Only going to do this once (and it's complicated), so listen up now y'all: Wes, Jen, Eric, Kimberly, Lucas, Taylor, Alice and anyone else you recognise from PR belongs to BVE. Ben belongs to Ekat. Assorted Silver Guardians and minor characters belong to themselves (thanks again!). Everyone else, including John, Rick, Lexia, Namir, JJ and Gina belongs to me. That which has been borrowed earns me no money. That which is mine may be borrowed, but asking first would be polite.

This is the third and final instalment of The Master arc, it's also the fifth instalment in the Far Future series -- so if you've not read the rest of Far Future (in general) and Quantum Chaos and Time Lost (in particular), you may well be confused.

With extremely grateful thanks to Gamine for patiently picking out the nits and putting up with me working out temporal theory.

~*~

Explode

A thick pall of black, oily smoke hung over the ruins of what had been the SGHQ, shrouding most of the area in semi-haze. Chaos was threatening to break out, as the handful of Guardians who hadn't been in the building massed and milled in front of the building.

Paul Miller, one of the last to arrive on the scene by virtue of having been attending a call at a cross-town business, felt a surge of immediate panic on seeing the sight. His first thought was for Gina. The bomb -- as he'd very quickly noted -- had completely destroyed the reception area of SGHQ. The place where Gina worked. He wanted nothing better than to be frantically digging through the rubble pile, but he had a job to do. Terrified or not, a glance around the gathered few told him he was the only member of the senior staff not to have been in the building when the bomb went off -- and that meant he had to take command of the situation.

The surprising thing -- or maybe it wasn't -- was that those Guardians as weren't inside the building weren't milling about like headless chickens, and he'd so far yet to say a word. They all looked worried -- who wouldn't be? -- but there was no sense of panic. Guess the training shit Eric put us through really did work, Paul decided, sending a prayer to wherever -- or whenever -- Eric actually was.

"OK. Listen up, people," he called, bringing every ounce of command he could muster to his voice to keep the fear from showing through. The group came to order. "We know the sitch, we know the drill. Let's get to work." He swallowed, and looked around the group. "Haynes," he continued, picking on one of the people whose names hadn't just mysteriously blanked from his memory, "get a six-man crew to work on that rubble pile. Go carefully -- listen for anyone trapped in the shit heap."

JJ gave a brisk, businesslike nod. Without speaking a word, he picked out five others and got down to work.

"Deslaurier -- get a team together and let's start getting the walking wounded outta here and into the park. Medics..." Paul trailed off and cursed when he didn't see Jackson's face in the crowd. The one time he'd have been grateful to see the...

"Medic here." Of all people, John Myers raised a hand.

Paul blinked. He knew John had been doing field medicine but... No time for that. "OK -- looks like you're on your own for a start, kid," he said. "You up to this?"

John gave a snort that sounded like Eric when you'd just told him the odds of something being successful were longer than the Amazon and more piranha infested to boot. "Don't have a choice."

Paul had no answer to that. "Deslaurier -- set up basic triage in the park. We're gonna need M...Myers over here." He stumbled over John's name, but he had to keep this formal or he'd lose it. Even if it did seem wrong in John's case.

Jenny Deslaurier nodded. "Gotcha, boss." She and her team headed off to start evacuating the walking wounded.

"Reed, Watson, Lear -- you're on evac duty from the rest of the building. There are emergency exits, so people not caught in the blast should be making their way to those. Do not, I repeat do not, go into the building yourselves." All three, Paul noted, were too professional to look insulted at the suggestion they'd do anything so dumb. "We don't have anyone equipped..."

"Yes we do," said a soft voice.

Paul span round and found himself looking at Lexia Collins, who looked absolutely sick with worry, but who was also purposefully tapping the excessively fancy looking watch on her wrist. Morpher, he reminded himself.

"Demolitions expert," she stated. "You need eyes on the inside. I can do that."

