TW02 The Timekeeper Conspiracy NEW (2 page)

BOOK: TW02 The Timekeeper Conspiracy NEW
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The adjustment to which Lucas Priest had been assigned had represented the closest potential for a timestream split in the history of the time wars. The mission had been successfully completed and the continuity of time had been preserved, but it had cost the lives of half of Priest's unit. Only Lucas Priest and Finn Delaney had returned alive, and not even they would have survived had it not been for the intervention of a Tem-poral Corps deserter by the name of Reese Hunter.

Lucas had often thought about Reese Hunter since then. Until he had met Hunter, he had not been aware of the ex-istence of a temporal underground, a loosely organized net-work of deserters from the Temporal Corps. These were men and women whose cerebral implants had either been damaged or removed, so that they could not be traced. Most of them had chosen to defect to the time periods in which they had deserted, but a few, like Hunter, possessed stolen chrono-plates whose tracer functions had been bypassed. These people had achieved the ultimate in freedom. All of time was at their beck and call.

There was but one limitation placed upon the existence of the members of the underground. A split or even a minor disruption in the timeflow could affect their very existence, so in that respect, even though they were deserters, they were still bound by the General Orders that defined what actions a soldier of the Temporal Corps could take in Minus Time.

Lucas often wondered how many people in the past were ac-tually people from the future. It was frightening to realize just how delicate and fragile the timestream had become. If the or-dinary citizen had any idea how precarious the balance was and how easily it could be tipped, he would become a raving paranoid. It was within this system that Lucas had to func-tion. It was to this system that he had returned, by choice.

It made him wonder about his own stability. It also made him wonder if there had really been a choice for him at all.

They had, predictably, assigned him to the Time Com-mandos as a result of that last mission. His commission was in Major Forrester's First Division, an elite unit assembled for the express purpose of dealing with threats to temporal con-tinuity. Being an officer in the First Division entitled him to certain perks, such as free transportation anywhere in Plus Time and luxurious billeting in the bachelor officer's quarters at TAC-HQ. But hand in hand with special privileges went special risks. Though he was in a higher pay scale now, the odds of his not living to collect his pay had gone up corres-pondingly. Standard missions had scared him half to death before and now his assignments would almost certainly all be adjustments. It was a far more lethal proposition now.

"So how come I'm not shaking like a leaf?" Lucas mum-bled.

"Sir?" The driver turned around briefly.

"Nothing, Corporal. Just thinking out loud." Lucas fin-ished his cigarette and threw the butt away.

Leaning back against the seat again, he sighed and closed his eyes. Oh, well, he thought, at least I won't be bored.

The shuttle dropped him off in front of the headquarters building of the Temporal Army Command.

As he rode the lift tube up to TAC-HQ, he watched the bustle of activity in the plaza far below. He carried no luggage, nothing in the way of personal possessions. The few material possessions he had ac-cumulated during his brief return to civilian life had all been left behind in his conapt, a bequest to some future tenant. From now on, his life would once again consist of necessities picked up in the PX, issued field kits, and following orders. Paradoxically, he felt marvelously free.

It felt strange to be saluted in the corridors. As a noncom, Lucas had never insisted on military protocol, or as most soldiers called it, "mickey mouse." It was an age-old expres-sion and no one seemed to know where it had come from. Lucas had once queried the data banks on it, only to discover that the information was classified.

The First Division lounge was a small bar and it was almost empty, so Lucas spotted Delaney at once. He was sitting all alone at a table by a window, hunched over his drink. He had lost some weight and the thick red hair had been shaved, but as Lucas approached the table, he saw that at least one thing hadn't changed. Delaney still could not hold onto a promo-tion.

"Well, that commission didn't last long, did it?" Lucas said, eying Finn's armband, emblazoned with the single chev-ron of a Pfc.

"Priest! Good God!"

Lucas grinned. "That's
Captain
Priest to you, Mister."

Delaney got to his feet and they shook hands warmly, then hugged, clapping each other on the back.

Finn held him at arm's length, his beefy hands squeezing Lucas's biceps.

"You look good, kid," he said. "But I thought you'd mus-tered out."

