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Well, shit. I keep forgetting that the clocks on the school computers are completely fucked up, that not two of them have the same answer, that it's impossible to reset the time...

...and thus missed it turning 2:30. Puter says 13:42. Watch says 14:48. I am fifteen minutes late for class. Bugger. Um.

Well, if I'm gonna be late, I might as well have it be worth it.



Although he had been, on some level, expecting it, Giles had to strive to hide his irritation when their little group, gathered at the edge of the camp, was joined by the Delegates, all of whom looked more awake than he felt.

Hamilton greeted them brightly; to Giles' annoyance, none of the three strangers carried any baggage, save a small courier bag slung across Fiona's back, although Giles and his two charges had been advised to expect an absence of a few days. On the positive end of things, though, he supposed, that probably meant that wherever they were going, it wasn't far.

"Ready?" asked Hamilton, fastening the light jacket he wore.

"Will we be walking, then?" Giles asked, gesturing to indicate the wide, empty expanse of the desert beyond the parking lot

Hamilton gave him a surprised look, then grinned. "Not for too long," he said. "We'll be under cover before it gets too hot, at any rate," he added, and without further elaboration, set out into the scrub, followed by Jack and Fiona Phillips. The others, after sharing a puzzled glance, followed.

Giles brought up the rear.

It wasn't quite six when they stopped - they'd been walking nearly an hour, and when Hamilton, who'd been leading, setting a brisk, patient sort of pace, did stop, Giles could not fathom why. He looked around, but could see only scrubby desert; they stood near a copse of cactus and thorny brush, indistinguishable from the hundred others just like it they'd passed over the last hour except that this one was dominated by a particularly massive formation of sun-bleached rock.

Giles looked expectantly at Hamilton, to find that the younger man was watching him with amusement.

"What?"

"Just wait," said Hamilton, nodding to the PHillips boy, who approached the huge rock and moved around it, disappearing around the other side.

"What--" was as far as he got. If he hadn't been watching, he might have missed it; abruptly a large part of the rock, lower and slightly smoother than the rest, was gone. The weathered surface of the rock melted away like smoke and in its place rested one of the oddest vehicles Giles had ever seen. He heard Willow gasp.

It was lower to the ground that seemed mechanically feasible - too low, it seemed, to allow space for wheels, or tires. In fact, it seemed to have no wheels at all. It seemed almost foreshortened, as well. Gradually it dawned that there was no engine, at least not in either of the places one generally expects to find one. The length and width of it were taken up with seating, although a control panel and a steering column were mounted on the shallow dashboard. The outside panelling, interrupted by windows on the roof and the sides from about halfway up, was dark and opaque, but reflective. Solar panelling? THe bottom quarter of the vehicle was encased in darker panelling, itself full of what looked like ventilation holes, nearly a hand-swidth apiece, inset equally along the bottom edge.

"Was that..." murmured Xander.

"Not magic," Fiona told him. "Machinery." Jack reappeared around the side of the car. "It's an optical illusion."

"Like a hologram?" asked Xander, cautiously enthusiastic.

Fiona grinned. "Something like."

Hamilton met Giles' quizzical look with a shrug. "We couldn't very well drive it along the interstate," he said, which was true.

It was, Giles decided, an electric car - or at least a close approximation, though if he recalled correctly this type of vehicle was driven by forced air and electromagnetics: a pneumatic car, he supposed. He'd read about them - pneumatics were part of the Union's widespread technological advancement campaigns. He'd even ridden an electric train, his last time in London; but hte Transit application in London had involved mostly upgrades on the old system, and the only real difference lay in the conveyance itself. The system map had remained almost identical. Private vehicles had long been obsolete within the city, and their use was now carefully controlled in Union countries, generally used only under special circumstances, and available only to citizens; he'd never had occasion to use one.

His suspicions were confirmed when Hamilton, opening a side-door and reaching inside, touched a control and a polymer-encased cusion, previously hidden by the lower casing, began to inflate with a low hiss. The car rose six or seven inches, until it rested on the inflated pad, silently awaiting its passengers.

"It's so quiet," said Willow with surprise.

"It's efficient," agreed Hamilton. "Noise is wasted energy, you know."

Giles was sure she did know, but she continued to stare - as well she might, thought Giles; pneumatic and electric cars were not only unheard-of in the United States, they were virtually illegal. Their introduction, and the abandonment of fossil fuels, had been one of the main reasons for the American refusal of Union membership. Certainly they couldn't have driven it up the interstate.

The sun, rising slowly, was beginning to cast darker shadows. Hamilton, glancing at the sky, apparently decided it was time to go, because he lifted the other door, leaving the whole side open.

"All aboard."

With the doors shut, they fit snugly, although not uncomfortably. Theh car was larger inside than Giles had expected, largely because conventional vehicles were surrounded by panelling almost a foot thick. The outer shell of the pneumatic car was thin, mo more than a few inches in thickness, although sturdy and solid. THe doors closed with more of a click than a slam. Hamilton touched another control and the car came to life.

