He wore a suit, tattered by the elements. Mud had stained his pristine leather shoes and constant rain turned the Armani vest into a sodden mess that stuck to his slim frame like a second skin. Overall, Jonas Van Halen drew a sad shape in the night, outlined by the sputtering fire he had somehow managed to create under a rocky outcrop. The man shivered and drew closer to the delicate flames, his hands clasped above them as if in supplication, begging for them to grow larger and bring heat to a no doubt frozen body. Wind smashed through the tall trees above, rattling their branches and ripping away leaves like rowboats on a stormy sea. From the cover of his bush, Marcus heaved a sigh and bowed his head. It never got easier.
On the other side of the camp, a twig snapped in the shadows. It echoed like cannon fire, distinct amongst the dull roar of the wind and rain. Van Halen’s head snapped towards the sound, hiding his features from Marcus. A cloaked figure stepped out from the tree line, lithe and sleek. The figure looked down at Val Halen before turning towards Marcus and nodding once. Target confirmed. For a brief moment, the fire illuminated dark features and darker eyes.
“Hello, Jonas,” she said, walking over to the fire and crouching down beside it.
“H-how do you know my name?” asked the man through chattering teeth.
The figure, Aslı, shrugged and glanced over at him. “Are we the first people you’ve met?”
A shake of his head and Marcus clenched his hands into fists. Another complication to add to an ever-growing list. “No, I met a man, but he didn’t speak English.” Jonas paused before looking up at Aslı with wide, terrified eyes. “Where am I?”
“Nice technique,” replied Aslı, jerking her thumb at the fire. “Don’t look like you know your way around nature.” She was stalling, again. Marcus frowned and began to draw his bow, the weapon trembling and bending, like a muscle of wood and sap.
Jonas laughed, his breath exploding out in a snort. He rubbed his nose and gave Aslı a weak smile. “Was a boy scout as a kid. Haven’t forgotten everything.”
Aslı turned away from him and stared into the fire, nodding slowly. Neither of them spoke for a few seconds, the crackling of flames filling the ever-heavier silence. Finally, Van Halen shifted again. “This is what happens, isn’t it? The anomalies don’t actually kill people.”
“Nope,” said Aslı, stretching her hands out over the flames. Her fingers brushed against Jonas’s and she recoiled, as if she feared human contact. Damn it, Aslı, thought Marcus as he sighted down the arrow.
“How did you find me?”
“You got any family?”
They spoke at the same time, but neither question was answered before the twang of a taut bowstring echoed in the night and an arrow flew into the firelight. Marcus’s aim was true, and it slammed into Jonas’s chest. The man’s lips formed a surprised ‘O’ even as he fell back into the grass, his body going limp. Aslı ducked her head and jumped up, pulling her hood off and glaring towards Marcus’ hiding place. “The hell was that for?”
Marcus pushed past a low hanging bough and into the firelight. He walked over to Jonas and knelt beside him. His eyes were glassy and empty. Rain poured down on him, as if the world itself wept at his passing. With a gentle gesture, he shut the unfortunate man’s eyes forever.
“You were taking too long.” He slung his bow over his shoulder and glanced sideways at her. A narrow face with hard, dark eyes and olive skin twisted into an ugly glare. “Being sentimental doesn’t help,” he added.
“I don’t do it for them.”
“Don’t do it at all. Hurts less.” He circled the fire and kicked it over, shoving a heap of mud over it with the sole of his boot. The flames sputtered and hissed, erupting into streams of steam as they gasped their final breaths and died out beside their creator. “Check the body, we’re almost out of time.” Time travel was a fickle tool and this far back into the past, he could only use his intuition to judge when their time was up. Watches were a risk they couldn’t afford pre-1770.
Marcus did a circle of the camp while Aslı searched the body, pulling various modern pieces of technology from it and stowing them in her satchel. Finally, she turned back to Marcus and nodded once, walking over to him and clasping his arm. “We’ve got a few minutes,” she said as she sat down and leaned back against a tree. He joined her. Dozens of missions together had taught him to trust her instinct when it came to time-telling.
