A small, military truck crossed the barren and battered highway, taking care to avoid rubbles or destroyed roads. Surrounding the area were ruins, a relic from the Great War over that ended over a hundred years ago. The highway itself was a leftover from the Old Civilization, yet it still provided an easy path to travel. However, usually only those who had transportations used it for bandits were everywhere, preying those using the highway. Others preferred to use other alternative routes – small pathways along the rivers and forests connecting the villages and towns.
The Great War ended a century ago with the beginning of a nuclear winter, although no one was certain. History records before and during the Great War were lost either in natural disasters or stolen by raiders, and only the Digital Mages – a mysterious cult that preserved most of the knowledge of the Old Civilization – kept a complete record. Some of them, though, were slowly rediscovered. It was known that the war spanned across the globe, and after the war ended, man fought to survive. Population was greatly reduced from the use of nuclear weapons and the subsequent nuclear winter, and most of the lands were either radiated or inhabited with mutated creatures leaving only few places for the human race to start anew.
The sun was high in the sky when the truck reached the vicinity of a large ruined city. Even in ruins, it still hadn't lost its grandeur. There were many billboards, but what it advertised was lost with the progress of time. Most of the buildings still stood tall denying the test of time. But was empty and uninhabitable, standing as a constant reminder of the glory of the Old Civilization; a reminder of what was before humans had been foolish enough to destroy one another because of petty differences.
The truck stopped on the side of a road. A woman with an oriental look and carrying a katana at her side, and a tall, muscular man wearing a complete commando uniform stepped out. His uniform clearly stated his rank and the woman saluted him. The man stood near the edge of the road. He looked beyond the edge below and saw a huge, gaping hole with clear signs of recent earthquake. The man then shifted his gaze to the ruins beyond him – particularly to a tall building clearly seen from a distance. It was the highest building in the vicinity; two towers that stood side by side and connected by a small bridge somewhere in the seventieth floor. The bridge however was already broken, and one of the towers would have crumbled if not it leaning dangerously to its twin. The woman stepped behind him, waiting for his command. She cleared her throat to get his attention.
"Sir," the woman began after he turned to face her.
"Can you sense any threats in the area?" asked General Tyler.
The woman stretched one of her hand forward and closed her eyes. She used her psychic energies to detect any hostile threats on the area. A little while later, she opened her eyes. "No sir. I can sense sentient beings, but they pose no threat to the mission."
"Good," General Tyler replied. "At least we don't have raiders following us. Come on, we better move on."
x x x
"What exactly do we have to recover?" A girl around eighteen of age asked the others in the truck as it exited the once congested area of the city. There were fewer buildings now, and the area was now covered with lush trees.
"I thought we're already briefed on this mission," Tiffany replied, slowly opening her eyes. She was resting after expanding a large amount of energy to probe the city before.
"Let me explain," a man with thick glasses and a portable computer on his lap intruded the conversation.
"Please do, Quinton. This is my first mission, so I might forget the details," Elaine replied. She was excited to have a chance to do field work after a few years working in the lab.
"Well," Quinton began, his fingers idly typing on the keyboard, "it's a Temporal Molecular Displacer. I discovered its existence from the records retrieved by another team a few months back from the site we're heading now. One of the unmarked files contained a record proving the existence of a particle that goes against the natural flow of time. Now back in – oh, sorry Elaine. I must have made you confused," Quinton grinned.
"It means that we're going to recover a time machine," a man sitting at the end of the truck remarked. Several magazines for his handgun were strapped on his body, and he was wearing thin yet hardened bulletproof armor under his uniform. On his left thigh was a sai, while on his left was his custom-made handgun.
"Thanks…Mr. Kusanagi," Elaine said, smiling happily. "That's simple enough."
"Don't bother much with Quinton," Aerik, whom Elaine called Mr. Kusanagi, replied. "He just needs to learn to simplify things a bit. At least I know enough to know what he's talking about."
"Don't worry, Elaine. You'll learn in time," said a woman sitting between Elaine and Aerik as she patted her head. She was a medical officer judging from her attire. She smiled to Elaine, who smiled in return. "I don't know much either," she said, "but Aerik is a good teacher."
"Of course he is, Liana," Quinton chuckled. "He is, after all, your husband."
