Time to Kill

TimeToKillSMALL

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Jim Rudnick

 

It was on East Franklin that he once again visited the same coffee shop that had a little outdoor patio attached, though he knew sitting outside would be a bit cool here in Chapel Hill for a midmorning in May. Getting in line was no problem, he thought too, as he had almost an hour to await the Level Five nexus point. This one better work, because I’m getting a bit tired of this project, he said to himself, as he moved up in line customer by customer. He ordered one of those double/doubles as he’d learned to love the quaint taste of too much sugar and outside on the patio he folded his frame into the cheap white plastic patio chair that looked like it’d not hold a soul. And he waited, as the job required, noting that it was now exactly 10:46 EST:2009.

Thirteenth, he thought, I came thirteenth in my class at KodakU and here I am twenty years later, a 42-year-old second-rate TimeOps agent. One Butter Smith, proud Rochester grad who hadn’t done as well as the promise he’d shown those twenty plus years ago. Stupid, he thought, maybe I should never have picked this line of work. Or, maybe if things had worked out a bit better on previous TimeOps Projects, then maybe I’d be a lot damn higher in the department by now—and not working my way back up the ladder under Davidson. Goddamn timeline anyways, ponderous and slow to change, and talk about inertia! Christ, he thought, you could change a Level One nexus and things still took their sweet time to change in reply.

He sipped from his coffee again, and smiled at the youngsters who walked by, backpacks full of books as they made their way west and over to the University. Kelly would say that these are the future of mankind; she always said things like that when she talked about kids. We had wanted some, he realized, at some point. But not now… not in years he remembered, as he pondered his marriage for an instant, then quickly changed mental gears and looked around once more.

Chapel Hill housed not only reputable higher educational outlets, but it was part of the Research Triangle in North Carolina that had the world’s largest concentration of research firms and leading edge companies in all kinds of sciences. Butter knew that, and he knew that he was here to make a change that would affect his own present more than 150 years in the future. Hadn’t been able to move the timeline yet, he said a bit grudgingly to himself, perhaps because he was still saddled with only being allowed to handle Level Five nexus points—but maybe this time, as he swallowed his final mouthfuls of coffee and got up to get one more of those sweet drinks. He shook his head, no sense in getting riled up with my lowest of the low category, he thought. I’m a Level Fiver and would always be just that… relegated to make teensy modifications to the time line… end of story.

“Imagine, Janice,” the twentyish woman ahead of him said to her friend, “I missed that putt on the 17th by almost a foot and Harry never even blinked. Not even a raised eyebrow on the next tee either. Now that’s what I call husband material,” she offered as she patted her hair on the side nearest to Butter and he thought he even saw it move under all that shellac-like hairspray.

“A real catch, I’ve always said,” her companion drawled. “How much did he lose?”

The woman under the hair smiled and noted calmly, “More than $5k, he said later in the lounge but he really is going to be quite rich you know. Options and all… and his firm will go public in the next quarter, so we’ll be even richer.” She moved up as she gloated over her man and ordered her own morning brew and then slid sideways to allow Butter to place his own order. He noticed that their conversation never wavered; they discussed that same marriage candidate with scalpel-like precision, weighing the victim’s destiny. Sounds nothing like my own marriage, he thought; course nowadays we’re not as close as we used to be. Sort of comfy, I’d guess, Butter thought, though he had to give his father-in-law Jim Jr. the benefit of the doubt. Those Rennies were all a little clingy and it’s only been in the past few years that Kelly had drifted away a bit… perhaps more than a bit Butter added to himself. In this case though, Butter smiled as he realized that the poor fellow was going to be married no matter what, as he moved back again outside to his patio seat in front of the parade of students who moved westward still.

