Stallion’s Gate, New Mexico, 2002
Jake Jensen wiped at the blood running over his chin and chanced a quick look down the corridor to his left before turning that way and looking for… Hell, for anything. A door that wasn’t a closet, an elevator that didn’t need a thumbprint, a handy exit sign—
—a narrow archway lit dimly by a purple glow at odds with the soft white lights overhead. He grinned and headed toward it, trying to shake off the sense of complete disorientation and just plain wrongness of what was happening. Whatever drug they’d used on him, he was having a hard time shaking it.
He wasn’t even sure where he’d been before he woke up in the bare blue room to find himself lying on a shiny metal table. But damn it, he was covert ops, man; he was going to get out and he was going to find his team, and if he was really lucky, he was going to take down this whole damn complex. Whatever the hell it was for.
“Captain Jensen?” The voice had been sharp, commanding, and Jake had responded to it instantly, his bleary gaze flashing up to the face of a Navy admiral. His eyes narrowed as he realized that, though the man’s uniform was spotless, his nameplate was conspicuously absent. “Captain Jensen, are you with us?”
Jake rolled his head to each side a little drunkenly and looked around. The room was empty, except for him and the Admiral. They weren’t stationed near a Naval yard right now, were they? Had he been in a fight at a Naval yard?
“‘Us’?” he parroted back, sounding dull to his own ears. What the hell was going on here? His body felt weird: thick and slow and desperately out of shape—which was just not possible.
“Captain, I need to ask you some questions,” the Admiral went on, relentless in that way that only upper echelon officers were. Never let a guy catch his breath… “I need to know all you can tell me about Rakman al Rahkim.”
“The Desert Devil?” Jake was really trying to track what was going on here, but he felt like his brain was full of glue. What the hell?
“Can I get medical in here?” the Admiral groused with an edge of concern. The strange request to empty air cleared a few of the cobwebs from Jake’s mind. He looked closer but the guy wasn’t wearing a throat mic. Wall mics, maybe? Intercom? “Did something happen with the leap or what?” He heard a smack of flesh on plastic and something electronic cried out in pain.
All right, Jake, he told himself firmly, get it together. He took another look around, willing his mind to clear. The walls were a thoroughly obnoxious deep blue that was probably meant to be soothing; corrugated vinyl, pod design… Some kind of military facility, obviously… Where was everyone else? If he was in a fight, at the very least, Pooch and Cougar would be here, too. He didn’t brawl alone. “I need to speak to my commanding officer,” he requested, trying to sound deferential.
“Your commanding officer,” the Admiral said, shoulders clearly relaxing from their military precision now that Jake was making more sense. “Yeah, uh, that’d be Franklin Clay, right?”
Jake felt a chill run up his spine at the man’s stumble and woke up a little more. “Yes, sir.”
The Admiral stepped back, and Jake replayed what the man had first asked him. “Rahkim’s an Army target,” Jake grated, less deferential, more menacing. He had a very bad feeling about this place, suddenly. “What’s the Navy’s interest in him?” He pegged the Admiral with a cold look. “And where’s Clay?”
“Colonel Clay is, uh, currently unavailable, soldier,” the Admiral replied, firming up his voice. “This project is classified, but I can tell you that any information you can give me on your search for al Rahkim is of vital importance.”
Jake snorted and cracked a smile as he levered himself up onto his elbows. Oh man. “I’ll bet,” he replied. This was a sweet setup. The US used Arab operatives to get information in the Middle East all the time. Why wouldn’t the Afghanis use a Caucasian to do their dirty work? “Vital importance to whom?”
Or else Clay was right and the CIA really was just out to screw everyone.
“I know this doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, Captain,” his companion replied, almost sympathetic. “Please believe me, this is more important than you know.”
Jake stood up, feeling stiff and… off. But not off enough not to use his height to his advantage over the surprisingly short admiral. Hah. They probably should have done their homework, whoever these people were. There were height requirements in the Navy, after all. “And again, I gotta ask: important to whom?”
