Give the People What They Want

The precinct’s interrogation room had the same atmosphere as all such rooms: stale coffee mixed with flop sweat and the tang of blood. There were no windows, and the cliched one-way mirror was replaced by hologram cameras that transmitted an exact 3D replica of proceedings into a room of detectives and lawyers. But the single light still hung over the table, and the suspect still looked nervously at the cop facing him. No matter how far technology advanced, there was no substitute for good old one-on-one intimidation.

“All right, Mr. Barber,” Detective Long said, tapping his chin. “Tell me what happened last night.”

“I don’t know,” Barber said. He was about thirty, heavy-set and wearing the rumpled uniform of a security guard, its front liberally splashed with blood. “Honestly. I was doing my rounds checking the transport rooms, and it was just… there,” he finished with a desperate shrug.

“So you didn’t turn the machine on?”

“No!”

“Your fingerprints were all over the switches.”

“My fingerprints are all over everything.”

“Uh-huh. Quite a coincidence, wouldn’t you say, that the security video files for that area have been corrupted and can’t corroborate your story?” When Barber didn’t answer, Long continued. “We have forensics analyzing the machine’s logs. They’ll eventually figure out what happened. You’ll save us a lot of time, and you a lot of grief, if you tell me up front.” He leaned across the table. “Where did you go? When did you go?”

“I didn’t go anywhere,” Barber said.

Long sat back.

“But…”

“Yes?”

“I can tell you who did. And why. But you have to give me something in return.”

“Such as?”

“I walk.”

Long considered this, then said, “I’m listening.”

The Owen Corporation logo marked the otherwise plain, smooth door set into the faceless concrete wall. To get in or out the front door, you needed to pass the latest in security: a state of the art retinal scan, a metal detector, and a vigilant guard. But the back door, through which trash went out and supplies went in, was still mostly analog. Sure, the lock had a soft female voice that talked you through using the long outdated fingerprint pad, so it wasn’t accessible to just anyone from the outside. But to open it from the inside, it was just a matter of pushing a metal bar. One that squeaked and clanked.

Barber stuck his head out into the darkness. The space between the back wall and the security fence was bathed in shadow, since the security light had “mysteriously” gone out. He hissed, “Get in here!”

Holden slipped out of the shadow cast by the dumpster and through the door. She grinned at him as the door closed behind her.

The hallway within was dry, cold, and industrial. The light above them was also out, leaving them in shadow. Barber kept glancing down the hall toward the illuminated area, but no one appeared.

“Thanks,” Holden said, fumbling with her gear.

“You know how to thank me,” Barber snapped.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Your favorite color’s green.”

Holden touched her phone to Barber’s, transferring the agreed-upon sum.

“Is the machine warmed up?” Holden asked.

“Of course it’s warmed up,” he said. “I know the routine.” He tugged at the starched collar of his security guard uniform, designed to mimic a cop’s look without the actual authority that went with it.

“Damn, man, what bug crawled up your ass?” Holden asked.

“The unemployment roach, if we get caught. I like this job.”

“We won’t get caught. In ten minutes I’ll be gone right back out this door.”

Barber kept watching the hall. “You better be. Come on.”

The Owen Temporal Temp company was a nation-wide chain of employment agencies specializing in using time travel to ensure their clients had extra staff before they even knew they needed it. It harnessed the tech that, back in 2069, had nearly destroyed the world by inadvertently connecting time periods, with no way, at first, to shut down the links. That meant that Temporal Temp, like all such industries, was closely regulated and monitored, with multi-level safeguards to prevent another similar incident. Which, in effect, just made it more expensive to use on the sly, not necessarily more difficult.

Holden always smiled when she read about the horrors of those days, because 2069 also marked the year her particular niche market had opened up.

Barber flipped on the lights in the transport chamber. It resembled an old-style recording studio: a control booth with a glass window that looked into a big, empty room. The walls were covered with dark padding, a special woven alloy to absorb the vast energy released when the portal was used. In the middle of the room was what, at first glance, appeared to be a free-standing door in a metal frame.

“You got the settings for the right season?” Holden asked. “Getting there at the wrong time of year would be a waste.”

“I’ve got the settings,” Barber muttered. He flipped switches and the control board came to life, dials and buttons aglow. “This has to be the last time,” he added. “If they do a full audit on this machine, I’m toast.” He poked her in the shoulder. “And I’m taking you into the toaster with me.”

