The Time Tower

Nov. 11, 2019
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THE TIME TOWER

Melody Quinn

           

            There are certain universal desires, and chief among them is the desire to possess a button that will allow you to turn back time. The answer to all your problems, big and small.

          They thought that they had discovered the means to achieve the secret desire of their hearts. They thought they’d discovered magic. But we know that magic does not exist. Not in the way that most people wish it would. It was only an illusion.     

          You cannot turn back time. You can only move forward.     

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            She hit the stone floor, and the door slammed closed behind her. The double boom echoed in the silence. She lay there for a long time, blind either from pain or panic, for the space around her glowed with an eerie yellow light, and felt.

            She felt her heart beating in her chest, erratic but welcome. She felt her shoulder aching where it had been pulled out of its socket, also weirdly welcome. She felt the floor beneath her, cold and warm at the same time, like a living animal left out in the cold for too long, shivering and breathing.

            She tried to sit up, but she seemed glued to the floor. When she finally gained the strength to wrench her eyes open, she was surprised to find that she was lying not on stone, but on black metal, cut into perfect square tiles, untarnished.

            She heard a shuffle of feet to her right. Somehow managing to prop herself up on one arm, she turned sluggishly to face whatever had materialized to attack her. A cry was torn out of her lips when she saw the man standing there.

            He was propped up against the wall, his legs shaking. His arms hung limp at his sides. His breathing grew louder, filling the room and forcing her to press one ear back against the floor to block out the sound.

            When she looked back at him, the man was staring at her. His jaw worked as he struggled to speak through his labored breathing.

            “No, no, no. He’s dead. He’s not...You’re not...My brother is dead!”

            The phantom stared back at her. She forced herself up to a sitting position, and with a howl of rage that burned her throat, she flung the key clenched in her fist at him - at it. She expected the key to pass through the phantom and clang into the wall, but it bounced off the phantom’s chest, and it flinched.

            Before either could react, the girl heard a sound like a door opening and slamming shut. But how...

            She whirled around, scrambling away from the door on all fours, and caught sight of another figure leaning against the wall beside the door. The figure turned, eyes sweeping across her to the man in the corner, and then sprang forward. His hand closed around the phantom’s throat for an instant, and then it vanished.

            He seemed to turn in slow motion, hands clenched into white-tipped fists, and stalked toward the girl. “Pima?” He knelt, reached out a tentative hand, and placed it on her leg. He gripped it tight, his nails cutting into her flesh. “Pima...Pima…”

            He scooted closer, throwing an arm around her shoulders and drawing her to his chest.

            “Ahhh!” she cried out in pain when he squeezed her injured shoulder.

            “What’s wrong?” he asked, pulling back. His fingers traveled lightly up her arm, and his brow furrowed. He began to twist the arm this way and that.

            “It’s...my shoulder,” Pima whispered.

            His eyes flicked up to hers and held for a long moment as they examined each other’s faces.

            “Nameen...how…?”

            He seemed unhurt except for a gash that reached across one side of his face, from his check to his temple, just above his left eye. He smiled when she said his name, but his eyes remained sad. He pulled the key he wore around his neck out from under his shirt and let it rest on his chest. Pima’s eyes fixed on it, and she frowned.

            His eyes dropped to her chest. “Pima...your key?”

            She gestured weakly at the far wall where she had thrown the key earlier. Nameen’s eyes followed her movement, but his hands remained on her arm. He gave it a sharp twist, and Pima’s shoulder popped back into place.

He caught her as she slumped forward. “Breathe. Breathe,” he murmured. “I’m sorry.”

            There was a pause as Pima tried to catch her breath.  Nameen reached up and brushed the hair from her eyes, forcing her to look at him.

“You really shouldn’t throw away the second key like that. You have to keep it close. It’s important.”

            Pima managed a half glare, which he ignored. He stood and looked around the room while she struggled to lift herself onto her knees.

            “What now?” she asked, bracing herself against the dizziness that made her head swam.

            “Now we wait.”

            “Wait? For what?”

That wasn’t the answer she’d been expecting.

            “For you to regain your strength and for me to regain my head. We rest,” he added when he saw her confused expression. “We hole up in this...metal lobby...with our backs pressed against a solid wall, and we plan our next move.”

            “Our next move is to climb,” Pima said, hauling herself to her feet and wincing. Her head pounded, but she knew she couldn’t complain. At least nothing had tried to crack her skull open. “That’s always been the plan. Bring the keys, gain access to the Tower, climb to the top, bring this thing down. That’s what we have to do.”

            “Pima, weren’t you just outside in that hell landscape? Didn’t you see? This place is powerful evil, even more than I thought. It will drive us insane. We have to be smart.”

            “No, we have to stick to the plan. And if you don’t think that’s smart, why did you come up with it in the first place? Remember that!”

            She stormed over to where she had thrown the key and stared down at it, trying to melt it with her gaze. She didn’t know if she was more angry at Nameen’s sudden indecision or being trapped in this horrible place or what she had left behind outside that door...it all swirled together in her mind into a big, red, angry, haze of fog. But sitting still and doing nothing - that would drive her crazy faster than anything the Tower could conjure. She was sure of that.

            Her gaze slide over Nameen. He was staring at the key with an odd look on his face. She wondered if she should at least make him sit down for a minute or two.

            “Cross the marsh. Combat the guardian. Gain entry to the Time Tower. Find the stairs. Climb to the top. Open the door. Hit the off button. Save the world and everyone in it.” Her voice rose with each statement, and she took a step toward him with each pause. “That’s the plan, right? Right?”

            She stood almost chest to chest with him, staring up at him. He nodded slowly, his gaze still locked on the key. Pima closed her fist around it and pressed it to her chest. Taking a step back, she spun in a circle, searching for a break in the smooth metal walls.

            “Combat. Stairs. Key. Door. Off.”

            Nameen slid back into her line of sight. “Pima...” He reached out to take her hand, his voice silky smooth. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry about...It should be me. It should have been me from the beginning. Give me the key.”

            “Nameen, no.”

            He pressed his forehead against hers and closed his eyes, attempting to wrap an arm around her hip. “Yes. Let me. Please. I’ll take the key.”

            “No.” Pima shook her head emphatically. She slipped out of her grip, angling her body away from him, but kept on hand on his arm. “I think you hit your head too hard, Nameen. You’re not making sense. You know it has to be me now. It has to be me. I’m going to do it. I’m sorry for anything bad I ever said about you. You have worked so hard to get us here. But this has to be done and I...I have to do it. You stay here. Everything will be alright.” She tried to pull him toward the nearest wall, but he resisted.

            “I can’t let you. Your brother---”

            “Is gone. I have nothing left to lose. It has to be me.”

            “We don’t know---”

            “Nameen!” Pima spun as he lunged for her. “Quit stalling! You have to let me go.”

            Her foot hit the wall, meeting cold metal for a second, and then she stumbled back two quick steps. She swung around, her eyes wide, as she gazed at the disappeared wall. A staircase rose up in the center of the opening, dark and forbidden-looking.

            Nameen inhaled sharply and then breathed out, “The stairs.”

            Pima glanced at him over her shoulder - one last look at his handsome features - before she dashed to the foot of the stairs. One more moment’s hesitation, and then she began to climb.

            One step. Two. Three. Four. Five.

            There was a burst of light. A door swung outward, almost catching her in the face, and she was thrown into a nightmare.

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            “Shift change,” Nameen said, clapping Akish on the shoulder. Pima sat up and rolled her stiff neck. She and Akish were supposed to be keeping guard - which they were - but she had spent the last half hour with her head leaned against Akish’s shoulder, tucked against his side under his arm.

               “Right,” Akish said, and immediately lay down to stretch out on his cot. He didn’t wait for Pima to stand. She jumped up just in time, stumbling away from the cot, and almost fell face first on the ground, but Nameen caught her.

               “Thanks,” she mumbled. His hand lingered on her arm, and she felt his other hand hovering behind her back.

               “I...I wanted to make sure you’re alright.”

               “Alright? I suppose.” She tried to laugh, but the forced sound that came out of her throat sounded more like a choked sob.

               Nameen nodded solemnly and glanced away, past her, out into the misty darkness. “I wish there was something I could be doing. Anything but pace and stare at this dismal fog. Anything…”

               It was Pima’s turn to blush and look away.

               “Pima…” Neeman’s eyes bored into hers, burning with strong emotions.Pima, I…”

               “No, Neeman. Not again. Not now.”

               Neeman’s hand shot out, and he grabbed her hand to keep her from turning away. “Then when, Pima? I’m out of time. You have to know...I’ll risk everything, but only if I leave all regrets behind. That’s what I promised myself a long time ago. I don’t care if you don’t have your own whispered promises to give me, but not telling you how much I care for you”---he tugged on her hand, swinging her around to face him---“not making you understand how much I love you will be my greatest regret.

               “I love you. I’m sorry for any pain I’ve caused you since we’ve met, and any pain that I’ll cause you tomorrow. I’m sorry for leading you here, and yet, for some reason, I’m glad that I’m not here alone. I would be without you. Your face will be the last thing I see before I die.”

               Pima couldn’t stop shaking her head. Just as she couldn’t stop from leaning toward him. He placed a hand on her cheek, brushing away a bit of salt-stain that had dried there.

               “I’m sorry. I’ve run out of time. I can’t wait any longer.”