And just at that second, the door opened and Jake saw his chance. He slammed a slightly clumsy fist into the Admiral’s face, felling him after a couple of follow-up punches, and jumped for the guard and the guy in scrubs who were just heading into the room. Scrub man went down with one shot, but the guard took a little longer and got in a few hits of his own. Jake could feel blood running down his face from his throbbing nose before the corporal sloughed to the ground and stayed there.
Well, great. So… now what? he asked himself, looking back at the door to the blue room and spying a control panel on the outside. He hauled the medic and the guard inside and punched a couple of buttons on the panel until the door slid down and closed. With a shrug, he pried the face of the panel off the wall, yanked on what wires he found inside, hefted the sidearm he’d taken off the corporal, and slid through the strangely empty hallways, looking for anything…
Which brought him, again, to the purple room. He slid inside and looked around, a bemused smirk on his face. “Someone watched way too much Time Patrol when he was a kid,” he muttered. The room was like a science fiction control room: the center was dominated by a non-descript, square, metal column, but the rest was all flashing, candy-colored lights and screens with incomprehensible graphs… Well, wait now…
The graphs weren’t incomprehensible. They were mappings for flux equations. Einstein-type shit. Jake chuckled. He’d loved the whole idea of quantum travel when he was a kid: Dirac, von Neumann—those guys knew how to reenvision the universe.
“But could they hack V’ger, here?” he whispered, keeping an ear out for any pursuit while he sidled up to the main console and started poking around on the keyboard. The computer was more complicated than most and none of his usual hacks were working. He kept waiting for an alarm to go off, but it was like the computer was just letting him take his time to learn the system. Which was a stupid thought. Computers didn’t think like that—he was still foggy from the drugs or whatever. Finally, just as he was about to move on to another room—find a way out of the complex altogether, maybe—the screen in front of him turned black and then flashed back to life, showing a simple wash of pastel colors.
“That entrance gambit was not expected by my mainframe,” a soft female voice murmured. Jake brought up his stolen pistol and searched the room before his brain clued him in to the fact that the lights on the screen had pulsed in time to the words. Oh, no way!
“Hello, HAL,” he called softly, an incredulous smile playing on his lips.
“Good morning, Dave,” the computer responded, an almost smirk to the far-too-sexy voice. “But my name is not HAL.”
“Fuck me,” Jake whispered.
“I have never seen that entrance gambit used for a system such as my own, Captain Jensen,” the computer repeated its earlier observation and ignored his exclamation. “It is… ingenious.”
Jake snorted. “Okay,” he conceded with a shrug. “Pretty standard fare for me.” He grinned broadly. “Which sort of makes me ingenious, I guess.”
“You are very interesting, yes,” she replied. He’d swear she was purring.
Jake hit the spacebar a couple of times to clear the screen and tapped away at the keyboard, working his way through the directories and hunting for information. “What’s your name, beautiful?” he asked, distracted.
“I am called Ziggy,” the computer offered.
“Ziggy, huh,” he said. There was a file called temporal matrices. Given the graphs that had been up when he walked in, that had potential—and it was triple encrypted, so it had to be good, right? “What do you do here, Ziggy?” He didn’t know why he was talking to the computer, but he liked her voice, and really, so few of his computers talked back. The file took a minute to crack, but after a few more tricks, he was able to start to read.
“I am the guiding and central mainframe for the project.”
Jake barely heard it—her—whatever—as his half-sludged brain finally figured out what he was reading. Time travel experiments, temporal interference, shifting timelines… Four years in the future? No... As if to confirm it for himself, he glanced up at the date and time on the top of the screen.
12:43 am | March 29, 2002
“Oh, shit… You’re kidding me, right?”
“I don’t believe so, Captain,” the computer replied matter-of-factly.
At that very moment, four separate klaxons started to blare and Jake swore, looking around the room for someplace to go—someplace that wasn’t the main hallway, which he figured would be crawling with MPs. Real MPs probably, if his reading of the file he’d just hacked into was right. Real MPs from the fucking future.
