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Stickytape and String: Assignment One

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“Where are we?”

The tall, skinny girl looked up from her inspection of one of the plant pots. “Earth,” she said offhandedly. Her partner, a boy as short and rotund as she was long and thin, frowned, but did not ask for elaboration. She wore a white cheesecloth dress, despite the chill autumn weather; he wore a tan suit and tie.

“And when?”

“The present,” the girl replied. “This plant is dead.”

“Do you have any idea what we're looking for?”

“I assumed,” the girl drawled, “that you would have received at least some of the briefing.”

“No,” said the boy. “Not very auspicious for our first assignment.”

“An initiative test, perhaps?”

“This isn't a test,” the boy said, with perhaps more vehemence than he had intended. “We're on assignment.”

“Only because all the others are busy, or missing. If--”

“What is this place?” the boy cut in.

“Roadside café and petrol station. Built in the sixties. That's about forty years ago.”

“Abandoned?”

“So it seems.” The girl looked at him, amused. “Perhaps our assignment is to reopen it.”

The boy, about to reply, suddenly stopped, and hushed the girl with an irritable gesture when she seemed about to speak. He pointed through the glass of the door to the café, and the girl looked and saw a man's back, grey-suited. He was seated at one of the tables, head bent forward, motionless. His hair was wavy, somewhat long, and of a nondescript brown, slightly greying.

The girl's eyes widened. “Do you know who that is?” she hissed to her companion.

“No.”

“Well, I do. And I think I know what our assignment is. And if I'm right--” She turned to face the boy, her face pale. “If I'm right, then I think we're out of our depth.”

A shining pathway, winding between the stars to the insistent, inexorable march of Time. A corridor, its gossamer walls offering a bare illusion of safety, suddenly set afire and annihilated by forces too powerful for it to contain. A shape, dimly glimpsed in the sable void, from which glittering, flashing spheres of force, the natural embodiments of beings beyond human understanding, hurtle forth about their ineffable errands. And over it all, the voice. Arrogant, peremptory, tightly-reined with just the merest hint of stifled hysteria beneath the iron control.

“All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension...”

The voice continues, enumerating the rules, calling the roll...and then there is a pause. A long silence, somehow redolent of whispered, panicky argument just beyond hearing. When the voice returns, it is with the hysterical edge somewhat more perceptible, along with a note of dazed incredulity at the words it is uttering.

“Stickytape and String have been assigned.”

 

“Excuse me.”

The man in the grey suit did not look up. The boy leaned over his shoulder, and saw that he was playing chess with himself, using a portable set in a small wooden case. White appeared to be losing. The man's lips moved constantly, the words inaudible. His face was drawn, greyish-pale.

“It is...Silver, isn't it?”

“He's in fugue,” said the girl. “All knotted up. Let me.” She approached the table and leaned across it to place her hands on either side of the man's head. As she moved them slowly apart, the man blinked, shook his head and looked up at them in startlement.

“Oh, do forgive me,” he said with a brilliant smile. “I was--” He stopped and frowned. “Who are you?”

“I'm String,” said the tall girl, “and this is Stickytape.”

“Probationers, yes?” said the man. “A little mundane, but doubtless you'll progress to loftier elements as you go. Well, I'm delighted to meet you—Silver, by the way--but what are you doing here?”

“We're on assignment,” said Stickytape.

“Assignment,” Silver repeated. “But I thought I...” He frowned again. “What year is this?”

“String?” said Stickytape.

“Two thousand and eight,” said String.

“I've been here...” Silver put his hand to his head. “There was a barrier,” he said dazedly. “I tried...but...” His gaze returned to the chessboard. “Maybe if I use Alekhine this time...”

Stickytape picked up the chess set, avoiding Silver's clutching hands, and took it to String. “Check it,” he said.

“It's just a chess set,” String said, running her fingers over the pieces. “Nothing out of the ordinary about it.”

“No!” Silver wailed. “It's our way out...it must be. Give it back to me.”

“Our way out?” String said. “You mean you—but that can't be right.”

“What is it?” Stickytape caught the note in her voice.

“Silver,” String said, “or the real Silver, was not trapped with the other two. He's not listed as missing. This must be an impostor.”

“I do assure you, young lady,” said Silver, getting up, “that I am the genuine article. I would offer to show you my hallmark, but we both know that would be absurd. Now please give me the device.”

“Can't you tell if he's who he says he is?” Stickytape demanded.

“Up to a point,” String said, “but I'm not infallible.”

“It's not a device,” Stickytape said. “It's just wood and plastic. It won't get you anywhere.”

“Whose side are you on?” Silver said suddenly.

“Side?” Stickytape looked blank.

“The same as yours,” String said soothingly. “We're the same as you.”

“How do I know that you aren't impostors, eh? Hmm? Answer me that.”

“Well,” String said, “if you are the genuine article, you'll be much better able to verify our bona fides than we yours. Remember, we're still in training.” Catching Stickytape's scowl, she added, “Well, we are. This is our gap year.”

“And I'm supposed to believe that they assigned you to come and find me,” Silver said.

“There was no-one else available,” Stickytape confessed. “The ranks have been drastically depleted. Sapphire and Steel are needed now more than ever.”

“But we didn't know that you would be here,” String said. “For a moment we thought you'd been assigned to help us.”

“Because I am not listed as missing.” Silver blew out his cheeks. “Well, that is puzzling. As far as I know I've been nowhere else but here for the last twenty-six years. At least. I wonder when time started running again?” He took out his pocket watch and looked at it. “No help at all.”

Stickytape was pacing restlessly around the room, kicking at the legs of chairs. “We need more information,” he said.

“Can you tell us what happened?” String said gently.

“All right.” Silver sat down again, glanced up at Stickytape, who pointedly put the chess set in his jacket pocket, and clasped his hands on the table top. “Well, the first thing I remember is arriving here, on the twenty-fifth of July nineteen eighty-one...”

 

“...and then he opened the box, and I was...pushed backwards,” Silver finished. “And then I was back here, alone. I tried to get through the barrier, I couldn't. I didn't know where Sapphire or Steel were, and all that was left was the box, the one I had. And it was just a chess set.”

“Was this the original or your reproduction?” Stickytape asked.

“It was another reproduction, actually,” Silver said. “I made two just in case.”

“Just in case?” String cocked an eyebrow.

“Well,” Silver looked abashed, “I will admit I was quite keen to study the thing when everything was over.”

“And you've been trying to get it working again ever since,” Stickytape said.

