A thousand years in his past, Thomas Cooper must hunt down a time-traveling randomite who threatens to erase the future from existence.
"Time really gets on your nerves when you're running out of it," I mused to myself.
The minutes ticked on, in this world that existed a thousand years before my genetic conception. Here I was, to assure that my future came to pass.
I stepped out onto the cracked pavement in front of the filthy, dilapidated boarding house where I'd taken up residence since my arrival in this time. The run-down building in Washington's suburbs had once been a millionaire's home, but that had been before the chaos. Political upheaval, civil war, revolution; that was all decades passed now, and this great society I now visited was the pinnacle of pre-eugenic evolution. The birthplace of modern reproductive science.
After half a century of destruction and disorder, this nation was more orderly and civilized than it had ever previously been. The new order had established peace and prosperity over an entire continent. Now, it would merely take one man's dreams of the future to secure that stability.
Doctor Thomas G. Sanderson, junior Senator from Illinois, was to give a speech on the dangers of unregulated breeding practices. A medical expert merely thirty three years of age, his essays on genetic manipulation and its effect on human behavioral patterns would still be required reading in any grade school biology class a thousand years hence. This man, a product of purely random genetic proliferation, prepared to propose a set of selective breeding laws to evolve humanity into the race they're destined to become, so long as he can make it to the Podium to announce his ideas.
As I stepped up to my old, rusty automobile, I heard a feminine cry. "Tommy?"
Turning away from my mode of transportation, I spotted a twentyish brunette charging down the concrete steps of the former-mansion-turned-boarding-house. "Hello, Janice," I replied.
Janice Ryerson had moved into the boarding house a day after my arrival, over a month ago. She lived right across the hall, and we'd had a friendly relationship going. Purely platonic, I assure. A thousand years of selective breeding precluded any possible romance between us.
"Hey, Tom, can I hitch a ride this morning?" Janice asked, catching her breath after running to catch me. "I've kind of got something going in town today."
"Actually, I'm pretty busy," I said honestly. "I've got to be in Washington this morning."
"Oh, come on. It's not that far. Besides, you're not gonna get half a mile without a refill. You know, I pay cash." She hauled out a crisp, two dollar gold note and snapped it a couple of times in front of my nose.
"How many times have I told you I'm not a taxi service?" I asked, taking the two dollars from her. "Go on, get in."
Janice knew all too well how strapped for cash I was. It's not like I'd had funds to begin with, being inadvertently dragged a thousand years into the past with only the clothes on my back and a few pounds of commando gear. With most of my gear sold, I'd scraped up a hundred dollars, just enough for two months room and board at this fine estate.
Janice hopped into the front seat, like she'd done a dozen times before, and I got behind the wheel of the gas-burning monstrosity this time period called a car. Not that it was much of a vehicle, even for this era. I'd salvaged the thing out of a junk yard through a trick of technology and covert infiltration tactics. In other words, I stole it, but not to worry. It had been slated for crunching the next day, so it wasn't missed. With a little adjusting of the junkyard data files, the car was now legally mine by all record.
It had taken me the better part of a week to rig the kinks out of it, and it still didn't run right. But what do you expect for a hundred year old piece of machinery. It was called a Malibu Classic, made sometime during the twentieth century. Don't ask me how it managed to survive this long, but it still ran (barely), and I'd applied a decent coat of blue primer over the rust as camouflage.
I turned the key and jammed my foot on the accelerator repeatedly to rev the car to life. Considering the large hole in the muffler, it didn't sound too loud. The sputter of the engine as its rpm slowed let me know the spark timing was off.
"Man, I love these old classics," Janice mentioned, snapping her seatbelt on. "They're so roomy."
"I like them," I lied. Truthfully, I hated the cars of this era. They were clunky. The steering was shaky, the acceleration was slow, and the computer controls were nil, and that was for newer cars of the late twenty-first century. This car was purely functional, and I'd only chosen it because my engineering skills permitted me to continuously repair it without the purchase of expensive new parts I couldn't afford.
"You know, if you put a couple hundred dollars into this thing, it'd be like new," Janice said.
I refrained from talking about the car and opened up a new avenue of conversation. "What have you got going in town this morning?" I asked as I put the car into drive.
