The silence that descended was so abrupt it seemed to have a sound of its own. Olivia's lips parted but no words emerged, and Bogg watched in mounting alarm as the remaining color drained from Jeffrey's face. It was impossible, the older Voyager knew, for eyes to actually grow bigger, but the boy's looked unnaturally large and dark against his sudden stark pallor.
Jeffrey's continuing silence was the most frightening symptom of all. Bogg would have expected heated protests, denials, even tears, anything but this eerie, unnatural stillness. After the bombshell Susan had just dropped, no kid should be this quiet. Especially not his kid.
It seemed an eternity before Jeffrey finally spoke, his voice a taut, barely recognizable thread. "Are you saying that if I travel through time now . . . I'll die?"
"Not exactly," Susan temporized. "I'm afraid it's--complicated."
"How complicated?" Olivia had regained her voice.
"That's what I'd like to know too," Bogg snapped, his voice harsh even to his own ears. "The kid's been traveling with me for almost two years. According to history and Professor Garth, this is what he's supposed to be doing. So, what's the problem, and why now?"
Susan sighed, obviously regretting what she had to say. "Our technicians call it 'Temporal Displacement.' Jeffrey," she seated herself on the other side of the bed, "I'm afraid that your existence in standard time, before you met Phineas, has been compromised. And until everything has been restored, it's not safe for you to Voyage. I'm sorry."
Jeffrey swallowed audibly before replying. "How?" The distress and fear contained in that single word were almost palpable.
"That's what we're trying to figure out. I promise you, the technicians have made fixing this a top priority."
The boy closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath, then, "Can I talk to them--the technicians?"
Susan hesitated. "Well . . . "
"Please?" The intensity in Jeffrey's gaze could have burned through metal. "It's my life--I've got to know what's going on!"
"The kid's right," Bogg broke in. "If it were me, I'd want the same thing. Any of us would," he added, trading a glance with Olivia, who nodded affirmation.
Susan paused a moment longer, then seemed to reach a decision. "Very well. Let me find you some clothes and then I'll take you down to Control."
Bogg had not visited Mission Control more than a few times during his Academy days. He wasn't surprised to see that that, too, had changed almost beyond recognition. There were computer consoles everywhere, along with display screens of varying sizes, some taking up an entire wall. Electronic read-outs in neon-bright colors cast an eerie radiance about the cool, dimly lit-room. In addition, every piece of equipment seemed to whir, click, or beep, which made Bogg at least feel slightly uncomfortable. He preferred technology that was simple and straightforward.
Glancing at Jeff, Bogg saw that the boy looked as awed as he felt. Only Olivia, to whom Control must be a more familiar sight, seemed unfazed.
"Bryce? Beckett?" Susan called, as she led her companions further into the room.
A young male voice floated out from behind the nearest console. "Just Bryce. Beckett's on a coffee break."
Susan walked around the console, the other Voyagers trailing in her wake. "Bryce, I've brought Voyager Jones down to talk to you."
"Jones?" The young man identified as Bryce rummaged among a stack of files beside his console. "Oh, yeah. The Temporal Displacement case."
"The case happens to be my partner," Bogg pointed out irritably.
Bryce blinked and his eyes suddenly came into focus, the abstracted demeanor dropping away. "Sorry. Geek thing. Nothing personal." Pushing back his chair, he stood up and made his way over to the two Voyagers.
Bogg blinked in turn. Going by the voice alone, he'd guessed Bryce was young, but he hadn't figured this young. Eighteen or nineteen, at the most, thin and gangling, with limbs that didn't seem to have finished growing yet. Beneath a shock of unruly light-brown hair, pale eyes, magnified by steel-rimmed glasses, regarded them curiously.
Just great, Bogg thought sourly. Another boy-genius. Still, if he could deal with a junior history whiz like Jeff, he could learn to tolerate a scientific prodigy, if he had to. He flicked a sideways glance at his partner, wondering how the boy was holding up under the technician's scrutiny.
At first sight, Jeffrey appeared overmatched and far younger than his years in the borrowed clothes that hung loosely on his slight frame. But he met Bryce's inquiring gaze with a level, unflinching stare of his own. They were sizing each other up, Bogg realized, in the way that bright kids do.
The mutual appraisal lasted a few more seconds, then the technician stuck out his hand. "I'm Bryce."
Jeffrey took the proffered hand. "Jeffrey Jones." He tilted his head sideways to indicate his partner. "And this is Phineas Bogg."
Bryce nodded at the older Voyager, but it was to Jeffrey that he directed his next words. "What do you want to know?"
Jeffrey's mouth compressed in a fleeting grimace. "What 'Temporal Displacement' means, for a start."
"Pretty much what it sounds like. Something happened to displace you from the time you were supposed to occupy, so your existence has been compromised."
Jeffrey's brow furrowed. "But I'm here now. Doesn't that count?"
"Not in the same way. Headquarters has its own temporal and spatial laws. I'm talking about your life before you became a Voyager." Bryce turned back towards his console, motioning Jeffrey to follow him. Bogg trailed after his partner, still not comprehending but trying his best to follow the conversation. Susan and Olivia, he noticed, had withdrawn discreetly and were observing the discussion from a short distance away.
