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Displaced I: The Exchange

By Kevin Provance All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Adventure

XXIII - Rediscovery

“The act of discovering again.”

*

Date: Friday, January 13, 1989

Location: ES-1 Exit hatch, Arthur Avenue location, Eldersburg, Maryland

Age: 35 (Current)

*

I

There was an inch or so discrepancy between our feet and the ground when we came through the temporal portal. We stumbled collectively. The environment was the same, with the exception of the air. It was much, much colder now. January in Maryland is like that.

The euphoria from the TS-14 medication disappeared as well. I noticed when this happened, especially when its absence was sudden, I was left feeling anxious and a mildly cranky. I feared these were symptoms of physical withdraw from addiction. I hadn’t mentioned it to Connor or Krissie yet, as I suspected it might present a problem. Truthfully, part of me did not want to. I liked the way it made me feel.

Connor flipped his communicator open, tapping in data. Several seconds passed before it finally chirped back. Luke’s tired and disoriented voice questioned the caller. I think we woke the poor bastard up. “Do you come as a stranger?”

“I come as a friend,” Connor replied. “Yet things are not as they appear.”

“TDI-1?” Luke asked.

“Copy FCAL-2. My group is waiting below the basement hatch. Would you please unlock it?”

“Do you understand what time it is, TDI-1?”

“I do not,” Connor said. “Is it late?”

“No, it is early. It is not even five of the clock in the morning.”

“I’m sorry, Luke. I didn’t know. Are you able to open the hatch for us?”

“Copy,” Luke replied. “I will need to apply a DNA verification test before you may enter. It is protocol.”

“Understood.” Connor covered the communicator with his hand. “We knew this was coming. In this time, Chief Manyette’s DNA is already in the database.”

“Why a DNA check? Why not the retinal scanner?”

“I don’t know. He may not have one. That method of identification, DNA scanning, was protocol before we figured out how the Brüder retinal scanners worked. It’s just as reliable, only older.” Connor paused, smiling in spite of himself. “We still have lots of it we haven’t figured out yet, Brüder technology.”

I was tempted to ask what other kids of tools they might have, but the hatch disappeared before I could. Luke peered over, Impüls in hand. “One at a time please,” he said. “You first, Detective.”

Connor climbed the ladder and allowed Luke to verify his identity. The process was not unlike the retinal scanner. Instead of scanning the eye, the subject’s places their finger within a handheld device. Connor passed without incident. I went next, climbing up the ladder and into the sub room. Luke put considerable effort into refurbish the entire area. Instead of a dirty hole in the ground, a full-fledged room took its place, clean in appearance, albeit empty.

“Name?” Luke asked.

“Kevin Pro--, sorry Christopher Manyette,” I said, realizing my verbal faux pas. History as I knew it happened without any forethought. The answer and my correction of it came and went without effort. A small grin crept across my face at the phenomenon. Luke flashed me a look of uncertainty. Perhaps he thought I was lying. He looked at Connor, who nodded in approval. The scan of Manyette’s finger passed without issue. Ryan was last, and passed as well.

We walked into my father’s former workshop, now a fully finished hobby room with carpet and sheet rock walls. I didn’t recognize it as the unfinished dirty hole it used to be. Luke casually set the scanning device on a nearby table and yawned. “How may I be of service to you gentlemen with this morning?”

I answered, using the same authoritative persona that was Chief Manyette. “We’re here to retrieve the 2025 quarter on behalf of the FCA.”

Luke nodded. “After all this time, they are finally moving it to a new location?”

“Yes sir,” I replied. The door to the workroom was no longer present. The stairwell to the upstairs portion of the house also benefitted from a much-needed overhaul. In my youth, it was a hard wood surface in poor shape. Plush carpet now covered each step with a white handrail to compliment. I walked across the width of the stairs into the laundry room and knelt down behind the stairwell. The board across the back of the bottom step popped off without effort, revealing my childhood ‘special hiding place’. Time had not disturbed its contents. Two matchbox cars I assumed lost after we moved sat facing each other. Also left behind, a half empty stale pack of Hubba Bubba and finally, the FutureQuarter. A fine layer of dust covered everything. I picked up the quarter and fingered the dust off it. It felt good to hold it in my hand again. It felt…right. I put the coin into my pocket and rejoined the group in Luke’s hobby room.

Connor looked up from the floor. “Was it there?”

“Yes sir.”

“Fantastic,” Connor said with enthusiasm. He turned to Luke. “I hate to leave to soon, but we have other things to attend to, pressing matters.”

