The universe twists and convulses. It tears me apart, atom by atom, then reassembles me in, as far as I can tell, the original matrix. It sucks. Time travel always sucks.
I land on a dirty sidewalk, in a dirty alley, in a dirty puddle of light. As always, I drop to a knee and catch myself with one fist. It’s kind of my thing.
You stole it from that Terminatrix movie, the Bird Lady squawks in my head.
And my perfect entrance is ruined. I don’t bother to correct her. Why waste my time?
It’s 1941. Outside the military base known as “Pearl Harbor.”
Someone is messing with the timeline, and it’s my job to find out who.
The name’s Decker. Bobby Decker. And I’m a dick.
Here in 1941, that’s local-speak for “private detective,” but I’d be willing to lay down money there are plenty of folks who’d argue all definitions apply. I’m in a crappy neighborhood near Pearl Harbor. Didn’t know Hawaii had crappy neighborhoods, figured it was all palm trees and men in grass skirts.
You never do your homework, the Bird Lady squawks. She’s my boss. Avian woman from a species that evolved from birds. Go figure.
And she’s right. I rarely have to do the homework. Flying by the seat of my pants is also my thing. But in this case, I spent all my research time figuring out why someone saved Pearl Harbor from attack knowing they’d allow Hitler to beat the US to the Bomb which would end up with the entire planet destroyed by 1961.
Time travel is a bitch.
I have a strong hunch They know exactly what They’re doing. In all likelihood, They have a single target. Someone They need to exterminate to preserve their concept of the timeline. And if They are who I think They are, They would destroy an entire planet to fulfill Their goals.
The Time Police. They have a misdirected concept of “maintaining the timeline” and tend to ignore collateral damage. I need to stop Them, find out who They’re after, and then save that individual.
And, possibly, the entire planet. It’s what I do.
“Hey,” someone says behind me. His tone is aggressive.
This is a good thing since all this exposition is boring even for me.
A cop. “What’s your problem?” He points a gun my way. “You on reefer?”
I’m still on my hands and knees waiting for the world to stop spinning. Ugh. I reach for my Doohickey.
Timeline, the bird lady reminds me.
Oh yeah. It still looks like an I-phone from a visit with my doppelganger in the 21st. Likely not the best thing to pull out in 1941.
Instead, I offer a flask. “Just enjoying payday, officer.” I hold out the flask. “Businessman on his day off.” I waggle the booze. “The rest is for you.”
He looks around. Holsters his weapon. Grins.
That was easier than it should have been.
And no one died, the Bird Lady points out.
Elizabeth Turner of the Galactic Police watches the blip on a holographic map of Pearl Harbor that pinpoints the location of a likely criminal element. Her cruiser stationed itself in geosynchronous orbit over the city when the quantum anomaly first appeared. A quantum jumper, here on her turf? Blast it to shadows! And a time traveler no less? The worst kind of jumper! Almost definitely a criminal.
Perfect! Action at last!
“It’s good to see you excited about something, Stuff.” Her husband, Peter Test, stops behind her and rubs her shoulders.
Mm. That feels nice. Humans have an interesting nervous system. It took some adjustment.
Turner and Test are Shifters, as are most of the GP. Shifters are the most advanced species in the galaxy, able to assume the form of any being for whom they have a genetic sample. Saying they’re the most advanced isn’t bragging, really, because it’s true. But humans? They have more pleasure centers in the brain than most species. Nearly everything feels good in a human outfit.
It can be decidedly distracting.
Anyway, they stand on the control deck of the GP cruiser that Turner commands at a railing that separates the action stations from a circular space where a hologram of the city slowly rotates. Ordinarily, on a ship the size of Turner’s, a much larger crew would bustle around them.
But on this beat? Babysitting a planet so backward the Primitive Planet Protection Pact prohibits any contact whatsoever?
And who would waste time there?
So Turner and Test complete the command crew, and the ship’s compliment stands at six. The ship itself handles everything else.
But what in the Shadows would a time traveler want on Earth?
“Who knew getting stuck on this backwater planet could have any perks?” Turner says. Her husband continues his ministrations. Mmmm. “First, a plot to infiltrate the Japanese Army by someone who obviously has alien tech, and, now, a quantum jumper? We could get promotions from this.”
A 2D screen shows her an image of the jumper.
Then he turns away from the window. Most likely to take off his pants and get drunk. That seems his main pastime. Why in the world would someone travel through time to this exact moment and then waste all his time killing brain cells? Human beings are a puzzle.
“You think they’re connected?” Peter moves around Turner and into the hologram.
“He’s been here a week,” she says, “right about the time the other guy showed up in Japan and waved his Doohickey around.” It’s almost like he wanted them to notice.
