The space suit was heavy and itchy.
Technically it wasn't a space suit, but the air tight white fabric wrapped around Alise like one. It filtered oxygen from the environment around them, heated up with an internal element to keep frost from getting in her lungs. Kyle wore one of the suits as well, though it wasn't quite as bulky seeing it on him. Maybe that was a silly perception on Alise's part.
Stretched out beneath them was a valley ten kilometers across. On the far north side, a series of low lying mountains rose up; probably extinct volcanoes. The only hint of their true nature was the black rocks sticking out of the snow near the conical tops. From where Alise crouched low, down through the valley and as far as the eye could see in all directions the land was bathed in perfectly white snow. Only the blackened mountain peaks revealed any other hint of color.
"You're sure it's down there?" said Alise.
Kyle nodded, and though she couldn't see his expression too well through his visor, she guessed he was squinting at the landscape north of them. Of course, nearly every direction forward was north in Antarctica.
"Shouldn't there be an outline?" Alise pressed. "Some sort of disturbance in the snow?"
"It'll become clear when we get closer," Kyle responded. His voice crackled through her earpiece, via comm link. It was too cold out to talk without helmets on. "The main garrison is closer to the seashore; where there's a little more shelter from the weather. The only thing they need out here are ground sensors in case someone tries breaking in."
Great. Alise certainly hoped Kyle remembered where the underground access hatch was, then. She didn't feel like digging around in the snow, playing hot and cold looking for the damn thing. He claimed to have discovered it while poking around the garrison on an earlier visit, spying a mapped location of it. If they couldn't find it immediately, well…hopefully Kersten and Oanez could keep the garrison distracted for awhile.
Kyle brought his right wrist up to his visor, scanning the inset digital display. "Thirty seconds till communications blackout," he said. "Then we strike."
Alise nodded, turning her sullen gaze back towards the white washed valley. There was an almost otherworldly appearance to it all. As if she stood on another planet, where frigid winter was the norm. Alise knew of deep, cold winters; she had survived several during her time on the streets. But this…this was something else. A distant world few people had ever seen, regardless of the flow of time relative to Real Space.
It was the perfect place to hide someone as important as the Observer.
Several lights winked on Kyle's wrist screen, and he nodded. Alise reached out, her bulky gloved hand taking Kyle's, and they winked out of space and time. Reappearing down in the valley, they waited a moment longer. Kersten had rallied a few secret troops of her own to assist Oanez's private army. They may have downed communications from the garrison with the rest of the empire, but now they needed to engage the soldiers stationed there. Otherwise someone would probably teleport out here to try to stop Alise and Kyle.
Another series of lights winked on Kyle's screen. The garrison battle had begun.
"Straight ahead!" Kyle called out, rushing through the snow.
Alise grunted, following in his wake. The soft stuff was up past her ankles, with thicker, more frozen layers beneath. If not for the volcanic rock prevalent in the region, she wouldn't have been surprised to learn most of the valley was kilometer thick ice covered in a dusting of snow. But Hakim had to have chosen somewhere with enough surface earth to bury the kingpin holding Cadence together.
They ran through the snow for a solid five minutes. Alise kept waiting for Kyle to signal that they were there, but he kept running. A burn started to work up her calves.
At one point, she glanced away, brushing a kick full of snow splaying onto her visor from Kyle. That's when she noticed the slight depression off to their left, about thirty meters or so away.
"Hey genius," she called out, "I think we passed it."
Kyle skidded to a halt, turning back to Alise. He followed her gaze out to their left; then sighted in on the depression.
"Crap," he muttered, "just a bit off."
The two plowed forward again, and this time Alise noticed several small protrusions in the snow scattered about. Probably small sensor nodes going haywire at their appearance. She prayed they weren't wired to the global network that would alert Hakim. It's what Alise would have done if her most critical piece to keeping her world intact needed protecting. But the Emperor God didn't come flying out of the sky, and no one from the garrison teleported in as Kyle crouched down in the snow over the depression.
Alise joined him, brushing snow away from the thick metal hatch buried deep below. Eventually they found an access terminal, and it looked locked down fairly securely. Kyle reached into his suit's breast pouch, producing a Hard/Soft Insertion-jacker. Those were a rare commodity to come by, supposedly impossible to snatch in Real Space these days. His friends in the Epochal Guard must have good connections.
The jacker went to work on the locks and software, blunt force breaking down the system. They were some of the fanciest electronic toys Alise had ever seen. Diverging Realities were easily dominated by this tech, depending on the time period one wanted to conquer from. In her mind, they were as dangerous as the Time Remotes.