“How many times are we going to do this?” she asked after a few moments of silence.
Aslı waved a vague hand around them, encompassing the dreary clearing, the body and the last dregs of steam escaping the campfire. “This. Killing people for being unlucky.”
“As long as we’re told to,” replied Marcus with a small shrug. He still clasped her arm, waiting for the jerk that would bring them back to the present. Holding hands was something they had both shirked away from since the start. It felt too intimate, too close for two people forced into a situation neither wanted to be in.
“And when it’s done?”
“We’ll go free,” Marcus replied, leaning his head back against the tree and staring up at its leafy boughs.
Aslı snorted and shook her head sharply, looking at him with raised eyebrows. “You really believe that, don’t you? That they’ll take people like us, force us into killing some unlucky fucks, then let us go free to tell the world what they’ve done? I thought marines were supposed to be smart.”
He glared right back and wished he could pull away from her, but their time was almost up, and letting go now meant one of them would probably suffer an unpleasant death. He’d seen it happen before to returning strike teams that didn’t maintain contact during the trip. A small shiver ran down his spine and he clenched her forearm tighter. “What choice do we have?” He lifted a finger. “You disobey, they flip a switch and your head gets blown off.” A second finger rose. “Try to escape and your head gets blown off.” A third finger rose. “Don’t kill the “unlucky fuck,” your head gets blown off. We can’t do anything but what they tell us until we find a way out and you know it!”
“There’s always a way out, and when I find it, I’m-.” Her words were cut short as a tingling sensation enveloped Marcus and his whole body began to vibrate as if he were lying beside a speeding train. Beside him, Aslı too began to phase out, her body warping like a ghost. Her lips kept moving, but her words no longer reached him. Then, the forest around them disappeared and everything turned black. The transition always felt like it took forever, and no time at all. For that time, all Marcus could feel was Aslı’s hand around his forearm, clamping down on him like a vice. His eyes were wide open, but there was nothing to see until, all of a sudden, he landed on a cold metal surface with a solid thump.
A groan escaped his lips and he rolled over, letting go of his companion and hauling himself up on all fours. His eyes felt as if they had been microwaved. Everything looked out of focus, dancing around him in circles. With a heave, he threw up on the chrome surface below him and wiped his mouth, the bitter taste scouring his tongue like acid. Beside him, Aslı had mimicked him to perfection. Time travel was nasty and, more often than not, left you retching for hours, especially on the return journey.
“Hey, at least that was only 1100 CE,” said a voice above him, as if reading his mind. A pair of boots entered his vision and he slowly looked up into a dark, goateed face. “Another team came back a day ago from 300 BCE. You should have seen them. You’d have thought they’d been on a month-long bender.”
“Hey Jonas,” said Marcus, stretching out his hand. The man pulled him up with a grunt and slapped him on the shoulder, pointing over to the side of the platform. “Water and a change of clothes, as always, Master Pryce,” he said with a fake bow, before returning to his dials and screens. Marcus gave him a half-hearted smile and trudged over to the small nearby table. Leaning against it, he popped open a bottle of water and stared up at the machine. The Time Machine, a dream for so many thousands of people, now used to kill those unfortunate enough to be caught by a Time Anomaly before they could destroy the future. It arched above him like a gigantic metal spider, its spindly limbs twirling down to the circumference of the platform, where small arcs of electricity connected the two. As a kid, he’d dreamed of a Time Machine. To study real dinosaurs would have been heaven for young Marcus. But now that he had it, he could only hate it.
A high-pitched whining sound snapped Marcus out of his light sleep like a jolt of pure adrenaline. For a super-secret megacorp, TIMED had a stunning disregard for its operatives. He pushed himself onto his elbow and stared out of his cell through thick iron bars. Then again, being a prisoner did give the company some leeway in how they treated him. He groaned and jabbed the warm body beside him with a finger until Aslı shot up with her eyes wide and her hands curled into fists. “What?”
