Silver stared over the desert. There were dunes as far as the eye could see, and as far as he could see, nothing, absolutely nothing broke the monotony of his surroundings. The air was hot and dry. It wavered and shimmered over the horizon. Its layers closest to the ground were like a thick film of oil that coated everything in the far distance.
Why was he here? Sending a technician ahead before a team of operators was assigned - that brought back unpleasant memories - memories of a cafe adrift in space and the long and arduous endeavour of freeing said operators. With help he had succeeded the last time, but he fervently hoped he wouldn't have to go through something as traumatic and dangerous again.
Even his raised voice sounded tiny in this frighteningly wide and desolate space. It was unnerving. The hand on his shoulder almost made him jump. He whirled around with a yell and there they stood.
Among all the other Elements, may they be operators or specialists, he had always felt drawn to these two. At first he'd been impressed by their record of success. They always seemed to have an edge over the others. Later when he'd been sent in to assist them on a couple of assignments, it had shown him that there was another completely different dimension that made these two special. They not only were successful, they also had developed an eerie and at the same time highly alluring synchronicity - a non-causal and nearly flawless adaption to each other's thoughts and actions.
"Silver," Steel said, drawing his hand back again, "what are you doing here?" He gave Silver an irritated look. In itself that wasn't unusual. Steel tended to be easily irritated sometimes, but now he appeared profusely ruffled. Looking back and forth between Sapphire and Steel he realized how dishevelled they were - their clothes were rumpled, they had smudges of dirt on their hands and - most alarmingly - their skin was reddened. A sunburn? he wondered. He had never seen such a phenomenon on any of his fellow Elements. He raised his hand, touching one of Steel's cheekbones. It was warm, too, and Silver's alarm grew.
"I was sent in to assist, and you?" he asked.
Sapphire standing two steps behind Steel, came up to them now. Brushing her hair out of her face, she answered, "There should be a breach. We were sent to investigate and close it. There's something wrong here, though." She held up a small object wrapped in what was obviously a light shawl she had been wearing, saying, "We found this."
Silver reached out, but Steel's hand shot up, clamping around his wrist while Sapphire pulled her own hand back, moving the object out of his reach.
It's highly dangerous, Sapphire thought warningly.
It moves and manipulates time, Steel added. We don't know how long we've been here.
We found this shortly after our arrival. Sapphire picked up their narrative again. I examined it. I touched it and everything shifted. We shifted. We were inside it. When we managed to get out again, we had been here for more than twelve hours.
By now we're up to twenty-four hours even, Steel continued, and while time passes, it continually stays midday.
"A paradox," Silver said aloud, again looking back and forth between the two. Both of them nodded. He held up his open palm, and when Sapphire hesitated he said calmly, "I'll be careful. It's what I'm here for." Really, for all their competence these two could be very naive when it came to his own expertise with machinery and everything crafted, he thought. Making sure that neither of them touched the object itself but only the flimsy shawl that she'd wrapped around it, she handed it over.
Holding it on his palm he carefully peeled back the shawl's loose ends until he could take a good look at the shiny object that turned out to be a lamp, yes, an old fashioned oil lamp. He held his hand over it, palm open and down, to get a first impression of it. It was old, more than five hundred years and it held potential. It seemed to be a power source, something vastly powerful to be exact. He looked at Sapphire then at Steel. "You said you were inside it? Both of you at the same time? How did it happen?" he asked.
"It was shortly after our arrival," Sapphire replied. "I spotted the object and picked it up. It was caked with sand and when I tried to brush it off we found ourselves - both of us - somewhere else."
"We were inside it," Steel said, sounding gruff. He seemed to consider this kind of treatment a personal insult.
"Fascinating," Silver replied. He let his hand hover over the lamp. It was made of bronze and he still felt the immense power potential that was beckoning at him to tap into it. "What did you see?" he asked, looking at Steel.
"Nothing," Steel answered. "Greyness, we had no bodies."
"Then how did you leave?"
"We don't know," Sapphire now answered. "Time passed, though we can't say how much, and afterwards we were here again. Since then we've been looking for a way to leave, but this place is blocked. It's isolated from everything else. Though time passes, here it seems to be an eternal midday." She looked up at the sun that stood directly above them.
Silver followed her gaze, then looked at the ground. There he noticed something puzzling.
"Look at our shadows," he said. They were rather long, not corresponding to the sun overhead. Their shadows were the lengthening shadows of afternoon.
They looked at them, then back up at the sun, then at each other. Again he raised his hand to touch Steel's face - the slight reddening fascinated him - especially seeing it on Steel. This time however Steel drew back, giving him an impatient glare.
We don't have time for such frivolities, Silver. It was so like Steel to accuse him like this for such an innocent gesture. Silver snorted, raising his eyebrows in mock affront.
Watching them, Sapphire softly laughed, but almost instantly turned serious again. Is it the lamp that is causing the rift? she asked.
