“You made it.” The man reached over for a handshake.
Kin almost didn’t. The night before had been a blur of staring at the ceiling waiting for some further sign of the TCB, followed by strange, too-real dreams of a mysterious woman silhouetted against the backdrop of a futuristic cityscape, something straight out of Heather’s movie collection. After that, he’d spent all morning debating whether to show up for this clandestine meeting, while dodging questions from Heather about what was bothering him. Rather than go to work, he’d driven to a park two blocks away from Noble Mott Café and sat.
Ignore the text. Go to the meeting. Confront the man. Sneak up on him and knock him out. Lure him out for interrogation. Play along and act happy to see him.
Run. Pack up Heather, Miranda, and Bamford and run like hell.
The ultimate choice seemed logical: meet the man, find out what he wanted, then reassess. Then execute. And keep his emotions at bay. This required clarity.
Kin approached the café and then the table, keeping his arms at his side while he studied the man. Gone was the delivery uniform, the disguise of choice in residential areas, replaced by gray pants and a black jacket—standard-issue casual clothing for mission events in public places, a look that blended in easily during nearly any modern era.
He knew that. Where did he pick up that detail? And why wasn’t his head pounding him into submission at remembering it?
“Okay, then,” the man said, pulling his hand back. “Guess we’re gonna have to work back up to that. Sorry about disappearing on you last night. I heard someone coming so I got out of there. Sit down?” Processing the coffee shop interior, Kin noted four other people, three customers scattered along chairs and couches and one person behind the counter. All of them remained out of earshot, which probably was a good thing, what with the whole timeline corruption thing. If they overheard, would this man get a demerit on his record? “Agent visualization method, huh?”
Was it that obvious? Kin thought he still had all his agent skills, but time must have worn away his ability to be subtle. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
“Right, the whole ‘silently darting eyes’ is actually you contemplating life, huh?” He laughed. “You field agents think you’re so clever. ‘Assess and execute,’” he said, his fingers forming quotes in the air. “You know what I love about era twenty-one-A?” He held up his paper coffee cup, a little dribble forming a dark brown trail down the side. “The coffee. So much better here. I only wish they wouldn’t look at me strange when I asked for honey in it.”
Coffee with honey. Heather hated the aroma of Kin pouring honey into his coffee. She wouldn’t like cafés in the future. “So, you are TCB.”
“And we’re eighteen years late.” The man’s downturned mouth and low-pulled shoulders gave off an air of regret. Kin didn’t need to be an active secret agent to figure that out. “Look at me. Really concentrate.” The man pointed to his face. “You know this. It’s just gotta wake up.”
The details were the same as last night in the yard. And something new… .
Markus. His name was Markus. Markus…something. A retriever agent.
Kin winced, almost out of reflex. He expected his temples to be pounding. Instead, no sudden tension took over, no stinging on the side of his head. He sat back in his chair, the ease of the memory causing a creeping anxiety. “Your name is Markus. People like you arrive when the mission ends. You verify the result and bring the time-jump accelerator to take us home.”
“Good. No headache?”
“Anything to note since last night? More headaches, fewer headaches, dizzy spells?”
“I had a dream last night. It was vivid. Real. But distant.” Flashes came back to him, details of the dream suddenly snapping into his mind’s eye. A woman he didn’t recognize, her random words played back—was that an English accent? Her face came into focus, round cheeks and expressive eyes and dark brown hair. Applause surrounded them, but from who? The way she looked at him with such certainty in her eyes—but why?
And a feeling. Of what specifically, he couldn’t tell, but something tangible was there.
“REM sensitivity due to hyperactivity in the cerebral cortex. Side effect of this,” Markus said, reaching into his bag on the floor. “Can you tell me what this is?”
Markus held up a thin chrome tube between his thumb and forefinger. The same thing he pulled out last night.
A metabolizer injection.
“Metabolizers. The injection slows the body’s metabolism rate, reducing cell decay and extending the human life span to an average of…” Numbers flew through his mind, the details just out of reach. “Two hundred? Something like that. Annual long-form treatments starting at age eighteen. TCB agents get additional boosters to protect themselves against the body’s reaction to time travel. Time-jumping without the additional boosters create a destabilizing effect on a cellular level.” The words spilled out of Kin’s mouth, an encyclopedia rattling off details without any filter. Another memory flashed through his mind, not of injections, but rather the page in his journal with notes on this. “That’s why you look so young and I look the way I do.” Markus nodded at the observation. “There was some more technical stuff behind it. I think I never learned it.”