The hatch relented. In a groan of hydraulics, the large metal plate pulled apart, dumping the rest of the snow resting atop into the shaft below. Kyle wasted little time, climbing down the ladder built into the side. Glaring white lights winked on, revealing a landing several stories below.
"Kyle," Alise began, following after, "why couldn't you have just teleported down here? Even with the micro transport shield, that can't stop your chronometrics."
"There's something blocking me here," said Kyle. "I think another chronometric."
Alise frowned. She had never heard of a chronometric using their abilities to cancel out those of another. Was that possible? Or was this an entirely new kind of chronometric Alise had never heard of? She supposed anything was possible. Her abilities were fairly limited in the Third Generation. She had heard rumors of things people in the Sixth could do; sometimes manifesting multiple chronometric abilities. The genetics were evolving down the line.
Dropping from the ladder onto the landing, Alise spied two separate hallways branching out from their location. She guessed the facility wouldn't be terribly large, considering the work needed to put it here in the first place. But they were on the clock. Oanez would only risk her troops for so long, not realizing the truth of their mission. Kersten only had so many soldiers in the first place, and she knew the truth…
Kyle picked a hallway at random, starting down at a quickened pace. Alise followed on his heels, feeling a discomfort spreading in her gut.
"Kyle," she barked in her suit's comm, "what exactly do you intend to do?"
"It's simple, really. All we have to do is find the Observer and put a bullet in their brain. It's a tried and true process."
"Just like that?"
He chuckled. "I know you've heard the stories from the First Time War; even with your disconnect from the others of the Third Generation. Mother Kenzi was the Observer of that world—once your grandfather shot her, she stopped Observing and the Diverging Reality collapsed. It's a fundamental law of these worlds and basic quantum mechanics. Observation of reality determines what exists and what doesn't."
Alise gritted her teeth. She knew enough of the history and the theory behind it. "Kyle, I don't think killing the Observer will solve all our problems."
"Well, yes; it won't stop Hakim. He'll end up alive and well in Real Space wherever he was last before coming here. But it'll destroy his army. It'll topple an entire world devoted to producing his war machine. In an instant, everything that he had to start the Second Time War will be gone."
The hallway came to an end at an austere living space. There was a cot in one corner, a kitchen preparation area, and a small central space for a desk and other amenities. No one appeared to be home.
"Wrong way," Kyle said with a shrug. He turned, making back up the passage they had come from. There was only one other way to go now.
"And Kersten?" Alise pressed as they headed the other way. "You're okay just throwing her life away?"
"She's not the greatest of people, y'know." He laughed. "We'll singlehandedly topple all of Hakim's higher ups. I wonder if any actually survived in Real Space, declining to devote their lives to Cadence."
Alise growled. "Kersten is just the tip of this, Kyle. What about everyone else in Cadence? Nearly everyone here is native to this time line! This isn't like the First Time War where the First Generation killed the Diverging Reality and everything went back to normal. These people are unique; they have lives that never would have been in Real Space."
They were back at the junction below the access hatch. Kyle paused at the second hallway, turning to face Alise. His expression wasn't the most readable through his visor.
"Raquel," he said, using that name he wasn't supposed to, "this world was beholden to the horrors of Hakim's tyranny. Don't you think we're doing them a favor? We're ending this misery. They are the product of the blood war Hakim waged to forge Cadence. No one should ever have to live that kind of life."
Alise huffed. "So now you're God? Deciding when it is merciful to snuff out a whole world?"
Kyle made an exaggerated motion of rolling his eyes, tilting his head so that through the visor the gesture wasn't lost on Alise. "Honestly, I'm just a foot soldier trying to take out a madman. Forget about Cadence—think about stopping a Second Time War."
He started back down the corridor again, leaving Alise in his wake. She eventually followed, her mind a torrent. She knew they should have discussed this in fine before setting things in motion. But time wasn't on their side, and Kersten—whatever her reasoning—had agreed to this plan of insanity on the spot. Hakim had slaughtered the other State Heads so quickly; it was only a matter of time before he committed fully to running people like Alise and Kyle off. They had lived on borrowed time in Cadence, slipping beneath notice while other matters distracted Hakim.
Still, Alise found Kyle's argument flawed. Maybe he used it to absolve his conscience while they made this last ditch effort. After all, wasn't it easy to ignore genocide when it meant stopping a warlord? Unfortunately…no.
Near the end of the hallway, two blast doors parted, outlining a figure on the other side in bright white light. Alise slowed to a stop, though Kyle continued running full out, drawing a pair of handguns.
