space.”
Mathew shuddered. The death toll was small beans compared to those who had died overnight, but it made it all the more real to him. He’d had a glance through some of the handbooks in Area 51; the space stations weren't that advanced, little more impressive in concept than Mir or Skylab, although they had been much larger, developed by a mindset that had considered space a priority worth developing. He’d been frustrated by the slow progress of space exploration in his timeline, wondering if he would ever have a chance to visit the moon; if the nanotech weapon had been released in his timeline, it would have exterminated the entire world overnight.
He glanced over at Grey. The older Walker had a grim expression on his face, an expression that was somehow terrible and terrifying; he could sense the way that his power was flickering in and out of existence around him as he clenched his fists. Grey didn’t find the destruction funny, or somehow important; he wanted to hit back at whoever had done the atrocity as much as General Wilson. Mathew shared that desire; he privately resolved that if Grey went after whoever – whatever – had done the crime, he would come with him and help out as best as he could. They could take the survivors to the Hub and get them somewhere to live without people trying to kill them, and then they could hunt down the people responsible and punish them.
“We have a high-order energy flux on the surface of the planet,” Colonel Ross reported. The black man looked unnaturally pale. “There are at least thirty sources of them, ten in America, ten in Europe and ten in Russia, all growing more and more powerful…and they’ve just stabilised.”
Grey caught the side of his head as a stabbing pain cut through Mathew’s head; he realised that whatever he was feeling, his mentor had felt as well. He remembered the sensation from his training; someone had ripped a hole in the fabric of reality and opened a Portal from one universe to another. They hadn’t done it, the natives of this timeline hadn’t done it; there could only be one conclusion…
Grey put it into words. “The invasion has begun,” he breathed. “Can you bring up satellite images?”
“We’re going to hit those…things with everything we’ve got,” General Wilson vowed, as the first image started to appear. It reminded Mathew of a computer game, except real lives were at risk; he could see the shimmering light of the Portals, with lines of vehicles flooding out of them and spreading out. “I’ve already issued the orders; we’ll interdict everything that pokes its nose through the gates.”
“Portals,” Grey corrected, as the first explosion blossomed up on the ground. Low-orbit kinetic impact weapons, designed for use against tanks and ships, had been unleashed, pummelling the enemy. The black-clad figures spread out rapidly, some of their vehicles unleashing their own counter-battery fire; laser beams flickered into existence and wiped incoming weapons out of existence. “Shit!”
General Wilson looked up at him. “You know them?”
“They’re called the Blackshirts,” Grey said. “That’s a nickname; no one knows what they call themselves. They’re nasty bastards; they’ve got an empire and they’re dangerous to dozens of other timelines, very much the perfect conquering empire. They’re supposed to be in league with one side or the other of the Multiverse War…and they’re not inclined towards talking.”
“Neither am I,” General Wilson said, his enthusiasm returning as he finally faced a target for violence. “I’ll blast those bastards to hell and gone…”
An alarm sounded. “That’s the intruder alert,” one of the soldiers snapped. “Sir, we have company!”
Mathew looked over at the display showing the exterior of the base…and swore. Black-clad figures, appearing out of nowhere, had arrived…and were clearly preparing to assault the base. They looked terrifyingly intimidating to his eyes; he didn’t understand how they had found them.
Robin looked panicked. “Sir, what the hell do we do?”
“Is it not obvious?” General Wilson asked, pulling a large handgun out of a holster. “We fight.”
Chapter Sixteen: In Which Grey Makes a Mistake
Area 51, Jonathon Dark had decided, had been much more impressive in several other timelines. There were timelines where the entire base was a glittering wonderland in the desert and timelines where it was completely underground, hidden from view except when one of the aircraft launched itself out a long tunnel and into the air. There were timelines where it had never existed, or experiments had taken place that had accidentally destroyed the base; he remembered one experiment where a Superconducting Super Collider had exploded – something he had believed to be impossible – and taken out much of the state. This Area 51 was just…tame.
The Blackshirts advanced in a standard assault pattern, once they had targeted the shuttle with a plasma cannon to blow it to flaming debris on the runway, preventing any escape back into space. Jonathon allowed himself a rueful frown as the wreckage burned in front of him; he would have liked to have examined the shuttle, perhaps made a copy of the plans and transported it to a world where they would pay him for the designs. There were worlds were SSTO technology was still a pipe dream; he would have been able to name his own price. Money was little more than a means of keeping score to him, but, in the end, it would have changed the face of whatever universe he sold it to. The results would be interesting to watch.
He settled back and watched as the assault team spread out and advanced, their weapons held at the ready. Jonathon could sense the presence of both Grey and Mathew within the complex; he wondered, absently, if they could sense his presence. He’d risked tipping them off by using his own abilities to move the Blackshirts into position, rather than letting them use a Portal, but there really was no other choice; the Portal might have been detected before the Blackshirts had had a chance to deploy. He didn’t know how many defenders there might be in the complex – and, if they knew what they were facing, they had no reason to surrender – but it couldn’t be more than thirty men at most; everyone else would have been killed when the nanotech swept the world clean.
The first explosion, a minefield, surprised him; he hadn’t realised that it was there. The Blackshirts ignored it and moved on, their weapons constantly seeking out targets, such as the automated guns that appeared from hidden hatches in the tarmac and opened fire, launching bursts of machine gun fire at them. Plasma weapons crackled flashing blue bolts of light back at them, blowing them up and damaging the overall system, before sniper fire from some of the higher buildings took down a few of the attackers. The Blackshirts were wearing their own armour, but it wasn't that much protection against the sniper rifles from the current universe; Jonathon made a mental note to come back with a team of looters – there were plenty along the Happenstance Roads – and strip a few thousand of the local weapons before the Blackshirts took over completely. The looters wouldn’t want to face the Blackshirts; the words ‘mercy,’ ‘surrender’ and ‘good treatment’ were not in their language. Jonathon had heard enough stories about their treatment of prisoners to know that no one would want to fall into their hands alive.
A tank appeared out of one of the buildings, resembling an early-model Bradley Fighting Vehicle; it charged at the Blackshirts, knocking a handful of them down with precise bursts of fire. The Blackshirts blew it away with plasma fire and punched up against the hanger doors, their weapons targeting weak spots and placing charges on the entry points; moments later, there were a series of explosions and the three main hanger doors exploded inwards. Gunfire echoed out from the vast interior of the hanger; even Jonathon was impressed with the high-tech interior, contrasting with the low-tech exterior. An aircraft that looked like a stealth version of the A-10 Warthog, sitting in the hanger, opened fire with its weapons, either on remote control or with a pilot hidden somewhere in the cockpit. A plasma blast struck the side of the aircraft and sent it billowing up into a cloud of flaming wreckage; the hanger floor was unscratched.
One of the Blackshirts had found someone; a man wearing a tattered uniform and bleeding from several nasty wounds. Two of them, wearing their same featureless black masks, positioned the captive on a chair and barked questions at him, demanding to know everything from number of defenders to the number of space platforms in high orbit. Jonathon wondered with some interest if they were going to torture the captive, although, looking at his wounds, he wouldn’t have thought they needed to bother. The soldier was dying; he had to know he was dying. Even if the Blackshirts had wanted to save him, Jonathon doubted that they could have saved him…and, in any case, the soldier would spend the rest of his life in a slave camp. The Blackshirts were not kind to their prisoners…
“Tell us how many people are here,” one of the Blackshirts said. He pushed, hard, against one of the wounds; the soldier screamed loudly enough to wake the dead. Blood splashed everywhere; the man had to be in terrible pain. “Answer the question truthfully and we will end the pain; lie to us and we will stretch out your life until you have hurt for years.”
Jonathon doubted that they could do that either. “There’s twenty of us,” the soldier gasped, through his pain. Jonathon found himself believing him; the soldier was too hurt and confused by the shocks he had received over the last few days to think of a lie. “Please…let me go…”
The interrogator sliced a knife cleanly across the man’s throat and turned to Jonathon. “Your intelligence has proven accurate,” he said, the voice dull and inhuman behind the mask. Jonathon suspected that it was part of the impression the interrogator intended to give; compared to running into a Time Hound, it was strictly a very basic trick. The Blackshirts didn’t really consider themselves human. “We thank you for your services.”
“You’re welcome,” Jonathon said. The Blackshirts had asked him to provide them with new Walkers, but he had declined the women they had offered him; besides, there would be nothing more likely to win them unwanted attention from the Hub than a breeding program for new Walkers. “And, if you don’t mind, I’ll continue with my part of the mission.”
He concentrated and Walked to the object that blazed in his mind like a star. The rock was as unspectacular as it had been when he’d first set eyes upon it, but he checked it anyway and found that the first part of the plan had been a success. Grey had had to do something for the overall plan to have a fair chance at success…and while Jonathon knew very well that any plan that depended on the enemy making a mistake was a fundamentally flawed plan, he had expected Grey to do the only thing he could…apart from grabbing Mathew and fleeing the planet before it was blown apart. Instead, he had – quite reasonably – dumped the energy the rock had been gathering into the shift door, which would not only leave the door non-functional for a few hours, but would jam up the Hub’s systems, thanks to Jonathon’s careful manipulations. Ian might not realise, in time, that Grey had accidentally jammed up the system, and, if he did, he would be likely to tolerate it…because it looked like a very real accident.
Jonathon found a chair in the room, smiling thinly as he took in the movie set props and the faked warp core designs, and settled down to wait. It wouldn’t be long now.
Grey had never considered himself a soldier; his origins hadn’t really led him into contemplating a military career before his Walker abilities had awoken and he’d found himself catapulted into the Multiverse. Even so, as the Blackshirts advanced, he found himself wishing that he knew more about fighting; the bastards couldn’t be allowed to gain control of the rock. They already had access to hundreds of thousands of possible universes; with the rock under their control, they would be able to access thousands more, perhaps even the Hub itself. They wouldn’t be able to attack the Hub – hardly any Being of Power could do that, let alone flesh and blood creatures like the Blackshirts – but they would probably, if they kept a low profile, be able to trade…
The Hub kept a policy of tolerance, one that embraced all manner of behaviours, as long as they were not rude, disruptive or murderous. It hadn’t really occurred to Grey before that the Hub could be abused by an evil empire, even though there were travellers from all manner of evil empire coming to visit the Hub. Few of them were truly evil, not in the all-consuming sense of the Blackshirts; the Blackshirts came, saw, took what they wanted…and left the rest burning. There were no redeeming factors in their empire, no development, no hope…just eternal slavery for those lucky enough to survive the invasion and the consolidation process.
General Wilson was barking orders into his communicator, shouting to his remaining men to make a stand on the lower levels, conceding control of the surface to the Blackshirts. Grey couldn’t fault his decision; the Blackshirts were flooding out of hundreds of Portals now, clean-up crews who would commence the long task of preparing the now-empty world for settlement. They included thousands of slaves, chained together and shuffling through the Portals, their faces – those that could be picked out from orbit – torn, bloody and in some cases tormented with despair. They would be used to clear up the cities and establish colonies, where upon they would be executed or just worked to death; the cold callousness of the entire process appalled him. Whichever side the Blackshirts worked for in the Multiverse War, he hoped that they were ashamed of them.
The complex shook once as an explosion shattered one of the hangers. “Where the hell did they come from?” General Wilson demanded. “Where’s the Portal they used to get here?”
Grey had been wondering about that himself; if the Blackshirts had known there was a shift door in Area 51, why hadn’t they just seized it after they had launched the nanotech virus into the air? The defenders of Area 51 were hurting the Blackshirts, true, but it wasn't going to be enough, not unless they scored a fifty-to-one exchange rate. Every time one of General Wilson’s men died, they reduced his ability to defend the remainder of the base, while every Blackshirt could be replaced. A stabbing pain in his head told him the worst possible news; a Portal had been established far too close to Area 51. More Blackshirts would come flooding in soon.
“I have no idea,” he said. “They’ve just established a Portal nearby!”
General Wilson stared wildly at him. “And then what’s to stop them establishing one right here?”
Grey shrugged. “I guess they don’t have access to a complex that occupies the same space and time as Area 51,” he said. It was well-known that opening a Portal into solid rock was difficult; the Blackshirts would have had to dig out their own Area 51, just so they could establish a stable Portal. It wasn’t impossible, but its absence here was odd; the more he thought about it, the more it seemed as if the entire invasion and settlement plan had been put together on very short notice. “What about your space stations?”
“Some of them were hit by ground-based lasers,” General Wilson said. “The bastards are sweeping the satellites out of orbit with their lasers; ours can’t match that sort of power. What happens when they get a spaceport set up here?”
“You might want to target yours for destruction,” Grey replied, as he examined the displays. Something was wrong; he could feel it in the back of his head…but what? “Your people may never be able to land again.”
He turned to Mathew, unable to face up to the possibilities. “How are you feeling?”
“Scared,” Mathew said, honestly. His face was very pale; Grey remembered an experiment in homosexuality when he had been young and knew how Mathew felt. He had wanted to try something new, something that had felt exciting when he had been alone and thinking about it, but when confronted with the reality, it had suddenly become terrifying and impossible to go through with it. All young men liked to think of themselves as the perfect warrior, but, faced with reality, not all of them made the grade. Armies trained their teenage recruits as best as they could; Mathew had jumped from world to world, facing a Time Hound, a Sealion, a rogue Walker and now the Blackshirts. He didn’t know anyone who had had such a violent introduction to the Walkers and their lifestyles…
And he could see the determination within Mathew, the determination not to let Grey down. He could have Walked out of the timeline, back to the Hub and safety, but he had chosen to remain where he was. It wasn’t unknown in armies either; soldiers would stand their ground for fear of losing face before their comrades, rather than standing and fighting – and perhaps dying – for a ‘cause.’ It wouldn’t be long before Mathew was fully prepared for his role, perhaps spending a few years as one of the Hub’s Agents, running through different timelines, having adventures, and getting laid every week. He almost envied him; Mathew would be seeing everything as new, rather than as merely variants on a theme.
“Don’t worry,” he promised. He intended to keep his promise. “It won’t be long before we can get out of here.”
“There’s no way out of here,” General Wilson commented sharply. “I intend to kill as many as I can and then blow the base up around them.”
“That won’t destroy the rock,” Grey said sharply. They couldn’t allow the rock to fall into the hands of the Blackshirts; everything else, even their own personal survival, was irrelevant compared to that single overriding imperative.
“The damn thing is just a rock,” General Wilson protested. “It’ll be atomised along with the rest of us!” He looked across at Robin. “I’m sorry, but there’s no other choice…”
Robin gulped, but held her position. “I understand, sir,” she said, a world of meaning in her voice. “I won’t let you down.”
Grey rolled his eyes. “General, I can get you out of here, you and Robin,” he insisted. “But we have to get to the rock first and shut it down or force it out of this part of reality, or else the bastards who destroyed your world will destroy the rest of the Multiverse unless they bump into something big enough to stop them.”
“And what will you do about the rest of my people?” General Wilson snapped. “They’re going to be stuck on that moonbase until they get invaded and destroyed, just like we have been here!”
Another explosion underscored his words. “I can get a Multiverse ship to rescue them, or provide them with enough support to survive indefinitely,” Grey snapped. The sense of urgency was growing all the time; defence points were blinking out of existence on the main display as the Blackshirts hacked their way through with a mixture of brute force and cold tactical thinking. “We have to move now.”
General Wilson sighed. “Come on, then,” he said, and tapped a final command into the computer. “The complex will explode in thirty minutes.”
The corridors were strange and terrifying places now; Grey found himself cursing the rock as the energies it emitted were interfering with his Walker senses. He should have been able to tell if there were any ambushes waiting in their path, but it was impossible to make out the presence of extra-dimensional beings in the haze caused by the rock. A shadow stepped out and General Wilson brought up his handgun, recognising, just in time, the presence of the last of his soldiers. He barked an order and the soldier fell in beside them, scouting ahead as they reached the final set of doors.
“They’re going to follow us down here,” Mathew said. Grey nodded once; it wasn't as if they could do anything to prevent it. “What do we do then?”
“We’ll be out of here by then,” Grey said, feeling the energies from the rock growing more and more powerful the closer he got. They passed through the last door and stopped dead; Jonathon Dark was waiting for them. “You!”
“Me,” Jonathon Dark agreed. “I’ve been expecting you, Mr Wolf.”
Grey glared at him. General Wilson stepped forward. “Who the hell are you?”
“Oh, a nice round of movie classics ruined,” Jonathon said dryly. “I suppose you could say I put the entire planet out of my misery.”
Everything clicked suddenly. Grey hadn’t understood how the Blackshirts had gotten their hands on a nanotech weapon, that was far above their normally observed level of technology. They might develop it for themselves in a few more decades, but he hadn’t understood how it had appeared so quickly.
“You killed the entire planet?” The soldier demanded. He stepped forward, weapon raised. “You bastard…”
Jonathon clicked his fingers and the soldier simply blew apart into dust. “As much as I’d like to stay and chat, I just came to ensure that this thing” – he nodded towards the glowing rock – “did what it was meant to do and blew the planet right up, and, just incidentally, dumping a ton more energy into the Hub network, which might shake Ian up a bit. That’s worth doing, I think…”
His hand came down on the rock.
Grey acted, sweeping up Mathew, General Wilson and Robin in his reality field, and yanking them into the Multiverse.
Instantly, as the energies bubbled around him, he knew he’d made a dreadful mistake.
Chapter Seventeen: In Which Our Heroes Get Caught Up In A War
Mathew felt the agony right from the start, a chilling terrible pain yanking at each and every component of his body. Every tiny part of his body hurt as it was ripped apart by the flames they had jumped right into, the very heart of the Multiverse itself burning at them, challenging their very existence; the pain grew and grew until he could take no more, and then it grew again, pressing down on his very soul. Flames ripped along his spine…
And then the universe hiccupped and spat them out, somewhere. The sense of pure relief was overpowering, keeping him lying on the ground, barely aware of Robin’s sobs. General Wilson looked stunned; he had gazed into the infinite and it had shown him just how small he was. And Grey…
Mathew saw his mentor’s stunned body and pulled himself up, relying on the quick-heal abilities of the Walkers to mean whatever damage had actually been real, instead of merely a human attempt at feeling the pain of coming face to face with cold unfeeling reality. Grey was lying flat on the ground, blood leaking from his eyes and mouth; his eyes were wide and sore. Mathew crawled over to him, peering into his eyes; Grey looked as if he was still screaming, deep inside. He gathered his strength and slapped Grey as hard as he could, right across the face; he had to bring his mentor back to his body or else all would be lost. He slapped him once, twice…and then a wiry hand caught his arm before he could land a third slap.
“I’m fine,” Grey said. He didn’t sound fine; his laboured breathing convinced Mathew that something fundamental had changed in his mentor, and not necessarily for the better. “What about the others?”
Mathew pulled himself over to Robin and was surprised by the intensity of the embrace she caught him with, her blonde hair looking as if it had been more than a little mussed, although her blue eyes hadn’t been bleeding like Greys, or, he realised dimly, his own. Robin wasn't a Walker; she hadn’t seen the true fury of the force that had attacked them, tearing at them and forcing them back into reality…but not into Area 51. He glanced around, taking in the surrounding desert and the hit sun in the air, and wondered just where the hell they were. They could be anywhere, in any number of universes…
Grey was sitting up, holding his head with one hand. “Mathew, tell me you’re all right,” he said, his voice still aching. “I can barely focus.”
Mathew scowled. He was struck, not for the first time, with an overwhelming sense of his own ignorance in the face of the vastness of the universe. Grey knew tricks that he’d never had time to learn; Grey had almost certainly forgotten more things that Mathew had ever learned…and not all of what he’d learned was useful out amid the multiverse. Grey seemed to just roll with the flow, he saw; perhaps he should try the same tactic for dealing with the weirdness of the Multiverse.
Grey coughed once. “I…fuck…I don’t know how they did that,” he said, cursing under his breath before continuing. “I didn’t know that any Walker could do that, but Jonathon always was a crafty bastard.”
Mathew pushed the issue of what Jonathon could and could not do to the side. “That doesn’t matter at the moment,” he said, thinking as fast as he could. “What did he do?”
Grey rubbed his eyes. “He – or the Enemy; coming to think of it, the Enemy would definitely have the power to do it – set up a trap for us, probably using the rock as the source of power. I thought he was going to blow the planet up, using the rock as a weapon; that would kill you and I with the same abandon as it would have killed our two friends.” He scowled at General Wilson. “I’m sorry, General; the trip to the Hub will have to be postponed.”
General Wilson scowled. “I understand,” he said. “So, what did they actually do?”
“I – my friend and I – have the ability to walk between dimensions and the Hub is just another dimension, another universe,” Grey said. He glanced around, his eyes worried; Mathew could hear it too. There was something in the air, a sense of impending doom. “What they did was they contaminated the…information background of the local universe-group with the net result that when I scooped everyone up to transport them to the Hub before the universe twisted the shift door and blew up the planet, the endpoint coordinate – the Hub – was rewritten and relocated us here instead.”
“Enough technobabble,” General Wilson said. “Speak English, please.”
“I do speak English,” Grey said, offended. “It’s you that’s got the funny accent. But seeing you insist…they tricked us so instead of being transported to the Hub, we got transported here instead.”
General Wilson had no problems seeing at least one of the implications. “They prepared this ground for us beforehand,” he guessed. Grey nodded; Mathew had to agree with him, it was the logical point of the entire exercise. “So…where’s the welcoming committee?”
Mathew glanced around. The desert seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see…and yet, there was the faintest suggestion that something was about to happen, something dark and dangerous waiting to appear and commit mayhem. A shimmer in the air caught his attention, and he flinched, wondering if it was another Time Hound, before he realised it was just haze. The heat was still rising; just for a moment, he heard a faint sound in the air, something like helicopters.
“I think that I managed to override some of the commands they input into the local metareality field,” Grey said, rubbing the side of his head. “We’re in the universe they wanted, I think, but almost certainly not where they wanted us, and the world is a big place. We may even have been intended to arrive on Mars, or another star system entirely…it’ll take them a while to track us down.”
He paused. “I know what we could do,” Mathew said. “Can’t we just Walk to the Hub, now?”
“I don’t think so,” Grey said. He frowned. “Can’t you feel that in the air?”
Mathew nodded slowly. There was something in the air, a faint sense of otherworldliness in the midst of a commonplace desert, a sense that something, very faintly, was out of kilter. He tensed as he extended his senses and saw, directly, dark webbing carefully inserted into the fabric of the universe. It didn’t seem to be doing anything, but he felt at a very instinctive level that it was something wrong, that it was something right out of the multiverse itself.
He tensed. “What the hell is it?”