               Pima closed her eyes as he leaned forward and pressed his lips against hers. They stood there for a minute, not moving, not breathing, and then Pima pushed a hand against his chest. He took a step back, and her eyes searched his face, memorizing the look in his eyes.

               She opened her mouth, but she couldn’t think of what to say in response to his declarations. Nameen saved her the trouble by giving her cheek another caress and walking away.

               Pima took two deep, steadying breaths, and then turned to look back out into the night. She felt something touch her arm and glanced down at Akish. His eyes were open, and his hand gripped her leg. He gave it a squeeze and smiled weakly at her. She brushed her hand against his. Then she returned it to his cot, tucking it beneath his blanket.

               She wasn’t tired. She had too many thoughts battling for her attention. One lap, she told herself and then she’d lay down and take her rest. She hadn’t taken more than three steps when she saw it. A light bobbing in the distance. It grew closer as she watched, bobbing up and down, like a lantern in someone’s hand.

               “Neeman! Akish!”

               They were at her side in seconds, along with half the camp. She raised a shaking hand a pointed, although it was clear what had alerted her.

               “Everyone, up! Arm yourselves!”

               Cries rang out through the camp along with Neeman’s shouts. Pima’s hand tightened around the knife hidden in the top of her high boots, but she didn’t draw it. Not yet. She heard other people readying weapons, but she, Neeman, and Akish stood at the front of the line and watched the light approach.

               It was a lantern. Pima realized this before she could make out the features of the figure carrying it. She took a deep breath as she realized that the figure - although of human shape with the height and build a man - had a blank face. Not a blank expression. A blank face. No eyes, no nose, no mouth. Although dark hair, receding at the temples, fell down its shoulders.

               It drew within five feet of them before Neeman cried out in a commanding voice, only slightly shaky, “Halt!”

               The figure stopped and seemed to regard Neeman. It kept one hand in the air holding its lantern, which admitted a sickly, orangish light. Then it reached up and touched its empty face, about where Pima assumed its mouth should have been. Suddenly, its pale complexion turned into a shiny black mirror. It lifted one edge of the mirror near its chin, hesitated, and then removed the rest of the black mask.

               Neeman sucked in a sharp breath. Pima glanced at him, shocked to see his face drained of color.

               It spoke---“Shouldn’t that be what I say? You are in my domain. This is my home. Not yours”---and Neeman sucked in another breath. “You should not be here, son.”

               “I am not your son,” Neeman barked, and then softer, quieter, “You are not my father.”

               The figure of the man smiled  - thin and cold - and lowered the lantern. His face wasn’t thrown into shadow but continued to glow as if illuminated from within.

               “Are you sure?”

               “Devil!” someone shouted.

               Neeman didn’t say anything, but his entire stance hardened, defiance clear-written on his face.

               “Still,” the figure said, eyes sweeping their ranks. “You should not be here. You...or your  friends.” His eyes lingered on Akish. Pima leaned in front of him, and the figure’s eyes snapped down to meet hers. “You do not want to relive your past. You wouldn’t survive the journey. No one does without going a little mad.” It lowered its voice as if speaking only to her.

               “You know why we’re here. We will not turn back,” Pima said, meeting his stare.

               “Even if I were to tell you what is ahead.”

               “You know we won’t.” Neeman took a step forward and raised his hand. He shook his head, his brown knitted as if in pain.

The figure’s smile chilled Pima to the bone. “Then come. See what lies ahead.” It stretched its hand out to grab Neeman’s as he took another step forward.

               “Neeman? Neeman, no!” Akish took ahold of Neeman’s shirt and yanked him back. He pulled something out of his pocket and hurled it at the figure. It vanished, and the spherical object - the homemade bomb - made contact with the ground. The impact was deafening, and they all dropped to their knees.

The fog was sucked up in one big breath. The air became chokingly acrid, as if the fog had been protecting them, not hindering them, and they found themselves gasping, staring up at the hulking shape of the Time Tower.

               It wasn’t black as she’d been told, but dull gray, tarnished by its imprisonment in time. Who knew how long it had really stood in its sixteen years. Pima’s view wavered and lengthened. The Tower that had been right there, so close, was pushed back ten, twenty, fifty yards. She stumbled to her feet.

               “Akish?” she said, her voice strained.

               He also stumbled to his feet and stood there, a dazed look in his eyes. He reached for her hand as ghostly figures began to rise up out of the ground. With a shout, he dropped her hand and charged toward the nearest figure, gun loaded and drawn. The spell that had seemed to keep them all locked more or less in place snapped. The wall of fog fell like a curtain around their shoulders once more. But the Tower was still visible, now one hundred yards up ahead.

               “Move! After him!” Neeman shouted. “To the Tower!”

               The crowd surged forward into the fog, weapons held at the ready. Pima clutched her knife in one hand and a bomb in the other. She wasn’t sure if either would be an effective weapon in this fight.

               The connection she felt to the keys helped her to stick close to her brother and Neeman while everyone else was consumed by the fog. She doubted that she could turn back if she wanted to; the keys and the Tower tugged at her feet, pulling her forward.

               The guardian apparitions - insubstantial figures conjured the Tower with its crafted power of protection - stalked through the fog. Pima punched and kicked and slashed. Detonations rang out all around her, but she hadn’t reached for a second bomb. The first one hadn’t seemed to do much damage when she threw it, and the risk of tossing it out into this blinding maze became evident when she heard screams follow a detonation.

               The figures responded to her straight-on assaults as if they were being injured, but instead of dropping after her knife stuck their sides, they vanished. She kept her feet pointed toward her destination,  but kept twisting and turning to look behind her, expecting for an assailant to reappear behind her at any moment and strike her in the back.

               Her arms and legs were covered in scratches but nothing that kept her from walking on. This felt odd when she heard screams all around her. But who knew what was real and what might be a trick to lure her astray. As if it heard her thoughts, the figure of Neeman’s father appeared before her. An unnatural hush fell like a bubble around her. She halted, her knife pointed at the figure’s chest.

               “Turn back,” the figure old her in a deep, monotone voice. “Turn back now. You don’t belong here. Turn back.”

               Pima’s legs turned to jelly. She locked her knees and held her head high, refusing to drop before him.

               “Turn back!” the figure insisted in an animalistic growl. “Your brother is weak, and you are weak. You will not succeed.”

               “But I have to try.” She gritted her teeth and dug her heels into the mud as the figure took hold of her shoulder. She didn’t try to fight him off. Instead, she leaned closer and screamed into his ear, “I will try! I will not back down! I will not run from you!”

               The figure turned its empty eyes on her. He grabbed her wrist, yanking the knife from her grip and tossing it aside. It disappeared in the fog, and she shivered when she heard a scream echo back. His nails dug into her shoulder, so sharp they felt like nails being driven through her flesh, through her muscles, to her bone. She cried out in pain and heard someone shout her name.

               The guardian bared his teeth in a wild grin. “Perhaps you will.” He picked her up, spun around, and tossed her toward the Tower’s shadow. Another scream was involuntarily ripped from her throat as she flew through the air and landed on her shoulder. She felt her muscles stretched beyond their limit and heard a hard, popping sound.

               She held her breath until the initial shock of pain subsided, and then sat up and glanced around for the ghostly figure. She gasped in surprise when she realized that it had landed just a few feet from the Tower in a patch of ground cleared of fog. The figure was nowhere in sight, but the Tower door stared back at her, tantalizing close.

               “Pima! Pima!”

Neeman fought his way of the fog and ran over to her, Akish on his heels. They each took an arm and hauled her to her feet, steadying her as she swayed from side to side.

               “What happened?” Akish asked.

               “The...the Tower…” She glanced over at Neeman, who had remained silent. She took in the cut over his eye that was still bleeding and the way he stood off balance, mostly on his right leg, and winced. His eyes scanned the open area before taking five long strides toward the Tower and slamming his hand against its heavy metal door. He yanked his hand back as if he had been burned. He fumbled the key from around his neck, shoved the cover that hid the lock from view, and jammed the key in the lock.

               A boom echoed from the Tower, and the ground shook. Pima hung onto Akish’s arm, not sure how much longer she would be able to stand on her feet. Her vision swam before her eyes, but she saw the door open and the look of triumph on Neeman’s face.

               “There,” he half croaked, half wheezed. Pima and Akish stood, motionless, as he stumbled back to the edge of the barrier of fog surrounding them. He sank to the ground and closed his eyes. “Ak...Akish…”

               It sounded like he was having trouble breathing. Pima took a step toward him. A body fell out of the mist, striking Neeman across the back and pinning him to the ground.

               “Neeman!”

               Too late, brother and sister realized it was one of their own, dead or wounded, too weak to stand, and his attacker was right behind him.

               “Akish! Akish, go!” Pima yelled as the figure rushed them. She threw herself into its path, but it tossed her aside like she weighed nothing and rammed its hand into Akish’s chest. No weapon. Just a hand that ripped open his chest like the sharpest blade.

               Akish’s mouth was open, but Pima’s voice filled the unnatural silence, a wordless scream. He fell to his knees beside her. His eyes found her, and he held out his hand. His palm brushed hers, and she felt cold metal brush her fingertips.

               Before she could take a breath, before she could think, before the terror could paralyze her, she snatched the bronze key from her his hand, dove for her knife, which hand landed blade sticking into the ground not far from where they stood, spun around, and sprinted for the door.

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            Pima stumbled forward a step and sank to her knees. Her forehead cracked against the floor. She grunted - the pain was there, but it was muted compared to everything else - and turned her head to the side.

