“With all due respect, Ma’am, you can’t have it your way.” Dr. Galisten held up a box of assorted half-inch tiles. “It’s time to finally select a test subject, whether you think that we’re ready or not.”
Colonel Arbeck finished her 200th morning pushup and stood. She stared down at the puny scientist, wondering how quickly it would take her to snap the man’s spine.
Becoming a military bureaucrat had been the worst decision of Colonel Arbeck’s thirty-five years in the service; it made her soft and kept her from the finer things in life—things like making weaker creatures bleed.
She smoothed her gray, sweat-stained tank top before shrugging on her green military blazer. “Don’t forget why I was put in charge of your little experiment, Clyde.” Striding out of her office, Arbeck pulled a crumbled piece of cloth from her pocket. She wiped perspiration off the diamond-studded platinum bracelet on her left wrist.
A dozen chronology researchers sat at a circle of hologram displays around the Command Center. The scientists were closely watched under the keen eyes of lieutenants. They made adjustments to the equations projected above the pewter counters.
“If you and the other scientists had been more responsible with your experiments,” Arbeck continued, putting the cloth back in her pocket, “then the military wouldn’t have had to take over and supervise you.” The colonel set her jaw at the unpleasant memories of the previous year’s incident.
“Like I’ve been telling you all year, that wasn’t our fault, Lucille!” Dr. Galisten followed her around the room, huffing as he shifted the weight of the box of tiles to his other side. His face changed from a sallow white to a light shade of pink and he pursed his lips. “It’s wrong that you—”
Arbeck shooed a scientist from a chair and plopped down at their display. “Save your excuses for someone who cares.” She selected a tile from his box at random and placed the thin, half-inch square onto the reader. Documents appeared on the display along with an image of the potential subject. As she read, she re-tied her messy silver hair into a neat tail. “And don’t call me ‘Lucille,’ Clyde.”
Galisten set the box down beside the colonel and moved closer to the display. His long, jet black hair swung forward, covering his beady eyes. “Remind me why it’s okay for you to use familiar names, but I have to be formal?”
“Because I like it that way.” Arbeck skimmed the document before removing the tile from the reader. She tossed it away and selected another. After reading the second, she was still unhappy. With an agitated grunt, she crunched the tiny piece of information under her palm before swatting it away.
“You can’t possibly have read all that information already,” Galisten whined, retrieving the discarded tiles. He held up the crushed tile and growled. “This is weeks’ worth of research.”
The colonel continued browsing the information on each tile before flicking them away. “I don’t need to read all 100 Terabytes on each person to know that they aren’t right. If General Denville had let my officers compile a list of prospects, then I’d read those files in their entirety. But now he’s been forced to retire and Congress won’t let us start fresh.”
Someone cleared their throat. Arbeck turned to see a bronze-skinned, freckle-faced woman dressed in military fatigues. Her dark brown hair was secured into two short tails that brushed her shoulders. She seemed a bit young to have earned her major’s insignia.
“Excuse me, Ma’am, but I have taken the liberty of scouting a few prospective subjects. There is one in particular that I believe may be suitable.” The major held up a single tile.
Colonel Arbeck gestured for her to come forward and took the tile from her. The display scanned the tile and projected the information as holograms into the air above the desk. “Only five gigabytes? I like it already.”
An image of a man appeared on the display. He seemed older than his thirty years with his slight paunch, tired expression, and receding hairline. His robust frame suggested he might have once been athletic but had since given into laziness. Below the figure were a few basic statistics of his existence and a summary of his major life events.
Galisten moved to the pewter display. Removing the tile from the counter, the chronologist said, “Colonel, this woman isn’t a part of this project. Congress won’t be happy if they hear that you let her make decisions about the Device.” He crossed his arms and glared at the major. “I don’t even know how she could have known about our subjects in the first place. She must be a spy from the—”
“A spy?” The major laughed and shook her head. “No, General Denville recruited me. Don’t worry; he had me approved by Congress. I’ve been briefed on the mission’s objectives.”
The colonel nodded in approval. She snatched the tile from Clyde, spun her chair back to the display, and returned the square disc to the display. Arbeck carefully read each word, impressed with the informative—yet brief—narrative. “Sal Chancellor, huh? How far back?”
