Ricardo Beckman glanced up sharply at Director Hanson's surprising declaration. Instinctively, he leaned over the table around which he, Hanson, and three other staff members of the Tempus Department had gathered.
Pointing with the pen in his hand, Rick said, "'The greatest crisis in Tempus history' is a pretty dramatic statement, sir. Surely your programmers can expunge Reeves's virus without harm."
Director Hanson shook his head in silent defeat and exasperation. "They've tried, Rick. They are trying. For the past week they've been probing and testing the matrix. We'd hoped to correct the problem before this potential disaster became general knowledge." He shrugged. "Since you were called in from the Bureau, it's probably obvious to you that our options are rapidly narrowing. If we -- you -- can't catch Reeves in the next week, the entire Tempus project may terminate."
For a long moment, Rick stared at the sparse notes scribbled in his leather-bound notebook. "Admittedly, as a Special Agent, I'm no computer genius. But..." He observed the expressions of the four men sitting across from him. Their pale faces held mingled signs of anger, annoyance, and...fear. That latter emotion puzzled him. What Reeves had (supposedly) done could not in any fashion physically harm them or, indeed, hurt anyone in their society. The rogue scientist and convicted murderer could be considered either to be living two-hundred years in the past or to have died long ago. As for whether a time traveler could radically change the future, well...even the experts disagreed on that. All Rick knew was that despite the temporal deportation of thousands of the worst criminals his culture had produced, he and everything he experienced had not altered. Of course, perhaps his world had changed unbeknownst to him and it simply seemed that this state of affairs had existed in the past...
Rick never bothered to ponder such semantic or philosophical difficulties too deeply or for too long. Investigating crimes in the present day sufficiently occupied his attention and skills. Only a direct order from his superior had forced him to abandon his disdain for such an odd system of punishment as Tempus represented and to offer his talents and expertise to Director Hanson.
"Why don't you simply let the system fail on its own or wipe it clean yourself?" Rick asked. "Then reestablish your network from the ground up. Admittedly, that might require considerable time, effort, and money, but surely such an inconvenience hardly warrants this dire sense of urgency."
The men opposite him exchanged guarded looks. After a few moments, Director Hanson nodded to the rotund man seated two chairs to his right. "Perhaps Dr. Vernon can explain."
Dr. Vernon cleared his throat and paused as though pondering how best to proceed.
"I'd appreciate it if you'd keep it simple, Doctor Vernon," Rick interjected. "My last physics course was over a decade ago."
"Of course." Dr. Vernon flashed a polite smile. "Um. The 'virus' Dr. Reeves inserted into the Tempus system before his apprehension and trial is actually a quite sophisticated program intimately interwoven with the operating system protocols. As the originator of the theory behind temporal displacement and the primary developer of the technology associated with the implementation of that theoretical structure, Dr. Reeves had a hand in every aspect of the creation of Tempus. He insisted that his involvement be comprehensive. As the premiere authority in this area, he was granted considerable latitude by the DSA. When the government decided that the proper use of his discoveries should be concentrated on freeing our country of undesirables --"
"As England once sent its convicts to Australia," Rick said.
A frown at the agent's interruption flickered in and away. "Yes. Like Australia, I suppose. That is how Tempus became a semi-autonomous division of the Justice Department."
"And Reeves, I suppose," Rick said dryly, "had no problem with his basic temporal research being co-opted for the rather more mundane task of punishing criminals?"
"Well, of course, he --"
Hastily, Director Hanson held up a hand. "I think it sufficient to state that Dr. Reeves accepted the alteration in emphasis well enough. After all, he realized that without some type of practical benefits emerging from his work, he would never be able to obtain any funding for his more...esoteric... investigations. Everyone connected with Tempus believed he had adjusted reasonably well to the realigned parameters." He motioned for Dr. Vernon to continue.
A somewhat disgruntled expression spread across the researcher's chubby features. "In any event, what we failed to realize was that the programs Dr. Reeves inserted into the system did not match those he presented as back-ups."