“Yes. Whether to find Sapphire and Steel or just to get myself out...I don't really remember any more. No use anyway. As you said, just wood and plastic. The mechanism must have been superimposed on it somehow.”

“Well, there's no barrier now. You could leave if you wish.”

“I could, couldn't I?” Silver seemed taken with the idea. He stood again and went to the window.

--Stickytape, what are you doing? We need him.

--Why?

--Look at us! We need a specialist. And he knows the territory.

“No,” Silver said at last, turning back into the room. “I cannot abandon them. If you've been tasked with rescuing them, then I must do all in my power to assist you.”

--Very dramatic. “All right,” said Stickytape, not too ungraciously.

“Thank you,” said String, with considerably more warmth. Silver took her hand and bowed over it, his eyes twinkling.

“So, these Transient Beings,” Stickytape said. “Why them?”

“I can think of several reasons,” Silver said. “They have sufficient power to outface us—we are related in many ways. They would be willing to serve, in exchange for their freedom. And they would preserve the anonymity of the real instigator, or instigators.”

“Who is?”

“No idea. Sapphire thought they answered to a higher authority, which would make it political. Whoever it was, though, must have made common cause with Time. How else could they have recruited the Transient Beings?”

“I think I'd like to go home now,” said String.

“Don't be ridiculous,” Stickytape snapped.

“It's you who's being ridiculous,” String retorted. “We haven't a hope against this kind of opposition. We're still on basic timeline maintenance. Moving a picture here, assassinating a president there. This is top-grade Operator stuff. Even with Silver's help, we're just not up to it.”

“If that were true,” Silver said gently, “would you have been assigned?”

“That's exactly what I've been--”

“Stop,” String said suddenly, and Stickytape fell silent. “Did you get that?”

“There's a faint echo every once in a while,” Silver said. “It sounds like Steel, or it did, but it's too faint to get a fix on and getting fainter.”

“What did you pick up, String?” said Stickytape.

“Nothing clear. Just an echo, as Silver said.” String shook herself. “What happened to the Transient Beings?”

“Well, as I said, I sent two of them back to the late Triassic, assuming they weren't lying to me about what the box did.”

“A time before humans existed,” Stickytape mused. “Where time has no shape to get hold of. You can enter, but you can never leave.”

“Is that where Sapphire and Steel are?”

“My dear young lady, if I knew that I would have found a way to get them back.” Silver sighed. “But it's somewhere almost as hard to leave. The last Transient Being did it with his box, but it may have been configured differently.”

“Well, if they are that far in the past we might as well go home,” String said. “I can't reach that kind of distance.”

“No, I think they're somewhere else entirely,” said Stickytape. “There are emergency procedures in place for Operators trapped beyond the bounds. Time would have included that in its calculations.”

“You mean...in another corridor?”

“Oh dear, are they still using that analogy in training?” Silver said. “Well, first of all, it's nowhere near that clear-cut. Time is a far more interesting realm than the training makes it sound. But you're right, if they had simply been pushed back beyond the bounds it would be far simpler to retrieve them.”

“There it is again,” String exclaimed. “I think I can reach it.”

“No,” Stickytape said. “It's too risky. If it's outside the normal corridor—or whatever it actually is—the intervening forces would be too strong. You'd be pulled apart.”

“Well, what would you suggest?”

“Something a lot simpler.” Stickytape smiled. “You said there was one Transient Being still at large?”

“That's right,” Silver said.

“And he was here. In this location.”
“You want me to reel him in?” String said.

“Wind up his time-path. Pull him back here. Then we can question him.”

“He's extremely strong,” Silver warned them.

“But he won't have his box, and we have the element of surprise. And I can restrain him.”

“Mm.” Silver considered. “It could work. But at the first sign of him trying to break free--”

“I'll let go,” String said. “I can be quite elastic. He could end up anywhere.”

“All right,” Silver said, leaning back against a table and folding his arms. “Show me what you can do.”

String's eyes glowed with a soft white radiance. “I just need to find the end...” she said.

A series of ghostly images flickered around them: an old man in a shabby brown overall; a tramp in battered top hat and tatters, his face crudely made up: a dishevelled, dark-haired woman: a powerfully-built man, also dark-haired, in a suit and tie similar to Silver's--

“That's him,” Silver said. “Now fasten on tightly and pull.”

The radiance of String's eyes blazed brightly, and the man wavered, flickered once more, and grew suddenly solid. The chair where he was standing, the chair Stickytape had moved, flew across the floor and fetched up against the wall with a clatter.

“Stickytape, now!” String cried, and the boy started forward and pinned the man's arms against his side. His grip seemed light, loose, but the newcomer's struggles were fruitless.

“What is the meaning of this?” the man blustered. “How dare you--” He caught sight of Silver, and fell abruptly silent.

“Remember me?” Silver said affably. “Oh, good. That will make this much easier.”

“Release me at once,” the man growled.

“Your kind is not tolerated in this part of time,” Silver said. “I should return you to where you belong.”

“And how would you do that?” the man retorted. “With these two? And anyway, why would you--”

“Be silent,” Silver snapped suddenly. “You're right, of course,” he went on, with a resumption of his ordinary good humour. “I don't have the capability to send you back. But I could leave you here. Bound. Motionless. Unable to escape.”

“You might be found,” Stickytape said. “Eventually. But not by anyone who could help you. They would probably take you to a hospital, and connect you to machines to keep you alive.”

“Looking at a white ceiling for the rest of eternity,” String said.

“No,” the man protested. “No, I must have my freedom--”
“Then talk to us,” Silver said. “Tell us where you sent my associates, and we may be merciful.”

Stickytape frowned, and seemed about to speak, but String laid a hand on his arm.

“I can tell you nothing,” the man said flatly. “I was given the tools to do the job. I don't know how they work or where they sent your—associates.”

“If you're very lucky,” String said, “there might be a crack in the ceiling, or a discoloured patch. You could let your imagination run wild, turn it into a river, or an island, or the face of someone you used to know.”

“But you don't have any imagination, do you?” Silver said.

“Oh, I think he has some,” String said. “You pick it up after a while. Enough to imagine the next few hundred years.”

“I tell you I don't know!”

“One of you possessed that knowledge,” Silver said. “One of you would have had to. In case of malfunction, or accident.”

“Not me! Not me!”

“Then who?” Stickytape exerted a little, a very little, pressure, and the man's eyes widened.

“Can you tease it out of him, String?” said Silver.

“It was her!” the man shouted. “It was her!”

Silver took a step back, and his involuntary reaction and the expression on his face made the man gape for a moment, and then laugh unpleasantly.