How the hell had anyone ever gotten funding for a project like this?
The ceiling was high, but walls like this were like ladders if you climbed them often enough. He jumped, catching hold of a seam in the corrugated wall and clawing his way up the ridged surface to an AC grate in the corner. It was a lot harder than it usually was—felt like he was using all the wrong muscles—but he made it. By the time the bloodied and bruised Admiral and his battered corporal walked in, Jake was safely hidden in the vents.
“Ziggy, where the hell is he?” the Admiral barked.
“Captain Jensen is currently 3.12 meters directly above you.”
“Traitor,” Jake muttered, as the Admiral looked up at the closed grate and the corporal trained a pistol on it.
“Captain, I’m not gonna ask again,” the Admiral said tiredly. Wasn’t really being all that threatening, which was weird. “Just get down from there. We need to talk.”
Well fine, if we were all being non-violent about this… Jake set the grate aside. “Damn right we need to talk,” he called down, dropping to the floor and landing too hard. What the hell? Ten feet was an easy jump for him! “Time travel, really?”
The Admiral pulled him gently to his feet. “You okay?” he asked. It was a weird question to ask a guy who’d just knocked you out and run off to play with your toys.
“Fine,” he replied brusquely, though he was limping as they walked out of the room. His mind was whirling with the implications of what they appeared to be doing here. “You want to tell me what the hell is going on?”
“You could’ve just asked,” the older man groused, sounding like he wouldn’t have answered anyway. “Corporal, get him something to wash that blood off his face and take him back to the waiting room. I need to go have a conversation.”
Al really wished Sam had listened to him and installed a few regular old doors around here. He could’ve used the satisfaction of slamming one right now. Instead he heard the timid swish of the pneumatic door closing behind him as he walked into the main control room. Ziggy’s central processing unit stood in the center of the large space and he wondered what Jensen would have thought had he walked in here instead of that secondary alcove. The computer’s laser matrix was still impressive to Al after years of staring at it.
The Captain had already wormed his way into the system, damn it. They’d known he was good when Sam had leaped into him: black ops, master hacker, member of a successful covert team whose speciality was bringing down the guys no one could bring down. Now if Sam could just change their history here...
The kid had a mean left hook, too, and Al’s eye was swelling shut as he stood here. Yeah, Jensen was good, all right. And too darn paranoid, apparently. Al had hoped that showing up in uniform, presenting himself as a military commander right off the bat, would put Jensen more at ease, but it seemed he didn’t trust anyone enough to be put at ease.
“Ziggy, what do you have for me?” he asked testily, hoping for a quick resolution to the leap. The sooner Jake Jensen was out of the project, the better. Why did Sam have to keep leaping into the smart ones?
“I have been unable to determine Rakman al Rahkim’s whereabouts using historical means, so Dr. Beckett is attempting to locate his base using Captain Jensen’s computer.” Al’s handlink bleeped. “I have transferred information on Captain Jensen’s attempt to breach my systems into the handlink. I believe it will help Dr. Beckett to overcome al Rahkim’s security system.”
Al smiled. “You let him hack you,” he said with a sigh of relief. It was a good idea, really, and Al was impressed all over again with Ziggy’s self-awareness. She would be terrifying if she wasn’t on their side.
“I simply allowed him to offer us information without resistance, Admiral,” the computer corrected smugly. “Given Captain Jensen’s profile and highly intelligent, highly curious nature, I believe he discovered enough in his investigations that he may be willing to aid us further if necessary.”
“If he doesn’t think he’s just being gaslighted,” Al muttered. But Jensen had been angered by what Ziggy had leaked to him. He believed what was going on, Al could tell. Of the leapees who figured it out, some bought in immediately and some had to be given an alternate scenario they could swallow. Jensen was clearly the first kind, but given his skills and intelligence, that was more a hindrance than a help.
“The files I made available should have been clear enough for the captain to assimilate the data easily.”