“Excellent. Yes, vivid dreams are part of the body’s acclimation process to metabolizers. Your body’s starting fresh. Memories will start to return. Can’t say which ones or when, or even why some disappeared and some didn’t. They have a theory about it, like why you may be missing some personal details.”
Kin’s eyebrow raised reflexively. “Try all personal details.”
“All. Really?” Markus’s complexion shifted, as did his balance in his seat. His mouth pursed and he looked everywhere in the room except at the person sitting across from him. “Well, if I knew what was happening in your brain, I’d be a rich doctor, not the guy who gives you a ride back to the future.”
“You gave that injection to me. Last night.”
“I did. And I’m sorry about the whole natural aging thing. You probably reverted to that about a year after you landed. Oh, and—” Markus reached into his bag again “—I did my job,” he said, producing the missing beacon. “Except I usually retrieve the beacon by bringing the person home. Guess you could say it’s an out-of-body experience.” Markus’s laughter at his own joke quickly stopped when Kin didn’t react. “Anyway, that’s a first. Congratulations, Kin, you’ll be part of official training material from now on.”
Benign details started to trickle back—facts, professional tidbits, bits and pieces that could have been taken from a dossier. Nothing about whether or not they were friends, though judging by Markus’s polite-but-neutral demeanor, Kin figured not.
“Listen, I can’t tell you anything. You have to awaken the memories yourself through exposure. Without metabolizers to support it, the human brain can’t sustain two time periods. It buries the information, focusing only one era. Forcing it causes the headaches. Force it too much and it incapacitates you, creates seizures. Give the metabolizer some time. We should review any mission specifics you can remember. Think about it. I’m getting a pastry. You want anything?”
Kin refused to mention his weakness for chocolate chip cookies. Markus took the hint, then walked the long way around the coffee shop, keeping measured distance from anyone sitting at a table or a barista cleaning a spill. It reignited little tidbits of agent protocols—walk out of the path of others, only get in line when there’s no one else around, avoid foot traffic as much as possible. All these rules, all designed to dance around being inserted into another time and minimize corruption on the job.
He buried his head in his hands for what seemed like minutes, partially to stem the oncoming torrent of awakening facts and figures and partially to squelch the panic that arrived when he thought about explaining this all to Heather.
“I got this for you,” Markus said, putting a chocolate chip cookie in a folded napkin on the table.
“So, the target? Our political interloper?” Markus bit into his muffin with a satisfied mmm.
“Eliminated. Can’t remember much.”
“Damaged. The target shot me—shot the beacon while inside my body. I didn’t have metabolizers to boost the healing process. It got infected. I felt its parts whenever I moved. It was remove it or let it take me down.”
“The bullet must have hit the transmitter before emergency power sent the final ping. One-in-a-million shot. You had it removed? Black market doctor?”
“No. I cut it out of myself.”
Kin couldn’t tell if Markus’s unblinking eyes meant he was horrified or impressed. Perhaps both.
“I broke into an animal hospital and stole anesthetic, painkillers, morphine, antibiotics, stitches, that sort of thing. Medicine in this era still requires external support. And then I sat down and did it. Half an inch beneath the skin, in the fatty tissue below the left rib cage. When I realized the TCB wasn’t coming, I had to. Same reason I dismantled my equipment and got a job.” Kin leaned back in his seat, trying not to show surprise at the vividness of his recall. “The beacon’s dead. How did you locate it? How did you find me?”
“In my time, it’s been two weeks since you left. Standard detection span for your two-week mission. I came to work, activated the beacon sensor, and got a ping at this geotemporal location. Detected yesterday afternoon at sixteen forty-one. Right geography, wrong year, but we have to go to the point of detection. It’s pretty beat-up, so something must have jarred one last transmission out of it.”
Sixteen forty-one. Four forty-one in the afternoon. The garage. Heather’s car. There was a flash and a high-pitched noise.
He’d dismissed it as headache fragments.
The car’s impact must have mashed a circuit closed for a split second, just long enough to fire off a signal before becoming disabled again. “What if it never transmitted? If it stayed dead?”
