It was just like they said it would be: white dots on red, a giddy sensation that bloomed into nausea and then that feeling – the other agents described it as an excoriating migraine – like wasabi being raked through your sinuses. Some even sweated blood after their first few trips: rematerialization was hell. Kindred took a few stumbling steps and crashed into a desk. He landed on his back, the desk clasped in his arms. For a few moments he stared, waiting for the ceiling to come into focus. The blurred image of the desk heaved behind the dots that danced before his eyes. Something stank in his nostrils. His mind and vision cleared and he recognized the scent: the faint musk of death and decay. He shoved the desk away and drew his gun with an unsteady hand. It had reconfigured fine – inorganic items sometimes didn’t. A fiery pain was burning on his arm. There was a slash in his suit; a beaded stitch of blood skipped along his bicep before plunging into a deep cut. Rolling onto his stomach, Kindred set his watch and closed his eyes, letting his molecules settle. His body felt like it had been skinned and every bared nerve was screaming. He escaped into his mind, reflecting on the task at hand. His training had been short. The mission briefing had been even shorter. He had been told three things: his target and the time. And that he would be expected. It had started as an office rumour. Then, four months later, a quarter of the active roster was reassigned: Sinat, Erol, Zart, Odavarb – they all disappeared. He knew what it meant. He worked hard then, taking every assignment, meeting every objective, all so he would be chosen next. And he finally was, but not because of his efforts. Agents sent ahead had come back with reports and it had been agreed: he was the only one who could be given the job. And when he finally was brought in, he had only two choices: either be executed, or play executioner. One minute elapsed. The steam had stopped rising from his body. Kindred climbed to his feet, glancing around the room. It was outfitted like nothing he had ever seen: multitudes of screens and machines, technologies beyond his comprehension. A single light beat down from the ceiling. The multinunc combinator had already powered down. This machine was the one thing familiar. Staggering over to it, he wiped the display with his sleeve. It was a more advanced model than the one he had trained on, but not beyond his skill. He plugged in his time slice card and made the necessary recalibrations for his return. Kindred walked up to the only door in the room. It was braced with locks on the inside, not unlike a vault. Upon his approach, the door frame lit up, and the security apparatus unfolded from where it had been ensconced in the wall. Without hesitation Kindred placed his palm on the grid and tilted his head back so that his eye could be read. There was a pause as his DNA was run through the database. “Welcome, Traveler Kindred.” A synthesized voice said. The locks released and the door slid back. Kindred entered a great hall, or it must have once been great; it was the sort that offended with its obscene opulence – lined with massive pillars and riddled with passages – but its lustre was gone, for the hall was barren, stripped of decoration, and the floor tile was shattered and smudged. His gaze climbed several stories until lost in the great vaulted ceiling. A blush of light caught his eye; one of the passages was illuminated. Kindred made for it, training his gun at dark corners as he moved. As he rounded a pillar he found a bundle of clothing at his feet. His nostrils flared. He toed the bundle. It yielded, but was solid, and it resettled as he removed his foot. Kindred lowered onto his haunches and pulled the bundle towards him. An arm swung wide and a pale face lolled to one side, eyes open, staring into the black eternity of the ceiling. Kindred searched the body, ruffling the fabric – it seemed civilian attire, reserved for a frivolous evening about the town – but found nothing but a bullet hole in the sternum. The flesh was as cold as the floor. Three more bodies lay in the lit passage. The walls were decaled with ensanguined Rorschach blots from which stringy rainbows arced down into pools of encrusted blood. He grazed the wall with his fingers; it was exactly what it seemed: solid marble, seamless for the length of the passage – marred only where bullets had gouged it – truly magnificent. The coffered ceiling was made of exotic woods, their grains frozen, twisted like the currents of a raging river, and couched within the coffered recesses winked embossed silver panels. A white marble edging raced along the top of the wall. Images ran along its relief,
