Bobby Benton Decker had a secret. At sixteen, he wasn’t a young man who did well with secrets. His parents were the absolute best, and he could tell them anything. Their policy was they’d rather be horrified and informed than blissfully ignorant.
In a show of good faith, Dad had once handed over his high school yearbook. “Just so you know that nothing you do will shock us.”
Bobby had opened it randomly.
“Yo Decker, ya slob, I’ll never forget that night at the pool party—”
Bobby had slammed it closed and held it out. “I’m all about the blissful ignorance, Dad.”
And Dad hadn’t even blushed.
Even Bobby’s little brother, Danny, wasn’t completely annoying. They had their own rooms, now, and although they shared a bathroom, Bobby never needed to lock the door because Danny always knocked and waited for an invite. And the little guy always seemed to know when his older brother wanted to talk. They still told each other stuff, even though most of Bobby’s friends treated their younger siblings like lice-ridden contaminants.
Bobby told Danny most everything. . . eventually. Usually after Danny whined and wheedled or tricked Bobby into revealing. . . well, pretty much anything.
See, while Bobby would never admit it to the little squirt, Danny was smarter. Quite a bit smarter, actually, than pretty much everyone. Mind you, Bobby was no slouch in the grades department, but apparently the brains that carried Dad though a career as a chemical engineer and Mom through her job as a herpetologist had waited until son number two to manifest.
Bobby stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. If he could admit that his little brother was smarter then Bobby should also be able to admit he was good-looking.
Lots of girls had told him so.
He kept getting asked out. And he always said yes, because… well, that’s what you did! But it never led to more than a couple of movies or dinners.
And Bobby would rather work on his tai kwon do, anyway. Which made him a freak.
But it helped his little brother. Since Danny had stopped his own martial arts training, someone had to watch over the brainiac geek. Not that Danny knew it, but several kids in his class had needed some gentle persuasion to leave Danny alone. And Danny was so innocent and honest, he would never know that his big brother had smoothed the way for him.
Oh well, Bobby didn’t mind. Danny was a good kid brother.
Bobby sighed. If only he could tell him his secret.
Bobby scrutinized his image in the glass. Could anyone see it?
He turned one way and the other. What would it even look like?
The universe twisted and spit out a completely different, somewhat older, Bobby Decker on the other side someplace utterly different. His eyeballs nearly popped, his eardrums screamed, and something shoved him so hard, he stumbled, catching himself with one fist on the floor.
Three deep breaths and the vortex settled.
“Dimension-hopping sucks.” He chuckled. “But I nailed it, right? Fist on the floor, one knee down, and eyes on the floor, too. The classic pose for anyone passing through an inter-dimensional portal.” He rose. “I’ll be back.”
This Bobby stood at a crossroads in time. Literally. It was called the White Room, but it wasn’t really a room. More like a state of mind. According to both quantum physics and metaphysics, every point in the universe was connected. That’s where Bobby was now: the place where all those points met.
It… looked like a big white room. He was never impressed.
That’s because your mind is too limited to appreciate the situation, the Bird Lady chirped in Bobby’s head. She was his boss, an avian ET who helped lead the underground movement against the Time Police. She spoke to him psychically because she couldn’t be there in person.
He jumped. Yep. Solid. Still… just a big white room.
I heard that!
Ugh. Psychics. They made him want to drink.
A glass of whiskey appeared in Bobby’s hand. What the what?
Oh yeah. That was tons easier in the White Room itself. Bobby had needed intense training to access even the most limited aspects of the infinite.
He could get used to this.
Why are you there? the Bird Lady chirped. To get drunk?
No, Bobby was there to get in touch with himself. Literally.
He unfocused his eyes. Several years working against the Time Police had given him the skills to reach into the void. The space around him was an enormous white expanse, but if he let himself see them, he perceived subtle shifts in the white, like drifts of snow on an ice-covered lake.
He reached into the void and drew through time. A scene swirled into focus.
There he was. Bobby Benton Decker, age 16. Wow. Had he really been so young?
Not what we’re after. The Bird lady’s chirp pulled Bobby out of his reverie.
He focused harder. He twitched his head to the right and the scene scrolled and whirled. Dozens of Bobbies streamed past from dozens of timelines.
Bobby ducked his chin.
