Disclaimer: SAPPHIRE AND STEEL is the copyright of P J Hammond, no infringement intended. Oblique references to THE PRISONER are to be considered a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Patrick McGoohan's masterpiece - again, no infringement intended. The term Multiverse is copyright Michael Moorcock.

Rating: Free for all..

Feedback: Yes, please! :) You can reach me at the address given on my top page.

Comment: The story takes place some time - perhaps a very long time - after the entrapment of Sapphire and Steel. If we consider time to be linear, that is ...




by Eliann SleepingCat

One moment I was drifting through space and time, a pebble on a Terran beach, a bead on a girl's necklace on a larger pebble orbiting Eridani IV. The next, I was coalesced, sitting in an old wicker chair on somebody's porch. But, what's in a moment? I was getting used to such changes by now.

The porch was painted white, and so was the wicker chair. Tacky. Wicker should not be painted. Lacquered perhaps, but not painted. A wind, coming in from the sea, kept the flies away. I had no doubt they were there; it was a mild afternoon, smelling like early summer.

The man in the rocking chair opposite me was a slender type in a white suit and a waistcoat of some glittering material. Complete with a silver watch on a chain - a fashion he seemed much too young for, though I knew that particular consideration to be highly irrelevant. He had a shock of reddish hair that looked well brushed in a snobbish manner. He was the restless kind, fiddling with everything in sight as long as it was largely unknown to him. His inability to sit still might have had something to do with his picking the rocking chair for himself. I arranged my olive green skirt and my rust red shawl to let me sit comfortably, then did not move. I don't think I was trying to test him or even to annoy him - it was more like an unconscious act to uphold the balance between us.

"You may wonder why I've summoned you here", he joked nervously.

"Did you?" I asked.

"I think so. At least - I wanted you here, and you came. Whatever brought it about, the desired effect is achieved."

"Why here? What's the place and time?"

"Oh it's nothing to do with that. Or rather.. well, I chose this place because nothing ever happened here. Right now, it belongs to some magnate or other who is far too busy to ever visit the place - he lets it to business acquaintances from time to time.. there's no one here now though. And yes, I checked. I didn't just take it for granted."

"So far the place", I prompted.

"Uh - yes. The time.. May 15th, 1978 - I think. Or else it's June 5th, 1997; I was choosing back and forth and couldn't make up my mind.. doesn't matter anyway, we won't be here for long. I just wanted a place and time where we could talk freely."

"Then it seems you've found it. What do you want to talk about?"

"I take it you haven't seen Sapphire and Steel lately?"

"Not recently, no. Insofar as the qualification makes sense. Oh, all right, I know what you mean. No, I haven't. Not that that's unusual in any way - sometimes it's aeons between.."

"And you won't, unless you help me", he said, as if I had not spoken.

He seemed agitated, so I became very still. "I think I've been out of it for a while", I admitted. "What would you say has happened to them? As you see it?"

"It's not just as I see it." If I hadn't known better, I would have thought he was slightly offended. "Three of the Transients caught them. Quite a clever trap too - not even Sapphire saw it coming until it was too late. They - I tried to help, but.. I'm not sure I know precisely.. but when Sapphire saw the trap, the Transients led both of them to believe they could circumvent it - and then they captured them where they least expected it."

I nodded. "It's the way I would have done it. What year?"

"1948, but just as a spring for the trap. They're not in any time at all now - they're caught between.. a window in spacetime, between.."

At a loss for words, he fell silent. I thought about it for a while. Apparently, this was worse than I had expected. "Well, we're all trapped in time", I said then, dismissively.

But he was quicker than I had anticipated. Wasn't he always? "Does that mean you will or you won't?" he asked. I kept a straight face.

"You realise what you're asking?"

"No. I had hoped you would enlighten me."

I sighed. "Silver, I may have to destroy the universe as we know it. It depends."

"On what?"

"On the exact location of the window. On how it is inserted. You're right, it shouldn't be there, so it's a disturbance, an anomaly. And yes, repairing the integrity, restoring the balance, should do it. Except that if that window is wedged between too many dimensions, too many planes.."

He groaned. "I get the picture. You may have to induce total entropy - and then where would we be? Where would anyone be? On the other hand - what can we do?"

"On the third hand, it might be the right time", I offered. "We can't know that either."

He nodded. "Will you do it? I'll find out the details for you - but if it is as bad as you think, will you do it anyway?"

"Do you want to free them that desperately?"

He fidgeted - as he had been doing all along, off and on. "I feel guilty. I was placed at the spot ahead of them - I didn't know why or who placed me - and I tried to help them, but - in the end I was no use. And.." he swallowed, but went on determinedly, "..the Transients did not capture me. They said they did not need to, not now. They could have - but they set me free. As if I were on their side. As if I were a traitor, somehow. I still think Steel got the impression I had betrayed him. And Sapphire.." The look he gave me was pure, helpless agony.

"And when it became clear what had happened, what did you do?"

He did not answer. Nor did he need to. He had done nothing. For a long while, he had just lived on - or tried to. I almost felt sorry for him.

"Why me?" I asked quietly.

