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Displaced I: The Exchange

By Kevin Provance All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Adventure

XXVI - Endgame; Part I

“The final stage of a course of events.”

*

Date: Friday, July 14, 1989

Location: Room 202, Red Barn Inn, Westminster, Maryland

Age: 35 (Current)

*

I

“I chose the act of making love to my old girlfriend, Christina, as a memory trigger because I believed that when she returned from Ocean City that week, we would have sex,” I said. “It never happened. She completely broke up with me and we never had sex again.” I glanced at Krissie. She appeared slightly apprehensive knowing the act of almost making love to her triggered the repressed memories. Technically, her name is Kristina. The difference in spelling aside, the association worked, albeit seventeen years too late. I decided to move on, sparing us both some potential embarrassment. “The doctors thought I’d been the victim of a near lightning strike. What they couldn’t explain was the lack of symptoms. I think the doc didn’t have a clue about my condition and filled in the blanks as best he could. After all, there’s no classification for Brüder ship transporter and the memory-wiping thing.”

Connor sat back and sighed. He intertwining his fingers and pressed the index fingers against his lip. “I gotta process this.”

Ryan asked the obvious question, “If Dan is in possession of the quarter, how do we get it back?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think we do,” Connor said. “Dan deceived us with partial truths. He claimed Kevin said it was under the stairs at the Arthur Avenue location, the quarter. That part was true. He got that information from Kevin. He left out was the part where Kevin had it on him, the quarter, and taking it for himself.” Connor looked at me. “Don’t feel bad about it. You didn’t understand the importance of it all, being only seventeen.”

“Did I?” I asked, and paused. “That’s not it, it’s bigger than that. Dan tricked us into taking steps, ensuring I planted the quarter for my seventeen-year-old self to find. After that, he knew how, when and where to acquire it.” I shook my head in disgust. “You said the crash of Brüder-3 in 1981 was a good thing. It wasn’t. Stranding Martin in his displaced state gave The Corporation over twenty years worth of intelligence, making all of this possible. What an elaborate scheme. And it only gets worse.”

Connor nodded. “I know where you’re going with this.”

“The message Manyette left himself was orchestrated by Dan. He said Martin visited him and helped him write it, only I don’t believe Manyette did it willingly, or even consciously. Displaced Martin was still lost in time and doing the bidding of The Corporation. I think he dominated Manyette, wrote the letter, and tacked it to the back of the choir room corkboard. That would explain why Manyette has no memory of doing such a thing, even in 2006. I guess it’s coincidence after all, Connor. What I don’t understand is how Martin knew who Manyette was.”

Connor pondered the question, his index fingers still pressed against his lips. “Martin used it on the Chief, his displacement observation, if I had to guess. He took some of Manyette’s memories with him, the pertinent ones. Martin has the experience to pull something like that off. Chances are he did it during the only time he had the opportunity.”

Ryan shook his head, chuckling in irony. “When he left his post in 2006, after the first attack on Brüder-2 with that makeshift Impüls cannon.”

“Yeah,” Connor said with a frustration sigh. “If it was me in his shoes, Martin’s, I would have observed Colonel Robinson first, to see what information he had. That’s how he would have learned about the Chief’s position as second-in-command. Martin would then do the same to the Chief, for the same reasons, information. Martin must have realized he hit the jackpot, learning of Kevin’s earlier friendship with the Chief. He then made his plans based on that friendship.” Connor then turned to me and grinned. “As far as your comment on coincidences, my answer is still no, and I’ll tell you why. We’re overlooking some glaring contradictions, starting with Ryan’s question about what happens to the quarter after Dan took it from you. It’s my hunch Dan loses it again at some point we don’t know about. Dan can’t time travel. All he has is information of future events he got from Martin. That explains why Dan and The Corporation knew about the quarter and its importance as far back as 1977 and now in 1989. Yet Dan still oversaw the exchange of Victor Merrick for the quarter in 1991. If Dan supposedly already has the quarter, then why bother?”

Ryan perked up. “Because Dan didn’t have it in 1991. Like you said, sometime between now in 1989 and 1991 he’ll misplace it, or have it taken from him.”

Connor broke half a grin. “Or Dan was not even aware he had it, the quarter.”

These fourth dimensional theories made no sense to me. “Now how can that be?” I asked. “Dan took it from me. I was there.”

“Yes, he did,” Connor said in agreement. “The Dan you described to me - the one who interrogated you - is the Dan we all know and love. The unknown variable is Martin. Was he observing Dan in a discorporate state, or maybe shadowing him? Unless Martin has some Oscar worthy acting skills, I don’t believe he would dominate him, Dan.”

“So what are you proposing?” I asked. “After Dan took the quarter and let me go, Martin arranged it so Dan would forget about taking the quarter at all? Why?”

Connor spread his hands. “So Martin would have the quarter for himself.”

Ryan let out a low whistle. “That would imply Martin is working on his own. Why would he do that?”

“For Victor,” Connor said. “You remember how obsessed he was about getting away from us, when we trapped and captured him? It was all about Victor. That’s all Martin’s focus has been since he realized he was still alive, Victor was. You also answered your own question, Ryan. Martin turned on The Corporation when he realized they had kidnapped his best friend. Based on Kevin’s description of that situation, something snapped in him. Martin’s been playing them for suckers, pretending to be with them, only feeding them information he wants them to know. The evidence is all right there.”

I shook my head in confusion. “What evidence?”

Connor explained. “For starters, Dan loses the quarter and has no memory of it. The story he told me about, the older Dan we have in custody, pertaining what happened with you yesterday and his claim about learning the quarter’s location under the stairs, that was the truth or the truth as he remembers it, or how Martin wanted him to remember it.

“Then there is this business with Chief Manyette. If Martin dominated the Chief to write and post that letter to himself, Martin would already have knowledge by way of the Chief’s memories. That includes the quarter showing up in your high school classroom where you and the Chief find it. Martin also could have gone as far as planting suggestions in Manyette’s subconscious about the whole time travel discussion, or into yours to help find the quarter and the note. Putting it all together, no Kevin, it’s not coincidence.”

“That makes sense,” I said. “Manyette was acting flakey that day, calling me by my first name, and not my last name. His eye color kept shifting from dark blue to light blue. Martin had to be dominating Manyette.”

Connor nodded, and continued, “If Martin took the quarter from Dan, altering his memories involving your interrogation, Dan is left thinking he still needs to find it, the quarter, while Martin walks away with it, probably using an unsuspecting agent’s body.”

“Okay,” Ryan said, “But that still doesn’t explain why Martin wants the quarter? To keep it away from The Corporation as revenge for the Victor’s kidnapping?”

“I don’t know,” Connor said. “Martin would still need the means to decode it. Without help from those Internet Agents, he would have no way to do so. Once we are out of this situation, we need to return to 2006, after Martin’s capture and find Victor Merrick. I suspect he might have some of those answers. We know he’s hiding out on Captiva Island in Florida, waiting for Martin’s return.”

“Here’s what I don’t get,” I said. “Since we know Martin was interested in pushing Manyette towards the FCA and not The Corporation, why would he have any interest in Manyette becoming FCA? I can tell you that letter changed Manyette’s life. Had he not read it, he would have gone on to trade school.”

A lull in the conversation blanketed the room. No one could provide a credible answer to the Manyette question. I shrugged my shoulders and threw up my hands. “We see Earth shinin!”

Connor jerked his head up from his stare at the floor and pointed at me. “What did you just say?”

“It’s part of that gibberish statement I heard in Manyette’s head. I kinda adopted that last bit of it as if to say ‘fuck it’. Why?”

Connor repeated the phrase, only he said it differently. He used a German accent changing the entire sound of the phrase. “Wie sie erscheinen!

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“As they appear,” Connor said, flatly. “Do you remember the entire phrase?”

“Shh, calm us friend. Dying cynic dimmer, we see Earth shinin!”

Connor nodded in understanding as I repeated it for him. “I don’t believe this,” he said, cursing himself. “It was so obvious. I’ve heard that phrase before. But not for a very, very long time.” Connor laughed at himself, slapping his forehead. “Kevin heard it and thought it as English, that phrase. It’s not English, it’s a Brüder sentence. Ich komme als Freund. Die dinge sind nicht immer, wie sie erscheinen.”

I was appalled. “What does that mean in English?”

Connor smiled weakly. “I come as a friend; things are not always as they appear.”

Had I been a cartoon character, my jaw would have hit the floor, breaking every tooth within the lower half of my mouth. “The security phrase.”

Connor nodded. “Yeah, that it is. Martin knows it and knows how to speak the Brüder language, which is very close to German in nature. Now, why did you hear it in Manyette’s head when attempting to access his memories?”

Krissie, who said nothing to this point, finally added something to the discussion. “It’s a trigger,” she said. “Martin planted that phrase inside the Chief’s head. When he hears it via an external source, in all likelihood he will follow some set of instruction Martin planted. It also explains why the Chief will not wake up. The repetition of the phrase Kevin heard repeatedly in the Chief’s head is some kind comparative check for incoming stimulus. In this case, Kevin attempting to access memories.”

