Saturday, May 19, 2012

Earth-349: Cleo Rogers in the 25th Century

By Anton Psychopoulos, Ph.D. Disclaimer #1: This story is set on a hypothetical world within the pre-Crisis DC Universe. The DC Universe is owned by DC Comics, Inc. This story also makes use of characters and concepts owned by other publishers. The use of these copyrighted elements is done only for the amusement of the author and his readers, and is not intended to infringe or disparage those copyrights. Disclaimer #2: This story is not recommended for persons under the age of 18, or the easily offended. Lieutenant Antoinette Cleopatra Rogers, late of the AEF, now of the Niagara Gang, sat up gingerly and looked down at her chest. Hesitantly she cupped her hands over her new, much-larger breasts. “Pretty good job,” she said cautiously. “Not sore at all, no numb places I can find so far, no scars….” She hefted one, weighing it in her hand. “Did they have to be so big?” Dr. Huer smiled behind his bushy white moustache. “I’m afraid so. The Intelligence Gangsters do their best, but there is only so small that they can make the equipment they need for this mission. I do hope they won’t get in your way, but….” He shrugged. “No, I’ve been practicing with a loaded brassiere that’s actually bigger than these. It’s just that, well, they make me feel like a middle-aged lady, like one of my mother’s friends.” Huer chuckled. “In your day, large breasts were out of fashion. Every woman wanted to be a – what was it you called them?” He flailed his hands in the air. “A flapper,” Rogers confirmed. Rogers put on her new bra and pulled her tunic over her head, adjusting the lightweight plastic chainmail to fit over her new breasts as best it would. “Um, I think I felt something shift inside. I hope I didn’t turn something on prematurely.” “Don’t be concerned. It is my understanding that the equipment will work automatically at the right time, and will be otherwise harmless and undetectable.” Rogers shrugged, dismissing the matter, and went out of the medical tent to rejoin Major Kane. Kane smiled as he looked her up and down, then saluted smartly and turned to lead her across the field. He was a handsome man with slicked-down hair and a waxed moustache that had played a large role in their becoming lovers soon after she had awakened. He was a pilot of what they called simply “flyers”, and had shot down enough Mongols to earn the nickname “Killer”. He’d also been one of the first 25th Century Americans to accept her story of her bizarre origins. Rogers had been greeted with suspicion when she first awoke, a stranger with no “gang” to call her own, but when she had persuaded the Niagara Gang that she really was what she claimed to be, they had accepted her like a hero out of legend – which in a sense, she was, having actually been born in the old USA and served in its armed forces. The Americans of the 25th Century lived in small bands, variously called “gangs”, “orgs” or “cump’nies”, which were something like nomadic Indian bands and something like guerilla units. Although unable to live in fixed places or engage in any but the most elementary farming or manufacturing lest they attract the attention of the rulers of North America, in the vast stretches of countryside between the insular Mongol cities, however, some thirty or forty million free Americans maintained their independence and had even managed some very slow scientific progress over the centuries. Everyone saluted as she passed, and several of them called out, “Good morning, Loo-tenant!” The rank of Lieutenant had not survived into modern times, so her holding it gave her an added cachet of historical splendor, and earned her reverent greetings from those who could only call themselves “Captains” and “Majors”. The gangsters who had watched with such reverence as she passed would have been very surprised indeed to see what happened inside the hangar, as Kane methodically tied her hand and foot before stowing her in the cargo compartment of his flyer. He held a canteen to her lips, cautioning her, “Not too much – we have a long flight ahead of us,” before he slapped a swatch of adhesive tape over her mouth. “I wish I could leave you unbound until we get close to Xanadu, but there won’t be any chance to land and wrap you up once we’re on our way, so it will have to be like this.” Rogers felt a flutter of unease, a feeling that she should not trust this man. But he was her lover – if she couldn’t trust him, should they be so intimate? So surely he was indeed trustworthy. Besides, she had her orders. He pulled something out of his pocket and held it up before her eyes. It seemed to be a tiny hourglass, what they called an egg timer back in the 20th Century, on a chain. He placed it carefully around her throat, tucking it between her new breasts. “There will come a time when your situation becomes truly desperate. When that happens, break this. It might help.” He kissed her gently and slammed the hatch shut, leaving her in darkness, unable to