[Chapter 2 in the T.I.M.E. series; read Chapter 1: Recruitment now!]
The morning started horribly. I woke up on my bed with a monster headache and a business card in my hand. When the pain had cleared up sufficiently for me to see again (and this took some minutes), I took a glance at the business card:
(Temporal Intervention Mitigation and Enforcement)
The Belfry, Clock Tower,
Center of Town.
Something stirred in me. My fingers ran over the smooth surface of the card, tracing each sentence as I read it, eventually coming to the red ‘xx’ at the bottom.
Fingerprint verification complete. Phasing you now-
There was a loud whoosh as I crashed to the floor flat on my back. Only now, I wasn’t in my room anymore; I was in the crazy hall of clocks I’d been in before.
Wait, how long ago was that? What day is it now? My mind spun with unanswered questions and I felt like throwing up. This wasn’t a nightmare, it was all horribly, terrifyingly real.
I got to my feet, struggling to rein in my rampant thoughts. I inhaled deeply, and felt the faint scent of autumn leaves. As my free hand moved to brush my bottom clean of dust, the same monk approached me again.
Welcome, he said. The monk’s voice had a musical tinkle to it, like a piano or a harp vocalizing long-unspoken thoughts: We’ve been expecting you. Please, follow me this way. Save your questions for later. I’ll tell you more about it along the way.
Somehow I found it in me to keep my mouth shut and my hands to myself, despite the overwhelming urge to yell at this strange person and beat him around for answers. I followed obediently behind him, feeling quite the little puppy being taken on an adventure by a new master.
What is time, to you? Is it hands on a clock, or numbers on a calendar? Do you, can you, define time as minutes and hours, as days and weeks?
We walked past long tables that stretched even farther than the hall was long, it seemed. Scribes clad in robes similar to this one’s toiled laboriously at ancient parchments with white feather quills, pausing only to reflect upon the progress of their writing. None of them so much as glanced our way. I found their indifference unnerving.
Here, in the division, we define time as a sequence of choices. When we make choices, we compare circumstances against potential outcomes. It is a process that involves logic, emotion, intuition, and creativity. Our choices now affect the choices we will make in the future. It is a never-ending cycle.
Now we were going through a large important room of some kind; men and women in dark coats were running about in a flurry of activity. I didn’t get to think about it much though, as the monk had increased his pacing noticeably even while he continued speaking. I was having difficulty keeping up.
Thus, time is really just a method of organizing our choices in a context where we can see cause and effect. Unfortunately, history, the science of recording time, is subject to manipulation, bias and sheer carelessness. Details are lost, found, lost again and rediscovered. By mankind’s hand, history is constantly rewritten, like a draft manuscript destined to remain forever on the editor’s desk, never to be published in its final form.
We entered a meeting room. It felt cozy despite the spartan furnishings. There was a long table in the middle, and a blackboard on one end: the wheeled kind you typically see in missionary schools. Oddly, there was a sealed envelope stuck to one corner of the board.
The monk moved to the front of the room. He gestured to a nearby chair and I sat down, quite grateful to be off my feet for the moment. At the same time I was trying to digest everything he had said.
“I’m sorry,” I began. “But how should I address you, Mr. …?”
Please, call me Mark. We try to keep things informal here, he chuckled.
“What exactly does Temporal-” T.I.M.E., I quickly corrected myself, avoiding the long, obtuse name. “What exactly does T.I.M.E. do?”
Mark answered almost immediately: It’s quite complex, actually. You see, we have the ability to ‘travel through time’, so to speak. This allows us to observe firsthand and record the actual events of history as they unfold, and that’s what we do.
By history I don’t mean we only record the ‘important’ details such as wars and treaties and global summits. We record the histories of every person who’s ever lived, from cradle to grave. Only by doing so do we see the greater context in which every choice and every decision is made; a big picture, so to speak.
He paused momentarily, and for a brief few seconds, I saw the weight of responsibility and regret reflected in his remarkably violet eyes. Mark turned to look towards me, steeling his expression once more as he spoke: At the same time, we are not the only ones who can phase, or time-travel. There are others, many others with malicious intentions for mankind.
“Wait, wait,” I interrupted. “Who’s ‘they’? Are you saying you guys have enemies?”
For a moment, Mark regarded me as one would regard a small, stupid child. I almost blushed outright, but thankfully he turned away: Yes, but enemies in purpose. We call them the Adversary. We have very little idea who these people are, other than what they seek to accomplish: the disruption of the timeline.
Not the record of the timeline, no, the actual timeline itself! They want to change the choices that mankind has made over millenia. If they are allowed to succeed, the results would be catastrophic.
Mark rested one hand against the blackboard, but he did not lean against it. He continued, Take a favorite question, for example: given the chance to go back in time to kill Adolf Hitler, would you do it? Most would, because they only see the suffering and destruction he had wrought.
However, this approach is flawed; if you think about it, as a result of Hitler’s choices, Europe is now united under a single geopolitical entity, the EU. Similarly, Israel was founded on what was formerly Palestine, while Japan became one of the most powerful economies in the world, and so on. The very nature of such closely interlinked incidents means that changes in the timeline could very well destroy the world as we know it.
He looked at the envelope stuck to the corner of the board and ripped it off, passing it to me. I felt reluctant to take it from him, but I pushed down the bile in my throat and accepted the envelope.
It is a heavy responsibility we bear, but we bear it gladly. We are mankind’s sole protection from the bitter ending with which the Adversary would provide them. You must now learn to shoulder this responsibility alongside us.
I was quiet for a long while, composing my next words carefully. “Mark, what is this?”
Your first test as a newly-joined novice. Go back to the room earlier and look for Gilbert. He will be your handler for this assignment, and he will brief you accordingly.
“Woah, wait a minute. You want me to do whatever it says in here? I don’t think I can handle this – I mean, I barely even know anything -”
Mark cut me off with a wave of his hand, saying: We have the utmost confidence in your abilities. You really should speak to Gilbert, he will be able to tell you more.
Seeing how pushing Mark wasn’t going to get me anywhere, I nodded and left the room, muttering under my breath. Without looking where I was going, I ran smack-bang into another person.
“Oof!” he exclaimed, more out of mockery than of actual pain, it seemed. Looking at me, he smiled and said, “You must be the new recruit. Welcome aboard! I’m Gilbert, pleased to make your acquaintance!”
We exchanged pleasantries and I managed a half-hearted apology as he led me to a small table. He poured me a hot cup of strong coffee. I was glad for the drink. As I sipped from my cup, I handed Gilbert Mark’s mysterious envelope.
Gilbert was a lot smaller than I was, and reminded me of a mouse that recently had its cheese laced with LSD. He toyed with the envelope back and forth in his hands, all the while speaking to the point of breathlessness.
“Some of our initiates just called in some wacko readings circa the 1960’s. We think Adversary’s gearin’ to hit the timeline around then. The specific decade for this mission makes it especially important though.”
I couldn’t help but ask the obvious question. “Why is it especially important?”
Gilbert broke into a wide toothy grin that made me smile too. “If our intel on this is right -which it is – and if I’ve got my thinking cap on straight – which I do – then we’re going in hot, straight into the middle of the Cold War.”
I lost the smile first, then Gilbert. “And, if Adversary catches us nappin’ on this one, the Cold War will finally thaw in a worldwide nuclear firestorm.”
[to be continued]