"To be a time traveler, you have to have lived within time," Bryce continued, seating himself again. "The way matter has to have mass and take up space to be considered matter. Voyagers have to come from somewhere. Without a point of origin, you're not connected to anything, so you can't really be said to exist. It would be like you came out of nowhere, which is scientifically impossible."
Jeffrey absorbed this information in silence, still frowning to himself. "But how can I be made not to exist?" he protested. "I haven't been anywhere near my own time in two years!"
"It doesn't have to be anything you've done," Bryce assured him. "The alteration to your existence could have happened as the result of a random accident, like a rift in the time-space continuum. Or, which is more likely, it could be the secondary or even tertiary consequence of someone else's actions. Like the domino effect--knock one down and the rest will follow."
"Dominos," Jeffrey echoed, then fell silent again.
"It's on record as having happened before. Just not that often. But I know of a case where one Voyager's birth got cancelled out because of some change that happened generations in his past. Another operative had to go back and fix it for him. Since then, we've been trying to place special restrictions on each Voyager's timeline to decrease the possibility of that happening again. But . . . " his voice trailed off and he looked suddenly abashed.
"But you haven't placed these restrictions on Jeffrey's timeline," Bogg finished, unable to conceal the anger that crept into his voice.
Bryce hunched an uncomfortable shoulder. "We haven't reached the J's yet . . . " Avoiding Bogg's glare, he turned back to his console. "I've hooked up your Omni to the Biochronometer, so just give me a moment to access your profiles . . . " Bryce deftly tapped out a sequence of letters and numbers on his keyboard, then leaned back with a satisfied air. "This is your life in standard time," he informed Bogg. The top half of the screen was taken up with a grid of dates, across which a single illuminated line stretched in an unbroken segment. Peering at the data, Bogg recognized without undue difficulty the twenty-odd years he'd lived before being chosen as a Voyager.
"And this is his." Bryce hit another key, and a second line appeared on the lower half of the screen. Much shorter, spanning only a dozen years, but far more alarming was the way the entire line flickered on and off, like a faulty light switch. Or, Bogg thought with a sudden chill, like the Omni when history had gone wrong. "We can't pinpoint the disturbance in your timeline to any single cause or any single year, which is why we think there could be several factors at work."
Jeffrey peered over Bryce's shoulder at the screen. "Like what?"
Bryce shrugged, his long fingers still tapping out indecipherable sequences on his keyboard. "Well, maybe your parents never met. Or maybe your great-great-grandfather married someone else. Or, if we're talking about your life, it could be something as simple as you moving away from your old home or changing schools."
"Changing schools would cause me not to exist anymore?" Jeffrey's tone was frankly skeptical.
Bryce shrugged again. "Hey, if you want a more dramatic scenario, maybe you fell in a tank of piranhas or got eaten by a grizzly bear--"
"Or maybe I died in the same accident that killed my folks."
Bryce looked up at that, his flippancy vanishing at the sight of Jeffrey's bleak expression. "Sorry." He fidgeted nervously with his shirt collar before hunching over his keyboard again. "The point is, any significant deviation would cause this timeline--the one that leads to your being a Voyager now--not to exist anymore. For your future to remain the same, you have to keep the past the same as well. Maybe minor details might vary, but in the end, everything has to play out the way you remember it."
"Even the things I'd rather forget."
"Something like that." Bryce's tone was apologetic. Swiveling his chair around, he glanced up at Jeffrey with what appeared to be genuine concern. "Look, the good news--"
"There's good news?" Bogg muttered.
"The good news," Bryce continued, ignoring the older Voyager, "is that I think there's a way to get your life back on track. I've got some ideas--I'll bounce 'em off Beckett once he gets back. But we are working on this. Can you trust us?"
Jeffrey's somber dark eyes met Bryce's pale ones. "I guess I have to, don't I?"
With no other recourse left to them, Bogg and Jeffrey returned to the infirmary for the present. Olivia had classes to teach, so she hugged them both and told them to send for her if they needed anything. Susan also promised that she would stop by as soon as the techs came up with some kind of solution. When that might be, however, she couldn't say.
Bogg watched his partner closely for what remained of the day, but Jeffrey remained listless and withdrawn. The older Voyager almost wished the boy would break down in tears or lash out in frustration; either response would seem more natural than this strained quiet. And Bogg knew he could have coped better too. But if the kid needed to hold everything in right now, Bogg had to respect that, no matter how hard it was to watch.
Food was sent up, which they ate dutifully but without appetite. And neither of them slept well. Lying awake in his own bed, Bogg listened to Jeffrey tossing and turning for most of the night. Once, the boy started out of sleep with a strangled cry, clearly roused by a nightmare. Although he said he was all right, Bogg went over to sit with him until the kid fell into an uneasy doze again. Or pretended to.