“I understand.”

The three of us regressed into the underground tunnel. Connor called up, “We leave as friends.”

“Safe journey, TDI-1.” The red holographic force field that comprised the hatch reappeared, sealing us off from the house.

We stood there, visible only from the harsh red light of the force field. Connor looked at me, suggesting the next words spoken should be mine.

“What?” I asked. “What do we do now?”

“You tell us,” Connor said, stuffing his hands into his pants. Offhandedly I realized he changed them since the debacle at Area 51. I suppose it would’ve been unfashionable to walk around with blood smears all over ones pants.

“I don’t know what to do next,” I said. “We have the FutureQuarter. So, do we take it back to the base?”

“No,” Connor said, placing his hands on my shoulders. “Something happens from here that puts the quarter in the hands of your seventeen year old counterpart, and somehow Chief Manyette of this time index is involved.”

“Those times Manyette spoke of earlier today, I can’t remember them,” I said, feeling culpable over my amnesia. “If I knew, I would tell you.”

“Chief Manyette remembers,” Connor said, gently squeezing my shoulders. “You can read them, his memories, and tell us where to go.”

“I don’t know how!” I said, raising my voice in frustration. “Connor, three days ago when I found this fucking quarter, I had no idea any of this would be in my future. I’m almost sorry I wanted to get involved.”

Ryan nodded. “I tried to tell you.”

Connor tossed Ryan a doubtful glance and focused back on me. “It might be true, what Ryan said, but with everything you and I have gone through, you should know by now everything is supposed to be happening, what we are doing. You are supposed to be here. Try to remember. Study the quarter. Focus on it. Any memory he has of it, the Chief, you can see. Then you’ll understand.”

Connor put his arms down as I dug the quarter out of my pocket. I held it on the palm of my hand and studied its every detail. The numbers 2 0 2 5.

Shh, calm us friend. Dying cynic dimmer, we see Earth Shinin’!

I closed my eyes.

“It has to be a fake,” Manyette says. He’s pissed Kevin would try to dupe him like this just after that deep conversation about religion.

“It doesn’t look fake to me,” Kevin says.

I opened my eyes as wide as they would go. “Wait…Manyette thinks the quarter is a fake. I disagree. He’s upset with me as he thinks the whole thing is a rouse.”

Connor looked encouraged. “Good, keep going. It should all come back soon.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and clenched my fist with the quarter inside, as if I might remember something through osmosis.

Shh, calm us friend. Dying cynic dimmer, we see Earth Shinin’!

Manyette says, “Since I think you set this whole thing up yourself Kevin, I want to pick the next location where we’ll hide something after you build your time machine. Because once you do, I want to be in on it.”

“Please Christopher,” Kevin says. “Go for it.” Manyette is pissed. He’s upset because he thinks Kevin knows something.

“Manyette thinks I set the whole thing up,” I said, eyes still shut. “We’d been talking about time travel, and whether or not it was possible. I said I’d go ahead a few hundred years to see if we ever discovered other life in the universe.” Ryan chuckled at the irony. “Manyette challenges me he would like to see me try. Hold on…”

Shh, calm us friend. Dying cynic dimmer, we see Earth Shinin’!

Kevin says, “Let’s say at a later date if time travel is possible, I’ll take advantage of it and come back here before class starts and leave myself a message, something under that loose tile at the far end of the heating unit in the back of the room. So now, since I already did that, whatever I left should be under that tile.”

Manyette says, “Okay. I’ll play along, let’s go see whatever you planted up there before class started.”

“Planted?” Kevin asks, standing up. “How was I supposed to know this conversation would come up?”

“C’mon, I want to go see if anything is up there,” Manyette says. “Since you claim time travel is impossible in this dimension, there should be nothing up there.”

We are at the rear of the classroom. Manyette says, “What did you put under that tile, Kev? A message foretelling the end of the world?”

“Why do you keep calling me Kev?”

“Because it’s your name.”

“Since I’ve known you, you’ve always called me by my last name. We all do that, right?” I asked Myer. He nodded. “What changed? Do you have a split personality?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about dude, we’re just chillaxing here, right?”

Kevin gives me an odd look, then picks up the tile to reveal a quarter. He picks it up. I nod in approval.

Myer stares at the coin in disbelief. “Neat trick,” he says. “How did you do that?”

“It’s just a quarter,” Manyette says. “For all we know it’s been under there for years.”

Kevin scoffs, studying the quarter. “I’ll bet it’s not even below eighty-eight.” His eyes widen as he holds it up. Myer leaned over for a closer look. “What does it say?”

