Dreams. What are dreams? Most experts believe that dreams are essentially a side effect of the brain’s attempt to consolidate and organize all of the information that it received during the day before. This is true, to some extent, but it is not the whole story. Time and thought are not as disparate of concepts as we think. They are bound to, and intertwined with, each other. Time is more complex than simply the ever-continuing process of causality. The essence of time moves throughout everything and everyone, leaving an imprint of itself across the dimensions. Why does it do this? Well, because true time is all about perception and perspective. We observe time by what we see and hear, but we understand time because of what it does to us on a quantum level. Time uses us as computational servers, powering reality by utilizing the strength of mind, body, and soul.
When one dreams about something, they are not merely using narratives to render their own memories. They are also experiencing the memories of other people; sometimes at different times, sometimes even on different worlds. This happens because, in order for time to process events, it must utilize the power from any number of people. And it doesn’t do this by reaching out to the nearest people, because that’s a concept that doesn’t really exist in terms of time. Temporal information passes from server to server in a web of interconnectivity rivaling that of the data network we call the internet.
This is all fine on its own, because it doesn’t really have anything to do with how we live our lives. Understanding that we are walking temporal servers isn’t all that useful, because we can’t do anything about. Except that some people can. Most of us, as temporal computers, are only capable of input and processing. We don’t have any actual control over what time does, or how it operates. All we can do is accept reality as we perceive it. There are those, however, who are somehow able to break through these limitations, process time in original ways, and deliver input to the temporal network. We call these people the choosing ones. They have their own limitations, but are still more powerful than the average person.
Some choosers can travel across great distances in the blink of an eye. Others can move backwards or forwards along the timestream. Some are powerful enough to alter reality, while others can merely predict the future to great accuracy. We are not entirely sure what creates a chooser’s personal limitations, or if it’s possible for them to learn new ways of manipulating time, for it has only happened once. Meliora Rutherford Delaney-Reaver was born with no specialty. That is, she does not have any limitations. She can travel through the timestream, merge two points in spacetime together, alter memories, and accomplish just about anything else she wants. Zeferino Preston, however, had limitations at first that he was only later able to transcend.
Zeferino’s original title was The Cleaner, and his original job was to clean up the timeline after alterations made by other choosers. If only one party of choosers were manipulating time, there would be no problem. The timeline would adjust itself to account for any changes they made, and no one outside of the party would have any idea that anything had changed at all. It’s important to remember, however, that we are all temporal servers, working to process reality in tandem. When a choosing one sends out unplanned signals, other servers are capable of receiving it, even though they were not programmed to process it entirely. For example, let’s say that two choosers are unhappy with what United States President A is doing with the country. They each go back in time and select a different president, changing the outcome of the future election. This causes problems, because now there are two different presidents; President B, and President C. This conflict in the timeline creates what we know as a paradox. Unless corrected, it’s possible that the office of the president will erratically shift between B and C, and it is this condition that threatens reality as a whole.
Most people won’t actually be able to see that the Office of the President keeps changing, but they will be able to feel it. As mentioned, the observation of time is not the same thing as the comprehension of it. As The Cleaner, Zeferino was responsible for poring through the timeline from an outsider’s perspective. He would use this power to adjust reality so that inconsistencies like the double president paradox could be erased, like one would restore a painting. This is less of an analogy, and more of a description, for Zeferino Preston once worked in a special place called The Gallery.
“Hey, Zef, how’s it going?” Erlendr asks.
“I’m all right,” Zeferino says. “I’m just not sure if I want this teapot to be black or a sort of red with white and green stripes.”
Zeferino sits back in his chair to give Erlendr a better view of the painting. “The teapot.” He waves his hand over the image of the teapot to switch between designs. “I’m also thinking about making it a little taller.”
“What are you talking about? Who the hell tried to change the design of some random teapot?”
“I am, that’s what I’m telling you.”
Erlendr is confused. “You’re making manual changes to the timeline?”
“Yeah, it’s a nice break from the tedium.”
“Zef, you can’t just do that.”
“You take care of the timeline; protect it from the choosers. You’re not supposed to become one of them.”
“Again. Why not?”
“Because...because that’s not your job.”
“Erlendr, look around. This is The Gallery. We are surrounded by art, so why should I not create some masterpieces of my own.”