Dawn found Jeffrey sleeping more heavily, though Bogg could see the shadows under his closed eyes. Dawn also brought Susan, peering discreetly around the infirmary door. Glancing down at the slumbering boy, Bogg rose from his chair and stole out of the room to meet her in the corridor.
"Any news?" he asked in a low voice.
"I think we've found a possible solution." Susan held up her hand, showing Bogg the silver Omni tucked in her palm. "This is a prototype for our newest model: 3-70-10. We've downloaded Jeffrey's profile into its memory core. Bryce and Beckett think the best way to handle this is to send someone back to Jeffrey's time to correct the deviations in his life."
Bogg nodded. "I wondered if it would be something like that. Any idea what I'll be doing?" It would have to be him: no way he was trusting this mission to anyone else.
To his relief, Susan didn't even try to dissuade him or suggest an operative who was not as personally involved. Not that he'd have listened if she had. "You'll be traveling along Jeffrey's lifespan in standard time, sorting out whatever problems you encounter. We'll be tracking your movements from Control, of course, and I'll be your liaison between here and--wherever you end up. I'm not the field expert Olivia is, but I'll do the best I can."
"And the kid? How does he fit into all this? He can't travel with me this time."
"No, but we'll need his memories, so we can fill you in on what you need to know. Naturally, you know Jeffrey better than anyone, but I doubt he's had the chance to give you every detail of his life before you met."
"No," Bogg admitted. "But we're partners, and two years of working together ought to count for something."
"I'm sure it will." Susan paused before continuing, her expression slightly troubled. "I should warn you, Phineas, that this venture isn't without risks. Given the extent to which Jeffrey's timeline has been compromised, you're heading into uncharted waters--and with a new Omni as well."
"I was a pirate, remember? Uncharted waters are familiar territory for me." Bogg looked back over his shoulder, towards the infirmary where Jeffrey still lay sleeping. "How soon can I start?"
Jeans, a faded blue chambray shirt, loafers--and enough cash to cover whatever financial needs arose. Bogg donned the clothes, tucked the billfold into his hip pocket, and studied himself in the long mirror with professional satisfaction. Whatever his destination, his appearance would not attract unwarranted attention.
The mirror also reflected back a slight, tense figure watching him with worried dark eyes that always saw more than they should.
Bogg glanced over his shoulder at the boy. "It'll be okay, kid. Piece of cake."
Jeffrey bit his lip. "I wish I could go with you."
"So do I, but we both know that's not possible right now." The older Voyager's tone was gentle. "Don't worry about me, Jeff. I'm just doing some repair work so we can be together again. Just taking--a little stitch in time."
A stitch in time saves . . . the best partner any Voyager could have.
Jeffrey's eyes were still shadowed, his lips compressed in a thin, anxious line. The smarter the kid, the harder he was to fool. Everything that mattered to both of them was riding on this, and the boy knew it.
Bogg turned away from the mirror. "It'll be okay," he repeated, more firmly. "And we're gonna be in touch, you know. Susan said your part in this is as important as mine. And Olivia will be around to help you, just as Susan's gonna be helping me."
Funny thing about Olivia. She could be as abrasive as sandpaper one minute, soft as butter the next. But he was trusting her with the most important person in his life, and he knew she wouldn't fail him--or Jeff.
Kneeling down to Jeffrey's level, Bogg wrapped his arms around the boy in a brief, hard hug that left them both breathless and dangerously close to tears.
"Ready to see me off?" Bogg asked, when he could speak again.
Jeffrey nodded, clearly not trusting his voice.
Putting his arm around the boy's shoulders, Bogg led him out of the dressing room and down the hall to Mission Control. The others were already there: Bryce at his console, with Susan standing at his shoulder, and Olivia waiting to one side. Beckett, a pleasant-looking man who appeared to be in his late thirties, was half-hidden behind Mission Control's central processing unit.
Susan came up to hand Bogg the new Omni, preset to automatic mode. "Phineas, you need to stand there," she directed, pointing him towards a circle drawn in colored chalk on the floor. "We can maintain contact better if we have your exact departure coordinates. And I'll be following as soon we know your location."
Bogg nodded. "Gotcha." He looked down into Jeffrey's upturned face. "Well, kid--this is it. Wish me luck?"
Jeffrey managed an unsteady smile. "Good luck, partner."
Bogg squeezed the boy's shoulder. "See ya soon, kid. Olivia--"
"I'll take care of him," she broke in, hobbling to Jeffrey's side. "You don't even have to ask."
Bogg smiled. "I know. And thanks."
Squaring his shoulders, he walked the short distance to the circle and stepped inside its boundaries. Then turned and looked back one last time.
Olivia stood behind Jeffrey, her hands resting lightly upon his shoulders in an unspoken promise of protection. Jeffrey himself was standing as tall as he could, but he looked achingly young all the same, his dark gaze fixed unwaveringly on Bogg.
"Lock?" Beckett called, from behind the processor.
"Lock," Bryce confirmed. He glanced in Bogg's direction. "Ready when you are, Voyager."
Bogg swallowed hard, thinking of all the things he wanted to say but couldn't find words for.
"I'll be back," he promised his partner, and hit the Omni.