Captain Alex Manes snapped his blue gloves over his hands and looked the Iraqi intelligence agent in the eye. The man struggled against his bindings and Alex winced internally; thumb zip-ties were a bitch and a half when they dug into your skin.
"Torture doesn't work." Captain Manes said conversationally, making sure his cuffs covered the ends of his gloves, forming a complete seal. "But as a Time Agent, it's my job not to spread germs from my time back to yours, so," he tapped his face-mask. "This is for your protection."
The man's eyes rolled in terror and Alex sighed. He sat down on the dusty Iraqi government office's floor. The basement of the Iraqi Department of Agriculture was as abandoned as the Ba'athists' mandate, but he'd emptied the room of everything but the wooden chair the man was tied to before he woke up.
"See," he said, leaning his head against the gently rocking chair as the man struggled against it, "in a few hours, you were planning to reveal the perimeter team's shift schedule to al-Sadr's people. 11 Marines would have died in the ambush you would have planned for May 15, 2009."
He tipped his head back, giving the man a bright smile; the man whined against his t-shirt gag and Alex rolled his eyes. "I know their faces. Do you?"
The man shook his head, whether pleading for mercy or disagreement, Alex didn't know. He didn't expect he'd have time to find out.
He pulled his mission briefing from behind his bulletproof vest, opening it up to show a face book of men in their official Marine enlistment portraits. He held it up for where the man could see.
"They'll be waiting for me, when I get back to my timeline. I dropped letters to their families, telling them what was happening and when/where to show-up. Oh, this might help," he flipped to the next page in his briefing. "Before you woke up, I hired a courier to send $30,000 in cash to your family. That's twice the usual condolence payment." He swiveled on his good knee, looking the man in the eye. "Your family will be taken care of. You don't have to worry about that."
The man's breathing was beginning to slow, but the panic in his eyes was only getting brighter.
Alex looked him up and down. "Between sending the condolence payment and notifying the Marine's families of their Time Agency averted deaths, I injected a lethal dose of morphine between your toes." The man cried out, struggling so hard the chair would have tipped if Alex hadn't braced his entire weight against it.
"Don't worry, the courier is going to come back and will be returning your body, fully in-tact, to your family before tomorrow sundown. I expect you'll have a good funeral and," he felt a flicker of his father's smile moving across his face, "Your death brings this war just a little bit closer to ending early."
The man was gasping against his gag and Alex eased the knot off the back of his head, tilting his head, curious to hear the man's last words.
"My family won't be targeted?" The man asked in British-accented English.
Alex shook his head firmly. "No. You're the one who planned to get nearly a dozen Marines killed. Heba, Moussa and Tarik did nothing wrong. I hope they live long, peaceful lives."
The man closed his eyes, breathing getting heavy. "We've never met. I don't understand how you're here. I don't -- Time Agents can only travel along their own timelines."
Alex smirked, more teeth than tender: "Well, most Time Agents didn't have the childhoods I had. I saw something like 1.6 million people before I turned 18, thanks to my Dad's Grand Tour, so it's easier to find moments my timeline intersects with any given person's." He felt a childish grin rise; the man gargled. "My Bacon number is 1 with most leaders of the insurgency."
The man bit his lips, trying to breathe; only about a minute left. "That sounds like a shit way to live."
Alex felt his face become stone, his arms heavy. He felt his stump, the aches in his back from carrying this man from his truck, the anticipatory ache of getting pulled back through his timestream. His voice was cold as amber when he said: "It's a good way not to die."
The man blinked up at him, once, slowly, voice choking: "You'll stay?"
Alex’s voice was soft: "If you want."
He nodded, head lolling.
Alex folded to his knees in front of him, whole leg taking the weight: "I've got time."
Captain Manes only had a few minutes left on his 24 hour mission clock once the man finished passing. Once the alien-tech-infused timer on his wrist ran out, he’d get sucked back up the time zipline and into his own time.
