"I have never,” Steel remarked as he bent another piece of rebar out of their way, “felt the need to observe humans outside of Mission parameters. Why do you ask?”
“Because,” Silver said precisely, while stepping with equal precision over the twisted metal, “You might have been able to talk that last one out of dynamiting the entire nave — really, it’s not a sin to try to read to the room, as they say. I’m sure Sapphire would agree —”
“Sapphire might indeed agree,” came a muffled voice somewhat to their left and roughly three feet below what a human would apprehend as the floor. “However, I think it best that the two of you concentrate on getting me past this barrier before you ask me to take a side in your quarrel.”
“We are not quarreling.” Steel could well have sounded grumpy to someone who didn’t know him, but Sapphire obviously knew differently, even from beyond the Time distortion barring her entry into his reality; Silver thought he heard a ragged little chuckle from her, although he couldn’t be sure.
“We are having a distinct difference of opinion,” Silver said. “Sapphire, dear, are you seeing us yet?”
“Not quite; but my sense of you is strengthening beyond the aural. I’ll let you know when the air starts thickening.”
Sirens wailed in the distance, undoubtedly responding to the explosion. The three of them had only the briefest window in which to tease apart the conflicting Time strands that enmeshed this schizophrenically-designed modern cathedral, the temporal madness of which had apparently tipped the young curate into the fear-crazed act of trying to destroy the building.
They couldn’t undo that action, of course. And, truth be told, they had little interest in doing so, although Silver had sighed in gentle regret when he saw the man’s shattered body. Behind the barrier, Sapphire had sounded almost sorrowful. Time was cruel, she said. It didn’t sound like a cliche when she said it.
Still, one life was of far less import than their remit — strengthen the weak spot, seal it off, and prevent Time from destroying reality by becoming a black hole and swallowing the world bit by bit. That was why Sapphire’s move, phasing the three of them in and out of Time just enough to prevent them from taking the same sort of fatal damage in the explosion, was necessary. Her strength really was impressive, Silver thought.
Unfortunately, while she’d been able to throw him back into reality after the explosion died down, and Steel as well, she hadn’t been able to phase herself. Silver suspected that she might have sustained an injury.
He didn’t mention his suspicion to Steel. Better to deliberately keep Steel slightly irritated — something Silver knew he excelled at and was, in fact, rather untowardly proud of — than have him wondering and worrying about his partner’s well-being. Sapphire could take care of herself until they pulled her back. Probably.
Silver’s lips thinned as he thought about that, and he redoubled his efforts to find the weak point in the barrier.
“Here. Here’s the best place,” Steel said from a few feet ahead of Silver, pulling apart two intertwined beams, and throwing large sections of broken brick wall over his shoulder. “Get over here.”
Silver quickly picked his way through the detritus. He was pleased; Steel might bristle to be told so, but he had some of the instincts of a Technician. It certainly saved time.
He nodded as he joined Steel. The “floor” half hidden by rubble was soft, and almost luminous, as if light was shining up from underneath its surface, but not getting through. It was very definitely the weak point. If only they’d had time to find it while the cathedral was all in one piece, the job would have been so much easier—
“Steel, Silver, the air is thickening, but something’s also coalescing not far from me in the pocket where I am. I think it’s Time. I think you need to act quickly.” She sounded calm, but ever so slightly shaky.
“Are you injured?” Apparently Steel had heard the shakiness. He looked, if possible, even more grim.
“No. Not as such. But I am getting weaker … I really could use the help. Help from both of you.”
She’d brought the quaver under control, but the fact she’d let it show at all … Sapphire definitely knew how to understate problems, Silver thought, trying to be irritated and not frightened. “We’ve found the entry point. Hang on.” He looked at Steel, who nodded.
The two of them closed their eyes and concentrated. Around them, the air grew still; it felt like treacle moving around Silver’s hands as he scattered the shards of glass he’d chosen across the soft point in Time. The light from beyond the barrier was trapped by each sliver as it passed through the glass, then transmuted into a rainbow, whose colors started on this side of the barrier, but began to sink through the “floor,” weakening the barrier as they did.
Silver breathed shallowly, wincing as he sucked the glutinous air into his lungs. He should simply have stopped breathing, which Steel appeared to have done — but no, he interrupted himself, he couldn’t. He needed to taste and smell Time in order to gauge how quickly the barrier was eroding. It was a bother, but a necessary one ….
The sirens stretched and attenuated, darkening in tone as the molecules in the air danced slower and slower. Silver heard Steel’s heart slow too, its syncopation funereal but steady. He risked opening one eye to satisfy himself that his colleague was still doing well, and found to his surprise that Steel was staring at him. It nearly broke his concentration, but he frowned and shook his head at the other before closing his eyes again and extending his awareness.
The pressure increased in Silver’s ears as Time congealed around him.
“Sapphire, can you breath?” He managed to get it out, although it sounded nothing like his usual pleasant tenor. It would have been easier to reach her mind, but Sapphire rarely let anyone but Steel past her mental barriers.
“Barely. It’s … very ….” The sentence trailed off.
The timing was crucial — it always is, the sardonically amused part of him that never quite dissipated silently laughed — and he needed more strength.
“Steel. Give me your hand.” He stretched his own out.
Steel looked astonished.
“Now!” Silver snapped. The one word seemed to cut through the coagulated air around him; it reached Steel, whose eyes widened in understanding. He reached out, and grabbed for Silver’s hand, doing so with both of his own.
