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Plot Summary

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Present Time

November 15

12:01 AM

It begins.

Who even is this Jason Smith? Are larger forces at work here?

Is the future inevitable or can it be changed? Can actions we take now prevent the fate of Jason Smith or will the very act of trying do so cause it to happen?

Time is running out. We must do something now if we are to do anything at all.

8:35 PM

The scene: Joey Wong’s. The table is set for two, but Jason sits alone, fuming, under the leering gaze of a Maneki-neko cat sculpture on a shelf. She’s over half an hour late for their date. Jason is an uncommonly punctual person (although perhaps not abnormally so for a tax examiner) and despises tardiness in others. Besides… (his mind races)… this wouldn’t be the first time she has stood him up. What could be keeping her? Could it be him again?

He scowls at the waiter and orders another pint… his third, or fourth? He almost loses count, but then retraces the evening in his mind… one beer when he sat down, the second after he left the sharp cell phone message at Andrea’s apartment, the third right after that old Italian guy came in with those two thick Tony-Soprano-types, and this is the fourth. Well, then. Jason derives some small satisfaction from sorting out that account.

With nothing to do but wait, Jason studies the restaurant’s other patrons. The old Italian is having some kind of animated conversation with his companions-- lecturing them, even. At another table, an elderly couple: a man with a handlebar mustache and a matronly woman with a fur stole eat quietly and wordlessly. At one end of the bar, a prostitute, straight out of central casting--fishnet stockings and all. At the other, a Catholic priest nurses a cup of coffee which he supplements from time to time from a flask.

The door opens, and she finally arrives…


November 16

9:30 PM

November 16. 9:30 PM. The following email is sent from Jason Smith’s laptop:

To: Andrea
From: Jason Smith
RE: Let’s talk

Andrea--
I’m really sorry about last night. I shouldn’t have said what I did, and I feel awful. We need to talk. I’m at the cafe. If you can, meet me at 11, after your shift ends.
--J.

10:25 PM

Jason Smith arrived at the local 24/7 coffee house and ordered a small coffee, 2 sugers. As he waits for his drink Jason Smith begins late night tax work on his laptop.

Afew blocks away, a black van speeds down Main St. The three men inside argue with each other over a small box. Suddenly the driver hits the brakes, too late, as a car turns in front of the van.

10:30 PM

Screeching tires, shattering glass. Two drivers emerge. Words of anger fly. A gun is drawn but not fired. Sirens and flashing lights. Three men are hauled off, one by ambulance.

And inside the nearby coffee shop, Jason Smith returns his attention to his laptop.

November 17

8:45AM

The following e-mail arrives on Jason Smith’s laptop.

To:J

From:Andrea

Sorry I didn’t show up the other night. Meet me at the cafe on Wens at 8PM. I’ll talk to you there and then.

Meanwhile, a strange figure walks out of the alley next to the cafe in a hurry, carrying a small and damaged box. In his rush he does not see a small bag fall out of a hole in the box and land between two trash cans in the alley. The stranger hurried down the street and out of sight.

November 18

1:30 AM

A woman called Andrea was found dead outside her home. Her skull was crushed.

2:30 AM

It had been a rather mundane shift for Duncan Ovangle, the friendly neighbourhood detective. Nothing special, until this arrived on his desk that was. A horribly mutilated corpse of a woman in her mid-twenties, wearing nothing but a necklace, her skull crushed by some manner of blunt object in what looked like an attempted mugging. Most muggers didn’t take a person’s clothes though, giving Duncan an awry feeling that there was something else at work here. The necklace looked valuable too, so why didn’t the mugger take that?

9:30 AM

Old, stale newspapers fly into the air in a chaotic explosion of grunting and spluttering. The scents of a body seldom washed and a flask seldom untouched saturate the air. As the dust settles, a man is seen lounging inside of a large cardboard box smothered with grease stains. He groans and takes a swig of his flask to beat back his ever-present hangover. A sign lies next to him, crudely inscribed with the words, “War vet screwed by government. Will wurk 4 booze”. After another exasperated sigh and an obscene gesture in the direction of the sun, the man slowly manages to climb to his feet. Rubbing his throbbing forehead, he stumbles over to a pair of trash cans in hopes of finding something to eat. He notices a small bag lying haphazardly between the twin cans and shoves it casually into one of his many coat pockets along with some torn gloves and a half-eaten Big Mac.

2:00 PM

Dr Marcus Shade drives down Main Street in his Bentley. He parks outside Arth’s Antique Shop and exits his car. He withdraws a small red package from his coat and pushes it through the large gap in the door of the shop. He then bends down, takes some chalk out of his pocket and draws a mysterious hieroglyph - a picture of a swan - on the Sidewalk. He returns to his Bentley and drives down towards 6th Street.

5:15PM

Jason Smith is returning home from work after another long day. Along the way he decides to get a coffee to relax. As he passes the alley Jason bumps into the local homeless drunk. "Ey man, can ya *hic* spare afew bu*hic*ucks?" Before Jason could answer, the poor sap promtly passes out, causing a small red leather bag to fall out of his coat. Jason Smith picks up the bag and sees the letters M.S printed on it. Knowing there was no way it was the drunk's Jason sticks it into his coat.

At that very moment Jason's cell rings. It was a voicemail from Andrea from last night. Wondering why she called so late Jason started the message.

"J, it's me Andrea. I need your help. I found out that the company I work for isn't all it says it is. They are planning something, something big that could upheave the government as we speak. The boss was really mad after some of his men lost a bag with his plans. Hopefully I can find it before he does. I'm on my to your place. I'm sorry that I couldn't tell you why I haven't been going out with you more. I couldn't risk you getting involved. It's just..." At that moment Jason heard a loud crack on the phone, followed by a thud and a slight whimper from Andrea. Another thud and for a moment everything was quiet. Then a new voice could be heard. "Make sure you get every last thing that could I.D her as working at the warehouse. The doctor told us that none of his plans can get out." There was a slight crunch and the message ended.

November 19

10:42 PM

A droplet of water blows in the night’s frigid wind. It comes to rest on a dark mass of fabric and is not noticed by the wearer of the 3-quarter length jacket before it disappears between the fibres.

Randall Capon, Private Eye, lets his face retreat further beneath his upturned collar as he treads on the remnants of his last cigarette. His eye stops fleetingly on the pallid, flickering reflection of the BuckyStar Cafe’s neon sign on the damp sidewalk. He’s tramped the entire town looking for his next box of Marlboro’s.

This place is his last hope.

Drat.

November 20

2:00 PM

"Yeh, yeh... I got the thing you wanted. Took me quite a while to decipher it, but I thinks its good now. Pick a place for the meeting and I'll bring it to ya. Arth's not risking making this deal at the old store. Oh, and I hope you cover your part of the deal..." A phone is hanged. Today, the Antique Shop will be closing up earlier.

9:15 PM

Duncan opened the case file “104238: Homicide: Andrea Montgomery 18/11/2008”

The rabbit hole was getting deeper. As the body lay in the morgue, more and more unusual things were popping up in the case. First there was the necklace. After making the relevant inquiries, Duncan had discovered that it had been bought not a week prior from Arth’s antique shop, on main street. After interrogating the shopkeep, Arth, an elderly, hunchbacked individual with thick horn-rimmed glasses and a slight preference for his right leg, Duncan ascertained that the purchaser had been a tall, middle aged, brown-haired man in a business suit who handed him a cheque in the name J. Smith, which the shopkeep had accepted in misplaced good faith. The cheque had bounced when he went to cash it, leaving the shopkeep out of pocket. Detective Ovangle had reassured him that he would try and ensure the necklace was returned following the conclusion of the investigation but could make no promises at this moment in time.

The woman had been identified as Andrea Montgomery. Despite living in the area for as long as most on the street could remember, Duncan was having a hard time finding information about her from the other residents of the street. All the information he could gather about her was that she was somewhat of a recluse, and never said a word to any of her neighbours, though they were able to tell him that she was usually away from home from about 4pm - 11pm on weeknights. Her house was suspiciously empty, all it contained was a bed, a phone and a laptop, the hard drive of which had been wiped sometime in the last week, a couple of pots and pans, a few non-descript clothes.

