The time-traveler walked down the dimly lit corridor, his footsteps echoing in his ears. His posture was perfect, and eyes looked straight ahead as he made his way to the iron door at the end. He was dressed for the mission, having received his briefing half an hour ago. Dark suit, black boots and the Agency’s special gun fitted with a suppressor in his pocket.
The year was 2045. The Earth had been overrun by war and other heinous crimes. Overpopulation had made resources scarce, and the planet was slowly self-destructing. There was nothing to be done. Not in the present. So, the Agency was formed.
The Agency was created for a simple mission – to travel back in time and avert disasters from happening. They stopped wars from being started, crimes from being committed and innocents from being killed. It was top secret. Only a handful of agents, chosen specially by the Agency could perform the tasks. They had been extremely successful so far.
But recently, with time travel causing serious rifts in the actual timelines, the Agency found out that sometimes their meddling actually caused more damage. Just last month, the Agency had sent an agent back to 2015 to stop a terrorist attack in central Asia, but it so happened that one of the men whom the agency had saved from the bombing went on to become a serial killer and butchered seventeen people in eight countries. The Agency faced a lot of flak over that one.
So now, the Agency was very careful in which mission they selected. They had to weigh the odds and make sure they would not be causing more damage. The briefing that the time-traveller had received was a simple one. He was to go back twenty-eight years in time – to the year 2017 and stop an oil tanker truck from crashing. The truck had originally crashed in the middle of a village, killing eighteen people. The subsequent oil leakage and the spark that lit it had caused the entire village to go up in flames. The job was a simple one, but he could feel his stomach tightening like it always did before a mission.
He reached the end of the corridor and knocked on the door twice.
“Enter,” said a deep voice from inside.
He opened the door and stepped in. Immediately, he was assaulted by a gush of cool air, no doubt from the Air Conditioner which was left on at all times. He closed the door behind him and gazed at his boss, who was sitting behind a beautiful mahogany desk. In front of his boss, another man was seated, his back to the time-traveller. He was dressed exactly as he was, complete with the tell-tale bulge of the gun from the side of his coat.
“Sit down, Agent Ouro,” his boss said, gesturing to the empty chair in front of him. He sat, glancing sideways at the stranger next to him briefly. He had a strong jaw and both hands were resting on his lap. He had sat with a sort of coiled energy, as though he was trying hard to conceal a big frame. But he was lean, and his eyes never left the face of the boss.
Another agent, thought Ouro.
“Agent Ouro, meet Agent Hale. He is going to be your partner for this mission.” said the boss. Ouro gave Hale a quick handshake and looked back at his boss.
“The briefing didn’t mention that I’d have a partner,” said Ouro, frowning a little.
“Well, it also didn’t say this mission was complicated. So you’ll need all the help you can get. Hale is a pro,” said his boss, tapping his finger on the table.
“You know I prefer to work alone.”
“Not on this mission, you won’t. The situation has changed.”
Ouro cocked an eyebrow. “How so?”
“Initial intelligence reports that there may be more than one linchpin.” Said his boss, looking worried for the first time.
Ouro swore silently. The Agency’s intelligence worked backward on every disaster that ever occurred, and zeroed in on a single factor – a linchpin – which was the primary reason for the disaster to occur. The Agency likened it to a house of cards, the linchpin being the bottom-most one. If you pulled the linchpin out, the entire house crumbled. The Agency concluded that the best way to avert the disaster was to stop the linchpin at any cost.
But more than one linchpin – that was new.
“Multiple linchpins?” said Ouro. “Is that even possible?”
His boss nodded gravely.
“It appears so. You are aware the mission is a wet job?” he asked.
Ouro grimaced. A wet job meant that the linchpin would have to be assassinated. For the greater good. He nodded grimly.
“Good. You may leave. Your time machine watches will be given to you once you step out of the room. You will be taken near the scene of the accident, at a good vantage point. Your mission is simple. Find the linchpins, eliminate them and come back. Clear?”
Both agents nodded and got up to leave. They turned and walked out the door, their steps in sync.
“I’ve heard all about you,” said Agent Hale. His accent was cut and crisp.
“Then you must have heard that I don’t believe in unnecessary chit-chat,” said Ouro icily. Hale looked a little taken aback, but he grinned. His gaze turned back to the corridor in front of them. They walked into a little room situated at the end. On a table, lay two silver watches – the time machines.
They walked up to it and put them on. It had already been set to the required date and year. 2017. The disaster had occurred at 8.17 pm. They would arrive at 8.00 pm, meaning they had seventeen minutes to set up and finish the job. Ouro and Hale looked at each other and nodded. The raised their arms, held their fingers to the watches and simultaneously pressed a button.
In an instant, the room spun before Ouro, and he felt as if his body was being split into two. His bones felt gnashed together as if some great force was being applied on him, and his eyeballs pushed back into their sockets. And as quickly as it had arrived, the sensation was gone. Ouro staggered a brief moment and looked up. Hale was next to him, coughing.