The figure vanished from the open doorway, reappearing in the corridor behind Kyle but in front of Alise. She recognized her now; the tall, feminine outline in the dark winter gear, the katana on her back. She wore no headgear, revealing short black hair.
Johanna—the Emperor's Secret Assassin.
"KYLE!" Alise cried out. "She's a dual chronometric!"
It made sense now. The way she had teleported in and used Foresight against Alise's attacks back at the Palace. The force blocking out Kyle's teleportation; what had blocked Alise at the Palace—not new tech at all. There were chronometrics with multiple abilities. And one of them was a deadly assassin here to stop them.
Kyle immediately winked away as Johanna struck, her blade biting thin air. Kyle reappeared down the corridor beside Alise.
"I can teleport again," he said, stunned.
Johanna rounded on the two of them, staring them down. The facility had to be internally heated. She wore too little gear for living in Antarctica.
Alise made a decision, ripping off her helmet and starting to shed her space suit. If they were going to fight, she was going to have her full faculties about her. She immediately reached for the wakizashi blade on her back. Kyle didn't bother shedding his gear, so Alise kept her comm piece on.
"I don't think she can use all of her powers simultaneously," said Alise. "Which gives me an idea."
Charging forward, threads of time flew into her mind. Johanna grinned, swinging her blade up to meet Alise's. Yes, the woman had switched to her Foresight. The two traded blows, both guided by perfected visions of the future. Alise had been too wounded trying to escape the Palace previously; she hadn't had her full wits about her from the blood loss.
Not today. Now, sword dancing in her grasp, she easily matched and struck with the same guided chronometric attack that Johanna was using. Neither held the advantage in this deadlock, so it was merely a matter of who wore down first.
Alise didn't need to wait.
Kyle teleported behind Johanna, sidearm raised. Johanna spun to deflect the bullet, and Alise struck, plunging her blade between shoulder blades. The sword went straight through her chest, spattering Kyle's white suit with flecks of crimson blood.
"No!" Johanna gurgled on blood, collapsing to her knees. "You can't destroy this world!"
Alise withdrew her blade and swung to decapitate the woman. A pity; she wanted to know if Johanna was a native to Cadence or somewhere in the Generation Lines from Real Space. Dual chronometrics…that was going to change things if it became hereditary in Real Space. But taking down a deadly assassin was more important at the moment, so Alise decided to forgo curiosity.
Kyle was gone when she looked up. Sheathing her blade, Alise pounded down the rest of the hallway on heavy feet, charging into a brightly lit room beyond.
The facility inside was plated in white metal. The high tech machinery reminded Alise of her one time visit to the Time Gang's Gray Goose installation. She had never seen anything this advanced in Cadence ever. Hakim didn't quite have the supply lines out of Real Space needed to build such things. That was the cost of flying below the radar to assemble a secret army. But he had managed to smuggle in a few toys from his native time period.
The room was dominated by a massive central apparatus, with the access terminal on the far side. Alise wandered around, where she found Kyle standing solemnly. On this side, there was a small chamber built into the bulky machinery. Behind transparent blue glass, a young woman rested in hibernation. She had dirty blonde hair and wore a white one-piece bodysuit that left her arms and legs bare.
The Observer was a prisoner here.
"It makes sense," Kyle said, his voice coming in through their comms. "Hakim needed her to remain alive long enough. It's one of the failings of Diverging Realities; the Observer still grows old and dies."
"I hear they've found a workaround," Alise said, carefully reaching for her sidearm.
Kyle shrugged. "If you believe the rumors—something about transferring the properties of Observation from one person to another." He made to raise his handgun, but froze when he realized Alise had a weapon aimed at his head. "Alise—"
"This is bigger than stopping Hakim," she growled. "I'm not going to commit mass genocide destroying Cadence just to set him back."
Kyle wisely lowered his handgun, slipping it back into a holster on the side of his suit. Good. Either he had decided rash action was a stupid move or he knew trying to fight her was a dead end alternative. The guy had brains after all.
"Cadence falls," he said slowly, "and we find Hakim in Real Space. Put a bullet in his head, too, and end this all today."
Alise stepped closer, pressing the gun against Kyle's shoulder. This next part was going to be tricky, so she turned the barrel as much as she could without tipping her hand. He didn't need to know that she wasn't aiming to kill. Johanna was dead, so she prayed her Time Remote worked now. She was going to need it.
"Get back to the Slip-Gate," she commanded, "or however the hell you got in here. Go find your Guard friends, and deliver a message for me."
He turned to look at her. "And what is that?"