"Actually, I'm headed to Georgetown University. They just opened a new science wing, and I happened to score an invite. Want to tag along? I know you're not a science buff like me, but it might be fun. A little change of pace?"
"Sounds interesting, but I've got business elsewhere." The car's breaks screeched as we stopped at the end of the driveway.
"Oh, come on. Blow it off for a change," Janice urged. "What's so important you have to hang around Washington all day? You never tell me."
"It's my job," I said. "It's classified."
"Okay, you don't want to tell me. That's fine," she replied. Janice had a way of making you feel guilty for keeping to yourself.
"It's not that I don't want to tell you. I can't," I said honestly. "Even if I could tell you, you wouldn't understand."
We drove down the row of run-down homes which had once housed some of the most influential people in this nation's history. Many of the original buildings had been torn down in recent years, replaced by more up-to-date living quarters. The neighborhood was undergoing suburban renewal.
We reached the gas station just as my engine started to sputter from lack of fuel. Jerry's Gas Mart sat just before the turnoff onto the new freeway, approximately half a mile from our boarding house, and it was here that I fueled my gas guzzling clunker every few days.
Pulling up to the pumps, I grumbled some age old curses. The price was up again. Fifty three cents. When I'd first gotten this steel beast, it had been merely forty-nine.
I stepped out of the car and met the attendant, who was already taking off my gas cap. "Hey, bub, what'll she take?" the middle-aged hispanic asked.
"Whatever two dollars will buy," I replied. "The price of gas sure is up."
"Hey, don't blame me. I'm just a workin' stiff," he said defensively.
"Sorry. Guess you hear that alot," I mentioned.
"Yep. But, really, it's the government, upping taxes, that's keeping it high," he said, cutting off the flow at just under four gallons. "There, gave you an extra cent's worth, and I won't even charge for it." He pointed out the meter reading $2.01.
"Thanks," I said, handing him the bill.
I was ready to get back in the car when Janice hopped out. "Can you hold on a minute, Tommy? I've got to pick something up inside."
I didn't say anything, knowing the two dollars of gas in my tank implied my consent. I leaned against the rusty car roof and watched her shapely body run into the convenience store.
"That's some woman you got there," the gas attendant mentioned.
"Oh, she's not mine," I assured.
"I think the way you look at her, maybe she should be," he said presumptuously. "Hot ticket like that gonna get snipped up pretty quick unless you pocket her."
"I say good luck to the man whose genetics sanction his union to her," I replied.
"Oh, I see," the attendant went on. "You're one of those eugenic crusaders, wants to tell everybody who they oughta screw. Pretty brazen of you, my friend."
"Oh, come now. We, sir, are human beings. We're better than animals, and we ought to act it. Reproductive rights? Surely, no more valid than homicidal rights."
"Say that when they start breaking up marriages 'cause one isn't genetically pure enough. Read history, man. We had enough of that fascism back in the twentieth with the Nazis."
I laughed indignantly. "You dare compare modern science to those Witch Doctors of ancient history? They used superstition and hatred to compensate for their lack of knowledge. They had no moral foundation."
"Sound much different from the modern movement, bub?" the attendant asked. "A bunch of small minded bigots is all they are."
It was fortunate Janice returned at that moment, or else I might have been tempted to change the history of this man's nose. He was very presumptive, and that ruffled my feathers, maybe more than I should have let it, but I was a soldier, not a trained diplomat.
"Hey, Tommy, what's going on?" Janice asked.
"I was just about to tell this gene trash to use his reproductive rights on himself."
The attendant was quite intuitive, and caught what I was inferring. Janice and I wasted no time in getting out of there.
"What was that all about?" Janice asked as we pulled onto the highway.
"Just politics. What did you get?" I asked, changing the conversation to something more pleasant.
"Oh, just some snacks. Want some chocolate?" she asked, hauling out a half pound bar.
"No thanks," I said, pulling onto the freeway. Cocoa was a little too strong for my eugenically-enhanced taste buds. "Got anything lighter?"
"Naw. All else I've got is this peanut oil. Don't think you'd want that."
I acknowledged I had no want for the small bottle of cooking oil, and kept my eyes on the hectic freeway. It was an hour before the mad rush, and the road was already halfway packed. Luckily, my keen eyesight allowed me to keep track of everything going on around me. I couldn't imagine how the genetically natural could operate these primitive machines without crashing all the time.
