I was the problem.
And I needed to deal with it.
But I needed help. Could I ask everyone here to sacrifice their Reaper careers to help me fix something I’d set wrong on my first day in Hell?
I raised my gaze and spoke to the entire group. “So, my friends. Do you want to finish the test and graduate and gain everything you’ve been working for these past two semesters?” I paused, gazing out at the sea of uneasy expressions. “Or do you wanna go see some guys about a time machine?”
I listened to the eruption of voices. The general consensus appeared to be “What the skeg?”
“We don’t have time for long explanations. In fact, we don’t have time for any explanations. Let’s just say Rod was right. I am the problem, or at least I created one the day I got here and I need your help fixing it. It’s like everyone said all along—I killed time!”
“We haven’t got time for this!” Rod snarled, tearing away from Dante’s grip.
“We’ll just have to make the time,” Kali replied, hands on hips and head and heart. “I stand by my friends.”
In that instant, I loved her so much I practically worshipped her.
“Thank you. Who else is in?”
Amber raised her hand. So did Ira. Horace glared at his former friend and moved over to stand beside me.
“Will it count toward our final grade?” M’Kimbi asked. Suck-up.
Dante cleared his throat. “We’re all going. It’s not optional. Remember that Reapers are Hell’s own SWAT team and we need to go swat something.” He crossed his arms over his chest and I went all tingly inside.
At that moment, I might have loved Dante, too. More than usual.
“Okay, then. We’re all in this together. Amber, you saw the map. The big black spot we were told not to go to? Well, we’re going there. Which way is it?”
“This way,” she answered. “I just hope we’re in time. Or if that’s even possible anymore.”
We charged through the underbrush, following Amber, who led us straight and true. Ira flexed his wings and rose above the trees to travel as the angel flies. I ran with the pack, managing to jog my way to a space beside Dante. My lungs burned even though breathing wasn’t strictly necessary. Still, I needed to know. “What’s with . . .” I panted. “The scythe.” I eyed the pewter cylinder dangling at his waist.
“Schotz ordered me to take it in case I needed it. Just for this emergency. I have to give it back after . . .” He kept his gaze on the path, but I knew he was thinking the same thing I was: Would there be an after?
Despite time being off—or because of it—we all arrived at the time machine clearing in just a few minutes. And there we stopped dead.
Over the time terminal, a giant whirlwind roared and spun—the steroidal cousin of the one that had swept my two former classmates from our classroom. The tornado pulsed like a beating heart, if hearts were black, filthy and expanding rapidly. A seagull swooped toward us, flying too close. A horrific squawk scraped across my eardrums as the poor bird disappeared into the swirling maelstrom. A single feather drifted toward the earth and I made a mental note to grab it later—if there even was a later.
The sound of tearing fabric practically deafened me. I remembered now. I’d heard it the day I’d arrived, when I pushed the miswired emergency button.
The engineers and their people had set up a crisis center at the edge of the clearing. Plans and blueprints covered the ground, weighted against the sucking wind by rocks and tools.
One of their documents whipped loose and bounced along the ground toward the terminal. A workman dived for it, but he never hit the ground. Instead, a swirling tentacle of wind separated from the main mass and shot toward him. He tumbled and spun, out of control. The tentacle whipped around his waist, drawing him into the gaping maw of the tornado. The last thing I saw was the sleeve of his red shirt as he disappeared from view.
This thing was sentient. And it was coming for me and my friends!
“Kirsty!” Lord Seiko cried, rushing toward me. “It’s a vortex between this dimension, Hell, and Heller, the next one over. We must have started it that day when we . . .”
“When I bumped the lever by mistake, causing the dry run to be a dress rehearsal. And then I hit the defective emergency switch. I screwed up.”
“It was an accident. On all our parts.” Even in a crisis, Seiko was still gracious. “The fact that you exist simultaneously on both planes, coupled with the surge of energy in the time machine, must have caused a rip in the fabric of the universe—or at least the curtain between Hell and Heller.”
I gawked at the huge tear in the air. The rip must have been expanding a fraction each day for nearly a year, sending time into a tizzy.
Seiko turned back toward his coworkers, the wind whipping his hair. His foot hit a hole in the ground where a rock had been sucked away. He stumbled, waving his arms to keep his balance and staggered into the danger zone.
