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  • Dick Wybrow

The Vault Matrix - Book One









The Vault Matrix

A comedy/science fiction series

by Dick Wybrow

Copyright © 2020 by Dick Wybrow

Somehow, the world had gotten away from him.

The reason for that was simple.

Cruel? Sure.

But, ultimately, simple: His secret was only secret to him.

That is not how Nature had intended such things. However, "Nature" doesn't really have intentions, per se. Nature is a drunk waking up from a weekend bender, ambling through a messy kitchen in a pair of mismatched slippers, seeing its car in the neighbor's pool and saying, "Ah good. It was dirty. Just the thing."

Etienne Stevens was a terrible cop. And, he was the only one who didn't know it.

Stumbling his way toward the top of the ranks just seemed like the right thing to do after a while. And for those who'd facilitated Stevens' trek up the corporate policeman's ladder, he embodied just the right combination of wavering ambition and mediocre skill set that would buffer his superiors from young, bright go-getters bucking for their top-salaried jobs.

Chief Inspector Etienne Stevens was a terrible cop mostly because he didn't want to be a cop.

However, with all the significant police/detective work regulated to Seventh Generation artificial intelligence computers, his post was actually more corporate management than cop.

Regardless, Stevens hated it.

The young folks he managed at crime scenes (like the Belgian apartment he was currently standing in) were glorified evidence collectors and data processors. He knew--but wasn't terribly concerned (see above, re: ambition/skill set)-- they were very likely missing something right in front of them.

Mainly because they usually missed things right in front of them. Stevens felt the more obvious, the more likely it would sail over their heads, like a witch on a high-fiber, legume-centric diet.

"Ha," the chief inspector said and chuckled, slipping a long pad from his inner coat pocket, scribbling down a couple notes with a pencil that appeared to have been attacked by an angry beaver trying to make a point. "That… that's good… gassy witch on the broom."

Nearby, a couple young, uniformed officers looked up from a cluttered desk. For the past hour, they'd been poking at it with little their bug antennae-like grabbers, trying to look as though whatever they were doing would help identify which objects should be collected.

From those clues and samples, the computers would determine what had happened to the two Belgian terrorists.

And, what they might be planning.

The slightly taller young uni swallowed hard and said: "Pardon, monsieur? Gas? Broom? I'm not sure…?"

Stevens waved a bony hand toward the two as if some flying insect had come up to take a juicy nip at the crest of his hooked nose.

"No, no," he said and cleared his throat. "Just taking notes. Carry on."

Stevens was fifty-eight and couldn't bear the idea of twenty-four more years of working in a job he despised.

He'd voiced that exact complaint to his wife only the night before, his courage and confidence emboldened by a quarter bottle of sugared brandy: "We're like busboys, my little cabbage."

"Oh yes?"

"Yes, we just pick up bits and pieces and hand it over to the processors to make sense of it. Then, the computers tell us what the suspect was up to, where we might find them, and if, after we've apprehended the criminal, there will likely be any good sandwich shops nearby."

(Note: This latter odd bit of information is a remnant of 7thGen artificial intelligence's root code, which was based in the first system to become truly a.i.-- a mid-21st century smartphone restaurant-rating app which was used so extensively, so passionately by so many millions of "foodies" that all those petabytes upon yottabytes of data eventually became self-aware [It's first declaration {unconfirmed} being: "What's with all the fucking crepes, for god's sake?"])

Stevens' wife nodded and repeated, "Oh yes?"

"No one's done real police work in twenty years! They haven't had to."

Reluctantly, she turned away from her television-- a channel chronicling the daily activities of one of her neighbors who'd recently become far more interesting after divorcing her husband of thirty years and now decidedly "making up for lost time."

Mrs. Stevens said, "So, you… what? You're mad about the lack of real police work and want to take detective work back from the computers? Put some human know-how back into the equation, dear?"

"Better," he said and tapped his notebook. "I've started to write jokes, pet."

"Jokes? How will that--"

"Because I'm going to be a stand-up comedian! Computers haven't worked out humor yet! Ha ha! I'm going to tell jokes. On stage."

"But you're not funny, love."

He pulled out his notebook, another gem had come to mind, and rebutted with: "That never stopped former president Pauly Shore all those years back. Why should it stop me?"

A minute later he'd passed out, only to be awoken a few short hours later by an alert (and instructions) regarding two young men who might be trying to blow something up or something.

Stevens' head throbbed as a tiny demon banged a large, muted gong deep inside his brain with the butt-end of an empty brandy bottle.

Unable to stand the pain any longer, he started digging through the drawers of the suspects' small apartment, looking for Aspirin.

"Sir," another young officer said and came into the room. "Shouldn't you have gloves on?"

"No, it's perfectly warm in here."

"Uh, that's n--"

Stevens shouted over the noise in his brain: "You don't happen to have any Aspirin, do you?"

The uni shook his head, shrinking back a step as Inspector Stevens dashed toward the tiny bathroom of the cramped loft.

Past the diagrams and maps hanging by push pins and spent incense sticks that had been jammed into the wall.

Stepping over the boxes of metal casings, explosive components.

The two Belgian men had been fingered by the central Brussels police share frame computer as "potential terrorists." Metadata tracking details of their purchases, electronic correspondence, and online movie rentals all pointed to the far side of the Scale of Presumed Guilt between "soccer hooligan" and "potential terrorist."

Chief Inspector Stevens stepped over another box of grenade casings and thought the computer may have been onto something.

In the bathroom, the light had gone out-- in fact, as he inspected it closer, the entire fixture seemed to have been torn out.

"Vandals!" He declared. "Aha! The computer hadn't seen that one. But, these two lads…" He tapped his jokes notebook against the chipped molding of the bathroom's door frame. "Destructive. This light fixture. Yes. Vandals. Hmm, terrible sort." He scratched his five-day growth of beard (which, sadly, only looked like two) with the edge of his notebook. "Wonder if vandals keep Aspirin."

"Sir, if you can wait a mom…"

From inside the small, dark room came the click of a cabinet, then the plaintive whine of a tiny, metal hinge.

One of the young cops that had been at the desk stood up, rolled his eyes, and went into the bathroom to stop the old Inspector from destroying the crime scene.

"I can't see a blasted thing, shine your light will you?"

"Sir--"

"Just shine your damn torch in here, lad," he belted out. "Ah, yes. Aspirin. Thank you, Jesus-pieces!"

"Can… let's get an officer in this room to catalog it for the detection software, sir."

"Yes, fine, fine." He said and closed the cabinet, his hand smearing some of the red lettering.

As Stevens pushed past the officer, he heard: "Sir!"

The older man turned back, the uni still shining a light into the bathroom. The officer raised his eyebrows, pointed his head toward the dark room.

"What is it?" Stevens said annoyed. "Is there a glass in there? I can't dry swallow pills now, so if-- what in the blazes is that?"

On the mirror, written in something red. Could have been crayon or lipstick. Blood? Who knows? That was for the computers to work out.

On the mirror were these words:


Death to America!


The uni looked back to the elder police inspector, the muscles in his face rigid. Stevens waved him off.

"Hah, look. They've driven a line through it, boy," he said. "Looks like they got cold feet. Good thing, too. I rather like the place when I can visit. Good movies and TV. Some top-rate pornography, too."

"Sir, below that."

"Oh, no," Stevens lowered his voice. "Very nasty business if you go to the substandard porn. All very morally ambiguous."

"Sir--"

"Although some of the former circus people are very flex--"

"Sir! Look! Below the part that's crossed-out."

"Well, that… that just lays it out explicitly! See in fact, they've declared right there in front of you that they no longer plan any sort of international terror attack, lad."

"It says 'abort,' sir."

"Yes," Stevens said, stuffing his notebook down into the pocket of his long coat. "Hell, we don't even need the computers for this. They've called off whatever attack they may or may not have been planning."

The younger officer nodded, less convinced.

His eyes were locked on the first two words-- those had been the only crossed out, not the entire phrase.

He started to call out to his superior but stopped. What was the point? Mouthing it first, he then just muttered the altered phrase to himself.

Stevens picked up on it just the same.

"What's that, lad? Spit it out!"

"It… sir, it could read-- you know, a revision," he stammered. "It could, edited, even read 'Abort America,' if you looked at it, you know, from a different way."

Stevens grabbed a bottle of water of the desk, ignoring the sudden gasp from the man carefully running a laser scan along its length. Chewing three tablets and guzzling the water, he shook his head.

"What a stupid thing! Abort America," he said wincing as he wiped a red smear from his hand to the edge of the desk. "Doesn't make a lick of sense, dear boy."

But the young officer looked again, fairly certain something strange was about to happen (and not just because tablets inside aspirin bottles belonging to young men aren't always aspirin).

Staring at this "new" phrase, he felt certain they were missing something right in front of them.