"Cadence is the first Diverging Reality that we're not letting fall. And now that we have leverage, they're going to send an army to help me fight Hakim."
Kyle cocked his head. "The first? Raquel, don't you know—?"
She pulled the trigger. Kyle screamed, a small cloud of blood splaying over the pristine white instruments and tiles. He immediately disappeared in a flash of light, and thankfully didn't return. Apparently God could create a Porter in this big, expansive universe that knew what was good and to do what they were told.
Holstering her sidearm, Alise immediately whipped out her Time Remote. Yes, she had a signal, and Kersten and Oanez were retreating. The garrison was getting its shit together, which meant she was out of time.
Alise yanked out her one and only jacker, slapping it into the hibernation terminal. It was a simple matter shutting it down. A moment later, the hatch retracted; the young woman inside remained unconscious. It would be a little bit before her body fully woke up. That made things easy for Alise.
She reached in, gingerly cradling the little thing in her arms. God, she looked young. Fingering the preset coordinates on her Remote, Alise whisked away.
Oanez was busy securing the perimeter.
Alise was grateful after all that the woman had decided to bug out from the meeting in the Alps. She was much more useful alive. Her personal assets and facilities had indeed slipped beneath Hakim's all-seeing-eye. They were currently set up in an office on the outskirts of the ruins of Housten, Texas. Hakim had few empire operations in this part of the old world; most of the urban areas here were radioactive wastes, anyway.
So while Oanez had her people keep watch on this private meeting, Alise sat at the fifth floor conference room table, arms folded. The Observer sat with a blanket draped around her, staring quietly at the table with downcast eyes. She didn't look too pleased, and Alise had a suspicion that had little to do with waking up to find herself captive.
If anything, she was now free.
Kersten finally strolled into the room, no longer wearing her usual business attire. She had switched to cargo pants and a vest lined with munitions. Alise guessed the woman had combat training outside her predestined duties as a State Head in the empire. Good. The longer she was around the woman, the more Alise was grateful she had decided to save her ass.
"Has she talked yet?" Kersten said, sitting across from her at the table.
"Give her a moment," said Alise. "She's waking up after eighty years of hibernation. When was the last time you slept in that long?"
After retreating to Oanez's safe ground, they had checked the young woman's vitals and found her in perfect health. So aside from setting out a glass of water and providing a blanket, they had left her in this room to come to her senses. And Alise could tell she was about ready to do all kinds of talking.
"Nona," she mumbled.
"Sorry?" Kersten said, leaning forward.
"My name is Nona," the young woman repeated. "I'm eighteen."
Alise blinked. The girl was much younger than she had expected. That meant she was probably only sixteen or fifteen when Hakim first recruited her. The Emperor was somewhere in his mid twenties, so chalk up pedophilia as another one of his crimes.
"Nona," said Kersten, "are you all right? How do you feel?"
She looked up, burning eyes flitting between the two women. Alise had a pretty good idea how she felt right now.
"This was all a lie!" she screeched, her voice hoarse. "Salem promised me that I would be a goddess! He said we would make a world together where we could rule and create!"
Salem? As in, Charlie's cousin, Salem? There weren't many records on him, but…
Salem Attar. Yes. From an entirely different branch of Charlie's extended family.
Alise shifted her jaw, thinking. "You two were lovers," she guessed.
Nona nodded. "I bore his child! And do you know what the bastard did to me? He locked me away as soon as the baby was alive and healthy."
"Baby?" said Kersten. "What baby?"
"Hakim," said Alise. "One of the Attar God-Sons of Salem. His brother is in another Diverging Reality right now called Stormfall. That place is a mess compared to us." Funny, since Alise had always assumed the mothers had died of old age in each world after raising their spawn. She had never suspected Salem would make them the Observers.
Or maybe that was something unique to Cadence.
"We have the High Emperor, First Reincarnate's mother?" Kersten stammered.
"I'm not just his mother," said Nona. "I'm the only thing keeping his universe from collapsing. And I'm guessing you two would very much like to use me as blackmail against him. Well you know what…I want in."
Kersten nodded, glancing at Alise. "Salem betrayed her. And I don't think she likes the idea of Hakim in power any more than we do."
Alise exhaled. "All right, Nona. Let's work together, then. But you need to understand something important. This world you're Observing is more than just your son's staging grounds for war. It's filled with unique individuals with every right to be alive as you and me. So we're going to use your position as Observer to leverage against Hakim, but we will never destroy this world. Understand?"
Nona nodded slowly.
"Good. Then let's get to work. We've got a God Emperor to dethrone."
To be continued in The Epochal Chronicles: Rising Generation