The only other evidence he had to go by was that the murder weapon was an adjustable spanner, which had been determined during the autopsy. That and her nakedness, which still puzzled Duncan. This wasn’t the only case he was working on at the moment, and the others needed equal attention. He took a swig of whiskey and opened a case file that read “104244: Shade Industries Warehouse Robbery 18/11/2008” in big red letters across the top.

November 21

10:01 PM

Jason Smith walked along the sidewalk. On his way home, he was stopped by a man in a trenchcoat.

“You are in great danger, Jason Smith. The Shade Industries Warehouse, which the late Andrea was employed by, feels that you know too much about their plans. They want you...dead.” said the mysterious man.

“W-w-who are you?” stuttered Jason.

“I am Rodlen, leader of the local DD...er...is it an A or an F right now?”

“F, I think.”

“Good. Those idiots in high command really need to stop changing the name. Well, I’m the leader of the local DDF group, Rodlen.”

“Didn’t you disband?”

“No. We just work in secret now. Taxes really sucked. Well, back on topic, the Shade Industries Warehouse wants you dead. For that reason, I am giving you access to somewhere which may be safer than your home.”

Rodlen handed Jason a card.

“This card gives you security level A clearance in the DDF, allowing you access to the least secure secure areas. This may keep you a bit safer.” said Rodlen.

“Thank you.” replied Jason.

Jason hurried back home.

November 22

2:30 PM

Jason Smith was eating in BuckyStar Café, as he does once or twice a week. Just as he sat down to eat, a black van, which he suspected was following him, parked itself right in front the café. Through the tinted glass, he thought he could make out a couple of fairly buff men staring at him.

As he was leaving, he spoke with an employee, asking if there was another exit. Puzzled, the employee said yes, and described the alley, as well as the location of the exit. Just as the confused worker was about to tell him that the kitchen was for employees only, Jason Smith made a sudden break for it.

The Shade operatives in the van got out of their van and made a dash to the alley. Jason, ignoring the two people already in the alley, hurled himself into a conveniently empty trashcan. He heard some conversation, some grumbling, and some foot steps leaving.

The trash can lid is lifted. One of the people in the alley says, "It’s okay, they’re gone now," and helps Jason out of the metal cylinder. He thanks them and asks them who they are and why they helped him, to which they give vague and useless responses. Jason decides to ask no more questions and leaves the alley without further incident.

He makes a mental note to take a shower as soon as possible and to be careful around BuckyStar Café. Someone could have possibly tipped Shade off about his location.

November 24

12:00 AM

Jason wakes up to a loud noise in the middle of the night. One of his windows is broken. His cell phone has been stolen.

2:00 PM

Dr Marcus Shade drives down Main Street, before turning into 1st Street. He is heading towards his villa outside of town. Suddenly, the handsfree phone of his Bentley starts ringing. “Answer” he mutters.

“Doctor...it never got delivered. I don’t know where it is now...”

“What about the Swan?”

“It got washed away by the rain.”

“Have you dealt with Ms Montgomery? She was telling her little friend far too much...”

“Yes. She is out of the picture. Should we remove Mr Smith too?”

“No. Keep him in the game a little bit longer. I want to see what he does.”


Dr Shade hangs up and continues towards his house. Once there, he parks, exits his car, and walks up towards his house. He heads towards an inner room.


“Was Montgomery dispatched, Shade?”

“Yes, Sir...”

“Are your people still stationed at the Warehouse?”

“Some...yes.”

“Were all of the packages delivered?”

“All except one, Sir. I don’t think Arthexis noticed...”

“This could ruin the whole operation. Don’t let it happen again!”

“No, Sir. I won’t, Sir”

Marcus Shade walks backwards out of the room, still facing the voice. He takes a small phone out of his pocket, dials something and mutters, “Time for Stage Two. I want people at the Library, the DDF Headquarters and plenty of people at Arth’s. Tonight” As he speaks, he scratches an image of a swan in the wall with his ring.

6:00 PM

  • CLANG*

Father Mackenzie, having completed writing a sermon that no one will hear, puts on his coat and mittens and descends the rickety stairs from his office in the rectory behind St. Matthews. He enters the church, crosses in front of the altar (pausing to genuflect) and shivers before a small door in the back of the church as he fumbles for the key.

It was a chilly evening, and the church’s heating system had apparently broken again. Father Mackenzie assumed that the clanging sound was coming from the pipes again-- for the past several years, as the church’s physical plant continued to deteriorate, he had frequently been startled by similar sounds from the heating vents as the pipes spasmed and shuddered like some tortured soul undergoing exorsim. Perhaps he could take a flashlight down there and see what was the matter, and then perhaps press upon Barry at the furnace repair company (the son of a late parishoner) to see what he could do on a discounted basis.

Father Mackenzie turned on the flashlight (the lights having failed long ago) and began to descend the stairs, only to nearly drop the flashlight when another loud *CLANG* resounded like a mockery of a carillion’s bell. That didn’t sound like the heater.

He composed himself, reached the bottom of the stairs, then noticed what appeared to be a jagged line of light on the basement wall. He approached and inspected it, finding it to be a wide and deep crack in the basement wall that the church shared with the Shade warehouse next door. There was another loud *CLANG*, this time very apparently coming from the other side of that basement wall. Pressing his face up to the crack, Father Mackenzie discovered that he could see into the basement. Curious about the source of the sounds, he observed closely…

9:24 PM

Jason Smith attempted to sleep in the DDF HQ, after the midnight incident. He had a hard time, though, as there were helicopters inside.

Meanwhile, in the Commander’s Office, Rodlen was surprised by a young DDF patrolman.

“Sir, there are black Shade helicopters outside, armed with machineguns!!!” said the patrolman.

Rodlen activated the alarm. “Shade copters detected!!! Anti-air groups, prepare for combat! Kalumson, strike with the Awesome Deathship! You know, the one with the mess of skulls and stuff.”

9:30 PM

The library was empty, apart from two men and a woman, seated around a table, whispering. Oze began to feel nervous. He was the only librarian currently on duty, and the three figures in the dark intimidated him. He pretended to type at his computer and scan in some books as he listened to their hushed conversation.

“You sent helicopters? Do you have any idea how stupid you are, Carlton?” said the tallest man, a figure hidden by a black coat and dark glasses.

“I’m sorry, Dr Shade. You said...on the phone...” replied a shorter, fatter man.

“Shut up. Genevieve, how is operation Red Swan coming along?”

“Splendid, Sir!” giggled the woman. “The Warehouse is producing one hundred units a day. We keep them in the bags, of course.”

“Good. Have you done anything about the noise? We don’t want any of the townspeople to get suspicious.” “I’ll get Marconi onto it right away, Sir.”

“Excellent. Carlton, you can deal with Arthexis, and call off those damn helicopters. This is espionage, not war!”


The woman and the fat man departed, leaving the mysterious character with the dark glasses on his own. He looked intimidating, and was sitting with his fingers steepled, staring at a bust of Copernicus. “Excuse me, sir,” said Oze from behind the desk, “would you like any assistance? We’re about to close.”

“I am about to leave” said the man coldly.

“Uh...alright, sir” said Oze meekly.

The man arose, walked over to the door and left silently. Through the window, Oze saw a Bentley disappear down 1st Street,

9:35 PM

His co-worker stepped in from his break and Gnauga stepped out onto his. Finally, peace and quiet in the Main Street Alley. Nothing like some time to bring out a stool, a laptop, and hit the good ‘ol Blognomic. Half-way through a new post, there was a sudden crash and ensuing racket, coming from the DDF, or A, headquarters. The crash caused him to jump off of his stool, almost dropping his poor laptop onto the hard pavement. He caught it just in time, placed it gently on his stool, and ran to the sidewalk to see what the hell just interrupted him.