            Another door appeared on the other side of the stairway. She watched, helpless to turn away, as it opened of its own accord.

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            “Avir!” Neeman’s voice landed like a whip crack - the loudest sound they’d heard in hours - and the young man jumped back. Everyone else halted like they were frozen to the spot, Pima included. She halted immediately, and then questioned herself ‘why.’

               When had Neeman gained that power over her? But as her gaze shifted from scanning the horizon to him, she was impressed by his calm features, his proud profile. A born leader, as she was not. She dropped her gaze quickly as he turned to her.

               “Do you feel that?”

               “What? What is it?” Avir asked, fear lacing his words.

               Nameen closed his eyes, and Pima did the same, trying to calm her mind.

               “There.”

               Pima’s eyes flew open, and she gripped the key that hung around her neck. Neeman nodded at the unasked question. His hand crept up to press against the key that hung around his own neck.

               Pima slipped the key from around her neck and offered it to her brother. Akish was standing beside her, lips pressed into a thin, white line to keep from asking his usual thousand questions.

               He took the key from her, but instead of slipping the string around his neck, he thrust it into his pocket. Pima started to protest, but Neeman stepped out in front to address everyone.

               “We’ve reached some type of border. From here on out, things are going to get weird. We’re going to have to be fast and stealthy. We’ve been traipsing through the marsh all day. I know we’re tired, but we cannot become complacent. We don’t know how the Tower will project its guardian.

               “Keep an eye on your neighbors. Do not believe what you see until it is behind you. And keep your wits about you. Akish, Pima, stay close to me. The rest of you spread out, make a line.”

               Pima found herself sandwiched between Neeman and her brother. She didn’t mind too much. She wanted to keep a close eye on them and the keys. But if something attacked them and they had to fight, she hoped they’d give her space and not just try to corral her and push her behind them.

               Pima was used to “swampland,” as what constituted as such in Pavta. But this area was decidedly different. The further they walked, the harder it became to find solid footing. She was glad for the extra layer of thin metal boot she wore, protection against the acid that might be mixed into the water and mud here, this close to the baleful spire that towered over this land, and found herself thanking over and over the person who had made them.

               Every so often, she felt a throbbing in her chest, like sparks from a fire kept landing on her lungs. That’s what she’d felt earlier when she was wearing the key. Could it be the same feeling?

               She shuddered at the thought of being connected to the Tower in any way. Then her  thoughts took a darker turn.

               Did the Tower know they were coming? And why? Was it truly sentient in some way? How could someone have created such a thing? But perhaps the most pressing question was: What was this guardian that Neeman kept warning them about?

               It was the piece of the plan that seemed to trouble everyone the most. And for good reason. The Tower was an enemy that hid many secrets. Their goal was to get Akish to the Tower door; he would take the rest from there. But even that wasn’t a secured victory.

               They kept trudging on through the muck and mire, careful to keep to solid ground as often as possible, avoiding touching the stagnant water with any part of their skin.

               Every so often, someone would cry out, and the company would halt. Twenty-five heartbeats sounded loud in the forced silence of the place. Shadows were all they saw. They encountered no physical threats, real or otherwise. Although Pima supposed she shouldn’t have expected to meet any threat from man or animal. Nothing could thrive in this no-man’s-land.

               Signs of increased pollution were everywhere, and Pima, who had thought she would never be surprised by the diseased nature that she had grown up witnessing, mourned for this place which once might have been beautiful but through no fault of its own was filled with such poison.

               She kept up an almost constant stream of questions in her mind, making sure that her mind was still fresh. What day is it? What is my mother’s name? What am I doing here? What does poison oak look like? What emotion is on Akish’s face?

               She knew the others were doing the same. They must keep their minds alert. She bounded between the past and present, but she kept her thoughts steadfastly away from questions that involved the future.

               Pima wasn’t sure how he could tell through the fog that clung low to the ground and to the sky’s view, but Neeman called a halt when the sun began its descent. Akish, too, kept glancing at the sky, and Pima wondered if it was more of a sense than a knowing when, all at once, a deep gloom descended on the group halfway through setting up camp. If they hadn’t set up the tripods that held the small fires out of the water, she might have thought that she’d gone blind.

               They each set up the bed stands and sleeping bags they’d carried. In the morning, they would leave their beds and most of their supplies here so they could continue on less hindered. If their minds didn’t play tricks on them, sending them in circles, and they were able to keep their bearings straight, they wouldn’t need to spend another night out on the marsh on the way to their destination. Those who would survive to the next night had to hope they were lucky enough to find this camp again.

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            Pima came to and felt someone brush her hair back from her forehead. Her eyes flickered open. Neeman was crouched above her, looking warily over his shoulder, up the steps.

            “Neeman...you can’t be here. You can’t climb the stairs with me.”

            “Apparently, I can. You’re guiding the doors, I think. You’re the one the Tower is attacking. Oh, Pima…” He sighed as he helped her into a sitting position. “Why are you always running into danger?”

            “Me?” She accepted his hand up as she stood and let him keep hold of it, enjoying the warmth that his presence emanated in this cold, narrow space. She glared at the closed doors and shuddered. That had been horrible. It can’t be much worse than that. That had to be the most painful day of her life. The next one would be easier.

            Pima nodded up the stairs, and without a word, Nameen slid an arm around her waist and turned her toward the next step. They got up eight steps before another door opened. Pima leaned back against Nameen and peered into the light that spilled out of the doorway.

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            The trio was sitting beside a glowing fire pit in the wooded marsh close to Neeman’s old house. The old camping spot had been turned into a base camp for his followers.

               Pima sat beside her brother - not really attending to what he was saying as he and Neeman reminisced about “the good old days” and would they hoped would return when - if, she amended in her head - the Time Tower would be made to work in their favor.

               Avir sat beside Neeman on Akish’s other side. He offered a comment here and there but mostly listened. He seemed to be spending less time by Neeman’s side as Akish spent more. If there was a hierarchy in the group, Pima would venture to say that he had been ousted as second in command by her brother, but he seemed to take it in good stride.

               Neeman and Akish schemed well together, and Avir was more suited for lighter discussions and alleviating the others’ occasional dark moods.

               Neeman soon lost his reminiscing mood. Pima recognized his serious expression. Those sitting close to the fire must have as well. They stopped talking when he stood, and the hush radiated outward until silence rang throughout the camp. He called for everyone to gather closer to discuss - once again - the latest version of “The Plan.”

               Starting with the treacherous journey across Pavta and then into the toxic marsh that surrounded the Tower and ending with Akish’s sacrifice. The plan as it had been conceived by these two young leaders - reckless, improbable, and...and hopeful.

               The word sprang up in Pima’s mind, like a new flower popping up out of watered earth. When the seed had first begun sprouting in the background of her thoughts, she didn’t know. But she found herself nodding along as Neeman spoke about the world they could re-create, the lives they would be changing, the sacred, heroic nature of their mission.

               “We are fighting for more than ourselves, our families, our land. We are fighting for more than our present. We are fighting for our past, our future, and our present. When this is over and the Tower falls - when it falls - we may not all rise again. But the sun itself will rise to greet a new world.

“There will be lives to rebuild. There will be friends to bury. There will be wounds that refuse to heal. But every sacrifice will be worth it, and heal we must. For in one way or another, we will all leave here heroes and rise from the battlefield to a better life. We must.”

               His eyes strayed to Pima’s, searching, questioning, pleading.

               “We must create it. Pain and sacrifice is a requirement to build our better world, and I must ask you all again. Are you willing to risk all to our cause?”

               Pima’s throat swelled with tears, but she kept her teeth clenched tight as voices yelled affirmative all around her. She had never been one for flowery speeches, and she knew Neeman felt the same. But, oh, could he deliver when the time came.

She nodded, face impassive, her only sign of approval. The tension in Neeman’s shoulders disappeared at the gesture.

“In just a few weeks’ time, this will all be over. So raise your voices now all together, and remind me why we fight. For we will always fight!”

Again, cheers rang out from every voice. Akish bounced up from his seat to embrace Neeman, calling him brother, and the others toasted the mission with the last of Neeman’s wine, blood-red offerings held high.

               They felt the sacrifice worth it, success inevitable.

               And for the first time, Pima found herself agreeing with the first and desperately praying for the second. To change the world. Change the past. Could they do it? Could he?

               He would do it or die trying, with Akish by his side.

               And she knew with a bone deep certainty that she would be there, too, at his side whatever end might come.

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            Memory Neeman’s words ringing in her ears, Pima turned to Neeman. She’d dropped his hand at some point. He stood with his arms outstretched as though waiting to catch her. Pima squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again, daring her gaze back to the door. She felt the same constriction in her chest that she’d felt on that same day, sitting around the campfire, listening to Neeman’s speech. It was such an odd, painful thing to see one’s memories played out before you.

            ‘Did you see?” she asked.

            “Vaguely. As if through mist,” was Neeman’s hesitant reply. “Pima, listen. We could rebuild our lives. Go out there, find your brother, bury our friends. We don’t need to use the Tower to do that. And start over. We can do that, all on our own. That’s what I’ve wished for so long. Maybe it’s best to leave what we don’t understand alone. Weren’t you the one who told me that?”

            She turned around slowly, her eyes narrowing as she stared down at Neeman, two steps below her. Had she imagined the warmth in his eyes that day? Or was it the warmth in his eyes as he held her on the stairs that seemed false now? The warmth of his hands in hers a moment ago?

