“Negative,” he said, shifting the headset deeper into his ear canal. He enunciated commands clearly, letting his accent draw out the vowels. “You are not to approach the suspects alone. I’ve contacted local police. They should reach you in…” He consulted the tablet in his lap. “…seven minutes. And Agent Lynch, be sure to photograph every car in that lot. I want to know which one is theirs and where it came from.”
Amanda’s Civic remained parked outside of Sam’s Diner, which meant that someone, somehow, had provided her with a spare vehicle.
He listened with satisfaction to the agent’s reply. This guy sounded like just the sort of operative he wanted on the ground — not too young, not too smart, and not in love with asking a lot of questions.
“Good man. We’d rather be too thorough here than miss something, yes?”
Bledsoe tapped the earpiece, cutting the connection. He groaned and rubbed his eyes. He needed to sleep, but it would have to wait until he got word from the team of Amanda’s capture. He felt a jolt of excitement twist through his chest at the thought. After years of watching her from half-way around the world, he would finally be able to speak to her in person. She would fear and hate him at first. That was unavoidable. But in time…
Things could change. Everything could change.
Bledsoe closed his eyes and allowed himself a moment to let his mind roam free into the dream he’d been building since 1948. Normally, such meditations energized him. Not tonight, though. There was so much left to take care of, and being fifty thousand feet in the air set him on edge. The engine noise on these Gulfstream C-37A planes purred with eerie calm compared to the roaring four-propeller lions built by Douglas and Boeing back in the ‘30s. Too quiet, too comfortable, the Gulfstream cruised over the Pacific at nearly the speed of sound.
Bledsoe feared flying in general, and whatever he feared he made certain to understand completely. Facts kept the world in order and the fear at arm’s length. He knew why a Gulfstream C-37A used twin Rolls-Royce turbofan engines and how the plane would survive if one engine failed. He sat in the back row because statistics showed a sixty-nine percent survival rate for plane crash passengers seated in a plane’s tail — fifteen percent better than those in front of the wing.
The plane’s cabin contained only fourteen chairs, all but one of them empty. It gave the place a surreal air, like looking over rows of graveyard tombstones. Moreover, between the leather upholstery, wood paneling, touchscreen displays, and three-course meal, the amount of waste here was astronomical. It would offend the sensibilities of anyone who had lived through the Great Depression, especially in Texas.
The Gulfstream’s opulence reminded him of flying aboard Air Force One in July of 2001. Perhaps being in the presence of the President and his staff had made that Boeing 747 seem excessively lavish. Bledsoe spent most of that flight from Seattle to Washington, D.C. in the guest section, but had finally been allowed twenty minutes with the President’s chief special projects adviser in an office adjacent to the Presidential Suite.
The room was no marvel of interior decoration. No stunning chandeliers glittered above finely framed artwork. Even the chevron-shaped desk looked more like veneered pressboard than fine hardwood. But the room could have held twenty people, and empty space impressed Bledsoe in an environment that should have offered little more than perfectly regulated air, recessed lighting, and plush carpet. Empty space indicated that the President’s advisor valued simplicity and efficiency.
No sooner had they sat down than the President himself poked his head in and shook Bledsoe’s hand. That instant felt like the high point of Bledsoe’s life. In only a short time, he had gone from being utterly lost, with everything and everyone he’d ever known vanishing in the blink of an eye, to meeting the President of the United States. But the Commander in Chief left almost as quickly as he’d entered, and over the next twenty minutes, his sense of victory ebbed. The adviser, a heavy-set man named Marks who must have been close to retirement, asked a few questions about 1948 and Area X. Then he leaned back, put his feet up on the desk, and with a surprisingly adolescent grin asked, “So the little green men — is it true? You met one?”
Bledsoe didn’t know how to reply, so he only nodded.
“And you’ve got that alien stuff, the QV things…” Marks waggled a finger at Bledsoe’s body. “…all running around inside you?”
“Yes, sir. It’s how I was able to come forward from 1948.”
The adviser looked thoughtful. “I was one year old in 1948. If I could go back, I’d like to meet Lou Boudreau.”