Erlendr pulls up a chair and takes a deep breath. “The Gallery is just a metaphor. The Constructor built it for us so that we could make sense of the timestream. You’re not actually painting, Zeferino. You just perceive a painting.” He places his hand on Zeferino’s heart. “Everything you’re doing comes from within.”
Zeferino stands up in defiance. “The Gallery was not built so that we could interpret the world. It appears in the form of a gallery because the world already is art. It already is beautiful.”
Erlendr stands back up as well. “It doesn’t matter. Correct paradoxes. That’s what you do. That’s all you do. Leave the changes up to Arcadia.”
“Arcadia,” Zeferino repeats in disgust. “She doesn’t create art. She doesn’t make changes. She just reverts it back. She wouldn’t know beauty if she looked in a mirror.”
“That may be,” Erlendr began, “but it doesn’t change the fact that you are not allowed to change the color of teapots. We are the keepers of time. It is our duty to manage the choosing ones. That is our only purpose.”
“I do not accept that.”
“You must. Or I will call in Fury, and you will possess no further choice on the matter. You are conscious because of him, but if you do not follow the rules, we will remove your free will.”
Zeferino had his own fury to unleash, but he bit his tongue.
“Good,” Erlendr says, picking up on Zeferino’s body language. He adds, while walking away, “destroy the teapot. They can drink coffee. I believe you have a windmill to restore.”
Formerly Known as the Artist
In the beginning, a lot of people worked in The Gallery. It was one of the first places created once time travel was discovered long ago. Actually, the dimension where the Gallery is held already existed, but its interface was difficult to interpret. Only certain people were intelligent enough to grasp its complexities. And so Baudin, a.k.a. The Constructor, was contracted to design for them a new interface. He chose to help others understand time through art. Each painting represented a single view of a single moment in time. Now, you might think that the Gallery is used to engineer outcomes, which is something it could technically be used for, but its only purpose was to clean up the timeline, and rid it of inconsistencies.
Time travel within the temporal gallery itself is not possible. Though people inside are capable of perceiving reality manipulations, they are not allowed to modify these manipulations further. They are tied to what’s known as the Master Timeline. This is the reality that takes precedence over all others once time travel events have been fully exhausted. Now, this does not mean that the gallery workers understand perfectly how it’s all going to turn out. It’s just that every time a time traveler goes back to alter reality for the upteenth time, the gallery workers only remember that particular alteration. And they only remember this one because, from their perspective, that’s the only one that ever took place. Human perceive time in much the same way, except that they don’t have memory of the alteration, only of the result.
Over the years, gallery workers grew tired of their responsibility. They did not age, and would not die, but they also did not know love, or adventure. They could see people in the timestream making interesting choices, but they could make none of their own. They were slaves to their condition. So they left, but because of the nature of the gallery dimension, they were unable to return. They were free to live out their lives as they pleased, but this caused the gallery to experience diminishing returns, for no new person would be able to enter either.
Recently, relatively speaking, only two people remained in the Gallery, and found themselves struggling to maintain it. The funny thing about time travelers is that they are generally drawn to modifications during a certain period. As exciting as it might be to ride a dinosaur, it offers little satisfaction in the long-run. Despite the fact that most choosing ones can go to whenever they want, they tend to stay within a range of a couple hundred years of their birth, forwards and backwards. Furthermore, the closer one gets to the year 2100 of the Gregorian calendar, the more choosers there are. It is not quite clear why the 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd centuries hold such a concentrated number of time travelers, but most simply accept that this is just the way it is.
The two Gallery holdouts spent some time trying to run the place as best they could, but in the end, they were forced to admit that they were just not good enough by themselves. As time was moving ever closer to a higher concentration of alterations, they grew desperately in need of some help. And so they got creative with how they went about exacting this help. Zeferino Preston was one of their new hires. Though all of them showed signs of rebelliousness, The Curator could see that Zeferino was the most dangerous, because he would sow seeds of doubt in the others.
Zeferino was never happy with being so powerless to change or reverse what the choosing ones were doing, or what the powers that be were forcing the salmon to do. Unlike the original workers who neglected their responsibilities to live out their lives in peace, Zeferino sought power. He wanted to be able to shape the timeline as he saw fit, and he was able to convince Nerakali and Arcadia to share in his dream. He began to generate entirely original temporal paintings, Nerakali began to rearrange people’s memories to her liking, and Arcadia began to establish a disastrous imbalance in reality. Together, these three were causing so much damage that the original two workers were forced to take drastic measures.