"Balance is your speciality. Integrity. Harmony. Unific.."

"Why me?" I repeated, just as quietly.

He almost groaned. "Oh, all right then. I figured that if you only knew that Steel was trapped forever, you'd move heaven and earth.."

"That", I said, "might be exactly what I may have to do. And you won't like it. Nor will anybody else. Especially those who try to play on my feelings."

He avoided my gaze. "I didn't mean any harm.. it's common knowledge.. well, not common, but.." Suddenly, his flitting intensity was back. "Will you do it? At any cost? Will you save his life, no matter what it takes?"

"Is that what you really want?"

He did give it some - last - thought. Then he nodded. "It is what I want. I can't live out my time by the name of traitor."

"And besides, Sapphire is trapped too", I remarked, lightly but caustically. "Very well then. I have carte blanche. From you, that is, but I don't think we'd better alert the Authority - do you?"

He shook his head.

"Fine. But Silver - I may be willing to do it, but I'm not sure I can. The more planes involved, the more difficult it gets, the riskier to our universe. And if it takes all of them.. I don't even know how many planes there are.." He regarded me much as a puppy would, trusting my ability to come up with something. Something to aid my speciality - or to offset it, as the case may be. I had lost him. "In short", I said, "I shall need a man."

"I'm of course at your disposal."

I laughed. If it hadn't been for the hopeful puppiness of his offer, I never would have, but he was just incurable. "Thanks, Silver, but though it may come to that also, that was not exactly what I had in mind. As you say, I can integrate almost anything, but this is big. Perhaps big enough that the Coils cannot handle it alone. It might take someone of the Wings for balance. Especially if we want to avoid completeentropy. I'm sorry, Silver, but you're too flexible. You're like the Salmon, moving with the stream or against it, but always moving. You make a good conductor but a lousy weapon. I need someone stronger."

"Lead is the strongest one I know", he mused. "But he's not around much these days. They say he's been deposed by Mercury. What about Gold?"

"Dangerously vulnerable. I couldn't depend on him."

"Steel himself would of course be the best."

"Don't remind me!" I bit my lip. I hadn't meant to snap at him. But he seemed to have expected it, and did not react.

"That pretty much leaves Copper, doesn't it?" he said.

I nodded. "That it does. Will you talk to him for me? I'm not sure he'll listen to me."


*  *  *  *

Another time and place. Another ocean, at night. Standing on the beach, facing the wind, watching the tracks lit on the water by twin moons, one large and full, the other smaller and in its sixth eighth.

"He says he might do it", Silver said. "But only if you ask him."

"Can't refuse a lady?" I asked lightly.

"Something like that", Silver said. "How did you know?"

"I didn't, that's why I sent you. Sometimes I think he's the most rigid man I've met. Well, at least he's reliable. Is he still with Diamond?"

"That's only a working relationship."

"That's not what I asked."

"Sorry. No, I don't think he is, not now. Jet said they had a falling out."

"Jet talks too much. Can you take me to the window?"

"It's not stationary!"

"I'm aware of that. That's why it would be more efficient if you could lead me to it than if I have to locate it for myself."

"Hadn't you better talk to Copper first?"

"I'd like to know what I'm offering."

He sighed, staring out over the rising waves. The small moon was hidden behind ragged clouds, and the large one appeared to be losing colour. And we haven't even started yet.. I thought.

"You realise I never really saw that window.." he said.

"But you can find it", I said, not quite asking.

"Of course."


*  *  *  *

The absolute blackness of space - an almost living darkness. Almost too opaque. But I had the impression of something moving, something large and undulating. Then it parted, and the stars became visible - one by ice-white one.

<It should come through here> he sent, half a moment before it did. I caught one glimpse of red and white curtains, some tables inside, and then it was gone again.

<Do you think you could possibly find us a better observation point?> I asked. <Preferably a moving one.>

<Sorry.> Our position changed - I still had no clear idea of what we were standing on. Not that it really mattered. <This any better?>

<It would be - except, where's the window?>

<It'll be along. When it comes, we'll move with it. I just thought you might want to see the layout first. I can't, you know.>

I looked. It was as bad as I had expected. Or - perhaps not quite.. <There's a junction of at least eight planes here> I told him. <Eight space-time continua.>

<Is that bad?>

<Bad enough. The actual cluster is small, eight planes is a drop in the Multiverse, but it's quite enough to start a chain reaction of destruction if the window is wedged between all of them. But, I can't quite see how it can be. This is not a star-shaped junction. There's no nexus, no clear node between all eight of them - at least not from here. We shall see when the window comes, exactly how it sits.>

<Can't we just follow it to its optimal location?>

I sighed. <For a technician, you display remarkable ignorance at times, Silver. The window isn't moving relative to its own position among the planes, or it wouldn't be wedged. It sweeps along with them. We shall have to wait for it, and then see what space and time looks like around it. Like standing by a merry-go-round, waiting for the camels. So far, it looks promising - at this point, no more than three of the planes have a common border.>

<I wish I could see in the dark. Can you see into the planes as well?>

<Yes> I thought curtly. <But I prefer not to. As yet.>

He knew what I meant. Time enough to look at the worlds I would have to destroy, when I actually had to do it.

