PART 42: TIED IN NAUGHTS
“You know,” Corry said as he wheeled his bike along the sidewalk. “If I ever decide to take another trip through time with you guys? Stop me. I don’t think I could take another day of this traveling through unknown territory, sharing cramped quarters and dishwashing for money and food.”
“I know there’s something I can’t take much more of,” Clarke murmured.
“My previous trips haven’t been like this,” Frank said, half slumped over his own bike. “But here, we had to allow extra time to find Julie, and we lacked enough currency for this time period. You knew all that before you came.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t know this would be a one way trip!” Corry pointed out.
“It won’t be,” Frank assured. “Remember, all we have to do is figure out what Julie did with the circuitry she removed. With that, I can repair our version of the time machine.”
“Oh, and I’m sure she will be very forthcoming with that information,” Corry groused.
“Don’t mind Corry,” Clarke suggested to Frank. “Complaining seems to be his way of dealing with the situation. We’ll manage, somehow.”
“Always the optimist,” Corry grumbled. “Oh well, at least it’s almost over. How much time until… the big event?” Even now, he couldn’t bring himself to say ‘death’.
Frank checked his watch. “If our newspaper was to be believed, we’re over two hours out? And we’re…” He glanced up at the nearby road sign. “Now five blocks away. So time to spare.”
“How about change to spare?” came a hopeful voice. Corry turned with the others, to see a young homeless woman. Or, if she wasn’t homeless, the twenty something was at least down on her luck. Her clothes were ragged, her long curly brown hair was frayed, and she was carrying her possessions in a small, tattered bag.
“Well…” Frank began.
Before Frank could say more, Clarke fished a couple of bills out of his pocket. “Here you go,” he said. “It’s not much, but it’s all we have to spare.”
“Bless you,” the woman said with a small smile as she took the handout.
“Oh, brilliant, Clarke,” Corry said once the woman was out of earshot. “That’s brilliant. Sure, let’s give away the rest of our money! It’s not like we might NEED it or anything! Gods, sometimes I can’t figure out what’s going through your heads.”
“She’ll be around to use it tomorrow, unlike us,” Clarke rationalized.
“Only assuming we get through to Julie, remember?”
“Look,” Frank cut back in. “It’s fine, what’s done is done. Though for future reference, Clarke? We want to minimize our impact here in the past, not call attention to it that way.”
They were within a block of the hospital when Clarke cleared his throat. “So Corry, based on whatever Julie did with you that day in January – what are the chances she’ll be throwing herself into the path of this ambulance on purpose?”
Corry grimaced as he was forced to consider the possibility. “Hard to say. Why, do you think she’d be in a low mental state based on whatever talk she had with you after my flyers went out?”
“And here’s another thing,” Frank interjected. “You two need to stop being so… passive-aggressive with your whatevers.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Corry asked dryly.
Frank turned to face them, sounding frustrated. “Look, apparently you each have secrets about Julie. And while I commend your ethics, in that you don’t seem to want to reveal them to each other without her approval, after four days, those conversations are getting real annoying.”
Corry tried to protest, but Frank kept talking.
“More to the point, the Julie I saw right before she time travelled didn’t seem to be in complete control of her faculties. Which for all we know, is going to be ten minutes before she shows up here! So if you don’t want to reveal secrets about Julie, fine, but stop fishing for information from the other guy about those past encounters, okay? It’s time to focus on our present.”
Corry wondered if Clarke’s look of surprise was mirrored on his own face. He hoped not – but he never would have figured on Frank having an outburst like that. “Fine,” he said. “Sorry if it felt like that’s what I was doing, Clarke.”
“Yeah, me too,” Clarke said, looking sheepish.
“Okay.” Corry eyed Frank. “With that out of the way, what are your next orders, oh glorious leader?”
Frank merely sighed.
Lee sighed, as he looked at the text message from Judy. Apparently the new books hadn’t come in yet – so no extra hours today. Which meant no need to go to the library at all. Oh well. His original plan had been to use tonight to catch up on homework. He supposed he might as well head home to do that… however, he found his footsteps were taking him towards the hospital instead.
Whatever events were happening between Clarke, Tim, and the rest of them? They had escalated. Not only into absences at school, but now the local constabulary was hanging around. The hospital wasn’t very far out of his way – it couldn’t hurt to check in on Carrie, right? Maybe the others would be around too, and he could do something more to help.
