I’m dreaming about a one-armed man when the call comes through. I suffer with night terrors now and then, so in my panicked and dreamlike state I lash out, punching my pillow with force. It’s a good job I sleep alone. The ringing, direct in my eardrum, finally coaxes me out of my REM cycle and wakes me from my much-needed sleep. I hate it when they override my ear implant like that. It’s only for emergencies they say but what exactly constitutes an emergency? The fine print in my employment contract doesn’t say. Being awake is jarring and takes me a while to adjust to the state of forced consciousness. Not for the first time, I regret having the biotech upgrades in my body.
I tap my inner ear and answer the call uttering a groaned “Sir?” by way of greeting, my voice still husky from slumber.
“Mike. We need you in. Now.”
It’s a struggle to leave the warm cocoon of my bed but I emerge victorious, aching and yawning, and get changed. My whole body screams go back to bed, not only because my sleep was rudely interrupted but also my recent case has been so physically taxing. I need a break, a nice long vacation to somewhere warm with beaches and alcohol. I’m 32 and I’m honestly getting too old for this.
But, thankfully I don’t have to commute; work meetings are usually conducted virtually from a secure server set up at home, so on sleep-deprived auto-pilot I log in to my work terminal , open up my work database and enter a video conference with my boss within 10 minutes, wielding a strong cup of coffee at my side like a firearm. It’s 4am and the sun is just starting to rise over the hilly landscape of Northern California, casting an eerie amber tinge to my apartment. The ominous golden glow sets the tone for the virtual meeting, where there are two other government officials waiting. Internal Affairs, I assume although I’ve never seen these guys before. They both don dull grey suits and serious authoritative expressions. The mood is sombre and I know my usual wisecracks about dragging me out of bed wouldn’t be well received right now.
“Morning Mr Knokes,” One of the government officials begins by introducing himself in a monotone voice and immediately takes charge of proceedings. My boss is nowhere to be seen; his camera is turned off, so it appears I’m left fending for myself. “We are the Internal Affairs Committee of Behaviours and Affairs to the Precrime Department. My name is Officer Carlo.”
It’s a mouthful of a job title which I didn’t really listen to, but I know it indicates that they mean business. Officer Carlo, is dark-haired, possibly of Italian descent but in our video meeting his features appear even darker, the screen emits a strange grey-coloured miasma and his shadowy eyes peer into the screen like inky pits. Intimidation tactics still working well in a virtual setting, I note.
“How can I help you Officer Carlo?” I offer. In my nervous state ,my tone is smug and slightly unctuous, so I take a deep breath and silently tell myself to act normal.
“We are opening an investigation into your current time-centric assignment in California.” Officer Carlo replies, reading from a script verbatim. “And it would be in your best interests to answer a few questions pertinent to our investigation. In accord with your departmental policies you can request a union representative to sit in with you during this discussion.”
He has the cold, rigid, emotionally detached manner of an interrogator down to a tee. The condescending, somewhat nasal tone of voice; the passive-aggressive nuances where he says one thing but means another, the pen poised to write notes just to unnerve me. It’s all part of the dance. I know full well I have the right for my union rep, but we both know he’d be making a black mark in my file somewhere if I use one.
“It’s okay, I’m fine.” I say confidently which is a lie. I’m not fine and I’m not okay. This case has been the bane of my life for the last few months; an operational nightmare and sooner or later it was going to come back and bite me. Well today’s the day.
“Let the record reflect, union representation was declined. Can you confirm your name and job title, for the record?”
“My name is Mike Knokes ,Time Protection Officer of the 24th Precrime Division based in California.”
“And could you briefly summarize the nature of your work as Time Protection Officer?.”
“Of course.” I speak clearly and concisely.
“ As a Time Protection Officer , we use Precrime databases to look for and detect possible serious and major crimes . Using newly-developed Time Travel technologies we can eliminate these threats before they occur, by eliminating the potential suspect. Our division currently operate on a 99% efficiency rating.”