His jaw dropped at the sight of a fairly awesome Deathship emerging from the headquarters, while black choppers buzzed around it, guns a-blazing both ways. He grabbed for his cellphone camera and snapped a couple of blurry pictures and one relatively clear picture, when he could finally get his hand to hold still. He gaped for a few minutes, when suddenly, the choppers stopped firing for a bit, turned around and seemed to be heading home for the night.

He glanced at his cellphone clock, and dashed back inside. He scribbled a note to himself to call the local detective or private eye about this as soon as his shift ended at midnight, and stuffed it in his pocket.

10:00 PM

  • CLANG*

Father Mackenzie, having completed writing a sermon that no one will hear, puts on his coat and mittens and descends the rickety stairs from his office in the rectory behind St. Matthews. He enters the church, crosses in front of the altar (pausing to genuflect) and shivers before a small door in the back of the church as he fumbles for the key.

It was a chilly evening, and the church’s heating system had apparently broken again. Father Mackenzie assumed that the clanging sound was coming from the pipes again-- for the past several years, as the church’s physical plant continued to deteriorate, he had frequently been startled by similar sounds from the heating vents as the pipes spasmed and shuddered like some tortured soul undergoing exorsim. Perhaps he could take a flashlight down there and see what was the matter, and then perhaps press upon Barry at the furnace repair company (the son of a late parishoner) to see what he could do on a discounted basis.

Father Mackenzie turned on the flashlight (the lights having failed long ago) and began to descend the stairs, only to nearly drop the flashlight when another loud *CLANG* resounded like a mockery of a carillion’s bell. That didn’t sound like the heater.

He composed himself, reached the bottom of the stairs, then noticed what appeared to be a jagged line of light on the basement wall. He approached and inspected it, finding it to be a wide and deep crack in the basement wall that the church shared with the Shade warehouse next door. There was another loud *CLANG*, this time very apparently coming from the other side of that basement wall. Pressing his face up to the crack, Father Mackenzie discovered that he could see into the basement. Curious about the source of the sounds, he observed closely…

November 25

7:01 AM

"Salvage squads, get as much as you can from the few helicopters we shot down! We cannot allow Shade to use things like a bunch of nukes, a killer dolphin, and the device that caused the Antarctica Rift!" shouted Rodlen.

"Sir, this really isn't helping us stay secret." said Kalumson.

November 29

11:42 AM

Rodlen stood facing the entire local DDA or DDF group. “Fellow DDA or DDF members, I have two things to say. The first is that High Command should really stop fooling around with our name. The second is that we have done well at protecting Jason Smith, but that is not enough! We must counterattack Shade! For dimensional stability!!!”

“For dimensional stability!” the crowd shouted.

12:35 PM

The alley. A simple place. A man places a package into a hollow nook in one of the walls.

Early Evening

The Operation had been running smoothly for four days. Dr Marcus Shade smiled to himself as he walked up the ornate hallway of his home. “Shade!” A voice came from an inner room.

“Yes, Sir...” “How many units reached the Destination?”

“One thousand, as planned, Sir.”

“Good. Does anyone know too much?”

“No. Montgomery’s former partner, Mr Smith may be privy to some sensitive details. He seems to be worrying rather a bit. Those blasted DDF have taken him under their wing to protect him. Bah!”

“Remove him. Remove him before Christmas, or you face losing your livelihood, or your life...”

“I will consider a plan with my staff. Genevieve and Marconi will plan it, Carlton will execute. Before Christmas. Yes.”

Marcus remembered when Andrea joined Shade Industries as a secretary. She was working for the internet-hosting branch of the company, but was soon promoted to junior administration. She took to eavesdropping on the meetings of the senior staff, and began to learn of the power of SWAN. She learned that the web-hosting, stationery and arms-manufacturing branches of the company were all fronts for its real purpose…

He then thought of Jason Smith, unwillingly brought into the picture through his links to Andrea. He couldn’t be killed until the Operation was complete, or questions would be asked…

He walked out to his Bentley, got in and headed towards the town. All along 1st Street preparations were being made for the ‘Christmas Fayre’ on December 23rd. He spoke to his handsfree telephone.

“Dial Genevieve”

“Dr Shade, sir?”

“We need to get Smith out of DDF so that he will be accessible. I want you and Marconi to infiltrate the Headquarters and find the control panel marked ‘Planar Shift’. Move the Headquarters into Plane 327-A. It should leave Jason Smith behind. He will have no choice but to return to his home.”

“Yes, sir. We’re on it.”

“Good. Let it be done...”

November 30

December 2

10:37 AM

It was the slow hour between the early morning crowd and the first lunch customer. Bucky was sitting behind the counter with a mystery novel when he heard a shout from the kitchen.

“What the...”

It sounded like Mike, the cook. Bucky set down his book and rushed into the kitchen. There, he saw Mike holding a green glowing rock, with a box marked “medium shrimp” on the table next to him.

“Where’d you get that?”

“It came with the meat shipment yesterday morning. This box is full of them.”

“And we’re short a box of shrimp?”

“Yep. No idea what to do with them.”

“If anyone knows what that is, it’s Arthexis,” sighed Bucky. “I’ll show it to him when my shift ends. In the meantime, keep them away from the food.”

12:01 PM

“My friends, our preparation shall be boosted today. Donate to the research department. Aid it in researching, and we may become better prepared. I myself have contributed 100 dollars to it.” Rodlen said, facing a swarm of DDA/DDF/whatever agents.

December 3

11:10 AM

“As you all know, there was a major security breach yesterday involving an attempt to move the DDF/DDA Local HQ across dimensions. I have spent some money to make the base shifter only respond to me.” Rodlen said, facing the DDA/F again.

December 4

11:30 PM

A slight jingling.

Mike, the slow-witted but hard-working prep cook from the BuckyStar Cafe, marched through the door and into Arthexis’ antique shop. He didn’t notice the tarps that had been thrown about, the wrappings, the out of place containers. He didn’t notice Arthexis’ annoyed look.

“Hey boss, a got something you might want to take a look at.” Mike dropped one of the glowing green rocks onto Arthexis’ countertop. “Any clue what this is? There’s a whole stack of them at the restaurant.”

Words don’t often fail Arthexis but the idiotic breach in protocol and execution, the bungling of Shade’s men again, this predicament, stunned him.

“Uh, erm, how--what… is that?”

“We was kinda’ hopin’ you would know. I mean, I can tell you one thing: It ain’t no shrim--”

PHEWT

“Aw damn damn damn!” Arthexis threw up his hands in disgust. He verged on vomiting.

The store proprietor was fine, save for the blood and small bits of brain that had just found a new home on his clothes and counter.

A figure, familiar yet different, dressed in all black and hidden in an unnatural shadow, stood in front of the closed entrance way. He slowly lowered the silenced pistol to his side.

Arthexis squinted. “....Shade?”

An audible grunt. “A Shade. One Shade.” He stepped forward, and Arthexis instinctively drew back. This Shade wasn’t his Shade; he was burnt on the side of his face. He limped--dragged, really--his left leg with him. As he came into the light, more scars were visible on his body.”

“What the heck happened to you, Shade?”

“Nothing that can’t be undone.” He waved at the body. “This is the first step. This was where it started to go wrong. Give me your phone.”

Disturbed, disquieted, disgusted, Arthexis was in no mood to object. He handed it to Shade.

“Who are you calling?”

“Myself.”

An eerie chill filled the room. The cell phone booped and beeped. The lone sound that seemed to penetrate the stillness was the soft pitter-patter of a silhouette in a tall hat walking through the evening twilight with a slender cane at his side.

December 5

1:42 AM

A pair of men in security uniforms wandered around the Shade warehouse. These men, who most thought were security guards, were actually DDA/DDF (High Command is full of idiots) agents. They were speaking on their walkie-talkies.

"Kalumson, is your bomb set?"

