Chapter 1: Forced
The massive room of computer monitors was ordinarily quiet at this time of night. After all, it had a mechanical caretaker to monitor the influx of names and news bulletins from all around the world, not to mention algorithms to screen the stories besides. But tonight, its owner had stayed long past when he normally left. That alone should have been an indication that something was less than all right, but what he was doing would have made any properly informed individual tremble with apprehension. He moved his cursor across the holographic screen with mere brainwaves, his thoughts racing as he did so. He opened one folder marked Potentials and slowly scrolled down the list of names. Then, he selected six of them and put them through the algorithm one last time. The program brought up the results that he had expected; not exactly comforting, but it might have been worse. After closing the program, he selected two more names from the list and ran them through. He watched as the system generated its results, and then he sat back, sighing as he did so. He rested his head against his right hand and swore softly.
“Problem, sir?” The question came from a lanky metal figure standing at rigid attention at the door. Anyone walking into the room would have laughed at the robot’s odd appearance: its thick arms seemed too big for its thin frame, and its head was oddly geometric. However, if someone entered uninvited, that person would learn very quickly to never underestimate something based on appearance alone.
“Yes, Rowland,” the man replied. “We have a large and convoluted problem.”
“May I be of assistance, sir? It seems that violence would be an expedient solution to our conundrum, and you have yet to let me neutralize a target this month. Such a mission would more than make up for that dearth of targets.”
“I think we may want these ones alive,” he answered. “Though I may have another use for your…talents.”
“As always, sir, I am at prepared to serve in whatever capacity you see fit. Provided, of course, there will be ample bloodshed.”
The man smiled. He had not done that in a while, and it felt good. “Oh, it will, Rowland. Have you tested the modifications to your sword yet?”
“Not yet sir,” the robot answered. “But of course, each day presents new opportunities. I look forward to trying it for the first time.”
“Good. Oh, and Rowland?”
“Call Jennifer. She needs to see this.”
University of Bristol
2016, 02:34 Hours, GMT, Primeline
Justin Tully picked his head up off of the book in front of him, struggling to remember where he was and what exactly he had been doing. Now it came back to him; he had gone into the Wills Memorial Library to study for his physics test, and then…what time was it? He checked his watch and swore. Another five minutes and he would have missed his friend, who was picking him up to take the twenty-year-old engineering student to work. He frantically shoved his books into his backpack and walked as briskly as he dared for the exit. Once outside, he scanned the rows and rows of autos for…there he was. The car pulled up to the front of the library; it was quite a few years old, but there was little broke college students could do for that. He went around to the right side of the car and, opening the door slid into the passenger seat.
“Nice of you to show,” Ethan Albright said, flashing the easy smile that had been the bane of many an attractive female student’s heart rate. How one of the most obliviously attractive incoming freshmen had managed to become friends with a socially inept mathematical genius boggled the minds of most of the faculty, but to the two friends it made perfect sense. Albright, an English major with a dream of one day being a professor of literature, had offered to aid Justin with a particularly annoying literary analysis. After that, Justin had tendered his help to Ethan in math, and the two had shortly become inseparable. When not studying together (which absorbed a growing amount of their free time), the two could be found working at a swanky department store called Harvey Nichols. Or sharing a dorm room; curiously, after their first semester, Ethan had requested Justin as a roommate. Though initially reluctant, the latter had agreed on the condition of no dates being brought back to the dorm.
“Please.” Justin slung his backpack into the back seat. “I was coming.”
“Sure you were,” his friend said, putting the car back into drive. “Just like my date was going to call me last night.”
The engineering student ran a hand through his curly dark hair. “At least you can get a date,” he muttered.
“Oh, come on. There has to be some pretty girl who likes books better than socializing. You two could sit and read together.” Justin shook his head.
“There aren’t many girls who go for that sort of thing,” he said.
“You could still try.”
Justin rolled his eyes. “That’s about all I’d manage.”
Ethan laughed. “That’s your problem, Justin. You’re far too pessimistic for your own good.”
They arrived the store and quickly changed into their outfits. Justin worked one of the cash registers at the front of the store, and Ethan had been assigned to the one two registers down. One of the problems with cashiering was that, by the time customers managed to reach the front of the store, whatever problems with the store they had found became the cashier’s problem. Ordinarily, the kind of people that shopped Harvey Nichols either treated others with the utmost respect or as though the world answered to them. This particular day, Justin was dealing with a young woman who seemed frazzled and in far too much of a hurry for her own good.
“Can you make this any faster?” She asked. Justin lowered his eyes and kept ringing up the merchandise she had given him.
“Unfortunately not. This is as fast as I go.” He looked up, expecting some kind of snide remark, only for his jaw to drop open in surprise. The woman was frozen mid-motion, with her mouth still forming the end of the “r” sound. He waved his hand in front of her, but got no response. He tried to ring up the clothes, and the register beeped. He finished, and suddenly the world shifted back to normal speed.
