Echo liked her job.
Sure, the hours were long, and there was no such thing as vacation, but life outside of work was terribly boring anyway – hardly anyone ever died.
It wasn’t that she wanted people to die. It was just that everything seemed more real when there was at least the risk of horrible death, for someone. The stakes of ‘real life’, of corporate workplaces and taxes and grocery shopping, those weren’t real risks. Real risk meant existential risk. Life or death, decided in a moment, decided in a desperate scramble for a single handgun, decided in a swerving vehicle hugging the road along a cliff. Life or death, decided in a contract and a signature, the verdict delivered personally by her.
At least, that was how it had started out. Somewhere along the way it had taken a decidedly unexpected turn for the weird. Now it was more like ‘life or death for all humanity, decided by the discovery of an alternate reality and alien life-forms that can mold said reality like wet clay’. And no verdict to be delivered personally, not by her, not yet, not that same way.
Now she sat in a dark room, listening. She didn’t see much action these days – indeed, there wasn’t much action to be seen by anyone, these days – but what action there was, she heard. It wasn’t all bad. Sometimes, she heard action when there wasn’t. Or rather, there wasn’t because she’d heard it. Or rather…no, that was it. It got complicated – better to listen, and not think too hard about it.
Her earpiece crackled with some slight static before spitting out, “Bravo reporting from quadrant G4, T equals 15:01. All clear.”
Things were exciting, working for the boss.
[Charlie reporting from quadrant D5, T equals 15:06. All clear.]
They always had been.
“Zulu reporting from second perimeter, T equals 15:01. All clear.”
Even before she’d become Echo.
[Zulu reporting from final perimeter, T equals 15:07. All clear.]
The voice echoed in her head, faint, hollow-sounding. Her own voice.
“Tango reporting from Arc Tunnels, front entrance, T equals 15:02. The Tunnels are spooky. I repeat, the Tunnels are spooky.” The girlish voice said the words in a hushed tone, as if trying not to wake a slumbering monster.
Echo sighed audibly. “You’re going to have to go down there eventually.”
“Just give me a hand, Echo,” came the reply. “I’m a sniper, not a spelunker. Besides, this saves me time so I can do things like wash your clothes, and do your dishes.”
“They’re just tunnels! It’s less than five minutes, Tango.”
“Five spoooooky minutes.”
“Fine. Switch patrol paths next time, though.”
With another sigh, this time of resignation, Echo listened for the muffled sound of her own voice inside her head, relaying Tango’s words. Words that she hadn’t yet spoken.
[Tango reporting from Arc Tunnels, first exit, T equals 15:06. All clear.]
“Arc Tunnels final exit all clear,” she spoke into her earpiece. “Agent Tango to continue patrol from quadrant A3. Acknowledge.”
“Totally acknowledged,” Tango said gratefully. “Thanks, Echo. See you tonight!”
“Get moving, Tango. I’m behind-”
[WHAT THE HELL!?]
The thought crashed into her like a mental splash of ice water to the face, jolting her out of the present.
“Alright, I’m moving, I’m moving,” said Tango, but she barely heard her friend.
[Alpha to Base, we have a breach!] [Quebec to Base, something just came through the Tear! Something freaking wei-] [-green, what is that thi-] [-ust split up into a bunch of oth-]
Would someone please tell me what the hell time it is?
[Breach occurs at 15:09 and seventeen seconds], came the reply. Her own words, her own thoughts, formed at precisely the instant of the incident, and previously lost in the torrent of the other agents’ reports she was constantly relaying back.
In the present, she accessed the emergency channel, allowing her to talk directly to the Boss. “Echo to Boss, we have a Code Seven in T minus five. Repeat, code seven in five minutes!” Her breathing was almost frantic, heart thumping a frantic tribal beat against her rib cage. This was more like it.
[-t’s got a tail for godsake, what kinda-] [-bullets are being tanked by the duplica-] [-can’t seem to do anything to the real-] [-won’t bleeding DIE!] The echoed reports continued to pour in.
“Bogey is reportedly capable of rapid self-duplication, at least two dozen copies recorded, resistant if not immune to normal rounds-”
[-dead bodies everywhere, bleeding purple goop or-] [-past the energy field, we can kiss our jobs goodbye-]
“-but the duplicates are not. Advised deployment of close-combat specialists to see what happens.”
“All reports acknowledged,” said a calm voice, words sliding out one after another, each finding their place, like an expertly dealt hand of cards. “Orders given.”
[-doesn’t look good my a-]
The torrent of echoing thoughts hiccuped, then resumed. She listened to her thoughts at the moment of the breach.