Al nodded. And of course he would—another crazy dreamer added to the mix. “Great, Ziggy. Great. Let me get this to Sam first,” he told her, heading for the Imaging Chamber door. “I’ll deal with Captain Geek later.”
Jake cooled his heels in the obnoxious blue room, his mind reeling, even as he pretty much figured he wasn’t dreaming or being screwed with. This shit was real, shockingly enough.
He wasn’t Clay—it wasn’t like he believed every cocked-up story he was fed, but time travel…? It wasn’t really as crazy an idea as people thought it was. It was just logistically difficult to put one person in two places at the same time. According to the shit he’d just read, they’d overcome that one in a pretty unique way—switch places with someone else. He wasn’t him. He was whoever had “leaped” into him. And he really had to wonder what the hell the guy was doing as him, too.
He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. It wasn’t even his hair, was it? He leaned over to stare into the reflective tabletop again, looking at the dark hair with the ridiculous white streak, the brown eyes and beaten-up visage. He wasn’t bad-looking, but he had the slightly soft face of a guy who’d spent more time in a classroom or a lab than in the real world. Jake wondered who he was, and what he felt like wearing Jake’s own face.
And he really wondered what the hell they thought they were doing! Time travel was not just logistically difficult, but really brutally stupid on a lot of different levels. They could destroy the world here—pretty effectively, too. Change one little thing, right? The grassy knoll?
“Damn.” He swallowed hard on a rush of pure fear that came from being way fucking out of his league, then snorted at his own insanity. “Wonder what Clay’d think of this conspiracy?” he muttered.
The door to the blue room opened and Jake looked up to see the Admiral walk in, holding an icepack to his eye. Now that Jake’s head was on a little straighter, he could take in more details of the man. He had salt and pepper hair and was probably pushing seventy, but still had a look about him that said he could beat the crap out of most people, given the right excuse. “Scrappy,” Pooch would have called him. He looked vaguely familiar, too, like Jake had seen him in a textbook somewhere….
“I could bring you up on charges, Captain,” the Admiral barked, his nasal, pained voice settling Jake’s nerves and putting a grin on his own messed up face (well, the one he was wearing, anyway). Never let it be said Jake Jensen didn't give as good as he got. “Assaulting a senior officer, infiltrating a top secret facility…”
Jake nodded, pulling on every bit of calm he could gather. Right now, that wasn’t a lot. “You could,” he allowed blithely, leaning forward and ticking off his talking points on his fingers. “Except for three things: you’re Navy, not Army, so I don’t answer to you; you brought me here, so it’s not exactly infiltration, is it?” He leveled an almost deadly stare at the older man, full of anger and fear and amazement and disgust. “And am I even still in the corps in 2002?” He snorted. "Hell, am I even alive in 2002?"
The Admiral flinched at that last question and Jake had a sudden panicked feeling that he’d died already—that the rest of the Losers were gone, too. He had his answer when the man just stared at him sadly and stood in silence for a long moment. “Found a lot in the database, did you?" Funny, he didn’t seem too surprised, or even all that annoyed.
“I’m sure you read the part of my file where I’m one of the best hackers the US Army has to offer?” He grinned coldly. “That, and the lovely lady likes me.” The Admiral smirked in return and Jake’s stomach dropped in sudden realization. Oh, come on! “She let me hack her, didn’t she?” He shook his head. “God damn it—never trust a woman!”
“Ain’t that the truth,” the Admiral muttered under his breath.
“Look, whatever the hell Ziggy is,” Jake said, pacing, “she’s amazing. And terrifying, and I don’t know what the hell you people were thinking when you created her or this project.” He ran a hand through the unfamiliar hair on his head.
“Captain,” the Admiral tried again. “I promise, you’re here for a very good reason. I can’t tell you, obviously—”
Jake snorted. “Why not?” he asked brutally. “It’s not like you’re going to let me go back anyway. How could you possibly, now I’ve found out your dirty little secret?” He smiled a tight smile. “Though if you are going to let me live and send me home, can I have the scores for the last few super bowls? Coug and I could make a killing.” He stopped cold, remembering that they were already dead. He might be stuck here forever. Alone...