The image came to rest on a sixteen-year-old Bobby Decker in a different timeline who’d apparently just come out of the shower. The younger Bobby stood in front of a mirror in Grandpa Oliver’s old house. He made body builder poses.
Seriously? By the time the older Bobby had reached sixteen, Grandpa Oliver and his house had both been reduced to ash.
That’s why we’re here, the Bird Lady reminded him. We need to help the Danny Decker who lived.
Danny. Bobby’s little brother. Taken as an infant by the resistance and given to this timeline, to one where Grandpa Oliver’s house still existed, where Danny wouldn’t die as a casualty of war. And now Bobby had to help the little brother he’d never met, who believed this younger Bobby was his real brother. The one who spent way too much time in the mirror.
The older Bobby had lived through a planetary invasion and grown up in a world where he’d learned to fire his grandfather’s rifle before he’d had his first kiss.
And Bobby had fought. He’d tried.
He’d died. Well, almost.
The Bird Lady and her sidekick had slipped Bobby out of his timeline, too. All for the multi-universal good. And here he was about to hand this other Bobby the one and only thing that could help little Danny save the planet. Well, the planet and everything else in all of space and time.
Bobby held up a hand and it appeared.
A plain, wooden box that could change history and prevent the destruction of, oh, pretty much everything.
Didn’t look like much. Just a plain wooden box.
Get on with it, the Bird Lady coerced.
Bobby dropped the whiskey, knowing it would simply cease to exist. Then the box, knowing he could call it up when he needed it. He called up the hat and goggles, and they appeared in place.
He reached out. The multiverse warped and pulled….
One benefit to turning sixteen had been that when Grandpa Oliver wanted to treat the family to Chuck E. Cheese, Bobby could bow out, unless, you know, he really wanted pizza and was willing to put up with those insufferable singing whatsits. He had Grandpa’s place to himself for the evening.
From the Bluetooth speaker on the counter, Bobby’s favorite band, Moorcheeba, sang, “Oooh, I love my make-believer. . .”
He’d told Nax his secret, and, in some ways, Bobby had been even closer to Nax than to his brother or his parents. They’d been best friends since, well, since long before Bobby could even remember. Nax had always been at his side. Always. One of them had slept on the floor of the other’s bedroom nearly once every month since birth.
Well, since birth was hyperbole. But it made the point.
Nax had trained with Dad. He’d been Bobby’s best friend and sparring partner. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, Bobby couldn’t tell Nax.
So Bobby had shared his secret with his best friend.
And Nax had punched him. Pow. Not any kind of proper blow Bobby might have blocked. Just a sucker punch that had laid Bobby flat. And then Nax had walked away.
Just like that.
So. . . yeah. Maybe Bobby should keep his secret… secret.
The light above the mirror flashed.
The music stuck. “Make-believe, tch, make-believe, tch, make-believe, tch. . .”
Ugh, now what?
A very bright light filled the room.
A very, very bright light! Holy spit! It was like a nova!
Bobby Decker pulled. . . and the younger Bobby appeared.
He yelped and dropped to a knee, one fist to the ground.
Older Bobby chuckled. “Dude, you totally nailed it, too.”
The younger Bobby rose and stared blankly.
“Fist on the floor.” Bobby shook his fist. “One knee down.”
“Terminator,” young Bobby muttered. “Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Nice. One of the all-time classics. Bobby had seen it on a mission to a timeline where Arnold became President.
Young Bobby looked around, then spun with wide eyes. He looked down and yelped again, backpedaling several feet.
“Where the hell am I?” The younger Bobby looked down, then jumped and landed hard. “Who are you?” He circled Bobby, alternately examining the older version and scanning the non-existent horizon. “What the hell?”
“This. . .” Bobby opened his arms to the expanse. “Is a sort of inter-dimensional safe room, a convenient place for me to meet you.” He shrugged. “To meet me.” With one hand, he yanked off the cap. With the other, he removed the goggles.
Younger Bobby gasped. Well, he had spent the last several minutes staring at his own reflection. This would be nearly the same thing, like looking in a mirror, except with facial hair. And an inch or two taller.
“What. the. heck?” Bobby edged closer. “You look exactly like me.”
The eye color would be a dead giveaway. Gold was an unusual color for eyes. At least on Earth.
“Time travel? Inter-dimensional travel?” Young Bobby stared down his doppelganger.
Who smiled. “You don’t doubt it’s possible?”