“Wake up call,” replied Marcus, pushing away his thin sheet and jumping out of his cot. There were two beds per cell, one for each operator, but like most teams, they took to sharing shortly after being recruited. Sex was a rare delicacy in this prison, one they treasured when they could. The shower was as cold and bleak as the cell, icy water splashing down Marcus’s back and smacking the last dregs of sleep from his brain. He finished quickly and stepped out in time to see Aslı massaging a series of three gunshot scars lining her torso like stars.
“How’re the wounds?” he asked, making her jolt and yank her tank top down.
“Fine,” she snapped, pushing past him and into the small shower.
“Don’t look like it.”
“I don’t ask you about your face, do I?” she replied before pulling the shower curtain shut.
Marcus shrugged and trailed a finger down the burn marks littering his neck and jaw. They didn’t really hurt anymore, it had been far too long since the explosions had marred him forever. Still, the tightness of his skin and the occasional sting was an eternal reminder of his failures, and that stung far more than any scar could. With a shrug, he pulled on the orange jumpsuit and pulled Aslı’s from under the bed. With a few deft flicks of his hands, he removed the many crumples and creases before neatly arranging it beside the bed.
With the press of a button, the iron bars keeping him inside his cell slid into the ground and he marched to the far end of the hallway, where it broke into a great cavern that stretched out like the maw of some giant beast. Many other halls punctured it, running deep into the earth in an artificial anthill of activity. Most of the cavern was divided by high fences, splitting apart eating areas from workout sections, and other various necessities of prison life. Marcus made a beeline for the first cafeteria, pushing past a few prisoners on his way there. His stomach growled ferociously, and he winced. Three days in 1100 CE with minimal food did not benefit a grown man. Grabbing a tray from one of the cooks, he sat down in the designated operator’s area. Like most prisons, there was a hierarchy of groups, except they were divided by their roles in the corporation instead of their gang affiliations. Operators sat at the top of the food chain. They were the men and women that TIMED sent back in time to kill those unfortunate enough to be caught up in a Time Anomaly. All of them had some sort of military or paramilitary background along with a callous disregard for their own safety and that of those around them.
Marcus stared down at his plate and sighed. “Worse than Afghanistan,” he muttered. He poked a stringy grey piece of meat with his fork and wrinkled his nose before quickly swallowing it down with a gulp of water.
“You always look like eating this will kill you,” said Aslı, sliding into a seat beside him and digging into her meal, her face devoid of any of the disgust Marcus felt. “You should be glad to be eating at all,” she added between bites, her cheeks puffed and full. Apparently, the shower had washed away her bad mood and she was willing to talk to him without snapping.
“Not all of us are used to eating roots and drinking muddy water,” said Marcus as he reluctantly swallowed another gobbet of unidentifiable meat. “Some of us fought in a real army.”
She flicked a pea at him with her thumb and rolled her eyes. As she opened her mouth to reply, her expression suddenly sobered and her gaze locked onto something to Marcus’s side. A man came jogging up to the pair. His cheeks were red and his breath came in short gasps, but he spared them both a quick, formal nod. “Command wants you in the briefing room,” he said before jogging off once more.
Aslı turned to Marcus with a frown. “So soon?” she asked.
He reflected her expression but shrugged. “Orders are orders.”
“They’re the ones who keep saying we need seven days between missions,” she grumbled, but she followed him nonetheless as he rose and carved a way through the crowd and towards the one place that still connected them to the lives of those above. Food would have to wait.
Aslı burst out of the briefing room first, a storm of emotions on her face, while Marcus followed behind at a slower pace. By the time he’d caught up with her, she was already in front of the armory. Her breath came in short gasps and her cheeks were flushed. She stood staring at the reinforced steel door in front of her, chest heaving, before slamming her fist into it. “Fuck! They really want us to kill a kid?”
