I am an Inker. Without death
my job goes undone. Like other Inkers, I plan for it, yearn for it while never
loving it, but this time, death might well prove to be my doom. Alchemic
algorithms placed my partner Nikki and I at the historic burning of the Great
Library of Alexandria, Egypt, in 272 AD. We had inked ourselves into the
consciousness of the right people—an arthritic librarian and his slave boy—and
stole the Alchi̱meía papyrus scrolls for their rare alchemical formulas.
Our plan should have worked
without a hitch. Instead, we are now faced with a severe obstacle: a massive
Roman centurion in heavy scale armor, a member of Aurelian’s legions currently
sacking the city in an effort to defeat and demoralize Queen Zenobia. The
centurion stands at least six foot three, his armor smeared with Egyptian
blood, his mouth open and yelling at me, not in Latin, but with a voice oddly
reminiscent of twentieth century New York:
He blocks a narrow passageway
of the library, holding an infantry gladius, a short-sword with a golden
hilt, sunlight from the open courtyard glinting off his blade. There is no way
forward or around him. White limestone walls on my left, stonework railing and
black marble pillars on my right, and a long drop over those rails into the
quadrangle. We are so screwed. I speak in the librarian’s Coptic dialect.
“You must be mistaken,
brave centurion.” I nod to my partner, Nikki Babineaux, an athletic
twenty-something woman present-side, but a small, twelve-year-old boy in this
passageway. In our robes and sandals, an old man and a boy, we define
defenseless. “I am a librarian and this boy is my slave.”
American English with a New
Jersey accent. Who is this guy? I feign confusion, continuing in Coptic,
hoping to buy some time. “What is this word you use? Are you a
“Enough, Inkahs. Gimme
Nikki drops the pretense,
shifting to twenty-first century English, “You know killing us won’t do
you any good.”
“The satchel, ya little
Before I can stall, the New
Jersey centurion surges forward, scale armor clattering against leather, his
short sword poised to strike. Nikki dives to the right while I hurl myself
toward the son of a bitch. His powerful forearm catches me in the chest like a
cinder block, slamming me back against the wall. My vision blurs, but I see the
boy jump to his feet, the satchel hanging from his shoulder. He tries an
evasive head fake, but the centurion proves too quick in this narrow space, his
blade piercing Nikki’s side. The crack of breaking ribs echo down the
passageway. Nikki sprawls to the floor with a shriek, and lies there moaning,
crimson blood spreading from the wound. No, this was not going well at all.
With a clean sweep of his blade, the centurion cuts the satchel loose. He rips
the bag from Nikki, turns, and runs.
Who is this guy working for?
Whoever he is, I hope the
bastard runs face first into a flaming arrow for his die back. I’m still
winded and dazed, but I crawl over to Nikki. The boy opens his eyes, color
draining from his face, the savage wound foaming with blood.
“Thomas—” He coughs
a red mist. “We failed.”
“We’ll get another
chance.” I tear a piece of my robe away, placing the cloth under the boy’s
head. “We didn’t expect a fight with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Roman
centurion gear. I thought Aurelian’s men were still out in the harbor burning
boy closes his eyes, grimacing. He swallows, opening his eyes again.
“Wrong time, too.”
An early die back is always a
potential problem for Inkers, especially if the premature death alters the
temporal flow. “You’re supposed to get run over by a cart later today, but
this will do.”
Nikki manages a smile, a
rivulet of blood dripping from the boy’s mouth. “Bummed ’cause you won’t
get to throw me,” he grimaces, taking in several quick breaths, “…under
the wheels, mon ami?”
We always die, but I never get
used to the final moments. “You’re still pissed about me garroting you
with a string from one of Puccini’s violins? Thought you’d be honored. It was Puccini’s
string. Of course, you’re the one who shoved me in the path of the Starlight
Nikki, in the boy’s body,
labors with each shallow breath. Reaching with a weak hand, the boy touches my
arm. “Mind yourself, Thomas Shaw.”
“I’ll do my best.” I
lean in, the boy, just a few years younger than my own son, dying in front of
me. I thought I would pass my legacy on to my son, but now I know differently.
I can’t let him walk into this hell. “Nikki, there’s something you need to
know, just in case.”
“What are you talking
“Just a hunch, but be on
your guard present-side.”
Nikki fought for another
I hold his gaze. “Someone
I trust told me I’m dead.”