"Yep. Yours, John?"

"Nope..." A gunshot was heard on John's end.

"John...John...you okay!?!" Kalumson said, clearly panicing.

There was silence. After a while, Kalumson heard a voice behind him.

"Surrender now, DDA agent."

"Actually, I think we are the DDF right now."

"Okay, then surrender now, DDF agent."

"Never."

Kalumson detonated his bomb. The resulting explosion killed both him and the mysterious person behind him, as well as destroying a section of the Shade warehouse.

1:43 AM

Arthexis, the antiquarian hears a loud noise not far away, the impact shaking his establishment slightly. He gets up, picks up his teapot and ours some water into a cup with leaves. "Hmph, they'll see... they'll repent for not believing me. I'll do it myself...."

1:00 PM

Rodlen sat at his desk, head in hand. “How could those twits in higher up keep messing up. First our name and now this. They should have changed those passcodes so Shade couldn’t have even tried to ship us off to another plane. And now we detected another Shade?!? They really should have locked him in our prison plane before he went fully rouge on us.” Rodlen shakes his head. “Why do we get the nuts at this place?”

5:00 PM

Just as Jason is about to leave, his boss walks up carrying a large stack of papers.

"Hey, before you go, I need you to work on this for the next two weeks," Jason's boss says as he slams the stack on Jason's desk. "It is very important that you get this done before Christmas break." Jason's eyes widen. "Come on, man. I know you can do it. I've seen you tackle even BIGGER projects in a shorter amount of time. It'll be nothin' to it."

Jason just stands there stunned as his boss walks away.

December 8

7:21 AM

Some DDA/DDF High Command members were found dead. Their deaths were “accidental”. Everyone rejoiced.

December 9

10:10 PM

A DDA/DDF undercover agent entered Arthexis’s shop, knowing that Arthexis was working with Shade. Said DDA/DDF agent hid a small bomb in a product when Arthexis wasn’t looking, and then purchased a small black box. The agent left the building. A few minuted later, the bomb was triggered. At that point, it was discovered that the bomb was slightly underpowered, and it had destroyed some products, damaged others, injured Arthexis, and barely damaged the shop itself.

11:06 PM

"Police are investigating the mad bombings of the Shade warehouse and a local antique shop. Sources say that these incidents are believed to be connected." crackled the radio in Rodlen's office.

"Dammit, they know too much. I guess I'll get some assassins to kill every officer involved in the investigation. Anything to keep Shade from activating the Antarctica device."

December 10

3:32 PM

"Jenkins, you ol' dog! I hear it's only four days until retirement for you!"

Lieutenant McGlaughlin delivered a stern and hearty backslap to Detective Jenkins. Jenkins was fifty-four, by the end of the week he would have put in his twenty-five years on the force and qualified for his full pension. Twenty-five years: Sometimes dangerous, sometimes frustrating; twenty-five rewarding years serving and protecting the public.

He smiled bashfully. "Hey, watch out Lieutenant, soon they'll be coming for your badge too."

"Ha, I'm not good for nothin' but bein' a cop. Not like you. I hear you got big plans."

Jenkins leaned back against his black unmarked police cruiser. "Shucks, Lt. it ain't too much. With Catherine going to college out east, it's just me and Jeanne at the homestead. We don't got too much planned, just a little trip out to Europe for a few months, then down to Thailand for a week or two. Maybe get to Morocco. The kind of places we've always wanted to go."

"I tells ya' Jenkins, you sound downright domesticated--spending all your money on the woman like that."

"She's earned it, Charlie. All these years on the force. Going on all-night stakeouts, going undercover for drug busts, coming back home with a bullet in my thigh once--I've put Jeanne through a lot of restless nights. Heck, I was so dedicated to my job that I never even took her on a proper honeymoon. Well, I'm going to correct that now."

"That sounds real sweet, Ray."

"Ah screw you, Charlie. If you get all sensitive on me I won't know what to think."

"Haw, think nothing of it. I hear Stacker and Johnson will be takin' over your case."

"Yeah..." Jenkins lingered for a moment. "Yeah, that's the only thing that bugs me. This case. Too many things don't add up, like there's something bigger at work here. Something strange. I tell you, if it weren't for the fact I gave the Cap'n my notice a couple of months ago, I'd stay on this case and see it through...aw, there I go, sounding like an ol' hounddog who can't let go."

"You ain't a young man anymore."

"You got that right, Charlie. Say, let me buy you one last round of coffee."

"I'd like that, Ray."

The two were the resident warhorses of the homicide and SWAT divisions. They were consummate professionals, fine examples of the thin blue line standing between law and lawlessness, between order and chaos. Their senses were usually sharp; but age had dulled them, and time had slowed down their reflexes. They heard the solitary whine of the motorcycle speeding their direction too late, saw the gun too late, reacted too slow.

Jeanne and Catherine and Ray's mother and Charlie's wife and two sons and little dog might be able to find some comfort in knowing that it was over quickly; that the bullets struck vital organs and caused little suffering. Might.

It would look like a gang killing; an initiation, perhaps. The DDF was skilled in the art of deception. It was also skilled in the art of ruthlessness.

December 12, 2008

3:00 PM

Marcus Shade was running. Running was an unusual activity for the typically too-dignified-to-really-exert himself Shade; it was more like he was engaged in a behavior that existed somewhere in the twilight between fleeing and sauntering; a compromise between the expedience of abandoning a previous engagement and the imperative of looking imperious.

As he fled from the premises of his warehouse and into the alleys that connect it to the main strip of town, Shade was struck by the absurdity of his present condition. He was struck by the guile of his opponent, who had, apparently, distracted his entire retinue of guards and henchmen. But, most of all, he was struck by a fist. Ow. He had not expected his apparently lame adversary to be so quick.

Shade crumpled to the ground, landing on his hands and rear. He hurriedly crab-walked backward, soon finding his escape route compromised by a chain link fence. He was trapped.

The afternoon sun blighted his view, but there was little doubt as to the figure towering over him. It was familiar but different--different in shape but also in gravity. Where one aspect was impaired, the other characteristic had grown to accommodate for his new found weakness. And this Shade, our Shade, the Shade of now, had never been accused of lacking gravity to begin with.

Marcus Shade dragged his lame leg with him as he brought his ponderous but still powerful frame closer to his double. He was breathing hard. "I expected you to be wiser about this. You're disappointing me."

"Son of a...I think you broke my nose!"

"If that's the worst that happens then you're still going to come out ahead." Shade pivoted on his good leg and looked back toward the warehouse.

"The key code was bad."

"You broke my nose."

"Why did you change the key code? I knew the key code."

Shade gripped the fence for support. "You sent away all of my men."

Shade turned his head back after a slight pause. "Yes, go figure, they can't tell the difference in our voices."

The undeniable depth of this statement stopped the Shade of the present for a moment.

"I don't know that I buy your story."

This insolence aggravated Shade. "You are stubborn, aren't you?"

Shade, the Shade at home in this time, pushed himself off the fence and took up a more tactically favorable position, cutting this other Shade off from the alley. He fingered a small blade in his pocket.

"Listen, I don't care who you are or where you're from. I run this operation. I always run the operation. Now, I let you help me recover those rocks from Bucky because I needed them. I let you turn out the double-agents in my own fold because it helped me. But any enterprise you have that goes beyond that is your own business, and to the extent that it crosses with mine... you lose." The cool, dull edge of the blade rubbed up against his thumb.

But then that Shade, that otherworldly Shade, impaired physically but also seemingly renewed with some strange strength that only the depths of despair can grant, whispered a name. And Shade stepped back.

He knew the name; Shade knew his backer kept a watchful eye over him; knew that he was, in a way, the chief competitor for the very...resources Shade's employer now sought to have Shade secure.

"What of?"

"He sent me here."

"Why would you work for him? Money?" It was hard to imagine this mysterious fellow eclipsing the sum offered by his current employer.