Ryan followed up. “Let’s not forget we are missing the body of a dead Corporation agent. If one of those bastards faked his death and is meant to use the trigger on the Chief…”

The rising red color in Connor’s face gave a clear indication of his stress level. I wondered for a moment if he might be having a heart attack. Finally, he said, “I need to contact Jim in 2006.”

“Can you do that?” I asked.

“Yes, but that method of communication isn’t reliable. I still have to try. If I open a portal and not cross through it, we can send a transmission through and hope Jim in 2006 picks up on it.” Connor looked around the room. “We can’t do it in here. If someone in 2006 is occupying this room, they will see the opened portal. This is why I prefer to keep these activities confined to FCA-1.”

“How hard could it be to find someplace?” I asked.

“Harder than you might think. The location not only needs to be out of public view, but free of interference in 2006. Can you think of a place that like that?”

I thought about it. No answer came to mind. It was harder than it looked. “Okay, suppose we find a location in this time we can somehow control and will be unoccupied in 2006, say like the bathroom at the mall overnight. Do you get what I'm saying?”

“Yeah,” Connor said. “It's still a calculated risk, on both sides of the timeline. The location must be as secure as we can possibly make it.” Those of us in our group who were familiar with Carroll County and its surrounding areas thought about where such a location might be.

After several minutes, I spoke up. “Next to the house I am living in right now in 1989 is a dirt road to a sawmill that extends farther into the woods. After it ends, and if we hike it long enough, we’ll be buried so deep within, no one could possibly see us. Pick a time late in the night in 2006, like two or three in the morning. No one should be there then. Those woods are too damn creepy to go wandering around in that late.”

“That’s a great idea,” Connor said. “My one concern is your 1989 self. He’ll be close by. That’s too risky.”

“True, but I disagree with the risk level,” I said. “I didn’t leave the house the day after the incident at Liberty reservoir. Mom wanted me to have at least 24 hours of bed rest. We know exactly where I am now and where I won’t be.”

Ryan spoke up to agree. “He’s got a point Connor. It’s close, yes, but once we’re far enough into those woods, what does it matter? We know he won’t be there. We’ll secure the location before we open a displacement portal.”

Connor considered the information, eventually looking over at an unconscious Jim. “I wish you were awake, old friend.”

Ryan nodded. “Since we control almost all of the variables involved, I think the location is as good as it gets.”

Connor looked at his watch. “Okay, it’s almost 4:30 in the morning,” Connor paused to glance at me. “Where exactly are we going?”

“Woodbine,” I replied.

Connor did not appear happy. It was another chunk of miles away from Eldersburg. “If we leave now, we could get there by five AM, early enough to go unnoticed. If we are able to make radio contact with Jim, then we should only need to keep the portal open for a few minutes. That would be long enough to warn Jim about the security around the Chief and to contact Tom about where exactly the hell he went after dropping Kevin off at the hospital. Let’s get ready to roll.”

II

Unconscious Jim would not make this particular trip. Connor left him a note detailing our mission and to stay put, in the event he awoke. Most of our group napped as I made the twenty minute drive to Woodbine. I occasionally looked back at Krissie, who was half-asleep. I never told her, but I was deeply concerned about the rate of speed at which I found myself wanted to be with her. Something was going to happen to her between now and the several years later for me when I would meet her younger self. It suggested that whatever happened to her, she would not be present in our immediate future. I wondered if she would die. What else could happen to her to keep us apart? The two of us were on a road to heartache. Even worse, I don’t think either of us cared.

Heading south on Woodbine Road, I began to keep lookout for my former home. I gazed in wonder out of the car window as we passed the house I grew up in as a teenager. I hadn’t seen it in almost thirteen years, by my time index. To see it again exactly as I remembered it was dreamlike. I was able to catch a glimpse of my first car parked in the garage driveway. A dark blue 1974 Fiat-Pininfarina Spider, more or less fully restored. Later that year, some asshole from Pennsylvania driving a Cadillac station wagon would make an illegal left hand turn at Center Street and Route 140 in front of the Cranberry Mall. During that illegal turn, I would plow directly into the monster wagon, thus totaling my much beloved first car. I on the other hand would be fine. An overnight trip to Shock Trauma in Baltimore would be required since technically I did pass out after the accident. I would walk out of Shock Trauma the next day and begin mourning my prized car. Coming to grips with almost losing my life would not come for weeks later. The Westminster City Police deputy first on scene cleared me of causing the accident. He also informed me he witnessed less severe car accident in which folks died, and that I was one of the luckiest young men he had ever met. That officer’s last name was ‘Bible’. This singular piece of information kept many of the faith-based people in my life wondering for years about the meaning of it all, conversations I declined to have due to my atheist nature. All I could manage was to admit it was an interesting coincidence.

Connor says such things don’t exist. He also said there is no God. Now I wondered if something else happened that night. Were Brüder or FCA involved that night? Was the Corporation?

With headlights off, I made a right turn onto the dirt sawmill driveway and carefully drove into the woods. The dirt road paralleled the backyard of the Woodbine Road house, eventually curving through and around the sawmill, deeper into the woods. The road then became two not so beaten paths, indicative of a used-to-be beaten dirt road. I stopped the car when the path dead-ended into a cornfield. The drive down the dirt road awoke those who were asleep. I turned the car’s engine off. We disembarked the vehicle.

Connor looked at me, as did everyone else and said, “It’s your show, partner. Lead the way.”

I carefully walked several steps back the way we came to locate the notable trail leading deeper into the woods. It was not the typical trail or beaten path one might find in a park or some other nature area. The length and width of this particular trail suggested it had once been a dirt road or driveway, long grown over. It made sense to me even as a kid. When I first discovered the trail in 1981 when we moved to Woodbine, I walked the length of it. It ended next to a deep and overgrown pit where a house used to stand.

We were now deep in the heart of Carroll County, with several hundred foot-tall trees as far as the eye could see in every direction. One could walk in any given direction for close to a mile before signs of civilization would reappear. Further west would end at another farm. North and South would dump you into yet more cornfields.

“You weren’t kidding,” Connor said. “There’s literally nothing out here but this old foundation.”

“Where no one hears you scream,” I added. “Believe me, I’ve tried…you know, for fun.”

Connor made a quick inspection of the foundations perimeter. “Is it safe to jump into, where the basement used to be?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve done it myself.”

Connor, Ryan and Krissie made their way into the pit. Krissie would oversee Connor while he was in his trance like state to keep the portal open. This was required since the calculations for aligning the open portal with a singular point in space-time would require precise and never-ending calculations. Connor would listen to no one except Krissie, who would tell him when to stop the displacement. Ryan would take responsibility for attempting to make contact with Jim and or Tom of 2006. At the top of the foundation, I would keep watch, not that there was much to watch out for this deep within nature.

When Connor was ready, the small bright star like portal opened, throwing light up out of the pit. It was brighter than I anticipated, comparable to several people holding 12-volt flashlights. The twilight effect surrounded us as the portal sparkled its white light.

Oh my God, I remember this! I’m sitting in my room and I see this flash from within the woods! Those songs I head on the radio and didn’t recognize, they were radio signals from 2006! Yes! It all makes sense now!

“Okay,” Krissie said, knocking me out of my thoughts. “We’re ready”

Ryan stood before the massive white light with communicator extended; looking like a man with a cell phone struggling to find a better signal. He entered information into the interface and waited.

“Hello there stranger,” I heard, far away through Ryan’s communicator. “You come as a friend, right?”

Ryan looked at the communicator, offended. “Who is this?”

“Someone who is no longer a friend, and believe me, everything is exactly as it appears. Heh.”

“Martin?” Ryan asked, unsure.

“You got it, buddy,” he said. “There is no terminus on this signal. Interesting. I’m guessing you’re no longer in 2006.”

“Where is Jim?” Ryan demanded, ignoring Martin’s fish for information.

“Unavailable. Those fucking Brüder, stubborn to the end.”

If Ryan went pale, one could not have surmised this due to the pulsating light splashing across his face. His expression told otherwise. “What does that mean? What did you do?”

“Connor would be proud of his mentor,” Martin said, in jeer. “He never broke. I guess guarding his precious spiritual element was worth more than his own life. Oh well. I’ll find it eventually.”

“And then what? You can’t launch Brüder-2. I have the activation dongle. How far do you think you’ll get without her?”

“Not your worry,” Martin said. “Heed my warning Capcoseve; don’t try pulling any kind of surprise jumps back here. I know full well what Connor is capable of doing and I have enough backup to level anyone who shows up unexpectedly. You would do well to stay out of my way.”

“Seriously Martin, do you really expect us to sit back and let you steal the spiritual element?”

“Do what you have to do then. You’ve been warned.” The signal indicator on Ryan’s communicator went out.

“Martin? Martin!”

The displacement portal closed, leaving us enveloped in blinding darkness. Connor stood up with Krissie’s assistance.

Ryan slapped his communicator closed, looking bitterly at Connor. “How the hell did Martin escape?”

