Sleep was no longer an option. So he stood up and walked to the front door. Outside was winter. He opened the door and inhaled the freezing air, his bare legs recoiling from the cold. He wasn’t awake. He wasn’t sure he would ever be awake.
No discipline. Watch yourself watching this pass. You will insist that you see it; this is a lie, for there is nothing. There is nothing left. You choose to renew from the source. What you ignored is now animate, in motion. Dare yourself to name it. You cannot refrain. Stop, now.
He knew all of this already. There was no newspaper on the front step, so he closed the door.
The radio didn’t work. Rather, there were no broadcasts to tune in to. He turned it on anyway and listened to the randomly generated dead air. It didn’t really sound dead. And what did that say?
Already, he had broken discipline. He started the water on the stove and opened a packet of tea. Chewing up the packaging, he spit a small piece of it into the frying pan. Gradually, his orders came bleeding through... He accessed the relevant materials, committing the important bits to memory, and then destroyed the remainder with fire. Breakfast was concluded.
There was a new wrinkle: Permission had been withdrawn for him to move on the target while he was still in Japan. He would need to follow him out of the country, perhaps all the way to America. Fine. He wasn’t known there.
He resumed discipline, watching his mind drain itself away. _
He completed the job and moved on to his next assignment, walking back a hostile takeover of the previous target’s assets—such as they remained. It was common to chain related jobs together in this fashion. Some found the interconnections challenging to keep track of, but he wiped the slate clean after each payoff, only calling up details as the mission demanded it. Really, there was no other way to work.
Second job completed, he contemplated a short break. The frenetic pace of these past few months was, finally, beginning to catch up with him. Normally it was easy for him to spin more plates. But this time, he told himself, he’d get a little rest before he headed back out there.
It was not to be so.
Wedged into the future was a recurring client he couldn’t quite shake loose. If it wasn’t the money, it was the access that came with the jobs. Hand in hand with the devil, he’d happily leverage one job to dislodge another. See also: job chaining. He didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing the structural elements of his practice.
It was a rush order. Make sure the girl didn’t discover the truth about her brother. Okay... The requirements were open-ended, but still he had to account for his time in the measuring system. Charge too much time and it would kill his efficiency. Charge too little and either they would commission a new time study or else they would slash headcount. Neither was desirable. The best strategy was usually to match his reported time against the big matrix of time values he kept hidden in a locked file, then fill in the rest of his timesheet with some innocuous work units that boasted an open-ended time requirement. That way, he could spend as long as he needed on the real job. Everybody happy.
It turned out he didn’t need much time for this job. The hostile takeover had been poorly executed, with the principals not even bothering to file the proper paperwork. The assets had been reclaimed easily. He had only needed to prevent the sister from finding out the cost. Since his services had been hired through a cutout, and the brother had been dispatched in a deniable telephone accident, he needed only to rely upon the sister’s habitual lack of curiosity about the details of running their family business. And that was a relative certainty.
Sometimes a job worked out just this well.
Back in Japan, things remained quiet. Between jobs he would shop for texts. He couldn’t read the language, but he liked to move his hands over the pieces of paper. His collection was by now immense, impossible to store in his tiny apartment, but he never let his hobbies interfere with work.
From time to time he would notice the presence of others in his line of work. Usually just at the periphery of whatever job he was immersed in completing. He always assumed they were alternates, ready to step in and take command if ever he appeared to falter. He never did, so he was never able to find out for sure.
He began to notice them skulking around the periphery of his downtime, as well. It was true that sometimes he found it difficult to relax, but somehow he doubted they had arrived to help. After a while he would set up little tests. He’d purposely fail to let go of his tension, bearing down on the natrual frustrations of the day, and watch to see how they would react. Results were inconclusive.
Discipline continued to elude him. He could feel his grip on the controls slipping out of his... grasp? He even lost his temper, once, during the last job. The sister had distracted him with questions, and he had found himself actually enjoying the conversation. When he noticed this he flew off the handle. It wasn’t her fault. He was still mad at himself, now. Anyway, she was dead.
And the vacation wasn’t helping. The alternates just followed him around, never bothering to step in and offer advice, or even to force the issue and take command. He guessed that their options were limited when he wasn’t actually working.
He decided to take on another job. Maybe something out of the country, another change of scenery, a place where he could stop being reminded of all the things that he hated about himself. He pulled up the public listings and searched for a match.
Things fell into place. He completed another job. Afterwards, returning once again to Japan, he recognized a familiar sense of disappointment as it descended over his mood, the big let down after a massive expenditure of effort. So, work wasn’t helping, either. It made him angry. Everything seemed to make him angry, these days. It was almost as if he had no control over his mind, and by extension, himself. That would eventually pose a problem for his work, and so he could not simply stand by and watch as the sequence of events played out to its logical conclusion.