Everyone burst to laughter much to her embarrassment. Even Tiffany, who had just nodded off, formed a smile.
x x x
About an hour later, the truck arrived at a large facility of some sort. General Tyler, the leader of the team suggested they had lunch first before going inside the facility to recover the Temporal Molecular Displacer. They all agreed and began unpacking their rations. Aerik and Colonel Thor – a heavily built man and the driver – took charge of securing the area as the others prepared lunch.
Soon they entered the facility. Everyone prepared for any danger, as the previous retrieval team that entered a few months back was attacked by mutated spiders. Those creatures were destroyed later by soldiers sent by the Organization, but there was no telling what else was lurking inside the abandoned facility – the machine was located inside one of the underground labs, and the previous team had never ventured that far.
As they made their way downward, Quinton explained that the facility was a nuclear research facility. At the center of the facility was a nuclear generator used for research. It was connected to a 3.5-kilometer long particle accelerator built deep inside the ground. It was possible that the Temporal Molecular Displacer drew power from the nuclear generator. "The generator is no longer running, though," Quinton remarked. "The facility was abandoned during the Great War, and no one ever came since then."
The group was alert for any possible threats, and had their weapons at the ready. Liana stayed close to Aerik. Tiffany used her psychic abilities to scan the area. It surprised them to see electricity still running in the facility, and Quinton remarked that the solar generator powering the facility was apparently still intact. Several of the doors were electronically locked, but Quinton managed to bypass them. The elevator, however, was damaged so they had no choice but to use the stairs.
After what seemed like an eternity walking through long corridors and winding stairs, the team came to a large metal door. Since it was electronically locked Quinton tried to open it using his PDA, but the door refused to open as its mechanism was already damaged.
"Looks like we have to blast this door open," Aerik said, and glanced knowingly at others. After everyone retreated to a small room at the other end of the corridor, he took a small explosive from his backpack. He attached it to the door and set the timer for a thirty-second countdown. Then he quickly ran toward where everyone else was hiding, and as soon as he took cover, a loud blast echoed and bits of metal were sent flying along the corridor.
General Tyler was the first to step out, followed by others. The sealed door, it seemed, had prevented any kind of hostile threats from residing inside. Aerik readied his handgun and walked through the destroyed door, with Liana holding his free hand. He was greeted with a cylindrical wall with mirrors on its side, and when he peeked inside, he saw a huge machine connected to lots of tubes and wires. He was wondering what it was when he noticed Quinton was also looking at it.
"That's the nuclear generator," Quinton explained. Aerik nodded, and when he looked around, he saw that they were the only one there. Noticing his questioning gaze Quinton said, "The others are checking the adjoining rooms. It seems that all the doors to the labs are unlocked. C'mon, let's see how they're doing."
Aerik was about to take a step when Liana lightly tugged his shirt. He turned to her and asked, "What is it?"
"I…I'm scared," she said, fear clearly written in her eyes. "This place gives me the creeps. I feel as if something else is in here beside us." She let out an involuntary shiver.
"Don't worry; I'm here, remember?" said Aerik and he gave her a comforting smile. Liana calmed down a bit, and together they followed Quinton.
Of course, despite his brave demeanor Aerik never doubted her, for he did felt another presence when he stepped inside the underground labs. He kept telling himself that it was all his imagination, but the faint symbols he saw at the door when he was setting up the explosive kept telling him otherwise. The symbols seemed to be written in blood, and though he never believed in magic, the symbols looked like some sort of warding. The strangest thing was, it seemed like it was written not to prevent something from coming in, but to keep something from coming out.
Quinton was at the base of the stairs waiting for him. "The others are waiting upstairs," he said, and ascended the stairs.
Aerik took a deep breath and followed him. Lost in his nagging anxiety, his careful eyes missed the faint marks of dried blood on the stairs.
x x x
"Here it is," Quinton said, pointing at a thin, ring-shaped object at the center of the room, "the Temporal Molecular Displacer." It was elevated on a small platform, and two metal poles supported its sides. Two large power cables were connected to its sides, and several smaller cables connected it to a computer. At one side of the circle was an odd-shaped slot; Aerik assumed that something was placed there for it to function. The lab was mostly empty except for the computer on a table beside a mirrored window. Overlooking the window was the nuclear generator.