Time was solidifying, ossifying, around Silver and, beyond the barrier, around Sapphire. Silver and Steel were deliberately attracting Time’s attention and routing it to where they needed it. As it abandoned the space around the rainbow to attack Silver and Sapphire, it left a void between them. The lights caught by Silver’s glass shards increased in multi-colored vibrancy; the bridge solidified and gained material reality.
Silver, buoyed by Steel’s strength, kept the entropic and atmospheric forces focused on Sapphire and on his own body … the bridge grew stronger … stronger … almost — the pain in his lungs was one step away from unbearable —
Now! It was there!
First a set of steps the color of oxblood lying below the barrier and climbing up toward it, framed by golden balustrades to help Sapphire rise and move forward; where the steps ended, a scarlet dragon topping one balustrade and a golden lion the other, then an arching expanse, with the zenith right at the barrier. Here the balusters were close together and wildly carved with trees and hills, and more fantastic animals — dancing frogs and white herons at rest and in flight, koi and turtles circling rocks or standing guard on them. Had Silver the time, he would have admired its beauty.
But he did not. Even as the bridge broke the barrier between Sapphire and the world, Time sped up in an attempt to rush back into the void it had been tricked into creating.
“Now! Sapphire, now! Use the bridge!” He hadn’t thought his voice could carry in so piercing a manner.
There was a coruscation of light and a carillon of melody, the sound of dozens of chimes singing in the newly pellucid air, and finally the clicking of Sapphire’s boot heels as she ran up the stairs and picked up speed to push through the barrier.
Steel wrenched his hands from Silver’s and leapt onto the bridge from this side of reality. Silver could feel him beating back Time, giving Sapphire extra seconds to reach out for him. As the two of them ran toward each other, their hands stretched out, a yearning of Sapphire to Steel and Steel to Sapphire.
She was in his arms, and he was half carrying her down the side of the bridge in this reality.
There was a roar, almost a snarl, as if Time understood that it had lost. Steel must have felt the bridge disintegrating; he leapt again, this time to the true floor of the cathedral. The floor seeming that had let light from the other side was gone, and with it, the weak point, and the pocket reality in which Sapphire had been imprisoned.
By the time Steel and Sapphire reached him, Silver was breathing easily again. No more treacle in the lungs, he thought, slightly giddy. Good, because now the real work begins, and we have an aroused enemy.
But to his delight, Sapphire (who was injured, Silver saw with chagrin; a dark bruise marred her cheek, and blood soaked through one shoulder of her blue dress) proffered a sheaf of papers.
He snatched at them greedily. “However did you manage to hold onto them?”
“With great difficulty and no little pain,” she said. “But I did. I believe that you know what to do with them?”
“Indeed. This makes it so much easier!” Silver shuffled the pages, found the four blueprints he needed — one each for each floor of the cathedral. With one ear listening for the police vehicles, the other tuned to Time, because he didn’t trust it not to try something else on them, he determined where the lines connecting the floors of the actual building were connected to each other on each of the sheets.
“Hmmm … left, then right — no, wait … right, then left. Now … up and over ….” He rotated each sheet from hand to hand, then stacked them together, looked for the lines again, reshuffled the sheets. When he felt that each line was now untangled, sheet from sheet, he carefully tore up each blueprint, starting with the top floor — “Wouldn’t want the entire thing to fall in on us,” he murmured more to himself than the others — and ending with the plans for the basement level.
Bits of paper fluttered to the ground, covering the shards of glass that were now just shards of glass again. Only Sapphire, Steel, and Silver felt and saw the crazing of timelines anneal into a seamless single actuality.
“There. Job done,” Silver said briskly, rubbing his hands as if to wash them of the entire Mission.
Steel looked uncomfortable, then looked at Silver. “Your work … it was—”
“It was life-saving,” Sapphire said, interrupting gently. The bruise on her face remained visible, and she had not bothered to rearrange herself into new clothing.
“Are you still bleeding, Sapphire?” Silver had hoped bringing her back into reality would have reversed or erased the damage, but that was apparently not the case.
Steel’s grey suit bore a brownish-red smudge where he had cradled Sapphire to him as he escaped the disintegrating bridge. He didn’t seem to notice it as he moved closer to both of them. “This was a bad one.” He stopped, then said, nodding slightly at Silver. "I’m glad you were here.”
Silver tried to hide his pleasure. “We aim to please.”
“Let’s go. We need to take care of you,” Steel said to Sapphire. His eyes didn’t leave her face as he spoke.
She smiled wearily. “I imagine I can take care of myself,” she said. “But not here.”
Then, to Silver’s utter delight, and Steel’s palpable consternation, she kissed both of them on their cheeks. “There, that’s the job properly done. At least for now,” she said, sounding even more opaque than usual. Silver raised his eyebrows at Steel, who sent him a definite eyebrow rise in response.
The three of them picked their way through the nave and into the surviving portion of cathedral, away from the rescue squads that had finally arrived. They never reached the back doors; they had their own exit. Just before they returned to their point of origin, Sapphire turned to Silver.
“The bridge was beautiful. If one needs an escape route, it never hurts to make it attractive. Although, really … a hachi?”
“It just turned out that way,” Silver said. "I doubt the craftsmen in Edo would think much of my efforts.”
“You might be surprised,” Steel said.
They faded from Earth’s reality, two men and one woman, walking in step, and all three smiling.
Note: Hachi is one of the Japanese words for bridge; I apologize in advance for any incorrect use of the noun. I imagine that of all the Elements, Silver might have an interest in that sort of thing.