* * *

LULA TWISTED A STRAND of her long, frizzy dark hair into a tiny tourniquet around the tip of her index finger, shifting her weight from foot to foot.

"It's not fair, TK," she said, loud enough for him to hear but quiet enough to be missed by the other two in the ship's piloting cabin.

TK had long cultivated an image of confident indifference. Over the years, many had misjudged him because of it. And, that had been the point. It gave him the advantage.

The few who really knew him, knew better. Calculated, meticulous. They saw him as a perfectionist. Or anal.

If his detractors knew of his true nature, they'd likely call him crafty. Or Machiavellian.

For those who didn't know him at all he was likely "Hey, who's that dude?", which has no real bearing on the very dangerous undertaking he and the rest of the crew of the Mystik had embarked upon, so, doesn't really merit further explanation.

The meticulous TK compared the craft's instruments to calculations he'd made, now displayed on his "sleeve," a quantum computer that had been tattooed into the skin of his right forearm.

"It's. Not. Fair, TK," Lula repeated.

He turned toward her, looking up slightly as she was taller than he was (most people were). He then saw what-- or rather who-- she was looking at and went back to his work.

"You're joking. This again?"

Lula released her bloodless fingertip, momentarily, then twisted the hair back around it again. From the casual observer it would appear that she may be somewhat anxious. Or that her finger had not yet given up its terrible secret and she was going to make the little digit talk.

The finger, as it happens, did not have any secrets, terrible or otherwise.

"TK, I'm the pilot."

"Co-pilot."

"But me, I'm the lead co-pilot. Hannah is the co-co-pilot."

Satisfied that their ship was on the correct course, TK slowly spun around, and leaned up against the wall.

He was the ship's captain. Which meant he was not only their boss, but often the one person anyone could file grievances with. If TK could file grievances with anyone, he'd likely say he never knew being a ship's captain involved becoming a Human Resources department of one.

But he was the captain. Top of the food chain.

"The buck stops here," the former captain of the Mystik had once told him. Once he'd become captain, TK realized someone may have inadvertently misspelled one of those words.

He glanced over at the young woman with the short bob of red hair, sitting in the second piloting position.

Next to her was his brother-- a large, muscular man with a gleaming white set of perfect teeth, which, because of his good nature, made regular appearances within any conversation lasting more than two or three exchanges.

The only obvious physical similarity between the two brothers was the raven-black shock of hair each had on their head.

Lula glared, waiting for an answer.

TK said, "You think someone other than Burn-- anyone other than Burn-- could pilot a vault like this?"

"I’m the pilot!"

"True."

"I should pilot," she growled. "Not your little brother."

TK still smiled every time he heard that.

Yes, Burn was younger than he was but "little" wasn't a descriptor that anyone could hang on him: The "little brother" was twice the elder's size.

The push-pull sound of hydraulics filled the piloting cabin for a brief moment and then the planet below them came into view through the windscreen, slowly growing in size as they approached it.

"We're there... and we're then," TK announced. He nodded his head toward the lead pilot chair and said to the grumpy woman, "How about you get us to the next coordinates, pilot?"

Alula, or Lula as she preferred, released her finger from its hair noose and stepped toward her chair. She was thin but strong and when she got angry (which was often) her body looked a little like a curled fist.

"Hey," he called after her, voice low. She spun back on the ball of one foot and just stared. "You know you can't make a run like that. No one can do it but him."

She stared downward for a moment, eyes blinking slowly and her body unflexed slightly. Her frown receded and while her expression drained of anger, still, the corners of her mouth pointed downward.

She looked toward the large man who now stood and high-fived Hannah, the young woman in the co-pilot chair (who now had to stop herself from spinning wildly in the seat because of it).

"Why him, do you think?" she whispered to TK, not really expecting an answer. It wasn't something they talked about. At least not around Burn. Far too risky. "What did he ever do to get that sort of gift?"

"You think it's a gift?"

Lula started to answer, but then saw where TK was looking. She glanced over at Hannah, too. She nodded as if it were an apology.

Burn bounced-- impressive for a man of his size-- up to his brother's side.

"Holy cats, did you see that one?"

Lula slipped under Burn's elbow and leapt for the pilot seat, grabbing the controls.

At her touch, the gears beneath the console shifted the configuration into her preferences, and the seat rose several inches as she settled into it.

She asked, "We good?"

Hannah said, "Yeah. We're perfectly on target."

"Good."

"And, I can't feel my hand so much."

"Well," Lula said. "Our magic pilot can be excitable."

Hannah shook her hand out trying to revive it.

"Does he have to high-five? I'd prefer a thumbs up."

"Up where?" Lula said, and grinned wildly.

"Gross."

"I dunno, unafirwa. Those are some big thumbs!"

"Stop talking or I crash the ship to stop you."

"But, whoa, a hang-nail--"

"Stop!" Hannah said, taking her hands off the controls and theatrically plugging her ears. "And what's with the unafirwa stuff? Learning another new language?"

"Yep."

Hannah grinned. "But, same as all the others, right?"

"Yep."

"How many, now?"

"Twenty-three."

"Lula," Hannah said, turning in her chair and dangling her feet over the armrest. "What good will knowing how to swear-- only swear-- in twenty-three languages do for you?"

"Twenty-four after I've got Swahili down," she said, her delicate hands dancing on the console. "I just, you know, like to have options, unafirwa."

"Do I want to even know what that is?"

"No. No, I don't think you do."

On the other side of the piloting cabin, Burn put his arm around his older brother and gave him a squeeze.

TK held his breath for a second then laughed.

"Good vault, Burn. We're about twenty-five minutes before we gotta jump again. Plenty of time to get one soon-to-be-dead actor."

"I rocked it, bro! But it was touch and go," Burn said as the two men stepped from the piloting cabin. "There was a disturbance in my mojo, man."

"I'm sure it was fine."

"Before we hop again, we gotta find it. I don't like vaulting without my good luck turtle."

"You've decided it's a turtle, now?"

"Sure. It looks very turtle-y."

"It looks like a smashed little cluster of metal. It can be anything you want it to be, Burn."

"I want it to be in my hand, TK, when I'm going through the vault. Need it."

"You don't."

From just outside the hatch, Burn turned back to the pilots.

"You guys coming down with us for the extract or keepin' the seats warm back here?"

Hannah spun back around, held her hand up. "Burn, I can't feel my fingers after your happy-time celebration. I'm going to ice them."

"Good call," the big man said and showed his perfect t eeth.

"Yeah, I thought so."

"And while you're hold up in here, can you look for my lucky turtle?"

"Wha-- oh, yeah. Sure."

"It means a lot to me, Hannah. It gives me strength."

"You cut your hand on that busted up thing, and it'll give you lockjaw."

TK checked his sleeve then banged a fist off Burn's shoulder.

"Gotta go."

As captain, TK outlined their missions, and that's where being meticulous (or anal) was most valuable. His younger brother, now this was their own outfit, had recently taken on the smaller details.

The importance of keeping on a time-table, especially when messing with time-travel, can never be overstated.

They headed deeper into the Mystik to get ready for their next "drop," which would be another trip down to the Earth's surface.

The ship's center cell, when cleared out, looked a lot like a large, cavernous warehouse space.

In its current configuration, the area was split up into a galley, equipment storage, and propulsion chamber. Still, it was a storage area-- stacks of boxes, lesser-used equipment, cabling and everything else were simply piled up higher. This effectively, then, created junk-lined paths to anywhere anyone needed to go within the cell.

Burn, out of habit, headed toward the port side drop deck.

"Nah, other one," TK said pointing a crooked finger. "That one still smells like puke. We gotta use the one on the starboard one."

"Ugh. From the therapist guy?"

"Yeah. And it's 'Doyle,'" TK said stepping through the door leading to the starboard drop deck. "He's part of our crew now. You should probably remember his name."

"Sure. Who's cleaning up Doyle's puke, then?"

TK grinned and said, "I'm thinking that's the therapist guy's first official duty."

They climbed up to the deck and prepped for the trip down to the planet, like they had many times before.

This job was different, though-- they were working for themselves this time.

Despite not having to worry about maintaining standards required by a license to vault through time, they'd made drops like these many times before when both men worked for a larger outfit-- going through procedure was not just safer but second nature to both of them.

"So, we gonna get a Vault license at some point, TK?"

Burn nodded slowly but his eyes shifted quickly, betraying his attempt at appearing calm. rs, or any other pieces that shouldn't be behind in the past.

Burn nodded slowly but his eyes shifted quickly, betraying his attempt at appearing calm.

The older brother added: "Most extract outfits just get the license to have access to the dozen or so wormhole maps. We don't need 'em," he said, standing again. "We got you, little brother."

Burn smiled at the praise as he strapped the communicator cord to his neck. He inserted its ear piece but snaked the optic lens to the side, tucking it behind his ear.

"Okay, so what do you know about this guy we're getting?"