“I’m sorry,” the young woman said. “Did you say something?”
“No,” he said. “I just…I finished ringing up your things.” She looked over at the bags, her eyebrows rising in surprise.
“Oh…well, all right.” She nodded thanks and turned. “Have a good day.”
Justin nodded, watching her walk away. He had to wonder what had happened, why the world had seemed to slow down so suddenly, and how it had gone back to normal.
Justin’s shift ended around ten o’clock, and he stepped outside into driving rain. Ethan swore beside him, lamenting his choice not to bring an umbrella.
“Come on,” he groaned. “I knew I should have brought one.”
Justin shrugged. “I forgot one, too. These things happen.” He slid his coat over his head, looking for the car. His eyes lit on it, and they dashed toward the battered Honda together. Ethan slid into the driver’s seat and ran a hand through his combed blond hair.
“I hate being wet,” he muttered.
Justin smirked. “I really don’t fancy it either.”
The night at the dorm room was spent in homework and pizza. Justin ordinarily did not eat junk food that late at night, but the homework assignment that his teacher had given him looked like it could take all night and a little bit of tomorrow.
“I swear, math teachers must have some kind of demonic desire to torture people,” he muttered, typing furiously. “What’s the point of a math problem that goes for two and a half pages?”
“I asked the same question about my last English paper,” Ethan replied, hammering out a book review on his laptop. “And my teacher just said that writing is academia’s bread and butter.”
Justin smirked. “They should probably think about going gluten-free.” Ethan shook his head.
“I swear, Jus, you joke way too much.”
“And you never joke at all.” The engineering student polished off his third slice of pizza. “Hey, do we still have any of that cider?"
“In the fridge,” Ethan said. “I’m thirsty. Pour me a glass too, will you?” Justin nodded.
“Sure. Want anything else?” When he got no reply, Justin turned to his friend, only for his heart to sink. Ethan sat frozen mid-keystroke, and the whole world seemed to have stopped. Even the fly buzzing around the light above their heads hung suspended, like some kind of bizarre insect mobile. “What in the world…” he began.
“Looks strange, doesn’t it?” Justin whirled, and what he saw almost stopped his heart. A man with greying hair, dressed in a three-piece suit complete with a tie. But that was not what frightened the engineering student. Rather, it was the glowing metal gauntlet on his left hand. “Time is a funny thing that way.” He had a slight Scottish brogue, Justin realized, but something about it sounded…off.
“Who are you and how did you get in here?” The man held up the glove and flexed his fingers.
“This little beauty right here, my boy. Called a displacement glove. Allows me to…I suppose you’d say ride the currents.”
“Currents? What currents?”
“The currents of time, my boy,” the man replied, as though nothing could be more plain. “The currents that you’re manipulating now.”
“That’s how we’re talking? Why you’re not frozen like him?” Justin asked, jerking his thumb toward Ethan.
“Something like that.” The man began to leisurely stroll around the dormitory, his eyes alighting on the problem Justin had been working through. “Interesting. Engineering. Your father was never any great shakes at it, but it seems his son has a gift for it.”
“What do you know about my father?” Abel asked.
“Your father was one of my greatest students,” the man replied. “He and your mother actually met under my tutelage. In case you haven’t guessed, we’re time travelers, and your father was, too. So was your mother. When they discovered they had feelings for one another, they decided to quit our organization for a normal life. But he knew it wouldn’t be that simple.”
Justin shook his head. “I don’t believe you,” he said. “There has to be some completely logical explanation…”
“…for why your friend looks like a living statue?” The man asked. “Newsflash, boy. This is the logical explanation.”
“Okay, so let’s say I believe you,” he said. “Then why is this happening to me? I don’t have any fancy technology to warp me through time or stop it altogether.”
“Time travel is a gift only given to a select few,” the man explained. “Those select few are chosen from a population with…unique gifts.”
Justin put his head in his hands. “So you mean to tell me time travelers also have superpowers?”
“No,” the man replied. “Super-powered individuals exist, and they are the population from which we select guardians of the various timelines. Your father was such a one. However, we had guaranteed him a morganatic reproduction. Also, please note, the preferred term is 'meta-human', not superhero. That would be strange, indeed.”
“A what?” Justin asked. “For those of us who don’t speak time traveler, could you give a rough translation? You said my parents got a marinated reproduction?”
“Morganatic,” the man corrected, sounding exasperated. “It means that the child doesn’t inherit the parents’ status. In this particular case, it means that you didn't get your parents' abilities. Or at least that's what we thought.”
“And we did?” Justin asked.
The man shook his head. “Your father and mother both voluntarily surrendered their abilities by way of gene splicing so that their children would not inherit such…abilities.”
“But I did,” the boy surmised.
The man shook his head. “Not just you.” He nodded, and a slim figure stepped out from behind him. Justin did a double take.