Alex undid his target’s bonds, laying him out in the middle of the floor, hands cross on his chest. He bleached the chair, stuffed the folder back inside his vest, and went to go and sit in the twilit hallway. He took a deep breath, feeling his chest expand properly for the first time this mission.
The sunlight was always different here in Baghdad, more horizontal, more golden; cutting through a different kind of atmosphere than in Roswell where the Time Agency was based. "Stealing alien technology to undo the sins of the past" was what their tagline would be, if they were public enough to need branding.
He’d found in the past decade that it hurt less to get yanked back through time if he relaxed before it happened. He took another deep breath. He knew when he arrived back at the steel-and-leaded-glass time chamber in Roswell, there would be a crowd of living Marines, their families, anyone who this intervention had saved. They would be standing around the glass sphere; grinning; probably clapping. The only people who would remember this alternate timeline were those who were touched by the alien tech; for everyone else, it would be a nice story to never tell anyone about under penalty of having their timelines fucked with.
Alex closed his eyes. He couldn’t hear anyone coming, on this floor or the one above it.
The call-to-prayer hovered across the city, warm and bright. He had never told his father, and he never would, but he loved that sound. All of those voices, discordant and melodic, shitty speakers and great ones, wavering and quavering out over the city.
There were a lot of things that were shit about spending nearly every day of his life before 18 out of the US: no lasting friendships, no unapproved hobbies, no sex with people he particularly liked. But growing-up hearing the call-to-prayer, knowing he was saving people’s lives, and getting the training he needed to end wars? That was worth something. It had to be.
Alex began to feel the pressure in his chest where the alien time travel device had been implanted, right under his breastbone. He’d tried to explain it to his father once, what it felt like, like his heart was breaking new and shattering pieces under his sternum; but Colonel Manes wasn’t Time Aware and had never experienced it. He’d just sent Alex to go practice his languages and prep for a land navigation test the next day.
It got stronger, the light of the alien device implanted under his skin hovering and shining around him, and that sharp beeping countdown from his watch started, numbers flashing red on the LED screen.
10: He couldn’t breathe. He focused on keeping his body relaxed.
9: His jaw was aching from clenching it. At least he didn’t have to wear a mouth-guard anymore.
8: His fingers were tingling and so were both sets of toes: the ones he had and the ones a bomb had taken on his third mission.
7: His vision was starting to blur. He took one last look at the warm Iraqi sunlight and closed his eyes again.
6: There was pressure, like a boot on his chest.
5: Something like a kick to his chest. He hunched inwards, knowing from video he’d seen of the time slip that the white-blue-purple-orange light was coiling, trailing around his black tact suit, enveloping him.
4: The rushing in his ears was more than his heart frantically pumping; it was the sound of the timestream.
3: He jerked; that kick had been harder than he’d expected. He wrapped his arms around his chest. He wouldn’t look as kickass arriving in the fetal position, but he’d survive.
2: The feeling like a hand over his face, dragging him backwards.
1: Darkness. Darkness and silence. Then the blue-shaded whiplash of his timeline fast-forwarding around him, people, places, things he’d touched or missed, all flying past him, in straight reverse chronological order.
He opened his eyes. He could breathe.
He was in the wrong place.
There were no smiling Marines; no grinning mothers or daughters; no Colonel or Flint or Clay; no leaded-steel and glass sphere.
“Fuck you!” shouted a little boy, maybe a room away; the sound of a kick and a whimper.
Alex looked around; he was in a hoarder's guestroom, dust and rat dropping covered half-labeled cardboard boxes, spiderwebs in their second or third generation. Dust hovered in the air.
Alex looked at his watch; 1000 seconds. 999. 998.
What the fuck, he thought. He stood, using the grime-covered windowsill to lever himself up.
The soft sound of a boot hitting a small body.
