"Every day we choose
We might win or lose
This is the dangerous life"

Invincible, Skillet


(21 Years After the Cadence Affair)

Twentynine Palms was scorching.

Tom Jacobson exhaled, the last moisture in his mouth evaporating. "Y'know we can tap threads just as well indoors as out here."

Nearby, Chris Moore crouched low in the dusty gray-brown dirt and pulled off his glove. He touched the earth, going entirely still. As if to mock Tom's comment.

"You can't tell me that actually helps."

Chris ignored him. After thirty painful seconds, he stood, pulling back on his gloves. Sweat dripped down the bridge of Tom's nose and he wiped it off backhandedly. He tapped his gear's temp reg and adjusted the cooler down another five degrees. Not that the damn thing did much under a clear summer sky.

Two kilometers off, he could see the manicured strip of rich houses near the east side of town. It surprised Tom that people lived this close to a Coalition Base. It was more surprising that anyone wanted to live out in this godforsaken desert. But real estate was prime, never mind a perfectly good beach two hours west. Apparently a day at the pool out here was worth the heat. Which reminded Tom…

"We should make a pass on the southwest quadrant."

Chris finally looked at him. "There's gotta be two dozen civilians at the pools down there."

"Exactly! On a day like today the ladies are out working the tan line." Tom wiggled his eyebrows for effect. He knew Chris wasn't such a stickler that he wouldn't mind slacking to see the babes in bikinis—or out of them for that matter. Half the time he was chatting with Lily whenever they stopped by the pool. And she looked so fine in a white two piece.

"Too many bystanders. Not today."

Tom sighed dramatically. It wasn't like Chris to stick to rules unless something bothered him. Not that Tom could sense anything on the threads himself, but the rumor mill never stopped. Chris was churning away on every tidbit going through the Ep-Net the last couple of weeks.

"I don't appreciate your annoyance," he snapped.

Tom blinked, turning to where his friend marched ten meters off. He actually had his rifle out, poised at the ready in his grasp. "Not fair—you're not supposed to use your empath chronometrics on friends."

"You didn't mind when I was playing your wingman with Katie."

"That's different! I was trying to get laid."

Chris scoffed. "Yeah, and Katie knew that. Honestly, when are you going to stop treating her like your next conquest? She actually likes you, you know."

Tom trudged after him. He made sure to kick up a small dirt storm along the way. "You're changing the subject. I want to go look at pretty women splashing naked in the pool. And here you are marching out into the wilderness like the army is about to come riding in."

Chris rounded on him. He looked irritated. "Hey asshole: put your dick away and focus. You were right that we could do this job just as easily back in the SENCOM room. But that's not the point. Not today."

Tom withered under his friend's gaze. Why did he have to make him feel like such a child? Tom wasn't being entirely serious, but Chris was. And it actually scared him a little.

"Chris…what's got you on edge?"

Chris sighed, the stern front melting under apprehension. "The S.G. mobilized this morning. They're all heading back to Real Space."

"Yeah, Katie told me her pals in the Gang we're meeting back here. She didn't say they were mobilizing."

"That's because she was trying to be discreet. Haven't you paid attention to Coalition movement?"

Tom folded his arms, arching an eyebrow. Really, Chris? Since when did Tom remotely care about that boring stuff? They were Epochal grunts doing their time to get visas into the Diverging Realities. Being in the Generation Lines came with perks like that. But Chris actually thought he was going to be a soldier.

"Right," Chris admitted. Probably feeling every emotion rolling off Tom. "Well…I have. I've been watching a lot of that. It's why I suggested to Evans that we get a patrol force out here today."

Tom gaped, his arms dropping. "You're the reason we're stuck out here marching in the hot sun!"

"Tom, I know you don't care about this stuff, but shit is going down. I can feel it. And whether you like it or not, we're in uniform right now, which means we've got to be ready when it hits the fan."

"But it's the weekend, Chris. I could be in the pool with naked women!"

Chris sighed, looking at his feet. "You don't care about any of this."

"I care about a lot of things. You, Katie, the visas we're two months out from getting…"

"But you don't keep up with current events. You're not watching the signs."

"What signs? Katie's been on assignment from the S.G. in Real Space for the last year! Her and Amelia and Carter and…" Tom did a quick mental count. "Okay, so I can't remember who from the Gang is here in Real Space. Point is they've been here while their friends are out there between a dozen other worlds. They needed to get back together at some point. So what if it's this weekend instead of next?"

"And the fact that Arianna dropped off the radar after that closed door session with Guard leadership?"

Oh boy. It was the rumor mill Chris was feeding on. It didn't help that it was precocious little Arianna Porter he was so worried about. Chris needed to drop that silly crush. First, she was a weirdo. Second, she was in the S.G., and they weren't part of that social group. And third, Tom was pretty sure she batted for the other team, but whatever.

"Okay, I heard about Arianna's little secret meeting, too, and I don't think that means the next Time War is about to go atomic on us."

"That meeting was two weeks ago, Tom. She hasn't showed up anywhere since. I've tried linking with her on the Ep-Net a dozen times and it's like she's just gone. Even if she was on a clandestine op, she couldn't be gone for more than a second of our real time."

Tom frowned. Real time? What the hell was he talking about? "I don't get it."

Chris glanced left and right, his fingers flexing on his rifle. Was he afraid they were being overheard? "She was on a time travel assignment, Tom. She rode a causal loop back in time."

"No freaking way." Now that was some juicy gossip.

"I shouldn't know this, so don't go blabbing about it, okay? But she was on a very covert assignment only an elite few know about—most of them Fifths, if you catch my drift. It's not the first one she's been on, but she's told me how it works. She can be gone for as long as a month, but she always slips back a split-second after she left."