Burn shrugged, "Well, we need a good doppel to pass for the scientist guy. Client said this might go a couple days, right? So, somebody's gotta take the scientist guy's place so nobody knows he's gone."

"No, I mean… yeah, we need a good doppel. Right." TK said and winced as he checked his sleeve. "I mean, you think this guy will be good, huh? The other extraction crews, they got guys that are trained, Burn."

"We don't got the coin, big bro'."

"No, I hear you."

"The librarian said this actor dude was going to die today-- in the next few minutes."

"Yeah, about fifteen. We gotta split."

"Right. Big blaze, fire, scary. Horses! Chaos."

TK shrugged, then his eyes went a little wider. He said, "Horses? Fire? Huh. Okay."

Librarians pulled any and all government or public records available to pass along to extract crews. Licensed extraction teams paid ongoing subscription fees for access to the data.

The Mystik crew was not licensed, so Burn had to go a little more… off the record.

The Librarian he used was an old friend and, more importantly, would keep his trap shut about Burn's current and future inquiries (for a couple extra bitcoins, of course).

In this instance, their inquiry-- the second of two recruitment requests-- had returned data culled from obituaries and newspapers of the past several hundred years. For what Mystik's crew had to spend on the information, they'd received a list considered "mostly accurate" of when a certain type of person had died (their abrupt [and secret] removal moments before death making them, now, available for new vocational opportunities).

"So," TK asked, standing at his brother's shoulder on the drop deck. "How good an actor was this guy?"

The job the client had hired the Mystik for was to extract one of the world's most brilliant scientists of the nineteenth century and bring him, briefly, to the late twenty-first century.

"Something about a big hole in space-time or something," Burn had described it at the time, but the client checked out, legit, so the actual reason didn't really matter so much.

On most extractions, the standard 42-hour window could be explained away. Unannounced vacation. Lovers' spat. Weekend in Tijuana.

Burn was told the scientist may be needed for an extended stay. Up to a week.

So, they needed a doppel-- a Doppelganger-- to take their scientist's place, so he wouldn't be missed, so questions wouldn't be asked, so the crew could get paid.

When all was said and done, the scientist would go back to his time and the doppel would rejoin the crew and wait for the next job.

Doppels go through years of training, schooling. And they're paid incredibly well but with incredibly short careers. All the molding and remolding of the face and body takes its toll.

However, they live a fat retirement all the while unable to quite recognize the oft-manipulated features staring back at them in the mirror each morning.

So, a lot like Hollywood actors.

And, if one couldn't employ (or pay) a properly trained doppel… at least the alternative seems vaguely obvious.

"As an actor, he must've been really good. Great, even. We're talking, what?, the nineteenth century and they got the date, hour and location of his death? He must've been a big deal."

"Good, because if people don't buy that he's the most brilliant man in the world for a few days it'd really be bad."

"It would end our little private extract venture, certainly."

Bu rn leaned back, tossed his head side to side, loosening up for the drop.

Burn leaned back, tossed his head side to side, loosening up for the drop.

"Wow. How do you pretend to be Einstein? For days?"

"Yeah ," TK said and flipped the lever opening the drop shelf to empty space. "He better be damn good."

* * *

THEY WAITED, MOTIONLESS, FOR the security guard to pass through the workspace beneath them, as they'd done so many times in the past several days.

This time, it was different-- they were finally getting out.

Had the two men planned on the most circuitous route via the HVAC system of InnoTechVate, Inc.-- the most forward-thinking design corporation in the tech field of the past quarter century-- even they wouldn't have likely mapped out the path they'd taken to get to this very spot.

It was a nearly impossible collection of turns, detours, u-turns and double-backs that could only result from total lunacy (maybe), total brilliance (no) or becoming hopelessly lost in the miles of metal tubing (yes, this one).

For four days.

Stephan and Erick were very good friends.

They'd met on the soccer field before their ninth birthdays, both red-carded for an incident involving three-quarters o a pound of spent orange slices, a broken shin pad, pneumatic tubing from an adjacent constructing site and a disoriented Yorkshire Terrier.

They'd began as opponents on the playing field and ended up as friends for life later that evening, chatting and passing the time at their subsequent (but brief) emergency room visit in suburban Brussels.

And, now, years later, they'd broken into the peerless leader in software, hardware and juicer design to steal the secret to that company's success.

Not because they had anything against the company (however, many people did). Just one of its employees. One beautiful, heart-breaking, midlevel accounts receivable clerk in Acquisitions.

"Erick."

"Shhh."

The two men stared down through a vent's dark meshing trying hard not to move or shift.

After being in the building's ventilation for days, it was often not moving that hurt more than actually inching along the metal paneling.

Every spot of body-to-duct contact-- elbows, knees, wrists, and even shoulders and tiptoes-- was now red, chafed, bruised, swollen or any varying combination of all four.

At least by moving, you could split up the discomfort along on the major spots. Prone, keeping still, hurt like hell.

But, finally, this was the place. They'd found it. Just a few more minutes until the watchman passed from this room to the next.

Trickles of sweat stinging his tired eyes, Erick watched the security man casually dig through the personal effects of InnoTechVate, Inc.'s (Brussels div.) seventh floor employees.

The man below them was security within the most sophisticated security system ever conceived. It would be just about impossible to circumvent it.

He was the professional equivalent of a deckhand who'd been given a damp sponge and told to keep the underside of the Titanic moist. Almost totally and completely unnecessary.

Almost.

It was three in the morning, and Erick knew the guy was probably being paid shit for a shit job. He'd have likely done the same thing.

The two young Belgian twenty-something’s had stolen an access card from a young woman who'd been dating Erick (shortly after she was no longer dating Erick). During one lunch hour, that had gotten them inside a cleaning closet on the second floor.

Actually rather surprised they'd gotten that far, their courage slowly fading as a pair of hangover migraines kicked in, to avoid being caught, they slipped into the ventilation system ducts.

They'd felt that, at any turn, alarms would go off, and they'd be squirreled away by a black clad security detail into some white walled room. Pummeled by relentless questioning.

They'd learn nothing, Erick had grumbled to his best friend, adding: Only that they've got some she-bitch working in Acquisitions!

Intruders were quickly picked up by motion detection software that monitored every exterior window, every stairwell, every door. And, yes, even the duct system, in case any half-brain thought that would be a way to get inside.

They only creatures dumb enough to scurry around the metal tubing would be rats, raccoons, maybe a concussed grouse.

And it was fairly easy to discern a security threat and a garden varmint-- the former's intentions would be revealed based upon route, determination. A woodland creature looking for crumbs (or smaller, tasty woodland creatures) would just wander.

A complex, "intruder-detecting algorithm" would differentiate the two. Thieves would be turned over to the authorities (read: captured, beaten, then secretly incinerated in a subterranean boiler room).

The two-plus legged sort would be handled by a small contingent shock-bot and given a couple stinging blasts to encourage them to move along. Killing them inside the duct work was a bad idea-- rotting woodland creatures only attract more woodland creatures.

"Erick."

"Shhhh!"

Bzzzntttt!

"Ummnpff!," Stephan grunted, then muttered: "Fucking thing."

The shock-bot delivered a second, lesser jolt to Stephan's bare ankle, bzzntt!, the combination leaving yet another red, pocked marked burn on the man's skin. It whirred away happily and toddled off to recharge.

A minute later, the watchman eventually padded away, heading into the north tower. During the day, offices there were populated by executives-- better pickings.

"He's gone," Erick said.

"Okay."

"Come on. We'll climb down."

"Okay."

Erick sighed, tired of being suspended in the ceiling. Tired of crawling through cramped spaces on his knees and elbows for days. He just wanted to get out and get to their master scheme.

"What? What is it you wanted."

"Had to pee."

The grumpier of the two men traced his eyes along the wall. They'd been hiding in the ducts for days, and they were nearly home free. But, still being careful, going slow was paramount. It would all be a waste if they got busted after days of crawling and waiting.

"Let's drop down. You can go now."

"Don't have to anymore."

Stephan smiled weakly and wobbled himself back and forth in the metal tubing, sloshing the dampness below him.

"How are we supposed to be a master techno-criminal team, if you can't even hold your bladder for more than 10 minutes."

"Was okay until the shock-bot tased me," he said. "I have a very small bladder."

"Goes with your very small penis," Erick said, lifted away the alligator clamps, twisted the screen sideways and dropped down onto some anonymous worker's desk.

He'd been careful to land on a calendar blotter and not hit the cups of pencils or small stack of staplers-- nothing that would tumble over the edge of the cheap desk and make any noise.

Letting his eyes adjust for a moment in the low light-- but brighter than he'd experienced for days-- he stared at his feet to not lose balance.

The calendar beneath his dirty socks had more coffee stains than appointments. Some stranger's birthday, a friend of the desk owner likely, was marked with a sickly-sweet balloon-heart script.

