A/N: Well, this is it. REALLY-it. Featuring a nod to one of my favorite movies from a completely unrelated genre (and if you can guess what that movie is, you deserve a prize), here's the action-packed grand finale. Once again, thanks for being here. Hope it's been worth your... oh, man, I just can't help it at this point... time. (*ouch*)
They weren't downtown. Even before Leon was fully awake, he could tell. A dryness in the air. Dustiness outweighed the creeping, clinging sulfur-stink of smog. The salt-metallic tang of adrenaline, the scent of those who lived their lives perpetually desperate for time, the smell of the ghetto, was missing, too.
He was seated; he couldn't move. His skull was pounding, from the back forward. He opened his eyes, looked down at himself. His coat was gone, his stab-vest as well. His legs were bound. The sleeves of his duty shirt had been pushed up, and he was zip-tied, at elbows and wrists, with the latest ties issued to Timekeepers in the field, to the arms of a heavy wooden chair.
He had sixteen minutes and twenty-six seconds on his forearm clock.
That wasn't right.
Leon was sitting ten feet from an open door of what must once have been the upstairs library of a mansion on Sunset. Empty shelves ladder-marched to the dusty shadows snagged in the cracks of the gray plaster ceiling. He was looking through the oak or maple uprights of a heavy bannister at a parallelogram of light inching its way up the faded olive of a stairwell wall. By the angle of the light, it was late afternoon. He'd been unconscious for most of the day.
From behind him, Aron Garner said: "He's awake."
"Good," a man's voice replied; and, before Leon's concussed brain had finished the realization—
— It's not Barnes.—
— Anton Hurst stepped into his field of vision. Hurst, the triage pharmacologist.
"I gave you something to keep you out a little longer, Timekeeper Leon." Hurst's smile was as deferential as ever. His eyes, though, were shale-hard. "See, it's all about timing at this point."
"I'm leaving," Garner said. He joined Hurst. Leon turned his head to scan as much as he could of the rest of the room. No other occupants. A curious lack of debris: the house was purchased or leased, not derelict. A laptop, open, its screen faced away from where Leon sat, on a long dark-varnished reading table. A black technical satchel sitting open next to it. A field lamp, its rechargeable L.E.D.s casting cold, blue-tinged light to the corners of the room.
Garner grasped Leon by the hair, yanked his head around so that he was again facing forward. "Watch him," he said to Hurst.
"I mean it. Watch him. I'll call when I get there."
He walked out. Leon listened to the thud of Garner's boots on the stairs, descending. Heard the engine of a cruiser growl to life ten seconds later, behind him, outside and below.
He looked calmly up at Anton Hurst. "He's going back to Control, isn't he? You do realize that the two of you kidnapped me in full view of at least four CCTV cameras, don't you?"
"And someday, maybe, the cameras on that parking level will be working the way they should. Right now, you might say, the picture they provide is somewhat incomplete." Hurst offered Leon a sympathetic smirk. "We took the liberty of running down your clock. Garner wanted to be brutal about it, but in the end we settled for simple theft." He examined the too-careful lack of expression on Leon's face. "You thought it was Barnes, didn't you? Carl enjoys his work; I daresay he enjoys his misery, too. Finds it romantic, in a way. Do you know what I enjoy? The thought of time. Thousands of hours. Years. Do you know how I'm going to get it?"
"By marketing Double-Time."
"Mm hm. And quite legitimately, too, I assure you. For the good of the force, even."
The last bit caught Leon ever-so-slightly by surprise. "How?"
"We— meaning you, of course— haven't time for a lengthy explanation, so I'll keep the historical precedent to a minimum—"
They hadn't removed his boots. A mistake. Leon could feel give in the ties around his ankles. He kept his eyes on Hurst, began to work at increasing the distance by which he could separate his feet.
"During the Second World War," Hurst continued, "National Socialist doctors invented methamphetamine as a way of keeping German soldiers fighting past the point of normal human exhaustion. Double-Time is my way of doing my humble bit to keep you poor Timekeepers working through the present— and continuing— scourge of budget cuts and staffing shortages plaguing Control."
"You're comparing us to Nazis."
"For the good of the force, Raymond. May I call you 'Raymond'?"