“You never got her, did you?” he sneered. “You never even knew. They did, oh yes, but by then it was too late. She was one of us right from the beginning.” He laughed again. “There's someone who'd come for me. There's someone who'd free me.” He strained abruptly, and jerked free from Stickytape's grip. “So much for your threats. I don't know what's happened to you, but what we've done can't be undone—not by you, not even by us. Your friends are lost. They're all lost. And Time is almost free!”

Stickytape lunged forward, but the man had faded into nothingness.

*

“Get him again, String!” Stickytape snarled, but String shook her head.

“It's too late. He's gathered up his traces. There's nothing for me to get hold of.”

“The woman,” Silver said wonderingly. “She deceived us all.”

“I can't find her now either,” String said. Her eyes were white. “He must have found her, warned her. They've cut loose. Muddied the waters.”

“I'm sorry,” Stickytape said bitterly. “I should have held on tighter.”

“We can recapture the Transient Beings any time,” Silver said soothingly. “I suggest that we have more important matters to deal with.”

“What did he mean, Time is almost free?” String wondered.

“Well, there is a school of thought--” Silver began, and stopped as Stickytape visibly bristled.

“Go on,” String said.

“Some believe that Time, from its own standpoint at least, is a healthy organism, and we—or rather, they--” Silver gestured around them at the service station. “--are an infestation.”

“I've never heard that theory,” String said.

“Someone, a human, once said that Time is what stops everything from happening at once. Actually, that isn't strictly true; it is in fact we, life forms who possess consciousness, who stop everything from happening at once. Time either doesn't care, or else tends to gravitate, with or without conscious volition, toward its status quo.” Silver smiled. “According to this theory.”

“So the outbreaks that we have to defeat,” String said slowly, “could be seen as antibodies repelling an invasion.”

“Nonsense,” Stickytape said brusquely.

“Maybe,” Silver said, “but it does give us a handy motive for whomever set these beings on to Sapphire and Steel. I take it that other Operators have also...gone missing?”

“Practically all the first rank, and about half the transuranics. They all seem to have believed they were being assigned to particular locations to investigate incursions of Time, but no record of the assignments remained.” Stickytape shrugged. “It certainly seems like a co-ordinated operation.”

“And one devised with the benefit of inside knowledge,” Silver said consideringly. “But whose?”

“What does it matter?” Stickytape burst out. “We're no further forward than we were at the beginning.”

“On the contrary, we've made a most important discovery. String, my dear, can you find the end of Steel's time-path as easily as you found our friend's?”

“I don't know,” String said, frowning. “And even if I could, there's no way I could pull him in. Even if he were in this corridor, or whatever. He's an Operator, and far more powerful than I am.”

“I'm not suggesting you try. But if you can, as it were, extend yourself along it to the other end...”

“Oh,” String said. Her frown deepened. “I don't know. I'm not as good at pushing as I am at pulling.”

“You just need something to send along with you. A needle, as it were.” Silver smiled.

“Are you suggesting some kind of combined operation?” Stickytape asked, his jaw set mutinously.
“Exactly.” Silver seemed oblivious to the boy's animosity. “If String knows where to go, I can keep her on the path, and lend her some extra—resilience, as it were.”

“Like wire,” String said. “It might work.”

“And we'll need you as well,” Silver said to Stickytape, “for insulation.” Stickytape looked somewhat mollified. “The forces out there could use us as a conduit, and then we'd have an incursion of our own to deal with as well. You'll need to protect us both.”

“For the assignment, Stickytape,” String urged. “I don't see any other way.”

--Be careful, String. I still don't trust him

--I know. I can always pull back if something goes wrong.

--Make sure of it.

--Is this a private conversation, or can anyone join in?

Stickytape glared at Silver, blushing furiously.

“I understand. If I were you I wouldn't trust me either. But you do need me, don't you?” Stickytape nodded mutely. “There we are. And I would work on your shielding as well.”

“Shall we?” String said, and the three of them formed a roughly triangular circle and clasped each other's wrists. String's eyes flared white, and again the flickering images formed and shifted around them. Long moments passed, and then the glow in String's eyes died and she pulled away.

“He's not here.”

Silver snapped his fingers. “Of course he isn't. We weren't in here when it happened.”

“You might have mentioned that before,” Stickytape said. “Where were you?”

“Outside, up by the barrier. Or rather where it was at the time. I'll show you.”

They followed Silver, String eagerly, Stickytape suspiciously, out of the café and across the forecourt. It was dark, and fallen leaves crunched under their feet as he led them into a stand of trees from beyond which came the sound of traffic.

“It was just before we got to the edge of the road,” Silver said over his shoulder. “About...here, in fact.”

“Try it now, String,” Stickytape instructed, but the girl was already holding out her hands, her eyes glowing a soft white. Silver took one hand, Stickytape another, and the glow grew stronger.

“There's resistance,” she said. “Some kind of shift...I'm not sure...”

--Keep trying, String.

--I think—yes, I think I have him.

A grey-suited figure, translucent as a ghost, stood with his back to them just beyond their circle, and beside him the faintest suggestion of something blue.

“Now!” Stickytape shouted, and String's eyes blazed...

*

“Well,” Stickytape said, looking around at the café, “so much for that brilliant plan.”

“Don't be too quick,” said Silver, indicating the windows, and the black, star-shot void beyond them. “I believe she's done it.”

“But it's exactly like the place we just left. And anyway, where are they?”

“Yes. Ingenious, isn't it? Superimposed on the original, just as the device was superimposed on the chess set. A replica. They were in the trap from the moment they arrived.” Silver bounced on his toes, smiling. “An elegant stratagem. As for where they are...”

“String, are you all right?” Stickytape leapt to his partner's side.

“I—yes. I think so.” String sat down on one of the chairs, her hand to her head.

“Conserve your strength, my dear,” Silver said. “Stickytape and I will go and seek out our quarry.”

“There's a quarry?” String said dazedly, raising her head.

“A figure of speech. My apologies. Just rest.”

“I'm sorry,” String murmured. “It's a long way...”

“I've found them!” Stickytape called from the lobby, and Silver hastened to join him.

A man in a grey suit lay supine on the floor. A woman in a blue dress was standing in front of the doors, gazing out at the empty blackness of space. Stickytape stood, irresolute, between them.

“Steel,” Silver said, looking down at the haggard face. “Oh dear. Do you know, I'd hardly have recognised him. He looks quite different. But it's definitely him.”

“Is he--?”