The window swept into view. As Silver had promised, this time it picked us up in its wake, and we were aboard the same merry-go-round. The distance between us and the window was now a constant. I could see that it was one of those structures that are larger on the inside than the outside. From outside, it looked simply flat, two-dimensional. Within, it had its own dimensions, no telling how spaceous or how confining. I looked around. <I don't understand> I sent. <It's wedged between only two continua. Unless there's something I'm missing, something that even I can't see.>

<I don't think the Transients can see in the dark> Silver thought. <They must have done this 'by touch'..>

I glanced up along the wheeling planes, counter-clockwise, if such a term had had any meaning here. I was looking against the motion, at any rate. <I think I've found it> I sent, smiling. <There's a genuine nexus back there, a junction of all eight planes. They just missed it, when placing the window. Or else Sapphire stalled them, made them wait a little too long - or too far.>

<Good> Silver thought at me. <So you're saying this position is more advantageous? Not as difficult?>

<Oh, it's difficult all right. The window creates a dimension all its own, between two planes that might otherwise even have had some interaction - not full commerce; I'd say they'd communicate somewhere at the dream stage. The window has put a stop to that, and merged with both borders. It's slowly creating a balance of its own. One I would have to upset. Silver, I don't know how to do that. There's an equilibrium here. An artificial one to be sure, but it's here nonetheless. I can't break harmony.>

He slumped. I had never seen him discouraged before. I just had to probe this new mood of his - see if it would hold, if it was stable. <Perhaps they don't want to be saved> I suggested. <I know I wouldn't mind being cooped up with Steel for eternity..>

<Nor I with Sapphire> he confessed. <You're right, perhaps it would be cruel. But are we then to let those plotting Transients win? Keep two of our best agents out of commission for all time - and space? Perhaps do away with all of us eventually?>

<We're all watching our backs now. Besides, I think this was personal. Those three Transients are not the only ones to hold a grudge. How about yourself? Why did it take you so long to approach me? It wouldn't be - jealousy, would it?>

He did not answer. Staring at the window in the obvious hope of catching a glimpse of something blue, he simply quoted, <..but none I think do there embrace..>

<They aren't exactly dead, you know> I thought matter-of-factly. <You may not be able to contact her from here, but that proves nothing. It could even be that she doesn't want you to.>

He spun around - on what I don't know, perhaps he simply thought of something. <Is there really nothing you can do?> he implored me. I decided to have mercy on him. <Wrong question> I thought.

<Aha!> he sent, and his old smirk was back as if it had never left his face. <Then let me rephrase it. Is there really nothing to be done?>

<Quite a lot> I admitted. <I can't upset a balance - but I can mend it and uphold it. So I shall need someone to break it for me first. As I told you - I need Copper..>


*  *  *  *

I did not quite emerge from the dark, wind-lashed crags around me. He for his part was leaning casually against a striped changing-cabin on a sun-drenched beach. The dividing line was clear between us. Neither would be the first to cross it.

"I take it Silver spoke to you", I said. "Will you help us?"

He crossed his long legs loosely. The wind stirred his red hair, making an elaborate mess of whatever attempts he had made to style it. For a long while, he pretended not to have heard me. I knew he had, so I waited. Finally he said, "I've heard the silver tongue, yes. Why me?"

I was glad I had found out more about the mission before seeking him out. "I need someone to upset a balance for me. Silver did describe the situation to you?"

"As far as he knew it."

"Ah. The window is set between two space-times. It can no longer be lifted out and collapsed neatly, because it has merged with both borders, creating a new equilibrium. I can't break a steady state, but you can. I need you to rip it out, cut it out or whatever."

He folded his arms. "That would destroy both the adjacent planes. And possibly, the window."

"The planes will have to go anyway. Fortunately, it's only two. And you can't destroy the window. It has to be collapsed, which will take both our efforts."

He glared at me - cold blue eyes, exactly as I remembered them. "How many beings are in each universe?"

"I haven't looked yet. No point, they still have to go."

He turned to leave. "Then so shall I."

"Copper, wait!" I called out, inwardly cursing him for the very same integrity I had always admired him for. "Don't you want Sapphire and Steel back?"

At least he paused, and turned again to look at me. "I do. But not at the cost of two entire continua. Come back when you have lowered that price, and I'll listen."

I bowed acknowledgment. "Fair enough. Perhaps I overlooked something. I'll see what I can do." I left, because there was nothing else for it. I knew he would never agree to my proposed solution. On the other hand, I could not really see how those planes might be saved..


*  *  *  *

Silver was gone when I returned to the window complex of space and time. No reason for him to remain; he had left it all to me. I knew what I had to do next, but I still wished I could have had someone with me, someone to confer with. I stood staring at the window for a while, at how it was set between the planes, and it occurred to me that while it could not be easily removed, it could in fact be opened. Enough for one Elemental to leave - but only one at a time. The other must stay, or the entire structure might collapse, nearby nexus and all, really setting off a chain reaction through the Multiverse. As long as the window remained in place, someone would always have to be inside.