I know, through video capture tools I’m also being analyzed in real time for facial tics, speech patterns, anything that could give away liars and cheaters of the system. I am neither but is still disarming to be under the microscope like this; especially first thing in the morning and without breakfast.
Officer Carlo pauses to take notes. “Thank you. Now moving on to your current case. The Precrime suspect is a potential serial killer, is that correct?”
“That’s correct. Our Precrime database spotted a potential serial killer in serious 1 category, who could potentially go on to kill over 50 innocent people.”
“According to the file your first suspect for this serial killer was one: Michael Renard?”
“Yes. Our data analysis led us to this suspect with a 97% match.”
“And you jumped to his timeline -to the date July 4 2010 to perform the first assassination of the case, as authorized by your superior Jerry West correct?”
“Yes . We wanted to eliminate the suspect before he committed his first crime: a house robbery, from which his crimes would escalate.”
“And he was killed in a drive-by shooting?”
“Those were my parameters. We pinpointed a date and time he would be alone. I used a BTT dated weapon, a 9mm, to ensure the authorities in that timeline would conclude the crime was OTT.”
“For the record. BTT means Before Time Travel and OTT means Of That Timeline.” Officer Carlo turns slightly to the side at this point, speaking to someone off-camera . It’s apparent that other members of the committee are listening in on this call. I’m being interrogated, analyzed and broadcast in one fell swoop as if they’ve already got their guy and I wonder if it’s too late for my union rep, or perhaps even a lawyer. “And if I can ask you Mr Knokes to refrain from using acronyms here on out and be as clear as possible with your terminology.”
“No problem.” I reply taking a sip of coffee that turns into a gulp. I’m starting to perspire and I come to the sobering realization that my job and future career is on the line at this moment. Where the hell was my boss Jerry? Did he just feed me to the proverbial wolves and run?
“Now after that first authorized assassination- that should have been the end to your assignment, isn’t that right?”
“Yes once a potential suspect is eliminated, it’s usually case closed and we then focus on watching potential victims as a precaution.”
“But in this case, could you please explain to the committee what occurred next?”
My throat is dry and my hands are damp. I take another sip of coffee, clear my throat and try to keep my response clear and concise. “Approximately 30 days later we discovered an anomaly with the data sets. Another suspect for the same future crimes was named , a Mr Brian Hart, again with a 90% match. It’s never happened before I believe, so my team and I convened an emergency meeting and formulated a risk assessment.”
“What did that risk assessment show?”
“That if we performed a second assassination we would still be in the positive for the danger -to -life ratio and would still be performing a service to the public. In other words, the collateral damage of the mistaken identity was deemed acceptable against the protection of lives metric. A second assassination would be within our parameters.”
“So the second assassination was authorized. How was this performed Mr Knokes?”
“The assassination occurred on 27 September 2010. My team and I decided we didn’t want any link to the first assassination to be made, so we altered our weapon of choice and used a knife OTT: Of That Timeline.”
“Okay moving on.” Officer Carlo continues taking copious notes. It’s all part of the choreography, the intentionally slow turning of the page, the wielding of the pen- God only knows what he’s writing: the whole conversation is being monitored and recorded and an automatic transcript would be available and printed out on thick-reamed paper two seconds after this call. “ It is also our understanding another anomaly occurred soon after which prompted you to log these issues with the investigative complaints team of Department of Precrime Technology.”
“Yes that’s correct. Another suspect was named, a Mr Peter Steadman, again with a high match percentage of 97%. These anomalies were very unusual and we had to raise the question with the complaints team.”
“ So what did you and your team decide?”
“We performed another risk assessment. As this serial killer was predicted to be highly dangerous and according to psychological profiles and precrime projections, would go on to kill over 50 innocent people, the assassination of another suspect still fell within our positive parameters as the benefits outweighed the risks.”
“Did you store and save these risk assessments?”
“Yes Officer Carlo. I can give you access if required.”
“What happened next?”
“We didn’t have much planning behind this one as it was again time-critical, so we performed another assassination. It wasn’t our best work I admit, but my team and I were under considerable stress at this point and we were showing symptoms of TCS: Time Crossing Syndrome. ”
“What sort of symptoms?”