"Neat, isn't it?" Elaine remarked. "Imagine what we can do with this! Can it still be used?"
"We'll need to bring it back and find out," Quinton replied. "I'll say that it's dangerous to tamper with time, but the knowledge we can gain from it can be used for a good cause. Perhaps if it works it can shed some light about the mysteries of the past."
Tiffany, Aerik noted, stood alone at one corner of the room. She had drawn her katana and she seemed searching for something, looking about in fear. He felt her psychic energy darting madly inside the room. Seeing that, he slowly approached her. Tiffany launched an attack as he approached, but he had anticipated it and quickly drew his sai to block her attack, and locking the blade between his sai. The loud clang of metal drew everyone's attention.
Tiffany snapped out of her confused state. Realizing what she had done, she released the katana and it fell to the floor. "I…I'm sorry…I don't know what came over me," she mumbled in the verge of tears.
Liana's medical training quickly identified Tiffany's condition as shock and quickly ran towards her and calmed her down. The air was still for a moment, but General Tyler quickly stepped forward and assumed control.
"Thor, I want you to carefully dismantle the Temporal Molecular Displacer. Elaine, you help Thor. Aerik and Quinton, I want you to recover any information related to this thing. Do this quickly. I'm beginning to hate this place. Something's not right, and I can feel it."
Glances between the members of the team proved that everyone felt another presence there beside them. Tiffany had it worse, because her psychic powers made her more attuned to it. She erected a shield in her mind because she knew whatever it was she was a more attractive target because of the abundance of her psychic energy.
"Something…something's here…I can sense it," Tiffany whispered as Liana tried to calm her down. Tiffany was still shaking furiously, although her tears had stopped.
"I know," Liana replied, whispering in return. "I feel as if I had entered a tomb."
"It is a tomb…we must leave, now!" said Tiffany and struggled to free herself from Liana.
Liana tried to restrain her, but she broke free and ran downstairs. She tried to chase her, but stopped on her tracks when she heard Tiffany's scream. It caught everyone's attention and General Tyler ran to the stairs to see what was happening, but he abruptly stopped and stepped backwards. Tiffany staggered up the stairs, her katana trained toward General Tyler. Everyone trained their weapons toward her, but no one made a move.
"Tiffany, get a hold of yourself!" yelled General Tyler. Suddenly, she lunged toward him. Everyone thought he would be instantly killed, but he managed to block the blow with his dagger. Tiffany grinned and delivered a slash toward his right arm, injuring it. She continued with several slashes his legs that he fell to the floor, groaning in pain.
From the look of her hollow eyes, everyone realized that she was possessed by something. Aerik eyed her cautiously as she turned to face him. Liana, who was staying close to Aerik at the time, shuddered and hid behind him when she made contact with Tiffany's eyes. Aerik readied his sai and stood defensively in front of Liana.
"Tiff, stop this!" yelled Thor. He grabbed her from behind, locking her arms behind her. Tiffany only grinned and used her psychic power to release herself. Then with a simple push with her mind, she sent him flying to the wall. Before anyone could react she had ran toward him and stabbed him at his throat. Tiffany then turned to the stunned Elaine and easily disposed of her. By this time, Quinton had reached for his handgun and fired at Tiffany, but she had erected a mental barrier around her and easily deflected the bullets. Calmly she walked toward him as he fired until the clip was empty, and with a simple flick of her katana, she stabbed him.
"I don't know what you are, but this ends now," Aerik said and took a defensive stance. Only he and Liana remained. Tiffany slowly walked towards Aerik, but a hand grabbed her leg. She looked down and saw that General Tyler still alive.
"Run, Aerik! Take Liana with you!" yelled General Tyler.
"Run, damn it!" he repeated.
Aerik nodded and grabbing Liana's hand, he scrambled down the stairs. He was just about to reach the door when it slammed in front of him by Tiffany's psychic power. He tried to pull it open, but the door was too heavy to be moved. Behind him, Liana was trembling.
"Stay here. I'm going up to deal with this," he softly said. She wanted to object, but his kiss drowned her words. They locked in embrace for a while, and she stared breathlessly at him. He gave her a calm smile and slowly made his way upstairs.