Even running, the engine emitted only a faint hum, and Giles didn't realize they were moving until the rock vanished from the right-side window. They'd risen a few more inches when the engine had been started, and looking back, Giles was surprised to see the vehicle left virtually no trail - he had half-expected a billowing cloud of dust, but the car disturbed the ground - and the air, as well, it seemed, as listening, he could barely hear the wind whistling past them - far less than an ordinary car. The craft cut easily and swiftly across the desert, seeming to meet almost no resistance, this last largely due, he guessed, to the design of its shell.

"Shall we be stopping for the night?" he asked, watching th desert flash past.

"Oh, no," said Hamilton. "We should reach Sunnydale well before noon."

"We were a day out from Sunnydale last night," Giles said, disbelieving.

"Yes," agreed the other Watcher, "via internal combustion."

Giles was silent. Willow, tone puzzled, asked: "We're going back to Sunnydale? But... there's nothing left."

Hamilton was quiet a moment before replying: "Not precisely," and Giles saw Fiona grinning mischeviously back at them in the rearview mirror.

===

It was a rock.

Xander stared at it as the others climbed out of the car behind him. It was almost eleven o'clock and the sun was becoming yellow and warm - it had taken them less than half the time to cover the distance that had taken the caravan most of a day. Xander had been so absorbed in watching the ground blur past as they skimmed across the desert, avoiding the roads, that he almost hadn't noticed the outlying ruins of SUnnydale rising up to the east of them as they passed it, at a distance of a few miles. When he had, he'd started watching ahead. After everything that had been said the day before, he hadn't been quite sure what to expect.

It hadn't been a rock.

Xander stood staring at it, head tilted slightly to one side, as the others climbed out behind him. Vaguely he registered some conversation among the Delegates, and peripherally he saw the car being maneuvered around the far side of the rock, supposedly to be melted back into invisibility via the cloaking device. It was all so Star Trek, he thought, taking a few steps to the left to examine the rock from a different angle. He wasn't sure what he was looking for - a button, a keypad, a big, flashing sign...

Fiona came to stand beside him. He looked down at her from a good foot above, and pointed. "It's a rock," he said.

She looked, then nodded at him. "Yup," she agreed, "definitely a rock."

"Do you guys just really like rocks, or are we hopping a rock-shaped spaceship, here?"

Fiona giggled. "No, no spaceships," she said. "Sorry," she added, and Xander crossed his arms, realizing belatedly that he had felt briefly disappointed. "Don't worry, though," she consoled. "It's much cooler than a space ship."

Xander stared at her, stared at the rock. ::Teenagers,:: he thought. ::Why do I only know teenagers with super powers?::


"Ready to go?" asked Hamilton then, and Xander turned to see the Watcher approaching them, guiding Giles and followed by Jack Phillips. Willow came to stand next to Xander.

He leaned forward a little. No, he decided, still a rock.

"Where are we going, exactly?" asked Giles.

"Or, actually, how?" added Willow.

It was a rather large rock, Xander supposed, stepping back again. Four times his height, and bleached whiter than some of the others they'd passed this morning. It was weathered and cracked like the others, but the weathering seemed, somehow, to have assumed a different pattern, here. The rockface was scored with pockmarks and cracks, but the damage all seemed to frame the area directly in front of them. He stepped back a little more; there was a part of the rockface that seemed to have remained unaffected by the passage of time, smoother and unmolested in comparison to the surrounding stone. In fact, it was almost as if the damage had been deflected; looking up, he followed, with his eyes, a crack that seemed to have begun at the top of the rockface, carrying on diagonally toward the ground, that actually seemed to have stopped at once side, and then continued on the other, as if without interruption. Tilting his head, he squinted; the smooth area almost seemed to form the shape of... a door. Arched at the top and taller than him by a foot or so, a little wider than his outstretched arms... it was a door.

"Is that..." he looked at Fiona again, but the girl was stepping forward to lay one hand on the smooth stone, right at the edge of the weathered area. She looked back over her shoulder, and grinned.

"Watch this," she said, and turned back, closing her eyes.

Xander didn't quite catch all the words, but Fiona murmured something - a few sentences in a flowing, smooth language that he'd never heard before - and then there was a moment where the air around them seemed to thicken and stretch...

Willow grabbed his arm, reacting convulsively, as something - something powerful, because even Xander could feel it, distantly - deep beneath them surged for an instant. There was a flash of bright blue light.

When Xander looked again - he found he had closed his eyes instinctively - the smooth area on the rockface... he had to look again, because for a moment his eyes were fooling him.

The smooth area on the rock, now clearly outlined in faintly-glowing blue, seemed to have vanished. Or changed, he couldn't decide. The door - for it was, now obviously, a door - was surrounded by a dozen or so symbols, none of which he recognized (and stealing a glance at Willow, he saw that she didn't, either). The area within the archway, itself, was... rippling.