“Um…it’s not even a real quarter,” Kevin says. “It’s got a future date on it.”

“What did you say?” Manyette whispers.

Kevin show me the coin. “2025.”

I FOUND IT!

“Wow,” I said in a whisper. “I teased Manyette that I would leave something in the room, under an old tile. When we looked, the FutureQuarter was there. Manyette is way too excited over it. Weird.”

“Do you know when this happens, Kevin?” Connor asked.

I pressed my lips together and nodded. “Later today. January 13, 1989. It stands out for Manyette because it’s Friday the 13th.”

Ryan held his hand out to interrupt the dialogue. “You mean to say we have to somehow travel to your old school, sneak in and plant the quarter in an old classroom before the school opens, which I assume is in a few hours?” I shrugged my shoulders.

“Yes,” Connor replied, unenthusiastic. “How far is your old high school from here?”

“By car, twenty minutes maybe?”

“Okay gentlemen, let’s go,” Connor said. He led us down into the ES-1 complex, toward the elevator lift. As we hurried along, Connor opened his communicator and entered data. Tom replied with the ‘are you a stranger’ query. “I come as a friend,” Connor said. “Things are not as they appear.”

The significance of the security query finally began to make sense, the significance of those code words. The question of stranger or friend is another way of asking, ‘Is this someone within the FCA’. Only someone in the FCA would answer about ‘being a friend’. Anything else would be a tip off there was an unauthorized presence. The second part about things not being as they are appear was clearly a reference to temporal displacement. When out of his time index, Connor always answered ‘things are not as they appear’. The only time I recall him answering differently, when he said ‘things are as they appear’, he was in his current time index of 2095. Why an adaption of those queries appeared on a horoscope scroll in 1991 when Tessie bought it during our Senior Week trip in Ocean City, I still don’t know. They were for Scorpio, which is my astrological sign.

“Welcome back TDI-1,” Tom said. “How may I be of assistance to you this morning?”

“My team and I are on our way down to you,” Connor said. “Would you meet us in the docking bay?”

“Of course. What is happening?”

“I’ll brief you when I see you. TDI-1, out.” Connor slid the communicator back into his rear pocket. “We have to move quickly, gentlemen. Our window of opportunity here is very, very small.”

II

To Ryan’s delight, Connor decided we would take Brüder-4 to make the trip to South Carroll High. Connor wasn’t keen on the idea since there was always the possibility of its discovery by The Corporation. Tom wasn’t happy about it either. Ultimately, Connor had no other choice. We were no longer in 2006, where we left Brüder-2 docked in the ES-1 hangar bay. This was 1989 and Brüder-2 was unavailable to us, docked at Area-51, much too far away to retrieve for what we needed to do now.

Leaving the ES-1 facility was nowhere near as complicated as docking with no need for auto pilot guidance. From Tom’s position in the control room, he extended the holographic tunnel to the surface of the reservoir. Ryan - excited as a teenager about to experience sex for the first time - piloted the fully cloaked ship out manually. In under a minute, we were away from the surface and in lower atmosphere.

Connor had mentioned to me earlier that Brüder-4 boasted an advanced cloaking technology. It gave me an idea. “Connor, did you say this ship could remain cloaked while landed?”

“She has that ability, yes,” Connor replied. “Why do you ask?”

“We’re only going to be at South Carroll for what? Ten minutes, tops? Behind the far end of the school is an empty field. No one goes there because there isn’t anything there. It’s just an unused empty plot of land. If we set down there, I can walk to the freshman wing and down to the choir room, hide the quarter, and come back. I’m dressed in Manyette’s military garb after all. I doubt anyone who’s actually there this early would think much of it. If they do, I’ll come up with some excuse for preparing a recruitment drive for the Navy.”

Connor nodded. “Okay, that’s what we’ll do then. Using the transporter might gain us attention we don’t want. I want Ryan to go with you, just in case. I’ll stay with the ship.” Connor turned to Ryan. “If you feel – in your professional capacity – someone is asking too many questions and could cause problems, give them a mid level Impüls burst.”

I cringed. “Is that necessary?”

“Yes,” Connor said, with insistence. “A mid level burst won’t kill. It’s like a stun setting, which also distorts the short terms memory center. Anyone hit with such a burst usually wakes up with no idea what happened, as if they fainted for one reason or another. It’s safe. Plus, it’s protocol.”

“Okay,” I said, giving up. “You’re the boss.”

