Authors: John Hulme
Tags: #ebook, #book
Permin nodded and looked like he was trying to say something, maybe an effort to save face or just a warning to his old friend. But before he could come up with the words—
“Get out of here, you old sandman,” Chiappa interjected with a twinkle in his eye. “We’ve got work to do.”
As Shan Mei-Lin began to unfold her Tool Table™, she was anxious to get cracking. Being the fastest Candidate ever to make it to Briefer, she fully expected to be the fastest Briefer ever to make it to Fixer as well. Sure, there had been younger Fixers than her, like Casey Lake and Becker Drane, but never had anyone moved up the ranks with such meteoric speed. And though she was stuck working with an old fart like Chiappa, this was the perfect opportunity to distinguish herself on a high-profile Mission.
“Give me Those Things That Look a Lot Like Tweezers That You Use to Cut Wires With™,” requested Mr. Chiappa.
The entire chamber had been cleared of all personnel (as had the corridors above), and with the gears turned off, the only sounds left were the clanking of Tools and the ticking of the alarm clock. Briefer Shan handed over Those Things and watched as her Fixer snipped a blue wire that connected the freezer to the fertilizer. The bomb itself was covered with a host of such wires, in many different colors.
“How do you know which one to cut?” asked Briefer Shan.
“Most of these are just dummy wires meant to throw us off the trail,” Chiappa explained. “But we’ve gotta clear them out before I can figure which ones are important.”
Briefer Shan couldn’t help but notice Chiappa’s hand trembling as he cut the excess cords. Though she had studied the Mission Report from the Day That Time Stood Still at length, the specific blueprints of the device had been stricken from the record, and there were still a few things she didn’t understand.
“How did you know the original bomb would restart Time again?” she asked.
“ICU™, please.” Chiappa ignored her question and reached for the monoclelike Tool that allowed him to see through the freezer walls and onto the racks where the Moments were arrayed. “I didn’t.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“I didn’t know that it would work. I only had a hunch.” Chiappa snipped another dummy wire, then continued. “I knew it would take a tremendous shock to get The World going again. And the only way I could think of creating that kind of energy was cracking open a Second.”
“Why not a First?” inquired the Briefer.
“Not enough Essence inside,” Chiappa explained. “No . . . it had to be a Second or a Third.”
Shan knew why he hadn’t chosen a Third—cracking open one of those might destroy both sides of the In-Between in one fell swoop.
“The real key, though, was the Frozen Moments.”
As if to illustrate that point, Chiappa picked the lock on the freezer with his Finger Nail™, and the door slowly swung open. Inside were fifty trays, each containing sixteen pristinely frozen cubes of ice. And inside each of those sixteen pristinely frozen cubes of ice was a moment of someone’s life, captured and preserved for all eternity—or as long as they didn’t melt.
“Frozen Moments are the one thing in The World that flow backward to The Seems. Hence, it stood to reason that if we sent an explosion back in the opposite direction, it might be able to jump-start The World.”
“Huh.” For the first time, Briefer Shan was beginning to gain a little respect for Mr. Chiappa. “That’s pretty genius.”
“Hardly. By cracking the Second, we put the entire Seems at risk. It was only by the grace of the Plan that we didn’t blow up the whole kit and kaboodle.”
Chiappa winked at Briefer Shan, who was beginning to feel like so many of his kids at Sartene High. He may have seemed over the hill, but his combination of humility and old-world charm made it hard not to smile in his presence.
“There’s one thing I can’t figure out, though . . .” Chiappa had a perplexed look on his face as he studied the inner workings of the Bomb. “Where’s the Containment Field?”
“Containment Field, sir?”
Chiappa pointed her attention to the black cylinder that he had referred to as the Second Splitter.
“When Permin and I built ours, we made sure to make only a tiny incision in the Second. But just in case it split in two, we surrounded the whole thing in a Time-resistant glass enclosure so the Essence couldn’t escape.”
“It’s The Tide we’re talking about, sir. Maybe they want it to escape.”
At that moment it all started to get very real for both Fixer and Briefer. Immediately, their minds raced to friends and family and all the things they would never see again if they were unable to successfully deactivate the Bomb.