"Well, Raymond— You're always so arrogant, you know that? Always such a prick, and it's finally caught up to you.—" In the sterile light of the field lamp, Hurst's smile was less cadaverous than insectoid. "I estimated I could reduce the sleep requirement of the average Timekeeper to less than twenty-three hours per week, while cutting payroll expenditures by up to eighty per cent via the use of recycled time. An upgrade to the system, if you will, that would have been good for patent rights and a tidy bonus, if nothing else. Then there's the secondary market—"
"Where you'll see the real profits. You and Garner." Give, now, in the frame of the chair itself. Leon, systematically tensing and untensing his shoulders and arms, could feel it. "Been providing you with plenty of subjects for field tests, hasn't he? Couldn't very well have people exploding and melting and dying right in the lab at Control. That's what happened to my informant, isn't it? He found out about the tests—"
"Mm hm." Hurst checked his watch. "Speaking of Control, Garner should be nearly there. Which leads to the true problem of the evening: it seems I've lost one of my primary test subjects."
"Where is she, Raymond?"
"You're going to kill her. You're going to kill me, too."
"You're going to die, Timekeeper." Hurst glanced down at Leon's arm clock. "There's a difference."
Eight minutes, thirty-three seconds, glowing green beneath Leon's skin. Thirty-two. Thirty-one.
"A hundred years," he said.
Hurst frowned, bemused. "What?"
"A full century." Leon coolly met his eyes. "That's how much I want."
Hurst looked blankly at him. Then he laughed. "And Garner said you couldn't be bought. The incorruptible Raymond Leon."
Chuckling, he walked off, behind Leon. Leon didn't bother turning his head to track him. He concentrated, instead, on flexing against the ties binding his arms and legs. When Hurst returned a moment later, he carried the handset of a military-issue com-sat phone. A reason, then, for their being on the second floor of the house: while the phone was essentially trace-proof, it required as little structural interference as possible. Likely something in the frame of the house— an earthquake-proofing retrofit, maybe— blocked the signal downstairs.
"Who should I call for you, Raymond?" Hurst asked.
Hurst dialed, held the handset to Leon's ear. "Here's hoping he hasn't gone home for the day."
One ring. Two.
Ray, where the hell are you?
"No time, Terrence. I need you to do something for me."
"Laura Vedder. I need you to check on her, make sure sure she's okay—"
I don't even know where you're keeping her.
"Go alone. No one else. That's all."
Hurst terminated the connection. Stared at Leon with cold anger in his pale eyes. In so few words, Leon had just alerted his field partner to the fact that something was wrong. That Vedder was in danger. Leon, himself, as well. And that— in telling Jaeger to go alone— at least one Timekeeper was in on what was happening.
"What did you think you were doing, Timekeeper Leon?" Hurst sneered. "Buying time?"
Leon glanced at his arm clock. Five minutes, thirty-eight seconds. "After a fashion, yes."
"Allow me an indulgence of my own," Hurst said. "As long as you're insisting on denying me one test subject—" He dialed another number on the sat-phone, waited. "Garner, kill Timekeeper Rawlins."
He hung up, returned his attention to Leon. "Doubt she'll be much trouble, given the shape she's in. Which leaves me with you." He looked at Leon's forearm. "Five minutes," he mused. "I could wait for you to time out, or— What do you say to a demonstration of Double-Time? Since you've loosed my lab rats, I'd say you owe me."
He went to the reading table. Leon this time turned his head to watch, using the tracking of Hurst's movement as an excuse to twist as hard as he could, through the shoulders, chest, and arms, against the ties. Still not enough give. The new alloys were entirely too efficient. Too damned strong.
From the field bag, Hurst took out a hypo kit. A smoke-gray, semi-opaque bottle bearing an insignia Leon recognized as one popular among dealers with ties to Balfour Taymor. Irony, there. "The wonderful thing about old-fashioned methamphetamine, Raymond," Hurst said. "You can smoke it, you can ingest it, you can inject it." He fitted a fresh needle to the hypo, drew a syringeful of clear liquid from the bottle.
Leon began to sense a bit of play between his right forearm and the arm of the chair. "You inject me with that, a standard stimulant, and then fit me with a Double-Time patch: correct?"
"Correct. Double-Time attacks the stimulant in your system— almost as if the meth is a sort of time-virus— and you hyper-age. You melt, Raymond. You die."
