Aphelion Issue 273, Volume 26
June 2022
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by Roderick D. Turner

"It will happen -- whether you help me or not. You get my drift?"

There was a threatening intensity to the final word, as if Jovalan had thrust a knife point at Carmine's throat and pressed it there, drawing a trickle of blood. She glared defiantly at him, her mouth clenched, the muscles of her jaw set.

"You don't understand the word," she said softly.

"You know exactly what I mean. If I were you I would be moving, and quickly. I am not a patient man."

A harsh smile touched Carmine's face. "And you should know by now, I am not accustomed to being obedient. Nor am I about to set a new standard."

Jovalan heaved his bulky two hundred pounds free of the body-hugging moldable, the chair resuming its smooth inert shape as he stood. He crouched behind the vastness of his desk, muscular shoulders knotted, fists tight at his sides. An evil leer spread slowly outwards from his eyes."So be it. Too many have learned to their chagrin that when you are floating alone in the ocean, a log of driftwood can mean both salvation and death. An opportunity, or a final sentence. You've made your choice, Carmine. How well can you swim?"

"Save your threats. I may seem alone, but looks can be deceiving. An old piece of wood like you gives me more cause to laugh than quake." She reached up to the front of her dark green tunic, clinging tight against the supple muscle of her body, and wrenched the crossed bolt JTT emblem from its place on the fabric. "I'm much happier adrift than anchored to a place like this. My thanks. You've set me free."

She tossed the symbol on the floor at her feet, gave Joyalan a last calculating smile, turned and stepped in the direction of the door. Joyalan watched as her body slowly dissolved as if to smoke. The thin wisps seemed to drift onward, thinning into nothingness as they reached the edge of the room.

"I will have my way," he whispered to the emptiness.

It was dim in the chamber, but enough light filtered through the edges of the door to identify her location. Carmine frowned, ran her right forefinger up the outside of her left wrist, and scrutinized the figures displayed there. Her frown deepened. With a puckering of her lips, she toggled the call beacon on her DTScom, running her tongue across the end of the implanted switch.

"DTS central. This is Helena." The words rang inside her skull, tapped directly to her auditory center. Carmine replied with carefully-constructed thoughts, patterned into images and sentences, her years of Mentual training sending her message more clearly than if she had been standing beside Helena -- but completely silent.

"Helena, Carmine. You know where I was -- " she sent an image of Joyalan sitting behind his desk, "and I set my return node to Prime South. I made the jump, but look where I turned up." This time the image of the chamber in which she now stood was transferred, and Carmine heard Helena's gasp. She nodded quietly. "Right. I'm back outside that bastard's office, like I simply walked out the door. Tell me there's a simple explanation."

For a full ten seconds there was no response. Then Helena's words rang in her ears.

"Our system shows -- Carmine, it shows that you no longer exist."

Carmine stood rigid, her mind racing over the events of the past minutes. Joyalan had seemed so sure of himself. Could he have had this all arranged, set her up? But how could it be accomplished? Drift Transport Systems had never encountered an anomaly like this, to the best of her knowledge. She eyed the glowing rectangular halo that bordered the door ahead of her in the secure passage. It had something to do with --

"It will happen -- whether you help me or not. You get my drift?"

The words penetrated her like a knife, sending a thrill of fear down her spine. Involuntarily, she backed away from the door, dreading to hear the next sounds from the room beyond. Yet her ears strained to catch the slightest whisper, and a soft moan escaped her lips when she heard her own voice.

"You don't understand the word."

"Helena, are you getting this?" she sent.

"I can't make it out from this end. Carmine, what the hell is happening?" The fear in Helena's voice knotted Carmine's gut, but she took a deep breath and let it out slowly before she responded.

"I've got to get away from here. Helena, I'm setting my destination node to DTS central. Pray for me."

Carmine visualized the DTS control panel in her mind's eye, memorized exactly from her earliest sessions as a DTS trainee. DTS central was a location she did not need to look up -- she set the numbers, slowly and deliberately, holding her breath. An icy chill suffused her body as she heard her words through the door.

"My thanks. You've set me free."

She activated the jump, felt her body begin to fade. But as her senses withdrew from the scene, she caught Joyalan's final words, faint but revealing.

"I will have my way."

And as her last view of the scene drifted away, she could have sworn a cloud of vapor was slowly obscuring the rectangle of light.

