First Draft Completed as of 2/13/2011.
A woman appeared in front of Gerald “Lucky” Lawson. She did not enter the room through the door; one moment she was not there and the next, she was. Her appearance was accompanied by a faint popping noise.
Gerald sat in stunned silence for perhaps two seconds. During these two seconds, he noticed several things.
One, the woman was tall. Very tall. Probably over six feet tall, but it was hard to tell because Gerald was sitting in his leather office chair behind his large, wooden desk, and had been staring intently at the computer screen a split second before she appeared.
Two, the woman was quite attractive in an exotic way. Her skin was what he would describe as “mocha,” but she had very blond, almost silver hair cut short, like the military, and green eyes that were slightly almond shaped. He saw this clearly because after she appeared, she seemed to focus her eyes on Gerald, then blinked twice.
Three, the woman was dressed all in black, in what appeared to be a skin-tight jumpsuit of some artificial material.
Four, the woman’s voice was husky and low-pitched, like the actress Sally Kellerman, with a slight accent that he didn’t recognize. He knew this because right after the instant it took for him to register her sudden appearance, she narrowed her eyes and commanded him, “Get down!”
Five, the woman was strong. Very strong. He knew this because at the same time she called for him to get down, she leaned forward, grabbed him by both arms, and pulled him out of his office chair and threw him face-first onto the industrial-grade, gray carpet of his office floor.
Six, the woman was lithe and supple and not very heavy. He knew this because as soon as she had thrown him to the floor, she flung herself across his body, pinning him to the floor and driving the breath from his lungs. As far as he could tell, there was no extra fat anywhere on her body.
Seven, the woman smelled faintly of sweat, soap, and ozone.
He would perhaps have noticed several other things about the woman, but at this point there was a sharp popping noise, the sound of broken glass, and a metallic rattle. A split instant later, there was a much louder popping noise as his computer monitor’s screen exploded, then crashed to the floor and more glass shattered. A faint sizzling noise, accompanied by the strong smell of burning plastic and more ozone, wafted to his nose. He also heard a faint metallic swish and rattle that he recognized immediately as the blinds covering his window as they swung gently in the wake of whatever had just happened.
What the hell are the janitors using to clean this carpet? He thought, as his face, turned sideways away from his desk, was pressed into the floor by the woman’s weight.
Before he could register what had actually happened, the woman had lifted her weight off his body. He turned his head to see where she went and saw her booted feet hurrying away from him toward the window of his office.
He saw her stop, then lean closer to the window. He heard her silence the still-swinging blinds, then the sound of the metal slats bending as she no doubt peered out between them. He lifted his head and allowed his gaze to proceed from her black, leather boots up her shapely, well-muscled calves, beyond that over her thighs, and onto her shapely behind.
He would perhaps have continued his visual tour of her body, but she turned to face him and he found himself staring intently into her crotch.
Before his resulting blush completed staining his entire face cherry red, she squatted down and offered him her hand.
Eight, the woman’s hand was warm, dry, lithe, and her grip firm. He knew because, without thinking, he reached out his own hand and grasped hers in his and allowed her to pull him to his feet.
Gerald began to straighten his shirt and tie—his jacket was still hung neatly over the back of his chair—when the woman grabbed him by the hand again and pulled him forcefully away from his desk and the window toward the corner of his office where his laser printer and an ancient coffee maker sat on a pair of metal filing cabinets.
“Gerald,” the woman said in her oddly accented voice, “are you harmed?”
He allowed himself a moment to think about her question. He was a little confused, yes. The wind had been knocked out of him, yes. And he had what felt like a terminal case of blush from staring at her crotch when he meant to be staring at her ass, yes. But was he harmed?
“Well, no. Not really. I just—”
“Good,” she said. “I do not have much time, so I need you to listen to me and focus. Are you listening?” She pronounced it “lees ten ing,” with a clear ‘t’ sound. He felt himself smiling at her accent, but then, with the fingers of one warm, dry, lithe hand, she gently gripped his chin and tilted his head so that his own brown eyes were focused directly into her green ones.
He nodded as best he could with her still gripping his chin, but never taking his eyes off hers. She had beautiful eyes, he thought. Green, yes, but like a Coke bottle—very pale, and translucent. And her eye lashes were long, curved and as blond as her hair. He watched as she blinked them several times and suddenly became aware that she had said something he missed entirely.
Her nose had a light dusting of thirteen faint freckles across the bridge.
“Huh?” he said.
She let go of his chin and place her palms against either side of his face. “In a moment, people will begin to come into here and question you about what has just occurred. Gerald”—she shook his head a little for emphasis—”I need you to forget I was here, OK?”
