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Displaced I: The Exchange

By Kevin Provance All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Adventure

V - Corpus Delicti

“The substantial and fundamental fact necessary to prove the commission of a crime.”

****

Date: Friday, October 13, 2006

Location: Turtle Beach, Sarasota, Florida

Age: 35 (current)

****

I

“His name is not Martin,” I said, pointing toward the man standing before me. “His name is O’Bryan VonWald, and he’s dead! Or at least he’s supposed to be,” I faced Ryan. “Wald was one of my best friends from high school. I watched him die, Ryan. Even worse, it was my fault what happened, what ultimately got him killed.”

Ryan looked at me, then at Martin and finally back to me. He wiped his face in frustration.

“Ryan…” Martin began.

“No. Be quiet,” Ryan snapped, holding up a single finger in Martin’s direction. “We may have a code-black situation here and protocol must be followed. No exceptions.” Ryan turned to me. “What that means is one mission has - however inadvertent – crossed another. I was nearly certain this might be the case when you explained the Liberty Reservoir incident. But now you’re telling me you actually know who this gentleman is.” Ryan motioned toward Martin. “This is a big problem. We potentially risk creating a paradox, which would be very bad.”

“So what do we…” I began to say, before Ryan cut me off by violently raising his hand.

“Neither one of you must not speak for any reason, unless I specifically ask you a question,” Ryan said. “This will be protocol until I can stabilize the situation and account for all possible variables, and when I say there are too many unaccountable variables right now, I am dead serious.”

I looked at Martin. He was Wald, through and through, albeit fifteen years older. He aged well. Part of me wanted to run over there, hug him, tell him I missed him and that I was glad he is alive. The other part of me wanted to kick his scrawny ass for not telling me he was alive, and arguably well for the last decade and a half.

Ryan stepped toward the pilot’s seat, clearly unhappy about what he needed to do. “I need to temporarily relieve you of duty, Martin.”

“Understood,” Martin said, sighing. He handed Ryan a hand-sized device, stepping away from the empty console panel.

Ryan slid the device into a small slot on the left of the pilot’s side of the panel, the only visible control access I could see. The telephone booth sized container at the rear of the craft hummed to life. Ryan offered me a quick glance, the hint of a geek’s smile that said, ‘watch this, it’ll blow your mind.’ “Berechnung, Kontrollen.

The empty black panels surrounding the cockpit area lit up with glowing buttons and other various control devices. My jaw dropped. A three-dimensional holographic interface extended from one side of the cockpit to the other.

Ryan spoke another command in the alien language, “Berechnung, Innere Muster ein.” Behind us, a transparent blue force field divided the flight deck from the rest of the ship, leaving only space for an open doorway. I reached out, pressing my finger against the semi-transparent field of shimmering blue comprising the rear cockpit wall. The energy field passively and painlessly buzzed my fingertip upon contact, preventing penetration.

Ryan turned to the ship’s pilot. “Martin, would you excuse us, please?” Martin gave Ryan a compliant nod and left the cockpit. I looked at Ryan, more scared than anxious. It must have been obvious.

Berechnung, Tür schließen,” Ryan said to the ship. The cockpit entry sealed itself off from the rear of the ship. “Don’t worry, Kevin. Once I make contact with Detective MacKenzie and we study the HoloLog-” Ryan slapped at the glass rod in his breast pocket, “-we should be able to make more sense of this and get back to business. However, while we are in code black, I can’t tell you much else. Do you understand?”

“More or less,” I said. Then, for no apparent reason, my ears popped. It was no little pop either, like one might experience during an airplane flight. It felt as if someone stuck plungers on my ears and yanked with appreciable force. I threw my hands over my ears, cringing in discomfort. Ryan looked back at Martin through the force field, clearly concerned. Martin nodded and sat down, leaning against the side of the ship. He looked as if he fell asleep with his eyes open. “What the hell was that?”

“Trouble,” Ryan replied, sitting down at the pilot’s side of the flight console. He tapped at various holographic controls. “Berechnung, nahe Luke, volle Energie der Maschine.”

The ship’s entrance disappeared, leaving no discernable egress. Other blank sections of cockpit jumped to life with holographic interfaces. The humming from the rear increased in volume and pitch. Without warning, I stumbled off balance as we lifted off the ground. There was no lengthy takeoff procedure. We simply began to hover.

“You might want to sit down,” Ryan said, nodding toward the seat behind the co-pilot’s chair. “This might get a little weird, for you.”

“A little?” I asked under my breath, complying with Ryan’s suggestion. “What happened to Wald, err, Martin?”

“He’s fine. Don’t panic when we start to move forward. If you feel queasy, close your eyes. It’ll pass.”

“What does that mean?” I asked. The answer came quickly. Ryan made a forward motion with his right hand over the center section of his side of the flight panel. We began to move forward, leaning down on an angle as we went. Had I been standing, I surely would have taken a nasty stumble.

I realize there are only so many ways I can state, ‘what happened next defied all belief’ without sounding like a broken record. So, perhaps I’ll go with ‘what happened next all but nullifies the laws of physics.’ It’s more appropriate.

The black shell lining the interior of the ship, including the ones behind the holographic displays and the seats faded into nothing, showing everything outside. The ship became transparent, leaving only the holographic displays and the three of us scattered about. I squinted my eyes as I looked down, watching the surface of the beach disappear into the fog bank as the ship lifted higher into the air. Upon closer inspection, the hull was not truly transparent. There was a kind of textural distortion to the transparency. I felt the need to stomp my feet down to maintain balance.

It utter awe, I looked up at Ryan who glanced back, half grinning. “Cool, isn’t it?” I opened my mouth to reply, but there were no words to describe what I felt. Comparing the sensation to that of flying inside a dream would only scratch the surface. Ryan must have seen the look of melded disbelief and pleasure on my face. His half grin turned into a full one. “I know. I felt the same way on my first ride.” I understood now why Ryan spoke of this ship with such love. She was indeed a thing of beauty, inside and out.

“I don’t believe what I’m seeing,” I finally managed to say in a whisper.

Martin approached from behind while I was ogling over the ship. I never heard the spoken command to open the entrance into the cockpit. “We need to move,” he said with urgency. “Our Corporation friends know we’re here.”

“Not a problem,” Ryan said, moving his left hand with precision over the flight panel, altering the course of the ship. “I’m surprised we made it this long.”

“Are they chasing us?” I asked. “Do they have a ship too?”

“No, they don’t,” Ryan said. “But we do need to put some distance between us and them.” Ryan turned to look at one of the wall panels behind him. “Martin, would you calibrate the inertia compensator? I think we’re going to have to do some serious speed.”

“Copy,” Martin said, taking his place in the co-pilot’s chair. He turned to the right-side panel. His fingers danced over several lit buttons that were not there while studying the data scrolling down in a view screen. I stretched my neck to peek at the display. Instead of English, the readout appeared German in nature. Having never been fluent in any foreign language, I couldn’t say with any degree of certainty what I was reading.

“Are we good?” Ryan asked.

“As good as we’ll ever be,” Martin said, not sounding as hopeful as I would’ve preferred. Ryan shifted his glance back to me. “We’re about to fly just under the speed of sound, so we don’t attract any attention. You might feel the air around us compressing you. This is normal. You’ll get used to it. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the ride. It’ll be like flying inside an old airplane with a better view.”

Old airplane.

“Okay,” I said.

Ryan looked at Martin, who nodded in acknowledgement. Ryan then turned around, tapped at the holographic controls, and finally placed his hands over the objects controlling direction. “Here we go.”

The ship slowly lurched forward in sync with Ryan’s left hand as he guided it over the throttle control. The cloud cover quickly dissipated with our increased speed.