Possibly, Silver answered. It holds power in a way, or maybe something associated with it holds power. I think I need to take a look inside.
"No!" Steel's voice was sharp. "It's too dangerous."
"Oh, please, Steel." Silver shook his head and before Steel or Sapphire could react, he brought his hand down on the lamp.
He'd expected to be incorporeal and he'd anticipated greyness. Instead he found himself in a comfortably furnished room. It were only the lack of windows and its peculiar form, its sloping walls that hinted at the fact that he now was truly inside that lamp.
Behind him he heard two voices, an irritated growl from Steel and an obviously delighted gasp from Sapphire. Steel's reaction was clear. Being sucked inside the lamp again, this time in Silver's tow, was an annoyance. Sapphire's delight was harder to read. Most probably she's simply pleased of being out of the desert and in a place that against her earlier experience now offers far better opportunities for taking action, Silver thought. Briefly he wondered why the two of them were with him. It hadn't been his intention to bring them along. He suspected however that the cause for their arrival together was standing in front of them.
It was the largest individual he had ever seen - easily dwarfing even Lead. It was a man, bald and dark-skinned with a pleasant face, though it had a look of annoyance on it right now. He wore some sort of oriental costume - wide and loose trousers that were held by a broad leather-belt and a sleeveless vest. He had his arms crossed in front of his broad chest.
He spoke to them in a booming voice, "You're not supposed to come in here. You should rub the lamp and allow me to get out, not the other way around!" he paused, considering them, then he asked, "Who are you? You're not Humans. Are you Dschinns, too? I tell you, this lamp is already taken! It's terrible enough to have been trapped here. I don't care for any company that's crowding the available space. Get out, all of you!" He took a threatening step towards them.
Steel reacted instantly and stepped forward, too, stepped in front of Sapphire and Silver in case a real physical attack should follow.
It was that protective streak that whenever Silver witnessed it that enamoured Steel to him. Silver didn't believe they were in any real danger, but having Steel - deceptively small and slight Steel - standing in front of him like a shield always made him feel safe.
Silver placed his hand on Steel's shoulder, and this time Steel allowed the touch. Silver felt Sapphire's hand at his own back as she drew close to both of them.
The Dschinn now looked at them with sudden wariness in his eyes. "No, you're not like me. I don't know who or what you are." Suddenly his features brightened again and he gave them a brilliant toothy smile. "But you are three." He opened his arms in an inviting gesture. "And I have three wishes to grant you. I take that as a good sign and so we might still be able to make a deal."
"What kind of deal?" Steel asked. He leaned slightly back, bringing all three of them into contact.
"You can free me, allowing me to leave this prison, and I will grant you three wishes - anything you want - riches, fame, eternal life - you name it, I grant it.
Careful Steel, Sapphire thought, I have found references for Dschinns. They are very powerful and very dangerous. They play a rather ambivalent role in human fairy tales. They are indeed able to grant wishes, but they try to twist your words, so that instead of fulfilling dreams, they tend to turn them into nightmares.
Charming, Steel answered.
Why don't you let me handle this? Silver thought.
"Well?" the Dschinn asked, interrupting their internal conversation.
"We're thinking about it," Silver answered aloud. "Oh and shouldn't those three wishes be mine? It was me that brought us here, right?"
Silver. The warning came from Sapphire and Steel in unison.
"If you excuse us," he said to the Dschinn not waiting for an answer, and pulling on an elbow and a shoulder he urged his two operators to turn.
They stood close now and he picked up their discussion. Don't you see, it's a trap, he thought.
Of course we see it, Silver. That's why I don't think you are the best choice in handling it, Steel replied.
Really, Silver thought. He was slightly irritated, but mostly amused. His amusement was so strong that it bled over to the other two. It was answered by Sapphire's own while Steel, not surprisingly, reacted with wariness. Then tell me, Steel, what wishes would you make? he asked.
To free us from this place, to contain this obviously dangerous creature, the first two answers came quickly, but then silence fell.
Steel? Sapphire asked, tell us your third wish.
Kill Time. Even as he said it he seemed to realize his mistake as his voice fell silent abruptly. Hastily he added, No, forget it. That's not the third I would choose. I don't know.
Sapphire's laughter once again filled their minds. You're a romantic, Steel. I always knew it. The indignation that came from Steel caused Silver to join in Sapphire's quiet laughter.
Why don't you make the wishes, Steel retorted, a slight accusation in his voice.
Because I'm not the right one to do so, she answered gently.
Silver looked at her and felt lost, almost as helplessly as he had the very first time he had seen her. Wise Sapphire, beautiful Sapphire, he thought to himself. Once, in a moment of weakness, Silver had come up with a picture. He'd rather bite his tongue than ever tell anyone. It was slightly silly and hopelessly wistful, but he loved it regardless or possibly because of that all the more.
