The intruder entered the event window at 8 minutes and 57 seconds.
I crouched in the linen closet, my augmented hearing cranked up to painful levels. Dr. Cora Taylor was showering in the nearby master bedroom and that noise almost covered the metallic scrape of the intruder popping the lock on the patio door. Almost.
It had to be her. This was the last accessible temporal nexus prior to the 2028 nuclear attack on Seoul, and the intruder and I both knew it. She must intervene here, in 2025, when a violent electrical storm has pummeled nearby San Diego and opened a fifteen-minute event window.
My team studied this nexus for six months. We combed through the temporal fabric around the event window, found it taut as the sails of square-rigger running before a hurricane. It was a clear sign someone had tried to translate in using a poorly calibrated platform. But the Agency audit showed no sanctioned activity here.
The Agency has always controlled translation technology with an absolute fervor, lest someone discover its secrets and threaten its dominion over the authorized timeline. We temporal support personnel lived under equal scrutiny. Once you joined the Agency, your retirement options were banishment to a remote island or death.
The intruder had taken another option. Ten years ago, she’d failed to come home for dinner. She wasn’t in her office, or anywhere else within the facility. Somehow, she’d managed to disappear. While the Agency viewed the situation as a failed espionage attempt, I took her disappearance as a personal betrayal of our marriage vows.
They hunted her for years. She was eventually declared missing, presumed dead. The squeak of the patio door sliding across its muddy aluminum track told a different story.
I’d kept an ember of hope burning this past decade, saying nothing, but watching and listening, pouring over every scrap of intel. When the report for this nexus appeared in my feed, that hope flared magnesium bright.
My team submitted a mission plan, which called for a single agent to translate back. A full intervention team and their gear, I argued, would likely rupture the already stressed temporal fabric.
The Agency agreed and asked for a volunteer.
I put my name forward. As the team’s leader, it was my risk to take. I also didn’t trust anyone else to deal with this unauthorized traveler, though I kept that thought to myself.
They reviewed my psych records but there was nothing beyond the mild depression common in our ranks. There was also no indication of suicidality or any other disqualifiers. They gave me the task.
Fortunately for us, Dr. Taylor lived in a period of unprecedented voluntary surveillance. We easily located a floor plan of her condo and constructed a highly accurate behavioral algorithm based on her phone’s GPS, her shopping patterns, and her social media activity. I knew how long it took her to dress. I knew she preferred to buy lunch rather than pack a sandwich. And because there was only a five-percent chance she would access this closet today, the Agency built a translation platform in 2064, aligned to this exact point, where Dr. Taylor kept spare beach towels.
I armed myself, stepped onto the platform, and translated downtime.
* * *
The shower cut off, the wind shifted, and in the relative quiet the intruder’s footsteps echoed loudly. They passed through the kitchen and into the study without hesitation.
When Dr. Taylor switched on her hair dryer, I dialed back my hearing and tiptoed downstairs. Drawers opened and closed in the study. I eased through the doorway and pointed my stunner at the intruder’s back.
“Raise your hands very slowly and turn around,” I said quietly. She complied. Dr. Taylor’s gun lockbox sat on the desk behind her. Inside was a .32 revolver, which she’d purchased after an attempted carjacking.
“Hello, Cora,” I said. She was much, much older than I remembered, her hair white and her face drawn. Years on the run without rejuv drugs had taken their toll on the physicist.
“Dan,” she said, her shoulders slumping. “How did you get here?”
“The storm gave us an opening. The same one you used.” I examined her spine, curved by osteoporosis. “How did you build a platform?”
“It wasn’t easy. And everything took longer than I thought.” She held up a liver-spotted hand. “I had to teach myself the engineering and print the components in secret. I honestly wasn’t sure it would work, especially given how many years I had to translate.”
I gestured toward the lockbox. “Did you think you could kill her? Kill yourself?”
“She isn’t me, really,” she said. “And even if I believe she is, I can’t let her finish the work.”
“She has to.” I kept my voice calm, thinking of the closing event window. “If she doesn’t, the Agency won’t exist. And a lot of people will die.”
She frowned. “Like Michael.”
“I’m sorry about that. Truly.” Seven years from now, in the authorized timeline, I would sabotage a military transport. It would crash outside of Beijing, killing several high-ranking party members and 36 bystanders, including Michael Wu, Dr. Taylor’s future lover in a different timeline.
“He was innocent.”
I nodded. “He was. And so are the two million people who will burn if China smuggles a nuclear weapon into South Korea. The authorized timeline must be preserved.” I triggered my weapon. The stunner overloaded her nervous system and she dropped to the floor, strings cut.
I returned the lockbox to its drawer.
The platform arrived upstairs with a smell of ozone. The wind rose in pitch, and the lights went out.
The event window had only thirty-nine seconds remaining. Barely enough time for one person, let alone two.
I hefted her limp body and ran.
Karl Dandenell’s short science fiction and fantasy stories have appeared in numerous publications, websites, and podcasts in England, Canada, and the US. He and his family, plus their cat overlords, live on an island near San Francisco famous for its Victorian architecture, accessible beaches, and low-speed traffic. His preferred drinks are strong tea and single malt whiskey. You can find him online on his blog (www.firewombats.com) and lurking on Twitter (@kdandenell) and Mastodon (@karldandenell)
If you enjoyed this story by Karl, be sure to check out “The Carpetbagger’s Ball” in SHOWCASE #1 and “The Last Feast of Silas the Wizard” in Stupefying Stories #23.
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