Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Whisper: Chapter 10

What Goes Around

We emerged into the time machine lab to find Lane Young and the technician working furiously at one of the control panels. The technician’s shirt was covered in blood and his left arm hung in a makeshift sling tied together from strips of his lab coat. Four bodies lay on the floor, one of them Marlston. The turbine hummed like a jet engine and the walls of the transport chamber glowed a hot red. I wasn’t sure if it was about to explode or if the technician and Lane had removed whatever wrench the Whisper had thrown in the works. The lab guy looked like he would have already passed out but for Lane scowling over his shoulder like she would kill him if he didn’t work faster.

I put my gun to the poor bastard’s head and cleared my throat.

Lane snarled, shoved the technician out of the way, and lunged nails-first. She might have torn the skin off my face, but instead flew through my immaterial body and sprawled, undignified, on the floor. She spun around in a crouch, but the Whisper kicked her on her side.

That’s enough, Mother.”

You could have heard a penny drop. Explanations slid into place, how the Whisper could be part and not part of JANUS at the same time. Instead of simplifying things, this new wrinkle made the situation a million times more complicated. I dialed myself solid before the lab tech realized that my bullets wouldn’t hurt him. Lane made a noise between a sob and a laugh.

“Of course. I should have known it was you helping Jones. Who else would crap all over my work? You spoiled, ungrateful whelp.”

Can it. I’m not having this talk again.” He pointed his gun at the lab tech. “You. What did you change? Did you send anyone through the machine?

“N… n… not yet. We were—”

“Shut up, Ford.” Lane brushed herself off and stood up. “Are you going to kill me now, like you killed your father?”

Canton wasn’t my father.” The edge in the Whisper’s voice had me worried. “My father was worth ten of that douchebag.”

“If you’re referring to Brandon Roche, he was an irresponsible idealist and he wasn’t Family. He may have been your sperm donor, but he wasn’t your father.”

“Look,” I said, “can we sort out the family issues on Thanksgiving? Shut down the time machine, please.” I tapped Ford’s head with my gun to make my point.

“You heard him,” said Lane. “Shut them down.”

I knew that was bad. “Don’t you dare,” I started to say, but I never got a syllable. The lab tech punched a button and lightning blasted the room.

I remember my feet leaving the ground. The ceiling slammed me like a runaway car. A bolt of white flashed from the turbine to the time machine. Then the ground rushed up, head-on to my mask. The filter jammed back in my face and I screamed.

I scrambled to my knees, pulled the mask off, and spat out coppery blood. That arc from the generator had blown me a dozen feet across the room. My phasing belt smoked like an overcooked pie, so I flung it off; it was hot to the touch. My gun was nowhere in sight.

No, there it was. Lane had it in her hand.

The Whisper disappeared. Ford the technician pulled himself up on the edge of the control panel. I got to my feet and Lane took aim. I raised my hands.

Can’t you see that JANUS needs to stop?” The voice came from everywhere at once. “Can’t you see what monsters we’ve become? We have the power to save the world.”

“No, we don’t.” Tears inched down Lane’s face. “You stupid child, you’ve ruined everything. Canton was going to make JANUS matter. By taking over the organization’s finances, he would be in a position to make a difference. He would have ruled the Families. He would have pushed us out of the shadows. We could have taken over the world and forced the human race to survive. Isn’t that what you and your precious Brandon wanted?”

She pointed the gun at her head.

“And now, what have you left? Canton’s dead. I might be arrested, and then JANUS will kill me. You can be damn sure they’ll kill you. There’s no way out for either of us.”

Her hand tensed as she readied to fire, but time seemed to stop as something clicked in my mind.

Roche. The father’s name was Brandon Roche. Or another way: Roche, Brandon. The Whisper was a child of JANUS, but not an actual child. I’d mistaken the Whisper’s small physique for that of a young man, but there was another explanation, a “mistake” I’d made once already when I’d accused Lane herself. The Whisper was dedicated to stopping JANUS, but had also gone out of the way to help me, as if we knew each other. And as I’d learned from experience, time travel could let someone be in two places at once.

I knew what was going to happen. I’d already seen the result.

The Whisper grew solid to stop her mother’s suicide.

I shouted, “Roxy, no!”

Lane whipped the gun around and shot the Whisper point blank in the gut. The blast threw her backward ten feet to the wall. I ran to her side, not caring if Lane shot me. The Whisper struggled for breath. I pulled off her mask to reveal the face of Roxy Brandt.

She’d already gone white. I pressed my hands on her wound to slow the bleeding and shouted, “Get a fucking doctor!” I looked over my shoulder, and Lane ran to the time box. I couldn’t move without leaving Roxy, so I could only watch as she jumped inside and vanished. I didn’t know where she went… and then I did.