He was surprised to see the Admiral’s eyes soften and wondered what had shown on the face he was wearing. “We’re not going to kill you, Captain. And we’re not keeping you here, either.” The guy sighed, leaning tiredly against the table, and Jake surprised himself by feeling a rush of sympathy for him. “As soon as Sam finishes what he needs to do, you’ll be back with your team in your own time and you won’t even remember this conversation.”
Jake wished he could verify that. Sounded like the guy was telling the truth, but really, he’d gotten pretty used to being lied to since he started black-ops work. As soon as Sam finishes what he needs to do… So what the hell was he doing?
“Why are you doing this?” he asked instead. “And why do I have to have anything to do with it? I mean, you do get how dangerous the whole idea of this is, right? You watched all the good scifi?”
The Admiral chuckled a little despairingly. “Trust me, kid,” he murmured as he looked at Jake but saw someone else. It struck Jake that this guy Sam that he was wearing must be a friend of the Admiral’s. Had to be confusing for the guy. “This wasn’t quite how we imagined it.”
“Well maybe it’s time to stop, then, yeah?” Jake stilled. This whole time, he hadn't been able to remember what he’d been doing before waking up in this room. That should have worried him more than it did, but honestly, he’d had a lot more important things on his mind. But now… “You’re after the information on al Rahkim, right? The hack into his system?” He sat down, really feeling the possibilities for a minute. “What are you going to change? What—what happened the first time?” He covered his face with his hands. “Fuck, I was right. You really could destroy the world from here.”
“Or save it.”
The Admiral’s soft, cold response had Jake looking up in shock. “You mean—?”
“You didn’t find al Rahkim.” The old man seemed to come to a decision that it looked like he rarely came to. He probably figured it didn’t matter if he told Jensen everything, since Jake would apparently forget the whole damn thing later anyway. “One of his lieutenants, a guy named al-Fadhil, overthrew him in a power struggle, and you and your team—” He ran his head through his hair. “Look, it’s complicated, but things that shouldn’t have happened happened, and....”
“Now we’re dead.” Jake whispered, watching his companion nod briefly.
Silence stretched between them as the meaning of the Admiral’s words sank in.
“You’re shitting me,” Jake whispered in wonder. “All because I couldn’t find one Afghani warlord?”
“It’s the little things, Captain Jensen,” his companion replied with a fatalistic smile.
The speakers in the room blared to life. “Admiral, we need you in the Imaging Chamber. Ziggy says the probabilities are changing.”
The Admiral straightened. “Oh, thank God. Sam must have found the bastard.” He looked Jake up and down. “I hope I don’t see you again, Captain.” he said, punching buttons on a scifi film prop in his hand. The door opened and Jake didn’t even think of going through. “I’m on my way, Gooshie.”
Jake glared at the door as it closed. “What?! Seriously, you’re going to leave me with that!?” Silence fell and he was left completely alone to consider his fate. He sort of believed he was going to get home. It would make sense that he’d have to go back once this Sam guy finished his business. The guy couldn’t be him forever. And he sure as hell didn’t want to be that guy….
“Hey Ziggy?” he asked quietly, hoping she’d answer him. She had to have access to the speakers in here, right?
“Yes, Captain Jensen?” she asked pleasantly.
He grinned at the almost flirty tone, but immediately frowned as a pain started in his stomach. He tried to ignore it. It felt like it’d been a day since he got here and he hadn’t eaten a thing, so it stood to reason, right? “What do I look like? I mean, like, what does this guy really look like?” He shrugged. “Looking at him in a tabletop is a little distorting.” He wasn’t really sure why he wanted to know, but it seemed important.
“I will attempt to show you, Captain,” she replied, surprising him with her willingness to oblige him. “But the holographic functions available in this room are keyed to the Admiral’s brainwaves. It is unlikely that you will be able to see them.”
