Time! Chris called.
Five seconds! Ezra replied. Four! Three! Two! One! He lifted the device and pressed the button.
The vortex appeared again. Stay together! Chris ordered, and leapt in. Two abreast, so did the others.
Seven figures fell from the vortex, which vanished behind them. They looked around at the hard, flat surface that seemed to surround them.
This isnt home! JD gasped.
Time! Chris bellowed.
Eight days, two hours, twenty minutes! Ezra replied.
Chris and Vins eyes met, and they heaved identical sighs. All right, Chris sighed again. We stick together! We find out where we are and
LOOK OUT! Ezra yelled, slamming into Chris and Vin and knocking them off the hard black surface into the grass. Josiah and Buck knocked Nathan and JD onto the opposite side.
A metal monster on four wheels screamed by between them, bellowing a toneless note that lasted as it roared out of sight at tremendous speed.
The Seven picked themselves up, gawking after the stinking, loud metallic thing.
What in the hell--! JD gasped.
Vin looked at Chris. Home was never like this.
"Everyone all right?" Chris bellowed as he struggled to his feet.
"So far!" Buck called back.
Vin just sat in the grass, staring wide-eyed in the direction the metallic monster had vanished.
"What was that?" JD yelped.
Rounds of "I don't know!" went up as Ezra crouched beside Vin and lay his hand on the buckskin-clad arm.
Slowly, Vin turned those wide blue eyes to face the gambler.
Softly, Ezra asked, "Are you all right?"
Even more slowly, the shaggy head shook a negative.
"Did it strike you?" When the head shook again, Ezra asked, "Then what is it?"
"We....ain't home," Vin choked out. "I's right... I's hopin' I wouldn't be right..."
"We were all hopin' that, Vin," Chris said as he crouched on Vin's other side. As he rubbed paternal circles between Vin's shoulder blades to aid the tracker in calming, he looked at Ezra. "How long?"
Ezra fished the device out of his jacket pocket and frowned at the numbers. "Eight days, two hours, five minutes and --" He grinned. "You don't need to know the seconds until it's time to go."
"You're right about that," Chris shot back with a small grin. He turned his eyes back to Vin. "You better?"
Vin took a shaky, deep breath and nodded, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet as they stood. "Thanks -- both of you."
Chris clapped his shoulder and turned to make sure the other four -- now regrouping on their side of the strange black material -- were all right as well.
Ezra nodded as he pocketed the device. "What happened?" he asked softly.
Once more, the shaggy head shook as Vin bent to retrieve his hat. "Ain't really sure," he replied just as softly. "More'n likely, I just got overwhelmed."
A low rumble sounded again, and all eyes jerked to the east. Another of those metallic monsters came into view. This one, however, slowed as it approached them.
Hands went to guns, until -- of all people -- JD ordered, "Don't draw! We just got here -- let's try not t'get shot first thing!"
"Smart kid," Nathan chuckled.
Chris nodded. "Agreed," he said with finality in his voice. "Let's find out where we are, what's going on --"
"And then we get shot!" Era mumbled under his breath, making Vin chuckle.
The monster -- large and shiny and red -- rolled to a stop right in front of them. A shiny panel lowered, revealing a young woman with a broad grin. "My, my," a distinctly Texan drawl rang out. "Seven lovely men... this must be my lucky day!"
All seven blinked, then Buck stepped forward. "Well, ma'am if you could consider helpin' us out lucky..."
She studied them. "Hmm...depends on what y'need me to do!"
Ezra stepped forward. "We need food and shelter and information."
Vin walked a step forward as well. "See, we don't know where we are."
"Well," she said with a smile, "where do you want to be?"
"Four Corners," Ezra and Vin said in unison, then looked at each other and chuckled.
Her face broke into a delighted grin. "Great! I'm heading that way! Hop in It'll be a tight squeeze, but I'm sure we'll all fit!"
Vin's eyes widened and he stepped back, shaking his head.
Chris walked over. "Vin?"
"I can't go in there..." he choked out. "T-Too small a space..."
"Vin," Chris began, but the girl had obviously overheard and spoke up, interrupting.
"Hey, it's okay," she said. "I can't stand small spaces, either. From the inside, you can see out perfect. If you sit up front, you get a clear view in front and to the side."
"And I'll sit behind you," Ezra spoke up. "And Chris will sit beside me we'll watch your back. Literally."
Vin swallowed hard. "....trust you...." He looked up at her. "Trust us," he said suddenly. "Tell us your name."
She blinked, visibly startled. "M'name's Joy."