Not long now, he thought… I’m about to change a lunch date. Of course it was attempt number what? Oh, it was the fourth and that damn lunch was still on. He shook his head; these Level Fives were usually not much trouble, he thought to himself even if they presented the best way to change the timeline with the least amount of fallout. He knew that from the twenty plus years he’d been in the TimeOps department. He swept his foot along the patio stones beneath his chair, like he was clearing away something tiny, and sighed. He’d been sent back time and time again, to make a change to whatever Level Five nexus point had been identified. He’d never been assigned even a Level Four never mind the ultimate Level One; the ones that meant a sure change of timeline—and they were used so very seldom because they were so drastic. They were for the department stars; those Agents who somehow had leapfrogged out of the lower levels and now were the ones who made changes that affected all mankind. But not me, Butter thought. Nope, nothing but Fives… endless Fives… Fives that usually entailed matters of minor consequence. And never a Level One like a murder or assassination. They were sure to change the timeline right away, then much more drastically in the decades and centuries that followed. One person is suddenly excised and no longer becomes the President or a Premier or a CEO or even a Pope. Perhaps one of them would discover a cure for a disease—no more. Level One nexus points were to be used only in dire emergencies, and Butter had never been given such an assignment. No, he sighed, I’m always going to be a Level Five, the little pissant ones that matter some… but not much. I wonder, he thought, what it’d be like to actually get a Level One…

He pondered that as he watched the sunlit bodies of the procession of students in front of him walking to classes a few blocks away. If only I was better, or even if I was only seen as better, he thought as he compromised with his conscience, then I might be closer to the top, instead of his boss’ favorite whipping boy. Davidson… damn him. And he mistakenly gulped in a still hot mouthful of coffee and burned the roof of his mouth as he awaited his time to move. He quickly sucked in a further gulp of air and swam his tongue around the cooling brew and swallowed. Hot sweet coffee, how quaint he grunted, unlike everything in my time—all lukewarm and un-spiced and very very bland.

At 11:15, he tossed his empty cup into the garbage bin at the entrance to the patio, and joined the lines of students as they walked towards the University. Around him were pieces of conversations about Dunne and Hawking, on red blood cells and RNA, on post-modern expressionism and Jung. He was listening as he too moved west and took his role as a listener seriously; these students were the hope of the world—maybe Kelly was right after all. He passed a dry cleaners and another bistro patio filled with students in the morning sunshine and caught earfuls of chat about uridine rich RNA and how atomic collisions in solids was not a workable thesis. Here and there the second story apartments had hanging planters and columns of ivy and he saw purple hearts and daisy cascades. As he walked, surrounded by more and more students, he realized that not one of them knew what time would bring.

Even being in the TimeOps department at Dyno/Biotech gave you no advantage. The timeline was a single constant; make a change in one year, and it rippled down for all time. With quantum physics there is inherent uncertainty and many possible outcomes can occur but to us only one appears to occur, in other words, in a universe “parallel” to our own, Butter had been taught over and over. Within this parallel universe theory all the possible outcomes actually do occur, each in their own universe. All these universes then run parallel to each other. He remembered how his training officer at KodakU had drummed that into his head: “One timeline, one outcome means no paradox” had been the mantra. The best minds and the super-computers in TimeOps did the work of assessing where to make a change based on directives from the board at Dyno/Biotech. They figured and they computed and they sent back agents to make that change all for the betterment of the company. And with each global pharma and their own TimeOps department battling for changes to better allow them to be profitable, to steal away patents and emerge at the top of the pharma heap, the timeline was often undergoing constant changes in the parallel universes… just like in this case. The Board had commanded TimeOps to purge the patent that Bristol-Roche had earned four years previously—a complicated vaccine that would defeat the common cold virus. It had taken his own company the full four years since for Logistics to work out where the best nexus points were to delete that patent from the timeline and Butter had been given the Level Five assignment. Such a huge patent, and such a lowly change, Butter thought. They could have sent him back and told him just to assassinate the researcher the day before he discovered the vaccine data. But a Level One like that stood out in the timeline far too much and it would have only been a matter of a few days before Bristol-Roche would have sent back their own TimeOps agent to prevent just that and save their patent 150 plus years in the future.