The drive was fairly pleasant, with little in the way of traffic irritation. Janice chatted about her typical inconsequential things, which I enjoyed.
The warning sign for the Georgetown turnoff came fast, and I did my best to hurry into the far-right lane, only to find myself stuck behind a line of cars trying to do the same. There was an awful lot of traffic headed this way today. I voiced my surprise.
"Oh, it's probably because of the science opening; the thing I'm heading to. A whole bunch of big-wigs are going to be viewing the new research facilities. I was hoping to get in early."
"So was everyone else, from the looks of it," I replied.
The line held us up for half and hour, each minute of which I was cursing myself. Tonight, at six o'clock, Senator Sanderson was going to give his monumental speech on eugenics, meaning his assassin had only a few precious hours in which to act. I had to be there to protect him. Yet here I was, stuck in early morning traffic, chauffeuring a woman who would be dead a thousand years before my birth.
I could only hope the assassin was similarly trapped, away from the Senator, until I could resume my surveillance.
At least navigating to the right place wasn't a problem. All we had to do was stay with the line of traffic, which eventually brought us to the parking lot adjacent to the new science wing.
It would be a struggle finding a parking space, but I wasn't going to stop. I drove as close as I could to the entrance and prepared to let Janice out when my eyes suddenly locked onto a familiar-looking green sedan. As Janice got out, thanking me for the ride, my eugenically enhanced vision made out the individual exiting that familiar vehicle.
It was Senator Sanderson. I'd recognize his short, stocky form anywhere. What was he doing at this lab opening? That hadn't been on his computerized itinerary.
"Hey, Janice, is it too late for me to tag along with you?" I asked suddenly, before she could close the car door.
"Changed your mind? That's a first," she commented.
"You know... you're right. I'm tired of running around, so responsible, like the weight of the world's on my shoulders. Forget work. Let's goof off," I said, trying to make it seem a natural decision, and not arouse suspicion. I didn't want her asking questions I wasn't allowed to answer.
"Alright!" she exclaimed. "Find a space to park this beauty, and I'll wait for you right here."
She slammed the passenger side door and I drove to the back half of the parking lot, where I found one of the few remaining spaces.
With the steel beast taken care of, I caught up with Janice where I'd left her, and she walked us up to the entrance of the newly constructed University Science Wing, a shiny metal and glass construct. The second floor hung over the first one by about eight feet, and the roof sloped to one side, making it look wobbly. Some engineering student must have had a field day designing it.
At the front door, a burly looking security guard was checking passes. Janice held up a laminated pass card, filled out in her name, and the security guard let us in without a second glance.
The main lobby of the science wing resembled that of a hospital in many ways. It had that bright, sterile look to it, with plenty of personnel in lab coats, directing groups of people up and down the halls.
As we stood solitary in the entryway, a youthful Asian lab technician approached us. "Sir, madame, this way," she directed, requesting we join one of the tour parties.
We flowed into a gathering of about twenty people, and as we began to move along on our grand tour, I realized Senator Sanderson was in our group. He and a woman who might have been his wife were only a few feet away from me. In the past month of watching over him, I had never had the opportunity to get so close to this legendary man, the hero of my future. What an honor it would be, just to shake his hand sometime during this tour. Either way, with the Senator so close, if the assassin were to strike, my eugenically enhanced reflexes would be ready to act in ample time.
The first room we visited was a physics lab, with all the latest scientific equipment, most of which was way over my head, even though it was a thousand years less advanced than what people worked with in my era. I can't say I'm proud of being scientifically inept, but my genes weren't geared for that field of study. Mine was a military line, trained for general combat and use of applicable technology.
Though, gene's aren't everything to being a good soldier.
As a junior officer, I'd had my share of trouble with authority. The military elders had their view of the way things should be done, and I had mine. They preferred waiting until problems arose before dealing with them, where I wanted to nip them in the bud. I had the nerve to point out that the dissident Randomites were growing in number, and couldn't be oppressed forever. I was laughed at and ridiculed, thought a fool for believing our "genetic inferiors" could ever pose a threat to the rest of us.