The younger man waved his arms. “The infinite white expanse kind of eliminates my doubt meter. Occam’s razor.”
Older Bobby smiled. “The simplest solution is likely the true one.” Nice.
You know, looking in a mirror isn’t the same. A mirror reverses everything. This was Bobby Decker looking at Bobby Decker the way others saw him.
“Huh.” The older Bobby Decker glanced up and down. “Blue and orange? Interesting choice.”
Really? That was his takeaway? “You crossed inter-dimensional space to mock my taste in underwear?” He wouldn’t mention that he normally wore plain Fruit-of-the Looms or that he hoped for UTSA for college.
“No.” The doppelganger smiled. He held up a hand. “I came to give you this.”
A wooden box appeared.
What the what? A really, plain wooden block.
Bobby took it.
Nothing happened. No giant electric shock. No amazing musical riff.
“It’s an uncarved block of wood.” Bobby held it up.
“Yes. Yes, it is.” Other Bobby leaned back and crossed his arms.
“What does it do?”
Bobby turned it in his hands.
“It performs a miracle.” He raised a hand and its index finger. “But it only performs the miracle one time.” He extended the hand. “Once.”
“Fine. Fine.” Bobby brushed his doppelganger’s hand away. “One miracle, I—”
They didn’t blow up!
“I just touched you and we didn’t blow up.” Bobby backed away. Isn’t that what happened in every sci-fi show ever?
“You watch too much TV.” Other Bobby held up a hand. A bottle appeared. Whoa! Whiskey? It looked like grandpa Oliver’s good stuff. “You want a drink?”
“Seriously? How old do you think I am?” Bobby was sixteen. Some of his friends drank, sure, but Bobby hadn’t tried more than a sip, a painful throat-burning sip. “How old are you?”
The other Bobby gave him a wink and a lopsided grin. Then he wilted. The bottle fell to his hip. He stared at Bobby a long time, then raised a hand where a glass appeared. He added whiskey.
“Age is relative. By the time I was your age, Mom was dead, I’d learned how to kill pretty efficiently, and we didn’t really have a drinking age.” He dropped the bottle and it simply vanished. “Dad survived, but he thought I was dead.” His eyes opened wider. “When you see my dad, can you tell him I’m alive? I didn’t die in that camp, I was plucked out of the timeline by—”
Wow. So many things Bobby simply couldn’t process.
No! the Bird Lady squawked.
How much should Bobby tell this kid? Tell himself, but not himself? This conversation had been completely different when he’d been on the other side. Bobby hadn’t been in his underwear. He’d been naked and bleeding, plucked from an alien prison camp where Mom had died. Dad had lived, and the Bird Lady and her minion named Leighton Lawes yanked a dying Bobby out of the dirt and threw him into an alternate timeline where yet another Bobby Decker had been waiting. With whiskey.
You cannot tell him a thing! The Bird Lady squealed.
Bobby winced at the volume. No. He might not be Time Police, but he knew the consequences of messing with the timeline.
“By?” The younger Bobby prompted.
“By good people who needed my help.” Close enough to the truth.
“And… I’m going to meet your father, the one from your dimension?” the younger Bobby asked.
The distinct clearing of a throat emanated from the Bird Lady. How did she do that psychically?
“I’ve already said too much.” Bobby would deal with the Bird Lady later. “A lot is going to happen to you. You’ll grow up tons in the next couple of years. I’m twenty-four.” Whiskey burned his throat. “I’m going to tell you something you can’t tell anyone. Not your parents. Not Danny.” Oh, yeah. This Bobby had a best friend. “Not Nax.” He raised the glass. “I know you’re not speaking now. That changes.” He sipped. “But you’re standing in an infinite white void, and you seem to accept that I’m you from the future.”
“From a future.”
“I forgot how quick I was.” Interesting. Always thinking, this one.
“Well, Danny might be the smart one in the family,” the younger Bobby said, “but relative to most rubes. . .” His eyes narrowed. “Wait. You were on my side of this eight years ago?”
Bobby opened his mouth to say yes, but he stopped. “I was. Sort of. I wasn’t standing here in my underwear.”
Bobby glanced downed and sort of shrank. Really? He could be embarrassed by being seen by himself?
Then he raised an eyebrow. Wow. This one really was a thinker.
Jeans and a t-shirt appeared. Holy crap! Bobby had needed almost six months to learn how to manipulate the White Room at all.
