A little sci-fi for your Friday with some time travel…
The First Rule
Smoke greeted me as I stepped into the bar and I just knew it would cling to my clothes like smog, leaving my leather jacket stinking for the next week. Damn her for leading me here; I was ready to end all this jumping and just settle back into my time, get out of clothes I had been wearing for far too long. First I had to catch her. I checked the sidearm strapped carefully to my back as I moved into the room.
Music flooded the place, bass thumping loudly as the jukebox hummed some song that must be popular in this time but a song I didnt recognize. This was too far back for me, sometime in the 2000s, before music lost much of the heaviness and anger. Nearly before I was even born.
I didnt know why she would jump here. Her jumps seemed random but all in the past century, and all somewhat familiar. This bar was no different though I did not know why. That had to mean something, but I hadnt figured it out yet. This was my third jump trailing her and the one closest to my time.
I knew little about her other than what the agency told me. Age. Appearance. First jump location. Not her name; names didnt matter, not to jumpers. Slowly I was discovering more on my own: smart, dangerous, and driven.
Damn if I didnt respect her.
The bar was long and narrow and looked crowded. A bright neon sign in the shape of a deer flashed behind the bar. The bartender, a fat stocky guy with thinning hair and a bright red shirt with a crooked collar, worked his way up and down the bar flashing a smile as he went and keeping glasses full. A few bearded men sat along the bar, occasionally looking up when the bartender approached before returning to their drink. Others sat around tables, attempting to talk over the sound of the music. Most had pint glassesor tallerof beer in front of them but a few held whiskey glasses, drink the color of piss filling the glass. Foul stuff, even for this time.
I squeezed into a small space at the bar, eyes scanning the bar for her. She was here, I could smell the jump about this place even over the booze so I knew she must be, but I didnt know where. The problem was that she was a goddamn chameleon, could shift her look to match the time that she jumped. Even the best agents couldnt blend like she could.
The bartender approached, toweling off a pint glass as he did. What can I get ya? he asked. He had a wide face and puckered nose. There was a gap between his teeth that wouldnt exist in my time.
My eyes scanned the taps across the front of the bar. A beer wouldnt be too bad, but I didnt recognize any of them. More selection here than in my time. Just a beer, I said.
He nodded and pulled on a large tap head with a big S wrapping around it, filling the glass with pale brown beer before sliding it down to me.
I sipped the beer as I turned and scanned the bar. There was only one exit that I saw so I knew she had to be here somewhere.
You lookin for someone? the bartender asked.
I kept an eye on the others in the bar as I swiveled back to him. A girla woman, I corrected. At my age, Id probably look like some sort of pervert saying girl, though she was just a girl. Came in here not long ago. Blond hair. Blue eyes. Tiny. I almost said dangerous but he wouldnt know that. Not yet.
Aint seen someone come through here like that. Know what she was wearing?
I shook my head. Not tonight. Problem was that she could be wearing anything. Even her hair could be a different color, but blond was her favorite. Couldnt change her eyes, piercing blue and angry, or her size. Not yet, at least.
As I turned back to the bar, I saw her toward the back, near the restrooms.
Her eyes caught me first, a flash of blue that almost seemed to glow. Her hairnow dyed darkwas cut short and framed her narrow face. She wore a pale yellow sleeveless dress that made her look like a pretty pixie.
I steeled myself before lunging after her.
I had nearly cleared the pool table before she first saw me, sliding across the felt top and sending balls scattering. Now was not a time for stealth. I saw that she held something in her hands that she had been looking at. She dropped it when she saw me.
She hesitated, her eyes contacting mine for the briefest of seconds. Under another circumstance I might have withered under the weight of her gaze, but I was already moving and nearly atop her.
Then she moved.
She was like lightning bottled, jolting from one spot to the next faster than I could see. I felt her foot kick off me and she skimmed above the pool table, and then she snapped to the next spot. Grabbing more on instinct, I my hand wrap around her ankle, but then she was gone again.
Shit. A skimmer. That was new.
She darted a few more times, streaking across the bar so quickly that she was not even a blur. And then she was gone.
