Volume Four: In-Version

inversion_cover_tiny“You weren’t listening,” Pete said impatiently. “I told you earlier: we didn’t restore history, we re-created it! By rescuing Major Sanders, we created a new timeline that ought to be identical to our old one.”
“Wait a minute,” Nancy said. “Ought to be identical? Ought to be?

Returning home to the year 2182, Joe Coyne discovers that his trip to the past has brought back the terrorist, Cassandra. She has a new scheme for reshaping civilization, but this time, she also has a new ally: a sadistic psychopath by the name of Joey Coyne. In order for Joe to defeat Cassandra once and for all, he must first face his own dark self …

“What about the girl?” Joey asked.
“Get rid of her,” Cassandra ordered. “Take her some place where she won’t be found right away. Do what you like to her, just don’t take too long. We’re on the clock.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

… before time runs out for his young companion!

Excerpt from The Version Sequence: In-Version
(c) 2011 Thomas F. Brown, All Rights Reserved.

This material may not be reproduced in any form without the expressed written consent of the author.

Author’s Note: Returning home to the year 2182, Joe Coyne and Nancy Madison find that the world has changed while they were gone — and not for the better.

Center City, Philadelphia
April 12, 2182

The autodoc is a coffin-sized container designed to cure disease and repair serious injury. I can’t tell you why something as ordinary and functional as an autodoc would change in appearance, but I guess nothing’s immune to the whims of fashion. Government agencies, of course, buy from the lowest bidder, and then use their purchases for as long as possible. At one time, this particular machine was a basic model covered in cheap black plastic. Once it had been shiny and mirror-bright, but that was before the years (decades?) of use and abuse covered it with scratches and scuff marks. However, as battered as it might appear to be on the outside, inside the machine was still fully functional, kept in top shape by lucrative maintenance contracts. The top of the “coffin” pulled back smoothly, and the right-hand side dropped out of the way, giving me room to climb out. I had a new router chip in my head, connecting me to an FSA (Federal Security Agency, the descendant of organizations such as the NSA and Homeland Security) telephone office somewhere (location highly classified). The male agent had assured me there was no way the connection could be traced back to me.

I also had a new identity, equally untraceable. I still had the identities given me by the Shadow Man, that mysterious foreign agent I’d met at Foxy’s, but there was no way to tell if they were still valid, being that they were from another universe and all that. Time would tell.

Hell, for that matter, I still had the ID I’d used to break into that building on Arch Street. Same problem, though: different universe.

At least I was still wearing the coverall I’d taken from the time machine. That was something, anyway. It had the singular advantage of being able to project the illusion of different outfits. Properly programmed, it could change outfits in a second – great for detective work.

Of course, I’d have to repair it first. A rat the size of a Doberman had bitten through the controls on the sleeve, shutting down that projector. Maybe I could fix it, maybe not. So far, I hadn’t time to look into it.

I sat on the edge of the machine, waiting for Nancy to arrive. According to the woman, she was being held in another room, for security reasons. She would be delayed a few minutes, but I could expect her shortly.

Yeah, tell me again what a woman means by “shortly”?

At least, we hadn’t lost much time in Virtual. Seems the cops didn’t have a reason to keep the two of us under wraps. It was now half-past five on a Friday afternoon — lunchtime.

However, with everything that was going on, I wasn’t feeling very peckish.

“There you are,” a voice said behind me, and I turned around to see Nancy standing there in her matching coverall.

“What took you?” I asked, standing up.

“Let me see, first they gave me a whole new transfusion of nano-bots. Supposedly, these are genuine military thingies, fully programmed for repair and detox jobs.”

“Good news,” I approved. “They should last you a couple of months, with any luck.”

“That’s what the lady said. Oh, they put a new router chip in my headphone. You’ll have to help me figure out how to make a call. I’m still not sure how to use these things. Before, I had a direct connection to you and Pete. Now I’m on the phone system like everyone else.”

“No problem. We’ll do that soon as we get out of here.”

“Oh, and I asked them for some training, so I wouldn’t be so helpless next time we ran into trouble.”

A long pause while I picked my jaw up off the floor.

“You did what?”

“Oh, relax. It’s wasn’t like a five-minute session, or anything like that. They sped up my Virtual clock so I was able to spend about six months in a training program.”

“Doing what?” I asked in a dazed voice. It was the last thing I expected of her. My mind flew back to that conversation we had in that deserted future brothel, and the interest she showed in my basic training.

“Oh, weapons handling and hand-to-hand combat. I’m no soldier, and my muscles suck, but I can handle myself.”

“Well, I don’t know that’s such a good idea. You have the knowledge and reflexes but without physical experience, you really aren’t ready for combat. Virtual is no substitute for the real thing!”

“I know. They weren’t too keen on it themselves. They wanted to put me in a bubble, just like you do all the time, but I talked them out of it.”

I pictured the scene in my head, and grinned. I almost felt sorry for those two agents.