"I did. I re-enlisted."

"Whatever happened to that burning desire for the easy civilian life?" said Finn.

Lucas shrugged. "It burned out, I guess."

Finn chuckled. "I might've known you'd screw up on the outside."

"At least
I've
managed to hang onto my bars," said Lucas, glancing at the silver insignia on his armband. "You seem to have misplaced yours."

"Hell, you may be an officer now," said Finn, "but you'll always be a grunt at heart. That's how it is when you come up the hard way. I'm damned glad to see you, Lucas. Welcome back."

"I'm glad to see you, too, Finn. What're you drinking?"

"What else?"

"Irish whiskey? Good, I'm buying. I see you've already got a sizable head start. Look, I'm not due to report in until 0600. If you've got nothing better to do than sit and drink, what say we have a few and then go out on the town?"

Finn grimaced. "I'd love to, kid, but I can't. I'm under house arrest."

"What?
What for?"

"Striking a superior officer," said Finn.

"Again?
How many times does that make, four?"

"Six," said Finn, wryly. "The ref made a point of remind-ing me."

"They brought you up before a referee for
that!"
said Lucas. "Who'd you hit, a general?"

"A light colonel," said Finn.

"I'm almost afraid to ask, but why?"

"Because he was a pompous military asshole, that's why," said Finn. "I had my blouse unbuttoned in the officer's club. And this runt of an administration desk jockey starts chewing me out about it. I told him to fuck off, so he sticks his face about two inches from my nose and starts screaming, spraying me with spit. So I just popped him one."

"And they dragged you up before a referee?"

"Well, no. Not exactly. That happened after the fracas with the M.P.s."

"What
fracas?"

"Oh, you know, the standard bullshit. Resisting arrest, direct disobedience to a specific order, striking officers in the performance of their duty, damaging government property, and a few other things that they tacked on that I can't remem-ber."

"Oh."

"Yeah. So I'm confined to quarters until further notice. The old man's been nice enough to give me some slack there, which is why I'm here, but I can't so much as go near the lift tubes. I've been cooling my heels for the better part of a week, waiting for the review board to meet. Been spending most of my time right here in the lounge, trying to drink up my back pay. It's kind of funny, actually. Remember the old days, when we scarcely had a moment to ourselves between assign-ments? Now that we're here in this 'elite' unit, it's nothing but hurry up and wait."

"You said the ref put you down for a review board," Lucas said. "What was the ref's recommendation?"

Finn grunted. "She was a real hard-assed bitch. Read me the riot act about all the 'previous irregularities' in my record. I think her exact words were, 'Perhaps you'd be better off in a nontemporal unit. Someplace where your flamboyant tenden-cies won't be quite so much of a disruptive influence.'

You know what that means, don't you?"

"The Belt Command?"

"I'll lay you eight to one," said Finn. "If I could get my hands on a plate, so help me, I'd skip out to the under-ground."

"Not so loud, friend," Lucas said. "Somebody might hear you."

"Who gives a shit? I don't see how I could possibly be in any deeper than I am now."

"You can
always
get yourself in deeper," Lucas said. "It's the getting out that's not so easy. Maybe something can be done."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. But at least they haven't reassigned you yet."

Finn scratched his head. "Hell. I had to go and hit that asshole. They've probably fixed his jaw by now and he's back pushing papers, while I'm going to get stuck out in the Asteroid Belt, keeping those crazy miners from killing each other. You know, I might've expected just about anything, but somehow I never thought I'd wind up as a policeman."

He looked out through the giant window that was the out-side wall of the First Division lounge. It was dark outside and all the buildings were lit up, bathing the plaza far below in a garish glow. The skycabs threading through the maze of build-ings made the night a sea of red and amber running lights.

The window shut out all the noise, rendering the scene outside into a silent ballet of light and steel.

"Doesn't look real somehow, does it?" Finn said as he con-tinued gazing out the window. "I really hate it here, you know that? I was born into this time and yet I don't belong to it."

Lucas smiled. "You're a romantic, Finn."

Finn snorted. "I'm a soldier, kid, that's all."

"Look, nothing's settled yet, right? The board still makes the final disposition."