I should explain about the Randomites. As physically healthy as my eugenic brethren were, the cost was to deny all health to others. The Sanderson Eugenics Act, passed by Congress in the year 2100, denied reproductive rights to many people with specific genetic defects. Over the centuries, the millions of people denied offspring by the law bred illegally in secret, producing children of increasingly poor health. In my era, most of them were degenerated to the point of requiring cybernetic implants to survive.
Physically damaged, the Randomites may have been, but they numbered in the millions, and many had strong minds and spite for the society which had cursed them to physical degeneracy. They wanted revenge, and were always acting up in some violent way or another. Growing up, I realized their potential threat, but nobody listened until it was too late.
It was a group of Randomites who'd unlocked the secret of time travel, not some eugenically bred scientist. The Randomites, out of sinister desire, created a temporal portal device to send one of their number back through time and assassinate the man they saw as responsible for their poor lot in life: Senator Sanderson. If he were eliminated, they thought a better future could be created by keeping humanity naturally imperfect.
I'd headed up the commando team sent in to destroy the science facility where they'd constructed the portal. Unfortunately, in the middle of our operation, they managed to kick the thing on, and somebody got through. I jumped in a few seconds later, taking on the secondary mission to prevent the deviation of our timeline. The rest was becoming history.
And here I was, on the last day of that Randomite's devious mission to kill Senator Sanderson.
As our tour of the science wing continued, we moved into the genetics lab, where they bragged about their intricate map of the human genome.
The young asian woman leading the tour, who was obviously a fan of genetic manipulation rather than eugenic breeding, lectured a bit. "Now due to past abuses during the dark era of the past century, we aren't legally permitted to utilize this equipment to its full potential, and are merely permitted to study and map genetic function, rather than experiment on it. Truly a shame, considering the versatility of this laboratory."
"A shame if you're interested in playing God," Senator Sanderson spoke for the first time. His voice was somehow deeper than I imagined it would be.
"Ah, Senator Sanderson. It's an honor to have you tour our facilities," the tour guide replied. "Though, it is appreciated that you reserve judgement, sir, and refrain from asking any but pertinent questions."
"Just as you ought to," he responded. "I don't need to hear your editorialist opinion on the Gene Manipulation Bans."
"Yes, Senator, we here at Georgetown are all well aware of your anti-alteration stance. But please, listen to reason. Think of the hundreds of treatable genetic illnesses which could be cured, were we permitted to manipulate..."
"Not here, Miss. I'm a doctor, too, you know. I'm well aware of the potential advantages, and the hideous consequences of unnatural selection. For every gene you can fix with splicing, there are a dozen worse dormant ones, fighting to take its place. If you go mixing and matching genes, they'll react totally differently with each other, creating new and hideous defects. Good traits can become bad ones in a flash, if they react with implanted genes. It's not moral to mess with genetic coding on the level you would like. I'm sticking to the law, and the Lord."
"At least reconsider your vote on the prenatal bans. If only we were allowed to perform preimplantation genetic diagnosis on eggs, think of the added health benefits to women plagued by genetic illness."
"Frankly, I don't think so. It was proven half a century ago that you can't unnaturally weed out genetic strands with such tests. Most subjects produced using the method you speak of merely passed their mother's genetic illnesses on to their children. Even if embryos are selected for peak quality, they'll merely revert to type in a generation or two, adding hardship to future generations. There's no miracle cure, Miss. Only cold, hard reality. The only practical way to eliminate genetic illnesses would be to exclude those carrying them from the gene pool."
"Then what's the solution, Senator? Do we become a loveless, eugenic society, where the government mandates selective breeding?"
"Yes," I said before the Senator could reply. Sanderson gave me a curious stare, and remained silent for the rest of the tour.
There were only a couple more labs to view, which went by without a hitch. One was a new, state-of-the-art Interchorometer station, which combined the data of six separate satellite dishes to extrapolate the precise locations of stellar objects in space. Another lab was dedicated to studying the Earth's internal geophysical forces.
As we ended our tour, we were led into a cafeteria, where a few others who'd already gone through the facilities were eating brunch. Each pass card had a seating location on it, and everyone quickly dispersed in search of their tables.