"No. Something greater than money; an opportunity. The chance to set things right. And that is why I need full access to my...your facility. And that is why I need you; because you're the very fool I've come to protect. If you were anyone else your impudence would have found you a cool plot of land in a cemetery somewhere."

Shade pondered this for a moment. It seemed wild; almost as if it had to be true by the very nature of its unbelievability. But then again, if he were willing to accept this yarn, certainly he could accept a differing version where this Shade before him was an impostor or deceptive provocateur. But the best gamble, right now, was to play along.

"So what are we to do?"

For the first time since this Shade encountered our familiar present, the Shade from beyond smiled. The expression warped the scar across his cheek, rendering it into a hideous hieroglyph. "Keep the Antarctica device away from your former employer. Stop the DDF. But most of all, find the Black Swan."

Shade raised an eyebrow. "The missing one?"

His doppelganger turned to walk back towards the warehouse. "It'll be found at a most inopportune time, Mr. Shade, if we don't find it first."

* * *

Jason Smith, a tax accountant and (if it is not too repetitive to say) a creature of habit, made the odd decision to stop in the midst of his big project and have a cup of tea at Joey Wong's today.

The restaurant was at the height of a lunchtime rush. Alone, as he had been since the still-unsolved slaying of Andrea, Jason opted for the counter. He placed an order for a certain oolong and sat back, drumming his fingers on the table.

"I don't suppose this seat is taken?"

A regal gentleman descended onto the adjacent stool. He smiled at Jason before turning to the waiter and ordering a drink Jason had never heard of.

"So," the impeccably dressed fellow said, "What's good here?"

Later that day at work, while entering some accounting data, Jason paused to reflect on this all but fleeting instant of an encounter. He was struck: not by the stranger's clothes, which seemed to be fashioned out of Dickensian turn-of-the-century whole cloth and fancy; but by his face, even his aura. The man was a cross between Jay Gould and the Cheshire Cat, though without the occasional arrogant bumbling of the former and with none of the frivolous, hidden gaiety of the latter. Yes, indeed, Jason would think to himself--it was, for a short conversation, one of the oddest encounters of his life.

And Jason wondered where one even went about buying a top hat, nowadays.

5:30 PM

Jason Smith sits alone at BuckyStar Cafe, eating his usual meal of a Bacon Cheeseburger with fries and a Dr Pepper. That day at work, he had just finished his most exhausting project yet.

December 13, 2008

2:00 AM

Jason Smith stumbles out of Joey Wong's very drunk. Just as he steps out the door, he sees something shiny on the sidewalk. He bends over to pick it up. "Ooooh, a... penny! And it'as fashe up... toooo!" he gurgles as he stumbles off towards his apartment.

2:04 AM

A strong hand grabs Jason by the shoulder. He turns around to find himself inches from a distorted version of a familiar face. Familiar because he'd seen it so many times at the café. Distorted because of an emotional cocktail that was difficult to read, but most definitely negative.

"B-B-Bucky?"

"Is this your coat?"

Jason tried to swallow, but his mouth was suddenly dry. "Y-yeah. Did I l-leave it at tha c-cafe last night?"

"No, Smith. Not where I found it."

Jason suddenly uncomfortably aware that his back was pressed against a brick wall.

"It was in the kitchen area, along with all the evidence of a burglary. Someone had picked the lock on the Alley door that most customers don't know about, and ransacked the meat freezer. Every single container had been cut open. By the time I found out, a couple thousand Bucks' worth of fish had thawed, meaning that the burglary happened shortly before midnight."

"I d-don't... didn't..."

"Either you did do it, or someone wants me to think you did it. Either way, I want to know why."

"I was at W-wong's. Beer. Can't ya tell?"

"You've had long enough to get drunk afterwards. I don't care. I just hope you're sober enough to tell me what this is."

Jason stared for a second and a half at the green rock in Bucky's hand, then blinked hard twice to clear his vision. The rock was still there, and still green.

"I th-think it's flebotnum ore. Andrea used ta work with tha stuff. Where'd it c-come from?"

"That's what I want to know. That and where the rest of them went. There was a whole box of them at the café this morning, and someone thought they were important enough to stage a burglary."

"I d-didn't do it, I..."

"Enough. I'll talk to you again when you're sober. In the meantime, I have some reading to do."

Jason closed his eyes for a second from fatigue, and Bucky had faded into the crowd by the time he opened them.

December 14, 2008

2:32 PM

The two Shades looked on as workers finished putting the last of the flebotnum ore into a giant machine deep under the warehouse. “Your sure the ore is stable enough to use now?” the uninjured Shade muttered. The other Shade nodded slightly, eyes focused on the strange machine in front of him. “Very well then.” the first Shade said. “I’ll go to the control box and start the F.L.U.X. Once it destroys Rodlen and the… rest of his group, I can get the swan back from the young lad who has been so kind in tending to it after the car accident those idiots caused last month.” As he left to start the machine, the other Shade smiled and placed a note onto the table. He then turned and looked down into the lab as the F.L.U.X started up, bright green light glowing out of it. “This time I’ll make sure that I stay on task.” he muttered to himself as the events of the injured Shade’s timeline caught up to him. The machine suddenly glowed brighter, then blew up. As lab techs worked to contain the fire, the newly injured Shade stumbled into the office. “YOU SON OF A...” he started before seeing that the room was empty of life. He then saw the paper on the table, picked it up and read the note.

“By the time you read this, the events leading to my injury will have happened and set our timeline into place. I was indeed you, coming back to send you on a different path. You must “persuade” Smith into telling you how to stableize the ore. If you don’t… well lets just say the boss will be very upset.”

3:21 PM

Jason Smith's phone rings... It's Shade.

11:50 PM

Hilario Vandenbergh puffed his cigar and, for a moment, indulged his own vanity: The chaos that people of his ilk had to manage to their own profit, like the task of wrestling a bull to the ground, was beautiful in the challenge it posed. But a challenge is, to the strong and smart, an opportunity.

He could plainly see that the end game was in progress--timelines were overlapping, dimensions were being crossed, people were being hurled through time only to wind up in different dimensions... depending on where you looked Jason Smith was alive, dead, a secret agent, a double agent, a giraffe, or on a Caribbean island with Andre Montgomery, having absconded with hundreds of thousands in tax refunds months ago.

In short, a glory mess of things was being made.

Another thing was clear to Hilario. The much-feared dimensional cascade had occurred. In the future, perhaps the one this Hilario was familiar with, someone had trifled with powers beyond their understanding. The effects were proving enormous.

The damage was already done. The only question remained: Who would trigger it? And to what end? Perhaps Vandenbergh himself, that self-styled Captain of the Chronautic Industries, had triggered it. Perhaps a time-traveling porpoise had. The crossing of dimensions and time had had more curious effects in the past.

The past. A quaint concept, he muttered to himself.

December 15, 2008

12:30 PM

Jason Smith is found walking along the Sidewalk to BuckyStar Cafe. He decided to walk today since he got an extra hour of lunch break for finishing that huge project. On his way, he finds another face-up penny.

"Wow! I must be really lucky now," he mutters to himself.

1:45 PM

Nothing happened at this time.

6:55 PM

Darth Cliche joins the DDF/DDA.

December 16, 2008

9:00 AM

Jason Smith arrives at work to find someone else sitting at his desk. He slowly walks up behind the person in the chair, but whoever it is heard him and slowly looks over his shoulder, then turns around. It's Rodlen.

"We've got to get you outta here, Jason. Now!"

"Why now?"

"Shade is still on the loose and we can't seem to control him. He said before that he wouldn't try to kill you before Christmas, but one Christmas comes all bets are off. We have been working hard to try to contain him before then. Our efforts have been in vain. You are in grave danger."

"But I'll be fine through Christmas Day, right?"

"No, you must go now if you ever wish to live to see next year."

"But my parents have already said that they are coming down to see me on Christmas Day. They live so very far away and, knowing them, they are probably already on their way."

"That doesn't matter now. All that matters is keeping you safe until we can capture Shade."