“Relax,” Holden said. “It’s not like we’re doing any harm.”

“That’s easy for you to say.”

She gave him a knowing little smile. “You could always go into business with me.”

“I am in business with you.”

“No, I mean, full time. As a partner, even. You can’t imagine how much money there is in this stuff.”

“I think I can.”

“Do you disapprove?” she said, with a skeptical arch of her eyebrows.

“I still can’t believe people pay for this.”

“For everything that exists, there’s someone who wants to see it.”

“And pay money for it?”

“You know it. So you’re really not interested?”

“Can’t spend a fortune when you’re in jail.”

Holden snorted. “Jail’s just like any other thing: enough money in the right places can make it go poof.” She popped her fingers apart to illustrate.

Barber said nothing. He waited until the proper dials showed the proper readings, then nodded at the chamber. “Off you go.”

“Think about it,” Holden urged as she opened the door into the chamber. “I’ll see you in a minute.” And that was the literal truth: no matter how long Holden spent in the past, she would arrive back exactly sixty seconds after departing. That was a major factor in making these surreptitious trips possible.

The hairs inside Holden’s ears buzzed with the static charge in the air. She put on the respirator mask and double-checked the equipment in her bag, its lining designed to shield the items inside from the energies of time travel. Chief among them was the transponder that would bring her back to this room a minute from now.

The countdown clock mounted in the frame of the free-standing door lit up at 10. Holden put her fingers on the handle, and at 3, she pushed the portal open and stepped through.

In the control room, Barber watched his own countdown indicator, which began at 60 and ticked off the seconds until Holden’s return.

For centuries prior to the development of time travel, scientists disagreed about the level of oxygen at the end of the Cretaceous. Some said it was significantly lower than contemporary levels, some higher. As it turned out, the difference was negligible. Cretaceous air was as easy to breathe as the modern stuff.

What wasn’t easy to take was the Cretaceous pollen. Flowering plants had just evolved, and like teenagers discovering masturbation, pollenated wildly and seemingly at the slightest provocation. They called the allergy attacks brought on by this the “cycad flu,” and once you got it, you had to pretty much write the Cretaceous off your itinerary, which is what had happened to Holden’s previous partner, Jules. Luckily cheap respirators stocked with special filters handily blocked the pollen, and had so far protected her.

But there was no protection from the humidity, on par with New Orleans in August. The joke was that fish evolved to walk on land because with all this moisture in the air, they never noticed the difference. Holden’s clothes were light, but covered nearly all her exposed skin, since Cretaceous mosquitoes were almost as vicious as the black flies in contemporary Michigan.

She pulled her motion detector from the bag and slowly pivoted. Dinosaurs were all around her in the thick jungle, most of them small and quick. In the distance she heard the bellow of something much larger, but that didn’t worry her.

Then the screen displayed a collection of hits ahead. She smiled beneath the mask. That was her quarry.

She followed the signal through the forest that, as always, made her take a winding, indirect route. Weeds and grass hadn’t yet evolved, so the trees grew tall and so close together she often couldn’t fit between them. Luckily, stomping on plants and insects did nothing to change the future; it turned out that history was, for the most part, self-correcting, and if this particular crushed butterfly wasn’t around to evolve into human beings, then the one on the next plant would take over. It got a little trickier the closer you got to the present, but prehistory was acknowledged as a pretty safe playground. In the temporal sense, at least.

When she knew she was close, she put away the motion detector. She took out her phone, with its high-def camera app. She held it at arm’s length until, coming around an enormous magnolia trunk, she saw her quarry.

Crouching, she began to film.

She had no emotional investment in this subject, unlike her customers. She believed in the ancient saw, “Don’t get high on your own supply.” She knew other suppliers who had, unfortunately, shared or acquired their buyers’ tastes, and most of them ended up in the bellies of things that soon died from ingesting the unfamiliar meat. Holden often wondered if secretly, it hadn’t been the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs, but the futuristic e. coli bacteria in the guts of some moron who went up against a T. rex. 

On the screen, she watched the velociraptor mating orgy in the clearing ahead. Tails whipped through the air as partners changed, and high-pitched, bird-like cries rang out. It was a seething mass of feathers, claws, and teeth, with an occasional glimpse of the massive toe talons used both for killing, and for digging into the hides of mates. To Holden it was one of the least erotic things imaginable, but since the Breach of ’69, a small community of men—it was always men—had sprung up who found it unbelievably exciting, and were willing to pay for the privilege of jerking off to it. That image always left her a bit nauseous.