so much as scratch the itch his saliva had left on her forehead. Kane’s flyer was the fastest and longest-ranged that any gang in America could field, lofted by antigravity and propelled by force-beams. Still, it took an awfully long time to fly across the breadth of the American continent, the Pacific Ocean, and a good deal of Asia to reach the Mongol capital. Rogers had not been on such a flight herself, but she knew what was happening outside her darkened cargo bay, how Kane would be streaking in long parabolas that bounced over the dense lower atmosphere like a stone skipping across a pond, rising briefly into the airless reaches where the stars were visible in the daytime. As one who had flown the fragile first generation of aeroplanes, how she yearned to see the fruition of flying as a mature art form…. To distract herself from such envious thoughts, Rogers began thinking about her own strange history, from her childhood in an orphanage to her joining the American Expeditionary Force’s Army Air Corps in 1917 to her becoming a mine inspector after the war, to her being trapped in a collapsed shaft, her life preserved by some miraculous mixture of gases so that she could sleep for nearly five hundred years and one day… …be trussed and gagged and about to be delivered to the ruler of the world as a pleasure-toy, a bribe to curry favor with him. Or so the Mongol Emperor supposed. Only a handful of bosses in the Niagara Gang knew her real mission, or the nature of the devices hidden in Rogers’ new bosom. Rogers herself did not know – she supposed it was some sort of spy equipment, intended to learn some secret by scanning the Emperor with radio waves or the like. Her entire mission was to get into the Emperor’s physical presence and then to get away if she possibly could. The possibility existed in her mind that she was carrying a bomb – two bombs – but as desperate as the free Americans were, suicide missions were not their style, especially with an unwitting bomber. Strange things had happened during Rogers’ five-century nap. Unfortunately, the period immediately after Rogers’ own time was one of the more obscure. There had been another Great War – or had there been two? Or three? There had been a plague, but nobody knew whether it had caused the collapse of old America, or if it had been so devastating because America had already collapsed. There had been a natural disaster that she thought must have been a giant meteor strike, or had several cities been turned to craters by impossibly big bombs? She had been able to clear up a few misconceptions. The notion that a great war had begun on September seventh, or maybe December eleventh, was clearly a garbled recollection of how the first Great War had ended on November eleventh, 1918. There were other things that supposedly had been done during the 20th Century that simply made her head hurt to think about them. Had there really been trips to the Moon? To Mars? Or were these just projects that humanity had promised to themselves? Had there really been a proliferation of people with powers like those of legendary figures like Hercules and Morgana? Had beings come from the stars? Had surgeons really made animals talk and go on two legs? What came after the great wars and great disasters was all too well-known, alas: sometime late in the 20th Century or early in the 21st, the Mongols had come out of Asia and conquered Europe and then the Americas. Everyone called them “the Mongols”, but Rogers didn’t know whether they really were descended from the followers of Ghenghis Khan, or if that was just the name the Americans had given to their conquerors. It might even have originated as a term of derision, the way her own comrades had called the Germans “Huns” even though they knew perfectly well that they weren’t. For all she knew, the masters of the world could be Chinese, Japanese or one of the smaller Asian nationalities. There was even a legend that the ancestors of the Mongols had come from the depths of space, and were not entirely human. The conquerors called themselves “Han”, a name that meant nothing to her. Rogers was startled when Kane suddenly opened the hatch. She must have finally fallen asleep. He hauled her out and hoisted her over his shoulder, carrying her easily even though she weighed nearly as much as he did. Her stiff muscles screamed at being jostled, though she did not allow a whimper to escape from behind the tape. From her vantage point, Rogers saw mostly the grass Kane walked upon, though if she craned her neck she could get glimpses of smooth-sided buildings that seemed to be surfaced in glass or tile. He stopped at some kind of checkpoint, conversed with guards in the Han language which she did not speak. He stood her on her feet and showed her off to them, groping her in a way that made her glad she was already on intimate terms with her partner. Still, she was aware that she would be handled just as freely by whomever took custody of her, to say nothing of what the Emperor