Chapter I

Best Laid Plans

"And who exactly am I speaking to? For the record, of course."

(My official designation is Artificial Catalogue Construct Indigo Eight. You may call me Cartonius.)

The plains wilderness stretched endlessly.

Kyle gazed through muted yellow grass. To the north, mountains ran parallel with the horizon; little more than uneven dark mass at this distance. From the right angles he caught glimpses of other ranges to the east and west. This plains land might have belonged to a rancher a hundred years ago. There weren't any roads or fence posts out this far, so it was hard to say. Today, it was another patch of endless government land; federally designated under the Wyoming Territory. It was of no remarkable note, save for the small concrete building fifty meters from where Kyle lay on his belly.

It was an unassuming structure; barely a story in height and dull in color like the surrounding scenery. Slip-Gate facilities weren't overly intricate: solid structures housing compact passageways. Several complexes Kyle scouted were larger affairs, designed to facilitate supply-lines going into Diverging Realities. These smaller units were cheap, easy to maintain, and beautifully innocuous.

There were scores of the little facilities scattered across the vastly empty Wyoming Territory. This was Salem Attar's homeland and where he began experimenting with the tech. No one knew how long he worked on the project; let alone what became of him a decade after Charlie's defeat at Gray Goose Island. The Epochal Guard couldn't yet reverse engineer the Slip-Gate process; Salem kept that secret after his disappearance. But since then, other Gates continued to crop up in quiet places around the North American Territories. With no news other than the wars his two God-Sons continued to stir up, most thought Salem was lost or dead in the hundreds of new Diverging Realities. The Slip-Gates were relics of his brief stint post-Charlie.

But that was all wrong according to Raquel and Arianna.

Lying prone beside him, Maggie Chambers spied through the scope of her assault rifle, set up on a bipod in the grass. Her tan skin and dark hair added a tint to the otherwise dreary surroundings. She wore a ghillie suit matching Kyle's with the coloring of the plains grass. Not that it mattered; no one seemed to be home.

"Not a single change since our last reconnaissance," said Maggie. She collapsed the rifle, reaching for her Time Remote buried in the ghillie suit.

"Well that answers our first question," said Kyle; "whether or not Hakim was watching for us in Real Space." Not that he would need to; a sufficient contingent of soldiers kept guard on the other side in Cadence.

Slip-Gate facilities became choke points in conflicts surrounding Diverging Realities. When the Epochal Guard first engaged in an armed campaign against Kamal in Stormfall, it was a brutal battle to control the complex from the other side. Kamal hadn't bothered leaving troops in Real Space; it was a simple matter shooting at anyone coming through from the other side.

By contrast, Kyle's first visit to Cadence was a piece of cake. No one expected a rogue Teleporter to slip in and jet off before the alarm actually sounded. He had fond memories of the guards' surprise, fumbling with their guns as he zipped into the quantum medium. Getting back out again after his encounter with Raquel was nearly as easy, never mind the gunshot wound to his shoulder. She probably made it in and out with the same finesse—a manageable feat for one person.

They were going to fight for every inch of ground when the rest of the Gang went in. There were tactics they could use; methods they perfected since the campaign in Stormfall kicked off. They were learning how to fight through the choke points. And if Raquel and her new friend, Arianna, had resistance support waiting in Cadence, they'd have outside backup the moment boots hit the ground through the Gate.

Maggie took several images with her Time Remote, finished a report, and stowed it. Then she let her gaze focus on the small building ahead of them. "If it were my call, I'd blow the place and leave Hakim trapped in Cadence. It'd lock Salem out, too." She glanced at Kyle. "It would make this a whole lot easier…"

Kyle shook his head, frowning. "The Guard mulled over that idea with Kamal; back when Stormfall went hot. Containment sounds pretty good on paper, but the practicalities of it are scary as hell."

"I know, but…you have to admit, it would be easier."

"Yeah, and Hakim grows stronger on a non-synced timeline. Without a way for us to touch him, he can do whatever he wants in Cadence. Spend another twenty to fifty years building up his forces. Then, with the know-how to build another Gate, he comes against Real Space with unrestrained rage."

Maggie's face darkened. "Like hell we're going to make it easy for him."

Kyle lapsed into silence, staring at the building. Maggie's suggestion was tempting. But it was a shortsighted solution that helped no one. Blowing up that Gate wouldn't hurt Hakim. It would give him time. As much as Kyle loathed admitting it, the Guard was wise in their initial assault on Stormfall. Gaining a foothold and bringing the fight to Kamal kept the God-Son in check all these years.

Of course, thinking of Stormfall inevitably brought back memories of Kyle's first tour of duty. Back when he was paired with Maggie.

He grinned, glancing at her. "Remember Rome? Back on our first tour in Stormfall?"

Maggie smiled impishly, keeping her gaze focused ahead. "You had to bring that up, didn't you?"

"God, how old were we? Seventeen? Eighteen? Making supply runs all damn day in the hot sun. And then we'd come home in the evening to that hotel; the one with a view of the Castle Sant'Angelo."