Not exactly rippling. But it seemed to have been altered, so that the smooth stone now appeared to be liquid, or fluid, and was moving, very slowly, as if moved by a current. Xander felt suddenly drawn to touch it, even as his common sense reminded him firmly to stay the hell back.

"Now that," Fiona told Xander, looking amused, "is magic."

"That's... a lamius andron," exclaimed Giles, behind him, in a hushed voice.

"A what?" Xander turned to look at him.

Giles stared for a moment before blinking and looking at him: "It's... it translates loosely to... 'corridor of wizards'. It's also known as a pius porta - 'holy door' - or--"

"Or terra porta," provided Fiona, as Giles turned to look at her with surprise. She smiled. "Though we just call them Earth Gates. Or Gates. The big latin names get a bit wordy for regular usage."

Giles nodded, slowly, his eyes drifting back to the door itself. "In the ancient world, they were said to be used by wizards, by gods... engraved in stone, in ancient trees, secreted away in the hearts of fallen castles, that sort of thing. But I thought they were only legend."

Xander laughed, as did Willow. Giles gave them a tolerant look. "Yes, well. This is rather one of the big ones. The legend long predates any documentation. It survives largely through oral history."

"As is the case for us, I'm afraid," said Hamilton. "The Circle has been using the Gates for generations, but even we don't know who made them, in the first place. But there are hundreds of them, in the damndest places, too."

"Like in the bowels of the Calgary sewer system," Fiona said, shuddering.

"And we're going to go through that..." Willow pointed at the doorway, "to get where we're going?" Her voice sounded a little high and strained. Xander sympathised.

"It's perfectly safe, and confidentially, a hell of a lot faster than our other options," Hamilton told them.

Xander turned to look at Giles, whose attention had been drawn back to the open Gate. "I never thought I'd step through one myself."

"It's your call, G-man," Xander said, shrugging, though casting an uneasy glance toward the Gate. But Giles was already stepping forward.

"Okay, then," muttered Xander, as Jack Phillips preceded them, stepping through the door and vanishing, with nary a ripple to the dark space within the arch. Willow paused at the threshold, reaching out one hand to touch the not-quite-fluid space of the doorway.

"It feels... warm," said Willow, sounding surprised. "Like water."

Fiona nodded. "It feels a bit like that once you're in, too - no resistance." She saw Willow's hesitation, and gestured her forward. "It doesn't hurt, or anything," the younger girl assured them both. "Just remember - the trip only lasts a second or two. You'll feel like you've lost your balance but it's really more like you're stepping straight through to the other end. So don't flail or anything or you'll fall on your face when you come out."

"And try to breathe normally," added Hamilton. "It feels like water, but it isn't, really - you aren't going to drown. Just focus on the destination."

"What if we lose our concentration? Mightn't we end up somewhere else?" Giles asked.

Hamilton shook his head. "No - this isn't teleportation, where knowledge of the destination depends on the traveller. This is a stable portal - a corridor, as you said. The origin and destination are set - hardwired, you might say," he said, with a smile for Willow. "This door is connected to the other end - that's what the spell is for: what Fiona did when she activated it."

"All right, then," said Giles, stepping up to the door, and Xander saw that he was as eager as he was nervous - he wished he could say the same. "Wish me luck."

Then, fists clenched at his sides - and Xander could have sworn he heard the older man take a deep breath - Giles stepped forward, and disappeared, like slipping underwater.

Willow stiffened next to him. He squeezed her hand. "No problem, Wil," he told her, trying to sound more self-assured than he felt and quite certain that she saw right through it. "On three." They stepped up to the Gate together. "One, two..."

"..three!" They stepped forward, and were swallowed by darkness.

===

Fiona bent down to retrieve her bag, slung it over one shoulder, and smiled, broadly. "That went well," she observed, and was rewarded with a smile from Matt, who dropped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed briefly.

"Yes, Fi," he agreed, as they stepped up to the Gate, "I would say that most definitely went well."

He looked back, taking in the empty stretch of desert, the hulking ruin of Sunnydale on the horizon, and the pale and cloudless sky. Fiona followed his gaze. "An excellent beginning," he said. "Now the hard part begins."

Together they stepped through the Gate, vanishing after the others.

Gradually, the glowing outline of the Gate dulled to nothing, and the empty doorway faded back to its natural state of weathered stone. A few seconds later, nothing remained of their presence but footprints and the dust of their passage, hanging heavy in the morning air.



I am almost finished. And then I can legitimately post the Oz-fic. ;)

Okay. Going to class now. Right. Yup.

EDIT: Fic posted at FF.net. Must now ignore fic.

FURTHER EDIT: First chapter of The Siege of Alesia also posted. Must now REALLY ignore fic.

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Chandri MacLeod
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