"When's the last time you heard of a review board going against a ref's recommendation?" Finn said.

"There's always a first time."

"Don't hold your breath."

"Well, if they send you out to the Belt, I'll go along and keep you company. I can put in for a transfer."

"Don't be an ass."

"Why not? How bad can it be? The duty's less hazardous and it would sure beat hell out of the lab job I left behind to re-enlist. Besides, we go back a long way together. All the way to 1194, to be exact."

Finn smiled, recalling the adjustment in 12th-century En-gland. He nodded. "Yeah, that was a hell of a mission, wasn't it? We almost didn't make it back."

"We did make it back, though," Lucas said. "And we were in a worse fix than you're in now."

"Maybe. Hooker never made it back, though. And Johnson bought it, too." He tossed back his whiskey. "Hell, I must be getting old. I'm turning into a maudlin drunk."

Lucas pushed back his chair and stood up. Finn glanced at him, then turned to see Major Forrester approaching their table. He wasn't required to stand to attention in the presence of a superior officer in the lounge, but he made a determined effort, anyway. He was slightly more than halfway out of his chair when Forrester said, "At ease, gentlemen. As you were."

Lucas sat back down.

"Sorry, sir," said Finn. "I gave it my best shot, but I can't seem to feel my legs too good."

"I've got half a mind to cut 'em off for you, Delaney," For-rester said.

The old man hadn't changed. Antiagathic drugs made it dif-ficult to accurately guess a person's age, but Forrester looked as old as Methuselah. Even his wrinkles had wrinkles. Yet For-rester stood ramrod straight and he was in better shape than most men under his command who were one-sixth his age. He had been their training officer in the field and Lucas knew only too well just how "old" the old man really was. He glanced at Lucas.

"You just get in, Priest?"

"Only just, sir. I was going to report to you in the morn-ing."

Forrester nodded. "I knew you'd be back. There's nothing on the outside for a soldier." He sat down and ordered a drink. Both Finn and Lucas were glad that they had already started on their Irish whiskey.

It meant that they had an excuse not to join the old man in his favorite libation. For some un-fathomable reason, Forrester had picked up a taste for Red Eye. Of all the swill that he had downed during his temporal travels, Lucas hated that old west rotgut the most. Those oldtime gunfighters either had iron constitutions or a death-wish. The stuff could make a man go blind.

"I hope you haven't gone soft on me, Priest," said For-rester. "I just got a hot one dumped into my lap and I need to put a team together in a hurry, so I hope you haven't lost your edge."

"I'm ready, sir," said Lucas. "But what about Delaney? He's filled me in on the situation and if you don't mind my saying so, sending someone with his experience to the Belt would be a waste."

"Thanks, kid," said Delaney, "but you don't have to—"

"I agree with you," said Forrester. Finn's eyes widened in surprise. "He's insubordinate, but he's a hell of a good soldier."

"Thank you, sir," said Finn, taken aback by the compli-ment.

"Don't thank me, Mister. I'm just stating a simple fact. You're a good man in the field, but when you're between assignments, you've got the emotional stability of a ten-year-old. I'm all too well acquainted with your record. Well, you're under my command now and I'll only tolerate so much before I lose my temper. You've got a yardbird's temperament, Delaney, and if you get back from this mission, I'll beat it out of you if I have to."

Finn stared at him." You mean—''

"I mean you've got a temporary reprieve," said Forrester. "You two have pulled off tough ones in the past. I don't like to break up a good team. You'll still have to get past that review board, assuming you'll make it back, but I've been talking to the officers who will be sitting on that board and I've been given to understand that if you do well on this one, they'll take that fact into consideration. So it's up to you to pull your own fat out of the fire. But if you screw up on me again, I'll personally drag your ass down to a plate and clock you out to the Paleolithic Age. You should fit right in. You'll be able to brawl to heart's content with all the other Neander-thals."

"You've made your point, sir," said Delaney. "And thanks."

"Just get the job done, Delaney. That'll be thanks enough for me."

"Any idea what it is, sir?" Lucas said.

BOOK: TW02 The Timekeeper Conspiracy NEW
6.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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