Couldn’t let the kid see his surprise. He laughed. “Really? You were just staring at yourself in a mirror. How is this different?”
“Because I didn’t keep commenting on my shorts.”
Is that why Danny was brought here? Bobby sent to the Bird Lady. Because this Bobby Decker is better than me?
Fine. “There were other differences, too,” Bobby said. “My world was a war zone.”
Meh. Time to return to the task at hand. He gestured at the block of wood in the younger Bobby’s hands. “That thing. It’s important.”
“It looks like a reject from an eighth-grade shop class.”
Ha! Bobby had said the exact same thing. “You’ll learn that sci-fi movies get most of it wrong. If you were going to create the most amazing thing in the universe, would you really want to advertise it by making it all sparkly and glass and blinking lights?” He gestured at the block. “Or would you just make an uncarved block that you could leave on the counter at Starbucks and no one would steal it?”
The younger Bobby turned the block in his hands. “So this is the most amazing thing in the universe?”
“It’s up there.”
“You never answered my question.” The younger Bobby held it up. “What does it do?”
Bobby sipped his whiskey. He had to tell this guy about Danny before he explained the box. When Bobby had first learned about Danny, he’d already been battling time-travelling aliens for a few years. Quantum jumping wasn’t hard to swallow. This kid didn’t even know ETs were real. How would he react? One more sip of whiskey.
“You can never tell Danny what I’m about to tell you.” He pointed at Bobby. “I hope you can handle the responsibility.”
“Keeping a secret? That’s—”
“This is bigger.” Bobby waved it off. He sipped. “Wa-a-ay bigger.”
He knew! Of course, he knew. Other Bobby might be from a different timeline, but he was still Bobby.
“What could be worse?” Bobby asked his doppelganger.
Other Bobby sighed. “You buy that I’m from somewhere else. A different timeline or an alternate dimension. You buy that, right?”
Bobby looked the other guy up and down. No way was he someone in a costume. No way was he a prank. How did Bobby know? Not sure, but he knew. The fact that he kept making stuff appear and disappear helped.
The guy met Bobby’s eyes. “So is Danny.”
“Danny Denton Decker is not from your timeline. He’s from mine.” Other Bobby sipped his drink. “The Danny born in your universe died in his crib in the hospital. Someone swapped them out. Brought your Danny from an alternate timeline, from my timeline, and switched him with the corpse of the Danny Decker who died in a hospital nursery.”
That was insane.
“Seriously?” He moved into Bobby’s view and waved at the expanse, gestured at himself. “What the heck am I?”
Bobby stared at his doppelganger. What was he?
Occam’s razor. The easiest answer. . .
Danny had never really made sense, had he? He was too smart. Too kind. Too. . . perceptive. He knew things a little kid shouldn’t understand.
The other Bobby nodded. “You’ve noticed things.”
“So he was supposed to be your little brother?” Bobby asked.
“In my timeline,” Other Bobby said, “he would’ve been dead before he was five.”
Wow. Other Bobby had grown up without a little brother. That must have sucked.
What? “Are you reading my mind?”
“Your face.” He raised an eyebrow. “I know it pretty well.”
Well, of course, he did.
“When did they switch him?” Bobby asked. “Does he know?”
“He was, like, a few hours old.” Other Bobby shook his head. “He doesn’t know. Your parents don’t know.” He met Bobby’s eyes evenly. “And now, you’re the only one in your universe who knows. . .” He sipped his drink. “And you can’t. tell. anyone.”
What the hell? How could he keep a secret like that?
Other Bobby smiled. “Welcome to my world, Bobby Benton Decker.”
Danny was from an alternate world. A world where Danny Decker didn’t die.
“Could you get more Harry Potter?” Bobby asked. It was all he could think to say.
The other Bobby smiled. “I have no idea who you’re talking about.”
He’d said his world was a war zone. Who would’ve had time to read Harry Potter in a war zone?
But wait a minute. “How do you know Terminator, but not Harry Potter?”
Other Bobby waved his empty glass at the wooden box. “That thing will only work once.” Always with the redirection. “You will want to use it before the proper time. Don’t.”
Bobby turned the boring piece of wood in his hands. “How many times have I asked what it does?”