Yup, Butter said to himself, I’m to find the proper nexus point and to change it using my own wits and talents and expertise. Make a change, then check on our chronograph PDA to see if things have changed… if the ripple of the thing that we change has moved down through time to our own time. If it’s changed, dial home on the PDA Calendar and get back to where we live in time. If not, then rethink your nexus from the list of Fives, and give it another try—or pick a brand new one. TimeOps loved the operatives who were gone a matter of minutes on a Project; I’ve been gone almost a week he sighed, and had three failures already. That would mean a report as thick as my wrist, Butter thought, and that means I’m not climbing up the ladder, again. Gotta get out of these damn Level Fives he said to himself as he snorted in the early May sunshine and took the first left down the side street beside the NeuroSciences Hospital at the edge of the University campus and he was now alone and away from the wash of students. Wish the damn timeline would just “give” a little, he thought as he ran his fingers through his middle-aged scalp and killed time near the commercial delivery ramps down to the loading docks.

He picked at a hangnail for a moment more and then reached in his pocket for his notepad and mechanical pencil. Yellow, he thought, very professional, as he also moved a few business cards from his suit coat pocket to his front breast pocket. Wardrobe had nixed the hanky, he remembered, as most men in this time didn’t use them anymore. Enjoyed the 1950s a lot more, he thought, and that pointed hanky did look nice as it peeked out of the pocket. Still waiting, he sighed and continued to watch the parade of students before him.

At exactly 11:40, he retraced his steps back to East Franklin, and walked along the front of the big gray southern granite fronted hospital. At the wide front walkway, he paused to take in the scene that lay before him. Up the block, approaching cabs were pulling into the queue to pick up the fares that were coming down from the front doors and walkway to take them away for lunch perhaps. And coming down the wide front walkway were those fares, leaving the Hospital and heading out into the city itself. Traffic was fairly dense, he thought, and listened to the occasional horn as a taxi pulled out into the brisk traffic.

Across the street, undergrads poured from the Physical Sciences Building after late morning classes; never liked that line of study, Butter thought. Taking classes in “How to Blend-In” and “100 Years of Slang” had been much more fun and were basic survival for a TimeOps grad. He grinned suddenly, Prof. Deepak and his curriculum on Wardrobe Basics always said to dress down instead of up in any setting. That way, the people around you paid little if any attention—you looked poor. People looked away from those around them who were less fortunate and did so out of their own guilt at having more. Dress up and you’ll be the center of attention and that meant that you were under observation all the time. People would make note of you and that might mean a nexus failure. Butter kept grinning and realized that his worn blue suit and white shirt looked about average here in this milieu. Wardrobe had done fine this time, except he didn’t much like the red striped tie and yes, he did miss the pointed hanky. He moved slightly off to the side of the flow of passengers, and watched the front door till he saw his quarry.

Doris Martin was a short woman, of approximately thirty-one years of age, wearing a very nice spring rose dress and a light green sweater. Her gait down the walkway was short in stride but strong on purpose and she was beginning to arc around him quite quickly.

“Umm… Ms. Martin? Aren’t you Doris Martin?” Butter asked and slid directly into her path, holding out a business card.

“Yes,” she stated quickly and eyed him and the card with that stare that usually accompanies being accosted on the street. “And you are…?” she countered, as her feet continued to side-step around him.

“Max Adamson, Ms. Martin. I’m the new science reporter over at the Chapel Hill Post—you know the big daily? And I wonder if I might have a word or two with you about your work?” Butter used his best “radio-voice” to try and sell the interview to her; nicely modulated tones and the urging in his voice was noticeable too. Professor Simone and her extra classes on selling came to mind as he used his best selling smile and totally focused on Doris. He pulled at the roof of his mouth with his tongue, trying to swab away the sting.

“I am sorry,” she stated, a small frown appearing on her face, “but I have a luncheon date today. If you would care to make an appointment up in the office, I am sure that someone there can accommodate your request to interview our Dr. Armstrong.” She tilted her head ever so slightly and having stopped, she again made to move around him.

“Now if you will excuse me…”

“Um… Please, just a moment, Ms. Martin. You see it is not the new Head of Bioresearch that I wish to see—it’s you!” Butter increased the intensity of his smile and tried to look as earnest as possible, while still swabbing with his tongue.

“Me? What on earth for—Mr. Adamson, wasn’t it? Why would you want to talk to me, the office manager?” She looked a bit surprised, Butter noted… but she did stop moving again.

