“You ever play the guitar, son?” asked Jefferson Edison Franklin, easily, a bit of music jangling amid his own softly gravelly voice. In the speckled shadows under the brim of his hat, his face could have been an old forty or a young eighty. It was the one good eye, the one not covered by the opaque lens of Jef’s mismatched glasses that threw Trip Morrow’s guessing off. It peered out clear and curious and sky blue, and its gaze was ageless.
“No, sir,” Trip said, watching the black-coated shape of Mrs. Stitch, just over Jef’s shoulder, shift her weight and purse her lips at her apparent employer. Trip kept the Multipurpose rifle slung at his hip, his finger not quite on the trigger. Just in case.
“I played the banjo a bit, when I was young,” Jef said, the fingers of his left hand, down at his side, briefly moving through some half-remembered finger pattern. “It was the strings, you see, that got me thinking about time. You pluck a string, right? Send energy all into it. And what happens?”
“It vibrates,” Trip nodded. He could hear Rafe snoring softly, all the way up the stone steps near the altar controls for the misery engine. In the distance, just audible through the hollow steel space of the stadium, he heard an elevated train clack-clack-clack into the Addison station.
“Right,” Jef continued. “And when it does, it seems to get wider. Like there’s two strings, instead of one. ‘Course, the vibration dies down, and the string quiets, and it’s back to being one again. And I’m afraid that’s what’s been happening the past few days, with us.”
“You plucked the string,” Trip said, handing the gnarled old baseball he’d been tossed back to Jef. “Sometime a long way back. The ‘30s, at least.”
“Sharp,” Jef nodded. “Like your grandpa. I was… well, I was just a kid, you understand. I was scared. Those things, those Operators Mrs. Stitch said you met — they’d figured out where we were — figured out a way to get back…” Trip spotted a twitch at the left corner of the older man’s mouth, a nervous, distant tension in his one visible eye. “You know an octopus, it can fit its whole body through anyplace big enough for its mouth to go… the tiniest little holes, if it’s hungry enough…”
Jef went very quiet, and with hands that did not quite tremble, he removed a folded white handkerchief from the inside of his jacket pocket and dabbed at his forehead under the brim of the hat. Mrs. Stitch took a half-step forward, but stopped when Jef turned back to her and nodded once, quickly.
“Mrs. S,” Jef said, “It’s a bit on the warm side today, for November. I believe I brought some lemonade in the Thermos. Would you run fetch it for me, kindly?”
Trip didn’t need any special perception to see just how greatly Mrs. Stitch enjoyed that particular nickname. But she nodded crisply and, with a curious glance back at Trip, swept off toward the bleachers.
“Anyway,” Jef continued, louder now, “I got all worked up and figured I was doing us all a favor. Splitting up the timelines so they wouldn’t know where to look. So we’d all be safe.”
“But it wasn’t perfect, was it?” Trip asked, nodding at the needle in Jef’s lapel. “You needed people to maintain the separation — to sew up the holes.” Mrs. Stitch was gliding back across the field, the fringes of her coat stippled with orange baseline dust, a silver thermos in her hands.
“At the risk of mixing metaphors,” Jef smiled, “you’ve got it in one. The Needles, like that one you seem to have got from old Maximillian there, well, they’re tuned to the frequency at which this timeline vibrates. They can use it, tweak it, smooth out bits here and there.”
Trip looked down at the Needle dangling from his belt. But he did not remove it. “Maximillian didn’t make it,” Trip said slowly. “Not for lack of trying, though.”
“He always was my favorite,” Jef sighed, in the manner of someone who’s just had an afternoon’s work go up in smoke. “Bit of a horse’s ass, but that’s artificial intelligence for you.”
Trip pointed at Mrs. Stitch, hesitantly, as she resumed her place at Jef’s side, handing her employer a bright silver thermos. “I’ve just got to say,” Trip told him, “you’re awfully friendly for someone who’s been trying to kill us.”
Jef paused, halfway through unscrewing the cap on the thermos with his long, lanky fingers, and let out an unforced guffaw. Mrs. Stitch didn’t follow suit.
“Kill you?” Jef said, through the tail end of his laughter. “Son, I was trying to improve you.”