Maggie swatted at him playfully. "Stop it; you're making me all nostalgic." She chuckled. "Your dad was pissed when he caught on to us."

"Yeah, that was a fun conversation. I seem to remember you hiding under the bed sheets while he tore me a new one."

"Well, you're lucky the lines in Eurasia broke that afternoon. Didn't have time for you two to bicker when we were fighting for newly conquered ground. That was my first time on the frontlines…" Maggie suddenly got quiet.

Kyle exhaled. "Don't worry. Things are going to be different going into Cadence."

"Kyle…just because we're calling ourselves the S.G. doesn't change the fact that this is still a military operation."

He shook his head fiercely. "Yes it does. Raquel has some friends in there; people who can worry about the military aspects. We're going in to focus on Hakim. And as Gangers, we can accomplish that by any means we deem necessary."

"Yeah, but Hakim is calling himself Emperor and he has an army surrounding him. Maybe even a division of chronometrics."

The thought sent a chill through Kyle. He clung to the hope that his and Raquel's strike on an Amazon training camp killed them all. Fighting a division, let alone a squadron of chronometrics would be hell. It was awfully close to what he wanted out of the Gang: a squad of chronometrics coming in to take out Hakim. But perhaps that was thinking too much with a military mind.

"To hell with that," he growled. "We're not supposed to be soldiers, Maggie."

"Then what are we?"

He sighed. "We're a group of united friends banding together against forces of darkness. We're whatever the situation needs us to be, protecting time and space."

Maggie smirked. "You say that—that you want us to be whatever we need to be—but you don't like calling us soldiers. So what are we then? Guardians of time?"

"Sure," Kyle replied, chuckling. "We're the very thing the Epochal Guard claims to be in name only."

She lowered her head, resting it on folded arms on top of the ground. Her gaze unfocused from the Slip-Gate complex and the surrounding wilderness, drawn out to distant scenes Kyle couldn't see. "Guardians of time. Because we have Time Remotes and chronometrics."

"Maybe in part. But I'd like to think it's because we came together when the world needed us. Like the First Generation. Extraordinary times, with extraordinary gifts."

"Maybe," Maggie yawned. She drifted into silence again, her dark eyes swimming with the philosophy. An old joke Kyle started back when they were dating. Other Fifths who didn't know Maggie well lumped her in with the rest of the Pouliot family tree—another soldier girl best suited behind a firearm.

But Maggie had a deeper mind for these things. It was partly what attracted Kyle to her in their teens. That, and she was one hell of a lover, but that was beside the point these days. They spent most of their first tour in Stormfall and on other assignments debating the grand meaning of their place in time. Maggie tended to have an almost religious outlook; as if a God above placed them here as agents for good in each conflict. Kyle was more inclined to believe that great individuals rose up in response to extraordinary events.

Either way, they both agreed their role was a force for good in the advent of time travel, Diverging Realities, and chronometrics. And when they broached such topics, Maggie got that far off look in her eyes—the philosophy. Her mind trying to find their place once more in the grand arc of the conflict. It didn't help that Kyle muddied the waters by bringing the Gang back.

"How does Morgan feel about all of this?" said Maggie, suddenly changing gears.

Kyle burst out laughing. "Oh, Morgan. Now there's another debate for the philosophy."

Maggie looked at him, her eyes narrowed sardonically. She always got feisty when he made fun of her like that. "And why is that?"

"Call it God or destiny, but I think I was meant to meet her." And it was true. Many of the same reasons Kyle found himself attracted to Maggie in youth brought him to Morgan as an adult.

They first met two years ago. Maybe longer; Kyle lost track of the time. He was as cautious as anyone else in the Generation Lines about discussing things with outsiders. But their initial meeting into a passionate courtship left Kyle certain she was the one. It was only natural that he should share secrets from his family with her.

Morgan had her own beliefs in the philosophy. A traditional Christian upbringing left her with faith in a God not too unlike Maggie's. A little more simplistic, yes, but that came from someone who hadn't grown with the legacy of the First Generation. Kyle felt Morgan's ideals were a closer synthesis of his and Maggie's beliefs. She held a mature attitude; considering how fantastic all of it was.

Maggie was smiling sweetly. "Aw, you really love her."

"Damn right I do. And I stand by her being as much as part of the Gang as the rest of us."

"Even if she's not coming to Cadence?"

Kyle remembered exactly what Morgan said when he asked her a similar question. "'Not all of us have a battlefield role in the conflict.'"

"Cute. Is that Sun Tzu?"

"Morgan Price, actually. On the subject of being a Seminary Ganger."

Maggie nodded, impressed. "Damn. You gonna give this girl a ring or what?"

Kyle found himself grinning wide. "We're getting married this weekend."

Maggie obviously looked surprise. She slugged him in the shoulder. "And when the hell were you going to tell the rest of us?"