“She’s gone,” the Curator, Erlendr said.
Zeferino repeated himself more deliberately, “where. Is. Aradia?”
The Curator chose to be brave and honest. “I sent her away. I sent her to Earth.”
“But you can get her back.”
“No, there’s a way. There’s a way to get her back. You have to do it.”
“I am afraid that it’s not possible. If we could do it, we would have brought back our original crew, and you wouldn’t even exist to have this conversation.”
“This is not a conversation!” Zeferino yelled. “This is a travesty! This is mutiny!”
Erlendr remained calm. “It is not mutiny. I own this place. You’re the one trying to take over.”
“Oh, don’t you speak to me in that jazz voice. Get angry! Get passionate! I sure as hell am!”
“I will not become you, Zeferino.”
Now Zeferino was seething. Banish his sister, fine, but insult him personally, and we have a problem. “How does Fury feel about this?”
“He understands. He knows that it’s best.”
“Well, of course he does. Once you’ve cleansed this place of all of us, he can just make more. He can replace us whenever he wants, with whatever he wants.”
“I am not removing you. I want you to stay.”
“What about Nerakali?”
“She will remain here as well. As long as you toe the line, you both have a home in the Gallery.”
“So Arcadia’s banishment had nothing to do with her. You just wanted to punish us. To punish me.”
“I wanted to teach you a lesson.”
“Oh, it’s been taught.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m saying that I understand now. I know what I have to do.”
“What are you talking about, Zef? What is it that you have to do?”
“You’ll see.” Zeferino started to walk away. At one time, the Gallery had a set of workers for security, but they were gone now, and no one could stop him.
“Zef,” Erlendr pleaded. “Zef,” he repeated. “Zef!” he finally yelled.
Zeferino turned around. “That’s my boy. Hold onto that anger. You’re gonna need it.”
Realizing Erlendr was assuming that Zeferino would need time to plan something for the future, he had no choice but to act immediately. He carefully stepped into The Artist’s room carrying temporal painting of a pond at magic hour, and shoved him inside of it.
From the other side of the Gallery, Erlendr could feel that something was wrong. He ran down the hallway and rushed in. “What have you done?”
“Now you’re stuck with me. You banished Arcadia, so I banished Fury. I believe the humans call this eye for an eye.”
“Oh my God, don’t you get it? You’ve doomed the timeline. Now it doesn’t matter whether you stay or go. This place is useless without Fury.”
“Fury does nothing. Well, he did nothing. Now he can go screw himself, for all I care.”
“You still don’t get it. There’s a reason we call him the Artist, instead of The Sculptor. He kept this place running just by being here. His temporal energy powered the gallery paintings themselves. We are hopeless without him. All your dreams of universal domination have been shattered. And you were the cause of your own demise. Congratulations. In only a few days, the paintings will die, and I won’t be able to banish you if I wanted. You were right, I’m stuck with you.”
Zeferino was heartbroken. He didn’t care about the timestream, but he did still long for control over it. Without the power to alter reality, his life had no meaning. Not while in the Gallery, anyway. He would have to leave, like all the others before him. “These paintings aren’t dead yet?”
“They’re running on fumes, but soon the energy reserves from Fury’s power will be totally expended. The paintings will continue to show us the timestream, but we won’t be able to do anything with them. What you see is what you get. You saw to that.”
“Then if there’s no power in the Gallery, Nerakali and I will have to find power in the timestream.”
“You can’t draw energy from the timestream. Believe me, we’ve tried.”
“I ain’t staying here. This place sucks anyway,” Zeferino lied. “I never liked it.”
Erlendr laughed. “Do whatever you want, Zeferino. It doesn’t matter anymore. Go down to the timestream, for all I care. At least you can’t do any worse than you’ve already from done up here.”
Zeferino walked away and muttered under his breath, “are you sure about that?”
Athanaric Fury, A.K.A. The Artist, could very well be the most powerful choosing one born in all of time, in every reality. He possessed an unlimited source of energy, which was why he was chosen to become the keystone of The Gallery once it was created by Baudin. It was his energy that kept it alive, and allowed others to manipulate the timestream, while he spent his time working on his projects. There are many ways to create a person capable of breaking the standard of linear time. Two activated salmon will usually create a chooser. Two salmon, where at least one of them is unactivated at the time of conception, will usually result in another salmon. The child of a chooser will usually be born as either chooser or salmon. The souls of some are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of time that they are born as time travelers, even while their parents are normal. Athanaric Fury happened to be one of those people, and it is trait that made him so important.