I walked the few steps across a soft lightyear of open chaos, to stand immediately beneath the window. I reached through the dimensions below to pick up some stardust which I flung at the pane. My friends both appeared at once, and I was more relieved than I had thought I would be. Some part of me must have despaired of ever seeing him - them - alive again.

<Bloodstone!> came their voices inside my head. <What are you doing here?> It was as if they had spoken with the same voice. Well, they had always been close, and after all this time with no one else around.. I clamped down on that thought before it could be heard, but I could see by Sapphire's smile that she had caught the tail of it.

<Silver brought me> I sent back. <He wants me to spring you. We don't know yet if it's possible, but I'm looking into it.>

Sapphire shook her head. <It isn't. I saw no escape - just starfields.>

<Where did you look?> I asked. <If you didn't see me, you can't have looked down. Besides, how far did you see? A starfield curtain is fairly easy to construct.>

<I had no sense of a curtain.>

<That's not to say there wasn't one.>

<Is Silver with you now?> Steel broke in. <I'd like to have a word with him.>

<He must have known. He's gone. But..>

<Then who is with you?> he insisted. <Surely you're not hoping to rescue us alone?>

<You're right, I can't - you've grown roots. I'm trying to get Copper to help, but he won't let me destroy two universes - not even on your account. So I shall have to enter those two, to see if I can think of a way to save them. Only, I'd rather not go alone, I might miss something. And I just noticed this window can be opened. One of you can slip out, but the other must stay, unless you want to pull the plug on the Multiverse. So - who comes with me to your adjacent planes? Or do you need to toss for it?>

They looked at each other. <You go> Steel thought at her. <If anything happens, at least you are out of here.>

She smiled. <Nothing will happen, as long as one of us stays. Don't you trust Bloodstone? You go. Two gems rarely make a good team. You'll offset her talent better.>

<She isn't exactly a gem..> he muttered.

<Why, thank you> I thought back. <Have you two made up your mind?> Somehow, I felt the plural unnecessary. They were rarely out of each other's heads anyway. <Because I'm opening at this corner now. Don't try to help me; this thing can't be opened from the inside anymore, though I think it could when it was first created. Ready?>

I lifted the corner of the window. It felt like a stiff, yet gelatinous membrane, whereas the rest of the pane felt like volcanic glass for all that it was transparent. Steel slipped through the opening, and the corner melted back in place when I released it.

<Steel?> we both heard her voice in our heads. <Please be careful.>

<He'll be back before you know it> I told her. <Sooner, if we can't work together.>


*  *  *  *

The inhabitants avoided us, and small wonder. We did not look anything like them. We were about twice their size for one thing, and while the climate seemed pleasantly cool to us, to them it must have been almost unbearably hot, for although they had no fur, they wore no clothes either. Their skin was grey, their bellies and heads large, their noses small. Had it not been for their large, slanted, irisless eyes, they would have seemed like starving human children. Their eyes were huge and dark, yet almost luminous for all that it was hard to tell which way their gaze was directed.

"Oh damn", I sighed. "It's obvious these came out of the overflow from a human plane. They look too much like a cross between pets and children to have coalesced spontaneously. Now, if their plane of origin were the one on the other side of your window, this would be easy; all we'd have to do would be to reestablish the connection and let them flow together. But I don't think that's the one - as far as I can see from here, the universe they came from is located on the other side of this one. And the one we need to merge them with doesn't strike me as entirely human-controlled."

"You plan to merge the planes?"

"Once Copper has ripped out the window, yes. Do you see any other way to save them?"

"You won't save them. You'll destroy them just as surely as if you had just let them collide. Neither will be the same after the merge."

"Picky, picky.." I muttered. "Copper didn't say anything about them having to stay unchanged. Everything changes; that's the secret of stability, as you should know. But I'm not being totally irresponsible here. If I can find evidence of earlier contact, something both planes still have in common, I'll know it's reasonably safe to let them flow together."

"If all the contact they had was at the dream stage, it will still be a shock to them."

"I never promised to keep them out of shock."

He glared at me - and I bathed in that glare. How was it that even a surly look out of those blue eyes could thrill me so? "What if you can't find any common factor?"

"Then they can't be merged, and we're in trouble because Copper won't help. I wish you could do it instead, but you and Sapphire must both be in place when the window is taken out, or we'll lose balance. You'll have to get out quick before we collapse it, though."

"Have you asked Silver?"

"He volunteered. But he isn't strong enough."

"But he could take my place inside the window and I'll help you take it out."

"Atomic weight 107.9? I think not. Upsetting the balance is one thing; we don't need a wobble. Besides, Copper is better than you at disrupting things."

"Copper is a passionate man.." Steel agreed.

"And you're not?" I couldn't refrain from asking.

He glanced at me, obliquely. "Wouldn't you just love to find out?"

Damn. He always did see right through me.


*  *  *  *

"I can't be sure of anything here", I said, after a few frustrating days. "We can't even question these beings as long as they avoid us. I'd like to know if they've seen any humans at all. They must border on a human plane somewhere, even if it's not the border we're interested in."

"Look on the bright side", Steel said grimly. "They're bound to have legends of humans."