A slow nod, and Vin said, "Let's do this 'fore I change my mind."
It took some creative maneuvering to get the Seven into what Joy called a 'van'. It didn't help that three of them were larger than the others, but they managed to do it.
There was one moment where Joy would never know just how close she came to being shot. That was when, without warning, she reached across Vin and pulled an odd cloth strap across his body, locking it into a mechanism. "There buckle up for safety!"
"She's got one cross her, too," Vin informed them, and the sudden tension in the van decreased. Six clicks sounded, and Joy nodded.
"We'll be in Four Corners within the hour!" Joy smiled at them and put her hands on a large wheel. Vin saw her put her foot down on one of two black foot pedals.
The van lurched, then began to roll smoothly forward, accompanied by a low rumbling whine. Within moments, all seven were feeling slightly nauseous as they found themselves moving faster than any of them had ever moved!
"Never mind the where of it," Ezra choked out to Chris, his eyes huge with sudden fright. "When are we?"
"When?" Chris gasped back. "You tellin' me--"
"This isn't 1878 no more..." Buck choked on Chris's other side. "It can't be."
"Time..." Chris swallowed hard and breathed a silent plea for help, wisdom and strength.
His six friends were all breathing the same pleas.
"There it is," Joy smiled as she pointed ahead and slightly to the right. "Four Corners."
Seven indrawn breaths were her answer. Fourteen wide eyes were locked on the sprawling city with buildings that touched the sky itself.
Ezra lay a hand on the glass and almost touched his nose to it. "It's..." he breathed in wonder. "It's... something from H G Welles!"
"Or Jules Verne," JD agreed, gawking at the alien landscape.
Joy glanced over at a slack-jawed Vin and smiled. "You fellas ain't from around here, are ya?"
Vin blinked at her. "Huh? Oh... no. We're not." His eyes were drawn back to the city as if by magic.
"Heard you talkin'," Joy went on. "You're not even from this time, are you? You really are gunslingers."
They looked around at each other, then Chris asked levelly, "And your point is--?"
"I think it's cool." Joy smiled larger. "Living history and all!"
"Ma'am," Ezra interrupted, "Not to sound ignorant or crass, but what year is it?"
"Right now, it's 1999," Joy said. "Tomorrow night it will be 2000." She rolled her eyes. "Maybe then all the hoopla will stop. I'm gettin' sick of it."
"What hoopla?" Josiah asked.
"Ah, all this junk about how at the stroke of midnight everything will fail and the world as we know it will come to an end." She rolled her eyes again. "Just because it's the Millennium..."
Josiah leaned forward slightly, earning a grunt from JD as the motion crushed the smaller man into Nathan's side. "The Millennium?" he breathed out. "The thousand years of peace? Christ has returned, then?"
Joy met his eyes in the rear-view mirror. "Not yet," she said. "Wrong millennium. The newsmen are just using the term cause we're goin' from the ones to the twos. This world's anything but at peace."
"Oh." Josiah sat back again.
"Sorry," Joy said, hating the look of sorrow in the big man's eyes. She cleared her throat. "So, any idea what you want in Four Corners?"
"Not yet," Chris sighed.
"I'm certain we'll ascertain the reason soon," Ezra said.
Joy frowned at Vin. "Does he always sound like he swallowed a dictionary?"
"Hey!" Ezra roared as the other six burst into laughter.
Ezra woke with a gasp, fisting the sheets as he sat up. His dreams while always troubling had never been quite so vivid.
Darkness... screams... metal screaming... suffocating darkness....
He shook his head to dispel the images and sounds and staggered into the kitchen. Getting some coffee from the automatic maker and marvelling at the technology of this century he found himself in he sank into a soft chair and shook.
Joy found him that way an hour later. "Hey."
Ezra looked up at her and flashed her his gilded grin. "Hey yourself," he quipped.
"You're shakin'." She steadied his hands on the cup. "You weren't this way yesterday mornin'."
"Our first full day in this time, ma'am, nightmares did not assail my sleep."
Joy hissed. "I hate nightmares."
"I am not overly fond of them, either."
With a sigh, Joy sat back on her heels. "It's four AM. We need to get some sleep. Tonight's the huge party at the Third Tower."
Ezra frowned. "The...Third Tower?"
She nodded. "Tallest building in Four Corners. Half-size model of the Twin Towers in New York."
Joy chuckled. "Okay was the Statue of Liberty there in your time?" At Ezra's nod, she got up and found a book on the shelf.
Opening it, Joy sat it on Ezra's lap. He looked down at the photograph and felt his jaw drop.