“Because, Ms. Martin, as the office manager, you know more about the runnings of your department—at least that’s how I see it—than all the scientists in the building. And that’s the angle that I want to cover in my first story for the Post; a sort of ‘woman behind the man’ kind of angle.” Butter smiled again and showed his teeth nicely. Smiles sell, his training officer had reminded him daily.

Her left hand came up to smooth her sweater at the collar while she looked at him and tentatively smiled back. Her indecision was noted, but he knew that he should offer only one more inducement.

“So… perhaps you could call and make your apologies and we’d not be disturbed. I really think this’d be a winner of a piece for the Sunday supplement section too!” Butter waited as the Level Five nexus point spun on the choice that she’d make. He felt that from his position he could feel the timeline pause for a heartbeat… as he awaited his outcome.

“Sorry, not today,” Doris suddenly said, but smiled winningly. “I believe that the story you wish to do would definitely be a good one; but at the same time, I do have a previous date for lunch. And a lady never stands up a good friend in that kind of situation. Should you wish to call me later this afternoon or at your convenience, then I shall make myself available to you at that time. And I do thank you for the nice thoughts, Mr. Adamson. I will expect you call; till then perhaps,” and she again curled around Butter and strode on to join the queue of passengers awaiting their taxis.

Missed it, he thought emptily, and distractedly looked around him as he stuffed the pad and pencil back into his left hand suit pocket. Over on the east side wing of the front lawn was a nice sitting area of park benches and hordes of bougainvillaea flowers and shrub gardens. He made his way to the only free bench and sat heavily at one end, watching as his nexus drove away in the BlueDot cab towards La Hacienda Restaurant a few miles away. How in hell did that not work out for me? he wondered, as he pulled out the black chronograph PDA from his inside jacket pocket? Retro designed to look just like a Palm, he quickly grabbed the stylus from the sheath and flipped open the lid as he started it up. His password entered, he logged into the Biotech Encyclopedia, and watched as his pre-saved analysis came up onscreen. If this just-missed nexus had worked, then the summary of patents from his own time of 2159 should be changed… and they were not. He swore to himself silently; had it worked, then the Bristol-Roche patent of 2155 would not have been granted. His own company would instead have that patent, and the hundred-year lock on profits from the cure for the common cold. But not yet, he sighed, what had he done wrong on this one? Who knew that a lunch date was carved in stone and trying to appeal to the nexus designate’s ego wouldn’t work. Davidson is going to go ballistic, he thought.

Fact is, Butter thought in the warm noon sunshine, this was failure number four. He’d already tried to rent every cab he could, which was failure number one as Doris Martin had just asked her hospital courier for that ride, so he’d jumped back in the timeline via his chronograph PDA and tried again from his list of Level Five interrupts from TimeOps Central. Next, he’d tried to sabotage the lunch itself by getting hired at the restaurant as a waiter, had worked there for two realtime days of taco salads and stuffed burritos… and had spilled the tortilla soup and made quite a nuisance out of himself on try number two which had also failed.

Thinking back now, he realized that Kelly had never liked Mexican food, while truth be known, he once had liked it very much. But with her griping about trying such a dinner each time he mentioned it, they never ended up eating such fare. Too bad, he thought. I should have insisted. He shrugged again, and nursed the roof of his mouth with his moist tongue as traffic moved past him out on the street.

What next? he wondered. Oh yes, he’d rewound the timeline and had gone back to try to get the local board of health to close the restaurant due to food poisoning that he stated he’d suffered, to no avail. That one had also taken some realtime days wherein he’d written the editor of the Chapel Hill Post and paraded out front with a placard and generally been a nuisance. All in vain. Not one thing he’d come up with would cancel that luncheon date. In fact, it dawned on Butter then in the North Carolina sunshine that maybe this change couldn’t be accomplished through the Level Five nexus that he’d been assigned. The timeline was resisting strongly, turning back efforts that Butter knew should have worked—had worked many times before on other Level Fives. The realization made him breathe shallowly, his pulse made his temple start to pound while his leg began to bounce in sympathetic movement. When a TimeOps agent couldn’t get the job done via any of their assigned nexus level interrupts, they were to return back to their present and report. Standard operating procedure. SOP. But not the best for the agent’s career, Butter knew as his complexion began to sallow. Not the time to countenance anything else but SOP, he staunchly remembered his training officer pounding that into this skull during his one-year internship. When the flow won’t change, report back.