As Peter turns toward her, the lights of the hologram play across his body in a distracting fashion.
“You ever figure out who he is?”
She shakes her head. “All his credentials are fake. But good.”
“Alpaca Consortium good?” Peter raises an eyebrow.
[Peter whistles] “Cheese-its.”
“Jesus.” Turner smiles, correcting him gently.
“Those, too.” Peter’s gaze returns to the display. “Doohickey, zoom in and scan through into room 2B.”
“Or not to be,” Turner mutters.
Peter points to the screen. “No, it’s 2B. See?”
Poor Peter. He didn’t do his research.
He looks sourly at her over a shoulder. “This is another one of those obscure Earth references, isn’t it?”
She pulls an innocent face and shrugs. So easy.
In an ironically human fashion, he rolls his eyes and gives her his back. “Why you waste time on that stuff, Stuff, I’ll never know.”
The hologram pulls in to street level, zooms on a particular building and a particular window, where it pushes through the walls to reveal a squalid little room and a rather squalid man.
“It pays to be thorough,” Turner says, but the truth is the backward little planet was growing on her. She likes the beaches. And cats. Cats are fun, feral little creatures that remind her of the blanth she’d had as a little girl.
“Seems to be most of what he does.” Peter shoves his hands into the pockets of his regulation black pants. It does nice things to his human outfit’s ass.
And he’s right. Bobby Decker, private detective, spent most of his time sitting in his underwear in his hotel room, as if waiting for someone to knock on his door or call him. Drinking. He did a lot of drinking.
Once in a while, he’d go to the beach to walk or swim.
Did he have any friends or compatriots at all?
“He’s making faces again,” Peter says as if reading her mind.
“Doohickey,” Turner says, “Scan for psychic activity.”
“Of course, Elizabeth,” her Doohickey says. “Low level psychic activity, and a minor quantum field.”
[Both] “Quantum?” Peter and Turner exchange a look.
“I need to check this out.” Turner looks down at her body. “What do you think of this outfit?”
Peter smiles. Well, of course, he liked any species she wore.
“Maybe a little sexier,” he suggests, glancing at the image of the young man.
Good point. Human men are easy to manipulate when sex is involved. All those pleasure centers.
She concentrates on the DNA of the outfit she wears and adjusts. Her breasts pull up a bit and her facial skin smooths. She rounds her hips a tad more for good measure.
“Better?” she asks.
Peter glances at his trousers. “Well, this outfit seems to like the change.”
Humorous. “How do humans accomplish anything with all those hormones?”
Peter adjusts his crotch and shrugs. “What, really, have they accomplished?”
Now, what clothes to wear?
A knock on the door to my shitty hotel room. Interesting.
A man in my position learns that even though I have unlimited financial resources… they often prevent me from connecting to the good connections. The slums are often where the best intel resides.
It’s a week after my arrival in 1941, and none of my investigations have panned out.
I peer through the spyhole. A dame. Why is it always a dame? Nice figure. Skin the color of coffee before the cream and sugar. Lips the color of blood. Good taste in dresses. She wears it well.
“What do you want?” I ask through the door.
She raises one eyebrow in a way that says this is the kind of woman for whom the phrase “femme fatale” was invented. “I need a dick, Mr. Decker. And I hear you’re the best in town these days.”
She didn’t accentuate the word. Didn’t need to.
“I’ve only been here a week,” I tell her.
“Did I say you were the best in town last week?” She settles into one hip and stares at the door as if she can see through it. “And this is a professional call. Please put on some pants; I’ll wait.”
What? Can she see through the door?
She doesn’t need to be psychic, the Bird Lady tells me, to know a single man in his hotel room wouldn’t likely be wearing pants.
Touché, Bird Lady, touché.
I go for the pants, and, in deference to the period and overall atmosphere, a tie and fedora as well. It’s 1941, and I’m a dick meeting a dame. The fedora seems necessary.
When I open the door, the dame slips past and goes to the window. “The name’s Turner,” she says, “Elizabeth Turner.” She stares out the window, but, unlike most people on the top floor, she looks up, not down, which clues me to the fact that the name isn’t a coincidence.
See… I know Elizabeth Turner. Well, several Elizabeth Turners. She’s a temporal anomaly. Pops up all over the timeline… and yeah, femme fatale about covers it. She’s usually a cop with the Galactic Police, could kill someone with a paper clip from a hundred yards.
“How can I help you, Ms. Turner?” I feign ignorance since we obviously haven’t met in this 1941.
“I need you to help me find someone,” she obviously lies, still staring at the sky. “My husband.”
Really? Could she have found a worse cliché? Well, extraterrestrials do tend to cling to the clichés. Hmmm. Should I carry on with the charade? Or try the direct approach?