“Oh, I shouldn't think so,” Silver said matter-of-factly, kneeling beside the inert body and producing a small silver mirror from his jacket pocket. “It takes a great deal to destroy one of us,” he went on, holding the mirror to Steel's parched lips, and then studying it with a professional air. “No, he's in a bad way, but he's still with us.”

The lips moved. Steel's eyelids flickered.

“What's that, old chap?” Silver slipped an arm underneath Steel's shoulders and lifted his head . “Stickytape, see if there's some water anywhere, would you?”

Stickytape went back into the café, passing String who was sitting bent over with her head held in both hands, and tried the cold tap. To his startlement, it ran, and he filled a glass and took it back to Silver.

“I don't imagine they've used any,” Silver said, sensing his confusion, “so the tank will still be full.” He held the glass to Steel's lips and dribbled a little water into his mouth. After a moment the mouth moved, the throat worked convulsively. “That's it,” Silver said coaxingly, maintaining the flow. “Probably a bit stale, but there's nothing out here to taint it.”

Steel made an inarticulate noise, and Silver withdrew the glass. “Yes, Steel?”

“..mmm...”

“Don't try to talk just yet, there's a good chap.”

“...mmm...mmmpe...” Steel took a deep breath. “...impeccable...origins...”

Silver smiled. “Yes,” he said, “of course you have. I never doubted it for a moment.”

Steel opened his eyes. “S...Silver,” he croaked.

“The same.”

“What are you...” Steel blinked, shook off Silver's arm and struggled to sit up. “Are you trapped as well?”

“No, we're the gallant rescue mission,” Silver said. “Allow me to introduce Stickytape. String is in the other room.”

Steel shaped the names with his mouth.

“Probationers,” Silver explained. “Apparently you two were not the only ones to be ensnared. The ranks have been decimated.”

“A concerted operation,” Steel said. He was visibly fighting to reassemble his persona, to become again the thing he had been. He forced himself to his feet and steadied himself against the wall.

“That was our conclusion as well.”

“Time is incapable of that degree of organisation,” Steel said.

“We believe it has allies,” Silver said.

“Silver mentioned--” Stickytape broke off under the force of Steel's sudden gaze, then rallied. “He mentioned that there are some who believe that—that linear consciousness is a parasitic infection on the body of Time.”

“Nonsense,” Steel snapped.

“That's what I said,” Stickytape said hastily.

“And I said that the belief may—or may not be—nonsense, but its existence is very much a fact.” Silver scratched his nose. “Anyway, now you know as much as I do.”

“That is all you know?” Steel said. “How long has it been?”

“Well, for me, twenty-six years. For you and Sapphire, clearly a great deal longer.”

“So what have you been doing in all that time?”

Silver looked embarrassed. “Sitting in the café playing chess with myself. I was as much a casualty as you. Stickytape and String found me.”

Steel spared him a disgusted look, then went to Sapphire. She had not reacted to anything since they had arrived, maintaining her stance by the double doors, arms folded, staring out at the void.

“She was trying to take time back,” he said over his shoulder. “She thought she could bring this construct back to its original.” He took her by the shoulders, gently, and turned her away from the doors. She moved without volition, simply being led.

“Well, now we're all here, what do we do?” Stickytape said.

“We need to bring Sapphire back,” Steel said. “She's obviously withdrawn the same way I did. I'm trying to reach her.”

“Any luck?” Silver said.

“Just noise.”

“Would you like me to try?”

The look Steel flashed him spoke volumes; but he merely said mildly, “I can manage, thank you,” and returned his attention to the woman in the blue dress.

“What was that?” Stickytape said.

“Sapphire and I were...involved, once,” Silver admitted. “A long time ago, before Steel came on the scene. He's really absurdly over-sensitive about it. To be honest--”

An inarticulate cry came from the café, and Silver and Stickytape turned as one and made for the door.

String was standing, staring at her hands in mute horror.

“What is it?” Stickytape cried.

“I can't...” String groaned. “I can't maintain...”

“Maintain what?”

“Stretched...length...”

“But you can be elastic,” Silver said. “You told us.”

“Too long...” String clenched her fists. “Too far...too fast...”

“Too fast?” Stickytape frowned. “You're not making any sense.”

String looked up. Her eyes were blinding white.

“Oh, no,” Silver muttered. “Stay here. Hold on to her if you can.” He turned and went back to the lobby, where Steel was still hovering around the oblivious Sapphire.

“Excuse me,” Silver said, elbowing Steel aside almost rudely. He took a slim silver pen-torch out of his pocket and shone it into each of her eyes in turn. “As I thought,” he muttered.

“What?” Steel had been taken aback by the ease with which Silver had pushed him away.

“You said she tried to take time back,” Silver said. “It's worse than that. She did. She's still doing it.”

“What?”

“This entire construct, with us in it, is going back through time. Not to its beginnings, because it doesn't have any. Just...hurtling backwards. She can't stop. She probably can't even want to by now. She's caught up in the journey.” He stopped. “Which means String is stretching further and further with every second...”

“STICKYTAPE!!”

Silver and Steel reached the café door just in time to see String, reaching yearningly out to her partner, flicker, fade, and vanish into nothingness.

*

“The whole idea is completely ridiculous.”

“I await your alternative theory with considerable interest,” Silver said mildly.

They had brought the still unresponsive Sapphire in from the lobby and seated her at one of the tables. Stickytape was still staring in dumbstruck agony at the place where String had been. Steel was pacing angrily, while Silver leaned against another table and watched him.

Steel rounded on Silver. “Sapphire simply does not have the capacity to take time back more than a matter of minutes, hours at the most.”

“True, in the ordinary way. All Operators' abilities are limited by design. It's a matter of location.” Silver smiled. “The bouncing ball analogy.”

“Exactly. All she can do is sustain the bounce for a limited period.”

“And how would that work on the moon?”

Steel stared. “You're raving.”

“Not at all. The--” Silver grimaced. “The corridor exerts a force like gravitation to keep time moving at a constant linear acceleration, and that's what Sapphire is fighting against when she takes time back. Outside the pull of that gravity--”
“There is no 'outside,'” Steel scoffed. “The whole 'corridor' analogy is a convenient fiction for the benefit of trainees and other limited intellects.” He looked hard at Stickytape as he said this, but the boy was too distracted to hear him.

“I'm afraid you're mistaken,” Silver said.

“It's my fault,” Stickytape said almost inaudibly.

“What?” Silver turned to him. “No, no, of course it isn't. You both did the best you could.”