“There are no instances of MIA agents since the subcutaneous beacon was introduced in 2122. Trust me, I looked last night. One hundred percent recovery rate. Emergency power, fail-safes, that sort of thing, even if the agent was killed. Before that, when it was an external device, the protocol for nontransmission was to send the retriever and a backup agent to the end-of-mission date and scout for anomalous activity, then bring the agent home.”
“You mean if you didn’t detect a signal from last night—”
“I would have showed up at the end of your mission span. Two weeks after you arrived in 1996. But because of the beacon signal, I had to come now, not then. We have our rules to follow.”
“But…you know now. You know I’ve been stuck for eighteen years. Why not just jump back to 1996 and grab me?”
“That’d grandfather the mission. And you know how the TCB hates grandfathers. Besides, Paradox Prevention agents are really weird people.” Grandfathers. It took a few seconds for Kin to grasp what he meant—a grandfather paradox. If the TCB rescued him before Miranda, before Heather, arriving eighteen years ago with the knowledge they had now, that would have aborted the beacon ping sent from Kin’s garage. This meant a theoretical chain reaction, preventing Markus from ever arriving, thus never discovering the information with the 1996 rescue information in the first place. They’d create a grandfather paradox, possibly undoing the space-time continuum and sending them all into oblivion. Or something like that; Kin never knew if that was merely bureaucratic obfuscation to keep mission planners and agents in line. “So, you’ll have to answer for getting a job in this era. They’ll run their temporal scans to check for any timeline deltas. As long as your presence hasn’t killed presidents or toppled governments, you’ll hopefully only get a stern lecture, debrief and full medical scan after the jump.”
Mission details. Even with the metabolizer surfacing memories, getting together a debriefing would be difficult—
Markus must have read the sudden change in his face. “I reported the situation after last night’s encounter,” he said, his words slowing down, “then waited for the metabolizer to kick in. Mission Control and the assistant director debated how to handle this. The AD decided to give you today to close out your affairs, remove your temporal footprint. Quit your job, give notice to your landlord. You should inform people that you’re moving. Unexplained disappearances create more problems. Our Logistics team will also hack some records for final cleanup.”
“Of the house you’re renting. I assume, what, you’ve got the basement apartment of that family’s home? Property ownership is a timeline corruption, obviously. You know the rules.”
Kin’s teeth gritted, grinding against each other. They didn’t know. Tell the truth. Lie. Avoid the question. What would cause the least damage?
The truth was too important to lose out.
“I own it,” he said at a deliberate pace, “with my wife. Heather.” Markus’s expression changed, the slight smirk he’d had all this time falling into slanted lips and wide eyes. “We live there with our daughter. Miranda.”
No words came between them, only the surrounding din of coffee cups and espresso steamers. Seconds passed, possibly minutes, the whole time Markus remaining exactly still until finally breaking the silence.
“That’s, um.” His fingers rubbed his temples, though he probably suffered from a different type of headache than Kin’s usual ones. “That’s a problem.”
“You left me here for eighteen years. What was I supposed to do? Stay isolated forever?”
“No person could do that.”
“Those are the rules we signed up for. Protocol Eleven Twenty-Three. Besides, what about P—” Markus stopped short. A frown marked his face, and despite the youthful appearance of his metabolizer-enhanced body, his eyes showed a seriousness that betrayed his true age. “I have to update Mission Control,” he said after several seconds. He pulled out a tablet—the same tablet from yesterday, as far as Kin could tell—and began tapping away at the lit screen. “I’m sending an email.”
Kin scoffed. “Email is ancient history in 2142.”
“Right. Sorry. Figure of speech. Keeping up the era-specific terminology, you know?” The thin line between Markus’s lips twisted, forming an uneven crack that zigged and zagged. His eyes shot downward, drawn to the wood table rather than the person sitting across it. “This situation needs further input.”
Each word burrowed deep down into Kin, pushing so far inside that drawing air felt like willpower of the highest order. He stared straight ahead, nothing else existing except for a clear understanding of the TCB’s capabilities.
“Elimination,” he finally said through gritted teeth. “You’re talking about elimination.”
A flush came to Kin’s cheeks, burning with such warmth that it radiated to his palms as he rubbed his face. “But it’s on the table, isn’t it?” He stared at Markus, a new list of options zooming through his mind, all of them offering the most drastic of responses.
