Authors: Edward W. Robertson
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Cyberpunk, #Dystopian, #Futuristic, #High Tech, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Sci-Fi Thriller, #serial novel, #science fiction series, #Thriller, #Time Travel, #Sci-Fi, #dystopia, #The Cutting Room
THE COMPLETE SERIES
Edward W. Robertson
The Cutting Room
originally appeared as a six-part serial novel. This set includes every volume of the story.
The boy sat alone on the swing, twisting from side to side, right foot trailing through the dirt. In eight days, that foot would be found in a Dumpster behind the Safeway. His arms would turn up in the trash behind a hamburger joint across the street from the police department. The insult would spark the cops to talk a good game, but a few months later, the case would go cold. It would be as if the killer had vanished from the earth. Decades later, the cops would go to their graves without knowing who had sent six-year-old Stephen Jaso to his.
This wasn't a hypothetical. This was the future. And I was there to stop it.
The park stretched a couple blocks in all directions. Big place. Stands of pines and elms. A roofed-over platform near the parking lot for grilling and low-rent weddings. A side street split the parking lot; on the other side, a set of brick bathrooms stood outside a baseball diamond. Lots of places for a young boy to be taken and strangled. Even so, I didn't think the murder would be committed here; the park ran alongside the town's main north-south drag. But there was a decent chance this is where the killer would pick him up.
Our mantra is much like a doctor's: first, do no harm. Causality is a thing that can drive you mad. My very presence was changing the course of particles. A man driving down the street could glance my way, miss the red light, and plow down a child. Protocol insists on exhausting observational methods before attempting direct intervention.
So I sat on a bench a hundred yards from the boy, snapped pictures with my eyes, and took analog, pen-and-paper notes on park-goers' behavior and my speculations regarding it. Profile would suggest a male, probably white, between the ages of twenty and sixty, but you could never rule out surgery. Even a projection of some kind. So I took notes on everyone: male, female, young, old. Extra time on anyone who lingered. When a thirtyish woman stopped to talk with him, I filled three pages, cranking up the zoom on my eyes.
After a while, the boy hopped down from the swing, wandered to the spiraling, multi-colored slide, and watched two girls and a boy run up its steps and giggle down the slide. He never asked to join them. Reserved, but yearning for contact. Easy to see why the killer had marked him.
Stephen Jaso went on staring at the children on the slide until his mom walked out from the covered grills, took him by the hand, and led him to the car. Home was just a few blocks away. I followed them there and parked down the block.
I killed time browsing the files on my laptop, which was slow and bulky and confoundingly era-appropriate; before it flung me across the dimensions, the Pod had instantly summed up the case as the lowest of lo-fi—this was a single murder, not an attempt to found the Fourth Reich—and denied me access to all Anachronistic Tech. Not even a dot-cam. The Pod had already compared the before/afters from the news. The only discrepancies between the two timelines it found in the media came after the discovery of Stephen's body, but I didn't entirely trust the Pods' analysis. Anyway, I had nothing better to do. If nothing else, poring through articles and video would help immerse me in the period.
Stephen didn't emerge from his house for the rest of the day. The sun sank into the high brown hills, scorching the clouds as red as fresh blood. Cars came and went. No creepers. Nothing to set off my highly attuned (if organic and untrustworthy) internal radar. I took photos just in case. When there were no headlights coming, I browsed the dossier of potentials the Pod had spit out in the minute before it sent me on my way. Most were employees from Central, but there were a few cartels and foreign operatives too. Nothing popped out.
The lights clicked off one by one. A dog barked from somewhere far away. Day one ended as quietly as days can end. I had six more of them to reverse-engineer the boy's murder before it became permanent.
It's okay if it doesn't make sense yet. A lot of it still confuses me. Making time travel real hasn't made it any less complicated.
Here are the basics. There isn't one Earth, there are many, all on their own streams of time. Ours—we call it Primetime—is the only one with the ability to reach into the past. And for whatever fluke of physics, it's much easier to travel to the past of other streams than to our own. We can't keep tabs on all these other worlds. Even if we had the incomprehensible resources to watch everything, the very act of observing it would change it, corrupting its future. Defeating the point.
This makes them vulnerable. To all the secret passions of anyone who can steal, bribe, or jury-rig their way to the right technology. Primetime's shadows descend on the other worlds to kill and rape and rule and laugh. Some of the hardliners argue we should leave these other worlds to their fate. That people like me are changed by the experience of cleaning up another world's past, meaning that my own future—and thus a part of the future of Primetime—will be altered, too.
But we owe them. Because they're defenseless. Because when you're a time traveler from a parallel dimension, you can kill a six-year-old boy and vanish, forever, without a trace.
My name is Blake Din. I am an agent of the Cutting Room, and it is my job to stop them.
I didn't sleep much that night. I got up before the Jaso boy was due at school. As soon as he got on the yellow bus, I drove to the school. There was a small risk I'd miss something, but you can't let the killer see you. You'll spook them. They'll come back to another time to do it instead. Then what have you done? Wasted a week of your life and corrupted the pasts of billions of lives.
I pulled into the lot of the public library across from the school and watched Stephen hop down from the bus. He carried his backpack over both shoulders, clinging tight to the straps. I took a few pictures of the parking lot to compare against the ones I'd taken of the park and his home street. He struggled with the school's front door, which was much too large for him, and went inside. Perhaps foolishly, I drove off.