I looked around and quickly realized that Janice was missing. Somehow, we'd gotten separated during the tour, and she was nowhere to be seen. That was great. She had the pass with our seating arrangements on it. I was feeling awkward as hell.
"Excuse me," Senator Sanderson addressed me. "Might I have a word with you?"
It was something I hadn't expected. What an honor! I did my best to mask my enthusiasm. "Certainly, Senator," I replied.
He escorted me over to his table and had his chief staffer (the woman who'd been touring with him) bring over an extra chair. Once the chair arrived, the staffer went out in search of a suitable drink for her boss.
"I'd like to talk to you about that comment you made to our tour leader," he started. "Tell me, how long have you been a fan of eugenics?"
"Ah, well, all my life, I'd say," I said uneasily.
Sitting alone with this eugenic pioneer wasn't quite as I would have imagined it. It was more unsettling than anything else, leaving me fearful of saying the wrong thing. I didn't want to alienate this hero of my history. What if I said something to change his mind on something; erased history, myself? If I weren't careful, I might be doing the Randomite's job for him.
"As you may or may not be aware, I, myself, have become inclined to agree with the philosophy of the eugenics movement in recent years, partially due to my scientific background and religious leanings," Sanderson continued. "However, it is a bit of a distasteful subject to take up legislatively, isn't it? I mean, in retrospect, I believe it may have been a tad brash of me to totally deny any other possible reproductive practices, don't you think?"
"Not at all, Senator," I replied, trying my best to bolster the ideals I knew he held.
"You know, you're the first person I've met with the nerve to say that. Tell me, what do you think about government regulated breeding?"
"I believe it is an eventuality, something that will be put into practice sooner or later. I say the sooner the better."
"Why is that?" The Senator was digging for something, but I wasn't sure what. He must have been looking for validation in the eyes of the public. Fortunately, I was here to give him the answer he needed to hear.
"Because without it, there's suffering?" I replied. "People suffer too greatly without eugenics. Humanity has reached a point where medical science allows those with once fatal genetic illnesses to live and reproduce, causing our race to be more dependent on medicine and technology to survive. If this continues, how long before we all require machines or drugs to correct genetic defects?"
"So, you say it's a question of physical survival, not one of genetic superiority," the Senator surmised.
"Aren't they the same thing? Freedom is superior. The only way to prevent our descendants from becoming slaves to technology is to assure they're as naturally healthy as possible. Eugenics isn't oppression. It's liberation!"
"My friend, I do believe you're right," Sanderson replied. "Tell me, what's your name?" he added, realizing we hadn't been properly introduced.
"Thomas Cooper, sir," I said.
"Cooper," the Senator repeated. "I'll remember that name."
As an easing calm began, Sanderson's staffer returned with three drinks of something yellow. "Sorry I took so long. Some idiot accidentally mixed dehydrated gravy in with the punch. All they've got left is lemonade."
"Anything will do for this dry throat," Sanderson replied politely, taking the plastic cup in hand. He held it up to mine in a toast. "To Eugenics, Thomas."
I agreed and took a sip of the drink. As the fluid passed my lips, I noticed an odd, greasy taste to it. It was certainly a queer flavor. I assumed the gravy contamination may have slipped into the lemonade as well, until I looked over and saw Senator Sanderson choking.
"Oh my god!" his chief staffer shouted. "Someone, get a doctor."
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I don't know, but I think it's his allergies," she replied.
"What allergies?" I asked, having never been told of any such genetic imperfections in the founder of eugenics.
"Peanuts. Even the scent of them will make him go into shock."
Suddenly realizing what must have happened, I picked up my cup and tasted my lemonade. Sure enough, the greasy substance was peanut oil.
Janice's peanut oil.
I looked over at the choking Senator and saw his cup completely drained. He must have downed the entire contents in one gulp, and each cup was half full of a substance that was deadly poison to him. All because he had a genetic impurity historians had sought to disguise.
Of course, Senator Sanderson's medical history was top secret, even in this day and age. The truth about his own genetic flaws could have discredited the entire eugenics movement.
A great commotion had arisen, with half the people scrambling to help in some way. I couldn't stick around any longer. If time were truly unalterable, such as many scientists believed, then the senator would survive and make his speech. If not, then I had to find Janice before she could do any further damage.