She was seventeen, for pity's sake. She was just a kid, who was visibly frightened -- not that Paul could blame her for that. He couldn't... Memories of search and rescue efforts where a morphed Ranger had been the difference between life and death for people filtered through his mind. Damn it. He didn't have a choice.

"OK." He swallowed. God help him if she got hurt. "Reed -- you've got a fourth member of the team. You know the drill."

Mara Reed had been at East Mall, Paul recalled. She knew the drill all right. "Got it boss -- ladies; let's motorvate here." Reed tossed a smile in Lexia's direction. "Welcome to evac duty, kid."

As they disappeared to start their work, Paul turned his attention to the few remaining Guardians. "The rest of you, snap it up. This site needs to be secure. Keep the civilians at a safe distance. SPD should be here soon to help -- but with this virus, who knows in what strength. Let's show 'em what we can do."

Paul felt mentally drained. The hardest thing he'd ever had to do -- and it wasn't finished. Not by a long shot.

"We need a medic over here!" yelled one of JJ's team. "Paul -- you might wanna get over here, too."

Paul answered the summons. Please let it not be Gina...please let her be OK...

~*~

It took a long while for the voice to penetrate Lucas' dreams, and even once it had, it took a long while more before he consciously realised that the speaker was trying to wake him up.

"Whasamatter?" he slurred, not even opening his eyes.

"Are you awake?" the voice asked.

Vaguely, Lucas noted the voice was male. "No."

"Well you need to be," the voice retorted.

Lucas managed to crack an eye open, but all he saw was a person-shaped blur. "Why?" his eye slid shut. "It's the middle of the night."

"Yes, it is," said the speaker with the sort of exaggerated patience that suggested the speaker's real patience was rapidly wearing out. "Lucas, you think if this wasn't important I'd be here?"

The head of Covert Operations cracked an eye open again. This time, the person-shaped blur resolved itself into Rob. "What the hell is so important?"

"Hawking and Kerin weren't saying,"

~*~

Noise.

That was the first thing that penetrated Jen's consciousness. Hot on noise's heels, though, was pain. Every single fibre of her body ached so fiercely that for a few moments, she could barely think beyond those two aspects.

Gradually, though, the pain distilled itself into three main areas. Her head, which seemed to have a marching band doing double time practice in it, her back, which just throbbed, and her left ankle felt as if red hot pokers were being rammed through it. Then, as that settled into those three areas, noise began to condense into meaningful sounds. She could hear the shouts of people around her. Someone was screaming. There was a rattle of falling masonry.

As the last of the visceral realisations sank in, Jen managed her first conscious thought, Oh my god...the baby... There was no pain -- or only the sort of pain that indicated minorish bruises -- from her mid-section, but when she tried to move her hand to feel for any injuries, another area of pain made itself known, this time in her shoulder.

"OK, Jen...you've gotta hold still."

Eric? What was Eric doing here? Wasn't he... A memory fragment drifted into focus. It couldn't be Eric. Eric was a thousand years into the future. Unfortunately, opening eyes she hadn't actually realised were closed just presented her with more proof that, apparently, Eric had turned his hand to medicine.

Wait. Medicine?

"John?" she whispered, and was rewarded with a smile. "What..."

"Shsh," he said. "Talk later."

So like his father, Jen realised. Even got the obey-me-or-I'll-kick-your-ass expression down.

"The paramedics will be here for you soon," John continued. "You're going to be OK -- but we need to get you to hospital."

"The baby..." Jen whispered.

"Is fine," John promised, smiling. "And you're going to be fine, too."

"Are...sure?"

"Positive."

Jen could feel herself drifting away again -- which was a blessed relief from the pain. She didn't know what had happened, but whatever it was, it would just have to wait...

~*~

Lucas was still yawning as he walked through the deserted corridors of TFHQ towards his office -- the location for this meeting. Whatever this was about, it had to be urgent, but he couldn't even begin to guess what could be so urgent that it merited a meeting there and then at three o'clock in the morning.

