“Gentlemen, ladies,” began the man in the black suit to the 23 people seated before him in the small, unadorned room. “You are all to be congratulated. You are in this room right now because you have passed the tests we have subjected you to over the past week. You are the healthiest, most skilled people the year 2004 has to offer.
“As you may have guessed, as you look at your co-applicants for the first time, many others started this journey with you, in their own ways. Some were volunteers. Some were ordered here. Some answered a cleverly placed classified advertisement. Although they were superior in their own ways, each of them fell by the wayside before reaching this point. There is no shame in that. Simply being allowed to take the tests meant they had the potential to be what we needed them to be. Their failure to reach this point is no reflection on them.
“Your being here, however, is a reflection on you. You have proven your intelligence, your cleverness, your ability to collect, interpret, retain, and apply information, your ability to improvise, and your serenity in the face of stressful and hazardous situations. You have shown submission to authority when required, willingness to operate independently when necessary, even in the face of conflicting orders, and the wisdom to know when each is called for. Your logic and intuition have both proven exemplary, as has your problem solving ability.
“Moreover, your bodies are as fit as your minds. Your reflexes are quick, and, more importantly, accurate. Your muscles are strong. Your joints are limber. Your senses are, at a minimum, better than average. Look around; no one here is wearing corrective lenses. You are free of chronic illness and congenital defect, and your immune systems have proven to operate highly efficiently.
“You have taken these tests of your bodies and minds without knowing the reason behind it all. Up to this point, you have accepted assurances that their purpose is both benevolent and important. Now that the tests are over, it is time for explanations.
“Behind me is a door. Once you step through that door, all will be made clear to you. Understand that once you enter that room, there is no turning back. Once you learn the reason behind it all, you will not be allowed to refuse to participate.
“Behind you is another door, the one you used to enter this room. If you choose to walk away right now, with no explanation, then that is your right. Return the way you came, and this episode of your life will be over. You can go back to whatever it was you were doing before coming here. You will not suffer any negative repercussions, with two exceptions.
“First, you may never speak to anyone about what has happened to you here. Appropriate cover stories have been prepared for each of you to explain where you have been for the past week. As far as the world is concerned, this week of testing never happened. If you tell anyone anything different, from today until the day you die, we will know. You will then be discredited as thoroughly as necessary, which you may find an unpleasant procedure.
“Second, this is your only chance. If you walk away now, you will never get an opportunity to change your mind. We will not contact you again, or allow you to contact us. We need people committed enough to walk away from their old lives without a second glance. You must make that commitment now, if at all.
“Some of you have already made guesses as to our purpose here. Right or wrong, we know who you are. We hope those of you who are right will join us, as you have shown uncommon deductive ability, even among these few.
“Once again, gentlemen and ladies, congratulations. The door behind me will remain unlocked for five minutes.” The man in the black suit turned away from the group, opened the plain wooden door at the head of the room, stepped through, and closed it behind him.
Five minutes later…
Three men and two women stood at one end of a long hallway. Fluorescent lights hung overhead, while doors and large windowpanes adorned the walls above the institutional-tiled floor. The man in the black suit stood ten feet down the hall, facing them, looking at his watch. He looked up. He smiled.
“Ah, wonderful. Come with me.” The man in the black suit turned and started walking down the hall. The others followed.
“You may call me Mr. Maxwell,” said the man in the black suit, “or Max, if you prefer the casual approach. This is a law enforcement organization, of sorts. Except no one really has jurisdiction over our patrol zone.” Mr. Maxwell paused for one of the recruits to fill the empty space.
One did. “What patrol zone is that, Mr. Maxwell?” asked the tall blond Canadian man.
“An excellent question, Mr. Banks! This field office is responsible for patrolling from 1750 to 2250, Anno Domini.”
“Pardonnez moi?” asked the petite redhead. “Those are years you are saying? You are being absurd!”
Max stopped in his tracks, tilted his head to one side in thought, and then shrugged. “Perhaps, Mademoiselle Richaud. But also accurate.” He stopped at one door, opened it, and motioned for the others to go through. After they did, he stepped in behind them and closed the door again. “If you’ll look to the front of the room.”
The entire long wall of the room faded from off-white to black. Two lines appeared on it, one bisecting the wall horizontally and the other doing the same vertically. The vertical line was yellow. The horizontal line was red to the left of the vertical line, and green to its right.
“This,” Max said, pointing to the wall, “is history. The red is the past, and the green is the future. The yellow line marks right now, the present.” Numbers faded into view above the horizontal line, which those assembled quickly recognized as being the hours of the day. Each hour was about half a meter long. “As you can see, it’s a straight line from past to future, with no breaks, branches, or loops. That’s the way we like it. Of course, this is just today. Here’s this year.”
At his word, the hour markings fell into each other atop the line, chased by dates. As they did, the horizontal line sprouted offshoots both above and below, in both the red and green sections.