Bledsoe had no idea who that was, and it clearly showed on his face.
“Lou Boudreau,” repeated Marks. “American League MVP for 1948. The man who helped end Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six-game hitting streak in 1941.”
“Why not meet DiMaggio?” asked Bledsoe.
The adolescent grin vanished, and something cold and hard came into the older man’s eyes. “Because being the best is just about God-given talent and a lot of hard work. But being able to beat the best? That takes something else.”
Marks gave him a little wink and laughed.
Bledsoe had expected to brief the President about his research, to explain his theory on how the alien ship generated its unique type of alpha radiation, and how this knowledge might help to reverse engineer a similar technology for America. But no sooner had Bledsoe started down his carefully rehearsed speech with Marks than the adviser raised his hand.
“Look, I know all about that stuff. What I want to know is how we get the time machine thing.”
“I don’t think it’s possible, sir,” Bledsoe lied. “There were five objects, five interoperating pieces of the machine. Three were left behind in 1948 to be destroyed in the blast. I believe they were designed to be disposable, but we don’t yet know how to create new ones.”
He believed nothing of the kind. The bit about Alpha Machine pieces being destroyed was intentional misdirection, and he couldn’t read Marks’ face well enough to know if the man believed him or not.
While in the mind-lurching nowhere between time and space, hovering before a wall of infinite possible futures, Bledsoe had been dimly aware of Claude holding onto the Alpha Machine as the strange reality around them blurred and bubbled on ribbons of white energy. Bledsoe had tried to wrest the machine from Claude’s grasp, causing all of them to emerge suddenly in the spring of 1989. They had fallen apart in dazed, anxious wonder just long enough for Claude and Amanda to reactivate the machine and vanish, stranding him. Bledsoe didn’t know where or when the couple would land, but he did know that Claude possessed all five Alpha Machine pieces.
Marks leaned forward. In the Gulfstream’s disorienting quiet, the crackling of the advisor’s leather chair as he shifted sounded loud and ominous. “But that still leaves two pieces we can find and study. Those pieces are our new Holy Grail, and we need them.”
“I agree, sir,” said Bledsoe. “But finding these people… They could be anywhere in the world, and at any time. They’re not just a needle in a haystack. They’re a needle in a hay field, and we don’t even know which country the field is in.”
“Mr. Bledsoe, we have a lot of new technologies since your time. We have ways of finding needles.”
“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think the world would have the slightest idea about me if I hadn’t come forward. Most of the workers in Area X were careful with their privacy. This couple we’re looking for won’t come forward. They’ll hide. For that matter, I don’t know if they went back and brought more people forward. I’m sure they were planning to hide long before blowing up the facility. Finding them now would take eyes in every building, on every street corner, everywhere...”
Marks cocked his head thoughtfully, as if listening to some inaudible echo, and each time the words bounced back to him, his face grew a little less blank and a little more cunning.
“I can do that,” he said.
Five years later, there wasn’t a camera on every street corner — Bledsoe could blame rights activists and their obsession with privacy for that — but it was getting closer. The computers behind those cameras continued to improve in finding patterns and recognizing faces. Finally, one day in December 2006, Management’s system had flagged a photo posted to Oregonlive.com showing a crowd shot from some elementary school’s holiday pageant. The system dismissed it as a low probability match. The nose and cheekbones were off. But the longer Bledsoe looked at it, the more he wondered. In the end, he convinced Management to send an investigating team and had his hunch confirmed. Amanda, it turned out, had a kid, but alpha particle scans confirmed that she did not have the Alpha Machine.
After much debate, Bledsoe convinced Management to leave Amanda and her boy out as a fly on the water, waiting for a bigger fish to swallow it. Meanwhile, Bledsoe had gotten his lab. He wasn’t in charge of the revived Project Majestic, but he had free reign to do whatever he wanted so long as he could demonstrate ongoing progress. It allowed him the chance to continue exploration into QVs. And in the endless hours of running tests and managing a lab, he had the time to slowly, painstakingly plan how he would remake the world when the Alpha Machine finally fell into his hands.