“I still don’t like this,” I told her. “I’m being manipulated again, forced to jump into the middle of someone else’s war.”

“You don’t have to do this, you know. We could both just give it up. Take a vacation or something until everything blows over.” But she didn’t sound very convinced. After all, we’d both seen the same future. She knew what Cassandra was up to, and what would happen to the world if she succeeded.

“Yeah, I do,” I said. “It’s my mess. My dad always taught me to clean up after myself. He wasn’t going to do it, and there was no one else in the house after my mother died.”

That killed the conversation real quick, given what she now knew about my past. But, hell, I didn’t care. It was an important lesson to learn: clean up your own messes! And, heaven knows, I’ve made enough of them in my life!

Time to go out make another one, I reflected wryly, not for the first time.

“Come on, let’s get out of here,” I said, and lead the way to the exit.

When we reached the street, we found ourselves a few blocks from Independence Hall.

“We’re still in Philadelphia,” I told her, looking around. “They didn’t move us.” Since we’d been tossed into stasis the moment we were arrested, we could have been taken anywhere.

“Thank goodness for that much,” she replied.

“Mmm,” I agreed. Back in 1978, we’d both been arrested. The cops had taken her to a local jail cell. I, on the other hand, had found myself hundreds of miles away in a maximum security prison. At least, this simplified things a little. I was on familiar turf again.

“Where to first?” Nancy asked.

“Well, I think our best lead is … me! We go back to High Town and nose around a little.”

“And do what?” she asked, doubtfully. “Ask everyone we meet if they’ve seen you around? I can see myself now: ‘excuse me, ma’am, can you tell me where we can find my friend here?’ Sure, that’ll work!”

“No,” I growled. “that’s not what I had in mind. I want to check out my regular haunts, and see if I can stir up any reaction. That ought to generate a few clues.”

“Well,” she nodded. “Sounds like a start, anyway. But that’s not our first stop.”

“Oh?”

“We need to do some shopping,” she said, taking me by the hand.

“Shopping for what? Armor? Guns?”

“No,” she said, grinning. “Ladies’ underwear.”

Warden’s Department store takes up a full city block to the east of City Hall, and has for something like half a century. And, unlike most subscrapers in the city, it really does take up a full city block, rather than sit on the surface as a tiny glass-and-steel pillbox.

Also unlike most subscrapers, the first subfloor wasn’t taken up by the shipping and receiving dock, but by a huge four-floor-deep atrium, with the entire ceiling transparent, letting the bright sunlight shine on the fake marble interior. The upper portion of this atrium was covered with hundreds of individual holographic projectors. At Christmas time, these bulbs were used to produce an animated light show, a tradition that I understand goes back centuries, through different owners, and even different buildings. Like many things in modern life, there were just enough old-fashioned touches here to make visitors say “Ooh, how nice!”, but not enough for the place to be anywhere near historically accurate.

Not that the Great Unwashed Masses gave two God damns about either history or accuracy!

Nancy and I had an excellent view of all this as we rode an escalator down from the surface, protected from an accidental fall by transparent panels on either side. To my surprise, the store was pretty crowded. You would think that, in a world consumed by the Virtual Net, stores like this would be deserted. But apparently, that wasn’t the case. Nancy was fascinated by the place, and rubbernecked constantly as we descended.

Because of the sheer size of the atrium, the escalator crossed the full width of the store’s front wall before depositing us on the sales floor. Nancy looked around, and I know it’s a tired cliché, but she really was like a kid in a candy store. We both had credit accounts, thanks to those two cops, but I worried about how far the girl would drain it.

“Look,” I said, taking hold of her arm, and turning her to face me. “Keep it simple. Pick stuff that’s confortable. Nothing sexy or fancy. Full skin coverage, young lady. Short-sleeved shirts are fine, as long as you get something long-sleeved to wear over it. Go for layer over bulk. One warm pullover sweater and one lightweight jacket you can wear with and without the sweater.”

“Is that all, Dad?” she asked, frowning.

“Yeah. Cotton and wool fiber only. Nothing artificial.”

“Why?” she whined. “The real stuff’s expensive!”

“I know, but it can’t be helped. The most commonly used brand of medium and heavy-duty armor uses material similar to the artificial fibers used in regular clothing. Anti-personnel gas targets those fibers.”

“So, what would happen? My clothes would suddenly fall off?”

“Yeah, leaving you with real nasty burns. Maybe fatal ones.”

“Ouch,” she said.

“Yeah, ‘ouch’. Don’t worry about shoes and socks. I’ve got your size, and will pick out something suitable.”

“Let me guess: high heels are out, right?”

“Got it in one, kiddo. Remember: keep to the basics: a couple of pairs of well-made jeans and cotton tee-shirts. When we start moving, we’ll want to travel light. What are you going to use for an ID?”

“They gave me this thing to stick to my right hand,” she said, showing me her palm, Something small and barely visible was stuck to the center. “They said it would override the biometric scanners, and show up as my new identity.”