"But the Tempus program sent its first prisoners back over ten years ago. Surely Dr. Reeves did not plan this all that early?"
Dr. Vernon shrugged sloping shoulders. "I doubt it. Yet the capabilities for the kind of disruption he caused after his temporal displacement apparently existed from the beginning. He was a most ingenious and thorough individual, able to consider and plan for a plethora of even low-probability eventualities."
Rick jotted down a few points. "The first intrusion occurred...two weeks?...after his displacement?"
Dr. Vernon nodded. "The delayed advent of his 'revenge,' as he calls it, ensured he would be far beyond our reach when that vengeance came."
"So," Rick said, "this extra programming he inserted before his arrest... If it was designed to permit him a way to destroy what he created, surely the back-up programs -- minus those optional segments -- would suffice to reinitialize the system."
"Our simulations with those back-ups indicate that Dr. Reeves omitted certain critical key components from that code. We do not believe temporal displacement would be possible given what we now possess. Even given our expertise in this area, we have yet to determine how to bridge those gaps."
"Even more distressing," Director Hanson said, "is what may happen if the system crashes before we can resolve this matter."
Director Hanson beat a nervous tattoo on the polished wooden table top. "Justice has threatened to replace all senior staff members. Yet anyone they might bring in to assume management of Tempus will lack our experience. This could set back our research years. Decades."
The thin man next to Hanson -- the assistant director, Kyle Redling, if Rick remembered correctly -- said, "Plus, temporal displacement of hardcore criminals is very popular with the public. They like the notion of placing such misfits in an era best suited for their violent and anti-social proclivities. It also permits a not inconsiderable cost savings."
Rick restrained his tongue. The idea that one group of people should foist their problems upon the unsuspecting members of another society struck him as wrong, unjust....perhaps even cowardly. The justification usually offered for such a practice maintained that early Twenty-first culture already boasted such violence and criminal activity that a few thousand more troublemakers would barely make a ripple in the over-all situation. Some opponents, however, wondered if maybe that era had been so bloody and horrific precisely because future citizens dumped their undesirables into the laps of otherwise decent and law-abiding citizens.
"So sentences are delayed for a few months or even years while you work through this," Rick said. "Surely this panic is still uncalled for."
"Agent Beckman, please," Director Hanson said with a slightly wounded tone, "'panic' hardly describes the mood here. We are all dedicated scientists and public servants. Still..." His gaze lowered for a moment. "The truth is, we may lose more than simply our jobs if Dr. Reeves is not thwarted."
A slippery chill blossomed in Rick's middle. His skin prickled with sympathetic apprehension. While no one openly discussed precisely what Justice could do to those who displeased the powers-that-be, the evidence existed for anyone who cared to examine it. Indeed, Justice preferred that the disappearances and temporal displacements of even non-violent offenders of the State be widely -- if unofficially -- known. Compliance from underlings came so much more easily when punishment descended randomly and arbitrarily.
Director Hanson opened his mouth, closed it, then silently consulted his fellows with a raised brow. Reluctantly, one by one, they nodded.
Reaching under the edge of the table, Hanson manipulated a hidden control. The faint hum permeating the air told Rick that what came next had not been part of the presentation planned for him.
"There," Hanson said, expelling a constricted breath. "The recording is off; the suppression field is activated. I'll say this quickly, Agent Beckman. If I maintain this field longer than sixty seconds, a report will be forwarded to my superiors."
Despite himself, Rick felt his muscles tighten. His fingers whitened as they gripped his gray-metal pen.
"Dr. Reeves claims that not only has he sabotaged the Tempus project, he has inserted a virus that is even now infecting the entire government net. Within seven days, every government computer, every database, every record, program, and console that has been tied into the net since his displacement will be destroyed. The information overwritten with meaningless strings of ones and zeros. The Executive branch is panic-stricken at the prospect of losing the information vital to the operation of a modern society. Without tax records, without employment and residence data, without a listing of criminal convictions, minor infractions, and without the ability to monitor and control the subversive elements of our country, chaos will consume us all. How can the Executive possibly govern effectively without the proper tools of control and guidance? The mere possibility is terrifying."