The Artist has the ability to literally build entire human beings out of clay or stone. Each one will take decades to complete, but once finished, can be anything Athanaric wants. It was he who built The Prestons. Zeferino, Arcadia, and Nerakali were not born to parents. Athanaric built them long before the Gallery Exodus, just in case something like that ever happened. They were three powerful choosers in their own right. Zeferino could adjust temporal disturbances, Arcadia could extract elements of certain alternate realities and place them in the true reality by ignoring the properties of causality, and Arcadia could rearrange people’s memories so that they could not pick up on inconsistencies. And while in the Gallery, the three of them could carry out their duties on a massive scale. That is, Nerakali need not alter the memories of each individual involved, one after the other.
Unfortunately, Athanaric failed in including a vital trait in these three gallery workers. He forgot to give them humanity, and so they were selfish, careless, and easily bored. They rebelled, much like the earlier Gallery workers, and ultimately either left, or were kicked out. Athanaric was forced out of the Gallery himself, with no hope of returning, and almost no hope of saving time from the choosers. Seeing no other option, he did the only thing he knew how to do, which was to make art. He got to work on sculpting a new choosing one. Known simply as The Mass, this new entity would carry with it nearly every temporal power possible. Though resembling a human in every noticeable way, the Mass was not meant to be free-thinking or independent. It would have no motivations, no dreams, no hate. It was just supposed to be a focal point of temporal energy, something capable of protecting all of time and space from changes to the timeline that could threaten reality.
“That’s all you’re doing with him?” Zeferino asked.
“It is not a him,” Athanaric pointed out. “It just looks like a man.”
“Why would it look like a man if it’s not a man?”
“People are all I know how to sculpt.”
“I’m just not sure why it needs to look like anything. From what I learned before I left, the Gallery wasn’t what was protecting time, it was you. It was just an extension the power that you were providing it. You’re the true Gallery. Can you not do this on your own?”
“I cannot,” Athanaric admitted. “I am strong, but I do not have your and your sisters’ abilities. I can make people with powers, but can wield none of my own.”
“I spent decades in standard dimension, looking for you. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I’ve done. I’m not just talking about banishing you from the Gallery. Everything my sisters and I did before that was wrong. We were wrong.”
“I have been here for as many years as you, and have spent that time thinking about my own actions. I am your father, I should have made you better. I should have taught you to care, not just to act, and I should have encouraged you to want to learn. Everything you did was my fault, and I no longer feel anger for being pushed into this dimension. I love you, all of you, and I will be here for you from now on.”
“That’s nice to hear. In fact, it is exactly what I came here hoping you would say. I am also glad that you are building this, as you call it, Mass. We must rebuild, and we must do it better this time.”
“That’s what it’s for.”
“Well, I sort of assumed that you would contact The Constructor, and ask him to build a new Gallery.”
“No, that would never work. It’s too late for something like that. It was located in a special dimension that we can not reenter. Nothing like that could be replicated. The Mass is the only way. When it’s done, it’ll solve all our problems.”
Zeferino looked over the new creation. It looked done to him. “What is it missing? Ten fingers, ten toes.”
“I’m still working on the timer. It’s not quite as short as I would like it to be.”
“It needs to be on a time limit,” Athanaric said, mildly unsure why he would need to explain it. “I don’t want it to spend too much linear time in once place. It should flutter throughout the continuum.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Never mind. You’ll see.”
“That’s all that you need, though? Just to lower the amount of time it’s allowed to stay in any one timeplace?”
“That’s right, why?”
Zeferino removed a sword from his endless bag and positioned it under the neck of the Mass. “Remove it.”
“Zef, what are you doing? Remove what, the time limit? That’s an important feature. It can’t effectively do it’s job if it can’t jump across moments. Why do you care anyway? What, were you looking to be its friend?”
“I’m not looking for a friend,” Zeferino spat. “I’m looking for power. And this right here? This is my power. I want you to take off whatever time limit you’ve already placed on it, and then install my mind into its body.”
“You want to...become..the Mass?”
“I want to become what I already am. I want to be The Cleaner.”
“I’m not doing that.”
“I’ll kill it. I’ll kill it before its born, and then you’ll have nothing.”
“I’ll start over.”