“No!” I screamed, charging toward him. Just as a tentacle of evil whirlwind reached for him, I tackled him, throwing us both to the ground. I clung to him, making us an immovable object in the face of the irresistible force. I realized I was still holding the skull and tossed it aside so I could use both hands to grip my fallen friend.
“Nooo!” Rod charged in, diving for the skull. He grabbed it, only to make the worst fumble in history—MVP my ass. The skull shot from his grip. It bounced along the ground, coming to rest in a clear patch of grass near the doorway into the machine itself. Rod charged after his prize. Wind tore at his clothing, sucking at him, sucking him in. A starfish of tendrils reached for him, wrapping around his body like a giant windy squid. He rose into the air slowly, legs still pumping. He hung suspended for what seemed like an eternity and may well have been. Then the vortex howled and snatched him away. His screech hung in the air long after he’d gone. Finally, it died away.
On the ground, I held on to Seiko, unable to move, unable to scream.
“Make a chain!” Horace yelled above the wind. “Now!”
Kali charged in first, able to grip both Seiko and me, two arms apiece, leaving two free. Dante threw himself down next, feet practically in Kali’s face. She shouted something about there being Hell to pay when this was over, but she wrenched her ego under control and wrapped her last set of arms around his ankles. Horace copied Dante’s move so Dante was able to grab his legs and then M’Kimbi did the same. Ira and Amber held onto one of M’Kimbi’s arms each, functioning as anchors. The air filled with white feathers as the wind ripped at Ira’s wings. The tiny part of my mind still fixated on graduating wondered if we could steal a black Magic Marker from Schotz and fake a couple of seagull feathers. Look, I was desperate. But saving my aunt and getting my life back had to wait until I’d saved my friends.
And the world.
I’d met the other two engineers who comanaged the project with Lord Seiko when I’d first stumbled onto their time machine. Now I watched as Lord Roland, his great-great-grandson Lord Tim, and some of the workmen rushed over to help. But even with the additional manpower, there was no way they could haul six people along the ground while a malevolent vortex yanked our chain.
The wind surged, becoming a giant vacuum determined to eat its fill. I’d finally found the evil incarnate I’d always expected in Hell. And it came from the dimension next door! There goes the neighborhood.
“I can’t hold on much longer,” Kali screamed, the wind snatching at her words.
We pulled and heaved in the tug-of-war to end all wars. I thought my arms would rip out of their sockets. I silently thanked Sergeant Schotz for all the physical training. Now I knew why it had been important. No strain, no gain.
“Climb the chain. Furthest out first!” Roland shouted, deerstalker cap and accent both whipped away in the wind.
That would work. I wanted Seiko to go first, but he pushed at me until I realized this Chip ’n’ Dale routine only wasted time while the wind grew stronger. Still holding onto me, Seiko passed me to Kali, who helped me crawl up to the next person. By the time I reached Dante, the wind’s grasp had lessened a little. Great news, since Dante didn’t have an extra set of arms to support me and still hang on to the person in front of him.
I crawled over Dante as quickly as I could, which wasn’t very. Seiko crawled up behind me.
When we’d raced out of the clearing toward the time machine, Horace had donned Rod’s backpack containing the tokens we needed to graduate. I used it now to drag myself over him to the next person in line. First one of the straps gave and then the other. Trust Rod to have bought a cheaply made backpack. I shoved it aside and grasped Horace around the neck. The wind grabbed the backpack immediately and it flew, along with all our hopes of graduation, into the vortex. Now Rod would have all the tokens he’d wanted so badly. Poor Rod.
“How do we stop this?” I screamed, once I’d scrambled onto safe ground.
“We must shut it down!” Roland shouted.
“Yeah, man. Shut it down,” Tim seconded.
But how? The vortex pulsed and roared like a great sucking chest wound between Hell and Heller. As we’d fought for our lives, it had expanded to encompass nearly the entire clearing, vacuuming up everything in its path. It tore at the time machine building, ripping off the lion heads and tearing away the weaker sections of paneling. The terminal now resembled a desiccated body—chunks of tortured materials clinging to the shuddering skeleton of rebar and I-beams and concrete. The metal frame twisted and shrieked. Having torn holes in the roof, tendrils of evil descended into the building, giving birth to tiny new twisters that spun through the interior. How could anyone enter the building now? How could we shut the time machine off?
“Won’t the time machine just get torn apart and stop working?” Horace shouted over the roar.
