Past Imperfect

I tuned back in as Director Hobson came to the end of his welcome for the new interns. I’d heard his spiel numerous times before – he liked to have me there as an example of how agents could make multiple trips through the vortex and suffer no ill-effects.

Yeah, right.

Hobson drew himself up in a supposedly spontaneous display of righteous indignation, hands gripping both sides of the lectern. “…and despite what those deluded protestors outside may chant, we are not murderers, nor body-snatchers, nor are we devoid of conscience. All those we retrieve from the past vanished without trace – overlooked, unmissed, discarded by the society of their time. The organs and other genetic material we harvest both lend purpose to their passing and save the lives of countless recipients in the here-and-now.” He paused for an equally spontaneous smattering of applause, led by Miss Brunner, the head of Human Resources.

I shifted my weight to the other foot and idly picked at a barely healed scab on my left hand. The decay was troublesome, but time in the regeneration tanks didn’t come cheap.

Hobson let the quivering anger slide from his voice and smiled. “So, in conclusion, may I extend the warmest of welcomes to Body-Plus, the first name in life extension. Now, if you’d care to accompany Miss Brunner on a tour of the facility, I’ll rejoin you for an informal get-together in the executive dining area later. Thank you.”

More applause, slightly more genuine this time, and the fresh meat began filtering out of the auditorium. They certainly laid on a welcome for interns, right up to the point they signed a three-year contract. After that they were just grist to the mill.

The director kept smiling until the door closed, and then shed his bonhomie like last year’s fashions. “What the hell do you mean turning up, looking like that? Good God, Danake, it’s like you’ve aged ten years!”

I sneered at him. “Like I could keep this up indefinitely? Well, I’m done, I’m here to take the money and run.”

That was the carrot, of course, the reason why sane men and women risked DNA distortion time and again, travelling through the chronometric vortex. The greater the damage when medical finally ruled you unfit to work, the greater the cash to squander during your (limited) retirement. Given my years of service, I’d become a budgetary hot potato, a pay-off nightmare waiting to happen.

Hobson’s mouth tightened into a thin line. “You’ll keep working until I say otherwise, understand? Only my protection keeps you from those wolves outside. He sighed, “Why do I even put up with you?”

“Admit it, you’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

He snorted. “Debriefing, now.” The director turned on his heel and strode out into the foyer with me trailing in his wake. Through some diplomatic slight-of-hand the facility doubled as an embassy of Uzbekistan, which entitled it to armed protection against the besieging protestors. These militant Jiminy Crickets may have dubbed us ‘time-bandit butchers’ but those we snatched from the past were legally dead, with zero rights – at least amongst the Uzbeks. Hell, it wasn’t even classed as euthanasia.

Which made me, what, exactly? A neo-ferryman between past death and future oblivion? The spiritual successor to Burke and Hare? For years I’d salved my conscience with cold, hard cash, but now no amount of happy pills could wash the metaphorical blood from my hands.

A maintenance operative wheeled a sanitation cart across the plush carpet towards us. Hobson frowned at this real-world glimpse behind the cultured façade of Body-Plus and halted, obviously intent on taking the hapless menial to task. However, I’d spent enough time amongst the lost and desperate to recognise fatalism when I saw it, and the approaching man was an arrow in flight.

I grabbed Hobson’s forearm and slapped a designator pad on his wrist. The vortex swirled into being around us, reducing the foyer to a two-dimensional backdrop, frozen in time.

The director glared, struggling in my grasp. “What the hell is—” His eyes widened, “How is this possible? Where are we going?”

“Sure as hell away from here. Best guess is a micro-singularity bomb with cold-fusion containment, to get past the radiation scanners. The implosion obliterates everything within a half-block radius,” I gave him a smile, of sorts, “leaving me stranded in the past, on the last mission you authorised.”

Confusion and disbelief struggled for control of Hobson’s features. “You’re taking me back to twenty-six? How?”

“Oh, no, sir. Body-Plus may be history but the original vortex at Langley was merely mothballed, not dismantled. The CIA retrieved me, and for the last eight years I’ve been one of their temporal consultants.”

“And you came back to save me?” Obvious relief made his shoulders sag, “Thank you, thank you, Danake, you were always my—”

“No, not save. Times have changed, director, and now everything we did is a crime against humanity. I only escaped the death penalty by agreeing to deliver you up for trial. The verdict is a foregone conclusion, of course, given public opinion.”

Hobson swung at me with his free hand, but I grabbed his wrist and easily held him at bay. He spat at me, white-faced with rage or fear, it was hard to tell. “You bastard! Ingrate! I gave you a life and this is how you repay me? Well, I bet they don’t know half of what you’d done, and when I get through—”

“Or I can let you go, let you remain in my past. You’ll have only seconds to avert catastrophe. Well, at least delay it and make your escape. Body-Plus will be destroyed, regardless, and you know what a bitch causality can be. Whatever happens you vanish without trace.”

His mouth worked but no sound came out. At that moment, he was indecision made flesh.

My smile hardened. “Well, Director Hobson, it’s your choice.”

© Martin M. Clark

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