“Good. Don’t lose it. The last thing we need is to show up in somebody’s database as our other selves. It’d be hard to explain.”

“You got it, General,” she said, throwing me a mock salute. I returned it with a smile.

“We’ll meet by the eagle.”

“Eagle?” she asked, puzzled.

“There,” I said, pointing to the huge bronze statue of an eagle gracing the center of the sales floor. It was the only thing left of the original Wanamakers department store that had stood on this site since the Twentieth Century. The statue was badly worn in spots from the hands that had fondled it over the centuries

“Gawd, how tacky,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“That, young lady, is Philadelphia history. I’ll ask you to show some respect.”

“Yeah, what-ever!

“Let’s get started,” I said, heading for the menswear department. “We still need a place to stay, remember.”

“No problem, Boss.” she replied, and headed off to find the lingerie department.

My shopping was easy. Six days worth of underwear, six days worth of thick socks, two pairs of jeans with lots of pockets, two dark- colored cotton shirts (I wanted black, but had to settle for navy blue and olive green). Finally, two pairs of steel-toed boots, which was as close as I could come to Army combat boots. Nancy was gonna have a fit when she saw them, but we’d lost the shoes we’d been wearing, along with everything else, when we were arrested back in 1978. They’d given us each a pair of flimsy canvas shoes, which were no good at all for what I had planned. Fortunately, nobody stocks shoes anymore, but makes them to order. I let the salesman scan my own feet, and he was kind enough to let me interface with the machinery so I could give him Nancy’s measurements. He frowned at my request for real leather, class three waterproofing, and class-five chemical-resistant soles.

“What you planning to do,” he asked me, “go into combat or something?”

“No,” I replied with a smile, “Hunting.”

He just looked at me for a moment before shrugging. “The shoes will be ready in about twenty five minutes,” he said. “In the meantime, you may continue shopping.”

“Gee, thanks,” I told him, grateful for his permission.

“You should really have the lady stop by for a fitting, however,” he suggested for the fifth time.

“Yeah, well she’s not available.”

“If the measurements you took weren’t accurate…”

“Trust me,” I told him. “My scanner’s probably better than yours,” I nodded to the small device still in his left hand.

“Yes, sir. Whatever you wish.”

“Good,” I said, and went off to complete my shopping. I still had to find a sweater and jacket. On a hunch, I went downstairs to check out the sporting goods department.

You should understand that, while deadly weapons are illegal, there are provisions in the law for hunters. Special game preserves dot the suburban landscape, and those who use them must follow special rules: non-lethal weapons must be used, and the prey killed personally using only a hunting knife. The result of all this animals-are-people-too crap is that a hunter needs to get real close before attacking. This has generated a whole world of specialized hunting tools and clothing.

It took about fifteen minutes pawing through clothing racks before I found what I was looking for: a jacket and sweater employing the same sort of holographic projection as my jumpsuit. This stuff was a lot more limited, of course, since it wasn’t intended to hide time travelers from the natives. It was also expensive. I decided to get one of the plain, non-tech sweaters instead.

I did get a pleasant surprise, though, when I looked at the hunting jackets.

Apparently, one of the risks a hunter faced when sneaking around the woods in camouflage was getting shot by another hunter. For those with money to burn, there was a simple answer. I pulled a jacket from one rack. According to the sales tag, it had a Faraday Cage lining to shield the wearer from some of the effects of a Neural Jammer. In addition, it sported an inner core of reactive gel armor. This material, normally soft and flexible, stiffened in reaction to the kinetic energy of a bullet, shielding the entire torso from fatal injury. Meant to shield hunters from the whole gamut of illegal weaponry, it was extremely expensive. How good it would prove to be against the kind of weapons Nancy and I’d be facing, though, only time would tell.

The only down side was the insulation, which was made from the very type of fiber I’d told Nancy to avoid. I thought about it for a moment, before deciding that the risk – and the high cost of the thing – would be worth it.

An accountant somewhere was going to have a fit.

I bought a second one in Nancy’s size.

“Nancy,” I said, using my headphone to contact her.

“What?” she answered, sounding annoyed.

“Forget the jacket. I found something for you myself.”

“Arrgh. Look, no offense, but your fashion sense sucks, Boss.”

“Yeah, thanks. Trust me, you’ll love it.”

“Anything else?”

“Nope. See you later.”

“Bye.”

On my way to the cashier, I managed to pick up one of those multi-function pocket knives, figuring you never know when you’ll need a knife or a cork screw or something. I prepared myself for the next challenge: paying for all this.

I waited patiently while the man recorded my purchases, then gestured at the ID plate. This was a large rectangular piece of black plastic, with a blinking red light in the upper right hand corner, and was something you found in just about every retail establishment in the world. I placed my right hand on the plate, and accessed the scanner’s control chip. I didn’t dare let the thing figure out my identity on its own, because it would think I was the other Joe Coyne! As I’d indicated to the girl, that bit of confusion I didn’t need!