“And it wasn't good enough,” Stickytape retorted. “We weren't good enough. String knew. She tried to persuade me, to stop me taking on the assignment. But I was so confident, so full of myself, so sure I was right--”

“Sounds very familiar,” Silver murmured, glancing sidelong at Steel.

“And now she's gone,” Stickytape said wretchedly. Then he made a valiant effort to take himself in hand. “I know I shouldn't be upset. I know emotional attachments can jeopardise the success of an operation.”

“They tell us all that,” Silver said, “and it never stops any of us. We're not so different in that respect from those whom we protect, a fact which I find quite reassuring.” Ignoring the eloquent look Steel hurled at him, he got up and took Stickytape by the shoulders. “String is the safest of all of us now. She's back at the café, in two thousand and eight, safely inside the corridor. She's young and resilient, she'll recover from any backlash there might be, and nobody will threaten her.” He frowned. “The problem with that is that, unless we can revive Sapphire, String is the only one who could get us back.”

“The stars,” Steel said triumphantly. “If you were right, if we were travelling back in time, the stars would be moving.”

“Those aren't stars,” Silver said quietly. “Take my word for it, Steel, I have been here before. We are outside linear time.”

“You've been--”

“All Technicians are taken outside, once, very briefly, during advanced training. Once was quite enough for me, I can tell you. Each of those lights out there is a separate bubble of linearity—from the inside it would seem like a corridor, as ours does, but in fact it's folded in on itself many times. Some are protected by beings like ourselves. Others are not, and Time finds its way in and collapses the bubble.”

Steel threw up his hands. “This is beyond me.” He turned on Silver again. “All right. One thing we can agree on is that we need Sapphire. Do you have any ideas about that?”

“Well, as the mule driver said when he picked up the two-by-four, first you have to get their attention.” Silver bent down to look into Sapphire's impassive face. “At which, so far, we have signally failed.” He touched her cheek lightly. “And it's hardly surprising. She's travelling faster and further than she's ever been allowed to go before.”

“I should--” Steel broke off. “We should matter more. To her.”

“Yes,” Silver said sadly, “but we don't. At least not at the moment.”

“Is there anyone else?” Stickytape said unexpectedly. “Who matters to her?”

“More than Steel and myself?” Silver looked a little affronted. “I would hardly have thought so.”

“Everyone matters to Sapphire,” Steel grumbled.

“In any case, we have a rather limited cast of characters at our disposal at the moment,” Silver pointed out.

“Not necessarily,” Stickytape said. “Silver—you can make reproductions of things, can't you?”

“Well, yes.”

“Including people?”

“Well...” Silver hesitated. “Yes, but it's a lot more difficult. Intelligence, volition, memories...it takes a great deal of effort. And they don't last long.”

“That doesn't matter,” Stickytape said excitedly. “Leave that part to me. Could you reconstruct a person from Sapphire's past?”

“What are you suggesting, boy?” Steel demanded.

“You said everyone mattered to Sapphire.” Stickytape began to pace up and down. “You're the two individuals she knows best...but you're like her. Like us,” he added, a little defensively as if expecting to be contradicted. “You're in no real danger here. If I could...if we could create an image of someone from her past, someone she's known in danger...”

“She would be able to tell it was a reproduction,” Silver said.

“Not if she's not paying attention,” Stickytape said. “And as soon as she does, we have her.”

Silver turned to Steel. “You know, I think the lad might have a point,” he said.

“If you can create the reproduction, I can bind it in existence for a little while at least,” Stickytape went on, warming to his theme.

“There is a problem,” Silver said. “I can't access Sapphire's memories.”

“Then use mine,” Steel said. “I've been with Sapphire on all our recent operations. I knew the same people she knew. Not as well, but...” He shrugged. “If this is the best plan we can come up with, then let's do it.”

“All right then,” Silver said. “There's no point in me picking and choosing, so I'll just search for the person with whom Sapphire had the closest interaction. Apart from your good self, of course.” He looked at Stickytape. “Ready?”

The boy nodded. Silver rubbed his hands, cracked his knuckles, closed his eyes and concentrated.

A blurred shape formed in the air in front of Sapphire and solidified into a tall sandy-haired man with bushy eyebrows and slightly protuberant blue eyes, dressed in full evening dress. Stickytape raised his hands and held them out in front of him, fingers spread.

“What do we do?” Steel whispered.

“Well, talk to him, I suppose,” Silver replied. “He won't get a response just standing there.”

“I say,” said the man, “it's you, isn't it? Steel. And Miss Sapphire.”

“Yes,” Silver said. “And you are?”

“Felix Harborough,” said the man. “Brass, for a short time.” Steel was looking blank. “I died, old chap, don't you remember? Overcome by whatever foul pestilence old McDee was cooking up. And you ignored me.” Harborough's tone was light, but there was an edge to it. “The last words one hears in life stay with one, you know. 'Not now, Felix.' Hardly the ideal sentiment to take into the final darkness.”

“You didn't really die, you know,” Steel said.

“Oh, didn't I? Well, I'm sure that's very gratifying to the real me. But I'm the one you remember. The one you sent to his death. Treated me like an irritating child. Gave me some toys to play with and shooed me away to play in the traffic.”

“Is he supposed to be doing this?” Steel hissed to Silver.

“My dear fellow, I don't have any control over what he does.” Silver seemed amused by the whole thing. “If anything's governing his mental and emotional state, it's your memory of him.”

“That's true,” Harborough confirmed. “Little touch of guilt there, perhaps?”

“Let him go,” Steel snapped. “Dispel him. This isn't working.”

“I can't,” Stickytape said. “I'm not sustaining him any more.”

“Guilt?” said another voice. “Oh no, not him. Not Mister Steel.”

“Silver!” Steel exclaimed, as a thin girl with short, close-cropped dark hair and a lopsided, sardonic smile strolled out from behind Harborough.

“Remember me, Mister Steel?” she said. “The one you saved from the man with no face?”

“It's not me,” Silver protested. “I didn't--”

“After you left,” the girl said, “I spent twenty years in hell. Burned my passport. Couldn't get a driving licence after they went photo ID only. My friends got married. I didn't dare even go, because there was bound to be a photographer.”

“This is wrong,” Steel insisted. “My memory doesn't include any of this.”

“Not difficult to work out, though, is it? After the first ten years it got worse. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror. I thought any image of my face might be a way for It to get at me. Once at the beach one of those lightning artist blokes did a sketch of my face and offered it to me. I almost killed him.”

“Ah, but none of that matters, does it,” said Harborough. “It's all the greater good for these two.”

“Silver!” Steel ground out.

“I think,” Silver said, “we might have made a bit of a tactical error.”