Lee absentmindedly scanned the building as he approached. As such, he was able to spot the figure darting out of one of the emergency exits. Was there a fire? No one else seemed to be evacuating. Then another person ran out the door, apparently in pursuit of the first individual – and even at this distance, Lee recognized the profile, what with the bows in her hair. The two of them were heading more or less in his direction, so Lee decided to intercede on Chartreuse’s behalf.
He moved to box in the running man, who, upon realizing that he was caught between Lee, Chartreuse, and the building itself, headed for his one remaining option. The shrubbery and fence surrounding the hospital area. Breaking into a sprint, Lee managed to catch the mysterious figure and haul him down before he could make good his escape.
In the process Lee made a startling discovery: this person, the one wearing the uniform of a hospital orderly, was the same guy who’d been loitering around the hospital on Saturday! Who had been looking for information on the LaMilles previously! With a bit of leverage, Lee managed to get the guy face down onto the ground, arms pinned behind him.
“Thanks… thanks Lee…” Chartreuse wheezed as she caught up to them, sweat running down her face. She paused for a second to rest her hands on her knees and catch her breath before bending down to stare their captive in the face. “Now, why were you trying to kill Carrie Waterson?!?” she demanded angrily, jabbing out a finger.
Lee blinked at Chartreuse. “Kill Carrie?”
Chartreuse nodded sombrely. “Well?” she demanded again, off the man’s silence. “Tell me, or I’ll… I’ll do something mystical and unpleasant to you! Don’t think I won’t!”
Their captive attempted to flex his arms, but Lee held him down. “You have no idea what you’re doing,” the man said at last. “That ‘girl’ will destroy us all! I must be allowed to complete this mission.”
“Uhm, if your mission involves harming a hair on Carrie’s head, I so don’t think so,” Chartreuse countered. She paused to think. “All right, here’s what we’re going to do. Lee, keep this guy here while I go get Luci. Then the four of us can, like, go find someplace nice and private to have a good, long talk.”
“Er, you don’t think this is a matter we should leave to the police…?” Lee protested.
Chartreuse shook her head. “No, the police might be kinda looking for me and Luci at this point. Please, just, you know, hold Shady here – I’ll be right back.”
With that, the pink haired girl jumped up and ran back in the direction of the hospital. Lee was left in the shrubbery with his captive. “Guess this is what I get for not asking enough questions earlier,” he mused.
“Lee, you are going to do something for me now,” the man on the ground articulated. “Listen carefully. You are going to get off of me and let me go on my way unmolested. Do you understand?”
“Yeah,” Lee answered. “But I think we’ll stay here anyway.”
The man smacked his forehead down. “Oh well,” he muttered. “It was worth a shot.”
“Miss Primrose, I’m afraid I don’t have the authorization to allow any of you to enter.”
“Jeeves, it’s important,” Luci insisted. “We can’t risk going to any of our respective homes, and this is probably the last place anyone will think to look for us. Besides, what we discover here today may well save Carrie – as well as clear Julie’s name!” She watched his eyebrow arch. Good, he knew Julie was a suspect now, that saved explanations. “The police don’t have it quite right, Jeeves. Please, if you care about what happens to Julie, you’ll let us in!”
It felt like an eternity, but the LaMille butler finally swung the front door of the mansion open wider. “See that I don’t regret this,” he cautioned them. The four of them filed past Jeeves into the foyer: Luci, Chartreuse, Lee, and the man with his hands tied behind his back, aka Shady. After closing the door, Jeeves headed for the telephone.
“All right,” Luci said once they’d proceeded into the sitting room and tossed their captive onto the couch. “Start talking. Who are you, what are you doing here, and why did you try to kill Carrie?”
Shady remained silent.
“All right then, I’ll start talking,” Luci decided. “You can correct me if I say anything wrong, all right?” She leaned against the back of a chair, staring at him. “The first question we have to ask ourselves is why someone who once professed to be Carrie’s ‘Guardian Angel’ would attempt to kill her. Answer? It was, in fact, your goal all along. But you had to wait for the right moment. For the point of maximum entropy. You had to protect Carrie until then.”
She drummed her fingers on the fabric in front of her. “It explains why you got Julie to shoot Carrie in a non-fatal way. Putting your target into the hospital, you could indirectly get some preliminary readings on her.” Chartreuse let out a little gasp. “And don’t even try to deny being involved with the shooting,” Luci added. “Because even setting aside your call to Frank, I remember now that when I returned to his house on that night? Someone was sitting in a car less than a block away. Foolishly, I didn’t give it much thought, but seeing you here? It was you. And Julie had to get the gun from someone.”