might do with her. She shuddered at the thought, but reminded herself that she had a mission to carry out, and should not be distracted by squeamishness. Or by her disturbing feelings of arousal. The five Mongols she could see wore what looked like silk pajamas, though they were possibly made of some synthetic fiber, like most American garments. Bright pink, with blue cuffs and lapels and assorted accents in yellow, they did not look much like uniforms, except for being identical. They wore disintegrator pistols much like those of the Americans, but no helmets or even caps. They were smaller than Kane and Rogers, but not conspicuously thin or flabby. Kane, accompanied by two Mongol guards, passed through sealed doors that hissed as though they had airtight seals, walked down corridors lit by some kind of artificial light that they didn’t have in America, rode in some kind of elevator and finally set her down on a couch in a small room of some sort, and conversed with a robed functionary who came out from behind a desk to examine her. Rogers had at least been briefed on this part of the scenario: normally, a girl being presented to the Emperor would be bathed, perfumed, painted and dressed in silks. The entire point of delivering Rogers to the Emperor, however, was to offer her up “raw”, so he could savor the full experience of conquering one of the half-legendary wild Americans, still in her tribal dress, smelling of American food and American sweat. The Imperial pimp, or whatever he was called, was balking at the proposition, and was trying to persuade Kane to at least have the creature given a cursory scrubbing before ushering her into the Presence. For her part, Rogers would not have minded at least a shower and a chance to piss, but she knew the Mongol would never have thought to consult her, even if she had spoken his language. Finally, Kane and the Mongol bowed to one another, and her lover turned and departed with one of the guards, leaving her alone with the procurer and the other guard. The Imperial functionary gestured to the guard, who cut away Rogers’ bonds with surprising delicacy, and with gestures directed her to walk behind him and in front of the guard into the room beyond. The room was not by any means the most sumptuous Rogers had yet seen in the palace. Indeed, it was almost spare, with walls of a plain peach ivory color, the ceiling a pale blue that seemed to also be the source of light, the floor covered in a springy brown substance that extended from wall to wall. One wall had a broad, unadorned archway without even a curtain. The only furniture was a low couch that was little more than a huge white cushion on the floor. From beyond the archway, a calm, smoothly modulated voice called out. The procurer stopped and lowered his head, then knelt. The guard jabbed Rogers in the back, but rather than drop like the procurer, she came to full attention, and when the Emperor entered, she snapped him a brisk salute. Rogers had expected the Emperor to be a more elaborate version of the procurer, in robes even more resplendent, with moustachios and fingernails even longer, and with some sort of crown in place of the functionary’s black satin pillbox hat. Instead, he wore a plain cream-colored robe and was bareheaded, and had only two small tufts of hair at the corners of his mouth, and two more on either side of his chin. Like every other Mongol she had seen, his face was smooth and unlined, his hair black and glossy, yet she had the impression that he was a good deal older than the others. The Emperor looked her over and inclined his head a fraction of an inch, then he gestured and the procurer and the guard both bowed and departed. “Good afternoon, my dear,” the Emperor said in a deep, musical voice, in American which was clear, though oddly accented. “Good afternoon, Sir,” Rogers replied, remaining at attention. He paused a moment and then made a small sound. “Such quaint, exotic ways your people have. I have met other Americans before you, but none quite so…unspoiled. I look forward to spending the next few days with you, as much as my duties permit. I hope you will enjoy your time as my guest, also.” He reached out and stroked her cheek. His hand was smooth and soft and cool. “You do not seem too terribly afraid of me. I like that. It is something of a novelty for me. He moved his hand to her upper arm, feeling the muscles there. “Not afraid, and not repulsed, even though I must seem even stranger to you than you seem to me.” Rogers had to admit that she actually found the Emperor quite attractive. He was almost exactly her height, a good deal taller than most Mongols, and well muscled. She had never had sex with a man in as cold-blooded a fashion as her current mission called for, but she did not think she would find the job unpleasant. Both hands came up now, and cupped her breasts. He squeezed them with the same casual, proprietary air as he might a pair of melons brought for his breakfast. Rogers felt that odd shifting