The same thought had occurred to Stickytape. He went white and sagged into a chair.

“I'm Liz, by the way,” said the girl to Harborough, “though I wouldn't expect His Nibs here to remember that.”

“Felix Harborough,” said Harborough, “at your service.” He bent over her hand and kissed it, and she bobbed a mock-curtsy.

“The worst of it is, though,” Liz went on, in the same light conversational tone, “It got me in the end anyway. Closed circuit security camera. What Mister Steel never told me was that my fear, the fear he put in me, attracted Its attention. I went out for some groceries, happened to look up, and that was that. Next thing I knew I was locked in the dark. Forever, in the dark, with It.”

“You think you have problems?”

Steel was backing away as the balding man in the heavy overcoat emerged from the shadows that had imperceptibly engulfed the corners of the room.

“You were just a casualty, young lady. I was a sacrificial victim.” The newcomer pointed at Steel. “George Tully. Ghost hunter. And now ghost, it seems.” Tully advanced on Steel, who flinched away. “A bit too strong for you, wasn't It, that night in Dowerston station? You couldn't beat It. Couldn't even escape It, not without Its co-operation. So you negotiated a draw, with me as the price. You thought I didn't know, but I did.”

“Steel, you didn't,” Silver said in shock.

“Don't you start,” Steel snarled. “We did what we had to do. To keep order.”

“Ah, yes,” Harborough said. “Order. Order at all costs. Never mind how many may be suffering, dying, living in terror, as long as it's all neat and tidy. One moment following another, on and on till the end of time, and nothing out of place.”

“That is our job,” Steel said flatly.

“Wouldn't be so bad if you were any good at it,” said Liz.

“He had me marching up and down the platform singing 'Pack Up Your Troubles' and beating on a saucepan,” said Tully. “To make It angry. Very professional.” He shivered. “Though we definitely succeeded in doing that.”

“We saved millions of lives,” Steel grated. “At the cost of one.”

“You murdered me,” Tully said with simple dignity. “The end, whatever imagined goal you were serving, is irrelevant. My blood is on your hands. Nothing justifies that.”

“There is no blood on my hands!” Steel shouted.

“It's all around us, Steel,” said Silver. “Surrounding this room.”

“My fault,” Stickytape moaned.

“Yes, I'm afraid it is, young fellow-me-lad,” Harborough remarked. “Criminal stupidity, calling up images from the past in, as it were, the very belly of the beast.”

“Poetic justice, I call it,” Liz said.

“A little late, perhaps,” said Tully, “but none the less welcome.”

“You all got off lightly,” said a new voice. “You died.”

“Oh, no,” Steel breathed.

“String...” Stickytape whimpered.

*

String opened her eyes. She was lying on the ground, surrounded by trees, with a noise of traffic somewhere very close by.

“Oh, good, you're awake,” said a voice. Young, female, human. String sat up as the speaker came into her field of view: dark-haired, with elfin features, dressed...oddly.

“Who are you?” said String.

“A friend,” said the young woman, “and someone who can help you. My name is Rothwyn.”

“You're not from this time period, are you?” String backed away.

“No, you're right,” Rothwyn said quickly, “but then I'm not strictly speaking here. It's all right, I'm not part of the time-break.”

“Incursion,” String corrected her absently. “How do you know about that?”

“Never mind that. You're needed.” Rothwyn began walking briskly back towards the service station, and stopped when she realised that String was not following. “Well, are you coming?”

“Needed for what?” String said.

“To help your friends, of course. They're caught in the same trap as Sapphire and Steel. They need you to help them escape.”

“I couldn't reach,” String said. “It was travelling back in time too fast...”

“Well, then of course you'll need to go there first. I can send you. They'll tell you what to do when you get there.”

“How do I know that I can trust you?”

“You don't have a lot of choice,” Rothwyn pointed out with a small smile. “Come on, they really do need you.” She turned away again and walked off.

String stood irresolute for a moment, then followed Rothwyn.

*

“Remember me, Steel?” said the man. He looked to be in his forties, running to fat, with thinning hair and a perpetually lugubrious expression. “Robert Jardine? Rob?”

“I deny you,” Steel said loudly. “You are nothing but illusions.”

“And you know all about illusions, Steel, don't you?” said Rob. “I'm sorry my sister Helen couldn't be here to say hello as well—she's been in a mental home for eighteen years, incurably insane—but you don't even remember her well enough to construct a stable image.”

“I do not remember you at all,” Steel said doggedly. “The Rob I knew was twelve years old.”

“Yes, well, times change,” Rob said, “and It has helped me to appear to you as I am today. This--” He gestured down at his body. “This is partly your handiwork, Steel. I am what you made me.”

“What on earth did you do to him, Steel?” Silver asked.

“I saved his parents and his sister, and by extension himself,” Steel said, “from a very dangerous incursion. That is all.”

“You destroyed everything old in our house,” Rob said. “You would have destroyed the house itself if you had believed it necessary. You burned books, pictures, priceless antiques that were my father's fortune. You said they were triggers, that anything old could allow It to break in again.”

“Everything was replaced,” Steel said.”Nothing was truly lost.”

“But I learned,” Rob said vehemently. “I learned my lesson well. Ever since then, I have never owned, handled, or willingly gone near anything old. I change all my possessions every year for new ones, and towards the end of the year I have no hope of sleeping, in case a year is old enough. I live in Milton Keynes, for God's sake, and that is getting older with every passing year.”

“Same as me,” said Liz. “Jumping at shadows, never daring to relax, waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“Every year that nothing happens is a year I could have spent living normally, like any other human being,” said Rob. “But I never dare. And now my life is more than half over, and I have lived no more than twelve years of it without fear. Your doing.”

“Your doing,” Tully proclaimed.

“Your doing,” Liz spat.

“Your doing, old chap,” said Harborough.

“He's not the worst, though,” Liz added offhandedly.

“I say, don't look at me,” Silver said nervously.

“If you ask me,” Liz continued, “she's the worst of all of them.” She cocked her head at Sapphire, sitting obliviously in her chair. “He's cruel, and he doesn't care who he hurts, but she makes you like it.”

“She lets him do the things he does, and twists us around till we don't know what's right or wrong,” said Rob.

“She is the smiling face that conceals his cruelty.,” said Tully.

“Maybe we should kill her first,” Harborough suggested.

*

“This'll do,” Rothwyn said, pausing in the middle of the café floor and pirouetting. “Come here, String.”

String obeyed.

“Now kneel down in front of me,” Rothwyn commanded.

