"There's no need to worry as long as we have this," Steel said, hefting the small, innocuous-looking box which could bend time to the will of its wielder. "Our friends crossed time to hunt us down. Now it's our turn to be the hunters."
It was a nice thought, but Silver wasn't so sure they had justification to be quite so confident yet. After all, that last Transient Being still had an identical time box of his own. The playing field might be more level now, but they were still far from being guaranteed victory. Silver was in the process of trying to think of a way to say voice his doubts without sounding like he was disagreeing with Steel just for the sake of disagreeing (which he had admittedly been known to do on occasion when there was nothing of any interest or importance happening, but Silver had more than enough field experience to know that now was not the time; whether Steel knew that he knew was another matter entirely, and miscommunications at this juncture might prove deadly) when Sapphire's telepathic call echoed through both their minds.
«Steel!» It was only a single word, but it carried a wealth of information. There was the verbal component, of course, identifying Steel as the intended recipient of the message. There was the spatial component, which all such communications carried, allowing the recipient to know how far away the sender was and in which direction. There was also the data component, for want of a better term, which supplemented the verbal component with a burst of abstract concepts and emotional information, in this case conveying a summons and a desire for assistance coupled with a strong sense of recognition and an undercurrent of fear, which probably meant that Sapphire had located the last of their three adversaries. What that single word did not manage to convey was whether or not Sapphire wanted Silver there as well, but Silver figured that it would be better for them to stick together, so he followed Steel out into the trees as quickly as he was able.
Later, Silver would consider that decision to be mistake number..., um, just call it mistake number whatever, because he wasn't really sure yet how many mistakes he and the others had made since the beginning of the debacle. He was still identifying new ones every time he thought about their situation. And to think that previously he had been so certain that he was incapable of making mistakes. Sure, Sapphire had claimed he had been about to make one while dealing with that family of time travelers, but she had never presented him with any definitive proof of that claim. Today was another matter entirely.
If Silver got out of this mess alive and still reasonably functional, then he was going to have to make a full reevaluation of his capacity for fallibility, and he suspected that that particular report was going to take days to write. His failure to confirm with his superiors that this assignment was in fact a genuine assignment was definitely mistake number one, and then it all went downhill from there. If he had to guess, coming to a stop so close to the others when he knew quite well what kind of danger one of those time boxes posed probably qualified as mistake number fourteen or fifteen. Even though he had used one against a Being himself and watched Steel use it against another, none of that prepared Silver for being on the receiving end when the last Transient Being opened that lid.
First there was the impact and disorienting directionless tumbling of getting knocked back into the time-stream, finally out of the grip of the little bubble of stopped time where he had spent the past eight hours but now hurtling in the wrong direction along the axis of the fourth dimension while staying fixed in three dimensional space. This only lasted for the briefest of subjective moments until he reached escape velocity and was forced outside of time itself. The service station and its surroundings vanished, leaving Silver spinning head over heels through void without any fixed point by which to orient himself. He thought he caught a glimpse of Sapphire and Steel but was wrenched away when he reached for his fellow Elements, and then he lost track of them completely. Then light and sound exploded around him as he slammed back into normal time, and suddenly his directionless fixed-point tumbling was replaced by a much more mundane but no less terrifying motion as gravity reasserted itself and he started falling through the airspace which would one day contain the landmass and continental plate upon which he had so recently been standing
«Sapphire?» he tried calling. «Steel?» And then, just to be thorough, he tried shouting, "Hello? Sapphire? Steel? Anybody?" aloud, just in case something had been blocking him mentally. There was no response, only the sound of his clothing flapping in the rushing air. Not that he would have wished for his friends to share this predicament or that he expected them to be able to help with the current problem of the rapidly approaching ocean, but given what had just happened it would have been nice to know they were still alive, because if they weren't here, then that Transient Being probably had something worse in store for them. Silver was still spinning end over end, so he got an alternating view of the wrong-colored sky above and seemingly endless expanse of dark water below, but he saw no sign of his favorite Operators anywhere in between. With a sigh, he spread his arms and legs to try to stabilize his fall and reap what little benefit he could from the increased drag. His downward acceleration decreased fractionally, but not enough that he expected it to make any difference in the end.