Connor climbed out of the foundation hole. Ryan and Krissie followed. “We didn’t make contact in time,” Connor said, sounding empty. He began walking swiftly back toward the direction of the car. He was hot under the collar. “That missing Corporation agent got to him, Chief Manyette, with the Brüder command. That’s the only possible way this happened.” He paused, staring at the ground. “We didn’t figure it out in time.”

“What about Jim,” I asked. “Would Martin really kill him?”

“If you were to ask me that question last week, I would have said ‘no’. I don’t know what to think anymore. As for Jim, he’s Brüder. He can’t be killed in the sense you understand it. To him, the body is a vessel. If Martin did kill it, the Jim you know will be back eventually, even if you don’t physically recognize him. I’m not worried about him, in that regard. I’m worried about is the spiritual element. Jim, he would’ve secured it somewhere not easily found, after we left for here. I only hope Martin doesn’t find it. If he does…” Connor let the words trail off, not wanting to complete his thought.

Ryan looked back at me as we hurried our pace back to the car. “It would be catastrophic for the FCA.”

I nodded in understanding. “I suppose your temporal protocols prevent you from going back a few hours and preventing this situation?”

“In a nutshell, yes,” Connor said. “Any intervening we do must be from this point forward. While I believe he wants the spiritual element back, Martin does, I don’t think it’s his top priority. Martin knows he can’t spend more time at ES-5 than needed, so he’ll leave without it if he has too. He wants to get back to Captiva Island, to Victor. That’s where we have to go.”

“I hate to point out the obvious,” I said. “But while Captiva Island is a very small place, it’s still big enough to make finding either one of these guys a major pain in the ass.”

“We don’t need to find them,” Connor said. “We’re going back to the day Victor allegedly spent the 2025 quarter at the mall, in Sarasota. We’ll follow him from there, back to wherever he’s hiding.”

Ryan brought up the next obvious hurdle. “But sir, we’re stuck here in Carroll County, Maryland. Without a ship, it could take us days to get to Florida. Assuming we jump to 2006 from this point, we would need a ship from 2006. Brüder-2 is docked at ES-5 where Martin could have men waiting for us. Brüder-4 is docked at ES-1, but it’s too risky flying her all the way to Florida without calling attention to it. So what’s left?”

“Bruder-5,” Connor said, flashing Ryan a mad grin. “They’ve been redesigning, reprogramming, and rebuilding a new ship based on the Brüder-3 operating system, Jim and Tom have. Short of a test flight, she should be ready to go in 2006.”

Ryan stopped walking. He stared at Connor, bug eyed with surprise. “And where on Earth did you find the Unobtanium needed to pull that off?”

“With the methods of manipulating unobtanium taken from the Brüder-3 operating system, and sections of ES-1 no longer in use, we were able to build the ship’s hull. She’s a lot smaller than her predecessor, but she’s going to be one powerful little ship.” Ryan continued walking, a secret smile sketched across his face. Connor continued. “Still, we need to get back there, to ES-1, and who knows if we’re being tracked. I have to assume we are. At the same time, we’re racing the clock against Martin. Who’ll make it to Captiva Island first?”

A figurative light bulb went off above Krissie’s head. “I just realized something. Recall the Corporation agent who fell off his trolley and shot the base up? He said something along the lines of the whole debacle being ‘the new guys fault’. He also said ‘he made us do it’. So who exactly was this ‘new guy’?

We were much closer to the car now. Connor said, “Martin, if you held them to the fire, my feet.”

“Are you certain?” Krissie asked. “Martin is the obvious answer, granted. But if Martin was discorporate and planted the suggestions for that mass homicide, how would they know Martin was there? It’s difficult to blame someone who cannot be seen or heard.”

“Okay,” Connor said, glancing back to her. “You’ve got my attention. Continue.”

“I think this ‘new guy’ somehow played dead during that mass homicide. His purpose was to get next to the chief and speak the Brüder command, whether the Chief was unconscious or not.”

Ryan stopped walking. “Right, right! Somehow, this ‘new guy’ fakes his death, and when no one is looking, he gets up and walks away. He would then ditch his Corporation clothes and change into something less obvious, probably military fatigues. He could then get close to the Chief. Mission accomplished.”

“Hold on a sec,” Connor said. “Assuming all that is true, it takes a certain amount of medical know-how to fake a death. This ‘new guy’ would have some serious medical knowledge.” He looked at Krissie. “So who is it?”

“Daniel,” she said, simple and to the point.

Connor reacted with genuine surprise. “Corporation Dan? Really?”

Krissie grinned, a tingle of evil on the corners of her smile. “I poked around for information pertaining to Daniel while you and Kevin were off rescuing your quarter.”

“I’ll be damned,” Connor said in soft wonder. “If the missing agent is actually Dan, Martin has a powerful ally in 2006.”

“And a dangerous one,” Ryan added. “If Dan arranged or encouraged Martin to mess with younger Chief Manyette’s head, planting that so called ‘letter from the future’, it stands to reason they’d both be working together now, putting whatever plan they had in mind for the Chief into action.”

Connor took charge then. “We need to find a way back into ES-1, now!”

“Then what?” I asked.

“We go back to the morning you found it, the quarter, and follow Victor Merrick back to Captiva Island. We beat Martin there. I want Victor Merrick. More importantly, I don’t want him and Martin seeing each other, ever again.”

III

Upon our return to the Red Barn Inn, we met with a fully conscious Jim Marks, and with him our missing comrade Tom Richards. Tom’s explanation for falling off the grid was as Connor expected, concern The Corporation might be following after dropping seventeen year old me off at the hospital. He made the decision to lay low and maintain radio silence even with confidence The Corporation could not crack the FCA frequencies. Taking that chance, thus compromising our mission or location was not one he wanted to take. After what he considered a fair amount of time, he tracked Connor back to the Inn using the communicator’s version of GPS. Upon arrival, he discovered Jim in his unconscious condition. In what I can only surmise as the Brüder equivalent of a Star Trek Vulcan Mind meld, he brought Jim back. He explaining Jim was never in any danger. Tom merely hurried the process along, resulting in Jim’s awakening.

Connor was pleased on both fronts. It helped balance the bad news he delivered to Jim about the current situation in 2006, intentionally vague about the information, as it was just a working theory. More importantly, since the information was from their future, portions fell under the Code Black protocol. Connor couldn’t reveal information about the Brüder phrase, Jim’s torture and possible death, and finally Dan possibly disguising himself as the missing agent who set it all in motion. Instead, Connor explained Martin’s escape and his more-than-likely plans involving a return to Captiva Island and Victor Merrick. As Ryan carried the ship’s ‘key’, he would not have Brüder-2 for the trip. Martin, and possibly Dan were on their own in 2006.

Then Connor asked the big question. “Can we get back to ES-1 without being tracked, if we are being tracked?”

Tom opened his communicator, which was bigger and more feature equipped than the ones we carried. It also benefitted from a direct line to ES-1 and its computer. “We should be able go now,” Tom said, reviewing the path of Bruder-3 after it deposited my teenage self off at the reservoir. It followed Tom to Carroll County General Hospital. Afterward, Bruder-3 returned to a location high up over the west end of the reservoir, closer to the Arthur Avenue location. There she stayed until morning. The final track of the ship put her at a town that no longer exists. Daniels Mill, Maryland in Baltimore County.

The reveal of that bit of information flabbergasted me. I told Connor - who was unaware of the small town’s history - a little bit about it. Founded in 1845, the Daniels Mill complex consisted of seven early industrial structures, several concrete block and brick structures of 20th century design, and Gary Memorial Church; a granite building built in the High Victorian Gothic style with an off-center tower entrance on the west gable. There was also a small cemetery south of the church. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes produced a flood that wiped the town off the map. All that remains today is the 15-foot dam in a constant state of overflow, the ruined church that still stands, and what is left of the mill. A destroyed pedestrian bridge prevents access to the mill ruins. Local and state law enforcement strongly discourages visitors venturing out to those ruins. As a child, I used to think it was out of safety, and maybe it was. Now it sounded as if The Corporation were covering their collective asses, especially if the remains of Daniels Mill is Brüder-3’s hiding place. In my curiosity travels there, I remembered seeing unmarked black cars block access to the mills. I always assumed they were police vehicles. Perhaps it had been The Corporation all along.

“It’s time to get going,” Connor said, after acknowledging my short tale of Daniels Mill. He clamped Jim on the shoulder. “Go home, old friend, this will all be over soon.”

For someone who didn’t overtly display emotion, Jim seemed off put by Connor’s withdrawn manner. He knew Connor was holding back. “Is everything okay, Connor? It is unlike you to be so reserved.”

“Tom will take you back to your car at the reservoir. When I see you again, everything will be as it should,” Connor said, avoiding the question. Jim nodded, slowly this time, understanding the gravity of Connor’s burden.

The four of us watched Tom and Jim drive onto Interstate 140 in Tom’s Jeep, disappearing into the morning traffic. Krissie put her arm around Connor’s shoulder as he watched them leave. Sadness radiated from his eyes.