# # #
From the database of obscure numeric facts stuck in his head, Winston knew that it took an average of seventeen city blocks to make one mile, although there was no defined length for a block. The MAX light rail station waited twelve blocks away, or roughly 0.7 mile. Running that distance in three minutes flat would put him in the top ten percent of fourteen-year-old runners, which was a given. He didn’t know the speed of his opponents, though...or if the train would be on time.
A few steps into his sprint, Winston cleared the motel’s corner and locked in on the black sedan. The LED glow by the driver’s head had vanished, which meant the men were just sitting there, waiting. For what? Reinforcements, probably. Telling his mom she had sixty seconds to pack might have been optimistic.
Winston couldn’t reach full speed while dodging around cars, but he gave it his best shot. Both men in the sedan turned their heads toward him. The driver appeared to be in mid-sentence when his mouth stalled with surprise.
That was the problem. Neither of them moved. If Winston simply ran past them, they were likely to drive in pursuit, and that wasn’t going to work.
For half a second, Winston thought about banging on the driver’s side window, but that was too risky. A lifetime’s worth of reruns, everything from Starsky & Hutch to The Dukes of Hazzard, gave him another thought.
Half a dozen more steps brought him within range. The passenger raised his hands, as if to protect himself.
Winston changed his angle of approach slightly and twisted as he jumped. His butt landed just above the driver’s side headlight. He slid along the length of the hood, suddenly grateful that cars didn’t use hood ornaments anymore. The rivets in his back pockets scraped across the paint, leaving long gouges in the black finish.
During his second-long slide, hands in the air as if on a roller coaster, Winston noticed his mom’s motel room. One of the curtains bent back. She must be watching.
The thought only formed in his mind as he reached the far edge of the hood. His hands slammed down, smacking into the metal, propelling him off the hood and back onto pavement. He hit it at a run, then checked himself.
Not too fast. Listen…
The car doors opened. A man, probably the driver, yelled, “Stop!”
Winston smiled and poured on the speed, pausing only to lift both elbows in front of his face when he hit the scrubby arbor vitae trees lining the motel property.
As he broke through, Winston realized he hadn’t taken traffic into account. At this hour, the streets were mostly empty, but two cars revved down the street right before him. The nearest one blared a quick warning. Winston came up short, skidding, and almost tripped over the curb. The second car passed. Winston pushed off, head down, clearing all four lanes in a few long strides.
When he reached the far sidewalk, Winston looked back over his shoulder and saw the two agents struggling through the arbor vitae. Good. Then Winston realized that he’d forgotten to take the weight of his pack into account and how it would slow him down. He had left himself an extra minute. He’d need every second.
Winston made it one block, then two. A Safeway supermarket filled the next block. When he reached it, Winston found the agents only a hundred yards behind him. They looked serious but far from winded. In fact, they looked downright angry, as if their leisurely morning coffee date had been interrupted by the possible humiliation of telling all the guys back at work they’d been run into the ground by a fourteen-year-old.
Careful, he thought. Don’t get overconf--
A uniformed man rounded the corner at the far end of the block. He was dressed in black from his leather shoes to his jacket, which featured patches on the shoulders and a badge on the chest.
“Hey! Grab him!” shouted one of the agents.
For an instant, Winston hoped the man was a security guard coming off of a long graveyard shift. Of course, he was never that lucky. The man turned, revealing the outline of a gun holstered on his hip. Reflexively, the cop’s hand reached toward his pistol, then he paused to assess the situation: some kid with a big backpack coming at him out of the early morning gloom at a dead run, pursued by two adults calling for help. Winston thought of dodging to the right and going for the far curb, but his peripheral vision told him that a big SUV and a long delivery truck were keeping pace with him in the right lane, blocking him from crossing.
It happened without thinking. Winston only knew that he was being pursued from behind, was blocked on the right, and the guy in front of him now had his fingers wrapped around his pistol grip. Two steps before the supermarket’s front doors, Winston didn’t wonder what a detour would do to his chances of making his target on time. He merely threw his shoulder into the first door.