DTS central's primary transport chamber grew steadily brighter and more solid around her. Carmine breathed a sigh of relief, scanned the vast circular space for other occupants. With over one hundred arrival and departure pods arrayed throughout the room, she expected to see activity somewhere.

The place was deserted.

Suppressing a sense of panic, Carmine got her bearings and jogged to the exit nearest Helena's control station. The outer ring corridor smelled unusual, something she couldn't place, but she ignored it and took the radial arm outward in the direction of the perimeter control pod. She passed many cross corridors and doors, but saw no-one. However, the odor grew, assaulting her senses, finally penetrating her full awareness. Yet she did not stop. The airlock system leading to Helena's control pod loomed thirty meters ahead of her down the long straight corridor, and she jogged steadily towards it, flicking her right forearm forward and down to release her bolt pistol and drop it into her palm. A look of grim determination grew across her features as she advanced. Reaching the doors she glanced briefly at the retinal sensors above the door, watched them open ahead of her as she strode through. She repeated the procedure with the second airlock door, and advanced into the room.

Ever a hub of activity, the twelve meter square pod hummed and glowed with living electronics, but at her first quick scan revealed no other occupants. Carmine paused a moment in shocked disbelief, then willed herself to conduct a more careful examination. The stench that filled her nostrils grew stronger as she moved out to her left, pistol at the ready, checking every corner as she went. It took her only a few moments to discover the source of the odor -- an almost-disintegrated body, slumped across a control unit, still with a bony hand on a lever. The body was unrecognizable, seemed to be dissolving as she watched. She had time to catch the identification number on the collar of the uniform before it turned to mist and vanished before her eyes.

Carmine squatted on her haunches, dropped her weapon at her feet, and ran slender fingers back through her shoulder-length brown hair, letting out a deep unsteady sigh as she did so. The chill sweat on her forehead left her hands sticky and damp. "My God, what has he done?" she muttered.

"Carmine. Carmine this is Helena. Where are you?"

In one smooth motion Carmine had the pistol back in her hand. She rolled to one side and came up behind the recently occupied chair, peering carefully around the chamber for a target. It took her a moment of control to realize what had happened.

"Helena, this is Carmine. I'm in your control pod, and -- Helena, there's nobody left. The whole place stinks of decay and death."

"I'm right here, Carmine. Whatever you're seeing, it isn't real. DTS is still in full operation. There are fifteen controllers in the pod alone. Don't panic."

"I already went through that stage. Record this image, and tell me what you think." She sent a visual of the pod as she saw it, deserted but for the living electronics and her. As she scanned the room, she noticed two things that set her heart racing again.

"Quick, Helena. What's the dts? The date-time stamp, give it to me."

Helena's response was unsteady. "August twenty seventh, two thousand and twenty three. Twenty one seventeen, thirty nine seconds."

Carmine nodded grimly. "Helena. Unless I'm wrong, you have about an hour and a half before all hell breaks loose throughout DTS operations." She glanced up at the nearest monitor, and sent the image. It showed the date as August twenty seventh, two thousand and twenty three. But the time was twenty two fifty nine. And in the corridor camera display, she saw herself -- approaching the control pod, flipping loose a pistol, intent on the airlock doors ahead. "From what I just sent, I think I'm the one who'll start the fireworks. Unless I can figure out how to undo Joyalan's work."

She hauled the DTS panel back into her mind, scanned the directory, and picked Joyalan's home. Willing the dials and controls to the correct settings, she ordered the jump and watched with satisfaction as the terminal in front of her registered a DTS transfer to the destination she had chosen. She was back on the network -- at least, the network of the present. As her perception of the chamber faded, the door to the pod opened and in swept her other self. She was grateful when she saw that the poised DTS operative known as Carmine Alterra did not notice the faint wisp of mist as it left the room behind.