            “That day...that moment...that was the first time I really felt like this would work, like it was worth the risk, to come here. You made me feel valued and needed and brave.”

            Her eyes flashed to his again. The hairs on the back of her arms tingled a warning. She stiffened her spine and clutched the key, still in her palm, tighter until the cold metal bit into her hand.

            “You knew then that I would stay by your side through this. I wouldn’t leave you. But you left me, didn’t you?” Her voice caught in a sob, but Neeman’s face remained placid as he held out a hand to her.

            “I’m right here, Pima. I---”

            “Neeman worried about me. About my size, my experience. He trained me and my brother to fight. He told me to stay close. But he never doubted my courage. He never told me to stay or go back or back down. And he never would.”

            “Pima…” There was a dangerous quality in his voice, and a little guilt. Like she had stumbled upon a secret that he’d intended to keep.

            “So who are you? What are you?”

            The figure’s mouth elongated into a devilish grin, and his eyes darkened into a molten black, like the mirror that it had worn out on the marsh.

            “Very good,” it hissed, still in Nameen’s voice, and pushed her down until her back made contact with the stairwell. She scrambled up the stairs backwards on her hands and feet, crab-like, not sure how far she would be able to climb this time, as the monster wearing Neeman’s face stalked her.

            She almost cried out in relief when - a dozen steps later - a door burst open. She scrambled to put it between herself and the monster before she was caught up in the memory.   

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            A cough broke the still night air, jerking Pima awake. She’d fallen asleep with her cheek pressed against the low kitchen table, legs bent under her at an awkward angle. She stumbled sleepily to her feet and hurried to the next room.

               Her mother was lying amid a heap of thrown off blankets. She was sweating and mumbling in her sleep, caught in a fever dream. Pima grabbed a blanket off the edge of the bed and threw it over her mother’s form before turning her attention to the leg poking out of the sheets.

               The bottom half of her mother’s right leg - ankle to knee - was swollen and red. A square of linen - folded twice and stuffed with feverfew - was taped around the worst section. Pima would have to change it again tonight, and she had to fight down the bile that rose in her throat as she pictured the skin underneath it.

               Pima had found her two days ago lying crumpled on the ground at the edge of the treeline outside their house. She seemed unharmed except for the fact that she wouldn’t open her eyes and the bright red wound on her leg. It didn’t look like an animal bite.

               Pima had found no fang marks, no stringers, no attached parasite. The redness had spread at a fast clip until it consumed her lower leg, and the wound itself - whatever it was - had swollen into an ugly pink, purple, and brown pitted mass.

               The fever had set in late last night, and nothing Pima had tried had it eased it.

               Pima was ashamed at the way she’d screamed her head off when she found her mother, and, except for short trips to the latrine and the kitchen, she hadn’t left her side since Akish carried her to bed. But Akish was gone to collect supplies from neighbors - she’d finally bent to his suggestion - and Pima shouldn’t have left her alone.

               She reached for her mother’s hand now and laid her head down on the bed.

               “Hey.”

               Pima jerked upright at the quiet voice. Neeman stood in the doorway, a sack slung over his shoulder and his eyes full of pity.

               “What are you doing here?” She didn’t mean to sound so harsh, but his expression only sunk deeper into pity.

               “He’s with me. He helped me carry the supplies.” Akish shouldered past Neeman, dropped two packs on the ground beside his sleeping pallet, and  sat on the other side of the bed.

               Pima bowed her head and asked in a gentler tone, “Did you find anything?”

               “A few things. Can’t be sure when we don’t know what got her. I’ll try anything, though.” His tone was light, but he couldn’t hide the pain in his eyes. Pima didn’t doubt that his pain was an almost physical thing. He was much better at that sort of thing than she was.

               Feeling the sudden urge to do something, anything, with her hands, she retrieved Akish’s heavy packs and retreated to the kitchen. Neeman followed her. He sat beside her, too close, but she didn’t protest.

               They began to unpack the “supplies.” which consisted of more food stuffs than medical supplies. She frowned. Surely Akish hadn’t gone begging for food. They were fine. Still, she knew they really couldn’t afford to refuse any charity right now.

               Neeman kept looking over at her, and she watched him from the corner of her eye. Finally, he broke the silence. “I’m sorry.”

               Pima nodded absentmindedly, grouping the supplies on the table before them.

               “I wish there was something more I could do. If there’s anything…” He covered his hand with hers and gave it a light squeeze. She pulled away and stood.

               “I’m sure your friends need you more. Aren’t you supposed to be leading a revolution or something?”

               “Pima, please don’t be like that. I just want to help---.”

               “You’re telling me that you didn’t trudge all the way out here to fill Akish’s with foolhardy plans and try to bend my ear to them again. In case you didn’t notice, this is not a good time for us to be entertaining visitors!”

               “Hey!” Neeman shot to his feet, and Pima took a step back, standing in the shadow of his frame. Fear filled her eyes, but as soon as Pima stopped talking, he leaned down, and somehow fit his 5’-11” frame within her 5’1” frame.

               “Your brother and I talked on the walk over, but I have no plans to talk business in a sick house. I came to make sure Akish got home okay, see if there was anything else I could do, and to see how you were doing. He told me that you were the one who found her. I can’t imagine what that must have felt like...but I do know what it’s like to lose someone you love and feel like you’re the loneliest person in the world.”

               Angry tears pricked Pima’s eyes - at the pity in his voice, the hopelessness, this situation. She had backed herself up against one wall. Neeman rocked back on his feet and asked, a twinkle in his eyes, “If, however, you find yourself in need of a distraction, I do have some new points of argument I’ve been saving to share with you.”

               Pima laughed, caught off guard by the change in topic, and shoved his shoulder. “Normally, I’d say bring it on. I’m not afraid of an argument.”

               He smiled, pleased to have brought her back from the brink of tears, and caught her hand. Swiftly, before she could react, he leaned in and kissed her. Pimas mind blanked, and she stood there, motionless for several heartbeats, before shoving him back.

               “Get out!”

               “But---”

               “You have more to say? I don’t care! It’s dark? I don’t care! My screaming will make up my mother? I don’t care! Just get out!”

               Neeman scrambled backwards, grabbing his coat from the hook by the door and his empty pack from the table. He paused with one hand on the door.

               “I’d try the pills in the white bottle. Jipan’s family kept it. It’s pre-Tower. Apparently, it’s a very useful, very powerful anti-inflammatory.”

               “Get out!”

               “Neeman? Pima?” Akish had come to stand in the kitchen doorway. His expression was carefully guarded as he looked from one to the other.

               Neeman raised his hand in farwell and slipped out the door. He caught it before it closed and stated, “I’ll be back to check on you.” Then he let the door slam shut ad stalked off into the darkness.

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            Pima fell against the Tower wall and forced herself to breath - once, twice, three times - big, deep breaths, before turning to face the next door.

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            The difference between Akish and Pima was immediately noticeable. He swung his arms as he walked, steps light, and greeted everyone they passed. She walked with a reserved gate, head slightly lowered, eyes guarded.

               It had become necessary the past few months to travel to the nearest hub of trade between houses in their area and trade for supplies. Pima knew it was difficult for their mother to go, but she trusted Pima enough to watch out for any trouble that her mother might walk into and Akish to bring his younger sister back home safely.

               Pima, used to the solitude of their secluded house as their mother was, hadn’t been able to shake the prickling along her spine since they had entered the sea of gazes. She’d agreed that splitting up for a short time would be the quickest way to get done and get gone. Akish was supposed to meet her here by the pondweed bushes by the path a half hour ago. Sighing in recognition of the feeling that she was too late to steer him away from some trouble, she walked back into the makeshift market.

               She found Akish sitting with a group of hard-looking young men. They were all caught in their own conversation, stubbornly ignoring the crowd around them. Her heart beat a staccato warning.

               “Brother, there you are,” she said, hovering above him. “We have to go. Mother will is expecting us home before nightfall.”

               “Pima!”

               She winced at the use of her name and the smile he cast around the circle of strangers. Their reassuring smiles at his next words raised goosebumps on her arms.

               “I was just telling them you would probably come looking for me soon.”

               “Yes, I thought you were supposed to me back there near the path.”

               “I wanted you to meet my friends.”

               “Your fr iends?”

               Pima recognized a few of their faces from their visit to the market last month. She’d remained blessedly in the shadows while she heard them shouting about change and rising up and “finishing the clock.” Propaganda, she’d realized immediately. Another homemade leader had hatched a plan to tear down the Time Tower and reverse its effects on their land, and he’d recruited a band of young renegades who thought they were invincible to parade up and down the streets, do his dirty work for him, probably besiege the Tower and die for him.

               She’d never been that close to such a group herself, but she’d heard grumblings about attempts on the Tower. She cast her gaze curiously around the circle even as she edged closer to Akish, preparing to haul him up by the collar and drag him away if need be.

               At best, his new friends were fools. At worse, they were dangerous. Very, very dangerous.

               “Do you know who I am?” One of the men - the boys, really - spoke up. Pima met his appraising gaze with one of her own. Half a dozen sarcastic answers flashed through her mind.

               The boy stood and stepped close, and Pima stiffened. He stopped a step away and bent his head toward hers, continuing in a lower voice. Not a whisper, but private, intimate.

               “I know who you are, scientist’s daughter.”