Ryan was incorrect. This experience was nothing like flying in an airplane. For a moment, I was tempted to lie flat on my stomach and extended my arms to simulate the sensation of flying under my own volition. Setting aside the unobstructed view, Brüder-2 operated quieter than any aircraft I had previously traveled in. There was no roar of a jet engine, or the sound of wind shear, only the now quiet and level hum of whatever was going on in the tall box at the rear of the ship. It was obviously the heart driving the holography around us. No, this was no common airplane at all. It was a luxury car with no audible engine or road noise.

Feeling a little more comfortable, I stood up. Indeed, it felt as if the air pressure surrounded me held me in place. I supposed it was so the speed and motion of the ship didn’t slam us into the holographic wall. I carefully stepped forward for a better peek at the flight panel. A series of interactive inputs and outputs lined the entire half circle that encompassed the front of the cockpit. It was one huge toolbox of shapes, dials, numbers, bars, textual outputs, and QWERTY keyboards for each pilot. Some of the keys substituted German letters for English.

“This is fascinating,” I said. “Is everything inside this ship holographic? How does that work?”

“I’m not sure, to tell you the truth,” Ryan said. “I’m not an engineer. Don’t people drive cars, but don’t understand the workings of an internal combustion engine?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I guess that’s true, still, how did you bring this ship back with you from your time?”

Ryan shifted, clearly uncomfortable. “We didn’t. Our ships don’t come from the future.” He sighed and tapped at a number of buttons on one of the holographic keypads. The ship jolted slightly, and then considerably smoothed out. He glanced toward Martin. “Would you excuse us for a bit?”

Martin nodded and left the cockpit, verbally giving the command to seal it off.

“Wait a sec,” I said. “If you didn’t bring this ship with you, then where did it come from?”

Ryan shook his head. “First thing’s first,” he said, taking control of the conversation. “I need to know why you think Martin is a friend from your school days.”

“Because he is,” I said. “You call him Martin. I remember him as O’Bryan VonWald, or Wald as I called him. Granted, he’s aged since I last saw him. But make no mistake. That is Wald.”

“When did you last see your friend, Wald? You said you watched him die.”

“I did,” I said, sighing. “It was back in 1991. He was struck by lightning --”

“What?” Ryan asked, nearly shouting. He appeared caught off guard, again.

“At least I think he was,” I said. “When the strike came, he disappeared, or so I thought. Then the section of the pier he disappeared from blew apart. I tried to tell the people I was with that I watched him disappear, versus falling off the pier or being blow into bits. I don’t even know if I remembered it right. The blast knocked me into a parking meter and I lost consciousness for a few hours. Wald’s body was never found.” I looked back toward Martin. “Until now.”

Ryan studied me in silence, his face intense with worry. Finally he spoke. “Listen to me very carefully, Kevin. I need you to account for everything that happened that day, in as much detail as possible. Those details could be very critical. Can you do that for me?”

I agreed to Ryan’s request. For the next half hour, I recounted the entire evening up until Wald’s disappearance, citing every detail I could remember. Fortunately for Ryan, I’ve always had an exceptional memory. Maybe not quite photographic, but I could tell you about things I did and thought as early as the age of three. The details must have been sufficient. Ryan didn’t ask additional questions as I spoke. I finished the tale with my discharge from the hospital, when Tessie, Myer, and I rejoined the rest of our group at the condominium.

Ryan alternated his attention between the ship’s flight panel and me, occasionally nodding in acknowledgment of my words. Upon completion of my tale, I posed a question of my own. “That guy in the black suit chasing that kid on the boardwalk. Do you think he’s part of the same group that showed up at my house posing as Homeland Security?”

“Yes, I do.” Ryan said, without hesitation. “Possibly the same agent.”

“And that thunderstorm…was that you guys hiding in another cloud?”

“Good question. I intend to find out. If a Corporation agent was pursuing someone, especially as far back as 1991, then it’s my belief something much bigger was – or is - going on. The fact that you’ve had two run ins with possible TDI cases makes me think you are more involved than Detective MacKenzie led me to believe. This is why I need to make contact with him, immediately.”

“What about my friend, Wald? How is it he’s still alive and believing he’s someone else working for a group from the future?”

“That is an incredibly complicated answer that I don’t fully understand either,” Ryan said. “I can tell you this; the individual with me is in fact Martin Wexler, even if the body is that of your old friend. I can’t explain why for two reasons. One, I don’t understand how Martin does what he does, and two; it’s classified. Detective MacKenzie will have to tell you. How the body of your friend came to be in service of the FCA is another good question. One I don’t have an answer for either. Rest assured, before all is said and done, I’ll get one.” Ryan tapped a button on the flight panel. “Martin, would you join us please.”

The holographic door to the flight deck disappeared. Martin returned to his seat at the co-pilot position, slapping his knees. “So what’s the plan?”

“Considering the information I’ve just learned, it appears our friend Conundrum isn’t just an anomaly after all. I’ll be returning to FCA-1 to brief Connor with the new information I have.”

“But we need to dock the ship and report in to --” Ryan’s raised hand silenced Martin.

“I have reason to believe there is a breach of security,” Ryan said. Martin looked ill. “Protocol says we report directly to the FCA.”

“That’s impossible,” Martin whispered. “What did Conundrum tell you that could possibly make you think that?”

“I will brief you after I’ve briefed Connor,” Ryan said, in command demeanor. “Where is the closest Jaunte portal in this time?”

“ES-5, where we left.”

“You’re absolutely positive about that?”

Martin tapped his fingers here and there on the flight console, reading the outputted data. “Affirm.”

Ryan sighed in frustration. “Set a course, full stealth. Climb into the upper atmosphere and go sub-light.”

“We might attract attention,” Martin said. “That’s all we need right now, another U.F.O. sighting.”

Ryan did not appreciate the advice. “You’ve flown sub light speed before?”

“Yes, but...”

“Then this is what I need, Martin. If we are high enough in the atmosphere, then all anyone will see is an electromagnetic disturbance and blame it on the sun, if they’re looking. Use the standard approach protocol. ETA?”

“Ten minutes, give or take.”

“Okay, let’s go then,” Ryan looked at me. “Remember, if you get queasy, sit down, and close your eyes.” I nodded.

Martin guided the ship from the co-pilot’s seat further into the atmosphere until we were clear of all cloud cover. In complete awe, I watched the surface of the Earth slowly shrink away. The weight of the air in the cockpit deepened as the ship’s speed increased. I was not queasy or sick. On the contrary, it was an exhilarating experience. I couldn’t begin to guess how many miles up we were. We had long left the Florida coast, heading west.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“ES-5,” Ryan said, pausing to realize I didn’t understand all his acronyms. “It’s short for Earth Station 5. From there we’ll transport to FCA headquarters.”

Earth Station? This implied there could be stations off of Earth.

“Is that where Detective MacKenzie is?” I asked. “Is he in 2006, with us?”

“No, I will need to return to 2095 to meet with him and get this HoloLog analyzed.” Again, Ryan tapped at his breast pocket and the glass like rod inside, the one he took off the Agents in Black a few hours ago. At least I think it was a few hours. Time can be a funny thing. “After we review what’s on it, the data should explain quite a few things that aren’t fitting into the larger picture.”

“The ‘variables unaccounted for’?” I asked in quip.

Ryan tossed me a half grin, nodding in approval. “Glad to see you’ve been paying attention. While I do this, you and Martin will stand by at the base. My trip will only take a few seconds from your perspective. You won’t be waiting long.”

The fourth dimension aspect made sense. Ryan could go when he needed, spend as much time there as necessary, and come back whenever he chose, so long as he returned within a few minutes after he left. Days could pass for Ryan while he was away and appear as mere seconds here. With such confusing situations, where the when is an adjusted variable, I could easily see where Temporal Psychosis might be a problem for the uninitiated.

Still, I needed to understand the concept of an ‘Earth station’. “So how is it you have a station for your organization here in my time when technically it hasn’t been formed yet?”

“You have it wrong,” Ryan said. “The FCA itself has been around a long, long time. Earth’s official involvement won’t begin until after the war I told you about earlier.”

