Chapter 1

The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

Buffy Summers stood quietly in her empty apartment, listening to the muted sounds of the city that lay beyond windows made gritty from dust and heat and pollution. How long since she had ever really listened to the city? To the sounds of the electric and gasoline powered cars, to the hum and clatter of the El, to the bustle of the pedestrians and the shouted profanities punctuated with the exclamation points of automobile horns? To the chilling wail of police, fire, and ambulance sirens that cut a ragged tear through the ambient noise like a pair of dull shears through a sheet of tin? To herself?

Too long. Far too long.

The shriek of turbines accompanied an NYPD patrol aerodyne as it swooped past her apartment building, arcing away and disappearing around a more luxurious high-rise down the street. She wondered idly whether it was a Slayer Unit skimmer, maybe Vange or Shaugnessy. But it didn’t matter. None of this mattered anymore.

This city, this world was her past. Her future had arrived five minutes ago.

“Are you ready?” asked Flynn.

Buffy turned away from the window with a sigh and presented a carefully neutral expression that hid what lay inside. Hope, fear and excitement all seethed madly within her, dizzying, overwhelming.

She was going home. But what would she find there when she arrived? Did she even have a home anymore?

“I’m ready,” she said, meeting Flynn’s gunmetal gray gaze evenly and unwaveringly. She turned her head toward the half-closed bedroom door. “Cordy, you about ready in there?”

“This is impossible!” Cordelia Chase shouted back as she emerged from the bedroom into the living room. She was dressed casually in a slate-blue blouse and black designer pants. She held up an outfit in either hand.

“How can I possibly be expected just to show up in another universe without knowing the styles? This is a fashion disaster waiting to happen, Buffy. I just know it,” she said. Her eyes flashed with a determination she usually reserved for fights to the death — and shopping.

Flynn rolled his eyes. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake. What you’re wearing is perfectly fine.”

Buffy watched with a slight smile on her lips as Cordelia eyed Flynn’s black business suit up and down. “Yeah, like you’re Mr. Haute Couture.”

“I’ll have you know that this is a custom-tailored Armani, Miss Chase,” said Flynn. “Where you’re going, this is considered quite elegant.”

“Whatever,” said Cordelia, returning to the bedroom and reemerging empty-handed. “I’ll just have to buy a new wardrobe when we arrive. I sure hope this job comes with an expense account.”

Flynn shook his head and turned to Buffy. “Why you ever insisted I let her come along, I’ll never understand.”

“It’s called friendship, Flynn. You ought to try it some time. It’s all the rage among us under-evolved life forms,” said the Slayer as her eyes strayed to a long parcel he was carrying. “That looks to be about the size of a nice kick-ass sword. For little ol’ me?”

“Yes, actually. I thought you might have some use for this,” he said, handing it to her.

She knew what it was even before she finished unwrapping it. “The Masamune blade? Not mine, of course.”

“No, even if yours hadn’t had its temper destroyed in the Gehenna Key, all artifacts on your Earth were rendered inert by the Saber Sequence. This is from another, less fortunate Earth. I thought it might come in handy in the future”

“Won’t it be neutralized as soon as I take it into my universe?” asked Buffy.

“No. The enchantment is bound into the object itself, not derived from any sort of open conduit to the mystical planes. The only reason your world’s artifacts were neutralized was because of the momentary quantum probability jolt the Saber gave your universe. It destabilized their spell matrices …”

He must have caught some evil glint in her eyes, because he stopped suddenly and asked, “What?”

Buffy moved without speaking to near where Cordelia was standing, and opened the lid of a black plastic box that was sitting on the apartment’s last remaining end table. Inside was her service weapon, a semiautomatic .44 Magnum that fired enchanted silver bullets. It was a vampire-killing weapon, a product of this world’s techno magic, and it was ruthlessly good at what it did.

“Then this should still work, too,” she said.

Flynn nodded. “Sure.”

Buffy smiled. “I think this will be coming with me.”

“Your firearm fetish just escapes me, Buffy,” said Cordelia. “Whatever happened to stakes and pool cues and stuff?”

Buffy ran a hand over the blued steel of the weapon and said, “What happened was that a very long time ago I finally realized what I was, what I was born to be: a killer. It’s not pretty. It’s not pleasant dinnertime conversation. It doesn’t make for good children’s television. But it’s what I am, and in many cases this cold machine lets me be what I am more efficiently, with less risk. Killing’s killing, Cordy. I don’t care how you do it, it always ends up the same way.”

“Jeez, let’s try to take the question way too seriously, huh?” said Cordelia, rolling her eyes.

Buffy closed the case and looked at the vampire she had ensouled so long ago. “Sorry. I don’t mean to get like that. It’s just … I don’t know.”

“Damn, you are a morbid one,” said Flynn. “You take all the joy out of slaying.”

“I take all the joy out of a lot of things. It’s my hobby,” said Buffy. “My next project is to take all the joy out of sex. People have been having way too much fun with that for far too long, and I mean to put a stop to it.”

“Strange girl,” muttered Flynn as he made a rather obvious production out of looking at his wristwatch. Rolex, Buffy noted.

“Are we waiting for something?” she asked.

“Someone actually. Should have been here ten minutes ago,” said Flynn.

As if on cue, a rap came at the apartment door.

So much for building security, thought Buffy.

“Ah, that should be our missing party now,” said Flynn.

“You never said anything about a third party,” said Buffy, irritation creeping into her voice. “That wasn’t the deal.”

“Miss Chase wasn’t part of the deal, either,” said Flynn. “Flexibility, Buffy. That’s going to be the key to making this little venture work.”

“It’s unlocked!” Buffy called out.