Tom opened and then closed his mouth. He felt a smile taking shape. "Just how much has Arianna told you that you're not supposed to know?"

Chris blushed. That was a rarity. His best friend was never that squeamish about these things. "Enough that we're both screwed if anyone found out."

"Which is ironic, considering what you two—"

"Annnnnnd we're not going there, dickhead."

Tom couldn't stop grinning. "I knew you liked the girl, but damn. She must freaking love you to spill her guts like that. Which changes everything I thought I knew about the weirdo, since she was supposedly hooking up with Clarissa Pouliot."

Chris exhaled. "She was. They broke it off about a month ago. But now you're getting off topic. Arianna is gone and no one can figure out where. On top of that, the Seminary Gang is gathering in Real Space and Coalition forces are gearing up for a major engagement. And…" He hesitated.

Tom felt a stone drop inside. "And you've sensed something."

"Yeah. Pretty sure it's an Anchor. Right here around Twentynine Palms."

Tom exhaled. He sat down in the dirt, reclining on arms outstretched behind him. Why'd his best friend have to have two chronometrics? The abilities cropped up in pairs among the Sixths, but not all of them. And empathic sense was one thing, but Tom couldn't make heads or tails of his causal sense. Supposedly it made Chris aware of ebbs and flows as people time traveled. Tom couldn't begin to imagine what he felt or saw.

"Tom, this isn't the time."

"You could have told me all this a few days ago."

"I wasn't sure. I'm still not."

"You seem pretty damn sure to me. You got us posted to this assignment; you got us on sweltering desert patrol. And now you're touching the goddamn earth like it's going to speak its secrets to you." Tom was beginning to realize there was a lot about Chris he hadn't paid attention to in recent days. That genuinely worried him. Why wasn't Chris confiding in him?

"We know the Second Time War isn't over," said Chris. "We know elements of it are still reaching to us from the future. We know this, and we know one day we're going to be on the frontlines when it hits. What if today is that day?"

"So what if it's today?" Tom laid his head down in the dirt, his helmet thudding against a stone in the ground. "Why didn't you talk to me about any of this? How long has this been going on?"

Chris didn't reply at first. Then, "Too long, Tom. Arianna and I have been corresponding the last…couple of years. She made me swear I'd keep all of it secret. At first, it was just neat little things she was picking up from her mom. You know how old timers from the Gang can be about that stuff. They're so secretive about some of the things that happened in the opening shots of the war. And now most of them are in Guard leadership. I didn't want to get you in trouble."

Trouble. Well that was a simple oversight on Chris' part. He couldn't be blamed too much. After all, Chris was the responsible one of their duo.

Tom pushed himself up, grinning. "Silly Chris. Don't you know I was going to find a way to get us in trouble eventually?"

Chris rolled his eyes, but the weight on his shoulders visibly lifted. "You always try."

"Well you're under obligation, now. Spill it all, mister. But first off, was Arianna really hooking up with Clarissa? 'Cause I think you're pulling my leg on that one."

Chris opened his mouth, but Tom missed it. That was when the thread whipped into his mind, reaching out from the deep expanse of space and time. It showed him enough information fast enough to propel him to his feet. When the real world returned around him, he grabbed the metal plate on Chris' armored right arm. Chris yelped, barely staying on his feet as Tom yanked him forward.

"The hell—!"

"I'm the idiot that sees the future," Tom barked. "Remember?"

Chris slipped out of Tom's grasp and sped up. He always was in better physical shape. Then again, he took their training much more seriously than Tom. Right now, Tom was beginning to see how that was useful.

The vision was about thirty seconds delayed. Tom supposed that gave them barely the time they needed. Chris spared a look over his shoulder, eyes wide before the impact came. His chronometrics saw the danger long before it actually materialized in local space.

A loud roar broke across the desert. It was immediately followed by a jarring crash that rocked the ground. Tom nearly tumbled face forward, but managed to keep his feet under him as they ran. The dust cloud engulfed them a moment later. The sun turned ruddy orange under the thin plume.

Tom ground to a halt, pivoting on his right foot about the same time as Chris. Chris had his rifle up first. Smart man. Tom had to grab his off the back-mount mechanism on his armor. By the time he was in position to fire, the dust and dirt was settling, leaving a clear line of sight across the desert.

There were probably thirty of them. Tom's HUD lit up as many a second later as the sensors painted an accurate reading. They corroborated the data with local radar and orbital eyes. There were exactly thirty-two of them. And they wore the strangest mix of capes and shifting colored meta-clothing. The layers looked sweltering in the desert heat. But the way light danced on their figures, Tom wondered if they weren't high-tech warriors.

"This is Twentynine Palms unit Whiskey-Six!" Chris was linked into local comms, his message repeating in Tom's earpiece. "I have a solid causal Anchor in grid seven!"

The reply came almost instantly. "Roger, Whiskey-Six. Stand by."

The hot desert air rippled, then came alive with a dozen flashes of chronometric teleporters. Tom shared a look with Chris. He nodded and the two sprung forward. Now joined by nearly twenty local infantry in the Guard, they sprinted towards the fight.

"This was not how I wanted to spend today!" Tom shouted to his friend.

The enemy ahead of them was already moving to fight. Some teleported away. Most of them stayed. Tom had no idea what kind of weapons they brought with them. But chronometrics were the same in any century.

"Me either!" Chris shouted back. "We'll hit the pools after!"

Tom didn't know why, but that made him laugh. It was the best feeling in the world as the Second Time War erupted.