“I’ll kill you too.”
“Then you’ll have nothing.”
“I am prepared to explore other options.”
“Zef, let’s just talk about this.”
“No, let’s stop talking!” He slid the sword across the Mass’ neck and drew a non-fatal amount of blood.
“Okay, okay. We appear to be in a competition that I was not aware may happen. I can do what you ask, but I’ll need my hammer. It’s on that table behind you.”
Zeferino cautiously reached behind him, but kept his eyes on Athanaric. He moved his hand around until finding what felt like a hammer. He slowly raised it up and gave it to the Artist.
“Great, thanks,” Athanaric said before swiftly knocking the hammer on Zeferino’s sword, and sending it across space.
“No!” Zeferino cried.
“Welp, the Gondilak are going to enjoying having a weapon like that.”
“Goddammit! Why won’t you just do this for me? It’s not like I would be taking over someone else’s life. It a mass, it feels nothing, so just give it to me.”
“That’s weird, Zeferino. It’s weird that you want this. Just live your life, let me live mine, and let the Mass do its job.”
“I reject your reality, and substitute my own, which I will be able to do once you give me the Mass!”
They heard the sound of a microwave ding. “Perfect timing.” Athanaric removed his chisel from his pocket. “This contains the completed program for the new time limit protocol. All I have to do is tap the Mass with it, and its body will be useless to you.”
“Okay, okay,” Zeferino now said. “Just put..the chisel..down. You don’t wanna do this. Let’s talk. You wanted to talk, so let’s talk.”
“Nah, I’m done with that.”
He attempted to tap the Mass with the chisel, but Zeferino grabbed his wrist and held it at bay. Athanaric tried to hit him with the magic hammer, but Zeferino knocked it out of his hand.
As they continued to struggle with the tool, a woman walked up. Seeing them fight over something seemingly so innocuous led her to believe that it was not a big deal. “Hey, my name’s Frida Quelen. I found this compass that doesn’t point North, and it’s led me here.”
“The Compass of Disturbance?” When he dropped his guard at the sight of something he had been looking for almost as long as he had looked for Athanaric, he unwittingly gave Athanaric the upper hand.
But Athanaric was not ready for this, and lost control of it, sending it flying towards Frida. It gently hit her in the chest and fell to the ground.
The contact point on her skin burned an orangey-green. “What is happening?”
“Oh no,” Athanaric said, nearly speechless.
“Now it’s mine,” Zeferino said in a confident whisper. He turned around to admire what was to be his new body. Desperate, Athanaric took a gouge from his table and stabbed his son in the back. Zeferino coughed up blood, spitting it into the face of the Mass. Then his old body died.
There are certain objects in the the world of time manipulators that possess temporal powers of their own. A handful of these are natural, but most were created by someone whose temporal power allowed them to do so. A few of them are a combination of the two. For instance, time mirrors are composed of glass sourced from the sands of Atlantis, forged by the fires of Mount Wingen. Extraction mirrors, of which there is actually only one, can be created using sand from Uluru, and fire from Baba Gurgur. Immortality, meanwhile, can be found in the proper mixing of a number of different water sources all over the world.
Temporal objects are used by choosing ones and other time travelers in order to accomplish some task, often one that enhances their natural powers. Baudin carries a bone stake that can warp time around it while constructing complex architectural structures. The Navigator is actually just a regular human who found the Compass of Disturbance, and travels time and space using temporal rifts. The Warrior too was born human, but uses the Sword of Assimilation to steal other people’s power. The Artist has a number of tools, each with multiple functions, that he uses to create people capable of temporal manipulation. And it was his objects that allowed Zeferino Preston to survive his apparent death. He had cut the neck of The Mass using the Sword of Assimilation just before the Artist tried to kill him with his special gouge. This confluence of events forced Zeferino’s mind into the body of the Mass, making him one of the most powerful forces in the universe.
Zeferino now possessed a plethora of temporal powers that he did not before. He could jump back and forth through time at will, create temporal bubbles capable of speeding up or slowing time in a localized area, witness events from an observation dimension, and many more. Unfortunately for him, the Mass came with one flaw. The Artist had written a sort of code that prevented his newest creation from lasting more than a few seconds at any one point in time and space. Though he never got a chance to implement this before it was accidentally given to chooser Aquila Bellamy, he had already provided it with a certain level of time sensitivity. While in the body of the Mass, Zeferino could go to any time and any place he wanted, but he would not be able to stay there very long. The code, as it were, was fickle, and did not always give him the same amount of time with each jump, but it always took him away eventually, and he was never able to return. He could never correct a mistake, or help a past version of himself.