“I don’t know,” Grey said. Mathew could hear the concern in his voice and sensed, suddenly, that Grey was faced with something right outside his experience. “I’ve heard tales of strange things sometimes, whispered in Ian’s bar, or maybe in Joe’s, strange tales of things that interact with universes and the world outside the universes, lacing through the Happenstance Roads and the utopias created by the Ancients and the Elder Races, just whispers with little solid evidence to back them. There are things scuttling around in the shadows, sensed only in the clicking noises their feet make as they move in the darkness, shadows and whispers and…”
He shook his head. “There’s always something being talked about along the Happenstance Roads and the more settled parts of the Multiverse,” he said, as if there was truly nothing wrong. Every so often, parts of the Happenstance Roads just…change and the network gets all screwed up; new things and worlds get swept up into the Roads, or long-established ports of call get cut off from the Roads. That’s what happened to Cyanna’s people; they had an empire, the Roads shifted, and the empire more or less ran aground.”
Mathew remembered the redhead and felt blood rushing down his body. “She was nice,” he said, silently cursing Emery for having reached her first. He was surprised by the sudden rush of lust; he had never had such feelings before. “Can’t we ask them for help again?”
Grey eyed him. “Do not trust her, ever,” he snapped. “She’s one of the Fair Folk and the Fair Folk are the source of the legends about bad fairies. Don’t think of her as a Vulcan from one of the Star Trek shows, or one of Disney’s fairies; her morals and customs will be entirely different from ours, so different that it is impossible to imagine that there are any real points in common. Oh, the equipment fits, but I don’t believe for a moment that she and Emery will remain together for the rest of their lives.”
“This is all very interesting,” General Wilson said, “but can we get back to the matter at hand? How do we get out of here?”
Grey smiled sheepishly. “I don’t even know where ‘here’ is,” he said. “The Enemy attempted to direct us somewhere and I fought that and somehow we ended up here, but I have no idea where we are. Do you know…?”
“This is Texas,” General Wilson said, seriously. The two Walkers gaped at him. “I’d know that feeling in the air anywhere.”
Grey chuckled. “Do you happen to know where we are, exactly?”
“No, but if we start walking, we might encounter help before we run out of water,” General Wilson said, practically. “I have one set of ration bars in my BDUs; do you two have anything?”
“No,” Grey said. He smiled thinly at Robin, who was looking embarrassed. “Come on, we’d better see what we find before trouble finds…”
He was interrupted by a scream across the sky. Mathew’s head snapped around, to see seven black aircraft approaching, hugging the ground as they raced onwards, seemingly close enough to the ground to take off their heads when they passed overhead. As one, the four travellers threw themselves to the ground, hitting it hard enough to hurt; Mathew’s ears hurt as the aircraft screeched overhead and headed into the distance, others appearing and passing overhead in what looked like a sheer chaotic mess. The aircraft ignored the travellers, heading towards the horizon…and then they heard the sound of bombs and rockets. Smoke started to rise up in the distance; Mathew saw a streak of light rising up and swatting one of the aircraft from the sky, sending it crashing down to the ground. An explosion marked the death of the pilot…
There was no sign of a parachute.
“I didn’t recognise the type of aircraft, but there was a red star on them,” General Wilson said, looking stunned…and angry. His country – well, not his country, but one closely related to his country – was under attack. “That makes them communists, doesn’t it?”
“The Finnish aircraft during the Winter War had crooked crosses on them, despite the fact the Finns were hardly Nazis,” Mathew said, remembering a picture he had seen once when he had been researching the war. “The Red Star doesn’t mean that we’re looking at the Red Air Force.”
General Wilson blinked. “Really?”
“It only happened in boring old World War Two,” Grey assured him dryly. He shared a brief look with Mathew. “I think we’d better keep moving…before something else happens.”
Robin glanced over her shoulder. “I think it already has,” she said, as she pointed towards the horizon. “I think we’re in the path of a war.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Mathew muttered, as he looked back. A line of tanks had appeared, approaching at a monstrous speed, big green monsters that were firing towards unseen targets, supported by a massive artillery assault that was pounding hell out of unseen targets in the distance. The tanks looked as if they would run right over them, the noise of their approach was deafening and…
Another aircraft swept low over the tanks, launching rockets into the armoured mass; General Wilson cheered as he saw the stars and stripes on the aircraft, a design almost identical to an A-10 Warthog. Three tanks exploded as an antiaircraft unit opened fire on the aircraft, but the pilot reacted quickly and evaded the fire, heading back towards the American lines without being shot down. Grey bought them back into reality; they were still being charged by a line of tanks and it would be bare minutes before they were caught up in the attack.
“Move,” Grey snapped, shoving him towards the east – or what he assumed was the east. They ran as hard as they could, not daring to look back at the tanks as they ran, until machine gun bullets split the air in front of them. Grey turned; Mathew flinched at the expression in his eyes, moments before reality twisted and a handful of tanks simply exploded. Grey didn’t cheer at his own success; he urged them on. “Keep moving, keep moving,” he repeated; “that won’t hold them for long!”
The tank commander, either unaware of what had happened or not particularly interested in them, didn’t order a pursuit; they reached a sheltered spot where they could watch and threw themselves down. The fighting seemed to be mobile and brutal, only half-seen; the opposition to the Communists – because no one seemed to doubt now that they were Communists – seemed to be taking a beating, even if the American aircraft appeared from time to time to harass the armoured columns. Mathew had wondered if they were seeing all the battle, but General Wilson commented that they were probably only seeing a tiny portion of it, the impressive line of tanks was very likely only a small component of the force that was assaulting America’s borders.
“This is an alternate world, right?” General Wilson asked. “What happened here?”
Grey shook his head. “I just altered probabilities in a very small scale area,” he said, grimly. “It might be taken for the work of an Eopeopsdivad - a probability demon – or maybe someone watching out for us will notice and put two and two together. I don’t dare try to access the universal background, not here, any more than I dare trying to jump to the Hub. There’s too much chance that someone…unfriendly will notice what we’re doing and send their goons to grab us.”
“But we have to do something,” General Wilson protested. “The country is under attack!”
“Not your country,” Grey said, sharply. “There are billions upon billions of Americas out there, some of them stranger than this, some of them places where the United States broke up after the War of Independence and…”
“The Independent States of America,” Robin injected, smiling.
“Yes,” Grey said, slightly put out. He waved to them to get moving again. “We can’t let ourselves get caught, not here; we have to keep moving and put some distance between us and the…invading forces.”
They walked for nearly half an hour before they ran into the small American force. The group of trucks had been trying to sneak around the perimeter of the Communist assault, Mathew guessed; green-clad soldiers jumped to their feet as they saw General Wilson, and then reached for their weapons before taking in his face.
“Colonel,” one of them said, wearing a Major’s uniform, “why are you wearing that uniform? And what happened to your beard?”
“I thought that American soldiers weren’t allowed to have beards,” Mathew muttered to Grey, as General Wilson and the Major argued backwards and forwards. The Major, he gathered, didn’t believe that they were anything, but Communist spies, although he was clearly at a loss to understand why there was a person he recognised in the little group. “What’s with the beard comment?”
“This is not your America,” Grey reminded him, his face pensive. “I wonder…could we really be that lucky?”
General Wilson turned back to them. “The Major and his men have kindly agreed to give us a lift to the local command post,” he said, a statement that couldn’t hide the fact that they were effectively prisoners. Mathew understood; whatever the Major might have thought, he wouldn’t allow potential spies to be running around somewhere where they might cause harm. “Jump in and keep your heads down.”
“And your senses alert,” Grey muttered, as they climbed into the vehicles. The trucks stank, but the soldiers didn’t complain; a handful of them made comments about Robin as she climbed in and ignored them with magnificent poise. Mathew studied them, puzzled; he’d seen a small American Army unit in his timeline and these grubby men didn’t look anything like them. They were unshaved, with pale faces, and…they were all white. The unit he’d seen had been multiracial, with an Arab, a Hispanic and three black men; the group that had captured them was all white. He had the nasty feeling that General Wilson was in for a surprise.
The drive itself took little more than an hour; he got the impression, listening to the soldiers, that the very front itself was fluid, although the Communists were advancing along the Gulf Coast. They spotted a handful of aircraft, but none of them decided that the small convoy was worth targeting; they were allowed to pass in peace. When they reached the small town, he was surprised by the mixture of Old Texan and modern defences that had been mixed together to create the town. The sign in front of the gate proclaimed it to be called Boondocks; he assumed that that was a complicated joke.
“I got your message,” a voice said, hauntingly familiar. Mathew realised what had happened with a shock. “As you can see, I’m clearly here…”
The voice broke off as they climbed out of the truck. Mathew wondered if the speaker was staring at Robin, but instead his eyes were fixed on General Wilson, who was staring back with a mixture of awe and astonishment. There was no mistaking the face, even if the chin was marred by a neatly-cut goatee; the man wearing the uniform of a Colonel was a duplicate of General Wilson.
The two Wilson’s stared at each other. They spoke simultaneously. “Who the fuck are you?”
Chapter Eighteen: In Which General Wilson Stares Into A Mirror
“Who the hell are you?” General Wilson demanded, as he stared into his own face, altered only by the presence of a dark goatee. They’d been escorted into a small room; now, they were alone with the other man. “What are you doing with my face?”
Grey concealed a smile. He could see the presence of the two counterparts; in a way, he had expected it ever since the soldiers had responding to the presence of General Wilson. It was something of a lucky break, the first one they’d had since they’d stepped into the world Jonathon had murdered; without seeing someone who looked like their commanding officer, the soldiers might have just shot them out of hand, or maybe even shackled them for transportation to a prison camp somewhere. Grey had seen enough universes where the Soviet Union had pulled off all kinds of dirty tricks on its opponents; the Americans in this universe, with their backs to the wall, probably weren’t worrying about the decencies of life.
And his entire being hurt. He’d shielded Mathew as much as he could and the two normal humans who’d come with them, who might be the last survivors of their world, depending on just how great a blast Jonathon had summoned, didn’t have the senses to feel the universe imploding around them. Grey had struggled to override the trap the Enemy had placed for them, driving them right into the trap without him scenting more than a moment of danger, and the feedback had almost killed him. He suspected that without Mathew, he would have been broken and torn into pieces, or effortlessly dumped wherever the Enemy wanted them to go. He didn’t know where they had been intended to end up, but he suspected that wherever it was, it wouldn’t be somewhere pleasant.
General Wilson turned to him. “Mr…Grey, what the hell is going on?”
“That man” – Grey nodded to Colonel Wilson – “is your counterpart in this universe,” he said. Counterparts were rarer than one might think; most universes tended to have unpredictable knock-on effects after the moment where they split from the parent universe. The General’s parents might never have met in the second timeline; they might have slept together on a different day and ended up with a girl instead. There really was no way of knowing, except to try the idea and find out…and even then, those who manipulated time and space tended to be surprised. “He’s you, to all intents and purposes.”
”I would have thought that was impossible,” Robin said, her eyes wide. “Doesn’t that suggest that there are more counterparts here?”
“It’s the uncertainty principle,” Grey said, thoughtfully. The Colonel was eyeing his counterpart with considerable interest, including, he noticed with wry amusement, the General’s uniform. “It keeps the universe going.”
Colonel Wilson looked blank. “What’s that?” He asked. “How does it work here?”
“I’m not quite certain,” Grey said. It was a good line; he saw no reason to waste it. “The long and short of the matter is that we are some distance from where we intended to be and we honestly have no idea of what’s going on. Can you tell us a bit about local history?”
Colonel Wilson met the eyes of his counterpart. It was interesting, but deep down inside both men already knew the truth, the effect of the quantum resonance between two entities that were almost completely identical at a quantum level. They’d accepted one another as brothers; he could almost see General Wilson nerving himself to volunteer to remain with his ‘brother’ and fight in the war. Grey had no real objection to that – he was growing a little tired of Wilson’s company – but they had to know just what was going on, first. The sense that there was something fundamentally wrong with the timeline kept nagging at him, as if the Enemy had done something to it…and he didn’t dare bring up his powers and scan the background of the timeline for information. It would be noticed.
He scowled. He’d risked everything to destroy the tanks that would have otherwise killed them, altering probabilities around them until their shells had exploded in their storage chambers, but the local interference might have been noticed, or it might not have been noticed. A normal human was tiny, compared to the sheer immensity of the universe, but the change in natural laws might well be noticed and attract attention. The universe couldn’t support the presence of an extra-dimensional creature for very long, but if the Enemy was sure they were here, they might send a Time Hound or something worse after them. It was just lucky that a Sealion wouldn’t be able to survive for a moment.
“There’s not much to tell,” Colonel Wilson said, grimly. “A few years back, the Commies threw us out of Mexico and sunk most of the Navy at sea, while niggers and spics hacked away at our will to fight and tore apart the fabric of the nation. We knew the Commies were massing their forces along the border for a push right into our heartland; we built up and prepared as best as we could, and then the Commies assassinated our President.”
Mathew blinked. “They killed George Bush?”
Both of the counterparts spoke at once. “Who?”
“Nothing is more changeable than Presidents,” Grey said, dryly. “When you think of just how close Nixon or Gore came to victory, you get the impression that a few changes in the right place could have altered the entire political landscape.” He shook his head. “That doesn’t matter for the moment, Colonel; it still bears no resemblance to any timeline I recognise. What happened when Hitler was defeated?”
It turned out, much to Grey’s private amusement, that Colonel Wilson hadn’t heard of Hitler either. Grey pushed backwards in time, asking questions and sometimes gaining meaningful answers, concluding at the end that the Point of Divergence had been in 1919. The Red Army had defeated the Poles outside Warsaw and then pushed on into Germany, rolling into a land torn apart by conflict, disease and deprivation; Trotsky, the leader of the International Communist Alliance, had masterminded the Communist conquest of Europe. Britain had held out for a few years, but the Government had cracked down so harshly that they’d ended up with a civil war, the collapse of what remained of the Empire, and, in the end, they’d gone Communist as well. The expansion hadn’t stopped there; within forty years, much of Africa had become Communist, followed by India, China and parts of South America.
Mathew had been astonished. “But didn’t the Americans do anything to stop it?”
Colonel Wilson pressed on. The Americans had had their own problems. There had been no Civil Rights era, no sense that perhaps it was time to loosen the shackles of race before they blew up in the country’s face; instead, there had been a series of minor wars against black terrorist groups and the creation of a police state, while the depression had never really ended. A succession of disliked and largely dictatorial governments had taken power, one after the other; by the time America had started to come out of its funk, the Communists had established themselves firmly in South and Latin America. The Americans had invoked the Monroe Doctrine and attempted to interfere, unaware that the Communists held most of the cards in the ensuing war, starting with a series of free propaganda victories as Mexicans returned from the United States with tales of how they had been treated by the ‘good old boys’ in the south. America had lost the war in Central America, America had lost the war in Mexico…and now the Communists were pushing into America itself.
Grey scowled. The situation looked tailor-made, which suggested that the Enemy was involved in it up to their necks, assuming they had necks, of course. He pressed Colonel Wilson – and his counterpart pressed him harder – about space technology and nuclear science, but the news there wasn’t good; this timeline had only developed atomic power recently, and both sides had only a handful of nukes. They’d never gone into space at all; the most advanced rocket they had wasn’t capable of carrying an atomic bomb.
“We could help you fix that,” General Wilson said, once the sorry tale had all been sorted out. “Robin knows plenty about atomic science and rockets, don’t you?”
Robin nodded. “We could build smaller nukes and fit them onto rockets,” she said. “It wouldn’t be that hard if the facilities were available.”
“They might not be,” Grey said, grimly. He was still worrying about just what the Enemy had wanted from them. They’d gone to a lot of effort to trap them, which suggested they hadn’t been invited for a holiday, or even a pleasant chat over a cup of tea. “You might end up having to make the tools to make the tools first, or perhaps even trying to convince people that you actually do know better than them.”
He shrugged. “Is that your way of saying you want to stay here?”
General Wilson turned sharply. “We could bring through the space stations and the people on the moon,” he snapped. “The orbital weapons would shift the balance of power so far that the Commies would never recover.”
“Assuming that the weapons are still intact,” Grey said. He saw the bitter expression on General Wilson’s face and winced; he hadn’t meant to remind the General that everyone, apart from Robin and himself, on his world might be dead. There was no way to know, short of going back there with a Multiverse Ship and investigating; Grey was starting to wonder if Jonathon had actually used the rock to blow up the world, or if the rock had merely provided the power to redirect them. It wouldn’t be too like Jonathon to blow up a world he was sitting on. “They might not be…”
A runner came into the small room. “Colonel, we had a message from higher command, in Houston,” she said. Grey took in her miniskirt and made a private guess as to the level of sexism in this version of the American Army. “They want an acknowledgement at once.”
Colonel Wilson glanced down at the sheet of paper. “They’re ordering a retreat to a line based near Houston,” he said, grimly. “We have orders to bug out ourselves and meet up with General Howery at the military camp nearby. I’m going to have to ask you to come with me.”
Grey rolled his eyes. The last thing he wanted to do was attract more notice. “I think it would be better if we went our own way here,” he said, shortly. There was no way to know who could be a Marked Man, if not a willing agent of the Enemy, and he didn’t want to risk contact until he had fully recovered from the effects of their sudden arrival. “Thank you for the hospitality and everything, but…”
“I’m sorry, but I do have to bring you with me,” Colonel Wilson said. His counterpart nodded once; Robin looked surprised at the sudden turn of the conversation. “Believe me, I’m doing you a favour; you do not want to get caught in the path of an offensive, or end up in occupied territory. I saw what they did to Government forces in Mexico and the higher-class families in Panama; they looted, raped, and then burned. You need to come with me.”
Grey caught Mathew’s eye, saw the telltale hints that suggested that Mathew was about to try something, and shook his head slightly. The irony was chilling; they could have broken out with ease, perhaps without having to kill anyone, but if they did, they would certainly set off the Enemy’s alarm systems. They would know exactly where to find them and come looking, leaving the two most powerful men on the planet almost helpless.
“Very well,” he said, standing up. “I would be fascinated to see what higher command makes of us.” He glanced over at General Wilson. “Do you know anyone called Howery?”
General Wilson shook his head.
“The first part of the plan was a complete success,” the Marked Man informed Jonathon Dark, as they stood together in the heat. The Marked Man wore the uniform of a General, but there was no question that his original self hadn’t been the most careful, almost being killed when the Enemy had stepped in to save his life…at the normal price, of course. “They’re somewhere within this reality.”
Jonathon smiled thinly. “And yet, as I warned you they would, they didn’t appear where you had planned for them to appear,” he said. The thought made him smile; the Enemy had taken a plan that was fairly simple, if still dependent on Grey making a single mistake at the right time, and made it just a little bit more complex. They had hoped to bag two Walkers, instead of one…but instead Grey had been able to alter the trap slightly, dropping Mathew, the two strays and himself somewhere else within the timeline. If they had succeeded, the two Walkers would have materialised in the middle of a trap and been rapidly defeated; instead, they were somewhere within a thousand kilometres of the base the Enemy had prepared to serve as the destination for the redirected Walkers. Logically, they were somewhere within America…but America was just a little hard to search. There was a war on, which allowed all kinds of interesting abuses of human rights, but it was too much to hope that Grey would have been killed by one side or the other. “Why don’t you listen to me next time?”
The Marked Man ignored him. “We have located their arrival point,” he said, with the faintest hint of gloating in his voice. “Through sheer chance, we were able to identify the use of Walker powers within an area, just enough to accidentally tip the balance of one of the battles between the two sides in this war. We suspect, given that the burst of power was not perfectly controlled, that it was the new Walker who destroyed the tanks.”
“I see,” Jonathon said, patiently. He couldn’t fault the logic, and yet…it wasn't like Grey to just permit someone to interfere without reason. Would Grey have realised in time that there was a reason? “That does not, however, tell you where they are?”
“A patrol reported in as having taken four prisoners, one of whom was reported as a possible Communist replacement agent for one of the commanding officers along the front,” the Marked Man said. Jonathon was certain about the gloating now. “It is much more likely that they have in fact captured a counterpart of one of the commanding officers, perhaps someone brought directly from the timeline that you redirected them from. The unit received special orders to withdraw towards Houston, unfortunately too late to prevent the counterparts meeting.”
Jonathon shrugged. “So what?” He asked. Counterparts weren’t made of matter and antimatter; if they met, nothing actually resulted apart from a great deal of confusion and maybe even a form of telepathy between the two men. He’d never experienced it personally; as far as he knew, Walkers almost never had counterparts. There was even a school of thought that suggested that that uniqueness was the source of the Walker abilities. “It won’t make any difference.”
“So they may have already found an ally,” the Marked Man said. He picked up a case and passed it over to Jonathon, who opened it and found a uniform inside. He felt dirty as soon as he touched it; the uniform was slightly different, but it was clearly that of a Military Policeman. He had always disliked the MPs during Boot Camp; they had no sense of fun and no balls between them, or so the cadets had whispered in the night. “You will take this uniform and a group of soldiers and arrest them, bringing them both here to be processed. Should they attempt to jump out, the redirection will send them right here; hell, you might as well grab Mathew and jump out with him because the redirection will send you here as well.”
Jonathon nodded. It seemed a simple plan. “And the counterparts?”
“We hardly need them,” the Marked Man said. He shrugged expressively enough to indicate near-total contempt. “Why don’t you just kill them and be done with it, unless we have an opportunity to use one of them for our own purposes?”
Jonathon smiled. “I think I’ll enjoy it,” he said. He glanced down at the news reports; street-fighting in New York, chaos in Richmond, lynching and racial hatred along the Deep South…all of which kept the Americans from focusing their attention on the real foe. They didn’t know, couldn’t know, that their power structure had been riddled with Enemy agents, or that some decisions were made, not to help America, but to help the Enemy complete their task. “The girl was a bit of a looker; perhaps I’ll have some fun with her afterwards.”
The Marked Man showed no particular interest. “Do not fail us on this,” he said. The sheer power hidden behind the voice rose up and pressed at Jonathon’s mind. “Do not fail us and everything you desire could be yours.”
Jonathon looked at him. It had to be important, perhaps more important than the Enemy had hinted at before; what were they playing at and what was the real reason why they wanted a second Walker? They’d been so determined to grab Mathew that they’d lost whatever chance they might have had to seduce Mathew onto their side, before Ian sent Grey to convince Mathew that service to the Hub was a better option. He thought about it, but no solution seemed to form in his mind; what could it be?
“I understand,” he said. His powers rose up within him. “I won’t let you down.”
Chapter Nineteen: In Which There Are Worse Things Than Death
The shots rang out almost before Colonel Wilson realised that they had driven right into an ambush, a hail of fire from one of the classical Russian assault rifles that swept the trucks before his soldiers deployed and fought off the ambush. He wasn’t too surprised – ever since the race riot in Austin and the mass lynching that had followed, the entire area had been crawling with the remnants of the Black Panthers – but he was angry that they should attack his convoy, now. They probably weren't criminals, but terrorists; real criminals would never have dared to attack a set of trucks with armed soldiers. At any moment, they would break off and try to disengage…and he would have to let them go, because he didn’t dare waste time trying to swat the individual insurgents.