Deep down in his heart he sometimes pictured the three of them like an exquisite piece of jewellery. He knew that steel was seldom used in its making, but there were exceptions. It was used in crowns sometimes, creating a solid and sturdy foundation for them. His own element silver was quite common of course and ideal for the filigree; and sapphire - well where would you expect a gemstone but as the centrepiece - being the heart of the whole ensemble.
Involuntarily he sighed. It earned him a questioning look from Sapphire and a frown from Steel.
You don't agree Silver? You think I should make those wishes? Sapphire asked.
What? No. As you say, you're not the right one to make them. On impulse he leaned in and breathed a soft kiss on her cheek, then turned to Steel and was fast enough to do the same before Steel could draw away.
And he is? Why him? Steel asked grudgingly.
Because I'm Silver - Quicksilver and Silvertongue - I'm best equipped to make this deal. He grinned. Trust me, he added.
Steel looked like he wanted to protest further, but stilled when Sapphire placed a gentle hand at his elbow.
Silver turned away and left them both standing. He walked over to the Dschinn, drawing him slightly further away from his fellow Elements. They walked to a comfortable looking divan at the opposite side of the room and sat down.
"Now, my friend," Silver said in a low voice, "I have a very good idea how this kind of deal works. Listen carefully and I promise you won't regret it."
The Dschinn looked at him attentively and replied, "I'm all ears. I promise you, whatever you wish for, it will come true."
Silver's mind was racing. "First, I have some questions," he said. "The time paradox, is it your doing?"
The Dschinn shook his head. "No, it's a result of my imprisoned existence here. It's the evil wizard's fault that trapped me in this lamp. It will be resolved once I'm freed." The Dschinn gave him another blinding smile. "Tell me your wishes, now."
Silver smiled back. "In a moment," he replied, stalling. Addressing Sapphire he thought, he says he was trapped by an evil wizard. Can you confirm that?
Sapphire looked over to them from the other side of the room. I can confirm that he was trapped by a man. As to the description of that man being an evil wizard - that is beyond me.
Silver nodded to himself. The Dschinn's explanation of the paradox seemed to fit. Since they'd arrived here, he had tried to discern the exact power source that had caused the breach. Analyzing the Dschinn, he had seen strong enough indications that while being certainly powerful in its own way, the Dschinn wasn't powerful enough to cause the time breach. That his existence here might cause it, though, was plausible.
Now, on to formulating three wishes, Silver thought. The first priority was to close the breach and end the paradox. The second was to get all three of them to safety. He checked back with Sapphire again. Do you know where Dschinns exist normally? And would it be safe to send this one there?
They have their own realm, their own dimension, she replied. You really want to free him, Silver? She sounded slightly worried.
He didn't answer her. Instead he gave the Dschinn a scrutinizing look. Freeing him and sending him to his realm should close the breach. Silver's instincts were telling him that this was the right thing to do. He only hoped he could trust his instincts here.
Coming up with a wish that would send them to safety didn't seem too difficult by comparison. To his delight he realized that it left him with a third wish free for his use, and he wouldn't be Silver, charming and playful Silver, if he wouldn't try to make the most out of it.
Drawing a deep breath, he told Sapphire and Steel, Get ready to leave. To the Dschinn he said, "Very well, I'm going to make three wishes now, and I expect you to fulfil them to the letter."
The oasis was perfect. The warm rays of the afternoon's sun were gently filtering through a roof of large leaves. A small lake surrounded by palm-trees created a peaceful and serene setting. A soft breeze played around them. It was refreshingly cool and moist and presented a welcome relief after the bone-dry desert-air. They had arrived with a thunderous clap of decompressing air. Now however everything was silent. Only a single bird could be heard somewhere above, trilling an eerily beautiful tune.
Not without pride he had informed Sapphire and Steel that he had closed the breach in time and resolved its resulting paradox. Steel who had started to prowl around them had given him only a quick glance, his attention mostly focused on Sapphire. She had done a swift analysis and after agreeing with Silver's assessment, she had joined Silver by sitting down at the lakeside.
Yet Steel remained restless. He kept standing and looked down at them. Tell me the wishes you made, Silver, he thought.
"Ah, I think not." Silver replied. "The breach is gone, the paradox is gone and with them the Dschinn and the lamp are gone, too. That's really all that matters now, don't you agree?" He was pleasurably surprised when he felt Sapphire drawing close to him from behind, felt her arms circle his waist, her chin resting on his shoulder.
Her breath tickled against his cheek as she said to Steel, "Naming this kind of wishes can be dangerous. Once fulfilled, they're best not spoken aloud, though I can guess at least one with a certain accuracy." She smiled widely.
Steel looked at them both and there was new suspicion colouring his features.
Silver stretched out a hand invitingly. "Come here, Steel." He held up a bottle of sun lotion in the other. "I'd really like to see you with a tan one of these days."