“We’re not assassins. We’re a security agency. We have protocol.”
“Can you guarantee their safety?”
“I—” Markus hesitated, then stared straight out the window. “I will try my best.” The word best never felt so empty. Kin’s fingers drummed across his thigh, and he scanned the coffee shop again for any notable changes since he sat down. “This discussion might take a while. My advice? Stay away from your family. It’s safer that way for now. I can’t promise anything. Knowing Mission Control, they’ll probably hammer on noninterference.” He blew out a sigh, then tapped his tablet—a standard iPad. This one, though, was probably brought back to 2142 and commissioned by Resources for use in era-appropriate missions. “I’ll find you when I know more.”
The gravity of Markus’s words set in, launching Kin’s pulse into a breathless rhythm. His feet welded to the floor, flat, and his neck tensed, as if a string pulled everything taut. “You can’t make me stay away from them.”
For the first time since they’d met, Markus matched Kin’s steely ire. “Tell me about your job. What you do.”
Kin gave a matter-of-fact answer, although he didn’t know why it mattered. “I manage network security for Gold Free Games. Free-to-play MMO games, ‘build your empire’ or ‘raise your farm’ type of stuff…” He stopped when it became clear that the Research department didn’t brief retrievers on the era’s gaming fads. “Deal with a lot of hackers. I reverse engineer a lot to see how they covered up their tracks and—”
“No, see, that’s where you’re wrong. You’re a Temporal Crimes field agent for the TCB. You don’t manage networks. You don’t reverse engineer anything. Not anymore. You abide by Protocol Eleven Twenty-Three. That is your job. Stay away from everything else—all of it—until I contact you. I will do what I can to keep your family safe.” He returned to the tablet, eyes narrowing as he stared at the screen. “Don’t forget your cookie.”
Kin watched Markus for several seconds before blurting out the first thing that came to mind. “At least give me one bit of my past. Something, anything.”
“Okay. Fair enough.” Markus bit into his muffin, chewing in contemplation. “Do you remember your name?”
“Kin Stewart. Kin Luther Stewart.”
“No. Your first name is Quinoa. When you were born, the trend was food-inspired names. You’ve always hated it, which is why you’ve always insisted on going by Kin.”“No. Your first name is Quinoa. When you were born, the trend was food-inspired names. You’ve always hated it, which is why you’ve always insisted on going by Kin.”
The very mention of the fact prompted a familiar sting to the side of Kin’s head, not nearly as bad as before, but enough to demonstrate what Markus meant about being told information. “That’s funny,” Kin finally said, his voice reduced to a dry gravel. “Quinoa was a big part of my recipe last night.”
“You cook? Oh. That’s…” The harsh creases of Markus’s expression lightened, almost forming a smile before returning to its serious default. “That’s interesting. And you kept your name.”
“At first, it was to give the TCB something to track me by.” The vibrancy of the memory surprised Kin, and those facts didn’t seem to exist a mere day ago. “It just stuck. You meet people, become part of their lives. It’s not like you can change your name without people noticing.”
Markus huffed out a breath, a sullen air taking over his demeanor. He opened his mouth, lips hovering without anything coming out until he straightened up and shot out a few quick words. “Regardless, you should get moving.”
Kin stood up, playing out the scenarios in his mind. Negotiate. Bribe. Lead him outside to incapacitate him or—eliminate. Was he even capable of doing that?
All the different possibilities, the various ways he might be able to work with the TCB, ran through his mind. But his gut told him something different.
Those options, those assumed that the TCB was even willing to negotiate, listen. Any guarantees he felt were merely speculation, conjecture based on half-filled memories and nostalgia.
No, keeping his family safe meant taking matters into his own hands, not even giving the TCB the opportunity to do or say anything.
He needed to move quickly. Time was not on his side.
“What do you think will happen?”
“I don’t know. They will have to decide.”
They. Markus said it so casually, like it was just another mission, just another decision.
This wasn’t. This was his family. This was his decision.
A paranoia surfaced, bringing anxiety and suspicion with everything he saw. If Markus blended in, who else might be here? How else could they monitor a whole family of timeline corruptions?
Kin walked out of the coffee shop, his pace picking up with each step. At this point, there was only one way to stay ahead of the TCB: run.