I blinked, feeling my brain short circuit. “That doesn’t make any sense, ‘Earth’s official involvement,’” I said. “That implies your FCA didn’t originate on Earth.” Ryan sighed. He shook his head in frustration, looking out the front of the ship. He also didn’t answer. I pushed a little harder. “That would suggest it started someplace other than Earth.” I paused realizing the gravity of what that meant. “Are we not alone in the universe?”

Martin looked cautiously over at Ryan. Ryan folded. “No, we aren’t.”

“Ryan,” Martin said, with caution.

“It’s okay, Martin.” Ryan looked over to me. “I can’t say anymore at this point. I understand why you have so many questions. I did as well, many years ago. But for now, I really need you to stop asking them until I’ve spoken with Detective MacKenzie.”

I sat, feeling faint. “Okay,” I said aimlessly. Ryan had just confirmed for me a question man has been asking for thousands of years. Is there other life out there?

Yes, apparently there is.

I suspect Brüder-2 – since it’s not from Ryan’s future - was probably alien in nature. Although the ship was unusual, it didn’t seem as ‘alien’ as it should be. It begged the question, what exactly would something alien in nature look like?

“What about this ship?” I whispered. I couldn’t manage anything louder. “Is it alien too?”

“Not exactly,” Ryan said. I waited for more. Nothing came.

I returned to my seat behind Marin, burying my head in my hands. What in the hell did I get myself into here? How could I possibly go back to living my routine boring life after this? I was beginning to think I might need to have my memory blanked when all of this was over. Everything that happened over the last few hours, it happened so fast. It didn’t seem real.

Several minutes passed since my last question. I heard Martin say something in German, bringing me out of my contemplative state. The ship slowed, beginning her decent. The scene outside the ship disappeared, replaced by fog or clouds. Stealth mode. We were close to landing. I stood back up so I could watch. The ship did have a version of a viewport, resembling a windshield view. It blended in with the rest of the ship’s transparent stealth environment. Observation through the viewport extended through the cloud or fog cover. It allowed us to see clearly all the way to the ground.

We were hovering. I didn’t need to see it. I could feel it. Whatever system the ship used to balance the air pressure, to compensate for speed as not to end up as smears on the back of the hull ‘loosened up’. I didn’t feel any of that heavy air at all now.

Martin tapped at a larger cobalt blue button off to the left of the flight console. The entire ship went off like a flash bulb.

I snapped my eyes shut as the negative image on my retinas screamed out in protest. “That was not pleasant,” I said, in a grumble. “I have sensitive fucking eyes, man.”

“Sorry,” Martin said. I opened my eyes. They began the ever so slow task of readjusting to the much dimmer illumination of the ship’s interior.

Several seconds passed. Ryan concentrated on one of the readouts of the flight panel. Martin watched anxiously. Whatever they were expecting was clearly not happening.

“Hit it again,” Ryan said. I closed my eyes as Martin tapped the cobalt button. The intensity of the flash penetrated my eyelids.

“That was a lightning flash, wasn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes,” Ryan replied. “We’re attempting to signal our people. The problem is they aren’t expecting us so soon. This might take a little longer than usual.”

“Can’t you just call them on your radio?” I asked. It seemed simple enough.

“Unfortunately, not at this moment,” Ryan said. “Again, they aren’t expecting us. Chances are, no one is listening right now. If we break radio silence for too long and someone else in this time picks up on our frequency, it could present a whole different set of problems.”

I found this dilemma interesting. “Could equipment in my time could pick up transmissions from this ship, even with all your stealth tricks?”

“No. The frequencies we use are significantly higher from the ones used in this era. However, the likelihood of Corporation agents monitoring those frequencies is high, considering our recent activities.”

I was going to ask exactly how high those frequencies were until a rather annoying electronic twitter, accompanied by a series of pulsing red lights from the flight panel interrupted me. Martin and Ryan locked glances. The tension in the cockpit doubled.

“Oh shit,” Martin whispered.

“What?” I asked. I figured if Martin and Ryan looked as if they shit their pants, I might have need to worry as well.

“This is wrong,” Ryan said, quickly doing something on the flight panel. “That’s not our frequency. Someone is hailing us on a much lower one. One from this era.”

“And that’s bad?” I asked.

That was a stupid question, dumbass, I thought.

“It isn’t protocol,” Martin said, scanning readouts on the flight panel. He looked at Ryan. “What should I do?”

Ryan glanced back and forth at the panel, contemplating our sticky situation. “Either their communication device is inoperable, or there has been a security breach,” Ryan said, outlining his theories. “Open the channel Martin. If this is a legitimate transmission, they will use the standard query.”

Martin tapped the first pulsing red button in the group that recently illuminated in warning. He glanced at Ryan again for approval. Ryan gave it to him. Martin tapped the button and spoke, “Brüder-2, ten-eighteen?” Anything for us?

Several seconds passed.

A deep voice finally replied. “Attention Brüder ship, surrender the anomaly.”

Martin sat straight up, frantically. “That’s not what they should have asked,”

“I know.” Ryan said, reaching over to tap the reply control. “Echo Sierra fiver, identify yourself.”

“Brüder ship, I repeat, surrender the anomaly. Please respond or we will open fire.”

“What?” I asked, not feeling so well for my safety.

“Don’t worry,” Martin said. “Conventional weapons won’t do shit to us. They can’t even see us.”

A low frequency bass tone enveloped the entire ship, causing it to shake. I doubled over and fell onto the floor. The sound and vibration of that tone left me highly nauseated, leading me to believe I might projectile vomit. Out of the corner of my eye, Ryan and Martin were suffering from the same symptoms.

Then it was over.

“What the fuck was that?” I asked, gasping for air. I attempted to stand back up on my feet.

Martin spoke, still doubled over. “Ryan, if that happens again, I’m going to lose displacement.”

“This is all wrong,” Ryan said. Whatever training he endured as a TDI agent, it left him least affected from the attack. Ryan pushed the ship’s throttle as far as it would go under light speeds. Heavy air filled the cabin as the ship jumped forward, angling upward at breakneck speed.

“Brüder ship, do not attempt escape!” The voice warned. “Surrender Conundrum at once or we will fire again.”

“Me?” I asked, in panic. “What the fuck do they want with me? And why do they know my codename? I thought only Detective MacKenzie and you guys knew that.”

“Probably because you swallowed the anomaly,” Ryan said, reminded me of my earlier actions, the ones leading to the current situation. “How they know your code name, I have no idea. I did warn you about unaccounted variables.” I suppose he did. I was beginning to think I should have heeded his warning. I didn’t think death would be on the itinerary.

Martin jumped back into the dialog. “Ryan, where the hell did they get such a powerful Impüls weapon? We’re too far up for the standard hand weapon.”

“I don’t know,” Ryan said. “None of this makes any sense. We should be far enough away…” A much larger low frequency enveloped us, making the last episode feel like a mild warning. My consciousness consisted of total and complete disorientation, this and nothing more. I fell to the floor again, curled up into a fetal position, unable to breathe. Martin fell to the floor in front of me, completely unresponsive. His lifeless body flopped with the rocking of the ship.

Ryan barely continued to maintain his seat, ready to support himself on hands and knees. “Son of a bitch!” He said through clenched teeth, pushing himself up. I couldn’t move without threats from my stomach to clench and heave. All I could do was watch Ryan make an adjustment next to the throttle control, reach over, and readjust the throttle. The result was a noticeable increase in speed.

The cloud cover visible through the hull disappeared as the ship pushed farther away from the Earth. The blue sky faded to white as we approached the Earth’s outer atmosphere.

Berechnung, Modus äußer,” Ryan said, in gasps. Another holographic panel activated to Ryan’s left. The air weight and pressure inside the ship shifted. For a moment, I felt myself lift off the floor, as if gravity vanished. When Ryan finished tapping around the panel, the sensation stopped. Not only could I stand again, but I felt significantly lighter, as if half my body weight melted away. The ambient temperature also dropped appreciably.