"All you care about is protecting your own little fleet of DDA/DDF agents. When did you EVER start to care about me?!? All this charade ever was was an attempt to protect your agency from--" By this time, Jason's voice had risen almost to a shout.

Rodlen motions to Jason to lower his voice. "Please, calm--"

"You know what? I don't care about you and your little agency any more. I'm staying to see my parents even if it kills me. As for you, get out."

"But--"

"Out! Out of my office before I call security!"

Rodlen chuckled under his breath at the irony but left anyway to avoid making any more of a scene than he already had.

December 17, 2008

1:00 PM

It's Christmas Eve, and Jason Smith's parents are coming for a visit tomorrow. Jason is cleaning his apartment in preparation.

1:30 PM

Jason's apartment phone rings. He sees that it is Rodlen and decides to just let it ring. After a while, the answering machine picks up.

"You have reached Jason Smith. Please leave a message after the beep," drones the voice. *beep*

"Jason, it's Rodlen. Please, you have got to get out of there. It's way too dangerous for you to be here after today..." A short pause follows as Rodlen takes a deep breath. "I'm not really supposed to tell you this, but you are supposed to die tomorrow. Don't ask me how I know. I just know. At the very least, stay with your parents at all times tomorrow. Whatever you do, don't separate from them, even for just a few minutes. Please, for your own sake. Rodlen, out."

8:20 PM

There are hills to the west of town; just beyond the dilapidated rail yards adjacent to Shade Industries. There, overlooking the town and the surrounding hills with a vista that some would consider beautiful if visited during less interesting times, rested Hilario Vandenbergh. Reading a novel. In front of a cave.

Marcus Shade, frazzled and limping, a Shade with the weight of two worlds on his shoulders, crept up the side of Vandenbergh's hill. It was a difficult climb; Shade's last 48 hours had been a veritable roller coaster of action and thrills. To his dismay, the final instructions from Mr. Vandenbergh had been to ascend this useless hump of dirt and deliver him the Black Swan.

Hilario struck an odd sight; even the bitterly cynical Shade of times future had to admit that. There he sat: mustache, impeccably starched shirt, combed and trimmed beard, tall hat, cane at his side; all in the middle of an encampment that seemed to be a relic of the American Civil War. If Shade had stopped to think about it, he would have sworn he could smell coffee brewing in the narrow metal pot sitting atop the fire and a whiff of gunpowder in the air. But a man's imagination can get the better of him when confronting the weird.

"You look like the model of comfort. And here I am, all banged up."

Hilario looked up; he laughed. Shade's blood boiled.

"I hope you don't find this so funny very much longer."

Vandenbergh stood up, closing the middle three buttons on his five button coat.

"No, no, my boy; it's merely that you appear to have had a productive day. I trust you have returned with all of our...requisite materials?"

That was a damn lie. Hilario Vandenbergh doesn't trust, he knows. He knows because Hilario Vandenbergh has a reputation as someone not to be disappointed. He knows that if Shade didn't have exactly what he wanted, Shade would have high-tailed it into the first parallel dimension DDF could fling open for him as part of their infamous cross-chronographical witness protection program.

"Yeah." Shade sized up his relatively new employer. "I got it. But I don't see what good it'll do you out here in the woods."

Hilario smiled. "How quaint of you, Mr. Shade. How quaint."

And together they walked back into the cave; receding into the dark of the earth.

An elevator ride. Ding. A long hallway. An expensive but Spartan research facility; and, in the middle of a cavern some hundred meters below the graveyard above, steeped in an artificial light ricocheting this way and that off of the grotto ceiling and cave walls, held aloft on a platform of unbefitting quality, lay Hilario Vandenbergh's answer to the Antarctica device. His loud, thunderous answer.

* * *

MEANWHILE, as the North Atlantic of the cobalt orb that is humanity's home spins below, a meteor is falling to earth.

December 18, 2008

1:40 AM

Darth Cliche walks into Shade Industries headquarters and hands a folder to Dr. Marcus Shade, as Darth Cliche was actually a spy for Shade all along.

4:20 AM

Darth Cliche nukes the town where this takes place. Everyone is dead now, except for Yoda and Darth Cliche.

3:30 PM

Jason Smith has been taking his parents on a tour through town. They just came out of Arth's Antique Shop after browsing through the collection of various keepsakes and are headed towords St. Matthews to explore the old church when Jason remembers something.

"Oh, man!" Jason exclaims. "I forgot my wallet back at the antique shop! You guys go on ahead. I'll catch up with you later."

Jason's parents continue on to the church while Jason goes back to get his wallet.

3:35 PM

"Hello, Jason" says the old antiquarian, the guy named Arthexis. He was the kind of man that was easily overlooked, and yet always liked it that way. The man holds Jason's wallet in his hand and Jason's DDF ID in his other hand. "Sorry that I had to take this, but I wanted to have a word with you..."

Jason takes a step forward, frowning, mouth opening slowly as he begins to say something, only to be interrupted by the war veteran again. More specifically, by an old WWII rifle getting pointed at his head by the war veteran. "No need to say anything, just to shut up and listen." Arthexis smirks, "I am not planning on using this as long as you play along. And playing along is simple enough, just stay quiet and come back here: there is something I must show you"

Jason continues frowning, noticing how the apparently old rifle is indeed in good enough condition to get a bullet across his skull. Trying to think how to get out of this one, he has no choice but to follow the old man into a shady, musky chamber where the old man kept his relics, those to rare to be left out with the rest and handled by the tourists. "In that chest, open it up please, and take a good look at whats inside."

Jason nods, trembling just a little as his hands touch the sides of the chest, yet trying to hold his fear inside like a real man ought to do. Certainly, he has a bad feeling about the chest. A 'deja vu' if you wanna call it that way. "I do not work for Shade. But I do have something that is his. Something an even higher power wants. The funny thing is that I have it and they don't know it. Rodlen wanted it too, and he even tried to kill me to get it. But he thought Shade had taken it first and let me to die behind." Jason opens the chest, his eyes go wide in awe.

"You understand now, right? Goodbye Jason, this is the only way I can protect you now."


3:55 PM

The man that Arthexis shot coughed, it was obvious he wouldn't make it, but there was a smile on his face. He reached up, his hands shaking and pealed off the Latex mask he was wearing. It wasn't Jason that Arthexis had jumped, but Amnistar. He grinned at the old man and shook his head, "Rodlen may not know you have it, but he'll find out. We knew you would strike, Jason is safe."

5:00 PM

Jason arrives in a city clear across the world. He left town after his encounter with Bucky about four nights ago.

After he met Bucky in the alley, Jason went straight to Rodlen who came up with a plan to distract Shade and his crew while he escaped. Amnistar would take his place and stage the argument with Rodlen so they might mistake Amnistar for Jason.

A clever ruse, really.

5:49 PM

Shade's hand drifted over the ARCTIC Device. "Catchy name."

Hilario undid the bag containing the Black Swan and pulled out the small green rock. "Yes, well, I would hate for there to be any confusion."

A nearby metal plate read: "Antimatter Resonance Chronal Transmutation Iota-wave Contraption". It looked impressive. It looked devious.

Shade paused. It was unusual for his personal concerns to trump his motivation for respect and power, but the events of the previous week gave him a new found respect for the universe's natural order of time and dimensional stability.

"How do we know this won't cause the same rift it did in my timeline?"

Hilario held the Black Swan up to a soft blue light near a make-shift engineering station. One of a handful of technicians in the facility pounded keys on a nearby computer.

Hilario responded without bothering to look at Marcus Shade, instead remaining focused on the Black Swan, "Your original employer didn't have this wonderful bit of magic. He couldn't control the reaction."

CLANK CLANK CLANK. Shade descended the ARCTIC device's platform.

Hilario handed the flebotnum ore to one of the engineers and turned to another workstation, eagerly making entries into a leather journal with a silver pen.