“Really takes the wind out of you, doesn’t it?” said Hale.
Ouro ignored him and assessed his surroundings. He was in the year 2017, and the time was 8.00 pm. He was in a brownstone mansion about twenty metres from the site of the disaster. He peered through the window at the spot where the truck was supposed to crash. It was a junction in the road, with a spattering of people milling about. Ouro immediately noticed that half the street lamps were not working, and parts of the roads were filled with puddles. Easy to see how an accident could take place.
Hale arrived behind him and began to set up position next to Ouro. He looked out and tried to figure out who the linchpin was, but gave up after a couple of minutes. There were only a handful of people around, and most of them were not even close to the time of the accident. Hale checked his watch – it was 8.05 pm. Still twelve minutes to go.
Ouro was tense, and he kept checking outside every ten seconds to see if their linchpin had arrived. His gun was loaded and ready in his hands, and he kept it tight against his chest. His eyes were narrowed as he checked and rechecked the people near the junction. He brushed a few strands of hair from his forehead and kept looking.
Hale was gazing down the road through the scope of his rifle. Evidently, he preferred it over the handgun that Ouro used. His fingers tapped the side of the rifle as he looked up and down the empty roads. He sighed and took his eye off the eye-piece.
“Nobody out there,” he said frowning. “We’ve still got ten minutes anyway.”
Ouro nodded and said nothing. He felt a little giddy to be honest, and he wasn’t entirely sure why. He glanced at Hale, who looked pretty calm. Ouro guessed he was a seasoned agent.
“Ouroboros,” whispered Hale softly. Ouro stiffened and looked sharply at him.
“It’s what your name stands for, isn’t it?” he asked.
Ouro looked at him icily. Hale kept talking.
“Ouroboros – the serpent that eats its own tail. A representation of the idea that things happen in cycles – that there is no beginning or ending.”
Ouro refused to meet Hale’s eyes, and kept looking out for their elusive linchpin. Still no one in sight.
“Why though? Why did you opt for a change of name?” pressed Hale.
Ouro took a deep breath and sighed.
“I wanted a fresh start,” he said. “So when the Agency offered me a chance to wipe out my former life, I took it.”
“I heard you refuse missions which involve killing children,” said Hale in a non-committal way.
Ouro’s hands clenched and unclenched. The Agency’s main aim was the prevent crimes or disasters from happening in the first place. If the linchpin that stopped them turned out to be a woman, or even a child – they had to go through with it. The Agency claimed they acted for the greater good.
“Is it because you got shot when you were little?” asked Hale.
Ouro raised an eyebrow and looked at him in surprise.
“Not many people know that,” he said, frowning.
“Word gets passed around,” Hale said. “They ever catch the guy who did it?”
Ouro shook his head. “As far as I know, it’s still a cold case. The police ruled it as a random shooting, and I was lucky to only get hit in the shoulder. I survived.”
Hale nodded slowly. “What was your name before you changed it? Before you joined the agency?” he asked quietly.
Ouro stiffened. “Look…”
“Come on, you can tell me.”
“No, look.” Said Ouro, pointing at the far end of the road, where a pair of headlights was slightly visible. Hale sat up and peered at it through his scope. He checked his watch quickly.
“Eight sixteen; and that’s the truck all right. Carrying all the flammable oil,” said Hale.
“Positions,” called Ouro. Hale nodded and began to search the streets, his eyes trained on his rifle scope. They had to find and eliminate the linchpin in one minute. Hale found her immediately.
“There!” he said, pointing towards the left. Ouro snatched a pair of binoculars and looked in the direction he was gesturing at.
He could see a woman walking fast, approaching the junction from the west. Earphone cables snaked their way from her ears and were plugged onto a phone. Her face was illuminated by the light from the phone and she was completely engrossed in it. The truck was fast approaching the junction, heading from the north. At this rate, she would definitely cause the truck to crash.
There was no doubt about it – she was their linchpin.
“I’ll take the shot,” said Ouro. Hale nodded and sat back, his eyes still glued to the rifle scope.
Ouro picked up his handgun and levelled it, aiming directly for the woman’s head. She was still a bit far off, so he would have to wait for maybe ten more seconds. His watched beeped once, which meant that he was thirty seconds away from 8.17 pm.
Then several things happened at once.
Hale swore and sat up like he had been electrocuted. His mouth was open in shock and he was rubbing his eyes and pressing them to the rifle scope like he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“Ouro, Ouro!” he said, in an agitated voice. Ouro quickly looked at him.
“We have another linchpin!” said Hale, pointing due East of the junction. Ouro looked through his binoculars. He blinked a couple of times before he realized what he seeing.
A small kid was walking towards the junction, head bowed, skipping every now and then. It was hard to say whether it was a boy or girl, because the kid wore a cap. The kid was looking intently at a small puppy which was by the roadside, and the kid’s eyes were never once on the road.