“What’s your Mission Inside the Mission, Briefer Shan?” Chiappa was referring to something small in The World that Fixers and Briefers were trained to wrap their hearts around when fear threatened to overwhelm them. He knew this was a personal question, but when would be a better time to ask?
“I’m not much of a believer in the MIM,” Shan confessed without much hesitation. “I rely upon my skills and hard work at all times.”
Chiappa wasn’t surprised. Young Briefers were often seduced by the illusion of pride.
“What about you, sir?”
“It’s always the same for me, regardless of the Mission,” Chiappa smiled and pulled a photo out of his wallet. “And she’ll kill me if I don’t make it home for dinner.”
Briefer Shan felt a flash of shame at the purity of the Fixer’s love for his wife, but she quickly had to snap back on beam, because Chiappa had turned his attention back to the Time Bomb. There were now only fourteen minutes left on the alarm clock.
“The way I see it, all we have to do is disconnect the Second Splitter from the rest of the components.”
“How can I help?”
“Look for any Booby Traps™.”
Shan scanned the entire face of the machine, but found no evidence of the snares, snags, or sniggles invented by John Booby.
“All clear, sir.”
“Good. Then let’s do this thing.”
Chiappa returned Those Things, then requested a pair of Oven Mitts™. Donning the protective gloves, he placed both hands under the black cylinder.
“I need you to cut that wire . . . that wire . . . and that wire.” He was pointing to the ones that connected the alarm clock to the Splitter, and the Splitter to the freezer and the fertilizer. “And I need you to do it at the exact same time.”
“Now?” Shan was flabbergasted. “I thought there would be more time to prepare.”
“Well, we could wait till it gets down to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 . . . but by then my lasagna will be cold.” Chiappa winked again, then rolled up his sleeves to prepare for the operation. “Seriously, Shan—don’t think too much about it. Just cut when I say so and this will all be over.”
The calmness in Chiappa’s voice relaxed the Briefer, but the ticking of the alarm clock seemed to get louder and louder. It was the same kind of alarm clock Shan had by her bedside in Beijing, which was always set to four a.m. But when it went off it only meant another day at university . . .
Briefer #375 took a deep breath to steady her nerves, then bundled the three crucial wires in her hand.
“Ready when you are, sir.”
Chiappa bent his back to give him more leverage to lift the Splitter, then gave her the nod.
“May you live in interesting times,” she whispered, then squeezed the handle of Those Things That Look a Lot Like Tweezers That You Cut Wires With and snipped the final three.
The clock stopped.
The wires fell to the floor.
And that was it.
Nothing else happened.
Briefer and Fixer looked at each other like, “It couldn’t really be that easy, could it?” But apparently it was. Chiappa wiped the sweat from his eyes and waited for his heart to return to its normal speed.
“Update Central Command that the Time Bomb has been diffused and we will be delivering the Second back to the Minutemen.” As the Briefer pulled her Receiver™ off her belt, Chiappa had one last thing to add. “And well done, Shan.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Briefer Shan was already mentally adding this to her list of successful Missions as the Fixer slowly lifted the cylinder into the air. He had handled many a Second in his time (not to mention Thirds) and despite its natural volatility, he was quite confident in his ability to contain it. As he freed the Splitter from the wires, Chiappa could almost taste the retirement ceremony at Flip’s and the popcorn (with butter and salt) that lay just on the other side of this final task. “Now, if you could just open that doo—”
Suddenly, the bell on the top of the alarm clock began to ring—as loud and grating as the sound that jolts unfortunate dreamers from the pleasure of a Good Night’s Sleep. It was also rattling on top of the freezer, and by the way the many wires attached to it danced lifelessly about like tentacles, Chiappa knew that he had made a terrible mistake.
the wires were dummies.
“What’s happening, sir?” cried Briefer Shan, the coppery taste of panic soaking her tongue. What was once seven minutes was now six, now five, now four, as the arms of the clock whipped wildly toward zero.
“It’s a wireless detonator!” Chiappa screamed at his Briefer over the shrill ring of the alarm clock. “Look for a transmitter!”
“What’s it look like?” Shan frantically scoured the Bomb up and down.