He stood up, barking orders as his handful of armoured cars charged the location of the attackers, travelling in a zigzag pattern to avoid mines, when…something struck him in the side of the head. He felt a brief tearing pain…and then everything seemed to go still and quiet, the pain fading away into nothing, leaving him acutely aware of his body and the damage the bullet had just inflicted on him. There was a hole, right through his brain; numbed, his mind struggled to comprehend that he should be dead…
And there was a voice, a strange singing voice, right at the back of his mind. It seemed to be whispering; Colonel Wilson forced himself to concentrate on the voice – no, voices – and tried to hear what they were saying, only to force himself deeper and deeper into the terrifying still moment before he died. Everything was frozen around him; there was nothing, but the chilling silence, somehow loud in his ears.
You are dying, the voices whispered to him. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t say a word; he could only listen to the strange seductive words. You are caught between a moment of mortal life and the moment when your soul leaves your body, forever separating you from your life. When this moment ends, you will perish and leave this world forever.
Colonel Wilson tried to scream; “No…”
Death comes to all things, Arnold, the voice whispered, but this need not be your time. We can save you, in exchange for your service. You will live a long and happy life with your wife and children, you will spend your days serving your country and preserving what can be preserved.
“And all you want is my soul?” Colonel Wilson screamed, or thought he screamed; the pressure was growing worse. The sense that he didn’t have long to live in any case pushed down at his mind. “Will you see me damned to Hell?”
We care nothing for your soul, the voices whispered. We ask only for your service, at a time of our choosing, in exchange for your life. We will preserve your life; you will do something for us, when we ask, and then it will be over. Time grows short, Arnold; you must make your choice.
Colonel Wilson remembered his wife; she had already lost one son and her cousin to the war. How would she cope without him? What about his men? What would happen if they lost their commanding officer in the fight? He didn’t want to give the insurgents any chance at scoring a victory if one could be avoided…
The choice was easy. “I agree,” he said, or tried to say. “I’ll agree to your terms…”
There was a strange sense of…violation, at a very deep and fundamental level, and then everything snapped back into place, leaving him gasping for breath. Wonderingly, he lifted one hand to his forehead, where he’d felt the bullet penetrate, and felt nothing, but warm flesh and the reassuringly firm presence of the bone under the skin. He glanced around, watching as the insurgents were driven off by his men, and smiled broadly.
He’d never felt happier in his life.
Mathew had kept his head down as the first shots rang out, but part of his mind had welcomed it as a distraction from the numbing boredom of being in the trucks as they were driven north. He would have been happy to drive, or to have had something else to do, but instead they squatted in the smelly uncomfortable vehicles while they drove onwards, unable even to talk as the firing broke out. Grey had tossed his head, grimly, as the shooting faded away; there had been, just for a second, an odd sense that something had gone wrong with the world.
The remainder of the drive passed uneventfully, although they passed through several towns and villages that had been burned out, or had been converted into fortresses by American soldiers. There seemed to be almost no interstates in this timeline; if he remembered correctly, the original interstate road system in America had been designed to fight the Cold War…and this timeline had apparently decided against building them. Or, he supposed, it was possible they’d simply not seen any, but as they headed north, the roads only rarely got better. The heat kept rising; sweat poured down his back, although he refused to emulate the example of some of the soldiers and strip off his shirt. The small amount of water they could drink didn’t help; he wondered, grimly, if they were going to die of thirst before they reached their destination. It seemed all too likely.
“This is the outer fence,” someone called, as they were waved through a checkpoint. “Do you want to come forward and have a look?”
Mathew glanced at Grey, who shrugged, so he climbed up and slipped into the position beside the driver. The army camp was massive, a monstrous series of black barrack-shaped buildings, bunkers, shooting ranges and other buildings – the purpose for which he couldn’t even begin to guess at – that seemed to be both as vast and as small as the Hub. Logically, he was sure that Camp Pershing – he could see the sign on each of the buildings as they passed – was huge, but it all seemed to be crammed into a tiny space. They passed barracks, which were replaced by small neat bungalows with gardens, somehow not fitting in properly with the surrounding camp, and which was in turn replaced by a second fence, this time guarded by soldiers who looked as if they had something permanently stuck up their behinds.
”The Military Police,” the driver muttered, in an aside that stank of cheap tobacco. “Too cowardly to fight, too poor or too cheap to buy themselves off the draft, too thick to escape to Canada with all the other cowards…don’t give them anything, but the time of day.”
Mathew said nothing. The MPs came up to the truck and investigated, taking a brief glance at each of the tags the soldiers wore, before checking out Grey and Mathew. There was a long angry conversation between Colonel Wilson – who couldn’t stop grinning for some reason – and the MPs, before they took in the General’s uniform of the other Wilson and fell silent. They looked rebellious, seemingly sheepdogs who knew that they were trying to steer other sheepdogs, maybe even wolves, rather than sheep, but they didn’t dare press things too hard. Mathew had read a little about problems defeated armies suffered in the rear and suspected that more than a few MPs had been shot in the back by their own people. They clearly weren’t popular.
“You may pass,” the lead MP said finally. Colonel Wilson rolled his eyes and muttered a command to the driver, who drove them carefully through two gates, each of which was heavily guarded and covered by armed watchtowers, before they entered the heart of the complex. It didn’t look very…military to Mathew; the nerve centre of the American Army in the South looked more like a business estate than anything else.
“You are dismissed,” Colonel Wilson said, addressing his men. There was a brief exchange of salutes. “Sergeant Parson, take an hour to use the refreshment centre and make sure everyone gets fed, then carry out drills if you don’t see me before then.”
“Yes, sir,” the burly Sergeant said.
Colonel Wilson turned back to Grey. “You’d better come with me,” he said. “I’ve been told that the General wants to see us at once.”
Mathew had worked, once, on an industrial estate that had produced vehicles and weapons for the British Army. The interior of Camp Pershing reminded him of that, a strange mixture of civilian-style buildings and a few dozen military vehicles scattered around, mostly antiaircraft trucks and a handful he didn’t recognise. The buildings were studded with radio and communications antenna; the lack of satellite dishes threw him for a moment before he remembered that this timeline had no space presence at all. Compared to the murdered world, this timeline was poor and grim, but at least it was alive…and still fighting. There were more guards, this time wearing clean uniforms and perfectly shaved faces, at the main doors; it required more arguing to convince them to allow the four visitors to enter the building. The door slammed shut behind them; Mathew almost heard it as a prison door.
The interior of the building was a hive of languid, yet somehow hurried, activity. Soldiers were walking everywhere, their every motion somehow contriving to give the impression of speed, but there was something…unreal about them. The soldiers, some of them barely out of their teens, others older, didn’t look like real soldiers; they reminded him more of students, or of kids playing at being soldiers. Some of them were clearly accountants, some of them seemed to be just doing nothing; they didn’t seem to be taking the war seriously at all.
“Headquarters troops,” Colonel Wilson muttered, under his breath. His counterpart nodded in agreement. “Good for nothing, but a swift kick up the arse every now and again.”
The office of General Howery was a fine place, Mathew noted, although he did wonder if that said more about the General’s own tastes than that of the people who had built the camp. They were less than two hundred kilometres from the war front, and yet, the office was almost like a business office, with neat pictures – General Butler’s Crushing of the Communist Party, one was entitled – decorating the walls. The only concession to military matters was the small list of decorations on the back wall, signs of places General Howery had served, gifts presented to him by his soldiers and staff; he wondered if the fact that there were only a few meant anything. There was no way to know.
“This is quite an interesting hot potato you’ve brought me, Colonel,” General Howery said. “And this…is what you claim as your counterpart?”
Mathew studied him, not liking where the conversation was going. General Howery was an enormous white man, with a long beard and two sharp eyes peering out of his face. He looked to be all muscle; his uniform was neat and properly pressed. A small picture, that of a blonde girl, lay on his desk; the memento ran ‘Damned Canadians; Onwards to Canada.’ The image and the line underneath made so little sense that he wondered if it was a joke of some kind.
“Yes, sir,” Colonel Wilson said.
“I came from another universe,” General Wilson snapped. “My associate and I have information that can be used to save America – this America – from destruction at the hands of a ruthless foe!”
“An interesting story,” General Howery said. “However…”
He pushed a button and the door opened, revealing a group of armed MPs. “We know, however, that it is nothing more than a particularly cunning Commie plot to infiltrate our ranks. Fortunately for us, the Major here was able to act in time to prevent the plot from coming to fruitarian.”
Mathew turned to look at the MPs. There was no mistaking the man behind them.
It was Jonathon Dark.
The wonder of it all, Grey realised, was that Jonathon had been insanely lucky not to have been sensed sooner. He should have been able to sense his presence nearby – twice, now – and had failed in each case. That was more than a little worrying – it was possible that the Enemy had learned more about how to circumvent Walker abilities than anyone, himself included, had guessed – but it wasn’t an issue at the moment. Two Walkers on one would be hard to beat, but he was grimly certain that Jonathon would be backed up by the might of the Enemy.
“You,” General Wilson snapped. He rounded on Jonathon, his fists raised; two MPs shoved their weapons in his chest. “You destroyed an entire fucking world!”
“I merely put it out of its misery,” Jonathon said, easily. “You do understand, General, that many of these people are trained to come up with the Big Lie, the lie so vast that no one will believe it – or, alternatively, they won’t dare to question it. The Colonel here has merely been the target of such a lie; had the enemy not make a mistake with his rank, he would have been replaced quietly and a mole would have started to hammer away at our defences from the inside.”
Grey closed his eyes for a long moment, gathering his strength. “And how exactly did you get these…men to assist you?”
Jonathon leered cheerfully at them. “I merely told them that they had orders to assist me,” he said. “I even told them that those orders came directly from the President.”
Mathew stepped forward. “And were they?”
“Do you doubt me?” Jonathon asked dryly. “I have direct authority from the President himself to arrest you and your two henchmen.” He examined Robin briefly. “You’re not a man, dear girl, but your fate will be just as unpleasant.”
Colonel Wilson spoke rapidly. “I know he’s my counterpart,” he snapped. Grey believed him, but knew that General Howery would believe Jonathon, over his subordinate. “I can feel it, deep inside; I know what he is.”
“I’m afraid your man has been drugged slightly,” Jonathon said conversationally, addressing General Howery. “As you can see, he’s actually bought into the lies he’s been told about alternate worlds, which incidentally explains any niggling differences between the Colonel and the General.” His voice became almost sympathetic. “Colonel, I’m afraid I’m going to have to relieve you for a while, until we can have you tested…”
Colonel Wilson glared at him. “Tested for what?”
“Drug use, being clean of known brainwashing drugs, loyalty to the government…the list goes on and on,” Jonathon said, smoothly. “General, may I take the prisoners now?”
General Howery winced. “I can let you have the spies,” he said. “I can’t let you have Colonel Wilson; I need him and I’m not going to let him fall into your hands.”
Jonathon looked surprised for the first time. “General, perhaps you didn’t understand me,” he said. “I am a Senior Inspector in the Federal Loyalty Bureau. I have the right, without permission from any…mere…theatre commander, to take anyone for interrogation, regardless of their opinion of my actions.”
General Howery stood up in one smooth motion. “You overstep yourself,” he snapped. “This is a war zone and I am the supreme commander, under the President. Your authority doesn’t mean jack shit unless I choose to let it mean something and…
Jonathon drew his pistol and shot General Howery in one smooth motion. The MPs went for their weapons, confused, and Grey warped reality around them, sending most of them crashing to the ground from the strain of seeing several layers of reality at once. Colonel Wilson drew his service pistol and fired a shot at Jonathon, whose very form twisted and warped before vanishing, and then he fell to his knees, screaming. Grey could see the sudden intrusion of…something from another dimension and realised that he was looking at a Marked Man, who was already bringing his pistol around to shoot his counterpart.
“Don’t,” Mathew shouted. Grey reached out with his powers, a move that was nothing short of pathetic for a Watcher who had been doing it as long as he had, but hesitated; he’d liked Colonel Wilson. The man was gone, replaced now by an evil alien intelligence wrapped in the Colonel’s form; he might not want to hurt them, but he was going to hurt them, like it or not. General Wilson went for his own gun…and his counterpart shot him down, his eyes burning with horror as his own face snapped backwards and crashed into the ground.
Robin screamed and collapsed to the ground, her screams mixing with the air as Grey brought his field into play with the force controlling Colonel Wilson. The Colonel screamed the scream of the damned before collapsing, like a puppet whose strings had been cut; there was no time to mourn for him before it was too late. He sensed it, too late…and then strong arms caught him from behind. There was no longer any time to struggle; the pain from their arrival and his new use of his abilities was too much for him. He sagged, involuntarily, and then it was too late.
Jonathon realised, too late, that he’d made a mistake himself. He’d used his MPs as cannon fodder – not least as even the hardest MP might have had issues with a man who’d just shot down the commanding officer of the entire front – and waited for one of the Walkers to use their powers. The power discharged had been amateurish; he’d concluded, naturally, that the one who had tried to use their powers was Mathew. He’d teleported in behind him, grabbing hold with his arms before starting the process of crashing them both into the rewritten area of reality, and then he’d realised that he’d caught Grey instead. It was too late…
And both Walkers vanished in a distorting haze of reality.
Chapter Twenty: In Which Mathew Finds Himself Alone (Again)
It all happened very quickly.
One moment Mathew had been keeping his head down, trying to draw on his powers to prevent the remaining MPs from getting up and trying to hurt them again, and then Jonathon Dark had appeared behind Grey, grabbing him, and then they had both vanished in a haze of distortion. Mathew stared, unable to believe his eyes…and then the door started to shake as people started to try to break in. He cursed and tried to pull himself to his feet, feeling the urge to curl into a ball and draw his powers around him to shield him, but there was no time! Grey needed him.
The two men who had both been Wilson were dead; Colonel Wilson was alive, in a sense, but there was nothing inside his eyes. Mathew could see it, now; a corruption that had reached right through his soul to, in the end, crush his life like a bug. Perhaps it had killed him because Grey had tried to free him, perhaps the people who had done that to him didn’t appreciate rebellion, or maybe there was another reason. It didn’t seem to matter, Mathew saw, as he tried to think; Grey was gone!
A noise caught his attention; the door was starting to break under the impact of rifle butts. He saw Robin, her eyes wide with terror, staring at nothing; if someone was going to do something, it was going to have to be him. He reached for her and she collapsed into his arms, surprisingly light as he took the risk of drawing on his powers and hiding them both in-between the seconds. His vision seemed to flicker slightly and he felt a burst of panic – it would have been a really bad moment to lose his sight – before he remembered what Grey had taught him about moving between the moments. The door seemed to move like a jerky slow-motion movie; inch-by-inch, the door fell inwards and soldiers poured in, wearing MP uniforms. Mathew wasn't disposed to trust them any longer; whatever line of bullshit Jonathon had fed them, they couldn’t be trusted any longer. Their one friend from the new timeline had been killed, or controlled by Jonathon; without him, Mathew honestly wasn't certain what to do. He pulled up Robin and pulled her out, slowly, of the complex; limping as they walked.
Alarms ran around them as Russian aircraft swooped overhead, delivering heavy loads of dumb bombs on the camp; Mathew used the chaos as a shield to half-carry Robin out of the camp, wondering what the hell he was going to do? The girl’s weight was lighter than he had expected, but he knew he couldn’t carry her forever…and he didn’t know what else he was going to do. He kept walking, pushing his pain aside and forcing himself to move onwards; when they finally left the camp, it seemed as if he had been walking for years. They’d been lucky; it made him wonder just what Jonathon thought he was doing. If he had come back for them, it would have been a disaster, so why hadn’t he come back? Mathew liked to hold a high opinion of himself, but cold logic told him that Jonathon would kick his arse if it came to a direct fight…so why hadn’t the rogue Walker come back for him?
The thought kept running around his mind as he walked onwards, finally stumbling across an abandoned farmhouse somewhere in the arid desert. He wouldn’t have believed that anyone could have lived here, but he guessed that someone had from the fact it all looked new; they’d probably been evacuated from the area before the Communist juggernaut reached them. This other America chilled him; their world was one of endless war and terror. As he found a bed and dropped Robin onto it, before exploring the farmhouse and finding some fresh water and even a set of soldier’s rations, it hit him; the Enemy had only been interested in A Walker. They hadn’t needed Mathew in particular, as much as the thought galled him; they’d only picked on him because he was new and completely inexperienced.
“Shit, Mathew,” Robin said, as she sipped the water gratefully. She reminded him of Rose Tyler somehow, perhaps it was the blonde hair, or perhaps it was the cute smile she had shown Grey before she’d become one of two survivors of her world…and had then become the only survivor of her world. She and General Wilson had been the last, and now he was gone, there was just her. “What are we going to do?”
Mathew had been thinking about that. “We can’t stay here,” he said, hoping against hope that he was right. Grey would have known, but Grey was gone…and he had no idea how to find him. Jonathon had taken him somewhere…and there was no way of knowing where he had gone. “They took him…”
He spent the next twenty minutes telling her everything, from his encounter with a Time Hound, to his first meeting with Aneesa and her family, to the Hub, Grey, Ian and the discovery of the dead world – her dead world. She had a more practical mind than him; as she bounced questions off him, he became more aware of what he knew and what he didn’t know. One thing she pointed out was obvious; if the Enemy had cared to find him, they would have found it easy when he’d been carrying her out of the camp. That suggested that they just weren’t interested in him anymore, and while he was honest enough to admit that that was something of a relief, he refused to abandon Grey. He owed the Walker everything…and privately vowed to free him.
“So,” Robin said finally, “what do the Enemy actually want?”
“I have no idea,” Mathew admitted. He’d read all the files at the Hub on the Enemy, but he’d discovered that while they were very large files indeed, there was nothing of any real substance in them. There was plenty of observation and deduction data, from the sheer power involved in taming a Time Hound, but there was little that could be used to imply what they were actually playing for, or where they were based. Ian might know – Grey had hinted that the Ruler of the Hub knew more than he placed into his own files – but there was no way of reaching him…or was there? If the Enemy weren’t interested in him any more, would they bother with screwing up local reality to prevent him from Walking to the Hub?
Robin frowned. The expression somehow made her cuter than ever. “There must be something they want,” she said. “Who’s fighting them, and why?”
“No one seems to know,” Mathew said. He’d skimmed through the information, from minor skirmishes on isolated worlds, fought through proxy forces, to direct clashes that had consumed entire galaxies in various realities. He'd read about an American aircraft carrier dumped into a world where the American Revolution had never happened, to a weirder world where the Roswell Crash had been a genuine alien spacecraft. Some encounters between the two sides had been victories, some had been more elusive in their very natures, let alone the outcome; those encounters had defied description. And, caught in the middle, humans, aliens, creatures like Cyanna, Walkers, Old Ones, Transcendent Beings, the Firstborn and countless others…an entire Multiverse torn apart by the warring sides.
Robin rolled her eyes. “This war is simple,” she said, waving her hand in the air. Dull thunder echoed in the air; Mathew guessed that it was a sound from the battle being fought out between the Americans and the massive Communist force arrayed on the border. It would be like a version of World War Two, or maybe a madcap version of the nightmarish predictions of World War Three during the early years of the Cold War; there would be little room for sophistication or even skill, merely bravery and sheer weight of force. “One side knows who the enemy is; the other knows that they are the enemy. Why is your war so complicated?”
“My war?” Mathew asked, but she was right. It had become his war from the moment the Time Hound had forced its way into Cambridge to slaughter thousands of students and chased him to the Islamic world, where he had allowed himself to wonder if he could feel anything for Aneesa, before the rogue Walker had destroyed all of his sense of security…and now kidnapped the man he had come to think of as a father figure. “It’s been going on for years…”
Robin shrugged. “Someone has to put an end to it,” she said. “Why don’t the Walkers get involved?”
Mathew shrugged. There had never been a real answer to that question, although he would have placed good money on the possibility that there were already a few Walkers on the side of the Time Agents, just by the law of averages. Jonathon Dark had worked for the Enemy, after all, although it did make him wonder; what did the Enemy have to tempt him into working for them? They were clearly beings of great power, perhaps even Beings of Power, but a Walker was hardly a poor man out to make a buck. Given time, Mathew could have taken care of all of his needs without money or having to work for a living; he assumed that the same was true of Jonathon. What did they have to offer him to make him work for them?
He paused. Come to think of it, why hadn’t they simply asked him to knock up as many girls as possible? If they could take control of girls, they wouldn’t have any problems getting him to sleep with them to make them pregnant, or they could have simply kidnapped as many girls as they liked, or inserted his sperm into a sperm bank, or…there were just too many questions and no real answers. He had already decided that it would be a good idea to have a long chat with Ian, once he got back to the Hub; it was the issue of getting back to the Hub that worried him. He could Walk there, of course, but only if the Enemy hadn’t kept their redirection trick in place. Grey had fought it, but he didn’t have anything like as much training or experience…and Grey had failed in the end. Was there any other way of getting to the Hub?
The Roads of Happenstance, he remembered, and scowled. He’d studied them at the Hub and knew that they only intersected some worlds – it had been the cause of the collapse of the Sid-Faer Empire – and only then at Nexus Points, and he didn’t know where the local Nexus was, assuming that there was one. He closed his eyes for a long moment, trying to feel it out and risking exposure, but there were only hints of the dimensional warp in the Bermuda Triangle. The Hub’s data records had warned that the warp, a result of an experiment back in the 1940s involving an attempt to create an invisible warship, was dangerous beyond belief to anyone with extra-dimensional abilities, often either dumping them somewhere in the Multiverse, or simply ripping them apart outright. If there was a gateway onto the Happenstance Roads in this timeline, there was no way to find it…or at least he couldn’t find it.
“I don’t know what to do,” he admitted, sitting down on the bed next to her. It was odd; she was young, and desirable, and the old Mathew would have felt honoured to have even shared a school with her, but now part of him wanted to just jump on her, and the other part wanted to just run from her as fast as he could. Grey had warned him about the Walker wanderlust, the desire to remain wanderers, rather than settling down…and it dawned on him, suddenly, that all of the Walkers had to be very lonely. Perhaps that was why Ian had built the Hub; had it been nothing more than a desire for companionship…or perhaps an attempt to reconfigure himself to assuage the wanderlust. Was that why Jonathon had embraced the Enemy? “We can try to run to the Hub, but they might be watching, and if they are, we might be jumping right into their hands, or…”
Robin pulled at him. “Wait a day,” she said. Mathew stared at her, revolted; was she seriously suggesting abandoning the search for Grey for even a day? “You need to give them time to grow complacent and forget about you, if they’re truly as unimpressed with you as you hinted. If they killed him at once, there’s nothing you can do, but if they need him alive, they’ll keep him long enough for you to get to the Hub and find help.”