I remembered when Marlston ordered his men to shoot me, but this time, instead of the Whisper putting three bullets in his chest, a second Lane Young appeared from thin air and ruined Roxy’s aim. Roxy pulled me from the room in all the confusion, and we still made our way to the reception to rescue Aranjuez. I remembered seeing Roxy in the ambulance – that part hadn’t changed, and though I didn’t understand it I was getting there. Like before I felt the time shift beginning, and the Whisper and I both raced back to this chamber to see…

Canton Marlston, alive and well, waved his wife goodbye as she stepped into the past to ensure his survival. Then he turned to smile down at his step-daughter and me. Five black-garbed, masked men with assault rifles held their weapons trained on both of us.

“She’ll be back in a minute,” Canton said. “I believe she has a misunderstanding to clear up with the police. As for you two, well, it won’t even be that hard to hide the bodies.”

He pulled a cigar out of his pocket, clipped off the end, and grinned like a cat in a cage of canaries.

***

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***
All I could do was play for time.

“I thought you couldn’t kill me. You said the universe hates a paradox.”

“It really doesn’t like them,” said Marlston, “but you can force the issue. The Families are proof of that. I suspect that if these five gentlemen shoot you full of holes, the time stream will find a way to deal with it. Cause and effect don’t always matter for people like us.”

People like us. Somehow I was just like JANUS, the product of an ‘ultimate paradox.’ But how could that be? Roxy was right, I couldn’t be descended from the Families, but whatever had happened at the airport had certainly messed with my normal perception of time.

One look at the time machine, and suddenly I knew what had happened. But with Canton and his goons standing in my way, I couldn’t figure out how.

Canton lit his cigar. “Okay, boys. Do ‘em both.”

“Wait,” I said. The men adjusted their aim anyway.

Roxy laughed. It sounded like a death rattle, but her smile was unmistakable.

“Bill and Ted,” she said. “I figured it out.”

“Oh for the love of God,” said Canton, “just kill them.”

“Last words! Give us one fucking minute.” I turned to Roxy. “Go on, baby.”

“In the movie, Bill and Ted have to break someone out of jail. They need the keys, but they don’t have time to steal them. So they promise each other that after the breakout, their future selves will use their time machine to go back and steal the keys in the past and leave them for their present selves to find.”

That was her big revelation? “That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Yes it does.” A cough wracked her body. I pressed harder on her bleeding stomach. She groaned and grabbed my shirt. “Listen. You’ve got a time machine. You can make something happen now from an action you haven’t taken yet. You just need the intent and the will to follow it through. I know you can do it, Allan. You’ve already done it. It’s already happened.”

“Are we done?” said Canton. “Can we kill them?”

“They won’t,” I said. “That’s not what happens.”

Canton’s men didn’t shoot.

“What the hell is this?” Canton said. “I told you to fire.”

“No.” The idea was growing, but I didn’t have time to work it out so I thought out loud. “Once I get out of this mess, I’m going back in time. I’ll go to the FBI and collect the tapes that identify you as the one behind the shooting at the airport. I’m going to masquerade as the Whisper and give them to myself in Roxy’s apartment. That puts me on the trail to expose you and JANUS. Roxy already knew you were the bastard behind this, but she couldn’t say so without revealing that she was a vigilante from the future. And I’m sure part of her wanted to protect her mother, despite it all.” I glanced down for confirmation, and Roxy nodded.

“What good does that do?” said Canton. “So you come here to ‘expose’ me, and you both wind up dead. Even if you did altar something in the past, which you can’t by the way, I could still go back and erase it myself.”

I shook my head. “No, because before I get my younger self involved in all this, I’m going to convince Agent Powell at the FBI to infiltrate your staff and not reveal himself until I give the signal. Which is now.”

All five of Canton’s men pointed their guns at their employer.

“What the fuck?”

One of the men pulled off his mask. Of course, it was Agent Powell.

“Mr. Marlston, you’re under arrest. I advise you to surrender peacefully.”

“What?” said Marlston. “You can’t do this. You’re not JANUS. You can’t change the past.”

I could, but there was a price I’d have to pay. Before that, I had to save Roxy. “Agent Powell, I need Mr. Ford over here.”

Powell crooked his finger for the lab tech to attend. He knelt next to Roxy and me, and I noticed that in this version of the evening he’d never been shot.

“Can you set up the time machine to send me back to the airport? Can you put it on some kind of automatic trigger?”

He nodded.

“Do it. Before I go, you need to take Roxy to the ambulance outside. Take her back in time to the moment they arrived, before the police figure out what’s going on.”

“And what happens to me?” he asked.

I looked askance at Powell, then whispered, “You get to run.”