I looked up. "Yeah? And what makes you think those legends are positive?"

As if to confirm my suspicions, one of the creatures who had been hiding behind a tree for a while, suddenly stepped up to us and asked,

"Where is your ship?"

Ship? <You answer her> came Steel's voice inside my head, like a knife.

<Ow, you're giving me a headache> I thought back. <I shall - don't worry.> I turned to the little alien. "We haven't got a ship. Not here, anyway", I added, to cover all angles.

"Oh - you beamed down?" she asked. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I sensed that a slight nod might be appropriate. "Well.." she said, "can I ask you something? Promise you won't get angry? Is it true that you.. take people aboard your ships and experiment on us?"

<Cut that!> I yelled mentally back at Steel whose groan had fairly exploded inside my head. "No, that's an old wives' tale", I told the little alien firmly. "I'm glad you asked, so that we might finally straighten this out. We don't experiment on anyone, we're just scouts for our civilization. Looking around, making contacts, that sort of thing." She looked at me for a while, then nodded solemnly and ran off.

"Good thing we ran into a female first", I commented. "A male would probably have fired projectiles rather than questions."

<As sexist as ever..> came his voice, bringing me up short.

<Now look here> I thought back. <Just because..> I broke off. "You - remember?" I asked audibly.

That slight tug of the corners of his mouth that I knew so well. "Shouldn't I? The most feminist mineral of the Multiverse?"

"I had to be, back then", I said. "That's what it took, to uphold the balance. It was really tilting in those days, you know."

He glanced at me - edgeways as was his wont. "And - today?"

I swallowed. "Some things never change. But if you hadn't teamed up with Sapphire.."

<But I did> he shot back, and because he was back to using telepathy at the moment, I got all his pain along with his words.

"Worried about her? About her and Silver?"

He turned on me then, and I dodged quickly. "Forget I asked. You make a good team, you know. I'm sure she has a - honing influence on you. On the other hand, I might be even better at - polishing, than she is.."

"There's no need to be crude", he muttered.

I beamed at him. "Was I?"


*  *  *  *

Feeling a little too conspicuous in an alien place, we stayed in the forest, avoiding the settlements. Unfortunately, the aliens seemed fond of the great outdoors. Often they would appear in a clearing, about seven to twelve altogether, and play a game involving sticks and soft little balls that seemed too light to efficiently battle the air resistance. These objects travelled quite far when struck however, and occasionally one would just continue straight up towards the reddish sky, up and up until it simply disappeared. Reason told me it must come down somewhere, but on those occasions I never saw it. We never could make sense of the game anyway. There seemed to be different levels, some players got to use pastel balls instead of just white, but how they achieved this level - if such it was - was beyond us. I watched the game from where I was leaning against a tree trunk, wishing we could have made more progress. One way or another.

"If only we weren't so limited", I said. "Is this really the only biological form we can assume?"

"Unless you count variance in size", Steel said. "We can become a little bigger and quite small, but other than that.. We're not likely to blend in with this lot, if that's what you were thinking."

"It was. As if you didn't know.." I watched another high-flying ball go over the treetops and vanish. <Steel? If Sapphire and Silver..>

"Any ideas yet?" he cut across my thought. I knew when not to persist.

"Not yet", I admitted. "I don't know how to save them. They ought to have some low-level contact with the next universe - or they should have had before your window cut it off - but I can't tell from here what it is. Perhaps it's about time I had a look from the other end."

Right then, a female alien detached herself from the crowd of players and came running up to us. "Is it true that you don't take people and experiment on them?" she asked. I assured her that it was. She thought for a moment. "Does that mean we may experiment on you?"

<On the other hand> I thought at Steel, <I wonder why Copper insists we should spare them..>


*  *  *  *

We could not go directly to the other plane without passing the window first. Without giving it a second thought, Steel picked me up and carried me across the swirling stretch of chaos, as if it had been in any way difficult to ford. I wondered if he would have done the same for Sapphire, then thought that maybe not. Sapphire was too tall. For some reason, that little fact pleased me.

I could have stayed in his arms forever - but I wasn't given forever. He put me down just below the window, as I had known he would. Well then. <You can change places now> I sent. <I think I'd rather have Sapphire with me to the other plane.>

<You don't think you and I work that well together?>

<I have no complaints. But I don't need just support. I need more ideas.>

<You can see as far as Sapphire.>

<But I can't analyze objects. Just dreams. I need her to complement my own talent.>

<Just the two of you? On your own?>

<Do you see any other way?> He didn't of course, so I went on, <Don't worry. I hardly think we need protection. Sapphire's a big girl..> I couldn't resist that. Then a thought struck me. I sincerely hoped it wasn't his. <You think - that I would take the opportunity to harm her?>

But he actually smiled at that, chucking me under the chin just to annoy me, I'm sure. <I doubt you'd be a match for her> he said. <Pebble..>

He started to bend the corner of the window, and I hastened to pitch in before he could break it. <To tell you the truth> I thought calmly, <I rather admire her. Must be her multi-faceted personality. Now, get in so she can get out.>