"You see," Vandenbergh continued, "In your timeline, your employer had to settle for more pedestrian flebotbum. But the Black Swan is different; for every instance of refinement there is a one-billioneth chance that an ounce of flebotnum will emerge in a heightened state of purity. The Black Swan is such a piece of super-refined flebotnum."

A dusty, ancient book sat atop a workstation. Shade opened it. Vandenbergh, who he had not seen move, slammed it shut. Hilario stared into Shade's eyes.

"The purity of the Black Swan, plus the advanced schematics I had the good sense to send back with you from your original timeline, gives me, in this timeline, the control I need to rectify the mistake committed by your old employer."

"That's a good thing."

Hilario laughed and returned to his logbook. Engineers were busy fitting the enhanced flebotnum into the ARCTIC machine. A generator whirred and hummed.

Hilario, "Tell me Shade, how did you come to possess the Black Swan?"

Shade stared off into space. "Well, I suppose it all started just a couple of days ago..."

FLASHBACK TO: Shade Industries

The DDF has stormed the facility. Two Shades, both injured, fight alongside Shade Industries henchmen. The firefight has ravaged the complex. The Shades are being pushed ever back; from the entrance to the main warehouse, from the warehouse to the control room, and now, as another Shade henchman falls to the ground, clutching a fresh bullet wound, the Shade of this timeline orders his men to fall back.

Lt. Comm. Ashby Taylor taps his radio, "Commander, the control room is secured. Charlie Squad is investing the elevator bank. Shade's men are holed up in a few hot pockets of resistance."

A buzz and a crackle. Taylor's radio roared to life with the transmitted sound of sporadic gunfire, "Be there in a second."

Taylor nodded to himself and looked around the control him. It had been damaged, but his DDF forces had thus far refrained from high explosives. Most stations remained operational. The close quarters fighting was taken its toll. Nearby, dragged from the entrance way where he had fallen, Agent Simmon was being tended to by Medic First Class Ibanez.

Commander Ruby Quirk and the four-man fire team that was Dog Squad ("God," Ashby had thought to himself more than once as the squad's members barked and woofed following a victory on the DDF basketball courts, "Do I ever hate that name.") stormed into the control room.

Clackity-clackity-clack. A submachine gun was being fired, somewhere.

Quirk, the red-haired, ball-busting DDF commando and head of the tactical response team gave the control room a once over. Her machine pistol was slung back around her waist.

"Report."

Taylor snapped to attention. "We've secured most of the flebotnum ore; the Antarctica device is located in one of the warehouse's basement storage units; Shade's goons are holed up in the elevator bank, though."

Quirk looked through the windows of the control room and out at the warehouse below. Baker Squad had stopped firing and were moving in the open.

"And the Black Swan?"

Taylor bit his lip. "Haven't found it yet; but it could be in with the rest of the flebotnum..."

"Unlikely," barked Commander Quirk, "They're sure to know about it by now and have protected it." She keyed her intercom. "Charlie, we need those elevators... NOW!"

* * *

MEANWHILE, in the technologically advanced basement storage unit of Shade Industries, the Shade of the current timeline squeezed the Black Swan hidden in his pocket--

Hilario interrupted, "The unfortunate Mr. Shade of now had it already?"

Shade answered, "He stole it from Smith. He had just returned to the warehouse with it when the DDF attacked."

--Shade did not yet know why this particular piece of flebotnum was so important, only that it was.

The future Shade patrolled up and down the corridor. They were two rooms removed from the elevator bank. It appeared to be a hopeless situation. He listened to his radio: The elevator bank had fallen. The idiots had neglected to demolish it and the DDF were able to reroute the power to get it going again. They were coming down.

An explosion. Close by. The DDF were in the basement.

"Let's go!" yelled the Shade of times coming; it was a primitive yell, that of a man fighting for more than just his life.

DDF commandos advanced from the elevator bank and into the primary underground warehouse. The air was thick with ammunition. The two sides reached a seeming stalemate, fighting between metallic containers. The DDF were being judicious in their use of weaponry, Shade thought. Bullets? Shells? They have lasers--but lasers pierced metal with deadly efficiency, and they were most assuredly trying to secure the Antarctica device intact.

The Shade of the present saw a pair of DDF agents head into an adjacent hallway. They were flanking. He reloaded his pistol and dove from his cover to the nearest door, rolling across the floor and narrowly being spared a bullet to the torso.

Future Shade and the few remaining henchmen continued the bogged down fight in the main room. The Shade of our time waited in the hallway--the far door opened, surely this was them!--he fired twice, catching the DDF agent in the chest both times. He crumpled to the ground. A second trooper came through, this one a red-haired woman--Shade fired again, she stumbled back.

Shade slowly slid past the body of the first enemy and into the room. He looked at his prey. She was slumped up against the wall clutching a wound in her gut, breathing heavily. Her weapon had bounced across the room. Shade approached her, out in the open.

And then Shade was shot.

The bitch had a goddamn laser pistol! Shade cursed to himself. She hadn't been clutching her gut, she'd been hiding the damn gun. The blast had grazed his thigh, he was bleeding. Had the flebotnum been hit?

Shots were being fired outside. His radio chirped to life, "Shade, Shade. This is hopeless. Bring the Swan--let's go."

Shade didn't bother to look his adversary in the eyes; if he did, he would have seen them steeled over with icy determination. Traveling through dimensions for a livelihood might make one less fearful of death; more appreciative of the mysteries of the universe.

Shade fired three rounds and retreated.

* * *

Like a caterpillar into a butterfly, the earth's atmosphere transformed the meteor into a meteorite--a cocoon made of unforgiving heat.

The meteorite lost mass; more and more...and more. But it would not be denied. It burst through the atmosphere; below, a placid and quiet earth awaited it's extraterrestrial visitor.

And Jason Smith exited a coffee shop.

7:52 PM

OhmygodthisissoboringwhyIamhere.

"...so, as you can see on chart thirteen, already highly stressed chemical bonds can be further agitated using a variety of amplified energy wave outputs..."

DEAR GOD. He's reading right off the slide. Why is he reading right off the slide? I see the slide. The slide is right in front of me. Why is he reading off it?

"...causing a cross-pollenation, if you will, of interdimensional trans-temporal properties, the net result, theoretically, being a substantive resonance breach..."

That's on the slide too. THAT'S ALL ON THE SLIDE OHMYGODI'MGOINGTOSTRANGLETHISMAN. He must die at my hands.

Damon Flatley, PhD, Theoretical Physics with a concentration in Dimensional Topography (Cal Tech '04, junior dimensional specialist, Dimensional Defense Force) sat in a mostly empty auditorium at the 4th annual International Dynamic Planar States Conference. He was bored. He was hungover. His head throbbed. His notepad was covered with doodles; most inappropriate for youngsters.

Professor Naoto Hashimoto of St. Anthony University, the host institution for this year's conference, continued with his mind-numbingly boring lecture on the properties of certain agitated alloys in certain experimental states with certain finely-tuned physical stresses. It was all very certain: mostly in how uncertain the outcomes of such trials would be.

"Now, I'd like to bring you to one interesting possibility. Here we have the highly unstable alloy known as 'flebotnum.'"

Damon dropped his pencil and snapped to attention.

The good professor continued, "I'm sure few of you have worked with flebotnum before, given its inherently dangerous properties, and the fact that it is practically worthless in all but the most refined states. Currently, only the most expensive laboratories in the world have the centrifuges capable of refining flebotnum to a pure enough state, but due to lack of practical uses for flebotnum, few have spent the money to do so."

Damon leaned in.

"However, myself and members of the Pan-Dimensional Consortium, a group of scientists studying the possibilities of inter-dimensional travel, have concluded that flebotnum has extra-chronographical properties."

Damon began to scribble.

"Using a variety of frequencies, we bombarded a piece of 99.8% refined flebotnum with energy; our studies are more fully detailed in Appendix Q, but I'd like to point you to one interesting result."

Damon flipped to Appendix Q (page 365, for those following at home).