He thought about it for a moment, then nodded. Powell knelt beside me as Ford ran to make his preparations. The other four agents were busy restraining Marlston, who snarled and twisted on the ground like a beast. They’d managed to cuff his hands, but it looked like they were going to have to shackle his feet and carry him out on a stretcher.

“I’ve got to tell you, Jones, when I saw you alive after the airport, I thought I was straight for the funny farm. There’s no way I would have believed all this if I hadn’t seen your body for myself.”

“Thanks,” I said. “That tells me how to make my case. I think Canton has a mole in the FBI somewhere. Do you have any idea who it is?”

He looked surprised. “A guy named Ulrich. You told me that yourself.”

“Ulrich, right. I’ll have to remember that.” I shifted to cradle Roxy in my lap. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I’m draining away.” Her voice was faint. “Do you think it’s going to work?”

“I know it does, baby. I’ve seen it.”

“That’s good.” She was fading fast.

“Hey, listen, kid. I’m going to find you when this is done. I’m going to see you’re taken care of. We’ve got to live happily ever after, right?”

“Sure thing.” She was barely a whisper any more. “Allan? Kiss me.”

I did, softly. Her lips gave no resistance and she smelled of her rubber mask, but for one sweet moment we were the only two people in the world.

“Mr. Jones, sir?” said Ford. “I’m ready.”

“Take her.” As he lifted her, I pulled off her invisibility belt and gun. “Sorry, I’m going to need this.”

“Be careful,” she said. “There’s only three shots left.”

I chuckled. “That’s all I need.”

Ford and Roxy vanished into the box. I slipped the Whisper’s belt over my shoulder. There was one extra dial I hadn’t seen, but what it did was pretty obvious. Roxy’s hat had fallen to the ground. I picked it up with her breather mask and settled them both on my head.

“Where do you think you’re going?” said Powell.

I glanced at the screen and saw the scene at the airport, frozen mid-slaughter. “To make all this come true. Don’t worry, I’ll be right back.

I dialed myself mostly invisible and stepped into the chamber. There was no sensation of movement, of translating to another place and time. I simply stepped from Marlston’s basement to the tarmac at Friendship International.

Somehow I’d expected time to be frozen, but it wasn’t. People screamed and metal flew. I flinched at the gunfire, and I swear something flew right by my head. I could very well get shot pulling this stunt, but I knew where I had to stand. I would just have to cross my fingers.

And there I was: my younger self. Mere days younger, but what a difference that made. He knelt over poor Tim Leslie, already beyond saving. Allan “Smithee” Jones, the poor dumb bastard, with all his dreams of success, recognition, and the Big Scoop that would make the world take him seriously. Would it at last have made him respect himself? I guess I’d never know.

I lifted my gun to his head. Something made me look up in time to see Younger Self #2 running toward me at full speed. I’d almost forgotten about that. I’m glad neither of them saw the bitter smirk on my face.

I tensed as I took aim at the youngest of the three of us. I put a hole in his chest, then another one. Only when he realized what was happening did I put the final bullet through his head. And that was that.

***

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***

Here’s the best I can figure it. The original JANUS created their “ultimate paradox” by knocking off their own grandparents. I did them one better. I went back and whacked myself, which the universe didn’t like one bit. So what must have happened was that at the moment of paradox it spat out a duplicate who could do the deed while the real Allan Jones died. The “me” that woke up on the tarmac (knocked backward in time like a rubber band misfire) was a fake. Ever since that moment I’ve been living a false life. I was never Allan Jones. I’m just an anomaly who thinks he is.

Still, life is life no matter how you come by it. I followed through on my plan, meeting up with Powell and convincing him to play along. We even got Tyler from the NSA in on it, once they let him out of the hospital. Thanks to him, all those banking co-conspirators who ran for their lives from the party would have a nasty surprise when they found all their assets frozen.

Facing myself in Roxy’s apartment was the hardest part. I did my best to get my lines right, making sure to drop the “Bill and Ted” hint for Roxy to figure out. One day I’ll to have to watch that movie and find out if time travel make any more sense.

On the night of the reception I couldn’t decide whether to keep my distance or stick close to the action. On one hand, I was dying to watch things play out; on the other, I might be tempted to interfere and screw the whole thing up.

I wasn’t given much choice in the matter. All the rewrites of history that went on that night must have set up some kind of barrier. Every time I came within a block of Marlston’s mansion, a wave of full-Hitchcock vertigo brought my head to the pavement. The tide surging me away didn’t ease up until Roxy’s ambulance sped off.

The mansion was crawling with Feds, so I left my invisibility on until I got to the west wing’s basement. When I made my way down to the time machine chamber, the room was thick with smoke and Agent Powell was livid.

“You should never have let that Ford guy get away.”

“What did he do?” Stupid of me to ask. It was easy enough to guess from the smell of burning wires.

“Some kind of delayed failsafe. All this equipment is wrecked.”