“The boss said there would be multiple linchpins,” swore Hale. He looked at Ouro.
Ouro looked completely devastated. His whole posture had slumped on seeing the kid walk right into what would soon be the path of a truck. The only thing preventing that from happening would be a bullet through his head. Ouro’s hand was clenched so hard that the knuckles shone white against the window pane. For a moment, Hale thought he saw tears in Ouro’s eyes.
Hale’s watched beeped shrilly. He looked at it in terror – only ten seconds to go!
“Ouro,” he said slowly. “I’ll take the kid out, you go for the woman. Quick.”
Hale turned the rifle so it was aimed dead at the kid’s head. He took a deep breath.
Then suddenly, Ouro put an arm on the rifle.
“No,” he said quietly.
“What?” asked Hale incredulously.
“Take the woman. I’ll take the kid,” he said, his voice deadpan.
“But, are you…”
“Yes,” replied Ouro in a determined sort of way. The watches start to beep louder, and slowly began a countdown. Five seconds left.
Hale understood. In a flash, he trained the rifle on the woman’s head. To his right, he felt Ouro aiming his handgun right at the kid. The watch beeped again. Four seconds.
Hale caught his breath, easing his body into an immovable state. He stood so still that he could count his heartbeat. The crosswire of the rifle was hovering, and woman would pass through it anytime. Three seconds.
Hale’s finger tightened on the trigger. He stopped breathing altogether. The woman’s head lined up perfectly with the crosswire. The watch beeped. Hale pulled the trigger. A microsecond later, Ouro pulled the trigger beside him.
Hale watched as the bullet ploughed through the woman’s head, dropping her on the spot. He glanced right, and saw the kid being blown away by the force of the bullet that Ouro had fired. The cap on the kid’s head flew off and slowly floated towards the ground. The kid slid in one of the puddles and lay motionless. A second later, an oil tanker truck cruised through the junction at breakneck speed, narrowly avoiding a major accident.
Hale breathed again, taking in large gulps of breath. He turned to look at Ouro, whose head was bowed. His hands trembled slightly and lowered the handgun back into his coat. He stood for a minute, watching through the window. People had gathered and were rushing into check on the woman and the kid.
“Time to leave, Ouro,” said Hale softly. Once a mission was completed, the Agents had to leave in two minutes back to their own timelines. Ouro nodded and slowly got up. Hale made sure that nothing was left behind. Ouro stood next to him.
Hale and Ouro raised their hands and pressed the watch’s button thrice. A shrill beep ensued, which indicated that five seconds remained until they were could return to their own timelines.
“Ryan Walker,” said Ouro quietly.
Hale blinked and stared at him. “What?”
“My name before I joined the Agency,” said Ouro slowly.
He turned to face Hale, and Hale caught a good glimpse of his face which was suddenly brightened by the light of the watch. Ouro’s eyes were a deep shade of Hazel.
“My name was Ryan Walker,” he said again.
Hale’s eyebrows raised and he opened his mouth to retort. He never got the chance. In an instant, the two had disappeared, gone twenty eight years into the future, back to their own timelines in 2045.
Back in the streets in 2017, there was pandemonium. Two people had been shot by a seemingly random shooter at precisely the same moment. People had arrived in numbers to see what had happened. A group of them were huddled by the woman who had been listening to music when she had been shot.
A man reached down and took her pulse. Then he shook his head gravely.
“Dead,” he said.
Another group were huddled by the kid who was bleeding profusely by the side of the road. One of the men placed two fingers on the kid’s neck, looking dismayed. Then his eyes brightened.
“By god, there’s a pulse!” he exclaimed. “Quick, get this sweater off,” he yelled.
A couple of others turned the kid over on his back. It was a boy. A boy of maybe ten or eleven, with thick dark hair and an oval face. The men stripped him of his sweater and shirt and stared at the wound.
“It’s gone clean through his shoulder,” one of them whispered.
“Only a flesh wound. Didn’t even nick an artery,” said another one.
The man who had taken the pulse began calling for an ambulance. “Damn lucky he is,” he muttered.
“A couple of inches here or there and we’d have two corpses. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the shooter was looking to miss any major arteries,” he said, grumbling.
Then, to the utter surprise of all the men, the boy started to cough. He coughed till his throat was dry and moaned loudly.
“Easy, lad,” said one of the men gently. “You’re going to be fine.”
The kid wheezed and lay on his back, not moving his shoulder one bit. He managed to nod weakly with both eyes still firmly shut.
“There’s a brave boy,” he said. “Here, what’s your name, lad?” he asked.
The boy tried to get up but fell back. Then, at last, with what seemed to be a great effort, he opened his eyes and looked at the men around him. His eyes were a startling shade of hazel.
“Ryan,” he said. “My name is Ryan Walker.”