The familiar Lady lifted her lamp beside a completely un-familiar skyline dominated by two gigantic towers. He reached out trembling fingers and touched the skyline.
Ezra then cried out as images flared into his mind. Images of those towers ablaze against the night sky invaded his mind and made him ill. He jerked his hand back and the images vanished.
Joy closed the book and put it away. "More nightmares?"
Deciding that at this point discretion was the better part of valour, Ezra just nodded.
She nodded as well and pulled him to his feet. "Bed. Go. Things will be better in the morning."
Shaking, Ezra returned to bed. He lay there for some time, tossing and turning. When he dozed off, the thought rang through his head again.
What is happening to me?
At seven AM, a half-awake Vin padded into the living room. His toes impacted something, and he bent and picked up the small black box from the floor. His thumb accidentally depressed one of the buttons.
The box in the corner a tee-vee, had Joy said? -- flared into life. A woman's face came on, her voice tight with tension.
"...new millennium is only two hours old down under, and the abrupt and total silence from Australia continues. All we know for certain is that several Quantas Air jetliners have vanished from radar screens...."
Vin depressed the button again, and the screen went dark and silent. He dropped the small box onto the coffee table and headed to the kitchen to find some food. He didn't give the strange woman's strange words any more thought.
Australia was only a word to Vin and an unimportant one at that.
Such was his exhaustion and shakiness from the nightmares that Ezra didn't wake until noon. That led to some good-natured ribbing from the other six when he dragged his way to the table.
Bleary-eyed and disheveled was not a look any of them was familiar with when it came to Ezra Standish. The six other travelers quipped that it was a good look for him.
Once she was informed that Ezra was a late sleeper but not this late, bluster aside Joy joined in good-naturedly.
It was Vin who noticed that it was also half-heartedly. "Hey," he said gently, all trace of humour gone. "Hey, Joy what's the matter?"
"Well," she rubbed the back of her neck, trying to dislodge some tension. "Do you remember when I told you what IM-ing was?"
Seven heads bobbed in seven nods as Ezra put in, "A most ingenious method of communication. Has something gone wrong with it?"
Joy chewed on her lip. "Well, I'm not really sure. I was IM-ing with my friend Keiko in Osaka--"
"Osaka, Japan?" Josiah gasped. "Japan is an open country now?"
Nodding, Joy finished, "And she cut off mid-sentence. First off, that isn't like Keiko. Second, she didn't email me to let me know what crashed on her end." Joy sighed. "And third, I haven't heard from her since. Or my friend in Hong Kong. Or my friends in Australia."
Vin's ears visibly perked up. "I heard that word earlier today."
"You did?" Chris asked. At Vin's nod, he asked, "Where?"
Vin jerked a thumb toward the living room. "From that thing Joy called a 'tee-vee'. They's a woman on there that was talkin' bout Australia, 'down under', and somethin' called 'Quantas'."
"Quantas is the Australian airline," Joy said. "Can you remember what she said about it?"
Thinking that over, Vin shook his head. "I'm sorry, Joy. I didn't know it was important. They's just words t'me."
"It's all right, Vin," Joy sighed. "It's not your fault." She sank down beside Ezra and sighed again. "I just wish I knew what was going on."
Vin rubbed the back of his neck. "All I remember is they said somethin' was two hours old and Australia went quiet. The mil... mi..."
Joy's eyes widened. "The Millennium?"
"Yeah, that sounds right," Vin nodded.
With a curse, Joy shot to her feet and lunged for the box in the corner the Seven had learned was a "computer". Cursing rapid-fire invectives, she vibrated in place, waiting for it to load.
"Joy?" Ezra asked.
"If this is what I think it is," Joy growled, "we are in a shitload of trouble!"
Less than half an hour later, eight pairs of eyes were glued to the TV screen.
A worried-looking young woman was speaking. "And we now have confirmation from Australia, and far Asia. The mysterious silences from those areas are due to a catastrophic cascading blackout. The government and this station are monitoring the cities in the next projected time zone to be affected. Should it go dark at midnight local time, we shall have our confirmation." She looked at something off screen and nodded.
The view cut to a night view of a city. The words "New Delhi" were stark against the blackness. "Midnight local time will be in twenty seconds."
She fell silent, and they all watched the time tick down.
Vin and Ezra both reached to hold Joy's hands. Joy was chewing her lower lip nervously.
"Four seconds," the woman said. "Two..."
And the screen abruptly dissolved into snowy static.
Joy gasped out a Name that had Josiah crossing himself. The others just stared blankly at the screen not fully understanding what they were seeing.
