Solo Assignments occur infrequently, and, generally, can be solved with minimal effort. Simple rips, easily stitched, and minor infractions, quickly banished. Silver enjoys such Assignments, but then, as a technician he spends more time on his own than most agents. Steel hates them.
Sapphire has no strong feelings, but does find the absence of a partner disconcerting. She appears in a darkened corridor, the admonishments and anger of Steel still fresh in her mind. "A waste of talent and resources," he said as she left. Sapphire acknowledges this, but understands that his displeasure has a deeper root:
He does not like being left behind.
Sapphire places one hand against the corridor's wall. Metal. Thirty-eight years old. Relatively speaking, new, but still old enough to have developed rust stains along the ceiling join. The climate unit leaked there. A repairman fixed it recently, but missed the rust. Creeping, subtle, insidious. A basic chemical reaction with no moral reasoning. An agent of Time. Sapphire taps her fingers and feels down the wall's history to its end, only a few years distant, when the rust breaches vacuum and the inhabitants of the base have a very unpleasant wakening. Many of them die.
She pauses. Could this be the source of the instability she's been sent to clear? And if so, why her rather than a technician? She has no talent for metal work. Sapphire ponders, her palm still pressed against the wall and her awareness fractured across a thousand possibilities. Metal. Rust. Cold.
Not the freezing absence of temperature caused by Time; only the banal combination of a faulty climate system and a bureaucratic, penny-pinching head officer who refuses to spend the money to have it properly fixed. He does not die, Sapphire feels. He spends very little time on the base and, at the time of its destruction, will be several thousand light years away, on a beach, sipping a light green drink. Unconcerned. Sapphire feels a wrong in this, but it sits outside of her Assignment, outside of any Assignment. She lets it pass.
A burst of light. A man appears at the end of the corridor. Sapphire snatches her hand away from the wall and its stories.
She turns towards the man. Frightened, above average intelligence, startled by Sapphire's presence. He wants to be on this base even less than Sapphire does. She will have to touch him to learn more.
"Hello there, I'm just a repairman. Don't mind me," he says, lying.
"No, you aren't." Sapphire smiles to reassure him. The man smiles back, but shakily. A show smile. A façade. Instability dances around him. Sapphire take a slow step forward. The man take a fast step back.
"Why are you here?" she asks.
"To fix things. I'm very handy with my hands. See, I even have a belt of tools!" Sapphire sees the slight of hand as the man attempts to distract her with a probe of some sort in one hand while reaching for his weapon with the other. She does not react and allows him to shoot her. Deflecting the energy beam does not take much effort.
"You don't need to do this," she says.
The man stares at her, then at his weapon, and then fires again. The weapon is still set to stun, Sapphire notes. Even in his fear, this man is not a killer. She steps forward and lays her hand over his. He freezes.
Thirty-eight years old. The same age as the base, and nearly the same death date. That could be the source, but no –
"You are scared," Sapphire says, feeling the man's panic. His constant, barely controlled need to run, to hide, to live a different life in a different time and place. And yet, his personality contains more than fear. Sapphire feels the pressing need of an addict in search of a rush. She feels the calm assurance of a tradesman looking at an easy fix.
"Vila, you came here to steal something," Sapphire says.
"A paper. A very old paper," Vila says, staring vacantly past Sapphire's shoulder.
"The Federation based much of their early policy on it. Blake wants to show the original to a planet thinking of leaving the Federation. He says that they will respond better to historical proof than to force. Avon thinks he's crazy. I'm with Avon."
"Show me," Sapphire says, and releases Vila. Dreamily, he walks away. He uses the tools on his belt to pick first one door lock than another. Sapphire follows him through a maze of interconnected rooms to a vault which Vila starts work on immediately. Even partially dazed, Sapphire can see his immense talent, and the pride he take in it. Silver would like him, she thinks.
The vault opens. Vila steps back and wakes from his stupor as Sapphire leans forward to snatch away his prize.
"Hey! Who are you? I'm just a vault repairman!"
A thin plastic cover protects the paper. Sapphire slips it away. The paper itself feels brittle, ready to turn to dust, and old, very old. Four centuries? Five? Sapphire frowns and tried to gather the dangling threads. A photocopy of an original. A photocopy of a photocopy. That accounts for the disparate dates. Sapphire senses the time of writing as well as the times of re-creation.
She senses the author's fear. Her whole world torn apart by war and chaos. She wanted, needed control. She wanted, needed a steadying influence by her side. Very much like Steel, Sapphire thinks.
Fear. Loss. A need for control. A venue to assert that control. And so a woman named Lynda wrote an article on government and its functions, and Sapphire can feel, even without reading, that this is not it. The photocopies contain portions of white out, pieces that have been clipped out and pasted into new positions. Slight changes. Tiny instabilities. A shift from a future full of possibilities to the cold metal base Sapphire stands in. Words are dangerous things. They can be used as weapons by either side. Sapphire sees what Time has done to the text already, what it wants to do next; what she must prevent.
"You can't save the world with this," Sapphire tells Vila, crumpling the paper. It turns to dust. An ending. Sapphire feels oppressed by the amount of endings surrounding her: the paper, the base, the bright-eyed and intelligent man looking at her with a mix of panic and anger and disbelief. Sapphire tries again to reassure him, but feels the phantom thread of Steel whispering, "A waste of time and effort."
Still, she persists. She owes Vila some explanation, Sapphire thinks, even if it is not a full one. "It is not what you think and it is not what its author meant it to be. Don't be scared, Vila. Go back to your ship. Rest. Enjoy your days."
"Because they are numbered?" Vila asks, staring at her, and seeing her, truly seeing her. A feat which few mortals can achieve. Silver would very much like him, Sapphire thinks, and wonders if she can tweak fate to save Vila. Then stops wondering, because that is a dangerous path.
Steel would have stopped her sooner. She feels his absence. Without him, she must do both jobs. She must bully and force as well as sooth and heal, and, in the end, she does neither well. As part of a pair, she might have altered the paper back to its original meaning. On her own, she can only use the crudest solutions. She does not like the reality they leave her with. Unhappy people are more susceptible to the deceptions of Time. Sapphire wonders if her Superiors realize this, and, if she relied her concerns, would they let her change things?
"You're getting too involved," Steel would say. A caution which, this time, Sapphire can ignore.
"What did you do to my head?" Vila asks.
"If it makes you feel better, you will save the world," Sapphire offers without answering. Many worlds, she thinks, and that cheers her slightly.
Shaking inside and out, Vila talks to his wrist:
"Avon, bring me back up."
"Do you have the paper?"
"It's gone. Avon, there's something funny happening down here."
"I expect it's you trying to think."
Sapphire twitches her fingers. Her skill does not lie in this area, but she has picked up some tricks from Silver. Vila's teleport bracelet activates and he vanishes. Moments later, Sapphire also dissolves into nothing.
"You're late," Steel says when she returns, and only Sapphire knows that his anger covers concern.