Actually, now that Silver thought about it, maybe Sapphire could have helped. After all, she had an outfit for seemingly every occasion. Who was to say that she wouldn't have access to a parachute? He imagined that if she did, it would probably be that lovely shade of blue that she favored. And with that thought, he adjusted his position in hopes of achieving something more graceful than a high speed belly-flop and then hit the water.
Sea-level was a good hundred and forty meters or more above where it would be in the 1980s, but Silver still crashed into the water from high enough up that the force of impact would have definitely broken his legs and probably killed him had he been as human as he looked. Fortunately, Elements were made of stronger stuff, but it was still a painful enough experience that he would not want to do it again any time soon. He was battered and bruised and imagined that this was how it felt to be hit by a train, but he was undamaged enough to immediately begin kicking his way back to the now distant surface instead of drifting in semi-coherent contemplation of whether it might be easier to just sink and drown.
Tiny fish darted out of Silver's way as he swam upward, and nautiluses, no not nautiluses, ammonites, some small enough to fit in the palm of his hand and others bigger than his head, reached out investigative tentacles to probe this sudden alien presence passing through their domain. He idly wondered what the collective noun for ammonites might be. A school? A shoal? A flock? He was half tempted to probe back, but he had more important things to do, such as breathing. At times like this, Silver envied Steel and his general lack of biological processes. The demands of constant respiration could be so inconvenient sometimes.
Silver's head and shoulders broke the waves an uncomfortably long time later, and he took a greater number of deep, gasping breaths than he would care to admit before he actually paid any attention to the air beyond merely being grateful that it was there to put in his lungs while he treaded water in the middle of this prehistoric ocean. Eventually though, he noticed that something seemed off and ran a full atmospheric analysis, revealing that he had not been sent to the Triassic period after all. Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels were both too high for this to be the Triassic, more in line with the mid to late Devonian period, definitely pre-Carboniferous. He threw back his head and laughed. That bastard of a Transient Being had probably thrown him back an extra hundred million years more than previously threatened just for spite. Or maybe he had just overshot his mark due to carelessness. Either way, Silver had no intention of letting him get away with it, nor with whatever he had planned for Sapphire and Steel. He might be a Technician rather than an Operator, but he still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
Silver reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out yet another time box. Of all the mistakes he had made over the course of this so-called assignment, only making a single copy of their best weapon against their enemies was not one of them. Steel might feel qualified to judge whether anyone should have access to this technology and would most likely be quite annoyed with Silver for going against his decision, but Silver knew Steel would later thank him for this minor bit of subterfuge when it saved them both from a severe reprimand from their superiors for throwing away such a useful tool without first consulting those who truly had authority in such matters. In the meantime, this little item was going to be Silver's ticket home.
Or maybe it wouldn't, because when Silver concentrated, trying to direct the box's workings as he had done before, nothing happened. It was not that the box was suddenly refusing to obey his commands. There was simply nothing inside to obey him. With a frown, Silver opened the lid to inspect what could have broken, and a handful of tiny black and white objects tumbled out into the water, where they all bobbed on the surface save for a few which were seized and dragged under by little tentacles. Some of the ammonites must have followed him all the way to the surface. Silver picked up one of the remaining pieces and inspected it. It was a chess piece, made of painted wood. It had never been used to play even part of a game of chess, and it certainly was not capable of manipulating time or space. The box itself was leather, wood with a painted on chessboard lining its interior, metal hinges, and nothing more.