Reaching his office, he found Kerin and Hawking waiting for him. Hawking looked grim-faced while Kerin's countenance had taken on a decidedly ashen cast. Lucas felt the pit of his stomach start to bubble in apprehension. This couldn't be anything good.

"Lucas," Hawking began. "I have bad news and I have worse news."

"Well I didn't think this was going to be to tell me everything was rosy," Lucas answered, folding his arms across his chest. "What's happened now?"

"At about one o'clock this morning," Hawking stated, "every single temporal alarm and early warning system set off."

Lucas stared, wide-eyed. "That's not possible."

"On the contrary," said Hawking grimly, "it's perfectly possible."

"But...how? Why?"

"Partially," said Kerin, an oddly sheepish note to his voice, "because Eric Myers is not in the right time period."

Lucas' frowned. He recalled reading a report from Hawking on Eric's unique situation within the time stream, but... "If it was just that, surely the alarms would have started at once."

"As long as Captain Myers was alive in this time period and it was emphatically possible for him to be returned to the right place and time, no," said Hawking. "That's changed." There was a pause. "We've got a temporal ripple set up."

Lucas felt his mouth dry up. One of the major analogies used when teaching the basics of temporal mechanics was to define time as a pond. Dropping a stone into that pond sets up ripples. Depending on how close to the bank you are the ripples take more or less time to reach you. The same thing applied -- at least in theory -- to making temporal changes. But it's never been demonstrated because no-one's ever been dumb enough to try it... "How?"

"Something's happened in 2013," Hawking replied. "At a guess, something very catastrophic. More than that, I can't say."

Lucas thought back to the dossier Namir had shown him the evening before. "I can," he answered in equally grim tones. "It's stage three of The Master's plan."

"To an extent," Hawking continued, "the 'what' doesn't matter so much as stopping and reverting the ripple."

"To do that," Kerin put in, "you, Myers and the rest, need to get to 2013."

~*~

Jenny Deslaurier sat back on her heels and blew a strand of hair out of her face. What sort of madman did this kind of thing? Pausing in her work -- trying to help the less injured and keep them out of harm's way until paramedics could see them -- she looked around.

The small corner of parkland immediately opposite SGHQ was chaos. The walking wounded -- and one or two who weren't quite so 'walking' -- numbered probably somewhere near fifty. All of them confused. Now that they were relatively out of the way, it was her team's task to keep them there -- a little like herding cats, one or two of the least injured were trying to help, which wasn't in the slightest -- then take down names, then -- as the paramedics became available -- see them into medical care.

Across the park, she could see the press-pack -- down in size thanks to this damn virus, but still there in a big enough numbers to be a nuisance -- being kept back by a cordon of SGs and members of SPD, who'd finally arrived. That was probably good -- the last time the press had breached that cordon, she thought Paul was about going to have a shit fit with the reporter.

"Yo! Des!" the shout came from a member of JJ's excavation team. "Got another one for you."

Back to work, then.

~*~

Ven stared at Lucas via the comm. link. "Are you nuts?" she finally managed. "There's no way that Eric's fit for a rough journey. Hell," she added, "it's moot if he'd be fit for a ten year 'hop' right now."

Lucas grimaced. "Ven, we don't have a choice. If we don't get to 2013, there's not going to be a 'here' to leave. Hawking's prognosis is the ripple is going to take a week to reach this century. Seven days is all we have -- and the longer we leave it, the worse the journey's going to be."

Ven closed her eyes. "This could kill him."

"Ven, it could kill all of us. No-one's ever tried travelling through a temporal ripple. We have no way of knowing what effects there are. But if we don't, billions die."

She reopened her eyes. "I don't like it."

"Nor do I."

~*~

Smoke filled the hallway leading up towards reception. It made Lexia's progress slow and painstaking because even with the enhanced view her ranger helmet gave her, she could still see only a bare foot in front of her.