It was supposed to be that simple. Butter sighed, and almost wished he was at that lunch himself. There, right about now, Doris and her college roommate, Susan Snowden, would be having those pseudo-Mexican tortilla chips coupled with those icky frozen margaritas, and chatting about their jobs and their marriage prospects. Later, Butter knew, Doris would report that the Bioresearch Department would be hiring in the late summer for a research associates job—and say, would Susan’s brother Jake be interested? Jake would, Butter knew, and he would get along too well with the new head of the lab, the young chemistry prodigy, Dr. Bill Armstrong. In just two short years, Armstrong would be wooed away from the University to head up the same area for NovoLilley as they and the rest of the global pharma companies climbed the slope to two trillion dollars in another few years. And when he left, he would be taking Jake with him… and together the two of them would eventually do research down a once-considered dead end on viral diseases cures. Oh, they wouldn’t find it, but their research in 2026 would be archived and then used in 2155 to apply for the patent that would cure the common cold. This was the little nugget of a Level Five that Logistics had found and that was the timeline that Butter was handcuffed to change. But change wasn’t occurring when it should… and that worried Butter even more. He sat for awhile and enjoyed the movement of people around him in the noontime sun as they bustled off towards their own lunches and meetings and whatever. Nice time, he thought as he turned his eyes back to the list of his assigned Level Fives.

* *** *

The NovoLilley Christmas party was boring. With growing liability issues and the rush to litigate from employees as a sure way to get rich quick, most companies had opted in the past twenty years or so for the retreat-styled party, especially for those companies who’d done very well in the past few years. NovoLilley was one of them and had bought a hundred rooms for the full weekend for their research staff who were now up on the mezzanine beginning to party the night away. Three years ago, back in 2021, it had taken up that new Formosa styled management strategy of creating modules of experts in their various fields and moving them well away from global headquarters. Here, in Mansfield, Ohio, Dr. Bill Armstrong was the chemist research head of the brand new NovoLilley Research Center. Butter grabbed another handful of pretzels from the table at the lobby bar in front of him. Would love a beer, Butter thought as he eyed the Rolling Rock posters on the wall of the 4 Seasons/EconoLodge and tried to be happy with his soda water and lemon mocktail.

Looking around, he spied a few partiers moving away from the elevators and towards the stairs leading up to the mezzanine level, and noted the time, 8:21 pm EST:2024. He sighed, then had another swallow and chomped on the pretzels some more. Newscasts from his tabletop were still broadcasting about the quake up on the Moon; it shook Verdant City so bad, they said the bubble was still flexing. Clip after clip of the whole event crawled along; Butter put the bowl of pretzels right over the Comcast, and awaited 9:12 pm. Still waiting, he reminded himself, and continued to watch the movement of NovoLilley employees up the stairs and into the party room, the live band now doing a medley of ancient rock ’n roll. Odd sounding stuff indeed.

He ordered another soda water and lemon mocktail, and awaited breaking his first ever TimeOps Assignment. He would proceed with an unplanned nexus interrupt, a Level Four and he’d do it on his own. In fact, Butter thought, as he swirled around the lemon wedge deep in the tall Collins glass, in fact, I’ve proved that the Level Fives I was assigned aren’t doing the job. No one, even Davidson, he reasoned could find fault with my rationale. I believe that totally, he tried to convince himself over and over and thought, you know, there’s really no big deal in choosing a Level Four on my own. I know what it entails and hey, it was only a small change in plans. But a necessary one to any TimeOps member who wanted to continue to climb that ladder.