no doubt having been carved in place. He walked the passage twice, giving wide berth to the bodies, until he grasped the scene: the Battle of Kleidion. He followed the battle to its horrific end: trails of men, blinded, every hundredth spared a single eye to guide his brothers. He passed on into a junction where another lit hallway was waiting to his left. There was a different battle in this passage; a quick walk revealed that each passage held its own piece of violent history. His fascination enkindled, Kindred lowered his weapon, his errand suddenly bereft of urgency. Kindred followed the lighted passages until he entered a darkened foyer. The furniture, antique even by his standards, was in disarray, strewn about the floor with the odd body pitched across a couch. Across the space winked warm, flickering hues, evidence of another room beyond. There was a vague tang in the air, the scent of something that brightened his eyes and quickened his pulse. Raising his weapon, Kindred edged around upended chairs and the smouldering shards of a crystal table. He cut the angle and slowly entered the room. A wave of heat enveloped him; a great blaze sat cackling in the center of the room. He breathed in deeply. “That’s wood smoke. Real wood smoke.” Kindred spun towards the voice and sank to one knee, his finger on the trigger. Leaning on a rail above him, where the room became a split level, was the form of a man. He waved, using the metal folder in his hand to effect a salutation, and turned to pluck books from a shelf. “I love that scent, I always have, haven’t I? I’ve left some bandages on the floor beside you for your arm. You won’t use them, but I left them. Just because I could.” Kindred looked down and saw the bandages. He ignored them. The figure tossed the books onto the blaze and then kicked at the railing until a section cracked and fell away. With a grunt, the man tipped the bookshelf over into the blaze. The man knelt, resting his arm on an upraised knee. He was breathing deeply. The fire bronzed his face with light, smoothing away the wrinkles and scars. Around his neck, like a molten ingot, glinted a bullet casing. He and Kindred watched each other for a time, listening to the wood hiss and pop. The man glanced sideways, to where an old grandfather clock stood, and shook his head. “It’s amazing. So many millions of variables...and here you are to the very second.” Keeping his gun trained, Kindred turned his wrist and flicked his eyes at his watch. He noticed that the man also wore a watch with the face on the inside of his wrist. The figure walked over to the clock. “I have known this moment would come for 29 years, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I didn’t think anything could affect me so, but I admit, my anticipation of your arrival has been...can I say, delicious? Yes – delicious – delicious, in its novelty. It’s been a long time since I’ve anticipated anything.” The figure rested a hand on the clock case, waiting, but Kindred said nothing. “It takes some getting used to, doesn’t it?” “Yeah.” The words came as if from a great distance. In uttering them, Kindred felt exhausted, as if he was dredging his voice up from some spent well. The figure nodded, passing the metal folder to his other hand and then, with sudden violence, the man heaved the clock forward, tipping it through the railing and onto the blaze. There was a discordant clang and the fire heaved a great cough. “So...Kindred...are you going to kill me?” “Yes. Yes I am.” Kindred’s hand trembled. Kindred’s target laughed. “Just messing with you. I know what you’re thinking – I’ve thought those exact thoughts myself. You’re a nervous wreck. Here. These should steady you.” The man took something from his pocket it flung it at Kindred. Kindred caught it and turned it over in his hand. “What are these? Drugs? I don’t use these.” “You will soon enough.” The man remarked tiredly. “How do you like the place?” “It’s a bit ridiculous.” “It’s the National Museum...I believe in what you would still call the city of Prague...in Czechoslovakia? Wait, you know it as the Czech Republic now. I mean, you did then.” “I know where Prague is.”