Surprisingly, the Bird Lady in my head has nothing to add, although I almost feel the psychic equivalent of a shrug.
“You mean Peter Test?” I ask, using the most likely name of Turner’s mate in this timeline.
She faces me with death in her eyes as well as the telltale flash of a data lens in the right. Her head tilts forward as she reads the Galactic Police file on me. In most timelines, it’s pretty long… and mostly fabricated by my colleagues in the resistance to mislead the GP wherever I’m embedded.
Turner’s posture changes, becomes less seductive and more professional. “I see you have me at a disadvantage, Mr. Decker. Have we met one another in the future?”
I shrug. “In the past, in the future…” I gesture sideways with one hand indicating other timelines.
Both eyebrows raise in an uncharacteristic expression of surprise. It lasts less than a second, then she glides over to the chair.
“So why are you here?” She sits. “Now?”
“Why are you here?” I counter. “Now.”
Her eyes narrow. She doesn’t like me. She never does. I’ve known this woman in a score of timelines, in half a dozen different shapes, which is few for a Shifter like her.
Thing is, she never likes me. This iteration is younger-seeming than usual. Did she plan on seducing me for intel? If so, she didn’t do her homework either.
The Bird Lady titters.
“I was in orbit monitoring the planet when I noticed a temporal anomaly. I came to investigate and found your ad… thought it an easy way to get… closer.”
If I really launch into the embedded role, I succeed more often than not. Also, you never know what the cat might drag in.
Turner shifts, er, just her position, not her form. “And you? Why here? Why now?” She’s helped me before, and, in general, while timelines shift and change… You are who you are.
“We suspect someone changed this timeline to eliminate…” I say, “… a rival.” Close enough to the truth.
“A rival?” Again with that pointed eyebrow lift.
“Pearl Harbor is meant to be destroyed by the Japanese in a week,” I explain. “Someone who has jumped into this timeline prevents that. Doing so eliminates the entire planet in 1961. Somebody wants someone very, very dead.”
She barely shows it, but it bothers her. What does that mean?
“Pearl Harbor is meant to be destroyed?” Hm. She isn’t surprised. So, she has information after all. “We wondered. It didn’t make sense.” She reaches into her purse. “Why would the Japanese listen to him?”
She digs out a compact… opens it. “But he didn’t have any temporal residue. He had extraterrestrial tech, but no time residue… how could he hide it?”
She opens the compact and an image appears above it, a 2D holographic photo.
I met Leighton Lawes several years ago in the middle of a Very Big Problem. Four problems to be exact. Four eight-foot-tall problems of the decidedly insectoid kind that wanted to prevent me from seeing my seventeenth birthday. They were called Hunters, giant armor-plated fleas with enormous claws and even larger laser rifles. They acted as muscle for the Kla’arkians who pretty much owned the planet Earth back then.
I had an old pipe. And a bad attitude.
Both of my options–run away and get shot in the back of the head or storm the Hunters and hope they didn’t know that what I had was just an old pipe–sucked.
“AAAARRRRGGGHHHH!” I charged them, but not so fast that I’d actually close the space. “I’ll fucking kill you all, ya damned dirty bugs!”
The bugs chittered the Hunter equivalent of surprise.
“Halt!” the head bug shouted, holding up a claw. But it didn’t shoot me, which gave me a few seconds to think.
“What is that thing?” it demanded. “It looks like an old pipe.”
“An old pipe?” I grimaced and panted and shifted from foot to foot. Did it look like I was only barely holding back from charging them? “You don’t recognize the Shifter 38 quantum special? All I have to do is touch you with it and FOOM!” I made an explosive gesture with my arms.
The bugs chittered again, this time even louder.
“Foom?” the head bug asked dryly.
“You EXPLODE!” I repeated the gesture.
One bug took a step away.
“Prove it.” The leader pushed forward the cannon fodder who’d stepped away. Yeah, it shouldn’t have done that. Hunters had no tolerance for fear.
“Foom this one. If it works, there’s still three of us left to kill you, and one less laser charge for me to waste on this coward.”
Speaking of fear, I shifted from foot to foot and wheezed to keep the adrenaline up.
Think, think, think…
Might as well go out in style.
I lunged in a dramatic fencer’s pose, barely touching the carapace of the cannon fodder Hunter.
The bug’s head exploded! Splat!
What the hell? I dove and rolled away, landing in a three-point crouch, scanning for the source of my salvation.
Before the remaining Hunters had a chance to do much more than make noise, all three heads exploded. Foom! Foom! Foom! Red and blue goo sprayed me, but, no, I refused to puke at the idea of giant bug brains in my hair.