As I reached a door leading out of the cafeteria, I heard a shrill shout. "The Senator's dead!"
So much for anti-paradox theories.
Jogging down the bright white halls of the science wing, I tried to think where Janice would go. Where could she go?
She'd accomplished what she'd been sent to do. Yet, for either of us in the here and now, what difference would it have made had I succeeded, instead? We were both stranded here, a thousand years before our time, from a world which now may never be. I for one hadn't made any plans beyond saving Senator Sanderson's life. Now, I apparently had the rest of my life to live out in a wholly different past.
There was only one place to go. Back to my car.
As I stepped out into the sun and stared across the parking lot, my eyes saw a solitary figure sitting on the hood of my car. Of course, where else would Janice have gone?
I ran across the pavement, sliding between rows of parked cars, until I reached my vehicle and the woman waiting for me.
"Pretty crowded in there, huh?" she greeted me, as if nothing odd had gone on. "Want to grab lunch someplace else?"
"You're the randomite!" I shouted at her, still half disbelieving it.
The cheerful look on her face suddenly melted away, replaced with stunning dread. She slid off the car and stood up. "What? No, you can't be..."
"I'm Captain Thomas Sanderson Cooper, Domestic Terrorism Division," I said, drawing my pistol. "I'm the one who almost shut down your portal."
"No, you couldn't have made it through. I went through first, and I've succeeded. The second I went through the portal, you should have ceased to exist." Janice took a step back from me.
"But I didn't, because I was meant to come back and stop you."
"No," she said softly, leaning back against the car. "Oh, my God. No, you didn't come back to stop me. You came back to help."
"What?" I asked, lowering my gun. I realized it wasn't going to do anyone any good to shoot her now.
"Don't you see? When I first entered the portal, the future didn't cease to exist, meaning I was going to fail. But you changed that. Your presence here must have made the subtle difference needed for me to succeed. Don't you see, we both killed Senator Sanderson."
"All I ever did was drive you around," I said.
"That's all I needed," she said, stepping up to me. She smiled and gave a sigh of relief.
"How could you be so happy? You've destroyed everyone and everything we've ever known." I for one had been satisfied with the future I'd lived in.
"Maybe that's for the best. Maybe not. We'll find out, I guess?
"Do you want to know why I really did this?" Janice asked abruptly. "It wasn't because life was so bad for me in the future. Sure, my parents had been Randomites, but there's nothing physically defective with me at all. I could have rejoined the breeding pool... but no, I came back here to prove a point. It's as simple as that."
"What point?" I asked, feeling overwhelming sadness. My anger was wearing off, leaving me with a great emptiness, feeling the loss of an entire world.
"To prove that we make our own destiny, that the future's not set. Don't you see? By changing history, by spitting in the face of paradoxes, we've just proven that there's no such thing as fate. We're free, Tommy. Finally, truly free."
Her reasoning was a slight comfort, and the fact that I was still alive and well, rather than erased from history, allowed the sadness to fade, the sting of failure to numb. My old life was gone, and nothing could bring it back, but at least I'd live to remember it.
"Listen, we'd better get going before anybody notices us here. Wouldn't want security catching up after they realize the Senator's death was more than an accident." Janice said, walking away from me.
"How do you know I'm not going to turn you in?"
Janice chuckled a little. "If that were how you felt, I believe you would have shot me already, but we both know you're too noble for that sort of thing. Just the same, I'm heading back to the boarding house if you change your mind about anything."
She was right about my honorable mindset. She may have condemned our future to erasure, but she was still my friend, and she'd done nothing actively against me. Besides, we were both in the same boat, stranded outside our time of existence.
"Hey, Janice, need a ride?" I asked, getting out my keys. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't hate her. She was the only real friend I'd ever had, and as a warrior I couldn't help but admire her for this victory, regardless of the consequences.
"You read my mind," she replied.
"It's the eugenics. Evolved mind, and all," I cracked, trying to cheer myself up.
Janice chuckled a little and got in.
As I revved the engine to life, an idea came across my mind, and I had to share it. "You know, Janice, what if fate really does exist? What if all realities across all alternate timelines are connected, and we were meant to come back and change history, to make a different destiny?"
"That's something I hadn't thought of." The joy vanished from Janice's face.
And a grin was plastered on mine.