And then it was 9:00 pm, and Butter paid his tab and walked out to the elevator area, and then clandestinely around the corner to the Employees Only door. Slipping it from his inside jacket pocket, he donned the lanyard and badge that identified him as one of the Security team, entered the door quickly, then took an immediate left down a long gray cinder block corridor and then a right to a set of red fire doors. Opening one, he moved persistently down the three flights of stairs to the sub-basement level and then out the fire door to the electrical room a few feet down the faintly lit deserted corridor. The lock on the door posed no problems either, Butter noted, not when you’re using technology from more than 150 years in the future as he moved his PDA back to his pocket, opened the double locked door and then quickly closed it behind him. He moved with precision over to the elevator controls and noted that it was exactly 9:04. Might as well wait it out, Butter thought, as if time really means anything anymore to anyone in TimeOps. I can turn it back an hour or a million years or ahead the same. He sighed, as his tongue again swabbed the roof of his mouth burned just a few hours ago, this is quite the way to live your life; being able to control time yet not wanting any surprises that the one timeline could bring. He would have to check after this Level Four nexus, hopefully it’d be enough. It was now 9:10 pm and Butter brought out a tool disguised to look like a fountain pen, and took off the cap.

Judicial spraying of the contents over the interior of the electronic controllers would mean that the gas would turn to gel, immediately clogging all the electronic circuits. The fact that the gel would evaporate in a few minutes, would mean that anybody who checked the box, would see nothing—everything would look fine. All the circuits were live, all the chips and resistors did what they should under test conditions. It was just that before those signals got to the controllers on all of the hotel’s four elevators, they would dissipate and no stream of electrons would be received to make the elevator cars work. The cars would freeze then at their current position, and no one could repair the electronics in the panels. Only the single on-duty technician from the elevator company could do that and only by replacing every board—and Butter knew that tonight at 9:11 pm, the closest elevator man was already doing just that down in Columbus at the Children’s Hospital. The Level Four nexus provided that opportunity, and Butter had just driven up from there. And that repairman would be making repairs down there till at least 2:00 am EST so there’d be no service here for at least five hours. Looks like there’s an outbreak of mysterious elevator failures, Butter said nervously to himself as he counted down the last few seconds till 9:11 pm EST and at exactly that moment, he sprayed the interior of the panel, shut it, then left the room and headed for the parking lot. Job done in this time, he thought as he walked over to his Hertz/Tilden rental, smiling at what must be happening back at the 4 Seasons/EconoLodge. And now to await the outcome of this Level Four nexus interrupt.

Up on the mid-16th level, Dr. Bill Armstrong grinned at his secretary, as he stumbled at the sudden stop.

“Whoops!” he slurred.

“Whoops nothing, you prankster. You turn that back on,” the blonde said as she lifted her glass in a toast. “I know you want to get right to the dance, don’t you?” she said with a slight flutter of her eyelashes. Mandy wasn’t the brightest secretary Bill had ever had, but she was surely the best looking, Bill thought as he nodded. Maybe we could dance right here, maybe except down below in the banquet room his wife awaited.

“Uh… sure… but… wait a sec…” Bill said as he tried more buttons, juggling his cocktail from hand to hand and still the elevator didn’t move. “Maybe there’s a phone,” he said as he tried to pry open the In Case of Emergency panel.

No phone was encountered, but there was a Net terminal, and Bill typed in HELP right away. The brick cursor flashed, kept flashing… then an answer appeared on screen.

Hello Elevator Occupants. We are aware that the elevators have all just suddenly stopped working and invite you to remain calm. Please realize that we are attempting to fix the problem immediately, and hope to have the elevators back up and running in just a few minutes. For your pleasure, while we run our diagnostics, you may now use the terminal to call any persons that you wish to notify of this problem, regular Comcharges will be at our expense. Please do not hesitate to contact us again should there be a medical emergency. Thank you… 4 Seasons/EconoLodge Management.

Mandy sniffled, “Immediately? That’s good, right Bill?” and she looked around for a place to sit down, which she did right then in the corner by simply sliding to the carpeted floor.

“Uhh… I guess,” Bill answered and sat down clumsily beside her.

“Let’s see,” he said as Mandy giggled, “I’ve got my own cocktail and you’ve got yours, and then there’s the flask in my pocket we just retrieved for later when they cut off the bar again this year. We’re fine… I mean, how long can this take?”

Mandy grinned at him, and said, “So, a toast—till they get things up and running again!”

And Bill nodded, “Sure enough, let’s party!” as he put his arm around her shoulders.