Luci paused to give Shady a chance to speak. When he said nothing, she continued on. “So, Carrie has been your guinea pig. Time travel – it’s not a fine science for you future guys, I guess? Sure, you used it to get back here, but prolonged exposure, that’s what Carrie was for. For some reason, you believed that all of her time trips would grant her special abilities, and once she got them…” Luci snapped her fingers in the air. “Dissection time.”
She turned away, as Chartreuse’s increasingly ill look was becoming too much of a contrast to Shady’s inscrutable expression. “But Julie running off with the time machine, that threw off your timetable,” Luci reasoned. “You had to delay, leading to checking on Julie’s past, contacting Frank, and generally messing with us to ensure we were looking anywhere BUT at Carrie. But now we are. And since we know your intentions, we’re not going to let you get away with it!”
She turned back, folding her arms across her chest. “Well? How’s that, am I close?”
“And don’t even think about, you know, lying,” Chartreuse added, shaking a crystal at him. “Or I’ll totally know.”
Their captive frowned, as if trying to come to a decision.
“Look man,” Lee offered. “If you tell ’em what they want to know, they’ll get off your back, and we can all walk away from this roller coaster ride of science fiction. Right?”
Shady sighed. “You are very observant, young Luci,” he said at last. “But largely incorrect. For instance, none of you need to fear developing any powers yourselves – Carrie’s abilities are not because of her time travel. They have always been within her. They are tied to her, bound to her by fate.” He smirked. “Which is the very reason I came back to this time to recruit her.”
“Recruit?!” Luci blurted, before she could stop herself. She glanced sidelong at Chartreuse. The pink haired girl shrugged, meaning either she couldn’t detect any trace of betrayal, or she’d been bluffing about the lie detection thing. Lee merely looked nonplussed.
Luci decided she needed to sit down. Moving into the chair she’d previously been leaning against, she steepled her fingers. “By all means then,” she said. “Explain to us how you can recruit someone by KILLING them.”
Shady inclined his head slightly. “If I do, will you let me go?”
“No,” Luci said, sourly. “But we’re definitively keeping you here until you do, so start talking!”
The man glanced at Lee. “Oh, very well. The crux of the matter is that there is a war going on in the future. One which we humans are losing very badly, I might add. But then, at the point when many of us were about to give up all hope, we discovered the identity of a woman. A woman with extraordinary powers, powers which could extend into the very fabric of space and time itself – the problem being, she was already dead to us. So, with great effort, we managed to obtain a time travel device, and I was chosen to come back in time to find this woman. Back when she was a mere girl.”
“Okay,” Lee said, as Shady paused. “So far it sounds like a reverse plot from those Terminator films. Did the robots send someone back after you?”
“No. We’re not fighting robots,” Shady said in an annoyed tone. “Can I finish my story?”
Lee gestured magnanimously.
“As such,” he continued, “I have been in sync with your time period now for close to three years, working at verifying this woman’s identity. Not as difficult a task as I originally thought, given how I picked up a temporal disruption in Algonquin Park a couple years back, and had to personally rescue her. Still, I wanted to be sure, so it was only a couple of months ago that I left my time machine out for Carrie Waterson to find.”
“Then your time machine is what became our time machine,” Luci affirmed.
He nodded. “The things ARE damned hard to get your hands on.”
Meaning Shady couldn’t escape through time. Good to know. “Still waiting on the whole death equals recruitment thing,” she pointed out.
“Did you want context or not?”
“Context is helpful!” Chartreuse said brightly.
“Fine. So, experiencing time travel was the first step towards awakening this obj- er, wom- this girl’s powers. She had to learn what she could accomplish, in a practical sense. She then had to learn how to put her own life into the cosmic perspective.” He paused briefly before muttering, “Which required a near death experience.”
Luci stood. “Then I WAS right, and you ARE responsible for influencing Julie!”
Shady sighed. “Being displaced from time, I did not think it wise to act as the trigger myself. An ex-friend, who had been targeted at school that day? That seemed plausible. Anyway, you yourself noted how Julie’s shot was intended to miss any vital organs.”
“Okay, but, like, hold on,” Chartreuse protested. “This power awakening stuff, it seems to have gone wrong.”
“Oh, no kidding?” Shady said contemptuously. “Apparently you teenagers have an interesting way of keeping things ‘safe’.”
“Julie’s time trip,” Luci realized. “It did throw things off. Merely not how I thought.”