               Pima drew back as if she’d been slapped. The boy drew the collar of his shirt down a few inches. She sucked in a breath. The top of a key was visible, hanging around a cheap leather cord so as to disguise the hidden shimmer of real gold. Gold - like the key hidden in the bottom of the trunk at the foot of her mother’s bed. It was about the same size, too, but a different symbol was carved into its handle. It looked like a cross with a partial oval behind it - like a waning moon - and a tiny black gemstone was set in its center.

               “I know who you are, and now you know me. And if you’ve been gifted the same inheritance from your father that I have from mine”--- he tugged his shift back up and glanced down at her brother----“then you’re going to want to hear what I have to say.”

               “Akish, what did you tell him?”

               Akish wilted under her gaze. Pima heaved a long, tired sigh, shoved the full pack she was carrying into his chest, and wheeled around. “Never mind. We have to go.”

               Akish mumbled an apology to the ground and stood to follow her. They hadn’t taken five steps before the boy with the key was in front of them again.

               “Neeman,” Akish breathed a warning.

               “Look, I explained everything to your brother. Just listen to him. The keys are the key. Don’t you know what they are?”

               “Yes. Do you know what they are? What they do?”

               His eyes bored into hers; Pima wanted to wipe the cocky look off his face. “They open the door of time. A one-time trip. But so what if it works. If we can make a difference, change the future, help everyone---”

               “We help ourselves,” Pima interrupted, nearly spitting the words in his face. She wanted him to understand that she wasn’t buying his act for one minute. “And I think you’ll find most people do nowadays. It’s a better use of time than being led like sheep to the slaughter by a crusader.”

               The boy shook his head, but he stepped aside to let her pass. The small smile at the corner of his mouth as his eyes followed her and the friendly clasp on the back he offered Akish made her want to yell at him some more. But there were better uses of her time. Like survival.

She held up a hand, stopping Akish as he took a breath to speak, and stalked off down the path. She just wanted to get as far away from this place as possible and put the boy with the sparkling eyes and the golden key behind her. If she was lucky, he’d go off and die on his little quest and she’d never have to see him again.

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            Neeman - or rather, the thing wearing Neeman’s shape - had stopped to examine Pima as watched this memory. She had been so captivated by the scene - Akish and Neeman’s optimistic faces from a year and a half in the past - that it took her longer than it should have to shake the vision from her eyes.

            “You left them.”

            Pima stared at the figure, eyes wide and tightlipped as it took a step forward. It shook a fist in rage. False rage, she knew, but still terrifying.

            “You left them. Left him. Out clear. It’s clear which one you care more about. Letting me keep this shape so long. Really, Pima? How could you?”

It crouched in front of her, and its demeanor softened, pulling her in.

“Still, there’s no need to torture yourself. Do you hear that?” It cocked its head. “Sounds like the fighting has stopped. Shall we check and see who’s waiting for you outside?”

            It extended its hand when she didn’t move and held it palm up before her. “I’ll hold your hand.”

            Something inside Pima snapped. With a guttural cry, she rammed the heel of her hand into the figure’s shoulder. It fell head over heels down the stairs, crying out in pain. But it couldn’t feel pain. It was all an act.

            Pima’s eyes followed him down the stairs, and she cursed under her breath. She’d barely made any progress. She was getting too distracted. She had to climb.

            She couldn’t run. Not unless she wanted to get slammed in the face by another door. But she scrambled up the stairs two at a time. How many steps had she already left behind her? How many more doors were left to stop her?

            Another one popped open to her left. She kept her head down and shielded her gaze, and miraculously, it let her pass.

            A dozen to go? Twenty? Less?

            A year and a half of her life - fifteen and a half to go - and then that final step beyond. She had to finish it. There was no turning back.

            “Pima!” She heard Neeman’s voice shout behind her, her name drawn out, pleading. “Piiimaaa!” The force of that voice was like a strong blast of wind, trying to knock her over, draw her back. Another door opened, and she tried to maneuver around it, bent nearly double, one arm covering her head.

            “Hey!”

            Pima stopped at the unfamiliar voice.

            “Hey, are you alright?” the boy standing in the doorway asked. A girl stood on tiptoe to peek over his shoulder, her eyes wide and worried. They both tried to step forward, as if they could escape the world behind the doorway, but before this new horror could overwhelm her, Pima took hold of the doorframe.

            “You are not part of my future or my past. Get out!”

            And she slammed the door in their faces.

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            On the other side of the door, which was very much still visible, the boy and girl stood in dumbfounded silence. He reached out to try the door’s handle, but it was locked now.

            The girl put a hand on his arm, shrinking down to his height again, and he followed her a few steps away. “That...that was…” she swallowed, unable to find the words to explain what they’d just seen.

            “Another land. One apparently ruled not by place or size but by time.” The boy stared at the door with the hungry longing of an adventurer who had been denied the most amazing adventure. “Time! Can you imagine?”

            “No,” the  girl said, shaking her head and smiling fondly at him. “It seems you have been locked out of that world.”

            “We’ll find the key. And other doors...there are other doors..”

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Pima tried to continue her upward journey, but her concentration was broken, and she sunk to her knees in front of the next open door.

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            It looked like any other day in her life. She was twelve years old. Her mother was sitting at the kitchen table, shelling pea pods that Pima had brought in earlier that day from the garden. A seventeen-year-old Akish was chopping wood outside. Pima could see him clearly through the broken window over the sink that would need to be fixed before the winds began to blow colder. He kept pausing every few minutes to stare off into the trees, trying to satisfy his need to work and daydream at the same time.

               She wondered what he was thinking about, and that was the extent of her daydreams. She wouldn’t know what to dream for.

               Her life wasn’t a fairytale. She lived on the outskirts of a swamp in a land that was quickly being taken over by toxins and poisons, and where every stranger’s smile or shadow hid potential danger. Winter was coming, and while it might dispel the fog and quiet the wildlife for a few months, they would have a hard time if they didn’t hustle to prepare their house and larder.

               But - she often reminded herself - she had everything she needed. Her family, her home, food and shelter. Everything was fine in her little world.

               She glanced sidelong at her mother. It’d been a while since she’d asked to be told a story of the old world - from her or Akish. Perhaps tonight, after preparing supper, she’d sit at the foot of her mother’s bed and ask to look through the old trunk that held her father’s things. She’d long since ceased to sneak into the bedroom while her mother was busy and let her hands and eyes wander over the keepsakes - wrinkled clothing, a few dusty books, a pair of old eyeglasses, and a few, more precious trinkets wrapped in a tablecloth and tucked into a corner of the trunk.

               It might do them all good to slip into the past for just a little while.

               Yes, I’ll ask mother for a story, she thought, sneaking a smile in her direction. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

           

The memory of that night caused cold pricks of pain to stab her heart. Turning to take another step, her mind was consumed with one thought: The story. The story.

            The urge compelled her up, up, up. The next door opened just as she reached it, and she peered around it to find a very different scene than what she had expected.       

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            Akish was in the middle of telling one of his “true” stories. A different story than Pima had wanted but just as worn. She didn’t know how he had been able to keep all the details straight. He had been only five when the Tower had been completed and the world in his stories had disappeared.

               How could he remember? Why did all he cared for involve the past? How could he hold such optimism when that life was gone?

               These questions, this suspicion, belonged to the older Pima.

               The younger Pima stood - round-faced and smiling - looking up at him with eager, wide eyes. Everything else was forgotten in that moment. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against a scraggly tree, imagining the images that Akish invoked with his words.

               “A whole store filled with candy! All they sale is candy! Chocolate, taffy, lollipops. We’d got there every Friday after Dad got off work, and he’d let me fill this little bag with anything I wanted. My favorites were the little chocolate caramels - sweet and gooey - and the grape bubble gum balls - the ones all twisted up in pink paper. But they were on the top shelf---

               “So Dad had to help you up to reach them. He sneaked behind you and picked you up---”

               “---and placed me on his shoulders.” Akish smiled. “Every Friday. Chocolate caramels and bubblegum balls.”

               “Grape,” Pima reminded him as if he’d forgotten the most important detail of all. It sounded like the most wonderful dream. A Friday afternoon with nothing better to do than hang out with Dad in a shop full of candy. If she had---

               “Pima.” Akish’s tone brought an immediate stab of panic. She whirled around to look at what made Akish’s voice shift so. A blanket of fog had risen over the ground, ankle deep. They hadn’t been paying attention. They’d stayed out too long, allowed their wanderings to take them too far from their shelter, and now they were going to be caught out in the strangling fog.

               The fog was rising as it drifted towards them. Soon, it would be at Pima’s waist, and then it would be too late. The fumes carried on those vapors would be strong enough to fill her lungs with poison. Pima had never been caught out in it for long, but her mother had described the consequences of “fog poison” so well she’d had nightmares for weeks.

               A shape stumbled forward out of the fog. Pima screamed, and Akish grabbed her shoulders, spinning her around.

               “Run! Go!” He turned her in the direction of the house and pointed.

               “The...the sacks…” Her lips trembled, but she refused to return empty handed. Akish’s fingers pressed hard into her shoulder, but she stubbornly dug in her heels and reached for her pack.

               “There’s no time. Ahh!” he exhaled in frustration. He took the pack and upended it, spilling half its foraged contents on the ground. “There. No go!” He shoved it into her arms and pushed her forward as he turned back toward the groaning figure.