sensation in her right breast again, and wondered whether the equipment, whatever it was, had been activated. She presumed there would be no way for her to tell, but she was wrong about that. The Emperor’s eyes widened, and he backed away, seeming to shrink. No. He really was shrinking, growing smaller and thinner, his well-formed limbs turning into slender sticks under his robe, his torso becoming a squarish shape, much wider than it was deep, like a beetle’s. His handsome Asian face became narrow and chinless, with bulging froglike eyes, and was made even more repellent by its expression of extreme fear and malice. By the time Rogers realized that his body really was changing, he was quite unrecognizable as the Emperor, except for his five-foot body being entangled in the same pale-colored robe. Rogers had finally broken from her rigid attention, backing away from the Emperor. Now she stopped and tried to compose herself. Was this bizarre transformation caused by the equipment hidden in her body? What else might it do, to others or to herself? She reached for the hourglass, wondering whether she dared break it and take a chance on whatever it was Kane had given her, but before she could get hold of it, she found herself unable to move. Rogers noticed that the Emperor, or whatever the creature really was, had also been frozen in place. Next, she noticed that an odd rhythmic grinding sound was coming from somewhere, and the light in the room was changing as though something were moving in the space to her right, though she could see no object. The grinding sound rose in pitch, and then she could see something. A large object, like a top the size of a small barn, appeared as though it were emerging from a thick fog, nearly filling one end of the room. When it had fully materialized, the side of the object opened and a metal ladder dropped down. Quickly, four people in green uniforms emerged and laid hands on Rogers and the helpless Emperor. They were fair-skinned, like 20th Century Americans, and wore green coveralls with red piping. On the left breast of each was a jagged black figure crossed by nine short lines, a stylized representation of a mended tear. On the right shoulder was a red shield-shaped patch with a writhing green snake inside it. A large and handsome blond man and a brown-haired woman grabbed Rogers, while an even larger man and a slender teenaged boy grabbed the creature who had supposedly been the Mongol Emperor. They carried the two like a pair of wooden cigar-store Indians inside the top-like object, which seemed to be bigger on the inside than on the outside. At the center of the interior space was a circle of seats with restraining straps. A large ugly man with a bare chest was already strapped in. The paralyzed captives were strapped into seats on opposite sides, and then the four in green strapped themselves in. The ugly man, who seemed to be wearing only a ragged kilt of bearskin, gave a whistle of admiration and then spoke in what sounded like 20th Century English, with a Brooklyn accent. “Man, in and out again in under a hundred heartbeats. You bozos are really good at this.” The blonde man smiled tightly at the compliment. “We find a rip in time, we stitch it up. That’s what we do. We’re rip hunters.” Rogers noted that the people were actually speaking in two voices, one coming from their lips and the other coming from small boxes at the throats of their uniforms (and in the case of the caveman-like person, on a leather thong around his neck). Their actual speaking voices seemed to be muted, to make their translated voices easier to hear. She wondered, sitting helpless in her seat, how that worked. Among other things. The grinding noise resumed, thrumming through Rogers’ paralyzed body as she lay in her seat. She felt an odd sense of movement, although she would have been hard pressed to say in which direction they were moving. Her captors spoke only as necessary, apparently guiding their craft on some sort of flight. After a few minutes, the feeling of movement stopped, and then so did the grinding noise. The blond man and the woman grabbed Rogers again, while the large ugly man picked up the supposed Emperor as easily as though he were stuffed with straw. They carried the paralyzed captives down a long corridor, then an even longer flight of steps, then down another corridor that was smaller and more dimly lit than the first one, a corridor lined with blank doors. At last, they stopped at one door, unlocked it and carried Rogers inside. They laid her on a cot and left her there, still paralyzed, but after the door had shut with a distressingly solid sound, an odd light came on briefly in the ceiling, and when it went out she could move again, with some effort. She sat up, rubbing her limbs and turning her neck from side to side. The room was small, barely big enough to hold the cot and the sink and toilet that were its only other furnishings. The door did not even have a knob on the inside, and the light had no