His limitations, despite his enormous power, frustrated him greatly. He could do a great deal of things, but he was not perfect, and was notably vulnerable to the desires and decisions of the choosing ones and the powers that be. He spent a lot of time as The Cleaner, using his original power of course correcting the timeline to keep everyone in check, but they would always be able to undo his work, and he would never be able to try again. The best he could do was send his consciousness back in time a few minutes at most, but this was not usually all that helpful.
At some point in his new life, his anger over his feelings of helplessness overcame his contentment with what power he did wield. He transformed into something different; something new. He even changed his name. He became The Cleanser. He decided to make it his mission to destroy every single person capable of manipulating time in any way, shape, or form. His first victim was a salmon criminal known as Horace Reaver, for he knew that no one would miss him. Reaver was being kept in a special glass prison cube, by the order of the powers that be. He was being guarded by a contingency of men who had become intertwined with him and his temporal shenanigans. So first, Zeferino banished them from the scene so that he could have a conversation with his primary target in peace. He would then apport them back, and kill them all at once.
Reaver, shocked by the guards’ unexplained disappearance, called out, “hello?”
Zeferino sighed, “yes, hello. I am here.”
“Could I ask you for your name?” Reaver replied, with honest congeniality.
“I was intending on keeping you in the dark,” Zeferino replied. “In fact, in an alternate version of this conversation, I think that I did. But I’ve decided that I’d like to set the record straight on a few things. First of all, the choosing ones, and the powers that be, are not the same thing. They are two completely different sets of people, with different motivations, different power, and different weakness.”
“Which means that, two; your daughter is a choosing one, and cannot be a power that be, which means that she has no conflict of interest. There is no family conflict of interest. She could have sent you back in time to fix your mistakes if she wanted, but she chose not to. She might have avoided it out of fear of natural consequences, but she’s pretty powerful, I doubt those affect her all that much.”
“I can see you’re confused. That’s okay, I didn’t expect much from you. I just want you to know that I’m planning on killing every single person in the universe with any sort of ability to manipulate time. I don’t care whether we’re talking about someone as insignificant as a guy who can see the future, or as powerful as your daughter. They’re goin’ down, and I’m not doing it because time travel is wrong. I’m doing it to consolidate my power. When all time travelers are dead, then what are you left with? Me. I’ll still be here, and I will shape the timeline to my choosing, and I won’t have any weaknesses, and no one will be able to stop me.”
Reaver took in a deep breath, and Zeferino couldn’t tell whether he ever let it out. “Fine with me, I don’t know why you’re telling me this. I’m in prison, I don’t care.”
“After I kill you, I’m probably gonna kill Mateo Matic.”
Reaver laughed. “You can try. He won’t go down easy, though.”
“It doesn’t have to be easy. It can also be fun.”
“Well, good luck with thaaaat,” he said sarcastically.
“At some point, I’ll have to kill Meliora too.”
“I know, and I’m fine.”
“You’re fine with me killing your daughter?”
“No. Mateo is a survivor, but you might be able to best him. Melly, on the other hand, is a whole different story. I’m completely confident that you would never be able to kill her. You should get rid of Mateo first, because he will likely show you he’s more resourceful than you think, and it’ll warm you up to everyone else. But you should go after Melly last, because the only way you survive is if she has no hope.”
“I appreciate the advice.”
“Like I said, I don’t think it’ll matter anyway, though.”
“Well, we’ll see. I mean, you won’t, because you’re done now. But I’ll see.”
“Right, of course.”
Bored with the conversation, and true to his word, Zeferino brought all the guards back, but now inside of the cube, so that they could all die from the explosion.
Killing Horace Reaver was not nearly as satisfying as Zeferino thought it would be. He also felt bad about killing the guards along with him, because they were innocent, and were incapable of manipulating time on their own. He chose to very not take Reaver’s advice to begin his mission by killing Mateo. He went after a few smaller game first, but they proved to be more difficult than he imagined. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as simple as he figured.
