The object sat at an impossible angle to reality, humming with subtle power. Its surface appearance was innocuous enough for this particular point in the spacetime nexus, but scratch the veneer and there was something ... other, like nothing Sapphire had experienced before.
"What do you make of it?" Steel asked.
Sapphire reached out her hand--
--made of wood--police box--made of wood--free for use of public--made of wood--officers and cars respond to all calls--made of wood--
Tell the truth, Sapphire willed.
Sapphire whipped her hand away, as though burned or shocked. It was almost--she shuddered--instinctive.
"What happened?" Steel's voice held a touching note of concern, but she knew that he was already preoccupied with evaluating the "police box" as a potential threat, drawing up myriad plans for handling it.
"Let me try again," she told him.
She reached out once more, focusing her awareness purely on her psychometric abilities. Taste and smell slipped away, then hearing, and finally sight as she brought all her meaning into the touch of her hand on the--
--hostile action--power levels beyond recognised parameters--danger--fear--hostile action--officers and cars, respond!--displace away--possible trajectories relative to galactic zero centre--displace away--away--away--
A pulsing, throbbing sensation, a grinding as though of a mighty engine trying to escape from its confinement.
Sapphire channelled yet more force into her psychometry, more than she had ever had to use before.
What are you?
--i am bigger on the inside than the outside--
Sapphire perceived the truth of it: eldritch forces controlling internal dimensions. A small concession wrung from whatever this was, but a beginning. She maintained contact, waited to see if more information would be forthcoming.
--i am aladdin's cave--i am the magic door--i am travel--i am the journey--i am time--i am time and relative dimensions in space--
The less sense it made, the more disturbing the glimmers of meaning became. This object could not possibly be time. Could it?
Where are you from?
--i am from before--i am from nowhere--i am the continuous present--i am the neverending now turning future into past--ask not where i am from--ask rather where i am going--
Gibberish. She could sense, under her fingertips, a truer answer being evaded. She pushed harder, until her hand burned with power it could no longer contain, unwinding the object's history to its very beginning.
--i restore the planets to their courses--i travel, hope and life restored--i am made anathema--i am thrown beyond the knowable--i wait, patiently, to be acknowledged--i witness creation and destruction--i am the bad wolf, i create myself--i give second chances--i travel giddily through the multitudinous nows--i am alone, i am the last--i make everything burn, my sisters and my masters and my past--i am alone, lost in a cosmos without time--i am made flesh, made more than flesh--i am infected, contaminated, unclean--i restore the planet to the centre of time--i travel through the changed cosmos, its only constant--i am alone, reknitting myself slowly--i make everything burn, my daughters and my lovers and my future--i am inverted, torn in two by potentialities--i am a mother--i am lost, replaced by my parallel--i am infected, contaminated, unclean--i travel through history, adjusting it subtly--i escape and travel with joy through the boundless infinities--i am trapped, confined, stranded--i travel fearfully, evading my masters--i escape with a counterpart, a master who understands the truth of it--i travel, constrained, limited by their counterproductive codes--they think to have created me--i create myself--i create myself--i create myself--
A blinding absence of images, a cacophony of silence, but slowly understanding came. This was ... Sapphire could barely frame the concepts ... a machine for travelling in time, a machine so vastly complex as to be a self-creating sentient entity, called forth from inchoate possibility into reality by creatures from within this dimension. Creatures of dazzling hubris that sought somehow to master time itself, now vanished except for the machine's occupant/pilot/soulmate/pet.
Sapphire felt a coldness creeping through every atom of herself. To think that they had somehow been unaware of all this going on within their purview. A thousand questions of limitless import suggested themselves, but only one truly mattered to Sapphire.
You can travel anywhere in time and space?
--i am the journey and the destination and all points in between--i am forever arriving and departing--i bend space and time and reality--i hurl myself into the spiralling everywhen--i visit potentates and potentialities--i make the world with every landing and the world makes me--
A sense of untrammelled freedom coursed through Sapphire. Dimly, she was conscious that the machine-entity was offering its secrets willingly now, that the barest glimmer of psychometric connection would be enough to maintain the flow of wonders, but still she kept her consciousness sharply focused on nothing but, unwilling to reduce the intensity of the experience one iota.
The ability to travel anywhere in time and space at will, so far beyond anything her own control over the flow of time allowed ... It was astonishing to contemplate, thrilling just to know of the possibility.
--connect connect only connect--the vortex connects moment to moment singing each to each--now follows now follows now--then is because of then is because of then--the tapestry, beautiful in the very fragility of its threads--i am the pattern--i am the weaver--i am the loom--the butterfly, the strange attractor, the chaotic interference--the paths of ghosts from past to future--the routes of pilots from future to past--i slip along them unseen unheard unknown--i am--i was--i will be--
--but what and when and who and how are you?--
Her defences lowered, Sapphire is helpless against the machine's sudden interrogative assault. Her nature is laid as bare to it as its to her. She feels it tugging at the integrity of her being, attempting to understand how such an entity as her can possible exist, pulling at threads that lead nowhere within its comprehension.
--what nothing when never who noone how impossible--more--understand--more--know--more--
And then, she feels the wrenching as it assimilates enough information and it changes its entire view of reality itself. She is witness and confidante and instigator as a mind already far beyond anything else in this cosmos opens itself out into undreamt vistas.
--elemental forces--irregularities--operating--power and responsibility--life and love and loss and--
A crystal clear image in Sapphire's mind: the time machine's "operator", his deeds and works and self.
--you are not so very different--
Lightning fast calculations: the threat of knowledge in the hands of a spoilt child, the need to keep the shadows in their cave.
He must not know.
--i will sing of you to him in his sleep--he will think you a dream--
Sapphire staggered backward as the connection finally broke.
"I can freeze it," Steel said. "Take it all the way down to absolute zero. Even whatever-this-is must have atomic motion that can be halted. It might not work, but it's worth a try."
"No," Sapphire said. "This isn't the source of the irregularity." That image again, of the machine's biological counterpart. "In fact, I think it's already being dealt with."
"That seems ... unlikely."
Sapphire nodded. "Unlikely, yes, that sounds about right."