The little light turned green, and the tiny display screen across the top lit up. “Joseph Denton,” it said, using my new identity, and “Sale Completed.” The cashier smiled, and I mentally breathed a sigh of relief.

“Thank you for shopping at Warden’s,” he said pleasantly.

Carrying the bulky shopping bag by the handles, I headed back upstairs to pick up the boots. The men’s shoe department was in the rear of the main sales floor. As I crossed the middle, passing close to the huge bronze eagle, I heard a voice.

“Coyne!” it said, an angry shout. I looked around, and finally spotted him, standing on a broad balcony stretching the length of the store about six meters above me. The balcony was filled with racks of clothing, but he was clearly visible, standing next to the railing.

“Wally,” I yelled back. He hated when I called him that. Walter Terbin was one of Boss Goulden’s hitmen, very loyal, and more than a little crazy. He proved that by pulling a gun out, right there in the crowded store.

A real gun, using real bullets. Real, lethal bullets!

He began pulling the trigger.

“Hey, watch it,” I yelled, diving behind the bronze statue. Wally’s gun was small, and rather low caliber, but I didn’t care to trust my life to a thick skin if I didn’t have to. I lay on the floor, sheltered by the statue’s granite base while all around me, shoppers were screaming in panic. I snuck a peek around the far edge of the statue, and a well-aimed bullet tore a chunk out of the granite next to my head.

I was trapped, at least until he ran out of bullets. I lay there, thankful that he wouldn’t be threatening innocent bystanders to get to me. Based on his dossier, I doubted my twin would’ve cared about that. Wally thought I was that twin, so the shoppers were safe for the moment. From where I lay, I could see a little of the balcony, but I couldn’t stick my head out to get a better look.

Then I noticed two things. First, the display racks on the balcony held clothing, alright – women’s clothing! The second was a human figure, moving in slow motion along that same balcony, using the racks for concealment. It was going in the wrong direction: toward the shooter, instead of away!

Nancy!

I opened my mouth to yell at her, and froze. If I called Wally’s attention to her, she was dead meat. In fact, she only had one chance: me! I carefully measured her progress, and used it to time my move, praying she was looking out for it.

I couldn’t even call her on her headphone, for fear of her reaction.

“What’s the score, Wally?” I yelled instead.

The reply was another bullet taking a new chunk out of the granite base.

“Know what your problem is, Wally?” I yelled. “You got no respect for history.”

Wally fired again at the sound of my voice. I had to keep him focused on me, and away from the teenager sneaking up behind him. Or the men and women still screaming in fear behind me! A quick look around the huge room told me they were hiding behind display counters.

Not that that would protect them if a bullet came their way.

“Hey, Wally, you shoot worse than my mother, you know that?”

Another bullet passed nearby, this one tearing a chunk out of the marble floor.

With the statue blocking vision, I saw the rest happen with my sensors, rather than my eyes.

Wally stood at the edge of the balcony, eyes focused on the bronze statue, pistol scanning for me in a two-handed grip. Mad enough to spit nails, he was aware of nothing else.

Big mistake!

Abruptly, I jumped out from behind the statue, and stood there, waving my arms, a perfect target. He started to squeeze the trigger …

“Hey, asshole,” a voice shouted at him from behind. He whirled to see a woman in white shirt and red pants pivot on one foot. A second later, Wally got a good look at her left foot as it smashed into his nose. The blow threw him off balance, and he spun around once before tumbling over the balcony railing. He fell spread-eagled to the main floor, where he landed explosively in a large jewelry counter. While everybody watched the bloody crash in horrid fascination, the woman on the balcony vanished from sight behind several clothing racks. She never did reappear. A moment later, a woman in blue emerged from the other side of those same racks and entered the elevator.

Nancy was using her jumpsuit to project a false appearance!

“Now,” she said, walking up to me a few minutes later with a broad grin on her face, “you were saying something about my training?”

“Who, me?” I replied, shaking my head, “Sorry, that must’ve been somebody else, because I never doubted you for a second. Come on, let’s finish up here before something else happens.”

“What about him?” she said pointing to the inert figure in the jewelry display.

“Cops will fish him out. Meantime, I’ll switch outfits as soon as I can duck out of sight so I don’t attract attention. Thank God we’re both wearing these coveralls!”

I picked up the shopping bags I’d dropped on the floor when the shooting started.

“Did you get everything?” I asked her.

“Yeah. Couldn’t find the right brand of panties, though.”

“You’re too picky, that’s your problem.”

“No, this store doesn’t have a big enough selection. That’s the problem!”

We ducked behind a pillar by the side of the main floor, and switched our outfits with the touch of a button. By the time we reached the shoe department, my purchases were ready. Nancy made a face when she saw what I wanted her to wear, but didn’t complain. On our way out of the department, she surprised me.

“These ought to be a lot better for combat,” she told me eagerly. “I can’t wait to try them out!”

“Hell,” I said with a sigh, “I’ve created a monster.”

She laughed.

By this point, the police had arrived, and were busy interviewing people. Nancy and I managed to avoid them and leave the store without being stopped or questioned.