Over the comm., Mara's voice came, steady and calm, "Kid -- how're y'doin'?"

"Hallway seems to be empty," Lexia answered. "I'm about up to conference room one's door." But as she said it, she reached her first casualty. "Scratch that."

"What ya got?" Mara asked.

Lexia crouched beside the unconscious Guardian and pressed her fingers to his throat, seeking a pulse. "Unconscious," she reported.

"Any other signs of injury?"

Lexia looked, but there were no signs of blood or anything else that would indicate the unconscious Guardian was suffering anything other than smoke inhalation. "Nope."

"OK -- kid, ya gotta bring him out to me an' Beck; you OK with that?"

Lexia looked at the Guardian. He was twice her size, and given he was completely out cold, he'd be awkward to move. On the other hand, if she didn't, no-one else would be able to. "Yeah."

"Good kid."

Up to you, Lex. You can do this.

~*~

Lucas paced his office. Time was ticking by and he still didn't know which of the residents from this time were going to be accompanying Eric, Kim, Wes, Alice and Rick. Part of him said that only those currently serving as Time Force officers should go. Part of him said it was going to be no trip for civilians.

Except that Al, Katie and Namir were hardly civilians. Nor were Rob and Ven.

And Hawking couldn't supply any information as to what they were going to be facing when they got to 2013.

"What ever you're planning," said a voice from the doorway, "count us in."

Lucas span round and found Trip and Nadira standing there. Trip who had been so injured by Hordak's destruction of Jackie Bennett's lab three weeks earlier. Vengeance burned in his eyes. It was an expression completely at odds with the otherwise placid nature of the Xybrian.

"It's gonna be rough."

"Same as always, then," Trip answered, smiling slightly.

Trip had definitely earned a piece of The Master. So had Al, Katie and Namir. So had Rob and Ven. They'd all be going. "Same as always," he agreed.

~*~

JJ carefully moved another lump of concrete, handing it to the Guardian behind him, who passed it back to a third Guardian. A human chain moving the rubble with almost exaggerated care. It was slow going. Finding Jen had been a nice breakthrough, but since then, there had been nothing but rubble.

JJ wanted to believe that was because there was no-one else under this.

But if that was true, where were Ben, Taylor and Gina? For that matter, where was Jackson?

He moved another huge chunk of rock, and froze. That was an arm. He'd found someone else. But who?

"Medic!" he yelled.

"Who've you got?" John called back.

"Not sure yet -- but someone."

"Ready when you need me."

"'Kay -- Lynn, Mike; let's get this shit cleared."

His two helpers immediately stepped up to help clear the area immediately around the person. The remaining three members of the team stepped up to back them up. They worked quickly, with a will, but the more stone they cleared, the more certain JJ became that this effort was going to be in vain. Two minutes' concerted effort had cleared enough away for an ID to be made.

"Shit," Lynn muttered.

JJ felt his heart sink to somewhere around boot-level. "John -- looks like it's Alexander Collins." He pressed his fingers against the Biolab CEO's neck and found no pulse. "And I don't think there's anything you can do."

~*~

The old nightmares were back, with a few new additions. It was one reason Eric was quietly relieved when he felt Ven's hand gently shake him 'awake' -- it meant he could stop pretending he'd been asleep.

"You need to get up," Ven stated quietly.

On the other hand, maybe still pretending to be asleep was a better option. It would mean he wouldn't have to actually face anything yet. "Up?"

"We're going to 2013," Ven answered, her hands gently guiding him up into a sitting position.

The world dipped and swayed -- an unsettling feeling, seeing as he had no visual guide for what was up, down, left and right in the first place -- and for a second or two, he thought he was going to fall. "Uhg."

"OK, gently does it."

"Easy for you to say," Eric bit out, clamping a hand to the edge of the bio-bed. That at least told him where the horizontal was.

"Dizzy?"

Eric wanted to reply with something sarcastic but at that moment, the dizziness collected in the pit of his stomach and only sheer force of will kept his jaw clamped shut against the sudden nausea.