“These branches are the result of alternate outcomes of major historical events, for certain definitions of ‘major.’ For instance, here on June 9th, an airplane might crash in Colorado, killing 147 people. Those deaths will be very important to the families, friends and business associates of the victims. Also, the airline will have to adjust for the loss of one of its planes, et cetera. If we mark this line for tracing,” he continued, touching the line with his finger, turning it purple, “we can pull back and see how much of an effect it will have overall.”
The image on the wall contracted again, becoming a skein of twisting, crossing lines, until the entirety of the purple line could be seen. “See, it remains a separate timeline for about a hundred years before rejoining our main timeline here, in 2106. By that time, it won’t matter one way or the other whether that plane crashed or not.”
The black guy asked, in his British accent, “Are you suggesting that you know the future, that you can somehow detect events before they occur?”
“Of course not. That would be silly.”
“Then where do you supposedly get this information?”
"2107. By then, this plane crash will be history. Or not. That’s my point.”
“You’re suggesting communication with a future time period, which is, of course, impossible.”
“Of course it is,” Mr. Maxwell agreed. “But it won’t always be. Trans-chronic communication will be developed in the year 12492, by the current reckoning.”
“Sure it was. Will be. Whatever. Next you’ll be telling us they worked out how to send people in 20000 AD.”
“No, I’m afraid not,” Mr. Maxwell said, shaking his head sadly. “Unfortunately, it really is physically impossible to send a living being through time. Inanimate objects, sure, but no living people. Or cats, dinosaurs, or virii, in case you were wondering.
“However, I am talking about time travel. The organization you have just joined is dedicated to patrolling the timelines and making sure, among other things, that the proper future comes to pass.”
“The proper future?” Mme. Richaud asked.
“The future in which our version of time travel was developed and our organization created. It’s a parochial goal, I admit. Self-preservation at its finest. Still, if we cease to exist, we can’t do any of our other good work reducing suffering and whatnot.
“You’re all taking this very well, by the way. Usually by now we have one person refuse to believe what I’m telling him and demand to be allowed to leave. That’s never fun to deal with. But you folks have either accepted the truth of it, or decided that this is another test and that I’ll get to the real story in a little while. Those are both very good reactions. Those of you who think this is a test, congratulate yourselves.”
Two of the recruits breathed a sigh of relief. “Good. Everything I’ve said is true, but I wanted you to relax, because this isn’t the hard part.”
“What is the hard part?” asked the other woman, an attractive Latina.
Maxwell held up a finger. “We’ll get to it, Miss Lopez. As I was saying, we keep watch over events to make sure the history that actually takes place does not disallow our future from happening. Luckily, with ten thousand years to play with, we have some wiggle room.
“Unfortunately, there are some other groups, from other timelines, who have developed time travel independently from us, and they have their own histories to write. Sometimes we can work together, but we’re usually competing against one another.
“So far, we’re doing okay. We’ve got well over a thirty-five percent chance of our history coming to pass. Considering the number of alternatives, that’s not bad. I’d show you on the map, but it all blurs into a block of green at that distance.
“For a long time, our worst foes were the lizardmen. We finally got rid of them by causing the mass extinction of their primitive ancestors before they ever evolved. Mammals were able to fill in all their ecological niches before they had a chance to re-evolve.
“That’s barbaric!” said the British accent.
“It’s not like they weren’t trying to do the same thing to us. We were lucky to be able to shunt most of their attack away from Siberia in 1906. Admittedly, the Greys helped us with that one.”
“Greys?” someone asked.
“Greys. Aliens. Short guys. Big heads. Black eyes. You’ve heard of them. They don’t formally make contact with humanity for a millennium yet, but they like the way humans run things, so they gave us a hand. Just don’t call them Greys to their faces. They hate that.”
“So, there’s time travel, and there’s aliens,” Mr. Banks summarized.
"Now you’re catching on, Mr. Banks,” Maxwell agreed with a smile.
Banks continued, “Cool. But, if you can’t send people through time as long as they’re alive, how do you do anything? Do you just set up offices like this and send them warnings from the future about things to avert?”
Maxwell nodded. “Mostly, yes. We send back the equipment, and historical details, and whatever else is needed to set up a field office and deal with whatever they can. Of course, the need for roving agents able to go to the moment of trouble and act when and in a way no one else can is something that often comes in handy.”
“So, what, then?” Banks asked. “Time traveling robots?”
“Not quite,” Maxwell replied. Silently, the side wall of the room slid open. Half a dozen men in black suits stepped noiselessly through the opening, which sealed itself behind them. Each was equally tall, with the same color and cut of hair. They moved to stand beside each of the recruits before any of them could register what was happening.
As the time-duplicates of Mr. Maxwell sank their fangs into the necks of his new recruits, the one at the front of the room said quietly, “No, Mr. Banks, not robots. People can travel through time. Only living people cannot. Luckily, we have found an alternative. Oh, and Ms. Lopez? This is the hard part.”
Between the screaming and the slurping, they didn’t hear him.