“A few.” Other Bobby stepped closer. He took the box and held it up. “This boring piece of crap wood will return Danny to his home dimension. Back to the place he was born. It will work once, and it will bring anyone touching Danny with him.” He returned the block. “You will be tempted to use it as a means of escape. Bad things are going to happen, and you will think, ‘We could use it to escape.’ You’ll think this several times. ‘Wouldn’t it be better to be in Danny’s old universe?’ you’ll ask yourself.”
He held up his glass and it refilled; he glanced at Bobby.
He held up his other hand and a glass appeared. He held the glass out. “I might as well corrupt myself.”
Bobby reached for the glass.
The other Bobby held it, their hands touching. “If you use this box before the appointed time, horrible things will happen.”
He forced Bobby to meet his gaze for several seconds.
“What will happen?” Bobby asked.
“Look out into the void.” He released the glass and pointed.
Seriously, was this guy incapable of giving a straight answer?
Bobby looked. Endless white expanse. And? Except… He could almost make out swirls of white in the white. And movement, maybe?
“You’ll start to see colors,” Other Bobby said. “Shapes.”
Fwoosh! The scene exploded, grabbed Bobby, and dragged him inside!
Smoke and fire! Lasers? Were those lasers?
Bobby stood there. He looked more like Other Bobby, but somehow Bobby knew this was his own future.
An explosion! Screams! Mom’s voice?
Bobby charged into battle with nothing but an old pipe. Lasers spit at him from an enemy he didn’t even understand, but they wanted his family dead.
The world shifted.
Bobby lashed out at everything around him. Anything he hit needed to die.
The world shifted again.
Bobby lay splayed out on a concrete slab, naked, dying.
Mom lay nearby. She wasn’t breathing. Dad lay beside her, naked, blank eyes staring at the sun, fat, black flies crawling across his face—
The world twisted and spit Bobby back into the White Room. His eyeballs nearly popped, and his stomach heaved, tried to vomit, but he hadn’t eaten all day.
That’s right! He should be eating pizza with Mom and Dad and Danny. . . and Grandpa Oliver, not dying on a concrete slab beside his dead parents. . .
Mom and Dad. Dead.
No. Not that. Never that.
That would kill him and Danny both.
Except that Danny had already died.
Bobby stayed on his hands and knees. Would his stomach ever stop trying to vomit?
A gentle hand rubbed his back.
“Now, you understand the consequences.” Other Bobby held Bobby’s shoulder. “I could show you more, but I doubt I need to.” He helped Bobby to his feet.
“No one can know that your brother is from another dimension, most of all Danny himself, and you will be tempted to tell him his origin a dozen times and you will be tempted to use the box as a means of escape. . . but you have to resist.”
“How will I know the right time?” What the heck? The box had vanished. Where was it?
Other Bobby smiled. He held up a hand and the box appeared. He gave it to Bobby. “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.’” He pointed at the box. “Then, and only then, give Danny the box.”
The block seemed so plain. “And what do I tell him?
The other Bobby shrugged. “Whatever you want. The box will explain what he needs to know. I wasn’t a messenger. Just a courier.” He sipped his drink. “At several points in time that will seem funny. It did to me.”
Bobby stared at the block.
Danny had been born in an alternate dimension. It was the kind of thing Bobby saw in movies. Bobby’s little brother had died, and someone had replaced him.
“Don’t think that,” the other Bobby said. He gestured at the glass in Bobby’s hand.
He sipped. Holy heck! It burned all the way down his throat! But maybe in a good way? Bobby coughed.
Other Bobby smiled. “It takes getting used to.” He sipped his own drink. “Just like accepting that your brother is your brother no matter what universe bore him.” He sipped again. Gestured for Bobby to do the same. “The night you told Nax your secret. . .”
Bobby sipped fire. He didn’t want to think about that night.
“You curled up in your bed and cried your eyes out, hoping no one would notice the black eye.” Other Bobby settled into a hip. “How could you ever explain what had happened? You couldn’t. And what did Danny do? He didn’t whine. He didn’t push you. He just left Ben and Jerry’s next to your bed with a spoon.”
That’s exactly what Danny had done. Chunky Monkey. Bobby’s favorite.
No cajoling. No pestering. Just a tub of ice cream and a spoon.
“I don’t care where he was born,” the other Bobby said. “He’s your brother.”
“Wait a minute,” Bobby said. “If you didn’t have a Danny, how could that have happened to you?”