To Rick's amazement, Director Hanson actually shivered at contemplation of his self-described nightmare.
"How many people are aware of this?" the agent asked quickly.
"Not many. Legislative and Judicial are in the dark, as are most agencies. Only the danger to Tempus has been revealed at this time. But surely you can see the urgency of our -- your -- mission?" Abruptly the hum vanished from the air. "Perhaps if we explain exactly what we need from you, many of your questions will be answered."
Absently Rick nodded as he sought to absorb the implications of the top secret Hanson had just disclosed to him.
"Apparently Dr. Reeves hid the true extent of his perverse sense of humor well during his tenure here," Dr. Vernon said. "He alerted us to what he had done by randomly playing video clips on our monitors. Not only did he disclose the nature of his assault, he also told us how we could stop him."
Rick lifted a brow at that revelation. "Playing with you?"
"Yes. That and challenging us, I think. Before his aberrant behavior went hyperbolic and led to his recent troubles, he reveled in intellectual games. If a 'victim' could rise to Reeves's level and top his own pranks, he earned the doctor's respect. If he failed to comprehend or unravel whatever conundrum Reeves posed, he did not advance very quickly within the department."
"Which is where I come into the picture?"
Director Hanson spread a palm on the table. "You come highly recommended, Agent Beckman. Indeed, many of those we sent back through those two centuries found themselves incarcerated and convicted as a result of your efforts."
A restless part of Rick's subconscious wondered whether to accept that compliment at full value. True, his investigations managed to solve puzzles that had stumped others. And many of those displaced to the past deserved more than removal from present society. They deserved death for the agony they had inflicted upon their victims and those who loved the deceased. But with execution out of public favor, official executions no longer existed. Yet perhaps his quite justifiable efforts had led to the general legitimization of a practice he knew had been abused more than once. A conviction as "an enemy of the people" could be stretched to cover a multitude of State-defined sins.
"What am I supposed to do?" he asked quietly.
"The short answer is go back and kill him."
The matter-of-fact tone of Hanson's reply left Rick with an oddly disconnected sense of unreality.
"But... From our perspective, he's already dead. Unless he's somehow managed to extend his life by a factor of three over the average."
Dr. Vernon pressed the tip of an index finger on the table. "What normally happens when we carry out a sentence is a complete break with the convict. We set the space-time coordinates, activate the fields, he's gone. That's the last contact we have with him. Dr. Reeves, however, created some type of active linkage between our time and his. A tracking program appeared soon after his initial appearance on our terminals."
"So you know precisely when and where he is? That should simplify things for me."
Dr. Vernon grimaced. "Unfortunately, such accuracy is not in the cards. The tracking ability Dr. Reeves implemented was utilized with some success during the initial trials here at Tempus, before we were transferred to Justice. Knowing the general location of our researchers seemed only prudent. With criminals, however..." He shrugged. "It was determined that those resources would be better directed to other endeavors. Dr. Reeves told us in his delayed message that he wants us to be aware of his location. He wants us to attempt to stop him."
"Meaning he doesn't -- didn't -- believe we could do so," Rick said.
"I no longer pretend to understand the workings of his warped thought processes," Dr. Vernon said with ill-concealed disgust. He inhaled a deep breath. "The tracking program can, in a general way, determinate Reeves's position. However, it cannot do so to an arbitrary degree for both space and time."
Rick's puzzled expression did not go unnoticed.
Dr. Vernon planted both elbows before him and gestured as though he could convey his intended message by nonverbal means alone. "The closer we pinpoint his physical location, the more fuzzy becomes the time he is at those coordinates. Conversely, the more precisely we fix the time coordinate, the more uncertain we are as to his spatial position."
"A similar phenomenon occurs on the subatomic level regarding position and momentum," Director Hanson said.
Dr. Vernon nodded. "We can place you either very close to where he 'is' in space or very close to when he 'is' in time."