He retraced his steps, searching for the root cause of his problem. He traversed smoothly over the majority of data points, but the tape kept getting stuck on the sister. Something about her manner, the dry assertiveness of her voice, had lodged in his mind.
Belatedly, he got some rest.
Perhaps a month later he was still thinking about her. This couldn’t continue. He tamped it down and got on with his life.
A dog whined in the kitchen. He knew that he didn’t own a dog. It was curious; where could the sound be coming from?
He’d been on his own, what? Seventeen years? He’d lost track. That man who was not his father had given him the go ahead, in his way. From then on it was solo work. He realized now that the sound in the kitchen was the dead dog that had followed him home from the test site, all those years ago. She came to visit from time to time, and he always forgot who she was until she was gone again.
He needed to pull himself together.
He thought about visiting T’s parents in New San Francisco. They were always ready to welcome him. But was he ready for them? They couldn’t possibly understand the nature of his problem, but their nature was conducive to trying. And then there was Sonja.
He thought about this for at least twenty minutes. Then he decided to put off his decision until the following week. Right now, he had work to do.
New York was lousy with t-shirts. That should have been his first warning sign. When he concentrated on them they would go away. So he knew for sure something was up.
New San Francisco was looking more and more attractive all the time.
By the next day he had decided to pack it up and go. He finished his current job and filed the paperwork. The business would have to survive without him, at least for a while.
Telegraph Hill was a tougher slog than he remembered, but he persevered. His reward at the top of the hill was a locked door to the compound, with no way to contact the inhabitants. He didn’t want to just break in. He tried once again to raise them on the phone. This time, Sonja answered.
"Hey, handsome," she said.
"..." he said.
"You got away once. Not this time. I got us assigned as partners. And you know what else?"
"..." he said.
"You’ve been chosen as the new Chief. Mom and Dad are getting too old to hold field positions..."
"Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!" he said.
"...So we decided that since T was already the leader in New York, you’d make the best replacement."
"This is great," he said.
The Bay Area was too expensive. He’d planned on finding an apartment in the city, but it had quickly become apparent that this wasn’t going to happen. He’d made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t touch any of the New York money while he was in New San Francisco. He ended up with a room in the compound. No rent.
Sonja visited him often. Her room was just down the hall, so presumably no one would notice as she came and went. He’d lived through worse.
Taking on the family’s assignments gave him time to think. The relative anonymity was a relief. These weren’t prestige jobs, where his reputation hung in the balance of every minute decision made under fire. Mostly he just did as he was told. The money wasn’t great, but, again, no rent.
Maybe a month of this and he was ready to think about what had happened back in Japan. When he’d taken on that last job he realized immediately that there was less preliminary data than he was accustomed to. He figured he’d have to work a little harder. It hadn’t occurred to him that he was being set up for failure. And why hadn’t it occurred to him? It troubled him that he had missed even the most obvious clues. He needed to pull himself together.
He carried on in this fashion for some months. The mindless work allowed him much too much time to stew on his own failures. By the time the family was ready to make his interim position permanent he was well and truly ready to leave. But for some reason he stayed on. He hadn’t quite sorted it all out, and in any case they needed his help. He couldn’t just abandon them to the lions. He settled into his role as the chief. They even called him that: The Chief.
The Chief wanted discipline. Minds tended to wander. He knew from his naval experience that this was bad for propulsion; focus must be sustained. The first step would be to eliminate (or at least, curtail) distractions. He banned non-work media from the compound. Networking had long been outlawed, but he replaced the honor system with active countermeasures; devices would simply no longer work.
Uniforms would now be required during shifts. His own brown jacket and fatigues would serve as a model. Fright wig optional.
Revisions would continue until morale improved.
Before long, the family business was running just like a real business.
Maybe that was the problem.
The business was failing. His standards were too high. Profits turned to steam and evaporated under the intense pressure of map revisions, course corrections, arbitrary edits, and total do-overs. To be fair, the staff were hardly equal to the task. Blood from a turnip, and so forth.
So, another failure. He couldn’t take much more of this. He sensed now that the blunt Earth could not accommodate his thundering footsteps. Maybe he was just clumsy. What was there to measure himself against?
New York. But he wouldn’t go back there and look at that sky.
"Chief, what’s next?" an underling asked. The Chief stared straight ahead.
Born of the pink triangle, rolling to his feet with the plan still fresh in his mind, he’d lost the plot somewhere along the way. Coming to Earth had been one mistake. Coming to New York had been another. Coming to 1986 had been the worst mistake of all. His efforts to prevent the inevitable had perhaps only hastened its arrival.
And now New San Francisco. The whole arrangement had been displaced, transplanted a full century forward into a future it could never have otherwise known. Megatokyo was not his Japan, and New San Francisco resembled the Bay Area of his youth only in its bare geographic contours. Everything else had shifted unpredictably. It never even got foggy here.
He didn’t know what to do. He was certainly not going to call and ask T for help.