obvious source. The scene was clean and tidy and suggested an advanced technology, and it was unmistakably a jail cell. She was in jail. The hoosegow. The nick. Not for the first time, but she didn’t like it any better than before. She reached inside her tunic, pulled out the hourglass and looked at it. Something to use if her situation became desperate. She reckoned this qualified. But what, exactly, was this glittering black powder, with occasional sparkles of red and yellow? An explosive? Poison for killing herself? A priceless substance to use as a bribe? That same strange unease, the suspicion that Kane was not to be trusted, stirred inside her. What if it were some sort of booby trap? The idea of her carrying a booby trap between her “boobies” made her laugh, and the laughter made her dismiss her misgivings. She held the little glass bulbs in her fingers and snapped the narrow stem between them. Two streams of glittering powder poured upward from the jagged necks of the two bulbs, powder which swirled in the middle of the room like a dust devil. Gradually the dense swirling cloud pulled itself together even more tightly, taking on a humanlike size and shape, its boundaries more and more sharply defined as though it were swirling inside an invisible bottle. The amount of sand within that defined volume seemed to be increasing, as though more of it were arriving from somewhere. The density increased until it became opaque, and then took on the appearance of a solid surface. And then suddenly it was as though some illusion had been dispelled, and the human-shaped cloud of sand was a solid object in the shape of a woman, nude and hairless, with very large breasts, a tiny waist and broad-flaring hips. The thing’s skin was black and glossy, like Bakelite, except for small rectangular panels of red here and there upon her body, and yellow bands like piping that outlined the panels and also her eyes, lips, nipples and labia. All of these anatomical features were disturbingly lifelike, in a way that no designer of the 20th or 25th Century would, she was sure, put on a statue or mannequin. And then it turned its eyes toward her and spoke. “I am Hourglass, another product of Bannermain Laboratories. I have a programmed lifespan of one hour, during which time all of my resources are at your disposal.” Rogers stared at the creature. “You are…a machine?” The entity nodded. “That is an acceptable first approximation, in the sense that I am not biological. I will continue to exist for the next fifty-nine minutes and fifteen seconds, during which time my powers and abilities are at your disposal, including the manufacture of various useful materials, the reshaping of objects around you, protection of you from violence and environmental hazards—“ “Can you—Hourglass, can you get me out of here? Can you get me home? I think I have been transported through, um, time.” The creature paused for a moment, then nodded. “I detect anomalies in the particles of your body which indicate at least two dislocations in time. I cannot take you directly to the location, in space and in time, in which you originated, but I can transport you to a location where you will be physically safe and from which you will be able to obtain transportation back to your point of origin in both time and space.” Hourglass shifted her feet and widened her arms, almost as though offering to enfold Rogers in its arms. “Please remain still and hold your breath while I surround you.” Rogers wondered why she needed to hold her breath, but complied. After a moment, she saw that Hourglass was again dissolving into a swirling cloud. In moments, the dust surrounded her until it blocked out all light, though she did not feel the touch of anything but a breath of wind. She felt a sensation of movement which was similar to but not quite the same as she had felt aboard the time-top. Then the cloud thinned again, and Rogers began to see a very different space than the cell where she had been left by the rip hunters. It was a corridor with walls that looked like polished stone with no seams or joints, lined along both sides with doors set close to one another. Hourglass formed once again from a cloud of tiny bits, standing in the corridor beside her. “You are now safe in Limbo. I will be able to serve you for another fifty-one minutes and forty seconds.” “And then what? You turn back into powder?” “No. My molecules will disperse into carbon dioxide, water vapor and harmless trace amounts of other substances.” “And that’s it? You just won’t exist anymore?” “That is my designed lifespan.” “That’s – I’m sorry, in that case I won’t waste your time arguing about it.” Rogers looked both ways down the corridor. There were doors everywhere, all apparently labeled in English (she wondered about that, but didn’t want to take the time to investigate). Some had simple utilitarian names like “Dining Room” and “Office Supplies”, while others were more obscure. What did “Timely, Wisconsin, 1889”, “Atlas, Cibola, 1958”, “Central