He nodded again, this time less successfully because his entire head was immobilized. Her warm palms did nothing to make his blush better. He felt like his face was blazing tomato red, but found that he could not look away from her eyes.
“Say it , Gerald. I need to hear you say it.”
“You were never here.”
She smiled, then, and Gerald was able to look away from her eyes to notice her full, pink lips. They were rounded and looked soft and supple, but he was willing to bet that they were as firm and strong as the rest of her. He realized her lips were moving and focused on hearing what she was saying just in time to catch the end of it: “—be back as soon as I can.”
She had let go of his face at some point and was now facing away from him, walking purposefully toward his desk, and adjusting some sort of apparatus he now noticed on one ear.
He was finally able to choke out the question that had been forming for the last 30 seconds in his brain. “Who are you?”
She turned and he saw that the apparatus had a small, glowing red light on it that blinked rapidly as her lips moved almost imperceptibly. She had been talking very quietly into what Gerald decided must be a microphone.
She paused, her eyes out of focus for a split second, but then the full force of the clear green transfixed him again, and then her pink, full lips curved into a smile. “My name is Jalila,” she said. Juh-lee-lah, with the accent on the second syllable. Jalila, Gerald repeated to himself.
“Where did you—” he started to ask, but she was gone with a faint pop. All that remained was the sharp aroma of ozone and the remembered touch of her hands on Gerald’s face.
“Jalila,” he whispered, a faint smile on his own lips.
That was how they found him a second later when several people burst through the closed door of his office.
“Oh, my God!” exclaimed Stuart, Gerald’s assistant, as he saw the destroyed monitor. “I heard a crash and— What happened? Are you all right?”
Gerald blinked. Took a deep breath. Inhaled the scent of ozone once again. “Um…all right? Yes. Yes, I’m all right. I…”
He glanced around the room. His computer monitor was lying on its back on the floor in front of his desk, the cable connecting it to his computer stretched taut. Smoke still drifted out of the shattered tube.
“I’m all right,” he said, again, then added, “I got up to get coffee, and the monitor exploded.” He gestured at the coffee maker and then the monitor and watched in amusement as all the people in his office followed his movements with their eyes.
By now several others had rushed into his office and were making exclamations of dismay and surprise over the shattered monitor. He heard the word “lucky” whispered a time or two, but couldn’t decide which of them had said it.
“Mr. Lawson, you’re all flushed! Are you sure you’re all right? Come sit down.” Stuart put his hand gently on his boss’s back and compelled him to approach the abandoned chair. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
As Stuart hurried out of the office to get the promised water, another employee said, “Oh, my God. Is that a bullet hole?”
This started a new spate of exclamations and another repeat of “lucky.” Gerald sank into his chair gracelessly, causing it to squeak in protest. Two of his colleagues were bent over examining a hole in the book shelf near his door. Someone else pulled up the blinds and said “Oh my God” again, but Gerald had tuned them out.
He remembered the firm touch of her palms on his face, the round pinkness of her lips, the clear green of her eyes, her husky voice, the freckles sprinkled lightly across her nose, and her shapely legs. He hadn’t really gotten a chance to see much else.
And that was how Gerald met Jalila. But Jalila had known Gerald for a long while. Longer even than she had been alive.
The sound of Gerald’s opening office door was replaced abruptly by the cacophany of the temporal control room as Jalila appeared within a glass and metal enclosure, causing a small rush of air as she displaced some of the air in the chamber. At the same moment, she felt the weight of Earth gravity release her body and she rose slightly off the floor and drifted down again. It always took her a while to get over the effects of Earth gravity when she came back to Geode.
“You told him your name!” shouted Harriman, her communications contact. She could hear him through the communicator in her ear and, muffled, through the wall of the temporal displacement chamber as well.
Jalila calmly removed the communicator from her ear and held it in her hand so that she no longer had to listen to his complaints.
She stripped out of the skin-tight jumpsuit and tossed it into the recyler as the machine released a cloud of antibiotic mist into the room. She kept her eyes open even though it stung badly and breathed deeply as the machine told her to do so. She suppressed the urge to cough as the mist invaded her lungs. She had heard the instructions many times before.
Why had she told Gerald her name? It was a severe breach in protocol. Maybe it was how obviously smitten he was with me, she rationalized. Not too many women ever had the experience of affecting a man in such a way. She was supposed to have said “Jane” or “Jill” if he asked her name, and instead, she had thoughtlessly given him her real name.
So what? She asked herself defiantly. It’s not like he’s ever going to come here or know anything that’s going on. So he knows my name. Big deal.
But even as she said the words, she knew she was wrong. The smallest change…
“Jalila!” came a bark through the room’s intercom system.
“What?” she said through a sigh. “What’s done is done.”