Our next priority was finding a place to stay.

The Vanguard Hotel was a modest establishment located at 13th and Walnut streets. It was far from the best the city had to offer, but wasn’t a dive, either. The lobby was your typical single-story, glass and steel affair surrounded by neatly-trimmed foliage sitting in cement pots. I had Nancy go in first to book a room, while I waited outside for about fifteen minutes. Then it was my turn. Separate rooms wouldn’t fool anyone who was really looking for us, but with any luck it would slow them down a bit.

After a long hot shower, and a brief nap, I felt I was ready for action again. I had Nancy meet me in the lobby.

“Ready?”

“As ever,” she replied. Our jackets weren’t perfectly identical. Hers was a dark brown, while mine was olive green. That was with the camo circuits off, of course. With them turned on, we weren’t invisible, so much as hard to see. Because they were made for hunters, the jackets had a hood that pulled up from underneath the collar, and a flap that could be fastened to cover the face below the eyes. Both were part of the camo system, of course, so in a way, the jackets did more to hide us than the coveralls.

“Where to?” she asked.

“Weapons,” I said. “After that little incident in Warden’s, I think we need some artillery.”

“That’s illegal, you know,” she reminded me.

“So?” I shot back. “Since when did we become law abiding citizens?”

“Ah, when we left our guns in the time machine?” she offered.

“Nope, those were Jammers. Non-lethal and perfectly legal to carry. We’re gonna need something a lot better if we hope to survive. Hell, kiddo, the guys we’re dealing with won’t be playing nice. I won’t feel safe until we have Mutual Assured Destruction.”

“You have someplace in mind?”

“Yeah, I do. Look, what sort of weapons training those agents give you?”

“Standard Basic Training, or so they claimed.”

“Six months,” I muttered. It suddenly hit me what she’d put herself through for me. While I spent five minutes waiting impatiently, she’d gone through six time-compressed months in Virtual! Other than the fact that her non-Virtual muscles weren’t strengthened and toned for combat, she was about as ready as any new recruit, lacking only modifications training (no mods) and Advanced Tactics (she was neither a spy nor an assassin).

Six months in Virtual!

“Why’d you do it, princess?” I asked, softly.

“I just wanted to carry my weight,” she said, staring at the ground between her feet. “The last thing I want is to be a burden, holding you back, putting you at risk. Hey, I know I’m just a kid – a pretty face with head full of classes, final exams, and dorm parties. But this is the first time I’ve actually had a chance to make a difference, to do something important with my life! I helped save the world, Joe, back in 1978, and I like that feeling!”

A whirlpool of conflicting emotions threatened to sweep me under, and for a moment I didn’t know what to say. God help me, I knew exactly what she was feeling! I’d gone through the same thing when I was sixteen, three years younger than she was right now.

When I joined the Army to make my own difference, and save the world.

I knew the feeling, and knew I had to turn her away from that path. The life of a soldier, of a hero, is a dead-end one. No success, no happiness, no nothing but hard work and worry.

And lots and lots of dead bodies, both friends and enemies.

I should have stopped her right there! I should have sent her far away until this was all over! Maybe then she would have avoided the terrible fate that awaited her.

Should have, should have, should have!

I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

God help me, I couldn’t just dump her. I can’t tell you why, although there were a hundred ways I rationalized it to myself. She was just a kid, dammit! I had no right to put her life in jeopardy!

I can’t help it. I close my eyes and see images of blood and long ugly slashes on pale white flesh.

Should have, should have, should have!

My thoughts drift back to the dossier I’d read on my other self, and I can’t help but wonder if, in the end, we’re any different from one another!

I should have sent her straight home, but what I said was “We’re going back to High Town.” and lead the way to the hotel’s Cab station.

By the time we arrived in High Town, it was around dinnertime, so I decided our first stop would be The Fox’s Den. The bar was crowded when I pushed open the front door and entered ahead of Nancy. Through the open archway, I could see that the dining room in the rear was packed, and figured we’d have to wait for service. Foxy herself was tending bar, along with a man I’d never seen before. Turnover in a place like this tended to be high, particularly considering the neighborhood.

I found an open spot at the bar, and squeezed into it.

“Hey, Foxy,” I called out, “I was hoping to order some of that catfish of yours, but I can see you’re…” Foxy stared at me with such fierce hatred, I thought for a moment I’d spontaneously combust. She was holding an empty beer glass in her hand, and slammed it down on the bar so hard it shattered. She paid no attention to the glass spread all over the bar, or the blood on her dark hand as she stormed towards me.

“I have nothing to say to you, you bastard!” she said, her voice nearly cracking from the emotion in it. Now that she was closer, I could see her face, still battered and bruised from something that must’ve happened a week ago.

“Foxy, what happened to your face…?” I asked, innocently. She practically exploded at that point, and I suddenly found myself with lots of room, as the others at the bar pulled back from the woman’s wrath.