“It didn’t.” His eyes grew sad. “When I learned how to see across the timelines, I found him. Danny. My brother, too. I wanted to know what he was like. See if he was happy. See what his Bobby Decker was like.” He stepped closer. “You’re a good brother. I like the way you look after him.”
He nudged Bobby. “Plus, from a genetic standpoint, no one on this planet would be able to tell he wasn’t the Danny Decker who was born here.”
Wait. That had been worded carefully. “No one on this planet?”
“And now you’re thinking like someone who will survive the next eight years.” The other Bobby smiled. He finished his drink.
“And after that?”
“I can’t speak to what happens after my time.”Other Bobby moved a few feet away. He pointed at the box. “But I’m serious. Reveal that secret ahead of time, and everyone you know will suffer and die.”
Bobby shivered. He’d seen proof of that already.
Other Bobby met Bobby’s gaze. “Things are going to suck for a while. But in the long run. . . well, the long run I know. . . it all works out.” White lightening flashed around him. “As long as you don’t mess it up.”
The expanse flared a dazzling bright white!
Bobby closed his eyes and spread his feet, lowered into a crouch. Something yanked him backward, then threw him forward. All the breath wheezed out of his lungs, and he coughed.
Bam! But he managed to stay on his feet! Yes! Other Bobby must not have had tai kwon do.
Holy crap! What had he seen?
Bobby spun around.
He was back in Grandpa Oliver’s house.
Dad’s eyes drifted to the glass in Bobby’s hand. “That must be why I heard you coughing.”
Dad held up a hand. “Don’t freak out, son of mine.” He joined Bobby in the bathroom, reaching out. “But I’d not let your grandparents know.”
Bobby gave over the glass.
Dad sniffed. He raised an eyebrow. “You found the good stuff?” Then his brow furrowed. “Where’d you get the glass?”
Uh… what…? No criticism for drinking?
Dad chuckled and pulled Bobby into a one-armed hug. “Never outside the home, and never your friends.” He ruffled Bobby’s hair. “We don’t know what their parents think.” Dad swirled the glass. “I know Europe has completely different rules, but this is the US.” He sipped the drink. “I trust your judgment.” He squeezed Bobby. “And I never want you to think you have to keep secrets from me.”
Secrets? So many secrets.
He could never tell Dad about the Doppelganger from another universe. He’d seen the results. He’d seen his father, a fly-riddled corpse.
Not that. Not ever that.
Bobby clutched Dad closer. “I’m gay,” he blurted into his dad’s shoulder.
Dad held him all the tighter. He set down the glass and stroked Bobby’s hair. “I kind of figured, son. I kind of figured. I hope to God you know that doesn’t change a single thing about how much I love you.”
And that was what Bobby had wanted to hear.
What he’d been afraid to want.
Nax had punched him.
His dad kissed the top of his head.
That’s all that mattered.
And all the new info about Danny?
Who cared? Danny was his brother.
Nothing would change that, either.
“Is that a new shirt?” Dad asked.
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 in my head. 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 slur my words appropriately, holding 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, anyway?
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.”
“Quantum?” Peter and Turner say simultaneously, exchanging 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.
Hmmmm, 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 ask, feigning 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 asks, sitting. “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,” she says, “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?” she asks. “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?” she asks 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?” she asks, but 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?”
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,” the leader said. “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 in one hand. He jumped down to the street and held out his free 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?” Turner asks.
“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 mess with the radio that hides my 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 radio. The weird static sounds all kinds of wrong.
Fuck. What am I even thinking?
Fuck him. Why even call? Why even…
I lift the radio from the table. 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 radio 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.
Turner stopped on the dingy street outside Decker’s dirty apartment building. She pulled out her compact and opened it, ready to request transport back to the ship.
Laughter, just around the corner!
She pursed her lips and looked into the compact mirror this way and that, pretending to check her makeup, as a pair of females, pale skinned and blonde, rounded the corner. She met their gaze and smiled.
They frowned and looked away. Odd.
No matter. Turner opened her mouth to speak, but a glimpse of her reflection stopped her.
Time Police. Some sort of temporal rebellion…? And she just happened to stumble into all that? Coincidence? Not likely.
“What a beautiful young woman,” a male voice said behind her. “Would you care to accompany me into the nearby alley for conjugal relations?”