"OK, silly question." There was a clatter, then Eric felt something press against his neck. A moment later and he felt the sting of a hypospray emptying. "That should help."

Whatever it was, it was certainly fast acting. Almost the instant the hypospray was removed from his neck, Eric could feel the dizziness abating -- and with it, the nausea. It was still several minutes before he trusted himself to relax his jaw muscles without the fear of throwing up, though. In that time, he heard Ven bustle around the room, fairly obviously packing things together.

When he was finally sure he wasn't going to lose the contents of his stomach, he asked, "What's going on?"

"Something's come up," said Ven succinctly. "Lucas will explain more when we get to Central City." Eric heard her come nearer. "OK. Kim'll be along in a minute or two -- do you want me to give you privacy while you get dressed and ready?"

And that had to be the most terrifying question. What if the dizziness returned? What if he fell? What if he couldn't do this? What if... "No...stay...please?"

~*~

Mara Reed concentrated on the exit, waiting with Beck Watson for Lexia's return. Lexia hadn't sounded convinced that she could manage, but...

"This is Mandi Ohlin, reporting live from a scene of chaos..."

Mara's attention snapped from the door to the speaker. Spinning round, she found herself staring at the News-At-Five presenter, who was presenting a live report just a yard away. How the hell the journalist had got herself -- and her crew -- through the cordon, Mara didn't know, but what she did know was the reporter was about to head straight back through the cordon.

"Wait for Lexia," Mara ordered. "I'm gonna deal with..."

"Can you tell me how many people are trapped inside this building?"

Mara found a microphone thrust straight into her face, held by Mandi who was looking expectant. Only the fact that there was also a camera in front of her kept Mara's response printable. "You have roughly one minute to get that out of my face and get yourselves back behind..."

But Mara was destined to never finish that sentence as at that moment, Beck yelped, "Mara!"

Again Mara span round and found that Lexia had reached the exit, burdened by... Mara bit back a groan. It would be Davis. He was a new hire -- and had, it seemed, very little in the way of common sense.

"Ho-ly... Jack kill the feed." Before Mara could truly process Mandi's words, the reporter was asking, "Look -- can we help here?"

Mara slowly turned to face the reporter. "What?"

Mandi, for her part, offered a shrug and a faint smile. "It looks like you could use our help far more than Ebert needs a live feed here."

"Besides," Jack put in gruffly, as he set the now dormant camera on the ground, "no offence, ladies, but that guy's twice your size."

Mara could only slowly shake her head in disbelief. "You really wanna help?" Both Mandi and Jack nodded. Mara gave a shrug. "Well we need every pair of hands we can get."

~*~

Kimberly reached the door of the medi-centre in time to hear Ven's question. She smiled faintly, almost positive she knew what Eric's reaction was going to be.

"No...stay...please."

For a second, she wondered if perhaps this was, after all, some sort of replicant. That just wasn't a sentiment Eric would have ever expressed. But it was Eric. Deep in her heart, Kimberly knew it was him in the same way she'd known the clone on trial wasn't. She shivered. He'd changed.

And after years of wishing he'd ask for help more often, Kimberly found herself willing to give everything just to have that stubborn cuss back.

~*~

John felt sick as he watched the paramedics gently lift Taylor's unconscious body into the waiting ambulance. She had lost so much blood, it was going to be touch and go as to whether she would make it. At first, John had thought there was a severed femoral artery. Then he'd almost hoped that was the cause. But it wasn't.

She'd lost her baby.

"John -- how're you holding up?"

Dazedly, John blinked and realised that Jackson -- battered and bruised, but otherwise whole -- had finally appeared. All he could manage was, "Huh?"

Gone was Jackson's trademark smile. "OK -- time for a break, John. I think Des could use your help over in the park. I'm here now; le'me take over."

"What if...I can't help them...?" John shivered. "I couldn't...couldn't..."