The jarring impact slammed through Winston’s body. He staggered, nearly fell, and pain shot through his left arm. His fingers tingled. Why was the store closed when the lights were all on?
The sign answered him. Above the door handle, a decal suggested, “PULL.”
Winston cried out in exasperation. He yanked the door open and nearly crashed into a waist-high rack of Portland-themed sweat jackets.
“Wait!” cried a man’s voice behind Winston.
He didn’t pause to look. He dashed past an unattended checkout aisle and into the freezer section. At this hour, the store staff were finishing their inventory stocking, and Winston had to dart around piles of boxes, two pallet jacks, and a wheeled mop bucket. Before he even knew what to do with it, Winston slowed just enough to grab the mop jutting from the yellow bucket with his left hand. The bucket teetered, spinning away from Winston on two wheels as the mop came free. The bucket collided into the freezer with a loud crack, and a wash of gray water spilled across the aisle.
Winston reached the end of the freezer aisle and searched for the swinging double doors that every supermarket had leading into the stock room. Only a few steps behind him, the two agents splashed into the mop water. This should have been the part where they slipped, feet flying into the air, and landed with giant sounds of “oof!” and skulls smacking into hard tile. Unfortunately, these weren’t the comics. When people ran through water, it only made a little splash. The agents never slowed.
As Winston scanned desperately for the back doors, the men barreled down the freezer section, wet-bottomed loafers smacking on the tile. They were nearly on him. He thought about turning and trying to fight them off with the mop. In a Jackie Chan movie, he would devise a hundred different ways to disable his pursuers with a wet mop head and a stack of Totinos pizzas, but this was real life, and he despaired.
Way down at the end of the meat aisle, an aproned butcher pushed through the swinging doors with a trolley of shrink-wrapped steaks. Doors! Winston sprinted.
Something behind him squeaked, and Winston risked a quick glance. As they’d come around the end of the freezer section, pulling a hard right in pursuit, the older agent in front had leaned too far into the turn. His still-wet right foot slid on the tile, sweeping into his left, and his legs suddenly went sideways. The look of determined pursuit on his face suddenly changed to shock as he lost altitude. His hip banged into the floor, but momentum kept his body sliding forward.
The agent tumbled under a display table showcasing two large pyramids of boxed doughnuts. The table lurched backward with the impact, and a cascade of pastries rained down on the man, half-burying him.
Moths to flames, cops to doughnuts, thought Winston as he turned back and barely clipped the edge of the meat trolley.
The second agent must have stopped to help, because he heard the lead agent shout, “Get him!” even as he was trying to free himself from the doughnut avalanche.
Winston slammed through the swinging double doors. He heard the butcher call out, “Hey, you can’t—” but Winston was already deep into the dimly lit area. A rectangular window in a door to his left showed the butchers’ cutting and packaging chamber. To his right was a large room piled with bags of crushed soda cans. He passed a row of blue lockers, and then, at the end of the concrete hallway, saw two doors with long bar handles and a red-lettered EXIT sign hanging over them.
Winston heard the two agents bang through the first set of doors. He dashed to the exit, pushed down on one of the release bars, and shoved. The bar hammered into the door, but nothing happened.
He wondered if he needed to pull instead, but that couldn’t be right.
He shoved harder. Nothing.
Only when Winston stepped back did he notice the sign: “Lock broken. Use north exit.”
“This way!” yelled one of the agents.
They were almost on him. Winston was trapped. There was no way he could backtrack and find a different exit without getting caught.
He hefted the mop in his hand, again wondering if there was any way he could fight off two trained government agents with a soggy-topped stick.
He threw the mop aside, and it clattered against the wall.
No, not a wall. A door. And on the door, printed in gold letters on a black, easy to miss sticker, was the word “STAIRS.”
Winston cranked on the knob and dashed through, taking the steps two at a time, arms pumping. No sooner had the door below clanked shut than it slammed open again and banged into the wall. The sound in the narrow, cement stairwell felt like a gunshot.