I smelled the trail of her jump.
I picked myself off the ground, wiping drips of moisture off my coatbeer, I hopedand flipped out my time disk, setting it on the pool table and flicking a few buttons until it detected her trail. As I waited, I looked around, wondering why she had come here, why this bar? I tried to ignore to stares coming from the bar, the only sound now that booming from the jukebox glowing brightly along the near wall.
Just before the disk beeped, I saw a faded photograph lying on the ground next to a broken frame, glass scattered all across the ground. Other photos lined the wall, but this was the only one the girl had been looking at.
I grabbed it as the steady tone sounded. Wrapping my hand around the time disk, I jumped.
Jumping always seemed to pull me apart, leaving me feeling weak and nauseated. The sensation passed quickly, but in the moment after a jump I was nearly defenseless.
The jump brought me to a wide concrete lot. The sun blazed overhead and I already baked in my leather coat. The air was clear and crisp, free of the dust and smog of my time, pale white natural clouds floating leisurely across the sky. Birds even chirped somewhere nearby. Hundreds of cars parked along the lot, like steel beasts painted in blues and greens in hues I never saw in my own time. Well hell, never saw cars for that matter, other than the rusted heaps that filled the dozens of landfills. I ducked in between a couple of cars to get my bearings.
I pocketed the time disk carefully. If lost, I would be stranded, if only long enough for the agency to track me down and recover me, but I didnt want to risk relying on the agency to find me.
I unfolded the picture the girl had been looking at. It was a color photoa real photo and not one of those fuzzy holograms that were so popular nowwith faded colors. Five people were in the photo, two couples on either side of a man that looked like a young version of the bartender, both smiling. One of the ladies had a full belly, round and pregnant. Both she and the man standing next to her looked familiar, but I didnt know why.
I wondered if they were somehow famous later on. Some jumpers thought to make money kidnapping younger versions of famous people. They called it Pasting and it happened often enough that the rich folks even had insurance with the agency on themselves. In my time with the agency, I had reclaimed dozens of those jumpers. Always an easy find and they never put up any real fight.
This girl did not seem like a Paster.
Most of the jumpers I trailed were like thatsomeone just out for profit. The agency protected against all sorts of time violations, but that was the most common. Rarely did I track down someone who really wanted to change something about the past, wanted to break the first rule of the agency; most understood the repercussions were severe. `
Nothing else about the photo really stood out. I stood up and smelled the air, looking for her trail. The scent of a jumper was distinct, almost like burnt copper, and only one person in several thousands can even detect it. The agency invested much in finding those that could, honing those with the skill to track it. Those like me.
The trail took her toward a large shopping complex. A mall. I smiled. Last time I had tracked someone to a mall had been a jumper looking to bring back vintage clothing. There was quite a market for that. Somehow I didnt think that fit this girl either.
As I hurried toward the mall, I decided that it looked familiar. Had I tracked someone to this mall before or did they all look this similar in the past? Probably the latter. I had never jumped to the same spacetime more than once. Store signs for JC Penney and Sears anchored each end. A low flat entrance split the middle. In between, long stretches of stone ran in either direction that I knew would be storefronts on the inside.
Where was I? When was I?
So often when following a skilled jumperand there was no doubt in my mind that she was a skilled jumperI never knew much more than the scent and the trail, only getting a sense for what happened when I began working on his report. The time disk stored a record of the jumps but I could not access that here or in this time.
I passed a few people on my way into the mall. Most looked at me strangely. Perhaps it was the leather coat, or maybe the dark pants I wore that were not quite jeans. Maybe it was my height; with my size and bald head I found that I could be intimidating in pretty much all times. I found the women just as strangely dressed. They had high shaped hair that didnt move in the soft breeze. The men had long shaggy hair feathered over their ears. Pants were bleached or ripped and faded. Jewelry was abundant.
The trail led me into the Sears. Sears no longer existed in my time, but I knew of it from the histories, had even visited there on a past jump when I needed a part. That was when I found the vintage shopper. A fun case and the kind I almost preferred, nothing like this little girl that somehow kept eluding me.