“No. We relocated the main engines underground not long ago,” Seiko explained. “It would take a nuclear attack to destroy it. All you see aboveground are the controls. Once they’re torn away, we won’t be able to shut it off and the vortex will suck all of Hell and the Mortal Coil into its ravenous belly.”
And the Mortal Coil! Oh, no! “What about when it runs down?” I yelled in his ear. “You guys told me it runs on spices.”
“That’s so last millennium. It’s thermal powered now. We hooked it up directly to the Earth’s core when we planted the engines underground.”
“Did you ever hook up the computer systems I suggested?”
“Yes, we did, but we kept the older systems in place just in case.”
“How, then, can one deactivate this device?” M’Kimbi asked, eyes wide with fear, mouth a firm line of determination.
“There’s an emergency button inside.” I said, looking to Roland for confirmation. He nodded grimly. Then he sneezed, knocking a fair amount of grit from his mustache.
“I’m afraid our Kirsty is correct. There’s a button inside that must be depressed. It will turn the machine on.”
“On?” Horace asked. “Don’t we want to turn the skeggin’ thing off?”
“No. No,” Seiko said. “It has been set off. We now need to turn it on. That will stop the fluctuation of the time parameters in terms of the juxtaposition of the . . .”
A glint caught my eye. The crystal skull still lay where Rod had fumbled it. On a patch of grass. Why grass? Everywhere else the grass and soil had been torn up until the bones of Earth lay bare. Boulders and massive tree roots were all that remained where lawn and topsoil had been swallowed up by the swirling menace.
Atop the building, a huge box comprised of metal ribs and filters perched just above the door—the massive air conditioner I’d noticed the day I arrived. The AC unit shuddered and wavered, metal screaming as it torqued, its welds and bolts threatening to give at any second. For the moment, though, it held and in doing so, blocked the terrible sucking wind, leaving a clear path just in front of the open door. I looked around.
“I’ll go,” Dante volunteered, tearing off his robe.
“You’re a brave young man,” Roland told Dante, who was quite possibly several hundred years his senior. “But ’tis clearly my responsibility. I’ll go.” Roland gripped his pipe between his teeth resolutely.
“I’ll go,” Ira stepped up. “It’s what we do.”
“You throw yourself into the whirling vortex of evil?” M’Kimbi asked. He tended to be very literal.
“No. We do what’s right. And miracles. We also do miracles.”
“Nobody would even miss me,” Horace said.
Before my friends wasted any more time volunteering, I stepped in. “No. This is my fault. I bumped the lever the first day I was here and that’s when it all went wrong.”
“Time machines just aren’t what they used to be,” Seiko said grimly.
“I’m going to fix it,” I said. “And I’m going to live. Er, stay dead. Er, keep on keepin’ on.”
Tossing his fist in the air, Timothy gave me a right on, sistah salute.
“But first, there’s something I have to do.” I turned to Dante. “In case I don’t make it.”
I grasped his chin, leaned up against him and kissed him on the mouth. He wasn’t a PDA kind of guy so it took him a second to get with the program, but then he wrapped his arms around me and kissed me back. I melted against him, teasing his tongue into my mouth, nearly losing myself in the kiss. I slid my hands to his waist, letting my fingers tangle in his belt loops. I pulled back just enough to draw a breath—and suddenly I really, really needed one. Go figure.
Looking deep into his eyes, I asked dreamily (but loudly, since the whirlwind was making such a racket), “Remember the day we met?”
“Sì,” he breathed, moving his hands to my shoulders, meeting my gaze, lips curling upward in a dazed smile.
Firming my grip at his waist, I smiled apologetically. Then I said, “I did this.”
I grabbed his scythe and shoved him roughly away from me as I had on that day in the men’s room when I’d sent him bouncing into a bank of sinks. The Velcro tab made a ripping noise audible even over the wind as his scythe tore from his belt loop. Dante sprawled on the ground still looking dazed and more than a little surprised.
I blew him one more kiss and raced toward the building.
My legs pumped hard, my heart did, too. I hated that I’d had to make what might be our last kiss a distraction and I hated more that I’d had to cut it short, but I just couldn’t afford to let him try to stop me.
Shoving regrets of love and betrayal aside, I sprinted to the relatively windless area immediately before the entrance to the time terminal.
Above me, the AC unit shifted again. If its moorings snapped now, I’d be was a goner. I’d be crushed or sucked into the vortex or, given my luck, probably both. What would happen to my unsouled body back on the Coil?