The woman’s demeanor faltered a moment. She looked away and tugged at one of her hair tails, clearly nervous. “I’d like you to keep an open mind about that, Colonel Arbeck.”
“How far, major?”
“Four hundred years,” she replied in a quiet voice.
Galisten craned his head. “That’s too distant! We can’t control all the variables involved. On top of that, Chancellor is the most mundane being I’ve ever seen considered as a subject.”
The woman narrowed her bright, hazel eyes at him. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, she scoffed, “I’m sorry, but what exactly is it that you do here—besides irritate everyone?”
“I happen to be the world’s leading chronologist,” Clyde answered, squaring his shoulders with a smirk.
“Great! You know a lot about time. That doesn’t mean you know anything about people.” The major shook her head and let out a deep breath. “I know that it’s further than you were hoping for, Ma’am, but I’ve had a crew in place for eight weeks, surveying him.” She pulled out another tile and moved to the holo wall.
Clear panels turned opaque. Bit by bit, pieces of the hologram came together to form a three-dimensional representation of a 21st century office. Blurry smudges became distinctive as the holo wall calibrated to the surveillance feed that had been recorded 400 years in the past.
The potential subject, Sal Chancellor, moved through rows of cubicles, a blank expression set on his face. He nodded in greeting at everyone he passed, briefly showing a fake grin before moving on. A red-headed woman with slightly crooked teeth smiled widely at him and gestured at a large metal door. The man lingered another moment at the receptionist’s desk before walking into the next room.
“Sal Chancellor meets all the criteria set forth by Congress,” the major continued, her hands typing commands into the holo wall. “Nothing significant happens in his life—no wife or children—and he doesn’t make any history-altering changes to the world.”
Arbeck was intrigued. “Is there anything else to recommend him, major?”
“This is the perfect time to begin our experiment. From what my crew has told me, his life is about to be turned upside-down.”
“Nobody ever sees it coming, do they?” Mr. Parnak leaned back, resting his oversized posterior on the front of his mahogany desk. He took a puff of his cigar and exhaled a cloud of smoke that filled the office.
Sal Chancellor couldn’t think of anything to say. The only concept that registered in his brain was how much time he’d invested in the company. “Ten years,” he mumbled, his attention focused on the grey wisps swirling around the room. As he felt heat rise in his cheeks, he took some deep breaths to try and calm himself; Sal only managed a few violent coughs. His hands fumbled with his shirt collar. “I have spent ten years—”
“I really don’t have time to listen to all that,” interrupted his former boss, turning his attention to his phone. His pudgy sausage fingers pressed hesitantly against the cracked screen as he texted. With the cigar in his mouth, Parnak mumbled, “People don’t print catalogues like they use to; everyone’s going digital. We’ve had to make cutbacks and I just can’t keep you on the payroll anymore.”
“What about Graham and Leah?” Sal suggested, rubbing at the ache in his right knee. “They’ve only been around a couple months. Why not get rid of them?”
Parnak shook his head, causing ash to fall onto his ketchup-stained tie. He didn’t seem to notice—or at least care about—the mess growing along his front side. “They’re very efficient workers. Leah and Graham get their jobs done fast and they’re full of fresh ideas. I didn’t want to insult you, Sal; but honestly, your work has been slipping.”
“I’ve had health problems. Carpal tunnel is setting in; I can’t type as fast as I use to.” Sal knew he sounded like he was whining, but he couldn’t help that his wrists were becoming distorted after years of monotonous typing. “You can’t fire me for that! I still do good work.”
“Sure, you did an adequate job on this report,” Parnak acknowledged, pointing at a stack of papers on his desk. “But it took you a whole week to put it together. When I hired you—after you dropped out of college—it would have taken you maybe a day. I need some young blood around here to quicken the pace.”
“Young blood?” Sal scoffed. “Mr. Parnak, I’m only thirty!”
“Yeah, but Graham and Leah have vitality; they bring an energy to the office—a beautiful, attractive energy.” Parnak stood and moved to his plush desk chair, leaving a trail of smoke as he walked. The chair creaked as the large man plopped into it. His salt-and-pepper comb-over fell out of place, exposing the top of his sweaty, bald head. “Best hires I’ve ever made. Who’d have thought that a couple kids in their mid twenties could be so reliable?”