Someone saved me? But who? And why? And how?
“Behind you, kid,” said a man’s voice.
On a dumpster behind me squatted a dark man with longish, floppy hair and a beard, a really nice piece over one shoulder. He jumped down the to street and held out a hand. “You have balls, kid; I’ll give you that.”
I held my pipe across my chest with both hands as a barrier. Sure, he’d saved my life, but who the hell was he?
The man rolled his eyes, grabbed the center of the pipe, and yanked me to my feet. Wow. Stronger than he looked.
“Let’s get out of here.” He checked the screen on the most advanced Doohickey I’d ever seen. “When these locator signals go dead, more bugs will head here. Lots more.” He sidestepped down the street. “They’re like fucking cockroaches that way.”
Something about the guy seemed sincere, the vest and jeans he wore almost a uniform in the resistance. Plus, well, if I had to admit it, he was a looker.
He stopped and held out a hand. “What the hell, kid? You want to be bug food? I didn’t save your frickin’ life just to let the Hunter’s turn you into a snack.”
Bug food? That got me moving. I grabbed his hand like a little kid about to cross the street.
“The name’s Leighton.” He dragged me forward. “Leighton Lawes.”
“You know him?” She asks for no reason. My expression must make it obvious. “I see.” [Innuendo fills her voice.]
“Not like that.” I dump more whiskey into my glass. “He was like a big brother. Family. I idolized him.”
I took a drink.
Until? Until he betrayed me. Until I found out he’d been an agent for the Time Police all along, trading intel for vast sums of money hidden away in pocket universes and negotiable in nearly any timeline. A man I’d literally kept alive once by holding his ribs closed while a primitive Dr. Machine knit them back together.
Money. He’d betrayed us all for money. The worst cliché in the book. Any book.
Hmmm. Perhaps a bit too extravagant, even for film noir.
“If he’s involved,” I tell her, “then this planet will be destroyed without a second thought. That’s what his people do.”
See… the short version? Something Very Bad happens in 2256: the end of every universe in existence. Time travelers can’t get past that date. Absolutely no one. That Event creates a permanent Barrier to anything beyond.
What was the Event?
The stupidest accident in all of eternity.
Doesn’t matter. What matters is a difference of opinion on what should be done about it.
The Time Police were created to keep idiots from messing with the timeline. A noble pursuit, but any noble agency eventually devolves into a bureaucracy whose existence becomes a self-serving reason for their own existence.
In this case, since the Barrier Event exists, like all other temporal events, the Time Police surmise, it must be protected. “How much worse might we make things by preventing it?”
Really? Worse than the end of the multiverse?
Ending… literally… everything.
Anyway, my people, a resistance, think that maybe, oh, who knows, maybe we should try to save every living member of every fucking universe. Maybe that would be a noble cause.
“So this Leighton Lawes works for the Time Police?”
“And he would see the entire planet destroyed, because…?”
I shrug. “It’s gotta be because someone on the planet in 1961 comes close to correcting the Barrier Event.”
“They’d destroy an entire planet to do that?”
They’ve done a lot worse.
She sees it in my face, grabs the bottle and pours herself a larger drink than I’d have guessed.
Bam. All in one go. Nice.
“So… I guess we have to stop him.” She holds her glass out to me this time.
I take it. “Just like that?” I fill the glass.
“It’s my job to protect the galaxy. Seems that allowing it to be destroyed along with the entire known universe goes against my job description.” She takes the topped-off glass. “Besides which, I’ve grown fond of this little ball of dirt. I’d hate to see it get blown up by Nazis.”
Oh yeah. I’d forgotten. Her fondness for the planet causes her some problems down the road. Well, in a couple of timelines, anyway.
After Turner leaves, with a promise to reconvene tomorrow, I pick up the receiver on my 1940’s disguised Doohickey. She doesn’t need to know I have this number.
Will Leighton answer? Will the line still exist? I want to believe it will. Over and over he made me memorize the number because I would never find it electronically or in any quantum field. I had to know the number. It was like Batman’s red phone with Commissioner Gordon.
“Anywhere. Any time. Find a Doohickey and punch in these numbers,” he told me. “You will reach me. No matter what.”
And it had worked any number of times when I was a wet-behind-the ears novice and needed a save.
Will it still work? What will it mean if it does?
And why the hell do I care? He betrayed me. He should be dead to me.
But I need information. That’s it. That’s all.
I dial the numbers. My Doohickey is disguised as a hotel phone. A rotary dial feels all kinds of wrong.
Fuck. What am I even thinking? I pull the receiver from my ear and stare at it.
Fuck him. Why even call? Why even…
I ram the phone into my ear. Is he really there…?