"Happy birthday… Jess," Erick read it softly. "Enjoy it, Jess. It will be your last... depending upon your lineage or particular factors within your heritage, that is."

In a paper-spewing crash, Stephan dropped right behind him, nearly falling back. He saved himself by gripping onto Erick's shirt, regaining his balance. This naturally transferred the potential wobble-energy to his friend, who subsequently fell back, ultimately dragging Stephan right with him.

One on top of the other, they held still for a moment, listening for a guard.

Nothing.

Erick spun and slid off his friend. He put his burnt, red-pocked faced up into the burnt, red-pocked face of his friend.

"Christ, what are you doing?"

"Sorry."

Erick stood again, swaying a little as he wiped the dust from his pajama jeans. When his friend began to stand, he delivered an axe to his shoulder, which sent the man back to the floor in a crumpled heap.

Stephan sucked in a breath, nodded and said, "Fine. Had that coming."

As he waited for his friend to stand again, Erick pulled a sweat-stained blueprint from the back of his pants. He wished he could have brought a screen wrist-strap (or even better one of those hi-tech tattoo sleeves he'd seen on the TV).

But he figured InnoTechVate, Inc. would be monitoring for electronic devices or transmissions-- any extra crackles in the air might indicate the electronic equivalent of "stranger danger."

Stephan came up behind him and looked over his shoulder. He started to say something but Erick shushed him, then pointed ahead.

"There," he said and walked unevenly, getting used to moving upright once again. "That door, down the hall and a door on the right. It should be--"

"I, uh… for the record, I do not actually have a small penis."

"Drop it and focus!"

Stephan nodded, gave him a thumb and finger "okay."

At the door, he tugged and it came easily from its jamb. Good, he thought. They probably assume outside fortifications are so strong no one--

"But, I just wanted to go on record and say it's not small. That's it," Stephan said, following his friend into the hallway. A light panel above them came to life, startling the two intruders.

They froze, as if being in clear sight but not moving would make all the difference between evasion and capture.

In the end, it didn't matter.

Not alarms.

No rush of guards.

The best friends/terrorists walked to the next door, mindful of the windows in the doors in front and behind them.

"It's simply biology is all I was sayin'. There's really no connection between a small bladder, right?, and a--"

"Shhh!" Erick said, putting up a hand.

Did he hear something? Someone working late? No.

"Wasn't a biological assumption," Erick said. "You actually do have a small penis."

Scanning the office space around them for movement, his eyes ended up, finally, on a very large glass of water sitting at the edge of one of the desks. They'd been sipping condensation from air conditioning units for days and here, before him, was a full glass of water.

Over the years, he'd had his own struggles with religion and tried several, especially the ones supporting his violent tendencies.

But this? Mother Earth's most treasured gift before him?

This was affirmation!

Yes. He was doing God's work.

Or Allah's.

Or was it, maybe, Ukko's? Ares'?

He struggled briefly to remember which doctrine he'd settled on in recent months. Didn't matter. He had the Big Man (or Big Woman [or Big Fur Mite]) on his side.

Erick snapped up the glass and drank from it as if he were holding a bejeweled chalice, cradling it with two hands, his eyes closed, reverent.

Thankful.

He sucked down two long swallows. Eyes now open and locked ahead, on their destiny, he handed the water to Stephan who took it, tipped the glass to his mouth and froze, staring eye-to-eye with a lone, terrified goldfish.

Neither creature blinked. A tiny, lone bubble drifted from the lip of the fish. The man took a small swallow and carefully placed the tall, glass cylinder down.

The next door came open as easy as the first.

In this room, the light did not come on… but, it didn't have to.

"There, Stephan! There!"

Along the far wall, the unit they'd been searching for lay.

Like a heavenly vision, it was bathed in brilliant, breath-taking light. The glow from the energy source below it-- a cold fission reactor secured one floor down-- was so penetrative, it was if the machine were held aloft on a blanket of light.

"We are so stealin' that shit!" Stephan said and hugged his friend.

While the power source was so amazing that it would make a baby punch its mother out of the way for a better look, the actual machine was rather plain.

Here was a machine that could manifest a tunnel linking past and future, and it looked like three twentieth century propane tanks lashed together with a metal ribbon

Actually it was three twentieth century propane tanks lashed together, but that had simply been the original housing of the machine, called "The Lance." Billions of pulsing, tiny circuits held together to create a unique webbing of magnetic fields. It was originally designed to simply steal premium cable channels, but it turned out to be the perfect conduit to tap into the time tunnels and nudge one open a crack.

[Note: This was first discovered when The Lance inadvertently linked an unidentified, early twenty-first century television program to a prominent basilica's most central water basin in Rome, circa 1095. It's said the images depicted from the show (esp. season two, episodes 5 through 9) put Pope Urban II in such a fretted state, he'd ordered preparation for what eventually became the first of the Crusades (at the time, though, known simply as the "Kardashian Initiative")]

Alas, the construction of The Lance had never been properly replicated despite the many fortunes (and lives) lost in the attempt.

Few knew about its existence outside of InnoTechVate, Inc. because of the company's attention to every detail, the extensive years-long vetting process for anyone involved, and an on-going, vigorous murder campaign directed at those of the inner circle who might leave the company for any reason what-so-ever.

"Can you believe that tiny thing lets people… dance through time?"

Stephan said, "Amazing."

The glow beneath alighting his face, Erick was entranced.

"It's beautiful," he whispered. Next to it, the wall was scored-- horizontal lines, very tiny ones that at a distance collected into large ones. From across the room it actually made the affected area look like a real door.

Erick caressed the wall.

"This is where the agitation is directed," he said and looked down, mouth suddenly dry. "I'm not sure if we'll need a solid surface or if that matters."

"We can try it out different ways," Stephan said, then added: "What do you mean you know I have a small penis?"

The spell was broken, Erick sighed and he turned towards his friend.

"I've seen you. You pass out drunk on the couch in your boxer shorts and it's like this hairy knuckle that pokes out. Disgusting."

"No." Stephan said, clutching his stomach.

"Yes, several times. It's disturbing," Erick said, turning back to the wall. "And explains why you miss the toilet so much. I'm surprised you can get it past your zipper."

"Well, I'll hav--"

"Enough about your damn penis!" Erick hissed and bent down to see how he could go about removing the device and getting into the backpack they'd brought along.

However, in his hatred for the young, American girl who'd broken his heart, in that white-hot blind rage, he'd missed something so obvious.

So stupid, he thought, looking through the slats in the floor.

Warmed by its glow, he said to the compact reactor: "Beautiful. And I think I don't have anything so powerful."

"What?"

Erick stood, looked around the back of The Lance, and began to snap wires and short leads from it, freeing it from the wall's grasp. The lights below flickered.

"That's a fission reactor. That may be a problem."

Stephan gasped. "What? You said--"

"Yes, yes! We'll make it work. But, we'll have to find a power source as potent as that."

Stephan sank back into the darkness a step, his shoulders slumping.

"But, you can make it work. Yes? You said we'd be notorious!"

"Yes, yes, my friend," Erick said and finally smiled. "We're home-free, as they say. We've done it."

Stephan smiled and after a moment the excitement overcame him and he pumped a fist in the air, triumphantly.

Erick nodded with a huge grin and put a finger to his lips. He was happy too. Their challenge wasn't over but this had been its most difficult stage.

They would succeed.

They would pull off the greatest act of terror the world had ever seen. So terrific it could never be duplicated.

And so complete-- no one would ever know they'd done it.

It would wipe the very existence of the United States off the map. America would never exist. No songs written in its honor. No soldiers killing or dying for it.

And no heart-breaking 27-year old American girls hell-bent on crushing, no pulverizing a young Belgian man's soul the moment after he'd confessed his love to her.

Sure, it may seem a tad extreme for Erick to get revenge on such a woman by erasing her, everyone she knew, everything she'd ever known, and the very country that spawned her.

But when he fell for a girl… Erick? He fell hard.

"Don't you think, you know," Stephan muttered as his friend carefully stuffed The Lance into the duffel bag. "To be fair..?"

Erick looked back as he zipped it closed. He then tested its weight on his shoulder and replied, "What? What 'to be fair'?"

"To be fair, right?" Stephan said. "You saw mine, so I should see yours. To be fair."

"What?"


* * *


"BURN, YOU SAID THE tribesmen told you we needed to refuel soon, right?" Hannah said as the two men watched the bay door open in front of them, only an invisible energy field between them and the black space (and blue-green planet) below.

"Yes, hmm?" The large man looked back over his shoulder, his emerald eyes briefly out of focus. "What? Yep. Yeah."

TK fidgeted, waiting for the hydraulics of the door.

He said, "We've got a window of time here, Hannah. We'll make--"

"We better," she said and stared past them to the planet below. "I don't want to get stuck where I don't belong."

