Jonah and I arrived at the safehouse a few hours later, but I couldn’t even begin to tell you where it was located. I ended up falling asleep pretty quickly during the drive there, the combination of physical exhaustion and mental anguish finally catching up to me. After pulling into a makeshift vehicle bay, Jonah elbowed me awake, apparently seeing no reason to rouse me gently.
“Hey, kid, wake up. We’re here,” he said and hopped out of the car. “Come with me.”
I followed suit and trailed behind him as he led me through what appeared to be a bunker of some sort, complete with long, narrow corridors made of solid cement. Every now and then, we’d pass by a metal door with one of those submarine-style locking mechanisms, and at one point, Jonah made me wait in the hall as he entered one and came back out carrying a satchel. We continued on our way, and when we finally reached our destination, he stopped and turned to me with a stern look on his face.
“Okay. Before we go in, I need you to remember a few things,” he told me. “First, don’t speak unless the General asks you to. Keep your answers brief and to the point. She hates ramblers. Second, don’t lie about anything. Don’t even omit something you feel is minor because it’s embarrassing or makes you look bad. And third…” He tossed me the satchel. “Change your pants.”
Newly decked-out in a pair of loose-fitting cargo pants with a musty odor to them that was arguably a lateral move from the previous smell, I walked through the door behind Jonah and surveyed my surroundings. This was what I would describe as the “War Room” of the bunker - the walls were lined with an array of weaponry and military-grade equipment, as well as some high-tech gadgetry that I didn’t recognize. At the center of the room was a large circular table with computer stations set up all around it and people clacking away at their keyboards. Lurking near the back wall was an imposing woman dressed in full paramilitary regalia, and she was busy giving what sounded like orders to a small group.
“General!” Jonah called out, catching the woman’s attention. “I’ve got someone here I’d like you to meet.” He turned to me and motioned with his head for me to follow him. “Come on, kid.”
We strode up to the General and she acknowledged us with a quick nod. “Jonah,” she said in a clipped, no-nonsense tone. After noticing me, her countenance grew dark and she snapped, “Who the hell is this? I didn’t authorize you to bring anyone new personnel here!”
“This is Max Darby,” he stated. “When I was scouting ahead during the mission, I saw him stumbling around looking for the Time Bomb. He got himself arrested and then Tempus tried to snatch him.”
“Why’d they want you?” the General asked me. She stared at me with hard grey eyes that felt like they could pierce into the darkest recesses of my mind, and I don’t just mean that metaphorically. Between what I could do and the other crazy things I’d seen recently, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that she might really be able to read my thoughts.
“I can send my consciousness back in time one week. I’d noticed some discrepancies with certain events lately when doing so, and the first time I traveled back this week, I saw a news story about an explosion that I was sure hadn’t originally happened. So I went back again to try to stop it. I ended up getting arrested for my trouble, and that’s when those Bob guys tried to kidnap me.”
A look of concern crossed the General’s face, and she asked Jonah, “They sent the Bobs for him?”
“Yeah,” he replied grimly. “I had to wreck my truck to stop them. Put one in each of their heads for good measure, but you know the Bobs…”
“I do,” she said, and I noticed her reflexively clench her fists. “Did you at least act like you had some sense and scan him before you brought him back to the safehouse?”
“Of course,” Jonah answered, the slightest hint of offense slipping out in his otherwise steady tone. “I checked while he was asleep on our way over here. I didn’t see anything in the immediate future to indicate Tempus will find us.”
“Fine,” she said. Looking back towards me, she resumed her authoritative demeanor. “Okay, Max. Like it or not, you’re in this with us now for the long haul. If Tempus already has you in their crosshairs, then you’re not going to be safe until we stop them. As such, you need to know what you’re up against.” Searching the room, she spotted a diminutive man with glasses and long hair and called him over. “Emerson!”
Emerson snapped to attention and hurried over to where we were standing. “Yes, General?” he said as he saluted. The General rolled her eyes.
“Emerson, stop saluting. This isn’t the army,” she snapped. “I need you brief Max on Tempus.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.
“Jonah, with me,” the General ordered. “We have to go over the plans for tomorrow.”
The two departed, leaving me with Emerson, who was giving me a goofy smile. “So you can actually time travel, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered. “I was under the impression that was sort of run-of-the-mill with you guys.”
“Oh, nope. Not at all,” he said. “Some of us have special gifts, like the General and Jonah, but actually being able to move through time isn’t one of them.”
“Well, what about Tempus? Can they?”
“Not at the moment. I presume that’s why they sent the Bobs after you. They’d kill to get their hands on your abilities.”
“Lucky me,” I said sarcastically. “So what exactly can they do?”
“Oh, right!” Emerson exclaimed. “Sorry. The briefing. Okay, so how much do you know about Tempus?”
“Their name and that they have two guys named Bob who tried to abduct me,” I stated. “That’s basically it.”