She spun. An adult male, indeterminate age, stood facing her with a long sword. The long, ethnic hairstyle intrigued her.
“Excuse me?” she said.
The male cocked his head to one side, as if listening to translator microbes. Hm. Offworlder. Likely his first time on this planet. Interesting.
“So sorry.” He smiled. “Into the alley, lady, or you’re fucked.”
Ah! That made more sense. Aggressive threats were something she knew how to process. Compliance with his demand would afford her time to formulate a plan, so she headed down the alley. “What do you plan to do with that primitive weapon against an agent of the Galactic Police?” Safely out of view of the city street, she turned to face her abductor, Doohickey poised to vaporize him if need be.
The male shrugged and lowered his sword. “The sword was just to get your attention, Turner,” the man said, “and the language error was to lull you into complacency.”
What? A trap! Had to be!
Blue light swirled around her.
“Fire,” she commanded the Doohickey. “Disintegrate.”
A red beam lanced out of her Doohickey… but slowly. She could actually see the beam as it left the compact and sluggishly wandered toward her abductor.
The man smiled, but slowly. Oh, so slowly….
Time had slowed down. Must have.
I’m so sorry to have to abduct you, Agent Turner, a familiar voice said inside her head, But my experiences with you indicate you’d just talk me to death before accepting the inevitable.
Inevitable? And that voice. She knew that voice.
You know what, Decker? she called out in her mind. You just made the biggest mistake of your life!
Later that day, I stand in the shadows of a familiar alley, an even more familiar rifle in hand and goggles inside my suitcase.
I mean, why take chances?
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 heft Leighton’s old piece 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. Dos 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 shout, climbing 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. We’d each saved the other’s life more than once.
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.
And then he’d betrayed me.
Three years have passed since he betrayed me, left me for dead. 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, maybe the years fighting together should make up for one cruel action.
Nah. Fuck it. I hate him.
So what did he do? 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.
Fuck him and every damn breath he’d ever taken in his lifetime.
He doesn’t fight back. He takes the blows passively. He lets me crush him.
And when I’m done… when the anger expends itself. He just stares at me the way he 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 sold us out.
Three years have passed, 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,” he says. “I deserve it for vanishing like that.”
“Vanishing?” I ask. “That’s all you’re willing to admit? Vanishing? Seriously?”
His brow furrows. “What else?”
I close my eyes. What else? Leaving me to die, maybe, killing hundreds of innocent souls.
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,” he says. “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.”
“All this time you thought I tried to kill you,” he says. “And that I blew up a ship full of civilians.”
And I’m not so sure I believe his very convenient explanations, now.
Damn it. But what’s really going on? Repentance 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, and I see it in his eyes. He wants to talk about the past, but knows better than to push me on it. Not when there’s a job to do. “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,” he says.
“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?” I demand. 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.”
“Why me?” I demand.
“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, we’ll work out the rest of it later, but, 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?” he asks.
“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,” he says.
“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.
How does all of this add up?
“I would give you the box, Danny Decker,” Leighton says, a hint of a smile about his eyes, “but I do not have it.”
Wait. What? No way! It’s what the old man is supposed to say to Danny right before my doppleganger from that timeline hands him the box. It’s the signal I’d given the doppelganger to know it was time.
No one is supposed to know about that but me, the Bird Lady, and the doppleganger Bobby.
“How the hell do you know–” I demand.
There’s that godsdamned knowing smile. Because Leighton is always one step ahead of me.
Fuck. The old man was Leighton.
I shake my head. “No way.”
But I look more carefully….
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 shrugged. “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–“
“It does other things, too,” I mutter.
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?” I ask.
“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.”
Then the hologram…. it flickers. What?
“Cheap Doohickey?” I ask.
But the confusion on his face contradicts me.
And the world has gone silent.
Not quiet. Silent.
Blue lights flicker around us. They swirl.
What the hell?
But Leighton… his face. Shocked. Fucking shocked! He knows what’s happening.
“Oh, fuck me, we’re screwed!” He grabs me and pulls me tight.
The universe turns inside out.
… 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
Wesley de la Rosa is a model/actor/personal trainer and parkour coach who does it all. I personally have benefited from his training so I can attest to his prowess. I have lost four inches on my waist! I was thrilled that he was willing to engage in this project. And if you need a model… he’s all pro! @wesleyrunner493 on Instagram.