"Please, come back safely…" whispered Liana as he disappeared from her view.
x x x
Tiffany stood still at the center of the room Aerik reached upstairs. Noticing him, she gave him a chilling glance. Both readied their weapons, and without ceremony, their weapons clashed. Tiffany showed no signs of tiring down, yet Aerik began weaken after a while. Not only he was pushed back physically, his mind was also assaulted by Tiffany's psychic energy. Fatigue finally took over and Aerik crashed to a nearby table and fell down. He was still dizzy from the fall when he saw a figure looming over him. Slumping down in defeat, he knew that all was lost and Death had come to claim him.
He closed his eyes and as Tiffany's katana swooped down toward him. Aerik heard a soft gasp, and when he opened his eyes, he was shocked to see Liana had taken the blow intended for him. She fell to Aerik's arms as the katana left her body. She coughed blood, and already her breathing had become ragged.
"Hold on, Liana, please…" Aerik croaked. Yet however calm Aerik said it he knew that it was already too late for her. Yet he clung to false hopes and prayed silently for a miracle. Liana put up a weak smile and held his hand close. She pulled him closer, trying to kiss him. Aerik realized what she was trying to do and pulled away, knowing that she would die if he did that. But seeing the sadness in her eyes, Aerik hesitated. Liana took the opportunity to pull him closer and fiercely kissed him as if her life depended on it. That crumbled his resistance and he responded in kind. Both knew that it would be their last kiss, and they held each other close, oblivious to everything around them. Slowly her lips became less responsive, and the warmth on her lips slowly faded as her hands slowly fell limply to the floor.
Aerik lowered Liana to the floor and slowly stood up. His eyes were red from tears, but slowly his feelings turned from sadness to anger. He turned to Tiffany, which for some reason, was sitting at the floor. Her katana was a few feet away from her. Aerik drew his handgun and aimed it at her head. His only thought was to take her life, and then his own to end his suffering.
He was about to pull the trigger when he heard her sobs. It intrigued him to see her crying, and he slowly lowered his handgun and asked, "Why?"
"I…I'm sorry," was all Tiffany said between her tears. When she noticed Aerik standing behind her however, she quickly wiped her tears away and stood up. She had always been a proud soldier and never showed her emotions to others, and it shamed her when Aerik saw her like that.
"Why did you do this?" asked Aerik. When she hesitated, his anger rose. "Answer me; it's an order."
Tiffany flinched when Aerik pulled his rank on her, as he never did that to anyone in the team, but she answered nonetheless. "It…something took over me. You felt its presence, don't you? Everyone did…" her voice trailed off as she glanced to the bodies on the floor. She kept her emotions in check and continued, "It assaulted my mind and gained control of my body. I tried to fight it, but it was too powerful. I could only watch as it used my body to–" Tiffany choked, but continued, "–to kill the others."
"So where is it now?" asked Aerik, cautiously watching his surroundings.
"It disappeared, I hope," Tiffany answered. She was calmer now, as if nothing had happened. "When I stabbed Liana it suddenly broke its grasp on me. There was something…I'm not sure, but something seemed to scare that thing off."
Aerik slowly glanced to the now dead Liana. "We should inform HQ about this," he said. "We also need to bring the bodies back for a proper burial. You shut the door downstairs, Tiffany. Can you open them again?"
"I don't think I can, Aerik. I can't move something that heavy. Even if I can, I'm too exhausted right now," Tiffany explained.
Aerik sighed. "So we're stuck here?" He asked, looking around for means of escaping.
"Before I answer that question, can you answer mine?" Tiffany suddenly asked.
"What is it?"
"Why do you act as if nothing happened? Why are so kind towards me after I tried to kill you – hell, I killed your wife!"
The air was tense as Aerik stared at Tiffany. "As you once said at your parents' funeral – we are soldiers, and we must not let our emotions overwhelm us. What is done is done; we can never change it."
Tiffany surprised him by asking, "What if, then, I offer you a chance to change your past?"
"You're joking, right?" he snickered, but then he saw the seriousness in her eyes. "With what? That?" He asked, pointing to the Temporal Molecular Displacer. "We don't even know if the damn thing works or not, and even if it does, how are we going to operate it?"
Tiffany ignored him, instead went to the computer connected to the Temporal Molecular Displacer. She took a chair and switched the computer on. Much to Aerik's surprise, it was still functional.