“Right. So the short version is this: Tempus has been developing ways of altering time for years, but they’ve only recently started to make any serious progress. Their founder, Desmond Reaves, used to run this institute meant to research unexplained phenomena, including people like you, and help them learn to better control their abilities. However, a lack of success drove Desmond to resort to increasingly-extreme measures, performing radical experiments on those at the institute.
“When the test subjects finally had enough and confronted him about it, a fight broke out between them, but it ended in a number of deaths. For a long time, those who managed to escape believed Desmond had died there, too, but when he eventually resurfaced, he was running Tempus and had created the temporal manipulation technology they use. He also started abducting new test subjects with special abilities to continue his research. The General was the first to discover this fact, and she got us together to try to stop Desmond and Tempus from reaching their final goal.”
“Okay. So what happens now?” I asked.
“Now we wait for the General to tell us her plan for our next move against them,” Emerson replied. “I’ve got some things I need to take care of, but you’re welcome to help yourself to some food from the commissary. If you go out the door and make a right down the corridor, it’ll be the third door on the left. Just stay away from the tacos. I haven’t seen ground beef on any of our delivery manifests in weeks, so Lord only knows what they put in them.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
I bid Emerson farewell and headed out of the War Room, following what I naturally assumed had been accurate directions to the commissary. However, when I opened what should have been the correct door, I was instead greeted by a blast of rotten air. The stench stung my eyes, forcing me to squint, and making it difficult to make out what was causing the horrid smell. There was a soft hiss coming from the far side of the room, and my blood went cold when I realized it was the sound of labored breathing.
I could just about see the silhouette of what appeared to be a hospital bed and medical machinery connected by a series of wires and tubes when I felt a powerful hand fall upon my shoulder, sending me into a fit of terrified screams. The hand gripped me and pulled me back out of the room before spinning me around and slamming the door shut behind me.
“Calm down, kid,” Jonah said, “It’s just me.” My pulse was still thumping hard in my ears, but I managed to wrangle my fear enough to regain some sense of composure. Jonah gave me a curious look and asked, “What the heck were you doing in there?”
“I...uh,” I began, still struggling to catch my breath. “I was looking for the commissary. Emerson told me to make a right out of the War Room and it’d be the third door on the left.”
“That dolt,” he spat in annoyance, shaking his head. “You’ve gotta make a left out of the War Room, and it’s the fourth door on the right. I swear...that fella’s been here as long as me, and yet he still gets lost. He’s got a great head for numbers, but still can’t tie his own shoelaces.”
“Jonah...what’s in that room?” I asked hesitantly, not sure if I really wanted to know the answer. He sighed heavily and fiddled with his gun holster before looking back up at me.
“That’s Henry,” he said in a regretful tone. “Tempus went after him cause he could teleport. They believed he was actually manipulating time in order to appear to move from one place to another in an instant. I don’t know, maybe that is how he did it. When he popped up on our radar, we knew Tempus knew about him too, and when I looked into his future, I saw them trying to grab him like they did with you. The General sent me to get him first, and I succeeded.
“Problem was, they’d spotted him long before we did and got to him first. You can’t really just do a snatch and grab on a teleporter - they’ll just disappear the moment they realize they’re in trouble. Tempus also needed him alive, so they couldn’t just kill him. But they only needed him to be physically alive, and even then, just barely. Sent some girl in undercover to chat him up at a bar, flirt with him a bit, and slipped something into his drink. Even the fastest acting drug would’ve still given him enough time to make a jump to safety, so they opted for a slow burner.
“He was already halfway gone when I brought him here. Whatever they gave him, it ate away at his mind bit by bit, until his head was nothing more than a soggy potato. We’ve been keeping him alive in the hopes that we might be able to reverse the damage, but with Tempus stepping up their game, Henry’s unfortunately slipped way down on the priority list. We don’t have the resources to take care of him right - it seems cruel to leave him that way, using those machines to keep him alive long past his expiration date, but the General wants him alive, so we fall in line.”
The idea of what Henry had endured horrified me, but I think what made me even more sick was that the people in whose hands I’d placed my life would prolong someone’s suffering like that. I gulped down the hard lump in my throat and asked Jonah the question that had settled like a stone into the pit of my stomach.
“Could they have done something like that to me already?” My mind raced back to all the random encounters I’d had with strangers in the past few weeks, trying to remember if any of the interactions seemed suspicious given this new information, but nothing stood out. I would often have some drinks with fellow gamblers, sometimes buying everyone a round when I had a “lucky” streak going.
“Maybe,” Jonah replied. I suppose he wasn’t the sort to offer a comforting lie. This was really, truly not good. “Look, try not to worry about it, kid. Why don’t we go grab a bite to eat?”
“I’m not really very hungry anymore,” I said.
Before Jonah could respond, an announcement came over the P.A. system.
“Attention all personnel - there is a mandatory meeting set to begin in the Briefing Room in fifteen minutes. Please report there immediately and await further instructions. Thank you.”
“Alright. Guess that wasn’t in the cards for us right now anyway,” Jonah remarked. “Come on, I’ll take you over to the meeting so you don’t get lost again.”