The unannounced guest opened the door and Buffy found herself face to face with the last person in the world she ever expected to come calling.

“Well, aren’t you going to invite me in, love?” asked Spike.

Buffy was taken so off guard that it nearly took her too long to notice Cordelia lunging for the box with the handgun.

“Cordy!” she yelled, but already the other woman had her hand on the weapon and was raising it.

Without thought, Buffy drew the Masamune katana with lightning speed and slashed it toward the barrel of the handgun. The back of the blade caught the Magnum with a sharp upward strike and sent it spinning out of Cordelia’s grasp. In one smooth motion, Buffy closed the distance and casually picked the weapon out of the air as it tumbled back down to earth.

“Do be polite, Miss Chase,” admonished Flynn. He turned to Buffy. “Very nice. You’ve been hitting the gym and practicing since last we met.”

“I had a feeling I’d be needing the edge,” said Buffy.

Cordelia massaged her wrist and said, “What is that doing here?”

That is coming along for the ride, love,” said Spike, smiling.

“Over my dead body,” said Cordelia.

“Yes, now we already bloody well took care of that, didn’t we?” said Spike.

“Son of a bitch …”

“Whoa, you two. Break it up and head to your corners,” said Buffy. She looked at Spike. “Oh, get the hell in here, Spike. Don’t pretend you need an invitation. I know you outgrew that when you got over holy water and sunlight.”

Spike stepped inside, keeping a wary eye on Cordelia. From across the hall, a door opened a crack and a neighbor peered out to cautiously assess the situation.

“It’s okay, Mr. Wiesenstock. Everything’s under control,” said the Slayer.

When the door didn’t close, she added, “I am licensed to carry a firearm, Mr. Wiesenstock. I’m also legally entitled to use it.”

The door closed promptly.

Buffy closed her own apartment door and turned to Flynn. “Okay, give it up. What’s the deal here?”

“Ever since that unfortunate killing incident with Elliot Lothair, it seems everyone and his cousin is gunning for William … Spike, here. I thought he’d be safer with you two, as ironic as that sounds,” said Flynn.

“What do I look like, Amnesty International?” asked Buffy. “You’ve always got some angle. I want to hear it. Now.”

“It’s because I’m something called a High Probability Significant Core Persona. Whatever the bloody hell that means,” said Spike.

“It means there’s a fair chance that somewhere down the line your otherwise insignificant, insect existence might be of some benefit to the multiverse,” snapped Flynn.

“Well, there you go then,” Spike said to Buffy. “I’m a bloke of cosmic importance, I am.”

“If he’s going, I’m staying,” said Cordelia.

“C’mon, Cordy. I gave you and Angel a chance and that worked out. I suppose Spike ought to have the same chance. Vampire or not, he does have a soul, just like you,” said Buffy.

“That’s the spirit!” said Flynn.

“He made me a vampire. He burned down my club. And the burning down the club part was when he already had his soul back, I might add,” said Cordy.

“I was having a really naff day,” said Spike.

Cordelia’s eyes narrowed and turned cold. “You’re going to have another one any second.”

“Oh, for crying out loud! Cordy, you’re over a hundred years old. Spike, you’re even older than that. Grow UP for heaven’s sake!”

Flynn sighed. “On that note, I think we ought to be leaving. A few drinks at the pub will take the edge off all of you, I think.”

“The pub? I fancy the sound of that,” said Spike.

Flynn produced what looked like a sophisticated cellular phone from his suit pocket and pressed a button. “Hello, Jenny. Any time you’re ready, beautiful.”

And with that, a seven-foot diameter, blue-green vortex coalesced in the center of the apartment. A low, throbbing note of power emanated from it, and the vast electromagnetic potential that drove it raised the fine hairs on Buffy’s arms.

Flynn extended his arm toward the wormhole in invitation. “After you.”

*                                   *                                   *

“I’ve been looking over the mission parameters, Colonel, and it seems to me that your chances of success are greatly enhanced by terminating Angel Summers immediately prior to or coincident with procurement of the key,” said Warren Pitts.

Pitts stood out among the large men with their jungle fatigues and weapons, Warren in his wire-frame glasses and gray suit in the midst of the steamy heat of the rainforests of Belize. Cade looked up from the papers he was reviewing on the aluminum folding table beneath the large, olive-drab field tent.

“I thought you’d come to that conclusion,” said the Colonel impassively. “It’s my thinking exactly. One thing we can be certain of, he’ll come at us with everything he’s got once we take possession of the key. The DH Group isn’t what it used to be, but I’m sure he’s got a lot of markers he can call in. I don’t need that kind of complication.”

“I recommend Gantz,” said Warren Pitts.

Cade was once again struck by how Pitts never seemed to blink behind those round lenses of his. It was unsettling. But Pitts was a genius at operational details and had a truly unnerving ability to anticipate an enemy’s actions. Robert E. Lee had been like that, Cade thought. But Pitts took it beyond instinct to the realm of psychological profiling and statistical modeling. If he thought Angel Summers would be a problem, then Angel Summers would probably be a problem.

“Gantz isn’t the nearest asset,” said Cade.

“Based on my analysis, Gantz has the best chance of success. Would you like to review the statistical correlations?”

Cade shook his head. “No, that won’t be necessary. I want you to oversee this and the key acquisition personally, Warren. I need to stay on the ground here, but I absolutely have to be certain that our New Jersey operation is handled without any mistakes. There’s no room for error now.”

“Understood,” said Pitts as he waved away a large mosquito. “I will require use of the jet.”

“It’s at your disposal. Don’t disappoint me, Warren,” said Cade.

If the implied threat resonated with Pitts, he didn’t show it.

“I never do, sir,” he said.

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