"When bombarded with a simple but highly tuned laser beam, of an output approaching that used in prototype experimental weaponry, we found that the flebotnum became increasingly agitated, emitting a significant amount of iota-wave radiation." The professor took off his glasses and set them on the podium.

"Iota waves?!" Damon wrote down in his notebook. He knew all about them--they were integral for the time travel of humans and all other biological matter.

"While this is all highly speculative, it is entirely possible that a pure enough sample of flebotnum, when bombarded with a sufficient quantity of amplified light waves, such as through a laser beam, could, when placed under high degrees of stress, shift all life on earth into a cross-dimensional state. The effects would be...well, as best we can theoretically determine, all biological life on earth would cease to exist in our 'dimension'...momentarily, at least."

Damon sat back in his chair and pondered. He knew the DDF had been chasing a device that used flebotnum for temporal-tempering purposes; but as far as he knew no part of the process involved radiating flebotnum with lasers. Also, DDF had yet to find any flebotnum refined to pure enough a state to be a reliable emitter of iota rays. He had nothing to worry about, right?

Damon smiled and doodled that cute girl from human resources.

* * *

FLASHBACK TO: Beneath Shade Industries

Jzzt~! "Ow!" Shade drew his hand back from the Black Swan, sucking on his lightly burnt finger.

What the hell? Shade thought; he had pulled the Swan out of his pocket to check on it, but when he touched it the damn rock fired off an electrical charge.

Shade picked it back off of the ground. It didn't shock him this time, but the ore seemed to continue to emit a field reminiscent of the kind one feels when rubbing a balloon on their hair.

"Are you alright, Shade?"

Shade stuffed the Black Swan into the case and got back to his feet, turning to face the Shade that had, as of a week ago, made his life so very, very interesting.

The Shade of times yet arrived stood in the dim light of the warehouse's underground emergency exit. The DDF had stormed the building and; with the odds turning against the Shades so, they had decided on the only honorable course: sacrifice Shade Industries' minions so the two of them could flee unnoticed into the secret exit passage.

The two had hustled for some five hundred yards before coming to a stop to tend to their wounds. The cave, except for the occasional drop of water on the stone floor, was silent. No DDF agents had yet followed them, but they would be sure to detect the passage way eventually.

"You're wounded."

The present's Shade looked down at his leg and thigh; the laser had burned his leg, his hip, his waist, and of course...the Black Swan. He opened his mouth to tell the other Shade about the damage suffered by his valuable cargo--

"Give me the flebotnum."

Shade drew back. He could sense that the Black Swan was his last bit of leverage and should not be parted with so easily. He did not trust this Shade; he did not trust how in the dark he had been kept; he did not appreciate the amount of faith on which he had been forced to operate. Now he wanted answers.

"You have to tell me where we're going, first."

Shade produced a pistol.

"No. Give it to me."

Shade reached into his singed pocket.

* * *

Hilario withdrew from chatting with a pair of his technicians and turned back to Marcus Shade.

"So, where is the Mr. Shade from this busy time period?"

Shade laughed, a laugh that came from somewhere deep in his throat; a laugh that came to a rest before it could escape his mouth.

"He's indisposed of."

Vandenbergh scratched his chin, yawning. "I do hope your accuracy is good, it would have been a shame for the Swan to be damaged this late in the production."

"The rock hasn't been touched."

* * *

FLASHBACK TO: Shade Industries

Lt. Comm. Ashby Taylor, acting field commander of the DDF tactical response team, stood in the door way to the single most secure vault in Shade Industries.

His face was hard and dirty. The battle for Shade Industries had likely lasted only fifteen minutes in real time, but in combat things moved differently. They moved slower. And hey, Ashby thought to himself, wasn't all time relative, anyhow?

His radio sparked to life, "Commander, the door should be opening in two...one..."

KA-CHUNG. Air escaped in a loud "Whiffffffff..."

The door swung open, and there stood the Antarctica device. The DDF had captured it.

"Noah, alert base that we have the football. Swan remains unsecured, however."

They were missing the Black Swan. Then again, no one was even sure it was anywhere near Shade Industries. They had just hoped to get lucky. But alas, it was not to be. The absence of Shade was troubling as well, thought Taylor. But he had men searching every nook and cranny of the warehouse; DDF support teams had the perimeter surrounded; he would turn up. For now, they had the Antarctica machine and Lt. Comm. Taylor knew that without it, the Black Swan was worthless.

"I'm patching Rodlen through now, sir."

Taylor's radio crackled. "Lt. Comm., I'm sorry about your loss. But sacrifices must be made. Ruby knew that."

Taylor nodded. At least it was over.

* * *

The ARCTIC device whirred to life.

"You've done good work." Hilario puffed smoke out of the side of his mouth, emptying his pipe in the process.

And Shade had done good work--everything that had been asked of him. Unlike in his original timeline, where the DDF had wound up with the Black Swan, it was now being loaded into Vandenbergh's machine. And, unlike his original timeline, Vandenbergh had second-generation equipment: the ARCTIC device capitalized on all the known flaws of the Antarctica device Shade had originally seen deployed. It had been a long journey.

Shade could overhear one of the engineers speaking to Vandenbergh, "Sir, the device is ready for activation."

Vandenbergh smiled. Shade sat down. Hilario turned to Shade.

"Well, Marcus, are you prepared to have a very merry Christmas?"

The machine dominating the cavern groaned. The ARCTIC device and its flebotnum--flebotnum of an unbelievably refined nature, flebotnum that had been agitated and fused by exposure to a concentrated laser burst, flebotnum that was being incredibly stressed--was about to test Professor Hashimoto's hypothesis.

If the professor was right...reality itself would hardly know what hit it.

Hilario threw the switch.

* * *

Jason Smith meandered down a glorious sidewalk set amongst trees and sea views; he stopped for a moment and looked out into the water. It had been a month to remember. But through it all--the death of Andrea, a near-kidnapping, the involvement of a sinister villain and a bunch of lunatic extra-dimensional vigilantes, more bacon cheeseburgers than he could count, and the biggest project of his career--he had persevered. He had made it. Now, he looked forward to spending tomorrow celebrating Christmas with some rest and relaxation.

But up above the fates had different ideas. The meteorite screamed to earth; the trials of the atmosphere had caused it to shrink but it remained strong; hurtling through the atmosphere at terminal velocity; streaking towards its destination; delivering death and destruction to any poor soul who happened to be within a 10 meter radius...

Little did either party know that a lone tax sorter and a speeding meteorite both intended to be at the same place at the same time.

11:55 PM

Hilario threw the switch.

The machine rumbled to life. And then...

Cough COUGH COUGH BANG SPUTTER BANG BANG!

It failed. Catastrophically.

Shade and Hilario Vandenbergh ran through the cavern to escape the coming blast. It's too bad they would never appreciate the irony; the DDF agents hadn't caused the unique piece of flebotnum ore code-named "Black Swan" to be fused to a higher energy state--they had rendered it useless altogether!

The ARCTIC device was ruined.

Hilario Vandenbergh's plans were ruined.

Marcus Shade remained a man lost in time.

There was no cross-dimensional shifting of Earth's lifeforms.

And Jason Smith stayed right where he was when the meteorite came crashing down nearby.

The impact blast acted like a bomb; shards of glass from a storefront, bits of metal from a vehicle, branches from a tree, they all were hurled about in the ensuing shockwave.

Begin Broadcast...

"Hello? Hello, Meagan. This is Tim Eager reporting live. Grim news on the shore front today, where a meteorite of all things has struck this sleepy village unexpectedly. Jason Smith lies dead on the side of the street, covered in blood spilling from countless wounds covering his lifeless body..."

Fade to black.

Foresight

December 18, 2008

11:59 PM

Jason Smith lies dead on the side of the street, covered in blood spilling from countless wounds covering his lifeless body.

Note

The original MD5 checksum for the original secret rule was "3da9375cdc381c88b532c51d70ab9f24".