“‘What’? Did you just say, ‘What’?
“Oh, come on, Harriman. Let it go. We’ll do another probe to see if—“
“Do you have any idea the energy that’s consumed every time we ‘do another probe’? Do you?”
She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth while counting slowly to ten.
“Please open your eyes and mouth and breathe deeply,” the computer generated voice chided gently.
I think I prefer the dumb computers in the twenty-first to these overprotective mothers, she thought, but did as the voice instructed.
Harriman continued to berate her and yell and blow the incident out of proportion for several more minutes. She tuned him out. She’d heard most of it before. How each time they punched through the fabric of space-time, it cost blah blah blah and caused yadda yadda yadda and didn’t she respect the whatever.
Finally, the voice announced that she was microbe-free and the thick mist that had swirled around her was pumped from the chamber and fresh, dry air was pumped in. She stood in the center of the chamber, naked and glistening with moisture, her short hair plastered to her head, while the moving air helped evaporate the antibiotic mist. To help it along, she bent and used her hands to sluice as much of it as she could off her body.
She hop-glided over to a dispenser in the wall of the chamber where a newly extruded towel and jumpsuit awaited her. She used the towel to dry herself off, paying special attention to her hair. She used to have long hair, but with all the chemicals it was routinely exposed to in the detox chamber, she had finally just chopped it off short. She would have shaved it off completely if it wouldn’t have made her more conspicuous in the past.
Dry, she snapped the jumpsuit open and pulled it on, then added the matching slippers the machine had also spit out. Thus clothed, she approached the doorway to the chamber and palmed the lock while gazing into the retinal scanner. The mechanism took a snapshot of her retina while the DNA analyzer verified that she was indeed Jalila [LASTNAME] of Geode, and that she had clearance to leave the chamber.
There was a soft chime, then the door hissed open as the pressure inside and outside equalized.
Harriman stood waiting for her, holding a small bag out to her.
Without saying a word, she took the bag from him and made her way across the room in the odd rolling, hopping gait that was the most efficient way to travel in the micro-gravity of Geode.
Harriman didn’t follow, but she knew he was glaring at her retreating back with barely suppressed frustration. Just as she reached the door, he called out, “Debriefing at 0400 hours, Jalila. Recharge will take 26 hours, 18 minutes, 42.3 seconds.”
She ignored him. She had screwed up. But as far as screw-ups went, mentioning her real name to Lawson was hardly going to cause the end of the world.
Well, not again, anyway. They routinely checked for that kind of thing, now.
As the door hissed closed behind her, the noise of the room was cut off and the blissful quiet of Geode filled her with relaxation.
She didn’t know how the people of old Earth had handled the constant noise. Every minute of every day, they had had mechanical hums, people and animal noises, televisions, radios…
Every time she went into the past, she came back with a new appreciation of the present.
She passed no one else in the maze of gray, stone corridors that made up Geode as she made her way to her quarters on sublevel 8 of the Engineering quarters. Her eyes were burning, her head was pounding, and she needed to wash off the nasty smell of the antibiotic mist as well.
When she reached the door to her quarters, she palmed the door plate and absently looked into the retinal scanner. The door hissed open and she all but fell inside, she was so exhausted.
She glanced around the room. Even to her, it was utilitarian, containing only a small desk, chair, and bed. Exactly one hundred forty-four square feet was all each person was allowed while on duty. She would be glad to cycle back to off-duty so she could spend some time with her husbands and co-wife. She wanted to tell the children about all the things she’d seen on old Earth, as well, but knew she couldn’t. Pity, she thought. It’s not like they’d actually believe me.
Time travel took a lot out of a person, even if it was just a quick trip to prevent a change. She and the other members of her team actually rated a real water shower.
As soon as the door hissed shut behind her, she stripped out of the jumpsuit, tossed it into the recycler, and eagerly entered the tiny shower stall. She allowed the hot water to spray onto her skin and hair with enough force to lift her slightly off the floor, scrubbing the stench of the mist off. Her two minutes of water exhausted, she toweled off, applied moisturizers to her hair, skin, and eyes, and threw herself onto the room’s small bed with her hair still moist.
As she closed her eyes, she finally let herself think the thought that she had been avoiding: Zac had escalated. The gunshot that had almost killed Gerald Lawson had not been an accident. There hadn’t even been time to prepare a suitable intervention, and she had done the only thing available to her at the time and revealed herself to the subject.
It meant that the game had changed. They were done using subtle means to achieve their ends, and her team would have to redouble their efforts to locate and undo any damage they caused to the timeline.
Gerald Lawson’s life had already been interesting, and it was about to get even more so. She yawned and mumbled, “Lights, full off,” and closed her eyes before the room was completely dark.