It didn’t make financial sense to get rid of him. Fire one person instead of two? There was something else going on. Sal’s head filled with conspiracy theories.
“Don’t worry; you’re getting a compensation package,” Parnak continued, turning his attention to his computer. “It should be on your desk now. Good luck with your future endeavors.”
Sal nodded out of habit. His head still spinning, he stood and abruptly left Mr. Parnak’s office.
The administrative assistant jumped out of her seat and grabbed a can of air freshener. Despite a row of crooked teeth, a permanent smile was fixed on the woman’s face, stretching from ear to ear. Her stringy red hair sat in a tight knot atop her head.
“Sorry you got fired.” Fanny Karis sprayed vanilla-scented mist at the whiffs of cigar smoke that entered her work space. She put her hands over her thick-rimmed glasses as she sprayed herself. Returning to her desk, she placed the can to the side and fixed stray, yam-colored strands back into a bun. “I tried to convince him not to get rid of you.”
“Thanks.” Sal began to walk away when he remembered something he wanted to ask her. “You wanna do something tonight?”
Fanny’s permanent smile faltered for a second, but quickly grew wider than usual. “Oh, sweetie, you know I have financial needs.” She adjusted her glasses and swiveled hair chair so that she faced her computer. “I can’t really keep seeing you now that you don’t have a stable income.”
“I’ll get unemployment checks for a few weeks until I find a new job. And I’ve got a bit of money saved up.” He moved to her desk and stroked her shoulder, his eyes wandering down her purple blouse. “We can make it work, Fanny—just like we always do.”
She rotated in her rolling chair stared at him a moment. “Sal, sweetie, I just can’t.” Fanny averted her gaze and spun around to her filing cabinet.
“Is there someone else? Or have I not done enough for you?”
He couldn’t wrap his brain around it. Sal knew Fanny liked getting presents, but he thought she truly cared for him. They had been together on and off for almost a decade; breaking up and getting back together was a regular thing for them. He just needed to figure out what she wanted him to do to make it work this time.
Sal had an idea, remembering something that had worked in the past. “I can go get you some earrings if you—”
“I hope you figure things out soon,” she interrupted, resuming her normal, captivating smirk. “Talk to me once that happens.” Fanny took deep breath before carrying a stack of papers into Parnak’s smoke-filled office.
“I still don’t like it,” Dr. Galisten grumbled as he paused the video feed. He ran his fingers through jet black hair—his usual habit when irritated.
Colonel Arbeck chuckled, highly amused at her underling’s discomfort. “Then it’s a good thing that you’re not in charge.” She turned to the woman who had brought the tile on Chancellor. “I like your initiative. What’s your name?”
The woman straightened her shoulders. “Major Hattie Denville, Ma’am,”
“No it isn’t,” Galisten sneered, inspecting her. “The Denvilles are all blonde with light-colored eyes.” He pointed at a handsome lieutenant with flaxen-honey hair and vibrant blue irises. “The Denvilles look like that. You’re too…dark. Is your mother foreign or something?”
“Clyde, there’s no need to bring up her looks,” Arbeck chided, although she herself had wondered the same thing. “Her appearance has no impact on her contribution to this project.” She turned to the major and gave the young woman a comforting grin. “Now, Hattie, who exactly are your parents?”
Denville’s stoic demeanor faltered. Her freckled, tan cheeks acquired a shade of pink. “Actually, the chronologist is right. I’m not related to the Denvilles by blood. General Roger Denville adopted me when I was six years old.”
“Old ‘Ger always loved children,” Arbeck mused about her life-long friend. “I hadn’t ever heard of him adopting, though. He and his wife had over a dozen kids of their own.” She was quiet a moment before adding, “I’m sorry to hear about the passing of your adopted mother; Mrs. Denville was a very compassionate woman. I hope you aren’t deep in grief like Roger.”
“No, Ma’am. I promise that her death won’t affect my work.” Hattie turned back to the holo wall. “What is your decision regarding Sal Chancellor? Shall I have my crew prepare the Device? If not, I’ve compiled tiles on several other suitable subjects.”