“Of course you do.” The man flung a stool disinterestedly into the blaze. The seething innards of the grandfather clock clanged as the stool collapsed through the clock case. “I expected guards.” “I expected you.” The man watched Kindred, noting the quavering of his face, and laughed. “It’s quite the dilemma, eh? How do you kill someone who knows the past and the future? How do you kill a time traveler? You send someone he can’t kill. Someone whose death would cause a paradox.” Kindred’s target smirked. “You send himself.” “We’re not the same person. You’re an old warmongering tyrant – well past his expiration date.” The target regarded him. There was no reaction: the older, future self did not seem to care for Kindred’s opinion. That thought infuriated Kindred; he grit his teeth and advanced his weapon through the air, extending it towards his older self to punctuate his threat. But his finger did not compress the trigger. “I read the files – you’ve destroyed countries and killed untold numbers of people – you’re insane.” “You believe these, your bureau files?” “Just walking through this place was enough – you’ve turned this museum into a charnel house!” “Museums are charnel houses. And all the more after I’ve camped out in them for a month or so.” The older man laughed, noticing the tension in Kindred’s features. “Yes, you don’t seem impressed with my body art.” The older Kindred nodded. “Would you believe I killed those men out of self defense?” “No.” The older Kindred laughed again. “Well said – ha! You’re right. They were just…people…plucked off the streets in midstride. I hunted them in these hallowed halls, shot them down amid the vaunted epitomes of their culture and civilization. Did you want to know that? Can you pull the trigger now?” “You’re going to tell me something first. Tell me how this happened – how you happened. How you went so bloody rotten.” The older Kindred snagged a glass from off the floor and took a swig. He swallowed his mouthful and eyed Kindred. “Success. Bloody, hateful success. Success is the hot breath of hell blowing down your back. People stand in success, basking in it like a hot shower, never thinking, just…being there…wallowing in the soothing self-gratifying moment. Comfort, safety…these things quench passion and glut the soul. The past is always the enemy, always trying to make you surrender to victory or defeat, always offering the retreat of memory and undigested emotion. So I fight and I rage. I keep myself furiously alive, never resting, never allowing a moment to permeate – constantly wringing out my soul until the raw fibers snap. There needs to be a vicious streak through a man – an irrational, berserker impulse – if he is to stay sharp. I live to undermine my own gains and obliterate the past. Mine is a much dimmed and bloody path, but in traveling it, I save mankind from itself. I enhance life; I make others fight; I force them to truly live, to strive for every moment.” “That’s some real twisted sophistry. It sounds to me like you got bored and mean. This path you walk is as complacent as anything else you despise – it’s comfortable for you.” “Comfortable? Huh! I am the edge!” The older man’s voice became fierce, “I possess a resolve far beyond anything you and your trigger finger could imitate. I kill people with words, I extinguish them with money. I own lives and I take lives when it suits me. I erase symbols and boundaries and eviscerate meaning right out of the fabric of men’s minds. Every moment for me is pregnant with hazard. You, you are a scripted assassin, a tool, but I am a master craftsman. Your goals and ideas are someone else’s. I have lived your future; you have yet to live even a single day of your life.” The older Kindred leapt down from the split level, landing in a crouch, drink and folder in opposite hands. He walked around the fire, spitting a sluice of alcohol, provoking a flare to arch out of the blaze. He stopped in front of Kindred, the fire at his back. “You can’t imagine how much I loathe you.” Kindred examined the older man’s face. He could see that his older self had undergone modifications – his appearance didn’t match the genetic reads he had been given as a teenager. This man still had hair – silver hair like he had always wanted – and his face was tighter and had stronger features than it should have. Only the eyes remained the same...he recognized them...they were filled with the same dark