“Huh.” Cool. It seemed like she was right, as nothing appeared for a minute. He put a hand to his stomach as it cramped a little more, considering telling her to just forget it. But then an image flickered into life before him and showed him a much clearer image of the slightly roughed up face he was borrowing. This Sam was a handsome guy and Jake could place his age in his forties, now that he could really look at him. He reached a hand up to touch his sore and swollen nose, and the image did the same, like one of those old Charlie Chaplin gags where his mirror image has a mind of its own. He’d been right before. His own nose wasn’t nearly that big.
“Wow,” he breathed, a cramp catching him on the exhale. Damn, he was starting to feel like crap. He wondered how everything worked here. So he asked. “So what happens now?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question, Captain,” Ziggy replied.
“This… the leaping.” It was all too crazy, suddenly. Jake could believe an awful lot of weird shit—thinking on his feet in the strangest of circumstances made him a good black ops soldier—but this…?
“The Admiral’s not lying, is he?” He wondered if Ziggy could lie to him. “I’m going to get to go home, right?”
He’d barely gotten the question out when the pain rushed up the scale in intensity with a suddenness that scared the shit out of him. He bent double, a headache flaring into life to go with the gut fire. Shit, this hurt! Shit!
“Goodbye, Captain Jensen,” Ziggy murmured, ratcheting his panic up as he flashed back to every killer Artificial Intelligence movie he’d ever seen. She could lie, clearly, the murderous box of relays—he was going to bite it in the future...
The world around him was swallowed by a painfully bright, blue lightning—
Stuttgart Army Base, Germany, 1998
—and he blinked, looking at his computer dumbly. God, his head hurt.
“The fuck?” he asked himself quietly. He looked down at his Superman boxers and the four—five—empty German-language Mountain Dew bottles on his desk, then at the time on the computer. It was 5:38 am, and the map on his screen wasn’t immediately recognizable. It took him a minute, but he finally remembered what the hell he’d been doing.
“Great, Jensen,” he muttered to himself. “You fell asleep hacking. Seriously? What are you, ten?” He stretched his arms up over his head and perused the information on the screen before him, dropping his hands to his keyboard in shock.
“Damn.” He noted the coordinates for the tiny complex on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Al Rahkim, you son of a bitch.”
Jake seriously didn’t remember finding the warlord’s hideout, but it wasn’t the first time he’d lost track of things while doing a hack of this complexity. Hell, sometimes he even forgot to eat. Which reminded him—damn, he was hungry.
His phone rang, jangling the darkness around him and he jumped at it. “Yeah,” he replied, still feeling like he was thinking through quicksand. “Jensen.”
“Good morning. Did you finally pass out in front of your computer?” Clay’s voice cut through the haze slightly, and Jake tucked the receiver into his shoulder and reached over to his mini fridge to grab another Mountain Dew.
“Um, yeah,” he replied, a little sheepish. “This isn’t as easy as it looks, you know?”
“Doesn’t look easy,” Clay responded. “Glad you’re the geek, not me.” Jake had only been on the colonel’s team for a year, but he’d gotten used to Clay’s special mix of deadly intensity and amused relaxation. “Any sign of al Rahkim?” Speaking of deadly intensity, Jensen thought with a smirk as he popped open a bottle. “We’re slated to move out in twenty-four hours and I’m not going to Afghanistan for nothing.”
Jake looked at the map, smiling as he took a swig of wonderful, brain-stimulating caffeine. That should help his headache. “We’re good, Colonel,” he said. “I’ll send the information to Op Control.”
“Good job,” Clay murmured. “Took you less time than Pooch and Roque thought it would.”
“They just don’t appreciate the wonder of Jensen,” Jake replied, basking in it.
“You better get your cut from Cougar. He was betting on this morning at the latest.”
Jake grinned. “Thanks for the intel, boss.”
“Anytime. Oh, and Jensen?” Clay ordered, that exasperated Dad sound to his voice. “Put some damn pants on.”
Jake looked down at his boxers again and smirked. What could he say? He thought better in his skivvies.
to be continued