“Kneel down?” String said.

“I have to touch your head, and if you're standing up I'll lose the circulation in my arms,” Rothwyn explained. “You really are very tall.”

“I could sit...”

“No, it has to be a stable position without external aids. Come along, do, there isn't much time left.”

String knelt down in front of Rothwyn. The woman placed her hands on either side of String's head, and exerted a slight pressure.

“Now, keep quite still,” she said. “This may hurt a bit...”

*

“No!” said another voice, a familiar one. Steel looked up at the new arrival, and uttered a harsh bark of laughter.

“You're getting confused,” he challenged the room in general. “Losing your grip. Do you really expect to fool me with a cheap reproduction of Silver?”

“Actually, Steel,” said the new Silver, “I think you'll find that he's the reproduction. Lasted well, hasn't he? Amazing what you can do with the right allies.”

“Now, wait a minute--” the first Silver began.

“I'm so sorry,” the second Silver said in a tone that oozed false sympathy. “I can't deceive myself any longer. You were my bait, my dear chap. Your job was to lure these two into the trap and then keep them there.”

“Did you know any of this?” Steel demanded of the first Silver, who sighed wearily.

“No, of course I didn't,” he said. “Of course, he would have rearranged my memories so that I couldn't reveal his plan to you. At least, that's what I would do.”

“And what was the plan?” Steel went on. “What possible reason could anyone have to ally themselves with the force of random Time?”

“I have my reason,” the second Silver—the real Silver—snapped. “You don't need to know what it is. Not yet. Take him.”

Harborough and Rob grabbed Steel by the elbows and forced him back against the wall.

“Time to make amends,” Rob hissed.

“All of you,” Harborough said. “All the Operators who try to perpetuate the abomination of linear time. All the Specialists who help them.”

“All the cold, peremptory angels who deem themselves beyond good and evil,” Tully intoned.

“Oh, just kill him,” Liz snarled.

“Why, Silver?” Steel's voice held a note of pleading for the first time since Stickytape had met him. “You owe me that at least. Why are you doing this?”

“Well,” the real Silver said, “quite frankly I couldn't care less about linear time or its opposite. Once you've seen the void between, and all the countless points of infestation, one more or less hardly matters. But I couldn't risk any of the other Operators finding out what I was planning.”

“If you want to hide a corpse,” the false Silver said, “hide it on a battlefield.”

“A very apt quote,” said the real Silver, beaming. “It will be a shame to dispel you. Yes, Steel, this entire plan has been conceived for one reason and one reason only, to get rid of you. My only rival. Time has promised me that—when it's all over—there will be an unthreatened domain of linear time for Sapphire and myself to occupy and rule.”

Stickytape's head jerked up. He gaped at the Silvers.

Steel tried to laugh, but his voice was not co-operating. “Jealousy?” he chuckled dryly. “Is that it? You're destroying the entire universe because you want Sapphire?”

“Because I love her,” Silver said. “Can you think of a higher motive? With you out of the way, she will have no reason to reject me again. Especially after I tell her how we battled bravely to save her, and you fell gallantly in the final charge.

“You can kill him now,” he added casually, and turned away as Harborough, Liz, Tully and Rob advanced on Steel.

*
“I'm sorry,” said the other Silver. “I'm afraid I can't allow that.”

Silver exploded with laughter. “You can't allow?” he said. “Aren't you getting ideas above your station? Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. Goodbye.” He wiggled his fingers in a little wave.

There was a short pause.

“That's odd,” said Silver. “Why are you still here?”

“I'm not sure,” said the other Silver. “I rather seem to be sustaining myself.”

“That's not possible,” Silver said. “So what...”

“One thing people always forget about Probationers,” said Stickytape, “we're always learning. You think you can ignore us just because we have silly names and haven't been long on the job. But I am Stickytape, and I can hold anything together.”

“Oh, I see. Thank you.” Silver turned to Harborough and the others. “Kill the little fat one first.”

Harborough baulked. “But I want Steel.” He held out his hand. In it appeared a small white Petri dish. “I even have the perfect weapon.”

“So do I,” said Liz, as a camera appeared on a strap around her neck.

“Steel is mine, I rather think,” said Tully, shadows gathering around him.

“I don't believe this,” said Silver, putting a hand to his brow. “I gave you an order.”

“We don't have to obey your orders.” Rob turned on him. “You're just like them.”

“Order and obedience,” said Harborough.

“Command and control,” said Liz.

“Laws and linearity,” said Tully.

“A little dissension in the ranks?” the other Silver inquired sweetly.

“We have an agreement!” Silver wailed.

“We don't belong to you,” said Rob.

“We belong to It,” said Harborough.

“We all belong to It,” said Liz.

“Time is almost free,” said Tully, “and all agreements are off.”

“Which means you belong to It as well,” said Rob.

“No!” Silver shouted as they turned on him.

“There's no need for this.”

Steel and Stickytape turned and stared as Sapphire coolly rose from her chair.

“I'll go with you, Silver,” she said with a smile. “You're quite right, of course. Steel means nothing to me now. I should have realised before that you were the only rational choice for me.”

“Sapphire,” Silver breathed.

Sapphire reached for his hand. “Forget about these images,” she said. “Leave Steel and the others here, and I'll go with you.”

Harborough made a move towards Silver, and stopped. “I can't move,” he said in a strangled tone.

“Nor me,” Liz said. Her face was contorted with effort.

“Silver,” Tully said.

Silver turned to them and smiled. “As you said,” he said, “all agreements are off.” He took Sapphire's hand. “Where shall we go?”

“Wherever you please, my darling,” said Sapphire, smiling brilliantly into his eyes.

“Your respite will be brief,” Harborough snapped. “Time is almost free.”

“Isn't it always?” Silver said. “Goodbye, Steel. Goodbye, whoever you are.”

“Stickytape,” said Stickytape, as Silver and Sapphire, holding hands, slowly faded into nothingness.

“Well, that's a relief,” said Sapphire, appearing back in her chair. “I thought they'd never go. It was getting a little crowded in here.”

“Sapphire?” Steel said weakly.

“Masterfully done, my dear,” said the other Silver.

“He always did forget that he wasn't the only one who could do that trick,” Sapphire said. “Now then. What to do about these?” She strolled round Harborough, Liz, Tully and Rob, all straining against invisible bonds and glaring hatred at them.

“I don't understand,” Stickytape said. “I'm not holding them. It's taking me all my time to sustain Silver. I mean, this Silver.”

“That would be me,” said String, strolling in from the lobby. “Hello, Stickytape. Did you miss me?”