“Hey, kid, I’m afraid I’m busy fucking someone right now…”
Heh. That’s him, all right. Might be true. Might not.
“So why not meet me where you jumped into this lousy timeline?” He gives coordinates. “Dress like a tourist. Don’t bring the dame. I don’t trust the GP.”
“No matter the water under the bridge, I hope you know I won’t hurt you.”
A dial tone.
I hold the phone to my ear a few more seconds. It’s the closest I’ve been to a man who was tighter to me than anyone in my life. To a man I’ve hated for three years… But if the whiskey makes me honest, I’d give my left nut to see him again.
Maybe he’s changed.
No. I’m on a case. I need intel. Can’t let my affection for the traitor, for the enemy, for the man willing to let the entire planet blow up… I can’t let that interfere.
In a bizarre twist, the Bird Lady is silent.
Even I’m not that much of a bitch, she says quietly. This one’s up to you.
Well said, Bird Lady. Well said.
And thank you.
Later that day, I stand in the shadows of a familiar alley, an even more familiar rifle and goggles inside my suitcase.
He gave them to me when he’d pretended to be my brother. Giving them back will let him know I’ve given up on him. That he doesn’t mean anything to me.
Because keeping them all this time, the Bird Lady points out, screams of impersonal detachment.
While she has a point, I prefer her silent treatment.
How the hell could I care at all? He’d tried to kill me, had, in point of fact, killed a hundred innocents who happened to be on the wrong ship at the wrong time.
Well, maybe none of us was quite so innocent. But none of them deserved to die.
Bang! Bang, bang!
Shots ring out! The bricks above my head splinter!
Ducking, I hightail it out of the alley and under a bridge where I find cover and less likelihood of dying. And what the hell? Who in the world wants me dead?
Well, who in this world in this time at any rate? I can tell by the sound that it’s a local piece.
In times of crisis, the body goes with the familiar. I pull Leighton’s old rifle out and heft it at the ready before I realize it. Technically, I shouldn’t use a laser weapon in this time period, but it’s handy, I know it’s balance, and fuck it, I’m not Time Police. I can always wipe the memory of the asshole taking potshots at me, and I will… once I disarm him and find out why he’s trying to kill me.
I shoot. Pew!
He staggers and drops the gun, a Luger. It clatters to the ground.
Bad guy disarmed and nobody dead. Nice.
For a change, the Bird Lady says.
Hey, this is twice on one mission.
He runs for it. Well, now that he doesn’t have a weapon, I can give chase with more confidence. Why the hell is this local trying to kill me? Who here even knows me, apart from Turner?
The guy runs through a nearby chain-link fence that makes shots more difficult. Unless I shoot with perfect accuracy, the chain-link will scatter a laser. I race through the gate to keep up.
Wait. Does he know that the fence is cover or is it a coincidence?
He jumps the stairwell leading up to a walking bridge.
He’s agile. I’ll give him that. Almost reminds me of…
Leighton said he wouldn’t try to hurt me…
And how the hell would he miss a sitting duck?
Whoever it is. He needs to go down… but I set my rifle to stun. It’d be bad form to deep-fry an unarmed local.
At least before I find out who he is.
But I can’t get a clear shot. While I’m fine with using a laser out of time, there’s no reason to draw the attention of the local GP, as in Elizabeth Turner, by melting the entire staircase.
Pew, pew, pew! Lasers ricochet off the railings around me. Very distinctive lasers.
No one from this timeline should have a Doohickey with lasers! They’re at least twenty years away. That means… shit! Damn it, a time traveler… which… which means…
Time Police. It has to be!
I can’t get a good look at him. The sky is too bright. The only way to end this is to open myself up and hope that his Doohickey doesn’t have quantum lasers. I should be able to take a shoulder hit otherwise.
I push away from the wall and slam against the opposite railing, sighting and shooting at nearly the same time.
One deep breath. I get him in my sights.
But he’s faster… and more accurate. My shot flies past his hat. His shot….?
He hits me!
Damn, that hurts! But wait… no burning flesh. No searing pain.
My arm is still there.
A stun blast? A Time Cop shooting to contain and not to kill?
Gods damn it!
That means one thing. It is him.
Bastard! The man who taught me everything I know about fighting, about killing, about surviving. The man, once the Bird Lady’s lackey, who’d literally carried my dying body out of my timeline and into the future all those years ago and who’d lured me into the resistance with his stories of Time Police atrocities, only to betray me and leave me–and so many others–for dead with nothing but questions and no answers.
And this was his way of saying hello?
“You could have killed me!” I climb the stairs.
He smiles. Just that.
No contradiction. No shouting. Just the vaguest hint of a smile, and I know him so well that that tiny gesture means that if he’d wanted me dead, I’d be dead, and he’d never accidentally kill me.