emotions and intensity that he had seen in the mirror every day of his adult life. Time had taken nothing away from the secrets and pains of his heart. That hunger, a hunger that he had decided was unique to himself, was still there...ravenous and incomplete. A shiver went down his body. The older Kindred suddenly tilted his head back and slammed the entire drink. He winced and brought the glass to his forehead, slowly rotating his wrist so that the ice clinked. Kindred liked that sound. Turning, the older man walked over to the far wall, opening the glass door of a display cabinet and shoved his liquor glass among the resident teacups. He pivoted back. There was a gun in his hand. “What are you doing...?” Kindred heard the words come from his mouth. “I’m going to shoot you.” Kindred laughed softly. “Shoot me? Please...we both know how this...” A shot rang out. Kindred spun and the ground came up and struck him in the face. His mouth burned. He glanced down: his trembling hand peeled off his punctured side, his fingers laced with blood. “You...shot me! How could you shoot me? You can’t...!” The elder raised his gun again. Kindred scooted backward and coughed weakly. “You crazy bastard!” “That’s an egregiously poor choice of insult.” The older Kindred smiled and lowered his weapon. He bent down and recovered the spent shell. He tossed it to Kindred. “You really are a sanctimonious flake. If you are interested in surviving the next few minutes, much less the next 29 years, you’ll need to grow up a whole lot, real fast.” “If you kill me, you kill yourself!” “Time is not fate. Yeah, I came here once like you came here now, sure, but it doesn’t have to happen the same way. Heck, I’m the only man in the history of the world who’s successfully committed suicide and lived to tell about it…and suddenly, I’m thinking I’ll do it again.” The older Kindred leveled his gun at the younger man. “...but, how can you kill me?” The younger Kindred looked down at his hand. The blood was dark; some deep vein had been hit. He pressed his hand back to his side. He knew his older self was waiting for him to rise; that was the way he had always wanted to die: on his feet. He resisted the impulse to spite his future self by staying down. He picked up his weapon and slowly stood. “Fine then. Do it. If you kill me, you kill yourself, and that’s the only reason I’m here. And then the mission’s done.” “What about your curiosity?” “What?” “Your curiosity. The other secret reason of your heart. The desire to see yourself as I am now.” Kindred bit his lip. “It’s vain…a human weakness…” The elder chuckled. “You doubt. You begin to suspect that which I hold as true: time is a weak linear string of casualty, a crude variable – a measurement between two movements in space. But existence, existence is a substantial thing, free of time. Things exist accidentally in time, thanks to causality, but substantially, substantially each thing exists only in the present, kept there by a participation in existence itself.” “Existence? You may as well be talking about God.” “Well, I suppose God works as well as any name. The point is that existence and time are not linked as we thought – you now know that: that’s how you got here. How many decades of research were wasted? Men trying to surpass the speed of light! That’s really hilarious when you think about it. Only once matter could be converted into energy and reconfigured, only once a human being could be sent down the spokes of time to the hub of reality, where all of time itself becomes but a single moment, was time travel possible. No, I don’t believe that killing you will affect me at all – I exist now; the causal link to you is severed. Kindred slowly began to raise his weapon. “What if you’re wrong?” “Then, as you say, the mission’s done. But there is a third option open to you: just go back. Maybe its nostalgia or sentimentality, but I really don’t have any particular desire to air out your pathetic hide. Just go back and say the job was done. Then make different choices. Make it so this man before you never happens.”
Kindred’s gun stalled in its assent. “I…I don’t know what the choices will be.” “That’s true. You don’t.” “…I have to kill you.” “You don't have to do anything. I once stood where you stand now. I got the shot off. I know when you’re going to shoot, where you’re going to shoot – I know everything. You don’t have a chance, unless I give it to you. And if I did, do you think you can go back and somehow turn out differently? You will already be a murderer. That’s a delicious irony, that.” “I can be different.” “Starting when? Don’t pretend yours is a noble errand – sure, the agency gave you a choice: go kill yourself in the future, or they would kill you in the present. But that’s not the real issue. This is about you as a blunt instrument trying to validate its own existence. This is Kindred, breaking free from the chrysalis of a life lived serving the whims of others, and desperately seeking a mirror to see what he has become. Well, you’ve seen me, but I’m not your reflection! Your own choices will determine your own future!” “You are my choices!” “You weak, sniveling off-scouring of a man! Take some responsibility!” “I am! You’ve already killed thousands! Killing you will prevent the deaths of millions!” “Then I’m just getting started. And it’s true, for I have seen that future. But you’re not listening. Nothing you do here will affect anything. This is isn’t about me. It’s about you, making choices, back in your own time. Killing me now changes nothing of the past. Killing you, however, does. And you’ve already enough to answer for.” Kindred opened his mouth to speak but no words came. He lowered his gun. “But what happened? Why?” Kindred looked around the room. “Why did you do all this? I need to understand!” He was screaming. “You are