               Pima’s heart pounded in her ears, drowning out any sounds. She tucked the pack into her stomach and sprinted for the house. Please, Akish. Please, Mom. Please. She didn’t stop to search for how far back Akish was, if he was following her. She had to focus on where she was headed. She twisted her head this way and that, searching for their little one-room shelter in the rapidly fading light.

               “Pima! Akish! Children!”

               Tears burst from her eyes when she heard her mother yelling her name off to her right. She turned toward the voice and ran headfirst into her mother’s chest. Her mother ignored the pack, which fell to the ground, and gathered Pima into her arms.

               “Pima, oh, Pima! Where’s your brother?”

               “He...He…”

               “Akish!”

               Akish ran past them, carrying a limp form in his arms.

               “Get inside!” he shouted. He ran to the shelter and kicked the door in. Their mother stumbled as she hurried to carry Pima inside. Pima was getting a little big to carry, but she refused to set her down. Even as she barred the door and hurried to pull out the candle box and gather blankets to stuff in the chinks in the door and walls.

               Pima clung to her, breath rattling in her mother’s ear, as she and Akish made sure that every hole secured their shelter, and then she curled up on her sleeping pallet and watched them tend to the injured stranger. By some unspoken agreement, they didn’t ask for Pima’s help. They tried to shield the stranger from her view, but in the glow of the lit tallow candle, Pima stared at the woman’s face.

               She thought it was a woman. Red tracks lined her face, scratch marks or tears marks, somehow burned into her skin. Her eyes were bloodshot. Her chest rose and fell in spasms, shallower and shallower, until her chest barely moved at all. A mask bag hung limp around her neck; no one thought to remove it. It was the same simple lenin mask that Pima’s mom had fashioned for all of them, and it had done nothing for her.

               Pima’s mother hovered over her, applying cool compresses to her face and checking her pulse regularly. Akish mimicked her movements in the stillness, face filled with such sorrow and pain for this unknown woman that it nearly broke Pima’s heart. Every so often, Mother sighed. Pima heard the inevitable in the sound, but still, they kept working to provide whatever comfort they could for the stranger.

               Mother only spoke twice that long night. Once to Pima: “Are you hungry?”

               Pima shook her head, heat filling her cheeks as she remembered the food she’d left behind and the way she had been salivating over imaginary candy earlier that day.

               And then once to Akish: “We have to move again in the morning. We can’t stay here anymore.”

               This statement shook Pima into action. She shuffled on her knees to her mother’s bags and pulled out her bag of sewing supplies. They’d need new packs, and she would need to finish cutting the patterns for their new coats that her mother had marked on tough, scratchy fabric.

               And no more stories.

               This was their world. One where women fell dead because of fog and one wrong breath could earn you the same fate. No candy. No chocolate. Reality hit hard, and it was time for her and Akish to stop dreaming about the past. This was their present, their future. They were needed here.

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            Pima felt the figure behind her, seething with rage, but she didn’t have the energy to care anymore. She turned, moving in slow motion, to face the guardian, registering with shock that it still wore Neeman’s face.

            She had finally broken free of her memories of Neeman, escaped into the past, and Akish and her mother and that suffering stranger...they were the ghosts that should be greeting her.

            As if it heard her thoughts, the figure’s face began to change. Its featured shifted and softened and rearranged themselves until Akish stood there staring back at her. It’s anger disappeared as well, replaced by a sad mask and curiosity which now seemed halfway genuine.

            Pima’s lips parted, and she blinked her eyes hard, staring down this new ghost. As she watched, it brushed a hand down its front, like it was brushing away dust, and the bloodstains on its shirt were washed away.

            Its eyes slid past her and fixed on a point further up the stairs. The hairs on the back of Pima’s neck stood on end as she glanced behind her and up, up - to the door that stood two flights above them.

            How many steps? How many years? Darkness lurked in the space behind the door. She couldn’t see anything beyond it, but it couldn’t be the top of the Tower. Not yet.

            That’s too easy, Pima thought with a grim smile.

            One step. Two. She flung a hand out to catch the wall. Her vision swam. The stairway seemed to spin before her, and out of the walls sprang memories unbidden. A wave of emotions overcame her at this new assault. Fear, hope, joy, guilt, sadness, love, hate. Whatever she had felt at the time.

            Memories she didn’t even remember were pulled to the front of her mind and played out before her eyes, which burned with tears. Even with her eyes squeezed shut, they found her, and each step seemed heavier than the last.

            Voice echoed from wall to wall, from one side of her head to another, but one voice rose above the din along with an image of her standing in front of her mother, face downturned. She was covered from head to toe in mud, and a broken bowl lay at her feet.

            Her mother reached down and lifted her chin, silencing her mumbled apology. “I know. I know. Thank you for being honest. Thank you for saying that you would go back and choose to do something different. But, love”---she knelt, still holding onto Pima’s face, making sure the little girl heard her—-“you can’t change the past. You can only move forward and try to better. Do better, okay?”

            The scene dissolved as her mother drew her close for a hug, and Pima halted, her fingers now clutching the edge of a doorframe. Leaning against the wall and breathing heavily, she willed the world around her to stop spinning before opening her eyes. The silent presence that had followed her all this way stood behind her, peering over her shoulder at the memory. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

           

            They were moving again - Mom, Akish, and her. She knew that, but she didn’t know why. She clutched her pillow to her chest. She’d stuffed her treasure into it - her pink necklace, the smooth river stone Akish had found her, the shiny silver thimble she had borrowed from her mother’s sewing kit, and the pretty yellow flowers she’d picked from the patch that grew outside her window.

               She stood beside her brother, pressing back against his legs, as he stared up at the horse. Her mother had gotten it from...someone...to help them move their things...somewhere...

               The older Pima squinted her eyes and shook her head. Why couldn’t she remember?

               She must be very young. Younger than in the other memories. Her mother came out of their house with one more load for the horse.

               “Ma, where are we going?” Akish asked. When she didn’t answer him, his voice rose, whiny and fearful. “We can’t leave! How will dad find us?”

               “Akish! I told you. Your father—-” She stopped, white knuckles pressed against her mouth. She considered Pima and Akish for a moment before dropping her hands and offering them a weak smile.

               “Come. We have to get going. I promise everything we need will be waiting for us. We’ll be fine.” She gathered the ends of the horse’s leash in one hand and held out her other hand for Pima’s. Pima took a step forward, then turned, her big brown eyes fixed on her brother.

               Akish sighed and hoisted her up onto his back. It was a bit awkward with his pack and the pillow. He reached back and took the pillow from her. “It’ll be fine,” he said when she ptionrotested. He worked it carefully beneath one of the ropes that held their luggage on the horse’s back.

               “I’ve got her,” he said.

               Mother smiled again, this time sweetly. “We have a little ways to go today. How about a story? Do you remember what I told you about the Tower of Time?”

               Pima rested her head on top of Akish’s and listened to the calming tone of her mother’s voice.

               “A long, long time ago - four years - a group of people got together to build the Time Tower.

               “The world wasn’t how it is now. The pollution was appalling. No one was taking care of the land, or their neighbors, the way that we should. It was a dirty time. But we might have been able to do something about it then. I believe that, so I…” Her voice trailed off as her eyes took on a faraway look.

               “I supported the group of scientists and engineers - thinkers, builders, problem solvers - who thought they had discovered the only solution.

               “They thought they’d discovered magic.”

               She shot a rueful smile at her two rapt listeners.

               “But we know that magic doesn’t exist, not in the way that most people wish it would.”

               Akish nodded, and Pima lifted her head to copy him, trying to appear wise.

               “You can’t turn back time,” Mother continued. “But, oh, they tried. Brave, smart men and women, your father among them. They...we thought if we could use the Tower to turn back the clock, return Pavta and the world to an earlier time, we could fix our mistakes. It wasn’t supposed to poison the land, or the people. It wasn’t supposed to be able to go in the opposite direction.

               “But when the Tower was activated, it didn’t move time backwards. It moved forward. Forward in time instead of into the past, and its effects continued to spread. Your father, I know...I know regretted building the Tower. Even before it was activated. If I had just gotten the others to listen to him, perhaps things would have been different.”     

               ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

              

               The Pima standing in the doorway sucked in a breath, aware in a way that she hadn’t been since entering the Tower what was real and what wasn’t. Perhaps because she couldn’t remember this trip, this day. It had to have been dragged up from the deepest reaches of her mind. She couldn’t be imagining this. There was no reason for the Tower to show this, other than for honesty’s sake.

               This wasn’t the story she remembered being told. It started well enough like it, but the words became too harsh, the voice too pained. Too realistic. Her mother had always spoken about her father’s role in building the Tower. She’d never mentioned that she’d had a connection to it.

               She must have decided at one point to try to remove some of the worst details, little good it’d done. Now Pima stood here, in the Time Tower, stuck in the harsh reality of time. And she longed for it to be magic, an illusion.

               She watched the mother in her memory press a hand over her chest, and the sight was so familiar, although she’d never seen it on her mother, that she knew what was coming next.

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Her voice had steadily grown softer as her  tone sharpened with bitterness.

“It was horrible. And it couldn’t be undone. Not alone. So I took it.” Her hand clenched a shape up her dress. With a quick flick of her eyes right, left, she threw out an arm to stop Akish and stepped closer.

               “This is the truth. I took it”---she pulled out the key with the sun symbol marked with a red gemstone, took it off, and held it out for Pima to take—-“from the Tower, from your father. I hid it. I couldn’t trust anyone else to keep it. Now it is harmless. Useless. Except as a reminder. A dangerous reminder. You cannot undo. You cannot. You can only move forward and try...try...”