Marcus thought back to the picture shown to them in the briefing. He was short, maybe eight years old with brown eyes and tanned skin, an Italian kid from Florence. TIMED didn’t even have a name for the street kid, just a1450s style painting for them to use in the field. He dispelled the image with a shake of his head and pressed the button next to the armory door, looking up at the camera above him. “Why would they make us do that?” asked Aslı.
“Why do you think?” Marcus replied as the door buzzed and slid open slowly. “They know we’ll finish the job.”
“You would, wouldn’t you,” muttered Aslı from behind his back. Marcus flinched, but smoothed out his features as he stepped into a large hall filled with rack upon rack of weapons and clothing. It was a historian’s wet dream. Perfect replicas of weapons going back to the early Babylonians, painstakingly recreated clothing and armor from antiquity to the 1940s. Guns lay in piles next to maces and swords, which in turn shared space with togas and colorful Renaissance garb.
“Grab your gear and get dressed,” he ordered Aslı as he walked over to a section with rows of arquebuses. “We’ve got three hours.”
By the time they were done equipping themselves in time appropriate gear and clothing, the three hours were almost up. They hurried over to the most restricted section of the entire facility. Marcus led the way as they approached the first checkpoint of many. These were the only places where he had ever seen a prison guard physically. Occasionally they would appear on screen to make announcements, but only at the checkpoints to the Time Machines did they stand guard, with their weapons and black helmets covering their faces. They all wore longing, black coats, black gloves and black collars, obscuring any skin. Above them, the logo for TIMED was stamped into concrete, two circles with an arrow pointing downwards towards the company’s official name: Time Inconsistency Management & Elimination Department.
He and Aslı went through check after check until finally, the last pair of guards waved them through with their guns. Ahead of them stood the four Time Machines, each one shining like some device pulled straight out of the future. Jonas was already there, flitting about his machine like a worried hen over its children. He looked up as Marcus approached and smiled nervously. “Fancy seeing you here so soon,” he said, giving him a quick handshake.
“Not like we have a choice,” said Aslı, nodding sharply in his direction.
Jonas rubbed his hands together and nodded mutely a few times before pointing to the machine. “Alright, you know how it works. I’ll prep your, uhm, compliance devices.”
Marcus walked over to the center of the machine and closed his eyes as the small chip in his neck began to heat up. His muscles still felt weak from the strain of his last trip and he gritted his teeth as Jonas called out the beginning of the sequence. Even with week-long breaks, this hurt like hell. Beside him, Aslı took hold of his forearm and they both tensed. Then, in an explosion of blue light and with the feeling of being yanked upwards, the room disappeared.
Marcus landed on a grassy knoll not far from the gates of Florence. He had never ventured into this part of the past and after a few minutes spent massaging his spasming limbs and recovering from the aftershock of the trip, he sat for a while and stared at the city as Aslı recovered a few feet away. The city was truly beautiful, with a sea of rolling hills stretching out in every direction, it looked like a sandstone ship braving a verdant ocean. “Let’s get this over with,” he said.
They reached the gates with the sun low across the horizon. As they stepped through, Marcus stopped and put a hand on Aslı’s shoulder. He looked at her with serious eyes. Hopefully this was the right decision. “We should split up. You can ask around for him in bars, I’ll check out the alleys and slums.”
“Why not the other way around?” she asked with a frown, shrugging off his hand.
“You speak Italian, I don’t. I can throw money and point at the picture in an alley, you can chat people up.”
“Fine,” she said after a few moments of hesitation, “If they even understand my Italian.” She nibbled her lip before nodding sharply and spinning on her heel.
“Meet in front of the Cathedral Sanctae Mariae Floris in two nights’ time.”
Just as she was about to march into the crowd rushing to get through the gate before curfew, Marcus called after her. She turned around with a raised eyebrow. “If you get the chance, just do it. Don’t think,” he said, staring straight into her eyes. She was too soft sometimes, and the kid would be a hard trial for her to get past, but if they ever wanted to get out of this situation, disobeying orders was not the way to go. It would only get them killed.