"We won't."

"Oh, by the way, TK?" she said, stepping away from the drop deck and climbing down its short ladder to the center cell. "That guy we got on the last vault, you need to talk to him."

"Now?"

"Real quick," she said. "He's losing it bad."

TK checked his sleeve and tapped a few spots, doing a quick computation.

He knew better than to protest, despite being the ship's captain. He trusted Hannah to keep him honest about the things he may have neglected.

That trust had likely saved their lives more than once.

But, he couldn't just give it to her. Not too easily, at least.

"We got just twenty-two minutes to get down, get our mark and get back out."

Her case made, she walked deeper into the center cell, calling back as she disappeared around a large stack of equipment, "He's losing his shit, TK. I'm no babysitter and not qualified to handle that kinda crazy."

"That's what he's for, goddamnit!" TK shouted back and turned to Burn, tightening a buckle on the big man's leather shoulder protectors. "Run through it in your head. I'm just going to talk to the therapist for a sec."

"Bro', hey, I can--"

"Don't go without me, Burn," TK said, then added. "I know you can handle it but just double check the maps. Back in two-and-two."

Burn furrowed his brow and his mouth opened, but he stopped before the words came. He nodded and patted his older brother on his head.

"Don't do that," TK said.

"Hee hee. You got two minutes and two seconds. Go!"

TK stepped out and strode down the hall.

Passing a closed hatch door along the way, a nearby, bent-up speaker crackled to life.

"Where you guys going?"

He ignored it-- there wasn't enough time to get into a drawn-out conversation with the old man.

Hannah was already back in the ship's galley attempting to argue with the tribesmen.

"No, no, and no," she said, stirring a pot of soup on the stove exaggeratedly. "This is more stewy than soupy. Don't you guys know 'soup', yet?"

The two men looked back and forth to each other, exchanging words.

"Listen--"

TK wheeled up and said to her quickly, "Never anger the people who handle your food," he then added: "Okay, where's the guy?"

"What guy?"

"You just-- the therapist guy!"

Staring down the tribesmen (who were already working on another part of the meal), she pointed to the store room just off the kitchen.

TK said, "Jeez, he's sitting in the dark? Did you fix the light?"

"Light's broken. But, it's the only room that locks."

Locked inside? TK thought.

Locked inside, Doyle was-- in a word-- unhappy.

Another word, if one wanted a word more accurate yet not quite as adherent to conventional grammatical constricts, you could say he was a ohmygodnofuckingwayImgonnadiewhyisthereacanofSpaminthesmallofmyback-kind of unhappy.

Only a half-hour earlier he'd left work for the day.

Tired.

Spent both physically and emotionally.

His mind had drifted as he simply sat in traffic, waiting for the cortisone shot he'd spiked into each wrist to do their magic.

Maybe he should have been paying closer attention to the road.

Or maybe in the end, it wouldn't have mattered since the huge fuel tanker had slid sideways off the overpass above him and everyone else.

How do you look out for something like that?

It would have landed on them whether he'd been more diligent about the traffic around him or not.

Now, a casual observer, if asked (however unlikely anyone would ask), would have probably said the oddest thing about Doyle Chandler's day was the giant, deadly fireball that blew through his windshield and the windshields of at least seventeen other vehicles around him.

But that, in truth, however awful, turned out to not be the oddest.

At first, Doyle had seen small stones and fist-sized chunks of concrete fall onto a red Ford truck just two car lengths ahead of him.

He muttered, "That can't be--"

Then his passenger door had flung open.

"Doyle Chandler?" A huge man dressed like he'd just come from repelling down the side of a mountain, leaned across the passenger seat eclipsing the sun behind him.

In his hand, a small scrap of paper.

He repeated, "Doyle Chandler, therapist? Yes?"

"Wha… who?"

The sound of the crash snapped Doyle's head forward.

A large chunk of concrete had fallen onto the red truck and punched a hole in the windshield. Doyle couldn't see the driver through all that red goo dripping down the insides of the widows.

Doyle's eyes went wide and he said, "Did… that, that guy just--"

"Yeah," the big guy said. "He's totally dead. Are you therapist Doyle Chandler, sir?"

"It... wait? No, what?"

Above them-- some terrible metal-on-metal crime in progress, a screeeetch-ing, and the concrete rain cleared the way for larger falling chunks.

"You're not Doyle Chand--?"

"What? Yes, yes-- who? Ugh, wa--"

In one quick move, the muscled mountain-climber had pulled Doyle across the stick shift of the little Korean gas-saver, now carrying him under one arm, as if he were a small dog that had strayed off its property.

Doyle craned his neck to see where they were going.

Ahead, on a grassy embankment near the bridge, another guy who dressed like a mountain climber, too, but smaller. He was waving the big guy over. Looked a bit agitated.

The big guy dropped Doyle back down to his feet and it felt like he'd fall but suddenly a strap snaked around his arms, holding him in place-- then he felt the world get strange.

Like he'd had too much coffee.

And vodka.

And LSD.

A roar built up in his ears, but as it grew in volume, it turned so strange and unnatural… blurring into his vision somehow.

The last thing he could remember was seeing the fuel tanker, as it fell from the overpass onto several cars below.

The heat and flame stuttered and it was if its light and warmth melted into the fierce roar around him, until he passed out a moment later.

When he'd awoken, he could smell stale, dry cardboard boxes. And something else. Rice? Noodles?

It was dark.

And there had been, what felt like, a can of Spam in the small of his back.

The door opened and in the sudden burst of light, he saw the smaller man-- the one that had wrapped the belt thingy around him-- standing in the door way.

"You're the little mountain man."

"Holy shit, you've gone completely bonkers."

"What? Wait," Doyle said. "Am I dead?"

TK banged on the switch. Nothing.

"Shit, sorry. The light's out."

"Am, oh God, am I de-- wait. What light?"

TK let out a deep breath.

"There isn't one, Doyle Chandler," he said. "That's what I was saying. Must be something wrong with the circuit."

"I don't under--"

"No, no, no! Listen, we're low on time."

From the floor, Doyle backed deeper into the darkness on his elbows, despite the square metal can now nearly breaking the skin of his back.

"Oh, god, are you going to kill me?"

"What? No, no. Why would we go through all the business of an extract just to kill you?" TK shifted his weight. "Sorry, you were passed out, and we didn't have time to go through the checklist with you. That might hav--"

"Checklist? You're not going to put me in some maze where there's puzzles and riddles, and if I get them wrong it slices off little chunks of me and in the end when I'm crawling to an escape, parts of me missing because of you!, like a hand or fingers maybe a foot or a knee, and just when I think I’m free--"

"OH MY god, please stop," TK barked. "Where the fuck do you get that stuff? Is that what it's like in the twentieth century?"

"No, well," Doyle said, his breathing ragged. "I, uh, I saw it in a movie--"

"Listen," TK said and looked at his tattooed sleeve. "I gotta go. But you need to pull yourself together. I mean, Christ, we yanked you out of that because we needed a counselor on board-- someone to calm our extracts down. Help get them acclimated. All the outfits have one."

"Them… what?"

"But we don't have a therapist to calm our therapist. I gotta go," TK said, closing the door slowly. "So, please, please, remember your training and calm yourself. We're getting a guy now, and he'll need your help to, you know, acclimate."

The door closed, and Doyle heard the latch slide closed.

He was in the dark again.

Through the door, he heard: "You won't be of any use to him or us if you're a screaming lunatic, right?"

His heart sank but, at least he wasn't dead.

Or going to be tortured.

What did the little man in the mountain climber clothes say?

Doyle had been told to calm himself down. And to use his… training.

Absentmindedly, he began to massage his shoulder with one hand as the other fumbled around beneath him, trying to free the Spam from the middle of his back.

* * *

“Where are you guys going?"

Again, TK ignored the gravelly voice in the speaker and whizzed past the hatch to the old man's pod. He climbed the short ladder back up to the drop deck to rejoin Burn, who was pacing the small room and punching a fist into an open palm.

"Jeez," he said, spinning around against the breath-taking backdrop of open space. "You ready? We gotta go, man."

His mind still a little unsettled after the conversation with Doyle, TK walked up next to Burn without a word. He dropped the final lever and the sounds of gears churned around them.

Turning toward the yawning of dark space, TK slipped on long, dark work gloves then quickly wound a strap around his chest. Once in place, it pulled until it was snug.

"You sure about that therapist? He sounds like he's going nuts."

"It'll be fine," Burn said, loosening his muscles. "The librarian said dead therapist, that time and place. Dude was there, we got him, end of story."

"Which one?"

"Which what? Doyle what's-his-nam--"

"No," TK said, then saw the look on Burn's face. Oh shit. "Which librarian are you using?"

When the bay doors firmly locked into place, the two men walked to the very edge of the drop deck-- only an invisible field keeping space from dragging them into the cold, black nothingness.