And he’s right. He is that gods damned good.
I face him at the top of the stairwell.
He leans forward half an inch in a gesture that tells me he wants to hug me.
It’s enough of a rebuff. He settles back. He nods.
Once upon a time, he and I shared a sleeping bag to avoid freezing to death on the desolate third moon of Krakrafoon. Once upon a time that seemed normal.
Now? If he touches me now, I’ll try to kill him.
I’ll likely fail, but I’ll still bloody well try.
He nods again, glances at the supposedly unconscious homeless man curled up against the railing, then nods toward the other end of the bridge.
We cross it, moving away from the unconscious homeless man, in case he’s not so unconscious.
What crosses my mind? This man used to be more than a best friend, more than a brother. What was he now?
Can I ever get past what he did to me three years ago during what was supposed to be a routine check on a resistance recruit barracks.
A Time Police battalion had appeared, literally, out of nowhere. Dozens of species, all armed with the weapons of their homeworlds. A Saurian had nothing but her razor-sharp teeth and claws, and one agent–had to be a Shifter in a humanoid outfit–used a quantum disruptor to disintegrate twenty recruits in moments.
I shot at–and missed–the Shifter. She winked at me and vanished.
I turned to see if Leighton needed any help–not that he ever did– but some kind of canine cop held an ax poised to swing at Leighton’s back. A fucking ax!
I screamed his name, and he turned in time to lift his rifle and avoid a beheading, but the canine cop was built like a werewolf, and the force of his swing planted the head of his ax in Leighton’s sternum one second before I separated the cop’s well-groomed head from his muscley torso.
They slaughtered most of the recruits and popped out without checking for survivors. The bastards didn’t care. It must have been only a show of force. A tactic to kill our spirit.
In any civilized timeline, we’d have had a Dr. Machine to stitch Leighton together in a minute, but we’d hidden the recruits in the past, in an era over a hundred years before Dr. Machines had nanotechnology. Leighton lay on the floor, gallons of blood spewing from his chest while I squeezed together his rib-cage with both hands. The machine that would easily knit bone a hundred years later worked diligently to keep him from dying.
“I don’t think I can do this,” the Dr. Machine admitted.
With Leighton’s blood covering my hands and tears flooding my cheeks, I glared into the engineered life form’s optic sensor. “If he dies, I will personally rewrite every subroutine in your brain until chess seems like a complex game.”
The EL decided to try.
And Leighton had lived.
When I discovered he was Time Police, I puked everything I’d ever eaten.
They’d almost killed him. One of their own. Did they care so little about their agents?
And… as much as I hated to think it then, and even now, I wondered if I would regret that I had kept him alive.
Three years have passed. Maybe it’s time to move beyond his betrayal. Maybe I’m man enough to admit that there are two sides to every story, to accept that solving the mystery of why the Time Police are willing to destroy this Earth is more important than my petty grievances.
Nah. Fuck it. I hate him.
He lied to me, and I don’t even know how badly. He vanished without a word. People died, and I never found out what he… I never knew…
He just fucking left.
But once upon a time?
I lay on a concrete slab in a prisoner-of-war camp. Anyone who spoke against the Kla’arkians was, by definition, a rebel. Worthy of death.
My mother lay to one side, already dead.
Dad lay nearby… breathing, but just barely. Somehow, he managed to survive, but that’s a different story.
We’d all been stripped and beaten senseless then left for dead with hundreds of our neighbors.
Sally. She was pregnant. The flies buzzed around her unseeing eyes.
How long would it take for her baby to die inside her?
The sun above me shone cold and uncaring.
And then I died, too.
Leighton had already rescued me once. He’d saved me from the Hunters and introduced me to the rebellion against the Kla’arkians who had taken over the Earth.
When the Kla’arkians tried to kill me, he pulled me out of the timeline and introduced me to the Bird Lady and the resistance. And to one more Bobby Decker.
But it was Leighton, Leighton Lawes who taught me to fight, who taught me to survive, at first against the aliens who had taken over the Earth, but then against the Time Police who didn’t understand how important it was to try to fix the timeline.
Leighton had convinced me of the importance of trying to get things right, to never stop trying.
Until the motherfucker betrayed me and a hundred innocent civilians died.
Fuck him and every damn breath he’d ever taken in his lifetime.
He didn’t fight back. He took the blows passively. He let me crush him.
And when I was done… when the anger had spent itself. He just stared at me the way he’d always stared at me when I had a temper tantrum as a kid.
His eyes held patience. And, damn him to every hell and back, they held love. It was the love that had hooked me, had held my devotion, had turned me into a pale imitation of the man, of the legend that was Leighton Lawes.