Aslı didn’t reply, and quickly disappeared amongst the swell of people, leaving Marcus to stand near the gates, his mind whirling with doubts. Hopefully, he could find the kid first and spare her the pain of having to see it happen. Yes, that would be the preferable option. He could shoulder the guilt, but it might be too much for her to bear.
The two nights went by in a blur, and by the time the sun was setting on his third day in Florence, Marcus was beginning to doubt he would ever find the kid at all. He was just one face among thousands of other similar ones. The alleys had been less than bountiful when it came to information and even a few gold coins thrown at the people that lurked in their shadows had done nothing but lead him on a wild goose chase. He leaned against an ornate home’s wall and stared up at the massive cathedral, waiting for Aslı. The building had shut down for the night, and four guards stood in front of its impressive doors.
“I know where he is,” came a voice from his side. Aslı walked into his line of sight, a grim expression on her face. She had a small bruise on her cheek and looked like she had been in more than one fight.
“Some men didn’t know when to quit,” she said, readjusting her shirt.
“Where is he?”
Aslı turned to look at the Cathedral and jerked her chin in its direction. “In there, a man said he found him near the city walls, wandering around looking lost. He brought him to the Cathedral and apparently the priests were impressed by his education.”
“What education? He was a street kid,” said Marcus with a frown.
Aslı nodded grimly, “Man said his name was Leonardo da Vinco.”
Marcus ran a hand along his face and brushed away the fatigue and mounting doubt that clawed at his mind like a disease. “This changes nothing,” he said after a few moments, taking a deep breath and purging his hesitation along with it. Aslı snorted and gave him a disbelieving glance, but thankfully kept her mouth shut. They needed a plan, and wasting time worrying about a name was no longer an option, not with so little time left on the counter. “Alright, here’s the plan,” he said after a few seconds. “We scout out the building, check for ways in, more guards, you know the drill. In two hours, we go in, do our job and leave by sunrise, got it?”
The bells tolled, as if fate itself voiced its approval and Marcus glanced up at the Cathedral. Above him, the moon reflected off the bronze bells in its tower as they sang their metallic melody to the city. The idea of murdering someone in a cathedral sent a shiver down his spine, but he grit his teeth and took a deep breath. “Alright, let’s go.”
At the back, there was a small patch of greenery with a door nearly hidden by creeping vines. It was unguarded, and a quick inspection of the lock showed that a little force was all it would take to break it open. By the time Aslı met up with him, he had the lock figured out and was waiting, his flintlock pistol in one hand. She glanced towards it and grimaced. “Let’s go,” he said. Taking a step back, Marcus glanced around to make sure they were along before kicking the door near the lock, his full weight following his boot into the fragile wood. It broke with ease, splintering and crashing inwards with a reverberating slam. Marcus burst through the door, his pistol held in front of him. The door led into the main room and he took it in quickly. Rows of pews, an altar, a few candles emitting weak light and, on the stairs leading up to the altar, a boy wrapped in a blanket, with a pillow under his head.
Marcus’s entry must have woken him up, for the child sat up and rubbed his eyes blearily. By the time he had beaten the fatigue out of his eyes, Aslı and Marcus were nearly upon him. Finally, the kid’s eyes focused on him and Marcus pointed the pistol at his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, as his finger tensed on the trigger. Better he did it than someone else. But just as he was about to fire, Aslı stepped forward and jumped in front of the kid, her features twisted with hesitation.
“So am I, but we can’t just kill him.”
The child stood behind Aslı now, his eyes wide with fear as she stretched her arms out around him like a cocoon and stared down Marcus, her eyes burning with determination. “If you want to kill him, you’ll have to kill me too and I don’t think you can.”