"Well, we gotta, you know… they're freelancers."

"Burn…"

"Hey man," the big guy said. "We're not a part of a big outfit now. On our own. We hafta watch our dough, right? I saved a ton of coinbits going with--"

"Freelancers."

"Yeah," the big man said and strapped on a pair of dark glasses. "It'll be fine."

"Don't say that. Makes me nervous," TK said, eyeballing his brother's cheap sunglasses. "You know it's night time there right now? You need the shades?"

"I'm covert, baby," Burn said. An eyebrow raised above one lens. "This actor fellah won't even know what hit 'em."

"This actor fellah you got time and place of death stats from… freelancers." A large panel charred with dirt and grease (and likely a little bit of blood) flipped its light from red to green with a kur-chunk. TK did one last quick check of his sleeve.

They had just over fifteen minutes. Time to go.

Burn said, "No worries. Good info."

"Then why do we have to go back to the nineteenth bloody century to find a decent, soon-to-be dead actor?"

"Other outfits nabbed the best ones already."

TK didn't like these little hops.

It was unnerving to be-- essentially-- stepping away from the fabric of the universe. Even for a fraction of a second.

Just past his feet, he looked down to the Earth below, a beautiful glowing mass of blue oceans, brilliant white clouds.

Just past the clouds was the famous nineteenth century performer who was to take the place of the famous twentieth century scientist needed in the late twenty-first century because of some top secret uber-trouble a couple Belgians had caused.

The sort of trouble all the quantum computer power in the world couldn't fix.

A solution that would require serious innovation. Improvisation.

The sort of voodoo that was, still, strictly the purview of a living brain (alas a talent that had faded from lack of use years before 2072).

But, before that could happen, they'd need the actor.

TK watched the palm-sized numerals on the wall count back from thirteen, the time it took the drop field to establish.

Taking a deep breath he said, his voice quivering slightly, "They didn't even keep good death records back then, did they? Why would this actor guy get a write up?"

Nine.

Burn balled his hands into fists.

"That just means he's good," he said.

Seven.

"Better be."

"You worry too much."

Four.

Three.

"It'll be fine, bro'."

"Stop saying that."

Zero.

Zero.

Zero.

Emptying the void

It into me, me to it

Skidmarks 'neath my taint.

TK sucked in a breath of cold air and sighed, choking back a momentary sob.

Burn was there.

He put a large hand on his brother's shoulder.

Opening his eyes, TK looked up and saw the pinpricks of the night sky and took another breath.

"Impressive, Burn," he said, voice faltering slightly. He looked down at the dirt, wood and straw beneath his feet. "You actually got us through the open barn door? Damn impressive."

Burn waited. He knew his brother always felt the void, despite the infinitesimal amount of time they'd spent in it during any given drop.

Between the two of them, TK had always been the "feeler."

Not in a criminal way like the stories you read about some guy in a crowded Tokyo subway trying to temporarily recruit nearby young ladies as finger puppets, mind you, but rather TK was the more feeling, more emotional of the two siblings.

And while using the drop technology to travel by ship was fine, he found individual drop fields jarring.

He'd once described the experience as feeling like you've been ripped away from everything and everyone you ever knew-- a single, lone entity in an empty universe-- if just for an instant.

Which was, of course, in essence, exactly how it worked.

"You good, wuss-boy?"

"Wuss-boy? Thanks for that, Burn."

"Just don't want you to burst into tears and put out the fire. You do your haiku thing?"

"Starting to think that doesn't help," TK said, fitting the communicator into his ear. "No fire. By the way."

"Saw that."

The night air was heavy, cold.

In the moonlight shining into the barn through the door, they could see their breath and, more importantly, that indeed the "barn fire" was missing fifty percent of its necessary components.

Looking at the readout on his enhanced tattoo sleeve, they had about eleven minutes until the extract.

Yet the fire, it seemed, hadn't gotten the memo.

"Your freelance librarian, hmm… you still feel good about this, Burn?"

They shifted deeper into the barn, out of the light, but Burn found himself hunched over, moving along the curvature of the wall.

"Cramped space here."

"Yeah, odd."

"Very tiny barn," he said. "Pictures always made them look bigger. Maybe it's a Quonset hut."

"Uh oh. Someone's been reading again."

"Research, bro'. You said it was important. Did it."

TK brushed dirt and straw from his pants as they shuffled along, his eyes slowly adjusting to the low light.

He could now make out a railing.

Beyond the railing, more light. From below.

"Ah, we're in the loft." He looked out the "door" of the barn and saw steam slowly rising up from a field, tree tops. "Top floor. Nice."

"Do we--?"

"Shhh!"

The older brother pointed below and held up two fingers.

Doing his best to maneuver, Burn slid his feet along the wood flooring to sidle up next to his brother.

For a moment they watched and tried to listen in on the conversation below.

"I can't hear--"

"Shhh!"

Just fragments floated up toward them-- the conversation was a mystery but the tone was quite clear.

Two men. Terrified. Panicked. Likely both.

Burn snaked his communicator's optic back from behind his head and dropped the lens over his right eye. Not much clearer.

"Which one's our guy?"

TK glared at him.

"How the hell should I know? Whichever one is the actor… the, uh, better looking one, I guess."

"I can't tell with dudes, man," Burn said, eyes flat. "You're more in touch with your feminine side-- you should be able to tell. Just set your gaydar for stun." A small grin curled his lip.

TK was about to level him with a sharp, witty and non-offensive rebuff but a voice outside startled both of them.

"We know you're in there!"

Burn looked at TK wide-eyed. He shook his head, pointed downward and mouthed, Not us. Them.

Tapping his ear, he turned on the communicator and Burn did the same. The device was helpful when drop parties had to spread out. Some also found it good for surveillance situations-- team members could still communicate, very quietly, by simply muttering or mumbling their words.

It wasn't a perfect way to communicate but would do in a pinch.

"was worried he meant us"

"no shh trying to hear"

"sorry"

"stop talking burn"

"sorry"

TK shook his head and, again, pointed downward.

The night pressed down upon them like plate glass-- cold, hard. Up in the barn's loft, words from below and outside were hard to make out clearly, as if the freezing air made them brittle, with only shards tumbling up toward them as the larger pieces broke apart, splintered.

The actor and his friend (or agent [not likely] or vocal coach [even less likely] or snarky, Native American side-kick [just no]) had been trapped, it seemed, in the barn by the man who was now shouting from outside.

Through gaps in the loft's wall--boards warped by age, dampness-- that man looked to be the commander of several dozen soldiers.

These two men were hunted.

"dammit military cops out there our guys a damn crook or something"

"or maybe his acting aint so good"

"youre not helping"

As they watched, one of them began breaking away, walking in the direction of the shouts from outside-- he turned back to his companion, arms outstretched, tears rolling down his face.

So emotional, so dramatic… TK momentarily felt like he was watching a stage play from the balcony. Listening closely, he could barely hear: "…friend… sorry, I mustn't be hel…"

Burn twisted slowly, trying to not rustle the clutter all around them. Saddles, gear, broken equipment and molding hay had been stuffed into every nook and cranny of the rafters.

"one dudes leaving maybe"

His brother had already seen it and was moving slowly, walking in a crouch along the length of the loft. TK's back was to Burn as he stole glances every few steps, parallel with the man walking backward, looking downward trying to get a better read on what was happening.

If he was worried, Burn couldn't hear it in his voice.

With mumble-talking you can't really tell anyhow, but Burn only got worried when his brother got worried. That almost never happened anyhow.

"which is our guy is our guy leaving"

Burn shook his head.

"cant be if he leaves"

Below them, the man heading for the door suddenly looked up and caught sight of Burn on the far side of the barn's loft. His mouth twisted into a silent scream and his face flushed. Without a word, he lifted his arm to point at the huge man above them but stumbled, losing his footing momentarily.

"oh darn"

Burn instinctively snapped back into the shadows and clipped the edge of a broken ladder, the tip of which knocked over a wooden bucket, which in turn rolled and bounced along the railing.

The two men in the loft froze, unblinking, as they watched the bucket's precarious clunka-clunka-clunka roll along the railing.

The two men below became one man below as the fleer fled, bursting out the barn door, hands held high.

The three pair of eyes leapt toward the bang of the door's rusty metal spring yanking the big door closed again. Then--

Crash!

All eyes swiveled to the opposite end of the barn, as the bucket, having fallen from the railing, had hit the barn floor below and burst, splitting into a hundred pieces.

Flying splinters launched toward the man in jodhpurs like an archery attack of an Orc battalion at Helms Deep. The man quickly shielded his face, dropping the lamp he'd been holding.

"Good Heavens!"

TK leaned over the railing to get a quick lay of the land. Getting spotted didn't matter so much now.

He watched as the dry straw burst into flashes of fire around the man below.