It also left her so preoccupied that she failed to notice the motion detector indicate something moving behind her. So she jumped at the trilling chirp, practically so close she could feel the sharp breath that carried it.

She knew that sound, all right.

She turned slowly with the camera. A male velociraptor, its mouth open and its eyes half-closed, trilled at her again. They were smaller than the movies, videos, and virtual shows had presented them, but not significantly less lethal. This one’s head was about eight inches from snout to back of skull, and the feathers around its neck stood up at right angles to its skin. It was so turned on by the pheromones in the air that it would tear through anything, including Holden, to get to that sweet, sweet, lady raptor lovin’. Which is why she stayed very, very still. She’d seen a horny raptor knock over a full-grown Edmontosaurus before.

She kept the camera at arm’s length. The danger was real, but so was the chance for a real score. No one got this close to an aroused raptor and lived to post the video.

Still recording, she scrolled through her apps until she found the one she sought. She opened it, hit play, and her phone immediately trilled back with the sound of another male raptor. Hopefully the one in front of her would interpret her outstretched arms and camera as the head and neck of that male, and go around her to reach the fun. That was one option.

The other was, of course, to challenge her. Velociraptors were pack hunters, with a complex hierarchy. They tended to put all that aside during mating season, but you never could tell.

Until it was too late. As she knew it was when the raptor rocked back on its heels, arched its neck and tapped its long attack claw against the ground.

Holden licked lips gone dry even in this humidity. She wasn’t given to idle panic, but sometimes panic was the right response. She had no weapon, and there was no chance of either outrunning or overcoming this randy bugger bare-handed. She needed to call for retrieval, but there was always a delay while the two time periods linked up, and that was plenty of time to be ripped to pieces.

She tapped the “flip” button on her phone, and when she saw her own surprisingly calm face on the screen, turned the phone over in her hands so that the raptor now saw itself.

That brought him up short. This new raptor mimicked his every head tilt, and when he leaned closer, so did it.

Keeping the camera in one hand, Holden found her retrieval stick with the other and hit the button.

The male raptor no longer trilled, but instead began to growl. Challenge accepted.

The air around Holden shimmered.

The raptor jumped.

“The raptor came out right behind her,” Barber said. “It slid on the tile, and started ripping up the padding on the walls. I went in there and shot it before it got loose.”

“And this Ms. Holden?”

He shook his head. “When I looked up, she was gone. I haven’t heard from her. And I never contacted her, she always came to me, so I have no idea how to reach her.”

“Was she injured?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did the footage ever show up online?”

Barber scowled. “Fuck, man, I’m not into that stuff. Fossil porn is for the real weirdoes.”

Long leaned back. After a long silence, he said, “Ever since the Breach of ’69, people have been terrified of another one. This wasn’t anything like that, though, was it? This was just a petty crime that got out of hand.”

Barber hung his head. “Yeah. I guess. But we had a deal, right?”

“You asked for one. I never agreed.”

“Hey, that’s not fair!” Barber cried.

“I think you should talk to your lawyer now, Mr. Barber,” Long said as he stood. “It’s late, and I’m going home.”

Two hours later, Detective Long sat in his study, in front of his personal 3D terminal. He softly muttered the web address, and waited for the screen to light up. When it did, the website name, Dino Hub, blazed out into the air before him, and behind that, its logo of a grinning T. rex with a lolling tongue and a massive erection. He quickly filled in his user name and password, then went immediately to the latest listing. The highlighted link said, “NEW: Velociraptor mating orgy.”

He jumped when the door rattled. “Honey, are you okay?” his wife called. “I heard you come in, but you didn’t come up and say hi. Why is the door locked?”

“Just finishing up some stuff from work,” he said, hoping his voice didn’t crack with excitement. The 3D image of the orgy hovered in the air, waiting for him to order it to start. “You know… going over some new files.”

“Okay. See you upstairs.”

When he was sure she was gone, he sighed, tucked in his earbuds and murmured, “Play.”

Alex Bledsoe

Alex Bledsoe lives in a big yellow house in Wisconsin and tries to teach his three kids to act like they’ve been to town before. A native of Tennessee, his books include the Eddie LaCrosse novels, two books about vampires in Memphis, and the Tufa series, which just concluded with The Fairies of Sadieville.

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