“Does it matter?”
Dying back into a dead body equals dead. Permanently dead.
“Who…kills you, Thomas?”
“My friend didn’t know.
But keep an eye on Cameron.”
Nikki winces, blood oozing
between lips thin with pain. “I know…you have history, but Cameron?”
Yeah, we definitely have some
history. “I’ll never forgive him, but the League sanctioned his actions,
so that’s the end of it. Besides, I don’t even know if he’s the threat. It
could be anyone. But Cameron has…well, he’s killed before. Just watch your six.
Five bucks says we’ll be drinking a beer together, laughing about all this, in
a few minutes. And if not…”
Nikki tugs at my sleeve.
“No, mon ami.”
We lock eyes. “If not, I
made some arrangements. Renascentia is safe, but…my son. I’ve changed my
mind. Find someone else. He’s been through enough already.”
“He’s stronger…than you
“No. We assumed we were
just dealing with a rogue, but our enemy is proving far more malicious than we
thought possible. Addison would be risking everything. His very existence. You
have to promise you’ll keep him away from all of this, Nikki. Promise me.”
Nikki glances at the wound,
sucking in air through clenched teeth, then exhales. “I don’t know,
Thomas… Ahhh.” The boy moans, squeezing my hand with his remaining strength.
“Doesn’t know League. When he does…” His chest rattles with each
“Addison’s strong, but
he’s in pain. If I’m gone he’ll need you, Nikki. I’m counting on you. Keep him
out. Got it?”
he chokes up more blood, “mon…ami.”
“There’s a letter. You’ve got
to get it from my lawyer.” A hiss of breath leaves the boy’s blue tinged lips.
His grip slackens and I’m
looking into vacant eyes. I stop talking.
Nikki has died back. I should
have held her after we’d made love on her favorite red chaise lounge last
night, her scent still a precious memory. I should have stayed the night with
“Forgive me, my
Footfalls echo around me. I
rise turning just in time to see another Roman soldier close enough to smell
his sour sweat mixed with blood. Without a word, he drives his blade through my
heart. A savage pain explodes in my chest, dissolving to nothingness as my mind
leaves the old man’s body.
Thomas stirred, now removed
from the “I” of the old librarian, after-images of Alexandria flashing in his
mind: Nikki’s dying breath, the grand sweep of sunlight outside the Great
Library, the intense burning pain of a sword tip thrust through his host’s
chest. He took in a gulp of air, his eyes fluttering open. A moment of
disorientation before the tumblers fell into place.
He scanned the desk of his
study, pen still in hand, his eyes registering a figure across from him. Blue
jeans, tee-shirt, Asian, leaning on the desk, his veined arms rippled with lean
muscle. The figure spoke.
“Don’t you want to ask me who
I am, Thomas?”
Their eyes locked on each
other’s. Thomas suspected the mind behind those eyes belonged to another—an
Inker from the past.
The man laughed, stepping back
from the desk as if he had dropped by for a casual visit.
“I’ll give you one thing,
Thomas. You do have…what is the word…a man in Juarez begged me not to cut them
off. What was it? Cojones! Yes, you have cojones.” He scowled.
“Your feigned courage in the face of certain destruction. Very moving.” His
eyes flashed to the pen in Thomas’ right hand. “Good, I see you’ve got your pen
for me. Excellent.”
Thomas kept his eyes on the
intruder, all the while inching his left hand toward the gun in his desk
drawer. The man’s eyes flitted to Thomas’ gun hand as he swung the weapon up.
With a speed Thomas didn’t anticipate, the man leaped on the desk, and with a
violent swipe of his foot, sent the gun smashing into the wall, the knee of his
other leg crashing into Thomas’ face, slamming him, chair and all, to the
Thomas lay still for a moment,
dazed. Then he rose with slow, deliberate movements, pain hammering his head.
“So, who do you think I am,
Thomas?” His attacker had stepped off the desk and now danced like a boxer
waiting for an opportune moment to plant a combination punch.
Nose broken, blood pouring
down his face, Thomas maneuvered to keep the desk between them. “One of
Cameron’s hired guns, I imagine. Been expecting you.”
The man stopped dancing,
putting his hands on his hips, cocking his head. “Expecting me? Oh, you’re
talking about the two dead sentinels in your back garden.”