"You can and you will," said Jackson firmly. "You've already helped Jen and Taylor...yes -- you have," he added when John moved to protest. "She's got a fighting chance. That's more than she'd have without you. Trust me on that."

John felt as if he ought to argue that point, but there was something in Jackson's steady gaze that stopped him and gave him heart. Possibly guessing the thought process, Jackson gave a nod.

"Go, take a break -- just five minutes. Get your head together. Then go help Des with the walking wounded."

John managed a nod. "Yes, boss."

As he started to move away, he heard JJ call, "Medic!" and nearly stopped to answer, except that Jackson beat him to it,

"Here!" the CMO called. Then to John, he added, "I mean it -- get a five minute break."

For the first time, John understood why his father had hired the otherwise irritating Dr Jackson. Bet you can talk dad into doing shit, too...

~*~

Lucas looked around the crowded room. It was just past six o'clock in the morning; most of the occupants had only been awake an hour or so, but no-one looked the slightest bit half-asleep. Everyone knew that this was critical.

"Do we know what's happened?" Wes asked.

Hawking shook his head. "The timeline's too unstable for any reliable monitoring. All I can tell you is that whatever it is, it's bad."

"And it's more than likely related to what Namir found at the TOI yesterday," Lucas continued. "Nam -- you want to explain that one?"

"The Master's created a virus," Namir stated, nodding to Lucas. "He's called it Redemption. It's lethal."

"Do we know anything more about it?" Kimberly asked.

"Enough for me to know that if we don't do something about it, it's going to be killing a lot of people," Lucas answered.

"So what's the plan?" Rob wanted to know.

Lucas gave a shrug. "The simplest plans work best: We go to 2013 and we stop this."

"Not quite as simple as that," put in Hawking. "There is the time limit."

"Time limit?" Alice echoed.

"Seven days," said Hawking.

"Then what?" asked Al.

Hawking and Lucas exchanged glances. "Then we, and everything from this time period, wherever and whenever it is, will cease to exist," said Hawking, "and The Master will have won."

~*~

Darkness was starting to fall as Paul finally had an opportunity to snatch a five minute break.

Reinforcements, in the shape of some of the Angel Grove Guardians, headed by Lane Aslett, had arrived, taking some of the pressure off the Silverhills-based Guardians. Some, but not all. Resources were being stretched to the limit. In particular, Lexia was the only person who could do what she was doing -- namely exploring the ruins of the building, looking for people trapped. So far, she'd found six people, but she was tiring -- Mara's last report had been clear on that, and on Lexia's own determination not to quit.

Just like her mom, Paul mused, sipping at some tepid coffee. But she's going to have to take a break soon.

His own personal worry was over -- Gina was one of the people Lexia had managed to find. She was a little bruised and battered, but otherwise OK -- which Paul was more than grateful for. He just wished some of the other news was as good.

Reports had come back from Silverhills General. Jen, one of the first people to be found, had some fairly major head injuries and an ankle that was going to require surgery just to hold it together. Taylor was in ICU fighting for her life. Major internal injuries and blood loss, combined with a not insignificant head injury meant that the prognosis wasn't good. Mr Collins, the CEO of Biolab had already been killed by a similar combination of injuries. Kinda hope I don't have to be the person who tells Wes that, he found himself thinking. Wes was going to go absolutely ballistic.

Then there were the people who were still missing. Chief amongst those was Ben, but there were still a number of other Guardians who hadn't been found, and so far, Lexia hadn't been able to make it up to the R&D labs to see if that was where Michael Zaskin was.

Gina had at least been able to tell him the day's figures for those who were off sick with this damn virus, so at least he knew how many people he needed to account for. What she didn't have was a complete list of names -- so Paul didn't know which thirty-nine Guardians, he just knew that there were, somewhere in the mess that was SGHQ, there were eight more people.

He ran his fingers through his hair and groaned.

Looked like it was going to be a long night.


TO BE CONTINUED...