Her words were tempting. “Maybe,” Mathew conceded reluctantly. He was scared, terrified; he had seen what challenging a redirection trick had done to Grey and he didn’t want to face it himself, even though there might be no point. If the trap no longer existed, and it had occurred to him that Jonathon might have deliberately triggered it for him and Grey, there was no danger, but if he was wrong…
He smiled down at her. “What do you suggest we do in the meantime?”
Robin gave him a smile that suggested that she was happy to be alive. “I think we can think of something,” she said, and pulled him to her. Mathew didn’t want to object as her lips met his, a kiss that was much more experienced, much less forced, than the kiss Aneesa had given him. Her body opened up for him and he found himself, for the first time in his life, panting with desire; she was a moment of joy and wonder in a dark land. Her voice was a whisper; suddenly it was hard to get undressed without tearing anything. “I just want to forget…”
Afterwards, he wandered through the farmhouse, struggling with his feelings. Part of him was delighted, losing his virginity at last, part of him still wanted to flee from her. She might have become pregnant in that short glorious moment, or maybe she had distracted him from his new purpose for her own reasons; there was just no way to be certain. The farmer who had owned the house had clearly loved his family, even if they had lived in cramped surroundings; he picked up and examined a set of small wooden planes, before seeing and recognising one of them.
A thought struck him and he picked it up, pocketing it.
He felt perversely proud of himself afterwards, even though there was little else in the farmhouse worth taking; it was the sort of thought that Grey would have had. If he understood the logic of the Happenstance Roads now – and he thought that he grasped at least some of the logic – the item he'd picked up would come in very handy. His mood wasn't dampened when he found the paddles, one for each of the smaller beds, or the cane that the farmer had placed neatly on the back of the door. The farmer had also been a religious man; he passed bibles and other religious texts, few of them familiar to him. He'd clearly been a member of the ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ faction.
He came back downstairs and saw Robin dressing, hugging herself; she’d cried after they’d made love. He understood enough about stress to know that she was blowing some of it off before it overwhelmed her; he hoped she didn’t really understand just what she’d lost, or she might go mad at the thought of being the only survivor of six billion people. There was just no way to know. She looked lovely, even in the tattered BDU she’d been wearing when they’d met…had it really been less than a day ago? Maybe a day at most. Her breasts winked at him from her unbuttoned undershirt; he felt guilty and excited at the same time.
“It’s time to go,” he said, and watched as she pulled on her shirt. She looked less desirable now; he cursed himself for a heel even as she smiled bravely at him, before taking his hand and closing her eyes. Mathew felt the power rising up within him and took a step forward, then another, then another…feeling the timeline fading away around him as he stepped out of reality…and felt a wave of fire reaching out for him. He closed his inner eye again as the trap struck them, and he pushed against it, and he realised that the trap had been weakened somehow. Reality tore at him and he screamed, screaming endlessly…and then something broke. He felt it shattering around him and, just for a second, he found himself struggling to take a breath of air; Grey had warned him that while it was hard to kill a Walker, one way was to convince the Walker that they were dead. It was suddenly very hard to breathe…
He gasped, half-expecting to be dumped unceremoniously back into the Enemy-controlled timeline…and then he realised that he was free. The Multiverse bent and twisted around him and he forced his legs to Walk, taking him towards the Hub; time and space stabilised before he found the path and walked into the Hub, coming out of a door in the bar. Just for a moment, he thought he heard something screaming in fury…and then the door closed, and then they were safe.
Ian was polishing a glass at the counter. “Well, hello,” he said. His face was almost completely unreadable. His voice, likewise, was flat, almost completely unreadable. “I’ve been expecting you for quite a while now. What kept you?”
Chapter Twenty-One: In Which Grey Faces An Old Friend
The darkness slowly faded, to be replaced by flickering images right out of nightmare, dark wings flittering across the sky, sending waves of pain right down Grey’s spine. His body was slowly becoming more real as he came back to awareness, but his mind, oddly enough, didn’t hurt much. It felt as if he had been on a two-week bender, but there was none of the pain he remembered from his first attempt to challenge an Enemy redirection trick.
Memory returned suddenly and he remembered what had happened to him, how he’d been grabbed by Jonathon and yanked into the Multiverse, slamming into the redirection and allowing it to toss them wherever it had been designed to send them. He’d tried to struggle, but he'd been unable to even generate the power to fight Jonathon directly; something had assaulted him on a very primal level and everything had gone dark. He tried to stand up and realised he couldn’t move; somehow, he had never realised that he’d never opened his eyes. He forced them open…and stared into the face of Jonathon Dark.
“Welcome back to the world,” the rogue Walker said, softly. “How are you feeling?”
Grey glared at him, and twisted his head, hoping to have something else to look at other than the mocking face of Jonathon. The room – if they were in a room – was almost completely dark; the only light shone down from above and illuminated his position, spread-eagled on a large table. The darkness was primal; he was sure, somehow, that there were monsters waiting out there somewhere, perhaps even the Enemy themselves. The sense of sheer hidden power, only half-seen, but completely disturbing to the imagination, almost overwhelmed him. He didn’t want to look into the darkness; so close to the almost living and breathing shadow, he felt more naked and vulnerable than he had felt in years.
He sighed in resignation and turned his head to look back at Jonathon. The rogue was smiling slightly, clad in a dapper black suit that matched his hair and the darkness outside the light perfectly; his skin pale against the darkness, illuminated only by the light. He reminded Grey of a band of lesbian vampires he’d met along the Roads of Happenstance once; the same pale face, the same slightly superior smile. He looked for the teeth instinctively, but Jonathon had his mouth closed. Grey doubted that the rogue had actually been turned – no one knew what happened if a Walker got the vampire bite and no one was interested in finding out the hard way – but it would have been a fitting end. At the end, Jonathon was only a parasite…
“Welcome back to the world,” Jonathon said, his voice falling back into its more normal tones. “How are you feeling?”
“Like crap,” Grey answered honestly. He tested the bonds carefully; whatever was holding him in position was too strong to break…and his head threatened to explode, perhaps literally, when he tried to draw on his powers. “What happened?”
Jonathon laughed. “I thought you were Mathew,” he said, his face twisting slightly. “Still, they only wanted a Walker, and so they got you. They’re not complaining.”
“How lucky for you,” Grey said. It was a struggle to raise his head so he could glare more effectively, but he managed it, even though Jonathon didn’t seem bothered at all by the stare. “Is this the part where you tell me all your evil plans and gloat a lot?”
Jonathon shrugged. “I’ve never been able to get into the mood for caring for cats,” he said, dryly. “A white cat would be fitting, but they are such selfish creatures…”
“You have such a lot in common,” Grey said. He lowered his head back to the table and sighed. “What was the point of all this?”
Jonathon leered cheerfully. “Do you remember that video, that Lombardi Production that we were passing around the Hub for giggles,” he said. “You know the one I mean?”
Grey shrugged. “Do you mean the one with the Spanking Nurses, or the one with the Slumber Party, or the one with the Ten Little Indians, or the…for Ian’s sake, Jonathon, which one do you mean?”
Jonathon’s eyes flickered at the mention of Ian. “It may interest you to know that this area of reality has been heavily infiltrated by the people I work for,” he said. “Merely saying Ian’s name won’t bring the son of a bitch here, let alone grant him the power to reshape this area of reality as if it was the Hub. A Being of Power would have real problems even locating this pocket of reality; a group of normal humans wouldn’t be able to cope with the creatures we have on defence duty. There really is no way out.”
“I’m sure that’s what you were thinking back on the Islamic world,” Grey said, trying to force a smile onto his face. “We got away from you and your Sealion too.”
Jonathon ignored the jibe. “I mean the movie about the two explorers who accidentally stumble upon an Amazon tribe in a jungle,” he said. “The guy hears that they want to get as many of their women – and they’re all women – pregnant as possible, so he thinks he’s in boy heaven. The girl, his wife, is pissed; all they want her to do is go back to civilisation and recruit a few more men to help…repopulate their country. He jumps at the chance and she dumps him and storms off…”
“And it turns out that all of the amazons are bitches who effectively rape him, because they’re all really lesbians at heart,” Grey snapped. He remembered the movie as well. “And his wife discovers the wonders of lesbian sex in between seducing men and luring them back out to serve as sperm banks on legs. What is your fucking point?”
“Temper, temper,” Jonathon mocked. “Let’s just say…you’ve been getting a lot of action in the last two days; I’ve really been quite envious.”
Grey felt cold horror trickling down his spine. “They’ve been breeding Walkers?”
“Of course,” Jonathon said. “They’ve Marked dozens of women, just like they Marked that counterpart you found in the Communist timeline, and all of them have been coming and…you’ve been coming inside them, and you know what that means, don’t you?”
Grey winced. A Walker would almost certainly get a woman who could get pregnant carrying his child, unless he applied a slight alteration in reality – or, more prosaically, a condom. The Marked Women would almost certainly be carrying his children by now, returned to their area of time and space to wait until they carried the children to term, where the Enemy would come for them in time. The Walker DNA would ensure that the children fitted in to the host society; the husbands would never know that their wives had accidentally cheated on them, let alone carried another man’s child.
Jonathon leaned forward. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve been assured that your children will be well taken care of, and their abilities put to good use…”
Memory returned in a flash. “Colonel Wilson,” Grey snapped. “He was a Marked Man, wasn't he?” Jonathon nodded once. “Then why the hell didn’t I sense it?”
“You’ve been hurt, badly,” Jonathon said, seriously. “They were quite impressed, as far as I could tell; your struggle kept you free for an extra day…but it cost you some of your abilities and did it so well that you never even noticed that Colonel Wilson, in one reality, died…and another took his place…”
Grey closed his eyes for a long moment. Each individual universe was made up of probabilities, a spinning cylinder of possible small-scale alternatives, from an individual’s choice of what underwear to wear, to the actions of a tiny butterfly, flapping its wings at just the wrong moment. Each choice represented a potential split between universes, rather than a definite split in itself; some of them would lead to a new universe, others just…remained potential rather than a definite split. He’d once visited a timeline where a woman’s choice of panties had made the difference between peace and war, but that had been the exception…
“My head,” he said, suddenly, feeling very real fear. Had he been brain damaged, or maybe even cut off permanently from some of his powers, or was it even worse than that? “How bad is it?”
Jonathon tapped the side of his head with an ice-cold finger. “I dare say you’d recover, in time,” he said, dryly. “If, of course, they give you the opportunity; they might just intend to use you and then discard you like a dirty tissue.”
Grey looked at him. The prospect of death, oddly enough, was making him more determined to escape somehow. “The Enemy,” he said. “Who are they?”
“I don’t know,” Jonathon said, as if it was a minor matter of no consideration. Grey suspected that not knowing galled him; Jonathon had always been addicted to secrets, even to the point of using his powers to spy on girls he had known before his powers had developed; it had to irritate him that he still had no idea who they were…or what they wanted. “Don’t you know?”
“But what is the point of this war?” Grey asked, wondering if there was a chance to talk directly to the Enemy themselves. “How many quadrillions upon quadrillions of lives has this war claimed?”
“They once told me,” Jonathon said. “The figure was so high that it was completely beyond comprehension, even for me. There are timelines that were completely ripped apart, their people and equipment dumped into the Vale or falling through other timelines that would have developed normally without the chucks of other material being dumped on them. Hell, there are worlds where Earth’s population is nine billion and a small amount of poison was enough to kill them all. The six billion whom I killed personally…so what? That’s small change.”
Grey stared at him. “And what about you?” He snapped. A thought had occurred to him. “They had you all along, so why the hell do they need me for their breeding program? I’m sure you would have been happy to fuck any number of Marked Women; I remember your little experiment with mind controlling drugs back in the day.”
Jonathon smiled a slow satisfied smile. “That was fun,” he said, clearly remembering. The drugs he’d bought from Adam Denton’s WMD Emporium had been sex-specific; introduced into a planetary water supply, they had only affected the women, not the men. The women, unable to resist any command they were given, had rapidly found themselves more or less enslaved. “I have spent much of my life proving what lifelong scum are those who are confined to one timeline…and lo! I proved it with that little stunt…which incidentally proved as well just how dandy naked women doing chores are.”
He giggled. “And come on,” he said. “Don’t you think that it was funny?”
Grey remembered the fearful looks he’d seen on the faces of the women. “No, I fucking don’t,” he snapped. It hadn’t been funny at all; he hadn’t cared to come face to face with such temptations. There were places within the multidimensional maze that was the Hub’s brothel that held temptations he didn’t dare face and hadn’t wanted to introduce Mathew to, or at least not before he was ready. “You’ve gone right off your rocker!”
“Perhaps they should have been nicer to me,” Jonathon said. “How many women mocked us Walkers for being ugly gnomes, or worse, before we developed our powers?”
“You always were a bastard,” Grey snapped back at him. “So, what now?”
Jonathon leaned back easily. “Well, that’s somewhat up to others than me,” he said. “I got the feeling that they wanted a Walker for something…terminal, but I don’t really care. Mathew…heh, talk about an idiot. I thought of just walking up to him, giving him a handkerchief and telling him that it was chloroform, would he like a sniff?”
“You were brilliant on your first day as a Walker as well,” Grey said, sarcastically. “Mathew will become something worth having around in time.”
“Assuming that he actually manages to survive whatever my…employers have in mind for the Multiverse,” Jonathon said. He leaned closer. “But I have an offer for you; join us, and we’ll spare your life.”
Grey threw back his head and laughed. “You have to be joking,” he said. “Do you think they’ll trust me?”
“You take the Mark, they’ll trust you because there’ll be no choice,” Jonathon said, calmly. “Grey – old friend – whatever they want from you, they’ll be much more inclined to regard you as worth keeping alive if you join us.”
“And they can’t Mark anyone against their will,” Grey said. He remembered enough about the entire process to be sure of that, although it could just be something that the Enemy did as part of their sick game. “Do you actually think that I’m going to take the Mark and surrender my individuality to them?”
“I told them that you would refuse the Mark,” Jonathon said. His smile grew wider; Grey caught a flash of milk-white teeth and looked, instinctively, for fangs. He saw none. “It’s always nice to be proved right.”
Grey leaned back. “I guess I have no choice, but to wait for death,” he said, as melodramatically as he could. “But, before I die, there’s just one thing I’d like to know.”
Jonathon smiled. “I read the Evil Overlord list as well,” he said. “I think the advice was just to say no and shoot the bastard, or, failing that, just shoot first and say no afterwards. Still, they want you alive for the moment, but…I could hurt you a little, or…hell, what’s the question?”
Grey smiled. “Curious, now?”
“Only slightly,” Jonathon said. “Was that the question?”
“No,” Grey said. “Tell me something; why do you hate Ian so much?”
“Is this an attempt to dig inside my head and make me feel as if someone out there still loves me?” Jonathon demanded, his face twisting with very real anger. “That’s a childish trick, Grey. I expected better from you.”
“Nothing of the sort,” Grey said. “I want to know why you started to…take action against your own people, and joined the Enemy. Why?”
Jonathon stared down at him for a long moment. Grey could feel the power twisting and curling around him, and knew that if Jonathon lashed out, he would be defenceless. The best he could hope for would be a quick end, before the Enemy could use him for whatever purpose they had in mind, or perhaps Jonathon would try to make him scream first. It didn’t matter; he knew, without any real doubt, that he was permanently damaged by the effects of trying to escape the redirection trap; his life as he had known it was over.
“Do you know what I did for him once?” Jonathon asked, his voice icy and cold. “That son of a bitch sent me out to kill for him, and then the Enemy struck back at the Hub, except the entire situation was a time paradox; we fired first, or they did, because the entire situation was a loop in time. Ian knew that it could be avoided and sent me out anyway, and then…the bastard betrayed me. I escaped and made it back to the Hub, only to be Banned for my pains…and…”
His voice broke off. “You asked why they didn’t simply have me create them the new Walkers,” he snapped. “Do you know why not? I can get hard, I can fuck a woman all day if I want, but I can’t have brats. I’m sterile…and it was Ian’s fault!”
Grey frowned. “How do you know it was Ian’s fault?”
“Who else do you know who has that sort of power?” Jonathon demanded. “I go to the Hub as healthy as ever, as able to sire kiddies as ever, and then when I get Banned, I become sterile. Oh, they tried to take some DNA from me and they ran a few experiments, but whatever Ian did back at the Hub is locked into the instant of reality that defines me.”
Grey stared at him. “Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, Ian has betrayed you as well,” Jonathon snapped. “There will be no help from the Hub for your current predicament, no magical time machine or god-mod device saving you by rewriting the essential sections of reality. You are alone, trapped at the heart of the Enemy’s endeavours in this universe, and while Ian knows exactly where you are, because he would have a trace on you, he won’t send anyone after you. Your existence as you know it is over.”
He walked off into the darkness. Grey leaned back, tilting his head and trying to look into the darkness, hearing the faint sound of wings before abandoning the exercise. The darkness grew closer and closer to him, trapped and pinned under the light; he had the sense that someone – something – was studying him, as a cat eyed a mouse caught and hypnotised by the sheer presence of the predator. The darkness seemed to be growing somehow…darker, with the presence hidden in the darkness moving closer, but he still couldn’t see the presence; he wondered, grimly, if he was merely imagining things, or if there truly was a bulky shape moving towards him. The local reality field was bending and twisting…
He heard it then, clearly, and he turned his head. Two red lights had appeared in the darkness, looking down at him and pinning him to the table. They had to be eyes, he realised dimly; what else could they be? He heard the fluttering of massive wings as the creature came closer, only half-seen in the strange light…and then the red eyes flared once, and Grey knew no more.
Chapter Twenty-Two: In Which Mathew Takes Matters Into His Own Hands
“Out of the question,” Ian said flatly.
Mathew stared at him, unwilling to budge, even though he could see Ian, now; see him for what he really was. The Hub Administration, an entity in its own right, stared back at him through the shaded eyes of the Bartender; he could sense the power crawling around him. The Hub Administration was almost all-powerful within the Hub itself; the thought that he might be blasted or kicked out of the Hub wasn't enough to stop him pressing his case.
“The Enemy have him,” he snapped, pushing his case as hard as he could. “They’ve got him as their prisoner, a Walker in their hands! He saved my life God alone knows how many times, and in the end, I had to run from him and leave him! You sent him to the dead world; aren’t you going to get off your arse and help him?”
Ian looked at him. “I have run a trace,” he said, flatly. “The Enemy have taken him to a world that has been…contaminated, where it will be very difficult to mount a rescue mission and recover him, even with the full power of the Hub Administration behind it. Look” – he opened a holographic image in front of Mathew’s face – “you can see the scale of the contamination and imagine for yourself just what would happen to any Walker or Elder Being who went there. They will be guarded…”
“I know how to deal with the Sealion now,” Mathew snapped. “I…”
“Do not mention that word,” Ian snapped. Red light flared from behind his shades, reminding Mathew of one of the X-Men before it faded; Ian’s form had altered slightly, at a very fundamental level. “You’re new to this and no one blames you for leaving that world, because there was nothing you could have done to save him or yourself! Do some research in the Library if you like, or spend the next few days getting drunk, but there is nothing you can do to help him!”
“I’m asking you to help,” Mathew snapped back. “You owe him!”
“No, I don’t,” Ian said. “I might have owed him once, but this entity does not have any…debts beyond those used to keep the Hub running; I cannot show anything reassembling favouritism to anyone, even to you or Grey! And, even if I did feel inclined to help, I can’t actually do anything, because I don’t have the ability to reach into that timeline!”
“There has to be some way of getting in,” Mathew protested. “How did the Enemy get in?”
“They would have used a Portal themselves, or maybe their own abilities,” Ian said, his voice becoming softer. “Mathew, I do understand, but there’s no way I can interfere, not there. The most I can do is dispatch Captain What and Captain Ward to recover any survivors from Robin’s home timeline, assuming that there are any survivors; the energy burst has disrupted my ability to scan that part of the Multiverse. If there are any, the two ships will bring them here and then settle them in another timeline; we owe them that much, I think…”
“You don’t get to decide which debts you make good on,” Mathew said, sullenly. “Why can’t you do something – anything – to help him?”
Ian’s face went completely blank. “My priority, as I defined it back when I was recreating myself, is to maintain the Hub and provide some degree of supervision for visitors and permanent guests,” he said. “The Hub must remain publicly neutral in the War, which means that we cannot invade a timeline just because a random Walker has been kidnapped. Nor can we ask the Time Agents to interfere; they won’t get involved with us, because they value our neutrality. I would like to help, but in a very real sense, I had forbidden myself from helping.”
“Thanks for nothing,” Mathew growled. Ian said nothing. “The man who saved my life is going to be hurt and then killed for whatever fucking purpose they wanted me for…and you, you bastard, are not going to help him! I’m going to go after him!”
Ian’s face remained impassive. “If you go to that timeline, you will die,” he said. “Go to the Library, do some research, and then have a good night’s sleep. In the morning, you can make a decision about your future.”
Mathew opened his mouth to protest…and then found himself in the library. He swore aloud anyway, only to be shushed by a man wearing a pin-stripe suit and a bowler hat, who glared at him and the other patrons of the library without discrimination. The library itself was massive, much bigger on the inside than the outside; there were billions of books somewhere within the folds of reality he could sense, stored within timeless moments for the time they were required. He had to smile; the library called out to his inner nerd.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, not knowing quite who he was talking to. Ian? Grey? The librarian? “I’ll get you back if I can, I promise?”
He stepped over to the desk; the man glared up at him, his pen still dancing across a script entitled Englishman Versus Armoured Dinner Jacket. The man was almost stereotypically British, from the hat to the outfit and the small Union Jack pinned neatly to his suit, his lips curled in a manner that might have been intended as a smile, but showed little real emotion.
“I need information on how people can travel the Multiverse,” he said, wondering if the library would be able to find him what he wanted. He’d worked for a year in a library himself and knew that most customers would come with only a vague idea of just what they wanted. They would describe a book they’d known when they were children, expecting the librarian to know every children’s book by heart; if it wasn't about a boy wizard and his struggle against evil, it was actually very difficult to find what they wanted. “I need as much information as you can give me.”
The librarian, without even standing up, clicked his fingers in the air and a massive pile of books appeared in front of him. Mathew nodded his thanks, picked up the first tome, and carried it over to a desk, opening the copy of Travelling the Multiverse for Dummies and starting to read. An hour passed, and then another hour, as he browsed through the book; it was long on flowery terms, but short on detail, although it did note that some details just changed almost at random. Some people discovered artefacts that gave them a way to access the Roads of Happenstance, some people just discovered the principle behind Portals or similar technology, others – in the more advanced timelines – discovered inter-dimensional travel while looking for other ways to cheat Einstein and moving faster than light. Some technology worked differently in different timelines, with different laws of science; they were sometimes completely unable to function in universes where magic was all-important and a fundamental basis of the universe.