He did, and a moment later, Sapphire slid out, sealing the pane properly behind her. She was wearing a dress and spike heels. Somehow I had not counted on that. <Are you sure you can walk on those?>

She gave me one of her indulgent, almost condescending smiles. <If I can't, I'll just - change. Were you planning a hike around the countryside?>

I shrugged. <I wish I knew. I haven't been to that side of things before.>

She looked at me for a moment. <Why did you want me along? I thought you would jump at this chance to keep Steel for yourself.>

Damn - did everybody know? <He's not easily kept. Perhaps you'd do well to remember that yourself.>

I sensed the barb register, but she'd be damned if she'd show it. <He was as surprised as I am. I hardly think he objected to working with you.>

<All right> I thought testily. <Perhaps I just couldn't stand it any longer. Can we please go now?>

She nodded, apparently satisfied with my little outburst. There's one thing I've always known about those Higher Elementals. They're a nosy lot..


*  *  *  *

We almost stepped on the little village before we realised its true scale, and promptly shrank to accommodate it. I was prepared to regale the inhabitants with a story of how we had floated ashore from some distant country where giants lived, or perhaps stating that we were sorcerous mermaids from the depths of their greatest ocean, but it appeared that we had acted quickly enough. Nobody seemed to have noticed our arrival. Perhaps we had been too big to be seen.

We walked into a community of doll-houses, past immaculate flowerbeds, along cobbled roads with matchbox-sized cars parked on the sides, and friendly little people greeted us as if they had known us all their lives. Nearly all of them wore gay-coloured capes, as if they were afraid they'd be overlooked and stepped on otherwise. Sapphire looked up at a tower which seemed to mark the midpoint of the place. <I would have hated to impale my foot on that..> she thought to me.

"Is it real?" I asked.

"The tower? It's real enough."

I shook my head impatiently. "All of it. Is the whole plane like this?"

She closed her eyes for a moment. "As far as I can see, yes. Everything is this size, but yes, it's real, and it's the present - their present that is. Not necessarily ours."

"Except while we're here", I said. "We'd better adapt; I don't want any phase-shifting. We may have to stay here a while."


*  *  *  *

While not exactly human, the people of this place were considerably more accessible and easy-going than the ones on the other side of the window. This might be thanks to the fact that we were able to look like them, but I wasn't sure; they seemed so ready to accept strangers into their midst that I was beginning to doubt we would really have needed to bother. Since I usually pass for a shamanka among mortals, I set up shop on the outskirts of the village, and people soon started to pour in, as if I had always been their wise-woman when everything else failed. Sapphire, who prefers to pass as an-outstanding-one-of-the-crowd, asked for and was assigned a house where she pretended to make a living as an artist. She's a good painter - I also know her for a decent singer - but sculpture somehow seems to wear her out.

One bright spring morning she came into my shop. There had been many such mornings lately; in fact I could not recall any bad weather at all since we had first come here. A large sphere followed her up to the door, tried to squeeze in after her, and failed. I almost had the impression it was muttering to itself as it gave up and rolled off.

"Trust you to find a blue one", I said. "Me, I only ever seem to get the common white ones."

"Bit of a nuisance, aren't they?" she observed. "They defy analysis, you know."

"They do? I thought you had them all figured out by now."

She shook her head. "I can't tell for sure, but I think they are alive."

"Artificial lifeforms?"

"Possibly. Programmable, certainly. Though to what end, I'm not sure." She glanced critically around the cave walls behind me, studded with red and green bottle shards. "Your décor hasn't improved."

I spread my hands. "My customers prefer their wise woman to work in semi- darkness. To tell you the truth, so do I. That glaring light hides too much. Anyway, the stone walls are genuine. I made a slight shift, that's all."

"I hope they are indigenous to this plane."

I grinned. "Can't you tell?"

She closed her eyes momentarily, as she let her hand pass over the nearest wall. "I'd say it's from those cliffs along the footpath above the beach."

"Correct. I was very discreet about it though. These rocks aren't likely to be missed."

"I hope you're right. What about our mission? Any progress?"

"Not yet", I admitted. "You?"

She shook her head. "I don't think so. There are some odd things.. but I think they all belong here."

I sighed. "It's an odd place. And so far it seems hermetically sealed, more or less. Even my customers' dreams deal only with this continuum. Any legends featured can be traced to this plane. Frankly, I don't see how a place like this could ever have been influenced from elsewhere."

Unprovoked, her eyes began to overflow with colour. I wondered if I would ever get used to that. The Higher Elementals have some flashy effects to go with their talents. Gradually, the colour returned to normal, reverting to a blue that was at least humanly possible. She smiled. "Have you given any thought to scale?" she asked teasingly, as she opened the door to leave. The tacky little bell I had put on the inside jangled annoyingly as the door closed behind her. I suspected she was making fun of me. After all, she could have simply transported to the outside like a civilised being. I went over to the spotty mirror that was hanging over my symbols collection. Five minutes later, my eyes were still their usual, gold-flecked green. No overflowing there. I sat down to think about what she had said. Scale..?