City, Califia, 1961” and “Transverse City, Huron, 2099” mean? And why were they grouped in a row that way? Were they locations, and dates? Could it be possible that in this place, time travel was literally as easy as going through a door? Hourglass was just standing there, seemingly content to allow her few remaining minutes of life to run out while Rogers dithered. She chose a direction and headed down it, barking, “Follow me” to the machine. “Hourglass, tell me about this place. You called it Limbo – where is it and, uh, when?” Passing doors that promised access to “Tel Aviv, 1967” and “Stalingrad, 1943” and other places she had never heard of, Rogers stopped short when she came to a window. There were doors to either side, but looking through the window, Rogers could detect no sign of any rooms to either side. And that was the least of the surprises the window had for her. Rogers was looking out upon a vast sky like nothing she had ever seen before, spread with what seemed like more stars than she had ever seen even on the clearest night, some of them big enough to appear as tiny disks in the sky, each one too brilliant to look at directly, and in all the colors of the rainbow. She had a feeling that there should not be such a thing as a green star, but with her limited knowledge of astronomy she couldn’t swear to it, and besides, maybe the objects were not stars at all. The view was so awe-inspiring that Rogers did not notice at first that Hourglass was responding to her last command. “…outside time, but rather experiencing a short closed loop of time all its own, reusing the same time endlessly. This is why Limbo is often depicted schematically as a figure eight.” Rogers shook her head. She felt as though she could almost understand what it was saying. “So, what should I do now?” “If you wish to return to your place of origin, you should be able to find a door which opens thereto. If you wish to explore the Palace of the Time Being, I will try to protect you while you search for that door. Unfortunately, I cannot help you locate the door, because of the nature of time and space within these confines.” They came to another window, and Rogers looked out again. This time, she saw what at first she took to be the Earth as seen from space, but as she watched she realized that it was actually just a partial sphere, with another sphere inside it, showing between the gaps. In fact, there were a whole set of nesting spheres, each of them incomplete, at least four of them, going down and down…. Rogers pulled her head back, shaking it slowly. “It looks very different from when I looked out that other window.” Hourglass nodded mechanically. “The images you perceive are all interpretations generated by your brain, in an attempt to make sense of the shape of spacetime itself, something the human nervous system did not evolve to perceive.” Rogers wondered whether that was an adequate explanation for such detailed imagery, but felt too rushed by Hourglass’s limited lifespan to pursue the matter further. A door marked, “Edo 1795” opened and a pair of middle-aged Japanese women came out, wearing what Rogers thought were called “kimonos”. Their faces were painted an astonishing chalk-white. Rogers didn’t know if this were the height of eighteenth century fashion or if the women were some kind of stage performers. They went through the adjoining door, marked “Tokyo 1998”, just as the next door down, labeled “Crystal Tokyo 2966”, was opening. Rogers took in the gleaming silvery bathing suits the two women wore (Rogers thought the two were a bit … overripe … to be wearing such skimpy outfits), then did a double take – they appeared to be the same two women she had just seen in archaic clothes and face-paint. And she had seen the one door opening, and a hand emerging, while the other door had not yet closed. The women had almost met one another. A tubby, moustachioed little man in a brown and gray uniform a little bit like those that the “rip hunters” had worn came walking down the corridor. The contrast with the commander of the time-top that had snatched her could not be greater, yet there was something about him that said he, too, was a hero. The two women saw him and greeted him with excited squeals that might have been more suitable to girls half their age. The man put a hand to his forehead in mock-exasperation (or possibly even real exasperation) and sighed, “Not you pair o’ doxies again! You’re nothing but trouble.” He sounded as though he meant it, but he put up no resistance when each woman took one of his arms and they walked on together, passing Rogers and Hourglass with barely a glance. Rogers noted in passing that the man’s sleeve bore a patch in the form of a fat red spider. “Look,” Cleo said to Hourglass, but then noticed that they were approaching a much larger doorway, one with an armed guard standing by it. Hourglass spoke a few words to the guard, who nodded and turned to a keypad on the door and entered a code. It opened and the artificial