"But not both," Rick finished for him.
Dr. Vernon grinned as though a particularly dull student had finally grasped the obvious. "Yes! You have it."
"What are the boundary conditions then?"
"There we have some luck, though a planned luck, I suppose you could call it. Dr. Reeves's unauthorized tampering with the system somehow prevents us from sending you back before he first appeared in the Twenty-first century and then having you wait for him to pop in. The tracking program is locked in 'synch' with us, the changing of his coordinates marching in lock-step with the progression of our current time frame. He has limited our temporal transfer abilities to a time essentially equivalent to his own. Given the temporal uncertainty principle, however, we can only state with ninety-five percent confidence that you will appear within a radius of five miles of his position."
Unsatisfied with that information, Rick pulled back the corners of his mouth. "So I could be as close as right next to him or five miles away in any direction."
"I'm afraid so."
"Well... Not the most ideal of conditions, but I've started from much worse circumstances."
"Umm..." Director Hanson raised a hand.
"Let me guess. There's more."
"Dr. Reeves also created another situation that under other circumstances would be fascinating to explore. The theoretical and technical details would --"
"Spare me," Rick said with mounting annoyance. "What else?"
"Somehow he set the temporal displacement system to randomly relocate him at midnight his local time. Hopefully just within this country. I don't believe he spoke any other languages than English."
"And that means...?"
"That even if you are physically holding him at midnight, he would seem to vanish, disappear. To where is impossible to say."
Assistant Director Redling chimed in. "Of course, due to the linkage between your signal and his, you would relocate at the same time."
Rick frowned. Great. "I see." Only too well. "When do I leave?"
"Would tomorrow morning be too soon?" Hanson asked tentatively.
Mentally cursing his supervisor for volunteering him for this odious assignment, Rick said, "So what happens if -- when -- I catch and kill Reeves? How does that help you here?"
"His message told us that the linkage signal will terminate with his death. The program taps into his personal life signs and will recognize when they end. If done properly, another 'virus' or 'antibody' will infiltrate the government net and deactivate -- sterilize, if you will -- the original infection."
"And, of course, you can't merely pull the plug on the linkage signal because --"
"It'll note that the parameters were not fulfilled as required. The 'antibody' won't be sent out and Reeves will have his vengeance."
"I'm no expert on the early Twenty-first century," Rick noted in a last futile attempt to dismiss himself from contention for this mission.
"We know you minored in the history of this period at the Academy, Agent Beckman. We'll brief you with particulars before you leave. With a fortunate displacement, you may even finish in a day."
"I'll be armed...?"
"With a replica piece from the period. We looked for a high capacity weapon. A Para-Ordnance forty-five caliber semi-auto is waiting for you. It comes with a fourteen-shot clip. We'll provide you with extra clips and ammo, a permit for carrying such a handgun, and sufficient money of that era to get by. We'll also supply a smartcard able to subvert their credit system and provide you with other, larger sums should that prove necessary."
With grim resignation, Rick closed the cover of his notebook and capped his pen. After pondering the air for a long moment, he caught Director Hanson's gaze. "And how do I get back? After I've killed him?"
"While we haven't brought anyone back from the past since moving to Justice, we still have a few of the homing devices used during the initial research."
"Hand-held, all you need do to activate it is flip open its cover and depress the switch hidden inside. That will alert us that you are ready to return. We'll handle it from there."
"And if I'm not successful?"
"In that case, you might not want to return, either because of what this world will be like when the net vanishes."
"Or because of what the Executive will do to me for failing them."
Director Hanson nodded mutely.
With the leaden limbs of a condemned man, Rick pushed away from the table and stood. At a call from Hanson, a heavily armed guard appeared to lead the Special Agent to his briefing.
Just as he left the room, Hanson called out.
"Yes?" Rick asked with rigid politeness.
"Don't lose that homing device, Agent Beckman. Without it, you'll be stranded in the past...with Dr. Scanlon Reeves for company."