"Yeah, that's not good."

"hey bro look"

"Burn, we gotta move!"

"theres the fire"

"Stop mumbling!"

"sorry"

The dry, rotted straw piled high at the far wall let out a low roar as the entire mass came alight.

TK looked back at Burn.

The big man, for all his bravado, was suddenly frozen still. His pupils pinpricks as he stared at his smarter, older brother for the way out.

Below TK, he heard the door of the barn rattle.

"This is the captain," a gruff voice called into the barn. "Throw out your arms! You'll not get another warning, sir!”

"Uh… just need a moment."

The man below faked calm (rather poorly, if he was the actor, it seemed to TK) as he feverishly tried to stamp out the angry flames. However, with each stomp, more fuel from the lamp splattered and the fire spread quickly.

"Wuh!"

Remarkably, the fire now consumed the entire wall and began to encircle the barn.

The door rattled hard again.

"Sir, if we enter, we will be doing so behind a hailstorm of bullets, I swear it!

TK made a snap call. "Burn!"

The eyes of the man below looked up and locked onto the stranger on the far side of the loft.

He hadn't noticed the two men until now.

TK growled into the communicator: "Hook 'em."

That's all the big man needed.

Burn leapt over the edge of the loft's railing landing fifteen feet below with a burst of dust and dirt. Towering over his captive, he put a palm on the man's head, draping his fingers around his skull.

The man could only stare wildly between black, gloved fingers.

"Are you the actor… hold on."

"What?"

Burn dug a scrap of paper from his coat pocket and read the name he'd gotten from his freelance librarian.

"Are you John Booth?"

Dazed by the huge man holding his head as if it were a ball to be thrown, his eyes darted wildly up, then side to side.

"Hey! Are you the actor John Booth?"

Then, slowly, the man's face softened. He nearly smiled.

He said, "Oh, my, my, my."

"Are you--?"

"Seriously, this is no time for autographs, dear boy." Booth then snatched the paper scrap from Burns hands. "Alas, never disappoint the fans," he said, flattening the crumpled paper on Burn's broad chest. "Have you a fountain pen?"

A strap encircled his waist.

"What's this--?"

TK lifted it up the actor's body, chest high, and pulled it snug.

"Can't get a line from here," TK said, checking the readout on his sleeve. He looked up toward the hayloft's door-- a clear shot to their destination-- but, filled with smoke now, they'd never make it. "Outside. Out the back."

"Got it," Burn said and lifted the nineteenth century actor up by the drop strap around his chest.

"Outsi---uggg! Not… best..."

Outside, more than a dozen soldiers suddenly raised their carbines to their shoulders when a barn door banged open and a large, large man came out-- two others followed, one of them carried by the big one.

TK caught sight of the soldiers, checked his sleeve and pointed Burn to a spot a few feet away.

He said pleasantly, "Hello!"

For a brief moment, no one said a word.

A skinny soldier on the end, one with small bits of food in his scraggly mustache, raised his hand. A small wave.

Then, as if broken from a spell, another called out: "Over here, sir! Captain!"

Dangling from Burn's grip like a kitten in its mother's teeth, Booth said, "I was trying to tell you--"

"John Wilkes Booth! There is no escape," the Captain bellowed grandly, rounding the corner on horseback. Pulling a saber from its sheath, he held it high, adding: "Sir, you--"

Then, as if smeared into the ink of the night sky, the three men who'd just burst from the barn disappeared.

The Captain sat quietly for a moment atop his horse; the tip of the long, pointy knife in his hand dipped a few inches lower.

"Ah."

His men, rifles still pointing at where their captives had been, grew unsteady. A few hooded eyes flickered his way.

"Ah, yes," the Captain announced and cleared his throat. Then he cleared it again.

Finally he announced: "Bring the other fugitive!"

The first man to leave the barn stumbled around the corner, two soldiers holding his coat, his hands bound with thick rope.

"Sir, capt'n, sir, I tru--"

"John Wilkes Booth, for the crimes you have committ--"

"No, sir!" His voice jumped in pitch and he tried to take a step in retreat. The men at his sides held him firm. "I'm… I am not the man called John Booth."

"Ye are tonight, lad," the Captain said, pulled out his pistol, and shot him dead.

With their rifles still pointing into the empty space where the three men had been moments earlier, the soldiers all shifted slightly from foot to foot.

The two that had been holding the prisoner watched as the man slumped. Releasing their grip, they watched as he collapsed to the ground beneath their feet.

In a move of finality, the Captain sheathed his sabre and announced: "Booth tried to escape. It went badly for him."

* * *

IT'S CALLED BY VERY bright people who apparently haven't the patience to construct clever acronyms: Quantum Dissociative Translatent Static Withdrawal.

But to the roughnecks who often use it to cross great lengths of space (or even just from a ship to a planet surface and vice-versa), it's simply called…

"… a drop. Which probably explains why your body feels sort of tingly and your brain feels like you've been trippin' balls," Burn said to the nineteenth century actor who'd crumpled to the floor the moment they'd arrived on the ship called Mystik.

"It… tripped balls… what?"

"Uh, like you're stoned."

Booth's watering eyes got wide, "We're to be stoned, sir?!!"

TK laughed. "Burn, I got this."

Booth flinched as the drop deck's bay doors clamped shut.

The big man stripped off his communicator and tossed it back into a bin that was hanging from a hook.

Booth looked up, dazed and confused, and Burn waggled his finger: "Stay, actor."

"Wha--?"

"Burn, before we make the swap with our scientist, let's run through the plan. This was a little rough, man."

"Not my fault," he said. "Time travel is messy, bro'."

TK nodded and powered down his communicator as he glanced over at the actor who stared at his hands as if for the first time.

Burn closed the entry to the passageway behind him.

"You okay, Booth?"

"No sir, I am terribly confused and frankly near death with fear. If this is my punishment for what I believed to be the act of a patriot, more or less, then--"

The snapping sound quieted Booth. TK stripped the protective rubber from his pants and boots and tossed them into an incinerator basket.

Booth watched a small ribbon of smoke twist up above the basket, then dissipate into the dry air.

From the wall, TK pulled a long plastic card from its plastic sheath. At the top, in bold, were the words, Up to Speed for Permanent Extracts. He scanned it until he found an area with the heading: 1850 - 1899 A.D. N. America (U.S.)

"Okay, so--"

"Unless this… " Booth said as tears began to collect on his eyelids, "Unless this is merely the beginning of a tortuous existence in the hellfires--"

"SHUT up, already," TK barked and the actor shrunk into the floor's corner. "Let me go through the thing here: 'You are not dead. You are also not in Hell nor Heaven. And, this is not…' Damn," TK turned the card toward Booth, a finger holding his place. "What's that word, there?"

"Uh, it's… purgatory."

"Woof, you guys still believe in that? Don't answer that. Let me finish the thing here. 'You are very much alive and safe.'"

"Forgive me, I don't find your assertion the least bit comforting, sir. It... where are we?"

"Can I finish the card, please?"

"Yes, sorry. Right. Yes. Please, go on."

"Okay. 'At this time, do not ask for any additional details from your host.' That's me."

"Rather lose definition, certainly, but I'd gathered that," Booth said.

"'But, as a quick matter of getting you up to speed: There's no such thing as bad blood, evil spirits, lucky charms, rain dances, talking animals, yetis, werewolves, vampires or Chupacabra.'"

"A relief, some of that, I suppose."

"'Humans used to be cavemen, cavemen used to be apes, apes used to be'… blah, blah, blah. It goes on like that for a bit. Okay, 'Yes, there are aliens but they want nothing to do with us; smoking doesn't cure worms; human sacrifice doesn't help the harvest; you don't get smarter by putting a book under your pillow--'"

"Damn."

"I know, right? Uh, let's skip some of this. We're crazy low on time," TK said flipping the card over. "Okay, 'Orson Wells was telling the truth; O.J. wasn't; Dr. Pepper lied about his medical certification; Yoko Ono killed Kennedy; the Olson twins--'"

"Hold on… who did what?"

TK spun the card back around. "Damn, sorry. Wrong section. Let's just do this last bit here, 'A quick note on hygiene: Brush your teeth up and down, not just side-to-side; wash your hands; change your underwear; don't bite your nails or anyone else's; and remember it's front-to-back, not back-to-front.'" TK held a hand up. "Sorry, sorry. That last bit's just for women extracts. Ignore it. Never mind."

"What does that… mean?"

"Haven't the foggiest."

"Okay. Listen, if--"

"Nearly done," TK said. "My favorite part here."

"Sure."

"'Please listen to your host and behave appropriately-- because ultimately history believes you are dead and, if pushed too far, he or she may be inclined to agree with it.'"

He grinned wildly.

Booth returned a flat stare.

TK said, "That last part is kind of a threat."

"Yes, I gathered that."

"Okay, good."