being led Rogers inside. A tall, thin figure shrouded in a ragged purple cloak stood with its back to Rogers, looking out a window much larger than the ones in the corridor. Rogers approached, not getting too close to the ragged figure, and looked out. This time the view was even more disorienting, since it seemed to be moving. She seemed to be looking out from a window in a building on the back of some immense hairy animal the size of an ocean liner as it moved along a branch on a tree the size of a planet. As she watched her point of view shifting as the animal moved, beginning to feel motion sickness, she saw a fruit hanging from a nearby branch. When she realize that the “fruit” was a world that might have been Earth, she turned away from the window, holding her head. “Ratatosk, the great squirrel, runs up and down the branches of the World-Tree,” the cloaked figure said hollowly. “One of the stranger ways we have of perceiving the branches of time, but it is good to see that the tree still stands, anyway.” The figure turned toward Rogers. She could not see its face inside the hood, but she still felt its gaze on her. It stood erect and showed no sign of age or decay, yet it bore a dignity and gravitas like that of the Mongol Emperor, many times over. “You are Lieutenant Antoinette Rogers,” the creature said. “And I am the Time Being.” “All praise the Time Being,” Hourglass said at Rogers’ side, and then the construct dissolved, evanescing just as she had promised, leaving behind not so much as a wisp of dust. Rogers stared at the space where Hourglass had been. “She still had half an hour to go,” she complained. “It had served its purpose,” the Time Being said simply. It offered Rogers a hand wrapped in tattered bandages. Rogers numbly took it, feeling the creature’s thin but powerful fingers. “I had the devices which are now implanted in your body delivered to the Niagara Gang, and caused them to understand that you should deliver them to the false Emperor. Major Kane gave you the glass containing the construct in order to ensure your survival, and your safe delivery to me.” The Time Being gestured at the window and it vanished, leaving a smooth expanse of wall in its place. He turned toward the center of the great room, where Rogers now noticed a pair of chairs, one much larger than the other. They sat, the Time Being in the large thronelike chair. “I am engaged in a great struggle across time, from its earliest moments to its end, and across the vast breadth of parallel and alternate time, with an entity known as the Scarlet Woman. Each of us desires to rule over all of time. The difference is, I wish to maintain the diversity of history’s sweep, while she wishes to create a single culture and a single empire that will persist from the dawn of humanity and survive until the Sun goes out. Also, I seek to protect and preserve the many branches of history, while she wishes to pare the great tree of time down to a single strand.” He turned and walked past her to a table that she didn’t think had been there a moment before, though its feet were planted in undisturbed dust. He picked up a bottle and blew the dust off it and uncorked it. He turned over a dusty glass and poured red wine into its clean interior. He gestured at a second glass and she nodded. “She is based at the end of time, in a palace that stands amid the wreckage of Earth’s final city. You were jailed in the dungeons beneath it, where thousands of captives from all eras of history are held. “There she feeds the last generation of her subjects on wealth she steals from past ages. She reaches back through time to rob one civilization after another, drain it of its natural resources, steal its technology, amuse her decadent followers with its arts and music, kidnap people from past ages to be their slaves.” Rogers said nothing, merely sipped at her wine, wondering idly what era it had come from, and whether its odd taste even originated in grapes as she understood the word. “I, for my part, live here in Limbo, outside of time, and reach into it only to support my own organization, taking only what we need and compensating the owners whenever possible.” Cleo wondered whether the people through the ages who had interacted with the Time Being and the Scarlet Woman would agree with his assessment of their respective groups. She remembered a conversation she’d had once with a French farmer, who’d said that the armies of the Allies and the Central powers behaved in much the same way when they passed over his lands – “Dey say, ‘Horse, give it to me’, ‘Bread, give it to me,’ ‘Money, give it to me’.” “It is because of our very different attitudes towards history that the emblem of my people is a spider, representing the vast web of time and possibility, while hers is a snake, representing a single span of time. “Each of us act through agents, most working in place in a single period of history, a few travelling to different eras to work our will. Most of our agents are simply people