“You did the right thing,” Krissie said, in reassurance. “Telling Jim his fate would have put us all in jeopardy.”

“I know,” Connor said, slightly frosty in tone. “It doesn’t mean I have to like it.” Krissie looked back at us with concern and then uncomfortably to the ground. Connor walked back into the room, leaving the three of us standing under the rising summer sun.

I looked at Ryan. “Is he going to be okay?”

“Yes. We’ve been through worse.”

“You have?”

Ryan gazed back, thin lipped. “You have no idea.”

IV

Connor clearly has his own way when dealing with stress. If he wants to talk, he will. Otherwise, he says nothing. He had nothing to say during the drive back to Luke’s house on Arthur Avenue. He rode shotgun as I drove, his eyes closed, presumably meditating.

Luke expressed relief to see us – and his car – back in one piece after an almost twenty-four hour absence. He didn’t ask for specifics regarding the reason for it. I got the idea he didn’t want to know. Luke’s sole purposes included the keep and watch over the ES-1 entrances, and preferred that to be the extent of his involvement. Anything else would be on a need to know basis.

Tom arrived at Luke’s place not long after we did. Luke gave the five of us entry into ES-1 through the hobby room hatch and bid us farewell. We walked down the zigzag ramp from the hatch entrance into the hallway leading to the Jaunte room and beyond. It was here Connor stopped to address Tom. “This is where we will displace. We’re not going back there, the evening of October 13, 2006, the time index we left. We’re going to the morning of the same day instead.”

Tom looked surprised. “Will that not create a paradox, returning earlier in the day you left? You and your team will already be in this location.”

“Not until the afternoon,” Connor said. “We’re only going to be at this location for a few minutes. We’ll be long gone before any paradox possibilities. I understand I’m bending the rules a little. If there were any other way to get it, the information I need, I’d do it. The meeting we need observe happens on that morning.”

“Understood,” said Tom. “Shall I meet you here?”

“Yes. 9:00 AM, October 13, 2006. I’ll brief you then.”

“Understood. Safe journey.”

V

Date: Friday, October 13, 2006, 9:00 AM EST

Location: Hatch hallway, Earth Station One, Eldersburg, Maryland

Age: 35 (Current)

In a flash, we left 1989. Tom disappeared from view only to reappear several feet away from where he stood previously. It blew my mind that an instant for us was almost two decades for him. No one could say the man didn’t know how to keep an appointment.

“Welcome back, TDI-1,” Tom said in the same German accented, semi-monotone voice that all Brüder seem to share in common.

“Let me get right to it” Connor said. “We have four hours until it becomes a risk, a paradox. After that time, my team and I will be appearing on a different mission. Code Black applies, so I can’t say anything else. Kevin and I will Jaunte to FCA-1 to use the observation platform.” I looked at Connor in surprise. This was the first I heard of this plan. The same expression on the faces of Ryan and Krissie told me they felt the same. “I want you to take the rest of my team to Brüder-5. If we don’t have her back before it begins, that four-hour period, we’ll bring her back with us after the paradox window closes later this evening.”

“Understood,” said Tom.

Ryan and Krissie continued to watch Connor in surprise, not understanding their roles in Connor’s plan. Ryan opened his hands. “Are you going to explain your plan to us, or should we just take the new ship for a spin to shake the bugs out of her?”

“You and Krissie will go to the mall in Sarasota, Florida and recon the food court, specifically the Sbarro’s pizza kiosk where Victor Merrick is supposed to spend it, the 2025 quarter. Observe only. Martin said he wasn’t there that day, but we know he’s been full of shit as of late. Make sure you’re wearing your defensive contact lenses, just in case.”

“Hold on,” Ryan said. “I don’t know what Victor Merrick looks like. I don’t know where this place is in Florida, much less where I am going to hide the ship.”

Connor shook his head and grinned. “If you’d left me finish, I’ll explain.”

“Sorry, go ahead.”

“Brüder-5, as you will find out, has the same advanced DRADIS system Brüder-4 uses. Use it to find its location, the mall’s.” Connor glanced at me for confirmation. “It’s called Sarasota Square Mall, right?” I nodded. “Jim and Tom reprogrammed the operating system to recognize English, plus you’ll be able to talk to the ship through your communicators.” This reveal sent a curious grin across Ryan’s face. He was a giddy little boy again. “You’ll be able to transport yourselves down while the ship is stationary using the cumulous cloud cover. It’s been redesigned to be less obvious, the transporter, so Ryan, use Visual Displacement to make the transport without the lightning. Since no one will see you, no cover is necessary. All you need to worry about is finding a safe location to reappear.”

“Brilliant,” Ryan said in awe.

“I thought you’d like that,” Connor said, grinning. “You can also get his image, Victor’s, from the ship’s link to FCA-1. Run it through an age acceleration program to get something close to what he might look like now.”

“The binary tie,” I said.

Connor looked over. “What do you mean?”

“Remember I told you there were three people in line in front of me? I don’t remember anything about the guy in front of me, and the next person was a fat girl, but the one in front of her was Victor. Remember, I’ve seen Victor before, when I was on board Brüder-3. I fairly sure Binary Tie Guy was Victor Merrick.”

“Okay, there you go,” Connor said to Ryan. “Victor will be wearing a tie with binary numbers on it. Whatever happens, do not interfere with that event. Follow him from a distance until he leaves. Since he’s there that day, Kevin is, before he’s met us, he’ll need to stay with me in Observation. We’ll follow you from there. Use open COM when you leave, as we’ll need to stay in contact at all times. Any questions?”

Ryan lifted his hand. “If Victor leaves the mall, do you want us to use the ship to follow him? Eventually he should lead us back to Captiva Island. If Kevin says it’s not a short trip, it’s could take several hours.”

“Yes, use the ship. We’ll follow from FCA-1 as well. I want to know where he ends up. Once we know where that is, we’ll pay him a visit and get him away from Martin. Assuming Martin did steal the quarter from Dan, we’ll be in a position to take it back. If that turns out not to be the case, we’ll reassess then.”

I pruned my face. “So Victor and Martin have been holding onto the quarter all this time since the debacle of the 1991 exchange? Then Victor spends it by accident of all things and Martin is supposed to have been holding onto the same quarter all this time? How does that make sense?”

Connor answered. “I think Martin had Victor spend it, your quarter, to put it into play, so it would end up with you and go through all the events that led it back to him. Otherwise there would be a paradox.”

“But during the botched 1991 exchange, Martin would already have stolen the quarter from Dan. So why bother?”

“We’re dealing with two different incarnations him, Martin,” Connor said. “The Martin who betrayed us, and forced Krissie to make the 1991 exchange had not yet been trapped in the past, so he didn’t have the quarter then. After that exchange failed, Martin became trapped in 1981. From there, he waited until 2006, probably with it hidden, the quarter, until now. This is why we have to follow Victor Merrick. We need to get to him before Martin does.”

“Okay, I get it now. More or less.”

“Any other questions?” There was none. “Okay Tom, take Ryan and Krissie to the Brüder-5 hanger. Kevin and I have a ticket to the moon.”

VI

I really wanted to see Brüder 5. In a way, I was somewhat jealous of Ryan. It sounded like a bitchin’ ship, especially if it was closer to Brüder-4 in operation than Brüder-2.

Instead, Connor and I underwent massive security checks to make the Jaunte trip to FCA-1. Once there, the shift in atmosphere became all too apparent with the thinner air. There were no guards at the currently inactive observation platform. It took Connor several minutes to get the first observatory up and running so he could enter our information into the ID system. Once inside, Connor did his thing with the holographic control panel, bringing the food court at the Sarasota Square Mall to life around us. As before, the realism was spot on, fooling me into believing I was actually there. I watched the kiosk owners open their shops for business, serving the mall employees their purchased breakfasts. Connor and I took seats directly across from Sbarro’s pizza and waited.

Connor’s communicator chirped. “Go ahead, TDI-2.”

“We just left ES-1,” Ryan said. “I really like what the boys did with this ship. If it had a gravity drive, I might like it better than Brüder-4.”

“I’m glad you approve,” Connor said. “How does she fly?”

“It’s like cornering on rails,” Ryan said, with much enthusiasm. “You’ve got to try this sometime.”

“I’m sure I’ll get the chance,” Connor replied, chuckling. “What’s your ETA?”

“Without pushing it, twenty minutes, give or take.”

“That’s fine. It’s located directly across from the north rear entrance to the mall, Sbarro’s is. I’ll let you know when I see you.”

“Copy,” Ryan said. “I’ll contact you after we’ve arrived and transported down. TDI-2, ten-seven.”

I looked at Connor. “Seeing me as I was a few days ago is going to be weird.”

“Not to worry. No one here can see or hear us.”

“Are you recording this?”

“Damn straight I am,” Connor said with a huge grin. “I prefer having as many missions on record as I can.”

“Since we have some time to kill, you told me you’d explain how exactly you got mixed up in all of this.”