Galisten had been awfully quiet. Arbeck noticed him studying the displays across the room. The chronologist read the holographic text above the pewter counters, his crabby mouth moving as he muttered to himself. Upon closer inspection, he wore a head speaker and appeared to be talking to someone. On occasion, Clyde would purse or bite his lips while shaking his head and sighing.
“Don’t ask her…Because I told you that you can’t…Yes, she might say that you may. But she’s not your—.”
The person on the other line seemed to have no connection to their mission. But both the images on the display and the mystery being were doing an excellent job souring the chronologist’s temper further than normal. Even though the colonel didn’t care for the man, Arbeck was curious about what had him so irritated.
However, allowing Clyde make all his snide remarks normally ensured that she didn’t overlook crucial details. And so she put up with him.
Colonel Arbeck asked, “What’s wrong now, Clyde?”
“I have to go,” he whispered before taking off his head speaker. In his normal voice, he said, “I don’t care for this team that the major has assembled.” Galisten flicked the display and the information he had been reading spread across the whole wall.
Five moving holograms of Denville’s surveillance crew appeared.
Clyde pointed at a young, pale-haired woman in her early twenties, who was tinkering with a watch. “For instance, Miss Howe is only a graduate student. Why didn’t you send someone with an actual chronology degree into the field?”
“Leah is a talented researcher and has a glowing recommendation from every one of her professors,” Denville explained, sounding defensive. She moved to the display and pulled up Miss Howe’s resume. “Sure, she’s a little young and inexperienced. But she’ll do her part to keep the Device and all equipment working properly. Besides, she has a charming disposition that has allowed her to get close to Sal Chancellor.”
Clyde didn’t seem satisfied. He approached to the next video loop of a muscular-yet-lean-looking man with curly brown hair; the man lounged in an over-sized chair and appeared to be watching a primitive twenty-first century display on an archaic screen. “Miss Howe’s relationship with Detective Levy poses a problem. Standard operating procedure discourages crew members from fraternizing in a carnal—”
Hattie’s voice quickened as she said, “Graham and Leah are only dating to strengthen their cover identities. Due to Detective Levy’s experience as a covert detective, I had him infiltrate Chancellor’s work place so that he could get close to him.”
“But why does Leah work there, too?” Colonel Arbeck asked, joining them at the pewter displays.
“Mostly because she was bored,” Major Denville replied with a shrug. “There wasn’t much for her to do during the reconnaissance stage so I approved her request to join Graham. But then Sal began wondering why they spent so much time together; he suggested that Graham ask Leah out. It turned out to be the perfect guise for when they need to discuss the project at the office.”
Dr. Galisten next gestured at two women with the same petite physique. “What about the Dewitt twins? Will they really make a contribution to our project? They seem more like circus freaks than the seasoned professionals I’d prefer.”
One of the twins had raven hair down to her waist while the other’s was cropped at eye level and shaved on the sides. The two women were engaged in some sort of debate, but it was hard to tell with their dialogue muted. Selma, the long-haired sister, spoke without any emotion showing on her face while Velma, the twin with the shorter style, seemed to cycle through the entire range of human feelings throughout their conversation.
Arbeck chuckled, remembering her brief past encounters with the Dewitt siblings. “Oh, they’re a riot! Selma and Velma are sure to make things interesting.”
“Nevertheless,” Galisten continued, “they aren’t nearly as bad as that neo-romance physician you’ve brought on.” He pointed at a well-toned man in a sleeveless shirt and baggy shorts. The man in the video bared a smile full of perfectly straight white teeth as he spoke with a group of young ladies. “Dr. Niles Riddell has a wide, extensive variety of harassment charges in his file.”
“Yes,” Hattie admitted, “he could learn to control his mouth a little better—just like most people.” She raised her eye brows and glared at the chronologist. “But Niles is a skilled medic and has established himself as Sal Chancellor’s physical therapist.”
Arbeck ignored their squabble. She directed her attention back to the paused feed on the holo wall. Sal Chancellor was a fascinating choice—not the man himself; but she was curious as to why Hattie was so determined to have him be their subject. “Major Denville, your crew may prepare. But the time’s not yet right to deploy the Device. Let’s see how Sal Chancellor handles his current circumstance.”