He grinned and winked. “Yes, I am. As long as you don’t forget that, we’ll all get along just fine.” This drew laughs from both Ryan and me.

Ryan set the ship down where I suggested, at the far end of an unused field bordering on a vast forest. Fields and forests, something Carroll County, Maryland was in no shortage of. Connor went about the business of keeping the ship cloaked. When I stepped onto the ground, I turned to watch Ryan disembark. Four feet off the ground, the ship’s entrance hung in the air, like a hole into another dimension. A passerby would have witnessed a man stepping onto the ground, out of thin air.

“Safe journey,” Connor said, sealing the ship with a Brüder-German phrase. The hole in the air faded into nothing. The ship was now truly invisible.

With haste, we began to walk purposefully towards the rear of the school. The field upon which we landed led to higher ground. Upon breaching the hill, the ground became grassy; the ground level declining, leading to the backmost section of the school’s parking lot. To the naked eye, it appeared no one had arrived at the school yet. I scampered quickly down the hillside and onto the parking lot, completely bypassing the freshman wing of the school.

Ryan motioned towards the section we passed. “I thought we were going in back there?”

“Short cut,” I replied. “It’s been a while since I’ve been here and didn’t remember some of this correctly. See the door into the school at the other end of this parking lot?”

“Yes?”

“The choir room is on the other end of that hallway.”

Ryan nodded. “Understood. That is a shorter trip.”

During my four years of servitude to this school, the janitorial staff always unlocked the doors by 5 AM. This allowed school administrators and teachers entry, should they decide to come to work early. Ryan and I would have no problem getting in. It was 1989 after all, ten years before the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. Heightened security at public schools was at least a decade away.

Walking into my high school again, after not having done so for seventeen years brought back a flood of memories. Not just my memories, but also some of Manyette’s as well. On the surface, everything was exactly as I remembered. With the hallway was deserted, and judging by the lack of ambient sound, no one was here.

Ryan wrinkled his nose. “It smells weird in here.”

The comment was worth a guffaw. “I don’t know why, but all school buildings have the same ‘clean but not quite sterile’ scent. The school janitors of the world must use some super secret fragrance recipe equivalent to ‘new car smell’.”

“I wouldn’t describe it as ‘new’. If anything, it’s aged.” I looked over inquisitively. Of course Ryan would think in those terms. After spending most of my life in the late twentieth century, a visit to the late nineteenth century might give me the same dated views.

A locked door blocked our entry into the choir room, a room where I spent a better portion of my high school career. It wouldn’t be a problem. Most choir students knew they could use their student ID card to trip the locking mechanism. Since I no longer carried my student ID card, Manyette’s driver’s license would have to suffice.

Nostalgia flooded my consciousness upon walking into the choir room. How I longed to be seventeen again, and performing in my high school choir. South Carroll High easily prided itself with one of the best choir teachers, Karl Kingsley. It was always a joy to be in this classroom once, sometimes twice a day under his tutelage. Being here now, so many years later by my time index was almost painful, comparable to running into a much beloved ex-girlfriend years after the breakup. You want to go back, but you know you can’t. Revisiting this school - this room - time now stood in my way, and not a new boyfriend or fiancée. Merely having the ability to travel back in time wouldn’t be enough to satisfy those longings. I wondered if shadowing or dominating my seventeen-year-old self instead, might. The greedy desire to do such an unethical thing quickly left my thoughts. It was no wonder Jim and Connor were so concerned about the abuse of the spiritual element’s power. There simply was too much temptation, even to say ‘I’ll just do it once’ knowing it would be impossible to keep that promise.

“Kevin?” Ryan asked.

I snapped out of my melancholy thoughts of years past. “Sorry. I was reminiscing.”

“Let’s do this and get out of here.” Ryan was right. This was no time for daydreaming.

Constructed stadium style, the room appeared better suited for an orchestra. From the ground floor, each level extended back about five feet, stacked in five layers to other side. At the top of the room, behind the teacher’s desk and under a loose tile next to a radiator style heating unit lay the FutureQuarter’s destination. In Manyette’s memory, this was the location where my 1989 equivalent would find the FutureQuarter. I pried the tile up with my fingertips, placed the quarter neatly underneath, and that was that. No fanfare, no cheering, no fireworks to mark the momentous occasion of moving the FutureQuarter away from The Corporation, just this one simple act.

Ryan watched as I moved the tile back into its proper place. “Is that it?”

“That’s it. My younger self will find it later today.”

“Aren’t you the least bit concerned you have no memory of what’s to happen?”

“Connor seems to think I’m going to remember,” I said. “Assuming Dan was telling the truth.”