The thought reminded him of something…no, someone. He called the librarian, who grudgingly agreed to show him how to use an online system to search the Hub’s database, and scanned through the records. He might not have known any other Walkers – apart from Jonathon Dark, and there was no way he would help – but it struck him as logical that the Enemy would expect a team of Walkers to come after Grey, assuming that they didn’t know that Ian had refused to try to send help. If it wasn't a team of Walkers that came after him…
He remembered Emery Cleveland and Cyanna and started to look them up on the database. There was a surprising amount of information – one researcher had called them the John Steed and Emma Peel of the Roads of Happenstance – but not all of the information was complimentary. Cyanna came in for a great deal of criticism, along with suspicions that her relationship with Emery was little more than a fancy for her; Mathew guessed that Grey’s prejudice against the Fair Folk was something prevalent along the Roads of Happenstance, no matter how far distant Cyanna was from the original Fair Folk who had terrorised the Roads of Happenstance and every world they had access to through the Roads. They had helped Mathew and Grey once before; would they help him again, or would they remember the damage their car had suffered and refuse to help?
He made a copy of all the information and stood up. The information hadn’t said where they were, but they were apparently regulars at some place called Joe’s, although micro-universe structure along the Roads of Happenstance, not unlike the Hub itself. The information had been surprisingly detailed on how a Walker could get to Joe’s, but Mathew had decided not to Walk there. If the Enemy – or Ian, or Jonathon – could track a Walker by the trail he left, he wouldn’t leave a trail. Instead, he closed his eyes and wished himself elsewhere; the Hub picked up on his wish and transported him to the Grand Central Station.
I’m sorry, Robin, he thought, as he entered the station itself. Robin had had to go with the Multiverse Ships that were returning to her timeline to pick up survivors, just to explain who was crewing the ships and that they meant no harm to the remaining survivors, but he would have liked to have had someone with him. He felt the reassuring shape of the model aircraft in his pocket; if they ran into the Sealion again, he had a surprise for it.
“Welcome to the station,” a jovial fat man proclaimed. Mathew liked him on sight; he was the living image of the Fat Controller, a short fat man in coattails and a brilliant smile. He glanced around, wondering if he was see Thomas the Tank Engine around, but instead he saw a steam engine out of his dreams, when he had been a child and before the old steam engines had been retired, to be replaced with engines that lacked the imagination or appearance of their predecessors. A LNER train stood there, its doors already opening…
…For a second, he saw it as it really was, and then blinked away the truth. The train was a vehicle that travelled the Roads of Happenstance, looking like a train because the Conductor had decided that it was to look like a train, a man or entity who had imposed his own view of the universe on everyone who used one of his trains. The Conductor himself, an entity almost Ian-like in his sophistication, winked at him; Mathew liked him on sight…
…The interior of the train was exactly what it should be, from the old-style decorations to the handful of other passengers, all of whom ignored him as the Conductor showed him into a compartment, smiling all the while before closing the doors and the train blowing a whistle, before moving out of the Hub and onto the Happenstance Roads. Mathew felt his senses straining to perceive the reality behind the illusion, but failed; the Conductor had created trains of such power – he hoped – that even the Enemy would hesitate before coming after them.
The Conductor reappeared beside him and smiled. “So, I understand you’re going to Joe’s?”
“Yes,” Mathew said. He was beyond being surprised at the moment. “Do you have a station there?”
The Conductor smiled. “I have stations all throughout the Grand Continuum and the Multiverse,” he said, mischievously. “If you have a closed down train station and you hear a whistle, one of my trains has passed by. If you have a station where steam engines once stopped, you may just catch me out of the corner of your eye. If you know how to step across the seconds, you might be able to catch a train that is always there…”
Mathew laughed tiredly. “Why is everyone so intent on being enigmatic?”
“A word of advice, young man,” the Conductor said. “Not everyone along the Happenstance Roads is as good and honest as you are, or working for one of the sides in the Multiverse War. Some of them will be out to get you for their own reasons, or because you look young and innocent, or just because they’re bound by their own natures. Don’t give away all of your secrets too quickly, because some people will quite happily pass them on to anyone, or sell them, or…”
He smiled. “You could always go back to the Hub and wait to see what happens,” he suggested. “You don’t have to get further involved in this?”
Mathew shook his head. “I owe Grey my life,” he said, shortly. He didn’t want to talk about it; the further he went from the Hub, the greater the sinking feeling in his heart when he thought about just how great the danger actually was. What would Jonathon do to him when they met again? Grey had called him a sociopath, someone without heart, feeling, or compassion; he might rip Mathew apart, or worse. The cold knowledge that he could run kept burning at him; he could Walk back to the Hub right now…and no one would even notice that he had taken the cowardly path. “I can’t just abandon him.”
“Good for you, boy,” the Conductor said. “Give the bastards hell.”
Mathew smiled. “Just what are you?”
“Does it really matter?” The Conductor asked. “That’s between me and Mustapha.”
Mathew looked back out of the window as the realities started to flicker around them. He saw creatures, strange spider-like monsters, scuttling around a world, their dark shapes moving through burning cities and ignoring the handful of attempts to fight them. He saw an aircraft carrier spinning though the Multiverse, forever trapped like an insect in amber until it fell back into a reality. He saw, just for a second, the face of Bill Clinton, carved into rock like Mount Rushmore; the face of the former President was smiling at him. He didn’t want to think about that reality; it had always struck him as more than a little egoistical to have one’s face carved into a rock, unless that reality’s Clinton was long dead. Time and space grew a little weird along the Happenstance Roads; Walkers might be able to go wherever they wanted, but the Road Travellers didn’t have that particular luxury. A starship, vast beyond imagination, plunged into a gravity well and destroyed an entire planetary civilisation…
The Conductor shook him once. “You don’t want to pay too much attention to what you might see,” he said. Mathew came back to himself with a start. The sights had caught him and refused to let go of him. “You never know what might come after you in the next world.”
The train whistle blew once as they appeared in a world of glittering cities, and then came to a halt at a small station. “This is your station,” the Conductor said. He opened the door and smiled once as Mathew stepped out onto the platform. “Go through that door there and ask for Joe…”
He paused. “Oh, and good luck.”
The train vanished behind him, the platform cold and empty. The sense that he had walked into a trap grew as he stepped over to the door – a door standing on its own right in the middle of the platform - and he almost broke there and then, running from the station and fleeing back to the Hub. It took all of his nerve to walk up to the door and push at it, hearing something buzzing before the door opened, revealing a second door right in front of him. The station had vanished; the second door opened, revealing three massive lizard-like men, staring down at him. Mathew took a step backwards to discover that the second door had also vanished, leaving him stranded with the lizard-men, whoever they were. They didn’t look particularly unpleasant, but their teeth were clearly those of carnivores, reminding him more of humanoid Raptors than anything else. One of them licked his – or her – lips; Mathew felt himself rooted to the floor.
The lead lizard-man took a step forward. “Yes?”
The voice was insanely normal, a plumy upper-class voice that instantly broke the ice; Mathew felt the tension vanish in a moment. “Hi,” he said, hunting for words. “I’m looking for Joe.”
“You may enter,” the lead lizard-man said, pointing to a third door that had appeared out of nowhere. Mathew nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and stepped through the third door, revealing a fairly normal looking bar, with a very abnormal cliental. Like the Hub, there were hundreds of humans and non-humans, but there were other, stranger, creatures as well. He felt almost as if he had come home.
The bartender, a tiny little girl with a nasty scar on her face, waved to him. “Hi,” Mathew said, looking around for someone who could be Joe, “I’m looking for Joe.”
The girl smiled. “I’m Joe,” she said. Mathew blinked at her. “The name is a title, not my actual name…something I would have expected a Walker to know.”
“I’m rather new at this,” Mathew confessed, feeling confused. “Do you know why I’m here?”
“The last Walker who came here got very drunk and Tom, Dick and Harry had to throw him out into a random timeline,” Joe said. Her face twisted into a smile that somehow made her face light up like the sun. “Why are you here, Walker?”
Mathew paused. “I’m looking for Emery and Cyanna,” he said, glancing around. There was no sign of them amid the smoke and haze. “Do you know where they are?”
“Oh, one of those,” Joe said. She smiled brightly in a manner Mathew didn’t like at all. “You’ll find them over there, just past that pothead with the weed and the vacant expression on his face.”
Mathew nodded his thanks and headed over to his last hope.
Chapter Twenty-Three: In Which Mathew Finds Help
They were just as he remembered; the tall handsome man and the tall fairy woman, or female of the Sid-Faer as she would put it, with red-gold hair and a smile that would have been visible to a blind man. Literally, in her case; he could see the fundamental warping of reality, now, that was locked into her very physical form. Grey hadn’t said much about her native abilities, but they had to be considerable, just to keep up with Emery. He could see, now, a stranger warping of reality around Emery, centred on his hand, where he would wear a ring. They were a strange pair, sitting together around a small table…and smiling at him.
“Mathew,” Emery said, seriously. “How are you? Sit down and have a drink?”
“I don’t drink,” Mathew said, as Joe passed him a small glass of coke. The bartender gave him another smile and left the three of them alone. “I just never got into the habit, even when I was a student and experimenting, as people do.”
“You’ve missed out on a great deal,” Emery said, with a half-smile. “So, what does bring you here?”
Mathew answered a question with a question. “What happened to your hand?”
Cyanna laughed. It was the kind of laugh that would have caught the attention of every man in the room and half of the women. “I told you a Walker could see that,” she said. “Just because there’s very little left of the ring…”
“One ring to walk the path, one ring to get into Joe’s, one ring to rule them all and transport them through the Grand Continuum,” Emery deadpanned. He looked down at his ring-less hand for a long moment. “I inherited this ring from my uncle, who swore right to his dying day that the person whom he won it from cheated to let him have the ring. I don’t know what Uncle was thinking, but he never wore the ring; I did, and blundered onto the Happenstance Roads. That's where I met Cyanna…”
They smiled at each other and Mathew realised, in a moment of sudden understanding, that Grey had been wrong and the odd couple truly did love one another. They fitted together, somehow; every man could see that, and somehow not hate Emery for winning the love of such a woman. The Fair Folk might have their misfits and bastards, just like humanity, but Cyanna was a decent person. Grey had warned him that the Fair Folk were fundamentally inhuman – they don’t think like us, he’d warned; don’t expect them to act like us – but Cyanna definitely loved and cared for her husband.
Emery coughed. “One thing led to another and then I started to explore out on the Roads, sometimes alone and trying to get back home, sometimes with Cyanna and just exploring for the hell of exploring, or working for any number of people who want to try to make a profit off the roads,” he said. “Being a hero is fun, but it doesn’t always pay the bills…although it did when we visited a world where chocolate was a restricted substance and they just paid through the nose for it. That world was ripe for a coup fuelled by chocolate.”
Mathew shook his head. “What an abomination of a world,” he said, rolling his eyes. “And to think I thought the actions of my government were stupid, sometimes. How did they get into that mess?”
“Someone had introduced European diseases to the Native Americans and the other civilisations a few centuries before Columbus,” Emery said, waving his hand in the air. “I don’t know for sure, because records are scarce and I don’t have the Walker ability to read a particular timeline, but I think they gave the Aztecs some immunity, enough to ensure that they held off the Europeans, rather than just being overwhelmed by them…and chocolate became a very expensive trade good. I’d like to think that it was Saint Brendan or someone like him who reached America first, but I honestly don’t know for sure. By the time we visited, it was an aristocratic system almost everywhere, with Kings, Emperors, Caliphs and every other kind of monarch crawling all over the woodwork. They’d somehow decided to divide the world up between them and chocolate became a preserve of the ruling class, along with certain hard drugs and such like…”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “The last thing we saw, some opportunistic set of bastards flying around in a stolen Multiverse Ship had pinched a few tens of thousands of weapons from post-war Iraq and sold them to both sides, purely for giggles. The revolutionary forces were winning, I think, although seeing they weren’t much above the 18th Century in tech, it was very – very – bloody. Introduce AK-47s into that sort of environment and the bloodshed will make World War One look like a children’s tea party.”
Mathew was fascinated. “How many people are there out there doing things like that?”
“More than can be counted,” Emery said, very seriously. “The Multiverse War drops all sorts of things through the timeline, from enough aircraft carriers to fill a water-covered Earth, to entire islands and countries tossed adrift in the sea of time. And, even without them involved, there are plenty of Beings of Power who will be quite happy to play silly buggers with such details, or people who walk on the Happenstance Roads and sell whatever they want to worlds that think they need it.”
He frowned. “Oh, there are some people who try to prevent it, but I don’t think there’s ever been any real success,” he said. “It’s a little hard to do anything like that when the people mainly responsible for such actions are beyond your ability to control – note political subtext – and the people with such power, Ian for instance, won’t get off their butts and do something. Policing the Happenstance Roads is almost impossible, even in the more settled regions, and there are plenty of Roads that are very dangerous – you saw the Sealion and there are other creatures out in the shadows – and if you’re willing to run a few risks, you can get anywhere without some bastard trying to stop you.”
Cyanna smiled dazzlingly. “But you do such a good job of being a hero,” she said, teasing her husband. “What sort of gratitude is that? Without them, you’d be out of a job.”
“You’re not helping,” Emery said, but he was smiling as he said it. He turned to Mathew. “Enough griping on my part; what brings you to seek us out?”
Mathew paused, trying to choose his words carefully. “I need your help,” he admitted. “Grey has been kidnapped by the Enemy and I need help in recovering him.”
There was a dead silence. “Are you serious?” Emery asked finally. “They could have him anywhere. Searching the entire Multiverse would take far more time than any of us have, even a near-immortal Walker.”
“I know where they have him,” Mathew said. Ian had shown him. “I just don’t have the ability to get there on my own.”
He explained, briefly, what had happened since they had parted ways. He didn’t spare anything, from the dead world to the brief terrible struggle in the middle of Camp Pershing, in the Communist-dominated world. He explained about Jonathon Dark, the rogue Walker, the Marked Man who had shot down his own counterpart, and finally about how he and Robin had fled that timeline, only to discover that Ian had been unwilling to help.
“That is…not good, although it is consistent,” Cyanna said, once he had finished. “The Hub prides itself on remaining neutral, either in the Multiverse War or the smaller scrabbles that sometimes echo up and down the Roads of Happenstance. Ian seems to have decided, long ago, that he was only interested in creating and maintaining the Hub, nothing else.”
“That’s what he said,” Mathew said. He was tempted to beg, but suspected that that wouldn’t cut any ice with the odd couple. “I need your help…”
Cyanna pulled a small Blackberry-like device out of nowhere and examined it thoughtfully. “That’s a weird area of the Multiverse, but there is at least one Road heading near that world,” she said, carefully. “The Pendragon has been repaired, so we could reach there and get into the world, but…it would depend on what they have guarding the Road there. They’re Beings of Power; we could run into anything from another Time Hound to Archnins, or maybe even that Sealion, unless Ian squashed it after you reported its existence. And then, we’d have to sneak in and rescue him…”
Mathew frowned. “I don’t know what they want with him, but somehow I don’t think it’s to invite him for tea and crumpets,” he said. “You know what a Walker can do; they might want to force him to do something for them their friend Jonathon won’t do for them, or maybe they want him to do something that will kill him in the process, or…”
Emery held up his hand. “Archnins wouldn’t bother the Enemy much,” he said. He shook his head slowly. “There’s actually a line of speculation that suggests the Enemy have been introducing them to several worlds and using them to sweep the world clear, although there is little hard data. There are only a handful of people who have ever survived an encounter with the bastards.”
He paused. “I’m one of them,”
“Fine,” Mathew said. “I need to know; will you help?”
Emery winked at him. “It says hero on my resume, so I dare say I’d better help,” he said. “Sweetheart?”
“I think we’d better try to save him, or kill him if we can’t save him,” Cyanna said. She stood up in one sweeping motion, revealing a dress that was sinfully tight and revealing in all the right places. “Are you coming, dear?”
“I think we should pick up a few supplies, first,” Emery said. “Mathew, are you coming to visit Mr Denton?”
The name rang a bell somewhere; Mathew was sure of it. “Sure,” he said, relieved that they had agreed to help. “I’d be fascinated to see more of this place.”
The Hub shifted around people; Joe’s seemed to lack that capability, as if the original Joe had built it in a stable eddy and just never bothered to alter the fundamental nature of reality in the eddy, leaving them with the task of walking through strange corridors, some of them very weird indeed. Emery filled in some of the details of the pub’s history as they walked, starting with an explanation about the female Joe. She’d been a slave on a world where almost all lower-caste girls were slaves, treated as inferior; her ‘owner’ had been beating her when the three lizard-men heard her screams and joined in the fun. Emery pointed to a cross hanging on the wall and smiled; the owner had been crucified after the three lizards had taken turns beating the crap out of him.
“The Saurian Culture treats females as queens,” he said, seriously. “Tom, Dick and Harry thought that the owner was the lowest of the low – hard to disagree, really – and crucified him there with the consent of the last Joe, who pretty much adopted the current Joe. When the last one retired, the current one was offered the post; she had the body’s remains taken down, but otherwise the cross had been left there, just as a reminder to others.”
“I see,” Mathew said. “How many barbaric worlds are there out there?”
“Far more than there are utopias,” Emery said seriously. “I think the Enemy encourages them, just enough to keep the fires of the War burning.”
They reached a glass door and opened it, entering a high-tech store, loaded with big guns, little guns, and bombs of all sizes. The room was impressive, with a large sign proclaiming a sale on radiation-free atomic bombs; he checked out some of the weapons with a growing sense of awe…and fear. Whoever ran the place had to be mad…
“Welcome to the WMD Emporium,” a voice proclaimed. A surprisingly normal looking man stood there, his face half-hidden by massive oversized glasses and a hat. He held a knife in one hand; as Mathew watched, he tossed it underarm towards a portrait of Adolph Hitler, who took the knife through the eye.
“I don’t believe in voodoo,” he said, at Mathew’s puzzled look. “I just know that there’s no point in taking chances.” He peered at Mathew. “That’s odd; you’re the second Walker to come seeking one of my products…”
A memory crystallised in Mathew’s mind and he lunged forward, grabbing Denton and pushing him up against the wall, reality crackling around him. Denton’s glasses went flying, revealing a pair of bionic eyes; Mathew felt his power demanding to be unleashed, to rip Denton apart in a hail of light.
“You killed an entire world,” he snapped. Jonathon had mentioned Adam Denton during their second encounter. “Your fucking weapon, used by fucking Jonathon…your weapon killed an entire world!”
Denton cringed back as some of the weapons started to turn on their own accord, coming to point at Mathew, who ignored them. “I don’t control how people use my weapons,” he protested, trembling. Mathew realised suddenly that even if Denton’s weapons opened fire, he might survive, but the scrawny weapons dealer would almost certainly be blown to bits. “I don’t have the right to say who should or who should not have my weapons, I don’t have any knowledge of how they use them, or…”
Emery reached out and placed a hand gently on Mathew’s shoulder. “You can’t do anything for them now,” he said, grimly. “I understand your feelings, but we do need Adam’s help; you can sort out your problem with him later.”
Mathew let go of Denton and watched the shopkeeper fall towards the floor before he caught himself. “Is there no justice in the Multiverse?”
“No,” Emery said flatly. “There’s just us.”
“We need him,” Mathew said, slowly. He was speaking to himself. “Why does it have to be this way?”
“Because there’s no way to control it,” Emery said. He helped Denton to his feet. “Adam, we need a ton and a half of weapons, some of them special, some of them conventional.”
Denton glared at them, moving his coat and adjusting for Mathew’s attack. “And why should I sell you any weapons?”
“Because the world you killed had a direct link to the Hub and that’s the sort of thing that attracts attention, along with the fact that there will be survivors from that world looking for a little revenge,” Emery snapped. “The only person who has made the connection between you and the weapon that wiped out an entire world is Mathew…and the only people who know are the three people in this room. You can either try to kill us, which I guarantee will fail, or you can sell us weapons and buy our silence. The choice is yours.”
Denton glared at him. “I need to know what you want,” he said, almost sullenly. “Who do you want to fight?”
“Never mind that,” Emery said. He recited a vast list of weapons, some of them Mathew recognised, some of them completely unfamiliar to him, even from his brief study of the Hub’s records. Denton nodded once or twice, and then started hunting among his stock, producing more weapons than Mathew could have believed existed in the store, let alone possible for them to carry out on their own. Emery whistled once in the air and the Pendragon, the massive car, appeared in the store; the boot, it seemed, was much larger on the inside than on the outside. Mathew took a handful of the smaller weapons for himself, storing them inside his reality field, and helped Emery and Cyanna load the other weapons into the car.
“I don’t have anything that can be used against a Time Hound,” Denton said, ruefully. He seemed to have forgotten Mathew’s assault in the middle of producing thousands of weapons. “Those damned creatures keep most of their being back in wherever the hell they come from; if they tried to force their way into a more standard universe, they’d rape and kill reality itself. The best thing you can do is disrupt the local space-time area and force it to withdraw, but even that is dangerous. I hope Mathew knows, now, how to destroy a Time Hound.”
Mathew felt his blood run cold.
“Thank you,” Cyanna said, as the Pendragon finally finished loading. “Honey?”
Emery was looking at Denton. “Just so you know,” he said, almost conversationally. “If something should happen to warn the bastards we’re coming, we will know who to blame, which will mean that Ian and the survivors will know who to blame. I’d keep my mouth shut in your place, and maybe no one will come to extract a little revenge.”
He nodded to Mathew. “Hop in,” he said, as he climbed into the driving seat. The Pendragon hummed to life around them. Denton waved at them as they started to flicker out of existence. “It’s time to move and finally see if I can actually take on a Walker in single combat.”
Cyanna smiled. “I notice we don’t have a plan,” she said. Her voice sounded completely carefree, as if she was laughing at the world and any poor fool who should dare to try to get in their way. “The normal method, then?”
“Plans,” Emery said. He grinned over his shoulder at Mathew. Despite himself, Mathew found himself captivated; Emery could be a real leader if he chose, maybe a leader of a band designed to prevent atrocities such as Jonathon Dark’s murder of an entire world. “Who needs a plan, really?”
And the Roads of Happenstance opened up in front of them.
Chapter Twenty-Four: In Which Mathew Takes Point
The Roads of Happenstance looked different this time, a mixture of motorways and strange winding roads. Mathew sat in the back of the Pendragon and composed himself as best as he could, trusting in his two companions to warn him if there was any real danger. The Roads seemed to be changing right around him, confusing him even as he welcomed the distraction from brooding; they were moving out of the well-travelled areas, where all of the dangerous concepts and creatures had been cleared out long ago, into areas where they could encounter…anything. He caught hints and shadows, cold eyes staring at them, as they drove onwards, but the only real threat, a tank shaped like a German Maus Tank, a Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus, if he remembered correctly, faded away when confronted with the Pendragon’s firepower.