Down in the banquet room at the table where the place cards marked the company executives, Sarah Armstrong fumed. Bill had gone up again with that woman and been gone now for almost fifteen minutes. How long does it take, she stared angrily at her Mimosa, to pick up a refill for his flask? I should have known, she said, I should have gone with him, instead of that witch. She took a long pull at the drink, and then listened even more angrily as she was told the news that the elevators were all shut down and Bill and that woman were most likely stuck in one. This better end soon, Sarah began to fume, or there’ll be trouble. Especially in this awful town in the middle of Ohio for god’s sake. Big trouble for him because this isn’t the first time, she said to herself, as she toyed with the new necklace Bill had given her as an early Christmas present. Not long, he doesn’t have long, she thought, till I walk out of here… and make him pay for this. She swilled the balance of her drink in her fluted glass, and began tapping her foot under the white table-clothed table and waited. Not long… or this is over. All of it, she thought, thinking suddenly of his stock options and pension plan cash guarantees.

Butter logged in again on his PDA and searched the local papers for the Armstrong surname… and noted that in 2025, in the Mansfield News-Messenger, a notice offered a short marriage congratulations to a Bill and Mandy Armstrong. In 2026, another notice mentioned that Bill had left NovoLilley, and was now head of research at Tompkins/Kliner in Regina, Saskatchewan. He grinned broadly as he tabbed into the Biotech Encyclopedia, and watched as his pre-saved analysis came up… and yes! There it was, the patents for the common cold vaccine were now held by his own company; Bristol-Roche couldn’t even be found in the abstract. Job accomplished, he said to himself, but still that nagging thought would not go away. Level Four nexus interrupts involved—well, they involved death in a way. Now, there would be no Armstrong children; four lives… for a patent. All in a day’s work, he thought, though if pressed, Butter realized, he would have to admit that he had overstepped his bounds. But hey, he thought, that’s what TimeOps was all about, right? Hadn’t he just followed his orders… sort of? Now Armstrong would not find that research, and would move off into obscurity, and his own company Dyno/Biotech would reap the profits for a hundred years from that patent. All in a day’s work.

* *** *

It seemed like only minutes ago, Butter thought, that I was more than a hundred years back and sitting in the bright Carolina sunshine. In fact, he was just a few minutes removed from the past assignment since he’d used the chronograph PDA to come back to his own time. And no sooner than he arrived in the login room, than his PDA alarm went off—Davidson wanted to see him immediately. He made short work of checking in his PDA and hustled off to the agent locker rooms where he quickly wiped the depilatory on, then off and gargled with a mouth freshener. Damn sugar in those coffees a few hours ago had sweetened more than the drink, he thought. Now most of our nutritional sources come from the yeast farms; sugar substitute included. No after taste and no smell either… but that morning coffee had been actually quite nice, he grinned. Time to hike up the levels he thought, as he left the staff washrooms and rode up the escalator four floors.

Once there, he worked his way beyond staff, past Logistics and Control and Continuity, until he was at his boss’ secretary’s desk.

“Nancy, how are you today?” he asked politely, straightening his tie and giving her a big smile.

“Fine, Butter. Do I understand a reprimand is in order?” she answered back without looking up, reading still from the mid-air display and using her data-glove to make changes that he couldn’t see to the data in front of her, not awaiting any answer either, he knew.

“Not really. My assignment was successful,” he said as he straightened his shabby suit jacket and squared away his posture.

“He’s waiting… go right in,” she stated, then she ignored him again.

TimeOps agents he thought, they all ignore us. We’re the teams that change the world, and everyone ignores us because they don’t want us prying into their own futures. Sad, he thought and marched through the door that irised ahead and behind him.

“What the hell, Smith?” Davidson said, and looked over from his desk in his amber glass walled office, “Who gave you the authority to escalate your interrupt to a Level Four? Did you go all through that second-rate college of yours and learn nothing?” Davidson was an average-sized man, but felt that rolling up his sleeves and standing behind his desk while he yelled at his underlings made him look bigger. And it did, Butter realized, as he swallowed.

“But as you know, boss, the changes that I was to make actually did happen,” Butter stated calmly as he slowly sat on the straight-backed chair that sat alone in front of his department head’s desk.

“Yes, I know that you did accomplish the task that you were sent back on,” said Davidson who looked like he was starting to smirk, “but at what cost long term? How do we know that your choice of which nexus to interrupt will be best for us all?”