Ryan rolled his eyes. “I have my opinions about that. I don’t trust that bastard any further than I could throw him.”

“Me neither,” I said in agreement, glancing at the oversized corkboard on the other side of the uppermost level. It’s where school notices and flyers are thumb tacked and usually ignored by the student body. Every classroom at South Carroll High had one, more or less. An envelope tacked to the top left caught my attention. It triggered a memory of the upcoming afternoon, one I didn’t previously recollect.

Shh, calm us friend. Dying cynic dimmer, we see Earth Shinin’!

“Okay, this is what I want to do. I am going to leave myself a note explaining how what is happening here is possible.”

“Uh oh,” I whispered. “Someone else has been here.”

Ryan did not take my comment lightly. He perked up, quickly joining me at the top of the room. “What’s the matter? Talk to me.”

“I’m remembering more of what happens later today,” I said, pointing at the corkboard. “You see that envelope there? I think that’s for Manyette.”

“I don’t understand. Why is that so important?”

Shh, calm us friend. Dying cynic dimmer, we see Earth Shinin’!

“There is an envelope up there with my name on it.”

“It’s a letter from the future,” I said, mesmerized by the new memories. “It’s for Manyette, from a future version of himself.”

Ryan stared at me as I gazed upon the envelope. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Ryan walked over to the corkboard and carefully removed the thumbtack pinning the envelope. Its author didn’t seal it. Ryan removed the letter and read its contents. Upon completion, he shook his head in disapproval. “You’re right, someone else has been here.”

“What do we do?”

“Does Chief Manyette have memories of reading this letter?”

“Yes. He even acknowledges the letter is written in his own handwriting.”

“Then we leave it,” Ryan said, refolding the letter into the envelope and re-tacking it to the board. “If we interfere now, we’ll have a paradox. Connor is not going to be happy about this.”

The situation was about to get worse. “Can I help you gentlemen?”

Ryan and I simultaneously looked down at the door to the classroom. To my amazement, there stood Ms. Gartner, the substitute teacher who would be covering the class later today. She held a cup of coffee in one hand and a book bag in the other. I didn’t know if the feeling of fear shooting up my spine was the result of her catching us off guard, or the general feeling of terror I usually felt when dealing with this particular substitute teacher. She had a reputation for being a real bitch and wasn’t well liked by the student body.

I leapt in action. “We’re posting a military recruitment notice.”

“How did you get in here,” she asked, curtly. “This door was supposed to be locked.”

Feigning surprise, I looked at Ryan, and then back to Gartner. “It wasn’t. I’m not sure what to tell you.”

Gartner squint her eyes, attempting a better look at me. I realized what was wrong. Manyette’s unique facial features weren’t easily forgettable. After attending this school four years, and with Gartner substituting many classes in that time, it was safe to assume she would easily be able to pick Manyette out of a crowd. Now here I was, running around the same school in Manyette’s thirty-three year old body. Why did I not assume anyone who knew Manyette in this era might easily recognize him as an adult? I wished I had my own body back. I could better disguise myself.

“Do I know you?” Gartner asked, eyeing me up. “You look really familiar.”

“Sorry ma’am,” I replied. “I’ve never met you before.”

“No, no…I recognize you,” she said, not letting it go.

I grit my teeth behind closed lips, looking at Ryan. Take this bitch out, I thought. He must have heard me, or read it in my eyes. In a motion faster than the eye could register, Ryan’s Impüls was out as he put a burst into Gartner’s chest. The force of the pulse knocked her head into the open coat cabinet. She fell to the floor, coffee spilling in all directions.

I shook my head in awe. “Well, that explains why she will have a headache all day. That I do remember. Damn, I wish I could have been the one to shoot her.”

“We need to move, fast,” Ryan said, urgent. He leapt down each level of the room and stopped at her fallen body. I joined him and helped pull her up so she was propped up against the open coat cabinet door. Ryan threw the remaining coffee in the cup at her feet, tossing the cup off to her side. “There. When she wakes up, she’ll think she slipped on her coffee and banged her head into the door. She won’t remember any of this.”

“Nicely done, sir.”

“We need to get the hell out of here, now!”

III

In fact, Connor was pissed when we told him about Manyette’s FutureLetter. He pointed out, again, there were no coincidences, and something larger was happening. We were all merely cogs in a much larger machine.