He’d have to consider taking on venture capital. This was an avenue he had scrupulously avoided, and for good reason. He had to keep control of the ship. Investors meant a board, and a board meant even more perceptions to manage. This, too, would be bad for propulsion. It was no way to get from Point A to Point B.
He’d just have to find another approach.
Nah. He shut down the business and liquidated its assets. On to the next gig. Which was... what? The ship stood by him, always. They would find something meaningful to do with their time.
Not calling T.
Each befouled arena narrowed the field of possibilities. Some locales he wouldn’t touch as a matter of pride, which was nonsensical. What was he doing to himself? This he couldn’t sustain. His reputation would be ruined, and he’d have to start over from scratch. Again.
He set these thoughts aside and moved on to the next item, which he highlighted presently. A couple of stops in the midwest, and then back to New York. Not for himself, but for the job. he made another promise to himself to concentrate on the task at hand, to try and pull himself together. If for no other reason than the fact that he was tired of saying the words, "never again."
The midwestern locations in his file were nondescript, rural. The targets never even became aware that they were being stalked.
New York would be trickier. T always expected him, even when there was no real reason to expect him. They were brothers, and, besides, the Chrysler Building was keyed to his biometric signature. Upon entry, ambient lighting and temperature would adjust themselves to his preferences, alerting onlookers who knew what to look for to his presence.
And then there was T himself. Killing his twin brother would be complicated by the (slightly) younger man’s physical invulnerability, class 100 superhuman strength, powers of flight, ingenuity, and sheer dumb luck. He would have to be exceedingly careful.
This job couldn’t have come at a better time.
He smelled solder. Something in his room was burning. But he had already checked out, removed his belongings, so nothing of his could be burning because there was nothing there to burn. He pulled on his jacket and walked out of the building.
His ship crossed the country in a handful of minutes. It wasn’t in the manual, but he and the ship went way back, their mutual understanding transcending any supposed laws of nature. Mother and son, they were meant to be.
The sky was fluid mercury as the ship set down in New York. Docked with the Chrysler Building’s airship terminal and disembarked for the gift shop. He’d pick something up for the ship before continuing on with his task. His brother could wait a few extra minutes while he shopped.
Waited in line longer than he had planned, but he was certain now that he’d been spotted. The building, at least, had recognized him, and flickered the lights in the gift shop accordingly. He’d have to work around it.
T never showed up to greet him. It turned out the elevators were out of service, again. Perversely, T had moved his office to the 61st floor observation deck, so it was up, up, up, many flights of stairs to the family reunion. Okay.
"Brother," T said, as the former chief of the west coast branch of the company strode silently into his office.
"I’m not your brother," he said, staring directly into T’s visor.
"Fine. But do have a seat," T said.
He remained standing.
"Please. You’re making this more difficult than it needs to be."
Conceding the point, he raised his weapon and squeezed the trigger.
His brother’s death affected him more than he expected. Beyond the fact that T was not really his brother was the reality of their shared history, their unique perspective as time-traveling entrepreneurs, and the commonality of their interests. This hole in the black inkwell of his heart would not be so easily filled, "even by the mightiest of pens," he surmised.
Honoring the plan of succession, he would of course assume command of the New York operation. The real estate alone was of staggering value. After slashing headcount and streamlining his operating costs, he was confident that he could turn things around in time to avert catastrophe. Something good could come out of this tragedy, yet.
The job had set things right, but it had also set many things wrong. Just one of the many examples he was now prepared to cite: Was he, himself now a target? The burgeoning line of thought set him on a course he found difficult to steer. Why had T been assassinated? Where would the money trail ultimately lead? In the short term, he allocated considerable company resources to finding the killer, even as his instincts told him the investigation would run into a dead end. He owed it to his brother to at least try to get to the bottom of this.
Inside the Chrysler Building was heaped an intimidating inventory of T’s belongings. Seventy-seven stories, most having been used for storage at one time or another. One of the elevator shafts was completely filled with loose baseball cards, the result of a failed venture into the speculator market. Excavating the various piles of collectibles was complicated by the need to employ the talents of experts from various fields related to the contents of the piles. Who knew what treasures might be hidden amongst the duplicates, rejects, and lames> A proper checklist needed to be created and appraised.
Within a month of his brother’s death he was settling into the indignity of his new routine. Paperwork, paperwork, and other, new kinds of paperwork. He began to understand why he had always preferred working in the field. He preferred to keep his hands free of bureaucracy and his eyes on his own paper. ("I’m allergic to your text," as the man who was not his father had said.) It was no great surprise that T had become deranged. Trapped here, as he was, toiling behind this desk in this office where he had probably had to raise his hand before getting up to use the restroom. All of it in flat contravention of their legacy, and he was glad that his brother hadn’t lived to see himself in this light. The final dissolution of their partnership, affected not through any kind of direct action by their enemies, but through the slowly proceeding degeneration of the self. Self-inflicted.
Whatever came next, things would be different.