“Yes,” she murmured. “It’s true.” Justin’s younger sister lifted her hands, and to his amazement, her palms suddenly burst into white-hot flames. “It’s all true.” She blinked, hoping the firelight would mask her tears.
“So we’re superhuman.” Justin turned to the man. “Why did you come to see us?”
“We need you,” he replied. “You and six others.”
“Why?” Justin asked. “Is time broken?”
“No,” the man replied. “But it’s falling apart, and we’d rather have all hands on deck to fix it.”
“I assume we’re not alone, then?” Justin asked.
“Oh no,” the man answered. “There are others.”
2045, Nuclearth Timeline
Flint Matthews wiped blood from his cheek and almost immediately ducked the axe swing aimed at his head. He countered with a kick to the inside of his opponent’s knee, followed by a thunderous punch to the jaw. The man staggered, and Flint used that opportunity to roll away and pick up his sword. The axe came back low, but Flint leapt up and tucked up his legs, avoiding the slash. He snapped both legs forward and slammed his feet into the man’s chest, knocking him backward. The man tried to stand up, but Flint threw an uppercut with all of his might behind it, connecting solidly with the man’s jaw. Though his arm only moved a foot and a half, the force was such that the man went flying five meters backward and hit the sand with a whack. He struggled to his feet once more, tried to raise his axe, and then the man’s knees buckled as he collapsed. As the red haze faded from Flint’s vision, he suddenly became aware of the sound of thunderous applause. A voice rang out from a story above him, the arena’s master of ceremonies.
“And the victory goes to Flint Matthews of the Great Lakes Settlement. As per the pre-combat agreement, the control of the Great Lakes region goes to the native settlement.” Flint waved to the rows upon rows of spectators, fighting the exhaustion that pulled on the edges of his consciousness.
As he stripped off his scavenged armor in his quarters later, Flint kept trying not to collapse. Ordinarily, he would have had a little time to rest between fights, but the last few days had seen seven consecutive battles without any rest whatsoever.
“You look tired.” It was Jax. Ordinarily, Jax would have knocked before coming in, but he must have something urgent to discuss.
“I don’t exactly feel great,” Flint answered. “After getting my backside kicked in Talmad, I really thought I would have lost here.”
“You wouldn’t have lost,” his friend said. “But there’s someone here to see you.” Flint turned, and he saw a woman dressed in black standing in front of him. Black was an odd color to pick for such a warm climate, he thought.
“Flint Matthews?” She asked.
“Yes…” He said slowly. “Should I know you?”
“If you did, I’d have another problem,” the woman replied. “My name’s Kristina Eldritch, and I’m here for you.”
“What?” Flint asked. “Why?”
“It’s a complicated and rather confusing explanation,” she told him.
“I have time,” Flint responded, folding his arms. “Start.”
“A bit impulsive,” Kristina remarked. “He’ll do.”
“Do for what?” Flint asked. Jax cleared his throat.
“About that…Kristine has offered you a job.”
“A job? Doing what?”
“What you do best,” she answered. “Fighting.”
“What do I get out of it?” Flint asked.
“A lot of money and a lot more formal training,” she replied. “In addition, all your needs will be met. Food, clothing, shelter, and a chance to relive history.” Flint looked at Jax.
“What about my fights?” He asked.
“The Great Lakes settlement already sent another fighter to replace you. Another veteran. You should be fine to go if you want to.” Flint shrugged.
“Well, why not?”
Justin stepped out of the wormhole and onto what looked like an open field. As far as his vision went, there was nothing but grass and dirt. Hannah dropped out beside him, and the man in the black suit followed.
“Welcome to time’s epicenter,” the man said. “We call the place Fulcrum.”
Hannah looked up at the sky. “There’s no sun,” she said.
“We’re inside,” the man answered. “We can do our best to simulate solar radiation, but we encourage our agents to get sun whenever they can.”
“So you just…let people travel time at will?” Justin asked. “That doesn’t sound very safe.”
“We don’t,” he explained. “We rotate our agents’ deployments so that all of them get a chance to enter timelines. Of course, we have every skill level from trainees to veterans, and each person is given assignments based on their experience and service record.”
“You mentioned trainees,” Hannah said. “I assume that’s us?”
“For the time being,” the man answered. “You and several others will be joining us for induction.”
“How many others?” Justin queried. “You said eight, right?” The man hesitated.
“It’s six now,” he said.
“What happened to the other two?” Hannah asked.
The man shook his head. “Like with any power, time travel can be abused. And there are people that abuse that power to fulfill their own ends, as with other powers.”
“So these…other two are abusing it?” Justin asked.
“We sincerely hope not. After all, we’re not the only organization concerned with the preservation of history. While our methods and goals might not always overlap, we do try to strive for history’s greater good. However, we don’t know who’s picked them up or what they’re doing with them. We have reason to believe that they might not be being treated very well.”
“Who are they?” Hannah questioned.
“Come inside,” he told them. “I’ll introduce you to your teammates.”