[Alpha to Base, bogey is right on time.] [Geez, it really does look like some sort of reptile.] [Repeat, all units hold fire.] [This is CC Unit One, contact in T minus ten, nine, eight…]
Back in her control room, Echo held her breath, waiting for the future to unfold. Then realized she could simply listen to her thoughts from ten second later.
[-gents down! The thing’s got claws like a grizzly and is as strong as one to boot! Far less duplicates than Echo Scenario One stated, but still impossible to deal wi-]
She shut out the thoughts and accessed the emergency channel again. “Echo to boss, CC Unit One unsuccessful. Less duplicates, enhanced strength, predatory claws.”
Silence. Then, “I’m going to try something…unorthodox. Let me know how it goes.”
Echo opened her eyes and glanced at the clock on the wall, green digits glowing in the near-darkness of the small room. 15:06.
“T minus three minutes to breach,” she said pointlessly into the open channel. By now, every agent had been informed of the impending breach, and was being updated with the relevant information by the Boss via their personal communicators as she reported.
She waited for the-
-and the new future echoed back. [Containment unit one, approaching contact point.]
She shook her head gently and pushed to the end of her five minutes.
[-essful. Bogey restrained. One minor casualty.] [Duplicates seem to disappear shortly after forming-]
How had she missed that?
“Containment unit one was successful,” she told the Boss. “Duplicates expire naturally after a certain period of time, no greater than two minutes-” She halted her report, remembering the first timeline, when the dead bodies of the duplicates had littered the battlefield, riddled with bullets. How long had they…? “Need to check Scenario One, Boss.”
It was T minus one and a half minutes until the breach now, which meant she could listen to her thoughts from up to three and half minutes after the fact.
[-an confirm, the duplicates are still-]
“Duplicates from Scenario One still had not disappeared after three and a half minutes,” she said into the emergency channel.
“Acknowledged,” replied his smooth, quicksilver voice. “Scenario Three is still successful?”
[-essful. Bogey restrained. One casualty.]
[Alpha to Base. The bogey is a no-show. Repeat, the bogey is a no-show. Orders?] [The bogey is there! Switch to thermal-imaging! Snipers, do we have a sighti-]
[-gey restrained. One casualty. Bag it and tag it, boys, this thing’s going down to the lab.]
What…in the world was that?
She tried Scenario Three once more, just to be sure. Everything checked out, bogey showing up as expected. Then what…? Still, as long as everything was fine now, there was no reason to trouble the Boss. If…whatever had happened, happened again, she’d let him know.
“Is there a problem?” he asked lightly, but there was a weight to his words she could practically feel.
“No, sir. Scenario Three is one-hundred percent successful. A minor injury only on our side.”
“Orders are yours, then. I’ll be waiting in the main lab. Keep me updated.”
“Roger,” she said, wondering at how easily he was handling the situation. Not a hint of surprise, or excitement or even curiosity. Like nothing was at all out of the ordinary. Only an alien jumping through the resident wormhole, nothing to see here. Hell, it hadn’t even really sunk in for her yet, either.
An alien? For real? What did we get ourselves into?
She pushed the thoughts out of her head, determined to focus on the imminent event. Her pulse was still jumpy from her exchange with the Boss.
“T minus sixty second to breach,” she said, back on the open channel. “All units report.”
“Containment unit one reporting, all agents accounted for.”
“Containment unit two reporting, all agents accounted for.”
“Sniper unit one reporting, all agents accounted for.”
“Special unit Krypton reporting, all agents present and dressed to kill,” said Zulu’s wry voice. “Figuratively more than literally, unfortunately. Which still isn’t saying much.” Echo rolled her eyes.
She checked five minutes down the line-
[I was on cleanup duty last time. Not much to do, besides. ETA of bogey delivery to lab is T minus three minutes, Echo. Let the boss-man know we’re all kind of freaked out, we did not sign up for this, and we very much deserve a raise.]
-and, satisfied that everything was going to go according plan, managed to finally slow her heartbeat back to normal rates. Whatever had caused the momentary discrepancy hadn’t had any lasting effects.
“All units standby. Containment Unit One, T minus twenty five seconds to contact.”
“Acknowledged,” said Alpha, head of that unit. Then,”…Does it really look like a bipedal lizard?”
“Reports indicated that it very much resembles some sort of humanoid reptile.”
“We’re about to capture a giant gecko, then.”
“Geckos are harmless amphibians, Alpha,” said Echo, eyes on the clock. “An alligator or crocodile would be more apropos. T minus ten seconds.”
“So we’re crocodile hunters, eh? Does that mean I can use my Australian accent?”
“T minus five seconds,” was all she said.
“Alright, boys and girls, let’s make Steve proud. Move!”
The ‘crocodile’ shot out of the Tear like a horizontal sky diver-
[ALL GROUND UNITS DOWN!]
-and everything went to hell.