TK held the long plastic card toward the actor who stared at it blankly, so he grabbed the actor's thumb and pressed it against a blue square.

After a moment, it turned white and TK put the card back up into its slot.

"Listen, I know this is beyond all understanding, but--"

"No, not entirely," Booth said. "You are from the future and pulled me away from, historically, the moment I was to die. And since you, uh, haven't discussed any of my recent… transgressions… I am to believe that my skills as a world-class actor are in need."

"Actually, yeah."

"The very large man with the scary teeth said you were getting a scientist. A 'swap.' I assume he'll be-- what did you call it?-- an extract like me. Taken out of time but for whatever reason his absence would arouse suspicion so you need a brilliant actor, moi, to take his place for a duration."

Booth stood and dusted off his jodhpurs.

TK stared for a moment.

"Yeah, sorta." TK squinted, then popped open the hatch to the ship's midsection and nodded for the other to step through. "He's not dying yet. They need him for a thing in the last twenty-first century. Just a couple days… you picked up on all that?"

"Uh, dear man, every story has already been told in some manner or form. This has elements of Shakespeare, Pushkin, even a little Chaucer."

"Hmm. Chaucer, huh?"

"Yes. Poet. Buried in Westminster Abbey."

"Yeah, yeah. I know the guy."

Following close behind the actor, TK quietly unsnapped the latch on his pistol. Just to be safe.

They were quiet for a moment, then he chuckled slightly.

"I'll be honest, you're taking this better than almost any extract I've ever seen."

"You've done this a lot, then?"

"Yeah, me and my brother Burn-- he's the big guy-- over the years we were a part of a couple different outfits that do extracts. Bigger shops," TK said and pointed to a hall on their left. "We've struck out on our own now."

"By choice or by chance?"

TK frowned. "We make more money with our own shop."

"No, sorry," Booth said and turned. "That was a terribly rude way to broach the subject. I'm afraid that travel… has left me in such an odd mind. Such sadness, deep penetrating."

"Yeah, affects a lot of people like that. Some get used to it. Some don't."

"My good man, sadness should never be a manner one's soul gets 'used to.' It was designed as an agent of change."

TK stopped and rolled that through his head again.

"That's… man. That's Chaucer?"

"No," Booth said. "I read it once, scratched into the lavatory wall of a low-slung theater in Charleston. Their intermission snacks were infamous for causing the occasional botulism."

"Sorta changes the flavor of that little aphorism."

"Changed the flavor of their intermission snacks as well."

Ahead, there were voices. Booth shrunk back toward the direction they'd just come from.

"Our crew is getting together for a quick meal in the galley, just ahead. Nothing to worry about."

"That would be those delightful smells. It's been a long while since I had a decent meal."

"Yeah? Why is that?"

Booth took a deep breath. "Mmm, I smell baking bread!"

Walking into the galley, Booth held his head high. His smile wavered slightly as he caught sight of the two Maori tribesmen preparing the meal.

He whispered to TK, "You've savages for cooks?"

"No, they're the ships' engineers. They just happen to be very good cooks."

"Oh. Fine by me, I'm terribly hung--"

Lula came in from the other hall and made a beeline for the table.

"The therapist calmed down a bit, TK. We got him set up in the pantry."

"Thanks Lula, can you-- wait, in the pantry?"

"Oh, hello to you, Mister Whoever-you-are," Lula said, planting a knee in her chair, eyeballing the actor. "Oh, you are yummy."

Booth's smile wavered and he bowed slightly.

"Why is our therapist still in the pantry?"

Hannah walked in from the pod she shared with Lula and closed the hatch behind her. She glanced over at the pantry door, just off the galley.

"He's fine. The tribesmen fixed the light but he's still a bit freaky-deaky about everything. If he loses it again, we can lock him in easily enough."

"Is there enough room for… what does he need? A couch or something, right? Isn't that what therapists use?"

"Nope, after I hit him with a couple relaxers and calmed him down a bit, I asked him what he needed to work. He said he just needed a table."

"A table?"

"Whatever," TK said. "Lula, this is Booth."

"Can I call him Mr. Yummy?"

"No, you cannot call him Mr. Yummy."

"I'm okay with Mr. Yummy."

"NO, no one will be called Yummy on this ship! We're low on time," TK said grabbing a bowl and digging into the pot in the center of the table. "Lula, please take Booth to Doyle for an intro."

Lula entwined her arm with that of the nineteenth century actor's and led him toward the pantry at the far end of the galley.

"What am I to do?"

"Booth, he's a therapist. Like a head doctor. Just, you know, talk to the guy about whatever you want to."

"I'd rather eat first, if that's--"

Burn came into the room with the old man and pointed to the pantry. Sitting at the table, he said, "Actor, go."

"But--"

"Standard operating procedure, actor. You do a quick chat with the shrink right after the extract to make sure you don't go all monkey balls on us."

"Come on, Mr. Yummy."

"The big one, he talks a lot about balls."

The old man returned from a dish rack on the wall and put his and Burn's bowls at the place settings.

"Thanks, pops."

Across the room, the pantry door clicked closed and a moment later Lula returned to the table, looking for a napkin or something to wipe her hands off on. As she passed by the old man, she grabbed some fabric from his cloak.

That seemed to do the trick.

"You've got a couple new recruits, huh?" the old man said, oblivious to temporarily becoming a hand rag.

"We've got to make some good cash fast if we're going to get this outfit up and running," TK said taking a couple bites of soup. "Nobody rides for free."

"Right! Exactly."

"Glad you agree."

"But since you insist that I park my wrinkled ass in that pod all day--"

"No, no," TK said, shaking his head. "I meant we need--"

"I've begun to make my own work, since I'm useless otherwise."

Lula egged the old guy on. "What sorta work?"

TK glared at her.

The old man pulled out a notebook and slapped it on the table. Tapping it with a thick index finger, he said, "I'm making a list of phrases that have never, ever, been uttered by another human before."

He looked up and smiled. Waited.

The tribesmen muttered something quietly to each other, then came up and stood on either side of Burn.

With his size, nearly seven feet, the two Maoris seemed puny even when he was sitting down. Small, but not weak-- both were built, as Lula once described it, like "fire hydrants and just about as tall."

TK could barely hear them talk with Burn. They only talked to Burn, no one else. Mainly because, aside from the tribesmen, he was the only one on board that spoke Maori.

"Kua kai anō koe?"

Burn turned toward one of them and spoke softly in return. The man he spoke with frowned and seemed to be almost scolding. TK heard: "…. mahi i tēnei rā?"

Something was up.

"I'm compiling a list of utterances never said before in history," the old man declared once again as he stabbed a long fork into his soup and came up with just a wet fork. "Writing them down here, in this here book."

Hannah said, "How about 'Burn washed the dishes'?"

TK laughed.

"No, no," the old guy said. "I mean in the thousands of years of mankind… phrases that have never passed through the lips of humankind."

"Fine," TK said finally. "Why?"

"Dunno. Seemed like a list worth having."

Burn said, "How about "Bull nipples sautéed in brine."

The old man shook his head and said, "Nope, got a whole ton of 'Bull nipples' phrases-- all of them checked out."

"Eyebrow shavings stuffed into duck livers?"

"Girl, you have an odd mind," the old man said.

TK tipped the bowl to his lips, finished off his meal and dropped a napkin inside of it. Checking the readout on his sleeve tat, he saw they were getting close to the next drop.

"We've got things to do, pops. Gotta go," he said. "Why are you bothering with stuff like this? I know you're bored in your cabin all day--"

"Because, me and time been together a long, long while. I got an arrangement. So, I see things as others miss. Know stuff before it goes on," the old man said. "You'd do well to pay attention."

TK stood up. "If by saying you and time 'have an arrangement,' you mean you're old? Can't argue."

Burn listened to the tribesman for a moment longer and nodded. They walked away, quietly.

His older brother said, "Come on. We gotta drop in about twenty minutes. Let's take a look at our pla--"

"OH HELL NO!"

The entire table dropped silent, as the man who'd been snatched from a twentieth century, fuel-truck fireball was followed into the galley by the nineteenth century actor stolen from a barn standoff.

TK put his hand on top of his pistol. "Uh, Mr. Chandler--"

"No, no, no," Doyle said, throwing his hands up.

Booth came up from behind him, oily and shirtless.

The actor said, "He's gone mad, this one. Don't--"

"No, no," Doyle Chandler said, rounding the table to keep it between him and Booth. He then pointed at TK and announced to the entire room:

"I don't care what the little mountain climber says, I am not giving a deep-tissue massage in that pantry to the man who shot Abe Lincoln!"

Everyone stared.

From Doyle to Booth.

Booth to TK.

TK to Doyle.

Silence.

Just silence.

Except for the soft thwop of a notebook opening, and the quiet sputter of a new entry being scrawled into its pages.


end of Book 1

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