we have attracted to our service, though each of us are assisted by other kinds of people, like the Time Phantom who impersonated the World Emperor until you unmasked him.” Rogers shook her head, wondering at the immense scale of this war across time. “Where did the two of you come from? Do you have a common origin?” The Time Being shrugged inside his tattered cloak. “I don’t actually know. My memories are not to be relied upon, especially about the earliest events of my life. What with regenerations and memory implants and the occasional fusion of two different versions of me, it’s hard for me to say with certainty how old I am, or which of my memories are authentically mine. If I remember being a child on the continent of Atlantis some thousands of years before your time, is it a real memory, or a dream? If I recall being a young man on the continent of Zothique some millions of years after, is that me, or the memory of someone whose skill at glider-flying I was implanted with? “It is possible that the Scarlet Woman and I both originated from the same culture, or the same project. We may have been lovers once. We might even be the same person.” Even as dazzled as she was by the Time Being’s revelations, that brought Rogers up short. “I’m sorry; I thought you were a man…?” “That, too, is subject to change, by various means. Over the eons, the human race has spawned many variants, including hermaphrodites, both protandrous and protogynous. So, I might be fated to grow into the Scarlet Woman, or vice versa. “Rather than inquire into my origins, though, you might be better served to inquire into your own. Just how do you suppose you came to spend the first part of your life in one millennium, and the second in another?” “I…I was overcome by gases in an abandoned mine, and lay in a state of suspended animation…didn’t I?” The Time Being chuckled. “You have not questioned that story until now, have you? “You were trapped in that mine, yes. Gases seeped from the walls, yes. Within minutes, you were unconscious. Soon after, you would have been dead, except that a team of my agents rescued you and transported you through time to the year 2419.” Rogers gasped, and took a stiff drink of her wine. She looked into the darkness inside the Time Being’s hood, trying to meet his unseen eyes. “And your reason for telling me this story?” “In no small part, in order to see how you would react. Just as a large part of the purpose you serve in the 25th Century is to see what would happen if I did that – assuming my story is true, that is.” Rogers rolled her eyes impatiently at that last comment. She got up and started pacing the room, sipping at her wine more cautiously. “So, what am I to do now? Become part of your staff here in Limbo? Go back to the 20th Century? The 25th?” The Time Being got up also and began to walk beside her. He restored the window and they looked out at the cosmos together. “You may return to either period, or to some other if you prefer. You will not serve as my agent, except to the extent that your actions in either century are liable to serve my interests. However…. “What if I told you that, if you return to the 20th Century, you will become the founder of what will become a multi-million dollar aviation company, then a Senator, then President of the United States? “What if I told you that if you return to the 25th Century, you will die in combat with the Mongols, betrayed by Kane, within a year?” Rogers swallowed hard. “Then again, what if I told you that if you choose to resume your life in the 20th Century, you will grow old alone and die forgotten? But if you return to the 25th Century, you will one day be hailed as the Chair of the Supreme Committee for the united planet Earth?” Rogers smirked. “Judging from the way you seem to do things, I’m guessing that each of those things happens to me on different branches of time. But it doesn’t matter, does it, because I still have to choose for myself, don’t I?” She looked out the window, admiring the view, which at this point was a huge bright object like a star, except that smaller objects that also looked like stars were constantly falling into it. She watched until she saw one of the bright objects slip past the window, and saw that it resembled a whirlpool of dots of light, like a whole swarm of stars. She turned away from the window, shaking her head. “All right. I’ll go back to the 25th Century, and take my chances with the Mongols…and with Kane.” She stood at attention before the Time Being, waiting for him to give someone an order or turn on a machine, or whatever would be required. She saw the Time Being raise one long finger, and then she was gone. The hooded creature looked at the space which had once been occupied by Cleo Rogers. He sighed as he began resuming his true form, and wondered whether there really were any such persons as the Time Being and the Scarlet Woman. [See more Earth-349 stories at] [Contact the author at]

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