My first stop was the Dumpster behind the supermarket. It was a warm spring day and I parked in the shade and rolled down the window. A security camera hung from the wall, but it was pointed at the loading gates. I made a note of its field of vision. A few years back, in an effort to stop an abduction, a CR agent named Villarreal had scoped out a gas station parking lot. He never got his man, but the gas station camera caught him visiting the scene on three different nights. When the woman went missing, it was Villarreal's face on the news.
The supermarket backlot was flanked by the backs of a strip mall and a department store. It wouldn't take any planning to dump the remains in this empty, quiet place. I wouldn't find him here. I started the car and drove aimlessly, to get a feel for the town and on the off chance anyone was following my visits to multiple future crime scenes. It was hardly my first time piloting a car—the Cutting Room facility includes several warehouses, gyms, libraries, and lots to brush up on obsolete skills—but it felt strange to be behind the wheel again.
I had five hours before school let out. Plenty of time to check out the other Dumpsters. Nothing exceptional about them. With the exception of the one at the Wendy's across from the police station, all were tucked away behind shops and out of range of security cams. I didn't see anyone suspicious. Took pictures of the cars anyway. Sometimes you pull leads, but when you don't, the only way to catch a break is to collect as much data as possible and see if any patterns shake out.
The police would never work out where the killing would take place, so I was already out of locations to scout. I went back to my motel and spent an hour transferring images from my eyes to my laptop and setting up a simple search/compare. Nothing popped up. I'd check them manually that night.
I went back to the Safeway to buy a book and took it to a bench outside the library across from the school. I turned the pages to keep up appearances, but mostly I took pictures of the street, the parking lot, the grounds. The chain of the flagpole clanked limply against the tall metal rod. Mothers parked in the main lot and waited in the safety of their cars. Their engines were startlingly loud.
But not as loud as the bell that marked the end of school, or the flood of children that followed.
They burst down the steps, laughing little goblins decked out in bright windbreakers and cartoon t-shirts. I didn't have anything in my eyes except a basic camera, but it wasn't hard to pick Stephen out from the crowd. He walked alone, watching the others, expression one part fear and one part hope. No one paid him any mind.
The kids lined up for the buses idling along the curb. Others ran to the parking lot and hopped into their parents' cars. Stephen walked across the trimmed green lawn, heading for a bus. He stepped onto the sidewalk directly in the path of a man in a suit.
The man bowled into him, grabbing onto Stephen's shoulders to keep himself and the child upright. His face bent in anger. Stephen stumbled, knees banging into the sidewalk, elbows on the grass. The man pursed his lips and bent down to help the kid up. One knee of Stephen's slacks was torn. Beneath, his skin was scraped. He looked sad but didn't cry.
The man put his hand on Stephen's shoulder, speaking to him. I would have given anything for a proper microphone. The man glanced at the front doors, reached into his pocket, and handed Stephen something, which the boy pocketed. They both smiled. Stephen picked up his bag and jogged toward his bus. The man watched him go.
I took pictures steadily. What if it had gone down like this instead? Not as a careful piece of stalking, but a chance encounter? The man continued down the street. I swore. Twenty years from now, I could reverse-search his image on the web and pull together his identity in minutes. Five years after that, I could feed the image into a database and have his info handed to me on a platter. In this disconnected age, if you wanted to run down a man's ID, you had to get out and use your legs. I hopped out of the car and strode down the opposite sidewalk, lagging a block behind.
He fit the profile. Late thirties, white, unobtrusively handsome. A bit on the white collar side, but he might be dressed up for the occasion. He didn't glance behind him. Three blocks later, he drifted from the sidewalk into a broad parking lot and went into a hardware store.
I hustled back to the car and parked in one of the store's outer rows. Ten minutes later, the man emerged with two heavy plastic bags and headed back toward the school. I let him get a couple blocks up, then pulled out, drove past, and parked at a flower shop two blocks from the library. I turned off my car and got out my book and pretended to read. He bobbed by, sweat filming his temples. I let him get to the crosswalk before I got out.
The next block took him into a tree-lined residential neighborhood. The houses did their best to look old, but it was a Northwestern desert town and nothing had been here longer than seventy years. The man unlocked the door of a house with ivy fringing its porch and went inside.
I walked past the other side of the street, taking pictures. There was no car in the driveway. That can be a sign; when you're from another world, it isn't always easy to get your hands on items that require an identity. But the killer had a car. The Dumpsters were spaced miles apart. No way he made that circuit on foot with sixty pounds of child slung over his back. Not without being seen.
I went back to my car and parked down the street. Crows cawed from the thicket of leaves. The surf of traffic rolled from a few blocks away, but this little block was virtually silent. I kept one eye on the street while I thought up an approach. It's best to just break in. Not let them see you at all. We try to keep it secret, but they know the CR exists. Many are well aware that as soon as the Pods detect a change, a person like me will materialize to try to prevent them from ever having made that change. It's their job to be careful, to elude the Pods' distant eye. It's my job to be just as stealthy, to track them down before they know I'm here.
To approach the man's house, then, I needed a seamless cover story. But every second I spent here thinking about it was a second I wasn't watching the Jaso boy.
I pulled out and cruised past the Jasos' house. Nothing remarkable. I circled back to the hardware store and spent a few paper dollars on picks and tools, then went back to the motel for a quick nap. The first thing I saw when I woke to the evening sun was the phone. Wires connected it to the wall. And all the phones were like this.
As I shrugged off the fog of sleep, I assessed what little I knew. There was something off about the man. If I could prove he was an intruder here and now, I could execute him, take his body away, and wait for the Pod to whisk us back to Primetime. Stephen would never know anything had been wrong.