I’d always wanted to be Leighton. To make him proud. I even dressed the part for years.
And then he’d sold us out.
Three years have passed since then, and I have no idea why he brought me here.
Don’t get me wrong. The Bird Lady “discovered” the time anomaly in 1941, Turner showed me Leighton’s image, and I called the phone, but, unless I am highly mistaken, Leighton orchestrated the entire thing.
But I’m an agent now, in my own right. A man with his own duties and destinies.
And… oddly enough, I’m taller than he is now.
That shouldn’t matter. But, well… it does.
“Okay, Bobby, the testosterone finally kicked in and you grew a few inches.” He stares at me levelly. “If that really matters, enjoy it.”
I smirk. “I’m going to take what I can get with you.”
Fuck. Admitting that means I don’t hate him anymore. Not really. Damn it.
But I don’t hate him, do I? No matter how much I want to hate him, no matter how much I should.
“If you want to hit me again, you can. I deserve it for vanishing like that.”
But what’s really going on? Contrition isn’t his style. “You’re not here for penance. So why? Why get my attention? Why involve the GP?”
He stares across the fields below the bridge. “I didn’t involve the GP. I involved Turner.”
What? What does that even mean? I lean against the rail. “Okay. I’m not going to pretend I can out-think you. Just tell me why we’re here.”
“It’s about the Barrier Event.”
Well… no shit.
“What the hell does a war on a podunk little backwater planet like the Earth in some random timeline have to do with the Barrier Event?” But it makes sense, damn it. Why else would the Time Police be involved? “So the entire attempt to save Pearl Harbor?”
He smiles. “Bullshit.” So the whole thing was his way to get my attention. “We should stay away from
the island for a while. It’s gonna blow up.”
“Too bad.” In spite of myself, I smile, too. “Nice beaches.” We’d visited a lot of nice beaches once upon a time.
His smiles softens. “We’ve been on lots of planets with nice beaches.” Damn it, he remembers them, too.
Never mind. Not germane to the conversation.
“Why are we really here?” I ask.
He loses the smile. “I need to tell you something.”
“Because of memories like the beach you just pushed aside as not germane to the conversation.” [He sighs.] “That kind of memory is why we’re both here. The Time Police needed to talk to someone in the resistance, and me and you have the most history.” He leans closer. “I know I abandoned you, and, well, lied to you a lot, but I also know that while you’re a misguided idiot, you have shit tons of integrity and you can keep a secret.”
Nice insult. Also, more secrets? Yay.
“Can you shut the bird lady out?”
“Why?” The request surprises me.
“I trust you, Bobby.” He shakes his head. “I don’t trust her.”
“I shut her out now, ” I tell him, “what’s to prevent me from telling her everything we say as soon as I let her back in?”
“I ‘ll risk it.”
“I lied to you, Bobby.” His eyes meet mine. “You never once lied to me.”
He trusts me. He always will. And his eyes tell me he wants me to trust him.
As much as I don’t want to. I can.
Bird Lady? I send. This is important.
Me and the Bird lady come to an agreement. She will stay out of this moment of my memory unless I allow it.
I shut her out.
Leighton holds up his hand.
A plain, all-too familiar wooden box appears.
“What the hell?” I snatch it away. It’s the same. It’s exactly the same. How is that possible?
I scan it. My DNA is on it. “What the hell?”
His eyes betray nothing. Is this a test?
Danny’s DNA is on it, too. So is Leighton’s, of course.
“This is literally the same box?” I hold it in his face. “How do you even know about this? How is that even possible? I gave it away, just a week ago.”
He nods. I know that expression, he wants me to work through it on my own.
He’s the teacher. I’m the student. As always.
I shouldn’t want his approval, should be years beyond that, but damn it, I can’t help myself.
My Doohickey pings.
A fourth set of DNA.
“What the hell?” Think, think, think.
I received the box when I was sixteen from an older version of me from a timeline I never uncovered. I carried the damn thing for years and told no one. No one! Older me said I would pass it on to another Bobby Decker from another timeline with help from the Bird Lady.
She helped me find my doppleganger and pass it along with a message. You read that story in the prologue.
That Bobby would give the box to my own brother Danny, the literal boy who’d been stolen from my universe and hidden away for safekeeping in another timeline for reasons I still don’t understand completely.
I was told to give that Bobby this message: “You will stand with Danny beneath an enormous, phosphorescent weeping willow. Someone will say, ‘I would give you the box, but I do not have it.’ Then, and only then, give Danny the box.”