Shady nodded. “That part is as I said to your friend Frank. Carrie could not reconcile Julie’s death with how history proceeded prior to her awakening. But instead of following my advice, you all devised some asinine plan of your own! I finally used my own power to get the police involved this morning. Unfortunately, checking on Carrie’s condition afterwards, I found it was too late.” He folded his hands together. “Carrie is now irredeemably insane, and my mission has failed, thus killing her… well, at this point, it’s a form of mercy.”
With that, Luci realized she HAD been wrong. And Carrie had paid the price. She reached out for the chair again, using it to keep her from collapsing to her knees. “But there must be some way to still save her,” Luci asserted. “Something more we can do!”
Shady scoffed. “Don’t you think you’ve done enough already? You have doomed most of your friends, as well as an entire war going on in your future. I ask you, how many more people must pay the price for your bad decisions?”
“How much time?” Corry hissed.
“At a guess? Five minutes, give or take,” Frank answered quietly. He peered out of the alleyway to look up and down the street. Clarke stood there expectantly, surrounded by some of the locals who were going about their business in the early evening. Upon spying Frank, the tall boy raised his arms, palms up, indicating he hadn’t seen any sign of Julie yet. Frank slumped back against the wall; the group had locked their bikes up at the nearby library half an hour ago.
Corry sighed. “I hate splitting up like this,” he groused. “I mean, I agree Clarke’s the best choice to reason with her, but Julie probably still has that gun, right? The one she used to shoot Carrie? What if she simply kills him, then picks us off, one by one, before jumping in front of the ambulance? I mean, maybe that’s what my sister is reading in the newspaper in the future at this very moment!”
“Corry, now is not the time,” Frank said tersely.
“But… ah, you’re right,” came a grudging admission, much to Frank’s surprise. “Look, sorry if I’m a little hard on you and Clarke, Frank,” the redhead continued. “I’m accustomed to knowing a lot more about my surroundings! This whole trip has put me out of my element.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “But for now, you don’t need both me AND Julie going after your jugulars, huh?”
Before Frank could reply to that, they heard Clarke call out “Julie!” in a loud and clear voice. The two teenagers poked their heads back out of the alley to see what Clarke was up to. He had crossed the street, and was hurrying after someone. A girl with long brown hair, wearing a dark green sweater with a blue pleated skirt. She was moving in the direction of the hospital.
“Julie! Jewels!” Clarke called out again. The girl seemed to half turn before quickening her pace. Frank emerged from the alley and headed down his side of the street. He wasn’t quite sure what he could do, but he didn’t want to lose sight of them.
What happened next occurred so fast that, upon later recollection, Frank would be forced to admit that there was nothing he could have done.
Having almost reached her, Clarke reached out to grab Julie by the shoulder. Sensing she was about to be caught, the girl twisted away, stumbling as she did so. It was then that Frank finally noticed the ambulance, which had not bothered to turn it’s siren on, as there weren’t any other cars on the street.
“Look out!” he screamed, even as Julie, off balance, staggered backwards. Right into the path of the oncoming vehicle. There was no time for anyone to run and push her out of the way, no time for the driver to brake – the ambulance simply hit her, head on.
“No…!” Frank gasped as he saw Julie fly several feet through the air. “NO!” he screamed. She had been their only hope of rescuing Carrie. Their only hope of getting back home. Four days, FOUR DAYS they had spent, knowing that this would happen! And yet they had failed!
But maybe, just maybe, Julie wasn’t dead yet. So she could tell them where the time circuits were, and they could somehow try again… a crowd was already gathering, and Frank moved to push his way through them. He was restrained by a hand on his shoulder.
Frank turned to see Clarke, his face ashen, his body shaking slightly. “Clarke!” he said. “We have to–”
“It’s not her, Frank,” the tall boy said quietly.
It took a few seconds for Clarke’s words to sink in. Even then, they didn’t make sense. “What?” Frank finally managed.
Clarke released him. “As that person twisted away from me, I got my first good look at her face,” Clarke continued. “The person who was hit… it wasn’t Julie. It was that homeless woman we saw earlier today. For some reason, she had put on Julie’s clothes.”
That still didn’t make any sense. “How? Why?” Frank protested.
“Because she knows we’re here,” Corry said, having come up behind them in time to hear Clarke’s revelation. His lips thinned. “Julie must know we’re here to stop her from killing herself. And she used that woman as a decoy.”
Frank let Corry steer them away from the crowd, his mind now completely in a whirl. Julie knew they were there? But how? What was going through that poor girl’s mind?? A shudder ran down Frank’s spine as he realized that there was no way of knowing. No way at all.
And for the first time since they’d landed in Illinois, Frank felt very, very scared.
See the accompanying Commentary Post for ARC 2.3