“Never trust a Nazi,” Emery observed, as the Maus vanished. “Ten gets you twenty that someone from the Cartel sent that vehicle along to do some raiding and, just incidentally, to exterminate anyone who wanted to explore along smuggling routes used by the Cartel.”
Mathew scowled. The Multiverse just seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. “Who are the Cartel?” He asked. “Do they work for the Enemy?”
“They’re cunts, basically,” Emery said. “They’re a pretty unpleasant bunch of gangsters and shady business interests that have some interest in trying to control large chunks of the Happenstance Roads. Rumour has it that the people running the place are all immortals, with perhaps a few vampires or even a Walker or two in the mix, but there is very little hard information. I don’t know just who they work for in the Multiverse War, or even if they work for anyone in the Multiverse War, but I do know that one side carried out a strike against a world the Cartel controlled, apparently just for the hell of it…”
“Or maybe retaliation,” Cyanna injected. Her face twisted slightly. “My Clan tried to keep them out of our parts of the Roads of Happenstance, but ever since the last Great Shift, they got control of a few score worlds, working behind the scenes. It would be quite easy to imagine them accidentally throwing a spanner in the works of one side or the other; what if it was the Enemy they hit?”
Mathew understood, now, what both Grey and Robin had tried to teach him. It required a special sort of mind to understand the Multiverse, let alone live up to the potential promised by the Walker abilities. It all made sense at some level, but he was starting to think that that level required a certain amount of insanity to understand, something that might just explain Jonathon Dark’s apparent complete self-centredness. He had wiped out an entire world; despite the sheer pleasure of hurting Denton, he had known, deep down inside, that it hadn’t really been the arms dealer’s fault. Jonathon had used the weapon, but even he had acted at the behest of the Enemy…and no one knew who they were.
“There’s no way to know,” Emery said. He looked at Mathew. “Unless the Hub knows differently…?”
“The identity of the Enemy wasn't in the Hub library,” Mathew said. “I never found any files on the Cartel at all.”
“I’m not surprised,” Emery said. He tapped the side of the Pendragon as he spoke. “I dare say that the Multiverse is so vast that there may be more than one Cartel out there, or even another Hub or two, or ten, or a thousand…and no one would be any the wiser. There’s always some bunch of optimists who try to chart the entire breadth and scope of the Multiverse, but the changes keep defeating their best efforts. Sometimes, you can lose your entire life in a space of a few moments, or you can end up being dumped out onto a world completely different from your own…”
“Or not different at all,” Cyanna said. “We occasionally find people who never realise that they have crossed universes, until they discover that they never married, or that they did marry, or their parents are dead, or something like that. Joe and the Hub and a few others do try to get people back to where they belong, if they even want to leave, but it’s not exactly easy.”
Mathew stared ahead as they drove onwards, watching as the Roads grew darker and more shadowy. A Concorde flared past them, heading in the opposite direction; he smiled at it just before it vanished into the darkness. It had reminded him of the time when there had been dreams, before cold reality suppressed all of the dreams and made wage slaves out of all the dreamers. He would have loved to fly in one; he smiled again as he realised that that was exactly what he could do, once Grey had been recovered. He could head into the Multiverse and explore…
“Fuck,” Emery swore, as shapes appeared in front of them. Mathew stared as the goblin-like creatures took on shape and form, their eyes glinting evilly as they approached, their hands manipulating the AK-47s they carried with ease and skill. The sight was right out of a game he’d once played, but there was no question that he could die on the Roads of Happenstance…and he refused to die at the hands of a bunch of mutated monkeys. “Who the fuck gave them those?”
“Language,” Cyanna muttered, as she took control of the Pendragon’s weapons. “I think that either the Enemy left them there as a surprise, or someone decided that it would be a fun idea to arm them and leave them here as a raiding party.” She pinched her lips as she studied them. “Filthy creatures…”
The lead goblin opened fire, the bullets ricocheting off the Pendragon; Cyanna returned fire at the same instant, blue bolts of plasma fire ripping through the goblins as Emery sped up, racing through them and dodging as many of the small creatures as possible. Something much larger – an antitank rocket – struck the side of the Pendragon and Emery cursed; the hail of fire Cyanna was directing became much more targeted as the Goblins proved themselves to be actually dangerous. Mathew wanted to close his eyes, but didn’t want to show weakness; he stared as the creatures were blown to bits…and then the bits reformed themselves into new goblins and started to pick up the weapons, or leap onto the Pendragon. He flinched as a new goblin jumped onto the Pendragon, blue sparks flaring as it landed on the side of the vehicle; there was an unpleasant sizzling sound and then the creature vanished. He didn’t see it split into more creatures, but there was no way to know…
“The bits are becoming new creatures,” he snapped, remembering a cartoon where a giant humanoid cat had tried to kill an irritating small mouse, except the separate bits had all become new mice armed with axes, eventually becoming microscopic, entering the cat, and ripping the poor creature apart from the inside. “We can’t keep blowing them to bits!”
“What else can we do?” Cyanna asked reasonably. “If they keep pounding, they’ll get inside and eat us.”
“Adam is something of a nuke-wanker,” Emery said, checking out the Pendragon’s massive arsenal. “Let’s see what a tactical nuke from Timeline-38746L does to the bastards.” He paused. “Oh, and cover your eyes.”
There was a terrible ghastly noise and a blinding light that reached in through Mathew’s fingers to make his eyes blink and water, and then it faded. There was no sign, on the outside, that anything had happened; there was no blast damage, no sign that a nuke had detonated, only the missing goblins proved that anything had actually taken place.
“Peace through superior firepower,” Emery said, cheerfully. “I knew that we could survive that, but I didn’t think those bastards could.”
“Good,” Mathew said. “Can we get on with it?”
The Roads seemed to be becoming more and more unnatural the further they drove, changing somehow so they were no longer how he saw them, but as someone – or something – else had seen them, so long ago. Stranger creatures than the Goblins appeared for a few seconds, looked at them – he stared back into the massive golden eyes of a dragon before it vanished – and fell behind as they drove past. He found himself smiling for no reason; he could have sworn that the dragon had winked at him from its position of rest on the path.
He laughed. “How many mythical creatures exist along the Roads of Happenstance?”
“More than you would expect,” Emery said. “You know, a dragon fell into your world once, a few years ago. It couldn’t fly, of course, because your world doesn’t have a proper magic field for the creature to use, but it managed to survive for several hours before it died. In that time, a lot of government experts looked at it, thought they had finally acquired proof of real dragons, and then the creature died on them.”
He sniggered. “And so they went exploring in hopes of finding an entire underground civilisation of dragons, except they found nothing because they knew nothing about the Roads or the Nexus nearby,” he said. “Eventually, they concluded that they’d been the victims of a student prank, as everyone knows that dragons are not real.” He laughed again. “If what everyone knew was actually tested against the Multiverse, most of the old wives tales would be proven to have a certain amount of truth in them, although not the one about the unicorn…”
“How lucky for you,” Cyanna said, winking at Mathew.
“It proved that certain things exist that every good scientist trapped in one boring timeline knows jolly well don’t,” Emery said, ignoring her with magnificent poise. “They might actually have learned something, except…”
The entire shape of the area was changing around them. The Roads drove through caverns, areas shaped by the will of people who had lived in them once and never changed since, or passed buildings shaped out of the strange reality of the Roads of Happenstance. Some of the buildings were human, strange and eerie versions of Greek or Roman designs, others were just so weird that it was hard to believe that a human mind had been associated with the design stage. They passed a series of bridges that appeared out of nowhere, crossing timelines and rivers within the sea of time, and then they were back on the familiar Roads again. Cyanna muttered, grimly, that her people had built some of the buildings; they were old enough to exist from before the first recorded Great Shift that had shattered the Sid-Faer Empire.
“We’ll come back here once the rescue is completed,” Emery promised her, reaching out to take her arm. They kissed briefly. “You can bring your family and see just what can be recovered, or…”
Mathew tuned him out. He was thinking about the old Sid-Faer, the ones who had once been part of the Empire before it had been shattered; what had they thought when the Roads had closed and the Nexus Points had rearranged themselves? Had they been able to get into a timeline and survive there, or had they formed a smaller civilisation from what they could still access, or had they all tried to find home through the remaining links to the Roads of Happenstance. It was a strange coincidence to find the ruins so close to the Enemy-controlled timeline; had the Enemy somehow caused the Great Shift to shatter the Sid-Faer Empire and destroy the source of possible interference in their plans? They’d killed six billion humans just to bait a trap; he had no doubt that they would treat Sid-Faer lives with the same complete lack of concern they showed for human lives. It made his blood boil; somehow, something had to be done about them, whatever it cost…
“Look out,” Cyanna snapped, as a massive form appeared out of nowhere. The stench hit them at the same moment, a smell that was so awful, so beyond description, that there were no words that could do it justice. Mathew caught onto his seat as a massive shadow leapt into the air and came down on them; Emery hit the accelerator hard enough to send the Pendragon hurtling forward, missing the creature’s massive bulk by a mere second. Mathew turned to look behind him as the creature lunged forward at them, red eyes glinting madly as it chased them…
“That’s the Sealion,” he snapped, as the monstrous beast came after them. Its eerie gait kept it moving towards them at an impossible speed. “What’s it doing here?”
“Trying to eat us,” Emery snapped back. His hand danced down a console that had appeared out of nowhere on the dashboard, launching a hail of missiles, bombs and energy weapons at the monster. The creature howled, but kept coming, ignoring the blinding flash and blast wave of Denton’s nukes, or even the reality-distorting effect of a crosstime bomb. “Damned creature; it’s blocking our retreat!”
“Retreat, hell,” Mathew shouted back. It would have been much more impressive if he’d invented the quote himself. He’d read it while studying World War One. “We just got here!”
“We can’t hurt that thing,” Emery shouted back, as he yanked the Pendragon far enough away to avoid a determined lunge by the Sealion. The creature howled in rage and gathered itself for another leap. “That damn thing is a concept and we don’t have anything that can harm a concept, do we? What do you suggest we do?”
“Find a clear spot,” Mathew snapped. He felt very calm, all of a sudden; he would either be dead in the next five minutes, or he’d have beaten the Sealion at its own game. Logic and reason told him that he was about to die, but logic and reason meant almost nothing along the Roads of Happenstance, or along the Multiverse…and he had faith in himself. Grey was counting on him. “Drive towards it as fast as you can, now!”
Emery said nothing, but his anger was obvious as he gunned the engine, using the Pendragon’s vast array of weapons to try to leave the Sealion behind, from a holographic rabbit with a switchblade to an image of a vaguely Alien-like creature, but with more teeth and legs. As soon as he found a clear spot, Mathew shouted at him to stop and opened the door, jumping out onto the Road. The strange feelings of the Road, no longer hidden from him by the vehicle, rose up within him; the Sealion howled in triumph and ran towards him. It shouldn’t have been able to even move, not in the perceptual reality of the Roads, but it was a concept, not a real creature. He reached into his pockets, the never-full pocket on the coat Grey had given him, and found his secret weapon.
The Sealion, up close, stank; it was surrounded by a haze of voices whispering in German. Mathew ignored it, knowing that there would only be one chance at defeating it; the massive creature seemed to be slowing now, knowing that its prey couldn’t hope to escape. Mathew looked up into its red eyes, and the tattooed Nazi symbol placed between its eyes, and understood for the first time.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. He was about to make a rare creature even rarer. He pulled his surprise out of his pocket, drew back his arm, and threw the model aircraft directly at the Sealion. The farmer might have been a religious nut with a taste for flagellating other people, but he had been a good woodsman; the Spitfire was perfectly detailed in its design, even if it didn’t fly very well. The Sealion screeched to a halt, its face torn by a cartoon-like expression of disbelief…and then the Spitfire crashed right into the creature. Reality warped and twisted…and the Sealion was gone. There weren’t even any remains lying on the Road.
“You did it,” Emery shouted, as he brought the Pendragon back to pick up Mathew. Cyanna reached out and gave him a hug as soon as he clambered back into the car. “What the hell was that?”
“A Spitfire,” Mathew said. The tension had vanished and he found himself giggling helplessly. “The creature was a concept, but the concept never worked because of the RAF…so I brought the RAF to hit the creature, or something like that.” He shrugged. He knew that he’d impressed both of them, but he didn’t want to gloat too much; the Sealion had been pure luck. “Let’s get on with it before the Enemy realises that their guard dog has been destroyed.”
“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” Emery said, as he sent the vehicle into the final leg of the journey. “The computer has been plotting out the likely endpoint of the road and it’s only a few minutes away, so brace yourself because we have no idea at all where we’ll arrive, or what sort of welcoming committee we’ll face, or…”
He shrugged. “Or, as we normally do” – he shared a wink with his wife – “we’ll play it by ear.”
Mathew was still smiling when the Nexus Point, a tiny Nexus in the midst of a dark and deserted area of the Roads of Happenstance, came up and they found themselves flashing into reality. Mathew sensed, just for a second, the beating of mighty wings…and then light penetrated the darkness, revealing a building right in front of them, a building that he knew…
“Oh, come on,” he said, as he took in the massive white structure. There was no welcoming committee, no hail of fire to try to kill them on arrival, only darkness…and the cold of the grave. His eyes went up to the building again; there really was no mistaking it. “No fucking way…”
Chapter Twenty-Five: In Which Our Heroes Enter Hell
It was the White House, there was really no mistaking it, but it was…wrong. It sat alone in the darkness, glowing an ignescent pearly white in the darkness, somehow surrounded by darkness that was a living thing, looking back at them. Mathew shivered, despite himself; the temptation to flee rose up within him again as he tried to take in the strange alien scene. They were standing on the White House lawn, or so he thought, but there were no other buildings nearby, or if they were, they were cloaked in the darkness.
It was eerie as hell.
Emery caught his arm. “Look up,” he muttered, in a monotone. The sheer eeriness of the scene had to be getting to him as well. “What do you see?”
Mathew looked up, puzzled, and saw only darkness. It took him a moment to realise that he was looking at something that wasn’t there; nothing broke the darkness, but the illumination surrounding the White House itself. There were no stars shining down, no moon in the sky; it made him tremble inside, wondering just what had happened to this timeline. Had the stars all been snuffed out by the Enemy, or had they simply cloaked the entire area in darkness, that was somehow a living breathing thing. It dawned on him that the darkness could be the Enemy itself, and he stared at it, but apart from brief hints of something moving within the darkness, there was no hint that it could be a living thing in its own right.
“This place feels odd,” Cyanna said, her hands dancing over her Blackberry-like device. “I can barely pick up any background information, not even a hint of a second Nexus Point or anything else, but…that.” She waved a hand towards the White House. “Mathew, what can you sense?”
Mathew closed his eyes, knowing that he was risking revealing their presence if the Enemy was watching for them, but there was no choice. They needed information, quickly, before something else happened…but as he reached out with his senses, he felt nothing. There was no information waiting in the background for him to access, no sense that someone with vast power was blocking him, just…nothing. They were blind, like it or not, and it scared him. The entire universe seemed to be stacked against them.
He said as much. “I think we’d better investigate the White House,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any other choice.”
Emery reached back into the Pendragon and pulled out a torch, waving it around and shining it into the darkness. There was nothing, not even a sign that the light was shining off something, even dust motes in the air. Mathew took a breath, just to ensure that they could breathe, and realised that the air was cold, and very clear. There seemed to be little point in waiting around, but at the same time, his instincts were screaming at him to forget Grey and run for his life.
“Come on,” he muttered, as he stepped towards the White House. He tried to reach out, to sense his mentor’s presence, and, for the first time, found something; a very definite sense that his mentor was nearby. He looked again, wondering if he could sense Jonathon Dark, but felt nothing; the rogue Walker had proven himself adept at masking his presence from the far more capable Grey before he had kidnapped him. That meant nothing, he had to remind himself, as he glanced around back into the darkness; anything could be waiting out there. “We don’t have all day.”
The White House rose up in front of them, glowing in the darkness; there were no signs of occupation, or even reality. The increasingly surreal scene was becoming eerier by the moment, a sign that reality itself wasn’t what he thought it was; he reached the open doors of the White House and peered inside, blinking in astonishment as he took in the sight before him. He’d never visited the real White House, or seen any of it outside of the movies, but he was fairly certain that the vast expanse stretching out in front of him was much bigger than the exterior of the White House.
He could hear words echoing in the distance…
“When he shows as seeking quarter, with paws like hands in prayer,
“That is the time of peril - the time of the Truce of the Bear!”
Mathew frowned. “What’s that?”
Cyanna blinked. “What’s what?” Her husband didn’t show any reaction either. “Mathew?”
“Talk about a TARDIS,” Emery said, as he stepped up behind Mathew. “Look.”
He pointed one long finger at a table in the centre of the interior, illuminated by its own pearly light, with a figure lying on the table. Mathew forgot himself as he recognised the figure and ran forward, pushing himself as fast as he could, until he reached the side of the table, staring down at Grey. The older Walker seemed to be asleep, but he could see tendrils reaching down from tiny chunks of reality and interfacing with his brain, his eyelids jerking madly as he dreamed.
“Grey,” Mathew called out, desperately. He was completely at a loss as to what to do. He wanted to pull out the tendrils, but he could see them as more than just wires, but complex multidimensional…things, playing games with Grey’s head. What would happen if he pulled them out? “Grey, wake up!”
There was nothing, no reaction, but increased jerking of the eyelids. Mathew gathered himself and slapped his mentor’s face, causing – again – no reaction. He poked him again, feeling his powers twisting reality to try to pull Grey out of wherever he had gone, but – again – there was nothing.
Emery ran up to him. “I don’t know how to get him awake, but pounding on him isn’t likely to have any real result, is it?” He asked dryly. “Cyanna, what do you make of this?”
Cyanna scanned the tendrils with her Blackberry. “I have no idea,” she said. “Those things seem to be a representation of reality, rather like the Sealion, but in reverse. I’m sorry.” She leaned down and kissed Grey’s unmoving lips. There was no reaction. “Nothing, nothing at all.”
Mathew wondered, insanely, if Grey wasn’t reacting because he was gay, but he knew his mentor liked girls as well. “Thanks for trying,” he said, noticing the amused smiles the couple were sharing. “What do we do to get them out?”
“They’re linked into his brain at several different levels,” Cyanna said, reaching out with her hand and passing it right through the tendrils. “They’re also existing just one step away from reality; I’ve never seen anything like that outside work done by a Walker, someone with an instinctive grasp of reality and the Multiverse. I think whatever this is…is trying to tap his powers directly, interfacing with his brain to control him, perhaps even inserting commands or worse into his brain.”
“That’s not important at the moment,” Mathew said, although it rang bells in the back of his mind. It was reminding him of something, something important, but what? “We have to get him out of there?”
“Nothing I have will make any impact on them,” Cyanna said. “We just can’t interface with them on all levels of reality simultaneously. You might be able to interface with his brain and disconnect him.”
The whispering rose up again…
“Over and over the story, ending as he began,
“There is no truce with Adam-zad, the Bear that looks like a Man!”
Mathew spun around angrily. “What is that?”
Emery gave him a concerned look. “What is what?”
“The whispering,” Mathew snapped. “Someone is whispering in the darkness, bits of an old poem. Can’t you hear it?”
“No,” Emery said. “Can you hear the sound of drums?”
“You’re not helping,” Mathew said. He looked down again at Grey. “I don’t know how to interface with him…”
“You should understand already, just by linking your reality field to his,” Cyanna said. She scowled. “Or at least that’s how the old stories said it was done. As far as I know, no one short of Ian Himself has ever actually done it…”
“Ian,” Mathew exclaimed. Everything made sense suddenly. “That’s what they’re doing, here; they’re trying to build a new Hub!”
There was a faint sound of clapping in the darkness. “Well done, young Mathew,” a mocking voice said. A figure formed out of the darkness, taking on shape and form, followed by a second figure. “Well done…and yet, so completely wrong.”
Jonathon Dark was the same man Mathew remembered, a pale man wearing a suit so dark that he almost seemed to vanish in the darkness; his companion was an Indian girl, enough like a girl he had known back at school for him to wonder if it actually was she, before realising that the face was very different. Jonathon was smiling; his companion’s face was blank, as if the entity controlling her didn’t seem to realise that she should be showing some expression, but her eyes were screaming.
A Marked Woman, Mathew thought, coldly. The Hub Records had been very clear on what happened to those who took the Mark; they remained perfectly normal, until they were activated and summoned to the service of the Enemy. The girl – she was naked; he judged from her body that she was around eighteen – would have made the dreadful bargain and accepted the Mark in exchange for her life, or something else they might have offered her.
He forced himself to speak normally. “That’s wrong?” He asked. “What’s wrong about it?”
“Oh, more or less everything,” Jonathon said dryly. “What would be the point of creating a second Hub?”
Mathew took a step towards him. “So, what is the point?”
“They’re going to destroy the Hub,” Jonathon said. “I’m not entirely sure if Ian can actually die, in a normal manner, but with a little…tweaking, our friend here can carry a weapon directly into the Hub Administration, a weapon capable of infecting and destroying the entire Hub, exterminating Ian from the universe.”
Emery stared at him. “Why?” He asked. “What the hell is the point?”
“The point, as I understand it, is that my masters” – he nodded out into the darkness – “have some grudges with Ian they intend to work off, just incidentally destroying the Time Agents who use the Hub as a base and place for recuperation as well,” he said. “It’s a little tricky to imagine a weapon that can be brought to bear on someone – something – like Ian, but they seem to have thought of one that might actually work! Won’t that Collins jerk be jealous?”
“You’re mad,” Mathew said, suddenly. Cold determination crystallised in his mind and body; he brought his fists and powers up to fight. “I’ll fight you, I won’t let you do this…”
“And I’ll do it over your dead body?” Jonathon asked. “That’s quite fine with me.”
His gaze slipped to Emery and Cyanna. “Ah, the two heroes of the Grand Continuum,” he said. “Aren’t you just a little bit out of your normal league? Oh, I’ve heard all of the tales passed down the Roads of Happenstance, how you cheated the Cartel itself, how you outthought and out-cheated a Tale-Keeper, how you even escaped those spider-like bastards…but you’ve never had to fight in a universe that is completely twisted against you, and where most of your powers just won’t work.”
He leered at Cyanna for a long moment. “You can leave, now, taking your silly car with you and abandoning the two Walkers, and I’ll let you go,” he said. Mathew felt cold fear shivering down his spine, just for a long moment; would they leave him? “Leave now and I swear to gosh you’ll live the rest of your lives without any involvement from the Enemy…”
Emery glared at him. “You’re evil, you and your masters,” he snapped, anger leaking into his voice. “Your War leaves billions upon billions dead, destroys entire worlds and warps entire sections of the Roads of Happenstance…and you expect us to just walk away from this chance to stop you?”
“Blimey, you do go on,” Jonathon said, when Emery had finished. “You’re not even going to make a statement about how your strength is the strength of ten men, because your heart is pure? Melodrama requires much more interesting words, and perhaps a dress rehearsal…and there are some people who just can’t pull it off.”