Leon felt as much as heard a quiet cracking from the chair's right-side arm.
"After that," Hurst continued, packing away the remainder of the hypo kit, "we'll merely have to tweak the drug-interaction warnings. Safe usage shouldn't be a problem for our stalwart Timekeepers, as clean-living as they are. The hedonists in the general public will take their own chances."
You talk too fucking much, Hurst, Leon thought. A loosening within the chair's frame itself, the wood as old and as dry as it was, starting from the right. But still not enough—
Hurst turned to Leon, syringe in hand, and asked:
"Are you clean, Timekeeper?"
Leon stared up at him. "The real question is, Hurst: are you?"
With that, he got his feet under him and, chair and all, bowled into Hurst. Hurst, knocked backwards, went out the door of the library; with a shout of panic, he went over the bannister. Leon, stumbling, unable to stop his own forward momentum, hit the bannister, too. The brittle uprights gave way. Chair and all, Leon broke through—
A timeless moment of free-fall. A flash-by of green painted wall, a welling of shadow—
A brutal tumbling. A crunch-and-shattering. A sudden, eerie stillness and the settling of dust.
Leon stirred. The chair legs had snapped off; from his own right leg, from the knee down, he felt a punching, throbbing pain. Hurst was lying maybe ten feet away, his back twisted at an unnatural angle. They'd landed on black-and-white tiled flooring. A wet, labored gurgling was issuing from the man's throat.
His neck is broken.
Leon had seconds at most. And his arms were still tied to that damned chair. He got to his feet, against a stab of protest from his right knee, threw himself backwards into the nearest wall. Heard a splintering from the back of the chair, pulled simultaneously, as hard as he could, against the right side arm. Shouted in pain when the arm gave way and his shoulder dislocated, simultaneously, with an audible pop.
He dropped to his knees beside Hurst. Hauled the man over, back-flat, on the floor, and grasped his right forearm. Waited, heart pounding, for the pulsing flow of time-transference.
The gurgling from Hurst's throat stopped.
Leon looked to the clock on the man's forearm. Watched in the mounting darkness as it faded from glowing green to a dead-cinder red.
Hurst had died with over a day on his arm. Leon had less than two minutes on his own.
One minute, forty-six seconds.
Hurst had to have driven himself to the house; he had to have a car parked somewhere on the premises; that car, likely a cruiser, would have a temporal top-up cradle. Two questions: Where were his keys? And how far away was the car?
One minute, forty-one seconds.
The field bag upstairs. Double-Time. The demonstration Leon had interrupted.
Leon hauled himself back to his feet, hopped and staggered for and up the stairs. Fell when his right knee gave out, dragged himself upward, crawling. Got himself upright in the doorway of the library and as much as launched himself across it, at the reading table.
He tipped the field bag on its side. Emptied it. Pawed his way through medical equipment, phials filled with liquid, a scattering of micro-drives. Came at last upon a rectangular black plastic case, very thin, about four inches on its long side, latched. Opened it and found, inside, a layering of skin-like patches, separated by what looked like cellophane. He peeled away the top patch.
Forty-two seconds on his arm.
He pressed the patch over —.0041.
His clock stopped, still glowing green, at —.0038.
Then: a rushing. Not just dizziness, a sudden loss of equilibrium. It was as if Leon were standing still and the world was flying by, on the sides, above, below. He staggered, gripped the edge of the table top, held on.
It passed. Fortunately. Leaving only the pain in his shoulder and leg, a generalized unsteadiness. His clock was still frozen at thirty-eight seconds.
For how long?
Up to an eighty per cent reduction in payroll expenditures, Hurst had said. Meaning what? An accounting exercise? Actual measurements of real-time?
Leon dragged himself back down the stairs. Stopped long enough at Hurst's body to learn, via a patdown of the man's pockets, that if he had a car, the keys were elsewhere. He limped to the front door of the house, keeping in mind the direction from which he'd heard the sound of Garner's car's engine, and stepped out into windy dusk.
Old Sunset. That was, in fact, where they were. He knew from the steepness of the hills, the road winding away below, the angle of the glow lingering in the west. A gravel drive led to outbuildings on his right. Leon hobbled along it as fast as he could, found tire tracks leading up to a closed, unwindowed garage door. The door was unlocked.