*  *  *  *

It took me an almost unfortunate encounter with a beige sphere before I caught on. I was walking along the beach, minding my own business, when it suddenly rolled into my path. I sidestepped it quickly, but it was in a bad mood - if indeed they had moods - and kept bouncing against my heels until I had returned to the village proper. Once, it caused me to stumble, and for a moment I was convinced it would simply run me down. I prepared to do something drastic to it, but Sapphire's words held me back. If these things were really alive, I had better not do anything that would be considered out of the ordinary in this place. But, I did order it off. Perhaps I could have frightened it off, but I don't like to instill fear in sentient beings - they upset too much while running - and there was a possibility the thing was sentient. So I sent it a generic picture of the concept master - as much to find out where it would go, as to simply get rid of it. It swerved obediently, and rolled off in the direction of a green, hemispherical building I had only seen at a distance. Odd. Perhaps there was some affinity of shape between it and the building.

Then it occurred to me. The thing had appeared out of the blue - literally. I had actually seen it land and bounce a couple of times before it came at me. Moreover, I had seen this behaviour in most of the white ones as well. As if they had fallen in.. Have you given any thought to scale? <Sapphire!> I called within my head, hoping she was close enough to pick me up. <I think I've found a link..>


*  *  *  *

"Are you sure it's enough?" Sapphire asked. We were sitting on a bench up at the viewpoint, a resting-place at the end of the footpath above the beach. A statue turned its head to look at her as she spoke, but we were used to that; stone figures usually moved on this plane.

"That rather depends on Copper, doesn't it?" I said. "It's obvious that these spheres are stray balls from that interminable game they are always playing over on the other side of your window." The statue seemed to ponder this, as if trying its best to make sense of it. "That is connection enough for me. It's even above the dream stage. I'd say let's introduce them. The people over there are only half our size anyway; they might fit right in."

"By 'introduce' you mean flow them together?"

"That's what it amounts to, yes." The statue was rolling its eyes. I supposed it had written us off as lunatics. Most natives do, after a while.

"So, you say this one connection is sufficient", she said. Almost sadly, I thought, but then I've often noticed that those who will upset the Balance without a second thought are the ones most eager to preserve the status quo. "But Copper might not think so?"

"There's no knowing what Copper might think", I said. "He's the most rigid - and consequently the most disruptive - Higher Elemental I've met. You're welcome to help me convince him. Exert your famous influence."

"I have never been able to influence Copper", she said quietly.

"Really?" I asked with genuine interest. "I thought they all fell for you."

She smiled - not arrogantly this time, but almost radiantly. "Not all."

"Silver and Steel certainly did. Did you influence them?"

"Silver, yes. He can be so impressionable at times. I suppose I couldn't resist. Steel - no. He - he saw through all that. And then - he loved me anyway. Just for myself. There's no beating that, is there?"

I had no answer for her. Even I can tell when I've lost.


*  *  *  *

I left her beneath the window. She could find her own way in, and I trusted her not to break anything while entering. <Stay inside from now on> I cautioned her. <One way or another, I'll get you both out, but you must both be inside when it begins.>

<Don't worry> she thought back. <It still can't be opened from the inside.>

So she had checked. <Good> I sent. <But even if Silver turns up to help..>

<I know. Stay inside. Don't let him in. Don't upset the balance.>

<Right. Well, in you go then..> She must have known I had something else to say, for she made no move to climb in as yet. <Sapphire?> I thought at her, suddenly glad of the vacuum, glad that I did not have to say this aloud. <About Steel.. Do you love him? Because, if you don't..>

She did not answer. But she nodded, deliberately, and after a moment, so did I. In acknowledgment - and defeat. <In with you now> I thought tiredly. <I'll go find Copper. I think we have a couple of universes to merge..>


*  *  *  *

I found him in a busy street that he did not quite seem to be part of. More as if he were using a different time or plane as a backdrop, so as not to have to show me where he really was. I sighed inwardly. Copper isn't exactly the most trusting Elemental I know, and right now his natural suspiciousness certainly wasn't helping any. Careful not to step any closer and be caught up in the wrong universe, I told him what Sapphire and I had found.

"So there is a natural connection", I concluded. "And it's above the dream stage - these balls are actual objects. I'd say we have enough to justify merging the planes. Will you help?"

"I think we do these things far too lightly. We ought to have a directive about it. There's no way of knowing what we might upset in the end. I thought you of all people would appreciate that."

"I do. And I'm willing to risk it. For once, I need a balance upset."

"You need. You're doing this for personal reasons, aren't you?"

"So what if I am? Sapphire and Steel will still be rescued."

"True. But you might have let your feelings cloud your judgment. What if you overlooked something? Something that will destroy us all in the end?"

"The end? Everything will be destroyed in the end. By definition, if you stop to think about it."

He actually smiled a little. A brief quirk of the corner of his mouth.

"Besides", I added while the going was good, "the Balance is my speciality. Trust me. If only just this once."

He gave me a searching look out of those cool, light blue eyes. But he did not seem hostile. "Is there really no way of keeping those planes apart?" he asked, well aware of the importance of asking the right questions.

"They are not apart now. Not quite. There's the matter of the game and the spheres."