               She shook her head as if the rest of her sentence was stuck in her throat and she could just shake it free. Akish’s grip on little Pima’s legs tightened, and he took half a step back.

               All of the sudden, Mother stopped, and her eyes grew clearer, her gaze nearer and sharper. A look or horror passed over her face and was gone in the next blink of an eye.

               “I can take her, if you need…”

               “No, Mother. I’ve got her. But we should make sure the horse doesn’t wander.”

               She smiled and nodded. “Yes, you’re right.” Her story and the key were forgotten for the time being. “We need to head east, away from the big marsh, and our neighbors…”

               “My turn. Have I ever told you about the time Dad took me camping by Azure lake. It was just the two of us. You didn’t exist yet, and—-”

               “Akish?”

               “Hmmm?” He turned his head to try to look back at little Pima , but she leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his neck, finding security in his touch. “Is Mom okay?”

               “Yeah. Yeah, she’s fine. It’s just the marsh fog. I can make your brain kind of funny. We just need to get further away, someplace with fresh air. She’ll be fine.”

               Little Pima squeezed the key in her hand, hard enough to cut the impression of the rising sun on the handle into her palm, and laid her head against her brother’s shoulder. If Akish said it would be alright, it would be.

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            Pima clenched her hand tighter, feeling the bite of the key against her skin, and stared at the retreating forms of Akish - strong Akish - and her mother, still mumbling to herself.

            At some point, the guardian had placed a hand on her shoulder. It wasn’t quite substantial, but it held weight more or less. Pima hated that it held some comfort in it as well.

            She shifted, and the figure dropped its hand, and it spoke. “She’s right. It didn’t work. It never does. It never will. Trapped. Trapped in time. You can’t turn back the clock. You can’t turn the hourglass back over. You can’t…”

            Its eyes implored hers as it babbled on, confusing her train of thought. “...even you. You can’t. You might as well—-”

            “Might as well what? Go back? Can I, or have I already climbed too far?” She took a deep breath. She was beginning to feel lightheaded again. Like everything around her was moving, but so was she, floating up towards the ceiling, the ceiling of time, the top.

            “The top!” She glanced up the stairs. They were still dark, the steps less eager to shine and show her the path. How close now?

            “Are you trying to make me go back? Or are you pushing me forward? Telling me I can’t. That’s it’s impossible, even for me. You’re egging me on. Or - I know.” She took a step, left hand on the wall, right hand to her chest, and poised on one foot over the next step. “You’re just trying to twist my mind into knots, sit down and stay here and get lost in time with you. Is that it, brother? Is it? Which one?”

            She was aware that she wasn’t making much sense now, and the shadowy figure wasn’t going to answer her, and she took another heavy leaden step forward.

            “I can’t stop you,” the figure said. “Until you are stopped. But I will stay with you.”

            Pima had no response to that, to the pity in this...this thing’s voice. And soon, she was too swept up in visions of the past to care.

            These didn’t all seem to be hers. They couldn’t be. The visions became more and more fractured. Images of faces, mostly, interspersed with the land. Horrible, hideous visions of poisonous fog and blackened fields and starless nights, dead wildlife and scared, scarred people. Gunshots and screams and boxy monsters that exploded in such force, whole buildings were knocked down.

            These images did not fit with those of her mother’s steady hands bandaging her knee, Akish’s laughing face, the little house surrounded by wildflowers that had to be left behind.

            Pima fell to her knees and screamed in agony. Whether her cries were spoken out loud or not, she didn’t know or care. The pain was so real, so deep, that she almost didn’t stand, almost laid down right there on the steps, and begged for release.

            But she instinctively knew that she’d breached some barrier. She’d won another unspoken challenge, and there was just one more. One final challenge. She had to stand. She had to keep going until she couldn’t, or what was the point of all this?

            So she gritted her teeth against the pain. And she stood, locking her knees against the dizziness. And she bent her head, pushing forward against the onslaught of sights and sounds and smells. And she climbed.

            A square of light became visible up ahead, too small to be a door. Pima fixed her eyes on it. Each step now seemed to be less painful but more draining. There was no other word to describe it. Something was being drained from her. She was so tired, so didn’t even blink when a man appeared at the top of the stairs or hesitate when he offered her a hand.

            She started when she felt his cool touch. He was more than memory. Guardian.

            She pulled back, looking behind her for Akish’s form. Though when she saw him standing there, she wished she hadn’t. She stood between them, quivering and breathless.

            Without a word, the man stepped back and made a wide-armed gesture that seemed to say, Choose. Light from the window - natural, orangish-yellow, late daylight - fell on his face. It wasn’t Neeman’s father. Looking at it again, Pima couldn’t see how she’d thought it was. This man was thinner, more angular in features, and he had a salt and pepper beard. A stranger. Why would the Tower choose a stranger to confront her?

            Pima cringed back from him again, away from the window. If the view on the other side of glass was true, she didn’t want to see. The door seemed more promising. At least, she was used to doors by now. But there was no lock. There had to be a lock!

            Finally, she turned away from the window and stared down the short hallway that led off the right of the door. There, caught in a beam of light from the window, was a golden keyhole. No door, no opening, no knob. Just a keyhole set in the wall.

            That was it. The beginning. The end. She inched towards it. Raised the key. Lined it up with the lock. It slid in with a faint click. Pima became aware of a low buzzing sound in her head. Though whether it was the key’s doing or the effects of just standing here, she didn’t know.

            Her hand shook as she grasped the key’s handle and twisted it...or tried to. It wouldn’t budge. She jiggled it and immediately felt silly. It wasn’t just any old stuck lock. She looked back at the two shadowed figures behind her; they stared back with impassive faces.

            “How—-?”

            The door behind the strange man clicked open. He moved out of the way, and Akish’s form stepped to the other side of the door, two silent sentinels. Pima’s legs trembled, her breath caught in her chest, and her head swam, but she took those ten shuffling steps forward, eyes locked on Akish’s face.

            Then one more step, face turned toward the door, eyes closed. And one more, until she stood at the inner room’s threshold, and peered inside.

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            A woman lay on a bed in the corner of the room, seemingly asleep. She stirred when a man came into the room and struggled to sit up.

               “Easy, easy,” the man murmured. He propped a pillow behind the woman’s back and handed her the blanket he held in his arms. The woman adjusted the blanket in her arms and smiled at the tiny face that appeared.

               “Oh, she’s sleeping…” the woman whispered.

               “And so should you. We have a big day tomorrow. Unless you’re reconsidered…?”

               “Jaro…” the woman sighed.

               Jaro - that was Pima’s father’s name. This was her father, and the woman he had just bent down to kiss on the forehead was...could this woman be her mother? She was young, healthy, happy. But it was her. And that meant the baby in her arms...

               “Where is Akish?”

               “Asleep downstairs. He was so excited to meet his little sister, but he didn’t last long. He stayed up all night with you.”

               “I’m sure he did. Jaro, about tomorrow...I don’t want to wait. No one wants to wait, except perhaps you. I know it’s because you don’t want to leave us, but bad timing aside, we have to stick to the schedule. You have to go to the office in the morning, as you early as you can. You have to activate it tomorrow.”

               “Tomorrow. So soon? I didn’t know it would feel like this.”

               “Like what?” she asked

               “Standing on the edge of a cliff, getting reach to jump without knowing what’s waiting below.”

               “And I’m giving you permission to be the first to jump.” Mother laughed, and then she sucked in a breath when baby Pima stirred. But she didn’t wake, and the two adults relaxed again.

Jaro caressed the baby’s face from forehead to cheek. When he looked at his wife again, his features were drawn tight with worry. “Activating the Tower without the senior engineer? It seems wrong.”         

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            Pima reeled back from the doorway. She missed her mother’s response. Blood pounded in her ears as she stared from her mother to her father.

            They were wearing the same coat. Long, white, ironed. But they didn’t look like much protection against the cold. Her father turned slightly, and she saw a silver medal dangling above his name tag. Her eyes searched her mother’s coat and found no hint of silver. The little round medal or insignia or whatever it was was gold.

            Matching coats with name tags - one silver, one gold. Gold like the key.

            In her mother’s story - her version of events - her father was the engineer. Which she guessed he was. He was the one making the decisions. He was the one who experienced guilt too late. He was the one who crafted the key and left it for her. As Neeman had once called it - her father’s inheritance. He was the powerful and reluctant engineer caught between duties. Her mother had never mentioned playing a role other than his wife, his supporter.

            But it had been her. She was the head engineer. She was ordering the Tower to be built, to be activated. There was no hesitation or guilt on her face. Not yet.

            And suddenly the burden of guilt Pima had seen her struggle under all these years took on a new weight.

            Pima had to do something, and quick, or the guilt would descend, along with the Tower’s oppressive shadow. This was her purpose. To change history. But perhaps she couldn’t change history until the past was set to rights.

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               Pima turned her attention back to her parents.

               “Yes, check on him, and then get some rest yourself. We’ll be fine.”

               Jano bent to give his wife and daughter each another kiss, his eyes lingering on baby Pima’s face, and then he strode to the door.

               “Wait!” Pima surged forward and in the following disorientation - she hadn’t known until she was standing in the room that she would be able to cross the threshold - he slipped out.

               “Wait!”

               Pima’s mother, who had already started to drift, her eyes half closed, jerked upright. Her eyes fixed on Pima for an instant - wide with terror - and then the baby, also startled awake, made an unhappy sound, and her mother’s attention was pulled back.