Connor laughed to himself. “That would take longer than twenty minutes to explain.”

“Give me the abbreviated version.”

Connor stared at me, eventually nodding in approval. “Okay then, I'll tell you some of it.

“I was born in 1972 as an only child. Both my parents passed away in a car accident when I was seventeen. I’ve been on my own ever since. Out of high school, I went to the Academy and joined the Maryland State Police. In 1991, I got married in to the most beautiful and intelligent woman I’d ever met, Kelli. Three years later, she also passed in a car accident. That's when the dreams began. The very night she died, I began to experience it, the same dream, every night, over and over again. This went on for nine years.”

My eyebrows jerked up in surprise. “Really? What about?”

“It made no sense, and that's part of what made me so crazy. Images of people I didn't know, attempting to communicate with me. There was no sound in them, the dreams. It was like watching a silent movie.”

“That would drive me crazy too.”

“It almost did, several times over. Kelli's death devastated me. We were high school sweethearts. I had no family to turn to after she passed. At her funeral, I met a man who claimed to be a family friend of Kelli's. He went out of his way to befriend me and became a trusted confidant. He was the first person I told about them, the dreams, and he believed me. You know this man as Jim Marks.”

I felt my jaw drop. “Get the hell out of here. Seriously? There is no way that was a coincidence.”

“No, it wasn't. He had been keeping a watch over me since 1989 and used Kelli's funeral as an excuse to make an in road, but I'll get to that in a minute.

“A few weeks after Kelli’s death, I began documenting the dream. Sometimes it lasted a few seconds, other times it would go as far as ten seconds. It never lasted long enough for me to make any sense of it, until the spring of 2003. That night, it lasted almost thirty seconds. When I woke up, I wrote down everything I could remember about it, in as much detail as I could recall. It meant very little to me at first, the new information. I tried to take lost time that morning, from the job, but after calling Jim to tell him what I saw, he insisted I go in anyway. I was in an accident that morning, it led to my death.”

“What?”

“Jim knew it would happen, the accident. It was supposed to happen so The Corporation could kidnap my newly released soul.”

“Okay, I get how that works, the whole soul leaving the body thing,” I said. “But since you're sitting here talking to me, your body was obviously revived, but comatose since your soul had left it.”

“Exactly. By 2062, desperate to synthesize Temporal Displacement, The Corporation came up with a way to snatch up individual souls before they rejoined Himmel. It was their first step to perfecting it, temporal displacement. They would take a stolen soul and put it into a waiting body in 2062, a soul suppressed body kept from the 2032 war. They did this to hundreds of people over a period of four years. When I arrived in 2062, I was alone. It was a mistake they made, The Corporation, that led to my escape. Due to some kind of miscommunication, no one was there to take me into custody when I arrived. I wandered around a post apocalyptic Westminster for days, avoiding capture, trying to piece together exactly where I was and what happened to the town I grew up in. During that time, I stumbled upon another reentry site for another stolen soul, two of them. I got involved and prevented them from completing their mission, the waiting Corporation agents. That's how I met Robert Evans.”

“He's the guy who originally had Ryan's job?”

Connor nodded. “He would become the first human guardian of the Visual Displacement element. They took Robert from the year 1993, The Corporation did, after a car accident that killed him and the driver of the car he hit, a teenage girl named Lauren. The three of us stole the Humvee type vehicle the Corporation agents were using, and went into hiding. The information we recovered from that Humvee gave us a much clearer picture of our situation. Robert and I posed as Corporation agents, with Lauren as our 'prisoner' and infiltrated the nearest active Corporation city, Cincinnati, Ohio. Our first goal was to find a way back to our respective eras, hoping such a thing would be possible. We eventually found it. During that time, we found Martin Wexler, or rather, he found us.”

“I thought you rescued Martin from death after the mall riot.”

“I did, but I didn’t know that at the time. It wasn't until much later, after we established the FCA, did we made the decision to rescue Martin from the mall riot and hide him in 2062. He already possessed the spiritual displacement from a kidnapping attempt on him in 1989. We decided as a group to hide him right under their nose, the enemy's, the last place they would suspect. But as I said, neither Martin or I knew this when we met. He, like the rest of us, believed they took him against his will, The Corporation. He joined us in our quest to find a way home, Robert, Lauren and I.”

“Did the dreams stop after you arrived in 2062?”

“In fact, they did. But I would not discover why until much later.”

“What was it?”

Connor chuckled in a scoff like manner. “It’s the same technology we used to send you that message in your dream, the day you found the 2025 quarter. Martin calls it the DreamMessenger. Its original purpose involved sending covert messages to the intended recipient through the subconscious, through dreams, so it could never be intercepted, the message. But the device was never meant to be used across time. My first attempt to use it through a displacement portal, the DreamMessenger, was to myself in 1994. At that time, I wasn’t familiar with the technology or temporal displacement. I made a serious error in my calculations that caused the message to repeat over and over.”

“What was the message?”

Connor's smile faltered. “That my wife, although dead in 1994 was still alive and well in The Corporation’s future society. They took her too.”

My eyes widened. “No shit! You must have been thrilled to find that out.”

“I was. At the time of Kelli's death, I was a complete wreck. I sent it before we had written any of our Temporal Directives, that message. I attempted to help myself through a bad time, and ended up making it worse. That’s why it’s so important to not give it to anyone, information about themselves from the future. It’s also why I didn’t tell Jim about what happened to him after Martin escaped. Could it have helped us in the short term? Probably. But the long term damage could be much worse.”

“When did Jim come into the picture? In 2062?”

“There was an underground movement at the Corporation compound in Ohio attempting to squash all the propaganda they were spreading, specifically in regard to The Boundaries. The Corporation had the population believing the RAID bio toxin was alive and thriving west of The Boundaries. Anyone who went past that point would become sick, and die a very slow and horrible death. The movement attempted to dismiss those myths, but even then only a few people attempted escape. Most were content to live out their lives under Corporation dominance, where they considered themselves ‘safe’. I guess they thought it was better to live under the protection of a dictatorship, than live in an empty world destroyed by war. We did escape eventually, our group, taking our chances with whatever was out there. Afterward, we discovered quickly the information The Corporation fed us was complete bullshit. We came across small, well-hidden communities encouraging anyone brave enough to escape to make their way to Paradise Ranch, formerly Area 51. Jim was in charge of overseeing Paradise Ranch, telling us the truth about The Corporation and the war of 2032. When I met him, Jim, I recognized him right away, although he had no idea who I was. Jim was involved in more than just my life. He was also involved with Martin’s and Robert’s. Jim arranged it so we would know him when we finally met for the first time, from his perspective. He would know we had a purpose. Long story short, it was the beginning of the FCA.”

“And how do the displacement elements figure into all of this?”

“That’s a whole different story, my friend,” Connor said smiling. “I’ll tell you what, when this mess with the quarter is over, and you have an answer for me, I’ll share it then. Deal?”

I felt a smirk creep across my face. “Okay then, fair enough. I’m guessing after all was said in done in 2062, you made it back to 2003.”

“Yes. Robert returned to 1993 and I returned Martin there as well, since returning him to 1989 would have been too risky with The Corporation looking for him. In 1993, Martin made contact with Robert after he came out of his coma and his trip from 2062. They worked together with Jim, preparing for the day they would be able to make contact with me in 2003, when I would return from 2062. Robert and I returned to our original time indexes with our respective displacement elements, forming the core FCA.”

I was confused. Connor was tossing all these years around. “You’ve lost me a little,” I said, to Connor’s expected grin. “You awoke from your coma in 2003, right? How long were you in a coma?”

“A month and three days.”

“At which time Martin and Robert revealed themselves to you?”

“Correct.”

“How long after that meeting did you wait to move to 2088, I guess to live full time?”

“By 2005 – and a huge a mount of trial and error learning to use our elements – we relocated to 2088, the three of us. That year was far enough away from 2062 to begin operating safely. We formed the Temporal Displacement Investigator unit. We used our displacement elements, working together to determine the origin of The Corporation. We wanted to know whom exactly they had inside the government and other world governments of that time, and how far in their hooks went. Before we left 2062 to come back to our original time indexes, we dealt The Corporation a massive defeat, permanently ruining their ability to steal souls from other eras. We were almost able to see them in physical form, the leaders of The Corporation, that one man and his roundtable of advisors. It didn’t matter though, we knew who it was.”

Jaw open and hands extended, I gasped. “Who is it?”

“Sorry Kev, it’s a code black, this information.”

“Meaning I cannot know future information where I might be involved,” I said, grumbling.

Connor nodded. “There’s also a third player involved. No one has ever seen him. I suspect he’s a myth anyways.”

“Can you tell me?”

“His name is Vincent Rettori. When it became self aware, the Internet, rumors regarding it suggested it wanted to be free of its artificial world, that thinking like a computer with no emotion held it back from greater things. It wanted to merge with a human being, if that’s even possible. Vincent Rettori is supposed to be that hybrid, but as I said, he’s never been seen. Sometimes I think it’s become so big, the myth has, that some less intelligent people believe it’s fact.”

