Roger staggered out of the transfer chamber and collapsed in a heap.
I slumped beside him on the rough granite, heart hammering. My head throbbed. A few minutes later I got up and tapped a hidden switch. The door at the back of the rock ledge swung shut. I stepped over Roger and halted at the edge of a steep drop. Town lights glittered in the valley below.
I nudged Roger. “There’s the target. It’s not far.”
He groaned. “Just let me die in peace.” We had time, so I let him be.
The Instrumentality’s teleportation gear is superb, but even the best equipment has tolerances. Multiple transfers result in tiny variations in re-assembly, which lead to headache and nausea. The effects are purported to be temporary.
There was a hint of moisture in the air. Rain would make our lives miserable, but shouldn’t interfere with the mission. It hadn’t rained in the last two locations. Cloud cover was heavy, allowing only a glimpse of the moon and stars. I stretched again.
Our usual assignments included no more than two transfers between parallel worlds. We had just completed our third in as many hours. Roger played the lead role on the first world and I on the second. Both had gone well.
I shuffled back and forth on the ledge. My head still ached, a sure sign of transfer sickness. No matter — it was Roger’s turn to play the part, to show up at a supposedly important node in the time stream and impart a forlorn, ambiguous message. Why? I have no idea. Hirelings are seldom briefed on the Big Picture.
“I’m ready,” he said at last, shaking his head. “Tell me again why we keep doing this!”
“It’s the money, dummy.” For us, it really was the money. Experience had taught us our influence on the various time streams was minimal.
I flexed stiff muscles. Too many transfers, too many years behind me. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.” Grumbling, he followed me off the edge. We glided toward dim lights below. This location looked no different than the other parallel Earths. The air smelled the same. I headed for the bell tower that was our first navigational point.
There are at least ten varieties of sentient birds. Owls, I’ve worked with. Jays, of course — they’re everywhere. Eagles and hawks, being introverts and predators, work solo. Gulls keep up a constant jabber and are difficult to keep on task. Others, I don’t know about.
Ten minutes of flying over the quiet town brought us to our destination. I headed for a large building overshadowing the target and landed on a projecting coping. Roger touched down lightly. He hopped to the edge of our perch and cocked his head.
“Window’s open,” he said. “Just like the other two worlds.”
“Ye of little faith. The Instrumentality seldom makes scene-setting mistakes.”
“Oh, I have faith — very little faith. The techs have a bad habit of not noticing the little, dangerous things. Every time we’ve had problems it’s because some clown overlooked a small difference in parallel realities.”
“True. But this job has been routine.”
“So far.” Roger shook himself and stepped back from the edge. “How much longer?”
I checked the chronometer strapped to my ankle. “Five minutes.”
“Good. I hope it doesn’t rain.”
It didn’t rain. The night wind blew fitful gusts. We saw no one on the street, although the hour was not late. We huddled on the ledge, waiting.
They make us work in pairs. A backup is mandatory, in case of trouble. Roger saved my gizzard a time or two. Besides, one bird would have been damn lonely on that ledge. Finally, it was time to start.
“Here I go.” Roger stepped off the coping. I waited a few seconds, then followed.
He landed on the window sill, glanced back to see that I was in position on the lamp post, then hopped inside. Soon I heard a muffled voice. It was a man reciting a poem, unless things were completely out of sync. I cocked my head, listening. I couldn’t make out his words but the general tone didn’t sound sad, as in the last two worlds. I hoped Roger was paying attention. He often had a hard time understanding the subtler nuances of human speech.
As if on cue, the man fell silent and I heard Roger say his piece. Seconds later a sharp bang echoed through the night.
A gunshot? The script didn’t call for any gunplay.
I hesitated a moment, then flopped over to the window sill. A man stood close inside, facing away from me. I could see the entry door across the narrow room, just as expected. Roger wasn’t on the perch above the door. At first I didn’t see him at all. The man leaned down and came up with — Roger!
He dangled in the man’s fist, wings spread, mouth gaping. I nearly fell from the sill.
Desperate, I tried to think. Emergency recall! That was the only answer. But to do that I must get to Roger and activate the recall device strapped to his right ankle.
The man moved away, through the doorway. Then he said the dread words that sealed my friend’s fate and told me what had gone so wrong.
“Lenore,” he called. “Look! Dinner flew in the window! What a fat raven!”
JR Hume writes in Colorado.