Trip pulled down the collar of his shirt, eyes narrowing, to show the twisting scar of the Black Lotus still livid against the skin of his neck. “I don’t consider this an improvement,” Trip spat. “Or was poisoning me supposed to build my character?”
“Simmer down, son,” Jef soothed, pouring lemonade from the thermos into the hollow cap. “I knew full well you were close enough to Dr. Xiang’s to get help in time. How do you think I knew exactly where to find you? Besides, every good hero needs a little danger, a little tragedy…” His eyes focused once more on something a long time distant, but only for a moment. “A little toughening up. I needed people strong enough, smart enough, to fight the Eaters if ever I couldn’t. That’s the only problem with this world I built — same amount of awfulness, but not enough heroes.”
“And here we are,” Trip said, which would have sounded much more impressive had Rafe, still fast asleep on the altar, not chosen that exact moment to let out a somnolent snort.
“And here you are,” Jef nodded, and took a sip of lemonade. “Funny thing, though. As it turns out, you went and dug me up the one thing that makes you unnecessary.”
Trip’s hand moved on the Rifle at his hip, and Mrs. Stitch in turn began to draw a Needle from her sleeve, and Jef had to step between the two of them, lemonade sloshing perilously in the thermos cap.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he said. “Pardon my poor choice of words. I just mean the hard part’s done for you. I can use the Engine to seal up the gaps, pluck that old string again — make everything like it was before we so rudely went and turned your life upside-down.”
Trip stopped, the prickle of danger fading from the back of his neck, and exhaled slowly. “Sorry,” he said at last. “You can understand how I might have gotten the wrong impression.”
“Surely, surely,” Jef smiled, screwing the cap back on the thermos, and handing it back to Mrs. Stitch. It vanished into her coat. He turned and began to stride toward the stairs leading up to the Misery Engine’s altar.
“You shouldn’t,” Trip said. Jef stopped, turned.
“Shouldn’t what, son?” There was a challenge in the old man’s one good eye.
“All your resources, all your intellect, and you’re telling me the best way to confront these things, these Eaters, is to hide?” Trip said. “To suck all the wonder out of the world? Lost kingdoms, and dinosaurs, and—”
“Plague bombs, and death rays, and sky pirates,” Jef cut in sharply, his voice quiet. “Walking metal monsters that can raze a city. And hungry, ceaseless things living just a heartbeat away, trying to find their way into our world. You think it’s all shining and golden?”
“I think the good in it’s worth fighting for,” Trip shot back. “We seem to have plenty of horror right here in this safe little world you made — and not enough to stand against it. You said it yourself.”
“Suppose I listened to you, then?” Jef offered, one foot on the lowermost step leading up to the altar. “Let time keep twining itself back together. You think you’d still exist? I knew your grandfather — Windham, Gale, Gaunt, all of them. Not exactly the marrying types. You’re only here because in this reality, your grandfather wasn’t scrambling all over the world, leaving dime-novel plots in his wake.”
Trip thought about this in silence for several long seconds, Jef watching him, waiting.
“Doesn’t matter,” Trip said at last. “The good he did matters more than anything I could possibly do in my life.”
“Oh, you say that now,” Jef laughed gently. “But you’re young. Who’s to say what you’ll do by the time you’re old as me? And don’t confuse shiny ray guns and fancy planes and radiocoder boxes with things the world could actually use. No, I’m saving your life, son, like it or not. I let the world settle back to the way it was, and I guarantee you, this conversation we’re having’s gonna get a lot more one-sided.”
“You’re wrong,” Trip said, stepping forward to take hold of the old man’s arm. The linen of the suit was soft, freshly pressed, and beneath it Trip felt surprisingly solid muscle. He heard Mrs. Stitch moving behind him, the rustle of the grass, and saw Jef’s eye flit to her, signal her to stop.
“I’ve got twice as many patents as you’ve got years, kid,” Jef said, calmly, softly. “I think you can trust me to do the math on this.”
“You’re looking at this as a binary choice,” Trip said, desperate, the words spilling out of him. “This world or that one. But I have to believe the universe, that time, is bigger than that. Big enough for the world you came from, and the world I came from, and whatever mixed-up world we’re both in now. You don’t have to destroy one to save another.”