I stood there that day in a timeline of unimaginable importance. I hid on a hilltop as two other Bobby’s played out a scene with one very important Danny, and with one nondescript old man. I watched at a distance as history unfolded, when one Bobby Decker gave a plain wooden box to the one particular Danny Decker who needed it.
“I would give you the box, Danny Decker.” Leighton has a hint of a smile about his eyes. “But I do not have it.”
What? No way! No one is supposed to know about that but me, the Bird Lady, and Danny. It’s what the old man said to Danny right before my doppleganger handed him the box. It’s the signal I’d given him to know it was time.
“How the hell do you know–“
There’s that smile.
Fuck. The old man was Leighton.
His eyes. I’d never noticed, but his eyes are the same as the old man’s.
“And after Danny gave it back to the older version of me when he was done with it…” Leighton looks away. “That old man traveled in time and gave it to me about a month ago according to my relative timeline.” He shrugs. “That’s the first I knew about it.”
“How do we even avoid imploding?” I step away from him. “This is circles of time in circles of time. This should be as bad as the Barrier Event.”
Leighton points at the box. “That’s what the box does.”
“It’s a bungee cord,” [I shout.] “It was needed to get Danny back to his original– Fuck. It does other things, too.”
Leighton smiles. “It does other things, too. It keeps us from imploding, for one. It fixes time. One of many things it does.”
The box was supposedly created by the most advanced species in all of space and time. No one even knows who they are, and dozens of worlds have tried to recreate the technology.
Most of those worlds are now dust.
Timey-whimey things happened.
Wow. The box really is the most important object in the universe. Not the kind of thing I want to drop. I hand it to Leighton. “And why do you have it here… now?”
He turns it over. “I’m here to give it to the next person who needs it.”
“And who is that?”
He gives me his damnable school teacher expression. “Who else has DNA on it?”
“How can her DNA be on it if you haven’t given it to her yet?”
I sigh. “You have no idea.”
“I have no idea.”
A flock of seagulls passes overhead.
After Leighton opens a pocket watch, an image of Turner appears. Ah. Doohickey.
“Why should I believe anything you say?”
“You shouldn’t.” He meets my eyes. “But you do.”
Damn it. I do.
“So,” I say, “she’s the next owner of the most important object in the universe?”
“It would appear so.” He snaps the Doohickey closed. “Say it.”
So I say it. “You left me to die.”
His eyes scrunch up. “If I’d wanted you dead, I’d have left the Bird Lady jammed until after the ship blew up.” He smacks my shoulder. “You thought ending the jamming signal was a mistake? What kind of rookie do you think I am?”
I square off to him. “But you killed a hundred innocent–“
“Innocent?” He shakes his head and settles into one hip. “You didn’t know.”
What garbage was this going to be?
“They were smuggling quantum pulse cannons. I had to blow that ship before they got juiced. It blew my cover, which is why I vanished, but they had to go down, and I didn’t have time to get to you, and the only way to keep the explosion from shattering the entire system was with a temporal damper.”
It was the damper that had convinced me he was Time Police. They’re the only folks who have them.
“All this time you thought I tried to kill you. And that I blew up a ship full of civilians.”
And I’m not so sure I believe his very convenient explanations, now.
… to be continued!
The adventure has just begun!
Is Leighton a traitor or a hero?
Why does Turner need the box?
Will characters from any of my other novels make an appearance?
For further reading:
Bobby Decker and his little brother Danny have a complete novel that tells the story of their travels across the galaxy with a highly evolved AI and an immortal space witch where they battle Saurians and giant, metal-plated fleas before meeting the most advanced species in the known universe! And now YOU know a secret even Bobby’s kid brother doesn’t know! It puts a wild spin on an already exciting story!
Paperback and Kindle available on Amazon.
John Robert Mack lives and breathes in San Antonio, Texas. At least, this year. He sort of pays the bills by teaching dance but continues to build a business writing stuff, taking pictures of stuff, and designing stuff. Although unmarried and with no children of his own, he has nephews he loves and hopes one day to spoil.
About the models
Although relatively new to modeling, Nathan Goss dove in head first in his role as no fewer than four Bobby Deckers in the prologue alone. Did you keep count? A student at UTSA (the inspiration for Bobby’s love of the college), Nathan balances his time between maintaining a great GPA, acting as the President of a men’s volleyball team, and hanging with his furry best friends, the dogs whose footprints literally decorate his body. Yep. That tattoo is made up of several dogs who have owned him. If you are interested in hiring him for your photo projects, contact him via Instagram @nathangoss 34
Here are a few shots of Nathan as Nathan!
Courtney Johnson is a dance teacher and mother who is largely modelling for fun…. but, hey, she’s wonderful, so if you want her for a shoot, drop her a line. She sings, she dances, and she has a wide ranging ability. https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001205119734