Ezra gripped Joy's hand just a little tighter as the woman reappeared on TV, with her hand pressed to her ear.
When she spoke, her voice was strained. "I have just been informed that Washington has confirmed our report of earlier. All over the world, as clocks strike midnight, electronics and electrical power fails." She lowered her and and gazed into the camera.
"It would appear that Y2K has gone from theory to undeniable fact. Europe and Africa are next followed by the United States."
Joy began to cry. Chris looked over at Ezra. "How much longer are we here?"
No answer. Ezra was transfixed staring at the screen, completely lost in thought.
"Ezra!" Chris jostled him a little.
"Huh?" Ezra looked blankly at him, then it registered what Chris had asked. "Oh...okay." He dug the device from his pocket and studied it. "Five days and five hours."
"So why are we here, d'you think?" JD piped up.
Vin nodded toward the screen. "Offhand, I'd think it's t'help these people adjust, since we're from somewhere with none of this that they're losin'."
"Or maybe you're reachin'," Chris smirked at him.
"Maybe," Vin smirked back.
For his part, Ezra had gone back to staring at the screen, though nothing on it really registered any longer. One thought kept weaving its way through his mind.
It's my nightmare... it's coming true....
Ezra's nightmare came to vivid, screaming life five hours later. When midnight hit in England and Spain, their electronics went down. One of the Spanish airplanes, trying to make an emergency landing, careened into one of the Towers in New York.
Ezra watched it unfold on TV and his stomach rebelled violently. He was mollified somewhat by the fact that his living nightmare did not go to the same ending as the one in his dreams.
Neither Tower fell. Only one blazed against the night sky. A tragic accident with minimal loss of life instead of the murderous deeds Ezra had envisioned.
But still reality was bad enough.
Joy got ready for the costume party at the Third Tower. The Seven wore their regular clothes, and Joy dressed up as Annie Oakley.
Fully aware they may not see a television show again for some time, Joy sat for an hour and watched two episodes of her favourite 1960s sitcom.
When she snapped off the TV for the last time, it was in the middle of a report that New York City, Cleveland, Washington DC, Lexington, Boston all the cities in the Eastern Time Zone had gone dark at midnight.
The party was a subdued one. People were rattled concerned about what would surely happen at midnight.
The Seven were patrolling around the party, making sure everything went smoothly. Joy also patrolled a little, scared to be separated from them.
Truth be told, having her there settled each of them a bit as well. They weren't suddenly protecting a nameless, faceless party they were helping their friend.
The traditional countdown began, and Ezra and Vin found themselves flanking Joy once more.
"Three! Two! One!"
It was a mark of the measure of the citizens of Four Corners that not one person screamed when the lights went out.
"Is everyone all right?" Chris's voice rang out.
The first to shout back affirmatives were the rest of the Seven and Joy. Then the others at the party called their okays.
Light flared in the corner of the room as Josiah lit a match. Soon, candles illuminated the room. All over, faces were tight with worry and pale with fear.
But nobody was panicked. Nobody was acting out of self-interest. The people of Four Corners at least those at the party were subtly finding ways to aid each other even now.
Joy had had the presence of mind to bring a small, battery-operated radio. In the silence, she turned it on.
A voice emerged from it. "--one hour to go before it goes dark here in LA, and we have good news. The worst of the predictions the experts were making has not come to pass. The nuclear missiles have been rendered useless by the loss of electronics. The atomic age is over."
The Seven were puzzled by the cheers that erupted and by the tears in Joy's eyes.
Joy put a hand on Chris's arm and explained, "Those could literally have killed every human being on earth. One of the experts kept saying over and over that before the power failed, one last gasp of electronics would trigger every missile around the world's firing. That has not happened and with the power out, it never will!"
"In that case," Ezra said with unusual understatement, "something good has come from this."
When the sun rose on January 1, 2000, it was to an altered world.
With no electricity, fires were burning all over the city. Trial and error cost four homes in Four Corners. Batteries were suddenly more precious than gold.
Looting began on January second. The Seven soon found themselves training a small militia under the command of Four Corners' chief of police in a crash course in the type of justice they were all too familiar with.
January five finally arrived, and with it, time to say farewell to Joy.
Joy, however, was having none of it. Her questions were so annoying they were looking forward to the vortex and leaving her behind.
Counting on her being gob-smacked, they allowed her to watch it open. One by one, the Seven said good-bye and leapt into the vortex.
Joy regained her senses and leapt into the vortex behind them just before it closed.
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