That was for the best, really, but I didn’t say that out loud. It was getting hard to breathe, so we both walked up to the mansion proper.

“You’ve still got Marlston and Young, and anyone else you can want to arrest.”

“You know that includes your girl Roxy, right?” Powell leaned against the wall and rubbed at his temple. “According to you, the Whisper was responsible for several deaths. If we link them back to her, she’ll be in prison ‘til she’s gray.”

“I expect you’ll want to cut her a deal. Now her secret’s out, you might find she’s got buckets of information.”

“And technology.” He pointed at my invisibility gear. “I’m going to need that, I’m afraid.”

I slipped my hand under the belt to lift it off, but it was heavy. Now that the moment had come, I didn’t want to let it go. I was given a reprieve when a young agent ran up to us.

“Sir, it’s about that Lane woman.” He glanced sideways at me before saying more.

“It’s okay, son,” said Powell. “Go ahead.”

“We can’t find her on the grounds. Two officers had her in custody, but she disappeared out from under them.”

I’ll bet she did. Damn it, we should have expected her to have an escape plan.

“And another thing,” said the agent. “We got a call from the hospital. That ambulance we sent back arrived, but when the staff checked, it was empty. The driver, the medic, that girl, all gone.”

Oh no. The best case was that Lane had absconded with her daughter. The worst was that JANUS was already erasing this whole affair. Ford had destroyed Canton’s time machine. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the slate was wiped clean. So far I hadn’t noticed any twisting of reality, but an organization that could walk through walls would have no problem stealing back whatever the FBI confiscated, no matter how dark a vault they buried it in.

I reached for the invisibility dial. Powell saw what I was doing.

“Jones, don’t think it.”

“I don’t have a choice,” I said. “She’s out there, and so is JANUS. I can’t go after them if you bench me.”

“Damn it, you won’t do any good as a vigilante. We need to study their equipment so we can use it against them.”

“They won’t give you the chance. I’m sorry.”

Powell grabbed for my arm, so I turned phantom first. Then I put the mask back on before I started to choke, and vanished the rest of the way. Powell ranted and screamed at the spot where I’d been standing, but I was already on my way out of the building, into the dark.

***

Allan Jones had a small funeral in a tiny chapel. Aside from the minister, only Farnsworth, his wife, and a half dozen writers from the Street attended. And myself, of course, quiet and unseen in the far back corner. An anonymous donor had sent several huge bouquets. I suspected they were courtesy of my old Uncle Pepe.

There was one reporter I didn’t recognize. A young kid, his suit looked brand new but his shoes were well worn. I followed the whole gang back onto the trolley and all the way downtown to the magazine office. The new kid sat at my old desk and fed a clean sheet into the typewriter. I looked over his shoulder and saw handwritten notes for my own obituary.

Powell was right. I wouldn’t be any good as a vigilante. I wouldn’t know how to start if I wanted to, but an invisible man had other uses than fighting crime with guns a-blazing. If I was ever going to find Roxy (or whatever her real name was) I would have to track down JANUS, and to find JANUS the only place to look would be in the highest halls of power. I would never get in as a V.I.P., but a ghost didn’t need an invitation.

Whether Roxy had been serious about bringing JANUS down or just trying to annoy her stepfather, I wasn’t certain, but I believed the former over the latter. She’d had the idea of inserting herself into a newsroom to steer information our way, like she did with Hugo Harvey. It was an idea I could run with, and those tapes weren’t the only thing I’d absconded on my trip back through time.

I dropped a heavy manila envelope on top of the new kid’s notes. He about jumped out of his chair, then looked around both directions and up to the ceiling to see where it came from.

Calm down,” I said, the breather masking my voice. “Eyes forward. Don’t say anything. People will think you’re nuts if you talk to thin air.”

“Where are you?”

Wrong question. Try, ‘What’s in the folder?’

He slipped it open and pulled out a photo of Representative Crawthorn.

“What is this?”

A story, if you’re interested. Or if you’d rather, you could go back to writing obituaries of nobodies.”

He pulled out another sheet from my Crawthorn file and started reading.

“So who are you?” he said, settling back in his chair. “H. G. Wells?” The shiver in his voice gave the lie to his act of nonchalance. 

I almost told him ‘Allan Smithee,’ but that wouldn’t have been right. That life was over, and my new one started right here. Might as well kick it off in style.

You can call me the Whisper.”

The End

***

This chapter of The Whisper has been brought to you by
B. B. Morden & Sons Funeral Services,
Flowers By Mail, and science fiction author
Jared Millet

If you’ve enjoyed this serial, you can read more of his work in the Dreams of Steam anthology series from Kerlak Publishing, Summer Gothic: A Collection of Southern Hauntings, and various free stories available at Jared Millet Blogs.

***


The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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The Whisper will return.