Fuck this, he thought. He had no idea what was going on, but no way, no how was a kid getting kicked in front of him if he could stop it. He shoved his way through the boxes and tried the door. Locked.
His gloved hand kept slipping off the handle, like it was greased. He made a disgusted cat face and tried again. Nothing.
A whimper through the paper thin wall.
“Fuck!” He cursed and shoved his shoulder against the door. Nothing.
He took a step back and looked at the door; the hinges were on the inside. He pulled his tac knife out of his belt and went to popping the bolts out of the hinges. It took more force than it should have, but when he pushed he broke through. He counted kicks and cries as he went, making a tally to work his way through once he got past this fucking door.
He looked at his watch: 897 seconds. He hoped to fuck it was counting down to him getting back to Roswell, because he had no idea where or when he was. But that was a problem for 14 minutes from now.
There was another sound, like a slap and a softer groan of pain.
Last bolt out and the door crashed inwards.
He expected the beating to stop, the father to come to see what was happening.
Instead, he heard: “I fucking told you --”
“It wasn’t me!” Came the cry and then a harsh sound of pain.
“Fuck this,” Alex growled, kicking down the door.
The room froze: the man was wearing a stained blue t-shirt, thick salt-and-pepper beard and some kind of thin cotton boxers. He was bracing for another kick, but was staring at the open door, eyes sliding over where Alex stood. The kid couldn’t have been more than 8, curly hair full of dust, flat on his back. He looked Alex dead in the eyes, fucking terrified.
Alex realized he was still wearing his mask.
The man turned back to the kid, seemingly ignoring where Alex stood with his knife out. He reached down to grab for his thin red shirt; Alex thought he saw a Wolverine cartoon on it but he didn’t wait to be sure. He strode forward, roundhouse kicking the man in the chest. He must have been heavier than he looked, but the kick pushed him backwards. Alex shook his head -- the man should have been knocked into the unpainted wall with the force of his usual attacks -- but he dropped his foot, sheathed his knife, and caught the man’s scraggly chin with an uppercut, then a punch to the gut. Each punch landed lighter than he expected, but what he seemed to lack in force, he made-up for in persistence.
A cold part of Alex’s mind thought the man’s reactions were bizarre. He wasn’t even trying to block Alex’s strikes, even when he telegraphed them, trying to draw the man out. He just grunted and wailed, eyes searching the space around Alex madly.
He shoved the man to the wall, muscled forearm going under his thick chin: “Can you not see me?” Being blind didn’t stop someone from being abusive, but the man’s eyes looked fine to him. He didn’t know how else to tell.
The man said nothing, just kept struggling against his hold. Alex sighed, switching his grip to choke him from behind, sinking to the ground as he struggled, ducking his head behind the man’s shoulder to keep him from grabbing him. As the man’s struggles slowed and his hands stopped grasping, Alex looked over at the boy. He was propped up on his elbows, glaring at Alex.
“You’re a shitty ghost; you’re just gonna get me in more trouble when he wakes up.”
Alex shoved the man off of him, making sure his face was sideways so he wouldn’t aspirate on his own vomit. “I’m not a ghost.”
“Then how come Mr Ridley can’t see you or hear you?”
“He’s not blind or Deaf?”
The boy shook his head, slow and exaggerated, like Alex was the dumbest person alive.
Alex closed his eyes, crawling to sit in front of the kid, a careful distance away. “I’m not a ghost. I’m a Time Traveler.”
The kid rolled his eyes. His cheek was scraped and there was blood at his hairline. Alex knew how those felt.
“Want to get cleaned-up? It’s easier to take hits if you’ve healed from the last ones.”
The kid’s face worked. “I’m good.”
Alex frowned. “15 kicks. Just since I got here. You’ve probably got a cracked rib.”
The kid’s eyes widened: “No hospitals!”
Alex’s heart clenched. “Ok,” he said, “ok. I have a,” and he tried to think of how to explain the healing alien tech he traveled with to an 8-year-old. “What year is it?”