Well. That certainly complicated his predicament. Silver had not so long ago (at least from his perspective) predicted that he would not be able to survive being thrown into the distant past, but this was one instance where he would gladly work to prove himself wrong. He could get through this. He knew he could, even if the silence in all of his higher senses was already beginning to put him on edge. There was no quiet telepathic background chatter of his fellow Elements. Though he knew Sapphire and Steel had a difficult time imagining his beginnings, he definitely had beginnings, and this time period was well before them. It was well before the beginnings of any of his fellow Elements, and that was a very lonely thought. There was also nothing resembling the comforting hum of powered technology in existence at the moment, and for a Technician that was an even more terrifying thought than lack of anyone to socialize with. Even the tools in his pockets were gone now that he thought to look for them. There was nothing so much as even a couple of wires plugged into a potato to power a digital clock anywhere on the planet. There weren't even any potatoes for him to put wires into, because they had not evolved yet.
Silver could do this, though. He could. He just needed to stay calm and focus. A small tentacle reached out of the water and patted Silver's arm in a manner that might have been mistaken for reassuring if other tentacles were not at the same moment playing with his shoelaces and dipping into his pockets. The collective noun for ammonites should definitely be a molestation, he decided. So far they had not started biting off any bits of him to see if he tasted good, but it was probably only a matter of time. Silver tried shooing them away, but the motions of his hands through the water mostly just seemed to intrigue the animals further.
And then suddenly the ammonites all scattered. Silver would have been relieved, but he doubted that it was on account of anything he had done. He looked down and saw a dark shape rising up through the water. A ten meter long armored fish with an enormous bone-plated maw gaped wide was shooting towards him, promising to shear him in half like a knife through butter, Elemental sturdiness be damned. Silver had a fraction of a moment to identify it as a Dunkleosteus before his survival instinct took over and he tried to kick out of the way. That quickly proved to be futile, so in a last ditch effort he teleported. He did not know his location precisely enough to have a safe destination to aim for, so instead he went straight up then took his bearings while he was falling again and teleported a half mile away, where he once again hit the water.
At least this time he had not been coming from so high up so it was a gentler impact. It was only a temporary measure though. Even if that particular Dunkleosteus did not manage to find him, there were bound to be other large aquatic predators around to notice a tempting morsel silhouetted against the sky. He had to think, or sooner or later he was going to die.
What could he do? He supposed he could collect raw materials, rebuild his tools, and eventually build something that might get him out of here. First he would need to find some solid ground to stand on. He could try teleporting back into the air at random over and over again until he caught sight of land, but there would still be the issue of all that kinetic energy when he came back down again. The easiest way might be to wait for the moon to come up so he could get visual coordinates to it, teleport to the moon, try to sight land from there before his eyes popped out of his skull from lack of atmospheric pressure, and then teleport back to Earth. However, that assumed he keep from being eaten long enough to catch sight of the moon. That also assumed he could find all the necessary component molecules to rebuild his tools by hand, and that he could then remember the exact specifications for building some of his more specialized instruments.
And then the idea came to him as if it were another Dunkleosteus. The Transient Being may have altered his time box into a useless toy, but Silver had duplicated the original twice already and had not duplicated anything since. Therefore, he still had the parameters for making another in his memory buffer, no tools or raw material gathering required. He held his hands out of the water and concentrated, and a moment later a time box (a proper one this time) took shape between them. At his touch, it sang in his mind, awaiting instruction. Silver was already making plans for how to deal with the final Transient Being and find his missing Operatives.
The first step was to return to headquarters and get some reinforcements. Then he needed to find someone to extract the flash of stars he had caught from Sapphire while she was seeing the future. They could use that image to calculate a time and location. Sapphire had said that she saw nothing but stars in her future, but Silver figured that after being thrown into the Devonian period he was entitled to make a new timeline. Now it was time for the hunter to become the hunted. That Transient Being had chosen the wrong Elements to target and wouldn't know what hit it.
Silver turned the time box on himself, focused, opened the lid, and vanished out of the ocean almost as if he had never been there. Only some floating chess pieces and a few confused ammonites suggested otherwise.