The men who approached Nick Thompson’s gray desk wore flat black suits with crisp white shirts and black ties. His eyes slid over their faces; he couldn’t identify anything about them that stood out other than the suits. “Yes?”
“We’re Pander and Ortiz from the O.T.I., and we need to have a brief word with you.” The slightly taller man in front flashed a badge so quickly Nick couldn’t identify anything about it other than the dull glint of bronze.
Nick crouch-stood from his desk chair to peek over the edges of his cubicle. No one else seemed to have noticed his visitors. “Um. I need to talk to my boss. Get his approval.”
“Don’t worry about your boss. No one will notice your absence.” The taller one – Pander? Ortiz? They never said who was who – took a small cylindrical device from his jacket pocket and depressed the end. The murmur of office life cut off. The visitor slipped the device back into pocket and gestured. “Please, Mr. Thompson, time is of the essence.”
The shorter one glared at his taller companion.
Nick stood and saw that the entire office was frozen, as if someone had pressed pause on life’s DVR. “Um.”
“Precisely so, Mr. Thompson. This way.”
Nick stepped around his desk and into the corridor between cubicle walls. Across the way he could see The Jerk frozen in mid-chew, his gum grotesquely displayed in his cavernous mouth. “Everyone’s frozen?”
The shorter one answered now. His words marched from his mouth to a quicker beat. “We’ve slipped between seconds in this temporal province. However, others have this ability, and if we are to carry out our duties to your satisfaction, you must come with us.”
The taller one responded, “As Ortiz said, others will be visiting this temporal province from other zones. They will be searching for you; it was widely known you took out a policy with O.T.I. before the last incursion. Now that we’re here to enact your policy, they will be able to find you more easily.” And then the taller one – Pander – took Nick’s elbow and guided him through the corridors of cubicles and to the stairs.
“The elevator’s this way,” Nick said.
“Only good if you wish to move through spatial planes. Staircases have the inherent ability to traverse temporal provinces. We need to take you to our office, so we need the stairs.”
Ortiz stepped ahead and opened the door to the stairwell. Pander guided Nick through and up the staircase. One flight. Two. Nick began panting. He hated stairs. “How much more?”
Pander answered, “Only a few hundred flights. We’re relatively near in the chronometric grid.”
Ortiz whacked him upside the head. “You’re not supposed to pick on policyholders.”
“It’s so easy, though.” Pander cracked a smile, and for the first time Nick felt that perhaps these two weren’t just suits.
Pander paused at a landing between floors. He gestured. “Here, Mr. Thompson. If you would step this way.” He reached forward to the unpainted cinderblock wall and gave a light shove. A sizable panel of cold gray blocks gave way on some sort of swivel, revealing a mass of cubicles beyond.
Nick stepped through the cinderblock door and into a busy room. People worked frantically at their desks. They all wore the same black suits, even the women. Ages of the workers seemed to vary from late teenage years to well beyond retirement.
A pimply teen stepped up. “Pander. Ortiz. You found him. Good. Let’s go.”
“Right away, Mr. Fallon.”
The kid led through the cubicle sea to a glassed-in office. The teen held the door open so Pander, Ortiz, and Nick could enter. He shut the door behind, muting the sounds of the office. The kid shook his head. “Stupid incursions. Now, Mr. Thompson, is it? I need some of your DNA please. If you would swipe this on the inside of your cheek, we can get to work.” He proffered a Q-tip.
Nick accepted the cotton-swabbed stick but only stared.
Pander said, “You’re going to have to give the speech.”
“I hate giving the speech. Especially when I’m this young,” the teen grumbled.
The young man sighed. “Mr. Thompson, I’m Benito Fallon. I’m an agent working for the O.T.I. That’s the Office of Temporal Insurance. We offer insurance for people who may unexpectedly find their histories rewritten through various mishaps. Before the latest incursion into your temporal province, you were a traveler who took out a policy with us. Now, we’d like to investigate the incident to determine fault. And, of course, you’ll need to give us your copay and deductible.”
Nick blinked and shook his head. “No way. This is a joke. Some weird joke. You can’t be an insurance agent. You’re way too young.”
Nick heard a quick intake of breath from Ortiz. “Sorry, boss.”
