Ruby, who was hurrying to an assignment of her own, heard the giggles and the laughter quite clearly as she walked through time and space. She made up her mind to ignore it, although she was curious about how such sounds could reach her as she traveled. Then she felt the wash of intense happiness, effervescent as champagne bubbles (she knew champagne; she’d sampled some, once, while working with Silver.)
Happiness, exploding through dimensions, connected to threads of Time so brilliant and strong that Ruby instinctively threw up a protection for herself as she became conscious of them.
Being Ruby, however, she soon dismissed her protection, because it hindered her ability to examine what was happening. Right now, the happiness, giddy and reeling with joy, had become as loud and bright as a festival, dancing around and through her with bossanova rhythms and echoes of Brazilian guitar.
She was aware, as she changed direction to follow the river back to its source, that there would be repercussions from delaying her own assignment, but the smell and feel of this happiness, the taste of champagne in her mouth and its bubbles up her nose, the buoyant tympani and sweet-tart strings … how could she resist?
Besides, she was increasingly certain she comprehended the feel of this happiness; at least she thought so. If it emanated from that personality ….
Ruby laughed with delight.
Sure enough, she found Sapphire outside what appeared to be a dilapidated and long-vacant theater building somewhere near Holbeck.
“Leeds isn’t where I would have expected to arrive,” she said, nodding to her colleague.
Sapphire didn’t seem to be the source of the happiness. Her calm appeared a little tight around the eyes, though; if Ruby looked more closely, she thought that might come from trying not to appear too pleased.
Ruby had to hold back another laugh, which was extremely difficult this close to the source of all the joy. “What’s causing it? Is it in there?” she asked, jerking her chin at the building.
“I wasn’t sure if anyone else could feel it,” Sapphire responded. “You’ve arrived, so I imagine they’re broadcasting it on rather a broad band.” She sighed in irritation that Ruby thought a little too exaggerated. “Yes. It’s coming from in there.”
“And if I’m not mistaken, ‘it’ tastes, and sounds, a great deal like —”
Sapphire couldn’t hold back her own chuckle, which gave Ruby permission to laugh herself.
“Oh, it’s him. But he’s got two others egging him on.”
Ruby cocked an ear, listening to the rhythms of the disturbance. “Oh, right. I don’t know how I missed Lead. And of course Silver’s there.” She snickered; all three of them! Then she swiveled and bent her head closer to Sapphire’s. “What really intrigues me, though, is how deeply … good, yes, I think that’s exactly the right term, good … the Time feels. One doesn’t run into that often.”
“Almost never,” Sapphire agreed.
Operators and Specialists existed to keep Time at bay, and most of their various experiences were with a hostile and antagonistic opponent. Oh, they told each other that Time was neither good nor bad, just dangerous, but in truth, they eyed the enemy as just that, and their efforts were usually exercised against negative and near-intelligent malignant energy.
This, this was Time all right; Ruby could feel it inside of her, in every cell of her body. But it felt so very different, as if it were actively seeking to bestow completely pure, no-strings-attached pleasure. As if it was trying to bless living beings, she thought, borrowing a human concept.
“It wasn’t supposed to be that way,” Sapphire said. “If you’d been here with Steel and I at the beginning of our assignment, this place would have been several different degrees of horrid. The building’s mostly a burnt out cave on the inside, courtesy of a fire that killed 48 theater-goers in 1952. Before the theater was built in 1920, the property belonged to a man whose failing business prompted him to kill his wife and four children in 1901, by locking them inside and setting fire to the property.”
“Two fires,” Ruby said in surprise.
“Yes, within the past century and a half. Before that, there was a poorhouse where the 1832 cholera epidemic took dozens, and fearful neighbors razed the building, apparently with some of the inhabitants still inside. Before that, there was a woolen mill that collapsed, with workers inside.”
“Time is to blame?”
“Oh, yes. A very bad location,” Sapphire said. Despite the grim history, however, her eyes were still sparkling. “Steel and I quickly ascertained that we were going to get nowhere trying to patch the threadbare areas, not with so much negative resonance.
“We called for Silver, and Steel decided to put in a request for Lead as well. Then he and Silver hatched a plan to try to neutralize enough of the negative resonance to let Lead build a route for me into the center where I could locate a good anchor spot. He’d help me retreat to a safe distance —” She pursed her lips slightly.
“Steel being chivalrous?” Ruby asked dryly.
Sapphire nodded, not quite aggrieved. “He always forgets the times I have to save him . Anyhow, I was to place the anchor, Lead would help me out, then return to work with the other two. Silver would activate the anchor, then Steel and Lead would reweave the walls. It was tricky work, they thought, but the theory was sound.”
“Oh, I’d love to live in theory. Everything works in theory,” Ruby commented.