I smelled the jumper as I closed in on her in the girls clothing department, ignoring the workers staring at me as I weaved my way through the racks of clothing. I saw women shopping, one with three children racing around her, and I smiled. How easy it must have been back then when there hadnt been the need for a license.
As I neared, I slipped on a pair of slim glasses so that I could see her skimming trail better. Hadnt thought I would need those for her.
This time she saw me before I saw her.
She skimmed at me.
I saw it as a streaking yellow line and then she was upon me, kicking at my waist as she leapt over me, pulling on my jacket. I grunted, grabbing at her wrist and catching her tightly. She wasnt the first skimmer I had tracked, but certainly the smallest.
With one wrist squeezed tightly, I pulled her toward me and reached for her other wrist. Time to return, little one, I said.
Her face twisted in rage, losing that pixie like appearance. Let me go! Help! she screamed. She twisted and writhed, nearly strong enough to pull away.
I wondered if she had been enhanced. Rare enoughand expensivebut I had tracked that type as well. All I had to do was jump us back to the present and the agency would take care of the rest.
Then something hit me in the back, knocking me forward.
I went sprawling, the girl springing free, skimming away in a near blur.
I rolled over and saw a burly black man standing near me wearing a maroon uniform, tilted hat covering his head, heavy beard covering his face, and a long stick clutched tightly in his thick fist. A look of murder shone in his eyes.
Some sort of security guard. The girl was smart. I wondered if she led me here on purpose, using the stores security to restrain me.
The scent of burnt copper suddenly flared and I knew she had jumped again.
Hey, buddy, I said, holding my right hand out before me. I fumbled in my pocket with my left, reaching for the time disk. I needed to track her before the trail went too stale. That was how she kept me away for as long as she had, always staying one jump in front of me. Finally, I could track her directly and I was not about to let her get away.
You jus stay down, he said, holding his club overhead threateningly. He lifted a radio to his mouth and pressed a button. This is JT, he said. He had a slow drawl and I realized I was somewhere in the south. I need some help oer in missus. And could one of yall call the police?
His eyes looked up when someone started to answer. I moved, sweeping with my leg against his, knocking him to the ground. I kicked the club out of his hand, out of reach, and ran, ducking low between the racks of clothing as I sniffed for the trail.
My eyes caught a red exit sign overhead but the trail zigged toward the back wall and stopped. I pulled out the time disk and set it on the ground, punching a button.
I tried again. Still nothing.
Grabbing the disk, I held it up to the light and saw that a small crack interrupted the dull metallic surface. Then I remembered her attack, the direct way she came at me and the almost deliberate kick at my waist.
Damn she was clever.
I was stuck, trapped in this time as her trail went sour, until the agency came to retrieve me.
I had ducked into a changing room and locked the door, stepping off the floor and onto the low thin bench in the room as I waited for the agency. I did not know how long they would leave me here but did not dare stay out in the store. Already I knew what I would have to do, dreading the price I would pay when I returned.
Through the louvered slats I saw the store security guards roaming with crackling radios. One stood next to a uniformed officer, gun and handcuffs strapped to his waist. Rule number two of the agency was never interfere with local law enforcement.
Leaning back against the wall, I realized that she had stolen my gun as well.
Much as I hated it, I was gaining too much respect for this girl. Now more than ever, I knew she had to be stopped. I didnt know why she jumped, but so far it had not been for profit. She wasnt a thief or a Paster. Didnt seem concerned with much of value, just the picture that I had lost somewhere in the scuffle.
That left changing something.
I smelled the jump before he appeared.
Tall and thin, he had a shaven head like mine. He wore a long black shirt and a part pants and his time disk was held in his hand. I almost felt bad about what I had to do.
I reacted before he had a chance to recover.
The disk flew out of his hand as I kicked and I grabbed it out of the air. I saw the question on his eyes as I wrapped him in a chokehold, squeezing tightly so that he didnt make any noise. Not enough to kill him, just keep him from chasing me.