Martin remained unconscious.

“Is he okay?” I asked.

“He will be.” Ryan regained his composure, including positive control of the ship.

“What the hell happened?”

“One hell of a security breach,” he said, turning to study readouts on the newly lit flight panel. “We should be safe at this altitude.”

“We’re almost in space, aren’t we?”

“Close enough, although we can’t stay here too long. The ship’s exterior - although practically indestructible – isn’t reinforced to simulate Earth’s electromagnetic zone.”

“Meaning…we’ll fry before too long?”

“Exactly,” he replied, confirming my fear. He smiled with some assurance. “We have about an hour before we need to start worrying. We’ll be out of here by then.”

“So what happened? Why is Martin still out?”

“We were fired upon with an Impüls canon.” Ryan tapped at the Impüls holstered on his belt buckle. “It’s similar to this, only much larger. There shouldn’t be one here, in this when. As for Martin, all I can say is he’s fine and should be awake soon.”

“He goes to sleep every time we get his with those Impüls bursts,” I said, deliberately pointing out the obvious. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“He’s not asleep. It’ll all make sense soon enough. In the meantime, I need to get you someplace safe until we can retrieve the anomaly – the quarter – you swallowed.”

“Believe me; I’m having some serious regrets about doing that.”

Ryan smirked. “I’ll bet. It’s irrelevant now. There is something else going on here that involves you. You’ve described for me two separate incidents that involves…”

Martin sat up. He looked completely dejected and tired. “We have problem,” he said, interrupting Ryan. “I don’t understand how or why, but ES-5 is crawling with Corporation agents. They have an Impüls canon.”

“I think that’s obvious,” Ryan said, with a touch of sarcasm. Martin returned to his seat in the co-pilot’s position. Normally, such a minimal action would never have attracted my attention. How often does one watch another stand up and sit down. The way Martin did it was so laid back, as if what happened was no big deal. I had been watching Martin since I realized he was Wald, or somehow using his body. I suppose it’s why I noticed the lack of enthusiasm. “The Corporation isn’t supposed to be this organized in 2006. This is the second time now they’ve ambushed us. I don’t understand how that is possible.”

“Could they have a time traveler too?” I asked.

“No, that’s impossible.” Ryan said. Martin shot me a look of contempt. I returned one saying, ‘what the hell was that for?’ Missing the unspoken exchange, Ryan continued, “There is only one man who uses the temporal displacement element, and that’s Detective MacKenzie. Even if they’ve compromised an Earth station, there are security protocols in place to stop anyone without proper access. Should that protocol fail, FCA headquarters is heavily guarded. No, whatever information they have they acquired here in 2006.” Ryan put his hand on Martin’s shoulder. Martin flinched. “I think we may have to infiltrate and immobilize. Thoughts?”

“I agree,” Martin said, not a care in the world. His eyes, once bright and alert when we met now seemed older somehow, as if he aged thirty years. Even the way he carried himself implied experience of age. “We need to get closer to ES-5 though. That last displacement took a bit out of me.”

I guess so, I thought. I don’t know why, but you look years older.

“Understood.” Ryan turned back to the flight console, guiding the ship back into the atmosphere. “Berechnung, Modus beobachten.

The air pressure and gravity of the ship shifted again, leaving me feeling heavier.

Martin sat up straight in his seat. “Berechnung, eine sicher.” A layer of light blue bands formed around his waist, arms, and legs, strapping him to the chair. “Whenever you’re ready, Ryan.”

“Stand by.” Ryan said, guiding the ship into its cloudy cover. “Your first priority is to disable that Impüls canon, otherwise we’re done for. Understand?”

“Yes.”

“Next, immobilize as many of those Corporation bastards as you can so I can land in our hangar. Contact me with the security query when you’ve finished.”

“Ok,” Martin said, laying his head back. He waited for Ryan’s go-ahead. Martin glanced at me briefly before closing his eyes. I could feel contempt radiating from him. It scared me. Something was different about him. For a moment, I questioned whether the person invading Wald’s body was Martin.

Ryan piloted the ship downward at a steep angle. How fast we flew I couldn’t say. It was plenty fast enough to reach our destination quickly.

“Okay Martin, it’s all you, my man.” Ryan nodded at him. Martin nodded in return and fell unconscious.

Occam’s razor, a rule in science and philosophy, states that entities should not be multiplied needlessly. This rule is interpreted to mean that the simplest of two or more competing theories is preferable and that an explanation for unknown phenomena should first be attempted in terms of what is already known, applied. Even without an explanation from Ryan, I knew what Martin was capable of doing. He could discorporate his consciousness from body to body and control the host. Since Martin currently haunted my old friend Wald’s body, Martin’s real body must be somewhere else, if at all.

I could no longer keep quiet, even though Ryan asked me several times to do so. “Ryan, is Martin a ghost?” I asked gingerly, in case Ryan was going to be upset with me.

“No, Kevin,” he said grinning. “Martin is most certainly not a ghost. There are no such things as ghosts, as you understand them.”

“No such things as ghosts,” I repeated. “I’ll bet there are groups out there who would strongly disagree with you. Not me personally, I’m just saying.”

“I’m not surprised, considering the era. Many paranoid people who believe in ghosts don’t fully understand what happens after the death of the body and the brain. Those two things are nothing more than receptacles.”

Ryan’s reply left me feeling anxious, the way one feels when they are about to discover the end of a movie with a twist ending. “Does that mean you know what happens after we die?” I asked, cautiously. “First you tell me we are not alone in the universe, now you know what happens after death?”

“I didn’t say that, exactly,” Ryan said, correcting my assumption. “There’s only so much I can tell you about the war, you know this. There was – or there will be - a weapon involved developed by The Corporation that will be used globally. The intended effect of massive painless death did not happen as expected. In fact, the mistaken results gave FCA scientists a much clearer insight into how the spirit interacts with the body and the brain.”

“Spirits? You mean like God and Jesus and all those fairy tales. They are all real after all?”

“No, Kevin.” Ryan rolled his eyes, with a smile. “The body’s spirit is inconsequential to religion. It’s electromagnetic energy. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“So what happens to the spirit, after death?”

“We’ll have to have this discussion at a later time. We’re almost where we need to be.” Reluctantly, I abstained from additional dialog, giving Ryan room to work. We both sat, quiet, waiting for Martin to call in. After several minutes, Ryan’s communication device twittered its robot chirp. Ryan answered it. “Brüder-2, ten-eighteen?”

“Echo Sierra five, ten-four,” the voice said. “Are you a stranger who comes as a friend?”

I answered before Ryan could. “Events are not as they appear,” I whispered. Ryan glanced at me, his jaw dropped this time, disbelief carved into his face. He repeated into the communicator my words, verbatim. His look never left mine as he spoke.

The unknown voice replied, “Brüder-2, all ten-thirty-four--” Trouble at This Station “--has been neutralized. You are clear to land in hangar niner Echo. Copy?”

“Ten-four, Echo Sierra fiver,” Ryan said. “Ten-twenty-two,--” Report in person “--ETA three minutes. Brüder-2, ten-eight.” Ryan sighed out in concern, his eyes still firmly locked on mine. “You want to tell me how you knew the answer to our security query?”

“You remember those horoscopes I told you about? The ones Tessie wanted to read the night Wald disappeared?” Ryan nodded. “That series of sentences you and Martin spoke to each other was part of my horoscope. Tessie read it to me, ‘Use caution when dealing with strangers who come as friends. Coming events in your life are not what they appear to be.’”

Ryan studied me, appearing leery. I was worried wasn’t buying what I was saying. “Let me get this straight. On a June night in 1991, you first witness a Corporation Agent chasing a kid who runs into you, followed by what appears to be a Brüder ship over the same location, using their transport program to detain your friend Wald whom Martin is now displacing. Now you’re telling me that same night your girlfriend drops a quarter into a vending machine that produces a horoscope paper, and your horoscope just happens to be one of our security protocols. Do I have it right?”