“Let me guess,” Jef replied. “You’re about to tell me impossible’s just an excuse, right? If I had a nickel for every time I heard that…” He smiled at Trip, sadly, and for just a moment he seemed far older. “I like to think that, too. But it’s just a theory. And the evidence, well, sometimes the evidence says different.”
Jef turned away, gently pulling his forearm out of Trip’s grasp, and began to climb the stairs in a steady, measured gait. “Your grandfather once told me that he’d found the signposts, the trail markers, for the World Yet to Be. But he said it was my job to build it. He didn’t say anything about approving of the design.”
Trip started to race up the stairs, but a firm hand gripped his upper arm, and something cool and metallic pressed gently against the base of his skull.
“All appearances to the contrary,” Mrs. Stitch said quietly, “I rather like you and your friends. Which is why you still have a head at the moment. We’ll walk up, if you like — but slowly, and together.”
Helpless at the point of Mrs. Stitch’s Needle, Trip followed Jef up the stairs, the dark-coated woman trailing behind him. They reached the top, and Stitch moved away toward Rafe, curled up and still snoring in the corner.
“Let him sleep, Mrs. S,” Jef chuckled. “He looks like he’s had a tough day.”
“Wait,” Trip blurted out, as Jef reached for the stone keyboard of Kroatoan pictographs. “Sully and Nora — some… some thing took them, from the sky, and we don’t know if they’re alive—”
“It won’t matter,” Jef soothed. “Once I use the Engine to reset the timeline, they’ll be back in the same lives they were always in, none the worse for wear. Doubt they or you or anyone outside my organization will remember a thing.”
He looked back at Trip, with what seemed to be genuine fondness. “Which, I suppose, is call for me to say it was nice knowing you.” With deft fingers, Jef punched in a sequence of symbols in the stone grid, the pictograms lighting up from within as each was pressed. Jef adjusted the three crystal levers, placed one liver-spotted hand on the the stone key, and twisted it in the console.
Once more, rock rumbled against rock. The ring of crystal spires surrounding the Engine began to glow and pulse, but instead of riding in arcs from their tips, energy began to pour down through them. It surged and sizzled into the face of the carvings on the concentric wheels of the Engine, illuminating them an eerie crimson even in the daylight. And slowly, from the base on up, the Misery Engine began to turn.
In the hollow pit at its center, Trip watched as time itself began to ripple like a mirage. A web of brilliant white light wove itself across the opening, and coalesced into a puddle, and then a pool, and then the whole of the center of the Engine shimmered with unearthly light.
Then the rising whine of the Engine’s workings accelerated further. The platform began to tremble. And a hole emerged in the white light, growing ever larger, radiating every color at once, and none at all.
In the distance, somewhere inside his skull, Trip heard faint singing, growing closer.
“Say, Mrs. S,” Jef asked conversationally. “You remember that cancer you had when we first met?”
“Yes…?” Mrs. Stitch ventured, growing fear in her voice, as she watched the hole of un-light widen even further.
And then Jef turned, and touched two fingers to Mrs. Stitch’s brow. “You can have it back now,” he said.
The gray-eyed woman screamed, an entire lifetime of pain mushrooming inside her head. The world flew away, and darkness swallowed her sight. She fell backward, whimpering, hit the stone stairs and rolled all the long way down.
“What… what did you do?” Trip asked, his heart pounding, as the singing in his skull grew louder.
“A man keeps his promises,” Jef said, looking down the steps at the tiny, convulsing black shape of Mrs. Stitch below. “My dad taught me that. I’m keeping mine.”
He reached up and slowly removed his hat. His head was completely bald, and covered with gummy pinkish scars in strange and swirling patterns. And as Trip watched in horror, the lines of those scars began to undulate and glow, a soft purple, as if lit from within.
“A long time ago,” Jef said, “something put a bad thought in my head. And it grew. And grew.”
He took off his glasses. From behind the opaque lens, something pulsing and lividly purple stared back at Trip from Jef’s other eye socket. It would not, under even the most fanciful circumstances, have been considered an eye.
“And one day,” Jef said, his voice seeming to take on a shape far larger than the slender man who stood before Trip, “I just wasn’t myself.”
Behind him, through the crackling, stinking circle of un-light in the center of the Misery Engine, with a howl like twenty Guernicas, something began to break through.