Winston rushed to a door with the number 2 painted next to it. More stairs led off to his left. He opened the door wide, then ran higher up the stairs as quietly as he could.
He heard the agents below him, just out of sight. They paused. Winston slowed to a walk to keep his footsteps silent. His heart raced, and his face was hot with exertion.
The second floor door banged shut, then Winston heard more footsteps climbing after him — but only one set. They had split up.
Winston hauled himself at full speed up to the end of the stairway. Instead of a number three by the door, he found the word “ROOF.” Thankfully, this door was also open.
Winston burst into the cool morning air. The eastern sky paled from pink into white, punctuated by patchy clouds edged in orange and rose. Gravel crunched under Winston’s shoes, and he paused, feeling disoriented. The roof’s blank expanse was broken only by an occasional ventilation pipe or exhaust fan.
He looked around but found nothing that might lend itself to blocking the door in the next few seconds. Winston ran to the roof’s edge, desperate for some way down, but there were no ladders or even a drain pipe in sight. Cars and trucks droned by, oblivious to his plight.
“Smith, he’s on the roof. I have him in sight.”
The lead agent stood in the doorway, staring at him, radio raised to his mouth. That first glimpse through the windshield hadn’t been far off. This guy had a neck as big around as Winston’s thigh and biceps to match. He wore a dark suit and loafers, all very Men in Black, but he didn’t feel like a good guy. His small eyes locked on Winston with an eagerness that said he could do this cat and mouse game all day and never get bored.
“That was a good run, kid,” he called in a dry rumble. “How about you just come quietly and not get hurt?”
“Depends,” said Winston as he walked along the edge of the roof, searching for some way out of this trap. “Did you bring any doughnuts?”
Finally, he spotted a fire escape — on the opposite corner of the building. No help there. He looked back over the edge again for something, anything. Pavement. Street lamps. Traffic. Lots of empty air and not a single dumpster filled with plush garbage bags in sight.
The agent grinned and casually clipped his radio back onto his belt as he sauntered forward. Winston wondered if he could lure him away from the doorway and then outrun him back to it. Not likely. This guy might be big, but he didn’t look stupid, and he was obviously in great shape.
“I’m FBI, kid, not police.”
Winston had expected something like this, but hearing it confirmed still shocked him.
“Why does the FBI want me? I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“How about you set down that backpack and step away from it? Then we can talk.”
His backpack. Did they know about the Alpha Machine?
The agent’s partner, Smith, appeared in the doorway, breathing hard, face almost the same color as his curly red hair. At least five years younger than the lead agent, he wore a white polo and black slacks rather than the stereotypical suit.
Smith spotted Winston and started forward, but the leader raised a hand and said, “Stay.”
Smith’s glance traveled from Winston back to his partner, and Winston saw the expression of resentment cross his face. Apparently, this one didn’t appreciate being commanded like a dog, even if it was the strategically smart move. Now Winston had no escape route.
He studied the street traffic, then gazed east toward the craggy triangle of Mt. Hood, knowing that even though he couldn’t see it, the MAX station waited only a few more blocks in that direction. Seconds ticked off in the back of his mind. He took a hesitant step toward the agent. This made the man stop, suddenly more cautious.
“What do you want with me?” Winston asked.
The agent squinted as he thought, obviously trying to figure out this change of direction in the pursuit. “Answers.”
Seven seconds, maybe six. “Like what?”
“That’s above my pay grade, kid. I’m just here to escort you in.”
“Do you know what’s in my bag? Aside from underwear and stuff.” He took another couple of steps.
The agent shook his head. “Don’t know, and don’t care.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have asked Winston to put the bag down.
Three seconds. Just a little more room… If the agent made a dash before Winston turned around, he might be able to catch him. So Winston had to move first. He took a deep breath.
In mid-step, Winston turned on his heel, crouched, and launched himself like a runner coming out of the blocks. He’d already covered three or four steps before he heard the agent recover from his surprise and start after him. But he was too late.
Winston’s foot hit the raised rim around the roof’s edge. He only had a split-second to look down, and with his next step he leaped into the empty nothing of space.