That sent Sapphire into peals of laughter, which in and of itself was worth the trip, Ruby thought. When she finally got herself under control again, she said, “I’m not altogether certain it isn’t easier working with hostile Time. At least one can usually think clearly.”
“Come on, tell me the rest of it,” Ruby urged, resisting the urge to dance, or skip, or something of the sort. She began to see what Sapphire meant.
“What Steel forgot, and I did too so it’s not all his fault, was that the team he’d put together was apt to be a little too good at its work.”
The lack of modesty irritated Ruby. Still, that was Sapphire, and she couldn’t ask Sapphire to change her nature. She really was one of the top ranked operators, and Steel with her.
Silver, now … he was one of the best technicians available, with more than a technician’s share of imagination and creativity, but for some reason, their administrators hesitated to send him out, particularly with Sapphire and Steel. And Lead … well, Lead was solid, strong and safe as houses. And he laughed so much ….
“Ah.” Ruby nodded her understanding.
“Exactly.” Sapphire agreed.
“So they set a system up to resonate this Time pocket back to neutral, and they pushed too hard.” Ruby was impressed. More than impressed, really; almost awed. She couldn’t think of any operatives other than the trio inside who might have put together such a strategy, nor been able to do something like this.
To her surprise, Sapphire now looked embarrassed. “ We pushed too hard. I was part of the planning, and I … moved a little too quickly. The only reason I’m not in there now is that they needed me to be out here for the first phase of the operation.”
That Sapphire was willing to admit that to her made Ruby happy. Or perhaps the Time was making her happy. Imagine that — Time making an Operative happy. It struck her as immensely funny, and she giggled.
“ I want to see them,” she stage-whispered. “Before I go to, uhm, my own … assignment, yes, I have an assignment of my own.”
Oh dear. She did have an assignment of her own to go to. She giggled again, and the taste of champagne strengthened in her mouth, tart and delicious.
“Oh dear,” Sapphire unwittingly echoed Ruby’s own thought. “Not you, too!”
“There are few of us, Sapphire dear, who have your ability to control themselves.” Ruby thought she was making a very serious point. “I would have said Steel, but apparently that’s not the case and I really, really, really want to see him.” She tried to school her face into noble resolve. “Before we re-resonate things, of course. Because we do have to do that. I mean, this is just as much a breach in Time as when Time doesn’t like us. I rather like Time right now, and of course that can’t be — oh.” She suddenly heard herself. “This has to stop.”
I am not going to make it to my assignment, she thought, and suddenly felt just the tiniest bit dizzy, like a dancer whirled around by her partner.
“Let’s go in, Sapphire,” she wheedled. “Just let me see them. And then I’ll help you re-resonate. I’ll even call Jet. She’s always glad to help Steel.”
Sapphire raised one exquisite eyebrow. Ruby pretended not to notice, and decided to wait Sapphire out. It didn’t take long.
“Oh, why not,” she said, her eyes dancing. “Come with me.” She stopped. “But first, let’s put in the call for Jet.”
After that was done (and Ruby noticed that Sapphire kept the request to a nonchalant, “we need a little extra clean-up," as if that was going to fool anybody!) they headed to a small side door that opened onto a sagging inner stairwell.
“We’ll go to the first floor. There’s not much left inside, but there’s a small segment of lower balcony still extant. We can watch them from there, and I don’t think they’ll notice. The last I knew, the three of them were all sitting on the remnants of the stage. In a circle.
Ruby clapped both hands to her mouth to keep from guffawing aloud.
Together they climbed carefully to the first floor balcony. Sapphire motioned to Ruby to crouch down, so her head was level with the top of the remaining balustrade, then did the same herself. Together, they peered down to what once must have been a relatively impressive second tier music hall theatre. Ruby could spy traces of red paint and gold leaf on the proscenium arches, peeling and ash-shrouded after all these decades.
And there … oh, there ….
Sapphire was right. They were sitting in a tight circle, Steel facing out to where an audience would once have sat, Silver to his right and Lead to his left.
He wasn’t holding their hands now, Ruby saw. He was patting Silver’s knee, and had his other arm draped conspiratorially over Lead’s shoulder. The big Operative had to lean down to let Steel do so, but he wouldn’t have minded even under normal circumstances. And these weren’t normal circumstances.
Look at Lead’s face, for instance. He normally laughed a lot, his brown eyes crinkled up in amusement above his full cheeks. But tonight, he had a soft and serious look that made Ruby realize laughter might be a mask for him, one that he would relish having the freedom to take off.