“How exactly would a computer merge with a man? That seems impossible on so many levels.”

“I don’t know. I never spent a great deal of time attempting to figure it out, as I thought it was a myth.”

“Maybe it isn’t,” I said. “We’ve seen those IAs. They seem to be people who operate on the principle of a computer.”

“That’s different. Krissie seems to believe those soul suppressed bodies are reprogrammed using available nanobot technology. What it wants to accomplish, the Internet Entity, is to merge its consciousness with a human being. Not to create a cyborg like The Terminator.”

“Okay. I get it now.”

“Jim once explained it, the merging of artificial intelligence with biological, in terms of the Leben. You remember them, the race the Brüder merged with to create humans?” I nodded. “The Leben don’t have souls, they are programmed at the DNA level. If the Internet Entity were able to merge with a human, it would happen along those lines.” Connor’s communicator chirped. He flipped it open. “Go ahead, TDI-2.”

“We’re here, slightly ahead of schedule,” Ryan said. “It looks like there is an unused parking lot not far from the entrance you described. We’ll transport down there.”

“Copy,” Connor said. “Use caution. Don’t reappear where you could be seen.”

“Copy. TDI-2, ten-seven. Out.”

A few seconds later, a mild flash of light flared through the glass roof of the food court. Connor grimaced. “That wasn’t as subtle as I was led to believe.”

I looked around at the few people engaging in their morning walk around the mall’s perimeter. “I don’t think anyone noticed.”

Connor sighed in relief. “That’s good.”

Minutes later Krissie and Ryan entered the assigned door. They looked around, finally noticing the Sbarro’s pizza kiosk.

Connor spoke into the open COM. “Kevin and I are seated at the table against the wall, across from Sbarro’s. I want you to spread out, one of you on each side of the kiosk. From our positions, we won’t miss him when he shows up, Victor.” Krissie and Ryan spread out as ordered, covering both sides of Sbarro’s pizza, at the front.

The waiting game began.

VII

Nearly forty-five minutes passed before Victor Merrick made his appearance.

Ryan was the first to spot him. “Heads up. A man wearing a black or dark blue tie with binary sequences is approaching from my nine o’clock.”

Connor and I looked in his direction. Ryan sat at the far end of the food court at an empty white table across from Sbarro’s, pretending to read a newspaper someone left behind. To Ryan’s left was the man I remembered from the first day of this ordeal. The man who had stood three places ahead of me in line at Sbarro’s, in his black suit and the impressionable tie with the light blue binary sequences. Victor Merrick, twenty or more years older since I last laid eyes on him.

“Fucking weird,” I whispered. “I know that’s Victor, but damn he looks different.”

Connor glanced over. “How so?”

“I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. He’s much tanner, but living in Florida can do that to you. He seems…I don’t know, darker somehow.” I tried to study him closer. “He’s too far away.”

“So go take a closer look,” Connor said. “He can’t see you.”

Of course he couldn’t see me. We weren’t actually here. The real time holographic recreation duped me again. I stood up and approached Victor, walking beside him, studying his facial features.

“It’s in his eyes,” I said, broadcasting through the open COM. “They don’t seem…real.” Victor took his place at the end of the line at Sbarro’s. There were four people before him.

One of them was Rose Centeno.

I walked up to her, studying her up close, suddenly feeling the rage from her betrayal. I had nearly forgotten about her, including my reason for following her here. I looked farther down the food court. At the food court’s farthest point, sitting at a small two-person table, sat a man glaring angrily in Rose’s direction. He wanted answers. Answers Rose Centeno could provide. That man was I, as I was that morning before discovering the FutureQuarter. He watched Rose…and waited.

Connor motioned for me to come back. “Okay folks, this is it,” he said, standing up as I returned to his side. “Berechnen, gitter.” Yellow gridlines superimposed themselves over the real time activity, each grid several feet in length and width. “Bild gitter 212.” The holographic control panel of the observation platform reappeared. Next to it, an equal sized window with a still image of Victor and the individual standing in line before him.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Confirming he has the quarter,” Connor said, punching data into the control panel. “This image in combination with the real time data will show me exactly what he has in his pockets.”

The still image of Victor morphed into a color x-ray image, revealing the contents of Victor’s pockets. The only object Victor carried was a wallet in the rear pocket. Connor zoomed in on the wallet, enlarging the image further to reveal the contents of the wallet. Several dollar bills, but no coins.

“This is wrong,” I said.

Connor closed the still image by waving his hand down over top of it. The heavyset women I recalled standing behind Victor had made her way in line. “Martin lied,” Connor said. “Victor doesn’t have the quarter.”

“Connor?” Ryan asked.

“I did a full scan of Victor. He has no coins on him.” Connor looked at me with the most serious eyes I’d seen from him to date. “Did you go anywhere else that morning, where money was involved?”

“Absolutely not,” I said. “I left my house and drove directly to the mall. I bought lunch at Sbarro’s. I noticed the quarter after talking to Rose.”

Without responding, Connor turned back to the line of people waiting for service at Sbarros. “Berechnen, gitter. Bild gitter 214.” An image of the heavyset woman opened next to the control panel. Connor performed the same series of steps on her image to determine if she carried coins. There were several pennies at the bottom of her purse, but no quarters. Use of coins and paper money lessened in the age of check cards and credit cards. Had I not been staring at that woman, waiting to see who came next in line, I might not have seen what everyone else missed. Her eyes, for just a split second changed from green to blue and then back to green. Had it not been for her badly dyed red hair, I might not have noticed either. Something about red hair makes blue or green eyes so prominent.

“Did you see that?” I said, pointing at the enhanced grid. “That woman behind Victor, her eyes flickered blue.”

“Are you sure?”

“Dead sure.”

“Ryan, go stand in the Sbarro’s line. Martin is shadowing the woman behind Victor.”

“What?” Ryan asked. “Are you sure?”

“Do it, now! I don’t want Kevin that close to Martin.”

“Copy,” said Ryan, hesitation in his voice. He stood up from his seat in the food court and circled around to stand in line, avoiding Martin’s line of sight. “This is damn risky, Connor.”

“It’s okay. Kevin doesn’t remember seeing you. Keep your head down and don’t turn around.”

Second dragged like hours.

Then it happened. “Oh my God,” I whispered, watching myself dressed in the same clothes I still wore stand in line behind Ryan, making brief note of the people in front of him.

“You looked pissed,” Connor said.

“I was. I’m guessing you know why.”

Connor glanced over uncomfortably. “Yeah, I do.”

Krissie, who had been silent until now, added her two cents. “When this whole thing is over Kevie, you and I are going to have a little chat about that.”

Kevie. The pet name Tessie Manyette gave me in 1991, when we were dating. It brought back memories I hadn’t given thought to in over a decade, specifically ones from the evening in Ocean City when The Corporation took Wald.

“Do you have a quarter, Kevie?” Tessie asks. I turn around to face her. She is fiddling with a horoscope scroll dispenser. “I want to read our horoscopes.”

“Yeah, I think so,” I say, reaching into my side pocket. I feel change there. I pull out the collection of coins to dutifully search for the requested quarter.

“MOVE! GET OUT OF THE WAY!” Someone shouts. The heavy sound of running footsteps fills my ears as I am run over, knocking me into Tessie, sending us both onto the concrete. The coins in my hand fly in all directions.

I left Connor’s side and approached Victor with purpose, staring him up and down. “Son of a bitch!”

Connor also approached. “What is it?”

“You remember the story I told you about Tessie Manyette and I reading the horoscope scroll in Ocean City, and the kid who ran into me?”

“Yes, that was Victor running from them, The Corporation, after stealing the quarter from Dan.”

“Right, and then The Corporation took Wald from the pier thinking he was me.”

“Cause you were wearing your other friend’s baseball cap,” Connor said. “The wind blew it off his head and you picked it up.”

“I know why they wanted me that night. I had the FutureQuarter. I don’t know how, but I think I’ve had it in my possession since that night in 1991. That’s why Victor doesn’t have it now. Run that x-ray program on me, now! That damned thing is in my pocket, I’m sure of it.”

Connor began the process. “How did you come to that conclusion?”

“Martin lied again,” I said. “He told you Victor hid the quarter while he was being chased, so The Corporation wouldn’t recapture it. Then Martin claimed he and Victor recovered it ten years after the crash of Bruder-3 in 1981. None of that happened either.”

“So how did you end up with the quarter?”

“When Victor ran into me, I was looking for a quarter to give Tessie. He knocked the change out of my hand. Before he got up, he grabbed up most of the money I dropped. He did that because he must have dropped the FutureQuarter.”

Connor snapped his fingers. “He picked up the wrong one.”

“When Victor was gone, I picked up two quarters and a few other coins. I gave one to Tessie for the horoscope scroll and pocketed the other. Somehow, The Corporation knew and that’s why they tried to grab me up. They got Wald instead. By the time they realized their mistake, I was gone.”

Ryan responded over the COM. “And you’ve been carrying around that quarter for fifteen years, without spending it?”