“Get the hell out of here,” she yelled. “I have nothing to say to you, you son of a bitch!”

I was suddenly speechless, my mouth hanging open in shock. I felt a tug at my elbow, and looked back to see Nancy pulling me away.

“Come on, Boss. This was a bad idea.”

“I don’t get it,” I muttered to her, for the moment clueless.

“Come on, before she pulls a gun or a knife or something.”

I let her drag me to the front door. I glanced back to see Foxy, her hand wrapped in a bar rag, staring at me, her eyes practically on fire.

“Forget it,” Nancy whispered, and I followed her meekly out on the street.

“So,” Nancy said, trying to make light of what happened, “I take it you two know each other.”

I didn’t get a chance to reply. Two men brushed by us, carrying something long and black and heavy in their right hand. I recognized them.

“Kevin and David Cryer,” I said to myself.

“More friends of yours?” she asked.

“Not likely,” I replied. “They’re a couple of scum bags. Last time I checked, they were working as enforcers for Boss Goulden.”

“Him again.”

“Yeah, him again. According to the dossier on my twin, he killed Goulden last week. Did it in his casino in front of witnesses.”

“Was that why that guy shot at you in Warden’s?”

“Yeah.”

“Good thing those two guys didn’t recognize you without the bald head and goatee, then.”

“Maybe,” I said, “they had something else on their mind.”

Then we heard the shouts, followed by the sound of breaking glass. I glanced over at my partner. “How’s that kick of yours; ready for Broadway?”

“Let me at ’em.”

“Good. Be careful. According to my sensors, they’ve got real guns with them, but haven’t started using them yet. They’re too busy with those metal pipes.”

“Don’t worry. It’ll be just like Training Exercise Fifty Seven.”

We locked eyes. She was pulling my leg, of course. There was no “Exercise Fifty Seven”. Then we both grinned.

“After you, Slim,” I said, and followed her back inside the bar.

Inside, the place was frozen chaos. Tables were overturned, and there was broken glass everywhere. One man lay on the floor, a trickle of blood running from his nose. He lay at the feet of Kevin Cryer, who had the black metal bar raised over his head, threatening the man’s female companion. His brother David was holding the end of his matching bar to the throat of Foxy’s bartender. For the moment, nobody moved. I used hand signals to give David to Nancy, while I took care of Kevin. She nodded, and I Accelerated.

I’ll never get used to the sensation of what I call “acceleration”. It’s not a feeling of electricity or speed or anything, but a rush of energy that seems to start at the fingertips, and quickly runs to the rest of the body. It’s a feeling of barely reined-in power that quickly fades to a general buzz of well-being as non-essential functions are shunted to a computer program for handling, while anything to do with combat is enhanced. My nervous system already transmits signals faster than an unmodified human, and the muscles could already contract and release faster than anyone else in the room. All it took now to move with lightning speed was a thought.

I moved.

Before Kevin was even aware someone was behind him, I grabbed the upraised bar in both hands and pulled. Hard. Kevin caught a momentary glimpse of my face as he sailed over my head. He hit the door frame face first, and fell to the floor. He didn’t move.

Turning, I noticed that Nancy was taking a more traditional approach with David, using twin chops to the kidneys to bend him double, followed by a hard elbow to the back of the neck. His chin hit the edge of Foxy’s beautiful antique wooden bar, and he collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

Probably minus a few teeth as well.

“Don’t worry, Foxy,” I called as I picked David up in my arms, “I’ll take out the trash for you.” I carried him through the front door, and dumped him in the middle of the street. Then, I went back inside and did the same with Kevin.

“Nice work in there, kid,” I said as she followed me outside. I returned my nervous system to normal.

“Thanks,” she replied. “But I think I’m really gonna have to do those exercises they taught me in Virtual. I know all the right moves, but my muscles don’t like it very much when I use them.”

“That’ll happen.” I thought for a moment, then frisked the two enforcers. I came up with two cheap hand guns. Nothing special, but they were fully loaded.

“Know how to use one of these?” I asked, handing one of them to Nancy.

“Yeah,” she said, holding it in her right hand, studying it with an expert eye. Army Basic included familiarization with a lot of different weapons. “Piece of crap, though. I’d almost do better throwing harsh words at people.”

“They’ll do for now,” I said, and we stuffed the things in our jacket pockets.

Seeing these two rovers try to give The Fox’s Den a shake-down had triggered old reflexes. Now, though, with the adrenaline rush gone, the scene in the bar suddenly hit me, and I thought about a few things.

About what Foxy had said to me.

About the look on her face when she saw me.

I leaned against the side of the building, and let it all wash over me. The anger, the surprise, the hurt, and a hundred other sensations that both surprised and disturbed me.

“You okay?” Nancy asked.

I didn’t know how to answer her at first.

“We’ve known each other for years,” I said, after a few moments. “I’d come down here two or three times a week for a late dinner, and we’d sit there in the back room and talk. Argue half the night, but nothing serious. I mean, we’d argue over little things. Never heated or anything. Never anything like that.” I cast a thumb over my shoulder.