not yet able to understand! Think – they’ve only had time travel for two years in your present and they’ve already reduced it to a vehicle of assassination. Your first mission with the most fantastic technology in human history is to go kill someone – yourself no less. The past they won’t touch, no, that’s too dangerous – might create a paradox! But the future! That’s okay to screw with – never mind that the future is already someone else’s past. It’s all relative.” “We’re talking about you – what justifies you?” “I really don’t care what justifies me: I am. That’s it. And I own time travel. In the future, I am the only person with access to it; I know the time line: I can always see you and your agents coming.” Kindred’s brow creased. Sweat was trickling down his temples. “I hate this.” “You don’t know how to hat. I’ve conquered and killed for years. I live in museums because I can. I burn them because they are the husks of memories, of supposedly fixed points of time, of things that happened. But history is always fiction, always flux, always a perception, always better or worse than it was, the details smoothed and filed down so that the present can comment on events it has no business judging. I have transcended the human weakness that has all men trapped in the illusion of time.” Kindred flexed his fingers and wrapped them back around his gun. He was shaking. “You talk like you are God.” “Any man who exists in a moment, is.” Kindred bit his lower lip. “It’s strange meeting someone who knows your every sin…your every thought. You know the shameful things about me; you remember every one of my failures. But you’re not this free agent that you pretend: you’re still trapped in time in your own head.” The two men locked eyes. The elder Kindred looked at the floor. A reluctant smile curled up the sides of his face. “You don’t understand yet what you just said. But I do. Now it makes sense.” His gun fell. Immediately Kindred raised his. He pulled the trigger. The older Kindred took the first shot in his shoulder. The second shot sent him reeling into the cabinet. The glass inset shattered, burgeoning outward like a flower adorned with coruscating petals rimmed in red, and a symphony of tinkling reverberated through the room.
Kindred leveled his gun at the fallen man. The older Kindred’s weapon was beside him but his eyes, wild and desperate – pleading to their object – did not see it. Reaching, his hand limped over a teacup and snagged the metal dossier he had been hugging to his side. “You...” the older man pulled a laser pen from his breast pocket and pointed it at the dossier. A thin line of black smoke rose in the air. The older Kindred pulled himself up against the cabinet and folded his legs under himself. “You have…chosen…then.” “Yes.” The word was a whisper on Kindred’s lips. “Tell me…then…if you think us the same…if my soul is damned, what is yours?” Kindred felt cold, stunned to the core of his being. “Your soul…then…is already…burning…burning with me…burning with our incarnations…in hell. If it’s fated, you have no way to change…this. But…if we share the same soul…how can this moment, this now, be possible? For how can a soul…be split in either time…or being?” The elder Kindred worked his mouth, trying to draw saliva. “But if I’m right…then we each have our own soul…and you are not me at all.” Kindred dropped his gun and shrank back. “You want to change the future? You want to know what’s going to happen..why I happened? Here’s what’s going to happen. See if you can deal with it.” The old man moved to toss the dossier, but it slipped from his fingers and clattered down in the glass. Kindred’s eyes followed it. “Stupid kid,” the elder hissed. “Like a dog returning to its vomit. You...you really don’t need that now that – you’ve seen...how it’s going to end.” Screwing up his face, the dying man began to stand, his back against the cabinet, scooping up jagged pieces of glass still in the frame with his flesh. He made it halfway before his knees buckled and he tipped forward, landing on his face. His body shuddered and one arm made a sweeping motion, as if dismissing Kindred, before the body stopped heaving and settled onto the glass. Kindred stayed frozen in position until the muscles in his legs began to cramp. He fell forward and looked down through his arms at his knees. He was deaf, his heartbeat thundering in his ears. He checked his bleeding and grimaced. Rising, he approached the body and crouched beside it. Hesitantly, he pulled the man’s shirt up. An ugly scar was there in the side, made by a bullet that had passed through a long time before. Kindred uttered something under his breath. For a long time he stared at the dossier. The body beside him said nothing, indicated nothing. Shifting his weight, he picked up the dossier, his thumb falling across the fresh laser pen stroke, and partially concealing those that had been inscribed before it. It was surprisingly light. There was a booming crack and the ceiling over the fire caved in, sending the flames high with fresh fuel from the room above. He rose and clasped his hand over his wound. It was time to go.