I need your disk, I said as I held him tightly. Cant go back to the agency. Not yet.
I wouldnt let someone else bring this girl in, not after all that I had been through with her.
Once I was certain that he was unconscious, I slipped his sidearm into my holster and peered through the louvers. The officer had wandered elsewhere after taking his report and the guards had dispersed. As I slipped out from the changing room, I saw that a few shoppers had returned. Needing to avoid attention, I kept my head low but still peaked above the top of the racks. With another jump nearby, I had to go to where she had jumped to get the best chance at following her.
Crawling toward where I last detected the trail, I flipped out the other agents time disk, hoping the trail hadnt weakened so much that it could no longer detect it. If I could still smell it, the trail should be strong enough, but something about it seemed off, unexpected. I decided that was from the agents jump.
I triggered the disk and held it aloft in my hand. Long moments passed and I thought that it might have been too long for it to detect a trail before it finally sounded, a long steady tone. Relief washed over me and I wrapped my hand around the disk.
As I jumped, I saw a glimpse of a familiar face stuffing racks of clothing into a large black duffel, and I suddenly knew it hadnt been only the agent and the girls trail that I had smelled.
Shit. Nearly a time cross. Lucky I had jumped when I did.
Somehow the girl had led me to the same damn store that I had tracked down the vintage thief years ago. Had I lingered, I would have encountered a younger version of myself. Dangerous; the agency always warned of the dangers of having two of the same agents in the same time.
I emerged from the jump in a park near dusk. The orange sun faded toward a clear horizon and a cool breeze blew. I heard the sound of a children laughing and screaming, and saw nearly a dozen kids playing on swings and slides and climbing walls.
I recognized it all.
I knew there would be a young couple holding an infant just on the edge of the park, a couple that looked much like the one from the photo at the bar. A couple that didnt belong in either time.
Suddenly I thought I understood what the girl was doing, where she was jumping. Suddenly I realized that I had already reclaimed the girl once.
Her trail was still strong here and I smelled the bitter scent of her jump. I backed up along the outer edge of the park, fading into tall trees that were no longer found in my city, and waited.
There was a flicker of motion nearby and I slipped toward it, careful to not make any sudden movements. I knew where her attention would be focused.
I saw her standing next to a tree. She wore jeans and a long shirt, her hair now blond again and still short. In another setting I would think her cute.
She would look much like the woman holding the baby.
I grabbed her wrist before she could see me and skim. Or jump.
She turned, her eyes wide, and I pulled her back against the tree, cupping my hand over her mouth so she couldnt scream. The dusk provided protection from outside eyes.
Theyre not licensed, I said. Jumping didnt make what they did right.
Her blue eyes were hard and hot and looked as if she could tear me apart. She tried biting my hand but I cupped it away.
Cant stop this. Cant change the past. We dont know what would happen.
She struggled to say something and I moved my hand, holding it cautiously in case she tried to scream again.
Its my past, she grunted. Her voice sounded young and soft but her eyes were dark and angry.
I sighed, hating that she might be right. Still cant change it. That was the first rule.
Who would it hurt to leave me here? she asked.
Her eyes looked past me and I followed where she looked, toward where her parents followed another couple as they stood from a bench and turned up the street, walking hand in hand. I knew what happened next. Had been there for it.
I dont know what it would hurt, I answered. Questions like that are for the agency to answer. Her eyes flashed with rage at the mention of the agency. I felt her strain, struggling again to get away. Thats the problem with jumpers like you that want to change the past. You never think about the consequences.
Icy eyes flicked back to me and I nearly withered.
What about the consequences of leaving me there, in that time? What about what happens to me then? I would be better here. Life would have been better.
I pulled out the borrowed time disk and pressed a single button on the bottom. Her eyes begged me to let her go but I knew what she would do. Holding her here was self-preservation as much as following the first rule.
I knew without looking that a bald agent wearing a dark leather coat and dark pants approached the couple, steering them away from the park to return them to their time.
Just as I prepared to again return the girl to her time. My time.
Cant change the past, I said as the jump started to envelop us. Only your future.
Then we jumped.