“Memory loss, disorientation. It caused some mistakes to be made at the scene; someone else got hurt. But my guys are good, they are the best at what they do.” I say this adamantly cos I’d be damned if any of this blowback goes back on them. It’s a typical field officer reaction, where all our geese are swans but this isn’t my first rodeo, I’ve seen how Internal Affairs operate; I’ve seen their investigations turn savage, or devolve into government-sanctioned witch hunts , where regardless of the mistake someone is to blame and lessons will be learned. Yes, there are moral ambiguities to our work, we work in the ethical grey but that’s why we have processes and calculated assessments- we act on the data and I won’t have them scapegoated for doing their job. Not today.
“And did you make any attempt to jump back and fix these mistakes?” Officer Carlo asks gravely. “or undo the assassinations?”
“The data didn’t allow for that sir. According to the analysis, they were all a match. If we undid the assassinations we’d run the risk of saving the real serial killer- people would have died. It also creates complex ripples in the timelines, I understand.”
There is a pause in proceedings now as Officer Carlo confers with his colleagues. I hear whispers and a low rumble of voices. My eyes narrow and my ears prick up, I raise my head, alert to my surroundings. This meeting is strange but something in the minutiae of their communication signals something more serious is going on; it’s the furrowing of brows, the deepening of tones, even through a screen, seeing nothing but disembodied heads, I can read the room and sense the urgency and stress behind their chatter. It makes me nervous and my eyes flitter subconsciously to my uniform and holster on the other side of the room.
Abruptly and unceremoniously, they leave the meeting. The chat room is empty and I’m left, baffled, facing a blank monitor.
Out of nowhere, my boss Jerry flashes onto screen. His camera is now on and he’s visibly stressed; he’s eyes are shadowed with dark crescents and there’s uncharacteristic stubble smattered on his chin.
“What the hell Jerry!” I bark.
“Don’t worry too much Mike. We played it by the book.” He says in an unconvincing attempt to reassure me. His eyes are darting everywhere and he’s fidgeting with his hair, tell-tale signs of a liar. A bad one at that.
“Cut the bull Jerry, what’s going on?” I ask. “Is there a problem with the tech?”
“Can of worms. No one is admitting anything.” More fidgeting, no eye contact. “But the problem is the assassinations.”
“What do you mean? We followed the risk-assessments- they were authorized.”
Jerry pauses, he takes a deep breath and lowers his head -looking directly into his camera- and adopts a conspiratorial tone. “These IA guys are not from our time line Mike.”
I begin to speak but no words come out.
“I can’t say anymore.” Jerry whispers, he looked stressed before but now he looks fearful. His eyes won’t meet mine and his frown deepens from conflict. He shakes his head.
“Jerry come on, you owe me.” I plead.
“I can’t say on this open line.” He snaps and his camera switches off again.
I stare in disbelief once more at an empty meeting room. I’m trying to work it out, I’m doing the math but I just can’t solve the sums. Internal Affairs from a different time line? In all my years working in Precrime, after jumping to 16 different timelines, working at the apex of modern technology - yet this has never happened before.
I reach for my coffee, but wish for something stronger and not for the first time, my eyes gravitate over to my uniform and firearm.
A faint buzz in my head breaks the hiatus. I tap my inner ear to accept the call coming through my implant and Jerry’s gravelly voice hisses straight into my cochlear. “Mike. Can you hear me? They are Internal Affairs from ten years ahead. Your name has come up on their database as a suspect.”
The sound crackles a little as the interference corrects itself, but Jerry’s voice still transmits in an undertone.
“The people you eliminated were innocent and now they want to clean up the whole thing. This investigative meeting is your risk assessment Mike. Do you hear me? They’re checking the parameters and comparing metrics as we speak.”
The line crackles again and I tap my inner ear furiously trying to keep the fading voice online.
“Jerry?” I’m talking to the air, as the connection cuts off and all of a sudden the silence of my apartment is deafening.
Until I hear a knock at my door and the unmistakable click of a weapon- Of This Timeline.