He looked back at Mathew. “But, believe me, you don’t want to raise a hand against me,” he said. “Can you guess why?”
Mathew took a guess. “You think you’re unbeatable?”
“Oh, it’s much more complex than that,” Jonathon said. The verbal fencing was beginning to grate on Mathew, although he was astute enough to understand that that was the point. Jonathon seemed in no hurry to actually fight; his companion just stood there, a vacant expression on her face and screaming in her eyes. “Mathew, I am your father….”
Mathew stared at him.
“Come on,” Jonathon prompted helpfully. “You’re supposed to throw your head back and shout ‘no!’”
“I don’t believe you,” Mathew said, shaken. Jonathon had to be lying; there could be no truth at all in the statement, could there? “You can’t be my dad; my dad’s back home in my timeline…”
“You did get the lecture on the birds and the bees, didn’t you?” Jonathon said, mischievously. “Grey told you, didn’t he, that if you had unprotected sex and there was a slight chance that there would be a pregnancy, it would happen? Did he tell you that Walker DNA tends to disguise itself with DNA from the surrounding area, such as making you appear to be your father’s son? It’s fascinating, really; there are plenty of husbands and fathers out there who have no idea that their wives cheated on them…and even some wives who have no idea that the man they slept with wasn't their husband at all. How’s that for a kick in the nuts?”
His voice darkened. “I met your mother, seduced her, and nine months later, out you popped,” he said. “It still strikes me as funny; the Walker DNA might hide itself, but no one, not even Ian, thought of simply keeping an eye on every woman a Walker might sleep with, just on the off-chance they might be pregnant. I mean…how do you think we found you? Even Ian didn’t know to look for you, until the Time Hound came after you and you used your powers for the first time. Don’t you think that was pretty clever of them?”
The whispering was back. It whispered right into his ear.
“When he shows as seeking quarter, with paws like hands in prayer,
“That is the time of peril - the time of the Truce of the Bear!”
“It said that before,” Mathew said, reeling. Jonathon gave him an odd look; couldn’t he hear the whispering? Mathew clung to it, suddenly; it was trying to tell him something important, something vital…and he wasn't quite understanding. “You can’t be my dad…”
“Over and over the story, ending as he began,
“There is no truce with Adam-zad, the Bear that looks like a Man!”
“Oh, but I am,” Jonathon said. He held out his arms. The smile on his face grew wider and somehow darker. “Won’t you come give your daddy a hug?”
“You’re lying,” Cyanna said, sharply enough to cut through the haze caused by the whispering and the conditions of the universe itself. Mathew found himself blinking awake with a start; Jonathon had almost woven a spell around him. “My people can see clearly, Fallen One, and there is no trace of you in him. Mathew is very definitely not your son.”
Jonathon’s eyes narrowed. “Never trust a woman with pointy ears,” he said, addressing Mathew. His voice dripped ice and fire; Mathew remembered that Grey, too, had distrusted the Fair Folk. Was it a common occurrence in the ranks of the Walkers? “In time, she’ll turn her husband into a frog and eat him.”
Cyanna ignored the remark. “Mathew, that is not your father,” she said, her voice as clear and truthful as a bear. At that moment, she was the most wonderful thing Mathew had ever seen, even including the entire Multiverse in that statement. “I don’t know why he thought that would fool you, but…”
Jonathon laughed. “How true,” he said. “I’m not your father, little boy.” He pointed one long finger towards Grey. Mathew followed his finger with growing horror. “That’s your father!”
Mathew felt anger bubbling up within him. “I don’t fucking care,” he snapped, wondering if Jonathon was actually telling the truth. Hot rage boiled up within him and his powers flickered into existence, testing the very fabric of the universe itself. He could see, now, how the Enemy had warped it, using it as a weapon against first Grey, and then the Hub, and how it could be reversed, if he could free Grey from his trap. “I just want it to end!”
“I would be careful about that, if I was you,” Jonathon said. There was no real panic or concern in his voice, he just eyed Mathew with absent curiosity. “If you break too many of the connections before this place stabilises, it’s going to implode and kill everyone, us included. Do you really want to kill your friends?”
Emery whistled, as loudly as he could. A second later, the Pendragon raced right through the walls and lunged at Jonathon, sending him flying away into the darkness. Emery chased him into the darkness, the darkness itself fading away with the sound wings beating in the shadows, pausing only to shout a single command at Mathew.
“I’ll do what I can,” he shouted. “You, do what you have to do!”
Mathew stared down at the body of his mentor and wanted to weep.
Chapter Twenty-Six: In Which There Is No Peace With Adam-Zad
Jonathon had only a second to react as the Pendragon appeared out of the darkness, the car that wasn't a car spinning its wheels and crashing right into him. The pain wasn’t that bad, because of his reality field, but it sent him flying, right into the darkness. He didn’t want to face the darkness, which seemed to fade away from him like mist as he flew through it; he remembered briefly how Grey had reacted to the darkness. There was something in it that reacted with each and every human soul, something deep and primal…and alive. Strange shapes, half-seen on the very verge of perception, faded from his view as he pulled himself back to his feet, seeing the Pendragon coming towards him with Emery driving it, an improbable amount of weapons appearing out of it and pointing at him.
Emery was shouting at him. “Surrender now and I promise you won’t be killed,” he shouted. The Pendragon’s lights barely penetrated the darkness; Jonathon realised in a moment of sudden understanding that Emery had to be having problems seeing him in the darkness, just like Grey had had problems seeing some of the creatures within the darkness. “Fight and I promise that one of us will die this day!”
Jonathon didn’t bother with shouting back, he just reached into a reality pocket and brought out a fusion bazooka, shooting at the ‘ground’ under the Pendragon and blowing it up in a massive explosion. The Pendragon might be protected by shields and magic spells that covered all manner of different realities, but even it was still affected by some aspects of reality. The explosion, as he had expected, sent the vehicle flipping over onto its side, which rapidly reconfigured itself as the wheels and sent the vehicle back into motion. He threw himself out the way as a massive burst of firepower, right out of a cartoon, came back at him, laser bolts slashing into the darkness and vanishing somewhere within the endless night. He took careful aim again and this time blasted the Pendragon directly, seeing the car’s shields flicker with stress before they started to fail. Something burst out of the side – it took him a second to realise that it was Emery – before the car itself screeched into the darkness, trailing fire and smoke.
“I think that’s round one to me,” Jonathon said, wryly, as Emery picked himself off the ground. He had caught up a large bag, which he reached into quickly and pulled out a small glove, before dropping the bag on the ground. “Whatever you are, you are no match for the power of a Walker. That is an absolute certainty…”
He felt his own senses extend out to face Emery and smiled at the way reality moved around him. It wasn't the way reality altered around him, or any other Walker; it was something completely different, but, in its own way, it was just as vulnerable to the altered universe as his own powers. Emery moved closer, his face showing no trace of fear or apprehension; it was almost as if he expected to win the coming duel.
“I have seen enough, along the Roads of Happenstance, to know that nothing is an absolute certainty,” Emery replied, his bright eyes fixing Jonathon’s position within the darkness.
“Oh, really?” Jonathon asked, enjoying himself more than he should. “Are you absolutely certain about that?”
Emery’s mouth twisted. “You murdered an entire world,” he said, his face darkening. “God alone knows what you’ve done to Grey…and you’ve damaged my Pendragon. One is us is not going to walk away from the battlefield.”
“Would it help if I said I was only obeying orders?” Jonathon asked dryly. “We all do what we must, even people like you, trying to keep a wife who will eventually leave you and seek out one of her own kind, or a wife you can never have children with, or perhaps cruising along the Roads, looking for adventure because you have to keep yourself occupied, because…”
He allowed his voice to darken. Playing on someone’s emotions was a game to him, not least because he had so few of his own. “Because, otherwise, you might realise that you left all of your life behind when you put on the ring and started to walk the Roads of Happenstance,” he said. “Do you ever miss being normal?”
Emery threw back his head and laughed. “I have a wonderful life and a wonderful wife, while you’re completely alone, except for the Enemy and their Marked Men,” he said. “Do they Mark you some women just so you can sleep with them?”
“No,” Jonathon said. The jab might have hurt if he had any real emotions. “Does your wife sometimes take on the appearance of other women to please you and your desires?”
Emery ignored the jibe. “The thing that worries me,” he said, “is why didn’t they allow you to carry the virus. If they had you, they already had a Walker; they didn’t need Mathew or Grey. Why didn’t they give you the treatment?”
Jonathon felt a flicker of annoyance. “Did I forget to mention that the treatment would almost certainly result in the death of the person carrying the virus?” He asked. “I don’t know about the people you’ve worked for, but I try to avoid working for people who consider me expendable.”
He painted a death smile on his face. “And I know, too, what you’re trying to do,” he said. “You’re stalling, hoping that something will happen to save you and your wife, because you can’t leave this realm without our permission. You should know, though, that there really is little point; in a few more hours, Grey will be a living weapon and then…you and your wife will suffer torments beyond imagination. There’s no one coming to help, there’s no one who can even get in now that we’ve broken the link to the Roads of Happenstance…and Ian won’t get off his fat butt to help.”
He paused. “Surrender now and I promise you a quick death,” he said. “If not, then damned be him who first says, hold, enough.”
Something materialised in Emery’s hand and leapt right at him, a burst of energy that seemed to twist in and out of reality. Jonathon blocked it with ease, warping reality to redirect the energy, only to see it floating back into Emery and redirected at him. Reality warped and twisted and a monster emerged, racing towards Jonathon; a creature that couldn’t exist without the link to its home dimension. He recognised it, a creature from a world where the Greek Gods had never left the world they’d influenced and almost enslaved, using humans as cannon fodder when competing with the Roman and Hindu Gods. He smiled and cut the link; the creature staggered and fell to the ground, screaming as its power to hold back the endless tide of entropy faded and died. The speed of death was impressive; one moment it was a living breathing creature, the next a body, and the third a desiccated dusty body that faded as he looked at it. Space and time warped again and he reached out to attack Emery directly, feeling the Road Strider twisting out of the wave of disruption, rather than trying to fight it directly.
“I think that creature shouldn’t have owed you any favours,” he said, as Emery took in the body. There was a new note of anger in Emery’s eye. His powers lashed out and struck directly at Jonathon, but they weren’t attacking him on every plane of existence; how could they? Emery wasn’t a Walker. “What did you do for it that made dying for you worthwhile?”
Emery ignored the question; instead, he pointed upwards. Jonathon looked before he remembered himself, to see an anvil falling on his head; he threw himself out of the way, just in time to avoid the object crashing down on his head. He laughed in delight as Emery’s powers danced in and out of the space-time region they both occupied, striking at him sideways, but never quite touching the core of his being. He walked forward, gesturing and summoning flames into the darkness; Emery stepped back, lacking the raw power to overwhelm the flames and wipe them from existence.
“Burn,” Jonathon said, his flames reaching out for Emery. The Road Strider waved a hand and reality twisted, just enough to summon a wave of water that slammed into the flames, extinguishing them without pressing against reality at all. Jonathon allowed himself a moment of respect before anger overtook it; duelling with Emery was like trying to swat a fly that was sitting on the end of his nose, laughing at him, with the added disadvantage of fighting on ice. The strange shifting motions in reality, thanks to the experiment that that was being performed on Grey, made it difficult for both of them to use their full power.
“I think not,” Emery said, although he was breathing heavily. Both of them were endlessly trying to redefine the concept of the battle; Jonathon was almost tempted to call on the Sealion, but the monster refused to answer his call. “I think you’re just a bit wet, don’t you?”
A wave of cold water struck at Jonathon, surprising him enough to miss the twist in reality that exploded in his face and sent him flying backwards. Accidentally or otherwise, Emery had hit on one of the few real weaknesses of the Walkers, the sense that, deep down inside, they were still human. A Walker who materialised in outer space might just die of suffocation before he or she remembered that they didn’t actually have to breathe. The cold water shocked him; the burst of energy hurt, striking at the very core of his being. His mind raced; it had to be a lucky shot, or all of Emery’s blows would land there and weaken him to the point where he might actually lose the fight. Cold rage replaced his surprise and he pulled himself to his feet, looking around for his opponent…and missing him completely. He had to be somewhere…
A thought struck at him and he fired a burst of reality-distorting energy behind him, slamming into two forms; Emery’s Fair Folk wife had joined the battle, he assumed on the side of her husband. It surprised him; the Fair Folk were normally selfish, to the point where one clan had actually offered him their throne, just because none of them could be asked to actually run their government. They loved fancy uniforms and expensive decorations, but the idea of actually doing something to earn them…
He smiled. They were just lazy at heart.
Cyanna’s powers surprised him, being different, very different, from her husband’s powers. She was holding something that kept changing its form in her hand, from a magic wand to a small handheld personal computer, and the effects were strange. It made him feel greasy, slimly; he wondered if she was trying to turn him into a toad. She was wasting her time, he realised, if that was what she was actually trying; the form he held was locked right into the meta-reality of the Multiverse itself. It still made him feel disgusting and sick; he lashed out and sent her flying backwards with his powers, as her husband came running up with a Vorpal Blade. The sword danced in his hands as he took a slash at Jonathon; he screamed as the blade lanced right through his chest, slicing right through the body armour he had worn, just in case…and digging right into his heart.
“There,” Emery said, looking down at him. The expression on the man’s face was a mixture of triumph and pure relief; Jonathon had never hated anyone so much at that moment, not even Ian. “May your soul find nowhere to rest and be chased endlessly along the Roads by…
Jonathon rose to his feet. “Rule something about having a gloat,” he said, as he pulled his own sword out of nowhere, turning to face Emery. The bastard’s smile had vanished within a second. “Make bloody certain that your enemy is actually dead.”
“Oh, come on,” Emery said, as he took on a fighting position. “Nanites? That is so…”
“If it works, don’t bother to fix it,” Jonathon said, as he lunged forward. Emery brought up his own sword to block him and they danced backwards and forwards for a long series of thrusts and parries before either of them scored blood; Emery’s own powers, he noted without particular concern, allowed him to survive blows that would have killed a lesser man, while the nanites in his bloodstream kept him from having to use his own powers to heal himself. “Why do you even try?”
“I try because someone has to try,” Emery said. They seemed to have both decided to win with swords; Cyanna made no attempt to interfere as the men danced backwards and forwards, their swords like glittering moments of pure reality. “If not me, then who?”
“Oh, you’re one of those people,” Jonathon said. “Do you know how many do-gooders on the left and the right have come down in flames instead of abandoning the plan when it was clearly proven to fail? Idealism is no substitute for ruthless pragmatism.”
Emery’s eyes glittered. “Let me guess,” he said. “You’re a Howard supporter.”
Jonathon blinked. “Who’s Howard and what does he have to do with the Multiverse?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Emery said dryly. “I think that you’re just a little off your rocker.”
Jonathon rolled his eyes. “I’m not here for some comparison with a political figure I have never even heard of,” he snapped. “I’m here to win and gain a little revenge at the same time, so get the hell out of my way or die!”
Emery smiled. “Are you feeling the heat?”
“No,” Jonathon said. He parried once, pushed Emery’s blade out of the way, and brought his knee up sharply into his opponent’s groin. It was a frankly dishonourable way to win, but he was past caring about such niceties. The Marines had hammered the ‘winning is everything’ philosophy into him and he smiled in remembrance as Emery doubled over. “Now, tell me; can your powers repair a head that’s separated from your neck?”
He drew back his blade for the killing stroke…and Cyanna jumped on him from behind. She was inhumanly strong and the pressure of her body and breasts distracted him, almost enough for her to crush him before he remembered that he could survive such an attack as well. Reality twisted around them and he found himself ten meters from her, far away enough to be safe, but close enough to make simply blowing her into ash to be dangerous. Her husband was still out for the count, but Jonathon expected he’d be back on his feet inhumanly quickly himself; he was irritating that way. Cyanna lashed out again with her strange disgusting magic, touching him in places that he hadn’t thought anyone could touch; he took a breath and drew on his own powers. There should just be time…
He reached out and pressed down on Cyanna, the force of his power beating down on her; she was strong and very, very, real, but no one could survive such an onslaught for long. He reached into the area of reality surrounding her, and then reached inside her directly, tearing away at what made her what she was. She screamed, her form somehow diminishing under the pounding he was handing out, flickering out of existence and compressing down to something that was both more and less than human.
Her husband shouted as well, coming back to his feet, and Jonathon took one final stab at her before twisting to avoid her husband. Emery was carrying his bag again and Jonathon scanned it in passing, noticing – for the first time – the presence of a Crosstime Bomb. He assumed, absently, that it was Adam Denton’s work; it was the one weapon that could make even him feel nervous. Its presence worried him…and then, he saw how he could win outright.
“Damn you,” Emery shouted at him, his face streaked with tears. “What did you do to her?”
Jonathon held his face under careful control. “I warped reality around her and locked it into her form,” he said, only half-truthfully. The lie was the important part. “She deserved it, you know; that magic of hers is unnatural.”
“You’re unnatural,” Emery screamed, and lashed out at him. Jonathon held himself together as the power lashed around him, touching him only slightly; he pushed his own counterblow perfectly, slamming Emery back to the point where he fell on top of his wife. The nasty part of his mind whispered that it was the first time that Emery had been on top and he should pause long enough for the Strider to enjoy it, but there was no time. Cyanna looked like the archetypical rape victim, even though he had never touched her; if it provoked the right reaction in Emery…
“Damn you,” Emery shouted, his hands digging through the rucksack and producing the Crosstime Bomb. “This will fucking get rid of you…”
Jonathon laughed. “Just whom do you think invented Crosstime Bombs in the first place?” He asked, as he reached out with his powers and accessed the moment of unreality contained and frozen within the heart of the bomb. It had been a Walker, centuries ago, a long time before the idea had been copied and used by one force within the Multiverse War and swiftly duplicated by the other. “I can control that thing with ease…”
He reached out and triggered the bomb. Reality warped around the pair of them and they were gone, tossed somewhere into the Multiverse. A being like Ian could trace them, but Jonathon didn’t have that capability and really didn’t care anyway; by the time they came back, even assuming they tried, it would be over. He ached, all over, but he had won…
He turned as reality warped again. “No!”
Chapter Twenty-Seven: In Which Mathew Grows Up
Mathew stared as the naked Indian girl came up to him, reached out a hand, and a burst of energy crashed into his chest. He found himself staggering backwards, looking into her cold dead face and screaming eyes, and tried to avoid crashing into Grey’s table. The girl was a victim, or was she? Like Colonel Wilson and God alone knew how many others, she’d taken the Mark in exchange for something, perhaps her life, perhaps something else. All he knew was that he didn’t want to hurt her, but there didn’t seem to be any choice; Cyanna had vanished, he assumed in pursuit of her husband and Jonathon, and he was alone.
And there was the whispering…
“When he shows as seeking quarter, with paws like hands in prayer,
“That is the time of peril - the time of the Truce of the Bear!”
Mathew shouted out into the darkness. “Shut up,” he shouted. The presences within the darkness were growing stronger; he could almost see them, right out of the corner of his eyes. The sense of oppression was growing stronger, even without the girl who was standing beside Grey, her screaming eyes looking at him almost pleadingly. He wondered just what she had done to deserve such a fate; what had she faced to accept the offer of the Enemy. The presences seemed to be laughing at him as he pulled himself together; he reached out with his senses, and saw the Mark within the girl, stamped right into her brain. His power rose, demanding to be let loose and burn the Mark right out of her head, but he saw instantly that that would kill her. The Enemy had accepted her services and would not be denied.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, and generated a pulse of energy, tossing it towards her and striking her in the chest, sending her naked body crashing back to the ground. She fell in a provocative pose, looking ready for his entry, but there was nothing really erotic about her position at all. Mathew shook his head, sickened even as he sensed the battle raging between Emery and Cyanna on one side, and Jonathon on the other; there was little time and no guarantee that the good guys would win the fight.
Grey’s eyelids twitched more as Mathew reached out and touched his forehead, looking for a clue as to how to proceed; helplessly, he roused the power within him and felt something slide into place, forming a link between their minds. He found himself falling out of his body – some instinct warned him to use something as a line to mark his way back to his body – and down, down, into Grey’s body. Everything went misty for a long moment, and then he found himself floating high above a glowing ball of energy, pulsing with light…and penetrated with dark shadowy strands woven right through the ball. Even from his position, he could see just how evil the strands were; he was looking right at a metaphorical representation of Grey’s mind.
The damage made him shudder. Somehow – he had no idea how – he could tell just what was doing what, a strand linked into his memory to override short-term memory and ensure that there was nothing to alert the Hub that a dangerous menace had entered through its protections, a second strand linked directly into the part of his mind that controlled his powers. Grey hadn’t just been infected; he’d been overwhelmed and torn apart, almost Marked by sheer force.
But he never accepted the Mark, Mathew thought, as he stared down at the damage, unsure what to do, or even where to begin. Grey’s memories kept whispering to him, thoughts of himself, thoughts of Jonathon; one fact that came to light was that Jonathon was sterile…and had been sterile ever since he had been Banned from the Hub, thirty years ago…and way too early to be Mathew’s father. The thought made him relax in sheer relief; he hadn’t really believed the rogue Walker, but it had made him wonder. There was no hint as to the truth about Grey being his father; Grey had wondered, but there was no real proof, one way or the other. It could have been, just as easily, any other Walker.
“Ho,” a voice called, or thought; there was no real difference in the universe of the mind. “What are you doing here, traveller?”
Mathew looked down, to see a massive bear climbing towards him, wearing a massive weapon slung over his shoulder. The bear climbed with a speed that was extraordinary; Mathew stood up and started to look for a stick before remembering that they were in a perceptual reality and simply pulled one out of thin air. The bear was no Winnie-the-Pooh; he could see massive teeth pulled back in a beseeching smile and a very faint sense of eternal deceit.
The bear spoke again. “Ho,” he said, his voice becoming softer, weaker. “Will you not take tea with me?”
The region redefined itself around the bear, creating a tea set suitable for a little girl, holding a small tea party for her stuffed toys. It all seemed insanely small for the bear; Mathew remembered how the Roads of Happenstance had presented themselves to different people and wondered how the bear saw the tea set. The faint sense of deceit remained in the air, but it was hard to see the threat…unless the tea was poisoned somehow…and, seeing it was the heart of Grey’s mind, that wasn't likely. The old Walker loved his cup of tea.
Mathew shaped a thought in his mind and found himself sitting opposite the bear, who promptly took a swipe at him with razor-sharp claws. Mathew’s own self-image saved him; the claws bashed against the armour he had imagined himself wearing and shattered. The bear’s big golden eyes managed to look endlessly remorseful and at the same time, guilt-inducing, as if it really couldn’t understand why it had been hurt. He felt a flicker of guilt and had to remind himself, sharply, that the bear had struck first…and, somehow, he suspected that the bear wasn't a construction of Grey’s mind.