Connor tapped me on the shoulder, motioning me to view the results of the x-ray scan. Sure enough, in that frozen image was a close up of a quarter in my pocket with the 2025 stamp. “I’ve verified it,” Connor said. “Kevin has it in his pocket, the quarter, before he paid for the pizza.”

Krissie whistled in amazement. “Unbelievable. What are the odds of holding onto the same coin unaware for all those years?”

“Too high,” Connor said, dripping with doubt. “Now the question becomes, why are they here knowing they don’t have the quarter, Martin and Victor, and why did Martin lie about it. Something’s deadly wrong here.”

“I’m almost up to order,” Ryan said. “What do you want me to do?”

“Slip away discreetly,” Connor replied. “We need to follow Victor. Hopefully he’ll lead us back to Captiva.”

Ryan slapped his back pocket while standing in line, making believe he didn’t have his wallet. Apparently, I didn’t notice Ryan leave the line. I was focusing on another matter entirely. Ryan joined Krissie at her table.

Victor took his slices of pizza and sat at another table some distance away. The heavyset woman was completely out of sight. Connor said nothing, studying Victor with great intensity. He had good reason, as Victor was acting strange. On his tray sat four different slices of pizza, each one of a different variety. Victor took a bite of the first slice. The curious expression on his face changed to one of sheer pleasure. He literally looked like a man eating a slice of pizza for the first time. He then took several bites of each slice, not bothering to finish any of them. Afterward, he stood up and walked away. Ryan and Krissie followed at a distance.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

Connor shook his head. “I don’t know. Nothing makes sense. Let’s go.”

We followed Victor as well, not bothering to move out of the way when other people approached us. We walked right through them.

Ryan checked in. “TDI-1, come in.”

“Go.”

“I think Martin is shadowing Victor. I also think we’ve been made.”

“Explain.”

“Victor looked back making eye contact,” Ryan said. “His eyes were blue.”

“Dammit,” Connor said under his breath. “Martin knows you’re here. Fall back and return to the ship. We’ll follow him from there.”

“Sorry Connor,” Ryan said, sounding defeated.

“Don’t worry about it. I think he knew we were here from the start.” I watched Ryan and Krissie change direction, returning to the entrance in the mall from which they came. Connor and I continued to follow Victor, moving in closer. Victor again turned his head to see who was behind him, eyes crystal blue. He stopped when he noticed Ryan and Krissie were no longer there, looking around cautiously. His eyes shifted back to their original brown as he continued to walk into one of the anchor stores.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“I think they might have been here to grab you up,” Connor said. “I had my suspicions after you said her eyes changed color, the heavyset woman’s. I sent Ryan up there hoping if Martin noticed, he would back off.”

“Why would they want me?”

“You have the quarter,” Connor said. “My thinking is since they never had it, and since this incarnation of Martin shadowing Victor already knows you’re here, it was the opportunity they were looking for. That’s my guess anyways. I can’t back it up with evidence yet.”

An unseen Ryan interjected. “I thought Martin already had the quarter. He stole it from Dan after Kevin was released from Bruder-3 in 1989.”

“That was a theory Ryan. It was supposed to explain why he had the quarter, Martin did, and how Victor lost it. Since that was a lie, who knows what happened to it after Dan took it from Kevin. All we know for certain right now is Dan last had it in 1989 and has no memory of it.”

“Standby, TDI-1,” Ryan said. “Krissie and I are returning to the ship.”

Connor and I followed Victor out of the store and into the parking lot. Behind us, a split second flash of the transporter system took Ryan and Krissie back to the ship. Victor didn’t notice. He walked up to a black Lincoln town car, unlocked it, and sat inside.

“Come in, TDI-2,” Connor said.

“We’re here, go ahead.”

“Victor is driving a black Lincoln town car, Florida license plate ‘Romeo, Whiskey, Hotel, One, Six, Four’. Track it.”

“Copy,” Ryan acknowledged.

“How do we follow him?” I asked. “We just can’t ride along, can we?”

“No, we’ll follow a different way,” Connor said. “Berechnen, antenne sehen. aktive Handbedienung.” Connor and I lifted into the air until we were several hundred feet up. My gut tingled with the fear of falling from such a height. A joystick like device appeared before Connor. He used it to change directions, so we were following Victor’s car.

After a few minutes, it became apparent to me where Victor was going. “He’s on his way back to Captiva Island,” I said, pointing at the land mass indicating its location. “He’ll take Route 41 south all the way to the Sanibel Island Bridge. From there he’ll work his way to Captiva.”

Connor studied the area I indicated. As the crow flies, Captiva Island was a mere 30 miles or so from south Sarasota. He noticed the discrepancy in travel time versus the location. “It’s not all that far away from here, Captiva, but you said it took several hours to get there. Did I miss something?”

“No. To get to the island itself, one has to drive almost a hundred miles south to Fort Myers, take the Sanibel causeway out to the shore, and then drive another twenty miles or so north. It’s a really out of the way trip when the island itself is so close to Sarasota.”

Connor looked doubtful. “That’s insane. Why not just build a bridge to connect all the keys together?”

“Got me,” I said. “I think the locals wanted it that way, to keep their island pristine. The drive may be a pain in the ass, but it’s some beautiful scenery along the way.”

Connor lowered our view, stopping some hundred feet above Victor’s car. The cloud cover would not be ample to conceal the ship. “TDI-2, do you copy?”

“Go.”

“Follow from the upper atmosphere. If there are too many cloud covers, Martin could get suspicious. I’m currently on top of him.”

“Copy.”

Twenty miles south of Sarasota, past the next town of Venice, Victor deviated from Route 41 onto a lesser road, one that wouldn’t take him to Captiva.

Connor noticed right away. “Where is he going?”

“I don’t know,” I said, watching Victor drive toward the coast. “It’s a shot in the dark, but maybe he has a boat. It would shorten the trip.”

Ryan called in. “Are you seeing this?”

“Copy,” Connor replied. “Stand by.”

Victor’s new course took him through the town of Englewood, across Lemon Bay and onto Manasota Key. He continued to drive south, finally stopping at an impressive port. It was home to a sizable yacht. We watched intently as Victor left his car and boarded the vessel.

“You were right,” Connor said. “He’s going to sail the rest of the way.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he lived on that damn thing,” I said. “How big do you think that boat is? Seventy, maybe eighty feet?”

“At least.”

Not long after Victor boarded, the yacht launched on a southbound course. It moved considerably slow, observing wake zone rules.

Connor cleared his throat. “It appears you’ve had it with you all this time, the quarter.”

“I don’t get how that’s possible. You said the odds were too high.”

“They are, but it’s not impossible. Let’s talk it out. We’ll assume you did pick it up, Victor’s dropped quarter, and pocketed it. Where would it have ended up?”

I gasped in amusement. “How the hell should I know? That was a long time ago.”

“What do you normally do with pocket change?”

I thought about it. “I usually stick it in a change jar I keep on the kitchen counter with my keys and wallet, but I don’t remember when I started doing that. It was way after 1991.”

Connor didn’t take his eyes off the barely moving yacht. He scratched at the whiskers on his chin, in thought. “After your friend Wald was taken, you said you ended up in the hospital.”

“Right. The blast from the so-called lightning strike on the pier knocked me into a parking meter.” Then something clicked in my head. “Oh wait, all my personal effects were in an envelope when Tessie drove me back to the condo the next morning. Everything I had on me, the ER nurse put in there.”

“Good, good. What happened to it? Do you remember?”

“I remember opening it for my wallet and my cigarettes when we left the hospital. I think I left everything else in that envelope, in the trunk of my car.”

Connor nodded in approval. “Did you remove it when you got back home, the envelope?”

“No,” I replied, looking off in the distance. “That was a tough time then, believing Wald died. My relationship with Tessie didn’t work out, I got involved with a girl named Becca, who was Taylor’s girlfriend at the time. It was all a big fucking mess.” I paused. “Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that envelope sat in the trunk of my car until I sold it.”

“Which was…when?”

“1993. A month after I moved to Florida with mom and Phil.” I paused again. “Now that I think about, I remember throwing that envelope away and dumping the change out of it into my new car’s coin holder.”

Connor looked over this time, clearly enthusiastic. “Good. We’re up to 1993 now. We’re already assuming you didn’t spend it, the quarter. What do you remember about that coin container? Anything? The most insignificant thing might mean something.”

“It was a cheap ass plastic thing the dealership threw in with the car when I bought it. She was a white 1992 Camero. A sweet ride,” I said. Connor grinned in agreement, nodding. “The damned thing never wanted to stay Velcroed to the shifter panel. Like everything else that ended up on the passenger floor, it would end up in the trunk and stay there until I cleaned it out.”

“When was that?”

I grinned sheepishly. “Never?”

Connor scoffed in satisfaction. “Of course not.”

“What can I tell you, man? The trunks of my cars never got any love.” Connor rolled his eyes, now observing the yacht again. “I do remember throwing that hunk of plastic away during my back and forth trips to Maryland in 1997.”