Marcus glared at her, his flintlock pistol pointed at her chest, where the child’s head lay pressed against her back, as if her flesh would protect him from steel and fire. “We have our orders, Aslı, get the fuck out of the way,” he said, his voice calm despite the pressure building within. The pistol trembled slightly in his grip and he licked his lips, glancing between her and the child.
“Think, Marcus,” snapped Aslı, jabbing a finger at the kid behind her. “His name is Leonardo da Vinco, that isn’t a coincidence!” her voice had risen to a shout now and Marcus flinched as they echoed throughout Mariae Floris like a tolling bell. “He’s part of the future already, killing him won’t save anything.”
“TIMED is there to stop the future getting fucked. They gave us orders to kill him, they’ve got their reasons!” he replied, his own voice rising in concert with hers.
“You still think they’re some kind of fucking saints that save the world? God! You can’t be that naïve!” She pointed at her neck. “We’ve got bombs in our necks. They’re killing kids! You think they don’t have their own twisted agenda? There’s more to it than killing people before they mess up the future, and you know it.”
A bead of sweat trickled down Marcus’s face and he swiped it away with his hand. “If we don’t do it, they’ll kill us. They’ll pop our heads and replace us.”
“Because they won’t do that anyway? The moment we stop being relevant, they’ll just toss us into an airlock and let the ocean have us.” Her glare melted away like snow beneath the sun and she took a step forward, stretching out her hand. “Drop the gun, Marcus. We’re not worth a kid’s life.” Another step. “We’re murderers, prisoners, dead to the world already.” Her words hit him like punches and every step she took made him lower his gun a fraction. “I’ve killed innocent men just doing their jobs because I wanted to be free. You murdered civilians because they killed your men. We’re not worth his life.”
“I just…” Marcus took a deep breath and shook his head, his vision clearing a fraction. His gun hung limply by his side now. “I just want to get us both out of all this shit.”
Aslı was in front of him now, he could feel her breath tickling his stubble. She stretched a hand and took a hold of his, prying the gun out of it and tossing it to the ground before reaffirming her grip and squeezing it gently. “Then let the kid live.”
With a shuddering sigh, he nodded and fell back into a pew, his head lolling back slightly and staring at the child. He seemed to understand that he was safer now, but as he edged towards Aslı, she lifted a hand and snapped off a few words in Italian, enough to make him halt and tilt his head to the side with a frown. She repeated herself and the boy nodded mutely before turning around and scurrying out of the Cathedral with one final look.
“What did you say?”
“I told him he was free, but that he could never go back to the present.”
“He took it well,” replied Marcus with a weak smile. His fingertips felt cold as if his body was already accepting its inevitable destruction.
“I think he knew that already. If he really is da Vinci, then he isn’t stupid.”
“Why would they do this, make us kill him?” muttered Marcus.
“Who knows,” replied Aslı, squeezing his hand and pulling it into her lap. Her grip was warm, and it warded off the chill in his body. “Maybe they’ve been doing stuff like this all along, maybe it was a mistake.”
“A mistake we’ll die for.”
“I’d rather die doing the right thing than with a bag over my head, when we’ve outgrown our usefulness,” replied Aslı. She leaned up against him and closed her eyes. They stayed like that for a while, and Mariae Florisremained deserted, only a few flickering candles granting them any light. “It’s almost time,” said Aslı.
“We haven’t confirmed the kill,” replied Marcus. He knew what happened to teams that failed their missions, he’d heard it from Jonas. After all, the man was the one who fixed and worked on the explosives in their necks every time they made the jump to the past. If they didn’t kill their target and confirm it through a short verification process, instead of sending an impulse to bring them back to the present, TIMED sent a detonation signal. At least it would be over quickly.
He held on to Aslı’s hand, squeezing it tightly. Words felt inadequate, powerless when faced with death. There were too many things to say, but too few ways to express them. So, he held on to her like a lifeline, even as he felt the one in his neck ticking away. Finally, as the sun began to rise, Marcus closed his eyes. It was time.