Carmine knew she had guessed correctly as soon as she materialized in Joyalan's bedroom. The man was asleep, his security systems penetrated without a whisper, the time on his bedside clock twelve forty eight of the next morning. Each jump took her further into the future, but it was the initial jump from Joyalan's office that had caused the paradox. It had been very short, clearly tampered with by Joyalan's agents, designed to ensure that she would meet herself out there in Joyalan's antechamber and self-annihilate. So far as she knew, nobody had ever been able to cause a DTS jump to leap time as well as space. Joyalan had found a way, and the end of DTS, the termination of the clandestine agency Carmine worked for, would be catastrophically complete within hours if she allowed her other self to catch her. "I'm at Joyalan's place, Helena. There are at least three or four of me in the system by now, and we're all chasing each other. If any of those duplicates catches the next, we annihilate not only each other, but all of DTS in one giant cascade reaction. See if you can get a reading on any of us. It may be important."

"There was a very weird reading from JTT, Joyalan's office, soon after we lost your signal. For an instant, I think we recorded the two traces. Then neither one. We'll keep checking for others."

"That means that your timeline, real time, has already passed the split. We can't just go back to before the event. I'm hoping Joyalan's mind can tell us something." She strode over to the bed, silent as a cat, then removed the insulating glove of her left hand. "I'm putting myself into transmit. Record what you see and hear, so you can act on any information you get."

Carmine slipped her hand down the side of Joyalan's forehead, her touch feather-light, and ran her right hand downwards across her left forearm. The embedded electronics booted, brought up an active visual display against her right retina. Using eye scan, she activated the transmission, then initiated the mind probe.

It took all of thirty seconds to find what she needed. The research into DTS time jump had been conducted by a branch of Joyalan's own company, Joyalan Time Transport. She had been a double agent working inside Joyalan for nearly a year now, trying to determine just what the man had in mind. They'd known that Joyalan was intending to supplant DTS as the key contractor for undetectable espionage, but until Carmine's interview with him tonight, he had kept her in the dark about the method. Clearly he'd discovered she was a DTS operative. The elegance of the method amazed her -- have their own spy take out the entire organization almost instantaneously in one untraceable act.

She removed her hand from Joyalan's head, pulled a DTS auto-tattoo from her pouch, set it for mind-numbing shock, activated it with a thirty-second delay. Gently she dropped it down the sheet onto the front of the big man's neck, and tucked it in.

"Helena. The head researcher's home. Give me a target jump code."

The code came through almost immediately, and Carmine dialed it in. She was out of Joyalan's room before her other self appeared, but she sensed the compression of time between them. This would have to be quick.

Max Albertson was an eccentric physicist who lived in a remote section of town, and Carmine could not target his house directly. She arrived at four thirty two in a field two kilometers from the estate, and it took her fourteen minutes to reach the house, penetrate the laughable security, and infiltrate his bedroom. It was down to hoping that her second self would not find a way to get there in less time. She performed the direct feed mind scan on Albertson as she had done on Joyalan, and discovered that the mechanism for tampering with the DTS jumps had been installed via a remote computer linkage to the main DTS system. It effectively took the form of a virus. The DTS hardware was apparently capable of time jumps, with the added capability provided by the viral code. Albertson's instructions had been to supply an initial forward-only jump, but the adjustments to modify the code and cause a backward jump to the initial split were not difficult. Helena got a local DTS expert on the case within minutes, and while Carmine fled the scientist's house so that she would not meet herself, the code was modified to accommodate her reverse jump.

"Helena. You need to ensure that once I'm back, none of the others follow me."

"It's been arranged. Our coder says once you're back to DTS central on my timeline, the other jumps from the future can be intercepted and the jumpers eliminated."

Carmine thought about that for a second. "You mean they could have killed any of us at any time while we jumped?"

"Apparently it's always been possible. But with this new code, it's even easier."

"Someone's going to have a lot of explaining to do when this is over. And it'll be Carmine Alterra they have to mess with."

She made the jump. Several hours later, she was in the room when Joyalan's tattoo went off. He sat bolt upright in bed, a perfect target. She snatched his right ear deftly, pried his arms free of the blankets and snapped cuffs on his wrists.

"That much for getting your way, asshole," Carmine said softly. "As a certified representative of International Law Enforcement, I arrest you for attempted mass murder." She hauled back on his hair and glared into his eyes. "DTS has your number now, Joyalan. A giant piece of deadwood is what you are. I'm the one who drifts."

The End

© 2012 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: Roderick D. Turner says: 'I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Better like it, or why bother? Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over the story, almost literally writing the story themselves. That's what makes it fun. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently The Devil You Say, June 2012. For more by Mr. Turner, in prose and other media, visit Roderick D. Turner rodentraft.

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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