One of the first people that Zeferino Preston tried to kill was the Savior, Makarion Dimitrios. He scoured the timeline, looking for him, and decided that the best time to confront him would be in the year 2054. He didn’t examine the timeline all that closely to find out why, but there are some moments in time that temporal manipulators are drawn to. It seemed as good a time as any, so he hopped back into the timestream and took out his knife.
“They’re not gonna let you hurt me.” Makarion did not even look back when Zeferino appeared from behind him. He was a lot more comfortable with his position as the Savior than his predecessor, Daria Matic. “I am their most important possession.”
“I am more powerful than they are.”
Now he looked back. “The powers that be? You think you’re more powerful than a group of people who define themselves as the ones in power?”
“Just because that is how they identify doesn’t mean that’s what they are.”
“Kinda like they once called you The Cleaner, but all you did was wave your arms in front of some paintings and adjust causality?”
This took Zeferino by surprise. Their existence within The Gallery was never entirely a secret, but the details certainly were. They were living in a totally inaccessible dimension. How would this one little salmon know anything about it?
“I know what you’re thinking.” He turned the rest of his body towards Zeferino. “And I don’t mean that I know because I’ve tortured you for your thoughts and then jumped back in time to generate a reality where I never tortured you so it seems like I read your mind.”
What the hell? That’s exactly what Zeferino did to get information out of people without them having any idea that he had. It was kind of a signature move, except that it worked best when no one knew he was doing it. Who was this guy?
“The Emissary.” He turned back to where he was looking before. “The powers that be sent that creepy little kid to me to warn me about a few things. Way I understand it, previous Saviors were not given so much information, but I guess they were worried you would try to kill me.”
“What are you looking at?”
“My latest assignment. He’s speaking with an old friend of his. They need to settle their differences before they never see each other again.”
Zeferino peeked around a bush and looked across the garden. “That’s Mateo Matic.”
“Who’s that guy; your assignment?”
“His name is Kyle.”
“Just Kyle. He’s not important on his own. He’s designed more as a symbol for Mateo, a final page on the first chapter of his book. This is the moment. This is when he finally accepts his life as a salmon.”
“I’ve seen the future. He does no such thing. He doesn’t accept it.”
“He doesn’t accept everything that happens to him, which no one else in the world does either. He does, however, now recognize that this is not going to change. This is his life now. It’s time to move on.”
“I was drawn to this moment in time, in this random hospital in Topeka, Kansas. I thought it was so that I could kill you, which is kind of what I do now.”
“Yes, it is,” Makarion agreed. Kyle had finished his conversation and was heading back towards the two of them. “Pause time, please,” Makarion asked.
“I can’t pause it completely, I can only slow it down. Pausing is impossible, everyone knows that.”
“Then do that, but now, before he sees you.”
Zeferino, intrigued, slowed time to a major crawl. “What do you need to say to me?”
“I believe that you are under the impression that the powers that be are somehow against you. And it’s true, they are not your biggest fans. What you don’t understand is that they consider you an evil lesser than their real enemies.”
“The choosing ones,” Zeferino said as he nodded.
“That’s right. They would like to make a deal with you, and they chose me to pass this message to you because I am more expendable than the Emissary.”
“They will allow you to go on your tirade—oh sorry, I mean crusade. They will not interfere...as long as you go after choosers exclusively. All salmon, including me, and including Mateo, are one hundred percent off limits.”
“Salmon are difficult,” Zeferino said, “because they’re being protected by the powers. Choosers are difficult because they can protect themselves. I’ve not been successful since Horace, and I think I only got that one done because he had already been forsaken anyway.”
“This is true, why does it matter?”
“I can’t kill anyone. Someone can always go back in time and stop me. My biggest weakness is that I can’t experience a moment in time more than the once. Oh my God, why am I being so honest with you?”
“Don’t sweat it, you don’t have much of a choice in that regard. But yes, it’s true that all of your work can be undone. As powerful as you are, you can’t do a simple thing that many others can, which is try again. I have been asked to provide for you an advantage, of course only as long as you agree to leave salmon out of it.”
Zeferino stood there pseudo-patiently. “Out with it.”
Makarion reached into his pocket and presented a rusted piece of metal that resembled some kind of military dog tag. “This is a unique object. It was once worn by The Warrior.”
“The guy who steals people’s temporal powers by killing them with the Sword of Assimilation?”
“That’s right. Before he became one of us, he was just a normal musketier, fighting in the Franco-Prussian War. The enemy was upon him, and he was about to die. An accidental rift in the continuum sent the Sword of Assimilation to him just in time for him to grab it and kill the enemy combatant. Both of their blood mixed together and imbued this hundemarke with a temporal power of its own.”