"That's not what I asked."

I gave in. "All right, there is one way. We can't separate them any further than they are - that would disrupt things too - but yes, there is a chance we might keep them as far apart as they are, and still get rid of the window."

He nodded. "I knew there was something you were not telling me. What would it take?"

"We have to provide a wedge."

He knew there had to be a reason I had not come up with this before. "What kind of wedge?"

"Why, one of us. Sorry, that's the only way. Considering my speciality, I don't think I had better be locked up. I'd give the rest of you about two years if I were. Though the final, structural collapse would be spectacular, I'd just as soon not bring it about as yet. So I must admit I dismissed that solution out of hand - but perhaps you'd volunteer?"

He nodded. "I'll think about it."

"You can't be serious!"

"Did you want my help or didn't you?"

"I did. I do. Will you finally give it then?"

In answer, he plucked his huge bronze hammer out of the air and swung it through an arc to test its formidable weight. I had seen the thing before; when applicable, it was his main tool. Right now it made for a rather incongruous effect, as he was still wearing a dark suit of a non-hammer-toting era to blend in with the street scene behind him. I did not think it necessary to point out the discrepancy.


*  *  *  *

The window moved silently with its confining planes, and Copper who had not seen it before, looked almost admiringly at the construct. As if appreciating good workmanship. But his heavy bronze hammer was ready, its edge gleaming sharply in the starlight.

<So - what are you waiting for?> I tried my best not to seem impatient.

<I have thought about what you said. About the possibility of keeping the two planes separate. I volunteer. What do I do?>

<You enter one or the other - and you stay> I explained, hoping to discourage him. <You can't hold a position between them indefinitely, so you live out your time on one of them, always blocking the attempts of the other to break through.>

<Very well. How do I recognise the attempts?>

<You will. Once you've had some practice, they'll be hard to miss.>

He nodded. <Can I choose either plane to stay on?>

<Be my guest.>

He raised his hammer, and I saw that he was really going through with this. <Copper, this isn't at all a good solution> I tried. <Freeing two agents in return for one isn't what I had in mind. You'll have to stay there forever, you know. You can't come back. We may get Sapphire and Steel out, but we'll lose you. It's a bad deal, Copper. Given the current politics, chances are that we may need you for the Balance in other ways soon.>

He smiled. <I wasn't planning to stay forever.>

<You'll have to, if you're to keep the planes separate. Once you go in, there's no escape.>

<We'll see about that.>

<Copper, I can't let you go in without knowing what you're doing. There's no way of stabilising those planes apart, once we rip out the window. You'll have to stay and keep them apart - or else let them merge, which is by far the preferable solution.>

<So I can't go in, force them apart, stabilise, and get out?>

I shook my head. <I know of no way to do that.>

<Ah! But do you know for certain that there isn't one?>

<No> I had to admit. <Even I don't know everything about the Balance.> In fact, I do most of my work by instinct, but I wasn't about to tell him that. It's the way it has to be done, but I doubted he would understand.

He raised his hammer again. <Then let me find out for you.>

<You stand a very slim chance> I warned him.

<But a chance nevertheless. I'll get out of there, don't worry. Ready? We'll have to move quickly, once the window is out.>

<Just one final caution> I insisted. <If you go in as part of the local continuum, you can't take anything with you.>

<Then I'll just have to rely on my own resources. I doubt I shall need my hammer in there anyway.>

I sighed. <Very well then. I'm ready.>

He swung the hammer up in an arc, following it to get around the window, then brought it down on both sides - simultaneously, through one of the temporal twists that hammer is capable of - and the window came free of both its surrounding universes at once. Flinging his hammer aside, Copper held on to one corner against the temporal gale resulting from his violation of time. I quickly opened the other corner, and the two captives slipped out. We shook the pane to collapse it, and as it rippled into nonexistence, I landed briefly in Copper's arms, as there was suddenly neither time nor space between us. He was prepared though, and caught me before I could slip into either of the now surging continua. He surprised me - and no doubt Sapphire and Steel too - by kissing me goodbye before he turned and was gone, into one of the surfs. The crest broke and drew away from the opposite one. The planes stilled.

<A moon's breath apart> Sapphire quoted from somewhere. <How did he do that?>

<He elected to stay in the Land of the Little People> I told them with some regret. <Rather than merging the planes and disturbing their natural flow.>

<I thought you needed him to upset an equilibrium> Steel said.

<It's what he does best> I agreed. <Except when all circumstances say it should be upset. Then he goes out of his way to preserve it.>

<Out of his way is right> Sapphire thought sadly. <He isn't coming back, is he?>

<You're welcome to mount a rescue> Steel suggested acidly. <Just don't get trapped yourself.>

She did not answer that. <You did warn him, didn't you?> she asked me.

<Of course. He was bent on finding a way to stabilise the rift and escape, and I told him he couldn't take anything with him in there.>

She nodded, her eyes suddenly full of tears. <Including his memory.. What chance does he have, not knowing why he's there in the first place?>

<Now that you mention it> I mused, <I may not exactly have spelt that out..>

But surely, that little detail must have been obvious?

* * * The End * * *