“A small box with a little rubber antenna!” Chiappa wanted to help her look for it but he was stuck holding the Second Splitter, and by the time he put it down it would already be too late.
“I can’t find it, sir!” shouted the Briefer. “I can’t find it!”
As the minute hand passed two on its way to one, a strange peace descended over Mr. Chiappa. He knew that wherever the wireless was, it would soon be activating a guillotine-like device inside the cylinder that would cut the Second neatly in two, sending one half hurtling through the trays of Frozen Moments. Where it would go from there was unclear, but the one thing he knew for certain was that anyone trapped inside the blast radius would be exposed to the Essence of Time.
“Get out of here, Shan!”
“No way, sir. A Briefer never leaves her Fixer!”
“That’s a direct order!”
Briefer Shan hesitated before bolting back through the gears and to the door that led to the spiral staircase. With tears in her eyes, she took one last look at her Fixer—who was gently easing the Second Splitter to the ground—then closed the door behind her.
Lucien Chiappa released the long black cylinder and took off his Mitts.
“Four days,” he whispered aloud.
Some would have spent their final ten seconds lamenting the Plan’s twisted sense of humor, or cursing the Powers That Be for not cutting him a little slack. Yet Fixer #12 only felt blessed that he had been lucky enough to have a job such as this, a wife such as Ombretta, and a World such as the one in which he was privileged to live. The last thing he thought was, “I knew I should have added
For Whom the Bell Tolls
to the lesson plan.”
And then the Time Bomb exploded.
Merritt Parkway, Bridgeport, Connecticut
Becker Drane didn’t realize he was screaming until his mom shook him by the arm. “Becker! What’s wrong?”
It took the boy a few more shakes to snap out of it and quiet down. He’d been following along on Mr. Chiappa’s Mission via the “Missions in Progress” function on his Blinker, when he’d been overwhelmed with the physical sensation of a terrible wrongness in The Seems. Not only did it hurt, but he felt as if he was about to ralph all over the car.
“I think I’m getting carsick.”
“Can you wait till the next rest stop?” said Professor Drane, pointing to a sign that said, “Service Area, Three Miles.”
“I don’t think so,” replied his son, turning a deeper shade of green.
Even Benjamin kept his mouth shut, because he was starting to worry about Becker too. The professor pulled to the side of the Merritt Parkway and up onto the grass. “Go over there by the woods.”
Becker opened the door and stumbled out of the car.
“Go with him, Ferdinand!”
“It’s okay, Mom. I’ll be right back. I’m just—” But before he even got five steps past the shoulder, Becker and his family witnessed what half a turkey and provolone from Highland Pizza looks like after it’s been in a stomach for forty-five minutes. (Note: It don’t look good.)
“Dude, that’s so gnarly,” Benjamin said admiringly.
“Thanks . . . a lot . . . nimrod,” answered Becker, before upchucking again.
“He’s right, son,” their father chimed in. “That is pretty gnarly.”
Becker rose to his feet and wiped his mouth on the edge of his sleeve. He was starting to feel a little better, though that was small comfort, for never before had his 7
Sense screamed in this way. It told him that the last update he’d received on “Missions in Progress”—“Time Bomb successfully diffused”— had been somewhat premature.
The Fixer raised a finger to his family as if to say “give me a minute,” then staggered over by the woods. Once he was sure that he was safely out of view, he pulled his Blinker off his belt and was about to check on the status of Mr. Chiappa, when—
BLINK! BLINK! BLINK! BLINK! BLINK!
He covertly pressed the yellow Accept button, holding it down an extra second so it wouldn’t go through its transformation to a keyboard with oversized viewscreen.
“Stand by for transmission.”
Becker pretended to dry-heave again just in case his family was watching, then turned the volume on the Blinker up just loud enough to hear.
“Fixer #37, F. Becker Drane. Please report. Over.”
The Dispatcher usually wore a headset, a uniform, and a perfectly manicured buzz cut. But this time his hair was disheveled and dark bags had formed beneath his eyes.
“#37 present and accounted for!”
The Fixer prepared to wait for verification but the Dispatcher uncharacteristically skipped the formalities. He was fraught with emotion in a way that Becker had never seen before.