Silver, too, looked different. Under normal circumstances, he could be a smiling charmer. Occasionally, he would let slip a little of the ruthlessness that often frightened non-elementals who were the objects of his interest (and more than a few of his colleagues, Ruby thought wryly.) But always behind whatever face he showed Time and space, Ruby felt an edge of almost-political awareness about Silver, awareness and wariness. Like Lead, the very mobility of his face was a mask. In his case, it obscured a grim inner determination — to complete his assignments, to avoid complications, to survive.
Tonight, he gazed at his compatriots with complete trust. Trust, Ruby thought in wonder — Silver! He looked … vulnerable, and not at all worried about it. In fact, the smile he was liberally bestowing on Lead and on Steel had none of the patronizing amusement Ruby often felt from him.
Steel was laughing.
Not snickering under his breath, not chuckling reluctantly. He had his head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth open, an expression of pure, childish merriment. And that exultation was resounding in everything around him, reaching out in concentric circles, pulsing and rippling, opening outward towards connection.
The air was electric, and somehow the smell of ozone was refreshing, like the feeling one could get standing on a hot city street waiting for the summer thunder that heralded cool rain. Ruby could even smell the pavement in that glorious moment after the first fat raindrops hit. She heard the sound of the rain, too, little wet slaps against the ground that became the rhythm of Astaire and Rogers, of the Nicholas Brothers. Behind and above floated Gershwin, Ellington, Strayhorn, Berlin, and all the unknown jazz musicians of Paris and New York, New Orleans and London, St. Louis and Chicago.
And all of that was generated by Steel, who was acting as a conduit for every positive resonance of Time.
He could drain all the heat from something by touching it. He could be as still and unbending as the metal for which he was named. Now all of that was turned on its head and he was channeling life, and joy, and … Ruby fell back a little in awe … love.
She looked at Sapphire, then looked away. The yearning ….
She put out her hand and gently touched Sapphire’s arm. Sapphire turned her eyes, cobalt and luminescent, to her. Ruby didn’t think Sapphire actually saw her. She gestured wordlessly, indicating that Sapphire and she should leave this place. Sapphire must have seen, because she slowly inclined her head. Without a sound, they retreated to the stairwell.
Ruby didn’t quite know what she had expected to see, or feel, as she climbed like a naughty human child up those stairs. Something to laugh at, as champagne bubbles tickled her consciousness. Something to tease Steel with forever. Something to hold over Silver, and joke about with Lead.
But as she crept downstairs, she knew that she had witnessed something else; something of unalloyed purity, perhaps indistinguishable from what humans, children and grown, called good, or holy.
She had no idea what Silver, Steel and Lead were talking about down there, what they were saying to each other, or feeling for one another. She was not privy to the communication between them, what had transpired since they made their misstep. She didn’t know if they had become as giddy and drunk with Time as she had been, or whether they had weaved and danced their way through that to the state in which she first spied them. She did not know how they had come to understand each other so fully, why they had accepted what happened to them so beautifully.
She would never ask them. Even if any of them were to come to her and tell her he knew she had been there, even if he were to ask her what she thought of them, she would shake her head and tell them she did not want to know, and that she wasn’t interested in speaking about it.
They would put it down to her being who she was, bright, hard Ruby. And that was fine with her, she thought, her eyes swimming and her throat unaccountably thick with tears.
She did not want them to know that when she saw them, wreathed in joy, she wished profoundly to be human herself. She didn’t want them to know, or Sapphire either, that in fact she wished all of them could become human, that they could drink up this place and be nourished by this instance of Time Gone Right.
She didn’t want it to end, but she knew she could not stand it continuing a moment longer.
And she — bright, hard Ruby — feared for Sapphire. She was afraid that if Sapphire stayed inside that theater any longer, she would simply go to the stage and stay.
Lead might leave, Ruby knew. Ultimately, he might leave.
Silver … if Sapphire came to the stage, Silver might not be able to leave.
Steel would not.
And the joy would eat them up. It wouldn’t make them human, because that was an impossibility, so it would do the next best thing, and turn them into stardust. And they would be gone. And no matter how happy that might make them, the universe still needed them.
She held Sapphire’s hand now, close and firm, and drew her outside into a late Leeds afternoon. Down the street perhaps a quarter of a mile away, Jet stood, safely at a distance from the danger. Ruby, eyes still swimming, felt her way towards Jet, leading Sapphire.
She hoped that by the time they reached her their tears would have dried.
“They will have,” she heard Sapphire say. When she looked at her companion, she saw, to her relieved surprise, a faint echo of the joy Steel had given off.
“You’re right, of course,” Sapphire whispered. “This must end. Jet will help us end it, and I am so very glad you are here to help us complete our assignment.
“But I am going to remember this,” she said. “You will too. And so will they.” She managed a smile, and Ruby knew that it was a true one.
“For now, it will be our treasure," she continued.
“And perhaps one day, we will all be stardust.”