We agreed - in theory - an older personification of Manyette wrote and posted the letter, which violated all kind of Temporal Protocols. Protocols Manyette should be aware of. The biggest question marks, when did Manyette do this and how? Manyette could not temporally displace on his own, so Connor would be involved somehow. Since Connor had no memory of providing displacement for an authorized TDI mission, in meant, in all likelihood, the mission had yet to occur at some future date. This made our discovery of the letter a Code Black situation. There was also the possibility of a forced temporal incursion. Similar to what Martin had done not so long ago. Connor didn’t want to jump to conclusions about Manyette, but would be very disappointed if Manyette broke Temporal Directives of his own free will, knowing the consequences. Connor already had too much on his plate without this new twist.

After we left the high school, en route to ES-1, I remembered something else.

Shh, calm us friend. Dying cynic dimmer, we see Earth Shinin’!

“I cannot go into detail about how all of this is possible, but if you look out the window behind you, you might see something spectacular.”

The three of us turn around and look out the window. Off in the distance a single large cumulus cloud sits, lower than a cloud should be, just sitting there.

The cloud becomes dark quickly as lightning flashes from within. Then it’s gone.

“What the hell was that?”

“Something spectacular,” Kevin says holding up the quarter. “I think something much bigger than any of us can imagine just happened here, gentlemen.”

“Connor, I remember something else.”

With urgency, Connor turned to face me, hands on his knees. The expression on his face advised me to spill it, now.

“The letter to Manyette said we would see something spectacular if we looked out the window, after we read it.”

“Did you?”

“Manyette remembers it,” I said, correcting myself. “A low flying cumulus cloud that grows dark and flashes lightning. Then it dissipates into nothing. Afterward, I apparently make the comment that something bigger is going on while holding out the FutureQuarter.”

“Then what?”

“We’re forced to sit back down by our bitchy sub teacher. After that, we accuse each other of trickery. We end up not talking to each other for some time because no one will fess up to it.”

Ryan said, “I hate to say it, but this sounds like something The Corporation would do.”

“It does,” Connor said, hesitation in his voice. “But there are some things that don’t make sense. Bruder-3, for example, it’s the size of a yacht and cloaks only during flight. That would’ve been one huge cloud.”

Connor looked at me for confirmation. I thought about it. “I don’t know. I remember Manyette seeing the cloud, but the window was across the classroom, and that cloud off in the distance. It could have been mistaken for small at such a distance, I don’t know.”

“Okay then, “Connor said, with a sigh. “It’s possible it could have been Bruder-3, the ship. I find it difficult to believe the FCA would do something so reckless.” Connor paused. “Unless it was under duress.”

Ryan looked at Connor. “You said 'some things don't make sense'. Plural. What else is there?”

“Why target Chief Manyette? If this is The Corporation, why are they so anxious to push the Chief away from his dreams of automotive electronics and towards the military to do ‘special work’? I can only guess that’s a reference to the FCA.”

“What if we have this all wrong?” I asked. “What if it is the FCA. Is it possible there were a different set of events to come where Manyette didn’t get the letter and decided not to pursue the military and the letter is a way of fixing it?”

“It’s a possibility, but a very small one,” Connor replied. “Remember, I don’t believe in them, coincidences. The letter and your quarter in the same room as separate missions? I don’t buy it. The Chief would have to write the letter on his own. A TDI showing up one day and springing this all on him is not how we work. Somehow, an older Chief Manyette writes the letter for himself and delivers it. Does the FCA help him? Or does The Corporation help him, or set it up for him?” Connor looked at me. “Think carefully, Kevin. Can you recall any of Manyette’s memories dealing with the letter?”

I closed my eyes and concentrated, but nothing new came. “No. Just him finding it here in 1989. He keeps the letter in his wallet. Its words were a life-altering event for him. If I try to dig too deep, I get that gibberish again.”

Connor scratched his head. “I wonder if the gibberish is related somehow. Could you repeat it for me again?”

“Shh, calm us friend. Dying cynic dimmer, we see Earth Shinin’!

Ryan asked, “What is a ‘dimmer’?”

Connor said, “It probably means lack of keenness or vigor, as an adjective. This is a puzzle for Jim.” Connor’s communicator chirped. He flipped it open. “Is this a stranger?”

“I am a friend,” Tom replied. “Things are as they appear.”

“Report.”

“We have a problem,” Tom said. “There is Corporation activity in the area. Brüder-3 tracked in approximately three minutes ago, following two agents in a rowboat. They are in the area near the underwater entrance to ES-1.”

“Damn,” Ryan said. “They must have detected something when we left. What else could it be?”

Connor addressed the communicator. “Have you localized its position, the ship?”