“What does it do?”
“Kill a chooser while you’re wearing this, and you create a fixed moment in time. Time is mutable, subject to the whims of temporal manipulators, but this prevents that from happening. When you kill someone, they cannot come back in an alternate reality. Dead is dead is dead is dead.”
“I’ve never heard of a normal object being imbued with temporal power, except by the hands of The Weaver, of course.”
Makarion pulled the Hundemarke back when Zeferino reached for it. “This is not something to be used as any regular chooser would. I know you think that, if you create enough immutable moments, you’ll create a pristine timeline, and will somehow be able to control it, but this is not what would happen. If you use it too many times, you’ll make the timestream too rigid. You’ll create so many paradoxes that they’ll be comin’ out your ass. Do you understand me?”
Zeferino tried to take the Hundemarke again. “Yes, I do.”
“I’m serious, Cleanser. You fuck this up, and no one will be able to fix it, not even Meliora.”
Zeferino took a breath and sported as blank of a face as he could to show that he was serious and impassionate. “I completely understand. I don’t want any more fixed moments in time than you do. I need time on my side, one way or another. I’m all about change. No more of the same.”
“Okay. The powers are trusting you with this. Just in case you’re thinking about going back on your word, there’s a failsafe programmed into it. If even one salmon dies by your hand, it’ll be taken away, and they will throw everything they got at you. I don’t care how many powers you have, if they want you destroyed, you will be destroyed.”
“I still understand.”
“Good.” Makarion finally handed him the Hundemarke. “Now, if you will excuse, I have to get back to work. I suggest you move along.”
And Zeferino ‘Cleanser’ Preston did move along. He programmed the temporal bubble to burst just as he was teleporting away. He kept going with his plan. Even with his amazing power cache, and the unique Hundemarke around his neck, he lost a few battles, and had to plan to take out his targets another day. He had received a more concrete contract from the powers that be that stipulated his role and limitations. He discovered a loophole in the agreement, however. He was not allowed to kill any salmon—or any notable humans, for that matter—but it said nothing about screwing around with them. Mateo was one of his greatest prizes; his white whale, as it were. He chose to make Mateo’s life unbearable, which was as close as he could get to killing him. Mateo never seemed to break, though, which only fueled Zeferino’s drive to take him down.
He met a reluctant ally to support him on his mission and prevent anyone from knowing that he was even involved. He used his influence to set Mateo on certain paths that would help him kill his chooser targets, through what he referred to as Tribulations. A few of them were successful, like the gladiator games tribulation that resulted in a slaughter of well over a dozen choosing ones. Only one survived. He even worked again with the powers that be for a subcontract that allowed him to put Mateo in a position to kill Adolf Hitler years before his original death. There were other attempts that did not go so well, though. Mateo was meant to kill a whole lot more than he actually did. He usually found a way to take the high road, and spare people’s lives. This grew increasingly frustrating, and so Zeferino tried to make them harder and more desperate, but this still never quite got him to his goals.
He was finally about ready to quit when another loophole presented itself. A bunch of choosing ones got together and decided that they were over the whole battle between good and evil trope. They lobbied for a time duel. Time duels were weird, archaic, and rare. Though temporal manipulators came from different moments in history, the majority of them were, to some extent, cognizant of modern lifestyles. They could see that the savage ways of the past were inferior to the civility of the future. Still, they took pride in one of their “traditions”. All time duels take place at a special temporal location called Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock. Other locations change hands by being stolen or purchased, but Uluru always remains in the hands of a man who goes by the name Uluru. It is unclear which name came first.
Time duels are respected by both powers that be and choosing ones. Participation is compulsory, and results honored. No one chooses to duel, and no one refuses an order to duel. This is important, because it was going to allow Zeferino to finally kill Mateo Matic without breaking his contract with the powers that be. After all, it wasn’t like he had the option to decline the offer. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t ever going to be a fair fight. Uluru placed competitors on equal footing. No matter what powers—or lack thereof—either contestant possessed, they would either be stripped of those powers, or they would be copied onto their opponent. The fact of the matter was that Mateo was just better than him. There was no way for Zeferino to win, so the only relevant question was what would he lose? To understand that, one would first have to understand how he met The Rogue, Gilbert Boyce.