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frogandbanjo t1_j8fcd9h wrote

"So wait... why am I being relocated again?"

"We have no idea."

"So you're just following orders blindly?"

The agent shrugged. "No orders, either."

"Excuse me?"

The agent shrugged again. "Mister, all I know is that time travel exists and the multiverse hasn't exploded or collapsed yet. Somebody's doing something right. We do the job and we don't ask questions. There's nobody to ask anyway."

Agent Ford sighed. He was tired of telling the most complicated half-truth in the multiverse over and over again. The bewildered detainee asked more questions, but they were just noise; Ford non-answered them by rote. The detainee didn't put up any kind of a fight; The Agency had its reputation. Ford and his partner put him in the back of the van. Their bit was done.

The man would be nudged out of his life commensurate with the amount of gunk they'd detected on him. It was a low value, all things considered. Investigation wasn't even suggested, let alone ordered. The system - as though it existed as an entity unto itself - was confident that the man could be nudged away from his crime. As far as it was concerned, there were no plans or devices to find; there were no accomplices to track down; there was no underlying ideology or persistent stressor that would make another crime pop up in the averted one's place.

"One more wife-killer off the streets," Ford muttered. Then he chuckled bitterly. "Off one particular street."

Then he caught his partner's eye, and realized she'd heard him. Fuck, he thought to himself.

He busied himself with his smart watch, but he knew she was going to approach him and try to engage. He checked the list, found the coordinates for the next pickup, and prayed the van was almost there.

The ETA was fifteen minutes.


"You okay, Ford?" Agent Purdue asked. "I know we've agreed to disagree about the whole 'wife killer' thing, but you don't sound so hot."

"It's just my mental filing system, P," he said. "I know the guy might've done a million other things. It's just my way of simplifying. That's it. It's like that Nietzsche guy, right? You know it's bullshit, but you know you need the bullshit, so you cook it up and eat it."

"And they say humanities degrees are worthless," she joked.

He'd majored in criminology. So had she. They were agents, through and through. Thinkers didn't get their jobs. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the job tended to create them.

"Fifteen?" she asked, trying to pry something out of him. "Coffee, at least? And yeah, hot chocolate for you. I didn't forget."

"Yeah," he said. "Coffee." He knew he couldn't say no. That would be a red flag.

The smartwatch found a place within walking distance with mediocre reviews. It took them five minutes to get there, and another five to get their drinks in hand. Ford shook his head. A few more minutes away. A few more minutes' delay. I cannot catch a break.

Purdue sipped in silence for approximately one minute. That left three minutes before Ford could activate the portal without it seeming like he was being evasive.

"You having doubts, Ford?" she asked. "Perfectly normal. Let's talk through it."

"Oh my god," he exhaled quietly. "No, P, I'm not having doubts. The gunk is god. The gunk is good. Good numbers are up; bad numbers are down. The probabilities say it's thanks to the gunk, and there's still more gunk on the radar. It's just another day on the job."

There were two minutes left. Purdue took a slow, contemplative sip.

"No big ones recently, though, right?" she said, rather than asked. They both knew the answer. "I think the model's conservative when it comes to that fact. I think it really says something about the work we've been doing."

Ford nodded. "You may be right," he said. "How very convenient that perfectly-reasonable disputes about the model don't count as 'doubts.' Certainly doesn't hurt that you're boosting for the system, does it?"

"Geez, bite my head off," she said.

"I've been reading," he said. It was his trump card to derail the conversation. He'd been holding it for a few weeks.

"Yeah, Nietzsche, I know," she replied. "Heady stuff." She didn't try to hide her disdain.

"No," he said. "Well, yes, but that's just internet crap. I've been reading the documentation."

Purdue froze, narrowly avoiding the sip that would've wound up a spit-take. "Seriously?" she said. "You looking to get promoted? Now? After all this time?"

"Maybe," he said. "Maybe not. Maybe I just want to try to understand... something."

It was the perfect half-truth. Agents were allowed to read the documentation. The higher echelons were always looking for fresh brains to melt. It wasn't necessarily encouraged - mostly due to liability concerns - but it was completely legal and appropriate. Nobody was allowed to cite it in a report unless they had two other red flags to pair it with. Ford knew his dysthymia was a yellow flag at worst. He knew he was safe - at least from the parts of The Agency he was allowed to know about.

"Well, I did not see that coming," Purdue said. "Maybe I'll steal a time machine tonight so I can play this whole convo way cooler the second time around."

Ford shrugged. "Don't worry about it. I'm over here thinking I've somehow done the exact opposite of steal a time machine to make myself seem cool."

Purdue chuckled again. "That's not bad, Ford," she said. "Too wordy, though. Gotta tighten it up for the set."

Ford didn't try to imagine a version of himself that would try standup comedy. Instead, he checked his watch, hit the buttons, and opened the portal. Purdue got in the last word, as she always did.

"Another wife-killer?" she asked.

As olive branches went, Ford decided, it wasn't a bad one. "Not even. Drunk driver."

"Geez," she replied. "Now I'm getting a little insulted. Might just be a hold, not even a relo. Lucky them."

"Maybe," Ford said noncommittally. Purdue raised an eyebrow, so he held off stepping through for one more moment. "Sucks to get plucked, but a lot of these guys seem like they could use a fresh start regardless. You know?"

Purdue chewed on it, then nodded. "Yeah," she said. "Yeah, I can see it."

They stepped through the portal and found the drunk driver in short order. He wasn't drunk, but he was belligerent. Purdue got to use a toy.

The rest of the day crawled by for Agent Ford. Sometimes it felt to him like it was going in reverse. The job had gotten easier, and duller. The world around him seemed grayer, no matter what the model said.

In a pulpy novel or an old-timey movie, Ford would have been days away from an epiphany - or at least a timely visit from some madman or dissident to point him in a new direction. It never happened. He did his job and lived his life. He never caught a glimpse of the bigger picture, or the truth behind the lie. He never even developed a theory as to what the lie was.

The good numbers crept up. The bad numbers slid down. The world didn't seem to change very much, except for the noticeable dip in crime - well, some crime, at least. It was the kind of crime that would've made the papers - 'if it bleeds, it leads' - and whose absence The Agency made sure did too.

Ford lived his life knowing that he was a dud. There was no other timeline where he'd gotten his visit from a madman. There was no other timeline where he'd learned something that someone powerful hadn't wanted him to know. Nothing important had ever happened to any other version of him. No other version of him had ever dared to take a risk.

That meant he wasn't a murderer, a drunk driver, a tax cheat, or a renegade time traveler either. It didn't make him feel better. He was just another gray man in a gray world - a world where time travel existed, and yet, order had somehow emerged completely victorious.

He often wondered how he'd react if he woke up one morning covered in gunk. He never had to find out. He never even went for the promotion.


Tatersaurus t1_j8g5vtu wrote

That was thought provoking, and well written. I like the characters' interactions. I feel like there's things Ford isn't saying, but I feel like I've also felt troubled like him before.