"I was planning on it…" He already had digital invitations scheduled to drop into the Families' network. Everyone would know soon enough. Kyle was far more interested in the story Morgan spun to her family. Kyle met her parents once, but they hadn't met anyone else in his family. They were going to have a mad time scheduling things, but Morgan was pretty good about getting her stories straight. She already had something in mind to explain Kyle's absence when they all went to Cadence.

"Well you can tell me more about it back at the Estate," said Maggie. "We should check on our last weapons crate."

Kyle nodded, pulling them into the quantum medium.

Teleporting away, the Wyoming prairie dissolved into the lush greenery of Florida. Kyle and Maggie stood up from damp asphalt, making the walk up the long driveway into the Pouliot Estate. He felt the static wash of the transport shield as they came upon the house. The Pouliots had exorbitant defenses and preparations, though Kyle seriously doubted anyone would attack here first. They had serious anonymity living off the grid.

Most of the extended family was out, but Maggie's cousin, Carrie, greeted them at the front door to the main house. From there, it was a short walk down to the subterranean tunnels. Below the Estate, the Pouliots had several storage facilities Kyle liked to think of as Doomsday bunkers. Equipment, food, storage, supplies, and about every kind of armament on the legal market—as well as a few that definitely weren't legal.

The Pouliots were the main suppliers for Epochal war assets. They also scooped up everything from Charlie's failed attack on Gray Goose.

"You're one lucky son of a bitch, Kyle," said Carrie. She was a full head shorter than her cousin, but built thicker; not nearly as slender. She kept her dark hair in a ponytail and wore sweat stains under her tank top. She was staying busy getting their requests together. "If Maggie weren't along, you can bet your ass we wouldn't be lending you equipment."

Kyle smirked, slipping an arm around Maggie and pulling her close. "It pays to have good friends in the right places. But in all seriousness, I owe you one big time."

Carrie waved him off. "Your friend, Alise, talks like you've got some resources waiting for you in Cadence." She paused. "She's not what you'd call a chatter head. Mind telling me her story?"

It was Maggie's turn to smile. "I don't think Kyle has much of an idea himself."

Kyle said nothing as they took the stairs underground past secure blast doors. He had a decent enough scope on Raquel Tree Top. Breaking into Epochal Guard files revealed all sorts of interesting stories about the miscreant Third Generation gal.

At a point in her youth on the streets, a causality loop opened with a future version of herself giving Raquel a Time Remote. From there, her exact placement in the timeline got fuzzy, but inevitably it brought her to Cadence, chasing after Hakim Attar. Much like Kyle.

But Raquel was a girl of a few words, and Kyle only confirmed so much talking to her directly. Besides, he enjoyed watching the other Fifths puzzle over her. If she felt conversational, he was sure she had a few cryptic responses to tease them with. She said something worthwhile enough for the Pouliots to let her scavenge their armories.

"Well she's been down here all morning," said Carrie. "Playing with stuff my folks never would have lent you guys otherwise."

Carrie was right about Kyle's situation. Having Maggie in the Gang meant they could skim from the lavish weapons stock. She held a lot of trust and respect in their Family Line—enough to at least supply the S.G. with primary assault rifles and secondary firearms of choice. But they weren't leaving without a few explosives, combat gear, and fatigues. They were on a strict budget, but this was the military grocery store.

The cellar bore a door labeled 03. The only other time Kyle entered one of these it had an 18. He wasn't certain if they actually kept upwards of 18 bunkers full of guns, but it wouldn't have surprised him. The basement space was thirty meters long and ten meters wide. Raquel sat with crossed legs in the center of the room, eye down to the sights of a compact assault rifle. She didn't spare a glance as the three entered.

"I want two more of these," she grunted, yanking back on the slide. "We'll need them for the Palace hit."

Kyle shot Carrie a look. You let her touch your precious guns?

"How about five?" Carrie suggested. She clicked open a crate, revealing several of the rifles packed in layered form fitting pads.

"Two will be enough," said Raquel. "I want submachine guns for the rest of the kiddies."

"The kiddies can play just as well with close-quarters weapons as you," said Maggie.

Raquel ignored her, detaching the rifle stalk.

Kyle turned away from the Native American girl, finding Carrie stacking a new pile of crates. "This is our cache here?"

"Yeah. That includes pack gear, basic armor, and a few explosives. Some of it is cheaper, but you should be thanking me for getting anything at all."

"I do thank you," said Kyle. "We couldn't pull this off without you."

Carrie leaned against one of the stacks, folding her arms. "Keep an open line when you get inside. If this turns as hot as you're making it out to be, well…" She shrugged. "We might get the Guard involved."

Raquel snorted, but said nothing else. She was smarting Kyle hadn't rallied the Epochal Guard to Cadence's aid. Not that they had any interest in Hakim at this point—not a credible threat to the equilibrium.

"I appreciate the offer," said Kyle. "Hopefully we won't need the backup. We're all adults."

"Yeah," said Raquel, "all grown up and marching off to war."