“I guess so,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. I could have theorized the whole evening went down as one of the biggest coincidences known to man. I don’t believe Ryan would have accepted that.

He rubbed his temples. “I am starting to think that particular horoscope scroll wasn’t meant for you. It might have been a plant, meant for the kid those Corporation agents were chasing. That might explain why he was carrying all those coins.” He paused, considering his words. “If he was a TDI, then I wonder who he was.” I didn’t answer Ryan’s rhetorical question.

He turned to the flight panel and began the landing procedure. The ship lowered through the fog. One a sharp turn later, Ryan guided Brüder-2 into a large hangar and landed the ship. The transparent hull shimmered away, fading to black.

Berechnung, abschalten, geöffnete Luke,” Ryan said to the ship. The humming from the rear of the craft slowly began to wind down. The exit door formed on the left as before, disappearing into nothing.

“What’s with all the German?” I asked.

“Never mind that for now, Kevin,” Ryan said, removing the hand-sized device from the control panel. If I were to guess, it was the equivalent of the ship’s key. The holographic panels disappeared, leaving the interior of the ship an empty onyx black. The only remaining light emitted from the holographic supports holding Martin to his seat. Ryan leaned over in his chair with his hands on his knees. Based on the appearance of seriousness on his face, I knew I was in for a talking to. “You need to know a few things about where we are.”

“Okay.”

“Before the war, this place was a secret U.S. military installation known as Area 51,” My eyebrows topped out on my forehead in surprise. “It was…is, considered top secret. There are men out there whose job it is to assist in our missions, and nothing else. They work for your military, but take orders from the FCA. Do not speak to them, even if they speak to you first. I will speak on your behalf. It’s very important you understand and do as I ask. You could be shot and killed unless your answers are the right ones. As you don’t know them, say nothing. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said in a small voice. The words ‘Area 51’ hung in the air, the center of U.F.O. lore. It made sense in a cosmic sort of way.

Martin jumped back to life. “Berechnung, eine Freigabe,” he said. The holographic restraints disappeared. Martin stood up, joining us at the exit. “We’re all clear.”

Ryan gently took me by the upper arm to escort me as the three of us disembarked. “Remember, not a word.”

I nodded.

II

Men in military uniforms poured into the hangar, fully armed. Several of them surrounded the ship. An older man dressed in a higher decorated uniform entered the hangar, flanked by four fully armed men dressed in black fatigues. I took note of their hardware. M-3 rifles if I had to guess, or something similar.

The higher-ranking officer and his entourage approached the ship’s entrance, facing Ryan directly. Martin and I lingered behind. The four operatives surrounding the higher-ranking officer simultaneously pointed their weapons at Ryan, who did not flinch.

“Identify, please,” the head military officer ordered.

“Capcoseve, Ryan. FCA, 17914011,” Ryan responded, stepping forward off the ship. The military officer withdrew a penlight like device. It looked similar to Ryan’s Löschen. Ryan allowed the officer to point the device at his retinas. It blinked a bluish LED light twice, one for each eye. The officer turned the device sideways to observe readout.

“Confirmed,” he said. “Welcome back to Earth Station 5, sir”

Ryan disregarded the pleasantry. “Colonel Robinson, could you explain to me exactly how Corporation agents infiltrated this facility with a damned Impüls cannon?”

Robinson frowned. “We are attempting to ascertain that situation now, sir,” he said. “Unfortunately all twelve agents are dead.”

Ryan looked back at Martin, clearly exasperated. “You killed them? I said ‘immobilize’, Martin.”

“They killed each other,” Martin said. “I didn’t have the chance to immobilize any of them.”

“I can confirm that,” Robinson said, interjecting himself into Martin’s explanation. “The leader of the group shouted something in German. They turned on each other in pairs and fired.”

“What specifically did he say?” Ryan asked.

Robinson turned to one of his subordinates who whispered into his ear. “He said, geck com, prom it…ummm--”

Gekompromittiert, beenden Sie?” Ryan asked, interrupting Robinson’s bad attempt at German. Martin whispered into my ear the translation; compromised, terminate.

“Yes sir,” Robinson said. “I believe this to be some kind of failed suicide mission.”

Martin leaned over toward Ryan. “They were not going to be captured,” he said, whispering. “The agent I displaced gave the order when he became aware of me, which was within seconds.”

Ryan turned his head, replying in the same low whisper. “He could sense you that quickly?”

“I can’t explain it. I should have been able to immobilize him before he knew what hit him. It was as if he – or any of them –expected displacement.”

Ryan turned his attention back toward Robinson. “I need to see the device they used, Colonel.”

“Yes sir,” Robinson said, turning to nod toward the first operative behind him. He briskly walked off, out of sight.

Ryan was far from finished with Robinson. “I need to know how these agents infiltrated this facility and over took your men, Colonel. If a ground hog farts within fifty miles of this base, you people know about it. So how did this happen?”

“Again, sir, we’re still not sure,” Robinson said, reiterated his original reply. “There was no penetration of the base or its perimeter and no unauthorized aircraft in our air space and no stealth Brüder craft approaches, except yours. The Corporation agents were already here by then. Literally, sir, they appeared out of no where.” Ryan brushed his hand over his mouth as he contemplated the information. Perplexion defined his appearance.

The operative who left to retrieve the Impüls canon returned. He held a black box the size of a standard VCR. On top, connected to the box by an abnormally thick wire was a handheld device that protruded a miniature radar dish.

Somehow, I expected something larger.

Ryan scoffed when he saw it. “Crude, very crude. Destroy it, Colonel”

“Sir?” Robinson asked, in confirmation.

“It’s a badly constructed facsimile,” Ryan said, dismissing the device. “It needs to be destroyed.”

Behind me, Martin scoffed under his breath. I did not turn around to see why.

“Yes sir,” Robinson said, resigned. The operative holding the device walked off. For a ‘badly constructed facsimile’, it did a hell of a job. I couldn’t help but suspect Ryan had not been completely forthcoming about the validity of the device. It clearly worked as intended. Of this, I can personally testify. I guess if Ryan wants it destroyed, he has his reasons.

Ryan turned to his side and motioned toward Martin and me. “I am escorting FCA Wexler and Conundrum to FCA-1, Colonel. Would you please prepare the Jaunte for immediate transport?”

Robinson looked suspiciously at Ryan. If Robinson meant to intimidate him, it didn’t work. Ryan remained solid as a rock.

“I need to confirm identities sir,” Robinson said. The remaining three operatives pointed their rifles up again, this time toward Martin and me. Martin allowed Robinson to confirm his identity.

When it was my turn, Ryan blocked me with his arm. “Conundrum won’t be listed. He is under my protection.”

Robinson pursed his lips in suspicion. “Then he needs to be questioned. You know the protocols, sir.”

“I’m sorry, Colonel, but that will not be permitted,” Ryan said. “Conundrum is under my protection. We are in a code black situation.”

A look of surprise washed over Robinson’s face. “Excuse me?”

“Code black,” Ryan repeated. “Protocol says I must make contact with FCA MacKenzie immediately. Since Conundrum has been identified as an unaccounted variable, he must remain under my protection.”

A clearly displeased Robinson peered at Ryan with continued misgiving. “Begging your pardon, sir, but that is all the more reason for me to detain him. And you want to take him through the Jaunte? Are you suffering from Temporal Psychosis?”

“Colonel!” Ryan spat. “That was completely inappropriate!”

“No sir,” Robinson said, maintaining his stance. The operative pulled their rifles closer to their faces, aiming at the three of us. “There has never been a code black in the history of this facility. That would mean a paradox. Transporting an unknown variable to FCA-1 would be a security breach of biblical proportion!”