“Okay. Any memory of the money in it?”

“There was none. I can only guess it fell out onto the floor of the trunk, which again, stayed there until I bought a new Camero in 1998, right before I got married. As before, I took everything out of the trunk, put it in a plastic shopping bag, and socked it away someplace, probably the trunk of the new car.”

“I’m seeing a pattern here,” Connor said, with friendly sarcasm.

“Yeah, yeah. I moved to Maryland with that car, and then back to Florida in 1999…” I stopped. My memory decided to fast forward itself, rather than wait for Connor.

“Kev?”

“Sorry, I remember that shopping bag, when I sold the ’98 Camero,” I said. “It was the day after my divorce, in 2004. I cleaned out the Camero’s trunk in the parking lot of the dealership where I bought the Corvette. Buying that car was a complete impulse thing, which is why I did the transfer of my personal stuff at the dealership.” I paused, remembering that particular afternoon all too well. “The Corvette was supposed to make me feel better. I’d always wanted one. I figured, ‘what the hell?’”

“It didn’t make you feel better, buying it?”

I sighed. “It did for a little while. I felt so empty. I guess I was trying to fill that space with something else.”

“I do understand loss, Kev,” Connor said, frowning.

“Yeah, but it’s not the same thing. I think divorce might be worse than the death of a loved one.”

Connor met my stare, taken aback. “How so?”

“With death, it’s final. You get closure. You get to say your goodbyes at the funeral and begin the grieving process. With divorce, it’s different. You have to watch the woman who divorced you go on with her life, without you. It was one of the most difficult things I ever did, Connor. Walking into that little courtroom, where it’s just you, your attorney, and the judge, and he asks you if this divorce is what you want, when it isn’t. You say yes anyway. And I found myself thinking, ‘how did it come to this?’ We began with this huge ceremony, Marie and I. We stood before our friends and families and swore our lives to each other, until death do us part. We celebrated late into the night.” I paused. “Now, this is how it ends, standing in front of that judge, answering his questions, feeling cold, alone, and broken. One man in a black robe begins your life, joining you and your wife in marriage, with smiles and well wishes for the future. Another man in a black robe finishes it, looking down on you from on high. You’re alone, feeling as if you failed in life and everything that happened to get to that point was your fault, even if it wasn’t.”

“Does it still bother you, your divorce?”

“Not so much anymore,” I said, shaking my head. “I was more devastated by the loss of not seeing my son every day, but beyond that it was the betrayal. If a man or a woman makes a commitment, especially one of that magnitude, they should honor it. Or at least try to instead of bailing out with no warning, for reasons that are not so honorable.”

“She cheated?”

I scoffed. “Yeah, that’s one way of putting it.”

“You’re real big on that kind of thing, honoring commitments?” Connor asked, his eyebrows raised.

“I am. You shake a man’s hand and give him your word, it should be rock solid.”

“Good to know.”

“Anyways, back to that plastic bag, by the time I bought the Corvette, it was pretty much filled with crap from several cars before. I ended up taking that bag home and sorting all that junk out. Any coins I found went into my change jar.”

“Alright, so we can now say the quarter survived most of its years in various car trunks, ending up as change in your pocket the day you find it.”

“Yeah, I remember grabbing a bunch of quarters out of change jar before leaving. I was having trouble with my debit card at the time and thought I would pay in cash. It was just a slice of pizza, maybe $2.50 and change.”

Connor smiled. “See, that’s wasn’t so hard, now was it?”

“You’re a kick ass detective, I’ll give you that.” Connor laughed, but made no reply.

Once the yacht cleared the no wake zone, it sped up considerably, traveling ten miles or more off the Florida coastline. In less than twenty minutes, the craft reached it’s destination off the waters of Captiva Island, stopping completely. Connor lowered our view onto the starboard bow. “Berechnen, boden sehen. Inaktivenmanuelle Steuerung.”

The view in the observation platform shifted so we stood on the deck of the ship, the PrinzessinErde. The sensation of rocking back and forth took me by complete surprise. The control panel and the joystick disappeared, restoring the illusion of standing on a massive boat several miles offshore. Victor was nowhere in sight. A quick search of the deck turned up nothing.

I shook my head in frustration. “Where the hell did he go?”

“Let’s check below deck,” Connor said. I followed him into the belly of the ship. I was dead on about the floating home theory. The ship had more rooms – and probably square footage – than my house. To afford a boat of this stature, Martin had come into some serious money somewhere along his journey back to 2006. I couldn’t help thinking that with his unique ability of spiritually displacing, it was probably stolen money.

The surprise find of our search was the miniature moon pool at the bottom of the ship. Its hatch was open, indicating Victor dove in. Connor scoffed. “Unbelievable.”

“TDI-1,” Ryan asked. “Is everything okay? We’re monitoring real time images from your observation platform.”

“So you see the moon pool?” Connor asked. “What the hell is that about?

“He went diving?” Ryan asked.

Connor scanned the room. “No, I don’t think so. There’s no diving equipment in here. Standby, TDI-2.” Connor looked at me. “This might get weird again. Hang on. Berechnen, aktive Handbedienung.”

The control panel and joystick reappeared. Connor lowered our view through the ship, into the water. We didn’t get wet and could breathe. Further below, a small underwater craft came into view, presumably the craft Victor used.

Connor spoke into the open COM. “Ryan, Krissie, I want you to transport down to this ship, just as you did at the mall and reappear right away. Meet us in the moon pool.”

“Copy,” Ryan said. “Since we’re out of public view, I’m bringing an Observation pad, so we can see you.”

“Copy,” Connor said. We followed Victor in his little sub-ship until it touched bottom, directly across from a rock face. A faded octagon shape covered what appeared to be an entrance.

“Is this what I think it is?” I asked.

Connor said nothing, touching the outline of the octagon. “There is a Jaunte entrance on the other side of this rock.”

“From the Brüder?”

“Yeah, I think what we have here is an undocumented Earth Station. How Martin knows about it, or found it, or what its original purpose was, I don’t know. You getting all this, TDI-2?”

“Copy, Connor. I’m speechless.”

The rock face inside the octagon faded away, giving view to a holographic force field. The sub ship crossed through, hovered, and then set down. The rock face reappeared behind it in much the same way the FCA-1 moon base cloaked the launch area in and out of the station.

“Interesting,” Connor said to himself. “Okay TDI-2, transport to the yacht with your pad and we’ll meet up shortly. I want to see what’s in here before we find a way to bring you down. Keep your COM open.”

“Copy.”

“Now what?” I asked. “Do we wait and see what he does?”

“No, we go in and take a peek for ourselves.”

Connor guided us through the stone entrance, into the makeshift base. To say it was a complete mess would be an understatement. It appeared abandoned, as if no one lived there for hundreds of years. We immediately noticed the half torn down and inactive Jaunte portal.

“Another lie from Martin,” I said, sourly. “He said there were no Jaunte portals in Florida that he knew of.”

“Maybe he meant ‘working’ Jaunte portal, which technically isn’t a lie.”

I sighed in frustration. “It’s always semantics with that guy.”

“Come in, TDI-1,” Ryan said.

“Go.”

“Krissie and I are aboard the boat. We’re seeing what you are seeing. Is it another Earth Station?”

“It looks that way,” Connor said. “We’re going to look around before having you join us. In the meantime, reconnoiter the yacht. See if there is anything that begins to explain any of this.”

“Copy. TDI-2, ten-eight.”

I stared at the wrecked Jaunte portal. “That won’t work now, will it?”

“No. It’s not powered up. The lighting in here is only partially working. I’m guessing it’s not been maintained for some time now, this place.”

Connor disabled the joystick device and our floating view. We continued down the hall, away from the disassembled Jaunte portal, and farther into the run down station. The entrances where holographic doors should be were open. I peered in each room as we passed them, seeing nothing of significance. Some contained equipment whose purpose I couldn’t immediately ascertain. “It looks like some kind of barracks,” I said.

“You may be right. It’s exactly what it looks like. This might come in handy at some point, in my time index.”

At the end of the hall, before it split off to the left and right was a kind of master room, similar to a Sergeant’s barracks. We walked in. Victor wasn’t present. Instead, where a cot should be, a running HMS with a fogged out blue tube sat, a body unmistakably inside.

“What the hell is this?” I asked.

“Wait here,” Connor advised, approaching the HMS tube. He leaned over to look inside. The expression of shock on his face scared me a little, even though I knew we were both safe.

Krissie broke the silence. “Connor, can you confirm what we are seeing up here?”

Connor sighed. “Copy that.”

“What is it?” I asked anxiously.

Connor looked back over and shook his head in disbelief. “Something I haven’t seen in a long, long time, my friend.” He motioned me over. I joined him, cautiously peering inside. It was indeed a body, but not a body I expected. It was clearly alive and asleep, or unconscious, or perhaps comatose.

“What the hell is that?” I gasped. “It’s…it’s not human, is it?”

“No,” Connor said softly, putting his hand on my shoulder. “It’s Brüder.”


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