“It’s hovering up there somewhere,” Tom said. “There is too much cloud cover to pin point the ship until it starts to move.”

Connor considered the situation. At once, he perked up. “What about those routines we worked on some years back, the detection ones? Are they online? We should have a better, more sensitive Ion detector to pin point their engines.”

“Copy. Standby.” Connor waited with baited breath. “Sending you the data now.” The three dimensional holographic radar images opened above the flight panel, between the two pilot’s seats. A geographical representation of the area surrounding the underwater ES-1 entrance rendered perfectly. Two blips representing the two Corporation agents rowing near the shoreline rendered shortly after. The Bruder-3 ship indigenous to 1989 hovered a half mile to the north.

“I see it,” Connor said. He studied the real time layout. He looked at Ryan. “We need to take them with us.”

“Transport them up? We’d give away our position.”

“Not if we move fast enough. If we haul ass after the transport, they'll never know what happened. It has a security force field, the ship’s transport platform.”

“And then what?” Ryan asked. “We bring them back to ES-1?”

“Yes. We interrogate them. We find out why they're snooping around this area. We'll then wipe their short terms memories before we release them, if we release them.” Ryan appeared apprehensive, but said nothing. Connor stood up. “I'll take care of the transportation. Bring us a thousand feet overtop of it, their boat. We'll use the current cloud cover to excuse away the lightning strike that hides the transport stream. When I’m done, jump into the upper atmosphere. We'll reassess then.”

“Copy,” Ryan said. Connor disappeared into the rear of the ship. Ryan banked to the right to bring us into position. He glanced back. “Hold on, this may get a little bumpy.”

Connor's voice emitted from an unseen intercom. “Whenever you're ready, Ryan.”

“Okay, here we go.”

The ship began it's decent, gliding gracefully down through the cloud cover. The view port displayed the unobstructed surface. A white dot on the blue canvass of the reservoir was our target. The ship’s angle was gradual. The target area grew larger as the seconds ticked by. As we approached the lowest point of the cloud cover, our decent leveled off. Ryan was correct; the trip was plagued with turbulence.

“On my mark,” Ryan said. “We're almost there.”

“Copy.”

The simulated image of the small white boat on the reservoir disappeared underneath the ship. The ship’s speed decreased in huge breaks, like the effect of anti-lock brakes when stomping on the break pedal during a high rate of speed. Ryan blew out his breath in anticipation of what was about to happen. “Here we go. Three...two...one --”

The ship ground to a hovering halt over our unsuspecting Corporation friends.

“--mark!”

The device acting as the transport system hummed to life in an instant. The view outside the ship filled with a bright white flash, equivalent to a thousand flash bulbs. Dampened thunder rumbled away from the ship in a shockwave.

Connor shouted loud enough to make the intercom system moot. “GO! NOW!”

Ryan pushed his left hand over the vertical holographic control representing the accelerator while maneuvering his other hand over the holographic control to guide the ship upward, into the upper atmosphere. The position of Brüder-3 on the geographic map Tom continued to feed us began to move away, slowly at first. It circled the area from where we kidnapped their men. It stopped for a moment, and then jumped off the screen in an escape attempt.

With the ship's inertia dampening in place - the process keeping us from becoming blood paste from slamming into the rear of the ship - I stood up and walked carefully across the ship, into the transporter system room. True to Connor’s word, the two agents dressed in their typical black suits were secure inside the transporter area, separated from the rest of the ship by a prominent red force field, humming its danger.

When I entered the room, their attention turned immediately to me. They observed, but said nothing. The female guard looked at Connor. “Where are we?”

“Guests of the FCA,” Connor said. “We have a few questions for you.”

The male agent scoffed. Connor glanced in his direction, eyebrows raised inquisitively. “Is there something you would like to say?”

“We won't talk,” the male agent said in declaration.

Connor grinned. “We'll see. Please make yourselves comfortable. I'll be back with you shortly.” He nodded towards the exit of the room, indicating I should follow.

“Brüder-3 made a quick exit,” I said.

“I'm not surprised. Overall, they're all cowards. Everyone in their organization is expendable.” Connor flipped open his communicator. “ES-1, would you confirm Brüder-3's departure?”

“Copy,” Tom said in acknowledgement. “They are long gone.”

“Good to hear,” Connor said, followed by a deep sigh of relief. “We're on our way back. When we're in range, bring us home.”