Butter squirmed a bit, then composed himself.

“Boss, you explained quite clearly to me almost four years ago, that the patent that we were trying to dissolve, could prove to be the best thing for the company in quite awhile. That we were to succeed, and not to fail and lastly, I remember you promising that if we did succeed, I’d climb back into your ‘good books’ and get that vacation owed to me.” Butter nodded to make his point again as he had learned to make use of the plural “we” when he talked to Davidson. No sense in making this a personal issue when in fact it was a company one.

Davidson’s mouth worked slowly, Butter saw, as he pushed out each syllable and word; he was clearly smirking now. And a smug department head was not a good thing, Butter thought as he suddenly felt ill feelings start to rise.

“Fine, Smith. I do see results. You know by now, that our own viral patents have been granted and Bristol-Roche has not answered at all, though we all know that they’ll be trying. I’ll send the file over to Continuity; now it’s Milliken’s problem.”

“Fine, boss. And when do I get that vacation?” He tentatively smiled back at Davidson, and nodded again. He wouldn’t let his mind wander towards that sinking feeling.

“Um… well, that’s no problem, Smith. Your picking out your own nexus means that the whole of the timeline has changed, particularly that the Armstrong’s divorce meant no children. And I know that you did look ahead to see what the consequences of that would be, and found nothing. Except, you didn’t look far enough. The Armstrongs never had a daughter named Sarah, who didn’t have a daughter of her own called Janice. Now Janice got into some troubles in her early years, and had a few children with various men, none of whom stuck around either from what Logistics has been able to turn up. Except for the fact that one of them, Nancy, who married some guy named Rennie, was never born either… so she never had a son named James who never had his own son named James Jr. Does that name ring a bell, Smith?” Davidson was now beaming at Butter, his arms propping up his body as he leaned towards him, his tie just touching his walnut desk.

Butter winced as his leg began to beat on the boss’s chair, his scorched mouth now dry as bone.

“Uh…” Butter was able to cough out.

“That’s right, Smith. Your choice of the nexus to interrupt means that you’ve just ended five generations of Armstrong progeny up to our own time. And one of them was your own father-in-law, James Rennie Jr.—which also means that when you go home tonight there will be no dinner on the table because the little woman was never born. Serves you right, I’d say, and Logistics means for this to stay as it is too.” Davidson’s wide smile was plastered on his face as he slowly sank into the big leather chair behind him.

Davidson then shrugged as he spat out his closing, “And while I didn’t agree, the company has given you a year off. Drop by Logistics and pick out a timeline vacation. See you back here tomorrow at 8:00 am sharp. And don’t put on any weight either… it costs enough already to charge those dang PDAs.”

The back of Butter’s suit coat was now slick with sweat; his leg still beat to its own drummer and his eyes were blurry.

“Oh, stay away from the onlines too… you know the rules,” Davidson mouthed as his attention turned back to the desktop and he sank into his big executive chair as he watched the company’s fortunes once again in the desktop Comcast. Behind him and through the amber windows, the towers of New York City gleamed in the fading sunshine and ribbons and ranks of aircars flitted by as Butter backed out, sweat stains hidden.

Butter rode the escalator down in a depressed frame of mind. He’d ended his own wife’s ancestors’ lives which meant that he was alone. Kelly had never been born. The paradox of time travel was simple; change something in your past, and the future changes with it regardless of what universe you were in. He had made the mistake of not knowing his future, before changing his past, and he was alone as a result. He pondered that further—then turned his attention to the timeline vacation he’d earned. One year of peace somewhere in time… perhaps back to the Renaissance again, but that was so hard on his hygiene needs. Or maybe a thousand years ahead to the Rigel moon resort… or even Eta Cassiopeia and it’s twin yellow and orange stars and those wondrous double sunsets. No matter, he’d take the year and then click his PDA and return to tomorrow at 8:00 am and go out again on another TimeOps assignment. After all, it was his job he reasoned as he exited the building and climbed aboard a sonic to James Bay and home. In twenty minutes, I’ll have a bath and watch some Comcast show and then retire for the night, alone.

 

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