“Are you two…?”

I made a sound too hollow to be a genuine laugh.

“Hell, kid, I don’t know.” I thought about it for a moment. “Maybe. I mean, we never went out on a date or anything. Sometimes, we’d get together on a Saturday night, and we’d have a whole bunch of drunken fools singing old songs her daddy taught her when she was a kid.”

“Singing? As in music?” Nancy was incredulous. Music’s been illegal for decades, as a “mind altering substance”. Modern technology can really mess with your head under the guise of “music”, so it’s been banned. We’d both seen what subliminal sonics could do, back in that alternate 1978.

“Yeah, I guess if the cops came in, they’d arrest the lot of us. But this is High Town, remember. Cops have a lot more to worry about around here than a bunch of drunken barflies singing off key.” My voice turned wistful, as the emotional knife twisted another turn in my soul. “One song in particular was her favorite. Dunno how old it is. Pretty ancient, I guess. Something about a man playing piano in a bar. Forget what it’s called.”

I stood there against the wall and stared straight ahead, unseeing. A darkness that had nothing to do with the approach of evening gathered inside me and threatened to cut me off from the world.

“She’s gone, princess.” I said. “The real Foxy, I mean. Along with everyone I ever knew. Gone forever, and I never…” My voice trailed off. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much the woman meant to me. My mind played back some of the conversations we’d had, and it shocked me to see how close we’d been.

How close we could have been.

“Who are you?” a woman’s voice asked from the doorway. I whirled to see Foxy’s battered, bruised face staring back at me in puzzlement. Her right hand was free from blood, but shiny from the application of a first aid kit’s spray skin. “Those were your men. You sent them here to collect money from me. This,” her fingers went to lightly touch her face, “is your handiwork.”

“You don’t understand!” Nancy spoke up, “That wasn’t him!”

“You just hush, child,” Foxy scolded her gently. “This is between us….” She stopped, and looked at me more closely. “Mother of God,” she whispered, shocked and surprised, “Are you … crying?

Foxy lived in an apartment above the bar, and we went there to get some privacy. She decided to make it a social affair, and sent down to the kitchen for dinner for all of us.

I was too distracted to enjoy the catfish (The Fox’s Den’s specialty, and my personal favorite). Nancy, for her part, said it was okay, but just picked at it. Foxy insisted on silence while we ate, so we didn’t return to our earlier conversation until we were all settled in her tiny living room. There, Nancy and I spent the next hour explaining the events of the previous week. Foxy’s attitude kept changing between disbelief, anger, and worry as we told our tale of terrorists and time travel. When it was done, the three of us just sat there in silence.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said at last, a little hesitantly.

“But you believe us, right?” Nancy asked, earnestly.

“Oh, that I do, child, that I do. It’s all a lot to take in, though.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m sorry about that. I keep forgetting, that’s all, forgetting that I’m not really home. Forgetting that I’ll never see my friends again. It’s all so familiar, and yet different at the same time.”

“Well,” Foxy said, looking at me with narrowed eyes, “I hope you don’t expect to sit back and relax, ’cause you ain’t done yet. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, I know. Because of me, that woman, Cassandra, is on the loose again. Whatever she’s got in mind, it’s not gonna be pretty!”

“Never is, with her kind,” Foxy replied. “But that’s not what I’m talking about. Far I can see, you did the right thing helping out that poor Mr. Sanders. Nothing ill ever comes from doing right by somebody. Might not seem that way, sometimes, but it all works out in the end. No, I’m talking about those two rovers you threw out of my place tonight. Have you given any thought to them? They’ll be back, you know, and this time they’ll probably kill me and burn the place down. How you gonna clean that mess up, Mr. Coyne?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about those two for a while. David’s jaw is broken in three places, his left kidney needs treatment, and his brother Kevin has a fractured skull and a broken right wrist. All in all, I think they’ll be in the hospital for a while. By the time they get out again, I figure this whole mess will be over, and I can give them a good … ah … talking to!

“You a doctor, Mr. Coyne?” Foxy asked. “’Cause I’d like to find out how you know all that.”

I looked over at Nancy, and gave her a wry grin.

“This next bit is what got me in dutch with her last time,” I told the girl.

“What ‘last time’? Foxy asked.

“For the past few years,” I said, “I’ve been making a living as a private detective. Before that, I was a soldier.”

“What made you change?”

“Wasn’t given a choice. I was thrown out. What happened is I was ordered to kill this guy, and I said ‘no’. Government doesn’t take kindly to that sort of thing.”

“They usually put people in jail for it,” Foxy said, sounding like that stern teacher you had in third grade.

“Yeah, you’re right. But I did a little digging, and found out who was really behind the order. I agreed to leave the Army quietly, and they agreed not to prosecute.”

“So, you were a soldier once,” Foxy said. “What about now?”

“It’s complicated, but I got my modifications turned back on when I agreed to go after the terrorists.”

