The Thirteenth Traveler
by Dave Ervin
Table of Contents|
chapters: I, II, III, IV,
V, part 1; V, part 2; VI
Alone at night in a strange forest, Travis Burbage witnesses a terrifying scene. Meanwhile, Malachi Linklater discovers that he is engaged in an ironic mode of transportation: he may discover where his journey ends, but where did it begin?
Malachi Linklater landed on the ground with a thud. He hated traveling via snaps. They were outdated devices but the best the Bureau could get its hands on in the current political climate. His own had cracked badly in the transfer, and the one he had lent to this clown Burbage had snapped like a twig in the hand of the inexperienced traveler. Still, he knew this would happen, and he couldn’t be too upset.
How many times had he been through this exact scenario? One hundred? Twice that? Could it have been more, and his mind was simply unable to grasp the concept? Only each time was slightly different, wasn’t it? Each time one or two small variables changed the time thread to some small degree. Either more to the left — that was bad — or slightly more to the right; that was good. He had worked for the Bureau for as long as he could remember and this had been his only assignment. But tonight he would get it right. He was sure.
Burbage fell to the ground immediately behind him, and the light blinked out behind the travelers. The familiar dialogue played out:
“When are we?” Burbage asked.
“How the hell should I know? It’s the woods. Could be anywhen.”
“This is the right place. I’m pretty sure about that.”
“Take this,” Linklater said, and handed Burbage a scanner.
“Stick it in the ground. It’ll trace the surroundings and give us the exact date.”
Burbage stooped to one knee and began reading out a series of numbers from the scanner’s screen. The shot from Linklater’s gun was quick and silent. Blood sprayed out of the wound for a moment, and Burbage fell face first into the forest floor, dead.
That was the easy part. Linklater had used this opening move every time, like a chess player’s favorite gambit. Now came the challenge: killing the other Travis Burbage. The 1998 version.
Through every scenario, every time, the asshole had eluded him, and things ended up in a chase. No matter how long they ran or where Burbage led him, it somehow brought them into the path of Zachary Dean and a bullet for Linklater.
Once he had forced Burbage up a tree and Dean shot him from below. Once he let him make it all the way back to camp and tried to sneak up on him, but by that time Dean was waiting for him in the brush.
The real pain of it was that he couldn’t blast him from afar. He had to engage close enough to identify Burbage with an ID disk. No matter that Linklater had been through this song and dance enough to know without a doubt who hid in the trees to his left.
He had once said screw protocol and had taken out the body without properly tagging him first. Dean showed up, there was a fight, Linklater ported back to find that Burbage had somehow survived, carrying the gene, and the future had not improved at all.
The situation was infinitely more delicate than anyone could imagine. It had to be done just so. And part of the procedure was collecting 100 percent certainty of target and elimination. Thus, getting a disk ID on Burbage.
The closest he had come to completing the mission was on his last trip, when he had wrestled Burbage into a creek bed and had placed the disk firmly in the drunken man’s hand. Dean appeared out of nowhere and shot Linklater in the chest. The officer nearly fired back with his last gasp.
But, in the end, it was the same old story. Linklater was shot dead, his blood mixing with his killer’s through some sort of serendipitous happenstance. Dean passing on the cancer that would eventually rid the world of a third of its population. And the Thirteenth Traveler living to see another round.
As a traveler, Linklater was almost by definition unable to believe in fate. But the ways and means by which The Night in the Woods reached the same climax time and time again was enough to give a man pause.
The vacuum light appeared and sucked up Burbage’s corpse. The woods fell still and Linklater let out a sigh that said Here we go again.
He had told Burbage about his traveler status in a hotel room in 2013, but he hadn’t been completely honest. The lie — if you could call misleading a man to protect the good of mankind a lie — was the nature of Burbage’s genetics. Yes, he had been gifted the gene through blood-mingling. But in most scenarios it wasn’t Linklater’s blood that passed along the mutation. It was Dean’s. Seconds after he became infected, he shared his new disease with his best friend.
Only Burbage’s insides took in the DNA like a long-lost twin. The popular opinion among modern science was that he was transformed instantaneously. And while one man would wither and wilt and bleed his poison into a world that would die because of it, the other would give birth to a race that would grow and advance and eventually morph into something closer to wind and light than human beings. All other travelers were incapable of having children. But again, Burbage proved to be unique.
All of this knowledge and information played through Linklater’s mind like an unobtrusive score to a film. Through the years he had developed a stark fascination for Burbage’s abilities, even as he hated him deeply.
Linklater might have been a traveler, but he was a man, dammit. His job was to protect the human race, and he’d see to it that the world belonged to the bipedal oxygen-breathers as long as his grandchildren’s grandchildren had any stake in the game.
So Linklater had to stop Dean. And more importantly, he had to kill Burbage. But every trip through this scenario weakened him a little. He could feel it. And he feared that, before too long, he would stop making progress; he might even regress. He was already incapable of landing within twelve clicks of the right spot on the thread by himself; there was a time when he could get within eight.
That was another untruth about the information he had shared with Burbage in the hotel room. He failed to mention his own inability to nail a time and date with anywhere near the specificity that Travis Burbage supplied him.
Despite his inexperience, Burbage’s genes were so far advanced that they could land within yards and minutes of the event, saving Linklater weeks and possibly months of waiting around and avoiding any unnecessary jumps. After all, it wasn’t like traveling along the time thread was easy. Think jumping from an airplane while curling weights.
His first move had been made: offing the 2013 Burbage, his companion and ticket to this specific time and place. Next, he would have to play the charade of pretending he didn’t know where the 1998 Burbage hid. Of course he could sense him, hell, see him twenty yards to his left. But every time he attacked too early, Burbage jetted into the woods and that damn owl would swoop out of a tree, waking Dean and speeding up the overplayed scenario.
It wasn’t fate, though. Fate did not exist. Just a particular way the dominoes were lined up. The key was to navigate around the dominoes. He had to play things out exactly. Every minor move, every seemingly insignificant nuance was measured and practiced. But changeable.
Linklater made a line of stones in front of him and called out “Home” in a self-important voice. This was a clumsy charade to keep Burbage at bay, fascinated by the workings of a time-traveler.
The truth was that traveling via runes was about as effective as riding a tricycle down a highway, but the spectacle was the important thing. It kept Burbage around just long enough to make the timing right. Then a squirrel shot past him, and Linklater blasted it. That touch was a personal favorite. Struck just the right note of fear. Plus it felt good. When you realize time exists on a loop, you’re a lot less respectful of life. Oh well.
Next came Burbage’s hiccup. Burbage stumbled back into the shadows, and Linklater allowed his headlight to pass over the tip of the drunken man’s boot. The subtle chess moves continued, with Linklater’s opponent an unwitting participant. The opening moves had all been made, and the match was about to enter its middle game.
Linklater knew as much about the time thread as anyone, which is to say he knew next to nothing. But he refused to believe fate played any part. Something larger at work? Nah. There was no great purpose, no puppet master pulling the strings. If there were, why would it be His intention to let the human race die out, falling victim to a race of beings without shape or definition, without body or soul? Orbs of being that knew only how to travel and nothing more?
And yet every trip, every attempt to kill the Thirteenth Traveler ended in failure. Details altered, but the outcome of the evening had thus far proved utterly unchangeable. But not tonight, by God. Not tonight.
A twig snapped in the woods, Linklater looked up and, as if on cue, Burbage shot off through the woods. Linklater gave chase.
Copyright © 2014 by Dave Ervin