Ryan looked more annoyed than upset. “Robinson, we can do without the religious drama, thank you. First, a code black is a potential paradox. FCA MacKenzie is the only one who can make that determination, which is why my orders supersede yours. Second, let’s not forget you allowed - on your watch - twelve agents from The Corporation to come aboard your base with an Impüls cannon and you can’t tell me how or why. Now you’re suggesting amid a code black event that I leave a very important piece of evidence in your care?” Robinson did not reply. He eased his stance. Robinson knew he was out of line and that Ryan was right. I would not be safe where Ryan was not. “Look, Colonel, the fact is if something happens to Conundrum and he’s not under my protection, that responsibility falls on you. If you wish me to pass that information on to MacKenzie, then I’ll be pleased to do so.” Robinson looked away from Ryan. I could only surmise Ryan’s threat isn’t something Robinson wanted. “Otherwise, I will take full responsibility for escorting Conundrum to FCA-1.”

Robinson nodded. “So be it, sir. I want it on record I am executing your order under protest.”

“So noted,” Ryan said, apathetically. “Please prepare the Jaunte for immediate transport.”

The four men tuned and walked out of the hangar, leaving the three of us standing next to Brüder-2. The remaining military personal slowly drifted away, still watchful of us.

“That was close,” Martin said softy, as to not be heard by anyone else in the hangar.

Ryan’s composure relaxed. “It worked out, that’s all that matters,” he said, back to his usual cheery self. He looked at me. “Thank you for not speaking. You made my job a lot easier.”

“Not a problem,” I said, half-smiling. “You maybe want to tell me what exactly a ‘Jaunte’ is? Or rather, can you?”

“The Jaunte is a transport device that exists at each of our surviving Earth stations,” Ryan said.

“How long does transport take?” I asked.

“It’s instantaneous,” Ryan replied. “But you will age a few minutes during transport. Not to worry Kevin, it’s very safe. There is one issue however. We have to be asleep when we go through.”

This took me by surprise. “Or what?”

“You die,” Ryan said, flatly. “Or you go insane and then die. The end result is the same.”

I felt nervous again. So much so, I could feel my hands shaking. “So, I am just supposed to fall asleep on demand, just like that,” I said, with shaky voice. “I have trouble falling asleep on my own as it is, even with the help of sleep aids. Why do I need to be asleep?”

“The transport system is based on a stabilized topological feature of space-time,” Ryan said.

“An artificial wormhole,” Martin said, cutting through Ryan’s technical explanation.

Ryan gave Martin an unsure look. “Yeah, something like that. Although matter makes the trip across the ‘wormhole’ without any trauma, the conscious mind does not. What should be perceived as an instantaneous process has been determined to last a whole lot longer when consciously moving through the Jaunte.”

I was intrigued. “How much longer?”

Ryan shook his head. “You couldn’t possibly fathom it.”

“Try me.”

“I’ve never actually seen it happen, but I’ve heard stories,” Ryan said, staring off, out the hangar. “The last individual who went through the Jaunte conscious - strictly for experimental purposes - lived only a few minutes afterward. His hair turned completely white. The corneas of his eyes were sickly yellow with age. He repeated the same word over and over again, until he died of a severe coronary.” Ryan paused. “Eternity.”

I looked at Martin who solemnly nodded in agreement.

Ryan smiled, returning his attention to me. “Not to worry, we have very strict protocols for Jaunte travel.”

Of course they did. They have protocols for everything. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to learn there were protocols for sex and foreplay in the late twenty first century.

Martin took over with the instructions, “I’ll be giving you and Ryan a small burst of sound and light designed to induce unconsciousness. When you get to the other side, the system will wake you using another series of sounds. You’ll wake up like you never went to sleep. It’s a rather pleasant experience, to be honest.”

“Lights and sounds to make us sleep?” I asked. “How does that work?”

Ryan answered. “You understand that light and sound amount to stimuli interpreted by the brain?”

“Of course.”

“Certain combinations of complexly timed flashes of light and noise with delta waves trick the brain into unconsciousness. It eliminates the need for sleep inducing drugs. It became necessary considering how often the Jaunte system is used.”

It made sense, sort of. “Okay,” I said, with skepticism. “You two have gotten me this far. What’s one more leap of faith?”

“Interesting choice of words,” Ryan said, turning his attention to Martin. “Any thoughts on how Corporation agents breached security?”

“You tell me. Would visually displaced agents trigger perimeter alarms?”

“Yes,” Ryan said. “I’ve run every protocol Robert wrote on the subject. Our security grid detects space-time variances of visual displacement.”

Martin nodded, grinning at the mention of Robert’s name. “Robert. I wish he were here, now.” It didn’t come off reminiscent of an old friend, but rather a dig.

“Who’s Robert?” I asked.

“My predecessor,” Ryan said, still eyeing Martin over the previous comment. “By my time index, he died several years ago. He was a true hero.”

“And a great friend,” Martin added, returning Ryan’s hard glance. The tension between the two men became so intense one could almost see it. I surmised Robert and Ryan’s replacement of him was a sensitive topic.

“What about a transporter?” I asked, attempting to steer the conversation away from what appeared to be a confrontation in the making. “You said you had that kind of technology.”

Ryan shook his head, finally looking away from Martin. “No. The ship-to-ground transporter we have is not exactly subtle. The entire base would have known about it long before anyone could transport down. Besides, the only craft with that capability is Brüder-1. She’s docked right now, far from here, away from The Corporation.”

“Brüder-4 is supposed to have one as well,” Martin said, with the same confrontational tone he used when speaking about Robert. “A much better one.”

This time Ryan turned and stepped toward Martin. The difference in height between the two became obvious, with Ryan at least half a foot taller. “What’s with you all of a sudden? Are you deliberately provoking me? No one knows where she is! Even in my time, she’s not been located! Do we really need to do this again, right now of all times?”

“All I’m saying is, what if The Corporation found her?” Martin said, ignoring Ryan’s obvious warning to take it down a notch. “Maybe that’s why we can’t find her.”

The current discourse provided my first real insight into the relationship between Ryan and Martin. The two had history, perhaps some bad blood over matters beyond me, decades from here. I had heard once in times of war men have trusted each other with their lives and not liked each other. I believe Martin and Ryan fell into this mold.

“We’ve been through this before, Martin,” Ryan said, visibly annoyed. “There are pages of reasons why your theory isn’t possible. Even if were true, Robinson and his men would have seen it. They would have felt it. Understand?”

I understood now. Martin’s suggestion implied The Corporation might have this coveted Brüder ship and used it to infiltrate this base. However, the subject of the ship itself seemed a sore spot with Ryan. I would have to ask why later.

“Yeah, I’m hip.” Martin said, glancing away. The deliberate lack of eye contact suggested the subject of Brüder-4 was far from over.

Ryan must have thought the same thing. He ran his fingers through his dirty-blonde hair in frustration. “How many times do we have to go through this?”

“Forget it,” Martin said, bowing his head some. “I’m sorry.” The apology was not sincere, but one implying a temporary truce. This business with the fourth Brüder ship fascinated me. Initially, I might have said Ryan was in love with the myth. Now I wondered if he was protecting it in some way. Martin seemed intent on pushing Ryan’s buttons for some reason known only to the two of them. More so after Martin awoke from the second Impüls burst. Since then, his attitude had become standoffish. It seemed Martin wanted to pick a fight, harboring some form of anger.

Robinson and his operatives returned. Again, Ryan gently grabbed my upper arm. “It’s okay,” Ryan whispered in reassurance. “This is just protocol. You’re not a prisoner.”

“Thanks,” I said cautiously, but appreciative.

Robinson approached Ryan. “The Jaunte is ready and operational, they are waiting for you.”

“Okay then, let’s proceed.”

Robinson’s men escorted us through the hangar and across the base. I felt excited and scared at the same time. I didn’t want to go, yet I could not wait to get there. It was an odd combination of emotions.