IV

The return to ES-1 was uneventful. As with Brüder-2, Tom guided the ship safely into the ES-1 complex, docking it precisely where we took off. Our Corporation guests were another matter. Connor informed Tom about our guests when we met up in the docking bay. He was not pleased Connor made the decision to transport them aboard Brüder-4, much less bring them into ES-1. He cited that if he was not able to remove any memories of their abduction and everything afterward, he would have no choice but to end their lives. The security of ES-1 and Brüder-4 were too important to risk over the lives of two Corporation agents.

Tom’s declaration didn’t sit well with Connor. “We'll just have to hold them indefinitely. Eventually it’ll coerce them into telling us what we want to know, the boredom and isolation.”

No emotion registered on Tom's face upon Connor's suggestion, making it impossible to gauge his reaction. “I suppose it is one way to go about it. The longer they stay, the more difficult it will be to alter their long-term memory. Anything longer than a few months and we risk possible brain damage during the procedure.”

I said, “Krissie mentioned there was a kind of truth serum you could use. Why not just use that?”

“It's technically not been invented yet,” Connor replied. “We didn't come up with it until after the war.”

“Can't you just go get some and bring it back?”

“It's not as simple as that,” Connor said. “If I did something similar to what you’re suggesting, and we end up releasing those agents, they could do toxicological screening on them, The Corporation. It’s possible they will discover traces of compounds that don’t yet exist in this era. It would be bad, that kind of temporal contamination, just as bad as a quarter out of its place in time.”

There were so many rules. It made getting the job done a real pain in the ass.

Connor and Tom spent an hour taking turns with the Corporation agents in an effort to extract information from them. They separated the agents, placing them in uncomfortably small rooms originally intended for storage. What were they doing at the reservoir? What were they looking for? Why were they on a rowboat of all things? They provided no answers. Connor reported our guests gave up nothing. They stared straight ahead and ignored the interrogation. Connor left them with the impression their stay would be indefinite, until they began talking and give up information about their mission. It was no bluff.

Connor, Ryan, and I were leaving for 2006, approximately an hour and half after we left, the exact amount of time we were gone. Connor left Tom explicit instructions to leave a coded message in the FCA's network in the event new information developed. This threw me for a loop. While the four of us were walking back to the landing bay, I asked Connor about it.

“How does that work?” I asked. “Tom leaves you a message in the holographic network and you’ll pick it up in seventeen years?”

“More or less, although it’s a little more complicated than that.”

“I would think so. Who knows how many message from the past folks leave for others or themselves in the future. I mean, once you get back to 2095, or even 2006, you could have bunches of them. How would you know which are for you at the time and which might violate a code black scenario?”

“An agreed upon password,” Connor replied. “Any message Tom might leave for me can only be retrieved with a password he agreed to encrypt it with. When I am able to access a terminal, I would instruct the system to scan for any messages set to decrypt with the password Tom and I decided on. I would ignore any past or future messages, as there is always a different one for each instance such as this, a password. It doesn’t happen as often as you might think, but when it does, it keeps it intact, the integrity of information I’m not yet supposed to have. That’s how we avoid a code black.” I was impressed. It sounded like a reasonable system. “Let me give you another one, an example you might better understand.” I nodded. “Remember when we left FCA-1 in 1977, when I was hurt? I had you set it to transport us to ES-5, the Jaunte. At the last second, it switched to ES-1. It didn't make sense at the time. After we rescued you and Wald from your unplanned dip in the Arthur Avenue pool, and I was able to reclaim the Temporal Displacement element, I took a trip to 1976 aboard FCA-1 and reprogrammed the Jaunte to redirect our 1977 destination to ES-1 instead of ES-5. It was the only way to save both our lives.”

“How was my life in danger?”

“Had we arrived at the ES-5 Jaunte station and I was unconscious, you could have been killed by them, the waiting guards. Your identity wasn’t yet in the HoloID system. I would’ve needed to be awake and alert to explain you were under my protection. I didn’t want to take that risk.”

“It reeks of deus ex machina,” the Manyette persona said.

Ryan laughed.

“Okay,” Connor said in a firm voice, ignoring my quip. “We need to get going.” Connor turned his attention to Tom. “We’ll return to 2006 right here in the hangar. It’ll be an hour and a half since we left. Meet up with us, if you prefer. From there my group will fly back to ES-5 to take care of some unfinished business,” he said, looking in my direction. He meant for me to take back my own body, permitted it was fully healed. “From there, I’ll base my next course of action on your reports.”

Tom nodded in understanding. “You have the decryption key?”

“I do,” Connor replied. “Anyone have any questions?”

There were none.

“Okay, let’s go.”


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