"How…did you do that?" he asked.
"I know how to operate the Temporal Molecular Displacer, Aerik. When that thing took over my body, some of its memories leaked into my mind. Apparently, he was one of the scientists who constructed the machine before his death. This computer it still functional too," Tiffany explained as she typed a few commands on the keyboard.
"Don't worry," Tiffany spoke quietly and gave him a forlorn smile. "I'll make sure you arrive before Liana dies so you can stop me." Shifting her attention back to the computer she mumbled, "Now, to activate the generator…"
She typed something on the computer, and let out a sigh of relief when the nuclear generator hummed to life. Aerik made his way to the glass window and saw a faint glow coming from the generator. Meanwhile, Tiffany searched for something inside the drawers at a nearby desk.
"What are you looking for?" asked Aerik when he saw what she was doing.
"I'm looking for a Tempron sample. Did you see an odd-shaped stone somewhere?" asked Tiffany. "The Temporal Molecular Displacer is useless without it."
Aerik searched his pocket and took out a stone, on that he was examining before Tiffany was possessed. "Is this the one?" he asked.
She took it and smiled. "Yes, this is the one. Can you place it at the slot at the machine?"
Aerik did what he was told. Since he didn't understand anything, he hoped Tiffany knew what she was doing. There would be time for questions later. He did ask, however, a question that intrigued him.
"It you got all these information from that…thing, it means that it must know how to use the machine. So why didn't it?"
"Aerik," Tiffany replied as she typed, "it's a Temporal Molecular Displacer. That thing is ethereal."
Aerik nodded in understanding. Turning his attention to the machine, he saw that it was already active. The space at the interior of the ring twisted and swirled. It was like seeing ripples on a pond, but more intense. It was as if reality itself was ripped apart on the area affected by the ripples, tearing a hole in the time-space continuum. The ring glowed brightly and Aerik shielded his eyes with his hands. When the glow dimmed a little, he saw that the ripples had been replaced with a thin, swirling water-like layer with a metallic color. He could see his refection on it, yet it was distorted by the continuous ripples.
"Stabilizing time particles and locking on target timeline…odd, the reading seems to be off the chart," Tiffany mused, and stared at the many numbers on the monitor. "Oh my god…the nuclear generator seems to be unstable, and its temperature is rising! If this continues it will go into meltdown before the time particle stabilizes!" she suddenly screamed.
Aerik cast a worried look at Tiffany. "Then shut the thing down!"
"I can't override the system! It's locked by a password, and I don't have it!" She began to panic, but quickly regained her composure. "Aerik, get ready, I'm going to send you now."
"But you said the time particle's not stabilized yet!"
"I know, but I have no choice," Tiffany quietly spoke in a calm voice. "Aerik, the machine has already locked to the time coordinates. The time particles aren't yet stable, but there's a chance that you will make it. You just have to trust your luck."
Aerik stared at her before saying, "Come with me," Aerik said. "I just can't leave you here. After all, if there's anyone who can change the past it's you."
"As much as I wanted to, I can't Aerik. Somebody has to stay here to make sure the time portal doesn't suddenly shut down and leaves you trapped in the wormhole."
"But you'll die when the generator explodes!"
"I know, but I guess the punishment fits the crime, right?" She gave him a sad smile. "After all, when you change history, all this will never happen."
Their eyes met, and Aerik saw that she was determined to stay. "You should go," Tiffany finally spoke after a moment of silence. Tears fell from her eyes, but she quickly wiped it away. "Save Liana. Give what she carried a chance to live," she continued.
"What?" Aerik was startled.
"No time to explain," Tiffany said. "Let's just say Liana sacrificed more than herself to save your life."
Smoke began to come out from the nuclear generator, and it gave a clear indication that they were running out of time. He took a last gaze at Liana, and then to Tiffany before stepping into the time portal. He was instantly pulled inside, and though he felt no pain, his body seemed to be ripped apart as he traveled through a glowing tunnel of some sort.
x x x
Tiffany let out a small sigh as after Aerik disappeared. Not caring what happened around her, she picked up her katana on the floor and knelt in front of the Temporal Molecular Displacer. She bowed her head in a silent prayer, and thrust the blade at her left rib. As she fell to the floor, the nuclear generator exploded, engulfing everything in a bright flash of light.