Thomas had posted two Inkers
at the house to prevent this very thing. Crap. “What did you do?”
He glared at Thomas. “Terrible
how some people lose their heads at the first sign of trouble.”
He smiled with a chuckle. “I’m
afraid I did.”
“My…God. Cameron wouldn’t…Who
“My name is Kairos. I’m the
one who is going to kill you and destroy your League.”
Kairos had been a threat in
the past, but the League had stopped him. No, it can’t be. Too much has been
sacrificed. Rage and grief exploded from Thomas. Crying out, he hurled
himself at the man, but a fist slammed into his chest with an unexpected
ferocity, the sternum fracturing with a loud, crack! Reeling back, his
knee exploded in agony as he went airborne, slamming to the floor on his back
with a forceful thud. He tried to move, but the grinding of his
fractured sternum and the throbbing jolts of pain from his knee slowed him
down. Kairos grabbed Thomas’ feet. He heard the sound of his own agonized cry of
pain as something outside of his body. He took in a breath, willing himself to
focus. Kairos dragged him down the hallway. Thomas’ head banging across the
floor, he reached for door jambs, furniture, anything to slow Kairos’ progress.
But each time he resisted, Kairos twisted the broken knee, causing Thomas to
break his hold, screaming in torment.
At the open basement door,
Kairos dropped Thomas’ legs. The world constricted to a small dark space filled
with anguish. In the distance he heard his attacker.
“Stay with me, Thomas. I don’t
want you to miss the finale!”
Kairos levered him up against
the wall, each movement a hundred knife wounds slashing his broken body. He
opened his eyes to his attacker’s dark, angry gaze. In a labored voice, Thomas
“You. Won’t. Succeed.”
“Oh, but I will, Thomas. After
I kill you, I will kill every League Inker until I have possession of the five
Every League Inker? No! Through the pain, a panic
crossed Thomas’ face.
“The son of the great Thomas
He grabbed Thomas by the
shirt, dragging him to the open door.
“Don’t worry another moment.
Once I have your pen which you have so kindly left for me—” He shoved Thomas
down the staircase. Slamming into a wall, Thomas’ ribs cracking against a
handrail only for his battered body to flip, shattering his jaw against a stair
tread, Kairos’ words taunting him as he fell.
He slid across several steps
upside down, and rolled, the broken knee punching a hole with explosive force
in the wall.
Thomas tumbled, limbs askew,
the concrete floor rushing toward him…
Kairos went down the steps to
the body crumpled at the lower landing, his victim’s head and limbs twisted
awkwardly. After checking for a pulse to be certain the deed had been done,
Kairos returned to the study for Thomas’ pen. The League had five pens which,
individually, enabled an Inker to transfer his consciousness to someone living
in the past. But together… Ah, together the pens will create new continua. Imagine,
the power to forge a new world at my fingertips! He expected to gather
Thomas’ pen from his desk, but instead, he found a green puddle of melted
acrylic, alloy, and ink.
The son of a bitch built a
Enraged, he tore through the study,
pulling out drawers, ripping books off shelves, checking floorboards, but
turned up nothing. Even in death Thomas had managed to be a thorn in his side.
He considered scouring the entire house, but if Thomas had the forethought to
create a self-destructing pen, he certainly wouldn’t leave the real pen
somewhere vulnerable. Besides, he had a better idea.
His current host, Kwan, a
martial arts instructor from San Francisco, had come in handy, killing Thomas
and the other two Inkers. But now he needed a host with a bit more finesse. He
got in Kwan’s car, driving the short distance to Seattle’s Sunset Park
overlooking Puget Sound. With Thomas dead, surely his son would take up his
duty as an Inker, which means, the young man would certainly have the pen. He
pulled a Glock 17 from the glovebox, and dropped the sun visor to gaze into the
vanity mirror, Kairos’ consciousness giving fire to Kwan’s eyes. He smiled at
the thought of ripping the life out of Thomas’ boy, Addison, once he had
acquired his pen.
Time to get to work.
Placing the gun’s muzzle over
Kwan’s heart, he fired. For a brief moment Kwan’s consciousness rose to the
surface, filled with the panic of a man who had no idea of where he was, how he
got there, or why a gaping hole gushed crimson blood all over him and the dash
of his car. His last awareness, a consciousness not his own whispering by, as
his own life sputtered to darkness.