Without looking at him, Ryan spoke to Robinson. “While we are gone, I want you to gather up as much evidence from those dead Corporation agents and prepare a report for FCA MacKenzie. I will attempt to find out from my side of the timeline was exactly happened and how those Corporation bastards ‘appeared here out of no where’, to use your words.”

“I understand, sir,” Robinson said, hot under the collar. He hid it well.

Additional black fatigued military personal were lined up and patrolling the area, all with automatic rifles. The stationary guards watched intently as we approached a small, heavily guarded building farther down the facility. Robinson approached the panel next to the main door and fit his forehead into a built-in eye scanner. The entering of a rather lengthy access code followed. The device chirped compliantly. The door to the building opened. Once the eight of us entered, it immediately slammed shut.

The inside of this building was nothing at all like the outside. The door that closed behind us was reinforced from the inside with some sort of steel or Teflon. A completely empty room lay before us. On the other side, a closed door appeared to be the only other exit. If there was more to the building, it was not for me to see.

“Stand back, please,” Robinson said, as he entered a code into a standard security system panel on the wall to his left. Extending halfway into the room, the wooden floor before us sunk close to an inch and a half. In protest, the sunken portion began to slide underneath the section remaining in place. A set of concrete stairs leading father into the ground became visible, leading into an underground tunnel. Robinson extended his arm toward the stairs. “Gentlemen, after you, please.”

Ryan and Martin guided me down thirteen good-sized concrete stairs. Like the inside of the Brüder-2 ship, the stairs were just a bit oversized. The steps and the tunnel we entered both suffered from lack of maintenance. The dust and dirt settled on the stairs revealed scattered footprints of previous visitors. The dimly lit hallway extended farther than I could see. Antique wall lamps provided little illumination, and only for the first five doors leading into the tunnel. Everything beyond was pitch black. I looked around as we walked, taking in as much detail as I could. Whatever this place was, it was enormous. I had the desire to stop and look through each room, just to see what might be inside each. We stopped at the fifth door on the left, about a quarter of a mile in. The two men who stood in defense of it raised their rifles, pointing them at Martin and me.

Ryan witnessed this. “Gentlemen, that won’t be necessary. I am Capcoseve, Ryan, FCA 17914011 and am currently executing the resolution of a Code Black protocol. General Robinson has been briefed.”

“I concur,” Robinson said, flatly. The armed men guarding the Jaunte door lowered their weapons, allowing access into the Jaunte room.

It was a small room with yet another oversized stairwell leading farther into the Earth. Instead of darkness, the glow of an intense unseen red light flood the concrete steps. Ryan led me down the stairs into the sub-room. The architecture capturing my gaze was unlike anything I could ever have imagined. The length of floor from the last step to the giant wall lumbering over us had to be at least twenty feet. Protruding from the wall, towering over the room at the height of ten feet, maybe twelve sat the shape of an octagon. The red light deluging the room radiated from within the octagon shape. It was a force field, forbidding entry into the Jaunte. It also hummed twice as loud as the blue force fields from the Brüder-2 ship.

Ryan whispered into my ear. “You might not want to touch this one. There is enough power flowing through there to kill you twice over.”

“Good tip,” I said, in a squeak, while struggling to swallow the lump in my throat. I made the decision to stick close to Ryan from this point forward.

Two single rails jut through the bottom of the octagon, suggesting a two-way transportation system to and from whatever lay on the other side. The left track sat empty, running through the octagon at the bottom, stopping at the edge of the force field, presumably connecting to a rail on the other side. On the right track sat a platform with eight steel (or steel like) seats in a two by four layout.

Ryan approached a control panel on the right side of the octagon shape. I wasn’t able to see what he did. Whatever it was, it disabled the red force field. The glow and the vibrating hum subsided, leaving the room darker and deathly quiet. Inside the unprotected octagon, a frozen and badly redshifted image of four men and two guards looked in our direction.

I gingerly approached the center of the Jaunte portal. “The Stars of My Destination,” I whispered. “This is some kind of teleportation device, isn’t it?”

“Alfred Bester,” Martin said, understanding the reference. Proof positive Martin was the geek Ryan claimed him to be. “I’m actually impressed.” I looked over my shoulder to a condescending nod from Martin. I wanted to ask him what the fuck his problem was. I lowered my eyebrows, suggesting I was nonplussed over his attitude. He replied with raised eyebrows, suggesting I was the one with the attitude.

Robinson looked at me, then at Martin. “I’m not following. What are you two talking about?”

Ryan asked me not to speak to these men, so I didn’t answer. He did instead. “They are referencing an old twentieth century book. The character of Charles Ford Jaunte discovers teleportation. It’s where we got the name. Martin’s doing.” Robinson made no reply, only staring flummoxed at Ryan. “Don’t you read, Colonel?” Robinson ignored the question. Ryan shrugged, returning his attention to me. “Yes Kevin, it is a form of teleportation, but not like the one’s you’ve read about in science fiction stories. Now, Martin won’t be going with us. He’ll need to stay behind and help keep order.” He glanced at Robinson. “Considering recent events.” Now Robinson appeared perturbed.

“What aren’t you telling me?” I asked, not fully believing the excuse.

“The trip would kill Martin, asleep or awake,” Ryan replied, begrudgingly. “Because of his unique ability.”

I looked at Martin, who shrugged indifferently.

Ryan led me to the Jaunte platform. I carefully stepped up onto it and took the seat to the left. The seat was not at all comfortable. Ryan sat to my right. Before each seat, a small black control panel containing several holographic buttons sat atop a pole. Ryan tapped the only blue button on my panel. A blue holographic seat restraint appeared around my waist, ensuring I wouldn’t slide out of my seat. He also performed the same for himself. “Okay, let’s do it.”

Martin approached the holographic control panel on the right side of the Jaunte octagon and entered information into an oversized keypad. “One trip to FCA-1, coming up. Please keep your hand and feet inside the Jaunte platform at all times and your trays in their upright position.” He glanced back at us with a sarcastic half grin. “Thank you for flying the Brüder Jaunte Portal.”

A pulsating white noise filled the area of the platform. Its hypnotic rhythm washed warm, peaceful sensations over me, as if silky euphoria swallowed me whole. I was going to comment on how incredible I felt until a series of timed strobe flashes prevented it.

I remembered nothing else on that side of the Jaunte.

III

A series of white noise bursts filled my head.

I opened my eyes.

True to Martin’s description, I felt like I’d never been asleep. I would have marveled over how cool the process was had the two black fatigued security personnel not been pointing their automatic weapons at us. I looked over at Ryan, who was also awake. He did his song and dance with the guards, citing his credentials, the code black situation, and me being under his protection. With weapons lowered, Ryan tapped the blue button on his panel and mine causing the seat restraints to disappear. The guards returned to their static position on opposite sides of the Jaunte portal. Their discipline was something to admire. They reminded me of the Royal Guard, standing undistracted by anything around them, carrying out their only order; prevent unauthorized access to and from the Jaunte portal.

Wherever we were, the air tasted manufactured and artificial, like living inside an air-conditioned room. A harsh chill also filled the air. Directly across from our platform sat the opposite platform, facing the opposite direction, into the Jaunte. I began to understand now. The platforms provided one-way trips. When Ryan and I finish disembarking the platform, he would send it back through to ES-5. Should one want to follow, they would then be able to.

I looked back into the Jaunte. A frozen red image of Martin, Robinson and the other operatives watching us began redshifting.

“You’re looking at the event horizon,” Ryan said, urging me to step off the platform. I did. “If I don’t return the platform, no one else can follow us. I would prefer to keep it here until I have finished my report to MacKenzie.”

“Okay,” I said. “Where are we? It’s a lot colder here.”

“We’re in the Jaunte room of FCA-1.”

“No, I meant where are we? Are we farther underground?”

Ryan contemplated the question. “Yes, we are most certainly underground.”

His answer was cryptic. Then, so is Ryan. I knew follow up examination would end with additional unanswered questions, so I let it go. “Now what?”