“1998?” The kid was starting to look afraid again. “Why don’t you know that?
“I’m a Time Traveler, I said that,” Alex muttered, “Ok, do you watch Star Trek ?” And there, just for a second, the boy actually looked like an 8-year-old boy. Eyes lighting up, grinning with glee at a fellow geek. He shut it down, but there was something so warm in Alex’s chest at having seen it.
“Yeah? So what.”
Alex took a breath: “I have something, like a tricorder. Or bacta, if you like Star Wars. I can use it to heal your rib. So, no hospitals. You just won’t hurt.”
The kid’s face was a mask of suspicion: “What do you want for it?”
Alex tipped his head to the side: “Nothing. People don't always have an agenda. They can just be nice to each other for no reason sometimes.”
The kid’s face was shadowed. “Not in my experience.”
Alex slowly unholstered the medspray, setting it beside him. “If I show you how it works on me, will you let me try to help you?”
“Why?” The kid spat.
Alex refused, fucking refused to snap back. He kept his voice low, friendly, even: “Because you don’t deserve to be hurt.”
The kid glanced to the broken man behind Alex and then to the side.
“Here,” Alex said, pulling out his knife, keeping his weight back, body relaxed looking.
He tugged up the edge of his cuff, exposing the back of his forearm. He touched the edge of the knife to his skin, took a slow breath, and gave himself a thin paper cut.
The kid was staring, eyes wide and worried. Alex resheathed the knife, picked up the medspray, and waved it over his arm, pressing down on the button as he went. It glowed the same blue-purple-orange as the light from the timeline and it felt like a time kick. Like it was pulling his skin back to just before the injury. He’d heard stories of people tortured with this stuff, it being used to send different parts of their bodies to different ages on their timeline. He hated that shit. It did nothing but cause pain.
He showed the clean, uncut skin to the kid, hoping the gentle orange-purple glow didn’t freak-out the kid anymore than he already had.
The kid -- he was forcing himself to his hands and knees, wincing and gasping, but crawling closer. Alex held very still. He presented his forearm out for inspection and the boy’s face was lit from below with the fading golden glow. He held his little hands over the healed cut, like he was warming himself at a fire after a 10 mile forced march in the snow.
His voice was tiny, wondering: “You’re like me -- you’re an alien too.” He held out a hand, closing his eyes and wiggled his fingers. A little set of dice flew from behind a baseboard into his palm before leaping into the air and doing minuets.
Alex felt cold, but didn’t move as he watched the dice dance. He knew the alien tech he used every day had come from Caulfield, from other prisons and exploitation centers. He looked around the room; this was nowhere near any of them. There were no kids, there couldn’t be kids --
“What’s your name?” he asked, and he was both comforted and horrified that his voice had the same neutral, friendly calm he’d been trying to project this whole time. “I’m Alex.”
The kid quirked a smile: “I bet that’s not your alien name. They’ve been calling me Michael. I’m Michael Ridley right now, but,” he looked at the man behind Alex, running his tongue over his split lip. “Probably not for long.”
“Sounds like a different name would be better,” Alex muttered. Then Alex shook his head: “I’m not an alien, Michael. I just have some alien technology.”
Michael looked up into Alex’s eyes, big and scared. “So -- so you’re not here to take me home?”
Alex’s heart clenched, and he wished it was because he was getting dragged back through time, away from all of these shitty choices. But no; it was just his meat-heart hurting. I don’t even have a place I could take him, not where he’d be safe . Alex thought of the room he shared with Flint on the base, two twins in a base out-building constructed in the 1970s.
Michael’s face was so, so hopeful. And Alex, just for a minute, wanted to take off his time devices, let them transport themselves back to his timeline when the clock ran out and just -- pick-up this kid. Get a job. Get out of this whole world.
He shook his head. That was an old fantasy and he had decades of practice squashing it.