The bear’s voice became, if possible, even more of a pathetic whine. “But I meant you no harm,” he protested. Despite himself, Mathew found himself weakening, almost lulled into a sense of security. “Can we not take tea together?”
Mathew pinched himself, hard. He couldn’t trust the bear. “What are you doing here?”
The bear’s eyes grew, if possible, even sadder. “They brought me here and made me do their bidding,” he said. “They came in their terrible blackness and their black wings and ripped me from my friends and bent me to their will. I cannot disobey and I cannot do anything and…oh, have pity on me!”
Mathew looked at him. The bear was the bear…but there was something flickering underneath, a hint of scuttling legs and something else, something that was linked directly into the webbing that had been woven all through Grey’s mind. The moment of hesitation, of distraction, almost proved his last; the bear leaned forward, with more teeth than seemed possible, and made an attempt to bite him, before falling back and looking harmless again.
Words came to him…
“When he shows as seeking quarter, with paws like hands in prayer,
“That is the time of peril - the time of the Truce of the Bear!”
…And a name; Adam-Zad, the Bear who walks like a Man.
“You monster,” he said. It was a moment of pure understanding, a moment in which he saw the bear clearly, saw it for what it really was. “Get out of my friend and we’ll talk!”
The bear’s appearance changed slightly. Mathew remembered watching, once, a TV show about illegal immigrants who had become squatters and had had to be turned out of the fancy home they’d appropriated by the police. They’d all had brown wide eyes, helpless faces, pleading for clemency and mercy. They’d almost gotten the public on their side; the people who had earned the home had looked like villains, regardless of their rights. The bear was trying to manipulate him…
And he could see it, clearly.
“I can’t leave,” the bear said, somehow seeming to convey that he would have loved to leave, but something was preventing him from leaving. “How could you ask me to do that?”
“Leave,” Mathew repeated, producing a sword from nowhere. The bear’s eyes went very wide, very helpless; only the fact Mathew could see the shape hiding under the bear kept him from feeling utterly guilty. “Leave, or I will kill you now…”
The bear reached for its gun, mumbling around a right to arm bears, and Mathew lashed out once, slicing into its paw. The bear howled and then it wasn't a bear, but a massive spider-like creature that scuttled towards him. Mathew had always been scared of spiders, but this one was too large, somehow, to be terrifying…and he knew what it really was. The mind parasite reached for him, intending to infect him and lay its eggs inside his brain, and he sliced again with the sword. The mind parasite howled as the sword cut directly into its head, an eerie googly organ of eyes and mouths and hair, and just…vanished. Seconds later, a wall of fire rose up and Mathew found himself flying up into the air…
…To find himself in his own body, staggering backwards from the impact of crashing back into the normal world. The darkness remained as all-powerful as ever, but he could feel consternation and rage brewing out somewhere in the darkness…and, as he looked down and met Grey’s eyes, he could see that the tendrils had all vanished. His mentor rubbed his head as he started to sit up, his body looking battered, but alive.
“My thanks,” he muttered, as he pulled himself to his feet. “What do we do now?”
Mathew glanced off, into the darkness, in the hopes of seeing Emery and Cyanna, but instead he saw an angry Jonathon Dark walking through the darkness, power crackling around him. It had never struck him before just how much the bastard’s surname fitted him; he was, in the end, a truly dark figure. The rogue Walker looked as if he was ready to start spitting out vitriol; Mathew wondered, just for a second, what sort of punishment the Enemy would inflict on him for failure.
“This is not over,” Jonathon said. His voice was harsh and broken; Mathew saw that he had been hurt, badly…and hoped that Emery and Cyanna were ok. The presence of Jonathon suggested the opposite. “Grey, return to your purpose and Mathew will be permitted to leave this universe.”
Grey laughed bitterly. “I think that that would be a very bad choice,” he said. “I could hear the creature inside my head laughing as it carried out its plan and I know what the next move was; you were going to be killed, along with the remaining Walkers once the Hub went down. Do you really want me to go back?”
“You lie,” Jonathon snapped. The sheer power radiating off him made Mathew take a step backwards. “Why would they want to destroy all of the Walkers?”
“I think they wanted all the power for themselves,” Grey said. He staggered slightly against the table, his body trembling with the effort of even standing upright, something that made Mathew wince in sympathy. Two Walkers against one looked like good odds, but when one was inexperienced and the other was still battered and weak, it didn’t look like such good odds. “You must have wondered why they couldn’t just get you to do it, but you were Banned from the Hub; you couldn’t return there and if they infected you and sent you back, you’d just get dumped into a timeline of shit.”
He paused. “But now, they must know that it’s over, so what are they going to do now…?”
Jonathon moved forward. “Then I’ll beat the pair of you into submission and they can reprogram you again, or maybe carry out the original plan and infect Mathew instead, or maybe even send both of you into hell,” he said. His power rose up to challenge them both. “Give up now, Grey, and Mathew can live his life in peace…”
“Until they come for me,” Mathew snapped, feeling his own power rising up within him. He lashed out and slammed his field against Jonathon, realising as he did that Emery and Cyanna had actually weakened the rogue badly, badly enough to make it harder for him to fight Mathew. Their powers clashed together, struggling in a desperate attempt to overwhelm each other, and he realised, just in a moment of sudden delight, that he might actually be able to win! “You can’t win this!”
“I see Grey taught you the power of magic thinking,” Jonathon said, as his powers twisted and burned against Mathew’s reality field, hacking away at him and forcing Mathew to block his thrusts. Mathew took the offensive, trusting in sheer power and determination – and the fact he wasn't that tired compared to the rogue Walker – to give him an advantage, and forcing Jonathon to react to him for a change. The discharge of energy crackled into reality, sending bursts of light through the darkness and forcing it to fall back from the light. Mathew pushed harder, and kept pushing, and then he staggered forward…and Jonathon kicked him neatly in the chest.
“You know, that normally only works in crap novels and even crappier movies,” Jonathon said, as Mathew staggered back to his feet. The rogue was in a terrible state; he could see blood pouring from almost all of his orifices, from his nose to his ears and eyes. Mathew drew on his own power to heal himself, but there was no time; the very fabric of reality around them was starting to break down. There might be no innocents around to get caught up in the fallout as reality broke down, but the universe was so weird that who knew what would happen if reality actually did collapse? “But you must know I have been doing this for years…”
He staggered backwards as Grey struck him. “And I’ve been doing this for centuries,” he snapped. “You don’t get to fucking walk away, not this time; we’ll go together, now!”
Mathew reached out and, again, reality started to break down around Jonathon. He could see him struggling, trying to find a chink he could escape though, or perhaps a final desperate thrust aimed at the two Walkers, but the fighting had finally exhausted him. His core reality was under threat; Grey pushed, Mathew pushed…and his shields finally collapsed. The rogue fell to the ground, gasping and pleading, and Grey ignored him. He pulled a knife out of nowhere and walked, still naked, over to Jonathon.
“This is it,” he said, pointing the knife at his neck. “Your time is up.”
Jonathon stared at him. “You don’t have the guts to knife me in cold blood,” he said, in-between spitting out bloody chunks from his mouth. “No one, not even Ian, had the guts to just kill me.”
“You won’t serve the Enemy any longer,” Grey said. “It’s time…”
A scream split the sky; the darkness was condensing, falling below them as the ground faded away, leaving them standing on an island floating in the air. There was no longer any sign of the White House, or of any building, just the new light, the darkness forming below them, and the glowing red light that seemed to be endlessly evil and endlessly insane. Mathew took his heart in his hands and peered over the side, only to stagger backwards as he came face to face with something so large, so powerful, that even a Walker couldn’t face it directly. A second howl, interacting with the very shape of reality itself, reached out for them…and he found himself back near Grey as the island started to fall apart. The sheer power was terrifying; he tried to form an image of what he’d seen in his mind, only to have the image refuse to form.
“Damn you,” Grey shouted, as the island started to tilt under the pressure caused by the beating of mighty wings. “Tell them to stop this!”
Jonathon was giggling as reality shrugged to remain normal. “The Enemy have come in person for their prey,” he gasped, in-between giggles. Flames and bursts of light started to cascade around them as reality broke down. “You can’t escape…”
“You won’t escape,” Grey shouted back. He picked up Jonathon and threw him over the edge in one smooth motion; Mathew heard a scream that broke off abruptly, just before Grey yanked him back from the crumbling edge. “Get us out of here.”
“I can’t,” Mathew shouted back. His powers weren’t working right; the sheer presence of the Enemy was overriding everything he tried. It was just more real, and yet more unreal, than anything else he had ever seen, even Ian himself. He didn’t understand why one of the Enemy hadn’t gone in person to confront Ian and destroy the Hub; surely, they possessed the power to do something like that. The red glowing eyes grew closer; they clung together on the remains of the island, not daring to look down on the Enemy below. “It won’t form!”
“Concentrate on just getting out into the Multiverse,” Grey snapped. He held Mathew tightly. “You can do it, Mathew; I have faith in you!”
Something, somehow, caught onto his powers; Mathew threw caution to the winds and grabbed on to the helping hand, finding himself and Grey yanked out of the Enemy-controlled timeline. The Enemy howled in furious protest as they vanished from the universe, but it was too late and nothing, not even the Enemy, could have caught them in time.
Not a nanosecond too late, they escaped from the Enemy.
Chapter Twenty-Eight: In Which There Is An Ending And A Beginning
Ian regarded them all quizzically as the shift door slammed closed, just before he replaced his fishing rod carefully in the basket and stood up, the basket and fishing gear vanishing, to be replaced by his standard bartender’s outfit. Grey glanced around as he drew on the power of the Hub to replace his lost energies, not a moment before he collapsed. The rush of energy made him sigh in relief; repairing himself would take a few hours, but he was confident – now – that he would actually survive. He’d attempted to push Mathew out of the Multiverse with the last of his energy, rather than escape himself, just because he was certain that he was going to die, either at the hands of the Enemy, or just because reality had broken down completely.
“Thanks,” he said, as he found a drink and a table in front of him. He regarded the drink with a surprisingly jaundiced eye; the presence of the mind parasite posing as a bear that had posed as a man had rather spoiled him on tea and drinking in general. It would have been easy to dig into the drink and get drunk, or as drunk as a Walker could become, but he found it surprisingly easy to reject the temptation. “Answer me a question.”
Ian sat down and faced him. “Robin found a few thousand survivors on the moon of her system after our old friend used the artefact to shatter the world and destroy the Blackshirts,” he said. “They would probably survive anyway, but I asked Captain What and Captain Ward to deliver enough life-support and medical equipment to ensure that they actually make it, spreading through the solar system and guaranteeing their chance at life.”
He paused. “Or wasn’t that what you wanted to ask?”
“Jonathon alleged that you had made him sterile,” Grey said, shortly. “He also stated that you had gotten the Hub involved in the Multiverse War, drawing the ire of the Enemy. How much of that is actually true?”
“All of it and none of it,” Ian said, flatly. “I wonder how Jonathon accounted for the fact he never had any children, before or after he left the Hub? He made himself sterile, because, deep inside, he never wanted any children. He never wanted to get a girl pregnant and, because of that, his powers ensured that it would never happen. He might not have known what was actually happening, but…”
He shrugged magnificently. “The Powers of a Walker are a strange set of powers,” he said. “If the Walker in question is selfish and self-centred to a point where any sort of…you know, complete exclusion of the possibility that other intelligent people have rights, and feelings, and responsibilities of their own, there’s a good chance that they’ll never have children because they don’t believe that it can happen. They couldn’t even have taken his sperm and used it because that would have failed as well.”
“But they took some of mine and used me as a stud bull,” Grey protested. He briefly explained what had happened while he’d been a captive. “I didn’t want those children…”
“You may have to get them,” Ian said. He closed his eyes for a long moment. “They would have done it without your consent, but so few people – so few men, at least, although it is impossible to get a Walker pregnant through rape – think about such a possibility that there is no time for reality to alter to prevent it from happening. Apart from that, they will have sent their Marked Women back into their own places in the Multiverse to give birth in nine months, and then they’ll claim the children.”
“And pose a threat to the Hub again,” Grey agreed. Ian nodded once. “Tell me something; did we really challenge the Enemy?”
“There was a timeline that was linked to the Hub, not unlike the dead world,” Ian said grimly. “It was my original timeline, a place where space flight was discovered around two hundred years after Jesus and the Roman, Chinese and Carthage Empires spread out across the universe, and then the Enemy decided to deal with them.”
“So, you interfered,” Grey said. He met Ian’s ever-shaded eyes for a long moment. “It’s good to know that you’re still human, at the bottom.”
“I have been human and so much more than human for so long that it was easy to forget that there are times, injustices, that take place regardless of my input,” Ian said. “I sent several Walkers there to put a spoke in the works, only to have my interference traced back to the Hub and…well, they struck back.”
He paused. “I’ve altered the Hub Administration settings a little, just in case they try to slip someone infected in again,” he continued. “We won’t be playing any further role in the War and I will communicate that to the…proper authorities, in hopes that it will end the possibility of the Hub being used as a battleground. We do not…want the Hub torn apart by the two sides, do we?”
“With all due respect,” Grey said, “I don’t think that that’s enough.”
Ian raised one eyebrow in an exaggerated manner. “Oh, really?”
“The War claimed billions of lives in the last few weeks, just to bait a trap for us,” Grey said. “I don’t think that we can just…let it slip past us. We have to stop them before something much worse happens.”
Ian nodded. “You’re talking about taking the war to them,” he said. “I cannot allow the Hub to be used as a base for such action.”
“I thought you would say that,” Grey said. He stood up and held out his hand. “It was nice while it lasted, Ian; I hope to see you again, once the War is over.”
Ian took his hand, but didn’t shake it. “The War won’t be over,” he said. “It might be millennia before one side produces a victory.”
“Maybe,” Grey said. “You see, I saw the Face of the Enemy.”
He left, not looking back.
“We’re both fine,” Emery assured Mathew, as they sat together watching a blonde girl cavort on the stage, singing a raunchy song about her Jewish lover. “Cyanna got pretty badly hurt, but the Crosstime Bomb tossed us into the Multiverse and then Ian grabbed us and brought us here. I guess we owe him something.”
Mathew shrugged. He still hadn’t forgiven Ian for not helping rescue Grey before Cyanna had been battered into near-mental collapse. She’d recovered quickly in the Hub, but it had reminded him of just what sort of danger he’d dragged them both into, just because he had been desperate to recover Grey. She might have forgiven him, but he hadn’t forgiven himself yet.
“Maybe,” he conceded. He met Emery’s eyes. “I wanted to ask you,” he said. “Do you have an opening for me in the policing organisation you were talking about?”
Emery smiled. “Are you serious?”
“Yes,” Mathew said, unwilling to compromise or hide his feelings. “You know as well as I do that there will be more worlds wiped out if people like Denton and the others keep playing silly buggers with their weapons, or keep trading advanced weapons, or…and you were saying that you’d been talking to people about it. Are you serious?”
Emery smiled. “Come find us at Joe’s when Grey has finished with you,” he said. “If you’re willing, then so are we.”
The two of them strode away, hand in hand. “She really does love him,” Mathew commented, as Grey sat down and faced him. “Was Jonathon right?”
Grey didn’t mess with words. “It’s possible,” he admitted. “I honestly don’t know for sure; there are quite a few links running through that particular region of the Grand Continuum. I could be your father, or it could have been another Walker, or you could just be a victim of random chance. You’re not Jonathon’s boy, though; the bastard was sterile for a long time before he was ever Banned from this place, and that was more than thirty years ago.”
He shrugged. “Maybe they just traced a Walker visiting your mother and waited patiently for you to be born,” he said. He shrugged. “I couldn’t be more proud of you if you were my son, though; I want you to know that.”
Mathew nodded once. “And what happened to Jonathon?”
“Dead, I hope,” Grey said. He remembered the monstrous shape reaching up towards them and shuddered. “Do you remember that thing we saw?”
Mathew nodded. “Was that a…?”
Grey held up his hand. “That was one of the Enemy,” he said. “I’d suggest you try to forget that you ever saw it. I know I will.”
Mathew looked at him. “Why not tell everyone what it was?”
“Because we’re not ready,” Grey said. He stood up. “I understand that you’re going off with Emery and his wife to play hero; you, at least, will always be welcome back here.” He winked; Mathew nodded. The message had been understood. “I hope you have a good time, but before you go, you have to keep a promise.”
Mathew remembered. “I understand,” he said, and held out a hand. Grey shook it tightly. “Be seeing you…”
Grey vanished into the Multiverse. Mathew glanced around, at the Hub and at the patrons milling about, as if what they were doing was so important, and wondered; how many of them worked for the Enemy? Or, for that matter, for the Time Agents? The knowledge that he and Grey shared made them targets…assuming that the Enemy knew that they knew, and it was hard to see how they didn’t know. And yet, was the knowledge really that important, compared to the sheer uselessness of the information? The Face of the Enemy…
He finished his drink and stood up, taking one final look around the Hub, and then he Walked away from it, right into the Multiverse. The feeling was truly wonderful, as if he was spreading his wings for the very first time; the glittering jewel of the Multiverse lay below him as he Walked towards the timeline he wanted to visit. His own home timeline waited for him, but he walked past it; the wanderlust had already taken hold of him. He’d return one day, just to tell his family that he was fine; Grey had assured him that the Time Hound’s effects would have faded almost as soon as the creature had vanished, but he suspected that his family wouldn’t be that worried about him…or was that just something he told himself to excuse his actions?
The timeline rose up in front of him and he entered it, materialising in an alleyway – as usual – with the strange Islamic-European buildings rising up around him. He smiled as he sensed the presence of the Portal and walked towards it, stepping between the seconds and passing, unnoticed, between the people walking around. They were darker people here, moors, he guessed, but many of them were white, or brown, or even Chinese. The Muslims had been enthusiastically interbreeding without any real concern about race – a far cry from the Muslims in his timeline, many of whom had hiccups over issues such as a different mosque, let alone skin colour – and he guessed that in time everyone would be the same colour.
The Portal was seated in the centre of a vast trading area; men with guns and modern appliances guarded it, while a flood of trade goods came through the glowing square of light. Mathew remembered what Abdul had said, so long ago, and understood it now; it wouldn’t be long before the civilisation within the timeline became dependent upon the goods being fed to them through the Portal…and ending their independence, once and for all. He ground his teeth as he walked into a small office, seeing a man who was incredibly handsome, but clearly the product of plastic surgery.
He allowed the man to see him appearing right in front of him. “Good Afternoon,” he said, as the man gaped at him. “I’d very much like you to return all your people through the Portal and close it permanently.”
“I am Dominus Alexi Velius,” the man said, his eyes narrowing and proving the limitation of plastic surgery. “Just who do you think you are and what gives you the right to dictate to me?”
“I am the law,” Mathew said, only half-seriously. “I am not offering you anything. I am offering you the chance to get your people out of this timeline before I slam the Portal shut and lock it permanently. I dare say that many of you who end up stranded here will have something to do, but somehow I doubt that the local traders would consider you worth keeping around.”
His lips twitched. The old Mathew would never have acted like this; the new Mathew seemed determined to make a name for himself. “Look,” Velius said, his voice becoming oily, “I can offer you anything from money to power or women or…”
“I’m not interested,” Mathew said. He reached out with his powers and interfered, just slightly, with the Portal. It flickered, once, cutting a shipment in half. “I just issued a warning…”
The door burst open. “Sir, something happened to the Portal,” a young woman shouted, her dark face torn by surprise. “It just blinked on and off for a moment and cut a shipment in two…”
Mathew inspected his fingernails as the girl took in his existence. “I trust that you no longer doubt that I can do as I said?”
Velius looked at him. “I’d need at least a day to get everyone out,” he said. Mathew could almost read his mind; he was looking for ways to get rid of Mathew. “There are people in the city…”
“No,” Mathew corrected him. He couldn’t feel anyone from an alternate timeline anywhere short of Cambridge – no, Jisr al-Kâm, he reminded himself – and he wasn't in the mood for games. “Leave the produce here and just get everyone out; the Portal will be permanently closed in twenty minutes.”
He watched the panic from the roof of one of the buildings as seventy people fled through the Portal, suddenly caught up in a panic. Many of them had believed that they were doing the right thing, many others had just been in it for the money; Mathew didn’t really care. He owed the inhabitants of the timeline some help in exchange for saving his life. He checked around the deserted building, just in case someone had been trapped in the building, but found nothing; it was the work of a moment to permanently unpick the Portal and leave the timeline isolated, for a while. Sooner or later, he was confident, someone would open a new Portal, but not for a while. Abdul would have his second chance.
He closed his eyes again, drew on his powers, and reappeared in Jisr al-Kâm. The city had clearly suffered from the earthquake that Jonathon Dark had caused, but it was still simple to find Aneesa; her father had secured them a new house and had simply carried on, business as usual. He smiled as he knocked once on the door, sensing only her presence within the house, and smiled again as she opened the door.
“You came back,” she said, astonished. Mathew was surprised that anyone would question his integrity, although it was quite understandable; Walkers just were given to wanderlust. “I…”
Mathew smiled again, and then sensed the undercurrent. “Hi,” he said, seriously. He pushed his planned words aside and found new ones. “Is this a bad time?”
Her face flushed slightly. “I found someone in the chaos that…”
“We caused,” Mathew completed. It didn’t really hurt, or so he told himself; Aneesa hadn’t really been promised to him, or anything. He had no claim on her, and he wouldn’t give her children just for someone else to raise because Abdul had intended to breed Walkers. “What’s he like?”
“Nice,” Aneesa said, her voice soft. It was clearly difficult for her to discuss the subject. “My father doesn’t really approve, but he’s a good man at heart and accepted the suit once it was formally offered, so…”
Mathew understood. “Tell Abdul that I chased the traders off your world,” he said, and leaned forward and kissed her once on the cheek. He didn’t feel anything for her, no sense that perhaps he should be fighting for her, just a sense that perhaps everything had worked out for the best. “Good Luck, and may your children be strong and healthy.”
He smiled one last smile at her, and turned and Walked out of the timeline with his head held high. The time and tides of the Multiverse shimmered around him and he found the path to Joe’s easily enough, a path that many other Walkers had trodden over the years. He almost threw back his head and started singing; it just felt wonderful to be Walking towards Infinity…
And all was well with the world.
There was screaming.
There was a lot of screaming.
Jonathon Dark only dimly realised, as he spun endlessly in the darkness and the evil red light, that he was doing the screaming. He was completely insane, his mind collapsing under the pressures exerted on it by the Enemy as they swooped and lunged at him, draining him of every last scrap of knowledge, power, and sanity. The realm of the Enemy admitted no trace of logic or reason; the beating of mighty wings echoed through his mind, becoming part of the beat dancing through his body as he screamed and screamed again, with only the Enemy to hear.
A trace of thought surfaced in his mind.
He had seen the Face of the Enemy.
And now he knew why…