As the wind whipped through his hair and gravity decided that he needed to move downward a lot faster than sideways, Winston thought, I had no choice. There was no more time. And Shade is waiting for me. Oh, God, I’m going to die.
Winston saw the cement sidewalk far below race toward him. Then he was past the sidewalk, and his feet slammed into the white top of the parked delivery truck he’d seen from the roof. The vehicle’s driver stood by the back bumper, unloading boxes onto a hand truck. The man cried out in surprise as Winston hit the truck with a loud boom. He expected both legs to snap like twigs and pain to rip his head off, but his legs didn’t break, and there was no pain, at least not in that first instant.
Winston landed feet first with his knees slightly bent. He hadn’t had any time to plan his landing, and he wasn’t sure he could have controlled it even if he had. All he knew was that if Bernie had bones reinforced with carbon-metal nanofibers, then maybe he did, too. He’d find out one way or the other really soon.
Momentum carried Winston’s body forward. His knees buckled and his hands smacked the truck’s roof as his body continued forward. Only half-intentionally, he went into a roll over one shoulder. The world spun. He felt himself go over his backpack, then he was falling again. This time, the pavement greeted him. Winston landed on his left side. Tires screeched. His body lay still, but the world continued to spin.
Someone towered over him. Red shirt. Box held in one hand. Shocked expression.
“Kid, are you OK?”
Winston wanted to laugh. I just took a twenty-five foot jump off a building and am probably bleeding out in the middle of the road. I’m totally dandy.
He tried to sit up and was amazed to find that he could. Then the pain hit him. Both of his feet felt like someone had struck them with sledgehammers. His left arm tingled with numbness, but some invisible tormentor had set to work disassembling his shoulder with a blowtorch. Similarly, his hip roared with agony. He could sit, though. He was alive.
“Kid, are you…” The driver trailed off. “Oh, man. You’re turning blue.”
Winston checked his hands. Sure enough, his skin was starting to glow. Not just one spot, but all of him. Probably his face, too.
He craned his neck up to see where he’d jumped from. The lead agent stared back at him, mouth hanging open. A second later, his partner appeared beside him, equally dumbfounded.
Winston reached out a hand to the driver, and without thinking the man helped him to his feet.
“Thanks,” said Winston. “Parkour training. I slipped.”
Winston wanted to check himself for injuries, but there was no time. He could stand and move. That would have to do for now. He tried to run, but his left leg wouldn’t bend like he needed, so he went into a sort of half-jog, half-hobble as he crossed the street. A car honked and braked as Winston limped by. The agents wouldn’t be long in catching up.
He limped along as fast as he could force his body to go. His left leg didn’t seem to be broken, but every movement sent a spear of agony up the side of his body. The phrase “waves of pain” came to mind, but that wasn’t it at all. Waves were soft. This felt like having blasts from a water cannon slam into his brain. Each step made him want to gasp.
By the end of the block, though, the edge of his excruciation started to fray. His arm swung a little more freely. Each step grew a pinch longer.
Winston managed to extract his cell phone from his pants pocket and checked the time. The screen flashed from black to solid white, exposing a spider web of fracture lines emanating from one edge.
With a groan, he clenched his fingers around the device and kept trying to run.
At the end of the second block, he chanced a look back. There they were, just coming into sight. Someone honked, and the front end of a silver car came into view, nearly hitting the agents. Neither of them stopped to argue with the driver. The big agent had again taken the lead, head down like a charging bull. Smith struggled to keep up.
Winston limped on. He wasn’t going fast enough, and he’d burned too much time in the supermarket.
Finally, he came around a business complex and saw what he wanted. The MAX station was only four blocks ahead. A maroon pillar with a white circle in the center marked the entrance to the long platform. A snack and coffee shack stood off to one side. A train paused on the eastbound track, but he wasn’t worried about that one.
He needed the westbound light rail train, the one heading into downtown. The one that he guessed should have bazillions of people waiting on the platform for their ride into work.
The one that, with two FBI agents only seconds behind him, he had obviously missed.