“So, you’re a soldier again,” she said, and it was an accusation, not a statement of fact.

“Look,” I said, “I know how you feel about those days, Foxy, and I’m sorry. But a soldier’s what I am, not a second-rate PI taking pictures of cheating husbands.”

“It’s not who you are unless you make it who you are,” she said firmly. “It’s not what you can do that matters, it’s what you actually do! Now, I’ll be the first one to say that violence is wrong. I don’t condone it, and I think it’s wrong for a whole mess of reasons! Violence is the last resort of an honorable man, not the first.” Foxy paused at that point, and took a deep breath. “But there’s a time and a place for it, like everything else. You got to decide when that is, nobody can do it for you. It’s between you and God. Now, I suspect you did quite a lot of it, back when you were fixing history. I don’t think you told me half of what went on, and I don’t think I want to know! Don’t matter. You just go do what you have to do.” Foxy stood up, and Nancy and I did likewise. “You ain’t a nice man, Joseph Coyne, not nice at all. But I do believe that, deep down, you are a good man. Whatever you do this time to save the world, don’t you forget that. The world needs all the help it can get, but it’s not worth losing your soul over, believe me.”

She led Nancy and I to the door, and opened it for us.

“You know, Mr. Coyne,” she said, “I never did spend a Saturday night down in the bar with everybody, singing those old songs. Off key or not, it sounds like fun.”

“It was,” I said with a sad smile. “A lot of fun!”

Nancy proceeded down the narrow wooden steps to the rear exit.

“You go ahead, dear, I need a moment alone with your boss.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nancy said. Foxy waited until the girl had gone through the door at the bottom of the stairs. Then she turned on me.

“Why are you dragging that poor girl along with you, eh?” Foxy had changed back into the harsh school teacher once more, and I felt like a student who hadn’t done his homework.

“She insisted,” I managed.

“Oh? You always give in when that child demands something?”

I tried to think of something to say, and couldn’t. This was the same argument I’d had with myself, dammit! I didn’t much like the idea of losing the same argument twice in one night.

“That girl idolizes you, you know. She’d follow you straight into hell itself if you asked her to, and it looks to me like you’re doing a whole lot more than just askin’!”

“This job has to be done,” I insisted.

“It’s your job, not hers,” Foxy shot back.

“I can’t do it alone!” I said, meekly. “I need help, and she’s the only one left I can trust.”

“You already got that poor boy killed helping you. You trusted him, too. You out to try again with her?”

The knife twisted again in my soul.

“It’s not like that.” I was almost pleading.

“Oh? Then tell me what it is like!”

“Look, everybody we know is gone!” I said. “All we have left is each other. It’s like … like we’re family now. I can’t just abandon her!”

“Mr. Coyne, that little girl ain’t your daughter, and you ain’t her father. Don’t you go thinkin’ otherwise.”

“I don’t … I …”

“Ain’t it time the two of you accepted these here changes? The world’s different from what you remember. It’s time you two moved on with your lives. Send her a Christmas card every year if it makes you feel better, but let her go! What you’re doing now ain’t healthy.”

“I will, I will. I promise, Foxy. It’s just that, like you said, I have to clean up my messes. I still have one left, and it’s a big one. After that …”

“Then I guess you’d better get started,” the woman said sternly, shaking her head. “’Specially since you ain’t gonna listen to me!

I started to turn away, and stopped.

“Listen,” I said, feeling like a teenager on his first date, “if I don’t see you again, I wanted to tell you that I really do l … lo …”

“Don’t you dare say that to me,” she interrupted, fury in her voice. “Don’t you dare! I ain’t that other woman, Mr. Coyne. She’s gone forever, and she ain’t coming back! That’s another thing you gotta accept. Hell, maybe in time we might become friends, you and me. Maybe not, I don’t know. But right now, we’re strangers, no matter how much you want it different. Heaven forbid, I don’t even like you very much! So, be on your way. Do what you have to do, and remember what I said.”

I drew a deep, shaky breath.

“Thanks,” I told her, and without another word, I turned around and walked down steps I’d taken so many times before. I had a feeling this would be the last time.

The same steps. Yet different.

But Foxy was right, and I should’ve listened to her. I know that now. Now that it’s all over.

Nancy, I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt!

Nancy eyed me closely when I came through the door at the bottom. Neither one of us said anything, but she knew it hadn’t gone well. When we reached the street, it was full night, and High Town was coming to life.

She didn’t say a word, but asked the question with raised eyebrows.

I thought about my answer.

“Well, we’ve got some artillery, now let’s shake a few trees, and see what falls out.” I said, forcing a smile I didn’t feel.

We turned right and started walking. Nancy was more worried about me than she was the mission, but there wasn’t anything I could do about that. We made the trip in silence.

Continue the adventure in The Version Sequence, a six-volume science fiction series by Thomas F. Brown, now available from Amazon in the US, UK, France, Spain, Italy and Germany for the Kindle family of eBook readers.

Click here to purchase In-Version from Amazon for the Kindle

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