“Hey, Chan-man. Rough break.”
Sal looked up to see Graham Levy lounging against the opening of his cubicle. He couldn’t help feel a twinge of regret. If Sal hadn’t taken Graham under his wing when he was first hired two months ago, then Graham wouldn’t have been able to steal Sal’s job.
“Do you long to leave here and purchase drinks yonder?” Graham asked, coming into the cubicle. The 25-year-old’s muscles strained against the fabric of his white collared shirt.
Jealously flashed across Sal’s eyes. He missed being in perfect shape. His knee twinged as he remembered being tackled by a 300 pound middle-guard back in college. Sal tugged off his blue suit jacket and returned his attention to packing his belongings. “No, thank you.”
“Come on, Chan-man! Let me procure some alcohol for you.” Graham began unpinning the comic cut-outs from Sal’s bulletin board, neatly laying the papers in a shallow box. “Leah has an event with a comrade and I require a men’s night. There’s this fresh place, The Vortex. It’s just along the road.”
Sal Chancellor stared at his former coworker. Graham had a strange way of speaking—he tended to choose a synonym of a word instead of saying the correct one for the phrase. At first, it had taken awhile for Sal to get use to, but it was still unnerving to hear. “Can you just leave me alone, Graham? I’m not in the mood for this,” Sal replied as he sneaked a stapler into his briefcase.
Graham chucked a push-pin at him. “What are you chatting about? You’re in the finest temper for alcohol! You just misplaced your career and your female inside the same five minutes. If ever there was a mood to go consuming, it’s the one you’re in currently!”
Packing the last of his items into his briefcase, Sal shook his head and repeated, “No, thank you.” He put that under his arm and hefted the small box of his belongings.
Blocking the path, Graham spread his arms across the cubicle opening. “You cannot pass.”
“You said the quote wrong,” Sal sighed, feeling tired all of a sudden.
“It’s a horde of bull.” Graham’s large brown eyes burned with anger. “You’ve been here more than anyone else—apart for Fanny. Parnak shouldn’t be able to just blaze you like that.” As quickly as the rage appeared, it vanished and he chuckled. “Do you desire to do something to his residence?”
“What are you? Five?”
Graham chuckled. “Ha! I have by no means known a five-year-old that could toilet paper a dwelling. Might I become fifteen?”
Groaning, Sal pushed past him, only to run into Leah Howe.
“Oh, hey, Sal.” She had a look of genuine concern on her face. “Would you like to come out to dinner with us? It might cheer you up.”
As Leah cornered Sal back into the cubicle, Graham put an arm across her shoulder. He whispered something in her ear about how they might be “selected” for something fairly soon. Whatever he said made her beam with excitement.
Sal was confused. “Hey, Leah, I thought you had plans with a friend.”
“Um, yeah.” She was quiet a moment, playing with one of her pale blonde braids before quickly saying, “Oh, that! No. Actually my night just freed up and I hadn’t told Graham yet. So, what do you think? One last hurrah for the three amigos?”
“That’s sweet of you, but no thanks,” Sal replied, getting irritated from repeatedly refusing their offers. His briefcase fell out from under his arm, which flustered him and caused his box to topple over. He suppressed a groan as he retrieved his belongings.“I actually have to get to an appointment.”
“Oh, are you venturing to Niles’?” Graham asked, giving him a thumbs up. “He’s rad, isn’t he? I believed that you’d appreciate him as your physical therapist.”
“Sure, he’s rad alright.” Sal did his best to smile. In actuality, he disliked the PT. But the man gave him a discount for being friends with Graham. “I’m just not sure I’ll be able to keep seeing him now that—”
Leah ran up and gave him an awkward side hug around his box and briefcase. “Hang in there, Sal. Sometimes something bad has to take place before something really amazing can happen. So don’t be discouraged.” She patted him on the back before pulling away. “Now don’t be a stranger!”
Sal nodded and took his personal items to the elevator. He took one last glance across the office, catching only a quick glance of Fanny as she moved between the cubicles. With a sigh, he stepped through the elevator doors.
As it descended, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief, realizing that he never had to enter that building again.
THE END OF SAMPLE CHAPTERS.
Like what you read? You can get the whole novella here.