Fallon wrinkled his nose. “They always latch onto that. All right, Thompson, here’s what’s happened: Every time there’s an incursion, the year of my birth gets a little closer. Don’t know why that is, exactly, but basically every time someone changes history I end up getting younger. Again. This is the fourteenth time I’ve experienced being fifteen. And, yeah, I’m sick of it.” He pointed to the Q-tip. “But if you’re willing to prove that you’ve got the same genetic signature as the traveler who took out the policy, we’ll be satisfied that you can benefit from it. That’s assuming that history hasn’t changed so much that someone in your ancestry changed.”
“Put the Q-tip in your mouth so we can do this.”
Nick finally complied. Ortiz took the wet swab and left the office.
Fallon turned to a computer on his desk. It looked to be an early iMac, fruit color and all.
“Wait a second. You tell me you can, what, time travel, and that’s the best you can do for a computer?” Nick was slowly coming out of his stupor.
“No. We can’t time travel. We merely insure those who can. And iMacs are the only hardware able to resist the changes that incursions bring on. Steve Jobs knew what he was doing. Then he ruined it all. Still haven’t figured that out.” Fallon opened up a database. “Now, it appears you had been paying for a pretty substantial policy. We need to update this info for the new timeflow. Can you answer some questions about your present life?”
“Sure. I guess.”
“Don’t you already have that?”
“Things change, Mr. Thompson. Full name.”
“Nickolas Paul Thompson.”
Fallon typed furiously. “All right. There you go. Your middle name is different. Do you know where your middle name came from?”
“I was named for my uncle.”
“Maternal or paternal?”
“Yes. There we go, one of the changes. In the previous incarnation of the province your father was an only child.” Fallon hit enter and turned to Nick. “These things are important. For you to receive the benefits of the policy, you need to prove that you are in fact the same person who bought the policy. If this reality has shifted too much, you are no longer the beneficiary.”
Nick closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, Fallon was offering two white pills. “Just aspirin. Trust me, I know how much of a headache this can cause. I’m used to it, and I still get migraines.”
Nick continued answering questions. General history, current employment, health, major life events. After about an hour of processing, Fallon nodded as he again hit save. “Assuming the genetic code is identical, it appears you’ll be getting a very nice package from us. Assuming, of course, you can pay the deductible and copay. We’ll take care of that once Ortiz returns.”
Pander pointed to the door. “Would you like me to check on him?”
Fallon waved. “Whatever.”
Pander left the office, and finally Nick got to ask some questions. “So… an incursion? Like, someone changed history.”
“Yes. Some traveler stopped by your grandparents’ house before they had kids and tried to kill them. It failed, but of course something like that changes lives. Actually, how old is your uncle Paul compared to your father?”
Nick thought a moment. “Three years older?”
Fallon double-checked his records. “Well, now we know where your uncle came from. Almost getting killed together sparks romance. We call it the Terminator Effect. You wouldn’t believe the number of kids that pop up every time there’s an incursion like that.”
Ortiz and Pander returned to the office. Ortiz reported, “It’s him, boss.”
Fallon nodded. “All right. We still need to wrap up investigation into the incursion, figure out fault and all that, but it looks like you can expect a nice package. Temporal Insurance works like a cross between general health and life insurance. You’ll need to pay a deductible, but you’ll be getting it all back and more. According to this, you took out several lives worth of insurance on yourself. But then again, you were in a high-risk job.”
“If I can ask, what did I do?”
Fallon offered a tight smile. “Pre-assassination. Taking out dangerous people before they become dangerous.” He turned to his computer and began typing again. “Well, I can access your bank account and make the proper transfers right now, if you’d like.”
“Wait. What about the deductible and copay?”
A knock sounded at the door. Pander turned to answer. Some brief whispering, and he opened the door wider to admit two men in gray uniforms. “Mr. Thompson, I’m sorry, but we’ve found something at the incursion site. It took some doing. You were good.”
Nick turned from Fallon to the new arrivals. “What?”
“You took out temporal insurance on yourself, created an incursion point to change history, and expected to reap the benefit. Well, we caught you. Red-handed, even. Nickolas James Thompson, you are under arrest for insurance fraud.”
“Wait, what? That wasn’t me!” Nick stood and backed away from the uniformed men.
Fallon grunted. “Nope. It was. We just spent the last hour proving that it was you. If it’s good enough for you to receive the benefit, I’m sorry Nick, but you are the same person who attempted to defraud this company.”
The uniformed men hauled Nick away, leaving Fallon, Pander, and Ortiz in the office with only one upended uncomfortable chair to mark Nick’s passing.
Fallon entered the data into his computer and rubbed his eyes. “All right, you two. Time to get going. We’ve got more policies to investigate.”