“Follow me, and keep quiet.” We left the Jaunte room, stepping into a long barely lit hallway where yet another set of security personnel awaited us.

The gravity was lighter, but not by much. I looked at each door outline we passed. Above each, a label in pseudo-German mocked me for my inability to read it. After a minute or so of walking steadily, Ryan stopped at a much larger door outline. Another pair of guards stopped us, demanding identification. When Ryan finished, he turned to me. “We’re here. We use this special room for temporal displacement. Please Kevin, touch nothing. I cannot stress how serious I am about this.”

“Not a problem,” I said. I meant it too.

“What I told Colonel Robinson was the truth. You are under my protection. It wasn’t a lie to get my way, and that’s the only reason you have accompanied me this far into FCA-1.”

“You say ‘jump’, I say ‘how high?’”

Ryan considered those words and nodded in approval. “I’ve not heard that expression before. I like it.” I smiled at his child like wonder of all things 21st century. He reminded me a bit of my son, with those mannerisms.

Ryan subjected himself to a retinal scan over the security panel next to the room’s entrance, akin to the one Robinson performed at the ES-5 Jaunte building. The entrance’s outline glowed yellow for a moment. The doorway within the outline disappeared, allowing entry.

We walked into a small waiting room, which led into a larger room. Yet another pair of guards challenged Ryan’s identity. He easily passed, while explaining my presence.

My ‘unbelievable stuff’ meter maxed out, again. If what I was seeing was accurate, a small, bright, pulsating star hovered four feet off the floor. It was brighter and whiter than the sun, yet didn’t hurt to stare at or cause me to cringe from pain. It was beautiful on so many levels. I thought if Ryan had not been here, I might have stared at it forever, or even walked into it in an effort to become one with it. That would’ve been okay too. I wasn’t afraid of what I was seeing. Darkness surrounded the floating white star. As hard as it might be to believe, it radiated darkness. Twinkles of independent light hung through out the dark; giving an illusion the room was full of tiny stars, as seen from outside our solar system. Some pulled toward the center of the hovering, throbbing sphere of light, eventually sliding into it. Soon after, another flicker of light would appear, hanging in the air.

I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I didn’t want to. “What is this?” I whispered, in wonder.

Ryan smiled at my hypnotic awe. “We call it the twilight effect, as the room seems full of captured twilight. In the middle is the actual displacement portal.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, in a gasp. “It’s so full of life and color, and energy. I want to touch it.”

“No!” Ryan snapped, drawing me out of my hypnotic state. “If you get that close to it, you will be taken to July of 2095. You need to trust me when I say you don’t want any part of that when. The trip will in all likelihood kill you.”

I surveyed the rest of the room. I choose to back off the portal and stand against the far wall, away from the guards.

Ryan observed my apprehension. “It’s okay, Kevin. They’re not here to hurt you. They’re here to protect you while I’m gone. The trip will take a few seconds on your side of the timeline. When I come back, we’re going to have most, if not all of the answers to the questions regarding you and the TDI cases you’ve crossed.”

I grinned. “All variables will be accounted for?”

Ryan put his hand on my shoulder – a warm act I never expected – and returned the grin. “You got it.” Ryan offered his hand. I shook it. “I’ll be back in a flash.” Ryan turned to face the portal star. He began walking through the twilight effect, toward the center.

IV

The guard standing closest to me pointed his rifle at his counterpart on the opposite side of the entrance. He never saw the act of betrayal, the one that ended his life. Obscene amounts of blood sprayed across the wall as he fell down dead, without a word. I snapped my head around toward Ryan, who didn’t see or hear what transpired. I was safe on the other side of the room, across from Ryan. I ran around the portal, now across from the line of fire, with Ryan in between.

“RYAN!” I screamed. I didn’t wait for a response. Had I done so, I believe he would be dead and me with him. With no regard for the consequences, I charged Ryan hoping to send us both through the portal star. If it killed me, then it killed me. In the end, Ryan and Connor wanted the FutureQuarter, and my death would be nothing more than an unfortunate variable in a larger equation. Not that I much cared. Whether by rifle fire at FCA-1, my plan at the Sarasota Square Mall, or travel across the sixth dimension, the result would be the same. We tumbled through the portal. The beautiful light disappeared, leaving pitch black. I felt time itself stretch me paper-thin, from the end of my fingertips all the way down to the tips my toes. We stepped out the other side of the portal star taking a step down, like coming off a bottom step. Ryan jerked away from me, spinning around to face me.

I expected wrath. I received concern.

“Kevin?” Ryan asked. “Are you okay? Can you understand me?”

“Yes,” I replied, surprised. I looked around the room. It was the same room, only situated differently. “Didn’t you say time travel was a painful and traumatic experience to the uninitiated?”

Detective Connor McKenzie sat up on the couch where he previously laid. As he did, the portal closed and the twilight effect dithered away into nothing. The room became brighter when the portal disappeared. Connor looked upon me with great concern. Several other men and women circled around me, waiting for something to happen.

“I don’t see what the big deal is. I don’t feel as bad as you said I might,” I said.

Connor looked at Ryan, who shook his head.

Ryan took me gently by the shoulders. “There might be a delay, Kevin. The pain doesn’t start until a few moments have passed. Then, you’ll wish you were dead. What happened?”

“It all happened so fast, Ryan,” I said. “I can’t believe you didn’t see or hear it. The guard nearest me shot and killed the other. Then he tried to shoot you in the back. That’s when I pushed you through the portal.”

Something strange began to happen to me. There was bubbling in my stomach, as if I had slammed too many sodas and was going to let off the mother of all burps. Intense heat radiated from the pit of my stomach. Vertigo set in as I felt the hot bile crawling up the back of my throat. Everyone in the room must have seen the panic on my face. Ryan came over first to support me, so I didn’t fall down.

“Yeah,” I said, struggling to get the word out. “Maybe I don’t feel so good after all.”

“Kevin, tell me what’s wrong,” Ryan said, holding me up by my waist.

“My stomach is on fire,” I managed to say. “And my throat burns, and my nostrils. I think I am going to be si--” And that’s exactly what happened. Whatever I vomited up was boiling hot. I was certain the inside of my mouth suffered from burns, in addition to my tongue and lips. I squeezed my eyes shut. I did not want to see it.

The projectile vomiting occurred a second time. Burning red-orange liquid dripped off my chin, onto my shirt. I distinctly heard the dull clink of the FutureQuarter hit the floor.

“Go get Dr. Ecklie,” I heard someone say. Someone else left the room.

When the vomiting ceased, Ryan propped me up, letting me put my weight onto him. Connor McKenzie stood before me. “I can’t say I was expecting you so soon, Kevin,” he said. I struggled to open my eyes, to see him better. “Welcome to FCA Headquarters, FCA-1, Lunar station.”

Expecting me so soon? Did I hear that right?

I tried to convey this, but couldn’t summon the strength to breathe deep enough to talk. I ventured to stand on my own, unable to do that either. The experience left my skeleton feeling liquefied. Any attempt to move brought forth unimaginable pain.

Covered in burning vomit and drool, I finally managed a sentence, forcing myself to look up at Connor. “Lunar station? The moon?”

Connor briefly glanced at Ryan. “Yes, Kevin,” Connor said, confirming my curiosity. “It’s located ‘in the moon’, FCA-1, in an underground observation facility, thousands of years old. Don’t worry about that right now. Our doctor is on her way. She’ll do everything she can for you.”

What I heard was, the moon is a big space station, and we hide underground, inside of it. Oh, and did I mention it’s been here long before the time of Jesus?

When this information finally processed in my failing head, I decided it processed enough for one day. Indeed, the mind can accept only so much information at once. Mine had reached its quota, and then some. It was now time to shut down and deal with this mess later.

I closed my eyes and let the black unconsciousness swallow me.

V

I will never look at the moon the same way again.

Ever.


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