               Pima’s heart stuttered when she heard the baby - herself - cry. She stumbled across the room to the door that her father had disappeared through, hands grasping the metal handle just as her legs gave way. She only had enough energy to tug at the handle weakly.

               She sat there slumped against the door while her mother tended to the baby and laid her to sleep in a little bed beside her own. As soon as the babe closed her eyes and grew still, she found herself about to stand.

               “Mother. Mother! Can you hear me?”

               Her dream leadened eyes stared blankly at Pima for a minute before she turned away, murmuring, “Sleep. I need sleep.”

               Pima reached out and shook her shoulders. She jumped and pushed Pima’s hands away. So she could could feel her! Then she should be able to hear her as well.

               “Janu...Janu!” Her mother reached toward her bedside table.

               “Yes. Call him back, Mom. Tell him not to activate the Tower tomorrow. Call it off, Mom! You know it’s a bad idea. It is. Dad knows! Listen to him. Tell him not to do it. They’ll listen to you!”

               She couldn’t be sure how much got through as she slipped in and out of substance. The connection between the other Pima and herself waxed and waned, as if they shared a single reserve of energy, or being. As soon as the thought popped into Pima’s head, she knew it was true. She could only hope that her presence wasn’t draining too much from the newborn.

               She forgot about where she was, what she was doing, beyond convincing the woman to listen to her. This continued all night, or as long as it took for the moon outside to set and the sun to begin to rise. She yelled and paced and threw herself at the door her father had disappeared through. When the baby was awake, she would wilt, and she’d have to work hard not to close her eyes, to be lulled by the sweetness of these precious moments between baby and mother.

               The woman did not look directly acknowledge her again. But she would cock her head and look at her, or through, Pima’s pacing form. Once or twice, she threw a pillow over the top of her head when Pima tried to speak to her. But she never responded more than that.

               She just wouldn’t listen. She must be thinking she was losing her mind.

               It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Pima thought. She was trapped here. But she shouldn’t be. It wasn’t the plan.

               The man - he would return. He would listen. Who was he? It didn’t matter anymore. Just that he would listen, and perhaps help her.

               But he didn’t return. The little black box her mother had continually reached for during the night buzzed and buzzed. But she was sound asleep now. And the baby - The baby? Yes, there was a baby - shifted in her sleep, but she didn’t wake either.

               The man did not return. And the box buzzed. And the sun rose. And Pima sat there, life slowly draining out of her.

               A boom rent the air, and the floor shook. Pima’s eyes flew open, her head whipping around. The woman and baby snoozed on, undisturbed.

               A second boom. Now the woman stirred. She stretched and reached for the black box; it slipped out of her fingers at a third and final boom. The ground shook so violently that Pima feel to the floor, but her mother rose smoothly from the bed and hurried to the window set into the opposite wall.

               A feeling pulled at the back of Pima’s head, a feeling like someone, or something, was watching her.

               “Oh, Janu! No, no, no. Akish!” She rushed past Pima to the door. She flung it open and screamed again, “Akish!” Then she was back at the window, black box in hand. “No, no, no…”

               Pima tracked her across the room and back. The door at the back of the room - not the one through which Akish would soon come running through - caught her attention. She’d forgotten there was another door.

               The man stood outside the door. Janu. He looked a little different, but he was there, staring at the scene impassively.

               Pima struggled to her feet. “You! You...you have to—-”

            The floor hadn’t stopped shifting. He caught her around the shoulders and pulled her from the room. Pima blinked as she took in the two figures standing in the metal foyer, the hallway, floors, and walls cracking and crumbling, the scene on the other side of the hall opposite the window.

            Pima still felt about as weak and tired as a newborn, but her senses returned to her when she saw the wall with the lock shimmering transparant between her and the man standing on the other side before an identical wall and keyhole and key.

            He turned the key. There was a click. And then a horrible scream. 

            The man - her father - screamed in pain. He tried to pull the key back out, tried to release the key’s handle, but they were both held fast. Shadows leapt from his eyes and open mouth, from the keyhole, from the cracks opening up in the wall.

            Time shifted, the scene elongated and compressed, shoving this Janu to the side and making room for a long line of Janus, each of a mirror of the first Janu’s agony, to appear.

            Pima tore her gaze from this vision to look behind her. A line of Pimas wound down the hall behind her and down the stairs. A hundred Pimas all stuck to the floor, their expressed frozen in various stages of hopelessness and horror.

            And this is the vision that undid the knot that held that part of herself that she’d been holding onto in her mind...slip...She felt it. She was unraveling.

            “Ahhhhh!”

            Her hands flew to her head, her heart, her mouth. She threw herself at the figure of her  father and beat at him with her fists. She stumbled into Akish’s chest and threw her arms around him, too drained for tears or words to express all the heartache she felt at her failure, her inability to cage time, to turn back the clock, to save him, save them, save anything.

            As time incarnate, the Tower had always seemed two things to her: imposing and cruel. Now, she knew that time was impassive. It marched on because it must, hard and immovable but not cruel.

            Unchangeable. She was truly trapped here. It wasn’t a new thing. She’d been trapped here for who knew how long. And nothing had changed. There was nothing she could do. She was already gone...and Akish and Neeman...and her mother and father...and the Tower. The Tower kept going. It held together their lives.

            It held their lives. Little Pima. She was stuck here as well,  though she didn’t know it yet. She had come all this way to stand here at the end and do nothing.

            “Move forward. Forward, not back.” The words were pulled out of her burning throat. “Too late...to move back...”

            She wrenched herself away from the Tower’s phantom. It didn’t try to stop her, but this Akish-like presence was captivating. She pushed him away and bolted for the door.

            The Tower shuddered violently as she made her way across the room in fits and starts, ignoring her mother and Akish, who clung to each and stared out the window at the Tower in the distance. Pima wasn’t tempted even to take a peek. Her whole attention was focused on the tiny figure lying still in her miniature bed.

               She didn’t have time to hesitate. She had to share her message in a way that could not be erased by Time. Without thought, Pima pulled the knife from her boot, scooped the baby up, and pressed the tip of her knife against the baby’s ankle.

               She was no artist, and she couldn’t stop her hand from shaking, but she managed to recreate a tiny version of the moon from the key that Neeman would hold in his hand. She pressed this imagie into the baby’s thin skin with cold steel three times. And then the letters F W D.

               The baby whimpered and scrunched up her face, but she quieted as Pima whispered to her. “Find him faster. Trust him easier. Tell him everything. Don’t make our mistakes.”

               She bound the wound with a tight piece of her shirt and brought the baby to her shoulder, holding her tight.

               “Do better,” three voices echoed at once. Two behind her, one before.

               Pima looked up and locked every with five-year-old Akish. His eyes were big with fear but also with curiosity and wonder and hope, the same mixture that had propelled them all these years.

               Seventeen-year-old Pima held out baby Pima, and her brother stepped forward to take her. A spark traveled between them, and he opened his mouth to speak, but his mother reached blindly behind her and whimpered, “Akish.” Pima shook her head. He stepped back, the baby nestled in his arms; Pima took a step back as well, and her searching hand found the guardian’s.

            She was lifted off her feet and cradled in gentle arms. Good, because the baby opened her eyes at that moment, and her gaze sent such a shock through Pima that she knew it would have knocked her to her knees. They stared at each other, unafraid.

            “Do better. Don’t look back. Do better. She’ll do better, won’t she?”

            Pima lay limp in her brother’s arms as he carried her out of the room, across the foyer, past the window, to the ledge where the stairs used to stand. He looked down at her, a question in his eyes. Her vision blurred, or its face did, and she didn’t know who she was looking up at. Akish or Neeman or her father. But it was enough to know she wasn’t alone.

            The figure took one step forward, and they fell into the dark abyss.

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            The Tower, eyeless and mouthless, continued to watch as the baby opened her eyes wide. Then she opened her mouth and released her first full throated cry. The guardian was not needed anymore. Not until the girl returned.

Absently, in the way of one not quite capable of thoughts or feelings, it wondered if this time might be different. The past could not be altered. The future...it was possible.      

          It couldn’t bring itself to care. But still, having some company had been nice. It hoped that she would hurry and return soon. Until then, it would stand. The immovable Tower of Time.


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There's a lot going on here...
whatdoyouneed rated this work:

Nov. 12, 2019, 10:22 a.m.

It makes sense that a story dealing with the concept of time would present things in a non-linear fashion. That being said, I found this a bit hard to follow at times. Even in the beginning, characters seemed to just appear out of nowhere.
There are points where you build tension and set the scene beautifully. One part that stands out is, "The visions became more and more fractured. Images of faces, mostly, interspersed with the land. Horrible, hideous visions of poisonous fog and blackened fields and starless nights, dead wildlife and scared, scarred people. Gunshots and screams and boxy monsters that exploded in such force, whole buildings were knocked down."
Your characters come across as a bit generic at times. You could maybe hint at the greater motivation earlier on in the story: not just that the Tower of Time has destroyed their home, but they feel a deeper sense of personal responsibility given their parents' role in creating the tower. Also, I don't really get a sense of distinct personalities. The dialogue comes across as a bit stilted and bland.
Maybe this was a bit too ambitious for a work of short fiction. This concept could easily fill an entire novel. Either the story needs more room to breathe, or you should zero in on a particular portion of the story and really expand on it.

Dialogue

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