Stickytape gaped and made inarticulate noises for a moment or two.

“I'll take that as a yes,” String said with a smile.

“How—how did you get here?”

“With Sapphire's help,” String said. “She sent a projection back to find me.”

“Silver gave me the idea,” said Sapphire. “Coming up with all those people we had hurt, or simply failed to save on our assignments, but one was missing. And then I remembered that we had saved Rothwyn and Eldred. Not only saved them, but sent them home with their child to their own time.” She smiled. “One small victory in a series of stalemates. I know, Steel, sacrifices are inevitable, but...we have to remember why we keep order, why it matters. The reason is important.”

“And once I got here it was simple to bind these four, and also to tie up Silver's perceptions so that he didn't recognise the fake Sapphire as a projection,” String added.

“Where are they now?” Stickytape asked.

“I took care of that too. Wherever he tried to take her, there's only one place he could end up,” String said. “Back home.”

“To face his punishment,” Sapphire said. “Treachery is particularly frowned upon.”

“I don't envy him,” Stickytape said with a shudder.

“Then don't emulate him,” Steel said. He had recovered nearly all his self-possession. “Now, what shall we do with this lot?” he continued, indicating the prisoners.

“Well, since you bound them, String, perhaps you should set them free,” said Sapphire.

“What?” Stickytape yelped.

“Completely free, that is,” Sapphire added.

String nodded, brought her two clenched fists together in front of her and then pulled them apart and spread them wide. Harborough, Tully, Liz and Rob immediately stopped struggling, and their faces cleared.

Silver—the only remaining Silver-- looked up, and then around at the walls. “It's gone,” he said. “The Time force has dissipated.”

“It's lost its foci,” Sapphire said. “Their minds are free. You'll have realised, of course, that—with one exception—they're not projections at all but the actual individuals.”

“The exception being me, I suppose,” said Harborough cheerfully.

“Yes, Felix,” Sapphire said. “I'll come to you in a minute, if I may.” She moved to Tully, who was looking acutely embarrassed. “Mr Tully,” she said, “I can't offer you your life back. It has ended, and that is as it should be. But I can offer you peace, if you will take it at my hands. And I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive us.”

“If you can find it in yours to forgive me,” Tully said humbly. “And yes. Peace would be very welcome. The past...however long...”

“Is past,” Sapphire said, touching his forehead gently. “Let it go.”

George Tully let out a long breath, and as he did so, faded into the air.

“Liz,” Sapphire said, approaching the girl, “you can return. You'll have lost some time, a few years. Think of it as being in a coma. But you need not be scared of photographs any more. I can take away that fear, if you like.”

“Thanks,” said Liz, “but I'll deal with it on my own, if it's all the same to you. Actually,” she darted a sidelong glance at Rob, “I was thinking of looking up Mr Jardine here. It's been a long time since I met anyone I had something in common with. And we should be about the same age now.”

“Are you sure?” Sapphire said, amusement dancing in her eyes as she saw Rob blush.

“He's a bit posh for me, but I dare say I can make allowances,” Liz said.

“Sapphire,” said Rob. “Everything I said to Steel back then—well, it was all true, except for the part about Helen. She's never been in a mental home. I think she coped with it all better than I did.”

“Of course,” Sapphire said.

“So—we don't need to be scared of old things any more?”

“You don't,” Sapphire said. “In fact, it's important that you shouldn't be.” She held out her hands, and Rob and Liz each took one. “Goodbye,” Sapphire said as they faded to transparency.

“And then there was one, as Felicity would have said,” Harborough remarked. “I know, I know, you can't give me my life because it's being used at the moment.”

“The real Felix Harborough lives on,” Sapphire said, “a crusty old man of seventy-eight, writing letters to the newspapers about the Government.”

“Ah well, never mind. Honourable oblivion awaits, I suppose.” He held out his hand, which still had the Petri dish in it. Sapphire passed her own hand over the dish, and it vanished..

“Actually, I think we can do rather better than that,” Steel said unexpectedly.

“How do you mean, Steel?” Sapphire said.

“Well,” Steel said, “it occurs to me that a number of our Probationers are going to be achieving promotion quite soon, so there would be room at the bottom, as it were. And since you've already had a taste of the kind of thing we deal with...”

“I say, do you mean it?” Harborough said with growing excitement.

“Steel, are you sure?” said Sapphire.

“Call it my way of making reparations,” Steel said. “And acknowledging that Brass has its virtues after all.”

“Splendid,” Harborough said. “Thank you.”

“You'll need this,” Sapphire said. She put her arms around Harborough and kissed him on the cheek. “Good luck.”

“Toodle-pip,” Harborough called jauntily as he disappeared.

“You didn't warn him about the first hundred years in the stables,” Stickytape pointed out.

“He'll find out,” Steel said.

“And I think he'll take it in good part,” Sapphire said confidently. “Oh, and Silver...if you want to claim your predecessor's place, you'd better get a move on before it gets thrown open.”

“But I'm just a—a reproduction,” Silver said. “Aren't I?”

“Not any more,” Sapphire said. “You might want to call yourself Argent for now, though. At least till you get confirmation.”

“Thank you, Sapphire,” Silver said. “I—thank you. Goodbye.”

“How did you do that?” Steel said, as Silver vanished.

“Oh, Steel,” Sapphire said, pirouetting in the middle of the room. “You have no idea what I can do out here, how much power I have. I could recreate the entire universe around us. Or create a brand new one, just for you and me.”

“Sapphire,” Steel said, sounding for once almost sad, “that isn't what we're for.”

There was a brief moment of hesitation. Then--

“I know,” Sapphire said, relaxing, “but it was a nice idea to play with. Anyway, we're nearly back to where we started. I'm sorry it took so long to get back here.”

Stickytape cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Sapphire, but—when did you actually become aware of what was going on?”

“When I knew Steel was scared,” Sapphire said simply. “He spends so much time being stoical and impervious, a lot of the time he even fools me, let alone himself. Don't make that mistake with your partner, will you?”

“I won't let him,” String promised.

“So, how goes the war?” Steel said.

“Lead and Diamond have already been found and released,” Sapphire said, her eyes glowing blue. “Jet—is gone, I'm afraid. So is Copper. Paper, Scissors and Stone are looking for Gold. Most of the others are still missing.”

“We have a lot to do then,” said Steel.

Sapphire nodded. “Silver was right,” she said. “Time is always almost free. It's up to us to see that it stays that way.”

She took Steel's hand. String took hold of Stickytape's.

They took a pace forward, and were gone.

END