The cruiser he found inside the garage wasn't.
Dusty tools peg-boarded to the garage wall. A claw hammer. Leon smashed the driver's-side window of the cruiser, got in, fumbled for the radio. He could feel his blood rushing in his veins, heard a ringing in his ears. He knew, without looking, that his clock had once again started to run.
He could barely speak. "Control, come in."
This is Control.
Leon placed his forearm in the top-up cradle. "Timekeeper Leon, requesting per diem."
He watched his arm clock as the numbers mounted, flashed to twenty-four green-glowing hours, and began to count down. The standard-pace, everyday bleeding away of seconds. But he was still unsteady. He was hurt, and he knew it. He could feel his heart shaking his sternum.
— not even waiting for the acknowledgment—
"— Timekeeper Leon, requesting assistance—"
Leon blacked out.
They got a read on his location via the per diem. Tracking the time: that's what Timekeepers did, after all. A handful of officers responded to the house on Sunset, Jaeger among them. When Leon refused medical attention at the scene, Jaeger insisted on driving him back to Control. Leon didn't argue it. They passed Carl Barnes pulling up, Temporal Control Forensics Services stamped in gold on the driver's-side door of his black Chrysler 300, as they turned out of the gravel drive.
Leon asked the question he'd been saving for his field partner. "Rawlins?"
Jaeger might have been waiting for it. Not a moment's confusion. He might have been reading Leon's thoughts. Given half a chance, field partners could be like that. "Have to say, even fucked up, the woman's a hell of a shot," he said. "Garner kicked in her door, and she shot him through the eye. With an old Walther. You know anything about that, Raymond?"
Leon didn't reply. Kept his gaze focused on the nightscape flashing by the side window until his drug-tweaked brain forced him to look away.
"The video feed from her flat was down," Jaeger continued. "If he'd killed her, we might never have known who it was. Elena Lancaster, you know her?"
"One of Barnes' people."
"Looks like she was in on this. Asked a friend of hers in data services to shut down the feed, there and from the cameras on P3, and he did it. Looks like he was in on it, too."
Leon, in pain and relief, sank into the passenger seat. Asked, nonetheless: "Were you in on it, Terrence?"
"Do you want to walk all the way back to Control?"
Leon focused silently on the relative stillness of the glove-compartment door.
Jaeger said: "I'm not gonna say I'm angry at you for not trusting me on this."
"But you are angry."
"I am. I'm not gonna say it, though." Jaeger kept his eyes on the twisting road. "What I am gonna say is this: You keep running ahead, Raymond. You don't wait. You run on ahead, because that's what you do: you get all caught up in the chase. And someday you're going to get too far out, and there won't be anyone there to help you. Not me, not anyone." Jaeger glanced over, saw Leon opening his mouth to speak. "And before you deny it: we all need someone sometimes, Raymond. We all do. Even you. Tonight should be proof enough of that."
For exposing Hurst and his plans to develop and market Double-Time, Leon received a commendation and a modest bonus, which said bonus was just enough to cover the fines he incurred for ingesting an illegal substance while on-duty (said substance being, of course, the Double-Time patch that had saved his life) and for lending an unapproved firearm to a fellow Timekeeper, with just a bit left over.
Laura Vedder's housing status was restored. Leon told her Carl Barnes was responsible. He liked to think she nearly believed him.
Caroline Rawlins, Timekeeper. Eyes alert, her facial expression mildly troubled but relaxed, too. Wearing today, on her downtime, over the flex-cast on her left arm, a lavender-check button-down shirt and taupe cargo trousers, and clutching, in the fingers of her good right hand, the handles of a cluster of white plastic bags from the Thai takeaway down the street. The woman couldn't cook to save her life, or anyone else's, and she knew it. Raymond Leon knew it, too. He saw Rawlins on the feed from his flat's security cam.
Rawlins asked, when he opened the door: "It's Friday, isn't it?"
It was, in fact, Tuesday.
Leon smiled for her. "It's close enough, Timekeeper Rawlins."
He was still moving about on a cluster of torn ligaments in his right knee; he hobbled in allowing her to pass. His shoulder was still dicey, too. But time healed everything, right? Time, and a good leg-brace, and close adherence to the protocols of physical rehab. Leon closed the door, checked the locks, and followed Rawlins to the kitchen.