You expect evil to reach out and slap you in the face. Not adjust its reading glasses and peer down at your resume.
Roger Harmon looked so ordinary. So respectable in his gray suit and navy tie. If I hadn’t known what he was, hadn’t witnessed firsthand the devastation he’d caused, I never would have believed him capable of any of it.
But I did know, and I had seen, so here I was.
“Target engaged,” I thought.
“Understood,” came the reply, soft and quiet inside my head. Then, “Godspeed.”
Harmon laid the resume on his desk. “University of Texas. Top fifth percentile. Internship at Deloitte. Very impressive, young man.”
I did have quite a resume. It just wasn’t this one. The poor slob who owned this particular set of credentials was, at the moment, an unconscious John Doe in the city hospital.
“I’m glad you think so, sir.”
Harmon nodded his approval. “I like your tone. So many young people these days think they’re owed respect.”
“As do so many older people,” I thought.
“Well.” He pushed back from his desk. “You’ve been thoroughly vetted and you’ve come through with flying colors. Meeting with me is just a formality.” He extended a hand. “Welcome to the company, Mr. Sorenson.”
I didn’t want to touch him. It would’ve seemed odd to refuse, though. I met his gaze squarely as I shook his hand. His eyes were blue, like mine. I’d known that, of course. But there’s a difference between knowing and seeing.
“Lunch?” he said. “It’s rather a tradition with the new hires.”
I exhaled. “I’d be honored, sir.”
There wasn’t much time left. I couldn’t see my phone and there wasn’t a clock in sight, but it didn’t matter. The hours, the minutes, the seconds…they ticked by inside my head.
We left the office. The restaurant lay across four busy lanes of traffic. Too close to call a car and driver. If it’d been just a little farther down the street, my objective would have been more difficult.
I could’ve done it on the way to lunch. I should have.
“Problem?” whispered the voice in my head.
“I have time,” I thought. “One hour, fifteen minutes, thirty-two sec—“
“I know,” the voice replied. “I know.” Then, even more softly, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. This is my choice.”
“I know that too,” she said.
I ordered surf and turf for lunch. Steak and lobster. I hadn’t eaten such things in a long time. They no longer existed in my world. Maybe I’d bring them back. Maybe…
Fifty-three minutes, forty-seven seconds…
Lunch lasted a while. I don’t remember what we talked about. By the time Harmon signed the check, time was very short and I was sweating.
“Still on track?” the voice asked.
“Yes. Yes. No worries.”
One minute, five seconds…
Harmon and I approached the crosswalk. The indicator showed a red hand. I pretended to punch the button for the walk sign while I listened to the count in my head.
Ten, nine, eight…
Right on cue, a box truck sped too close to the curb. Harmon’s phone pinged. He reached inside his jacket pocket.
I threw all my weight into his back. He stumbled off the curb. The truck plowed into him. His body went flying—
His skull slammed the pavement with a fatal, satisfying crack.
“Done,” I thought.
* * *
“Done.” Jorge sat back in his chair, staring at the com speaker.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to believe it—but Adrian’s feed was nothing but static now. “Do you think he—” My stomach heaved. “—he really did it?”
I bit down on bile and reminded myself that this was exactly what we’d worked so hard for—Adrian, Jorge, me, the entire team. We’d combed through terabytes of fragmented data. Reconstructed hours of CCTV. Hacked our way through archives of illegally collected phone surveillance. We’d employed computer simulations…complex models…statistical algorithms.
We knew what had happened. We knew it could’ve turned out differently. So we employed the science and oppression of our ruined civilization and identified the fulcrum upon which good and evil balanced.
Ground zero, we called that text message.
The mission was Adrian’s idea. We tried to talk him out of it, but he was adamant. He couldn’t live with what his father had done. Didn’t want to live with it. There will never be a better use for my life, he’d said.
In the end, we agreed. Were we right to do so? I don’t know. I only know that a billion lost souls may have gained a second chance—or rather, may have gained their first chance—because one heroic young man had the courage to sacrifice everything.
I felt so sick.
“Do I think he really did it?” Jorge repeated my question back at me, contemplating the door. The titanium barrier was fifty centimeters deep, set into lead-lined concrete a meter thick. “I sure as hell hope he did.” He rose from his chair. “Let’s find out.”
He shot me a sympathetic look. “I know it’s hard. But won’t it be easier, once we go through the timelock and find everything’s different? That the nuclear holocaust never happened? That the water’s clean and the air’s breathable? That there’s something to eat besides goddamned grilled rodent?”
“It’s not a matter of it being easier.” A shudder passed through me. “When we go out that timelock, if everything’s changed, we won’t remember anything else. We won’t remember Adrian. He’ll have never existed.” My throat burned, and my eyes— I blinked furiously. “Please. I just want to sit here a minute and…think of him. Talk about him.”
Jorge sat back down.
“Can you imagine,” I said after a moment, “killing your own father?”
He shook his head. “Can you imagine, being the son of a man like that?”
“Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“I know,” I said, for what felt like the thousandth time. “I just wish…”
“That Adrian had been conceived before Harmon received that text. If he had, he’d still be alive. Somehow. Somewhere. Sometime.”
Jorge hesitated. “If it makes you feel any better, Adrian didn’t die. Not exactly.”
“I know. If he succeeded, he was never born in the first place.” I managed to press my palm to my stomach. This did not make me feel better. “I should’ve done it, not him. I should’ve gone back and killed that fucking bastard.”
“You know you couldn’t have,” Jorge said gently. “Harmon would’ve recognized you. And in your condition…”
He spoke the truth. I could barely move in this chair, other than to bow my head and whisper a prayer for Adrian’s soul. He had a soul, didn’t he? Even if that door opened into a world where he’d never been born?
Jorge stood and came around to the back of my chair. This time, I didn’t protest. He released the brake and wheeled me to door. I watched in silence as he punched in the code…as he turned the wheel…as he disengaged the timelock.
The door swung open. I whispered my last farewell as the room behind me faded.
“Goodbye, my son.”
How hard was that!