“I can’t, Michael -- but you deserve to be someplace safe. Can you call your social worker for a pick-up before he wakes up?”
“Why can’t you -- you have alien tech, you must know aliens. Tell them where I am! Tell them to come get me!” The little kid was nearly crying, hands hovering in the fading light of Alex’s healing arm.
“I’ll -- I’ll try, kid. I’ll try,” he said and Michael looked at him hard, so fiercely in the face. “I will.” He said, hearing the desperation to be believed in his own voice.
“I don’t believe you,” Michael said, sitting back, pulling his knees in front of him with a pained grunt. “You don’t care.”
“You’ll have to wait and see, then,” Alex said, not knowing what else to say. Then he looked at his watch: 248 more seconds. “Ok,” he said, “I’m going to get pulled back to my time in four minutes. That’s enough time for me to heal you and make a report to social services, if you don’t want to make the call.”
Michael’s face was a stubborn mask, arms locked around each other, nearly vibrating with pain and anxiety and Alex -- he felt something crack inside. He put down the medspray. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
He reached back behind his own head and unsnapped his face mask. He pulled it away from his face, letting it pool on the floor beside him. He carefully rolled forward onto his knees, so he was close enough to Michael to look him in his eyes without invading his space. He held his gloved hands out, palms towards Michael.
“Or,” he said, voice soft. “I can give you a hug and I can trust you’ll call your social worker once I go.” The looks flaring across Michael’s face were heartbreaking -- need and hope and fear and pain. “What do you want to do?”
Michael sniffed, looking behind Alex at Mr Ridley. “I’d like not to hurt,” he worked his jaw. “You promise you’ll tell the aliens you know about me? In your time -- when are you from?”
“2018,” Alex replied, picking up the medspray.
Michael took a big breath. “I’ll be 28 then,” he said, voice hurting. “But you’ll find me?”
“Yeah,” Alex said. “Ribs first or face?”
Michael shook his head: “Neither, he stomped on my ankle, I need that fixed to be able to walk out of here.”
“Okay,” Alex said. “Can you pull up your jeans just so I can see your ankle?”
Michael nodded. Alex sprayed it and the kid bit his lip at the strange sensation.
In a low tone, Alex said: “The glow will fade in about 15 minutes, so maybe call when that happens. Ribs next?”
The kid nodded, yanking the corner of his Wolverine shirt up. Alex could count every single one of his ribs, even under the low swelling. Alex sprayed him there too. He glanced at his watch -- 58 seconds.
He took a breath, unsnapping his wallet. “I’ve got some money from this time,” he said, flipping to his stack of 1995 $20s. “Keep it someplace it won’t be found.” He handed him $500 and Michael stuffed it inside his sock, tucking his pant-leg over it. “Only spend a little at a time; it should be enough to keep you fed over the summer when school lunches stop. If you close your eyes, I can take care of that cut on your forehead and your cheek.”
Michael did and Alex sprayed carefully across the line of the cut and then down the rugburn on his cheek.
“Open,” he said, sitting back. His watch read 27 seconds. He put his medspray away.
“Ok, I’m going to have to go. Promise me you’ll call the social worker?”
“Promise me you’ll tell your aliens.”
Alex bit his lip, knowing the little boy could see it, stomach clenching: “I’ll try.”
“Then I’ll try.”
“Okay, that’s the most I can ask,” Alex said, sitting back. “It’s -- don’t come too close, ok? I usually need people to stay like 6 feet back.” He tried to quirk a smile. “But I think you’ll recognize the lights.”
Michael scooted all the way back against the mattress on the floor, hitching his elbows back against it.
“If the light gets too bright, close your eyes, ok?” He said. 15 seconds.
“Not a chance.” Michael said, and Alex saw his bright eyes get even wider as the tendrils of blue-orange-purple light spread from Alex’s chest, wrapping all the way around him, and yanking him back.